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.

FICTION PIECE

Walter

by S. J. Bass

It was much later in the day and Greg noticed darkness creeping up behind him. It had been hot until now, but he couldn’t seem to remember where the sun had been even though the sky had remained cloudless all day. Nobody looks at the sun, he thought, people go blind staring at the sun. Those were his mother’s words. The straight flat road that stretched infinitely ahead of him vanished into a slurry grayish black filled with wavy heat lines. Cars passed him by and suddenly a big-rig truck hauling building materials almost blew him off his heels.

He’d been standing alongside this road for what felt like thirty minutes, or maybe it was over an hour by now. He wasn’t sure of the exact time, but he was thirsty, this he knew. Each time his parched tongue licked the inside of his cheeks he tasted a terribly gross staleness. A few feet ahead of him, he could make out a green sign supported by two poles with white lettering. It stood between him and the cactus-filled wilderness off to the East.

An air-dried blanket of raw chill wrapped around his body. He shivered and hugged himself.  Winged things flew high in the sky, but he could not perceive what the dark animate things were. Meanwhile he kept his right thumb pointing skyward. Glancing back at the sign, it read, “What on Earth are you doing?”

“I’m not sure,” Greg said aloud to the sign, hoping an answer would follow. Maybe one would if he waited long enough.

Abruptly, a vehicle screeched to a stop a few feet past him and hugged the road’s shoulder. It was a classic 1970 blue Yenko Nova coupe 350 SC–seeing this beast made Greg smile. He whispered under his breath, “My dream machine.” A two-door with eight desirable cylinders of magnificent grunt, this one had white-walled tires and a white top. In that moment he heard the driver yell out the passenger window, “You need a ride out of here?”

The driver sounded kind and inviting. This persuaded Greg to quickly move toward the door, open it, and slide into the passenger’s seat. Closing the door behind him, Greg placed a seatbelt over his lap and turned to face his new travel buddy while they gained speed to merge onto the two-lane interstate highway.

Greg’s mouth went half-numb. “You’re a rab…”

“I’m a what? OH! You mean, a rabbit? I completely forgot to warn you because you were especially excited to see my Nova.”

“Yeah. About that!” Greg started to shake a little bit from shock and amazement. Under his worn clothes, his skinny body lacked enough meat on his bones to fend off the increasing frigid air that blew into the Nova. This made him shiver doubly so. Music played on low, a song from Creedence Clearwater Revival—Bad Moon Rising.

“Yep, Walter’s my name, Walter Rabbit. And you are?”

Walter held out his furry white paw with pink pads and grinned at Greg with a human-sized rabbit face, but not human enough. Although, he thought, maybe this is a guy in a rabbit suit. But Walter’s grin–a half-odd and half-cute sort of smile–traveled past his teeth and into pink gums that turned darker around the edges of his mouth. Too real, Greg thought, it’s too real. This led him to stare into Walter’s red beady eyes. Demonic looking, he thought. The rabbit kept smiling while keeping his left hand locked on the steering wheel at ten o’clock. Straightaway, the whole spectacle frightened Greg, but what could he do? He was strapped in for the ride like a wingless bug sitting on a lily in a small pond surrounded by hungry frogs.

Eventually he introduced himself because it was all he could do. “I’m Greg,” he said as he held out a trembling right hand. Walter’s right paw gripped Greg’s. His soft fur invited scratches as if it were the head of a friendly neighborhood cat. After a firm handshake his stomach rumbled, and he realized how hungry he was. Hungry and thirsty.

Walter reminded him of Edward, a pet rabbit he once owned back in Louisiana before his mother had moved him and his sister to California. Before their cross-country move, she made him release Edward into some nearby woods because their new apartment didn’t allow pets. He knew that if his father had been around, he would’ve been able to keep it.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Greg. I really hope we can be friends.” With this, Walter placed his full attention on driving. His hands gripped the wheel at ten and two. Occasionally he glanced at Greg and studied his condition. After a few minutes, he turned on the heater. “Comfy now?”

“Yeah,” Greg said, still astonished a rabbit knew how to drive, let alone talk. His senses returned, giving him a need to break this unshakable awkwardness. “How can you talk and how did you learn to drive? Is the DMV giving out licenses to everyone now?”

Walter grinned. “I’ve never taken a driver’s test.”

Greg turned away to see what was outside his window. He thought all this was very strange.

Not taking a driver’s test concerned him. Walter seemed a capable driver, and, after having experienced his fair share of psychedelics at sixteen, which might’ve been yesterday–or maybe it wasn’t–seeing this human-sized rabbit wasn’t entirely unusual. Had he taken drugs lately? He concluded that he must have. The words, “just enjoy the trip,” slid through his frontal lobe.

Greg shook off his worries. “Where’re we headed?”

Waiting for an answer, he glanced at the backseat for signs of anything strange. Stranger than a rabbit who could drive of course–a dead body perhaps–but then he thought a giant bag of carrots would be hilarious. He peered at the floorboard behind Walter and blinked in disbelief. He did indeed see a large half-empty bag of organic carrots with a cute white rabbit on the labeling.

“We’re going home, Greg.”

“I don’t want to go home.”

“We’re not going to your home, we’re going to my home.”

“But, don’t you live underground?”

Walter frowned. “Rabbits don’t always live underground Greg. We only do that during the winter.” Walter went back to smiling.

Greg looked down at his feet. His shoes were disheveled with soles in need of replacing. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t, and it’s all right. Because it’s not true.” Walter chuckled. “Yeah Greg, that’s right, I don’t live underground, never have.”

Nodding to show he understood–not that he did–Greg eyed the passing landscape. The hillside held a strange green and purple hue like the brilliant northern lights of Iceland. A breeze carried a scent of roses that filled his nostrils and with this perfumed air, the mental image of a woman crept into his mind. Faceless at first, Greg found himself caught in her delicate spell. The scent jump-started his memory to that of his mother. The thought of her made him frown. They had fought daily before he drove away from home with the hope of never returning. Leaving her yelling at him from outside their front door, Greg never cast his eyes homebound. He wondered how long had it been now? A year perhaps?

Staring outside, Greg eyed a desert scattered with cactus and rolling tumbleweeds. Winged things filled the air always, feathered, and otherwise. Greg rolled down the window. Extending his arm outside to feel the breeze, there was something about the way it curled and licked at his fingers.

Glancing up at the sky, new white-winged web-footed creatures replaced the dark feathered sort.

Walter turned to Greg. “We’re in bat country now, so be careful with your arm outside my window.”

Taking Walter’s advice, Greg retracted his right arm and rolled up the window until only a few inches remained. A shriek cried out past the Nova alongside Greg’s window. This startled him enough to flash a worried glance at Walter. The rabbit avoided his gaze and kept handling the Chevy. Unshaken, he continued past the screeching demons. Greg wondered to himself, was life always this way, or is this the end of times? Deciding life was always both, depending on the month, he rubbed his eyes hoping to wake up from this dream. Why are these white bats suddenly reminding him of a surgeon’s gloves?

“Almost there,” said Walter as he exited the highway. Meanwhile, an utterly dark night had descended upon the land with an odd quickness.

Greg expected him to live in a suburb with rabbit neighbors just like him. Walter parked his rumbling Nova in the driveway of a pale brown and green one-story house. Under the streetlights he watched neighbors walking down sidewalks. There were indeed a few rabbits, while others were humans. Some held hands.

“Follow me,” Walter said, “my front door is around back.”

Not wanting to be rude, but still cautious, Greg followed him with hesitation around the side-yard. Stopping at doors planted at the base of the house, Walter opened it and stepped down. Greg examined the opening and saw a short set of stairs leading under the house and into a dimly lit hallway.

His eyes widened. “So, you do live underground!” he said.

Walter turned to look at him from the base of the stairs. “So I do!” He motioned for Greg to follow.

He stepped down and a lamp came alive, giving Greg a clear view of old paintings and piles of books stacked all about the place. Peering into what seemed to be a living room, Greg was amazed at all the books piled in corners and on top of furniture.

“Please, take off your shoes,” said Walter while moving past Greg, “and place them by the door. I like to keep a tidy house.”

Not tidy at all, Greg thought. Removing his shoes, he exposed his socks. These were worn with holes, but mostly clean. He washed them at least once a day at service stations. After his car had broken down months ago, all he did was walk.

“I love how you have so many books. Are you a collector?”

“Not as such,” said Walter as he removed some books from two chairs and sat in the one wrapped with burgundy leather. “In fact, I don’t read this book anymore. The author hasn’t written anything truly new for most of this year. It’s always the same boring journey that goes nowhere.” He motioned for Greg to sit across from him in a white leather chair.

Greg eyed the chair for a moment. It was a bright white leather, unused it seemed, and it gave off a slight glow. He sat, and the leather arms of the chair were cold under his forearms. He glanced from painting to painting while Walter lit his fireplace. For Greg, these paintings held a familiarity, reminding him of his life. With the fire lit, Walter sat down again.

Greg asked, “Did you say, ‘this book’, as in just one book?”

Skipping over Greg’s observation, Walter stood up again. “Do you want a cup of green tea with toasted brown rice?”

The sound of toasted rice–brown or not–in tea seemed completely wrong to Greg, but he accepted the gesture without hesitation. Walter then disappeared into the kitchen where he could be heard filling a kettle.

From the kitchen, Greg heard him say “If you feel like turning on my TV, go right ahead.”

In a corner now lit up by the fireplace sat an old black-and-white TV set. It reminded Greg of the one his father once had. As his mother had often complained, “That abusive bastard never paid attention to anything else over that damn TV and his favorite shows.”

He left after Greg had turned nine. But as the years passed Greg concluded that both his parents instigated their raging arguments. His mother always claimed different after his father left for good. She told Greg their squabbles were all his father’s fault. Staring at the TV brought him to an angry place, urging him to smash it. Another moment passed, and a deep sadness replaced his anger. He started to cry softly to himself.

A whistle blew, signaling that the tea was almost ready.

While the tea steeped, Greg’s gloomy thoughts circled inside his head and turned into an F5 tornado. He knew he never wanted to go back home to the chaos, but for reasons he couldn’t figure out right now, he started to miss his mother. She was a banshee, always yelling at him for ridiculous reasons. She even slapped him around sometimes when he mouthed off to her. But she also hugged him when he was sad and had kept a roof over their heads. After he could drive, he thought he was a man. Now he’s seventeen, at least, he thought he was seventeen. His birthday had silently passed as if his life were a lonely insignificant ant, squashed in the dirt below some tall grass. He wiped his eyes.

“Tea?”

Greg twitched in surprise, making him cough a little. So deep in thought, he hadn’t heard Walter approach him. Regaining his voice after coughing enough to clear his throat, he looked toward the Rabbit. “Yes, Walter.”

Walter handed him tea in a flowery golden-rimmed cup. Greg smelled and sipped his tea. “Perfect,” he mumbled.

“What’s that, Greg?”

“I love this tea,” he said slightly louder. “I never thought toasted rice in tea would taste so perfect.”

“It’s an exciting world out there and people miss out on wonderful things by staying lost.” Walter stared at him for a moment while sipping his tea. “You know, it’s not about what happens to us on the outside, Greg. But it’s the truth of who we are inside ourselves that matters most.” Walter paused and watched Greg sip his tea, “Where were you headed back there when I picked you up?”

“Anywhere but home.”

Walter raised a floppy ear, “Why Is that?”

“Home is hell to me.”

“I see.” Walter took one step toward the TV and clicked the switch. With the channel resting on a medical drama, he sat down while Greg wondered why the comatose patient resembled him, and how the lady crying over that patient appeared to be his mother, only with a kinder face than he remembered.

Greg shook his head. “Can you please turn that off?”

“Someday we all have to face the hard truths in our lives. But you don’t have to face yours alone. I’ll always be around to help.”

“I should go. I can’t deal with this right now.” But as Greg got up to leave his curiosity overtook him. He was compelled to ask a burning question. “How are you doing all this?” Walter said nothing, instead he pointed to one of the many books scattered about.

He picked it up and flipped to the last few pages. On those pages Greg read his last moments, racing away in his beater two-door Honda after that terrible argument with his mother. In his anger he misjudged a corner, lost control, and crashed his car into a large oak tree, miles away from home. This had sent him into a coma. He remembered wanting to die that day. Back then he had no friends, nobody to talk to, and he missed his father. But he didn’t want to die anymore. “I understand Walter, I want to wake up now.” With his hands trembling and tears in his eyes, he dropped the book and said, “Tell me how to wake up!”

Walter handed Greg the keys to his Nova and explained to him, “Listen, you take my car and drive to the end of the highway. There, you’ll meet a short man. He’ll let you take a hot-air balloon ride. But you’ll need this ticket.” Walter handed him a red ticket: good for one ride. “Ride that balloon until you reach a small dark hole in the sky. It’s just small enough for you to fit.”

“And then what?”

“Then you get your life back.”

With the keys in his right hand, he thanked Walter and said, “Will I ever see you again?”

Walter pointed towards the door, answering, “Only in your dreams. Or if you happen to take psychotropic drugs.”

Greg laughed, and without further delay he rushed outside the house where he got into the Nova. The surrounding night had turned an even darker tar black. He started the engine and gave the Chevy a little gas. The potential power rumbling underneath his butt and at his fingertips made him grin.

Backing out, he screeched off down the street. All roads were closed except the one leading to a two-lane freeway at the mouth of an overpass. Taking this road, he drove for what felt like two hours. Time was uncertain because his confused mental clock screwed with his perception of it. Alongside the road, signs pointed in the direction he was headed. Each sign read, “Balloon Rides”, with the stated mileage decreasing the further he traveled. Above him no moon shone, no planets glowed, and stars were nonexistent. The road never curved.

Greg’s eyes started to blink from exhaustion. He almost missed an end to the road. A reflective orange sign seemed to appear out of nowhere. Stomping on the brakes he skidded to a stop. Through the smoke it read, “Balloon Rides to the right”. This led him to a dusty unpaved road, and as he turned, bathed in headlights and red dust, a three-foot-tall man in a colorful Christmas sweater stood before him. Behind the Short Man was a blue and white striped hot-air balloon attached to a wicker basket that floated a few inches off the ground.

Greg shut off the Nova but kept the headlights on and stepped out.

“So, you’re finally ready to take the ride,” said the Short Man while scratching the back of his head. “Do you have your ticket?”

 

“Yes,” he said as he handed the Short Man the red ticket and walked past him toward the balloon. Stepping up into the wobbly open doorway of the wicker basket, he pulled his body inside and turned to face the Short Man. “What now?”

“Now you go up.” The Short Man closed the basket.

A tall blue and yellow tipped flame licked the air at the mouth of the balloon. The Short Man untied several weights and upon letting go of the last one, he smiled and waved goodbye. The balloon floated up into the sky, losing itself in the darkness. Eventually, a deep calm surrounded Greg, making the sky seem unreal.

When the balloon had lifted higher and nearer to the wispy clouds, an occasional white bat flew past him. Greg ducked behind his basket’s walls. Giving the flame more juice, the balloon gained altitude. More bats followed and continued to gather. They circled his basket only a few feet away, their albescent skin creating a gleaming white ring around his balloon.

Greg searched the sky for that small dark hole, but only a black sky misted by clouds met his hopeful blue eyes. “This is just great!” he yelled, “Where is it, Walter?” Desperate, Greg lashed out at the bats with his fists, but he couldn’t reach them. He yelled at them to go away.

The white hoard paid no heed to Greg’s demands. Quickly rushing the balloon, each white bat sank their razor fangs into the balloon’s ropes. He stared at their hungry beady red eyes and pink gums exposed by blue-gold flames. Each bat he knocked away was replaced with a fresh one.

They continued chomping at the ropes, easily cutting them as if their teeth were scalpels. Only a few thick threads remained attached. These snapped, and Greg cried out. Tumbling out his basket, he threw his hands up toward the darkest of skies.

When he awoke, Greg lay in a hospital bed. Outside the window, the night sky was a misty darkness filled with stars stuck in the ink of time. Rain fell in blustery sheets and thunder rattled the glass. Lights from life-monitoring machines gave him glimpses of the room. His body had changed into something unfamiliar–skin and bones from atrophy and a liquid diet, he realized. He glanced around and rubbed his eyes for more clarity in the dim. Fixating on a shadowy corner across his room, he thought he made out Walter Rabbit sleeping in a hospital chair. Greg sat up to get a better look. A pink-gummed toothy smile formed under the whiskers. But then, quick as a flash, it wasn’t Walter anymore. His mother! She was dressed in all-white, her blue eyes widened, and she beamed a smile at him – all pink gums and giant white teeth.

Greg’s door opened, and a nurse entered from the bright hallway outside his door. At first, she appeared angelic, with fluorescent light draping the entire outline of her body. She turned on the lights and all illusions vanished. “You’re finally awake! Welcome to the real world,” she said. “This might come as a shock, but you’ve been in a coma for the better part of a year.” She looked him over as if waiting for a response, but Greg only blinked. “Do you have any family? Because we’ve looked and had no response. I’m sorry that a stranger has to tell you this, but nobody came for you and I’m not sure anyone will.”

FICTION PIECE

Making the Move

by Rollin Jewett

Robert knew this was it. The night. He and Susie had been dating for two long months now and here he was: alone with her in his dad’s car, miles from nowhere, with the stereo playing his favorite make-out playlist.

Tonight was the night, boy. It had to be. She was his all night and he was ready. He had planned it to a tee. He’d even got the expensive ribbed condoms that advertised they were “for her pleasure.”

All week, he’d bugged his dad to let him use the car and his dad finally, reluctantly agreed. After Robert had washed and waxed it, that is. Small price to pay for what he felt he was about to receive in return for his hard work.

All week he’d told the boys he was gonna make “the move”. He was moving beyond the kissy-feely stage with Susie and that when he took her out on Friday night, it was put out or get out. A little harsh perhaps, but Robert felt he’d laid the proper groundwork these last few weeks to let Susie know what he had on his mind. More or less.

He sat there with his arm around her shoulder and she looked at him shyly and smiled.

“What are you thinking?” she asked and moved closer to him, “You’ve been so quiet tonight.”

Robert loved her voice. She had that melodic sing-song southern accent that he found so sexy. He remembered when he had first heard it – at the beginning of the year, on the first day of class. He’d seen her and plopped down right next to her because he always made it a point to sit next to pretty girls in classes that he thought would be boring. It gave him something to look at and think about when things got too slow. It was American history, his least favorite subject, so he spent a lot of time gazing at her from the corner of his eye.

She was never called on, so Robert hadn’t heard her speak until the day she dropped her book on the floor in class. Robert quickly picked it up and handed it to her.  She smiled her pretty smile and said, “Thank you, sir” in a soft melodic drawl.

Robert laughed. No one had ever called him “sir” before. Especially not someone his own age.  Must be a southern thing, he thought. He was smitten right then and there.

And now here they were. Robert gave her what he hoped was a sexy half-smile.

“Oh, I was just thinking about how pretty you look tonight and how good it feels to be alone with you.” She smiled, moved closer to him and narrowed her eyes. Robert knew this was her signal that she wanted him to kiss her. He did and she put her hand on his chest like she always did when they kissed in the car. He loved it when she did that. It made him feel strong and protective, like she was his baby-girl and needed and loved him. They hadn’t said the “L” word to each other yet, but he was definitely feeling something strong. Something…almost a yearning. He’d never felt it before. Then Robert remembered what he’d planned to do that night.

He broke from the kiss and looked out the side window at the crescent moon. Then he turned back to her. She gazed steadily at him with a puzzled, slightly hurt look on her face. Her eyes were shiny, her lips slightly parted, and her honey blonde hair was blowing ever so slightly from the breeze through the open window. Holy Christ, this is like a scene in a movie, he thought. He was momentarily paralyzed by her fragile beauty in that instant.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, and she moved a little away from him. Robert didn’t really know what to say. He really liked this girl and he didn’t want to blow it. Tonight had to be the night. Who knew when he’d get a chance like this again?

He smiled at her slyly, making up his mind. He pulled her close to him and whispered, “Why don’t we get in the back seat? There’s more room back there.”

She didn’t say anything, so Robert stepped out the driver’s side and got into the back seat. After a moment, she joined him. Robert leaned in for a kiss. She seemed a little nervous, but not unreceptive. He began kissing her with as much meaning as he could, to try and almost subconsciously relay his passionate message — to signal unmistakably what he was after. She kissed him back nearly as passionately. He could feel there was a want in her almost as strong as his and he was a little frightened of it. He wasn’t terribly experienced in lovemaking and had only been with a girl twice before. He tried to quell his doubts by kissing her even harder.

He began caressing her whole body gently, insistently. She offered absolutely no resistance. He started to take off her blouse. She didn’t lift a finger to stop him. All the time he was thinking, “She’d better stop me now if she’s gonna stop me at all.”

Things were going just as Robert had planned. He didn’t ever dream of it being this easy. She must really like him a lot if she was willing to go along with this. But then, thought Robert, if she’d let me come this far she must have let someone else come this far, too. Robert started feeling very jealous of this other guy whom he imagined must’ve been there first. I guess it doesn’t really matter, though, he thought. Someone had to be first, right?

He had taken off her top and was struggling to get her jeans down when he noticed that she was simply staring at him while he labored — neither helping nor resisting. Robert stopped.

“You okay?” he asked. She paused a moment.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said, “I’m pretty new at this.”

“What do you mean?” Robert asked.

“I’m brand new.” she said. “I’m about as new as you can get.” She smiled almost apologetically. Robert was puzzled for a moment. He hadn’t really considered she might be a virgin. They were both eighteen and Robert just figured that by the time you’re eighteen hardly anyone’s a virgin any more. Nobody he knew, anyhow. He slowly leaned back, gathering his thoughts.

“Why’d you stop?” she asked after a moment.

“Did you want me to keep going?” said Robert.

“Only if you wanted to.” She replied. Robert looked at her and was suddenly ashamed. He thought about what had been on his mind all night. All week for that matter. What an insensitive jerk he was. This was a beautiful and genuine soul, not someone you just steamroll for your own selfish desires. Yeah, he was disappointed in a way. But he was also kind of relieved. Deep down, he realized this was really not the way he wanted it to happen after all. He looked at her and kissed her softly on the cheek.

“Naw,” he said, “that should happen with someone you love.”

They were both quiet for a moment. She put her top back on slowly, as one song ended and the next came on. It was a love song.

“I love this song,” she said softly, breaking the tension.

Robert nodded. After a moment, he reached over and took her hand. It was warm, a little damp, but he felt her give his hand a squeeze. The moon was high in the sky and in the light, he could see her smile. It was radiant.

Robert knew in that instant… he had definitely made the right move.

FICTION PIECE

Rock Bottom

by Kari Anderson

Peter opened the car door, taking a deep breath of fresh air. As a kid, he had always loved the outdoors: there was something about endless miles of forests and mountains that could make you lose yourself. And yet now, he couldn’t seem to calm the beating of his heart and the whirring noise in his brain.

“Are you sure about this?” asked Ella, gripping the steering wheel. She was looking at him, but his eyes were stuck on the vast forest ahead of them.

Peter nodded. “I’m sure.”

Ella still looked skeptical. “Look,” said Peter, trying to ease her worry. “I’ll be fine. I have everything I need, all ten essentials.”

“You have plenty of water?” she responded.

“Yes.”

“A map?”

“Two of them.”

“Is your phone fully charged?”

“Charged it this morning.” Peter pulled a sleek cell phone out of his pocket, then turned it on as proof. “And I know the exact point where the cell service gets spotty, and I have signal flares just in case.”

Ella relaxed her grip on the steering wheel slightly. “I will be back here at exactly 10:00 tomorrow morning. I’ll probably be early. Don’t be late.”

Peter took that as a cue to get out of the car. “I won’t be. I’ll see you at 10.”

“On the dot.”

Ella was giving him an odd look again, a mixture of worry and pity. He flashed her another smile before swinging his backpack over his shoulder and heading towards the trail.

“Peter, wait,” Ella shouted through the open window. He turned around.

“Be careful,” she said. “Please.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll be careful.”

She rolled up the window, pulled the car into reverse, and backed out of the parking lot. A part of him wanted to scream at her to come back, but she was already gone.

He began the trek down the trail, passing landmarks that had once been familiar: the cluster of ferns, the moss in the shape of a heart near the base of a tree, the winding creek that tripled in size after every heavy rainfall. Peter couldn’t seem to calm the sense of unease that had plagued him since he had first decided to return to the mountain. It had been a spontaneous thought that had turned into a careful decision, and then had quickly spiraled into a month of constant planning and rethinking and gathering supplies and checking supplies and re-checking supplies and re-checking supplies again. His parents had thought that he was going crazy. Even Ella had confronted him multiple times, trying to figure out what was going on.

“I haven’t lost my mind, I promise,” he had said after she asked for the tenth time why he was pursuing this. “I just need to do this. For closure.”

Ella had given him another sad look, the kind that had become tiresome over the course of the past year. “At the very least, you don’t have to tough it out by yourself,” she’d said. “Let me come with you.”

“No way.”

“What, you think I can’t handle it?” Ella had said, indignant. “Just because I’m your little sister doesn’t mean I can’t protect you, ok?”

“No, it’s not that,” he had cut in quickly. “I just…I have to do this alone. You weren’t there when…”

He had choked up suddenly, out of the blue, the way he used to right after it had happened. Ella took one glance at his face and understood. “At least let me give you a ride,” she had said. “I can drive you there and pick you up. So you at least don’t have to spend two hours in the car alone.”

Peter had agreed. At the time it had felt like the right option, a way to compromise, but as he passed the third trail marker, he couldn’t help but wish that he had let Ella win the argument, so that she would be walking next to him right now.

Peter took a ragged breath before veering right, his feet hitting dirt instead of gravel. It had been a spontaneous decision to leave the trail. Now, even after all his careful calculations, Peter couldn’t understand why they had been so stupid.

The hike up to the cliff wasn’t too bad. Peter found himself catching his breath with every stone that came loose under his foot, every slight trip on a root, every small slip on the coarse vegetation. As he rose above the trees, he kept his eyes on the vast sky and let himself feel small and lost. He pulled out his map, comparing his location to the black star marking his destination.

“Almost there,” he muttered out loud, jumping a bit at the sound of his own voice. Deep breaths, he told himself. He hadn’t felt this jittery in ages.

The weather was starting to turn by the time he reached his destination. The sun, which had been shining when he’d exited the forest, was now hiding behind the bank of clouds that had drifted into its path. The temperature was beginning to drop in preparation for an inevitable rainstorm. Peter shivered as a cool breeze blew straight through his core.

This was the exact spot, he thought.

He set down his backpack and began pulling out the packable tent he had bought at the nearest outdoor equipment store, along with everything else he had brought with him. Although he’d been hiking forever, Peter’s family hadn’t ever been big on camping.

Ironic, he thought bitterly.

He couldn’t remember the exact moment when the storm had started, only that it had caught them by surprise. Later he saw the thunderstorm warnings, but for some reason, perhaps a cosmic joke, he hadn’t even checked that day. It had seemed so peaceful when they had left, and he’d had no reason to believe that anything would go wrong. But then the rain had kept falling, and falling, and they’d realized that they were trapped on top of a mountain in a lightning storm, with no supplies and no way out.

Peter pushed through some of the brambles until he found the mouth of the small cave and entered. He unrolled his tent and began the process of putting it up, occasionally consulting the paper instructions.

Several minutes, two nearly broken pegs, and one crumpled instruction sheet later, Peter stepped out of the cave, running his fingers along the smooth edge.

“I never thanked you,” he whispered to the cave. “For saving me back then.”

His echoed whispered back to him. Then…then…then…

Peter walked out of the cave into the pale pre-dusk sunlight, finding his way towards the edge of the cliff. He took a moment to take in the vast cliff, the horizon in the distance. Then he sat down, carefully keeping his balance despite the uneven surface, gripping a tree root with his free hand to make sure he wouldn’t fall into the void. He kept silent for a while, trying to relax with the sound of the wind whistling through his ears.

“Hey, Jake,” he said finally, breaking a long silence. “It’s been a year now since we came here, and I just thought…I wanted to come out here. To talk to you. I think there’s still a stupid part of me that thinks that you might be down there in that chasm, alive, somehow. It’s dumb, I know. I guess I still can’t believe that you’re gone.”

He could feel the tears building up. A while ago, he would’ve tried to repress them, but here he could let them come. There was no one here but him and the mountain, unforgiving but not one to judge.

“I tried to wait for you, you know. After you fell I screamed your name probably 100 times, and I waited for you to answer. I just stayed out in the rain, waiting for you. I forgot that there was lightning and I knew we had lost cell service, but the absolute last thing I wanted to do was leave to call 911 and end up missing you saying something back. I waited for hours. I was praying the whole time that you would ask for help or tell me to say something to your family or anything like that. They told me later that you probably died on impact, and that even if you had said something I wouldn’t have heard it over the storm. But I still waited. They never found your body and for all I know, you managed to survive somehow and you’re living in the forest with amnesia or something like that.”

Peter let his eyes slip out of focus. “No,” he said bitterly. “I can’t keep thinking like that. Because you’re gone. And it’s all my fault. We should have never come out here, but I was feeling impulsive and stupid. And then there was the lightning, and my ankle had gotten screwed up, and even though we were fine in that cave for a while you still wanted to go out and get help but it had been raining so much and it was way too slick to be safe—”

Peter felt the choking feeling in his throat, restricting his breathing and making him feel like he was dying. A panic attack. His first one in ages had been about a month ago. That’s when he knew that he needed to come back, to apologize.

“I’m so sorry, Jake,” he said, choking out the words. He let the tears out, letting the cluster in his throat slowly, ever so slowly dissipate. “I screwed up, got reckless, and you died because of it. I should’ve stopped you from going or I should’ve caught you when you went over the edge or something. All year I’ve been killing myself over this. I need to tell you…you were the best friend I’ve ever had.”

The clouds, which had so recently been threatening rain, suddenly drifted away and let the sun break free. Peter squinted in the sunlight that had appeared out of nowhere. He smiled, in spite of himself, the panic starting to fade away. He checked his watch: 7:23 p.m. There was still some time before he’d make himself dinner and go to bed.

“Life’s been shitty without you here, to be honest,” said Peter, rolling a loose stone between his fingers. “I bet things are a hell of a lot better where you are. Still, if you’re listening somehow, I have some things to say.”

Peter reached into his backpack, full of essentials. His fingers closed around a small notebook.

“I talked to some of the people from home and they wrote down some messages for you,” he said, opening the notebook to the first page. “They thought I was crazy for coming out here, by the way. I got a lot of weird looks. They just don’t get it. They never will.”

He took a deep breath, then looked out to the crevasse below. “Ok, here goes.”

And he sat in the warm sunlight, gazing out over the vast landscape and talking to his best friend.

 

Peter woke up at 6:33, blinking as he adjusted to the pale light filtering through the tent. He unzipped and unsheathed himself from his sleeping bag, putting on a jacket and his shoes before venturing outside the cave.

The sky had painted itself with reds and oranges, the clouds soft. And in a single, spectacular moment, the sun broke the horizon.

“I hope you’re watching this, Jake,” he said out loud. “Wherever you are, I hope you have a front row seat.”

He let his gaze linger for a few more minutes. And then he turned around and prepared the trip back down the mountain.

 

Ella was leaning against her car by the time Peter made it back to the parking lot. He checked his watch: 9:58 a.m.

“Hey,” she said timidly. Peter couldn’t tell if it was obvious that he had been crying for most of the night, but he didn’t really care. Ella would understand.

“Hey,” he said, walking up to the car. “I’m right on time.”

Ella let her mouth curl up into the smallest of smiles. “You are, I’m so proud.” She hesitated for a fraction of a second. “How are you?”

Peter thought about the question for a moment. “Fine,” he said. “At least, I will be. Eventually.”

And he wasn’t sure if it was the anniversary of his friend’s death, or the fact that he had been alone all night, but something made him pull his sister into a hug. Ella stiffened at first, surprised, and then sank into it. How long had it been since he had hugged his little sister? Five years? Eight? Ten? How long had it been since he’d told his family he loved them? Maybe never.

He didn’t realize how long they had stayed like that until he felt Ella pulling away. “You ready to go then?” she said, opening the car door.

Peter took a final glance around at the forest and the mountain, a place that he had once loved and then feared and now had such a complicated set of feelings about that it would take hours to disentangle them. Then he finally nodded. “Yep,” Peter said. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

FICTION PIECE

Pendant

by Lazaros Zigomanis

Then

As soon as Dad’s van pulled into the drive and came to a stop, Keene yanked open the door, jumped out, and bolted for the house.

“Keene, close the door!” Dad yelled after him.

Keene streamed up the veranda, right fist clenched tightly. Bunch waited by the front door, tail wagging. The border collie barked and reared onto his hind legs. Keene slung open the screen door.

“Mum! Mum!”

Keene ran down the hallway, footsteps echoing on the hardwood floor. He slid into the empty kitchen, Bunch skittering to a halt behind him.

“Mum?”

“In here!” Mum called from the dining room.

Keene slipped through the adjoining archway into the dining room. Mum stood at the upright piano, tidying a stack of sheet music and placing it into the piano stool. She closed the stool lid as Keene rushed forward to hug her.

“Guess what I got you!” he said.

“What?”

Keene opened his hand. Nestled in his palm, as gold as honey, was a crystal pendant shaped like a teardrop. A fine leather cord ran from its eyelet and was secured by a bronze clasp.

“I got it from the school fair!” he said. “The woman said that the crystals make it so you don’t get sick! Put it on!”

Mum held the pendant up before her face, studying the way the light bounced off the crystal. Her eyes grew misty, the way they did sometimes when she was happy. Then, as if to prove it, she smiled, and fastened the pendant around her neck. It hung over her heart and sparkled in a way that made Keene think that Mum was shining.

“Thank you, Keene,” Mum said. She hugged him and kissed him on the cheek as the screen door clattered and Dad came into the dining room.

“Keene, what did I tell you about the car door?” he said.

“Sorry.”

“It’s still open. Go close it. Now.”

Keene nodded, grinned once at Mum, and left the dining room.

 

Now

Keene kicked his legs back and forth. There’d been a lot of doctors lately. He was tired of waiting rooms and hospitals that smelled the way the floors did when Mum mopped them.

“Can I get you anything?” the receptionist asked him from her seat behind the counter. She was young with a pleasant, round face, and thick, pointed glasses.

Keene shook his head. Everybody was always trying to be helpful.

“There are some toys in the box over there.”

Keene had already seen the toys – a mishmash of trucks, dolls, and plastic animals. He’d played with them in the past, but that’s when Mum and Dad had been out here waiting with him. Then they’d all go in to see Dr. Ward together. This time, Mum and Dad had wanted him to wait here. He didn’t like that.

“I’m sure they won’t be long,” the receptionist said.

Keene nodded. He was thankful when the phone rang and she had to pick it up.

 

Then

Keene lay on his bed, hand hovering over a line of colored pencils. His picture of himself, Mum, Dad, and Bunch standing in front of their house was almost complete. He just needed a yellow pencil to color in the sun. The question was, what sort of yellow should he use?

He peered out the window, shielding his eyes with one hand. The sun was a fiery ball so bright that it had frightened away every cloud and all that was left was the blueness of the sky.

Something rose above the trees that rimmed their backyard. Keene sprang abruptly to his feet – Bunch, curled up in the corner, jumped to follow – and bolted to the window. Beyond the yard, gum trees unfolded for as far as he could see and there, at the very end, billowed plumes of black smoke.

‘Mum! Dad!’

Keene shot from the bedroom with Bunch close behind him. The kitchen was thick with the smell of scones baking, Dad was seated at the kitchen table as Mum sewed a loose strap back onto his overalls.

“Fire!”

“What?” Dad said.

Keene dashed down the hallway as Bunch barked behind him. He burst through the screen door and onto the veranda. A large gum tree shielded their yard like an umbrella, its branches intertwined with another gum tree standing misshapen amongst the rim of trees that surrounded the house. From here, there was no sign of smoke.

The screen door opened, but Mum and Dad had no sooner come out onto the veranda when Keene charged past them – beating the screen door as it swung close – and back into the house.

‘You can’t see from here!’ he said as he vaulted up the stairs.

He ran into his bedroom and to the window. Even Bunch jumped up, resting his paws on the sill. The smoke had blotted the sky. The stairs creaked as Mum and Dad hurried up after them and into Keene’s room.

“Keene, what’re you doing?” Dad asked.

“Look!” Keene pointed.

“Keene, if this is a game …” Dad’s voice tapered away.

“Oh my,” Mum said, as she put her hands on Keene’s shoulders. “If that turns …”

“My phone …” Dad patted his pockets. He ran from the room, feet pounding down the stairs. It wasn’t long before he could be heard shouting on his phone.

“What do you mean ‘if it turns’?” Keene asked.

“If the fire comes this way,” Mum said, “we might have to leave – just in case.”

Dad came back into the bedroom. “Small fire,” he said. “Already contained.”

“What does that mean?” Keene asked.

Mum nuzzled her face against his until their noses were touching. “It means we’re safe,” she said.

 

Now

The front door opened and an elderly couple entered. The man was hobbling on a cane and leaning on his wife’s outstretched arm. They approached the receptionist and introduced themselves. The receptionist smiled at the elderly couple and focused her attention on them.

Keene hopped off his chair and started toward Dr Ward’s door. He closed his eyes, and inched his face towards the door, hoping to hear something – anything. If he could hear things were all right, he could wait. But there was no sound.

He reached for the doorknob. It was cold under his fingers. He moved his ear closer to the door.

Then it swung open.

 

Then

Keene and Mum kneeled by the flowerbed that lined the front of the house. Bunch sat behind them, muzzle resting on his paws.

“What do you think?” Mum asked.

The roses smelled nice and a deep, velvety red spread through their petals, but their stems had thorns. Keene had stubbed his thumb once and cried. Now, the rose bushes tangled into the veranda’s spindles.

Keene shrugged.

“Think it’s a mess?”

Keene nodded.

“Remember that. Okay?”

“Okay.”

There was a pair of shears shoved into the soil. Mum plucked them out and put them in Keene’s hand.

“Close your eyes,” Mum said.

“Why?”

“Close them.”

Keene closed his eyes. A wind cut across the yard and tickled his naked arms. Something wet hit his cheek. Mum’s perfume filled his nostrils, or perhaps it was the roses. It made him giddy.

“Try to imagine, in your mind, how we can tidy up the roses,” Mum said.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Think about your bedroom when you leave your toys out. That’s how the roses are, aren’t they? A mess?”

Keene nodded.

“Now think about how you would tidy them up.”

Keene pictured the roses contained into a neat square.

“Now open your eyes.”

As light rain began to spatter, Mum guided his hand and they clipped away the wayward stems.

“Gentle, gentle,” Mum said. “They’re alive.”

Keene nodded, concentrating until Mum’s hand fell away. He rose on tiptoes to trim the heads of the roses until their roof was a straight line.

“You have a green thumb, Kee.”

Keene looked at his thumb. “No I don’t.”

Mum laughed and hugged him. The rain grew heavier. The screen door opened and Dad came out onto the veranda, beer in hand. Bunch leaped up the stairs to join him. Dad stroked Bunch’s head.

“You two are going to get wet,” Dad said.

Mum took the shears from Keene’s hand, and shoved them into the dirt. “It’s only water,” she said.

“It’s foolish to stand out in the rain.”

“Is it?” Mum held her hand down to Keene. “Kee, will you dance with me?”

Keene stared from Mum to Dad and back to Mum again. Bunch barked, perhaps in encouragement. Keene held out his hand and Mum hoisted him up and held him close as she waltzed around the yard, humming Mozart’s Eine Klein Nachtmusik into his ear. Dad’s scowl was so greatly overdone that it was almost silly, and it made Mum laugh. Keene laughed with her and threw his arms around her neck.

 

Now

Dad almost trampled Keene as he emerged from Dr Ward’s office. Keene jumped out of the way. Dad thrust out his hand.

“Come on, Kee,” Dad said.

Mum emerged, stooped, face white, as if she’d powdered it with the flour she used to make her Sunday scones. She walked past Dad and Keene like she hadn’t seen them, then pivoted, kneeled, and threw her arms out.

Keene ran to her and, in the instant before she folded him into her embrace and pulled his face to her shoulder, he saw her eyes were moist. Her right arm slid under his backside and, with a groan, she lifted him.

“Deidre,” Dad said.

“It’s okay.”

 

Then

Keene’s fingers stumbled across the keyboard of the upright piano. His eyes narrowed at the sheet music – Mozart’s Piano Sonata 16. Mum, seated next to him and swaying in time with his playing, turned the page. Keene struck the wrong key and the sound jarred through the dining room.

“It’s too hard!” he said.

Mum put a hand on his back. “It’s okay if it’s hard,” she said. “It’s all right to mess up.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Of course it is.” Mum turned back to the first page. “Who said it isn’t?”

“Dad doesn’t like when I mess up my reading.”

“Dad can be impatient. I’m not. We have all the time in the world. Try again.”

He tried and tried until the music flowed and he and Mum rocked in unison on the piano stool. When he was done, she laughed and kissed him on the head.

“That was excellent!”

Keene grinned. “Really?”

“Really. Do you like playing?”

Keene shrugged.

Mum put an arm around his shoulder. “Kee, I like to watch you play. You’re very good. I think you have a gift. But you don’t have to play for me. I want you to play for you. Okay?”

“Okay,” Keene said.

 

Now

Mum buckled Keene into the backseat of Dad’s van. Bunch, who’d been waiting in the passenger seat, jumped into the back with Keene, and Mum latched his harness to the adjacent seatbelt.

“What’s happening?” Keene said.

Dad closed the side door and moved to help Mum into the passenger seat. Mum glowered at him, buckled herself in and closed the door. She idled through a stack of CDs in the glove compartment, chose one, and slipped it into the CD player. Dad got in behind the wheel and started the engine. Music filled the van – slow and sad, with a simple piano accompaniment. Keene frowned. He should recognize it, but it didn’t sound like Mozart. Beethoven maybe?

“Mum?” Keene said. “Dad?”

Dad pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road.

“Why isn’t any—?”

“Keene!” Dad said. “Please.”

The rest of the drive was quiet, but for the music.

 

Then

“Keene!” Dad’s voice boomed from outside. “Are you ready?”

Keene pulled his shorts out of the drawer. “Just a minute!” he said. He put on his shorts and sandals and hurtled down the stairs. Bunch waited at the bottom and barked. Together, they ran from the house. Dad and Mum – Dad in shorts and a shirt, and carrying a picnic basket, Mum in a summer dress, a bag slung over her shoulder – waited under the branches of the gum trees.

“About time!” Dad said.

“Shh, Nolan.” Mum held out her hand and Keene reached up to take it.

“Come on,” Dad said.

They crossed the yard and plunged into the trees, sunlight now just flickering shafts of light through rustling leaves. The smell of gums was thick in Keene’s nose. He gazed around, hoping to spot a bird, or maybe even a koala, but there was nothing

“You know never to come in here alone, Keene,” Dad said.

“He knows,” Mum said.

“Keene?”

“I know.”

“You get lost in here, you could be lost forever.”

Dad led them until they reached gums that were charred, their blackened branches naked. Keene gaped. This was where the fire had been. Soot filled his nostrils.

“When will the trees grow back, Mum?”

“It could take a long, long time.”

“Maybe next week?”

Mum laughed.

“Longer than that, Kee,” Dad said. “We’ve been walking for a while. You tired?”

Keene nodded.

“Come on.”

Keene released Mum’s hand and jumped towards Dad. Dad lifted him effortlessly.

It wasn’t long before they emerged from the bush and onto a plank bridge that crossed a gentle river. On the other side, gums rose up and up over mountains towering into the clear blue sky. The sun hung over the peak of the nearest, so close it might’ve been set there, like an angel on top of a Christmas tree.

“Wow,” Keene said. “Mountains!”

“No,” Mum said. “They’re just hills.”

They crossed the bridge and followed a winding path up, Mum puffing, Dad sweating. When they got to the top, they took a rest and had a drink. Mum gave Bunch some water from a bottle they’d brought just for him.

“Ready?” Dad said.

The other side of the hill flattened into a field of rainbow-colored tulips, unfurling into a scattering of towering Myrtle Beeches that embraced a shimmering lake. A river twisted away and hair-pinned around several other hills.

“There it is,” Dad said. “Miller’s Pond.”

Keene squirmed until Dad let him down. Together, they ran to the bank. Dad dropped the picnic basket, kicked off his sandals, pulled off his shirt, and took an old tennis ball out of his pocket. He bounced it once. Bunch looked up sharply. Dad threw the ball into the pond. Bunch splashed into the water, Dad diving in moments later.

Keene pulled off his sandals and drifted closer.

“Kee!” Mum said. She pulled some floaties from her bag.

“Mum!” Keene complained.

“Humor me, please,” Mum said, as she guided his hands through each floaty.

Then she rose and pulled her dress over her head. Underneath, she wore a red one-piece swimsuit. Keene gaped.

“You’re going in, Mum?”

Mum nodded.

“But you never go in!”

“Life is about trying different things, Kee – not doing the same things over and over.” Mum unclasped the pendant Keene had bought her. “Let’s put this somewhere safe.” She hung the pendant on the low branch of a white tree – a Candlebark, Keene thought to himself – where it gleamed as it swung back and forth, steady as a heartbeat. “Come on,” she said.

Keene took her hand and they started for the pond.

 

Now

When Dad pulled into the drive, they sat silent for a time. Keene unbuckled himself, then Bunch, and waited for somebody to speak.

“Come on,” Dad said. He escorted them from the car and to the house, unlocking the front door. “Kee, go watch some television.”

“What’re you going to do?”

“Just go, please.”

Now was not the time to argue – Keene knew that well enough. He traipsed into the dining room as he heard Dad and Mum go upstairs, then their bedroom door close. Keene turned on the television, but instead of sitting on the couch he kept ducking into the hallway to look up the stairs.

It was dark outside by the time their door clicked open, and they started down. Keene jumped onto the couch – Bunch hurdling after him – and focused on the television as he heard them go into the kitchen.

“Kee!” Dad called, moments later. “Could you come in here please?”

Keene got up and went into the kitchen. Mum and Dad sat at the table. Dad patted the chair opposite Mum and Keene clambered up. Bunch curled on the floor under Keene’s swinging feet.

“What?” Keene said.

Dad and Mum exchanged a look. That wasn’t good. Keene folded his arms on the table and rested his chin on them.

“You know we saw Dr Ward today?” Dad said.

Keene lifted his head and nodded. Mum laid a hand on his forearm.

“We’re going to tell you this because you’re getting to be a big boy,” Dad said. “Okay?”

Keene straightened up. “Okay …?”

Mum’s hand clasped his wrist. “Mummy’s a little bit sick,” she said.

“Sick?” Keene said. “How? Like when I had a cold?”

“It’s more serious than that, Kee,” Dad said.

“But we’re going to do everything to make me better, okay?” Mum said. “We’re going to do everything possible.”

Keene didn’t like how serious they were. If they were this serious, it had to be bad. Mum’s eyes filled with tears. Keene’s own eyes grew bleary.

“When will you get better?” he asked.

The tears streamed down Mum’s cheeks. Dad put a hand on top of Mum’s and Keene’s.

“When?” Keene said.

Still Mum didn’t answer. Whenever Mum didn’t know what to say, Dad would take over, but even he was quiet. Mum wasn’t shining any more. She was dark. Like a shadow had fallen over – a shadow of dark and cold.

“When?” Keene said.

Mum leaned over and hugged him, and although she was warm and safe and he could feel her love all around him, all Keene knew was the darkness.

FICTION PIECE

History Lesson

by Rie Sheridan Rose

“Take your seats, please. Everyone sit.” The robo-teacher pointed to the desks before it, and the children filed into place. “Today, we will be studying the end of Mother Earth and why no one lives there anymore.”

Axton Peters whined, “Do we hafta? No one goes there. No one can go there for millions of years.”

The teacher hummed, and a hologram appeared before the students. The text at the bottom of the page read: Central Park, New York City, New York, USA. People flitted through the park, laughing and playing. Children flew kites. The carousel spun with its gay music.

The children gasped, leaning forward in their seats, mesmerized by the hologram. Excited whispers filled the room—quelled by a flash of the robo-teacher’s lights.

“What is that?” Marjean Carlyle asked in wonder.

“That is what is known as a park. People would go there to relax,” answered the teacher.

“Like the rec room?” Neider Matthews guessed.

“Yes, but they were outside. Not on a station or in a ship. This is what Old Earth was like.”

“That wasn’t everywhere,” Axton scoffed.

The teacher’s head dipped. “Indeed. There were also places like this.” Another hum, and another hologram appeared.

This one was a bleak landscape littered with trash. The blue sky had been replaced by an atmosphere tinged with yellow and green. No people were in sight, though—as the children watched—a single figure bundled up in a big orange jumpsuit and wearing a gas mask hurried across the field of the hologram. Even through the heavy visor, they could see his bald head, covered with weeping sores. Several of the children raised their hands, but before the teacher could call on someone, it was interrupted.

“That’s why we left,” Axton blurted triumphantly—never one to wait for her acknowledgement. “Because things were more like that than that stupid park.”

“That is the park,” answered the teacher. “Twenty-five years after the first holo. Ten years before the final ship left for the colonies. Today, the only figures that move on Earth are robo-techs engaged in cleaning up debris and replanting vegetation.” Another hum from the robo-teacher, and another holo flashed on the screen.

The image was somewhere in between the pleasant parkland and the bleak desolation. The area was still empty of inhabitants, but there was a green tint to the landscape, the rebirth of nature, and the piles of trash from the previous holo were nowhere to be seen. A clunky robot wheeled into view, staking a single piece of paper and binning it in a compartment in its chest.

“This is the park today. It can be reclaimed. It is being reclaimed. If the work continues as it is, humans may be able to return to Mother Earth within your lifetimes.”

Marjean breathed, “Would it be like the first holo?”

“Not at first. At first, it would be a minimal existence. Robo-techs can only be programmed to do so much. They clean, they plant, they reclaim—but they can’t nurture. They can’t make the world a home again. Only you can do that.”

“Us?” Neider asked quizzically, glancing around the room at his classmates.

“Human beings. This is what we are working for. A return of humans to Earth.”

The dozen or so children were all quiet for a moment, letting the words sink in.

“Why should we return?” asked Axton—the perpetual skeptic. “We have the stars. The colonies are growing and expanding. Earth is just a tiny speck…and not a particularly good one.”

The teacher hissed out a sound that was almost a sigh. “That isn’t the lesson. Can anyone tell me what the lesson is?”

Marjean raised a tentative hand. “The way the Earth was left will be a problem on any world as long as we don’t change our attitude. Right?”

“That’s closer.”

“The Earth was our home. We didn’t take care of it, and we’ve had to have someone else clean up after us.” Neider said. “That isn’t right. We’ve already started spoiling the colony worlds. We can’t just use them and move on forever…”

The robo-teacher’s head nodded. “Well done, Neider. Well put.”

The teacher wheeled through the rows of students, printing out flimsies from its chest and distributing them to the students. “Your assignment today is to formulate a project plan for making sure that the destruction that occurred on Mother Earth won’t happen in the colonies.”

“That’s stupid!” Axton protested. “No one will care what a bunch of kids think about anything.”

The hissing sigh again. “Axton, who do you think will be in charge of the colonies when you become adults?”

“That will be forever from now.”

Marjean’s head was bent over her flimsy, stylus flying over the sheet. “You’re such an idiot, Ax. The point of the lesson is that we’ll be the ones to make sure that the worlds we go to will be better than the one we left. The reclaiming of Earth is an important step, because we shouldn’t have used it up and then thrown it away like trash. Don’t you get that?”

“You’re such a teacher’s pet, MJ,” Axton growled, sticking out his tongue at her.

“Grow up, Ax,” Neider said, rolling his eyes. “You can be such a tool. What was that thing they used to say, Teacher? Something about making the same mistakes in history.”

A click, a whirr, and then, “‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’”

“Right.” Neider turned to Axton. “You get that?”

Axton huffed. “Whatever.”

“Some people will never learn, Neid,” Marjean sighed. “How’s this?” She handed her flimsy to the teacher.

The teacher fed the sheet into her grading matrix. “Well done, Marjean. You’ve got some good ideas.”

A buzzer sounded.

“Time for rec period, children,” the teacher said. “As a special treat, the holo system has been set for Central Park today. See what it was like.”

The children filed out of the classroom, chattering excitedly.

The robo-teacher’s head swiveled back and forth over Axton’s flimsy. It was covered with doodles. Some lessons would never be learned and some humans could never be taught.

FICTION PIECE

The Edge of the Bed

by Laura Borrowdale

Henry’s eyes are clamped closed, but this doesn’t stop him from seeing them. The fingers that creep along the edge of his mattress, feeling for him, have think tufts of black hair growing out of the knuckles. The nails at the end of the fingers are bird’s claws; curved, black and sharp. They click together gently as the fingers move their way up and down, searching. The fingers pause, as if

*

“Henry, Michael. It’s nearly bed time.” Their mother’s voice calls up the stairs and Henry obediently gets to his feet. He stacks away his Legos, puts his car in the toy box at the foot of his bed and pulls out his Superman pyjamas from under his pillow.

“Aww, Mum. It’s only quarter past eight.” This happened every night.

“You know the rules, Michael. Get ready for bed.”

Henry takes off his pants and tugs his jersey over his head. He stands in his singlet beside his bed, pulling the blue and red flannelette over his legs.

“Mum, it’s a baby’s bedtime. It’s Henry’s bedtime, not mine.”

“Michael, we’re not going over this again. You share a room, you share a bedtime. It’s not fair otherwise.”

“But Mum,” Michael whines. His side of the room is a mess; cars crashed into the bed legs, books, face down, scattered around, cups piling up on the bedside table.

There is no answer to his complaint. Henry knows his mother can hear him, but she has this discussion every night, and right now she’ll have her head back in her book, about to take another sip of her gin and tonic, while she waits ten more minutes before checking up on them.

He hears the ice tinkle in a glass downstairs, then the click, click of the glass being put on the table.

*

listening. When they start moving again, they don’t work side to side like before, but rather they start to creep toward the center of the bed, toward Henry. He holds his breath. Scabs ooze on the fingers, mingling a dirty sheen of liquid with the dark hair. Henry’s eyes are still closed, but that doesn’t stop him from seeing it

*

Henry’s brother smiles, the hole in his front teeth black in his mouth.

“And, then, when you’re not expecting it, they’ll reach up from under the bed and grab you.”

Henry stands next to the bathroom basin, looking up at his brother, his pajamas wrinkled around his elbow. He is brushing his teeth, except he’d stopped the actual brushing part shortly after his brother’s story had begun. Now he just stands with the toothbrush clamped between his molars, his stomach liquid at his brother’s story, his feet freezing against the cold tiles.

“Isn’t there one under your bed too?” he says.

“Nah, I’m too old,” Michael replies. “Your flesh toughens up, they’re not so interested if you’re old like me.”

Flesh. Henry feels a shiver around his neck when Michael says that word. It sounds bloody and cold, like something you might find in a butcher’s shop. Maybe flesh is the name for meat that comes from little boys, thinks Henry.

“Why don’t we just tell Mum?”

“Don’t be stupid, there are rules. Man, I can’t believe no one’s told you all of this before. I’m surprised you haven’t been eaten already.” Michael turns back to the mirror, smirking at his gap-toothed reflection.

*

grope its way toward him. Henry remembers the rules. Don’t move. Don’t turn on the light. Don’t tell Mum. Never let any part of yourself go off the edge of the bed. If you play by the rules, it might touch you, but it won’t know you’re there.

Some of the hand’s scabs have flaked off against the blankets and now there are spots of blood appearing in the white sheets. Henry wonders if opening his eyes counts as moving but decides he can’t risk it. He takes a breath, drawing the air in as shallowly as possible. He can hear the nail clack louder as the hand gets closer and there is the sound of breathing like slurping the last of a milkshake through a straw. The hand gets closer, and finally it touches

*

“Right, you two. Finished with your teeth? You still going, Henry?”

“Yeah, Henry’s a real slow coach tonight, Mum, maybe you’ll have to skip tucking him in.”

Henry looks around wide-eyed at his mother. She laughs and rests her hands on his shoulder.

“It’s okay, Henry, you know I’d never do that. This monster on the other hand…” and she ruffles Michael’s hair. “Okay, let’s get into bed. Rinse your mouth, Henry, those teeth are shining beautifully.”

Henry holds her hand as they walk down the hallway to the bedroom.

“Are you sure it’s our bedtime, Mum?” he says.

“You too now, Henry!” she laughs. “Yes, I’m sure.”

“You don’t want me to stay in your bed while Dad’s on the night shift?”

“I’ll be okay, love. It’s more important you get a good sleep, and that means in your own bed.”

His mother pulls back the covers for him. On the other side of the room, Michael is sitting on his bed, his earbuds in and a comic in his hand. He isn’t watching, so Henry says, “Are you really sure? I don’t mind.”

“Good night, darling. Stop worrying about me. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She kisses the top of his head and pulls the covers up under his chin.

“Michael, ten more minutes. That’s all,” she says, then she pulls the door closed and her shoes clatter down the wooden stairs.

*

the bulge of Henry’s elbow under the bedclothes. It gropes at the lump, its nails ripping into the blankets, feeling the nubs of bone and skin. It follows the shape of his arm up to his shoulder, and then to his neck, then

*

In the semi-darkness, Henry can see Michael get under his covers and open a book. He can hear his father saying goodbye and picking the car keys out from the bowl by the front door. He can hear the door swing closed with a bang, and Michael putting his book away.

“Night, Henry. Don’t forget the rules.” He sniggers. “Don’t let the monsters bite.”

Michael clicks off his light and Henry curls into a ball. He lies on his side, his back to the wall, his knees at his chest. Don’t move. Don’t turn on the light. Don’t call Mum.

*

it reaches for his face. Henry can smell it. It smells like the damp leaves that Henry sometimes has to rake out of the corners of the garden. He can’t bear it any longer. He opens his eyes into the darkness

 

but there is nothing there. No hand, no blood on the sheets, no smell. He looks over at Michael triumphantly in the gloom. It isn’t completely dark, some light from the street lamp outside creeps through the buffer of curtains and he can see Michael asleep, one knee bent, and one arm flung over the side of the bed. Maybe he’ll tell him in the morning that the thing didn’t get him.

As he watches, he notices something moving near the bottom of Michael’s bed. It’s a hand. Along the ridges of bone, there are thick black tufts of hair, and Henry can see the trail of blood it is leaving on Michael’s bedclothes as the hand works its way around the edge of the bed, past the place where Michael’s tented knee has pulled the covers away, past the place where their mother folded back the top sheet. When it comes to Michael’s arm, it stops, then grips his wrist tightly. The it starts to pull.

Michael doesn’t seem to wake up; his eyes stay closed at least, but he is definitely aware of something. He starts to thrash in his bed, and his mouth is opening and closing as though he is screaming, even though he isn’t making any noise. There is a rip as his pyjamas are pulled away from his body. Blood starts to appear around Michael’s shoulder, as though the skin is starting to give way. He flings his body around and, as one foot slips over the edge of the bed, another hand reaches out to grab it. Henry doesn’t think the two hands belong to one body, rather that there are more than one under Michael’s bed, which means there could easily be another one under his bed.

The hands start to work their way further up Michael’s limbs; getting a good hold, then tugging hard to pull Michael closer to them. His face looks frantic now, but his eyes are still closed. The hands are holding his bloody shoulder and his hip, and they give a final pull. Michael tumbles out of his bed. There is a thump as he hits the floor, and Henry thinks he hears a groan, but that is soon followed by crunching and snapping and sucking. He isn’t sure if the groan was Michael’s.

 

Henry lies in bed very still. After all, there are rules. Don’t move, don’t turn on the light, don’t tell Mum, and most of all, don’t go over the edge of the bed.

FICTION PIECE

Lego Mona Lisa

by Michelle Templeton

He was ugly and Sarah couldn’t understand why she kept looking at him.

They were at the breakfast table. Sarah had slept at Elizabeth’s house and now she was staring at Elizabeth’s ugly older brother Carl.

He was heavy. Not fat exactly, but big and spongy. His skin was pale and his hair straight and dark brown, almost black. Constellations of tiny red bumps covered his cheeks and there was a film of sweat at his hairline. Sarah noticed he was wearing the same Star Wars t-shirt and stained jeans he’d had on yesterday.

Carl ignored the girls. He’d brought a book to the table. Sarah couldn’t see the title, but it was a paperback with yellowing pages and tiny print. Carl squinted at it over his bowl of Cheerios.

“More cereal, girls? A drink?” Elizabeth’s mother asked, gesturing with a pitcher of orange juice.

Elizabeth kicked Sarah under the table which meant the same thing as rolling her eyes.  Both girls smiled, shook their heads, almost laughed. Sarah took a bite of cereal to regain her composure.

Carl looked up and caught Sarah’s eye. He held her gaze a moment then twisted his mouth slightly and went back to his book. Sarah looked into her cereal bowl; a puddle of milk at the bottom with a single O floating in it. Had Carl sneered at her? Was that his attempt at a smile? His gesture had been fleeting and she couldn’t tell what he’d meant by it. Why should she care anyway?

Elizabeth whispered in her ear, asking her what she wanted to do now. They had two hours before Sarah’s mother would pick her up.

“Let’s go do something in your room,” Sarah said. “I want to get dressed.”

Elizabeth’s bedroom was the exact bedroom Sarah would choose if she was given the choice of all the rooms in the world. It was small, almost square, with cream-colored walls and white trim.

The wall behind Elizabeth’s bed was painted with a mural of a forest. The trees at the edges of this forest were big and they got smaller toward the center of the picture to give the impression that the trees were numerous, the forest deep enough to get lost in. The greens and blues were infused with a sense of sunlight and warmth. Like Narnia, Sarah thought, and she longed to climb into the painting and have an adventure.

Opposite the mural, on the other wall, Elizabeth had a desk and a bookcase. She had all the Nancy Drew books, The Lord of the Rings series, and lots of books about horses.

Sarah pulled a clean pair of jeans and a yellow long-sleeved t-shirt from her backpack.

“Let’s work on a new story,” Elizabeth said.  She sat at her desk, flipping through a spiral notebook.

“Okay,” Sarah said.  “That sounds good.”

She turned her back, slipped on fresh underwear, her clean jeans and shirt. She balled up her pajamas and stuffed them into her bag. Then she sat on the floor and looked up at Elizabeth who was still turning pages.

Elizabeth picked up a ballpoint pen and put the cap-end between her teeth. She gazed up at the ceiling and assumed a pose of deep thought. Sarah repressed the urge to roll her eyes; Elizabeth was so dramatic about everything.

Sarah reached for the notebook.

“Let me start,” she said. “You always make the story about horses.”

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, shrugging. “Go ahead.” She handed Sarah the pen and sat back in her chair, looking at Sarah, challenging her silently.

Sarah felt Elizabeth’s eyes on her. Sarah knew Elizabeth thought she was the inferior writer; the inferior everything in fact. She needed to write something good; something that would make them both want to keep working on the story.

The Forest, Sarah wrote at the top of the blank page. She smiled. This was a story she’d wanted them to write for a long time; the story of a girl who stepped through Elizabeth’s wall mural into the forest.

The pen made a scratching noise as Sarah wrote. She began a second paragraph.

“Almost done?” Elizabeth asked, sounding bored. Sarah nodded without looking up.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

Sarah nodded again. She’d have to stop soon. She couldn’t write more than three paragraphs; that was their rule. Three paragraphs, then the other person got a turn, then they’d switch back. They’d been writing stories like that all year.

Elizabeth gathered up some clothes and a towel and shut the door behind her. Sarah finished the last few sentences and set the notebook down, her three paragraphs finished. Now she’d have to wait for Elizabeth to get out of the shower.

She went to the door and opened it part-way. She heard music. It sounded like the radio, mistuned so there was static mixed in with the notes of the song. A murmur of voices came from the kitchen. She heard Elizabeth turn the shower on.

Directly opposite Elizabeth’s bedroom door was a floor to ceiling bookcase. Sarah went out to the hall and examined the shelves. The shelves were crammed with books, two rows deep.  Regency romances with swooning, ball-gowned ladies on the covers, science fiction books, Shakespeare plays and other kinds of poetry, an old set of World Book Encyclopedias.

Sarah couldn’t see the titles at the very top but she sat cross-legged on the floor to look at the books on the bottom rows of shelves. More romances, a few detective novels and, horribly, a tall paperback with the title The Joy of Sex. Sarah felt her face flame and she stood up quickly.  As she turned toward the sanctuary of Elizabeth’s room, she heard another door open to her right.  It was immediately slammed shut.

Sarah paused. That was Carl’s room. He must have opened the door and then, seeing her in the hallway, slammed it shut again.

Irritation swept Sarah’s embarrassment aside. What was with Carl anyway? Why should he slam his door and change his mind about coming out of his room just because she happened to be standing here?

Urged on by adrenaline, Sarah walked up to Carl’s bedroom  door and knocked loudly.

No answer.

She knocked again, louder.

Carl opened the door. His bulk filled the threshold and Sarah took a step backwards. His looming physical presence was strange and gave her a queasy feeling.

He started to close the door again but Sarah put her hand on the door as if holding it open, though she knew she couldn’t really keep him from slamming it shut if he wanted to. From the bathroom at the other end of the short hallway, she could still hear the shower running.

“What?” Carl said.  It sounded like a bark.

Now that she was face-to-face with Carl, Sarah didn’t know what to say. She didn’t really want anything. She just hadn’t liked that he hadn’t wanted to be in the hallway because she was there, but she couldn’t tell him that.

“What do you want?” he said again, his voice impatient.

“Um…,” Sarah said, her mind searching itself for something to say.

At that, Carl seemed to give up. He went to sit at his desk, adjusting his desk lamp over some kind of project. Sarah looked into his room, realizing she’d never seen it before. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the wall on the opposite side of the doorway.

“You have a mural too,” she said.

Carl sighed. “Will you go away if I let you look at it?” he said.

Sarah nodded, her eyes on the mural. It was also a forest but where the forest in Elizabeth’s room was full of light and sun; this mural was a wood lit by moonlight, full of dark shapes and shadows. There were vines trailing from branches, dark trees of chromium red and purple. Deep greens and midnight blue; the milky moonlight falling through the canopy to the forest floor.

“There’s a bird,” Sarah said, as if to herself. On the branch of one of the trees near the center of the mural sat a painted black bird, a tiny white dot shining in his eye. A crow, Sarah thought, or a blackbird. She remembered a Beatles song her mom sometimes sang:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

She wondered if Carl knew that song. Sarah knew he was waiting for her to leave. As she turned to go, she noticed that the wall opposite his bed was covered in framed art.

“What are those?” she asked.

“Just my Lego art,” Carl said, looking at the carpet.

Sarah saw that the pictures were made of different colored Legos arranged to recreate famous paintings. There was one of that girl with the big pearl earring. Another was a seascape with choppy, white-topped waves. There was a pirate that Sarah recognized as a famous illustration from Treasure Island. Her father had read that book to her so many times, she’d know that picture anywhere. There was a sort of abstract one with red and blue squares connected by straight yellow lines; and one that looked like a portrait from the front and the side at the same time.

“Where did you get those?” Sarah said.

Carl looked up.

“I made them,” he said.

“No way,” Sarah said. “How?”

Carl gestured toward his desk with his head. Sarah walked over and saw it was covered with a Lego painting that wasn’t quite finished. Sarah recognized it at once, the Mona Lisa.

Carl had mostly finished Mona Lisa’s face and hands and was working on the background. There were tiny Lego pieces scattered around. A 12-drawer cabinet next to the desk had several open drawers. They were full of Lego pieces, sorted by shape and color.

Sarah stared at the image and at the Legos. If someone had told her they made art out of Lego pieces she would have thought that sounded silly. But standing here, in Carl’s room, she was moved by how detailed the work was, how intricate. The Lego paintings were complicated and beautiful.

“That’s amazing,” Sarah said.

“My mother frames them,” Carl said. “I’ve told her a thousand times that the whole point of Legos is that you take them apart and make something else, but she won’t listen.”

“I don’t blame her,” Sarah said. “They’re incredible.”

Carl shrugged but he was looking at her now.

“You can put a piece in if you want to,” Carl said.

“Really?” Sarah said. “I do want to.”

“Here,” Carl said. He picked up a light grey piece, flat with two nubs on top. He put it into her cupped hand, and she felt his fingers linger in her palm a moment longer than they needed to. A tremor of something run up Sarah’s arm.

“Put it here.” He pointed to the space where the Lego fit and Sarah carefully pressed the piece into place.

They stared together at the Lego painting. Sarah let her fingers rifle the tiny pieces in one of the open file drawers. Then she heard Elizabeth’s door open and shut. Elizabeth was out of the shower and would be reading what Sarah had written; picking up the pen to add her own paragraphs. Sarah knew they’d somehow manage to be about horses.

Sarah felt Carl’s eyes on her.

“Thanks,” she said, meeting his gaze.  She felt strange, looking into his eyes; like she was revealing too much of herself.

Carl turned back to his desk, running his fingers over the Lego Mona Lisa.

“No problem,” he said.

Sarah left Carl’s room, feeling his eyes follow her. When her next turn came with the writing notebook she knew she’d keep writing about the woods, but now her woods would be the moonlight woods from Carl’s room. The half-illuminated mysterious woods she might never have seen if she hadn’t knocked on his door. She put her hand in her pocket and felt the tiny piece of Lego she’d taken from Carl’s drawer and went to find Elizabeth.