Jackie Thomas-KennedyFiction / Number 98
Jules Harriet’s ear drum ruptured again, this time around midnight in her dorm room. The kit from her stepmother contained balsam-scented face wipes, a silk headwrap she’d never unfolded, and a bottle of jojoba oil she was supposed to rub into her scalp. There was also an unopened pink shell of birth control pills. Page was an all-girls’ school, but there was a boys’ school down the road, and Jules’s stepmother was “realistic.” The kit had no ibuprofen and no cotton balls, the two things Jules wanted as hot fluid dripped from her right ear.
She inserted a small wad of tissue, then lay on her back and tried not to cry. The tissue turned to pulp. She pulled on a purple robe and hurried down the hallway, barefoot, hand to her oozing ear. Healy Brae always had cotton balls. Jules stopped at her door and knocked with her elbow.
“There’s a boy in here,” Healy said, “but you can still come in if you want.”
She was at her desk, chair tipped on its back legs, beer bottle in hand. Her hair was a high red nest held in place with two pencils, both of which bore the marks of her teeth. She wore teal running shorts and a hooded sweatshirt that smelled like a thrift store. Vocabulary flash cards littered the floor. An alarmingly old male guest, not a boy, was reclining on Healy’s twin bed, twirling the stem of his empty wine glass.
“The ear thing happened again,” Jules said. “Do you still have cotton balls?”
“I have sleeping pills if you want them.” Healy opened her drawer, picked up a bottle, and shook it. “They expired last month but I’m sure they’re fine.”
“No, thanks.” Jules glanced at the bed. The man raised his glass in a toast. “Who is—is that your—who’s here?”
The man smoothed back his hair. Like Healy’s, it was improbably red and thick, though his had faded to blond around the ears.
“Listen, this isn’t a home invasion or something,” he said. “I’m her brother.”
“Half-brother,” Healy said. “From the less refined bloodline, obviously.” She yawned. Without looking at either of them, she said, “Killian, Jules. Jules, Killian.”
“The young lady was looking for cotton balls,” Killian said.
Healy reached under her desk for her plastic tub full of cosmetic supplies, setting it within Jules’s reach. She began to mock Killian’s use of “young lady,” but her voice was first muffled, then silenced, as Jules twisted the cotton into her burning ear. When Healy produced a bottle of ibuprofen, Jules swallowed two tablets without water, closing her eyes against the bitterness. She was swaddled in silence and warmth; falling asleep where she stood was an alluring possibility. When she opened her eyes, the Braes were staring at her, awaiting a response. She tightened her terrycloth belt.
“What?” she said.
Killian brandished a set of keys, then pointed one at Jules.
“I need you to administer a sobriety test. My sister’s no use in this department at the moment.”
“Please,” Healy said. “You brought me one beer.”
“A sobriety test?” Jules said. “Like how?”
“Ask him to spell his own name. Ask him to count backwards from ten. Ask him what state we’re in.”
“New York, New York, New York,” Killian said, throwing his keys into the air. He tried to catch them and missed. They fell onto Healy’s nightstand, knocking an open bag of cough drops onto the floor. “I guess that answers that.” He plucked the keys up by their ring. “Too much Barolo. Also a little distress.”
“He’s getting a divorce,” Healy said. “He drove all the way out here to tell me.” She mimicked wiping tears from her eyes.
Killian ignored her, reaching for the wine and filling his glass to the brim. Jules knew this was tacky, and his tackiness opened a window through which she studied him frankly: gold watch, ribbed socks, freckled hands. His eye contact was deliberate and firm, free of warmth or genuine interest, and she recognized the silent assertion: he wasn’t racist. He wanted her to know.
“Sorry,” Jules said. “About your divorce or whatever.”
“Ah, it’s alright. At least I have my wise little sister for a confidant. Although now I’ve more or less incapacitated myself.” He drummed his fingers on his chest. “What to do, what to do.”
“You’re not sleeping in my bed,” Healy said. “Of course not.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Killian said. He stood up and smoothed the creases he’d left in the sheets. From the towels in Healy’s closet he built a bed on the floor. It was an inch thick and far too short for him. “Perfect,” he said, stretching out on the towels, hands behind his head. “You girls are lucky this school doesn’t assign you roommates.”
“We’re seniors,” Healy said. “Everyone else has roommates.”
Something about this boast—perhaps Healy’s embarrassing pride in the phrase we’re seniors—made Jules open her mouth.
“You could just sleep in my room,” she said. “If you wanted.”
Killian sat halfway up and squinted at her.
“But where will you go?”
“I’d rather have her in here than you,” Healy said.
So Jules led Killian Brae, a man well over six-feet tall and reeking of wine, down the hall to her bedroom. When they passed the dorm parent’s apartment, Jules motioned for silence, as if Ms. Aidie sat up all night with her ear pressed to the door. Killian fell onto Jules’s bed in the dark room, then sat up to remove his shoes, blinking at the California state flag draped over her window. Where was she from?
“Santa Cruz.” Her voice shook. The cotton in her ear was wet and cold.
“You sound nervous.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“I just need a place to lie down.” His forearm hid his eyes. “You know that, right?”
She leaned against her desk. Divorce, a word Killian had dropped like a coin, took on its full weight, its adult glamour, all the sex and arguments.
“Yeah,” she said.
“I don’t know how you can sleep with those.” He nodded up at the turquoise fairy lights she’d wound around a beam.
“I mean, I could move them.”
“No need,” he said, but she was already skimming the floor for something to throw: his shoe, which she recognized only after it fell, taking most of the lights with it. Still blue, they winked by her feet.
“Dammit.” To unplug them, she would have to lie on the mattress and push her arm between the bed and the wall. “If you move, I can reach the cord. Or you could.”
“You know,” he said, rubbing his temples, “around twenty years ago—Christ, twenty years—I was seeing a girl at a school like this, and one time she convinced me to climb through her window on the top floor. Could’ve broken my neck.” He shook his head. “I was an idiot.”
She pictured his freckled hands gripping the sill, the scape of his shoes on the clapboard outside.
“So what happened?”
“To her? No idea.” He looked down at the blue tangle on the floor. “I don’t know why I told you that. I should be asleep, and so should you.”
“I’m not tired,” Jules said.
He closed his eyes. She gathered her phone, charger, and water bottle, making as much noise as possible, but he continued to feign sleep.
She walked back to Healy, tugging on her sticky earlobe, sidestepping a hockey bag when she passed Ms. Aidie’s door. Ms. Aidie’s fiancé, a coach at the boys’ school down the road, often let himself into the dorm with his illegal copy of the master key. Jules stood by the door and strained to hear them, briefly convinced that she heard running water, that the two were bathing together—she imagined Healy’s revulsion and delight at this news—but the water was, in fact, a wet cracking sound inside her own ear.
Healy was still up, cross-legged on the floor, reading a book and chewing a pen cap.
“Can I get another cotton ball?” Jules said.
“Help yourself.” Healy spat a fragment of blue plastic from the cap into her palm, then wiped it on her shorts. Music played from her phone, which sat in her lap like a toy dog.
“Are you mad at me or something?”
“Nope.” More plastic landed on Healy’s palm. She stood up, kicked her book away, and turned off her lamp before climbing into bed.
“Don’t let your ear leak on me,” Healy said. “I have two pillows, so we don’t have to share.”
Jules got into bed wearing her robe. Healy’s hair, let down from its high mess, was disorderly and soft, and there was so much of it that Jules had to push it away from her cheek. The sheets had a strawberry print. The radiator under the window clicked and released a burst of warm air.
“What is his wife like?”
“Penelope?” Healy turned to face Jules. “I don’t know. Bitchy.”
“What does she look like?”
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t know. I don’t.”
“She’s not that pretty. I mean, she’s fine. Brown hair, curly but way straighter than yours. She has a lisp.”
Jules pushed her tongue between her teeth.
“She wears pearls, which is ridiculous. I mean, have them, fine. Don’t wear them.”
“Right, of course.” The room was too hot, and she shifted as much as she dared. They were not really friends. Jules would never be among the gaggle that went to the Braes’ on a long weekend; if her face was included in anything Healy posted, it was only because she’d happened to be in the room. They were not close enough for Jules to know if the rumors about Healy’s townie boyfriend were true: that she dropped her laundry bag out her window before 8:00 am classes on Mondays so that he could take it to the laundromat, wash and fold, and return it along with some kind of missive about his longing for her. Supposedly, she limited their interactions to once a week.
Jules drew a deep breath, then another, each grosser than the last; there was some kind of tang, perhaps from the empty yogurt cup on the windowsill.
“So are you going to tell me what happened?” Healy said. “You guys were in there for half an hour.”
In fact, Jules and Killian had spent fewer than five minutes in her room, but she had made nothing of those minutes. Five minutes was more than enough—her mother’s aneurysm, when Jules was two, took perhaps less time than that—but where others sustained some kind of momentum, Jules could not. For instance: back home, before she transferred to Page, she and Sebastian Miller had gone for a walk after school. Going for a walk was widely known to be a euphemism, but Sebastian guided them to a Christmas tree downtown, then gazed at it, sniffling, his hands in his corduroy pockets. Later, he bought a kombucha and implored her to share it, claiming it would get them drunk; instead, she kept gagging at the foul taste and waiting for him to kiss her, which he did not. His parents were out, but he left her at his gated driveway, keying in the code with his back turned so she couldn’t see it.
“So?” Healy said.
Jules looked out the window. Snow appeared to be falling directly onto the radiator, where it melted and collected under her arms and between her breasts. She could smell her own sweat as she climbed out of the bed. The sapphire pendant her father and stepmother gave her for her eighteenth birthday was cold on her skin.
“I have to pee,” she said.
“You do not,” Healy said, sliding underneath her sheet.
As a joke, the girls sometimes adorned their rooms with things from the Free Box, a cardboard carton of castoffs in the library vestibule. The Free Box had permanent items—a dress with shoulder pads from the 1980s; a massive Italian bath towel, used for group sunbathing; a Vassar sweatshirt known to be a good-luck charm for applicants, and thus returned every spring—but there were always things that had recently been added on a whim: amber earrings; a ceramic angel; a pink satin blanket. Ms. Aidie called it the Ungrateful Daughter Bin. In November, Jules had seized the pink blanket from the Free Box to make people laugh, and it worked. It was hideous.
Jules kept the blanket folded on the end of her bed—to do more than that, she feared, would suggest that she actually liked it—and the sight of it, opened and shining, made the room feel like someone else’s.
“Sorry,” she said, even as she felt the familiar wainscoting under her hand, saw the blue fairy lights, the outline of the bear on her flag. The laundry bag, its faint odor of damp bathing suit and cap, was labeled Julia Harriet in permanent marker.
“Jesus Christ.” Killian woke, kicking the blanket back with frantic jerks of his legs.
“It’s okay, dude,” Jules said, holding up her hands.
“No.” He bent over and reached for his shoes. “Not okay. Not okay. Oh, Jesus. I’ll be out of here in a minute.”
The glow from the frosted glass fixture in the ceiling was unflattering, but her hand swept against the switch. The overhead light made him pale and old; it made her neither.
“What’s that for?” he said, squinting. “Are you going to post this or something?”
“What?” Jules said.
“I shouldn’t have been in here. Total lapse of judgment.” He rubbed both temples with one hand. “This was really fucking stupid.” He looked at her desk. “Any ideas about my keys?”
“You left them in Healy’s room.”
She closed the door behind him, turned off the overhead light, ripped the satin blanket off the bed. Already her sheets were cool, as if no one had been there. The stinging in her ear had settled to a manageable throb; a high-pitched ringing came and went. In the morning, she would walk across campus to the infirmary and tilt her head so they could see whatever boiled inside. She had once gone to the infirmary as Vivian Clark’s “moral support” when Vivian needed a pregnancy test. She watched as Vivian was treated to soothing murmurs from the on-duty nurse, to a cup of chamomile tea, and to the unfairness of being lovely to look at while she cried and texted her boyfriend. Her hair had been in two French braids and she’d taken to wearing what she called “’90s throwback makeup,” though there were no longer any Page students born before 2000; her eyelids and arms were covered in sticky glitter. Her test was negative, and her newly spawned friendship with Jules came to a tacit end when they parted ways outside the infirmary.
Shortly after that, Jules bought body glitter online and kept it in her nightstand. Every time she considered wearing it she feared that Vivian would accuse her of some kind of theft. Now she opened the little jar. The stuff was sticky and cold on her eyelids. Some of it leaked into her right eye, where it burned, in concert with a new, stronger bout of tinnitus. Her door opened.
“She’s so goddamn selfish,” Killian said.
Jules sat up higher in her bed, setting the glitter aside. She watched him pace the room in its cool blue light.
“She locked us out.” He stopped in front of the window. “Okay if I take this down?” he said, pulling the flag from its hooks. “She locked us out, and my keys are in there, so I’m basically going to walk around in the fucking snow until it’s light enough to show up here without looking like . . . whatever.”
“I can come with you.” Her right eye burned from the glitter. How had Vivian Clark managed to weep and sparkle at once? Jules watched him open her window. The gray sash cords narrowed the space he would have to squeeze through.
“Absolutely not,” he said, without turning to face her. “I’m not that stupid.”
He climbed out. His drop was short, the fresh snow a new bed for him to land in. It was cold, and she closed the window as she watched him walk away, his neck unbroken, never once in danger of being broken, not here, a land free of bitchiness and pearls. The girl he hadn’t meant to visit, hadn’t risked any bones to visit, stood behind glass, kombucha-dry tongue at her teeth, hand clearing a path from her forehead to a spot behind her tender ear.
She locked us out, he’d said.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy is the winner of the 2019 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize. She was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University in 2014. Her work has been recorded for NPR’s Selected Shorts, and her stories have appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, GlimmerTrain, Georgetown Review, SLICE, StoryQuarterly, Madison Review, Canteen, L Magazine, Day One, Crazyhorse, Bennington Review, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Ucross Foundation, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and the Saltonstall Foundation. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University School of the Arts.untitled by Joanna Kosinska