The Sand Dollar

“There are mermaids in the water,” Pa always began. This was the preface to my brother’s favorite story.

Pa would tell us how, if you were still and silent long enough at the edge of the dock, you could spy the shimmering green-gray of their fish tails as they flashed and disappeared. He said this mysterious disturbance near the water’s surface was the mermaids satisfying their curiosity about us, the air creatures. The reason no one ever saw them, he said, was that they could swim faster than the fastest horse could run. All they had to do was flick their tails and they could dart out of sight as quick as you please.

“Where do they go?” My brother would ask.

Pa would lower his voice and hunch forward in his chair, as if he was telling us a secret. “Back across the sandy plain, through the fields of kelp, down the tumbled rock mountain to their sunken palace, made from a grand ship that foundered hundreds of years ago.”

It wasn’t hard to imagine. The sea near our small fishing village had a mystic quality born of the sea shanties and folktales that circulated endlessly. The stories were mostly about mermaids, but there were also some about selkies, sea serpents, and the lady in white who walked the sands of the bay at low tide, keening for her love long lost at sea.

My little brother believed in these tales implicitly. He would sit at my father’s knee, wide-eyed, as Pa wove magic with his voice. I would join them by the fireside on chilly autumn nights when my mother and I had finished washing dishes. The warm firelight bathed the small front room of our cottage in a flickering glow. Pa would sit in his favorite chair, his figure made mythic in stature by the gigantic shadow silhouetted on the wall behind him. The rising and falling cadence of his words entranced me, but I wasn’t as gullible as my brother. I interrupted with impertinent questions, or loudly made noises of disbelief when he came to a part that tried my patience. My brother, meanwhile, would glare at me with his sea-gray eyes and wave his hands for silence so he could properly listen. He loved those stories. To him they weren’t make-believe.

If my father was a born storyteller, my brother was a born dreamer. I, on the other hand, was a skeptic. “Maggie would not see a mermaid even if one slapped her in the face with its tail,” my brother would say. “She has no magic.”

My pa would laugh, big and booming, and ruffle my curls. “She needs evidence, my Maggie. She don’t trust her eyes alone. As willful as the sea, this one!”

The damp air clung to my skirt and made my skin clammy. My brother, who always led the way, darted in and out of the haze like a ghost.

On misty mornings when my father was fishing, my mother would send my brother and me to take him an early lunch. The docks would be wet, and on calm days, the sea beyond the bobbing boats would be as smooth as glass. The waves would make a gentle lapping sound, like a dog drinking water. We would race to where my father anchored his small wooden boat, weaving our way through the mist. The damp air clung to my skirt and made my skin clammy. My brother, who always led the way, darted in and out of the haze like a ghost. We would eat with my father on the dock, our legs swinging a few feet above the water, my brother’s face smeared with the gravy from our mother’s best meat pasties. Afterward Pa would row back out to sea, the mist closing around him like a giant’s hand. “Look after Moony,” he would call to me. “And mind you’re home in time to help with chores.”

We had an hour or two, then, before the mists evaporated and it was time to return to our cottage on the cliff. I would troll the beach for pretty stones for my mother or, better yet, sea glass for my collection. Meanwhile, my brother would sit motionless at the edge of the dock, staring into the depths and waiting for his mermaid. I was often hard-pressed to tear him away when it was time to go home.

“C’mon, Ma’s going to be angry if we’re late again.”

“But Maggie…” He never gave me a good enough reason to risk the anger of our mother, and my impatience made me bossy.

“Hush, you. Come!”

He would drag his feet all the way back. No matter how much I chided or yanked on his arm, he would always pause, over and over, to stare longingly at the sea.

“That boy is somewhere else,” my ma would say. “Sometimes I think he would fly out the window if I let him.”

“Moony’s always mooning,” Pa would reply. Ma would never have anything to say in return. Instead, she would look at my brother — his hazy blond halo of hair, his small grubby hands — and a wondering would be in her eyes.

On a day when the mists were almost opaque, when the sea was blue-green one minute, roiling charcoal the next, I was longer than usual on the beach. My father had given me a sand dollar, and it so fascinated me I became determined to add to its number. My eyes scoured the shore, but I made sure to lift my head every now and then to look for the tiny speck that was my brother at the end of the dock, unidentifiable but for the red of his favorite sweater my mother had knitted. He was a bright dot against the gray of the shifting water beyond, which was getting choppier as the wind intensified. The crests of the waves were as white as bone.

I recalled our conversation from earlier that morning. It had been Moony and I standing at the crossroads of our two separate, well-trodden paths. “Come to the dock today,” he had said, his eyes shining. His voice still held onto the sweet notes of babyhood. “I want to show you something.”

I brushed him off. “What? And watch you mope and daydream all afternoon? No thanks. Besides, I have something important to do.”

“Please, Maggie, I have something to show you—” his small hand reached for my own.

Annoyed, I had shrugged out of his grasp. “Get off! I told you, I don’t have time for your nonsense. I’ll come for you when it’s time to go home.” As I turned and trotted off toward the beach, the wind carried away his shrill protests and tossed them out to sea.

I crouched in a scientist’s pose to unearth a perfect sand dollar. The bleached white skeleton was smooth and cool in my palm.

Soon enough, I forgot all about him. My search up and down the beach was the only thought in my head. The shore was a kaleidoscope of hues: the bigger rocks that were all shades of cloudy gray, watercolor blue and wispy lavender, leading to the thin strip of fine sediment just out of reach of the white foam of the receding tide. This was where I might find my sand dollar.

It was a long time before I spied treasure, a white edge protruding from the sand. I descended upon my bounty with zeal, stumbling over the rocks in my sturdy boots. I crouched in a scientist’s pose to unearth a perfect sand dollar. The bleached white skeleton was smooth and cool in my palm. I held it close to my eyes, poring over every angle.

When the wind started tossing my curls wildly about my head, I realized the mist had gone. We were going to be home late. Worse, I looked up the beach and saw I had gone too far—my point of orientation, my brother’s red sweater, wasn’t visible. Clouds were building themselves into monsters on the horizon, and the waves thundered onto the beach and ravaged the stone and sand. With these portents warning me, I started back, walking quickly.

As I neared the docks, my stomach dropped. Distance hadn’t obscured my brother from my sight; rather, he wasn’t there at all.

I began to run. The slippery rocks tripped me up, making my steps slow and floundering. The gale blowing in from the ocean slammed into me, as if it wanted to stop me. I ran against it and panted, tasting the briny salt in the air from the churning sea. All the while, my eyes were scanning the harbor for that dot of red.

I reached the last dock and ran full speed down its length, my pace finally able to match my urgency. I skidded straight to the edge, eyes wild, blood roaring through my veins. The sea crashed below me. White spray misted my arms and face. I screamed his name, but the wind ripped it from my throat and snatched it away. My eyes darted to the sea, to the swells coming in so high that they lapped over the dock and soaked my boots. Like the dock, the sea was empty. No small shape floated in its icy grasp, but I was not comforted.

My legs carried me away before I knew what I was about. Fueled by panic, I ran back down the dock, my footsteps pounding on the rotting wood. I flew up the hill to the cottage cliffs. The harbor and the village were merely a blur as I passed; they might as well have not existed. The wind pinched my face and dried the tracks of tears on my cheeks. I sprinted into our yard, warm all over. The muscles of my legs felt spongy and insubstantial. I could still hear the sea roaring like a caged animal, a wild thing no one could ever tame.

She was about to bend over to retrieve the wash basket, but I saw something register with her, something automatic. Only one child safe home — not two.

My mother was ripping the wash from the line. She saw me out of the corner or her eye and yelled, “Maggie, get inside, a storm’s coming!” She was about to bend over to retrieve the wash basket, but I saw something register with her, something automatic. Only one child safe home — not two. In a second, she turned toward me, her eyes skimming the road behind me as if she expected him to come loping along. He was always late, always falling behind.

“Where’s your brother?” she shouted, a frown pulling down the corners of her mouth.

I did not answer, not immediately. Her gaze latched onto my face; she had interpreted my pause instantly. Something was wrong. In another beat she took in my appearance — wild hair, bright red cheeks, tear-stained face.

She rushed at me and grabbed my shoulders. “Maggie, you’re scaring me. Where is he? Did something happen?”

The wind whipped around us. Ma’s words were lost to its howling, even though she was shouting in my face. Cold drops of rain started to pelt us, gaining in intensity with every second, though I could not even feel the chill of it. When I remained silent, Ma shook my shoulders. “Maggie!”

The litany in my head was screaming at me. It had kept up a constant refrain ever since my race up the beach: My fault. My fault. The truth exploded out of me. “He’s gone!” I sobbed. I felt myself reeling, becoming hysterical. My fault. My fault. My baby brother, barely old enough to read.

As my mother’s panicked gaze turned to the ocean, the world around me closed in on itself until darkness enfolded me.

Days came and went, then weeks, in a slow agony of unfurling time. Pa and men from the village searched every crevasse of the bay and the shallows of the water. The women organized search parties to explore inland—a waste of time, but I kept such thoughts to myself. Ma cried herself to sleep most nights, and I sat a long vigil, staring out the window for a dot of red that never materialized.

The sorrow wouldn’t end. My little brother was gone. I blinked and he vanished, just as a character in the stories he loved. The only problem was, as he himself had once said, I had no magic in me. My father’s tales were no more than words. My brother had disappeared, and there was nothing to believe but that he had drowned in the angry sea.

* * *

It was a long time before I could return to the harbor. I became a stranger to the docks and the beach. I did not even go back to look for my beloved specimens. The sea had betrayed me. I hated its changeable nature, its willfulness. I hated the folktales of the village and their superstitions. I buried my head in science books and waited for the day when I could escape everything, including my guilt. I grew older, but my brother’s shadow haunted me. My parents did not blame me, but an old refrain niggled in a tiny place in the back of my mind: My fault. My fault.

The time finally came when I was set to leave for the city. My devotion to my studies had secured me a scholarship at the university. I would study marine biology from a safe distance, through books and papers and lectures. I couldn’t wait to leave the seaside behind. Every crash of the ocean, every whisper of the tide coming in, reminded me of my brother, and I wanted nothing more than to forget.

I brought my father lunch for the last time when he rowed in from fishing—my mother’s famous meat pasties tucked in a basket. The day was calm. We sat together at the edge of the dock and ate, just like old times. Memories swarmed around us, the past edging its way in. Where our two sets of legs dangled over the dock, there had once been three. I couldn’t help thinking: he would have been taller than a post, our mooning Moony, with awkward hands and gigantic feet like Pa. Instead, the past froze him; he would never be taller than the height of my shoulder when I was ten years old, a little boy with dream-dust in his eyes.

Pa was different now. His booming laughs had long since quieted, and his stories had all but dried up. We were mostly silent as we sat eating our lunch. Still, when he rowed back out over the water, there was a faint glimmer of a twinkle in his eye. Grief had not completely put out his fire. He had one last thing to say to me before his boat disappeared into the fog, one final nudge before I surrendered myself to an inland life.

“The sea is a willful thing,” he called over his shoulder. “Don’t go just because you can’t forgive it. Your brother wouldn’t want it.”

I didn’t answer. I waved until he was lost to my sight, then stood looking out to sea for a long, long time.

It wasn’t a cold day, but the wind was chilly. I was just turning to leave, my mind on hot tea, when I saw it: a shimmer beneath the undulation of the waves—a flash quicker than a blink. I gaped, stared, and dropped to my knees, my hands braced on the rough, rotting wood of the dock. My eyes searched the sea, doubt coloring my heart. The stories—the stories I had never believed in—was it possible?

As if to answer my question, I saw something floating a few feet out, something I was sure hadn’t been there before. I strained my arm, reaching, my muscles tensed all the way down to my fingertips. I barely snagged the thing. As I pulled it from the icy water, I realized it was some sort of clothing.

A sweater—faded and soggy beyond recognition, but not to me.

My heart pounded in my ears as I stared at the impossible thing in my hands. The wool was heavy with dampness, and the fibers were coming apart. Once it had been red, like the freshest cherries of spring. There was a hole under the armpit, the one Ma had patched hundreds of times, once just big enough for a tiny finger to wiggle through, now stretched out long and thin. I turned the cloth over, automatically searching for the tiny breast pocket. My mother added this detail to all his shirts, because he had loved to stow miniature treasures.

There it was. My two trembling fingers just fit inside.

It wasn’t empty. Out of the pocket, I plucked a tiny sand dollar.

Tears wet my eyelashes as I sat riveted on the edge of the dock, the very place where my life had split in two. I turned my face toward the ocean and felt the salt breeze kiss my face and tangle my hair. I let my gaze move out to sea, clutching the soaking sweater in my lap. I held the sand dollar in my fist so tightly I could feel it leaving an imprint on my palm.

My grief ebbed like the tide. It was there that I finally believed.

Alyssa Erichsen earned her B.A. in English literature, and is currently a graduate student of library and information science at San Jose State University’s SLIS. Beyond writing, she loves hoarding books, befriending wayward cats, and exploring the great outdoors. As a lifelong, land-locked Midwesterner, she has always been fascinated by the coast and its folklore. The Sand Dollar is a result of that.

The Arf Thing

The counselor’s room is never still. It is churning pipes and an hour-off ticking clock and Friends Care! posters flapping on paint-thick walls and a heat of stories pushing themselves forward, tangling around each other. The students wiggle, fidget, shake in the armchair, as if fighting off their own words.

*     *     *

Mary Beth

Are you mad at me? Please don’t get mad at me because this is totally a tiny thing gone really, really wrong. It’s so stupid how it started, like dumb in a way that I’m embarrassed to even talk about it’s so dumb. It’s not even my fault—it’s all my stupid dog’s fault. My dog GC. I know—it’s a weird name, but his real name is weirder. George Clooney? Yeah, my mom’s cra-zy. Anyway, GC is dog-friends with my neighbor’s dog Lucky—like, they chase each other and stuff. And sometimes Lucky stays at our house because his owner works and my mom doesn’t.

So remember the snow day back in January? Really close to the end of the month? I was home that day, and at one point I went into the kitchen to get a Pop Tart, and there was GC and Lucky, just … um. I don’t even know how to say this. They were, you know … having dog sex. It was so weird! And they’re both boy dogs, so on top of all that weirdness I was like “Oh my god! My dog is gay!”

I was telling my friends about it in math the next day. And they were laughing because it was funny. I mean, a gay dog is funny. So Nico Papadimos, he overheard us, and he’s the kind of guy who even makes the teachers laugh. And did this thing where he made his hand all limp and said “arf” in this way, I can’t even do it, but we couldn’t stop laughing.

It was about a dog, though. I didn’t even know they were doing the “arf” thing to Adam Mavis. Not for a while, at least. And when I finally saw them doing it, I was really confused. Because I thought the whole thing was just about my dog.

*     *     *

Katie

You might not believe this, but Adam Mavis was always so happy. Like, too happy. With a roadrunner smile that’s stupid and too wide. And he didn’t have any reason to be. No one liked him.

Even though people were sticking out their feet to trip him and stuff. He always smiled at the worst times, when no one else ever would.

He sat behind me in a bunch of classes, all the ones with alphabet seating. In the back of the row, the very last seat. So I’d get the lucky view of him marching back to his seat with that smile. Even though people were sticking out their feet to trip him and stuff. He always smiled at the worst times, when no one else ever would.

And his laugh! His laugh drove us crazy. Everyone in my class. It was too loud and too long, like it came straight from a kids cartoon. Every time a teacher called on me and I got the wrong answer, he’d burst out with it. That stupid laugh. All the teacher would have to do is say, “Not quite, Katie,” and he’d be gone.

My friends stuck up for me. They’d say, “Shut up, Adam!” and “He’s so stupid” but he’d just laugh louder, to piss us all off. And I wanted to die because even the biggest loser in the school made fun of me. Even he noticed that I’m stupid.

So you get it, right? How it felt kind of good to turn around and say, “Hey Adam,” and do the hand thing and say “arf” all gay? How it made me smile to hear the sound of everyone else laughing at him, to see that stupid smile wiped off his face.

*     *     *

Nico

You ever seen a Ben Stiller movie? That guy is the man. Really—he’s the man! He’s shrimpy and ugly but he still gets all the girls. And you know how he gets them? With his jokes.

I’m kind of like the Ben Stiller of middle school. Now, I’m not saying I’m ugly. But I am just a little bit short. So how do I still have girlfriends? Think about it.

It’s a Papadimos thing. My brothers and I—we give each other crap all the time. My brother calls me a faggot like fifty times a day. Everyone around me, my whole life, jokes like that. People don’t stop me ‘cause they know it’s for fun. It’s just for fun.

So here’s this fat dude, who even teachers don’t like because he blurts out the answers before they can call on people—I’m serious. Sometimes Adam would try to, like, control himself, and he’d stretch his fat face in all these weird ways like he was constipated and stick his hand in the air and go “Oooooh! Oooooh!” You expect me not to say anything? That’s like gold, you know? I’m a Papadimos man. I see a basket, I gotta take a shot.

So I did—I mean, I took shots. And once I started doing the “arf” thing, it was like everyone was doing it. Everyone wants to be like me. But something else happened that … it’s kind of hard to explain … it was like … how everyone has to wait outside until first bell rings, and when the doors finally open it’s like the stampede in The Lion King, you know? Everyone tries to rush in all at once. The “arf” thing was like that.

Kids started throwing stuff at his head. Spitballs and stuff, then it got crazier, like soda cans and shoes in classes where they could get away with it. People did the gay cough whenever he shouted out answers. You know, where you pretend to cough but you actually say “gay” under your breath? Charlie Wiltham especially did that—every chance he got. And someone wrote “arf” on Adam’s locker in permanent marker or something. Took him forever to clean it off, and then whoever it was just wrote it again. People think it was me, but I still don’t know who did it. Whoever did was; he’s the man. I don’t know how he snuck around everyone like that.

Really, I didn’t do anything. All I did was say “arf” until the locker thing happened. Then I needed to up my game, you know? But mostly, it was everyone else. I guess they all really hated Adam Mavis.

*     *     *

Sara

Adam wasn’t always like this. He wasn’t. When we were little, he was a totally normal kid. He’s my neighbor, and back then, we were friends. We used to bike together in my driveway and hold races in my backyard with all these crazy rules. You see? We did normal kid stuff.

He was better than normal to play pretend with, though. Better than all of my other friends. We used to play this game where … well, don’t tell anyone I told you this, but we pretended my backyard was a secret land called … please don’t tell anyone I said this … Adsaria.

Like Narnia, but with our names worked in—A-D for Adam, and “sar” for Sara.

Weird, right? But it was so much fun. In Adsaria, we were knights who fought beasts, and we imagined that the beasts were gold and had wings like statues in a museum. One day Adam said, “You know what their faces look like? Like those Halloween mask faces, the white ones with hole-eyes and mouths pulled down into a scream.” And picturing that, those scream faces on top of gold, winged beast bodies—it gave me nightmares.

That was Adam, though. He could just come up with things like that. With whole entire worlds.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess I wanted you to know that Adam had a friend. That not everyone hated him.

I was in the classroom when he went up to Charlie Wiltham. I was making up a quiz—I’d missed science because of band rehearsal. So did Charlie. I think there were around eight of us there.

But Adam wasn’t in band. He hadn’t missed the test, but he was in the classroom anyway, opening his lunch bag. Watching him, I realized that this was his place to eat. He didn’t eat in the cafeteria. And I mean it wasn’t my fault that people were mean to him, but knowing that he couldn’t even eat with anyone made me really sad. It made me think about Adsaria.

Charlie was bent over his quiz. He didn’t see Adam standing behind him with that open cup of yogurt in his hand.

That’s when I noticed Adam standing behind Charlie’s desk. I hadn’t even seen him walk over there, he’d been so sneaky. Charlie was bent over his quiz. He didn’t see Adam standing behind him with that open cup of yogurt in his hand.

It was amazing. Adam had this grin on his face when he dumped the yogurt on Charlie—not his usual weird grin, but an actual real one, a mean one, like he knew Charlie totally deserved it. But it was a crazy thing to do. Charlie’s a jerk, but there’s a reason why people don’t dump things on his head all the time. He’s on the wrestling team. And Adam had to know that. He wasn’t stupid. But maybe he didn’t care? Maybe he thought he’d risk anything to get a shot at Charlie, that it would be worth what he got in return? I don’t know. Maybe he just wanted to get hurt.

Because Charlie hurt him. I mean, at first he just sat there with his mouth hanging open and yogurt pouring down his head like volcano lava. And then I guess he got mad at us laughing, and he stood up and started yelling things to Charlie. Words I … I don’t even like to say them. He said “faggot” a lot.

And Adam just stood there. He didn’t step back. It even took awhile for his smile to shrink. He just stared at Charlie, like he was in fighting position but he’d forgotten what to do next.

*     *     *

Miss Spitzer

I don’t know why I’m even here. The administration has already reamed me out for this, and they’ve gotten what they wanted. I lock my classroom door during lunch period now.

No one is allowed inside.

All I wanted to do was provide a safe space. I opened my classroom up to students who didn’t feel safe in the lunchroom. And yes, I realize that they could have reported their issues to the principal instead, but the kids don’t always feel comfortable admitting that sort of thing. And yes, technically, make-up tests are supposed to be held after school, but a lot of the kids have after school activities, hence the lunch period make-up.

What was I supposed to do? I have five classes a day, and I’m involved in extra help sessions during my free period. Lunch is, frankly, the only time I have to use the bathroom and retrieve my food from the teacher’s lounge. I’d only left the room for ten minutes. Ten minutes max. And I trusted the students that stayed to respect the environment I’d created for them. I really did.

When I walked in and saw Charlie punching Adam, naturally, the first thing I did was pull them apart and call security. I was on automatic. But once they were taken from the classroom, I almost cried. I’m telling you, I have never cried in front of my students.

In that moment, though, all I could think was: you spend so much time with these kids, and you don’t really know them at all.

*     *     *

Charlie

He was always looking at me. Adam Mavis. I could feel his eyes on me sometimes in class even though we usually sat across the room. I think he had a gay crush on me.

So I had to give him crap, you know? So he wouldn’t think I liked it or I was gay too or anything. The last thing I need is for people to think I’m gay when I’m not. My parents—you don’t know them. It wouldn’t even matter that I’m not. If they even heard a rumor, they’d go crazy. Crazy.

I never meant to hurt him, but then, I never expected him to pour yogurt on my head. I mean, what was I supposed to do? He just stood there with that creepy, demented smile. I didn’t even punch him hard. A soft one-two. He didn’t even go down.

We got him back. I mean, I was in detention, but Nico Papadimos took care of it. He brought in this big thing of yogurt, like one of those tubs. And I was suspended for the fight so I didn’t see, but I heard that this girl Katie distracted Adam, called him a name so he was looking her way, while Nico snuck up behind him and dumped that whole tub all over his gay haircut.

The only reason we’re the ones getting blamed is because we’re kids. You don’t know what was happening in Adam Mavis’s brain.

But he deserved that. I mean, he did it to me first. People blame me for the fistfight, but really? He deserved that too. He dumped yogurt on me while I was taking a test.

The only reason we’re the ones getting blamed is because we’re kids. You don’t know what was happening in Adam Mavis’s brain. Or what his parents were like. But you can’t do anything about the parents. So you hear that Adam got into a fight, something that could’ve happened to any kid, and that’s all the proof you need to blame the kid he fought with. It was just a punch in the face. A punch in the face and half a food fight. Nobody would kill himself over something that small.

*     *     *

Bill

Look, I didn’t know Adam Mavis. Sure, he sat at my lunch table for the one week he spent in the cafeteria before he attempted suicide. But people at my table don’t talk to each other. Most of them are tools, stuck together ‘cause they like to eat alone. So aside from watching yogurt get dumped on him and having the whole cafeteria look at our table and laugh, I barely noticed Adam.

The only thing I remember was that he always got the cafeteria lunch. And ate it. He didn’t even seem grossed out. I mean, people drop our hot dogs to see how far they bounce, but no one in his right mind actually eats them.

When we first heard he attempted suicide, no one knew if he would make it. All we knew was that he was found around 3:00 in the afternoon in his bathroom. And that he’d taken a lot of pills. I remember thinking: I saw him eat his last meal. And then I thought: his last meal was a cafeteria hot dog.

You think I’m making fun of him? I’m not. But I don’t feel sorry for him. It’s not like no one makes fun of me. You know what everyone calls me? The Creeper. Just because of my coat, and I guess because I don’t smile. Those same people give me crap, Charlie and Nico and those idiots. You don’t see me trying to kill myself.

All week I’ve had to listen to those Friends Care people talk about bullying. You want to talk about creepers? They stand in front of our classes with those huge toothpaste smiles, saying things like, “Hey, kids! How do YOU think you can make your school bully-free?”

What a stupid question. When have you ever heard someone in middle school use the word “bully”? That’s because it’s a gay word. It’s too simple. A bully is like some cartoon character that takes little kids’ lunch money.

What happened with Adam Mavis—it was nothing like that. There were a bunch of kids flicking their hands and saying arf and laughing wherever he went. And there were even more kids who didn’t do it, but laughed when other people did. And then there were kids like me who tried to just ignore it, but didn’t say anything because it would’ve gotten us made fun of, too. No one was “The Bully.” Everyone was just an asshole.

*     *     *

Sara

Sorry to bug you again. I guess I’m here a lot these days. But I really wanted to tell you something—I visited Adam.

It was … well, it was awkward at first. He looked so different. Like smaller in that long bed and skinnier and, well, he wasn’t smiling. It was like seeing him when we were little, when we were friends, except this time he was attached to tubes, and all I could do was look back and forth from his skinniness to those tubes. I just kept thinking, this is Adam, and he wanted to die.

And I couldn’t believe it, even though I was there.

I said, “How are you?” because I needed to say something. It was awful. I mean, that’s normally an okay question but it’s a really stupid question if you’re in the hospital for attempted suicide.

He didn’t say anything back.

I just wanted to ask him why. Like, I know he was being made fun of, but if he had only laid low for a while and not called out answers or laughed at people, everyone probably would’ve forgotten all about the “arf” thing. Or even if they didn’t, there’s stuff he could’ve done. He could’ve transferred or something. There had to be something he could’ve done.

I had to keep talking, and once I started, I couldn’t really stop, but soon the things I said weren’t so bad. I just told him what he missed at school. Like how Miss Spitzer kicked Bill out of class the other day for cracking his knuckles because she’s scared of the noise. And how that eighth grader broke into the vending machine. I don’t know if Adam wanted to hear about school, but he seemed all right with it. I think he almost smiled when I told him the Spitzer story.

But he still didn’t say anything.

I’ve never known anyone who died and I hope Adam’s not the first. If he would only get better and come back to school, I swear I’d be his best friend. I’d hold his books and clean his locker and I wouldn’t care if people left me out or called me his girlfriend. I swear. And if Nico or Charlie or anyone else called him gay, I’d yell at them so much, it’d be like my words were the swords we pretended that we had in the Adsaria game. Really. I think. I think I’d do all of it.

My mom knocked on the door when it was time to go, and he was still quiet. I looked back at Mom in the little door window, then at Adam again. What could I say? How could I even say goodbye when he hadn’t said hello? What if it was the last time I was going to see him?

What if he never gets better?

“You know,” I finally said, because I had to say something real, “I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself.”

I wish I could tell you that brought him back to life. Or that it got a smile out of him, one of his old weird ones. But it didn’t. He just turned away from me, toward the little TV on the top of the wall. He stared at it with fixed attention, like he thought if he kept his eyes there for long enough, it would turn on and drown everything out.

Val HowlettVal Howlett recently earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she won a short story competition for this piece. She is also a proud member of the literary community The Secret Gardeners. She is currently working on a YA novel.

http://valhowlett.com/

Saturday Morning Pancakes

I’ve been trying to hold onto that perfect moment when you first wake up. In that moment nothing has substance. There is no conscious thought, just the bright light of a new day and you don’t remember anything at all. I’ve found if I hold my breath and don’t blink I can make that moment stretch for thirty or more seconds. Then it’s gone.

I lay in bed for a while. It’s Saturday. Saturday mornings, I used to wake to the sound of pots clanking together as Mom pulled the griddle out from underneath the rest of the pots and pans. When I was young, I’d leap out of bed to see if I could stir the batter or add the chocolate chips. As I got older, I’d cover my head with the quilt and snuggle in deeper until she finished, came to my room, and whispered into my ear, “Rise and shine, Porcupine. Breakfast is ready.” I miss those Saturdays.

I swing my legs over the side of the bed. The quilt slides to the floor where it will stay until I crawl back into bed. My homework—Sophomore English, Biology, and History—sits in undone piles on my desk. I don’t think any of my teachers actually expect me to do any of it. A dying mother for an excuse gets a lot of sympathy from. The Hello Kitty alarm clock I got for Christmas the year I was six says nine o’clock. Dad says it still works, so there’s no need for a new, less babyish clock.

She peeked at Mom’s room over her shoulder, like she expected the door to suddenly fly open and a ghost to grab her. She left after only a half hour and hasn’t been back.

I suppose it doesn’t matter. None of my friends come over anymore. They don’t know what to say or how to act. The last time Rachel was over, she didn’t speak above a whisper, like we were in a library. I had to keep asking her to repeat herself. She peeked at Mom’s room over her shoulder, like she expected the door to suddenly fly open and a ghost to grab her. She left after only a half hour and hasn’t been back.

I open the door. I hope I haven’t missed it. They told us at the family meeting in the hospital that most people die within twenty-four hours of going home for hospice care. Well, they didn’t say die, they said pass or something equally indirect, but they meant die. According to Hello Kitty, that leaves six hours. What if they’re off? Maybe it’s thirty-six or forty-eight hours and we’ll just be here waiting and waiting. I’m sure Dad didn’t sleep. He would have woken me if, well, just if, but my heart still races like I’m late for school as I head to the family room.

I stop in the doorway. Dad, eyes red-rimmed and glassy, wearing the same clothes he’s been in for two days, stares at the TV even though it isn’t on. Tommy—Thomas—he’s Thomas now that he’s in college. Thomas is on the other end of the couch holding his head in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. I can’t tell if his eyes are open under the mass of brown hair hanging in his face.

They don’t look at me, caught in their own heads, waiting. It hasn’t happened yet.

I join them on the couch, leaning back all the way and putting my hands between my legs. Like plucked chicken legs, Thomas always says, scrawny and white.

The morphine pump whirs. I wonder if the hospice nurse let her have more morphine. Mom can have as much as she wants. It’s only a matter of time, no need for her to feel any pain. I close my eyes. Her sigh breaks the silence and I picture her tiny body sink into the bed like I’ve seen so many times in the last few days and wonder if this will be the moment she relaxes forever.

I realize I’m holding my breath and let it out. The sound startles Dad. He shakes his head and pushes his thumb and first finger against the bridge of his nose.

I realize I’m holding my breath and let it out. The sound startles Dad. He shakes his head and pushes his thumb and first finger against the bridge of his nose. His lips press into a straight line. I imagine that’s as much of a smile as he can manage.

“Morning, Chelsea. Did you get any sleep?”

I shrug my shoulders. None of us sleeps anymore. “How is she?”

“Same.”

I nod. Dad goes back to staring at the TV. I stare at my knees, knobby with light stubble on them. I make a note to remember to shave them the next time I shower. I’ve always hated my legs, my knees especially. Mom says I’ll be grateful for skinny legs when I get older and I should be glad I didn’t get my dad’s athletic thighs. Athletic doesn’t age well. It becomes thick, tree trunk like. I will love my legs one day she says. I’ve been listening closely to what Mom says since she got sick the first time two years ago. Maybe it wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time I knew. When school let out that day, Mom wasn’t waiting. Rachel’s mom found me and told me Mom asked her to bring me home.

I heard the retching as soon as I walked through the door.

“Mom?” I asked, heading toward the noise in her bathroom.

I found her, kneeling in front of the toilet, puking. Water splashed back at her face and moistened her long hair. She vomited for a while. I stood in the doorway, turning away from the smell so I wouldn’t gag.

When she finished, she slumped to the floor, her back against the wall, eyes closed. She wiped her hand across her mouth, pulling her hair back over her shoulder. She sat for a moment before turning her head to look at me.

“Always have a friend to hold your hair back when you vomit,” she said.

She splashed water on her face at her the sink and grabbed her toothbrush. I went to my room. A few minutes later, she found me. We sat on my bed and she told me about the cancer for the first time. I blushed when she said breast, but I listened, really listened to her. I tried to soak in every word. I cried. She did too. I think I knew it was serious when she cried.

After that, I held her hair back for her until it started falling out in clumps in my hands and all over the house. We had a family day to shave her head. Dad, Thomas, and I crowded around her in the bathroom. Dad held the buzzing clippers over her head. Shaking his head, he set them down, wrapped his arms around Mom, and sobbed into her shoulders. Mom’s eyes welled with tears. She kissed Dad’s hand before grabbing the clippers and swiping them down the middle of her own head. My heart stopped for the seconds it took for the wispy blonde hair to float to the ground. We passed the clippers around. Dad, then Thomas, then me, each took a turn making Mom look like a cancer patient.

When it was completely shaved off, Mom pulled out a royal purple scarf and wrapped her head. She turned her head side to side, tucking in the scarf and looking in the mirror.

“I like the color. I think it brings out my eyes,” she said.

Thomas went to his room and closed the door. Dad put his hands on her shoulders.

“You look beautiful,” he said with a hint of a smile on his face.

No she doesn’t, I thought. I wanted to scream it. She looks horrible. She looks like she’s dying.

Instead, I offered to clean up. Kneeling on the ground amid the hair clumps, I spread the hair out. I picked some up, looking at the hair I always wished I had. Not wanting to just throw it away.

“Let it go, Chelsea,” Mom said. “It’s just hair.”

I found myself on the bathroom floor crying while my sick mother comforted me.

We never had to shave her hair again. The chemo kept her head smooth. We bought other scarves, black, brown, grey, white, thinking she might want a variety, but she mostly stuck with the purple. She said it made her feel good. It’s important to wear things that make you feel good, she told me.

It’s been a few weeks since she stopped the chemo, when it was clear it was doing nothing but making her sick. She has patchy, fuzzy hair now underneath the purple scarf.

My stomach growls and I grab it to try to muffle the noise. Dad’s not much of a cook, so we mostly eat cold cereal now. I consider getting off the couch to pour some. It just doesn’t seem like Saturday without pancakes somehow. I wonder if it will ever seem like Saturday again.

I stand. No one notices. I’m not sure if Thomas has moved at all since I entered the room. Dad’s still staring at the blank TV.

I stand. No one notices. I’m not sure if Thomas has moved at all since I entered the room. Dad’s still staring at the blank TV. He still hasn’t shaved, maybe three or four days now. There’s a lot of grey in his growing beard, more than I remember.

In the kitchen, I reach for the Cheerios. A box of Bisquik stands next to it. Pancakes are Mom’s thing. I’m not sure if I’m ready to take over Saturday morning pancakes.

But I am hungry for pancakes, so I take the box and dig in the cupboard for chocolate chips. Her apron hangs on the inside. I tie it around my waist.

I reach into the cupboard where pots and pans are neatly stacked. Mom liked nice pots and pans for cooking. Dad teased her that she didn’t even know what some of them were for. Now her collection is covered with a thin layer of dust. The griddle is under everything. I try to lift the whole pile at once. They shift, toppling and clanging to the ground around me. I glance into the living room to see if I disrupted the order of things enough for anyone to notice. Apparently not.

I slide the griddle out, heavier than I expect. I run my hand along its cool length then set it to warm on the stove while I make the batter.

The eggs crack neatly into the bowl. No shells to fish out like when I was six. I blend the dry with the wet then I stir in the chocolate chips.

I pour batter onto the sizzling griddle and watch for the bubbles to form. When I was eight, watching for the bubbles was my favorite part. I’d stand next to the stove and wait for them to push through the thick batter, then announce to Mom it was time to flip, amazed they’d stay in perfect circles.

Today, I don’t watch so closely. I pick the pots and pans off the floor and put dirty dishes in the dishwasher instead. One or two get a little overly brown, but not bad enough for me to toss. A little syrup and you’ll never know, Mom would say.

When the pancakes are finished, I put three on a plate, pour syrup over the stack, and carry them to the living room. Dad and Thomas look up with what I hope is a glimmer of their happier selves.

“I made pancakes. Help yourself,” I say as squeeze in between them.

I cut the pancakes and take a bite. Not bad. It feels a little like Saturday.

Huszar YoshimotoJessica Huszar-Yoshimoto is a writer who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three young daughters. When not driving children to and from preschool and play dates, she can be found gardening and enjoying the company of her backyard chickens. She is currently at work on her first novel.

 

Ghosts

I’m dead.

I know what you’re thinking: teenage drama. Now you’re expecting me to say that I missed curfew, or failed math class, and my parents are going to kill me. I wish.

I’ve been gone for almost a year. I don’t know why they call it “gone.” I’m still here. We’re all still here. Sure, there are a few who move on, or transcend, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t know what actually happens to them. They just sort of fade away, and they seem pretty happy about it. But they’re usually the ones who have been hanging around for a long, long time.

As for the rest of us, there seem to be three kinds. There’s the ones like me, I guess we’re what you’d call normal. We’re dealing with being dead and trying to get on with it.

Then there’s the depressed ones. They usually do lots of moaning and wailing and stuff, and sometimes they just lay down and cry. Like, for years.

Most don’t like to be around the living. They tend to gather in wooded areas or creepy abandoned buildings—anywhere they won’t find a crowd of living people—and just kind of hang out and be dead together.

And then there are the happy ones. Not a good kind of happy, like “yeah, I can be happy even though I’m dead,” but happy like they’re glad they’re dead. They seem to enjoy it too much. They … do things. I try to stay away from those ones. I don’t see too many dead people at all, in fact. Most don’t like to be around the living. They tend to gather in wooded areas or creepy abandoned buildings—anywhere they won’t find a crowd of living people—and just kind of hang out and be dead together.

Shawn is waking up now. I stand. I’ve been sitting on the floor watching him sleep all night. Just watching. Ghosts don’t need to sleep. We don’t really need to sit, either. I guess it’s just a habit.

He’s mad. Shawn’s always mad when he has to wake up. He slaps the button on the alarm and turns his back to it, but it’s only a few seconds before he rolls back over and sits up. School today.

He runs a hand over his face. He stands up—sadly, the best part of most of my days, because Shawn is shirtless—and pulls on a pair of track pants. He puts the quarter into his pocket. I’ve never seen him without the quarter.

I stand in the hallway while he showers and inspect my ghost nails. I was always a nail-biter. I miss it.

I also miss Froot Loops, which Shawn devours for breakfast. He’s late, and he only eats half the bowlful before running out the door. I stare longingly at the cereal as I follow him. It’s been so long since I ate anything.

The drive to school is quiet. Sometimes, when I was alive, several of us would pile into Shawn’s crappy old Toyota and crank up the radio. The speakers always sounded terrible, but then again so did our singing. But now Shawn never turns on the radio. I wonder why.

Shawn gets to homeroom just in time, sliding into his seat as the last bell rings. We used to have homeroom together, which I loved because I sat one row over and one seat back from him, so it was easy for me to stare at him all period. But that was last year. When I was alive.

School is just as boring as it was when I was alive, too, so I decide to take a break from my self-appointed guardian angel duties and go see my family. I nod to the other dead people in the room—they’re auditing—and duck out the door.

After I died, Mom got a job for the first time, like, ever. She works in the school office now, and if that had happened when I was alive, I would have died of embarrassment. So basically, I would be dead now either way.

Mom looks … better. At least, she seems to be sleeping again. I don’t think she slept for months after I died. I watch her enter some grades into the computer (holy crap, Lila is getting a D in geometry!), and when I’m tired of that I wander over to Sophie’s English class. Sophie and I were always really close growing up. She’s only thirteen months older than me (geez, Mom and Dad, couldn’t you control yourselves?), so we shared a lot of stuff when we were younger. Like, a LOT of stuff: clothes, bikes, a bathroom. However, I would never have shared the trashy clothes Sophie is wearing today. Since I’ve been gone, she’s kind of turned into a slut.

I go back out into the hallway. Amelia is there. I haven’t seen her since she jumped off the overpass in ninth grade and got run over by that semi-truck. I still remember it because the school brought in counselors for “friends of the deceased.” Some jerks who didn’t even know Amelia went to the counselors just to get out of class. I almost ask her why she suddenly came back to the school, but she crosses the other end of the hallway despondently and disappears around a corner. Ugh. Definitely one of the depressed ones.

After thinking about it, I decide not to go clear downtown to visit my dad. He never went out of his way to pay attention to me when I was alive, so I usually return the favor these days. Besides, the bell is about to ring and Shawn will be headed to lunch with all our friends. I go to the cafeteria and stand by our usual table.

Everybody seems to come through the doors at once, bottlenecking like salmon at spawning time. They all laugh and talk while they get their food, but Shawn seems to mostly watch these days. I always remember him being the center of everything when I was alive, but not anymore. Of course, that could just be because I’ve been in love with him for the last three years. Maybe he only seemed like the center of attention because he was the center of my attention. He still is, as evidenced by the intense focus I have while watching him mess with the quarter. He has taken it out of his pocket, which he does like a hundred times a day, and is turning it over and over in his fingers. I still don’t know why he does it.

After I died, I loved following everybody to lunch. To see what they would say about me, you know. It was always, “Yeah, she was awesome,” and “I totally miss her, too.” Don’t judge me ok, if you can’t enjoy all the nice things people say about you, what good is being dead? But they haven’t talked about me in a long time. I mean, I can’t say I blame them. But I still listen, just in case.

I stick with Shawn for his last two classes, because they’re art, which I always kinda liked while I was still, you know, breathing, and computers, which I don’t mind because I can go around and look at all the emails people are writing to each other when the teacher is on the other side of the room. Let me tell you, you can find out a lot of good gossip when you’re dead.

After school, Shawn gets in his car and pulls out of the parking lot. He didn’t even say goodbye to anyone as he walked out. He heads down Murphy Street, but going the wrong way. Oh, that’s right, he has an appointment with the shrink today. I hate Shawn’s shrink days, mostly because they’re totally boring for me, and because Shawn seems really depressed after his appointments.

While Shawn is in with the psychologist, I pace slowly around the waiting room, reading the covers of the same magazines that have been there for the last six months. Man, I wish I knew how to move physical objects like some of the other dead people do. They won’t teach anybody, though, and they get pretty pissed off if you ask. Even if I could turn the pages, though, I guess it might freak out the receptionist just a bit.

I sigh and glance at the clock. We’ve only been here for fifteen minutes? I’m so bored I might die again. For the millionth time since I started watching out for Shawn, I resist the temptation to peek in on his session with the shrink.

I hear them coming before I see them. The happy ones usually sound drunk—they’re loud and stupid and lumber around like they’re so important. These ones sound louder and stupider than usual. I start to panic. I definitely don’t want to be wherever they are going. But I can’t leave Shawn here with them. A lot of the happy ones can move things, and sometimes they hurt the living. And even if they decide not to hurt a person, they can still scare the crap out of him.

They’re louder now, obviously heading down the hallway of the professional building toward Dr. Fielding’s office. I hesitate for a second longer, and then glide smoothly into the room where Shawn and the shrink are.

They don’t see me come in, of course, just like they don’t hear the nasty things those happy ones are saying about the receptionist in the lobby.

They don’t see me come in, of course, just like they don’t hear the nasty things those happy ones are saying about the receptionist in the lobby. I try to tune out the filth, and look around the office instead.

I’ve never been in this room before. It’s pretty boring, really, plain white walls with a plain brown desk and a plain blue couch that Shawn is sitting on the edge of. At least that part’s not boring or plain. Dr. Fielding sits across from Shawn on a shiny leather chair, the only nice thing in the room.

Shawn is fiddling with the quarter again, staring at it in silence. I listen to the clock tick by fourteen seconds, and then the shrink says, “Are you ready yet to tell me what the quarter means, Shawn?” Huh. So the good doctor doesn’t know either. Interesting.

Shawn sighs and leans back into the couch cushions. “Sure. I mean, I guess. What does it matter at this point, right?” He sighs again. “She gave it to me. We all went to the skate park, and I forgot to take my cell. So I asked to borrow hers. And she gave me this quarter and told me to go find a payphone. She was such a smart alec all the time. Then she winked at me, and said she was just kidding, I could use her phone, and to give her back her quarter. But I wouldn’t. She tried to get it out of my hand, she chased me down the street, she yelled for a constable—I mean, who does that?” He smiles just a little and shakes his head. “She died two weeks later. So, now you know.” And he slides the quarter back in his pocket.

Me. That she was me. I was the one who thumb-flipped a quarter at Shawn at the skate park, I was the one who ran down the road like a maniac and called for a constable. He still has my quarter? He takes my quarter out a hundred times a day to look at and touch?

“And what do we have here?”

I whirl and stare. Slipping through the door like a hot knife through butter are two of the happiest happy ones I’d ever seen. Even when they were living, these two must have been happy ones. They are big and ugly and tattooed. One has a huge nose, pockmarked and red even in death. The other still bears scars up and down his arms and neck—it looks like he spent his life fighting in bars with broken beer bottle weapons.

I shrink back into the corner. I can feel my back start to go through the wall. I’ve seen what happy ones like this can do. I edge backwards until only a bit of my face is still in the room and I hold very still.

The scarred one’s eyes narrow as he looks around. “That’s the kid.”

Big Nose’s eyebrow goes up. “What’s the kid?”

“That’s the kid who sent me to death row. I whacked his precious mom and made the mistake of letting him live to tell all about it. Now I’m going to finish it.”

“Wait,” says Big Nose, “You can’t do that. Can you? I mean, almost nobody can do that.” The disbelieving look on his face changes into a hungry look, a dark look. “Can you do it?”

“I can’t, okay? But I know someone who can.” He walks over behind Dr. Fielding and examines Shawn’s chart. “Stonebrook Lane. How quaint. I guess we know where you’ll be tonight, brat.” Scarred Guy goes over and crouches in front of Shawn, shoving his face up close so that their noses would be touching, if Scarred Guy’s nose could touch anything. Shawn doesn’t move. He’s listening to Dr. Fielding lecture him about “using his tools,” whatever that means. If I still had skin, it would be crawling right now.

Scarred Guy stands up and slips back through the door, calling to Big Nose to hurry up, and then they are gone.

I pull the rest of my face into the blackness of the wall and stay there for a long time. What do I do? What do I do? How do I stop two happy ones, plus another that can move things, from hurting Shawn? And … is that even what I want to do?

For a minute, I let myself see it all: spending forever together with Shawn, just the two of us in this invisible dead life. He wanted me, I know that now. We could hold ghosty hands, and find someplace nice to haunt together. I wouldn’t have to be invisible anymore.

But I brush it aside. I have to try to do something, I have to let him live. At least, that’s what I tell myself over and over again. No happy ever after for me, even in the afterworld. But I can make sure there is a happy ever after , or at least a happy most of the time after, for Shawn.

Finally, I pull myself out of the wall. I know now what I will do. I just hope I can pull it off. Shawn left a while ago. I waited too long and I missed my chance, there will be no zipping home in his car. I’ll have to get there on my own.

I missed my chance.

When I finally slip through the enormous bay window at the front of Shawn’s house, the sun is starting to set. I hope I’m not too late. I’ve spent way too much time sulking about this, and now I don’t have much time left to do what I hope I can do.

I head straight for Shawn’s bedroom. He and his dad are downstairs eating frozen dinners in front of the TV—don’t even get me started on how nasty that is—so he won’t be around to distract me. There is a pen on his desk, and I bend down over it. Now how do I make it move?

I start with getting mad. I think I saw that in a movie once: if you get a ghost mad enough, they can move stuff. I think of all the crap that makes me mad. I’m angry that my dad got over me being gone so fast. I’m freaking out that someone is trying to hurt Shawn. I am seriously pissed off that he liked me—loved me even, maybe—and I didn’t know it and now it’s too late.

But my fingers still glide right through the pen.

Then I try love. I squint my eyes shut and think about Mom, and Sophie, and Grandma, and Shawn, and even Dad. But the pen still doesn’t budge.

I try concentration. I try sneaking up on the pen. I even try blowing on it, which would be ridiculous, even if ghosts did have breath.

Finally, I glance at the ugly red numbers on the clock. It’s late, and I don’t know when the happy ones are going to be here. I have to move the pen, and I have to do it now. I pace up and down the room, pulling my ghost hair and blowing out nothing breaths. In desperation, I scream once. I whirl and sweep the pen to the floor. And it actually hits the floor. I moved it to the floor!

That’s the key. It’s desperation. I just have to want it bad enough, and I want this so bad. I glance at the clock again. Focusing all of my desire, I grab the pen and riffle through a drawer for some paper.

Five minutes later, I am done writing. I’m kind of surprised that I remembered how, it’s been so long. I don’t have time to be diplomatic about this, so I start throwing things. Not the best things, not the things Shawn loves, just the clock and some shoes and the mattress. A spelling bee trophy from the third grade goes through the sheetrock, and I hear Shawn and his dad pounding up the steps. I step back then and wait.

Now we are in Shawn’s dad’s truck. The pickup bed is full, and I sit quietly, happily, in the backseat as we hurtle down the highway.

Erin Jewkes had the longest list of books read in her entire first grade class. She has read—and written—quite a lot since then. She homeschools her four kids, with a little singing on the side for good measure. She writes the things that she wants to read, and the things that will make her family proud.

Clown

The Crystal Rainbows Centre in Morvale is the local loony bin—home for the ill at ease, nut house, window-lickers playground, or as some chavskanks (who have the experience to know) say: “a bit better than prison, innit.” Almost every kid gets terrorized by some older twat at school with horror stories about the place, about what you might do that will inadvertently get you locked up, and about what goes on there. Inside it looks pretty much like any other part of a hospital and no one’s screaming right now. And I’m here, after all, so I think mostly it’s all bullshit. Although I’m not on the ward, mind you. But Stephani Mitchell was here for anorexia a while back, and she said it wasn’t like they say it is, although she didn’t really want to talk about it of course. Unless you gave her a cigarette and then she’d give you a few juicy bits, but that might have been more bullshit, too. I liked Stephani Mitchell though, she always smiled at me. This shy little half-smile, and she’d catch my eye, but then look down. As though she wanted to say something, but it had got stuck.

Crystal Rainbows herself was a generous benefactor back in 1897 after being cured (several times) of a strange hysteria and angst, that came and went an awful lot like bouts of mania and depression. Every two years Crystal would start to see the sky a little bluer, the Gods a little truer, and become convinced that nobody was a wrongdoer. She’d take in strays—cats, dogs, the homeless, people who saw something they could take advantage of, people she simply loved because they were worse off than her. She was the richest woman in Morvale by a long-trot. But where it came from was a matter of great speculation: she murdered a husband, or married an old one who died; stole it; or was born into it; had cast a spell over the bank teller or the croupier. Did she have close friends who knew the truth? If she did, the locals never found these people.

A portrait of Crystal hangs in the foyer of The Crystal Rainbows Centre, and while she had certainly been a beauty, she was also an eccentric. An eccentric beauty with sadness in her eyes. I couldn’t know if that was artistic license by the artist, who perhaps knew she was prone to fits and starts, or if he captured what was true. I took one last look at Crystal, sensing some mischief in a hint of smirk, before making my way to the Sunshine Ward for ‟The Group.”

The atmosphere was like the girls PE changing room when no one wants to go out running cross country in the rain or pretend to understand fucking hockey.

Some people are surprisingly chirpy about their problems. And then of course there’s everyone else. There were twelve of us in The Group, sitting in a circle, awkwardly looking around. Some holding in tears, others looking moody as all fuck. I was nervous; I sat on my hands, biting my lip. Curls of my mousy brown hair falling in my face, which was perfect because I frankly didn’t want anyone looking at me. The atmosphere was like the girls PE changing room when no one wants to go out running cross country in the rain or pretend to understand fucking hockey. That desperate scramble to decide whether you want to chance making up a bullshit excuse like ‟time of the month” (did I use it last week? Will Miss remember?), or quickly forge ye olde note from the rentals. But you can’t find anything other than exercise book paper which doesn’t look very pro, and you can’t think of an excuse.

You can’t do ‟I forgot my kit,” because the skank cupboard is so much worse. If you genuinely did forget your kit, you might as well just die there and then. Just die. There’s a box of sandwiches in there that no one dares remove and it’s getting greener in there every week, and it’s like it’s breathing ‘cuz it’s all wet now and soon it might explode. I reckon Miss put them in there herself just to make it even more grotesque. I mean who leaves behind these items that make up the skank cupboard, these purported bits of ‟lost property” we’re meant to use as kit? Granny blouses and brown corduroy skirts, knee-length polka dot socks and football boots from the 1970s. Which fucking Morvale High girl dropped them in the changing room, eh? None of them, that’s what I think. It’s Miss, she’s having us on. It’s like a fucking horror movie in there. You open the punched-in grey metal door looking like your average drab Morvale teen, and then by the time you’ve closed it, you’ve got this selection of vile rags in your arms like you’ve done a murder, and you’re gagging and it’s so embarrassing you feel the tears and you’re choking in your throat, and it’s already shit for me anyway, PE, because they love to beat me up and—

That is what it feels like in this fucking group therapy room.

The skinny Gasher boy went first. Gashers are like Emo 2.0, the music gets heavier all the time, mathcore that’s beyond Pifaster-than-light-quantum-whatevers complexity. My friend Lucy likes some of it, dresses a little like them sometimes, but she’s above that kind of cliquey stuff. The Gasher boy’s hair is black, limp, hanging in front of his eyes all combed forward with one stripe of neon pink in it. Stretched earlobes, silver earrings, a lip ring that’s far too big for his skinny face. So pasty white that I instantly saw all the hours locked away in a darkened bedroom, listening to heavy, heavy music with the blu-tacked posters from the magazines of all those bands closing in on him with their angst and hysteria. Black band t-shirt—Ditchovsky in this case, an all female thrash-grindcore-mathhardcore-emoscreamo-neonewromantic band. Or something. Maybe I should look like a Gasher on the outside, I don’t know. I’m a bit of a Neon sometimes, getting a little bit more of something from Lucy but I don’t think I can do Gashcore. This kid though, he’s proper in it. Gash to the max. He’s wearing those skin-tight jean-legging thingies that are covered in zips and chains like old bondage gear, and mad platform trainers that he must have got from his mum.

 Tell us why you’re here. We’re listening.

“I dunno where to start really, um,” he coughed, looked at the floor. Clasped his bony hands in front of him, forearms resting on his legs. His hair flopped forward ridiculously with his head leaning over like that. But it was a huge shield, a curtain to hide his face so he could try and get out his wretched feelings.

The two limp group leaders exchanged glances and one of them got up and went after him, looking like a wilting weed that fought so hard to grow between paving slabs, now sadly slumping to the concrete as the rain batters it.

“It’s … They …” His whole body tensed up and he stopped, the silence anxiety-stricken. “I can’t do this,” he said, and, still looking at the floor, he grabbed his bag and pushed back his chair, got up and walked out, slinging his record bag over his shoulder and shoving the door open with all his strength, letting it bang behind him without looking back. Lucky escape. The two limp group leaders exchanged glances and one of them got up and went after him, looking like a wilting weed that fought so hard to grow between paving slabs, now sadly slumping to the concrete as the rain batters it. Dejection. The girl two seats to my right sighs petulantly and exclaims ‘fucks sake’ very loudly. She’s got a proper face on her, wannabe Neon but really a chav throwback. Clown necklace, scraped back hair in a side ponytail, very obvious eyes and ears that have been specially blinged-up, jewels stuck to her face. She’s slouched in her chair, in a way that ensures maximum discomfort, arms crossed, and she most certainly does not want to be here. I looked over as she hissed out another ‟for fucks sake,” with extremely hard k’s. We made eye-contact and fear gripped me. She just looks, we both hold it. Her eyelashes are thick clumps. Eyeliner thick as crayon, it’s all over the place. She puts the necklace in her mouth so the clown dangles over her chin and just stares, mouth open in a sneer. Clown-necklace-mouth. It may be the most menacing thing I’ve ever seen. Then she sucks on the chain before spitting it out and making an ‟uh” noise, looking away with disgust as though I’m the scary one.

“We all know why we’re here, fuck’s sake. We’re wrong’uns, dirties, ment-alls, brokens, happy-shopper-pill-poppers, nutters, ‘pressos, little bit short of a set, gone down the wrong—oi! What the fuck? Seriously, w.t.f., yeah? Aren’t you gonna do something?” A boy with a huge brown quiff, who I suddenly recognize as being Martin Brite from primary school, shouts at the group leaders. There is a general ‟yeah” from about half the group, the rest of us just sit there not really knowing what the hell is going on.

“Everyone has the right to speak here, but yes, please …” the group leader looks at her tablet PC for confirmation, already forgetting which of us is which, “… please, Maria, if you could respect the others and not use harsh language we’d prefer that. The words you use to describe what’s going on here are very interesting, though. I’m not sure everyone here would agree about your categorization of mental health issues. Care to take your turn and tell us what that’s all about?”

Maria huffs. “Yeah, whatever. But don’t expect it to be interesting or nothin’. Dunno why I fuc‑ I mean, why I came. My doctor really bigged it up, that them tablets as well as this would be much better than doing it on my own. What I don’t get right, though, is how does it work? Like, what’s this doing to my head? We’re not menna ask, are we, like we’re just menna trust? I do trust, I like my doctor, so it’s not that. It’s just I don’t understand it. Shouldn’t I feel better by now? It’s been like three weeks. It’s wank. Wonderdrug my fucking arse.”

“It can take time, Maria, I know it’s frustrating. But first let’s get to what made you decide to see your doctor in the first place. You can tell us as much or as little as you like of course, but this works better if we get to know each other. If we share. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself properly, tell us how you found the group and what you think might have contributed to you being here? We’re here to help.” I’m pretty sure I just heard someone gagging.

“Well, I was just feeling down all the time, you know, like, its fucking pointless, innit. I’m doing shit at school, like I can never get the hang of it, in the bottom sets, everyone thinks you’re a pile of toss. My parents think I’m lazy or summink, but it’s not like that. I do try.” Poor Maria, her face started to crumple up like she was going to cry, and she kept blinking away tears, those enormous lashes batting, chain back in mouth, clown dangling and I realize we really aren’t all that different. Me and her, me and the clown, me and the Gashers, me and the Neons.

Maybe we’d all like to play the clown and see what it’s like to just fucking smile for a change. I reach out to hug her.

 Tell us why you’re here. We’re listening.

Jessie Nash is a British Writer. His fiction has appeared in Glitterwolf and (T)our Magazine. He won the Thompson prize in the Altogether Now 2012 story competition for the YA piece ‟Danny.” His poetry has appeared in publications such as Luna Negra, Diverse Voices, Wilde Magazine, and Poetry Express. He identifies as transgender and gender-queer.