“Araminta, isn’t it? What a pretty name. Please come in,” Eric von Grauling said, answering his young neighbor’s ring on his doorbell.
“It’s after the ancestress who made our family fortune in Charleston,” Minta told him, looking collected despite the flutter in her gut. She was inexperienced at being up to no good. The necessary demure-and-mature social front and the novel conditions of malice and forethought, taken together, amounted to complex choreography. And, even though her business here was with Eric’s teen sons and even though Eric was old, probably forty, he was a glamorous man. In her sensitive state, she found his looks distracting. All the von Grauling males had astounding eyes … she yanked her focus firmly back to the family-tree palaver.
“How did she make her fortune?” asked Eric, regarding the girl with the warm adult approval and courteous interest she was used to. And she picked up the dance of adult conversation, which she had mastered passably at almost-sixteen. “Oh … indigo. Rice. Phosphates. Slavery. I came to see … I wondered … if Winslow can go to Lakewood with me. For ice cream.”
“Sure, after he finishes practicing. It’ll get his mind off that mess at school. We’re all still pretty upset about it.” Luckily, Eric sounded upset for Winslow rather than with him. She could hear Winslow’s piano a few rooms away.
“I’m glad you don’t mind. I mean, I thought you might’ve grounded him after the fight,” Minta said, and self-scolded: You’re babbling. See, you don’t know how to act natural misbehaving.
But Eric shook his head. “No, no, no. I know it’s Forest’s doing. Our boys’ve grown up in a very protected, privileged situation … well, not that Dogwood Downs isn’t nice. But if these messes at the school continue, Melanie and I think she might stay on and finish her year teaching at Ferrier and let me take the boys home and put them back in their school there, because I’m not going to stand for … just because Forest doesn’t get the social dynamic here.”
“What’s it like, your home place in West Virginia?” She’d heard they were obscenely rich and that the money was new. Maybe that was true and this sweet man wasn’t used to it yet? An old-money person wouldn’t have been so forthcoming. An old-money person would have had the maid bring her a lemonade and left her to wait. This man talked to her almost as if she were an adult at a drinks party. Too nice to be old-money-rich, she thought.
“Well, Haliburton’s a tiny little town with a tiny little school,” he began, shrugging. “My wife’s family owns the only industry there, and most of the property, and Forest, he’s always played the best kid roles in the little theatre productions, he was Franz in the ballet studio’s Nutcracker there every year until he got too big.” Eric gestured toward a row of photos of his elder son in ballet costumes. “And that’s partly because he deserves it, but partly because of who we are. And the homefolks are used to him. He probably could show up at school in a tutu there without too much flack. But if he acts natural here, his kind of natural, he’s going to stir up all that rich white trash at the school, and Winslow’s going to catch damage fending them off. We call Forest Trees sometimes because he’s a stickler about little things … can’t see the forest for the trees …well, in this situation, Forest can’t see either the forest or the trees. Or the wolves, for that matter. I guess it’s my fault Forest doesn’t know we can’t just do what we want all the time.”
Forest is about to ride the old learning curve, thought Minta. She said, “Cornell and Yale Wasserman and the Incagnoli boys are wolfish.” Her parents didn’t allow her to say white trash, but it sounded right for upperclassmen who fought thirteen-year-olds.
“And you’ve hit it off with Winslow,” Eric said. “That’s super, sometimes he isn’t easy, he can be uncommunicative, he was so late to talk that we worried he was autistic.” The heat and emphasis of this statement confirmed a personal fact Winslow had shared with Minta: I’m my Daddy’s favorite even when I’m bad.
“I like Winslow’s silences,” Minta ventured. “And I like what he has to say, once he gets ready to say it.”
Eric beamed approval at her approval, then turned the same look on Winslow when his younger son appeared, his left cheek a bruised plum, with a vicious gouge from Yale Wasserman’s class ring. “Already bigger than his dad,” Minta noted to herself, seeing Winslow and Eric together. And you could tell Winslow’s current bulk was just the beginning. Despite that pudgy teddy-bear look Winslow had when he slouched, he was going to be six-four or more, with great lumbering heavy-boned strength. His hair was so blond that it was almost white, and his eyes were a pale and startling blue-green, the color of broken safety glass. He was a work in progress now, an overgrown teenager, but his appearance already had extraordinary effects on Minta. When he grew up, she thought, he would be spectacular.
“Hey, sport,” Eric greeted him. “You’re in luck, here’s the fabulous Miss Tattnall wanting you to go get ice cream with her.”
Perhaps reluctant to show his damage off his home premises, Winslow volunteered that they had ice cream in the freezer. “We could take it up in the tree house,” he ventured.
“Your young lady friend wants to go to Lakewood, so go get your bike,” Eric urged. “My treat.” He handed Winslow a ten.
Winslow did what Minta wanted. From their first meeting, he’d looked at her as if she were diamonds and gold. At the ice cream shop, they ordered a vanilla malt—another thing she knew about Winslow was that he didn’t like complicated flavors. He actually liked kid junk food like coconut snowballs and Twinkies. Ordinarily he loved vanilla malts, but soon he pushed the glass in her direction and in his telegraphic style explained: “Hurts. My tooth. Too cold. You have it.” So she did, and he watched her drink it, concentrating on her in that way he had, as if listening to light. Once the glass was empty, she led him into Wendy’s Beauty Supply.
Winslow took a vaguely alarmed look at the ranks of conditioner and shampoo and wrinkled his nose at the aggressive sweet reek. “What’re we doing here?” he ventured. The clerk there wondered too and looked curiously at the two of them, butter-blonde girl and blonder boy, pondering shades of brown hair tint.
Minta explained what they were doing there. Dedicated from day one to Goals, to Achievement, to Maturity or at least to adultlike behavior, this would be the first time in her life she’d gotten down and dirty with a peer or planned a vendetta. For what she had in mind, they needed hair dye. “Féria’s supposed to be the best brand,” she noted. “Though I hear Garnier’s good too. Which shade do you think is Forest? Rosewood? Walnut? Expresso?”
Winslow had not protested any detail of her plan. Getting down to logistics, he noted, “Well, we need one dark enough to cover blue.”
Actually, Electric Teal was what Forest called the shade in question. Forest had a coif that he described as “asymmetric,” or “chromatic,” or both, though other people had other words for it. His straight brown hair came down just below his earlobe on the left side, but all the way to his collarbone on the right. A vivid stripe of fluorescent blue was dyed into it on the long side. When the von Graulings first arrived in Dogwood Downs, Forest had revealed that he’d gone to New York with his mom and paid someone there $200 to do this to him. The peer-powers-that-were at Dogwood Downs Country Day School might have forgiven Forest his ballet dancing, his clogs, and his clothes, which seemed chosen to inflame any local pederast past endurance. Minta wondered where he got them. Did Victoria’s Secret have a department for teen boys? Unforgiven and unforgivable, though, was that hairstyle with its manic turquoise streak. Surely as God made both lice and lilacs, the bullyboys of Dogwood Downs Country Day School would make Winslow’s life a misery until someone did something about Forest’s hair.
Winslow chose Teakwood Brown, and Minta paid for it.
“You can say I did the whole thing,” she told Winslow, who probably wouldn’t have finked on her under torture. Once back at his house, in the brothers’ bathroom, they opened the box and read the directions.
“You wouldn’t do this to your brother,” Winslow murmured.
“My brother doesn’t get me into fights so I get hurt,” Minta returned smartly, and the boy put his large hand up to the thunderous blue of the bruise. “Now,” she asked him, “have you got any sharp scissors?”
Winslow fetched kitchen shears. “These cut melon rind. It won’t hurt him, will it?”
“Not if we don’t get it in his eyes.”
They hunkered down in Winslow’s walk-in closet and awaited Forest’s return from ballet class. “This is like a surprise party, only different,” Winslow observed. Yes, it would be different, Minta thought, and inhaled him in the warm closed space: the vanilla on his breath, Ivory Snow and fresh starch from his clothes. His sweet skin, implausibly soft over those muscles—the skin of his arms felt like a baby’s.
Finally they heard the appropriate noises: Melanie von Grauling’s Saab purring up the drive, the front door’s exuberant slam. And Forest scampered upstairs and into the huge sunny blue-for-boys room, with its white fur rugs and its two desks and two beds with comforters done in pale blue pinpoint Oxford cloth, its Bowie and Nureyev posters.
Forest finished his bottle of mango juice, turned on the ceiling fan, and shucked his clothes. He dawdled a moment, probably just liking the air on his hot skin, then headed for the shower. And Minta and Winslow slipped out of the closet. Winslow turned on some music, an ancient Meat Loaf album at the highest volume he dared: a sound screen. It would just seem that he’d come in and decided to play music. Not that Forest had time to ponder, for Winslow jumped him from behind, pinning his arms. Seventy pounds and six inches is a size difference that makes struggle almost meaningless, but Forest struggled anyway.
“Sorry, Trees, we’re gonna do it,” said Winslow, perhaps an unfortunate choice of words since Minta had just taken up the scissors. Forest kicked wildly; Winslow hugged harder.
“Hold still or you’ll get cut,” Minta told Forest. “I won’t mean to, but I might if you thrash.”
“What the fuck do you mean, get cut—”
“Oh, nothing permanent. Just your hair,” Minta said, and tried not to smile. To Winslow, she said, “Now, hold him so he can’t shake his head.” Winslow bearhugged his brother in one big arm and got an unambiguous grip on Forest’s right ear with his other hand. Forest began to understand his situation.
“Winslow, did you put her up to this?—I’ll tell Daddy—he’ll ground you till you’re forty! Minta, I’ll tell your folks, and you won’t have to worry about getting into every school in the Ivy League because they’ll kill you dead and donate you to science to get dissected!”
“More like they’ll only talk to me for strictly necessary reasons,” Minta thought, “a month or so. And everything they say’ll be in the imperative mode.” That had happened after an unprecedented lapse on her part, a B in sixth-grade French. “No eye contact, and the temperature around them’ll fall to about -15. Oh, well, you take what you want. And pay for it.”
When Forest tried to yell, she stuffed a washcloth in his mouth—a big plushy one that amply filled it. His muffled grunts were drowned out by emotive lyrics about a motorcycle crash. The kitchen shears were very sharp. They snicked efficiently; brown and blue tufts drifted around Forest’s bare feet. Minta chopped out as much Day-Glo blue as she could without leaving an obvious bald patch. She cut the rest brutally short—it would stay that way a while!
Winslow contemplated him worriedly: “It’s not his style.”
“That’s the whole idea. His style is what’s getting your teeth knocked loose and your face messed up.”
This process was somewhere between chemistry and cooking. The dye directions instructed her, next, to snip off the tip of a squeeze bottle full of syrupy white liquid, take the cap off, empty a little poisonous-looking vial into it, screw the cap back on, seal the snipped tip with her gloved finger, and mix thoroughly. She did, and slathered Forest’s head with Féria’s Teakwood Brown. The dye pervaded the closed space with its wild reek.
Winslow sniffed and coughed. “Yuck! Looks like Hershey’s syrup. Smells like cat pee.” For Winslow, quite the descriptive mouthful. He had to like you a lot before he ventured much beyond yes or no. Minta had spent a good bit of this warm autumn encouraging Winslow to communicate in words of more than one syllable.
Before they could rinse the dye off, they had to wait twenty minutes—through one song about date rape, and another about adultery. Minta had to keep blotting the dye so it wouldn’t drip into Forest’s turquoise eyes and blind him, which was not part of the plan. Angry heat rose off his skin and made her more aware of his nakedness than she wanted to be. She tried to look over Forest’s shoulder and out the little high window, green-gold with September sun through an oak, away from Forest’s tan lines and rageful gaze.
“I’m sorry he’s naked,” Winslow muttered, abashed.
“That’s okay, I don’t care about his dick. I care about making him stop provoking every Neanderthal at school and making you take the heat.”
At nineteen minutes, Minta turned the shower on so it would run warm, and at twenty she signaled Winslow to let Forest go. He jerked the gag out of his mouth and flung it at her, hot with his spit. Minta ignored this gesture and held out the special shampoo that had come with the dye: “Here, we’re done, now you can wash it off.” Forest smacked it out of her hand with his left and would have slammed her into the wall with his right, but Winslow intercepted him and shouldered him into the shower.
“Don’t hit girls,” pronounced Winslow. “Me if you want to. Not her.”
If looks could kill, they’d both have been carrion. Forest gave them one more smoking glare and stepped under the spray. They sat on the end of Winslow’s bed and awaited developments. Once showered, Forest wasted no time taking Winslow up on his invitation.
“This is for you,” Forest said. He marched over to his sibling and slapped him on the left cheek, getting his whole wiry arm into it. Winslow didn’t drop his eyes, make a retaliatory move, or even stir. His expression was the same mute, regretful obduracy that Minta had seen in horses’ eyes when they were refusing to go in some direction that spooked them. And they’d just keep refusing, even if you used your crop.
Forest plucked something from a drawer and stepped into it, then turned back to them. “Before I shop you two,” said Forest, “you want to tell me what that was all about? I mean, I’ll still shop you, but I’m interested. Weird shit naturally happens around my kid brother, but it’s a new one when I walk into my own room and get lynched by some sub-deb in Dogwood Downs, North Carolina.”
“So shop me,” Minta shot back. “Your dad likes me. He thinks I’m a nice, mature young lady, and he’ll listen to me. I’ll tell him that you carry on at school so Winslow has to fight people to keep them from killing your slatty ass dead. And you let him get hurt, not because of stuff you can’t help, but so you can walk around with blue hair and those stupid shirts that show your navel, because you think everybody ought to want a piece of you. You tease those stupid jocks who probably do want a piece of you, but they don’t want to want a piece of you, and so they go after you to tear you up, and Winslow goes after them so they can’t, and he gets hurt. And I warned you last week that if you didn’t lighten up, something was going to blow.”
“Define lighten up,” Forest said, his arch hands on his hips, his blue silk thong underwear. He hadn’t bothered with the rest of his clothes yet.
“Wear chinos and a button-down shirt and some regular shoes! Like my brother!”
“Then I might not ever link up with anyone I'd like,” Forest protested. “I mean, your brother’s clueless.”
“Well, he doesn’t get me into fights! Believe me, Forest, it's better if you don't link up with anyone now. You can date when you're in college.”
But Forest wasn’t buying that. “This is the twenty-first century, girl! Why should you be allowed to date, and I can’t?”
“I'm not allowed to date! And let’s keep this thing on-topic, it's not fair to make Winslow fight for you. He's only thirteen!”
“But he's big for thirteen,” Forest pointed out superfluously. “Hell, he'd be big for twenty. And he wins. Jacob Incagnoli’s going to have to have his nose job redone after Winslow’s left hook.”
Minta put this argument back where it belonged. “I’ll tell Eric that you get off on provoking those dufuses. Your dad’s a sweet man, he just thinks you’re dense, he’d be shocked if he found out what I could tell him—that you like stirring the shit and watching when the situation blows up. You get off on it. And you let Winslow get hurt for you, and I’m not going to stand for it.”
This silenced Forest for a second or three. Then a visible light came on in Forest’s head, and a grin spread from one reddened ear to the next. “You really … I thought you were just putting up with Baby Bro here. Like, sorry for him. But you … amazing! You like him!” At this revelation, Forest’s mood did a pivot. “OHMYGOD. Miss 2400 SAT, Altruism Award, Twenty Tennis Trophies, National Merit Scholar, graduating-early, sure-to-be-valedictorian … and an eighth grader! OHMYGOD! This is better than shopping you. Wait till this gets out, they’ll forget about me and I can kick back and watch the crucifixion … OHMYGOD!” Then he surveyed himself in the mirror. “Jeez, Minta. It’s a good thing you aren’t a real hairdresser.”
“So go see a real hairdresser,” Minta managed to say. “And blab anything you want. You will anyway.” Forest grinned again: He would. He wriggled briskly into jeans and one of his slutty little jerseys, grabbed his mobile, and sauntered out.
The tensile strength seemed to go out of Winslow’s body as his head tried to process everything coming at him. “Come here,” Minta told him, and he said, “What?”
“You’ve heard the expression take what you want and then pay for it?” said Minta, who could feel her pulse … where it belonged, and also further down, where she didn’t usually feel it.
“No, not really. I haven’t heard that one.” He stepped nearer, though, and she put her hand on his just-slapped cheek.
“Well … we’ve just heard how we’ll pay for it. So let’s have what we want. You have to come close for that.”
Laura Argiri’s present and future publications are her novel, The God in Flight, which will have its second edition published by Lethe Press in summer of 2016, and her short story volume, Guilty Parties: Leighlah and Others. These stories are about the rewards and other consequences of bad behavior—and, as Nick Nolan, author of the Tales from Ballena Beach series, says, “clever, wicked people.” “Want” is about some of those folks. Lethe Press will publish Guilty Parties in spring of 2017. She can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/laura.argiri.