Giant Slayer

July is obscenely hot, but the air conditioning broke two weeks ago and their mother won’t let them leave the house, so they suffer quietly. Felix sits on the plastic-covered couch, poking at the remote control with his toes, flipping from Maury to PBS to the station that only ever plays novellas. There is thin film of sweat on the bottom of his foot that streaks across the remote, but he doesn’t wipe it off because his mother is in the next room. She has been there since last night, tracing the gold rim of a saucer and staring at the remaining sludge in her coffee cup.

Felix leaves the television humming lowly and crosses over to the kitchen. It looks like his mother hasn’t moved at all, not since his father left last night. His father had careened out of the house, swearing rapidly at his mother, who sat with her body bowed at the kitchen table. Felix had heard them; he has never remembered a time when he didn’t crouch at the top of the stairs, tracking the shape of his father’s angry strides toward the door. His father never seems to leave for very long; a few days, enough to keep his mother sour-faced and silent in his absence, and then jubilant when he reappears.

The kitchen is in disarray. The window over the sink is cracked open slightly, letting in flies. There’s one resting by his mother’s ring finger, and she doesn’t slap at it. She doesn’t even seem to notice it.

“Ma,” Felix says. She doesn’t look at him. “Ma,” Felix says again, and he feels angry. He has a mountain of rage within him for his mother, who lets the trash pile up whenever their father leaves. It makes him want to rush at her, to shove her out of her chair and watch her hit the cracked linoleum. He wants to hurt her, but instead fidgets in the doorway, chewing on a hangnail.

Randi, who has a way of walking so closely and quietly behind someone so that no one could feel her there, says, “Jesus Christ, is she still there?” She smells like dry smoke and tangerines; he can see the faint orange from the fruit staining her nail beds. Like Felix, Randi bites her nails as if she has only ever wanted to devour herself. Their father slaps at her hands whenever she puts them in her mouth; Felix remembers, faintly, their father putting chili powder on what was left of them and saying, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you” as she squirmed. She hadn’t cried but instead had sat, sulking, in the bathroom all night with the door cracked slightly open but refusing to let anyone in.

When Randi would still let him touch her, he would press his own fat fingers into them and try to rub the marks away. They had only ever seemed like they could not be fixed one time, last year at the end of May.

Their father had ignored her, except to pound on the door every so often and laugh uproariously when Randi jumped in surprise.

“Yeah,” Felix says reluctantly. He feels almost guilty about telling Randi, as if their mother’s lack of movement should have been a secret between the two of them. Any other day, their mother would’ve been shuffling in time to the radio, or snapping at Felix for his hourly sojourn to the pantry for snacks, or hissing at their father through the telephone.

Randi rolls her eyes and pushes past him; Felix pinches his nose shut against the mixture of sweat and citrus. He thinks about pinching the roll of skin peeking over the waistband of her shorts and twisting it, or telling her to take a shower. It used to be a game: the two of them, baiting each other and wrestling on the thin rug in the living room. He would kick her under the table at dinner; she would wait until he had fallen asleep in front of the television and shove her fingers up his nose. It was familiar, and warm, and his way of knowing she loved him. But Randi doesn’t touch him much anymore. Felix chews on his hangnail and spits it out through the gap in his front teeth, thinks about asking his sister if she still loves him, or at least likes him a little. He feels the way he did when he rode a rollercoaster for the first time: unbalanced and nauseated.

“Randi?” Felix asks.

“Shut up, stupid.”

Randi braces her forearms on the table and stares directly at the crooked part in their mother’s hair. She raises her hand, as if to smooth down the stray hairs, but instead lets it fall down by her side. “Mom,” she snaps, impatient. “Mom, get it together.” Their mother doesn’t move. Randi leans forward, puts her face directly in front of their mother’s and says, “Sarah, get the fuck up.”

Their mother looks up when Randi slams her hands on the table; even from across the room Felix can see the heavy skin under her eyes. The dull bruised color matches the chipping paint on her fingernails. “Miranda, baby,” she says tiredly, “please give your mother a break.” Felix watches Randi’s face contort, the skin wrinkling into a whirlpool of fury. She’s going to start screaming any minute. Randi, he thinks, looks just like their mother. He’s seen the pictures of their mother when she was Randi’s age; heavily curled hair flying in every direction and the mole by her mouth that she had removed when she got married. She had had a gap between her teeth as well, one to match Felix’s own. That had been corrected too.

Randi’s darker, though, her hair kinkier than their mother’s and the mole hovers by her mouth like a defiant period. Their father had offered to get it removed as well; Randi had sworn at him so loudly that the neighbors had called. Felix remembers the story his father had told around the dinner table at Thanksgiving; Randi had thought her name was Negrita until she had entered school, had spelled it as “Negrita” in proud letters on all her kindergarten tests until the teacher had pulled her aside and gently showed her how to write out “Miranda” in cursive. Their father had laughed when she had come home, her face contorted in rage. He had never once called her Miranda, as their mother would, or Randi.

“Sarah,” Randi says, faking patience, “what’s the matter?” She props her chin upon her fists and bats her eyes at their mother. “You got boy problems? You gotta man that ain’t shit, Sarah?” Felix nearly chokes and shoves his whole hand in his mouth so he won’t disturb them. He’s not supposed to be doing that (“Babies do that, you’re not a baby anymore”, their father told him), but he isn’t sure of what to do.

She is speaking in the sort of voice that sounds cocky, but Felix has learned that means she wants to cry instead. Felix hasn’t learned how to speak like that yet; he still cries when he means to shout, sometimes.

The insolence in the air is thick and strange to Felix; he has never explicitly communicated anything to their mother that was not in the form of “yes” or “please.”

Their mother doesn’t look amused. “Miranda. Go away.” She claws a hand through her hair, tries to smooth it back down but it doesn’t go so easily; there is too much heat for that. Their mother haunts the salons downtown when the blow-outs that she gets religiously start to unwind themselves; they usually last long enough for their father to smooth the thatch of straight hair over her forehead, pleased and smiling. “And don’t call me Sarah,” she says, half-heartedly. She hauls herself out of the chair  and walks over to the mirror hanging over the sink. “I’m your mother,” she continues, staring at her reflection, “so show some respect, Negrita.”

Randi stiffens. Felix watches her hands clench into themselves. He knows they will leave half-moons cut into her palms; when Randi would still let him touch her, he would press his own fat fingers into them and try to rub the marks away. They had only ever seemed like they could not be fixed one time, last year at the end of May—but that had only been once, and the red semicircles had faded eventually. “Don’t call me that,” Randi says. Her voice is soft, but it sounds as if she is shouting. It’s unusual for Randi to not yell when she wants to; this, Felix, thinks is her trying to be kind. It’s not easy on her body; she appears to be vibrating in place. She looks, he thinks, hurt, and it makes the back of his neck itch. He rubs it against the rough grain of the wood behind him, hopes idly that the skin will catch against a stray piece of the paneling and tear. Not badly enough to call the ambulance, but enough to bleed uncomfortably and have Randi and his mother stop circling each other like feral cats and instead pay attention to him.

Their mother half-turns, her eyes flashing. Felix shrinks against the doorway, curls his body half into himself. “Miranda,” she says testily, “I’ll call you whatever I like when you’re acting like that.” She picks up the hair hanging heavy and damp on her neck and piles it on top of her head, reaching for bobby pins to secure it. She motions towards Randi, who always seems to have at least six of them in her tight curls. Randi pulls them slowly out of her hair and hands them instead to Felix, who fumbles with them and drops one on the floor. He feels certain that he will disturb something important if he bends down to pick it up; Randi will gut him like a fish, most likely.

“You’re impossible,” Randi says, stalking away from her. Her voice is still low, but crackling with a sort of electricity that Felix never quite hears when she’s talking to their father. She is speaking in a sort of voice that sounds cocky, but Felix has learned that means she wants to cry instead. Felix hasn’t learned how to speak like that yet; he still cries when he means to shout, sometimes. His voice still cracks, sounding trembling and feminine during every fight he has ever had. Felix has never seen Randi cry, but he imagines her doing it now, becoming soft and girlish in a way only he has known himself to be. It feels foreign in his mind; he has no earthly idea of what it would look like. He has only ever seen Randi angry, Randi hitting below the belt, Randi laughing, just a touch too cruelly—but there is one moment, nearly buried in the back of his mind of last May, when he’d uncurled Randi’s fingers from her palm and her eyes had looked large and liquid in her thin face. He didn’t see any tears, but instead listened to her shallow breathing, the whispered repetition of Felix, I—Felix, I—oh god, oh god—

The door bangs open at the back entrance. Their father looms in the doorway, beaming at them all, as if they had all grouped together to cheer at his arrival. Randi is frozen halfway down the hallway; the only possible movement Felix can see are her eyes, which move rapidly from their father’s presence to the ceiling, as if she’s asking God for help. Felix thinks about stretching out a hand to her and smoothing down the riotous curls at the back of her head, but their father pins him with a stare so mocking that the action dies in his head. He fingers the bobby pins nervously and watches his father travel over the expanse of Randi’s body—the shorts, rolled twice at the waistband, the curve of her shoulder peeking upwards from a too-big shirt, the fragile bra-strap resting against her clavicle.

Randi’s eyes are impossibly huge in her face. They look like the tiniest galaxies Felix has ever seen.

Like Felix, Randi bites her nails as if she has only ever wanted to devour herself.

“Negrita,” their father says into the still air, “what the hell are you wearing?” He takes one step towards them, and reaches his hand across the space to touch the pad of his finger against the small strip of Randi’s dark stomach. Felix watches his father’s nail scrape slightly against her navel; Randi jerks backwards so quickly that she nearly falls over. “Go get changed,” their father says, and Randi pivots, her arm brushing against Felix’s own body. He thinks he feels her squeeze at his wrist for just a half a second before she runs upstairs, leaving the soft scent of citrus behind her like a coda. The click of her bedroom door echoes, as does the sharp sound of her lock sliding into place.

Their father smiles at him, sharp and toothy. “Women,” he says, laughing, and heads upstairs after her. Felix tucks the bobby pins into his pocket, watching his mother scramble around the kitchen, nearly throwing dishes into the sink. She holds a hand out frantically for the pins, her hand all but twitching. “Give them to me, Felix,” she says desperately. Felix watches the lines in her face shift with agitation, wonders why she even bothers dressing up for their father. “Baby,” she says, going for sweetness and just barely missing it, “please—please—”

There is a faint purpling around her temple that has all but faded into her skin. It’s roughly the shape of Spain, which he had studied in class so many months ago and had been seen, unfortunately, by the whole grade when his mother had picked him up from school. Later, one of his classmates had asked him on the way home from school if it was true if all Latinos beat their wives, their mouth a half-moon of delight. Felix had known the words to deny this, how to make it sound apologetic the way his mother did when people spoke in Spanish to her. “No habla,” he had heard her say over and over again, in front of his father’s disdainful eye, half-mumbled in embarrassment. He had heard his mother offer halting Spanish to his father just once–he hadn’t seen his face but had, instead, pictured it curled in revulsion.

Felix fingers the pins in his pocket and watches her face go slack in the same way that Randi’s never does. Felix is more than aware of the easiness that would come with helping his mother pin up her hair while his father is upstairs, but every time he blinks he sees Randi’s contorted face behind his eyelids.

“Ma,” he says uncertainly, but it’s too late—there is, almost instantly, the long, lanky figure of his father in the kitchen with his dimples on display. Felix’s father is handsome, he knows, but in a way that eclipses everything. The sharp cheekbones of his face are almost oppressive, as is the way he reaches towards his mother’s cheek and touches a knuckle to her cheek. His mother does not flinch, but Felix can tell by the tightening of her mouth that she wants to. They have all heard the whisperings from their neighbors: even as the women giggle as his father walks by, he knows that they keep their shutters closed tight.

“Hey, my girl,” his father says easily. He combs her hair over the bruise on her forehead, dropping a kiss down beside it. His father’s eyes catalogue the faint wrinkles in her shirt, the coffee cup on the table, the dishes piling in the sink, but he stills smiles widely enough. “Hello, Felix,” he says, holding out a fist. Felix taps it gently with his own, feels oddly as if he is betraying someone. Upstairs, he hears Randi’s window softly click shut, the nearly inaudible sound of her foot pressing against the sill and allowing her to lever herself outside.

Felix feels himself beginning to sweat heavily. He places his fist back into his mouth, his front teeth sinking into the skin. His father slaps at it almost immediately; his fist slips from his lips, catching against his teeth and leaving a scrape that doesn’t bleed but instead throbs under the skin. “Felix,” his father says testily, “are you a baby?”

“No.”

“No what?”

“No, I’m not a baby.”

His father leans in close, pinches his nostrils shut until Felix coughs, fidgeting in place but unwillingly to step away entirely. “Then,” his father says tightly, “don’t act like a fucking baby.” Felix feels, unsurprisingly, the urge to burst into tears. He’s twelve and tries not to cry so much anymore, but it’s difficult and he nearly has to bite clean through his lip to manage it.

In the heat of July, Felix feels his heart break. It makes less of a difference than he thought it would.

His mouth is open now, gasping for air, and he lets out a noise that sounds so weak that his father lets go in disgust, wiping his hand on his jeans. Before Felix pivots and runs, he sees his mother’s face at the back of the kitchen, her hair loose and her large eyes looking blank and heavy. She looks, Felix thinks, like someone who is used to this, and has grown to find a strange comfort in it all.

Outside, the air has turned even thicker with humidity. Felix has never run in his life—not in gym class, not in the one field day when his father had come to and sat awkwardly in the worn-out bleachers—but he does now. He runs with a hand on his stomach, as if he is going to give birth. He does feel like he might; a combination of exhaustion and the look of Randi’s face when their father’s nail had dipped briefly into the curve of her navel. The distaste that Felix has for himself makes him want to push himself, to punish himself for everything he does not know. It is so difficult for him to be brave, to grow his own courage, to fight the way he knows his father does. His father has never been particularly kind, has never been able to be sweet like his mother, but he isn’t afraid of anything. Felix is so certain of this, has been told time and time again about how his father fought to get them into this neighborhood with its colorful shutters and acclaimed schools, had fought other men who wanted to date his mother.

Even Randi fights sometimes, when the other boys corner him after school and pretend to play the drums on his protruding stomach, or when the girls ask him slyly if he and Randi have different fathers, if they’ve ever met them or seen them on the news. He is incapable of hitting anyone—he is so unwilling to hurt—but she still teaches him to how to throw a punch afterwards, her fingers curling around his and forcing him to make a fist.

Felix feels as if he is being torn in two different directions, as if his body will split open if he stops running. His whole body aches. He can’t remember ever feeling this awful; not even after the string of nightmares he had after Randi had nearly cried, dreams where her eyes were pecked open by the blackbirds that sat on their lawn and their father refused to pay for corrective surgery and instead put cherry pits in them. It had been bizarre; he had woken up covered in a thick layer of sweat and forced himself to walk down the hall to his sister’s room. Randi had let him sleep in her bed. But just once. Just that one time.

She had tucked his head between her jaw and neck, and whispered the fairytale she’d been covering in class called “Jack the Giant Slayer”; a more gruesome story of villains tumbling to the depths of the earth, of giants being felled by the virtuous and never returning. Any blustering villain Randi created in her stories died: there was a never a sequel in which they came back for revenge, they all stayed They had dug a pit in the yard so similar to the one Jack had made for Cormoran the giant; their father had stumbled in it one evening and bawled for their mother to come get him. They’d heard him cursing at her through the night, had seen the worn shape of their mother’s body holding out a hand for him to climb out, wedding ring glinting in the the little daylight that was left. “Bags,” he’d heard him snap, and subsequently seen his mother recoil as if she’d been slapped.

Randi had laughed from where they had been huddled in the bushes, her hand squeezing his. He hadn’t heard her laugh since then; he thinks that maybe Randi had buried her desire to laugh last May, when she had started to lock her door at all times and walked around with her fists clenched. Come to think of it, his mother doesn’t laugh either, even though she has the little lines by her mouth that indicates she used to, probably often, probably with her mouth open to show off that canyon-sized gap between her teeth. She doesn’t even laugh when their aunt Anita drives over to visit, although her body always moves like she wants to. Now, no one laughs but his father, who seems to do it almost constantly, with more than a little touch to it that makes it feel as if you aren’t quite in on the joke. It rings hollow around the house, sharp and unwelcome: he has seen Randi jump when their father strides chuckling from room to room, he has seen his mother drop plates and then collect them hurriedly, murmuring apologies even if their father is not home.

In the heat of July, Felix feels his heart break. It makes less of a difference than he thought it would.

Imaani CainImaani Cain was born in California, raised in Connecticut, and currently lives in Massachusetts. She is a graduate from University of Connecticut who serves on the editorial board for Talking Writing as well as being involved in miscellaneous projects. Her work has appeared in Mannequin Haus, Gone Lawn Journal, Bird’s Thumb, and other publications.

 

Purple Pen

You started it. Last Thursday.

Under the stairway next to the cafeteria door, there was a spot where the cameras don’t reach. The security guard was probably staring at a freshmen girl’s butt. You must have slipped right past him.

I noticed it on my way to the bathroom. When I walked by, the security guard sneered. His nose twitched like he caught a whiff of dog poo. That’s what the guards do instead of ogling me. I wear the same uniform as all the girls, but on me a white polo and khakis look like guy’s clothing. I tried to sway my hips and take small steps. Sometimes girling it up helps me blend in. Then you made me forget everything. Behind the security guard, on the wall under the staircase, I saw what you did. In purple ink, you wrote “R.I.P. Prince.”

In fourth period English, I spotted the purple Sharpie in the back pocket of your pants. You slouched behind the desk in front of me, like you have every day all semester. I’ve never said anything, but I see you. You wore the same boring uniform as the rest of us, but your nails were painted purple and gold. It must have been you.

My right leg bounced up and down. You made me nervous.

You’re so beautiful that they don’t notice you’re pretty weird, with those big books that you carry around in your sparkly magenta backpack.

Ms. Damon-Moore was saying something about giving back our final papers tomorrow, reminding us that the assignment was worth half our grade. She frowned at us, but no one paid much attention.  Her mouth was stuck like that. I think she teaches here on the west side of Chicago because she enjoys bossing around black kids. When the bell rang, she kept going, yelling about how she wasn’t afraid to give out Fs. You stood and grabbed your backpack. The marker slipped out of your pocket.

I picked it up from the floor. I could have touched your elbow, handed you that pen, and smiled. No words necessary.

I didn’t do it.

I couldn’t pay attention in the rest of my classes. I pictured myself talking to you, making you laugh. I have been thinking about your laugh for months now. When I close my eyes, I imagine your belly wobble while you giggle, but I can’t decide what to say to you. You’re that girl that everyone likes. The teachers, too, even the white ones. You’re so beautiful that they don’t notice that you’re pretty weird, with those big books you lug around in your sparkly magenta backpack. They think they know you because you chat with them and nod, but to me you always seem separate. On your own. Like you have secrets. At lunch, you sit by yourself, listening to music, keeping an eye out so that the security guards won’t confiscate your headphones. I want to know what you think about when you’re alone, but if I ever tried to talk to you, I probably couldn’t make my mouth move. No problem. If you liked Prince, then I had a plan.

When the final bell clanged, I didn’t head outside with everyone else. I walked into the bathroom by the cafeteria, clutching your pen. I waited, my ear smooshed against the door, until the hallways were quiet. Most of the security guards would be in front of the school, watching students leave. If I was lucky, I would have a minute or two alone in the hall.

I pushed through the girl’s room door, looking to the left and right. Empty. I strode to the spot under the staircase. Beneath your words, I drew a circle. I sketched a line down from it, ending in an arrow, and crossed it with a dash. I drew a spiral to the left of the circle and kept going, crossing the original line and then ending in a vertical slash. The symbol. Prince’s symbol. It looked pretty good. I imagined your lips curling up when you saw it. I wanted you to know I was the one who made you feel that way. I would wait until I was sure you had seen it and then give you your pen back. Then you would know how I much I liked you, without me saying a word.

I thrust your pen in my pocket and I hurried toward the front of the school. A security guard was eyeing a senior as he walked out the door. Good. I wasn’t so late that I’d seem suspicious. Sometimes, if I leave school after everyone else, the guards insist on checking my backpack. I walked past the metal detector, avoiding eye contact with the guard. He stared past me. Still good.

In the afternoon, the metal detector is turned off, but I still hate passing by it.

Do you remember the morning that the detector went off on Keisha Conner? I was next in line, so I had to watch the whole thing. The guard made her empty her pockets and take off her earrings, but the beeping didn’t stop. He kept ordering her back to try again.

“Do a pat down,” she pleaded.

The guard shook his head. That was the week that Vice Principal Howard found out that one of the guards had been groping girls.

After the tenth time Keisha tripped the detector, she lost it.

“I don’t have anything!” she yelled. The guard stepped in front of her.

“Whoa, whoa,” he said. He held his hands in front of his chest and backed away slowly. He acted like Keisha needed to be tamed.

I wondered, if the world could love a tiny dude who sang falsetto, could you like a girl who looks like a boy?

“You know I don’t have anything,” Keisha screamed. She reached out toward the guard. Her hand was like a bird, fluttering toward that big white guy with the metal wand. I could see in her face, tight-lipped, tear-stained but with eyes still expectant, that she was offering peace. With her outstretched palm, she was extending to him a chance to be human. All of the guys and girls behind me in line saw it too. We knew she didn’t touch him.

The guard jumped back like she had hit him.

They called the cops. I mean, the guard growled into his radio and the cop who’s always at school came over. He popped handcuffs on her wrists. I winced at the sound of them snapping together. Did you hear that she had to go to court? Did you see how she tried not to look at anybody when she came back to school?

We shouldn’t be writing on the walls. They’ll call it graffiti. They’ll call the cops.

*     *     *

When I got home, I headed straight to my mom’s turntable. Mom has Prince records. Vinyl. A stack four inches high. I’ve been listening to her play them since I was little. I’ve never paid too much attention, but she plays them so often that I know every song anyway. Mom gets a faraway look in her eye while she listens. I’ve always thought her thing for Prince was a little weird, but if you liked Prince, then I wanted to know everything about him. Maybe he could teach me how to tell you my feelings. I needed Prince lessons and I didn’t have much time before Mom got home. I wasn’t ready to tell her about you, or about me liking girls.

If I had known which album was your favorite, I would have started there. Instead I put on the record from the top of the stack.

“Dearly beloved,” Prince’s voice soared up from the speakers. “We are gathered here to get through this thing called life…”

Prince, get me through this.

I stood in front of the mirror and looked at my body. I’m a foot taller than Prince and built solid. My skin is darker than his and I’ve never worn heels or eyeliner. In middle school, when the girls were getting boobs, my chest stayed as flat as my ass. Mom was cool with me dressing in button-downs and loose jeans, but I doubted that many girls would swoon over me.

From the album cover in my hand, Prince smoldered up at me. He straddled an oversized motorcycle, gripping the handle bars with his white lace gloves. The frills of his blouse stood out against his purple trench coat. He balanced the bike with one foot in an exquisite black heel. Poised. Powerful.

I wondered, if the world could love a tiny dude who sang falsetto, could you like a girl who looks like a boy?

I tried to sway my hips to the music like Prince did. I did my best strut back and forth in front of the mirror. I pouted my lips and squinted one eye.

Not sexy.

“The world lost a legend.” Mom looked me up and down. I must not have heard her come in over the electric guitar riffs.

“You know why everyone loves Prince?”

I shook my head.

“He was brave.” She smoothed my collar. “Like you are.”

My heart soared, pounding like a drum solo. Mom must have already known that I’m different. If I could just open my mouth and tell her how much I liked you, then she would say that she still loves me.

Mom sighed. “To find a man like that, right? Maybe one of us will be that lucky.” She kicked off her lavender pumps and hung up her leather jacket.

My breath skipped like a scratched record. See, I couldn’t tell her. You know the way that Prince smiles but looks like he’s about to cry? I gave my mom that look.

*     *     *

The next day at school, when the lunch bell finally rang, I hurried toward the cafeteria.

“Walk,” barked Vice Principal Howard. Standing beside the main office, his tall, white body stood out like a lighthouse. “We walk in the hallways.” Who’s this “we” teachers are always talking about?

On the wall under the stairs, there was a small black heart next to my drawing. Was it you? It must have been you. That black heart was a stage dive. It was a hip thrust against a mic stand. I understood that look Mom gets.

When I saw you in fourth period, I thought nothing could make me sad ever again. You changed your hair. You must have set it in big rollers and pinned back half of it. A cascade of curls spilled over the right side of your face.

Girl.

You glanced up at me. Your eyes were lined in black. Purple Rain glamour.

Damn.

Ms. Damon-Moore stalked the rows of desks, handing back papers. My good feeling vanished when I saw mine. She had written in big red letters “SPELLING. GRAMMAR.” She circled and crossed out my words with abandon. It was like my paper was a desk and she wanted to mark it up to make it hers. Grading was her form of tagging. I felt her writing on my skin.

“DID YOU PROOFREAD YOUR WORK?” she scrawled between my last paragraph and the bibliography. Her words were huge. At the end of my essay, she wrote a single letter in a circle. D. To her, it must have stood for dumb.

I thought I could handle it. I was used to teachers giving me bad grades without giving me any reason or trying to teach me to do better. I thought I could suck it up, until I looked up from my paper and saw you staring down at yours. I watched you shrink. Your shoulders slumped forward. You folded your paper in half, like you were trying to make it disappear. You wiped your cheek with the back of your hand.

My hands clenched. I pictured myself smashing everything in that classroom.

My paper was clean. Why’d she have to mess it up like that? Why’d she have to mess you up, too?

I wanted to make Ms. Damon-Moore feel as small as you looked, to tell her the things that Mr. Howard says to me in the hallway in the same condensing tone he uses. “Respect our school. Have pride of place.” My paper was clean. Why’d she have to mess it up like that? Why’d she have to mess you up, too?

I fingered your purple marker and raised my other hand. “Bathroom pass?”

Ms. Damon-Moore frowned. “You can’t wait?”

I shook my head. She sighed.

I gripped the pass and dashed down the stairs toward the cafeteria. The hallway was empty.

I drew a dove. I added a tear below its eye. I wanted to keep going. I would have drawn a purple rain cloud. I would have written every word to “Take Me with You,” but I heard footsteps. I jumped away from the wall like it was going to explode. I ducked into the bathroom. The dove would be enough. You would know what I meant.

I put my ear to the door. The footsteps grew louder and then stopped. I closed my eyes.

While I listened, I pictured what I was going to do as soon as school ended. I’d go home and finally tell Mom that I like girls. I’d feel her arms wrapped around my shoulders, her mouth pressed against my cheek. I’d watch the needle of her turntable drop. We would listen to all her Prince albums until we found the perfect lyric to tell you how I feel. Then on Monday, I would write that magic spell next to the dove. The full purple power of his Royal Badness would come down on us and you would know exactly how much I like you. I could never say anything, but I would write my heart on the walls. By Monday, I would be ready.

I heard the click and static of a walkie-talkie. “Graffiti,” barked Mr. Howard. “Cafeteria hallway.” His footfall echoed and then faded. Silence fell, like the pause before a record starts to play.

When the final bell rang, the hallways filled up with relieved students, guys talking loud, girls laughing. Nothing was left in the spot on the wall where the cameras don’t reach, except a purple cloud. By Monday, the wall was extra white. The custodian hung a sign that said, “Wet Paint.”

I never figured out the right lyrics to tell you how I feel. Mom said that’s okay. Yeah, I told her anyway. She said I’ve got my own words.

Here’s your pen back.

J.M. EllisonJ.M. Ellison is a writer, scholar, and grassroots activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. Their work has been featured in Story Club Magazine, Chicago Literati, Racialicious, and other publications. They are currently finishing their first graphic novel, a timely nonfiction account of the power of community in a small Palestinian village. J.M. believes that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. Their work is available at http://jmellison.net

The Price of Words

“It’s so…” I sighed and stared at the dress.

“Colorful?” Phoebe guessed.

I shook my head.

“Stylish?”

“No.”

“Then I think I know what you mean.”

Dreamy, I thought. Charming, lovely, exquisite, ornate. It looks like something out of the fairytales my mother told me when I was little, before the laws took our stories away. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell Phoebe any of this. I didn’t own the right words.

Phoebe loved language almost as much as I did. She understood the frustration of finding the right word at the right time but not being able to use it. She understood my yearning for all the words I’d never have.

“Shall we?” she asked, nodding toward the dress. I ignored the glaring eyes of the sales clerk and pulled up the PriceCheck application on my phone. With a quick wave of the device, I scanned the barcode printed on the inside of the dress.

Armatage Pointe presents: The Lillian

An image of the dress floated onto the screen, breathtaking and beautiful. The advertisement zoomed in to highlight the dress’s intricate patterns and stitching, then zoomed out to reveal its airy shape and flawless design.

Be the belle of the ball and the envy of your friends in the Lillian, the gown of your dreams.

In moments, the dress was seamlessly integrated into the pictures on my phone. There I stood, onstage at my school’s award ceremony, beaming in the dazzling dress. I saw myself surrounded by friends at my latest birthday party, looking absolutely radiant in its blue-green folds. I had to admit, it was a clever marketing ploy.

“If you decide to wear this dress for your next party,” Phoebe whispered, “at least warn the rest of us.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

This dress would buy me thirty-seven new words, an intoxicating splattering of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Thirty-seven new words to enhance explanations, deepen conversations, strengthen relationships.

I would never own a dress like this, and we both knew it.

Once my pictures disappeared from the screen, I scrolled through the dress’s care requirements and customer reviews. There was so much information to sift through to get to what I really wanted to see.

The dress was expensive. 1700 credits, which was almost all I had. But the words! This dress would buy me thirty-seven new words, an intoxicating splattering of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Thirty-seven new words to enhance explanations, deepen conversations, strengthen relationships. Thirty-seven new words to roll around in my mouth, to let loose off the tip of my tongue.

My hungry eyes devoured the list, trying to digest each word and definition before the advertised offer expired. They wouldn’t be mine to write or speak, but no one could stop me from using them in my mind.

It hadn’t always been like this. When I was young, people could use any words they wanted for any purposes they chose. Freedom of speech, they had called it, freedom of expression. But then things began to change.

It had started off innocently enoughcorporations claiming ownership of their names and slogans, artists requesting rights to the lyrics in their songs. Soon, it became hard to keep track of which words were in the public domain and which words required rights. Laws were created to regulate the system, and our vocabularies were reduced to basic word lists. Now, each new word came at a price, and the cost was often too high to excuse.

I looked back at the words this dress would afford me. Ominous, surreal, whimsical, confound… I tried to hear them in my head, tried to imagine what they would sound like spoken through my voice. And then I saw it. I was so surprised, I almost said it out loud.

“It must be a good one,” Phoebe said softly, startling me out of my thoughts. And it was.

Dreamy.

She scrolled back through the list and pointed at the word. “Was that the one you” I nodded. She had known what I was thinking after all. Looking at price tags was often the closest we got to truly communicating.

Phoebe pulled out her phone. “You were meant to have this word. I wonder if it comes with anything else.” She opened her personal dictionary, accessed its word locating system, and entered “dreamy” in the search bar.

This component of the application acted as an inventory for available words. When information on a specific word was requested, it listed the brands that retained rights, as well as the sites and stores that sold their products. Querying for a potential purchase was one of the few times we could use the words we didn’t already possess, and buying sponsored products was the only way to legally obtain them.

“Pardon me.”

I looked up from Phoebe’s phone and turned to stare at the boy who stood behind me.

“Could you please excuse me?” he asked, nodding toward a sales counter, his politeness quickly merging with impatience. “I’m sorry to say my time is scarce.”

Dazed, I moved out of his way.

How many words did he have, how rich must he be, to be able to talk like that? “Pardon” was a rarity, an artifact among words, and “scarce” was also uncommon. Before Phoebe could stop me, I strode over to him.

“Your words are so…” I stopped, unsure of how to best complete my thought. Enthralling…impressive…envious… Words danced around my head, but I dared not let them spill from my mouth.

“Dreamy?”

I shook my head. All those words, and he couldn’t choose one that fit?

…I wondered if the entirety of my life would be spent chasing the wisps of words I could never afford to have, and something inside of me snapped.

“Do you have anything with ‘dreamy’?”

I realized he was talking to the sales clerk, and then I realized she was looking at me, gesturing to the dress I still held in my hands. “That’s the only piece in the store.”

Actually, Phoebe texted, that’s the only piece in the state. She sent me a screen shot of her search results, and my stomach sank. If she was right and “dreamy” was meant for me, the universe had a strange way of showing it.

Nevertheless, I felt a sudden possessiveness over the dress. When the boy went to reach for it, I pulled it closer.

“I just want to see it,” he said, annoyance apparent in his voice. “You’re not actually thinking about buying it, are you?”

“I’m considering it.” I held the dress up to my body and let my eyes linger on the fabric against my skin.

“There’s a clearance rack on the other side of the store,” the sales clerk assured me. “It may have something more suitable for your price range.”

I felt my face flush. My mind still churned with the words I had just seen, and I suddenly felt desperate, angry, sad. For the zillionth time, I wondered if the entirety of my life would be spent chasing the wisps of words I could never afford to have, and something inside of me snapped. I risked a glance back at Phoebe. Her eyes widened as she realized what I was contemplating. I frowned slightly at the dress as if this was something I did all the time, as if I wasn’t shaking inside. “I’ll take it.”

As the sales clerk busied herself wrapping up the dress and adding its words to my personal dictionary, the boy pelted her with questions. Where else could he find the dress? Did ‘dreamy’ come standard with all Armatage Pointe special occasion dresses, or was it specific to this color and style? When did they expect to receive their next shipment? When she told him it was a limited edition dress and I’d just purchased the last one, he stifled a scream.

“Isn’t there anything you can do?” he asked the clerk. “I’ve got to have that dress.”

“I’m sorry, but all sales are final.”

“You, then!” he exclaimed as the sales clerk handed me the dress with an apologetic smile. “I’ll buy it from you!”

“It’s not for sale.” I grabbed Phoebe’s arm and started toward the store’s exit. In less than a minute, we were deposited back into the middle of the mall.

“Don’t you at least want to hear my offer?” the boy asked, hurrying to keep up.

“No.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged off his question like it didn’t sting. “I just don’t, okay?”

“I’ll give you twice what you paid.”

Phoebe gasped, but I refused to consider all I could buy with those credits.

“What’s your problem?” I asked, whirling around to face him. “You have plenty of words. Can’t you let anyone else…” I winced, realizing I was going to embarrass myself with my inferior lexicon.

He waited.

“Can’t you let anyone else…widen their vocabulary?” I sped through the last part, mumbling the words to make them as unintelligible as possible.

“You mean ‘expand their vocabulary’?” His eyes laughed at me, and I wished I had a larger selection of insults to choose from. Not wanting to subject myself to further ridicule, I turned toward the mall’s exit. I was furious with him, with my lack of words, with the world and the way things were.

“Come on!” he shouted at the back of my head. “I was only kidding.”

I walked faster.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

Silence was my only response.

I was furious with him, with my lack of words, with the world and the way things were.

“You don’t understand!”

No, I thought, I don’t understand. You have more words than I’ll speak in my entire life, yet you feel entitled to the few words I possess. How am I supposed to understand that?

Phoebe caught up with me quickly. As we neared the mall’s exit, I reached for the door, thankful to put this whole ordeal behind me.

“I can get you more words!”

My fingers froze, inches from my escape. I slowly turned to face the boy, his desperate syllables still bouncing around in my brain. “What did you say?”

His eyes widened as if he was just now realizing the implications of his offer. They darted back and forth, scanning the surrounding area, and for good reason. An unsanctioned transfer of words was a sizable offense, punishable by law.

Once the boy was convinced no one had overheard, he turned his attention back to me. “I can get you,” he repeated through gritted teeth, “more words.”

I glanced over at Phoebe who immediately shook her head. Her pleading eyes told me I’d gotten into enough trouble for one day, and she was right. Still, I was curious.

I studied the boy’s face, trying to gauge his sincerity, and he flashed me an infuriatingly charismatic smile. “I’m sure we can come to an amicable agreement,” he said. “I have plenty of words. It’s just a matter of determining which ones you’d like.”

He approached us and took out his phone, once again exuding nothing but confidence.   Maybe Phoebe was right. This sounded too good to be true.

The boy’s hopeful eyes rested on me for a moment. When I offered no response, he sat down on a nearby bench and gestured for me to join him. I followed but remained standing.

Sighing, he glanced at his watch. “I’m sorry to say this offer won’t last long. I really don’t have much time.” Against my better judgement, I sat down.

I watched as he opened his dictionary. He scrolled through his wordsso many more than I’d ever seen on one person’s phoneand chose a collection titled Excess & Expendable. Then he turned his phone toward me.

“What’s in it for you?” I asked softly, holding his gaze. “Why does this one word matter so much?”

He shrugged. “Why does any word matter? You should know better than anyoneone word can mean the world.”

His phone still glowed in front of me, and I couldn’t resist it any longer. I dared to let my finger scroll through the endless sea of letter combinations, dared to lose myself in the mesmerizing waves of words.

“Where did you get these?” I breathed.

When he didn’t answer, I glanced back up at him, but his eyes had moved to something behind me and his face had changed somehow.

I turned to follow his gaze. “What is it?”

The boy made no move to respond. Instead, he frowned and slipped his phone back into his pocket. My hand was left hanging awkwardly in the air, and I was left embarrassed, hurt, confused. Hadn’t he been the one to suggest this in the first place? Had I done something wrong?

Frustrated, I looked back over my shoulder and followed his eyes deep into the mall. At first, I didn’t notice anything unusual. Then I felt a chill creep up my spine. One floor down and several stores over, a man stood, watching us.

How long has he been standing there? I wondered. Long enough to hear the boy shout that he could get me more words? Long enough to see me scroll through the dictionary on his phone? This man could mean trouble, and I sensed that the boy felt it, too.

I watched as the boy slowly stood and took a small, unsteady step toward the mall’s exit. That was all it took to set things into motion.

“Jace!”

The man’s voice rang out like a shot from a pistol. One by one, people turned to stare, first at the man, and then in our direction. The mall became eerily quiet as he pushed through the crowd, his eyes never leaving the boy.

In seconds, Phoebe was by my side. “Let’s go,” she mouthed, nodding toward the exit. “Now.”

I shook my head, willing her to understand.

His phone still glowed in front of me, and I couldn’t resist it any longer. I dared to let my finger scroll through the endless sea of letter combinations, dared to lose myself in the mesmerizing waves of words.

I couldn’t leave an opportunity like this, not without exploring it first.

I looked back at the boy, whose name, I guessed, was Jace.

“What’s going on?” I demanded.

This seemed to snap him out of it. He shook his head and muttered something under his breath. Then, with fast hands, he snatched my dress and took off running.

“Hey!” I shouted after him. “HEY!”

“I know you’re upset, but” I didn’t catch what Phoebe said next because I’d already left her behind.

I sprinted from store to store, stopping only to survey my surroundings. The mall was big, but I was fast. Jace couldn’t have gotten far.

When movement on the far side of the food court caught my eye, I was ready. I narrowed in on my target and chased after him, trying my best not to be seen.

“Jace!” I hissed once I was within earshot. He ducked into a bookstore. “Ja

“Shhh!” He grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a shelf of world language books.

What I wouldn’t give, I thought, to live in a world where I could speak a multitude of languages instead of fighting to speak just one. I lowered myself to the floor, fuming and catching my breath.

“Who was that guy chasing you?” I demanded between gulps of air, “and why did you take my dress? I’m afraid turquoise isn’t your color.”

His voice sounded almost amused when he answered. “I don’t want your dress.”

“Good.” I grabbed the gown and glared at him. “It better not be ripped.”

He smirked, which only frustrated me further.

“If you didn’t want the dress, why did you take it? Its words were already added to my account.”

His grin spread farther across his face, and things started to make sense.

“You wanted me to follow you.”

“You’d still be looking for me if I hadn’t wanted to be found.”

“So what, you think stealing my dress and making me chase you around a mall is going to get you my words?”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Ugh!”

Panic passed over his face at the volume of my voice, but I was so mad I didn’t care.

“You don’t know what it’s like, watching every word that comes out of your mouth, browsing only to come across words you can’t afford. You don’t know how it feels to not be able to share your ideas with your family or your friends, to

“How do you know?” he snapped. “Do you really think you’re the only one who’s affected by all this? That you’re the only one who cares about having words?” His reaction stunned me into silence and, when he spoke again, his voice softened. “I didn’t have a choice, okay?”

We both sat there for a moment, not saying anything. Then Jace’s phone buzzed. After reading the message, he dragged a heavy hand across his face.

“Will you please tell me what’s going on?”

He looked back down at his phone and sighed. “Your new word is the last one I need for a collection I’ve been working on for one of my customers. That customer,” he said, gesturing back into the mall, “as a matter of fact.”

As if on cue, his phone buzzed with another alert.

“If I don’t get him his words, I’m going to lose out on a lot of business . . . or worse.”

Getting caught cheating the system could mean a fine in credits, or worse, a fine in words. I’d had a few docked here and there, but an infraction like this? It could cost me a third of my vocabulary.

He started opening his Excess and Expendable list again, but I held up my hand to stop him.

“I don’t want your secondhand words,” I told him, “and I especially don’t want the ones I won’t even be able to use.”

“But

I pointed to the heading at the top of his list. “I know what those words mean.”

I continued, frustrated I couldn’t use the first words that came to my mind.

“I also know that my word must be (valuable) worth a lot. It came with a (limited edition) special dress and, with the (plethora) number of words you have, you still don’t have it. I want to make sure I’m (compensated) treated fairly.”

He ran a nervous hand through his hair. “Okay . . . then what do you want?”

“I want to know how to get the words myself.”

The feigned confusion on his face almost made me laugh. Everyone knew there were groups who cheated the system, who bought and sold words like candy and never got caught. Still, his reaction didn’t surprise me. I’d expected him to play dumb.

“I have a feeling you don’t get all of your words by running off with pretty dresses.”

Jace laughed and studied me for a moment. “You’re an interesting girl, you know that?”

I wasn’t sure if it was a slight or a compliment, so I remained silent. After what seemed like an eternity, he shrugged. “Fine. Why not? Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?”

Anticipation surged within me as I thought of all the words I could acquire.

“But I want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Here we go, I thought. The part I’ve been trying so hard to forget.

I smoothed out the bag that held my dress and tried to force down the lump in my throat. Getting caught cheating the system could mean a fine in credits, or worse, a fine in words. I’d had a few docked here and there, but an infraction like this? It could cost me a third of my vocabulary.

“I know the risks,” I told Jace, “and I’m willing to take them.” I took out my phone and drew in a deep breath. “What do I do first?”

He didn’t waste any time getting started.

“Open your browser,” he instructed. “Then, enter this address.” He typed a URL into his phone and held it up for me to see. In seconds, I was connected to a depressingly ordinary-looking site.

“What does this have to do with

“Just trust me.”

I copied the web address and pasted it in the middle of one of my notes for safe keeping. Then I nodded for him to continue.

“Click here,” Jace said, pointing to a link. His voice was barely a whisper. “They post clues in the forums.”

I hurried to keep up as he navigated through the message board, guiding me through thread after thread.

“Now open your dictionary app.”

“Wait.” I lowered my phone to stare at him. “You get your words through your dictionary? How is that possible?”

“The occasional glitch,” he said with half a smirk. “One of the app’s developers feels generous or makes a mistake… If it’s subtle enough, it gets past information security. You wouldn’t believe how many hours people spend trying different combinations and techniques in hopes of finding such an oversight.”

“And these people post clues on this site?”

He nodded.

“Here’s something.” He stopped on a post about halfway down the page. “Do you see this word? The one that’s miscapitalized?” I scanned through the list and nodded.

In the post, it was written opTimism. Normally, I would’ve rolled my eyes at such a careless error, but now that I knew it was intentional, I was intrigued.

“Enter it into the word locator.”

It’s one word, I told myself, it’s only one word, but I felt like I was losing my vocabulary all over again. Jace had been right. One word could mean the world.

“Capitalized?”

He lifted his finger to his lips. Once we were quiet, I heard it, too. The man was still out there, calling his name.

“Is he dangerous?” I whispered.

“Do you still want these words?”

I bit my lip and nodded.

“Enter that word, ‘optimism,’ into the word locator, with the capitalization shown. Now, do you see how it’s the letter ‘t’ that’s capitalized? It’s the third letter, right? That means you have to hit search three times before closing out.”

My fingers fumbled to type the word into my phone. I hit search three times and clumsily closed out of the application.

“How did you know to do that?”

“There are all sorts of clues. Rhyme, punctuation, figurative languagethe list goes on and on. They have to be complicated enough to mask the glitches from those who would fix them but simple enough to be deciphered by those who know to look.”

“I had no idea.”

“Most people don’t.”

It was an amazingly frustrating realization. All this time I’d spent wishing for words, and the clues had been here all along.

“How many words do you get with each glitch?”

“It varies. Some give just one. Others yield entire collections. Once you know what to look for, they add up quickly.”

As he spoke, the man’s voice got louder, and my heart threatened to pound a hole in my chest.

“Okay,” Jace said, urgency apparent in his voice, “I held up my end of the deal.” He gave me his sixteen-digit dictionary code and showed me where I could safely post my word in exchange. I nodded and tried to ignore the nausea that swept over me.

It’s one word, I told myself, it’s only one word, but I felt like I was losing my vocabulary all over again. Jace had been right. One word could mean the world.

Before I could change my mind, I sent him “dreamy.” Only after I transferred the word did I realize that I hadn’t even spoken it while I’d had the chance.

“Jace!” The man was close now. Really close.

Jace peered around the bookshelf and swore under his breath. “You can’t be seen with me. You’ll have to make a run for it.”

“What?”

“Turn off your phone. Don’t turn it back on until you’re someplace safe.”

I hurried to power off my device. “But

“I’ll be fine.” He gave me a half-hearted smile before he stood and stepped around the bookcase. “Where’ve you been?” he called out to the man. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”

Before the man could answer, he took off running. Again. At least this time, he left me my dress.

I had no other choice, so I ran in the opposite direction, as fast as my long legs could carry me. I didn’t stop until I was on the bus headed home.

Once I was safely in my room, I locked my door and took the dress out of its packaging. It seemed out of place in my hands, my room, my life. Still, I had to admit, it was beautiful. I let my fingers caress the silky soft fabric and wondered what it would feel like wrapped around my skin. Richluxurious…dreamy. I mouthed the word, but unspoken, it felt hollow. It made me feel empty, too.

Catching sight of my reflection in my mirror, I thought back to the pictures the dress’s advertisement had fused together earlier that day. So much had changed since then. I stared at the dress for a moment, still stunned that I’d dared to buy it, disbelieving that I’d given up the single word I’d purchased it for.

After one last longing glance, I stashed the gown in the back of my closet and watched it crumple like a lifeless butterfly. It had to stay hidden for now, but I’d find a chance to wear it someday.

Sighing, I slid my closet door shut and sat down on my bed.

I mouthed the word, but unspoken, it felt hollow. It made me feel empty, too.

Then I took out my phone and stared at its blank screen.

What had happened to Jace after I’d left? Was he able to access my word? Did he get his collection to the man chasing him? Had anyone seen what we’d done? Questions swirled around my head as I clicked on my phone.

The first thing I saw was a string of texts from Phoebe. Where are you? Did you get your dress? Are you alright? The messages were from over an hour ago and I felt a stone of guilt settle in the pit of my stomach.

I should’ve thought to text her sooneronce I’d found Jace, once I’d recovered my dress. I should’ve checked that she’d gotten home okay, should’ve apologized for running off. Now, I knew, I should text and invite her over so I could explain everything.

My finger hovered over Reply but then hit Close instead. As nice as it would be to share the day’s events with someone and absolve myself as a friend, it was too dangerous. I’d get back to Phoebe, with minimal details, soon. There was something I had to do first.

I said a silent prayer and selected my dictionary app.

To my dismay, a cursive uppercase D appeared on the screen, an icon meant to inform me that the application was loading. It always showed up at the most inopportune times, and now was no exception.

As I watched the thin line loop and curve to create the letter over and over again, the day’s events began to replay in my mind. I found myself analyzing each decision, every word. There were countless implications for trouble within them.

My actions could’ve been caught on the mall’s security cameras. Someone could’ve noticed my suspicious activity online. Authorities could be in the process of tracking me down at this very moment. They could be on their way to my house right now.

Stay calm, I told myself. Everything’s fine.

I watched with growing anxiety as the scripted D was leisurely traced over and over again. My dictionary never took this long to load.

I tried closing out of the app but couldn’t. I tapped the phone, softly at first, then harder, until I was jabbing at its screen. What if my dictionary didn’t open? What if something had gone wrong? What if nothing had changed or, worse, if all my words were gone?

Please be there, I thought. Please, please, please be there.

When the scripted D disappeared and the application finally opened, my breath caught in my throat. I frantically scrolled through my collections, thinking this wasn’t possible, thinking I’d somehow made a mistake.

There were sixteen words in my Merchandise collection that hadn’t been there before. An added forty-three appeared in Plants and Animals. My Emotional Reactions set showed an increase of seventy-nine words, and Arts & Culture was up by ninety-one. I kept scrolling, astounded, disbelieving, thrilled. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of words that hadn’t been there before. And they were all officially mine.

I opened a collection at random and scanned the list, dizzy with excitement. My eyes smiled at each new word as if we were long-lost friends.

“This is…” I hesitated. My eyes scanned the room and my ears strained to listen for any unfamiliar sounds. I looked out my window and double checked that my bedroom door was locked. Then, I looked back at my phone. I found an appropriate word, and I breathed it to life. “Amazing.”

I waited, half expecting law enforcement agents to storm my room or one of my parents to wake me from the fog of this wonderful dream. When nothing happened, I followed with more words, enunciating each letter sound, savoring every syllable. “Elated,” I whispered. “Overjoyed.” My heart sang as I set free words that hadn’t graced my lips since I was just shy of nine years old. I didn’t stop until I’d gotten through them all.

I counted a total of eight hundred fifty new words, and that wasn’t even including the thirty-seven I’d gotten with the dress.

Thirty-six, I reminded myself. I was surprised at the pang of regret I felt, even with all the new words I’d been granted.

Before I knew what I was doing, I tabbed back to the forums. I scrolled through the messages, trying to find the thread Jace had shown me earlier, wondering if I’d ever know who to thank for this precious gift.

My eyes landed, almost immediately, on another miscapitalized word. I studied it for a moment, disbelieving, and then everything clicked into place. With trembling hands, I opened the word locating system in my dictionary app.

I knew I could get into trouble for this. I could lose every last word that I had. Still, I couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across my face, and when my tears fell, they were of only surprise, gratitude, and joy.

I entered dreamY into my dictionary, hit search six times, and closed out of the application.

Maybe Jace wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Maybe there was still reason to hope for a change. Maybe, someday, we would live in a world where words were considered priceless but the price of words was free.

Jennifer KaulJennifer Kaul lives in Minnesota where she writes and works in education. Her stories stem from the happenings in our world and the what-ifs that swirl around her head as a result. Her hope is, through her writing, to encourage thought and conversation and to make the world a better place. “The Price of Words” is her first published piece. jenniferkaul.wordpress.com.

The Charred Companion

JD twists in his chair and searches for something to toss in the fire. This shouldn’t be difficult. Woods border the site, and sticks litter the ground in the trees’ shade. A good-sized limb rests between my family’s tent and the trail that leads to the playground.

But JD needs something in arm’s reach. He won’t abandon his chair. It’s the only one that can unfold into a recliner. He’s already cleared the area around him. In a minute, he’ll tell me to get up and start gathering. I bend forward and look under my seat. The matted grass holds three dead leaves. I hand them over. He takes them without a word.

The leaves are his. The reclining chair is his. The campsite is his. Got it.

As soon as they hit the flames, the leaves flutter up with a hiss. We observe their flickering descent. JD straightens his leg and snuffs the burning leaf closest to him with his shoe. The other two die on their own. I consider his outstretched sneaker. I’m too big to inherit his things anymore, but anticipating them is an old habit. When I realize what I’m doing, I jerk my gaze back to the fire and feel the heat in my face.

My mother’s got her sister cornered in the camper. Their voices drift through the screen.

“Why bother?” Mom asks.

The blinds rattle over the sink. Aunt Janet’s killing flies again.

I consider his outstretched sneaker. I’m too big to inherit his things anymore, but anticipating them is an old habit. When I realize what I’m doing, I jerk my gaze back to the fire and feel the heat in my face.

It’s September, but the horseflies are still bad. “Not much out there,” my aunt says.

“He reads the classifieds every Saturday.”

Aunt Janet’s laugh sounds like a cough. “Good luck with that.”

“There’s nothing. Nothing he’s qualified for. Then it’s back to McGregor’s on Monday. Goddamn it, he hates that job.”

My aunt swats the screen door, and for a moment, she appears behind the mesh, a trim and sharp-featured woman. Pointy best describes her: pointy nose, pointy chin, a mouth that makes a pointing pucker when she’s thinking. She and my mother don’t look anything alike.

Mom’s round. When it comes to her weight, she blames her depression, tells me she self-medicates with food. I hear a lot about depression, the symptoms, her history with it, the antidepressants. The latest is Zoloft. Like the others, it offers its own special blend of shitty side-effects. Depression keeps her from getting a job. Sometimes I think it is her job. That’s one reason Dad doesn’t quit his. He’s worked as the pub’s manager since I came along fourteen years ago. He’d leave McGregor’s and look for something better if Mom could cover the bills for a few months. She can’t, so he’s stuck. Lately, he complains he’s depressed. I guess it’s catching. I’m glad I’ve got a bike and can steer clear of the house.

Mom and Aunt Janet’s conversation shifts to their brother. Uncle Danny’s a favorite topic. He never married and lives in Brooklyn. He teaches and writes for a living. Last April, he bought a motorcycle. The sisters disapprove. They’re taking turns, charging him with typical maleness and ridiculousness, predicting a lonely old age for him. Their voices make me smile. They might not look too similar, but they sound alike. It could be Mom talking to herself in there.

“Where the hell are they?” JD glares at the fire. My older cousin’s lanky like his dad, sharp-featured like his mom. Tapping his fingers on the arms of the chair, he looks like a king on his throne, waiting for news regarding a battle’s outcome.

I shrug. How should I know what happened to our fathers? They left two hours ago to pick up potato salad and marshmallows. I cross my legs at the ankles and look down. My legs still amaze me. Last year, I was short. Suddenly I’m not. In fact, though JD’s thirteen months older than me, I’m as tall as he is. Technically.

“I want to eat.” He slumps and closes his eyes.

The wind kicks up, and a charred curl of newspaper drifts from the fire and floats all the way to the top of his head. His blond hair, springy and thick, traps it. He looks kind of silly, wearing the blackened bit. The sight cheers me.

I fold my hands over my stomach and sniff. Others have started their meals, and the smell of grilled sausages and hamburgers hangs in the air. From the site to the north, a child’s high-pitched yell breaks through the rumble of men’s voices. On our other side, a radio commercial segues into country music.

It’s not very late, but people eat earlier at the end of the camping season when nights fall fast and cold. Already the sun’s heavy in the sky. Its glow turns the clouds over the yellowing trees into bars of gold. A different kind of cloud, just a wisp of smoky violet, winds through the gilded layers, like a genie set loose in a prince’s tomb. Though the light looks ancient and warm, the late afternoon air is brisk. JD shivers, sits forward, and stirs the fire with a forked metal tong.

A wind suddenly licks up then flattens the flames. As the gust stirs the branches, the trees make a sound like rain. I’m watching leaves skid sideways through the air when a girl’s laugh travels our way. The leaves’ twisting tumble, the way the wind jolts them, is so playful and animated that for a second, it almost seems as if the laughter could have come from them.

But then JD straightens. I follow his gaze past the trees. Three girls amble down the road. 

Tapping his fingers on the arms of the chair, he looks like a king on his throne, waiting for news regarding a battle’s outcome.

We’re in the C-loop, close to the main stretch that leads to the registration building and campground entrance, so we see plenty of people wander this way. But not so many our age—at least not in September when most families quit camping and shift into school mode. Aunt Janet’s a diehard: she won’t let Uncle Jerry winterize the camper until the end of October. In the fall, she sticks to this campground, Roosevelt Beach. It’s only fifteen minutes from their house, twenty from ours. The proximity means camping won’t interfere with the school soccer schedule. My cousin’s schedule, not mine. I don’t play.

JD is staring hard at the girls.

I hear the laugh again and realize the middle one’s responsible. She’s cute. “Do we know them?” I don’t, but JD might.

“Nope.” He stands, his expression alert. “But we should.”

He heads that way, and I rise to follow. The girls don’t stop for us, but they don’t exactly go either. They manage an awkward shuffle to give JD time to intercept them.

Since they’ve focused on him, I’m free to look. At first, I peg them as juniors. But as I get closer to the road and peer past the makeup and clothes, I change that to sophomores. It’s hard to tell. Despite the cool temperature, they all wear tank tops, black layered over white, and though one girl is all bones, the other two have breasts that make their scooped necklines interesting. The middle one’s the prettiest, not just curvy but golden and fit too. I wonder if her breasts happened quickly and took her by surprise, like my long limbs startled me.

I glance at my cousin. He’s studying her, as well.

Once JD and I reach the dirt road, the five of us exchange nods and heys. I kick a rock. JD sticks his hands in his jean pockets. While the skinny girl on the right takes her time texting someone, the busty one on the left makes a show of kneeling to lace a sneaker. Her tank top inches up. A small roll hangs over her shorts. As soon as she stands, the roll disappears.

Only the pretty laugher looks at us steadily. The two who flank her glance breezily at each other, at their phones then quickly, like they don’t want to get caught, at JD and me. The peeks might be brief, but they’re intense, and the fake-casual routine, so at odds with their dolled-up faces and hair, strikes me as funny.

When the middle one catches my expression, she links her hands behind her, like a teacher waiting for a student’s answer. She raises an eyebrow.

I stop smiling. “Heading to the beach?” I cross my arms over my chest and jerk my chin to indicate the end of the loop like I need to remind them that Lake Ontario’s to the north. I feel stupid.

“Nope.” She gives her golden hair a flick and sends it down her back. “To the park.”

Then she smiles like I’m invited.

JD shoots me a frown. “The trail behind my site goes that way. Want a shortcut?”

She gives her hair another toss. “Sure.”

My cousin leads. The girls go next, the pretty laugher first. I’m last, but with the girls ahead of me, my position beats JD’s.

When we get to the camper, my cousin pauses and, looking uncomfortable, casts a quick glance at the girls behind him before leaning into the screen door. “Mom? We’re heading to the park.”

Our mothers’ curious faces appear on the other side of the screen. They take in the girls then smile at us. In that moment, they actually look like sisters. Their expressions—embarrassingly, tenderly amused—match.

“Okay, sweetie,” Aunt Janet says. “Don’t be too long.”

Hyacinth’s smile widens. She catches my eyes, and I can tell from her expression we’re conspirators, bound by the secret of the charred decoration.

JD winces and glances at me, a second-long look that says, How many more years until we escape this? Then he hurries away from the door. We continue single-file around the campfire, where the burning logs are giving way to red coals, past my family’s old black tent, and onto the trail. The brush makes the route a narrow pass. Pink fruits that look like miniature apples hang off thorny branches, and the trees arching above the bushes cast quivering shadows over the girls’ bare shoulders. Ahead, JD walks slowly. His hair still traps the blackened curl of paper. I wonder if the girls notice too.

The trail widens to a field. Flat and green, the clearing stretches, acre after acre, uninterrupted, except for a stone building by the distant parking lot and, squarely in the middle of the open space, a single, elaborate construction of interconnected slides, bars, platforms, and swings. The stone building is the rec center. It’s closed for the season, and its glass panes darkly reflect the stand of trees separating the park from the campsite. No one’s here but us.

JD pauses to let the girls pass. The three sashay around him and do a giggling huddle a few yards ahead. After smiling at us over their shoulders, they go back to being sophisticated and saunter to the playground, their shaved legs flashing and hips swaying and arms swinging at their sides.

I’m impressed. Do they practice?

As soon as we reach the playground, the attractive one climbs a set of metal rings to the lowest platform. She turns and leans over a bar to smile down at JD and me. Her hair swings forward, and the sun behind her makes the wavy length brilliant, a gilded red. The other girls race to the end, lunge for the swings, and wiggle their butts onto the belts of plastic. Clinging to the chains, they trot back and grin at each before swooping forward. They look like kids.

“What’s your name?”

I peer up, glance over at my cousin, look up again, and blink. She’s talking to me. “Benjamin.” Benjamin. Ben would have been better. Why didn’t I just say Ben?

“I’m Hyacinth.” She slides her eyes to my cousin who’s standing stiffly at my side. I see her eyes touch his hair, and a smile quivers on her mouth. “And you’re?”

“JD.” He strides forward and jumps up to grab a bar. He lets his body swing there for a moment then maneuvers his hands to the next bar then the next. When he reaches the platform opposite hers, he nimbly propels himself onto it.

I’m tempted to clap. He showcased the biceps he’s been working on with the free weights in his basement and looks lean and strong. Plus, he’s nailed the expression: disdainful disinterest. He must be punishing her for paying attention to me first. The problem is he’s got that blackened curl of paper, perky as a bow, tucked in his hair.

Hyacinth’s smile widens. She catches my eyes, and I can tell from her expression we’re conspirators, bound by the secret of the charred decoration. Then she straightens, clasps her hands behind her again, and starts asking questions.

She gleans the basics. No, we’re cousins, not brothers. And no, we’re not the same age. Though we attend the same high school, JD’s a sophomore. I’m a freshman. JD, clearly still smarting, keeps his bored look steady but somehow manages to establish that he plans to go to medical school, takes advanced placement classes, plays goaltender for his soccer team, and succeeds at most sports, so well that the soccer and baseball coaches yanked him out of JV last year to include him on their varsity teams.

By the time he finishes sharing his resume, he’s breathing heavily. He leans against the ladder of metal rings that lead to the next platform and swipes his forehead. The action jars the blackened paper, and I wait for it to flutter to the ground. Instead it crawls forward and takes up residency over his bangs. It looks like a baby bat caught in a net.

A laugh escapes Hyacinth. She nods slowly and shifts her amused gaze to me.

The action jars the blackened paper, and I wait for it to flutter to the ground. Instead it crawls forward and takes up residency over his bangs. It looks like a baby bat caught in a net.

“What about you?”

“Me?” What about me? I sit on the grass and stretch out my legs. There they are again: my long legs.

One of the other girls squeals. They have the swing chains twisted. The skinny one yells, “Now!” And at the same time, they lift their feet and spin.

I glance back at Hyacinth. “Nothing.” I yank out a blade of grass, trap it between my thumbs to make a whistle, and blow. The trumpeting sound, honking and discordant, like a duck quacking and farting at the same time, seems to sum up my life. I toss aside the blade. “I don’t do much. Just ride my bike. Try not to fail any subjects.” Except math. Math’s hopeless. No point in killing myself over logic proofs. “Avoid my parents. That kind of thing.”

She settles an approving look on me.

I frown and mentally review what I just said to search for what could have possibly dazzled her. Nothing. I shake my head.

JD looks baffled too.

Hyacinth starts drilling us with camping questions to determine how long we’ve camped, what we like to do when we’re camping, if we’ve ever switched the Hershey’s chocolate for Reese’s peanut butter cups in s’mores. She slips under the lowest bar encircling the platform and, as graceful as a gymnast, leaps to the ground. When she sits next to me, she draws up her legs and rests her cheek on a knee. “Where do you usually camp?”

I don’t answer right away. I want to make the moment last, her eyes, bronze like a lion’s, her slightly parted mouth, her smooth cheek, its edge reddened with the last of the sunlight, and her interest in me, her inexplicable interest—this dumbfounding, unprecedented preferential treatment. I get the sensation I experience sometimes when I’m bicycling, pedaling as fast as I can, and heading down a road I’ve never travelled before, where maybe no one knows me or my parents or JD. It feels like more than freedom. It’s possibility.

But then I glance at JD. At some point, he abandoned the platform. Now he slouches at the foot of the slide and scrubs his sneakers against the circle of packed dirt where landing feet have worn away the grass. He studies his loosely folded hands. On his bent head, directly centered above his forehead, is the burned paper. In the dim light, it could be a stump, blackened with blood, the remains of a stolen horn.

His slumped stillness stirs a memory. When we were kids, for the longest time, JD went through a Toy Story stage. He craved anything related to Woody: boots, toy gun, cowboy hat, vest. He must have been six or seven, maybe six and seven. His obsession seemed to last forever. In fact, he grew out of his favorite shirts—T-shirts with Woody plastered on the front—long before he moved on to his next interest.

Aunt Janet, of course, passed along the shirts to me with the rest of his outgrown wardrobe. I promptly insisted on wearing the one that sported Woody and Buzz. I liked Buzz better than Woody and, though I didn’t have the matching action figures or toys, usually played Buzz whenever JD and I got going on our Toy Story games.

…I remember getting what our parents likely didn’t: that growing too big for something doesn’t mean we’re ready to give it up.

I don’t know now if I realized, as I pulled the T-shirt over my head the morning we left for the camping trip, that JD would go nuts. Maybe I was a smug little shit and did. I’d rather think it was just plain old idol worship that made me want to dress like my cousin. Anyway, his punching, pushing, shirt-yanking, screeching meltdown got him a timeout. Through the screen, I watched him sitting in the camper, his chest heaving and face wet and red. And I remember getting what our parents likely didn’t: that growing too big for something doesn’t mean we’re ready to give it up.

I glance at Hyacinth. Instead of gazing at me, waiting for an answer, she’s looking at her friends on the swings. Her face wears a peculiar expression, wistful and boastful at the same time.

“I like camping here,” I finally say. This campground is no KOA: it doesn’t have a pool or movie nights or a giant trampoline. But Roosevelt Beach State Park has Lake Ontario. And it’s got great trails through the woods and lots of open space—fields like this one.

I look around. The beginning of darkness, like steeping tea, softens the playground, the grass, and the swinging girls. The trees in the distance have turned black. And the three of us: We’re darker now too, shadows moving among shadows. The moon, white and nearly full, is rising. I rise, as well, and brush off my jeans. “My family camps wherever JD’s does. They let us pitch our tent on their site.”

Hyacinth gives me another one of those assessing, approving smiles. “Real campers use tents.”

I snort and stride to JD. “Poor campers do.” His face is sullen, and he starts and pulls back when I reach for his hair. I follow, detach his charred companion, and hand it to him. “We’re basically squatters,” I say over my shoulder. Sponges, takers, moochers. For now. Someday I won’t be.

JD doesn’t seem to hear me; he’s scowling at the black remnant in his hand. When he does look up, he stares at Hyacinth. This time, he’s not faking his expression. It is pure dislike. Glancing away from her, he stands and says, “No you’re not, Ben,” even though he’s the one who came up with the nicknames. He drops the burned paper between us, and I grind it into the ground.

The moon has shrunk. Strange how the moon grows smaller the higher it climbs, an interesting diminishment, like a balloon on the loose. A freed balloon… At first, you’re pissed you let it slip away, but then you start thinking about where it’s heading and how far it will fly.

My stomach growls. “I’m hungry.” Starving, actually. “I bet our dads are back. Ready to go?” Since JD’s still frowning and quiet, I add, “How about we race?” Nothing cheers up JD faster than the prospect of a race.

He nods abruptly and crouches, his body angled for a sprint.

When he gives the go-ahead, I shout goodbye to the girls then save my breath for panting. We pound across the grass and head straight for the trail. Though we can’t spot it in the inky trees, we don’t have to. We’ve gone this way a hundred times or more. JD’s quick, but I’ve got these new long legs. They make me fast, faster than I’ve ever been before. JD might win. But I could win. Now I could win too.

Melissa OstromMelissa Ostrom teaches English in rural western New York, where she lives with her husband and children. Her fiction has appeared previously in Lunch Ticket as well as other journals, including Corium, decomP, Monkeybicycle, and Juked. Her first novel, Genesee, is forthcoming from Macmillan in the spring of 2018.

 

 

 

The Dead Girl

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. Never thought a shadowy figure appearing at the end of my bed would be all that frightening. So when the dead girl appears in my grandmother’s kitchen on a humid August morning, my eyebrows nearly hike off my forehead with excitement. My first thought is that I’m not alone anymore; the second is that my mother must’ve sent her.

While she blinks away her surprise, I stiffen, spoon poised over a bowl of cereal. My eyes dart across the table to my grandmother, who’s watching an ancient rerun of Press Your Luck on the small black and white television perched on the counter; she’s angled her chair toward the screen so the sun glare doesn’t wash out Peter Tomarken’s face. “Pass! Pass it!” she shrieks, oblivious to the girl’s bare feet padding across the worn, leathery linoleum. At the window, she pauses to study the sun-boiled trees beyond the glass. Her arm stretches to the lock, trying to jimmy it open, but the glob of superglue I squeezed into the crank holds tight.

At the window, her hand flattens against the warm pane before sliding down, fingers gathering under the sill. When she pushes upward, it won’t budge.

With a hiss of a scowl, she stomps out of the kitchen. I toss my half-full bowl into the sink and chase after her, though she’s slow, wandering the dark house like a curious cat. I keep close as she runs a finger over the rip on the arm of the couch, kicks the stack of romance novels and celebrity magazines stockpiled next to the wooly dust ruffle of my grandmother’s chair. The knotted, yarn-like tangle of her blond hair flops as she creaks up the stairs, peeking in doorways, sliding through shafts of swirling dust motes. In my bedroom—my mother’s old room—she passes the unmade twin bed, the girly white hutch holding my books, the peeling teacup wallpaper. At the window, her hand flattens against the warm pane before sliding down, fingers gathering under the sill. When she pushes upward, it won’t budge.

“It doesn’t open,” I say, watching from the doorway. “None of the windows open.”

I step forward as she tries again, but the nails I hammered into the wood keep it sealed shut.

She whips around, silent, watchful. Her thin black T-shirt is tied into a knot above her belly button. Frayed cut-off shorts sit low on her hips, the white pockets hanging against her bone-pale thighs. Dried blood runs like a river over her temple and weaves into her blonde hair, turning it a sickly pink around her ear. She’s older than me, but I’m sure she goes to the high school, the one I’d start in a few weeks if I hadn’t refused to go. But even if we’d crossed paths in the hallways, I know we wouldn’t be friends. She isn’t the type who would look at me twice; she’s the girl under the bleachers, the girl whose kiss tastes like cigarettes. She’s not bad though. I can’t believe she’s bad.

“You can stay,” I urge. “You should stay.”

Her fingernail plucks at the shiny nail head splintering the wood, trying to pry it loose. When it won’t lift, she shoves by me without a word. She smells like the woods—sap and pine, along with fresh dirt. I have to hold my breath until it’s gone.

*     *     *

The top story on the news channel that night is about the girl who sulks on the sagging corduroy couch paging through a Star magazine from 2004. In the kitchen, my grandmother leans her dry elbows on the countertop and stares at the TV. Over the sizzle and pop of a frying ham steak, a reporter recaps how hikers found the girl’s body slung across a rain-bloated brook, her long hair tangled around a log. Her school photo appears onscreen. One eye is concealed by a strip of black dyed hair. She doesn’t smile.

I wander to the couch, settling myself at the other end.

“I’m bored,” she says, her first words to me. She looks up briefly before her eyes trail back down. The magazine remains open across her legs, but she plays with the knot of her shirt. “I didn’t expect it to be like this.”

“Like what?” I ask.

“Like being dead. Stuck here.”

“It’s not so bad,” I offer. I wonder if she believes me.

She alternates between mussing her hair into a halo of frizz and running through the knots until it’s smooth again. I shove my hands into the sponge of the couch. She has hair you want to touch—girls probably hated her, while boys curled their fingers when a trail of blonde flapped over the back of her chair onto their desk.

“I want to go,” she says, pointing to the window. “Out there.”

“We can’t. We have to stay inside.”

She drops her dirty feet from the coffee table and leans toward me. “Take me into the woods. Now, let’s go.”

The next morning, when the girl is busy dangling a thread over the nose of my snoring grandmother, I creep to the front door and kneel before the mail slot. When I lift the flap, my eyes are full of trees.

“I can’t.”

She blows at that errant strip of hair falling over her eye. It’s no longer black, but blonde again, matching translucent lashes that remind me of spider webbing. She yanks her head in the direction of the kitchen. “Because of her?”

“Because I don’t leave the house,” I say, shrugging.

“Ever?”

My head wavers back and forth. No. Never.

She lowers her eyes, unable to disguise her disgust. Her chin weighs on her fist, the other arm limp with boredom. When dinner is ready, she trails after me, right on my heels. “Outside,” she whispers. “Let’s go outside.”

*     *     *

The next morning, when the girl is busy dangling a thread over the nose of my snoring grandmother, I creep to the front door and kneel before the mail slot. When I lift the flap, my eyes are full of trees. The leaves wave, challenging me, making me remember all those times I’d yell a quick nothing to my mother before bounding out of the house, running so far into the thicket that the sun was blotted out by a canopy of green. My hands whirled over flaking, white oak trunks, breaking pieces loose with my speed. The shrieks of my friends came from all around me as we took off like a pack of werewolves through the wild, overgrown brush, shedding ourselves and becoming a tangled, handsome mess.

For hours, the soles of our sneakers bent against lichen-slick rocks, making us slip as we’d jump into the soft layer of undergrowth below. The hum of a far-off creek matched the coursing of our blood as we sweated and issued dares and bragged about the worst thing we’d ever done. When dusk turned the sky dark blue and cast the trees into black silhouettes, we lingered, imitating the fretful voices of our mothers. At full dark, we dragged our bramble-scratched legs through the trees to home, our wildness temporarily tamed. There was always a light on behind closed drapes, suddenly bright, as the fabric swung back by a worried hand.

One of those times, I stayed out too long. My mother’s call echoed from the tree line, trying to find its way to me in the dark. I sprinted, scuttled, tripping over a twist of roots, colliding face-first to the forest floor. Dirt filled my mouth, wedged into the crevices of my teeth. My ribs flapped like moth wings for air, my heart banging so loud it drowned out the insects. I thought then how I’d show her my cuts and bruises; she’d know it wasn’t my fault I was late. Despite the full moon sagging in the sky, I ran right past her. Past the flashlight beaming its foggy eye into a thorn bush. Past her body that had fallen into a soft bed of clover after a blood clot burst in her head. I might have even jumped over her as I crossed over the fallen pine tree, the last hurtle to home. All night, she was there. By first light, beetles had taken up residence in the pockets of her knit sweater.

Through the mail slot, a thick haze soaks up the blue sky. A hornet spirals around the porch, tap tapping as it bounces against the door separating me from the tall grass bending in limp arcs, deceitful in their stillness. I know they clamor for ankles to pass through so they can slither forward, tie in knots around bones and crack them sideways as the trees watch with sick grins carved into their maws. I don’t know why the girl would ever want to go back out there.

*     *     *

“I’m leaving today,” she taunts me the next morning. “Last call. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

I don’t respond, but when she jumps off the countertop and runs to the hallway, I grab her arm. She’s stronger than I am and drags me with her. It’s only after the door hinges creak that I let go, wincing at the square of sun broiling the few hairs on my chin.

“No, it’s true. My grandmother can’t see you. No one else can talk to you. Just me.” I slide farther down the wall, closer to her. “Imagine what it would be like with no one at all? Being a lonely ghost trapped in the woods. Forever.”

I hear the trees across the street; they bristle, their leaves beckoning, sounding like hands running through my buzzed scalp. I flatten against the wall, trying to find something to curl my fingers around, but it’s only flat and more flat. The girl remains inside and juts her arm past the threshold to wave it around.

“See?” she says, craning her neck toward me. “There’s nothing wrong out here.”

I step forward, a tentative, shaking step, so I can yank her back by her hair if she tries to dart away. She brings her arm back and places both hands against the door frame. Her foot drops outside the door.

“Don’t,” I grunt. My palms leave wet prints on the wall.

“Stop being such a baby.” Her toes wiggle in the breeze before touching the rough straw doormat.

“What if you leave and can’t come back?” I croak. “You don’t know what’s out there. It might not be safe.” I lick my dry lips. “I bet you can’t come back if you go. I bet you’d disappear into thin air.”

“You’re making that up,” she snaps. “Stop trying to scare me.”

“No, it’s true. My grandmother can’t see you. No one else can talk to you. Just me.” I slide farther down the wall, closer to her. “Imagine what it would be like with no one at all? Being a lonely ghost trapped in the woods. Forever.”

Her face tumbles out of defiance and she glances outside, no longer so sure of herself. I’m all she has to tell her it’s okay to go, and I won’t. She hesitates and looks at me, defeated.

When she moves away from the door, I stand upright, releasing the wall one palm at a time. “You’re letting the air conditioning out,” I say over my retreating shoulder.

She stomps her foot, but I don’t look back.

*     *     *

When she finally stops pouting, I find ways to distract her. I read to her from my Orson Scott Card novels, and she shows me the constellations she knows. Her fingers ride mine, pressing against the window pane to trace the stars we can’t see. She guides me through the clapping games of her childhood; we slap our hands together in complicated rhythms and patterns, laughing when we mess up, until my grandmother shouts for me to stop making a racket.

Then I show her my photo album. She peels back the sticky plastic to touch a snapshot of my mother while I watch, making sure she doesn’t crinkle the sleeves or smudge the pictures. Next, I open the box holding my mother’s clothes—the few things my grandmother let me keep—carefully unfolding familiar gauzy skirts and blouses that are beginning to smell like cardboard. I arrange them on the bed, as if her body might come up from the mattress and fill them.

“Did you see her?” I ask the girl. “On your way here?”

She shakes her head and nods to the window. “Maybe she’s out there.”

I turn away, hiding my face while returning the clothes to their box, along with the photo album. Once they’re safely stowed in my closet, the girl tells me about another game, describing how she and her brothers used to dig up worms after a rainstorm, hook them to a line with clothespins and wait for birds to swoop in for their breakfast. It doesn’t take us long to find a frayed rope in the laundry room or clothespins. After she watches me yank the nails from the window sill, we take turns tossing the line out my screenless window until it catches on the antennae of the roof next door. I shout when I finally get it.

After baiting our pins with gummy worms—mine are bright orange, hers are green—we wait. The sun skims through their translucent bodies when a breeze rattles the rope, luring the birds. I’m skeptical, like maybe she’s made it all up, when a black streak of starlings launch between the houses, spreading their wings to plane directly into the line. With sharp beaks like darts, they tear the worms free in a fluid plunge, exactly how she said they would. I point and whoop, but the girl doesn’t see it; her eyes are closed against the heat scorching us from the open window.

*     *     *

The following afternoon, the sky turns pewter. Shredded clouds coil together, rolling and twisting like bed sheets in the dryer. Rain randomly drips, starting and stopping like a jumble of tuning instruments.

I run into the wind, launching over the threshold to find the girl sitting on the edge of my sill, staring at the churning sky through the open window. Her hair blows away from her face, skittering the limp ends across my wrecked photo album.

The girl says she’s afraid of storms and hides in my room while I eat breakfast.

When the first rumble of distant thunder breaks over the television, I expect her to come running downstairs, but the house remains still. I put my bowl in the sink, listening as I go up the stairs. As my foot slaps the final step, a humid gust slams against my skin. My bedroom door bangs against the wall, knocking me out of my stupor. I run into the wind, launching over the threshold to find the girl sitting on the edge of my sill, staring at the churning sky through the open window. Her hair blows away from her face, skittering the limp ends across my wrecked photo album. She tosses it on my bed by a mangled plastic sleeve and kicks aside the nails I removed from my window, sending them across the floor boards until they catch in the seams.

I step around her to see the clothesline we found rippling in the ferocious wind. The pins she’s clamped to the line teeter precariously, holding on with tight hinges, keeping my photographs in their grip. A dozen dot the blank space between houses, alongside my mother’s clothes. A white blouse is seized at the shoulders by pins; it cracks the air as the fabric lashes like the tail of a whip. I can’t turn away, as if my gaze alone might hold everything down.

Behind me, the girl waits.

My mother’s smile swings forward and backward, twirling and twisting. She is glossy against the matte sky, flashing as a great whoosh of air snatches the first photo. It spirals as the current dips and wanes, then flies away. I lean out the window, stricken, trying to snatch it, but the trees swallow it whole, licking their lips for more.

The next picture rips free and I tug on the line, trying to loosen it from the antennae, but it won’t release. The tautness only gives the wind more power. Another picture snaps free, smacks the house, then peels away. The shoulder of my mother’s blouse tears and swings wild, jerking the other side off the line. It floats and twists, curling into a summoning finger before drifting away.

“Let go,” the girl says, pushing my hands off the line. “Let it go.” The corners of her victorious smile are like a scythe.

I shoulder past her and pound down the stairs. Her bare feet trail after me, matching my pace until I slide into the foyer. My grandmother’s voice rises in alarm as the door smacks against the wall. “Oliver! Stop all that noise!” The wind dissolves her voice as the pads of my toes burrow into concrete, then into the scorched, needle sharp grass.

The girl grabs my hand and holds it so tight I feel the bones under her skin. She leads me down the hot asphalt driveway, across the road and toward the woods, tugging me farther from the house; by the time I look back, it’s already faded into stripes behind the trees. We stumble and explode through tangles of weedy thistle, too fast for them to twine around our bare shins. We run like cheetahs, boundless, until my muscles sear along their seams, unused to the exertion. When a stitch burns my ribs, I slow, and the girl’s palm slips from mine. She dashes ahead as I curl my fingers around the lichen-spotted bark of a birch tree, using it to press forward.

Along the way, I pick up leaves and bits of trash, anything resembling my photographs. I sprint up gentle slopes and down shallow valleys, bursting mushroom caps and snapping twigs under my bare, aching feet. Around me, the girl has disappeared. I stop and whirl around in a circle of panic, looking for a tail of blonde hair, a flash of her pale skin. Wind plasters my clothes against my body and whips my hair around like helicopter blades. My back is slick and cold while my face burns from the humidity soaking the atmosphere.

When I realize she’s gone, my own weight pulls me to the ground, into a soft bed of decayed leaves. A splotch of rain thwacks my lip. Another splashes my eyebrow before rolling to my ear. Trees sway, rustling and dousing me in loose branches as the hem of a black cloud rolls overhead. Against the dark sky, I suddenly see the tattered white sleeve of my mother’s blouse holding onto the elbow of a knobby branch. I reach out, as if I might be able to pull it down to protect myself from all this wildness. I don’t move as we watch each other, having a silent conversation, just before a great wind carries her over the canopy, one sleeve whipping around like a farewell. I search the empty sky until the raw clouds open up, finally unleashing torrents of rain.

As I limp home, water drips from the ends of my hair, my nose, my grimy fingertips, picking up dirt from my skin and rinsing it back into the ground. I leave puddles on the stairs up to my room while my grandmother stares, mouth agape. The next morning, I cut down the clothesline and unpin the pictures that survived the storm. They’re wrinkled and waterlogged, but I take them outside, into the sun. As I sit on the step, sweating in the humid August heat, I watch them dry into new wavy shapes. Thinking that maybe they aren’t ruined completely.

Lori Ann PalmaLori Ann Palma earned a Fine Arts degree before deciding she wanted to tell stories with words instead of pictures. Now focused on Young Adult fiction, she writes and creates in Southern New Jersey, and contributes to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Eastern Pennsylvania chapter in the role of Co-Blog Coordinator. To learn more about Lori Ann, follow her on Twitter @LAnnPalma.

Peninsula

Dad was with me when I saw a whale go by on the back of a truck. It was black, and three people stood around it, scooping seawater from somewhere in the truck bed and throwing it onto the whale by the bucketful.

“A whale just drove by,” I said to Dad. We were sitting at a small table outside The Sweetest Thing, a bakery in Simon’s Town that I loved. We were meant to be sharing carrot cake for my fifteenth birthday, but Dad had the shakes because he hadn’t had a drink in two days, so he sat with his black coffee, trying not to spill as he sipped.

“What’s that?” he asked, turning to look too late.

“Yes,” said a man with a mustache like a broom who was sitting at the table next to ours, “fifty whales beached out near Kommetjie, a real tragedy.”

“Are they going to save them?” I asked.

“There are rescue workers and volunteers down there,” the man said, taking out his phone and searching for the latest news update.

Dad kept looking from the man to me as though he was sure he’d known us once. I felt bad for him. Two days ago, I’d come home from school and, for the fourth day in a row, found Dad passed out on the couch, the curtains drawn, empty sherry bottles tipped over on the floor, one of them leaking a purple bloom onto the carpet. It frustrated me that he drank, but it frustrated me more that he was on the couch in the morning when I left for school and still there when I returned eight hours later; I needed help cleaning the house, maintaining some sort of order in our lives. I’d confronted him and, without any resistance, Dad had hung his head and promised to quit the boozing. But now it was painful to see how his body rebelled against that promise.

“This has happened before,” Dad said,  “ten or twenty years ago. Those ones all died.”

“We have to go help,” I said, standing so quickly my chair crashed over. The thought of fifty whales dying less than twenty kilometers away while Dad and I sat here eating cake was horrifying.

“I’m sorry,” Dad said, lowering his voice and leaning towards me. “Jenny, I can’t drive like this.”

It frustrated me that he drank, but it frustrated me more that he was on the couch in the morning when I left for school and still there when I returned eight hours later; I needed help cleaning the house, maintaining some sort of order in our lives.

And he held out his hands in front of him so that I could see how badly they were shaking.

I saw the man with the mustache look away, not wanting us to know he’d witnessed our tiny family tragedy.

That night, I sat in front of the TV and watched as E-News showed coverage of whales being shot in the head on Kommetjie beach. A man called Mike walked from whale to whale, pistol in hand. I couldn’t believe they were shooting the whales; I’ve always thought of them as the elephants of the sea—surprisingly graceful for their size and more intelligent than I could ever hope to be. Something about the smallness of the pistol next to their large, gently flailing bodies angered me.

“Dad,” I screamed, running from the lounge looking for him. “They’re dead, all of them.” I found him lying in the dark in his bedroom. I flicked on the light and watched as he clutched at his eyes to keep the light from hurting. “They killed all the whales,” I said, and then I picked up the wicker wastepaper basket and threw it at him. Wadded tissues, dental floss, and a Cadbury’s wrapper rained down on him.

“Jenny, what the fuck!” Dad said, sitting up in bed.

“We could’ve helped,” I said, and picked up a photo frame that contained a picture of me and Dad five years ago, both of us somehow looking happy. I threw it at Dad, but it hit the soft duvet and bounced off, landing intact on the carpet. “It’s your stupid fault,” I said.

“What is it you want?” Dad shouted, leaping from bed and running out the bedroom.

I followed him to the kitchen and watched as he dragged a chair over to the counter, stood on it and began rooting through the high cupboards above the stove. He pulled out a full bottle of Old Brown Sherry and waved it at me. “Do you know how badly I want to drink this? More than anything. But not more than I want to make you happy, I just don’t know how.”

“Just be normal,” I said. “If you were like other people’s dads, we could’ve helped.”

The way Dad sighed reminded me of a deflating air mattress, as though with each exhale he too lost his purpose. He put the sherry back in the cupboard. “I’m trying, Jenny-Bear, but you should know, there’s nothing we could’ve done for those whales.”

I glared at him, wondering why people ever bothered trying to be good or helpful if it all went to shit anyway.

“Thanks for the worst birthday ever,” I said, and left Dad standing on the chair in the kitchen.

*     *     *

In our peninsula, there is a theory about why whales beach themselves again and again on that Southern Suburbs stretch of white sand. Thousands of years ago, the peninsula wasn’t a peninsula, but an island, and the towns called Sun Valley and Fish Hoek would’ve been ocean floor. Whales could’ve circled from Atlantic Ocean to Indian, swimming over what is now mall and old-age homes and fish and chip shops. But, at some point, sea levels fell and the island transformed into a peninsula, and so all that remains of that ocean channel is a memory passed down through families of whales, and when they beach themselves it isn’t because they’re sick and dying, but because they’re searching for that channel with a memory of how things used to be.

*     *     *

In English class the next day at school, instead of discussing Hamlet, everyone was talking about the dead whales and I began to cry.

“Jenny, what’s wrong?” Ms. Le Roux asked, walking down the row of desks toward me. The other thirty-three students stopped talking and watched. I’d never cried in front of anyone who wasn’t family before; I was so ashamed and confused by my tears that I cried even harder.

Ms. Le Roux put her hand on my back and made small circular motions all the while saying, “Shhhshhhshhh.”

“Emma, bring the tissues from my desk,” Ms. Le Roux said.

I could feel everyone in the classroom leaning in, watching my face, wondering what was going on. I blew my nose and it sounded like an elephant trumpeting.

When they beach themselves it isn’t because they’re sick and dying, but because they’re searching for that channel with a memory of how things used to be.

“Is it the whales?” Ms. Le Roux asked, trying to be helpful.

I nodded, not knowing if this was true.

“Were you there?” she asked, her voice changing as though she’d made a startling connection.

Not knowing why, I nodded again. “Yes,” I said tremulously.

“Did you see them get shot?” someone from class asked excitedly.

Again, I nodded. A ripple of awe ran through the class. At school, I was quiet and had no friends, so no one knew anything about me. I’d always worried that if I let people get close to me, they would want to come to my house, or their parents would want to meet mine, and then everyone would know that my dad was a drunk.

“Poor thing,” Ms. Le Roux said. “That must’ve been very traumatic for you, and here we all were just talking about it.”

“Can I go to the bathroom, please,” I asked, wanting to escape the scrutiny of my classmates.

“Of course,” Ms. Le Roux said, and ushered me to the door. “You know what,” she said once we were in the quiet of the linoleum and brick corridor, “I’m going to tell Mr. Vermeulen about this and recommend that you get an award at assembly.”

I stared at her, horrified. “I don’t want one.”

“Go get cleaned up and I’ll take care of the rest.”

“This weekend a great tragedy took place at Kommetjie beach—I’m sure some of you heard about it. Fifty-five false killer whales beached themselves and though the rescue efforts were valiant, with volunteers working for hours to try and get them back in the water, unfortunately the whales had to be euthanized,” Mr. Vermeulen, the school principal, said from behind his lectern at the end-of-day assembly.

He’d been standing up there for a while making announcements, but I had no idea what they were because all I could think about was whether Ms. Le Roux had or had not told him to give me an award, and if so, would it be today or another day. Word had spread that I’d been with the whales and now I had newfound popularity. Students kept coming up to me and asking me questions.

What did they feel like? Smooth, I’d said, but not as smooth as a wet bathtub.

What color were their eyes? Black, but in the right light, I saw blue.

Were they scared? Duh, you would be too.

One boy even asked me if, when the whales died, they crapped themselves. I told him he was an idiot, and didn’t answer. But, if I’d known the answer, I might’ve told him—that was how much I loved the attention.

It had started out that I was terrified Mr. Vermeulen would call me up during assembly, but now, I thought that if he didn’t it would be worse.

“One of our very own was at the beach yesterday to help in the whale-saving efforts,” Mr. Vermuelen said, “And the school would like to give her an award for her spirit and dedication to saving the environment. Would Jenny Bluell please come up here?”

Everyone was clapping and I felt sure that I wouldn’t be able to step around the chairs or find the stage because my vision was blurred and my ears were popping. Someone whistled and I wondered if this was what it felt like to be a celebrity. The only other time people had clapped for me had been at a dance recital when I was six and they’d been clapping for all the other girls on stage too, and, afterwards, the clapping hadn’t mattered because I’d found out that Dad had missed the show.

“We’re proud to have you at Simon’s Town High, Ms. Bluell,” Mr. Vermuelen said, handing over a piece of paper and shaking my hand. “We hope you continue to dedicate yourself to work within the community.”

I couldn’t say a word because all my energy was focused on how I could possibly get this feeling again, the feeling of being liked, cheered on, perhaps even admired. For once, I felt like less of a loser and more like everyone else.

*     *     *

When a whale faces danger or becomes stranded, it sends distress signals. Help me, is what its saying. Come find me, save me. Any whales that hear this plea will swim to the source of the call.

Dad never checked my bag for homework or school notices I’d forgotten to give him, but the guilt of having lied to the entire school made me cautious.

Some people believe that this is why mass beachings occur—the whales cannot ignore a cry for help, and so they end up stranded too.

*     *     *

Before walking through the front door at home, I stopped and unzipped my backpack and buried the award between the pages of my math textbook. It had a large gold emblem on it like a many-pointed star, and shone brightly as though it wanted to be seen. Dad never checked my bag for homework or school notices I’d forgotten to give him, but the guilt of having lied to the entire school made me cautious.

“Dad, I’m home,” I yelled, as I walked into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. He’d been asleep when I left for school this morning, and he didn’t reply now. “Dad,” I shouted louder.

With a cheese sandwich in hand and one on a plate for Dad, I knocked on his bedroom door and then pushed it open. The bedclothes were rumpled and I saw the telltale signs of sherry drinking—Dad’s white mug smeared with stains as though an artist had been at it with purple brushstrokes. I didn’t know what to think. This wasn’t the first time Dad had quit drinking and, after a while, the inevitability of his failure became so mingled with the hope that he would succeed the two were impossible to tell apart.

I went to his bathroom and knocked, the old wooden door rattling on its hinges. “Dad?” I asked, easing the door open because I was afraid Dad would be in there taking a crap. Instead he was on the floor in a puddle of water, not moving. I stood with one foot in the bedroom, one in the bathroom for what felt like hours. Thoughts swirled like some massive school of fish had found its way into my head and was desperately searching for a way out.

Is he dead, is it because I lied, is this how karma works, no, surely not this fast, why is there water everywhere, did he pee his pants, is that broken glass, it’s brown fucking glass from his goddamn sherry bottles, if I’m a good daughter I’ll make sure he’s buried in a coffin lined with sherry, I’ve imagined him dead before, he looks surprised the way his mouth is open, God, he’s dead, isn’t he, just because I’ve thought about finding him dead doesn’t mean I wanted it to happen, does it, he’s breathing.

“Dad,” I said, dropping the plate with the cheese sandwich onto the tiles, not hearing it shatter. I knelt beside him and my grey school stockings and skirt soaked up the liquid on the floor. I didn’t even care if it was pee. Dad didn’t open his eyes and I tried to remember what I’d learnt in the emergency response course we’d absurdly been taught in fifth grade. The only thing I remembered was one of the boys feeling up my chest during the CPR portion of the class. I balled my hand into a fist and punched Dad in the chest. “Wake up,” I shouted.

Dad groaned and moved his hand to his chest in a protective gesture, but didn’t open his eyes.

“Move your feet,” I ordered, terrified he’d be paralyzed.

His feet waved slowly on the tile floor. The relief I felt was as if someone had pushed me from a four-story building and at the last minute I’d been safely caught in a fireman’s blanket. For the second time that day, I began to cry.

“What the fuck are you doing on the floor?”

“I slipped,” Dad said. He put his hand on my arm and through my school jersey I could feel the heat from his fingers.

“I’m going to call an ambulance.”

Dad shook his head and winced. “We can’t afford it.”

But what if you die, I wanted to say, but instead asked, “What can I do?”

In increments, Dad and I moved from lying down to sitting, and then sitting to standing, and then from bathroom to bedroom. The sun was setting in glaring orange behind the mountain by the time Dad was in bed. I brought him cups of tea made sweet with condensed milk and cut up a cheese sandwich into centimeter squares, all of them skewered with toothpicks as though we were at a fancy tea party, not sitting in Dad’s bedroom trying to keep him awake and alive.

“It was water on the floor,” Dad had said during one of the breaks as we moved towards the bedroom. “I wanted a bath, and then I thought I would have one last drink and then pour the rest down the sink. The bottle was mostly done by the time I remembered the bath.” He touched the back of his head gingerly. “Serves me right,” he’d said, and then hadn’t looked at me for a while.

That night, we sat together in Dad’s bed, head to toe, and made a game of staying awake because Dad had heard that was what you did with a concussion. We both have ticklish feet, so Dad held onto my left foot and I held his too, and each time one of us began to drift off, we were tickled awake.

I was so scared for Dad that I forgot about the dead whales and the award hidden in my backpack and the way I’d felt, as if I were a phoenix rising above it all.

*     *     *

Just as there are viruses that make us ill, there are viruses for whales too.

Perhaps it was that I’d cried in front of everyone, or maybe it had something to do with Dad, or my hormones, or any number of things that had built up over the years.

Some of these viruses, scientists think, get into the whales’ brains and attack their sonar so that when the whales ping for open water, their sonar lies to them and they end up somewhere they didn’t intend, like stranded on a beach.

*     *     *

“My brother was at Kommetjie beach, and he says he didn’t see you there,” Aimee, a bird-faced girl from my grade said during break.

I was sitting on a small grassy hill with four other people who were treating me like I had a special aura because of my proximity to the whales during death. This was the first time I’d had someone to sit with at break in almost two years.

“And my sister says she didn’t see you either,” said Lizette, a heifer of a girl who would’ve thrown herself off a mountain if Aimee asked her to.

My stomach turned into an icebox.

“How do they know what Jenny looks like?” asked Emma, my staunchest supporter ever since she’d fetched Ms. Le Roux’s tissues for me when I’d cried during English class yesterday.

“The grade eight class photo—my brother says no one that looked vaguely like you was there, and he can prove it because he took loads of photos. I looked through them and you weren’t in any of them,” Aimee said.

“Why would Jenny lie?” Emma asked. “It’s not like seeing whales get shot is a happy event.”

“Yeah,” I said weakly, “why would I lie?”

I still had no idea why I had lied. Perhaps it was that I’d cried in front of everyone, or maybe it had something to do with Dad, or my hormones, or any number of things that had built up over the years.

“Because you’re an attention seeker,” Aimee said. “Because you wanted people to think you’re cool.”

I stared up at Aimee’s crossed arms; they seemed stunted and weak, like they’d break if I applied the slightest pressure. I wondered how she knew exactly how I felt. I wondered what her home situation was like.

“I was there,” I said, “at one end of the beach. I watched one of the whales get loaded onto a truck so they could drive it to Simon’s Town harbor.”

“I’m telling Mr. Vermuelen,” Aimee said.

“Me too,” Lizette said.

I wanted to stick my tongue out at them, or give them the finger. Instead I said, “Why does it matter so much to you, are you jealous?”

“We are not!” Lizette said, as if the idea were hilarious.

Aimee glared at me but her face turned pink, and, in the moment before total panic at having my lie uncovered in front of the whole school set in, I felt sorry for her because I realized that maybe the two of us weren’t so different.

*     *     *

“Will Jenny Bluell please come to the Principal’s office,” a voice said through the intercom.

It was two periods after Aimee had confronted me. I hadn’t expected her to work so fast. As I walked from the classroom, I caught Emma’s eye and she mimed hanging herself. If I hadn’t felt like I was about to puke, I would’ve laughed. I liked Emma; she was the first person in years I thought I could give the word “friend” to, even though I knew the friendship was based on lies. The thought that after this she would never speak to me again was surprisingly painful.

Outside Mr. Vermuelen’s office, I paused and for some reason smoothed my hair back, as though a neater appearance would help. I knocked.

“Kom binne,” Mr. Vermuelen said in Afrikaans.

There was no one with him in the office and this made me feel slightly better. I was sure that when he revoked my award I’d cry, and the fewer witnesses to that the better.

“Jenny, how are you, have a seat,” he said, smiling as though this were just a social visit. He was in his sixties, but his hair was still thick and blonde. He was a surfer and had a permanently sunbaked look. “Were your parents proud of you, for the award?”

“It’s just my dad.”

Mr. Vermuelen nodded as though this were fascinating conversation.

It had been a year since Dad had cleaned the kitchen—the last time had been when he’d realized he’d forgotten my fourteenth birthday, and to make it up to me he’d tried to bake a cake, which had come out lopsided, and then to make up for that he’d cleaned the kitchen.

“Before I gave you the award, I should’ve spoken to you about it, and then perhaps this all could’ve been prevented.” He leant forward in his desk. “Jenny, I have to ask you this—were you part of the effort to save the whales? And, you should know, whatever you say, the consequences won’t be great, we’ll ask you to return that piece of paper and then say nothing more.”

I thought about the star on the award, it was such a smooth gold. I’d never been given an award before, and the thought of giving this one back, even though it wasn’t deserved, didn’t seem fair. My name was written in fancy cursive!

“I was there,” I said, and with some previously unplumbed depths of impudence, looked Mr. Vermeulen in the eye. “I helped for hours.”

“Okay,” Mr. Vermuelen nodded, “all right.” He leant back in his chair and smiled. “How are you enjoying school?”

“It’s nice,” I said, “thank you.”

“I think to really put a nail in this, I’ll give your parents a call, and then if anyone has any doubts, well, tough takkies.”

For the last while, it felt like any time I got the slightest relief or ease, it was immediately smashed as though I didn’t deserve anything good. I thought about Dad sitting at home with his concussion. I wondered if he’d had a drink today and if it would be better if he had or if he hadn’t when he took Mr. Vermeulen’s phone call. I wasn’t sure Dad would even remember the beached whales.

“You can go now, Jenny,” Mr. Vermuelen said.

“Thank you,” I said, sounding uncertain.

*     *     *

Some people believe that whales are family-oriented and that a pod of whales, though not all related by blood, is family. These people believe that whales have such strong links to one another that even if just a few are sick and beach themselves to die, the entire pod will come up onto the beach in solidarity.

*     *     *

Dad was sitting in the lounge with an ice pack on his head when I got home.

“How was school?” he asked.

I couldn’t tell if this was meant politely or if Mr. Vermuelen had called and it was innuendo. “Fine,” I said. “How’s your head?”

“I’ll live.” Dad held out the ice pack. “Refresh this for me, please.”

When I walked into the kitchen, I saw that it had been cleaned. For once, there were no crumbs on the counter or dishes in the sink, and I was sure, were I to take my shoes off and walk barefoot across the floor, I wouldn’t feel bits of old food or clumps of dirt stick to my feet. It had been a year since Dad had cleaned the kitchen—the last time had been when he’d realized he’d forgotten my fourteenth birthday, and to make it up to me he’d tried to bake a cake, which had come out lopsided, and then to make up for that he’d cleaned the kitchen. I wondered if this was his way of apologizing for the concussion, or maybe the fall had knocked something loose in his brain and he’d had one of those personality shifts I sometimes saw on medical dramas.

Dad was grinning when I came back with the ice pack.

“What do you want for dinner?” I asked, annoyed by his “cat got the cream” look, but still grateful for the clean kitchen.

“Fish and chips.”

“Are you sure we can afford it?”

“No, but what the heck, let’s live a little. Besides,” Dad said, “we’ve got something to celebrate.”

Immediately, it was like an alarm had been tripped and warning, warning was flashing in my head. “We do?” I asked, sure that he was going to make some joke about the phone call from school.

“I’m alive, aren’t I?” Dad said. “And I have a beautiful daughter who is alive too—what’s not to celebrate?”

“All right,” I said, bemused. “I’ll walk down and get the food.”

Dad had set the dining room table with two yellow placemats, white napkins, knives and forks, and a vase holding a spray of purple bougainvillea, which ran rampant in our garden.

They say the calves are the first to go, forced into the shallows and then ashore by currents and heaving waves.

There was also an unopened bottle of sherry and two glasses.

“A bit fancy for fish and chips, isn’t it?” I asked.

Dad took the newspaper-wrapped parcels from me and hurried into the kitchen, returning with the oily food glistening on plates.

“Sit,” he said. He unscrewed the sherry and poured for both of us. When I was younger, Dad would often pour little nips of sherry for me so that we could drink together, but it had been years since then.

“A toast,” Dad said, raising his glass.

I raised mine too, wondering what next.

“To Jenny, a wonderful young woman who is kind not only to her old man but to all creatures, great and small.”

I stared at Dad thinking, surely not.

“Whose efforts won her an award—which I would like to see, by the way,” Dad said.

“Dad,” I said. I wanted to explain, to apologize.

He held up his hand to silence me. “When the school called wanting to hear all the details, I told them that as soon as you’d heard about the whales, you’d made me drive you, and then you’d helped for hours.”

My ears were ringing and for a moment I was sure I was hallucinating; I hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours.

“I even told them about how you’d helped get one of the whales onto a truck even though you were exhausted and freezing. I told them how proud I was of you because you were always ready to help those who need it,” Dad said, and the way the light caught, it looked like he might cry. “That you’re a kind, patient girl, even when sometimes you shouldn’t be.”

“Dad,” I said again, though now I didn’t know what I wanted to say.

“Don’t let your food get cold,” he said, and took a long drink from his sherry glass.

*     *     *

Before the peninsula was named The Cape of Good Hope, it was The Cape of Storms and these storms come in winter bringing high seas, sheets of rain, and a wind known as The Black Southeaster. It is this weather, people believe, that beaches whales along our shores. They say the calves are the first to go, forced into the shallows and then ashore by currents and heaving waves. Unable to abandon their young, the parents choose to swim alongside them, away from open water, knowingly toward danger. And then the rest of the pod follows and all of them lie side-by-side on the white sand like sunbathers until they dehydrate, or drown, or their bodies give out under their own weight.

Holly Beth PrattHolly Beth Pratt lives in Gainesville, Florida, where she is currently earning her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, she misses home a lot, so she is at work on a collection of linked stories all about the Southern Peninsula.