Bombs Bursting

She loved the theater despite its flaws: the faded carpets and cracked poster frames, its lack of a curtain call. She clutched broom and dustpan and strained to hear the happenings in the dark room. Sometimes people clapped at the end, and she could pretend winter had passed and spring had come and she was on stage as Sandy in Grease. The director told her, after posting the cast list, that she might be the first Afghan American ever to play the role in a high school production. When she heard that she’d felt like there was a small sun in her throat, aching to get out.

And: yes, there, the clapping. Someone whistled. She practiced her bow as bodies flooded the lobby.

This was one of those dumb comedies. People fled once it was over, guffawing, repeating favorite lines in a way that would get exhausting over cheap pizza. Three middle-aged women emerged from the group of teen boys, laughing, hiding smiles behind manicures, rushing away from Theater 12 to stand next to the more respectable period drama for their post-show rundown.

She poked her head in again. Credits still rolling, but emptier by the moment. Enter, she thought, stage right. Holding her head high she imagined a crowd cheering when she appeared, clapping so loud the show stopped. She assessed the audience. So it wasn’t a full house, but there in the third row were those two guys—she’d ripped their tickets, the ones with the big smiles. Nice white boys, the whole town was full of them. These were embracing.

She’d been working at the movies since the summer, and was no longer scandalized by couplings of any kind. She never mentioned them to her mother. When inevitably interrogated after work she would leave this out, the strange and almost lovely way one man bent over the other.

Anyway, if she retreated every time she saw a couple going at it, she would never join another musical, or scrape the popcorn off the floor. Ducking her head, she let them do what they had to do, sneaking one more glance to sigh at the broad shoulders on the darker one, who was probably Italian.

She swept up fallen M&Ms and imagined her mother’s face if she invited the Italian or his blonde friend over for kofta kebabs. It was difficult to picture. Her mother worried and prayed and worried and worked and worried, but, after all, she did agree to the Grease audition, and to this job at this cinema. She thought of her mother like a rock, shaped by time and by the steady seeping of lovely, boring America.

The front rows were maddeningly clean, and she paused when she got to the boys. They were not making out, as she had thought, and she was happy for the reprieve from the PDA she had to endure at her high school. There, everyone wanted to express affection in physical ways, tilting heads to avoid noses, rushing towards each other like waves breaking over the clash of lips and tongues in a movement so coordinated and violent that she didn’t think she would ever participate, let alone master it. No, the boys (they were probably men, but in her experience every non-father was a boy, so she would continue to think of them as boys) weren’t kissing. The pale one was curled in his seat, every line and angle pulled taut. The dark boy’s head was close, not in a kiss, but as if trying to make sure his companion was still breathing.

It was a scene, and she read it like she would a play: THE ITALIAN, a scruffy looking fellow, sits in a darkened theater after a cheap matinee and attempts to shake his friend THE BLOND out of a waking nightmare.

She leaned against her broom and wondered how much a soldier would appreciate help from a brown teenager. Even if she were the only one in the theater—maybe even the whole suburb—who knew those gestures. Who knew that look. It was the one that said: you’re okay; you’re home; I’m here.

She had a job to do, and theaters to clean, and sometimes people who were used to wearing guns noticed she was a Muslim and little else, but she retreated to the lobby anyway. Not for the pale boy. For his darker friend who probably smelled of the sea.

The front room surprised her, with the big glass doors that led to the small Pennsylvanian world made blindingly bright by its blanket of snow. She got a bottle of water from the employee breakroom and asked Barb, a paraplegic who sold tickets at the counter, to keep the lights low in Theater 12.

“A big spill?” Barb asked, which was code for vomit.

She nodded a lie and retreated across the stain-studded carpet.

Abandoning the cleaning equipment entirely, she reentered with all the false confidence that she was cultivating for the musical. She flashed a smile, the cheerleader one she’d been practicing, at the maybe-Italian boy, who, up close, was a dead ringer for her Grease love interest Danny Zuko.

She gave him a bottle of water and he barely looked at her when he said, “Thank you.”

She’d predicted the choreography. The way eyes would flicker to her scarf, not her face. The pursing of the lips.

Perhaps this was a scene, too, a small one: THE ITALIAN ignores the GIRL in the hijab. She’d predicted the choreography. The way eyes would flicker to her scarf, not her face. The pursing of the lips.

It gave her an opportunity to look at him. This T-bird had high cheekbones and an elegantly curved mouth. He smelled not of brine but of a mother’s nightmare, of back rooms and back seats and possibilities. His friend looked like a pale and crumpled version of Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan, like he’d seen too much of explosives, or a desert.

She had cousins in the war on the other side of the world. She’d seen their bodies curl for cover, just like this. How their eyes followed invisible phantasms, just like this.

She felt like she was intruding. She had other jobs to do. But Danny Zuko was handsome and in his twenties and when she looked at him her stomach twisted, so she stayed, and ventured a guess. “Iraq?”

Danny Zuko looked up and she felt all at once exposed. This time they locked eyes. He took in every inch of her, the long sleeves of her uniform, the chipping French tips courtesy of a sleepover party. And he was surprised, as if she was mind-reading and not simply following the stage direction. “Afghanistan,” he said.

“Oh,” she said, biting her bottom lip. She could leave, of course, and let these two fend for themselves in the dark. She had given them water and as an employee of the theater perhaps she owed them nothing else. But instead she leaned her broom against the wall and took the seat closest to the aisle.

The other boy, the soldier, seemed to be trying to remember how to breathe. She tried to think of something to say over the silence. “Did you like the movie?” She winced immediately at the way her voice sounded, high and lilting and young.

Danny Zuko had a hand on his friend’s knee, and the grip looked firm. “It was the fireworks at the end.” His eyes were like flints. Combine that with her skin, the color of dead wood left to bleach in the sun, and she knew that if he leaned forward just a bit they could burn the world. “He’s been okay.” He flexed his fingers. “But the fireworks.”

She nodded. He uncapped the water and offered it to his friend. When he didn’t move, Danny Zuko drank deeply, and handed it to her. She thought of his lips on her lips and blushed as she shook her head no. Her mother could probably smell Italian saliva.

The boy took another long swig of water, then capped it and asked, “What’s your name?”

But there was good drama and bad drama, and America coming to save the day was a bit dramatic. So instead she said “Marina,” which was the name of her sister.

There was a true answer: America. She’d won the name honestly, from parents who were thankful to have a daughter born in a suburb of Philadelphia instead of the outskirts of Jalalabad. But there was good drama and bad drama, and America coming to save the day was a bit dramatic. So instead she said “Marina,” which was the name of her sister.

“Joe,” the darker boy said. “This is Seth. He’s a good guy, really. Only good guy I know who joined up. But he just got back. I should have known about the fireworks, but I just didn’t think.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, thanks for the water.”

Seth was leaning back in his seat, gripping the arms. His hair was still in its regulation buzz cut and shimmered gossamer in the low light. He would, America thought, be entirely beautiful when he grew up.

“We’ll be out of your hair soon,” Joe promised. He had extraordinarily long eyelashes.

America wondered how to make him kiss her, wondered what flouncing and flirting she’d seen on TV would work here, in the dark. She wondered if he would kiss her, even though she was still growing into her long legs and was waiting for her breasts to catch up with her height, even though she was brown all over and spoke Arabic at home just like the terrorists on TV. And yet she leaned forward. Just a little bit. She would have to kiss onstage in the spring and wanted her first experience to be something less scripted.

He smelled like soap and something fresh, maybe rosemary. He had an array of freckles on one cheek and the other side was smooth except for a scar the size of a fingernail right next to his nose. She was pretty sure he was leaning towards her, too, that it wasn’t just the rotation of the earth. Was she doing this right? His lips looked soft and warm as a summer’s day.

When Seth gasped, Joe jerked away, his hand reaching out towards his friend. America watched, heart hammering, for what could have been.

She sensed her scene coming to a close. She stood, wondering if she were a bit player in their story or if they were a duo who had wandered into hers.

“Stay as long as you like,” she said. Her broom was still by the door, and there was Theater 13 to clean before the next show. She hesitated. The boys seemed apt to disappear when the dark was dispelled by the luminescence of the silver screen.

She plunged a hand in her back jeans-pocket, came up with an old receipt and a stub of golf pencil. “Stay away from these movies.” She listed the new action flicks, obviously, but also one that had a ritualistic cannon ceremony and another whose crashing waterfall could sound like the thunderous chaos of an infantry. She paused, then wrote down a new animated movie, too—for kids, but there was a surprisingly violent death by exploding car.

Joe took the list. “What’s left?” he joked, then lifted his eyes to hers. “Thank you.” Their fingers touched. She guessed she’d have to settle for that.

She wanted to tell him that it could get worse, nightmares and daymares, or it could get better, a gradual lessening of tension until only the fear of fear remained. She wanted to tell Joe her name, and ask how old he was, and if he’d mind taking a just-legal America out for a spin.

Seth was curled away from her, the back of his shirt hitched up. She wanted to touch his skin, to see if it felt like it looked, like the shuddering flank of a war horse.

Instead, she said, “Thank you for your service,” and left.

 

Katie Avagliano graduated from Florida State University and spent the next six months working at Walt Disney World while figuring out her life. She started writing fan fiction at age twelve and forgot to stop; as a result, she is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing in Washington, DC.

Food Truck Rodeo

As the credits roll on the theater screen, I check my phone. Eleven thirty-four p.m., still too many hours until morning. Dad left for work a few hours ago. He’s working nights at the hospital this week. I make a list in my mind of things I can do tonight to pass the time. Read. Study for my upcoming AP biology test. Clean the bathtub. Reorganize the Tupperware. Sort bills from the junk mail for Dad. I walk out of the mostly empty theater into the yellow lights of the deserted lobby. The girl behind the ticket booth waits for the last few customers to leave.

A guy dressed in jeans and a Bush Hills Swimming T-shirt exits the theater through the opposite door. I recognize the shirt before registering that the guy is Tripp Casener. I’m surprised to see him here, even if the movie was only a dollar. The Tripp I remember could barely sit still through a thirty-minute sitcom, let alone over two hours of South Pacific. His mom always reprimanded his incessant talking while my mom snickered under her breath. My throat goes dry as my mom’s memory resurfaces into my conscious thought. One hundred fifty-seven minutes of peace destroyed in seconds, just from seeing Tripp.

“Caroline!”

At first I don’t trust my ears when I hear my name. I walk toward the front doors that lead out to Cary Street. But I hear it again, louder this time, and turn back around. Tripp breaks into a slight jog to catch up to me. I’m not looking for a conversation or even recognition. Shared history doesn’t guarantee a shared present or future.

“Hey,” he says, taking the door and holding it for me.

“Hey,” I say back.

“It’s been a while. How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

We stand a distance apart. I smash an ant beneath my shoe, wondering why he approached me. I notice his height, only a few inches taller than me, which puts him well under six feet.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, trying not to sound like he’s intruding, even though I feel like he is.

“Do you want the honest answer or the one I’ll make up to protect my reputation?”

“The truth.”

“I love musicals.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

This revelation surprises me. In all the time we knew each other as kids, he never mentioned this.

“Where you headed?” he asks, as I begin walking toward Sheppard Street.

Mom didn’t leave any specific funeral wishes, but Dad and I both knew her well enough to know she’d want us to say goodbye to her beneath a bleeding crucifix and stained-glass Virgin Mary.

“I parked over by the church,” I tell him. There is no need to specify which church. Mom didn’t leave any specific funeral wishes, but Dad and I both knew her well enough to know she’d want us to say goodbye to her beneath a bleeding crucifix and stained-glass Virgin Mary.

“Let me give you a ride to your car,” he says.

“It’s fine,” I tell him. “It’s four blocks.”

“I know, but it’s dark.”

He doesn’t know the darkness is familiar to me now. I walk at night often, wandering through neighborhoods to a natural cacophony of crickets chirping and toads croaking.

“I’m not scared of the dark anymore.” I was, back when we were friends. As soon as the sun began to set in those summers, I headed inside. The neighborhood kids stayed out late, playing flashlight tag and ghost in the graveyard. Tripp always stopped by to ask if I wanted to play. He even promised to stay with me and let me pick the hiding spots. I always declined. I hated the dark, the unknown of it, the endless possibilities of terror, mostly the thought of being kidnapped like Elizabeth Smart and Samantha Runnion. I never suspected that the true terror would come under the blinding lights of a hospital hallway.

“I know,” he says. “I’ve seen you walking before.” I stop. We are at his truck, but I hesitate to get in.

“What?”

“I see you walking late at night.”

“Oh,” I say, like my secret has just been announced over the intercom and everyone in the school is looking at me. I wait for him to ask why, to say something else about it, but he just unlocks the truck and climbs into the driver’s seat.

I stand beside the blue truck, my hand on the door handle. The street light makes the door shine, like it’s just been washed. Tripp hasn’t started the engine; he sits behind the steering wheel, staring ahead. It reminds me of the time we went to King’s Dominion and rode the antique cars together. We were only ten, a far cry from driving age, but I remember thinking Tripp looked so natural behind the wheel. That evening we stayed until the park closed. It was one of Mom’s good days, while she was in remission. This memory, of my mom still healthy, propels me into Tripp’s truck. He is one of the only people who might remember her that way, instead of wasting away in a hospital bed.

“Are you hungry?” Tripp asks, as we near the church. My car is parked just beyond it, on Belmont Avenue.

“I could eat,” I say.

“I know the perfect place if you want to grab a bite.”

I haven’t talked to Tripp in years, a combination of Mom’s death, busy schedules, and his parents’ divorce. Being around Tripp and his family was hard after Mom died, a constant reminder of the family I would never have again. Then, his mom moved across town, a twenty-minute drive on a good day. The distance may as well have been hours because we barely saw each other after that. The fadeout happened naturally.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

This cryptic response should raise some red flags. I wonder, as we drive down Boulevard, whether I should have declined the offer. But it’s almost my birthday, and I know my mom wouldn’t want me to spend it alone, the way I spend every other day of my life. So I try not to think too hard about it. Tripp turns into the parking lot of a brewery. Four trucks sit in a row in the empty lot. I’ve heard about the food truck rodeos held down here, but I’ve never ventured out. There’s something about eating food made in the back of a truck that doesn’t appeal to me. Apparently they stay open late on Tuesdays.

Tripp parks the truck and gets out. Even before I open my door, I smell the grease and fried food. The red “Fire Truck” has flames painted on the side and only serves spicy food. There’s a lot of sriracha on the menu. We pass it. The next truck makes only grilled cheese sandwiches with a variety of different cheeses, meats, and vegetables to choose from. The gouda-pimento-bacon is on special for buy-one-get-one-free. The chalkboard at the window says “It’s So Gouda, You Need More Than One.” I cringe at the terrible pun. I remember that Tripp hates grilled cheese, so we continue walking. We pass the hibachi truck without hesitation. Asian cuisine from a truck makes my stomach turn. Finally, we stop in front of Timmy’s Tacos, at the end of the line.

“Think you can still beat me in a taco eating contest?” Tripp asks, grinning.

I used to challenge him all the time. We would each have thirty minutes to eat as many tacos as possible, while our mothers tried to talk sense into us. We never listened. I beat Tripp every time. The competition ended the evening Tripp challenged me to a wrestling match directly after dinner. I had to forfeit in order to make it to the bathroom in time to vomit all nine tacos back up. Our moms officially declared the end of the taco wars that night.

“No way,” I say.

“It’s on me.”

“Tripp, no.”

“So you’re forfeiting?”

“Can’t we just eat tacos like adults and enjoy them?”

“You’re eighteen now, so you can’t have fun?”

“What?”

“It’s your birthday,” he says, checking his watch. “In four minutes, it’s your eighteenth birthday.”

“I didn’t know you remembered.”

The smile drops from Tripp’s face, as if something has suddenly crossed his mind. He puts his hands in his front pockets like he’s checking them for holes. Before I can ask him about it, the strange look is gone and he purchases ten tacos from Timmy, who used to play on the school volleyball team, led them to states his senior year. I guess he sells tacos now.

Minutes later, I discover these aren’t just any tacos. I know after my first bite that they are the best tacos I have ever eaten in my life. It’s a simple recipe: moist ground beef, crisp lettuce, and instead of shredded cheese, melted queso, the white kind, filled with chopped jalapenos. We sit on a grass margin in the lot. Parking lot lights cast shadows across Tripp’s face. A trace of stubble lines his upper lip, trailing down to his chin and up to his sideburns.

“You started the clock, right?” I ask Tripp between bites. He throws me a thumbs-up. We eat in silence, taco after taco, until all ten are gone. Five each. I finish just a bite ahead of Tripp.

“Call it a tie?” I ask.

Tripp considers this, as if something important hangs in balance.

“We did eat the same amount,” I say, trying to sway him.

“A tie is better than another loss.”

I lie on my back, hands on my stomach.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to walk for an hour.”

We stare into the nothingness. The lights prevent us from seeing any stars, but knowing that they are there even though we cannot see them comforts me.

“I’ve got nowhere to be,” he says. The paper trays the tacos came in fill the wide gap of space between us. Tripp stacks them together and puts his keys on top to prevent them from blowing away before lying down, his hands folded behind his head. We stare into the nothingness. The lights prevent us from seeing any stars, but knowing that they are there even though we cannot see them comforts me.

I realize that besides my dad and my teachers, I haven’t talked to anyone else for an extended period of time in a while. My swimming friends and I lost touch when I quit the team, and after a while, the girl who’s always sad about her mom isn’t fun to hang out with. At least, that’s what I assume they think. I never asked, just disengaged a little at a time. If I don’t let people in, they can’t leave. If I don’t care about anyone, I can’t end up hurt.

After a while, Tripp says, “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks.”

“How does it feel to be an adult?”

“Being eighteen doesn’t make you an adult.”

“What does then?”

“Life.”

“Guess I’ve been an adult for a while,” he says.

“OK.” This comes out harsh, sarcastic, because I don’t know what else to say. He can’t seriously be comparing a divorce to a death.

“Caroline, I’m sorry I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Whatever, let’s go.” I stand, brushing dirt off the back of my jeans.

*    *    *

Tripp drops me at my car at a little after one. It shouldn’t take longer than thirty minutes to get home at this time of night. The beltway will be clear.

“Thanks,” I say.

“It was fun,” he says. “Felt like old times.”

I offer him a small smile.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. I exit the car without responding.

*    *    *

The bags under my eyes keep darkening, but I use concealer and wear bright lipstick. It draws people’s eyes to my mouth instead. They always comment on the reds and pinks, never on the purple.

The house is quiet. I navigate the rooms in darkness, by sheer familiarity. I change into a pair of yoga pants and an old Bush Hills Swimming T-shirt. I should get into bed and try to sleep. I feel tired, but I know that as soon as I get into bed, my mind will start racing and it will keep me awake. If I told Dad, he’d probably prescribe some sort of medication, over-the-counter or otherwise. He always wrote scripts for me as a kid, for antibiotics and naproxen, even steroids the time I had bronchitis for over a month. But I don’t want him to worry. I’m managing, even without a lot of sleep. The bags under my eyes keep darkening, but I use concealer and wear bright lipstick. It draws people’s eyes to my mouth instead. They always comment on the reds and pinks, never on the purple.

I study, trying to memorize the nuances of cell organelles, mitosis and meiosis. It’s all much more complicated than what we learned in tenth grade. I read until the organelles feel cemented into my brain. I flip the page and study the cell-division diagram. The chromosomes become chromatids and then go back to being chromosomes again. It happens over and over, every second in our bodies. A little purple box at the bottom of page 113 explains that one mistake in this delicate process throws it entirely off balance. I shut the book with force, thinking how pointless it is to know all of this when our cells betray us anyway, leading us slowly and painfully toward death.

I crawl into my bed and shut my eyes. I wait. Nothing. I think about my mom, about Tripp, about the simple summers that included both of them. Sleep does not come.

Two hours later, I go for a walk. The leaves rustle on the trees, and twigs snap somewhere within them, most likely from raccoons or some other night animal. I tread the familiar paths, my mind conjuring images of my mom, trying to hear my name roll off her tongue, the way she drew out the long “i” in my name, so it sounded like Caroliiiine. I do this often, a part of my nightly routine. I am scared that if I don’t, I will forget. I can’t imagine a world in which I cannot hear my mother’s soft, lilting tone or her eruptive laugh, even though that is the world in which I now exist. I want to remember her green eyes, as I inherited my dad’s brown ones.

I decide to take a route that passes Tripp’s house, to continue with the nostalgic feeling of the night. Despite the years, being with him wasn’t awkward. It felt natural, like getting back on my bike after I’d broken my arm. Light shines from one downstairs window. I wonder if it’s him, or if it’s his dad, up late preparing for a big case. I pass the house, and a minute later I hear my name, called from a distance. Just like at the theater a few hours ago, I turn. Tripp walks down his front steps and to the end of his driveway.

“You’re still up.” I walk back to meet him.

“You sound surprised,” Tripp says.

“I am.”

“I figured you’d be making rounds,” he says, hands in his front pockets.

I am taken aback that he waited for me.

“Well, here I am.”

“You sound tired.”

“I am, but I can’t sleep. I already tried.”

Tripp joins me, and we continue to walk, rounding the cul-de-sac and making our way back toward his house.

“You gonna keep walking?” he asks.

“I’ll probably just go back to my room and stare at the ceiling.”

“At least you have those glow-in-the-dark stars to look at.”

I can hear his grin though the dark masks his face.

“Those fell down years ago.”

“Oh.” Another reminder of the time that has passed and how our relationship has changed. Not changed as much as dissipated. I think of seeing him at football games, huddled by the bleachers, an arm around Janie, instead of in the stands watching the games with our parents and me; of seeing him in line at the movie theater with his friends instead of sitting on his couch with a bowl of popcorn.

We reach his house and hover at the end of his driveway, by the mailbox that has CASENER engraved into the newspaper slot. I run my finger along the groove of the C. It catches on a tiny piece of split wood. I pull it back, the pain sharp and concentrated. I step onto the wooden railroad tie that lines his driveway, which makes me taller than him.

“Why are you doing this?” I’m skeptical of his motive. We haven’t spoken in years. “Why now? Why tonight?”

“I don’t know,” he says. His head tilts towards the ground; he kicks at the gravel in his driveway and puts his hands in his front pockets again. His mouth forms a straight line, and he looks up at me through his eyelashes. I can’t tell if the look contains pity or something else.

I bite my lower lip and shake my head. I turn and begin walking away.

“What?” he yells.

“I don’t want your pity, Tripp,” I shout back. I keep walking.

“Caroline, wait!”

I roll my eyes, but I turn around. Tripp waves his hand at me, but I can’t see what he’s holding.

“What is that?” I walk back towards him.

He hands me a small brown parcel, no more than two inches wide. My name is written in a sloppy cursive script, like a third grader’s. I realize it is my mother’s; she must’ve written it towards the end. I wonder what’s inside it, a locket with her picture, some piece of memorabilia she wanted me to have. Dad still has her wedding ring, so I know it can’t be that. We move to the steps of his front porch.

“Is this why you were at the movie?” I ask him, the whole night suddenly making sense.

He nods. “She made me promise I’d give it to you.”

“How’d you know where to find me?” I feel violated at the thought that this night was not a random encounter but a calculated plot.

“Your dad gave me a few ideas.”

I don’t speak. I look at Tripp, the uncertainty in his eyes. I hardly feel the weight of the small brown paper in my hand, yet I feel weighed down.

“Why didn’t she leave it with my dad?”

Tripp shrugs.

I stare blankly at the small package in my hand. Tripp has had it for the past five years. He never mentioned it. He never handed it over. My hands shake.

“You should have given this to me years ago,” I say.

“She made me promise. Not until your eighteenth birthday.”

“It wasn’t your choice to make,” I shout.

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s all you’ve said all night. You’re sorry. You had no right to keep this from me.” I am so angry that I don’t even care that a deep sadness fills Tripp’s eyes.

“I thought about giving it to you a hundred times.”

“But you didn’t,” I say. “You kept it. And you didn’t even stay in touch.”

“That’s not fair.”

He’s right. I withdrew. I couldn’t stand to be around Tripp and Mrs. Casener. Every second of being with them intensified the void of Mom’s presence. And once his parents got divorced I barely asked Tripp how he was. I left him alone with his grief because I was incapable of navigating my own. I look down at the folded brown paper again. The thought of opening it terrifies me. I’ve spent the last five years figuring out how to live without her, and now I feel like I’ve made no progress at all.

“Happy birthday, Caroline,” Tripp finally says. I hear the screen door creak open and the click when it closes. I sit on Tripp’s porch for a few minutes staring at the little package that could change everything. It can’t bring her back, but it’s some sort of link to her. I want to hate Tripp for keeping it from me, but for some reason, Mom trusted him. She probably thought we’d still be best friends right now. She had no way of knowing that the Caseners would divorce and the family friendship would fall apart. It dawns on me that Tripp and I are connected, whether we want to be or not. My mom trusted him with whatever is in this little package, so I decide to trust him, too. I stand and open the screen door, stepping into the foyer of his house. He sits on the couch like he expected me to come back in.

“Tripp,” I say reluctantly. I know I should say something else, but I don’t want to admit that I can’t open this package alone. Tripp takes his keys out of his pocket and walks out the front door. I follow. When we get into his truck, I put the small parcel between us in the cup holder.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“If we’re going to be up all night, we’ll need sustenance.” Tripp smiles.

We sit at a table in Luna Sweets. I eat a peanut butter chocolate fudge cookie, gooey from being warmed in the microwave. Tripp chooses a sugar cookie covered in blue icing. We each intermittently sip from large cardboard coffee cups. I left mom’s present in the car, but it consumes my mind as we sit in silence. What could she give to me that needed to wait this long? How could she know who I would become? So much changed when she died. Life kept moving. She doesn’t even know me anymore.

When we leave, I direct Tripp to the yoga studio run by Jada Winston. She is strange and wonderful. Her hair is always done in microbraids and pulled up into a fabulous bun atop her head. I’d gone to her classes for a while, but when Mom died, she gave me a key to the place, said that you never know when you need to focus on your energy. I don’t typically come here in the middle of the night, but I need to find some inner peace before I can open the surprise package.

“You should open it,” Tripp tells me. He carries it inside with him.

I glare at him. He shrugs. We walk through the lobby, where there is a small alcove that serves as a welcome desk. Wooden cubbies cover the opposite wall. I remove my shoes and put them in a cubby before locking the door behind us. Beyond the front lobby is a large, empty room with wooden floors and a wall of mirrors, painted cerulean blue. I point Tripp towards the door at the back of the room and instruct him to get two mats while I walk to the sound closet and begin the recording. I leave the lights dim. We set our mats next to each other, and Jada’s voice fills the room along with soft music.

“Lie down on your back,” she tells us. “Close your eyes. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Focus on your two life-sustaining forces. Thank them for carrying you through to this moment.”

I do as her voice tells me. My heart rate is slightly elevated, since Tripp and I are alone in this sanctuary. I concentrate all of my thoughts on the hand on my belly, how my breath rises and falls, even though I am not telling it to. I switch my focus to my heart, beating constantly along with my breath, amazed that even if I asked it to, it would not stop. I hold my breath for a moment to hear Tripp breathing next to me. I sneak a glance at him, and he lays on his mat, eyes closed, doing exactly as Jada says.

“Your mind is an elastic, flexible thing,” Jada’s voice croons. “It can go into the past and into the future. The true challenge of yoga is to train your mind to be present, to occupy the same space as your body.”

Focusing on the present means feeling the pain beneath my ribs each time I breathe a breath without her.

Before my mom died, I never gave this much thought. Of course my mind is present, that’s how I’m here, I always thought. Now, I see with unfortunate clarity what Jada means. My mind spends little time in the present anymore. I spend my hours thinking about the past life I shared with Mom or the life I am continually forced to live without her. Focusing on the present means feeling the pain beneath my ribs each time I breathe a breath without her. Opening her birthday present will only exacerbate that pain.

We move into what Jada calls our happy asana, finding our most comfortable posture and bringing our hands to our heart center. This is my favorite part. I get to choose where I am, how I am. Everything in this moment is up to me, within my control. I determine what happens here. I sit with my feet touching, my legs splayed in a butterfly. My hands rest in a prayer position at my heart, though I do not pray. I focus on my breath, forcing myself to be painfully aware of each one. Jada tells us to move to a standing position, but I remain seated. I hear Tripp rise next to me. I listen as my heart beats in my ears, and I am acutely aware when tears begin to fall from my eyes. They roll down, along the bridge of my nose, over my lips and down onto my chin. I do not move my hands from my heart center to brush them away. Jada moves the imaginary group into another exercise. My tears fall continuously. This is what it feels like to be present, I think. This is what it will feel like to be present for the rest of my life.

My over-awareness of my present body means I feel Tripp’s hand on my shoulder the instant it lands there. My skin does not burn beneath it. I do not shiver or feel giddy inside. Instead, a widespread comfort flows through my body, from the hair follicles on my head down to the tips of my toes. When I open my eyes, Tripp is looking at me. I am thankful he is here.

I sigh. Tripp walks to the sound closet and turns off Jada’s recording and turns the lights up. He scoots his yoga mat so it touches mine, and he sits cross-legged, his happy asana, facing me. He brings his hands to their heart center. I match his posture. We sit like this until my tears stop. I bow. He bows back, then hands me the package.

My heart beats in my ears as I unwrap it, treating it like a fragile piece of china. Inside is a rose-gold chain with a circular silver charm. A single pearl hangs in the center. I hold my breath for a moment as the weight of this gift sinks in.

When I was younger, Mom called me her little pearl. I haven’t thought about this nickname in ages; it’s part of the distant past, before the hospitals, the cancer, the chemo. She wasn’t supposed to have kids. Before she and Dad had me, she had three miscarriages, but somehow, I made it. I survived despite that none of the others did. She and Dad chose to keep me even when the doctors recommended an abortion. It was a rough pregnancy that she always assured me was worth it, just like the pearl is worth all the irritation in the oyster.

More tears make their way down my cheeks, and I realize I’ve cried more tonight than in the last few years combined. The nearness I feel to my mom in this moment makes it feel like she might appear, but the perfect gift reminds that she is really gone, that she is not coming back. I try to clasp the necklace behind my neck, but my hands shake and the necklace falls to the floor. The clink of metal against the cold floor echoes in the silence. Tripp picks up the necklace and fumbles with the lobster claw clasp, much too small for his large fingers to maneuver. As he tries a few more times, I think of why she gave this gift to him instead of my dad or Mrs. Casener. Maybe she sensed my coming withdrawal and wanted to make sure I stayed connected, kept relationships with people. Tripp finally succeeds, and the necklace lays flat against my chest.

Am I closer to allowing my body and mind to occupy the same space at the same time, or am I beginning the process that leads to my mom’s memory slowly fading?

Before we go our separate ways again, we stop at a gas station to get more coffee.

“It’s going to be a long day,” Tripp says as he dumps two packets of sugar into his cup. We drive back towards our houses. The sky gets imperceptibly lighter as we both fight sleep. I only notice because Tripp’s face begins to get clearer, no longer obscured by the darkness. A breeze pulls a few leaves off the trees, and they float to the ground. We turn onto Genito Road, and the sun breaks through the horizon. A quiet settles in as light illuminates the world around us. I take a sip of my coffee as we round the bend in the road, turning into my neighborhood. I focus on the details of the moment, the hum of the truck’s engine, Tripp drumming on the steering wheel with his fingers, on his breath, on mine. I realize that these breaths are not so painful. I’m not sure if this is progress or regression. Am I closer to allowing my body and mind to occupy the same space at the same time, or am I beginning the process that leads to my mom’s memory slowly fading? I slide the charm back and forth on the chain. Even if memories fade, she will still be here; I understand this to be true. We pull into my driveway and I press the charm against my heart, which keeps on beating, just like the sun keeps on rising.

 

Morgan Coyner is a Virginia native who is pursuing her MFA in creative writing (fiction) at Georgia College. In addition to reading and writing, she loves to knit sweaters, drink Diet Coke, and watch crime shows on TV. Until now, her only known audience has been her car, Harrison Ford, who listens to her sing Taylor Swift at top volume. Post grad school, Morgan hopes to move to Nashville, the city that most inspires her.

A Map for Roadkill

A whirring, choking noise, like a spoon caught in a garbage disposal, erupts from my John Deere. I cut the engine, pull back. A half-chewed bone protrudes from a mound of Georgia red clay. At least it’s not a pile of dried dog shit. When that stuff gets up in the blades it spews out like pesticides from a crop duster. I hurl the bone behind a wrought-iron fence. Jagger, Mr. Gillespie’s geriatric Rottweiler, ambles out of a doghouse that’s the size of a single-car garage. His shoulder blades crest out of his back like the plates of a stegosaurus, his ragged nails snag along the concrete. He pokes at the bone with his paw, gnaws at a few loose fibers, snaps his jaw around it.

I mow lawns the same way Appa used to vacuum the carpet of our apartment, in neat, equidistant rows. When the borders conjoin, a sense of satisfaction settles over me.

I return to the mower, flick the starter lever to the choke position, yank at the rope. I’ve only been doing this for a few months, but I can almost always crank the engine after just one pull. I mow lawns the same way Appa used to vacuum the carpet of our apartment, in neat, equidistant rows. When the borders conjoin, a sense of satisfaction settles over me.

Most of my clients live east of Antler River, though, like any financially-challenged prospective college student, I aspire to increase my clients in the west. Westsiders insist on weekly maintenance through Thanksgiving, long after their Bermuda stops growing and the grass morphs into spindly, desiccated carpets.

The front door opens wide. Mr. Gillespie steps out on the porch, squints. He’s cloaked in a plush, navy robe, brown loafers, khaki pants, a white polo shirt. His toupee resembles a pile of finely grated mulch. I resist every impulse to tackle him to the ground, yank it off.

His gaze drops. He lifts a foot, brings it down on something, swivels his shoe until he’s ground it well. He steps down from the porch, heads down the stone path.

I cut the mower, pick out my earbuds. “Mr. Gillespie?”

He startles. “Oh, Leela, I didn’t see you.”

I’ve been mowing his yard for an hour. The engine’s been vibrating the panes of his bay windows. He does this often, pretends to be clueless about work he’s already paid for in advance.

“Would you like me to plant some more bulbs this fall? You have a few weeks to think about it. Binh’s negotiating with some of the vendors now, trying to get the best prices for all of our customers.”

“Fall planting season already?” He opens the mailbox, extracts a few magazines, some envelopes. “Okay, I guess. You two are always so on top of things. I should hire you to run my franchise. The jerk managing it now doesn’t show up to work until noon.”

If there’s one thing Mr. Gillespie hates, it’s laziness. He loves to go on and on about how this country used to have a work ethic, and now it doesn’t, and we need more young people like me to lead the way. He never seems to work himself, though. I see him binge-watching Netflix and playing Minecraft through the windows. I guess this is what it’s like to live rich and alone.

Mr. Gillespie stares at me a little too long, as if my question about the bulbs has placed an undue burden on him. Or maybe he’s just high. I feel like I need to say something quickly to rescue the conversation. “No worries, Mr. Gillespie. You can let me know what you want to do about the bulbs sometime next month.”

“Sounds good,” he says. He nods, slogs up the stone path. His long arms hang low, like an orangutan’s. The white tag on the back of his robe flaps in the breeze. He shuts the door a little too hard. The wreath falls, bounces once on the welcome mat, stills on its side.

From a distance, a familiar horn honks twice. I rotate my mower. Binh’s black pick-up truck sidles up along the curb. The engine cuts off.

I jog down the hill to meet him.

Dark sunglasses hide the top half of his face. He’s rugged like the male models from an L.L.Bean catalogue. His beard-stubble looks like it’s been trimmed to perfection even though he does nothing to it. He’s deeply tanned but not burned, with the kind of face that gets him noticed by both women and men. I’ve known him since we were kids, seen him eat his boogers. I could never think of him as anything other than a brother, but when he starts MIT this fall on a full scholarship, I’ll miss him like hell.

He depresses the parking brake, looks me over, frowns.

The first thing he taught me about mowing safety was what to wear—hat, long-sleeve shirt, pants, closed-toed shoes. “To keep out the sun, the bees, the copperheads and the fire ants,” he said. But during my first solo job I got so overheated I almost passed out. Today, I’m sporting a yellow tank-top, jean cut-off shorts, a baseball cap and Vans. Disappointment is written all over his face.

“Leela, please tell me you at least put on sunscreen and tick repellant,” he says.

“Can’t you smell it on me?”

He shakes his head.

“You over here today?” I ask.

“I’ve got three houses here,” he says. “One’s down the street.” He picks something out of his teeth. “You good?”

“Yeah.”

Before my family’s downfall, Binh and his father Vu used to take care of our lawn. Binh bagged leaves and planted flowers, while his father cut the grass on our acre-sized lot. In between tasks, Binh and I would shoot hoops in my driveway. I used to beat him in “HORSE” until he turned twelve and sprouted up like a sunflower. After my family lost everything and I needed to make some serious cash, he took me under his wing, introduced me to his customers, told them I’d be taking over some of the work. He even gave me his old mower, though I had to pay him back for it after my first few jobs. Still, it was a bargain. He only charged me half of what he could have gotten for it on eBay.

He takes his glasses off, tosses them in the passenger seat. The sunlight highlights the golden flecks of his eyes. His lashes are so long they appear fake. He opens an ice chest, holds out a bottle of water. “Want one?”

I reach my hand through the window. “If it’s cold, I’ll take it. Mine’s the temperature of piss.”

He grabs hold of my fingertips. “Jesus, Leela. I told you to get gloves. Look at your hands. It’s like you’ve run them over a cheese grater.”

I don’t know if it’s because he lost a parent, too, or because he has younger sisters, or because we were friends before my life fell apart, but for whatever reason, Binh looks out for me. Days like today—when Amma sheepishly admits we’re two months behind in rent and that we might have to move again—I’m grateful. But I’m bitter, too. I used to be so on top of things, so independent, so meticulous with details. I never needed anyone. A fog has settled over my brain and I can’t seem to dislodge it.

I drop my head. “I forgot to bring my gloves,” I say.

He flips open his glove compartment, hands me a pair. “Here,” he says.

“They’ll be way too big.”

“Make do,” he says. He shuts the lid to the ice chest, turns the ignition, shifts into drive. “Call me if you need anything.”

“Okay, thanks.” I step away from the car. He gives a quick nod, checks the side mirror, merges. His newer-model mower, the one he bought after I bought his old one, bobs up and down in the bed of the truck.

I trudge back to John Deere, examine my palms. The skin is jagged, purple. I pick off a frayed edge.

Manual work was not a part of my former life. I never loaded the dishwasher or folded laundry or took out the trash. We had a maid for that. In the evenings, after homework and fencing, my fingers floated up and down the keys of our baby grand piano. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart filled our foyer, echoed off a crystal chandelier that resembled an upside-down ice castle.

A few autumns ago, when the mortgage industry collapsed, when terms like “credit default swaps,” “predatory lending” and “deregulation” streamed across the bottoms of our television screens, Appa was laid off. He worked in life insurance, didn’t deal with any of those financial devices, but still. The bank downsized him right out the door.

When he couldn’t find a new position in Atlanta, he tried Charlotte. When nothing panned out there, he searched for something in New York.

We should have had plenty of savings to ride it out, but our family spent big. We had a membership to the country club, vacations to Europe, South America, Iceland, brand new cars, original artwork. Amma was a PhD student in comparative literature. She earned a tiny salary through a teaching assistantship. It wasn’t even enough to cover our monthly Whole Foods bill.

We sold the baby grand first. It covered two of our mortgage payments. We hocked Amma’s bridal jewelry, followed by Appa’s Mercedes. Our underwater house sold for less than the amount of the mortgage.

I transferred to the local public school. Amma eventually found work as an assistant teacher at a childcare center. At night, she drilled high school students on Shakespeare sonnets and modernism, and SAT prep. She developed wrinkles overnight. I hardly ever saw her sleep.

I was the one who found him after school, curled up on his side, his arm slung across what remained of his belly. He looked like a small child taking a nap.

Appa sent out resumes, worked with headhunters, cold-called employers. He reached out to anyone and everyone in his professional network. After nine months, he quit leaving the house. I remember one night at dinner, noticing how his collarbones poked out of his V-neck T-shirt, how his forearms seemed to disappear underneath a blanket of arm hair.

Amma and I thought he’d snap out of it. That was our mistake—the pretending. The lies we told each other that things would turn around. Two winters ago, when Amma was at work, Appa swallowed four bottles of sleeping pills, crawled into bed, drifted into the kind of deep sleep he’d been denied since he first lost his job. I was the one who found him after school, curled up on his side, his arm slung across what remained of his belly. He looked like a small child taking a nap.

We continued the lie, Amma and me. Told people he had a heart attack. It was a way for us to keep pretending, to not blame ourselves for what seemed to happen right before our very eyes.

*     *     *

An hour later, I’m just about to wrap things up at Mr. Gillespie’s. I drag the mower back to the front of the house. The sweat on my forehead crests over my eyebrows. I lift off my cap, wipe it with the bottom of my shirt. That’s when I notice it.

A dark-colored heap, like an overcoat or blanket, sits in the middle of the road. When I take a few steps closer, I see it. Two light-colored ears flutter like butterfly wings freshly emerged from a chrysalis. A short tail flops back and forth.

It’s a deer. A baby. A doe.

Its body seizes and shakes. Its hind legs kick in the air, collapse. I make a wide circumference around it. From its torso, a pink curled rope emerges. Blood pools onto the pavement.

I lower myself to the curb a few feet away, reach for my cell phone.

*     *     *

The doe’s no longer alive by the time Binh jumps out of his truck, slams the door.

“Let me have it,” he says pointing to my phone. “Mine just died.”

He takes it from my hand, dials the number for Animal Control. He has it memorized. I wonder how many carcasses he’s come across just this summer.

“How long ago did this happen?” he asks me.

Binh’s voice sounds far away, underwater. It drowns out the sounds pulsing through my eardrums—the screams when I found Appa unconscious, the paramedics’ pounding on the front door, the grunts of their compressions, their hot breaths entering his mouth.

My face falls to my knees, my arms fly up around my head. Tears drench my shirt. A string of snot pools in the dimple above my lip.

Binh hangs up with Animal Control. He perches next to me, wraps an arm around my shoulder. From his back pocket, he removes a Kleenex. It’s shredded. I have no idea if it’s clean, but I use it to wipe my face anyway. “They’re swamped,” he says. “They can’t get out here until late this evening.” He pauses. His face moves closer to mine. “I have a shovel in the truck, Leela. We can bury it ourselves.

“Hey,” he says. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I turn away.

Amma has said these same words to me about a thousand times since Appa died. I still don’t really understand what they mean. It wasn’t your fault. If I had just skipped basketball practice, come home early from school, I might have found Appa sitting at the table drinking his coffee instead of motionless on the bed.

I stand, push the hair away from my face, face Binh. “I know just where to bury it.”

*     *     *

The houses in our former gated community had been thrown up practically overnight at the height of the housing boom. Swaths of paint in ivory, tan, and gray coat cedar-shake shingles and trim. Clasps secure shutters cut to look like chic barn doors. I haven’t driven past my old neighborhood since we moved out.

“Binh, pull over a sec.”

My former home sits behind a black wrought-iron gate, a prisoner behind bars. It’s the only home not hidden behind three, staggered rows of cryptomeria trees. Their needles connect to one another like barbed wire. The new owners painted our red shutters black, our shingles an olive green. They’ve removed the basketball hoop. A tricycle splays on its side in the grass near a Hula Hoop. An American flag drapes over the front porch railing.

A shadow figure, a woman with long hair, a skirt, moves behind the sheer drapes in the master bedroom. I wonder if she’s ever thought about my family, knows what happened to us.

“We can go now,” I tell him.

On the rest of the drive, I think about the nine long months of my father’s deterioration, how his depression swept over him like a tidal wave. I think of the times Amma begged him to see a therapist, to get a prescription for antidepressants. God will get me back on my feet, he’d say, returning to the makeshift pooja room in a hallway closet. I’d wondered whether they would be enough, the gods and goddesses lining the shelves, the burning incense. I wondered this but never asked him out loud.

A few miles down the road, our wheels crunch over gravel to a stop. I unlock the door, push it open with my foot. Pine, sap, a tinge of smoke infuses the air. The scents consume my lungs. I step onto the ground.

Binh is already at the truck bed. He slowly slides the black plastic bag toward him, gently brings it over his shoulder, as if the doe inside is still alive, requires his care. As if animals have souls. Six months after Appa’s suicide, when I was still so angry at him, Binh told me something I’ve clung to ever since: If my father felt he’d had any choice, he would have never taken his life. He loved me too much. He would never have chosen to leave my mother and me.

We cross the street together, pass a small blue sign for Cheshire Park, turn onto a narrow path that leads into the woods. The ground is crisp, dry, from the last heat wave. Twigs snap under our feet.

“It’s not far,” I tell him. “There’s a spot up here.”

“We need to hurry,” he says. The plastic bag shimmies against the back of his T-shirt. “It’s starting to get dark.”

I step softly but quickly over the earth, as if I’m walking over the graves of a cemetery. Knee high bushes line either side of the trail. The lips of my sneakers kick at small gray pebbles, stray bottle caps.

At a wood-planked bridge, the foliage opens up like a curtain. In a clearing, there are three other trailheads, a wide bench with a brass nameplate. Two Japanese maples, their leaves the color of cranberries, stand on either side.

I say: “Let’s bury it here, behind the bench.”

Appa and I used to rest here after our third loop around the longest trail. He’d sit on the bench with his hands propped on both knees, panting. On days when the humidity felt like a wet blanket, he’d pull a folded handkerchief from his shirt pocket, dab at his forehead, raise his glasses, run the cotton down the length of his nose.

We talked about the weather, my grades, the playoffs. I was still so pissed at him for selling the piano. I had no idea how much worse things would get.

On my last walk here with my Appa, after unpaid bills had stacked up like dirty dishes, after his job leads had vanished, a week before we moved out of our home, we sat down on the bench together one last time. Our conversation felt stale, forced. We talked about the weather, my grades, the playoffs. I was still so pissed at him for selling the piano. I had no idea how much worse things would get.

I close my hands into fists around the shovel’s handle, stab it hard into the ground.

*     *     *

The exhumed dirt feels cold against my knees. Binh jumps inside the hole, lowers the doe’s limp body. Its head escapes from the bag. Its eyes are perfect spherical orbs floating in white clouds, soft at the edges, pleading.

“Wait.” I lean over. My fingertips graze its pointed ears, its jaw, its wet, black nose. It is still beautiful, still warm and lush, a still life in the moments before decay.

Binh begins to shovel. The dirt lands with a thud, ingests the corpse. A tuft of violets sprout from a clearing. I ripe them from their roots, sprinkle them over the hole.

Above, tree branches knit through each other like a quilt against the purple sky. The scent of autumn wafts in the air. Soon the leaves will metamorphose, the trees will release them from their tentacles. They will float down until they settle over a patch of earth. Their brittle veins will disintegrate, seep through millions of granules. The doe that never knew a change of season might discover its wonders in the afterlife.

I rise, glance once more at the bench. A bird settles on its arm, tilts its head toward the fresh mound of dirt. I reach my hand out, take the shovel from Binh, lead the way back through the trail toward the sounds of car engines, and streetlights flicking on to illuminate the road.

 

Anjali Enjeti is an essayist, literary critic, and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Quartz, the Guardian, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere, including NPR and NBC. She lives near Atlanta, is working on her first two novels, and can be found on Twitter @anjalienjeti.

 

 

Donut Dancing

Danny was always looking hard at everything, but at the moment he was looking especially hard at Carly the Carp, who had the knife in hand and at-the-ready for oblivious violence. That’s all it took to kick the music off in his head. Bongos carried the wobbly melody along, thudding and thumping deep in his veins.

Bump ba-ba-bump ba-ba-bump.

“Don’t want this shit today, Carp.”

What Danny wanted was a different species of moment, one that would leave him believing in something, to yank him up and shake him until he saw that living made a small bit of sense. At thirteen, he had his situation caught way down cold. He was just another blown-apart kid, blasted so wide open that a breeze or a soft touch could have swung things to wholeness or obliteration. Soul-sick from the moments life had dealt him, he’d learned, for damn sure, life didn’t serve up saving stuff. So, he sniffed ground, on the hunt, and screw shame. Danny was due his moment.

He was just another blown-apart kid, blasted so wide open that a breeze or a soft touch could have swung things to wholeness or obliteration.

Far as he could tell, the Carp was deaf to his theme music. The boy had dumb danger weighing on his mind, and that took all the tending he could muster. He hiked his britches for the umpteenth time. The kid had no ass to speak of. Mosquito bites would have given his pants more purchase, so he was forever parading at half-mast.

Carp ditched his backpack onto a running sprinkler and found expression for his mood with a whip of his arm, winging that Bowie knife at the sky with everything he had.

They lived in haunted houses, Danny and the Carp. Danny’s was pink, a damn pink house, no lie. The Carp lived three doors down in a house with a swaybacked porch, propped up on cinder blocks and railroad crossties. The houses in their neighborhood had an element of funky, with yards jungled-over in weed grass, mined with partially buried chunks of mystery concrete and laundry poles, real lawnmower killers. The other kids at Yorktown Junior High called it the Suburban Projects. The angles were off-kilter, wrong. Yes, and their houses were haunted, only it was the living families themselves who ghosted things up.

The blade caught sun in crazy glinting, wickedly beautiful, like a sparkly metallic wasp.

The fact is, Danny was odd, even for his neighborhood. He hauled Russian novels around in his back pocket. That didn’t make it, not in the Suburban Projects, but he shelved Dostoyevsky when he showed off bursts of panther grace on the football field. It compensated some. Now, poor Carp, he had a different set of miseries to deal with, and it wasn’t that he looked like a garbage fish. His was more mole than fish, with a chinless melt of throat to jowl and pointy snout thrust. To designate rightly, it would have to be a flexible critter as Carp was creepily double-jointed, everywhere, including his hinge on reality. Because of that particular relaxed hinge, he sometimes needed a dressing-down for his own good. Case in point, the moment at hand.

Danny took in the shiny airshow for longer than healthy good sense warranted, then his brain moseyed onto the scene and did a doubletake. “Holy shitzoli!” They had, of course, lost it in the sun and, without a doubt, it was fluttering out of juice right above their fool heads. Pop would say they were dumb as dirt, the both of them. Dumb as a bag of hammers.

Danny dove and hugged the sod. The Carp stood his ground under twirling terror, calmly visoring his eyes while on the lookout for harebrained death. “Dive, you fool!” The whistle-whir of the blade gave tardy warning when the business-end of the knife stung Missouri terra firma instead of boy-flesh with what should have been a gratifying THWIP, not three feet away from Carp. Bless his thick skull.

“Whoa,” sayeth the Carp.

“Jesus H. Christ on a Popsicle stick.”

Carp waved it off with casual condescension. “Had it all the way.”

Danny’s skivvies were plastered to his trembling butt with what he hoped was just panic sweat.

Bump-ba-ba-bump.

“You must have been high to thieve that knife.”

“Butch stole it hizzdamself.”

“And when he buys a clue, whose ass is short mown grass? Mine. Isn’t my Pop making me fight your bro daily enough?” Danny said.

“Sorry. But why would he come after you?”

“You left my knife in its place, genius.”

Here, Danny’s drift started, his dipping out. He counted breaths.

Carp tripped as he went to pull at the knife with both hands, and that woke Danny before he dipped too deep. “Baby’ll come in handy in the wild.”

“Not if you brain us with it first.” Danny was readying to dress him down. He bumped Carp’s efforts aside and made a show of drawing it out one-handed, then took the boy’s leather knife holster. “’Til you grow a brain.” The rough unbelting sent Carp spinning under an arc of sprinkler water. Danny winced on a stab of shame he couldn’t source, then sheathed the Bowie in a scrape of steel on cowhide.

“For cripes’ sake, Danny. No blood, no foul.”

“Oh, you want blood? How’s about I knock your nuts so high you get a nosebleed.” He faked a kick that had Carp almost doing the job himself in his hurry to protect the pecans. Again, that poke of shame under his ribs. “Better guard your Show Me State.”

Carp giggled despite the threat to future progeny and the defrocking of his knighthood. He kicked dirt, sending a laceless shoe flying. Danny booted it back with Keds High Tops, luxuriously knotted with yarn. “I’m a wild man too, Carp. Crazy sumbitches together. But there’s a smart way to be a jackass.” The Carp stomped over to pull his sopping backpack off the sprinkler. “You’ll get it back when I see lights on upstairs.” Danny offered his hand for the healing slap of detente. Carp gutted past indignity, and they smacked out a well-worn, syncopated code of friendship. But Danny winced again, knowing well the symptom, but clueless on the disease.

*     *     *

“Pissonit-pissonit-pissonit!”

The Carp’s leg was hung up on a fence. He hopped on his free leg, butt-crack grinning for the wide world to see. Danny tried to wrench him free from the snaggle-toothed fencing, but it took a sawing at his pants cuff with that Bowie to extricate his buddy, who then tumbled ass-over-appetite. They both fell, laughing. Carp flipped the shutters up on his eyes, big as comic book thought balloons. It didn’t take Chinese algebra to figure an idea had ambushed him. “Got a secret.”

“Everyone’s got secrets.”

“Tough enough, MoFo?”

Danny sighed at Carp’s front-end delivery of a password parry then labored through his part in their secret verbal handshake. “MoFo tough enough.” Carp used their skinned-knee code as a lasso, the magnificent bastard. Not for a second did Danny think his precious moment was hiding out in a Carp secret. It was hitting grownup-dark, when folks holler to get indoors for pretended homework, bath time and bad TV, then brush ’em up and don’t let the bedbugs bite. But it wasn’t kid-dark. Danny flared his nostrils at someone’s microwave popcorn while lights popped on up the street. That shirtless Romeo, Bobby Goodmunson, sputtered by in his Taurus, farting blue oil smoke, and that always gave them a gut bust. No way it was even close to kid-dark. “Spit it out, Carp.”

“Have to take you, or you’ll say it’s stupid.”

“So, it’s a stupid secret?”

Danny nearly jumped free of his skin at a bellowing that rolled across those yards.

“Danny! Home now! Haul it, Candy Ass!”

Danny leaned toward the bullying call. Then came the chaser, an impossibly loud whistle that needled his eardrums. He twitched. Carp said, “Dayum! Your eyes gone cattywampus.” Things were fuzzing. He was dipping out for real. Headed out to sea. Danny had taken to dipping out that year, and each time he did it was harder to reel him back. His face sagged, and a line of drool stretched to the grass like clear taffy. “You’re scaring the chocolate out of me, man.” Carp clapped his hands, hopped and waved, but Danny was still stuck in the mud of another world. “What’s it you always say? Tomatoes! We’ll go to Mexico and grow tomatoes.” Danny shivered awake. Carp grinned nervous bravado. Danny returned a crooked smile as proof he was back from vacation.

“Okay then, Carpophore.”

Carp laughed, too hard. “Carp of Fur. Made that shit up.”

“I looked it up. Something to do with fungus.”

“Fungus my butt.”

“Exactly.”

Another blast cut them off. “Danny! Get your tail home or I’ll wax it for you! I’m shittin’ you in the negative, boy!”

Carp asked, “How many?”

Danny did practiced calculation. “Ten. Twelve if it’s PBR. Not critical.”

But it was critical. Big time critical.

Bump-ba-ba-bump-ba-ba-bump.

*     *     *

Louis Gallagher, Danny’s Pop, sucked down Pabst number twelve, by a count of the aluminum husks on the driveway. He was a pasha on the hood of his monkey crap-brown Mercury. Carp snuck Danny a low-five for his proven swami skills. Lou sat sentry, all six-foot-four of him, singing Roger Whitaker. He had his doll’s eye thing going, a fixed look that could creep anyone, let alone his flesh and blood. Here was the source, the epicenter of their pink house haunting. “I have no fear of death, it brings no sorrow. But how bitter will be this last farewell…”

Danny’s Master Sergeant surveyed the neighborhood in over-the-top, manly posturing. That sucked-in gut, and the elbow locked at a severe right angle for beer swig made Danny want to hide in the weeds. Too late. Lou snagged him in the corner of a bloodshot peeper and laughed. Danny was a just bit of slapstick spit out for his amusement. “Slow as a seven-year itch, boy.” Tipping them back always gave his Pop redneck envy. He’d slide into flawed Dixie drawls, made jarring by the fact the man was raised on Chicago’s North Side.

Danny glitched back to his last football game of the season, when he heard the twangs of meanness whooped from the sidelines, and how he spat his mouthpiece onto the field, ground it under his cleats, and wished his father planted six-foot-four-deep at the fifty-yard line.

When he lifted his hand, Danny watched the sweaty Rorschach left behind, a one-winged butterfly that gave up the ghost in slow fade.

Lou said, “Purt near time for beauty sleep, Candy Ass.” Much as Danny wanted to ignore it, he couldn’t hold off picturing his buns in sweet, sloppy melt. “Let’s you and me conspire, Sugar Britches.” He patted the hood. When he lifted his hand, Danny watched the sweaty Rorschach left behind, a one-winged butterfly that gave up the ghost in slow fade. It was easy to hate his hand at that moment, then he recalled it once held a paintbrush to slather a heart onto the back of a bookcase. Betty Jane, Mom’s name, painted within the sloppy Valentine, albeit in black paint.

Danny let the notion of black hearts go and climbed up onto the hood, trying to float so it wouldn’t buckle under him. His Pop looked to Carp and screwed up his face like he’d chomped into something revolting. “Playing grab-ass with your girlfriend?” Danny scooted away. “You and the Carp been holding hands?”

Carp smiled. “Hey, Lou?” Lou’s hand squeezed at that, crumpling the can until it spouted brew-foam. It was a scary thrill when the Carp pulled this pretended familiarity that did not exist. His unmindful ways commanded absolute awe. “Packing on the poundage. Better cut your old man off on the suds, Danny.” Lou settled on an ugly choice in smiles and moved as if he might chase Carp. Danny had to tap dance his father back on task, and fast.

Danny said, “Pop, what’s the deal with that nasty tattoo?” Lou jerked Danny to a bear hug gone bad, right up against a botched Popeye tat with a fireball of spinach bowled up his arm. That bicep bounced hard, sun-browned as a roasted coconut. It gave Danny’s neck one bitch of an Indian burn. Lou rolled his deadened eyes and sucked backwash from the pulverized can.

He said, “If we’re lucky, you’ll be a man before your mother.” Another favorite. Danny inched away as he launched into a round of shanty. “Ohhhhhhhh… I love to go swimmin’ with bow-legged women and swim between their legs…

They turned at the slamming of a car door. It was Butch, Carp’s big brother, exiting his snot-green Nova. Lou shouted, “Heyyyyyyyyy, Jelly Belly!” Ice marbles rolled down Danny’s spine, marshaling liquid sting to his gut. Did he have to fight for the bazillionth time? Butch snapped his flinty head around, his face splotched scarlet. All seemed destined for violence, but he only swore and flipped a perfunctory bird, trudged to the saggy porch and into the Partin home. Danny went limp. His Pop let fly with a monster butt-rip that rumbled the hood under him. “Close call, eh boy? My favorite little ballerina.”

Danny would not find his moment there. It never failed to jostle his imagination that life could be such a Crud-O-Rama. He sometimes wondered if it might be better sleeping it away, without moments of any kind. He slid off the Merc and slouched to the door, with Carp trailing.

“Oh, Danielle?”

Bump-ba-ba-bump.

Pop’s eyes were even bloodier, glassier, with a crazy, mean wisdom. “Feel that, boy? That Candy Ass heart of yours?”

“No way.” But he was sure his Pop could see his chest mounding up with the pound-pound of yellow muscle. Lou about split his sides giggling, then belted out some “Waltzing Matilda.”

Bump-ba-ba-bump.

*     *     *

Betty Jane threaded yarn daisies on a plastic contraption. There were floppy, taped-together boxes filled with wreaths, candles, various and sundry colorful doodads and crafter supplies, swamping the kitchen table. Those were the tools she used to keep the family afloat, after her other two jobs, and making dinner. When the boys came in, she shot them dead silly with one of her patented smirks. Carp bowed to her for a head rub. “What’s with the mop, Carlton? You too, Huckleberry.” She poked Danny’s belly. “Might tie you rascals down and break out the clippers.” Carp snickered, hopelessly in love. Danny’s mom dealt out moments, but it was tangled up in the mess of family mythology. She tried hard, but she was caught in it too.

Danny snatched up daisies, looped them over his ears, and clowned up the latest verbal emasculation from his Pop. It got her to laughing, and when she did, she was young Elizabeth Taylor, A Place in the Sun Liz. She played it for all it was worth, and that was a lot.

A patch of Pop’s ranting, snarly and rank, shook the window casings and killed off her smile. Danny knew he should have kissed her, told her she’s the best. There was something in the way she shifted her weight to one hip, and the tension in her back, that silenced him. Whatever good was in him, he owed to her. Nothing cruddy came from Mom. There were tons of things he thought about saying, and magic could have spilled out, then they could run away from Pop and his red doll’s eyes, and the late sessions that awaited her after happy hour.

What he did say was, “Carp and me are sleeping in the basement tonight.”

“Okay, honey. Don’t stay up all night watching Chiller Theater. Love you. You too, Carpy.”

Danny grunted a passable good night then abandoned his Liz look-alike in the kitchen, behind the battlements of boxes and paints, alone with her sore, sticky fingers.

*     *   *

“Kill him.”

Danny clawed through the cold placenta of a nightmare. His legs pumped lightning and snapped him into a blind-dive near the Carp who startled awake on a stack of blankets. “What up, man?”

Danny worried that Carp was getting more than a good whiff of his fear. If he didn’t say something quick, he might end up rudderless again, hurtin’ for certain, so Danny said the first dumb thing that hopped off his tongue. “Tough enough… MoFo?”

Carp puffed out the only acceptable answer. “MoFo tough enough.” Danny’s knee barked raw on basement carpeting as thin and green as pool table felt. Danny dreamt bad things down there, like getting rolled up in hideous green carpeting, hauled away dripping blood, never to be heard from again. Carp continued a conversation already boogying along in his brain. “Thought you was gonna fight Butch again. My best friend and my bro. Weird.”

“Yeah. Real bitch’s bastard’s whore.”

Carp snorted, relishing the yummy unspooling of profanity. Danny peeled his Cap City All Stars T-shirt and used it to mop his forehead. Carp asked, “You hate your old man? I do. I mean, I hate mine.”

“Sometimes. Sometimes I don’t.” Danny raked under the couch for his sneaks, hurrying to cover his orange terry cloth socks. “Maybe people get hooked on being bad. Slimy stuff under a rock and can’t stop themselves reaching under to touch.”

Carp said, “Remember when you threw that dart at McQuitty’s wooden leg? Thunk!”

“Shhhh.”

Carp about died in the rehashing. “Man, that was classic.”

“It was way wrong.”

“McQuitty’s a mean hag.”

“Can’t argue that. Still shouldn’t have done it.” Carp relived the act in pantomime. “Your brother sure enjoys whuppin my pitiful butt. I had the brains of a gnat I’d run away. Pussing out’s healthier.”

Carp picked at carpet fuzz, thinking into the meaty heart of something. “Maybe I know why you don’t.” Danny double knotted his yarn laces and felt the leading-edge tingle of large things. “You taking hits for me, Danny?”

Danny had never thought of that. Not once. “Yeah, I guess,” he lied. “And if I didn’t fight Butch I’d have to spar with John Wayne up there.” He might choke on his chickenshit lies, and his need for Carp to worship him. He polished the blade on a pillow case. “This is your show, Kemosabe. The big secret. Lead on.”

Carp pulled a black velour turtleneck and black yoga pants he’d stolen from his mom out of the backpack. “Nuh-uh,” said Danny. Carp then took out a cheap pentagram pendant. The effect of the ensemble was half-assed beatnik Satanist. “Don’t act like you’re not trying to copy that guy in the horror movie.” Carp tried to pass as confused. “What you look like’s a gay warlock.”

“Wrongo, Mary Lou. I wanna make it with a warlock.” Carp grinned, having explained it all.

“Pretty sure warlocks are the males of the witch species, Carp.”

“Well then I wanna make it with a witch.”

“Now you’re making sense.”

Danny said, “Ditch the dumbass devil star.” Carp removed it, like it was a rescinded war medal. Danny offered his palm. Carp did his duty and cracked skin. That accomplished, they started out.

*     *     *

Danny crouched in the woods next to Carp’s house, finally putting serious legwork into his hunt for a moment, risking a hiding. It was misting out, laying down a wet frosting on his arm-hairs. He flipped his tongue out for a taste, swallowed to let it percolate with the sweet pinch of peril in his belly.

It was misting out, laying down a wet frosting on his arm-hairs. He flipped his tongue out for a taste, swallowed to let it percolate with the sweet pinch of peril in his belly.

The Carp came galumphing up from behind, big sweat stains already blooming from his pits. They snuck up on thick clouds of lightning bugs, twinkling like the shed souls of Christmas trees. Carp snatched one out of the air, cupped it in his hands and turned away. He fussed over his capture. When he spun back, Danny saw he’d smashed the firefly and tried to paint stripes on his face. Carp asked, “Does it glow?”

Danny said, “You about done there?”

“In a way. In a way, not.”

A classic Carp koan. Danny shook his head. “Mind telling me where we’re going?”

“Avery Park.”

“If I snuck out to see frogs fuck, I’ll deal you an atomic wedgie make your grandkids yelp.”

Something in the trees cut off Carp’s moaning at the threat of a wonder wedgie. Human sounds of struggle. Silence. Gurgling and choking. Then a gasping and an awful, mewling wheeze. It was quiet again, except for the air whistling through their nostrils. Past the lightning bugs, something moved. Gooseflesh knitted the skin on Danny’s arm as he stared into airborne sparks. One of the phosphorescent buggers wasn’t a firefly. It was a cigarette tip, bouncing on a human gait. A drag taken on the cigarette, ignited tobacco and illuminated the face just enough. Carp whispered, “The old man.”

Lloyd Partin passed, a runty pile of gristle gone to paunch, shuffling on bowed legs. His breathing was ragged. They heard the squealing of the back door on Carp’s house, followed by its shutting click. Carp tugged at Danny’s sleeve. “Heard Butch tell Davey Johnson that Dad was the one held up the 7-Eleven over on Tigard.”

“That your secret?”

“No, man. But do you think he hid the money? He’s always stomping around out here.”

Someone else moved out of that same black hole in the woods. Danny’s gizzards registered it before his brain buzzed in, knowing that big head only too well. Butch. Damned if the bully wasn’t sobbing. His neighborhood nemesis spun, snagged on thorn bushes, ripped his limbs shit, flying without radar. The boy was gone. Danny knew. Butch had dipped-out big time. Butch dropped to his knees and heaved. When there was nothing left to toss but lung, he spat, then jammed his fingers into his mouth to scratch at his tongue.

The Carp had made his way around a tree and was moving to his brother. “What he do?” Butch gagged in shock. “What did he do to you?” Butch scuttled, raising his beefy arms to hold off the question. The brothers’ eyes latched. Danny prayed a thought that ugliness might come tumbling down to let a scintilla of mercy sneak in. Whatever clammy, dark things he’d endured wouldn’t allow it. Butch’s face flashed. The scared, humiliated boy had cut and run. The feral Butch brayed a sound ten tortured animals might make, mashed together, as he drove a kick into Carp’s stomach.

Danny got to Carp, and that’s when he took a big clunk to the head, saw electric blue. The tree branch had glanced off a tough patch of skull, but now Butch had Danny pinned, his face rotted with self-preserving hate, and the insane thing was, even as he was about to whale away, an impossible part of Danny felt for him.

Bump-ba-ba-bump.

Hell, Danny felt for all of them. Butch took aim with that knotted club. Danny half wanted him to deliver sleep, but the blow didn’t come. He was suddenly free, rolling up to his knees to see Carp flailing at his big brother. Butch quick-reversed things and slammed Carp, then grabbed up the tree limb again. That’s when time and movement pulsed, skipping like a rock on lake ice, strobe lights flashed through gelatin, thick in the headwork but somehow still lightning fast.

When it slowed, Danny witnessed Butch’s Adam’s apple up against the knife edge, a line of crimson dotted across it. The Bowie rocked over the throbbing carotid. Danny needed to stop this fool before someone got killed, but that’s when it registered that the fool working the knife was himself. He wasn’t ever able to remember grabbing it. But there they were. Locked in. Tremors set the blade to sawing across Butch’s gullet.

Carp crawled over. Danny jerked when he made contact. The only way out was for him to relinquish his will to Carp. Those double-jointed fingers touching his wrist were enough to break the spell. He let him pull the blade away from Butch, who collapsed, a load of used-up boy. It didn’t look good for Danny walking on his own, so set were his muscles. Carp crutched Danny into the trees while impossible luminous firefly tears streaked down his cheeks.

*     *     *

Carp sat on the bridge, cradling his stomach. Danny huffed over the railing, looking up the railroad tracks along the creek, of a mind to train jump, or something equally desperate. Much as he tried he couldn’t spit out the ugliness of the night. “World could die and I don’t give shit one.” Danny’s heart hammered. “Don’t know what to say, Carl.”

Bump-ba-ba-Bump.

“You said my name,” Carp said, and he gave Danny a face he’d never seen before, not on anyone. The mercy he’d hoped for earlier. How could he make it right for Carp?

Bump-ba-ba-Bump.

“This is it,” said Carp

“What?”

“The secret. We’re here.”

“Sweet & Sour Jesus, Carp… We don’t have time… I mean… We got to figure out…”

Carp slid his legs under the cross rail and hunkered down. While he looked around for clues, Danny raked at the sticky wad of hair on his wound. His nostrils homed on the warm surprise of grease on the breeze, tracing it to a little donut shop across the creek. There were two girls inside, wiping counters, readying for a close. One of them had red hair, the other was brunette. A man stepped from the back, said something, then exited to get into a car. He started it and gassed it up the hill road. The boys ducked the headlights, watched the beams stab into the woods, bouncing off the mirroring eyes of night beasts they had no idea were there.

The redhead grabbed a music box. The brunette removed a scrunchy. Her hair spilled out like root beer as she swayed into dance. Her coworker shouldered her washrag, lit a cigarette, and watched. The girl’s moves became tasty wild. No big deal, thought Danny. Sure as hell didn’t rate as a secret. So, why did he feel he might levitate? Danny’s eyes sharpened to something tucked deep into it.

“Know why I think it’s cool?” Carp said, on spooky cue.

Danny turned to him.

Carp said, “You can’t hear.”

“What?”

“The music. Or them.”

The Carp was right. Not a note.

Bump-ba-ba-Bump.

She dealt magic in a silent reel when most everything in life was soupy with noise.

But Danny’s secret tune was different this go around, not scary at all. Things were sparkly, jeweled and lit up. She dealt magic in a silent reel when most everything in life was soupy with noise. It couldn’t be so, but Danny’s boy-crisis world dissolved into a lucid, jolting hush, the misting night muffled all but one strain of song, his theme under smacked bongos, but it was clear now, and done right.

Her legs were lissome. Perfect summer-skin up against white, rolled-down socks, set off an ache in Danny. She bared her gams to the hips as she spun. She was a mermaid on land, with no hint of guile or dance club showiness, more a primal circling of fire. The redhead pantomimed whoops as her friend whirled amongst stale donuts. The way the dancer smiled about killed Danny. Her gyrations rhymed with things inside, making his existence a glimmery, boozy bliss. He imagined her in one of his Russian novels, cloistered away, only leaving her cell to dance into the world with him. That night he understood why everyone claimed that muscle, the one that sizzled in his chest, was linked to love. Danny fell, if not for her, then for imperfect life.

“Carl?” He wanted to make vows, stand guard for Carp, and that girl, keep them safe. He peered into her, and found something a lot like himself, only freer to feel. It pulled at him. He leaned over the rail as every flip of hip and turn of heel became intolerably dear. But then a beautiful sadness weighed him down onto the bridge, next to Carp, who was crying in that other world. Danny handed the knife and sheath to his best friend.

She danced on with eyes lidded, turned inward in roll and rhythm with the all.

Carp asked, “What’re we gonna do?”

“If we have to, we vamoose.”

She could fly on nerve alone, a mermaid-bird, too beautiful to exist.

“Mexican tomatoes?” Carp asked.

Danny could almost read her lips, whispering his secret name. “Mexican tomatoes.” Their laughter shook loose diamond tears. A chipmunk whirligigged up a tree, whipping up a thrum in his ears. The lights of the shop and the wet mizzle set a glow to magnolia leaves. Ice bumps bloomed up his arms.

“Was my secret enough?” Carp asked.

The endings didn’t have to be perfect. The wild hunger was the thing.

It shouldn’t have been, but it was. Danny rose on shaky pegs, feeling his whole young life had unrolled while he played at being human. Everything was hopscotch on Venus. The Carp wouldn’t need a dressing down, ever again. Danny was in on things, wiser. It was bigger. Bigger than Carp’s dad and his sickness. Bigger than Butch’s thumpings. Bigger than Pop’s doll eyes. He was looking back from the other side of oblivion where he spied on all the lives he could have lived. The endings didn’t have to be perfect. The wild hunger was the thing. Right then and there, he knew he and the Carp would make it through. Together.

Bump-Ba-Ba-Bump.

He heard a splash. Carp hocus-pocused his empty hands above the creek. The Bowie was gone.

The mermaid looked up, but kept dancing.

“She’s looking at you, Danny.”

 

Kevin Flannery lives in Corvallis, Oregon, where he works as a driver for Dial-A-Bus, providing transportation for the elderly and the disabled, and for school children with special needs. The clients and drivers he works with educate him in life daily. Kevin is a graduate of Ohio University. He previously worked in Columbus, Ohio as a caseworker for children in residential treatment and group homes. He is currently caught up in the process of writing a Young Adult novel, marrying the thriller genre with an exploration into whether enlightenment exists, and if the critter does live and breathe, how does a kid of sixteen attain it.

Loves Long Since Forgotten

When I say the tree was hollow, I do not mean the trunk of it.

No, the trunk was sturdy and new. Instead, the branches grew in all directions, even along the ground, spreading feverishly, so that there was a space inside where you could sit and talk, feet dangling off the ground, like being in a globe made of leaves. Perfectly audible from the outside, the globe nevertheless seemed safe, completely removed from the outside world, like a room made of nature.

It was there we met the very last time I saw her. But the story begins even before that.

Made desperate, angry, crazy by life in a town the size of a larger city’s mall, I had cut my hair off and dyed the remaining pieces in fragments of purple, green, and blue. I looked like a Funfetti cake but at the time, I thought it was tough or strange or, at the very least and most importantly, a visual symbol of my lack of belonging, putting the entire town on notice.

The next day, washing my hands in the sink, my eyes had met hers in the bathroom mirror.

“Nice hair,” she’d said. Her voice was low, sweet. I’d never talked to her but there were only two women in my high school that were rumored to like women and I spent a fair amount of time thinking about both of them.

This, with the attention and the eye contact, was just what I had envisioned when I cut my hair. I had little idea that this was the only part that would be exactly like I had envisioned it.

We sat next to each other in class, me right behind her, an accident of alphabetization. I came directly between her and her boyfriend, a metaphorical position that I longed to make literal.

We sat next to each other in class, me right behind her, an accident of alphabetization. I came directly between her and her boyfriend, a metaphorical position that I longed to make literal.

Fittingly enough, the class was psychology and the teacher had devised several ingenious methods of delaying the part where he actually taught. Every so often, I remember something from that class and it seems so surreal that I wonder if I had made it up.

Did we really guess cards with an entire pack of cards to prove that psychics were not real? Did he really tell us, after, that he had students perform better than probability and that psychic ability ran in families, rather destroying the experimental premise?

Did we really meditate for up to half an hour, the sound of soft snores filling the class?

Did he really bring in a man who had been to Africa—the country not elaborated on, as if that vague description of the continent was an adequate explanation for his presence at the front of the class—to tell us homosexuality was unnatural? It didn’t, he explained, happen in Africa. Men held hands, he explained, but not in a gay way.

I felt the familiar churning I got in my stomach whenever I thought about women, about the future. I stared at my own hands as the man who had been to Africa talked. Sometimes, I passed notes between the girl and her boyfriend, and I got that feeling then, too; a much less morally bankrupt psychologist than my current teacher would later diagnose this feeling as anxiety.

Then, I thought of it as losing my appetite. Plenty of things made me lose my appetite and I refused to look more closely at them for fear of finding a common thread. I lost it when one of my beautiful friends discussed her boyfriend—friend jealous! And when people discussed their complete aversion to gay people—moral outrage! And when I faced down an economics test or any sort of public speaking.

I would have excused myself to go to the bathroom, but I feared drawing any sort of attention to myself. I tried to conceal and reveal at the same time and failed at doing either. Instead, my message was muddled. The question wasn’t, “Are you gay?” it was, “What are you?”

A question to which I most certainly did not have any answer, not then and not now. Indie, I said. Punk, I said. Emo, I said. Maybe, possibly, almost bisexual, I said, though only to those I knew very well. In such a small town, I knew how fast news can travel, especially the wrong news. And if I was to lose everything, I had vowed not to do it single.

I tried to conceal and reveal at the same time and failed at doing either. Instead, my message was muddled. The question wasn’t, “Are you gay?” it was, “What are you?”

My strategy, of looking pretty and waiting hopefully, worked for a first and singular time when she asked for my number. I had only just gotten a cell phone—it was pink and covered with silly pictures of my friends and I making faces in a photo booth, one that we had gone up to San Francisco to find. We went to the big city to seek out culture, synonymous in our minds with photo booths and foreign food. I’d bought cheap shoes in Chinatown and felt like I had seen the world.

She picked me up in her car. She was smoking cigarettes. I’m not sure if my parents noticed I seemed to have reached a new pitch of excitement. That my new friend had me pacing, putting on my best David Bowie eyeshadow in the mirror, bright green and full of glitter.

Her boyfriend was there again, on again, though they had been off again only this morning. I hated him with a fervor I usually reserved for war criminals and authority figures. Ashamed of this hatred, I was intensely, unusually kind to him.

Seeing the car pull up in the driveway was one of the most intense highs of my short life, and seeing her boyfriend in the front seat was one of the most intense lows. I covered my devastation, so overwhelming it nearly vanquished my shyness.

I smiled at her and refused the cigarette when offered. I was dedicated to my running then, though I didn’t try as hard as I should have. I would do many things to get on her good side, but smoking was not one of them. Ridiculous, that rule and all the other rules I made for her, with her, because of her.

In the face of overwhelming feelings, I have a tendency to tighten my control, as though my regulation of their expression would result in a corresponding mastery over if or when I would have them. Then, I thought my rules effective and careful. Caution was my highest good.

She was to be my first, vivid illustration of the perils of that path. I had not chosen her and yet, here she was, in my life, in my dreams, in my phone, an unlikely, unasked-for number that would text me occasionally. I, of course, was always too scared to text her. I can only imagine what she thought of our friendship, such as it was, my frequent silences, my hesitations. The way I waited for all of her cues because I wanted so immensely, so embarrassingly and all-encompassingly, that it seemed I could not even tell what a normal friendship was under the weight of my desires. The scope of my needs was huge and terrifying. I had no idea what to do with them other than ignore them entirely.

One time, we’d left a tarp from construction on the ground in our backyard and when we’d pulled it up a month later, there were pumpkins underneath, thriving in the dark, damp environment. Some things, when ignored, do not die.

I slid into the back of the cheap car that smelled like weed and smoke and dirty gym clothes and let it take me away.

We were seeing the kind of psychobilly band I was obsessed with, the sort where the singers wore all black and sang about death, but in an ironic way. They’d appropriated the campiest of horror movie tropes so that you would know for sure they were joking. Emo was out, scene was in, and fantasizing about death was only cool if it was a joke and if you could look convincingly disaffected.

I’d worn the wrong shoes, embroidery sewn to thin soles that sold for under ten dollars, and I trashed them that night in the chaos of the mosh pit. The next weekend I would buy boots, heavy and black and clunky, that would add three inches to my already formidable height and two sizes to my already formidable feet. I would always remember the way she taught me to stand straight in a mosh pit, arms up and braced, just at the edges so I could push the boys that spun out right back in.

The concert was held in the downstairs of a dingy bar and we received the bright neon wristbands proclaiming we were too young for alcohol despite her boyfriend’s effort to locate a fake ID.

He must have been there for the concert, but he was with his friends or upstairs in anywhere other than the space we had carved out for the two of us among the screaming, dancing, kicking bodies.

That night, it seemed like it was just her and I, her gentle instructions, the jostling, the pushing, the adrenaline and the battle to stay on my feet to greet the band with screams. It was a battle we fought together and it was exhilarating.

I can’t remember how the night ended, there or later, how we got home. I knew I liked her too much and sprouting in my heart was the hope that despite the boyfriend, she liked me too. I didn’t begrudge anybody else trying to hide the way I did.

She dropped me off and I barely said hello to my mother, who was waiting up for me. I was covered in other people’s sweat and smelled like other people’s spilled drinks and cigarettes and I was floating in a cloud of bliss. I couldn’t imagine anything better.

At least, not until she texted me again to hang out, just us this time. I had no idea if they were on or off again. I couldn’t think how to inquire without making plain the awkward depth of my need.

I texted her back, too quickly, and then admonished myself for the quick texting. I wrote in my journal. I tended to my dying plants. I baked. And I thought of her.

Do I need to explain that she was beautiful? She seems to have disappeared, a figment of my childhood. She’s not on Facebook, not on Instagram. If I sat next to her on the train, I would not recognize her. Seventeen and awkward, she cannot possibly have looked like the goddess I pictured in my mind.

Better that way, not to know which way she’ll vote or what her daily routine is. The strange thing, we had never got the chance to disappear into ordinariness. Instead, it sparkles like the costume jewelry I treasured in my youth, better in my memory, better lost.

So, I met her in the hollow of the tree’s branches. She curled into a crook at the heart of the tree and I climbed high, legs swinging from a branch scarred with years of banal graffiti, testimony to loves long since forgotten.

I could hear the low foghorn sound from boats in the harbor and fog curled, dampening some sounds and carrying others far from their sources.

I did not touch her. One of the things I remember most is that we never touched. Instead, she talked to me, at me. How easily replaceable I was, with any other moderately impressionable listener.

And the things she spoke of! I would not yet understand what it was to kiss a person you wanted but did not particularly like for three more years. I did not understand the pain of a breakup or the fluttering feeling when you first held hands. She spoke to me in the language of the human experience and I understood none of it.

How could I? Secure in my solitude, untouched and untouchable, I had yet to meet the sort of woman who would make me quake, who would look at me with purpose. I wouldn’t have the words for the things I wanted for many years after that. How strange and unknowable is a nameless thing.

She talked of women and she must have felt the sudden shift in my attention as she came upon ground that was familiar to both of us.

“Do you ever—”

She left the sentence, left me hanging.

“Sometimes,” I conceded, not sure what came after that ever. Do I ever want? Dream? Think of them? Did I struggle out of sleep disturbed and heartbroken? Did I take my journal into the woods behind my house and curl up into the most sprawling tree I could find and brood? Did I write pages and pages and pages of stories where they almost touched but did not, could not? And here is another one of those stories.

Word travels fast in a small town and I didn’t think she could keep a secret and I could have written you a multi-page list of reasons it would be a terrible idea.

I would not regard simple desire as a good enough reason to do anything for years to come. After all, what is want compared to logic? Want makes no convincing arguments. Want does not look good on a resume. Want rifles through an ordered life like a burglar, warps plans, contorts reason. The idea of satisfying even one of my desires made panic stir in my chest.

“Do you dream in color?” I asked her. Those were my questions then. Do you dream in color, do you dream as yourself, do you dream out of your own eyes or from afar? I would do a kind of longitudinal study in the next few years, only I never wrote anything down and now cannot remember the answers I received from people on three continents, of all ages, all dispositions.

I suppose it was really only one question in the end—do you dream like me?

“Yes,” she said. Older now, I believe we might add color to our dreams, if they did not originally have them. “Do you?”

I had run the numbers a million times and the reasons to stay silent outnumbered the reasons to tell by a factor of ten.

“I do. I think it would be interesting to dream in black and white…” I trailed off. She spoke of the essence of her life and I could not, would not, reciprocate. The true substance of my own life seemed only to come to me in dreams, or in solitary moments.

I wonder, sometimes, what sort of person I might have been, had I then had the courage to tell my truth. I had run the numbers a million times and the reasons to stay silent outnumbered the reasons to tell by a factor of ten.

Little did I know that the way I ran equations was wrong. I didn’t have the full picture. I was only fifteen. I asked her to tell me about one of her dreams. We didn’t hang out much after that.

“What if I kissed you,” a friend asked me later, a woman, and I couldn’t answer. It was a question I did my best to forget, once it had been asked. I would have liked to have asked that question of her. What if I’d kissed her? What if I’d told?

Impossible, improbable. I’d run the numbers. My equations were flawless.

 

Audrey R. Hollis is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several places, including Leading Edge and Autostraddle. She is devoted to queer fiction, history, and poetry. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @audreyrhollis.

Photo by Curtis McElhinney

Scented Brains

I’m sitting at the kitchen counter with my mom when I feel my anxiety rising again. It’s after dinner. She made chicken curry because my sisters and I love the smell and she thinks that nurturing all my senses will help me feel calmer. She is also a big yogi, which explains a lot. The hum of the dishwasher grows louder and I say, “I wish I could take my brain out of my head, stick it in on the heavy cycle, clean all the grime out, then put it back in.”

My mom laughs.

Most weeknights, it’s just us girls because my dad got a job in Virginia. We all put on a good show and say things like, “First world problems” and “At least he is not in the military,” but when he leaves and the door clicks shut, I know that the quiet will eat at me. My dad’s a regular guy who loves sports and shouts at the TV and ever since my big diagnosis, I really like it when he hollers and tells me that Steph Curry’s shot’s off this season.

Anything hardwired is scarier. I picture my soft grey brain wrapped in barbwire, imprisoned in my disease.

I’m not sure how much you know about Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Steph Curry so let me fill you in. The former is a mental illness. Like Patrice, my therapist, says, “It’s hardwired, not environmental,” which makes me think of my AP Chem class, how much I hate it, and how I miss environmental bio from last year with Mrs. T because all we did were microscope labs, and studying beautiful cells of plants and flowers dissolving into planets lulled me somehow. Anything hardwired is scarier. I picture my soft grey brain wrapped in barbwire, imprisoned in my disease. But anyway, what all this really means is that my brain is missing serotonin. You’d think it’s an easy fix but it’s not. Patrice told me that the Zoloft I’m taking should titrate and slowly add the serotonin between my nerve transmitters but hell if it’s working. She says that it takes about three months to find the right dosage so I’ve been popping pills like I’m part of the PA opioid drug epidemic.

My mom stalks me in her delicate and annoying way. She is constantly suggesting stuff. “How about acupuncture, sweetie?” “Want a massage?”

What she doesn’t say is that she feels guilty, like she did something wrong; that her parenting is what created this problem in my head. This, of course, makes me feel guilty, so a lot of the time, I’m the one patting her back, telling her it’s not her fault, soothing her environmental anxiety.

But back to the important things, like Steph Curry. He is my beating heart and also the point guard for the Golden State Warriors. You should see his handle if you’re not a basketball fan. It’s nasty. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m captain this year of my HS team and on my way to playing D3 at a small liberal art school, so I know what I’m talking about when I say he’s got a mean handle. Plus, Steph and I look a lot a like. We’re both light-skinned and execute the sharpest Euro step on our way to the basket.

Sometimes when I lie in bed awake with the night sweats, I wonder what it would be like to be light-skinned because you have two black parents like Steph. Mine are black and white, which causes a lot of upheaval for me and my sisters. Probably a little more for me because I have an anxious and depressed brain. Maybe also because of Trump. Let’s be serious. His entry into the White House has increased hate crimes by a bazillion, which means that the chances of bigots spraying my house with a huge swastika though we have no history of being Jewish, or following me home and calling me an Obama-lover is pretty realistic. The thing is when you’re mixed, you can’t say, “F— all the white people,” or, “I’ll stay away from the black people,” because you always empathize with the other side. But enough about my skin and back to my sick brain: I can’t stop thinking thorny thoughts all day. A normal person, like my sister Claire, reads an essay about genocide, gets sad, then her brain moves on. Not mine. Mine sees the sad or weird thing then can’t let it go.

I’ll give you an example: In the locker rooms the night before last, one of my teammates told us that some guy at a party was dared to swallow a goldfish from his friend’s aquarium. She was lacing her shoes, then gestured how the idiot proceeded to plunge his hand into the tank and catch the biggest one, “As big as an egg,” she said. “He grabbed it and threw it into his mouth. With one swallow, he’d eaten the pretty fish.”

Everyone around me laughed and laughed. But all I could do was re-watch the scene play-by-play and now that I just told you about it, it’s happening again. The hand, the water, the fish with its bright orange scales, the tongue flicking the fish in the throat, the bacteria on that fish, the way it might gnaw at the boy’s insides. The poor fish disintegrating inside the boy’s abdomen. I can’t stop seeing it.

My mom’s voice startles me back to the kitchen. “I know that it’s hard without Dad, but every time we bring up moving, it’s even worse—so I’m kind of at a loss, G.”

“No, no,” I say. “It’s not that.” But it is, except way worse inside me. I’m swimming in the murky tank like the goldfish, trying to come up for air, my fingers slipping against the algae stuck to the glass. If my family moves to VA they’ll be eight hours away from my college. From here, it’s only two. This will sound like an effin toddler thing to say but my mom can’t be eight hours away.

“Want some Half Baked?” she asks.

I look up and realize that I’ve been sitting at the counter still as a boulder, not even playing Sudoku from the calming app Patrice gave me.

“No thanks,” I say.

It’s not even about the tank. Not really. It’s more about the feeling of disintegration, how the boy’s stomach acid must have peeled off the fish’s bright orange scales and curled black its lacelike tail. Have you ever thought about being devoured alive? What that’s like. I lift my phone and the tremors in my fingers multiply. I shake so hard that the phone taps the granite.

“Do you want try and talk about it?” my mom offers, in her super understanding voice. “Remember what Patrice says, ‘Vent. Bring out your human side.’”

Right.

Let’s chat about boys swallowing goldfish and how it makes me feel like I’m drowning.

It’s 9:00 p.m. I know that with my mom I have another hour at most. Then she’ll collapse on the couch while watching The Big Bang Theory. A plane could come crashing in the foyer and she wouldn’t get up. She likes to say that the three of us were bad sleepers as babies and that she is still catching up on her sleep. I know it’s kind of cruel, but sometimes I wish I could give her my insomnia for a few months, even a few years, and take her sleep. Just to show her what it’s like to be up at midnight without newborns to rock, waiting for morning to rise, wondering what the hell you are doing here on earth or why you should even stay.

“I’m good,” I answer.

Trapped still in the tank, I can’t breathe. The water’s gone from murky to muddy, dark green with a sulfur-like stench. The urge to cut comes on so sharp that I have to hold onto the counter.

“I’ll shower,” I say, just to seem normal.

But it’s as if the black grime of my brain has descended and now seeps through all the pores of my body, squeezing the light out. Patrice calls it The Veil when that happens. I actually like the term, because I love Say Yes to The Dress and long lace veils are my faves. Yet, as I climb the stairs to my room and hear my little sister, Sophie, give a rendition of Chance The Rapper, I’m slushing around in the tank and only see and feel Darkness. I do it with paper clips. Patrice says that the physical pain of the cut releases the mental one. She graduated from University of Chicago with a PhD in brain function and wears the hippest tortoiseshell glasses in town so she knows what she’s talking about. Before, as in a few months ago, I used to cut at school when test-anxiety hit. Or my junior year, once, when I had to choose sides between the BSU (Black Student Union) girls and the smart international ones. You guessed right: I chose neither. I’m what they call a floater. Anyway. Different year, same result: I’d go to the bathroom, lean against the stall, and with the tip of the clip, scrape the inside of my forearm until blood bloomed like a small path to light. Now, I do it at night as the shower is running.

Sometimes my mom knocks and pokes her head in, as if she can sniff it out, but I’ve gotten really good at seeming all right. Sometimes just her sight in the doorframe helps a little. A few days ago, she came in while I still had my robe on, the paper clip deep in my pocket. She hugged me tight, the steam from the shower billowing and by the time we were done, The Veil had lifted.

Patrice tells me and my mom that I might have to go to STAR (Services for Teenagers at Risk) if I cut again. She says she’s on the fence about it. The idea of group therapy is worse than swallowing a goldfish the size of an egg, being devoured alive, or drowning in a tank.

Tonight, my mom doesn’t knock and by the time steam is engulfing the bathroom, I’ve already cut. I do it mostly on my left arm because I’m right-handed. When people ask me about the bandages or the tape during games, I tell them that basketball is a contact sport. They believe me because if they didn’t, they’d have to ask more uncomfortable questions, and high-schoolers tend to skate 99% of the time on the surface of things anyway.

In the shower, I let the hot water rinse out the blood, the tremors in my fingers quieting. I have a nice stack of scars and I wonder if they’ll still be there when I’m old, if I make it to old, and what I’ll tell my children or grandchildren when they ask me what they are. Maybe I’ll tell them that I was a knife juggler. They’ll like that. The thing is children might not happen for me because I’ve never kissed a boy. I’m seventeen. The closest I’ve ever come was at my mom’s friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah back when I was a freshman, when I was anxious but not anxious. His name was Beau. He and I sat at the same table. That night I’d worn a black pantsuit with a low back and my hair was ironed straight. Even the bartender offered me wine because I must have looked older. Beau and I talked all night and when we went outside to get some air and he leaned in to kiss me, I took a step back.

“What?” he said. “We’re having such a good time.”

I nodded. I liked his hair, how curls framed his face, and how freckled his nose was. I liked his choice of music. He was an Alicia Keys fan, but at that moment none of him mattered. Panic set in: this concrete wall began to grow around me, making its way from the soles of my feet up past my shoulders, above my head. I stood in a made-up coffin.

“Talk to me, Gigi,” he said.

He sat on the ground and tapped his hand for me to join him but I shook my head, then spun around and made my way back to the party.

“Having fun?” my mom said, eyebrow arched.

Again, I nodded then sat down next to her. The invisible coffin began to crack. Claire and Sophie were playing games with other middle schoolers in their party dresses and white ankle socks. The disco ball hanging from the ceiling shone fractured light everywhere. My dad dragged me to the photo booth and we took silly pics. Beau never looked at me again.

I wish at once down to my bones that I could wake up a little more like her tomorrow, unafraid to throw an elbow and wanting to Snapchat someone.

After my shower, I show up in my robe in the living room. I’m about to bare the cut and I anticipate her words. In those moments, my mom likes to keep things muted. Sweetie, will you put some Neosporin on it? It’s concerning. As if the softness in her voice and some cream can heal more than the jagged edges of my skin. But she is fast asleep, our dog curled up on her lap. Sheldon, on The Big Bang, says something about nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The audience laughs. I sit next to her for a while. When she doesn’t move, I make my way back to my purple room. On a less anxious evening, I’d play my vinyls but tonight I lie down on my bed instead and listen to Claire Snapchatting Bethany about Roman—Yo, can you believe it, a brother with that name? My sister’s voice is bell clear. She plays forward as a freshman on our team and she’d elbow anyone. A waxing moon peers into my window. I wish at once down to my bones that I could wake up a little more like her tomorrow, unafraid to throw an elbow and wanting to Snapchat someone.

*     *     *

In the morning, I come downstairs and my mom is on her mat in a warrior II. The anxiety has subsided. She wears these baggy black pants and a sports bra. For a middle-aged gal, she looks pretty good. Near washboard and defined triceps. She doesn’t look at me because she is breathing her Ujjayi breaths with her eyes closed.

“How was last night?” she says, sensing my presence.

Her back is as straight as an arrow and her mat is the same purple as my room.

“Did you sleep better?”

“Pretty good,” I lie.

The hope in her voice is devastating. Showing her the cut in broad daylight feels cruel, even violent somehow. My mom spends most of her life trying to breathe easier. The last thing she needs today is this new gash.

“Want me to make you eggs or want a quick massage before you go?”

I chuckle. “Nah. Thanks though.”

I go into the kitchen, eat a bite of Greek yogurt, then put on my shoes. Outside the sun shines and my dog is barking at birds behind our fenced backyard.

I have a pretty good day, considering. I think depressed thoughts only a handful of times. Once, it’s at my locker as I’m taking out my chem homework. One of the Julias is chatting up Ryder, the basketball captain of the boys’ team. This Julia sports the figure of a girl who smokes and drinks only, and who’s got Giselle Bundchen’s arrogance and bad attitude. 3,500 people follow her on Instagram. She just got back from Turks and Caicos where she hooked up with a famous YouTuber. She also has the highest forehead in the world, which freaks me out. I guess I must be looking at them for a while because she turns around and says,

“What the f—, Gigi? Never seen two people talk before?”

She rolls her eyes, throws her hands in her long hair and whispers something to Ryder, who kind of smirks but not really.

“Leave her alone,” he says. “Gigi’s cool.” Yet his voice is weak as he says it.

“As if,” Julia answers.

Ryder’s words should make me feel better but they don’t. I syphon back to elementary school in CT when I used to hide in Mrs. Devaneau’s art closet during recess. It was dark and smelled like Play-Doh but still I could rest my head against the wall and not hear someone say something like “Gigi’s an Oreo,” or, “Gigi’s a zebra.” Here there is no closet to go to. Instead, Julia’s forehead begins to extend like one long slab of skin until it has taken over her entire face and neck and is well on its way to covering up her bony chest. I hear Patrice say, “Let the image ride its way through you.” But all I can do is clasp my own forehead so hard that Mr. Armanpour steps out of his photography classroom and says, “You all right, Gigi? Need an Aleve?” I’m afraid to look at him too for fear that one of his eyes or an ear or something will take over his body.

At lunch, I sit with Claire and Sophie, eating my wrap. But when I get home a little early because of my senior privileges, I don’t see my mom’s car so I text her, feeling the grime squeeze in on me.

Running errands, she writes back.

Inside the empty house, I roll up the sleeve of my sweatshirt and see the newest cut, how red it is in comparison to the others. I know that I will have to go to STAR. The thought dunks me in the murky tank again but this time it’s not just me in there but a bunch of other teens too. There is no space. Our fingers are wrinkled from the water and someone’s knuckles rap against the glass, the sound of bones splintering.

“Breathe, Gigi,” I say out loud.

I go to the medicine cabinet, rub Neosporin on my cut. Then I pull out the Half Baked from the freezer and tell myself that tasting something sweet might help. That’s when I hear my mom’s key in the door. At the click, I snap out of it, so grateful for her arrival. When she walks into the kitchen with her grocery bags, I don’t wait for her to put them down. I hug her, bags and all.

My mom smiles. “I think there should be a brain store,” she says. “Where multiple brains are on shelves and we could just pick one.”

“Different colors,” I say.

“Like lavender,” she says.

“With scents. Mine would be anything but blue, eucalyptus-flavored.”

We laugh but we know how much we wish this were true.

*     *     *

I want to tell her about the night sweats, about the fish tank, people’s foreheads taking over their bodies. She knows about the insomnia, calls it an anxiety staple, and recommends melatonin, more meds and more meds.

It’s on Wednesday, in Patrice’s office, that my anxiety takes on a new twist. She’s just told me that she thinks the 75mg of Zoloft is finally working but very slowly when the tremors in my fingers start up again. I want to tell her about the night sweats, about the fish tank, people’s foreheads taking over their bodies. She knows about the insomnia, calls it an anxiety staple, and recommends melatonin, more meds and more meds. She is talking about being mean to the depression.

“Talk back to the distorted thoughts,” she says. “To The Sadness.”

But I can’t. “I’d have to understand the meaning of life for that.”

Patrice narrows her eyes behind her cool glasses.

I say, “The Sadness thinks it’s not worth sticking around. Isn’t the antidote the opposite?”

“Well, kind of.”

She says something about catastrophizing and how I have to be able to squash the thoughts like I’m stomping on tomato plants.

After a long silence, she says, “When was the last time you cut?”

I look out the window, see my mom passed out on the sofa. Here is where most teens would lie but you see I’m a rule follower and a team player so I roll up my sleeve and show her the one from two nights ago.

“It’s time for STAR, Gigi,” she says.

I think of the goldfish, all of us in the tank tangled up in algae. I shake my head.

“It will help you. I promise.”

When my mom enters the room, I know she knows something is up because the concrete coffin has risen around me thicker than before and I can’t even look outside of it. She sits and touches my arm, but it doesn’t shatter the way it usually does at her warmth. I wonder if I will have to carry this box around forever.

*     *     *

On Friday night we play Oakland and lose for the first time in nineteen games. Makes sense, I’m in a box and can’t make a layup. The whole time I’m running I have blinders on. I can’t see. I try to think of Steph Curry, my beacon. How he would break from the coffin, karate chop it with his mind. Usually basketball is the one place where The Sadness butts out, where my laser focus takes over, where I breathe sweat and only feel the bottom of my high tops pounding the floor. Zania passes me the ball a minute from the final buzzer. All I gotta do is catch it and shoot. But the box is keeping me trapped. The ball goes through my hands and my coach yells something at me but I can’t hear her beneath the layers of concrete. I can’t even feel her later when she shakes my shoulders and says, “Do you even care that we lost?”

I pretend that all is fine. Claire and Sophie go to a sleepover. My mom and dad—he’s just returned from VA—ask me if they can go for a quick walk around the block to catch up as grownups, that it’s okay not to always have a great game. I nod. Even smile.

Mom takes my hand. “You sure, G?” she says.

I can’t feel her warmth. Smile again, all teeth, something loony.

The concrete coffin won’t go away, neither will the grime, and since I cannot stick my black brain in the dishwasher on the heavy cycle or go to the store to get a tea-tree scented one, I know that the only way to break free is to cut but deeper this time.

The front door hasn’t shut when I slip the steak knife from the stand. I wish I could say that I’m thinking the whole thing out, that I follow these conscious steps but it would be a straight up lie. The truth? The concrete coffin won’t go away, neither will the grime, and since I cannot stick my black brain in the dishwasher on the heavy cycle or go to the store to get a tea-tree scented one, I know that the only way to break free is to cut but deeper this time.

It’s easy.

Unlike the clip, the knife is sharp. In one quick motion, I’ve opened my wrist. I watch the blood bloom into a perfect ellipse, then begin to rivulet its way down my forearm. I stand by the stove. Then the pain hits. The concrete walls around me crumble and I see myself alone with an open wound. Aside from the fridge making its usual gargling sound and birds chirping outside, there is silence. The taste of metal fills my mouth. I wonder if maybe I should kneel, if my dog will soon feel that something is not quite right. But then the door opens and my mom is upon me. She brandishes in her ever-graceful way a clean dishrag that she knots tightly around my wrist as my dad encircles me with his entire body.

“Oh, Gigi,” he says.

“Just breathe,” she orders.

In that second, I know it’s so strange to say but The Veil lifts, The Sadness goes away. I nearly see what life’s meaning is. I nearly see the full moon shining in our windows, how next year I will study law, and maybe even take another science class like astronomy. Meet another boy named Beau. Happiness hovers, sunshine just beyond my heart and my fingertips.

“I’m good,” I say, believing it.

But it’s my parents’ turn to be head bent, silent, and anxious. We wait for the sirens to blare, the ambulance to come. I wish I could put on a vinyl, listen to Scars to Your Beautiful by Alessia Cara, one of my idols. It’s as if I’ve momentarily passed on my disease, handed them my grimy brain, clarity finally taking hold behind my scalp, and it’s as if, together, my mom and dad are holding it, my brain, the weight of it, with all its pain, a precious creature in the palms of their hands.

 

Scarlet Jones received an MFA in fiction. She lives in the Northeast, and loves dogs, tulips, the beach, and yoga. She has attended a variety of writing conferences and is hard at work on her first YA novel. Her favorite writer is Rainbow Rowell, and her favorite drink is coffee.