FICTION PIECE

Fire, Air, Earth, Water

by Julie Thorndyke

 

FIRE

The skin on the inside of my right arm is burning from his touch. Just a light brush of a single finger, but I am branded by that one second of flesh on flesh.

I shouldn’t have been at this party at all. We only came—Amy and me—because her older brother Mike was driving out to his friend Dan’s semi-rural property for a gatho and Amy thought it was better than staying home. Theoretically, my parents wouldn’t allow this sort of party until I was eighteen, but Amy’s parents are away, mine are working, and I was meant to be company for Amy at her house for the weekend. We’ve been friends since kindy, but lately I’m not that keen on her idea of fun. We know Mike’s friends a bit, and Amy even went out with one of them for a few months until he dumped her.  As soon as we walked in the door, Amy ran into her ex and immediately hooked up with him, even though she had vowed never to speak to him again. Well, they weren’t doing much speaking. She was sitting on his lap as he swilled beer, stroking his ragged curls with one hand, waving me away with another.

I left the room. In the kitchen Dan and his girlfriend were trying to defrost sausages to cook. I zipped up my jacket and went out to the fire that blazed orange against the indigo sky. A banana moon was rising above the gumtrees, and the indistinct sounds of the Aussie bush transmitted ambiguous messages to my air-chilled ears. My shoes scuffed the loose gravel. Hands in pockets I settled on the curved bench around the fire-pit and stared at the sky. No stars yet.

When my eyes were used to the gloom, I realised that one of the un-nameable nocturnal sounds was just a boy dribbling a soccer ball near the fence-line. I thought about going back inside. I sat quietly, hoping to be ignored, as I mostly was by Mike and his friends. Bad plan. The noise of the ball swishing through damp grass, the repetitive thud of his foot on leather, the grunts as he changed direction running this way then that, got louder as he approached the fire-pit. I shrank smaller inside my jacket.

Too late for escape: he was sitting on the bench, tossing the ball in the air, kicking it against the sandstone rim of the pit, over and over.

“I’m the firewatcher,” he said. “Got to make sure it doesn’t go out.” He pointed to the stack of chopped wood behind me. “Careful. There could be anything in that heap. I got a red-bellied-black this afternoon.”

“I’ll be right,” I muttered, thinking again about going inside. Thinking about calling a taxi, wondering if one would come all this way, and how much it would cost.

“Friend of Dan’s?” he asked.

“I’m with Mike and Amy.”

“Oh yeah, Mike…he’s in my team. Scored a great goal last week…you play?”

I shook my head.

“Um, … more like, maybe… netball?”

“Nope.”

“Bet you like music, though?”

“Sure.”

“Watch the fire, OK?” He jogged into the darkness.

I wasn’t sorry to be alone, still fantasizing about the impossible taxi that would deliver me. A sound from the treetops—an owl?

Dan and his girl staggered outside carrying trays of meat and bread rolls. Somebody else lugged flagons of sauce. Mike and another guy followed, mock sword-fighting with long metal skewers as they skidded over the gravel.

“We need a table,” the girl told Dan.

“Don’t let the dingoes steal our food,” Mike warned as they went for the table.

“Goannas, more like,” said the soccer boy, suddenly returned, without his ball. Instead he had an acoustic guitar slung on his back. He tuned it. Then the crisp sounds of classical guitar joined the hooting-owl and the rustling-nothings in the eucalypt forest.

Dan’s girl handed me a can of coke. “I’m Jess,” she said. “You OK out here? Don’t worry, the guitar-player is harmless.”

“Not so. Remember the red-bellied-black,” complained the guitar player.

“OK so you saved us from a snake. Evan. Just keep an eye on the fire while you strum that thing.” Jess went back into the house.

The coke was ice-cold, but the sugar hit improved my mood. Dan put a wire grill over the fire and tossed sausages on. My face was warm and my feet toasty resting on the rim of the pit. I unzipped my jacket. The first star peeked through the sky.

People began to drift out of the house at the smell of hot food. Some sat around the circle, others brought chairs and grouped around the table now lit by candles. No sign of Amy. I began to relax. The guitar wasn’t bad really.

Evan continued to work his strings, moving through genres. Classical, jazz, old pop songs. He really could play. I hummed softly as he cruised through songs my parents had played when I was little.

We were eating sausages laced with tomato sauce when Evan stopped strumming mid-chorus, leapt up and tore my jacket from my torso. Food and drink went everywhere.

“A burning ember,” he explained. In torchlight we examined the small brown-edged hole burnt into my jacket sleeve.

“Could have been a hole just here,” Evan said, with a light stroke of his forefinger on the inside of my arm.

Amy staggered from the house and threw up in the bushes. Mike groaned. “I’m taking these children home.” As we supported Amy to the car, I looked back to the fire-pit.

Evan looked me in the eye and nodded.

The skin on the inside of my right arm is still goose-pimply from his touch. Only a light brush of a single finger, but I’m forever branded by that one second of innocent flesh on flesh. As Mike’s car barrels along country roads back to suburbia, my mind sizzles with the sweet sounds of the night, the heat of the flame, and the firewatcher’s touch.

 

AIR

For some reason, the flight home from Perth seemed so much longer than the way out there. Maybe it was pre-match adrenaline: we’d got off the plane and pretty much headed straight to a full day of back-to-back games. We started off in winning form, but as the weekend progressed, injuries and tiredness mounted, and we didn’t end up coming home premiers as we’d hoped. All in all, morale was a bit low as the plane bumped through turbulence back to the east coast.

Clouds above and below, we seemed to travel in another dimension. Earth, the red solid mass of desert somewhere beneath us, was a dream that you could believe in or not, as you were inclined. You might as well think we were flying over deep turquoise oceans or the fire-filled pits of hell. It was all cloud, all atmosphere, all nothingness.

I was watching soccer highlights on the small screen built on the back of the seat in front. The restless guy in front, captain of the team, had finally stopped experimenting with reclining angles and returned the seat to upright, then he’d gone across the aisle to rehash the final game with the coach. There was a fair amount of seat-swapping going on. Although the plane wasn’t full, you could see that our team was annoying the cabin crew. There’d been some trouble because half of the team was under-age and couldn’t legally be served alcohol. How hard was that for the leg-weary smartly groomed flight attendants serving refreshments? I felt sorry for them.

I’d already tried dozing, but it wasn’t working for me, so I flicked again through the channels on the in-flight entertainment. Ronaldo was talking on one of those “Who-are-you-and-what-did-your-ancestors-get- up-to?” TV shows. I turned up the sound on my earphones. Might kill a few minutes.

Apart from the team and our coach, there were a couple of parents who were kind of co-managers and some brothers and sisters of players who had come as spectators to cheer us on. Mike and his family were sitting across to one side, but his younger sister Amy was seat-hopping around like an agitated kangaroo. She hopped into the vacant seat beside me.

“You like that crap?” she asked, leaning across to see my TV screen. Her breath was minty from the chewing gum she was working with her jaws to cover up the smell of the rum I’d seen her empty into her coke earlier on the sly.

“Umm…what?”  I didn’t really want to talk with this troublemaker, but she was in my face and there was no escape.  Despite strict supervision from her father, she’d been discovered last night in the room of two of the older players and was in disgrace. Mike was furious and wouldn’t speak to her.

“That who-do-you-think-you-are crap on TV? I mean, who really gives a shit? If your great granddaddy was a convict, soldier, or murderer…? We all spend our lives trying to get away from our families. Who wants to know MORE about them? Ancient history…”

I play along to keep the peace. “What do you like then?”

“TV sucks. Except maybe for Survivor. Better to be out living it up…friends, parties—had a great time last weekend—can’t remember much of it! But got some great pics. Here…” she flicked back through the camera roll on her iPhone like a demented lizard testing the air with its tongue for prey. “Here’s me and…well you know who that is. Last night, celebrating the team win.”

“We lost.”

“Lost? Really? So that’s why all the guys are so down. Who knew?” she continued scrolling through the photos. School events, selfies, groups of girls…

“Who’s that?” I interrupt, forcing her to pause, immobilising her restless fingers with my larger, stronger hand.

“That? Who? Oh, you mean my BFF. Jill. You know her…yeah?”

“We’ve …met.” It’s the girl from Dan’s party, the shy one sitting at the fire-pit. The one whose face has floated in my dreams at night. I’m looking at the pictures, the school uniforms, looking for clues…Mike and I didn’t meet until uni. I don’t know what school these girls go to. And Mike is in no frame of mind to help.

“You want her number?”

“Sure.” Too easy, I didn’t even have to ask.

“Well I don’t think…” she’s suddenly coy. Pretending. Game playing. That rubbish stuff flirty girls do.

“Forget it.”

“I don’t think I should …without asking her first. Online stalkers and all that. You know? Not that you are…I mean you might be a bit geeky and all that, but you’re a nice geek…I mean…”

“I said, forget it.”

“Anyway, Jill’s parents are being totally strict this year. Like, she can’t date. Actually, I’m not even sure she LIKES boys. Know what I mean?”

I sat silently, hoping she’d bounce off to another seat if I gave her no response.

“But I’ll ask her. Give me your contact and I’ll tell her to text you.” Amy grabbed my phone and sent herself a message before I could stop her. Then she thumbed her own device and a message pinged back on mine. “There. I’m sure she’ll want to get in contact. She likes you. Really. Trust me.”

I changed the TV channel to a music station where a Spanish guitarist was playing classics. This must get rid of her, I thought. I thought too about stealing her phone to get the fire-girl’s number myself. That is how I think of her (I never got her name)—fire-girl—her flame-burnished hair is a private picture treasured in my mind. Mixed with the evocative fragrance of eucalypt leaves, wood-smoke, and the musky scent of …her.

Amy was so glued to her phone, I would have had to wrestle it from her grip, and that would’ve caused a scene neither of us wanted.

“You like this?” Amy gestured at the TV with plucked eyebrows raised. “Oh yeah! You’re the guitar-boy…I remember now!”

I jumped up and staggered down the aisle to the toilets. I waited in the dunny as long as I dared, and when I came out Amy had found someone else to annoy. I breathed out gratefully as I buckled up my seatbelt for landing. We were descending through cloud, white, fluffy stuff like Christmas-card snow, lit by rays of sunlight. I was floating on currents of possibility. I had the fire-girl’s name. And maybe, if air-head Amy bothered to tell her, the owner of that golden flame-burnished hair would call me?

 

EARTH

From the start, I was sceptical about Amy’s motives for entering the mud-run, but when she turned-up with a brand new singlet-top, French manicure and freshly-straightened hair, I knew for certain she wasn’t serious about the exercise. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “There’s nothing serious about a mud-run.”

In my old shorts and a baggy t-shirt, I’d come along as I always do, out of habit, the tag-along friend. Amy’s parents thought we still went jogging together in the afternoon and to the local gym, but for months it had only been a cover for Amy to meet up with her current boyfriend. With the HSC looming, we were supposed to be concentrating on study, so she was keeping quiet about her social life. I didn’t feel right about it, but hey, I wasn’t the one telling lies. I told Amy that I wouldn’t lie for her. I really had been going to the gym and running regularly, so I was fit enough to take on this 10 km challenge without too much pain.

Amy’s dad brought us: Amy had her Ls now and had driven us, with him nervously sitting in the passenger seat. He watched the start of the run before walking off to find a coffee and read his newspaper. Amy was being supervised fairly closely after the debacle in Year 11. It was only through a lot of crying and promising to change that she managed to avoid being sent to a new school. Once her dad was out of view, Amy repositioned herself within the pack of runners, close to her (surprise surprise) boyfriend who just happened to be here too. They were going pretty slowly, and I guessed wouldn’t last long on the official track. I kept running and sloshing through the first mud puddle, ready to tackle the obstacle up ahead. I stopped thinking about Amy. Running and getting thoroughly grimy and tired was a good stress relief: I was taking school pretty seriously now, the final exams only weeks away. My shoes were already gloopy with water and clay, heavier with each step. The oldest runners I owned, they were already worn out and thin in places. I intended to throw them in the bin at the end of the course.

I got over the splintery treated-pine wall easily and jumped down into the waist deep mud, wading through the ditch beside other cursing, laughing runners. I looked back but couldn’t see Amy. The next obstacle on top of a hill involved ropes and tyres. My legs were responding to the work-out, and not wanting to tire too soon, I paced myself up the hill in a steady jog. The sole on my left shoe was starting to flap with each step. I thought about stopping to try and secure it, but really, there was nothing I could do about it. Running barefoot didn’t appeal. Through the tunnel of tractor tyres, up the knotted ropes that burn your chilled, damp hands. Swing out and land in another deep, caramel lake of mud. Struggling out, I stumbled and laughed with the crowd of strangers around me. Carefree clay-covered clowns in pursuit of a crazy pointless finish line. Running up the next slope I fell into a rhythm beside another runner. There was something familiar about him, but covered in so much dirt, he could have been anyone. I felt happier than I had in a long time.

Somewhere along the last squelchy leg of the course the sole of my shoe ripped right off. I stumbled, landing heavily on my knee. The runner beside me scooped me up in his arms and charged the last few metres to the finish line. Whooping and cheering with the other finishers, and on my own feet again, we hugged, and I realised who he was. Soccer-boy. Guitarist. Firewatcher. Evan.

I tugged off my broken shoes and threw them in the dumpster. Drank water from a fast-flowing faucet and washed clay from my face under the large communal shower. Evan stood beside me, eyes locked on mine.

His kiss was inevitable, improbable, and irresistible.

Amy’s shrieking broke the circle of calm in which I stood. “There you are! I’ve been looking for you everywhere! Dad’s waiting for us…”

Amy’s father was looking at me with steely eyes. Soaking wet, clasped in the arms of a similarly drenched Evan, I didn’t look innocent. Amy, who was fresh as a daisy apart from a few carefully places dabs of mud on her arms and knees, and who had been out of view the whole time, was doing a prima donna job of making a scene to deflect all potential trouble onto me. Her boyfriend was nowhere in sight.

“You know I had to do it,” she hissed to me later on the phone. “I’ve no chances left. After being caught with those guys on the soccer trip. That’s when Evan asked me for your number, by the way…”

“He asked for my NUMBER?”

“Yep. But I didn’t think you’d want him to have it, you are so quiet and all. You’re never interested in guys. It’s always me…you know my parents said they’d send me to that convent school with the nuns and I’d be grounded for the duration…”

“I’m tired of you and your lies,” I said. “Why drag me into your shit?” I’d had a serious talk from my parents about the importance of studying and not being distracted by “romance” at this point in my life and “…why was I kissing a perfect stranger in the shower?” I decided then and there that Amy and I were done. I can cope with her selfish manipulations, her petty little deceits, but for her to pile undeserved blame on me in front of her dad, and throw me into deep shit with my parents— just to save her own skin— that was just one step too far. I press END CALL. Finished. Our friendship was no longer just on the endangered list, it was extinct.

Just one problem. A serious one. Except through Amy or her brother Mike, I had no idea how to get in touch with Evan.

 

WATER

It was a long time after the mud run before I could even bring myself to talk to Amy. We were busy with study, or at least I was, and there were enough people in our group at school that we could get by without too much open conflict. But then it was the end of year formal and all that. We kind of made a truce to get through. Then friends started leaving for holidays, trips overseas or some working casual jobs they had arranged. I was keeping to myself mostly; the long-term plots Amy and I had made for schoolies, way back in the old days, cast aside. She went off to Queensland with a group I didn’t like, and no one really knew where they’d gone or when they’d be back. I settled for a week in a rented beach house with a group of girls Amy called the “try-hards”. We gossiped and sun-baked and talked about the future. All of us hoped we’d get to university, but we were still waiting for results.

All through the exams I hadn’t tried to get in contact with Evan. He was on my mind, but I had to compartmentalise the memory of him in a sealed mental box until the stress was over. My parents were relieved that I didn’t mention him. I got my driver’s licence. With the sudden, adult freedom of driving Mum’s old Mazda wherever I wanted, I casually patrolled the places where soccer might be played, drove past Amy’s house and hung around, on the pretence of researching course information, at the university Mike attended. Always hoping to run into Evan. I never did.

When I got home from one of those days loitering around the university library, quadrangle and cafes, there was a postcard waiting for me. On one side a view of Noosa: on the other, a familiar scrawl. Amy had written:

Having a great time! Never, ever, ever coming home!

Wish you were here. Lost my phone!! Call Evan or else bro

will never speak to me again. No hard feelings?? Amy xxx

 

Written sideways on the card almost as an after-thought (typical Amy) was a phone number. I sat on my bed and looked at the card. Thought about the fire-watcher, mud-run-kisser, Evan. The elusive man who inhabited my dreams. I looked at the card a long time.

My mother came and stood in the open doorway. I knew she must have read the card—no privacy existed in this old-fashioned method of communication.

“Evan is the mud-run boy?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Going to phone?”

“Maybe.”

After all this time, I wondered if there would be anything between us. A spur of the moment connection. A kiss. What did we really know about each other?

I thought about it as I showered that night, as I tried to sleep. I thought about it in the morning as I drove to the beach with some of the “try-hards”, as I floated in shallow waters and surfed foaming breakers. I could have confided in those friendly girls. But I kept it to myself, hugged the question, like a secret gift tucked against my heart. As if to take action would threaten the perfection of the dream. The postcard with the precious number was folded in half, safely private inside my wallet.

The following afternoon I called.

***

Summer storms had rolled in. The purple tinged, steel grey mega clouds had darkened the sky and pelted the city with large raindrops and hailstones the size of tennis balls. I waited until the tempest had passed, subsidising into a gentle misty rain borne on a southerly breeze.

I told a little lie. I told my parents that the “try-hards” were travelling with me down the south coast. I gave them the real name of the caravan park. I didn’t tell them I was going to meet Evan.

I drove through city traffic and along rain wet highways until the landscape changed and the traffic thinned. I was sensible and sedate, not rushing, careful on these roads I didn’t know. Down steep inclines into dripping forest gullies, around hairpin bends, up mountainsides, I stayed quietly in the slow lane and remembered the texts, the conversations, the reassurances, of the last week. We had connected through cyberspace and developed a level of trust. But still, mixed with excitement and anticipation, a little hesitancy. It wasn’t just road safety that was making me drive cautiously. I was a little worried that I had created a fantasy boy in my head and that the reality would be a letdown. It was a long drive alone, and my parents were right to be concerned. I got a little bit lost but kept my head. I stopped in the little town, bought an iced coffee, and texted home. I drove on. A glimpse of a rare lyrebird in a bush clearing cheered me. I drove up out of the misty rainforest valley into open farmland. Over little bridges across teaming streams. Rain had swollen the rivers and was rushing over rocks and waterfalls, out to the sea. The sun was out, and clouds were swept away by sea breezes. Nearly at the coast.

There were rain puddles on the pale clay ground when I stepped from the car into the holiday park. Evan’s cabin was easy to find. His directions were clear. I knocked, no answer. The unlocked door was open, I went inside. The simple open plan room held a kitchenette, a sofa, a table. Evan’s guitar rested on the sofa. Beyond that, a bedroom, littered with t shirts and socks. His phone was beside the bed.  I used the bathroom, brushed my hair, drank some water. Calmed my nerves. Evan would be working somewhere on site. Handyman, gardener, cleaner, his holiday job included accommodation but paid little. It was the location and the freedom it offered that had lured him here for the summer.  I sat on the sofa to wait.

I must have dozed. I was roused by footsteps. It wasn’t him. It was a woman, mid- forties, in khaki shirt and shorts, talking into her phone.

She saw me and stopped mid-sentence.

‘He’s not here,’ she said into her phone. She eyed me up and down. ‘Looking for Evan?’

I nodded.

‘Aren’t we all,’ she muttered.

Then the story emerged, bit by bit. Evan was missing.

My hands gripped the textured cotton weave of the sofa cushions. Missing?

The khaki woman, who turned out to be Evan’s boss, explained. Some kids had been larking about on a dinghy down at the beach before the storm. The current had swept them out beyond the headland. Evan had swum out to help. In towing the boys back to the beach, the little boat had capsized. The boys got to safety, helped now by other surf-lifesavers. Then a monster wave had hit, and Evan was swept under. Lifesavers on duty were searching for him, in speed boats, all up and down the beach. The manager had come to the cabin just in case Evan had managed to swim back and had returned unnoticed. No such luck.

‘You look pale,’ she said. ‘Come on, let’s find a coffee.’

I stood on the beach, sipping the hot latte in a flimsy paper cup, scanning the horizon for the lost swimmer.

‘The tide is coming in,’ said the lifeguard. ‘The current is pulling toward the rocks.’

What does that mean? I wondered. Were they expecting a body to wash up? My mud boy, just a corpse on the sand? I couldn’t comprehend the possibility. A dreadful absence of feeling, of physical numbness, crept over my entire body. I sank down and crouched on the damp sand. Hours passed.

There was a commotion in the car park. Cheers. Then a wet, tousled head above a mound of damp towels was led to my side.

‘Carried . . . to the lighthouse rocks . . . by the tide,’ Evan explained. ‘Couldn’t . . . swim against it . . . had to go with the flow.’

The manager bundled him back to the cabin. Paramedics checked his vitals. Pronounced fit and well, if a little scratched and bruised, Evan took a shower and the manager disappeared. She came back carrying burgers and hot, steaming potato chips. ‘Eat, then sleep,’ she commanded. ‘Take a few days off.’

We feasted on the food, like starving people, sitting shyly opposite each other as if meeting for the first time. We didn’t talk much. After eating, Evan said: ‘Let’s go for a drive.’

He jumped into the passenger seat and I drove. I followed his directions to the lighthouse at the end of a rocky promontory. A 360-degree view of tumbling indigo seas. We climbed out onto the ancient cliff of weathered sandstone and let the ocean winds tousle our hair, let the salt air clear our minds. Behind us, the glow of the setting sun burnished the white lighthouse tower with reflected flame.

“It’s you,” Evan said. He took a deep, cleansing breath. “After all this time. My fire-girl.”

In our kiss, four elements met. The cleansing air currents, the surge of swirling waters, the heat of the dying sun and the steadiness of the earth below, all combined into a life-giving force so powerful, there was no time, no place, no past. Just the future, and both of us sure of our place in it.

 

 

FICTION PIECE

Lorielle

by Lucas Leery

 

 

Lorielle hated herself because her name sounded like the name of a shampoo. I told her it was her parents she should hate. “They’re the ones that named you,” I said. She said she hated them too. Later I suggested she go by Lori, but she said it would be cheating. Lorielle didn’t run away from her problems. It was one of the reasons I loved her.

The other reason was that she was beautiful. She wore clothes that were too big for her and she did nothing to hide her acne. She refused to use shampoo and on humid days her hair smelled musty and ripe. On dry days, her dandruff was like snow. She had one pair of jeans she forbade her father to wash. My own mother buried her nose in my hair every night after my bath to make sure I used shampoo and conditioner. She ironed my shirts before school and trimmed my fingernails twice a week. Lorielle’s defiance of convention at once terrified and inspired me. I was young, but I couldn’t help but fall in love.

“Do you not like shampoo because of your name?” I asked her once, early in our friendship.

“There are other kinds of shampoos,” she answered. That was the end of the discussion.

When I asked her to be my girlfriend she shrugged and said “OK.” We never kissed, but she let me hold her hand in private. At night I would fall asleep and imagine I was holding her hand and smelling her hair. On certain nights I could be so good at imagining that I would sleep and really believe she was next to me. Those were the happiest nights of my life.

We were in the same class from kindergarten to third grade but got split up in fourth grade. We still saw each other at recess. It was then she taught me how not to cry, how to bite the heel of my hand when someone stole my swing or pushed me down. “If you bite hard enough,” she said, “You’ll forget what it was that hurt you.” I pressed my teeth gently to my palm and she laughed. “More like this,” she said. I had to hide those marks from my mother for a week.

After fourth grade Lorielle moved in with her father, which meant she had to go to middle school on the other side of town. It was a twenty-minute bike ride from where I lived, so we usually met at our old elementary school. We would sit on the swings holding hands or perch on the monkey bars and watch cars drive by. With every passing car, we’d try to figure out if we’d want to switch lives with the drivers. Lorielle would make up stories for them, give them lives she thought were more interesting than ours. “That guy’s definitely smoking pot,” she would sometimes say. Or, “I bet she’s driving somewhere to have sex.” But I never wanted to imagine another life for myself, especially not one that didn’t include Lorielle.

#

In eighth grade she got suspended for breaking a sink in the janitor’s closet. She lost her temper in class and hid in the closet, snapping a pipe and flooding the whole inside of a wall. Apparently it’s two grand in repairs,” she said grinning. “My dad says that’s BS and that he’ll take it to court.” She had a purple crescent under her eye and a thumbprint on her forearm. I never gave it much thought. She told me to skip out on school and spend the week with her, so I shrugged and said OK. Just the thought of lying to my mother and skipping school had my stomach in a knot, but Lorielle had that effect on me. I would have done anything she said.

We couldn’t hang out at the playground during the school day, so we just bounced around town on our bikes. We wandered through the maze of paths between shipping containers and stacked towers of floats at the boatyard, climbing them to get a view of the river. We held hands.

“If I stole a boat would you sail it with me?” she asked.

“I don’t know how to sail,” I said.

“Don’t be such a baby.”

She dropped my hand and stood on the top of a container, sticking her middle finger up and laughing when the attendant came out to yell at us. She laughed all the way back to town, leaning way off her bike to say things to me I couldn’t hear through the wind.

We stopped at the Big Apple on the other side of town and the pump attendant stared at our bikes where we threw them down. When I told Lorielle I didn’t have any money she told me to be more assertive. “In life you can’t wait around for everything to fall into place,” she said. “Sometimes you have to step up and take what’s yours.” She handed me a Mountain Dew and a two-dollar bag of Humpty Dumpties.

“No,” I said.

She laughed again and shoved a handful of Twinkies under her sweater, two sodas in the back of her pants. I followed her out of the store.

“You know they have cameras in there,” I said when we were beyond the point of capture.

Lorielle laughed. “Nobody cares about this stuff,” she said. “Anyway, we need it a lot more than them.” I thought of the lunch my mom had packed, how I hid it in the bushes so Lorielle wouldn’t see. In all the time I’d known her I never saw her bring food from home. I thought about my family’s nightly dinners and wondered what Lorielle would eat that night.

We did the same thing at Speedway, Cumbie’s, and Mobil over the next couple of days, then went back to the Big Apple. It was the same lady at the counter, but she never even looked at us. On our way through the toothpaste aisle Lorielle thrusted a pack of Trojans into my chest. I turned red and put them back. She laughed at me.

#

We had gotten in the habit of killing our afternoons at the sandpit. We’d pedal at top speed to see who could get higher up the pile, then ditch our bikes and climb through the sand on our knees. At the top we’d hold hands and savor our stolen goods, chucking the empty bottles at trains as they rattled past.

One afternoon a group of boys from the high school cut through with skateboards and backpacks. I recognized a couple as last year’s eighth graders, loud, angry boys from Lorielle’s side of town. We hid behind a sand ridge and watched them pass around a cigarette. My heart sank when one looked at our bikes and pointed at my backpack.

“Sup losers,” he shouted in our direction.

I closed my eyes. Lorielle marched to the summit. “Shut it!” she screamed.

The whole group hollered and laughed and swore. I realized they recognized her. Sometimes it seemed like Lorielle had an entire other life I knew nothing about. Glimpses of that other life always made me nervous.

“Hey Lorielle!” they shouted. “Who’s your new boyfriend?”

One of them whistled.

“Shut it!” she screamed again, but the high schoolers kept laughing and whistling until she hurled empty bottles and clods of sand. They shielded their faces and ran off, swearing obscenities I’d never even heard before. Lorielle didn’t sit down. She looked enraged and depressed at the same time.

“Nice,” I said looking up at her, my face burning. She tossed a bottle over my head then slid down the pile to her bike. We didn’t say a word the whole ride home.

#

On the pile the next day Lorielle pulled a huge glass bottle called “45” from her backpack. I don’t know how she snuck it past the counter.

“What is it?” I asked as she unscrewed the cap and flicked it away. She took a swig and held it in her mouth for a while before swallowing. It looked painful. I had to hold the bottle with both hands as I smelled it. “Beer?” I asked again.

“Yeah,” she said.

We took turns drinking and belching, but my sips were weak and fearful, my burps faint and forced. I had no interest in alcohol. It was already making my stomach turn and I knew my mother would smell it on me. She smelled everything on me.

Lorielle was unafraid. Her gulps were deep and long and caused her eyes to well with tears. Her burps were powerful and true. They reeked of partially digested Moon Pies and bile. While I felt awkward and unstable, Lorielle seemed liberated. She teetered along the ridge of our sand pile and stumbled into me again and again. It was all very impressive. I took a real gulp and vomited. Lorielle laughed.

I don’t know how much of the bottle we drank. It spilled into the sand when she tackled me and we rolled together, sand in our pockets and scalps, all the way down. We sat holding hands and staring into the woods. She went to go pee and I sat in the sand and listened to her vomit for a long time. I went and found her when she called.

“What time is it?” she asked me, smiling. She was standing with her pants undone, straddling the train tracks and swaying back and forth like a car radio antenna coming loose.

“I don’t know,” I said. I squinted at the sun. “Seven?”

“What do you think of me?” she asked. She was no longer looking at me. She was staring down the tracks towards town.

“I don’t know,” I said again. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you like me?”

“Yeah.” I shrugged. “I like you.” I loved her and I knew it. I knew that every little thing I knew about her was a reason I loved her, but still I shrugged. I was a coward.

“Why do you like me?” Her voice had lost inflection. Her eyes were flat and tired. She hugged herself and sat down.

I couldn’t think of anything to say. For the first time since I’d known her, Lorielle looked scared. She looked confused and alone, staring out at those train tracks. I didn’t like it. Seeing Lorielle like that, vulnerable and unconfident, irked me. Although I now realized how forced it was, I still preferred her bravado. I loved her confidence, partly because I wanted it for myself. I didn’t care if it had to be faked. I shifted my feet and put my hands in my pockets. Sand bunched up under my fingernails and I hoped she couldn’t see me wince.

“I wonder where this train goes.” She said more to herself than to me. She opened her arms as if to embrace something invisible approaching on the tracks. “I wonder if it would hurt to leave.”

#

When you grow up with someone it’s easy to think of them in the same way you always had: flawless and bold, invincible. But when you’re close enough to learn what lies beneath, when you realize what they’re dealing with and that they’re compensating for their own fears, insecurities, and trauma—maybe even more than you could ever have guessed—the friendship changes. It’s not easy to be honest with yourself, but it’s even harder to be honest with someone else. That night, Lorielle was honest with me. I was just too afraid to do anything about it.

I got home late that night after helping Lorielle find her house. My mother and father were waiting. The school had called. My mother smelled the beer and the vomit and promised not to call Lorielle’s father if I promised not to spend any more unsupervised time with her. I promised right away.

Lorielle went back to school and was suspended again for something else. She was sort of in and out of different schools for a while. My mother signed me up for the swim team, a productive hobby, she said, a way to make friends. Lorielle and I started losing touch and by the time high school rolled around, it was like we’d never known each other. It was like everything we learned of each other, everything we loved, had become a reason to leave our friendship behind.

I hope Lorielle knows what she meant to me, what she taught me about friendship, what she taught me about myself. This is what I think every time I pass that old playground, the sandpit, or her father’s house. It’s since been boarded up, its lawn and shrubs growing high and wild like kids with no one around to slash them down. I hope she hasn’t changed. I hope she got on that train and left this town. And I hope it didn’t hurt too badly.

 

 

FICTION PIECE

The Trees and the Moon

by Andrew Grace

 

 

It was the pumpkins, Jennifer believed, that would one day seek revenge. Every holiday demanded its sacrifices. Fir trees for Christmas, roses for Saint Valentine’s day, turkeys to mark a day of Thanksgiving. Countless pigs were slaughtered in honor of the nation’s independence from Britain—to say nothing of the fingers and noses lost to errant firecrackers—and, of course, large orange gourds were mutilated by the millions to celebrate the evening before All Saints’ Day.

Producers labored year-round to satiate the demand for these sacrifices. And when the moment came, the moment when market forces and spiritual energies aligned, they chopped down the greenest fir trees, plucked the reddest roses, wrung the necks of the fattest turkeys, and pushed the plumpest pig parts through the grinders. Then, of course, they yanked the largest, brightest, creepiest pumpkins from their stems, their umbilical connections to Mother Earth.

And for this, this desecration disguised as hallowed ceremony, Jennifer knew the gourds would have their revenge. She could, quite literally, see it in their faces. In their flaming eyes. In their wide, silent screams. In their pointy teeth. She could see their mindless fury.

But that wasn’t why she refused to perform the ceremony at home.

I

Jennifer wanted to carve her Jack-O-Lantern in the park because she believed it was sacred territory, or maybe profane territory. She didn’t particularly care which. Samantha didn’t want to carve pumpkins outside because Duluth, Minnesota is cold in late October, like every other state’s mid-December cold, and the cold made her impatient. Samantha’s pumpkin stood next to Jennifer’s on one the few remaining patches of crisp, green autumn grass in Lester Park. Samantha stood a few feet away from the space her friend had deemed “the altar,” while Jennifer sat firm on the grass with her legs stretched wide to either side of her pumpkin. For a breath, Jennifer held a large chef’s knife above the gourd as if she were a surgeon preparing to make her first incision. Then, she plunged two-thirds of the blade into the top of the doomed vegetable and began to saw an irregular circle around its stem. The tip of her tongue stuck out of her mouth as she worked.

Samantha exhaled a couple of pointedly steaming breaths into her cupped hands and rubbed her shoulders. “Why are we doing this outside in the freezing cold again?”

Jennifer finished cutting her circle in silence. Leaning forward to put both hands on the knife’s handle while she pressed her knees against the pumpkin, she drew the blade free. In a series of jerky motions, she pointed the knife up toward the moon and then jabbed it in the direction of the enormous oak trees that lined the path the girls had taken to reach this particular clearing.

“Yeah,” Samantha replied, “you’re being cryptic again, Genevieve.”

Jennifer cringed. Samantha only called her Genevieve when she was annoyed, when her patience for her friend’s “melodramatic tendencies” was wearing thin. It took all of Jennifer’s courage twenty minutes earlier to face Samantha’s disbelieving stare and insist on the park for their pumpkin carving in the first place. Now, she struggled to find some hidden reserve of fortitude for responding to her friend’s pestering. She yanked the top of her pumpkin free from its fibrous veins. “Do you ever wonder if trees raise their branches like that to worship the moon?”

“What the f?” the standing girl muttered before really looking at the trees where the sitting girl pointed her knife a moment earlier. She was sixteen, and the disillusioned part of her brain registered that the trees’ branches climbed toward celestial bodies to absorb the sun’s rays in a process known as C) photosynthesis. But the greater portion of her brain, the portion that clung to the romance of mystery, had no trouble discerning a multitude of steadfast arms raised in ceaseless devotion to divine Luna in the night sky.

“Huh,” she said and plopped onto the grass with her sneaker-clad toes resting on either side of her pumpkin.

Jennifer was busy ripping the pumpkin’s seedy, stringy guts out with a spoon, so Samantha leaned forward to grab the chef’s knife from the ground next to her friend’s knee. When she sat up again, she felt a freezing wind cut through the oversized red sweatshirt she chose instead of her winter coat that night. The sweatshirt belonged to her brother, Bjorn Houckem, in name only. It was emblazoned with the name of a prestigious institution of higher education in Northfield, where her older brother was seeking his Bachelor of Science in Biology. The dry, barren branches of the oak trees rustled in the wind as Samantha shivered.

“I think the word ‘rustled’ should be defined as ‘the sound that trees make during their long, slow prayers to the moon.’ Fall and winter are holy times because the moon’s power is at its peak,” Jennifer said without raising her head from the pumpkin guts on the grass in front of her.

Samantha blew her hair out of her eyes. Jennifer was being theatrical again. It felt like she was doing this kind of thing more often lately—insisting upon the kind of rituals and games they played as kids. Back then, the treasure hunts, art competitions, and pageants were always Samantha’s idea, not Jennifer’s, but now, as they began entering adulthood, these things seemed to have taken on a new meaning for Jennifer. Samantha knew all of this was partially—more than partially—her fault. That’s why she was here, sitting on the ground in the freezing cold, allowing Jennifer to indulge in this ‘ritual’.

“So, how does it work when they’re covered in leaves?” asked Samantha as she began taking haphazard stabs at the top of her pumpkin.

“That’s the thing,” Jennifer replied, “they sprout leaves when the sun is ascendant to hide their faces from its jealous rays. Then, they shed them as the moon grows in power to, um, revel in her glory or something.”

“So are fir trees, like, heathens then?”

Jennifer sat up and put her spoon down on the grass. At five-foot-six, she was taller than her friend by several inches, but in her mind’s eye, she was still the smaller one. She was still the littler one, the girlier one, the babyish one, chasing after the daughter of her father’s best friend. When they were kids, Samantha always seemed to know about the things Jennifer didn’t understand. The books the older kids were reading. The movies their parents watched. And, of course, boys and sex. When they hit puberty, Jennifer shot up, but her friend rounded out. And if Samantha secretly longed for her friend’s slimmer jean size, Jennifer openly envied the breasts and hips, the softness and curves that separated her gangly girl’s body from her friend’s smooth womanly figure – a womanly figure that Jennifer was convinced her Swedish mother had conspired to deny her. She was so accustomed to thinking of her friend as more knowledgeable, more mature, and all around more decisive that sometimes she couldn’t tell if Samantha was just humoring her.

She studied Samantha as her friend made a sequence of deep stabs into the top of her pumpkin, wrenching the knife out after each thrust. She puffed up her left cheek and tapped it with her index finger. Her finger rested on the bubble for a moment as she resisted the urge to let it burst until she opened her mouth to answer the shorter girl’s question.

“Sure,” she said. “They stay green all year and their branches point to the ground. But they’re not just heathens. They’re heretics who believe the moon is an evil spirit placed in the sky to tempt right-thinking trees away from the sun. And a long time ago, some mighty maple bribed the humans to chop down the fir trees during the longest night of the year when the moon is ascendant.”

“So that’s how we got maple syrup?” Samantha was still looking down at her pumpkin as she wiggled its stem back and forth to slide the top free from its jagged incisions.

Jennifer spun her hollowed-out gourd around in her hands, looking for the perfect surface for what she had in mind. “Yeah,” she said.

“Kind of makes me wish I liked it more.”

“Everything tastes better with arboreal genocide.”

Arboreal, Samantha thought, B) Of or relating to trees. Jennifer had been using these kinds of phrases a lot lately. Arboreal, bucolic, parallax, syncopated – some days, talking to Jennifer felt like prepping for the SAT.

Perhaps it was just the tenor of their discussion, but Samantha felt an odd surge of bloodlust as she began yanking the guts out of the newly lobotomized pumpkin. She eschewed the spoon at her feet in favor of her nails, periodically wiping her hands through the grass to clean them. Meanwhile, Jennifer wielded a small serrated tool designed especially for the task of gifting jack-o’-lanterns the faces they needed to express their anguish. She favored a triangle-centric design. Two equilateral triangles pointing down for the eyes and a slender, acute triangle pointing up for the nose. Sharp triangles for teeth gave its mouth a predatory edge, and like a rabid beast, it seemed ready to share its pain with unwary fingers and earlobes.

Sensing the opportunity to escape the chill night air if she worked quickly, Samantha carved two small holes for eyes and a third, larger hole below them. Toothless, it howled in silent frustration. When it was done, Samantha set it aside, put her instruments in a pile with Jennifer’s, and wiped her hands through the grass again. After the third pass, they were still covered in a dry, sticky film and the thought of rubbing them clean with her sweatshirt flit through her brain, but she was loathe to commit the precious garment into the tender mercies of their antiquated washing machine. She took the more sensible route and rubbed them on Jennifer’s coat while her friend was engrossed in staring at the demonic grin in front of her.

“What the hell?!” Jennifer shouted as she recoiled in surprise. Her knees failed to rise from the ground at the same speed as her torso and she tumbled over.

Samantha paused to make sure her friend wasn’t really hurt before she started laughing. She wiped the start of a giggle-induced tear from her eye. “I was trying to get pumpkin guts off my hands.”

“Use your own damn shirt, you skank!”

“And endanger Carlton? Never.”

“What about your t-shirt?!”

Samantha looked down toward her stomach and pulled at the grey tee shirt peeking out from the edge of her beloved hoodie. It was a shirt for the Duluth East cross-country team, which she quit the year before. She finished wiping her hands on it as she admitted aloud that she “hadn’t thought of that.”

Once she maneuvered back into a sitting position, Jennifer leaned over to grab Samantha’s jack-o’-lantern and place it next to her own. She smiled at their contrasting expressions, then shivered as if noticing the near-freezing temperature for the first time that night.

“Now all that’s left is settling on our costumes,” she announced.

“Our costumes?” Samantha replied.

“Yeah, I figured we could do the age-reversed Hook and Pan thing or try zombie poets again.”

For most of middle school and junior high, the girls went trick-or-treating as Captain Hook and Peter Pan in costumes originally pieced together by their mothers and continually modified by themselves. When Jennifer hit her growth spurt in the eighth grade, they decided to give her the fake beard to accompany the green leggings and pointed hat. In turn, a claw-handed Samantha played Captain Hook as the boy who refused to grow up. Despite snippets of what they believed to be delightful banter about ticking clocks and fairy dust, most of the parents handing out candy assumed they were Robin Hood and Generic Lady Pirate #34. When they tried again in the ninth grade, they stitched a makeshift Tinkerbell to the shoulder of Jennifer’s tunic and whitened her beard while Samantha hung a plastic crocodile snout from her neck, but the few comments they received implied they were getting too old to ask strangers for candy.

The next year, as sophomores, they agreed they were too old for conventional trick-or-treating but too young for a good party, so they settled upon the zombie poet experiment. Dressed in thrift store garb that smelled like it originated at the turn of the century, even if it didn’t quite look that way, they traveled from door to door reciting the works of Lord Byron and Edna St. Vincent Millay and handing out candy to their bewildered neighbors. For good measure, they painted their faces and hands a greenish-grey or a greyish-green and applied fake sores and bite marks to their necks, cheeks, and foreheads. While reciting “She Walks in Beauty,” Samantha would slur the start of the second stanza before moaning “Braaaains…” Exhausted and giddy after traversing more than six miles, they pronounced the experiment a success. But Samantha had never intended to revisit the results.

“I was thinking about going as a cat,” she said.

“A cat?” Jennifer replied.

“Yeah, I’ve got a tail and some ears. I was just gonna wear them with, like, a skirt and sweater. Black ones, I guess.” Samantha loved cats. And she wanted to wear a simple costume to their first real Halloween party. And it was a perfectly reasonable plan. And even if the skirt she had in mind was a bit shorter than the ones she usually wore, it wasn’t like she was planning to disrespect the spirit of Halloween by getting all skanked up or something. And she had nothing to feel bad about. So why were her eyes glued to her toes?

It took Jennifer several moments of silently staring at the top of Samantha’s downturned head to grasp what her friend just said. Samantha Houckem, who once constructed matching dinosaur costumes for them out of cardboard and spray paint, who once said “your Halloween costume is more important than your favorite playlist”—that Samantha Houckem—wanted to don cat ears and call it a costume for their first Halloween party. Jennifer responded in a voice heavy with exasperation and puzzlement, “Oh Sam, that’s so lame.”

II

They took the tree-lined and moonlit path back through the park to Samantha’s enormous yellow Suburban, an ancient hand-me down from her father. They drove through the dark and pothole-filled Seven Bridges Road as it crossed and re-crossed Amity Creek until they reached Skyline Parkway. Then, they rode over the dark and gravel-strewn pass as it rose up the ridge that overlooked the magnificent lights of the city below and the black abyss-like lake beyond it. They exited onto Glenwood Street near the summit of its long, steep ascent and drove into Woodland, where Jennifer lived with both her parents and their cat, Ms. Marbles, whom Jennifer reminded everyone she had named when she was very young.

Through the ominous path, over the dilapidated bridges, across the splendorous expanse, and into the quiet neighborhood, Jennifer never stopped haranguing Samantha about their costumes. She proposed that cat costumes were boring. Samantha countered that she liked cats. Jennifer already knew this because Samantha, whose mother was allergic to felines or at least claimed to be, spent three or four nights a week at her house with Ms. Marbles on her lap. She had done so for most of the last decade. So, Jennifer proposed that people always assumed the girl in the cat costume was slutty. Samantha countered that that was their fault for being dumb, not her fault for liking cats. This was one of her standard rhetorical strategies, and Jennifer was appalled that she still didn’t have a successful rebuttal for it. So, Jennifer proposed that there would probably be several other girls dressed as cats, and Samantha countered that that was good because one of them could be the slutty one. Jennifer started to explain that that wasn’t what she meant but gave up on that line of argumentation in favor of proposing that costumes with a theatrical element would be more impressive. Samantha countered that there wouldn’t be anyone at the party she was interested in impressing. And Jennifer asked how she could know. And she replied that she wasn’t interested in impressing anyone at the present time. So, Jennifer finally proposed that it would mean a lot to her. She meant that she felt uncomfortable at parties and that pretending to be someone else, even just a little bit, made it easier for her to socialize, but she didn’t explain all of that; she just hoped her oldest friend would be able to infer it from her plaintive tone and wide, pleading eyes. Samantha countered by sighing and saying she would think about it.

And she did think about it as she drove back through the short, staggered streets near the University and as she drove along the steep wide streets toward Norwood, where she lived with her mother and her stepfather, Scott. She thought that this was the problem with childhood friends. Change looks like a threat. Growth looks like a threat. Individuality looks like a threat.

She didn’t want to look like a threat. Not to Jennifer. She didn’t feel threatening. She felt alone.

She thought that this was the kind of thing that she would normally talk to Jennifer about. She thought that she couldn’t talk to any of her other friends about it because they were all Jennifer’s friends too, and she was pretty sure that they liked Jennifer more. She thought that she didn’t want to be Jennifer and she didn’t want to be the person Jennifer wanted her to be and she didn’t want to be the person she already was inside of Jennifer’s head. She thought that she didn’t want to be the person she already was inside of her own head either. Then, she parked the Suburban alongside the curb so it wouldn’t block her mom or Scott when they wanted to leave in the morning. She reclaimed her jack-o’-lantern from the backseat before sliding out the driver’s side door from an elevation that seemed ridiculous in contrast to her legs.

Shifting around to keep her balance as she hit the ground brought the pumpkin to her face, and she stared into its vacant eyes. She felt uncommonly pleased with its simple expression. She rushed inside, wiping her shoes with exaggerated swipes on the mat in the entryway, below the wall-mounted coat hangers overflowing with jackets, scarves, hats, and bags. Her mother and Scott were seated in the living room, watching the ten o’clock news. The opening music was still rolling, which meant she was just in time. In three months of owning a car, her curfew had grown from a minor annoyance to a considerable point of tension between herself and her mother.

Her mother tilted her head just enough to glimpse Samantha before refocusing on the television as she asked, “how was pumpkin carving?”

“Cold,” Samantha replied. “I need a candle. Do we have any candles?”

Her mother suggested looking in the drawer next to the kitchen sink, the one to the left. Moments later, Samantha passed back through the entryway with a pair of tea lights and a box of matches to where she left her pumpkin on the stoop. She lit both candles before inserting them through the lantern’s mouth. Like a reverse dragon, it inhaled fire. Then, she set the pumpkin back on the stoop and took several steps down the front walk before spinning around to look at it again. With the glow of the candles emanating from its eyes and its large, round mouth, it no longer expressed toothless frustration. Instead, it wailed in silence about a deep, burning sorrow.

Samantha grinned from ear to ear, completely oblivious to the cold for the first time all night.

III

The next day was Monday. Kim’s party was on Thursday. Jennifer had three days to convince Samantha that cat costumes were lame. She stacked up the strengths of her case against the obstacles. She divided a sheet of paper into two columns in her mind. She stopped using real paper for this kind of thing in the seventh grade.

In the Strengths column, her mental pen scratched six points in short straight lines.

  1. Cat costumes are objectively lame.
  2. Halloween is about being awesome, not trying to be cool (i.e. actually being lame).
  3. Zombie poets are awesome.
  4. A zombie poet can always recite poetry if you suddenly feel shy or awkward or have nothing else to say but feel the need to say something because you’re at a party and people you don’t know very well are looking at you.
  5. The last time we wore lame Halloween costumes we were in the fourth grade, and the fourth grade was terrible, and it was probably because of the lame costumes.
  6. I really need you to wear the same costume as me or I’ll have to spend all night explaining my costume to people who don’t get it by myself.

She reviewed the strengths column with a critical eye, looking for overstatements or missteps, but everything seemed right. Cat costumes were truly lame. Zombie poets were, indeed, awesome. And the fourth grade was so terrible that they usually referred to it as “that time we had Mrs. Bennett, and everything sucked.” As in, “Remember that time we had Mrs. Bennett and everything sucked and Timothy Johnson said your mother was a whore and you didn’t know what that was but you cried anyway and then Mr. Parsons yelled at you for crying and everyone chanted crybaby behind your back for a week until Melissa Paulson wore that black and white sweatshirt and everyone started calling her fat instead.”

She proceeded to fill out the Obstacles column in the same straight, short letters. It wasn’t going to do her any good if she lost her head and started getting sloppy with mental ink.

  1. Samantha didn’t like losing arguments.
  2. Samantha was better at arguing than her.
  3. After Timothy Johnson called her mother a whore, Samantha was the one who spread the rumor that his parents were cousins and he was born with a tail that had to be surgically removed.
  4. Samantha really liked cats.

Jennifer tried to review her list of obstacles just as she had reviewed the strengths of her case, but it was always difficult for her to anticipate the obstacles Samantha could create. The first and fourth points were clear enough on their own. With the second point, Jennifer thought about how she relied on conclusions drawn from past experiences, while Samantha could wield an entire suite of rhetorical strategies – changing the premise of the debate, questioning the validity of her evidence, favoring abstract reasoning over concrete examples or vice versa as it suited her, or dismissing the discussion outright with phrases like “whatever” or “if you say so,” the intonations for which she had honed for years into a discourse-killing blade sharp enough to split atoms.

Jennifer really only thought about the third point for fun. Not only did the incident put a hold on any romantic interest in the snot-faced little jerk among the other girls in their class that lasted through the eighth grade; it also led to a rash of attempts among the other boys and a few of the girls to pull down his pants in hopes of seeing the scar left by the tail-removing surgery.

Yet, she wasn’t certain that the thing about Timothy Johnson’s tail belonged on the list of obstacles. She just liked thinking about it from time to time. So, she replaced it with a different obstacle.

  1. For the past year or so—ever since Samantha swallowed a bottle of pills between ninth and tenth grade and had to spend two weeks in the hospital—she wasn’t sure that she knew her friend at all.

She was the only person not legally or genetically related to Samantha who knew about the incident, but she hadn’t been allowed to see her friend in the hospital. Waiting at the Houckem-Marshall residence on the day Samantha was released, she had no idea what do with herself. Her hands were empty and her legs crossed as she waited on Samantha’s bed, sitting on top of the quilt Grandma Houckem sewed for Samantha when she was three. Was she supposed to bring a gift? Was it a time of celebration? Was it a time of mourning? How was she supposed to feel? To the extent that she could feel anything after the weeks of anxious sleep deprivation, she felt furious. She felt furious with Samantha for letting her despair fester in silence, for trying to kill herself, for abandoning their friendship, but mostly for making her feel furious when she was supposed to feel love or pity or relief. And she felt furious with herself for being mad at her friend, for being mad at someone who was so depressed, someone she didn’t understand anymore. And, for now, she just wanted something to do with her hands. She pulled at the corners of Samantha’s blanket, then straightened them in a rush of worry because the room had to be perfect. She rested her right hand in her left with the palms up, then the left hand in the right. Then she flipped them, setting her left palm atop the back of the right. She regretted not buying a gift, some colorful object with which she could fidget. She wanted to zhoosh a bow, tighten a corner, squeeze something.

When Scott, Valerie, and Samantha arrived at the house, they entered without exchanging any pleasantries loud enough for Jennifer to hear. She heard the muted shuffling of shoes being removed and a suitcase being repositioned. She continued to wait on the bed, feeling more anxious than ever, wondering how long it would take Samantha to walk down the hall to her room. The hallway carpet muffled the sound of sock-covered feet so well that Jennifer and Samantha never worried about attracting attention when they raided the kitchen for chips, ice cream, or soda after midnight, so Jennifer was left to stare at the door, willing it to open at the touch of her best friend’s hand.

Her pulse shot up when the knob twisted, accompanied by the quiet, familiar creak only the two of them knew. The face that came into view just past the edge of the door looked just as familiar as it was totally alien to her. The lines and colors, the size and the shape, matched her memory of Samantha’s profile, but the expression didn’t fit the person inside her head, the Samantha she knew. She stood up from the bed and the embraced her friend. The action helped her suppress the urge to shake the shorter girl, just as hiding her face in the long, dark hair that smelled of unfamiliar shampoo helped her suppress the torrent of cruel statements that threatened to spill from her suddenly dry lips. “What were you thinking?” “What the hell is wrong with you?” “How could you do this to me?” Her brain refused to fabricate anything consoling, comforting, or humane, as if all her synapses were flooded with vitriol and acid. She needed to purge them somehow, flush the system clean. She tried bursting into tears, but one hiccupping half-sob later and her face felt salt-shaker dry.

Meanwhile, Samantha felt limp in her friend’s arms. Her own arms stayed at her sides, and her left hand gripped a stuffed bear named Mister Winkles. The bear had been a gift from Jennifer on Samantha’s fifth birthday. He sported a purple bowtie, and the fur on his right paw was growing threadbare. Samantha wore red and black pajama pants beneath a large grey sweatshirt. Mid-August was too humid for the outfit. It smelled unwholesome but looked like hugs should feel. She was tired. She was tired of people fussing over her. And she was tired of hurting people who loved her.

She wanted to sleep in her own bed, beneath her grandmother’s quilt, snuggling the teddy bear given to her by an old friend.

After feeling Jennifer’s mouth open and close three times without quite getting through the word “why,” Samantha asked, “Is there a reason good enough?”

“Of course not,” Jennifer replied.

“Then let’s assume that I wasn’t being reasonable.”

“Sure.”

“And I’m better now.”

“Okay.”

Laying together on the twin bed they sometimes shared as little girls, Samantha wanted Jennifer to leave, and Jennifer wanted to feel like it was okay to leave.

 

Over a year later, Jennifer still never knew when anything was okay. And she still never wanted to ask Samantha “why.”

Not about anything.

Certainly, not about Halloween costumes.

Besides, asking Samantha why she wanted to abandon fifteen years’ worth of Halloween tradition would just give her friend the opportunity to establish and fortify obstacles. As soon as Samantha started talking, Jennifer would be at a deficit. But if she could get Samantha focused on the strengths of her position, then her friend might lose sight of the obstacles she intended to raise all together.

“I want to impress a boy and he likes poetry.” Jennifer was standing behind Samantha in line for the salad bar. She guessed the line would give her three minutes in an advantageous position. Samantha couldn’t maximize her defenses without turning around, and the bustle of the line combined with the mental space devoted to deciding what to put on her salad left her distracted and susceptible. So, Jennifer started her campaign with a long shot. She made something up.

Samantha would see through the ruse before she could blink if she were focused, or at least looking at Jennifer, but under the circumstances, the statement made her pause both mentally and physically. Holding her tray still, she asked who the guy was.

Jennifer kicked herself for failing to anticipate this. The problem with childhood friends is that they know everyone you know. She couldn’t hesitate though.

“Denton,” she said. It was the first name to pop into her head. They sat next to each other in orchestra, right before lunch.

Samantha remained still for a second. Then, she shuffled forward with the line.

“You would have an easier time wooing Denton with a simple declaration that the two of you were going out.”

“I didn’t say that I wanted to go out with him. I said I want to impress him.” Jennifer was proud of this improvisation. She almost believed it.

“Okay, but, I mean, why?”

It was working. Samantha was committing her forces to the decoy. Jennifer picked up a plate and pushed her tray along the bar toward the lettuce. She had less than two minutes before Samantha would find a chance to rally during the silent walk to the table.

“You know, he’s always saying these ridiculous things, and he probably thinks I’m just, like, boring and quiet all the time.”

“Why do you care?” Samantha asked while dropping several uninspected cucumber slices on top of her lettuce.

“It just bugs me when people get the wrong impression.”

“So, you’re going to convince him you’re exciting and fun by reading poetry at him?”

“Like I said…”

“He likes poetry. Of course, he does.”

Samantha grabbed the first bottle of salad dressing her hand encountered and squeezed a glob of it on top of her lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, black olives, and sunflower seeds. Then she lifted her tray and marched toward their customary table.

Jennifer felt her early victories slipping away. Samantha usually spent at least twenty seconds selecting a salad dressing. Jennifer often made fun of her for it, and today, she had been counting on that time to let her decoy slip away as she ambushed Samantha’s forces with her primary assault. If only she had ten more seconds to think of something else to say.

By the time she caught up with her opponent at their usual bench, Samantha had prepared her counterattack.

“Wouldn’t it impress him more if you were the only one spouting poetry at him?” She asked. It was the classic pivot, but Jennifer felt ready for it this time.

“If we go in matching costumes, it will look like I’m a fun and exciting person who takes Halloween seriously.”

“You are a fun and exciting person who takes Halloween seriously. Possibly too seriously.”

Jennifer pouted. She knew Samantha was trying to win the argument, but Halloween was sacred. The idea that she took it too seriously was inconceivable. It was inconceivable to her. It was inconceivable to her friend. The one she knew. The one in her head. But she didn’t have time for linguistic, identity, or existential crises. She shook her face back into neutral and countered that she knew she was a fun and exciting person who took Halloween seriously, but she wanted to convey that information to others.

“Just be yourself,” Samantha said with a shrug.

“That. Defeats. The. Whole. Purpose!”

Samantha took a large bite out of her salad and looked into the empty space to her left.

She swallowed hard. “Touché.”

“So, you’ll join me?”

“I’ll think about it.”

Crap, Jennifer thought. This is why she didn’t like debating with Samantha. Sam knew all the outs. Just when you think you have her cornered, she reveals that you’ve been debating inside a sphere the whole time. When she says she’ll think about something, any further attempts to pester her about it violate her right to peaceful contemplation.

Jennifer took a bite of her salad and wondered how long she had to let her friend “think about it.”

IV

On Thursday night, she struggled with her make-up. She still didn’t know what Samantha would wear. On Tuesday, Sam said she was still thinking about it. On Wednesday, she suggested that Jennifer needed to chill out a bit because they had all the stuff they needed no matter what. That afternoon, she missed lunch because she had to finish a physics project before sixth period. Jennifer grimaced when she heard the news from a mutual friend. It was obvious that Samantha was avoiding her, but she reminded herself that her friend skipped lunch once or twice every week to take care of the most recent thing she neglected. Jennifer added some more purple to the wound she was painting on her neck and thought, “I guess I’ll have to wait in line behind her stupid little history paper.” Then, she chided herself for being unfair. The phone was right there, and she hadn’t picked it up to demand answers, so who was she to complain?

Still, it would’ve been nice to know more about Samantha’s plans. The problem with zombie poets is that everyone thinks you’re just a zombie in weird clothes. When you recite a stanza, they ask you if you have a quiz tomorrow or something. And eventually, they ask where you bought your outfit and if it’s special for Halloween or something because “it’s, like, really interesting.” “Interesting” did not carry a positive connotation. But if a single zombie poet is a girl with bad make-up in thrift store clothes who has a quiz tomorrow, two zombie poets are an act, a shtick, a force with which to reckon. The clothes were clearly intentional, and if the clothes were clearly intentional, then the verses must be part of the costume too, and if someone went to the trouble of memorizing poetry for a costume, then they probably weren’t just skimping on the gory face paint. Understated flesh wounds must contribute to the soulful aesthetic of a deceased-yet-ambulatory Emily Dickinson who craves nothing more than to access the pure, unsullied language of the deity, except perhaps to dine on the sweet, pulpy brains of the nearest child.

In sum, Jennifer wanted to know how much fake blood she should smear across her neck. The phone was right there. But she was pretty sure she had enough. No need to overdo things. Besides, it was time to get her basket ready. A loaf of French bread. A few select poems transcribed in Jennifer’s sharp, straight hand onto some tea-stained paper. And a bottle of sparkling grape juice for hospitability.

“A book of verses… a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and…”

It wasn’t Dickinson, but it felt appropriate.

The doorbell rang again as she dabbed half-heartedly at her cheek with another smeared cotton round. It had been ringing every seven minutes or so since the little kids started trick-or-treating dressed as gnomes, or fairies, or tiny devils. Around six thirty, Jennifer covered door duty while her mother spent some time in the make-up strewn bathroom. She handed mini-Three Musketeers bars to the world’s smallest ninja and a pair of princesses. She was pleased to see that one of the princesses appeared to be a boy. He was around eight. Too young to be ironic.

When the doorbell rang at seven thirty, Jennifer’s mother called for her. She stepped out of the bathroom expecting to find Samantha in the hallway. But the hallway was empty, and Jennifer could hear voices coming from the front door. Evidently, her friend—and chauffer—was waiting outside. She peeked once more at the mirror, poked at the make-up smudge around her left eye, turned off the light, and headed down the hall. She passed through her family’s small dining room—more of a dining nook really—into the almost as small kitchen before she could see the front entrance, where her mother was chit-chatting with her best friend, who was dressed as the world’s most clichéd cat-girl. Black tights. Black skirt. Black, V-neck sweater. Black liquid eyeliner for whiskers. And black cat ears atop a black headband.

“Mew or treat,” she said. She held up both hands with her arms folded from her elbows near her waist and her fingers folded over into her palms. They made passable symbols for cats’ paws. Jennifer’s mother, who often acted as if Samantha was her own daughter, put her hands together as she unleashed a delighted guffaw at the black-clad human-feline hybrid.

Jennifer just said, “Hey.”

Samantha had forced a big, stupid grin onto her face beneath the two-dimensional whiskers, but her eyes were almost moist with pleading. Jennifer averted her own eyes before muttering that they should get going.

As they strolled down the front walk toward the Suburban—Samantha glancing at Jennifer and Jennifer staring at her basket—they almost collided with a pair of trick-or-treating tweens. The shorter of the tweens was disguised as an eye-patch wearing pirate. Her companion sported an explosion of bright green feathers and a plastic yellow beak that was secured to her face with an uncomfortable elastic string. All four girls murmured apologies under their breath, though the tweens barely interrupted their march toward Jennifer’s door. Samantha reoriented herself and stepped forward again, but she stopped when she realized that Jennifer’s eyes were still directed at the pair of younger girls. She made an inquisitive mewing noise to get her friend’s attention.

With her face still turned away from Samantha’s, Jennifer winced at her friend’s out-of-character attempts at acting precious. The more she tried to convince her that dressing up like a cat was cute or fun or anything other than some lame attempt at conformity, the more Jennifer resented everything about it. She resented how uninspired and insipid the costume was. She resented being left in the dark all week. She resented Samantha’s cloying attempts to make everything seem all right. And when she yanked open the passenger door, she resented the loud screech that tore through the night.

Samantha slid into the driver’s seat across the console from her with that astonishingly graceful ease Jennifer always envied. She closed the door and started the car without saying anything further. Her face had adopted the neutral expression she often wore when she thought no one was looking – eyes forward, mouth closed, chin up. Both girls remained silent as they pulled away from Jennifer’s house and began the short drive to Kim’s place. Houses along both sides of the street glowed amidst the porch lamps, jack-o’-lanterns, and strings of orange or red holiday lights. Samantha drove slowly, and Jennifer kept her head lowered against the window as she watched gaggles of children dart from house to house.

They accelerated on Woodland Avenue, cruising past the outskirts of the University, where they saw a group of college students hustling between buildings – a man in a toga, a very tall little red riding hood, some kind of period-specific zombie, two people without discernible costumes, and a black cat.

“This seems a little silly,” Samantha said at the first stoplight without changing her expression.

“How so?” Jennifer replied. She recognized Samantha’s bid to sound like the more mature one, the more sensible and reasonable one, so she decided to play the confused one who asks a million questions.

“You’re mad at me.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You’re not talking to me.”

“What’s there to talk about?”

“Oh bite me, Genevieve, maybe we could talk about the fact that you’re mad at me because I want to put on cat ears ten minutes before getting in the car instead of memorizing poetry for three days.”

“The light’s green.”

“What?”

“The light. It’s green,” Jennifer said, lifting her head away from the window and pointing a finger at the stoplights.

“Right. Damn.” Samantha shifted back into gear and accelerated into the intersection. “I just don’t understand why it’s such a big deal?”

“Why didn’t you tell me what you were planning?”

“I told you on Sunday. You just didn’t want to listen.”

“Tell the truth, but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies.”

Samantha tilted her head to the left for a moment and thought A) Elizabeth Barrett Browning; or, B) … “That’s Dickinson, right?”

“Does it matter?”

“That depends. What else have you got?”

Jennifer had been memorizing the most Halloween-appropriate passages from Dickinson’s poems all week. She planned to wield phrases like “As if a Goblin with a Gauge – Kept measuring the Hours” and “One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted” before slurring into “Braaaains!” But she had stumbled upon a few passages that spoke more pointedly to her growing frustration with how she felt Samantha was treating her.

She recited, “She dealt her pretty words like Blades – How glittering they shone – And every One unbared a Nerve or wantoned with a Bone.”

A grin spread over Samantha’s face. “Excellent! ‘Pretty words like Blades,’ I love it. We should get tattoos.”

She looked over at Jennifer, hoping to see a dent in her friend’s armor, some acknowledgement of how hard she was trying. She stared at Jennifer for a minute before the younger girl realized she was being subjected to such intense scrutiny and finally looked up. She looked up. She lifted her head away from the window. Then, she reached over and yanked the steering wheel hard to the right.

The Suburban swerved into the right lane, through the shoulder, and up against the curb before Samantha could straighten the wheel and slam on the breaks.

“WHAT THE HELL GENEVIEVE!?!” Samantha shouted. “All Nine Hells, Genevieve! What, in all the hells, was that about!?!”

Jennifer touched the side of her face, which had bounced against her window when the car was jostling along the curb. There was no blood, and it didn’t hurt. But she was having trouble focusing. That was probably adrenaline, right? Or the shouting?

“The Soul has Bandaged moments,” she said, “When too appalled to stir – She feels some ghastly Fright come up and stop to look at her.”

She looked into Samantha’s eyes. Samantha looked back into hers. Jennifer saw something behind her friend’s brown irises, something beyond the anger and the fear and the confusion of that moment. She had seen pleading in those eyes back at the house. She had seen a longing to be forgiven mixed with the refusal to apologize. Now, she saw a different kind of pleading, a pleading with a callous and chaotic universe. If everything could just make a little more sense, then maybe…

“There was a man,” she said. “In the middle of the road.”

Samantha slumped back into her seat. “Jesus. Really?”

Jennifer leaned around the left side of her seat to look back at the last intersection.

“He’s still there.”

Samantha leaned around the right side of her seat to follow Jennifer’s gaze, and sure enough, there was a tall man in the middle of the road. An absurdly tall man. An aggressively tall man. Unseemly tall. He was wearing a ratty suit below a wide bulbous head. No, that wasn’t quite right. He definitely had a lit jack-o’-lantern for a head.

“He’s just wearing a pumpkin on top of his head, right? With his real head in his shirt?”

“I mean, he must be, of course. And with the shirt too.”

“Right. Anything else would be absurd.”

“Definitely. Like, pumpkins-seeking-revenge-against-their-human-oppressors levels of absurd.”

“Right.”

“Yeah.”

Jennifer opened her door, ignoring the atrocious screech, and slid down to the soft grass on the other side of the curb. Samantha followed her, crawling over the console to exit on the passenger’s side. Woodland Avenue traversed the mile of parkland, streams, and ponds that separated Jennifer’s neighborhood from Kim’s, and their abrupt stop left them somewhere in the middle of it. Large copses of trees cluttered near both sides of the road. Birch trees and young oaks denuded of leaves stood in the shadows of towering pines as the moon beamed overhead. They defied the heretics with branches that stretched upward and outward in faithful worship.

Samantha was shaking. She looked away from the road too long. She nearly ran a man down with a half-ton of steel, aluminum, rubber, and electric wiring. Even the electric wiring must weigh something. She felt sick. Her legs were giving out. She reached out to put her arms around Jennifer. It wasn’t enough. She leaned her head into Jennifer’s shoulder, squeezing tighter against the opposite arm. Jennifer’s dress smelled musty, but its fabric felt thin, dry, and scratchy. Samantha wondered if she was wearing a long-sleeved shirt under it. It felt so uncomfortable against the skin.

Then Jennifer was shouting, “Hey! Hey you, asshole! Get out of the road! You’re going to get yourself killed!”

As she shouted, she waved her arms in the air, forcing Samantha to adjust her grip and turn her face toward the road. The shabby, pumpkin-headed man in the middle of the road continued to stand still. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the pumpkin head swiveled in their direction. The mouth was a long oval, maybe two inches wide, that reached halfway around the head on either side. There was a narrow slit with an upward tick for a nose, and the eyes were large, imperfect circles. There were additional slits for eyebrows. One was gently curved, and the other fiercely straight. Everything was illuminated by a three-inch pillar candle, and the whole expression looked more than a little quizzical.

The man was standing almost a hundred feet away but still felt intimately close in the empty street. Staring into that glowing, inquisitive face, Jennifer lost her voice. The street was silent again. In a series of sharp, jerky arm movements, the man successfully set a white-gloved hand on top of his head. He pulled at the pumpkin’s stem and lifted the circular top free. Doffing it like a bowler hat, he set it back down and bounced to the far side of the road.

The girls watched in silence as he disappeared beyond the streetlamps. Samantha started to feel the chill in air again. She felt certain it would be a cold November.

“Let’s go trick-or-treating,” she said.

“What? Why? What about the party?”

“The party will still be there. We’ll just do a couple of blocks on the other side of the park and then get to the party by eight thirty. It’ll be fun. If college kids are going to run around in togas and weirdos are going to wear pumpkins in the middle of the street, then someone needs to honor the spirit of All Hallows’ Eve properly.”

“By demanding candy from strangers?”

“And shouting weird poetry at them.”

Samantha was being absurd. More than that—she was being theatrical. She wasn’t just offering to go trick-or-treating; she was committing to the role. Jennifer smiled.

“Whatever,” she said, already walking toward the first house.

V

At the first house, a large ranch house with atrocious blue-vinyl siding, Samantha held up her imitation paws and said “Mew or treat.” But before the weary forty-something woman with an old ice cream bucket full of mixed Mars products could shoo them away with a fistful of candy, Jennifer held forth her basket with the bottle of faux-champagne, the loaf of bread, and the sheets of poetry and began to speak in a solemn voice: “I watched the Moon around the House, until upon a pane – she stopped a Traveller’s privilege – for – braaaaains…”

The next two houses on the block had already turned out their lights. But a small house with a trio of jack-o’-lanterns still had its porch lamp on, and when the girls rang the bell, a handsome young man opened the door. He was tall, very tall, possibly six-four or six-five, and his short blond hair was pleasantly rumpled. He wore a tattered, red UMD Bulldogs sweatshirt. The girls had no idea how long it had been since he shaved, but they were both certain it was the right amount of time. In the living room on the other side of the handsome young man, they could see the back of a woman’s head resting against the top of a couch. Long, straight blond hair fell over its back. She seemed to be watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“Mew,” said Samantha.

“Braaaaains…,” said Jennifer.

“Let’s see,” the handsome young man said, “a black cat. And… a Victorian zombie.”

“Zombie poet,” Jennifer objected. “I mean, zombie Dickinson.”

“Oh,” the man replied, “it seems like a zombie poet should do better than monosyllabic expressions of hunger for the cranial meat of the living.”

Jennifer blinked a few times and said, “When Winds hold Forests in their Paws – The Universe – is still.”

The trio stood quietly in the doorway for a moment. In the background, Buffy Summers stabbed a vampire with a wooden stake, and its body exploded into a cloud of dust. The young woman on the couch turned around as a car commercial began to play on the television. She rested her left arm on the top of the couch. She had a small, straight nose shaped like a perfect triangle.

“Did Dickinson even have a cat?” She asked.

“Of course, she did,” the man replied. “All poets have cats. It’s like a law or something.”

“I don’t know if the living Emily Dickinson ever had a cat,” Jennifer said. “But zombie Dickinson follows this one around and devours the slow-witted children who are drawn to her.”

The girls left in an exchange of “Happy Halloweens” and the announcement that the show was back. They traveled door to door for a few more blocks. Samantha alternately mewed and hissed at the people who opened their doors to strangers for one night each year, and Jennifer stuck to reciting lines that featured goblins or haunted chambers. At eight fifteen, they walked back to the Suburban.

“That line about the forests, the one you used at the hot guy’s house,” Samantha said as they walked, “what was that all about?”

“I don’t know,” Jennifer said. “I’ve just been thinking about the trees and the moon a lot since Sunday, and I liked the image of the wind holding the forests like some kind of divine emissary from the moon.”

“The wind held the forests in its paws.”

“Huh?”

“In the poem, the wind has paws.”

“So?”
“So, of course, in the land of poetry, the moon’s emissary would be a cat.”

“Because of the law about poets and cats?” Jennifer asked.

“Something like that,” Samantha replied.

Standing on opposite sides of the truck, both girls looked up at the moon. The wind stirred the trees on either side of the road. In that quaint, residential neighborhood where they found themselves trick-or-treating and the oak, birch, and maple trees outnumbered the pine three-to-one as their branches shook in ecstatic reverence, Jennifer wondered what Samantha was thinking, and Samantha didn’t know what to think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FICTION PIECE

The Chain

by Bella Ross

 

 

She’s looking at me.

She’s looking at me from across the school parking lot.  I’m looking at her, too.

She rocks back onto her heels and sighs, her breath puffing up into a thin cloud around her mouth.   Although it’s March now, it’s still bitterly cold outside.  Some of the snow has melted, exposing dead brown grass, matted to the earth; some has mixed with dirt, churning into a dark slush that coats the corners of the pavement.

She stares at me for a moment more, and then she walks over.  “Hey.”

I want to smile, get into my car, and leave.  But I don’t. I can’t.

“We haven’t seen each other in forever,” she says.

“We see each other every day, Hailey,” I reply, my face carefully blank.  “We have Calc and English together.”

“Yeah, but like…” she teases with a soft smile, as if it’s all a joke to her. “You know what I mean.”

I stare at her, silent.  The corner of her boot lies poised in a puddle of oil, distorting the color of the leather.  She’s wearing all white, with the exception of a baby blue jacket, but her hair is black.  She twists it with her fingers, a habit picked up at thirteen, sold to her by a tween-magazine on how to attract boys.  A habit that she forgot to drop.

Her smile turns wobbly in the silence.  “We haven’t hung out, I mean.”

“Yeah,” I reply softly.  My shoulders ache from leaning against my car door, but I don’t move.

“Your mom and dad…”

“They’re working things out.”

“I knew they would.”

I don’t reply, and I don’t look away.

“Julia, I know you’re pissed at me,” she huffs, looking off to her left. “But you’re being a little dramatic.”

I pause, affronted, then shake my head with a humorless laugh.  “You’re not even going to apologize, are you?”

She looks down, scuffing her boots against the sidewalk.  She holds her fingers in one hand, twisting them back and forth.  She’s nervous, maybe, or just cold. I know she’s not going to say anything.

We’ve played this game before.  We’ll probably play it again. There are a few different options.

Maybe, she’ll call me up crying.  She misses me. Her boyfriend broke up with her.  She had a fight with her mom. She failed a test.  It doesn’t matter what happened — it doesn’t matter if anything happened at all.  It could all be a lie, because that’s not the point. The point is: I answer the phone.

Or, maybe it’ll be more casual.  She’ll be at lunch, laughing with a group of friends.  She’ll spot me in line and wave me over. I’ll hesitate at the register, my tray wobbling in my hands, my eyes racing around in search of shelter.  Then she’ll get the attention of the rest of the table, and get them to call me over, and if I don’t come, I’m a bitch. It doesn’t matter that I’m still just as mad.  It doesn’t matter that I’m more upset than I was before. That’s not the point. The point is: I sit next to her.

But, always, she’ll reach her hand out to mine, and I’ll take it.  I have nothing else to grab.  I’m there when she wants me around, and I’m there when she doesn’t.  Where else do I have to go?

She reaches forward and touches my bracelet.

“This isn’t real gold, is it?” she asks, “It’s starting to turn green.”

I snap my arm back.  “Fuck off.”

“Oh, come on,” Hailey laughs.  “It’s just a joke.”

She’s always liked to laugh, ever since we were kids.  Ever since I was in my mother’s womb and she was in hers and she was born beautiful and I was born blue and veiny and three pounds too small, she’s liked to laugh.

She moves forward to smooth down a wisp of my hair, licking her lips.  She whispers something, soft and affectionate, but I don’t hear it. My face is numb, and my lips are dry from the wind.

“So, uh.  We’re all going to a party tonight, if you wanna come.” She shrugs, her gaze gliding in the air above me, her chin floating up.

There’s a cord that hooks around my bottom rib, swims through muscle and fat, and pierces my skin. Hailey seems to hold it, and it tugs whenever she moves.

“Yeah,” I answer.  “Okay.”

She pulls me along, the way she always has.

***

That’s the way it is.  Here’s the way it was:

***

“It fits,” Hailey said, standing with me in front of the full-length mirror in the corner of her bedroom. “You can keep it, if you want.”

“It looks better on you,” I said.  Her mother had purchased the dress for her while online shopping one day, and I could tell I wasn’t meant to wear it.  It had flattered Hailey’s feminine frame, but it was too tight around my waist and too loose around my chest, folding awkwardly above my breasts.

“I don’t want it.  Keep it.” She was wearing only her bra and underwear, and I could see her skin pulled taut over her ribs, as if there wasn’t enough of it.  As if she couldn’t fit inside herself. She walked behind me, her chin knocking lightly against the top of my head, and pulled the dress up at the waist so it shortened by a half inch.  “Better?”

I shrugged.  “I guess,” I said, though there was no way to hold the dress up like that.

“You look really cute in it.  Seriously. That color is so pretty on you.”

In the mirror, I watched a small but irrepressible smile bloom on my face.  Hailey complimented me constantly, but I never got used to it.

She began to get dressed.  “You can wear it to Zoe’s birthday dinner on Saturday.”

“I wasn’t invited.”

“Oh,” Hailey replied, going still. “Do you wanna go?”

I hesitated.  “I dunno. It would’ve been nice to be invited.”

“I’ll tell Zoe to invite you.”

“That’s not really the point.  I don’t care about the party.”

She chewed her bottom lip.   “Well, I want you there.”

“Hailey—”

“I’m gonna go get water.  I’ll be right back,” she declared, cutting me off.  Then she was gone.

It was rare that I was alone in her house.  At first, I sat on her bed quietly. I toyed with the strings of the dress that embraced my ribcage, just tight enough to be a little uncomfortable.  I couldn’t get out of the dress myself; Hailey had to unzip me.

My gaze fell on her dresser and the framed photos that lay on it: Hailey, smiling with her boyfriend, Nick.  Hailey, smiling with her friends. Hailey, smiling with me. Smiling, smiling, smiling.

I never understood what Hailey got out of me, specifically.  Why I had been picked out of everyone else, how I managed to break in, and when—why the girl who shone the brightest chose the flickering candle.  Perhaps she liked being the special one, or perhaps it was just because I had always been there, like an ungainly, devoted younger sibling.

I slipped off the bed, my feet hitting the floor with a muted thud, and wandered into her closet.  She had given me so much, so much that I never asked for, that I never wanted.  Forced all of it on me, all of her rejects.  So, I thought, it’s only fair that I could take something for myself, something that I truly want.  A pair of shoes that had never fit her anyway. A shirt that she didn’t wear anymore. An analog watch that she didn’t know how to read.  I stopped myself there, afraid of getting caught, and jammed my pickings into my backpack.

I stood up and exhaled shakily.  It was the first time I’d ever betrayed her like this.  For a moment, I was certain she’d be able to see the treachery on my face, as if she could read my mind. She couldn’t, though, and even if she could, she wouldn’t bother.  So I walked away, with my breathing shallow but my back straight and legs steady, until I got to the mirror in her bathroom.

I looked around at the mess on her counter: makeup, lotions, acne creams, all in disarray.  I reached for her red lipstick, the one she wore to nice dinners and fancy parties and sometimes to school, if she felt like it.  I stared at myself in the mirror, unblinking, letting my vision blur until I could barely see myself.

I applied the lipstick slowly.  My lips weren’t full like Hailey’s and the color didn’t flatter my skin like it did hers.  Her hair was thick and dark and long, her eyes bright blue, her cheekbones high and nose straight. My hair was wispy and thin, burned blonde by a spring break in Florida.  My eyes were a dull brown, my eyelids stained with blue veins, my skin a little dry. But I wore her lipstick, and that was the only thing I could see through the tears in my eyes.

And when I’d finally crawled into her skin, she walked back in.

“Julia, I made — what are you doing?”

I blinked, and my vision snapped back into focus.  “I wanted to see how it would look with lipstick,” I answered, my voice weak.

She stared for a moment, holding my gaze.  “I don’t think red is very flattering on you.”

I should have known; she’d only ever given me the parts of her that she didn’t like.

I nodded. “Yeah.  I just — I just wanted to see.”

“Ask next time you want to use my lipstick.”

I left maybe twenty minutes later.  Hailey didn’t feel like giving me a ride, so I walked, the wind blowing with my body.  I caught my wobbly, translucent reflection in the window of a shop, and with her dress on my body and her lipstick on my face and her clothing in my backpack, I felt like her.  I felt beautiful, like her, and I was proud.

***

“What’s my birthday?” Hailey asked, retying the drawstring on her pajama shorts.  She did this sometimes. Tested me on information, spitting out vicious insults when I fumbled on something trivial.  Once, she told me that I didn’t know her at all.  Another time, she said that I only ever paid attention to myself, that I was a horrible friend.

So I didn’t fumble.  Not anymore.

“March 3rd.”

I started to roll out of bed, a step behind her.  She had slept at my house the previous night, and we’d both been up for hours, lying in bed giggling, watching the sun shrink and rise in the sky.  She had gone to bed wearing socks, but she lost them both in her sleep.

“That’s an easy one.”

We made our way to the kitchen.

“What’s my favorite color?” Hailey asked.

“What’s mine?” I retorted.

She smiled at me, tilting her head to the side.  “Is your dad home?”

“What?  No.  I don’t think so.”

“Weird how he’s gone so much.”

“Blue,” I said. “Your favorite color is blue.”

We fell into an easy rhythm in the kitchen.  We’d slept at each other’s houses enough times to know the drill.  I’d switch on the lights and turn on the fan while she let the dog out of the crate. She’d get the mugs while I started the coffee-maker.  She’d hand me the creamer and sugars; I’d stir them into the cups. She’d bring over the bowls —

One shattered on the floor.

“Fuck,” she exhaled, “Fuck.”

She placed the other bowl on the counter and squatted down to try and pick up the glass, but some of the shards were too small to be grabbed.  They lodged into her palms, piercing her skin and standing like buoys in tiny pools of blood.

“Fuck,” she repeated, over and over, still trying to grab at the glass.

“Hailey, stop, let me get a vacuum,” I said, approaching her cautiously.

She didn’t stop.

“Hailey, stop it.  You’re gonna hurt yourself.  You’re bleeding.”

I had to kneel down and grab her to get her to stop moving.  I circled my hands around her wrists and pulled them apart, so the glass dropped into our laps and onto the floor.

Her wrists had bruises on them.  They did all the time now, underneath her long sleeves.  Her boyfriend didn’t care what she wanted or when she wanted it.  She never talked about it, but I knew.  Everything was always his choice with them, so everything was always her choice with us. I loosened my grip on her wrists.

“Why are you freaking out?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

There was no one else who saw her this way.  No one else knew that she existed when she wasn’t smiling, when she wasn’t partying, when she wasn’t making them laugh. Everyone knew she had drama, of course—that’s something that comes with a loud reputation and a million friends, all held at arm’s length.  But no one knew about this.  I was the one to chew everything sour that touched her, and then feed it back to her in a form she could digest, like a mother penguin.

Abruptly, Hailey broke out of her haze and stood up, pouring glass onto my thighs.  She walked over to the sink, carefully stepping over fragments of the bowl, and washed her hands.  She methodically removed pieces of glass from her palms, staring with unfocused eyes. She let the blood mix with the water and run down the drain, and I knew it must have stung.  When she was done, she turned back to me, and I realized I hadn’t moved.

“Get the vacuum,” she said.

I did as I was told.  Once I was done cleaning up the mess on the ground, and she was done cleaning up the mess on her hands, we got the cereal out of the cabinet.  We poured it into our bowls and sat on the couch together to eat.

“How old was I when I had my first kiss?” Hailey asked.

“Fifteen,” I said. “What’s my favorite color?”

She looked at me and tucked her hair behind her ear, a tiny bit of blood smudging onto her temple, and she laughed.

***

Weeks later, at another sleepover, I woke up alone.  Hailey wasn’t in my bed and she wasn’t in the bathroom either.  I went downstairs, expecting to find her in the kitchen, getting a glass of water or a bowl of cereal.  Scrolling through her phone.

What I didn’t expect was to see her sitting at the kitchen table with my mom.  Hailey’s voice was low, not quite a whisper, while my mom’s was gone altogether.  I coughed, and they both turned to me.  My mom had a white-knuckled grip on her coffee mug and tears in her eyes.  Hailey had her bag.

“What’s going on?”

My mom took a watery breath.  “I think it’s time for Hailey to go home.  You have a lot of homework to do.”

Hailey stood up and made her way to the door.  “See you tomorrow.”

I grabbed her wrist, squeezed it, watched her flinch.  Then I dragged her outside, into the front yard, where my mom couldn’t hear us talk.  It was cold and windy, the dewy grass chilling my bare feet, but I didn’t move.

“What was that?” I growled.  I barely recognized the sound of my own voice.

She shrugged.  “A conversation.”

“No.  What did you do?”

“I told your mom about your dad,” Hailey said easily.

I paused, my lips opening slightly.  “You told her…”

“She deserves to know.”  Her voice was light, casual, but her shoulders were raised, her jaw clenched.

“She already knows.  Obviously, she fucking knows!  Everyone knows! You didn’t have to bring it up!”

“Come on, Juli,” she said, her voice softening with the nickname, “He was cheating on her. Something needed to change.”

“And what, that’s your decision to make?  My parents’ relationship is your jurisdiction now?” I seethed.

“I was trying to do the right thing.”

“Fuck that.  No, you weren’t.  Do you want my parents to get divorced?  Is that what you want for me?”

She was quiet for a moment, staring off somewhere behind me.  “You stole my clothes.”

“What?”

“You stole my clothes.”  Her voice was getting higher pitched, faster.  Tears were in her eyes.  “The day I gave you my dress, you stole my red tee-shirt, and my watch, and my black heels, the ones with the — “

“You did this…” I said, stopping her, “because I took your clothes?”

“I did!  You can’t just do that!  It’s not—it wasn’t an accident, you wanted to hurt me!  Nick’s always doing stuff like that, he’s always—taking, and, and not asking, and you don’t get to do that!  You don’t get to do that.”

I stared at her, at her red cheeks, her teary eyes, and I didn’t care.  I had never cared less about Nick or what he did to her.  I turned my back to her and stared through the window into my house.

I imagined her at six, holding my hand as we walked.  I imagined her at ten, licking the batter off of a whisk as I held it up to her mouth and giggled.  I imagined her at fourteen, walking into high school a couple steps ahead me, looking back at me to make sure I was there.

I imagined her at eighteen, in a college across the country from me.  I imagined her at eighteen, with a boyfriend that rapes her and without a best friend to hold her hand when he’s done.  I imagined her at eighteen, alone.

“You fucking psychotic bitch,” I whispered, “I’m never talking to you again.”

***

I spent a lot of time thinking about what school would be like the next day.  I knew that Hailey would be standing by my locker, waiting for me.  I prepared for it. I imagined myself ignoring her easily, a little thinner in my mind, a little taller, a little prettier.

It didn’t quite go that way.  Because I had a pimple on the corner of my nose and I was bloated from the ice cream I had eaten the night before and she was leaning against my locker so I couldn’t even open it.  I didn’t have it in me to say “excuse me” and nothing else, so I said nothing at all, and just kept walking.

My notebooks were all in my locker, so I went through the day without them.  I tried to ask the boy sitting next to me in class for an extra sheet of paper, but I couldn’t manage it.  I was certain he’d say no. At lunch, I hid in a classroom, because I knew Hailey was sitting at a lunch table with everyone I ever talked to, and there’d be nowhere for me to go that she hadn’t touched.  And when I came home, I watched TV while my phone sat quiet and waiting, because I’d blocked Hailey’s number, and who would call me besides her? No one cared about me on my own. I only existed when I was with her.

My house was quiet, my mother’s grief wrapped around our home like a wet shirt that clung to your skin, heavy and cold and too tight.  Every few minutes the silence was broken by the television’s laugh track or my mom’s screaming or my father’s apologies, but the stillness always sucked us back up.

I kept it up for a week.  Then Hailey stared at me from across the school parking lot.

***

We ended up going to the party. Nick was going, and there was no way I was leaving her alone with him.

We both got spectacularly drunk, so much that I really only remember the night in bits and pieces. Her death grip on my hand all night, not even letting go when Nick tugged her close and whispered something in her ear. I remember her crying in the bathroom about something, I remember saying, “Why don’t you break up with him?”  Someone pounding on the door before she could answer, and both of us running out like a couple of cockroaches.

I started that night hating myself for being there with her, but that was hard to keep up, with her crying and Nick glaring and the eyeshadow she put on me smearing.  And as we danced together, as we shouted the lyrics to our favorite songs, I found a sense of ferocity in the heat of her body pressed against mine, in the fluttering of her heart whenever she saw Nick looking at her, in the way she begged me to let her sleep at my house so she didn’t have to go home with him.  I didn’t understand it fully at the time, but I didn’t need to.

The party went until late—hours and hours of us just smashed together, of our fingers intertwined and sweaty. In the car ride home, I was practically asleep when she pressed a kiss against my cheek, and whispered, “I love you so much.”

I pressed by cheek against her shoulder and groaned, the world spinning beneath my closed eyelids.

“Did you hear me?” she asked.  “I don’t know what I’d do about him without you.  I love you so much.”

Of course, I said it back.

***

Weeks later, my mom stands in my doorway and says: “You need to stop talking to her.”

Now, Hailey and I are speaking again.  We’re together even more often now, as if we’re making up for the lost time.  We’re at each other’s houses nearly every day after school doing anything but homework.  We were both hit hard by the apathy of second-semester senior year, and we’re having fun.  She doesn’t seem to be spending much time around Nick, but what’s he going to do about it, with me always by her side?

My head snaps up from my lap top.  “What?”

“Hailey.  She needs to go,” she says, and I wonder if Hailey’s said something again.  Done something.

“We’ve been best friends since we were five,” I answer, smiling uncomfortably. “I can’t just — I don’t really have that many friends.”

“And whose fault is that?”

“Mine?”

She narrows her eyes, purses her lips. “It’s hers, Julia.  She’s so possessive.”

“I graduate in six weeks,” I say softly. “It’s not worth it to start a fight right now.”

“She treats you — “

“You’re really in no position to be telling me how people treat me, with everything Dad’s pulling.”  I regret the words before I even finish saying them.

She twitches, like a glitching robot, then turns stony.  “After you graduate, then.  Don’t talk to her at all after that.”

I think about it for several days, the idea of riding this out until graduation and then letting it go.  I think about it while Hailey looks through her college’s course atlas, while she helps me search for a roommate.

What would it would be like to hold onto Hailey in college?  We’ll be in different states, but that might just make things worse.  Would she want to visit me?  What would she do about my new friends?  Would she hold onto Nick, too?  Would she find a new me?  I think about my mom, how she let my dad cheat on her for years and still thinks that Hailey goes too far.  I think of Nick, too, but—

Maybe she doesn’t deserve to be protected.

***

Nick walks across the stage to receive his diploma just before I do. The sunlight bounces off the crimson, glittering HARVARD painted across the back of his graduation cap.  His mom probably decorated it for him, eager to show off her son’s success and willing to sit in the kitchen late at night with paint and glitter while he parties.  I remember him telling Hailey and me that he wants to be a lawyer one day, maybe a judge.  I close my eyes against the glare, and I wonder if he’ll ever make it to that courtroom.

I accept my diploma with a smile and a handshake, and then someone else’s name is called, and it’s all over.  I’m shuffled around the school courtyard, taking pictures with everyone I barely know—everyone except Hailey.  The hot, sticky air pastes everyone’s clothes against their skin, forces us all to squint against the sun in our photos.  We all congratulate each other and go our separate ways.

Hailey doesn’t find me until I’m in the parking lot, about to leave.  I can feel her eyes on my back before she makes any sound.

“Julia!” she calls.

I jolt, my breath freezing in my throat, and I feel sweat pooling on my upper lip. I just need to make it to my car.

“Julia!” she tries again.

Though I’m turned away from her, I can still see her perfectly.  I always can, I realize.  I can see everything she does; I know her thoughts and decisions, her turmoil and tears. She sees nothing of me; she just knows that I’m there.  I always thought of her as a god, but maybe I had the roles mixed up.

“Julia!”

I think of rings of bruises around wrists and the long-sleeved shirts worn to cover them.  I think of scraped knees and excuses. I think of wet eyes and bloody noses and torn hymens.

I turn to her.

 

FICTION PIECE

No Do-Overs

by Joy Michael Ellison

 

 

I have a best friend. That makes me, Kara Washington, one of the lucky ones. Maybe. His name is Alec. We met last year, during eighth grade. At the time, I was a total nerd girl and he was a geek boy. When you’re in middle school and you’re good at math and science, you’ve got to be a nerd. That was the type of social outcast I was – non-voluntary. Conscripted. Alec, though, he enlisted and started rising through the ranks until he became nerd master general. He wasn’t a nerd because of his grades. He was a nerd because he could quote entire movie scripts and was scary-good at video games. He loved being a weirdo. I hoped no one would notice that I was different too, but of course they did. In the eyes of our classmates, Alec and I were two fellow nerds destined for each other, but we didn’t become friends until he embarrassed himself in front of the entire eighth grade.

It happened at lunch when I sat down at the same table as Alec. I didn’t have a usual lunch spot because I didn’t have a usual crew of people. Actually, I didn’t have friends at all. Alec didn’t either, but he never seemed to notice. The dude was happy all the time and he just sat wherever he wanted in the cafeteria. That day, he decided to sit across from Jenny Simon, the most popular girl in our grade, and her gaggle of friends. I got to lunch late, so I had no choice but to sit down in the empty seat next to him.

“I don’t know about this mac and cheese,” I mumbled to myself. “It’s a trap.”

My joke wasn’t that funny, just a basic Star Wars reference. An internet cliché. Still, Alec laughed so hard that chocolate milk shot out of his nose and onto Jenny Simon’s lunch tray. Jenny squawked like a parrot when that milk splattered onto her chips and Diet Coke.

“You’re disgusting,” she sneered at Alec. “Do not ever sit near me again, you freak.”

Alec almost started crying when Jenny said that. He had a huge crush on her and our whole class knew it. He looked small as he started to whimper. I couldn’t stand the way his lip quivered, so I told him I’d walk with him to get some paper towels. I stood between him and the other girls and made sure no one could see how red his eyes were.

The bell rang for class. I started walking away, but Alec followed me, yapping like a little dog.

“Kara,” he called. “You like Star Wars?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” I said.

“Have you seen the original? From 1977?”

“Huh? You mean episode three?” I kicked myself for answering. I was getting sucked into a conversation. I started walking faster.

“Yeah, but the original. Before Lucas added in all the CGI for the special edition.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Oh, man!” His arms vibrated with excitement. He was half walking beside me, half skipping in front. I couldn’t help but smile at his excitement.

“The old version’s better than the special edition,” he continued. “Come over to my house and we’ll watch it. Cool?”

“Yeah,” I said, before I even thought about it. I swear, that moment was the suavest Alec has ever been, before or since.

#

In Alec’s basement, we sat one cushion apart on his big, ugly couch. He poured two glasses of Sprite and put a bag of sour gummy worms between us. Then he pressed play. As Imperial cruisers flew by on the screen, he took a huge gulp of pop. He dipped a gummy worm into his drink and slurped the candy down. It was disgusting, but I laughed.

“See, no CGI,” said Alec. He talked through the whole movie. I didn’t mind because he was pretty funny. Weird, but funny. Fun. By the end of the movie, I was smiling so much my cheeks hurt.

We started watching movies together most days after school. Alec introduced me to his favorite superheroes, the best cartoons, and the far reaches of the sci-fi galaxy. He loved everything geeky, and soon I was enjoying it all too.

Alec suggested that we save the change from our lunch money and order pizza on Fridays. Every day, as soon as we got to his house, he would empty the coins and dollar bills from his pockets and put them into a box he built out of Legos. Then he would hand the box to me and watch as I added my money. He always counted that change so freaking carefully, making little piles of quarters and dimes. One week, when we were short on cash, Alec skipped lunch two days in a row so that we could still order the pizza. He made Fridays special. He made us friends.

In eighth grade, it was a little weird for a guy and a girl to be close friends, but not dating. When Alec and I became best friends and I began sitting with him in the cafeteria, I started getting weird looks from Jenny and the other popular girls. I didn’t care, though, because I really liked Alec and after a while no one paid attention to us. Our friendship became a protective shield that helped us both. When we sat together in the cafeteria, he seemed less dorky and I looked less desperate for a friend. Yeah, he cackled at his own jokes and didn’t know when to shut up. He annoyed me sometimes, but he always made me laugh when I was having a bad day. Hanging out with him was easy and as a nerdy teenager with acne, I needed something to be easy.

We got even closer toward the end of the school year when I told my parents that I was gay. Alec was the only person who treated me exactly the same after I came out. My parents were so embarrassing that I almost regretted telling them at all.

Maybe I could have come up with a better strategy, but I really didn’t know how to bring up the subject. So, in the morning before leaving for school, I did an internet search for “gay youth” on my mom’s computer. I clicked on the first link I found and left it open.

That night at dinner, my dad asked in a low, even voice, “Kara, are you understanding yourself as gay?”

When I didn’t answer right away, my mom just had to fill the silence.

“You can tell us, sweetie. We’re going to love you no matter what you are.”

What I am? Smooth, Mom.

I sat slumped in my chair while my parents sat across from me telling them how much they cared about me and wanted me to be happy. My mother smiled wide and my father fixed me with a serious look. It was like they were reading a prepared statement at a press conference. My mom slid two pamphlets for PFLAG and a rainbow sticker across the table to me. I didn’t touch them. I knew I should be happy that my parents were trying to show me that they cared about me, but they were treating me like hazardous waste, like if they didn’t handle me carefully, I might leak out and contaminate everything.

For the rest of dinner, mom talked nonstop, filling up every silence and heaping seconds and thirds of pasta and garlic bread on to my plate. Then she made us watch this movie she found. It was about lesbians who were skinny, rich, and nothing like me or anyone I knew. It was supposed to be a comedy, but none of us laughed. My parents kept staring at me and smiling encouragingly. By the end of the evening I wanted to die.

After that disaster of love and acceptance, I needed to tell someone besides my parents, or I was going to explode.

The next day after school, Alec and I were watching “Return of the Jedi” for the millionth time.

“Alec,” I said, starring at the screen while Jabba the Hutt wriggled his tongue at Princess Leia. I was too nervous to look at him while I said it. “I’m gay.”

Yeah, I’m real cool.

Alec didn’t say anything for a moment. He just leaned forward and grabbed his glass of pop. My throat started to feel tight.

“Okay,” he said. He slurped down a gummy worm.

For a second, I stared at him, watching him drink his Sprite. Then I felt angry and I realized I was clutching the pillow that had been sitting between us.

“That’s it?” I said, louder than I expected.

Alec kept looking at the TV screen. He sipped his pop like he couldn’t possibly be more relaxed.

“Leia’s really hot, right?” Alec said.

“Yeah,” I stammered. “She’s hot.”

“Man, if I were Luke, I’d do her. I wouldn’t care that she’s my sister. I mean, whoa.”

“What?” I yelled. I threw a sour gummy worm at him. “Alec, you’re nasty!”

What I wanted to say was thank you.

See, Alec’s a nice guy, the type that will be there for you when it matters. He could have more friends if he were willing to talk to other people, and maybe rein in his fandom obsessions. Even in eighth grade, I was just a little bit cooler than he was, but it didn’t matter much. In middle school, a nerd is a nerd. Once we became freshmen in high school, there was more room for nuance. Since I could talk about music (Alec only listened to Weird Al) and TV shows without aliens, high schoolers were willing to give me a chance. Alec, on the other hand, never seemed to change much. We were still friends, but people at school started to ask me why. After a while, I didn’t know how to answer them.

#

Here’s where it all started to go wrong. Alec always told lots of jokes. Some of them were hysterical, but some of them were just bad. A few were gross or messed up and I pretty much always told him when he was crossing a line. But Alec’s jokes started to get less funny after I got my first girlfriend. Her name was Denise. We met in chemistry class when Mr. Delgado made us lab partners. I noticed her sitting in the row ahead of me. She wore her hair short in cute twists and she had a bright smile that was too big for her face. That smile made me blush.

“I’ll light the Bunsen burner,” she said. That was when I knew I liked her. Denise was bold. Unafraid. I was shocked when two weeks later, while we were sorting glassware, she told me she liked me. Dating her was like discovering that I could fly or move things with my mind. Since I was gay, I wasn’t sure it would be possible for me to have a girlfriend in high school, and not a girl as amazing as Denise.

There was only one problem: Alec. He couldn’t figure out how to act around us. One day, when I was sitting down next to him at the table where we always had lunch together, Denise dashed over. She grabbed my hands and said, “Nah, come eat with me and my friends.” She jerked her head towards a nearby table, already crowded.

“You too, Alec,” said Denise. “We’ll make room.”

Alec looked at the table Denise had indicated. A girl with an afro dressed in a floor-length black dress punched the guy in a Steven Universe t-shirt sitting next to her. They were both doubled over laughing.

Alec glanced at the other table and frowned. I could tell he was nervous to be around so many new people.

“Thanks,” said Alec, shifting in his seat. “But I’ll stay here.”

“What?” I said. “Really?”

“Yeah,” he mumbled. “I want to do my reading for English.” I knew he was lying. Alec checked Wikipedia before writing his English essays.

“Suit yourself,” I said.

Denise knew most of her friends from band, drama, and lit mag. Yeah, my girlfriend played the euphonium, did tech for the school play, and wrote poetry. Her friends were all as talented as she was, and their table was covered with instruments and leather notebooks. They weren’t the type of people Alec and I usually hung out with, but let’s be real – we never hung out with anyone. I liked them right away. They were funny, loud, and full of opinions. I wondered; would I have friends like them if I weren’t so tight with Alec? Denise was making introductions when I heard a tray slam against a table.

“Where’s your little girlfriend, dork?”

I turn toward the sound and saw Brian Matthews, captain of the football team, looming over Alec. He was flanked by two of his teammates, his own personal Crabbe and Goyle.

“Oh, right. She’s not your girlfriend. If you weren’t such a loser, Kara would be dating you, not some girl,” Brian said. “But, wait, you’re gay now too, right?” He laughed.

Alec opened his mouth, looking like he was trying to say something, but coming up short. Before he could respond, Denise was moving fast. She strode over to Alec’s table, as poised as Wonder Woman.  I followed behind.

“That’s so immature that it doesn’t even make sense, Brian,” she said. She gave him a withering glare, the kind of side-eye that makes the blood freeze. “Or do I need to explain sexual orientation to you? And the fuck makes a junior like you interested in bothering a freshman? Must be compensating for something.”

Brian’s mouth hung open. No one ever talked to him like that.

“Get out of my way. You’re blocking our seats,” she said. With a flourish, Denise pulled out the chair on Alec’s right hand-side and sat down, crossing her legs, and straightening her back. I followed suit, somewhat more hesitantly, and sat down on the either side of Alec.

We never sat with Denise’s friends again. Denise didn’t want to leave Alec alone. I appreciated it, but the situation felt unfair. Why shouldn’t Denise sit with her friends just because Alec was nervous to meet new people? I hoped she didn’t resent him – or me.

#

 

 

The thing is, when he wasn’t acting uncomfortable with Denise’s friends, Alec was investigating the lesbian lifeforms.

“Have you gotten to third base yet?” he asked at lunch, a week later. “Which one of you pays for the date?”

“Shut up before she hears you,” I snapped.

I looked over my shoulder, checking for Denise. We usually beat her to the cafeteria, but only by a few minutes. I didn’t want her to hear Alec’s crap. His questions are straight out of “What Not to Ask Your Friend after She Comes Out as Gay.” Literally. There’s a guidebook. I found it in the public library. I guess Alec never read it. I knew he was asking these questions only because he wanted to know what it’s like to have a girlfriend, but I didn’t think that Denise would understand.

Alec nodded, giving me a conspiratorial grin. I exhaled. Maybe for once he could be cool.

I should have known better.

#

 

It wasn’t Alec’s fault that everything got worse. I should have blamed Brian Mathews. Once the news got around that we were dating, Brian started making comments as Denise and I held hands between first and second period.

“Ooh,” he said. “Lesbians. Sexy.”

Brian grinned like he was waiting for applause. His football peons yuked it up, but everyone else ignored him. He didn’t find his audience until he switched to commenting on our appearances. Denise’s appearance, actually.  

“You see that?” he said, pointing at Denise. “I didn’t think that lesbians had big butts, but that Black one’s thick AF.”

Denise stiffened when he said that. She gripped my hand just a little bit tighter and stepped closer. Her jaw was set like she was mad, but her dark brown eyes were scared or maybe sad. I couldn’t tell which.

I opened my mouth to tell Denise that Brian was a disgusting jerk and that I was so sorry, but as I watched her shoulders clench, I realized I didn’t know what to say. I wouldn’t want someone talking about my body like that, but I could tell there was some reason that Denise was extra upset. I wished I knew what it was. I longed to kick Brian and make him hurt for hurting her.

That same day at lunch, while Denise waited in line for a chicken burger, Alec started cracking jokes again.

“It’s so big,” he said. He waved his hand through the air in an arch. “Like a stripper’s. Your girlfriend’s got a stripper-butt.” He let out a shrill giggle.

“Shut up.” I said it in a voice I didn’t know I had, quiet and angry. I sounded like a meaner version of my mom.

“I’m sorry,” said Alec. He said it right away. No hesitation.

“I accept your apology.” That was all I could say. Not ‘It’s okay,’ or ‘I forgive you.’ Because it wasn’t and I didn’t. My hands clenched and my throat tightened.

“Hey, guys.” Denise sat down. She looked at Alec and then at me. Her brow furrowed. “What’s up?”

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I said, standing up from the table before either of them could say anything, before I said something I would regret.

I slumped in the stall, waiting for my heart to stop racing or the bell to ring. While I stared into space, I thought about how different Alec and I were. Not the small differences, but the big stuff no one likes to think about. I’m a girl and he’s a boy. I’m gay and he’s so incredibly straight. We’re both white and Denise is Black. There were so many things that he never, ever has to think about that I think about every day, not to mention stuff that Denise has to deal with that we could both ignore.

Seriously, did I have to explain that “stripper butt” is a thing you don’t say? How clueless could Alec be?

And how dense was I for not knowing what to say to Denise to help her feel better after what Brian Matthews said?

I didn’t understand what Denise was feeling, but I knew why Alec was coming up this stuff. He’d never had a girlfriend, so he was curious, but he didn’t know how to ask a normal question about what dating is like. He was probably rattled from Brian messing with him, too. I felt guilty about what was happening to Alec, but I knew I was not the only reason those guys bothered him. He was annoying. Guys had been calling him gay before I ever came out. I never understood it. Alec loved girls. He was the most flamingly straight guy ever. Those jerks were homophobic and I probably should have felt solidarity with Alec or something. We had a common enemy, after all. But I didn’t. I just didn’t. Alec was hurting and I cared, but that didn’t change what he said or how I felt about it. In fact, it made it all worse. Alec should have known better. That was the feeling I couldn’t shake. That’s why I was madder at him than at Brian Matthews. Sad, too. He had been the person whose support I could depend on. Now he was acting like one more clueless straight person.

When the bell rang, I took a deep breath, but I didn’t feel any better. I left the bathroom and walked to chemistry class, to my seat next to Denise.

“You didn’t finish your lunch,” she said, sliding a candy bar across the desk.

Wow, I’m lucky. I thought. Then, my stomach clenched. If Alec messes this up for me, I’ll never forgive him.

#

 

 

Even after I started dating Denise, I’d always met Alec right after school. The day he said those nasty things about Denise’ body, though, I didn’t want to face him. So, I dallied. Denise and I strolled through the halls while I whispered in her ear, describing what I thought we should do together when we got back to her house after school. She pushed me away, giggling. Finally, when I couldn’t put it off any longer, we pushed through double doors at the back of the school.

On the edge of the parking lot, Alec lay on the ground, doubled over. Around him, Brian and his henchmen stood in a circle. Brian kicked Alec while the others laughed like hyenas. Alec rocked back and forth, moaning. His body looked so small.

“Hey,” screamed Denise.

My girlfriend ran towards a group of homophobes kicking the shit out of my best friend, while I watched. In the shrinking space between Denise’s running body and the circle of guys, I felt the universe expanding, zooming in all directions. My problems seemed to get bigger and bigger, while I became smaller. I stood, trapped by a force I didn’t understand, listening to the smack of Brian’s tennis shoe hitting Alec’s ribs.

If I hadn’t been trying to avoid him, Alec wouldn’t have been waiting alone.

Denise kept barreling toward those guys, waving her arms. She cussed out Brian and the rest of them, yelling at the top of her lungs. Brian and his football buddies bolted.

I managed to will my feet to move forward, even though I felt like I was trudging through wet cement. I stopped a couple of steps behind Denise and watched as she kneeled down next to Alec. She wrapped her arms around his slight body.

“You okay?” she asked . Alec’s lip was already swelling, and his right eye was rimmed in red.

“What?” Denise said to me, turning her head to look at me. “You’re not going to say anything?”

I couldn’t look at Alec, so I stared at my shoes. I also couldn’t explain to Denise why I was upset. I didn’t want her to know what Alec said. That made me even angrier at Alec – and at myself. I willed myself to move closer to them, but I was stuck.

“Kara,” said Denise. “Let’s walk him home.”

I still didn’t say anything. I wanted to melt into the sidewalk. I wanted to be one of Alec’s superheroes and have the power to disappear.

Alec stared at me standing there, frozen. I opened my mouth. I wanted to apologize for not being there, for being so angry earlier, for being too scared to do anything during the fight, for still being angry now. Before I could decide what to say, Alec spoke.

“I’m fine,” he said to Denise. He turned away and started walking. I noticed he was limping and holding his side.

“Alec,” shouted Denise, you need to go the nurse.”

Alec shook his head.

She turned to me. “Tell him to go to the nurse!”

I knew she was right, but I couldn’t get myself to say anything.

Denise glared at me. “What’s up with you guys?”

I shrugged. “Let’s go hang out at your house.”

“What?” she shouted, grimacing. “No!”

Denise stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared at me. She sucked her teeth. “Whatever’s wrong between you and Alec, you need to fix it.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” I said.

“That’s crap,” said Denise. “Your best friend got jumped and you act like you’re mad at him.”

She dropped my hand. “Kara, they did that to him because they hate us. And if you’re not going to step up and defend your best friend, then what are you going to do when guys like that try to push around me?”

“I…It’s just that…” My mouth wouldn’t move. I still didn’t want to tell her what Alec had said to make me so angry with him – and I didn’t know how to admit to her that I was beginning to realize I made a huge mistake.

Denise put her hands on her hips. “If you can’t explain yourself, then I can’t do this right now.”

She turned and walked away.

That’s how you lose everything – your best friend and your girlfriend. I was certain they both hated me, and I wasn’t sure that I liked myself any more.

#

 

 

Alec and I didn’t talk all day Saturday. Neither did Denise and me. Not one phone call. Not one text message. The lump in the back of my throat was becoming a black hole.

Sitting at my desk in my bedroom, I tried to do my chemistry homework, but I kept picturing Alec. His hand holding his side where Brian had kicked him. The way his shoulders drooped forward as he stumbled home alone, all slow and sad. His doofy grin while he said that crap about Denise’s butt. Denise throwing her body over his.

Then I imagined Denise never speaking to me again. The two of us stuck as lab partners, writing data in our notebooks silently. Her glaring at me. Worse, her smiling at another girl.

By seven in the evening, I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed my phone. My hands trembled as I typed:

“Denise, can we talk?”

I flung myself on the bed and waited for my phone to buzz. Ten minutes passed. A half an hour. I flipped onto my stomach and covered my head with my Han and Chewie pillow. I wished I could cry. When Denise finally answered, I sobbed.

“Did something change?” her message read. “Unless it did, there’s nothing to talk about.”

Without thinking, I started typing again.

“Alec. Pretty sure Denise is breaking up with me. Pretty sure you’re mad at me too, but OMG I’m losing it. Help.”

Buzz.

“Come over,” read Alec’s message.

#

 

 

I tapped on Alec’s back door. When he opened the door, I shuffled inside and just looked at him. Suddenly, I couldn’t find the words I had planned on saying.

“Sausage and mushroom?” he asked.

That was when I wondered, for the very first time, if Alec was smarter than me. Maybe kinder, too. Mushrooms are my favorite, but Alec thinks they’re slimy.

“I’ll buy.” he said.

He never paid for the pizza all by himself. I nodded, but his generosity made me feel worse.

“Let’s watch Return of the Jedi,” I offered. That was Alec’s favorite movie and my least favorite. Watching it now was the least I could do.

When the pizza arrived, we sat next to each other on the couch and ate slowly, avoiding eye contact. Alec pushed play. I tried to lay back and let the sound of the movie wash over me, but I couldn’t get comfortable.

Once Luke arrived at Yoda’s house and learned that the Jedi master was sick, I was ready to say what I came to say.

“Alec,” I said. “I’m really sorry they hurt you.”

“I’m okay,” he said, still watching the movie.

“I’m sorry I got so mad before that.”

“It’s okay,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if I believed him.

“You’re not mad at me?”

“Why would I be mad at you? I mean, Brian can go to hell, but I’m not mad at you.” Alec swirled his pop. While he took a long drink, I wiped at my eyes.

“Alec,” I said, deciding to ask something that had been on my mind for a while. “Do you think we’ll be friends after high school is over?”

“What? That’s three years from now.”

“I know, but what do you think will happen?”

Alec put down his slice of pizza. “We’re probably not going to go to the same college,” he said.

“I know.”

“Things will be different,” he said. “but I think we’ll still be friends.”

I wanted to believe Alec, but I didn’t. When I was a kid, I thought that being real friends meant being friends forever, but sitting on that couch I understood for the first time friendships change. When they do, sometimes they don’t change back. Sorry doesn’t make it better. Not completely. There are no do-overs. Alec and I wouldn’t have to wait for college for things to change. They were already different, and they were about to change more. I was about to do the first courageous thing I had done in a long time.

“Alec, there’s something else.”

Alec turned away from the TV. He cocked his head, waiting.

“I have to tell you why I got so mad.” I broke his gaze and looked down at the half-eaten pizza slice in my hand. “That thing you said, about Denise having a stripper-butt? It wasn’t cool. Brain said basically the same thing and it really upset her. I’m not sure if I can completely explain it, but I’m pretty sure it was racist.”

“God, Kara,” he said. I watched his face turn more serious than I had ever seen it. He got very quiet for a moment. “She didn’t hear me, did she?”

“No,” I said. “But I have to tell her. She has to know why I was mad at you and I have to show her that I have the guts to stand up for her.”

Alec nodded.

“And also,” I said, “We have to sit with her friends sometimes. It’s not fair to her not to. I think they’re nice, Alec, but if they’re not, we’ll deal with it.”

Alec bit his lip like he always did when he was nervous, but he nodded. “Yeah. Makes sense.”

“Okay.” I smiled, but my stomach flopped. No way things were going to be this easy. Alec wasn’t good with new people and honestly, we would probably never even be invited to sit with Denise’s friends again, unless she forgave me. And why would she? I had given her every reason to break up with me.

“You’re not mad at me, are you?” I said. It was the question I wanted to ask Denise, but she wasn’t here.

“Don’t worry, Kara,” Alec said, turning back toward the TV. “Our friendship is mysterious, like the force.”

“Huh?”

Alec switched to an Obi-Wan Kenobi voice. “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

He broke into high pitched giggles. He was so himself, so dorky and ridiculous, that I started laughing too. I think we needed a break, like we’d grown as much as we could right then and needed to slow down. All through Yoda’s death scene, we rocked back and forth, cackling. We stopped when my phone buzzed.

“Maybe it’s Denise,” Alec said. He grabbed my phone. “Nope, it’s your mom. Listen, though, things with you and Denise are going to be okay. I have ideas for getting her back.”

Alec described his plans, his arms flailing around. I laughed, but I wasn’t listening. I knew Alec couldn’t help me make things right with my girlfriend, if she still was my girlfriend. But that would have to wait. I was busy feeling grateful for the weirdo sitting next to me. I’m not sure why all it took to make things better was a pizza, an old movie, and a couple of apologies. Well, that and the courage to be honest. I just know that friendship is a miracle and Alec and I are friends. There was something about his goofy, immature, teenage boy self that I forgave a long time ago. I keep forgiving it every day. I finally realized that he’s doing the same for me.

I didn’t know if Denise could forgive me, like Alec and I forgave each other. I wasn’t even sure that she should. But I knew that if she did, it would be because I was brave enough to tell her the truth. That was the Jedi mind power I needed. I picked up my phone, scrolled down to her last message and read it again: “Did something change?”

“Yeah,” I typed. “Something changed. Something big.”

I pressed send.

I realized that Alec was watching me, not the movie.

“You texted her?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t think she’ll reply.”

Buzz.

“What?” asked Alec. “Is it her?”

“Yeah,” I said. A smile spread over my face. “She says we can talk on Monday.”

“What did I tell you, padawan?” Alec punched me in the shoulder.

“Whatever,” I said, pushing him back. “Like you’re some Jedi master of love.”

Alec grinned. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

I groaned and rolled my eyes.

Alec turned up the sound on the movie and I leaned back into the couch, feeling relaxed and safe for the first time in a long while. Things were different. We were different. Neither one of us could take anything back, and I was finally starting to understand that’s what friendship really is.

FICTION PIECE

The Act of Staying Afloat

by Joanne Yi

 

 

I.

This morning, after I wipe the crust from my eyes and brush my teeth and scrub my face, I chop off my hair. The scissors are dull and meant for cutting construction paper—not waist-length hair full of day-old tangles. I force the blades through anyway and feel the hair pooling at my feet. My fingers ache.

I look at myself in the mirror and I’m still me. I don’t know what I expected. The right side of my hair reaches my earlobe, while the left side extends beyond my jaw line and sticks out at an angle. The scar, bumpy and pink, stretches from my ear to below my chin. A pimple glows at the tip of my nose.

Now I look how I feel. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest.

“Okay,” I say to the mirror.

I leave the mess for my mother to clean up and go down the stairs, trailing strands of black.

“What have you done?” Mom’s voice splinters the quiet. Some people appreciate noise. I’d rather have the silence.

I pour myself a glass of water and gulp it down.

“You’ve cut your hair off!” she answers herself. Her own hair is like a helmet, sleek and unmoving.

Coffee escapes her mug and seeps into the ivory of her blouse, but my lack of hair is more important. She grabs a lock and pulls it this way and that, as if trying to figure out how to make it grow. Maybe if she yanks hard enough.

“It was heavy,” I say.

I grab the loaf of bread and a knife. Peanut butter is always hard to spread evenly, and chunky peanut butter is the ultimate challenge. The bread rips. I smooth it down carefully with my pinky. The honey is easier; I just drizzle it on.

Yesterday, it was peanut butter and marshmallow fluff.

“You’re not even going to eat that,” Mom says.

“It’s the thought that counts.” I place the sandwich in a plastic bag and slip it into my backpack. I add a small bag of gummy worms from the cupboard.

“What does that even mean?” She tugs on my hair again. “Why on earth would you do this to yourself?”

If I told you, would you listen? I pull free of her grasp and leave the kitchen.

“Your hair was beautiful,” she tells my back. “It made you beautiful. Without it—”

“It doesn’t matter.” None of that superficial shit is relevant if the inside feels like something that died in a corner and wasn’t recovered for months.

I’m out the door. But I can still hear her through the window.

“Ivy, we need to talk about this.”

But talking doesn’t mean we’ll actually say anything.

The door opens, and I hear the jingling of keys. “It’s raining. At least take the car. I’m working from home today.”

I don’t turn around. I haven’t driven in a year.

“Or an umbrella!”

I keep walking. Down the driveway, across the street, around the corner. I haven’t been able to find my umbrella in ages, and there’s been no need for it, anyway. It hasn’t rained in months. But today, raindrops pepper my face. I shiver as a breeze hits the back of my neck. There is no hair to cover it.

School is eight blocks away. Eight blocks of cookie-cutter houses and rows of identical shrubs and flat, even sidewalks. I pass yet another house that looks exactly like mine. I feel like I’m walking in circles. A maze with no progress.

 

II.

These hallways are too narrow, and the lockers are too orange. I’ve walked the peeling, puke-brown carpets of this building hundreds of times. Everything is familiar. I know whose locker is where. I know which bathroom sink has been out of order for two years. I know exactly when the vice principal will round the corner to make sure everyone gets to class.

The familiarity is suffocating. I can’t walk two feet without bumping into someone I know. Eyes follow me, everywhere I go.

I stand in front of my locker. What am I looking for? My textbooks, with their ragged grocery-sack covers, are gathered in uneven stacks. Mini chocolate bars litter the bottom—insurance for when the craving hits. A sticker picture of Alder and me, taken in a photo booth, stuck on the inside of the door—

I seize a corner and rip it off. I had put it there in September and left it alone for days, weeks, months. But today, I can’t stand to look at it. The sticker tears halfway, taking our heads with it and leaving our bodies stuck to the metal. Good enough. I crumple the sticky bits in my fingers, rolling them into a ball.

It’s been one year. I try to breathe, but the air is too stale. Out of nowhere, a lump swells in my throat, and it hurts to swallow. Then there are tears. Not here. Not now. I thought I was over that. I press my palms into my eyes, and this helps a little.

I still don’t know what I came here for. Standing there in the stuffy hallway, I want nothing more than a drink of water.

I’m so thirsty.

 

III.

Five years ago, Mom and I took Alder to the Orange County Fair for the first time. He managed to get cotton candy all over his face, even up his nose. He asked for deep-fried Oreos and proclaimed it the best thing he had ever eaten. He grew close to tears upon discovering he wasn’t tall enough to play any of the games.

At Mom’s pleading look, I tossed darts at balloons for almost half an hour. I finally popped three in a row and received a purple penguin for my efforts. I handed it to Alder. The penguin was more than half his size.

“When I’m bigger, I’ll win you that,” he said, pointing at the giant stuffed donut dangling over our heads. “I promise.”

“I look forward to it.” I gave him a thumbs up. He mimicked me and pressed his thumb to mine. Our version of a pinky promise. “Hey, Al, there’s a photo booth.”

We took a series of pictures, our poses becoming increasingly ridiculous. In the last one, where we stretched our faces into the most grotesque expressions we could think of, the penguin made an appearance.

“This is my favorite,” Alder said. “But you can have it.”

 

IV.

Lunchtime. An eternity has passed since I left home this morning. I’m back at my locker, staring at its contents.

“So it’s true.” Quinn appears next to me. She clamps a hand on the top of my head and studies my hair from all angles. “You’ve officially lost it.”

“Lost what?” I swat her away.

“Your hair, what else?”

“Among other things, right?” I slam the locker shut. We walk to the end of the hall and down the stairs.

“No,” she says, too forcefully. I raise an eyebrow. “You said it, not me.”

In the cafeteria, students stare when they think I’m not looking. Some don’t stare; they do everything but. Which means they’ve looked at least once and decided they don’t want to anymore. People don’t like ugliness. They don’t like damaged. They like shiny and pretty, unharmed.

“It’s just hair,” I say. I tuck it behind each ear. I down half a bottle of water before coming up for air. It doesn’t help. The thirst remains.

“You used to be so obsessed with your hair being perfect.” She spits on her fingers and smooths her bangs down, in a poor imitation of me.

“Things change,” I say. “Besides, yours is shorter than mine.”

Except Quinn’s is professionally cropped and shaped and dyed platinum blond.

“Your scar.” She points at it. As if I don’t know where it is.

“Yes, I have a scar.”

“I mean, I’ve never seen it exposed like this.” She studies it. “It kind of looks like the California coastline.”

“That’s exactly what I was going for.” I show all of my teeth. But it’s not a smile. “I’ve always wanted the outline of our state on my face.”

“Put those teeth away. You’ll scare someone.” She takes a bite of her pita wrap. Hummus, sprouts, and avocado. Nothing else. “You’re acting strange, even for you.”

This is how Quinn and I work. We run on sarcasm and insults, barbed comments that have others cringing. But I am out of words to throw back at her. Strange doesn’t begin to describe me.

“Today is…” I trail off. I take the peanut butter and honey sandwich out of my bag. “The day. It’s today.”

“I knew it was coming up. I wasn’t sure if I should say anything.” We look at each other for a silent moment. Her eyes are charcoal gray. Anyone else would drop their gaze and mumble an apology. Not Quinn. “That sucks. I can’t imagine what it’s like.”

“Yeah.” I can’t think of anything more to say. But her honesty helps, for about half a second.

“It sucks major balls.” She picks out a single sprout and chews on it.

“Thank you, Quinn.” My throat closes again. I fiddle with the plastic covering the sandwich.

“You never eat that,” she says.

“It’s to keep the routine going.” I open the bag of gummy worms. I take one and try to see how far I can stretch it before it rips. Not very far.

“The routine of wasting bread?” Quinn takes her food very seriously.

“No. Alder would appreciate my efforts.”

 

V.

Four Christmases ago, I bought a jumbo-sized container of chunky peanut butter. I wrapped it in shiny gold paper and presented it to Alder. It was meant to be a joke. His real gift, a Marvel Lego set, was hidden behind the tree.

“This is my favorite,” he told me, hugging the jar to his chest. “I’m going to eat it with bananas, apples, carrot sticks, graham crackers, and pickles.”

“Peanut butter and pickles? Gross.” I stuck my tongue out. “What happened to good old jelly?”

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” he said, looking at me so solemnly I snorted.

“Where did you learn that expression?” I reached out and smoothed his sleep-rumpled hair.

“Trust me. It’s good.”

I finally tried the combination last month. It was salty and sweet and creamy and crunchy. I finished two pickles in no time.

I wished I could tell him he was right.

 

VI.

Spring feels like winter today. It rains enough to soak through my sweater and the soles of my sneakers. I step in a puddle, just to see what it feels like. Wet. And cold. Of course.

There are no kids at the park. I can sit in the third swing from the left and stay there for as long as I want. The rain on the seat seeps through my jeans. But it’s okay. What’s a little more water? I take another worm from the bag and split it into two.

“One for you,” I say. “And one for me.”

I put both pieces into my mouth and let them dissolve. The sweetness ebbs. I look around at the jungle gym, the monkey bars, and the colorful play fort with the three slides. I used to come here all the time when I was younger. And beyond that, too, long after I had outgrown the playground and was more into boys and glittery lip gloss.

My phone buzzes. Mom. I slide it back into my pocket and grasp the chains. I kick my legs out, stretching them upward until they almost hurt. If I tilt my body way back, I can pretend I’m flying. My hair used to brush the sand when I did this. Not anymore. But I feel lighter without the weight at the back of my neck.

At the highest point, I release the chains and jump. Now I’m flying; I don’t have to pretend. It ends all too quickly as I land on the tips of my toes, then lurch forward onto all fours. There I stay, fingers digging into the clumps of wet sand. I curl up onto my side, arms wrapped around my middle. I hold myself together.

 

VII.

When Alder was six, he leaped off that very swing in an attempt to imitate me. I hadn’t wanted to go to the playground that day. We’d gone almost every day that summer. I was fifteen.

“Ivy, can you push me?”

“You’re old enough to swing by yourself, Alder.” I didn’t glance up from my phone. Quinn had invited me to watch a movie in the evening, along with her boyfriend, Steve. I hesitated until she added, Theo will be there. I’d had a crush on Theo for months.

“Please?”

“Hold on, Al.”

Sure! I typed to Quinn. After I take Alder home.

“Ivy, look! I’m standing on the swing!” The chains squeaked, and I jerked my head up in surprise. He was still sitting down, grinning at me.

“Very funny. Don’t stand up, okay?” I returned my attention to the phone. What would I wear later? Maybe the black blouse with the cut-out shoulders.

“I’m going to jump,” Alder called. “I’m flying!”

I refused to fall for it, until I heard his yelp and saw him crumpled on the dirt.

“Are you okay?” I stumbled in my haste and landed on my knees beside him. He stared in fascination at the odd angle of his wrist. Then his face twisted like I had never seen before. I panicked and suppressed a sob and tried to pull him onto my back.

“You’re hurting me more!” he cried, batting me away. “I want Mom.”

She came within minutes. Once she had taken a look at his arm, she turned on me with a terrifying expression: a mixture of fury and worry and disappointment that made me take several steps back.

“How did this happen?” Without pausing to let me explain, she continued, “You were to watch him at all times. You were supposed to protect him!”

“I know.” Snot dripped from my nose and into my mouth. “I know. It was an accident, I swear. It just happened.”

“Accidents can be prevented, Ivy.”

 

VIII.

I roll over onto my back. The sky is an endless stretch of cold gray. Raindrops fall into my eyes, and I drag my sleeve across my face. I can’t tell if I’m wiping away tears or water. It’s all just wetness, anyway. I’m sodden and shivering—a sponge that hasn’t been wrung out.

You were supposed to protect him.

I open my mouth and drink some rain.

It was an accident, I swear.

I swear, I swear. But I can’t make myself believe it. I trace my scar with my thumb. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but it feels different from the surrounding skin. More sensitive, tender. It will always be there.

Accidents can be prevented.

I peel myself off the ground and search through my backpack. I leave the sandwich and gummy worms on the swing. The third one from the left. His favorite.

 

IX.

“Shit,” I say to my reflection. A leaf is stuck to my hair, a ragged green barrette. My black sweater and jeans are coated with damp sand. I brush some off the back of my neck and swipe at a smudge on my cheek. My socks make squish-squish noises when I move. “You look like shit.”

“Ivy, please come out here.” Mom knocks after she speaks, as usual. One sharp knock, which hangs in the silence after.

“Later,” I say. I lean down and slurp some water from the faucet.

“I’m not asking you to come out. I’m telling you.” Another thump, like an admonition. My ears ring.

I open the door. She surveys me with those dark eyes. My eyes. Alder’s eyes. Pools of the deepest brown.

“What is going on with you today?”

I blink. Today is the day.

“You chop a foot of your hair off. You don’t come home until late, doing…” She waves a hand at me, over my crusty clothes and squishy shoes. “Doing God knows what. Tracking dirt and water all over the wood.”

“The floor can be cleaned. I’ll do it myself.” I move past her into the hallway. She pinches my sleeve with two manicured fingers and stops me.

“The floor is not the priority.”

“Then why mention it?” I push my hair back, away from my face. “Do you know what today is?”

“Of course I do,” she shoots back, much more quickly than I expected.

“Okay.” My fingers tremble. I turn toward the staircase. I turn back. I can’t decide. “Then why are you like this?”

“Like what?”

“It’s just another day for you.” I find a loose thread on my sleeve and wind it around my thumb. “Do you even know I haven’t driven since—since then?”

“I was hoping it was a phase.” She reaches up to smooth her hair, though it hasn’t budged. “You have to get back into it—”

“A phase,” I repeat. “How can you be so oblivious? So unfeeling?”

“Unfeeling?” Her head snaps back, as if a door has been slammed in her face. “I may not act out like you, but I do remember.”

“You never talk about it. You never talk about him.” My voice quakes. I stare at my thumb. It’s purple. “Sometimes I need—”

“Who would want to talk about what happened? Do you want to relive it?”

But I do. I do, every night. My hand flies to the scar again. Am I imagining it? It stings this time.

“Do you want me to relive it?” Her fingers tighten around the ruby pendant she always wears. “That phone call I received last year. My worst fear coming true. You can’t imagine what I went through.”

What about what I went through? What Alder went through?

“You aren’t the victim here.” There was a victim. It wasn’t her.

“When will you stop blaming me for this?” she says.

“No one’s blaming you.” There was only one person to blame. It wasn’t her.

“Then what? What do you need?”

I need her to be my mother. The momentary lightness I felt at the swings is long gone. I feel like I’m underwater. Waterlogged. I want someone to tell me it’ll be okay—that this weight will be lifted, someday.

I open my mouth. Silence escapes. I walk away.

 

X.

I find an abandoned lock of hair in the corner of the bathroom.

Alder loved my hair. He would grab handfuls of it and tell me to giddy up. He would secure a lock of it between his nose and upper lip and call it the world’s most magnificent mustache. He would try to braid it and get it hopelessly tangled. When I had brushed out all of the knots, he would come back and mess it up again. He told me to never, ever cut it because he would never, ever forgive me.

I bind the hair with a rubber band and place it in the bottom drawer of my desk.

Alder. Please forgive me.

I change into a faded gray T-shirt that hangs to my knees. I slide beneath the covers and cocoon myself in their warmth. I close my eyes.

I smell like rain.

 

XI.

The first day of spring break, last year.

“You’re not trying, Ivy.” Quinn tossed another potato chip my way. “You haven’t caught a single one.”

“Maybe if you actually aimed for my mouth.” I leaned over as she lobbed one more and nearly fell into the pool. “Okay, we’re done.”

I watched the chip sink into the depths. My feet had been dangling in the water for so long, I imagined my toes resembled raisins. I tapped my fingers along to the jaunty beat of “Mr. Blue Sky.” Quinn had selected an “Oldies” playlist, an eclectic mix of Madonna and ELO and the Beatles. Around the pool, our classmates swilled beers and shuffled to the music.

“Are they drunk or just horrible at dancing?” I said, watching as two girls flailed their arms and wiggled their hips. One of them stumbled into the other.

“Probably both. In their minds, they’re Beyoncé.” Quinn wiggled a bottle at me. “Sure you don’t want one?”

“No, thanks. How can you stand the taste?” My phone rang. I sighed as I glanced at the screen. Mom.

“Ivy, you need to pick Alder up from Jeremy’s.” No hello, no preamble. As always, her tone was brusque.

“Aren’t they having a sleepover?” I said.

“He had a nightmare and wants to come home. Jeremy’s mom just called.”

“But I’m at Quinn’s.” I held my breath, already knowing what she would say.

“Please go. I would, but you have the car.” Before she hung up, she added, “You know, he’s missed you lately. You should spend more time with him.”

I jammed the phone into my pocket and pulled my feet out of the pool. I was right—raisins.

“You really have to go?” Quinn stood up, too. “Can you come back after?”

“Who knows?” I slung an arm around her neck. “Don’t drink too much. Only I can handle Drunk Quinn.”

#

When I turned into the driveway, Alder was already waiting for me. He was tiny at eight years old; his shorts nearly reached his ankles. He ran over and pulled the door open before I had even stopped the car.

“Don’t do that, Alder. It’s dangerous.”

“Stop nagging.” He heaved his sleeping bag into the back. He was quiet until the end of the block. Then, “I had a nightmare.”

“I heard,” I said, glancing at him. His dark brown hair hung over his eyes. I detected a trace of peanut butter around his lips.

“It was really scary,” he said. “Lots of bright lights and loud noises. And a weird smell. Can you smell in dreams?”

“I wouldn’t know.” The clock read 10:07. Maybe I would have time to go back to Quinn’s.

It started to drizzle, the raindrops forming intricate patterns on the glass. I squinted. Streetlights were scarce in this neighborhood. I turned on the windshield wipers and drove at a crawl until I reached the main street.

“Are you mad?” I could hear him picking at the worn leather of his seat.

“No.” It wasn’t his fault he slept better at home. “No worries, Al.”

“If you say so.” He tugged at the neckline of his striped T-shirt, which was already stretched out. “I had peanut butter. Jeremy’s mom gave me a big spoonful.”

“I can tell.” Grinning, I wiped the corner of his lips with my thumb.

“Stop.” He pulled away. “You’re just like Mom.”

“Not my fault you’re a messy eater,” I said, before turning left onto Harbor.

“Can we get ice cream?”

“It’s getting late. Tomorrow?” I slowed behind a bicyclist, who was zigzagging slowly in front of me. When I changed lanes, he did, too. “What is this guy doing?”

“It’s only ten,” Alder whined. “And it’s spring break.”

“We’ll see, all right?” I finally maneuvered my way around the bicycle and sped up.

“I want mint chocolate chip,” he said. “Maybe a double scoop.”

“The ice cream places are closed now, Al.” The rain began to fall more heavily, drumming on the roof to its own rhythm.

“There’s McDonald’s.” He pointed. “Vanilla cone?”

“We’ll see,” I said again.

“You’re passing it. Ivy, come on.” I heard the slap of his hand against the window.

“There’s another one closer to home. We’ll go there. Sound good?” I raised my thumb. He did the same and pressed his thumb to mine.

“Sounds very, very good.”

There weren’t many cars out. We hit a string of green lights and went four, five, six blocks without pausing. “Looks like we’ll get there faster than we thought.”

“Yes!” Alder whooped.

We finally came to a stop at a red light, behind a rusty Camry. The light changed, but the car didn’t budge. I tapped the horn with my fist. “Move.”

It slowly crossed the intersection. I took my foot off the brake and started forward.

“Hey, Ivy, I heard something really funny today—”

Bright light filled the inside of the car.

Ivy!” His tone changed to one of raw terror. I tried to turn my head, but—

A sound unlike any I’d heard before: the deafening screech of metal against metal. The horrible jarring of my body, as if it were being ripped into two. The splintering of glass. The blur of lights through the windshield; the endless kaleidoscope of colors. The impact of my chin against the steering wheel; the crack of my head on the window. A pole, rising up to greet me. The pain in my left side, a monster consuming me whole. And running through my mind, what’s happening what’s happening what’s happening?.

The patter of rain in the silence after.

“Al—” My throat was in flames. I coughed and tried again. “Alder.”

My left eye wouldn’t open. I drew in a shallow breath. My throat was a desert. Something warm slid down my cheek.

“Alder.” Was I actually moving my arm, or was I imagining it? There was the worn cotton of his shirt under my fingertips. The scar on his elbow from falling off his bike. The smooth, warm underside of his arm. “Alder?”

I tried to turn my head, but the immediate pain made me sob. I stared out the windshield, tears burning trails down my face. My hand traveled up to his neck, to the silkiness of his hair. To his cheek. To his nose.

Then nothing.

 

XII.

I wipe my eyes and look at the clock. 2:23 in the morning. I blink up at the ceiling. It presses down on me. Every night, that dream. Or nightmare. Or memory. They’re one and the same.

I go to the room next to mine. The floor in here is dusty; I can feel it under my bare toes. I sink onto the Iron Man blanket covering the bed and grab the purple penguin from the nightstand. He’d named it Mr. Ives.

It’s just as suffocating in here. I don’t know why I thought it would be different. I sit there, inhaling and inhaling but not exhaling. I’m so hollow. I wish there were a way to stave off this emptiness.

If I had been more careful. If I had picked him up a few minutes sooner or later. If I hadn’t honked so impatiently at the car in front of me. If I had stopped at the first McDonald’s for ice cream, like he wanted. The other driver would have been drunk and would have run the red light, all the same. But we wouldn’t have been there to collide with.

He would have hit another car. I shove the thought away.

I bury my face into Mr. Ives and breathe in a year’s worth of mustiness. The same brutal thoughts rampage through my mind. If only I had spent more time with him over those last months, instead of ignoring him in favor of parties and studying and coffee dates.

I always thought we’d have more time.

Hey, Ivy, I heard something really funny today. Now I’ll never know. I’ll wonder, for the rest of my life, what on earth was so funny. I squeeze the penguin to my chest.

I can’t stay here. I need to feel something other than this sensation of drowning. I go to the bathroom and stare at myself for a while. The shadows under my eyes are like bruises. The scar is bright against the white of my skin.

Next to the sink stands a container of Mom’s sleeping pills. She takes them occasionally—more so in the past year. A tremor of regret snakes through me as I recall the words I flung at her earlier. I roll the bottle in my palm. I’ve picked it up and put it down more times than I can count.

Alder. I want to visit Alder. I return to my room, pull on a jacket and pair of leggings, and stumble down the stairs. The keys are on the kitchen counter. I snatch them up. I put them back. My hand hovers over them again. Can I? I haven’t driven in so long. I can’t. What if I don’t remember how? I shouldn’t.

            But Alder. I think of how lonely he must be.

I’m in the car. I try to fit the key into the ignition. My hands are shaking so hard, the keys fall to the floor. I try once more, but I can’t do it. I’ve failed him yet again. My heart is loud in my ears. I slam my hand against the wheel and let the pain echo through my arm.

I get out. Maybe I can call a cab, or an Uber. But the thought of climbing into a car with a stranger and carrying a conversation makes me nauseous. I fumble with the phone and call the only person I can think of. She answers on the fourth ring.

“Quinn? Can you—can you pick me up?” The words emerge in a raspy whisper.

I start walking down the block, just for something to do. Residual rain drips on me from the trees overhead. I turn abruptly at the end and head back the way I came. Back and forth. The movement is numbing.

All this time, I’ve been trying to feel something other than the weight of losing him. Maybe the trick is to not feel anything at all.

 

XIII.

“The cemetery is closed, Ivy.” Quinn gazes at me, unblinking. She’s wearing her teddy bear pajamas, with a hoodie thrown on top. “There’s no way we can climb over the gate.”

“But Alder,” I say. “He needs me.”

“I’ll take you tomorrow, okay? We’ll take flowers and peanut butter and just hang out with him.”

I stare at the multitude of smiling bears on her pants. They look deranged.

“Ivy,” Quinn says. “Where do you want to go now?”

“The park.” I lean my forehead against the window. The cold is comforting. “I want to feel close to him.”

#

We’re on the hill with the biggest oak tree. I’m sweating, in spite of the cool air. I think I can make out the sandwich from here, where I left it on the swing earlier. Beside me, Quinn gathers fallen leaves into a pile.

I run my hands over the blades of grass and think of Alder’s hair when he was a few months old. The fuzziness of his head, like the softest down. The way he fit right into my arms, dark eyes gazing up at me. The surprising strength with which he gripped my index finger, in those initial months. The way he pronounced my name, “Ah-bee,” when he began talking. The way he toddled over to me first, when he started walking. He had the smuggest look on his face.

Eight years old. A whole lifetime ahead of him, unlived. And me, getting older every year, experiencing everything he can’t.

“It’s freezing,” Quinn says. She abandons the leaves and scoots closer to me. “Should we go to the diner? Talk over some coffee?”

“I’m not cold. Maybe later.”

Something moves on the other side of the playground. My body jolts in surprise. A small figure. A child? A dog? I push myself to my feet and waver for a moment. I stumble down the hill, the ground rocking beneath my shoes.

“Ivy, wait.” Quinn crunches through the grass behind me. “What are you doing?”

It’s moving toward the sidewalk, getting farther away by the second. I try to run, but my body refuses to obey.

I finally reach the curb, squinting at the figure, now on the other side of the street. A striped T-shirt. Baggy shorts. The colors are hazy, like they had been the night of the accident.

“It’s Alder,” I say. It doesn’t make sense. How can he be here when he’s not here?

“It can’t be,” Quinn says, shivering. She scans the street. “I don’t see anything.”

“I see him. Look, he’s getting away.” I flap my hands at her. My voice rises, becomes frantic. I step off the sidewalk.

A deafening honk. A blinding light. The screech of tires.

“Ivy, stop!” Quinn jerks me back. Her face folds into itself as she clings to my arm.

The car halts a few feet away.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” The driver yells out the window. “You could’ve died. Consider yourself lucky.”

I don’t miss the irony. Am I lucky? The car is gone before I can decide how to respond.

“Let’s go back to the car. Please.” Quinn tries to pull me away. Her fingers are icy on my own.

The figure has disappeared, but I continue into the darkness, dragging Quinn with me. Suddenly, I remember what awaits me there.

 

XIV.

The neighborhood across the street is full of large houses—the kind with manicured front yards and imported plants and gardeners to maintain them. During the holidays, the owners haul out their collections of multicolored lights and inflatable snowmen, determined to one-up each other in decorations.

There are no lights now, no leering Santa Clauses to guide the way. The windows are shadowed eyes gazing upon the street. Our footsteps are muffled against the damp concrete, but even they are loud in the stillness.

“Can you please tell me what’s going on?” Quinn has her arm linked tightly through mine, as if to keep me from escaping.

“You’ll see when we get there.” Every few seconds, I swivel around, keeping an eye out for a striped T-shirt. Floppy hair. But I only see houses and gleaming cars and the expanse of the sky.

At the center of the neighborhood is a man-made lake, surrounded by a winding dirt path. Lining the path are clusters of trees, where joggers pause for breath and families have picnics.

I find the trio of slim birch trees, curved toward one another as if sharing a secret. The ground has been softened by the rain. Under the light of a flickering lamppost, I begin to dig.

 

XV.

Two years ago, Alder insisted we bury a time capsule.

“We’re doing one at school,” he said, brandishing a sticker-covered shoebox. “I made this for us.”

“I have a paper due tomorrow.” I turned from the computer. Below the title, I had written two paragraphs. “Can’t this wait?”

“It won’t take long. Please?” He waved the box in my face, nearly hitting me in the eye. “Maybe we can go to the lake.”

“Can I put this in there?” I showed him my copy of Lord of the Flies.

            “It has to be important,” he said, rolling his eyes. “What is that book about? Flies?”

             “Something like that.” I set it back down on the desktop. “Fine. What are you putting in the capsule?”

“It’s a secret.” He cradled the box in his arms. “You can’t see it until ten years have passed.”

“A decade is a long time, Al. I’ll be twenty-six,” I said. “I might be married by then. Maybe even have kids.”

“They can help us dig the box up. We’ll be like pirates, finding treasure.”

 

XVI.

My hands are filthy. Surprisingly, the box is intact, despite being made of cardboard. I brush a layer of dirt away, revealing a Spider-Man sticker next to a masking-tape label. “Alder and Ivy,” it reads, in crooked letters.

Here is the friendship bracelet Quinn gave me as a joke, made of bright pink and green threads. My least favorite colors.

“It took me an hour to make that,” Quinn says when I hand it to her. “And you never wore it.”

Here is my diary from middle school, plastered with pictures of the Twilight cast.

“I’m still Team Jacob.” She flips through the pages. “You’d better not have written anything bad about me in here.”

Here is one of the photos from the fair, with Alder putting a finger up my nose.

Here is an Iron Man action figure, resplendent in red and gold plastic. How Alder managed without it, I can’t imagine.

I find the first Valentine’s card I made for him, after he learned to read. A lopsided paper heart, edged with lace. “Roses are red, violets are blue. Alder is stinky, pee-yew!”

He ran around the house for hours, singing the words at the top of his lungs. Mom hadn’t been too happy.

Next up is the blanket Mom used to swaddle him with, a square of cotton printed with whales. The blue has faded into gray.

At the bottom of the box is a folded piece of paper. The words “My Hero” march across the top. I hold it up to the light and begin to read, expecting to see a description of his favorite superhero.

“My hero is my sister.” I choke on my own breath. Quinn laces her fingers through mine and squeezes.

“Ivy lets me have two bowls of cereal on weekends. She catches the monsters under the bed and throws them away outside.”  I trace the slanting letters with my thumb.

“She builds Legos and watches cartoons with me. I know she hates it.” A giggle explodes from my throat. It feels like a sob.

“She protects me when Mom is mad. This happens a lot. I will be a better brother. I will protect her when I grow up. I hope she will always be happy.”

At the bottom of the paper, his teacher has written, Wonderful! Ivy sounds like a great sister! Next to this is his grade, a glowing red A-plus.

I clutch the paper to my chest. I draw my knees up and burrow my face into them. Quinn wraps herself around me.

For once, I don’t stop the tears. They are overwhelming, searing my throat, suffocating me. I am a monster, howling at the trees and the black of the night. Nobody told me grief itself is a wound, a physical affliction. It burns through me, tearing me into fragments. I grab fistfuls of dirt and fling them away. I kick wildly at the box, scattering its contents across the ground. Still, Quinn hangs on. Her weight anchors me.

I hope she will always be happy.

After a time, the sobs subside. My breathing slows. I rub at the damp spots on the paper. I imagine Alder watching me from wherever he is: from the sky, the stars, the falling rain. Mourning not only the loss of himself, but also the loss of me. His sister.

“I’m broken,” I tell Quinn.

“It’s okay,” she says. Her cheeks are blotchy. Tears hover on her lashes. “We’ll figure it out. I’m sorry I didn’t—I couldn’t—”

I shake my head. I have lost myself. But buried within me is the person I used to be. Slivers of the past, shards of memories, waiting for me to recover them, one by one. I will never be whole. The empty space where Alder used to be is too vast. A boundless crater, forever gaping.

But here is what I know now: I can’t drown any longer.

“He wanted me to be happy.” I think of the tiny figure in the familiar clothes. Wherever he is now, he led me here. I gather up the bracelet, the photo, the card—the pieces of me. Of us.

I will go home and show Mom the box. I will press the blanket into her hands and let her read what Alder wrote about me.

Someday, I will breathe again.

 

 

 

FICTION PIECE

Cast-Offs of the Past

by Carrie Connel-Gripp

 

The tires on the school bus bumped along the road, sending the children in the back two rows of seats bouncing up and down with an occasional whoop. While most of the students jabbered excitedly, their shrill voices jarring the nerves of the bus driver, one girl sat with her nose in a book. Tracy started attending this new school at the beginning of October and had not made any friends. She tried to drown out the other kids’ voices, with her own voice in her head reading the words in her book, like she did every morning and afternoon. She wished that she lived within walking distance of the school so that she didn’t have to ride the bus. Today, though, was different as the class and their teacher Ms. Kegan were on a Grade 5 class trip. A week ago, Tracy reluctantly handed the consent form to her father.

“Why don’t you want to go?” he asked.

“Daddy, don’t you think this might be disrespectable to those who live there?”

“What do you mean ‘live’? It’s a museum. There’s nothing there but cast-offs of the past.” He placed the form on the top of his desk, reached across, and plucked a pen out of the holder. He removed the cap, signed, and dated the form. He handed the paper back to her. “I want to know all about it at dinner that night.”

No amount of pleading could get her father to change his mind. Now, here she was, on a bus with a driver who seemed determined to hit every pothole on the way. Although the road was paved, it was very much a country road. The asphalt was old, crumbling on the edges into the gravel shoulder. The center of the road was high and the sides low, easier for a plow to pass in winter time, but this meant the bus leaned severely, causing the students on the aisle to over-compensate and knock heads with those sitting at the window. Tracy sat a couple rows back from the front by the window on the right. She tried to read her copy of Anne of Green Gables but couldn’t hold it still because of the bumps. The girl beside her had turned her body so that she could talk with her friend across the aisle. The two girls were face to face banging heads with each bounce.

Tracy put her book into her backpack. She looked out the front window of the bus and saw that the branches of the trees lining the road on both sides joined in the middle, creating a canopy and shading the road. She watched as her teacher leaned forward to give instructions to the driver and he slowed. At a break in the trees, he geared down and turned onto a gravel driveway lined with mulberry trees.

A two-story red brick building rose into view, looming over the single car in the parking lot. The driver pulled up to the front and braked. Ms. Kegan stood and waited. The children eventually stopped their chatter and turned to face her.

“All right, children, listen up. The purpose of this trip is for you to complete two projects: one for History and one for Art. You’ll receive further instructions once we are inside. We are going to divide into two groups for the museum tour. The first group will come with me and the second group will be escorted by Mrs. Beaupre. I want you to sound off, starting with ‘one’ here.” She pointed at the girl in the front seat.

“One.”

“Two.”

“Three.”

The counting continued until it reached “Thirty.”

Ms. Kegan said, “Even numbers are to line up on the left-hand side of the stairs. Odd numbers on the right with Mrs. Beaupre.” She turned and nodded to the driver to open the bus door.

Tracy was number twelve and she lined up with the others on the left. Ms. Kegan walked up the steps and instructed the children. Those on the left were to enter the museum in an orderly fashion. The group on the right were instructed to wait with Mrs. Beaupre until they could enter the museum. As the left-hand group began ascending the steps, Tracy looked up at the windows directly overhead. She thought she saw a dark-haired child wave at her and she raised her hand in response.

“Who’re you waving at?” asked Heather, walking just behind her.

Tracy looked again, but the child was gone. “No one, I guess,” she said, putting her head down and watching her feet walk across the concrete landing, over the threshold, and through the doorway.

The children gathered in a large room painted in the institutional green of days gone past. They stood in front of a woman and a man who were dressed in Victorian-style clothing. Once the children settled down and were quiet, the woman spoke and introduced herself.

“I am Mrs. Chalmers and this is Mr. Chalmers. We are the caretakers of this museum which was originally a public school built in 1872. The museum is home to many items donated from people in the community, some of whom even attended the school. If you will follow me, we will begin the tour on the second floor.” She led the children to the stairway, and they followed her up onto a balcony area that overlooked the main floor entrance. At the top, Tracy looked down and saw Mr. Chalmers standing there very still, waiting for Mrs. Beaupre and the other group of children now streaming into the space.

Ms. Kegan gathered the children around her on the balcony. “Tracy, pay attention.”

Tracy looked up and quickly joined the others.

“Remember, you have a two-part history project today. Choose an item and write 1) a description and an account of the history as presented, and 2) a two-page story of your own making about the history of the item, which can be about who owned it or where it was made or purchased, anything you like. And don’t forget to listen to Mrs. Chalmers. She is our hostess and is here for our benefit.”

“This way, children,” said Mrs. Chalmers, leading them into one of the classrooms.

Each room they entered had a theme – general store, post office, school – and was filled with displays of items from a bygone era. Tracy found what she wanted to write about in the last upstairs room which was marked Toys and quickly wrote down the information from the card. It was a set of items that might fit into a dollhouse: crib, dresser with mirror, chair and table, highchair, baby buggy, free-standing two-seat swing, teeter-totter. Each metal piece was painted blue except for the working wheels on the buggy which were copper-colored. She jumped when she heard a voice close to her ear say, “That is mine.” She looked around but none of the other children were near her. A thought occurred to her; she walked to the window, looked out, and saw the bus driver smoking a cigarette. She realized it was the same window in which she had seen the dark-haired child. Tracy turned back and looked around the room again. She did not sense the other child anymore.

“Children,” called Mrs. Chalmers, “if you haven’t found your item yet, there’s much more to see on the main floor. We’re going to head down now and allow the other group to come up here.”

The two groups passed on the stairs, boys high-fiving and girls waving at friends. Once she reached the bottom of the stairs, Tracy looked up to the balcony and saw the dark-haired child looking down. Their eyes met for a brief moment, but Tracy accidentally stepped on the heel of the boy in front of her, who pushed her in retaliation. She fell to the floor on her side to the snickers of those around her. She got up in time to see Ms. Kegan giving her a dark look. When Tracy looked back to the balcony, the child was gone.

The downstairs displays included farming, transportation, and housewares which Tracy had no interest in. She found an out-of-the-way place to sit down on the floor and begin writing her story about the little blue playset. She imagined the dark-haired child sitting on a deep burgundy rug in front of a large dollhouse and placing the table, chair, and highchair in the kitchen and the crib and dresser in one of the bedrooms. The swing was placed on the front porch with the baby buggy and the teeter-totter just off it. She stopped to think what the child’s name should be and ‘Ada’ floated into her mind. Yes, that was the girl she had seen.

The children were called to order. “We’re going to go out through this door to the back of the building,” said Ms. Kegan. “This is the second part of the exercise today. Please take one sheet of paper and one stick of charcoal. Your Art project is to find a stone of interest to you and make a rubbing of it. You place the sheet of paper against the stone and then rub the charcoal stick on the paper until you have a clear representation. If you rub too much, you may make it hard to read, so be careful. Okay, let’s go.”

This was the part of the trip that Tracy did not want to participate in, and she wondered if her father had understood where she was actually going today. Tracy got behind the last of the children, took her sheet of paper and charcoal and followed the others out the door. Her teacher was behind her. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, Tracy turned and asked, “Ms. Kegan, why is there a cemetery behind a public school?”

Mrs. Chalmers spoke up from the top of the stairs. “The properties are actually separate. There was once a church beside the school, over in that green space.” She pointed to the right. “It burned down in the 1950s but the cemetery is still here and still being used.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Chalmers,” said Ms. Kegan. She turned to Tracy. “All right. Go on and do your project.”

“Ms. Kegan,” said Tracy. “I’m uncomfortable with going into the cemetery.”

“Can you tell me why?”

“I think it’s disrespectful.”

“Well, your father gave his permission. If you don’t complete the project, you will lose ten percent of your Art mark.”

Tracy watched Ms. Kegan, carrying her own sheet of paper, walk towards the cemetery. Tracy followed along until she reached the fence, which was not really a fence at all but a waist-high metal bar that ran around the outside of the property. There was no gate on this side and Ms. Kegan and the children had to duck down under it or climb over it. Tracy watched her classmates running to and fro, shouting and screaming. The longer she watched, the worse Tracy felt. It was as if the children did not realize they were traipsing through consecrated ground, that there were bodies in caskets beneath their feet. Tracy walked to the right, her left hand on the metal bar. She stopped opposite a maple tree that was only a few feet from the fence and she remembered being in this cemetery once before, legitimately, when her grandfather was buried. She never told her father that she saw Grandpa standing beside him that day or that he sometimes visited her just before she left the house for school in the mornings. Beneath this tree were also the graves of her great-grandparents, two great-aunts and a great-uncle. She thought briefly that she could slip in here, do the rubbing quickly and get out again; surely her relatives, especially Grandpa, wouldn’t hold it against her. But she made no move to duck under the bar.

She kept walking until she tripped on a flat stone laying on the ground. She caught herself and looked down to see that the stone had broken from its base which sat just inside the fence line. She bent down and wiped away the dead leaves. The name on the white stone was Ada Warkentin.

“That is mine,” said the same voice from the Toy room in the museum.

Tracy looked around. This time, she could see the outline of a child standing at the head of the stone. Dark hair and a dress that reminded Tracy of something ‘Anne with an ‘e’ might wear – a black ankle-length dress with a white pinafore over top.

“I’m sorry I tripped on it,” said Tracy. “Would you mind if I took a rubbing of it? I won’t damage it; I just put the paper on top and then rub with this piece of charcoal.”

“You will remember me,” said Ada, solidifying.

“I’ll never forget you.”

“I give you permission.” Ada leaned down to watch as Tracy laid the paper out and began rubbing. The sheet of paper was large enough to cover the entire engraving:

Ada Warkentin

  1. May 28, 1864
  2. February 6, 1876

Beloved daughter and sister

 

Tracy stood up. “Thank you.” She saw Ada nod once and then disappear. Tracy turned and walked back toward the building where some of the students were gathering. The second group of children were now in the cemetery running around and making their rubbings.

When she reached the group by the school, Mrs. Beaupre, who had not gone into the cemetery, held out the box for the charcoal and Tracy put her piece into it. Ms. Kegan instructed the students to write their names in ink on the back of the sheet of paper and put it into the large black artist’s portfolio she held. Once Tracy had done so, she walked around the school and boarded the bus. She took her book out of her backpack and started reading.

That night at dinner, her father was discussing something distressing that had happened to him at work while her mother tried to calm him and offer advice. He was so distracted that he did not ask Tracy about her day, and she did not volunteer to tell him about it. She went to her room after dinner to finish her story about Ada’s playset. After a while, Tracy got ready for bed, said good night to her parents, and lay down, pulling the covers up to her chin.  Before she closed her eyes and fell asleep, she saw her grandfather smiling at her from the end of her bed.  Tracy slept well.

Across the street, the trip chaperone, Mrs. Beaupre, was having a good sleep until her daughter Heather screamed in the night. In houses around the neighborhood, twenty-eight other children tossed and turned, and they repeatedly looked under their beds. Overwhelming feelings of being watched kept lights on. Closet doors that might normally be left open were shut tight. Cats stared into corners. Dogs refused to stay in the bedrooms of those they should protect. Child after child begged to be allowed to climb into their parents’ bed. And Ms. Kegan, well, she had it worst of all.

 

 

 

 

FICTION PIECE

French Lessons

by Susan Harrison

A vaguely familiar voice pushed itself across the margins of sleep. “Remember folks, you heard it from Buddy Baxter first; this next song is going to be one of the big hits of 1962.”

My brand-new clock radio blasted out the irresistible rhythms of my favorite singer/songwriter, Carole King, singing The Loco-Motion. It wasn’t the gentlest way to wake up, but it was still a welcome change from last year when it would have been my mother’s insistent voice telling me, “Naomi, get up this instant or you’ll be late for school.” At least I had the option of shutting off my radio, whereas my mother always returned to my room until she saw I was in a vertical position. If I were honest, I would admit her persistence had been necessary but her parental supervision made me prickle with annoyance. I hated that she knew me so well. But this year the daughter she knew would slip away. I would be different. After all, I was a high school freshman now. Even the class designation spoke of new beginnings.

Over the summer I took daring steps to reshape myself so I could fit into the same social space as sought-after students. I hemmed my skirts up until they bordered on a dress code violation, grew out the bangs I’d worn since second grade and bought blue eyeshadow and cherry lip gloss.

On my first day of high school, any time a head turned in my direction I considered it proof my altered appearance made me a person who was hard to overlook. It convinced me I could overcome three significant obstacles: my difficulty initiating conversations, the previous year’s embarrassing membership in the Foreign Affairs club which turned out to be a haven for the socially unaware, and my abandonment by a girl who had been my best friend in eighth grade. It helped that the sole high school in town gathered up all the students I’d known in grammar school and junior high and randomly scattered them among numerous classes. Only two people from my past, both male, shared a class with me. The boys didn’t concern me because in all the years I’d known them, they’d pretty much ignored me and weren’t in the habit of spreading malicious gossip the way some girls did. It made me free to be whomever I pleased.

Reviewing these changes gave me a pleasant sense of satisfaction until I remembered my dumb mistake. Because things had been going so well during my first four weeks of school, I’d lowered my guard and let the wrong girl attach herself to me –  Joanne, the girl who could easily ruin my high school career. My stomach clenched. No, I wouldn’t let my mind wander down a path that felt like something out of a horror film—-in which someone waited with a chain saw around the next dark corner. Instead, to coax myself into starting my day, I closed my eyes, scooched under the comforting weight of my blanket and, for a few brief moments, escaped reality by indulging in my favorite daydream. I was on my own in a café in Paris, ordering un pain au chocolat in my now-perfect French.

Everything was easier in this vision of my future where my older, sophisticated, more adventurous self spoke French fluently and was finally confident of her place in the world. French was my language of choice ever since the First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, wowed everyone with her command of the language when she went to Paris with the President. Her intelligence and poise were traits I yearned for. But to acquire her gifts, I had lessons to learn. Determined not to let doubt derail my plans, I repeated to myself, “You can get there. You can be that person if you take one careful step at a time.” When I opened my eyes I felt able to lift my body out of bed and face the day. I wouldn’t let Joanne become an obstacle to a successful four years of high school. I could handle her.

The walk of a little over a mile to school always seemed shorter in the morning when I had the whole day in front of me. It felt like I’d barely left home when the sprawling, red-brick structure came into view. I pushed open the heavy steel and glass door into the main hallway and was hit with the smell of floor wax, body odor and hair products. A crowd of students milled about their lockers and rushed by me on their way to homeroom. The noisy jabber of their voices pummeled my ears. With no adults present, what I heard was uncensored.

“Hey, Ryan, get your head out of your ass or we’ll be late for homeroom,” one guy shouted.

“Bug off,” another male voice replied.

“I must have called you three times last night and the phone was always busy?” a girl complained.

“Can you believe it?  My parents took it off the hook. Claimed I was on the phone too much.”

I wished I were part of a similar uninhibited exchange. As I headed to my locker, I wondered if all the people around me were as comfortable as they seemed to be. For me, each day was an exercise in reinvention, trying to change who I was into someone who could claim a place within this crowd. As the people in the hall passed by me, I locked my gaze on one person after another as if each were a specimen under a microscope. I saw faces of boys I could fall in love with and girls who looked as if they might share confidences. This early on, it was still easy to picture the next four years filling up with friends from classes and choir who would beg to sign my yearbook during graduation week.

Not so long ago I wouldn’t have been so optimistic, but my new friends, Doreen and Marge, made me believe in the future I pictured. We were an odd-looking trio. Doreen was taller than average and tended to stoop over in an unsuccessful effort to minimize her height. With hazel eyes and a well-proportioned nose, she would have been pretty if it weren’t for her wide, thin-lipped mouth. She wore her light-brown hair in a smooth bouffant style, flipped up on the ends. Like Jackie Kennedy, Doreen had commented more than once as she stood in front of the mirror in the girls’ room and applied another coat of hair spray – a statement that always made me cringe. Why did so many people focus on Jackie’s hairdo, Chanel suits and pill box hats when there was so much more to admire about her? The third member of our group, Marge, was a cute, blue-eyed blonde with a stocky, muscled physique that served her well as a member of the JV field hockey team. At five-foot-two, I had to take extra steps to keep up with my friends, and my thick, brunette tresses, brown eyes and more prominent facial features provided a counterpoint to the other two. Whenever we walked by the glass trophy case outside the gym, I tried to catch our reflection to see if the three of us looked as if we were meant to be inseparable.

We were strangers to each other when we met the first week of school in algebra class, the arrangement of the teacher’s seating chart bringing us together. Marge was seated on my left and Doreen in front of me. It didn’t take long to discover we shared a distaste of math bordering on phobia. Math class was right before lunch period, and weeks ago on that first day it seemed natural to eat together. In the beginning, I hung back until one or the other asked me to join them, unsure how permanent our association might be. But one lunch led to another and another until I could assume I was an accepted member of the group, and eating together became a dependable part of my day.

During one early lunch-time conversation, Doreen asserted the three of us had at least one thing in common, “We’re all middlers.”

“Middlers?” Marge asked.

“Yeah, you know, we’ll never be in the elite group at school but we also won’t be at the bottom with the losers,” Doreen said as she reapplied her frosted pink lipstick. “And if we work at it, we can move up.”

“How can we do that?” Marge asked.

I waited to hear Doreen’s answer. How people navigated the social scene at school had always baffled me.

“There are lots of ways. We can figure out how to get friendly with girls who are more popular – take advantage of common interests or make ourselves useful. And we can exploit any special talents we may have to get known around school – like getting big parts in a drama club play.”

“Oh, I get it. I guess I’ve already done that. Coach says I’m one of the best defenders she’s ever had on her field hockey team,” Marge said. “I’m a shoe-in for the varsity squad next year.”

Doreen laughed. “Sports only work for boys. If a girl is an athlete, it counts against her. Boys see it as unfeminine and competitive, and most girls couldn’t care less.”

A blush spread across Marge’s cheeks and she pressed her lips together. I waited for her to protest and was disappointed when she capitulated so easily. But I sympathized with her. Doreen’s confident opinions usually left no room for discussion unless one wanted an argument. And in this case, maybe she was right. There were never pep rallies before the girls’ teams faced their opponents. And had I ever heard anyone talk about going to watch their games?

“Either of you play the guitar? Everybody is looking for someone to lead folk music sing-alongs, especially for parties. It guarantees the night will be a hit.”  Doreen looked at each of us in turn.

Both Marge and I shook our heads.

“Too bad,” Doreen said as she tossed her compact and lipstick back into her purse. “We’ll have to work more on improving our personalities.”

How like Doreen to imply there was something lacking in me and Marge, but then make the comment forgivable by including herself. However, I couldn’t imagine what she had in mind. I was quite sure personality was predetermined at birth or unconsciously absorbed from your family at an age so young you forgot the origin of the lessons. And although I believed in the possibility of effecting small changes, anything more seemed to be like applying a thin coat of paint over dark wallpaper, the color and pattern you were attempting to hide inevitably bleeding through. As early as age twelve, I had concluded that it was wishful thinking to suppose a set of instructions existed that, if followed religiously, would allow you to acquire superior social skills. Reading articles in Seventeen or observing people who comfortably navigated the social scene had never helped me. I marveled at those who intuitively knew what to say and how to say it and I longed to be interesting, or even better, humorous enough to make others laugh. But it seemed hopeless. When Doreen and Marge recognized my shortcomings, would they abandon me for someone who had the skills to increase their chances for upward mobility? I tried to think of something to reassure myself. Weren’t girls like me needed? Not everyone could be a star; someone had to be there to applaud. But there was still the problem of Joanne.

Nobody had to tell me Joanne was going to be a girl no boy would choose at school dances, someone who would be whispered about and become the subject of jokes. She stood out, but not in an intentional way like the arty kids with their unusual combinations of colorful clothing, or the boys who were James Dean wannabes with their hair greased into pompadours and their pegged pants. Most of it was her appearance, an otherwise average face spoiled by buck teeth and thin stringy hair. And it didn’t help that she wore clothes that looked like they’d come from Goodwill. To be associated with her would be social suicide. Yet somehow, I had stumbled into a position which necessitated regular contact with her.

Starting freshman year a month late, Joanne asked me if she could borrow my European history notes and answer some of her questions on the material the teacher had already covered. Why did she choose me out of the entire class? Was it because I always had my head bent over my notebook, frantically scribbling, or did she identify some other characteristic that made me appear more benign than the others? Whatever her reason, I couldn’t think of a way to say no. I hoped my exposure to possible social ridicule would be limited as it should only be two or three weeks before Joanne caught up. And while I helped her, I was careful to ensure Doreen and Marge never found out about it.

Today, Marge and I with our bag lunches saved a seat for Doreen who was buying a hot lunch. The cafeteria was always crowded. At least one person in the group had to find and save seats as soon as we walked inside. I was grateful for my friends; without them I would be an outlier, one of the few girls and boys who sat by themselves at the end of a table, or worse, were forced to take a middle seat between groups. They seemed to survive the experience by eating with an unwarranted amount of concentration or propping up a book in front of their face like a shield. I imagined these students counting the minutes until they could leave for class.

Laughter erupted from a group of five kids sitting at the table in front of us. I recognized two football players and at least one cheerleader. Beautiful, popular, even their laughs seemed more assured and lighthearted than anyone else’s. The raised voices around me broke up their conversation into a confetti of words – “going to party at …, did you know…, how did you do on the” – and, like their lives, I was unable to put the pieces together into an understandable whole. Though they studied the same subjects, took exams and answered to teachers as I did, the particulars of their days were a mystery to me. I wondered why I was wishing for something I knew nothing about. Maybe I envied how their beauty drew stares and the ease with which they seemed to inhabit their lives.

Doreen pushed aside the lunch bag I had placed on the table in front of the empty seat and plopped down her tray. The smell of grease emanated from her grilled cheese sandwich and an ooze of bright orange, government-surplus cheese dripped onto her finger when she bit into it. With a flick of her tongue, she licked the cheese off her skin and then poked me with her elbow.

“Look at that kid at the end of the table,” she said, her hand cupped close to her mouth. “What a loser.”

I felt blood flooding my face. I was certain that even if the boy couldn’t hear Doreen over the clamor of the cafeteria, he would suspect we were talking about him. Trying not to be too obvious, I looked at him. He appeared ordinary with a crew cut and black-framed eyeglasses. The only noticeable defect was the blue ink stains on two fingers of his right hand. “Why do you say that?”

“He’s in my biology class. He’s always waving his hand to answer the teacher and asking extra questions. And wait until he stands up! His pants are so short you can see his white socks.”

“Doreen has like this dork radar,” Marge said with a smile. “It’s amazing how she spots them.”

I hesitated, not wanting to contradict Doreen but also wanting to know more about how she determined a person was unacceptable. “Have you talked to him?”

“Are you serious? Why would I do that?”

Apparently, what was clear to me was not so obvious to Doreen. “I mean, how do you know what someone is like unless you have a conversation?”

“You have a lot to learn, Naomi. You ever hear of body language? Merely by being around him I can tell he’s the kind of kid who eats his snot.”

“God, Doreen, you can be so gross,” Marge said, making a face, and they both laughed.

I felt as if their laughter were directed at me. Did Doreen examine me with the same sharp eyes? I took a furtive look at my own fingers, the nails bitten to the quick and cuticles picked at and torn until the skin margins looked red and raw. I curled them into my palms and placed my fisted hands in my lap, ashamed of the nervous habit I’d tried and failed to break.

It was an uncomfortable conversation for me. I was relieved when Marge started talking about the latest episode of Dr. Kildare. We were all big fans of the TV show’s star, Richard Chamberlain, who was absolutely dreamy. I glanced at the boy again. He held a French fry between his thumb and finger and seemed to be studying it. I doubted I could get through a thirty-minute lunch period by myself. And I wouldn’t have to because here I was with my two friends. So why did I feel like I was eating alone?

That afternoon, I lay on my bed wrapped up in the afghan my grandmother had crocheted for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about my lunch with Doreen and Marge. My lack of experience left me feeling unsure of my place in our group. In the past my friendships had been infrequent and brief. As I looked back, they now seemed more like something I’d made up. And my association with Joanne was making me nervous. Any connection between us could spoil the delicate balance I had established with Doreen and Marge.

A few days later, the three of us were walking down the hall, and we passed Joanne outside the art classroom talking to the teacher. It was Marge who caught sight of her first and nudged Doreen. In low voices, they started to snicker and mock Joanne before she was out of sight, as if it didn’t matter if she heard them.

“Is she a Bugs Bunny impersonator?” Doreen asked.

“She’s got the teeth down. All she needs is a carrot,” Marge said.

Marge had this big contagious laugh. Later, I wanted to believe it was her infectious amusement that made me join in. There was something about shared laughter or shared anything. Maybe that’s what made friendships so important. But by the time I returned home, there was no rationalization that could relieve my sense of guilt over the way I had joined in when my friends mocked Joanne.

Still, the next day I pushed aside my guilty feelings and continued with my deception. I was constantly alert in case I had to duck down a hallway or into a classroom to avoid encountering both Joanne and Marge or Doreen at the same time. It made me tense when I was at school, and at night bad dreams woke me up. Instead of the usual innocuous visions, I was chased by thugs, falling off cliffs, or walking into school naked. Was this what it was like to be a double agent? How did spies survive for years without getting caught, living as one person in public while being someone else in private? Or were their lives truly divided? If you played two roles long enough, did both become part of who you really were? I was so close to belonging to a group in a way I’d only imagined in the past. But I hadn’t known it could be so messy and full of reluctant compromises.

A few mornings later I was standing in front of my locker searching for my French book. After nights of disturbed sleep, my brain function was slow and labored, as if it were a long neglected machine whose metal parts needed oiling. I didn’t even react the first time I heard someone say my name. I turned and saw Joanne. A sickening flutter started up in my chest and I clasped my book to me in an effort to still it.

“Hi Joanne, what’s up?”

“Hey, Naomi, I was wondering if you’d like to come over to my house on Saturday.”

“Uh, yeah, sure.” The words came out before I had time to think. “Why don’t you call me tonight?” My eyes darted around as I quickly wrote my phone number on a sheet of paper and handed it to Joanne, trying to keep the conversation short.

“Great, talk to you later,” she said.

Now when it didn’t matter, I could think of an easy response. The words came to me in French, the language of my perfect future self. “Je suis desolé mais je suis occupée le samedi.” In French, ‘I’m sorry but I’m busy on Saturday’ sounded much more apologetic and kinder with its implication I was disconsolate. I sighed as I watched her walk away, already kicking myself for accepting the invitation. I had probably led her to believe I might become more than a classmate sharing notes.

Thing is, on Saturday, I found I liked talking to Joanne and eating her Mom’s chocolate chip cookies – not that I felt at home immediately. I mean, it took a while. At first it was awkward since I knew I was only there because I wasn’t quick-witted enough to come up with an excuse. And part of my attention was taken up with wondering how long the rules of politeness required me to stay. But Joanne knew how to ask questions and how to listen. This made conversation easier for me, and I became more talkative than usual.

“Do you have sisters or brothers?” Joanne asked.

“No. But I have two cousins who are near my age and we’re pretty close. What about you?”

“I’m an only child, too. Both my parents come from large families, but my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are back in Pennsylvania where we used to live.”

“How come you moved here?”

“I was born with a heart defect and needed surgery. Connecticut Children’s Medical Center was the closest place that could do it. That’s why I started school a little late. My recovery took longer than the doctor expected.” Then she unbuttoned the top three buttons of her blouse and revealed a raised, red-knotted cord of scar tissue running down the middle of her chest.

The sight of her wound made me wince, and whatever voice I had was shocked into silence. I remembered all the mean rumors that had been spread about Joanne. Some kids said she had moved to the area from a hippie commune in California and had been kept at home until the truancy officer showed up at her house. A boy in my homeroom joked that overcrowding at Southbury Training School made it necessary to transfer some “retards” to public schools and she was one of them. The stories made me angry. I knew from experience Joanne was as smart as any of us. Now I knew the truth. I saw the thin line where she’d been cut open and the dotted scars marking the path of the stitches that closed her chest. She seemed to have lived and almost died in a way I could barely imagine. As Joanne slipped the buttons back into their holes, I knew I had to say something. My mind fumbled for words.

“I’ve never had surgery. It must have been awfully painful for you.”

“It was only a different kind of pain from what I’d been suffering. Before they fixed my heart, I had the same problems as my eighty-three-year-old grandmother. I was tired all the time, had trouble breathing and my legs would often swell up. When I woke up in the hospital, it was like a miracle. My breathing was normal, and I wasn’t so tired. I could manage the pain from the surgery because I knew it would be temporary.”

All of this Joanne said in a matter-of-fact way, as if what she had endured was nothing extraordinary. Although she was my age, she suddenly seemed years older. How much braver and finer she was than the rest of us, and so different from Doreen and Marge. Not only had she singled me out as someone she could trust with her secret, but she also seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. With Doreen and Marge, I often felt like a hanger-on. If only Joanne was someone other people liked. And when that thought came to me, I realized I wasn’t so different from anyone else. In the past when I was forced to be on my own, I convinced myself I didn’t care what other people thought of me. It was disappointing to find out that deep inside, I did care, a lot.

On the way home I tried to work out what to do. But switching my allegiance from my friends to Joanne had potentially unpleasant consequences. Their disdain for her could attach to me, and we could both be harassed. And how would I feel if I abandoned Joanne? Was it so wrong to want a normal high school experience, to be part of a close group going to football games and Saturday night dances and talking about boys? My thoughts twisted and turned as I tried to find an answer, becoming so tangled I couldn’t follow one thread from beginning to end. I reached home still pulled in two directions and craving a quart of butter pecan ice cream and a quiet hiding place.

My mother was in the kitchen when I returned. She was rolling out a pie crust and her hands were dusted with flour.

“Did you have a good time?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“What did you do?”

I usually gave her a detailed report. But Joanne and I had done nothing but talk, and our conversation had been strangely intimate, only for the two of us, not something to be shared.

“We didn’t do much of anything,” I said as I opened up the refrigerator and rummaged around to see if anything looked appealing.

“I’ll have some scraps of dough left if you want to make cinnamon-sugar pie crust rolls.”

“I have some homework I should get started on before dinner,” I said as I grabbed an apple out of a bin to take with me. I knew if I stayed my mother would want to talk and I needed to be alone to sort through my feelings. “Maybe later,” I said as I headed to my room.

On Tuesday, Doreen asked Marge and me to come with her to the drama club tryouts for Our Town.

“I’ll feel so much more confident if I can look out and see you guys,” she said. “There will also be a sign-up sheet for people to work back stage, stuff like props and painting backdrops. You two should put your names down.”

I hadn’t had a chance to talk to Joanne in history class and I felt unmoored, the passing days having lessened the emotional impact of Saturday’s time together. And Doreen’s apparent need for me and her desire for us to share an activity made it easy to warm up to her. Maybe that’s why I agreed to meet at Doreen’s locker after classes so the three of us could walk to the tryouts together.

Doreen spotted Joanne first. She stuck out from the crowd with her below-the-knee, limp-brown skirt and high-collared, ruffled green blouse buttoned all the way up to her chin. I knew her clothes were hand-me-downs from a cousin. A pile of hospital bills had forced her parents to find ways to economize, and the old-lady blouse also served to hide Joanne’s scar. Doreen started to snicker and point and in a voice that carried down the hall she said, “Look, wasn’t that outfit on the cover of this month’s Mademoiselle?”

Marge started to laugh and the words “STOP IT” formed in my brain. Instead of speaking and before Joanne could turn toward us, I said, “I forgot something in my locker. I’ll catch up with you later,” and fled down the hall in the opposite direction, almost knocking a girl over in my rush.

“Hey, watch where you’re going!” she yelled after me.

Once at the end of the hall, I turned the corner and leaned against the wall. Tears pushed against the corners of my eyes and I took a strangled breath. The same unresolved question made my head pound. All I wanted to do was leave by the side door, go home, crawl into bed, and pull the covers over my head. If only by some magic I could go back in time to the first day of freshman year and start over again. Of course, that was impossible. I wished I could place the blame on Doreen and Marge, but the predicament I faced was, in part, my doing and being contrite did not excuse me. I could hear my parents’ voices in my head, repeating words I’d heard often enough.

“Being sorry doesn’t excuse your behavior unless you do something about it,” they said after I apologized for violating the same parental rule twice in one week.

And it was as if the girl I’d bumped into had been shouting out advice; I should be careful where I was headed. It was time I decided what I was going to do. Whose side would I take? My thoughts raced around and around, so fast I began to feel dizzy. Being in high school had felt like turning a corner, a chance to leave uncertainty behind. I had imagined a switch flipping on in my brain that would make me more adult than child, the answers to questions and solutions to problems coming to me with the assurance of a declarative sentence. But instead, I felt more confused than ever. My sense of my identity and what outcome I wanted appeared tantalizingly close but still beyond my grasp. I wondered if I would ever become that chic woman in a Paris café.

Suddenly, Jackie Kennedy came to mind. I admired how even with all the constraints of her situation, she found a way to be her own person. And then it came to me: I wasn’t choosing between my friends and Joanne or picking the least painful outcome; I was deciding between my worst and best selves. And in that moment I had my answer.

Yet I still felt anchored to the floor. As I imagined walking away from Doreen and Marge, my courage began to falter. First, I’d go to the tryouts as I’d promised Doreen I would. Wasn’t keeping a promise as important? I could always sort everything else out tomorrow.

When I arrived at the auditorium, the stage was already occupied by two hopeful actors reading their lines. Doreen was sitting at the end of the second row and I squeezed past her knees into the empty seat between her and Marge.

“You barely made it in time,” Marge whispered. “Doreen’s up next.”

A minute later, Mr. Monahan, an English teacher who also directed the drama club, called out, “Doreen Madison and Charlie Howland, on stage, please.”

Doreen jumped up as if someone had given her an electric shock. Going up to the stage she almost stumbled on the second step. I heard Marge catch her breath. Positioned behind the footlights Doreen looked less imposing. At first, the empty room sucked up her words before they reached me. The director asked her to speak up. Louder now, her lines echoed around me, some tight and stiff, others making me see her as her character. Her partner, Charlie, was a better actor. Maybe he’d done it before. I made sure to smile at her and nod my head in encouragement, even though she appeared too preoccupied to notice anything beyond the page in front of her. After she finished and took her seat, both Marge and I told her how well we thought she’d done.

“I was so terrible,” she said in a voice that was too light for the weight of her words. “I’ll never get a part. I’ll have to settle for working backstage.”

“You’ll get the part.” Marge said, reaching across me to pat her on the arm.

“You really sounded great,” I added in an effort to match Marge’s positivity.

We had to sit for another half hour before everyone had their turn to read. In the end, Doreen got a small part with only a couple of lines.

“I’m going to start rehearsing my lines tonight,” she said, as she stood up and smoothed her skirt down with her hands.

I thought she was kidding and a laugh started to bubble up, but when I saw the serious expression on her face I smothered it.

“Good idea,” Marge said.

“Did you two remember to sign up to help backstage?” Doreen asked.

Marge answered yes.

“I forgot,” I said. “I’ll do it at the next club meeting.”

Lying in bed that night, the faces of Doreen, Marge and Joanne demanded my attention. I thought I had made my decision. But now that I had to act on it, I wasn’t so sure. Events of the past few weeks started to tumble through my head. I thought about the cliché that said when you are about to die your life flashes before you. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but I discovered when one had to make a choice on whom to be, the past definitely came up for review. All my mistakes and regrets, including my small betrayals of Joanne, scolded me. How could there already be so many? I interrogated the me I pictured in my daydreams. Qu’est-ce que vous voulez –what do you want? But even this perfected version of myself didn’t offer me an answer.

Two weeks went by. I signed up to help paint props for the drama club, I ate lunch with Doreen and Marge and I slept badly. As I entered my morning history class, Joanne told me she was all caught up with class work and thanked me for my help. For an instant I felt relieved. Before I could say anything, Mrs. Peters walked in and told us to take our seats.

“In our next section, we’re going to cover various aspects of the Industrial Revolution. I want you each to pick a partner you will work with on a presentation for the class. You have five minutes to partner up.”

For an instant my mind took me out of the classroom and found myself facing a formally dressed waiter with a white linen napkin over his arm. He put down a cup of café in front of me and said quite clearly, “Sois fidele a toi-même.” “Be true to yourself.”

“Merci,” I thought.

Afterward, it seemed important to remember whether I’d hesitated, even for a second, between this dream-like episode and rising to go over to Joanne and ask her to be my partner. I wanted to believe my reaction had been instantaneous, a sign that making up my own mind was becoming as instinctual as recalling common French phrases.

FICTION PIECE

Surface

by A. LaFaye

 

Sitting on the pier, her feet dangling over the water, Ginny watched a fish poke at a torn leaf on the surface.

“Sorry, pal. No food here,” she said. “Or Wi-fi.”

There’s no way her mom “forgot” the phone charger. Her mom packed like a commanding officer prepping for a mission. No essential could be left behind.  And cell phone usage was clearly not an essential. Buying a new charger was out of the question. The creaky-floored store ten miles down a tree-lined road carried only dusty packages of cellphone accessories that became obsolete with the death of flip phones.

Stretching out in a chair on the deck of their middle-of-no-where lakeside cabin, her mom kicked off her boots and rested her head in her hands. With a belly-deep sigh, she said, “Who needs a phone in a place like this.”

“Yeah. The bugs will make you too deaf to hear anyone,” Ginny said, sluffing off the deck on her way to the dock across the lawn.

Didn’t take a genius to see a back-to-nature plot brewing like the thunder heads inching over the lake. Her mother probably read about it in one of the seven parenting magazines she was always reading at breakneck speed while they waited in the doctor’s office.

Either that or she’d picked the only place on earth Ginny would have nowhere to go. Guess she was sick of yelling at her only child for staying out all night. Ginny spent her nights wandering the streets. Her mother yelled herself hoarse about risking her life.

What life? Ginny wondered.

Did her mom mean the one where she skipped play practice to sit in a clinic waiting room for her 137th blood test? Or the seventeen-hour car ride on prom weekend to see a specialist in a town that smelled like dirty gym socks? Maybe her mom meant the time Ginny actually made it to a second date and barfed on the poor guy’s shoes because she stood up too fast when it was time to head out. Was that teen movie gone horror flick the life her mom was trying to save?

Ginny was just fine with skipping that life.

Fading into the darkness each night diluted all the tension building inside her. Wandering without destination made the voices in her head fall silent. No matter where she started or what path she took, Ginny always ended up in Oak Street Park. Her dad had played ball there on the weekends. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine him jogging to the field, shouting over his shoulder, “Keep your glove up, Gin. There’ll be plenty of balls flying when I get to bat.”

“Keep your glove up.”

            You should’ve listened to your own advice, Dad.

            Her last night in the park was like most. Dropping the rest of her snack cake onto the merry-go-round, she slumped into a swing to watch the evening critter show. Holding her three unlucky nickels in her palm to see them glint in the moonlight, she waited.

After a few minutes, a raccoon showed up to clamber onto the merry-go-round creating a tiny echo as it moved. She gave the ride a nudge with her foot. He nibbled at a slow spin in the center of the merry-go-round while his buddies gave him a push when they tried to jump on and missed.

Sitting in the dark, watching the moonlight turn her skin blue, knowing she wasn’t any paler than anything else in the park tonight.

That’s the life.

But cruddy thoughts always creeped in. If Becca Marshall offered to let her use some concealer one more time, she was going to shove that compact between that girl’s pretty little teeth and leave her looking like a choking platypus.

She hated the “How are you feeling today” chorus that played through her days at school.

She felt like shouting, “Just fucking awesome folks!”

Or saying, “I burst blood vessels in my eyeballs when I sneeze!”

But if she did, she wouldn’t stop there. She’d just keep shouting, saying shit like…

“My nose bleeds are a twice daily event!”

“And no one has a good goddamn reason why!”

 

And this damn lake was no Oak Street Park. Not even after her mom warned her to stay warm and went inside. All the fussing just made her madder, so Ginny flung her useless cell phone into the water.

 

“Pity. Party of 1. Your table is ready.”

A voice drew her attention to the shore. A tall kid stood by a tree, his hair as pale as his skin.

“You’re…you’re…” Maybe she should’ve listened to her mom, ‘cause now the chill went right down to the marrow. All the rubbing in the world wasn’t going to help.

“Look who’s talking.” He leaned against a tree, the pattern of the bark visible through his clothes. “Not like you’re living it up over there, Miss Doom and Gloom. Heck, those thunder clouds have more life in one cubic centimeter than you do.”

“I…” Blinking didn’t make him any less there.

“Have a speech problem?” He stood up and took a step toward her. “Don’t sweat it. There aren’t any entrance exams where you’re going.”

Ginny tried to talk, but her mouth was as dry as the sand between her toes. Her meds did that. Were they making her see things?

Finally, she pried out the words, “Where do you think I’m going?”

“Into the lake, I hope.” He walked up and threw in a seed pod that didn’t make a splash. “I mean why rent a lake house if you’re not going to swim?”

He stared at her, his eyebrows raised.

“Am I…”

“Gawking at me like I should be wearing a long black robe and carrying a farming tool fit for chopping some wheat?” He took a swipe at the imaginary crop. “Yes, indeed you are.” He laughed.

Ginny could feel her jaw tighten. Jerk.

            If he was her guide to the afterlife, he really needed more on the job training.

            “You’re just looking at the surface again. The signs floating on top.” He cast his hand out as if he skimmed over unseen object.

If she wasn’t so tired, she’d stand up and give that guy an earful, but she settled with saying, “Oh, and you’re here to help me go deep and see the purpose of life before I …”

“Die? Croak? Kick the bucket? Shuffle off this mortal coil.”

“Whatever!” She shifted to look the other way. Her shrink had made her write down 100 words for dying like that would make it any easier to face.

And there he stood on that side of the dock. He leaned onto his toes, saying, “Nope. I’m not here to talk about ‘whatever.’” He did air quotes. “I’m here to talk about neocides and pH levels. You?”

“I’m freaked out.”

“I can understand that. I mean, when I learned I’d end up right here, right now I was …” He laughed. “Let’s just say, it’s a good thing my mother always bought a fresh stock of tightie-whities every three months.”

Ginny snarled in disgust.

“Hey, don’t judge. They say Einstein didn’t bother getting up to go the bathroom when he was on a hot streak. Know what I mean?”

Ginny closed her eyes and held her stomach.

“Changing the subject.” He walked back to the tree. “Do you remember your neighbors on Peale Street?”

“The Bickersons and the Arguables?” Ginny shredding a leaf. They were really the Dickersons and the Aarables, but their neighborhood feud was legendary on account of the Dickerson’s beehives and the Aarables loathing for the flying little honey makers.

As a single mom, it took Ginny’s mother almost a decade to afford a house. Too bad the real estate agent never mentioned the bickering neighbors.

Ginny had lived with headphones on from the moment they moved in to drown out the yard-to-yard shouting matches.

“Yep. Those are the very jerks I’m referring to. FYI. Neocides kill bees. And they are killer on the red blood cells. Turn the suckers into cups.”

Ginny blinked.

Did this guy speak English?

She blinked again.

His words sifted into her thoughts and she slowly sorted them out.

Spinning to face him, she asked, “Are you saying my blood’s jacked up because my neighbors killed my other neighbor’s bees?!”

“And sprayed all three yards for weeks while you were at school. That’s right.” He tucked his hands in his pockets.

“Shit.”

“Yep. Stuff decimated the US population. We’re going to be dealing with that screw-up for years.”

“How do you know this?”

“Same way I know you’ve got three nickels in your pocket right now.”

She gripped the coins. She carried them every day. They were the change she’d gotten when she bought a hotdog in the aisle at the ball game with her dad. She’d wondered why the vendor hadn’t give her a dime and hesitated there on the step, her dad had turned, yelling, “You’re missing it, Ginny! Come on.” And a fly ball had hit him right in the temple and he’d crumpled over the seat.

“You spoke to my dad?” She practically fell off the dock when she scrambled to her feet.

“Not possible.” He sighed. “I can do a lot of things. But I can’t do that. Just like there’s no way for you to know if he would’ve lived if he hadn’t turned to yell at you.” He wagged a finger at her. “Besides. You need to stop looking at the surface. Unless you want to talk about the surface of your blood cells. See now, there’s where I can help. Tell them to look at lower Ph level therapies to permeate the lining of your blood cells. It’ll reverse things.”

“What?”

“Go see Dr. Elliot Littlefield.”

“Who?”

“Elliot Littlefield. Say it, so you’ll remember him.” He walked towards the tree. “I mean after all, it’s that teenage son of his who’ll grow up and get you to spend those nickels.”

He turned to face her, smiling. “Oh, and he’ll bore you with some dumb theory about quantum physics and time. You might want to listen though. Could come in handy someday.”  He whispered something like “today,” then he stepped behind the tree.

She leaned to see where he went.

He leaned back, “See you around, Ginny Carpenter. And remember, look a little deeper.”

And he was gone.

 

 

 

FICTION PIECE

Camp Bur Oak

by Jacob Butlett

I.

I was eleven when my mom told me I was going to summer camp. My mom and her fiancée Viv had agreed that I needed to spend time out in the real world, not tucked away in my bedroom doing God knows what. Had they known about the dirty magazine I kept under my bed, they probably would’ve been even more inclined to send me to Camp Bur Oak.

At six in the morning I sat down in the backseat of my mom’s Volvo. Viv in the passenger seat, my mom behind the wheel. While my mom pulled out of the driveway, I opened the book I’d brought along for the ride to camp: a condensed encyclopedia on Iowan flora and fauna. Some casual reading, I thought at the time. Earlier that week, I had told my mom and Viv I didn’t like sports or physical exercise in general. I was nonathletic, fat, I explained, but my mom corrected me: plump. Not fat, plump. As if a word change made me any less obese, or any less nerdish, or any less Caucasian.

Two years prior, my mom had divorced my dad. Personal differences, she told me. She wanted to move somewhere humid like Florida; my dad wanted to stay here, in Iowa, where it’s balmy or cold most of the year. She wanted to be the breadwinner; he wanted her to earn less money than he, the man of the house. She wanted a loving, monogamous relationship. He didn’t.

In the car I found myself dozing off, thinking of time I sneaked downstairs and ate nine candy bars in the pantry. Thinking of the time I pretended to be sick so that I could spend the whole day listening to my dad’s abandoned vinyl records. Thinking of the time—one week before summer camp—I took out the dirty magazine from under my bed, flipped through the wrinkled pages, past the pictures of nude women posing with baseball bats and footballs, and discovered for the first time the man on the last page. A naked man.

Limbs splayed on a mound of catchers’ mitts, head cocked to one side, wistful eyes turned toward the camera. A catcher’s mitt covered the man’s crotch. I recognized instantly how artificial the picture was with the abs sprayed on and his back bent at a strange angle.  The more I looked at the picture, the more I wondered why I was looking at it in the first place when I could be gawking at the naked women. But I couldn’t stop. I stroked the man’s fake abs, curved back, and legs—first the toes, then the knees, then the thighs, then the catcher’s mitt. My heart racing, not knowing what to think, I threw the magazine on a pile of dirty socks and hurried downstairs to dinner.

By the end of the night, I knew two new things: first, I was going to Camp Bur Oak, and, second, I felt something strange for the man in the magazine. The magazine seemed diseased, like a rabid animal ready to attack me. I threw it into my bedroom closet and hoped my feelings would resolve themselves before my first day at Camp Bur Oak.

They didn’t.

Every time I pictured the man in the magazine, my stomach tightened, my lungs chilled over, my heartbeat quickened. I wanted to tell my mom and Viv about my feelings—a part of me didn’t care if my mom and Viv discovered that I had feelings for other guys—but my pain and fear overpowered me: I didn’t want to be completely open in a world where many people still believe those like me shouldn’t exist. So, being inside the closet felt safe, but I knew better, even as I sat in the back of the Volvo on my way to Camp Bur Oak, watching the early morning stars vanish in the emerging sunshine.

#

“Almost there, kiddo,” Viv said. “Excited?”

“Very excited,” I mumbled.

“Cheer up,” my mom said. “Camp is supposed to be fun.”

“Yeah. Supposed to be fun.”

Before long, my mom pulled off the interstate and began to drive down a winding cement road surrounded by trees, hills, and clearings. I rolled down the window to let the breeze in. Bur oaks stood on both sides of the road, northern pine oaks towering behind them toward the center of camp. The road straightened and climbed up a steep hill, on the top and both sides of which stood a landscape of evergreen vomit—evergreen shrubs, evergreen ferns, evergreen moss.

At the end of the road my mom parked the car beside a throng of kids and their parents, and once outside the car, I dropped off my bag while my mom and Viv spoke to a tall woman at the welcome desk, whom I recognized from the cover of the camp pamphlet. She had light brown eyes, much lighter than her dark skin. Her hair was an unkempt afro with shiny clips shaped like bees. She even smelled like honey.

She came over to me and smiled. I couldn’t believe how bright and straight her teeth were. She said, “Hello, there! You must be Gavin. Pleasure to meet you!” She extended a hand. I glanced at my mom with hesitation, then extended my own. Ms. Lynn shook it with vigor.

“I used to be shy too,” she said. “Then I found confidence!”

She released my hand and laughed, as if she had just told a joke.

I tucked my book and the pamphlet under my arm and massaged my shaken hand with the other. But the pain dissipated when I turned to look at the crowd of parents saying goodbye, we’ll miss you, you’ll be taken care of. I grimaced at a crying woman; she looked as if she were sending her child off to war, never to be seen or heard of again. To my right, two boys shoved each other playfully and made obscene gestures with their hands, laughing as though delighted and amazed by their own vulgarity.

The parents started to return to their cars. My mom kissed me first, then Viv. The warmth of their lips lingered on my face.

To my left, snickers from the white boy and black boy, the same kids who were making obscene gestures from before. Abashed, I looked away. Were they snickering because I still let my mom and Viv kiss me in public? Or were they snickering because my mom and Viv were clearly a couple? Probably the latter. But when my mom and Viv got back into the Volvo, a new possibility emerged: Maybe they were snickering because they knew what I was thinking. I fidgeted, wanting to go home. But I couldn’t, because the Volvo was already gone.

The campers, and the four counselors, and Ms. Lynn, and several other adults who worked at the camp herded into the mess hall. I stayed silent as I went into the mess hall, and I avoided the two boys as I found an isolated seat near the back of the crowd. Everything around me made me feel so small that I found myself withdrawing in my chair. I was just one kid among twenty-four in a large mess hall, at a large camp, several miles from a large city, in a large country replete with people who would never understand me but knew everything I tried to keep hidden, like my fascination with the naked man in the magazine. I didn’t want to feel ashamed of being different, but I didn’t want to be misunderstood either, especially since I was still trying to understand who I really am. I looked up. Ms. Lynn gestured at the four teenagers behind her. “Please give a round of applause to your camp counselors.”

First, the girls with the matching friendship bracelets. I don’t recall much about what they said, except that they were best friends who enjoyed sunbathing. Next, the two male counselors. The first was named Dylann Blackmoore, but he preferred to be called Mr. Blackmoore. “During your time here,” he said, “if you have a problem, try to solve it yourself.” Near the end of his introductions, he said he liked basketball and wrestling.

I hoped he wouldn’t be my counselor.

Finally, the last counselor. Seth Farnum asked us to call him by his first name, then cracked a joke. A dumb joke, which softened the mood. Even Mr. Blackmoore cracked a smile. Then Seth stuck his hands in his pockets and took his time introducing himself. His thoughts were disorganized, but his speech was engaging: he loved jogging, but preferred taking long walks; he loved DC, but preferred Marvel; he loved whistling, but preferred singing in the shower; he loved taking pictures of sunflowers and tributaries, but preferred taking pictures of his girlfriend.

When he returned to his seat, as Ms. Lynn stepped forward to list everyone’s cabin number and counselor, I couldn’t look away from him. His combed hair, his straight teeth. He looked at everyone—me especially, it seemed—with reverence.

“Gavin Kearney,” Ms. Lynn said.

“Present,” I called.

“There you are.” She checked my name off her role sheet. “You’ll be in Cabin 6. With Dylann.”

“Who?”

Mr. Blackmoore raised his hand.

“That would be me, little man.”

My lungs collapsed into the pit of my stomach. Why him? He turned back to Seth and shook his head in disappointment. He was referring to me, I was sure. Some of the other campers glanced at me and exchanged titters. I squirmed in my seat and kept my head down until it was time to leave.

#

I started toward my cabin. The air was still humid, the breeze thick with the scent of muddy dirt. A moment earlier, I’d taken my travel bag from a mountain of luggage. I nearly dragged the bag alongside me, it was so heavy.

I was several feet from the cabin when the white boy and his black friend, those same vulgar kids, ran in front of me. I dropped my bag in surprise.

“Hey,” the white kid said. “Gary, right?”

“Gavin,” I stuttered.

He and his black friend introduced themselves: Quinn and Devante, respectively.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, and picked up my bag. “Cabin 8’s just over there. Seth Farnum’s your counselor.”

I didn’t know why I told them what they probably already knew, and I wondered if I didn’t sound jealous. I didn’t even know if Ms. Lynn assigned them Cabin 8, but I was hopeful.

“That’s just it,” Quinn said. “I’m with Seth, Devante isn’t. He’s with Dylann, with you, in Cabin 6.”

“Oh?” I said. I didn’t get it at first, and then a new hope creeped in, and I started to relax and I waited for him to ask the question. Which he did after he explained how much it would mean to him if I said yes.

“So you’ll switch cabins?”

Give up a week of sports with Mr. Blackmoore? Yeah, twist my arm.

“I’ll switch.”

“Thanks, man!” Devante said.

I started in the other direction, to Cabin 8, but Devante called to me and I stopped. He and Quinn looked even more serious. More curious.

“This is gonna sound random,” Devante said, “but how do they know each other?”

“Who?” I asked.

“The people you came here with,” Devante said. “The two women. When they were talking to Ms. Lynn, we saw them hold hands.”

“Just friends,” I said, starting to walk away.

Quinn said, “We ask because they looked like dykes.”

I stopped. Dykes. From him, it sounded like an accusation.

“No offense,” Quinn said.

“It’s just,” Devante said, “it’s just strange, yeah?”

“My mom and her fiancée?” I said.

“So they are dykes!” Quinn said, grinning.

“I guess,” I said, and laughed uneasily. I held up my bag. “Well. Gotta go.”

“Wait,” Quinn said. “We didn’t mean anything by it. I guess there’s nothing wrong with dykes or sodos. It’s just not normal.”

Sodos?” I said.

“That’s right. Sodo—rhymes with homo,” Quinn said. “Short for sodomite. Heard of it?”

“No,” I lied, wanting to leave.

“They’re faggots,” Devante said.

I looked around. There wasn’t anyone else around, just the three of us. I looked back to Devante and Quinn. The conversation just started, I feared. I cleared my throat and forced a smile.

“Gotta go.”

Quinn and Devante took a step toward me. I shuffled back. I didn’t know why they were so curious about my Mom, Viv, and me, and I didn’t care to ask. I started toward Cabin 8.

“C’mon, don’t be like that,” Devante called. “We’re just talking.”

“Yeah,” Quinn said, and chuckled. “C’mon!”

“Gotta go!”

I didn’t hear them follow me, thank God, but I could still hear them.

“Sorry we called them dykes,” Devante said.

“We’re only trying to be friendly!” Quinn said. “It’s not like you’re a sodo, right?” He raised his voice. “Right?”

#

In Cabin 8, a one-room sleeping area, the four windows let in the breeze, which carried the smell of hackberries. I threw my bag onto the last available bed and then joined the five other campers in the center of the room. They were talking about baseball and videogames. I didn’t catch most of what they said: my heart was too busy beating between my ears, I was so relieved to be away from Quinn and Devante.

Seth came into the cabin carrying a telescope atop a tripod.

“Hello, everyone,” he said. “The name’s Seth, in case you forgot.”

One of the other campers asked, “Why do you have that?”

“Excellent question.” Seth set the tripod and telescope down. “My girlfriend gave me this telescope for my birthday last year, and sometime this week we’re going to use it to see beyond the stars. We’re not supposed to be out after eight, but the best time to see the stars at Camp Bur Oak is around 9:30. So do I have your word that you won’t say anything to Ms. Lynn?”

Excited because we all shared a secret, we gave our word.

“Good,” said Seth. “Now. Let’s introduce ourselves.”

The other five campers introduced themselves, offering forgettable names and just as forgettable “fun facts” about themselves. I was too focused on what I was going to say. When it was my turn, everyone looked at me. Seth nodded with encouragement. I hesitated. He nodded again. I smiled back nervously and opened my mouth.

I mentioned my name, my hometown, my favorite hobbies—playing video games, sleeping until eleven in the morning. I didn’t expect Seth to laugh, but I welcomed it.

“Thanks for sharing,” he said. He turned toward the other campers. “Let’s take a walk. Get familiar with the layout of the camp.”

We headed out.

During the walk, my shirt got sweaty. My thighs burned, my fat stomach ached. The farther we ventured into the underbrush, the cooler the air felt. Overhead, the canopy shaded the fallen tree limbs, the sandstone slabs, the mossy boulders along the path. We passed foxholes and deer droppings, we climbed embankments, we traversed clearings full of sunshine, and we circumnavigated the lake, where the female campers were playing volleyball. Suddenly, Seth stopped and asked, “Care for a dip?”

I wanted to change my shirt and relax in the cabin—and pray that my feet would stop hurting by dusk. But I followed the other Cabin 8 campers to the lake, where they took off their shirts and cannonballed into the water, causing the girls in the water to scream. The female counselors looked up, noticed Seth, and returned to sunbathing. When I sat down on a wicker chair next to the dock, I closed my eyes and breathed in the warm air. The chair to my right started to creak. I opened my eyes and almost jumped out of my seat.

A black girl sat next to me. Staring at me.

“Yes?” I said. I wanted her to go away.

She looked me over.

“Can I ask you something?” she said.

“Ask me something?”

“Yeah. What’s your name?”

“Is that your question?”

“No,” she said. “I want to make sure I feel comfortable with you before I ask you what I want to ask you. Makes sense?”

I said sure and told her my name.

“Okay, Gavin, where you from?”

I told her.

“How old are you?”

I told her.

“What’s your favorite hobby?”

I didn’t know why it mattered if she knew what I liked to do. But she was insistent and I was too tired to move. So I told her my favorite hobby: reading.

She continued, “Favorite thing about camp?”

I shrugged.

“I like the lake,” she said.

“Then why aren’t you swimming?”

“I like the lake, not the swimming.”

“Can’t swim?”

“Can’t swim?” she repeated. “Because I’m black?”

“What?” I exclaimed, embarrassed. “That’s not what I meant.”

She cracked a smile. “Just fucking with you,” she said. “I’m a good swimmer. A great swimmer. I just don’t like swimming with other people.” She reclined in her chair, tucking her hands behind her head. “Hey, do you wanna know more about me?” she asked, but before I could say no, she continued, “I was born premature in a small hospital in Tennessee. I was no bigger than a dollar bill.” She eyed me with a smile, making sure I was paying attention. “My mother left when I was six. A year or so later my dad moved the two of us to North Carolina to live a better life. And you know what? One day, my dad was pulled over because he was a black man driving an expensive car.”

“Maybe he was speeding,” I said, my interest piqued.

“Nope,” she said. “It was what he called ‘profiling.’ He was arrested and released from jail the next day, no apology given. Then we moved to a small town in Iowa, where he wouldn’t be arrested for driving while black. Since I’m an only child and since I don’t like hanging out with the other kids on my block, I asked my dad if I could go here, to Camp Bur Oak, and meet kids just like me. He agreed, obviously.”

She amused me, though it took me a moment to realize she was trying to befriend me. When she finished, I felt comfortable enough talking about my family. “I was four when my dad left,” I said. “The court proceedings went by without any problems—except when my dad’s mistress, the reason for the divorce, showed up and called my mom so many mean names that the bailiff had to drag the mistress out of the room.” I laughed to myself. “My mom gained full custody of me, and a year later, he moved to a different state with his mistress. Then my mom got engaged to a woman named Viv. They’re in love.”

I waited for her to say something. She turned to the lake, which shimmered under the open sky. Then she eyed me and said, “Both gay?” And then: “That’s cool.”

Proud that I’d told her, I relaxed.

“So,” she added. “Ready for the question?”

“What question?”

“The one I wanted to work my way toward. It might seem mean.”

“Yeah?”

She hesitated, then asked, “How long have you been fat?”

The question offended me at first. Then I found myself smiling. “Don’t know,” I said. “How long have you been black?”

She grinned. “Touché.” She extended a hand. “I’m Monique.”

We shook hands as though we had just made a pact and watched the other campers caper in the lake.

#

Between lunch and dinner, Seth said we could do anything we wanted, so long as Ms. Lynn didn’t find out. She still didn’t know I switched cabins. I assumed Mr. Blackmoore knew about the switch, since he called me out for forgetting his name at orientation, but I assumed he didn’t care, because he didn’t say anything about it. In the afternoon, Monique and I spoke more by the lake before going our separate ways, she to the arts and crafts cabin to make something for her dad, and I to Cabin 8 to read under a sunlit window. At dinner, I listened to Monique talk to the other girls about the dreamcatcher she made. But I couldn’t stop feeling that a gun was being pointed at my head.

I looked behind me, my neck hairs bristling. Quinn and Devante sat in the far corner of the mess hall, glancing at me. Whispering. Muttering.

I finished dinner in silence, then asked Seth if I could go to bed early.

“My stomach hurts,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Go straight to the cabin. Tomorrow, you can tell me the real reason you don’t want to spend time with the other campers.”

Ashamed, I turned to the floor. “I’m not feeling well,” I said. Now I meant it.

“Did something happen?” he said.

“It’s nothing. My feet hurt. That’s all.”

“Your feet? I thought it was your stomach.”

I hesitated. “That too.”

He leaned down and touched my shoulder. It felt strange. A warm, sensitive touch.

“Next time, be honest,” he said, and patted me on the shoulder. “Okay, buddy?”

I didn’t want to keep on lying, so I nodded.

Seth’s hand had left a warm spot on my shoulder, which I touched on my way to Cabin 8. I hoped the warm spot would last a long, long time.

#

During breakfast the next day, I ate with Monique and told her about a dream I’d had the previous night: I was on trial and Seth was the judge. I couldn’t remember what was said, but whatever I was charged with, I knew I was guilty.

Monique shook her head and said, “Dreams are shit.”

“Shit?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Just random pictures inside your head.”

“This dream felt special.”

“All dreams feel special.”

After breakfast, Monique’s counselor and Seth told us that our cabins were going to learn how to paddle canoes. As we started toward the dock, I asked Monique, “Have you ever heard of the word sodo?”

Sodo?” she said. “Never heard of it. Is that really a word?”

“I guess,” I said. “Two guys from Cabin 6, Devante and Quinn, told me it’s short for sodomite. When guys like other guys.”

At the dock, we got into the first canoe we saw. She took the seat behind me and asked, “Why do you ask?”

I looked back. “Ask what?”

“Whether I know the word sodo.”

I shrugged. Seth got into our canoe and started to pass out life jackets.

“Gavin,” Monique said. “About your dream.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think your dream has something to do with sodos?”

I paused to think. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter?”

“Yeah. Dreams are shit, right?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Maybe.”

#

Later that day, my cabin played soccer Mr. Blackmoore’s. I played a goalie. Devante and Quinn were the best Cabin 8 players. They seized the ball with fancy foot moves, charged forward in long strides, their legs like runaway carts tearing up the grass. They made several goals, some of which were scored when the ball rebounded off my stomach, full force. In the last play of the game, Devante kicked the ball and it plowed me in the stomach. I tried to dodge, but he was fast. I hugged my chest. Doubled over. Heaved once, twice, the taste of vomit and blood in the back of my throat.

Seth and Mr. Blackmoore ran over to me.

“Need to see the nurse?” Seth asked.

I shook my head.

“Walk it off,” said Mr. Blackmoore. “Or sleep it off.”

I got up and started across the field with Mr. Blackmoore and Seth. I overheard them whisper to each other.

“My call sheet says Gavin’s one of my campers,” said Mr. Blackmoore. “Why did he switch cabins?”

“Does it matter?” Seth said. “He wouldn’t last a day as your camper.”

“But the call sheet—”

“He’s a good kid,” Seth said. “I see a lot of me in him.”

I wanted to hug Seth, but my stomach still hurt. While I trudged away, I peered over to Devante and Quinn. They were talking to each other before the next game. They turned to me and pushed forward their stomachs, pretending to be fat. Fat like me.

Suddenly, I knew. I knew as if they had told me themselves: they’d kicked the ball at my stomach on purpose. I wanted every part of me to pour out of my body like air from a zeppelin—the sorrow, the shame. I kept my head down and continued toward the cabin. Once there, I climbed into bed and forced myself to finish the encyclopedia. The last forty pages went by slowly. I retained little. Senseless trivia. According to the clock on the wall, it was four in the afternoon. I shoved the book off the bed and fell asleep.

My nap lasted what felt like a minute. I didn’t dream. At least, I couldn’t remember if I’d dreamed at all. Seth was at my side.

“Feeling better?” he asked. He raised my shirt and touched my stomach. I cringed. We looked at my stomach’s small, circular bruise—light brown, purplish perimeter. He lowered my shirt. “I’m no doctor, but I think you’re going to die.”

I smiled.

He asked, “Are you up for some fun?”

It was late at night. I slept at least five hours. We walked outside, where the five other Cabin 8 boys stood waiting. One carried Seth’s telescope. Seth turned on a flashlight and said to us, “There’s a special place I like to go. Follow me.”

We began to ascend a tall hill, the camp darkening. We kept close to the beam of the flashlight. Our sneakers made crunching and cracking noises along the way, fallen sticks and leaves snapping underfoot. Owl hoots rained from the treetops, causing some of us to tremble. Wet dirt clung to our shoes, making it even harder to walk, but we didn’t care. We were excited, lumbering through the night well after curfew. Soon, we made it to the top, where the air smelled of blooming lilacs.

While the music of crickets, cicadas, and locusts echoed around us, the treetops below shined under the moon like white mushroom heads. Seth set up the telescope, and while the other campers took turns looking through it and chatted about what they saw, Seth and I stood off to the side and looked up. Bats flew past us in the moonlight while purple clouds pulled themselves over and then away from the moon like the ebb and flow of water. The moon’s halo spilled out into the darkness like meltwater. Stars, billions of them, shimmered like white knifepoints.

I looked over at Seth. He told me, “My girlfriend loves the nighttime sky.”

Girlfriend? I’d almost forgotten.

He continued, “My girlfriend and I, we never feel closer together than when we look up into the night sky. We feel taller, somehow. In real life, we’re so small, so unimportant. But together, we become important, you know? We make ourselves be important.”

My fingers felt clammy, as I moved closer to Seth, my hand extended, ready to touch his fingers. I’d never held another guy’s hand before. Maybe my dad’s, but this time would be different. I wanted to draw closer to Seth. Closer in all ways.

He looked in my direction. He didn’t seem to notice my hand.

Suddenly abashed, I withdrew.

He told me, “Your turn.”

I turned around. It was my turn to look through the telescope. He gestured me over with his eyes and I went. I wanted to go back to the cabin and curse my mom and Viv for making me come here. I heard Seth walk over, and I eased up the moment he patted me on the back. I gazed through the telescope, infinity pressed against my pupil.

 

II.

I hated snakes, but I loved learning about them. The encyclopedia I’d brought to Camp Bur Oak was full of snake trivia. On the third day of camp, I reread the sections about the copperhead snake, the milk snake, the copperbelly water snake, and my personal favorite, the brown snake. A snake with brown or gray scales, with black spots on its belly, with a black V under the eye—the brown snake reminded me of me: common, not uniquely special.

But I wanted to show that I wasn’t just an insecure eleven-year-old who’d rather read than participate with the other campers. I wanted to fit in. Right after breakfast, I asked Seth if our cabin and Monique’s cabin could take a scenic walk in the lower parts of the woods. I remembered the hike we took on the first day. In the underbrush, sunshine had seemed nonexistent, nothing but knotted, fragrant ferns and cold breezes. The perfect climate for many Iowan snakes.

Seth liked my suggestion and invited Monique’s cabin to join them. Monique’s counselor didn’t care what they did, so long as it didn’t involve vigorous exercise. Mr. Blackmoore overheard us and came over.

“You already took a hike,” he said. “The rules say you have to vary the camp activities.”

“You’re right,” Seth said. “The rules do say that.”

“Yes, they do,” said Mr. Blackmoore.

“Yes,” Seth repeated. “But I don’t entirely like rules. And if I’m correct, didn’t your cabin play soccer for the last two days?”

Mr. Blackmoore hesitated.

“That’s what I thought,” Seth said. “I have an idea.”

I knew where this was going. Seth called over Ms. Lynn and asked if all the campers could hike and learn about the history of the camp together. Her smile grew, and she said yes. I wasn’t pleased, but at least I had Monique. And Seth.

The campers, all twenty-four of us, soon started to ascend a trail lined with maidenhair spleenwort ferns, which I recently read about in the encyclopedia. Ms. Lynn, our guide, started talking about the camp’s history, but I was listening to Monique. And eyeing Seth.

“My dad’s got a new girlfriend, a white woman,” Monique said. “She gives me hair clips every time we meet.” She gestured at the neon yellow butterfly clips in her cornrows. “Aren’t they nice?”

“Yeah.” I glanced at Seth. “They’re good.”

“She’s a nice woman,” she went on. “She could’ve married a rich man, but she wanted to live a simple life.”

“That’s good.” I watched as Seth laughed at something Mr. Blackmoore said.

“I mean, someday I hope to marry a man. A rich black man.”

“That’s good.”

“Oh?” she said. “Well, if I can’t marry a rich black man, do you think I could love a sodo?”

My brain stalled like a bad motor. I almost tripped over my own feet, I was so bewildered by the question.

She said, “Not paying attention?”

“What?” I stammered. “I was paying attention.”

Seth stopped suddenly. Monique and I stopped right behind him. “Something’s wrong,” Seth said.

Mr. Blackmoore counted the campers. “Quinn and Devante must’ve wandered off.”

“Oh?” Seth said. “Need help looking for them?”

I raised my hand. My heart palpitated as Monique, Mr. Blackmoore, and Seth turned toward me. “Monique and I can help you find them. I know a lot about plants and animals. It’s easy to confuse poisonous berries with nonpoisonous ones. And it’s easy to confuse venomous snakes with harmless ones. They could get hurt.”

“Thank you, Gavin,” Seth said.

My face was hot. Everything around me was still green, green, green. I could barely distinguish one tree, one bush, from another. I could barely distinguish one snake from another too. In my mind, the names of trees and snakes converged like a mad science experiment: the boa elk, the diamondback water pine. But I kept my head up and smiled with gratitude, willing to do anything to please him.

Seth said, “I appreciate the initiative, Gavin, but—”

“I don’t mind helping,” I said.

“I know. But too dangerous. Dylann and I will look for them. Go on ahead.”

Seth and Mr. Blackmoore walked back to the mess hall. Monique and I rejoined the other campers farther down the path, where Ms. Lynn was still talking. Secretly, I hoped Seth and Mr. Blackmoore would never find them. I hoped Seth and Mr. Blackmoore would just give up and rejoin us and Ms. Lynn. I hoped Devante and Quinn had fallen from a ravine—not dead, but maybe maimed. Brooding, I trudged off the path. I didn’t care if Ms. Lynn or anyone else realized I was gone. I heard someone behind me, though I kept on going. Monique ran up beside me.

“Hey,” she said, “what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Just go.”

“No way. You might eat a poisonous berry or get bitten by a venomous snake.”

“Don’t mock me.”

“Lighten up.”

“I’m having a bad day.”

“No shit.”

Not too far away—laughter.

Monique and I exchanged uneasy looks, then descended a nearby hill. We came across a sunlit clearing overcrowded with weeds. We stopped and looked on, at Quinn and Devante. They were striking the ground with leafy sticks. We noticed it flinching and flailing in retaliation at the base of the boulder. A brown snake.

Monique shoved Quinn and Devante aside.

“What the fuck?” she said. “You’re hurting it!”

“Piss off,” Devante said, and elbowed her back.

“We’ll tell on you!”

“Shut up,” Quinn said. “Shut up, blackey.”

She stared at him. I couldn’t believe it myself; I’d never heard anyone say anything racist in person before. As I moved closer to Monique and caught a better look of her face, I discovered in her eyes a pain, icy as snowmelt. I thought she was going to cry, but instead, she balled her hands.

“What’d you say?” she demanded.

She looked at Devante for support. He was not as black as she was, but he was still dark skinned. He glanced at her apathetically, offering no support.

“Go back to your stupid nature walk,” Quinn said. He looked over at me. “And take the sodo too.”

My face flushed steam hot, my stomach hurt, my jaw tensed. I couldn’t open my mouth to defend myself, to curse him out, to sob. I looked away for a moment, unable to process the swarm of emotions flooding through me.

“Don’t fuck with me, white trash,” Monique said.

“Funny,” Quinn said. “Fuck with you? Don’t fuck with me, nigger.”

All the air escaped from my lungs.

She punched him in the gut. It brought him to his knees. Devante shoved her. She tripped over a tangle of weeds and I helped her up.

Then Quinn screamed.

Quinn looked on his left shoulder and froze. Devante and Monique, who was now on her feet, took a step beside me, just several feet away from Quinn, who was still shocked and panicked, not because he was punched, but because the brown snake had slithered around his left foot while he wasn’t paying attention.

“Don’t touch it!” I said, my voice shaky.

Quinn lowered his hand and looked at me. Devante and Monique looked at me as well. I cleared my throat. “It’s dangerous,” I said. “Venomous.”

“Get it off then!” Quinn said.

“Hold still,” Devante said.

“I can’t help it!”

Quinn kicked the snake, and as it landed several feet away, he and Devante fled up a nearby hill. The snake retreated too, slithering to an open spot of sun, fearful and then peaceful, quiet as a pile of leaves.

Monique and I laughed until our tears of indignation turned into tears of happiness. We climbed up the hill, our laughter dying out.

“Imagine if the snake had bitten them,” Monique said. “It wouldn’t have killed them, right?”

“No,” I said. “The brown snake’s not venomous.”

“What?” She sounded confused, then shocked. “Why did you—?”

“Because I could,” I said. “I read about the brown snake from a book I brought to camp.”

She looked even more shocked, processing my words carefully. Then she smiled and wrapped her left arm around my shoulders. “You sly bastard,” she said.

I couldn’t stop myself from beaming.

#

The rest of the day went by fast: lunch with Monique, an assortment of afternoon games with the girls in Cabin 2—a scavenger hunt near the lake, archery outside the arts and crafts cabin, and a beanbag tournament in front of Ms. Lynn’s cabin. I didn’t win any of the games. That was fine. I felt like a part of the group; some campers even bothered to know my name. And Seth—he watched me play and have fun, giving me the occasional thumbs up like an awkward soccer coach.

That night, during the campfire, he said to me in private, “Gavin, thank you for volunteering to help find Quinn and Devante, and thank you for participating in today’s activities. You’ve made a lot of progress, coming out of your shell. You should be proud.”

I smiled. He patted my back and walked away. I gazed into the fire.

“What do you see?” Monique teased.

The wood crackled, the fire writhed with and against the wind, and the heat caressed my forehead. I took a deep, comforting breath.

Monique waited for me to speak.

I replied, “I see myself.”

“Only if I push you in,” Monique said with a laugh, and handed me a s’more.

#

The next day Monique turned to me in the mess hall and whispered, “Want to skip lunch and skip stones at the lake?” Still elated from the incident with the brown snake, I thought I could do anything, say anything, be myself. We snuck out.

While we ascended the gravel path to the lake, we picked up stones, shiny ones with flat, rounded edges. We’d found only three by the time we reached the lake. We could’ve found more at the water’s edge, but time seemed to speed up the second I threw the first stone. It skipped twice before plopping into the lake.

“Hey!”

Monique and I turned around. Devante and Quinn—they were coming right at us.

I stumbled back, and Monique balled her hands. It was as if she’d been planning for this moment since yesterday’s fight.

“Fucking liar,” Quinn said, looking right at me. Monique was like a brick wall between us. “Mr. Blackmoore just told us that brown snakes aren’t venomous.”

“So?” Monique demanded.

“So,” Devante said, “we demand respect.”

“We want”—Quinn pointed at me—“an apology. Or else.”

“Or else what?” Monique said. “You’re gonna hurt us?”

“No,” Devante said. “Just the sodo.”

I felt weak. I stepped back, my shoes now submerged in water. I hoped I would dissolve in the lake and wash away someplace else. And yet, I remained here, preparing the worse.

“You sound stupid,” Monique said. “Sodo isn’t even a real word.”

“But I’m looking at one right now,” Quinn said.

His glare seared holes into my eyes. Before I could speak, Monique shoved Quinn and his face went bright red.

“You’re not gonna hurt him,” Monique said.

“All we want is an apology,” Devante said, “then we’ll leave.”

Silence. Devante, Monique, and I waited for Quinn to speak. He was breathing hard, cheeks taut, hands bunched up into hard, bony fists. Readying himself to rage forward. Finally, he spoke up—against Monique.

“Back. Off. Blackey.”

“Make me, whitey.”

Another silence. The warm air hung motionless around me. I felt my skin bristle, gooseflesh spreading down my arms, across my neck. My mouth went dry.

Quinn punched her. She fell onto the ground with a thud. Kicked Devante back when Quinn came at me. I shuffled away, but he grabbed my arm and threw me onto the gravel, which grazed my legs like tiny screws, and I groaned and swatted his face, still unable to form words, still unable to scream for help or mercy. He sat on top of me and squeezed my head between his hands, his nails digging into the back of my head. I could still hear him and the buzz and endless ringing of pain between my ears.

“Apologize!” he was saying.

I couldn’t breathe. My vision started to blacken, the world around me evaporating. I thought I would faint and wake up somewhere safe, like my bed in Cabin 8, or my bed at home. I stayed conscious, though, my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth.

“Say it!” he said. “Say you’re sorry, faggot!”

“Hey!” came a distant voice.

I looked around. It was Seth.

He shoved Devante off of Monique, then helped us up. Monique touched her jaw and winced. I touched my legs. Trickles of blood.

Seth exclaimed, “Devante, Quinn, to the mess hall. Now!”

Devante and Quinn eyed me. I assumed they were going to charge at me again, but they ambled off, cursing, throwing us the middle finger.

Seth touched Monique’s face. She winced again.

“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s just gonna bruise.”

“See the nurse,” Seth said.

“What about Gavin?”

“Go or I’ll write you up!”

I’d never seen him angry before. His face was bright red, his eyes buggy. I wondered if he’d yell at me next. Monique looked at me for a second, sighed, and then left.

While Seth examined my legs, I found my voice, along with a torrent of tears.

“Should I,” I stuttered, “should I go to the nurse too?”

“No,” he said. He slung one of my arms over his neck. “With these scrapes, I don’t want you walking too far. There’s a supply cabin not too far from here.”

My legs begun to cramp, stinging from my knees to my feet. The cuts and bruises were small, but there was still blood. He helped me walk.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Don’t mention it,” he said. “Anything for a camper.”

#

Inside the supply cabin were a rocking chair, a CRT TV, a workbench, and three racks full of cardboard boxes. I sat down in the chair. The cabin smelled of sawdust and mold; the window behind the workbench, the only window in the shack, let in a wide beam of light, which captured a haze of sawdust in the air. The place felt hot and sticky. I began to perspire, rivulet after rivulet of sweat falling down my cheeks. I licked my lips. The saltiness of my face was sharp on my tongue. I started to swing in the chair, waiting for Seth. He was rummaging through a cardboard box. With each swing, the chair creaked. I shivered with anticipation. Seth returned with bandages and a bottle of salve.

“Quinn must’ve tackled you into the gravel,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I think there was glass in the gravel.”

“Probably.” He knelt in front of me and put a dab of salve on his left pointer finger. “You can’t imagine what I’ve found next to the lake. Old swim trunks. Broken soda bottles. Condoms.”

“Condoms?”

“Used ones.”

“Gross.”

He spread the salve over the scrapes. I flinched.

“Sorry, buddy,” he said.

He applied more salve to my leg. Large, stinging globs. Then the pain started to subside. Next, the bandages. “There,” he said. “All good.”

I smiled with gratitude, then wondered about the lakeside condom wrapper. Who would leave them at a kids’ camp? I remembered Seth saying he had a girlfriend. While the campers slept, nothing would stop Seth’s girlfriend from sneaking into camp to spend time with Seth and his telescope under the stars, unused condoms burning holes in his back pockets.

I was about to cry. Ebullience, shame—the same mixed feelings I had since finding the dirty magazine. I heard Seth say something and I felt his hand on my knee. This was too much for me—the desire, the infatuation. I couldn’t say the word. Gay. The word could be used to describe my feelings, but I needed to conceal them from the world, where others might talk, might hurt me, as Quinn had. Gay. I didn’t want that life, I didn’t want that part of me, I didn’t want that voice inside my head telling me to give in to the compulsion, to decide if I really was it. Gay.

“Gavin,” Seth said, “are you okay?”

I leaned forward and kissed Seth on the lips.

He pulled back. I smiled, wanting him to say something, anything. I didn’t feel different. A part of me hoped that he’d now understand me completely. He smiled, but it wasn’t the smile I was hoping for.

“No,” he said. “Campers and counselors don’t do that.”

“But,” I stammered.

He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and I felt my heart collapse.

“Let’s go, Gavin. Lunch will be over soon.”

I stood up. Hesitated. “But,” I repeated.

“Now.” His voice was soft. I followed him out.

We were in eyeshot of the mess hall when Monique approached us. Seth hurried on ahead.

“Looking better,” Monique said. “The nurse only gave me Tylenol.”

“That’s good,” I mumbled.

“Yeah, not really. She wouldn’t even give me an ice pack.”

“Oh? That’s good.”

“Good?”

I looked up. Her sly look.

“Ignoring me again?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, not entirely yes.”

She eyed me. “Have you been crying?”

I didn’t answer. We were almost to the mess hall.

She asked, “Did you tell Seth your secret?”

I turned away.

“Don’t feel ashamed,” she said.

We made it. Seth went on ahead. Monique stopped me at the door. Inside I could see the other campers finishing lunch. I noticed Quinn and Devante in the far corner of the room. My face flared, my body tensed.

“Don’t feel ashamed,” she repeated. “One of my cousins is like you.”

“Like what?”

“You know . . .” She trailed off.

“Know what?” I demanded.

“Don’t get mad,” she said.

“I’m not mad. I’m confused—about you.”

“Me?”

“Why did you ask me about my weight? On the first day of camp.”

It was as if I was somewhere else, listening to someone else speak in my voice, articulate what I couldn’t articulate until now.

She shrugged.

“Asking me about my weight was stupid.”

“I was trying to be funny,” she said, “but you’re right—it was stupid. So let’s forget it.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Leave me alone.”

“Why?” she demanded. “Tell me.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Tell me,” she pleaded. I started to get lightheaded. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m gay!”

For a moment I didn’t think I said it. But I did.

I went on, “I’m gay because at home I have this magazine of naked women, but I don’t care about them, because I have strange feelings for the guy on the last page, this naked model who reminds me of Seth, who I just kissed and I thought it would mean something special, I thought it would help me understand what I’ve been feeling and I thought everything would make sense.”

“Gavin,” she said.

“I don’t care,” I cried. “I don’t care how others think of me.”

“Gavin.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes.

“I want to go home,” I said.

“Gavin.”

“What?”

“Don’t turn around.”

But I did. And my heart sank.

All the other campers were looking at me.

Quinn and Devante were laughing at me.

For the first time, I lost the ability to reason. I balled my hands. My face felt so hot I thought I was going to pass out, but I stayed conscious. I ran forward and jostled past the other campers. I thought I heard Seth come up behind me to save me from myself. But he wasn’t there. Quinn and Devante were in front of me.

I slugged them. Tackled them to the floor.

Punched. Kicked.

Spat in their faces.

I was carried away. I looked back.

It was Seth and Ms. Lynn.

“What’s wrong?” Ms. Lynn said. No smile, no joy in her voice.

They dragged me outside. I dropped to my knees and wept.

“Gavin, what’s going on?” Ms. Lynn said.

“I want. To go.”

“Where?” Seth said.

I looked into his eyes and felt nothing for him.

“Home,” I said. “I want to go home.”

#

I sat in Ms. Lynn’s office. Quinn’s and Devante’s parents stood over me. My mom stood by me. When I spoke about Devante and Quinn hurting me and Monique at the lake, I didn’t mention that they had called me names outside my original cabin and at the clearing with the brown snake. I couldn’t make myself mention any of the extra details.

My mom and the other parents agreed to pay for each other kids’ medical expenses and let that be that. An hour later, my mom drove me home in silence.

That night, I found the dirty magazine. My feelings for the naked man were still there, along with the shameful pain in my gut, the shameful buzz in my brain. But I was ready to speak about it. Ready to let my shame spill out, I put the magazine under my bed and walked downstairs for dinner. My mom and Viv were in the kitchen. I cleared my throat. “Mom, Viv,” I began, “there’s something I need to say.”

It was uneventful: I spoke, then my mom spoke, then Viv spoke. They accepted me. We ate dinner. And we left things at that.

A couple weeks later, Monique found my number and called to say hello. She told me Quinn’s parents had agreed to pay restitution for her bruised chin and for their son calling her those racist names.

“Wouldn’t be the first time my family was harassed,” she said. “My dad was profiled. Remember? Back in North Carolina.”

She said the rest of camp wasn’t fun, because I wasn’t there to keep her company. “Gavin,” she said, “you were the only friend I made at camp. Then you had to fuck it all up by leaving me behind.” She laughed. “I wished I could’ve punched the living shit out of them. Especially Quinn.”

I laughed too.

“Sorry,” I said. “Next time I get into a fight, I’ll call you.”

“You’d better.”

We spoke some more and then said our goodbyes.

Almost every night for the rest of summer vacation I sat in my backyard and looked up at the stars, the hiss of snakes, the aroma of dirt and flowers around me. Night was a second home to me, and I felt better, more confident, knowing my place—no matter how small it was—in the vast, vast universe.