Still the Window Burns
Still the window burns
Time so slowly turns
Someone there is crying
Keepers of the flames,
Canât you feel your names?
Canât you hear your babies crying?
--Metallica, "Hero of the Day"
What a day it had been. First there was that devil summoning thing--a silly game, kind of the role-playing equivalent of an Ouiji board. Whatever. Nate had always thought it was kind of a stupid thing to do, and Yuki generally agreed with him. At any rate, it seemed to have worked this time. Nate, Yuki, Mark, and Reno had all been knocked unconscious at the end of the ritual, after seeing what was apparently the shade of a little girl. Then there was that weird vision with the temple--. Then there was Alfred. Well, that was pretty normal, at least. Ever since Nate had joined Reno's circle of friends in 8th grade, Alfred had been more familiar to them all than either of Nate's parents. He'd wanted to take them to the hospital, but for some reason they'd walked anyway. Why was that? Whatever the reason, all of them including Alfred ended up at the hospital, seen Mary--Mary had had some visions, then there was an earthquake--then there were some zombies--then Alfred was dead. Alfred dead? Zombies? What the hell was going on?
Mark stood silently near the door of the Intensive Care Unit while Yuki stood near the group of doctors and nurses that knotted together as far from the now-dead zombies as possible. Nate was kneeling next to Alfred crying softly. Reno felt a little dizzy and sat down in one corner to observe the bizarre scene before him. He closed his eyes and shook his head, hoping that when he opened his eyes again, everything would be back to normal. Yeah, that would be good. The zombies would be gone, the doctors would be back at work, Mark would be dancing to an imaginary tune as usual, and Nate would be overlooking everything with that arrogant glare. It didn't work.
Somewhere in the distance, Mark and Yuki were saying something about Nate.
"Alfred must have meant a lot to him to cry that much. That old man--."
"He completely fell apart in front of his butler--Nothing is more painful than not being able to do anything for someone you care about--."
Seeing the ever-impassive Nate break down completely was disturbing, even in light of the rest of the day, so Reno ignored him and Alfred and walked over to Mark, who had taken a few steps away from Yuki. Yuki herself was asking after the doctors.
Mark was watching Nate and looking as upset as Reno felt. He looked up at the mention of his name. "Wassup?"
Reno shook his head, not quite sure what to say.
Seeing Reno's look, Mark said, "This is some nasty shit. You better go talk to Nate."
"Why me?" asked Reno.
Without missing a beat, Mark replied, "Cuz I don't wanna and Yuki's busy with the doctors. 'Sides, you know him best."
Oh, really? Thought Reno. Out loud he said, "Right. Okay, then. What do I say?"
"Don't matter! Just say something!" Mark snapped, and finally looked away from Nate and Alfred, turning his gaze instead to something outside the ICU door.
Reno took a few steps forward and knelt beside Nate.
Nate ignored Reno completely and addressed his butler. "Alfred--What should I do? If you leave me, I'll be all alone. Nobody will be there to comfort me--Nobody will be--By my side--."
Nate didn't reply. He merely took off his scarf and wiped his glasses off, drying his face as well. Replacing the glasses and still ignoring Reno, Nate placed Alfred's increasingly cool hands on his chest. This gesture seemed to make Nate feel better, as the unwavering coldness was returning to his face. There was something strange about that, Reno thought, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what the problem was. Well, it didn't matter. At any rate, Nate seemed to be back in control and Alfred certainly wasn't feeling any pain.
"Nate, pal--we're going now."
Nate looked up. Reno nodded emphatically at him. They stood up and walked out of the room together, Yuki and Mark following behind.
The next day, Nate was in school although he wasn't looking his best. After third hour, Nate and Yuki walked to their orchestra lesson as usual. When they got to the orchestra room, a sophomore was sitting on the floor staring forlornly at something laying on the ground in front of her. Nate's face hardened as the girl came into view. Her strawberry blonde hair fell out of a messy bun and over her face as she bent over to fiddle the object in front of her.
From the back room, a woman's voice called, "Mariel, are you alright in there? Donât be so upset over a couple strings, dear."
"'Don't be upset,'" Mariel mocked, forcefully but carefully removing three broken strings from a violin. "It'll take a month of saving to be able to buy more good-quality strings but IT'S OKAY! Just buy cheap ones! Yeah, that's the ticket," she said, stomping over to the trash can.
"What?" asked the voice.
"Nothing, Ms. Gates. I'll stop complaining," Mariel called back, adding, "Bitch!" a little more quietly.
Mariel picked up her violin case and was just about to storm out when she noticed that there were other people in the room. Nate and Yuki had been preparing for their lesson as Mariel's miniature drama had played out. Nate was dawdling before taking his violin out of its case while Yuki was getting ready to tune her cello. Mariel watched Nate in silence. He watched her as well. Finally, he withdrew a Stradivarius. Mariel frowned.
"You--are such--an--ASSHOLE!" She took a couple steps towards him menacingly.
Nate scowled back at her. "You never did understand, did you? You selfish little twit!"
Suddenly, Mariel's disposition changed and she was on the verge of tears. "Why does it have to be like this, huh? Why do you always have to be better than everyone else? Why is it when I see you lately all I see is a cold-hearted bastard, just like your father?"
Nate flinched at that but regained his composure quickly. "That's not true. I don't always have to be better -- "
"Cold! And you do, you always do! Ever since--" she frowned thoughtfully, "ever since you turned 13. That was the end. My Nate died--."
"Will you make your point, you pinhead?" Nate snapped. "Do you think I come here to be insulted by the likes of you? I don't have all day to wait for mood to swing back into shape or whatever in hell goes on in that fevered brain of yours. For God's sake, spit it out!" Nate leaned forward, taking a nearly aggressive stance against the girl, with his bow clenched in one white-knuckled fist.
Mariel stared at him steadily, lower lip trembling slightly, unable to answer without bursting into tears. Yuki watched Nate. For once, he seemed unsure of exactly what to do. He shrugged slightly and held out his violin in offering to Mariel.
"What is it, Mariel?" he asked with a softer tone. "What do you want from me?"
Mariel's face cleared. She brushed the hair back from her face and walked over to Nate decisively. Their eyes locked for a moment as Mariel reached up--and slapped him hard across the face.
"Don't you ever patronize me!" she warned, and raged out of the room, forgetting her violin.
"You've got a way with the girls, Nate," Yuki noted. "What was that all about, anyway? Do you know her?"
"Mariel? Yeah, she takes violin and piano lesson with my teachers right before mine. She's easily upset when it comes to music. Or money."
"I remember you mentioning her a long time ago with reference to money. I can't remember exactly what--."
"We used to be friends. But when it came down to it, well. We're from different tax brackets."
"Oh, Nate," Yuki admonished, "that's so shallow."
"You think so?" asked Nate, turning to face her full. "Anything taken to an extreme will change your whole outlook on things. I'd tell you the effect my money tends to have on my friends, but I wonder if you'd dismiss it as a petty worry from the poor little rich boy." He spat the last words out sharply. Yuki suddenly felt the urge to apologize.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Don't worry about it. No one else does," said Nate with finality, and turned back to tuning his violin.
Nate wasn't around for lunch that day, though Mariel was.
"I wanted to talk to Nate after what happened this morning. I thought there was something wrong," she explained to Yuki, who nodded sagely over a carton of low-fat milk.
"What, did he sound pissed off?" asked Mark, setting down his lunch tray next to Yuki.
"Yeah--it was pretty bad," said Mariel.
"I got news for ya -- he's always like that. Am I right?" Mark said, whacked the boy next to him hard enough to knock the orange out of the other's hand.
"Yeah, he usually sounds like he'd rather be talking to anyone in the world but you. Not what I'd call a happy guy," the boy mused. He picked up his orange and resumed peeling it unperturbedly.
"Right on, Reno," said Mark.
Mariel shook her head impatiently. "That's not what I'm talking about. I know Nate is cold and difficult to talk to, the bast--um, but he was genuinely pissed off this morning. I thought for a minute that he was gonna deck me after that comment about his father--."
"What's this?" asked Mark, his interest piqued, "You get in some kinda fight with Richie Rich this morning?"
"It was something," Yuki answered for Mariel.
"Yes, it was. Nate doesn't usually swear. He was--raised better than that," Mariel finished with a mildly bitter tone. "So I knew something was up. Is there something I don't know here?"
A blonde with a squeaky voice sitting across from Reno piped up, "That old guy who was always hanging around Nate was murdered by zombies yesterday. Maybe that's it."
The rest of the group looked up from their lunches to stare at the girl.
Yuki scowled. "Alana, you fool, that was the Trinity family butler, Alfred. Don't you remember hearing Nate talk about him just FEW times?"
"It's an uncommon name!" Alana complained, "I can't remember all the weird shit that goes on!"
"Dude, is she for real?" Mark demanded.
Mariel sat silently. After a while, "So that's it. It was Alfred. Alright, thanks, you guys. See ya around or something--." Mariel got up and walked off.
"Hey, Mari!" called Reno as she left, "You coming to choir this afternoon?"
Mariel looked back in surprise. "Yeah, I'll be there."
"Good, 'cause Ellen's gone today. We could use Calliope Christianson to perk up the soprano section," he said smiling. Mariel returned the smile and stopped for a moment.
"Reno, you know what Nate does all afternoon? Does he have any free time?"
"Uh--he takes a study hall 8th hour in the northeast courtyard, I think."
"Okay," said Mariel smiling unsteadily, "Thanks a lot." She waved at Yuki and Reno and left.
"You know her, too, Reno?" Yuki asked curiously when Mariel was gone.
"Sure, she's in my choir. Talented soprano."
"She's in one of the orchestras, too."
"Not surprised. She loves music more than anything. Says it's the only thing that makes life livable. That's why we call her Calliope, after the muse of music."
Yuki nodded. "I get it. No wonder she was so upset about losing the strings--"
"Mari always goes for the high quality merchandise when it comes to musical instruments. It costs an arm and a leg but it's the only thing she cares about. Good thing, too, because if she had anything else to save for, she'd never get to buy any of it."
"Her family spent all their savings sending her here. Theyâre about as well off as T.J.âs family, so you know how that is."
"Have you ever seen her and Nate together?"
"Sometimes they meet in the music wing. They usually ignore each other, but sometimes they trade words." He chuckled lightly. "Once Mariel threatened to 'throttle you till your eyes shoot across the room like champagne corks.' She gets worked up like that at times."
"Why don't they get along?"
"I dunno. What's with the third degree, Yuki? Just leave Nate alone. He doesn't need us screwing with his personal life as if it's our business."
"Yeah, you're right." Yuki shook her head and went back to her lunch.
8th hour, Mariel was right on time in the courtyard. Nate had arrived before her and chosen a spot under the shade of a large oak tree to read a book. Mariel sat down next to him and cleared her throat. "Hast du etwas Zeit fur mich?" she inquired in song.
Nate looked up. "Dann singe ich ein Lied fur dich," he replied, not singing the lyric. "You're really obsessed with music, aren't you?"
She blushed and looked down at her skirt. "I get carried away with it sometimes. But you know that."
"I know that," he repeated, nodding. "Say, aren't you missing a class or something? I don't remember having free time when I was your age, way back a year ago."
"I skipped choir," Mariel admitted, sitting down in front of Nate.
"Gosh, it must be serious, then, for you to miss a music class. What do you want, Mariel, a pound of flesh?" He set down the book and waited expectantly.
Mariel blushed redder. "No. I wanted to apologize for this morning. Of course, you weren't exactly a model of decorum yourself," she added.
"I know that, too. And I'm also sorry. Doesn't really change things, does it? Now go back to choir, because you know you'd rather be there. I have to finish reading The Great Gatsby before tomorrow."
Nate reached down to pick up the book again, but Mariel caught his hand. He fought her grip without conviction.
"I heard about Alfred," she said quietly.
Nate froze. "What about him?"
"I heard that he died, Nate. I know what that means to you, how hard it must be--to be left with--" she gestured helplessly, searching for a word, "--well, I met your friends today."
"You asked my friends about me?"
"Yeah. That Alana bimbo was some help."
Nate chuckled at that. "I'll bet. What does this all mean, that you want to be friends again?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I mean. I'd say all this bickering is childish, but we knew better when we were children--."
"It wasn't about having or having not back then. That's why. Just naivete. Isn't that what got us started fighting, when we became aware of--money?"
Mariel pressed her lips together. "No, you knob, I told you this morning -- it was when you turned 13 and realized that the world is a shithole." She lowered her voice noticing a teacher's stern look from the near corner of the courtyard. "You remember!" she whispered.
"No, I don't!" Nate insisted. "Refresh my memory."
Mariel shook her head. "Fine, then."
It was August 8th, four years ago. There were just a handful of kids over for Nate's birthday party. They had all gone out to see a movie and were now waiting for cake and ice cream to be served, after which Nate would open his presents. Alfred was in the kitchen lighting the candles on the cake. Nate's parents were standing in the two doorways that led out from the dining room. Mariel was standing in the door next to Nate's mother, and the rest of his friends were sitting at the table.
"You sure remember this day pretty well considering it was my birthday party," Nate commented. "Are you SURE thatâs what happened?"
"Of course I am! I had a lot going on that day, too. Now shuddup and let me finish!"
Nate spread his arms out and bowed as well as one can while sitting down. Mariel made a clicking noise with her tongue and continued.
The lights were dimmed and Alfred brought the cake out of the kitchen. Everybody was singing "Happy Birthday," except Mariel, who was singing a harmony to it. Off in the distance, a phone rang.
"Now you're just making stuff up!" Nate complained.
"No way, Nate! I was standing right next to your mom, in the door. There was a phone."
Nate frowned. "I guess you're right. What else would it have been?"
"It didnât matter to me at the time, so it wasn't the part that I remembered. Anyway, go on."
Before making his wish, Nate looked around the room as though for inspiration. Mariel already knew what the wish was because it had been the same for years, almost since she'd known him, and one year he'd decided that maybe if he told someone what it was, it would come true. No luck so far. Nate's mother hurried off to answer the phone as his father glanced at his watch as Nate watched both of them. Frowning, he turned his eyes to Mariel.
"What is it, Mari? Can you hear? Is she making me lots of money to inherit?"
Mariel looked helplessly at the place that Nate's mother had recently vacated. She could hear pieces of a conversation involving the commissions of stockbrokers these days.
"Sounds like, yeah."
Nate gestured at the candles that were quickly burning out, still looking at Mariel. "Incredible! This year, my wish doesn't come true even before I get to wish it! --Well--It was childish, anyway." He arched an eyebrow at the cake and studied it thoughtfully. Then he voiced a humorously cynical wish and blew out the candles. After the cake and ice cream, everyone left for the parlor. After all the presents were opened, Mariel told Nate that she hadn't bought him anything, but had written a song to perform for him.
Nate replied, "I won't give you a cliched speech about how much better a gift like that is than the ridiculous toys my parents' buyers get me. I think you already know."
"You were so charming, in a pathetic kind of way," said Mariel with a faint smile. "I was so happy that you liked my song that I kissed you. Remember that?"
"I remember it. I also remember having to explain the 'buyers' to you. You'd never heard anything like it."
"I still haven't! Only your family would be rich enough to hire people to buy gifts for each other."
Mariel performed her song flawlessly and presented Nate with the sheet music afterwards. He complimented her so lavishly that she hugged and kissed him on the cheek in front of everyone, causing both of them to blush deep crimson. Afterwards, Alfred took everyone home in the limo except Mariel, who asked to stay a little later if it wasnât a problem.
"Of course, Madam Mariel. Dear child, it's wonderful to see young Sir Nate with his closest friend," Alfred told her.
Mariel giggled, "Thank you, Alfred. Dismissed or something."
Alfred smiled genially, patted her on the head and left.
Once everyone else was gone, the servants were busy cleaning up the party, and the 'rents were both back in their respective studies, Mariel and Nate decided to take a walk around the grounds.
The night was warm and twilight lingered like a mist above the perfectly manicured lawns, bushes, and trees that spread acres behind the mansion proper. Mariel broke the thoughtful silence with the question that had bothered her all day:
"Nate--Are you okay?"
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded, a bit too snappishly.
"Oh, Nate. I saw that look when you were watching your parents. I know what it was for--but please, I'm starting to worry about you--are you okay?"
Nate nodded. "It's not a big deal. It just dawned on me that the world is a completely unfair and painful place to be. And I stopped denying my suspicion that wishing isn't enough to make things happen. Sometimes, asking isn't either," he added darkly.
Mariel's eyes opened wide. "You told the parental units your wish? I'd never have the courage to ask a thing like that to my parents."
"Stay the whole day for something special I was doing. It doesn't sound that unreasonable, does it? In, um--" Nate ticked off the years on his fingers, "--5 years, they haven't managed to do it once. Not for my awards, orchestra concerts, piano recitals--I can't even remember the last time we all had dinner together."
Mariel asked, "Did you mean the wish you made that we all heard, or was there another one? I mean, did you finally change it, then?" She slipped her fingers around his hand.
"Yes. I wished to God that I would never end up like them. Heartless. Heartless shells of humans," Nate spat. His face remained as cold as his voice as he spoke. "I've been to your house, and others. I know that I'm the only one who feels closer to a servant than his parents or friends--friends, yeah, whatever. Whoever those people are who I invited into my home today. You know you're my only real friend besides Alfred. Don't you see how messed up that is, Mari?"
Mariel looked at him helplessly. "I don't--I don't really know. I can't imagine it."
"I know. I guess no one can really understand."
They stopped on a low hill as a cold wind blew across the lawn. Twilight was almost gone, and night was setting in. Nate turned to Mariel, still holding her hands gently and smiled sadly, "You came the closest, though. My best friend."
"I love you, too," she whispered.
"Do you remember what happened then?" asked Mariel.
"Yes. We had that fight. It was about money, don't you remember?"
"No, it wasn't! There was something else. What the hell--?"
Mariel and Nate sat in silence for a few minutes.
"I know," said Nate suddenly.
"It started with money. We were fighting because I had made some obnoxious comment about it, which caused you to compare our--situations--."
"Ooh--that's right--we were in school, too. Then what? Didn't we get into a fistfight?
"I NEVER WANT TO SPEAK TO YOU AGAIN!" Nate shouted. At that point, volume was no longer an issue.
"That's FINE BY ME, you money grubbing rat BASTARD!!" Mariel shouted back.
"Damn you to hell, Mariel!"
"Yeah, you and GOD have that power, huh?"
The football coach tore the two apart and for the next week, both served in-house suspensions in separate wings of the school.
"That was one hell of a year all right," said Mariel.
"You can say that again."
"I sobbed all day serving my suspension. I thought for sure my dreams of a scholarship were shot."
"I didn't even think of that."
Mariel laughed edgily. "Of course not. So what did you think about?"
Nate blushed light pink. "About how ashamed Alfred would be of me."
"I didn't worry about my parents. I mean, they were upset, but they know how I get."
Nate smiled, "Of course."
Mariel looked at her skirt once again, as though some magic script were written there that would tell her what to say.
Finally, she said, "At any rate, here we are, together again. I think we can both agree that it's time to put what's past behind us. You could use a friend, and I could use a better attitude. I--I never really recovered from that fight, I guess."
Nate simply nodded and stared off into the distance.
"Do you still love me?" Mariel asked with a smile, peering through Nate's glasses into his dark brown eyes.
"I suppose I do," he answered thoughtfully, returning the smile.
Mariel laughed out loud and sang with great gusto, "Then I suppose I love--you--too!"
"You addict. The period isn't over yet, you know, you can go back to choir--. Back, knave, back to choir where you belong! Back, I say!! Hahahahaha!" Through the halls of St. Hermelin Nate chased Mariel all the way to the choir room. Almost.
The pair served their detentions in the same room.
"Just like old times, huh?" Mariel whispered.
"Yeah, like back when we were young and stupid," Nate whispered back.
"Only now Alfred isn't here to pick us up after school and give us cookies," Mariel giggled.
"No--Alfred is gone."
The pair sat in silence for a moment. Nate contemplated and Mariel watched him worriedly. Then he spoke again:
"I thought when he died that I was losing the only real friend I ever had and ever would. I was sure I'd go through life alone--no one to listen to me prattle or comfort me when I'm sad or sick. But Alfred left me with a promise to keep and--and a new companion. You, Mariel, my old best friend. As recently as yesterday I felt lost--today I see what I am supposed to do with the things that Alfred left me. I feel better than I have in a long time."