We Happy Few
Often, Tilly Valentine would make a point of telling others not to say that which she wished they wouldn’t tell her. For instance, most mornings Tilly found herself incanting to her mother, Margot, “Please don’t say you love me.” Those were words she found herself missing nowadays. Tilly Valentine seemed to possess two impulsive tendencies. In one case, Tilly would engage in the reading of other peoples’ minds — this was how she knew what she did not want to hear. After anticipating their tendencies, Tilly would implore them to shut up. The second of Tilly’s impulsive tendencies was situated on the practice of blocking other people out entirely, and ignoring those words that they were destined to say. Tilly’s life was an eternal struggle between the decision of telling others to be quiet, or blocking them out herself.
Tilly was, of course, not actually able to read the minds of others, but people had a way of falling into predictability. It was this predictability that Tilly latched onto; it was predictability that people so often called clairvoyance, and it was predictability that so often irritated Tilly to brink of madness.
In the clearing, Tilly employed the second of her tendencies. She was with some others in a small, circular field that was situated off to the side of a canyon road. A wall of trees hid them all from the creeping eyes of passing cars, and the campsites speckled throughout the canyon hid the likely illegal fire Tilly and the others had burning in a small pit. Tilly was careful not to call the others friends. She didn’t have friends. Tilly Valentine loved no one, despite what her name might have implied.
Inside the clearing there was a round picnic table laying on its side, with three legs jutting out into the open air. It rested its weight entirely on its fourth leg. The table had been Dave’s or Kolton’s. One of them had brought it with them and lugged it into the clearing months ago. The clearing was hardly the easiest thing in the world to get to and Tilly wondered how they had managed to maneuver the monument about the trees. Besides the trees, they would have had to lug the thing for nearly a mile to get it to the clearing. That was one of the best aspects of the clearing — assuming anyone knew it existed, it was so far away that no one would bother to walk the immense distance required to get there. Besides the others, no one could bother Tilly when she was in the clearing. The clearing was her one place of reprieve. You could ride a bike to the clearing, like Tilly and the others did, but only an adventurous few would brave the tight and twisting canyon road, filled with lethal cars and booby-trapped with fallen rocks from the sides of the mountain.
Tilly had decided not to ask questions regarding the existence and procurement of the clearing’s amenities. She wasn’t interested in hearing the answers people had to say, and besides, it was of little consequence.
Kolton leaned forward in his seat, a lawnchair, and he squinted his eyes to focus better on the screen of a laptop that sat on his thighs. Alex, Tilly’s sister, stood behind Kolton and had her eyebrows scrunched lightly together. Tilly and Val sat around them, on separate patchwork chairs someone had found abandoned on the sides of streets. Tilly and the others were all looking at the screen, and those who weren’t looking at the screen would periodically glance around at the others. There was a juicy dragonfly that fluttered in the middle of their circle, rudely and intentionally disrupting everyone’s silence of thought. On the bright laptop screen, a fingerprint showed up: thousands of vein-like lines etched around into a small loop.
Dave shrugged. “I don’t believe in evolution.”
The others were silent, just as Tilly had hoped. Please don’t say you disagree with him, Tilly thought.
Then Alex raised both palms beside either side of her head and said, “Hey, I once saw a komodo dragon evolve from place to place.”
“Well from place to place, sure, but a real evolution?” Dave said. Dave wagged his finger knowingly.
Alex hadn’t thought this through, Tilly knew. Alex never thought things through. She spoke impulsively, interjecting shabbily disguised, boorish comments with the sole intention of disagreeing with others.
Alex brought her twig-like arms back down beside her hips. Some rain had started dripping through the trees, threatening the serenity of the clearing.
“Please don’t say we should get out of here,” Tilly said. She watched Kolton fold his laptop together.
“But it’s raining,” Kolton said.
“Yes, I can see it is raining. I can feel that it is raining,” Tilly said.
The sky was deeper here at night, and the air was thinner. There was something peaceful about the clearing, even if Tilly was forced to share the sacred space with the others. They all began to stand, but Tilly had her eyes closed.
Don’t tell me to get up, she thought.
“We’ve got to go, Tilly,” Val said. She reached down to help get Tilly to her feet, but with her eyes completely shut, Tilly slapped Val’s arm away. Val stepped back and gave a shrill yap. Not because she had been slapped, but because an artful needle had flipped up and jabbed her in her uncovered toe. Val always wore sandals.
Kolton had already made it to the side of the road. He jumped onto the seat of a bike he had stored in the trees, and he swiped his hand back and forth across his rain jacket, like windshield wipers flicking droplets of water into the air. The foul paint on his bike was peeling and had faded long ago.
“Everything else is spot on,” Kolton had once said about the bike, but Tilly hadn’t known what the hell he was playing at. Delusional, maybe. Some sort of psychological disorder. Overcompensating, probably. Making everything positive in order to avoid depressing truths.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Val said. She was still massaging her toe. Val was the only person left in the clearing and for some psychotic reason she was still trying to coax Tilly into leaving. Tilly was still sitting. She had crossed her legs, one over the other, and she had pulled the hood of her black jacket down over her closed eyes, much like a patient engaging in meditation.
“Ok,” Tilly said. She felt a little bad.
Val said, “What does your wrist say?”
It wasn’t a question Tilly had expected. Unpredictable because her wrists were hidden by bracelets and bands of cloth and black sleeves. Unlikely because Tilly thought everyone had been paying attention to the laptop screen. Understandable because Val had just punctured herself with the needle. Tilly lifted her head, and with eyes defended by eyeliner she looked at Val. “I’m not leaving,” Tilly said. “I’m fine,” she said.
When Tilly arrived home she was greeted by a stranger who was sitting in her chair in the living area. Vince was on the sofa, beer in hand, watching the game on the TV. Revolting beer cans and pizza boxes surrounded him. There were wrappers and those frail cardboard slices that separate treats strewn about the coffee table. The other man, the one in her spot, was swaying back and forth and he was covered head to heel in khaki men’s dress attire. Upon his feet were some dark brown dress shoes. Tilly stood by the doorway, watching the man. With each successive sway he would hum an awful note; with each successive awful note he would make his body sway. He had many angry scars on his face, and his mind seemed to be alone.
“You’re wet, Tilly,” Vince said. Tilly shrugged. She was wet. Truthfully, she was more than wet: her clothes sagged with the weight of water and whatever excess water there was had begun pooling up around her feet. She sloughed her jacket off her shoulders and let it fall like depression into a heap on the ground, splashing in the shallow pool forming there.
“You’re in my chair,” Tilly said to the stranger. She noticed a bottle of Skyy vodka in the chair, nestled in the nook of the man’s elbow.
The man’s swaying and humming paused momentarily. He focussed in on Tilly and said, “Don’t look the eagle in the eye or it’ll swoop down and take you.”
“Sit down and watch, Tilly,” Vince said. Tilly looked at the TV and saw the hockey game was on. Tilly enjoyed hockey, but she was not able to sit.
From the kitchen, Alex said, “I hear Tony snoring.”
“He’s had a big day,” said Vince.
Tilly noticed that the man in her chair had closed his eyes. “Not snoring,” Tilly said. “He’s humming.”
Their house was stationed next to the freeway and Vince had the blinds pulled aside. Tilly could hear the cars that flashed by the window. The noise of the street complicated the task of listening to the hockey announcers, but Vince didn’t seem to mind. As for the madly drunken man, Tony, Tilly noted that he didn’t seem to much care for the hockey, nor the noise produced by the passing cars. There was a constellation of coins littered about his feet, carelessly forgotten or else lazily dropped. Tilly bent down to pick them up.
“You can’t refute it,” Alex said. She had left the kitchen and was standing behind Tony’s chair — Tilly’s chair, thought Tilly. Alex grabbed Tony’s vodka and hid it in her t-shirt, listening to his humming. She said, “He sounds good.”
Vince had apparently tired of the hockey game. He shuffled some cards that he had pulled from a foreign bag, a bag that Tilly presumed must have belonged to Tony. Tilly kicked Tony in shin and his eyelids burst open in shock or in pain. “You lost your vodka,” Tilly said. Through the window, Tilly noticed the dreary sun setting over their graveyard of a back yard. It seemed to cause each rock outside to glow.
“Can I ask a personal question?” Tony said. He attempted to sit up in her chair.
“Please don’t,” said Tilly.
Tony said, “It’s a circle.” He fell back in the chair.
“That’s not a question,” Tilly said.
“Hey, knock it off,” said Alex.
“Girls!” said Tony. He acted as though he had just noticed Tilly and Alex. “How’s it going?”
Tony cast his attention immediately away from the girls after having questioned them. He snatched a phonebook from the table by the arm of the couch and appeared to be reading it. Whether that was possible, in his state, was a different mystery. The phonebook failed to add much pizazz to his character in terms of likability. Tilly shook her head and walked out the back door. She found a rock to sit on near the garden and she sat and she shuddered. There was a sliver of a crescent in the sky, chasing lovingly after the sun. Tilly was content to sit in silence, but she heard the door open and soon after the sound of feet squishing the grass followed. It was Alex.
“Please don’t,” said Tilly.
Alex sat in the grass next to Tilly, her red locks of hair hanging over her face. She brushed the hair back with a thin finger, serenely tucking it behind her ear. She had a plate with a piece of french bread balanced carefully on her criss-crossed legs that were adorned in black leggings, the kind that were made for the cold. There were numbers written on her hand that looked like a phone number. It was Kolton’s. Tilly knew her too well.
“I’m not cold,” Tilly said. Tilly wobbled back and forth like a spinning top preparing to fall. She had her knees pulled tight to her chest and fastened them there with her chin.
Alex looked up at her. Alex had taken her contacts out and was wearing her dumb glasses that made her look dense. Tilly hated when she would look at her through those things.
“You’re not dead,” Alex said. Alex grabbed Tilly’s wrist and steadied her for a moment. Tilly met her worried eyes.
“I think I’ve noticed that,” said Tilly.
“You like living,” said Alex.
“Go away,” said Tilly. Alex had pieced parts of it together, Tilly knew, based on remarks she had heard from Vince and their mother throughout her life. Tilly looked through Alex’s glasses. Even in the dying light of the setting sun, Alex’s striped sage and soft grey eyes were clearly visible. Tilly saw something there. She saw their past. She saw what those eyes had once looked like before they had been coerced to grow up. It was as though they threw a lamp on Tilly’s life. Gods, Tilly thought. She felt as though she were Columbus, standing at the precipice of the new world.
“I want to speak to her,” Tilly said.
Alex pulled out the bottle of Skyy from her jacket and held it out between them. It was mostly empty, though whether Vince had consumed it all that night or over the course of many nights, they couldn’t be sure.
Alex said, “I feel bad now.”
Tilly grabbed the bottle from Alex and popped the cap off. “Do you think he’s touched it?” she said. “You know, with his mouth?”
“Dad?” said Alex. “Probably.”
Tilly vigorously rubbed the lip and neck of the Skyy against her shirt, then she drank and passed the bottle to Alex who drank also. Vince had pulled the thin, white fabric blinds shut and turned the lights off inside. The TV was still flashing into the night.
One, two, three, Tilly was counting. Cicadas were buzzing and the sky was blinking its thousand eyelids awake as the sun dipped into the deep waters of the night. Tilly felt as though her limbs were filled with sand. She stopped wobbling. Alex pointed to the sky and dragged her finger in a line. She told Tilly to look.
“There’s a blonde girl, standing beneath the frame of a black door,” Alex said. Her finger had made its way back to where it began and she now leaned back on her elbows, her legs still crossed over one another.
“Sure there is,” Tilly said. She could see the stars make circles in the blackness.
“You have to see the world, Tilly,” said Alex. “You have to.”
Tilly asked her to outline the blonde girl again. This time, Tilly could see it. The girl’s face was gaily frozen as if cut from the pages of a scrapbook. “What’s her name?” Tilly said.
“Margot,” said Alex.
“Gods,” said Tilly. “Do you even know what you are saying?”
“She’s up there,” said Alex.
“No one’s up there,” said Tilly.
Tears dripped from their eyes. Clouds could come and block the stars and still they wouldn’t move. Margot was up there. We’re the only ones moving, Tilly thought. We’re the one’s changing our perspective. She could feel Alex looking at her. “Please don’t say you love me,” Tilly said.
“Why not?” Alex said.
Tilly said, “Because I can’t say it back.”
“No problem,” Alex said. “You don’t have to.”
They passed the bottle between one another. Slowly. Delicately. They watched the stars.
“But it is a problem,” Tilly said. Though Alex would not see it, Tilly felt herself shaking again. They looked to the other corners of the cosmos and Tilly knew they both could see the form of freedom birds outlined there, but they further realized it was only a fabrication. A sense of belonging is not so easily constructed. “I’m trying,” Tilly said.
“I know,” said Alex. “Keep trying,” she said.
The Skyy had been nearly drained, though there hadn’t been a lot when they first started sipping it. Tilly threw the empty bottle over the stone fence that was meant to block the noise of the freeway.
“It’s late. Why are you still here?” Tilly said.
“From above, the world looks gorgeous,” Alex said.
Tilly said, “We’re not looking from above.”
Alex said, “It’s a matter of perspective.”
“Maybe,” Tilly said. Someone had once told her that to go home, someone has to take you there. Perhaps that was a matter of perspective too, but from Tilly’s point of view, it was a long way home.
The stars were moving towards the morning, it seemed, more quickly than Tilly had ever seen before. She and Alex were ready to be on their way, back to the house and to their beds.
“Anyway,” Alex said. “I love you.”
The air contained the aroma of wysteria and they could hear the river of water on the freeway being disrupted by the passing cars. Tilly looked once more at Margot. “She looks deadly,” Tilly said.
“She is deadly,” said Alex.
“Is she happy?” Tilly said.
“We’re all happy,” said Alex. “Somewhere.”