“The Edward System,” Part III

Yup, this one’s still going. Here’s the third part of “The Edward System.” At this point it’s looking like this’ll probably be a five-parter, but we’ll see. In this chunk, we finally learn a little more about Noelle, and the crazy starts to come out. Oh Trent, you poor, sociopathic bastard. You have no idea what you’re in for here, buddy.

Part one is here. Part two is here.

The Edward System

III

Trent skips school again Friday. Thursday night passed without a lot of sleep, and the less face time he puts in at the school before tonight’s events, the better. It’s seven in the evening when the Maverick pulls up to the curb in front of Noelle’s home. Trent pulls out the collar of his signature leather jacket and checks in the rear view mirror to ensure his hair is properly coiffed. He practices his pout a couple times, letting his pale lips purse and rest in tune with Jim Croce on the radio. Okay. Time to eat.

The woman who answers the doorbell is a shadow of Noelle twenty years and forty pounds down the road. She stands silent in the doorway for what might be several heartbeats if Trent could still rely on that sort of thing as a measurement, then the woman steps aside the scant few inches necessary for Trent to squeeze between her robed figured and the door. No invitation is required, vampire lore be damned, though it would be polite.

Noelle’s voice carries down the stairs from the bathroom. “Is he here?”

“He’s here,” Noelle’s mother shouts back up the stairs, and without further acknowledgment of her daughter’s date she waddles back to the her easy chair and unmutes Nancy Grace, who’s busy encouraging a million-strong TV audience to lynch a suspected carjacker who will later be exonerated.

Trent shuts the front door but remains standing on the entry way linoleum. Past images of Noelle and her mother in practiced poses smile at him from within cheap faux-wooden frames on the wall. There is no indication of a husband or father. That’s no surprise to Trent. One of the first things he learned from applying the Edward System is that most of the Twihards are looking for daddy.

Daddy is someone who’s been gone a long time, someone whose memory fills them with sensations of euphoria and angst. There are all kinds of reasons that daddy is gone. Once in a great while he’s dead. More likely, he and mom didn’t get along, so now he only gets to see his special girl a couple weekends a month, if at all. Or, and Trent’s fairly certain after his study of her books that this or something similar is the case with Stephanie Meyer, maybe daddy touched his daughter in a way decidedly undaddylike, and now daddy lives in another state or a federal prison, possibly both.

The particulars are irrelevant to Trent. The gist is that the Edward System involves filling the daddy role, at least for the night, which mostly comes down to paying the victim attention while remaining aloof and distant. Trent can remember trying to attract girls his age while he was still alive by being sensitive and attentive, and looking back, he’s sure that’s why he died a virgin. Now he knows to be a complete asshole to his victims because the type the Edward System is designed to ensnare lap up the abuse like a dehydrated mutt fresh from a trek across the desert licking at a puddle of antifreeze in the driveway.

Noelle comes bounding down the stairs two at a time and tackle-hugs Trent, who barely gets his arms up in time to catch her, and he has to plant his left foot against the doorjamb to stay standing. “Okay, mom, we’re going to the fair!” Noelle’s mother waves a hand in the air without peeling her eyes from the TV. Trent wonders if he might not be doing the old hag a favor by taking Noelle off her hands.

“You weren’t at school today,” Noelle says once she’s buckled into the Maverick’s passenger seat. “I would have called you, but you said your phone’s not hooked up, and I couldn’t find you on Facebook.”

“I don’t have a profile on Facebook.”

What?” She laughs. “You liar.”

“I really don’t.”

“What kind of person isn’t on Facebook?”

“I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.”

“Oh whatever,” Noelle says, then she spends the rest of the ride to the fairgrounds regaling him with tales of Facebook drama that bleed into a story about a fight she had with a girl from New Mexico in someone’s LiveJournal comments. “I swear to god, if I knew her real name, I would drive down there and burn the bitch’s house to the ground while she slept, and if she came running out before she died, I’d fucking stab her in the neck, you know?”

“Huh,” says Trent as he pulls the Maverick into a parking spot in the fairground’s gravel lot. Well, good thing he likes them feisty. It can be a lot of fun when they try to put up a fight so long as they don’t make a lot of noise doing it and bring the heat down on you. If worst comes to worst you can always snap a girl’s neck to shut her up, but that first bite just isn’t as satisfying when the victim’s body is already limp as an overboiled noodle.

“Last year I did start a fire in chemistry,” Noelle continues once they’re out of the car and walking to the fairground gates. “The gas light was this pretty blue, and I was wondering if it would stay that way when it was burning other stuff, so I let it catch the tip of my math book. It didn’t stay blue all the way, but the yellow was pretty too. Don’t tell anyone, though, because Mr. Darby was super-pissed and they almost made me go to counseling, but I convinced them it was an accident.”

“Sounds like you’re a pretty good actress. Did you ever think of joining the drama club?”

“Nah, Mrs. Billsby is a total cunt. Did you ever do any plays at your old schools?” Trent shakes his head. That’s something of a half-truth. While he’s never been on the stage, he did help run the lighting and curtains during his sophomore class’ production of Othello. Trent doesn’t like to think about his time in high school—well, his first time in high school, when he was attending in hopes of securing a diploma instead of a meal. And he sure as hell isn’t about to talk about it without his food.

Trent keeps an eye out for the Gravitron as they walk around; they still have those, right? That’s second on the list of attractions he wants to partake of tonight, the first being Noelle’s carotid arteries, but it’s not that far down the list. Though Trent has a knack for machinery, the physics that make that particular ride possible may as well be riddles written in Enochian script as far as his incomplete mid-seventies high school education leaves him able to understand any explanation of how it works. The same goes for his comprehension of the seemingly labyrinthine innards of computers and the question of how microwaves heat things up without giving you cancer.

Noelle stops him every now and then so she can ride the bumper cars or the carousel or the pirate ship, and she makes him run through the fun house decorated with caricatures of Stevie Nicks and Neil Peart and Meat Loaf, where a blast of compressed air sends Noelle’s intoxicating scent into his nostrils and half-tempts him to rip open her throat then and there, all the kids running past them to dive into the ball pit at the end of the platform be damned. It’s not that he’s worried about traumatizing the tykes; there just wouldn’t be any way to get away clean if so many tiny, shrill-voiced witnesses poured screaming from the exit while he was busy drinking Noelle’s lifeblood.

It’s an effort to keep his hand away from Noelle’s while they walk the fairgrounds. The girl seems desperate for palm-on-palm contact, but Trent’s loath to provide it to her. His chill touch just raises too many questions. They strike a silent truce, locking arms at the elbows, and Noelle never voices any complaint despite her earlier attempts at lacing together their fingers.

They stop at a booth where the barker invites Trent to knock over a stack of five milk cans to win a plush doll that Noelle identifies as a “domocoon,” whatever that is. Two dollars later, three of the milk cans remain standing and the carnie is wishing Trent better luck next time with a slap-down-your-dough-or-get-the-hell-outta-here smile. Noelle pulls a Hello Kitty pocketbook out of her matching purse and lays down a five, which the sign in the back says gives her three games of two throws each.

“I did this a couple years ago and won a panda,” Noelle says. “It’s not that hard. Watch me.” She leans toward Trent, and he has the sensation she might be trying to kiss him, but if so she’s unable to break past her initial hesitation. The moment passes as the barker hands her the softball. Noelle bounces the ball in her hand, more to show off than to test the weight, then throws and misses the stack of milk cans by at least two inches.

“One more throw this game,” says the carnie as he hands Noelle another ball to throw.  She manages two cans this time, but the carnie just resets the stack afterward. Noelle’s left eyebrow twitches and she throws again as soon as the carnie’s out of the way, though she almost beans him regardless. It’s a solid hit on the bottom center can, and the whole stack wobbles, but only the can at the top falls.

“Bitch,” Noelle says under her breath. She really puts her whole upper body into the next throw; one foot comes off the ground as her body lunges forward and her arm rotates the full arc her shoulder blade will allow. Trent is reminded of a slow-motion replay of Charlie Brown giving it his all on the pitching mound. The thunk the ball makes when it strikes the plywood back of the booth turns heads. Unfortunately, she’s off to the right by an inch.

Noelle stamps her foot in the fairground sod. “So unfair! Okay, this time I’ll do it.” But she doesn’t. On the last throw, Trent notices a tear run down Noelle’s cheek, and the booth attendant has to duck out of the way of a ball that Trent isn’t entirely sure was thrown at his head purely by accident. Noelle spins away from the booth on her heel and wails like a two year old denied a new toy at the grocery store, then she bolts and Trent has to sprint after her to keep from losing her in the crowd.

He catches up to her behind the bumper cars. Noelle is hunched over with her right shirt sleeve pulled up to her elbow—and finally Trent realizes what that coppery scent that’s drawn him to this girl these past few days is: Noelle is a cutter. Right now she’s stabbing her arm over and again with a pin she’s pulled from her hair, and Trent stands mesmerized behind her for a moment watching the pinpricks become bright red with condensed deliciousness. Does he dare take her here? No, there are port-a-johns across from the tent and no way of knowing when someone will come around the corner and see them. At least now he knows what that damn smell is. His stomach gurgles in anticipation.

His future meal sniffles when she notices Trent coming up behind her. “I haven’t cut myself since I met you until just now,” she says, and she’s quick to pull her sleeve back down, which does nothing to stifle the scent to Trent’s nose. “I’m sorry. I just wanted you to see how good I could be. I’m not crazy, I swear.”

Trent isn’t so sure about that, but batshit insane high school girl blood tastes just as sweet as sane high school girl blood. Throwing caution to the wind, he takes Noelle’s hand in his own and tries not to let the worry show on his face when she shivers at the chill of his touch. “It’s alright. Look, do you maybe want to take a walk away from here to clear your head?” If she really is crazy, it’s best just to skip the Gravitron and the elephant ear and drink her before she has a chance to flip out so hard she ruins the whole evening.

But she stymies his attempts to murder her at his convenience with a shake of her head. “No, I’m okay. Can we ride the Ferris wheel? Please?”

And within the space of a minute she’s back to bubbly and sweet again, tears rubbed away and smile wide enough that her cheekbones almost poke into her eyeballs. Now that Trent’s given her his hand there’s no getting it back, and she squeezes his fingers in a vicelike grip as the wheel makes its first rotation. “Your hand is so cold,” she says, and she lightly touches his face. “All of you is cold. Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine. I always run a little cold.”

“Do you?” Noelle’s fingers creep down from his hands to his wrist, and Trent has the unsettling feeling that she’s searching for his pulse. But she doesn’t ask him why she can’t find one, which means it’s probably all in his head. She couldn’t suspect. He hasn’t given her any reason to think he’s anything but some asshole new kid who fits her idea of Prince Charming. But if that’s the case, why is he so aware of the chill of the evening air and the differences in the amounts of heat their bodies are putting off all the sudden? This date isn’t going at all the way he planned. Could there be a flaw in the Edward System he hasn’t accounted for?

The wheel comes around again, giving them a view of the entire fairgrounds and the empty fields that used to be farmland before the economy went to shit beyond. “We’ll remember this night for the rest of our lives,” Noelle says, and she snuggles her head against his chest. “Trent, I know this is sudden and all, but I’m so in love with you. I have been since we met. You believe in love at first sight, right? I just knew you were the one I was waiting for when you came over and talked to me.”

The noise that escapes Trent’s throat may be distantly related to speech, possibly a second cousin or step-uncle through marriage. It sounds like something between choking on a fish bone and the sudden urge to throw up. Regardless, it seems Noelle’s mind is able to warp that response into an “I love you too” because she just buries her face deeper in his chest, her arms wrapping tight around his midsection, apparently satisfied with his unintelligible reply. It’s a good thing that Trent doesn’t have to breathe because he’s fairly certain the crazy bitch is in the process of bruising his lungs.

Noelle pulls out her cell phone to glance at the time once they’re off the Ferris wheel. “Oh hey, let’s go to the elephant ear stand, okay?” she says. Trent nods, happy that he’s finally going to get something he wanted out of this date, but his stomach drops when he sees Dominique wave at them through the throngs as they approach. The boy is wearing his usual letterman jacket and has his cell phone in his hand like he was about to make a call. Noelle runs ahead and tackle-hugs her friend with a delighted squeal, almost like she wasn’t bawling and poking holes in her skin fifteen minutes ago.

“How’s your night going?” Dominique says once Noelle is back on her own two feet. Trent catches up and gives Dominique a nod hello. Was he waiting here for them? Did the bitch plan for them to meet Dominique? Is that why she checked the time? Goddammit.

“Fantastic. Hey, I need to go pee. Would you two wait here?”

And she’s off before Trent or Dominique can say another word. They both watch her slip through the crowd. Dominique clears his throat and looks Trent in the eyes when he speaks. “Hey, I needed to tell you something.”

“What?”

“Look, I’ve known Noelle for a long time. She’s one of my best friends. But she’s like a sister to me, you know? I just wanted you to know that I’m not at all interested in her, you know, romantically. That would just be weird for me. I mean, we spend a lot of time together, but it’s not like that. It’s never been like that, and it never will be like that, I guess is what I’m trying to say.” Dominique lets loose a heavy sigh at the end of his speech, like he’s finally set down a weight he’d been hauling uphill for miles. “I’m just glad to see her with someone again after what happened last year.”

Trent blinks. “What happened last year?”

“Oh shit.” Dominique winces. “You don’t know.”

“You mean when she started the fire in chemistry?”

“No, after that. It was during her wiccan/juggalo phase, right after her last boyfriend moved out of town.” Dominique stands on his tip-toes and looks toward the port-a-potties to make sure Noelle isn’t in listening distance, which makes Trent’s stomach sink even lower than it already had during Noelle’s confession of her undying love on the Ferris wheel. “They caught her behind the gym with a couple tanks of propane, a bag of fertilizer and a blow torch during prom. The cops came in, said it was a crime scene and made everyone go home, and the next Monday there was this… I guess you’d call it a manifesto getting passed around that was supposed to have been taken off of her MySpace. It was all about how everyone you love always leaves you and she wasn’t going to take it anymore. It wasn’t on her page when I looked after school, though, so who knows if she really wrote it, and I’ve never felt right asking her about it. But she did intend to blow up the prom at the time; she’s admitted that much to me. You seriously didn’t know?”

“Hadn’t heard a word about it.”

“Oh. Sorry. I figured someone would have told you. That or she would have said something about it.” Dominique rubs at the back of his neck. “I mean, everyone knows. It’s why no one talks to her. You noticed how she sits off by herself in all her classes, right?”

“I only have the one with her.”

“Oh, right, English.”

“Yeah. Hey.” Trent licks his lips. “How long’s she been cutting herself?”

“Oh shit, is she doing that again?” Dominique sighs again and looks up into the night sky. “Goddammit, I wonder if she stopped taking her meds again.”

Once Noelle returns from her piss, they remain a trio for the rest of the evening. Noelle and Dominique make small talk, with nary a mention of the topics touched on by the elephant ear stand, and Trent mostly keeps his mouth shut and holds Noelle’s hand when they go on the rides. None of his subtle hints to Dominique that he’d like a little alone time with Noelle seem to get through the senior classman’s skull, or if they do, Dominique doesn’t give a damn that he’s, well, not cockblocking Trent so much as inadvertently saving Noelle’s life, but it’s still damn annoying.

By the time Dominique offers Noelle a ride home (since it’s on the way anyway, he says), Trent’s all but given up on ever eating this delicious-smelling but terminally crazy little treat. He drives the Maverick back to the motel alone, musing on all the little signs he missed, and slips into bed thinking that, if nothing else, this has been a hell of a learning experience and one that he can use as a guide when he revises the Edward System. Tomorrow he’ll move on to the next town, a little hungry but wiser for tonight’s debacle. The crazy bitch doesn’t know how lucky she is.

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