Aspirations

I take a breath and hold it before putting my key in the lock. It’s four o’clock on a Thursday, which means Mom is on her way home from work at Boutique Aspirations. It sounds nice. Imagine a boutique selling hopes and dreams, but the boutique is a vacuum-repair shop. Her job literally sucks.

Aspirateur is French for vacuum cleaner. The verb, aspirer, means to suck out and create a void. Aspiration is also when gastric contents end up in your lungs and cause infection. A void created from life being sucked out of it, and the inside of a lung infected with bile is how I’d describe Mom’s house.

If we own a vacuum cleaner, it’s been taken over by a colony of dust Godzillas. Mom’s mania with collecting stuff got out of hand when Dad left two years ago. Ever since, Mom is like the ballerina in my music box spinning round and round, never stopping to look at herself in the tiny mirror.

I turn the knob and push the door open. Obstructing it are plush giraffes, tigers, and bears. I force the door as far as it will go. I turn sideways to get in. I walk through the maze and mounds of boxes, clothes, and other lonely objects, some with the price tags still on.

I’ve gotten so used to it, I was able to navigate around the house during a black-out. Jenny, my twelve-year-old sister, is terrified of the dark and panicked when the lights went out. She couldn’t stop yelling, “Something will fall, Sarah, get me out!”

My muscles have the maneuvers memorized. It’s a climb up a hill of plushies; a walk over large storage containers (which, incidentally, are empty); a giant leap over the newspapers at the base of the stairs; and an obstacle course on the way up. I’m like a spy dodging booby traps.

I feel more anxious than usual because ballet lessons start up again on Saturday, and it’s where I can stretch out, move, and find freedom. Ballet keeps me fit so I can climb the rope in gym class faster than most boys. It also keeps me limber enough to move around the house without making anything fall.

I get to my room and exhale. The air in here is less rancid and, in comparison to the rest of the house, my room is immaculate.

Jenny and I have shared a room since mom’s obsession with sewing. After a shopping spree, Mom filled Jenny’s room with a sewing machine from the thrift store, rolls of fabrics, and patterns from the flea market.

When she came home with the stuff, Mom was on fast-forward. She spoke quickly and loudly, charged with excitement from her purchases.

“My mom taught me how to sew when I was a kid. I forgot all about it until I saw these patterns. I can make all of our clothes,” she told us as she loaded the items into the house.

“Where will you sew?” I asked, making a pirouette and gesturing to the two-foot wide space between piles of debris.

“There’s space in Jenny’s room,” Mom answered as she carried her load up the stairs.

Jenny moved in that night. I’d rather have Jenny here than across the hall of shopping-cart nightmares.

I sit and read while I wait for Jenny to get home from school, but I’ve read the same sentence over several times. I decide to pack instead, hoping the evening goes by quickly. Tomorrow is Friday, and Dad will pick us up to spend the weekend at his place.

Dad is not my father. Dad is Jenny’s biological father. He’s been my Dad since the year after my father died, when I was two.

I feel more anxious than usual because ballet lessons start up again on Saturday, and it’s where I can stretch out, move, and find freedom. Ballet keeps me fit so I can climb the rope in gym class faster than most boys. It also keeps me limber enough to move around the house without making anything fall.

Mom gets resentful when we leave Friday nights, especially with me because I don’t have to go. He’s not my father, and I have no right leaving her alone to see him.

But if I don’t go, I’ll be sick right on top of all of her crap. I know it stings when we leave because it’s a reminder of how Dad doesn’t love her. The junk fills the void.

When Jenny gets home, we make sandwiches for dinner in the cramped kitchen, and spend the rest of the night in our room, doing homework.

School the next day is a bore except for the time I spend with Jake at lunch and between periods.

“Can we hang out this weekend?” He asks, nuzzling my hair.

“Of course. See you tomorrow.” We kiss, and I run to catch my bus.

Dad’s waiting for us in Mom’s driveway at 5:15. I tie my long hair back and load our stuff into his car. Jenny and I both sit in the back seat. I can finally breathe.

“How’s your mother?” Dad asks.

Jenny looks at me as if she wants to tell Dad our secret, but I don’t let her. I squeeze her hand to let her know she should not say anything. She responds by looking at the ground. Nobody would let two children live there if they knew what it was like. Jenny could go live with Dad, but what about me? Mom won’t let me stay with him. I don’t want Jenny and I to be separated. I have to help her with her homework and teach her how to stay organized, be her guide to Tampax, and bras, and high school. We’ll have to tough it out another two years.

“Is it that bad?” Dad sees Jenny’s sad face in the rear-view mirror.

I try to lighten the mood and tell Dad, “She’s still upset you’re gone, Dad, but it’s okay.”

“We’re okay. What about you? And Alice?”

“She’s fine,” he responds.

Alice is Jenny’s stepmom. Technically, she’s not my anything, but I wish she was.

She wears pearls and teaches little kids. Her house always smells like freshly-baked something opposed to week-old something. Her dog doesn’t stink, and his feces are not in every corner of the basement. Mom’s Chihuahua, Buck, is allowed to relieve himself in the basement because she doesn’t have the energy to take him for a walk. I’ve tried to walk him, but he bit me before I got the leash on. I can’t go in the basement. The stench makes me sick, and I don’t ever let Jenny go. Thinking about it makes me want to set the whole place on fire. Alice’s dog is sweet and fun and smells like outside.

At Dad’s, Jake can come over since his mother lives nearby. At Dad’s, I can get through the house without having to twist sideways to fit through mounds of debris. We can walk straight through the house to the hot tub where Jake, Jenny, and I splash around and have fun. At Dad’s, I have my own room and Jake can come upstairs and we can sit on my bed and play video games, and kiss. I have to leave my bedroom door all the way open. Nothing obstructs the doors at Dad’s house.

Some Saturdays, Alice takes Jenny and I shopping, but I never get anything. Dad and Alice’s money is not mine to spend. In her guilt during her shopping sprees, Mom will usually buy a few new pieces of clothing for Jenny and me. If we always have new clothes, no one at school will suspect our secret.

At Dad’s, I always bring laundry. I say it’s hard to get it done during the week at Mom’s with homework and I don’t want to bother her with my laundry. I do mine and Jenny’s, so Dad and Alice don’t have to. They think I’m responsible and independent but it’s to hide the truth. This way, I have clean clothes all week and no one knows Mom doesn’t have a functioning washing machine. It broke down last year and became a place to pile things on. Sometimes she washes her clothes in the bathtub. The dryer still works, but it takes three cycles for stuff to actually dry. Mom usually buys new clothes when she can’t be bothered to wash and dry them.

You’d think my mom lives in poverty, but she receives money from the government since my father died in a work-related accident. He worked for Hydro Québec and fell while repairing electric cables after an ice storm. It was slippery as hell, and he lost his footing. Mom hasn’t said more about it. I guess it’s too painful. With the compensation she gets to take care of us, I make sure we get things we need: new shoes, supplies for school, and lunch at the cafeteria because it is impossible to cook anything but toast at Mom’s place.

When we get to Dad’s Friday night, Jenny and I make popcorn and watch superhero movies until midnight with Alice and Dad cuddling on the couch. I like these nights when we’re a normal family.

Then, it’s finally Saturday. Ballet class is liberating for the first half hour. My grand plier is gorgeous, my pas de bourrée is right on time, and I float through the air like a seagull. Then I realize seagulls usually end up on trash heaps left by litterbugs. I tell my dance teacher I don’t feel well, and I leave early.

*     *     *

Monday mornings are easier at Dad’s. Alice helps pack our lunches, and all I have to do is get Jenny to the bus stop on time. I don’t have to hike up and down mountains of mislaid objects or empty soda cans.

At the bus stop, I kiss Jenny goodbye and tell her, “I’ll see you at home tonight, okay, kiddo.” She’s looking at the ground again. I read her thoughts, “I know, Jenny, but I can’t tell Dad yet. If he finds out, Mom will have to leave the house, or we’ll have to leave, and she can’t be alone yet. I know. It’s hard. But I’ll be ready soon.”

“I want to live with Dad and Alice.” Her voice is firm. I barely recognize it. Jenny never gets sassy. She usually complies easily. But she’s twelve, not stupid.

“So do I, but I don’t think Mom will let me live here permanently, and then we won’t be together and…”

“I told Alice,” Jenny cuts me off. I’ve been defeated by a skinny 12-year-old in pink-framed glasses.

I stay calm so as not to upset Jenny. “What did she say?”

“We can both stay here. She likes you.”

“What exactly did you tell her?” My voice cracks, and my chin quivers.

“I said Mom’s house is gross. I told her about the piles of stuff everywhere and I’m scared they’ll fall, and we can’t even open the doors. I told Alice about sharing a room. I mean, I like it in our room, but I had to leave my room because of the stuff. I told her about the basement, and the washing machine. I told her I don’t want to live at Mom’s. Are you mad?”

I’m so mad. I want to yell at her, pull her stupid ponytail and leave.

“No, Jen, I’m not mad. You deserve better. But I can’t leave Mom alone. Not yet. I’ll figure it out. Dad and Alice will help. It’s okay.” I put my arm around her because she’s sobbing. I’m angry, but I’m also proud of her for standing up for herself, and for being honest. I love her to bits.

I don’t get a chance to talk to Dad about it before he and Alice pick us up after school. He drives us to Mom’s and, in the car, I don’t know what to say to prepare him for the disaster within. For the first time since he moved out, Dad gets out of the car and walks to the front door. I think this must be difficult for him.

As I take out my keys, I feel my shame rise to the tips of my ears.

I whisper, “Dad, it’s horrible.”

“It’s okay. Don’t worry about me. Open the door.”

I unlock the door and open it as far as it will go. I step in and over the heap of sewage.

“Holy shit.” The words fly out of dad’s mouth. He covers it, as though stuffing the words back in so we won’t hear.

Jenny starts to cry. She pulls off her glasses and wipes her eyes, but she can’t control herself.

Alice gags.

“Alice, you can wait outside,” Dad offers. She turns and leaves.

We climb over the mess to get to the staircase and up to our room. I lead him in.

“Your room is great. Great job, girls.” Dad is more relieved than proud. He sees I wouldn’t let Jenny down.

We hear stirring in the basement. Mom is climbing the steps. She opens the door and Buck runs up to my room and barks at Dad. He’s a possessive mutt even if he is the size of my foot. Mom follows him and freezes when she sees Dad.

“Greg? What?” She looks at Jenny and me. “No.” She gets defensive because she realizes we are here to pack our things and that we’re not staying the night or coming back tomorrow. Her scream bleeds betrayal, “No!”

“Girls, pack up what you need. We’ll be downstairs.” Dad is firm, but I hear the shake in his voice. He steps out of the room and over the trash in the hallway. Mom and Buck follow him downstairs. I hear the shame and anger in her footsteps, and she kicks objects out of the way.

I help Jenny pack all she can carry in her duffle bag. Most of my possessions are books, and they’re too heavy to carry with me all at once.

“I guess these will have to wait,” I say, looking at my shelf.

“What about The Princess Bride? It’s your favorite. Didn’t your father read it to you when you were a baby?”

“It’s just a book, Jen. I’ll pick it up some other time, along with the rest.”

Jenny goes to the closet to see if she has left anything important behind. Mom and Dad are talking in hushed tones.

“Sarah, what’s this?” From my corner of the closet, Jenny pulls out a string of sheets tied together with large knots. I stuffed it in my corner of the closet. It’s about twenty feet long.

I confess, “Before you moved into this room, I made an escape plan. I knew if something caught fire, it could block the front and back doors. The sheets are long enough to reach the patio from our window if we ever needed a quick escape. I can’t get to the smoke detectors to change their batteries, and we might not make it out in time. I knew I’m strong enough to climb down, and I would’ve caught you if I had to. The end can be tied to the bedpost and might’ve held long enough for us to get out.”

Jenny is in shock, but manages to speak, “What about Mom?”

I look at her carefully. I can’t see the Mom who took us to the park when we were little, or made cookies for a school bake sale, or took us to the movies. I see clutter. I see loss.

“Her room is near the front door.”

She holds back more sobs.

“Girls, let’s get going,” Dad calls.

We lug our things downstairs.

“Time to go, girls.” Dad must be anxious to leave.

I dread leaving. Will Mom grab us, hold us, and yell at Dad for taking us? Will she say he has no right to take me from her?

She looks at us. I thought she would be crying, but no. She is calm. Stoic, even.

“It’s alright,” she says. We can’t live here. Not like this.

“So, what now?” I ask.

“You’ll both go live with Greg until I get this place cleaned out.”

“You’re going to clean it? How? It’s not possible.”

It’s Dad who answers, “Your mom is going to get some professional help with this. If she gets help, and gets this place clean, then I won’t get child protective services involved, and you can come back.” He’s looking at her as he speaks. Mom nods in response, but she looks to the ground. She and Jenny have the same sad face.

Dad works as a lab technician at the hospital and knows a psychologist who can help Mom. He doesn’t have to do a thing to help her, but I can see what is left of his love for her. Maybe Mom sees it too, which is why she’s going along with it.

We get in the car and Alice drives us home. I know Dad is crying. I’ve never seen him cry, but I can tell by the way his head is down, and his back curved, and Alice’s hand on the back of his neck. He clears his throat and looks out the window. I think he mostly feels guilty.

Before Dad left home, he and Mom used to argue about money. He makes a decent salary, but Mom spent her inheritance on things we didn’t need: waffle makers, a new television, and too many clothes. It frustrated him, but since it was her inheritance money, he couldn’t stop her. I think he felt like he was with a child more than a partner.

Their relationship crumbled, but I know he still cares for her.

There’s traffic on the T-Can and it takes forty-five minutes to drive up to Dad’s house.

There is darkness across the lawn. The garden lights are on and the specter of near-winter casts shadows as we approach the driveway. We walk in as Jenny notices she doesn’t have her glasses.

Dad looks exhausted, but he zips his coat up again and gestures to Alice for the keys, “I’ll go get them.”

“Can’t it wait?” Alice hands over the keys while she asks.

“I can’t do my homework without them. I’m so sorry. Maybe I can get them after school tomorrow?”

“It’s alright, Jenny. Your dad will go,” Alice realizes Jenny’s stress level rising, and puts her at ease. “The traffic shouldn’t be so bad now.”

“I’ll go with you,” I suggest. I don’t want to go back, but I don’t want to leave Dad alone either.

“We’ll be back soon,” Dad kisses Alice and Jenny on their foreheads and we leave.

The drive is quiet. There’s still traffic from the West Island into the East end, but it’s starting to clear as we get closer to Mom’s. I know I have to say something.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“You’re amazing, Sarah. I don’t know how you do it, but you have taken such good care of her. And Jenny, and yourself, but it’s not your job.”

“I’m making it through each day, but I usually feel helpless. I don’t know how it happened.”

“I think your mom has had to deal with a lot. When your father died, it must have been so hard, but with you being a baby, she had no choice but to move on. When I met her, she was a bit scatterbrained and disorganized, but a packrat at her worst.”

“So why do you think it got so bad?”

“Your father died. She had no choice or control in the matter, but I chose to leave her. People do amazing and scary things when they don’t know how to deal with loss. I think her feelings got piled up. Like the stuff in the house. She doesn’t know how to let it all go. But she’ll get help, Sarah. I promise.”

“She’s a good Mom. I mean, she loves us.”

“I know she does, but she’s not being a good mom right now, Sarah. She will be though.” Dad is full of promise and fear. I know he doesn’t know how things will turn, but he wants to comfort me, so I let him.

When we turn the corner onto her street, I can see black smoke rising. The clouds above mom’s house are twinkling with amber. The flashing lights from the emergency vehicles make me squint. Fire trucks are driving to and from the house. I know what to do. I’ve thought about it so many times. Except, I’m not in the house. I’m in the car. I never thought of what to do if I was on the outside.

The car stops and I move to open my door, but Dad holds me back.

“Wait, Sarah.”

A police officer approaches our car and Dad rolls down the window.

“Sir, you can’t go this way.” The officer is young. He speaks firmly, but his eyes dart back and forth from the house, then to us.”

“This is my daughter’s house. Her mother lives here. She was inside the house.”

Dad’s voice is shaking.

“The woman in the house has already been taken to the hospital.”

“Oh my god, is she okay? What happened? Is she okay?” I want to run out of the car.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how she is now,” the offer speaks sympathetically.

“Okay, thanks,” Dad starts to roll his window back up.

“Sir, I can find an officer to escort you to the hospital.”

Dad parks his car, and we get into a police cruiser and rush to the hospital. In the back seat, Dad holds my hand, and we sit in silence.

When we arrive, we find mom in the emergency room. She is lying on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over her face.

“Gail!” Dad is the one who reaches for her hand first. I feel guilty about hesitating, but I don’t know how to feel. All I keep thinking is, I hope she’s alive, I hope she’s alive.

She removes the mask, lets out a slight cough, and speaks, “Hey. I’m okay. Smoke inhalation.”

Dad’s phone is buzzing, and he answers it in the hallway next to Mom’s curtain. I back up as though she’s a snarling wolf.

“I’m sorry, Sarah. I’m okay.”

I get closer.

“What happened?” I almost don’t ask because I feel I might be somehow responsible, but I know how impossible that is. Still, I feel guilty about something.

“Before you and your dad arrived, I was in the basement, trying to fix our stupid dryer. I left it on when I came up to see who was home and I forgot about it. The damn thing caught fire. I was in the sewing room when I smelled the smoke. I wanted to get Buck, but the flames…” She starts to cry. “I’m sorry about Buck, Mom,” I don’t know what else to say.

“And all our stuff,” She places the oxygen mask back on when the nurse walks by.

“It’s your stuff, Mom. And it’s not important. Who cares?” She cries more. Harder. Sobbing.

“Yeah, but it’s all gone, Sarah.”

I look at her carefully. I can’t see the Mom who took us to the park when we were little, or made cookies for a school bake sale, or took us to the movies. I see clutter. I see loss. I see she doesn’t realize how lucky she was. It didn’t happen in the middle of the night, and I didn’t have to use my rope. I see Boutique Aspirations and I know I have to let go, because Mom is in a vacuum. I leave her to go find Dad, who’s explaining everything to Alice. He puts the phone back in his pocket.

“Hey, how is she?”

“I can’t say. She needs to see your doctor friend, and I want to go home.”

Dad calls Mom’s sister Izzy in Québec City, who I haven’t seen in years, and takes me home. I fall asleep in the car.

When we get to Dad’s, Alice has already told Jenny about the fire. They’re at the kitchen table when Dad and I walk in. The look on Jenny’s face is oddly one of relief. I don’t quite understand it, but she explains it well.

“Mom is safe. Nothing can fall. It’s all gone,” she says. Jenny is so smart.

It is all gone: the junk, the smell, the nightmares, all of it. What’s left is Dad and Alice and hope ahead of us. I sigh in relief.

“Sorry, Jenny, we couldn’t get your glasses,” is all I can manage.

I sleep well, and the stress of having to get through another day melts away. I can enjoy tomorrow, and the next day.

Mom goes to stay with her sister three hours away. I don’t get to see her, but we talk once in a while.

I don’ know what to say to her when she calls, but she says she wants to get help.

It’s been months since the fire, and she hasn’t seen a doctor yet. Dad’s friend even found her someone she could see near Aunt Izzy’s, but she has yet to make an appointment.

When she calls me, I follow Jenny’s lead and decide to be honest. I know she’ll be hurt, but I need to tell her how I feel. “Mom, I think maybe we don’t have much to say to each other. Jenny and I are fine. School is good. Dad has filed for custody. I’m sixteen and I can make the choice to stay here. We asked you to get help. You’re not. It says a lot.” I’m curt and to the point, because I’ve spent enough time not saying what I think.

“I miss you both, Sarah.”

“Then go see the doctor, Mom,”

But the rest of the conversation is her trying to guilt me into going to Québec City, which is ridiculous because why would I leave Dad and Jenny and Alice and Jake? I resolve to live with Dad without Mom in my life.

About a month after our last phone call, Mom sends me a package in the mail. It’s a copy of The Princess Bride. I leave it on my desk and stare at it. I hadn’t thought about it since the night of the fire. I start to think the reason Mom had so much stuff is the same reason I kept my books. I didn’t even like The Princess Bride, but it was all I had to connect me to my father. I couldn’t grieve him since I never knew him, but I still felt the loss. I think Mom felt the same way. I don’t think she got to grieve either. She felt the aspirations dissolve, replaced by the void, and filled it with stuff reminding her of good times, like the sewing machine.

“What’s that?” Jenny sees me sitting on my bed from the hallway. She stands in the threshold.

I hold up the book.

“Oh.”

“Do you want me to read it to you?” I ask, hopeful.

Jenny sits on my bed, and I start reading to her. She snuggles into my pillow and I read until she falls asleep. I look at her and see all of our real aspirations. We have the room to be us. I can breathe and I can be.

 

Lea Beddia is a high school English teacher in Québec, Canada. She enjoys writing for children and young adults and is currently working on a young adult novel. When Lea isn’t teaching, reading, writing, doing laundry or playing with her children, she can be found sneaking chocolate away from the kids. Visit her website www.leabeddia.com or find her @LeaBeddiaWriter.

Split

[fiction]

When we were kids, Elliott and I could read each other’s minds.

It wasn’t like it is in movies, where one twin thinks in complete sentences and the other receives a live stream to their brain. We didn’t need words. When I played catcher, I always knew exactly how Elliott would throw. When my dress snagged on the handlebar of his scooter and I fell backwards onto my arm, he felt it break. When a new girl moved into the house across the street, Elliott knew right away I had a crush on her. He knew everything, sometimes even before I did.

No one really believed what we could do, but it didn’t matter. We were Elliott and Beth, two halves. We were all we needed.

*     *     *

The summer before my senior year at Eastvale, I let my girlfriend Cole come to visit me in California, at my parents’ house, which is how I’ve started to think of it. The night before she arrives, an earthquake shakes the house like a warning. It knocks a book off my nightstand and Elliott’s bat from the rickety nails holding it to the wall. It deepens the crack in the driveway and splits the concrete in two.

It’s not an exaggeration to say everything is magic at Eastvale… Cole coloring in a panel of her comics with her head crouched low to the desk. Cole sneaking into my room the morning of my chem final with a grease-stained box of chocolate donuts. Cole beside me on my twin-size bed, her arm curved into my arm, her hip to my hip.

I stand out there for a long time, digging my foot into the split in the earth, before I go inside. Elliott is lying on the couch, streaming an old Angels game on his phone. It’s white noise to me by now: the tinny organ music, booming commentators.

“Do you think we can fix the driveway? Is there something we can fill it with?”

“Not in the next hour.” He doesn’t look up. “Is she really going to judge you for a cracked driveway?”

“No.” Maybe.

“Then don’t worry about it.”

He’s spent most of the summer on that couch. Last year, he was at practice from dawn till sunset. After that he’d go out with friends. Now he has neither of those things. Now he’s a spectator to games that are long over. A spectator with a shattered elbow.

Without baseball, Elliott is slow. Everything he does is amplified. Everything he doesn’t is, too. It’s not just college or his career. Some essential piece of him is missing now. His muscles are weaker, his hair grown out in strange sandy-blond tufts. He clings to the list of things he still does better than me, and that list isn’t long.

“Mom know you’re taking the car on the freeway?” It’s not a question.

“Don’t make this a thing,” I say. “I’ve had my license for eight months.”

“You’ve been at school.”

“I drive when I’m over there. In the snow, when the roads turn to ice.”

“At a boarding school with more squirrels than people.”

I bite the inside of my lip. This is how we are now: civil, until we aren’t. I sit on the armrest of the couch, in his line of sight. “Please don’t make me take Mom to pick up my girlfriend. You cannot hate me that much.”

He touches his elbow. “Fine.” From his phone speakers, a tiny audience roars.

*     *     *

I started at Eastvale, a boarding school near Boston, three years ago, but I’ve never let anyone visit me, though they asked. Being from California was some kind of social currency; people were interested in it. They’d ask questions about reality shows, movie stars, Disneyland, Christmases on the beach. I got good at finding reasons I couldn’t have visitors: trips to Europe, all-summer internships.

When Cole asked, it was different. I couldn’t lie, but I didn’t know how to sum up the truth: the seedy liquor store on the corner with the peeling paint, or the guy down the street with the American flag sticking out the back of his truck, the one who catcalled me last summer when I was out for a walk. I couldn’t explain it, the vastness between the California I’d let everyone believe in and my actual home.

So now I’ll take her to all the places she expects: Hollywood, the beach, rows of mansions lined with white picket fences. I’ll try to gloss over everything on the way: the church billboards, the dirt roads, the woolly mammoth statue stuck on a hill next to the freeway. We won’t spend a second longer here than we have to.

*     *     *

I see her before the glass doors to the terminal open: effortlessly messy bun, black-framed glasses, ink-stained fingers gripping the straps of the $900 leather backpack she got for her birthday. I roll down my window and wave. My heart inflates. For a minute, my worries dissolve.

She puts her suitcase and backpack into the backseat and gets in the front. “Eliza. Fancy meeting you here.”

“Cole.”

She takes the collar of my shirt between her fingers. Then she tugs the shirt toward her and kisses me. Hard.

With our eyes closed, the taste of her vanilla chapstick on my tongue, we could almost be back at Eastvale. We could be shaded by the white pine tree in the student parking lot. Maybe we’ll take our time getting back to the dorms, our gloved hands clasped together, savoring how the snow feels crunching under our feet.

It’s not an exaggeration to say everything is magic at Eastvale: the smell of old pages on the top floor of the library, old messages carved into the undersides of wooden desks, secrets seeping through the cracked pavement of every pathway. But most of all, Cole. Cole coloring in a panel of her comics with her head crouched low to the desk. Cole sneaking into my room the morning of my chem final with a grease-stained box of chocolate donuts. Cole beside me on my twin-size bed, her arm curved into my arm, her hip to my hip.

It’s only a matter of time before she realizes I’m not worthy.

*     *     *

I point out the orange trees around our yard so Cole doesn’t see the gash in the driveway as I’m parking over it. Inside, my mom is tossing pre-cut pieces of pineapple into a glass mixing bowl half-full with mushy kiwi and strawberries. Elliott has migrated from the couch to the kitchen table, but the baseball game persists.

“Hi,” Cole says.

“Oh!” Mom rinses her hands and wipes them on a nearby dish towel. “You’re early.”

“I told you 3,” I say. “It’s 3:02.”

She takes Cole’s hand in both her own. “It’s so nice to meet you, Cole. I’m Beth’s mom.”

“Eliza,” I correct.

“You too, Mrs. Malone,” Cole says.

“Oh, please—Carrie.”

I stiffen, thinking of the restaurant where I met Cole’s parents, where the napkins were folded into little birds and there were three forks for each person. How far we are, with chopped gray kiwi in a mixing bowl.

I steer her shoulders to face the table. “This is Elliott.”

“I hear you’re a baseball star,” Cole says.

His face hardens. “Not lately.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.” She looks at me, then back to him. “What else do you do?”

His mouth opens, then closes. He touches his elbow. I think of the ways I could answer for him: the beer, the pickup trucks, the endless loop of tiny baseball games. But I don’t.

“I’m going upstairs.” He stands, leaving his fruit salad on the table.

*     *     *

When I show Cole the guest room, which is Elliott’s rec room spruced up with some candles, she tugs on my arm.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“It’s not you,” I say. “I should have warned you—it’s a sore subject.”

“But why?” She perches on the edge of the pull-out bed. It creaks underneath her. “Can’t he play again once his arm recovers?”

“College. He missed out on scouts this season, so he missed out on scholarships.” I fidget with a candle on a nearby shelf. Rosewater ivy.

“Okay—does that matter? Couldn’t he pay for college?”

I tense. “Well, he has to play college baseball to go pro. He was good enough for the Major Leagues. No doubt.”

“Really?” She sits cross-legged. “That’s so—painful. All those practices. It explains so much about you.”

“What?”

“Why you are the way you are. He was the athlete, so you had to be the smart twin.” She watches me for a reaction. “Am I wrong?”

“Yes.”

She’s not. I can still see the row of perfect report cards on the fridge. They’d fade in the sun whenever Mom opened or closed the fridge to pack it with Gatorades for Elliott’s practices. I got one day a semester; baseball was the focus for the rest of the year.

In eighth grade, when I told Mom I was filling out boarding school applications, she looked at me like something she didn’t recognize. A potato plant that sprouted a pumpkin overnight.

*     *     *

Mom appears alone at my doorway that night, wringing her hands into each other.

“I hear you have an itinerary for Cole’s visit.”

I frown. “LA. Beverly Hills, Hollywood.”

She nods once. “I’d like if you had Elliott drive.”

I don’t have to look at Elliott’s face to know this hurts him. I can feel it on my own face, in my own gut, like I set off a bomb and both of us were blasted.

“What?”

“Please don’t argue.”

Blood rushes to my cheeks. I try to take slow, measured breaths. I can’t, won’t get angry.

“I can drive on the highway. I drive at school all the time—in the snow. And I drove to get Cole today.”

She shuts the door. I expect a lecture, but she says, “I know. It’s not you. It’s your brother.”

I wait for an explanation. “He needs the car?”

“He needs to do something besides scroll through Instagram and watch old ball games.”

“So you’re asking me to pretend to be bad at driving. For Elliott’s ego.”

She sits at the edge of my bed, not meeting my eyes. “If he thinks he needs to drive you, it will give him a sense of purpose—something tangible he can accomplish this week, even if he doesn’t think of it that way. It’s not a big thing, but maybe when he comes home he won’t think college research is so daunting.”

There’s something different about how she’s asking, but I don’t know exactly what. Something to do with how crumpled her eyes are at the corners, the note of defeat in her voice.

I think about asking if she’s still upset with him, about all those years at practices and games gone to waste. But she’s looking around my bedroom now, scanning the pictures and posters I haven’t changed since eighth grade. I don’t think I can bear to make her any sadder than she is.

“And you’re okay with him driving?” I ask. “After…?”

“He wasn’t the one behind the wheel.”

I pause. “But he was drinking.”

“It was months ago. It was one mistake.” The space between her eyebrows creases. “He’s a different person since you left. It’s been hard on him, you know.”

I close my eyes. “Fine. He can drive me.”

She stands, her expression unchanged, and squeezes my hand. In the doorway she stops again. “This means a lot, Beth—Eliza. I think you may be the only one who can reach him.”

I don’t tell her how wrong she is.

*     *     *

Later, Cole sneaks into my room. She closes my door without a sound and curls up underneath my blankets, pressing her warm body to mine.

“You don’t know how great it was to see you waiting for me at the airport,” she whispers. “In your cool California car. It’s like I know this whole other part of you now.”

I laugh. “I’m the same person.”

“But seeing where you come from. It’s kind of magical.” She burrows into the crook of my arm.

I let her stay another few minutes, trying not to fall asleep, but drift into half-dreams of hushed New England forests and dry, barren deserts, and Cole and I split between the two.

*     *     *

The night Elliott shattered his elbow, it was raining at Eastvale. Cole and I were in the library with our homework spread out over one of the heavy wooden tables. We had a draft of our college admissions essay due the next morning, and Cole hadn’t started. She hadn’t even picked a prompt.

“It’s bullshit,” she said. “They want me to write ‘honestly.’ But not about wanting to draw comics. And not about years of private school that were supposed to prepare me for this.”

I thought of my own essay, about moving across the country as an eighth-grader.

“You know 90% of our class will end up at an Ivy,” I said. “So there’s something they’re saying to get in.”

“Sure. They’re making shit up.” She clicked backspace, erasing Insert Title Here one letter at a time. “I legit read an example like: ‘I went to Brazil to build houses on spring break. Seeing how underprivileged everyone was really opened my eyes and made me feel like I had to do something.’” She sighed. “I’m not like you. You’re a shoo-in for any school you want.”

I opened my mouth to respond. I’d apply to the Ivies with everyone else, of course, but unless I somehow got a full ride, I knew I’d end up at UCLA.

My phone started buzzing on the table. We jumped. It was my mom.

“Hello?”

“Something’s happened.”

I left Cole with her computer and went to a corner. I stood between two shelves and held the phone, shaking. “What?”

I didn’t understand what she was saying at first. A lot of medical-speak about torn ligaments and Type III fractures. I reached over to touch my own elbow, unswollen, unbroken.

“He’ll miss the season. All of junior year. And over something so stupid.”

“What’s stupid?”

The line was silent for a moment. The rain pattered on the library roof like a horrible metronome. “He was riding in the back of a pickup truck. Drinking. They hit a palm tree. He fell out.”

I didn’t say anything. My stomach felt hollow, as if the ground had opened up underneath me and split me in two. Everything was falling out.

“Beth?” Mom sounded staticky, faint.

I peered between empty shelves to look at Cole, scrolling through her phone. It seemed impossible that I’d just been talking to her about college essays, while across the country my brother was in a hospital. I crouched behind the encyclopedias.

“He’s okay, right?”

“He’s lucky he’s not dead.”

“But he’s okay.” It was strange not to know, to feel it. Not even a twinge in my elbow.

Static again. “Physically, yes.”

“And not physically?”

The phone cut out.

*     *     *

I’m quiet during the drive to LA. Cole and I sit in the backseat. She suggests a podcast, but Elliott flips on KROQ. He doesn’t turn it down when it goes to commercials. I stare at his hair, flattened in the back, and I wonder what he’s thinking.

“I don’t know anyone who listens to the actual radio,” Cole says, too quietly for Elliott to hear. She traces her finger over mine. “It feels like a statement.”

“It probably is.” But I don’t know what it’s saying.

She looks out the window. Yellowed grasses roll by. “Is this all LA? Your house, too?”

“A suburb of LA.”

Elliott snorts. “A distant suburb, maybe. If the moon is a suburb of Earth.”

Cole laughs. She turns to me. “When will you show me around your neighborhood?”

I think of the baseball diamond where Elliott had Little League practices, the corner where I broke my arm, the palm tree where his friend crashed the pickup truck.

“There’s nothing to show, really.”

“Your elementary school? I bet they have your name on a plaque in there.”

“No, just Elliott’s.”

He meets my eyes in the rearview mirror, but doesn’t say anything.

*     *     *

In Beverly Hills, we weave in and out of high-end stores: Cartier, where tourists take pictures of $200,000 necklaces, and Gucci, with handbags perched on white pedestals like they’ve won awards. We stop in a boutique where lace kimonos hang off the racks like delicate curtains.

Elliott looks at the tag on a cotton shirt. “Everything in here has Coachella written all over it.”

The cashier shoots him a look.

Cole laughs. “Have you been?”

“Coachella might as well be a million miles away.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a bunch of trust fund kids who don’t know what to do with their parents’ money.”

Cole grins at me. “He’s describing everyone at school.”

I put down the $60 candle I was pretending to look at. “We don’t have to keep shopping. Let’s go.”

She picks up the candle and holds it out to me. “No, wait. If you like this place…”

I think of where I usually shop: thrift stores in Boston where I comb through racks of discarded J.Crew. No one has ever come with me, especially not Cole.

“No, let’s go.” I turn around without looking at either of them, but I catch a glimpse of my flushed face in a mirror. I almost don’t recognize myself.

*     *     *

I knew parking in Hollywood would be bad, so I researched a structure near all the sightseeing. I give Elliott directions, but he turns the wrong way and we end up behind a line of cars. Throngs of people crowd the sidewalks.

A car in front of us pulls out of a spot. Elliott takes it.

I get out to read the sign overhead. “Two-hour parking till 3.”

Elliott nods through the open window. “Perfect.”

“The garage is $8 for the day.”

“We don’t need that. The meter is $2 an hour, free after 3.”

I think of Mom standing in my doorway and decide not to argue. Elliott rolls up the window.

Outside, the air smells like stale cigarettes. A crowd gathers in the sidewalk watching break dancers, their foreheads glistening. We push through to get to the theater, where movie stars’ handprints are preserved in cement. I feel Elliott’s irritation like an itch on the back of my neck. He pulls out his phone.

When Elliott found out I was going to boarding school, he didn’t speak to me for a week. He ate his bowls of cereal in silence across the table. He played radio stations he knew I hated when our mom drove us to school and pretended he didn’t see me when we passed each other in the hall.

I follow Cole. She looks at home here, sleek and mysterious in dark sunglasses. I half-expect tourists to take pictures with her. She presses her hands into Cary Grant’s prints, her rainbow ink in sharp contrast to the pale concrete.

“He was gay, you know,” she says.

“Really? Cary Grant?”

“Yeah. Everyone knew back then. It was this big open secret.”

I kneel down at the set of prints to her left. They belong to Jeanne Crain, 1949. I don’t try to fit my hands in the prints—they’re like a child’s. Her shoe prints have little dots where her heels pressed into the cement. “I don’t know who this is.”

Cole looks. “Can you imagine? You become this big movie star, you get invited to put your handprints in this fancy theater, and seventy years later, the kids are like, ‘Who’s that?’”

“I’m sure lots of people still know”—I check the name—“Jeanne Crain.”

“We only know the ones people still talk about. Marilyn Monroe. Or Cary Grant and his string of lovers.” She stands up. “We work so hard to make something of ourselves, but even if you’re successful, it probably won’t matter in a hundred years. So you might as well stop trying so hard.”

I look for Elliott. He’s leaning against the wall staring at his phone, deaf to this particular bit of wisdom. When I look back, Cole is studying me, her hand shielding her eyes from the sun.

“What is it?” I say.

“I’m trying to stop time. Right here, it would be perfect.” She drops her hand and wraps her arms around my waist. She’s close enough for me to count each freckle on her nose.

“What about school?”

“You love school too much. This is better. No college application bullshit, no finals. Just you and me and the warm sun.”

She reaches a hand behind my neck and pulls my head toward her, pressing her soft lips to mine. For a minute, I believe in Hollywood happily ever afters.

*     *     *

We walk down Hollywood Boulevard, hands clasped while Cole points out more famous names in the silver-flecked sidewalks. She pulls me into a souvenir shop brimming with screen-printed shot glasses and plastic Oscar statues.

At 3:28, we arrive back at our parking spot. The car isn’t there.

*     *     *

When Elliott found out I was going to boarding school, he didn’t speak to me for a week. He ate his bowls of cereal in silence across the table. He played radio stations he knew I hated when our mom drove us to school and pretended he didn’t see me when we passed each other in the hall. He shut his bedroom door as soon as he came back from practice every night.

I lay in bed trying to live stream my thoughts into his brain. I’m sorry. Please don’t hate me forever. Please.

I never got an answer.

*     *     *

Traffic piles up on Hollywood Boulevard, a wall of brake lights between the billboards and palm trees. We stand rooted next to our empty parking spot as if the car might reappear.

“You didn’t read the sign right. That’s the only way this could have happened.”

“I read it to you, word for word. It said two-hour parking until 3 p.m.”

“Meaning after 3, there’s no limit.”

Cole reads the sign, her expression blocked by her sunglasses. “Or no parking after 3 at all.”

“That’s obviously what it means.” I punch the towing company into my phone. It’s a mile away. “Come on. It’s off Highland.” I bristle at the sound of my own words. Even now, I’m trying too hard to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

“Wait,” Elliott says. I don’t. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to pick up a towed car?”

“No.”

“Of course you don’t, because you don’t know how to drive.”

I turn around. “What?”

Cole, running to keep up, stops abruptly and almost trips. She wipes a bead of sweat from her forehead.

“It’s over three hundred dollars,” Elliott says.

Cole looks from him to me. “You need money?”

“No,” I say.

Elliott exhales through his teeth. “Jesus Christ. You think she doesn’t see what you’re doing?”

“Elliott.” I sound more alarmed than I mean to. If there’s ever been a time for him to read my mind, it’s now.

“What?” Cole asks.

“Beverly Hills. Hollywood. Boutiques with $500 shirts.”

“What should we do?” I snap. “Drive around drinking beer in the back of a pickup?”

Elliott’s eyes flare. He takes a quick half-step back, like he stepped on hot coals. “Fucking hell, Beth.”

“Eliza.”

“Do you actually think it’s that easy? Get a new name and a scholarship to a fancy school, and shed who you are—your family, your twin—like snake skin?”

I don’t say anything. A family passes us on the sidewalk, the dad leading his kids away by the shoulders as they stare. Cole gives them a wave, as if to say Nothing to see here. I look at the ground and press my shoe into a deep crack in the sidewalk until it hurts.

“I couldn’t survive here,” I say quietly. “I was in the shadow of your stupid fucking game. And now, what do you even have left? What would I have left, if I’d stayed?”

He doesn’t say anything.

“Nothing,” I say. “I’d be a depressed, pathetic mess—just like you are.”

I don’t have to look at Elliott’s face to know this hurts him. I can feel it on my own face, in my own gut, like I set off a bomb and both of us were blasted. He walks down Highland, disappearing into a swirl of people and billboards, lights and palm trees, till he’s so far gone I can’t tell if he’s real or imagined.

*     *     *

Cole pays for the tow. She doesn’t say anything about it and I don’t, either. The car is coated in dust. I run the windshield washer as we pull out of the tiny garage, but it leaves a thick layer of grime around the edges where the wipers don’t reach.

We drive back to Highland and see Elliott on the corner where we left him, sitting on the curb. I half-expect him to be drinking out of a paper bag, but he’s on his phone. He gets in the backseat and doesn’t meet my eyes in the mirror.

I wish, on his behalf, he could have taken an Uber home. It’s the kind of statement only people with extra money can afford to make.

*     *     *

At the house, Elliott gets out before we pull into the driveway. I wait for him to walk to the door and stare at the gash in the asphalt, wondering exactly what it was I was trying to hide.

“I just wish you’d told me.” Cole’s voice is quiet, like it’s about to crack. We watch Elliott close the door.

I park the car, focusing on keeping the wheels straight. “You want me to tell you I’m poor? I’m a scholarship kid? Can you really blame me for not being upfront?”

“Yes. Because if you knew me, you’d know I don’t care. You’re supposed to trust the person you’re with.”

I don’t answer. My mouth and throat dry up. The air feels too thick, too heavy, like the car is about to burst. I open the door and step right into the split.

*     *     *

We walk for a long time without saying anything. We pass the old guy’s truck with the flag, the liquor store, then turn onto a dirt road lined with orange trees, the bits of rock sharp under our shoes. The sun is starting to set ahead of us, turning the sky orange and pink and framing a row of trees in the distance.

“Palms again,” Cole says.

“They grow better here than they do in LA. Those tall ones are California fan palms—they’re native to the desert. The climate is better here.”

She smiles. “You know everything.”

We’re silent again, our steps out of sync.

“I’ll pay you for the tow,” I say.

“Don’t be stupid.”

“I’m not. I let him park there. I’ll pay.”

She looks at me with a mix of irritation and pity. “Please don’t make this a money thing. I can’t believe you thought that would matter. It doesn’t.”

“You think money doesn’t matter because you don’t worry about it. You can pay for a $300 tow fee with no warning.”

She’s quiet. She scuffs her shoe in the dirt, sending a tiny cloud billowing out behind us.

“You’re right. And you know what? It makes sense that you got a scholarship. With everyone else, it’s always this scramble to get the best grades, test scores, because our parents tell us to. But you actually care about being there, about learning. It’s why I like you.”

I open my mouth to respond, but she keeps going.

“I don’t know Elliott that well, but I think I understand what he’s going through. He went his whole life being told if he kept doing this one thing really well, everything else would work. If my parents stopped being able to pay my tuition or something, I’d be in the same boat.” She chances a look at me. “But he has you for a sister. No matter what life throws at you, you’ll always be able to come back ten times harder. Anyone would feel inadequate next to you.”

I swallow and look down again.

“It sucks that you weren’t honest. I get that everyone at Eastvale wears Prada flip-flops in the showers. I get why you pretended. But I wish you hadn’t.”

“Why? So you could have paid for all my coffees and felt sorry for me?”

She nods to the orange tree beside us, dripping with fruit. “No, because this place is beautiful. I knew about Hollywood, Beverly Hills. But I wanted to see where you were from. And what you’ve let me see of you—it makes me love you more.”

I hold my breath, but the tears stream down, spattering onto the dirt below. She turns and kisses me. My head swirls with sunset, vanilla chapstick, and rainbow ink, and I want her to see everything.

*     *     *

By the time we get back, the sky is settling into a dusky purple and someone has moved the car into the street. Elliott is kneeling in the driveway, a black plastic pail next to him. Cole goes inside.

I kneel. He’s hunched over a putty knife, smoothing black, sticky gunk into the driveway crack.

“Elliott.”

He doesn’t respond. His knife makes a harsh, scraping noise on the asphalt.

“I’m sorry.”

He meets my eyes and lets the knife rest in his hand.

“Mom asked you to have me drive.” It’s not a question.

I nod.

He looks at the ground, furrows his brow. “We should have gone to the garage.” He starts scraping again. “Look, I know I’ve been a piece of shit.”

“Elliott—”

“No, you were right. I’m not surprised you left. I’m surprised you stuck around as long as you did.”

“I didn’t, not forever.” He keeps scraping. “Do you have another one of those putty knives?”

He sits back, reaches under the lid of the asphalt bucket, and tosses one to me.

“We’re pushing it into the crack right now. Then we’ll drive over it to tamp it down. I watched a YouTube video.” He demonstrates and I copy him. Scrape, scrape. He pours the asphalt mix into the next section, and I watch the black, soft crumbles settle into the split.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when it happened,” I say.

He meets my eyes over the patch. “I know, Eliza.”

We work until it’s dark, scraping over the asphalt again and again. We don’t say anything else, but we don’t have to. We don’t need words.

 

Melanie Dearman is a YA writer and graduate of UC Irvine. If not writing, she can usually be found playing ukulele or doodling with fountain pens till her fingers are covered in ink. She was the 2018 runner-up for the SCWBI Sue Alexander Award for most promising manuscript. She also won the 2016 SCBWI LA Mentorship Contest and was a runner-up for the Stony Brook Short Fiction Prize. Visit her at melaniedearman.com or on Twitter at @melaniethegreat.

Dr. Goon and the Lost Souls

[fiction]

Dr. Goon was the principal of Gecko Wacko High School and all the students loved him because that’s how he programmed them, and how did he program them? With the Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later. The Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later was an archway, kind of like the entryway at an airport that electronically frisks you before you board your plane. Every day when the students came to school, they had to pass through the butt-smacking turnstiles of the Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later while staring at a little red lens attached to the arch. The students thought the lens was taking attendance by reading their retinas, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth was that Dr. Goon was stealing students’ souls as they came through the Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later. Every trip through, Dr. Goon’s device pulled fibers from kids’ souls and wrapped them around thin pins, which were stored in the principal’s secret laboratory. The laboratory doubled as Dr. Goon’s private washroom, so his lab was also his lav.

Every trip through Dr. Goon’s device pulled fibers from kids’ souls and wrapped them around thin pins which were stored in the principal’s secret laboratory. The laboratory doubled as Dr. Goon’s private washroom, so his lab was also his lav.

Each pin was labeled with the name of the student whose soul it contained, and as the school year went on the pins got fatter and fatter while the students became duller and drearier. The less room their souls took up in their bodies, the more room there was for all the test prep the students would need to ace the state exams they would take at the end of the year.

Well, Dr. Goon’s plan worked perfectly and the students of Gecko Wacko High School scored an average of 98% for filling in the choicest circles on their tests. Dr. Goon became the greatest principal the world had ever known, causing principals from every continent (except Antarctica) to come find out how they, too, could suck the life out of their student populations, all the better to cram their craniums with mega-doses of the busywork needed to produce teenagers who never talked in class, never came late, never missed an assignment and never questioned authority.

Then one day a boy named Wiley Zorkowitz had one too many prune sandwiches for lunch (that’s all the cafeteria served, prune sandwiches, and no one ever complained). But after Wiley got his bathroom pass, he soon discovered that a lot of other guys had eaten too many prune sandwiches as well, and the laws of nature wouldn’t permit him to wait at the end of the long line curling out of the boys’ restroom.

That’s when Wiley noticed that Dr. Goon had left his keys in his private washroom door. And like a prune pit being Heimlich’d out of some kid’s throat, Wiley shot across the hall, threw open the forbidden door, and came face to face with Dr. Goon himself, who at that moment was wiring a student’s soul pin to his dead parrot, Parksie, hoping to bring it back to life.

On the wall beside Dr. Goon were the thousand soul pins, each labeled with a student’s name, and since the labels were organized alphabetically from the ceiling to the floor, and because “Wiley Zorkowitz” was the very last label at the end of the very last column, Wiley instantly located his pin and grabbed it up, thinking this must be his own personalized key to his own private washroom, meaning he’d never again have to endure the agony of prune pressure in his private places.

But as soon as Wiley grasped the key—or pin, rather—his soul unwound and hung in the air like a curl of purple smoke. And as Wiley gasped, he sucked in not only a gulp of air but also his own soul—the sum total of all his dreams, joys, loves, and music—which flew into him like stardust disappearing into a blackened sun.

Meanwhile, Dr. Goon was so gobsmacked by Wiley’s interruption that he accidentally stuck himself with the wire he had hooked up to his dead parrot, and in an instant the eyedropper’s worth of energy that made up Dr. Goon’s soul was conducted through the transmitter, causing the parrot to flap its wings, wobble to its feet and say, “Awk! Fill in the circles! Fill in the circles!”

After Wiley had visited the bathroom, he made an announcement over the all-call: “Attention. All students must immediately report to Dr. Goon’s office to get their souls back.” And one by one the students of Gecko Wacko High School were reunited with their wondering, wishing, loving, dreaming, joyfully imperfect selves.

Meanwhile, Dr. Goon, now the only soulless member of the school, was converted into a parrot stand, and after a while his body turned to stone and he was displayed next to the prom wreck in front of Gecko Wacko High School with these words inscribed in the base: “Schools Are About Human Beings, Not Test Scores.”

 

Michael Hennessy is an educator and part-time singer-songwriter who lives in New Jersey. Currently, he’s completing a YA novel about a teenager whose most intimate friend is the artificial intelligence that’s taken up residence in his brain. The novel is called Changed My Mind.

Photo credit: Howard Flesher

Encounters

[fiction]

Kristen’s dog is named Banjo. He’s big—not just tall, fluffy too, and cream-colored like the living room carpet. When I pet him, my hands sink down all the way to the second finger joint. He’s so big, he reminds me a little of the horses up at the farm.

I was never really around Snap and Ginger much. Brian didn’t like them. He said that in America we’ve made our animals our idols and we serve them now instead of the other way around. Sometimes, I remember that when I’m playing with Banjo and I push him off. But then he gets so sad that I can’t stand it, and I go back to petting him and I try to forget about Brian.

That’s what the social workers, and the people from the group home I was at before Kristen’s, want me to do. But it’s easier not thinking about Brian than it is forgetting the farm. When Kristen, my foster mom, picked me up from the library after school today, the clouds were already grey and low. When we got to the house, it was sprinkling, and now it’s raining in a sort of lazy, drippy way while me and Banjo sit by the sliding door. We watch the porch soak up the drops until the flaky paint swells and looks ready to peel off. At the farm, I made my room on a day like this. I cleaned out an old shed with rain leaked through its roof, swept it out and filled it with quilts and pillows and horse blankets. Brian was bringing in more and more people, but the shed was all mine. I had a place to sleep on my own, and stretch my legs without bumping into someone else. Brian didn’t care as long as I came back to the house to eat and listen to his teach-ins.

I’m not in the shed, though. I’m in a normal house, waiting for dinner like a normal person. Beside me, Banjo whimpers. He can tell when I’m nervous or upset.

In the kitchen, a bowl scrapes against the counter. Kristen. She’s got a sixth sense like Banjo, only more annoying. I can feel her eyes searching for me, and finally settling on the back of my neck like a weight.

At the group home, they said Brian didn’t really know anything about me. He was just really good at picking out the people he knew would want him.

“Leigh, why don’t you come help with the salad? Meatloaf’s almost done.”

I shake off Banjo, get up. “Yeah.”

She means well. I guess.

Being with Kristen’s got me thinking more about my real mom, and I wish it didn’t. When she was pregnant with me, Mom was so sure I was going to be a boy that she didn’t bother changing the name she’d picked out. Leigh Allen Shaw. Allen was my grandpa’s name, so at least that part sort of makes sense. But there are so many ways she could have changed Leigh. Leigh Anne, Leah, Leyla. All kinds of ways to twist it, make it more like me, or at least more like how I wanted to be.

That’s pretty typical of me and Mom though. We never fit together right, like I was a size too-small shirt she bought one day and just kept forgetting to return.

While I make Greek salad and Kristen mashes potatoes, I think about me and Mom’s last few years together. Things could have been different if she’d kept a closer eye on me. Maybe if she cared where I was going, I wouldn’t have been walking around the neighborhood that night. I wouldn’t have seen the lit up garage, the metal folding chairs, and the plastic tables loaded with Tupperware containers of hamburgers, pasta salad, and homemade pickles floating in vinegar. And even if I had, I’d’ve known better. I wouldn’t have gone in.

*     *     *

After dinner, we stay at the table and Kristen helps me with some homework. I just had my sixteenth birthday two weeks ago, but because of all the time I spent on the mountain with Brian and his group, I’m just now finishing ninth grade. I don’t mind so much. At the group home, I had a tutor who helped me finish eighth grade, so at least I don’t have to go back to middle school. And at Harding-Davis, I fit in more with the fourteen-year-olds than the kids my own age. We’re all sort of lost.

While we’re working, Banjo comes under the table and flops on my feet. When I first came to stay with Kristen, she told me that she bought him to be a guard dog. “Can you believe it?” she said, rolling her eyes. “He’s about as intimidating as a rug with legs.”

I don’t know if that was the truth or if it was because she thought I’d be scared of him. I’ve never been scared of Banjo, though. He’s huge and a barker, but he’s hands down my favorite part about living with her.

I’m smart enough to figure out that Banjo isn’t supposed to be what’s important about this place, though. The way my social worker kept talking about her, I know Kristen was the thing I was supposed to stick to. She’s been a foster parent for fifteen years. I guess they thought she’d have a better shot connecting with me than everyone else who tried. “Connections” is a word they talk about a lot, and how important it is for someone like me to make them. The thing is, I have plenty of connections. They just never worked out. I mean, I lived with Mom for a long time too and that didn’t really end well.

Right now, Kristen taps the back of my hand with the back end of her pencil. “Earth to Leigh.”

I jerk upright, pulling my feet out from under Banjo so he yelps. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Let’s start over, all right?”

Most of the time, I don’t think I can really love Kristen the way you’re supposed to love a parent, but then we have moments like this one. I get really excited, until I remember Brian. What if I just feel the same way about Kristen that I did with him? I thought he would change things, take me out of all the misery and anger I was in, and look where that landed me.

I can’t remember the first time I saw him, but I know when I recognized him. It was in the garage that night. He was tall with kind of shaggy brown hair and big hands. Cute, in an older way. He looked like he should be working, or in college at least. He said he lived on a farm up the mountain with Mary, his cousin. He was hanging around our neighborhood because he wanted to start a ministry—something that would show people how there were bigger things, bigger forces moving through us. Mom and I never really went to church, so I didn’t pay much attention until he stopped and looked me head on. “Someone hurt you, little girl,” he said. “You’re wearing it under your skin.”

At the group home, they said Brian didn’t really know anything about me. He was just really good at picking out the people he knew would want him. I know that now, I guess, but it doesn’t change that what happened next was the best moment of my life.

Brian got out of his chair and crossed the garage to me. He put one hand on my knee and the other on the back of my neck, and I leaned into him.

He kissed me, the first real kiss I ever got. My mouth was sour from the pickles, but his tasted like the iced tea they’d been passing around.

*     *     *

School ends every day at 2:45, but Kristen doesn’t leave her job till 3. She doesn’t want me home alone, so I wait at the library across the parking lot. She makes me wait there because that’s where her friend, Ms. Lucas, works.

I don’t mind. Ms. Lucas’s nice. She never asks questions and doesn’t check up on me much, just gives me books to check out sometimes. The Book Thief and Chains and Catherine, Called Birdy. I take them home, but I don’t read them. The best thing about the library is that I get to check my email without Kristen looking over my shoulder every five seconds.

I’ve gotten a lot of emails since I came back. I don’t bother opening most of them. There’s only one I’m really looking for, and when it finally pops up today at the top of my inbox, my stomach squeezes shut and I feel like barfing. It’s from Mom.

Hi Leigh,

I read some things on the computer the other day. I don’t know if they let you look at it where you’re at, but I want you to know it’s not true. They didn’t come asking for my side or anything.

The people from social services say you’re still in the area. Let me know if you want to talk. We can meet up at Muncie’s.

That’s it. No sign off, and I don’t know what she’s talking about. The nauseous feeling keeps on building as I click out and open another window. When I type Brian’s name in the search bar, it all comes together.

The article’s from some magazine site and it’s called REACH OF MODERN DAY MANSON REVEALED. Chunks of text pop out at me, along with bright pictures of the mountain and the farm.

Brian Wilder, who had been living with his cousin Mary Davenport since 2014, began to surround himself with a group of followers in the spring of 2015. The people drawn to him were young, bright, and disillusioned with the lack of spirituality and the hypocrisy they saw saturating modern culture—much like Wilder himself.

The notable exception to this trend was Davenport, who at fifty-three was both older than Brian’s other admirers and entrenched in her local community. Even though friends and family expressed suspicion of Brian and his supporters, Mary never indicated that she was anything but confident in her young relative.

I start tapping the mouse as fast as I can. Eventually, it stops at the end of the page and I see it.

As with all stories of this nature, Wilder’s charismatic psychopathy obscures the undercurrent of societal complacency that fed his actions. One of the first members of Wilder’s group to speak with the department was a minor whose name has been withheld. Captain Rollins expressed frustration with what he calls “the lack of any sort of family or community support system.” According to Rollins, “As far as we can tell, this young lady went missing in 2016. There was no report filed with the department. The school did not investigate. She was gone for two years, and as far as anyone was concerned, she had vanished off the face of the earth.” 

I lean back in the chair. I’m the girl they’re talking about. Everybody else there was eighteen, at least. It was one of Brian’s rules.

Brian taught me some good things. He said that sometimes you have to make yourself a rock—you don’t argue, you don’t even speak. You just let them know you’re not giving up. And eventually, they have to accept that.

Except me. I was special. He told me that a lot.

This is what Mom’s worried about. She thinks I’ll be angry when I figure out she didn’t look for me.

It’s kind of funny, because the thing is, I always knew she wouldn’t. When I left with Brian, I was counting on it.

I log into my email again and delete the message.

*     *     *

We’re in the store when someone recognizes me. Kristen said she needed new curtains for the living room, but afterwards she steers us towards the food aisles. “I’m too tired to cook.”

“Can we have hot dogs?” The words pop out of my mouth and I think they surprise both of us. Since I came to live with her, I haven’t really had opinions on food. I’ll eat just about anything.

“On the grill?”

“Yeah. With chips, maybe?”

She pauses. Shrugs. “Fine by me.”

I go to grab a pack of buns and nearly collide with a cart being pushed by an older lady. Maybe in her fifties. I can’t place her until she opens her mouth.

“You were at Mary’s farm,” she says. “I saw you there.”

Recognition sizzles down my spine, makes my fingers clumsy and heavy. I haven’t been preparing myself for this, but I should have known. Mary had a lot of friends. I don’t know this one’s name, but she looks like the women who would come over, watching us from the kitchen and glaring over their lemonades. Like they had a sixth sense, knew things were going to go wrong.

“You were there when Brian killed her.”

She’s not loud, but the words are huge, bigger than I can understand. Bigger than I want to think about. Her face, the yeasty smell of bread, and the lights bouncing off of the plastic packaging all combine into a wave of nausea that nearly bowls me over. Shaking my head, I back up faster and faster until I collide with an aisle display. Bags of potato chips crunch under my back. The woman stares at me.

“Leigh, what’s going on?”

I look up. It’s Kristen, without the cart, looking between me and the woman.

The woman laughs, but there’s no joy in it. “You’re her mother?”

“We’re done here.” Kristen grabs my arm and wrenches me to her side, leaving Lays bags scattered across the floor.

“What were you doing? Why weren’t you watching her?”

Kristen pushes me in front of her, walking so fast her sneakers clip my heels.

“You little bitch,” the lady yells. I can’t tell which one of us she’s talking to.

Kristen stops, and for a minute I’m terrified she’s going to yell back. Then she changes her mind and pushes me ahead.

“Keep going. It’s not worth it.”

We get to the car. Without curtains, without anything. I buckle myself into the front seat, shove my hands under my thighs to warm them. Stop them from trembling.

“Look at me,” Kristen says.

I don’t look up.

“Don’t pay attention to people like that.” She turns away to stare into the rearview mirror. Her eyes reflected back are rimmed with red. Why is she crying? Isn’t she supposed to be the best foster parent in the county or whatever? Didn’t they train her for stuff like this?

“They’re hurting so badly, they don’t want to admit that he hurt other people, too.” She sniffs and turns the key in the ignition, then pauses, her foot on the brake. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I was in the kitchen when the gun went off. The bread knife I was holding slipped, taking off a chunk of my fingertip.

“Jesus!”

I was so busy wrapping up the cut that I didn’t notice when Brian slipped in through the back door. When I finally saw him, he was sitting at the table, shaking. The chair rocked with him.

“Leigh? I need a bath.”

In the shower, he threw up three times. I got in with him to help wash his hair, and a little bit of blood leaked from my bandage and mixed with the water dribbling down his neck in a barely pink trail.

My finger healed with a scar—an indentation that puckers my skin and looks a little like an uneven seam. I rub at it now, pressing my nail deep into it until it feels like it’ll split back open.

Kristen and I stay in the car, not moving, for a long time.

*     *     *

The next time I’m at the library, I pull up Mom’s email from my trash bin. I say I’ll meet her at Muncie’s this weekend. Twelve o’clock Saturday and my foster mom’s coming with me.

*     *     *

The morning of the visit, I dream about Brian. We’re in the shed, on the ground, with the pillows and horse blankets all pulled together so there’s room for both of us. I’m looking over his shoulder while he does it. Light comes through the boards in the roof, showing the dust and flakes of crud swirling everywhere and falling down on us. “I love you, little bird. You know that, right?”

The Coke souring in my mouth, I see my life, but through her eyes. It’s a straight path, and it cuts through everything—what she did and didn’t do, what I chose and didn’t choose. No matter what, it leads the same way, ends in the same place. With us in this booth, and something awful between us.

I realize that my whole time here I’ve been saying I like it when he does this. But really, I don’t. I never have. For the first time, I wonder why I’m letting him. As I focus on the rust flecks speckling the back of his shirt, he melts into a swirl of colors, and my eyes open to the ceiling at Kristen’s house. She’s knocking on my door. Shit.

I knew Kristen would be mad that I emailed Mom. At first, she tried to talk me out of it. “Her parental rights were terminated. She’s not safe for you to be around.”

But Brian taught me some good things. He said that sometimes you have to make yourself a rock—you don’t argue, you don’t even speak. You just let them know you’re not giving up. And eventually, they have to accept that.

That’s what I did, and eventually Kristen caved. I don’t know if she’s forgiven me for that yet.

I scramble off the floor and start throwing everything back on the bed. Banjo’s snoring on the mattress, but I ignore him, piling pillows, sheets, and blankets against his back. When Kristen opens the door, she catches me with a quilt overflowing from my arms.

“I’m sorry,” I say. My tongue’s dry and thick. I am so, so stupid.

She sits on the bed, ignoring the mess. “I don’t care if you sleep on the floor.”

I cling to the quilt, like a shield. “I slept in a shed. Up at the farm.”

“I know. And if it makes things any easier for you, you can stay on that floor as long as you want. Okay?”

I don’t know what she wants me to say.

Kristen sighs. “I know you want to see your mom. I’m just really worried for you. You understand that, right?”

I don’t answer.

*     *     *

Muncie’s is the kind of diner they shoot movies in. It opens at five and when I was a little kid, Mom would sometimes take me there before school. It was close enough to the bus stop that I could run back to catch the bus, syrup still smearing my face. From the way Kristen looks at it when we pull in, I know she thinks it’s a dive. But to me, it looks the same as it always did.

Mom doesn’t, though. She’s sitting in the back, in our usual booth. She stands up when we come in, and I realize she’s shorter than me. Her hair’s grey at the roots. She stares at me.

“You got tall.” The smoker’s rasp that used to make me think of movie stars now just reminds me of the shriveled, charcoal lungs they show us in health class.

“Yeah,” I mumble stupidly. “I guess I did.”

Kristen tells me to get whatever I want and takes a seat in the booth behind us. That was her part of the deal for taking me.

“You want pancakes?” Mom asks.

The laminated menu’s sticky. “No. Maybe mac-and-cheese?”

She snorts. “You can make that at home.”

“I could make pancakes too.”

I order mac-and-cheese and collard greens and a coke. Mom asks for a sweet tea and tells the waitress, loudly, that it’ll all be on one check.

“You already ate?”

She shrugs.

“So,” she says when they bring out the drinks, “you wanted to meet.”

I did. Because no matter what any court says, she is still my mother, and through her is me. If I can understand why she wasn’t looking harder, why she let me go, then maybe—

None of this is anything I want to tell her right now. I stare at my glass. “I thought you wanted to.”

Then maybe I’ll know why I didn’t see through Brian. Through all of them.

She lets out a huff I can’t figure out. I wait.

“You read the paper?”

“Yeah.”

“You ran away a lot,” she says finally.

I’m surprised at the anger that comes up. “Never for that long.”

“You’re telling me.” Her fingers are tapping against the table and I can tell how badly she wants a cigarette. When I was a kid, I used to tell her to go outside, that I could wait. I was so desperate not to be a problem to her.

I want to be a problem now.

“There was a lady in the store who thought Kristen was you.”

Her face folds in on itself, the wrinkles carving deeper into her mouth and forehead. I’ve hurt her. Good.

“So?”

“She asked why you weren’t watching me.”

Mom snorts. “You think that if I went and dragged you away from that place, you wouldn’t have old bitches hounding you in the grocery store? Have I got news for you.”

The Coke souring in my mouth, I see my life, but through her eyes. It’s a straight path, and it cuts through everything—what she did and didn’t do, what I chose and didn’t choose. No matter what, it leads the same way, ends in the same place. With us in this booth, and something awful between us.

Not for the first time in my life, I realize that I don’t understand her at all.

She’s tapping the table again. “People hate each other. It’s just the way of the world. Everyone’s always picking on everybody else.”

The frustration that boils up is so scorching, I struggle to swallow. “He killed someone, mom. I was living with him and he killed someone.”

“Come on. I never met that guy. How was I supposed to know he was going to go and shoot that old lady?”

“That’s not the point.”

She swirls the ice in her glass, not looking at me. “Here we go again. Look, I know I wasn’t the kind of mom you wanted, okay? You were leaving all the time, and I just got tired of losing you every time I pissed you off. I’m sorry. I just got tired.”

The food comes out—macaroni soupy and the greens huddled in a limp pile. My stomach roils, but I wait until the waitress leaves to answer her.

“I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Oh yeah?” she snaps “How was it supposed to work?”

“You could’ve called the police! The paper said you didn’t even do that.”

“Yeah, well, see how great things went when they got involved.” Mom jerks her head at Kristen. “Now you’re in foster care and CPS is all over my ass.”

She has a point. I guess.

“The thing is, people say it was all my fault. That I should have been keeping a better eye on you, should have called the police, whatever. But you know how I am. You always have.” She looked at me. “You made those decisions. You made yourself.”

I look at her, and I can’t speak. I want to scream about all the things that she did that people told me were definitely, categorically wrong—the things that everyone but her and me can see so clearly as what pushed me to Brian and the farm. But I can’t. Because she is right and wrong at the same time.

I did make myself. There is no way around that.

There was her, and then there was me. And under all the things she did was what I decided, and what I did. Under her was me, always.

*     *     *

Kristen and I don’t talk on the way home. I sit in the passenger seat and lean against the window, watching the telephone poles passing outside and our reflections in the glass. A headache builds behind my skull.

When Mom said goodbye, she didn’t mention meeting up again. I don’t think I’ll see her for a long time.

I don’t know how I feel about that.

There’s going to be a trial for Brian. Kristen says that I might have to testify. Right now, everyone’s trying to keep me out of it because of how young I was, but it all depends on if the other people will talk.

Thinking about seeing everyone again used to terrify me. Actually, it still does. But now I play it like a movie in my head.

I’ll walk to the front of the courtroom. I’ll have to swear on something—a Bible, I guess. Maybe Kristen will be there too. I can look at her when I’m talking. Not him. I don’t think I’d be able to say anything if I was looking at Brian the whole time.

They’ll ask me questions.

How old were you when you met Brian Wilder?

Fourteen—no, thirteen. My birthday was three days away.

Did you know that Mr. Wilder was planning to kill Mary Davenport?

No. I couldn’t see it then.

I made myself not see it.

What did he do?

I heard a gun go off. And then he came in and told me that Mary was dead. And that he didn’t mean to do it, he was just so angry. He said he would protect me, always. And I believed him, up until the police came and took us away.

I’ll say all of this, even though I don’t want to. Even though it’ll hurt like knives.

If I made myself, maybe I can try to remake me, too.

I imagine the last moments in court, when they’ll tell me I can go. I’ll think back to Muncie’s and that one, blinding moment when I saw Mom and understood everything she was and wasn’t.

At the end, I will look up. I will see him. I’ll see him for what he really is.

 

Claudia McCarron learned everything she ever needed from books. She is a recent graduate of Shepherd University, where she was an editor for Sans Merci, the school’s journal of literature and art. She lives in West Virginia with her family.

Girl, Electric

[fiction]

Nora Brown was running. Not the strained, sweating through a rough cotton t-shirt running of gym class—this was different than any running she’d ever done in her life. She was a human laser, slicing along the roadside fast enough to pass cars moving in her direction. She could hear everything happening within her body in deafening high fidelity: heart pumping, blood sluicing through her veins, muscles twitching with precision as her arms and legs pumped in unison. She could feel each hair in her scalp trailing out behind her, every pore pumping sweat and sebum, even the distinct squish of a zit pushing itself up between dermis and epidermis.

At first, the hum seemed like just another uninvited thing that arrived at puberty, like boobs and armpit smell and the way suddenly her mom’s voice asking her to do anything sounded like fingernails on a blackboard.  Eventually Nora got used to it.

If she’d known it would be that easy to run away from school, she’d have done it a long time ago.

*     *     *

Ever since her thirteenth birthday, Nora had felt a gentle vibration beneath the top layer of her skin. It made a low, persistent hum that only she could hear, like the buzz of power lines on a hot July day. It was always in the background, like radio static.

At first, the hum seemed like just another uninvited thing that arrived at puberty, like boobs and armpit smell and the way suddenly her mom’s voice asking her to do anything sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. Eventually, Nora got used to it. Now she thought little of the way that papers seemed to fly off of desks and perfectly stable glasses of water toppled unprovoked in her presence. When her mom was in a good mood, she blamed it on puberty. “Adolescence,” mom would cackle. “It’s like my daughter has some kind of force field around her.” When mom was in a bad mood, the hum caused fights.

Nora felt the hum tingling in her fingertips on those afternoons when she came home from school, turned the key in the lock and knew before she even opened the door that mom would already be on the couch. The hum vibrated through her gut as she watched her mom lying there, looking as if she was drifting out to sea on a small raft and doing nothing, absolutely nothing to save herself.

She felt the hum rumble down to her toes the day they dropped Rory off at his special school. “There’ll be other kids like him there,” her mom said, with a smile that drooped like damp washing on the line. She knew Rory was different. He barely talked, he did everything in the same exact order every day, he couldn’t stand strangers and loud noises. Other kids had always called him mean names, but she’d done her best to stand up for him. “Nora, it’s not up to you to be his champion,” her mother said one day in a rare moment of lucidity. As they drove home without Rory, the hum rose in nauseating waves. What mom didn’t understand was that Nora needed Rory too. He was her best friend. Around him the hum was gentle. She felt calm and in control.

When Nora felt nervous, the hum became an overwhelming throb in her skull. Sometimes it was powerful enough to momentarily break the seal between her thoughts and other people’s. It seemed to get stronger when she was angry.

And today, the hum had knocked over more than just a glass of water. Today the hum had broken through her, it had hurt somebody.

*     *     *

Nora had seen him before, the school custodian with the tired smile and an arm he always dragged by his side, like disappointing news he couldn’t quite shake off. Today though, was different. Today he held his hedge clippers tightly when he found her wading through the thicket toward the school exit. Today he seemed almost afraid of her as he asked, “Why aren’t you in class? Is everything okay, sweetie?” Today, a thin layer of sweat had appeared on his upper lip when she replied, “I’m not going back to class,” as she stood bolt still in the thicket, feeling like a giantess on pale opal legs.

He approached her with caution as if she was a strange animal. They stood facing each other. Nora’s wide eyes darkened. She felt him realizing that she wasn’t going to listen. Fragments of his thoughts wafted into her mind. There was a daughter, about her age, with black hair so long she could practically sit on it. There was an argument at the breakfast table. “Calmenté, Papi, I can go on my own,” and a chair pushed out with an abrupt squeak as the girl with the black hair stormed off. She could feel a white-hot pain radiating from his shoulder and the searing shame of a secret—he needed an operation. He hadn’t told his wife yet.

Nora shifted in the thicket. He attempted to shift with her to get in her way. There were more thoughts, this time more frantic, about how girls her age shouldn’t be in the woods by themselves. Nora was so tired of hearing about all the things girls her age weren’t supposed to be doing. She stood still for a moment—coiled, ready, then took a step forward.

She felt the hum burst through her chest, she saw Meg flung back against the white tiled wall, her blue eyes wide with surprise. She saw the ribbon of blood escape Meg’s nose.

As she moved past him, the man reached out with his disappointed arm and put his hand on her shoulder. He was touching her in that fake way that adults touch kids when they’re trying to pretend to care, but just want to corral them back into whatever they were running away from in the first place. Nora didn’t feel like being touched like that anymore. “Don’t touch me!” She cried. It came out louder than intended. Then she felt it again. The hum beneath her skin was nauseatingly strong this time as it burst through her and into him, a beam of concentrated energy that she couldn’t predict and couldn’t control.

She felt the jolt of shock go through him when he touched her, then his eyes went blank as he dropped to his knees in the thicket. I’m in big trouble now, Nora thought. There was nothing to do but bolt. As she ran from him, she felt a cool silence surround him, like the asphalt of a damp street after a thunderstorm—and then something curious. His arm. It didn’t hurt him anymore.

Nora had a very distinct feeling she was going to be caught if she didn’t slow down. She didn’t want to think about what would happen the next time somebody tried to stop her. Slowing down took effort, she had to will the soles of her feet to grow heavier and make more frequent contact with the pavement. She paused for a moment, anticipating the need to catch her breath, but it didn’t come.

*     *     *

Nora hadn’t woken up that morning intending to run away. The need came over her at morning recess while perched sentinel above the rest of the playground on the uneven bars. She knew she was too old to play on them, nobody else in eighth grade did, but she liked the vantage point being up high gave her.

She couldn’t stand the idea of going back into school, not after what had happened in the girl’s bathroom that morning. Nora thought of the thin rivulet of blood she’d seen pouring out of Meg Atkinson’s nose and the knowledge that, somehow, she had caused it. She thought of the look of panic on little Josie’s face when she saw it too and knew that it was Nora’s fault. Nora was usually the one locking herself in the bathroom stall with her feet propped up on the toilet until Meg and her friends receded to class. Not today though. Today they’d found Josie— a new sixth grade girl who’d cried on the first day of school and still wore Velcro sneakers—first, perched on a toilet seat with a pair of bloody underpants balled up in her hands. Meg stood above her, dangling a rough, generic school sanitary pad just out of her reach.

“Say ‘please’ like a big girl, Jo-Jo, and maybe we’ll give it to you,” Meg said, the collective laughter of her and her friends in a tone just low enough to avoid announcing their mischief to any nearby teachers. With her attention trained on Josie, Nora could have slipped in and out of the bathroom cubicles unnoticed that morning, if it weren’t for the look she’d seen on Josie’s face. The look, coupled with the hum pulsating beneath her skin, made her speak up once, then when she wasn’t listened to, again. The hum caught in her throat a moment as Meg turned to see her standing there, surprised to hear Nora Brown speaking up and that her voice sounded almost like a grown up’s. “What’s the matter, Nora? Do you need a pad too?” Meg asked. Nora could sense she was feeling a bit smaller than usual, and this feeling made the hum stronger.

“Nobody thinks you’re funny, Meg. Just give her the pad and shut up.” Nora could feel something rumbling through Meg—shame? The hum was ringing in her ears now, filling her up.

“And nobody cares what you think, Nora,” said Meg, grabbing up her confidence in frantic little fistfuls. “Why don’t you go back to being a loser and hanging out with your wino mom and your retarded little brother?”

For an instant, Nora flushed with shame. The wino mother—that she couldn’t defend. But that word Meg called Rory—Nora’s insides fizzed with rage. She opened her mouth to say, “He’s not—” but instead, a crack opened in her. She felt the hum burst through her chest, and she saw Meg flung back against the white tiled wall, her blue eyes wide with surprise. She saw the ribbon of blood escape Meg’s nose. I definitely did that, Nora thought. But how? She hadn’t lifted a hand.

The air in the girl’s bathroom was taut. Nobody moved. The sanitary pad lay in its protective wrapper on the white tile floor where Meg dropped it. Nora picked it up and offered it to Josie, who was still seated on the toilet clutching her stained underwear. Josie shrank as Nora came closer, snatching the pad from her outstretched hand, then swiftly yanking the cubicle door shut.

But why? I was just trying to help, thought Nora.

Then the school bell clanged and Meg’s friends filed soundlessly out of the bathroom, giving Nora a wide berth as they passed. Nora couldn’t help feeling sorry for Meg for a moment. What good was it having a posse of mindlessly loyal friends if they ditched you in a moment like this? Meg stood still against the bathroom wall, one finger dabbing at the blood trickling from her nose. By reflex, Nora moved to grab her a tissue from the dispenser, to say sorry, to make it go away. But the words vibrated in her ears again, and Nora decided that Meg did not need help from a loser girl with a wino mom and a retarded little brother. She left the bathroom, joining the crowd of students who were streaming outside for morning recess.

The moments flickered behind Nora’s eyes once more, like frames from a comic book. Did it really happen? And if it did, what did that make her?

She filed out into the schoolyard. Around her, her classmates moved in the same little dramas that played themselves out in fifteen-minute increments every day. Nora was surrounded by hundreds of other students slapping basketballs against the asphalt, waving the remains of packed lunches in little plastic baggies, weaving between each other in perpetual games of tag that nobody ever seemed to win. She wondered if any of them could feel it too—and if they did, were they afraid of her like Meg and Josie were?

Nora slid to the uneven bars, pulling herself up with an unusual feeling of springiness. There were so many people around her, so many noses to make bleed. And it could happen at any moment. When would the next one be? Nora felt the schoolyard rising around her like floodwater. She couldn’t stay, could she? Where would she go this time of day? She wanted to see her brother. There were rules about when it was okay to visit him, the way she spoke to him, and how she played with him—she hated that. She wanted to see Rory, and she was going to. She had a feeling that on the inside, Rory didn’t have ugly thoughts that nobody wanted to hear. She wouldn’t make Rory’s nose bleed.

Nora gripped the metal of the uneven bars and it vibrated against her fingertips.  This time she felt it reverberate in her brain too, a sickly-sweet bit of excitement that jarred her with its rightness. The hum filled her with confidence. It was decided. She was in charge now; she called the shots, and she wouldn’t be hiding in bathroom cubicles anymore. She was going to see her brother.

Nora hopped down from the uneven bars. She crossed the playground, each footstep creating mini-earthquakes only she could feel. She strode toward the woods behind the school, buoyant with her new power. Her heart rose, full as a helium balloon. And before she knew it, Nora Brown was running.

 

Alyssa Osiecki is an American fiction writer currently based in Scotland. Her work has been published in the United Kingdom in the From Arthur’s Seat anthology and in the online literary magazine The Selkie. Stateside, her work has appeared online in Rebelle Society and Matador Network. Catch her on her website, www.alyssaowrites.com.

The Jesus Christ of Henworth High

[fiction]

My name is Charlie Heron, and I am Jesus Christ.

*     *     *

Of course, you can’t possibly think that I’m telling the truth. Probably think I’m a tweaker or a schizo. But I mean, you can think what you want—I won’t judge. I’m Jesus, remember?

It’s the first day of my senior year at Henworth High, and I’m dressed in my usual garb—my long white robe. It isn’t as white as it used to be, more like an off-white-gray. It has definitely gotten dirtier over its everyday wear and tear, but I did collect a lot of patches on it. I put patches on my robe for every church I go to. I have a couple Catholic patches: Pope Francis and the Vatican. I have some Mormon temples and prophets. Got some Baptist crosses and doves and whatnot. My patch collection is growing; pretty soon my robe’s gonna be more patch than white. Besides, those patches really bring out my Rainbow sandals—they were the closest “Jesus-looking” sandals I could find without busting my bank. I also grew out my hair and facial hair as long as I could, this summer, to really sell it. Of course my facial hair looks like a bunch of straggly pubes. Does Jesus shave his pubes? I’ll Google it later. Point is, it’s senior year, and I gotta be the best Jesus I can be. And soon, I’m going to have to choose my successor. Someone has to be Jesus once I graduate.

I feel like, as Jesus, I automatically know everything. I’m one of the more radicalized Jesuses. I specialize mostly in parodying the man, but I respect his powers. His powers are what made him popular after all.

“Excuse me, uh, sir, we’re all out of sausage, do you want bacon instead?”

Totally forget I was at Denny’s. Dad and I used to come here every morning before my first day of school. I just sorta kept the tradition going, I guess.

“Bacon’s fine.”

Shit, look at the time. I hope she hurries up with my food. Jesus has places to be, people to bless. While I sit and wait, I take out my small, slightly waterlogged pocket Bible. It has a red cover with an inscription on the inside in gel pen: God only exists on Sundays. Sometimes I pretend to flip through it. I feel like, as Jesus, I automatically know everything. I’m one of the more radicalized Jesuses. I specialize mostly in parodying the man, but I respect his powers. His powers are what made him popular after all.

No one really got onto the Jesus train until my sophomore year. Freshmen year, everyone made fun of me and thought I was autistic or just mentally insane, but I stuck with my schtick. I wanted to be popular. Only by becoming popular would I be worth something. But I think that my idea of a worthy life is one that has grace to it—a life to create something weird and dark that makes people uncomfortable; that pushes me and everyone around me outside of it all. My life should be graceful, but I should not.

My dad was never graceful. He was a ruff n’ tough sort of guy who loved fishing more than anything. He also loved that I pretended to be Jesus. He thought it was the funniest thing.

He would buy me more patches if he found any.

*     *     *

The waitress was able to get me my food, but right as I was working on that last piece of bacon, the bus pulled up outside. I scrambled out of my seat and threw a crumpled ten-dollar spot on the table. Running in Rainbows isn’t that easy. I was about to cross the street, when I tripped up on the end of my robe and stumbled backwards. The bus roared away, unforgivingly, and I stood in the street, trying to figure out how the hell to get to school.

“Oi, Jesus!”

A call came from a big truck that pulled up next to me on the side of the road. It was none other than Miles Humann. Thick, luscious, junior-class hockey star, Miles Humann. Lord give me strength. You’d think with a name like that he’d act more human. But he’s animalistic. And I fucking love it.

“What do you want Miles?” I asked grudgingly, looking up at him as I adjusted my robe.

Miles let out a snicker and turned down his ungodly music, “Thought I’d stop and help a beggar.”

“You know damn well I’m Jesus.”

The overcompensation truck let out a roar from its engine and Miles swung open the door. “Come on,” he beckoned, continuing to push on the acceleration. “Let me take you for a ride.”

Humann does have a certain charm that I can’t resist. I climbed into the truck and we roared away. He turned up the knob on the radio:

“Can Jesus listen to rap?”

I shrugged and turned it up. “Jesus accepts the music of the world as good.”

Miles let out a deep laugh and we sped through the streets toward school. He began to rap along with the lyrics and turned to look at me during the red lights:

“Bow, get the fuck though, I don’t bluff, bro

Aimin’ at your head like a buffalo

You a roughneck, I’m a cutthroat

You’re a tough guy, that’s enough jokes.”

As a solid Christian man, I do not know how to bop along to these beats, but I tried anyway. I turned and smiled at Miles, bouncing my head to the music. But as I stared at him, I kept noticing the way his lips moved to the rap lyrics. God, he was making so many mistakes. I was a school-year above him, but he looked way older than me, and my god-graced body didn’t care. It liked it. It liked it a little too much. And my body reacted way harder than I expected. Humann pulled up at the school and we stepped out of his big ass truck together. I wanted to thank him for the ride, but I felt embarrassed to even look at him anymore.

He knows Jesus loves him.

*     *     *

Everyone began clapping and hollering as I glided down the hallways in my white robe and brown Rainbows.

“He has risen, bitches!” I yelled and my patrons went wild.

The school day dragged on, and it wasn’t until my Disciples gathered around me at lunchtime that I was itching to spill the news about my ride with Miles. Like the Original Jesus, I have twelve Disciples. I collected and groomed them throughout my four years of high school, and there was a high-intensity competition to see who got one of the twelve spots. Many applied, mostly to gain the popularity and the best seats at lunch. The first Disciple I chose was my good friend Jude Johns. Out of all my Disciples, I think Jude works harder than the rest. He tries to make a good connection with me, rather than just use me for my popularity, which is valuable in a Disciple.

My second-man in command, Jude Johns, whispered fervently in my ear as I passed around my Costco box of Uncrustables so each Disciple could have a sandwich.

“Your mum giving you a hard time lately?”

Once everyone received his sandwich, I picked mine up and took a big chunk out of it.

“Yeah, I don’t think she’ll ever let up.”

Jude synchronized his bites with mine. “That sucks, dude. But, hey, I heard Humann gave you a ride to school today!”

The boys continued to mingle and gossip about the latest stooges and jesters, but Jude and I have always had a stronger bond and better conversations. I took too big of a gulp of my sandwich and started to cough to push it down. “I—um,” I started, before breaking it up with coughs. “I got a boner in his truck.”

Jude slapped his hand on the table. “What?!”

His loud response triggered a chain reaction from the rest of the Disciples, and everyone started up at me, waiting for their lord and savior to speak.

“Yes, my Disciples,” I began, outstretching my legs and grabbing my package. “Jesus is well endowed.”

My Disciples cheered and I grinned back, fighting the urge to scream out for Miles. But I knew he was straight. Everyone did. But he wasn’t a dick about it. He’s known I’ve had a crush on him for the longest time. But he’s not a dick about it.

After school, I decided to take the bus home. I didn’t want to run into Miles again, because I was afraid that he noticed my boner from earlier. The bus driver let me on without having to scan my ID, and my schoolmates gave me the very back seat all to myself. The bus ride was bouncy, and the chipped fake brown leather on the bus seat rubbed against my robe in the most uncomfortable way. The bus dropped me off at home and I went inside and collapsed on the couch, opening up a can of Diet Mountain Dew.

“Charlie,” my mom’s voice was sharp and cold as she entered into the living room. “You have to quit this stupid act of yours.”

I wonder which friend of my mom’s saw me this time. I mumbled as quietly as I could, “It’s not an act.”

Mom began to raise her voice, as she ripped the soda can from my hand, spilling it all over my robe, “Don’t push it.”

I sat silently on the couch, feeling the residue of the Dew begin to stick up my fingers.

My mom stood overhead, overshadowing me with her bland, grayish figure.

“Dad didn’t care,” I told her, looking up at the shadow above.

“Your dad’s dead.”

As soon as she said that, I knew this conversation would go nowhere. I stood up to leave and as I began to walk past my mom, she gripped me hard by the shoulder.

“Go change.”

Refusing to look her in the eye, I made my way down the hall and slammed my door shut. I rustled through my closet to find my dad’s old pajama pants. I scrunched them up in a ball and held the bundle of cloth to my nose. I hadn’t washed them since he wore them. They still smell like honey-roasted peanuts. And both pockets still have the deep holes in them from the time he forgot to take out his fishing lures. Mom has been a real cunt since dad died. She blames everything on me. Because I was so “sacrilegious,” God made dad die in some freak fishing accident. There are days when it gets to me, like today. I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, it really is my fault.

I climbed in the back of the truck bed and curled up into a ball, gripping my knees tightly to my chest and praying to God that I wasn’t going to get crucified today.

The rest of the night brought me down into a continuous spiral of guilt. It got to the point where I couldn’t stomach it anymore and I went downstairs to the basement. There were stacks and stacks of Mountain Dew cases, all different flavors, piled up on top of each other in the corner. My dad used to drink five a day. I drink it now, but I add something else to it. Behind the cases of Mountain Dew, I dragged out an opened brown box that was full of quilted blankets and musty-smelling stuffed animals. After digging through the box, I found my bottle of vodka wrapped inside a poorly made Hot Wheels quilt my dad made. Instantly, I chugged half a can of Mountain Dew and poured vodka into the rest of the can. After about two Dew-vodkas, I already started to feel inebriated.

I went back into my room and locked the door, pushing my dresser in front of it, so my mom wouldn’t burst through. My phone lit up in my hands as I scrolled my way through Instagram, looking at all of Miles’ pictures. He’s only a junior this year, and he has an average of 200 likes per photo. ​That ​is popularity.

Before I continued my deep dive of Humann’s pictures for the fifth time this year, I went over to my dresser and pulled out a tube of lotion. I collapsed sloppily back onto my bed, feeling the room and the lights dance around my mind like a concert.

One hand kept scrolling, as the other lubed up my other hand, and I started masturbating.

This Jesus doesn’t have a Virgin Mary. This Jesus doesn’t want one. This one wants Miles Humann. Miles Humann was so fucking hot. My heart started thumping wildly and then my drunk ass got a terribly great idea. I turned my phone on its camera and began to record myself.

“This is what I want to put in you Miles,” I breathed heavily, smelling remnants of Mountain Dew Code Red and cheap vodka.

I showed off my dick on my phone’s camera. I showed it erect, naked, and big in my hand. And I kept filming.

“Miles Humann,” I moaned, biting my lip and rubbing my cock up and down, faster and harder. “Fuck—,” I paused and came on camera. “—me,” I finished.

The next thing I knew, I was asleep. When I woke up the next morning, I felt as if I had been pummeled in the head. A searing migraine and nausea crept up within me. My eyes looked down to see my butt-naked ass and dry, crusted-over cum all over my sheets. I vaguely remembered filming a video of myself, but that was it.

Despite my mom hating my Jesus attire and attitude, I continued to do it. I dressed back up in my robe and Rainbows and headed to school. The day was normal enough. Unfortunately, I only saw Miles once in the hallway, but he smiled and waved at me like he usually does. At lunch, Jude sat down next to me as per usual and I admitted my sinful, drunken mistake.

“NO WAY?!” Jude exclaimed, looking me up and down, as if I would do it again, right here, right now.

I let out a slow release of air. “I was drunk, my Disciple. Drunk and in love.”

We talked for a couple minutes about my masturbation video, and how I wanted to delete it but didn’t at the same time. And then, right before lunch was over, Jude asked me the strangest question:

“After you graduate this year, can I be the next Jesus?”

I looked my friend dead in the eye. “You can’t just be​ Jesus, Jude. You gotta be picked by God to be Jesus.”

Jude’s facial expression made me realize I had pissed him off.

“Come off it,” he bugged. “You don’t believe that you’re actually—”

I stood up and walked away from him. I didn’t feel like dealing with Jude’s outrageous question. All I wanted right now was to go home and watch a soap opera with my dad. But he’s gone. He’s gone and maybe my mom’s righ—

“Jesus Christ, is that you?” Miles ran over towards me, interrupting my own train of thought.

I could only manage to give him a weak smile this time.

Miles seemed to notice my change in pace. “Why aren’t you sitting with your Disciples, my Lord?”

“Jude has betrayed me.”

Humann began to laugh and shook me playfully by the shoulders. “Hahahaha, goddamn, Jesus, even I saw that coming.”

He left his hands on my shoulders for a second and I immediately felt okay again.

“Miles,” I began, trying to sound more confident than I seemed. “Can you come with me to the lake today?”

My question definitely changed Miles’ nature into one that was more serious and stoic.

He knew that’s where my dad died.

Humann gave me a nod and whispered, “Meet me after school. We’ll go together.”

We parted ways and I started to walk towards my fifth period class. As soon as I sat down in calculus, I became overwhelmed with a gut-wrenching feeling. I didn’t have Miles’ number. Where would I meet him? What if he thinks we’re meeting in one place, but it’s the wrong one? What if he forgets? Leaves?

I pulled out my phone and hid it underneath my notebook in class. Jude tapped me on the back; he happened to sit behind me in calc.

“Hey,” he whispered, pulling his body more forward so I could hear. “Sorry about lunch.”

But my mind had long forgotten about Jude’s lunch scandal. Now, it was focused on getting Miles’ number. I didn’t respond to Jude’s apology, but stared anxiously at my phone.

“You alright?” Jude asked, obviously aware that I seemed out of it.

I shook my head at him and tilted my head back, “M-miles and I are going somewhere after school and I forgot to get his number.”

Jude gave me a blank stare for a couple of seconds and then replied, “I have it.”

My heart leapt and I immediately handed Jude my phone.

“Do you want me to text him for you?” Jude asked, taking a much longer time with my phone than I wanted him to.

“Okay, give it back now,” I said sternly.

But Jude’s fingers kept typing away.

“Give it back!”

I sharply ordered him once again, and he handed my phone back. But as he did, I heard the whoosh of the text message sound. Jude had sent something. Frantically, I pulled up the message. The contact name just said “Miles” and the first message was the video. My hand-job video.

As loudly as I could, I yelled, “What the fuck?”

Usually as Jesus, I would forgive and forget. But not this. Never this. I stood up and tipped my desk over, swinging my fist at Jude, who barely tucked his head away. The teacher instantly got involved and pulled me off of him and nearly had to drag me away, as I screamed and yelled, tears burning down my face:

“I fucking hate you! I FUCKING HATE YOU!”

The teacher led me to the principal’s office, and I stood outside its doors, heaving heavily, feeling the urge to punch through the wall and kick Jude in the balls. How could he do this to me? Just because I wouldn’t let him be the next Jesus? Had this been his plan all along—to pretend to be such a good friend, just so he could become the next Savior? As I thought more and more about it, the angrier I got. I checked my phone and saw that the message had been sent, but there had been no reply. Jude Johns was the fucking devil.

I gave up waiting for the principal and I ran down the hallway, my Rainbows clacking hard against the shiny tiles. I swung open the double doors to the school and hurried down the steps. Right before I could leave the parking lot, I saw Miles’s big truck parked right up front. I thought about hiding in the truck bed, just waiting until he came out so I could explain to him how sorry I was. I didn’t know if that would be a good idea or a terrible one. So I did it anyway. I climbed in the back of the truck bed and curled up into a ball, gripping my knees tightly to my chest and praying to God that I wasn’t going to get crucified today.

When the final bell rang, my body felt paralyzed. I was completely frozen in fear. I checked my phone and there still had been no response to the awful video. He had to have opened it though. There’s no way he didn’t.

I heard Humann’s voice approaching the truck and I slowly sat up.

“Whoa,” he yelled, backing up, “Christ, what the hell?”

My eyes started pouring out tears and Miles jumped up into the truck bed.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he soothed, putting his hand on my shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

It took a while for me to reply to him, “J-Jude sent you, um…, this video of me, and I’m so sorry. You were never meant to see that.”

Humann fished his phone out of his pocket and handed it over to me.

“The passcode is 7743.”

I put in his passcode and the phone unlocked.

“I haven’t looked at my messages since lunch,” he told me quietly. “Go ahead and delete whatever it was he sent.”

Without much thinking on my part, I threw my arms around him, hugging him tightly to my chest, crying to him words of gratitude. But when I opened up his messages, I didn’t see anything from my number. No recent texts either.

I gave him back his phone. “I guess it didn’t send,” I quietly whispered in unbelief. “I swear I thought it did.”

Miles shrugged and hopped out of the truck.

“By God’s good grace!” He shouted and lifted me out of the truck bed.

We grinned at each other and got into his truck. Humann and I drove with the windows down towards the lake, listening to the wind and the bugs near the water as we got closer and closer. Miles didn’t put on music for this ride. He knew I wanted it silent. Once we parked, we got out and stood by the shoreline. We were quiet.

I looked back out at the lake my dad drowned in. The water was brown and ugly. People tossed their old McDonald’s Big Mac wrappers into it. No one is allowed to swim here, but you can fish. My dad fished here, but nobody likes this lake.

I stood and looked out. A dead fish floated on top of the brown water. It was one of those common silver ones that fishermen throw back. I watched as the water rippled under the fish, not caring if it pushed it one way or the other. The fish was gonna dip down eventually. My Rainbows started to sink into the gravelly sand, with the water dangerously approaching the bare tips of my toes. A couple gnats spritzed past my head and one tickled at the edge of my nose. Miles came up to me and offered me a cigarette. He pulled out his lighter and lit it. I could feel the extreme warmth of the tobacco as it pressed up against my lips. This was what I needed—to be here—with Miles—with my dad.

Suddenly, my phone began to buzz. It was an incoming phone call, but it was coming from Miles? I looked down at it with a confused expression and showed it to Humann. He reached in his pocket and took out his phone, but no call came up.

Now I was really confused. Did Jude put in the wrong number?

Whose number did he put in?

My heart skipped a beat.

Whose number did he put in?

I answered the call.

My mom’s voice echoed out, cold and maliced, “Come home.”

I wasn’t sure if I should leave or wait. Wait for what—I don’t know. To be sure maybe?

Maybe she didn’t watch it? My fingers began to twitch. I didn’t know what to do. Jude put Miles’s name in place of my mom’s name. He edited my mom’s contact information and changed it to say “Miles.” She saw the fucking video. She saw the fucking video. Today’s the day I’m getting crucified. I’ll be dead for three days. Maybe she’ll beat me. Mom’s never beaten me before, but she just might start. She didn’t know I was gay, at least I didn’t think she did. Now besides pretending to be Jesus, she’s going to chew me out for being gay too.

I didn’t know how to respond to her; I could hear her breathing on the other line.

“Mom, I—”

The line cut off.

Miles turned and looked at me, his face white, the tips of his ears red.

I looked back out at the lake my dad drowned in. The water was brown and ugly. People tossed their old McDonald’s Big Mac wrappers into it. No one is allowed to swim here, but you can fish. My dad fished here, but nobody likes this lake. Nobody really comes here anymore. It used to be better; at least that’s what dad told me. I remember when they pulled him out of the water. His eyes were squirmy. They knew things that I didn’t want to fucking know. I didn’t want to know those stupid fucking things. My hand dipped into the gravel and I chucked a rock out into the brown stagnant water. It bubbled and sank. Bubbled and sank. Just like him.

My mom waited up for me to come home. Miles drove me to the grocery store to pick up some flowers for her and some beer for me. Miles had a fake ID, which came in handy. When Humann dropped me off at my front door, I turned to look at him.

“It’s you.”

Miles’s eyes blinked with a hint of fear. “W-what do you mean?”

I smiled up at him. “After I graduate, you’re gonna be the next Jesus Christ of Henworth High.”

Humann looked shocked but in a good way. I don’t think he was expecting that response to, “It’s you.”

My friend Miles stuck out his hand for me to shake and he pulled me into a hug.

We sat there for a while with the engine running, holding each other.

“I’ll pray for you,” he whispered, before letting go of me.

I got out of the car and gave him a final wave. “I’ll pray for you too.”

And I began to make my way inside, walking directly towards my inevitable cross.

 

Christina Paries currently lives in Salt Lake City, UT, with her girlfriend, and works as a preschool teacher. She recently graduated from Utah Valley University with a BS in English with a creative writing emphasis. This piece is influenced by contemporary LGBTQ+ issues, which have been explored throughout her other works. Her background in teaching middle and high school students has led her to write for a young adult audience.

Swimming Lessons

[fiction]

Stage One—Let Go of Your Fear

Start out in shallow, warm waters. If you’re learning to swim where there’s a current, be aware of the flow. If you insist on learning to swim this way, make sure you’re with someone who knows what she’s doing. Try floating. Try breathing underwater. Don’t panic. Wear goggles if you must.

*     *     *

There is beauty everywhere, and my desire runs as deep as the depths of this hidden cove. Sophie’s hair is a perfect disaster. The wind we paddled through has whipped her auburn curls into a frenzy, and we’ve laughed so hard she’s forgotten to care. She’s always freer when she thinks no one’s watching.

I mean. Gah. The first time she caught me watching her in the library, when we were supposed to be working on our essays for English Lit, I almost swallowed my tongue. A crimson blush rushed across her freckled cheeks, and the pencil she’d been mindlessly tapping against her chin dimple stopped as she lost track. But she didn’t look away, and I knew. Her stomach was taking that same plunge into wild. We were simply a matter of time.

Our gazes lock as I walk toward her. She bites her bottom lip. I work my fingers through her tangles. She lets her head drop back. I want to delve into the heated hollow of softly scented skin just above her collarbone, leave a trail of tiny kisses in my wake.

It took two months for her to break up with Andrew, two weeks for me to convince her it was okay to go with the flow, and two days to convince our parents to let us camp overnight.

With capable strokes, we pull up as close as we can to the outflow of Granite Falls. A sea cucumber floats by, and I flick the phallic form toward her with the tip of my paddle.

She almost tips her kayak in surprise. “What the hell is that?”

I arch one eyebrow and slide her an evil grin. “More of the local marine life. Not nearly as impressive as the seals at Silver Falls, but still. Thought you’d want me to point it out.”

“Yeah. Nope.” More of her delightful laughter cascades down my spine. “Let’s hope we don’t run into any more of those.”

Preach.

And we’re lucky. A scan of the shore reveals we’re all alone. We drag our kayaks across the stones with tired arms to a site midway between the falls and the shoreline, with two trees the perfect distance apart to sling the double hammock I’ve optimistically secreted away in my pack.

We drop our gear and the first of our inhibitions. A quick text to the parentals, and we’re truly, finally here. Behind us, water cascades over rock. Below, it laps against the beach. Sophie stands, her hands bunched up into the ends of her sleeves, in the middle of our site. Our gazes lock as I walk toward her. She bites her bottom lip. I work my fingers through her tangles. She lets her head drop back. I want to delve into the heated hollow of softly scented skin just above her collarbone, leave a trail of tiny kisses in my wake.

But I don’t and she sighs—the sound a soft caress. Awe prickles through my body. I wonder. Is it now? Are we finally in the moment where we take our explorations to the next step? My fingers graze the swooped curve at the top of her left breast, and she inhales. Sharp.

“Let’s climb to the top of the falls before it gets too dark,” she says.

I want to tell her we can make the climb in the morning. I want to flutter my eyes closed against her earlobe and breathe her in. But I have no clue how to tell her no.

“Sure. Okay.”

*     *     *

Stage Two—Learn How to Tread Water

Sink, then let yourself float back up. Flutter kick your legs and stay in place. Let your arms push against the water in a circular motion, back and forth. Back and forth.

*     *     *

The way up seems longer and more precarious than I remember. I can’t take my eyes off her as she scrambles ahead of me over moss coated boulders, in the shadows of old growth cedars, through the scent of forest green. Her legs. Her shoulder blades. The curve of her upper thigh. I let my imagination wander along each soft surface, dreaming of how my fingers will do the same.

It’s hard to catch my breath.

By the time we reach the top, I’m desperate to ask for what I want. No more of this teasing game we’ve been playing. But it has to be Sophie who’s ready. I know how important it is to let her set the pace. She’s never been here before and I’m doing my best to honor that. In one way, I haven’t either. I mean, I’ve never wanted someone so much it hurts. My chest is unfamiliar with this ache of holding desire at bay.

She lifts her hair up off the back of her neck, leans against a wall of rock, and scans a shallow pool. It’s full of eddies and froth, carved out centuries ago by the water that now crashes down in a glistening white sheet a mere ten feet away. The sun’s August rays shine thick and hot. “Do you think it’s safe to swim?”

I nod, slow, and tip my chin to the spot where the water drops over a precipice to another deeper pool below. “As long as we keep away from that edge.”

Her eyes hold mine as she kicks off her shoes and peels her yoga pants off. I pull the hem of my tank up over my face, relish the stretch in my shoulders as I lift it over my head. We’re quickly stripped down to our bikinis. What’s left of our inhibitions barely clings to our skin.

I motion toward a cave carved into the rock, a fallen cedar trunk leaning over the entrance to the dark.

She dips a toe in—“No effing way”—and then inches into the freezing water by infinitesimal degrees.

Already ahead, I hold out my hand to her and wait. “Trust me.”

She smiles. Laughs. Finally, wades through the swirling water. Finally, twines her fingers through mine. “I do. I’m not so sure about the bats.”

“Then we’ll have to be quiet,” I say, and squeeze her hand tight as we leave the sunlight behind.

When I pull her body to me in the cool dark, I wonder whether her shivers stem from the water lapping at our knees or the same reasons as mine. We wrap our arms around one other. Her hands rest tentative and cool on the side of my jaw and the nape of my neck, and mine pull against the small of her back. Her lips are soft and warm.

*     *     *

Stage Three—Practice More Advanced Techniques

It’s time. Be aware of rocks below, but if its safe, try diving in! Float on your back, then kick your feet. Circle each arm up over your head, then move it down your body, pushing the water toward your feet. This is the back crawl. The front crawl is similar, but you’ll need to moderate your breathing by turning your head to the side to inhale.

*     *     *

We wind our way back down the path, lighter on our feet. I’m ecstatic to discover we still have the entire place to ourselves. The sun’s dropped behind the hills, leaving our campsite in a shadow beneath an increasingly indigo sky. Even if we changed our minds about camping out, it’s too late to head home. Kayaking in the dark is never safe, and I promised Mom and Dad we wouldn’t take any stupid risks.

I watch her search the sky for the first elusive star. I know what I’m wishing for and pray she hopes for the same.

“Are you hungry?” I ask.

The world sways, and our laughter skips over the rocks all the way to the water and over the waves. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than her joy.

“Starved.”

Sophie unpacks the picnic as I secure the hammock and garnish it with a cozy quilt—soft and dry, fresh from the zip-lip bag I’d stashed at the end of my kayak’s rear compartment. I scan the cloudless sky and pray I won’t regret the decision to forgo a tarp.

“Did you seriously pack us chocolate covered almonds for supper?” she asks.

“Your favorite source of protein.” Who can blame her, really? “And strawberries. With one of those cans of whip cream for dessert.”

“Oh my god. I love…” She hesitates, two beats that steal my breath, “…that stuff.”

Sigh. “I know.”

I know everything about her, or at least as much as I can. I know the tension she carries in her shoulders every time she comes out to someone new, and how to massage her worry away. She likes puppies (who doesn’t?), especially their breath. And purple. And peeled apples. Hot coffee, but iced tea. She reads—mostly fantasy, with a smidgen of romance—and bends the corners of pages, unapologetically, to keep her place. Her musical taste runs to acoustic guitar accompanied by sexy, swoony voices, crooning deep.

But I don’t know how to take the next step. Surprisingly, she takes it for me. With the bag of almonds in one hand, the container of strawberries in the other, and the can of whipped cream tucked under her arm, she makes her way over to the hammock and stands there, trying to solve the complex problem of how to climb in with a modicum of grace. “This should be interesting.”

This, I can show her. Behold, the master at work. “Here. Stand beside me.” I maneuver us in front of the webbing and gently lift the hammock almost vertical behind us, careful not to tip out the quilt. “Okay. Now we both sit, then swing our legs up. On three. One, two,…”

We lean back together, dive in. Somehow, we end up with our heads on opposite sides, our legs entangled. The world sways, and our laughter skips over the rocks all the way to the water and over the waves. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than her joy.

Dusk turns to darkness, the sky becomes freckled in endless pinpoints of light. There’s nothing simple about movement in a hammock; it takes an effort not to fall. But as we tumble closer and closer together, delightfully trammeled, Sophie slowly becomes unshackled from restraint. Chocolate and strawberries, an echo on her tongue. My hand skims the skin of her midriff, the back of her knuckles rest lightly on my cheek. I wander my fingers downward—beneath the waistband of her leggings—and am rewarded with a thirsty, soft gasp.

Craving overwhelms me. To taste more of this pleasure. More of this heat. She shimmies her hips, deliciously, and finally helps me drag the fabric further down.

And, oh. Oh. My lips trip the hip fantastic, dance swiftly across her inner thigh.

This.

This is diving deep. Her gasps swell to panting, to cries that crest and fall. Lapping. Lingering. We’re holding tight and letting go, until the water falling over rocks no longer muffles her crescendoed cries.

*     *     *

Stage Four—Be Prepared for Unlikely Situations

Don’t ever swim alone. Ensure you have someone nearby who can throw you a floatation device if you’re in too deep.

*     *     *

And now I’ve really fallen. I’m drowning. Drenched in love.

“Holy hell,” she whispers.

Her words blaze across the night.

 

Gracie West is a teacher, a creative, a romantic, and a card-carrying member of team INFJ.

Theodore Draws Wolves

[fiction]

Theodore Loupeson’s feet dangled from the straight-backed chair across the desk from Headmaster Clay. Rain battered against the windows of the Briarwright school for boys—runoff poured from the granite lips of gargoyles onto November-bare rose bushes below.

“Theodore.” Headmaster Clay slid a mess of papers onto the desk. “Let’s take a look at your work, shall we?”

Theodore’s work consisted largely of mathematics exercises, half-finished. On the backs of the pages, and in the margins, he had drawn wolves in delicate black ink—remarkably realistic wolves that slithered between the notations and howled at hole-punch moons.

“What do we have here, Theodore?”

“Mathematics, sir.”

“We might have mathematics if you didn’t spend all your time drawing these silly beasts. Have you seen your marks lately? Do you think your education’s some kind of jest?”

Theodore stared at his lap. “No, sir.”

“Do you have any idea why your mother sent you here?”

“So I can study mathematics.”

“And why does she wish for you to study mathematics?”

“So I don’t… so I don’t end up like my father.”

“Your father. A-ne’er-do well in debtor’s prison, I do believe.”

Theodore shook his head. “No!”

Headmaster Clay leaned over the desk. “Excuse me?”

“My father’s dead. The hunter shot him.”

Headmaster Clay exhaled slowly. “Are we really still nursing this infantile fantasy that your father was a wolf?”

Theodore remained silent.

“Your mother will be dreadfully disappointed in you, Theodore. For multiple accounts.”

 

When Theodore was seven, according to his mother, he had been kidnapped. As he recalled the occasion, he’d been picking white strawberries at the edge of the orchard when a wolf approached him and asked if its gravelly wolf-voice if he would like to come to live in the hills.

 

Theo was a quiet boy with middle-parted hair, wet socks, small frame, who talked to himself. His mother, dropping him off at Briarwright, had used the word “unhinged” to describe his recent behavior to the headmaster. Later, she realized he might have overheard. He had overheard. He wore the word as a curse and a badge.

That night he left. He wanted to go home. Into his bookbag, he packed three pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear, a tin of ginger biscuits, all his pocket money, a thermos of tea, and a box of drawing charcoal. At one in the morning when the Nightwatch went on his smoking break, Theo snuck out into the night. The rain had stopped. Everything smelled of petrichor and ozone. Big clouds hurried overhead. Freedom hit him in the lungs as he scurried to the trainyard at the edge of town. For an hour he crouched in the tall thistles, where broken bottles gleamed like onyx in the moonlight, and watched the men move about the tracks, carrying crates of cargo.

Four months ago, when Theodore had first arrived in the station on the train, a steel fence had separated the tracks from the yard. Now the fence had been removed, melted down for the war effort, replaced by flimsy chainlink, already torn in places. When the tracks were clear, Theodore wriggled through one of these holes and slipped aboard a cargo car. At a quarter past three in the morning the train rattled to life. He nuzzled into a bushel of coarse fabric (parachutes he wondered), watched the moon follow the car through a slat in the siding, nibbling the ginger biscuits. Eventually, he fell asleep.

When he woke the train had stopped moving. Thin morning light flooded through the slats. Stiffly, he poked his head out. All clear. He hopped out of the car to see what town he was in.

Not a town at all, it turned out—just a railway junction at the edge of a forest of pines. Theodore shouldered his bag and stared into the trees, which creaked and sang in the wind, ruffling shaggy shadows through their branches. I should be brave now, he thought, because he had read enough stories about children in forests to know that he had to be brave, whatever that meant, though grown-ups rarely rewarded bravery in children. The train blew its whistle and rumbled out of the yard. Watching it leave, Theo was half-relieved he wouldn’t have to sneak aboard again. He turned into the woods. Pine needles brushed soft underfoot. Sap dripped from diseased trunks. The white-bright sun promised warmth that it didn’t quite deliver. As he wandered, he could hear woodpeckers in the canopy but he only caught a glimpse of one specimen: red underwings flitting between boughs.

When Theodore was seven, according to his mother, he had been kidnapped. As he recalled the occasion, he’d been picking white strawberries at the edge of the orchard when a wolf approached him and asked in its gravelly wolf-voice if he would like to come to live in the hills. The day before, Theodore had gotten in an argument with another boy in his class, and the boy challenged him to a duel and said he would bring his grandfather’s sword from the French-and-Indian war to skewer him. If he went with the wolf, he would not have to go to school and get skewered, so he said yes and clambered onto the wolf’s muscular back and twisted his fists into its greasy grey mane. The wolf ran over the ridge, into the hills. It let him down at a den lined with soft grasses. Later that afternoon the wolf brought back a rabbit to eat and set a portion in front of him. It was raw. He wouldn’t eat it, so the wolf left again and came back with a box of matches he’d stolen from outside a farmhouse. Theo lit a fire and roasted the rabbit. The rabbit came out burned and bleeding and tasted wonderful.

All spring he played in and around the den, sometimes alone, sometimes with the wolf, who could not play games with sticks and stones and leaves because he had no thumbs, but knew all kinds of hiding-and-running-and-searching games. Sometimes wolf pups from a nearby litter came by, and Theodore played with them too. He got nipped, and at first, he cried out, but with time the nips only raised the stakes of the game, and he nipped back too. His wolf curled up with him at night to keep him warm. The wolf said, I will always protect you.

They lived like that for eight weeks, until a night when there were voices in the night that weren’t cicadas, but barks and gunshots. Men in heavy canvas pants and sweating armpits hoisted Theodore from the den and pushed him onto the back of a horse with his arms wrapped around the waist of a constable, who took him back to his mother who loved him with ferocity and vanilla and hot baths and at first she frightened him and later he frightened her with his calm grieving and recounting of events. His mother insisted that he had been kidnapped by his-ne’er-do-well father, a debtor and petty thief who wanted domain over the boy—that he had been recovered from his father’s greasy grasp and the father placed in debtor’s prison.

That summer, Theo had begun drawing wolves. He didn’t get angry when his mother challenged him, but he didn’t back down either. So she had decided it was some devilry his father had put into him and sent him off to Briarwright to study mathematics in the hopes of one day becoming a logical and healthy member of society.

Theodore ate the rest of his ginger biscuits and drank the rest of his tea by lunchtime. He wished he had some idea of where he was going. Eventually, the woods thinned he saw a church spire—a town, how fortuitous. It was a small town with just a greengrocer, a butcher, some kind of pub, a well where a girl in red wellingtons stood filling a chipped pitcher with water.

“You came from the woods,” she said. She was exceedingly tall and bony, like a bird. “I watched you come.”

Theo nodded.

“You don’t live here.”

“No.”

“You know what they say.” She sipped from the lip of the pitcher, lowering the water level enough to carry it without spilling. “I shouldn’t be talking to you. I shouldn’t be talking to anyone I don’t know. You could be the man in the dark felt hat. Well. Not really. You’re too small. Still.”

Theodore, dreadfully curious, struggled to maintain a neutral tone. “Who’s that?”

“No one knows, really. I heard he was some kind of German spy, but I don’t think it can be true. If he was a German spy, he’d be lying low, not prowlin’ up and down the countryside terrorizin’.”

“Terrorizin’?”

 

He did not like the feeling of being alone in the house, so he took the charcoal from his bag and drew wolves on the walls – huge, loping wolves with wind-burnished fur and long snouts, tails streaming behind them – he drew and drew until he was circled by wolves, his protectors, then he lay down on the master bed on the third floor and stared at the ceiling and breathed deliberately until he fell asleep.

 

“My mother wouldn’t tell me the details but Agatha, my friend from school, says he drags people underground and then stuffs rags in their throats and puts them on a spit and roasts them till they’re crisp.”

Theodore considered this, thought about the rabbit he had eaten. “That’s wicked,” he said. “Do you know where there might be a bakery? I’m awfully hungry.”

She pointed him toward the bakery, where he bought a roll of bread, then plums and cheese at the greengrocer, and sat on the steps of the church to eat. Afterwards, he followed the road out of town. Where it veered north into a farmer’s field, he struck out into the woods. The trees were centuries-old, memory-gnarled, scarred with lightning. It grew dark. Theodore shivered. He should have stayed in town for the night, he thought.

Perhaps the man in the felt hat was behind these very trees, waiting with a string garrote and a butcher’s knife. Unhinged, he remembered his mother whispering. I do believe he’s unhinged. Unhinged people ended up like that, stuffing their victims’ mouths with wadded-up rags and newspapers. Guilt poured over Theodore like a summer rain, chilling him, but leaving him sticky. He hoped his unhinged-ness would be a kind of kinship with the man in the dark felt hat—maybe he wouldn’t hurt him.

He didn’t quite believe that.

He came to a clearing. A house stood in the center of the clearing: peeling cream clapboard, turrets, huge bay windows, a sagging second-story balcony, steep gabled roof plush with moss.

No one had been home for a long time. Theodore tiptoed room to room over wide floorboards hewn from ancient oak.

He did not like the feeling of being alone in the house, so he took the charcoal from his bag and drew wolves on the walls—huge, loping wolves with wind-burnished fur and long snouts, tails streaming behind them. He drew and drew until he was circled by wolves, his protectors, then he lay down on the master bed on the third floor and stared at the ceiling and breathed deliberately until he fell asleep.

Three o’clock in the morning, Theodore dreamed of a creaking downstairs. He woke and lay shivering. The creaking continued, footsteps, then a snarl, then a howl, a crescendo of paws on wood, a thrashing, a man’s voice—

Theodore rolled from the bed, veins hot with fear, ran up the staircase, into the attic, where he crouched between old suitcases and slings of cobwebs. Growls and yells reverberated from downstairs. Then there were noises Theo didn’t have words for. Then Quiet.

Theo stayed upstairs until the sun rose out of the pines and struck the thick glass of the attic windows. He crept back down the stairs, quiet as a ghost, into the drawing room.

The table lay overturned, the sofa ripped, a chair with legs broken off.

A tatter of dark felt. A smear of blood.

The wolves on the walls held the positions he had drawn them in. But they weren’t the same. Their snouts were tacky with blood and their bellies looked full.

 

Elizabeth Wing is an undergraduate at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in 21 journals and venues including Hanging Loose, Euphony: Prose and Poetry of the University of Chicago, Jet Fuel Review, Defiant Scribe, and is forthcoming in The West Marin Review. Her short story “Leda’s Daughters” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Gordon Square Review. She describes her literary aesthetic as “cherry blossoms and dead whales.”