The Streetlamp

That was one of my favorite parts of it all—of Allie and me being friends, I mean—sitting there in her passenger seat, with the streetlamp on my neighbor’s lawn glowing in on us through the dashboard, the night’s playlist soft in the background. I liked when I could just barely see her, except for her eyes, and her golden silhouette, and her manicured toes making tiny rings of fog on the windshield, because she always took off her shoes and propped her feet up on the dashboard.

I couldn’t say why I loved it so much. Maybe it was that this was one of the only times when it was just the two of us, sans the noise of our other girlfriends and school and people doing stupid things. In a way, though, it was kind of scary. Because there was no buffer, and no distractions. Just us was good, but just us also provided no place to hide.

That night, Allie didn’t take off her shoes, or even stay in the car at all. She put her phone in her pocket and got out, and before I could really even open my door, she lay down in the middle of the stretch of cul-de-sac in front of my driveway.

“Um,” I said. “What are y—?”

“I’m looking at your stars.” I was about to ask if that was a John Green reference or some crap, when she said, “It’s like, everyone has their own personal piece of the stars that only they see right before they go to bed or whatever. And you can tell a lot about somebody from their stars.”

I went and lay down next to her, and the slightly less than a foot between us hummed with magnetic possibility that made the hairs on my arms more dance than stand up.

“Really?”

“Unh huh. If you really look.”

“What’s there to look for?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a good party trick anymore, would it?” She looked over at me, and for a second, before I could help it, I just stared at her. She had big eyes that could be doey or a bit buggy depending on the mood, that were the kind of perfect light blue usually reserved for the irises of perfume-ad models. It almost burned to look at her eyes, they were so bright. Her skin was beautiful, though it looked like she fought to keep it that way, due to some well-covered pockmarks on her chin. For some reason, she hated her nose. I didn’t think it was bad, a little commanding maybe, but not bad. And between those eyes and her perfect pouty lips, did it really matter?

She blinked, and I realized it’d been too long, so I laughed and said, “Guess not.”

“Now be quiet and let me look a minute, so I can see what they say.”

I shut up. She made this kinda picture frame with her hands, like she was framing a shot for a movie, and squinted into it. There was this crazy-intense concentration on her face, this ultra-serious line-lipped type look, like a terrified kid at a piano recital. I almost laughed, because it was so exaggerated, so far from her typical breezy grins—until something flashed through her eyes, something real, and she lowered her hands, slowly.

It was like she’d actually seen something, up there, and I knew if there was really anything to see, it would be her face, mapped out in constellations, with more shiny corners than normal, but still her.

“So?” I asked. The tar underneath us felt like it was gonna pitch me off, so I’d be thrown up into nowhere, with no solid ground to come back to. It made me sick.

“They seem to think you’re in love.”

I held my breath for a second, and watched as it all came crashing down. What had I done, what had I said, how long had she known? Could it really be in the sky? Or was it that time… there were a million that times it could have been, a million elongated stares, a million hand brushes, a million laughs that were a little too reverent. I’d been headed straight for this moment, fucked in a perfect beeline, since I shut the car door on that first night, and I knew it. But that didn’t make it any easier.

I managed to squeak out something like, hmmm.

When school started again, I’d be screwed, I knew. Maybe over the rest of this summer it wouldn’t be too bad—I’d still have some people in enclaves she didn’t talk to, but once theater was up and running again, it’d spread around, and I’d be the creepy lesbian girl who stalked Allie Hayes for a year. And the worst thing was it would be kind of true.

“Oh yes.” Allie grinned. “The stars say you’re passionately, deeply, in love—but—what’s this?—you must keep your affair a secret, for fear of judgement.” It was worse than any of the times I’d imagined it, way worse. This wasn’t a frank confrontation. She was making fun of me.

“I’m—I’m seeing a face! It’s… Jiffy!”

“What?” I said.

Oh fuck. She’d been kidding. Of course. The whole time. She wasn’t—

“Jiffy.”

I rolled my eyes, making like I hadn’t heard her. Really, I was just short of stress-cackling, but whatever.

Jiffy—his real name was Tyler, but nobody ever called him that—was this gross kid from theater everyone hated. He was our only true outcast, and showing him any kindness was punishable by weeks of exclusion. The nickname had something to do with him trying to fuck a jar of peanut butter, I guess.

“Jesus, Allie,” I said. “Can we please—?”

She was laughing now, and I started too. “I can imagine it. The two of you, riding into the sunset, the grease from his hair coating your face—”

We were both laughing too hard to go on.

The joke had started after I’d once confessed, in a pinch during Truth or Dare, that I’d dated him for a single day in sixth grade. They gave me relentless shit about it whenever they could. I didn’t think it was funny, and I never had, but every laugh seemed to shake a little weight off my chest.

“It was literally one day,” I said, “and Liz Tanaka dared me to do it, so.” I’d made up the part about Liz Tanaka just then. I definitely didn’t know her, now or ever.

Allie looked at me. “Wait, you used to be friends with Liz Tanaka?”

“Uh, yeah. For like three seconds.”

“Weird.” Liz Tanaka was what you could call a mega slut. If you weren’t a feminist, I mean.

I shrugged, feeling my spaghetti-strapped shoulders scrape on the pavement.

Allie sighed, and took out her phone. The blue glow on her face was like concentrated starlight, only it was clean, and harsh, and I could see the reflection of her Instagram feed in the whites of her eyes. I hated that, how she could just zip off into another world in the palm of her hand. I mean, I kind of could too, but only kind of—that was the thing. I couldn’t ever fully get away from her. Not that I’d want to, but still.

“I heard she’s hella smart, though,” I said, just to bring Allie back.

“What?” She clicked her phone dark. Her sound was on.

“Liz Tanaka. I think she’s going to Harvard or some shit.” She’d just graduated.

“That’s funny,” Allie said.

“What?”

“How some people… like, out of everybody you wouldn’t pick them to do great things, but they still do.”

“Yeah.”

“You’d pick me, though, right?” She turned her head to face me, and saw I’d been looking at her. There was no point in me trying to hide it.

“What do you mean?”

“Like if you had to pick somebody who was gonna do something great.”

“I mean,” I said. “Yeah, I’d pick you. I’m not, like, God, or anything, so it doesn’t matter, but…yeah, I would.”

“You’re funny.” She smiled, her teeth shining in the streetlamp light. An easy, toying smile, that looked like it could float straight off her face with a gust of wind.

I wasn’t trying to be funny. Of course I’d pick her. I probably pictured her name lit up on a Broadway marquee more often than she did. It’d played out behind my eyelids so often it seemed inevitable: her smashing her way into the theater world as the lead in Edward Albee’s new play, getting rave reviews in the vein of “But who really is Broadway’s new It Girl?” Her graceful acceptance speech at the Tonys that year. Then a turn as Juliet, or maybe Cleopatra, before she broke into film. It was history from there. And I’d be there, in the front or maybe up in the booth, the whole time.

“I just think,” she bit her lip, and I thought about how the backs of her front teeth must’ve always been covered in red lipstick, “I mean, I can’t help thinking that I’m meant for something, you know? Because I want it, really, really bad. You think that counts for something, right?”

“Yeah, it definitely—”

“When I was a kid, you know, my dad always told me I could do anything I wanted, as long as I set my mind to it. So I said, Daddy, I want to be an actress. Even from the time I was little, when all the other girls wanted to be princesses, that’s all I ever wanted to be. But my mom doesn’t think I’m good enough to—”

Fuck your mom. Cause you really are. You’re really good.”  I meant it, too. One time, I actually missed a light cue during a show cause she did something that was just so insanely real.

Allie sniffed. I looked at her. Her eyes were a little wet, which I guess they were like eighty percent of the time. “You’re not shitting me?” Her voice was quiet.

I sighed. “I wouldn’t shit you, Allie.”

She kinda laughed, and wiped her eyes. “Okay. Good.” She cleared her throat. “On to business, then.” She jumped up.

For a minute, she just stood there, and I was kinda struck by the way she looked from this angle, me eye-level with her scuffed oxfords. She looked like one of those girls on an album cover, a good album, the kind you can cry to. With soft guitar chords, and lo-fi sound, where the front is made to look like a polaroid, and the girl is smoking a cigarette and leaning on a brick wall with twinkly lights affixed to it.

It was something about the cutoff overalls and striped shirt she had on, and the way the baby hairs sticking out of her French braid were lit up in the streetlamp so the world looked cracked around her face, and her half-bitten-off lipstick.

“So, are you gonna get up or anything?”

“Shit. Yeah. Sorry,” I mumbled.

As soon as I was on my feet she half-ran down my cul-de-sac, out into the main street of the neighborhood, which ran past my house. I followed her, even though I had no idea what the hell she was doing.

It didn’t seem like she was going that fast, but I almost didn’t catch her when she went around the corner, her feet kicking up behind her, so it looked like she was ice-skating down the yellow line in the middle of the road.

When she came up next to the streetlamp on the left sidewalk, she stopped and turned toward it. I was still walking over there when she shook her head a little and ran off again.

“What are we even—?”

Allie stopped and whipped around to face me. “Jesus, Iris, just come on.” She grinned and starting running again, calling, “I’m going to take you on a fabulous adventure!” over her shoulder.

I couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of me, and I actually started running after her. Every muscle in my legs burned, and I was out of breath before the block ended, but I kept going, until we stopped. I put my hand on my chest, and I could feel my heart thudding away. Allie didn’t notice my ragged breathing, or at least it didn’t seem like she did, because all her attention was focused on the streetlamp in front of us.

It looked just the same as every other one we’d seen that night—same yellow cone of light, same black, lined pole—but she must have decided this was the one, because she cocked her head to the side, smirked, and grabbed my hand, leading me over to it. Little trills of goosebumps travelled up my arm. I could tell by the way she was walking that whatever we were about to do was special to her.

When we reached the streetlamp she didn’t let go of my hand, just pressed her ear up against the pole. After the briefest what-the-fuck second, I did too.

The second my ear touched the pole, I knew why we were doing this. It was the sound of the streetlamp, the buzzing it made. Fuzzy, in a way, but not biting like TV static, or whiny like neon, but not beautiful, either, not distracting in its loveliness.

That was the thing about it, I think. The sound was distraction, but only for the part of my brain that hated me most—the part that was always reaching for my phone no matter how much I didn’t want to. The part that won friends with lies, or razor blades when the lies wore out. That part was sucked up into the buzz, so I could kind of just look at everything.

The world sort of looked, in a way, the same as it did in comic books, everything clear and outlined in black and over-exaggerated almost to a point of parody. Once-tiny flecks of silver in the road were full-on cut diamonds. The weary white boards of the fence across from us bowed inward, like God’s crooked bottom teeth. And the cone of yellow light around us was a hard circle, closing us off from the rest of the world. She was perfect like that.

The way she looked just then made me think of this other time, forever ago, before I knew I loved her.

Actually, I guess it wasn’t really that long ago at all, because it was at the end of the school year, which was literally, like, less than two months ago. But you know how these things are, when summer stretches on forever, and you’re in love with somebody and all.

It was opening night of the last play of the year, the second show I’d done in high school at that point, but maybe the millionth show I’d done in general. The play was A Streetcar Named Desire because our teacher, Mr. Taylor, was young and angry that he wasn’t in New York, and didn’t give two shits about being family-friendly.

I’d gotten there at, like, 5:30, which was half an hour early, because Alex wanted me to run through all the cues before call time.

The door was unlocked when I got up to the booth. I went in, sat down in the much-coveted rolly chair, and fired up the board.

Being there was good, and I was glad I’d never bothered with auditioning. I got to have all those nice live wire pre-show jitters without the pressure of the stage and the dark roaring mass in the seats. Up here, I could see everyone, but they couldn’t see me, so it was really the opposite of being onstage. I didn’t even miss the applause, really.

I’d been up there for about ten minutes maybe, just running the cues as fast as I could, when Allie came onstage. What the hell was she doing here? The only people who ever showed up early were tech people, and only ones with important shit to do. But she was striding onstage like she had important shit to do, so I wasn’t about to question it.

Only the white lights were up then, so I just left them that way. She didn’t acknowledge me or anything, so I figured she didn’t know I was there. To her, I knew, the house was empty, except for the echoes of applause to come.

Her hair was up in her typical messy bun, but somehow it still managed to shine in the stage light. She wasn’t in costume yet, but she also wasn’t wearing any of her normal clothes, either, just calf leggings and a white tank top.

In a minute, I saw why. She started out by just walking across the stage, slowly. I didn’t know what she was doing, until I saw it, in the way her bare feet started to slide, and her posture got better. She was becoming Blanche. I didn’t know how she pulled it off, but she did.

With a little shake of her head, she turned back into herself, plopped down on the apron, and started stretching. Dance stretching, things my muscles probably still remembered, even though it’d been years, and I was about as flexible as an iron rod now.

She folded in half, grabbed her heels, and went up on her toes. I didn’t really know what it was called—I remembered something called relevé, which my teacher told us was French for tippy-toes. Then she scrunched down, still on her toes, into what was essentially a squat. When I was a kid, they’d called it “the turtle.” From there, she sat down, put the soles of her feet together, and folded her torso over her legs. Way back when, they called it “the butterfly.” I wondered why everything was named after animals. She probably knew the real French behind it all.

Watching her stretch was weird, kind of, because it made me realize maybe we weren’t so different after all. As little girls we’d been taught pretty much the same things, by the same unspecifically pretty sixteen-year-old dance teachers working for their tuition, which, of course, Allie was now one of. We’d smelled that same chalky, cold, studio smell, looked in the same mirrors, been eventually passed on to the same expired prima hopefuls—the ones who make you call them Madame as they decay on a stool in the corner.

I pictured the two of us side by side at the barre as little girls. We looked almost the same—soft bubblegum tights, knobby blonde buns, Payless ballet shoes. And we could do all the same animal stretches and simple moves. Sure, I was a bit of a chubby kid, but that’s no big deal when you’re four. In the mirror, we became five, and six, and learning a little more each year, moving beyond the basics. At seven, things changed even more. Once you’re seven you’re done with the baby stuff, as ridiculous as that sounds. Our leotards turned black and sleeveless, we ditched the fluttery skirts, and began cutting our newly-grown teeth on the jagged edges of our teacher’s increasingly stern words. Eight and nine passed without incident. But then we hit ten—when pre-pointe training starts. At ten, you decide, essentially, whether the stratosphere is worth shooting for. And I decided it wasn’t.

From there things changed. I got fat and Allie got serious. Her legs lengthened out, perhaps a tad too much for a dancer. She got a nude leotard, a waist, and, finally, pointe shoes. Before I knew it, she towered over me, the shoes giving her a good four inches. I could have been one of her students.

The Allie on the stage jumped up, drawing my attention back, and turned sideways. She raised her left leg in a perfect arabesque, a breathing incarnation of every music box ballerina I’d ever had, sans tutu.

I was kind of struck by that, and it was beautiful to me, even before I knew I loved her. She wasn’t Bolshoi material and never would be, but there was still a tremendous grace in the furrowed-eyebrow determination on her face, and a jittery, plucked-rubber-band energy in the way the line of her body fell, as if this motion was a momentary pause in the middle of teleportation.

It didn’t feel particularly weird to watch her. Maybe it was because she was onstage, or because I was so far above her, or because she was so totally absorbed in what she was doing.

But then she did something that surprised me. She lowered her leg out of the arabesque, and straightened up, like to the other leg. But instead she tipped over into a cartwheel. She did three of them, across the whole width of the stage, her arms and legs flying like pinwheel spokes, tying the whole thing in a sudden, fluid bow.

When she landed, she grinned, planted her hands on her hips, and called, “Well, are you coming down, or what?”

I jumped, more because she knew I was there than anything. But I still got up and poked my head out the door.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” She sighed. “I saw you doing the light cues, earlier.”

“Oh. Yeah. I wasn’t like trying to creep on—”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t care if you were looking at me.” She waved for me to come down. I flipped on some of the house lights and went down the center aisle stairs to the stage.

From the floor below the apron, with the set behind her and the light and everything, she kind of looked like some ten-foot-tall goddess. Her ankles were crossed and her hands were clasped behind her back, so her collarbones jutted forward, like birds’ wings. Her left foot was pointed into a crescent moon. She cocked her head a little to the side and pulled her hands further behind her. I heard her shoulder blades crack.

“Come on up, girly.”

I did this hideous pole-vault-jump wiggle thing, and ended up just heaving myself over the lip of the stage while she waited.

“So you all set for the show?” she asked, once I’d put myself back together.

“Yeah, pretty much.” I was, mostly. Later that night I fucked up one of the cues in the first act, right after the thing with the paper lantern. The thing is, the center lights are supposed to get way softer and kind of blue when Blanche puts on the lantern, which is sort of the whole point, but I fucked up, so it didn’t. But it was whatever. There was another cue, I got it, the world moved on, I guess.

“You?” I asked.

She nodded. “I feel pretty warmed up.”

“Yeah, I bet. What was that, like a solid twenty minutes of stuff?”

She shrugged. “I do that before every show and every dance class.”

“Wow.”

“Comes with the job, I guess.” She didn’t say anything else about it, just kind of folded herself down onto the stage floor, so she was lying flat on her back. She patted the wood next to her and I lay down too.

Thinking back on it, I figured there must have been that same electric field between us, there on the stage. I just hadn’t noticed it yet.

The lights above us were a new kind of bright, a new kind of heat. When you were upright under stage lights, like normal, there was just this kind of tingly warmth on top of your head, and it was hot, sure, but not like this. This heat consumed you, got behind your eyeballs and worked clean through your skull.

But it wasn’t bad. Somehow, it wasn’t bad.

“Huh,” was all I said.

“What?” She turned her head to look at me.

“Nothing.”

“Okay.” She looked back up at the lights, and there was a moment that was quiet except for the humming of the lights.

Then, suddenly, violently almost, her whole face brightened. Fireworks seemed to skitter across the surface of her pupils, and the corners of her mouth sparked into a closed-mouth smile.

“I love this place,” she whispered, so I could just barely hear. “God, I love this place.”

It was that look on her face that fucked me up during the show. Right before she said “we’ve made enchantment,” or whatever that line was, she did that same exact look, and it just got to me. Because I’d never seen anything that real on a stage before, and I doubted I ever would again.

And I guess she kind of had something like that look on her face when we were listening to the streetlamps. And the look was still beautiful.

We stayed like that forever. Or at least that’s how it seemed, just then—standing there, with the weight of her hand getting slightly sticky and very important in mine. Nothing existed but us and the moment and all the happy moments that had ever been and the light, until she slid her hand away, and detached her ear from the pole.

She smiled, and didn’t say anything. She knew I didn’t need an explanation. We walked back to my house slowly, dragging our feet, and not saying a word the whole time. When she got in her car, she said bye, and that was it. We were beyond words, I guess.

And that night, my dreams were all full of yellow light, and Allie’s stark-lined profile, and champagne-bubble buzzing.

Gretchen AdamsGretchen Adams is a freshman at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has previously appeared in Spilled Ink and Canvas Literary Journal. She divides her time equally between her couch and this killer falafel shop in Wicker Park. Harass her on Tumblr at what-are-this.tumblr.com.

Safe Harbor

The Catalina Express docked alongside the pier. The ride from Long Beach had been choppy as the boat bounced over swells; passengers stumbled on deck and spilled drinks while waves hammered the bow. I’ve traveled the Channel every year since I can remember, but this was the first time going to the island without my mother.

I lifted the backpack over my shoulder and walked down the ramp.

Six months since she passed. Mom continued to provoke me every day, even in my dreams. The ebb and flow of her sanity centered on me.

I’d come to Catalina to film a tribute for my mother and post it on YouTube. A knot of anxiety and excitement coiled inside me.

I’d always been what others called “strange,” with extremely large eyes, dark with a hint of sclera. Classmates had called me a grey, my hair, Crayola yellow. It couldn’t be dyed: it didn’t absorb peroxide and gave me an edge without wanting one. My skin was a rusted gold, as if I sunbathed on Mercury.

Boys would see me from a distance or from my back—my hair a natural curiosity—then, when they neared, or I turned around, there would be an intake of breath, a fallen expression. It hurt to disappoint.

My oddness went beyond the visual. I felt people’s emotions; if I hugged or touched them, the sum of their experience seeped into my being. The weirdest, the most fantastical of all, was that I smelled people’s consciousnesses. I’d be at the farmers’ market, with shoppers intent on picking greens or fresh fruit, the odor pleasant, but when hostile music blasted from a car stopped in traffic, the shoppers’ collective stench of anger filled me with nausea. Fear, the greatest stink, rose to unbearable heights. The world boiled with it.

I found refuge as the groundskeeper at the Self Realization Fellowship in the Pacific Palisades, where the atmosphere was serene, the tranquil lake where swans and mallards glided by, a perfect setting to reflect.

With the world’s religions celebrated at my home, you’d think I’d have been religious. I was devoted, joyous, when I dug my fingers into the earth, planted and pruned, fed the ducks and feral cats. My affection for animals and plants taught me to nurture an inner kind of beauty. Mother Earth, my religion.

Mom loved my strangeness. She hated it, too, lashing out, calling me my father’s weirdo child. She was an artist, with a yo-yo temperament, creamy white skin and once in a while an eerie mannequin stare. Men chased her until they stumbled over her pile of baggage. Our home in Long Beach had wall-to-wall signed prints and paintings from Escher to Warhol, including her own work. Her watercolors and prints sold in galleries. She was a renowned illustrator.

With her gone, the craving to discover who I am possessed me.

Every night for a week I’d stir, throw off my covers, waken from a dream of my half-sister, Jemjasee. She too had enormous eyes and hair like mine. Mom called it, “Lichtenstein yellow.” In my dreams, Jemjasee stood at the Little Harbor overlook on the Conservancy side of Catalina where my mother took me, a ten-year-old, to meet my father and Jemjasee. I’d awake as if called, the dream, vivid, and I’d be on the precipice overlooking the Pacific, searching the sea just as my mother did when we’d go back every year to the island. She’d wait for my father, pace the cliffs, but he never appeared.

I searched the pier for Carlos.

He stepped from the dark terminal as light skipped across the ceiling slats. The night she passed, I called him; we talked, wept, laughed. Carlos cherished my mother like an older sister, and now that I saw him—his cowboy hat shading his crinkled face—his presence consoled me.

We stood, arms entwined, holding each other. It would be vulgar to talk while closeness tallied our grief. I promised myself I would be the one to comfort and not the other way around. He trembled. I held tighter, loving him for loving my mother.

“Man, I thought you’d stay longer, Gwendolyn,” he said, pulling away. His rugged face damp.

“I can’t.”

“Spend Thanksgiving with us. Stay the week.”

“I’ll let you know.”

“You got the equipment?”

“It’s in my backpack.”

He put his tattooed arm around my shoulder, and we headed toward the terminal.

“Maria and the kids want to see you,” he said, releasing me as we moved through the crowd.

“I have to be here at five.”

“You’ll have plenty time,” he said as we came to his truck. “You have a speech or something?”

I shook my head.

“No notes?” He placed my bag in the bed of his Ford.

“Don’t need them.”

“It would help.”

Carlos had played the role of wise uncle since I was a child.

He opened the passenger door. “Where you wanna go?”

“Upper Terrace first. I can get a great shot of Avalon.”

His truck smelled of refried beans and coffee. It also carried the sweet tang of a man who loved his family and life on the island. But mixed in the smells, I caught whiffs of anxiety, perhaps about his future or Maria. The Ford was caked with years of dust, grooved with dirt around the steering wheel. I rested my feet on a tool box and pondered my mother’s story. She had talked in a cacophony of innuendos, ambiguous retorts, and said things to get a reaction, so her sincerity was always in question. I wanted to know about my father and Jemjasee. What happened on that day overlooking Little Harbor when my mother ran to my father, threw herself into his arms? I’d never seen her so happy. He’d kissed my forehead, a gentle being who cooed in a singsong accent as he stroked my hair, the same effulgence as his own. I watched my parents head down the trail and disappear.

Jemjasee had taken my hand, and we walked the bluffs. She’d asked me questions, “What did I like to do, could I swim, did I have many friends?” She spoke as an equal, even though she had to be a lot older. We danced, laughed and skipped, did cartwheels and played hand-clap games. I had so much fun with my sister that I forgot about my parents.

My mother returned sobbing. Jemjasee kissed me good-bye, and I’m not sure what happened next, but my father and sister vanished.

“Where did they go?” I had asked. “Why are you crying?”

My mother howled. It hurt my ears.

“I’m afraid to leave!” She screamed and pounded her fists on the side of her head until I grabbed her, not letting go until her wails turned to whimpers.

Through the years I’d bring up that day and she’d snap, “Don’t live in the past.” Then five years ago, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I told her my wish was to know about my father and Jemjasee.

“They come from far away.”

“Luke Skywalker far?” I said with sarcasm.

Tears welled in her eyes. She stared into her wineglass, then played a Joni Mitchell album. I regretted my ridicule. She hurt easily and never spoke of them again.

Carlos drove up the hill and parked along the turn-out.

“This is perfect,” I said, pulling out the camera.

“I’ll do it,” Carlos said.

“Thanks, but I got it.” I videoed everything in sight, including Carlos, the Art Deco Casino Ballroom, moored sailboats, The Express docked at the pier, the glass bottom boat, past the harbor condos built into the mountain like a honeycomb. I aimed the camera at homes stacked above their view of Avalon Bay, and two tourists who drove by in a golf cart.

“Drop me off at Little Harbor overlook, will you?” I said.

“Hey man, I thought I was gonna help you.”

“It’s something I need to do by myself. Give me three hours.”

Carlos took off his cowboy hat, his rugged face brown as the hills. He smoothed back his dark graying hair.

“Two,” he said. “Make time for Maria before your boat leaves.”

“I planned on it.”

I put the camera inside my bag in the back of the truck.

“Why Little Harbor?”

“Mom liked it.”

“She never said anything to me about it. Man, she could be loopy.” He laughed. “When she was at our house—before smart phones, you were a kid—she’d leave messages to herself on her answering machine. A diary type thing.” He sniffed. “I never knew if she was for real or not.”

“She talked in riddles.”

“Man, she was a trip. Kindest person I ever knew.” He opened the door and hopped into the driver’s seat.

We drove up Divide Road, past the Wrigley residence, turned on Old Stage Road, and headed into the interior.

We passed bison, their ancestors left on the island in the olden days when they made cowboy movies. Carlos stepped on the gas. He drove up and over the drought-ridden hills.

In minutes, we were at Airport-In-The-Sky. The three towers, Spanish tile, and wagon wheels with plants tangled through the spokes. Small, isolated, just like its name—in the sky.

Mom never shed her hippie beads and anklets, walking barefoot, doing yoga, and a vegan diet. She told me she burned her bras in the seventies, slept with Jim Morrison, dropped acid, and tried to be a lesbian. She also read movie magazines, had facials, manicures, and wore makeup. She was a glamorous hippie. Until the day she passed, she burned incense, though the doctors told her not to, and played Carole King and Aretha Franklin albums.

She had me at the age of thirty-seven, said it was the best thing that ever happened to her.

Mom’s last words were, “Gwendolyn, don’t worry about the Earth. As soon as man destroys himself, the Earth will replenish.”

Carlos drove along the dirt road beside the pine and eucalyptus trees.

Nothing had changed since that day twenty years ago—the pyramid-like cliffs, brown fields of brush and cacti, blue and white everywhere, the sky, the sea, wisps of clouds, and ribbons of breakers crashing against the rocks.

Carlos went off-road and parked at the overlook.

“Two hours.” I opened the door, went to the flatbed, unzipped my backpack, pulled out the tripod and camera, and dropped the bag on the ground.

Carlos slammed the door. “Need help?”

“I got it.”

He looked at the mountains. “Man, we could sure use some rain.” He sighed. “Be back at three, then we go see Maria.”

The truck wheels kicked up dirt. He made a sharp turn and drove off.

I adjusted the tripod, clamped on the camera, highlighted the settings.

Looking into the lens, I said, “I’m the daughter of Megan Jones, an artist, who grew up in the 1960s. You’ve probably seen her work, especially if you read romance novels. But her landscape water colors also—.” Flashes appeared in the lens. Ah, what now? Was I out of focus? My settings off? It had a six-hour battery life. In the lens, I saw a starburst break above me, a shower of fallen rays. I spun around. Beams of light pranced above the ocean. They skipped, danced. I moved to the precipice. Riveted by the lights, I watched as particles rearranged themselves, silver, glittered. I stepped to the rim of the bluff, laughing, as if the spectacle were for me. The lights disappeared.

Dejected, I waited, stared out to sea, searched the sky, no airplanes or helicopters. What was it? Mystified, I turned to the camera.

There it was!

Molecules rearranged themselves, several hundred feet across the field. The mirage shimmied without form. I aimed the camera when a portal of light appeared. The person in the arch I knew to be Jemjasee.

I ran, gulping air. Tears, laughter, questions and sorrows erased. I felt my mother beside me. Was it her voice or my imagination? “Yes, Gwendolyn, part of you does come from far away.”

Jemjasee floated down a ramp that extended before each step, elegant in a kaleidoscopic jumpsuit, her lithe figure youthful, yellow hair, golden bronze skin.

I slumped into her arms. Her love radiated on everything, the purple blooming cacti, the brown chaparral turned brilliant with color, her consciousness a fragrance of a thousand bouquets.

“Father?”

She shook her head and took a necklace with a pendant that hung around her neck.

“He made it for you, should I ever see you again.”

“What is it?”

“A red diamond with Catalina quartz that he excavated a long time ago. The diamond is from my home, Seren.”

“It’s gorgeous. Thank you,” I said, putting it over my head. “I dreamt of you.”

“And you came.”

“Why couldn’t we have been a family?”

“On Seren, anyone with the V-Gene is forbidden to immigrate. Father wanted to settle somewhere else, but your mother was afraid of leaving here.”

I’m afraid to leave. Now her ravings made sense.

“What’s the V-gene?”

“The gene of violence.”

“Why couldn’t we all live here?”

Jemjasee shook her head. “It would be like drowning, for Father and me, if we lived on Dual.”

“Dual?”

“That’s what we call Earth. Everything here is either good or bad, rich or poor, win or lose. The pendulum swings, happy one moment, sad the next. That’s why we call Earthlings ‘Dualities.’” She touched my face, a breeze against my cheek. “On Seren, we don’t live in the outer so much as the inner world.”

“All the time? Don’t you get bored?”

Jemjasee laughed. “Bliss is never boring.”

She took deep breaths. Her bare toes scrunched dirt, twigs, and rocks. I watched, magnetized by the woman whose strangeness reflected my own, but she was confident, as if only good could come her way.

I turned back to where I first saw her. “How come I can’t see your ship?”

“It reflects the terrain it enters. Would you like a tour before I leave?”

The thought of her leaving made me despair. “Later.”

She gazed at the vista.

“Dual used to be a popular vacation spot for aliens. They came from different universes, took home souvenirs, gems, cocoa.” She glanced at me. “Now, few come. It’s hard to enter this dimension with the mounting density of fear. If we fail to navigate through it, we crash.”

We watched a flock of birds head south, and I thought about how animals and plants taught me patience and integrity. They weren’t afraid of me.

“Can Seren help us?”

“We don’t interfere with other civilizations.”

We headed toward the cliffs.

“Your mother set up her easel, right there, when Father crossed her path. Over the campfire at Little Harbor, they fell in love.”

I imagined my mother, how she must have been then. Her passions great, so consuming they robbed her peace of mind.

“Let’s head back. I have work to do, and I must leave soon.”

“You just got here,” I argued. “What kind of work?”

“I people young planets. Like Paxos, a twin of Dual.”

People planets? Earth has a twin? “How do you do that?”

“It can take a day or years to establish a contact. The decision to leave home is always their own.”

“Where do the people come from?”

“Many came from here. Now I recruit from other universes. Intergalacticals with humanoid DNA, who through countless incarnations learned and applied the nature of peace.” She reached for my hand. “I must go.”

“Are you intergalactical?”

“No. Both Father and my mother were Serenians. We share the same forefathers as all humanoids, but without the V-gene.”

The mention of my father demanded an answer to my question, and I wouldn’t let her go. “What was Father like?”

“He was an artist, like your mother. He designed Seren’s Mothership and was known as a great navigator.” Tenderness gleamed from her being. “He loved you and your mother.”

She put her arm around me, and my sadness seeped away.

“How far away is Paxos?” I said without moving.

“Seven-hundred-thousand light years. In my neighborhood, close to Seren.”

“With people like me? Mixed?”

“Yes.”

I couldn’t fathom the distance, nor could I grasp that Earth had a twin where everyone lived in peace. “Can that happen here?”

“If everyone is like-minded.”

It didn’t seem possible.

Jemjasee walked on as I lingered behind.

“I won’t see you again, will I?”

She turned with tears in her eyes.

Why risk her life to come back here? I felt the sting of defeat, a personal failure for myself and my planet. I continued on, missing her before she was gone.

Without command, a ramp and arch appeared.

“How did it do that?”

“The vessel’s malleable, chipped to my thoughts.”

We went through the dome.

When I walked into the chamber, I thought I was still outside. The structure was invisible, but there was a panel—about twenty feet long with keyboards and buttons, switches, knobs, and screens inlaid like mosaics into a control board. The floor, too, was clear, which gave me the spooky sensation of hovering inches above the ground. A spiral escalator several feet away appeared suspended.

“How tall is it? How wide?”

“It can be limited to design. I prefer space.”

In an instant, the ship had an hourglass structure, three tiers and large enough to hold twenty people. “It’s more like a rocket than a spaceship.”

“That depends.”

I stood in the ship turned on its side.

She touched a switch on the console, and a multidimensional planet appeared.

“Paxos,” Jemjasee said.

She brought the planet to me. Dwarfed by pillars of granite rock, the smell of pine filtered through a canopy of trees where I glimpsed a purple and orange sunset.

“It looks like Yosemite,” I said gazing at several waterfalls.

She placed me in a city where every brightly colored building was oblong or round. Atop a hill, an arrow of lighting flashed by. “The transit system,” Jemjasee said. She swooped in close. I stood beside people who looked like me, some different, all humanoids.

Then I found myself on a dirt road beside farmlands and fields of wildflowers. A young man came running over. His attire: a kilt or a skirt with patterns of exotic animals that moved as he ran, his skin a marble wash of lavender and green.

“Hi, I’m Deke.” He took in my jeans and denim jacket. “You from Dual?”

“Yes. My name’s Gwendolyn. Where are you from, originally?”

“Jura.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Four years.”

“Do like it?”

“Sure, don’t you?” he asked.

“I’m just visiting.”

“Oh.” He sounded disheartened.

“What kind of animals are here?” I asked.

“Like those on Dual. But they’re all vegan, like we are. Everyone has a garden on Paxos. Many, like me are farmers. I grow food for all the animals.”

“Vegan lions and wolves?”

He nodded. “We have a common goal, that every breath increases our chances to detach from the V-Gene.”

I wanted to touch him to see if his skin was cool or warm like his eyes. “Do you have a family?”

“No, but I want one.”

“Me too.”

I was back inside the ship, wishing I could have stayed and talked to Deke.

“Peace everywhere?” I asked. “Even the animals?”

“If someone’s actions cause harm,” Jemjasee said. “They’re taken off-planet. Everything, thought or deed, is for the greatest good of all.”

I thought about Deke, his skin a watercolor of heavens, reminding me of my mother’s paintings.

“Am I eligible?”

“You are.”

“And I’d see you, often?”

“Of course.”

Could I leave—The Self-Realization Center, Carlos, Maria, and the kids?

I went to the arch and looked out at the cliffs. I’d be leaving mom’s art work behind and the emerald ring and earrings she gave me for my sixteenth birthday. Would she be hurt if I took nothing but her memory?

A wistful feeling of all that had been swept over me.

I took a step forward. The ramp rolled onto the ground. I took off my shoes. Sprigs and rocks scuffed my heels. A breeze fluttered strands of hair across my face.

I’d be accepted on Paxos. I never considered a husband or child, but now?

I saw Carlos’s truck. His tires spewed billows of dust as he headed toward the overlook.

I gazed across the field to my camera and backpack.

Fear had destroyed Mom’s life. I mustn’t let that happen to me. Perhaps that would be her tribute.

Go, Gwendolyn, my mother whispered on the wind. Go.

DC DiamondopolousDC Diamondopolous is an award-winning writer whose short stories and flash fiction have been published worldwide. Among others, they have appeared online in Fiction on the Web, Eskimo Pie, Five on the Fifth, and Crab Fat Lit, and in the print anthologies Blue Crow, The Australian, and Scarborough Fair published by the University of Toronto. DC won second place in the University of Toronto’s Literary Contest for 2016 for her short story, Taps, and won two Soul Making-Keats honorary mentions in 2014 for her short stories, The Bell Tower and Taps. DC lives in California.

River Park Games

DJ races under the schoolyard hoop to snatch my ball and fling it over the rusted chain link into the street. The ball skids in the gutter in front of the bus riders who hoot and point and I get embarrassed and mad all at the same time.

“Boy you’re nothin’ playin’ in this school yard cage.” DJ shouts it every day walking through the gate after throwing my ball. “Real players run at River Park.”

Tires screech and horns honk when I fetch my ball and I say a couple of bad words hoping the grownups at the bus stop don’t hear me. If anyone tells my momma what I’m saying, my momma would wash out my mouth with soapy water, even if I am a foot taller.

Today, same as always, I’m weaving through the jagged shadows working my game, and same as always, DJ throws his wife-beater over his shoulder and grabs my ball. Only this time he doesn’t throw it in the street. “I’m takin’ this ball to the River. You’re nothin’ here, a big zeeeero. I’ll take it for my game. You want your ball, it’s at River courts—you gotta be player enough to take it.”

I picked up cans for pennies and ran errands for quarters to buy my ball. I dug in the gutter for nickels no one else wanted bad enough to get their hands dirty, while getting laughed at by codgers and kindergarteners, and when my big angry mouth howls it makes a ringing in my ears. “You better have your A game ready!”

I see heads turn all the way up at the 7-Eleven and I feel really dumb.

Have your A game ready.

Me and my mouth yelled have your A game ready. Original.  Maybe I’ll start a basketball team and call it the Globetrotters.

Making it worse, a couple of girls from school are pushing through the gate the other way and I see them right after I yell.

“You playin’ DJ at River Park?”

One of the girls, Amber, sat behind me in school my whole life. “You goin’ to run at the River courts?”

I always feel good when Amber’s around, except this time I feel really dumb after she heard me yell, like a worse thing that got worse. I’m a beat up wall someone spray-painted ugly pictures on, only I did it myself.

It didn’t matter what grade I was in, I always thought Amber was cool and for sure she was always nice—giving me a smile, helping me with my work. This year she’s the prettiest girl, at least to me, with her long legs and snappy boots, and I have trouble getting any words to come out when she’s around.

“Let me know when you go down to the River, I’ll come watch you.” She tosses her head around and her hair brushes past my face. “Maybe.”

It’s like she’s opening then closing a door after looking out.

Open—closed. Open—closed.

I don’t know if she’s teasing or real. Would Amber go down to the roughest park in the city? I’m supposed to tell her I’m going to River Park probably to get my head carved off?

How do you know what a girl’s really thinking?

Whichever way, I feel really, really dumb and really, really embarrassed. Amber hearing my big mouth makes me feel I have to go to River Park, makes me think I have no choice. Maybe I don’t.

Maybe I just never faced up to it—schoolyard players are nothing. On the River courts, you learn the game. The real fact is no one plays varsity ball without playing at the River, and I want to be a varsity player like I want nothing else—there is nothing else. I want to run when the band plays. I want the ball in my hands while the gym rocks.

DJ and I have a history—it’s not what you think.

DJ lives one block up and even though he’s older, all the time he went one on one with me at the schoolyard. “You and me. I’m going to have your lunch.”

DJ would always win and trash talk me all day and the next day, too. But that was ok. It was like DJ was training me, like he was trying to build up my game and he built it up enough for me to play JV ball last season—the only 9th grader to dress with the varsity.

Now, DJ wants to jam me up against the inside of this chain link cage, like he’s looking for a fight every day. I’m a dog and DJ stole my bone.

DJ knows I’ve got skills, everybody does. When my jump shot jingles the chains on the schoolyard rim, it raps soul-moving music. Shing—boom, thump thump.

But there’s more to basketball than skills.

“You gotta get some want to’s.”  DJ said it, and I know it.

I did everything but tap dance on the corner to come up with the money for my ball, and if anyone would have thrown me a nickel, I would have done that. I had to have that ball. I had to work my skills and I work my skills every day.  I guess DJ never saw those “want to’s.”

Or maybe I never showed DJ the want to’s when score was kept.

Maybe I just never faced up to it—schoolyard players are nothing. On the River courts, you learn the game. The real fact is no one plays varsity ball without playing at the River, and I want to be a varsity player like I want nothing else—there is nothing else. I want to run when the band plays. I want the ball in my hands while the gym rocks.

The shadows creep back to make room for the schoolyard citizens and my friends show. “Yogi, Stack—come on guys, let’s walk down to River courts.”

“That would be crazy. Those cats are big.”

Nice pals—always have my back. “You can just watch.”

“We’re just watchin’ here.” Yogi kicks his shoelaces in front of his Jordans. “Where’s your ball?”

I keep my mouth shut, but my face gets a little hot.

Stack hikes his jeans back over his skinny butt and drifts toward the school steps where Amber and a couple of girls are hanging and watching us with one eye. “River cats are bad. Better prospects here. Let me know how it comes out.”

“Stick around.” Yogi jumps, grabs the rim chains and pulls up. “You’ll find trouble if you go down to the River—bad trouble. It’s Mars, man, it’s another world.”

I keep selling a walk down to the River—I could easier sell rust to a junkyard.

Stack shuffles back. “Yeah, man, stay here. River ball is nothin’ but bad news. We can play here. We’ll keep the court all day if we want.” Stack turns half around and points his chin at the school steps. “Like I said, better prospects, too.”

I’ve been telling myself I’ve got the skills—jumpers and cross-overs and step backs, but that’s not a game. I figure out that I’ve just been fooling myself and I hear my angry mouth again. “I’ll  never have a varsity game if I hang around this schoolyard.”

“No problem man, just tell ‘em to send us your body—we’ll take care of arrangements.”

*     *     *

At the River courts, a basketball rolls to my feet and hops on my finger, spinning easy as a gull flies overhead. A joke with his belly pushing against a worn out City U jersey acts tough. “It takes more than tricks to play on this court.”

I dribble twice between my legs and shoot. Shing—boom, thump thump.

City U chases the ball while I cross the scarred pavement.  The sounds of boat wakes and air horns remind me I’ve left my turf behind. I’m nothing here and I try to be cool while hunting a partner.

All I find is comedians.

“I think your momma’s calling.”

Funny guys. Excuse me while I go laugh.

I lace up by myself and study the courts: two-on-two, three-on–three, full court five-on-five.

I find DJ on the two-on-two court. His partner is Chief.  Man, he’s big. They should call him House. He looks like he’s working club security—sharing sweat and serving elbows while he bounces wannabes out of the paint.

DJ has stepped up his game. River competition worked for DJ—he’s a player and big time. DJ and Chief never leave the court.

I didn’t give myself much choice with my big mouth, so I watch a couple games and try working up my courage. The play makes my schoolyard games seem like my momma’s bingo night. Players hit the ground as often as the ball hits the backboard and I’m seeing more spins and slams than I see in a summer month at the schoolyard. Pretty soon I’m thinking, be reasonable—my basketball isn’t that big a deal. I can get another ball and still play in the schoolyard, so I sneak behind the crowd to leave.

There’s Amber with her big brown eyes and I fall right in them. “You call next?”

I sort of mumble something, nothing, and those big brown eyes shrink into ebony slivers. “You think you have a choice?”

My legs are stuck in park and Amber just puts her hand on me and pushes a little. “Go call next.”

Just as I’m liking the way she touched me and that little push, she twists her head around to walk away and the harbor breeze replaces the scent of her hair with the far off stench of rotting fish.

Open—closed. Open—closed.

All this female logic, plus knowing Amber is watching, has me beat down and I call next.

“You and who’s next? Try next year.”

I’m pretty sure I’m worn out with this comedy thing. “Unless you want to run with me, it’s not your problem, Jack.”

Jack comedian has to look up from below my shoulders so he lets my big mouth slide. Everyone else just laughs down at me, everyone except a tree topper I heard someone call Kevin. He stares at me over his beard and I’m wondering if he knows me somehow. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. I just hope he can’t tell how scared I am.

Then I remember Amber and quick peek around to see if she’s laughing too, but I don’t see her.

Open closed open closed.

On the court, DJ finger rolls in another winning shot and pulls up his shirttail to wipe the sweat from his shaved head. “We’ll stay and play, who’s next?”

My shoe screeches and I almost trip. “I’m next.”

“Here’s the little boy that said I better bring my A game, right, little boy? Too bad you walked so far for this ball, ‘cause now you’re walkin’ home without it.”

The oily reek of the river creeps down the back of my nose to my throat and my voice scratches. “I called next.”

Pow!

DJ slams my ball on the concrete and grabs it in my face. “I’m not playin’ the JV! And who’s gonna run with you! No one’s gonna run with a schoooooolyard boy!”

Before, I was scared. Now, I’m mad, crazy mad, I don’t know what I’m doing mad and before I can catch myself I slap the ball and the bang turns heads all the way at the five-on-five court. “I told you I was coming to get my ball, now let’s play!”

I’m not backing down—not anymore. DJ stole my ball. He made me walk down here to this river God forgot. Now he says go home?

DJ bumps me and I let loose a bunch of those bad words and shove DJ in the chest and he slams me back. My insides boil, but before I can get my hands up, I hear a voice that comes from the trees.

“We’re playin’.”

“You don’t run this court, Kevin. We’re winners and I say he walks.”

“We’re playin’. Unless you think you can’t take us.”

“Ok, Kevin. You’re a big man. I got a bigger one—Chief says he wants to dunk on you.”

DJ throws my ball into my stomach. “Let the JV play-UH shoot for the ball.”

Shing—boom, thump thump.

Kevin doesn’t smile. “Nice shot. Don’t embarrass me.”

My stomach knots up. I check the ball to DJ and he stomps my foot. Lightening shoots up my ankle and the ball rolls right into Chief’s hands.

Slam!

Chief’s muscles ripple as he chins on the rim and sails through the air. The backboard bows down to snap back. Yang!

Kevin looks at me. My ankle throbs and the taste of hot wings tossed in dirt smolders in my throat. Now I’m just scared I’m going to throw up.

Thmp thmp. DJ dribbles behind his back. “This isn’t the schoolyard, little boyeeeee. And I won’t need my A game against a B team that’s got no want to’s.”

I can feel a nuclear reaction under my skin and sweat steam from my face. I wish I hadn’t tried to sound so tough when DJ stole my ball, but me and my big mouth did.

Kevin has tree limbs for arms and legs and he keeps the game close until the sounds and smells of the court wash over me and my stomach knot rinses free. I forget everything but the ball and the hoop. When DJ gets cocky, I steal his lazy pass and Kevin runs the end line. My left hand pass is a guided missile.

Zzzzzzzzip—Slam.

The crowd whoops. Now, it’s DJ’s face that burns and he stabs at me, jabbing at the ball and scratching my arm. “Go home little schoolyard boy, before you get hurt.”

I feel DJ’s breath in my face so I whip the ball overhead, the way DJ taught me, and my elbow clips his nose.

DJ rubs his nose with the back of his hand and smears blood on his face. “You’re going down.”

I dribble right. “You better bring more people.” My crossover dribble left is a blur. Two more dribbles and a step back one-handed shot, just like playing horse.

Shing—boom, thump thump.

The crowd blows up. “Game goin’ on!”

Yea, I’ve got skills, and I’m feeling them now.

I fake high. DJ’s hands black out the sky, so I drive low and spring to the hoop.

Pow!

Chief hammers the ball away and drives me down on my shoulder and I skid on the pavement. DJ is ready behind the arc. Shing.

“OWOOOOOO! Don’t bring that weak stuff, little boyeeee.

My shirt is ripped. The skin on my back and shoulder sizzles like bacon frying while DJ high fives Chief.

I roll over on my hands and knees. I hear the comedians laughing at their own jokes again and I wonder if Amber is laughing too, but I don’t look around to see—I don’t want to know. I’m not a beat up wall with ugly pictures painted on anymore. I’m a pile of smashed bricks.

I crawl to the chain link and gasp for my breath and the taste of the river gets all the way in my stomach and I throw up. I watch all my want to’s churn out of me and when I spit out the last of my soul, Kevin’s size 15s step into my view. “You playin’ or goin’ home?”

Good question.

I worked it in my head while I listened to DJ bounce my ball high off the court.

“Forget him—who’s next?”

Forget is right. There’s nothing here for me now.

There’s nothing for me to lose. “Let’s play.”

Kevin whispered as I grabbed the chain link and pulled up. “You came here to learn the game—first lesson: let the game come to you.”

I face DJ and he drives at me, one on one. “Go home, schoolyard trash.”

I slam back and again pay for my anger when DJ’s elbow crushes my ribs. “Tap tap—time to take out the trash.” My whole body feels like a funny bone, like I stuck my fingers in an electric socket. I’ve got the taste of vomit in my mouth again when I finally get smart and remember DJ’s go to move from the schoolyard.

Let the game come to you.

When DJ spins, I’m crouched low waiting for him. I pick the ball and streak to the hoop.

Let the game come to you.

DJ’s hands shove my back and I jump to a stop. DJ rolls over me and my easy bank shot is money.

The crowd rocks and the chain link roars. “Is DJ going down?”

We need a basket to win and I’ve got the want to’s again and I’ve got them bad and what I want is the winning points for myself. But more than anything, I want to be a player—a varsity player—and I remember the first lesson: let the game come to you.

I spit the last of the acid at DJ’s feet and bounce a pass hard to Kevin.

Bam.

Kevin and Chief hammer each other.

Bam, bam.

Now elbows probe and knees prod. The trash talk is gone. The crowd is silent. It’s two cats, a ball, and a hoop.

I coil my legs. Kevin drop steps low and DJ slides back to help Chief on defense. I race to the corner.

DJ’s ankles break. Kevin’s pass is perfectcatch and shoot.

Shing—boom, thump thump.

Kevin slaps my hand. “Game.”

The chain link stills. The crowd is silent.

I face DJ. I’m done being a “little boyeeee” and my trash talk is off the leash. DJ steps toward me and I’ve got enough crazy mad still left in me to fly to the moon. I pull hands up and we lock eyes.

I hear that voice from the trees again. “I think he’s a player, DJ, what do you think.”

I don’t know how long we stare at each other. In some ways it had to be a lifetime before DJ spoke. “A varsity player, that’s what I think.”

DJ slaps my left hand away and grabs my right hand in a shake. “Good game, little man. I knew you could be a player.”

I feel kind of funny after having my blood boiled then left on simmer. It was a new feeling for me, and I kind of mutter. “Sorry about the nose, DJ.”

“Isn’t that what I taught you? Besides, you got pay back.”

Then I look at Kevin. “I know you now—you played at the schoolyard when I was so little I couldn’t get in a game.”

“Yea, I gave DJ a lesson once, made him mad enough to come down here to River, except I didn’t let him bloody up my shirt.”

DJ laughed. “Yea, that was a little real.” I hadn’t heard DJ laugh in a long time. It was a good sound. “I got Kevin to help give you a lesson. Didn’t think you’d school me, I guess you had a good teacher.”

“Naw man, he’s just got the talent.” Kevin bounces me my ball. “You playin?”

“You need to clean that shoulder.” Amber was standing behind me, staring and trying to be all serious. “And you know your shirt is torn.”

“We’ll clean it up later and get a fresh shirt.” I didn’t mumble and my simmering feeling feels pretty good now, so I go ahead and try a smile. “Some ice cream at the drugstore might be good, too.”

Amber twists her head around. Again her hair brushes past me and those snappy boots step away.  “Depends on how much later.”

“Tap tap.” DJ jabs at my sore ribs, but I’m already catching up to Amber. “Hey, wait up a sec. Stick around and watch.”

Amber twists back around and again I fall into those big brown eyes. “You little schoolyard boys go run on the three man court, maybe I’ll watch—for a while.”

Open—closed.

Richard GnannRichard Gnann is a retired music teacher now writing and performing original children’s songs as Mr. Richard. He also worked as a basketball referee and his sports commentary has appeared on DawnoftheDawg.com.  Richard’s children’s story The Rattler won the 2015 SCBWI Southern Breeze Region picture book text contest, and he is the author of Dreaming of the Redcoat Band, the picture book telling of a child’s dream to march on Fall Saturdays in Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. Richard has two grown sons and lives with his wife in Winder, Georgia.

When Jack Left

At first, we kept it underneath the porch. Jack wanted me to hide it in my room, but my mom would have found it and scrapped it. She had already stripped the wiring in the garage, and pretty soon, any metal in the house was going to the scrap yard and then straight into her bloodstream.

Light filtered through the gaps in the decking, and we sat there, among the cigarette butts and spider webs and stared at it. Jack called it “You know, the thing,” because he had a way with words. I just called it “it.”

*     *     *

We found it in a house two doors down from my own. The family had vacated the place the night before. The truck came at dusk, and I watched through my bedroom window as the family packed their goods into the back, and I listened to my mom’s anxious steps as she paced our living room, eager to get a hold of their water heater before one of the other scrappers did. As soon as they left, she practically danced down the steps and over to their house. I watched her jump the fence with the agility of a much healthier woman.

Jack must have been watching too, because he called right as she disappeared into their yard.

“Heya, Michelle.” He thought it was funny to call me that. It was better if I didn’t take the bait.

“What’s up?”

“Wanna prowl, man?”

I looked out the window again. My mom was still back there, but she would be occupied for a bit. I picked at a scab on my ear.

“Yeah. Let’s do it. Bring a light this time.”

“Yeah, well bring your balls this time, Michelle.” He laughed, and I hung up.

*     *     *

I got to Jack’s house before he came out and waited on the curb. Through the front window, I could see his parents in the living room, drinking and watching a rerun of Judge Judy. He came around the side of his house and shined the flashlight in my eyes.

“What’re you blinking for, Mikey? Is this little thing too bright for you?”

I smiled. “Let’s go, huh?”

The light bulbs were gone, but those were gone everywhere. This family had even carted off the bedroom doors and showerheads. This neighborhood had larger homes than the last few my mom and I had stopped in—several homes even had empty pools out back—but people seemed to leave less behind here than elsewhere.

He lived right across the street from the now-empty house. We walked over to it and skirted around the left. My mom was still behind the house, grunting and pulling at pipes. Something snapped loose, and she swore. Jack said, “Let’s hope they left something good.”

We checked the windows on the side of the house and were able to crawl in through the third one. Jack snapped on his flashlight, and it lit up what had been a bedroom. It was empty. We walked down the hallway and found two more rooms like the first.

The family had stripped the home before they left. The light bulbs were gone, but those were gone everywhere. This family had even carted off the bedroom doors and showerheads. This neighborhood had larger homes than the last few my mom and I had stopped in—several homes even had empty pools out back—but people seemed to leave less behind here than elsewhere.

We stopped in the third bedroom and looked around at the empty walls. Jack kicked at a small, crumpled ball of packing paper by the window. “We’re probably moving out, too.”

“Seriously? How soon?” I felt sick at the thought.

“I don’t know. Few weeks maybe. My aunt has a couple of rooms for us in Phoenix.”

“Phoenix?”

“Yeah. My dad thinks he can get work there.”

“Huh.” I didn’t say more, but I hoped he was wrong. Jack’s family was the last one on the street, and once they left and my mom stripped their place, we’d be moving again. It wasn’t really our place anyway. We found it, like we found the place before it, sitting empty after the economy fell apart. We’d camp out for a few weeks, or a few months, and my mom would pick over the other vacated homes like a carrion beetle. I hadn’t been in school for over a year, and most of the time I was the only kid on whatever street we ended up. So Jack mattered.

“The city should be better than this hole though,” Jack said.

I nodded. “Let’s keep looking.”

We checked the kitchen. Jack found a knife blade with no handle, and I found a half-empty bottle of bleach. I poured it down the drain while he pocketed the blade. The living room was empty, and we walked through it to check the master bedroom.

When we looked in the master bath, we saw it. It was a metal cylinder, about three feet tall and a foot in diameter. It sat between the toilet and the tub, its smooth, silvery surface gleaming in the glow of the flashlight.

“That’s not normal,” Jack said.

I took the flashlight from him and stepped into the bathroom. I could feel warmth rising from the surface of the cylinder.

“How’re you supposed to use the john with that thing sitting right in front of it?” Jack asked.

“Shut up for a second,” I snapped. “Is it making a noise?”

We both listened, but all we could hear was my mom cursing at the plumbing out back.

Jack stepped past me and tried to pick it up, but he could only raise it an inch or two before he had to drop it.

“Man, I can’t lift that thing.”

I stared at it for a minute. “We’ve got to get it out of here before my mom gets inside.”

“Well, I can’t carry it.”

“We’ll roll it, dummy.”

Jack slugged me in the shoulder, “Now who’s a dummy, dummy?”

I sighed. “Fine,” I said, “Let’s tip it over. Grab that side.”

I stepped between the cylinder and the tub, Jack stepped between the cylinder and the toilet, and we started to tip the top of it towards the bathroom door. Just as the weight of it shifted, the cylinder began to hum. Surprised, we both let go as it crashed to the floor. The humming got louder, and the cylinder’s surface glowed red hot. I could smell the linoleum burning underneath it.

“Get out of the bathroom,” I hissed, and we both pushed into the hallway, against the opposite wall. We waited and watched. I was sure there would be a fire, but the humming died, and the surface of the cylinder began to return to its original color.

I heard my mom dropping pipes on the ground outside and swearing in relief. She would be inside the house soon. “Let’s see if we can roll it now,” I said.

It was still hot enough we had to wrap our shirts around our hands, but we were able to roll it out of the bathroom, down the hallway, out the front door, and halfway across the front yard before we heard my mom break one of the back windows. We rolled it across my long-gone neighbor’s yard and into mine, and I paused for a second. “Let’s roll it under the back porch.”

“Dude, under your bed.”

“Not a chance. This thing heats up again, my sheets will catch fire.”

Jack laughed. “I’ve seen your room, Mikey, and you don’t have any sheets to burn.”

“Screw you, man. The porch’ll work fine.”

We rolled it behind my house and under the porch and then crawled back out into a cloudless desert night. I shivered and pulled my shirt back on. Until we stepped away from the cylinder, I didn’t realize how cold the evening had become.

Jack scratched his belly. “You’re sure your mom won’t find it under there?”

“Look,” I said, “Come over tomorrow, and we’ll figure out what to do. Maybe we can sell it.”

Jack nodded. “Okay. I’ll see you, man.” He turned and walked back. I watched him go, and over his shoulder, I could see the glow of the television pouring out of his living room windows.

*     *     *

So, we sat there, under the porch, staring at it. It must have started cooking again overnight, because the soil around it was black for half a foot, and it had sunk a few inches into the dirt.

“Let’s try to stand it up,” I said.

We dug our fingers under it and started to lift, but almost immediately, the humming began, and the metal became too hot to touch. We dropped it and moved back. After a few minutes, it calmed down again.

“What do we do with it? If we can’t move it without burning our hands off, we can’t really sell it,” Jack said.

“I don’t know.” And I didn’t. So we sat there, staring at it. After about fifteen minutes, it started humming and heating up again, and we watched as it sank another half inch into the soil.

“We better put something under it,” I said.

We crawled out from under the porch and looked in the garage. My mom had sold off anything worth selling, and all we could find were a few broken roof tiles tucked into the front corner of the garage.

“Let’s try these,” Jack said.

We were ducking to crawl back under the porch when my mom stepped outside to have her morning smoke. It was half-past twelve.

“What are you two doing?” she growled.

We froze and then backed out slowly and looked up at her.

She stared at us over the flame as she lit her cigarette, and we looked at each other. Jack shook his head.

“Nothing, Mom,” I said. “Just hanging out.”

“That tile’s mine.”

I looked at my hands, as if I were just realizing that I held two broken pieces of tile.

“Can we use it for a bit?”

“For what?” Her eyes narrowed.

“Nothing.”

She came down the porch stairs and peered into the shadows under the porch, and my stomach sank.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Nothing.” I said.

“Right,” she said. “Nothing. Get it out here, so I can take a look at it.”

“I can’t lift it.”

“Well then I’ll get it,” she said, and before I could stop her, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled under the porch.

A few seconds later, we heard the humming, and she cursed loudly. A foul smell trickled out from the shadows.

“Mom?” I called.

I could hear her breathing heavily, then the humming jumped in pitch, and she cursed again.

“Mom?” I called again.

Suddenly she came scrambling out from under the porch, her hair singed and what looked like a long, white boil lifting on one of her forearms.

“Get that damned thing out of there before it burns the whole house down! I swear, you’re as dumb as your dad was,” she shouted and then stomped up the steps and slammed the kitchen door behind her.

*     *     *

We used some of the pipes my mom had stripped from the neighbors, and it still took us about two hours to get it out from under the porch. At one point, Jack tripped and burned his elbow before he could jump away from the cylinder. It hummed and burned the entire time, and when we were done, we both had cherry red sunburns on our noses and cheeks. We worked it into the middle of the yard, where it wasn’t likely to damage anything other than the dry soil and a few clumps of dead weeds.

“I’m done.” Jack stood back and looked at his elbow. “That thing is more trouble than it’s worth. We’ll kill ourselves trying to get it to a scrapper.”

“Let’s at least get some of these tiles under it.”

“No way, man. I’m done. My arm’s killing me.”

“What am I supposed to do with it? Just let it bury itself out here?”

“I don’t know. I just know I don’t want to mess with it anymore.”

“Fine.” I didn’t look up at him, and he left without saying anything else.

After sitting still for a few minutes, it cooled back down, and I started working some tiles under it from each side. I would wedge one under and then wait a couple of minutes until it was cool enough to negotiate another into place. After another hour of wrangling with it, I had it sitting on a small bed of cracked clay tiles. By then, I was done with it, too. My hands and shoulders were sore, and all I wanted was a cold Coke and some afternoon television.

*     *     *

I dreamed about the thing that night. In my dream, I was standing in the backyard, alone and naked, shivering in the cool desert breeze, surrounded by stars that wouldn’t stay in place. Every few seconds it seemed, another star dropped out of the sky, hit the horizon, and threw up a cloud of dust. The cylinder sat in front of me, and as soon as I noticed it, it began glowing white hot, and the sound pouring out of it was so loud I had to cover my ears. The clouds of dust were rolling in towards the cylinder, and just as the noise reached its peak, the ground swallowed the cylinder whole. One moment, it was there, baking the soil around it and screaming, and the next, it dropped into the ground and disappeared. The noise was gone. The heat was gone. The dust disappeared. All that remained was a dark scar on the dirt.

*     *     *

I had the same dream a couple more times, and on the mornings after, I would check on the cylinder. Sometimes, the tiles would crumble and give way overnight, and I’d come out to find it had sunk a few inches further into the ground.

When I woke up the next morning, I went out to check on it. It was still there, lying in the middle of the yard and shining in the morning sun. The tiles had cracked in more places, and a few of them had scorch marks, but they had held. Jack walked up behind me as I looked at it.

“Your mom doesn’t want it?”

“If she does, she didn’t say anything more about it last night.”

We stood there for another moment, but it didn’t do anything. “Dude,” Jack said, “This is stupid. Let’s play some Halo or something.”

And for the next few weeks, nothing happened. I had the same dream a couple more times, and on the mornings after, I would check on the cylinder. Sometimes, the tiles would crumble and give way overnight, and I’d come out to find it had sunk a few inches further into the ground. I’d dig it out and work a new tile or two underneath, but for the most part, I lost interest.

*     *     *

It was a month, but Jack’s family did move away. My mom was high when they packed up their truck, and I went over to help them load a few things. Jack gave me some of his comics, and I gave him the basketball we had found in one of the houses.

“Man, it’ll be good to get out of here, Mike,” he said. “You think you can come up sometime and visit?”

“Sure,” I lied. “Right after my mom’s done stripping the whole neighborhood, maybe.”

He grinned, but the grin didn’t hold. “You still have it? You know, the thing?”

I nodded. “It’s still in the yard. It’s sinking a bit, but I haven’t been able to do anything with it.”

He looked down and after a moment, he said, “You’re going to think this is stupid.”

“What?”

“I’ve been dreaming about it. Like, a lot.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously. It’s crazy too. At first, I don’t realize it’s there, you know, in the dream. I’m just dreaming. Like I’m in school or something, and suddenly the teacher’s gone, and the thing is just sitting on her desk. Or my dad’s holding it like it’s a baby. I had one dream where it was huge and rolling towards me, and I couldn’t move out of the way, and it was burning everything it touched. It was freaking terrifying, man.” He paused and grinned again, but he wouldn’t look at me. “It’s stupid, right?”

I shook my head, “Sounds like you got sunstroke or something, man.” I laughed.

Jack laughed too and punched me in the arm. “Sure. Thanks for that.”

His family finished packing their stuff, and Jack gave me a quick, awkward hug before he got in the truck with his folks. “Hey, Mikey, get rid of that thing. I think it’s bad.”

“Sure,” I nodded. “I’ll see you soon, huh?”

“Yeah,” he said. And then they were gone.

*     *     *

The next day, my mom was up and over at Jack’s house before breakfast. I turned on our television and watched a man teach a pair of newscasters how to grill the “perfect summer meal” while I ate two packs of microwave oatmeal.

I flipped through a few of the comics while the same two newscasters joked about how stressful it had been to take kids to Six Flags the month before. The man, with his broad, white grin, told the woman that his son had refused to eat the park’s corn dogs. The woman joked that she wouldn’t eat a corn dog either, knowing what went into the things. “Lips and hips,” the man said, “Lips and hips!” They both laughed.

Three hours and all of the comic books later, my mom returned. She was sweating and wound up. She wouldn’t sit. Instead, she stood, bouncing from foot to foot for the few minutes it took to eat some reheated freezer pizza and drink a Coke.

“A lot of wire over there,” she said between bites. “Lot of wire.” She stopped and stared at me, then scratched at her neck.

“Kid left a note for you.”

“Jack?”

“I don’t know. There’s a note with ‘Mikey’ on the front. Just a card. No money or nothing.”

“Did you bring it with you?”

She shook her head and tossed the crust of the pizza in the sink. “That kid retarded or something? All he wrote was ‘Burn it.’” She tipped her head back and drained the Coke. “Burn what?”

“Probably just a joke or something,” I said. “I’ll go get the note.”

She shouted “You could give a hand over there, huh?” at my back as I left.

*     *     *

I pulled the card out—it had a picture of an armadillo wearing a necktie, and a caption that read, “An armadillo without his armor is just an ugly rat.” Inside, Jack had written, “bury it.”

My mom had made quick work of the house. The plumbing from outside the house lay in a haphazard pile in the middle of the living room. She had already ripped long, ugly tracks through the drywall in the living room and kitchen, and she had started in the hallway. The wiring still sat in place, just waiting for her to finish opening the walls and start ripping it from the two-by-fours in long coils. It sold better if she kept it intact.

Jack’s room was in the back, and the note had been taped to the wall before my mom found it. She had ripped it open, checked it, and left it in the corner. I pulled the card out—it had a picture of an armadillo wearing a necktie, and a caption that read, “An armadillo without his armor is just an ugly rat.” Inside, Jack had written, “bury it.”

While I stared at the note, my mom wandered into the room and said, “Gonna help?”

“He said to bury it,” I said, and held up the card.

“Whatever,” she said. “Gonna help?”

“No.”

“Figures.” She turned and muttered to herself as she left, “Don’t know why I feed the brat.” After a few seconds, I heard her tearing at the drywall again.

*     *     *

For the first time in over a week, I checked on it again. The soil around it couldn’t have been any blacker if I had poured oil on it, and the cylinder had sunk about six inches since I last dug it out.

I grabbed one of the last pieces of tile and began to scrape at the dirt around it, working to uncover it again. The sun was directly overhead, and it glared off of the silver surface. After another twenty minutes, I had the cylinder exposed again, and I sat back to rest and think.

Jack wanted me to bury it, and I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, but when I thought about piling the soil on top of it and walking away, letting it worm its way towards the center of the earth, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had to find a way to lift it out of the small cavity it had already burned into the ground and set it somewhere it would stay put. I had to get it up onto the driveway.

I went back across to Jack’s house and found my mom in the living room, pulling at the exposed wire. Her eyes followed me as I grabbed four of the pipes laying in the middle of the room.

“What’re you doing?” she asked.

“Helping.”

She sighed and looked away.

I lugged the pipes back across the street. After laying two on the dirt between the cylinder and the driveway, I wedged the other two against the edge of the hole in order to lever the cylinder up and onto the first pair. Immediately, it began buzzing and glowing an angry red, but I was able to work it onto the other pipes. Once it was on the temporary track, it rolled without resistance, and its momentum carried it off of the ends of the pipes and across the last few feet of soil, where it rolled to a stop against the edge of the drive. The humming noise rose to a siren-pitch, and the temperature shot up. Heat was pouring out of the cylinder and baking my face.

I backed away and waited until it cooled off some, and then I worked at it with the pipes again. After another few minutes of struggling with it, I managed to roll it up and onto the concrete, and it looked as though it was calming down again. I dropped the pipes and sat down next to it. The heat was dissipating, but it was still too hot to touch with my bare hands.

“Huh,” my mom said. She had come up behind me while I was sitting there. “Thought you got rid of that thing.”

“It’s been in our yard for a month, Mom. Right over there,” I pointed at the scorched cavity.

“Where’d you find this?”

“In the house two doors over.” I pointed.

“What is it?” she asked.

I looked up at her, and back at the cylinder, but didn’t answer.

She crouched down next to me, and reached towards it.

“It’s still hot,” I said.

She tapped it with her fingertips a couple of times, and then laid her palm flat against the surface. “It’s warm,” she said.

We sat there for another minute like that, and then she turned and looked at me, her hand still on the cylinder. “We should pack up.”

“Already? Don’t you need more time with Jack’s house?”

“Got most of the wire and pipes out. They didn’t leave any appliances or nothing.”

“When are we leaving?”

“In the morning.” She stood up and brushed her hands on her pants. “I’ll be back. I’m going to ride this stuff into town and see if Wade’ll give me a fair price on it.” She pulled her old bike and a home-made plywood trailer out of the garage, dropped my four pipes into the trailer, and took off towards Jack’s house to grab the scrap she had waiting just inside their front door.

*     *     *

That night, I had the dream again. The stars fell, the dust clouds rolled in, the cylinder screamed and burned, and then the earth devoured it, and everything stopped. But in this dream, as I stood there, staring at the burned soil, I could feel the ground vibrating underneath my feet. The vibrating grew worse, and then the earth erupted, and I was on fire. I threw my hands in front of my face and watched them disintegrate, peeled away by a blazing wind, the bones underneath my flesh smoking and blowing away into the night behind me. I heard screaming, and at first, I thought I was screaming, but I saw the cylinder again in front of me, hovering and burning, and the sound pouring out of it was splitting my head, and then I sat up in bed, sweating and shaking and nauseated.

I found her in the living room where she had passed out on the couch, a surgical band still around her arm, a needle on the floor.

I had to see it. I stumbled out of bed and to the back door. I could hear it before I turned the handle, and when I stepped outside, the cold night had retreated, and hot light cast sharp shadows across the yard and porch. The thing was glowing and humming, and I couldn’t look at it. It felt like the air was burning, and smoke was rising from the wood railing along the edge of the porch. One of the banisters burst into flame, and I knew we had to get out.

I ran inside to find my mom, but her bed was empty. I found her in the living room where she had passed out on the couch, a surgical band still around her arm, a needle on the floor.

“Mom!” I shouted. She didn’t move. I slapped her, hard, and she woke up with a start.

“What are you doing?” she yelled, reaching to grab me.

I stepped back, “We have to get out of the house, now!”

She shook her head and turned her body sideways on the couch, “You’re an idiot. Lemme sleep, huh?”

“Mom, there’s a fire!”

“Put it out. Go away.”

I ran to the back door again, but I could see flames through the window in the door and smoke coming through the cracks around it.

I ran into my bedroom, shoved a few books in my bag, threw on some pants and sandals, and raced back into the living room. My mom was asleep again. I grabbed her by the hands and began to pull her off of the couch. “Get up! The house is on fire! We have to go!”

She shook her head in confusion. “I’m up. I’m up. Leave me alone.”

I put her arm over my shoulder and walked her out through the front door. The street in front of the house was as bright as midday, and we could hear the flames working their way into the frame of the house behind us. Over the crackle of the flames, we could hear the singing of the cylinder. The smell of smoke was worse outside, and that got my mom’s attention. Her eyes snapped open, and she looked at me for a moment in terror.

“My stuff!” she shouted, and ran back inside.

I froze for a second, and then ran away from the house, down the street and away from the cylinder. I reached Jack’s front walkway and paused to look back. I saw my mom running towards me, bag in hand, and the house burning like a candle in front of a spotlight. My mom reached me, and we both ran. The cylinder reached an impossible screech, and as I ran, the sound worked into my skull, making my ear drums bounce and itch until I heard something burst. My mom fell over, and I tripped over her, and then everything was silent. I rolled over and sat up, wondering if my ear drums had blown out, but the night was silent again. The light had disappeared, the sound had stopped, and the house had collapsed on itself, flames still reaching into the sky.

*     *     *

In the end, three houses burned. My mom and I broke into another home that night, and she slept in the corner of the living room while I sat outside, watching the volunteer fire department respond. Over the next few days, as we moved from block to block, looking for homes that hadn’t been stripped yet, different safety officers and public officials visited. My mom had—among other things—saved a small radio, and the news reports said that officials were still trying to “determine the source of the blast.” Some speculated that it was a meteorite. One local talk radio host spent an hour blaming migrant workers.

After another couple of days, the news moved on to other stories, and we found a place to settle down in a development about a half-mile from the last. We came across a street with two freshly abandoned homes, we broke into the smaller of the two late that night, and my mom began stripping the larger the next morning. As soon as she was out of sight, I went back.

*     *     *

The driveway had been replaced by a crater about twenty feet across and six feet deep. Some safety officer had strung caution tape around the crater and the charred waste of the three homes. I stepped over the tape and walked up to the edge of the crater. I don’t know why I was expecting to see the cylinder there, but I was still surprised by its absence.

I slid down into the crater, and the dirt at the bottom crunched under my feet as I walked into the center. From my vantage point in the crater, I could see only the mid-morning sky, which had turned to a blue so clear it was disorienting.

I paused at the center of the crater and looked up. A plane cut through the middle of the sky, heading south and leaving a small white line in its wake. I looked down again at the dirt, and I saw a small hole, about four inches in diameter, that hadn’t been visible from the edge of the crater.

I dropped to my knees and peered in. It could have been a foot deep or a mile deep. It didn’t matter because in either case, I could see nothing. But leaning over it that morning, I could hear something screaming down there in the dark.

Daniel JulianDaniel R. Julian was born in Tucson (though he tells people “south of Phoenix”), and he now lives and works in Spain. He started writing when he was young, hammering out terrible, energetic, and probably plagiarized stories on his parents’ typewriter in between reruns of Get Smart and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. After completing degrees in philosophy and theology, he started writing again, and his stories have appeared in Youth Imagination, Zetetic, and now Lunch Ticket.

Our Sky, the Ocean

We were waiting for rain the day my sister stopped talking. We examined the swollen clouds and waited. Mom and Dad prattled on about the football game that was holding up traffic to I-10, the church talent show, the neighbor’s runaway Chihuahua, the sandwich shop opening up on Fifth, and the sad state of our garden.

I chimed in from time to time, keeping an eye on my sister as she watered the vegetables. The broccoli and basil leaves were withering up like prunes, and the lettuce resembled the tops of Grandpa’s hands. My sister patted the ground and traced the leaves with her fingers, as though speaking to them without words.

“Do your job,” I told the sky.

The twenty-day drought was right on schedule. It was the middle of August, and droughts often hit the Texas panhandle this time of year. Still, no one was ever prepared.

I nudged Missy, chuckling because our neighbor, Mr. Jerry, was bending over. It looked as though he might lose his pants, and I whispered as much. When she didn’t laugh with me, I began to worry.

I asked Missy if she wanted to walk down to the Twenty & Below. We loved wandering the aisles and evaluating the clothes. We’d try on dresses and model for each other, spinning and sashaying and giggling until we were asked to kindly calm down or, if Darling was working, to kindly shut up.

“Come on,” I coaxed. After a minute, I said, “Do you think it will rain?” When Missy didn’t answer, I said, “How much money you think we’ll earn if we help Mr. Jerry paint his garage next week?”

I asked more questions, so many I don’t remember.

Missy responded with smiles and raised eyebrows, shrugs and tightened lips. She walked with urgency, as though excited, but she didn’t make a single sound. It was like someone pressed the button on the remote to pause her.

“You okay?” I asked.

She smiled with a brightness I wasn’t used to.

“Why aren’t you talking?”

She examined me with her wide eyes. They were the same brown as our kitchen table, which Dad had stained extra dark, only they had flecks of gold at the edges. I wished I had her eyes. Mine were light blue like the sky on a day with no chance of rain.

Later, we ran around the store and tried on clothes, but my sister never opened her mouth to chuckle. Darling was working. She said, “You girls are being so good today. I’m impressed!” She gave us watermelon candies and instructed us to tuck them into our pockets for later.

My sister didn’t appear ill. At dinner, she ate her corn and mashed potatoes like a champ, even licking her plate clean as the rest of us chattered on about this and that. Toward the end of the meal, Missy winked and gestured toward the door.

The air was pregnant with moisture. My parents were talking about who bought the house at the end of the street and why the teenager three doors down got fired from the automotive shop. They talked about how much the cell phone bill would be and what time they’d be home from work on Monday.

“Why aren’t you talking?” I asked again.

A year ago, my sister had closed her eyes and refused to open them for almost the entire day. She had spent hours feeling around the house to get where she needed to go. After, when she finally opened them, she said that she had been trying out a different way to see.

My sister slipped the watermelon candy in her mouth. She felt the dry earth around our vegetables.

“It’s like sand,” I said. The sky was our ocean.

Missy sat down on a patch of dirt and began to carve a message with a small stick. “Try it,” she wrote.

I closed my lips, traced my finger over the wrinkled lettuce and looked up at the sky. Together, we waited. I could hear my parents talking about this and that, but after a while, I began to hear the wind, too, then the whoosh of cars nearby. I began to understand.

The first drop of rain hit my arm and made all the little hairs stand up. The next drop landed on my cheek. My sister and I leaned back and closed our eyes, listening to the world, absorbing each drop.

Jen KnoxJen Knox is the author of After the Gazebo, a collection of short fiction. She lives in San Antonio, where she teaches creative writing and directs the Writers-in-Communities program at Gemini Ink. Her writing can be found in The Adirondack Review, Cleaver Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, Crannóg, Room Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. http://www.jenknox.com