FICTION PIECE

Orange Bowler

by Jacob Butlett

The man started across the lawn to the front door where my mom, bedraggled from working all morning in the back garden, stood waiting. I watched the man from the top of my mom’s apple tree, the same tree that produced the fruit she used in her cider. He caught my eye not because he was carrying a duffel bag or because he was whistling to himself. It was his bowler hat, with its thin taper and brim, squat crown, orange hue—especially the hue.

It was 1960. I was eleven, just a kid at the time: proud, naïve. And so, in my mom’s apple tree, I reasoned that the man with the duffel bag was queer. No man here, on the outskirts of the city to the north and the rapids to the south, would wear such a bright hat.

He stopped at the stoop and shook my mom’s hand. I descended the tree and started toward them. I overheard them talking. Proud of her flowers, my mom gestured toward the pink chrysanthemums in the front yard. When my dad moved out a week ago, my mom devoted more time to her flowers than to anything or anyone else. If she wasn’t a housewife, she would’ve been a florist or a landscaper or a botanist.

On the stoop, she wiped her thumbs along the sides of her yellow gypsy top. From several yards away, I could still see dirt on her fingertips. She removed her pink sun hat and wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of a hand. When I finished my walk across the yard, the man turned around to face me. I was hoping he’d check out the spare bedroom, say no, thank you, and leave, allowing my dad more time to come to his senses and return home. The man looked down at me with a grin and revealed a straight set of teeth. In the shade of the plastic awning right above the front door, the man’s green eyes seemed to glimmer on their own.

“Robert,” my mom said, “this is Mr. Jon Deerborne. He’ll be renting the spare bedroom for the next three months.”

Thunderstruck, I stared at her, but she made no attempt to explain. She cleared her throat and opened the door. The smell of fresh apple cider and cucumber sandwiches wafted outside. She asked me to show Mr. Deerborne to the spare bedroom, which I did without complaint. Then I went to the kitchen, where my mom was pouring cider into three glasses.

“Why are you so happy?” I snapped. “You’ve been depressed all week.”

She looked up from the cider. “We need the money,” she said. “And Mr. Deerborne was nothing but gracious over the phone last night.”

“He called?” I demanded.

“Tone, sweetie,” she said, and began to set the kitchen table for lunch. “You were outside when he called about the room. With your dad gone, he won’t be able to support us as he normally would.”

“But this man can’t be here for three months. What would Dad think?”

She evaded the question with a headshake.

“He has the right to know,” I said. “Another man is living in his house.”

“He won’t mind.” Her voice was low. “Now change out of that undershirt and put on something more formal.”

“Three months is a long time,” I said. “What if he invites a friend over?”

“A friend?”

“A male friend.”

She eyed me. “He’s not queer, sweetie.”

“I’m not saying he’s a bad person, but how do you know?”

“I just know. Now get dressed.”

“You should’ve talked to me last night.”

“About what?”

Him. Orange Bowler. I live here too, you know.”

“Don’t call him that,” she snapped. “That’s rude.”

“All I’m saying is—”

A glass dropped from my mom’s hand and shattered on the hardwood floor, cider spilling under the table. I gasped. Shards lay in the liquid like ice shelves. As I knelt and started to pick up the pieces, my mom grabbed a dishcloth from underneath the kitchen sink. When she returned, she crouched beside me, panting. Her cheeks bright red, she plucked the pieces I’d just picked up out of my cupped hands and ordered me to go.

“I was only trying to help,” I said.

Orange Bowler hurried into the kitchen. “Is everything all right?”

“It’s fine,” my mom said. “Robert, get dressed.”

“But—”

Now.”

I wanted to help her pick up the pieces, but I left. When I returned wearing a polo my dad had bought me, my mom was sitting at the table, talking to Orange Bowler. He said something funny and she laughed with tears in her eyes. I sat down between them and listened to my mom ramble on about her garden. Orange Bowler was listening attentively to her analysis of the local mulch varieties. Suddenly,  he glanced at his watch with a panicked expression, stood up abruptly and said he needed to return to work. He said his goodbyes, then strode away. That was when I noticed it: my mom hadn’t picked up all the shards of glass from the floor.

When Orange Bowler left the room, she poured herself another glass of cider.

***

Two weeks ago, at night, from my bedroom, I overhead my parents arguing.

“I work in the morning,” my dad said. “I need my sleep.”

“Don’t change the subject,” my mom said. “I found the letters.”

“What letters?”

“You’re planning on leaving me.”

“Leaving you? What are you talking about?”

“What’s her name?”

“Whose name?”

“The woman in the letters!”

My dad didn’t speak for several seconds. Then he said, “I work tomorrow.”

“Tell me her name.”

“Evelyn, go to sleep.”

“I read the letters, Adam.”

“I don’t know anything about these letters. I’m tired. I work tomorrow.”

“You’re planning on leaving me, aren’t you? Tell me. Just tell me!”

“Good night, Evelyn.”

The next morning, I found my dad’s secret love letters in the trash.

My dad stayed in the spare bedroom until a week ago, then moved out with his travel bag. Since then, the spare bedroom had been unoccupied, the smell of my dad’s aftershave lingering in the air. Today, just before Orange Bowler arrived, I’d stood in the spare bedroom and pictured my dad lying in a coffin. He wasn’t dead, but without him physically at home, it didn’t matter. He was gone.

After my dad moved out, my mom became aloof. Yesterday, the day before Orange Bowler showed up, I’d called out her name in the back garden several times. It was one in the afternoon and she hadn’t made anything to eat. Several hours earlier she’d promised a big lunch—apple cider, cooked ham, mashed potatoes, and boiled carrots. All morning and early afternoon, she had worked incessantly in the back garden, sowing more seedlings, clawing out the weeds that had almost dominated her lavender bush, organizing mulch and fertilizers into different pots and plots of moist earth. When she finally heard me calling her name, she looked up. I told her I was starving. As if in defeat, she ambled to the kitchen and made me a bologna sandwich, which I could’ve made myself. She didn’t even wash her hands before getting the bread: she’d left dirt prints all over the sandwich.

Too hungry to care, I ate my lunch and noticed her staring at me from the sink. The sun filtered through the kitchen window and submerged her wavy auburn hair in a corona of light. As she looked at me, her face turned red with grief. She began to cry silently. I could taste the dirt prints in my mouth, so I tried not to gag.

“Are you happy?” she asked.

I wondered what she meant but didn’t want to think too much into it. I shrugged. “I’ll be happy when Dad moves back in.”

“I’ll be happy then too.” She wiped the tears from her face with her fingers, leaving dirt smears beneath her eyes.

***

When Orange Bowler arrived to check into the spare bedroom, my mom no longer seemed depressed, mostly content, as if she felt important having a man in the house again. It had only taken a day with him for her mood to change.

She prepared spaghetti with meat sauce for dinner. At the kitchen table, Orange Bowler removed his hat, revealing a bald head covered with liver spots, which looked like coffee stains on a white tablecloth. He couldn’t have been a day over fifty-five. He was rotund, his lips curved into a constant smile. While we ate, he told my mom and me about his life as a bank teller, how he loved conversing with bank patrons, counting money, balancing the sheets. He talked about his past, which my mom prompted with leading questions:

“Where are you from again?” Gary, Indiana.

“What did you do there?” Owned a haberdashery, but wanted a fresh start, so I joined the banking industry.

“Are you married?”

My attention piqued, I looked up from my plate.

“Yes,” he said, “but Emily and I are separated at the moment.”

My mom glanced at me, her way of saying I told you so. She addressed him again. Her voice softened. “I know how you feel. Adam and I are currently separated.”

“It’s good to know someone who understands,” he said. “Emily didn’t even want to look at me after the incident. It hit her so hard. So suddenly.”

“What happened?” I asked.

My mom kicked me under the table. I winced and apologized.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m an open book.” His voice softened. “I’d gone into work early when I received a telephone call from my wife: she’d lost Rupert, our unborn son, during the night. I didn’t know what to say, so I sped home and found her still clutching the phone, crying. No man wants his wife to suffer through a thing like that. It’s devastating. It’s unimaginable.”

“I’m so sorry,” my mom said.

I didn’t know what to say either. How does a woman lose her own child if it isn’t even born yet? I didn’t want to look naïve, so I continued eating. Two years prior, my mom had lost me while we were at the supermarket. I’d wandered to the deli department by myself, and when she found me, she picked me up and squeezed me until my arms went numb, she was so worried. Now, drinking my cider, I suspected the incident at the supermarket was nothing compared to what happened to Orange Bowler’s wife.

“When a woman loses a child,” my mom said, “it’s like a piece of her soul disappears.”

“It’s devastating,” Orange Bowler added, then after a beat: “Evelyn, what led to your separation? If you’d rather not say, I’d understand.”

“It’s—fine,” she said.

“It isn’t,” he said, backtracking quickly. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

She brushed her hair away from her face, then picked through her spaghetti with her fork. I suppose she wanted to look nonchalant, but she fidgeted and glanced repeatedly at the floor, as if searching for an escape hatch. So, I spoke up, hoping that would mark the end of dinner: “My dad slept with another woman.”

My mom dropped her fork onto her plate. Orange Bowler and I flinched at the loud clattering of the utensil. She kicked my leg again and I apologized without earnest, too perplexed. She ignored me.

Dinner was over minutes later. I began to collect the plates. Orange Bowler rose and touched my shoulder. “Give it time, Robert,” he whispered. “We’re all going through a lot.”

The phone rang. My mom went to the other room to pick it up. A good distraction, I reasoned. While I picked up all the plates, Orange Bowler collected the glasses and silverware and followed me to the sink. Once there, he started to wash the dishes.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said.

He smiled. “I want to contribute.”

“You won’t be here long. I mean, three months will go by fast.”

“I might stay longer.”

“Shouldn’t you be with your wife?”

“Maybe, but she asked me to give her some space.”

I shrugged and considered telling him how I really felt about him but feared he would overreact. Adults overreact too much, I thought. My mom overreacted by banishing my dad to the spare bedroom and my dad overreacted when he moved out. At school, my teachers always taught us the importance of forgiveness, so why were my parents, my mom especially, making life so much harder for themselves?

“Why do you wear that hat?” I asked.

He flashed me a grin. “Emily bought it for me,” he said. “I like to stand out.”

“No kidding.”

He lifted his hands from the water before finishing and looked at me raptly. I thought he was going to scold me for my quip, as my dad usually did. His gaze paralyzed me. I was not frightened, but mystified, so eager to hear what he had to say that I almost didn’t hear the backdoor opening and shutting in the adjacent room.

“I like you, Robert,” he said. “You remind me of me when I was a kid: bold, childish. I can respect bold and childish. Keep that moxie, but don’t be afraid to grow as a person. Not everything in life is so straightforward.”

“I know.”

“You don’t. You really don’t. But you’re bright. You’ll figure things out.”

Not long after we returned to cleaning the dishes, we heard a scream from outside. Without hesitation, we ran out to the backyard and found my mom yanking out her lavender bush. She yelped with each pull, the moonlight gleaming in her teary eyes, a spectral shimmer. For a moment I thought she was possessed. I touched her shoulder, but she pushed me back and dug out more roots, soiling her shirt and pants. She muttered under her breath, fast and derisive and panicky, not sounding human at first: It’s not right, it’s not right!

Orange Bowler wrapped his arms around her waist and dragged her into the house. She kicked and slapped him, but to no avail. I followed him to the living room. I was shaking so hard, I was breathing so hard, I thought I would faint. I considered calling for help—either my aunt or another family member. But I stayed in the living room, watching Orange Bowler restrain my mom in a tight hug. Then she rested her head on his shoulder. He carried her to the couch, where he lay her down and covered her with a wool blanket. I touched her forehead: it was on fire. Orange Bowler touched her forehead too and left the room. I knelt down beside her. She looked past my shoulders, as if too embarrassed to look me in the eye. Orange Bowler returned with a blue icepack, wrapped it in a towel, and set it on her forehead. I was about to speak when my eyes and hers connected.

“He just called, your dad,” she stammered. I’d almost forgotten that the phone rang before. “He wants to eat breakfast with you tomorrow.”

“Yes?”

“He said . . .”

“What?” I said. “What did he say?”

“He wants,” she said, “he wants a divorce!”

I fell silent. Orange Bowler and I stayed with her for the rest of the night.

***

When our omelets arrived, I finished telling my dad what had happened yesterday, from Orange Bowler’s arrival to my mom’s panic-stricken episode. He tucked his napkin under his collar and began to cut his omelet into equally sized pieces. I waited for him to respond, wondering if I’d told him the story clearly enough. After the first bite of his breakfast, he looked at me and nodded, a sign that he retained every detail. Then he replied, more to the restaurant table than to me, “That’s nice. She’s renting out the spare bedroom?”

That wasn’t the response I’d anticipated. I nodded and turned to my breakfast.

A half hour earlier, my dad had picked me up in his old car, which sometimes backfired like gunfire, and while we pulled out of the driveway, I looked out the passenger window at the sycamores that lined the block, foliage like plumage rising above the houses. Though it was early summer, spring lingered in the rain puddles on the sidewalks. Sometimes deer would cross the street, and I’d follow them to the southern rapids, where I’d look over the edge of the sandstone cliffs and gaze at the sun-soaked whitecaps. Then I’d close my eyes and nap.

It wasn’t hard for me to guess why I preferred living outside the city: I loved the quiet among the trees, the lullaby of the rapids. I never understood why my dad preferred the city, with its colossal buildings, its clamorous businessmen. Before I learned about my dad’s desire to leave, I believed my dad hated living outside the city because he detested the smell of wet earth. That would’ve explained his aversion to my mom’s garden. I couldn’t recall a single time he’d stepped into the garden. Every woman needs a garden of her own, he once told me. The garden was her territory.

At the outdoor café, I expected him to express more interest in the fact that another man had just moved into the house, that Mom was beginning to act erratically, that our family seemed to be drifting apart. I knew he’d ignore my concerns if I shared them explicitly, the way I truly wanted to. He’d call me emotional, not a real man. But I didn’t want our conversation to end. It had hardly started.

I said, “His name’s Orange Bowler.”

“Who?” my dad asked.

“Mr. Jon Deerborne. I call him Orange Bowler because he wears an orange bowler hat, a gift from his wife.”

“Men don’t wear bowlers anymore.”

“That’s why I thought he was queer.”

“He might be. Even queers marry women sometimes.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“I am right,” he said. “Takes all kinds.”

I wanted him to tell me more about the divorce he mentioned to my mom last night. All I knew about divorces was that they were rarely spoken about in public.

My dad removed the napkin from his collar and leaned back. Out of respect, I leaned back too. I copied him whenever I wanted to impress him. I followed his gaze to the street, where trucks honked by, where car exhaust seemed to slither up the skyscrapers, blinding white in the sun. He and I looked at the female passersby, women in espadrilles or ankle boots, sundresses or blousons. The wind was hot like summer, then cold like spring. My dad and I wore matching blazers. Now it was getting hot, so I took mine off. He left his blazer on, his eyes trained on the women. When they passed, he turned to me. “I first saw your mom in a crosswalk.”

He’d told me the story before: he’d been on his way to work at his uncle’s law office when he started a random conversation with a woman who’d later be my mom. He made her laugh and soon dated her. A year later, they got married.

“You’re still in love,” I said. “That’s what marriage is. Love.”

“It’s not so straightforward, sport.”

“You already have Mom—and me.”

“I’ll always love you. It’s just, things change.”

“Like what?”

He paused. “Sometimes people fall out of love.”

“You’ll move back home, right?”

“The divorce won’t be finalized for another month.”

“But you will move back,” I pressed.

“It’s not that easy.”

“Why not? It’s our home.”

“It’s not so straightforward, sport.”

“Why not!” I stood up. People at neighboring tables glanced at me. Some even gawked. My dad gestured for me to sit, but I remained standing. “If you’re not getting back together with Mom,” I said, “then what’s the point in talking?”

“Sit down. I’ll explain everything. A divorce is when—”

“I know exactly what a divorce is!” I lied. I wanted to run away. At the nearby intersection, several cabdrivers honked their horns at pedestrians in the crosswalk. The air suddenly smelled sulfurous, but I realized most of the stench came from the omelet taste at the back of my throat. “What’s the point?” I exclaimed.

He pounded the tabletop and the silverware rattled off the plates. I jumped back. He slammed a twenty dollar bill on the table. “We’re leaving.”

I put on my blazer and followed him to the sidewalk. I’d never cursed in front of my dad before. As he hailed for a cab, I came up with a million ways to apologize. He’d spanked me once for tracking mud through his study. Defying his authority in public and cursing were probably worth several spankings. I opened my mouth to speak, but he squeezed my arm and forced me into a cab. Instead of climbing in with me, he slammed the door shut from the outside.

“Where to?” the cabbie asked my dad.

He handed money to the cabbie through an open window and told him our address. When the cabdriver pulled into traffic moments later, I was too afraid to look at my dad through the rear window. During the drive, I didn’t think I’d ever stop crying.

***

Alone in the kitchen, I walked to the full body mirror next to the refrigerator and checked my eyes – still red from my weeping. I practiced smiling in the mirror, a proud grin, the kind other boys and men use to hide their pain. Then I walked outside to the garden and stopped several yards away from the mutilated lavender bush. Kneeling side by side, their backs to me, my mom and Orange Bowler faced the bush. I couldn’t see their faces, but I pictured them frowning with dismay. He wore his bowler. She was hatless. I considered skulking away, but a part of me wanted to stay. This was the first time a man other than my dad had ever visited my mom’s garden. I remained silent, unnoticed.

“You’ll grow another one,” he said. “Better than the last one.”

“Don’t patronize me.” She preened her hair in the sun. “It’s not right,” she mumbled. I remembered the same line from last night, but not knowing what it meant. “Jon, it’s not right.”

“Everything turns out right eventually,” he said. “In fact, my wife telephoned me an hour ago. She said she’s feeling better.”

“That’s wonderful, Jon,” she said. “You know, I’m glad you showed up in my life. With everything going on, it’s comforting to speak to someone who understands me.”

“You’ll feel better.”

“I hope,” she said. “I tend to my garden, but it still doesn’t look right. I accidently overwatered my petunias and tulips, and I still need to move the sunflowers away from the shade—they’ve already began to droop. I feel like I’m drowning.”

He patted her shoulder softly. “You still have Robert.”

“I don’t want to lose him too. It’s just . . .”

“Yes?”

“It’s just,” she said, “I don’t know what to do.”

“You know what to do. You’re his mother.”

“A horrible mother.”

“Evelyn, don’t say that.”

“And why not?” she demanded. “Every child needs a mother and a father. That’s what God intended.”

“Life’s not always that simple.”

“Jon,” she said, “I don’t think I have what it takes. I just don’t. I’m a horrible mother and I’m scared. I feel so stupid.”

“Don’t say that, Evelyn,” he said. “Don’t say that.”

I backed out of the garden, then ran among the trees beyond the neighbors’ houses. I ran until I reached the rapids. Balmy breezes seemed to emanate from the water. I inhaled its freshwater scent—the damp aroma of limestone, algae, moss. Lying on my stomach, I looked over the edge of the cliff and tried to peer through the water’s frothy surface, my mind wandering, lost to the sonorous beating and slapping of the whitecaps against the cliff. I envisioned jumping over the edge and landing on a bed of foam and wondered how far the rapids would carry me before I drowned. The idea exhilarated me at first: my body purified in the water, a large water font. Then the image horrified me. I’d never thought of anything so disturbing. I left quickly.

When I made it back home, I found Orange Bowler drinking beer in the kitchen. My mom was in the kitchen too. I looked at her with the same smile I practiced earlier.

“How was your time with your dad?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. I feared she’d see right through the smile. “Just fine.”

“That’s good,” she said noncommittally, and walked back to the garden. In silence.

Orange Bowler leaned against the refrigerator and took a sip of beer. “It’ll take time, Robert,” he said. “It’ll take time.”

***

The next day I spied on my mom talking to my dad over the telephone. From the living room doorway, I could tell she was trying her best not to cry: preening her hair one moment, biting her nails the next. She spoke calmly, though, but raised her voice whenever she said my name: “Robert is just a boy,” “Robert is staying with me,” “Robert can make his own choices.” I had never heard her sound so eager, so anxious, saying my name before. It pleased me yet scared me. I always assumed moms were supposed to be level-headed, but with the separation, that assumption started to sound like a lie. I went back to the kitchen, where Orange Bowler was reading the paper.

My mom came in a short time later with her coin purse. “Robert,” she said, “I need you to pick up some gardening supplies from Mr. and Mrs. Anderson. They’re expecting you, so change into something nice.”

“What’s wrong with my overalls?”

“The Andersons are old-fashioned, sweetie. If they see you dressed up like a farmer’s son in this neighborhood—”

“What do you mean?”

“The Andersons are old-fashioned,” she repeated, and turned to Orange Bowler. “Mr. Deerborne, do you have plans?”

Orange Bowler lowered the paper. “I don’t work today.”

“Would you mind helping me reseed my lavender bush?”

“It’s been a while since I last gardened,” he said, “but I’ll be happy to help.”

She handed me her purse and told me to take a wheelbarrow with me because the items she wanted were heavy. I changed into a blue polo and gray slacks, then walked to the front yard, where a red wheelbarrow lay. I wheeled it down the street to the last house on the right—a house with green shutters, with matching green flowerboxes in the windowsills. A green lawn out front. A white picket fence enclosing the property. I found Mrs. Anderson in the front yard, near her mulberry bush. Dressed in a starched shirtwaist, her silver hair pulled back, she waved me over.

With everything happening in my life, I considered turning around and heading home without saying hello to Mrs. Anderson, without the supplies. I loosened my hands on the wheelbarrow, prepared to abandon the rickety thing, when Mrs. Anderson ran up to me and pinched my cheek. A disillusioned stakeholder in my mom’s request to get her damned gardening supplies, I followed Mrs. Anderson to the backyard, where her garden, much smaller and less vibrant than my mom’s, encircled a stone patio. I said hello to Mr. Anderson, who was reading the paper at the patio table.

I first met Mr. Anderson last year at a luncheon held at my house. I remembered him talking about golf all throughout the luncheon, impressing my dad with his vast knowledge. Mr. Anderson tried to include me in the conversation, but I knew nothing about golf. He asked me about school; I gave a forgettable response. He asked me if I was starting to court girls; I shook my head. He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up; I said the first thing that came to mind: a professional gardener. He told me I could do better, and at the time, I agreed, regretting not saying something more expectant, like fireman or businessman.

At the other end of the patio stood a workbench rife with gardening supplies. I helped Mrs. Anderson stock the wheelbarrow with seed packets and thin plastic pots and bags of mulch. Mr. Anderson called me over. I paid Mrs. Anderson, who then told me she’d put the rest of the supplies in the wheelbarrow. I didn’t want to look awkward or indifferent in front of Mr. Anderson, so I thought of some talking points on my way to the patio table. When I sat down across from him, my mind went blank.

“How are you, young man?”

“Good, sir,” I said. “You?”

“I sprained my wrist playing golf. The doctor, however, says I should be good to go by next week.”

“Good to go?”

“To golf, of course. Unless I’m mistaken, your father plays golf.”

“He does.”

“He never telephones.”

“Not to you, I suppose.”

“Oh?”

My hands started to sweat. I cleared my throat. “He just moved out of the house.”

“Is he all right?”

“He’s fine.”

“Then why did he move out of the house?”

I wondered whether he was curious or nosy or both. I heard Mrs. Anderson walk over. “Tea, gentlemen?”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Anderson.”

“Give him a cup,” Mr. Anderson said. “He’ll appreciate your mulberry tea.”

“And cookies?” she asked me.

“No, thank you.”

“I made apple pie.”

I relaxed a little. “My mom makes cider from the apples she grows.”

“That’s wonderful,” she said. “I could give her my apple pie recipe in exchange for her apple cider recipe. I’ve never made apple cider before, but I have baked apple streusels many times.”

“Dear,” Mr. Anderson said, “Robert doesn’t want to listen to you talk about apples.”

She blushed and apologized to me and went through the patio door to the kitchen. Mr. Anderson collapsed his paper. He even grunted when he moved his sprained wrist too fast. I crossed my arms at the table and he eyed me. “May I ask you a question, Robert?”

I nodded reluctantly.

“Well,” he said, “on my way home from work yesterday, I saw a man outside your house. He was picking apples in your front yard.”

“Was he wearing an orange bowler?”

“Yes. It was a strange sight. I didn’t know people wore orange hats.”

“There’s a lot we don’t know about a lot of things.”

He eyed me. “True, but who is he?”

“Mr. Deerborne. He’s renting the spare bedroom while my dad’s away.”

“So, your dad is all right.”

“I don’t know when he’s coming back.”

“Back from where?”

“Don’t know,” I said.

“You don’t know where your dad is when he isn’t at home or work?”

“Not for the last week.”

“Oh?”

“It’s sort of personal.”

He looked disappointed. “I understand.”

“No, it’s just, I promised my mother I wouldn’t mention the divorce.”

It took me a moment to realize what I’d just said. I should’ve lied, kept the truth to myself, should’ve restrained my anxiety. He muttered divorce under his breath, as if the word had left a bad taste in his mouth, a rotten apple taste. He grimaced, then smiled, incredulous. “Good Christians don’t divorce,” he said.

“I didn’t mean divorce. I meant—”

“Lying’s impolite, Robert.”

“I wasn’t lying, sir. My parents aren’t getting a divorce.”

I could tell from his eyes that he knew the truth, that I couldn’t do anything to retract my confession. Not even an avalanche of lies could mask the scorn across Mr. Anderson’s face or extinguish the shame burning in my gut. We sat there quietly until Mrs. Anderson returned with apple pie. “I hope you’re hungry, Robert,” she said.

I wanted to say no, thank you, which was the truth. I eyed the wheelbarrow, then Mr. Anderson. My mom was right: the Andersons were old-fashioned.

“It’s time for Robert to leave,” Mr. Anderson said.

I got the hint. I stood up.

“You sure?” she asked me. “I can show you around the garden before you leave. It’s not much, but I think you’ll like it. I’ve started to grow nasturtiums.”

Mr. Anderson stood up. His wife and I looked at him in silence. “It’s time for him to go. Is the wheelbarrow loaded, dear?”

She looked confused. “Yes.”

“Good. It was nice talking to you, young man.”

He went into the house, leaving his wife and me at the table. When he closed the patio door behind him, I walked over to the wheelbarrow and looked around Mrs. Anderson’s garden: the perfectly arranged flowers in their perfectly straight rows disgusted me. My mom’s garden was more impressive—more chaotic and colorful, but authentic. I started toward the front yard with the wheelbarrow.

“You don’t have to go, Robert.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but I think I should.”

“Was it my husband? Don’t mind him. He’s usually very sweet.”

“I understand, but my mom’s expecting me. Goodbye, Mrs. Anderson.”

I left. I didn’t look back.

***

While I sat at the kitchen table eating dinner with my mom, Orange Bowler was already in bed. I tried to picture my dad across the table, a reminder of his presence in my life, in our home. But my mom kept talking. I looked up.

“I haven’t seen you since you left to pick up the supplies,” she said.

“I went to the rapids when I got back,” I said.

“You should’ve told me.”

“I go to the rapids all the time.”

“That’s not the point. I barely see you anymore.”

“That’s not my fault. You’ve been hiding in the garden.”

“I just want to know where you are. That’s all.”

“Sure,” I mumbled.

“I don’t want to lose you.”

“Like you lost Dad?”

I wanted my mom to know what I saw in the back garden when I got back from the Andersons’. But I didn’t want to remember the nausea and contempt I had felt hours earlier.

Pulling the wheelbarrow up the street had taken a lot of strength. My mom’s new pots and new bags of mulch and new bundles of plant seeds weighed me down like a caboose pulling me backwards. I made it to the backyard and hoped to spend the rest of the day in my bedroom or daydreaming in the apple tree in the front yard. Then I saw them, my mom and Orange Bowler, on the large mound of dirt that her lavender bush once occupied. I assumed they had fallen on top of each other, struggling to get back up. I was about to run over and help them when I heard a moan. Then another. Then another. Then I noticed it: Orange Bowler’s pants were down and my mom’s pants were wrapped around her ankles. An act not rooted in love, but something else—something sinful, something perverse. They weren’t making love. They were fucking.

I didn’t know what to do, so I left the garden and sprinted down the street, past the Andersons’ house and out of the neighborhood. At the rapids I collapsed on top of a limestone cliff and listened to my heart thundering in my ears. I needed to cry, but instead, I closed my eyes and fell asleep, hoping by the time I woke up, everything decent and loving and pure that had disappeared would return.

I slept for many hours, but when I awoke, I felt the same: confused, hurt.

At the kitchen table, my mom covered her eyes. Her hair fell over her face like a curtain. I apologized for bringing up my dad, then hated myself for all the apologies I’d given since the problem began, with my mom’s gardening obsession, even though I feared the problem started before then, even before my dad left, maybe before I was born. She brushed back her hair and wiped the tears from her eyes. “Your dad telephoned,” she said suddenly.

“What?” I exclaimed.

“He’s stopping by tomorrow morning to pick up some paperwork. You’re not meant to disturb him.”

“Not ‘to disturb him’?”

“Try to understand.”

“Understand what? I spoke with Mr. Anderson earlier today and he made me feel awful because of the divorce. And now I can’t even begin to understand how I’m supposed to be feeling!”

I ran off to my bedroom. For the rest of the night I stayed in bed, hoping my solitude would last forever.

***

But I did get up the next morning. The sky was sunny, the air warm and smelling of sycamores. Then by midday, thunder broke out and the sky darkened. Now as I reclined on a high branch in my mom’s apple tree, I feared it was going to rain. I didn’t want to return to the house with my mom and Orange Bowler nearby, I didn’t want to see them commiserating with each other about their imperfect marriages, and I didn’t want to catch them fucking again, although last time I checked, she was in the back garden, he in the spare bedroom. I closed my eyes. The breeze played with my blazer, the one that matched my dad’s. I was waiting for him. It was already noon. I thought of what I might say to him: I’m sorry for upsetting you the other day, I’m sorry I don’t understand how divorces work, I’m sorry I didn’t defend you in front of Mr. Anderson, I’m sorry I didn’t telephone you to say I caught Orange Bowler with Mom in the back garden, I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know what to do.

I thought it thundered again, but when I opened my eyes, I noticed my dad’s car. It had backfired as he pulled up to the curb. Leaving the engine idling, he started toward the front door of the house. He was dressed as usual: blue suit, teal tie; his hair oiled back, his patent leather derbies clicking quickly on the walkway. I wondered why he was in a hurry to get into the house, but before I could climb down and ask, he reached the front door. When I reached the stoop, the door was open. He wasn’t there.

“Are you the boy?”

I turned around. A woman stuck her head out the passenger side window of my dad’s car. She gave me a quizzical look, then got out. For a moment I assumed she was a Hollywood starlet, like all the women in my mom’s magazines. The woman wore a white capelet on top of a blood red sheath dress. Her shoes, white kitten heels, also made quick clicks down the walkway. She stopped a few feet from me and pulled out a cigarette from the purse. While she smoked, my eyes were trained on her voluminous blond hair and cleavage. I didn’t want to look insensitive, so I extended my hand and she shook it.

“So,” she said, “you’re Robert?”

I nodded. She blew a ring of cigarette smoke at the gray clouds overhead.

“Coming with your dad and me?” she said. “He just bought a condo in the city.”

“Why did he do that? Isn’t he moving back home?”

She chuckled. “That’s not how divorces work.”

My stomach sank. “Are you the other woman?”

“I’m your dad’s girlfriend.”

“He’s married.”

“I know.”

Another drag, another ring of smoke.

“Is he going to talk to me before he goes?” I said.

“You’ll have to ask him.”

“You don’t know?”

“Listen, son, I’m just waiting for your dad.”

“Don’t call me son,” I snapped. “You’re not my mom.”

I wanted to curse at her, pull the pristine capelet off her shoulders and throw it in the mud. But instead, I hurried into the house. I paused in the doorway to my dad’s study. He was filling his attaché case with paperwork. I cleared my throat and he stopped, eyes fixed on me, his breathing gruff. He gestured for me to speak.

I cleared my voice again. “Sorry I was rude to you.”

He said nothing and went back to his case. I hated my apology because my dad deserved more. As his son, it was my responsibility to follow his example. But how could I have understood him at that moment, me in the doorway to his study, he snapping his case shut? I didn’t know how to appease anyone, but I knew I had to try.

“I need to talk to you, Dad.”

He started toward the hallway. “You just did, Robert.”

I blocked the doorway. “Please.”

“We can talk next week. I have a business meeting.”

“It’s serious. It’s about Mom and Mr. Deerborne.”

“Who?”

“The man who’s living in the spare bedroom. I saw him and Mom together.”

“Together?” He looked away for a moment, frustrated. “Get your trunk.”

“Trunk?”

“Your clothes,” he said. “We’ll talk in the car on our way to our new home.”

“The condo?”

“Did Joanne talk to you?”

“The woman in the car? Yes. She told me everything.”

“We’ll see about that.” He nudged me into the hall. “Get your clothes.”

“Am I going to live with you?” I would’ve said anything, done anything, for just five more minutes with him.

“I wouldn’t invite you if I don’t want you,” he said, and started toward the front door. “I’m driving away in three minutes!”

Before I could rationalize what I should do or needed to do, I ran to my bedroom and filled my plaid travel trunk with random articles of clothing: undershirts, overalls, socks.

When I got to the front door, though, I heard a crash, not loud like thunder or my dad’s car, but sharp, like glass shattering.

I hurried outside and witnessed the middle of a fight: a smashed ceramic pot on the walkway, my mom throwing a pot at my dad’s head, my dad rushing to his car, the other woman in the car looking on in terror. I thought it was a hallucination, a nasty trick of the mind; that I was still daydreaming in the apple tree; that my dad hadn’t yet arrived to pick up the paperwork. I ran to my mom.

“You’re crazy!” my dad shouted from the car.

“Why are you doing this?” my mom screamed. “You’re my husband!”

“Go away!” He looked at me. “Get in the car. Now.”

My mom finally noticed me. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “You’re not leaving me too, are you?”

I wanted to stay, but I needed my dad to listen to me. My heart thundered, my palms perspired. I almost dropped my trunk, but I held on to it as if my life, everyone’s lives, depended on it. I took a step forward.

“You can’t go!” she cried. She reached for the trunk and I fell back. I pictured her picking me up and carrying me away, far away from my dad. I told her to go away. She seized the trunk handle and we started to yank the trunk in opposite directions.

“Hey!” my dad called.

She seized the trunk and threw it at my dad, who was rushing toward us. The trunk missed his feet by inches. She grabbed my left arm and began to drag me to the house. My dad grabbed my other arm. I thought they were going to rip me in half and keep a half of me for themselves. I started to cry.

“You’re hurting him!” they shouted in unison.

I was about to scream at them to leave me alone; that I no longer loved them; that no real parents would harm their son. Then my dad’s car backfired. My mom and my dad flinched, dropping their guard. I extricated myself from their grasps and ran to the top of the apple tree. My mom followed me, but since she couldn’t climb well, she waited at the bottom, as if I were a cat stuck in a tree. I watched my dad return to the car and he didn’t look at me or my mom as he drove off. On the sidewalk, I saw two older people gawking at the broken pots on our front walkway. Avoiding my mom, I jumped from the tree and ran up to the gawkers. It was the Andersons.

“We heard fighting from down the street,” Mrs. Anderson said.

“Everything all right, my boy?” Mr. Anderson asked.

Every part of me raged with indignation, anger burning inside me like a fever. I scowled at the Andersons and they looked at me wide-eyed and scared.

“What are you looking at?” I shouted. “My mom and dad are getting a divorce and they hate each other and I hate you two phonies so fuck off!”

Stupefied, their mouths agape with bewilderment, they took each other by the hand, then hurried away. They rushed up toward their perfect, little house. They gave me several cold, backward glances, but I didn’t care. Not anymore.

It started to downpour. I trudged to the stoop, where Orange Bowler stood.

“What happened?” he asked. “I heard—”

“Shut up.”

I shouldered him out of my way and returned to my bedroom. He didn’t follow me. Not even my mom followed me. And for the rest of the day, I stayed in bed and listened to the rain.

***

The next morning I walked into the kitchen, expecting to find Orange Bowler reading the paper. Instead, I found a note on the table.

Evelyn,

Thank you for allowing me to rent your spare bedroom. However, I think it would be best if I return to my wife. I shouldn’t have left her when we lost Rupert.

I’m sorry it ended this way. You’re a good mother. Everything will turn out fine.

Sincerely,

Jon Deerborne

I left the letter on the table and went up to the spare bedroom. The bed was made, the air still smelling of my dad’s aftershave. I was about to head back downstairs, relieved by Mr. Deerborne’s sudden departure, when I noticed something peeking out from under the bed. I picked it up. The orange bowler. It probably fell under the bed while he was packing his duffel bag last night or this morning. The hat was larger than my head. I considered tearing it apart or throwing it outside in the mud. But I took the orange bowler with me into the backyard.

The sky was gray—no sun, no breeze. I walked over to my mom sitting near the patch of dirt. Her head craning toward the earth, she gripped a packet of lavender seeds and a trowel. She didn’t acknowledge me. Not until I sat down and showed her the bowler.

“He’s gone,” she said, her voice scarcely louder than a whisper. She took a deep breath, her face drained of color, deep wrinkles beneath her eyes. “Robert, I shouldn’t say this, but Mr. Deerborne and I—”

“I know,” I said. “I know.”

“Know what?”

“I saw you two in the garden. Where the lavender bush used to be.”

She looked away for a moment. “I need companionship, Robert.”

“I think I understand,” I said. And meant it.

“I need to be loved, Robert. Is that too much to ask?”

“No, it’s not.”

I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and cradled her head against my neck. She didn’t cry. She didn’t sob.

“I destroyed my bush,” she said.

“So we’ll grow another one.” I scooped dirt into the orange bowler and told her to open the packet of lavender seeds. “We’ll grow the best lavender bush in the world.”

She chuckled. “Why in the hat?”

“Because why not?” I said. “It’s our hat now.”

She opened the packet of seeds and scattered several into the bowler. “It’s not big enough for an entire lavender bush,” she said.

“I know,” I said. We filled the remainder of the hat with dirt. “But we’ll make it work.”

FICTION PIECE

Taking Flight

by Nathan Elias

Before I died, I was just trying to be a normal teenager. While a lot of the kids at Toledo Technology Academy went to the Robotics Team after school, my best friend Athen and I preferred to mingle at the Westfield Mall with girls from other schools. The only four girls in our grade at TTA dated upperclassmen. Desperate to find girlfriends, Athen and I perused the food court and hip stores to gain perspective on the regulars. They were mostly from public schools and they stuck together in their respective cliques—preppy, sporty, religious. But then, there were the outsiders. The nerds and the artists, vocational school girls on the fringes of normalcy. I was most drawn to the art school crowd, dressed in all black, wearing concealer and pearl powder. Athen and I were still in uniform, green polo and khakis. There was a part of me that knew I would fit in better with the art kids than I ever could at my own school. I had no place studying robots at the technology academy. Art was in my soul. I envied those other students who learned to create art, not machines. I wanted to infiltrate their space, become one of them.

Being dead is like binge watching an adaptation of your life story. All you do is watch this other person say all of the stupid or meaningful things you said. My adaptation begins when I met the girl who changed my life. It was the third week of September, sophomore year.

“Three o’clock,” Athen said. “Theatre kids. New girl. She’s definitely a man-eater.”

I snuck a three-quarter-turn look her way, making eye contact from across the packed dining area. She had fair skin, ash brown hair that met her shoulders, and green eyes like a forest at sunset.

“She’s looking right over here,” I said. “If I don’t make this girl fall in love with me, I’m going to die.” Isn’t life ironic?

“You’re the most dramatic person I’ve ever met,” Athen said, shaking his head. “It’s just like you to steal a girl right out from under me.” As we walked toward the group, the girl looked up at me, and then looked away just as quickly. I could see her telling her friend that we were coming over.

“What’s up, everybody?” I said, trying to be casual. “You go to the art school, right?”

“How’d you guess?” her friend asked, pointing down to her shirt that had Toledo School for the Arts printed above a graphic of a jagged hook and pirate ship. She was the taller one of the two, with jet-black hair and a nose ring.

“Cool,” I said. “We go to TTA, but I was thinking about transferring to your school. I really want to be an actor, see.” I glanced down right at that moment to take in a perfect, slightly crooked smile on the face of the girl I had made eye contact with. It wasn’t just her natural beauty that drew me to her. I was equally entranced by the other things I had noticed about her, like her white Chuck’s, stained with sloppy handwriting in what looked like quotes and lyrics. I wanted to crawl down on the sticky mall floor and read every word on those shoes.

“Not just anyone can get in,” Nose Ring said. She nudged my future lover with her elbow. “You actually need to have talent.”

“How’d you get in?” I said to my new crush. “What’s your talent?”

She looked up, shocked, not quite registering the fact that me, the really handsome guy with shaggy hair, a cool studded belt, and custom Vans was standing in front of her asking personal questions. Or at least, that’s what I thought. I was so full of myself back then—when you’re dead, you really see your old self through a new lens.

“Sylvia’s got more talent in her pinky than you have in your whole body,” Nose Ring said.

“Oh yeah, well my pinky knows Romeo and Juliet better than your entire theatre department,” I said. “I’m a poet. Poetry is the art of moving language and it, like any other art, can be… performed!” I thrust my arms out in a grand gesture, mimicking so many actors I’d seen on the stage. Athen let out a sigh.

“There are puppets and there are actors,” Sylvia said with her palm facing me, as if to reject my dramatics. “Puppets are controlled by the world. Actors have choice and free will. Right now, I’m thinking you’re more like the former.”

The girls and Athen all stared at me, waiting to see if I had a comeback. Not only was I absent of words, I’m also pretty sure I wasn’t even breathing. I looked to Athen who was too caught up smoldering at Nose Ring with his eyebrows arched. Sylvia’s words burned through me. Puppets are controlled by the world. I’d found the perfect woman.

“I just met you, and I know we’re both super young, but I would totally be down to marry you like right this second.”

Sylvia stood up from her seat and looked me square in the eye. “I wouldn’t lift a finger to save your life, let alone marry you. Let’s go, Doris.” Her stride parted a group of football players in line for pizza.

Nose Ring stood up to follow her, smirking at Athen and me. “Don’t take it personally,” she said. “Not every princess can envision themselves in your perfectly rehearsed high school fairy tale.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I just met the girl I will devote my poetry to for the rest of my life. Like, you may very well be my muse, Sylvia!” I called after her. “No pressure, or anything. But, would you prefer a sonnet or a dramatic monologue?” My beckons rang unheard as she walked away. The girls faded into the swarming crowd.

“Look at this,” Athen said. He picked up a handbill from the bench where Sylvia and Nose Ring had been sitting. I snatched it from his hands, reading the large decorative font.

PETER PAN

LIVE ON STAGE

PRESENTED BY

TOLEDO SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS

AUDITIONS HELD SATURDAY, OCTOBER 15

“That’s it. I’m going to audition for Peter Pan and win her over,” I said. I folded the flyer up and shoved it in my pocket.

“You probably can’t audition,” Athen said. “You don’t even go to that school.”

“I guess we’re just going to have to crash the auditions.”

Athen laughed and patted me on the back. “That is the worst idea you’ve ever had.”

*

After meeting Sylvia, I paid little to no attention in class. I read and reread the Peter Pan novelization and play. If the teachers caught on to my lack of attention and forced me to participate, I would find a way to dedicate my work to Sylvia: in Automation class, we were assigned to program traffic lights to turn from green, to yellow, to red. Instead I programmed them all to blink red in a heart-shape. Inside the digital traffic light heart, I spelled S-Y-L-V-I-A with stop signs. In Materials Processing, we were supposed to build a mousetrap-powered car and I named my pink contraption The Sylvia 7. It won the class race. In typing class, while everyone else hammered away in unison the keystrokes F D S A SPACE J K L SEMICOLON SPACE, I utilized my time to compose a twenty-page doctrine of love for Sylvia. To you who captivated me in the food court, it began I promise my undying devotion and tenderness. You make my otherwise dull world glow with your radiance. You are the only burning star in my heart’s vast sky.

*

The morning Athen ran lines with me before the audition was the first time I looked to the sky and considered the possibility of flight. Peter Pan could fly with the help of fairy dust from Tinkerbell. Whenever I thought of Sylvia, a buzz coursed through me and amplified every step I took, every breath I drew. If Peter Pan could fly, why couldn’t I? Love would be my fairy dust. Walking through littered downtown Toledo, the Maumee River beneath us, I believed that if I leapt off the Cherry Street Bridge something magical would prevent me from hitting the dark, dirty water. I took the cold steel rail in my hands and hoisted myself up. With the wind grazing my back and the sprawling river before me, I felt like if I took a single step I’d be suspended above it all.

“Watch out for Tick-Tock the Crocodile,” Athen said, deadpan. “But seriously, please don’t fall. I don’t have the energy to save you.”

“You should audition,” I said. I climbed down from the railing. “You practically have the part of Captain Hook memorized.” I unsheathed my Styrofoam dagger from my backpack and went for his throat.

He evaded the lunge and disarmed my dagger like a true pirate. “I don’t think acting is really my thing,” he said.

“Come on, bro,” I said. “It’s something we could do together. I bet you’ll meet all kinds of girls. Maybe you can hang out with Nose Ring.”

“Nose Ring? Her name is Doris, which you might have overheard at the mall if you weren’t so in your head all the time.”

“I’m still not sure how I plan on asking Sylvia out,” I said, reaching for the dagger and steering the topic back to my most pressing concern. “Our first encounter was pure—spur of the moment, completely spontaneous. This time, she’ll see me at the audition, recognize me, and know that I’m there for her. To make her see me.”

“She didn’t seem to be that into you at the mall,” Athen said, forfeiting the dagger. “What if she sees you and thinks you’re desperate?” It struck me that Athen might have been jealous because I went after Sylvia right away. But who was he to stand in the way of true love?

“I know you saw her first,” I said, starting to cross the street. “But I don’t want this to come between us.”

“Despite what you may think, Sam—” he stopped in the middle of the intersection. Cars zipped around us. “—the world does not revolve around you.”

When I was alive, I thought Athen envied my bravado and charisma. If envy were possible in death, I might wish I had had more of Athen’s sensibilities: candor and realism. It wasn’t until after the accident that I understood what he meant that day on the bridge.

*

The Toledo School for the Arts looked more like the sarcophagus of an industrial building in the heart of downtown Toledo than an educational institution. The closer we got to the school, the more I feared I’d throw up. Sure, I kept cool on the outside, but inside, I was a wreck. I kept imagining Sylvia and the rest of the art kids laughing at my pathetic attempt to audition. I told myself to pretend I was as cool as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. I adjusted my beanie, threw my hands in my pockets, and walked through the doors like I was a real Hollywood icon trying to be modest.

The inside of the school smelled like oil paint and sweat; it was alive with creativity. We meandered through hallways with walls covered with art for a good ten minutes before we found the right room. I wondered if any of the art was Sylvia’s and tried to find a sketch of my face among the portraits. I could have wandered those dingy hallways forever, looking for my reflection on the wall. Finally, we saw the flyer with the pirate ship and jagged hook. I expected a desk where I’d fill out information, but it was one giant black theatre room with a bunch of kids sitting on metal chairs watching the one on stage who was delivering a monologue. The door slammed behind me and everyone shot around to look at us. That’s when I saw Sylvia sitting there, in the same outfit from last week. I could barely keep myself from running over to her and reciting an excerpt from my love doctrine. When she registered who I was, she flipped her hood to cover her face and slunk down lower in her chair.

“To what do we owe this pleasure?” a gray-haired woman in a black dress called from the first row. I assumed she was the director of the play.

“I’m here to audition,” I said. “Is there a signup sheet, or—”

“I have never seen your face before in my life, child,” she said. “Do you attend the School for the Arts?”

“That’s the thing,” I said. “On the flyer for the audition, it didn’t say anything about being a student here.”

“Well, I’m afraid you must be registered at this institution in order to perform.” She lowered her glasses back down onto her bony, forlorn face and turned to resume the audition. Before the actor on stage began again, I stepped forward.

“But this isn’t a private school. Students from all over the city go here, right?”

“Correct,” she said, turning back around. I could see Sylvia trying to become invisible. Why would she be embarrassed by me when, just the other day, I so valiantly confessed my admiration for her?

“Then, like sports programs, students from other schools should be able to try out, right?”

She flipped her hair, eyeing me up and down. “And what institution do you attend, child?”

“Toledo Technology Academy, ma’am,” I said. The students chuckled, which only fueled my need to show them what I could do.

“Do you have any experience in the thee-ay-ter?” she asked.

“I acted when I was a kid, and I know this play front to back.”

“Oh, so you were a child actor,” she laughed at her own joke. “Then you must be eager to dazzle us.” This made the students laugh harder. I noticed Doris sitting a row away from Sylvia, snickering.

“You are in for it now, Romeo,” Doris said.

“Well, child,” the director proceeded. “If you are so inclined and inspired to interrupt my audition because you lust for thee-ay-ter—then by all means step forth and grace us with your magic. Light up this room with your symphony. Show us what you got.”

“Right now?” I said. I looked up to the guy on stage whose audition I botched.

“Well, go on,” the director said. “You’ve already altered the aura of the room with your paper-thin machismo.”

“Seriously, Mrs. Chabbock?” Doris pleaded. “You’re going to allow this pretentious faker to waste our time?”

“Even fools deserve a chance,” Mrs. Chabbock said. I could see Sylvia tightening the cord of her hoodie until it scrunched around her face. I walked past the grid of metal chairs, jumped up onto the stage, and took the place of the guy before me. It felt as though my heart was hammering against my rib cage. With the stage lights beaming in my eyes, all I could see were the vague silhouettes of the kids in their chairs and Mrs. Chabbock across from me, her eyes wide and wicked as if she expected me to summon the devil.

I turned around to face the curtain. Even then, I knew how cliché I looked—a know-nothing actor. But I had once seen James Dean do it in a documentary. To get into character he would turn away from his audience, close his eyes, and return as someone new. When I pivoted back to face the audience, I felt my body detach from my soul.

“Yes, Wendy, I know fairies!” I cried. “But, they’re nearly all dead now. You see, when the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into thousands of pieces and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.” I looked across the audience, not breaking character, so that I could gauge their response. Just like I thought—cold silence. “So, there ought to be a fairy for every boy and girl. There isn’t of course. You see children know such a lot now. Soon as they don’t believe in fairies, there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” At this point, Peter Pan realizes he can’t find Tinkerbell.  But something came over me. I changed the line so that Sylvia would know once and for all what this was really about. “I can’t think she is gone. Sylvia, Sylvia, where are you?”

Then, as if Peter Pan had taken complete control of my body, I leapt off the stage, flying toward Sylvia, and landed with a half-roll to my knees and into a bow. When I stood up and looked toward the crowd, I expected them to explode in applause, but all I heard was Doris saying, “Please, somebody spare me.”

Sylvia bolted up and stormed out of the dark theatre, Doris chasing after her.

“Sylvia!” I cried. “Wait!” I ran across the auditorium and through the door.

“They can’t be far,” I said to myself.  I started sprinting through the hallways, those makeshift galleries of student art, but didn’t see Sylvia or Doris anywhere. I went outside and looked for them, but the streets were empty.

“She’s gone,” Athen said, coming up behind me and gasping for breath.

The decrepit downtown buildings surrounded us like the walls of a maze. I called out Sylvia’s name as loud as I could. Nothing. Nothing but the sound of my own voice reverberating back.

*

I was feeling depressed until I got a call the next day from Mrs. Chabbock. “You, my child, are Peter Pan!” she wailed into the phone. “Of course, I had to bend some rules because you are not a part of this institution. No matter. You will lead this play with Sylvia Pryor as Wendy. You will not let me down. Rehearsals begin in a week.” She hung up before I could respond. We both got the leads. Peter and Wendy, Sam and Sylvia.

I showed up to the first rehearsal in green tights and a tunic. “This isn’t a dress rehearsal,” Doris said from the stage. “You look like Mary Martin on the poster for the 1950s version of the Broadway production.” The rest of the cast and crew snickered. Beside Doris, Sylvia looked like she was about to vomit. I felt embarrassed for her. Nobody else was in costume, just tee shirts and sweat pants.

“There he is. My Peter Pan.” Mrs. Chabbock embraced me and eyed my clothes. “A little over-prepared, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from an actor with such intense emotions. Partner with Miss Pryor. Run act one, Peter’s entrance.” She nudged me toward the stage. It was the moment I had been waiting for—one on one time with Sylvia. When I walked onto the stage Doris yawned in my direction, staring at me while sanding the side of the pirate ship. I wasn’t about to let her attitude ruin everything.

“How are you?” I asked Sylvia, ignoring Doris. “How is school going? Hey, do you have a boyfriend?”

“Is he serious right now?” Doris groaned.

“It’s fine, Doris,” Sylvia said. “Can we just get on with the lines?” She tied her hair back and avoided eye contact. It was my first time being so close to her, within arm’s reach. Her scent, cigarettes and sugarplum, were enough to make me feel drunk. But I had to suppress my intoxication. This was my shot. I had my lines memorized, but Sylvia had imbued the entire script into her being. She finally gazed into my eyes as we circled the stage. The rest of the group gathered around us, unwilling to break our momentum. Once we got to the part when Peter teaches Wendy and her brothers to fly, everyone—even Doris and Mrs. Chabbock—was speechless.

Mrs. Chabbock stepped forward after an electric silence and faced everyone but Sylvia and me. “That is all for rehearsal today. We meet again next week.” As everyone headed toward the exit, Mrs. Chabbock turned to us. “Your chemistry is undeniable. I know that I have cast the right performers. But do not let me catch one of you trying to upstage the other again.” Her eyes jumped to Sylvia as she said this. “Theatre is a communal art. You will learn to view each other with respect.” She stepped down from the stage and exited the room. Sylvia darted for the door. I tried to stay near her, like a shadow.

“Did you hear that? Our chemistry is undeniable.” She kept walking with no response. “Sylvia—if you ever feel like rehearsing more, I wouldn’t mind coming to your house.”

She exhaled deeply. “School is just fine.” I followed her down hallways lined with portraits until we were both outside. She rushed to an old, rusted blue Buick idling across the street. The guy behind the wheel huffed on a cigar that looked too big for his rodent-like face. I wasn’t sure if he was her father or what, because from a distance he looked maybe ten years older than us. I wanted to walk up to the car and introduce myself. I wanted to learn about her personal life. Once she was inside, she slammed the door and covered her face with her hood. It looked like the driver was yelling at her and laughing. I couldn’t make out the words, but I started toward them ready to ask him what his problem was. When he saw me standing in the middle of the street staring at them, he hocked a giant spitball out the window and blasted his radio. The tires screeched as he pulled away.

Sometimes I pause the adaptation of my life’s story here. I rewind and watch this guy spit at me again. In this instant replay, I notice a smirk on his face and a faded tattoo on his neck. I can’t tell if it is the top of a question mark, or the pointed end of a hook. What would have happened if I had followed Sylvia that day? Maybe it all would have been different. Maybe I wouldn’t have died. Either way, I had no way of knowing how important this moment would be. I felt that something wasn’t right, but I didn’t act on it. I was too busy in my own head, like Athen said, too concerned with myself. I was still that puppet from the first day that Sylvia and I met. If I had made a choice to act, then maybe I could have saved myself. I wish I had a way of knowing if I saved her.

*

Seeing Sylvia every week for rehearsal became the highlight of my existence. When we finally got to the scene where Peter Pan teaches Wendy to fly, Sylvia and I were both hoisted up by our harnesses. The equipment was heavy, clunky. While Sylvia retained perfect mid-air balance, I teetered from side to side, forward and back, in my struggle to glide over to her. When I finally reached her, I took her clammy hands in mine. As the stagehands tried to figure out the dolly, us suspended above everyone’s heads, I kissed her fingers. She slapped me hard across the face.

After they pulled us down, the cast and crew chastised me for going off script. I stepped aside, trying to ignore their heckles while they reset for the scene I had ruined. That’s when the pink pill bottle caught my eye. It was across the stage, in the darkness beyond the spotlight. When I was sure that no one could see me, I walked over to the shadows and put the bottle in my pocket. I couldn’t really say why I did this. Curiosity, maybe? To whom did it belong? What kind of pills did it hold? I surveyed the theatre, but nobody, not even Doris, looked like they had just lost something important.

That night I had stayed late to rehearse my monologue when Sylvia wandered into the theatre.

“You look lost,” I said from the stage. She jumped, releasing a sudden shriek.

“I could kill you,” she said.

“I found something on the stage. It was right where we landed.”

“What did you find?” The chasm between us amplified her voice, as if she knew how to manipulate the acoustics of the auditorium.

“Pills. A bottleful of different kinds.”

“Did you take one?”

The bottle was still in my pocket. “No,” I said and held it out for her to see.

“Did you want to?” she asked, taking the pill bottle and twisting it open.

In the void of the auditorium, I couldn’t resist her. I would have given anything to share a moment with Sylvia. She plucked a pill, half black and half purple, from the bottle, placed it on her tongue. She gave one to me. I wanted to ask what the drug was, but I didn’t want to spoil the moment. For the first time outside of rehearsal, the eye contact she made with me felt inviting, as if I didn’t need her permission to look back. When she swallowed the pill dry, no water, I mimed her.

“So what’s supposed to happen?” I asked. She took me by the hand and guided me up the steps of the giant, fake pirate ship. I looked around at the set—the clock tower, the hollowed-out trees of Never Land, the massive papier-mâché crocodile—and wished that all the make-believe could be our real life. Alone in the theatre with Sylvia, I felt as if we were trespassing and embarking on a true adventure.

“Now we can learn what it really means to take flight,” she said. Once we were aboard Hook’s ship, she released my hand and made her way toward the mast. Her grace and agility on the set made her look more like Tinkerbell than Wendy. This was a different Sylvia, one I hadn’t even known existed until this moment. “Follow me and we can get lost long enough to forget.” She smirked, a glimmer of mischief in her eyes.

“Forget what?”

“Forget that in here we’re safe and that out there,” she pointed toward the theatre doors. “Out there, we’re nothing.” She smiled, ascending the rope ladder up the mast. Once she reached the second level she looked down at me, dangling her feet. “What, are you scared?”

I took the rope into my hands, followed up after her. A sensation pulsed through my body—first through my skin and then in my neck. It seized my heart. I thought it was love until I realized it was the pill. When I took my place next to Sylvia, we looked down on Neverland and London sharing the same stage. “I thought that I’d never get a chance with you.”

“Love is bullshit,” she laughed, loud and from her belly. “And then I go and meet you. You think that you’re charming but you’re not. I want to hate you.”

“I don’t believe you think love is bullshit,” I said. “And you don’t hate me. If you did, you wouldn’t be sitting here with me right now.”

“I’m sitting here because I have nowhere else to go.” She turned toward the darkness, hiding her expression from me. I thought back to the guy in the car and his nasty cigar. I wouldn’t have wanted to go back to that either.

“That guy in the car, was that your dad?”

She sniffled, then laughed. “No, not my dad.”

“Uncle? Brother? Boyfriend?”

“It’s complicated, Sam.” It was the first time I’d heard her speak my name.

“Did he give you the pills?”

“I really don’t want to talk about it.” Her voice went hoarse as she dangled her feet over the cardboard ocean waves. I put my arm around her and she jerked away at first, but finally let me settle in. I trembled. It felt so good being that close to her.

“For what it’s worth, I’m here for you, Sylvia.” I felt like a walking cliché, but what else could I say to her? I restrained from reaching out to hold her hand or kiss her on the lips or embrace her tighter. I can still feel the enclosure of that silence. The high from those mysterious pills. The expanse of the theatre. That blurred line between reality and make-believe on that stage… It’s the same thing I felt when I realized I was dead.

“Are you ready?” Sylvia asked.

“Ready for what?

“To fly,” she said, taking my hand as she began her free fall from the mast. We plummeted toward the stage, fingers entwined. I envisioned us breaking our bones, shattering into pieces, scattering like fairy dust. But we never touched the ground. She led me up into the rafters, swooped around beams, and glided above the rows of empty seats. I still try to look back and understand the science behind all this, but the only thing that really matters is that for that one night, we flew.

*

With opening night in a week, I started to get behind on my homework. I should have studied harder for my midterms, put some effort into the steel miniature windmill that counted for half of my Materials Processing grade, and not cheated on my trigonometry test by inputting answers into a secret file on my TI-83 graphic calculator. Instead of studying, I either rehearsed for the play or composed love poems for Sylvia. Otherwise I’d spend the nights tossing and turning, worrying about her, the pills, and the fact that even though we had flown hand in hand that night, we had not yet defined the terms of our relationship. I wanted Sylvia to see that I could be her real Peter Pan. I wanted to fend off her Captain Hook, the creep from the car. I wanted to love Sylvia freely. Good form—in the novel, Peter Pan didn’t even know he had good form. Only Hook could see it, and he was nothing but jealous of Peter’s ability to exist, fight, live, and love with no effort at all. After our night together in the empty theater, Sylvia didn’t speak to me outside of rehearsal. She acted like us flying together never happened.

Opening night was a total disaster. Backstage, a little before the curtain would rise, I saw Mrs. Chabbock questioning Sylvia, the pink pill bottle in her hands. Someone must have found it on the pirate ship. Sylvia was crying, drops of mascara-tinted tears staining the top of her blue dress.

“They’re not hers,” I said, stepping forward. “They’re mine.”

“My heart is broken,” Mrs. Chabbock said mournfully. Sylvia’s eyes found mine. I prayed that she wouldn’t contradict me in front of Mrs. Chabbock. “I can’t let you do the play. I have to call your parents and tell them about this.” She guided me to her office, sat me down, and said, “Where did you get the pills, Sam?”

“I found them,” I said. All I could picture was Sylvia’s face. Would she even care that I wasn’t there to do the play?

“Such a shame,” Mrs. Chabbock said. “Such a waste of talent.” She filled out paperwork without speaking and then called my parents. I didn’t care what consequence I would face if it meant that Sylvia wouldn’t get in trouble.

*

My parents took me home and lectured me. It was time to make some necessary life changes: commit to my school work, pull my head out of the clouds. I stayed home from school the next day because I was facing expulsion. I spent the whole day online, staring at Sylvia’s profile pictures. My sister Zoe came home, took one look at me, and said, “You need an intervention.” We got in her car, drove to Tom’s Famous Lemonade, and smoked cigarettes in the parking lot, an offer made only in case of an “existential crisis”. I told her about the night that I flew.

“I would like you to know that I think this is all a load of shit,” Zoe said. “None of this adds up, and now you’re up a creek”

“I don’t care about school. I don’t care about the play. All I care about is Sylvia. I got the pills from her, and I have no idea where she got them from.”

She passed me a fresh cigarette.

“I’m taking you to her,” Zoe said. She started the car and barreled out of the lemonade stand parking lot. “The play should be letting out in ten minutes, right?”

“They banned me from the premises,” I said.

“Maybe so,” she said, “but they can’t ban you from loving someone.” Her cigarette dangled from her mouth as she drove. The breeze from the Maumee River blew in through her windows and carried ashes past my face. We sped down Bancroft Avenue, the empty warehouses and neon bar lights swirling past us in a blur. Zoe pulled up to TSA with a screeching stop. From outside the school, I heard applause and whistles. Peter Pan was a success—my understudy kissed Sylvia, and the crowd probably loved their chemistry. I bet nobody even realized that I was gone.

“Go get her,” Zoe said. I stepped out of the car and she peeled off down the street. I listened to the applause fade away and waited for Sylvia, knowing I’d see her hood-covered head trying to escape the area unseen. When the theatregoers exited the school, I spotted her patched hoodie moving briskly through the crowd, her eyes glued to the sidewalk.

“Sylvia!” I yelled. She didn’t slow down, so I ran. When I caught up to her, I could see mascara running down her cheeks again. I took her by the hand and guided her across the street. Her hands were cold from the winter breeze drifting by way of the river. I put them to my face.

“I wasn’t sure if I would see you,” she said and pulled her hands away, burying them in her hoodie pouch.

“I got a misdemeanor and probation,” I said. “It could have been a lot worse.”

“I’m sorry you can’t do the play,” she said. Her eyes began to glisten in the glow of the street lamps.

“I only did the play for you,” I said. A car pulled up beside us. It was the rusted Buick, its headlights gleaming in our eyes. The same guy sat at the wheel, a lit cigar clenched between his grinning teeth. I tried to keep her there with me, but she pulled away and got into the car without another word. My heart devolved into something less palpable than muscle, more tenacious than rock.

As the Buick rolled down the street I began to sprint. The guy behind the wheel didn’t see me chasing until they came to a stop sign. I lunged forward, grappling the edge of their fender in my hands. He turned the corner and I hit the pavement, tumbled to the curb. As I fell, my gaze caught an image of him laughing and Sylvia’s horrified face. I stood up and sped after them. I was afraid I would lose her forever. If I could fly, I’d be able to catch up to them. I needed the magic from that night, but the pills had all been confiscated. In pursuit of Sylvia, I leapt over hydrants, puddles, and steel grates. Each time, I thought for certain my body would catch the wind just right and the Buick’s taillights would once again be in arm’s reach. No matter what, I wouldn’t let Sylvia go back with that man. I imagined him taking her to some trailer park, smoking cigarettes while she cooked dinner. The streetlights above me flickered each time I passed beneath one. A domino effect of lights blinking out followed me en route to Sylvia, like stars on the road winding into an earthbound constellation on the way to Neverland. “Second star to the right, and straight on till morning!” The faster I went, the more indistinguishable the road became from the sky. Suddenly a singe of heat coursed through my body, the same feeling I got from Sylvia’s pills. Maybe the chemical was still in my system. I jumped into the air and didn’t stop until I was side by side with her. She rolled down her window, her hair flailing in the riverside breeze.

“I won’t let you go,” I said. I held on to the Buick, one hand on the passenger side mirror, one on the door handle. My legs hovered, parallel to the vehicle. She unbuckled her seat belt, leaned her head out of the window, and kissed me. Suspended in air, our bodies developed their own gravitational pull. Flying above the Maumee River, we defied the logic of love, reinvented the laws of physics.

This is the last moment of my life I can review—my body soaring above the Maumee River, hand in hand with Sylvia. If I ever hit the water, I have no memory of it. The split second between life and death felt like when I auditioned for Peter Pan, stepping away from the curtain and into the character, soul detaching from body. Now I’m trapped here in death, watching myself meet Sylvia and leave her over, and over, and over again. Peter Pan never wanted to grow up, so he flew away to Neverland. I, on the other hand, never wanted to be out of love with Sylvia and now, I never will be.

FICTION PIECE

The Spider and the Honey Bee

by Kassandra Flamouri

My sister always said she would be famous. She said she would be the best in the world, and I said she would anger the gods with her arrogance. Remember the stories, I told her. Remember Bellerophon, remember Icarus. She would only shrug irritably and return to her loom.

Arachne thought I didn’t believe in her, but I did. Even as a child, I had never doubted her. But her talent made me afraid. Every time a new admirer came to bring her presents and praise her skill, it made my neck prickle.

The townspeople begged Arachne to work her spindle and loom in the open, where they could watch. I pleaded with her not to make a spectacle of herself. She told me I was a frightened, foolish child.

People came from nearby towns and faraway lands I had never heard of, all drawn by tales of the girl who made magic with her hands. Even the nymphs of the forest and fountain paid her homage. Everywhere I went, Arachne’s name was whispered in awe or shouted to the rooftops in celebration.

One day, a nymph asked me if my sister’s talent was a gift from Athena. Arachne overheard and tossed her hair angrily.

“My talent is my own,” she said coldly. “It was no gift.”

Arachne’s lip curled disdainfully, and she turned away, dismissing the nymph with a flick of the hand. The nymph scuttled away, her eyes wide and tearful. I followed after her and gave her a gift of candied figs to apologize for my sister’s rudeness. She smiled warmly and invited me to share the treat with her.

“You have your own magic,” the nymph observed, licking the sticky glaze from her fingers. “You are as skilled as your sister, in your way.”

“I just like sweet things,” I replied, though her words made me flush with pleasure.

Even though I used more care and better ingredients than anyone else and even though everyone in town came to me first to buy pastries and jams, no one ever gave me more than a passing glance—they only had eyes for Arachne. The nymph’s praise was more welcome than I could safely admit.

I hastily suppressed my pride and added, “Whatever skill I claim comes from the gods’ good favor.”

“Wisely spoken,” the nymph said. “Your sister would do well to follow your example.”

But my sister did not follow my example. She basked in the attention, preening outrageously and blowing kisses to the young men who came to watch her spin. Every day, I prayed that Arachne would somehow escape the gods’ notice. But I knew it was only a matter of time.

“An old woman screeched in my ear today,” Arachne informed me one evening. “She sounded like you. ‘Beware your pride, Arachne. Respect the gods, Arachne. Oh, repent, repent!’”

Arachne laughed, shaking her head. I bit my tongue and returned to my work, stirring honey into a pot of milk simmering on the hearth fire. Her words stung, but—as always—I was afraid for her. I muttered a prayer for forgiveness on my sister’s behalf and reached again for the honeypot. Such a blessing, this sweet pool of gold. Honey wasn’t only good for cooking but for creams and salves. If only the salve worked as well for the sting of a sister’s cruel tongue as it did for scratches and burns, its utility would be all-encompassing.

Early the next morning, a woman appeared at our door, leaning heavily on a staff as gnarled as she was. I didn’t recognize her, and it worried me. I knew all the elders of our village, and I couldn’t imagine such a frail old thing traveling over the mountains to reach our village. Who was she?

“Your health, Aunt,” I greeted her. Arachne didn’t stir from her bed, though I could tell she was awake. “Please, come in—”

“Arachne,” the woman rasped, ignoring me. “The gods are merciful. Temper your pride, honor them as you should, and you will be forgiven.”

Arachne sat up and crossed her arms, glaring at the old woman.

“Forgiven!” Arachne sneered. “My hands are more skilled than any other’s, mortal or god, and I won’t apologize for it. Athena herself couldn’t best me.”

The old woman sighed sadly—and unraveled like a skein of wool until there was nothing left. My gasp of horror was lost in the howling wind that suddenly raged through the house, blowing out the hearth fire and stripping bundles of drying herbs from the rafters. While I cowered on the ground, Arachne stood tall with her fists clenched and her chin raised.

“I’m not afraid,” she shouted. “I only speak the truth.”

“Come and prove it,” the wind hissed. “Come out and face me, Arachne.”

Arachne stalked out of the house without hesitation. I ran after her in the vain hope that I could convince her to show some humility before the goddess. I had no doubt that it was Athena who summoned my sister.

I watched, helpless, as Arachne challenged Athena to a contest. Please lose, I thought desperately. Perhaps then Athena would show mercy. But I was afraid, because I knew Arachne would win.

I tried not to watch, but I couldn’t look away. Athena was magnificent: taller than any man and radiant, as if she stood under a sun that shone only for her. Athena spun her thread from storm clouds and mist and went to work, showing us how the gods punished foolish mortals.

Apollo and Artemis, their faces beautiful but stern, shot gold and silver arrows into the hearts of Niobe’s fourteen children. Cassiopeia wept as Poseidon’s sea monster came for her daughter Andromeda. Actaeon fled in the form of a stag, only to be devoured by his own hounds. Each picture, I knew, was a warning to my sister.

Arachne didn’t heed the warning, or perhaps she was provoked by it. As her tapestry took shape, I saw scene after scene of the gods tricking and abusing mortals. I watched as the poor women preyed upon by Zeus came to life under her hands. Europa, Io, Leda, Alcmene—their heartbreak and shame blazed from the cloth for all to see.

When Arachne finally stepped away from her loom, the crowd let out a collective sigh of wonder. This was Arachne’s best work, the most beautiful thing any of us had ever seen. It was simply  miraculous. Athena held Arachne’s tapestry in her hands, her head bowed. I held my breath. I’m going to lose her, I thought. Finally, Athena spoke.

“This for your insolence,” she said softly, and tore my sister’s tapestry to pieces. She flicked a few drops of liquid at Arachne. “And this for your insult.”

Arachne screamed, doubling over in pain. I ran to her and stood helplessly by her side. Tears of despair ran down my cheeks as her face turned black and monstrous limbs sprouted from her body. She screamed and screamed until, all at once, her voice disappeared. I reached down and gently took into my hands the spider who was once my sister. I turned and looked into Athena’s eyes, though I could barely see through my tears.

“You’re a monster,” I sobbed. “I hate you, I hate you.”

I spat at the goddess’s feet, my lifelong caution and piety swept away by grief. I braced myself and closed my eyes, preparing for death. Dimly I heard a voice pleading with Athena. It was the nymph with whom I had shared my candied figs. She begged Athena to spare me, to make allowance for my anguish. Athena brusquely ordered her to move aside. I bowed my head, waiting for Athena’s spear to pierce my heart.

The pain came softly, more like a chill than a spear. I moaned and cried and clutched my arms to my body, curling in on myself until I was resting in the nymph’s palm, just as my sister had rested in mine.

“Athena was merciful,” the nymph whispered, setting me on a flower. “Instead of taking your life for herself, she has given it to me. She has pledged you to my service.”

I buzzed my wings and went to work, bobbing clumsily from flower to flower in search of nectar. It brought me a strange sort of comfort to know that I would share my sister’s fate. But where Arachne’s name would be preserved in legend, mine would be lost. Such was the reward for my humility. I resolved to take a new name, after the nymph who saved me.

I named myself Mélissa.

FICTION PIECE

Bad Luck

by Rollin Jewett

 

The machine made a loud “bing-bong” noise when Ted put his quarters in. Pinball was his favorite game and he liked to play as often as he could. He was considered the ‘pinball wizard’ of Pine Hills Academy. Whenever he was spotted at Boxcar Arcade putting quarters into one of his favorite machines, guys would challenge him, and people would gather around to watch.

This time the challenger was a punk kid from Orange Blossom High. He put his quarters in the machine right after Ted’s. Ted wasn’t worried in the least. He’d beaten this guy before.

Ted pulled back the plunger and let his ball sail. It darted and crashed into the bumpers; it veered into the five-thousand-point drop target and knocked it down. Not bad, he thought. The ball headed back toward his flippers and he popped it into a two-thousand point marker. He was doing all right. He looked up just for a second to gauge the crowd’s approval – critical mistake. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Angie Decker talking to some guy in the corner booth of the arcade. He watched them for a moment too long and when he looked down, the ball was already speeding toward his flippers. He banged the flipper as fast as he could but it was too late. The ball bounced for a moment and then rolled down the middle.

The crowd sighed in disappointment.

“What a bad break,” someone said. Ted walked to the side of the machine to let the kid from Orange Blossom shoot. He looked at the corner booth where Angie Decker and that guy were sitting, holding hands, and whispering. Apparently, she didn’t see Ted because if she did, boy would she be embarrassed. Ted had asked her out for that night and she had said no because she had a lot of homework to do. Some work, Ted thought. He looked back at the pinball machine. The little punk was beating him! He racked up another twelve thousand points before the shiny steel ball finally slid down the side lane and it was Ted’s turn again. Not good, thought Ted, as he took position in front of the machine.

He pulled back the plunger and let his second ball fly. He still couldn’t believe that Angie had lied to him about tonight and was going out with some other guy. They weren’t going steady or anything but Christ, the nerve! His hands felt sweaty on the flipper buttons. He didn’t have time to wipe them; the ball was sailing toward the flippers. His fingers slipped, and he hit the ball too soon, the angle was all wrong. It hit a bumper and bounced lazily down the side lane.

The crowd looked at Ted in amazement. He had never played like this before. He shrugged his shoulders and let the challenger take over. He looked over at the booth where Angie was sitting and thought about walking over there and telling her off. What good would that do? She wasn’t really worth getting upset over, was she? Anyway, the guy she was with looked like a real douche, probably some rich jerk that she’d end up using for his money. I’ve got better things to do than waste my time on girls like that, he thought to himself. Besides, I’m right in the middle of an important game and I blew the first two balls! He looked at the score. This guy was killing him! Well, he thought, it’s time to get on the ball.

His turn came again and he pulled back the plunger and let it go with a resounding “smack”! The ball sailed up and landed in the five-thousand point hole and started clicking away his points.

I would have liked to have gone out with her, he thought, as the ball popped out and headed again toward his flippers. This time he flipped it into a three-thou marker but his thoughts were running away from him, focused on a booth in the corner of the arcade. I know she likes me. She’s always looking at me in geometry and whenever I look back at her, she smiles. She’s got such a nice ass, too! The ball headed toward his flippers and then got side-tracked and went straight down the middle. Goddamn magnets!

He had accumulated fifty-seven thousand points altogether. That was lousy! He had never done that bad before and here he was in front of a bunch of Pine Hills Academy blabbermouths! Not to mention this Orange Blossom kid who’d definitely be bragging to everyone at his second-rate school. He looked at Angie’s booth and saw her and that guy kissing. He had his hand on her leg, the son of a bitch!

Ted looked back at the pinball machine and watched as his challenger started racking up more and more points. Ted was worried. This didn’t look good at all. The challenger had fifty-one thousand points. All he needed was seven thousand more points and he would have Ted beat! Ted looked back at the booth where the two “lovebirds” had been sitting. They were gone! He glanced toward the door and saw them walking out. That guy had his hand on her ass.

“Shit!” said Ted out loud.

“Yeah, that’s what you played like,” said a wise guy in the crowd. Everyone laughed except Ted. The challenger was up to sixty-two thousand when Ted looked back at the machine. He felt a little sick. He had let a punk kid from Orange Blossom High beat him. That wasn’t so bad really, but when he saw Angie walk out the door with that guy, that made him feel about two feet tall.

That fickle silver pinball had also made its choice and the game belonged to the challenger, who fist-bumped everyone around him and whooped it up loudly. And annoyingly, thought Ted. Christ, it was just a game!

Just then Ted saw Susie Johnson walk in — all by herself. He smiled briefly at her and she strolled over and stood by him.

“Hi, Ted,” she said smiling, as her shoulder brushed against his. He suddenly felt much better. He looked over at the punk kid from Orange Blossom High.

“Best two out of three?” he inquired confidently.

 

 

FICTION PIECE

Far From Home

by Jessica Rozycki

“I’ve never been to a club before,” I told Carlos. Spring in Madrid was a lot hotter than I had anticipated; I wore a simple grey tank with black shorts and sneakers, having been promised that I didn’t need to wear anything extravagant.

“Well, you’ve been to a gross frat house basement,” he replied. “It’s kind of the same thing. Except here, the drinks are overpriced and there’s more than one bathroom.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle at that, knowing the scene he was describing all too well after two years at Boston University. But just because I was familiar with it didn’t mean I was a fan. “Great.”

I had to admit I was a little nervous about joining Carlos on his family vacation this spring break, but I was definitely enjoying myself. Even though we’d been dating for over a year when he asked me to come along, there was still a part of me that felt like I’d be intruding. It took some serious convincing from his parents and brother before I truly considered it. But they assured me plenty of times that it was their idea to invite me along, and after another round of reassurance from Carlos and his family, I decided to say yes.

This was our last night in Spain, and Carlos had asked his parents if they’d be okay with just the two of us going out somewhere. Seeing as it had been a busy week of being in the sun and meeting up with family, Ana and Luis didn’t mind staying at the villa to pack and prepare for our flight the next afternoon. Carlos’s brother, Sal, was already asleep by the time we got ready to leave, so he definitely wasn’t worried about missing out on anything.

But I didn’t expect Carlos to bring me to a gay club.

“My cousin comes here all the time,” he told me. “It’s 18+.”

“Where did you tell your parents we were going?” I asked.

“Just dancing somewhere. Which is technically true.”

I leaned into his side as we waited in line to pay the cover. I felt Carlos curl his arm around my waist, his hand coming to rest on my hip and gently smoothing over the fabric of my shirt. The conversations around me were loud and fast, as they had been all week. I thought after taking years of Spanish in high school I would at least be able to hold a conversation, but the natural elegance with which everyone here spoke the language – including Carlos and his family – was no match for me. The best I could do was listen carefully and try to pick out a few words I recognized. But the further we got inside the club, the more scattered everyone’s conversations became and it was impossible for me to keep up.

Carlos and I walked over to the bar, surprisingly finding two empty seats. The chalkboard above the cluttered mess of tequila bottles read “¡Viva la lucha!” and I wanted to ask Carlos what that meant. But first I had something to take care of.

“Can I order for us?” I asked him.

“You don’t need to speak Spanish, Benj. The bartender is going to know you’re American anyway.”

I very rarely volunteered to speak Spanish around Carlos because I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But it was our last night here and I felt confident enough to at least get us drinks. I challenged him with a sharp look, my eyes squinted and an eyebrow raised.

“Okay,” Carlos surrendered with a small chuckle.

“What do you want?”

“Just a beer.”

I smirked, knowing he was trying to make it easy for me, but I wasn’t going to complain.

“What can I get you?” the bartender asked as he placed two coasters in front of us.

“Una cerveza y un Rebujito, por favor.”

The bartender gave me an encouraging smile and nod before turning back toward the register. I couldn’t help my goofy smile in response.

“Not bad,” Carlos said as he leaned his elbow against the bar.

“I hope so, I’ve been practicing that all day,” I admitted.

Carlos rolled his eyes, but laughed all the same. He had such a gorgeous smile, which is what I’m pretty sure initially attracted me to him when we met last year. And as of recently, he’d been going a little longer without shaving, leaving a slight stubble on his face for a couple of weeks at a time. While it definitely took some getting used to – and I hadn’t exactly admitted it to him yet – I was learning to like it.

“You know, I realized something,” Carlos said. “We haven’t taken any pictures together this week. Not in a while actually.”

I couldn’t help but cringe a little in response; I wasn’t really a big fan of taking pictures. “Does that mean you want to?” I asked as the bartender came back with our drinks.

Carlos rested his chin on his fist, pleading with a smile, not even needing to say anything. But when I took too long to answer, he said, “Please, Benny?” He knew I was a sucker for when he called me that. “Do you know that McKayla thought we broke up because I hadn’t posted a picture of us on Instagram in a while?”

My mouth dropped open and I laughed. “Are you serious? That’s hilarious.” McKayla wasn’t the brightest of Carlos’s friends, but still, it was kind of hard to believe. “So you want to post a picture of us to prove we’re still dating.”

“Of course not,” Carlos said, as if it was silly for me to have made that assumption. “I don’t need to post anything – not if you don’t want me to – but I think it would be cute.” He held my hand and kept it in place between his two hands making a plea. He kissed my knuckles and tilted his head. “Estamos muy lindo.”

I sighed, figuring it really wasn’t a big deal that I give in. I had to admit that Carlos was always very considerate of the fact that I didn’t like to take pictures all the time. And it was a special occasion.

Without answering, I relented by pulling my phone out of my pocket and handing it to him. Carlos smiled his cute smile and immediately shuffled his bar stool closer to me. “You’re the best,” he said before pressing a quick series of small kisses to my cheek.

Without even thinking about it, I turned my head and kissed him on the mouth. My hand brushed against the stubble on his jaw and Carlos moved even closer to me. I was kind of surprised, because while he was definitely an affectionate person, he was usually more cautious about this particular type of display when we were in public. Maybe it was the fact that we were at a gay bar and in another country. Either way, I was going to enjoy every moment. Kind of like how Carlos liked the idea of posting a picture of the two of us together, it was a reminder – mostly for ourselves – that we didn’t need to be afraid to share our relationship. Carlos and I certainly never tried to keep anything a secret, but sometimes people posed so much uncertainty it was hard to be completely open. But I didn’t like thinking about that.

Carlos lingered for a moment more before pulling back, only slightly; I was still close enough to see my own reflection in his eyes. “Benj,” he whispered. Another quick peck. “Querido.”

I let a small smile escape. Carlos explained to me once that his mind was constantly switching between English and Spanish, and when we were kissing, he sometimes lost track. It was still a little overwhelming that I could cause such an effect on him. But after picking up on a few of his endearments, I admittedly loved those moments when he got caught up and let one slip. It was something special between us.

I kissed him once more and then said, “You know, I already agreed to take a picture with you.”

Carlos ducked his head and chuckled. He held my hand that was still resting on his cheek and said, “I’m really happy you came this week.”

“Me too,” I said. “Thanks for bringing me here.”

Carlos threw one of his arms over my shoulder and set the front facing camera on us. I smiled gently – not showing my teeth, which was a repercussion of having braces for three years in high school – while Carlos grinned brightly as ever. His head leaned into mine and I held onto his hand, anchoring myself, in a way. Carlos was always a sure way to keep me grounded.

After he snapped a few photos, he sighed and said, “The lighting is awful.”

“I could take it for you, if you’d like.”

We both looked at up at the woman who was offering to take our picture, her hand hesitantly outstretched in the direction of my phone. She had big, bright eyes, a ponytail full of blonde hair with streaks of pink, and with her welcoming smile, I could see a slight gap between her two front teeth. If her accent hadn’t hinted that she was from somewhere in the UK, her look practically screamed it. She was adorable.

Carlos and I exchanged glances and he nodded at her. “That’d be so great. Thank you.”

“No problem,” she said as Carlos handed her the phone.

This time, Carlos put his arm around my waist and leaned his body into mine. It was already warm in the club, but I was still able to feel the heat from his body pressing into mine. I leaned into him as well, my hand resting on his back and slipping two fingers through the belt loop of his jeans. I had to admit, my smile was more genuine this time.

“Oh, that’s precious,” the woman said as she snapped a few and then returned my phone.

“Did you already make new friends, Lucy?” a gentleman walked up and asked. He looked at his watch and continued. “I was in the loo for two minutes, tops. That has to be a new record.”

Lucy rolled her eyes at him and said, “I was just doing them a favor.”

“Sorry about that,” the guy continued with a light chuckle. “She has this condition that causes her to make friends everywhere she goes.”

Carlos and I laughed along. “Not exactly a bad problem to have,” I said.

We all introduced ourselves and fell into easy conversation about being on vacation. The guy who joined us, Finn, was Lucy’s husband and they were in Madrid to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. I couldn’t help the slight skepticism that flashed in my mind at the two of them spending time in a gay bar, but they seemed nice enough, so I forgot about it after a while. We all eventually decided to move to a more comfortable table with our drinks.

On our walk over, I leaned in close to whisper in Carlos’s ear. “Is this okay with you? I know you wanted just the two of us to hang out tonight.”

“Totally fine,” he replied. “I’m having a good time.”

“Me too.”

Lucy and Finn asked the two of us about Boston when we told them we were on spring break. The closest they had been to our city was when they took a trip to New York in the winter to celebrate Christmas with some friends. I couldn’t quite understand why anyone wanted to travel to the East Coast during the coldest and most touristy time of the year, but based on their stories, it seemed they had a great time.

“Boston isn’t quite as crazy as New York, but it has its own style,” Carlos offered.

“Are you planning to stay there when you’re done with university?” Finn asked.

Carlos and I looked at each other and shrugged. “I’m not sure,” I said. “We still have two years left so I guess we’ll have to see.”

Lucy sipped her drink and asked, “Is that where the two of you met?”

We nodded.

“That’s something special,” she added. “No need to rush it.”

Carlos and Finn went on to talk about how they both played soccer – of course, it was “football”, according to Finn – and my mind got lost thinking about my time at BU.

I hadn’t met Carlos until our second semester freshman year. I had spent the first half of the year hanging around with my roommate and other friends we’d made in our dorm; it was the typical college scene of weekdays in the library and weekends in the heart of Boston with all of the other students in the area. Then in February, my roommate had some buddies on the club soccer team and brought me along to one of their games. The season was over, but the guys on the team managed to find other people who wanted to play in the dead of winter and set up a couple of scrimmages. I hadn’t really been looking forward to sitting in the bleachers when the weather was less than 40 degrees, but I was promised a fun time with good people, so I went for it.

We headed back to the soccer house afterward, and through a friend of a friend of some guy who lived there, I was introduced to Carlos.

I remember thinking he was attractive the moment I saw him, with his stunning golden eyes, scruffy hair, and a small stud in his nose. But it wasn’t exactly one of those moments when you see someone and you just know. We kind of had to warm up to each other. Carlos seemed to be a little more shy than the rest of the guys on the team, and while I definitely noticed the obvious glances and smiles, I wasn’t completely certain he liked guys. Eventually I figured the worst that could happen was that he would say no, so before I left I went up to him and said, “We should hang out soon.” To which he replied, “Yeah, absolutely. Can I get your number?”

My thoughts were interrupted when Lucy squealed with delight. “Oh goodness, this song is brilliant.”

Carlos’s face lit up and instantly turned to me, pleading with giant puppy eyes. I knew the song was one of his favorites. I noticed Lucy was doing the same to Finn.

“You two go out there and we’ll catch up in a bit,” Finn suggested. I nodded along with him, thankful we seemed to be on the same page. Carlos and Lucy practically bounced out of the booth and onto the dancefloor.

“She’s so sweet,” I said to Finn.

He nodded and said, “She’ll definitely give you a toothache.”

“Did you two meet in school as well?”

“Oh, no,” Finn replied. “Luce and I have known each other forever. We grew up in the same neighborhood and were together through most of high school. University was a little bit rough, but it was one of those things we decided would really test our relationship. We got married not long after graduating.”

“Did you go to the same school?”

Finn nodded. “Pretty attached, actually, and we eventually realized that we were missing out on really exploring how we wanted to get on during that time in our lives. So, we actually broke up for a bit.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a pretty mature decision.”

Finn shrugged. “Lucy’s always the one with her head on straight.” He paused to chuckle. “Well, not completely straight. There was another girl in the picture for a while.”

It took me a while to process what Finn was saying, but once I did, everything seemed to click into place. “So, Lucy’s part of the community.”

Finn smiled and looked over to where Lucy and Carlos were dancing. “She told me when we were kids. She would say ‘I like everybody’ and I never really understood it. But once we were old enough to be more independent, I knew it was an important part of her life.”

Our conversation brought me back to a thought I’d had when Carlos and I were getting our drinks. I looked past Finn, bringing my attention back to that chalkboard on the bar. I knew that “viva” meant live, but I was lost on the rest.

I pointed behind Finn and asked him, “How’s your Spanish?”

“Viva la lucha,” he read aloud. He then reached for his phone and said, “My Spanish is horrid. But my Googling abilities are quite good.”

Finn conducted his search and then passed his phone to me. I tilted my head at the screen and my lips twitched into a smile.

Long live the fight.

I finished what was left of my drink and watched Carlos and Lucy dance. I loved seeing him so carefree. It had taken a while for Carlos to be more comfortable with letting his guard down around me. He was incredibly studious, always prioritizing his homework and exams over soccer games and frat parties. Even when he was in the company of his friends or on the field, his demeanor was so different from those moments we spent alone – so careful and calculated. I remember the shock that overtook his features the first time I reached for his hand in public. He reassured me that it wasn’t something he was ashamed of, but with the relationship being so new, he needed to take baby steps before reaching my level of comfort. So, I waited. And the more time we spent together, the more he began to open up, and the more I wanted to prove to him that he could trust me. And now, watching him dancing and laughing and making friends with strangers, I started to understand why he might have brought me to this particular club. Even if the night wasn’t spent by each other’s side, it was spent free of judgement, free of uncertainty. It seemed that those moments tended to be more rare, as well as more special.

“I’m going in,” I told Finn, gesturing to the mass of people swaying to a song I wasn’t familiar with. “Joining me?”

Finn gestured for me to go along without him. “I’ll finish my drink – Lucy won’t leave me alone for too long, I can assure you.”

I nodded and headed over to Carlos, placing a hand on his shoulder when I was close enough. He smiled when he saw me and simply guided me closer to join him.

Lucy leaned in and said, “Where’s the bum?”

“Finn’s finishing his drink,” I told her.

“I’ll round him up,” she said before heading over to the table.

I turned back to Carlos and wrapped my arms around his neck. He hugged me back instantly, and then pulled away to look at me when he realized I wasn’t dancing.

“What’s up?” he said.

“Thanks for bringing me here,” I told him.

“You already said that.”

“No, not just vacation,” I said before gesturing around us. “Here. Thanks for bringing me here.”

Carlos let his hands travel down the length of my arms before holding my hands and giving them a sure squeeze. “It’s not too much?”

“Definitely not,” I assured him. I leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Especially if we can make out some more.”

Carlos started laughing and wrapped me up in another hug. “Obviously,” he replied. “But first, you’re dancing with me.”

I snaked my arms around his waist and let my hands travel into the back pockets of his jeans. I kissed him and said, “Anything for you, mi querido.”

FICTION PIECE

Extension

by Molly Booth

 

Despite the forty-five degree temperature, it was snowing in April, which was common, and also fitting as Mel ventured across campus to check her mailbox one last time. She’d spent the morning inside, packing, and had overdressed for the adventure, one too many sweaters, so she was damp by the time she yanked open the box with her key. There she found a $24.16 paycheck  from the library, and an envelope with the college seal and her name printed on the front.

The one page form inside explained some things she already knew:

Mel would leave campus by the agreed date (tomorrow) at 3:00pm. She would complete and turn in all residual work one month after the semester ended. She would not be refunded for the semester, or part of the semester, regardless of her reasons for leaving.

Then it had blank spaces to fill in.

What was her name?

Why was she leaving?

Sign here. Date here.

Then, more daunting, there were spaces for other signatures — it explained that she would need to collect these signatures from her current professors, and submit them by the next day, before she left.

“Shit,” she muttered.

She folded up the form, and pushed the hair back off her sweaty forehead. She vaguely remembered being told about the signature requirement. She thought someone would remind her, or email her, but here it was.

Why am I taking care of this? Shouldn’t someone else have to do this for me?

She wondered, again, if the administration thought she was making everything up.

Braced by her university’s confidence, she marched out into the muddy flurries.

      ***

      “Of course,” Professor Tokarski smiled at her, then turned to the paper. “I’m so sorry this semester hasn’t worked out well for you. I do feel we must have failed you in some way.”

“Oh, it’s not your fault,” Mel said, watching her scan the form. “Just bad luck, bad timing.”

Tokarski licked her lips, her tongue wetted the wrinkles around them. Then she reached across her desk for a pen. Tokarski moved so slowly, Mel often had to fight the urge to grab the pen, book, folder and hand it to her. Tokarski wouldn’t have minded, but she probably would have been embarrassed.

“Here you are, dear,” she handed her the paper, signed with that beautiful, European handwriting. “Please, do take care of yourself. Will I see you before you go?”

“I’m coming to class tomorrow,” she assured her. “It’s my last one. I don’t want to miss Antigone.”

“No, I didn’t think you would,” Tokarski smiled again, and behind her glasses, her eyes twinkled — her eyes were perpetually watery and red-rimmed, so she seemed to be always looking at each of her students specially. Mel sincerely believed she always was.

“Thank you, again.” She got up to leave — there were other students in need hovering outside. She could see them through the window on the door.

“Melanie, let me just ask one thing —”

She turned back around as Tokarski rose, placing her hands on the edge of her desk, twinkling eyes narrowing, but not unkindly.

“What in the world is a smart, young woman like you doing, being depressed?”

Mel froze.

Professor Tokarski was a genius. There was no denying this when she spoke about anything ever written. Her genius was humble though — she would listen, rapt, to students having “revelations,” enthralled with their discoveries. She couldn’t really care about Mel’s predictable thoughts about Lady Macbeth. Still, she seemed to.

But some things, some issues, seemed to elude Tokarski. She believed that academia, articles and books, were the only things that mattered. Mel wanted to agree with her, badly.

She had no way to answer her question. How could a woman from her background, her generation, possibly sympathize with my pathetic, self-pitying existence? Mel thought. How could I explain it in a way she would respect?

She shook her head and left, smiling and waving the paper. “Thank you again. I’ll see you tomorrow in class.”

***

      “I don’t know if you’ve ever been depressed before,” she heard herself saying. “But it’s very difficult, physically. It’s hard for me to get out of bed.”

Professor Chavez nodded, regarding the form in front of her him. “I’m sure it’s hard. When would you be able to have the term paper finished?”

She knew that would be her question, and she knew Chavez wasn’t going to like the answer — Professor Chavez hadn’t been offered tenure track, so she was leaving for another college. Everyone was disappointed, because she was the only professor teaching applied linguistics. If this had been another semester, Mel would have been in love with Chavez’s class. She was still in love with it, but in a once-removed kind of way. She knew that she would have loved it before, so she told herself that she loved it now.

“It says by June twentieth,” she indicated the form. “But I can try to have yours done earlier.”

“That would be, um, good.” Chavez nodded again. Her mouth pinched in the effort not to frown. She didn’t want unfinished business with a college that had fucked her over. She didn’t want Mel’s paper holding her back — hanging between her and this place. Mel got that. Maybe Chavez would give her an “A” just for kicks. She was, quietly, that kind of person. Tall, shaved head, glasses, taught Spanish and German passionately, linguistics as a side project. Some days she seemed to be messing with her students; like when she’d brought in a bunch of pebbles so they could analyze the “poem” she arranged with them.

Chavez picked up the paper. Mel picked at a scab.

Mel liked how Chavez handled lulls in the classroom. Chavez was awkward, so she didn’t mind awkward silences. She seemed to enjoy them, and let them build, until she would softly ask someone a thoughtful question, fumbling over her own words a little, maybe on purpose.

Mel didn’t want their relationship to end this way. She felt herself leaning forward in the chair, begging Chavez silently to still think of her as the person who’d written that A paper on D. H. Lawrence’s elephants.

“Well,” Chavez signed it. “I hope you get better. You’ve been wonderful to have in class.”

She smiled, tightly, and handed the form back to Mel.

“Thank you, and thank you for a great semester.”

You’ve been wonderful to have in class.

As she walked to her next destination, Mel applied her linguistics studies.

What does the “to have in class” tell us? That she was probably my teacher.

What does the “wonderful” tell us? That I was a favorite student. That she doubts my depression is that bad, or I couldn’t have been wonderful.

What does the “you’ve been” tell us? Either that my presence has previously been and will continue to be a certain way, or that my presence has previously been a certain way and will now not be that way anymore.

I will no longer be wonderful in class, because I gave up.

Professor Chavez didn’t mean that.

I know.

I know.

I know.

***

      It took a little longer to find Professor Poole, but she did — grading papers in the attic classroom of the humanities building. Mel had gone to his office first and then checked the meditation space – lots of gongs and cushions. Professor Poole often encouraged his students to participate in the sessions he held there. Mel never went; she knew she couldn’t empty her mind. Or endure additional time with Professor Poole, for that matter.

“I’m really glad you’re taking the time you need.”

The form lay on the table. He hadn’t looked at it yet.

“Thank you.”

He continued to stare at her; she tried not to blink. Professor Poole was all about meaningful eye contact. She wasn’t sure it counted as meaningful if you did it all the time.

When he didn’t say anything else, didn’t move to sign the paper, she could guess the rest of the syllogism.

“And thank you for helping me come to this decision.”

He smiled, his prominent left dimple squeezing into his cheek. “Well, I could see how you were struggling, and you’re not usually a struggling student. I’m glad you’re putting your health first.”

She gritted her teeth. One week ago, in a moment of weakness, out of many moments of weakness, she had cried during a meeting with Professor Poole. It was awful. Professor Bennett would have been her first choice. Poole was her last.

They had been sitting in his office, going over her idea for the term paper — she would analyze Philoctetes using Aristotle’s tragedy principles. Poole was a fan of this idea: it was focused, thoughtful, pretty cookie-cutter. It had been a relief when she had thought of it.

When she had tried to get up to leave, Poole had asked how her health was. She had skipped some classes, and he was worried. He had hunched forward, that sickening, “concerned” look on his face, and propped his hands, wrists sticking out of his too-short sweater sleeves, on his chin.

“I’m fine,” she had said, but felt a tear forming in her right eye.

“Really?” he asked. To his credit, nobody until this point had asked if she was really fine.

Damn it, she’d cried. She told him, or at least the spaces to the left and right of him, that she was depressed, and that her parents were suspicious of how bad it was, and that they wanted her to come home now, which was a month early, which would ruin her GPA. He had handed her a tissue, nodded, given her a long speech about the body as a temple, and then he’d explained “medical extension.” After meeting with him, she’d made the final decision to go home. If she was crying in front of this asswipe, then something must be really wrong.

She got the feeling that maybe he wanted her to cry again now, out of gratitude, before he signed the form.

He was looking her in the eyes again. They stared at each other. His eyes were brown, stasis. This was too long, and she remembered her ex’s theory that if you looked into someone’s eyes for four minutes straight, you fell in love. Mel fought off a shudder at the idea of falling in love with Professor Poole. Gross.

Without blinking, she slid the paper closer. “Could you sign, please?”

“Of course,” he said and took out a pen immediately. He made a show of reading it, asked her how far along she was with the paper. She told him she’d made lots of notes. He nodded, knowing this was bullshit.

He signed and handed it back.

“Take care of yourself. I hope to have you in class again.”

“Thank you.”

This seemed unlikely. He was a philosophy professor. She’d decided she didn’t like philosophy. It didn’t help. She also wasn’t sure if she would be back next semester.

And she hadn’t totally given up on the idea of killing him before she left.

***

      Professor Bennett’s office dazzled, if that was a word one could use to describe a small, airless, book-filled room. Two walls were made up of windows, overlooking the beginning of a hiking trail. Sunlight bounced off the snow and entered the room in yellow, dusty beams that warmed it uncomfortably.

The door was unlocked, which meant he couldn’t be far, so Mel sat at the round table, nodding off every ten seconds from the heat.

“Melanie.”

She jolted awake, unsure how long she’d been sleeping. It was still light out — maybe only a few minutes.

“Walt.” She smiled. Everyone called him by his first name.

“Do you have something there for me to sign?” he sat down next to her, but one chair away.

“Yes.” She pushed it toward him. “It’s my leave for medical extension.”

He nodded and took the paper. “So you have everyone here?”

She nodded back. “I just need yours, and then I turn it into the Dean.”

“Excellent. Well done.”

Walt had been her adviser since her first semester. They had talked the week before, briefly and succinctly, about why she was leaving.

He signed at the bottom and handed it back. “So, are you going to finish the piece?”

“Yes,” she said, waving the paper. “By June twentieth.”

“I would understand if you didn’t,” he said. “I wouldn’t change your grade.”

She looked at him. Shock of grey-blonde hair sticking straight up. Thick glasses, apple cheeks. She wondered — did he actually understand, because he was a writer too? Did he understand how painful every second of the day felt? Did he know that his poems meant nothing, would mean nothing?

She looked around his office. Really looked. Books piled like unsteady brick walls, and clay coffee mugs stained like rain. On the big table where he taught, torn paper scraps with scribbled dates, times, phone numbers, fragments of poetry. A layer of dust on the window sill, gathering. It almost felt like her room?

But on his main desk: pictures of his partner, kids, grandkids. A meticulous folder of syllabi. His computer spotless, and his emails answered.

Mel decided no, he didn’t know what she felt like. If he had at one point, he had forgotten, and gone on to live with a job and a family. He seemed to love to advise and teach. She knew she would never love anything as much as he loved to teach.

“I’ll finish it,” she said, finally.

“It could be quite a bit longer,” he pointed out. “Why don’t you just try one more stab at it, and we’ll leave it there and pick up in the fall?”

“Okay.”

“Good.” He stood.

She stood. “Will you tell the workshop I wish I could have stayed?”

“Of course.” He smiled and shoved his hands in his pockets; her cue to exit.

She walked to the end of the short hallway, then glanced back at his office – door open, Walt sitting at his computer, looking at the screen over the tops of his glasses, hot light pouring onto his back, books piled on either side of him.

If I never had to leave that room, she thought, then I wouldn’t be the way I am.

FICTION PIECE

Hide and Seek

by Carrie Connel-Gripp

“Where’s my twin, Mama?” her middle child asked one dreary February afternoon. It wasn’t long after the girls were born and he was only four at the time. Kira was knitting an afghan in earth colors for his bed. She raised her head slowly from her project. She smiled, squinting slightly in the firelight.

“Ah, Fergus,” she said, and took a deep breath. “You are unique in this family. There is but one of you, and you have a special gift.”

“What is it?” Fergus stood on his tiptoes, staring intently into her eyes.

“I cannot tell you.”

Fergus pouted and sunk down to the floor.

Kira reached out her hand and lifted his chin. “I can’t tell you, because I don’t know yet.” She smiled, leaned down and kissed his forehead.

“What could it be?” he asked in a hushed voice.

“You’ll know when it happens,” and she went back to her knitting.

***

Five years later, nine-year-old Fergus was missing. “Have you seen Fergus?” Kira asked her young daughters.

In unison, they piped, “No, Mama.” She waited. Cecilia, older by a few minutes, said, “We were playing hide and seek, but he never found us.” The girls went back to trying on their mother’s clothes. She’d have a mess to clean up once Amelia finished rummaging in her jewelry box.

Kira left them to continue her search. She found her older twins in the basement building bird houses. “Do you know where Fergus is?” she asked the boys.

Connor, a couple of minutes older than his brother, said, “No, Mama.”

Donal sighed, saying, “He never finds us when we play hide and seek.” The boys continued their hammering and she made her way back to the main hall.

Fergus is no fool, Kira thought. I bet he didn’t even attempt to find them. She moved slowly through the old house that had been in her family for generations. Niall spent the week in the city and the weekends with them. Even with five children in the house, sometimes she felt very alone.

Kira ambled back up the stairs and past her bedroom. She heard the girls chattering in a language only they understood, making her think of the secret code she once shared with her twin brother. She quickly pushed those thoughts away and hesitated at the door to the attic. Damn, she thought. Fergus knows not to go up there, but would he?  She tested the door knob – locked as it should be. She left the door, turning slowly in the dim hallway. If Fergus was up here, she knew she would sense him. There was nothing.

Back on the main floor, Kira meandered through the living room. She touched the picture frames sitting on the piano and the porcelain animals on the mantel. She found herself in the kitchen, filled the kettle and lit the stove. She gazed out the window into the backyard. Fergus didn’t like to be in the sun.  His pale skin burned too quickly making his freckles stand out more.

Kira took her mug of tea into the dining room and sat at the table. She closed her eyes, breathing in the fragrant tea and enjoying the warmth. This was her favorite room in the house. So many memories, mostly happy. The entire length of the wall across from her contained a mural painted more than a hundred years ago. The name of the artist slipped her mind. Fergus would know. He enjoyed looking at the painting as much as she did.

Kira was not an expert in art history but knew enough to consider the mural a mixture of realism and impressionism with a touch of medieval church art. To the far right, Monet’s water lilies floated near the bank of a river populated by Degas’ ballerinas dancing amidst the partygoers of Renoir. But then, maybe the dancers were fairies and the water lilies were fish. On the left, a castle was under siege and knights rode upon majestic horses. Ladies sat in paladins aboard elephants and camels traversing onto the plain of Giza at the center of the painting, the sphinx positioned before the Great Pyramid. So much more hid in the painting, revealing itself slowly over time:  Dionysus and his maenads, unicorns, shamans, powerful creatures with no names. This painting had seen generations of her family grow, and change, and live from its spot on the dining room wall.

“Fergus, where are you?” Kira sighed into her cup of tea.

***

            Fergus looked at his mother sitting at the dining room table. He was close enough to hear her but didn’t want to give up his hiding place just yet. It was too interesting where he was at the moment. In addition to seeing his mother, Fergus saw several different scenes swirling in front of him, making him dizzy, all within the confines of his dining room. Like the beads and bits of glass in a twisting kaleidoscope, the patterns formed and dissolved until the one that interested him the most centered in the space. He put out his hand, touching the gelatin-like surface he had come through; this stopped the shifting scenes at a family having dinner. The father sat at one end of the table; the mother at the other. A girl in a blue and white dress was on one long side and a boy in chinos and a plaid shirt sat opposite her. He recognized the girl’s mannerisms even though her back was to Fergus, and he thought there was something familiar about the boy’s face.

“We’ve discussed this many times already. You have to start thinking about your future, son,” said the man. “If not military school, what then?”

The boy stammered, “B-but I’ll have to leave h-home.” He focused on the girl. “H-how can you separate us? We’re twins and best friends.”

“Why can’t I go to military school, too?” asked the girl.

“Do you want to give up your dream of being a teacher, Kira?” said the woman.

The girl said, “No, but …,” and shrugged her shoulders.

Fergus watched as the man got up and took a newspaper into the living room. The girl and woman cleared the table and disappeared into the kitchen. The boy continued to sit at the table, his plate of food untouched and his chin resting on one fist.

“Hello,” said Fergus as he stepped from the painting.

“Wh-who are you?” The boy’s eyes were wide as he looked around the room.

“I’m Fergus Hoblyn.”

“Really? Are you a little person?”

Fergus took a deep breath to fill his chest. “I’m nine years old,” he declared.

The boy sniggered. “Okay, but you still look kinda small.”

Fergus frowned then asked, “What’s your name?”

“Kyle Gavin.  I’m thirteen.” Kyle pushed his chair back and stood up. “Where’d you come from?”

Fergus pointed at the painting behind him. “I live in this house too.”

“You’re bonkers. That’s not possible!”

“Is too! Bet I can show you a hiding place you don’t know about!”

“Alright, show me,” Kyle challenged.

Fergus led Kyle into the entranceway between the dining and living rooms. He darted to the stairs as quietly as he could, not wanting to alert the father to his presence. Creeping up the stairs, Fergus remembered just in time about the creaky fifth riser and reached his leg high to step over it.

“How’d you know?” came a whisper behind him but Fergus ignored Kyle for the moment. There were two more squeaky steps ahead. At the top of the stairs, Fergus tiptoed to what would be his bedroom. He went straight to the closet, opened the door, and knelt inside. He waited for Kyle to get down too.

Fergus stuck his finger in a knot in the floorboard in the middle of the closet. There was a click and Fergus pushed the board down, moving it sideways below the floor.

“Cool,” breathed Kyle. “I never knew. Is there anything in there?”

Fergus reached down until he touched the metal he knew would be there. He drew out a square tin biscuit box, dented and rusty in places. “You’ll never guess who this belonged to.” Fergus opened the tin and pulled out a small black book. He opened it to the last page and read, “Tomorrow, I leave my home to take up residence at the military academy. I’ll be away for some time.

“Who wrote that?” asked Kyle.

“This box belonged to General Reginald Latimer Gavin.”

“No way! That’s my grandpa,” said Kyle. The two boys spent a few moments looking at other documents, letters and photographs. Then Kyle said, “Let’s put this back. I want to show you something.”  Fergus returned everything to the tin, put the lid on, gently set the tin in the hole and showed Kyle how to operate the mechanism on the floorboard.

Kyle grabbed Fergus’ arm and pulled him out of the room. He yanked open the next door in the hallway. “It’s up here,” said Kyle, pushing Fergus ahead of him and up the stairs.

Fergus tried to protest. “That door should be locked. We can’t go up here. It’s not safe.” But Kyle just kept pushing.

“C’mon, over here,” Kyle said, heading towards the large round window at the back of the house.  He stopped amid a number of trunks and threw open the lid of the nearest one. “This was my grandpa’s, too,” he said as he pulled something out of the trunk. Fergus heard the rasp of metal on metal and then Kyle was holding a sabre in both hands. The sun streamed in through the stained glass window and glinted off the hilt. Kyle swished the sabre back and forth. Fergus watched silently with a frown. While Kyle struck pose after pose, Fergus slowly moved around the trunks toward the right side of the window. He braced himself against the nearest two-by-four stud on the wall. Another pose, then another and Kyle stepped back too far. His head cracked against the glass and his left foot struck out wildly in front of him. Fergus sprang, catching the older boy low on his body, pulling him away from the window. They crashed together in a jumble of limbs, the sabre flying out of Kyle’s hand and clattering against the wall.

They heard footsteps running up the stairs. Fergus tumbled off Kyle and hid behind a chest of drawers in the corner. Kyle scrambled to pick up the sabre under the window. He returned the sabre and scabbard to the trunk then brushed the dust from his clothes just as his father bounded up the steps.

“What the hell’s going on?”

Kyle looked sheepish and then said quietly, “I wanted to see grandpa’s uniform and I tripped into the trunks over there. Sorry.”

“Well, be careful,” his father said sternly and turned to go.

“Um … Dad?”

“Yes?”

“I think military school is a good idea and I want to go in September.” Kyle looked his father in the eye.

“That’s good, Kyle. I’m proud of you.” His father went back downstairs.

Fergus crept out from behind the dresser. “I really gotta get back,” he told Kyle, and walked to the stairs.

“Hey, why’d you tackle me?” Kyle asked when they descended the attic stairs.

Fergus looked back to see Kyle following in the dim light of the hall. “If I hadn’t, you would’ve crashed through the window. You would’ve landed on the stones out back.”

Kyle processed that information. “Was I going to die?”

Instead of answering, Fergus said, “My mama’s gonna be real worried. I gotta go.” He moved quietly downstairs and into the dining room.

“Wait!” said Kyle hoarsely behind him. “Who’s your mom?”

Fergus smiled and stepped into the painting just below the castle and jousting knights.

 

***

“Mama, when’s dinner?” Connor asked as the children came into the dining room from the kitchen.

Kira looked up. “I’m disappointed in the lot of you,” she said quietly.

“Why, Mama?” Cecilia and Amelia came to stand beside their mother, on the right side of the table.

“Fergus has been missing all afternoon and you don’t seem to care.”

Donal spoke up. “That’s not fair, Mama. Fergus disappears a lot and we can never find him. We figured he doesn’t want to play with us, so we leave him alone.”

“When did this start?”

Donal looked at Connor and shrugged. Connor said, “Maybe a couple months ago. Look Mama, I’m sure he’s okay. He usually shows up in time for dinner.”

“Can we make the salad, Mama?” asked Amelia.

Kira looked at each twin in turn. “Sure. I’ll be in soon to start cooking.”

The children went back to the kitchen. Kira heard the girls chattering away happily and the back door slamming when the boys went out to the garden. She rose from her chair, thinking she would get the mail from the front door. She stopped in the doorway, sensing Fergus was near.

“Hi, Mama!” piped Fergus.

Kira turned. “Fergus! Where did you come from?” She squatted down to hug him. “I’ve been so worried about you.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be gone so long.”

She sat back on her heels to look into his face. “Did you leave the house?”

“Well, no. I just … I’m not sure how to explain it. I’ll show you.” Fergus walked up to the wall and told his mother to put her hand on the painting. She did and he placed his hand beside hers. “Watch,” he said and pushed.

Kira saw Fergus’ hand being swallowed by a tiger. Fergus walked forward and disappeared. He stepped back out.

“Well, Fergus Hoblyn, you found your special gift,” Kira whispered. “Does it lead somewhere?”

“Oh, only to this room.” Fergus thought for a moment. “I can see this room with different people in it. Some are dressed real funny.”

“Who did you see this time?” asked Kira.

Fergus said shyly, “Uncle Kyle.”

“Really? Do you know how old he was?”

“He told me he was thirteen.”

“You actually spoke to him?”

“Yep! I showed him the secret hidey-hole in my closet and he took me up to… oh…” Fergus stopped.

“He took you to the attic?” Kira stood up, one hand covering her mouth.

“Yeah, but it’s okay, Mama. I saved him from falling out the window.”

“Oh, Fergus!” She grabbed the child and hugged him tightly. From the kitchen, she heard the backdoor slam again. “We’ll talk about this after supper. Let’s go see what kind of salad your sisters are making.” Mother and son joined the others in the kitchen. Kira gave the boys the task of making rice while she fried chicken pieces and made a sauce. She left the boys to dish up and instructed the girls to set the table. Kira went to check the mail. She was surprised to find two letters, one addressed to her and one to Fergus. She took them into the dining room and placed Fergus’ letter beside his plate.

The family sat down and Connor said grace. “Where are the letters from?” asked Cecilia, dishing a spoonful of rice onto her plate.

Fergus and Kira picked up their envelopes. “Afghanistan,” they said together.

“What does Major Kyle have to say this time?” asked Donal.

Kira smiled at Fergus. He grinned back.

FICTION PIECE

Bully Down

by A. LaFaye

 

The first morning of spring semester did not kick off right. I stood at the base of the climbing wall in Phys. Ed., removing my helmet to have my static-y hair stand on end, making me look like a terrified porcupine. Greta Phillips, star forward on our basketball team, pointed at me shouting, “Hair Emergency!”

A surefire way to get prom-worthy hook ups, right?

Not.

My best friend Kayla didn’t even bother to defend me. She just fiddled with her harness like she couldn’t get the lead line loose. Way to take action there, Kayla.

That little incident led to a long string of wishing-I-could-disappear moments that forced me to declare a State of Emergency during the first half of my junior year and one particular moment that was a true 9-1-1.

When I posted pictures of my new pooch, Roady, on Facebook, Greta wrote, “Hey look, everybody, Emma and her dog have the same hair-do!” Did I get a “Back off, Greta” from anyone in my friends list? Nope. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if my ‘friends’ were among the 172 likes Greta got for that comment.

A month later, I landed the role of Helena in the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and figured I might have a chance to rescue my reputation. That is until I got to the first dress rehearsal and Greta handed me the donkey’s head saying, “You might as well put this on – there’s no way hair and makeup can fix you. Helena material, you are not.” That left me alone on the stage with plenty of laughter and an empty head in my hands.

Last month, in fifth period American Lit, she handed me a copy of InStyle and said, “Clearly, you need this way more than me.” Cue the peals of laughter, the snickering, and the zinging sound of my reputation plummeting to the center of the earth. A date for the prom was definitely not in my future.

I wished my life would do a 180 and go right for a change. I didn’t expect that change to happen in just one moment.

What was that moment like? Well, picture this…

I’m standing on the front quad, listening to the sound of the flag being lashed against the pole above me, snap, snap, snap. As I watch Greta stalk across the icy quad in her could-kill-a-cockroach-high-heels, I think, just let one of them snap. I’d love to see that bully go down hard.

She came so close to me that I could’ve done the snapping myself.  I practically heard her breathe out as I watched an icy cloud billow in front of her.

Just as I heard a snap over my head – time stretched out like the flag above me – Greta hitting ice, her left foot shooting out in front of her, her arms windmilling to regain her balance – the spectacle of it popping a laugh over my lips as she started to go down – the terror of it twisting her face – catching me off guard with a pull of sympathy – I started into a stooping catch, but her head collided with the base of the flagpole with a sickening cracked-pumpkin thud before I could get myself in place to catch her.

Crumpled on the ground, her blood spreading faster than spilled water, Greta looked so broken and distant. I froze in place, half-standing, half-leaning, doing nothing to help her.

Screams didn’t shake me. Running feet didn’t rattle me. Mr. Shepard, the vice-principal, took me by the shoulders as Coach Vetter bent over Gretta.

“Emma, what happened?” Mr. Shepard asked, but I couldn’t find any words. I just stared at Greta bleeding on the ground.

Someone yelled, “Just get her away from here.”

I was led to the front office, stumbling while a blur of faces, words, ringing phones, and sirens washed over me. I sat in a chair against the wall, waiting for feeling to return to my limbs.  Was that Mrs. Penshaw, the school counselor, talking to me? What was she saying? I could see her lips moving, but no sound reached my ears.

Is it Greta? Is she trying to tell me about Greta? Is she going to be okay?

Then I saw my dad, face white, but not with cold. He looked scared. What was he doing here?

“Emma?” I could feel him gripping my arm, shaking me. When did my joints start to hurt?

I looked past him – out the open door of the office, saw the outer door swing open, the white, icy expanse of the quad, then that pool of freezing blood at the base of the flag pole. I felt as if I’d been dragged to the far end of a tunnel.

I felt forced to stand there and wonder, how did I let it happen?

She fell right in front of me and I did nothing.

Greta had finally turned me into the ugly, useless idiot she’d been trying to make me into all year long and now it would cost her.

I looked up and asked, “Is she dead?”

Dad hugged me so hard I think he dislocated a shoulder. “She’s at the hospital. They’re checking her out. She’ll be all right. Are you?”

Neither of us were all right.

Greta – the girl with the perfect hair – had to have her head shaved for surgery. She came out with a bald patch and a nasty jagged scar. No memory of the fall. No memory of her crash into the flag pole; no memory of the entire school year. The last thing she remembered was summer training. She forgot her address. Her cell phone number. The foods she liked to eat. The first time I visited her in the hospital, she pulled a cup of chocolate pudding to the edge of her tray then looked up at me with the big eyes of a little girl, “Do I like this?”

I shrugged. I didn’t have a clue what Greta liked. I just knew she didn’t like me.

But I went to see her every day after school – we’re talking a literal guilt trip. The doc said things might come back to her with a little help and it seemed like I owed her all the help I could give. We worked on homework, reviewing everything we’d already learned that year.  I fell a little behind in my classes, but I didn’t care.

One day, I brought sodas and our yearbook so she could reacquaint herself with the kids at school. She’d tap a photo and say, “She looks familiar. Do I have class with her?” or “He’s hot. Do you think he’s into me?”

Then she turned a page – the theater club. She stared at it for the longest time. I figured she was trying to remember what it was like to be Hermia, but then she rubbed the photo and looked at me, “Man, I wish I had your looks.”

“Huh?” I asked, coughing down the sip I’d just taken.

She shrugged, then laughed. “Come on, Emma. I may have a few blank spots, but I remember how the guys used to stare at you in study hall, at the games. If I had half your curls or better yet, if you had half of my pimples…” She burst out laughing.  “Listen to me, sounding like an idiot.”

Talk about an idiot.

I figured Greta hated me. Couldn’t stand the sight of me. In the end, I really was the Helena to her Hermia – two pretty girls lost in the woods. I sat down on the bed next to her, pointed to my sprayed in place hair in the cast photo, and said, “If I pull on any one of those curls, all of my hair lifts up like a helmet.”

She laughed. I laughed with her. And we turned the page.