Ayesha’s Dream

Listen. . .

On a velvety night in a desert land, a cool wind moved among dunes and glided into a small village. The curious wind lifted the long limbs of the date palm trees, touched the donkey’s fur in the stable, and poked through the open window of Ayesha’s room in her family’s house. The wind circled the room quietly, then with a rustle and a sigh slipped out the window.

In her bed, Ayesha dreamed. What was she dreaming of? The ocean, although the most water Ayesha had ever seen was in the small buckets drawn glistening from the village’s deep black well. Earlier that day her father had told her stories of the great sea—giant waves, and whales as big as dunes, and strange fish, and sailors on boats riding the sea’s broad back.

So, while the wind whispered through the dark village, Ayesha dreamed of traveling to the water beyond the desert. She picked up a flat loaf of bread, in case she got hungry on her trip, and slipped from her house. Everything was quiet outside and glowed in silvery light.

“Where are you going?” A kangaroo rat sat up on her legs, sniffing the air.

“I am going to see the Ocean,” Ayesha replied.

“Do you know which way to go?”

“Well, no, I don’t.” Ayesha stopped, realizing she had not thought about which direction to walk.

The rat hopped into the air, then her bright eyes spied the brown loaf Ayesha carried.

“I’m amazed, simply amazed, I can see that you will need help. It’s quite a walk.  Is that bread for your journey?”

“Yes.”

“Not just any bread will do, you know? Let me have a piece to see if it’s the right bread. Yes, bread for long trips must be special.”

Ayesha was puzzled. “Why?”

The rat blinked twice, sputtering, “Why, you ask, why? Oh, my word, it has to be. . .very white, because if it were not, it would be. . .dark.  And my oh my, dark bread, you”―the rat stopped, then leaped into the air―”you would lose it in the sand, yes, unless it is white it will blend in with the sand. Give me a piece so I can examine it properly. Please.”

Ayesha tore a small piece and placed it before the rat, who lifted it in her tiny pink claws to peer at it closely with one eye.

“Hmm,” the rat muttered, “yes,” taking a bite, “I think this bread is sufficiently white.”  In a flash, she had eaten the small piece.

“Do you know where the Ocean is?” Ayesha asked, as the rat stroked her whiskers and combed the fur on her cheeks.

“Well, I just might. I can see that you will need some pointers regarding the Ocean.” The rat eyed the moist bread Ayesha was tucking into a fold of her djellaba.  “Maybe I should travel with you for a bit, to make sure you get off on the right path. I think I shall, because, after all, I am a mother and must help you, child of another mother.”

“Thank you, that would be kind. May I know your name? What should I call you?”

“Well, Bibi is my name. I am Bibi.”

Ayesha introduced herself, then said, “Which way do we travel to reach the great Ocean?”

Bibi stood on her hind legs, took a sniff, and spoke solemnly.

“We must go that way to reach the Ocean most quickly,” pointing with her sharp pink nose to the end of the path, past the last house. The rat scuttled over and stopped at Ayesha’s side, looking up. “Let’s go, for we have a long walk. . .”

“Wake up, my flower, it is morning. Time to get out of bed, my sleepy dove.”  Ayesha’s mother bent down, smiling, her cool hand touching Ayesha’s cheek.

*     *     *

The bucket banged against Ayesha’s leg as she shuffled to the well. However, before she could even see the well she heard voices.

“What will I do for my meals, with the husband’s brother visiting today?”

“Why, I could barely get half a bucket yesterday!”

“My sister dreamed this would happen, two nights ago.”

The well was surrounded by women talking, their dark djellabas flapping as their hands flew like excited birds, bracelets ringing. Ayesha stopped and listened more, then ran all the way home, her bucket banging against her legs.

“The well has run dry! There is no more water!”

*  *  *

In the shade of a date palm the village council addressed the villagers, saying the well diggers had been sent for. “We did not watch carefully for the signs, and our well has left us dry. We must guard each drop left as if it were a jewel, until our new well gives us water.”

Words flew deep into the night as the villagers talked and talked. Lying in bed, Ayesha drifted as if on water, the voices like waves that kept coming and coming. After her house and the village turned quiet and slept, Ayesha rose up, gathered a half loaf of bread and slipped out to sit under the moon, as she had the night before in her dream.  Her parents would scold her if they knew, asleep behind their striped curtain. But things were serious, and she wanted to think.

As Ayesha sat at the top of a dune, eating and wishing she knew how to help the village, a kangaroo rat appeared, hopping up the dune. Ayesha watched, and then, it spoke to her.

“Hello again, Ayesha, mother’s daughter. Do you still wish to visit the Ocean?”

It was Bibi, the rat from her dream! Ayesha was excited, but then remembered.

“No, I can’t, the village well is dry, and we must find new water. Mother worries that the well diggers will have cloudy eyes and see no place to dig.  What will we do?”

The rat laughed a little and chittered, but did not stop her hopping, enjoying the circle she made in the sand. “Humans are so helpless. I know there is water, and I know where it lives. How else could we ever drink in such a dry place? We don’t have nice wells and big buckets to drink our fill from. I can’t dig any more than you can balance on your tail. We have to know where the water is easiest to reach, or we’re in the hands of trouble.”

“How do you know where the water is?”

“Oh, don’t be silly. Can’t you hear it? Sometimes it’s loud enough to wake a sleeping donkey.”

“Hear what?”

“The water. It talks constantly. Water usually just moves somewhere else. We can listen and find the place where it went. But we’ll need some help, some more sharp ears, to save time.”

The rat stopped her hopping, sat straight up, and passed her paws through her fur a few times. Then she closed her eyes and began beating her tail on the sand rapidly, her eyes shut tight and her whiskers twitching with the effort.  After thumping for a while, she stopped. “There. That will do. Whew, drumming is lots of work, I think I need a morsel of bread to keep my strength up.”

“What were you doing?” Ayesha asked, handing a small piece of bread to Bibi, who hopped once then ate the bread in one gulp.

“Just asking for help. It should be here by now.” Indeed, small shadows were hopping toward Ayesha and Bibi; more kangaroo rats. Nine had answered Bibi’s call, and squatted in a half circle before her, whiskers twitching and eyes gleaming under the moon.

“What took you so long? What if I had been in trouble? It certainly seems that I better learn to fend for myself and not count on you lazytails.” Bibi held her sharp nose in the air.

One rat, whose tail had a kink just before its tip, spoke up in a weary voice. “It is the middle of the night, Bibi, this is our busiest time, and we have many chores to do. I was getting ready to catch a juicy cricket when you called. What do you want this time?”

“I’m sure by now you’ve all heard the humans scurrying around fussing because the water got tired of the old well and moved. This little girl will give us bread if we will find where the water went. Yes, Ayesha?” Bibi looked up at Ayesha.

“Certainly,” Ayesha said brightly and pulled the bread from her sleeve, waving it.  Immediately there was twitching and chittering and a few somersaults. The rat with the bent tail spoke.

“We will happily help, but may we have a taste first? We have hard work to do, after all.”

“Certainly,” Ayesha again responded. She sat, and the rats gathered politely in a circle, balancing on their tails. As Ayesha placed a small piece of bread in each set of pink paws, she heard a quiet Shokran. “You’re welcome,” she replied to each.

Bibi called, “Good, let’s go to the old well and start from there.”

*     *    *

At the old well, Bibi told the other rats, “Now, form a line, and grab the tail of your brother or sister on your right. Good, now spread apart until―”

“Ouch, that’s attached, you know.”

“Mahmoud, stop it. Good. This way we make sure we don’t miss any ground and stay close together. Listen closely for the water’s voice, and we’ll start walking from the well.  First, let’s go…that way.”

Ayesha sat on the well’s lip, watching as the line of rats walked under the moon, each holding a neighbor’s tail.

Date palms rustled as the wind returned, and a dog barked somewhere on the village’s far side―at this the line of rats hopped in the air, but then kept walking.

Ayesha climbed down from the well and followed the rats, and soon an excited voice said, “I hear the water, right here.”

The others dropped tails and gathered, on empty sand just beyond the village edge, then all began hopping and chattering.

“Yes, I hear it.”

“Me, too.”

“My, the water sighs loudly.”

But when Ayesha knelt she could not hear a thing except the whisper of sand. “Are you sure?” Ayesha peered at Bibi, who was grooming the fur on her right rear leg.

“Oh yes, it is here, and not that far underground, the new well will not need to be very deep. We promised to find water, and we take promises very seriously. So, let’s mark the spot so it can be found in the daylight.”

Ayesha piled stones where the rats told her. Then, Bibi spoke again.

“We have kept our part of our agreement, now it is your turn. May we have our bread, please? It will be good for us to return to our homes with something tasty for our families.”

Ayesha divided her bread among the rats, each politely saying Shokran then hopping off into the darkness. Last came Bibi.

“Shokran, Ayesha. The water will be sweet and cool. Goodbye.”

*     *     *

When Ayesha awoke the next morning, she ran to her mother and told her of the kangaroo rats and the place for the new well.

“Hush, child, this is not the time for dreams. Today is baking day, and we have much to do.”

Her father said, “Not now, my daughter, tell me your stories later. I must go out before the sun gets too high. Until the new well is dug, I must take extra care of our garden.”

No one would listen! It was not a dream (was it?), but she couldn’t tell her parents the truth, that she had snuck out of the house in the dark night. Ayesha thought hard about how to convince her parents that she knew where the new well could be dug.

And she had an idea.

Excited but tired, she lay in her bed that night, and when the fat round moon rolled out to sit on the soft dunes, Ayesha again slipped from her house. First, she walked to a place in the village where she knew date palm trees had been planted. She carefully dug up one of the young trees, almost as tall as she, and covered up the hole.  Then, she carried the small tree to the spot beyond the village where the rats had heard water. There was the stone pile, and she planted the tree. Wind stirred everything in a gust when she finished, scattered sand, and helped erase her traces.

Then she giggled.

*     *     *

Next morning, she said nothing about the tree, although she felt as if she might burst with excitement.  But, after chores, when Ayesha played chase with her friends Fatima, Habibi, and Melila, she ran down a village path to the desert’s edge, to where, wonder of wonders, a new tree grew! The other girls ran to their houses to tell their families, and soon grownups stood around the tree that had appeared overnight. “Go get the well diggers!”

The well diggers had come to the village to begin their work, and when they were shown the tree they sniffed the air, put their ears to the ground, and looked at each other.

“Yes, we will begin digging here.” They found moisture in the earth after only an hour of digging. And the very next day, cool water began flowing into the bottom of the deep new well.

*     *     *

Ayesha lay—happy and tired—in bed the evening of the day water came back to the village and wanted to thank Bibi and her friends for finding the water. But there was something else she wanted to do, too. In the quiet part of the night she again walked under the moon, holding a fresh loaf in both hands, letting the breeze carry the delicious smell. And, before Ayesha had walked very far, a familiar voice from near her feet spoke.

“It is good to see you, Ayesha, my child.”

“I am glad to see you, Bibi. Thank you very much for finding the water for us.”

“Oh, glad to help. If you really want to thank me you could let me have a taste of that loaf.”

“Sure, you may have some, but only when you keep your promise.”

The rat rose up on her hind legs. “Whatever do you mean? Of course, I kept my promise, silly child, your village has a new well.”

“True, but you forgot your other promise. We have not gone to see the Ocean.”

Somersaulting and chittering, Bibi said, “Well, we’re wasting a beautiful cool night. Follow me.”

Bibi began hopping away. Her long skinny tail stuck straight up, the dark tuft at its tip like a flag in the air. After a little hop of her own, Ayesha followed, walking along the path leading to the end of the village and, beyond the horizon, to the great Ocean.

*     *     *

Was this a dream? All I know is that the next day Ayesha’s mother gathered up Ayesha’s djellaba to wash it in the village’s new water, and she felt dampness at its hem and a delicious tangy salty sea smell rose faintly from it. One tiny shell fell from the cloth. And Ayesha’s mother stared at the garment and shook her head, as if to wake herself.

Ed Taylor

Ed Taylor is the author of the novel Theo (Old Street), the poetry collection Idiogest (BlazeVox) and the chapbook The Rubaiyat of Hazmat (BlazeVox). His fiction, poetry, and essays have most recently appeared in New World Writing, Louisville Review, Great Lakes Review, and Gargoyle. He received a fiction writing MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles.

This Girl with Feathers

On the same road, there lived a girl with feathers for hair and a boy poet who had to use a wheelchair. The boy lived in a small rented house, and he’d always had to use a wheelchair. But the girl, she lived in the large stripe-painted house at the end of the road, in the cul-de-sac, and she didn’t always have feathers.

Teary-eyed, she dropped the feather into the sink, where it caught fire and turned to ash before washing down the drain.

The first feather grew in her teens. She woke one day and found a feather growing from her head. It was fiery red, with orange and black stripes, and tinged at the tip with gold. At first, she thought one of her friends had woven it into her hair while she slept because all the girls were doing this then. But when she looked for the end, she saw the nib went straight into her head. This frightened her, and sucking in her breath, she pulled hard and cried out in pain as the feather was plucked. Teary-eyed, she dropped the feather into the sink, where it caught fire and turned to ash before washing down the drain.

She told no one. Who would believe her anyway?

Down the road, the boy woke up in his driveway. He had parked in the direction of the rising sun, falling asleep before it had risen. He often stayed up late, sometimes through the night, writing the girl love poems on single sheets of elegant cotton fiber. Every night, he folded them into paper airplanes and launched them in the direction of her house under the light of the moon and street lamps. Most twirled a few feet before entering death spirals or flat spins and crashing nose down in the grass. He left them there, hoping the girl would jog by and stop to pick one up.

“The yard’s the Bermuda Grass Triangle, Jack,” his mother said one morning over dinner. They had dinner in the morning and breakfast at night because his mother worked late hours and slept during the day. His house always smelled like a warm crock-pot dinner.

After waking, he went inside, and while he ate a breakfast of pot roast, potatoes, and rolls, he waited for the girl to jog by his house. But on this day, the girl did not come.

Later that summer, the girl was putting on a fresh coat of sunscreen lotion when she noticed a baby feather amongst the fair hairs of her arm. The feather glistened in the sun like gold dust. Shocked that another feather was growing from her, she pulled it out before anyone could see it, and it flared up into a ball of fire just like the first one had, then ashes.

One of her friends saw the smoke and teased her about playing with matches.

When she became angry or frustrated, she could feel the heat radiate from within her and into the feathers. She always smelled slightly of smoke.

She kept things under wraps for a while, but it soon became difficult to hide her feathers. They budded everywhere on her body. When she became angry or frustrated, she could feel the heat radiate from within her and into the feathers. She always smelled slightly of smoke. Her mother took her to a doctor, and the doctor made a lot of “hums” and “ums” before referring her to a veterinarian who specialized in cross-species disorders. The vet, who made small jokes about Dr. Moreau, did nothing more than give her some medications that may or may not have been tested on animals and may or may not have been safe for use on humans.

She even tried laser hair removal, but the laser only caused her feathers to bud up.

She spent endless hours combing the Internet for an article or image or something about someone with a similar condition. All she could find were bizarre and often pornographic images of witches and shamans performing ritual sex acts. One black ink illustration portrayed a cartoonish political ad about the coming of the end of times, and then there were the mutant superheroes all brightly illustrated in their action poses saving a humanity that wanted nothing to do with their mutant sideshow-ness.

The girl even searched for herself, but she only found that one .gif file of her and her friends goofing off on a school trip.

At school, people teased her because her clothes always had burn holes in them, as if someone had questioned her repeatedly with a cigarette, Why don’t you fly away from here?

The boy in the wheelchair thought that although she had many friends, she always looked sad. Frequently, he followed her, writing over and over again in his head all the things he wanted to say but never did.

Once, he followed her to the second floor balcony between classes and watched as she dropped bird eggs, one after another, over the side of the balcony. He thought that maybe she was performing a science experiment, though they were on the formation of cells in biology. When the girl turned to leave, she looked right at him, and she was crying.

He said, “Hey,” and she pushed past him and was down the hall before he could turn in the cramped space and follow.

It was soon after that, though it had nothing to do with the boy, that the guidance counselor called her into his office and said in his one-sad-sitcom-rerun-too-many voice, “Phoebe, if you’re on drugs, it’s okay to tell me. We can talk our way through this.”

She showed him the feathers that began at her knees and crept up her thighs.

“Some drugs, huh?” she said.
The look on his face gave her a slight thrill. He was astonished. Curious. Disgusted. Maybe even aroused. This one instance of seeing his face contorted into a mix-match of emotions made her feel more powerful than she ever had before.

She began to proudly show her feathers. Long legs of reds and golds. Smooth midsection of yellows and oranges. Wild hair designs that always had a stripe of black.

She began to proudly show her feathers. Long legs of reds and golds. Smooth midsection of yellows and oranges. Wild hair designs that always had a stripe of black. She gained friends amongst the artsy crowd and she had a series of fast-burning relationships. They all had their reasons for leaving—her temper, she made them sweat, or the feathers were soft but noisy. Most likely, she knew, they all became bored. The shock that showing her off to friends and parents wore off after a while, and when it did, Phoebe, the girl who could quote Shakespeare and Poe, remained. None of the boys wanted a real relationship. They would claim later on that her lips glowed ever so slightly in the darkened rooms full of couples testing rebellion. She gave them burn marks, left them thirsty, made them sing. They never found that anywhere else, with anyone else.

She started skipping classes, and the teachers didn’t say anything. They all drew their blinds closed when they saw her there on the school lawn, basking in the sun. “She was a distraction,” they said, and, “Have you seen the way she dresses?” It was really the cold that she left behind her that disturbed them. Her body temperature, the school nurse would later say, was “ten degrees higher than normal.” And though the teachers and staff complained to the principal, there was nothing he could do. The girl made A’s in school and never caused physical problems.

 

One day, the boy in the wheelchair visited the girl at her large striped house.

“Wanna come up?” she asked, seeing him pacing back and forth at the end of her driveway.

She was on the roof outside her bedroom window. She spent a lot of time there these days, and the boy knew why when he saw her hold her head back and let the breeze blow through her head feathers.

He motioned to his wheelchair. How was he supposed to get up the stairs?

“Oh, right,” she said.

She went inside and opened the front door a moment later to let him inside. She helped him out of the chair, and he climbed up the stairs after her. He could see her tail feathers underneath her dress, and she didn’t care.

Her bedroom was just like any other girl, except this one corner. All of the mean girls had sent her bird gifts at Christmas—seeds, bird baths, tiny mirrors—and they were stacked in this corner, except a red plastic bird that she had placed on her windowsill, where it dipped its head constantly into water. The boy pulled himself up beside it before rolling out onto the roof beside her.

They sat there for a moment, and the boy said something like, “It’s nice up here.” The girl agreed.

“You live down the street, right?” she asked.

He did.

“You throw all those airplanes in the yard, don’t you?”

Reluctantly, he did.

“I want to fly,” she said, to the boy’s relief. “It’s all I think about. It’s like the onset of a fever. Like wanting to kiss someone. Like watching one hundred eggs falling all at once and waiting, knowing what will happen when they land.”

She shook all over, and the boy could hear her feathers underneath her dress, as though someone had fluffed a pillow.

She stretched out on the roof, and the boy could see the feathers on her legs. Soft. She closed her eyes, and he closed his until she began speaking again.

“Are your parents divorced?”

“They were never married,” he said.

“Well, my parents are divorcing. My father is leaving my mother. You know how kids always think it’s their fault their parents are divorcing?”

His father had left when he was born. Because he couldn’t walk? Because of everything that being a father meant? He didn’t know. It didn’t really matter now, except the lack of cash, which meant that his mother had to work a lot. He didn’t like his father because of that more than anything else.

“I’m not sure if it’s my fault,” she said after waiting the appropriate amount of time for the boy’s pause to be an answer. “My mom dated this circus freak about the same time she met my dad. I guess he’s my biological father, but my dad is my dad, you know. He raised me thinking I was his all along. My mom tried to hide it when I hit puberty and started growing all the feathers. She drove me from one witch doctor to another before confessing. My dad just sort of left the nest after that. I still think I’m his, but the feathers…they don’t lie.”

He believed she was a phoenix. A living phoenix, and she would one day save the world.

The girl outlined a few of her feathers as she said this last bit, and the boy couldn’t take his eyes off of them. He believed she was a phoenix. A living phoenix, and she would one day save the world.

“They’re beautiful,” he said.

She stared at him a moment. No one other than her mother had ever called the feathers beautiful and meant it. Not even her boyfriends. The girl herself once thought of them as zits.

“One of these days, I’m going to fly, just like one of your paper planes.”

The boy laughed, the planes didn’t fly as much as crash and burn.

“What’s up with those planes?” she asked.

He squinted as he looked towards his house, wondering how well he could see the planes from her house. It had rained recently, so most of the planes now looked as if they had been melted down for scrap.

“I write,” he said. “I—” he made the motion of throwing the planes, as if he was trying to make sense of it himself.

“Oh, I get it.”

“Well, it’s more than the flight. It’s what’s on the planes that—”

“What are you doing for Christmas?” she asked, interrupting him. The decorative lights on the house opposite had come on, and Santa Claus was waving at them. “I might try flying.”

The boy thought real hard before he thought of something pessimistically funny to say. He held his hands together, like a diver: “Maybe I’ll try the high-board at the pool.”

She laughed.

It was the final time the boy saw her during Christmas break. At the last minute, his mother announced that they were going to Florida to visit his grandparents. The boy didn’t want to leave because he had some poetry to write, but what was he to do? In between packing his bags, he scribbled some lines of poetry down. He knew he couldn’t go outside because his mother would have a cow or a brick or something: “You should be sleeping!” He could sleep in the driveway, he thought, and, opening the window, he threw what he thought was not only his best poem but his best plane. It went in a straight line for a few meters before dropping off steadily, landing right beside his mailbox. In the morning, he drove away with his mother and didn’t return until the day before school began again.

 

After Christmas break, the boy was shooting hoops in P.E. class when the girl walked into the gymnasium holding one of his unfolded paper airplanes. She just sauntered right over to the boy in the middle of class for everyone to see and sat on his lap and began crying. She cried all over him: his hair, ears, neck, shoulders, legs, toes, and eyes until she began kissing him ravenously. And as he kissed her back, her tears fizzed on his skin. She began glowing, and then, she broke the kiss.

“I saw the sun,” the boy told her, wiping her tears from his eyes.

“I know,” she said.

She fell onto her knees and bent in pain until she was the shape of an egg. Her skin was flushed and her feathers smoked, dripping gold from their tips.

“Oh my god,” someone said.

The boy was out of the wheelchair now, and no one noticed, not even him, that he was able to walk. He stood near her, his arm outstretched, trying to touch her as she said repeatedly, “My insides are burning!” He couldn’t get close enough to help her because of the unbearable heat. The wax on the floor had begun to melt as she cried, and she sank into it.

A teacher ran into the gymnasium with a fire extinguisher, but it was too late.

The girl screamed, and she stood upright on the tips of her toes, her arms spread wide. The feathers covered her from her head to her knees. Her clothes burned off as she became ever hotter, and then she flew, streaking to the ceiling as one large flame that rolled across the rafters until she burned out. A contrail of ashes fell to the ground.

She was gone. The boy was healed.

The students gathered round the center of the gym as the ashes fell on them. One of the students picked up the blackened piece of paper and handed it to Jack.

He could still see the title of the poem: “This Girl with Feathers.”

 

Near the end of the semester, the boy was jogging one afternoon when he saw the girl’s mother on the roof ledge.

“I…I loved her,” he said.

The girl’s mother nodded.

“Will she be reborn?” he asked. “She was a phoenix, right?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” the girl’s mother said. “Her father told me that human phoenixes only get one flight. Once they burn, they’re gone forever.”

She dropped an egg off the ledge. “It’s a new habit,” she said. “I’m just trying to understand how she felt. Sometimes, I sit and watch candles for hours, holding my hand over the flame until I can’t stand it any longer. I want to think it was like that for her.”

“I’m sorry,” the boy said.

She looked at his legs.

“Don’t be, it was her choice.” She threw a paper airplane off the roof. “You’re quite good,” she said. “Never stop.”

The plane landed at the boy’s feet. It was the poem he had written the night before. He still wrote her poetry every night. Sometimes, he burned them, pretending she could read them from wherever she was.

M.W. Fowler is from Myrtle Beach, S.C. His works have appeared in numerous journals, including Jelly Bucket, Little Fiction, and A cappella Zoo. He is the author of the young adult novel, Ezra Sound: How I Became a Giant, and the collection, Wayward: scifi stories & poems.

Shadowboxing

My shadow seemed down when I was boxing it the other day. I’m not sure if that was the first time or what, I never paid much attention to my shadow unless we were boxing, and we only boxed when I was pissed so I probably wouldn’t have noticed even if it was.

But this time was different, it looked down, I mean real down, I don’t know how but I could definitely tell. I asked it what’s up. I guess I must have said it a little too hard like, I was already pissed, that’s why I was boxing it, and because the shadow didn’t say nothing. It just stood there trying to act like everything was okay but I could see something was up, I’m not stupid.

What, I said. I was getting annoyed, the way it was fronting like that with its dumb blank look without features. If something was up why didn’t it say so but whatever, I let it slide and put up my hands to go again.

I might have been crying a bit, too. I don’t know, maybe I was feeling sorry for it. I mean, this old sparring partner who never did anything but take my punches, walk my walk, remind me always that I am. How could there ever be a better friend.

And damn it, the shadow began giving me more of the same crap. I don’t know, something about how it responded, just a fraction too slow. What the hell is up with you, staring at me with that empty expression that I can’t figure out what it’s thinking. I couldn’t be sure if something was the matter or if it was hating on me or what.

So I went up closer to check it out, and wouldn’t you know right when I did the damn thing jumped straight at me, getting up into my face all threatening like.

That did it.

I started swinging and screaming and cursing, cursing at that damn shadow cursing at damn God cursing at damn everybody. I kept swinging and screaming and swinging and cursing. I don’t know why but I just couldn’t stop.

And then…strangest thing. The shadow wasn’t hitting back any more. Its head was hanging, shoulders slumped. It was sobbing. I might have been crying a bit, too. I don’t know, maybe I was feeling sorry for it. I mean, this old sparring partner who never did anything but take my punches, walk my walk, remind me always that I am. How could there ever be a better friend.

We sat there sucking wind for a while, not looking at each other. It was getting to be kind of awkward, to tell you the truth.

Finally, neither of us could take it any longer. I stood the thing straight up, brushed off its shoulders, tipped its chin with a light uppercut.

Everything’s cool, right? I said.

And I guess I knew it was when my shadow moved with me step by step, side by side, out into the light.

Jesse Cheng is a lawyer and cultural anthropologist from Southern California. His website is jesse-cheng.com.

Stalemate

Monday

My fingertips hurt again.

The quad is too noisy to be distracting; a chaos of first trimester stress. No internet for the loop of email, Hulu, Twitter. No service for texts from Mom. Just me and the music, pen trembling on the page. Focus abandons my brain, collecting instead like wax under my nails. The flesh is raw there, flaking from exposure. I always cut my nails behind the flesh. It makes it hard to play the cello. It makes it hard to do anything, really.

I suck my smarting thumb, the pen growing warm where my breath condenses. I wonder how long I’ve been on this bench, staring at this empty page of bars. I think of updating my status—writing a song is hard, sad face.

How do they do it? Not just Puccini and Vivaldi and Brahms. Everyone but me just sits down and—does stuff. For no reason at all. That’s the problem, I realize: no one’s told me to do it.

But Mom will be happy. I click my pen twice, motivated. A vision materializes of me knocking on my mother’s office door, dragging in my cello case after the melodic Come in. Mom will sit back, closing the laptop with her special smile, the one that says, “What will I do with you?”

Mom’s always laughing at me. I’m not sure why—I’m never joking.

Mom’s always laughing at me. I’m not sure why—I’m never joking. When I was five, I learned the knock-knock joke about the orange, only I’d always forget and say apple, not realizing until it was too late and the punch line was ruined. But Mom just laughed, just like she did when I peed my dress in kindergarten, or broke my sixth grade science fair volcano, or spilled punch on my prom date. After awhile I laughed with her, surprised by the tears threatening to fall every time she grinned.

I give up my thoughts to the quad, half-made melodies fading to mute. Students dot the lawn. A dingy white Frisbee turns in the grass, near a ditch, over and over in the autumn wind. Then two voices stand out. A girl who I can see, and a guy who I can’t. My breath catches when I see her, and I fall into the routine. It’s not normal, I tell myself. It’s weird, stupid. I do it anyway.

A dark brown jaw. A curved, glossy lip. A white tennis dress stopping crisply at her knees, where strong calves end in platform running shoes, purple laces. I stow each item away in my head for later, like circling must-haves in Vogue, compiling a recipe. It’s a survival thing. There’s something I was born without; the secret organ that tells you what blow stands for, or where to get tattoos, or how to play That’s What She Said. I’m like a laptop without spell check—I have to look up the rules. I edit myself.

So this doesn’t count as eavesdropping, I think, as the guy and girl grow louder. This is homework. And I’m not a creeper, right? It’s okay for me to listen.

Profanity pours from his mouth. I imagine a hard, flat chest and a sneer, the only possible container for that low voice.

“Am I making you uncomfortable, Anna?” he says now. “Well, maybe next time you’ll think twice before screwing with my life. Because there’s sure as hell more where this came from.”

The girl laughs. It’s a familiar sound, one I’ve heard ringing out from a crowded table, or passing in a gang of body spritz and acronyms. I try to describe it, to remember, to imitate later, but adjectives fade in my mind, and absently I touch my throat, wondering.

“Babe,” says Anna. “That the best you can do?”

“You should know it isn’t.”

“Good,” Anna replies. “I was about to be disappointed.” She leans to kiss the man’s cheek. He calls her an inhuman name; she laughs again. The branches rustle as he emerges from the tree’s shadow. Anna transfixes me, a deadly smile splitting her smooth dark face.

Anna takes out a cigarette, lighting up. She gazes across the quad, spewing like a feline dragon. I notice her hands are shaking. A gust of autumn rushes into my eyes, drying my contacts. When I’ve blinked the pain away, Anna’s eyes rest on mine.

“Li Hua, are you hiding from me?”

I jump. Jun Leong stands above me. Sheets of music flutter to the grass as I stand. “Of course not,” I stammer. “I was waiting for you.”

Actually, I was doing both. I hated the idea of being in Jun’s line of sight, even though I knew he was coming.

Jun bends down to collect the pages. I tumble off the bench. “Oh—it’s okay; I got it,” I say. The collar of my polka-dot sweater droops, revealing a bra strap. I hug the papers, covering up. “Oops,” I say. “My bad. Oh, god. I’m like, all red now. Sorry.”

“No,” says Jun, staring at my shoulder. “I like that you blushed.”

I blink at the grass. “Okay.” I replace my collar and return to the bench. “So—you wanna start?” I ask.

I smell rubbing alcohol as he leans over me, thumbing through the concertos. His collar is starched, grazing his protruding jaw. He dresses, I think, like he’s forty instead of twenty.

“Sure.” Jun’s black comb-over glistens at the side part; I smell rubbing alcohol as he leans over me, thumbing through the concertos. His collar is starched, grazing his protruding jaw. He dresses, I think, like he’s forty instead of twenty. Maybe that’s why Mom likes him so much.

“I brought Bach,” I say. “And some theory. We could start with that.”

“Before I’ve heard you play?”

“We could do that. I can…I’ll just go grab my cello and—”

“You didn’t bring it?”

“Um, no. I thought—”

He snorts, wagging his lacquered head. “You thought you would have a cello lesson without a cello?”

“Stupid, right?” I laugh. “It’s just…you said to meet outside, and I thought, ‘Sun’s not good for cellos so I’ll just bring theory.’ I know; so dumb. But I’ll just…go grab my…” I begin stuffing the sheets into my backpack.

His tongue clicks. He places a hand on my shoulder, another smile setting like a chink in his jaw. “It’s clear you’re having an off day, Li Hua. Maybe we should wait until you’re more prepared.”

“No, I’m fine! My apartment’s like, right over there; I’ll just”—

“Li Hua.” That smile hasn’t budged. “Next time. Okay?”

I blink. “Okay. Um. You’re probably right.” I giggle. “Sorry again. It was really stupid.”

“Guess it’s just not your day.” He snorts again.

I chortle at myself.  “Nope. Nope, guess not.” Unbidden my eyes slip over to Anna. I imagine how me and Jun look, laughing together. Inside joke. Bench. Guy friend. I’ve stepped into someone else’s Facebook page, a teen flick, a Hollister ad. I laugh harder. I will play this part.

To my equal delight and horror, Jun brushes off the bench and sits down. “So, I’m acing your mom’s class.”

“Cool. I suck at economics.”

“It’s not for everyone,” Jun agrees. “Your mom’s obsessed with me.”

“I know.”

“Really?” He grins down at me. “She talks about me?”

“Yes.“

“What does she say?”

“Um—”Lie, says a small voice, buried somewhere beneath the music. “It’s actually really funny…” Lie. Li Hua. For god’s sake, lie. “She wants you to be my boyfriend.” The words spew out, revolting, and absolutely true.

He says, “So I gathered.” Jun picks at the lint on his pleated pants. “Professor Cheng’s been dropping hints forever. She practically begged me to tutor you.” He reaches over and begins on my sweater, pulling at balls on the sleeve until the material runs.

I squirm. “Jun—”

Anna rests a hand on the cedar, watching.

I grin at him, leaning closer. “Moms. Whadya do with them?”

“Hey, you should listen to Professor Cheng,” he says. “She wants what’s best for you.”

God, he sounds like my dad. And as a smirk crinkles his left eye, for a moment, he looks like him too. “I know,” I say.

“Have you ever dated anyone, Li Hua?”

“Yes.”

He frowns for the first time. “Your mom said you hadn’t.”

“She didn’t know.”

“You lied?”

“She never asked,” I say. “Have you?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know. Ever had a girlfriend.” His frown deepens. “Sorry,” I say. “Awkward. Guess that just slipped out.”

“Guess it did,” he says shortly.

“I’m always saying dumb things.”

“I have standards,” he says.

“Yeah,” I agree. “Yeah, totally. I didn’t”—

“It’s not like I’d just go and date anybody. Maybe I’m saving my self for the right girl.”

“Totally,” I say again.

By degrees, his brow melts back against his solid hairline, and the smile resumes its niche. He looks at me and says, “Maybe Professor Cheng knew what she was talking about.”

I wish for the slightest space between us. Wish I could move my arm without my collar dropping again, without the music falling, without grazing his jacket. I wish he would leave. Wish I would tell him to.

Instead I say, “Mom’s never wrong.”

The wind seems to have lost ten degrees. Jun wears nothing but a crisp button-down. “Gosh. You must be freezing,” I say.

Jun snorts again, though I swear his teeth are chattering when he says, “I’m fine.”

Another gust steals a sheet of music, twirling it across the way and depositing it where Anna has just crushed another cigarette with her heel. I wonder if she’s ever stopped staring at us. She certainly doesn’t stop now, not when she kneels to retrieve the crinkled Bach or even when she crosses, laying it on my lap with two slender brown fingers.

“Thanks,” I say.

“No worries,” she says.

“Actually,” says Jun, “I should go.”

“Already?” Anna croons, not looking at him once. She winks at me. “Bye then.”

“Bye,” Jun muttered.

Anna’s eyes slide to his retreating back. Mechanically, she draws a lighter from her jacket and flicks it. It sputters. She swears, then laughs so suddenly that I jump.

“Got a light?”

“No,” I say. “Sorry.”

“Just ran out of juice.”

“That’s the worst.”

“You smoke?”

“No,” I admit.

“I don’t either. I mean—I don’t need to.” She pockets the lighter and rocks on her tennis shoes. “So. Leong. You guys dating?”

“What? Ha, no.”

“But he likes you.”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Hey, give yourself some credit,” says Anna, gently kicking my toe. She pauses. “Aren’t you in my history class? We should hang out. Study after class.”

“Yeah. That’d be great.”

“Facebook you.”

“Great,” I repeat. “Only, we’re not friends.” Anna works in my mother’s office. I’ve seen her, in parts, everyday for two years—a springy bun, a corner of stiletto, a pair of eyes peeking around the doorframe, glazing over me to ask Mom something.

“You’re kidding,” gasps Anna.

I blink. I don’t know how to kid.

“Well,” Anna says, producing a pearly white smart phone. “We’ll fix that right now.”

With a sigh the wind settles, leaves tumbling over the grass to stop at last, branches creaking to a halt. The moment is primed, a held breath. The battered disk sits in its ditch, fate sealed; imprisonment in a gust of wind; friendship with the click of a button.

Tuesday

Before I had a roommate the walls were bare. Now there are posters, clippings of things I knew Katrina liked, carefully pinned where I knew she’d see them.

My room is the color of baby powder and Dentyne. All my stuff is hidden away in drawers, so nothing weakens the effect of pale light on cinderblock. Before I had a roommate the walls were bare. Now there are posters, clippings of things I knew Katrina liked, carefully pinned where I knew she’d see them. A peace offering.

“Ohmigosh,” she said when she first moved in. “We are so soul sibs.”

I nodded, asking questions I already knew the answer to: Did she like Katy Perry; Was she Team Jacob; I hoped she liked How I Met Your Mother? Every affirmative was a green light, a major pitch ding, stacking until my score soared from rainbow to platinum and I’d won. For now.

Sometimes when she’s gone to class I take down the posters and press them in a pile, laying the big terry rug on top of them. I strip—underwear, everything—and stuff it in the closet. Then I stand in the echoing space, light and lines, unmasked, undressed, nothing and nobody. Happy.

Then I think, I must be crazy. And the posters go back up.

Now I’m sitting on my bed, MacBook sticking to my thighs. I click, and my name vanishes and reappears under the “Attending” column. The screen glare is terrible, so I can see my face reflected on the Facebook page, eyebrows sky high, lips sucked in like they always are when I’m excited. I fall with a pouf onto my fort of pillows.

“Okay,” I say. “So. Party. That’s cool.” The wind shakes the cedar at my window; branches rain catcalls on the casement.

“Ohmigosh,” I try again, giggling into the sheets, “I’m going to a party.”

The air conditioner groans at my lameness.

I scoot off my bed and sidle up to the door mirror, rocking non-existent hips and twirling my straight jet hair. “S’up bee-otch. Guess who’s invited to the hottest party on campus?” This time even I believe myself. I grin, ruining it.

The door bursts open, and I leap out of the way as Katrina bursts in, chattering on her cell.

“S’up b-babe,” I stutter, the rehearsed word dying on my lips. “Um, guess what?”

Once, in third grade, I waited for two hours for Mom to finish an email before telling her I’d skinned my knee on the play set.

She holds up a finger. I sit on her bed and fold my hands, an instinct. Once, in third grade, I waited for two hours for Mom to finish an email before telling her I’d skinned my knee on the play set. I’m still proud of that, no matter how angry she was to see blood pooling around her waiting room chair.

So I wait for Katrina.

She purrs goodbye and smacks kisses into the phone, one two three.  “Kay doll. Bye-ee.” She hangs up and flops down at last. “Alright, sweetie. Whatcha need?”

“Oh—well I don’t need anything, I just—”

The finger returns. She taps her lips. “Not another word. I got you covered.” She disembowels her backpack and produces a thin folder, headed with “Li Hua” in sparkly lettering. “I took double-notes in all the courses we have together. I’m sure you’re doing great and everything, but I thought you could use a teeny bit of help—don’t argue, sweetie! I didn’t mind at all. Really.”

I take the folder and try to look surprised. “Thanks Katrina.” I don’t take my own notes anymore. Katrina took that over so long ago, I’ve almost forgotten how. I’m not good enough of a liar to hide that. Katrina brightens a bit when she realizes my dependence. I guess she’s just an amazing friend.

She beams, pauses, and leans in to sniff my hair. For an absurd moment I am reminded of Jun, closing the space between us to pick at my sweater. “You’re using the shampoo I gave you,” she says, adding coyly, “I thought your hair looked shinier than usual.”

I give it a flip to demonstrate; she applauds and sits back. Mom has a special smile, but with Katrina it’s definitely a sigh. The kind of breath you take after spring cleaning a closet, or petting a dog, or donating to World Vision—that’s Katrina’s sigh for me. With a hazy, happy air she begins to sort her things.

“Kat?” I say.

“Mm.”

“I got invited to a party.”

She laughs—I’m not sure what’s funny—and smiles warmly down at me. “Whose?”

“Anna Albin’s. It’s on Friday.”

Katrina’s smile freezes. “What?”

“It was totally random. We were just talking, and the she added me on Facebook, and then—”I shrug.

Katrina resumes packing her things, then takes out her laptop, muttering, “Must be a public event.” She pulls up her home page and scrolls. “It’s not showing up.” Her voice is flat.

“I think it’s invite only.”

She shuts her laptop. “Anna Albin is throwing her Month Marker this Friday,” she says.

“Marker?” I echo.

“Yes, Ewok, that’s what they’re called,” she snaps, using that name. She and the other girls came up with it long ago. I don’t get it. It doesn’t sound anything like Li Hua, not really, and they’re not into Star Wars. But they laughed, and it stuck. Friends can do that.

Katrina knows I hate it.

“It’s the most exclusive event on campus, first Friday of every month. Royalty only.” She pauses. “And she invited you.”

I blink. “Yeah.”

It seems to sink in for her. “And that’s super,” she adds, voice bobbing like a buoy. She takes my hand in hers. “So. Who all is going?”

“Um…” I try to roll off the “Attending” column from memory. “Well, Anna, of course. And Scott Chevy, Parvati Brahmin. A bunch of other people. Jun Leong—”

“Really?”

“I know. Anna seemed to know him, though.”

“Weird. Who else?”

“Um—”Another name popped out from the list. “William Black.”

“What?” I stop. Katrina’s voice screeches in my ear. “He’s invited? I mean, he always goes, but I thought—I wonder—”Her eyes widen with epiphany.

I wait. As usual, Katrina remembers to catch me up, filling me in on whatever is obvious to the world. “Anna and Will hate each other,” she explains. “No one knows why. Some say they dated forever ago, but I think that’s crap. They’re at each other’s eyeballs every chance they get. The first Friday of every month, one of them throws a party. Then the other one crashes it with his or her crew. It’s like, tradition or something. But if he’s been invited all this time…” Katrina pauses. “This changes things,” she finishes. I nod gravely, matching her look.

“Maybe I’ll ask her about it tomorrow,” I say.

“What? No? You can’t just mention one to the other; that’s like starting World War 3.”

“You’ve tried?”

“No. I mean, I haven’t really talked to either of them before, I just know. Everyone does,” she adds, then pauses. “What do you mean, ‘tomorrow?’”

“Oh. Anna and I are studying at the yogurt place,” I say. “Can I bring you anything?”

She looks away. “So whatchya wearing to the party, Ewok?”

“I don’t know. Ha, I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Oh honey,” she says, the words dripping off her lips. “Sweetie, the chicks at this thing don’t own socks without a designer label. You know I love you,” she says, and I nod. “But if you show up looking like you usually do…”

My heart sinks. “What?”

She squeezes my knee, with a pout that says I’m on your side. “They’ll laugh. I mean, unless you have a hot date.” Her eyes slide to mine. “Do you?”

I stare at her, incredulous. The closest guy friend I have is my cat on Petville. Katrina knows that more than anyone.

She squeezes again. I wilt. She’s right. I’ll show up and look like crap and Anna will regret inviting me. Or maybe it was all a joke in the first place. I’d show up and she’d laugh, then ignore me, shocked I dared showed my face.

Katrina’s well-trained ears hear all of this cross my mind. I can tell by the way she nods, affirming each silent fear. “Sweetie,” she says at last. “I could help you, you know.”

I look up, and see another folder with my name on it twinkling in her eye.

“Really?” I flute.

She smiles, the sigh, the one reserved for me, waiting on her lips. “Of course. I always do, don’t I?” she says.

I nod, and sigh with her. As she fills my ears with potential dresses and hairstyles, I silently thank the stars for Katrina: a friend who saves me from the unforgivable embarrassment of being myself.

Wednesday

The yogurt shop has marble floors and armless chairs, with just a scoop for your back. Glass whirligigs twinkle from the two-story ceiling, and Europop pumps from high-def flat screens set in every other wall. I’ve been here before with Katrina, but we never stayed. It’s a place you go in a group. Anna is comfortable with just me, though, and her type makes up the rules.

I’m nervous. The walk over from campus was okay. Mostly she asked random questions—how long had I known Jun, was I super close to my mother? She kept telling me to relax. So I apologized, but she then told me not to do that, either.

I half-wish she’d ditch me, just to get it over with.

I follow her to the back where the machines furl out along the walls, flocked with college students. I copy Anna when she gets a monster cup and fills it to the brim, only to be mortified when she offers to pay for me.

“No worries,” she insists when I protest. She hands her card to the cashier and winks at me. “It’s a date.” She asked me here on Facebook chat. It was just as random as everything else—the friending, the invite. I almost asked Katrina if it was weird. But I got the feeling Anna knew even more than Kat about rules like that, the pieces of my missing organ. I’d follow her lead.

We find a lime green table near a high-def screen, an empty area except for an older couple in the corner, bravely enduring the stimulation, and some guy a distance away, hunched over a black MacBook. As we sit, I realize I have nothing to say—nothing at all. She takes out her laptop; I produce Kat’s folder. We eat in silence at first, Anna distracted by something on her screen, typing, pausing to smile at me now and then. I look over Kat’s notes, marveling at my study partner. I haven’t forgotten to take inventory, to store my survival tools. Today Anna wears waxed skinny jeans and a billowing top, slipping to reveal a smooth brown collarbone. Her sandaled toes are painted deep purple. I scrunch my own toes inside my muggy Toms, wondering if my t-shirt has sprouted pit stains.

She’s stopped typing. “You okay, Li Hua?”

“Yeah, totally. How’s the history?”

“Dull as hell.” She grins, and I mirror her. The screen near flashes a series of women in tight chrome suits, climbing ladders in time to the music. The camera lingers on their features, a curved lip, an immaculate cheekbone. My eyes widen with envy.

Anna snorts. “Oh god, look at me,” she says. “Look how sexily I climb this ladder, guys.” She gives the model a lisp. I giggle. She continues, narrating everything the models do.

“Look how hot I am riding this car.”

“I am, like, so steamy shutting this door,” I join in.

“Running in place. Ohmigoshguys so sexy.”

Anna takes a big, slow bite of her yogurt. “Mmmm,” she groans, crossing her eyes.

I laugh, then straighten my face to copy her. “Mmm,” I say, snorting with my mouth full.

“Bet I can eat mine sexier than you.”

“Bet you can’t,” I say.

“You’re on.”

The next five minutes are wild and wrong and awkward, and my cheeks hurt from laughing at the end of them. I win, weirdly enough; right when I finish my largest, slowest bite, Anna’s eyes slip past me to something I can’t see. “Oh, you win, Li Hua,” she says then, light dancing in her black eyes. “Hands down.”

She returns to her typing. A little later a fresh gaggle of students bursts into the shop; I recognize some of Anna’s crew; beautiful faces from the “Attending” list. One of them flags Anna down, waving a smart phone. “Come see the new Ryan Gosling trailer. We’ve all seen it, like, eight times. So hot.”

Anna rolls her eyes, but gets up anyway. “Be right back?”

“Yeah, sure,” I say. An inside joke. I’d just spent the last five minutes making a private, quirky memory with Anna Albin. Nothing could dampen this high. Instinctively, I move to update my status. Chillin with @Anna Albin at fro-yo—best afternoon evar, I compose in my head, slipping over to sit at her laptop. I don’t have a smart phone, and I’m sure she won’t mind. I mean to bring up her browser, but her Skype comes up instead. I freeze. Before me, dotted with time stamps from the last twenty minutes, is a chat with William Black.

I shouldn’t be seeing this. None. Of. My. Business. But before I have the chance to register any of these thoughts, my eyes are scanning, devouring. A chat between Anna and William. This is the ultimate research, the mother transfusion to my missing organ.

2:36 PM W. Black: That. You want me to hook up with that.

2:37 PM A. Albin: Oh, come on. She’s adorable.

2:38 PM W. Black: She’s green. Revoltingly so.

2:39 PM A. Albin: You don’t know that.

2:41 PM W. Black: She’s here.

2:41 PM A. Albin: Yeah.

2:42 PM W. Black: What did you have to do to get that?

2:42 PM A. Albin: Ask.

2:44 PM W. Black: Exactly. I don’t want some googly-eyed kid making out with me just because I say please.

2:47 PM A. Albin: But you say it like no one else…

2:49 PM W. Black: You would know.

2:49 PM A. Albin: Don’t remind me.

2:51 PM W. Black: Didn’t hear any complaints back then.

2:53 PM A. Albin: Then you were deaf and stupid. And you haven’t distracted me. How do you know it wouldn’t be fun?

2:55 PM W. Black: For the millionth time: Too damn easy. Why do you want this so badly, anyway?

2:56 PM A. Albin: Look at her. She’s like a vanilla ice cream cone, no sprinkles. How can you resist?

2:56 PM W. Black: Easily.

2:57 PM A. Albin: How about now?

3:10 PM W. Black: You’re terrible.

3:11 PM A. Albin: You have to admit, she can work a spoon.

3:12 PM W. Black: That whole show was just for me, wasn’t it?

3:12 PM A. Albin: With a cherry on top.

3:13 PM W. Black: You still didn’t answer my first question. What’s in this for you?

3:17 PM A. Albin: Look, Will. You said I screwed you over. Fine. This is me being nice. If you don’t like it, we can go back to normal. But I wouldn’t pass this up if I were you. Believe me. I give very good presents.

3:18 PM W. Black: I know what you do with friends. No offense, babe, but I’d rather be your enemy.

 

The bass of techno fades against my hammering pulse. The old couple rises, throws away their cups, and disappears from the shop. A napkin beats across the shiny tiles, coasting in the gust from the door. And the words on the screen stare. I understand enough to know I should be doing something. Anything. An action other than sitting, arms out like a paper doll as Anna, William, Katrina, Jun, Mom all pin their smiles and sighs to me, make me over, serve me and suck me dry again, and again, and again.

I know.

But then again: what does Li Hua know?

I close the window. I bring up the browser. And I update my status:

Best day ever.

J. Ifueko is a freelancer from Portland, OR, completing her BA in English and Theatre at George Fox University. President of GFU’s English Honor Society chapter, she currently assists peers with fiction and nonfiction pieces. She is nearing completion of her debut YA novel.

Things We Never Know

The black and white sign taped to Connor’s bedroom door said GO AWAY. I should have. Should have turned around, walked down to Fleming Lake, sat on the ledge above the cove, figured out a beat, taken out my notebook and written a thousand lines about how everywhere I looked I saw Carly’s eyes and how every voice I heard used words that didn’t sound right because Carly wasn’t saying them and how I didn’t know how I was going to concentrate on anything without her in my life anymore.

She’d texted me right after school: I found the words to one of your raps in my green hoodie. About walking around on the stars. Remember that one?

I didn’t want to text her, like, instantly and look like some desperate jerk. But I did: Forgot about that one. Lame right?

No way. Where are you?

Going to my cousin Connor’s. My aunt begged me.

You mean weird Connor? LOL. What’s wrong w him now?

Depressed I guess.

I almost added, “Who isn’t?” I could never decide if I wanted Carly to know how much it was killing me to not be with her or if I wanted her to think I didn’t care.

A second later she texted me back: Who isn’t?

Okay, so she didn’t want to go out with me anymore, and she could never tell me why exactly—all she’d say is she needed to find out what she really wanted—but she texted me every day.

I stood in front of Connor’s door wanting so bad to be down at the cove figuring out a beat that would pound the world like a hammer and rhymes that burned the skin off every ugly thing I saw. Instead I knocked.

I waited until I heard a grunt, took a deep breath, went in. The room reeked of weed. My brain felt swishy just breathing.

I waited until I heard a grunt, took a deep breath, went in. The room reeked of weed. My brain felt swishy just breathing. Connor sat slouched in his ratty easy chair—the one he wouldn’t let Aunt Judy throw out—wearing plaid boxers and nothing else. Man, he looked skinny—like third world starving skinny—and pale, and his mop of dark brown hair looked like tornado damage. The little TV in the corner was on, sound off, some cartoon, and the laptop was open on the desk to YouTube. Manga, I think. Books and magazines were strewn all over the place: books about science and serial murderers and wars; graphic novels; all sorts of technology magazines. Connor had been a crazy reader since he was, like, three. “Our little Einstein!” all the uncles and aunts always called him, my parents included. “He’ll do great things when he grows up!”

I used to think, what if he gets hit by a bus when he’s twelve? What if he blows himself up making a bomb?

“Hey, cuz. Long time. Here to watch me kill myself?”

It took me a second to notice the compact, silver-bladed bowie knife in his right hand. He was watching himself run the tip of his pointer finger back and forth over the blade. Finally he glanced up, eyes glazed as donuts, and slurred, “Hey, cuz. Long time. Here to watch me kill myself?”

Typical Connor statement. I told him his mom texted me and said she thought he could use some company.

“‘Company.’ That’s actually funny.” He sort of laughed and looked around the room. “Oh, horrors. I have company and the place is such a mess. What must you think of me?”

If I’d told him the truth, he wouldn’t have liked the answer. Actually, he wouldn’t have given a crap. “Why don’t you open the window?” I said. “It stinks in here.”

“’Cause it stinks worse out there.”

“There’s no smell outside. I just came from outside.”

“Never mind.”

I asked him what was up with the knife.

“Pay attention, dude.” He waved his hand. “Shut the door. Come here and feel how fuckin’ sharp this blade is.”

Another time we were in the woods behind my house, and out of the blue he decides to light his hair on fire.

“I believe you,” I said. I did close the door but I stayed where I was. With Connor you were smart to have some kind of plan, some kind of escape route, just in case. Anything could happen. You could be walking down the street with him, say, and all of the sudden he could decide to pick up a brick and throw it into the side of somebody’s Lexus. That happened once. Another time we were in the woods behind my house, and out of the blue he decides to light his hair on fire. Would’ve let it burn, too—it was flaming up. I had to pull him down and slap the fire out with my hands. Got burned pretty bad, but not as bad as he did. For six months his head was covered in these scaly, gross-looking blisters. At least I thought they were gross; he thought they looked sick. Said he hoped they never healed.

Aunt Judy and my mom are sisters. Pretty close. So when we were kids, Connor and I hung out a lot. Back then it was okay, sort of. He was already strange and moody and “impulsive,” but not as much. But by the time we were teenagers I’d gotten tired of always feeling nervous around him. Plus, I was into my own stuff. Music, poetry. Carly. I mostly saw Connor on holidays or so-called “special” occasions.

Aunt Judy’s text made me feel like if I didn’t go I’d be letting her down. I have a weird thing about letting people down. If I do, the guilt kills me. Blaise, please please please come keep Connor company. He’s in the dumps. You’ve got such a good head on your shoulders, and the two of you used to be such good buddy-cousins.

“Buddy-cousins” was some tag one of the adults put on us—I think it was Connor’s father, Uncle Ritchie, who Connor calls “the Bastard.” He’s a college professor and a writer. He published this book about how he cheated on Aunt Judy with like twenty different women and got away with it for ten years. When it came out it made him semi-famous, at least for a few months, especially after he was interviewed on the radio by Howard Stern, who thought the whole thing was hysterical. Stern kept calling Aunt Judy a moron. How could she not know, the moron? How blind can a person be? Anyway, now Aunt Judy was divorcing Uncle Ritchie and everybody in the family hated his guts, Connor most of all. Except Connor always had problems with him, even years before the stupid book came out. Maybe he suspected his dad was a lying cheating bastard even when he was little. I mean, he was a born genius, right?

Not that we talked about our parents. We almost never did.

So I asked him if he felt like walking down to DQ. Aunt Judy’s idea: get him out of his room, get him some fresh air. “I feel like a Blizzard,” I said.

He looked up from the knife, his green/gray eyes all bloodshot and out of focus. “You look more like a McFlurry to me. No, make that a McBlurry.”

I laughed. A little. Couldn’t help it. Connor could be funny sometimes. A little. Funny, weird, super smart. Smart enough to get into The Ward School, which was this our-shit-don’t-stink private school on the north side of town. Everybody in the family made a huge deal about him getting in. “That kid is going to make a name for himself!” Sometimes I wonder if they went overboard because he was so weird and wild that they needed to convince themselves he’d do something worthwhile with his life.

Of course my parents wanted me to go to Ward, too, except I didn’t “qualify.” The day we got the rejection letter my dad told me, “Don’t sweat it, you’ll thrive at Kennedy,” and my mom nodded, but I could tell they were disappointed. No matter what people say, I always know when I let them down. My parents, teachers. Carly. It’s a gift I have.

So, yeah, Connor was smart, but in this whacked-out, who-knew-what-the-hell-he-was-thinking way. He’d say things that sounded brilliant but that didn’t make sense, at least to me. (Example: “I’d rather be a particle than a wave. More covert. Plus a particle can be in two places at once, a wave can’t.”) He was smart in the way that he could ace any test he wanted to but usually he didn’t care enough to want to. Most of us were freaking out about our scores on the SATs—were they going to be good enough to get us into a half-decent college? Would our parents be pissed off because we were only “average” or whatever? But Connor could get any score he wanted. Didn’t have to study or pay some nerd to come over and practice with him like a lot of us did.

It’s like he was certain that there was all this bullshit in the world underneath the skin of the regular stuff like banks and schools and cars and TV shows and malls and smartphones and everything else.

There was another way he was smart, too, but it’s harder to describe. It’s like he was certain that there was all this bullshit in the world underneath the skin of the regular stuff like banks and schools and cars and TV shows and malls and smartphones and everything else. Except he wasn’t able to pretend he didn’t know it like most smart people do, so he was always pissed off because basically he felt like everything was a big lie but nobody would admit it.

To me, the surface was where the bullshit was, and it was easy to see, but if you went deeper down you’d find the good stuff. The real purpose of things. The pureness of things. My problem is I’ve never been any good at explaining myself. I could explain things in school, like how electricity works or why a heart eventually stops pumping or what the theme of some classic novel is (usually death), but I couldn’t explain the important stuff. The under-the-surface stuff. Maybe that’s why I like to write raps. It’s how I get at things.

Sometimes I think rap saves my life.

I said to Connor, “Maybe I don’t look like a Blizzard, but I feel like one. Want to go or what?”

“What’s a Blizzard feel like? Always wondered.” His eyes were practically melting out of their sockets.

I shrugged, played along. “Cold. Sweet.”

“Not quite an oxymoron,” he said. “So, what, Judy texted you to come over and save me from hurting myself? Like you could even do that.” (Connor called his mother Judy.)

“She just wanted me to hang with you for a while.”

“Did you bring a noose?”

“Ha.”

“Actually, I don’t like the idea of my eyes getting pushed out of my head. I’ll slit my wrist. Or my throat. Guess I could drown myself in Fleming Lake. Never liked guns. Never liked the sound.”

Classic Connor. He loved to make you feel uncomfortable, see how you’d react to some outrageous thing he said or did. It always seemed like he was trying to see how much he could get away with, you know, how far he could go. Which was probably why he never had many friends. He’d hang out with one kid for a while, then the kid would be out of his life and there’d be some other kid hanging out with him. Then that kid would be gone. Big surprise, right? Who could take somebody like Connor for long?

I had some friends—Sully, Dave Cappella, Greg O—except when I started going out with Carly I pretty much stopped hanging out with them. I went out with her for a year and two and half months. After we broke up, those guys didn’t want anything to do with me. Guess they thought I dissed them. What the hell though? I had this awesome girlfriend, man. If any of them ever had a girlfriend like Carly they’d have done the same thing.

Actually, even Connor had had a girlfriend for a couple months. This intense emo chick who called herself Mary Magdalene. But she moved away, like, the day after freshman year ended. I don’t think she told him until the night before she left. I used to ask him about her, but he didn’t want to talk. At all.

“You want ice cream or not?” I said, still standing by the door, hoping he’d say no so I could go write a rap. I mean, I had this urge.

He yawned a wide, snaky yawn. “Maybe. I got pretty bad munchies.”

He climbed out of the chair in super slow motion and walked toward me, knife dangling in his bony fingers.

“You should wear clothes,” I said.

He looked at himself. “Oh, yeah.” He put the knife between his teeth, bent down and picked out a black tee shirt and a pair of jeans off a heap of clothes on the floor.

“You won’t need that knife,” I told him. “I have money.”

He took it out of his mouth, stared at it, turned it this way and that. “Dude, I’m taking this.”

“Why?”

“Because you never know.”

“You never know what?”

“You never know a lot of things. Think about it. Think of all the things you never know. There’s a billion more things you never know than things you do know. We don’t even know the things we’ll never know.”

I wasn’t in the mood for his crap. “At least fold it and stick it in your pocket.”

“Duh. Think I’m stupid?”

I looked at the TV in the corner. Some cartoon character was pounding another character over the head with a gigantic sledgehammer.

As Connor tried to fold the knife it slipped out of his hand, blade first, and just missed stabbing him in the big toe. I picked it up, but as I handed it back I accidentally touched the blade with my pointer finger and, damn, it sliced me. Pretty deep, too. The kind of cut where you don’t feel the sting right away, where it takes the blood and the pain a minute to get to the surface.

“Be ironic if you killed yourself before I did,” Connor said.

“Shut up.” I licked my finger to try to stop the bleeding before it started. “Why the hell do you need a friggin’ knife anyway?”

“Dude, you don’t listen. I might not come back, okay? I’m just waiting for the right moment.” For one second his eyes unblurred. “Don’t tell Judy.”

Connor being dramatic. Connor trying to see how I’d react. I didn’t.

He shoved the knife in his pocket and went over to this dresser and started picking through one of the drawers. He pulled out a couple of expensive-looking gold watches that he probably got from his parents for being a genius, or for not destroying the world. “Which one you think is sweeter?”

I looked at them both and pointed at one at random. But right then an idea hit me. An idea for a beat: ticking. A clock ticking. Tick, tick, tick. I’d rap about how without Carly I could hear every clock in the world ticking. My life was ticking away because I didn’t have her.

Connor shoved the watch into the same pocket as the knife. He said, “Dude, want any of the crap in that drawer? A watch or gold chain or anything? I don’t need it anymore. Never did, actually.”

I told him I didn’t either. I sucked on my finger and tasted blood.

***

This girl Patricia who lived next door to Connor was out on the sidewalk in her wheelchair. For years I’d seen her out there whenever I came over to Connor’s. She was around fifteen now. Special needs. She also had something wrong with her bones. Could hardly control them. There was this big bald spot on the back of her head where she rubbed it against the leather headrest too much. Connor knew all about what was wrong with her. In, like, the actual medical terms. One Christmas afternoon he described her condition to me. For two hours. I didn’t want all the details, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by blowing him off, so I sat there and listened.

Whenever Patricia was outside, her father, who was this thin guy with a caved-in face, sat on the porch reading a book. Her mother was dead for some reason.

“Hey, Petunia.” Connor sounded totally stoned when he walked over to her. The father looked up for a second, then went back to his book.

“Patricia,” the girl drawled. Her head moved all over when she talked. “My name is Patricia, Connor.”

“Not to me it isn’t.”

She made a face. “You smell funny again.”

“Told you that’s the way I smell, Petunia. Seen any crows today?”

“Only one. She was in the gutter. A big fat shiny one. She flew away.”

Connor explained that Petunia loved crows.

“Oh, I almost forgot. Here.” He pulled the knife halfway out of his pocket. He mumbled “Not that,” and took out the watch. “Crows like shiny things like this.”

“Okay,” Patricia said. Connor slipped it on her wrist. It was way too loose, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Bye, Petunia.”

“Patricia.”

“Not to me you aren’t.”

When we walked away Connor said, “She ain’t gonna be around much longer either. They never expected her to live this long.”

What do you mean either? Shut up.

***

We walked three blocks without saying a word. It was around four o’clock in the afternoon, early April, kind of cool outside. The sky was blue and the sun was shining, but it wasn’t giving off much heat.

I said, “You like Hip Hop? You listen to rap?”

Connor grunted, “Nah.” I thought maybe he’d like it because it was, in our town anyway, scary to people. Subversive. Way too black, way too inner city. Mortonberg was mostly white, with some Asian families mixed in and a handful of blacks. Super conservative. The sign on Route 333 as you drove into town said: Mortonberg, Where Family Still Matters.

“Aren’t there any rappers you like?” I pushed.

He made a face like it was going to take this huge effort to answer the question. “I used to,” he said. “Tupak. Beastie Boys. Jay-Z. I don’t know. I stopped listening.”

“I like those guys, too,” I said. “I like Eminem best.”

“Should’ve pulled a reverse Michael Jackson and turned his skin black. For cred, you know?”

“Why? Why can’t he be white and rap? He’s friggin’ great. What’s the big deal that he’s white? You can’t be white and be a legit rapper?”

“Yo, dude, chill,” Connor said. “I don’t give a crap if he’s purple.”

“Michael Jackson was confused.”

“So who isn’t?” Connor said. “You’re either confused or you’re dead.”

I looked across the street, into the trees, down at my Nikes. “I write raps sometimes. I ever tell you that?”

“No.”

“Maybe I’ll play one for you sometime. I recorded a few of them on Garage Band. I’m thinking I might put them on Facebook when I get them just the way I want them.”

“I don’t listen to music anymore,” Connor said. “I don’t listen to anything. Actually, I do. I listen to nothing.” He hawked a wad of spit into the curb. “You should try it. Pure nothing. It’s the only thing that makes any fucking sense.”

“But don’t you think music helps?” I felt like my voice was plowing up through gravel. “Like, helps you get through things? It helps me, man.” I wanted to say that it helped me deal with the whole Carly thing, but so far nothing helped with that. “Like…take all this SAT crap? All this ‘where-you-going-to-college’ and ‘What are you going to major in?’ crap. I totally tune it out when I’m into my music.”

“Music’s irrelevant to me.”

I swear I didn’t get that. That made no sense. None. It made me feel like Connor wasn’t even human any more.

***

My phone beeped.

Carly: Bored to death! Studying AP History. Ugh. having fun with mr. sunshine?

Me: No. This sucks.

What I didn’t text: why are you doing this to me?

What she didn’t text back: because I still want you.

***

We came to a place that used to be woods but now was a construction site for some new McMansion. All they had up so far was a foundation and some of the framing. Nobody was working that day.

Connor stopped walking. “Wait here a second, okay, Blaise?” But then he stood there and stared at me like it was this complicated question that I had to really think about before I could answer.

“Okay,” I shrugged. “Got to take a piss?”

Another text: FYI: I’m going to dinner with Walker Livingston Thursday. Not a date! Just friends, swear to god! :-)

Fuck.” I punched my cell phone. “Fuck you, Carly.”

Connor shook his head and smirked. “That chick still playing you, dude?”

“You don’t know anything about it, man,” I barked at him. “So just shut up, okay? What the hell do you want from me anyway? What do you want from me?”

“Nothing, dude. I don’t want anything from you.”

“Then go take your piss so we can get this over with, okay? I got somewhere to be.”

“Okay, cool.” He turned, stuck his hand in his pocket. He walked over a bunch of ruts in the ground, past a small bulldozer and a stack of two by fours, and disappeared behind the foundation.

I thought about sending Carly a text but I had no idea what to say. So I started making up a rhyme:

Don’t know what to do, don’t know what to say
My whole fuckin life is tick, tick, ticking away
Blue sky turning gray
Wish my parents taught me how to pray
They don’t know shit anyway
Nobody knows nothing, not today,
Nobody has nothing worthwhile to say
Carly, girl, why didn’t you stay?

Lame. Then, shit, fist-to-the-gut: what’s he doing back there so long? I screamed his name and my voice came out like this wild caw.

I ran, found him sprawled in the red/brown mud, his head leaning against the foundation, his eyes closed.

“Connor. No. No, Connor.”

His eyes blinked opened. They looked like they were covered in red cellophane. That’s when I smelled the stink of weed and saw the ghost smoke dissolving around him. His eyes clicked over me like he was processing who I was. He smiled this weird, weak, broken smile. “Dude, you’re all upset.”

“What the hell do you expect? What…”

“Like I said, you never know. It could happen just like that. Gonna happen just like that. Except, don’t worry, you won’t be there.”

“You’re an asshole, Connor.” I thought I was going to cry, so I turned.

“Think I don’t know that?”

The sky was totally blue, but I couldn’t find the sun. Some insane prisoner was beating his fists on the walls of my heart.

Connor picked himself up like he was ninety years old. “Still feel like a Blizzard?”

“No.”

“Good. Let’s go home. I hate DQ.”

***

Patricia was still outside.

“Connor, the crow came back,” she called out, all excited. “She liked the shininess.” She tried to make her arm point toward the gutter, but it pointed into sky instead. Connor’s watch slid up and down her arm as she moved it. “She was so close, Connor.”

“That’s good, Petunia. You know what? It’s good luck when a crow gets close to you.”

“It is? Oh, goody. I had good luck, Connor. Connor, you smell.”

My phone buzzed again. Connor watched me. Go to hell, Carly, I thought. I didn’t mean it but I wished I did. I let it buzz. When it stopped, Connor actually smiled. I turned away.

A crow landed in a tree across the street. I said, “Hey, Petunia. Look over there. There she is again.”

“Where?”

“Right there.” I stretched my arm as far as I could, and she tried to get her head to move in that direction. “There. See?”

But her head wouldn’t let her see it, and she got all agitated, her whole body twitching like she was being electrocuted.

“Wait,” Connor said. “That’s not a crow. That’s an old black hat. See, Blaise? It’s a hat.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. I felt like an idiot. “It’s a hat.”

Petunia calmed right down.

“Dude,” Connor said, “you got somewhere to be, right? Go ahead. I’ll tell Judy you did your duty. Hey, there’s a rhyme for you. Don’t say I never gave you anything.”

“I won’t.”

“Later, cuz.”

But I just stood there like this human knot. Maybe I wanted to apologize, maybe I thought I’d never see him alive again. Everything felt wrong. “Know what,” I sputtered, “Petunia’s lucky to have you around.”

For, like, two seconds, Connor’s eyes closed. I swear he looked five years old. He looked…I don’t know… pure.

Steven Ostrowski is fiction writer and poet who teaches at Central Connecticut State University. He has published stories and poems in numerous literary journals and zines, including Literary OrphansSleetMadison Review, Harpur PalateWisconsin ReveiwRaritan, and many others. He has also published two poetry chapbooks, one from Bright Hill Press and one from Finishing Line Press. “Things We Never Know” derives from the first chapter of a novel-in-progress called The Suicide Walk.

Wishing Weeds

Everything was green. The way the sun shone down made everything seem brighter than it was. The arch of trees above my head should have provided a veil from the warm spring sunshine, but it didn’t. The sun still managed to shine on everything, even the tiny black ants scampering at the base of the trees. They gathered specks of dirt and pieces of splintered bark left over from the storm the night before.

The path was hidden, and if you didn’t know where to look, then you would never find it, which I found to be a shame because everything about it was beautiful. Only one other person knew about it. When we were seven we agreed to keep it a secret, and ever since then I struggled to keep my lips closed tight. I was never good at keeping secrets. He was, though.

I stared at the dirt, counting the roots as I walked. I concentrated so hard it was almost as if my feet weren’t moving at all.

A breeze blew through the trees, and I closed my eyes as my hair fell in front of my face, but I didn’t stop walking. I was never very graceful, even with my eyes open, but still I kept my eyes closed. I could hear the faint sound of the creek up ahead, and I let the running water guide me like I knew he would if he were here beside me.

When I opened my eyes, a speck of copper brown caught my eye through the trees, and I couldn’t stop the smile that spread across my face. It had been only a few days since I had seen the sparrow out on the path. I knew it was the same one because the patch of black on his breast looked like a heart. He perched on a low branch a few feet to my right, and if my arm were a foot longer I probably could have touched him. I knew his presence, so buried in the forest, was rare because sparrows, as far as I could remember, preferred the city and the presence of people. There were no people here, except me. He blinked once, and when I took a step towards him, he flew away.

I never quite understood why people wanted to kill the dandelions growing in their gardens. Each fluffy, snowflake weed was as good as a free wish, and I’d learned years ago never to waste an opportunity to make a wish.

Right before the path opened up to the bank of the creek, I cut through the trees like I always did and scoured the small field for the patch of dandelions that had been there for as long as I could remember. I never quite understood why people wanted to kill the dandelions growing in their gardens. Each fluffy, snowflake weed was as good as a free wish, and I’d learned years ago never to waste an opportunity to make a wish. He’d taught me that.

I’d been wishing on stars and weeds ever since.

I bypassed the empty stems that had been left naked by the wind and plucked the first fully round wishing weed I could find. I shielded its perfect seeds as I walked back through the trees and onto the creek bed.

Maneuvering through the soppy dirt, I sat down on the large rock as I always did and watched the minnows swim past. Sometimes I wondered where they were going or imagined how great it must feel to always be surrounded by the water.

I twirled the dandelion between my fingers and inhaled a breath before raising it to my lips and blowing the seeds into the wind. Some of them landed in the water and were carried with the current while some of them floated into the sky and disappeared. I closed my eyes and listened to the creek, the wind, and the birds. I was alone, but when I came down the path and sat by the creek, it never felt that way.

“Hey.”

His voice appeared out of nowhere like it always did. There were hardly ever any rustling leaves to signify his presence. I smiled and my eyes fluttered open. “Hi.”

He leaped off the rock on the opposite side of the creek and waded into the middle of the water. His shoes, classic black Converse, and favorite blue jeans, dark wash and straight legged, didn’t get wet. “Anything exciting happen today?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Not really.” I tied the stem left over from the dandelion into a small knot. “Isn’t the water freezing?”

“No,” he said. “I can’t feel it.”

I set the stem onto the rock. “I went to your house yesterday.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“Your mom and I still talk sometimes.” I watched as he retreated back onto the dry dirt. “I think she wishes you could come home.”

“She and I both.”

“I was thinking, what if I brought her here? You know, maybe—”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because this was ours,” he said.

“But I just thought that maybe she’d be able—”

“If you bring her, I won’t come back.”

I blinked once, then again. “Okay.”

“I mean it.”

“I know. I won’t bring her here.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to see her,” he whispered. “I just can’t do that to her. She’s finally moving on.”

“But I’m moving on, and I still get to see you.”

He shook his head. “At this point, you wouldn’t move on if someone paid you.” He smiled and raised his hand in a small wave as he disappeared through the trees.

I took a deep breath and held it until I was certain I would pass out, and then let it out slowly. The water ran clear over the pebbles, and all I could hear was the trickling of the creek, filling the section of forest around me.

What if he was right? What if I wasn’t moving on at all?

What if he was right? What if I wasn’t moving on at all? I played miniature golf with some friends last weekend, and his mom told me I looked better, but I always tried to look better around her, whatever better was.

A small tickle on my arm distracted me. I quickly smacked the mosquito and flicked the insect onto the ground.

A few moments later, I felt my phone vibrate inside of my pocket. By the time I wedged it out, it stopped. ‘1 missed call’ flashed across the screen, but before I could see who it was, it rang again, my mom’s name appearing. I pressed the button to ignore the call and started the walk back home.

***

“Are you sure there isn’t anything you want to talk about today?” Rose, my therapist, asked.

I shrugged. Her office was stuffy and bright red. It hurt my eyes and caused my vision to blur if I focused too long on any one portion of the walls. She had a small wooden giraffe sitting on the edge of her desk. I’d never told her, but giraffes were my favorite animals. The patterns painted across their massive bodies fascinated me, and I could spend whole afternoons thinking about those long necks and the muscles it took to hold up their magnificent heads.

“I don’t know,” I said. I always said I don’t know when she asked me that. I spent every Tuesday afternoon in this office for almost two months now, and I still hadn’t figured out where to begin.

Rose pulled open the bottom desk drawer and rummaged around before coming up with a black and white composition notebook. She flipped through it, stopping to tear out a few pages that had writing on them, and handed it to me.

“What’s this for?”

“It’s for you to write in. Take it home and maybe try and write down something you want to talk about next week. It can be anything at all.”

I flipped through the pages and noticed just how dry they made my fingers feel. I didn’t like this. I didn’t like this because next week, no matter how hard I fought it, I was going to have to talk. “Okay,” I said. I stuffed the book into my backpack and gave her a half smile as I walked out of her office.

***

“You’re later than usual,” he said, perching himself on the biggest rock near the creek.

“I know.” I placed my backpack onto the ground and tossed the stem from the dandelion I had picked into the water. “I had therapy,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“Still?”

“Yup.” I sat down where the dirt was dry and began drawing circles in the brown dust with my finger.

He smirked. “Did you talk about me?”

“I don’t talk about anything.”

“Well,” he paused, jumping down off the rock, “maybe you should. I mean, maybe it’ll help you.”

“Help me what?”

“Just, I don’t know, get over all of this.”

“Get over all of what?”

He sighed as he walked over and sat down in front of me. “Doesn’t this make you feel crazy?” he asked.

“Of course it does, but why does that matter? I’m here. You’re here. I’d say it’s more miraculous than crazy.”

“I just want you to live the rest of your life, and not here at the creek, down this path. Out in the world, doing whatever it is you want to do.”

“But I like it here.”

“I liked it here, too,” he said. “But I had to move on.”

“Why do you keep telling me to move on?” I picked up a pebble and tossed it into the water.

“Because I think you need to.”

“You want this to end?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why are you trying to make it end?” I looked up into his eyes, and they were nothing like I remembered. It was eerie, almost as if I could see straight through them.

“I don’t want you to be stuck here anymore.”

***

I could see her looking at me out of the corner of my eye. She always did this when she wanted to talk. Small talk was all it ever amounted to anymore.

One night, while I was watching TV, Mom sat down next to me. I could see her looking at me out of the corner of my eye. She always did this when she wanted to talk. Small talk was all it ever amounted to anymore.
“How was your day today, sweetie?”

I turned my head to look at her. “Fine.”

“You got home from school pretty late.”

“I was down at the creek.”

She leaned forward to grab the remote from the coffee table and turned the volume down. “You spend so much time there.”

I shrugged. “It’s peaceful.”

“You’ll have to show me sometime.”

I gave her a tight-lipped smile. “Yeah.” Not a chance in hell.

***

“Do you remember that time you came to the beach with my family for my birthday? Mom put the cake on the railing so she could unlock the door, and the wind blew it off. It splattered all over the driveway.” I smiled and pulled my knees into my chest.

“And the ants were so bad the next morning your dad spent an hour trying to hose them off.” He smiled at the memory. “How are they doing?”

“Who?” I wasn’t sure if he meant the ants or my family.

“Your parents.”

“Oh. They’re fine.” I picked up the dandelion stem from beside me and twirled it between my fingertips. “What about the time you tried to ask Sara to Homecoming, and you left the note on the wrong car.”

“The football player.”

“Or the first time our parents let us ride our bikes farther than the cul-de-sac by ourselves, and I broke my arm. They didn’t let us do that again for at least a year.”

“Stop.”

He spoke so calmly it startled me more so than if he would have shouted. The dandelion stem fell to the ground. “Stop what?”

“You’re living in memories.”

“They’re good memories.”

He slid down off the rock. “But they’re not all that’s out there. The world is so much bigger than memories.”

“I wish you would stop trying to push me away.”

“How can I push you away? I’m not even real. This isn’t real.”

I jumped down and stood in front of him, closer than I ever had before. “It’s real to me.”

“You can’t keep wishing for me on weeds.” He reached out to grab my shoulder; it was the first time he’d ever tried to touch me. I couldn’t feel the pressure, and there was no warmth in his touch. The hair on my arms stood straight. I took a step back and, for the first time, realized that maybe he was right.

***

Something had changed since yesterday. The trees and the ants were just where I had left them. The sun still made the green brush glow, but there was something different about the path that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Birds chirped like they always did, and a breeze blew through my hair. The closer I got to the clearing of dandelions, though, I noticed the strong smell of fresh cut grass. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent, cherishing the familiar smell in a new place.

When I emerged from the dirt pathway into the small clearing before the creek, my heart sank. Every single dandelion was mowed over. For the first time in years, the grass was short and tidy.

My eyes clouded over as I ran to the creek. Just because the dandelion was missing from the equation didn’t mean he wasn’t going to show.

I waited for an hour. He never came.

By the time I got to the cemetery, the sun was beginning to set. I walked to the spot I had tried so hard to forget and sat down on the prickly grass.

“They mowed the field,” I said, my voice unsteady. I picked a blade of grass and tore it to pieces. “No more wishing weeds.” I looked up, his name etched in stone staring back at me.

I’m not sure how long I sat there, but when I got up to leave, there was a sprinkling of stars emerging across the sky.

The notebook from Rose sat on the corner of my desk, and before I even realized what I was doing, I wrote down everything. I wrote about the day we found the path.

I skipped dinner when I got home. I kicked off my shoes and locked my bedroom door behind me. The notebook from Rose sat on the corner of my desk, and before I even realized what I was doing, I wrote down everything. I wrote about the day we found the path. I wrote about the time we snuck out of our houses and watched the stars from the rocks by the creek. I wrote about the sixty-one encounters I’d had with him after he died.
I didn’t plan on showing Rose what I had written, not yet. I grabbed the scissors out of the top drawer and carefully cut away the pages. I folded them and hid them underneath a small pile of CDs in the bottom drawer of my desk.

Before stuffing the notebook into my backpack, though, I wrote one simple word on the front page for Tuesday: Giraffes.

Grace Thomas is a graduating senior in the BFA creative writing program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In addition to her love affair with words, she also enjoys running, music, photography, and traveling. She is very excited and honored to be able to call Lunch Ticket her first, but definitely not her last, publication.