I take a breath and hold it before putting my key in the lock. It’s four o’clock on a Thursday, which means Mom is on her way home from work at Boutique Aspirations. It sounds nice. Imagine a boutique selling hopes and dreams, but the boutique is a vacuum-repair shop. Her job literally sucks.
Aspirateur is French for vacuum cleaner. The verb, aspirer, means to suck out and create a void. Aspiration is also when gastric contents end up in your lungs and cause infection. A void created from life being sucked out of it, and the inside of a lung infected with bile is how I’d describe Mom’s house.
If we own a vacuum cleaner, it’s been taken over by a colony of dust Godzillas. Mom’s mania with collecting stuff got out of hand when Dad left two years ago. Ever since, Mom is like the ballerina in my music box spinning round and round, never stopping to look at herself in the tiny mirror.
I turn the knob and push the door open. Obstructing it are plush giraffes, tigers, and bears. I force the door as far as it will go. I turn sideways to get in. I walk through the maze and mounds of boxes, clothes, and other lonely objects, some with the price tags still on.
I’ve gotten so used to it, I was able to navigate around the house during a black-out. Jenny, my twelve-year-old sister, is terrified of the dark and panicked when the lights went out. She couldn’t stop yelling, “Something will fall, Sarah, get me out!”
My muscles have the maneuvers memorized. It’s a climb up a hill of plushies; a walk over large storage containers (which, incidentally, are empty); a giant leap over the newspapers at the base of the stairs; and an obstacle course on the way up. I’m like a spy dodging booby traps.
I feel more anxious than usual because ballet lessons start up again on Saturday, and it’s where I can stretch out, move, and find freedom. Ballet keeps me fit so I can climb the rope in gym class faster than most boys. It also keeps me limber enough to move around the house without making anything fall.
I get to my room and exhale. The air in here is less rancid and, in comparison to the rest of the house, my room is immaculate.
Jenny and I have shared a room since mom’s obsession with sewing. After a shopping spree, Mom filled Jenny’s room with a sewing machine from the thrift store, rolls of fabrics, and patterns from the flea market.
When she came home with the stuff, Mom was on fast-forward. She spoke quickly and loudly, charged with excitement from her purchases.
“My mom taught me how to sew when I was a kid. I forgot all about it until I saw these patterns. I can make all of our clothes,” she told us as she loaded the items into the house.
“Where will you sew?” I asked, making a pirouette and gesturing to the two-foot wide space between piles of debris.
“There’s space in Jenny’s room,” Mom answered as she carried her load up the stairs.
Jenny moved in that night. I’d rather have Jenny here than across the hall of shopping-cart nightmares.
I sit and read while I wait for Jenny to get home from school, but I’ve read the same sentence over several times. I decide to pack instead, hoping the evening goes by quickly. Tomorrow is Friday, and Dad will pick us up to spend the weekend at his place.
Dad is not my father. Dad is Jenny’s biological father. He’s been my Dad since the year after my father died, when I was two.
I feel more anxious than usual because ballet lessons start up again on Saturday, and it’s where I can stretch out, move, and find freedom. Ballet keeps me fit so I can climb the rope in gym class faster than most boys. It also keeps me limber enough to move around the house without making anything fall.
Mom gets resentful when we leave Friday nights, especially with me because I don’t have to go. He’s not my father, and I have no right leaving her alone to see him.
But if I don’t go, I’ll be sick right on top of all of her crap. I know it stings when we leave because it’s a reminder of how Dad doesn’t love her. The junk fills the void.
When Jenny gets home, we make sandwiches for dinner in the cramped kitchen, and spend the rest of the night in our room, doing homework.
School the next day is a bore except for the time I spend with Jake at lunch and between periods.
“Can we hang out this weekend?” He asks, nuzzling my hair.
“Of course. See you tomorrow.” We kiss, and I run to catch my bus.
Dad’s waiting for us in Mom’s driveway at 5:15. I tie my long hair back and load our stuff into his car. Jenny and I both sit in the back seat. I can finally breathe.
“How’s your mother?” Dad asks.
Jenny looks at me as if she wants to tell Dad our secret, but I don’t let her. I squeeze her hand to let her know she should not say anything. She responds by looking at the ground. Nobody would let two children live there if they knew what it was like. Jenny could go live with Dad, but what about me? Mom won’t let me stay with him. I don’t want Jenny and I to be separated. I have to help her with her homework and teach her how to stay organized, be her guide to Tampax, and bras, and high school. We’ll have to tough it out another two years.
“Is it that bad?” Dad sees Jenny’s sad face in the rear-view mirror.
I try to lighten the mood and tell Dad, “She’s still upset you’re gone, Dad, but it’s okay.”
“We’re okay. What about you? And Alice?”
“She’s fine,” he responds.
Alice is Jenny’s stepmom. Technically, she’s not my anything, but I wish she was.
She wears pearls and teaches little kids. Her house always smells like freshly-baked something opposed to week-old something. Her dog doesn’t stink, and his feces are not in every corner of the basement. Mom’s Chihuahua, Buck, is allowed to relieve himself in the basement because she doesn’t have the energy to take him for a walk. I’ve tried to walk him, but he bit me before I got the leash on. I can’t go in the basement. The stench makes me sick, and I don’t ever let Jenny go. Thinking about it makes me want to set the whole place on fire. Alice’s dog is sweet and fun and smells like outside.
At Dad’s, Jake can come over since his mother lives nearby. At Dad’s, I can get through the house without having to twist sideways to fit through mounds of debris. We can walk straight through the house to the hot tub where Jake, Jenny, and I splash around and have fun. At Dad’s, I have my own room and Jake can come upstairs and we can sit on my bed and play video games, and kiss. I have to leave my bedroom door all the way open. Nothing obstructs the doors at Dad’s house.
Some Saturdays, Alice takes Jenny and I shopping, but I never get anything. Dad and Alice’s money is not mine to spend. In her guilt during her shopping sprees, Mom will usually buy a few new pieces of clothing for Jenny and me. If we always have new clothes, no one at school will suspect our secret.
At Dad’s, I always bring laundry. I say it’s hard to get it done during the week at Mom’s with homework and I don’t want to bother her with my laundry. I do mine and Jenny’s, so Dad and Alice don’t have to. They think I’m responsible and independent but it’s to hide the truth. This way, I have clean clothes all week and no one knows Mom doesn’t have a functioning washing machine. It broke down last year and became a place to pile things on. Sometimes she washes her clothes in the bathtub. The dryer still works, but it takes three cycles for stuff to actually dry. Mom usually buys new clothes when she can’t be bothered to wash and dry them.
You’d think my mom lives in poverty, but she receives money from the government since my father died in a work-related accident. He worked for Hydro Québec and fell while repairing electric cables after an ice storm. It was slippery as hell, and he lost his footing. Mom hasn’t said more about it. I guess it’s too painful. With the compensation she gets to take care of us, I make sure we get things we need: new shoes, supplies for school, and lunch at the cafeteria because it is impossible to cook anything but toast at Mom’s place.
When we get to Dad’s Friday night, Jenny and I make popcorn and watch superhero movies until midnight with Alice and Dad cuddling on the couch. I like these nights when we’re a normal family.
Then, it’s finally Saturday. Ballet class is liberating for the first half hour. My grand plier is gorgeous, my pas de bourrée is right on time, and I float through the air like a seagull. Then I realize seagulls usually end up on trash heaps left by litterbugs. I tell my dance teacher I don’t feel well, and I leave early.
* * *
Monday mornings are easier at Dad’s. Alice helps pack our lunches, and all I have to do is get Jenny to the bus stop on time. I don’t have to hike up and down mountains of mislaid objects or empty soda cans.
At the bus stop, I kiss Jenny goodbye and tell her, “I’ll see you at home tonight, okay, kiddo.” She’s looking at the ground again. I read her thoughts, “I know, Jenny, but I can’t tell Dad yet. If he finds out, Mom will have to leave the house, or we’ll have to leave, and she can’t be alone yet. I know. It’s hard. But I’ll be ready soon.”
“I want to live with Dad and Alice.” Her voice is firm. I barely recognize it. Jenny never gets sassy. She usually complies easily. But she’s twelve, not stupid.
“So do I, but I don’t think Mom will let me live here permanently, and then we won’t be together and…”
“I told Alice,” Jenny cuts me off. I’ve been defeated by a skinny 12-year-old in pink-framed glasses.
I stay calm so as not to upset Jenny. “What did she say?”
“We can both stay here. She likes you.”
“What exactly did you tell her?” My voice cracks, and my chin quivers.
“I said Mom’s house is gross. I told her about the piles of stuff everywhere and I’m scared they’ll fall, and we can’t even open the doors. I told Alice about sharing a room. I mean, I like it in our room, but I had to leave my room because of the stuff. I told her about the basement, and the washing machine. I told her I don’t want to live at Mom’s. Are you mad?”
I’m so mad. I want to yell at her, pull her stupid ponytail and leave.
“No, Jen, I’m not mad. You deserve better. But I can’t leave Mom alone. Not yet. I’ll figure it out. Dad and Alice will help. It’s okay.” I put my arm around her because she’s sobbing. I’m angry, but I’m also proud of her for standing up for herself, and for being honest. I love her to bits.
I don’t get a chance to talk to Dad about it before he and Alice pick us up after school. He drives us to Mom’s and, in the car, I don’t know what to say to prepare him for the disaster within. For the first time since he moved out, Dad gets out of the car and walks to the front door. I think this must be difficult for him.
As I take out my keys, I feel my shame rise to the tips of my ears.
I whisper, “Dad, it’s horrible.”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about me. Open the door.”
I unlock the door and open it as far as it will go. I step in and over the heap of sewage.
“Holy shit.” The words fly out of dad’s mouth. He covers it, as though stuffing the words back in so we won’t hear.
Jenny starts to cry. She pulls off her glasses and wipes her eyes, but she can’t control herself.
“Alice, you can wait outside,” Dad offers. She turns and leaves.
We climb over the mess to get to the staircase and up to our room. I lead him in.
“Your room is great. Great job, girls.” Dad is more relieved than proud. He sees I wouldn’t let Jenny down.
We hear stirring in the basement. Mom is climbing the steps. She opens the door and Buck runs up to my room and barks at Dad. He’s a possessive mutt even if he is the size of my foot. Mom follows him and freezes when she sees Dad.
“Greg? What?” She looks at Jenny and me. “No.” She gets defensive because she realizes we are here to pack our things and that we’re not staying the night or coming back tomorrow. Her scream bleeds betrayal, “No!”
“Girls, pack up what you need. We’ll be downstairs.” Dad is firm, but I hear the shake in his voice. He steps out of the room and over the trash in the hallway. Mom and Buck follow him downstairs. I hear the shame and anger in her footsteps, and she kicks objects out of the way.
I help Jenny pack all she can carry in her duffle bag. Most of my possessions are books, and they’re too heavy to carry with me all at once.
“I guess these will have to wait,” I say, looking at my shelf.
“What about The Princess Bride? It’s your favorite. Didn’t your father read it to you when you were a baby?”
“It’s just a book, Jen. I’ll pick it up some other time, along with the rest.”
Jenny goes to the closet to see if she has left anything important behind. Mom and Dad are talking in hushed tones.
“Sarah, what’s this?” From my corner of the closet, Jenny pulls out a string of sheets tied together with large knots. I stuffed it in my corner of the closet. It’s about twenty feet long.
I confess, “Before you moved into this room, I made an escape plan. I knew if something caught fire, it could block the front and back doors. The sheets are long enough to reach the patio from our window if we ever needed a quick escape. I can’t get to the smoke detectors to change their batteries, and we might not make it out in time. I knew I’m strong enough to climb down, and I would’ve caught you if I had to. The end can be tied to the bedpost and might’ve held long enough for us to get out.”
Jenny is in shock, but manages to speak, “What about Mom?”
I look at her carefully. I can’t see the Mom who took us to the park when we were little, or made cookies for a school bake sale, or took us to the movies. I see clutter. I see loss.
“Her room is near the front door.”
She holds back more sobs.
“Girls, let’s get going,” Dad calls.
We lug our things downstairs.
“Time to go, girls.” Dad must be anxious to leave.
I dread leaving. Will Mom grab us, hold us, and yell at Dad for taking us? Will she say he has no right to take me from her?
She looks at us. I thought she would be crying, but no. She is calm. Stoic, even.
“It’s alright,” she says. We can’t live here. Not like this.
“So, what now?” I ask.
“You’ll both go live with Greg until I get this place cleaned out.”
“You’re going to clean it? How? It’s not possible.”
It’s Dad who answers, “Your mom is going to get some professional help with this. If she gets help, and gets this place clean, then I won’t get child protective services involved, and you can come back.” He’s looking at her as he speaks. Mom nods in response, but she looks to the ground. She and Jenny have the same sad face.
Dad works as a lab technician at the hospital and knows a psychologist who can help Mom. He doesn’t have to do a thing to help her, but I can see what is left of his love for her. Maybe Mom sees it too, which is why she’s going along with it.
We get in the car and Alice drives us home. I know Dad is crying. I’ve never seen him cry, but I can tell by the way his head is down, and his back curved, and Alice’s hand on the back of his neck. He clears his throat and looks out the window. I think he mostly feels guilty.
Before Dad left home, he and Mom used to argue about money. He makes a decent salary, but Mom spent her inheritance on things we didn’t need: waffle makers, a new television, and too many clothes. It frustrated him, but since it was her inheritance money, he couldn’t stop her. I think he felt like he was with a child more than a partner.
Their relationship crumbled, but I know he still cares for her.
There’s traffic on the T-Can and it takes forty-five minutes to drive up to Dad’s house.
There is darkness across the lawn. The garden lights are on and the specter of near-winter casts shadows as we approach the driveway. We walk in as Jenny notices she doesn’t have her glasses.
Dad looks exhausted, but he zips his coat up again and gestures to Alice for the keys, “I’ll go get them.”
“Can’t it wait?” Alice hands over the keys while she asks.
“I can’t do my homework without them. I’m so sorry. Maybe I can get them after school tomorrow?”
“It’s alright, Jenny. Your dad will go,” Alice realizes Jenny’s stress level rising, and puts her at ease. “The traffic shouldn’t be so bad now.”
“I’ll go with you,” I suggest. I don’t want to go back, but I don’t want to leave Dad alone either.
“We’ll be back soon,” Dad kisses Alice and Jenny on their foreheads and we leave.
The drive is quiet. There’s still traffic from the West Island into the East end, but it’s starting to clear as we get closer to Mom’s. I know I have to say something.
“You’re amazing, Sarah. I don’t know how you do it, but you have taken such good care of her. And Jenny, and yourself, but it’s not your job.”
“I’m making it through each day, but I usually feel helpless. I don’t know how it happened.”
“I think your mom has had to deal with a lot. When your father died, it must have been so hard, but with you being a baby, she had no choice but to move on. When I met her, she was a bit scatterbrained and disorganized, but a packrat at her worst.”
“So why do you think it got so bad?”
“Your father died. She had no choice or control in the matter, but I chose to leave her. People do amazing and scary things when they don’t know how to deal with loss. I think her feelings got piled up. Like the stuff in the house. She doesn’t know how to let it all go. But she’ll get help, Sarah. I promise.”
“She’s a good Mom. I mean, she loves us.”
“I know she does, but she’s not being a good mom right now, Sarah. She will be though.” Dad is full of promise and fear. I know he doesn’t know how things will turn, but he wants to comfort me, so I let him.
When we turn the corner onto her street, I can see black smoke rising. The clouds above mom’s house are twinkling with amber. The flashing lights from the emergency vehicles make me squint. Fire trucks are driving to and from the house. I know what to do. I’ve thought about it so many times. Except, I’m not in the house. I’m in the car. I never thought of what to do if I was on the outside.
The car stops and I move to open my door, but Dad holds me back.
A police officer approaches our car and Dad rolls down the window.
“Sir, you can’t go this way.” The officer is young. He speaks firmly, but his eyes dart back and forth from the house, then to us.”
“This is my daughter’s house. Her mother lives here. She was inside the house.”
Dad’s voice is shaking.
“The woman in the house has already been taken to the hospital.”
“Oh my god, is she okay? What happened? Is she okay?” I want to run out of the car.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know how she is now,” the offer speaks sympathetically.
“Okay, thanks,” Dad starts to roll his window back up.
“Sir, I can find an officer to escort you to the hospital.”
Dad parks his car, and we get into a police cruiser and rush to the hospital. In the back seat, Dad holds my hand, and we sit in silence.
When we arrive, we find mom in the emergency room. She is lying on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over her face.
“Gail!” Dad is the one who reaches for her hand first. I feel guilty about hesitating, but I don’t know how to feel. All I keep thinking is, I hope she’s alive, I hope she’s alive.
She removes the mask, lets out a slight cough, and speaks, “Hey. I’m okay. Smoke inhalation.”
Dad’s phone is buzzing, and he answers it in the hallway next to Mom’s curtain. I back up as though she’s a snarling wolf.
“I’m sorry, Sarah. I’m okay.”
I get closer.
“What happened?” I almost don’t ask because I feel I might be somehow responsible, but I know how impossible that is. Still, I feel guilty about something.
“Before you and your dad arrived, I was in the basement, trying to fix our stupid dryer. I left it on when I came up to see who was home and I forgot about it. The damn thing caught fire. I was in the sewing room when I smelled the smoke. I wanted to get Buck, but the flames…” She starts to cry. “I’m sorry about Buck, Mom,” I don’t know what else to say.
“And all our stuff,” She places the oxygen mask back on when the nurse walks by.
“It’s your stuff, Mom. And it’s not important. Who cares?” She cries more. Harder. Sobbing.
“Yeah, but it’s all gone, Sarah.”
I look at her carefully. I can’t see the Mom who took us to the park when we were little, or made cookies for a school bake sale, or took us to the movies. I see clutter. I see loss. I see she doesn’t realize how lucky she was. It didn’t happen in the middle of the night, and I didn’t have to use my rope. I see Boutique Aspirations and I know I have to let go, because Mom is in a vacuum. I leave her to go find Dad, who’s explaining everything to Alice. He puts the phone back in his pocket.
“Hey, how is she?”
“I can’t say. She needs to see your doctor friend, and I want to go home.”
Dad calls Mom’s sister Izzy in Québec City, who I haven’t seen in years, and takes me home. I fall asleep in the car.
When we get to Dad’s, Alice has already told Jenny about the fire. They’re at the kitchen table when Dad and I walk in. The look on Jenny’s face is oddly one of relief. I don’t quite understand it, but she explains it well.
“Mom is safe. Nothing can fall. It’s all gone,” she says. Jenny is so smart.
It is all gone: the junk, the smell, the nightmares, all of it. What’s left is Dad and Alice and hope ahead of us. I sigh in relief.
“Sorry, Jenny, we couldn’t get your glasses,” is all I can manage.
I sleep well, and the stress of having to get through another day melts away. I can enjoy tomorrow, and the next day.
Mom goes to stay with her sister three hours away. I don’t get to see her, but we talk once in a while.
I don’ know what to say to her when she calls, but she says she wants to get help.
It’s been months since the fire, and she hasn’t seen a doctor yet. Dad’s friend even found her someone she could see near Aunt Izzy’s, but she has yet to make an appointment.
When she calls me, I follow Jenny’s lead and decide to be honest. I know she’ll be hurt, but I need to tell her how I feel. “Mom, I think maybe we don’t have much to say to each other. Jenny and I are fine. School is good. Dad has filed for custody. I’m sixteen and I can make the choice to stay here. We asked you to get help. You’re not. It says a lot.” I’m curt and to the point, because I’ve spent enough time not saying what I think.
“I miss you both, Sarah.”
“Then go see the doctor, Mom,”
But the rest of the conversation is her trying to guilt me into going to Québec City, which is ridiculous because why would I leave Dad and Jenny and Alice and Jake? I resolve to live with Dad without Mom in my life.
About a month after our last phone call, Mom sends me a package in the mail. It’s a copy of The Princess Bride. I leave it on my desk and stare at it. I hadn’t thought about it since the night of the fire. I start to think the reason Mom had so much stuff is the same reason I kept my books. I didn’t even like The Princess Bride, but it was all I had to connect me to my father. I couldn’t grieve him since I never knew him, but I still felt the loss. I think Mom felt the same way. I don’t think she got to grieve either. She felt the aspirations dissolve, replaced by the void, and filled it with stuff reminding her of good times, like the sewing machine.
“What’s that?” Jenny sees me sitting on my bed from the hallway. She stands in the threshold.
I hold up the book.
“Do you want me to read it to you?” I ask, hopeful.
Jenny sits on my bed, and I start reading to her. She snuggles into my pillow and I read until she falls asleep. I look at her and see all of our real aspirations. We have the room to be us. I can breathe and I can be.
Lea Beddia is a high school English teacher in Québec, Canada. She enjoys writing for children and young adults and is currently working on a young adult novel. When Lea isn’t teaching, reading, writing, doing laundry or playing with her children, she can be found sneaking chocolate away from the kids. Visit her website www.leabeddia.com or find her @LeaBeddiaWriter.
When we were kids, Elliott and I could read each other’s minds.
It wasn’t like it is in movies, where one twin thinks in complete sentences and the other receives a live stream to their brain. We didn’t need words. When I played catcher, I always knew exactly how Elliott would throw. When my dress snagged on the handlebar of his scooter and I fell backwards onto my arm, he felt it break. When a new girl moved into the house across the street, Elliott knew right away I had a crush on her. He knew everything, sometimes even before I did.
No one really believed what we could do, but it didn’t matter. We were Elliott and Beth, two halves. We were all we needed.
* * *
The summer before my senior year at Eastvale, I let my girlfriend Cole come to visit me in California, at my parents’ house, which is how I’ve started to think of it. The night before she arrives, an earthquake shakes the house like a warning. It knocks a book off my nightstand and Elliott’s bat from the rickety nails holding it to the wall. It deepens the crack in the driveway and splits the concrete in two.
It’s not an exaggeration to say everything is magic at Eastvale… Cole coloring in a panel of her comics with her head crouched low to the desk. Cole sneaking into my room the morning of my chem final with a grease-stained box of chocolate donuts. Cole beside me on my twin-size bed, her arm curved into my arm, her hip to my hip.
I stand out there for a long time, digging my foot into the split in the earth, before I go inside. Elliott is lying on the couch, streaming an old Angels game on his phone. It’s white noise to me by now: the tinny organ music, booming commentators.
“Do you think we can fix the driveway? Is there something we can fill it with?”
“Not in the next hour.” He doesn’t look up. “Is she really going to judge you for a cracked driveway?”
“Then don’t worry about it.”
He’s spent most of the summer on that couch. Last year, he was at practice from dawn till sunset. After that he’d go out with friends. Now he has neither of those things. Now he’s a spectator to games that are long over. A spectator with a shattered elbow.
Without baseball, Elliott is slow. Everything he does is amplified. Everything he doesn’t is, too. It’s not just college or his career. Some essential piece of him is missing now. His muscles are weaker, his hair grown out in strange sandy-blond tufts. He clings to the list of things he still does better than me, and that list isn’t long.
“Mom know you’re taking the car on the freeway?” It’s not a question.
“Don’t make this a thing,” I say. “I’ve had my license for eight months.”
“You’ve been at school.”
“I drive when I’m over there. In the snow, when the roads turn to ice.”
“At a boarding school with more squirrels than people.”
I bite the inside of my lip. This is how we are now: civil, until we aren’t. I sit on the armrest of the couch, in his line of sight. “Please don’t make me take Mom to pick up my girlfriend. You cannot hate me that much.”
He touches his elbow. “Fine.” From his phone speakers, a tiny audience roars.
* * *
I started at Eastvale, a boarding school near Boston, three years ago, but I’ve never let anyone visit me, though they asked. Being from California was some kind of social currency; people were interested in it. They’d ask questions about reality shows, movie stars, Disneyland, Christmases on the beach. I got good at finding reasons I couldn’t have visitors: trips to Europe, all-summer internships.
When Cole asked, it was different. I couldn’t lie, but I didn’t know how to sum up the truth: the seedy liquor store on the corner with the peeling paint, or the guy down the street with the American flag sticking out the back of his truck, the one who catcalled me last summer when I was out for a walk. I couldn’t explain it, the vastness between the California I’d let everyone believe in and my actual home.
So now I’ll take her to all the places she expects: Hollywood, the beach, rows of mansions lined with white picket fences. I’ll try to gloss over everything on the way: the church billboards, the dirt roads, the woolly mammoth statue stuck on a hill next to the freeway. We won’t spend a second longer here than we have to.
* * *
I see her before the glass doors to the terminal open: effortlessly messy bun, black-framed glasses, ink-stained fingers gripping the straps of the $900 leather backpack she got for her birthday. I roll down my window and wave. My heart inflates. For a minute, my worries dissolve.
She puts her suitcase and backpack into the backseat and gets in the front. “Eliza. Fancy meeting you here.”
She takes the collar of my shirt between her fingers. Then she tugs the shirt toward her and kisses me. Hard.
With our eyes closed, the taste of her vanilla chapstick on my tongue, we could almost be back at Eastvale. We could be shaded by the white pine tree in the student parking lot. Maybe we’ll take our time getting back to the dorms, our gloved hands clasped together, savoring how the snow feels crunching under our feet.
It’s not an exaggeration to say everything is magic at Eastvale: the smell of old pages on the top floor of the library, old messages carved into the undersides of wooden desks, secrets seeping through the cracked pavement of every pathway. But most of all, Cole. Cole coloring in a panel of her comics with her head crouched low to the desk. Cole sneaking into my room the morning of my chem final with a grease-stained box of chocolate donuts. Cole beside me on my twin-size bed, her arm curved into my arm, her hip to my hip.
It’s only a matter of time before she realizes I’m not worthy.
* * *
I point out the orange trees around our yard so Cole doesn’t see the gash in the driveway as I’m parking over it. Inside, my mom is tossing pre-cut pieces of pineapple into a glass mixing bowl half-full with mushy kiwi and strawberries. Elliott has migrated from the couch to the kitchen table, but the baseball game persists.
“Hi,” Cole says.
“Oh!” Mom rinses her hands and wipes them on a nearby dish towel. “You’re early.”
“I told you 3,” I say. “It’s 3:02.”
She takes Cole’s hand in both her own. “It’s so nice to meet you, Cole. I’m Beth’s mom.”
“Eliza,” I correct.
“You too, Mrs. Malone,” Cole says.
I stiffen, thinking of the restaurant where I met Cole’s parents, where the napkins were folded into little birds and there were three forks for each person. How far we are, with chopped gray kiwi in a mixing bowl.
I steer her shoulders to face the table. “This is Elliott.”
“I hear you’re a baseball star,” Cole says.
His face hardens. “Not lately.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” She looks at me, then back to him. “What else do you do?”
His mouth opens, then closes. He touches his elbow. I think of the ways I could answer for him: the beer, the pickup trucks, the endless loop of tiny baseball games. But I don’t.
“I’m going upstairs.” He stands, leaving his fruit salad on the table.
* * *
When I show Cole the guest room, which is Elliott’s rec room spruced up with some candles, she tugs on my arm.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s not you,” I say. “I should have warned you—it’s a sore subject.”
“But why?” She perches on the edge of the pull-out bed. It creaks underneath her. “Can’t he play again once his arm recovers?”
“College. He missed out on scouts this season, so he missed out on scholarships.” I fidget with a candle on a nearby shelf. Rosewater ivy.
“Okay—does that matter? Couldn’t he pay for college?”
I tense. “Well, he has to play college baseball to go pro. He was good enough for the Major Leagues. No doubt.”
“Really?” She sits cross-legged. “That’s so—painful. All those practices. It explains so much about you.”
“Why you are the way you are. He was the athlete, so you had to be the smart twin.” She watches me for a reaction. “Am I wrong?”
She’s not. I can still see the row of perfect report cards on the fridge. They’d fade in the sun whenever Mom opened or closed the fridge to pack it with Gatorades for Elliott’s practices. I got one day a semester; baseball was the focus for the rest of the year.
In eighth grade, when I told Mom I was filling out boarding school applications, she looked at me like something she didn’t recognize. A potato plant that sprouted a pumpkin overnight.
* * *
Mom appears alone at my doorway that night, wringing her hands into each other.
“I hear you have an itinerary for Cole’s visit.”
I frown. “LA. Beverly Hills, Hollywood.”
She nods once. “I’d like if you had Elliott drive.”
I don’t have to look at Elliott’s face to know this hurts him. I can feel it on my own face, in my own gut, like I set off a bomb and both of us were blasted.
“Please don’t argue.”
Blood rushes to my cheeks. I try to take slow, measured breaths. I can’t, won’t get angry.
“I can drive on the highway. I drive at school all the time—in the snow. And I drove to get Cole today.”
She shuts the door. I expect a lecture, but she says, “I know. It’s not you. It’s your brother.”
I wait for an explanation. “He needs the car?”
“He needs to do something besides scroll through Instagram and watch old ball games.”
“So you’re asking me to pretend to be bad at driving. For Elliott’s ego.”
She sits at the edge of my bed, not meeting my eyes. “If he thinks he needs to drive you, it will give him a sense of purpose—something tangible he can accomplish this week, even if he doesn’t think of it that way. It’s not a big thing, but maybe when he comes home he won’t think college research is so daunting.”
There’s something different about how she’s asking, but I don’t know exactly what. Something to do with how crumpled her eyes are at the corners, the note of defeat in her voice.
I think about asking if she’s still upset with him, about all those years at practices and games gone to waste. But she’s looking around my bedroom now, scanning the pictures and posters I haven’t changed since eighth grade. I don’t think I can bear to make her any sadder than she is.
“And you’re okay with him driving?” I ask. “After…?”
“He wasn’t the one behind the wheel.”
I pause. “But he was drinking.”
“It was months ago. It was one mistake.” The space between her eyebrows creases. “He’s a different person since you left. It’s been hard on him, you know.”
I close my eyes. “Fine. He can drive me.”
She stands, her expression unchanged, and squeezes my hand. In the doorway she stops again. “This means a lot, Beth—Eliza. I think you may be the only one who can reach him.”
I don’t tell her how wrong she is.
* * *
Later, Cole sneaks into my room. She closes my door without a sound and curls up underneath my blankets, pressing her warm body to mine.
“You don’t know how great it was to see you waiting for me at the airport,” she whispers. “In your cool California car. It’s like I know this whole other part of you now.”
I laugh. “I’m the same person.”
“But seeing where you come from. It’s kind of magical.” She burrows into the crook of my arm.
I let her stay another few minutes, trying not to fall asleep, but drift into half-dreams of hushed New England forests and dry, barren deserts, and Cole and I split between the two.
* * *
The night Elliott shattered his elbow, it was raining at Eastvale. Cole and I were in the library with our homework spread out over one of the heavy wooden tables. We had a draft of our college admissions essay due the next morning, and Cole hadn’t started. She hadn’t even picked a prompt.
“It’s bullshit,” she said. “They want me to write ‘honestly.’ But not about wanting to draw comics. And not about years of private school that were supposed to prepare me for this.”
I thought of my own essay, about moving across the country as an eighth-grader.
“You know 90% of our class will end up at an Ivy,” I said. “So there’s something they’re saying to get in.”
“Sure. They’re making shit up.” She clicked backspace, erasing Insert Title Here one letter at a time. “I legit read an example like: ‘I went to Brazil to build houses on spring break. Seeing how underprivileged everyone was really opened my eyes and made me feel like I had to do something.’” She sighed. “I’m not like you. You’re a shoo-in for any school you want.”
I opened my mouth to respond. I’d apply to the Ivies with everyone else, of course, but unless I somehow got a full ride, I knew I’d end up at UCLA.
My phone started buzzing on the table. We jumped. It was my mom.
I left Cole with her computer and went to a corner. I stood between two shelves and held the phone, shaking. “What?”
I didn’t understand what she was saying at first. A lot of medical-speak about torn ligaments and Type III fractures. I reached over to touch my own elbow, unswollen, unbroken.
“He’ll miss the season. All of junior year. And over something so stupid.”
The line was silent for a moment. The rain pattered on the library roof like a horrible metronome. “He was riding in the back of a pickup truck. Drinking. They hit a palm tree. He fell out.”
I didn’t say anything. My stomach felt hollow, as if the ground had opened up underneath me and split me in two. Everything was falling out.
“Beth?” Mom sounded staticky, faint.
I peered between empty shelves to look at Cole, scrolling through her phone. It seemed impossible that I’d just been talking to her about college essays, while across the country my brother was in a hospital. I crouched behind the encyclopedias.
“He’s okay, right?”
“He’s lucky he’s not dead.”
“But he’s okay.” It was strange not to know, to feel it. Not even a twinge in my elbow.
Static again. “Physically, yes.”
“And not physically?”
The phone cut out.
* * *
I’m quiet during the drive to LA. Cole and I sit in the backseat. She suggests a podcast, but Elliott flips on KROQ. He doesn’t turn it down when it goes to commercials. I stare at his hair, flattened in the back, and I wonder what he’s thinking.
“I don’t know anyone who listens to the actual radio,” Cole says, too quietly for Elliott to hear. She traces her finger over mine. “It feels like a statement.”
“It probably is.” But I don’t know what it’s saying.
She looks out the window. Yellowed grasses roll by. “Is this all LA? Your house, too?”
“A suburb of LA.”
Elliott snorts. “A distant suburb, maybe. If the moon is a suburb of Earth.”
Cole laughs. She turns to me. “When will you show me around your neighborhood?”
I think of the baseball diamond where Elliott had Little League practices, the corner where I broke my arm, the palm tree where his friend crashed the pickup truck.
“There’s nothing to show, really.”
“Your elementary school? I bet they have your name on a plaque in there.”
“No, just Elliott’s.”
He meets my eyes in the rearview mirror, but doesn’t say anything.
* * *
In Beverly Hills, we weave in and out of high-end stores: Cartier, where tourists take pictures of $200,000 necklaces, and Gucci, with handbags perched on white pedestals like they’ve won awards. We stop in a boutique where lace kimonos hang off the racks like delicate curtains.
Elliott looks at the tag on a cotton shirt. “Everything in here has Coachella written all over it.”
The cashier shoots him a look.
Cole laughs. “Have you been?”
“Coachella might as well be a million miles away.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a bunch of trust fund kids who don’t know what to do with their parents’ money.”
Cole grins at me. “He’s describing everyone at school.”
I put down the $60 candle I was pretending to look at. “We don’t have to keep shopping. Let’s go.”
She picks up the candle and holds it out to me. “No, wait. If you like this place…”
I think of where I usually shop: thrift stores in Boston where I comb through racks of discarded J.Crew. No one has ever come with me, especially not Cole.
“No, let’s go.” I turn around without looking at either of them, but I catch a glimpse of my flushed face in a mirror. I almost don’t recognize myself.
* * *
I knew parking in Hollywood would be bad, so I researched a structure near all the sightseeing. I give Elliott directions, but he turns the wrong way and we end up behind a line of cars. Throngs of people crowd the sidewalks.
A car in front of us pulls out of a spot. Elliott takes it.
I get out to read the sign overhead. “Two-hour parking till 3.”
Elliott nods through the open window. “Perfect.”
“The garage is $8 for the day.”
“We don’t need that. The meter is $2 an hour, free after 3.”
I think of Mom standing in my doorway and decide not to argue. Elliott rolls up the window.
Outside, the air smells like stale cigarettes. A crowd gathers in the sidewalk watching break dancers, their foreheads glistening. We push through to get to the theater, where movie stars’ handprints are preserved in cement. I feel Elliott’s irritation like an itch on the back of my neck. He pulls out his phone.
When Elliott found out I was going to boarding school, he didn’t speak to me for a week. He ate his bowls of cereal in silence across the table. He played radio stations he knew I hated when our mom drove us to school and pretended he didn’t see me when we passed each other in the hall.
I follow Cole. She looks at home here, sleek and mysterious in dark sunglasses. I half-expect tourists to take pictures with her. She presses her hands into Cary Grant’s prints, her rainbow ink in sharp contrast to the pale concrete.
“He was gay, you know,” she says.
“Really? Cary Grant?”
“Yeah. Everyone knew back then. It was this big open secret.”
I kneel down at the set of prints to her left. They belong to Jeanne Crain, 1949. I don’t try to fit my hands in the prints—they’re like a child’s. Her shoe prints have little dots where her heels pressed into the cement. “I don’t know who this is.”
Cole looks. “Can you imagine? You become this big movie star, you get invited to put your handprints in this fancy theater, and seventy years later, the kids are like, ‘Who’s that?’”
“I’m sure lots of people still know”—I check the name—“Jeanne Crain.”
“We only know the ones people still talk about. Marilyn Monroe. Or Cary Grant and his string of lovers.” She stands up. “We work so hard to make something of ourselves, but even if you’re successful, it probably won’t matter in a hundred years. So you might as well stop trying so hard.”
I look for Elliott. He’s leaning against the wall staring at his phone, deaf to this particular bit of wisdom. When I look back, Cole is studying me, her hand shielding her eyes from the sun.
“What is it?” I say.
“I’m trying to stop time. Right here, it would be perfect.” She drops her hand and wraps her arms around my waist. She’s close enough for me to count each freckle on her nose.
“What about school?”
“You love school too much. This is better. No college application bullshit, no finals. Just you and me and the warm sun.”
She reaches a hand behind my neck and pulls my head toward her, pressing her soft lips to mine. For a minute, I believe in Hollywood happily ever afters.
* * *
We walk down Hollywood Boulevard, hands clasped while Cole points out more famous names in the silver-flecked sidewalks. She pulls me into a souvenir shop brimming with screen-printed shot glasses and plastic Oscar statues.
At 3:28, we arrive back at our parking spot. The car isn’t there.
* * *
When Elliott found out I was going to boarding school, he didn’t speak to me for a week. He ate his bowls of cereal in silence across the table. He played radio stations he knew I hated when our mom drove us to school and pretended he didn’t see me when we passed each other in the hall. He shut his bedroom door as soon as he came back from practice every night.
I lay in bed trying to live stream my thoughts into his brain. I’m sorry. Please don’t hate me forever. Please.
I never got an answer.
* * *
Traffic piles up on Hollywood Boulevard, a wall of brake lights between the billboards and palm trees. We stand rooted next to our empty parking spot as if the car might reappear.
“You didn’t read the sign right. That’s the only way this could have happened.”
“I read it to you, word for word. It said two-hour parking until 3 p.m.”
“Meaning after 3, there’s no limit.”
Cole reads the sign, her expression blocked by her sunglasses. “Or no parking after 3 at all.”
“That’s obviously what it means.” I punch the towing company into my phone. It’s a mile away. “Come on. It’s off Highland.” I bristle at the sound of my own words. Even now, I’m trying too hard to sound like I know what I’m talking about.
“Wait,” Elliott says. I don’t. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to pick up a towed car?”
“Of course you don’t, because you don’t know how to drive.”
I turn around. “What?”
Cole, running to keep up, stops abruptly and almost trips. She wipes a bead of sweat from her forehead.
“It’s over three hundred dollars,” Elliott says.
Cole looks from him to me. “You need money?”
“No,” I say.
Elliott exhales through his teeth. “Jesus Christ. You think she doesn’t see what you’re doing?”
“Elliott.” I sound more alarmed than I mean to. If there’s ever been a time for him to read my mind, it’s now.
“What?” Cole asks.
“Beverly Hills. Hollywood. Boutiques with $500 shirts.”
“What should we do?” I snap. “Drive around drinking beer in the back of a pickup?”
Elliott’s eyes flare. He takes a quick half-step back, like he stepped on hot coals. “Fucking hell, Beth.”
“Do you actually think it’s that easy? Get a new name and a scholarship to a fancy school, and shed who you are—your family, your twin—like snake skin?”
I don’t say anything. A family passes us on the sidewalk, the dad leading his kids away by the shoulders as they stare. Cole gives them a wave, as if to say Nothing to see here. I look at the ground and press my shoe into a deep crack in the sidewalk until it hurts.
“I couldn’t survive here,” I say quietly. “I was in the shadow of your stupid fucking game. And now, what do you even have left? What would I have left, if I’d stayed?”
He doesn’t say anything.
“Nothing,” I say. “I’d be a depressed, pathetic mess—just like you are.”
I don’t have to look at Elliott’s face to know this hurts him. I can feel it on my own face, in my own gut, like I set off a bomb and both of us were blasted. He walks down Highland, disappearing into a swirl of people and billboards, lights and palm trees, till he’s so far gone I can’t tell if he’s real or imagined.
* * *
Cole pays for the tow. She doesn’t say anything about it and I don’t, either. The car is coated in dust. I run the windshield washer as we pull out of the tiny garage, but it leaves a thick layer of grime around the edges where the wipers don’t reach.
We drive back to Highland and see Elliott on the corner where we left him, sitting on the curb. I half-expect him to be drinking out of a paper bag, but he’s on his phone. He gets in the backseat and doesn’t meet my eyes in the mirror.
I wish, on his behalf, he could have taken an Uber home. It’s the kind of statement only people with extra money can afford to make.
* * *
At the house, Elliott gets out before we pull into the driveway. I wait for him to walk to the door and stare at the gash in the asphalt, wondering exactly what it was I was trying to hide.
“I just wish you’d told me.” Cole’s voice is quiet, like it’s about to crack. We watch Elliott close the door.
I park the car, focusing on keeping the wheels straight. “You want me to tell you I’m poor? I’m a scholarship kid? Can you really blame me for not being upfront?”
“Yes. Because if you knew me, you’d know I don’t care. You’re supposed to trust the person you’re with.”
I don’t answer. My mouth and throat dry up. The air feels too thick, too heavy, like the car is about to burst. I open the door and step right into the split.
* * *
We walk for a long time without saying anything. We pass the old guy’s truck with the flag, the liquor store, then turn onto a dirt road lined with orange trees, the bits of rock sharp under our shoes. The sun is starting to set ahead of us, turning the sky orange and pink and framing a row of trees in the distance.
“Palms again,” Cole says.
“They grow better here than they do in LA. Those tall ones are California fan palms—they’re native to the desert. The climate is better here.”
She smiles. “You know everything.”
We’re silent again, our steps out of sync.
“I’ll pay you for the tow,” I say.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m not. I let him park there. I’ll pay.”
She looks at me with a mix of irritation and pity. “Please don’t make this a money thing. I can’t believe you thought that would matter. It doesn’t.”
“You think money doesn’t matter because you don’t worry about it. You can pay for a $300 tow fee with no warning.”
She’s quiet. She scuffs her shoe in the dirt, sending a tiny cloud billowing out behind us.
“You’re right. And you know what? It makes sense that you got a scholarship. With everyone else, it’s always this scramble to get the best grades, test scores, because our parents tell us to. But you actually care about being there, about learning. It’s why I like you.”
I open my mouth to respond, but she keeps going.
“I don’t know Elliott that well, but I think I understand what he’s going through. He went his whole life being told if he kept doing this one thing really well, everything else would work. If my parents stopped being able to pay my tuition or something, I’d be in the same boat.” She chances a look at me. “But he has you for a sister. No matter what life throws at you, you’ll always be able to come back ten times harder. Anyone would feel inadequate next to you.”
I swallow and look down again.
“It sucks that you weren’t honest. I get that everyone at Eastvale wears Prada flip-flops in the showers. I get why you pretended. But I wish you hadn’t.”
“Why? So you could have paid for all my coffees and felt sorry for me?”
She nods to the orange tree beside us, dripping with fruit. “No, because this place is beautiful. I knew about Hollywood, Beverly Hills. But I wanted to see where you were from. And what you’ve let me see of you—it makes me love you more.”
I hold my breath, but the tears stream down, spattering onto the dirt below. She turns and kisses me. My head swirls with sunset, vanilla chapstick, and rainbow ink, and I want her to see everything.
* * *
By the time we get back, the sky is settling into a dusky purple and someone has moved the car into the street. Elliott is kneeling in the driveway, a black plastic pail next to him. Cole goes inside.
I kneel. He’s hunched over a putty knife, smoothing black, sticky gunk into the driveway crack.
He doesn’t respond. His knife makes a harsh, scraping noise on the asphalt.
He meets my eyes and lets the knife rest in his hand.
“Mom asked you to have me drive.” It’s not a question.
He looks at the ground, furrows his brow. “We should have gone to the garage.” He starts scraping again. “Look, I know I’ve been a piece of shit.”
“No, you were right. I’m not surprised you left. I’m surprised you stuck around as long as you did.”
“I didn’t, not forever.” He keeps scraping. “Do you have another one of those putty knives?”
He sits back, reaches under the lid of the asphalt bucket, and tosses one to me.
“We’re pushing it into the crack right now. Then we’ll drive over it to tamp it down. I watched a YouTube video.” He demonstrates and I copy him. Scrape, scrape. He pours the asphalt mix into the next section, and I watch the black, soft crumbles settle into the split.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when it happened,” I say.
He meets my eyes over the patch. “I know, Eliza.”
We work until it’s dark, scraping over the asphalt again and again. We don’t say anything else, but we don’t have to. We don’t need words.
Melanie Dearman is a YA writer and graduate of UC Irvine. If not writing, she can usually be found playing ukulele or doodling with fountain pens till her fingers are covered in ink. She was the 2018 runner-up for the SCWBI Sue Alexander Award for most promising manuscript. She also won the 2016 SCBWI LA Mentorship Contest and was a runner-up for the Stony Brook Short Fiction Prize. Visit her at melaniedearman.com or on Twitter at @melaniethegreat.
Dr. Goon was the principal of Gecko Wacko High School and all the students loved him because that’s how he programmed them, and how did he program them? With the Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later. The Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later was an archway, kind of like the entryway at an airport that electronically frisks you before you board your plane. Every day when the students came to school, they had to pass through the butt-smacking turnstiles of the Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later while staring at a little red lens attached to the arch. The students thought the lens was taking attendance by reading their retinas, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth was that Dr. Goon was stealing students’ souls as they came through the Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later. Every trip through, Dr. Goon’s device pulled fibers from kids’ souls and wrapped them around thin pins, which were stored in the principal’s secret laboratory. The laboratory doubled as Dr. Goon’s private washroom, so his lab was also his lav.
Every trip through Dr. Goon’s device pulled fibers from kids’ souls and wrapped them around thin pins which were stored in the principal’s secret laboratory. The laboratory doubled as Dr. Goon’s private washroom, so his lab was also his lav.
Each pin was labeled with the name of the student whose soul it contained, and as the school year went on the pins got fatter and fatter while the students became duller and drearier. The less room their souls took up in their bodies, the more room there was for all the test prep the students would need to ace the state exams they would take at the end of the year.
Well, Dr. Goon’s plan worked perfectly and the students of Gecko Wacko High School scored an average of 98% for filling in the choicest circles on their tests. Dr. Goon became the greatest principal the world had ever known, causing principals from every continent (except Antarctica) to come find out how they, too, could suck the life out of their student populations, all the better to cram their craniums with mega-doses of the busywork needed to produce teenagers who never talked in class, never came late, never missed an assignment and never questioned authority.
Then one day a boy named Wiley Zorkowitz had one too many prune sandwiches for lunch (that’s all the cafeteria served, prune sandwiches, and no one ever complained). But after Wiley got his bathroom pass, he soon discovered that a lot of other guys had eaten too many prune sandwiches as well, and the laws of nature wouldn’t permit him to wait at the end of the long line curling out of the boys’ restroom.
That’s when Wiley noticed that Dr. Goon had left his keys in his private washroom door. And like a prune pit being Heimlich’d out of some kid’s throat, Wiley shot across the hall, threw open the forbidden door, and came face to face with Dr. Goon himself, who at that moment was wiring a student’s soul pin to his dead parrot, Parksie, hoping to bring it back to life.
On the wall beside Dr. Goon were the thousand soul pins, each labeled with a student’s name, and since the labels were organized alphabetically from the ceiling to the floor, and because “Wiley Zorkowitz” was the very last label at the end of the very last column, Wiley instantly located his pin and grabbed it up, thinking this must be his own personalized key to his own private washroom, meaning he’d never again have to endure the agony of prune pressure in his private places.
But as soon as Wiley grasped the key—or pin, rather—his soul unwound and hung in the air like a curl of purple smoke. And as Wiley gasped, he sucked in not only a gulp of air but also his own soul—the sum total of all his dreams, joys, loves, and music—which flew into him like stardust disappearing into a blackened sun.
Meanwhile, Dr. Goon was so gobsmacked by Wiley’s interruption that he accidentally stuck himself with the wire he had hooked up to his dead parrot, and in an instant the eyedropper’s worth of energy that made up Dr. Goon’s soul was conducted through the transmitter, causing the parrot to flap its wings, wobble to its feet and say, “Awk! Fill in the circles! Fill in the circles!”
After Wiley had visited the bathroom, he made an announcement over the all-call: “Attention. All students must immediately report to Dr. Goon’s office to get their souls back.” And one by one the students of Gecko Wacko High School were reunited with their wondering, wishing, loving, dreaming, joyfully imperfect selves.
Meanwhile, Dr. Goon, now the only soulless member of the school, was converted into a parrot stand, and after a while his body turned to stone and he was displayed next to the prom wreck in front of Gecko Wacko High School with these words inscribed in the base: “Schools Are About Human Beings, Not Test Scores.”
Michael Hennessy is an educator and part-time singer-songwriter who lives in New Jersey. Currently, he’s completing a YA novel about a teenager whose most intimate friend is the artificial intelligence that’s taken up residence in his brain. The novel is called Changed My Mind.
Photo credit: Howard Flesher
Kristen’s dog is named Banjo. He’s big—not just tall, fluffy too, and cream-colored like the living room carpet. When I pet him, my hands sink down all the way to the second finger joint. He’s so big, he reminds me a little of the horses up at the farm.
I was never really around Snap and Ginger much. Brian didn’t like them. He said that in America we’ve made our animals our idols and we serve them now instead of the other way around. Sometimes, I remember that when I’m playing with Banjo and I push him off. But then he gets so sad that I can’t stand it, and I go back to petting him and I try to forget about Brian.
That’s what the social workers, and the people from the group home I was at before Kristen’s, want me to do. But it’s easier not thinking about Brian than it is forgetting the farm. When Kristen, my foster mom, picked me up from the library after school today, the clouds were already grey and low. When we got to the house, it was sprinkling, and now it’s raining in a sort of lazy, drippy way while me and Banjo sit by the sliding door. We watch the porch soak up the drops until the flaky paint swells and looks ready to peel off. At the farm, I made my room on a day like this. I cleaned out an old shed with rain leaked through its roof, swept it out and filled it with quilts and pillows and horse blankets. Brian was bringing in more and more people, but the shed was all mine. I had a place to sleep on my own, and stretch my legs without bumping into someone else. Brian didn’t care as long as I came back to the house to eat and listen to his teach-ins.
I’m not in the shed, though. I’m in a normal house, waiting for dinner like a normal person. Beside me, Banjo whimpers. He can tell when I’m nervous or upset.
In the kitchen, a bowl scrapes against the counter. Kristen. She’s got a sixth sense like Banjo, only more annoying. I can feel her eyes searching for me, and finally settling on the back of my neck like a weight.
At the group home, they said Brian didn’t really know anything about me. He was just really good at picking out the people he knew would want him.
“Leigh, why don’t you come help with the salad? Meatloaf’s almost done.”
I shake off Banjo, get up. “Yeah.”
She means well. I guess.
Being with Kristen’s got me thinking more about my real mom, and I wish it didn’t. When she was pregnant with me, Mom was so sure I was going to be a boy that she didn’t bother changing the name she’d picked out. Leigh Allen Shaw. Allen was my grandpa’s name, so at least that part sort of makes sense. But there are so many ways she could have changed Leigh. Leigh Anne, Leah, Leyla. All kinds of ways to twist it, make it more like me, or at least more like how I wanted to be.
That’s pretty typical of me and Mom though. We never fit together right, like I was a size too-small shirt she bought one day and just kept forgetting to return.
While I make Greek salad and Kristen mashes potatoes, I think about me and Mom’s last few years together. Things could have been different if she’d kept a closer eye on me. Maybe if she cared where I was going, I wouldn’t have been walking around the neighborhood that night. I wouldn’t have seen the lit up garage, the metal folding chairs, and the plastic tables loaded with Tupperware containers of hamburgers, pasta salad, and homemade pickles floating in vinegar. And even if I had, I’d’ve known better. I wouldn’t have gone in.
* * *
After dinner, we stay at the table and Kristen helps me with some homework. I just had my sixteenth birthday two weeks ago, but because of all the time I spent on the mountain with Brian and his group, I’m just now finishing ninth grade. I don’t mind so much. At the group home, I had a tutor who helped me finish eighth grade, so at least I don’t have to go back to middle school. And at Harding-Davis, I fit in more with the fourteen-year-olds than the kids my own age. We’re all sort of lost.
While we’re working, Banjo comes under the table and flops on my feet. When I first came to stay with Kristen, she told me that she bought him to be a guard dog. “Can you believe it?” she said, rolling her eyes. “He’s about as intimidating as a rug with legs.”
I don’t know if that was the truth or if it was because she thought I’d be scared of him. I’ve never been scared of Banjo, though. He’s huge and a barker, but he’s hands down my favorite part about living with her.
I’m smart enough to figure out that Banjo isn’t supposed to be what’s important about this place, though. The way my social worker kept talking about her, I know Kristen was the thing I was supposed to stick to. She’s been a foster parent for fifteen years. I guess they thought she’d have a better shot connecting with me than everyone else who tried. “Connections” is a word they talk about a lot, and how important it is for someone like me to make them. The thing is, I have plenty of connections. They just never worked out. I mean, I lived with Mom for a long time too and that didn’t really end well.
Right now, Kristen taps the back of my hand with the back end of her pencil. “Earth to Leigh.”
I jerk upright, pulling my feet out from under Banjo so he yelps. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Let’s start over, all right?”
Most of the time, I don’t think I can really love Kristen the way you’re supposed to love a parent, but then we have moments like this one. I get really excited, until I remember Brian. What if I just feel the same way about Kristen that I did with him? I thought he would change things, take me out of all the misery and anger I was in, and look where that landed me.
I can’t remember the first time I saw him, but I know when I recognized him. It was in the garage that night. He was tall with kind of shaggy brown hair and big hands. Cute, in an older way. He looked like he should be working, or in college at least. He said he lived on a farm up the mountain with Mary, his cousin. He was hanging around our neighborhood because he wanted to start a ministry—something that would show people how there were bigger things, bigger forces moving through us. Mom and I never really went to church, so I didn’t pay much attention until he stopped and looked me head on. “Someone hurt you, little girl,” he said. “You’re wearing it under your skin.”
At the group home, they said Brian didn’t really know anything about me. He was just really good at picking out the people he knew would want him. I know that now, I guess, but it doesn’t change that what happened next was the best moment of my life.
Brian got out of his chair and crossed the garage to me. He put one hand on my knee and the other on the back of my neck, and I leaned into him.
He kissed me, the first real kiss I ever got. My mouth was sour from the pickles, but his tasted like the iced tea they’d been passing around.
* * *
School ends every day at 2:45, but Kristen doesn’t leave her job till 3. She doesn’t want me home alone, so I wait at the library across the parking lot. She makes me wait there because that’s where her friend, Ms. Lucas, works.
I don’t mind. Ms. Lucas’s nice. She never asks questions and doesn’t check up on me much, just gives me books to check out sometimes. The Book Thief and Chains and Catherine, Called Birdy. I take them home, but I don’t read them. The best thing about the library is that I get to check my email without Kristen looking over my shoulder every five seconds.
I’ve gotten a lot of emails since I came back. I don’t bother opening most of them. There’s only one I’m really looking for, and when it finally pops up today at the top of my inbox, my stomach squeezes shut and I feel like barfing. It’s from Mom.
I read some things on the computer the other day. I don’t know if they let you look at it where you’re at, but I want you to know it’s not true. They didn’t come asking for my side or anything.
The people from social services say you’re still in the area. Let me know if you want to talk. We can meet up at Muncie’s.
That’s it. No sign off, and I don’t know what she’s talking about. The nauseous feeling keeps on building as I click out and open another window. When I type Brian’s name in the search bar, it all comes together.
The article’s from some magazine site and it’s called REACH OF MODERN DAY MANSON REVEALED. Chunks of text pop out at me, along with bright pictures of the mountain and the farm.
Brian Wilder, who had been living with his cousin Mary Davenport since 2014, began to surround himself with a group of followers in the spring of 2015. The people drawn to him were young, bright, and disillusioned with the lack of spirituality and the hypocrisy they saw saturating modern culture—much like Wilder himself.
The notable exception to this trend was Davenport, who at fifty-three was both older than Brian’s other admirers and entrenched in her local community. Even though friends and family expressed suspicion of Brian and his supporters, Mary never indicated that she was anything but confident in her young relative.
I start tapping the mouse as fast as I can. Eventually, it stops at the end of the page and I see it.
As with all stories of this nature, Wilder’s charismatic psychopathy obscures the undercurrent of societal complacency that fed his actions. One of the first members of Wilder’s group to speak with the department was a minor whose name has been withheld. Captain Rollins expressed frustration with what he calls “the lack of any sort of family or community support system.” According to Rollins, “As far as we can tell, this young lady went missing in 2016. There was no report filed with the department. The school did not investigate. She was gone for two years, and as far as anyone was concerned, she had vanished off the face of the earth.”
I lean back in the chair. I’m the girl they’re talking about. Everybody else there was eighteen, at least. It was one of Brian’s rules.
Brian taught me some good things. He said that sometimes you have to make yourself a rock—you don’t argue, you don’t even speak. You just let them know you’re not giving up. And eventually, they have to accept that.
Except me. I was special. He told me that a lot.
This is what Mom’s worried about. She thinks I’ll be angry when I figure out she didn’t look for me.
It’s kind of funny, because the thing is, I always knew she wouldn’t. When I left with Brian, I was counting on it.
I log into my email again and delete the message.
* * *
We’re in the store when someone recognizes me. Kristen said she needed new curtains for the living room, but afterwards she steers us towards the food aisles. “I’m too tired to cook.”
“Can we have hot dogs?” The words pop out of my mouth and I think they surprise both of us. Since I came to live with her, I haven’t really had opinions on food. I’ll eat just about anything.
“On the grill?”
“Yeah. With chips, maybe?”
She pauses. Shrugs. “Fine by me.”
I go to grab a pack of buns and nearly collide with a cart being pushed by an older lady. Maybe in her fifties. I can’t place her until she opens her mouth.
“You were at Mary’s farm,” she says. “I saw you there.”
Recognition sizzles down my spine, makes my fingers clumsy and heavy. I haven’t been preparing myself for this, but I should have known. Mary had a lot of friends. I don’t know this one’s name, but she looks like the women who would come over, watching us from the kitchen and glaring over their lemonades. Like they had a sixth sense, knew things were going to go wrong.
“You were there when Brian killed her.”
She’s not loud, but the words are huge, bigger than I can understand. Bigger than I want to think about. Her face, the yeasty smell of bread, and the lights bouncing off of the plastic packaging all combine into a wave of nausea that nearly bowls me over. Shaking my head, I back up faster and faster until I collide with an aisle display. Bags of potato chips crunch under my back. The woman stares at me.
“Leigh, what’s going on?”
I look up. It’s Kristen, without the cart, looking between me and the woman.
The woman laughs, but there’s no joy in it. “You’re her mother?”
“We’re done here.” Kristen grabs my arm and wrenches me to her side, leaving Lays bags scattered across the floor.
“What were you doing? Why weren’t you watching her?”
Kristen pushes me in front of her, walking so fast her sneakers clip my heels.
“You little bitch,” the lady yells. I can’t tell which one of us she’s talking to.
Kristen stops, and for a minute I’m terrified she’s going to yell back. Then she changes her mind and pushes me ahead.
“Keep going. It’s not worth it.”
We get to the car. Without curtains, without anything. I buckle myself into the front seat, shove my hands under my thighs to warm them. Stop them from trembling.
“Look at me,” Kristen says.
I don’t look up.
“Don’t pay attention to people like that.” She turns away to stare into the rearview mirror. Her eyes reflected back are rimmed with red. Why is she crying? Isn’t she supposed to be the best foster parent in the county or whatever? Didn’t they train her for stuff like this?
“They’re hurting so badly, they don’t want to admit that he hurt other people, too.” She sniffs and turns the key in the ignition, then pauses, her foot on the brake. “It wasn’t your fault.”
I was in the kitchen when the gun went off. The bread knife I was holding slipped, taking off a chunk of my fingertip.
I was so busy wrapping up the cut that I didn’t notice when Brian slipped in through the back door. When I finally saw him, he was sitting at the table, shaking. The chair rocked with him.
“Leigh? I need a bath.”
In the shower, he threw up three times. I got in with him to help wash his hair, and a little bit of blood leaked from my bandage and mixed with the water dribbling down his neck in a barely pink trail.
My finger healed with a scar—an indentation that puckers my skin and looks a little like an uneven seam. I rub at it now, pressing my nail deep into it until it feels like it’ll split back open.
Kristen and I stay in the car, not moving, for a long time.
* * *
The next time I’m at the library, I pull up Mom’s email from my trash bin. I say I’ll meet her at Muncie’s this weekend. Twelve o’clock Saturday and my foster mom’s coming with me.
* * *
The morning of the visit, I dream about Brian. We’re in the shed, on the ground, with the pillows and horse blankets all pulled together so there’s room for both of us. I’m looking over his shoulder while he does it. Light comes through the boards in the roof, showing the dust and flakes of crud swirling everywhere and falling down on us. “I love you, little bird. You know that, right?”
The Coke souring in my mouth, I see my life, but through her eyes. It’s a straight path, and it cuts through everything—what she did and didn’t do, what I chose and didn’t choose. No matter what, it leads the same way, ends in the same place. With us in this booth, and something awful between us.
I realize that my whole time here I’ve been saying I like it when he does this. But really, I don’t. I never have. For the first time, I wonder why I’m letting him. As I focus on the rust flecks speckling the back of his shirt, he melts into a swirl of colors, and my eyes open to the ceiling at Kristen’s house. She’s knocking on my door. Shit.
I knew Kristen would be mad that I emailed Mom. At first, she tried to talk me out of it. “Her parental rights were terminated. She’s not safe for you to be around.”
But Brian taught me some good things. He said that sometimes you have to make yourself a rock—you don’t argue, you don’t even speak. You just let them know you’re not giving up. And eventually, they have to accept that.
That’s what I did, and eventually Kristen caved. I don’t know if she’s forgiven me for that yet.
I scramble off the floor and start throwing everything back on the bed. Banjo’s snoring on the mattress, but I ignore him, piling pillows, sheets, and blankets against his back. When Kristen opens the door, she catches me with a quilt overflowing from my arms.
“I’m sorry,” I say. My tongue’s dry and thick. I am so, so stupid.
She sits on the bed, ignoring the mess. “I don’t care if you sleep on the floor.”
I cling to the quilt, like a shield. “I slept in a shed. Up at the farm.”
“I know. And if it makes things any easier for you, you can stay on that floor as long as you want. Okay?”
I don’t know what she wants me to say.
Kristen sighs. “I know you want to see your mom. I’m just really worried for you. You understand that, right?”
I don’t answer.
* * *
Muncie’s is the kind of diner they shoot movies in. It opens at five and when I was a little kid, Mom would sometimes take me there before school. It was close enough to the bus stop that I could run back to catch the bus, syrup still smearing my face. From the way Kristen looks at it when we pull in, I know she thinks it’s a dive. But to me, it looks the same as it always did.
Mom doesn’t, though. She’s sitting in the back, in our usual booth. She stands up when we come in, and I realize she’s shorter than me. Her hair’s grey at the roots. She stares at me.
“You got tall.” The smoker’s rasp that used to make me think of movie stars now just reminds me of the shriveled, charcoal lungs they show us in health class.
“Yeah,” I mumble stupidly. “I guess I did.”
Kristen tells me to get whatever I want and takes a seat in the booth behind us. That was her part of the deal for taking me.
“You want pancakes?” Mom asks.
The laminated menu’s sticky. “No. Maybe mac-and-cheese?”
She snorts. “You can make that at home.”
“I could make pancakes too.”
I order mac-and-cheese and collard greens and a coke. Mom asks for a sweet tea and tells the waitress, loudly, that it’ll all be on one check.
“You already ate?”
“So,” she says when they bring out the drinks, “you wanted to meet.”
I did. Because no matter what any court says, she is still my mother, and through her is me. If I can understand why she wasn’t looking harder, why she let me go, then maybe—
None of this is anything I want to tell her right now. I stare at my glass. “I thought you wanted to.”
Then maybe I’ll know why I didn’t see through Brian. Through all of them.
She lets out a huff I can’t figure out. I wait.
“You read the paper?”
“You ran away a lot,” she says finally.
I’m surprised at the anger that comes up. “Never for that long.”
“You’re telling me.” Her fingers are tapping against the table and I can tell how badly she wants a cigarette. When I was a kid, I used to tell her to go outside, that I could wait. I was so desperate not to be a problem to her.
I want to be a problem now.
“There was a lady in the store who thought Kristen was you.”
Her face folds in on itself, the wrinkles carving deeper into her mouth and forehead. I’ve hurt her. Good.
“She asked why you weren’t watching me.”
Mom snorts. “You think that if I went and dragged you away from that place, you wouldn’t have old bitches hounding you in the grocery store? Have I got news for you.”
The Coke souring in my mouth, I see my life, but through her eyes. It’s a straight path, and it cuts through everything—what she did and didn’t do, what I chose and didn’t choose. No matter what, it leads the same way, ends in the same place. With us in this booth, and something awful between us.
Not for the first time in my life, I realize that I don’t understand her at all.
She’s tapping the table again. “People hate each other. It’s just the way of the world. Everyone’s always picking on everybody else.”
The frustration that boils up is so scorching, I struggle to swallow. “He killed someone, mom. I was living with him and he killed someone.”
“Come on. I never met that guy. How was I supposed to know he was going to go and shoot that old lady?”
“That’s not the point.”
She swirls the ice in her glass, not looking at me. “Here we go again. Look, I know I wasn’t the kind of mom you wanted, okay? You were leaving all the time, and I just got tired of losing you every time I pissed you off. I’m sorry. I just got tired.”
The food comes out—macaroni soupy and the greens huddled in a limp pile. My stomach roils, but I wait until the waitress leaves to answer her.
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“Oh yeah?” she snaps “How was it supposed to work?”
“You could’ve called the police! The paper said you didn’t even do that.”
“Yeah, well, see how great things went when they got involved.” Mom jerks her head at Kristen. “Now you’re in foster care and CPS is all over my ass.”
She has a point. I guess.
“The thing is, people say it was all my fault. That I should have been keeping a better eye on you, should have called the police, whatever. But you know how I am. You always have.” She looked at me. “You made those decisions. You made yourself.”
I look at her, and I can’t speak. I want to scream about all the things that she did that people told me were definitely, categorically wrong—the things that everyone but her and me can see so clearly as what pushed me to Brian and the farm. But I can’t. Because she is right and wrong at the same time.
I did make myself. There is no way around that.
There was her, and then there was me. And under all the things she did was what I decided, and what I did. Under her was me, always.
* * *
Kristen and I don’t talk on the way home. I sit in the passenger seat and lean against the window, watching the telephone poles passing outside and our reflections in the glass. A headache builds behind my skull.
When Mom said goodbye, she didn’t mention meeting up again. I don’t think I’ll see her for a long time.
I don’t know how I feel about that.
There’s going to be a trial for Brian. Kristen says that I might have to testify. Right now, everyone’s trying to keep me out of it because of how young I was, but it all depends on if the other people will talk.
Thinking about seeing everyone again used to terrify me. Actually, it still does. But now I play it like a movie in my head.
I’ll walk to the front of the courtroom. I’ll have to swear on something—a Bible, I guess. Maybe Kristen will be there too. I can look at her when I’m talking. Not him. I don’t think I’d be able to say anything if I was looking at Brian the whole time.
They’ll ask me questions.
How old were you when you met Brian Wilder?
Fourteen—no, thirteen. My birthday was three days away.
Did you know that Mr. Wilder was planning to kill Mary Davenport?
No. I couldn’t see it then.
I made myself not see it.
What did he do?
I heard a gun go off. And then he came in and told me that Mary was dead. And that he didn’t mean to do it, he was just so angry. He said he would protect me, always. And I believed him, up until the police came and took us away.
I’ll say all of this, even though I don’t want to. Even though it’ll hurt like knives.
If I made myself, maybe I can try to remake me, too.
I imagine the last moments in court, when they’ll tell me I can go. I’ll think back to Muncie’s and that one, blinding moment when I saw Mom and understood everything she was and wasn’t.
At the end, I will look up. I will see him. I’ll see him for what he really is.
Claudia McCarron learned everything she ever needed from books. She is a recent graduate of Shepherd University, where she was an editor for Sans Merci, the school’s journal of literature and art. She lives in West Virginia with her family.
Nora Brown was running. Not the strained, sweating through a rough cotton t-shirt running of gym class—this was different than any running she’d ever done in her life. She was a human laser, slicing along the roadside fast enough to pass cars moving in her direction. She could hear everything happening within her body in deafening high fidelity: heart pumping, blood sluicing through her veins, muscles twitching with precision as her arms and legs pumped in unison. She could feel each hair in her scalp trailing out behind her, every pore pumping sweat and sebum, even the distinct squish of a zit pushing itself up between dermis and epidermis.
At first, the hum seemed like just another uninvited thing that arrived at puberty, like boobs and armpit smell and the way suddenly her mom’s voice asking her to do anything sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. Eventually Nora got used to it.
If she’d known it would be that easy to run away from school, she’d have done it a long time ago.
* * *
Ever since her thirteenth birthday, Nora had felt a gentle vibration beneath the top layer of her skin. It made a low, persistent hum that only she could hear, like the buzz of power lines on a hot July day. It was always in the background, like radio static.
At first, the hum seemed like just another uninvited thing that arrived at puberty, like boobs and armpit smell and the way suddenly her mom’s voice asking her to do anything sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. Eventually, Nora got used to it. Now she thought little of the way that papers seemed to fly off of desks and perfectly stable glasses of water toppled unprovoked in her presence. When her mom was in a good mood, she blamed it on puberty. “Adolescence,” mom would cackle. “It’s like my daughter has some kind of force field around her.” When mom was in a bad mood, the hum caused fights.
Nora felt the hum tingling in her fingertips on those afternoons when she came home from school, turned the key in the lock and knew before she even opened the door that mom would already be on the couch. The hum vibrated through her gut as she watched her mom lying there, looking as if she was drifting out to sea on a small raft and doing nothing, absolutely nothing to save herself.
She felt the hum rumble down to her toes the day they dropped Rory off at his special school. “There’ll be other kids like him there,” her mom said, with a smile that drooped like damp washing on the line. She knew Rory was different. He barely talked, he did everything in the same exact order every day, he couldn’t stand strangers and loud noises. Other kids had always called him mean names, but she’d done her best to stand up for him. “Nora, it’s not up to you to be his champion,” her mother said one day in a rare moment of lucidity. As they drove home without Rory, the hum rose in nauseating waves. What mom didn’t understand was that Nora needed Rory too. He was her best friend. Around him the hum was gentle. She felt calm and in control.
When Nora felt nervous, the hum became an overwhelming throb in her skull. Sometimes it was powerful enough to momentarily break the seal between her thoughts and other people’s. It seemed to get stronger when she was angry.
And today, the hum had knocked over more than just a glass of water. Today the hum had broken through her, it had hurt somebody.
* * *
Nora had seen him before, the school custodian with the tired smile and an arm he always dragged by his side, like disappointing news he couldn’t quite shake off. Today though, was different. Today he held his hedge clippers tightly when he found her wading through the thicket toward the school exit. Today he seemed almost afraid of her as he asked, “Why aren’t you in class? Is everything okay, sweetie?” Today, a thin layer of sweat had appeared on his upper lip when she replied, “I’m not going back to class,” as she stood bolt still in the thicket, feeling like a giantess on pale opal legs.
He approached her with caution as if she was a strange animal. They stood facing each other. Nora’s wide eyes darkened. She felt him realizing that she wasn’t going to listen. Fragments of his thoughts wafted into her mind. There was a daughter, about her age, with black hair so long she could practically sit on it. There was an argument at the breakfast table. “Calmenté, Papi, I can go on my own,” and a chair pushed out with an abrupt squeak as the girl with the black hair stormed off. She could feel a white-hot pain radiating from his shoulder and the searing shame of a secret—he needed an operation. He hadn’t told his wife yet.
Nora shifted in the thicket. He attempted to shift with her to get in her way. There were more thoughts, this time more frantic, about how girls her age shouldn’t be in the woods by themselves. Nora was so tired of hearing about all the things girls her age weren’t supposed to be doing. She stood still for a moment—coiled, ready, then took a step forward.
She felt the hum burst through her chest, she saw Meg flung back against the white tiled wall, her blue eyes wide with surprise. She saw the ribbon of blood escape Meg’s nose.
As she moved past him, the man reached out with his disappointed arm and put his hand on her shoulder. He was touching her in that fake way that adults touch kids when they’re trying to pretend to care, but just want to corral them back into whatever they were running away from in the first place. Nora didn’t feel like being touched like that anymore. “Don’t touch me!” She cried. It came out louder than intended. Then she felt it again. The hum beneath her skin was nauseatingly strong this time as it burst through her and into him, a beam of concentrated energy that she couldn’t predict and couldn’t control.
She felt the jolt of shock go through him when he touched her, then his eyes went blank as he dropped to his knees in the thicket. I’m in big trouble now, Nora thought. There was nothing to do but bolt. As she ran from him, she felt a cool silence surround him, like the asphalt of a damp street after a thunderstorm—and then something curious. His arm. It didn’t hurt him anymore.
Nora had a very distinct feeling she was going to be caught if she didn’t slow down. She didn’t want to think about what would happen the next time somebody tried to stop her. Slowing down took effort, she had to will the soles of her feet to grow heavier and make more frequent contact with the pavement. She paused for a moment, anticipating the need to catch her breath, but it didn’t come.
* * *
Nora hadn’t woken up that morning intending to run away. The need came over her at morning recess while perched sentinel above the rest of the playground on the uneven bars. She knew she was too old to play on them, nobody else in eighth grade did, but she liked the vantage point being up high gave her.
She couldn’t stand the idea of going back into school, not after what had happened in the girl’s bathroom that morning. Nora thought of the thin rivulet of blood she’d seen pouring out of Meg Atkinson’s nose and the knowledge that, somehow, she had caused it. She thought of the look of panic on little Josie’s face when she saw it too and knew that it was Nora’s fault. Nora was usually the one locking herself in the bathroom stall with her feet propped up on the toilet until Meg and her friends receded to class. Not today though. Today they’d found Josie— a new sixth grade girl who’d cried on the first day of school and still wore Velcro sneakers—first, perched on a toilet seat with a pair of bloody underpants balled up in her hands. Meg stood above her, dangling a rough, generic school sanitary pad just out of her reach.
“Say ‘please’ like a big girl, Jo-Jo, and maybe we’ll give it to you,” Meg said, the collective laughter of her and her friends in a tone just low enough to avoid announcing their mischief to any nearby teachers. With her attention trained on Josie, Nora could have slipped in and out of the bathroom cubicles unnoticed that morning, if it weren’t for the look she’d seen on Josie’s face. The look, coupled with the hum pulsating beneath her skin, made her speak up once, then when she wasn’t listened to, again. The hum caught in her throat a moment as Meg turned to see her standing there, surprised to hear Nora Brown speaking up and that her voice sounded almost like a grown up’s. “What’s the matter, Nora? Do you need a pad too?” Meg asked. Nora could sense she was feeling a bit smaller than usual, and this feeling made the hum stronger.
“Nobody thinks you’re funny, Meg. Just give her the pad and shut up.” Nora could feel something rumbling through Meg—shame? The hum was ringing in her ears now, filling her up.
“And nobody cares what you think, Nora,” said Meg, grabbing up her confidence in frantic little fistfuls. “Why don’t you go back to being a loser and hanging out with your wino mom and your retarded little brother?”
For an instant, Nora flushed with shame. The wino mother—that she couldn’t defend. But that word Meg called Rory—Nora’s insides fizzed with rage. She opened her mouth to say, “He’s not—” but instead, a crack opened in her. She felt the hum burst through her chest, and she saw Meg flung back against the white tiled wall, her blue eyes wide with surprise. She saw the ribbon of blood escape Meg’s nose. I definitely did that, Nora thought. But how? She hadn’t lifted a hand.
The air in the girl’s bathroom was taut. Nobody moved. The sanitary pad lay in its protective wrapper on the white tile floor where Meg dropped it. Nora picked it up and offered it to Josie, who was still seated on the toilet clutching her stained underwear. Josie shrank as Nora came closer, snatching the pad from her outstretched hand, then swiftly yanking the cubicle door shut.
But why? I was just trying to help, thought Nora.
Then the school bell clanged and Meg’s friends filed soundlessly out of the bathroom, giving Nora a wide berth as they passed. Nora couldn’t help feeling sorry for Meg for a moment. What good was it having a posse of mindlessly loyal friends if they ditched you in a moment like this? Meg stood still against the bathroom wall, one finger dabbing at the blood trickling from her nose. By reflex, Nora moved to grab her a tissue from the dispenser, to say sorry, to make it go away. But the words vibrated in her ears again, and Nora decided that Meg did not need help from a loser girl with a wino mom and a retarded little brother. She left the bathroom, joining the crowd of students who were streaming outside for morning recess.
The moments flickered behind Nora’s eyes once more, like frames from a comic book. Did it really happen? And if it did, what did that make her?
She filed out into the schoolyard. Around her, her classmates moved in the same little dramas that played themselves out in fifteen-minute increments every day. Nora was surrounded by hundreds of other students slapping basketballs against the asphalt, waving the remains of packed lunches in little plastic baggies, weaving between each other in perpetual games of tag that nobody ever seemed to win. She wondered if any of them could feel it too—and if they did, were they afraid of her like Meg and Josie were?
Nora slid to the uneven bars, pulling herself up with an unusual feeling of springiness. There were so many people around her, so many noses to make bleed. And it could happen at any moment. When would the next one be? Nora felt the schoolyard rising around her like floodwater. She couldn’t stay, could she? Where would she go this time of day? She wanted to see her brother. There were rules about when it was okay to visit him, the way she spoke to him, and how she played with him—she hated that. She wanted to see Rory, and she was going to. She had a feeling that on the inside, Rory didn’t have ugly thoughts that nobody wanted to hear. She wouldn’t make Rory’s nose bleed.
Nora gripped the metal of the uneven bars and it vibrated against her fingertips. This time she felt it reverberate in her brain too, a sickly-sweet bit of excitement that jarred her with its rightness. The hum filled her with confidence. It was decided. She was in charge now; she called the shots, and she wouldn’t be hiding in bathroom cubicles anymore. She was going to see her brother.
Nora hopped down from the uneven bars. She crossed the playground, each footstep creating mini-earthquakes only she could feel. She strode toward the woods behind the school, buoyant with her new power. Her heart rose, full as a helium balloon. And before she knew it, Nora Brown was running.
Alyssa Osiecki is an American fiction writer currently based in Scotland. Her work has been published in the United Kingdom in the From Arthur’s Seat anthology and in the online literary magazine The Selkie. Stateside, her work has appeared online in Rebelle Society and Matador Network. Catch her on her website, www.alyssaowrites.com.
My name is Charlie Heron, and I am Jesus Christ.
* * *
Of course, you can’t possibly think that I’m telling the truth. Probably think I’m a tweaker or a schizo. But I mean, you can think what you want—I won’t judge. I’m Jesus, remember?
It’s the first day of my senior year at Henworth High, and I’m dressed in my usual garb—my long white robe. It isn’t as white as it used to be, more like an off-white-gray. It has definitely gotten dirtier over its everyday wear and tear, but I did collect a lot of patches on it. I put patches on my robe for every church I go to. I have a couple Catholic patches: Pope Francis and the Vatican. I have some Mormon temples and prophets. Got some Baptist crosses and doves and whatnot. My patch collection is growing; pretty soon my robe’s gonna be more patch than white. Besides, those patches really bring out my Rainbow sandals—they were the closest “Jesus-looking” sandals I could find without busting my bank. I also grew out my hair and facial hair as long as I could, this summer, to really sell it. Of course my facial hair looks like a bunch of straggly pubes. Does Jesus shave his pubes? I’ll Google it later. Point is, it’s senior year, and I gotta be the best Jesus I can be. And soon, I’m going to have to choose my successor. Someone has to be Jesus once I graduate.
I feel like, as Jesus, I automatically know everything. I’m one of the more radicalized Jesuses. I specialize mostly in parodying the man, but I respect his powers. His powers are what made him popular after all.
“Excuse me, uh, sir, we’re all out of sausage, do you want bacon instead?”
Totally forget I was at Denny’s. Dad and I used to come here every morning before my first day of school. I just sorta kept the tradition going, I guess.
Shit, look at the time. I hope she hurries up with my food. Jesus has places to be, people to bless. While I sit and wait, I take out my small, slightly waterlogged pocket Bible. It has a red cover with an inscription on the inside in gel pen: God only exists on Sundays. Sometimes I pretend to flip through it. I feel like, as Jesus, I automatically know everything. I’m one of the more radicalized Jesuses. I specialize mostly in parodying the man, but I respect his powers. His powers are what made him popular after all.
No one really got onto the Jesus train until my sophomore year. Freshmen year, everyone made fun of me and thought I was autistic or just mentally insane, but I stuck with my schtick. I wanted to be popular. Only by becoming popular would I be worth something. But I think that my idea of a worthy life is one that has grace to it—a life to create something weird and dark that makes people uncomfortable; that pushes me and everyone around me outside of it all. My life should be graceful, but I should not.
My dad was never graceful. He was a ruff n’ tough sort of guy who loved fishing more than anything. He also loved that I pretended to be Jesus. He thought it was the funniest thing.
He would buy me more patches if he found any.
* * *
The waitress was able to get me my food, but right as I was working on that last piece of bacon, the bus pulled up outside. I scrambled out of my seat and threw a crumpled ten-dollar spot on the table. Running in Rainbows isn’t that easy. I was about to cross the street, when I tripped up on the end of my robe and stumbled backwards. The bus roared away, unforgivingly, and I stood in the street, trying to figure out how the hell to get to school.
A call came from a big truck that pulled up next to me on the side of the road. It was none other than Miles Humann. Thick, luscious, junior-class hockey star, Miles Humann. Lord give me strength. You’d think with a name like that he’d act more human. But he’s animalistic. And I fucking love it.
“What do you want Miles?” I asked grudgingly, looking up at him as I adjusted my robe.
Miles let out a snicker and turned down his ungodly music, “Thought I’d stop and help a beggar.”
“You know damn well I’m Jesus.”
The overcompensation truck let out a roar from its engine and Miles swung open the door. “Come on,” he beckoned, continuing to push on the acceleration. “Let me take you for a ride.”
Humann does have a certain charm that I can’t resist. I climbed into the truck and we roared away. He turned up the knob on the radio:
“Can Jesus listen to rap?”
I shrugged and turned it up. “Jesus accepts the music of the world as good.”
Miles let out a deep laugh and we sped through the streets toward school. He began to rap along with the lyrics and turned to look at me during the red lights:
“Bow, get the fuck though, I don’t bluff, bro
Aimin’ at your head like a buffalo
You a roughneck, I’m a cutthroat
You’re a tough guy, that’s enough jokes.”
As a solid Christian man, I do not know how to bop along to these beats, but I tried anyway. I turned and smiled at Miles, bouncing my head to the music. But as I stared at him, I kept noticing the way his lips moved to the rap lyrics. God, he was making so many mistakes. I was a school-year above him, but he looked way older than me, and my god-graced body didn’t care. It liked it. It liked it a little too much. And my body reacted way harder than I expected. Humann pulled up at the school and we stepped out of his big ass truck together. I wanted to thank him for the ride, but I felt embarrassed to even look at him anymore.
He knows Jesus loves him.
* * *
Everyone began clapping and hollering as I glided down the hallways in my white robe and brown Rainbows.
“He has risen, bitches!” I yelled and my patrons went wild.
The school day dragged on, and it wasn’t until my Disciples gathered around me at lunchtime that I was itching to spill the news about my ride with Miles. Like the Original Jesus, I have twelve Disciples. I collected and groomed them throughout my four years of high school, and there was a high-intensity competition to see who got one of the twelve spots. Many applied, mostly to gain the popularity and the best seats at lunch. The first Disciple I chose was my good friend Jude Johns. Out of all my Disciples, I think Jude works harder than the rest. He tries to make a good connection with me, rather than just use me for my popularity, which is valuable in a Disciple.
My second-man in command, Jude Johns, whispered fervently in my ear as I passed around my Costco box of Uncrustables so each Disciple could have a sandwich.
“Your mum giving you a hard time lately?”
Once everyone received his sandwich, I picked mine up and took a big chunk out of it.
“Yeah, I don’t think she’ll ever let up.”
Jude synchronized his bites with mine. “That sucks, dude. But, hey, I heard Humann gave you a ride to school today!”
The boys continued to mingle and gossip about the latest stooges and jesters, but Jude and I have always had a stronger bond and better conversations. I took too big of a gulp of my sandwich and started to cough to push it down. “I—um,” I started, before breaking it up with coughs. “I got a boner in his truck.”
Jude slapped his hand on the table. “What?!”
His loud response triggered a chain reaction from the rest of the Disciples, and everyone started up at me, waiting for their lord and savior to speak.
“Yes, my Disciples,” I began, outstretching my legs and grabbing my package. “Jesus is well endowed.”
My Disciples cheered and I grinned back, fighting the urge to scream out for Miles. But I knew he was straight. Everyone did. But he wasn’t a dick about it. He’s known I’ve had a crush on him for the longest time. But he’s not a dick about it.
After school, I decided to take the bus home. I didn’t want to run into Miles again, because I was afraid that he noticed my boner from earlier. The bus driver let me on without having to scan my ID, and my schoolmates gave me the very back seat all to myself. The bus ride was bouncy, and the chipped fake brown leather on the bus seat rubbed against my robe in the most uncomfortable way. The bus dropped me off at home and I went inside and collapsed on the couch, opening up a can of Diet Mountain Dew.
“Charlie,” my mom’s voice was sharp and cold as she entered into the living room. “You have to quit this stupid act of yours.”
I wonder which friend of my mom’s saw me this time. I mumbled as quietly as I could, “It’s not an act.”
Mom began to raise her voice, as she ripped the soda can from my hand, spilling it all over my robe, “Don’t push it.”
I sat silently on the couch, feeling the residue of the Dew begin to stick up my fingers.
My mom stood overhead, overshadowing me with her bland, grayish figure.
“Dad didn’t care,” I told her, looking up at the shadow above.
“Your dad’s dead.”
As soon as she said that, I knew this conversation would go nowhere. I stood up to leave and as I began to walk past my mom, she gripped me hard by the shoulder.
Refusing to look her in the eye, I made my way down the hall and slammed my door shut. I rustled through my closet to find my dad’s old pajama pants. I scrunched them up in a ball and held the bundle of cloth to my nose. I hadn’t washed them since he wore them. They still smell like honey-roasted peanuts. And both pockets still have the deep holes in them from the time he forgot to take out his fishing lures. Mom has been a real cunt since dad died. She blames everything on me. Because I was so “sacrilegious,” God made dad die in some freak fishing accident. There are days when it gets to me, like today. I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, it really is my fault.
I climbed in the back of the truck bed and curled up into a ball, gripping my knees tightly to my chest and praying to God that I wasn’t going to get crucified today.
The rest of the night brought me down into a continuous spiral of guilt. It got to the point where I couldn’t stomach it anymore and I went downstairs to the basement. There were stacks and stacks of Mountain Dew cases, all different flavors, piled up on top of each other in the corner. My dad used to drink five a day. I drink it now, but I add something else to it. Behind the cases of Mountain Dew, I dragged out an opened brown box that was full of quilted blankets and musty-smelling stuffed animals. After digging through the box, I found my bottle of vodka wrapped inside a poorly made Hot Wheels quilt my dad made. Instantly, I chugged half a can of Mountain Dew and poured vodka into the rest of the can. After about two Dew-vodkas, I already started to feel inebriated.
I went back into my room and locked the door, pushing my dresser in front of it, so my mom wouldn’t burst through. My phone lit up in my hands as I scrolled my way through Instagram, looking at all of Miles’ pictures. He’s only a junior this year, and he has an average of 200 likes per photo. That is popularity.
Before I continued my deep dive of Humann’s pictures for the fifth time this year, I went over to my dresser and pulled out a tube of lotion. I collapsed sloppily back onto my bed, feeling the room and the lights dance around my mind like a concert.
One hand kept scrolling, as the other lubed up my other hand, and I started masturbating.
This Jesus doesn’t have a Virgin Mary. This Jesus doesn’t want one. This one wants Miles Humann. Miles Humann was so fucking hot. My heart started thumping wildly and then my drunk ass got a terribly great idea. I turned my phone on its camera and began to record myself.
“This is what I want to put in you Miles,” I breathed heavily, smelling remnants of Mountain Dew Code Red and cheap vodka.
I showed off my dick on my phone’s camera. I showed it erect, naked, and big in my hand. And I kept filming.
“Miles Humann,” I moaned, biting my lip and rubbing my cock up and down, faster and harder. “Fuck—,” I paused and came on camera. “—me,” I finished.
The next thing I knew, I was asleep. When I woke up the next morning, I felt as if I had been pummeled in the head. A searing migraine and nausea crept up within me. My eyes looked down to see my butt-naked ass and dry, crusted-over cum all over my sheets. I vaguely remembered filming a video of myself, but that was it.
Despite my mom hating my Jesus attire and attitude, I continued to do it. I dressed back up in my robe and Rainbows and headed to school. The day was normal enough. Unfortunately, I only saw Miles once in the hallway, but he smiled and waved at me like he usually does. At lunch, Jude sat down next to me as per usual and I admitted my sinful, drunken mistake.
“NO WAY?!” Jude exclaimed, looking me up and down, as if I would do it again, right here, right now.
I let out a slow release of air. “I was drunk, my Disciple. Drunk and in love.”
We talked for a couple minutes about my masturbation video, and how I wanted to delete it but didn’t at the same time. And then, right before lunch was over, Jude asked me the strangest question:
“After you graduate this year, can I be the next Jesus?”
I looked my friend dead in the eye. “You can’t just be Jesus, Jude. You gotta be picked by God to be Jesus.”
Jude’s facial expression made me realize I had pissed him off.
“Come off it,” he bugged. “You don’t believe that you’re actually—”
I stood up and walked away from him. I didn’t feel like dealing with Jude’s outrageous question. All I wanted right now was to go home and watch a soap opera with my dad. But he’s gone. He’s gone and maybe my mom’s righ—
“Jesus Christ, is that you?” Miles ran over towards me, interrupting my own train of thought.
I could only manage to give him a weak smile this time.
Miles seemed to notice my change in pace. “Why aren’t you sitting with your Disciples, my Lord?”
“Jude has betrayed me.”
Humann began to laugh and shook me playfully by the shoulders. “Hahahaha, goddamn, Jesus, even I saw that coming.”
He left his hands on my shoulders for a second and I immediately felt okay again.
“Miles,” I began, trying to sound more confident than I seemed. “Can you come with me to the lake today?”
My question definitely changed Miles’ nature into one that was more serious and stoic.
He knew that’s where my dad died.
Humann gave me a nod and whispered, “Meet me after school. We’ll go together.”
We parted ways and I started to walk towards my fifth period class. As soon as I sat down in calculus, I became overwhelmed with a gut-wrenching feeling. I didn’t have Miles’ number. Where would I meet him? What if he thinks we’re meeting in one place, but it’s the wrong one? What if he forgets? Leaves?
I pulled out my phone and hid it underneath my notebook in class. Jude tapped me on the back; he happened to sit behind me in calc.
“Hey,” he whispered, pulling his body more forward so I could hear. “Sorry about lunch.”
But my mind had long forgotten about Jude’s lunch scandal. Now, it was focused on getting Miles’ number. I didn’t respond to Jude’s apology, but stared anxiously at my phone.
“You alright?” Jude asked, obviously aware that I seemed out of it.
I shook my head at him and tilted my head back, “M-miles and I are going somewhere after school and I forgot to get his number.”
Jude gave me a blank stare for a couple of seconds and then replied, “I have it.”
My heart leapt and I immediately handed Jude my phone.
“Do you want me to text him for you?” Jude asked, taking a much longer time with my phone than I wanted him to.
“Okay, give it back now,” I said sternly.
But Jude’s fingers kept typing away.
“Give it back!”
I sharply ordered him once again, and he handed my phone back. But as he did, I heard the whoosh of the text message sound. Jude had sent something. Frantically, I pulled up the message. The contact name just said “Miles” and the first message was the video. My hand-job video.
As loudly as I could, I yelled, “What the fuck?”
Usually as Jesus, I would forgive and forget. But not this. Never this. I stood up and tipped my desk over, swinging my fist at Jude, who barely tucked his head away. The teacher instantly got involved and pulled me off of him and nearly had to drag me away, as I screamed and yelled, tears burning down my face:
“I fucking hate you! I FUCKING HATE YOU!”
The teacher led me to the principal’s office, and I stood outside its doors, heaving heavily, feeling the urge to punch through the wall and kick Jude in the balls. How could he do this to me? Just because I wouldn’t let him be the next Jesus? Had this been his plan all along—to pretend to be such a good friend, just so he could become the next Savior? As I thought more and more about it, the angrier I got. I checked my phone and saw that the message had been sent, but there had been no reply. Jude Johns was the fucking devil.
I gave up waiting for the principal and I ran down the hallway, my Rainbows clacking hard against the shiny tiles. I swung open the double doors to the school and hurried down the steps. Right before I could leave the parking lot, I saw Miles’s big truck parked right up front. I thought about hiding in the truck bed, just waiting until he came out so I could explain to him how sorry I was. I didn’t know if that would be a good idea or a terrible one. So I did it anyway. I climbed in the back of the truck bed and curled up into a ball, gripping my knees tightly to my chest and praying to God that I wasn’t going to get crucified today.
When the final bell rang, my body felt paralyzed. I was completely frozen in fear. I checked my phone and there still had been no response to the awful video. He had to have opened it though. There’s no way he didn’t.
I heard Humann’s voice approaching the truck and I slowly sat up.
“Whoa,” he yelled, backing up, “Christ, what the hell?”
My eyes started pouring out tears and Miles jumped up into the truck bed.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he soothed, putting his hand on my shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
It took a while for me to reply to him, “J-Jude sent you, um…, this video of me, and I’m so sorry. You were never meant to see that.”
Humann fished his phone out of his pocket and handed it over to me.
“The passcode is 7743.”
I put in his passcode and the phone unlocked.
“I haven’t looked at my messages since lunch,” he told me quietly. “Go ahead and delete whatever it was he sent.”
Without much thinking on my part, I threw my arms around him, hugging him tightly to my chest, crying to him words of gratitude. But when I opened up his messages, I didn’t see anything from my number. No recent texts either.
I gave him back his phone. “I guess it didn’t send,” I quietly whispered in unbelief. “I swear I thought it did.”
Miles shrugged and hopped out of the truck.
“By God’s good grace!” He shouted and lifted me out of the truck bed.
We grinned at each other and got into his truck. Humann and I drove with the windows down towards the lake, listening to the wind and the bugs near the water as we got closer and closer. Miles didn’t put on music for this ride. He knew I wanted it silent. Once we parked, we got out and stood by the shoreline. We were quiet.
I looked back out at the lake my dad drowned in. The water was brown and ugly. People tossed their old McDonald’s Big Mac wrappers into it. No one is allowed to swim here, but you can fish. My dad fished here, but nobody likes this lake.
I stood and looked out. A dead fish floated on top of the brown water. It was one of those common silver ones that fishermen throw back. I watched as the water rippled under the fish, not caring if it pushed it one way or the other. The fish was gonna dip down eventually. My Rainbows started to sink into the gravelly sand, with the water dangerously approaching the bare tips of my toes. A couple gnats spritzed past my head and one tickled at the edge of my nose. Miles came up to me and offered me a cigarette. He pulled out his lighter and lit it. I could feel the extreme warmth of the tobacco as it pressed up against my lips. This was what I needed—to be here—with Miles—with my dad.
Suddenly, my phone began to buzz. It was an incoming phone call, but it was coming from Miles? I looked down at it with a confused expression and showed it to Humann. He reached in his pocket and took out his phone, but no call came up.
Now I was really confused. Did Jude put in the wrong number?
Whose number did he put in?
My heart skipped a beat.
Whose number did he put in?
I answered the call.
My mom’s voice echoed out, cold and maliced, “Come home.”
I wasn’t sure if I should leave or wait. Wait for what—I don’t know. To be sure maybe?
Maybe she didn’t watch it? My fingers began to twitch. I didn’t know what to do. Jude put Miles’s name in place of my mom’s name. He edited my mom’s contact information and changed it to say “Miles.” She saw the fucking video. She saw the fucking video. Today’s the day I’m getting crucified. I’ll be dead for three days. Maybe she’ll beat me. Mom’s never beaten me before, but she just might start. She didn’t know I was gay, at least I didn’t think she did. Now besides pretending to be Jesus, she’s going to chew me out for being gay too.
I didn’t know how to respond to her; I could hear her breathing on the other line.
The line cut off.
Miles turned and looked at me, his face white, the tips of his ears red.
I looked back out at the lake my dad drowned in. The water was brown and ugly. People tossed their old McDonald’s Big Mac wrappers into it. No one is allowed to swim here, but you can fish. My dad fished here, but nobody likes this lake. Nobody really comes here anymore. It used to be better; at least that’s what dad told me. I remember when they pulled him out of the water. His eyes were squirmy. They knew things that I didn’t want to fucking know. I didn’t want to know those stupid fucking things. My hand dipped into the gravel and I chucked a rock out into the brown stagnant water. It bubbled and sank. Bubbled and sank. Just like him.
My mom waited up for me to come home. Miles drove me to the grocery store to pick up some flowers for her and some beer for me. Miles had a fake ID, which came in handy. When Humann dropped me off at my front door, I turned to look at him.
Miles’s eyes blinked with a hint of fear. “W-what do you mean?”
I smiled up at him. “After I graduate, you’re gonna be the next Jesus Christ of Henworth High.”
Humann looked shocked but in a good way. I don’t think he was expecting that response to, “It’s you.”
My friend Miles stuck out his hand for me to shake and he pulled me into a hug.
We sat there for a while with the engine running, holding each other.
“I’ll pray for you,” he whispered, before letting go of me.
I got out of the car and gave him a final wave. “I’ll pray for you too.”
And I began to make my way inside, walking directly towards my inevitable cross.
Christina Paries currently lives in Salt Lake City, UT, with her girlfriend, and works as a preschool teacher. She recently graduated from Utah Valley University with a BS in English with a creative writing emphasis. This piece is influenced by contemporary LGBTQ+ issues, which have been explored throughout her other works. Her background in teaching middle and high school students has led her to write for a young adult audience.
Stage One—Let Go of Your Fear
Start out in shallow, warm waters. If you’re learning to swim where there’s a current, be aware of the flow. If you insist on learning to swim this way, make sure you’re with someone who knows what she’s doing. Try floating. Try breathing underwater. Don’t panic. Wear goggles if you must.
* * *
There is beauty everywhere, and my desire runs as deep as the depths of this hidden cove. Sophie’s hair is a perfect disaster. The wind we paddled through has whipped her auburn curls into a frenzy, and we’ve laughed so hard she’s forgotten to care. She’s always freer when she thinks no one’s watching.
I mean. Gah. The first time she caught me watching her in the library, when we were supposed to be working on our essays for English Lit, I almost swallowed my tongue. A crimson blush rushed across her freckled cheeks, and the pencil she’d been mindlessly tapping against her chin dimple stopped as she lost track. But she didn’t look away, and I knew. Her stomach was taking that same plunge into wild. We were simply a matter of time.
Our gazes lock as I walk toward her. She bites her bottom lip. I work my fingers through her tangles. She lets her head drop back. I want to delve into the heated hollow of softly scented skin just above her collarbone, leave a trail of tiny kisses in my wake.
It took two months for her to break up with Andrew, two weeks for me to convince her it was okay to go with the flow, and two days to convince our parents to let us camp overnight.
With capable strokes, we pull up as close as we can to the outflow of Granite Falls. A sea cucumber floats by, and I flick the phallic form toward her with the tip of my paddle.
She almost tips her kayak in surprise. “What the hell is that?”
I arch one eyebrow and slide her an evil grin. “More of the local marine life. Not nearly as impressive as the seals at Silver Falls, but still. Thought you’d want me to point it out.”
“Yeah. Nope.” More of her delightful laughter cascades down my spine. “Let’s hope we don’t run into any more of those.”
And we’re lucky. A scan of the shore reveals we’re all alone. We drag our kayaks across the stones with tired arms to a site midway between the falls and the shoreline, with two trees the perfect distance apart to sling the double hammock I’ve optimistically secreted away in my pack.
We drop our gear and the first of our inhibitions. A quick text to the parentals, and we’re truly, finally here. Behind us, water cascades over rock. Below, it laps against the beach. Sophie stands, her hands bunched up into the ends of her sleeves, in the middle of our site. Our gazes lock as I walk toward her. She bites her bottom lip. I work my fingers through her tangles. She lets her head drop back. I want to delve into the heated hollow of softly scented skin just above her collarbone, leave a trail of tiny kisses in my wake.
But I don’t and she sighs—the sound a soft caress. Awe prickles through my body. I wonder. Is it now? Are we finally in the moment where we take our explorations to the next step? My fingers graze the swooped curve at the top of her left breast, and she inhales. Sharp.
“Let’s climb to the top of the falls before it gets too dark,” she says.
I want to tell her we can make the climb in the morning. I want to flutter my eyes closed against her earlobe and breathe her in. But I have no clue how to tell her no.
* * *
Stage Two—Learn How to Tread Water
Sink, then let yourself float back up. Flutter kick your legs and stay in place. Let your arms push against the water in a circular motion, back and forth. Back and forth.
* * *
The way up seems longer and more precarious than I remember. I can’t take my eyes off her as she scrambles ahead of me over moss coated boulders, in the shadows of old growth cedars, through the scent of forest green. Her legs. Her shoulder blades. The curve of her upper thigh. I let my imagination wander along each soft surface, dreaming of how my fingers will do the same.
It’s hard to catch my breath.
By the time we reach the top, I’m desperate to ask for what I want. No more of this teasing game we’ve been playing. But it has to be Sophie who’s ready. I know how important it is to let her set the pace. She’s never been here before and I’m doing my best to honor that. In one way, I haven’t either. I mean, I’ve never wanted someone so much it hurts. My chest is unfamiliar with this ache of holding desire at bay.
She lifts her hair up off the back of her neck, leans against a wall of rock, and scans a shallow pool. It’s full of eddies and froth, carved out centuries ago by the water that now crashes down in a glistening white sheet a mere ten feet away. The sun’s August rays shine thick and hot. “Do you think it’s safe to swim?”
I nod, slow, and tip my chin to the spot where the water drops over a precipice to another deeper pool below. “As long as we keep away from that edge.”
Her eyes hold mine as she kicks off her shoes and peels her yoga pants off. I pull the hem of my tank up over my face, relish the stretch in my shoulders as I lift it over my head. We’re quickly stripped down to our bikinis. What’s left of our inhibitions barely clings to our skin.
I motion toward a cave carved into the rock, a fallen cedar trunk leaning over the entrance to the dark.
She dips a toe in—“No effing way”—and then inches into the freezing water by infinitesimal degrees.
Already ahead, I hold out my hand to her and wait. “Trust me.”
She smiles. Laughs. Finally, wades through the swirling water. Finally, twines her fingers through mine. “I do. I’m not so sure about the bats.”
“Then we’ll have to be quiet,” I say, and squeeze her hand tight as we leave the sunlight behind.
When I pull her body to me in the cool dark, I wonder whether her shivers stem from the water lapping at our knees or the same reasons as mine. We wrap our arms around one other. Her hands rest tentative and cool on the side of my jaw and the nape of my neck, and mine pull against the small of her back. Her lips are soft and warm.
* * *
Stage Three—Practice More Advanced Techniques
It’s time. Be aware of rocks below, but if it’s safe, try diving in! Float on your back, then kick your feet. Circle each arm up over your head, then move it down your body, pushing the water toward your feet. This is the back crawl. The front crawl is similar, but you’ll need to moderate your breathing by turning your head to the side to inhale.
* * *
We wind our way back down the path, lighter on our feet. I’m ecstatic to discover we still have the entire place to ourselves. The sun’s dropped behind the hills, leaving our campsite in a shadow beneath an increasingly indigo sky. Even if we changed our minds about camping out, it’s too late to head home. Kayaking in the dark is never safe, and I promised Mom and Dad we wouldn’t take any stupid risks.
I watch her search the sky for the first elusive star. I know what I’m wishing for and pray she hopes for the same.
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
The world sways, and our laughter skips over the rocks all the way to the water and over the waves. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than her joy.
Sophie unpacks the picnic as I secure the hammock and garnish it with a cozy quilt—soft and dry, fresh from the zip-lip bag I’d stashed at the end of my kayak’s rear compartment. I scan the cloudless sky and pray I won’t regret the decision to forgo a tarp.
“Did you seriously pack us chocolate covered almonds for supper?” she asks.
“Your favorite source of protein.” Who can blame her, really? “And strawberries. With one of those cans of whip cream for dessert.”
“Oh my god. I love…” She hesitates, two beats that steal my breath, “…that stuff.”
Sigh. “I know.”
I know everything about her, or at least as much as I can. I know the tension she carries in her shoulders every time she comes out to someone new, and how to massage her worry away. She likes puppies (who doesn’t?), especially their breath. And purple. And peeled apples. Hot coffee, but iced tea. She reads—mostly fantasy, with a smidgen of romance—and bends the corners of pages, unapologetically, to keep her place. Her musical taste runs to acoustic guitar accompanied by sexy, swoony voices, crooning deep.
But I don’t know how to take the next step. Surprisingly, she takes it for me. With the bag of almonds in one hand, the container of strawberries in the other, and the can of whipped cream tucked under her arm, she makes her way over to the hammock and stands there, trying to solve the complex problem of how to climb in with a modicum of grace. “This should be interesting.”
This, I can show her. Behold, the master at work. “Here. Stand beside me.” I maneuver us in front of the webbing and gently lift the hammock almost vertical behind us, careful not to tip out the quilt. “Okay. Now we both sit, then swing our legs up. On three. One, two,…”
We lean back together, dive in. Somehow, we end up with our heads on opposite sides, our legs entangled. The world sways, and our laughter skips over the rocks all the way to the water and over the waves. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than her joy.
Dusk turns to darkness, the sky becomes freckled in endless pinpoints of light. There’s nothing simple about movement in a hammock; it takes an effort not to fall. But as we tumble closer and closer together, delightfully trammeled, Sophie slowly becomes unshackled from restraint. Chocolate and strawberries, an echo on her tongue. My hand skims the skin of her midriff, the back of her knuckles rest lightly on my cheek. I wander my fingers downward—beneath the waistband of her leggings—and am rewarded with a thirsty, soft gasp.
Craving overwhelms me. To taste more of this pleasure. More of this heat. She shimmies her hips, deliciously, and finally helps me drag the fabric further down.
And, oh. Oh. My lips trip the hip fantastic, dance swiftly across her inner thigh.
This is diving deep. Her gasps swell to panting, to cries that crest and fall. Lapping. Lingering. We’re holding tight and letting go, until the water falling over rocks no longer muffles her crescendoed cries.
* * *
Stage Four—Be Prepared for Unlikely Situations
Don’t ever swim alone. Ensure you have someone nearby who can throw you a floatation device if you’re in too deep.
* * *
And now I’ve really fallen. I’m drowning. Drenched in love.
“Holy hell,” she whispers.
Her words blaze across the night.
Gracie West is a teacher, a creative, a romantic, and a card-carrying member of team INFJ.
Theodore Loupeson’s feet dangled from the straight-backed chair across the desk from Headmaster Clay. Rain battered against the windows of the Briarwright school for boys—runoff poured from the granite lips of gargoyles onto November-bare rose bushes below.
“Theodore.” Headmaster Clay slid a mess of papers onto the desk. “Let’s take a look at your work, shall we?”
Theodore’s work consisted largely of mathematics exercises, half-finished. On the backs of the pages, and in the margins, he had drawn wolves in delicate black ink—remarkably realistic wolves that slithered between the notations and howled at hole-punch moons.
“What do we have here, Theodore?”
“We might have mathematics if you didn’t spend all your time drawing these silly beasts. Have you seen your marks lately? Do you think your education’s some kind of jest?”
Theodore stared at his lap. “No, sir.”
“Do you have any idea why your mother sent you here?”
“So I can study mathematics.”
“And why does she wish for you to study mathematics?”
“So I don’t… so I don’t end up like my father.”
“Your father. A-ne’er-do well in debtor’s prison, I do believe.”
Theodore shook his head. “No!”
Headmaster Clay leaned over the desk. “Excuse me?”
“My father’s dead. The hunter shot him.”
Headmaster Clay exhaled slowly. “Are we really still nursing this infantile fantasy that your father was a wolf?”
Theodore remained silent.
“Your mother will be dreadfully disappointed in you, Theodore. For multiple accounts.”
When Theodore was seven, according to his mother, he had been kidnapped. As he recalled the occasion, he’d been picking white strawberries at the edge of the orchard when a wolf approached him and asked if its gravelly wolf-voice if he would like to come to live in the hills.
Theo was a quiet boy with middle-parted hair, wet socks, small frame, who talked to himself. His mother, dropping him off at Briarwright, had used the word “unhinged” to describe his recent behavior to the headmaster. Later, she realized he might have overheard. He had overheard. He wore the word as a curse and a badge.
That night he left. He wanted to go home. Into his bookbag, he packed three pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear, a tin of ginger biscuits, all his pocket money, a thermos of tea, and a box of drawing charcoal. At one in the morning when the Nightwatch went on his smoking break, Theo snuck out into the night. The rain had stopped. Everything smelled of petrichor and ozone. Big clouds hurried overhead. Freedom hit him in the lungs as he scurried to the trainyard at the edge of town. For an hour he crouched in the tall thistles, where broken bottles gleamed like onyx in the moonlight, and watched the men move about the tracks, carrying crates of cargo.
Four months ago, when Theodore had first arrived in the station on the train, a steel fence had separated the tracks from the yard. Now the fence had been removed, melted down for the war effort, replaced by flimsy chainlink, already torn in places. When the tracks were clear, Theodore wriggled through one of these holes and slipped aboard a cargo car. At a quarter past three in the morning the train rattled to life. He nuzzled into a bushel of coarse fabric (parachutes he wondered), watched the moon follow the car through a slat in the siding, nibbling the ginger biscuits. Eventually, he fell asleep.
When he woke the train had stopped moving. Thin morning light flooded through the slats. Stiffly, he poked his head out. All clear. He hopped out of the car to see what town he was in.
Not a town at all, it turned out—just a railway junction at the edge of a forest of pines. Theodore shouldered his bag and stared into the trees, which creaked and sang in the wind, ruffling shaggy shadows through their branches. I should be brave now, he thought, because he had read enough stories about children in forests to know that he had to be brave, whatever that meant, though grown-ups rarely rewarded bravery in children. The train blew its whistle and rumbled out of the yard. Watching it leave, Theo was half-relieved he wouldn’t have to sneak aboard again. He turned into the woods. Pine needles brushed soft underfoot. Sap dripped from diseased trunks. The white-bright sun promised warmth that it didn’t quite deliver. As he wandered, he could hear woodpeckers in the canopy but he only caught a glimpse of one specimen: red underwings flitting between boughs.
When Theodore was seven, according to his mother, he had been kidnapped. As he recalled the occasion, he’d been picking white strawberries at the edge of the orchard when a wolf approached him and asked in its gravelly wolf-voice if he would like to come to live in the hills. The day before, Theodore had gotten in an argument with another boy in his class, and the boy challenged him to a duel and said he would bring his grandfather’s sword from the French-and-Indian war to skewer him. If he went with the wolf, he would not have to go to school and get skewered, so he said yes and clambered onto the wolf’s muscular back and twisted his fists into its greasy grey mane. The wolf ran over the ridge, into the hills. It let him down at a den lined with soft grasses. Later that afternoon the wolf brought back a rabbit to eat and set a portion in front of him. It was raw. He wouldn’t eat it, so the wolf left again and came back with a box of matches he’d stolen from outside a farmhouse. Theo lit a fire and roasted the rabbit. The rabbit came out burned and bleeding and tasted wonderful.
All spring he played in and around the den, sometimes alone, sometimes with the wolf, who could not play games with sticks and stones and leaves because he had no thumbs, but knew all kinds of hiding-and-running-and-searching games. Sometimes wolf pups from a nearby litter came by, and Theodore played with them too. He got nipped, and at first, he cried out, but with time the nips only raised the stakes of the game, and he nipped back too. His wolf curled up with him at night to keep him warm. The wolf said, I will always protect you.
They lived like that for eight weeks, until a night when there were voices in the night that weren’t cicadas, but barks and gunshots. Men in heavy canvas pants and sweating armpits hoisted Theodore from the den and pushed him onto the back of a horse with his arms wrapped around the waist of a constable, who took him back to his mother who loved him with ferocity and vanilla and hot baths and at first she frightened him and later he frightened her with his calm grieving and recounting of events. His mother insisted that he had been kidnapped by his-ne’er-do-well father, a debtor and petty thief who wanted domain over the boy—that he had been recovered from his father’s greasy grasp and the father placed in debtor’s prison.
That summer, Theo had begun drawing wolves. He didn’t get angry when his mother challenged him, but he didn’t back down either. So she had decided it was some devilry his father had put into him and sent him off to Briarwright to study mathematics in the hopes of one day becoming a logical and healthy member of society.
Theodore ate the rest of his ginger biscuits and drank the rest of his tea by lunchtime. He wished he had some idea of where he was going. Eventually, the woods thinned he saw a church spire—a town, how fortuitous. It was a small town with just a greengrocer, a butcher, some kind of pub, a well where a girl in red wellingtons stood filling a chipped pitcher with water.
“You came from the woods,” she said. She was exceedingly tall and bony, like a bird. “I watched you come.”
“You don’t live here.”
“You know what they say.” She sipped from the lip of the pitcher, lowering the water level enough to carry it without spilling. “I shouldn’t be talking to you. I shouldn’t be talking to anyone I don’t know. You could be the man in the dark felt hat. Well. Not really. You’re too small. Still.”
Theodore, dreadfully curious, struggled to maintain a neutral tone. “Who’s that?”
“No one knows, really. I heard he was some kind of German spy, but I don’t think it can be true. If he was a German spy, he’d be lying low, not prowlin’ up and down the countryside terrorizin’.”
He did not like the feeling of being alone in the house, so he took the charcoal from his bag and drew wolves on the walls – huge, loping wolves with wind-burnished fur and long snouts, tails streaming behind them – he drew and drew until he was circled by wolves, his protectors, then he lay down on the master bed on the third floor and stared at the ceiling and breathed deliberately until he fell asleep.
“My mother wouldn’t tell me the details but Agatha, my friend from school, says he drags people underground and then stuffs rags in their throats and puts them on a spit and roasts them till they’re crisp.”
Theodore considered this, thought about the rabbit he had eaten. “That’s wicked,” he said. “Do you know where there might be a bakery? I’m awfully hungry.”
She pointed him toward the bakery, where he bought a roll of bread, then plums and cheese at the greengrocer, and sat on the steps of the church to eat. Afterwards, he followed the road out of town. Where it veered north into a farmer’s field, he struck out into the woods. The trees were centuries-old, memory-gnarled, scarred with lightning. It grew dark. Theodore shivered. He should have stayed in town for the night, he thought.
Perhaps the man in the felt hat was behind these very trees, waiting with a string garrote and a butcher’s knife. Unhinged, he remembered his mother whispering. I do believe he’s unhinged. Unhinged people ended up like that, stuffing their victims’ mouths with wadded-up rags and newspapers. Guilt poured over Theodore like a summer rain, chilling him, but leaving him sticky. He hoped his unhinged-ness would be a kind of kinship with the man in the dark felt hat—maybe he wouldn’t hurt him.
He didn’t quite believe that.
He came to a clearing. A house stood in the center of the clearing: peeling cream clapboard, turrets, huge bay windows, a sagging second-story balcony, steep gabled roof plush with moss.
No one had been home for a long time. Theodore tiptoed room to room over wide floorboards hewn from ancient oak.
He did not like the feeling of being alone in the house, so he took the charcoal from his bag and drew wolves on the walls—huge, loping wolves with wind-burnished fur and long snouts, tails streaming behind them. He drew and drew until he was circled by wolves, his protectors, then he lay down on the master bed on the third floor and stared at the ceiling and breathed deliberately until he fell asleep.
Three o’clock in the morning, Theodore dreamed of a creaking downstairs. He woke and lay shivering. The creaking continued, footsteps, then a snarl, then a howl, a crescendo of paws on wood, a thrashing, a man’s voice—
Theodore rolled from the bed, veins hot with fear, ran up the staircase, into the attic, where he crouched between old suitcases and slings of cobwebs. Growls and yells reverberated from downstairs. Then there were noises Theo didn’t have words for. Then Quiet.
Theo stayed upstairs until the sun rose out of the pines and struck the thick glass of the attic windows. He crept back down the stairs, quiet as a ghost, into the drawing room.
The table lay overturned, the sofa ripped, a chair with legs broken off.
A tatter of dark felt. A smear of blood.
The wolves on the walls held the positions he had drawn them in. But they weren’t the same. Their snouts were tacky with blood and their bellies looked full.
Elizabeth Wing is an undergraduate at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in 21 journals and venues including Hanging Loose, Euphony: Prose and Poetry of the University of Chicago, Jet Fuel Review, Defiant Scribe, and is forthcoming in The West Marin Review. Her short story “Leda’s Daughters” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Gordon Square Review. She describes her literary aesthetic as “cherry blossoms and dead whales.”
I am a little man. That’s what Papi always says. Mijo, you are un hombrecito. That means that I must be strong, never ask for help and—very important—never cry. But my teacher doesn’t understand this and wants to know why I punched Manuel during recess. She says that I need to use my words and not my fists and that talking about the problem might help. I don’t want to tell her anything. My dad says that it’s embarrassing to talk about our problems.
Nothing’s wrong, I say, I’m fine, I won’t do it again.
It doesn’t work. They ask my parents to come to school and they both look upset. Mami brings me to the principal’s office and Papi arrives ten minutes later. He sits across from us. What happened, mijo? I stare at my shoes and tell him that the other kid started it. I close my fists—so tight that my thumbs hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to how I feel about my parents being at school—like being squeezed and pushed out. They don’t need any more problems, they have plenty. I keep looking at my shoes wishing that I could be anywhere but here.
Inside the principal’s office, I sit on the small couch with my mom. My teacher, Mrs. Miller, takes the armchair. The principal tells my dad that there are chairs outside, that if he wouldn’t mind bringing one inside so that he can sit. No, no, I’m okay like this. But before the principal can insist, the school counselor, Mr. Gomez appears at the door, Oh, we need two chairs, I will take care of that. My dad wants to say no again but it’s too late. Mr. Gomez offers him a chair with a big smile on his face. Papi just slurs a quick thank you. The principal starts talking but after a few words, she makes a strange face like the one I make when I have forgotten to do my homework. She looks at my dad. Mr. Suarez, I was told that you speak English, is that correct? My dad nods without looking at her. Then she turns to my mom. Mrs. Suarez, what about you? Mami does not respond, her big eyes distant stars sending distressed signals. Okay, I will speak slowly then. Mr. Suarez and Mr. Gomez, could you please fill her in later? Mr. Gomez is happy to oblige, all teeth and cheerfulness. Papi barely shrugs.
I close my fists—so tight that my thumbs hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to how I feel about my parents being at school—like being squeezed and pushed out. They don’t need any more problems, they have plenty.
I get tired of looking at my shoes so I grab a pen I find on the desk next to me. I play with it and concentrate on the click-click it makes when I push the tiny button. I know they are talking about me but I don’t look up. Everyone’s upset at me right now but in a couple of weeks, some other kid will screw up even worse than I did and then everyone will forget about me. I can’t wait for that to happen—I don’t like people looking at me and bombarding me with questions. Speaking of which, I think Mr. Gomez is asking me something. I just shrug.
That’s not going to work, we need an answer. Why did you punch Manuel?
I keep staring at the pen and just say I don’t know, that I was upset, that it isn’t that big of a deal. They go back to talking to each other and I just stay in silence for the rest of the meeting.
* * *
Two weeks later, I am at a counselor’s office all the way across town. While we wait, Papi keeps looking at his watch. He’s missing work because of me. Mami moves around in her chair and gives me a tired smile. We go inside and they ask her to sign a bunch of papers. Some lady is translating the information for her. Mami just nods and signs wherever they point. We then talk to another lady who has huge, thick glasses. She is sitting at her computer and talks to the translator lady who then asks my parents tons of questions. Words and tears spill out of Mami, little diamonds falling down her face. I look at Papi. Arms crossed, he moves his head side to side and stares at the floor. What is Mami doing? We don’t tell our problems to other people. She keeps crying. I don’t want to look anymore. I look out the window—at the trees—the leaves rustling in the wind. But Mami’s crying is still there. It always is.
* * *
I start meeting with a counselor once a week. Mami has Wednesdays off so that is when we go. Papi cannot ask for more time off work. I meet Rick by myself and sometimes, he speaks to my mom afterwards with the help of the translator lady who always looks like she has a stomachache. I thought the counselor was going to be mean and tell me what a bad kid I am but it turns out that counselors are very much like art teachers. One day he asks me to draw my house, another day, my family, and another one, my classroom. After I’m done with the drawings, Rick asks me to explain them to him and he also asks about the people in them. I like talking about my drawings. I like that this guy does not ask what is wrong with me. He asks easy questions. I now look forward to talking to him so that I can tell him all about my drawings.
One day, Rick asks what made me draw my father far away from Mami, my brother, and me. I tell him that I don’t know. He asks if I am upset with Papi, if I don’t want him at home anymore. I answer no. I tell him he got it backwards. Papi is the one who’s upset. He is the one who doesn’t want to live with us anymore. Rick asks why. I answer that I’m not sure, that maybe he is tired of my mom always yelling at him. Rick asks if I know why she yells at Papi. I tell him no, that I don’t ask because my dad says is rude to ask people about their problems. When they fight, I just go to my room, put my headphones on and play video games. I tell Rick that I can still hear the yelling through the earphones. He asks me how does that make me feel and I say that I don’t know—I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Rick says okay and asks about my upcoming soccer game.
Rick shows me a video. A boy that looks like he could be my age is playing outside his house, shooting some hoops, smiling. Suddenly, yelling comes from inside the house and the boy starts singing to himself. The ball dribbles faster and faster but the yelling keeps getting louder and louder. Then his dad comes out, slams the door, gets into his car and does not even look at him. At the end of the video, the boy throws the ball over the fence and just sits on the porch with his head down, looking at his shoes.
How do you think the boy feels? Rick asks, like he knew a secret I had yet to discover.
I think he is sad, I say, but then change my mind. No, I think he is angry. I can’t make up my mind and I tell him that I think he is both sad and angry.
What makes him sad and angry?
That his parents are fighting, I guess.
The boy’s sad because his parents are fighting?
No, that makes him angry!
Why is he sad then?
I say that the boy is sad because he thinks that it is his fault that his parents fight all the time. He thinks he’s a bad boy and that’s why his parents yell at each other.
What do you think the boy should do?
I say that I don’t know.
Maybe he could talk to someone? Rick insists.
No, I say, that would be embarrassing for the boy.
But if he’s sad, don’t you think it would be a good idea to ask for help?
No! Men don’t ask for help.
Rick says the boy is not a man. I say that he’s a little man and little men don’t cry and they don’t ask for help. I tell Rick that I have a ton of homework and that I need to leave early. He nods and says that’s fine, that he will see me next week.
* * *
For a week I can’t stop thinking about the boy, sitting at that porch while the world around him keeps getting smaller—the sky above him slashed with gray clouds. I want to hug him and tell him that everything’s going to be okay. Rick says that it’s very nice of me to want to comfort the boy. He asks me what else I would say to him.
I’m not sure, I answer.
What if the boy told you he thinks it’s his fault that his mom and dad are fighting?
I say that I would tell him I don’t think that’s true. Adults fight all the time about old people problems and it has nothing to do with the kids. Rick asks if I’m sure about that. I say that yes, I think so.
You are right! It is not the boy’s fault. As a matter of fact, children are never to blame when parents fight.
I nod, suspicious. I’m usually never right.
What about you?
What about me?
Do you think your parents fight because of you?
I look down, shrug and say that sometimes I do.
But you just said that it wasn’t the boy’s fault that their parents were fighting. Why should it be your fault, then?
I don’t know. I start lowering my head so that I can look at the floor but Rick stops me.
Look at me! You need to look at people when they are talking to you. Now listen. Your parents are going through a hard time, and they may fight sometimes because that’s how adults think they can solve their problems. But I want you to understand, it is never your fault. You cannot control what adults do or say. That’s not your job. Do you understand?
I nod slowly. I feel strange, like my chest is about to burst. I’m not sure what’s happening.
You can ask for help. It doesn’t make you any less of a man. It makes you human.
And something else, Rick continues, I want you to pay close attention to what I am about to say because it is very important. Always remember, no matter how much they fight, your parents love you very much. That will never change. Your brother and you are the most important people in the world to them. They may not always act like it, because parents are human and they can make mistakes. But they love you with all their hearts and they want what’s best for you.
Something breaks inside me. I try to stop the tears with my hands. Rick says that it is okay, that I can cry. I say no, that’s not true and I tell him what Papi says.
I’m sure your dad means well, but like I said before, parents don’t know everything and they can make mistakes just like everyone else. Crying does not make you less of a man. For example, what does your mom do when you fall from your bicycle and scrape your knee?
She cleans the wound with warm water.
Does it feel better?
Yes, it calms the pain.
Exactly! It works just the same with the wounds we have inside. Our warm tears help wash the sadness and anger away. If we hold our tears and words for too long, the wound gets infected and it will only hurt more and more. I bet your parents have told you that if your brother or you hurt yourselves when playing, you should ask an adult for help. It isn’t any different when we hurt inside. You can ask for help. It doesn’t make you any less of a man. It makes you human.
I nod. I take a deep breath. And then I cry.
I cry for Mami and Papi. I cry for my little brother and for me. I cry for my family. I cry because it hurts that my parents can’t be friends and I don’t want Papi to leave and I’m afraid I’ll never see him again. I tell all of this to Rick and he says that it’ll be okay. That now that I can talk about what hurts, the pain will get better. He says that I cannot control what my parents decide to do but that I can talk to them about my fears and tell them how I feel when they fight. He says to keep in mind that even though my mom and my dad are older than me, they are still learning how to deal with their problems. But that no matter what happens, I have to remember that they love me, that they will always be there for me, and that I should hold on to that.
* * *
A few weeks have passed and things have started to get better. My parents talked to Rick a few times and now they don’t fight as much. When they do, they make sure to come look for me, give me a hug and ask me if I’m okay. This isn’t something easy for Papi. At the beginning he didn’t want to meet with Rick but little by little, he’s becoming less uncomfortable when talking about things. He’s learning just like me and he now understands that it’s okay for a man to be sad sometimes and to want to talk about his problems with other people. I am stronger now because I can help my mom and my dad and give them hugs when I see that they’re sad. I don’t look at my shoes or the floor anymore when people ask me questions. I try to look straight into their eyes, answer their questions, and apologize if I have done something wrong.
That makes me brave, not weak.
That makes me un hombrecito.
Melanie Márquez Adams is an MFA candidate in Spanish creative writing and a recipient of the Iowa Arts Fellowship at the University of Iowa. Her short story collection, Mariposas Negras, won Third Place in the 2018 North Texas Book Festival Spanish Fiction Awards. Melanie’s work has appeared in storySouth, Dash, Whale Road Review, Asterix Journal, The Acentos Review, and elsewhere.
I was putting on my uniform when I first got the news, my red polo that won’t stop smelling like chicken grease no matter how many times I wash it, and the lingering stink of waffle fries. I told Rosie she was on speaker ‘cause I was getting ready for work, and she said, “Baby, that’s why I’m calling, and I’m telling you right now, you’re not gonna like it.” Can’t pretend I wasn’t shocked. Hurt. Felt dirtier in that uniform than I did after a shift. Felt used. Friends said, “They close on Sundays, of course they hate gay people.” But Mama preached behind the pulpit with her baritone voice my whole life, saying things like, “You can’t say God is perfect and God makes no mistakes and God created everything, then turn around and tell a person they were born wrong.” So I never assumed they had hate in their heart, is all I’m saying. I don’t like assuming anything about anyone I don’t know.
Ever since I can remember, at least twice a year, waking up on a Sunday and walking to church from our little parsonage, only to find “Faggots” or “Fag Lover” or “Fags Go to Hell” spray-painted on the doors.
They say ignorance is bliss and I guess they’re right, but Mama didn’t raise me like that. She wasn’t a preacher who wanted your brain left at the door. She wanted questions and research and asking, asking, asking until you got an honest answer, even if that answer was a truthful I don’t know. So when I heard they were donating to all those hate groups, my queer heart just had to see. Just had to look it up.
The Marriage & Family Legacy Fund and the National Christian Foundation and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Family Research Council and Exodus International and Focus on the Family and Jesus Lord Almighty, no. What are they doing in your name?
The Right got really eager online. “Tomorrow we get up and go, we go to our nearest location and show our support; we thank them for supporting true family values!” And I will never forget walking into work that day, the line so big it moved past the food court and snaked around the corner. Not sure why I was so surprised, what with where Mama and I live. Ever since I can remember, at least twice a year, waking up on a Sunday and walking to church from our little parsonage, only to find “Faggots” or “Fag Lover” or “Fags Go to Hell” spray-painted on the doors. Mama and I and whoever came that morning, our small congregation having church outside that day, painting those doors rainbow and singing hymns. The deacons and deaconesses passing out lemonade and Mama preaching her sermon while applying a second coat of yellow, amen.
But that was a terrible day, that never ending line, me slapping chicken between greasy buns, bagging and handing them off to people who’d smile and give me their “God bless” bull. Those same people who’d hate me had they known the truth, looking in my eyes and smiling like we were best friends or something, or even worse, the ones that said, “Thank you for doing God’s work.” And even my Republican friends behind the counter, laughing behind their backs like, “‘Doing God’s work?’ Didn’t even know about that marriage stuff until yesterday, good Lord.”
But the worst was when someone from our own church turned up, saw me and got all pink at the ears. “Sarah baby, I didn’t know you worked here.”
“Sure do,” I said, and made certain not to look him in the eye.
He got real close then, all whisper like, and to this day I’m not sure who he was protecting, his own reputation or mine. “Hun, I’m not here for any kind of political statement. You know how much I love you and your mama and even your Rosie. It’s just cheap and good and our favorite quick and easy, you know? It really don’t mean anything.”
“I know,” I said, but when I still didn’t look at him, he took the bag from my hand harder than he had to and leaned in even closer. “Not like you’re any better, working here and everything,” and stormed away. Mama and I haven’t seen him in church since.
All my life I’ve been so grateful for her, watching and fearing my friends with their fire and brimstone daddies, so grateful for my mama and her big heart. That’s the heart I don’t want hurting.
I was mad when it happened because I’d only just found out, too. Didn’t apply for the job knowing where all that money was going, but weeks have passed and I still haven’t quit. You see those mega churches on TV with those six-bedroom mansions to one married couple? Don’t let them fool you. Pastors don’t make that kind of money, only TV evangelicals who prey on the poor and vulnerable. Pastors in the real world are busy cutting coupons and dipping into their savings to pay a car bill, knowing deep down they won’t ever get to retire, not really, and see . . . it’s just me and Mama, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself. I don’t eat there on my breaks anymore, but you know who still does? Rosie. We fought over it just last week. And I know she’s not the only one of us who thinks the whole thing’s silly, likes to tell me boycotting’s no good anyway, and c’mon, Sarah, what’s the big deal?
I’ve been looking for another job, but it’s damn near impossible around here. Mama says to quit and protect my heart from hurting, but last week I saw her filling out applications for the gas station around the corner, and I will not let her do that, no ma’am. All my life I’ve been so grateful for her, watching and fearing my friends with their fire and brimstone daddies, so grateful for my mama and her big heart. That’s the heart I don’t want hurting. So I’m still here, still smiling and ringing up the same people that probably spray-painted our church’s doors, still pouring lemonade and ignoring Rosie’s calls, still serving up food that’s just as chicken as me.
Diana Clark is an elephant enthusiast and an MFA fiction candidate at UNCW, with special love for LGBTQIA+ literature, magical realism, and sci-fi. Her work has appeared in Crab Fat Magazine, Peach Mag, The Passed Note, Heavy Feather Review, Okay Donkey, Longleaf Review, and more. In 2015, her piece “Singed” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find her reading about pirates in Wilmington, North Carolina with her cat, Emily D.
Before I talk about Halloween and Corey Fisher and the two of us in the coat closet dressed as toilet paper mummies, let me start with Mom. Mom grew up in Chicago. As a teenager, she worked summers at Brookfield zoo. Head zookeeper of the petting zoo.
All her stories from that time start with “Once we had.”
“Once we had a baby elephant that stole a woman’s purse.”
“Once we had a baby kangaroo that jumped into a woman’s arms”
Once Mom bought me a pop-up book named Mammals of the World. I was five, earning a reputation as the “kissy girl” because I kissed Alfonso five times on the cheek. I asked another friend if I could see his underwear. Big deal. If my curiosity about Alfonso or the underwear had been a zoo, it would be that dinky fifteen acre “zoological park” in Amarillo with the boring Longhorns and Monkey Island.
When I was five, I opened Mammals of the World and saw a red panda. This curiosity was different than the underwear and kisses. It grew and grew until it became the size of the National Zoo. One hundred and sixty-three acres. An enclosure of pandas and Lemur Island. My life’s mission revealed itself. Become a zoo keeper. Live among the red pandas.
Now, I’m ten. Behind my belly button the call of the red pandas still purrs. And I hear it loudest when I steal glances at my friends’ bras and touch the logos on their chests.
The sounds are familiar. Thirty minutes ago familiar, when Corey Fisher walked in on me changing. Corey’s eyes widened as I stood before him, nipples bare as the swinging tits of the Monkey Island spider monkeys.
So what has me pulling at my fingernails tonight is whether or not I feel the purring with Corey Fisher. Corey Fisher who apparently forgets how to knock on a bedroom door before entering. Corey Fisher who said we should TP ourselves, hide in the coat closet, jump out, and scare the trick-or-treaters. He said that could be our act in the haunted house his mom and my mom have put together. Which is why his mom is standing at the front door, ready to greet the trick-or-treaters, while my mom waits down the hallway. And Corey and I are in the coat closet, ribs cage to cage, among my parents’ forgotten winter coats, rain slickers, and church jackets. One of Mom’s shoulder-padded jacket butts against my face. I punch it away. The jacket rebounds from the closet wall, hits my neck.
“Back! Stay back,” Corey says, elbowing a ski jacket. He’s eleven. He’s tall enough to reach the closet’s top shelf, where Mom keeps her animal hats. Flamingos, ducks, and crabs.
Once my family had a dog who liked to raid the guinea pig burial site. When we returned home, she gave herself away by hiding in the bedroom.
Since the incident, he hasn’t blushed, avoided, or apologized. I huff. Cross my arms and think about the autobiography Mom and I wrote for English homework last night. The paper started with Mammals of the World and ended with me becoming head keeper for the red pandas at the National Zoo.
Once, Corey told me that when he’s an adult, he’s going to own five chinchillas. I raise both my eyebrows at him. A house of chinchillas compared to a life spent among the red pandas—
“Do you hear that?” He says, interrupting my thoughts.
I shake the dust out of my head. “No, I don’t hear anything.”
“I think I hear someone coming up the breezeway!”
The doorbell rings.
“They’re here!” Corey sings, squeezing further back behind the ski jacket. I sigh and let the shoulder pad win the fight for my face. Mrs. Fisher opens the front door. There’s a chorus of kid-voices shouting, “Trick-or-Treat!”
She chimes, “Welcome to our haunted house.” She’s dressed as a pumpkin. She’s wearing a blimp, orange pillowcase with black triangle eyes and a mouth that would not get A+ stickers at the dentist.
Last year, Mrs. Fisher was my fourth-grade teacher. I met Corey when his family popped into our house for dinner. Surprise! My mom isn’t any regular PTA mom. Not only did she start up an animal program at my elementary school and organize ferrets, bearded dragons, even a chinchilla into the classrooms, but, then at the end of the school year, she invited my teacher over for dinner.
Mom and Mrs. Fisher became BFFs. Corey’s younger sister and my younger sister Kristin became BFFs. Corey and I are as close to BFFs as I can be with a boy that has cooties.
In the closet, we hear the shuffle of the trick-or-treaters coming inside. “I will be your tour guide for your stay here,” Mrs. Fisher says and lets out a throaty high-pitched cackle. One of the trick-or-treaters proclaims they’re not scared. I think just wait. Last year, Mrs. Fisher caught me pinching my friend Crystal’s butt, and I saw exactly how scary she could be.
“What do we have here?” Mrs. Fisher says. “A T-Rex and… a jackrabbit?”
“I’m a Jackalope,” the kid squeaks.
“Only in Texas.”
Corey starts jiggling his leg. “It’s almost time,” he whispers, even though it’s not. Mom still has her bit of the routine to do. I slump into the jacket’s shoulder pad. Rotate my head and gaze through my left eye at Corey. My belly starts to chatter and trill.
Once we had matching BFF rope bracelets, but now I don’t know what’s going on. I furrow my eyebrows and glare. You listen here, Corey Fisher, I think, I don’t know what zoo this curiosity with you is building, but this kissy girl only wants the National Zoo. I want to feed red pandas their daily 200,000 bamboo leaves. Pet their red fur. Feel my curiosity pop out from the imaginary of books and into the real.
In the entryway, Mrs. Fisher says, “And now, I want you to meet my sister.”
On cue, Mom goes “whoooo” from the hallway. She’s abandoned her baggy khakis and animal shirts and gone rogue, borrowing a red belly dance costume, which she threw over a white turtle neck and leggings. I picture all five feet ten inches of her dancing down the hallway, her long legs like stilts. Permed duck fluff crowns her head.
“Hellooooo,” Mom moans to the trick-or-treaters. “I’m the older sister, Genie.” No one lectured Mom to be scary. We figured the turtleneck was frightening enough. “I want to introduce you to another member of our family.”
Well-rehearsed, Corey and I know now is when Mom pulls a picture frame from behind her back. She slowly rotates the frame to show the trick-or-treaters my dead grandfather.
The audience gasps.
“This is our Dad!” Mom howls.
“Oh, how we miss him!” shrieks Mrs. Fisher.
“He died seven years ago!” Mom wails.
Corey pokes my ribs. “It’s almost time,” he whispers. Excitement runs like static electricity from his squirming arms to the ski jacket to the shoulder pad to my face. My belly starts to chatter and bellow. The sounds are familiar. Thirty minutes ago familiar, when Corey Fisher walked in on me changing. Corey’s eyes widened as I stood before him, nipples bare as the swinging tits of the Monkey Island spider monkeys.
When I was five, I opened Mammals of the World and saw a red panda. This curiosity was different than the underwear and kisses.
For a second, I was lock-limbed. When I snapped awake, I laughed and told Corey to get out. I dove headfirst into a long-sleeved shirt. The door shut. Against the itchy fabric, I heard the bellowing of whatever was caught in my stomach.
And now, with those same sounds whirring in my belly, clarity comes to me as a zoo park map spread behind my eyes.
The chattering—Monkey Island. The bellowing—the long horn cows. My eyes fly open. I see Corey with his hand on the door handle. I step away from him, back into the shoulder pad. No, I think. This kissy girl isn’t going anywhere.
“Now,” Mrs. Fisher says. “There’s one more member of our family we want you to meet. You’ve met my sister Genie…”
“Ooooooooo,” sings Mom.
Mrs. Fisher inhales. In that pause I imagine all the mummy toilet paper falling away. I imagine stepping instead into a zoo keeper costume. Khaki pants. Green shirt with white National Zoo lettering.
Laura, Keeper of Red Pandas. Kissy girl no longer.
“Now, we want you to meet the last member of our family. Meet our mummy!”
The red panda keeper leaps ahead of Corey. She jumps out of the closet, raises her arms, and screams, “BOO.”
All the zoo sounds from my belly stampeded into the entryway. The shrieks from the children. The high-pitched peals of Mrs. Fisher’s laughter. Corey wheezing as he doubles over on the floor. My mother’s throaty wailing.
In my autobiography, I became a zoo keeper like my mom. I got married. My husband and I moved together to Nepal so I could study red pandas in the wild.
What if your husband just died, Mom had asked while we were writing. Wouldn’t that be so weird and funny? Yes, yes, yes, I’d said, howling. That would be hilarious.
We wrote the scene like this: one day, my husband and I were in the forest, scouting for red pandas. Then soldiers appeared. They shot him.
I spent my life living among the red pandas.
Mrs. Fisher hands the trick-or-treaters their Kit-Kats and Reese’s. Corey snatches a handful of candy for himself and dashes into the coat closet. “C’mon Laura,” he calls. “I think I hear the next batch.”
Instead, I step toward Mom. I take her hand. Mom twirls me under her puffy, red belly-dancer sleeve. I spin in the orange light and know that at the next sleepover, I’ll ask my friends to show me their bras. I’ll ask them to show me their arm pit hair.
The next wave of trick-or-treaters comes up the breezeway. Mrs. Fisher says, “Quick, quick, get in your places,” so I skip over to the coat closet as Mom dances back up the hallway. Corey perches next to the shoulder pad. I stand by the door. I put my hand on the handle. Hear the wild red panda purr of my stomach. “Welcome to our haunted house,” cackles Mrs. Fisher. Laura, Keeper of the Red Pandas, grins.
Laura is a queer writer from the Texas Panhandle. She is currently residing in the Idaho Panhandle, and in addition to cooking with pans with handles, enjoys teaching theater to elementary students and co-hosting Moscow’s first queer reading series: POP-UP PROSE. To read more of her work, check out the NonBinary Review or The Manifest-Station and her Patreon page: patreon.com/lauragould and sign up if you’d like to receive her monthly stories in the mail.
Katie turned up her music and pressed her headphones against her ears. It didn’t help; she still heard her brother yelling in the hallway, pacing, slamming his fists into the bannister. He stomped up the hall, slammed twice, stomped back, slammed three times. Repeat, repeat. Until he stopped panicking. Until he exhausted himself.
Her mother murmured down the hall and her brother roared in response. Ben never hurt anyone else. He was a yeller and a smasher, and sometimes hurt himself, punching his fist into his forehead over and over. But he had never hurt her or their mom. Still, Katie felt sick every time.
Her mom spoke again, this time closer to the door, loud enough that Katie could hear actual words now. Her mom apologized to Ben, explained in soft words. He groaned but slowed down. Katie pictured how tight his neck and arm muscles were. Pictured him shaking his head and fluttering his fingers in front of his mouth.
All of a sudden a sharp rebuke: “Do not go into Katie’s room, Ben!”
That would set him off all over again, so Katie bolted to the door and opened it, pretending to be surprised to see him.
“Hey! I need your help with something. Are you busy?” She grabbed her laptop off her bed and handed it to him.
Katie pictured how tight his neck and arm muscles were. Pictured him shaking his head and fluttering his fingers in front of his mouth.
“What? Okay.” He was confused but distracted. Good. Her mom stuck her head in and Katie motioned her away. She held out her hand to her brother.
“Can I touch your arm?”
He nodded, his shoulders lowering and his fists unclenching. She pressed her hand firmly into the top of his forearm. “Come over and look at my running mix? I’m stuck and you always pick the best songs.”
Ben walked straight to her desk and sat down. He opened her laptop and examined her incomplete playlist for Saturday’s race.
“Katie, this has no flow. This is terrible.” His blunt assessment was classic Ben, but she heard a hint of eagerness underneath his words. The hour-long meltdown was over. This was a job, a puzzle to solve, and her brother lived for this stuff.
“I’ll fix it for you.” He picked up the laptop and started walking out.
“You’re supposed to ask me. We need to be on the same page, remember?”
“Ah, right. Sorry, Katie.” Ben peeked at her face, observing, evaluating, and she knew he was trying to figure out if she was mad. “You wanted me to fix this, right? It’s okay that I take it and fix it?”
“Yes, big brother. I want you to fix it. Make the songs really good. I need ten miles of inspiration.” She opened her arms wide and he grimaced and laughed at the same time. “Oh, come on. Please?”
“Katie, gross, no.” But he kept laughing.
“I’m totally going in for a hug!” She made snuggly arms in his direction, and he yelped and took off out the door and down the hall. Six foot three inches of skinny, anxious brother fleeing her embrace.
And now the night was okay. Her mom stood in the hall, watching Katie with a tired expression.
“You’re so good with him.”
“He’s mad about camp, huh?” Katie asked, ignoring the resentment in her mom’s voice.
“Yes. Dr. Kelly says he needs it, though.” Her mom sank onto her bed and put her head on Katie’s shoulder.
“I’ll talk to him later,” Katie said.
“Thank you. You’re the best.”
Katie patted her mom’s back awkwardly. She wished she would do something mom-ish instead of needing to be soothed.
“You finished your homework?” That felt a little better.
“Yeah, Ava and I did it after school.”
“Great. I’ll leave you be, then.”
“Okay,” Katie said.
She pulled her headphones back on as her mom left. Ben was right. The music was uninspiring. Each song sounded the same.
She jumped up from her bed, her heart racing all over again. She tore off her headphones and glared at her brother, who stood in the doorway, waving his arms.
“What is your problem, Ben?? You gave me a heart attack!”
“Well you’re alive, so I seriously doubt I gave you a heart attack. Also, I called you ten times. I need to ask you some questions about your race.”
She took a deep breath. “Okay. Questions. Try to talk quietly. You’re freaking me out tonight.”
“I’m sorry.” He sat down next to her, his eyes wide. “Are you really freaking out? Was it my yelling? When I was mad at Mom?” His anxiety bubbled out in fluttering, clutching fingers.
“It’s okay. Don’t stress.” Katie could not soothe one more person tonight.
“I’m not laughing at you.” She hugged him back—hard, the only way he could handle an embrace. “I’m laughing because today was the worst and you’re the only person who can ever make me feel better.”
Ben took a deep breath and put her laptop on the floor.
“What are you doing?” she asked, reaching for it, when all of a sudden, his arms engulfed her. “AHHHH! BEN!”
“You’re freaking out, so I’m hugging you to make you feel better!” He squeezed so hard she could barely breathe, and she grabbed his arms to loosen his hold.
She looked up at his earnest, solemn face and burst out laughing. He frowned. She laughed harder and couldn’t stop, even as he grew annoyed.
“You shouldn’t laugh at a person who is choosing your happiness over their own comfort,” he informed her haughtily, dropping his arms.
“I’m not laughing at you.” She hugged him back—hard, the only way he could handle an embrace. “I’m laughing because today was the worst and you’re the only person who can ever make me feel better.”
“Oh,” he said, then smiled and picked up her laptop. “See, I’m good for something!”
“Ben, you’re good for almost everything.” Katie gave him one last squeeze and let go. “So what did you want to ask me?”
“I’m going through songs mile by mile. Two or three songs per mile based on your pace. And I want to know which miles you expect to be harder than others, so I know when to use longer ones.”
Oh, Ben. He was quite literally the only person on this planet who consistently cared about what was best for her. Her heart thumped.
She gave him her race plan and he worked quietly next to her. Searching and typing, finding the songs he knew would be just right. His unyielding focus was his superpower in tasks like this, so Katie knew better than to interrupt. She curled up behind him on her bed, listening to her underwhelming music, and zoned out as she watched him work.
She felt cozy and safe for the first time all day. And when she drifted to sleep, it was an easy, mellow repose, with dreams of her and Ben as little kids.
Hannah Grieco is a writer and education and disability advocate in Arlington, VA. Her work can be read in Washington Post’s “On Parenting,” Huffington Post, Motherly, Arlington Magazine, Hobart Pulp, and Scout Media’s 2019 anthology A Flash of Words.
Since coming here, the bright red-orange of my skin has begun to fade into a washed out but stubborn stain. The gold of my eyes, too, has dulled to a yellowish brown.
This place—they call it a school. We’ve been here almost a year now, and on my first day of class, as we sat in the rows of desks facing a woman with colorless skin and yellow hair, I raised my hand and asked, “Why is it spelled with an h?”
She blinked at me. Those strangely colored eyes—blue, they call it. “What, honey?”
I wanted to ask what honey was too, but I knew it was better to go one question at a time. “Why does school have an h in it if we don’t pronounce it?”
She smiled at me as though I’d finally discovered some far-flung moon that she’d known about for ages now. “That’s because it’s a silent letter, honey.”
A silent letter. Who had ever heard of such a ridiculous thing? That’s what I thought then, except now I am beginning to think differently. I like silent letters, how they hide within words and within sounds, the way you cannot see them in speech but you know they’re there. If you don’t know the silent letters in a word, then you don’t really know the word at all.
I have silent letters in me, too, I think. Things I have tucked away in my mind that the teachers and doctors can’t see. I can do nothing about the loss of my red-orange coloring or the golden glow of my eyes, but my memories—I can hold on to them, as best I can, for as long as I can. I clutch at them in desperation, as though my sheer force of will can keep them alive in my mind.
* * *
In the dark of our dormitory, everyone is stirring restlessly. The low rumble of thunder drives the fearful youngest girls to me, and I am sitting up in my bed with children in my lap. They are too young to remember that this thunder heralds the coming of the red rains. Too young to recall the time before they came—the colonists from Earth.
I whisper about the night sky after the red rains—a sky so black and clear and glittering that it kissed the breath right out of my mouth.
“Mar…Mar…” someone whimpers as thunder rattles the building. I hear pattering feet running down the aisle, and a little girl crawls up into my bed beside me. Emily.
Mar. They mean Margaret, which is and is not my name. The school assigned us names when we arrived, sullen-faced, teary-eyed. Fearful, wary. I am Margaret, my brother Harry, and some days I almost forget I was ever called anything else, in a language utterly different from English. But living at school, constantly hearing and reading and speaking and writing in English, I have begun to lose my mother tongue. But I suppose Margaret is not too terrible of a name—mostly because it contains within it Mar. Almost like Mars, which is the name the colonists call this planet. My home. I would like to think that even in unnaming and renaming me, the colonists have failed to erase who I am, where I come from.
A loud crack of thunder startles someone into crying. Lightning illuminates the dormitory in stark, harsh whiteness. In the flash, I see that all the older girls, like me, are sitting up in bed. Their faces are turned towards the window, their faces hungry. Waiting. We remember what the red rains are like.
“Shh,” I whisper to the crying girl, smoothing her hair. The littlest ones don’t speak anything but English now, but when they first came they hardly spoke it at all. I, having the best grasp on English out of all of us, helped them along, and since then they have always clung to me. “Shh. It’s the red rains coming.”
I lean forwards and begin to tell the little girls congregated around me about what it was like before the Earth colonists came. In all honesty, even my own memories of that long-gone era are limited and fading into fantastical glimmers, but I do my best. I whisper into the dark about the canals, how they filled to the brim once a year when the red rains came in wonderful torrents, how we all went swimming. This, I do remember. How could I not? The cool water, the splashing and laughing, all of us washing reddish dust from our skin and faces. My mother’s hair fanning out around her head as she floated. My brother spewing a stream of water from his mouth at me, his eyes bright and glimmering with excitement.
I whisper about the night sky after the red rains—a sky so black and clear and glittering that it kissed the breath right out of my mouth. My father and I would stand on the red rocks or climb the crimson dunes to marvel at the stars. They all had names and stories, but I’ve forgotten.
“Mar?” A thin, high voice.
“Yes?” I say.
“Will we get to go and play in the canals too?”
I close my eyes. Thunder calls out again in its booming, commanding voice, summoning me to come outside and dance in the red rains, to soak the color back into my fading skin, and I ache with the longing.
The answer is, of course, no. The time of playing in canals and standing on the dunes is over now. I take the little girl’s hand and stay silent. I don’t have the heart to tell the truth. I don’t have the heart to tell a lie that will only disappoint.
* * *
The colonists came without warning, one day, simply dropping out of the sky. I was inside, chattering to my mother about what my friend and I were planning to do for her birthday, when a deafening roaring exploded into the air and there was a crash so loud and strong it swallowed up every other sound. A wave of force, a ripple coursing through the ground beneath our feet, threw us down roughly. Dazed, I watched a great cloud of red-orange dust engulf the world. I remember coughing so hard that tears came to my eyes, the feel of the gentle weight of my mother’s trembling hand resting on my back. I remember the moment I finally drew in a breath and could breathe, remember thinking I’m alive, not knowing…not knowing, not knowing what was coming.
We ventured outside, hand-in-hand, my mother gripping me so hard I thought all the bones in my fingers would splinter and shatter. She had lovely skin, my mother—a deep scarlet, with an undercurrent of bright copper.
The cloud of dust thinned. All our neighbors were there too, gathered around nervous and dusty before a strange thing of metal and wire and who knew what else. A spaceship, later, is what I learned it was called. But I didn’t know that then, and English was strange and foreign, that day when the spaceship came and the hatch opened slowly with a hiss. I wanted to laugh when I saw them, climbing out in bulky white suits, their heads encased in what looked like bubbles.
After a moment, one of the beings lifted a hand in greeting and spoke, a crackly transmitted voice breaking the silence.
* * *
From Earth, with peace. That was the first line the Earth colonists spoke, though of course we didn’t understand it then. That is the line now written on our dormitory doors, painted on our classroom walls, and blinking on the screens in the doctors’ offices. But those words were not supposed to be the first ones spoken on Mars, I learned. The first words were supposed to be the same words uttered by some other space traveler from Earth, Neil something-or-other, who had either strong arms or legs. I can never remember which. I asked a doctor about it once when I went for my check-up, and he only laughed at me. The doctors like me, because they like the fading color of my skin and eyes. They like that they have successfully corrected my gait.
Corrected. They don’t know that I only walk the way they want me to so I can avoid having to go back to the physical therapist. But in the dormitory, at night, when the matron has turned the light out and left the room, I loop around the beds to comfort the littlest girls and walk in our usual loping, sloping gait. I refuse to lose that, too.
From Earth, with peace—an improvised line, because the colonists had no idea we already lived on Mars. I, too, improvise, as I tell the girls stories about the stars and give them silly names. I say when the stars cry from laughing so hard, their tears fall down to Mars as the red rains.
“Only once a year,” I whisper. “Stars are so serious that it’s hard to get them to laugh that hard.”
The first rain drops, fat and ruby colored, splatter against the window. My mother’s face swims before my eyes. My brother, howling into the sky with glee, pointing at the churning clouds as the rain pours down.
Someone gets up. I hear her feet hit the floor, and as she passes by my bed, I recognize her. Veronica. We were best friends once, before we were turned into Veronica and Margaret, before she stopped speaking altogether when we came to the school. She won’t walk the way they want her to. They send her back, over and over again, to the therapist.
Much of her extended family has managed to avoid the fate which has befallen the rest of us. In the days after the colonists first arrived, the leaders and councils met to discuss and debate, so heatedly it’s a surprise they didn’t spark a wildfire. Some, wary and mistrustful of the newcomers from Earth, wanted us to all disappear, migrating to the mountains or going underground into the ancient tunnels. Some, including my parents, argued that it would be best to coexist with the colonists, who seemed peaceful and harmless enough. My mother pitied them, those poor weak-lunged souls who struggled to breathe our air properly. We ought to help them, and maybe they can help us too.
With horror, the colonists pointed to our red-orange skin, our elongated limbs and faces, our four-fingered hands, the loping gait with which we walked. Discolored. Disfigured. Disabled. Or so they said.
My family stayed. So did Veronica’s, but most of her relatives left to go underground, where cities now unfold beneath the unsuspecting colonists’ feet. We should have gone too, but it was too late by the time we realized that the kind of help the colonists wanted to offer us was not the kind we wanted or needed. They had censuses, registration, numbers to keep track, charts about population growth. We could no longer merely disappear without attracting attention and search parties and investigations.
I watch Veronica make her way to the far end of the room. She stands on tiptoes and unlatches the window as the pane rattles from the rumbling thunder. Her hands are shaking as she opens the window and reaches out to let droplets fall on her palm. A gust of wind blasts in and I draw in a deep breath, desperately trying to fill my lungs with cold, rain-scented air, so different from the sterilized thin oxygen we breathe in here. The wind smells of the dunes, and I think I can even feel some of the dust on my skin.
When the rains come, the underground rivers will swell and overflow, and perhaps there will be dancing and swimming and singing in the tunnels.
Not so for us.
* * *
They came to take us away a year ago. Before that, for a while already, we had been going to English classes the colonists facilitated, and although I knew vaguely that ours was an uneasy peace, I was blissfully unconcerned. The teachers were kind and friendly, the new language enthralling, and as one of the fastest learners, I took home spelling and grammar tests decorated with gold stars.
But then something happened, something which knocked every gold star out of the sky of my imagination and slapped the smiles off my teachers’ faces. A doctor happened to test a child for a disease and found, instead, high levels of a chemical in his skin and hair. From lab results, the colonists argued that the chemical was in our water, in our red rain—a chemical that discolored, disfigured, and disabled.
With horror, the colonists pointed to our red-orange skin, our elongated limbs and faces, our four-fingered hands, the loping gait with which we walked. Discolored. Disfigured. Disabled. Or so they said.
There were rumors of children being seized and taken away in the name of sanitation and schooling, a secular sort of salvation intended to ensure that following generations might be whole and healthy. I watched my parents worry and whisper night after night. They kept my brother and me from going to our English classes, and as fear wrapped its noose around my neck, my brother and I took to sleeping huddled up so that if we were taken in the night, we would at least be taken together.
But it was morning when they came, announcing themselves by way of a raucous knocking on the door. My father froze and shouted, “Coming! Coming!” in accented English while my mother herded my brother and me into a cupboard. My hands were sweating and trembling, and I held my breath. I remember my brother pressing a crumbling rock into my palm as though somehow he had known we would be torn from the land we knew and loved, and I brought it to my nose, breathing in the familiar smell of Mars while unfamiliar, unfriendly footsteps stomped around outside. Loud voices. Slamming. Where are the children? The question punched me right in the gut; it slammed its fist into the table, and then the cupboard doors were wrenched open and light poured in. I was screaming, thrashing, as rough hands descended on me in an iron grip. The world blurred through my tears. My mother’s hands, reaching for mine, knocked away. My brother shrieking my name. My father, asking, “Where? Where?” Where are you taking them? I bit my tongue on accident, pain exploding in my mouth, the taste of salt and blood as I choked on a scream.
* * *
The rock my brother gave me—I dropped it, somehow, in the scuffle, but it would have been confiscated anyway. At the school, I stood in a line with other girls in the cold inspection hall, shivering. My hands were coated in red dust from the rock.
It took three teachers and a doctor to make me wash my hands.
* * *
The rain falls harder, singing a humming song that intensifies. Veronica puts her wet hands to her cheeks.
The dormitory stirs as thunder bellows triumphantly and lightning cracks the world in two. Wind blows rain into the room, and dozens of feet hit the floor all at once as we all run towards the open window. The older girls hold the younger ones, helping them reach the window and cup their hands to catch the rainwater, before they themselves lean dangerously far out to let the rain run down their faces like tears after a long and weary day. Someone is singing, though the rain carries the words away, and from where I stand, I can only hear the ghost of a melody.
I tremble with anticipation as the crowd shifts and I move forward. The silent letters in me stir like desert flowers waking up from the dry season, unfurling shriveled leaves towards a sky heavy with rain. I am so parched. I didn’t know it till now, how much of a desert this place is—I’ve kept my focus on surviving, on holding on to what I can, for so long that I didn’t realize I was clutching dry bones. Everything in me is crying out now, begging for the red rains to pour over them and make them like new, pleading that I sing them out into the storm.
At the window at last, the wind blasts my hair back and kisses my face with rain, welcoming me into its embrace. I cling to the windowsill. I want the storm to tuck me into the crook of its elbow and cradle me, rock me. Is it tears or rain that runs down my face?
I uncurl my fingers from the sill. A door opens, slams. I reach out a shaking hand towards the rain. Footsteps. Cold, lovely drops fall hard and fast into my open palm like gems and I open my mouth to laugh or to weep, I don’t know which, and then someone yanks me back by the shoulders, shouting, “Margaret!” and I am knocked aside onto the floor.
The matron screams, “Don’t you know how dangerous this rain is?” She slams the window shut. The force of it is enough to jolt silent letters out of their places. To rattle them. To cast them on frigid tile and dash them into pieces.
Outside, the rain knocks on the window pane, asking to come in.
Chihye Naomi Kim is currently a sophomore at Brown University studying English. Her writing appears in Post- and Cornerstone, both publications at Brown University. Two of her short stories have been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards with a National Silver medal and a National Gold medal.
Dad and I move wicker baskets from our van to the tent. Dad’s jerking baskets too hard. Apples fall out and roll across pavement.
“Strawberries go on the short table,” I say. He’d placed them on the higher table, where we put the jam display.
“Move them then,” he grunts. He pulls out another basket. He isn’t talking much. He had to drink a pot of coffee just to drive here.
I switch the strawberry flats and jam, making sure the jam labels face toward customers. Puddles spot the brick path that circles the farmers’ tents, but the sky has some blue spots. Maybe customers will stick their necks out from under their logs. Mom used to say that, last summer, and every summer I can remember, when she led market day. She died in March from breast cancer.
“We need the tent flaps,” I tell Dad. The green flaps, which attach to the tent sides, hang down so rain won’t get on the produce or us.
“Left them at home,” Dad says. He heaves out the final basket. “We’ll be fine.”
“You’ll be fine. I’ll get wet.”
Dad drops the basket, hard. He probably bruised the apples. He stretches out a hand. “It’s not raining. And it’s not forecasted to rain.”
“And forecasts are always right.” I want him to tell me to stop being sarcastic. He hasn’t corrected me in months.
A black-haired girl and her lip-pierced boyfriend squat to smell strawberries. My dad turns, yanks his jacket off the back door of the van, and puts it on. Like me, he hates talking to customers. We both like farm work—tilling, weeding, picking apples, pruning. But he told me this year I was in charge at the market. “This is all I’m asking you to do,” he said.
“I’m going to rest,” he says. “Don’t leave the stand.”
“Where else would I go?” I ask.
Last week, I heard Dad tell Grandpa over the phone that he’d put nonorganic fertilizer on the orchard next year. He said organic produce hadn’t done Mom any good. Mom had argued that cancer was complicated. I wasn’t sure who was right.
The driver’s side door slams. Inside the car, Tug, our small black mutt, whines. We got him a year ago, when Mom said she needed some happy thing around when Dad and I weren’t home. I wish Tug could hang out outside with me, but he can’t be near the food.
Across the way, at the McCulla stand, Cody, a kid my age, unloads baskets of lettuce. He doesn’t have to stay. Soon he’ll be skateboarding, eating at a food cart, or hanging out by the river. Last year, I went with him. I learned to skate a bit. We poked around a bookstore. This morning he hasn’t looked at me.
Some older lady approaches. Her beady eyes seem familiar. She looks me over like she’s here to buy me.
“How are you, Hayley?” she asks. “It’s Cecilia, remember? Our daughter had a baby, so we’re visiting.” She purses her lips. “You look so much older, dear.”
“Hi.” Is it a compliment that I look older? I don’t think she meant it as one.
“How are your parents?”
I throw a thumb over my shoulder. “My dad’s in the van. Can I help you?”
“And you’re manning the stand. You’ll be just like your mom soon.”
She’s wrong. I’ll never be like my mom. And this lady only knows my name because my mom had never met a stranger.
“I’ll take this bag of apples and this,” Cecilia says. Her vein-ridden hands cover a quart of strawberries.
I charge her three dollars for the strawberries and weigh the apples. “First of the season,” I say, meaning the strawberries, not the apples. The apples are from last fall.
“You sound like your mother,” she says.
That is something my mom would have said. I don’t want to repeat her. I already hear her sayings every day, like song lyrics I can’t get out of my head.
Cecilia takes the paper bag full of produce. “Tell your mom I said hello. Next time, we’ll bring our grandson with us.”
If I give her encouragement, she’ll pull out the kid’s picture. I step under the tent and check Dad’s cell phone. “Sure. Have a good day.”
It’s only 9:30. Still over two hours. And I’m already hungry. I chew hard on my gum.
Cody’s gone from the McCulla stand. He’s probably getting food.
Some tall lady with manicured nails steps under our tent. “Is your produce organic?” she asks.
A USDA organic sign hangs on our tent pole. “Yeah,” I say, pointing.
She punctures an apple with a nail. “You sure? These apples seem small.”
I cross my arms. Organic doesn’t mean large and without blemishes. My mom explained this so many times, always patient, but on the way home, she’d laugh. “When will they understand that natural doesn’t mean perfect?”
“If you want your produce to look good get it at the grocery store. Organic produce tastes better and is better for you, but it goes bad faster and is smaller and weirdly shaped and has more bruises.” I use my rudest tone of voice, hoping she’ll go away
“Is one of your parents here?” she asks. “I have questions about organic farming.”
I sigh. Last week, I heard Dad tell Grandpa over the phone that he’d put nonorganic fertilizer on the orchard next year. He said organic produce hadn’t done Mom any good. Mom had argued that cancer was complicated. I wasn’t sure who was right.
“Excuse me? Can I speak with one of your parents?”
“I’ll get my dad.” I don’t care if I wake him.
I open the driver’s side door. The seat’s tilted back. His shirt, hiked up, reveals black, matted stomach hair.
“Dad,” I shake his shoulder. “Dad. Some lady has questions.”
He opens his eyes but wakes slowly. I’m used to this. On Friday nights he sits in his recliner and drinks himself silly. “Only on Fridays,” he tells me when he brings home a case of beer. “They can’t worry if it’s only on Fridays.”
“A lady has questions,” I say again.
“Can’t you answer them?” He’s bothered, but not mad. I wonder if punching him would do it.
He shakes his head, hard. As Dad steps outside, Tug jumps into Dad’s warm seat and rolls over. Before I shut the door, I give him a scratch on the belly.
The lady yells Dad a question before he reaches the stand. He answers it, and she shoots him another. I bet she’s one of those customers who want to know organic farming so she can brag at some book club. For me, the conversation’s an opportunity to escape. I slip away, hoping to find Cody.
I pick up an apple and push my thumb into its bruises. I throw it at the back of our van. It bangs against the tinted window. I throw three more before Dad comes out.
I walk downhill, jump over puddles, zigzag in and out of one-way streets. It’s started misting. I pull my beanie lower, over my eyebrows. Soon, I’m among a block of food carts. I circle them, looking for Cody. I finally find him skulking around some bike racks. I cross my arms and stand on a nearby greenway, pushing raindrops off blades of grass with my tennis shoe.
Bikes pack the racks. A few dogs are tied on it, too. Rubber bands hang off Cody’s wrist. A beagle paws at his mouth, trying to get something off. Cody kneels next to a miniature poodle and begins to cinch its mouth shut with a rubber band. I can’t believe it.
“What’re you doing?” I ask.
His shoulders jerk around, his face calm. “Leave me alone.”
“They can’t breathe very well. And they can’t bark.” I start to walk around Cody to the beagle, but he blocks me with his body.
“How many dogs have you done this to?” I ask. Cody doesn’t answer. I pull off my beanie and smack him in the eyes. I’ve heard people have gone blind this way. I hope I can blind him.
“Jesus,” Cody says. He doubles over, hands over face. I pull the rubber band off the beagle’s month and scratch behind its ears. Cody stands and turns. I flick the rubber band toward his head. He blocks it with his hand.
“Stop hurting the dogs.”
“They’re not your dogs.”
“They’re someone’s dogs.”
“I’m not hurting you.” He smirks. “Didn’t your dad tell you not to leave the stand?”
“Shut up.” I reach for the rubber bands on his wrist. He smacks my arm away.
A man, unleashing his dog, looks over. Cody and I both glance his way. “This kid—” I say.
“Shut up,” Cody says.
He takes off running in one direction, I in another. I jog through the market, passing tents selling jewelry and incense and jackets. Once I hit the streets, I head uphill, jaywalking back and forth. I want to hold Tug and bury my face in his fur. He’s the only thing that’s comforted me since Mom died.
Back at our stand four people are waiting. Dad’s nowhere to be seen.
I weigh produce and say what people owe. If I talk too much I’ll cry. Before too long customers are wandering away. Vendors punch out water from their sagging canvas tent tops. One quart of our strawberries, jam, and a dozen apples remain. Cody hasn’t returned.
I take a few strawberries and squash them until it looks like my hands are covered in blood. “Look Mom I’m bleeding,” I used to say, holding out strawberry-covered hands. She knew me too well; I could never trick her. I grab more strawberries, throw them on the pavement, and smash them with my shoe. I drag my foot underneath the tent. Red streaks start strong and fade, like wet bike tire tracks. I toss down another handful and make more lines across the pavement.
A white-haired vendor, packaging up goat cheese, stares.
“Leftovers,” I tell her.
“They were perfectly fine,” she says. “I hope you’ll clean up.”
I squat and squeeze a few bruised apples. These weren’t perfectly fine; Dad had ruined them by not being gentle. I remember when I helped pick apples for the first time. I dropped them on top of one another into the barrels. “Set them down gently,” Dad had said.
I pick up an apple and push my thumb into its bruises. I throw it at the back of our van. It bangs against the tinted window. I throw three more before Dad comes out. His black hair sticks up. He glances at the red streaks on the pavement and the chunks of apples. I aim another apple at the window. It bounces against it, then off Dad’s head.
“What the hell?”
“Oh, hi. I thought you were asleep.”
“You’re ruining good produce.”
“You ruined it first. Throwing the baskets around.”
Dad steps toward me and grabs a shoulder. I shrug away.
“You’re making a scene,” he says. “There’s no need to make a scene here.”
“You don’t want me to make a scene anywhere.” I cross my arms and glance at the goat-cheese lady, then at my strawberry-stained tennis shoes. Dad’s staring at me.
I look up. “We’re gonna lose money this summer because Mom’s not here.”
Dad looks down and touches his shoe against the red.
We toss the smashed fruit in a garbage bag for our compost pile. We put away the cash box, the leftover produce, the signs, the tent. Every item has its own spot in the van. We’ve done this with Mom so many times.
I walk to the van, open the passenger’s side, and climb in. Tug’s curled on the driver’s seat, and I pet him. I close my eyes and don’t open them when the driver’s side door opens and shuts or when Tug jumps onto the floor. Dad’s breath is labored, like he just picked barrels of apples. I’m also breathing hard. I take my beanie from my back pocket, put it on, and pull it low over my eyes.
His breath slows. I peek at him. He’s clenching the bottom of the steering wheel and staring at rain streaks on the windshield. I pet Tug with my shoe.
Three years ago I had an outburst like this. Dad spanked me with a spatula. I was a bratty kid sick of chores who had uprooted unripe carrots. He must know I’m older now, that this is such a different thing.
“It’s been a hard year,” he says. “It’s amazing that we have a crop.” He runs his hands up and down the steering wheel.
I move into the center seat, where I used to sit between him and Mom. Tug jumps into the passenger’s seat. Dad’s hands drop off the wheel. I want to lean against him, and for him to put his arm around me. Instead, I place a hand on Tug’s head.
We’re all sitting like this when some market monitor knocks on the driver’s side window. My dad cracks his door. “We’ll pick it up and be gone by one, like every week,” he says. The market monitor leaves.
My dad says he’ll pick up the strawberry pieces if I get the apples. I tell him I can handle that. We toss the smashed fruit in a garbage bag for our compost pile. We put away the cash box, the leftover produce, the signs, the tent. Every item has its own spot in the van. We’ve done this with mom so many times.
After everything is stowed, we get in the car. Dad drives a few yards, and stops. We both look back, like we do every week, to make sure we didn’t leave anything.
“Strawberry juice,” I say.
“Don’t worry. The rain will wash it off.”
I don’t know if I believe him. Mom could never get strawberry stains off my shirts. But maybe pavement is different. I hope so.
On our hour drive home Tug sits in my lap. I stare out my window. Dad keeps glancing over. Maybe he’s thinking about me. That would make me happy. I pull down the visor and open its mirror to see if there’s any happiness in my eyes.
Rachel King is a writer and editor who lives in her hometown, Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in One Story, Flyway, the Concho River Review, Farallon Review, Ashland Creek Press’s Among Animals 2 anthology, and the Museum of Americana. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poetry chapbook Between Work and Light is available from Dancing Girl Press. Find out more at booksrachelking.com.
Liz: Happy new year!!!
Alyssa: Not yet here ☹ What’s the future like?
Liz: Wild. People are leaving this party in hovercars. Pretty sure we just achieved world peace. We all have teleportation bracelets now.
Alyssa: Great! So you can come celebrate with me?
Liz: I wish!
Isaac drops onto the couch beside me. We’re in Nicole’s family’s den along with most of the sophomore class. Isaac swings his legs up onto my lap, and I almost shove him off, but his eyes are drooping closed and he looks almost sweet. As sweet as Isaac can look.
“Who’re you texting? Everyone you know is here.”
“Maybe that’s why I need to be on my phone,” I say, poking his knee. “To get away from all of y’all.”
“More like to get away from me.” He turns his head to the side so his voice comes out pillow-muffled. “Hurts, Lyssa.”
Now I do want to shove his legs off. But I’m pretty sure he’s asleep, all of a sudden. And maybe drunk. He didn’t mean it. He might not even remember saying it tomorrow, and knowing Isaac, even if he does he’ll pretend he doesn’t.
I’m not trying to get away from Isaac all the time. Or any of my friends here—“real-life friends,” my mom calls them. I’d rather Liz be a real-life friend, too. But she happens to live in Connecticut, not north Texas. And I would definitely rather talk to her than maybe-drunk Isaac. So.
I open her video message before the new texts. It’s some girl—I think her friend Taylor—literally dancing on a table. Liz turns the camera on herself making a Can you believe? face. It’s hard to tell if she’s making fun of Taylor or laughing along. It’s hard not to feel jealous.
Liz: So how’s your party?
Liz: Alyssa Rae, are you alive?
Liz: Oh, God. Did Isaac finally try to kiss you?
Alyssa: Hey, sorry
Alyssa: What??? No!!!
Liz: Okay, okay! I’m just saying, that’s happening.
Alyssa: It is not!!
Liz: Suuure. I’m from the future, remember? I can see things.
Alyssa: I like teleporting Liz way better than fake fortuneteller Liz
I swear I was getting ready for school, but it started to feel like too much. Struggling through math 2, Isaac’s neediness, no-phones-in-class—the only class I want to go to at all is choir, and that was barely enough to propel me out of bed. Now I’m lying on my stomach on the floor, half-dressed.
Alyssa: Uuuuuuugh I don’t want to go to schoooool
Liz: Hmm, how sad for you.
Liz: If only you lived somewhere with snow days.
Liz: Like Connecticut! Random example.
Alyssa: Hey, speaking of that. Your spring break is the same week as mine
Alyssa: So I was talking to my mom about spring break
Alyssa: So what if I came to visit?
Liz: !!!!!!! SHUT UP!!!!!!
Liz: Are you serious!??? Your mom said you can come??? I’ll ask my parents today!!!
I push myself up from the floor, pull a sweater over my head, and run down the hall to the kitchen, where Mom is examining a box of Pop Tarts.
“Breakfast to go?” she asks, shaking the box at me. “There’s bananas, too. Your lunch is in the fridge.”
“Thanks.” I grab a banana and turn to the fridge. The blast of cold air steels my resolve. “Hey, Mom. You know my friend Liz?”
“The girl from your choir class?”
“No, the one, uh—the one who watched Grey’s Anatomy with me?”
“Oh, your internet friend.”
I close the fridge behind me. “Yeah, my friend from Connecticut. So, her parents—did you know her dad is a pastor?”
Mom raises her eyebrows at me. “You may have mentioned that.”
“Right, they’re like…good people. Anyway, me and Liz have the same spring break, and her parents invited me to visit them that week, and I was wondering if I can go. Please say yes?”
She takes a long sip of coffee. She’s going to say no. Of course she’s going to say no. I clear my throat and try to turn it into a convincing cough so I can stay home sick to recover.
“I’d like to talk to her parents,” Mom says.
“Liz’s parents. I’d like to have a conversation with them. Make sure they’re real?” She keeps her voice light, like she’s joking, and I know she’s not really, but it’s okay. She’s just being a mom. A good, great, amazing mom. I feel a smile creeping across my face.
“Is that a yes?”
“It’s not a no. For now.”
I throw my arms around her and don’t even care if she splashes coffee on my sweater and I have to walk around school like that all day. I can do that. I can do anything to make it to spring break.
Alyssa: So, I think our moms are about to be bffs
Liz: Oh my God, my parents are SO EXCITED. You’d think they were the ones about to meet their soultwin.
Alyssa: But they’re noooot, weeee aaaaare!!!!
Liz: Gotta run, but I’ll video call when I’m home tonight and the adults can make their love connection. Cool?
Alyssa: Yep! After they approve the best spring break ever, are you free to watch something? I got a new bootleg…
Liz: omg shut up. What is it.
Liz: Off-Broadway? Actual Broadway?
Alyssa: You’ll just have to see. Get excited…
Liz: OMG. DO YOU HAVE EVAN HANSON.
Alyssa: Oh, God, no. Not that excited.
* * *
“Are you sure she was going to call? Maybe they’re waiting for us to call them.”
I shake my head without looking up, eyes glued to the still screen of my phone. “No, she definitely said she’d call. She must just be running late. They probably thought we meant seven our time, not theirs.”
I want her to understand that Liz isn’t like that, she wouldn’t stand me up or forget about me.
Mom doesn’t point out that I’ve already said that three times or that it’s now 7:26 here. Which makes it 8:26 in Connecticut. It’s cool, I’m sure she just—something. There’s something dumb and we’ll all be laughing about it soon. Any minute.
A little before 7:45, Mom stands and picks her book up from the coffee table. “I’m going to go read in bed,” she says. “Come get me if she calls, okay?”
“I’m sure she’ll call,” I reply, fast. And then, finally, the thought occurs to me, and I look up from the phone screen with wide eyes. “Oh, my God, Mom—do you think something happened? Like, to one of her parents? Medical emergency?”
“I certainly hope not. I’ll pray for them, all right?” She leans down to give me a hug, made awkward by me hunching over the phone. “Love you, Lyss. I hope she calls soon.”
By the time I realize that Mom feels sorry for me, she’s in her bedroom with the door closed. I want her to understand that Liz isn’t like that, she wouldn’t stand me up or forget about me. I mean, one day last year we were supposed to talk after my choir concert and she got invited out at the last minute and did that instead. But she at least texted me about it. And we barely knew each other then, not like now.
I’ll tell her in the morning. Liz wouldn’t do this to me.
“Mr. Matthews told me you failed the EOC last semester.”
Startled, I look up to stare at Isaac. “What? Did not. Why would he tell you that, even if I had?”
“Because he knew you wouldn’t listen if he tried to tell you. Because you haven’t heard anything anyone’s said to you all day. Because you’re off in Lyssa Land?”
I roll my eyes and shove my phone in my pocket. “You’re such a baby.”
“You’re such a baby,” he mimics in a baby voice.
“Wow, Isaac, I forgot how much fun you are to talk to,” I snap. “You’re totally right, I should pay attention to you all the time.”
Isaac opens his mouth, closes it again. He takes a fry off my paper plate. He wants to call me a bitch, because I’m being one. He won’t, though.
“You’re being kind of bitchy,” he says. Quietly, mumbling, around a mouthful of soggy potato, but still. It surprises me.
And it gives me an excuse to get out of here. I shove my chair back from our cafeteria table.
“Hey, hang on, sorry.” Isaac pats my empty seat. “No more fry stealing. No more name calling. Stick around.”
“You’ve just been weird all day. I get it, I know you’re worried about Lacy.” He winces right away because he knows I know he knows her name is Liz; who’s the bitch?
I leave the fries. He doesn’t try to call me back again as I exit.
* * *
Alyssa: Starting to get worried. Please call me or something?
* * *
Ten minutes left of lunch. I sit against the wall next to the water fountain between the gym and the science wing, where I can stay hidden if I skip my next class, and consider the possibilities.
One: Liz’s phone died/broke/got stolen. Only she would have gotten in touch with me some other way.
Two: Liz is mad at me. That would be new, her being so mad at me that she would ghost me like this. But it can’t be anything we wouldn’t be able to fix.
The sixty-second warning bell rings. I jump to my feet and run for my next class. No reason to skip unless something was happening, some major, life-changing thing. And it’s not.
* * *
Alyssa: If I did something to make you mad, I’m sorry. You know I didn’t mean to.
* * *
Nicole comes up to me before the bell rings for choir to start. I’m slumped in my rehearsal chair, arms crossed over my stomach, giving off the strongest leave me alone vibe I can manage. I don’t look up as she approaches, or when she stops a foot or so away, or when she clears her throat like maybe I’m ignoring her by accident.
“Hey,” she says. “You okay?”
“Did Isaac get you to ask me that?”
She doesn’t answer, which means yes.
“Tell him I don’t want to talk to him, either,” I say. To her credit, she not only takes the hint, she spreads the word. No one comes near me for the rest of class.
* * *
Alyssa: Was it weird, inviting myself there for spring break? That was too much, right? Did your parents think it was weird? I’m sorry. We don’t have to…whatever. Anything.
* * *
I stare at my face in the grimy bathroom mirror. Nothing’s wrong, I keep reminding myself. I don’t know what happened, but that doesn’t mean something Happened.
Mirror Alyssa nods.
“She’s going to call you soon.”
Mirror Alyssa nods again, but she looks a little skeptical.
* * *
Alyssa: Please text me back.
* * *
The third time my mom suggests it after dinner, I give in. I’ll video call her. She has an Android, or maybe even like a Windows phone or something, and I know it gives her problems sometimes. Maybe she’s receiving stuff but can’t send anything, so an incoming video call would go through, in theory.
There’s half a ring and then it disconnects. Her phone isn’t even turned on.
Alyssa: Is this like the time I trash talked Captain America on my blog and you stopped talking to me?
Alyssa: I went back through my blog and I haven’t really ranted about anything lately, so I can’t figure out what it could be. Maybe I said something harsh on a video call?
Alyssa: If it’s something like that, you can tell me, okay?
* * *
Isaac asks if I’m free after school and there’s no reason to say I’m not. Plus, he says we can do whatever I want to do. He feels bad about yesterday, even though he was right, mostly.
We watch my bootleg of Anastasia. It’s not awesome, but I pretend to be super into it every time Isaac gives me a sideways look to see if I think it’s awesome. It’s like I’m punishing him, even though I invited him over to try to make up for being the way I was being at school. I can’t decide what to feel about him.
He falls asleep on my shoulder. I wake him up for the final number. I don’t tag along when my mom drives him home.
I feel so guilty about watching the bootleg without Liz, I throw up in the toilet.
She still hasn’t texted by the time I fall asleep, sometime after one in the morning. Sometime after two, in Connecticut.
Friends of Liz,
I don’t know how to write this post. I almost didn’t. But that seemed too shitty, so. Here’s something shitty that I hope will at least be better than radio silence.
Liz passed away the night of the 10th. I don’t think she suffered, it was fast, from what I heard.
Her blog is going to stay up because I think she’d want that. She loved a lot of weird shit, so this is kind of like…a memorial to all her weird obsessions. It won’t be updated after this, obviously, but it will be here. If that helps.
If you were friends with Liz irl, there will be funeral details and everything posted to her facebook as soon as that’s all sorted out.
I’m sorry there’s not more to say. I love her. I miss her.
-Taylor (Liz’s friend)
I keep refreshing the page and it keeps staying the same. The pastel orange background, the icon of her standing by the ocean in a hoodie. The post. Every time I refresh.
I can’t go to school. I can’t even get out of bed.
Mom bugs me about it—“What’s wrong? If you don’t tell me what’s wrong, I can’t do anything about it.”—until I show her the post on my phone. She gets really quiet. She runs her hand over my hair and I don’t shake her off. I think she cries; I hear her sniffle. I haven’t cried, still.
After a while, she puts the phone down on my nightstand and leaves, because it turns out she can’t do anything about it no matter what.
Alyssa: I swear to God Liz if this is a prank or some kind of “joke”
Alyssa: I know some of your friends there have awful senses of humor but this is too mean
Alyssa: Was it Taylor’s idea?
Alyssa: Do you know that what I keep thinking about is her being the one who knows your blog password?
The tears that haven’t come for days are waterfalling now, and it feels unfair because they’re not even the sad tears she deserves, they’re hot huge angry tears because I am so angry at Isaac, and that Liz’s tears showed up for him instead just makes me cry harder.
Mom says two sick days at the beginning of the semester is enough. She’s right, and she sounds sorry, but I still slam the door when I leave to catch the bus. It makes me feel better for two seconds.
Isaac is all over me as soon as I walk through the front door. He’s all, “Oh my God, where have you been, were you sick, you look fine, well actually you look really tired, sorry I’m not trying to be an ass, but you didn’t answer my texts, what happened to you that you wouldn’t tell your best friend,” and I just open my locker and pull out my books because I don’t have the energy for him right now, and when I close the locker he’s looking at me like I am so stupid, and it makes me take a step backward.
“It’s your imaginary friend,” he says. “Right? What, did you like, have a fight about which guy on whatever TV show is the hottest and she set her status to offline?”
The last couple of words die out and the look on his face says that the look on mine is bad. The tears that haven’t come for days are waterfalling now, and it feels unfair because they’re not even the sad tears she deserves, they’re hot huge angry tears because I am so angry at Isaac, and that Liz’s tears showed up for him instead just makes me cry harder.
“Hey,” he says. “Lyssa, no, I’m s—”
“Don’t.” I smack away his hand when he reaches for me. “You’re not sorry. And I hate ‘Lyssa.’”
“What? No you don’t. I’ve always called you Lyssa.”
“I’ve always hated it!” I’m screaming, having a full-on meltdown in the sophomore locker hallway, and I can’t stop. “Alyssa is my name, and I like Aly, which you should know if you love me so much. But you don’t, Isaac. You’re just here.” The word breaks my voice, breaks something in my heart that was holding on by a thread. “You’re not my best friend. You’re just here. You’re still here.”
* * *
Isaac: Alyssa, please pick up. Your mom told me about Liz. I’m so sorry.
Isaac: Come on. Please. You know me. I have a big, stupid mouth. You know I didn’t mean it.
Alyssa: I tried to video call you again. Dunno why. Your phone is off.
Alyssa: Tried to find your parents, like on Facebook, but you know what? I don’t know your last name. Mine is Robinson. I’ve been trying to think of who I should tell that, in case…whatever. I can’t think of anyone.
Alyssa: I checked your blog but the same post is still the most recent thing. I don’t even know how to get in touch with Taylor.
* * *
There’s a text from Mom on my phone when I check after first block. She loves me so much and she’s praying for me. She sent it right after I left the house, but my phone’s been on silent. She’s worried about me. I’m worried about me, too.
I don’t want to feel this bad anymore. But I’m also afraid of who I’ll be when I start to not feel this bad.
Alyssa: Was your funeral nice? Is that a good thing to wish for a funeral? Is your mom doing okay? I don’t know if my mom would be. She’s barely okay now. I wish you were here to talk about it. If you could just skip the dead thing for a while? I’d be okay with haunting.
Alyssa: I really miss you, Liz.
The look on Isaac’s face when I sit down at our table almost makes me laugh. If I wasn’t still mad at him and also so sad forever.
“Mind if I sit here?”
“Of course.” He grimaces. “I mean, of course not. I don’t mind. Of course you can sit here.”
We spend most of lunch in silence, him watching me, me watching my sandwich. He asks how the semester’s going; I shrug because I haven’t really been paying attention. He tells a story about something Nicole did in P.E. I laugh in the pauses. I try to figure out if I missed him or just couldn’t spend another day sitting in the corner of the library. He doesn’t mention Liz.
Until the bell rings and we file out toward the lockers.
“Ly—” He cuts himself off. “Alyssa. I really am sorry about your friend. I want to… Just, I don’t know. If you need anything, I’m, uh. Here.”
I nod, perform something like a smile. “Thanks. I know.”
He lifts his arms in my direction, and I’m surprised by how relieved I feel when I step into the hug. I rest my cheek on his shoulder and just breathe, and I feel better. Not good. Definitely better.
As I pull away, Isaac starts to turn his face. Toward my face. With his eyes closed and his mouth doing something that looks like—
“Oh, my God! You are not trying to kiss me!”
He jumps back like I’m electric, and I might be. “No! I mean, maybe, but only because—I thought, I don’t know, you seemed…”
“Sad,” I provide after he trails off. “Really fucking sad because my friend is dead and my other friend is acting like a jealous asshole about it.”
He’s the one who walks away from me. Good.
* * *
Alyssa: Dear Liz. You were right, you bitch. Isaac tried to kiss me today. Basically because I’m sad about you. Did you know that would be part of it, in your super special fortune telling?
Alyssa: I have to stop being sad about you. I mean, I’ll never stop being sad about you. But I can’t keep doing this thing where I visit your blog all the time and keep checking for texts from you in the middle of classes and, like, don’t pay attention to my life. My Texas life. You know? So. I’m writing to say goodbye.
Alyssa: It sucks so much that I didn’t get to say goodbye to you.
Alyssa: Or tell you about stupid Isaac and his stupid kiss face. How did you know? And what am I supposed to do now?
Alyssa: I love you. Bye, Liz. <3 Alyssa
One (1) New Message: Liz
I can’t stop staring at my phone. It’s out on my desk, which is not really allowed in this class, but I can’t put it away. If I don’t check every couple of seconds, the message will disappear. Or I’ll wake up? Neither of which I want. Both of which I want. I feel sick.
It’s Liz’s number. I checked. Double-checked.
Two (2) New Messages: Liz
I get yelled at three times to put my phone away. I spend lunch in the bathroom, staring between myself in the mirror and the name of the ghost on my phone. Can’t open it. Can’t leave it sitting there. Finally, I lock myself in a stall.
Liz: Sorry to text you from this number, I know that’s shitty. I’m finally going through some of her stuff, and I saw your messages. This is Taylor.
Alyssa: Liz’s Taylor?
Liz: Ha, yeah. That’s funny. She called you her Alyssa.
Liz: Not funny, I guess. Sorry. Sorry, this is so weird, probably.
Liz: I just wanted to…I don’t know. Can I text you?
Liz: I mean from my phone. Instead of this.
Alyssa: Oh. Yeah. Yeah, please.
Liz: k. I’m in class now, but I’ll text you later.
Isaac is getting annoyed with me ignoring him through lunch to text. Pre-failed-kiss Isaac would ask if I’d moved on to a new imaginary friend already. New Year’s Isaac would whine that I would rather talk to literally anyone than him. This Isaac just eats his chicken nuggets.
It’s weird. Texting Taylor. Like we don’t really have anything to say to each other that’s not about our mutual dead friend, and neither of us wants to bring it up. But there’s only so much hey, how’s it going I can take.
Alyssa: Hey, so, I don’t mean to be a bitch, but I just need to ask. What happened? To Liz?
Taylor: Car crash. She was in the backseat. Her parents are okay. Well, they’re not, but you know what I mean.
Alyssa: That’s it? A car crash? Some drunk asshole running a red light?
Taylor: Sober asshole. But yeah.
Alyssa: That’s…so stupid.
Taylor: Weak, right? Don’t you feel like she deserved something cooler than that?
Alyssa: Or, like, to not die.
Taylor: Or that.
Alyssa: That is seriously unfair, though. She would’ve been so pissed.
Taylor: I know, right?
Taylor: You know Liz was a writer?
Alyssa: Um. I was her first reader for every fanfic she wrote.
Taylor: I mean, I read her stuff, too.
Taylor: Anyway. She was working on something. A fic for one of the superhero shows, I think.
Alyssa: I know.
Taylor: I figured you knew. I’m trying to, like.
Taylor: I can’t find it.
Taylor: She never posted it, and I looked for it on her computer but her file names are so random, and I can’t find it. And I need to read it. You know?
Alyssa: I have it. I’ll send it to you.
Alyssa: Yeah, of course. Give me a sec
Taylor: Thank you.
Alyssa: It’s really, really good
Taylor: Of course it is.
* * *
“Is the chicken that bad?”
I’ve barely touched dinner, but Mom’s smiling when I look up. I still say sorry and set the phone down.
“You and Isaac are getting along again?”
“Isaac,” she says, pointing her fork at the phone. “Your thumbs are flying. Friends again?”
“Because I only have one friend who could possibly text me?”
She gives me a look that’s somewhere between rolling her eyes at me and afraid she’s actually upset me. “I just noticed he hasn’t been around lately.”
I chew until she breaks eye contact. After I swallow, I say, “Texting a girl in my bio class about homework.”
Mom makes a joke about hoping she’s helping me and not the other way around. I don’t know why I lied. It’s a little embarrassing, maybe, hanging onto my dead friend’s friend like a lifeline. Maybe a little scary. And maybe I want to keep this for myself, for a while. Just to be safe.
* * *
Taylor: Still awake over there?
Alyssa: It’s earlier here, ha
Taylor: No, I know. 1:30 is still on the late side. Unless you’re more of a party animal than Liz said.
Alyssa: Not a party animal. But yeah, awake. Hard to sleep lately.
Taylor: I get that.
Taylor: I don’t want to make it weird…er, but I just feel like I should tell you, in case you need to hear it, that Liz really loved you.
Taylor: She talked about you all the time. You meant a lot to her.
Taylor: Alyssa? Sorry, if that was too much.
Alyssa: No, that’s. Thanks. I did need that.
Taylor: Okay. Cool.
Alyssa: Same for you. I could tell how important you were to her even without, like, being around. If that makes sense. I mean, I’m sure you know.
Taylor: I do know. But it still helps.
Taylor: This helps too.
Isaac ignores me. Or he didn’t hear me, since I’m whispering from the row behind him. No talking in choir rehearsal, even if Ms. Brush is working with the sopranos across the room. I kick the underside of his chair.
“What?” he mutters.
“I said Anastasia sucked. The bootleg sucked, you couldn’t hear half the dialogue, and the show itself was like—weird and bad.”
“I thought you loved it.”
“So what?” I poke him between the shoulder blades. “You obviously didn’t love it. Why would you act like you did?”
“I don’t know.” A small shrug. “I was trying to be nice to you.”
“I don’t want you to be nice to me. I just want you to be a person. A real person. And treat me like a real person. A person who has other friends and feels sad when they die and watches bad musicals for fun. Stop making this an imaginary friendship.”
“I’m—not trying to.”
“I know. Prove it.”
It comes out a little too loud and Ms. Brush finally looks our way. “Ms. Robinson,” she snaps, “you and Mr. Siegel can talk later, when I’m not directing my choir. Yes?”
“Yes,” I call back, with my best apology face. “We can talk later.” I tug the hem of the sleeve of his T-shirt, and he exhales in a way that probably means we’ll be fine.
* * *
Alyssa: Can I ask you another question? Sorry, lots of questions.
Taylor: No worries.
Alyssa: What was Liz’s last name?
Taylor: Did you want the link to her obit?
Alyssa: I’ll look it up. Maybe not today.
* * *
I last 35 minutes before I Google for Liz’s obituary. It sucks.
Elizabeth Caitlyn Walsh passed away on January 10. She was a junior at Lakefront High School. She is survived by her parents, Mr. Stephen Walsh and Mrs. Joanna Walsh. Elizabeth was a joy to all who knew her and will be missed by many friends and loved ones as she joins the angels.
Then, for the first time, I type Liz Walsh into Facebook’s search. Her profile picture is a side-profile selfie, black-and-white, intensely dramatic in a way that may or may not be ironic. It’s so Liz. It hurts.
The posts on her wall hurt in a really different way.
Lizzie girl can’t believe you’re gone!!!! You were my best friend, don’t know what I’ll do without you!!!
the world and fourth block aren’t the same without you…rip
BFFs 4 life (and after) R.I.P.
thanks for the sunset yesterday!! Don’t know how you know I needed that xo
There’s one post from a Taylor, but it’s a grainy picture of a rainbow with some fake-cursive text about smiling from heaven. Definitely not Liz’s Taylor. Of course, there isn’t a post from Liz’s Alyssa, either.
* * *
Alyssa: The facebook…
Taylor: Oh, God, no. You saw the facebook.
Alyssa: Who even are those people? I mean, I obviously don’t know them, but…who are
Taylor: “the world needs to know I was the dead girl’s bestest friend”
Alyssa: As if that wasn’t you.
Taylor: It was YOU.
Alyssa: We can totally go BFF halfsies. It’s what angel Liz would want.
Taylor: Maybe she’ll send us a thunderstorm to confirm.
Taylor: My last name’s Burke, by the way. Just so you know.
Alyssa: Alyssa Robinson. I like Aly.
Taylor: Nice to “meet” you, Aly.
Alyssa: Nice to meet you, Taylor Burke.
Catey Miller lives with her wonderful husband and hound dog in Wilmington, North Carolina. She received her BFA and MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Aside from writing, she enjoys making cards, experimenting with eyeshadow, playing bass in her church band, and watching and tweeting about lots of TV. You can read more melancholy YA short stories from her in Youth Imagination, Young Adult Review Network (YARN), and Hunger Mountain.
idk how i feel about what’s going on, but you should of not drank so much…
ur last night on earth wuz a good one. way to go down! DAF!!!
we should of charged that bitch extra!
some people just deserve to have dicks rubbed on their face. LOL!!!
dont wanna be THAT girl tomorrow morning…
how do you brush a giant wad of cum out of your hair? ask the new girl… ROTFL!
who is this drunk bitch on the floor? Is that HER pee? I dont think so…
Drunk Sluts are the BEST!!!!!!!!!!!!!
im sorry, theres NO WAY you sleep through getting stuffed in the butt. hard to wake a DRUNKASFUCK girl I guess!!!
i have no sympathy for whores.
does anyone even know her name?
* * *
Player # 82: Lineman
I know what it feels like to be the new kid in school. I was the new kid in school once, but that was way back in eighth grade. I was a fat kid and that’s never good in general, but it’s really bad when you’re in middle school, and it’s really, really bad when you’re in a middle school where you don’t even know anybody.
It took me one day to become famous in this town. It’s not hard in a town like this. Place is so fuckin’ small and nothing ever happens here, so if you have a bad day and someone’s busting your balls about being a fat kid and you smash his face in with your elbow so that blood sprays all over the place—and I mean all over the place, all over our shirts and faces and the desks—then you become famous pretty quick. Some of the girls were screaming because it was such a mess in there. I was sent to the principal’s office. I heard later that they had to get the class out of the room so the janitors could clean up all the blood everywhere. That kind of scene is hard to forget, sticks with people, so like I said, I became famous pretty quick.
After busting that kid’s face open, he left me alone. That was the good part. The bad part is that I kind of got this reputation for being a real tough guy. Funny thing is, I’m not. I mean, I’m big and everything—I’m six feet tall and I weigh a lot and I’m on the football team and all that—but I actually felt pretty shitty after I elbowed that kid. I almost started crying on my way to the principal’s office, and it wasn’t because I knew I was going to get in trouble—and believe me, I got in a lot of fucking trouble for that—it was because I was really mad at that prick for making me feel like shit about myself. The last thing I wanted to do was break the kid’s nose—I just wanted to shut him the fuck up. It worked and everything, breaking that kid’s nose, but it didn’t make me feel any better about getting teased for being fat.
After getting with those two guys, I don’t know, it all just got easier to give in to more and more guys. No use fighting it—one way or another, they’ll make you feel like it was all your idea…
When I came back after suspension, though, a weird thing happened: I was a king around school. Busting that kid’s nose was like the best thing for making friends because, after that, I got all kinds of invitations to do things, like go to other dudes’ houses and sit with them during the basketball games, all from guys I still hang out with now. But that elbow to the face became a running joke. It was like, Don’t fuck with HIM or he’ll bust your face up with his elbow, and suddenly, forever, I’m HIM, the big kid who busts people up with his elbow, even though I haven’t done anything like that since seventh grade. Not even close.
The problem is that it’s a level of respect that’s hard to get from guys you go to school with and you can’t be like, “OK, guys, let’s stop with the breaking noses stuff,” because then you’re a pussy, and it’s way better to be the guy who breaks noses than it is to be a pussy. At least when you’re in high school. And because I’m big and on the football team, people just assume all kinds of things about me that aren’t true.
Like, they assume that I was part of what happened after the party that night just because I’m friends with those guys. Well, I wasn’t a part of it. I might’ve busted some kid’s face open for calling me fat in the eighth grade, sure, but I don’t do mean shit to girls and I don’t think it’s cool to do mean shit to girls.
Except, you wouldn’t know it from the way I acted that night. I was in the pictures a bunch of people took with their cell phones, holding a beer in one hand and doing stupid shit, like giving the thumbs up or pumping my fist with my other hand, like I was celebrating something really awesome while this girl is laying there passed out in the background, arms and legs all twisted up like a rag doll, missing half her clothes.
I see those pictures and I think about how she went from being the new kid in school to everybody talking about her over a weekend. Because of this thing that happened, she’s not a person anymore—she’s just this story everybody is telling about her and the story is everywhere. You say “she” and “her” and everybody knows exactly who you’re talking about. And because of those pictures, everybody’s talking about me and my friends, too. I didn’t do anything to the girl, but I’m the shithead in the background, laughing, drinking, and pumping his fist.
I would like to think that I wouldn’t have acted like that if I hadn’t been so wasted, but even that doesn’t make me feel any better, just like busting that kid’s nose didn’t make me feel any better in seventh grade.
I don’t even remember his name.
* * *
The Slutty Girl
“The Wide Receiver”
Last summer, the football players made a list. It included all the girls from the soccer team. We were all given really sexual names. Wanna know what my name was? “The Wide Receiver.” They call me that because, basically, I’ve hooked up with a lot of guys. It’s not a big deal, really—no one takes that sorta stuff seriously anymore.
At least not if you’re a guy.
If you’re a guy, you can hook up with as many girls as you want. The more the better. If you’re a girl, though, it’s not the same. You’re not supposed to hook up with a lot of guys. But if you don’t, then you’re a cock tease for giving guys blue balls. Guys hate blue balls.
Kinda funny, but they named one of the girls “Blue Balls,” too.
I guess I’d rather be The Wide Receiver than Blue Balls. I’d rather be the girl who gets guys off than the girl who gets guys mad. I’ve gotten guys mad before.
There were two guys in particular. And when they get mad at you like that, you don’t know what to do. Giving in is just sorta easier because it’s not like you can push ’em off you or bite down really hard, even if you think pushing off or biting down would make them stop doing what they’re doing.
After getting with those two guys, I don’t know, it all just got easier to give in to more and more guys. No use fighting it—one way or another, they’ll make you feel like it was all your idea, to the point that you’re not even sure they’re wrong, to the point that you’re not even sure you hadn’t put the idea in their heads in the first place.
And then there you are, right in the middle of it, all confused and so fucking awkward. Too late to stop at the moment but far enough along that you might as well just get through the whole pathetic scene of it: him, humping away, making all those awful noises and spastic movements; you, scrunching up your face and trying not to move too much, just waiting for the guy to finish.
At least when they’re done, they’re not so fucking mad anymore.
* * *
The Girl in English Class
I wasn’t one of the girls on the girls’ soccer team, on The List the football players made. I guess I’m not pretty enough or don’t have big enough boobs or whatever for that kind of attention.
Mostly people tell me I’m the kind of girl you marry, or the kind of girl guys want to be best friends with. I’m not sure what that means, but my guy friends tell me that’s some sort of compliment—it’s a compliment not to be hot. They say I don’t give off the kind of vibe that would make guys think they’d have a chance with me. I don’t know what that means, either, because I’m not stuck up and I like to go out on dates and get dressed up or whatever, but I guess I’m supposed to be relieved that I wasn’t on The List.
Two summers ago, in the weeks before classes started, the football players all came for the summer doubles, the practices that happen twice a day until the start of the season. They were waiting for a thunderstorm to pass one afternoon, so they all went to the locker room and wrote up this list of “positions” for the girls on the soccer team. I guess they thought they were being clever or something by assigning different sexual positions to each of the girls they wanted to get with. And after each of the names, they talked about what the name meant, as if it weren’t already clear.
You’d think the teachers, one of them at least, would cut the girl some slack or, I don’t know, try to talk to her. But they didn’t.
One of the girls they called “The Wide Receiver” because, to use their words, “There’s not a wide hole she wouldn’t receive you with.” I thought it was pretty disgusting that they would say that about her. About anyone, really. She’s got a pretty well-known reputation for being a slut. I feel bad for her. I don’t know if that’s how I should feel about her, but I can’t help it because it doesn’t seem fair. If a guy gets with a lot of girls, he’s a hero, he gets praise from his friends—getting girls is like something for him to brag to his friends about. But it’s not the same for girls. If a girl does something with a guy and the details get out—and let’s face it, guys talk about this kind of stuff all the time, whether what they say is true or not—she’s supposed to be ashamed or embarrassed. I’m not sure why it works like that—I only know that it does.
The weirdest part of the whole thing was that the team didn’t even really get in trouble. I mean, The List was photocopied and left scattered all over the hallways, so everyone—and I mean everyone—saw it, even our teachers, not that any of them would talk about it. The school made this half-assed attempt to address the “behavioral concerns” by sending a letter home to our parents explaining the incident and assuring them that “appropriate measures” would be taken. No one knows what those “measures” were, which most likely means nothing happened at all.
Well, one thing happened: one of the girls ended up in the hospital for cutting herself. They called this girl “The Full Back” because, to use the boys’ words, “She has the kind of ass they want to back up into them.” Her parents pulled her out of school the next day. It was after that that the administration sent the letter home. Last I heard, she’s at a private school, three towns over. She plays soccer there now.
The story landed on the news and everything, but, just a few weeks later, the whole thing just blew over. That’s the way things go around here, and before we know it, that’s what’s going to happen with this story too. It’s a big deal right now, what happened to the new girl, but soon no one’ll even remember what happened and we’ll all be on to the next thing, whatever it is. I know this because there have already been attempts to sweep this under the rug to protect the football coach or the boys in trouble.
People around town are already acting like the whole thing’s been blown out of proportion. I overheard two men talking in the grocery store saying how “it’s such a shame” that this one incident is going to follow these two boys their whole lives, and how it’s going to “ruin their chances” at a scholarship and a football career, and how “they’re only boys doing what boys do,” and that “they’re young” and “don’t know any better…”
That’s what a lot of people around here are saying.
And when The List came out, it was the same thing. I remember hearing kids at school be like, Oh, that’s just guy talk, or, Oh, that’s the kind of things guys that age do. Even the girls’ soccer coach said things like, you know, Boys are stupid at this age and they’re just being boys. I’m not sure he knew what to say, but he could have done better than that because it didn’t make any of us feel any better about the whole thing. He did his best to have the football team shut down for the season, though. I’ll give him that.
He started a petition and everything, and though I can’t prove this, I’m pretty sure he’s the reason the story got onto the local news. I think he was hoping for some support from the people who live around here, but the football coach just rode the whole thing out and now no one’s talking about The List anymore. Coach is old as the town itself, and so many people in this town love him and his winning record that I’m pretty sure him and his boys could get away with anything. The girls’ soccer coach was only in his second season. He resigned at the end of the year.
I don’t know how true that is, though. The whole thing seemed pretty sketchy, him leaving at the end of the year like that, especially with a winning record of his own. But it’s not like we could ask anybody about it. Adults don’t really tell us the truth about anything—they don’t think we know how to handle things, so, instead, they just lie or pretend like nothing is happening until they think we’ve moved on. Most of the time, riding it out doesn’t work—I don’t know why adults don’t get that.
The day or two leading up to “The Full Back” hurting herself, I remember her getting kicked out of class for refusing to participate in the discussion. She wasn’t rude or anything, but the teacher threw her out anyway. The teacher asked her some stupid question about The Scarlet Letter and the girl just looked at her. When the teacher asked her the question again, she shrugged her shoulders and played with the wire spirals in her notebook. That pissed the teacher off pretty good and before we knew it, the girl was gathering her stuff to leave.
You’d think the teachers, one of them at least, would cut the girl some slack or, I don’t know, try to talk to her. But they didn’t. And it’s not like they didn’t know what the football players wrote about her. Wearing baggy sweatpants and refusing to participate in class—I guess those weren’t big enough things for people to notice. But cut yourself up in the girls’ bathroom on the second floor and that will get some attention.
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but, up until “The Full Back” cut her arms up with a razorblade, I felt pretty shitty that I wasn’t on that list. It’s one of those things: if you’re on The List, you feel like shit, and if you’re not on The List, you feel like shit. I’m not sure why it works like that—I only know that it does.
* * *
“Quinn and the Kitten”
Now that the pictures are all getting out, pretty much everyone who was there that night is in trouble. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t do anything because what a lot of people are saying is that if you were there, you were a part of the whole thing, whether you did anything to that girl or not. And I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything.
Well, I laughed. Is that bad?
Is laughing the same as doing something?
It’s hard to know in these situations. I’ve been in them before.
It’s not exactly the same thing, but before I moved to this town, I watched one of my friends shoot another friend in the head. He killed him. I was there and I saw the whole fucked up thing of it, but just like this party, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t pick the fight that started the whole thing and I certainly didn’t pull the trigger. Fuck, I didn’t even want to see the gun in the first place. Things just got way out of hand so fast.
Adults don’t really tell us the truth about anything—they don’t think we know how to handle things, so instead, they just lie or pretend like nothing is happening until they think we’ve moved on.
It started out pretty simple enough. It was after school one day, we’d just started seventh grade, and Quinn—that was the kid’s name—Quinn told us he had a gun. Well, actually, Quinn’s grandfather had a gun, but Quinn knew it wasn’t locked. He just wanted to show us, that was all. I wasn’t dying to see it or anything—if I’m being honest, guns scare me.
I didn’t play it like that, obviously. You can’t let shit like that out with your guy friends, even at that age. And the need to prove you’re tough only gets to be more and more important as you get older. It’s like this unwritten rule that all guys know starting from really young. We don’t talk about it, but it’s there. And you’re fucking dead if you even think about talking about things like being scared. You can’t be sad, either. It’s all gotta come off as pissed because being pissed, that’s a feeling guys understand.
Sometimes I think it’s the only feeling guys understand.
But Scotty? He didn’t play it right—he let on that he was scared. He tried saying things like, “C’mon, Quinn, we shouldn’t be up here,” and like, “Your grandfather’s gonna be pissed if we’re in here.”
And that was, like, all Quinn needed. His whole attitude towards Scotty changed and he was saying shit to embarrass him, even looking to me for approval. I didn’t say anything, but I was laughing. “Oh, you bein’ a pussy, Scotty? A fuckin’ pussy. It’s not even loaded, you little bitch.” Guys hate to be called names like that. I don’t think there’s anything worse. Faggot, maybe. So guys’ll do just about anything to prove that they’re not faggots and pussies, that we’re all men, real men.
And there was Quinn, kinda shoving Scotty on the shoulder every time he called him a pussy or a faggot. It was like Quinn wanted him to feel the words every time he said them: Faggot. Pussy. Homo. Bitch. It started to get pretty intense after like a minute or two of that. I can’t say how long it went on for—felt like fucking forever. Quinn was antagonizing Scotty enough that I could see Scotty start to turn red and breathe heavy through his nose. He might have been trying not to cry because forget it if you fucking cry in front of your boys. They’ll never let you live that shit down.
I mean, friends are really important, but sometimes, I felt like they weren’t good for me. Like, they push me to do shit that I wouldn’t do, and afterwards, I don’t know why I did what I did, only that I have to, like, deal with the fact that I did it. Quinn was one of those kids—he pushed me to do all sorts of things—and I could see that he was pushing Scotty pretty hard. I kinda expected Scotty to lose his shit on Quinn.
I saw that happen once, too.
It was like a year before I came to this school, so we were young, like ten or eleven, maybe. Me, Quinn, and Scotty were walking to the park to shoot some hoops. Quinn was dribbling the basketball when we came upon this little kitten. It was probably one from this crazy cat lady who lived down the street from another kid we knew. She had all kinds of cats just running around the streets of our town and new kittens showed up all the time. Quinn saw one—couldn’t have been more than a week old, it was so small—and he bent down and made a sweet noise. He held out his hand for her to come over to him, which she did. Scotty and me bent down to pet her and try to play with her too.
Then Quinn did the kind of thing Quinn used to do: he stood up real fast, brought the basketball over his head and slammed it down on her tiny skull. Blood and guts shot out onto our knees and sneakers. The kitten let out this awful noise. It was fucking disgusting.
Scotty stood up and screamed, blood all over his hands, trying to beat the shit out of Quinn. I remember Quinn laughing, running in circles around me, trying to deflect Scotty with the bloody basketball.
I just sort of stood there.
When the two of them were tired out from running, they were hunched over, hands on their knees, trying to catch their breath. Scotty looked at Quinn and said, “You’re so fucked up,” then snatched the ball from under Quinn’s left foot and punted it down the street. Quinn walked after it. Me and Scotty walked in the other direction.
We didn’t talk the whole way home because, like, what do you say after something like that? I remember thinking that Scotty looked as shitty as I felt: he was sweaty and dirty, covered in kitten guts and blood, and crying. I didn’t let on that I was upset too—and looking back, I kinda wish I did—but when I got to my room, I cried.
I cried hard.
Cried like a bitch.
I never told anyone about that.
The day that Quinn killed the cat felt weirdly like a warning of what happened the day Scotty shot Quinn in the head: the two of us standing there, breathing heavy, covered in some other body’s blood and guts, crying. It all happened as fast as Quinn and that basketball, Scotty just fucking snapped and grabbed the gun from Quinn’s hand, aimed and pulled the trigger of a gun that wasn’t supposed to be loaded. Turns out Quinn’s grandfather had a terminal disease and his gun was part of some plan to off himself.
I read once that’s how boys kill themselves most often, gun to the head, a sure thing. Girls do things like take a bunch of sleeping pills or drink mouthwash and then, like, text their friends to tell them about it right after, so they always get saved. It’s like they don’t really want to do it, but they want people to know they do. Guys? Guys are just the opposite—they’d rather die before being saved. Guys will pretend everything is fine and then, one day, the school has to contact everyone’s parents to tell them about the tragedy.
It was shortly after Scotty’s suicide—by hanging; Scotty’s grandfather didn’t have a gun—that I came here, to this shitty little town. My parents were worried that I might do something to myself because I always seemed to be mixed up in things, like Quinn and the kitten, and then later, Scotty and Quinn.
And now the thing with that girl. Not involved directly, but always there, somehow, never knowing what to do.
I wonder why that is.
Lauren Marie Schmidt is the author of three previous collections of poetry: Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing; The Voodoo Doll Parade, selected for the Main Street Rag Author’s Choice Chapbook Series; and Psalms of The Dining Room, a sequence of poems about her volunteer experience at a soup kitchen in Eugene, Oregon. Schmidt’s fourth collection, Filthy Labors, a series of poems about her work at a transitional housing program for unwed mothers, was published by Northwestern University Press/Curbstone Press in 2017. She is currently at work on a young adult novel. The Players, as published in Lunch Ticket, is comprised of non-consecutive chapters in a larger work-in-progress. www.laurenmarieschmidt.com
Mā explained over the phone: a violist sprained his wrist, tumbling after a volleyball, and the octet needed to practice with a replacement before Chinese school celebrated chūnjié tomorrow. She had a habit of molding requests into commands after several hours, so I saved time by consenting. It did excuse me from the January 2003 SAT post-mortem in Panera with my friends. Grace, thoughts on the last analogy in the second reading section? Sorry, can’t answer, my mom’s here to pick me up, have a good Saturday.
The building wasn’t reserved—Chinese school was as Sunday as church and football—so mā drove me to someone’s house as I stared out the window for thirty minutes. Not to look at anything—staring to seem preoccupied and insulate myself from conversation. She wasn’t talking anyway. For the past week, my parents had exhausted all their words; bà flinging accusations and mā with her guarded style, arguing about why they had been arguing, because neither remembered that Jake blowing off his seventh grade history project had set off this latest fight. I stayed out. It wasn’t my job to play couples therapist, ask why they chose each other, and hear, “I made a mistake.” Maybe things changed when they immigrated; I was too young to recall Beijing as home, not as a vacation. My joke was their marriage lay in the difference between the Chinese-American and average U.S. divorce rates, and they waited for a special occasion to narrow the gap: when we were in college, or in med school, or trying to survive on-call. They might accelerate the process if it helped my college application essays.
Framed on the wall was my favorite photo of her: a black-and-white shot of a man in a tunic standing next to his bicycle, in which teenage mā wearing pigtails had wandered into the upper-right corner by accident.
Last week, my viola teacher had grasped my shoulder and asked, “How long will this slump last?” and I had promised to work harder for my next seating audition, skirting what he meant. This week, a gig for fun. The event became thrilling, redemptive even, when framed that way. It sounded like the fluff some seniors wrote to colleges, a salute to the Western canon like it was a compendium of Chinese-American national anthems.
I didn’t suspect our destination until we rounded the corner and the faded cyan paneling slid into view. In the breeze, the lawn’s one tree waved with familiarity. We hadn’t visited shūshu’s house in six years, and my parents hadn’t mentioned him since. My mind had left him behind with blacktop recess and chocolate milk cartons.
I didn’t understand.
“Grace, dào le,” mā said, without explanation. “I’m going to be shopping, so call bà to pick you up.” Meaning he didn’t object to us being here.
Mute, I grabbed my viola case from the trunk and dragged it along the twisting pathway sheathed in ice. Where other boots had cut across the lawn, grass limped out from beneath the snow. My fingerprint melting in the doorbell’s frost made me realize my gloves were in the car, but before I could go back to grab them, the door opened, mā drove off, and the draft nudged me into the warmth, my feet tiptoeing around the scatter of shoes and instrument cases.
His plaid dress shirt, his silver-stained smile, his leisurely posture. Only the wisps of gray in his hair proved shūshu hadn’t risen from my memory. Shūshu wasn’t actually my uncle; we just called him that, and I had never learned his name.
“Grace, nĭ zhǎng zhème dà le! What grade are you in now?” I mumbled I was a junior and stepped into his embrace. “It’s been that long since you switched from violin? How is viola going?” No trace of hesitance or estrangement inflected his voice.
“It’s okay. Doing New Jersey Youth Symphony right now, had All-State in the fall. I’m not first chair or anything like that,” I said, eyes lowered as I unfastened my case.
“Are you enjoying it? As a kid, you hated playing away from the melody.”
“Oh, I guess I grew out of that. I’m happy playing the viola.” I hurried into the living room where the rest of the musicians gathered, all of them Chinese: two adult violinists including shūshu, two teenage violinists I had met through All-State, one adult cellist, a teenage cellist, an adult violist, and me. Before the teenage violist’s injury, the group had been made of teachers and handpicked students, to mimic a passing down of legacies.
“This is Grace. She was one of my best and favorite violin students,” shūshu said. Not knowing whether to bow or wave, I did half of both, a habit picked up from mā. A round of introductions and gratitude, another bow-wave-smile, then gravity sank me into the spot where I once sat for lessons and the music resumed.
I didn’t expect classical music for a Chinese New Year performance crafted around the idea of inheritance, though not having to foray into a new genre helped. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Movement 1, doubling up on each of the parts. It wasn’t in my repertoire, but my sight reading impressed in auditions and the start of orchestra season, until others overtook me after enough practice. I delivered notes on cue, in rhythm, like a machine directed by the sheet music. Except sometimes I overpowered the first violins, shūshu in particular, or overcorrected into timidity. His and my sounds leapt into the air and crashed heads, screeching to the ground, or we’d both defer, stiffening the music. Solos were easy with no one else to worry about, and the momentum of an orchestra washed over individual stumbles, but a quartet or octet had to balance every person’s voice and present it as effortless to the audience.
After rehearsal, people complimented my technical proficiency despite the late notice. They were too polite to mention my lack of artistry or my uninspiring tone—a functional sound, as my viola teacher put it. The adults left while the teenagers waited for their parents and talked about school, our music instructors, how we celebrated Chinese New Year. The cellist had aunts, uncles, cousins, and even grandparents living in America, so every year they gathered in Houston, Texas; Irvine, California; or Edison, New Jersey, to see each other.
I had mā, bà, and Jake; no one else. Sometimes we passed the holiday by ourselves, and sometimes we attended a family friend’s party, but either way I read a book in the corner to wait it out. Red envelopes and karaoke, feasts and CCTV specials—it didn’t mean much, the people were the same as the other three hundred sixty-four days. The big family reunion Chinese New Year only happened in third grade, when we flew to Beijing. There was one hour, my favorite memory of mā, when she held my hand as we guided firecrackers out of her family’s apartment window and, with giggles and mischievous smiles, dropped them six stories into the car alarms caroling on the road. Framed on the wall was my favorite photo of her: a black-and-white shot of a man in a tunic standing next to his bicycle, in which teenage mā wearing pigtails had wandered into the upper-right corner by accident. I pointed it out. She smiled and pretended not to hear. I didn’t know that was the final picture of her brother, or what the Cultural Revolution was. She didn’t tell me; no one in our family would. Her English-speaking friend visiting from Michigan had to help me understand.
Gradually, shūshu’s living room emptied, and he emerged from the kitchen with a mug of tea, which I declined.
“Grace, I want to ask something,” he said. Me too. “Why did you quit the violin? Was I too strict?”
“No, nothing like that. Our lessons were fine, my interests just changed.” He held his palm above the vapor rising from his cup, withdrew it, and blew across the liquid jasmine surface. We sat on the couch where mā had been whenever she attended a lesson. Relics of those days decorated the room: a ragged and stiff teddy-bear, reams of sheet music, the four toy pendulums suspended in a row.
“How’s school?” he asked, after a while.
“Busy. You know, junior year, it was probably like that for David, too.” Shūshu’s son was old enough, in high school when it happened, so maybe he could help me understand what was going on. What I was doing here. “He’s in college, right? Is he coming home for Chinese New Year?”
Shūshu took a long sip of tea.
“He has a medical school interview in Michigan, so he’s spending it with his mom and stepdad in Ann Arbor.” I used to love David’s sketches and paintings, which still hung in the hallways.
I waited for the next question that never came. We weren’t going to talk about it; he probably didn’t suspect I remembered there was something to talk about.
* * *
Around fourth grade, the volume of my violin swelled to a deafening level. Shūshu diagnosed it as budding narcissism. After one lesson, he cooked me dinner because mā was working overtime that day, lectured about vanity, and warned me not to take music for granted. I nodded as if he was right, but the habit had grown from drowning out mā’s and bà’s arguments. They were worse in my childhood, and if I was gentle, their shouts invaded my practice.
Mā arrived mid-meal—hair tangled, face drained, and breath laced with her fifth cup of coffee—and asked if I wanted to keep eating. The two were gone when I finished. I waited with as much patience as a nine-year-old could muster before curiosity guided me toward the laughter bubbling from upstairs.
Mā was happy. She lay on the bed, her fingers draped around shūshu’s back. He was in his boxers; Mā was clothed. When she faced me, her smile became shock and his ease turned to alarm. “Grace,” they both said. “Grace.”
She hurried me out of the room and back downstairs. She went back up briefly and came back down. She held my hand walking to the car and helped me get in, retrieved my violin after she realized we had forgotten it, shoved it into the trunk, and drove off. I held onto the image of mā, radiant, as long as I could.
When it dimmed away, I asked, “Why was he in his boxers?”
“No, Grace, you saw wrong. He wasn’t in his boxers.” I believed her for months, maybe years.
The red glow of the stoplight bathed the car interior as mā turned to face me. I mistook the white in her skin as fury, and it was only years later that I understood it was terror. “Grace, what you said was very wrong. You shouldn’t say it again. Do you understand?”
“It’s okay, just don’t say he was in his boxers again. Don’t tell me, or bà, or anyone.” Scoldings had always made me cry, but for the first time, not one sob escaped into the silence. The red light receded into a distant green dot.
“Okay.” I kept my word.
I don’t remember the rest of the day. We continued with violin lessons until the end of elementary school, when I switched to the viola. There was no sight, no mention of shūshu after that, as if he had never existed.
* * *
Bà called me when he arrived. He didn’t come to the door and meet shūshu; he never left the car, whether he picked me up from a music lesson or a friend’s house. The neighbors’ trees masked the moon and the streetlamps, so there was nothing to illuminate the icy path as I slipped toward the car. I almost climbed into the backseat, before he asked what I was doing, and I pretended my intent had been to place my viola case there instead of the trunk.
Sometimes a car’s headlights pierced through the night and a familiar street name or shop flickered, a memory flashing by. My eyes used the light to search bà’s face. The weariness of a day playing tennis and the impatience of a long drive home; frustration with the truck in front and a forward stare hardened from days spent yelling. Nothing unusual. It had been easy to ignore with music to be played and Chinese New Year to complain about, but with my bow and viola locked up, I had only the windy breaths of cars passing by to distract me from wondering what bà knew, or if he knew. I waited for him to ask, mention, say anything about shūshu.
After ten minutes he asked, “Did it not go well?”
“Go well at the lesson? Rehearsal, I mean.” The heat from my face could have melted the snow stuck on the window.
“The SATs. You haven’t mentioned them.” His face was stoic, focused on the road. He lacked the tension or surliness I had expected to hear in his voice. “Mā said you didn’t talk about the SATs to her, either.”
“Oh, yeah.” It felt like days had passed since I had sat down for the test. “It was fine. Math went well, reading section was harder. Still good, I think.” I launched into a detailed explanation to alleviate his worry.
If bà had found out, it would’ve been around the switch to viola. There was arguing back then; there never wasn’t. It was a constant buzz in the background, like city bustle or fans on a summer day. I couldn’t pinpoint which of it happened when I was ten and which at thirteen; it blurred into a single period of time. The phrases I could recall—”There’s nothing to talk about!” he shouted—were my cues to hurry into my room, not stay for the rest.
For the rest of the year, Angela would go back to tap and jazz, the girl onstage would return to the piano, but at least they presented something Chinese for Chinese New Year. What was the octet passing down? Beethoven with mā’s ex-lover now and Beethoven in concerts later and Beethoven forever.
For dinner, the four of us folded bāozi together. The activity had lost its luster for me years ago, but Jake had continued to wrap them with sloppy enthusiasm, until now. He was the same age as I had been, and I saw his excitement waning. Twelve was a special age for the zodiac after all. At the table, our parents spoke frequently to us and rarely to each other, as was common when a fight had dragged on. They passed the eye contact test, though, which was my version of Groundhog Day: an early spring, or six more days of quarreling.
“You’re using too much water,” bà said. My dumpling unraveled on the yellow foam tray. My next one was too dry, and without a word, I surrendered my mess to mā. In one motion, she swooped the meat into a new wrap, brushed her finger against the water’s surface, swirled it around the wrap’s edge, and folded. She had breezed through the night with a serenity untouched by her usual caffeinated trembling. There were no questions about shūshu, not a single word or acknowledgment.
“Are your hands okay?” mā asked as she plucked another mangled dumpling from my palm. “They must be tired. Kǎoshì all morning, viola all afternoon.”
“I’m okay.” Almost a mention, but no one paused, and the conversation moved on, leaving me to fumble with another dumpling until it tore. Bà feigned interest in Jake rambling about the NFL, and mā continued acting like she was through a second glass of wine. “Sorry, can I go upstairs?” I asked. “Shūshu’s—the recital—it’s been half a day since knowing, about playing this piece. I need more time to practice. Can I go upstairs and eat later?”
“Okay,” mā said.
“Can I go, too?”
“Stay here, Jake.”
In my room, I steadied my hands through a section of the score while pacing through my observations of mā, bà, and shūshu that day: words, tones, gestures, facial expressions; mā’s weariness, bà’s brevity, shūshu persevering through his interrogations; anything that might hint what bà knew, what mā wanted, shūshu’s intentions, mā’s intentions, mā’s feelings, my role. If mā and shūshu had hid the truth from bà, or if the three believed they were keeping a secret from me; if tomorrow served as an excuse to reunite, or if I had been volunteered as a peace offering. All plausible, nothing convincing.
Jake’s fist bashed against my door three times, and without waiting, he creaked it open, as if he was going to leave after delivering his message, but over the course of his sentence, “Mā and bà want me to tell you that you’re playing too loudly,” he slid into my room and closed the door behind him. “Sorry,” I said.
“You never practice anymore.” He said it like an accusation. My bow jabbed toward the door, but he didn’t budge. “I heard shūshu’s playing too?”
Jake had been six when I quit violin, so he probably had a couple memories, shūshu driving him to a doctor’s appointment or bringing him candy, that he had forgotten until today. Curiosity, not concern. A week from now he’d forget again, unless I wanted to say guess what, mā cheated on bà when we were kids, and keep him remembering for the rest of his life. Secrecy ran in the family.
“I have to get this right by tomorrow,” I said. “Go work on your history project, you can’t take an incomplete forever.” He left, and I worked through the music until mā came in and placed a plate of fresh bāozi on my desk.
* * *
“We’ll be back around eight. Turn the TV off when you hear the garage open,” I told Jake before we left, guessing he would flip on the Super Bowl and ignore his schoolwork. My slot wasn’t until after intermission, so we sat in the audience for the show’s first half. Mā led our way into and through the room, walking past the surprised waves of several schoolmates who hadn’t seen me at Chinese school since sixth grade. I spotted shūshu stranded among a crowd of empty seats in the far back corner. We cut through one of the middle rows and stopped near the end, next to bà’s friend and her family, with shūshu’s presence lurking five rows back. “Chūnjié kuàilè,” all of us said. It wasn’t really for another week.
Bà swapped rumors about high school seniors and college applications, and it reminded me that next year, my name would join the gossip of dinner parties and Chinese hair salons among parents I never met, in towns I never visited. Mā usually participated, but she remained quiet. Not at peace, like yesterday. Her quiet had the quality of paralysis.
For the first act, costumed children shuffled around and recited three poems bà had me memorize too, as a kid. This was the first time I parsed their words and understood them; from my own mouth it had felt like a song I was too busy playing to hear myself. Dancers lined up second, crouching with their backs facing us, but as the music began and their red gowns spun, the face of my friend Angela beamed at the crowd. When I asked her about it later, it turned out she went every weekend, even after graduating Chinese school, to help instruct the younger dancing classes.
Mā left to find the bathroom. As she walked behind, I locked my head forward, terrified she and shūshu would catch me if I turned back, and counted the seconds until her return: ten, twenty, one hundred. I reached two hundred before giving up. She didn’t know where the bathroom was; it could take her twenty minutes. Bà snoozed in his chair, his head limping toward the right.
A girl strummed an instrument I had never seen outside China, with the sound of a harp and the shape of a keyboard-sized guitar neck. In my program, all the acts were written in unrecognizable Chinese except mine: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Movement 1, printed in English. A blurb underneath presumably mentioned the inheritance theme. People probably saw that and snickered; I would have, too. For the rest of the year, Angela would go back to tap and jazz, the girl onstage would return to the piano, but at least they presented something Chinese for Chinese New Year. What was the octet passing down? Beethoven with mā’s ex-lover now and Beethoven in concerts later and Beethoven forever.
Mā came back and whispered into my ears, “Shūshu wants you to go warm up with him and the others after this one. He says to meet by the back corner.”
I was the first one there. “Ready?” he asked as the lights dimmed and the girl bowed. “Let’s do a couple scales together, to help us play in tune.”
That was probably the moment, the two of us shielded by darkness and our voices cloaked by applause; the moment to dust off six years of silence; a moment flitting past Earth before it slung off into space—gone.
“Sorry, I don’t say much when nervous,” I said. We exchanged a few words during warmups to make adjustments, but for the most part he left me alone after that.
Onstage, my mind split off my viola. My thoughts drifted as my bow and fingers assembled the music on autopilot. How my seat was too up front and center, and people were watching my nose scrunch and my cheeks puff out, and some of them would take pictures or tease me at school. How the intensity of the light made me sweat, and a bead of sweat rolled down my neck into my dress, and this dress felt tight and scratchy today, and there was an itch on my side. How I wasn’t angled in a way I could sneak a glance at mā, to know which of us she looked at, or if bà monitored her for the same thing.
I didn’t hear the performance until the final note, when it rushed into my ear as a whole. Decent enough for the ordinary template of compliments. Not amazing, like I had hoped, or disastrous, like I had expected. Nothing worth remembering.
Our family lingered at the end for food and talk. My friends found me first, to congratulate each other, while shūshu spoke to a circle of parents and children too young to stray away. Mā stood on his left, and bà stood next to her. When our conversation turned toward the SATs, I tore myself from my friends and approached my parents’ backs.
“Before the schools closed,” shūshu said to one kid, “my goal was to enter college and study chemistry. Music wasn’t serious for me. But people heard Mozart coming from our basement and raided it and shredded the sheet music and took my violin away. Western music was counterrevolutionary, for capitalists.
“After we were sent to the countryside, I met Lí Rúhàn.” He spoke to the entire group now as he gestured at mā. She raised her right hand and wrapped her left around bà’s. I couldn’t see their faces from behind them. Either I hid in their shadows and listened unnoticed, or I could stand on the other side of the crowd and watch them as they watched me.
“She snuck her brother’s violin with her to the village, because he was the only one in her family who played; no one checked her stuff. And she brought books, too. Textbooks, even Western sheet music. She’s so smart, she knew the Cultural Revolution wouldn’t last, and she was determined to prepare. So nighttime we snuck to the river or muted a room by stuffing rags in the door gap, and we studied with moon or candlelight, and took breaks for music. Beethoven and Lí Rúhàn became my best friends. She gave me the violin when she went home.
“I studied and practiced in the morning, during meals, in my dreams. For ten years, until the gāokǎo came back. Chemistry didn’t interest me anymore; I had to become a musician. The Shanghai Conservatory admitted me, and several years later, so did Brooklyn.
“I’m not working in an orchestra, but there’s music every day of my life because of your support. Many of you chose me as your children’s violin instructor. Without you, the musicians of the past, and these young musicians of the future, I wouldn’t be here. Thank you.”
Mā’s right hand moved toward her head. I imagined it brushing tears from her eyes and concealing her smile. Bà’s impassive face was as stiff as their hands, gripped together in a lock.
Later that night, with my viola clamped between my chin and collarbone, I raised my bow toward the ceiling, pivoted toward my bedroom mirror, and forced my neck and shoulders to relax. “I live a good life,” I said, fingers shaking as my bow slid across the fourth string. My viola hummed the first note of Beethoven’s String Quartet. No. Four, but the E fell flat.
Morgan Song lives in Seattle, sneaking in time to write stories while pursuing a PhD in the sciences at the University of Washington. This is Morgan’s first published work, in either fiction or the sciences.
In cowhide suspenders, nine-year-old Xavier was running toward the village. A copy of the Reverend’s abridged bible bobbed in his hands like a fish struggling to return to the sea. He had forgotten to read the assigned chapter in the bible. Last night, captivated by the stars in the dark purple clouds around the moon, he had fallen asleep on the roof of his family’s two-story farmhouse. He always wanted to be an explorer, though the Reverend would never allow it. Farmers’ kids become farmers, he’d say. To leave the village would bring dishonor to your family. Dishonor was disrespect, and disrespect was sin, seldom forgiven by the Maker or the Reverend or your own parents. Xavier feared the village would no longer love him if he left. He didn’t want to live with the dishonor.
Still descending the hill, he shivered violently—an eastern gust blew into him like a flying tree branch—and stumbled over his unbuckled shoes and collapsed.
On his way to town, Xavier leapt around a boulder along the path. Pooling around the edges of his green eyes, sunlight danced on every strand of his long blonde hair. He inhaled the air, smelling of dirt and wharf. He climbed over the picket fence surrounding his family’s cornfield and ascended another hill. Last night, as he dreamt of finding strange, new lands with a bindle and a bible, his head lay on his bible. When he woke up a half hour ago, the bible was gone. It had fallen off the roof and landed in a thorny rose bush. He wanted to leave the bible behind, but he remembered the wrath of the Reverend. Last week, the Reverend had spanked a girl for allowing a crow to fly off unharmed. Xavier stood at the corner with the drunkards, watching the girl flail and scream under the Reverend. “Forgive this child, our Maker!” the Reverend shouted. He spanked her until she lay motionless. The boy walked home, his bible heavy in his arms like the cross the Virgin Father carried to his own crucifixion.
* * *
The villagers thought the sun was the threshold to Hell, the Dark One’s domain.
Last week crows descended from the sun to eat scraps of bread on their porches. A gaunt man with bright gray eyes, the Reverend ordered the villagers to kill the birds. Women beat the birds with rolling pins, while their husbands shot at the crows with muskets. When the crows left or lay dead on the road, the villagers followed the Reverend to the church to pray. Xavier knew the story well; his parents had ordered him to erect scarecrows all around their farmhouse in order to ward off the birds. He did as he was told, and the birds never touched the house, just the surrounding cornfields which his parents grew. The cornstalks grew to nearly eight feet, their stems implacable like ironweeds. Now the stalks weathered the salty wind coming from the west, where the ocean writhed. Xavier could almost hear ocean as he continued to rush toward the village. Meanwhile, on Main Street, bakers carried warm rye loafs to the old women outside the church. Children played hopscotch and horseshoes near rosebushes. Drunkards in wrinkled flannel shirts stumbled out of pubs and grimaced at the younger ladies, who strolled past, their large petticoats swaying behind them. The respectable men wore ties; the lazy men, overalls. But they tried not to discriminate, especially not today. Saturday. The day of Mass.
* * *
The Reverend once said, “Any child late for Saturday school shall be beaten or flogged.” Xavier remembered the Reverend saying this to the kids in church. For a moment Xavier thought the Reverend was speaking solely to him and vowed never to arrive late to Saturday school, so now he ran faster toward the village. The sun continued to rise, the horizon dressed in pink and orange clouds. While Xavier climbed down another hill, the Reverend’s gray eyes appeared in his mind like a flashback. He’d never forget the way the Reverend spanked that girl. It could’ve easily been him.
Still descending the hill, he shivered violently—an eastern gust blew into him like a flying tree branch—and stumbled over his unbuckled shoes and collapsed. He tumbled halfway down the hill. A stone cut his forehead as he rolled over a thorny thicket of weeds and white roses, and he winced and moaned, fearing that might’ve broken a bone or two in his arms. He’d never felt so much pain. He cried out to the Maker for help, his supplication echoing across the cornfield below. Quickly though, the wind, a yelp over the cornfields, drowned out his voice. On the hill, he got to his feet and cried out again, but stopped. He looked out toward the horizon in disbelief.
Sailing on top of the cornstalks, a sloop lurched, light as a gondola, its pink sails bulging in the wind. The ship’s mainmast towered over Xavier, the bowsprit pointing at him. The wind died down. An anchor was thrown overboard. The ship stopped but still levitated. An old woman with bright violet eyes stepped onto the ship’s capstan. As he prayed to the Maker for mercy, the wind carried the woman to his side. He looked up, dumbstruck. Brandishing a staff, she wore a purple tricorn hat with a peacock feather. Her tawny hair flowed in another breeze, this one quieter, smelling of ambrosia. She wore a yellow velvet dress coat. Tied around her waist, a leather bandolier held a pistol and a leather holster carried a golden naval short sword. The silver buckles on her black shoes glinted, and white stockings and brown breeches hugged her legs. She helped the boy to his feet. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating.
“What are you?” he asked, awestruck. “A worshipper of the Dark One?”
“Dark One?” she said. “Not quite, darling. Just an explorer.”
The crystal on her staff shimmered, and his cuts and bruises vanished. Though he no longer felt any pain, he stepped back, clutching his bible. “Witchcraft?”
“Explorer,” she repeated. “There’s no need to be afraid.” She knelt once more, eyes sparkling. “I’ve come for supplies for my trip back to the sun.”
“The sun?” His voice was a muffled whisper. He was frightened. “What do you know about the crows?”
“What’s beyond the sun? Hell?”
“Hell?” she exclaimed suddenly. He shuddered with surprise, so she answered softly, “No, sweetie. The sun’s not the threshold to Hell.”
He found it within himself to believe her. Then he looked at her clothes and weapons with wonder. She returned his gaze with an amiable chuckle. “I’ve been on many adventures beyond the sun,” she said. “I can share one with you.”
He looked at her outstretched hand. He’d never seen another explorer before. Hesitantly, he grabbed her hand. Her fingers were delicate, airy as her voice. Standing with her as they walked down the hill, he breathed in the smell of lemon on her coat. His arms felt lighter; he’d accidentally dropped his copy of the Reverend’s bible on the hill.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
He thought of the Reverend’s glare and the crumpled girl on his lap. He shook his head. “Nothing. I have everything I need.” He touched the hilt of her sword and the butt of her pistol with his free hand. He’d never touched a sword or gun before.
She told him the time she hunted a unicorn in the moors of a faraway land. He gripped her hand tighter, wanting more details. “After I killed the creature,” she said, “it turned into this.” She raised her staff. For the first time he marveled at the crystal on the staff. “You see,” she continued, “every person has a destiny. To fulfill your destiny, you must decide to live with excitement and danger.”
“Is that why you’re an explorer? For the excitement and danger?”
“In a way, yes.” They stopped at the edge of the village. “Exploring is my life.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said, “explorers like me feel most alive when we’re exploring.”
“Is every day an adventure for you?”
“Every day should be an adventure,” she said. “In essence, I live to explore and I explore to live.” She glanced at him. “Make sense?”
He nodded without hesitation, picturing yesterday’s starlit sky. She wrapped an arm around him, and they continued on.
* * *
Xavier and the woman walked down the center of Main Street, then stopped outside the church. On the corner, drunkards sat on wooden chairs, looking at the mysterious woman.
She tipped her hat in greeting, but the drunkards said nothing. She turned to Xavier. “Where’s the store?” The boy glanced at the drunkards as they shared cold looks, then scrambled to the church.
Xavier turned to the woman and pointed to the building across the street. “There,” he answered. He felt strange, a growing sense of unease in his stomach. He couldn’t stop thinking about the drunkards. “Want me to come along?”
“Thank you, but I can handle it from here,” she said. “If you stay though, I might come back with a sweet for you.” He smiled with gratitude and took the drunkards’ seats on the corner as she strolled across the road.
Disrespect was dishonor—a sin, Xavier knew. But he took the woman’s hand. He felt safe with her. The Reverend stepped forward, and his gray eyes pierced the boy’s pupils.
Suddenly, voices erupted from inside the church. The clamoring sounds of men and women too afraid to walk outside. The unease grew even more feverishly inside Xavier, who dashed to the front door of the church and peered inside from the wooden stoop. Women were pacing down the center aisle with bewilderment; men were stomping down the pews. There were a hoard of screams and wild hand gestures. A boy no older than Xavier, the Reverend’s assistant, splashed his face with Holy Essence in front of a statue of the Virgin Father, as if to atone for a crime. The Reverend stood on a table at the end of the room, watching his flock go mad. Xavier trembled. He hadn’t seen such panic since the incident with the crows.
Within the din, several drunkards described the woman with the staff. “A witch,” one spat, chuckling at a flabbergasted older woman in gray petticoats. “She’s come to kill us!” Laughing, the drunkard opened his flask.
The Reverend raised his arms and his flock fell silent. He shook his head. “I expected more from you,” he said. “The woman these men are describing has come from the sun.”
“The kindling!” a woman shrieked. “What about the kindling?”
The Reverend gestured to a couple men in the corner of the room. “Retrieve the wood.” The Reverend added, “Just in case.”
Xavier turned around. The woman started across the street with a sack in her left hand. A group of children in white dress shirts and black dress pants trailed behind, keeping their distance. He returned to the corner and sat. The woman took a seat next to him and glanced at the church. “Is the church typically this loud?” she asked.
“They’re talking about you,” Xavier said, glancing at the church. “They fear you.”
“They wouldn’t fear me if they got to know me.” She gave the boy a piece of caramel from her sack.
A girl from the group grabbed his wrist. “She must’ve come from the sun!” she whispered. The woman returned Xavier’s incredulous look with another benign smile. Before any of the other kids could speak up, he threw the caramel into his mouth and sucked on the sweet. The kids looked on as he chewed and swallowed the candy.
“See?” Xavier said. “Nothing to fear.”
The kids stepped forward. The woman rummaged the sack for more sweets.
But the church door burst open and out stormed the Reverend, followed by the drunkards. They pointed at the woman with dirty fingers. “Children, back away from this demon!” the Reverend said, striding to the corner. The boy looked at the woman with alarm. The other children stood still in terror. “I shall draw out my whip!” the Reverend threatened.
The other children complied, running behind the Reverend. Their parents came out of the church. The mothers kissed their children, and the fathers scolded them for not being at Saturday school. Xavier’s father and mother glared at their son from the top of the stoop.
“Come here, son,” his father called. “Don’t disrespect the Reverend.”
Disrespect was dishonor—a sin, Xavier knew. But he took the woman’s hand. He felt safe with her. The Reverend stepped forward, and his gray eyes pierced the boy’s pupils. “Do as you’re told,” the Reverend said. “The Eleventh Commandment states: ‘The young must obey the elders, for they know the way to salvation.’”
He extended a calloused hand, the same hand he used to spank that girl. Xavier stepped behind the woman and squeezed her hand tighter. “It’s all right,” she told Xavier. “I don’t want to get you into trouble.” She turned to the Reverend. “This is a misunderstanding. I came only for supplies.”
“That’s of no consequence,” the Reverend said. “My bible says—”
“I’ve never read your bible,” she said. “I don’t want to insult your way of life. If you promise to take good care of the boy, I’ll be much obliged.”
“I don’t oblige witches,” the Reverend said, and turned to Xavier. “Come or be flogged!”
“That’s not necessary,” the woman said. She looked into Xavier’s eyes. “Start living, child,” she whispered and kissed his cheek.
The adults gasped. The Reverend seized the boy. He twisted in pain.
“Don’t!” the woman said.
The Reverend’s assistant drenched the boy’s face with Holy Essence. The blessed seawater jetted up his nose and down his throat, leaving a salty taste in his mouth. He twisted against them and rubbed the water from his eyes. Then the Reverend slapped Xavier’s rear, and the boy whimpered. He looked at his mother and father, who were returning to the church, heads turned away in disappointment. The Reverend swung again. Cringing, Xavier wondered if the pain would ever go away.
The woman stepped forward. “Let him go!” she said. “I’ll leave.”
The Reverend spanked him again. Another whimper. Tears across his face. All strength in his legs gone. He wanted to crawl to the woman and beg her to take him away. He no longer cared about sin. He cared about her, about exploring, about life. The woman reached out, but the Reverend slapped her hand and she stumbled back.
“Pray for forgiveness,” the Reverend said to Xavier. He grasped the boy’s arms with both hands. Xavier thought about kicking the Reverend back, but his legs were still weak and his rear still stung. He didn’t know what to say. His underarms sweated, the tips of his fingers tingled, snot lolled from his nostrils, his heartbeat boomed as he shook his head again. Then he rested his eyes on the Reverend. “Let go,” he muttered. He regained some strength in his calves. “Let go.”
“Beg the Maker for forgiveness,” the Reverend said.
“No.” The boy stood up straight. “I want to leave. You can’t treat me like this.”
The Reverend bit his lower lip, clearly vexed.
“Let. Go. Now!”
The Reverend yanked Xavier to the ground. His forehead dug into the gravel and blood looped around his right eyebrow. He cringed underneath the Reverend, coughing and shaking with fatigue. He turned toward the woman. She stepped forward again, but the Reverend shoved her back. “Demons from the sun deserve to die!” he declared. “Did you send the crows upon us? Have you come to corrupt our souls, as you have done with this boy?” Forced to his feet, the boy tottered.
“I mean no harm,” the woman cried. “Let me heal him.” She raised her staff. The crowd shuddered. A drunkard threw a bottle into the air, and it crashed a foot away from the woman. She stumbled back in surprise.
“The boy must be purified!” the Reverend said and threw the boy into the hands of several men. “The sea must cleanse him of his sins. Strip him!”
Xavier watched the man’s head erupt. A billow of blood, brain, and skull in the sunlight. When the shot man crumpled to the ground, Xavier screamed for help. He reached out for the woman, but he fell too fast over the edge.
Xavier tried to swat the men away, but they restrained him and pulled off his clothes. As the boy wept, the mothers covered their children’s eyes. A man lifted the boy into his arms. The boy kicked and screamed and panted as though he were drowning. Suddenly, the Reverend and several men rushed at the woman, but she drew out her sword and swung, cutting the tip of a man’s thumb. The mob stumbled back and the man holding Xavier started to run toward the sea, so the woman raised her staff and its crystal glimmered. The wind raged. It shoved men, women, and children to the ground. The Reverend and several men lumbered through the wind. The boy watched the woman scamper after him, and so he cried out for help. The woman placed her sword back into its holster and drew out the pistol while the man with the boy ran to a promontory overlooking gushing waters, the salty wind stampeding up the rock wall to the grassy edge. She pointed the pistol at the man’s head.
The Reverend, along with six men, ran to the cliff.
“He did nothing wrong!” the woman said.
The Reverend pointed to the man holding Xavier. “Toss him in—or be damned!”
The man stepped to the edge.
“No!” the woman said and fired the pistol.
Xavier watched the man’s head erupt. A billow of blood, brain, and skull in the sunlight. When the shot man crumpled to the ground, Xavier screamed for help. He reached out for the woman, but he fell too fast over the edge. He spiraled in the air, arms flailing, air caught in his throat, the world a blur of sensations and colors—the prickling of his skin, blood converging with snot and sweat on his bottom lip, the dark brown cliff merging with the aquamarine sea. Then he plunged into a whirlpool of seaweed. The surf pummeled into his chest and jetties whirled him near rocky spires. He clamored toward the surface of the sea, but the waves dragged him back down. Hoping his new friend would find him, he slapped and kicked the current to stay afloat. But soon he started to black out. Short of breath. Under the sun he drifted and bobbed. Drifted and bobbed relentlessly.
* * *
Xavier rolled his head in delirium and coughed up water on the sand and polished stones along the coastline. The setting sun touched the horizon, spreading the violet twilight across the cornfields and the sea. Slowly he remembered what happened, but in blurs: the ship, the woman, the drunkards, the Reverend, the cliff. After several minutes, he crept toward the village, and along the way he put on a pair of pants hanging on a clothesline and walked on, avoiding a group of men and women beating crows with brooms. He wanted to laugh at them, but he kept moving forward. His nose twitched at the smell of dying smoke. Soon he reached the church. Outside the building, kindling smoldered. The woman’s coat, now burnt, lay before him. A drunkard, the only other person outside the church, turned to him. The boy peered at the kindling, then dropped to his knees. He felt like vomiting, the woman’s blackened body smelled so acrid.
“Serves her right, coming here.” The drunkard took a sip from his flask. “Boy, you should tell the others you survived. I bet my brother a gold coin that you’d live.” He snickered.
Xavier stared at the drunkard. “I did die,” he said, rising. “Then I chose to live.”
The drunkard looked bemused. In the pile of char, a light flickered. The boy reached into the pile. A breeze blew away a collection of embers, revealing the woman’s staff, unmarred by the fire. The drunkard staggered forward.
“That’s impossible!” the drunkard said.
“I guess it chose to live too,” the boy said.
“Witchcraft,” the drunkard murmured. “You’re a witch!”
“No,” the boy said. “I’m an explorer.”
The man reached out to take the staff, but Xavier was quicker. He started down the street with the staff. On his way to the cornfields, he encountered several other villagers who called out his name in shock, but he walked on by without saying a word. He wasn’t followed. The woman’s ship still floated above the cornstalks. Staff in hand, Xavier climbed the anchor’s chain, and when he reached the deck, the crystal on the staff sparkled. The anchor rose by itself. The wind guided the ship west. He thought about the woman and began to cry. He’d never forget her.
The wind was strong. The ship flew westward, the stars blinking in the violet clouds. He closed his eyes with fear and exhilaration, and minutes later, the wind gave another shove against the sails and sent him closer toward the threshold of the sun.
Jacob Butlett holds a BA in creative writing from Loras College. His current work has been published or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Into the Void, Fterota Logia, Street Light Press, Gone Lawn, The Limestone Review, Outrageous Fortune, Wilderness House Literary Review, Picaroon Poetry, Free Lit Magazine, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Oratoria, Varnish: A Journal of Arts and Letters, The Phoenix, Tilde: A Literary Journal, Panoplyzine, Clarion, Cold Creek Review, The Shallows, and plain china. In 2017 he won the Bauerly-Roseliep Scholarship for excellence in literary studies and creative writing.
Photo Credit: Jessica Heim
—For my godson and his brother
Tipping over trash cans and stacks of empty crates as he went, Ben created an obstacle course behind him. Ashen-colored snow flew up from under his feet as he ran through the alley at an all-out sprint. Dirty snow crunching, he thought. Flight of the muse underway, Urban brick canyon. His pursuer, Trent Waller, a known bully, was easily a hundred pounds heavier and stood a good ten inches taller than Ben. Trent shouted after him, red face puffing.
Murder is my gift!
Escape shall not release you
Winter on your soul!
Ben stifled a chuckle. “That’s pretty good, Trent,” he called back over his shoulder. “Can you try it again with a little more local color?” At that, Trent let out an animalistic scream and Ben, for his part, ran that much faster.
* * *
Ben didn’t see his gift as a superpower, at first. It was anything but practical and not the least bit heroic. But, Ben admitted to himself, he could still use it to help create beauty and new ways of seeing, new ways of expressing. Still, he found himself wishing he could do more with it. As with many endowed with super abilities, his power first manifest itself in early adolescence, about the same time his voice took a deep turn.
Tipping over trash cans and stacks of empty crates as he went, Ben created an obstacle course behind him. Ashen-colored snow flew up from under his feet as he ran through the alley at an all-out sprint. Dirty snow crunching, he thought. Flight of the muse underway, Urban brick canyon.
His world literature class had just spent a two-week lesson on Japan, and when they read the haiku of the great and timeless poet, Matsuo Bashō, the beauty of it surprised young Ben. The presentation of the everyday in simple elegance, the subtle reference to seasonality, they captivated him. Infected him. He stayed up late nights reading haiku with a flashlight in one hand, under the covers of his bed, hoping to go unnoticed by his parents. He began to see haiku moments, as he would later call them, everywhere. He wrote haiku to his family, leaving them posted on the refrigerator or microwave oven. A simple note meant to tell his parents that he was across the street at his friend’s house itself was rendered in the age-old syllabic formula: five, seven, five.
Crossing still black ice
Warm Victorian refuge
Dinner returns me.
The problem, of course, is that any poem, by its very nature, is subject to a myriad of meanings and interpretations. Would dinner return Ben home, or had dinner been what returned Ben to his friend’s house? After a few such mix-ups, and to the relief of everyone involved, Ben restrained his love of the poetic form, deploying it more tactfully.
Haiku had imprinted upon him. It filled him up and changed him. The peculiar poetic power revealed itself to Ben at home when, one Saturday morning, he was trying to explain his deep affection for the art form to his older brother Anthony.
“Anthony, you’re going to love this one,” Ben said, preparing to read the eleventh (twelfth?) haiku since breakfast. Anthony shrugged. He was focused on upgrading the apps on his phone.
“In a minute, Ben,” he said. Anthony’s nonchalance triggered Ben’s frustration. He had such lackluster admiration for something so important.
“You just don’t get it!” Ben shouted and waved his hands in exasperation. In that instant, a certain transference occurred. Anthony caught a variation of the infection (or spell, whatever it was) that had imprinted upon Ben. But it was different, a thing done to him and not born of his own appetite or aesthetic.
Anthony’s confusion mounted as he tried to respond to Ben. He couldn’t form a coherent sentence.
Such a change in view.
What trickery visits me?
Anthony realized that he could only speak, only think, in haiku. Every word and idea structured and expressed poetically, in syllabic precision. His very vision, transformed. Whereas for Ben the infection left his freedom of expression intact, the constraining spell only frustrated Anthony.
“This must stop brother
As sunbeams melt winter snow
Unfetter my speech,” Anthony said.
Ben jumped half out of his seat, excited at Anthony’s spontaneous haiku. But as he took in its meaning, he knew what was wrong. The poem that Anthony spoke connected to Ben’s very spirit, conveying Anthony’s angst.
“Anthony?” Ben asked. But when Anthony only repeated the same verse it confirmed to Ben what had happened. “I release you,” Ben said, not entirely sure what else to do. Anthony let out a gasp, as if he had been holding his breath and had just come up from under water.
“What happened?” Anthony demanded.
“I… I made you a haiku poet,” Ben answered.
“But how? Why?”
“I don’t know,” Ben answered, shaking his head.
The boys agreed not to speak of this, at least for now, until they could better understand what had happened. But, as it turns out, neither were very good at keeping this secret.
* * *
Anthony handed Ben his tablet. “Read this,” he said. The browser showed an article titled “What every Parent should know about Superpowers,” on a parenting web page. Anthony had highlighted a paragraph.
“Competing origin theories about superpowers abound: exposure to a special type of radiation or the awakening of a long dormant strand of DNA, magic, extraterrestrial lineage, ancient gods from the pantheons of old brought out of hiding into the modern world. Among the superpowers there exists a hierarchy. Omnipotence, usually with an Achille’s Heel, anchors one end of the spectrum but the other end, though diverse and difficult to explain, is no less critical to understand, and no less important in the lives of the people who have them. Whatever the origin, parents should understand the challenges of raising a child with superpowers.”
Ben set the tablet down. “We should talk to Iris,” he said.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Anthony said. “Nobody knows more about superpowers than Iris.”
* * *
Iris lit a slender reed of incense in the art studio in the back room of her basement apartment. She flipped her locks of chestnut brown curls out of her face, only to see them flop right back where they were. Her rosy cheeks contrasted with the milky white of her complexion. The incense she selected was a lemon aromatic to counter the winter bluster outside. Though she looked vibrant in her early middle-age, Iris was an old soul, and, indeed, an ancient being. Ben and Anthony lived in the house upstairs and were frequent visitors to her art studio. The two of them sat on stools that were stippled with flicks of color, the painted byproduct of the art that was created there.
Twelve students in all paid for the haiku services. None of it was cheating, they told each other, because the words weren’t Ben’s, but came from each person, and the images and connections conveyed were truly those of the author. Ben’s power was to restructure their thought and speech, but he took no credit for their poems.
Iris placed her sketch pad, colored pencils, and markers on an old, worn wooden table. She took a deep breath, appreciating the aroma from the lemon-scented incense.
“Have you come here to watch me?” she asked.
“Not really. Not this time,” Ben said.
“Well, then?” Iris asked.
“You’re the goddess of color,” Ben said. Iris smiled.
“But, listen,” Anthony interrupted. “Something happened. Maybe something you’ve seen before.”
“To me,” Ben said. “It happened to me. We’re hoping maybe you could explain it.” Ben paused, waiting for Iris to say something. When she didn’t, he continued. “I have a sort of spell I can cast, but it’s weird.”
“Magic, by its very nature, is weird,” Iris said. “Have you cast it?”
“By accident,” Ben said.
“On me,” Anthony interjected. Iris looked Anthony up and down.
“You seem fine now. Is everything okay?”
“Yes. I’m okay,” Anthony said.
“Tell me what happened,” Iris said.
Anthony started in at the point in the story where the spell—if that’s what it was—had been cast on him.
“But that’s not where it started,” Ben interrupted. “It started in my world lit class, when we studied the writings of Matsuo Bashō.”
“Ah, yes, Bashō,” Iris said with a nod.
“Then, you’ve heard of him,” Ben said.
“Heard of him? He was my friend,” Iris said, smiling at an age-old memory. Both Ben and Anthony looked at her with wonder in their eyes. “And I will tell you that story another time,” she said. “Tell me more, Ben, about your magic.” Ben spoke of his first time reading the poetry from Japan, of his love and then infatuation with it. He spoke of haiku moments, and how virtually everything either seen or done could be presented in its elegant format. He told of his voracious appetite for the form of poetry. Finally, he told her about Anthony, and his casual appreciation for haiku and of Ben’s frustration with it, and of Ben’s casting of the spell.
“It’s like everything changed,” Anthony said. “It was more than me just thinking up poems. It was like, I thought in haiku and only haiku.”
Iris nodded, intrigued though not alarmed by what the boys told her. “You’re not the first to have this kind of power, but you may be the first in over a thousand years.” She walked over to a book shelf and pulled off a dusty, faded volume. Blowing the dust from it, she handed it to Ben.
“The Muses Through the Ages,” Ben read aloud.
“You can borrow it, if you’d like,” Iris said. “But all you really need to know is that for thousands of years there have been those entrusted with special powers such as yours.”
Ben nodded. “It’s just… When I imagine all the superpowers in the universe, I never would have put haiku on that list. It’s not like the ability to fly or walk through walls or turn invisible. I never knew this one was even an option. It’s not even really a superpower,” he said.
“Isn’t it?” Iris asked.
“I can’t fight crime with it,” Ben said.
“I can’t stop a bad guy.”
“I can’t even make people like it!”
Iris walked to a cabinet in the far corner of her basement apartment. She pulled a framed picture off the shelf which the boys immediately recognized as one of her creations. The frame was a simple, unstained wood, and inside of it appeared a Gaelic wreath concentric circles. At the center of the circles was a white sphere, the reflection of the sun or moon on water. Forming a perimeter around the white center was the still water of an aqua-blue pond. The next circle was a band of vibrant green, the stems and leaves of lotus lilies growing out of the water. Little green frogs rested on leaves. The final, outer-most band of the concentric circles was a wreath of rich, blue lotus blossoms, perched atop the green stems.
“Tell me,” she said, showing Ben the print. “Does this print lie to you?”
“Lie?” Ben asked.
“Does it attempt to deceive you? Or, has it told you the truth of the matter?”
“It’s art. You made it with colored pencils and markers,” Ben protested.
“Answer my question, does the print lie to you or has it spoken the truth?”
“I don’t know. It’s beautiful, Iris. I like it a lot. But I don’t know what it says,” Ben said, her questions flustering him.
“Can you write a poem about it?” Iris asked. Ben’s eyes lit up, like this was the first thing she said that made any sense. He inhaled a deep breath and fixed his eyes on the print.
Citrus smoke curls ’round
Blue blossoms on still water
Tiny frog’s delight.
“Matsuo would love that one,” she said. Anthony set his hand on Ben’s shoulder and winked his approval. Iris continued. “What if your poem is like the picture, neither true or false? What if this image that I made with markers and pencils rests someplace outside of those types of questions? And what if that is your power, your gift, Benjamin? What if the poet stands apart from matters of truth and falsehood, creating in the realm of meaning, and irony, and allegory. Beauty and despair. Hope and longing. Fulfillment and unrequited everything. And the poet, who does not seek to tell the truth, also cannot lie.”
Ben was quiet, contemplating what Iris had to say.
“Continue your path,” Iris said. “In time, more will be revealed.”
* * *
To Ben’s mind, nothing more was revealed. Nothing except for Anthony’s plans. Anthony saw a market opportunity in his younger brother’s power. He organized a group of older kids as they were preparing their applications for college, a ritual Anthony would soon enough perform for himself.
“We can give you that extra edge,” he said. ” We can make your application stand out.” And the students, vying for whatever advantage to increase the chances that they might gain acceptance into their colleges of choice, were all too eager to pay.
A boy named Jared Bishop submitted one of his three essays for admission to different, exclusive universities as a series of gorgeous haiku.
A girl named Melody Armstrong explained her experiences as a daughter in a working-class, single-parent family and peppered the essay with the poignant three-line stanzas, enriching her story and moving it from one of stark, indifferent, hardship to one of hardship layered with the deeper beauties of resistance and resilience.
Twelve students in all paid for the haiku services. None of it was cheating, they told each other, because the words weren’t Ben’s, but came from each person, and the images and connections conveyed were truly those of the author. Ben’s power was to restructure their thought and speech, but he took no credit for their poems.
Ben looked at his newfound wealth. What was supposed to be fun and exciting seemed petty and even a little embarrassing.
“We’ve got six hundred dollars, Anthony, but it doesn’t feel right,” Ben said.
“I know what you mean. It feels like maybe we’re cheapening it,” Anthony said. The boys put the project on hold.
* * *
Ben remained infatuated with his new art form. He read books about and by the master, Matsuo Bashō. When he wasn’t reading or writing haiku, he would read about the muses in the book he borrowed from Iris.
One night, as the boys were preparing for bed, they sat together, leafing through super hero comics, sorting them according to powers and abilities. Anthony looked at Ben, a small dollop of mint-scented toothpaste still in the corner of his mouth.
“Ben, I’ve been thinking about your superpower. I think there’s more to it than making money turning people into poets, but I don’t know what that is yet,” Anthony said. “I think maybe you should drop your Spanish class and take Japanese. That’s where haiku started, right? In Japan? I mean, all the Bashō you read is translated from Japanese.” Ben nodded. “You could read it in its original language. And I’ve been thinking about the muses, too,” Anthony continued.
“I just can’t find examples of how they helped anything,” Ben said. “They helped people be creative, write poems and history. But they were just minor gods. A superhero needs to do something more. Look at Morgan Carter,” he said, referring to a Canadian soldier who was all over the news for leaping three stories into a burning building and rescuing a family. “Or Leticia Del Villar,” he said, referring to a famous woman whose premonitions predicted with eerie accuracy deadly, but avoidable accidents. She worked with a tech startup to develop an app to warn people days in advance, saving scores of lives each year.
“Don’t compare yourself with them, or the muses, even. Stop thinking about them, like at all,” Anthony said. “The muses’ spells didn’t work exactly like yours does, anyway. They inspired creativity but didn’t force it. And they lived like, five thousand years ago. What would they know about life today?”
“But Iris gave me the book,” Ben said.
“She gave you the book so that you’d know you’re not alone. But what you do with it, that’s on you, not on Iris or the muses or anything in that book.”
“But Anthony, what am I supposed to do?”
“Try being yourself. That’s always the best place to start,” Anthony said. “I know. Easier said than done sometimes.”
* * *
Ben’s phone chirped. He pulled it from his pocket to see that he had just received a text from Jared Bishop, the kid from Anthony’s school who paid to have himself haikued.
“All done haikuing for money,” Ben replied.
“Still gotta talk.”
Ben forwarded the text to Anthony. “You’re the one who knows him.”
“I’ll see what he wants,” Anthony replied.
* * *
Ben walked down the rickety steps to Iris’s basement apartment. He smelled the scent of peachy incense even before he reached the door. Faint sounds of music escaped into the hallway. He knocked.
“Come in,” said a voice from inside the apartment. Ben opened the door and saw a wiry, dark skinned woman with a black, neatly coifed afro—like a halo—working on a sketch with colored pencils.
“Iris?” Ben asked.
“I’ve never seen you in this form before,” Ben said.
“I needed inspiration,” she said. “So, I spent the day down at the boardwalk, selling paintings,” she said. Ben nodded.
“Does changing your physical appearance give you inspiration?” Ben asked.
“Usually. My appearance changes how others see me, how they interact with me, how they treat me. And that can help me see things in a new light.”
“Which one of them is the real you?”
Iris smiled and leaned in. “I’m the goddess of color, a creature of light, and an artist,” she said. “This form is as much the real me as any of the others you’ve seen. Tell me, Ben. How’s the haiku business?”
“We’re taking a break,” he said.
“Is that what you came here to talk about?”
“Sort of. I’m just tired of not knowing what to do,” Ben confided.
Iris gestured at the walls of her studio. Every inch displayed her artwork.
“Just write. See where it leads you,” she said. Ben pulled out his notepad, focused on a watercolor print, and began to write.
Pier rests on water
Steel blue ocean, virgin sand
* * *
“Ben, Jared’s being bullied,” Anthony explained. “Some guy named Trent Waller saw a copy of the college entrance essay that you helped him with and won’t let it go. I guess it was too artsy for him.” Anthony wasn’t sure who Trent was when Jared first texted him. He had to look him up on social media and in his year books. When he saw his pictures, he recognized him immediately as a twelfth-grade trouble-maker.
“What does he want us to do about it?”
“Jared thinks if you can convince Trent that you cast a spell on him, maybe he’ll stop bullying.”
“But a bully won’t care about my spell. He’s bullying Jared because he can,” Ben said.
“I know. I told him that I didn’t know what we could do, that he should talk to his parents and teachers.”
“What did he say to that?”
“He said he tried that already. Nothing changed and he’s scared to go to school now.”
“What do you think, Anthony? Do you think showing Trent my power would help Jared? It might just make me his next target.”
“That’s true,” Anthony said. “But we have to try something.”
* * *
“You said you once met Matsuo Bashō,” Ben said. “That he was your friend.”
“Indeed, we were friends,” Iris said. “I had heard of charming poetry being created on an island on the other side of the world and I went to see for myself.”
“What was he like?” Ben asked.
“Let me show you,” Iris said. “Let me show you using the technique I learned when I met Matsuo.” Iris waived her hands and colors flew from her fingers in puffs of mist. In the air between she and Ben a story began to unfold. She created an animated Japanese water-ink painting right before Ben’s eyes, floating in mid-air. The colors were gentle, shaded, subdued. A middle-aged man, Matsuo, walked along a wooded path. He was joined by a Japanese woman whose features told Ben that she was none other than Iris herself. Iris narrated her images.
“He was a restless spirit. Not always the refined poet that people today like to imagine. He could have been a samurai, but chose the life of a poet and teacher, instead.” The water-ink image of Matsuo was then transported into a home, where he set down a samurai sword, bowed, and exited, leaving the sword at the feet of a feudal lord.
“A samurai,” Ben said, and his mind conjured thoughts of the fierce Japanese knights, defenders of the Shogunate.
“It wasn’t as you might think,” Iris said. “Before Matsuo, Japan had been at war, with itself and with its neighbors.” The scene she inked showed legions of samurai training with focus and discipline before it all erupted into raging battles. “But by the time of Matsuo, samurai had no more wars to fight. Many of them became scholars and studied the arts.” The explosive scenes emanating from her fingertips—scenes of massive battles and hand-to-hand combat—faded and the colors ran as if the inks were diluted with too much water. Iris dangled her fingers up high, as a puppeteer controlling an invisible marionette might, mystical ink dripping from her fingertips. The next scene that came forth was of samurai reading, writing, and trading in their swords for other professions.
His own words stopped him cold. He looked at his hands and scanned the faces of the students. All eyes were on him.
Ben never knew that samurai could be anything but steely warriors. “Perhaps for Matsuo,” Iris continued, “the best way to use his talents would not arise from the life of a warrior, but from his poetry.” The next image she conjured in the air was of an incomplete bamboo bridge, reaching halfway across a rushing stream, abandoned by workers as the first snow of the season began to fall. “Japan may have lost an anonymous samurai, but they, and the world, gained one of our greatest creative minds.”
“Thank you, Iris,” Ben said, giving her a hug. He turned and started back up the stairs.
“I’m glad I could help,” Iris said. Ben reached the top of the stairs and paused. He turned to face Iris.
“I guess not all samurai fought battles,” he said as Iris’s story sank in.
“More to the point, not all fights are won with swords,” Iris said.
* * *
Ben’s middle school was about a mile from Lakewood High, the school Anthony attended. He would have to walk there after school to see what could be done about Trent. They agreed to try to reason with Trent, explain to him that poetry is more than whatever he might think. As Ben walked there, light wisps of snow fell lazily from the grey sky.
Snow dampening sounds
Enchantments cleansing the air
Raven’s muffled caw
When Ben arrived at the school, he saw a small crowd of students gathering in the back parking lot. Anthony waved to him.
“What’s going on?” Ben asked.
“I just got here. But see for yourself,” Anthony answered. At the center of the crowd sat a cowering Jared Bishop, shoulders slumped. His backpack was empty on the ground next to him, his books and papers strewn about. Trent Waller paced back and forth over his victim. Some students tried and failed to persuade him to leave Jared alone. Ben swallowed deep.
“Look at this,” Trent yelled to the crowd of witnesses, holding up a copy of Jared’s haiku college entrance essay that he fished from his backpack. “These poems don’t even rhyme!” He tore the sheet into small pieces and released the scraps like a snow flurry over Jared’s head. Jared sat motionless. “What’s the matter, pixie, didn’t you know poems are supposed to rhyme?”
That’s when Ben stepped forward. “Actually, haiku poems don’t have to rhyme.”
“Who are you?” Trent demanded, his voice tinted with disdain.
“My name’s Ben. I helped Jared with his poetry.” Trent wrinkled his face in a look of befuddlement. “What he did was really intricate,” Ben continued.
“Jared wrote a series of poems that alternated between the two forms of haiku,” Ben explained.
“Don’t you see? Each poem alternated between seventeen and eleven syllables. In each one, he told something about himself and how he prepared for college and the other things he needed in his essay.”
“Who are you?” Trent repeated.
“I’m Ben.” Trent looked at Ben and then down at Jared, who was using the distraction to collect his things and shove them back into his backpack. “I helped Jared write his haiku.”
Trent took a step toward Ben. “You’re the one helping him be a pixie? What’s that make you? Queen pixie herself?” Trent said, taking another menacing step toward Ben.
“No,” Ben said, exasperation evident in his tone. “Pixies aren’t just female and they don’t have anything to do with haiku. Or any poetry at all, even.” Trent’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Get up, Jared,” Ben said. “Go home.”
“Oh, you think you’re in charge here, pixie boy?” Trent said.
“I’m not a pixie. More of a muse, if anything. Can I at least explain to you what’s so special about haiku?” Trent, muscles tensed, stormed up to Ben, who, with only a second to spare, waived his hands at Trent and said “Haiku!”
“Enough with poems!
Day fades, so too my patience
I will pummel you!” Trent said.
His own words stopped him cold. He looked at his hands and scanned the faces of the students. All eyes were on him.
“You see: haiku! Not the best, but still,” Ben said with a smile, walking backwards. “Try to think, Trent! Don’t you see the beauty?”
Thoughts all twisted, transforming
Mayhem unleashed,” Trent said, his expression a mixture of wonder and frustration.
“Yes, Trent! Yes!” Ben said, excitement brimming. “Now, just stop, please! Can’t you see it? Can’t you see what you’ve created?” Ben quickened his pace, walking backwards.
Jared had collected his belongings and was running for the other side of the parking lot.
Trent let out a deep, angry howl and charged at Ben. Ben turned and ran toward an alley at the very back of the parking lot. Just as Trent hit his stride, someone’s foot jutted out, catching Trent’s ankle, sending him tumbling and then skidding across the icy pavement just before he could catch Ben. It was Anthony. But in the crowd and commotion, Trent didn’t know who tripped him.
Go, scattering stones!
Angry flames!” Trent yelled, rage and bewilderment pronounced on his face.
“A three, five, three alternative haiku!” Ben yelled, though he was fleeing at a sprint by then. “Impressive!”
Anthony, who had driven to school that day, ran to his family’s trusty blue SUV and drove through the center of the parking lot, away from the crowd. He stopped and picked up Jared who was still running at a decent clip. He knew he had to get Ben, but the alley he was running through was too narrow and cluttered for a car. He’d have to drive the long way around the block and pick him up on the other side.
Ben ran through the alley at an all-out sprint, tipping over trash cans and stacks of empty crates as he passed, creating an obstacle course behind him. Trent had recovered from his tumble and was gaining on him.
“Murder is my gift!
Escape shall not release you
Winter on your soul!”
Up ahead, Ben saw Anthony round the corner in the family car. “That’s pretty good, Trent,” he yelled, looking back over his shoulder. “Can you try it again with a little more local color?” At that, Trent bellowed guttural sounds as Anthony brought the car to a stop at the end of the alley. Jared swung the door open and Ben dove like a swimmer off a starting block into the open door. Jared swung the door closed and they sped away. The three boys laughed as they left the screaming, hapless, haiku bully behind them.
“I have an idea,” Anthony said. “Text Trent that he can never bully anyone again, or he’ll live his life in haiku!”
“Perfect,” Ben said. Jared nodded his agreement. “That would be a prison sentence for Trent. Let’s do it.”
* * *
Jared texted the terms of a truce to Trent, telling him that he must never bully another soul or he could spend the rest of his life in haiku. Trent didn’t respond at first. His pride wouldn’t let him. Three days passed before he begrudgingly texted Jared a note:
“A truce I will seek
The terms, abundantly clear
Longest night must end.”
“Any funny business,” Jared texted him, “and you can spend the rest of your life a poet.”
Trent was a depleted, defeated boy when they met him in the parking lot at Lakewood High that Saturday. Shoulders hunched, eyes downcast.
“I wish I could make you see what’s so special about haiku,” Ben said to him. Trent nodded. “I release you.”
Trent looked up, afraid to talk, fearful that he wasn’t yet released. But then the structure of his thinking reverted to normal. The world around him could finally be described any way he wanted. He turned to walk away, but Ben had to ask him one last question.
“Trent, did you see it? Did you finally see what you created? What Jared created? What poetry can do?”
“More than you know,” he mumbled.
“What do you mean?” Ben asked.
“Nothing,” Trent said, shaking his head. After a long moment, Trent looked at the boys as they waited for him to say something more. Another moment passed.
“Barren parking lot,” Trent said.
“Sunbeams falling on the snow
Four boys planting seeds.”
Jaime Balboa earned his BA in English from Adrian College. His stories have appeared in The Timberline Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Chaleur Magazine. An open water swimmer, many of his writing ideas come to him in the waters of the Pacific. He and his partner live in Los Angeles where they are raising a son. Follow him on twitter @jaimerb.
Walking into rehearsal that day, I felt awkward and out of place. I sat at my little producer’s desk in a quiet corner of the drama room. I tried to scan the space from under the cover of my bangs, while pretending to read texts. The room looked like other classrooms—beige linoleum floors, once-white walls, fluorescent overhead lights—except that the ceiling was much higher and most of the floor space was bare. As I spotted actors I knew from class and others who were only vaguely familiar from the cafeteria, I realised that the person I really wanted to see was absent. Charlotte, our star, was nowhere to be seen, but she often entered at the last minute. She seemed to enjoy making an entrance. I tried to use my peripheral vision to find Mr. Evans, the director. He might be as short as the average grade-nine student, but his animated gesticulations usually stood out in a crowd. Unfortunately, there was too much hair in my way to even spot Mr. Evans’s talkative hands, so I attempted to blow some of the bangs out of my face. Instead, I managed to spit on my phone. Lovely. I wiped the screen on my jeans and looked up in time to see Mr. Evans giving me a funny look. Oh god! Had he seen me spit on my phone then wipe it on my jeans like some grimy toddler smearing a booger on her leg?
Charlotte’s Medusa-effect seemed only to work when I was looking directly at her, so I swallowed the saliva I’d been hoarding while gazing up at Mr. Evans’s little pot belly.
Before I could figure out what to do, Charlotte breezed into the room, tossing her jean jacket on top of a pile of backpacks with a coordination and confidence I could only admire. She grinned at the room and this somehow worked as a signal to the other actors who all gathered in a circle. Mr. Evans joined them, but I hesitated. Did I have to join the circle? I wasn’t one of the creative types. I was just the student producer, the person who kept things organised and did basic math to make a budget. I looked down at my phone again, hoping for an answer. It was, as usual, totally unhelpful. Smartphone, my ass, I thought.
“Alison, phones aren’t allowed in rehearsal. Put it away and join us.” Mr. Evans stepped back to make room for me to squeeze between him and one of the actors.
“Now close your eyes. Listen to your breath.” The room was silent except for the sound of the prehistoric ventilation system rattling away above our heads. “Try to match your breathing to the people next to you. If we can breathe together, we can create art together.”
How could I match two different people’s breathing? I unintentionally held my breath while trying to listen to the breathing of my neighbours. The room gradually got louder as some people shifted uncomfortably and others tried to help those around them by inhaling and exhaling loudly. Mr. Evans either didn’t notice or didn’t mind. “Excellent work! I can feel our energies coming into alignment.” Our energies coming into alignment felt a lot like a class of kids trying to suppress giggles, but who was I to judge? “Now open your eyes and find a partner for our warmups.”
I held back as I watched the actors pair off. Even the freshmen seemed confident enough to make overtures to near-strangers. It looked like everyone else had found a partner and I was about to tell Mr. Evans that I would skip the rest of the warmup when a pair of cool blue eyes froze me to the spot.
“Looks like we’re the odd ones out.” This close, I could see that one of Charlotte’s incisors protruded a little.
I was so nervous that I couldn’t swallow my own saliva. So this is a thing I do now, I thought. My saliva tasted acidic, like warm diet soda. I nodded at Charlotte, unable to think of anything else to do. I couldn’t speak and it would be unutterably rude to just walk away. I was going to have to partner with Charlotte for whatever mad “game” Mr. Evans made us play next.
At a signal from Mr. Evans, all the actors sat on the ground. Charlotte sat cross-legged in a single fluid move. I made my way down in increments, like my arthritic grandmother: first I bent my knees a little, then I put a hand down to balance myself and finally I lowered myself all the way. At least I didn’t grunt or groan like an old person. Of course, that was probably only because I couldn’t make a sound unless I wanted to drool all over myself like some over-excited bulldog.
I craned my neck to look at Mr. Evans, pretending that I needed to see him to properly follow his directions. Charlotte’s Medusa-effect seemed only to work when I was looking directly at her, so I swallowed the saliva I’d been hoarding while gazing up at Mr. Evans’s little pot belly.
“We’re warming up with a classic today. You’re going to act as mirrors. The job of the mirror is to reflect exactly what their partner is doing. The leader’s job is to make sure that the mirror can follow their movements. Use eye contact to help you communicate. This warmup is about building bonds and paying attention to how we move. I’ll tell you when to change so that the mirror becomes the leader.” Why would awkward eye contact make people better actors? Theatre people were baffling.
Mr. Evans switched on some weirdo spa music and people shifted so that they were facing each other. It looked like the other pairs were staying seated on the floor, so I turned my body to face Charlotte and forced myself to look directly into her eyes. The cool blue of her irises were outlined in midnight blue. Her eyes reminded me of colouring books when I was a little kid. I would follow the lines with my colouring crayon, pressing down to create a satisfying dark outline, then I would lightly colour in the centre.
“Want to be the leader first?” Charlotte offered. I shook my head no. “Okay. I’ll go first,” she said.
Charlotte slowly raised her right arm, long fingers splayed in a languid hello. I tried to match her loose-limbed movements, but everything in me felt too tight. To an outsider, she must have looked like a cool ballerina, while I must have looked like a robotic facsimile of a human being.
I panicked, thinking I had somehow disappointed her, but then it came to me: I must be frowning. Why would I be frowning? Did I normally frown? I made an effort to smile.
Charlotte lowered her arm and I followed her as she rested her hand on the floor. It was difficult to concentrate on the outer edges of my body. It felt like every atom of my being was being drawn into the point where our eyes met. Charlotte smiled and my brain reminded me, a beat too late, that I was supposed to do what she did. I smiled back and her smile grew almost imperceptibly. Was it possible I had made Charlotte happy, even in some small way? I could now feel my heart as well as the hot point between us.
Charlotte reached her left hand forward, fingertips at the very edge of our imaginary boundary. I moved my own hand without thinking. In the periphery of my vision, I could see the contrast between my pale skin and her lightly tanned skin. Then she twitched her index finger forward and every atom in my body rushed to that point of contact. Emptied of my atoms, I forgot to breathe. The next moment, she slid her hand up, as if it rested against the mirror between us. My entire palm was now pressed against hers. My fingers were shorter than hers and I wondered vaguely what it would feel like if she wrapped her hand around mine.
“Everyone up! Mirrors are the leaders now!” Mr. Evans’s peppy instructions jarred me out of my reverie.
When Charlotte stood up, I followed her, still attuned to her every action. I almost mirrored her raised eyebrows until I realised she was reminding me that it was my turn to lead. Though I wanted to touch her again, I couldn’t bring myself to be that forward. Instead, I modestly nodded my head yes. She followed, frowning.
I panicked, thinking I had somehow disappointed her, but then it came to me: I must be frowning. Why would I be frowning? Did I normally frown? I made an effort to smile.
Her lips turned up, but no protruding incisor. I told myself to smile big and there it was. I took a deep breath and so did she. So this is what it was like to breathe with someone. Maybe Mr. Evans had been on to something.
Mr. Evans clapped his hands together. I didn’t break eye contact with Charlotte until he instructed the actors to take their places for Act I. At that point, I reluctantly made my way to my table. Only when I was seated did I realise I had somehow managed to swallow like a normal person during the mirror exercise. Miracle!
The rehearsal seemed to drag, probably because I had to ration my glimpses at Charlotte. I didn’t want to act like a stalker, so I made myself look at six other people before looking back at her. She was in character, which meant she seemed more regal and untouchable than ever. But I had touched her. My stomach clenched at the thought.
When Mr. Evans finally instructed the group to give themselves a round of applause, I thrilled at the sight of her walking towards me.
She stopped in front of my table. “You make me look much better than my mirror at home. Can you come to my house every morning to make me feel hot?” She laughed. Her laugh was a bit hiccup-y. I loved it. I wanted to hear more of it. “Sorry. That’s a terrible line.”
I smiled and considered flirting back. (She had to be flirting, right?) And then, with the worst possible timing, Mr. Evans interrupted. “Alison, can we speak?”
“Of course,” I said. I turned back to Charlotte, desperate to say something, anything, to let her know I was interested. “I’ll be sure to reflect on your offer.” It was a terrible pun and I regretted it the second I said it, but then she laughed again. I sketched an awkward wave as I turned away from her and readied myself for producer work.
Mr. Evans rambled on about props and costumes, but I kept thinking about Charlotte. I wondered if she was gay. Then I wondered if she knew I was gay. It’s not like I was in the closet or anything, but I also wasn’t a member of our Gay-Straight Alliance. The movies make it seem like coming out is a single, cathartic (or traumatic) moment, but it’s actually a constant process. It’s exhausting and it makes dating in high school even more confusing than it already is.
Maybe I had imagined the heated moment between us when we were playing the mirror game. Maybe I was just seeing my desire reflected back at me. Maybe it had all been performance. But wasn’t all flirting a kind of performance? If that was true, then maybe I was a bad actor. Maybe I didn’t know the right cues, the subtle signs I was supposed to use to communicate my attraction and gayness to my audience.
I left rehearsal feeling out of place with myself.
Dani Jansen is a writer, teacher and tea aficionado living in Montreal, Canada. Her work has appeared in The A3 Review, Kazka Press, and Fiction Southeast. “The Mirror Game” is a chapter from her first YA novel.
Once again, here I am with a bursting bladder and a fried brain, frozen between two doors.
They mounted it overnight, cemented the rule so that there’d be no mistaking my high school for a safe space. The engraved letters of the white-and-gray sign, so new that it hasn’t even been vandalized yet, scream at me from above the bathroom door:
It used to say Girls. That ONLY wasn’t there yesterday. And anyone who reads this new sign will know immediately that it was carved for only one person.
Me. The only student in this whole school who struggles to pick one of two options.
I know what you’re thinking. “You’re a girl, so just use the girls’ room.” Duh. It should be that simple. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Nothing is simple when people refuse to see you for who you really are. And right now, most of the people in my life refuse to see me as anything resembling the triangle-dress stick figure on the bathroom door.
Not all people, thankfully. My mom sees me, and I’m grateful for that. My best friends see me. The other theater kids see me. Hell, they were the first ones I came out to. They taught me how to curl my eyelashes, how to bronze my face, how to pluck my eyebrows (shape the arch with liner beforehand, and always pluck from underneath).
Screw this. I’m done choosing between a bladder infection and a bloody nose.
But my principal doesn’t see me. Neither do the prim, stone-faced sticklers behind the desks at the DMV. Neither do the other parents—I found that out the hard way when I tried out for cheerleading last month. The cheerleaders run the school, right? They’re the gatekeepers. The ambassadors. I figured if I could get in with them, I’d be in with everyone. But that was before their parents caught wind of my tryout and complained to my mom, in hushed tones over our landline, that the idea of a “boy” in the girls’ locker rooms and restrooms made them uncomfortable.
All they’d have to do is look at me to know that I’m not a boy. But they don’t want to look at me because they don’t want to see me. All they know is that they don’t want me occupying the same spaces as their daughters anymore. They bitched, and the school listened. And now, we have this sign.
I cram my knees together and rock on the balls of my feet. I only have two options and they both suck. The first is to just wait until I get home, but that will be five whole hours from now. I waited that long one too many times last month, and I ended up in the doctor’s office with a bladder infection, swallowing pills that turned my pee Gatorade-orange. My other option is to use the boys’ room, like the school wants me to. But I tried that, too, a few times, and the real boys weren’t having it. I’d come out of the stall to hostile stares. Unplucked eyebrows knitted in confusion and disgust. Flinching football players. You think those jocks are tough? Put them in a public restroom with someone like me and watch how fast the fear takes over. A few of them threatened me. One guy got so freaked out that he picked me up by my shirt collar and threw me out the door—slam!—right into the painted concrete wall. Again, I ended up in the doctor’s office, this time with a golf ball-sized lump on the back of my head and a concussion that kept me out of school for two days. And still I came back, expected by all to use the same bathroom that chewed me up and spat me out. Let’s see those squeamish jocks do that day after day, and then we can talk about what it really means to be tough.
The door to the boys’ room opens suddenly, and out walks a scrawny freshman with a Simpsons overbite. The kid gives me a look fit for a sideshow freak and clutches his math book to his chest, like armor, before walking away. He’s wearing one of those blue Coexist shirts. The irony is stunning.
I’ve now been standing here for five whole minutes. Any longer, and my history teacher will get suspicious about where I am. I can’t risk another write-up.
I tuck my hair behind my newly pierced ears (fake diamond studs from Claire’s) and check the hallway. Not another sophomore in sight, in either direction.
Screw this. I’m done choosing between a bladder infection and a bloody nose.
I yank open the door to the girls’ room and scurry into the first stall on the right.
Within seconds, all the stress of my day pours out of me and into the porcelain bowl, the stream echoing like xylophone plinks around the stall, as my eyes practically roll back in my head. Because I’m alone, I let myself sigh out loud. Sweet relief. I feel like Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, lulled into a sleepy coma by the sounds of my own little endless waterfall. But I can’t forget that, just like Tom Hanks, I’m being timed, too. So I stand up and flush the toilet, fighting the temptation to just sit here in peace for the rest of the day.
Just as I’m about to leave my stall, the silence flies out of the small square space in a vacuumed whoosh. Someone has opened the bathroom door.
Three overlapping feminine voices bounce off the tiled walls. I scan the floor through the crack in my door: six grass-stained white sneakers come traipsing in. The little room becomes an echo chamber, and it sounds to me like they’re all refreshing their makeup. I hear plastic containers of eyeshadow or blush snap open and click closed. Sticky lip gloss wands plunge into puckering tubes. Faux-wooden hair brushes clatter on the countertop.
Her words paralyze me. All I can do is blink, my lips parted, like a wonderstruck child.
They’re gossiping, trading he-said-she-saids in scandalized voices, talking slow like they’ve got nowhere important to be right this second. For all I know, they could be in here for the next several minutes. Shit. If I stay that much longer, I will definitely get written up. I have no choice but to leave as quickly as possible. But it’s okay, it will be fine. I’ll be supersonic. I’ll keep my eyes down. I won’t even wash my hands. If I get out of here fast enough, they might not even notice it was me. It will be fine.
I take a deep breath and unlock the stall door.
When I push the door open, I see a trio of yellow-and-blue uniforms crowding the sinks. Skirts pleated and neatly pressed. Toned white legs, shiny from shaving. Ponytails combed to bumpless perfection, pinched by color coordinated hair ties.
Three cheerleaders. Six eyes on me.
“Oh. Hey, Tanner.” The blonde one speaks first, and I realize I know her. Actually, I recognize all three of them: they were on the field the day of my doomed tryout. But I don’t remember their names. A blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. Huh.
“Hi.” I can feel my face turning as crimson as her lipstick. Dammit. Keep it together, Tanner. “Sorry, um, I was just… um… but I’m done, I swear, I’ll go now.”
“It’s okay,” the brunette says, holding her palms up as if in surrender. “You can use our bathroom if you want.”
Her words paralyze me. All I can do is blink, my lips parted, like a wonderstruck child.
I’m quiet because I’m waiting. Waiting for the snickers. The cutting hyena laughter that will echo all through the sophomore hallway. The cruel, roving eyes that size up my body and secretly judge my outfit. The yeah-right scoff that follows her invitation. But none of it comes. None of it. For a moment, the only sound is the humming fluorescent light flickering above us.
“For real?” My f comes out as a stutter—a tell of my nervousness. But when the redhead speaks, she doesn’t stutter at all.
“Yeah,” she says calmly. “We don’t mind.”
They all look at me, expecting some kind of response. But I’m still speechless.
The blonde says, “We won’t tell anyone.”
The three of them nod with solemn expressions, their eyes darting from face to face in conspiratorial glances. No non-theater-kid is this good at keeping a straight face. They’re serious. Dead serious. I’ve never seen three cheerleaders look so serious in my whole life. I want to tell them thank you, but the words don’t surface. And if they did, they wouldn’t feel like enough.
“Really, Tanner, we won’t tell. We promise. It’s nobody else’s business.” The brunette’s palms are still up, a wand slicked with pink lip gloss lodged between her fingers. “Girls only, right?”
The three of them giggle at their little in-joke. I guess it’s my in-joke, too. My lips curve into a cautious smile. But still I can’t speak.
The blonde seems to take pity on my loss for words. She slides her makeup over a few inches and steps to the side, freeing up one of the sinks. I nod awkwardly in gratitude and step forward to wash my hands. As I lather the iridescent soap into foamy bubbles, they all turn back to their own reflections and pick up their conversation like nothing ever happened. Like this is normal.
Like I am normal.
They probably don’t notice, but I’m still smiling. Grinning uncontrollably. Beaming brighter than I have in months.
I may not have landed a spot on the cheerleading squad. And it might be a long time before the adults get used to the idea of me wanting something like that.
But for now, in this sacred space, these triangle-dress girls have made room for me. On some level, they consider me one of them. And if I’m in with the cheerleaders, I’ll be in with everyone—it’s only a matter of time.
Just knowing that will get me through the day. And maybe tomorrow. And maybe the next day, too.
I dry my hands with paper towels, no longer in a hurry, and make my way toward the exit. The blonde speaks just as I’m walking out the door.
“And by the way, Tanner,” she says to me. “Just so you know, if it was up to me, you totally would have made the squad. That high kick was spectacular.”
Katlyn Minard is an aspiring young adult novelist whose short fiction has appeared in Moon City Review, 101 Words, and LOGOS. She lives in Los Angeles.
After Dad left, Mom stayed up late at the kitchen table with a bottle of red wine, staining her teeth purple and chewing the edges of her nails.
She did this for about three months. Then one day I came home after my last class—geography, I was in the sixth grade—and found her at her vanity mirror in her bra and leopard-print underpants, the scent of Diamonds perfume filling the room.
I caught my breath. “Is Dad coming home?”
My mother began rummaging through her closet; her voice was flat but commanding: “Oh, who the hell knows where he is.”
“Where are you going?”
She struggled to pull a fancy dress over her head without messing her hair and makeup. She gazed in the mirror, adjusting the straps. “Zipper me.”
Her bright red lips matched the polka dot pattern and I could smell the hairspray over her perfume. As I zippered her outfit, the fabric tightened around her hips and chest. My mother turned and posed like a model: one hand at her hip, one on the curve of her chin. “How do I look?”
“But what about Dad?”
The next morning, I felt awful. I hadn’t heard Rachel or my mother come home. I’d gone to bed after eating my hamburger creation and watching The Six Million Dollar Man.
My mother crouched down to my level and said in a sweet voice, “You should forget about that man. It’s just us girls now.” She smiled as if I should be happy. Before I could respond, she grabbed her handbag and reached for the door. “Your sister’s going to cook Hamburger Helper. It’s like mac and cheese except hamburger gets mixed in with the noodles. There’s a package in the refrigerator, keep it there until you’re ready to eat.”
I sat on the chair with my shoulders slouched. My sister was two years older and was often left in charge. After Mom shut the door, Rachel poked her head out of the bathroom. “Is she gone?”
“I think she went on a date,” I said, perplexed by my own words.
Rachel hurried from the bathroom toward our bedroom. “I’m going to Kara’s.” She pulled a pink blouse off its hanger.
“You can’t go to her apartment.”
Rachel pushed an arm through the sleeve. “Why not?”
“Mom said you have to make me dinner. If she finds out, you’ll be in big trouble.”
Rachel pulled a shirt over her head and stared me down. “Who’s going to tell?”
She kept staring until I said, “No one.”
I didn’t believe what Mom said about Dad. He wouldn’t leave us. Where would he go? I pictured him sitting at the counter of a truck stop diner, eating chicken-fried steak. I wondered where he was headed. Maybe he’s driving home this very minute. I indulged this fantasy for a moment, even let myself get excited about the possibility, but then imagined what might happen ifhe came home while Mom was out on her date.
I stood on my tiptoes and peered out the window over the sink to see if anyone was in the courtyard. It was empty except for big fat Chrissie Lester, who liked to drag Tippi, her mother’s Chihuahua, through the tall grass as the dog tried to pee. I turned back to the counter, spun the box of Hamburger Helper around and looked at the pictures. It looked nothing like the roasts or chicken dinners Mom made when Dad was around. Rachel passed by like a breeze. “I’ll be back later.”
The door closed and her clogs echoed in the stairwell.
The apartment was quiet. When my stomach started to rumble, I opened the box and turned on the stove.
* * *
The next morning, I felt awful. I hadn’t heard Rachel or my mother come home. I’d gone to bed after eating my hamburger creation and watching The Six Million Dollar Man. Most of the noodles stuck to the bottom of the pan and when I’d stirred in the hamburger the steaming noodles became cold. I’d fallen asleep with a heavy stomach, knowing something was wrong.
I rolled into my blankets. My belly gurgled and I heard what sounded like a pan being dropped into the kitchen sink. My mother screamed words she usually reserved for my father:
“What the hell did you do?”
Rachel jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen.
“Look at this spot,” Mom shrieked. “You ruined my table!” My mother was always wiping her kitchen table and matching chairs with a washcloth. When finished, she’d push all the chairs into position, stand back and admire the shine.
After cooking the noodles, I’d put the pot on the table and spooned them into a bowl. I hadn’t realized the Formica tabletop was blistering underneath until I returned the pot to the stove. I wiped at the brown spot, but it didn’t come off. There was a circular burn about half the size of the pan.
Mom yelled, “What were you thinking?”
There were no excuses when Mom was mad.
Rachel said, “I made a mistake. I won’t do it again.”
“That’s not going to fix my table!”
I was glad that Rachel took the blame, but then I realized she had to. If Mom found out she’d gone to Kara’s place, she would ground Rachel—for a year, probably.
“I’ll be more careful, I promise.”
Just then I felt a powerful slosh in my belly. I ran to the bathroom and yanked down my pajama bottoms just in time. When Mom finished chewing out Rachel, she called for me.
I wished for her to leave me alone, but the bathroom door swung open and there she stood. “What’s wrong with you?”
“You poor thing,” she said, waving her burning cigarette.
With my head on my knees, I saw a sideways view of Mom and Rachel standing at the door, staring back. My mother took a long drag off her cigarette and pointed at Rachel as she exhaled. “Look what you did. You poisoned your sister.”
Rachel lingered in the doorway for a few seconds and with weary eyes we apologized to each other.
I crawled back to bed and slept the rest of the morning.
* * *
Later that day, my mother pranced through my room, smelling of Diamonds and hairspray, carrying a cup of Kool-Aid. “I’ve got to run some errands. Drink this,” she said, placing the plastic cup on the nightstand.
Mom never ran quick errands. Once she left, it took hours for her to return. After the front door closed, I slid out of my covers. I felt like I’d just gotten off a merry-go-round. I sipped Kool-Aid while studying my map of the United States, following the trail of pins. I traced the routes Dad frequently traveled. Imagining his eighteen-wheeler rolling along the highway, I wondered where he was at that very moment and if he was thinking about me.
A scream from the courtyard derailed my thoughts. I shuffled to the window to see Chrissie Lester yelling at her poor Chihuahua. Chrissie said she hated Tippi because her mother made her walk the dog until it did its business, but I suspected she was jealous. Her mother dressed the dog like a princess, carried it around in a handbag and spoiled it with treats, doling out doggie bonbons in a baby voice. Chrissie was the same age as Rachel, but much taller and wider. The kids at school called her “The Blob.” She’d stayed back a couple of years and was now in my grade. Mom told me to stay away from her, pronouncing simply, “She’s trash just like her mother.” I avoided her around the complex for my own reasons. Once she’d smacked my hand with a stick after I tried to pet Tippi. When I threatened to tell, Chrissie handed me the stick and said, “Hit me as hard as you want. I don’t care. Go ahead.” I told her I wanted to hold Tippi’s leash and she reluctantly agreed.
Now, Chrissie pulled the miniature mutt in its pink dress across the courtyard. The dog struggled to keep up, but Chrissie tugged her along, practically dragging the thing by its neck.
“Stupid dog! Can’t you even walk right?”
I kneeled on the floor, concealing myself, and put my mouth to the window and yelled, “Pissy Chrissie!”
Chrissie stopped. I crouched so only my eyes peered into the courtyard. Chrissie put a hand up to her forehead and looked up at the buildings, scanning from window to window.
That was the thing about the courtyard; you could hear everything but you could never tell, for sure, where it came from. I waited until she looked in the other direction and shouted, “Pissy Chrissie! What a sissy!”
“Who’s there?” she yelled, turning around.
“It’s your Mama!” I hollered.
After that, I got the giggles and fell to the floor with my hand over my mouth so no one would hear.
* * *
We never saw them, but we came to know Mom’s boyfriends by their leftovers. After every date, she’d bring home a doggie bag.
Mom seemed happier without Dad, which made life easier on Rachel and me. She’d tease her hair, put on her face and run out the door in a low-cut dress. My sister and I did what we wanted when she was gone, but there were lonesome days when I’d sit outside on the picnic table and think about my father. Our favorite outdoor game was Hide and Seek and the picnic table was always base. He would sit, resting his big head of brown hair in his hands, and start the countdown. Rachel and I would take cover around the sides of buildings, behind trash barrels, or between prickly shrubs. My dad was tall and more muscular than most, but even so, he never managed to catch Rachel or I as we made a mad dash for base. He usually feigned an unfortunate fall, lying on the ground groaning until we came close enough to grab and tickle.
“What’s the matter, crybaby?”
I turned to see Chrissie Lester. She lifted her big fat leg and rested it on the picnic table bench. I wondered how the hulking brute had come up on me so quick and quiet. I felt safe with the table between us, confident in my ability to outrun her. Tippi jumped onto the picnic table, panting and drooling on the silver-tipped collar of her polka-dot dress. I reached to pet her head but stopped halfway, recalling the smack I’d received last time.
“You can pet her. I don’t care,” Chrissie said.
“I don’t want to,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.
I tried to think of something to say, but all I could think of were the terrible names the kids at school called Chrissie, the same names I’d yelled out my bedroom window.
“Your mother’s a whore,” Chrissie said. “I caught her in the basement doing something nasty with the landlord.”
I couldn’t think of a good response, so I said, “Your mother dresses Tippi better than you.” It seemed like a lame comeback, particularly since Chrissie and I were dressed almost exactly the same—navy blue T-shirt and tan Chinos—and Tippi wore a dress that looked like one of my mother’s date night outfits. Then to my own surprise I added, “Your mother dresses Tippi like a whore.”
Chrissie let out a real belly laugh. I didn’t know exactly why. She dropped Tippi’s leash and put her hand over her stomach as her head tilted forward. When she was out of air and red-faced, she sucked in another breath and laughed it back out. As I watched her, I couldn’t help smiling.
“My mother has that same dress!” I exclaimed as I pointed to Tippi.
Tippi licked Chrissie as she laughed, but then turned to bark at a figure in the distance. Holding my hand to my brow, I shaded the sun from my eyes and spotted her mother heading toward us. Chrissie saw her too. She grabbed Tippi’s leash.
“I gotta go,” she said, backing away from the table. “See you later.”
“Bye,” I mumbled, unsure of whether we were supposed to be friends now. Chrissie strolled away, gently coaxing Tippi along. She turned and said, “And I don’t care that you called me those names. It was kind of funny.”
* * *
Rachel and I never met Mom’s dates because they waited in their cars in the parking lot around the side of the building. She didn’t want them coming to the door. “You don’t need to meet them unless they’re serious,” she told us.
We never saw them, but we came to know Mom’s boyfriends by their leftovers. After every date, she’d bring home a doggie bag. One of her first boyfriends liked Chinese. Mom didn’t care for Chinese food, so she always came home with little white boxes filled with General Tso’s or Kung Pao chicken. In the morning, when Rachel and I saw the white container with silver handles in the refrigerator, we’d say in unison:
Chinese was our favorite. We’d warm the leftovers on the stove and devour them at the table.
When Mom finally crawled out of bed, she complained about the smell. “Do you have to eat that slop so early in the morning?” she said, a cigarette hanging from her lips.
After that, Mom started dating two pizza lovers. One liked thick crust, the other thin, but neither lasted long enough for us to learn their names.
While Chinese leftovers kept us happy on the weekends, Wednesdays became fettuccine Alfredo. Rachel and I knew, even before finding the gooey noodles soaked in a congealed cream sauce, that she’d been out with Morton. We could smell his cologne radiating off her as soon as she got up in the morning. We’d hold our noses and tell her, “You stink!” Mom called Morton the “Prince of the City,” even if she agreed that his cologne was a bit strong. She said he looked “regal” in his diamond-encrusted watch and tangle of gold necklaces. “Confident men aren’t afraid to wear jewelry,” she informed us.
One evening she bragged, “Everyoneknows him.” Her face lit up as she confessed, “No matter where we go, someone recognizes him. Always someone greeting him by name, calling him Morty, or Mr. Costello. We’re treated like royalty. Waiters give us the best tables. They bring bottles of wine, fancy desserts—always ‘on the house.’ I doubt he ever has to pay for anything!” She stood up, as giddy as a teenager and said, “I’ve got to show you something.”
She ran into her room and returned with a long, thin velvet box. She lifted the lid unveiling a string of bright diamonds. “What do you think?” Mom slipped the gleaming bracelet across her wrist, clasping the ends, twisting her arm side to side, allowing the facets to catch and reflect the light. “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you ever saw? He said it put an extra sparkle in my blue eyes.”
“Mom, your eyes are green.”
“I know that, silly. But you should never contradict a man who gives expensive gifts.”
Mom wore the bracelet on her Wednesday night dates with Morton. She would plan her outfit around it. If the dress or blouse didn’t go with the bracelet, she would strip off the garment and try another. Between dates, the bracelet remained tucked in her underwear drawer; but one day when she thought I’d gone outside with Rachel, she left her bedroom door half open and I saw her lying in bed, naked, holding the string of diamonds at one end, and letting them dangle across her thigh. She then slid them up over her navel leading them through the soft crevice of her bare breasts. I backed away from her door, hoping the floor didn’t creak, wondering what she was thinking about.
On what turned out to be her last date with Morton, Mom came home early with her mascara smeared. Rachel and I were still up, watching The Love Boat.We knew something was wrong. The fettuccine Alfredo she always brought home was splattered across the front of her blue cotton dress. A few noodles were stuck to her heels. Her hair was tousled, but she didn’t seem to notice or care. She dropped the diamond bracelet on the kitchen table and it fell into pieces. Mom pushed back a strand of hair that dangled in her face and said in Clint Eastwood calm, “The bastard’s married.”
* * *
After that, Mom started dating two pizza lovers. One liked thick crust, the other thin, but neither lasted long enough for us to learn their names. Rachel and I preferred Stanley, or at least his taste in Chinese, but when Mom first mentioned Jimmy, we knew Stanley’s days were numbered. According to my mother, Jimmy was “young and fun.” Stanley, who had nurtured our taste for Kung Pao chicken for eight months, suddenly became “a big fat bore.”
“You’d think Dingle Balls could afford something besides the Mongolian Wok,” she complained, spraying her hair.
I laughed at her calling him Dingle Balls, even though I didn’t know what it meant.
“Every time I come back smelling like soy sauce.” She stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray and pulled a flower-patterned dress from her closet. “I can’t stand sitting across from him as he shovels it into his mouth.”
“Tell him you want to go somewhere new,” I offered, fingering the dainty necklace on the vanity.
“Don’t be silly, Jane. That would be rude.”
* * *
Even though Rachel and I hadn’t met Jimmy, we didn’t like him. Mother praised him for being “lively company” and “knowing how to treat a lady,” but he never showed up on time, which made Mom crabby, and he never produced any leftovers—no doggie bags or Styrofoam containers.
This went on for a few weeks. Then one night Mom bounded through the door early, red-faced and panting, and headed straight for the phone. I stood quietly in front of the sink as she dialed the numbers and cradled the receiver in her shoulder, pacing back and forth.
“Go to the living room,” she said.
I couldn’t hear my mother’s brief conversation, but she hung up and disappeared into her bedroom, then went out again a half-hour later.
In the morning, Rachel and I found a Styrofoam container. Rachel grabbed it and held it out of my reach as I jumped for it. “Hold on, Shorty,” she said, placing the container on the counter. The Styrofoam squeaked open and we found a grilled chicken breast with onions and peppers. We looked at each other in amazement.
Mom appeared in the doorway, looking tired but happy:
“It’s Tex-Mex, girls.”
* * *
Despite the new cuisine, Mom was still hopelessly in love with Jimmy-No-Leftovers. I overheard her talking about him on the phone with Sandy Horowitz. “He’s so wild. It’s what I love about him. What am I going to do? He’s handsome and funny but the guy can’t even commit to a time for dinner… I know… I know… I really should, but I can’t help it, he makes me feel so good.”
I repeated, word for word, Mom’s conversation with Sandy Horowitz for Rachel. She rolled her eyes and said, “Big deal.”
“She said sheloves him.That means she’ll want to marry him!”
“Does not,” she said. “We’ve never even met him.”
That Friday, Rachel and I hid outside between buildings, keeping watch around the corner at Mom standing at the edge of the parking lot. She stood prim, her dress pressed and hair smoothed, but as the minutes passed she paced the walkway in her heels and cursed. She was furious, we knew. After a half hour, she gave up and stomped back to our apartment. Jimmy-No-Leftovers became Jimmy-No-Show, so we hung out in the courtyard to give her time to cool off.
The next night, a stooped man with a bald patch emerged from an old brown sedan. He opened the passenger’s door and Mom slid into the car. Rachel and I giggled because he was such a dork. His comb-over barely covered half his head and it flipped up in the breeze. After the car pulled away, we headed back to the apartment. I parted my hair way off to the left and flipped it to the other side. “Hi, I’m Sy Sperling. I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.”
We joked about it the rest of the night. Could Mom really date someone that goofy?
The next morning, Rachel and I swung open the refrigerator door and gasped, “Oh, my God!”
Inside sat a white container with silver handles and a little packet of soy sauce resting on top.
“That was Stanley!”
* * *
The following Friday Mom got “ready” faster than I’d ever seen. She patted powder on her face at high-speed and wriggled into her red polka dot dress.
I told Rachel, “She’s going out with Jimmy-No-Leftovers, I just know it.”
At five-thirty there was a knock on the door. From the bedroom, Mom yelled, “Can someone get that?”
Rachel was sprawled across the couch. She poked me with her foot and said, “You go.”
I slid off the couch, hoping it was Sandy Horowitz lending Mom a handbag, not the landlord looking for rent. In the past week I’d already given him two lame excuses. I wasn’t sure why Mom stopped paying the rent on time, but she insisted that Rachel and I put him off. The landlord was an overweight man with hair sprouting from his ears. The first time he came collecting, I pretended I had no idea what “rent” was, and I told him I’d give the message to my mother. He returned two days later standing in our doorway picking his teeth with his thumbnail. I told him Mom wasn’t home. Looking me straight in the eye, he removed his thumb, sucked his tooth and said with a doubtful expression, “All right, then. Tell your mother. She knows where to find me.”
I swung the door open and saw a man with Elvis Presley hair.
“Hey, kid,” he said in a deep voice. He leaned back, glancing down the hallway. “Looks like I got the wrong apartment. I’m looking for Gerty Girl.” He chuckled, then corrected himself, “Gertrude Beckwith, that is.”
I stood frozen and astonished. I knew, even before my mother raced into the kitchen, heels dangling from her hands, trying to button her blouse, that this was the infamous Jimmy-No-Leftovers.
“What are you doing here?” Mom said breathlessly. “You’re supposed to—”
“I thought I’d surprise you.” He surveyed the apartment and focused on me and then Rachel, now standing behind me. “But I see I’m the one getting the surprise.”
Mom’s eyes widened as Jimmy did an about-face.
“Jimmy, wait!” she screamed from the doorway. He disappeared down the stairs. Mom slipped on her shoes and clattered after him, all the while pleading, “Stop, Jimmy, let me explain!”
Outside she tugged on his arm, crying, “Jimmy, please, don’t do this.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, but Jimmy kept walking. He pulled away from her with such force that my mother landed on the ground, but she reached out and clutched him by the leg.
That’s when I noticed all the people—neighbors, drawn by the spectacle—gathering. The landlord, out on his rounds, came toward our building. Chrissie Lester stood among the crowd, holding Tippi’s bedazzled leash. When Jimmy shouted at my mother to let go of his leg, Tippi bared her teeth and broke free, attacking Jimmy’s ankle. The little dog ducked Jimmy’s swats and bit and pulled at his pant-leg, barking and growling. Finally, Jimmy grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled himself free. My mother gave out one final cry, her voice cracking: “Jimmy, no! I’ll do anything you want.” Jimmy got into his car and tore out of the parking lot, leaving the air thick with burnt rubber. The landlord helped my mother to her feet and the crowd disappeared as quickly as it had gathered with low murmurs and shaking heads.
That night, Mom settled at the kitchen table with a bottle of wine. Rachel went over to Kara’s house. I sat alone at my desk, staring at the wall, following the course of Dad’s highway travels. Before going to bed, I took out the pins, folded the map, and dropped it into the wastebasket. Dad was never coming back.
It was just us girls now.
Lynn Wilcox lives in Connecticut with her teenaged daughter. Her young adult stories focus on issues such as neglected kids, body–image, and sexual initiation. Boyfriends and Leftovers is an excerpt from her young adult novel, Raising Jane, which was longlisted in the Mslexia International Women’s Novel Writing Contest. She is currently at work on her second novel.
Photo Credit: Dan Pope
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