The perfume, p.1

The Perfume, page 1


The Perfume
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The Perfume

  The Perfume

  Caroline B. Cooney


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  A Biography of Caroline B. Cooney

  Chapter 1


  It was enough.


  The newspaper sprayed outward like a fan, and Dove’s hand cramped around it. Venom could be read between her fingers like rings.

  “Let me see that ad!” cried Connie. She peeled Dove’s fingers off as if this were a normal activity: Dove clinging to a newspaper and Connie ripping her hands away.

  Dove was a gentle girl, who dressed like her gentle name: soft cottons, soft colors. Folds of pale gray with white lace collars. Her voice was melodious and her friendships were affectionate.

  And yet, the word Venom attracted Dove like gravity. The newspaper seemed to bite her, like a paper viper.

  “Oh, wow!” cried Connie. “It’s a new perfume. I love perfumes! What a great name! I have Obsession. I have Poison. I want Venom, too.” Connie was always full of herself; she would say “I” half a dozen times in every speech. Sometimes Dove was not sure why she and Connie and Luce were such good friends.

  “What store is selling it?” asked Luce. She took the newspaper from them both and smoothed it out. “Dry Ice carries it.”

  “I love Dry Ice,” said Connie.

  Dry Ice carried the trendiest clothes, the funkiest costume jewelry, the craziest colors, and the sickest T-shirt slogans. Bins of solid carbon dioxide, safely hidden from customers’ exploring fingers, wafted clouds of vapor into the air. Through mist, you entered the shop, and once inside you could not see back out. You shopped in fog. When you left, your hair sparkled like morning dew and your skin felt damp and moldy.

  Dove never went into Dry Ice without a shiver of fear. The store spoke to her, its voice curling out from under the smoke. I’m waiting for you, Dove … I’ve always been waiting for you, Dove … this store was built for you … it’s only a matter of time.

  “Let’s go to the mall after school,” said Connie, “and check out Dry Ice and see what Venom looks like.”

  I cannot be afraid of a store, Dove told herself. I am nearly sixteen.

  Of course, being nearly sixteen had not broken Dove’s habit of looking under the bed each night to be sure nothing was there. With the hall light on and the bedroom ceiling light on, Dove would crouch in the doorway of her room after brushing her teeth and quickly peer under the bed. No floor-length bed ruffles for Dove. She needed a clear view across the room. It only took a moment, and there never was anything under the bed.

  She had not skipped the nightly check in years.

  You never knew.

  “You don’t look at perfume, silly,” said Luce. “You smell it.” Luce was short for Lucinda, which Luce considered the crummiest name her parents could possibly have selected. (“I might as well be Irmengarde,” Luce would say glumly, “or Hulda.”)

  Luce wore a black knit pullover with a black cotton shirt over it, and black jeans. Luce liked black. Dove owned none. Black was death and night and traps in the dark. Black made Dove’s heart shrink, as if her heart were losing weight and would become fragile, and no longer pump blood.

  “Venom,” repeated Connie.

  The word clasped Dove like tiny teeth. She almost wanted to scrape it off her mind. Dove shivered, and then shook her head very slightly, freeing it from the word. But instead of leaving her, the word split into two, and bothered her even more, like a cell dividing. Ven—om.

  “I’ll drive, of course,” said Luce. Luce had her own car and loved driving. She especially loved driving to the mall, because it involved back roads that twisted and highways with shrieking trucks and tricky left turns across traffic.

  Dove was not as fond of the mall as Luce and Connie were, but she enjoyed circling the long halls, taking the sparkly glass escalators up to glittering layers of shops. She would pretend to be rich, going into dress shops to feel the fabrics, and hold the lovely gowns against herself, and stare in the mirrors, with as many dreams as Cinderella.

  “I’m not going,” said Dove. “Thanks, anyway.” She almost thrilled to her own words: how strong she was. What a relief to know she could refuse her best friends. She was no weakling who followed wherever anybody led.

  “Because it’s Dry Ice?” said Luce, rolling her eyes.

  “You’re so weird, Dove,” said Connie, giggling. “You can’t be afraid of a store. Come on. I wanna look at Venom.”

  “Smell it,” corrected Luce again.

  But Connie was right. The perfume would have shape and form and texture. They really would look at it. “I don’t think I want to go,” said Dove. The creepy tremor came over her again, but on the inside, like something crawling upside down within her skull.

  Connie was bored and full of pity, as if spending time on Dove required an effort Connie would shortly stop making. As if Dove were a burden rather than a pleasure. Connie simply propelled Dove ahead of her, toward Luce’s car, a prison matron changing cell assignments.

  Dove had a weird sense that she did not know Connie: had never known her, in spite of being in class together since nursery school. Connie’s long dark hair, neither straight nor curly, but ruffled and tangled, seemed an impenetrable mass of threads, hiding the real Connie. Connie’s simple denim shirt, with its gleaming silver buttons, was open at the front to reveal a gaudy T-shirt in hot pink and orange. Connie suddenly seemed very complex to Dove: a girl both tangled and smooth.

  A stranger.

  “Really,” said Dove. “I have a lot of homework. No time to go to the mall.” Her hands were cold, her face hot. Her mind felt queerly crowded.

  Connie hauled Dove toward Luce’s car.

  Dove tried to laugh, but the laugh didn’t come. “Maybe I’ll look in Sears while you’re in Dry Ice,” said Dove.

  “Sears?” repeated Luce. “What—are you insane? Washing machines and lawn mowers? Dove Bar!”

  Her nicknames annoyed Dove deeply. “Don’t call me Dove Bar,” she said.

  “Then don’t be an idiot,” said Connie, who had never received a nickname and was jealous of a friend who had so many. “Just come with us.”

  Luce’s car was a tiny little thing: as flimsy as a can of peas and about the same color. The seats were extremely hard, as if the assembly line had forgotten to pad the metal—just glued vinyl straight to the steel. Luce drove fiercely, shifting gears like throwing sticks of dynamite. Connie fidgeted with the radio. She was a radio freak who was never satisfied and punched her way through stations.

  Dove sat in the back, tossed up and down on the unyielding seat no matter how tightly she yanked the safety belt.

  The parking lot of the mall was jammed.

  To Dove, parking lots were like cemeteries.

  Empty spaces were white rectangles waiting for metal coffins.

  Once she had gone to day camp. Every morning the bus took the children from the pickup on South Main six miles to the camp at Slick Lake. Its route passed a cemetery. “Don’t breathe!” somebody would shout. “It’s bad luck to breathe when you’re going past dead people.”

  Dove had nev
er been able to hold her breath long enough. She would always have to breathe before they were past the tombstones.

  “What will happen to me?” she had said anxiously to her mother one day.

  “Oh, Dovey, don’t be such a dumbo,” her mother said crossly. “That’s the oldest nonsense in the book. That’s like being afraid there’s something under the bed.”

  This did not comfort the child who knew—had always known—that someday there would indeed be something under the bed.

  Full parking lots, on the other hand, were doom: the end of the world.

  Metal boxes, which only a moment ago had been full of people and chatter and beating hearts, were now locked, hard and identical.

  Dove could not bear things that matched. Identical objects seemed to accuse her of some crime, because she could not distinguish between them. She could not look at them. She knew she would spend a portion of her adult life wandering through huge parking lots, trying to remember where she had left her car, what her car looked like, why she had ever come to the mall, what the purpose of her life was.

  I am Dove Daniel, she said to herself. I am a nice person. I have brown hair and brown eyes and Timmy O’Hay thinks I’m cute. Of course he hasn’t done anything about it, but that’s a boy for you. I don’t have to worry about the purpose of my life and I don’t have to worry about how to find the car afterward, because Luce always remembers where she left the car.

  In the front seat, Connie fluffed her tangled hair off her neck, and Luce tipped the visor to study herself in the mirror on the back of it.

  For a moment Dove did not know who they were. She seemed to be looking at photographs in somebody else’s yearbook: the backs of anonymous teenagers.

  They parked. Luce tilted back the passenger seat to let Dove crawl out.

  “Let’s look in the pet shop,” Dove offered. She wanted to touch long-haired dogs, listen to screeching parrots, watch shimmering fish.

  “No, dummy, listen up,” said Connie. “We’re going into Dry Ice. Venom. Isn’t that perfect? Don’t you love it? Venom.” She said the V long and hard. A wasp stinging. Dove was stung by fear.

  “Is there an antidote?” asked Luce.

  Luce and Connie giggled.

  “Serum to save yourself from your own perfume,” agreed Connie. “We should write the manufacturer.”

  They were in the mall, passing the neon-bright store guide, passing the smells of pizza and cinnamon and grease from the Food Court, gliding up the escalator whose glass walls were caught with diamond sparkles.

  Toward the third level, the vapor from Dry Ice oozed out into the mall.

  A cologne of terror invaded Dove’s mouth. “If I go in there, I won’t dare breathe,” she said to her friends. “If that perfume goes into my lungs, it’ll get into my bloodstream.”

  The vapor worked its way toward Dove. It wrapped itself around Dove’s ankles and she kicked at it, trying to free herself.

  Luce howled with laughter. “You are so weird, Dove Bar!”

  They pushed her into the shop first. The queer thick damp of the carbon dioxide vapor steamed her hair.

  Dove could hardly see the display cases. If there were salespeople, they were invisible in the thick fog of their own making.

  Her lungs screamed for air. Her heart hurt and her head ached, demanding oxygen. Good old breathing material.

  Connie was trying on the new perfume.

  Dove could actually see the fragrance coming, borne on the sick white vapor from the dry ice. She could taste it. It went right to her chest, leaping across the barriers of cell and membrane, and entering her blood.

  It wrapped itself around her heart.


  It was primitive and dark.

  It went back before history. Before civilization or time. Before sanity.

  Let go my heart, thought Dove. Please! Let go my heart.

  “What a great container!” exclaimed Connie, holding up the bottle.

  The glass was translucent, like an unpolished diamond, hiding its contents. It was shaped like a snake. Connie held it to her chest, and Dove thought of Egypt, and pyramids, and Cleopatra holding an asp to her bosom, standing still and elegant while it bit her. Dying of the venom.

  “I don’t really like the smell, though, do you?” asked Connie.

  “It’s interesting,” said Luce, frowning, “but not …” Luce had no words for this scent. She said, “You know …” which is what people say when they don’t, and neither do you. “It’s not very attractive, is it?” she said finally.

  Dove reached for the open snake. She told her hand not to, but it went forward anyway, clasped the glass, and lifted it to her face.

  Two vapors entered her body: the dry ice and the perfume.

  “Are you going to get it, Dove Bar?” asked one of her friends.

  She could not tell them apart anymore. Nor remember their names.

  The store gloated. We knew we would get you, said the store. Didn’t we tell you it was only a matter of time?

  Dove felt that her life had been a prelude to this moment.

  Had never counted until this breath of perfume.


  Whose venom? thought Dove. What bit me?

  And she knew that tonight, at last, there would be something under the bed.

  Chapter 2


  Tailored gray and white, the condominiums marched up and over a steep jut of land, from which both sunrise and sunset could be admired.

  Sky Change Hills.

  It was one of those foolish development names, like Rockrimmon Valley, when there were no rocks, no rims, and no valley. Or Fox Hollow, when there had been neither foxes nor hollows in two generations.

  And yet the sky did change, and it seemed to Dove that it changed more often and more vividly than anywhere else, the way autumn leaves in New England are more scarlet, or more orange, than anywhere else.

  Today the sky was also gray, with rims of pale clouds, like swathes of uncut satin, softly folding to the horizon. The color match between the condominium units and the sky was so exact that one filtered into the other with only a change in texture: hard building, soft sky.

  The sun must still exist in the universe, but there was no sign of it: No piece of sky was bright; nothing glowed; nothing struggled to pierce the gray.

  Luce, as always, let Dove out at the narrow guard box. Her car was so low-slung, she couldn’t drive over the speed bumps. Nobody ever manned the guard box. It was just there to hold flowerpots. It was early in the spring, and the flowerpots had been planted but had not bloomed; but at least the pots were terra-cotta, a warm dark Mediterranean brown.

  Connie got out to let Dove out. Dove emerged with her heavy navy-blue book bag in one hand, and a tiny shopping bag in the other. It was made of heavy slick paper with the Dry Ice emblem on it, and the handles were silky cords with tassels. White tissue paper peeked out the top, brushing against Dove’s wrist. The perfume bottle hardly weighed a thing.

  “I can’t believe you actually bought the Venom,” said Connie. “I mean, I love the name of it, too, but a person wouldn’t actually wear that stuff.”

  “Subtle, Connie,” said Luce, giggling. “She’s not going to wear it, are you, Dove Bar? If she did, she’d have to change her whole wardrobe and her whole personality. That is not the perfume for a cooing dove.”

  I’m the same color as the sky and the buildings, thought Dove. I might vaporize even as we stand here, diffuse like the perfume into all that gray.

  “’Bye!” called Luce, revving the engine.

  “See ya!” shouted Connie, rolling down the window and waving.

  Dove seemed unable to think of anything to say, as if Dry Ice had drained away her vocabulary. She smiled at them vaguely, but they didn’t see, didn’t care, were already driving off, consumed with whatever new topic they had launched.

  I’m all alone, thought Dove.

  And yet
she felt strangely occupied, like a couch with a person sitting there.

  The condominiums seemed to look at each other and shrug knowingly, exchanging glances above Dove’s head.

  But they were new, these buildings. They had no history, no past. How could they know anything at all? They had lived through only one winter.

  Like row upon row of identical twins, every Levolor blind lying evenly inside every neat window, the units were bland as pieces of paper.

  Not one of them was a home. They were a huge indistinguishable litter of front doors.

  Dove walked among them like a stranger selling cosmetics.

  Where do I live? thought Dove, trembling.

  Dark doors looked at her, no expressions on them, no interest; slabs of wood painted slate gray.

  The air was raw and mean. Spring had collapsed; had let winter pierce it like a pin in a balloon. There was no safety in spring. Spring could double back and vanish into winter without giving notice. I hate seasons, thought Dove. You cannot trust a season.

  She swallowed.

  What number is our unit? she thought, lost in her own home territory.

  Even the numbers seemed identical. Too high. Too many digits. Was it 11881? Was it 11331? Was it 88118?

  She walked for some time. She could not tell if she had circled the entire complex once, or twice, or if she were only halfway around. She could not even tell if she had been anywhere at all.

  Suddenly, her heart did something anatomically impossible. It made a double beat. She looked down at her chest.

  The heart did it again.

  It was not that her pulse was going faster.

  Her heart had doubled.

  Dove set down her book bag and extracted her purse.

  Seventh grade—the first year Dove carried a purse—she had been so thrilled with the opportunity to bring necessities with her that she had used a purse large enough for her entire life: an overnight bag of a purse. The joy of lugging this around palled and now, each season, her purse grew smaller. As she drew closer to sixteen—magical number; infinitely older than callow fifteen—she was down to a slim rectangle on a thin leather rope: a bright tapestry of colors, like a pile of autumn leaves. These were not her usual bland colors, and they gave her hope that the real Dove, the bright and shimmering Dove, might emerge on that magic birthday and stun the world.

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