FICTION PIECE

Ms. Baker’s Home

by Matthew John Meagher

 

I sharpen my blade. I scorch my face with a knife. Old skin and clipped hairs fall to the floor.

I hear my brother, Twitch, happy-humming a tune in his bathroom next to mine. He’s too young to shave. I’m the one that has to. If I didn’t, it would just be another excuse for our drunk father to bring out his belt and beat me. I bear the pain to make sure he doesn’t touch, Twitch. I’m my dead mother’s kid. My name is Reginald Slay; they call me Irish.

I walk out of my bathroom to a stained air mattress. My life is my pillow, my torn blanket, and a doorless closet with a few empty hangers. The only thing that hangs in there is my ragged, worn-out, black hoodie.

I try to find a white shirt on the floor that isn’t stained with my blood or with Dad’s liquor. I find one that only has a few cig-stick holes, so I can hide last night’s blood bruises from the teachers at school. After putting on a pair of jeans and tying up my boots, I have my breakfast cig-stick. It’s the best part of my day. It’s the best part of my life.

The cig-stick burns to its butt and I place it in an old army canteen I found last year while on a seventh-grade field trip.

“Irish! The bus is here. You coming, Bro?” Twitch asks.

I zip up my hood, grab my pencil and journal, and take my canteen.

It hurts to move, but I fight to turn the doorknob. Twitch is waiting at the door with a fresh backpack and a new pair of headphones.

I walk past him, and he tries to pat me on the back, but I grab his wrist before he hits the part of me that’s raw from last night’s lashing.

Twitch is worn from my beatings, he stays strong if I’m strong. I act like nothing happened.

When we head down our stairs, Dad is passed out on the couch with a wasted cig-stick hanging from his two fingers. I grab his stick and place it in my canteen.

We leave the house. It’s cold as hell outside, but I smile.

“Why you smiling?” Twitch asks as he pulls off his headphones.

“I just…I love Ashton.”

This town is my home.

Twitch points to a few burn holes on the bottom of my shirt, “You better tuck in.”

A rusty, yellow school bus pulls up spewing exhaust as it stops. Children chant through the window.

I notice our regular bus driver, Ms. Baker, is missing. She usually warms our day with a nice, “Good Morning,” but this new driver looks old and kind of creepy. The front rows are scattered with baby-graders. They quiet down as I pass each row.

Rumors of my size and grit came about years ago when I rescued Dad and his cronies from a fire. I saved those fools, and a girl my age from a burning house.

I kept growing, my life kept getting harder, and word got around. I don’t like it, but I’ve become a bit of a leader to these kids. I call them Ashies.

As I pass them, I pat a few on the head, and they act like they’re being touched by some superhero.

I hate being the center of attention, but these kids need something, anything, anyone, to believe in and to look up to .

            As we walk down the aisle, we pass Mars and the jocks from Five Points. They’re loud, but they’re funny. Even though sports mean very little to the Valley, when the jocks compete, it feels like we’re getting a taste of the real world.

Sitting alone, with glasses way too big on his face and a hoodie that could eat him, is a kid named Jeremiah. I call him “J”

Girl Ashies sit behind him. My favorite is Christmas Daye. She’s different. Real, natural, and awesome in every way. She’s sitting with Vivian Steele. Viv carries all the power in Ashton because her dad runs the Sugar Sweet Factory, the town’s major employer.

Twitch sits next to our neighborhood friends, Shea and Curly. Hardened by their own lives, they sit in silence. I get my own seat because we can’t fit two kids in a seat when I sit down.

It’s a pain being this big sometimes.

Before my butt touches the seat, Vivian turns around and says, “Hey, Ish. How was your summer, baby?”

“We kissed…once. We’re not dating, Viv. You know I hate when you do that.”

Christmas turns slightly toward me and rolls her eyes when Vivian isn’t looking.

“Yeah, ease off, Easy V,” Mars spouts from a few seats up. The bus echoes with oohs and ahs.

“Sit down!” the bus driver yells.

“Whoa, Irish. Check that out,” Twitch says as we pass Ms. Baker’s house. It looks like her house has been washed out by a landslide. Mountain living can be a risk.

Ms. Baker’s house has been more like a home for all of us than our own houses. When an Ash is cold, or sick, or alone, her door is always open. Now, the door is gone. We see her standing outside, staring at the ruins. Alone.

“Damn, dude,” I say.

Ms. Baker is the town sweetheart. She’s a middle-aged mental health nurse that helps with PTSD. When kids have trouble at home, she opens her doors for relief. Dad is one of her patients. He is Schizo-Affective and has mad PTSD mood swings. She taught me to recognize the signs and has been working with our family for years.

She’s also known for giving out the best homemade cookies on Halloween. Ashies wait the entire year for her Halloween batches. Some want them for the taste, some just love the idea of being baked for, cared for, the sense of feeling at home.

The bus would normally be deafening with drama from school, but as we pass, our hearts crumble like the brick of Ms. Baker’s house. Our home. For the remaining ride to school, the only sound is the rusty brakes of the bus.

The school day is a dead day. We’re all mourning Ms. Baker’s loss. Hours of silence drain the day. I don’t mind because more time at school means less time at home.

The final bell rings and a chill runs through my body because I know what awaits me at home. If we heard the news, so did Dad. And Dad’s answer to anything is a bottle.

I walk down to the Academic Hall and pick up my brother who’s standing with J.

“What’s up, J?” I ask.

“Sick kicks,” he says pointing at my muddy old Timberland boots. “Seriously, dude, wash those puppies up and you got a pair of fresh Tim’s. Those go for a bit online.”

Twitch says, “J is helping me with school. You know art’s my jam, but I can’t do anything else. He may come over a few days.”

“You tell Dad?”

“No, why?”

I love the kid, but Twitch is naïve as hell. Dad hates having people over, ever, let alone when the town’s reeling from a loss.

The three of us sprint to the bus and spend the ride catching our breaths.

We get off the bus and, as we approach our cabin, the stale smell of cig-sticks burrows through the air and bombards my nose. Smoke is one of the signs Ms. Baker taught me to prepare for. It’s Dad.

I hold them both back and say, “Twitch, go to J’s house.”

“But…it’s like two miles away.”

“Shut up and go. I have to talk to Dad,” I say as I give him a stern look.

“Damn. C’mon, J. Let’s go,” Twitch says.

I make sure to watch them turn the corner toward J.’s neighborhood. I crack my back and neck; I take a deep breath. I creep to the door, hoping to God he doesn’t hear me.

I step onto our porch and the rickety wood cracks under my feet.

A burly, hard shout: “Who the hell is that?”

He yanks the door open and his silhouette staggers from the living room light. In his left hand, a bottle. His right hand, a belt.

“You here to remind me of her?”

“No, Dad. No…Sir.”

He takes a few gulps out of the handle of whiskey. His eyes tear up after finishing the pull, and he throws up half the liquor.

“Get over here, boy.”

I know what to expect. I know what to think about to ease the pain. I think of Mom. I think of protecting my brother, Twitch.

I make sure he looks me in the eyes as I walk up to him.

He lashes my shoulder with the belt and says, “You should have let me burn in that house.”

He thrashes again at my back. I feel my old wounds tear from their scabs as my body shakes and trembles.

This is longer and worse than before though. I expect a few lashings, but he continues all over my body. He slurs his speech to a single word after each whip of his belt.

“You.”

“Should’ve.”

“Let.”

“Me.”

“Die.”

I fight with my last bit of strength to move away from another lash. I’m done with this. He swings, misses, and falls off the porch.

“I’m not leaving Twitch with you. You’re going to have to kill me.”

I jump off after him.

I let him stumble up. I watch and wait. I blitz forward, making sure I blast my shoulders into his stomach. I tackle him. One after another, I throw brick-sized, enraged fists at his face. I feel his bones crunch against my knuckles after each blow. He fights back a little, but after a few more jacks in the face, he’s out.

My palms are soaked in blood. I look around for help and see no one. I yell for help and find no one. My adrenaline slows, and pain surges all over my body. I pass out.

My head is bumping when I wake to a soft voice whispering to me, “Get up, now!”

It’s Ms. Baker.

“The ambulance will be here any minute.”

“So?”

“You may be big, Kid. But you have a lot to learn. Ambulances lead to questions. Questions we don’t have the right answers to. You don’t see it, but I do. The Ashies follow you.”

“The Ashies? They’re just little kids.”

“You’re the reason why they smile. You’re Ashton’s hope. Now, get up.”

I try to use my hands to press up, but my arms give in. “I can’t.”

“Fight, harder.”

“I can’t.”

She shakes my shoulders, and says one word, “Fight.”

It works. Adrenaline surges through my body and I fight my way to a stance. I hear sirens approach.

She whispers, “C’mon. Follow me.”

It feels like we walk miles. She stops and says, “I’m going to need your help with this one.”

She grabs my wrist and places my palm along the trunk of a dead tree. Water rushes below.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Push it down. We need a bridge.”

“I can’t. I can barely move.”

“Look,” she points to an old, abandoned RV hidden in the woods. “I can help you in there, but first we have to get there.”

I use my lasts bit of strength to push the tree trunk down towards the river, and her plan works. The log rests rigid and acts as a bridge for us to cross.

It’s sketch, but we somehow make it to the RV.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but the inside of the RV is disgusting and uninhabitable. Weeds and greenery grow all over the furniture. Dirt and mud cover the floor, and I hear a few squeaks of scampering field mice.

“This is where you’re going to live?”

“It’s not my choice. You better sit down,” she says.

She clears a spot on an old couch, reaches inside a bag, and pulls out bandages, gauze, and some aspirin. She starts wrapping my right wrist and says, “I can’t believe he did this to you.”

            “I’m so stupid. I can’t be taken away. Twitch needs me. Dad is sick.”

She blots the torn skin on my back with a sanitized wipe. It stings.

“I knew your dad when we were younger,” she says. “He was different. Sober, of course. And he loved your mom.”

“You knew Mom?”

“Your mom wasn’t around until later, but I went to school with your dad.”

“Different, huh? I can’t picture Dad without a belt and bottle.”

“PTSD does that. When your mother died while giving birth to you, he died with her. He’s an evil shell of a once great man.”

“It sounds like you want me be sympathetic.”

“Oh, honey, no. Your dad is a mess, for sure. No matter how bad things are one never puts their hands on a child. But a family always looks past the pain. Tonight, I’m your family.”

“Ms. Baker, I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”

“I see you with the kids when you give them your batch of my cookies. There’s something special about you and I won’t let you give that up.”

“I’m just a kid.”

“Look… my house just got crushed. Everyone deals with their own pain. Yours is extreme, so is your father’s.”

“I’m sorry.”

She wraps the final bandage around my shoulder, “It’s okay, Reginald.”

“How’d you know my name? My real name?”

“I was your mother’s nurse when she gave birth to you. When she named you. When she died with you in her arms. It was one of the worst days of my life.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything. You should never have to say anything. You saved your dad, his friends, and especially the little girl from that hellacious fire. Saving lives doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when it’s a kid, by himself, saving people from a burning house.”

“Anyone would have done that.”

“Sure, Kid. Because everyone is big enough to carry out limp bodies.”

“I’m not afraid to die.”

She takes a deep breath, and lets out a sigh, “You’re too young to think like that.”

“Well, most Ashies have to deal with stuff they’re too young for. I’m just…just…”

“Their hero.”

            “Sure, okay, maybe Ashies look up to me from time to time. But that doesn’t mean anything; they’re just kids.”

“There’s something about this Valley. Ashton needs someone like you.”

“Me?”

“I can’t explain it, but when things go bad here, in the darkest of dark, there’s always a light. My world is underneath mud and rock. Right now, you’re my light.”

Dogs bark in the distance.

“You better get going, kid.”

“I have nowhere to go.”

“Follow the creek a few hundred yards down and you’ll find a spot to wash up. Act like you’re walking home. Everyone in this town is used to you hiding your bruises, so suspicion will be low.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine. It’s me. They won’t touch me. Just remember, you’ll always have somewhere to go now.”

After the aspirin kicks in, I speed up to a slow jog. I do exactly as Ms. Baker says, and she’s right, there’s a public bathroom next to a bridge. I wash up and begin my trek home, but I don’t feel like I’m in this fight alone anymore.

I walk up to our cabin and it’s aglow in red and blue lights. Twitch stands with an emergency responder. As I approach them, he turns, and runs to me grasping me like a lost teddy bear. I wince in pain.

“Bro, what happened man? Dad is knocked out. Like, really out.”

            “Did they see you? Did you say anything?”

“Yeah right, Bro. I’m surprised the ambulance even showed up after the daily amount of calls from this neighborhood.”

I tell him: “I went for a walk after he beat the hell out of me. Looks like a cougar mauled him or something. Let’s just get inside,” I say, eyeing the emergency responders nearby.

Dad lies on a stretcher and is being propped into an ambulance. We watch as the lights and Dad drift away into the darkness. It hurts, but I raise my hand to pat Twitch on the shoulder and say, “Well, looks like we get the place for the night.”

Twitch asks, “What are we going to do?”

I look down the path that leads to Ms. Baker’s RV. I say, “I have an idea.”

I explain to Twitch what really went down while we walk to Ms. Baker’s RV. The conversation is so heavy, we don’t even notice our walk over the death-defying log. I approach the door and knock. There’s no answer at first, so Twitch and I start heading back home. Then, I hear the creak of a door swinging open.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hi Ms. Baker, sorry. We thought you were gone, or something, we were just about to leave,” I say.

“We? Who’s we?”

“Me and my brother, Twitch.” I gesture toward my brother.

She looks at him, noticing how he’s physically the complete opposite of me. She says, “Brothers? From the same mother?”

“Hey!” Twitch says.

I smack him in the arm to shut up.

“Ouch! Fine, whatever.”

“No, but seriously,” Ms. Baker asks. “What are you doing back here?”

I say, “Ms. Baker, you saved me tonight. But you save us Ashies every year. The smell of your baking always makes us feel at home and for most of us, that’s a once-in-a-year feeling.”

She tears up, and says, “Jesus, kid.”

Twitch says, “He’s right, Ms. Baker. We count down the days to Halloween like it’s Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, the cookies taste amazing, but your baking to us is more than just taste. It’s something to look forward to. Something to be happy about.” Twitch shakes his head, “And now, with your house gone, the tradition is gone too.”

“Not yet,” I say. “Ms. Baker, this RV is a dump. We can’t let you stay here. You and I both know Dad will be in rehab for a few weeks. You’re staying with us, instead.” By the time we make it back home, we’re so tired from the day’s events that all three of us fall asleep right there, on the living room couch.

I wake to the smell of warm, buttery, cinnamon rolls. Twitch and Ms. Baker sit in peace at the kitchen table.

I sit down, and Ms. Baker asks, “Want one?”

Twitch says with a stuffed mouth, “Bro, you have no idea. I have had like six.”

I take a bite, and it’s amazing. The buttery cream oozes through the warm roll and the cinnamon is perfectly balanced. I’ve never had something this…this good.

Icing slips from my mouth as I say, “Thank you, Ms. Baker.”

“Well, you two better go get ready for school.”

            We only have a few minutes, so I don’t have to have my morning smoke, but that’s okay because my stomach is full, and I don’t remember the last time I had a full stomach.

            Before we head out the door, Ms. Baker hands each of us a paper bag lunch. The gesture overwhelms both me and Twitch.

Twitch swallows her with a hug and asks, “You’re not going to stay with us?”

“My home is your home. Even if it is an RV.” She kisses Twitch on the cheek and scrubs some left over lipstick with her thumb. She finishes with a gleeful smile and says, “You have your brother. You will always have your brother.”

The three of us embrace over our homemade lunch.

We get on the bus and the sight of us carrying lunches brings the chatter to a halt. Nobody ever brings a lunch from home. Envy and jealousy aren’t present in this silence. The Ashies know that there’s only one person in all of Ashton generous enough for something like this.

As we sit down, the bus rumbles. It takes only seconds for Vivian to turn around and ask, “Hey Ish, so where’d you get that lunch?”

            Christmas answers for me, “It’s from Ms. Baker, of course”

“I don’t know what to do with it,” I say honestly.

Christmas pulls out her phone and grabs the bag from my hand. She opens it, and takes a few pictures for me. She hands me her phone and says, “Now it’s more than a memory.” .

            “Sucks what happened to her house, man,” Mars jumps through the aisle from a few seats up. “Five Points loves Ms. Baker.”

Our other two friends, Curly and Shea, don’t say much but chime in with a couple, “for- sures.”

“I know what you’re saying fellas,” I say. “We have to do something.”

Twitch asks, “What the hell are a few Ashies going to do?”

I say, “A few aren’t going to do much. But if we could get everyone involved, maybe come up with something.”

A small voice crawls from J’s seat in front of me. “I’ll help.”

“With what?” I ask.

“If you get the wood, I can map out a reconstruction plan,” J says.

“Dude, that’s sick,” Mars says as he gives him a slick shake of the hand.  “You’re that smart. Dope.”

J says, “I can’t do anything without supplies. So, you need to get the supplies.”

Mars nods, “I can get my people from Five Points.”

Vivian says, “Christmas and I can get some tools and stuff from my dad’s factory.”

I take a heavy breath and say, “I’ll get the wood.”

 

Whack!

I drive the blade of my axe into the trunk of the tree.

Whack!

The blade sticks. But I pry it out.

Whack!

I use my leg to push the tree over.

The tree, along with all the other trees around my house have been dead for years from beetle-kill. It’s exhausting. I look behind me, and I am proud of myself at the sight of a pile of logs.

I ditch some days from school to finish the wood supply for Ms. Baker’s home. The work is laborious, but she deserves it. Ms. Baker is a beacon in this town. We can’t lose her.

Dad’s recovery is sooner than expected. With rehab, we only have a few weeks. And snow falls soon. Ms. Baker’s RV won’t hold up a month.

The next day, I wake up to the sound of bustling murmurs outside my window. I look outside, and the entire town is here, to help rebuild Ms. Baker’s home.

Twitch opens the door and jumps on my bed. “Bro, let’s get started! Everyone is here.”

Even though Ashton is poor, the people bring anything they can. Even if it’s a few sandwiches and some canned soup to feed those working. The thought makes me so proud of my town.

It takes a week or so, but, with the entire town helping and J’s blueprints, we’re able to get the job done just in time.

Morning birds chirp as I walk along the slow running creek up to Ms. Baker’s RV. I knock and she calls out, “Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Irish.”

“One second.”

She opens the door and she looks like she’s been through weeks of hell. Her hair is unkempt and dreaded in knots. Her face and fingers are covered in dirt. She covers up a moth-eaten nighty and says, “Good morning, Sweetie. Nice beard.”

“Thanks. Haven’t shaved in days.”

“Why do I have the honor of your young, lovely presence so early this morning?”

Even in a midst of her own misery, she finds a way to be warm to me.

“I want to show you something. We want to show you something.”

I move over and behind me is the entire town scattered amongst the trees.

“What’s this?” she asks.

“Come with me, Ms. Baker.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second…let me put my face on.”

She shuts her door, and I can hear her rustling around. When she reappears, her hair’s in a pony-tail, she’s put on her nurse’s uniform, and she’s covering up with a shawl. I guide her up the path to my house and past it a few hundred yards to her new home.

Her hands tremble as she covers her mouth. “How? …When? Did you do this?” she asks.

“You’re a mother to our family, Ms. Baker. We need you, just as much as you need us,” I say.

She approaches the cabin, and Dad stands in front of the door holding his red AA token attached to a ring of gold and green keys. After weeks of rehab, he’s finally sober.

“Here,” he says. “The gold one is for you. The green one is for our place. You’re welcome any time.”

            She walks in and it’s simple, just a few old couches and a fireplace. Ms. Baker is overcome with emotion. “This…is…perfect,” she says.

“We’re going to let you get settled, Ms. Baker,” I say.

“By myself? No, Sweetie, it’s time to celebrate.” She turns around Ashes and Ashies stand in respect. “I’m so honored to be an Ash,” she says. “I wake up every day wondering what I did to get here, but whatever I did, I’m glad it happened. I love all of you. This is the best family I could have ever asked for.” She shakes her new keys and says, “Now, what kind of breakfast should I make today?

FICTION PIECE

Sweet Thang

by Allison Whittenberg

 

Chapter One

I can travel through time; sometimes it’s voluntary;

sometimes it’s not. Just the other night, I saw a movie with these white people with dark hair -– I think they were Italian.  In this film, there was a funeral scene where the main character jumped in after the coffin was lowered the six feet into the ground, and all of a sudden I was at that day. My reality, though, had black people all dressed in black and only a smattering of whites from the nursing program she was in.  She left behind a son.  She had named him Tracy John Upshaw.

She was Karyn.  I knew her as Auntie; she was Daddy’s little sis.

I recall everything annoyed me that day.  I was watching Auntie Karyn in her coffin, and I knew Auntie Karyn was watching me. At the gravesite, the Reverend Whitaker, who wore his hair in a Caesar, led us away, saying, “There’s nothing we can do now.”

I didn’t want to be ushered to the side, and I hated those words: ”There is nothing we can do now.”  Especially the word “nothing.”  There had to be something — something that would bring her back.

Reverend Whitaker had his arm bracing, then moving, me. My legs felt like they might fold. Off by the limo, other relatives were sobbing in one big huddled mass.

The last look at Auntie made my chest hurt.  I was only nine, but I felt like I was having a heart attack. Auntie had always been fair, but her face was now whiter, glittering, and waxen. Each hope, every dream, every prayer was lost, gone.  Her large penny-colored eyes were closed forever.

Back at the house, my nuclear-and-beyond family gathered, and Otis Redding was playing on the stereo, singing that Fa Fa Fafafafa sad song.  There was a lot of chicken.  Fried, braised, broiled, roasted in a pan, chicken potpie.  So damn much food — nine trays of potato salad.  Distant relations ate heartily, even sloppily, macaroni salad sliding off their spoons onto their chins.

Tracy John was asleep during most of that day.  He was passed from arm to arm.  Everyone wanted to hold the precious one; he was like a hot potato in reverse.  Family and friends didn’t leave till it was night.  Then it really sank in — I’ll never see her again.

“I just want to know why,” I sobbed in my open hands.

Daddy’s usual husky/tender voice offered no explanation.  He just held me while I pulled myself together again.  Though he didn’t sob that day, neither in public nor just with me, I realized that he wasn’t whole.  Like the rest of us who loved her, he would have a hole in the heart that wouldn’t go away.

With the sun now down, sorrow solidified with the moon.  My head felt lighter.  My heart was heavier.

Around midnight, Uncle O’s car broke down by the airport. He said the engine died. Daddy took jumper cables and my older brother, Horace, to Island Avenue to rescue him.

That night my eyes were propped open by an unknown force.  I wished Daddy had taken me instead of Horace.  Maybe working a jack or holding a flashlight could have gotten my mind off my heart and the pain that it felt.

Gammy had Tracy John for the rest of the week, and I thought she was going to keep him.  The following week, he was with us; mid-week, Gammy took him back. Then that Friday, I was over Uncle O’s apartment, and Tracy John was there.

By the end of the month, he was at our house, and I guessed that Tracy John was going to stay with us forever, which back then wasn’t a problem. He was small and playful with Daddy, Ma, and my two brothers, Horace and Leo. And he stayed out of my way.  I think something changed when he was in the first grade, but I’m not sure.  Maybe the change was in me, for it has taken me this long to discover that Tracy John ruled.  For example, within a week of Tracy John moving into our home for good, I lost my room.

After Ma told me, I screamed, “What?!”

Daddy backed her up by repeating what they’d decided.

“No, no,” I pleaded. “Let him move in with Leo.”

“Leo is moving in with you, Charmaine,” Ma said.

“But he’s a boy.  I can’t live with a boy.”

“Boy, girl, don’t make no matter.” Daddy waved me away.  “We’re all family.”

I turned to Ma. “I don’t have any friends who share a room with their brothers.”

“Then you don’t have any friends who share a room with their brothers,” Daddy said. ”That don’t mean nothing.  You and your brother will live together.  That’s how they do it in the country.”

“What country?” I asked.

Daddy shot me a look that told me it was in my best interest not to seek any more answers. I didn’t argue with Daddy; for you see, even at the age of nine, I was pro-life -— my own.

Inside, I was mad.  How could they do a thing like that to me?  How did Tracy John get his own room?  Tracy John could have stayed with Leo, or Horace for that matter.  Tracy John wouldn’t even know the difference.

As worried as I was back then, now, at fourteen, things have reached crisis proportions. I’d calmed down, but each day I learned it was all about His Highness.  The precious one, Tracy John Upshaw.

Just last month, Tracy John almost cost Daddy sixty dollars for a pair of glasses that he didn’t need.  Ma had taken him to get his eyes examined for the start of the school year. Tracy John had been reading ever since he was three-and-a-half, so he knew his letters very well.  The doctor discerned that Tracy John should wear a strong prescription because he’d read all but the two top lines wrong.  Ma escorted him to the eyeglass shop.  Over the next two hours, Tracy John tried on children’s frames.  He didn’t like a one.

When they came home, Tracy John pointed at me and said, “I want glasses like her.”

Her? Her!  It’s only like I lived in the same house with him.  He’d known me his whole life.  I wasn’t a “her” to be pointed at like some stranger on the street.  I was only his blood relative: Charmaine.  He could have called me that, or Maine, like everyone else.

“You tried on glasses like that, Honey,” Ma said to him, with patient and understanding.

“I want her glasses,” Tracy John repeated as if he was going to grab them right from my face.

The next day Ma, pixie-faced Tracy John, and I went all the way downtown to another eyeglass store.  This time Tracy John spent another two hours trying on forty-seven pairs of frames.  I was about to blow my stack hearing Ma alternate between, “Do you like this one, Sugar?” and, “How about this, Pumpkin?”  Even the salesclerk was in on the act, calling him, “Peanut”. They patted him on the head after fitting each frame around his ears. It was outrageous.

The other patrons smiled and cooed at him, and over time they formed a small circle about him.   In the end, Tracy John settled on a pair of glasses that looked nothing like my octagon-shaped frames.  His choice was small, black wire glasses that looked Ben Franklinish.

The shop promised to put in a rush job on account of the doctor’s report saying Tracy John was half-blind. Ma left a ten-dollar deposit, leaving a balance of over fifty. We took the 13 trolley back to our home in Dardon. No sooner were we on the streetcar than Tracy John tugged at Ma’s arm and said, “I don’t want glasses. I see twenty.”

Ma gave him a quizzical look.

He was insistent. “I see twenty.”

We got off at the next stop and caught the other trolley going back to Center City.  Back at the eye doctor, it was conclusive. In fact, Tracy John did see twenty.  Twenty-twenty.

What had Tracy John done the previous day? Just made up letters like some damn fool. Later, Ma told Daddy, and he just chuckled at it.

Further into the evening, Daddy was in the living room, Tracy John cuddled in his lap.  He sneaking sip of his beer. This kid was too much. Daddy encouraged him. Habitually, Daddy would tell him to run into the kitchen and tell Ma a bad word.  Tracy John would run into the kitchen and say, “Unc told me to say bullshit”.  And Daddy would laugh at Ma’s fit. This left me to wonder — would Tracy John get away with all this mayhem if he weren’t walking around with Auntie Karyn’s face?

As I watched this Godfather imitation and reflected on gangsters and spoiled brats, the phone rang.  Ma told me it was for me.

I walked to the phone, wishing I had my own phone in my own room, so that people wouldn’t listen like stowaways to my conversation.  I wanted a king-sized bed with a heavy velvet canopy where I could talk the day away.  Instead I  had the phone stretched into the bathroom.

I closed the door and sat on the lidded toilet seat. I was on the phone only ten minutes — I was talking to my best friend, Millicent, about that new boy at school who was the son of a surgeon, Demetrius McGee.

“Did you see him in that blue sweater, Millicent?  He has to be the best-looking guy ever.  He looks like a Greek god.  An African-Greek god,” I said.

“Oh, Demetrius!” Leo and Tracy John mock-swooned in unison behind the door.

I was endlessly heckled.  They just didn’t understand when I was talking about something important.

“Excuse me, Millicent,” I said into the phone and then put it to the side.  I opened the bathroom door to them.

“Will you two get out of here?!”

They laughed all over themselves, especially Tracy John with his sickeningly-sweet, squinched-up face.

“Shoe y’all,” I told them, and chased them back into the living room.

As soon as I was back to the phone, my mother told me to get off, complaining about message units.

“Millicent, I gotta go.” I hung up.

That was the last straw:  I had to have my own room!  I wanted my own room, so I could play my own music (my Roberta Flacks and Al Greens). I needed privacy.  Our house was worse than Watergate; filled with bugs, and not the kind that you could spray with Raid.  This was a slow night; usually I couldn’t even get the bathroom to myself when I was talking on the phone.  There was no place to get away from everyone.  I’d go in one room and Leo and Tracy John would be in there. In another, Horace would have a girl or his recruiter over; he was about to go to basic training. I’d go downstairs, and Daddy and his pinochle friends would be there.  Ma would be in the kitchen, running the faucet, clattering the pots and pans or silverware, and I would try to slip away before she had a chance to see her and ask me to help her stir butter into the beans or mix the gravy or mashed potatoes.

Dejected, I went to my half of the room. Though Leo wasn’t as bad as a proverbial jailhouse Bubba, this had to be worse than a jail cell. Leo kept his side of the room neat.  He always picked up after himself and had the footlocker organized well.  I thought of that copycat Godfather movie and turned the lights off, drawing the curtains, shutting out the streetlight.  I was cold. It was going to be a hard winter.   Soon I’d have to have to sleep with my socks on.

I couldn’t sleep, so I thought about her.

Usually, it worked the other way: I’d wake in the night thinking of her.  I lifted my head from the pillow, so I could hear.  I waited, waiting in the nothingness of three a.m. — or maybe four.  The quick shuffle.  The hiss of the water pot.  She’d be downstairs with her nurse books.

Auntie Karyn.

It’s a funny thing; just when I thought it was under control, that’s when it would hit me. Maybe it wasn’t about the movie.  Maybe it was because Horace was due to ship out in about a week. A June graduate of Dardon Senior High, Horace signed up for the service after a long summer of Daddy’s badgering him: “No son of mine is living in this house and not working.” It wasn’t like ‘Nam was still going on, but it did mean our family would once again be broken up.

Time.

The occasional mail came with an occasional phone call from people who I supposed had been on Mars and had no idea she’d been killed.  They’d want to know details — as if to recall the details weren’t painful for us to recount.  Daddy would handle it by providing curt commentary:

“She died.”

“She was twenty-four.”

“Yeah.”

“Then he shot himself.”

“Yeah, he should have done that first.”

“Yeah, it’s that kind of world.”

People generally said the same thing when they learned of her passing.  They said she was so nice/so pretty/it was such a shame.

Five years after her death, I am still trying to make sense of it.  And I, at fourteen, don’t think I ever will.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Allison Whittenberg

Allison Whittenberg is a Philly native who has a global perspective. If she wasn’t an author she’d be a private detective or a jazz singer.  Her novels include Hollywood and Maine, Life is Fine, Tutored, The Carnival of Reality and The Sane Asylum.  Her plays have been performed at Interact Theatre, The Spruce Hill Theatre,  Red Eye Theatre, Hedgerow Theatre, The Festival of Wrights, and The Playwright’s Center.

Her work in Fterota Logia: Sweet Thang

FICTION PIECE

Barrel of Justice

by Jeremy Suh

 

The class stood up for the national anthem, their hands tight against their bodies, but nobody stood taller or more rigid than Robert Gunner. The flag, a mixture of sky blue and gold rippled lightly from the summer breeze. The sea, barely visible in the distance, ebbed back and forth. The music faded, and the class slowly took their seats; Robert was the last one to sit down. For him, the anthem was a melody of angels. It was the Navy Soldiers’ song. A lullaby of justice.

“This anthem is a daily reminder to us citizens that we are protected by the Navy, and also a reminder to those who defy laws, that the hunt to put them behind bars will never end,” said Ms. Diabure, standing in the front of the classroom.

“The Navy has been a powerful source of security here, and they are the reason we have not been raided by pirates in over a century. Security is strong, and hopefully some of you, when done with school, will continue the legacy of these great peacekeepers.”

A few boys in the classroom yelled, “Yes, ma’am.” Robert’s voice echoed the loudest among them.

“Now, let’s get back to our studies! Class, please open your textbooks. Today’s lesson is about the greatest enemy to the Navy: Pirates.”

Robert scoffed, and turned his attention to the window. He was eligible to join The Naval Academy in half a year, but Robert could not wait that long. He spent every minute of time outside of school either tending to his ailing mother or pouring over books about the Navy and their history. He kept himself fit, and even took weekly shooting lessons.

The clouds drifted through the sky, and in a moment of euphoria, Robert imagined himself donning the white robe and commanding an entire fleet. He would be a merciless commander, serving justice to all rule-breakers, on land and water. An additional benefit was that he would be able to take better care of his mother with the money he made.

“I think it’s quite intriguing and commendable how they sacrifice everything just to get their hands on a little bit of treasure.”

Robert drew his attention back to Ms. Diabure. “You did not just say you like pirates.”

“I didn’t say I like them, Robert. I said they are commendable. Liking something and respecting it are two very different things.”

Robert stood up violently, causing the chair to crash behind him.

“Pirates are not commendable. They’re literal garbage. They spend their time flocking to gold coins and living pointless lives.”

“Robert, please don’t use that kind of language. If you dislike something, there are more mature ways of expressing your feelings.”

“I’ll stop when you stop adoring filthy pirates. Pirates are sewage rats that deserve to drown.”

“Headmaster’s office. Now.” Ms. Diabure grew a little red. “What would your father say about this behavior?”

Father. The word that pierced Robert’s whole being. He could be a man, because that is what it took to become a Navy commander. But a father? That was something he refused to acknowledge, tossing it away from his conscious whenever that word sporadically popped up in his head.

Robert’s father left him when he was a baby. Robert had cried throughout his childhood because of his absence. It was a missing hole in his life that could never be filled, only covered. And now his teacher had taken that word, balled it up with pointed anger, and stabbed him with it. Robert felt his lip quiver but turned to leave the classroom before he could reveal any emotion. To be Navy meant to be calm like an ocean that laps at the sand on a sunny day.

Robert strode past the closing school gates, saluting the two officers standing, as he made his way home after a long detention period. He could hear the sound of horses pulling carriages from the downtown end-of-day rush hour, and the oil fueled lanterns lined along the street started to light up as the moon chased the sun away.

He crossed his neighborhood’s bridge, stopping at the top to admire the view. It was a brilliant vista composed of the sparkling ocean and red sand could be seen beyond the buildings. A seagull cawed in the distance. He took a minute to admire the view. He would have to bring his mother here sometime.

Decorated paintings of a man Robert knew of but did not recognize nor remember hung near the entrance of his home. Normally, they were a blur on the wall as Robert passed through the entrance. But today, because of the freshness of emotion and memory associated Diabure’s mentioning of a father figure, Robert paused to look. Under a sudden impulse, he touched the closest painting. His thumb carved an arc of clarity over the settled dust. His father was a handsome man with striking similarities to him.

“Rob?”

It was his mother. She was an ailing woman with streaks of gray hair and creases on her face. Despite this, her smile never failed to act as a warm hearth from the cold world.

“Why did father leave us?” asked Robert impulsively, even though the answer was the same every time. “He didn’t even get the chance to see me grow up.”

“Rob, you know that I don’t know. He just left, and never came back.”

Robert pursed his lips and nodded.

“I’m sorry Rob. . . I’m not much help, am I? I’m not the mother you deserve, especially in this condition,” Robert’s mother pointed at the needle in her arm, supplying her with a constant flow of medicine.

A trickle of tears slowly fell down his mother’s face. It was not long before Robert, too, tasted salt. He walked over and embraced her.

. . . .

Then came the day when Robert’s entire world was burning. A thick wave of heat pressed against Robert as the sound of people screaming finally woke him up. When he walked over to his window, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The second-floor view of the estate offered him a prime view of the town – a front row seat of his neighborhood engulfed in flames.

It took a few long seconds to process the view in its entirety. Fire was licking intensely at the rooftops of houses. People were running around in a crazy frenzy. Many civilians and soldiers lay scattered on the ground as the smell of burnt flesh permeated through the air. Robert forced himself to look away as he stifled the urge to vomit.

A crazy cackle cut through the air as Robert set his attention on the dirty men with soggy, long braids and eye patches ransacking houses and dousing other buildings in oil. An invisible hand snaked across Robert’s stomach and gripped his gut tightly.

Pirates had arrived in his town. This meant danger. He was down the hallway in front of his mother’s room in a heartbeat. His mother was sound asleep – her medicine kept her in a heavily sedated deep sleep. She was the only person who could wake herself up. But she was okay.

Robert ran over to her window to survey the scene once more. He coughed as ash began to drizzle from the burning timbers above. A gunshot blazed, and Robert instinctively ducked under the window ledge. When he snuck a peek, he saw a new wave of pirates surged through the street, pillaging houses and shooting at the Navy with their grimy pistols. The citizens on the street evacuated quickly, jumping over bodies and tossed objects. They preferred flames over bullets.

“Kill ‘em all!” roared the pirates. “Get your hands on everything with sum’ bounty!”

Robert watched in horror as one by one, the Navy soldiers fell like bowling pins. The pirates cackled whenever they spilled enemy blood, revealing their yellow teeth. The white and blue uniforms of the Navy became muddied with dirt and blood.

Bang. One final gunshot. The last Navy soldier collapsed in the dirt next to his comrades. The pirates only grinned and retreated around the corner, away from Robert’s view. All that was left was the incarnations of Robert’s dream, fading from life. Something broke inside of him. His vision became tinged with red. He ran down the stairs, and out the house, to where the fallen bodies lay. He grabbed the pistol of a dying soldier, and looked him in his eyes. When the light of life faded, Robert clenched his jaw, and ran after the pirates.

Robert turned a corner and saw a familiar sight. Mass carnage. But this time, there was a lone pirate wrestling with a sole Navy soldier in the middle. Robert gripped the pistol he had just attained and pointed it at them.

“Stop what you’re doing,” said Robert.

Both men looked at Robert, then the object he was holding, and stopped their movements. They took a step away from each other, palms open towards Robert.

The Navy soldier spoke up. “Give me the gun. I can finish the job.”

It was the pirate’s turn. “Mate, I mean this in the nicest way possible, but if ye hand him the pistol, or throw it to him even, I will grab it and hurt ye both. A lil’ squirt like ye I bet don’t even know how to handle the toy-”

Robert cocked the gun, which shut him up immediately. But something else caught Robert’s attention. The pirate did not speak with an uneducated drawl like the other pirates but had a hint of refined speech that had been unused for a while. Robert searched the pirate’s face carefully before feeling his mouth slacken. Even past the oily dreads and dirty face, Robert could recognize the face of his father anywhere.

“You rat. You ran away from us, and out of all the things you could have done, you became a pirate?” said Robert, looking at his father dead in the eyes. He watched as his father put the pieces together.

“Robert?” said Robert’s father.

“I’m surprised you know my name.”

Robert watched his father take a cautious step forward. “I named ye.”

The Navy soldier raised his voice. “Kid, I’m not sure what is going on, but he’s a pirate. We need to put him where he belongs: in a prison cell.”

Robert’s father did not even flinch; his unwavering attention was focused on Robert. “I know I’ve been gone for a while, but I’ve missed ye.”

“You lie,” said Robert. His outstretched arm began to tremble slightly.

“Kid,” said the Navy soldier. “Pull the trigger, or pass me the gun!”

“Rob. . . Ye wouldn’t kill your father in cold blood, would ye?”

“Robert! Are you listening?” said the Navy officer, his voice more panicked than before. “Pass me the gun!”

“Be quiet!” yelled Robert, pointing the gun at the officer, who yelped in dismay. There were too many voices in his head. The flames on his street were eating up the houses. He had to check on his mother. His neighbors were lying in a pool of their own blood. His father was in front of him.

“What are you doing? Shoot him, not me!” yelled the officer, pointing at Robert’s father.

Robert’s father took another cautious step. He was now twice as close to Robert as the Navy officer. Robert pointed the gun back at him, stopping him in his tracks.

“Stay back.”

“Rob, you’ve been hurting, haven’t ye? All ‘cause of me- my mistakes. I want to apologize. I was young, dumb and stupid. I wasn’t the father you deserved.” Robert watched his father’s face transform from a grimy mask into the picture that hung in his house.

“Rob. Robert! Do your job as a citizen and help us!” cried the Navy officer. “Look at all this damage. It’s their fault! Either pull the trigger or let me!”

“Yer like me. Ye look like me. We share the same blood,” continued Robert’s father. “I have a connection to ye that nobody else has. Give me a chance to make things right. I’ve got money now. We can sit at the local canteen and drink a beer. We can go fishing by the peer. Sound good?”

“Good,” murmured Robert. Tears started forming at the corners of Robert’s eyes. He had to pull the trigger. But who was the bullet meant for? Should the bullet rip through his future and his dreams, or the missing piece of his past? His mind felt fuzzy. He knew his father deserved punishment, but he also just wanted a taste of what it would feel like . . .

“Ye, very good. Now, shoot the officer. Then, I promise, everything will be fine,” whispered Robert’s father. “Shoot him!”

The Navy officer yelped. “No! No! Robert. I’m not the target!”

There was nothing that could be done. Robert felt as though he was in a movie theatre, watching himself turn towards the officer and pull the trigger on the big screen.

“Rob!” It was his mother. Robert was back in his body. His mother was standing, supporting her weight on a fallen piece of timber with a pistol in her other hand. Robert wanted to tell her to stay back, but she hobbled her way over to him. She glanced at the listless officer, before pointing her barrel at Robert’s father. “Kane.”

“Esmerelda.”

“Robert, look away.” Esmerelda cocked the pistol.

“This isn’t the family reunion I was hoping for,” said Kane.

“You dare show your face to us after all these years?”

Kane’s face hardened. “Still have those pictures of me on the wall?”

Esmerelda winced.

“I thought so. Ye couldn’t forget about me. But don’t worry. I’ll make sure my face is the last thing ye see before ye die” Kane growled, before lunging at her. Robert felt his arm move instinctively in a smooth arc. His finger twitched, and a boom ensued.

The moment held itself for what felt like an eternity. Time slowed. Senses dulled. Robert was back in the theatre, seeing his father crumple to the ground. Then, the world caught back up and the memory of what just happened flooded into Robert’s mind like a broken dam.

He looked at his father once more. To a bird, he would just be another bloodied, fallen body on the street. Because of his stillness, he may have just been another picture on the entrance of his house. His father was a fantasy he constructed in his mind, and reality uncovered the ugly hide. Robert had killed, but also killed this question mark in his life.

Robert let out a long breath, and the pistol fell from his fingers.

“Mom, I killed a Navy soldier and my dad,” mumbled Robert.

His vision blurred. He had destroyed his insecurity and his dream. What was left?

“Oh, Rob,” Esmerelda started crying as well. She wrapped her arms around Robert. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It should have been me who pulled the trigger.”

Robert clutched at his mother’s cold arms.

“I’m always making mistakes. I’m always too sick to care for you. Too weak to protect you. I failed you, and now your hopes of. . . I’m sorry. I- I don’t know what else to say-”

“Mom.”

“I never do anything right.”

“Mom.”

“And now I ruined your dreams for the future-”

“Mother!”

Robert took a deep breath, watching the sun slowly creep from its hiding spot behind the horizon, and a lone seagull flying too far inland. He picked up a ripped book that had found its way from its owner’s library.

And he read:

“The sea ebbs and flows / Crushing sandcastles and walls / But man always returns / To rebuild what he dreamed of.”

He faced his mother. “It’s alright. After all, I’m with you, right? We’ll be okay.”

FICTION PIECE

Giraffes

by Adrien Kade Sdao

 

“What’s your favorite animal, Ryan?” My question came out in gasps as I pedaled hard, trying to keep up with my taller, faster friend.

“Giraffes!” His reply almost got lost in the wind as we screeched around the curve at the bottom of his street.

“Giraffes don’t count! They’re extinct. I meant a real animal.” It was only ten in the morning, but heat surrounded me like a cocoon. I was already sweating, and I’d forgotten my deodorant. Gross.

“They’re not extinct.” He skidded to a stop, turning to glare at me. “My dad says they’re going to clone a female any day now, and then Ol’ Willy won’t be alone anymore.” He took off without another word. That was Ryan, having his say then speeding into the distance. It’s how he won all our arguments. My mom didn’t agree with his dad. She had cried for days when the last lady giraffe died, leaving Ol’ Willy as the only remaining male—the only living giraffe.

Mom hadn’t cried like that in months. Now, she took those pills that laid her out all day on the couch. She was too tired to cry.

I took my time following Ryan, and by the time I reached the foot of the hill, he was halfway to the top. I gave up and got off my bike—Ryan’s old bike—and began trudging upwards, leaning on the handlebars. Ryan relented and stopped his bike to let me catch up. When I came within earshot, I said, “Ok, ok. I meant extinct in the wild.” We’d learned all about classifications of endangered animals in our new class at school, Climate Science and Conservation. Least Concern. Near-Threatened. Vulnerable. Endangered. Critically Endangered. Extinct in the Wild. Extinct. I wondered what it was like to be the last of your species. To know that once you were dead, there would be nothing left of you. Gone forever, forgotten in the flesh. I shuddered. Ryan didn’t notice.

We continued upwards, pushing our bikes. I waited for him to ask me my favorite animal, but I knew he wouldn’t. He was an odd guy, my best friend, quiet but popular. I volunteered: “I really like spectacled flying foxes. And they’re not extinct, or near-extinct. Anymore.” I preferred a story of success: after the population-decimating heat waves of 2018 and 2021, conservation efforts had kicked in, and the species had been rehabilitated, now boasting a solid Vulnerable classification. Spectacled flying foxes were cute as heck and having more babies than ever these days. Not like giraffes, the poor old things—thing.

“You’re such a nerd,” Ryan said, his eyes fixed ahead. “You pay too much attention in school.”

I shut up, bowing my head over my borrowed handlebars as we completed the trek to the top of the bluffs. Maybe you don’t pay enough attention, I thought at my friend. I didn’t challenge him out loud, though. I never did. After all, he was the only one who knew about real life. He knew what it was like, living with a mom who was doped up all the time. We were getting old enough to notice it now, to notice the problem. Our moms would take their pills and lay out on the couches in Ryan’s living room, and nothing in the world could wake them. They’d slept through the Irvine Earthquake, though the entertainment center had crashed to the ground. They’d slept through my big sister Mandy’s breakdown, leaving me to handle her delusions until Dad got home that night. They’d slept through who knew how many years now, missing birthdays and holidays and the collapse of the ecological world.

We paused at the top of the bluffs, panting in the sunshine as we looked at the city sprawled out below us. From here, we could see most of Marina Del Rey, including the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve and Conservation Research Center. We’d gone on a field trip there at the beginning of the year, studying the remaining species of birds and insects, learning why they were important for preserving human life. I hated bugs, but it seemed like every little pinching and biting beast on the planet had some vital function that humans couldn’t live without. I tried not to kill them these days, just shooed them outside when they got in the house. Mom used to help me rescue spiders from drains and wave flies out the window, but I’d been doing it on my own for a while now. Especially now that Dad was living with Uncle Dave.

Ryan led the way, turning left and walking his bike up the path parallel to the cliff in front of us. He reached the big rock and glanced around, then dropped his bike and disappeared from sight.

I leaned my bike against his and peered over the edge. A steep but climbable path dropped away below. Cautious, I slid down on my butt, red rocks biting into my bare legs. On the ledge below, I dusted off the seat of my shorts. Ryan knelt against the cliff face, doing something with his pocketknife. His t-shirt fluttered in the wind. I studied his face a little too long, though he didn’t notice. He looked just like his dad: black hair buzzed short, stocky build, narrow deep-set eyes under thick brows. The only thing he got from his mom was her impressive vocabulary of curse words..

Turning away, I watched an ambulance speed down Jefferson Boulevard, followed by a wailing cop car. I crouched down and sifted through the rocks at my feet. I found one shiny with specks of nickel and blew the red dust off of it. It glinted in the sun, leaving spots in my vision. I held it for a moment, then tossed it over the edge of the cliff.

“Got it,” Ryan said. He triumphantly held up his treasure, a dull-looking arrowhead. He’d noticed it yesterday but hadn’t been able to pry it from the surrounding stone.

“Are you sure that’s not just a triangular rock?” I asked, moving closer for a better look.

“It’s a damn arrowhead,” he said, wiping it off on his shirt. “I’ll show Dad. He’s seen hundreds of these.” Without a word of discussion, he slipped past me and headed for the path. I followed, scrambling up on my hands and knees. I was getting a little out of breath because of my asthma and the mounting heat, but I knew we’d have a nice, easy ride back home. I made it over the lip of the bluff just as Ryan hopped on his bike.

“See you there!” He pumped the pedals and sped away down the hill.

“Yeah. See you.” I dusted myself off again and took my time getting on my bike. I hated it when he left me behind like this. He could be such a butthole.

I coasted down the hill, letting the hot wind dry some of the sweat under my arms. I vowed never to forget my deodorant again. I definitely didn’t smell like a little kid anymore.

By the time I got back to the house, Ryan’s bike was discarded in the side yard, and he was nowhere to be seen. I leaned my bike against the house and let myself in the back door, sighing as the cool air touched my skin. There was no one in the kitchen, so I grabbed a couple paper towels and tried to wipe the sweat from my face and armpits. Then I went to find Ryan, who was no doubt in his bedroom examining his find.

To my surprise, he was in the living room, sitting on the couch beside my mom, who leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. Their eyes were fixated on the television, which was tuned to a news channel. The arrowhead lay on the coffee table, forgotten.

“What’s–?” My mom shushed me and pointed to the broadcast.

“… reports of findings from inside the craft,” the newscaster was saying. “Captain Coelho and his officers have personally inspected the alien vessel—”

“Alien vessel?!” I shouted. Ryan’s mom woke with a start where she lay on the loveseat, looking groggy.

“What the heck are you yelling about?” My mom flapped a hand at her and gestured to the television again. I knelt on the floor.

“… that they will be examining everything thoroughly before bringing it back to Earth. I can’t express how momentous—this is perhaps the most important moment in human history.” The woman on the screen paused as her eyes teared up. Then, her face changed as she looked at someone behind the camera. “I’m being told we’ve received some pictures. They’ve been relayed to us from the Mars Space Station. We have a direct link to the MSS, so we’re the first ones to show you this, folks. Let’s take a look at history.”

The screen cut to a still photograph. Against a backdrop of dark, star-scattered space, a blurry oval shape jumped out at us. It looked like it had once been brightly painted in rainbow colors, but now it was faded, singed, and pockmarked.

The picture changed to a close up. I could make out the ridges of the sinuous-looking hull, and the bolts lining the hatch. Was that a porthole at the edge of the shot?

Another picture, this time of the alien vessel resting in the cargo hold of a larger ship. An astronaut stood beside it for scale. It was only a few feet taller than her.

“It’s an escape pod,” I said.

“You watch too much Star Trek,” Ryan replied.

“Hush,” my mom ordered.

The screen cut back to the newscaster. “And that’s all we’ve got for now, but stay with us for continuing coverage,” she said. “For those of you just tuning in, an alien vessel has been discovered in the far reaches of our solar system, confirming that we are not alone in the galaxy…”

My mom stood up abruptly, looking unsettled. “Let’s go home,” she said. “I want to check on Allen.” My brother was old enough to stay home when he didn’t want to come over to Ryan’s place, but Mom was a big worrier even when she was high.

“You’re not staying tonight?” Ryan asked me.

I looked at my mom as she gathered her purse and car keys. She was moving slow. Wobbly. Ryan followed my gaze and noticed it, too. A flash of sadness crossed his face.

“No, not tonight,” I said. He grunted in response and leaned back on the couch, turning up the volume on the television. His mom had already fallen back asleep. I held the door for my mom, making sure not to let any of the cats escape. “Bye.”

I got into the passenger seat of Mom’s tiny car, buckling my seatbelt. Mom wasted no time getting us on the road, squinting at the streetlights through the sun’s glare. I tried to ignore the pangs of nervousness, tiny explosions of anxiety in my chest that warned me I was not safe.

Mom blew past the meter and onto the freeway. She was a speed demon. We lived pretty far away, almost all the way downtown, but I couldn’t relax enough to look at my phone.

“Can you believe they found aliens?” It had been a long time since I’d heard this kind of emotion in Mom’s voice—this kind of lucidity.

“It’s pretty amazing,” I agreed. Something in her tone reminded me of when I was little, before things had gotten bad. A bitter emotion rose in my chest as memory barged in. Piled together in bed, we kids listened with rapt attention as Mom read her favorite childhood books to us: The Neverending Story, Number the Stars, Hatchet. She read patiently, never rushing through the text, as if each word were a piece of delicious fudge, demanding to be savored.

Trying to distract myself from the nostalgic sadness, I opened up my phone and started scrolling through the internet’s reactions to the alien discovery. It worked. Trek fans on Tumblr were losing their shit. New memes were popping up every few minutes. I couldn’t help but get sucked in. Reading on my phone made me carsick, so I reclined my seat all the way, which helped a little.

I was about to reblog a post featuring my favorite character, Captain Sisko, when everything exploded. My body was thrust forward, slipping underneath the seatbelt and into the floorboard. Pain flashed up my left leg. My phone disappeared.

Someone screamed “What happened?” over and over. I wanted to tell them I didn’t know, then I realized it was me screaming.

“We had an accident,” Mom said, voice tight with pain.

I got quiet, pulling myself back into the seat as best I could. I knew better than to put up a fuss when Mom needed to think and figure out what to do. After a moment, though, it was clear that she couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t help.

I got out of the car. Vehicles whizzed past just feet away as I edged forward toward the car we’d hit. Its trunk was completely smashed in, its back windshield shattered. A woman sat behind the wheel with the window down, talking rapidly into her phone.

“Please,” I said. “My mom needs help. Can you call 911?”

The woman ignored me. Hot rage began amassing in my throat. My heart was like a hummingbird, vibrating in my chest.

I turned around and limped back alongside our car, ignoring the crumpled hood. A station wagon had rammed into our rear bumper, its hood sliding partially underneath our car’s back end. The driver of the station wagon was talking urgently on her phone.

“Please, can you call 911?” I shouted over the noise of the traffic.

She ignored me. The rage swelled. Electricity jolted through my brain, disorienting me. An 18-wheeler sped past, horn bellowing, missing me only by a couple of feet. I looked down and realized my entire body was shaking violently.

I got back in the car with Mom and rummaged under my seat for my phone. Mom had managed to get unbuckled, but that was about it. Her eyes were half-closed, and she was struggling to breathe. My face felt hot as I wondered exactly how many pills she had taken. Were her ribs broken? Was she going to be arrested? I started to cry.

I heard the sirens before I saw the ambulance. They roared up beside us, followed by about a dozen fire trucks. Now that they were blocking traffic, I opened my door again and waved at the nearest firefighter.

He walked over to me, tall and broad in his yellow suit, and knelt down on the heat-radiating asphalt.

“Are you hurt anywhere?” His voice was calming, almost as if he were about to start laughing, but not in a mocking way.

“My leg, a little,” I said. “But my mom is…”

“They’re taking care of her,” he said. I turned around. In the few seconds I’d had my back turned, paramedics had opened the driver’s side door. One of them was talking to my mom, reaching into the car to prod her chest and arms.

“This isn’t so bad,” my firefighter said. He had taken my leg in his hand to examine the cut. “Might need a stitch or two, but we’ll let them decide that later. Hey, did you hear they discovered aliens today?” He cleaned the cut and bandaged it in seconds, telling me the whole time about the pictures of the alien vessel he’d seen online. I pretended I hadn’t heard, saying “wow” in the right places as he talked. “That’ll do it. Just sit here until I come get you.” He closed my door and walked away to talk to the ambulance driver. My anxiety was gone now. I felt unnaturally calm.

Two women helped Mom onto a stretcher, clutching her arms so tight I knew they’d leave marks. She bruised like a peach. Fear swept through my body once more, and my eyes stung. I looked around again for my phone, but it must have disappeared into a wormhole. I watched in the sideview mirror as the paramedics lifted Mom’s stretcher into the back of the ambulance.

My firefighter came back and opened my door. “Ok, you’re going to ride with your mom,” he said. I got out, and he put a hand on my shoulder, steering me to the ambulance.

“Thank you,” I said as he turned me over to a paramedic. She motioned toward a seat behind the driver. I slid past Mom on her stretcher, sat down, and buckled my seatbelt as we began to move. The paramedic put a mask over Mom’s face, then turned to me.

“Hey, you alright? This must be pretty scary for you.”

She seemed to think I was several years younger than I actually was. It didn’t matter. I nodded. The fear had abated again. I felt numb, but I knew I should be scared.

“You ever hear that old song? ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…’ It helps when you feel upset or scared to think about the things you love most.”

My eyes were still fixed on my mom’s face. Her eyes were closed, but I could see she was in pain. “Like what?”

She concentrated on her work for a moment, poking Mom with a needle. “Like, I don’t know, what’s your favorite animal?”

“Giraffes,” I said. “They’re gonna clone a lady friend for Ol’ Willy any day now.”

FICTION PIECE

Dream City

by Adrien Kade Sdao

 

I was always more afraid of the disjointed, nonsensical dreams than of true nightmares. You can almost always tell when a dream is a nightmare. Not so with these recent unsettling meandering journeys through the halfway familiar city my mind takes me to at night. It’s been two months, and each night the city becomes clearer to me, and I know I will soon find May. I don’t want to find May. That is why I’m awake at 3 a.m., scrolling through endless social media feeds.

Is it odd that a guy like me doesn’t want to see his only sister again, even in his dreams? Or is it a normal part of the grieving process? Dad hasn’t been much use to anyone since May left us, or else I’d ask him. Though I have a feeling he’s embarrassed by me anyway. He doesn’t want to deal with the fact that one of his little twin girls, a matched set, is not a girl at all. He reluctantly buys me clothes from the boys’ section, but he’s still got a ways to go. He can’t get my pronouns or my name right.

A thud in the hallway startles me, and I turn to squint through my open doorway. The lights are all off except the screen I’d been staring at. All I can see is dark static for a moment, then my eyes start to adjust and I can see shadows.

After a moment, one shadow detaches itself from the rest and saunters into my room. Tail held high, Witchy approaches me and sniffs the hand I extend to her.

I can hear her purring. How strange. She’s a nice kitty, but she only purrs for one person, and that’s Dad. She opens her mouth and makes the strangest chirping noises. Something is wrong.

I pick Witchy up. I’d better get Dad to look at her, provided I can rouse him from his pill haze.

In the hallway, Witchy squirms, and I adjust my grip. Her cat tree is lying on its side, one of the beige carpeted platforms splintered off.

“Did you knock that over, naughty girl?” I set Witchy down and lift the cat tree upright again. I’ll have to sand away the splinters tomorrow morning.

Out of nowhere, Witchy hisses, arching her back and fluffing out her grey fur as much as possible. A growl takes residence deep in her throat. What the hell? She must be sick. I’ve never seen her act like this, not even around big dogs. She bolts into my bedroom, no doubt to hide under the farthest corner of my bed.

I have to tell Dad. I go into the living room, and he’s there on the couch in his boxers and T-shirt, snoring. Light from the TV plays over his face. He wasn’t like this before. Now that May is gone, he has anxiety so bad they prescribed him what feels like an unlimited supply of Xanax. There’s no way I’ll be able to wake him from this stupor until he’s slept it off.

I take his glasses off his nose and put them on the coffee table within easy reach. Like me, he can’t be without them for long. Astigmatism. Not May, though. Her eyes were perfect. I’m still wearing the pink plastic framed glasses May had helped me pick out a few months ago. Dad’s health insurance from work covers vision, but only one new pair of glasses a year. I have nine months to wait before I can get something more masculine.

I go back into my room, leaving the door open a crack. My computer screen has gone to sleep, so I reach over and flip the switch for the overhead light.

The light doesn’t come on.

“What the hell.” I flip the switch a few more times, but it’s no good. Dad will have to look at it in the morning. Cursing, I feel my way across the floor, which is scattered with half-finished books and abandoned craft projects and dirty clothes. I wiggle the computer mouse, and the screen lights up enough for me to find a pillar candle and a lighter in my desk drawer. Once the candle is lit, I turn to put it up on top of the dresser.

May sits on my bed, watching me.

My heart hammers in my throat and temples. My throat constricts. I don’t understand.

Without breaking eye contact, she pats the bed beside her. I’ve seen her make that gesture a million times, beckoning me to join her so she can whisper secrets in my ear. So we can gossip and laugh.

“May?” I take a step closer. “You can’t…” I let my sentence trail. Are grief-induced hallucinations a thing? How could a figment of my mind look so solid—so close?

I do the only thing that makes sense: I sit down beside her.

She raises both her hands and wraps them around mine where I clutch the candle. Some hot wax slops over the top and drips onto our skin. It cools and hardens within seconds, gluing our fingers together. May’s eyes, same as they ever were, look into me.

An onslaught of images and words pours in, experiences long past, hopes for what’s to come. She never speaks, but she tells me everything. She tells me things I know but don’t know. She tells me about myself, and how I must learn to exist as a single being and not part of a matched set. She tells me of the dream city within me where she dwells.

It’s disjointed, confusing—just like the dreams I try so hard to avoid, the ones where I’m searching, screaming for May until I wake up, and I remember, and I wilt in front of the mirror.

It’s too much. I pull away, spilling candle wax on the thick blue carpet. I stand and turn toward the door, force down tears, try to breathe deep.

I look again at the bed. May is gone. Witchy is poking her nose out from under the bed skirt, checking to see if the coast is clear. I put the candle on top of the dresser and kneel down.

“C’mere, Witchy,” I say, examining the wax spot on the rug. There’s no way I’ll be able to clean it up properly. Dad’s going to be so pissed.

Witchy creeps up to me and rubs her face against my arm. I scratch her behind the ears.

“Were you a scaredy puss?” I stand up and grab some treats, dropping a few on the floor for her. I glance at the clock as it turns from 3:59 to 4:00. I’m not even yawning.

I stand in front of the full-length mirror on the back of my door. My twin stares back at me. May would never have cut her hair so short, and she wouldn’t be caught dead in boxers, but our faces are the same. I wonder what I’ll look like next year, once I’m 18 and I can start testosterone therapy. Once that happens, I’ll never see May’s face in the mirror again. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Sleepiness takes me over all at once. I shut down my computer and fall into bed. Witchy, who is making herself comfy, meows indignantly. Once I’m still, she cuddles up by my left hip. She’s purring again, but she’s not afraid anymore. She’s content, relaxed, safe.

I let myself drift away into my dream city with its alluring enclaves and breathtaking architecture. May’s face, and her touch, are fresh in my mind. I’ll hear her voice tonight. I can feel it.

 

FICTION PIECE

The Price of Truth

by Christina Hoag

 

“Wait. Did you just say you don’t want to go to prom with me? You’re taking back your invitation?” A hole opens in my stomach, a giant, gaping abyss.

Malcolm’s eyes don’t meet my shocked stare. All I see are the hoods of his lids as he searches the ground, as if the excuse is lying there, waiting to be picked up and hurled like a stone. He finds it.

“It’s really my mom,” he mumbles. “She says it’s for the best, you know, with everything happening and…” His voice trails off into the air.

“Prom is in two weeks. I’ve already bought my dress, my shoes. How could you do this to me?” My voice quavers.

“I’m sorry, Jade.” He turns and flees as if he can’t wait to get away from me. Which, of course, he can’t.

The backs of my eyes smart. I don’t want to cry but I’m going to. I look around to see who witnessed this small scene of my greatest humiliation. A couple of girls nearby toss their hair and wheel their backs to me in a clucking circle of shields.

News of the co-captain of the hockey team refusing to go to prom with me will be all over the senior class by lunchtime. Malcolm and I aren’t together or anything, but when he asked me to go to prom with him, it was a big deal. Plus, I figured it might even lead to the proverbial “summer romance” that everybody seems to have—except me.

I press the heels of my hands into my eyes to erase the evidence of escaping tears. I press so hard colored spots swirl in the darkness. When I open them, people are glaring at me with Arctic ice stares. I know what these looks are about; I know why Malcolm dumped me. There’s only one difference between today and the day before yesterday when I was last at school. It’s that I told the truth.

You’re taught from the time you can talk that telling the truth is the right thing to do. You’re not supposed to get punished for telling the truth.

That’s a lie.

The bell rings. The students mingling in the courtyard roll into the building like a tide rolling into the shore, but my feet are immovable concrete slabs. Kids shove past me, knocking into my backpack, chattering over me, around me. I can’t do it. I can’t face the day now. I’m about to turn and run away when I hear my name.

“Jade Morano! I’m ready with the tardies.” Mr. Rittenhouse, my hard-ass chemistry teacher from junior year, stands on the steps in front of the double-door entrance. He wags his pad at me.

I join the stoners, who have emerged from the fringe of the woods surrounding the school already reeking of pot and cigarettes, as they straggle in. Justin Chiu zooms by in his motorized wheelchair, cutting me off as he hangs a right up the disabled ramp. “Sorry!” he yells over his shoulder.

I don’t have time to make a pitstop at my locker. I shuffle straight to homeroom where fifty-six eyes laser into me as I enter. Fifty-eight, counting Ms. Alvarez. I hand her my mom’s letter stating why I was absent the previous two days: “Jade had to give testimony at a criminal trial.” I feel heat ballooning inside me as Ms. Alvarez scans it. Criminal. Couldn’t Mom have just written “at a trial”? Ms. Alvarez scribbles her initials on it, records it on the roll and hands it back without a word.

My seat is in the second to last row. I walk down the aisle, keeping my gaze directed at the red dot of Berlin on the map of Europe that covers the back wall bulletin board, ignoring the creaking chairs and murmurs behind me. We stand for the pledge of allegiance, then take our seats as the PA squawks with the daily string of announcements.

Bethany Frankel twists in her seat to face me. “How could you have left that girl? That was so cruel,” she whispers.

Her words feel like a slap to the face. My cheeks actually burn. Then, Brian Stavros leans over and delivers the gut punch, “You left her to be raped. What kind of person are you?”

I say nothing. I have no answers to these questions. I realize they’re just voicing everyone’s thoughts about me. Including my own. Anything I could possible say would sound like a lame excuse anyways. All I know is that I just went through the worst day of my life on the witness stand in a courtroom, and everyone—the assistant prosecutor, my mom and dad, the therapist they sent me to—promised it would now all be behind me, but they were obviously completely wrong.

It’s just starting.

The bell rings for first period. I have U.S. History. I hang back until everyone files out ahead of me then beeline to my locker for my textbook. I slow when I turn the corner as something catches my eye. I can see the big, red, spray-painted capital letters from a distance. F O R down the locker door.  Holy shit. Is that my locker? Please, tell me it isn’t.

I speed walk closer. It is my locker. There’s more. My throat clutches.

In smaller letters beside the capitals, it spells out what they stand for: Friend of Rapist.

All the air is sucked out of me. I gulp, trying to breathe but the air has solidified in my throat. I can’t seem to get it down.

“Ignore it, Jade.” It’s my friend Chloe, who works for the local weekly newspaper. “It’s just stupid stuff.”

It occurs to me that basically my infamy is the fault of the media. At the trial, I recognized the woman with the curly red hair scribbling incessantly in a notebook–Chloe’s boss, the editor of the Indian Valley Weekly News. She’d introduced me to her one time when I went by the newspaper.

“What do you want, Chloe? An exclusive interview or something?” I fling open my locker and rummage for my book.

She recoils. “No, of course not. I just wanted to help.”

I find “History of the Americans” and slam the door. “Yeah, you’ve already been such a help.” I launch into a sprint down the emptying hall to beat the bell.

I can’t concentrate on Mr. Belsky’s lecture on taxation in the colonies. Several kids throw me sidelong glances as if they’re seeing me for the first time. One of the cheerleaders whispers to another, who turns and looks at me. I slump in my chair and throw my hoodie over my head.

I sneak my phone into my lap and pull up the website, so I can see what was written about me, but the page won’t load.

As Mr. Belsky drones on, my anger bubbles to a boil: at my parents, at the prosecutor who said I was doing the right thing. The right thing for who? I should never have listened to them. I should never have said anything. The fact is I could have gotten away with not being involved since Caitlin remembered my name wrong.

Now, for some inane, unfathomable reason, I’m being blamed for the sexual assault, instead of the guy on trial. What about him? The actual person who did it. Shouldn’t everyone be mad at him?

Why didn’t I go home with Morgan that night at the carnival? The “incident,” which is what Mom and Dad call it, happened last June, after school let out. When I went to the police and reported what I saw and heard that night, the detectives told me not to talk about it, so I didn’t. People, including my friends, didn’t really know my exact role in the whole thing. By the time school started, the sexual assault at the Reserve had all but been forgotten in the competition for “best summer ever!” stories.

It had all gone away until the trial popped up, like the sun reappearing from behind a cloud, to cast a spotlight on My Great Mistake, My Lapse in Judgment. They couldn’t have waited until school let out. No, they had to do the trial not only while school was still in session but right before prom.

I check my phone again. The article has finally loaded.

“Jade, are you with us?” Mr. Belsky calls. I startle. People swivel in their chairs to look at me.

“Yes,” I croak, dropping the phone between my thighs and propping myself up.

“Top of page 279, first paragraph.”

I scramble through the textbook to the page and stare blankly at it, not sure what I’m supposed to do. “Read it, please, out loud.” I hear a smattering of snickers. I suddenly hate everyone with such an intensity it scares me, but somehow, I manage to read the words. I don’t comprehend a single one of them. Luckily, Belsky picks on someone else to explain what the paragraph means.

After history class, I run into the girls’ room and lock myself in a stall to read the article. All the stuff I did and didn’t do is there in black and white. My knees quake so badly I lean on the wall for support. The bell rings. I’m now tardy for Econ.

I make it through the rest of my classes with the help of my hoodie. I can’t wait to get to lunch to see Morgan and Clarissa. I rush in and sit at our usual table to wait for them to return from the cafeteria line. I spot Morgan emerging from the cashier and wave.

“You’re not eating?” She slides her tray holding a chicken wrap and fruit cup onto the table and sits.

I shake my head. I have a big lump in my stomach. “Not really hungry.”

Clarissa’s right behind her, with the exact same meal. On a normal day, I’d be behind Clarissa, also with the exact same meal.

I notice Clark Washington, the varsity football team quarterback, looking at me with a snide smile. He’s sitting with a bunch of jocks, including Malcolm, at a nearby table with three milk cartons apiece on their trays. They make a big deal out of drinking milk every day, like it makes them superior healthy beings. Then Clark whispers something to Malcolm, the traitor, obviously about me. Malcolm glances up at me. I want to walk over, scream at them, sink my nails into their faces, pour their precious milk into their laps, something.

But I do nothing. Because that’s obviously what I always do—nothing.

“Take no notice of them.” Clarissa unwraps her wrap. “I guess the trial went badly yesterday? Is that why you sent me a sad face emoji?”

“You can read about it in the Weekly News. Everybody else has,” I say. She and Morgan exchange a glance, which tells me they’ve read it. “Malcolm did. He uninvited me to prom this morning.”

They exchange another uncomfortable glance. I’m feeling more and more on the outside. “We heard,” Morgan says.

“But we didn’t know if it was true,” Clarissa rushes to add. “The trial is all everybody’s been talking about these past couple days.”

“You never told us the details of what happened that night,” Morgan says. Is she accusing me? “Like that you heard her scream and the sound of her being slapped.”

“I couldn’t. The cops told me not to.” I’m wondering where this is leading, but I have an inkling it’s not going to be good.

“Can we ask you a question?” Morgan says. My stomach seizes. “What if it’d been me or Clarissa or Chloe? Would you have gone back to help if it had been one of us?”

“Or at least called 911 when you got a signal back on the road?” Clarissa adds.

They study me as if I’m a painting in a museum. I go for the easy answer, the one they want to hear. “Of course.”

Clarissa scrunches up her face. “So, you didn’t help that girl because you weren’t really friends with her?” She’s trying to make sense of what I did, which I can’t even make sense of. I’ve fallen into a trap.

“It’s not that simple. When I left, they were making out. The other guy was passed out, so I left. I didn’t know the dude was going to… to do that to her. I just wanted to go home. I was drunk. I was cold. I was tired. I regretted even going with them.”

“But you said you heard her yell ‘get off me’ and the sound of slaps,” Morgan says.

“Yeah, but I was halfway down the mountain already. It was total darkness. I only had the light on my phone to see. I really wasn’t sure what was going on. I was wasted, falling all over the place.”

“But if you’d gone back or called for help, even just yelled to let the guy know someone else was there,” Clarissa says.

“Or reported it right away to the police,” Morgan says.

The vise of their judgment is squeezing me. “Can we talk about something else?”

“It just seems kind of crappy, you know?” Clarissa says in a small voice

I feel a swell of anger. “You weren’t there. I don’t know why I did what I did, I just did it, okay? Nobody’s perfect. I did go to the cops, I did make a statement, I did testify at the trial. Nobody seems to recognize how hard all that was. Instead, for some reason, I’m getting blamed. What about the guy who did it?”

Silence lands with a clumsy thud.

Clarissa breaks it. “You can return the prom dress, at least.”

Her lame comment annoys me. Shouldn’t she be saying something like ‘you’ll find someone else to go to with,’ or ‘I’ll help you find someone to go with,’ or maybe even ‘you can go with Claudio and me’ ”? Then I get it. She thinks I deserved to be dumped.

“I took the tags off already,” I say.

“They might take it back anyway,” Morgan says. “My mom has returned things without tags before.”

I grab Clarissa’s plastic wrap off her tray and pull it to shreds. I study my fingers. They seem to be detached digits, working on their own like a machine. I sense my friends raising their eyebrows at each other, wondering how to handle their suddenly very flawed and unpopular bestie. I make it easy on them and myself. I scrape back my chair.

“I have to go see Lenny about cleaning my locker door. Someone spray-painted ‘Friend of Rapist’ on it. So, I’ll leave you free to talk about me since I know that’s what you want to do.”

They show no surprise about the graffiti, which means they’ve already seen it, nor do they try to make me stay. Instead, they offer lukewarm “laters.”

I walk out of the noisy cafeteria. I don’t go find the janitor. I stroll by the library and decide to go in. It’s calm and quiet, occupied only by the kids who nobody wants to hang with at lunch, the exile territory of high school.

I flop into a chair at an empty table and lay my forehead on my folded arms. I don’t ever want to come back to Indian Valley High School after today. I could go to Florida and stay with Grandma for the summer, find a job there. In the fall, I’ll be off to college in Washington D.C. But I still have to make it to the end of the school year. Maybe I could do independent study to finish up, make up some excuse that my mom has cancer and I have to be at home to take care of her. My parents would probably have to sign off on it, though.

I hear a whirr beside me. “Sorry about Malcolm.” I look up. Justin Chiu has pulled up beside me in his wheelchair.

You know?” The gossip really has made the rounds.

“Yeah, even me. Everybody ignores me, so I hear a lot. It’s like I’m invisible. Comes in handy from time to time. And sometimes not.” He jerks his head to swing the shock of bleached blond hair out of his eyes. The rest of his shaggy hair is black, matching the black denim jacket with the sleeves cut off and fingerless gloves. He tries too hard to be cool.

“For the record, Malcolm Crespo’s an idiot,” he continues. “He does whatever Clark Washington tells him to do. I bet Clark put him up to the prom-dump.”

Prom-dump. “What? There’s a word for it, now?” My voice comes out louder than I intended it.

People’s heads perk. “Keep it down,” Mrs. Whittaker, the librarian, warns.

Why is Justin, of all people, talking to me about this? I just want him to go away. “For the record, you have a zit ready to explode on your forehead,” I blurt.

My nastiness takes him aback for a moment, then he recovers. “Just thought you’d like to know. I better go take care of my zit,” he says in a voice washed with sarcasm. He pivots his wheelchair and buzzes back to his table.

I need to get out of there. I get to my feet and sling my backpack over my shoulder, but I stand there like an idiot as I realize I have no place to go. The bell rings, relieving me of my dilemma. I slink off to pre-calculus.

I put myself on auto-pilot, ignore everybody, and make it through the afternoon. I’m so looking forward to going home, but when I get there, I see my princess prom gown, pale pink, strapless with a full skirt of blousy chiffon, hanging on the outside of my closet door. Once a trophy, it’s now a mocking symbol of my failed life. I rip it down, march to the garbage cans outside the back door, and shove it among the stinking bags of rubbish.

I check my phone. Usually by now, I have a couple group texts from Morgan, Clarissa or Chloe, exchanging the gossip of the day but today there’s nothing. That’s because I am the gossip of the day. I crack open “Macbeth” and try to make sense of Shakespeare.

 

The next day, I drag myself into school and find the graffiti on my locker has been scrubbed off. There’s a telltale patch of raw metal, but it’s better than the words. I feel a faint ray of hope. Today will be better.

During homeroom announcements, we’re informed that we have an assembly first period. That puts everyone in a good mood, myself included.

We file into the auditorium. The hum dies down when the principal, Ms. Berteau, takes the stage. “Good morning, everyone. I decided to hold this assembly today to discuss ‘Doing the Right Thing’.” I freeze. “We have a special guest who’s going to talk to us about how important it is to speak up when we witness wrongdoing and how to avoid situations where we may get into trouble.”

A police officer emerges from the curtains at the side of the stage. I recognize her. She was the one I gave my statement to when I went into the police station. This is all about me. It is not blowing over. I suddenly burn with heat. I’m going to suffocate if I stay a second longer in this auditorium. I stand and shove past everyone’s knees along the row. I don’t care about the toes I’m treading on, the “ow’s” and “watch it’s.” I have to get out.

“Don’t you think you should stay for this?” The familiar voice stops me. It’s Morgan, sitting in the row behind mine. Clarissa, sitting next to her, jabs her with her elbow. I break free of the last pair of knees and run out of the auditorium and into the first girls’ room I see. My stomach is churning. The whole school is turning against me now. Why? I did the right thing, I did.

I stay in the bathroom until I hear the bell for second period and the crescendo of chatter and footsteps. I wait for it to get loud then sidle out and merge into the crowd.

At lunch, there’s no way I’m going to show my face in the cafeteria. I go straight to the library. Justin’s there. A physics textbook is lying open on the table, but he’s absorbed in a game on his phone. I feel a pang of remorse at my crappy treatment of him yesterday. He was trying to be nice in his own weird way. I go over.

“Hey.”

He looks up and does that shaggy-dog shake with his hair. “Hey.”

“I just want to apologize for yesterday. It wasn’t exactly the best day of my life. I was kind of all over the place. I’m sorry for the way I acted.”

“ S’all right. I saw you leave the assembly. You okay?”

“Basically…well, not really.”

“I know the feeling.” There’s a pause. “I did take care of the zit though, so thanks.” He smiles, and I smile back.

“You want to get out of here, take a walk or something?” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I realize my mistake. “Sorry, I mean…”

He shuts his book with a thud. “I’m used to it. I’ll take you for a ride.”

“A ride?”

“Yeah, you’ll see.”

We head out of the library, down the hall and out the side exit where a long asphalt path slopes down to the football field. He halts.

“Hop on.”

“On what?”

He pats his lap. I look at him uncertainly. “Don’t worry. My legs don’t feel anything. And I won’t do anything creepy, promise.”

“Okay.” I perch myself on his thighs.

“Hang on.” I grab the back of the chair as he pushes the little joystick on the chair arm. The wheelchair accelerates, and we rumble down the path. We hit the hill, gather speed. Then we’re flying.

Justin yells. He’s leaning forward and squinting into the wind. It blows his hair straight back. I laugh like crazy and yell along with him.

It’s over too soon. The bleachers are coming up fast. “Justiiiinnnnn!” I shriek.

“Hold on.” He snaps the chair to the right, and we stop dead at the back of the bleachers.

I look at him in newfound admiration. “That was awesome! Better than any rollercoaster.”

“Come on. Let’s do a lap around the track. We have time.”

“Sure.” I settle back on his lap, and he scoots us forward.

“You could be a wheelchair stuntman, if there’s such a thing,” I say as we buzz around the empty lanes.

“I’d probably starve. There aren’t many people in wheelchairs in movies. I’ll stick with engineering and save the stunts to impress girls,” he says.

“So, you give a lot of girls rides?”

“Only girls I like.”

I snorted. “Even ones who don’t stop rapes?”

“I don’t judge because I know what it’s like. People judge me all the time because I’m in a wheelchair. Even you.”

His words take me aback because I know they’re true. “Yeah, I did judge you. I’m sorry.”

We come full circle to the bleachers. “If you don’t mind walking,” he says. “It’ll be too much weight for the chair to handle uphill.”

I hop off and we trundle back. “I’m really not supposed to give rides, you know,” he says.

“Well, thanks for breaking the rules. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me all week.”

“Me, too,” he says.

An awkward moment follows. I break it by asking a feeble question about what classes he has in the afternoon. “AP Physics and AP Economics,” he says.

“How many AP classes are you taking?”

“Five.”

“You must be super, super smart.”

“I’d trade some of my ‘smart’ for other things I don’t have,” he says quietly.

“You have a lot of things,” I say automatically.

“Like…?”

My brain stumbles to think of something, then it just comes out. “A great personality, sense of humor, daredevil attitude. You’re like a punk rocker on wheels. And you’re kinda cute.”

“Just kinda?”

“Don’t push it.” I laugh.

“Okay, I’ll take kinda. And the ‘punk rocker on wheels.’ I like that.”

The bell rings. We hurry inside and peel off in opposite directions to our classes. I feel a whole lot lighter.

 

I’m putting books in my locker after last period. Justin pulls up beside me. I close my locker. “Hey.”

“Hey. So, I don’t know if this is a good time to ask but I was thinking… I wasn’t planning on going to prom, but since you’re free now, maybe we could go together.”

I really didn’t expect this. I mean, I like Justin, but I’m not sure I want to go to prom with him. I’d be going from the popular jock to the outcast. Everyone would stare and titter; it’s not like I need more of that.

He keeps talking. “I know this isn’t much of a promposal but since it’s coming up soon and…”

My mouth twists. “Justin, I don’t…”

He cuts me off. “Forget it. Forget I even asked.” He zips off.

“Wait, Justin!”

But he’s barreling down the hall, weaving through the crowd. Just as well. What was I going to say anyway? Make up some excuse? I mope along to the student parking lot. I can’t seem to do anything right. Ever.

I’m getting into my car when my phone rings. The caller’s not in my contact list, but I answer.

“Jade, it’s Caitlin.” My heart booms. The girl from the trial. The victim. “I just wanted to thank you for testifying. It really helped the case. Without you, it was his word against mine.”

“Oh.” I have no idea what to say. It hadn’t occurred to me that the trial was even still going on; that it had consequences beyond my own life. I fold myself into the driver’s seat and close the door.

“No one called you, did they? The jury found him guilty. So, thanks.”

I swallow. “But I’m the one who left you there. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.” Tears choke my words. “I don’t know how to tell you how sorry I am.”

“Tell the truth, I was mad at you for a while. But you came through, and then my mom told me how you held up against that asshole defense attorney. So, I couldn’t hold anything against you, just like I couldn’t blame myself either. It wasn’t either of our faults. This has been a nightmare for months, but it’s almost over. We just have the sentencing now. I gotta go. Maybe we can get together when this is done.”

“Yeah, sure.”

I hang up and sit there in the parking lot trying to process what she said. She didn’t hold anything against me. She said it wasn’t my fault.

I’d caught a glimpse of her when I walked out of the courtroom.  She was waiting in the hallway to go in to testify. I hadn’t seen her since that night when our lives unknowingly intertwined forever on the Rock. She looked different–thinner and meeker–than when I met her at the carnival; she had been full of confidence and light that day, taking shot at the plastic ducks in one of the carnival games. Now, her eyes looked so sad. Despite what she said, I know we won’t see each other again. Neither of us wants to be reminded of that night.

Something inside me softens, unfurls, and then just dissolves. I suddenly don’t care anymore about what people say. The only person who was affected by my decisions during that night and in the subsequent trial was Caitlin and she’s forgiven me. That’s really all that matters.

I spot a hunched figure hurtling across the far end of the parking lot like a thrown ball. I know what I want to do next; how I want to live my life from this moment forward. I bound out of the car.

“Justin!” I wave my arms. “Justin, stop!”

He slows, then speeds on when he sees me. I run to catch up with him and grab hold of the back of his wheelchair. It’s still moving, and my legs give out under me. I tip forward and bang my chin on the chair. He halts and turns, looking a little shocked. “What are you doing?”

Gasping, I pull myself up, feeling slightly idiotic. “Yes, my answer is yes.”

He pauses. I can see he’s trying to figure me out. “Who says the offer is still open?” he says at last.

“You never gave me the chance to answer you. If you asked me a question, I at least deserve a chance to answer.”

He narrows his eyes at me. “So, is ‘yes’ a basically-not-really answer or an answer-answer?”

“It’s an answer-answer. I want to go to prom with you. It’ll be fun.”

A smile creases his lips, and he nods. “Hey, want a ride back to your car?”

“Sure.” I climb onto his lap.

After dropping me off at my car, we talk for a little while as I sit in the driver’s seat and he sits in his chair, outside my window. We’re the same height now, I realize.

When I get home, I grab a granola bar from the pantry. Then I remember. My mouth stops mid chew. I fling the granola bar onto the counter and run outside. I lift up the lid on the garbage can that I stuffed the prom dress into. It’s empty. My gut plummets. I check the second. Empty. I’m too late.

I drag myself back into the kitchen and collapse into a chair at the table. What am I going to tell Justin? He’ll never believe that I threw away my dress. He’ll think it’s an excuse for not wanting to go with him. I can’t tell Mom what happened, either. It was an expensive gown. She’ll be furious. Do I have enough money to buy a new dress? Maybe I could tell her I exchanged it.

The garage door buzzes. Mom’s home. A minute later, the back door opens. She enters with a rustle.

“I’m assuming something happened, but if you don’t want this, we’ll give it to charity. No need to throw it away.” She holds up my prom dress encased in dry cleaning plastic. “I got a rush job on the dry clean with a coupon.”

I run and hug her.

 

Justin picks me up for prom in a limo and hands me a corsage of white roses that he pins to my dress. It matches the boutonniere on his tux. Mom and Dad take so many pictures that I have to cut them off or we’ll be late.

We enter the banquet room holding hands. Everybody stares, but I don’t care. We pass the jock’s table where Malcolm and Clark are sitting, the table where Morgan, Clarissa and Chloe are clustered together. I wave at them and head to our own table way at the back. I don’t care what they think of me. Who are they to judge? They don’t know what they would’ve done in the same situation. No one does. We all make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them.

When the music starts, Justin and I hit the dance floor. Meeting Justin was the best thing that came out of this whole thing. Little did I know he was way cooler than anyone else, but I’m really glad I found out. I sit on his lap and make a necklace around him with my arms, leaning my head on his as he rocks the wheelchair from side to side. And I know everything’s going to be all right.

 

 

FICTION PIECE

Scripturient

by Corinne Silver

 

It was early morning Monday when I woke, gasping for breath and covered in goose bumps. The blaring red numbers of the digital clock on my nightstand read 5:55. Only five minutes before the alarm signaled another mundane school day.  If I didn’t write now, the whole story would be lost.

Thwarting consciousness’s ability to steal away the most beautiful dreams, I drilled flashcards of the dream’s images in my head: the forest, the glowing light, the flowering trees, the townspeople. I crashed into my desk chair and turned my laptop on.  Light sparked between my index finger and the power button of the laptop.  The static force jolted through my bone, up into my elbow, past my shoulder, and up the side of my neck.  I didn’t care enough to draw back my popping, fizzing hair.  Intangible memories slipped from my head.

What had that stranger’s enthusiastic, but somehow plotting voice said?  Why couldn’t I recall it?  Why wouldn’t this infernal piece of metal load faster?!

At the command of my thoughts, the Novella homepage snapped into view.

Muscle memory kicked in.  I typed my login, struck the enter key, and opened a fresh story template, eager to release the words driving down from my brain and impatiently jamming like traffic behind my fingertips.

Like a piano maestro in Carnegie Hall, I played the keyboard, translating the sheet music of thoughts onto this virtual canvas.

The luminescent orb hovering in my palm extinguished. Glowing fragments that once composed the orb squirmed into the inky darkness.  I stood at the boundary between the city and the forest.  I faced the backsides of four-story, brick buildings lining the main road, alleyways separating each one.  Shadows of hanging paper lanterns danced on the multicolored, pastel cobblestone.  Where had the townspeople gone?

I edged forward, out of the blue-flowered trees and onto the pavement.  A single sniff, and the smell of fruit-filled pastries stagnated on my pallet, no longer reminding me of the warmth of home.  A deathly silence had replaced the gaiety of musicians playing their lyres and flutes.  My stomach churned with the rhythm of the phantom dance. 

I wandered to the center of the street.  The people were there, uncomfortably crammed at the northern point of the road.  They swarmed the village square.  From an unknown source a low, authoritarian voice rose that grew louder and stronger.  The voice stifled their joyful camaraderie.  All stilled in fear of the words spoken.

The dreadful voice, muffled to my ears, ended its speech. 

The people ascended into riot.  

I finished thirty seconds early, draped myself backward over the desk chair, that unsettling male voice still mumbling in my head. The man said something I either couldn’t remember, or couldn’t make out for it being so muffled, but I remembered the tone. He presented an idea so jarring, the villagers were nearly paralyzed, yet he seemed overjoyed to announce it.

My dreamland couldn’t be any more fantastic or strange. It rang in my ears constantly, like a high-pitched fever dream until I drummed an imperfect version into a word document. Sometimes I journeyed to the arctic where giant seal creatures played, sometimes to the Amazon wilderness where tree spirits guarded the land. My stories originated from this kaleidoscope of adventures, and most of them were zapped out of my subconscious before I could even find a pen.

Ping!  Ping!  Ping!  My alarm went off on the nightstand. I crossed the room and silenced the noise.

But even when written words failed, the tones of my visions swam together in a koi pond of emotions lingering behind my awareness.

When I dipped my pen in for ink, I extracted rippled reflections.

FICTION PIECE

It Ain’t Over Til The Pink Lady Sings

by Allison Fradkin

 

SYNOPSIS
Theatre is an ensemble of inflection, projection, and rejection. So when Marva—a performer who’s part ingénue, part dreamgirl next door—desires a duet with Winifred, her BFF onstage and off, she has no idea how to go about going from Pink Lady to Pink Lady friend. Will the entrance of Francine, a triply threatening romantic rival, prompt Marva to act on her feelings before the curtain closes on her chances?

CHARACTERS

MARVA
15-17
female-identifying
Black

FRANCINE
15-17
female-identifying
open ethnicity

WINIFRED
15-17
female-identifying
Black

SETTING
The stage, on which is a bare-bones fifties-style bedroom set.

TIME
Night, now.

At rise, MARVA and FRANCINE are onstage, reflecting on the rehearsal they’ve just had for the pajama party scene in Grease.

MARVA

“I really flipped over the gay cashmere sweater”? Did I seriously sing that?

FRANCINE
It’s about time you knew the score. But hey, I get it, Marva—you’re not only fresh out the closet; you’re also fresh off the book.

MARVA
Thank you. And I was perfectly content to continue, which I would have been able to do if you all hadn’t proceeded to bust a gut—and my chops—about my little… malaprop.

FRANCINE
Technically, we were delayed by your little serenade. Rehearsal stopped cold because you have the hots for the titular Freddy in “Freddy, My Love.”

MARVA
Cut the gas, Francine, okay? Winifred doesn’t even go by Freddy.

FRANCINE
But you really did a number on her, didn’t you? When I’m waiting in the wings, I have a clear view of the onstage goings-on. And you, Marva, were going on and on about Freddy, your love, crooning and swooning and mooning all over her. It was gutsy, yet putzy. Humiliating, yet exhilarating. All in all, a perfect way to convey the affection with which you are filled. You could flirt with all the guise—

MARVA
Exactly, Francine. Unlike Rizzo, my character Marty does flirt with all the guys—

FRANCINE
Not guys, Marva. Guise. Jeez, do I have to spell it out for you? G-u-i-s-e, as in “the guise of thespianism.” If I were you, I’d do something a little more outrageous, courageous, advantageous.
(bounds onto the makeshift bed and starts singing)
Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee / Lousy with affinity / For my best friend / She is the living end / Wish she’d be my steady

MARVA
Okay, Francine, you’ve made your point: you were miscast as Sandy; you’d be boffo as Rizzo.

FRANCINE
Why be a Pink Lady when you can be a leading lady? This is why you need to follow my lead before someone slightly less subtle swoops in and sweeps Winifred off her tootsies. A girl like her is cruisin’ for a schmoozin’, what with that positively peachy personality, that pair of passion pit-perfect lips. She don’t need no ciggie-butt to be smokin’ hot.

MARVA
Yep, she’s the ginchiest. Anyone would be kookie not to have a crush on her. Wait, are you…

FRANCINE
Kookie?

MARVA
A threat?

FRANCINE
Of course I’m not a threat, Marva. This is musical theatre. I’m a triple threat.

MARVA
But I thought you were… you know.

FRANCINE
Hey, just because I am a scintillating synthesis of TinkerBell, the Fairy Godmother, and Glinda the Good Witch does not mean that I am straighter than a magic wand.

MARVA
You’re getting your musicals mixed up.

FRANCINE
(sotto voce)
More like I’m getting them fixed up.
(audibly)
You know that lyric in your solo, about someday being held in Freddy’s arms? Well, I am angling for an ultra clutch. Now, since we’re still in rehearsals, it may not be five to places, but it is most definitely ten to one that you had better act on your feelings before the curtain closes on your chances. As my alter ego Doris Day would say: Whatever will be will be… mine.

MARVA
(sotto voce)
You’d better alter your ego, Miss Sandra Dethroned.
(audibly)
You said you saw me crooning and swooning and mooning all over her. Did you happen to see her doing any or all of the above in a… mutual manner?

FRANCINE
Are you asking Francine your friend or Francine your romantic rival?
MARVA
That depends. Is doubling allowed?

FRANCINE
Absolutely. As Norma Desmond declared, “I can play any role.”

MARVA
Wish I knew which role Winifred wants to play: Freddy, my love—or yours. Wonder what she’s doing now.

FRANCINE
She’s in the dressing room getting fitted for her Frenchy wig, remember? Can you believe that Winifred of all people is doing a rendition of a beautician? Bet she can’t wait to doff that coif.

MARVA
You should have seen her at slumber parties when we were kids. She would play ice cream parlor, pizza parlor; she would even play tattoo parlor. But she would never play beauty parlor.

FRANCINE
Winifred balks at blow dryers.

MARVA
Cringes at curling irons.

FRANCINE
And hates the heck out of hairspray.

(WINIFRED enters.)

WINIFRED
Are you kidding? I am severely smitten with Hairspray! Marv and I first saw it in seventh grade, and the very next day I went out and bought saddle shoes just like Little Inez was wearing. Then I returned them because they looked too much like pandas and I was afraid I was committing animal cruelty. I know, I know: the wacker the berry… Speaking of which, my Frenchy wig really razzes my berries. Unreal, right? ’Cause normally I don’t do ’dos. But since it’s already flipped out, there’s no point in me flipping out too. Plus, it’s just plain nifty. If Eartha Kitt and Little Orphan Annie put their heads together, they’d get mine. Hey, did you hear—we might be doing Annie next fall. Too bad I’m too old to play her.

FRANCINE
It’s not just the age, Winifred. It’s the aesthetics. What I mean is Little Orphan Annie would have to grow out of her ugly duckling stage—no, she’d have to deliver a good hard knock to its homely heinie—before she could have the privilege of being played by you.

MARVA
I played Annie once. And not just any Annie. Annie Oakley. I was a real pistol. In fact, my performance was… Well, you had to be there.

WINIFRED
I was there, silly.

FRANCINE
It is pretty silly of her to think that just because she played some sexy sharpshooter in a show, she somehow has a shot with you, isn’t it?

WINIFRED
A shot?

MARVA
Yeah, a shot, like of Novocain, like the demented dentist refuses to give Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. Now that’s a show we should do.

FRANCINE
Yeah, and you could call the principal character, the unprincipled plant, Freddy II. If you’re A-OK with that sobriquet, Winifred?

WINIFRED
I don’t know why, but I’m beginning to experience more curiosity than all the cats in Cats combined.

FRANCINE
If memory serves me correctly, the friends-to-lovers scenario has been done before. Plus, you couldn’t possibly prefer a real-life ingénue slash dreamgirl next door to an honest-to-goodness prima donna who makes Motormouth Maybelle’s colossal confidence seem supremely undersized, could you?

(Winifred looks to Marva for clarification and/or help.)

MARVA
Don’t ask.

WINIFRED
(to Francine)
Don’t tell me more.

MARVA
If we could start anew, I wouldn’t hesitate.

FRANCINE
Oh, yes, you would. You are habitually hesitant, Marva. And BTW, FYI, that lyric you just quoted is from the song “Tears on My Pillow,” which is from the screen adaptation of Grease, not the stage show, making it entirely incompatible with this conversation. Yet another reason the queers on your pillow remain singular, not to mention single.

MARVA
You know what, Francine? This little love triangle—

WINIFRED
I’m in a love triangle?

FRANCINE
Don’t flatter yourself. That’s my job, although it would be marvelous if Marva could lighten my load a little. Unfortunately, instead of being somewhere over the rainbow with you, she’s somewhere that’s green with envy by herself.

MARVA
Did you ever think that maybe it’s hopeless for you to be so devoted, Francine? You want to talk compatibility? Okay.
(indicating Winifred and herself)
We go together like Eva Perón and Patti LuPone.
(indicating Winifred and Francine)
You go together like Lina Lamont and Lena Horne.

FRANCINE
Ugh, finally, you’re picking up your LGBT-cues. Now, let’s see if fools will rush in where teen angels fear to tread.
(In slow motion, as if anticipating an interruption, Francine leans in to kiss Winifred. Marva hesitates, as is her habit, to interrupt them.)
Uh, Marva, could you make like good news and travel a little faster, please?

WINIFRED
Yeah, Marva, before she plants one on me, if you could plant yourself between us like the vamp on a saddle shoe, that would be just ducky, thanks.

(Marva attempts the blocking she’s just been given.)

FRANCINE
Solid! Listen, I’m sorry-not-sorry to tell you this, but, Marva, I am not your romantic rival. I am your matchmaker, a fact I’ll bet you never knew, as evidenced by your acute obtuseness.

MARVA
How was I supposed to know you were putting me on?

WINIFRED
Is this because the Performing Arts department is putting on Fiddler on the Roof in the spring and you’ve got a yen to play Yente?

FRANCINE
I’m sure we can all agree that I am much better suited for that part than I am for the part of your love interest, Winifred. As it turns out, I can’t play any role, nor do I want to. Have neither of you noticed that I’ve been casting an eyeball at the catty, bratty Patty and another eyeball at the keen, unseen Eugene? Of course you haven’t. Because the two of you have been too busy being helplessly devoted to each other since freshman year—and probably prior to that.

WINIFRED
Better helpless than Marva-less…I guess.

FRANCINE
Ooh, that gives me an idea. Next semester’s Scene Study class will unofficially be known as Francine Study. Well, you must admit my performance was unmatched. As a result, that word no longer applies to you two. Hopefully. Um, you are relieved, not peeved, that I deceived you, right?

WINIFRED
Well, like Oliver!, the narrative of any good musical requires a twist. This must be ours.

MARVA
And who wants to be in a love triangle, anyway? Love triangles are so square.

FRANCINE
In other words, you’ll thank me later. I mean it. I expect an avalanche of appreciation for this…activation ASAP. Preferably tomorrow. It’s only a gay away. Oh, and remember, girls: a relationship is not a hairdryer, so don’t blow it.

(Francine makes a grand exit.)

WINIFRED
I like her. But not like that.

MARVA
Ditto. Um…yeah, I’m not really sure what to say. I feel like I’ve gone up on my lines, you know? I’ve got that majorly jittery feeling I always get right before an audition. But I’ve also got that ever-so-slightly snooty one I always get right before the cast list is posted.

WINIFRED
Are you hoping for the role of… Pink Lady friend?

MARVA
Only if there’s the possibility of an extension. My heart is set on more than just a “showmance.”
WINIFRED
Oh, I can pretty much promise you an extension. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve stood in front of the mirror practicing my “I Have a Dreamgirl” speech? I’d say, “Hey, Marv, I get a kick out of you,” and you’d say, “Aw, that’s sweet, Winifred, and I get a sidekick out of you.” I was so sure that after you’d come out, you’d finally come on—to me. But alas, you did not. You better shape up, ’cause I don’t need a man.

MARVA
I am in ship-shape, okay? Relationship-shape. Did you take any initiative?

WINIFRED
No, because I was afraid that if our relationship didn’t work out, our friendship would go kablooey.

MARVA
Kablooey? Phooey. Ugh, I think I accidentally aced Francine Study. Anyway, um, I know that being a couple won’t be a cakewalk or anything, but if I’m going to go singin’ in the rainbow that I prefer dolls to guys, I won’t be all wet if I do it as a duet.

WINIFRED
So instead of being all boo’d up, we’ll be all dolled up?

MARVA
Sounds swell, Freddy, my…

WINIFRED
You can say it.

MARVA
I can call you Freddy or I can call you…my love?

WINIFRED
That all depends on your answer to Frenchy’s all-important question: Was it love at first sight?

MARVA
We met in first grade, so…no. But once I started noticing girls, you were the first girl I noticed, so…yeah. Yeah, it was love at first sight. What about you? With me?

WINIFRED
I have almost always marveled at you too, Marva.

MARVA
Then I guess all that’s left for us to do is to lace up our saddle shoes until we’re tying a knot they never can sever.

WINIFRED
Want me to pair said shoes with my gay cashmere sweater? I totally have one, you know—ROY G BIV stripes wrapped around my foam-free domes and upper arms. Which reminds me: next time we play tattoo parlor, I’m drawing my name on your bicep—and vice versa.

MARVA
Is that a prerequisite for holding me in your arms someday?

WINIFRED
Someday? What’s wrong with today?
(Marva and Winifred hug.)
Look at us, Marva. We’re closer than the pooch on a poodle skirt.

MARVA
That explains why my stomach is all twisted up like a balloon animal and why, if I were a milk bottle, you could knock me over with a softball.

WINIFRED
LOL, but also SOL. That carnival scene is from the screen adaptation of Grease, not the stage show. Plus, neither of those references is even relevant, so everything involved in this conversation is woefully incompatible.

MARVA
Except us.

WINIFRED
Obviously. Now that we’ve got that squared away…

MARVA
Yes?

WINIFRED
We can make our true love vow.

(As Marva and Winifred prepare to kiss, Francine enters.)

FRANCINE
I can practically see your hearts fluttering like jazz hands.
(Marva and Winifred regard her with a blend of gratitude and attitude.)
What? Like I told Marva, when I’m waiting in the wings, I have a queer view of the onstage goings-on. And when it comes to the friends-to-lovers scenario, it’s clear that the two of you have got it going on. Carry on.
(sings, to the tune of the song from Grease, as she exits)
They’ll always be together…

WINIFRED
Well? Shall we act upon our matchmaker’s mandate?

MARVA
Freddy…

WINIFRED
…steady…

MARVA and WINIFRED
…go!

(Marva and Winifred share an im-peck-ably innocent foot-popping first kiss.)

Curtain.

FICTION PIECE

Wake Party

by Claire Betita de Guzman

 

Her father was dead, but people were laughing at the wake. Laughter was what she first heard when they pulled up that morning in front of the salmon-colored gate: staccato bursts of it rising above the muffled roll of mahjong tiles. It sounded more like an afternoon party, and at first, Carmen wasn’t sure they’d come to the right place: the gate was wide open, the red santan flowers by the driveway were in full bloom, and there was a terrace spilling with people.

But her mother was already alighting from the car with purpose, pausing just outside to root into her bag for the pink mirrored compact she always carried. It was the third instance she’d fished it out since leaving their house, and this time, as she reached for the compact, her dark glasses came tumbling out of her cream satchel causing a thin clatter on the cracked pavement.

“Putres,” her mother muttered, but made no move to pick up the errant shades. Instead, Carmen watched as she flicked open the compact and frowned at her tiny reflection.

She often heard her mother curse like this when she was stressed. When she had a fussy client or was late or when their Honda CR-V wouldn’t start. It felt more like an utterance of betrayal than anger, all that venom and frustration packed into a two-syllable word, her mother sounding as if the very air she was breathing had somehow maltreated her. “Putres,” Carmen knew, was short for “putang ina,” another bad word but one that provided less cause for alarm. It sounded like her thing, the one down there, though she suspected it really meant something else. Her mother used putang ina easily and more often—usually with a resigned sigh or a bitter laugh—during smaller catastrophes.

Carmen shoved her soft, yellow-haired doll under one armpit and bent down to retrieve the black plastic, pausing to check if the greenish lenses had cracked (they hadn’t). For a split-second, she considered propping the sunglasses on the doll, which she’d named Greta. Her mother rarely wore sunglasses, but she did today, sniffling and crying behind the wheel like a broken gangster as they inched through the traffic-clogged lanes of Manila’s South Super Highway.

Carmen knew this pair of shades had come from the bottom of a drawer in her mother’s desk, the ones with the smudged Hallmark cards and faded photos of her father. She’d done the requisite excavations, on the long afternoons that her mother was out, when Nani, her babysitter, thought she was napping. Her favorite was the tattered-edged photo where her father looked like a farmer, wearing a floppy straw hat and smiling as if it was the very first time he was getting his picture taken.

“Thanks, sweetheart. Give me that.” The spindly glasses were swept off her palms, replaced by the clamminess of her mother’s hand, as Carmen heard another fierce sniffle.

She looked up just in time to see her mother lifting her chin, sweeping the stray hairs from her face. Her nose, Carmen, noted with dismay, was still a mottled reddish-pink despite the powder she’d patted on from that compact, twice—first before they left the house, and second, just after they’d parallel-parked on the sidewalk across from the open gate. Carmen wanted to tell her that her eyes were swollen and that her face looked fat, like when she’d slept too much or too little, or drank too much beer.

Maybe she should. “Ma?”

“What, Carmen?” Her mother tightened her grip, just a tad. “What is it?”

“Your nose, your—”

“Not now.” She gave Carmen’s hand a sharp pull. Her mother sounded like she had a bad cold and was pissed about it.

To her relief, no one paid attention when they walked, hand in hand, through the gate. And once they went past the thick, decorative cement railing that separated the terrace from the front garden, Carmen realized she’d been too hasty: not everybody was laughing. There was a row of forlorn-faced aunties on one side, looking like dark Virgin Marys as they sat swathed in black tunics, heads draped in inky shawls and clutching rosaries with bony hands. Teenagers in white were solemnly ferrying trays of empty cups and dishes through a side door. Carmen spied a toddler whimpering in a corner, buttons of her overalls undone, snot dripping from her nose. At the far end where the terrace ended, a circle of men in singlets and slippers took discreet swigs from amber-colored bottles and threw them curious glances. They were perched nimbly on green, upturned plastic beer cases; San Miguel Brewery, Carmen read in upside-down, fancy lettering that looked like it was made for kings.

The laughter, she realized, was coming from a group of four playing mahjong in the middle of the terrace. They were seated around a square table, peering with gleeful focus into the tidy row of white and green tiles set in front of each of them.

“Pong!” a man in a brown fedora cried, to the amused chuckles of the crowd behind him.

“Todas!” A leathery-skinned woman declared, beaming as she toppled her line of tiles in one swift, clean motion—the grand reveal of her triumph. Several people cheered and Carmen felt an excited ripple run through the small crowd that had gathered behind her. The woman laughed as she collected coins and crumpled bills.

Carmen knew this game; it was one of her father’s favorites. He had a mahjong set stashed in a cabinet in her mother’s living room, packed neatly in a slim, faux-leather box. She’d once taken out the smooth, rectangular tiles and built herself a miniature fortress on the floor. Carmen suddenly wanted to pee.

“That’s her! The querida.”

It wasn’t a shout, but it was louder than a whisper and she felt her mother give a start. Carmen whirled to see who had said it, bumping into the jean-clad butt of someone who’d moved away too quickly. And what was it that he (she?) just said?

Her eyes fell on a teenage girl leaning languidly against the frame of an open doorway, the one that led to the house. A girl older and taller than Carmen, ethereal in pink and white, with hair that settled in graceful waves on her shoulders and a smile that was pretty and familiar, and not really that friendly. Still, Carmen couldn’t help thinking that she’d always wanted hair like that, though her mother insisted on an austere bob for her every time. Carmen, too, would have wanted to wear the same clean-cut white shorts and baby-pink tee, a sparkly scrunchie on one wrist like a fancy, outrageous bracelet. She watched as the girl turned on her heel and went into the house, leaving Carmen with a view of what was inside: a room full of flowers, bright bulbous lamps on tall stands, a white casket. Her father.

The bodies seemed to have stopped moving, replaced by curious faces only starting to realize that there were strangers in their midst. Voices, outraged and accusing, seemed to jump out from the crowd.

“Is that—?”

“I can’t believe she actually would—”

“It really is her, the querida—his mistress, right here! The gall!”

“Where’s Norma? Still in her room? Somebody fetch her, for god’s sakes.”

 

***

She had seen her father just last week. Her mother had organized a birthday party in their garage, and Carmen was thrilled she’d been commissioned to help in transforming the grey, stuffy space into a rainbow wonderland of crepe paper, balloons, and a streamer that said “Happy 7th Birthday, Carmen!” Her mother’s white CR-V had been relegated to the sidewalk.

Neatly laid-out on two Monobloc tables was a glistening chocolate cake, stacks of tuna sandwiches on colored bread, and tubs of spaghetti laced with condensed milk, just how Carmen liked it. Bright-red hotdogs were skewered on sticks with pastel marshmallows and hefty cubes of cheese. Her mother insisted they all be stuck to a pineapple, and though Carmen had protested, she had to admit that it turned out looking like a big, sassy flower. She couldn’t wait to attack the donkey piñata her mother had ordered online.

Her father had arrived late and had stayed until the last kid was cajoled into going home. He avoided the hotdogs but kept going back to the fridge to fetch a can from the six-pack of San Miguel her mother had stored there.

“The last one,” he kept saying, with a conspiratorial grin and a finger to his lips, on the two times that Carmen had trailed after him.

She understood. This was her father: quiet, affable, very much a possessor of secrets. But he’d come that day wheeling a brand-new bike, bubblegum-pink with white wheels and a nifty basket at the handlebars.

“You like your birthday gift?” He asked her now, looking out to the garage where her mother had gone to deliver another tower of sandwiches, before swiping another beer—his third one, Carmen noted—from the cool confines of the fridge.

Carmen giggled. “I love it, Dad.”

“Shh, okay?” Another exaggerated finger-to-lips motion. He tipped the can towards her, a surreptitious toast.

Carmen smiled. Of course. The real gift, she knew, was this latest secret. The most precious one for this year’s birthday, because it was theirs.

 

***

He was found in the bathroom, slumped on the floor with drool at the sides of his mouth, his head limp against the toilet paper holder. That was what Carmen overheard her mother telling their neighbor, Mrs. Ong, at six the next morning when she’d woken up to the sounds of teaspoons clinking against coffee cups. Mrs. Ong was sixty-five, a retired teacher who took early morning walks in her slippers and floral duster, and who stopped by on Saturdays when she knew that Carmen’s mother was home. But today was a Thursday and still, she had come.

Norma wasn’t even there, Carmen heard her mother say from the kitchen, her voice low, almost bitter. Norma was out when it happened, having merienda with the neighbors. She just couldn’t live without her afternoon snack, could she?

Her mother sounded once more like she was having the worst cold of her life. Carmen pulled the comforter over her head, wanting to block out the sliver of yellow light slipping through a crack in the bedroom door that her mother must have left ajar. But there were chairs scraping against the floor, water running in the sink. And there was no sound from the normally gregarious Mrs. Ong, which alarmed her.

“We were asked to leave,” she heard her mother say. “They were…not unkind. But we were—they said it would…upset Norma. We were there for less than ten minutes.”

The wake. They were talking about the wake. The wake-party.

“…his daughter.” Her mother again, and Carmen strained to make out the words. They were talking about her.

“I don’t how she’ll cope.” A catch in her mother’s voice. “To lose her father…” Carmen heard her choke back a sob.

Carmen closed her eyes. For a moment, she almost forgot what had happened yesterday at the wake. How helpless she had felt, how weak and exposed and how she’d started to feel a dull, empty ache inside her that even she couldn’t explain. But right now, her heart went out to her mother. Her mother was thinking of her—Carmen—worried, fretting, crying and anxious. She laid back on the pillows and let out a breath, attempted a little prayer: Please, God, help my mom feel better.

Mrs. Ong was finally mumbling something.

“But she was smiling,” her mother was saying now, sounding composed once again. Recovered, wiping off her tears. “All grown-up.”

Carmen opened her eyes.

“And Carmen?”

“She cried.” Her mother’s voice turned brisk and matter-of-fact. “Bawled right there, in full view of everyone. She must have seen the old ladies, weeping into their handkerchiefs.”

 

***

Audrey. That was her name. The smiling girl, standing by the door. The “daughter” her mother was talking about. The daughter of her father, and now Carmen understood why she’d looked familiar. After she’d gone, Carmen was seized by a sudden squeezing in her chest, as if a hand were stuffing it with something thick, white-hot and persistent, and so she had cried. Burst into tears in the middle of that crowded terrace—crying for what, she still didn’t know—until her mother grabbed her and dragged her out through the gate, all the while muttering, “putres, putres.”

Carmen found herself unable to go back to sleep. She didn’t want to think of Audrey, smiling—and of herself, crying. She didn’t want to think of how her mother had scolded her inside the car, her nose turning a more sinister shade of red, her eyes running so black it looked like those of an unhappy, raging raccoon’s, the very ones she despised in her cartoons.

Instead, she thought of her father. She imagined him strong and robust, crumpling and curling softly on the wet, tiled floor, as if it were a soft bed that had become too irresistible. She pictured the mysterious Norma—the one everyone was talking about in that house with the salmon-colored gate, as if it had been her wake—seated at some neighbor’s airy terrace, just like her own, drinking hot chocolate from a mug and cutting a sticky suman into two. She imagined this Norma dipping a bite-size piece in sugar, offering an ebullient take on a morsel of neighborly gossip, before popping the sweetened rice ball into her mouth, all as her father decided to sleep forever on the bathroom floor.

The End