Labeled

The trek across the asphalt and brutal heat coming from the sun made the sliding doors ahead appear as a mirage. New Mexico. New Mexico. Arizona. New Mexico. New Mexico. New Mexico. One out-of-state car in the entire row of parking spots. Probably one in the entire lot. I walked past my therapist’s office and other stores to the Wal-Mart. Cool air slammed into me as I entered. I wandered through the aisles of electronics and stopped at a large television playing a loop of a children’s movie. It was loud and vibrant, opposite of the ocean CD that played in the waiting room for comfort. My guilt dissipated into relief.

In my peripheral vision I saw a guy approaching, his dark hair cropped close to his scalp and blue Wal-Mart shirt partially untucked from his khaki pants.

“Can I, uh, help you find something?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said.

“All right.” He stood near, making no attempt to leave. I recognized him; he’d graduated when I was a sophomore. He and his friends smoked weed behind the locker rooms.

I waited for him to leave, go to the pet aisle and help some old lady lift cat food into her cart. Instead, he leaned against the display, slipped a hand into his pocket, and pulled out a scuffed, gray flip phone. I pretended to study the movies in front of me.

“I know who you are, you know,” he said, his eyes trained on the ancient cell phone.

“So? You don’t need to be Sherlock to know who’s who around here.”

“You’re the girl whose friend died riding her bike,” he said, as though he was telling me it was hot outside. I knew I should’ve been horrified, or upset, but I couldn’t form the appropriate response. He was the first person to say it. Everyone else treated me that way. I knew they thought it, pitied me, but they never said it. My brain took too long to process his words, but he waited.

It’s funny. When we’re younger, that’s all we want: parents to stop grounding us. When we’re older we finally realize why it’s important. Too bad letting you get away with everything won’t work.

“Actually, most people call me Shy,” I finally said.

I turned away, not wanting to hear what always came next.

“Yeah, I guess Shy is simpler. I’m Wes,” he said.

He had yet to say what I expected: the blundering and sometimes tactless questions concerning my well-being. As if I could return to any semblance of normal while being treated like normalcy was no longer a possibility.

“Yeah, I know, the town screw-up,” I said. The words were sharper than I intended.

“It’s actually just Wes.”

“Whatever. Don’t you have diapers to restock?”

He raised one eyebrow and nodded to himself before he shoved his weight off the display and walked away.

“Wait, where are you going?”

My question was ridiculous, but he didn’t point it out.

“Outside, it’s my break,” he said.

I followed him to the “employees only” door. He held it open for me. I wondered if this would get him fired. Standing hesitantly between the time-card holder and the lockers, I was unsure if I needed to look out for other employees. He pulled a lighter and a pack of cigarettes from a locker, returned his time card to its slot, and led me out the backdoor. He pulled out a cigarette, offered me one, and smirked when I shook my head.

Wes rolled the unlit cigarette between his thumb and index finger and we both hovered close to the wall to avoid the sun. We stood in silence for a few minutes before he finally lit it. I tried not to cough, not wanting to be rude. Worrying that I couldn’t think of anything to say to him in the growing silence, I became aware of every breath I sucked in. I stepped away from the wall and instantly felt the dry heat of the sun. I thought my makeup was going to slide off my face with the drops of sweat that formed around my hairline.

“Where are you going?”

His tone didn’t reveal if he wanted me to stay.

“To my therapy appointment. You know, because I’ve got a dead friend?” I tilted my head in the direction of the office.

He nodded a bit before replying, “You ever notice how therapist reads the ‘the rapist’?”

“Can’t say I have. But thanks for that interesting thought.”

“My break is almost over anyway,” he said. “It’s this time every day, in case you ever wanna rebel and smoke.” He raised one eyebrow again and it seemed like a challenge.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said.

I trudged across the asphalt, my t-shirt sticking to my lower back from sweat by the time I arrived. I knew Dr. Anderson would let my late arrival go.

My mom picked me up after she got my sister, Lorraine, from swim practice and took us home. I went straight upstairs to take a shower before Lorraine.

“Shy! Come on, I need to get the chlorine out of my hair! I don’t want it to turn green!” Lorraine said after I already had the water running.

“You could have showered at the pool!”

I heard Lorraine stomp away. Two months ago she would have broken down the door if I tried to shower before her when she had chlorine in her hair.

My shirt was plastered to my back from my still-damp hair, the smell of cucumber soap and coconut conditioner surrounded me and I felt refreshed after scrubbing the sweat from my body. Lorraine jumped into the bathroom with the steam from my shower still pouring out. Mom was in the kitchen leaning against the counter and flipping through a magazine when I entered. She looked up and set down the magazine.

“The guy who hit your friend with his car, he lives here.” He pulled a carton of eggs from the backseat. “I thought you should have the chance to blame him.”

“Come here,” she gestured to a chair. I sat down and she pulled my hair over the back.

“Look at how long this has gotten.” She combed her fingers through sections and I felt my muscles relax at the sensation.

“You look just like a princess out of a fairy tale. Long hair like gold.” Her fingers twisted the pieces closest to my scalp, French braiding hair that went past my waistline. While she braided, she talked about SAT’s and college applications. I let her talk without responding.

*     *     *

Two days later, I went straight to the side of Wal-Mart after my mom’s car was out of sight. The side door opened after a few minutes and Wes settled against the wall, setting a Monster Energy drink down beside him. He didn’t look surprised to see me. He offered a cigarette and huffed a laugh when I shook my head.

“I prefer my lungs cancer-free,” I said.

“Does your mom drop you off really early for therapy or something?” he asked.

“No, I was late last time.”

“And this time?”

“This time I’m not going.”

“It’s in a great location, isn’t it?” Wes asked.

“What is?”

“The therapist’s office. Far enough from the hospital to take comfort in the fact that you aren’t crazy enough for a padded cell, close enough to remember that it’s still a possibility.”

“You really know how to give a girl butterflies.” I scuffed my sneaker on the asphalt.

“And you’re still here talking to me instead of your therapist. He must be really terrible.”

“It’s just… bullshit really. Like talking to some shrink is going to make your problems disappear.”

I wondered if he’d rather be collecting carts and greeting pajama-clad customers but not knowing didn’t stop me. Words spit out, things I would have told Sydney, had she been here.

“Seriously though, how sick is that? ‘Oh, your best friend died? Sit here, talk about your dream, pay me, and you’ll feel better.’ I just want everyone to stop seeing me as the girl with the dead best friend. It’s bad enough she’s gone. Do I have to be gone too?”

A car backfired, making me jump. I kicked my foot against the wall before leaning back again.

“You ever light the extra lint on your socks on fire?” Wes finally asked.

I looked over at him. The unlit cigarette in his hands, forgotten as he waited for my reply.

“No, but I’m guessing you did,” I said.

“What was your childhood? Let me guess, you never even crashed a party either? Or. . .”

“Skipped homeroom to get Slurpee’s at the 7-11? No, sorry to disappoint. Ditching therapy session are about as ‘badass’ as I get,” I said.

“Ah, see that’s where you don’t get it. Doing those things are not about being badass, it’s about living. You’re doing life wrong.”

“And working at Wal-Mart right after high school instead of going to college or getting a real career is living? You’re right, I am clearly the one ‘doing life wrong’.”

Wes didn’t flinch. I couldn’t have been the first one to say it. I didn’t mean to say it. But he had yet to censor himself around me, and I found it easy not to either.

“So, when do you think your parents will notice you aren’t going to therapy?” Wes asked, picking up the Monster Energy drink from the ground after placing his unused cigarette back in his pack.

“No idea. But I doubt they’ll get mad when they do.” I felt certain that they’d conveniently accept that I no longer followed every rule.

“Ah, they’re letting you get away with everything so you’ll get better.”

“Pretty much,” I asked.

“It’s funny. When we’re younger, that’s all we want: parents to stop grounding us. When we’re older, we finally realize why it’s important. Too bad letting you get away with everything won’t work.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You’re a former goody-two-shoes who’s ditching therapy to talk to a cigarette-smoking Wal-Mart employee. Why?”

“I needed to talk to someone.”

“You have a shrink. A family. And other friends, I’m sure, who all want to talk. That’s not it,” he said. He was right but I didn’t admit it. “What are you going to do after you graduate? Take a year off, go to Europe and ‘find yourself’?” he asked. I appreciated the subject change.

“College, not sure where though. Probably Southwestern. It’s where my mom went; I know she wants that.”

“And good girls like you always listen.”

“And impulsive ‘living life’ people like you smoke outside of a Wal-Mart.”

He ignored the jab and jumped away from the wall, spreading his arms out from his sides. “That’s what you need!” he said.

“A Monster or a job?”

“Impulse! What do you want to do? Something you didn’t plan to do today, didn’t plan to do this month? Something that you know might even upset your parents?”

“I don’t want to go to therapy.”

“Seriously, something you were never brave enough to do?”

“I—,” I couldn’t think. My life was a series of checklists, not spontaneous decisions. Get good grades. Crush on the football captain. Watch horror movies with Sydney. Go to college. I was a walking stereotype, a parent’s wet-dream. I never even snuck out. I raked loose flyaways of my hair out of my eyes. “I want to… to cut my hair. I want to cut my hair, short.”

His arms dropped a bit but he still smiled. “Okay! That’s what we’re going to do. Not what I had in mind, but if that’s what you wish, Rapunzel.”

“That’s what I want to do.”

“Is this like the biblical thing? Cut your hair and it shall set you free? Should I call you Samson instead?” he asked.

“Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut. So I’m gonna go with no, this isn’t a biblical thing,” I said.

“Sunday School attendance was never a specialty of mine.”

“I don’t think any form of attendance is a specialty of yours,” I said, nodding back to the store where I was sure his second shift would be starting soon. He shrugged but kept leading me to his beat up Honda Accord that was three different colors between the hood and two front doors.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said.

*     *     *

When I got home I almost ran straight upstairs. I didn’t think I would actually go through with it. I thought my parents would find out and my mini-adventure would end before it started, but I mentioned hanging out with friends and there were no more questions. My mom heard me close the front door and was in the foyer before I could reach the stairs.

“Oh! Shy… you cut it. Your hair, you… cut it?”

I could tell she was sad, but she tried to hide it.

“Well. Well, I imagine it’s a lot nicer for the summer. Cooler, right?” she said.

“Yeah, it’s lighter. I feel lighter.”

Her shoulders went down a bit and she even smiled.

“It looks nice, it really does.”

I smiled back and went up to my room, enjoying the way the feathery layers brushed against my cheeks with each step. But I had to wonder if she meant it.

*     *     *

A few days later I met Wes outside the Wal-Mart, and he didn’t even bother to pull out a cigarette. Instead we went straight to his car.

“Where are we going?”

“Where do you want to go?” He opened the passenger door for me but I didn’t get in.

“You really should be here for your second shift.”

“I don’t have a second shift.”

“Well, I have studying to do, so I need to stay here.”

“Studying? It’s summer, how could you have studying?”

I was already pulling a stack of flashcards from my bag. “SAT studying. You know, for those of us who want to do something after high school?” I wondered how long it would take for him to stop being nice to me and why I wanted to push him until I found out.

“Well, you can do that on the way. Or later. Or never. Come on, I got my second shift off and my job is not in danger, now will you get in the car? You’re in training, remember?”

I got into the car and he went around to his side and got in.

“Training? For what, cart returning—”

“Shut up. Training for impulsive decisions.” He had excessive energy as he maneuvered the car out of the parking lot and for a moment I worried that he was on drugs, but then I realized he was happy. Maybe even excited.

“Ah, but training implies a schedule, which implies a lack of impulsive decision-making.”

“Alright, whatever Miss SAT. What do you want to do today? Get a tattoo? Join a nudist colony?”

“You wish.”

He shifted the car in park in the middle of the street. I looked around us, afraid that at any moment a semi would slam into us but no one was around.

“Seriously? You are failing as my prodigy.”

“I’ll consider that a compliment.”

“Come on, Shy. Anything. As stupid as burning ants with magnifying glasses or as big as flying a hot air balloon, just something.”

“Fine. I want to… learn to drive stick.” I noticed the way he pumped the extra pedal with his left foot and slid the stick over the first time riding in his car and something about it made me want to try.

“Okay. Okay! Um, do you know anything about driving stick?”

“Other than that you drive a car that is, no.”

He blew out a breath.

“You know what, never mind, I need to study anyway.”

“Hang on, I was just thinking about where to start, relax. Okay, well first watch me drive and listen. Listen to how the engine sounds right before I switch the gears.”

“Okay.”

We drove around for two blocks before he pulled over. I felt my heart thud the way it did before I got on a roller-coaster as we switched seats. I fell in, far from the wheel and couldn’t reach the pedals even with my toes pointed. Wes laughed.

“Reach under the seat, there’s a bar to slide the chair forward with.”

After I was close enough, he started to get into the numbers and position of the gears.

“Hold up, André the Giant, I’m still looking through the steering wheel center, not above it.”

“That’s as high as the seat goes.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. It wasn’t made for nine-year-olds.”

“I’ll be eighteen in two months. That still doesn’t change the fact that I can’t see out the window.”

“Okay, hold on.” He got out, went to his trunk, grabbed something and came around to my door.

I stepped out to find him holding two thick Yellow Books.

He set both down on my seat.

I picked one of the books up and handed it back to him. “I don’t know how short you think I am, but I’m pretty sure four inches will work.”

Once we settled back into the car, he lectured on the gears and how to let off the clutch slowly. He didn’t mention the clutch punched back, and it got stuck before second gear if you didn’t slide it just right. We stalled every six feet. Slowly, every six feet turned to every block, and then only when I stopped. When I was comfortable, he read my vocab words, but stopped when I let the car drift over the center divider if I couldn’t remember the answer. When my phone rang, I realized the time.

“Mom?” I said after pulling the car over.

“Oh thank… where are you?”

“I thought I told you I was hanging with my friend again today?”

“No. I don’t think you did.”

“I’ll be home soon. We were just talking. Catching up before school starts.”

“Okay, be home for dinner.”

I heard her sigh on the other end and tell my dad what was going on.

I hung up and closed my eyes until I heard Wes laughing.

“I guess I’m back in high school?”

“I didn’t say that. I didn’t even lie.”

“Uh uh. Not lying. Just impulsively deciding to not give the full truth, right?”

“Yeah, whatever.”

*     *     *

Wes had almost become an agreement. We’d be each other’s companion, so neither of us had to focus on reality. We’d hung out together for three weeks, and now I could drive his car without even stuttering at a stop sign. But I didn’t have any more ideas on what to do.

I arrived at the Wal-Mart and waited at the side door, but Wes didn’t show. I didn’t see him gathering carts so I went inside and found him in the car section helping an older man pick out an As-Seen-On-TV headlight cleaner. When he saw me, he quickly helped the man by putting the two bottles in his cart and sending him on his way.

“Did you finally decide to join a trapeze act? Are you coming to say goodbye?”

I laughed and shook my head.

“I came in late today. I’ll be off in five minutes.”

I nodded and waited for him outside.

“So what’s the plan?”

“Come on, Shy, don’t be shy.”

“Clever. I don’t have one.”

“Not even robbing a casino? Finding Atlantis? I guess we can just talk. I have another shift today that I probably shouldn’t miss.” He pulled out a cigarette and I held out my hand for one, too.

He raised his right eyebrow. I realized that was his way of calling bullshit.

I took it and he pulled out another for himself.

“I thought you liked your lungs cancer-free?”

“I don’t know what I like. I’ve always liked what my parents liked.”

Wes didn’t reply.

“I’m no expert, but aren’t we supposed to light these?”

He pulled out his lighter, lit mine and watched as I put it between lips and inhaled. It burned like I was swallowing embers, but I was determined not to cough. My eyes watered and my brain felt fuzzy, but I didn’t cough. Wes lit his own and we fell back into silence.

“Guess I’m fired,” Wes said eventually.

“What? It hasn’t been fifteen minutes.”

“From being the person you talk to. You haven’t said anything.”

“I’m sorry. I just,” I struggled with my words. “One person is responsible for my life basically turning to shit and I can’t even fight for justice because it was an accident. My life is irreversibly changed, and he gets to live unaffected by it all. I mean, I’m sure he feels bad, but—”

“But it’s not enough. Want to egg his house? Slash his tires?”

“No. Yes, but no. I mean, it’s not his fault. It is, but…”

“Well, maybe something bigger’ll get him. He’ll go skydiving in celebration and get taken out by a blimp.”

“Yeah. Maybe. Maybe I do want to egg his house. I don’t know, I just—”

“Need someone to blame.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I think I do,” I said with an exhale.

We finished the cigarettes, mine burning out while I talked. Wes tossed his on the ground to join the countless others, but I took mine to the ashtray attached to the trashcan.

*     *     *

The next day when I met Wes, he was already in his car with the air on.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

I closed my eyes as we drove. When the car slowed to stop and Wes nudged my arm I reopened them. He pointed out the window to the only house I could see. It was a small, ranch style home that looked out of place in the dirt landscape. It had no driveway, only a little patch of grass close to the front door.

“Where are we?”

“The guy who hit your friend with his car, he lives here.” He pulled a carton of eggs from the backseat. “I thought you should have the chance to blame him.”

I eyed the carton.

“I—I can’t. I can’t do that to him.”

“It’s okay, I get it. You don’t have to convince me. We’ll head back, it’s fine.”

Wes didn’t push me. He let it go. He became my parents. He became my sister. Dr. Anderson. He was everyone but who I wanted, who I needed him to be.

“No. You don’t get it. You can’t get it. I want to, but… I want.” I was furious with him; the emotion was so overwhelming that all I could concentrate on was the tingling sensation behind my forehead. “I just want everything back! I want my best friend back. I want everyone to stop watching me. I want my sister to start fighting with me again, my parents to punish me when I do something wrong. I want to be able to talk and not be judged or monitored or labeled. And it’s his fault she’s gone! Why did she die? Why am I stuck here, in this shitty town, where everyone is fine with never amounting to anything more than a Wal-Mart employee? Why am I stuck here with you and not the one person who wanted to leave as much as me?”

Wes was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke his words were slow and forced.

“You don’t want to be labeled Shy, but you give me a label every fucking day. Listen to yourself, you think you’ve got shit figured out, you think you’re better than everyone? You label every person who stays in this town a loser. Look around, Shy, you’re one of us too.”

I finally got him to snap.

“Well I’m not the only hypocrite, Wes! Insisting that life has no meaning, there is no value in the structured things, and then lecturing me on how life’s about the impulsive and experimental. So which is it, Wes? Does life have a meaning or not? Are you a loser or a genius?”

Wes didn’t reply. He threw the stick into gear and drove to my house. I got out and slammed his door, our front door, my bedroom door, and they all echoed in my head.

For the first time in three months, I didn’t know exactly why I needed to cry. Mom let me sulk. I watched three foreign documentaries on Netflix until the subtitles made as much sense as the language being said. I paced, reorganized my CDs alphabetically, and refused to go downstairs for meals.

The next day I tried to do the same but I was woken up at seven by my mom. Once I was showered and dressed, I met her in the kitchen.

“Your father and I aren’t going to make you attend therapy. It seemed like the right decision because you were hanging out with friends again. But if you think you can mope for the rest of the summer, you’re wrong.”

She pointed to the table where an SAT practice test sat with a timer and pencil.

After three days of cleaning and SAT preparation I wasn’t angry or even sad, just lonely. I felt pathetic, but I was too stubborn to admit that I enjoyed Wes’ company. But I was too busy to mope.

“We’re out of bleach,” my mom said, her voice muffled because she was looking under the kitchen sink.

“Well, I think that’s a good place to stop, when you run out of cleaning supplies.”

“Or it’s a good time to run to Wal-Mart,” she said. “Go freshen up. We’ll leave in ten minutes.”

I thought about venturing out to Wal-Mart several times but never had the courage. At least if Wes ignored me I had a logical reason for being there, now.

The minute the blue sign appeared, I felt nervous. I didn’t even know if I would see him and I was torn wishing I would and hoping I wouldn’t.

We went down a few aisles without any sight of him. I helped my mom grab laundry detergent and led the way to the next aisle when I saw him re-stacking napkins. I stopped walking and my mom rounded the corner with the cart and ran into me. My knees hit the linoleum tile and a jolt of pain went up to my hips.

“Shy, are you okay?” I heard Wes ask as my mom said something similar.

“I’m fine. I’m all right.” I tried to stand without making a face and wished my hair was still long enough to hide my blush.

“Why were you just standing there?” my mom asked, her voice taking on the sharper tone it always had when Lorraine or I almost hurt ourselves.

“I didn’t want to get in his way. Here,” I said as I grabbed the first set of paper towels I saw and tossed them into the cart. I pulled the cart forward to get us to the next aisle.

“You sure you’re okay?” Wes asked as I passed.

“I’m fine. Thanks.” I tried to say it nicely. But I was also trying not to cry. From embarrassment, from the ache already forming behind my kneecaps, from wanting him to say something rude or irrelevant just to make me laugh instead of being concerned like an actual friend would be, from all of it. My mom let me lead her past four aisles before she talked.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

I took a deep breath and was impressed that it was not the shaky kind that always came with a sob. I nodded.

“Because if you’re not, I’m sure you can ride around in one of those little Rascal carts they have for injured or elderly people. I promise to only take a few pictures.”

I laughed and shook my head.

“He went to your school, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

*     *     *

We finished unloading groceries from our shopping trip and even did a little cleaning after getting home. Two hours later we were putting a dinner roast in the oven when the doorbell rang.  She answered it while I doodled on the notepad that sat next to the phone until she called me over.

Wes stood at my front door and smirked when he saw my face. He’d shaved the patchy scruff that normally shadowed his chin and traded his khakis for jeans. It was strange to see him out of his uniform. The fact that seeing him had me in a better mood annoyed me. I only expected to feel mild amusement and irritation from him.

“Where exactly were you two planning on going?”

“Just a get-together with some friends. There won’t be any alcohol and Shy will be home no later than eight.”

I thought I had no chance of going, but she proposed a deal.

“If I let you go, you have to take an ACT exam as well.”

Wes’s smirk grew and I almost said no just to see him lose it.

“Okay, deal.”

“Home by 8:30,” she said to Wes.

“Where are we going that ends earlier than eight?” I asked when we got in his car.

“You’ll see.”

While we drove, I programmed a radio station that wasn’t Screamo.

“Now when you pick me up, you can turn this on so I don’t have to listen to guys go hoarse screaming into microphones.”

“Whatever.”

I could tell he got my pathetic apology.

We pulled up to the only banquet hall in town.

“What are we doing here?”

“You’re still in training. We’re gonna crash a party.”

I looked at the sign that displayed the events.

“Bingo? We’re crashing the senior citizen’s bingo?”

“I figured we should start small. But just a warning, they do make you wear those ‘hello my name is…’ name tags. We may want to use code names.”

I laughed and shook my head, leading the way to the entrance. He wasn’t lying, a little table with name tags and markers and refreshments was just past the entrance. Most of the guests were already seated. Wes stopped at the table and grabbed a name tag and marker.

“So, what’s your code name gonna be? Samson?” he asked.

I thought for a moment before writing ‘The Girl with the Dead Best Friend.’ He laughed.

Wes wrote ‘The Loser’ on his.

Mackenna CummingsMackenna Cummings lives in Orange, California where she is studying at Chapman University to earn her MFA in Creative Writing. While earning her BA from Eckerd College, she studied in England, Ireland, Spain, and Ecuador and hopes to find more opportunities to travel in the future. Aside from traveling she loves to spend time with her family. This is her first publication.

Honor’s Justice

The pavement shimmers with the melted snow rush hour traffic has left in its wake. I cross the street and tuck myself inside the doorway of a closed office building. Flashing lights kaleidoscope from the alley leading to the back of the courthouse. I want to see the police car that will take Noor’s killer to the Massachusetts Correctional Facility at Cedar Junction. Even if that killer was her dad. Especially because her killer was her dad.

From the darkness of the margins, a voice reels me in from my vigil.

“Grace, is that you?”

My heart starts punching, even as the voice clicks into place so I recognize it.

“Geez, Cory, you scared me.”

“Sorry,” he says. “You had to see it, too, huh?”

Yes. I had to see it, too.

Cory and I have never been close. Not before Noor and not after. Not even during the trial. I guess we’d both been jealous of how much the other took Noor away from us. We each held our own separate piece of her, our own place in her life that was already segregated like a walled compound. I was her best friend since fourth grade; Cory was the boy she fell in love with eight months before her father stopped her life as easily as if he were stilling the pendulum of a clock.

I move over in the doorway and Cory stands beside me. I want to be hidden from Mr. Altameemi when the police car goes by. My heart still strums from the hate-filled stare he set on me while I testified. I had struggled so hard to keep my voice from quavering, tried so hard to use the anger to keep me focused on my testimony, just like DA Meyers told me to do.

“I wish they’d fry that son of a bitch,” Cory says, warm mist from his breath catching the orange glow of a streetlight. Cars and buses trickle by, but most of downtown went home hours ago. It had been almost five when the jury started to deliberate, and even DA Myers couldn’t believe they had come back in less than four hours.

“Noor wouldn’t want that,” I whisper.

“She forgave him no matter what he did, didn’t she?”

I shake my head. “She wouldn’t forgive him this. She hated how he was trying to make her live. But she wouldn’t want him to fry.”

I glance up at Cory and reach for a breath. My chest feels squeezed like I’m being crushed in a crowded elevator.

“He was her dad,” I say. But saying that feels like somehow excusing him. He was her dad, so how could he do this to her? How could he kill her in the name of honor?

Cory shakes his head, and the same frustration rises in me. The same hunger for retribution fills my stomach with a gnawing ache that never goes away. Losing Noor has been like losing my shadow, and I keep looking back for the part of me that’s missing.

“I can’t help thinking, Grace,” Cory says.

“What?” I ask, although I don’t think I’ll like what he’s about to say. He pulls his hands into the sleeves of his hockey jacket, the blue one Noor loved because she said it set off his fair skin.

“I can’t help thinking that you and I should have stood trial, too.”

I don’t disagree.

“Me, anyway,” he says. “You got it, even if it was too late.”

What was the use of getting something if it was too late? Cory and I had ignored so many clues, dismissed so many warnings as not really important. Noor’s parents were strict, like they hadn’t really ever left the place they’d come from, but they were living here, they sent her to school here. She wasn’t allowed to sleep over at my house and they wouldn’t let her go to parties, but she didn’t have to cover her head or dress in black or anything extreme. She played on the tennis team and wore makeup. She was the one every girl turned to when they needed a spritz of hairspray or some lip gloss. I had accepted every excuse Noor ever gave me for why we didn’t hang at her house, whether it was her mom’s supposed migraines or her brothers having to study. She didn’t like to be at home unless she had to be, but I had never understood it was because she felt watched like an animal in a research lab. Best friends for seven years, and she had hidden the worst of how controlling they were until the last few months. The months after Cory entered the picture. The months when hiding it had become too much of a burden.

I close my eyes, trying to shut out the view in my imagination of Noor struggling to pull out of her dad’s grip right before he pushed her from the bridge over the railroad tracks down by the river. He probably would have gotten away with it if a couple hadn’t been sitting in the dark on the back porch of one of the little brick row houses set on either side of the bridge like bookends. They heard angry voices and Noor pleading in English “let me go!” They saw Noor tumble over the railing, though they couldn’t say she’d been pushed. They watched her dad lean over as her body hit the tracks with a bouncing thud. They watched him turn and slowly walk away, leaving her there for the next train to hit her. But they hadn’t waited for that train. The girl had called 911 and the boy had run down and pulled Noor’s body from the tracks before the train that was due in a few minutes could roar through in the dark, thousands of tons, its whistle silent because there was no crossing to make it sing.

Cory’s voice rushes through the fire in my head.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of that stuff?” he asks, pulling me back to the doorway’s dark cold. I don’t have to ask what stuff. He means my own testimony.

“I couldn’t talk about it.”

I’d sat on the witness stand for nearly two days, reliving my friendship with Noor in pieces of montage. Photographs and text messages, conversations and Facebook posts. The pattern of Noor’s efforts to keep her two worlds separate became so clear when I looked at it from the vantage point of too late. The police had retrieved our texts, the ones about Cory in which Noor confessed how much she liked him and told me how sure she was that he really liked her, too. She had used me as a cover with her parents when she wanted to spend time with him. She’d tell her parents she was with me so they wouldn’t know she had a boyfriend. DA Myers couldn’t use everything, some of it was hearsay she said, but she combed through my life with Noor as if she were a homeless person picking through trash to find the useful bits. Combined with Cory’s testimony and what the boy and girl by the bridge saw, it was enough.

Cory leans back against the shadows.

“Sitting in that courtroom, it felt like yesterday instead of nineteen months ago,” he says. “If I had listened to her, maybe he wouldn’t have done this. She told me not to let her family know about us. I thought she just didn’t want to deal with a hassle. She should be applying to colleges with us now, not this—” his voice falls away.

“I should have called the police when she told me she was scared that night. I should have gotten someone to help her, or at least check on her. I didn’t understand.”

No one would have understood. The police would’ve arrested me as a prankster if I’d told them I thought my best friend was going to be killed by her dad because a delivery boy brought her a bouquet of chrysanthemums and Gerber daisies.

A week before she died, Noor told me her dad said I was an “unsuitable friend” because I sing in a garage band “like one of those loose whores in the magazines at the grocery store.” Noor’s white smile had spread like pearls across her argil face. “What kind of whores are tight, do you suppose?” she’d asked and we’d laughed. The irony was, there was nothing wild about Noor or me. But she had fallen for Cory’s easy personality, and she’d just wanted to go to the movies with him, or watch him play hockey, or grab a burger with him. She’d just wanted to be like any other American girl. She’d just wanted to be a little bit in love.

Then Cory had sent flowers and Noor’s dad had snapped.

I start coughing and put my fist up to my mouth.

“Your asthma bothering you?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “Stress.”

Cory laughs in a sour, candy-apple kind of way and offers me his inhaler.

“Thanks.”

I slip it from his hand and raise it to my mouth. The breath I blow out makes me light-headed. I take a puff and hold it. Letting it go feels like watching confetti flutter from a bridge.

“The thing that pisses me off most is that Noor is probably up there right now forgiving that bunch of animals she called a family.”

“I don’t think so,” I say, handing the inhaler to him. “One of the last things she said to me was—”

“‘I’m scared, Grace, they live by rules you don’t understand,’” Cory interrupts me. “Yeah, I was there when you testified. You should have told me that.”

A red light begins to spiral around the buildings across the street as a police car slowly makes its way up the alley. A bunch of reporters and cameramen race along the sidewalk following it, shouting things. Cory and I step forward to the edge of the doorway. I have to see Mr. Altameemi.

The car stops at the alley entrance and the driver looks both ways. Then he turns the car left into the lane in front of us. Mr. Altameemi sits in the back in his orange jumper, his chained hands held up. It’s an ugly orange, embarrassingly bright, the color of hell fires. He looks up as the car passes and his eyes lock on mine as his mouth forms words at me through the closed window. I pull back, hiding a little behind Cory, defiant and scared all together. Then the car is past us, rolling down the street.

“Did he just say what I think he said?” I ask.

“He did, if you think he called you an American slut.”

“Yeah,” I say, shoving my freezing hands into my pockets. “That’s exactly what I thought he said.”

A voice shatters the static hum of downtown at night. “Hey, that’s the dead girl’s best friend!” A middle-aged woman is pointing at me from across the street. The reporters twist around and move like a pack, lifting themselves onto the sidewalk in front of us in what seems like one single step. I back away from the blinding cameras.

Cory pushes me behind him. “She’s not giving interviews.”

“He’s the boyfriend,” the woman says, as if she’s announcing a winning lottery ticket. A man shoves a microphone into Cory’s face.

“How do you feel about the verdict?” the woman asks.

Cory pulls away, telling them it was too late, weaving a few angry swear words into his answer.

“We can’t use that,” her cameraman growls, “it’ll never edit right.”

Cory grabs my wrist and darts around them. We head down the street in the opposite direction the police car went.

“I’ll make sure you get home,” he says.

We walk the two blocks to the outbound bus lane heading west.

“I’d better text my mom,” I say, pulling out my phone.

“How come she let you stay down here by yourself?” Cory asks. “Noor told me she’s the overprotective type.”

“She is,” I say. “But I told her DA Meyers needed to talk to me.” I didn’t like to lie to my mom, but I had wanted to see them take Mr. Altameemi to prison so badly. I needed to see it. It was the kind of white lie Mr. Altameemi would probably have placed on his list of reasons why it was better to kill Noor than let her be westernized, like me.

Heading home on the bus with Cory. He’ll make sure I get home safe. I hit the send button and shove my phone back in my pocket. My mom will be relieved. She told me to call when I needed a ride, but my little brother is home sick and my dad’s out of town.

We shift on our feet and watch as a bus that isn’t ours comes by. A man wearing a Boston Bruins jacket walks up and stands beside us.

“What position d’you play?” he asks Cory, his voice crunchy with the cold.

“Right wing,” Cory answers, before looking past me toward the next bus heading up the street.

“Is that a travel team?” the man asks, pointing at the logo on Cory’s jacket.

“Yeah,” Cory answers, and I wonder if he’s thinking about being in Canada with his team when I called to tell him Noor was dead. “No,” he’d said, “you’re lying. Why would you say that? That’s not funny.” But when I told him she’d fallen from a bridge, that the police thought she’d been pushed, he had started crying and asked, “It was her dad, wasn’t it?” Why had it been so clear to us after it was too late to stop it?

Our bus whooshes up, and I blink to keep from crying.

Cory puts his hand on my back and guides me onto the bus. We dig out money and feed it into the box, which drags in the dollar bills we give it like waves sucking everything back from the shore. We sit down as the bus lurches into drive and bounce along without saying anything.

We get off three blocks from my house.

“You want a coffee or something?” Cory asks, nodding at the coffeehouse halfway up the street.

“I hate the stuff,” I say, but maybe he isn’t ready to go home. “I could go for a hot chocolate, though.”

He smiles a little. “I’ll buy.”

Wind whips the collar of my coat as we head up the street. My phone buzzes and I pull it out to check the message. I stop when it’s a number instead of a name.

It’s Hadi. I need to see you.

“What’s wrong?” Cory asks.

I turn the screen so he can see the words.

I still have to pass Noor’s cousin in the halls at school every day, but we haven’t talked since Noor was killed.

“What’s he want?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he wants to yell at me for getting his uncle convicted,” I say, but then I think maybe what he really wants is to hurt me. Noor’s brothers and mother had been at the trial, supporting her dad. As if he had brainwashed all of them into believing that what their extended family and neighbors thought of them was more important than Noor. It had taken me so long to wrap my mind around that idea, to get that they cared more about what people might think about their daughter than about their daughter.

My phone buzzes again. Please Grace.

“Tell him to go—” Cory starts to say.

“He’s just going to keep bothering me. If not now, then he’ll track me down at school or somewhere worse. What if he finds me someplace where I’m alone? What if he wants to get back at me for testifying against his uncle? That wouldn’t be much different than killing someone for honor, would it?”

Cory sweeps his gaze up and down the street. “Tell him to come here,” he says, “to the coffee shop. While I’m here to confront him, too. We’ll call the cops if we have to.”

I look around and then nod and text Hadi. Whatever Hadi wants, it’s better to get it over with.

The coffee shop fireplace is turning its sterile flames neatly in motion as if they’re a rotating picture instead of actual heat. We order hot chocolates and Cory gets a couple of snowman sugar cookies. We sit away from the few other people in the place.

Cory takes out a cookie and slides the bag over to me.

“I don’t think her dad had any idea how south that trial was going to go,” he says. “Did you watch him? One minute he was looking around the courtroom like he looked at you tonight, defiant and superior, like no one had the right to tell him what to do with his own daughter, and the next he was trying to play the part of the grieving dad who just ‘accidentally’ pushed his kid off a bridge.”

The sugar cookie turns dry in my mouth, and I drop it onto the bag.

“This is America,” Cory says. “They can’t do anything they want just because it’s family. She wasn’t his property.”

“They let no one in,” I say. “And no one out.”

That’s what Noor told me about her community a few days before she died, when she finally admitted to me that she was worried. She loved being American, but she wanted to please her family, too. “I live in two worlds,” she told me, “but I don’t feel like I belong in either of them.”

She had tried to explain why she had to keep those worlds separate. She’d tried to let me know how dangerous it was, but I had never imagined her father would kill her rather than let her be who she was, the girl he had chosen to raise in America. The girl who wanted to be American.

Noor had always seen beyond limitations. “A voice like yours shouldn’t be hidden behind a veil,” she’d tell me whenever I had stage fright. After I joined my band, she’d sit there listening to us, telling us what songs went best with my voice, making our lead guitarist, Jonah, change keys to suit my singing.

Noor was filled with so much conviction about everything that you just believed her. “Start with ‘Stars in the Daytime’,” she’d told Jonah when we’d played a local band jamboree. “Grace’s voice will wow them so much on that one, they won’t care what you play next.” We got four more gigs from that performance. Now Jonah complains that I haven’t sung right since Noor died.

“You want another?” Cory asks me, pointing to the half empty cup in my hands.

I shake my head no. Cory goes back to the counter. I glance at the door, almost hoping Hadi doesn’t show. The street is a dark hole against the lighted interior of the coffee shop.

Cory comes back and the door opens. His head turns at the same time mine does and we watch Hadi walk in, his curly, dark hair sticking out from a knit Patriot’s hat. He’s got a blue and white cotton keffiyeh around his neck. He pulls off his gloves as he zeros in on us. He doesn’t seem surprised Cory is here. I wonder if he stood outside and watched us before coming in.

Hadi stands in front of us, nodding uncomfortably. He doesn’t look angry, but my heart is still beating double-time. I tilt my head just a little to tell him to sit down.

He scrapes the chair across the floor as he sits next to me.

“So what do you want?” Cory asks, sounding like the side-kick in a Robert De Niro movie. I wish he and I were on the same side of the table. I slip one hand around my phone.

Hadi moves his gaze from Cory to me and back to Cory, slowly, as if he’s as on edge as we are.

“I just needed to see Grace,” Hadi says. “But I’m glad you’re here, too.”

“Your uncle got what he deserved,” Cory says, the resentment in his voice preemptively striking at anything Hadi might have to say. I grip my phone a little tighter.

“I know,” Hadi says. “I wanted you and Grace to know that I’m grateful you testified against him. I want you to know not everyone in my community believes Noor should have been punished for being westernized.”

“What does that even mean?” I ask, surprising myself with how angry I sound. “What did she do that was so bad? Crush on a boy? Go to a few movies? Have a best friend who doesn’t even have a boyfriend? What’s so terrible about how I live?”

“Nothing,” Hadi says, shaking his head, his eyes fixed on the table. “In my uncle’s eyes, Noor was westernized for having friends who aren’t Arab, having friends who are boys, hanging out with people from other cultures.”

“But you don’t believe that,” I say, sounding almost as accusatory as DA Myers on a cross-examination. “You have American friends at school. Or is that all fake?”

“Lots of people don’t believe it. My uncle is old-fashioned. He comes from a certain place and time, like a conservative redneck American.”

“But no one from your community would even testify for Noor,” Cory says, and the rage in his voice is pulsing through me, too. DA Myers told us the police couldn’t get anyone to cooperate with them. Not one of them would come forward to admit her father had told everyone she’d dishonored her family, even though Noor told me he’d been complaining about it nonstop.

Then Cory says the thing that is running through my mind as if he can see inside of me. “Not even you.”

Hadi stares at the table. “My mom,” he says. “She told me it wouldn’t bring Noor back, and what were all my cousins going to do if my uncle went to jail for what happened.”

He looks up at us, his gaze darting from Cory to me, tears brimming in his eyes. “What did I have to say that could’ve helped?” he says. “I never heard my uncle threaten her myself. I never realized how bad it was until it was too late. If I had testified, my mom would have been ostracized from the only community she has. She doesn’t know how to fit in here without the rest of them.”

Cory shakes his head to tell me not to buy into Hadi’s sob story.

“But you knew it,” I say, the anger gone, replaced with hopelessness. “You know in your heart that he killed Noor for honor. His definition of it, anyway.”

Hadi nods slowly. “But knowing something in your heart isn’t the same as having evidence,” he says. “I didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of what was going on with Noor and my uncle. Just suspicions and overheard innuendos. I didn’t think he’d actually hurt her. It’s like an unwritten law that we grow up knowing about, but I didn’t believe would happen. But not everyone from Iraq is like that. You have to believe me. Some of us know better.”

“Knowing better doesn’t change anything if you won’t testify,” Cory says.

Hadi hangs his head like a dog that’s been yelled at for something he knows he’s not supposed to do. “It’s not as easy as it seems,” he says. “That’s why Noor hid her world from you for so long.”

He looks up at us. He’s right. Cory and I are as guilty as he is. We didn’t know how to stand up for Noor any more than he did. We’ve all gained the strength we needed after it was too late. I touch his sleeve with my fingertips.

“Anyway, thank you, Grace,” he says, choking on the words. “You, too, Cory. Thanks for getting justice for Noor.”

So much pain feels as if the three of us might shatter in one single explosion. “Justice isn’t as good as not letting it happen in the first place,” Cory says. “We should have been able to stop this.”

We sit there quietly for a long time. I pull a piece of paper from my pocket and push it to the middle of the table. It’s a page from the dictionary, and Cory and Hadi don’t have any trouble finding the word that matters.

Honor takes up almost an entire column of Webster’s: (on′er), n. 1. honesty, fairness, or integrity in one’s beliefs and actions. 2. a source of credit or distinction. 3. high respect, as for worth, merit, or rank.

It goes on from there, a long list of all the things honor is.

“You won’t find the answer in there,” Cory says.

“It was the only place I could think to look,” I say. “Noor was so many of these.”

Hadi sniffs. “What you did in the courtroom for Noor. That was honorable.”

His gaze locks on mine for just a moment.

“I should go,” he says, rising. Cory slowly holds his hand out to Hadi. They shake and Hadi turns once before walking through the door into the darkness. But the light lingers behind him.

I fold up the page from the dictionary and slip it into my empty cup.

“After Noor died,” Cory says, “I felt like I was all alone, like no one understood.”

“Like an animal in the zoo, living in a solitary enclosure.” Cory tilts his head and nods. Cory and Hadi and I have been aching in the same way, all along, but each of us alone. Tonight, watching Mr. Altameemi go to jail, it’s as if someone has opened our cage doors to let us out if we dare.

A flash of cold air hits us as Cory opens the door and holds it for me. The street is nearly empty, the store windows lit up with twinkling lights and brightly colored displays like a movie set from a romantic comedy. Noor would have loved walking with Cory like this.

We turn toward my house. There’s a cleanness to the cold. It’s like walking over a bridge with the wind at your back. Cory walks me up the sidewalk to my house. I turn around to thank him for walking me home, my gaze drawn to the strip of sky where the trees that line the sidewalk break apart. The milky blue night, softened by the countless city lights, is bursting with stars as if they were glitter someone had tossed up and the sky had swept it all into its arms. For the first time since Noor died, I feel like maybe I want to sing again.

“Cory, look.”

He tilts his chin to the beauty of it and takes a deep breath.

“For Noor,” he says softly.

“For Noor,” I whisper.

Sabrina Fedel

Sabrina Fedel holds her MFA in Creative Writing, with a concentration in Writing for Young People, from Lesley University, and her J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Sabrina is an adjunct faculty member at Robert Morris University, and her work has appeared in various publications including Mothers Always Write. Her first Young Adult novel is forthcoming from Harvard Square Editions in 2016. She is a 2014 Merit Letter recipient for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Work in Progress Grant. Sabrina writes from Pittsburgh. For more about Sabrina, visit www.sabrinafedel.com or follow her on Twitter @writeawhile.

Bang

It all happened so fast. I keep trying to play it back in my head, moment by moment. But it’s like finding a plot hole in your favorite movie; it only leaves you with this dissatisfied feeling that you can’t shake. So, I’ll start at the beginning and crawl my way to where I am now, staring up at my ceiling with a furrowed brow and a pit in my stomach.

It was a normal Saturday night for me, a seventeen-year-old kid who’s never been to a real high school party in her life. I was three weeks into my senior year and felt like slapping whoever told me that nothing was harder than junior year. At least once a week during the summer, I would walk down my street to Sunset Boulevard. I’d pass a couple of bars and Persian rug places to cross the legendary street in order to get to a not-so-legendary 7-Eleven. It was the only place near me that sold Dippin’ Dots. I don’t know why I like them so much; it’s just strangely packaged ice cream.

Sal McIntyre managed the place and by the end of the summer we greeted each other by name. He was a wiry guy with a name fit for a fat Boston gangster. Sal was good at his job. He never had to worry about much, other than the odd hobo who’d walk in and attempt to barter for some booze. This part of Hollywood, the older part where I live with my parents, isn’t quite as glamorous as the parts that are closer to Beverly Hills. They say that the house up the street was formerly a bathhouse that Rock Hudson used to frequent. Leave out the Rock Hudson part if you ever talk to any kids my age. They’d think you were talking about Dwayne Johnson.

Anyway, this particular Saturday night was no different than the others when I’d stopped by to get my tacky dessert. The only thing that was out of the ordinary was that I planned on telling Sal that, now that school had started, I was trying to wean myself off of my ice cream addiction. It was time to hit the college apps.

At 9:30 p.m., the store was almost empty. The only people in the store were Sal, me, and this touristy-looking chick browsing the chip aisle. The ice cream cooler is across from the register. That night I was having a hard time deciding between Cookies and Cream or Banana Split. They both had their pros, but to be honest, I think that in the end they taste the same. Right as I was putting back the Cookies and Cream, a skeleton of a man walked into the store. I glanced up at the mirrors on the ceiling to get a look at the fellow 7-Eleven customer.

From what I could see, he was a skeletal dude with tattoos up the wazoo. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. They were the kind of tattoos that didn’t have a lot of thought put into them. He was wearing a black hoodie with no sleeves and baggie jeans. That was all I could see. His face was turned in the opposite direction as he studied the Hostess baked goods section of the store.

The touristy lady, who I’d later come to know as Carol, was still vacillating over a bag of cheese puffs as I had successfully set my mind on Banana Split. I heard Carol tell Sal she was visiting “The City of Angels” from Tucson, Arizona. She’d booked a room in the hotel a couple blocks from the 7-Eleven, thinking that she’d be right in the heart of Hollywood. She was wrong.

The store had this eerie quiet for just a beat. It was the kind of quiet you can hear in a really snowy place, where the sound’s absorbed like cold water into a sponge.

Then all of a sudden, the quiet was gone. There was a SMACK!—the sound of metal hitting flesh. I looked up at the mirror to see Skeleton Man slapping Sal across the face with a handgun. Carol screamed, and I ducked behind a shelf of Hollywood postcards. They say that time slows down in moments like these, but for me it sped up as if time itself had just taken a shot of adrenaline.

“If you say one word, I’ll put a bullet through your head, man. Just give me the money in the register,” Skeleton Man commanded to Sal.

My heart was beating so loudly I thought that it would burst out of my chest. Carol was cowering and crying in the chip aisle. Skeleton Man kept moving his gun from Carol to Sal, Sal to Carol. I wasn’t sure if he had seen me. Maybe he just thought I was the unassuming teenager I am. I squeezed the life out of the Banana Split package as I watched Sal slowly unload the register’s contents into a plastic bag. There was a loud BANG!—a gunshot.

The thing about gunshots is that you think you know what they sound like because of movies and shows, but you’re dead wrong. It’s the type of sound that rattles your ribcage and leaves your body, taking all the warmth with it.

Sal let out a howl. I peeked through the shelf to see that Skeleton Man had shot him in the shoulder. Carol sobbed more as he yelled at Sal, “Keep your friggin’ hands on the counter where I can see them or you’ll lose one!”

That was when the chain of events became a blur.

I remember that I turned to see a shelf with rows of those metal coffee thermoses. I grabbed one and bolted towards Skeleton Man, who had his gun pointed at Sal’s head. I took a swing and made contact. Metal to skull. Skeleton Man fell forward a bit and his gun ricocheted off the side of the counter and onto the floor. He stared at me with wild and surprisingly desperate eyes. They seemed void of any color. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a knife. Carol was still crying, and Sal was trying to keep himself upright, clutching his arm in pain.

I lunged forward and grabbed the gun on the floor. With shaking hands, I brought it up, pointed at Skeleton Man. “Little girl, you’re gonna hurt yourself. I don’t want any trouble here, just the money. But if you ever want to see Mommy and Daddy again, get the hell out of my way,” Skeleton Man snarled at me.

I was paralyzed. Stuck in a sad version of a C.S.I. cop’s ready stance. My head was reeling. Then, the alarm went off with a deafening wail.

Skeleton Man widened his eyes at me and lurched forward, knife leading the way. There was another BANG!

He hit the floor.

I sunk down to the floor with the gun in my hand, my back pressed up against the cool ice cream freezer. The sound of sirens added to the alarm, creating a thundering amalgamation of noise.

That’s when the rewinding started. I sat there, in a 7-Eleven on Sunset Boulevard, gun in hand, wondering how I got there. I tried not to look at the blood that began to pool out around Skeleton Man. There was no way I could have done that. My hands were sticky with Dippin’ Dots ice cream, not the blood of another human being.

I put the gun down beside me, watching the veins in my hands that were full of color not too long ago. I didn’t even look up as the first wave of policemen entered. I was too busy trying to remember what had happened.

And from then on, it was one big rush of words and flashing lights all around me. I was asked the same questions at least a half a dozen times. There were tears from a lot of people, but not me. It was like my eyes were perpetually downtrodden, trying to grasp onto how I ended up at a 7-Eleven being questioned by the police.

I don’t even remember what my parents said when they got to the scene. I was sitting on the curb in the parking lot with a blanket over my shoulders and policemen surrounding me. What was the point of the blanket? Was it for comfort? It certainly wasn’t because it was cold out; the summer was still in its Florida-like humidity phase. I hate Florida. The blanket was just as dumb as someone asking me if I was okay.

I didn’t even look up when my parents called my name. I just recall that there was a lot of yelling and hugging. Every once in a while, I looked up to watch the cars whiz by on Sunset. They reflected the situation in a much more abstract light, one that better represented the one in my head. There were lights of red and blue and white. There was even the occasional call-out from a reporter. I felt like I was there forever. Time stood still because all I could think about was how I ended up sitting on a curb at night by my formerly favorite convenience store.

That was the beginning of the end. That was the cessation of any freedom I thought I’d gained in my short time on this withering planet. From then on, whenever I left the house, I caused enough worry and paranoia to silence conspiracy theorists for decades to come.

I was taken out of school. I didn’t have to go to court on the big fat account of self-defense. Journalists blew my privacy to pieces. I received letters from Sal and Carol about how grateful they were for my actions. Sal sent me packs of Dippin’ Dots, even when he was in recovery. Carol wrote me letters from Arizona. I felt obligated to reply, but remain unapologetic about my curtness. These people thought I was a hero, so why don’t I?

His name was Ed Moore. He was twenty-three years old and strung out. His record showed that he’d a history with drugs and petty crime. Yet another skeleton in the closet of this so-called great city, he was born and raised in the Pacific Palisades, a suburban village so rich and tidy you almost lose the smell of rotting souls swept underneath the rug. But something had gone wrong, and things took a sharp turn for him. I couldn’t just think of him as Skeleton Man anymore. Now he had more than a face. He had a history. A life cut short.

They tell you not to think about the what-ifs, but I can’t help it. What if I had gone to the store at 9:00 p.m.? What if I had chosen my flavor sooner? What if I had stopped going altogether, a week before? There were so many variables that led me to that store on that day at that time. Why were there so few that would brand me for the rest of my life?

So, here I am, in the dark. And although I can’t see myself, I’m sure I have the same look on my face that I did three months ago. Every night, I do this. I’m stuck in a hamster wheel built on blood and ice cream. I’ve been told that there’s a step to take in order to get past this. I need to accept the thing that I’ve done. But what if I don’t think of myself as a hero; instead the polar opposite? Won’t that make it worse? Won’t it draw me farther into the maze of misery that I’ve put myself in?

I guess there’s only one way to find out.

“I killed someone.”

Izzy KalichmanIzzy Kalichman is a young writer from Los Angeles. She has been writing stories and scripts for most of her life. She is now studying at McGill University in Montreal and looking forward to growing as an author. She would like to thank Lunch Ticket for the opportunity and hopes that this is only the beginning of a long list of published works.

I Want To Be A Cowgirl

“We can’t move! Are you crazy?” I yell at my parents.

Mom raises one eyebrow, ready to lecture me about being disrespectful. Instead, she turns back to the chilaquiles in the frying pan. The crispy corn tortillas with eggs, queso fresco, and chile verde is my favorite breakfast. Usually, Mom doesn’t make them in August because that much cooking makes the whole trailer hot. This must be an exception to deliver the news.

Dad clears his throat and leans forward across the table from me.

I sit back and slouch on the bench; I can’t even look at him. “Why now? I’m about to start high school. What about junior rodeo? I am in first place overall right now and could win the senior all-around cowgirl saddle in December. How can you do this to me?” My voice gets louder with each sentence.

“Becky,” Dad says in a warning tone, “this new job pays more and my new boss is building us a brand new place to live. That saves us money. And we need to save money.”

Mom walks over to us and puts one hand on Dad’s shoulder, looking down at me. “Your father won’t have to listen to a mean boss anymore. And neither will I.” She smiles and rests the other hand on her belly.

I look at her, confused. Sure, she can’t work where she does now from so far away but surely the other town has a Mexican restaurant. “You also have a new job? Did you already enroll me in classes without asking me, too?”

“No, Becky.” Dad puts a hand on my arm, and I pull away. “Your mother finally gets to focus on selling her salsa, sauces, and preserves.”

“I get to be my own boss,” Mom almost squeals with delight.

“And what do I get? Some lame school where I don’t know anyone in a place I’ve never heard of?” More anger rises from my empty stomach, so I stand and say louder, “Mom, how can you leave Tia Marta? How can I not go to school with Marissa? That was the plan.”

“I don’t want to stand on hay and rope the dummy. I want my own horse so I can chase the calf and rope like the big kids. Momma, I want to run barrels so fast my braids stick out behind me, and I get blurry when I fly by you.” I stopped because Momma’s face wasn’t mad anymore. She looked sad. Like she’d lost something.

“Becky,” Dad says calmly. “This is what’s best for our whole family.”

Mom turns back to the stove, but not before I see her tears.

“What’s best for me is to stay here. How am I going to college without rodeo scholarships, huh? Did either of you think of that?”

Mom turns off the stove and removes her apron. “I need to go lie down.” She walks out and closes the bedroom door gently behind her.

Dad stands up, looks down at me, and in a serious voice says, “Do not upset your mother right now.”

I lower my volume to match his, as angry as he now seems to be. “What does she have to be upset about? She’s getting what she’s always wanted.”

“She doesn’t want to be away from her sister.” He pauses and clears his throat. “When she has this next baby.”

“Baby?!” I say louder than anything else. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I wish I had my boots on so I could stomp out the back door for the company of my four-legged friends. Instead I huff off to my bedroom and slam the door. Dad won’t yell at me now because that might upset my pregnant mother. But I’ll get a lecture later.

Turning on 95.1, I let The Judds play louder than I’m supposed to; I’m already in trouble. Mumbling hateful comments under my breath, I change out of my pajamas. If I had a phone in my room, I could call Marissa. She’d know what to do.

“Eat some breakfast, Becky,” Dad says through my door in a tired voice.

I go into the laundry room for my boots. “I’m not hungry,” I lie, my stomach loudly expecting something.

The sun is barely touching the backyard, and the moisture makes the grass slippery under my boots. I put on white, cotton gloves so my hands won’t get more calluses. Walking around, I swing my rope above my head, warming up my arm. Our yard isn’t very big, but after three laps I’m tired. Our wooden fence is tired too; it can no longer hold itself up. On one side, it leans so low, I can see Señora Marquez rocking on her back porch. She waves, either shooing a fly or saying good morning, I’m not sure which. So I wave back to be polite. Who’ll take her to church if we move?

Mom watches from her bedroom window; I can feel her. Not ready to be wrong about my hunger, I stand on the bales of hay stacked behind the heeling dummy. It was painted brown a long time ago and Dad actually put a frayed rope tail so it looks like the skeleton of a steer’s butt. Its rusty pole legs dangle lifeless until I kick them; their squeaky rhythm breaks the morning’s silence. Mom closes the curtain. She hates when I practice roping and defy her orders.

Above my head, the rope floats around one, two, three times before I release with the tip of my rope aimed for the left hock—which is like the calf’s elbow on its hind leg. Usually I just rope the dummy around the horns, practicing for calf breakaway, which Mom agreed to let me do when I explained how no one loses a finger because there is no dally involved; the end of the rope is already tied to my saddle horn.

But today, I focus on what I’d rather be doing: heeling. Team roping is another way to earn money. I’m flustered and release too low. Like a wide open mouth, the loop floats through the air to swallow the fake hind legs. When I pull tight, only one leg is captured—a five second penalty. Not going to win like that. After a few more warm-up loops, I successfully snag both legs. Victorious. If only my mom would let me do it for real. Heelers rarely lose fingers when they dally the rope around the saddle horn at the end.

About ten more minutes and many more successful catches later, Dad walks out to the edge of the porch. “Your breakfast is cold. And I have to go to work. I know you’re pissed off, Becky, but don’t take it out on your mother. You can deal with me when I get home.” He turns and walks towards his truck.

Standing there with my rope in one hand and both fists at my hips, I don’t say anything but glare at his back and wait until he is out of the driveway before I sit on the bale of hay and cry. I can’t remember when I last cried this way. He betrayed me. After all these years, I’d always thought he was on my side.

Mom never is. How can she have another kid when we never have enough money?

“You’re probably glad I won’t be able to do this anymore!” Knowing she can hear me, I’m not sure what kind of sin I’ve committed by yelling at a pregnant woman. Swinging my rope around for emphasis, I whack myself upside the head. “Son of a—,” I catch myself before the last word slips out loudly and mutter it under my breath repeatedly until I untangle myself.

Going in the tack room to sulk, I hit the old saddle with my rope, the thwack not as satisfying as I’d hoped. Inhaling dusty, sour leather usually calms me down, but today I’m too upset. I kick over an empty metal bucket, and it clatters across the cement floor, scaring my old German Shepherd, Princess. I wander out to comfort her by telling her how rotten my parents are making me move to a town that probably doesn’t even have Junior Rodeo.

*     *     *

I was five the first time Daddy took me to watch. Older kids rode fast horses and chased real calves, trying to catch them around the neck. Kids my age had to stand on two bales of hay and aim for the plastic head stuck in another bale a few feet away.

For months, I imitated the boys and girls I saw that day. The rope was too big and heavy for me at first; I got all tangled up, a few rope burns. Momma tried to get me interested in something less dangerous. But I wanted to rope. The whooshes above my head sounded like I was about to take flight. And even though my mom refused to let me compete that year, I kept practicing.

When I was six, Daddy convinced her to let me enter two events, dummy roping and goat tying. When she wasn’t looking, he also signed me up for calf riding.

A lot of people saw me get bucked off, but I didn’t care. It hurt a little, but I wanted to get back on, determined to stay on for the six seconds.

“Robert, are you insane?” Momma yelled at Daddy, startling my grin away.

Daddy laughed. “She’s okay, hon’. Look.” He lifted my left arm, then my right.

Following his cue, I wiggled each leg like I was doing the hokey pokey. “I’m okay, Momma, see.” I dusted off my cowboy hat before putting it back on my head. “That was fun. Can I do it again?”

“Later,” Daddy said.

“No!” Momma yelled louder at the same time. “Look at her clothes, covered in manure. Her hair, coming undone. Her face, all dirty. This is too dangerous for a six-year-old girl.” She started to re-braid my loosened trensa, pulling hard as she wrapped the liga to fasten the end.

Daddy said nothing. People in the stands watched us, probably embarrassed for him.

Momma continued more quietly, “I was fine with the goat tying and roping the plastic cow head. The worst thing is a sprained ankle or a nasty burn. But this.” She grinded her teeth and spoke each word slowly, “She could break her neck.” She took my hand and started to drag me away, leaving Daddy standing near the pile of poop.

I waited for Daddy to stop us. But he didn’t.

So I stopped myself. Momma tugged; I tugged back.

“I don’t want to ride the calf,” I said.

For a moment she looked relieved.

“I want to ride those bucking broncos bareback.”

She let go of my hand.

Daddy walked closer to us but still said nothing, so I continued.

“I don’t want to stand on hay and rope the dummy. I want my own horse so I can chase the calf and rope like the big kids. Momma, I want to run barrels so fast my braids stick out behind me, and I get blurry when I fly by you.” I stopped because Momma’s face wasn’t mad anymore. She looked sad. Like she’d lost something.

I looked up at Daddy. He looked scared. But his mouth tried to smile at me.

“I wanna be a real cowgirl.” I flicked my braid back and folded my arms across my chest.

Daddy cleared his throat. “Becky, if your mom thinks it’s too dangerous—”

“I think it’s too dangerous?!” She moved towards Daddy like I wasn’t there anymore. “It is too dangerous. You have to support me on this, Robert. She’s only six years old.”

“I’m almost seven,” I mumbled, but they were too busy yelling at each other to hear me.

“She’s a little girl. She doesn’t know what she wants. It’s our job to keep her safe.”

“Safety? That’s what you’re worried about?” He grabbed my arm and pulled up my sleeve to reveal a different kind of burn scar. “Hot oil and sharp knives aren’t dangerous? Becky helped you in the kitchen and that wasn’t dangerous? Dancers like Marissa sprain muscles and tear ligaments. Waiting by the highway for the school bus is dangerous, too.” Daddy’s voice kept getting louder. Momma seemed to be listening. Maybe she would give in. He lowered his voice and touched her arm. “You can’t protect her from everything.”

Then Momma’s eyes opened their widest so all the white around them showed; I thought they were going to pop out like on the cartoons. She looked down at me and moved so close to Daddy’s face I could see his moustache moving as she talked. “It’s not the same thing, Robert!” Her piercing shriek was so loud I covered my ears.

Other people were watching us instead of the next contestant.

Momma’s gestures at Daddy got bigger. “No one gets paralyzed from slicing a finger or scalding an arm!” That made everyone around us stop moving and look. Momma shouted in my face, “Is that what you want?” and stomped out of the arena without me.

*     *     *

“Becky,” Mom interrupts my memory. She stands in the doorway dressed for work. “I packed you lunch so you don’t eat all Fiona’s food.”

I feel victorious; the least she can do is take me out to ride my horse. Peeking inside the bag, I see Mom put carrots for Pearl, too. I mumble thank you but she might not have heard it. We sit without talking all the way to the stables; only the corrido playing softly on the radio hacks into the silence.

When she stops the car, she looks at her watch. Probably wanting to continue the earlier conversation, but knowing she can’t be late for work. “I’ll pick you up when I get off, okay.” She pats my arm.

In response, I jump out, slamming the car door and running towards the stable. Musty alfalfa fills my nostrils and makes me sneeze. My tears rise to the surface. “Pearl!” I yell.

My horse hears me, nickers in response, and leans her head over the stall door. She nuzzles me, snorting and sniffing in search of her snack.

“You know me so well, girl.”

She nods after I break off a piece of carrot and let her lip it off my palm.

Reaching under her forelock to scratch between her eyes, dirty hair sticks under my nails.

I’m so annoyed with my parents that I want to kick something. But it would be Fiona’s something, and it isn’t Fiona’s fault. She’s been a friend of Dad’s family forever and lets me keep Pearl here free in exchange for shoveling manure out of the other stalls and keeping an eye on water troughs; when she goes out of town occasionally, I also feed her chickens and whatever dogs and rabbits she has rescued or any stray cats that pass by her back porch. Why can’t she be my parent? She wouldn’t make me move away from my friends and junior rodeo.

While I maneuver Pearl’s halter into position, I tell her. “Guess what?” Trying not to cry, I share, “We’re moving.” I gather grooming equipment from the nearby tack shed. “Can you believe this crap?”

While I pick her hooves, I continue, “Dad got this new job with a new house. Mom will finally do her salsa business full-time. We get nada.” I’m upset all over again telling her.

Pearl stomps her right front hoof impatiently.

“What can we do?

The only thing that will take my mind off this horrible moving news is riding. Since the poles are still up from my last practice, I speed through them after a short warm up. The line of six tall obstacles is our favorite event, one we usually win. Victory is crucial if we are going to get that all-around cowgirl saddle this season. Only three more rodeos until the finals in December and Janelle Barnes has almost as many points as I do. I cannot let her beat me. When I saw her last June that was all she talked about—kicking my ass.

When we finish pole bending practice, I carry them, two at a time, back to the storage shed and start plotting response to my parents’ news. “I could stop doing school work,” I tell Pearl. But I tried really hard in summer school to make up two eighth grade classes that I didn’t pass so they would let me move on to ninth grade with my cousin, Marissa. I can’t risk being held back again. “But bad grades could also hurt our chances at a college rodeo scholarship,” I tell Pearl. And without a scholarship, my parents cannot afford veterinarian school.

After I set up the barrel racing pattern—three 50-gallon drums 100 feet apart in a triangle—I tighten Pearl’s cinch so I don’t slip sideways on the sharp turns.

Most competitors take the right first, then two lefts before a straight shot home. Not us. Pearl’s strengths lean in the opposite direction. The first time I tried to contradict her instinct, I regretted it. She balked. I ended up with a saddle horn in my crotch and a mouthful of mane. It isn’t like cloverleaf patterns in nature inspire one direction or another; it’s as rare as the occasional lefty scissors in that box at school. But when my partner has her mind set on something, there isn’t much I can do to change it. She’s a lot like me.

As we warm up, trotting and loping in figure eights, I try to figure out a way to not move. Pearl snorts, summoning me back to this moment, this place. “I know, Pearl, you love barrel racing.” We need to make our turns as precise as possible. She nods her head a few times then tries to shake off the bridle. It’s a sign she wants to run. With no one to time us, I care less about speed and more about the angle of her shoulder in relation to the top rim of each barrel. The closer we get without knocking it down, the faster our time.

Once Pearl and I are both overheated, we wander out to the nearby trail. It doesn’t relax me like usual. August in Runnelton is hot, so Pearl is pretty lathered up after all that practice. The eucalyptus trees are still, and I swear I can see the air hovering above the homes nearby. We turn around after 15 minutes, overwhelmed by the stench of somebody’s open garbage cans.

As I remove her saddle and bridle, my long, brown braid gets in the way, I flick it back and it reaches around the other side to poke me in the eye. “Seriously?” I’m sick of this thing.

The space between Pearl’s front legs is still warm, so before I can give her any water I walk her around more, kicking at the dusty ground.  “What if I cut my hair?” Stopping suddenly in front of Pearl, she almost steps on my boots. “Pearl, you know how much my dad loves long hair.” I grab the end of my trensa and look around for some accidental place I could get it stuck so they’d have to cut me loose. “What are they gonna do? Glue it back on?” Pearl shakes her head like she’s as disgusted with them as I am. Some of her snot gets on the shoulder of my pale blue shirt; good thing it’s an old one. I tie her to the rail and remove her built-up grime, currying and brushing her coat, checking each hoof for stray rocks. “It’s so unfair. Marissa and I are supposed to graduate together.” When she’s cool enough, I lead her across the dirt path to the empty stall and release her from the confines of her halter. After I throw a flake of alfalfa into her feeder, I complete a few of my basic chores.

Afterwards, I feel even more outraged. While I wait for Mom to pick me up, I sit in the shade of the barn and wipe down Pearl’s sweaty bridle. “And what about Fiona?” I say to Pearl. “She’ll be all alone out here without us.” She ignores me as she chomps her first mouthful.

Reaching over the stall door, I rub behind her ears while she eats. “Maybe I won’t talk to them anymore.”

Pearl wanders away for a sip of water, having lost all interest in my drama.

“Who are you not gonna talk to anymore?”

I turn around to face Clay Campbell. I hate Clay Campbell.

When I don’t answer, he continues, “Sorry, Becky. I didn’t mean to scare you.” The lopsided grin on his lightly-freckled face tells the opposite truth.

“You’re an idiot, Clay!” Gathering my composure, I shove his shoulder. “Jerk.”

“Whoa!” He fakes a few stumbling steps backwards. “Don’t damage my ropin’ arm.” Now he’s using his pretend cowboy voice. “You know I need that if I’m gonna beat your friend, Eric, next weekend.”

“What are you doing here, anyway?” I ask, stomping away without an answer.

Clay picks up his rope from a nearby fence post and follows a little bit behind me. “C’mon Becks, don’t be mad at me.”

“Don’t call me that!” I say too loudly. I try to take longer steps but at 5’5″, I have half the stride he does.

He answers me, “My old rope horse, Gunner, is gonna stay here while we build a new barn. Only have room for my new one, Easy Money.”

I stop and turn around. “You’ll have to talk to Fiona. And she’s not here today.” If Fiona was here, she’d help me figure out what to do about the move.

Clay winks at me, still trying on the country accent. “My dad already talked to her. I came by to check it out. Looks like we’re gonna be seeing a lot more of each other.”

“Or not. If you pay enough, we’ll take care of Gunner without you.”

“But I don’t want to neglect the old guy; he won a lot for me.”

As I continue walking away, he can’t see my smirk. Gunner was a winner until last season when Pearl and I beat them in Calf Breakaway; Clay was sure that first place belt buckle would be his. Instead it’s holding up my pants now. I rub it and turn around to glare at him.

He’s standing there swinging his rope above his head with his tight Wranglers and fancy, snake-skin boots. In spite of the victory at my waist, I’m self-conscious. My own boots are scuffed suede hand-me-downs and this particular pair of jeans has been patched several times. I look down; at least they aren’t high-waters. Now I have to worry about seeing him every time I want to ride; I don’t have enough decent clothes. Why do I care what he thinks? When I look up, he’s still standing there. “You’re an idiot,” I repeat, not able to think of anything better to say before I turn around, walking as fast as I can. Maybe he won’t really come around much since he’s got a new horse at home.

I can’t wait until Eric gets back from Wyoming so I can tell him about this. Eric Wilson has been my best friend since elementary school, and now that we are going to high school, I hope that doesn’t change. He was acting weird before he left with his cousin, Eli, to work on their uncle’s ranch for the summer. People used to think Eric and Eli were twins. Their African-American fathers both married Filipina women, so they have skin the same shade of dark goldish-brown. I’ve always envied it; I’m pale like my Irish dad instead of brown like my Mexican mom. When Eli started high school two years before Eric and me, he grew six inches in three years. Now Eric looks wider, more muscular, but is barely one inch taller than I am.

Behind me, I hear the whoosh of Clay’s rope and thwap as it hits the dirt next to me.

I whirl around, pick it up, and jerk it hard to throw him off balance. He still has that stupid sideways smile and chews his gum in exaggerated bites.

“You look like a cow!” I shout at him. My mom honks twice out by the road, so I hurry away from him. She hates to wait. “And you missed,” I say, triumphant that his failed attempt means me beating him in calf breakaway was not a fluke.

He jogs up next to me, his rope tucked safely under his arm. “I was trying to heel you.”

I walk faster. “What? Why?”

He moves in front of me and turns around to face me, walking backwards.

I want to push him and then stomp over him.

“They added team roping to junior rodeo.” He pushes his baseball cap up a little and for the first time I notice his eyes are the same color as his jeans. I stop.

“I thought maybe we could team rope together.” He keeps looking at me in a way that makes my stomach feel funny.

Mom honks again. More insistently. I shove past him. “No way. Pearl’s the only partner I need.” I run up the gravel drive out to the highway where Mom has pulled over to wait for me.

Clay keeps walking behind me but the sound of his rope cutting the air gets further away. Him asking means he knows I’m good, and he doesn’t want me to team up with anyone else. Eric and Eli will definitely team up together. They’ll beat Clay easily, no matter who his partner is. If I’m going to keep up with Janelle in all-around cowgirl saddle points, I’m going to have to find a partner other than Clay. Then I remember, my mom won’t let me team rope.

As I climb into her old Buick, Clay’s dad pulls up behind us in a brand-new truck.

Quien es?” Mom asks, always curious about boys I talk to. Usually she wants me to avoid them, but this time her voice insinuates that there is more than riding between us. “Does he go to your school?” Coming straight from work, burnt tortilla still lingers on her skin.

“Clay?” I gesture towards the shiny vehicle. “He lives in a different part of town.”

She looks in the vanity mirror on her sun visor to check her eye makeup. Her hair is coming out of its bun, so she smooths it down. She still has on her red apron stained with dark grease spots. “Es chulo, no?”

“Gross. He’s not cute.”

Mom sighs. “Anything is better than the boys you and Marissa were talking to after church.” Her true motivation: she hates when Marissa and I hang out with wanna-be gangsters who live in Marissa’s apartment building. “Does this Clay go to church?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Clay gets closer and Mom reaches across me to roll the window down further. “Stop, Mom!”

He hollers something, but I roll the window all the way up in spite of the heat and refuse to respond.

“Don’t be rude!” Mom scolds.

“I don’t like that guy, Mom. At all. He’s arrogant, and he’s only good because his dad pays a lot of money to make him that way. When I beat him last year, it was awesome.”

“Ay, Becky. You shouldn’t be like that.”

“Like what?”

Mom doesn’t answer. She repeats, “like that,” and waves her hand over me like she’s performing some kind of magic trick.

If she had a wand or fairy dust, she would make me care more about my appearance. It bothered my mom when I refused to have a quinceañera last year, so she’s helping Tia Marta with Marissa’s. Not that we could afford the kind of party they are planning. It also irritates Mom that I don’t knit or cook or play piano or want to be a dancer like Marissa.

All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a cowgirl.

Tisha Reichle Tisha Marie Reichle is a Chicana feminist and former Rodeo Queen. Currently, she spends her weekdays engaging high school students with socially conscious literature. On weekends, she writes. Her stories for young people have appeared in 34th Parallel, Inlandia Journal, and The Acentos Review. For the past 25 years, she has lived in Los Angeles and earned an MFA at Antioch University. She is a member of AWP, Women Who Submit, SCBWI, and a weekly critique group. In 2015, she was a finalist for the Tucson Literary Festival Fiction Award. She is the new fiction editor at Border Senses.

Where the River Ends

one.

after claire dies, i see her
standing in my bedroom.

when i look up from my book, she’s standing there, staring at me. her hair and clothes
are wet and dripping, forming a puddle on the floor at the foot of my bed. her feet are
bare. her blue nail polish is chipping. it matches the color of her lips.

i want to get her a towel
or make room for her
in my bed. i want her
to wind her wet limbs
around me so i can feel her
skin and bones and hear the water
in her lungs while she breathes
herself to sleep.

but we just look at each other, and she drips onto the floor, and she holds one elbow
with the other hand and shifts her weight and keeps looking at me. and while i look at
her, at her wet clothes and her blue lips and her white skin, i feel cold. i know she’s

there. but i know she isn’t, either.

two.

the day they found claire’s body, i turned eighteen.

my mother set a bagel with a candle stuck in the cream cheese down beside me at the
breakfast table. she stepped back and clasped her hands together, proud.

i blew out the candle
and my mother kissed my head
and the phone rang
and beth from up the street
was calling to tell mom
that claire had been found
six miles up the river

and while my mother gasped into the receiver, i plucked the candle from my bagel and
took a bite.

three.

i kissed claire for the first time while we sat on her bed after school one day when we
were sixteen.

her mouth was open
just a little

and her lips tasted like sweet tea

and i didn’t know what to do with my hands besides to let them move over her sides and
grasp at the thin material of her shirt

a drowning person

grasping for a rope

four.

the news calls her local girl.
tells us all that Local Girl was found
six miles up the river in beauford
early this morning.

and while they say it,
i’m thinking of mornings
and claire
and the time we stayed up all night
to see a meteor shower
and while we sat on her roof
wrapped in a blanket together
we realized the clouds were too thick
and we were going to miss
everything.

five.

even after she’s dead, our mothers don’t know about us.

even when we were all gathered at the police station, her parents across from me while i
waited to be brought in for questioning, we all stared at each other, and only one of us
knew anything close to the truth.

“meredith, just tell them everything you know,” her mother was whimpering, tissues
crumpled in her hand.

here is what i knew:
kissing claire felt like being asleep—safe and unaware. weightless and surreal.
claire, no matter how much i tried to fix her, was broken. a burned out lightbulb,
delicate glass shell still in tact, but insides rattling and rusted.
she had a tiny constellation of freckles on her shoulder where i would place my lips
whenever i tried to console her, to hold her pieces together whenever they began to
come unglued. she was heavy weight on a thin rope. she was a valley of sharp rocks
waiting under a dive into shallow water.
a week ago, while we were lying in her bed, she took a pen from the bedside table. she
turned over my wrists and on the pale skin there, wrote, help me.
the next day, i told her i would.

a detective brought me hot chocolate and set it on the table between us. while i pressed
my palms against the warm sides of the cup, he asked, in his best you-can-trust-me
voice, “you and claire are close, huh?”

close like what? close like florida is close to georgia? or close like the ocean to the shore,
where the waves hit the sand and it’s almost impossible to tell where one really ends and
the other begins?

“yes.”

“so, she must confide in you.”

“i guess so.”

“did she mention anything about running away? or wanting to?”

we used to wake each other up early in the mornings and run before school sometimes.
claire would tie her hair back in this messy ponytail that swung between her shoulder
blades while she jogged. the only reason i could even keep up was because i wanted to
stay near her. something about the darkness that still hung in the morning like a fog
over the wet pavement we ran on made me uneasy.

i would follow her through the subdivision and then down the bike trails to the creek,
our heavy breathing and footsteps the only sound.

“meredith?”

the cup of hot chocolate between my hands no longer felt warm. i pushed it away and
pulled my hands into my lap.

“i don’t know where claire is.”

my mother used to tell me
that every lie i told would stay inside my mouth
a little bug of a lie
and it would grow bigger
every time i lied
until it was so big
i wouldn’t even be able to speak

six.

when i sleep—
++++claire stands on the shore line
++++the ocean pulling at her heels
++++arms stretched out to her sides
++++like she’s worshiping some long-forgotten,
++++make-believe sea goddess

++++claire eats ripe peaches
++++and her mouth tastes sweet

++++claire wakes me before light
++++wraps her fingers around my wrists
++++tugs me from bed
++++and pulls me into an ocean

++++claire braids my hair
++++kisses my shoulders
++++shares my clothes

++++claire paints her nails purple
++++dyes sections of her blonde hair blue
++++and writes poems about dying

++++claire is the current
++++claire is the stillness in the mornings
++++claire is warm blood on my fingertips
++++++++and a whisper of, “please, you said you would help me.”
when i’m awake—

++++claire’s yearbook photo from last year is on the news again. they run the story like
there’s nothing else to talk about, like there aren’t piles of bodies stacking higher
somewhere in the world, or someone who got shot, or a store that got robbed, or some
other kind of injustice besides another dead teenager.
++++my mother brews coffee and watches the broadcast on the tiny television in the
kitchen. while she stirs milk and sugar into her mug, she shakes her head slowly.
++++“it’s such a shame,” she sighs. “such a shame.”

++++claire stands at the end of my bed, stealing my sleep, drinking it in slow swallows
and giggling when i close my eyes to block her out.

seven.

here’s what i know:
++++when describing herself, claire used words like empty and numb
++++when describing claire, i preferred words like endless and new
++++even while we kissed, claire would whisper to me about leaving
++++even while i was tucked between her and the living room couch, she would sigh
into my neck and ask in her softest voice if i would love her even if she were dead
++++before claire, i’d only known the hungry mouths of boys with names like jake and
brad and james and derrick
++++before me, claire knew the tongue and limbs and long, pretty hair of a girl named
abigail, who sat beside me in freshman algebra, and drew out claire’s name over and
over in her notebook
++++when someone told the whole school that abigail loved claire, abigail pulled her
mother’s crafting knife over her wrists and spent the rest of the school year in what her
mother was calling rehab but everyone knew it was really the psych ward.
++++even once claire had shown me the difference between kissing a boy and kissing a
girl, she still hummed out little sighs at the mention of abigail, and told me while she
braided my hair that she had dreams about abigail bleeding, but the dreams were
beautiful instead of sad
++++i often had dreams about claire—
++++in them, she wore pretty dresses that fell above her knees and her hair was a
thousand different colors and she was always painting a picture, but i could never see
what it was.

eight.

claire has been dead for a week and she won’t leave my bedroom.
she sits in the corner, most days, hugging her knees and crying, and her tears are dirty
river water that run down her legs and stain my carpet.

“you can’t stay here,” i tell her, when i wake up and find her still curled in the corner.
“you have to go.”

but when she tries to answer me, she coughs up black water and begins to cry again, her
wet clothes dripping into the puddle she sits in.

nine.

“i don’t know what happened to claire.”

it’s the third time i’ve had to tell detective what’s-his-name what i know about claire.
he’s sitting across the table again, and i’ve got my hands in my lap, and this time, he
actually starts to look frustrated.

“she never told you anything about where she was going that night?”

“what night?”

“the night she disappeared.”

“no, she didn’t tell me anything.”

“but weren’t you close?”

he’s using the past tense, this time. this time, claire isn’t missing. this time, claire is in a
refrigerated drawer somewhere with her name on a toe tag. this time, they know where
she is.

“yeah, we were close. doesn’t mean she told me everything, all the time.”

at least that wasn’t a lie. there were plenty of things claire didn’t tell me. she didn’t tell
me if she ever stopped having dreams about abigail. she didn’t tell me why her dad was
never home. she didn’t tell me why she cried the first time she took her clothes off in
front of me.

“did claire have any enemies? maybe people at school she was unfriendly with for any
reason?”

i think of abigail and her open wrists. the thick, white scars that decorated her skin when
she came back to school. the looks she threw at claire from across the hallway or
lunchroom. like claire had been the one holding the blade. like claire had held that blade
to abigail’s throat and yelled, “fall in love with me! confuse yourself and hide from your
family and love me until you bleed!”

i sometimes dreamt of her doing that to me. for claire to beg me to love her would have
been like a shore begging for the waves to crash against it—pointless, since it would
happen anyway. mechanically. automatically. involuntarily.

“no.” i shake my head. “everyone loved claire.”

ten.

when you live in a town this close to the ocean, every piece of water seems
inconsequential in comparison. the river that washed claire onto its shores leads into the
sea, eventually. the bank where they found her lies deep in the backyards of a high-end
subdivision. i imagined someone finding her, shoving their way through the underbrush
towards the water, searching for a lost tennis ball or frisbee. seeing a set of pale
fingertips reaching out from the mud—
++++a boatless anchor
++++left behind while its vessel
++++moved out to sea

eleven.

here’s how i fell in love with claire:
++++she moved in four houses up the summer before freshman year
++++while the movers brought in the boxes, she wandered barefoot down the sidewalk
to my house, where i was in the yard, laid out across a yellow blanket
++++she asked if she could sit with me
++++and she did
++++and i gave her one of my earbuds
++++and we laid there for hours, just listening
++++and her hair smelled like coconut
++++and her nails were painted blue
++++and even though a boy named jake had just told me he liked me
++++i suddenly didn’t care.

twelve.

i loved claire like the sun loves the horizon: so much that it cannot sleep without kissing
it goodnight.

thirteen.

“you promised you’d help me.”

she waded into the water. the hem of her dress brushed the surface, took on weight and
began to sink and cling to her body the further she waded in.

the gray sun veiled claire’s body, her skin glowing pale in its light. she dragged her
fingers in the water, her blonde hair stringy and tangled against her bare shoulders.

“meredith.”

the soft current pulled her dress.
i stepped both barefeet off the bank, sinking up to my waist in the cold water.

fourteen.

claire’s casket is painted a pale gold. her mother and father sit crumpled in the first row
of folding chairs set up beside her gravesite. i hear her mother’s whimpers as i watch her
shoulders shake. a reverend is talking about jesus, and eternity, and rest.

i am writing poems with my eyes on the gold paint of claire’s new bed:
++++you were january eyes and icicles
++++it burned to hold you

++++i’ll keep you like the river
++++i’ll keep you like calendars keep days

++++i’ll keep you like your lungs kept water

+++++++++like broken jewelry
+++++++++like empty frames

fifteen.

“you have to hold onto me.”

claire lifted her hands and circled my neck with them, dragging her wet fingers down my
collarbone. “hold me under.”

she didn’t move right away. instead, she kept her hands on me, and as she stared at me, i
could see her start to smile.

cheshire cat. rabbit hole. rabbitholerabbithole.

sixteen.

no signs of foul play.
she just fell in and drowned.
she was just swimming and drowned.
she was by herself, and she drowned.
Local Girl drowned.
tragedy, tragedy.

seventeen.

a day or two after claire’s funeral, the news stops talking about her. some dead kid is
found in the field behind the vacant k-mart, and she’s seven so she matters more. her
two front teeth are missing in the smiling school photo they show on the evening news.

while i sit in the living room downstairs and watch, i hear claire stomping around
upstairs in my bedroom. i stare up at the ceiling and watch the hanging light shudder.

eighteen.

i only did what she told me to do.

she was the glue that held my bones in place.
she was the wick. i was the wax.

before she went under, she kissed me. she held my face in her cold, wet hands and
pulled my lips to hers and gave me the kind of kiss that felt less like a goodbye and more
of a thank-you. it felt like burned out stars. it felt like endings.

she didn’t take a big breath in before she went under. she just let go of my face, touched
one more kiss to my chin, and sank under the surface.

she didn’t struggle against my hands.
she held them against her shoulders
until she let go.

nineteen.

my mother wants to know if i need to talk. she leans on the kitchen counter and holds
her mug of coffee with both hands. she looks like a made-for-tv movie. she looks like a
non-attorney spokesperson in a car insurance commercial. she cares, but not for the
reasons she should.

i shrug my shoulders. “i don’t think so, no.”

++++i’m tired.
++++claire kept me up last night.
++++she paced the floor in front of my bed
++++and left dirty, wet footprints on the carpet.
++++i begged her to go to sleep. she pulled on her hair
++++and it came out in wet handfuls.
“well, if you ever do need to talk to someone,” my mother offers, and then hesitates. “i
can find you a nice therapist.”

i pick up a pen and scribble absently on the corners of the newspaper on the table.
“sure.”

please

go

to

sleep

 

twenty.

two weeks after she dies, claire finally leaves.

i wake up and the corner of my room is empty.

all that’s left is a dark stain in the carpet
++++and a few words
++++scratched into the baseboard

+++++++++you

+++++++++did

+++++++++this

Sara WaltersSara Walters knows 384 things about Leonardo DiCaprio (on her last count). She has a little red dog named Weasley and drinks ridiculously overpriced coffee. She writes things that feel and sound rather than only say. Her work has appeared in Bridge EightSo to SpeakGone LawnSugared Water, and Barely South Review, among others.