The Threshold of the Sun

In cowhide suspenders, nine-year-old Xavier was running toward the village. A copy of the Reverend’s abridged bible bobbed in his hands like a fish struggling to return to the sea. He had forgotten to read the assigned chapter in the bible. Last night, captivated by the stars in the dark purple clouds around the moon, he had fallen asleep on the roof of his family’s two-story farmhouse. He always wanted to be an explorer, though the Reverend would never allow it. Farmers’ kids become farmers, he’d say. To leave the village would bring dishonor to your family. Dishonor was disrespect, and disrespect was sin, seldom forgiven by the Maker or the Reverend or your own parents. Xavier feared the village would no longer love him if he left. He didn’t want to live with the dishonor.

Still descending the hill, he shivered violently—an eastern gust blew into him like a flying tree branch—and stumbled over his unbuckled shoes and collapsed.

 On his way to town, Xavier leapt around a boulder along the path. Pooling around the edges of his green eyes, sunlight danced on every strand of his long blonde hair. He inhaled the air, smelling of dirt and wharf. He climbed over the picket fence surrounding his family’s cornfield and ascended another hill. Last night, as he dreamt of finding strange, new lands with a bindle and a bible, his head lay on his bible. When he woke up a half hour ago, the bible was gone. It had fallen off the roof and landed in a thorny rose bush. He wanted to leave the bible behind, but he remembered the wrath of the Reverend. Last week, the Reverend had spanked a girl for allowing a crow to fly off unharmed. Xavier stood at the corner with the drunkards, watching the girl flail and scream under the Reverend. “Forgive this child, our Maker!” the Reverend shouted. He spanked her until she lay motionless. The boy walked home, his bible heavy in his arms like the cross the Virgin Father carried to his own crucifixion.

*     *     *

The villagers thought the sun was the threshold to Hell, the Dark One’s domain.

Last week crows descended from the sun to eat scraps of bread on their porches. A gaunt man with bright gray eyes, the Reverend ordered the villagers to kill the birds. Women beat the birds with rolling pins, while their husbands shot at the crows with muskets. When the crows left or lay dead on the road, the villagers followed the Reverend to the church to pray. Xavier knew the story well; his parents had ordered him to erect scarecrows all around their farmhouse in order to ward off the birds. He did as he was told, and the birds never touched the house, just the surrounding cornfields which his parents grew. The cornstalks grew to nearly eight feet, their stems implacable like ironweeds. Now the stalks weathered the salty wind coming from the west, where the ocean writhed. Xavier could almost hear ocean as he continued to rush toward the village. Meanwhile, on Main Street, bakers carried warm rye loafs to the old women outside the church. Children played hopscotch and horseshoes near rosebushes. Drunkards in wrinkled flannel shirts stumbled out of pubs and grimaced at the younger ladies, who strolled past, their large petticoats swaying behind them. The respectable men wore ties; the lazy men, overalls. But they tried not to discriminate, especially not today. Saturday. The day of Mass.

*     *     *

The Reverend once said, “Any child late for Saturday school shall be beaten or flogged.” Xavier remembered the Reverend saying this to the kids in church. For a moment Xavier thought the Reverend was speaking solely to him and vowed never to arrive late to Saturday school, so now he ran faster toward the village. The sun continued to rise, the horizon dressed in pink and orange clouds. While Xavier climbed down another hill, the Reverend’s gray eyes appeared in his mind like a flashback. He’d never forget the way the Reverend spanked that girl. It could’ve easily been him.

Still descending the hill, he shivered violently—an eastern gust blew into him like a flying tree branch—and stumbled over his unbuckled shoes and collapsed. He tumbled halfway down the hill. A stone cut his forehead as he rolled over a thorny thicket of weeds and white roses, and he winced and moaned, fearing that might’ve broken a bone or two in his arms. He’d never felt so much pain. He cried out to the Maker for help, his supplication echoing across the cornfield below. Quickly though, the wind, a yelp over the cornfields, drowned out his voice. On the hill, he got to his feet and cried out again, but stopped. He looked out toward the horizon in disbelief.

Sailing on top of the cornstalks, a sloop lurched, light as a gondola, its pink sails bulging in the wind. The ship’s mainmast towered over Xavier, the bowsprit pointing at him. The wind died down. An anchor was thrown overboard. The ship stopped but still levitated. An old woman with bright violet eyes stepped onto the ship’s capstan. As he prayed to the Maker for mercy, the wind carried the woman to his side. He looked up, dumbstruck. Brandishing a staff, she wore a purple tricorn hat with a peacock feather. Her tawny hair flowed in another breeze, this one quieter, smelling of ambrosia. She wore a yellow velvet dress coat. Tied around her waist, a leather bandolier held a pistol and a leather holster carried a golden naval short sword. The silver buckles on her black shoes glinted, and white stockings and brown breeches hugged her legs. She helped the boy to his feet. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating.

“What are you?” he asked, awestruck. “A worshipper of the Dark One?”

“Dark One?” she said. “Not quite, darling. Just an explorer.”

The crystal on her staff shimmered, and his cuts and bruises vanished. Though he no longer felt any pain, he stepped back, clutching his bible. “Witchcraft?”

“Explorer,” she repeated. “There’s no need to be afraid.” She knelt once more, eyes sparkling. “I’ve come for supplies for my trip back to the sun.”

“The sun?” His voice was a muffled whisper. He was frightened. “What do you know about the crows?”

“The crows?”

“What’s beyond the sun? Hell?”

“Hell?” she exclaimed suddenly. He shuddered with surprise, so she answered softly, “No, sweetie. The sun’s not the threshold to Hell.”

He found it within himself to believe her. Then he looked at her clothes and weapons with wonder. She returned his gaze with an amiable chuckle. “I’ve been on many adventures beyond the sun,” she said. “I can share one with you.”

He looked at her outstretched hand. He’d never seen another explorer before. Hesitantly, he grabbed her hand. Her fingers were delicate, airy as her voice. Standing with her as they walked down the hill, he breathed in the smell of lemon on her coat. His arms felt lighter; he’d accidentally dropped his copy of the Reverend’s bible on the hill.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

He thought of the Reverend’s glare and the crumpled girl on his lap. He shook his head. “Nothing. I have everything I need.” He touched the hilt of her sword and the butt of her pistol with his free hand. He’d never touched a sword or gun before.

She told him the time she hunted a unicorn in the moors of a faraway land. He gripped her hand tighter, wanting more details. “After I killed the creature,” she said, “it turned into this.” She raised her staff. For the first time he marveled at the crystal on the staff. “You see,” she continued, “every person has a destiny. To fulfill your destiny, you must decide to live with excitement and danger.”

“Is that why you’re an explorer? For the excitement and danger?”

“In a way, yes.” They stopped at the edge of the village. “Exploring is my life.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she said, “explorers like me feel most alive when we’re exploring.”

“Is every day an adventure for you?”

“Every day should be an adventure,” she said. “In essence, I live to explore and I explore to live.” She glanced at him. “Make sense?”

He nodded without hesitation, picturing yesterday’s starlit sky. She wrapped an arm around him, and they continued on.

*     *     *

Xavier and the woman walked down the center of Main Street, then stopped outside the church. On the corner, drunkards sat on wooden chairs, looking at the mysterious woman.

She tipped her hat in greeting, but the drunkards said nothing. She turned to Xavier. “Where’s the store?” The boy glanced at the drunkards as they shared cold looks, then scrambled to the church.

Xavier turned to the woman and pointed to the building across the street. “There,” he answered. He felt strange, a growing sense of unease in his stomach. He couldn’t stop thinking about the drunkards. “Want me to come along?”

“Thank you, but I can handle it from here,” she said. “If you stay though, I might come back with a sweet for you.” He smiled with gratitude and took the drunkards’ seats on the corner as she strolled across the road.

Disrespect was dishonor—a sin, Xavier knew. But he took the woman’s hand. He felt safe with her. The Reverend stepped forward, and his gray eyes pierced the boy’s pupils.

Suddenly, voices erupted from inside the church. The clamoring sounds of men and women too afraid to walk outside. The unease grew even more feverishly inside Xavier, who dashed to the front door of the church and peered inside from the wooden stoop. Women were pacing down the center aisle with bewilderment; men were stomping down the pews. There were a hoard of screams and wild hand gestures. A boy no older than Xavier, the Reverend’s assistant, splashed his face with Holy Essence in front of a statue of the Virgin Father, as if to atone for a crime. The Reverend stood on a table at the end of the room, watching his flock go mad. Xavier trembled. He hadn’t seen such panic since the incident with the crows.

Within the din, several drunkards described the woman with the staff. “A witch,” one spat, chuckling at a flabbergasted older woman in gray petticoats. “She’s come to kill us!” Laughing, the drunkard opened his flask.

The Reverend raised his arms and his flock fell silent. He shook his head. “I expected more from you,” he said. “The woman these men are describing has come from the sun.”

“The kindling!” a woman shrieked. “What about the kindling?”

The Reverend gestured to a couple men in the corner of the room. “Retrieve the wood.” The Reverend added, “Just in case.”

Xavier turned around. The woman started across the street with a sack in her left hand. A group of children in white dress shirts and black dress pants trailed behind, keeping their distance. He returned to the corner and sat. The woman took a seat next to him and glanced at the church. “Is the church typically this loud?” she asked.

“They’re talking about you,” Xavier said, glancing at the church. “They fear you.”

“They wouldn’t fear me if they got to know me.” She gave the boy a piece of caramel from her sack.

A girl from the group grabbed his wrist. “She must’ve come from the sun!” she whispered. The woman returned Xavier’s incredulous look with another benign smile. Before any of the other kids could speak up, he threw the caramel into his mouth and sucked on the sweet. The kids looked on as he chewed and swallowed the candy.

“See?” Xavier said. “Nothing to fear.”

The kids stepped forward. The woman rummaged the sack for more sweets.

But the church door burst open and out stormed the Reverend, followed by the drunkards. They pointed at the woman with dirty fingers. “Children, back away from this demon!” the Reverend said, striding to the corner. The boy looked at the woman with alarm. The other children stood still in terror. “I shall draw out my whip!” the Reverend threatened.

The other children complied, running behind the Reverend. Their parents came out of the church. The mothers kissed their children, and the fathers scolded them for not being at Saturday school. Xavier’s father and mother glared at their son from the top of the stoop.

“Come here, son,” his father called. “Don’t disrespect the Reverend.”

Disrespect was dishonor—a sin, Xavier knew. But he took the woman’s hand. He felt safe with her. The Reverend stepped forward, and his gray eyes pierced the boy’s pupils. “Do as you’re told,” the Reverend said. “The Eleventh Commandment states: ‘The young must obey the elders, for they know the way to salvation.’”

He extended a calloused hand, the same hand he used to spank that girl. Xavier stepped behind the woman and squeezed her hand tighter. “It’s all right,” she told Xavier. “I don’t want to get you into trouble.” She turned to the Reverend. “This is a misunderstanding. I came only for supplies.”

“That’s of no consequence,” the Reverend said. “My bible says—”

“I’ve never read your bible,” she said. “I don’t want to insult your way of life. If you promise to take good care of the boy, I’ll be much obliged.”

“I don’t oblige witches,” the Reverend said, and turned to Xavier. “Come or be flogged!”

“That’s not necessary,” the woman said. She looked into Xavier’s eyes. “Start living, child,” she whispered and kissed his cheek.

The adults gasped. The Reverend seized the boy. He twisted in pain.

“Don’t!” the woman said.

The Reverend’s assistant drenched the boy’s face with Holy Essence. The blessed seawater jetted up his nose and down his throat, leaving a salty taste in his mouth. He twisted against them and rubbed the water from his eyes. Then the Reverend slapped Xavier’s rear, and the boy whimpered. He looked at his mother and father, who were returning to the church, heads turned away in disappointment. The Reverend swung again. Cringing, Xavier wondered if the pain would ever go away.

The woman stepped forward. “Let him go!” she said. “I’ll leave.”

The Reverend spanked him again. Another whimper. Tears across his face. All strength in his legs gone. He wanted to crawl to the woman and beg her to take him away. He no longer cared about sin. He cared about her, about exploring, about life. The woman reached out, but the Reverend slapped her hand and she stumbled back.

“Pray for forgiveness,” the Reverend said to Xavier. He grasped the boy’s arms with both hands. Xavier thought about kicking the Reverend back, but his legs were still weak and his rear still stung. He didn’t know what to say. His underarms sweated, the tips of his fingers tingled, snot lolled from his nostrils, his heartbeat boomed as he shook his head again. Then he rested his eyes on the Reverend. “Let go,” he muttered. He regained some strength in his calves. “Let go.”

“Beg the Maker for forgiveness,” the Reverend said.

“No.” The boy stood up straight. “I want to leave. You can’t treat me like this.”

The Reverend bit his lower lip, clearly vexed.

“Let. Go. Now!”

The Reverend yanked Xavier to the ground. His forehead dug into the gravel and blood looped around his right eyebrow. He cringed underneath the Reverend, coughing and shaking with fatigue. He turned toward the woman. She stepped forward again, but the Reverend shoved her back. “Demons from the sun deserve to die!” he declared. “Did you send the crows upon us? Have you come to corrupt our souls, as you have done with this boy?” Forced to his feet, the boy tottered.

“I mean no harm,” the woman cried. “Let me heal him.” She raised her staff. The crowd shuddered. A drunkard threw a bottle into the air, and it crashed a foot away from the woman. She stumbled back in surprise.

“The boy must be purified!” the Reverend said and threw the boy into the hands of several men. “The sea must cleanse him of his sins. Strip him!”

Xavier watched the man’s head erupt. A billow of blood, brain, and skull in the sunlight. When the shot man crumpled to the ground, Xavier screamed for help. He reached out for the woman, but he fell too fast over the edge.

Xavier tried to swat the men away, but they restrained him and pulled off his clothes. As the boy wept, the mothers covered their children’s eyes. A man lifted the boy into his arms. The boy kicked and screamed and panted as though he were drowning. Suddenly, the Reverend and several men rushed at the woman, but she drew out her sword and swung, cutting the tip of a man’s thumb. The mob stumbled back and the man holding Xavier started to run toward the sea, so the woman raised her staff and its crystal glimmered. The wind raged. It shoved men, women, and children to the ground. The Reverend and several men lumbered through the wind. The boy watched the woman scamper after him, and so he cried out for help. The woman placed her sword back into its holster and drew out the pistol while the man with the boy ran to a promontory overlooking gushing waters, the salty wind stampeding up the rock wall to the grassy edge. She pointed the pistol at the man’s head.

The Reverend, along with six men, ran to the cliff.

“He did nothing wrong!” the woman said.

The Reverend pointed to the man holding Xavier. “Toss him in—or be damned!”

The man stepped to the edge.

“No!” the woman said and fired the pistol.

Xavier watched the man’s head erupt. A billow of blood, brain, and skull in the sunlight. When the shot man crumpled to the ground, Xavier screamed for help. He reached out for the woman, but he fell too fast over the edge. He spiraled in the air, arms flailing, air caught in his throat, the world a blur of sensations and colors—the prickling of his skin, blood converging with snot and sweat on his bottom lip, the dark brown cliff merging with the aquamarine sea. Then he plunged into a whirlpool of seaweed. The surf pummeled into his chest and jetties whirled him near rocky spires. He clamored toward the surface of the sea, but the waves dragged him back down. Hoping his new friend would find him, he slapped and kicked the current to stay afloat. But soon he started to black out. Short of breath. Under the sun he drifted and bobbed. Drifted and bobbed relentlessly.

*     *     *

Xavier rolled his head in delirium and coughed up water on the sand and polished stones along the coastline. The setting sun touched the horizon, spreading the violet twilight across the cornfields and the sea. Slowly he remembered what happened, but in blurs: the ship, the woman, the drunkards, the Reverend, the cliff. After several minutes, he crept toward the village, and along the way he put on a pair of pants hanging on a clothesline and walked on, avoiding a group of men and women beating crows with brooms. He wanted to laugh at them, but he kept moving forward. His nose twitched at the smell of dying smoke. Soon he reached the church. Outside the building, kindling smoldered. The woman’s coat, now burnt, lay before him. A drunkard, the only other person outside the church, turned to him. The boy peered at the kindling, then dropped to his knees. He felt like vomiting, the woman’s blackened body smelled so acrid.

“Serves her right, coming here.” The drunkard took a sip from his flask. “Boy, you should tell the others you survived. I bet my brother a gold coin that you’d live.” He snickered.

Xavier stared at the drunkard. “I did die,” he said, rising. “Then I chose to live.”

The drunkard looked bemused. In the pile of char, a light flickered. The boy reached into the pile. A breeze blew away a collection of embers, revealing the woman’s staff, unmarred by the fire. The drunkard staggered forward.

“That’s impossible!” the drunkard said.

“I guess it chose to live too,” the boy said.

“Witchcraft,” the drunkard murmured. “You’re a witch!”

“No,” the boy said. “I’m an explorer.”

The man reached out to take the staff, but Xavier was quicker. He started down the street with the staff. On his way to the cornfields, he encountered several other villagers who called out his name in shock, but he walked on by without saying a word. He wasn’t followed. The woman’s ship still floated above the cornstalks. Staff in hand, Xavier climbed the anchor’s chain, and when he reached the deck, the crystal on the staff sparkled. The anchor rose by itself. The wind guided the ship west. He thought about the woman and began to cry. He’d never forget her.

The wind was strong. The ship flew westward, the stars blinking in the violet clouds. He closed his eyes with fear and exhilaration, and minutes later, the wind gave another shove against the sails and sent him closer toward the threshold of the sun.

 

Jacob Butlett holds a BA in creative writing from Loras College. His current work has been published or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Into the Void, Fterota Logia, Street Light Press, Gone Lawn, The Limestone Review, Outrageous Fortune, Wilderness House Literary Review, Picaroon Poetry, Free Lit Magazine, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Oratoria, Varnish: A Journal of Arts and Letters, The Phoenix, Tilde: A Literary Journal, Panoplyzine, Clarion, Cold Creek Review, The Shallows, and plain china. In 2017 he won the Bauerly-Roseliep Scholarship for excellence in literary studies and creative writing.

Photo Credit: Jessica Heim

 

 

 

The Haiku Muse

[fiction]

—For my godson and his brother

Tipping over trash cans and stacks of empty crates as he went, Ben created an obstacle course behind him. Ashen-colored snow flew up from under his feet as he ran through the alley at an all-out sprint. Dirty snow crunching, he thought. Flight of the muse underway, Urban brick canyon. His pursuer, Trent Waller, a known bully, was easily a hundred pounds heavier and stood a good ten inches taller than Ben. Trent shouted after him, red face puffing.

Murder is my gift!
Escape shall not release you
Winter on your soul!

Ben stifled a chuckle. “That’s pretty good, Trent,” he called back over his shoulder. “Can you try it again with a little more local color?” At that, Trent let out an animalistic scream and Ben, for his part, ran that much faster.

*    *     *

Ben didn’t see his gift as a superpower, at first. It was anything but practical and not the least bit heroic. But, Ben admitted to himself, he could still use it to help create beauty and new ways of seeing, new ways of expressing. Still, he found himself wishing he could do more with it. As with many endowed with super abilities, his power first manifest itself in early adolescence, about the same time his voice took a deep turn.

Tipping over trash cans and stacks of empty crates as he went, Ben created an obstacle course behind him. Ashen-colored snow flew up from under his feet as he ran through the alley at an all-out sprint. Dirty snow crunching, he thought. Flight of the muse underway, Urban brick canyon.

His world literature class had just spent a two-week lesson on Japan, and when they read the haiku of the great and timeless poet, Matsuo Bashō, the beauty of it surprised young Ben. The presentation of the everyday in simple elegance, the subtle reference to seasonality, they captivated him. Infected him. He stayed up late nights reading haiku with a flashlight in one hand, under the covers of his bed, hoping to go unnoticed by his parents. He began to see haiku moments, as he would later call them, everywhere. He wrote haiku to his family, leaving them posted on the refrigerator or microwave oven. A simple note meant to tell his parents that he was across the street at his friend’s house itself was rendered in the age-old syllabic formula: five, seven, five.

Crossing still black ice
Warm Victorian refuge
Dinner returns me.

The problem, of course, is that any poem, by its very nature, is subject to a myriad of meanings and interpretations. Would dinner return Ben home, or had dinner been what returned Ben to his friend’s house? After a few such mix-ups, and to the relief of everyone involved, Ben restrained his love of the poetic form, deploying it more tactfully.

Haiku had imprinted upon him. It filled him up and changed him. The peculiar poetic power revealed itself to Ben at home when, one Saturday morning, he was trying to explain his deep affection for the art form to his older brother Anthony.

“Anthony, you’re going to love this one,” Ben said, preparing to read the eleventh (twelfth?) haiku since breakfast. Anthony shrugged. He was focused on upgrading the apps on his phone.

“In a minute, Ben,” he said. Anthony’s nonchalance triggered Ben’s frustration. He had such lackluster admiration for something so important.

“You just don’t get it!” Ben shouted and waved his hands in exasperation. In that instant, a certain transference occurred. Anthony caught a variation of the infection (or spell, whatever it was) that had imprinted upon Ben. But it was different, a thing done to him and not born of his own appetite or aesthetic.

Anthony’s confusion mounted as he tried to respond to Ben. He couldn’t form a coherent sentence.

Such a change in view.
What trickery visits me?
Poetic prison.

Anthony realized that he could only speak, only think, in haiku. Every word and idea structured and expressed poetically, in syllabic precision. His very vision, transformed. Whereas for Ben the infection left his freedom of expression intact, the constraining spell only frustrated Anthony.

This must stop brother
As sunbeams melt winter snow
Unfetter my speech,” Anthony said.

Ben jumped half out of his seat, excited at Anthony’s spontaneous haiku. But as he took in its meaning, he knew what was wrong. The poem that Anthony spoke connected to Ben’s very spirit, conveying Anthony’s angst.

“Anthony?” Ben asked. But when Anthony only repeated the same verse it confirmed to Ben what had happened. “I release you,” Ben said, not entirely sure what else to do. Anthony let out a gasp, as if he had been holding his breath and had just come up from under water.

“What happened?” Anthony demanded.

“I… I made you a haiku poet,” Ben answered.

“But how? Why?”

“I don’t know,” Ben answered, shaking his head.

The boys agreed not to speak of this, at least for now, until they could better understand what had happened. But, as it turns out, neither were very good at keeping this secret.

*    *     *

Anthony handed Ben his tablet. “Read this,” he said. The browser showed an article titled “What every Parent should know about Superpowers,” on a parenting web page. Anthony had highlighted a paragraph.

“Competing origin theories about superpowers abound: exposure to a special type of radiation or the awakening of a long dormant strand of DNA, magic, extraterrestrial lineage, ancient gods from the pantheons of old brought out of hiding into the modern world. Among the superpowers there exists a hierarchy. Omnipotence, usually with an Achille’s Heel, anchors one end of the spectrum but the other end, though diverse and difficult to explain, is no less critical to understand, and no less important in the lives of the people who have them. Whatever the origin, parents should understand the challenges of raising a child with superpowers.”

Ben set the tablet down. “We should talk to Iris,” he said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Anthony said. “Nobody knows more about superpowers than Iris.”

*    *     *

Iris lit a slender reed of incense in the art studio in the back room of her basement apartment. She flipped her locks of chestnut brown curls out of her face, only to see them flop right back where they were. Her rosy cheeks contrasted with the milky white of her complexion. The incense she selected was a lemon aromatic to counter the winter bluster outside. Though she looked vibrant in her early middle-age, Iris was an old soul, and, indeed, an ancient being. Ben and Anthony lived in the house upstairs and were frequent visitors to her art studio. The two of them sat on stools that were stippled with flicks of color, the painted byproduct of the art that was created there.

Twelve students in all paid for the haiku services. None of it was cheating, they told each other, because the words weren’t Ben’s, but came from each person, and the images and connections conveyed were truly those of the author. Ben’s power was to restructure their thought and speech, but he took no credit for their poems.

Iris placed her sketch pad, colored pencils, and markers on an old, worn wooden table. She took a deep breath, appreciating the aroma from the lemon-scented incense.

“Have you come here to watch me?” she asked.

“Not really. Not this time,” Ben said.

“Well, then?” Iris asked.

“You’re the goddess of color,” Ben said. Iris smiled.

“But, listen,” Anthony interrupted. “Something happened. Maybe something you’ve seen before.”

“To me,” Ben said. “It happened to me. We’re hoping maybe you could explain it.” Ben paused, waiting for Iris to say something. When she didn’t, he continued. “I have a sort of spell I can cast, but it’s weird.”

“Magic, by its very nature, is weird,” Iris said. “Have you cast it?”

“By accident,” Ben said.

“On me,” Anthony interjected. Iris looked Anthony up and down.

“You seem fine now. Is everything okay?”

“Yes. I’m okay,” Anthony said.

“Tell me what happened,” Iris said.

Anthony started in at the point in the story where the spell—if that’s what it was—had been cast on him.

“But that’s not where it started,” Ben interrupted. “It started in my world lit class, when we studied the writings of Matsuo Bashō.”

“Ah, yes, Bashō,” Iris said with a nod.

“Then, you’ve heard of him,” Ben said.

“Heard of him? He was my friend,” Iris said, smiling at an age-old memory. Both Ben and Anthony looked at her with wonder in their eyes. “And I will tell you that story another time,” she said. “Tell me more, Ben, about your magic.” Ben spoke of his first time reading the poetry from Japan, of his love and then infatuation with it. He spoke of haiku moments, and how virtually everything either seen or done could be presented in its elegant format. He told of his voracious appetite for the form of poetry. Finally, he told her about Anthony, and his casual appreciation for haiku and of Ben’s frustration with it, and of Ben’s casting of the spell.

“It’s like everything changed,” Anthony said. “It was more than me just thinking up poems. It was like, I thought in haiku and only haiku.”

Iris nodded, intrigued though not alarmed by what the boys told her. “You’re not the first to have this kind of power, but you may be the first in over a thousand years.” She walked over to a book shelf and pulled off a dusty, faded volume. Blowing the dust from it, she handed it to Ben.

The Muses Through the Ages,” Ben read aloud.

“You can borrow it, if you’d like,” Iris said. “But all you really need to know is that for thousands of years there have been those entrusted with special powers such as yours.”

Ben nodded. “It’s just… When I imagine all the superpowers in the universe, I never would have put haiku on that list. It’s not like the ability to fly or walk through walls or turn invisible. I never knew this one was even an option. It’s not even really a superpower,” he said.

“Isn’t it?” Iris asked.

“I can’t fight crime with it,” Ben said.

“Can’t you?”

“I can’t stop a bad guy.”

“You can’t?”

“I can’t even make people like it!”

Iris walked to a cabinet in the far corner of her basement apartment. She pulled a framed picture off the shelf which the boys immediately recognized as one of her creations. The frame was a simple, unstained wood, and inside of it appeared a Gaelic wreath concentric circles. At the center of the circles was a white sphere, the reflection of the sun or moon on water. Forming a perimeter around the white center was the still water of an aqua-blue pond. The next circle was a band of vibrant green, the stems and leaves of lotus lilies growing out of the water. Little green frogs rested on leaves. The final, outer-most band of the concentric circles was a wreath of rich, blue lotus blossoms, perched atop the green stems.

“Tell me,” she said, showing Ben the print. “Does this print lie to you?”

“Lie?” Ben asked.

“Does it attempt to deceive you? Or, has it told you the truth of the matter?”

“It’s art. You made it with colored pencils and markers,” Ben protested.

“Answer my question, does the print lie to you or has it spoken the truth?”

“I don’t know. It’s beautiful, Iris. I like it a lot. But I don’t know what it says,” Ben said, her questions flustering him.

“Can you write a poem about it?” Iris asked. Ben’s eyes lit up, like this was the first thing she said that made any sense. He inhaled a deep breath and fixed his eyes on the print.

Citrus smoke curls ’round
Blue blossoms on still water
Tiny frog’s delight.

“Matsuo would love that one,” she said. Anthony set his hand on Ben’s shoulder and winked his approval. Iris continued. “What if your poem is like the picture, neither true or false? What if this image that I made with markers and pencils rests someplace outside of those types of questions? And what if that is your power, your gift, Benjamin? What if the poet stands apart from matters of truth and falsehood, creating in the realm of meaning, and irony, and allegory. Beauty and despair. Hope and longing. Fulfillment and unrequited everything. And the poet, who does not seek to tell the truth, also cannot lie.”

Ben was quiet, contemplating what Iris had to say.

“Continue your path,” Iris said. “In time, more will be revealed.”

*    *     *

To Ben’s mind, nothing more was revealed. Nothing except for Anthony’s plans. Anthony saw a market opportunity in his younger brother’s power. He organized a group of older kids as they were preparing their applications for college, a ritual Anthony would soon enough perform for himself.

“We can give you that extra edge,” he said. ” We can make your application stand out.” And the students, vying for whatever advantage to increase the chances that they might gain acceptance into their colleges of choice, were all too eager to pay.

A boy named Jared Bishop submitted one of his three essays for admission to different, exclusive universities as a series of gorgeous haiku.

A girl named Melody Armstrong explained her experiences as a daughter in a working-class, single-parent family and peppered the essay with the poignant three-line stanzas, enriching her story and moving it from one of stark, indifferent, hardship to one of hardship layered with the deeper beauties of resistance and resilience.

Twelve students in all paid for the haiku services. None of it was cheating, they told each other, because the words weren’t Ben’s, but came from each person, and the images and connections conveyed were truly those of the author. Ben’s power was to restructure their thought and speech, but he took no credit for their poems.

Ben looked at his newfound wealth. What was supposed to be fun and exciting seemed petty and even a little embarrassing.

“We’ve got six hundred dollars, Anthony, but it doesn’t feel right,” Ben said.

“I know what you mean. It feels like maybe we’re cheapening it,” Anthony said. The boys put the project on hold.

*    *     *

Ben remained infatuated with his new art form. He read books about and by the master, Matsuo Bashō. When he wasn’t reading or writing haiku, he would read about the muses in the book he borrowed from Iris.

One night, as the boys were preparing for bed, they sat together, leafing through super hero comics, sorting them according to powers and abilities. Anthony looked at Ben, a small dollop of mint-scented toothpaste still in the corner of his mouth.

“Ben, I’ve been thinking about your superpower. I think there’s more to it than making money turning people into poets, but I don’t know what that is yet,” Anthony said. “I think maybe you should drop your Spanish class and take Japanese. That’s where haiku started, right? In Japan? I mean, all the Bashō you read is translated from Japanese.” Ben nodded. “You could read it in its original language. And I’ve been thinking about the muses, too,” Anthony continued.

“I just can’t find examples of how they helped anything,” Ben said. “They helped people be creative, write poems and history. But they were just minor gods. A superhero needs to do something more. Look at Morgan Carter,” he said, referring to a Canadian soldier who was all over the news for leaping three stories into a burning building and rescuing a family. “Or Leticia Del Villar,” he said, referring to a famous woman whose premonitions predicted with eerie accuracy deadly, but avoidable accidents. She worked with a tech startup to develop an app to warn people days in advance, saving scores of lives each year.

“Don’t compare yourself with them, or the muses, even. Stop thinking about them, like at all,” Anthony said. “The muses’ spells didn’t work exactly like yours does, anyway. They inspired creativity but didn’t force it. And they lived like, five thousand years ago. What would they know about life today?”

“But Iris gave me the book,” Ben said.

“She gave you the book so that you’d know you’re not alone. But what you do with it, that’s on you, not on Iris or the muses or anything in that book.”

“But Anthony, what am I supposed to do?”

“Try being yourself. That’s always the best place to start,” Anthony said. “I know. Easier said than done sometimes.”

*    *     *

Ben’s phone chirped. He pulled it from his pocket to see that he had just received a text from Jared Bishop, the kid from Anthony’s school who paid to have himself haikued.

“Gotta talk.”

“All done haikuing for money,” Ben replied.

“Still gotta talk.”

Ben forwarded the text to Anthony. “You’re the one who knows him.”

“I’ll see what he wants,” Anthony replied.

*    *     *

Ben walked down the rickety steps to Iris’s basement apartment. He smelled the scent of peachy incense even before he reached the door. Faint sounds of music escaped into the hallway. He knocked.

“Come in,” said a voice from inside the apartment. Ben opened the door and saw a wiry, dark skinned woman with a black, neatly coifed afro—like a halo—working on a sketch with colored pencils.

“Iris?” Ben asked.

“Yes?”

“I’ve never seen you in this form before,” Ben said.

“I needed inspiration,” she said. “So, I spent the day down at the boardwalk, selling paintings,” she said. Ben nodded.

“Does changing your physical appearance give you inspiration?” Ben asked.

“Usually. My appearance changes how others see me, how they interact with me, how they treat me. And that can help me see things in a new light.”

“Which one of them is the real you?”

Iris smiled and leaned in. “I’m the goddess of color, a creature of light, and an artist,” she said. “This form is as much the real me as any of the others you’ve seen. Tell me, Ben. How’s the haiku business?”

“We’re taking a break,” he said.

“Is that what you came here to talk about?”

“Sort of. I’m just tired of not knowing what to do,” Ben confided.

Iris gestured at the walls of her studio. Every inch displayed her artwork.

“Just write. See where it leads you,” she said. Ben pulled out his notepad, focused on a watercolor print, and began to write.

Pier rests on water
Steel blue ocean, virgin sand
Deserted beach.

*    *     *

“Ben, Jared’s being bullied,” Anthony explained. “Some guy named Trent Waller saw a copy of the college entrance essay that you helped him with and won’t let it go. I guess it was too artsy for him.” Anthony wasn’t sure who Trent was when Jared first texted him. He had to look him up on social media and in his year books. When he saw his pictures, he recognized him immediately as a twelfth-grade trouble-maker.

“What does he want us to do about it?”

“Jared thinks if you can convince Trent that you cast a spell on him, maybe he’ll stop bullying.”

“But a bully won’t care about my spell. He’s bullying Jared because he can,” Ben said.

“I know. I told him that I didn’t know what we could do, that he should talk to his parents and teachers.”

“What did he say to that?”

“He said he tried that already. Nothing changed and he’s scared to go to school now.”

“What do you think, Anthony? Do you think showing Trent my power would help Jared? It might just make me his next target.”

“That’s true,” Anthony said. “But we have to try something.”

*    *     *

“You said you once met Matsuo Bashō,” Ben said. “That he was your friend.”

“Indeed, we were friends,” Iris said. “I had heard of charming poetry being created on an island on the other side of the world and I went to see for myself.”

“What was he like?” Ben asked.

“Let me show you,” Iris said. “Let me show you using the technique I learned when I met Matsuo.” Iris waived her hands and colors flew from her fingers in puffs of mist. In the air between she and Ben a story began to unfold. She created an animated Japanese water-ink painting right before Ben’s eyes, floating in mid-air. The colors were gentle, shaded, subdued. A middle-aged man, Matsuo, walked along a wooded path. He was joined by a Japanese woman whose features told Ben that she was none other than Iris herself. Iris narrated her images.

“He was a restless spirit. Not always the refined poet that people today like to imagine. He could have been a samurai, but chose the life of a poet and teacher, instead.” The water-ink image of Matsuo was then transported into a home, where he set down a samurai sword, bowed, and exited, leaving the sword at the feet of a feudal lord.

“A samurai,” Ben said, and his mind conjured thoughts of the fierce Japanese knights, defenders of the Shogunate.

“It wasn’t as you might think,” Iris said. “Before Matsuo, Japan had been at war, with itself and with its neighbors.” The scene she inked showed legions of samurai training with focus and discipline before it all erupted into raging battles. “But by the time of Matsuo, samurai had no more wars to fight. Many of them became scholars and studied the arts.” The explosive scenes emanating from her fingertips—scenes of massive battles and hand-to-hand combat—faded and the colors ran as if the inks were diluted with too much water. Iris dangled her fingers up high, as a puppeteer controlling an invisible marionette might, mystical ink dripping from her fingertips. The next scene that came forth was of samurai reading, writing, and trading in their swords for other professions.

His own words stopped him cold. He looked at his hands and scanned the faces of the students. All eyes were on him.

Ben never knew that samurai could be anything but steely warriors. “Perhaps for Matsuo,” Iris continued, “the best way to use his talents would not arise from the life of a warrior, but from his poetry.” The next image she conjured in the air was of an incomplete bamboo bridge, reaching halfway across a rushing stream, abandoned by workers as the first snow of the season began to fall. “Japan may have lost an anonymous samurai, but they, and the world, gained one of our greatest creative minds.”

“Thank you, Iris,” Ben said, giving her a hug. He turned and started back up the stairs.

“I’m glad I could help,” Iris said. Ben reached the top of the stairs and paused. He turned to face Iris.

“I guess not all samurai fought battles,” he said as Iris’s story sank in.

“More to the point, not all fights are won with swords,” Iris said.

*    *     *

Ben’s middle school was about a mile from Lakewood High, the school Anthony attended. He would have to walk there after school to see what could be done about Trent. They agreed to try to reason with Trent, explain to him that poetry is more than whatever he might think. As Ben walked there, light wisps of snow fell lazily from the grey sky.

Snow dampening sounds
Enchantments cleansing the air
Raven’s muffled caw

When Ben arrived at the school, he saw a small crowd of students gathering in the back parking lot. Anthony waved to him.

“What’s going on?” Ben asked.

“I just got here. But see for yourself,” Anthony answered. At the center of the crowd sat a cowering Jared Bishop, shoulders slumped. His backpack was empty on the ground next to him, his books and papers strewn about. Trent Waller paced back and forth over his victim. Some students tried and failed to persuade him to leave Jared alone. Ben swallowed deep.

“Look at this,” Trent yelled to the crowd of witnesses, holding up a copy of Jared’s haiku college entrance essay that he fished from his backpack. “These poems don’t even rhyme!” He tore the sheet into small pieces and released the scraps like a snow flurry over Jared’s head. Jared sat motionless. “What’s the matter, pixie, didn’t you know poems are supposed to rhyme?”

That’s when Ben stepped forward. “Actually, haiku poems don’t have to rhyme.”

“Who are you?” Trent demanded, his voice tinted with disdain.

“My name’s Ben. I helped Jared with his poetry.” Trent wrinkled his face in a look of befuddlement. “What he did was really intricate,” Ben continued.

“What?”

“Jared wrote a series of poems that alternated between the two forms of haiku,” Ben explained.

“What?”

“Don’t you see? Each poem alternated between seventeen and eleven syllables. In each one, he told something about himself and how he prepared for college and the other things he needed in his essay.”

“Who are you?” Trent repeated.

“I’m Ben.” Trent looked at Ben and then down at Jared, who was using the distraction to collect his things and shove them back into his backpack. “I helped Jared write his haiku.”

Trent took a step toward Ben. “You’re the one helping him be a pixie? What’s that make you? Queen pixie herself?” Trent said, taking another menacing step toward Ben.

“No,” Ben said, exasperation evident in his tone. “Pixies aren’t just female and they don’t have anything to do with haiku. Or any poetry at all, even.” Trent’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Get up, Jared,” Ben said. “Go home.”

“Oh, you think you’re in charge here, pixie boy?” Trent said.

“I’m not a pixie. More of a muse, if anything. Can I at least explain to you what’s so special about haiku?” Trent, muscles tensed, stormed up to Ben, who, with only a second to spare, waived his hands at Trent and said “Haiku!”

Enough with poems!

Day fades, so too my patience

I will pummel you!” Trent said.

His own words stopped him cold. He looked at his hands and scanned the faces of the students. All eyes were on him.

“You see: haiku! Not the best, but still,” Ben said with a smile, walking backwards. “Try to think, Trent! Don’t you see the beauty?”

Devious pixie!

Thoughts all twisted, transforming

Mayhem unleashed,” Trent said, his expression a mixture of wonder and frustration.

“Yes, Trent! Yes!” Ben said, excitement brimming. “Now, just stop, please! Can’t you see it? Can’t you see what you’ve created?” Ben quickened his pace, walking backwards.

Jared had collected his belongings and was running for the other side of the parking lot.

Trent let out a deep, angry howl and charged at Ben. Ben turned and ran toward an alley at the very back of the parking lot. Just as Trent hit his stride, someone’s foot jutted out, catching Trent’s ankle, sending him tumbling and then skidding across the icy pavement just before he could catch Ben. It was Anthony. But in the crowd and commotion, Trent didn’t know who tripped him.

Erupting!
Go, scattering stones!
Angry flames!” Trent yelled, rage and bewilderment pronounced on his face.

“A three, five, three alternative haiku!” Ben yelled, though he was fleeing at a sprint by then. “Impressive!”

Anthony, who had driven to school that day, ran to his family’s trusty blue SUV and drove through the center of the parking lot, away from the crowd. He stopped and picked up Jared who was still running at a decent clip. He knew he had to get Ben, but the alley he was running through was too narrow and cluttered for a car. He’d have to drive the long way around the block and pick him up on the other side.

Ben ran through the alley at an all-out sprint, tipping over trash cans and stacks of empty crates as he passed, creating an obstacle course behind him. Trent had recovered from his tumble and was gaining on him.

Murder is my gift!
Escape shall not release you
Winter on your soul!

Up ahead, Ben saw Anthony round the corner in the family car. “That’s pretty good, Trent,” he yelled, looking back over his shoulder. “Can you try it again with a little more local color?” At that, Trent bellowed guttural sounds as Anthony brought the car to a stop at the end of the alley. Jared swung the door open and Ben dove like a swimmer off a starting block into the open door. Jared swung the door closed and they sped away. The three boys laughed as they left the screaming, hapless, haiku bully behind them.

“I have an idea,” Anthony said. “Text Trent that he can never bully anyone again, or he’ll live his life in haiku!”

“Perfect,” Ben said. Jared nodded his agreement. “That would be a prison sentence for Trent. Let’s do it.”

*    *     *

Jared texted the terms of a truce to Trent, telling him that he must never bully another soul or he could spend the rest of his life in haiku. Trent didn’t respond at first. His pride wouldn’t let him. Three days passed before he begrudgingly texted Jared a note:

A truce I will seek
The terms, abundantly clear
Longest night must end.

“Any funny business,” Jared texted him, “and you can spend the rest of your life a poet.”

Trent was a depleted, defeated boy when they met him in the parking lot at Lakewood High that Saturday. Shoulders hunched, eyes downcast.

“I wish I could make you see what’s so special about haiku,” Ben said to him. Trent nodded. “I release you.”

Trent looked up, afraid to talk, fearful that he wasn’t yet released. But then the structure of his thinking reverted to normal. The world around him could finally be described any way he wanted. He turned to walk away, but Ben had to ask him one last question.

“Trent, did you see it? Did you finally see what you created? What Jared created? What poetry can do?”

“More than you know,” he mumbled.

“What do you mean?” Ben asked.

“Nothing,” Trent said, shaking his head. After a long moment, Trent looked at the boys as they waited for him to say something more. Another moment passed.

Barren parking lot,” Trent said.
“Sunbeams falling on the snow
Four boys planting seeds.

 

Jaime Balboa earned his BA in English from Adrian College. His stories have appeared in The Timberline Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Chaleur Magazine. An open water swimmer, many of his writing ideas come to him in the waters of the Pacific. He and his partner live in Los Angeles where they are raising a son. Follow him on twitter @jaimerb.

The Mirror Game

[fiction]

Walking into rehearsal that day, I felt awkward and out of place. I sat at my little producer’s desk in a quiet corner of the drama room. I tried to scan the space from under the cover of my bangs, while pretending to read texts. The room looked like other classrooms—beige linoleum floors, once-white walls, fluorescent overhead lights—except that the ceiling was much higher and most of the floor space was bare. As I spotted actors I knew from class and others who were only vaguely familiar from the cafeteria, I realised that the person I really wanted to see was absent. Charlotte, our star, was nowhere to be seen, but she often entered at the last minute. She seemed to enjoy making an entrance. I tried to use my peripheral vision to find Mr. Evans, the director. He might be as short as the average grade-nine student, but his animated gesticulations usually stood out in a crowd. Unfortunately, there was too much hair in my way to even spot Mr. Evans’s talkative hands, so I attempted to blow some of the bangs out of my face. Instead, I managed to spit on my phone. Lovely. I wiped the screen on my jeans and looked up in time to see Mr. Evans giving me a funny look. Oh god! Had he seen me spit on my phone then wipe it on my jeans like some grimy toddler smearing a booger on her leg?

Charlotte’s Medusa-effect seemed only to work when I was looking directly at her, so I swallowed the saliva I’d been hoarding while gazing up at Mr. Evans’s little pot belly.

Before I could figure out what to do, Charlotte breezed into the room, tossing her jean jacket on top of a pile of backpacks with a coordination and confidence I could only admire. She grinned at the room and this somehow worked as a signal to the other actors who all gathered in a circle. Mr. Evans joined them, but I hesitated. Did I have to join the circle? I wasn’t one of the creative types. I was just the student producer, the person who kept things organised and did basic math to make a budget. I looked down at my phone again, hoping for an answer. It was, as usual, totally unhelpful. Smartphone, my ass, I thought.

“Alison, phones aren’t allowed in rehearsal. Put it away and join us.” Mr. Evans stepped back to make room for me to squeeze between him and one of the actors.

“Now close your eyes. Listen to your breath.” The room was silent except for the sound of the prehistoric ventilation system rattling away above our heads. “Try to match your breathing to the people next to you. If we can breathe together, we can create art together.”

How could I match two different people’s breathing? I unintentionally held my breath while trying to listen to the breathing of my neighbours. The room gradually got louder as some people shifted uncomfortably and others tried to help those around them by inhaling and exhaling loudly. Mr. Evans either didn’t notice or didn’t mind. “Excellent work! I can feel our energies coming into alignment.” Our energies coming into alignment felt a lot like a class of kids trying to suppress giggles, but who was I to judge? “Now open your eyes and find a partner for our warmups.”

I held back as I watched the actors pair off. Even the freshmen seemed confident enough to make overtures to near-strangers. It looked like everyone else had found a partner and I was about to tell Mr. Evans that I would skip the rest of the warmup when a pair of cool blue eyes froze me to the spot.

“Looks like we’re the odd ones out.” This close, I could see that one of Charlotte’s incisors protruded a little.

I was so nervous that I couldn’t swallow my own saliva. So this is a thing I do now, I thought. My saliva tasted acidic, like warm diet soda. I nodded at Charlotte, unable to think of anything else to do. I couldn’t speak and it would be unutterably rude to just walk away. I was going to have to partner with Charlotte for whatever mad “game” Mr. Evans made us play next.

At a signal from Mr. Evans, all the actors sat on the ground. Charlotte sat cross-legged in a single fluid move. I made my way down in increments, like my arthritic grandmother: first I bent my knees a little, then I put a hand down to balance myself and finally I lowered myself all the way. At least I didn’t grunt or groan like an old person. Of course, that was probably only because I couldn’t make a sound unless I wanted to drool all over myself like some over-excited bulldog.

I craned my neck to look at Mr. Evans, pretending that I needed to see him to properly follow his directions. Charlotte’s Medusa-effect seemed only to work when I was looking directly at her, so I swallowed the saliva I’d been hoarding while gazing up at Mr. Evans’s little pot belly.

“We’re warming up with a classic today. You’re going to act as mirrors. The job of the mirror is to reflect exactly what their partner is doing. The leader’s job is to make sure that the mirror can follow their movements. Use eye contact to help you communicate. This warmup is about building bonds and paying attention to how we move. I’ll tell you when to change so that the mirror becomes the leader.” Why would awkward eye contact make people better actors? Theatre people were baffling.

Mr. Evans switched on some weirdo spa music and people shifted so that they were facing each other. It looked like the other pairs were staying seated on the floor, so I turned my body to face Charlotte and forced myself to look directly into her eyes. The cool blue of her irises were outlined in midnight blue. Her eyes reminded me of colouring books when I was a little kid. I would follow the lines with my colouring crayon, pressing down to create a satisfying dark outline, then I would lightly colour in the centre.

“Want to be the leader first?” Charlotte offered. I shook my head no. “Okay. I’ll go first,” she said.

Charlotte slowly raised her right arm, long fingers splayed in a languid hello. I tried to match her loose-limbed movements, but everything in me felt too tight. To an outsider, she must have looked like a cool ballerina, while I must have looked like a robotic facsimile of a human being.

I panicked, thinking I had somehow disappointed her, but then it came to me: I must be frowning. Why would I be frowning? Did I normally frown? I made an effort to smile.

Charlotte lowered her arm and I followed her as she rested her hand on the floor. It was difficult to concentrate on the outer edges of my body. It felt like every atom of my being was being drawn into the point where our eyes met. Charlotte smiled and my brain reminded me, a beat too late, that I was supposed to do what she did. I smiled back and her smile grew almost imperceptibly. Was it possible I had made Charlotte happy, even in some small way? I could now feel my heart as well as the hot point between us.

Charlotte reached her left hand forward, fingertips at the very edge of our imaginary boundary. I moved my own hand without thinking. In the periphery of my vision, I could see the contrast between my pale skin and her lightly tanned skin. Then she twitched her index finger forward and every atom in my body rushed to that point of contact. Emptied of my atoms, I forgot to breathe. The next moment, she slid her hand up, as if it rested against the mirror between us. My entire palm was now pressed against hers. My fingers were shorter than hers and I wondered vaguely what it would feel like if she wrapped her hand around mine.

“Everyone up! Mirrors are the leaders now!” Mr. Evans’s peppy instructions jarred me out of my reverie.

When Charlotte stood up, I followed her, still attuned to her every action. I almost mirrored her raised eyebrows until I realised she was reminding me that it was my turn to lead. Though I wanted to touch her again, I couldn’t bring myself to be that forward. Instead, I modestly nodded my head yes. She followed, frowning.

I panicked, thinking I had somehow disappointed her, but then it came to me: I must be frowning. Why would I be frowning? Did I normally frown? I made an effort to smile.

Her lips turned up, but no protruding incisor. I told myself to smile big and there it was. I took a deep breath and so did she. So this is what it was like to breathe with someone. Maybe Mr. Evans had been on to something.

Mr. Evans clapped his hands together. I didn’t break eye contact with Charlotte until he instructed the actors to take their places for Act I. At that point, I reluctantly made my way to my table. Only when I was seated did I realise I had somehow managed to swallow like a normal person during the mirror exercise. Miracle!

The rehearsal seemed to drag, probably because I had to ration my glimpses at Charlotte. I didn’t want to act like a stalker, so I made myself look at six other people before looking back at her. She was in character, which meant she seemed more regal and untouchable than ever. But I had touched her. My stomach clenched at the thought.

When Mr. Evans finally instructed the group to give themselves a round of applause, I thrilled at the sight of her walking towards me.

She stopped in front of my table. “You make me look much better than my mirror at home. Can you come to my house every morning to make me feel hot?” She laughed. Her laugh was a bit hiccup-y. I loved it. I wanted to hear more of it. “Sorry. That’s a terrible line.”

I smiled and considered flirting back. (She had to be flirting, right?) And then, with the worst possible timing, Mr. Evans interrupted. “Alison, can we speak?”

“Of course,” I said. I turned back to Charlotte, desperate to say something, anything, to let her know I was interested. “I’ll be sure to reflect on your offer.” It was a terrible pun and I regretted it the second I said it, but then she laughed again. I sketched an awkward wave as I turned away from her and readied myself for producer work.

Mr. Evans rambled on about props and costumes, but I kept thinking about Charlotte. I wondered if she was gay. Then I wondered if she knew I was gay. It’s not like I was in the closet or anything, but I also wasn’t a member of our Gay-Straight Alliance. The movies make it seem like coming out is a single, cathartic (or traumatic) moment, but it’s actually a constant process. It’s exhausting and it makes dating in high school even more confusing than it already is.

Maybe I had imagined the heated moment between us when we were playing the mirror game. Maybe I was just seeing my desire reflected back at me. Maybe it had all been performance. But wasn’t all flirting a kind of performance? If that was true, then maybe I was a bad actor. Maybe I didn’t know the right cues, the subtle signs I was supposed to use to communicate my attraction and gayness to my audience.

I left rehearsal feeling out of place with myself.

 

Dani Jansen is a writer, teacher and tea aficionado living in Montreal, Canada. Her work has appeared in The A3 Review, Kazka Press, and Fiction Southeast. “The Mirror Game” is a chapter from her first YA novel.

 

 

Girls Only

[fiction]

Once again, here I am with a bursting bladder and a fried brain, frozen between two doors.

They mounted it overnight, cemented the rule so that there’d be no mistaking my high school for a safe space. The engraved letters of the white-and-gray sign, so new that it hasn’t even been vandalized yet, scream at me from above the bathroom door:

Girls ONLY.

It used to say Girls. That ONLY wasn’t there yesterday. And anyone who reads this new sign will know immediately that it was carved for only one person.

Me. The only student in this whole school who struggles to pick one of two options.

I know what you’re thinking. “You’re a girl, so just use the girls’ room.” Duh. It should be that simple. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Nothing is simple when people refuse to see you for who you really are. And right now, most of the people in my life refuse to see me as anything resembling the triangle-dress stick figure on the bathroom door.

Not all people, thankfully. My mom sees me, and I’m grateful for that. My best friends see me. The other theater kids see me. Hell, they were the first ones I came out to. They taught me how to curl my eyelashes, how to bronze my face, how to pluck my eyebrows (shape the arch with liner beforehand, and always pluck from underneath).

Screw this. I’m done choosing between a bladder infection and a bloody nose.

But my principal doesn’t see me. Neither do the prim, stone-faced sticklers behind the desks at the DMV. Neither do the other parents—I found that out the hard way when I tried out for cheerleading last month. The cheerleaders run the school, right? They’re the gatekeepers. The ambassadors. I figured if I could get in with them, I’d be in with everyone. But that was before their parents caught wind of my tryout and complained to my mom, in hushed tones over our landline, that the idea of a “boy” in the girls’ locker rooms and restrooms made them uncomfortable.

All they’d have to do is look at me to know that I’m not a boy. But they don’t want to look at me because they don’t want to see me. All they know is that they don’t want me occupying the same spaces as their daughters anymore. They bitched, and the school listened. And now, we have this sign.

I cram my knees together and rock on the balls of my feet. I only have two options and they both suck. The first is to just wait until I get home, but that will be five whole hours from now. I waited that long one too many times last month, and I ended up in the doctor’s office with a bladder infection, swallowing pills that turned my pee Gatorade-orange. My other option is to use the boys’ room, like the school wants me to. But I tried that, too, a few times, and the real boys weren’t having it. I’d come out of the stall to hostile stares. Unplucked eyebrows knitted in confusion and disgust. Flinching football players. You think those jocks are tough? Put them in a public restroom with someone like me and watch how fast the fear takes over. A few of them threatened me. One guy got so freaked out that he picked me up by my shirt collar and threw me out the door—slam!—right into the painted concrete wall. Again, I ended up in the doctor’s office, this time with a golf ball-sized lump on the back of my head and a concussion that kept me out of school for two days. And still I came back, expected by all to use the same bathroom that chewed me up and spat me out. Let’s see those squeamish jocks do that day after day, and then we can talk about what it really means to be tough.

The door to the boys’ room opens suddenly, and out walks a scrawny freshman with a Simpsons overbite. The kid gives me a look fit for a sideshow freak and clutches his math book to his chest, like armor, before walking away. He’s wearing one of those blue Coexist shirts. The irony is stunning.

I’ve now been standing here for five whole minutes. Any longer, and my history teacher will get suspicious about where I am. I can’t risk another write-up.

I tuck my hair behind my newly pierced ears (fake diamond studs from Claire’s) and check the hallway. Not another sophomore in sight, in either direction.

Screw this. I’m done choosing between a bladder infection and a bloody nose.

I yank open the door to the girls’ room and scurry into the first stall on the right.

Within seconds, all the stress of my day pours out of me and into the porcelain bowl, the stream echoing like xylophone plinks around the stall, as my eyes practically roll back in my head. Because I’m alone, I let myself sigh out loud. Sweet relief. I feel like Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, lulled into a sleepy coma by the sounds of my own little endless waterfall. But I can’t forget that, just like Tom Hanks, I’m being timed, too. So I stand up and flush the toilet, fighting the temptation to just sit here in peace for the rest of the day.

Just as I’m about to leave my stall, the silence flies out of the small square space in a vacuumed whoosh. Someone has opened the bathroom door.

Three overlapping feminine voices bounce off the tiled walls. I scan the floor through the crack in my door: six grass-stained white sneakers come traipsing in. The little room becomes an echo chamber, and it sounds to me like they’re all refreshing their makeup. I hear plastic containers of eyeshadow or blush snap open and click closed. Sticky lip gloss wands plunge into puckering tubes. Faux-wooden hair brushes clatter on the countertop.

Her words paralyze me. All I can do is blink, my lips parted, like a wonderstruck child.

They’re gossiping, trading he-said-she-saids in scandalized voices, talking slow like they’ve got nowhere important to be right this second. For all I know, they could be in here for the next several minutes. Shit. If I stay that much longer, I will definitely get written up. I have no choice but to leave as quickly as possible. But it’s okay, it will be fine. I’ll be supersonic. I’ll keep my eyes down. I won’t even wash my hands. If I get out of here fast enough, they might not even notice it was me. It will be fine.

I take a deep breath and unlock the stall door.

When I push the door open, I see a trio of yellow-and-blue uniforms crowding the sinks. Skirts pleated and neatly pressed. Toned white legs, shiny from shaving. Ponytails combed to bumpless perfection, pinched by color coordinated hair ties.

Three cheerleaders. Six eyes on me.

“Oh. Hey, Tanner.” The blonde one speaks first, and I realize I know her. Actually, I recognize all three of them: they were on the field the day of my doomed tryout. But I don’t remember their names. A blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. Huh.

“Hi.” I can feel my face turning as crimson as her lipstick. Dammit. Keep it together, Tanner. “Sorry, um, I was just… um… but I’m done, I swear, I’ll go now.”

“It’s okay,” the brunette says, holding her palms up as if in surrender. “You can use our bathroom if you want.”

Her words paralyze me. All I can do is blink, my lips parted, like a wonderstruck child.

I’m quiet because I’m waiting. Waiting for the snickers. The cutting hyena laughter that will echo all through the sophomore hallway. The cruel, roving eyes that size up my body and secretly judge my outfit. The yeah-right scoff that follows her invitation. But none of it comes. None of it. For a moment, the only sound is the humming fluorescent light flickering above us.

“For real?” My f comes out as a stutter—a tell of my nervousness. But when the redhead speaks, she doesn’t stutter at all.

“Yeah,” she says calmly. “We don’t mind.”

They all look at me, expecting some kind of response. But I’m still speechless.

The blonde says, “We won’t tell anyone.”

The three of them nod with solemn expressions, their eyes darting from face to face in conspiratorial glances. No non-theater-kid is this good at keeping a straight face. They’re serious. Dead serious. I’ve never seen three cheerleaders look so serious in my whole life. I want to tell them thank you, but the words don’t surface. And if they did, they wouldn’t feel like enough.

“Really, Tanner, we won’t tell. We promise. It’s nobody else’s business.” The brunette’s palms are still up, a wand slicked with pink lip gloss lodged between her fingers. “Girls only, right?”

The three of them giggle at their little in-joke. I guess it’s my in-joke, too. My lips curve into a cautious smile. But still I can’t speak.

The blonde seems to take pity on my loss for words. She slides her makeup over a few inches and steps to the side, freeing up one of the sinks. I nod awkwardly in gratitude and step forward to wash my hands. As I lather the iridescent soap into foamy bubbles, they all turn back to their own reflections and pick up their conversation like nothing ever happened. Like this is normal.

Like I am normal.

They probably don’t notice, but I’m still smiling. Grinning uncontrollably. Beaming brighter than I have in months.

I may not have landed a spot on the cheerleading squad. And it might be a long time before the adults get used to the idea of me wanting something like that.

But for now, in this sacred space, these triangle-dress girls have made room for me. On some level, they consider me one of them. And if I’m in with the cheerleaders, I’ll be in with everyone—it’s only a matter of time.

Just knowing that will get me through the day. And maybe tomorrow. And maybe the next day, too.

I dry my hands with paper towels, no longer in a hurry, and make my way toward the exit. The blonde speaks just as I’m walking out the door.

“And by the way, Tanner,” she says to me. “Just so you know, if it was up to me, you totally would have made the squad. That high kick was spectacular.”

 

Katlyn Minard is an aspiring young adult novelist whose short fiction has appeared in Moon City Review, 101 Words, and LOGOS. She lives in Los Angeles.

 

 

Boyfriends and Leftovers

[fiction]

After Dad left, Mom stayed up late at the kitchen table with a bottle of red wine, staining her teeth purple and chewing the edges of her nails.

She did this for about three months. Then one day I came home after my last class—geography, I was in the sixth grade—and found her at her vanity mirror in her bra and leopard-print underpants, the scent of Diamonds perfume filling the room.

I caught my breath. “Is Dad coming home?”

My mother began rummaging through her closet; her voice was flat but commanding: “Oh, who the hell knows where he is.”

“Where are you going?”

She struggled to pull a fancy dress over her head without messing her hair and makeup. She gazed in the mirror, adjusting the straps. “Zipper me.”

Her bright red lips matched the polka dot pattern and I could smell the hairspray over her perfume. As I zippered her outfit, the fabric tightened around her hips and chest. My mother turned and posed like a model: one hand at her hip, one on the curve of her chin. “How do I look?”

“But what about Dad?”

The next morning, I felt awful. I hadn’t heard Rachel or my mother come home. I’d gone to bed after eating my hamburger creation and watching The Six Million Dollar Man.

My mother crouched down to my level and said in a sweet voice, “You should forget about that man. It’s just us girls now.” She smiled as if I should be happy. Before I could respond, she grabbed her handbag and reached for the door. “Your sister’s going to cook Hamburger Helper. It’s like mac and cheese except hamburger gets mixed in with the noodles. There’s a package in the refrigerator, keep it there until you’re ready to eat.”

I sat on the chair with my shoulders slouched. My sister was two years older and was often left in charge. After Mom shut the door, Rachel poked her head out of the bathroom. “Is she gone?”

“I think she went on a date,” I said, perplexed by my own words.

Rachel hurried from the bathroom toward our bedroom. “I’m going to Kara’s.” She pulled a pink blouse off its hanger.

“You can’t go to her apartment.”

Rachel pushed an arm through the sleeve. “Why not?”

“Mom said you have to make me dinner. If she finds out, you’ll be in big trouble.”

Rachel pulled a shirt over her head and stared me down. “Who’s going to tell?”

She kept staring until I said, “No one.”

I didn’t believe what Mom said about Dad. He wouldn’t leave us. Where would he go? I pictured him sitting at the counter of a truck stop diner, eating chicken-fried steak. I wondered where he was headed. Maybe he’s driving home this very minute. I indulged this fantasy for a moment, even let myself get excited about the possibility, but then imagined what might happen ifhe came home while Mom was out on her date.

I stood on my tiptoes and peered out the window over the sink to see if anyone was in the courtyard. It was empty except for big fat Chrissie Lester, who liked to drag Tippi, her mother’s Chihuahua, through the tall grass as the dog tried to pee. I turned back to the counter, spun the box of Hamburger Helper around and looked at the pictures. It looked nothing like the roasts or chicken dinners Mom made when Dad was around. Rachel passed by like a breeze. “I’ll be back later.”

The door closed and her clogs echoed in the stairwell.

The apartment was quiet. When my stomach started to rumble, I opened the box and turned on the stove.

*     *     *

The next morning, I felt awful. I hadn’t heard Rachel or my mother come home. I’d gone to bed after eating my hamburger creation and watching The Six Million Dollar Man. Most of the noodles stuck to the bottom of the pan and when I’d stirred in the hamburger the steaming noodles became cold. I’d fallen asleep with a heavy stomach, knowing something was wrong.

I rolled into my blankets. My belly gurgled and I heard what sounded like a pan being dropped into the kitchen sink. My mother screamed words she usually reserved for my father:

“What the hell did you do?”

Rachel jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen.

“Look at this spot,” Mom shrieked. “You ruined my table!” My mother was always wiping her kitchen table and matching chairs with a washcloth. When finished, she’d push all the chairs into position, stand back and admire the shine.

After cooking the noodles, I’d put the pot on the table and spooned them into a bowl. I hadn’t realized the Formica tabletop was blistering underneath until I returned the pot to the stove. I wiped at the brown spot, but it didn’t come off. There was a circular burn about half the size of the pan.

Mom yelled, “What were you thinking?”

There were no excuses when Mom was mad.

Rachel said, “I made a mistake. I won’t do it again.”

“That’s not going to fix my table!”

I was glad that Rachel took the blame, but then I realized she had to. If Mom found out she’d gone to Kara’s place, she would ground Rachel—for a year, probably.

“I’ll be more careful, I promise.”

Just then I felt a powerful slosh in my belly. I ran to the bathroom and yanked down my pajama bottoms just in time. When Mom finished chewing out Rachel, she called for me.

I wished for her to leave me alone, but the bathroom door swung open and there she stood. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Diarrhea.”

“You poor thing,” she said, waving her burning cigarette.

With my head on my knees, I saw a sideways view of Mom and Rachel standing at the door, staring back. My mother took a long drag off her cigarette and pointed at Rachel as she exhaled. “Look what you did. You poisoned your sister.”

Rachel lingered in the doorway for a few seconds and with weary eyes we apologized to each other.

I crawled back to bed and slept the rest of the morning.

*     *     *

Later that day, my mother pranced through my room, smelling of Diamonds and hairspray, carrying a cup of Kool-Aid. “I’ve got to run some errands. Drink this,” she said, placing the plastic cup on the nightstand.

Mom never ran quick errands. Once she left, it took hours for her to return. After the front door closed, I slid out of my covers. I felt like I’d just gotten off a merry-go-round. I sipped Kool-Aid while studying my map of the United States, following the trail of pins. I traced the routes Dad frequently traveled. Imagining his eighteen-wheeler rolling along the highway, I wondered where he was at that very moment and if he was thinking about me.

A scream from the courtyard derailed my thoughts. I shuffled to the window to see Chrissie Lester yelling at her poor Chihuahua. Chrissie said she hated Tippi because her mother made her walk the dog until it did its business, but I suspected she was jealous. Her mother dressed the dog like a princess, carried it around in a handbag and spoiled it with treats, doling out doggie bonbons in a baby voice. Chrissie was the same age as Rachel, but much taller and wider. The kids at school called her “The Blob.” She’d stayed back a couple of years and was now in my grade. Mom told me to stay away from her, pronouncing simply, “She’s trash just like her mother.” I avoided her around the complex for my own reasons. Once she’d smacked my hand with a stick after I tried to pet Tippi. When I threatened to tell, Chrissie handed me the stick and said, “Hit me as hard as you want. I don’t care. Go ahead.” I told her I wanted to hold Tippi’s leash and she reluctantly agreed.

Now, Chrissie pulled the miniature mutt in its pink dress across the courtyard. The dog struggled to keep up, but Chrissie tugged her along, practically dragging the thing by its neck.

“Stupid dog! Can’t you even walk right?”

I kneeled on the floor, concealing myself, and put my mouth to the window and yelled, “Pissy Chrissie!”

Chrissie stopped. I crouched so only my eyes peered into the courtyard. Chrissie put a hand up to her forehead and looked up at the buildings, scanning from window to window.

That was the thing about the courtyard; you could hear everything but you could never tell, for sure, where it came from. I waited until she looked in the other direction and shouted, “Pissy Chrissie! What a sissy!”

“Who’s there?” she yelled, turning around.

“It’s your Mama!” I hollered.

After that, I got the giggles and fell to the floor with my hand over my mouth so no one would hear.

*     *     *

 

We never saw them, but we came to know Mom’s boyfriends by their leftovers. After every date, she’d bring home a doggie bag.

Mom seemed happier without Dad, which made life easier on Rachel and me. She’d tease her hair, put on her face and run out the door in a low-cut dress. My sister and I did what we wanted when she was gone, but there were lonesome days when I’d sit outside on the picnic table and think about my father. Our favorite outdoor game was Hide and Seek and the picnic table was always base. He would sit, resting his big head of brown hair in his hands, and start the countdown. Rachel and I would take cover around the sides of buildings, behind trash barrels, or between prickly shrubs. My dad was tall and more muscular than most, but even so, he never managed to catch Rachel or I as we made a mad dash for base. He usually feigned an unfortunate fall, lying on the ground groaning until we came close enough to grab and tickle.

“What’s the matter, crybaby?”

I turned to see Chrissie Lester. She lifted her big fat leg and rested it on the picnic table bench. I wondered how the hulking brute had come up on me so quick and quiet. I felt safe with the table between us, confident in my ability to outrun her. Tippi jumped onto the picnic table, panting and drooling on the silver-tipped collar of her polka-dot dress. I reached to pet her head but stopped halfway, recalling the smack I’d received last time.

“You can pet her. I don’t care,” Chrissie said.

“I don’t want to,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Suit yourself.”

I tried to think of something to say, but all I could think of were the terrible names the kids at school called Chrissie, the same names I’d yelled out my bedroom window.

“Your mother’s a whore,” Chrissie said. “I caught her in the basement doing something nasty with the landlord.”

I couldn’t think of a good response, so I said, “Your mother dresses Tippi better than you.” It seemed like a lame comeback, particularly since Chrissie and I were dressed almost exactly the same—navy blue T-shirt and tan Chinos—and Tippi wore a dress that looked like one of my mother’s date night outfits. Then to my own surprise I added, “Your mother dresses Tippi like a whore.”

Chrissie let out a real belly laugh. I didn’t know exactly why. She dropped Tippi’s leash and put her hand over her stomach as her head tilted forward. When she was out of air and red-faced, she sucked in another breath and laughed it back out. As I watched her, I couldn’t help smiling.

“My mother has that same dress!” I exclaimed as I pointed to Tippi.

Tippi licked Chrissie as she laughed, but then turned to bark at a figure in the distance. Holding my hand to my brow, I shaded the sun from my eyes and spotted her mother heading toward us. Chrissie saw her too. She grabbed Tippi’s leash.

“I gotta go,” she said, backing away from the table. “See you later.”

“Bye,” I mumbled, unsure of whether we were supposed to be friends now. Chrissie strolled away, gently coaxing Tippi along. She turned and said, “And I don’t care that you called me those names. It was kind of funny.”

*     *     *

Rachel and I never met Mom’s dates because they waited in their cars in the parking lot around the side of the building. She didn’t want them coming to the door. “You don’t need to meet them unless they’re serious,” she told us.

We never saw them, but we came to know Mom’s boyfriends by their leftovers. After every date, she’d bring home a doggie bag. One of her first boyfriends liked Chinese. Mom didn’t care for Chinese food, so she always came home with little white boxes filled with General Tso’s or Kung Pao chicken. In the morning, when Rachel and I saw the white container with silver handles in the refrigerator, we’d say in unison:

“Stanley.”

Chinese was our favorite. We’d warm the leftovers on the stove and devour them at the table.

When Mom finally crawled out of bed, she complained about the smell. “Do you have to eat that slop so early in the morning?” she said, a cigarette hanging from her lips.

 

After that, Mom started dating two pizza lovers. One liked thick crust, the other thin, but neither lasted long enough for us to learn their names.

While Chinese leftovers kept us happy on the weekends, Wednesdays became fettuccine Alfredo. Rachel and I knew, even before finding the gooey noodles soaked in a congealed cream sauce, that she’d been out with Morton. We could smell his cologne radiating off her as soon as she got up in the morning. We’d hold our noses and tell her, “You stink!” Mom called Morton the “Prince of the City,” even if she agreed that his cologne was a bit strong. She said he looked “regal” in his diamond-encrusted watch and tangle of gold necklaces. “Confident men aren’t afraid to wear jewelry,” she informed us.

One evening she bragged, “Everyoneknows him.” Her face lit up as she confessed, “No matter where we go, someone recognizes him. Always someone greeting him by name, calling him Morty, or Mr. Costello. We’re treated like royalty. Waiters give us the best tables. They bring bottles of wine, fancy desserts—always ‘on the house.’ I doubt he ever has to pay for anything!” She stood up, as giddy as a teenager and said, “I’ve got to show you something.”

She ran into her room and returned with a long, thin velvet box. She lifted the lid unveiling a string of bright diamonds. “What do you think?” Mom slipped the gleaming bracelet across her wrist, clasping the ends, twisting her arm side to side, allowing the facets to catch and reflect the light. “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you ever saw? He said it put an extra sparkle in my blue eyes.”

“Mom, your eyes are green.”

“I know that, silly. But you should never contradict a man who gives expensive gifts.”

Mom wore the bracelet on her Wednesday night dates with Morton. She would plan her outfit around it. If the dress or blouse didn’t go with the bracelet, she would strip off the garment and try another. Between dates, the bracelet remained tucked in her underwear drawer; but one day when she thought I’d gone outside with Rachel, she left her bedroom door half open and I saw her lying in bed, naked, holding the string of diamonds at one end, and letting them dangle across her thigh. She then slid them up over her navel leading them through the soft crevice of her bare breasts. I backed away from her door, hoping the floor didn’t creak, wondering what she was thinking about.

On what turned out to be her last date with Morton, Mom came home early with her mascara smeared. Rachel and I were still up, watching The Love Boat.We knew something was wrong. The fettuccine Alfredo she always brought home was splattered across the front of her blue cotton dress. A few noodles were stuck to her heels. Her hair was tousled, but she didn’t seem to notice or care. She dropped the diamond bracelet on the kitchen table and it fell into pieces. Mom pushed back a strand of hair that dangled in her face and said in Clint Eastwood calm, “The bastard’s married.”

*     *     *

After that, Mom started dating two pizza lovers. One liked thick crust, the other thin, but neither lasted long enough for us to learn their names. Rachel and I preferred Stanley, or at least his taste in Chinese, but when Mom first mentioned Jimmy, we knew Stanley’s days were numbered. According to my mother, Jimmy was “young and fun.” Stanley, who had nurtured our taste for Kung Pao chicken for eight months, suddenly became “a big fat bore.”

“You’d think Dingle Balls could afford something besides the Mongolian Wok,” she complained, spraying her hair.

I laughed at her calling him Dingle Balls, even though I didn’t know what it meant.

“Every time I come back smelling like soy sauce.” She stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray and pulled a flower-patterned dress from her closet. “I can’t stand sitting across from him as he shovels it into his mouth.”

“Tell him you want to go somewhere new,” I offered, fingering the dainty necklace on the vanity.

“Don’t be silly, Jane. That would be rude.”

*     *     *

Even though Rachel and I hadn’t met Jimmy, we didn’t like him. Mother praised him for being “lively company” and “knowing how to treat a lady,” but he never showed up on time, which made Mom crabby, and he never produced any leftovers—no doggie bags or Styrofoam containers.

This went on for a few weeks. Then one night Mom bounded through the door early, red-faced and panting, and headed straight for the phone. I stood quietly in front of the sink as she dialed the numbers and cradled the receiver in her shoulder, pacing back and forth.

“Go to the living room,” she said.

I couldn’t hear my mother’s brief conversation, but she hung up and disappeared into her bedroom, then went out again a half-hour later.

In the morning, Rachel and I found a Styrofoam container. Rachel grabbed it and held it out of my reach as I jumped for it. “Hold on, Shorty,” she said, placing the container on the counter. The Styrofoam squeaked open and we found a grilled chicken breast with onions and peppers. We looked at each other in amazement.

Mom appeared in the doorway, looking tired but happy:

“It’s Tex-Mex, girls.”

*     *     *

Despite the new cuisine, Mom was still hopelessly in love with Jimmy-No-Leftovers. I overheard her talking about him on the phone with Sandy Horowitz. “He’s so wild. It’s what I love about him. What am I going to do? He’s handsome and funny but the guy can’t even commit to a time for dinner… I know… I know… I really should, but I can’t help it, he makes me feel so good.”

I repeated, word for word, Mom’s conversation with Sandy Horowitz for Rachel. She rolled her eyes and said, “Big deal.”

“She said sheloves him.That means she’ll want to marry him!”

“Does not,” she said. “We’ve never even met him.”

That Friday, Rachel and I hid outside between buildings, keeping watch around the corner at Mom standing at the edge of the parking lot. She stood prim, her dress pressed and hair smoothed, but as the minutes passed she paced the walkway in her heels and cursed. She was furious, we knew. After a half hour, she gave up and stomped back to our apartment. Jimmy-No-Leftovers became Jimmy-No-Show, so we hung out in the courtyard to give her time to cool off.

The next night, a stooped man with a bald patch emerged from an old brown sedan. He opened the passenger’s door and Mom slid into the car. Rachel and I giggled because he was such a dork. His comb-over barely covered half his head and it flipped up in the breeze. After the car pulled away, we headed back to the apartment. I parted my hair way off to the left and flipped it to the other side. “Hi, I’m Sy Sperling. I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.”

We joked about it the rest of the night. Could Mom really date someone that goofy?

The next morning, Rachel and I swung open the refrigerator door and gasped, “Oh, my God!”

Inside sat a white container with silver handles and a little packet of soy sauce resting on top.

“That was Stanley!”

*     *     *

The following Friday Mom got “ready” faster than I’d ever seen. She patted powder on her face at high-speed and wriggled into her red polka dot dress.

I told Rachel, “She’s going out with Jimmy-No-Leftovers, I just know it.”

At five-thirty there was a knock on the door. From the bedroom, Mom yelled, “Can someone get that?”

Rachel was sprawled across the couch. She poked me with her foot and said, “You go.”

I slid off the couch, hoping it was Sandy Horowitz lending Mom a handbag, not the landlord looking for rent. In the past week I’d already given him two lame excuses. I wasn’t sure why Mom stopped paying the rent on time, but she insisted that Rachel and I put him off. The landlord was an overweight man with hair sprouting from his ears. The first time he came collecting, I pretended I had no idea what “rent” was, and I told him I’d give the message to my mother. He returned two days later standing in our doorway picking his teeth with his thumbnail. I told him Mom wasn’t home. Looking me straight in the eye, he removed his thumb, sucked his tooth and said with a doubtful expression, “All right, then. Tell your mother. She knows where to find me.”

I swung the door open and saw a man with Elvis Presley hair.

“Hey, kid,” he said in a deep voice. He leaned back, glancing down the hallway. “Looks like I got the wrong apartment. I’m looking for Gerty Girl.” He chuckled, then corrected himself, “Gertrude Beckwith, that is.”

I stood frozen and astonished. I knew, even before my mother raced into the kitchen, heels dangling from her hands, trying to button her blouse, that this was the infamous Jimmy-No-Leftovers.

“What are you doing here?” Mom said breathlessly. “You’re supposed to—”

“I thought I’d surprise you.” He surveyed the apartment and focused on me and then Rachel, now standing behind me. “But I see I’m the one getting the surprise.”

Mom’s eyes widened as Jimmy did an about-face.

“Jimmy, wait!” she screamed from the doorway. He disappeared down the stairs. Mom slipped on her shoes and clattered after him, all the while pleading, “Stop, Jimmy, let me explain!”

Outside she tugged on his arm, crying, “Jimmy, please, don’t do this.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, but Jimmy kept walking. He pulled away from her with such force that my mother landed on the ground, but she reached out and clutched him by the leg.

That’s when I noticed all the people—neighbors, drawn by the spectacle—gathering. The landlord, out on his rounds, came toward our building. Chrissie Lester stood among the crowd, holding Tippi’s bedazzled leash. When Jimmy shouted at my mother to let go of his leg, Tippi bared her teeth and broke free, attacking Jimmy’s ankle. The little dog ducked Jimmy’s swats and bit and pulled at his pant-leg, barking and growling. Finally, Jimmy grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled himself free. My mother gave out one final cry, her voice cracking: “Jimmy, no! I’ll do anything you want.” Jimmy got into his car and tore out of the parking lot, leaving the air thick with burnt rubber. The landlord helped my mother to her feet and the crowd disappeared as quickly as it had gathered with low murmurs and shaking heads.

That night, Mom settled at the kitchen table with a bottle of wine. Rachel went over to Kara’s house. I sat alone at my desk, staring at the wall, following the course of Dad’s highway travels. Before going to bed, I took out the pins, folded the map, and dropped it into the wastebasket. Dad was never coming back.

It was just us girls now.

 

Lynn Wilcox lives in Connecticut with her teenaged daughter. Her young adult stories focus on issues such as neglected kids, body–image, and sexual initiation. Boyfriends and Leftovers is an excerpt from her young adult novel, Raising Jane, which was longlisted in the Mslexia International Women’s Novel Writing Contest. She is currently at work on her second novel.

Photo Credit: Dan Pope

Fleeing Syria

[self-translated fiction]

Sitting on the wooden boat, Farid shook from the cold.

It was night. The moon shone like a pearl on the smooth surface of the Mediterranean Sea. It was dark, dark like the smoke of fires, tragic like the body of his father, dark like the cave where Farid, who was only eight years old, had hidden with his mom and his five-year-old sister, Maliki.

Farid would never know what he had forgotten because at that moment a missile fell on the house.

One morning, two months ago, Farid was playing with Maliki when suddenly he saw his father running quickly towards him looking as if he was being pursued by a man with a gun. His father ran inside the house where Farid and his parents and all his ancestors had lived and yelled, “Yasmina! They’re coming! We have to leave immediately!”

His mom was cutting vegetables; Farid heard the knife fall to the floor. Five minutes later, his parents appeared outside with a bag full of their belongings. “Farid! Maliki!” his mom yelled. “Let’s go!”

“One moment!” his father said. “I forgot something important!” He went back into the house.

Farid would never know what he had forgotten because at that moment a missile fell on the house.

When Farid could see again, he was disoriented. Where was his house? Where was his father? He tried to get up but he fell. Finally he crawled onto the ruins where his house once stood and saw the body. And then he knew.

The voyage had been difficult. First they hid from ISIS in a cave darker than Hell. Then they walked and walked, and Farid really wanted to lie down and sleep and maybe never wake up again. His mom took him by one hand and Maliki by the other. They continued to walk, walk, walk in silence, numb.

Finally they arrived at a port. His mom knew some relatives, who had given them a bit of money. It wasn’t very much but his mom told him that it was enough. A day later they were on the wooden boat. His mom told him that they were going to Europe. Farid didn’t know anything about “Europe.” Where will they live? Will their neighbors be nice? Will ISIS find them? What will they do in Europe?

Farid sat and watched the Mediterranean, contemplating these questions. The moon shone like a pearl on the dark waters.

 

 

S’enfuyant La Syrie

Assis sur le bateau de bois, Farid a frissonné du froid.

Il faisait nuit. La Lune brillait comme une perle sur la surface lisse de la Méditerranée. Il était sombre, sombre comme les fumées des incendies, sombre comme le cadavre de son père, sombre comme la caverne ou Farid, qui n’avait que huit ans, s’était caché avec sa mère et sa petite soeur de cinq ans, Maliki.

Un matin, il y a deux mois, Farid jouait avec Maliki quand tout à coup il a vu son père en courant très vite vers lui, en ayant l’air que quelqu’un le poursuit avec un fusil. Il a couru dans la maison où Farid et ses parents et tous leurs ancêtres ont habité, et il a crié à sa femme, “Yasmina! Ils viennent! Nous devons partir immédiatement!”

Sa mère hachait les légumes; tout d’un coup Farid a entendu le couteau tombe au sol. Cinq minutes plus tard, ils ont apparu dehors avec un sac rempli des affaires. “Farid! Maliki!” sa mère a crié. “On y va!”

“Un moment!” son père a dit. “J’ai oublié quelque chose d’important!” Et il est rentré dans la maison. Farid ne saurait jamais ce qu’il a oublié parce que à ce moment-là un missile est tombé sur sa maison.

Quand Farid pouvait a pu voir de nouveau il était désorienté. Ou est sa maison et son père? Il a essayé de se lever mais il est tombé. Finalement il a rampé aux décombres qui était sa maison et il a vu un corps. Et puis il a su.

Le voyage était difficile. D’abord ils se sont cachés d’ISIS dans une caverne plus sombre que l’enfer. Puis ils ont marché et marché, et Farid voudrait bien s’allonger et dormir et peut-être ne jamais se réveiller. Sa mère l’a pris par une main et Maliki par l’autre. Ils ont continué de marcher, marcher, marcher en silence, engourdis.

Finalement ils sont arrivés à un port. Sa mère connaissait des parents, qui leur ont donné un peu d’argent. Ce n’était pas beaucoup mais sa mère a dit que c’était assez. Après un jour ils sont dans le bateau de bois. Sa mère lui a dit qu’ils vont en Europe, qu’ils ont de la chance d’avoir l’argent pour le voyage. Mais Farid ne savait aucune chose d’«Europe». Où habiteront-ils? Ses voisins seront-ils gentils? ISIS trouveront-ils sa famille? Que feront-ils en Europe?

Farid est assis et il a regardé la Méditerranée, en réfléchissant à ces questions. La Lune brille comme une perle sur les eaux sombres.

 

Michael Wang is a rising senior at the Harker School in San Jose, California. Like many of his American-born Chinese peers, he enjoys math, chess, friends, and running cross country/track. Michael cares deeply about issues of social justice. After reading about Syrian refugees and the ensuing U.S. ban on immigrants, he imagined how a young boy might feel fleeing a war-torn country. Michael is fluent in three languages: English, Chinese, and French. His story is produced here in two of those languages. He has been trained by his cat Pebbles to rub her belly when she rolls over on her back.

Photo credit: Zhe Yang