Isadora’s Sandálias

Robin Heald

“Isa, this package came for you.” Mamãe sets a box in front of my cereal bowl.

“It’s from Vó Ziza,” I say. My granny, Ziza, lives in Brazil, far away from our family in Miami.

Carefully, I open the package, so the bird stamps won’t get ruined.

Mamãe reads the note in English. “Cara Isadora, I bought these sandálias for you. The children in Brazil wear them everywhere.One day I hope you’ll come to Brazil. Amor, Vó Ziza.”

I tell Mamãe, “I’ll name the left one Lucia, and the right one Roberto.” Those are the names of my two primos, cousins, who live in Brazil. I’ve only seen their pictures.

“These sandálias look like you, Isa. The light brown sole matches your skin, and the green flower matches your eyes.”

~

In school, Miss Kim says, “No sandals, Isadora. Shoes must cover toes.”

“You can’t jump rope in those,” says my friend Jubilee. “You’ll trip big time!”

“Ay, Isa,” says Mamãe at bath time. “Not in the banho.”

“My sandálias are perfect for the beach,” I tell Dad, as he tucks me in.

“That’s true,” he says.

“And tomorrow’s Saturday,” I say.

“Also true,” says Dad.

~

At the beach, I unpack our snacks; suco de maracusá, passion juice, and bagels with cream cheese.

“Just to the ankles,” says Dad, as I head to the water.

I draw wet sand letters: L for Lucia, and R for Roberto. Up and down the shore I flap my arms like a seagull. My feet feel funny. Roberto is on my right foot, but nothing on my left!

“Lucia!” The ocean is carrying her away. I follow.

“Isa,” Dad calls.

CRASH! A wave knocks me on my bottom. Before another one comes, I stand.

Dad picks me up. He frowns. “You need to follow the rules when we’re at the ocean.”

“But I lost Lucia! I’ve got to find her!” My cheeks sting from tears and sticky sand.

Dad wraps a towel around me. “It’s time to go. You’re shivering.”

~

“Will I still be like the children in Brazil if I only have one sandália?” I ask Mamãe before bed.

“You are Brazilian like me, and American like Dad. You are Isadora, even with no sandálias.” She tickles my feet, but I don’t laugh.

Roberto sleeps next to my pillow, so he won’t get lonely.

~

In the morning, I pack juice, and Bolo de Aipim, Brazilian tapioca cake, in a basket.

“To the beach?” Dad yawns.

I nod.

“Isa, don’t get your hopes up.”

While I wait for Dad, I go outside and tell Jubilee what happened.

“That ocean’s big,” says Jubilee. “Good luck finding her.”

~

At the beach, Dad looks into my eyes. “What are the rules?”

I tap my ankle with the side of my hand.

The seaweed makes a rotten egg smell. I check under each slimy clump. Flies buzz, and a seagull squawks pecking at a little brown boat. Three sandpipers zigzag and scurry over to see what all the fuss is about. A sloshy wave flips the boat over. But it’s not a boat.

“Lucia!” The birds scatter. I pluck her up. The green flower’s gone, but she still fits.

“Look who came home!” says Dad.

In the car, I pretend Lucia and Roberto are talking.

“Was the ocean cold?”

“Yes, but a seagull flew me to shore.”

~

Mamãe opens our front door. “I guess Lucia didn’t float to Brazil, but we’ll take her there soon.”

“To Brazil? When?”

“This summer.”

I jump into Mamãe’s arms. Finally, I’ll meet my cousins; maybe even see real birds that look like Brazilian stamps.

~

Boa notte, Isa. Sweet dreams,” Mamãe tucks me in.

The whoosh of the ocean comes through my window. It’s the same ocean that reaches all the way to Brazil. I close my eyes and think about the summer. My cousins will laugh when they hear the names of my sandálias. We’ll play in Vó Ziza’s house, then slip off our sandálias, and run barefoot together on the Brazilian sand.

 


It’s incredibly difficult to write a compelling picture book text, and this one is gorgeous. Every word is carefully chosen for maximum effect, as the author weaves exquisite imagery, charming dialogue, and a child’s-eye view of the world. Just lovely.
—Katherine Applegate, 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


Epithalamion Doused with Moonshine

Dante Di Stefano

The dead don’t bivouac by the riverside.
I reckon love ain’t two fifths consolation,
but a pint of bastard light through the gut.
I reckon our dead congregate, reeling
past the pointy steeple of paradise.
Be my Oh Susanna, don’t you cry for—,
and I’ll be your banjo’s clawhammer strum.
We’ll mainline sawdust and speak, in shotgun,
the language of might coulds juked in the dark.
I love you like gingham loves knobby knees.
Love me like a holster loves a warm gun.
Let angels lead us away while the catfish
are still in bloom and while we still reckon
some drunk mermaid’s hit us with her flipper.

 


This is not your Grandma’s sonnet. At least not mine. This poem shakes, rattles, and rolls it’s way through fourteen lines of surprise and humor and serious joy. A poem about the Dead, Love, and Language. What else is there to write about? No fingerprints on this poem but I can’t help imagining a smile stretching across the faces of Geoff Chaucer, Bob Frost, David Lee, and even Mr. Frank O’Hara, as that final flipper in the poem hits us where it hurts.
—Michael Dickman, 2014 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


Things Like These

Eric Berlin

The day my dad came back to get his stuff,
he brought a guy I’d never met, some goon
named Dirk who whispered (when my dad was off
yanking shirts from hangers in his old room)
how hard these things can be, and how some day
I’d know—he winced at me beneath the bangs
of his bowlcut and gnawed his tongue. I braced
myself and went upstairs to give a hand,
and in the corner of the hall, that gun
I’d noticed once beneath my parents’ bed
while lying down to pet our oldest dog.
What am I gonna do with all this junk,
he said looking down, his fists on his waist,
getting a sense of how much he could take.


A slow burner of a sonnet that will leave you with your mouth hanging open and your heart sunk. Difficult and dazzling work.
—Michael Dickman, 2014 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


The Evil Eye

John Hough Jr.

Sidewinder, the kids called her, because of the way she walked, dragging her left leg, swinging herself along half sideways. A witch, they said. Boils cats and puppies to make her soup. No one knew where she lived, or how, or where she’d come from, or if she’d been born here. You would see her on Main Street, walking, you would see her on the hillside at a football game, silent and inscrutable and alone. Short and heavy, soft, with nut-brown skin like a Mexican’s, and one dead shuttered eye.

The two boys passed her while pedaling home from their baseball game at twilight, threading the summer-busy sidewalk of Main Street with its idlers and tourists and young bar-hoppers. Ball gloves hanging from their handlebars. Pony League, both of them fifteen that year. The one-eyed woman was coming toward them in front of the Oar and Anchor carrying a grocery bag stuffed with rags or old clothes. She wore a brown cotton dress, tennis shoes, white ankle socks. Sal passed her first and as Billy drew even with her she turned and found him with her open eye, watched him go by with what seemed a wary and malign curiosity. As if she knew him from somewhere and had conceived a grudge against him.

When they were safely clear of her, passing Smitty’s, Sal asked Billy over his shoulder if she had looked at him.

“I don’t know,” Billy said.

“She did, didn’t she?”

“She might have. So what?”

“The evil eye,” Sal said. “She’ll put a spell on you. A curse.”

“That’s bullshit,” Billy said, but the baleful milky eye followed him now in his imagination as he rode.

They turned onto King Street and the stillness gathered them in, the shadows under the old oaks and maples. There was no traffic and they rode in the street, in and out of the lemon halos of the street lamps, the dappled shadows.

“Howie Gladding said she spoke to him one time at a football game,” Sal said. “Wanted to give him a quarter, have him go down the hill and buy her a hotdog.”

“I guess he said no,” Billy said.

“No kidding,” Sal said.

 ~

Deborah Abramson was tossing a softball with her little sister Carol in the dying light in front of Billy’s house on Clearview Avenue.

“Who won?” Deborah said, noticing their uniforms.

“Us, of course,” Sal said.

“Because of Billy,” Deborah said.

“Because of me,” Sal said.

“You wish,” Deborah said.

She was two years ahead of them in school and “stacked,” as Sal put it. Carol was seven or eight. Deborah was lobbing the ball to her underhand. The boys got off their bikes. They stood watching the girls play catch, watching Deborah. She wore tight bluejeans and an untucked white shirt with the sleeves rolled, and she darted this way and that to grab Carol’s errant throws, agile on the balls of her feet, like a tennis player.

“Nice moves, Deb,” Sal said.

Deborah smiled and underhanded the ball to Carol, who caught it against her chest.

“You coming over?” Sal asked Billy.

“Sure,” Billy said.

“Come over to our house, Billy Boy,” Deborah said.

“I’ll come,” Sal said.

“You wish,” she said.

~

His father’s pickup was in the driveway, John L. Stancky, Quality Masonry arching across the cab door. Billy wheeled his bike into the garage and leaned it against the wall. His cleats pecked, scratched, on the concrete floor. He emerged carrying his glove and sat down on the bottom step of the kitchen porch and took his shoes off. It was darker than just moments ago and Deborah and little Carol had gone in. Fireflies winked above the little back yard. Lazy, adrift. Random. He could hear voices, low and indistinct, on the Crockers’ porch on the corner. He remembered the old woman, her eye fixed on him as he passed her. Sidewinder. He wondered how she’d lost an eye and become a cripple, and if that accounted for the solitary life she led, and for the ill will she seemed to bear the world.

The kitchen light was on and the door to the basement was open, the naked bulb burning above the narrow wooden stairs. His father was down there carpentering something. Billy put his glove and shoes and hat on a chair and opened the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of grape juice. He opened the cupboard and found a can of spaghetti with meatballs.

“Hey,” his father said.

Billy set the can down and went with his juice to the cellar door. “What,” he said.

“Come here.”

“What for?”

“Because I said so, that’s what for.”

Billy finished his juice, set the glass on the counter and descended the narrow stairs, careful in his baseball stockings. The basement air was thick and dry and bitter with furnace dust. His father was at his workbench sanding a slat of pinewood. There was a huddle of empty beer bottles on the workbench. Narragansett, what they advertised during the Red Sox games. Curt Gowdy. Hi, neighbor, have a ‘Gansett.

“You win?” his father said.

“Yeah. What are you making?”
“Get any hits?’

“Couple of doubles. I almost had a home run.”

“Almost doesn’t count.”

“I know that.”

“Then don’t say it. Say two doubles, period.”

“All right.”

“Hot stuff, aren’t you.”

“Not especially. What are you making?”

“Little chest of drawers, all right?”

“Sure,” Billy said.

His father smiled, leaned back against the workbench and reached beside him for his bottle and drank. Skintight white T-shirt, khaki trousers. He was a smallish man, no taller than Billy, but he had broad shoulders and his upper body ran down in a beveled V. There was a runny-looking tattoo of a mermaid on his right biceps.

“What were you doing flirting with that Jew girl?” he said.

“What Jew girl?” Billy said.

“The one lives across the street, and don’t play dumb. I saw you out the window.”

“Where’s Ma?”

“You know goddamn well where she is.”

“At work, I guess.”

Johnny Stancky took another swig of beer. His pale eyes were fixed on Billy and there was something cold and bright and electric in them. Billy’s gaze slid over to the workbench. A cluster of empty bottles, too many to count.

“I’m going over to Tassinaris,” he said.

“Why’d you ask me where Della was?”

“No reason.”

“To get my goat, didn’t you.”

“No it wasn’t.”

“You know I don’t like it she works down there.”

“I’ll see you later, Dad.”

“No you won’t. Come here.”

“What for?”

“You like Deborah Abramsons’ tits, don’t you.”

“I guess so.”

“Jew tits. We got everything on this street but niggers.  Jews. Wops. Irish. Get on over here. I never taught you to box, did I.”

“I know how to box.”

“Since when?” His father drained the bottle and set it down behind him. “Come here. Put your hands up. Like this.”

“What if I don’t want to?” Billy said.

His father came closer, wiping his hands on his trousers. “I’m going to throw a left at you. I want you to slip it.”

“Dad…”

The punch was half speed and the fist loosely clenched but it flattened his right ear, set it afire. Billy blinked, backed away.

“I don’t have any shoes on,” he said.

“Get those fists up. Lead with the left. Right elbow down in your ribs.”

Billy raised his fists and backpedaled, glancing behind him for obstacles. His father came on in a fighter’s crouch and tapped his chin with a left, his forehead with a right.

“Dad. Please.”

“Fight me,” his father said, smiling. “Be a man.”

He jabbed Billy again above the eye—the sharp pecks had begun to feel like match burns over his face.

“Dad, stop it. Please stop it.”

“Are you crying?”

“Please, Dad.”

“Crying, oh boy. It’s about time we did this.”

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll do it.”

He blinked the tears out. His father dropped his hands and danced in place on the balls of his feet. “Hit me,” he said.

“I don’t want to,” Billy said.

“Sure you do. Hit me, or I’ll hit you.”

Billy put his fists up. He threw a half-hearted jab that struck his father’s muscled shoulder.

“That’s all you got?” Johnny Stancky said.

Billy gave him another tentative jab to the shoulder. His father coiled again in his fighter’s crouch. Billy kept his guard up and backpedaled. His father feinted twice, left, right, and Billy pulled back and nearly fell over a carton of scrapwood. His father hooked him with a left, mashing the ear again, and Billy, tear-blinded and desperate, took a wild blind roundhouse swing that landed by sheer chance, crushing lip against teeth.

Johnny Stancky froze. His smile fell away. He lowered his hands halfway and looked at Billy in mute surprise. His lip was split, you could see the flap of skin. His father’s tongue found it, tasted the blood.

“You told me to,” Billy said.

“Sure I did.”

His father was smiling again. A film of pink blood on his teeth. Billy thought it was over. He thought his father had gotten what he wanted and that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing, after all. He didn’t see it coming and would not remember it, a left-right combination, the two jolts almost simultaneous, stunning him into a brief semi-consciousness, a gray twilight where the floor yawed and tilted under him. He turned, found the workbench, leaned against it with both hands till his vision cleared and the ground leveled and was steady again. His nose was dripping blood, both nostrils. He’d been hit as well on the forehead.

His father did not call after him, did not follow him up the stairs. His nose bled copiously and he’d been cut above his left eye. In the kitchen he tore a wad of paper towel and put it to his nose and climbed to the second floor. He went into the bathroom and dropped the blood-sodden paper towel in the wastebasket and snatched up a towel and put it to his nose and looked at himself in the mirror. His forehead was split and the blood ran down. With the towel still to his face he went back down the stairs and down the short dark hallway to the kitchen. His father had not come up. He could hear him down there, a busy rasp of sandpaper.

Sneakers would be more practical but he took up his baseball shoes and went out and sat down on the porch steps and pulled on the shoes with his free hand. He lowered the towel. His nosebleed had begun to clot, blocking his breathing. The nose was swelling and he could feel the skin stretching over it. It felt bloated, grotesque. The pain was building, savage in his nose. His forehead burned. He tied his shoes.

He found his bike against the wall in the dark and rode by the light of the street lamps, crossing town the back way, by the water. The towel draped his neck and when a car came toward him he would stop, straddling his bike, and turn away from the sweep of the headlights lest someone should feel moved to help him. Holding the towel to his face while he waited.

He turned back inland and made his way to Dr. Swain’s office, which stood on a tree-lined avenue a mile short of the west end of Main Street. It was a large old house of yellow-clapboard with a picket fence out front. The dirt parking lot was empty and the office dark, but lights were on upstairs where the doctor lived, and Billy leaned his bike against the fence and went up the front walk with the bloody towel and rang the doorbell.

After the fourth ring a light came on, and then the porch light, and a young woman opened the door. Billy had never seen her.

“Good God,” she said.

She looked to be in her early twenties. She wore shorts and a T-shirt and her feet were bare. She was lightly freckled and her skin was a pale caramel color, as if she’d been in the sun but not recently.

“Is Dr. Swain in?” Billy said. His voice was thick and seemed locked inside his skull.

The woman looked back over her shoulder. “Sam,” she said. “Sam.”

“Maybe I should come back tomorrow,” Billy said.

Sam.” 

Dr. Swain appeared, faintly elfin, behind her. He wore glasses and had bad posture and a quick reflexive smile that seemed both chagrined and apologetic.

“Why, Billy,” he said, “what on earth happened?”

“I was in a fight,” Billy said.

“You’d better come in, son.”

“Wait,” he said.

There were white-painted loveseats on either side of the little porch and Billy sat down on one of the benches and leaned over to untie his baseball shoes.

“He’s bleeding, Sam,” the woman said.

“Use the towel, Billy. Just hold it there till I can look at you.”

He put the towel to his face and now the woman was down on a bare knee in front of him, untying his shoes. Her hair was light-brown and fell shining about her shoulders. She removed his shoes, tugging gently, Billy lifting one foot and then the other. It had begun to dawn on him that she was Dr. Swain’s wife and he wondered how this could be.

“Sorry to bother you so late,” he said, watching her.

“You don’t bother us, does he, Laura?”

“We can always use some excitement,” she said.

They left his shoes on the loveseat and Dr. Swain led them in, switching on lights—waiting room, doctor’s office with its cluttered desk, exam room, where Dr. Swain had given Billy his shots when he was a kid and stitched his hand when he cut it with a fishing knife and given him his physical for freshman football. He hoisted himself backwards onto the examining table. Dr. Swain ran water in the sink and washed his hands.

“Who’d you fight with, Billy?” he said.

“Just some guy,” Billy said.

“During your baseball game?”

“After,” Billy said. “It was a private fight.”

“It was quite a fight, I would say.”

“Yes sir, it was. He was older than me. Bigger.”

Dr. Swain tore a paper towel and dried his hands. Mrs. Swain stood in the doorway leaning sideways against the jamb with her arms folded and her ankles crossed, watching him.

“Take the towel, Laura,” Dr. Swain said.

She obeyed unhurriedly, uncrossing her ankles, unfolding her arms, stepping forward with her hand extended. She met his eye and smiled as she took the towel from him.

“I wonder if we ought to speak to the police,” Dr. Swain said.

“It’s not their business,” Billy said.

Dr. Swain took him gently by the chin and tilted his face to the light. “That cut’ll need stitching.” He turned Billy’s head another way. “And your nose is broken. It’ll have to be set.”

“All right,” Billy said,

“You’ll have to go to the hospital.”

Dr. Swain had stepped back. “I can’t do that,” Billy said.

“You’ll have to. I can’t give you anesthesia.”

“I don’t need anesthesia.”

Dr. Swain turned, looked at his wife. Laura Swain shrugged. She turned, used her foot to spring the lid of an aluminum garbage can, and dropped the blood-soaked towel into it.

“You’ve no idea how painful it would be,” Dr. Swain said.

“Then don’t set it,” Billy said.

“That’s out of the question,” Dr. Swain said. “Suppose I drive you to the emergency room.”

“No sir. Set it here.”

“Stitch his forehead,” Mrs. Swain said. “At least get that out of the way.”

The cut took four stitches. The shot of Novocain made Billy flinch, but he sat still while the needle lanced his frozen skin. Dr. Swain worked silently in his sterile gloves, squinting through his glasses. Laura Swain leaned against the doorjamb as before, her slender ankles crossed, watching.  Dr. Swain finished suturing.  He wiped the cut with alcohol and taped a Band-Aid over it. He dropped his implements into a stainless-steel tray.

“Come back in a week and I’ll take the stitches out,” he said.

“Set his nose,” said Laura Swain.

“Laura,” said her husband.

“Set it.”

“Did your father beat you up, Billy?”

“No sir.”

“Set his nose,” Laura said. “Just set it.”

“I promise I won’t be any trouble,” Billy said.

“Go on, Sam.”

“Laura…”

“Go on.”

Dr. Swain took his glasses off. He rubbed his eyes, digging with the heel of his hand. He was still wearing the gloves. He put the glasses back on.

“Lie down,” he said.

Billy swung his legs up and lay on his back with his head on the small pillow. Dr. Swain rummaged in a drawer and found a box of gauze pads in sterile packets. He tore open two packets and rolled the first square of gauze into a cylinder and leaned down.

“I’m going to pack it first,” he said. “This part shouldn’t hurt too much.”

Billy closed his eyes as Dr. Swain worked the gauze into a blood-clogged nostril, worming it deeper and deeper under the splintered bone. He packed the second nostril. He stepped back and Billy opened his eyes and his gaze met Mrs. Swain’s. Her eyes were pale-brown, almost golden. She nodded.

“Are you comfortable?” Dr. Swain said.

“No, he’s not comfortable,” his wife said.

“Yes sir, I’m fine,” Billy said. His voice sounded muffled. It was as if his nose had been plugged with wax.

“Take his hand, Laura.”

“Can’t you give him Novocain?”

“Not for bone. Take his hand.”

She came around the exam table opposite her husband. Billy’s hand lay at his side and she slid hers under it and Billy gripped it. It was soft. Warm. Dr. Swain leaned in again. He put the tips of two fingers to either side of Billy’s swollen nose and ran them gently up and down.

“Are you sure about this?” he said.

“Sam, for God’s sake.”

“I’m sure,” Billy said, and closed his eyes.

~

It hurt more than anything ever had, a raging fire that seemed to feed on itself, to bunch down and bore deeper and deeper. Mrs. Swain’s grip tightened. It went on awhile, the woman’s warm dry hand gripping his with a kind of urgency, as if imploring, willing him, to bear it. Three minutes, five, afterwards Billy had no idea. Dr. Swain gave the bridge one more excruciating nudge sideways. He felt up and down with his thumb and index finger. “Good,” he said. He withdrew the two sticks of gauze, which slithered out wetly, bringing more blood. Billy opened his eyes. Blinked. He’d broken a sweat. Laura Swain squeezed his hand and released it.

Dr. Swain stripped his sterile gloves and dropped them in the garbage can. Billy jackknifed forward and swung his legs down. Mrs. Swain wetted a washcloth and Billy tilted up his face and she wiped the new blood from his mouth and chin, scraping very gently. He could not smell her with his clotted nose and wished he could.

“I’m going to give you a prescription for pain,” Dr. Swain said.

“I don’t need it,” Billy said.

“Don’t be a fool,” Mrs. Swain said. She’d finished wiping and stepped back.

“No baseball for a while,” Dr. Swain said. “You break that nose again, it’ll be no easy thing putting it back together.”

Billy lifted himself down from the table. “I have to play baseball,” he said.

“I’m not sure you understand the risk,”

“I understand it.”

Dr. Swain smiled his weary smile. He shrugged. “I hope you’ll let me drive you home, at least.”

“I’ll drive him,” Laura Swain said. “You’re done in.”

“I am, rather.”

“Give him the prescription,” Laura Swain said. “I’ll bring the car around.”
At the front door Dr. Swain asked him why he wouldn’t go to the hospital.

“My parents don’t like me fighting,” Billy said. “I just as soon not make a big deal of it.”

“I see.”

The car rolled out from behind the house, a white Ford station wagon.
The Beach Boys on the radio, exclamatory through the open window.

Round round git around, ah git around!

“I need to know how much I owe you,” Billy said.

“Come back in a week and I’ll take out those stitches. We’ll talk about it then.”

Billy nodded. “I appreciate it, Dr. Swain.”

“I know you do, Billy.”

He picked up his baseball shoes from the loveseat where Laura Swain had placed them neatly side by side and padded down the front walk to get his bike. Dr. Swain stood in the doorway, in the amber porch light, watching as his wife opened the tailgate and Billy lifted the bike in and shoved it back and slammed the door. The grass was cool and dewy through his thin stockings. He waved to Dr. Swain and got in beside Laura Swain. He told her where Clearview Avenue was. She turned the radio off and they drove out the short dirt driveway and down the shadowy avenue toward Main Street.

“How are you feeling?” she said.

“Okay.”

“Liar. Sam give you the prescription?”

Billy dug it out of hip pocket and read it by the dashboard lights. “Codeine.”

“That’ll work. We’ll stop at Kasselman’s.”

“I don’t need it.”

“Stop it,” she said. “You’ve been brave enough.”

“I don’t have any money on me.”

“I do.”

“You can’t pay for my medicine.”

“Want to bet?”

They turned onto Main, drove past the village green, past St. Andrew’s, past the white-shingle rectory. Then they were in the slow summer traffic.

“Where’s your hat?” Laura Swain said. “And your mitt?”

Billy looked away, out the window.

“It isn’t a mitt,” he said. “There’s a first baseman’s mitt, a catcher’s mitt. Fielders wear gloves.”

“Sam was right,” she said. “It was your father. You went home after the game and he did a number on you. You came straight to Sam’s and didn’t think to bring the mitt and hat for appearances.”

“Glove,” he said, still looking away.

“Has it happened before?”

“Has what happened?”

“Cut out the shit, all right?”

Billy looked at her.

“You heard me,” she said.

Again Billy looked out the window. Smiled. “He cuffs me around a little. I don’t usually mind.”

“Maybe you ought to tell somebody.”

“It’s between me and him.”

“Oh Jesus. John Wayne. High Noon. You’re too smart for that.”

Billy looked at Laura Swain. Studied her. “You swear a lot, don’t you,” he said.

“Men swear. Why shouldn’t a woman?”

“She should,” Billy said. “My mother swears a blue streak sometimes.”

There was a parking space a few doors down from Kasselman’s Pharmacy and Mrs. Swain put on her turn signal and backed in skillfully.

“I really don’t need any pills,” Billy said.

“You’re starting to disappoint me,” she said. “I’d hate for that to happen.”

Billy shrugged. He handed her the prescription.

“I’ll pay you back,” he said.

“You already have,” she said.

She got out and slammed the door. He watched her shoulder her purse, give her head a toss. He watched her till she disappeared inside Kasselman’s, then sat back and closed his eyes. His forehead was still numb from the Novocain. The pain still coursed in his nose. The nose seemed to be jammed up between his eyes and had swollen further, if that was possible. He wondered if Mr. Kasselman would say something about Laura Swain’s bare feet and knew it wouldn’t matter if he did.

She came back five minutes later and he watched her legs as she pivoted into the car and pulled the door shut and she saw him watching and glanced at him with what seemed to be mock reproach. Besides his codeine she’d bought them each a Milky Way and him a takeout cherry Coke in a Dixie Cup and herself a pack of cigarettes. She dug a book of matches out of her purse, lit a cigarette and placed it in the dashboard ashtray and unwrapped her candy bar.

“Take a pill,” she said.

“What’ll it do?”

“Make the pain feel like it’s somebody else hurting, not you. Might make you sleepy. Some people take them for fun, but I wouldn’t advise that.”

He tore the stapled bag open and uncapped the tiny pills. He lifted the plastic lid from the Coke and washed one down. Laura Swain watched him, smoking, eating. He unwrapped his Milky Way.

“I get a chance to smoke, I take it,” she said. “Sam doesn’t approve.”

“He’s right,” Billy said.

“Of course he is.” She took a drag and blew the smoke out the window.

“Then why do you do it?”

“Why do you think?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes you do. You know all sorts of things. How old are you?”

“Almost sixteen.”

“Hell of an athlete, I bet.”

“I’m all right,” Billy said.

“I won’t hold it against you,” she said.

”Why would you?”

“Maybe because I’ve had my fill of athletes.” She finished her Milky Way and dropped the wrapper on the floor. She licked her fingers and leaned forward and started the car.

“We could drive around by the water,” Billy said. “Avoid the traffic.”

She looked at him. Smiled up one side, as if the suggestion contained some element of humor. “Why not?” she said.

He ate his Milky Way. They went out Davis Street, past old white-shingle and clapboard houses with widow’s walks. The Shore Road was wide and sun-bleached in the headlights’ scour. The ocean lay calm, a satiny blue-black in the light of the misty half moon.

“Where’d you go to college?” Billy said.

“How do you know I did?”

“Anybody would know it.”

“I didn’t go for long. One year. Mount Holyoke. Then I married Sam.”

She reached for the cigarette, took a final drag and rubbed it out in the ashtray. “I grew up in Maine. Orono. My father teaches at the university. What else do you want to know?”

“Nothing.”

“Yes you do. You want to know why I married Sam.”

“It’s none of my business,” Billy said.

“Will you stop with the Marlboro Man routine?”

Billy looked out the window “How much older is he than you?” he said.

“Twenty-five years.” She glanced at him. “Shock you?”

They’d turned inland on King Street and he’d be home in a few minutes.

“What’s shocking about it?” Billy said.

Laura Swain smiled. “You’re getting the hang of this, aren’t you.”

“The hang of what? We’re just talking.”

Again she smiled. “I met Sam at a clambake at the Kennedy compound.”

“Turn here.”

They were on Clearview, where long ago Billy and Sal had stood watching Deborah Abramson lob a scuffed softball to her little sister. Deborah in her untucked shirt and jeans tight on her thighs and ass.

“Sam knows the Kennedys. He knew JFK. “

“Here’s the house,” Billy said.

The lights were on upstairs but he was sure that by now his father had drunk himself to sleep. His mother wouldn’t be home till after one. Mrs. Swain pulled over and shut the engine off.

“I’ll come in with you,” she said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“He won’t hit you if I’m there.”

“You don’t know him.”

“I know him. Oh boy do I know him.”

“He’s asleep, anyway. I’ll be all right.”

Laura Swain looked away, toward the house. It crouched, covered in weathered shingles, with a roofed front porch with no rocking chairs, no wicker table. The concrete stoop off the kitchen was unroofed and on warm Sunday mornings his mother would sit out there in shorts and a halter top, her eyes closed and her head tilted to the sun. His father would find her out there and watch her awhile and then order Billy out of the house. Hey, sport. Haven’t you got somewhere to go? He would stay away till three or four and come in and find his father in his undershirt in front of the TV pulling on a beer. Hey, sport. Grab yourself a beer, I mean a Pepsi. Hell, have a beer if you want. 

“I jilted my high school boyfriend,” Laura Swain said, “and he got drunk and hit me. Broke my jaw. If we’d been alone in the dorm he’d have raped me.” Her face was creamy in the light of the hazy moon. It was lovely. “He was a football player. A hockey player. Mike Brennan. I hate the name Mike.”

A car turned the corner, came on slowly. Mr. Lumbert in his dusty Chevy. He passed them and turned into his driveway just beyond. They heard his car door slam. In the house diagonally across the street, the Tassinaris’, you could see the blue flicker from the TV in the darkened living room. Sal’s bedroom light was on, Billy noticed.

“When I was at Mount Holyoke I dated a Umass senior. A pitcher on the baseball team. You know what he wanted to do?”

“What.”

“Have sex with me on the pitcher’s mound on the nights before he pitched.”

She felt in her purse, found the cigarettes and matches. Billy watched her light up, watched her smooth cheeks draw in.

“Did you?” he said.

She shook out the match, turned and blew smoke out the window. “What do you suppose your father’s doing?” she said.

“I told you—he’s asleep. Did you?”

“Yes,” she said. “Every time.”

“He win?” Billy said.

She looked at him, and a quick light played in the golden eyes. “What do you think?” she said.

“I think it might spoil his concentration.”

Laura Swain smiled and blew more smoke. “You’re getting why I married Sam, right?”

“Sort of.”

“He helped Teddy Kennedy set up those free clinics the Republicans hate so much. Teddy wanted to take him on staff but Sam came home. Said his work was here, far from the madding crowd. It sounded noble. Mature. A different world from drunken football players, baseball pitchers who want to fuck you in the ballpark and brag about it afterwards. I was nineteen. You don’t understand ‘forever’ when you’re nineteen. You think what’s new is going to stay new.”

Billy looked at her. He’d never heard a girl or woman say fuck, not even his mother. “Do you love him?” he said.

“Old Sam? Sure.” She looked at her watch, raising it to the thin light. “Time for you to scram. Sam’s going to think you kidnapped me.”

“Maybe I’ll see you when I get my stitches out.”

“I’m not there in the daytime.”

“Where are you?”

“Different places.”

“I’ll see you somewhere, I guess.”

“You never know,” she said.

Billy searched for what to say next but before he found it she leaned and printed his cheek with a kiss. Billy, beginning to believe anything was possible, went to put his arms around her but she grasped him gently by the wrists, held him where he was.

“It wouldn’t be a good idea,” she said.

Billy closed his eyes, sat back. “Yes it would,” he said.

“Go on beat it,” said Laura Swain.

He nodded, found his shoes on the floor and shoved the door open.

“Billy?”

He’d swung his legs out. He looked at her.

“Why’d your old man hit you tonight?”

“He said I was flirting with Deborah Abramson, lives across the street. Jew girl, he said.”

”Flirt with her some more,” Laura said. “Go to bed with her.”

Billy thought of Sal, what he would say to that.

“Go on get your bike,” Laura said.

Again he nodded and lifted himself to his feet and went around and dragged his bike out of the station wagon. He wheeled it forward and stood looking down into Laura Swain’s upturned face.

“Your father hits you again, you tell Sam,” she said. She leaned forward and started the car. “And take that Jewish girl to bed.”

“The thing is,” Billy said, “she’s older than me.”

Laura Swain eyed him. Her gaze cool, appraising. Then a half smile, more smirk than smile.

“So am I,” she said, and put the car in gear and was gone, tail lights receding blood-red down the empty street, Billy standing with his bicycle, watching them.

 ~

The Tassinaris’ front door bumped softly and Sal whistled.

“Hey,” he said.

Billy laid his bike down on the lawn and left his shoes and the codeine and crossed the street in his stocking feet. He climbed the porch steps. The living room was dark, the TV no longer going.

“Where the hell you been?” Sal said.

“I had to go to the doctor,” Billy said.

It was very dark under the porch roof but Sal had seen the Band-aid and perhaps the blood on Billy’s shirtfront. Peering more closely, he got a look at Billy’s nose.

“Jesus Christ,” he said.

Billy sat down on one of the wicker rockers. His nose ached dully. It was swollen and still so clogged he couldn’t draw air through it. His forehead was still numb. He hadn’t thought about the codeine or noticed anything from it, but now a pleasant languor was coming on. Sal sat down.

“What hit you, a Mack Truck?” he said.

“The old man. He wanted to box with me.”

“What the hell for?”

“For nothing. He was sloshed.”

“You going to tell anybody?”

“Nah. He’ll just get after me worse.”

“What are you going to tell your mother?” Sal said.

“Say I was in a fight,” Billy said. “What I told Dr. Swain.”

“Hurts like a bastard, I bet.”

“Not too bad. He gave me some pain pills.”

“Those things’ll knock you out,” Sal said.

“It feels kind of swimmy,” Billy said.

They sat, looking out into the gray darkness beyond the porch. Billy had no idea what time it was. He had no interest in knowing. He looked at his own small house with its patch of front lawn so sparse and dry in summer it didn’t need mowing. His mother would come home and smell his father’s foul beery breath and if he woke she’d light into him for being “plastered” and the hollering would begin on the other side of Billy’s bedroom wall. Holler was all his father would do— years ago he’d given her a shiner and she’d stuck a screwdriver into his arm and he’d never tried to hurt her again.

The languor worked in deeper, made his head feel light. You’re too smart for that, she’d said. You know all sorts of things. He wondered if she was right and if others saw him as she did.

“Who drove you home?” Sal said.

“Dr. Swain’s wife.”

“I didn’t know he had one.”

“I didn’t either.”

“What’s she like?”

“She’s younger than him. She’s pretty. Real pretty.”

“Who’d have thought?” Sal said.

Billy let it go. If he talked about her he would lose her. They sat awhile, rocking.

“Sidewinder,” Sal said. “The evil eye. Didn’t I tell you?”

Billy gently felt his nose. It didn’t hurt at all now. “She didn’t look at me,” he said.

“You said she did.”

“You said it, I didn’t.”

“I guess I did,” Sal said,.

“She’s just a crippled old lady,” Billy said.

“Yeah, hell,” Sal said.  “She can’t help it she’s got one eye.”

“She’s just trying to live her life,” Billy said.

He closed his eyes. Sal seemed far away. Somewhere a cricket chirred, and Billy thought of the cool nights to come, the early darkness, the bright fall days, a wide and serendipitous world where anything was possible.

 


The Evil Eye [is] a simple story, well paced and well told. I have a soft spot for boys who get beat up by their fathers, and I liked this kids insistence on his own ability to take care of his own problems. He was a believable and likable character and I would be willing to spend more time with him.
—Pam Houston, 2012 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize Judge


The Relative Nature of Things

1 roomful of antique white wicker furniture. 3 crystal vases, Waterford. 1 hollow-base chrome sailing cleat, never used. 1 Afghan rifle, circa 1900. 1 unopened condom, packaged to look like a matchbook, circa 1947.

“We have to stop,” Margaret says.

“Why?”

“Because I haven’t gotten anything I’ve wanted.”

It’s the autumn after our father’s death, and Margaret, the oldest daughter, is fretfully brewing coffee in our parents’ New Jersey kitchen, which is equipped with a 1970s percolator and three dozen aluminum foil pie plates, testimony to our mother’s addiction to apple pie in the last years of her dementia. There’s also evidence of our father’s valiant efforts at cooking: three cans of chicken gravy, a half-dozen open jars of mustard.

Margaret burns her hand and drops the kettle. She’s been up all night, she says. She’s been bulldozed and rushed, she says.

Always attuned to stress, Carrie, the middle daughter, stops eating.

This is unfair, Margaret goes on. This is moving too fast.

Carrie expresses sympathy.

Then: silence. Our microclimate—this weird, insular, dorm-like experience living together in a house we haven’t lived in for years—has suffered a microburst, and the mood is suddenly dark and ravenous.

I’m surprised. For five days now, we three daughters have genially walked through our four-story, four-staircase childhood home with colored dots, marking the things we want. When two of us want the same thing within a category (furniture, for instance) we’ve negotiated: “I really want this chair. If I give up on the armoire, could I have the chair?” When negotiation failed, we’ve flipped a coin. I’ve given a number of things up to Margaret in negotiation—an 80-inch antique plank table, for instance—and I’ve lost a lot in coin tosses, paintings mostly, and the shell of a giant Channeled Welk.

We have just 36 hours left to empty this 4,000 square-foot house. We can’t let this eruption slow us down.

“Listen,” I tell Margaret, “What do you want? If there’s something I’ve gotten that you want, take it. I’m fine with that.”

“I won’t go back,” she says, brown eyes intense, slender body nearly shaking. “I want to change the process going forward.”

“But if not getting something has kept you up all night, and I’ve got that thing, then take it.”

“I won’t go back,” she says.

Was it the matching brass candle holders that kept her up all night? I wonder. Was it the Eames chair? The cheap little Santa with the extra long beard? “I can’t stand the idea that some thing that I’ve gotten has soured—”

“And you can’t make me talk about this,” she interrupts. “I’m an introvert.”

The fact that I too am an introvert appears to be irrelevant.

I can feel us swerving dangerously toward a cliché. I’ve heard it a thousand times: “She took the fill-in-the-blank (wedding ring, grandfather clock, string of pearls) even though it was promised to fill-in-the-blank (her brother, son, grandchild) and they never spoke again. Never.”

I won’t do it, dissolve into a pointless argument about things, not for a World War I saber, or a 19th century dental drill, or my great grandmother’s tea lamps, or the books we read as children. Not for my mother’s flatware. Not for an antique ship’s clock. I won’t.

Pause. Okay, I realize this argument is about more than things. It’s how we perceive those things and value them. And even more than that: it’s the meaning that is created as we three construct our own collections, as we choose the props of our own evolving narratives, as we toil, conscious curators of our own stories. For we’ve reached a turning point, an inescapable moment when this living archive that our parents kept intact for 60 years—these photos, scribbled drafts of sent letters, cookbooks, yearbooks, matchbooks from places we’ve never been—will disappear, just as our parents have.

And when the archive is no longer intact, what is left is merely unaided memory.

Maybe we’re actually fighting over memory?

No, we’re fighting over wealth. I bet it’s the Eames chair that’s pissing her off.

~

6 shillelaghs. 13 ceramic beer steins from 4 nations. 4 carry-on bags of travel brochures, 1960-1975. 2 quart bottles of paregoric, a controlled substance, bottled during the Kennedy administration.

Some people don’t believe in having things. Recent pioneers of simplicity have pared their lives down to 2,000 objects, 417 objects, 288 objects, 100 objects, a daring 72 objects, even a spare 50. (One woman apparently reached an angelic 47, but she has since disappeared from the blogosphere.)

These minimalists are more diverse than you’d think. They’re driven by myriad motivations. Adam Baker and his wife were motivated by the $18,000 in consumer debt they’d incurred by buying too many things; they pared themselves down to 400 items and took to the road. Tammy Strobel was driven to promulgate a philosophy of personal empowerment; she now lives with 72 objects and her husband in a 400-square foot apartment, where she blogs with a tone best described as incorporeal happy talk (“February’s focus: noticing life’s lovely details. Sign up for my daily photo and note!”).

Different minimalists also count differently. For instance, Joshua Fields Millburn (288 things), counts the category of food as a single thing, whereas others count each can of creamed corn as a thing. Adam Baker doesn’t count food at all, and Joshua Becker, who is nearly as famous, doesn’t count at all.

But the minimalists do share compelling themes and an irrepressible energy that borders on the evangelistic. And I’m intrigued. They talk about the complication and intrusion of clutter; they talk about finding personal peace in owning only what needs to be owned in order to do what needs to be done. Some are concerned about the health of the planet, some about the spiritual integrity of their lives. They are, all of them, wading through waters of meaning—some are in fairly shallow waters; others, such as adjunct professor Dave Bruno (100 things), who teaches at Point Loma Nazarene University, are neck-deep in questions of purpose, necessity, and the divine. In this light, there’s something endearingly ambitious and compromised in their literal counting; they may be anti-consumerists whose way of life could topple the largest economy in the world if they were to prevail—but at heart they’re still competitive, capitalist Americans. And, being competitive, capitalist Americans, many of them sell products—books, workshops, courses.

Things, by any other name.

~

4 copies of Tuesdays with Morrie. 1 copy of The I Hate to Cook Book, 1962 paperback edition. 1 copy of Diet for a Small Planet, never used. 1 copy of the book Vicktor Frankl conceived during his time in a concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning.

If there is a guru of the new American minimalism, it’s probably Leo Babauta (100 things), who claims not to be a Zen master, but whose blog is named Zenhabits.net. Glance at Babauta’s “short list,” and the tactics for achieving the blessed state of few possessions seem simple:

1. Identify what’s most important to you.
2. Eliminate everything else.

It’s his “long list” that snags me. It contains seventy-two tactics, some of which seem obvious in the world of Zen habits. Number 10, for instance, is Get rid of the big items, by which he means boats, vacation homes, and unused appliances (none of which I have). But to be fair, the list also includes Number 4, Simplify work tasks and Number 6, Learn to say no. Most of the 72 tactics have articles and sub-tasks associated with them—it’s a complex system. I guess this is why minimalists end up writing books.

Yes, some of this does appeal to me. When I left graduate school I moved everything I owned (except the books) a thousand miles in a Honda Civic. Marrying late, I didn’t acquire the spoils of a typical wedding: silver, china, duplicate Crock-Pots. I got my first microwave at forty and still brew coffee in a pot bought before Starbucks was a gleam in Howard Schultz’s eye. But this simplicity is only partly intentional. It’s also two parts circumstance and two parts temperament. Its momentum—or maybe its stasis—lies in who I am and what I’ve done in life, and I’ve never thought much about why I’ve wanted more, and thinking about that now feels foreign and potentially superficial.

~

5 laughing Buddhas, 1 in jade. 11 complete and incomplete sets of specialty glasses, including 3 sets of shot glasses; 2 sets of crystal wine goblets and 1 set of crystal brandy snifters, 8 in each set, Waterford. 1 funeral Mass book for Leo Reilly Sr., our grandfather, d. 1957.

The wealth that we’re disassembling here in our childhood home came quickly to our parents, and I think our father never really trusted it. He carried scars from early homelessness, an abusive and alcoholic father, a mother who was maddeningly forgiving, and the charity of the Catholic church, which came with strings of epic length attached. Scars deeply embedded, our father benefitted from an accelerated college education, the GI Bill, and the post-World War II suburban boom. He was dashingly dark, with eyes the color of fresh celery. He was smart, talented, and intense in all matters.

And also profoundly untrusting of his luck. He consumed widely and deeply—cars, boats, sports equipment, international travel. But he rarely bought a piece of clothing voluntarily. He opted for the cheapest version of almost everything he bought. And he periodically retreated into doubt. When I was 10, I discovered a secret room in the attic, and a Chock full o’ Nuts can containing $14,000 in small bills, stashed there in case of a stock market crash.

His father was rarely mentioned in our presence, and as we disassemble the house, we find only two photos of him.

~

1 leather-bound copy of the Alcoholic Anonymous Big Book, 1971, gift from a friend. 3 brass bed warmers, 19th century. 3 knife sharpeners, 1 of them electric. 10 kitchen knives, none of them sharp.

In the last years of his life, our father mounted the steps by crawling, and, irritated by the cost of heat, confined himself to two or three drafty rooms. When we tried to get him to move to a less precarious place with a bedroom on the first floor, he resisted.

“Why?” Carrie asked. “Now that Mom’s gone, why do you want to stay here?”

“I want to be with my things,” he said.

Those things he treasured are mostly in the family room, I think. Certainly it has always been the heart of the house and the core of the collection. Along the fireplace wall: the antique bed warmers, copper pots, fireplace tools, ski-scapes painted by his cousin, a spy glass frozen in one setting, and the Afghan gun. On an adjacent wall: an antique set of bells of the kind used at high Mass and a couple of Spanish swords.

In these last five days, we’ve heartlessly broken his collection, corrupted the exhibit as he left it: We’ve carted in paintings from all around the house, piled all the candle snuffers in a corner, emptied out a huge cabinet full of 78- and 133-RPM vinyls, arrayed all the ceramic beer steins found in other rooms. The story he saw as he sat in this room is adulterated. I want to be around my things, he said. All the things in this room as he left it? Some of them? Or was there comfort in unseen things too, in the objects stored in cabinets and corners and under beds, things that testified to his wealth? Or to his life story? Is it possible that without these things he would have come to feel deserted, unrecognizable, as if his life had not in fact happened in the brilliant colors and leaps of fortune that he remembered.

I have no idea. He swore by Man’s Search for Meaning, which he read after breaking his neck in a sailing accident. He also swore by Morrie and sent multiple copies to each of us.

~

2 pairs of skis, 2 bowling balls, 2 sets of golf clubs. 2 index-card boxes of family recipes. 1 salon-style bubble hair dryer in working condition.

Maybe he wanted to be around his things because the collection reminded him of our beautiful mother. Endowed with Katharine Hepburn cheekbones, a prickly wit, and a nascent feminism, she was an adored woman, and he spared her nothing. The house speaks of her tastes and life experience: the silk curtains, the multiple sets of serving dishes, the figurines from France. Wherever she traveled, she acquired exquisite things: real kimonos and silver jewelry, simple watercolors painted on a Portuguese beach.

After her death, our father obsessed over her jewelry, particularly a string of pearls bought in Japan forty years before. He claimed that the home health care workers had stolen them. But we knew that our mother had begun moving her things around relentlessly, hiding them and losing them, finding them and hiding them again, or throwing them out deliriously. For months, under Dad’s hyper-critical eye, we tried to retrace our mother’s actions. He insisted the loss was our fault; we were the rubes who’d hired hourly workers and failed to secure the valuables.

Eventually, Margaret found the pearls, absurdly packed under some winter hats, and Carrie had them assessed. Twenty-five dollars. Our parents had been fleeced all those years ago in Japan.

See how little the assessed value matters? I tell myself. Both parents enjoyed the fake pearls for forty years. And look at the unnecessary angst. The excess anxiety. The accusations. How silly!

Or maybe not. These things, phonies or not, are an expression of real hungers. Now, walking through rooms, I have to wonder about our mother’s hungers. She is the art director of this house, the prop manager who expertly arranged these artifacts to our father’s satisfaction. Even now, even in disarray—muddled with half-packed boxes and swirls of bubble wrap—the house has the feel of a well-designed stage set. Well-designed and tasteful, and yet the hungers expressed here are surprisingly expected; they’re the desires of a class, not a person, and I feel sadness toward my remote and lovely mother, and find myself staring at a quirky collection of primitive pottery pieces made during the one art class she took back when she was probably 50 or 55. What hunger was that?

Or this: a large, framed, hand-colored photograph of her father and his big brother dressed in overalls at ages three and four; they’re standing next to a child-sized wagon on a dusty road. This was the father who essentially disinherited my mother and her sister, giving all of his considerable fortune to his three sons. Yet it fell to the girls to empty their father’s house, and when they sifted through the basement, my mother found postcards addressed to herself as a 10-year old, 12-year old, 13-year old, from far away places, Batista’s Cuba, Miami Beach, Tucson. All of the messages were instructions for making sure her brothers got to school, her sister got to dance lessons, the baker got paid. None of the cards said love you or miss you or even thank you. My mother didn’t cry, sitting in her father’s basement. She threw the cards out and never mentioned them, and then she brought the haunting photograph of her father-as-child home to this house, where it has hung ever since.

And what about this thing? A large replica of a painting, three long-haired girls dowsed in impressionist pastels sitting peacefully on a pleasant hill. Our mother loved this piece. But none of us want it. It’s only a copy, of course, and none of us wants to deal with the sentimental wishfulness of it.

~

6 pieces of slab pottery, made in a beginner’s art class. 3 fur coats. 1 cherry dining room set. 14 hand-carved decorative duck decoys. 1 duck-hunting shotgun, last used in 1962.

The last cogent, in-person conversation I had with my father was about burying my mother. He was hanging out of a second story window and I was sneaking away in a mushroom dawn, trying to make a 7 a.m. flight.

“Wait!” he said. “I want to say something.” He paused to catch an elusive breath. “I realize that if you weren’t there to do it for us, we’d all still be standing in the bay.” He was referring to the day before, when the family stood waist-deep in water, my frail father, wracked with congestive heart disease, clinging to an old foam surf board. We each of us had spread a handful of my mother’s ashes and then stopped, unable to go on. It was decided that I would spread the rest of her. So I walked alone into the outgoing tide, moving toward the channel, toward pleasure boats and fishermen, and I spread my mother and she sank slowly, the way a heavy snow falls, disturbingly easy in the melting. No longer a person or a thing.

Thank you, my father said through the window.

He has been dead five months, and now, standing in the kitchen, the three daughters are renegotiating. Here are the categories we have already dispatched:
Angels (31)
Art (40)
Bells (28)
Books (uncounted)
Boxes/trunks, antique (4)
Brass candle holders (13)
Christmas (65)
Candle snuffers (5)
Duck decoys (14)
Fish weights, antique brass (5)
Furniture (uncounted)
Hats (9)
Recipe books and recipes (uncounted)
Spoons, antique collection (16)

Through all of this, we have shared long meals over red wine and our father’s Scotch, and stories we’d never dared tell each other before. Margaret has talked about afternoons spent leashed to a tree as a toddler. Carrie has admitted to remembering nothing before the age of eight. Margaret and I have reminded her of the late-night raids when exotic punishments were meted out. We have all agreed that the discipline—erratic, private, humiliating—produced three very well-behaved little girls.

It also produced wariness: In adult life, we’ve been occasional friends and frequent adversaries—there have been missed weddings, manipulations, silences spanning a half decade and more. It was in the face of our mother’s dementia that we formed a fragile and respectful alliance of care, which has persisted unevenly. Yesterday morning, before a 13-hour day of carrying, categorizing, and climbing all four staircases, up and down and up and down, we danced to the Dixie Chicks. The song was “Long Time Gone.”

Now we’re arguing.

But what about? Not memory, which Carrie doesn’t have and Margaret fears so profoundly that huge events have been submerged in her mind, available to her only with prompting. And not wealth, because many of the most contended items are not the most marketable items. The small painting of a lighthouse. The tea lamps owned by our great grandmother.

Maybe we’re arguing about the categories themselves, the way items have been arranged, forcing negotiations and choices within shaped universes. Should the angels have been part of the Christmas category perhaps? Should the antiques have been separated from the furniture? Would we have valued, compared, and chosen them more carefully?

Identify what’s most important to you, Babauta writes with the kind of confidence that comes with extremism, or godliness, or maybe simple-mindedness. Eliminate everything else.

What is worth arguing about? Why do I care about wicker furniture?

~

Rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens/ Brown paper packages tied up with string/These are a few of my favorite things.

Fleeing from the house in my father’s beat-up Maxima, it occurs to me that most of Maria Von Trapp’s favorite things, as reported by Oscar Hammerstein, are not things at all, but images. Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.

What things do I care about? What are my favorites? What am I willing ship from New Jersey to Chicago? Stuck at a stoplight, I’ve got that la-de-dah song stuck in my head and I’m getting annoyed. Hammerstein was a romantic. Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings are downright un-American. For Americans, favorite things are by definition eBay-able, more on the order of brown paper packages tied up with string than silver white winters that melt into springs. And while I’m at it, let me just point out that Frank Sinatra did not really have plenty of nothing, nor was plenty of nothing plenty for him.

The majority of the American economy is consumer spending—a giant portion of it for things that the minimalists count and then eject from their lives. It’s true that in the Great Recession, Americans did more (canoeing, gardening, reading) and bought less in the way of toys, electronics, and clothing. And a number of social entrepreneurs started organizations that help Americans borrow yard tools and other things from their neighbors, rather than buy them, thereby minimizing the number of things everyone owns. Nonetheless, Americans were still buying millions of microwaves a year and brides were still registering—the average bride asked for 151 things at the height of the Great Recession. That’s 50 percent more things than Babauta owns.

More startling: even if Americans are not buying as many eBay-able things today as we used to (as poverty among children soars and joblessness remains rampant) we are still storing things—in 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. Which we pay for. We Americans pay to store trillions of favorite things we never see. Shoppers by birthright, hoarders by culture, we are curators of the superfluous.

In the UPS store, the lady says, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

And the loss is immeasurable and also indefinable. And the things—what they are, whatever they mean—are likewise. And I start to sob, and the UPS lady watches me with a look of recognition.

~

3 vintage political buttons: Goldwater, Nixon, Clinton. 1 Swiss cuckoo clock. 16 reel-to-reel tapes, once little audio postcards of childhood events—Easter evenings, birthday parties, kids’ plays mounted in the backyard—now taped over with our father’s Orpheus Club concerts, the Christmas concert, the Spring concert, the Christmas concert.

The new rules for choosing are: everything. Look at everything and choose, round robin. This category-free universe includes all the rooms, the yard, the garage: It is a mall without stores. There are antique sleds, vintage noisemakers for New Year’s, garden rakes, brass carriage lamps, Cannon cameras, hundreds of candles. The visual center to this universe is the dining room table, covered with platters and serving bowls, hotel matchbooks, hand-crafted cheese boards, the family silver, playing cards and poker sets, magazines, three sets of salad dishes, the World War I saber, a ceramic tray for surgical instruments retrieved from our father’s dental office.

Once when we were very young, the elderly couple across the street announced they were moving. They invited us children to come over and circle a table very much like this one, choosing anything we wanted from it. Heartlessly, I never asked where they were going. I took a cut-glass candy dish. Their name was Lang, I think.

My mother said, “Good lord, what do you think you’re going to do with that thing?” She had a point. In our dental family, candy was consumed exactly twice a year.

No, this experience is bigger than that. I am Ozma of Oz, a character from one of the original Frank Baum books. In the book, Princess Ozma must identify which objects in a huge menagerie are actually people, transformed into baubles and statues by the Gnome King. Each of the enchanted objects has an intrinsic meaning—a life. But which are enchanted and which are just, well, things? Ozma fails. Dorothy fails too. Only by cheating do the two heroines, with the help of a talking chicken, win.

No wonder I’m having trouble.

Carrie takes a brass sconce hanging in another room. Margaret chooses the family silver. My turn. And it’s only now that I get it. We’re arguing about relationships. In the old category system, we had to talk, to publicly struggle with memory and loss, want and need; we had to value and compare, respect each other even while competing with each other. We had to share our parents with each other. Now all we have to do is buy.

~

1 suitcase, 1 canvas bag. 2 blankets. 1 tarp. 1 can of peaches. 1 flare gun. 1 pistol. 1 bullet.

These are the things the man and the boy have at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, which I’ve been reading at night in my childhood bedroom. The list is not very different from the supplies I packed in a Grand Union shopping bag when I was seven and ran away to the woods at the bottom of the street.

It’s still my turn.

I came wanting three things. I wanted the hand-colored photograph of my grandfather as a child; an antique dry sink, one of my mother’s proudest possessions; and a brass cowbell she used to call us home when we were kids. I have those three things. No one else wanted them. So how can I still be wanting, taking: now it’s the saber, and now antique sleigh bells, now the political buttons. What am I doing?

Is there a constant meaning to things? Throughout The Road, things always mean survival. In Ozma, things mean lives rescued and reanimated. At a certain stratum in America, things mean comfort, wealth, cultural coolness: They are our public collections, physical affirmations of our personal brands. And seeing this collection I’m creating—comprised of shards of choices our parents made, constructed of an economic status I will never acquire on my own—I feel as if I am not myself. Now: a set of crystal brandy snifters. Next: a Waterford vase. No, that one didn’t feel like me. Back on track: a 1943 TIME magazine, Hitler’s Henchmen. Then: wine glasses—no, not wine glasses—the bag of vintage matchbooks and the ancient, cleverly packaged condom instead. Then: my grandmother’s potato masher.

Carrie calls an end to the session. If we take too many things, the lady who is running the estate sale will complain. We have two last rounds. The dental tray for surgical tools. A pottery candleholder my mother made in her one art class.

We stop. We pack up. More bubble wrap, and that awful tape that sticks to itself so tightly that I throw a roll of it across the room, narrowly missing an unclaimed angel.

Still not myself a month later, I’ll see the things I’ve chosen in my living room. And my grandfather looks out of place, and the saber is invisible, stashed on a high shelf, and the dry sink feels heavy and dark. Did I ever really like that watercolor of the barn?

A month later: there is no narrative to my collection. But the cowbell will give me transient comfort when I retell the story of three little girls, so free in a leafy suburb that their mother’s voice wasn’t loud enough to call them home for dinner.

And a month after that: I’ll serve Cognac in the crystal brandy snifters, self-consciously; and yes, I’ll have to explain their existence, because they’re so glaringly out of place alongside the juice glasses we use for wine.

And then, some time after that, when I’m not thinking about the things at all, I’ll discover that almost everything we three daughters left behind that day ended up in a New Jersey landfill, deemed worthless and tossed. It’s all likely in a trash heap called HMDC 1-E.

~

10 pairs of men’s leather shoes, 3 pairs of men’s shoe-trees, oak. 1 dining room set, cherry. 4 bookshelves. 2 full sets of pewter dishes, 2 sets of pewter goblets. 1 sewing machine, circa 1960. 100+ books, mostly popular history. 27 antique bells. 1 pine liquor cabinet, circa 1955. 1 Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. 5 pieces of assorted pottery, made by a beginner. 1 string of Japanese Akoya white pearls, 8-millimeters in diameter and luminous, and also fake.

1 impressionist print of three girls on a hill.

 


In “The Relative Nature of Things”, a woman comes to terms beautifully with what is left of her parents through an elegiac, and heartbreaking catalogue of her their possessions. She finds meaning through a graceful and eloquent telling of the process of sifting through her childhood home for an estate sale with her sisters. The author traverses the history of the minimalists and then arrives brilliantly back in her own living room, enlightening the reader on what is important to take with her. In her moving study, she has shown us that true value is not in material objects, but the memories they bring.
—Anthony Swofford & Christa Parravani, 2012 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judges


One Round Elegy for Benny ‘Kid’ Paret

Russ Madison

Note:  Cuban boxer Benny “Kid” Paret,
A ranking welterweight, was killed
In the ring during a bout with
Former world champion, Emile Griffith

I
The black glass of your jaw,
Benny, cracked. Across
The bruised isthmus of your mouth-
Piece, black-capped teeth
Smiled away ten rounds
Of your quick life. Today,
The hot gut of Cuba
Floats its ring in the finned
Caribbean. The skipjacked
Sea and gray gun-
Running sharks grin
The death and joy
Of their welterweight. You,
Benny, the listing Winslow
Homered black, reflect
The beating of your sweet-
Breaded brain. That night
Your cockeyed odyssey
Boxed its own dark shadow.
The Kid in you skipped
Rope. The chocolate theory
Of your bandaged hands
Jabbed your name to stone.

II
Benny, come back to the dumb
Gym. Catholic beads
Of sweat pray in canefields
To the mantis of your high-
Held fists. Three centuries
Of keel-deep ships, black
With slaveries of galleons
Porting, prows parting rum-
Soaked mists of Camaquey
Cruise to your sad myth.
Benny, the cruel sexual
Showers of The Bronx Y
Pour benedictions
To your loss. Come, Benny,
Spar. The big bag waits.

III
Thirty years, Benny. Cursed
With fists, the silver
Highlights of your shoulders
Bulged with death, like Roman
Armor. You laid red anthracite
Wounds to rest. Emile
Is fat today. Your death
Grew heavy on his weight,
To set its mass at his dark
Waist. You would be friends
In heaven, Benny. You kissed
The Champ with punches: Solar
Plexus. Kidneys. Heart.
And liver. The roundhouse
Of your love to fight
Was born in Castro’s wild
Maestra: Che, Raul, cut men
Live now in your corner.
Benny, today that right
Cross you never threw
For socialism marks
The sad bundle of your grave.
You lie, wrapped in sugar,
Your taped and mummied hands
Still. They lie at your
Side, gloveless, a loss,
While your fingerbones
Grow small mittens of moss.

IV
The sunlit island
Jewel of Cuba spars its nights
Toward destiny. In Nueva York
The Garden’s marquee lights
Bleed and spell the sky red:
Benny “Kid” Paret is dead.
Benny “Kid” Paret is dead.

 


“One Round Elegy for Benny ‘Kid’ Peret” is admirable for the ways in which the unflinching approach to its portraiture co-exists with a highly inventive approach to metaphor, and a brash use of the accentual line. Tough and uncompromising as the poem’s stance may often be, it is not afraid of the pathos that is essential in the best elegies.
—David Wojahn, 2013 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


Tea Ceremony

Rosemary Kitchen

We move away
from the shop counter, where knives
clack against cutting boards, cleaving spines
from carp, stripping scales from white flesh
like coin purses being turned inside out,
to the back room, where garlands of garlic
hang up to dry.

On an empty shelf,
he keeps it—a glass pitcher
bound shut with twine
and cheese cloth.
    Across its neck
a mushroom has grown— thick,
like the head of a jellyfish— and floats there
in a bath of black tea: a brew to cure
the liver spot growing on his cheek.

Once, I watched my mother sprawl
across a missionary’s kitchen table, her naked
scalp swathed in scarves, silk, vibrant, the tumor
a globe inside her swollen womb.
Even then, the gesture of empty hands
the incantation faith has made you 
whole, seemed, to me, a game.
Now, as he
fishes out the fungus with tongs,
letting its warm, slimy weight fall
into my open palms, its creases
nip my fingers, the way I imagine
the mouths of minnows would
should I run a hand through the tank
at the store’s front, should I allow myself
to believe in the subtle throbbing
of tissue against skin.

 


Here a lyrical delicacy, a surprising associative movement, and an equally surprising approach to syntax make for a richly compelling mixture, especially as the poem moves towards its closure, which seems to me enthralling.
—David Wojahn, 2013 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


A Short History of Ironing

Catherine Freeling

Part 1:  The Flat Work

Saturday morning: I pour a cup of coffee, pull down
the ironing board. Original to the house. 87 years old.
Usually folded upright in its own cupboard, set into
the pantry door. A door to a cupboard in a door, like a puzzle.
As if I could be telling a story that begins, Not long ago…

Men with strong arms, tall ladders, aprons full of tools
asked me, Is there anything you want to save?

Once I would have said, My marriage.
Once I would have said, Myself.

But that day I told them, The ironing board.

Because the flatwork was my girlhood chore. Another child
might have felt resentful, but I think I believed,
with each pressed handkerchief and pillowcase,
I was saving someone. Because, though we lived
in the middle of town, our house was its own wilderness
and, though very young, with my iron I could smooth
deep creases, provide the civilized napkin.
As if each stack of folded cloth was an offering.

We’ll have to take out the whole pantry, the men said,
then put it back when the new walls are in place. It’s tricky.
So many things can go wrong.

I’ll take the risk, I said, and signed a paper.

 

Part 2: The Wedding Shirt

Here he comes, wearing the slacks of his new suit.
He drapes the jacket and tie over a chair, hands me the shirt.
I’m a little nervous, Mom.

But the sun came out for you, I say, lick my finger, check
the temperature, and start with the cuffs, working away
from the buttons, then spread the sleeves, one at a time.
He sits at the kitchen table. A big man with burly arms.
His hands seem small, almost delicate, holding a coffee cup.

Next, over the end of the board, I pull the yoke that will cover
his broad shoulders. The word, “yoke.” What we take on.
What comes to us. Early, I almost lost him.

The wide back is flat and easy, except for the pleat.
When he was little, in a time that hardly seems real,
I had to pound his back each day to release fluid from the lungs.
How “pleat” sounds like a child’s cry in the night.

Next, the front, with a pocket that will lie close to his heart.
Long ago, doctors examined his small chest, said
the effort to breathe had made his heart grow bigger.

Then the placket. The buttons and buttonholes will fall
between his lungs. I remember the night they said,
We’re going to have to put him in an iron lung.
Silently, I press each buttonhole.

And finally, the collar, which will circle his neck,
through which breath passes.

He stirs some sugar into a fresh cup of coffee.
I’m not going to cry.

When I hand him the finished shirt, he stands, slips his arms
through the sleeves, and it’s as if, when he pulls the cloth
over his shoulders and begins the buttoning, I’m blessing him.
Can he still feel the iron’s warmth?
I reach up to smooth the collar over his tie.

I don’t say, You won’t make a mess of it, like I did.
I don’t say, Forgive me.

As if, at least for today, the past can stay folded.
A long-ago stack of flatwork.

He checks the rings one more time. I slide the ironing board
back in its cupboard, close the door.

 


“A Short History of Ironing” is impressive because of the skill with which it mixes the ars poetica, and autobiographical testimony, not to mention its sly critique of gender roles: what many of us would see as domestic drudgery is transformed into a quasi-magical ritual.
—David Wojahn, 2013 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


Mirror, Mirror

Ellen LaFleche

The nuns are not allowed to look at their own image

Still,
Sister Beatrice craves reflection.

Alone in her cell
she probes her face
with the slow, sculptural skill
of a woman born without vision.

Her fingers trace the bladed
cheekbones, the small brown moles
expressive as punctuation marks
at the end of her mouth.

One in the morning.
Beatrice sneaks into the convent
kitchen. There’s no chrome
toaster to tempt the sisters,
not a sliver of silvered glass.

No stainless soupspoons
with their inverted gazing bowls.

But there’s a ceiling fan.

Sister looks upward, as if seeking sweet
heaven. The metal blades,
slowly slicing air,
show shimmering flickers of Beatrice.

She sees her nose,
its humped topography, the sudden
twist just below the bridge.

The strands of hair pushing
out of her veil like the night-seeking
roots of a moon-flower plant.

Beatrice’s mouth is too lush
for a nun’s mouth,
but there it is, quick pink
kisses on the whirring fan blades.

Beatrice stares into faint
blue eyes, the pupils
widening like ecstatic cervixes.

So, this. This is what
Sister Veronica sees
when she looks at Beatrice.

 


“Mirror, Mirror” is a poem of vision. It asks us to imagine a life in which the self is seen only through others, in which the hunger for the self and the other is forbidden. By turns voluptuous and delicate, lush and ascetic, detailed and evocative, this is a startling portrait of a cloistered sister.
–Dorianne Laux, 2012 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


Prayer for What Disappears

Emily Pulfer-Terino

How many of my friends from back then— pink faced
in beige Buicks, busted trucks or bugs, who charged
over New England’s back roads, chanting in Sanskrit,
wearing Mohawks, scars, some piercings that I opted
not to see—who among us stays up late and smokes still
while this thin blue thread of menthol disappears
like Laura and I did one night in Hartford, praying
to a drawn, blue god for something, everything,
‘til we headed back to our hick home town where we found
somewhere safe to sleep? It burns and disappears, this smoke,
the way my boyfriend did back then, all filmy in his desert
and my memory, or like our friend Chad did last week,
in his old bedroom, smooth and dead, seamless as a lightbulb
when the gardener found him. Let’s praise, for now,
what disappears. The girl whose parents fed me casserole and beer
and put me up; praise all of them. And those years,
fantastic deities, country songs and afro-pop, praise them, and stolen
booze and bras, gasoline we’d siphon at the truck stop,
heavy, worthless books we’d quote and tote around. Praise Chad,
who scowled on my couch, ate torn hunks of sourdough, finished
his novel and sat there all summer, silent in the wake of his own mind.
Praise our stories, bread, our hands, our brains, our crazed
and flimsy hearts, praise all that ever lead us reeling towards this world
we couldn’t, haven’t, but we still might, someday, understand.

 


Bob Hass says all poems are either elegies or praise poems. “Prayer for What Disappears” is beautifully and quietly both.
–Dorianne Laux, 2012 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


 

Third Surgery

Rochelle Hurt

The sun throws down its red light, draping
the asphalt. I know your show, I say, how
you love the swish of the curtain’s close.
How, only hours pass before you creep back
to us, pale and small, a white kernel of maize
into our homes, never asking entry.
And we take you, like skin that inches back
across a scar, because we have to.
I wear my own scar like a necklace, pearled
with puckered skin, glistening under you,
but today I refuse your tantrums, your reds
seeping down the vermillion roofs on the blue
horizon, down into the tired maples.
And to the maples: I know you too,
how you grow suddenly cold, and cast down
your flushing leaves, their papery cells
overgrown, pocked with disease.
And to the leaves: I watch you
spill yourselves onto the soil and bleed,
deliberately, under my feet, but today I refuse
to pity you. This is not the end. I am
twenty-five in a month, and you’ll be back
by March, stems green.
So, perhaps, will the disease
climb out of its silver root to trickle back
to you, unceasing. But you know nothing—
only to grow. And how could this scar’s
leathery crescent of tissue, strung again
with stitches, be blamed for its insistence
in turning up, a dumb smirk stuck to my neck,
or me, ever the idiot, grinning at a sunset?

 


The voice in “Third Surgery” manages to be firmly insistent and heartbreakingly vulnerable. The poet sets the body’s trauma and its resilience against the workings of the natural world, the familiar and the unknowable—a beautifully balanced achievement.
—Claudia Emerson, 2011 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


 

Firstborn

I knew about birth that it happens unbidden
by us, the born, the living. My brother would not

be comforted—pink pearl of him, that lustrous
cry—but burrowed through cooed phrases,

here, there there, to a world wild and unformed
as air, as breath, that startling. His self,

no bigger than my toddler t-shirts, occupied us all
with his confusion. Neither would I be consoled;

having lived in what he’d yet make meaning of—
apartment, wide, planked floors, plants in corners,

felted with dust—I knew about the world
that it had rooms you walk into and move through,

staring, straining to inhabit then return from.
First I watched him in his crib, that shifting ribcage,

body barely anything. Or I played underneath
my mother’s skirts, curry thickening the air above us;

her long-sleeved arms stirred something when I looked.
Mostly I looked straight up, though, into that tent of denim,

towards the looming body from which I’d been born
and into which, I pretended, I could return.

 


“Firstborn” expresses with lyric intensity a particular anxiety, reforming the experience of the only child’s displacement to “firstborn” and sibling—and in the process delightfully pairing the architecture of the “world” and its rooms with that of the mother.
—Claudia Emerson, 2011 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


 

Girls on Lake Pewaukee Consider the Future

April Goldman

Our bodies did not comply,
with our one-piece suits, the type

that carve a girl
into a shapely S.  We were too flat
to care, too small, un-tanned,

but our mouths did reaching
hands were too young to do.

We fake kissed our wrists,
sipped cherry soda from sandy cups,

left lip marks on each other’s skin,
while boys,

chests bare, hands knuckle white,
slit the lake on skis.  When they emerged
goose-skinned, scaled with water drops,

it struck: desire, not between our legs
but in our mouths:
To breathe them warm

as broken bones in plaster.
To crush them
in the space between our lips.

To burn them at our stakes
and breathe
the boys they’d been.

That we had bodies of our own,
turning
supple as worked canvas,

that we could be sliced through easy
as the waves,
hardly rose to the surface of our minds.

Only the desire to be led to water
and asked to drink,

and also to lead.   Water stirred
by their limbs.
Our lips red, our lips turning more red.

 


The collective voice of the “girls” masterfully rendered, the reader lingers as well on the threshold between the body’s awareness—reluctant, still submerged—and that of the intellect, fiercely forming.
—Claudia Emerson, 2011 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


Between Land and Water

Ashley Seitz Kramer

At first you were lonely
then I was lonely. Then
we fell through the hammock
in our sloping yard.

Here’s my corner
of the pissed-in shed.
Here’s to that moment of joy
when the boat opened the sea
the sea opened the sail
and the sail billowed: a broken neck
in a bright blue kite sky.

You swept the bangs
from my forehead
in the glorious dampness
on the eve of our undoing
at the expense of so much saltwater.

You called me over to the candle
of a lighthouse and all its burning.
You called me down to the cake of crust
beneath the reef and what it divides.

Just pretend there’s a really good reason
to praise the waves that flow upward now
through the steep streets
of our quiet town
across Bella’s small grave
across the tossed fruit
we first ate from
through our orange bedroom
with the faded blinds
through our blindness—
the Wednesdays and the Saturdays
of our twenties now passing.

Call me down to the floor
like a starfish you loved once
for too many arms.

 


It’s easy to praise this wonderful love poem. Like love itself it is full of the thingness
of relationships, both the light and the dark and the meaningful moments in-
between. As the title suggests there is so much happening between land and water
where, if we are lucky, we are called “down to the floor/ like a starfish” our lover
“loved once/ for too many arms”.
—Matthew Dickman, 2010 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


Blackwater

Nancy K. Pearson

When I broke through the woods I was clear

to the marsh. The frayed scrapes.
The lost tongues.

A foal folding on the water is how the light went.
“Necessary and momentary activations”

is what my cousin the ex-Guard says
about using a flashlight

after The Republican Palace became a US Embassy
before we gave it back.

At dusk, there’s the weft and the heap.
The birds trapped in a pant leg.

The reeds following the reeds, the wind-blown sheep.
Every idea we ever had

pushed out
on the bench press in his garage.

 


“Political” poems can sometimes feel reactionary, distanced, and fearful. This is not
the case with “Blackwater”. This is a poem of the deepest kind of politic: the politic
of the human dealing with an oftentimes inhuman world. Here sincerity is being
utilized as the muscle it is.
—Matthew Dickman, 2010 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


Opening Day

Nancy K. Pearson

My dog sees a bird,
barrels up through the trees from the truck.

The woods are made of chili. On Opening Day
my father’s no longer a tourist waiting underwater

for a parrot fish. I’m not a fan of fish, my father knows.
My first love was a turtle named Martha

named after the very last passenger pigeon
now stuffed with sawdust. My father is a lime green leaf that gets up

and walks away when you touch it
because he’s really a katydid. I can’t remember the name for this kind

of camouflage. When I think of Martha in Ohio,
perched in her wire cage at the zoo

I think of a ghost with a song
about a great slurry pressed into a single McNugget

like a spirit hardened into an urge
that disappears. Like dandelions

or egg teeth. Like the idea that goodness is beyond us,
not in us. The trees break

with our searching.
She’d sing a song about sewing our eyes shut.

 


The strange world of Opening Day might, in the hands of another poet, distance the reader. But here one feels anchored in this lyric world. Anchored and thankful to be in it.
—Matthew Dickman, 2010 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge


Red Line Stories

C.L. Patterson

Mass transportation is doomed to failure in North America because a person’s car is the only place where he can be alone and think.

–Marshall McLuhan

Loyola

The overcast skies split to allow a few pale rays of sunlight to bleed through the seemingly solid clouds.  Below, an Assistant Professor of English sits on the platform bench.  She is alternately grading the stack of papers in her lap and contemplating the advent of her thirty-fourth birthday tomorrow—the end of her “Jesus Year,” as her friends in the Department of Theology call it.  She is not certain she ought to be evaluating her students’ work along with her life, but she sallies forth nonetheless.

There is much to accomplish tonight, and she consoles herself by starting with English 342:  Shakespeare’s Histories’ Richard III essays.  She reads:  “By killing those who stood between him and the throne, he was able to dramatically affect the lives of their loved ones—however, he could not manipulate….” She sighs.  How many times has she talked about using the literary present?  As she crosses out “was” and “could not” to write “is” and “cannot,” she imagines the wind rushing across the tracks and up over the platform—it whisks the pages out of her hand and sends them up over the trees and beyond the buildings, circling ever higher until they disappear from view….

All right, perhaps she should begin elsewhere.  She pulls out her Modernism file and selects a paper.  After all, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?  She winces at the feeble joke, even though she hasn’t said it aloud.  She starts at the top of the pile and reads until she comes to:  “When official critiques were printed, her novel was written off as ‘a disappointment—all about nothing—exquisitely written of course.’”  Hello?  Hello, hello?  How about citing the source?  She closes her eyes and conjures up a band of marauding children who steal her papers as they run by laughing—they rush down the stairs, across the street and down the block, folding them into boats as they go, launching the vessels into the lake’s cold waters when they reach shore, watching them sail over the waves….

She opens her eyes.  The Waves.  Very funny.  She replaces the Modernism file and reaches for one of her Comp 101 compare and contrast essays.  Eventually, she stumbles upon what she believes to be the thesis statement:  “Although football and baseball are both popular American-born sports with many rules, baseball is defiantly more complicated because the defense has control of the ball.”  Defiantly?  No.  Spell check strikes again.  And again, and again, and again.  Definitely, she writes.

She hears the train and looks up to see it coming around the bend.  She imagines loosening her grip on the papers, watching them fall onto the tracks and being ripped to shreds by the train, filling the air like a ticker-tape parade—happy birthday to me!  But she tightens her grip,  scribbles “apply yourself” on the top paper, places them all carefully in her briefcase, and steps onto the Red Line.

 

Granville

He breathes in deeply, relishing the scent of the best coffee in town.  They have a decaffeinated version of their signature Redline roast, but today he went with the real thing.  He feels so weak asking for decaf, though he probably should have today.  He can feel the blood coursing rapidly through his veins.

As usual, nobody noticed him take his post in the weathered easy chair in the corner.  He tucks himself carefully inside his anonymity and turns his eyes on the creatures before him.  It is the standard mix of students, artists, and suits.  Most are hunched over laptops, a few frown over textbooks.  They all seem so intent.  So vibrant.  He selects a pale young woman who is gazing with such earnestness at the bearded man speaking to her that her eyes appear in danger of leaping from her face.

Her lips part slightly as she drinks in the bearded man’s words.  He cannot pull his eyes away from the shiny glint of teeth and tongue between those lips.  He feels the familiar urge swell through his chest.  His hands clench, and he nearly drops his mug.  He aches to run a finger—a knife—over her round, pink cheeks, draw a line down to her throat, and slice through her carotid artery.  He can feel her body go slack in his arms, can picture how pristinely beautiful she will look as the life quickly drains from her:  peaceful, pale, serene, other-worldly.  He does not know how he knows this, but he knows.  Has always known.  He hasn’t done it before.  No—he hasn’t done it yet.

The young woman stands, breaking his trance.  She shakes the bearded man’s hand, holding onto it a moment longer than necessary.  He notices this even as he smoothly places his mug in the bin for dirty dishes and slips out the front door.  By the time she steps outside, he is off to the sidewalk’s edge tying his shoe.  She pauses long enough to adjust her purse before turning left and walking—almost skipping—toward the station.

He slides into the crowd three people behind her, following her through the turnstile and up the stairs.  The train has already arrived and he leaps gracefully through the opposite door of the car she entered a moment before.  He waits for her to settle, then takes a seat and gradually pretends to nap while watching her flushed face through his eyelashes.  She is captivating.  He will be sorry when she departs.  He always rides to the next stop….

His pulse races as a realization washes over him.  It begins at the top of his head, warming his face, then his torso, then radiates through his limbs.  Today is the bloom.  Today is the dawn.  Forget decaf.

Today he will follow her home.

 

Thorndale

She is almost mesmerized by watching them, the toddlers tumbling over and around each other like puppies (or the baby foxes—kits—that were born each spring in her grandparents’ backyard).  Across the street, the playlot surface is a faded black, but in the sunlight it becomes a shocking blue, reminding her of the football field at Boise State (she’s never been that far west, but that’s how it looks on television each Saturday in autumn).  The swings, slides and monkey bars are all bright primary colors (almost too vibrant against the backdrop of concrete and brick).

She catches movement out of the corner of her eye.  An old woman is slowly making her way down the platform, talking (to herself?) and gesticulating.  She tries to listen.  The old woman is difficult to understand (but why?)  She is loud enough, she is speaking English, she doesn’t appear to have an accent—wait, there was something about…scabies, was it?  And how her doctor told her to avoid using the dryer in her building, should the board of health be notified?  The old woman has stopped in front of her (waiting for a reply?)  She attempts one:  “ Oh, yes, there’s never any harm in…letting people know.”

That answer appears satisfactory, because now she hears:  “and cleanliness is next to Godliness, you know.  I have always been clean—my maid comes every week and asks what she’s doing there since nothing needs to be done.  I don’t believe a person can be truly religious without being clean, do you?”  The old woman pauses.  “Uh…I think I agree with you.”  She does not consider herself at all religious, but her own home is immaculate, so it is easy to believe that might be the first step toward God.  (Or perhaps the last step and she bypassed all the others?)

There is a rush of unintelligible syllables, then suddenly:  “…women just need to stand up for each other, they need to stand together.”  The old woman regards her plaintively.  “I agree absolutely.”  (At last, something she is sure of!)  “I thought you would.  Like minds, you know.  My name is Esther.  Shalom.”  The old woman nods, turns, and shuffles toward the platform elevator.

Like minds?  She looks around.  Why did the old woman choose her?  Or was she simply in her path?  Somehow it is only after the old woman left that she is able to see her:  large glasses, a silk scarf and sunhat on her head, a beautiful antique bead necklace, a pretty (though inexpensive) dress.  Quite fashionable, in fact—why hadn’t she noticed?  Was it because of her stoop?  Surely not.

She turns her attention back to the playlot.  A little girl has broken away from the pack and is trying (without much success) to climb up the front of the slide.  Like minds, she thinks.  And then it strikes her:  here I perch, halfway between tumbling and shuffling—inexpensively stylish, climbing (albeit metaphorically) the more daunting side of the slide.

She shakes her head, chuckling.  What an unwieldy thought for a sunny day!  And what exactly are scabies?  She hasn’t heard the train approach, but the doors open before her.  She steps on, taking one more of the many supporting journeys wrapped up inside her principal one.

 

Berwyn

She has not spoken in six-and-a-half days.  She wants to make it seven.  Something about the whole situation makes her giggle—inside, of course.  When she realized she had not said a word—in any language, for any reason—for two straight days, she decided to challenge herself to a full week.  She is surprised to find it—well, not at all challenging.

She lives alone and works from home.  She e-mails her family and colleagues and texts her friends.  She smiles her thanks at store clerks and waves to the neighbors.  She uses an ATM.  She claps at concerts.  She nods at readings and shakes her head at lectures.  She waves signs at political rallies.  She mouths the hymns in church.

She loves having this secret.  She feels like a spy.  This is something nobody knows—and they can’t tell just by looking at her.  There is strength in that—knowing something, being something that nobody can tell from a glance.  From outside.  She peers around the train, relishing this newfound fuerzaEl valor.  She wonders how long she can go before somebody notices.

She could write a book about it—she wouldn’t need to talk to write a book.  She thinks it would sell.  One day they would make a movie out of it.  Eva Langoria would play her.  She would want to do all of the casting herself.  She would cast all of her favorite film stars.  They would come to parties at her house where she would greet them at the door in a designer gown and serve them glamorous drinks.  She would smile slowly when they begged her to say just one word for them—but she wouldn’t give in.  She would be the most mysterious woman in Hollywood.  Una mujer hermosa y loca.  A recluse.

“Hi!”  She hears a small but insistent voice beside her.  “Hi!”  Was that meant for her?  “Hi!’  She turns.  It is coming from a two-year-old boy with big brown eyes—they are looking straight at her.  “Hi!”  The boy is holding on to his mother’s hand, but the mother is not paying attention. “Hi!”  Why won’t he leave me alone?  “Hi!”  Please leave me alone, just leave me alone, dejane sola!  “Hi!”  The mother is not making the boy sit down.  “Hi!”  Why won’t the boy’s mother make him sit down?  “Hi!”  People in the car are starting to notice.  “Hi!”  They’re staring.  “Hi!”  They’re frowning.  “Hi!”  Alguier hagnla parar.  “Hi!”  The kid is unrelenting.  “Hi!  Hi!  Hi!  Hi!”

Defeated, she croaks, “Hi.”  The boy smiles, laughs, and sits.

 

Bryn Mawr

Three times, three times in his life of almost twice that many decades he thought—without a doubt—that he was on the verge of death.  Each time was in Chicago.  On an ‘L’ platform.  In February.

This is not one of those times—the wind chill factor hasn’t yet dipped below zero and the wind itself, though brisk, is not threatening to hurl him to the tracks below—but still he has lost the feeling in his feet and hands.  He grew up in Arizona, and when he moved to the city he wondered how everyone else could go about his or her business during this shortest but seemingly longest month when all he wanted to do was shout, “What can possibly be important enough for us to subject ourselves to this lunacy?” but the years since have altered his perception of the entire business.

He understands now—the people are not mad—they are martyrs.  They are not persecuted—they are penitent.  This month is not about Valentine’s Day.  Or African-American history.  Or the Superbowl.  This month is about atoning for every cruel, rotten, miserable, violent, or even slightly questionable act committed any other time of year.

Cheat on your taxes in April?  February.  Have an affair with the nanny in June?  February.  Call in sick to go to a Cubs game in July?  Steal your coworker’s lunch from the break room fridge in October?  Beg off taking your mother to The Nutcracker last December?  February.  A straightforward system of crime and punishment—atonement and absolution.

The wind picks up speed.  He realizes the numbness has engulfed his ankles and wrists, and he takes a moment to regret filching his neighbor’s newspaper last August.  He turns toward the fully bundled creature standing next to him and wonders about the frequency and nature of her sins.  Were they worth it?

The train is nowhere to be seen, and he stares at the sign for the Apostolic Church.  The numbness climbs toward his knees and elbows, and he thinks of palm trees.  He thinks of the desert.  He thinks of his family and friends back in Tucson, where they are golfing, working with the windows open, napping in a large patch of sun, wearing short sleeves….  A sudden wave of compassion overwhelms him—he knows they can never reach paradise.

 

Argyle

She clutches the bright orange book to her chest and smiles at her little sister Nhu, who is only three and playing with something sticky.  The fourth grade textbook feels smooth in her hands, even though it is a used book read by many students before her.  Many fourth grade students, she thinks excitedly.  She is only in second grade, but her new teacher, Ms. Archer, told her today that she will be going down the hall to the fourth grade classroom every time they break up into reading groups.

She imagines how strange it will feel to do this—to get up and walk through and out of the room with everyone else’s eyes on her.  Will the other kids understand?  Will they hate her?  She decides to wear her green T-shirt with the butterflies tomorrow and tries not to care.

She looks over at her mother, who is now trying to clean Nhu’s hands with a baby wipe.  Nhu keeps twisting her body and holding her hands out of the way:  above her head, out to the sides, behind her back.  It looks like a dance.  She wants to show her mother the textbook, but she knows what the response will be:  “Oh, a new book?  How do you like it?”  Her mother will not understand its significance.  She will have to pretend she has forgotten about the news until the middle of dinner and bring it up then.

Her insides feel heavy.  She cannot believe she missed it for so long.  All her mother’s complaints about there never being enough light.  All her mother’s laments about needing new glasses.  All her mother’s mistakes.  There was the time that she left a permission slip and a list of new school rules on the kitchen table for her mother to deal with after work, and when she picked them up the next morning the list had been signed, but not the permission slip.  There was the time she had the broken leg and asked her mother to bring her The Little Princess from the bedroom, but she brought The Little Mermaid instead.  There were all the times she asked her mother for help with a new word, and her mother, without looking, simply said, “sound it out.”  Then there was this morning, when the woman in the uniform handed her mother a map of ‘L’ station closings and she watched her mother somehow look at it without seeing.

Nhu is now waving at the orange book, wanting a story.  She opens the book and flips through the pages as the heaviness inside her grows.

The secret is not that her mother cannot read.  The secret is that now she knows about it, and it is her job to keep everyone else from finding out.

 

Lawrence

The smells of whiskey and urine are overpowering as the doors shut behind her, and she tries not to breathe as she quickly maneuvers to the far end of the car, softly repeating to herself, “alcohol sterilizes, urine is sterile, alcohol sterilizes, urine is sterile.”  She sits down gingerly.  She gasps for air and finds herself simultaneously grateful that the odor has diminished and distressed that it lingers at all.

She turns to look outside to distract herself and her eyes fall on the words SULLY NORTH AMERICA written in tiny print in the bottom right corner of the window.  “But we’ve already done that!” she blurts, before it occurs to her that the words must be the name of the window manufacturer.  She glances about to see if anyone noticed her outburst—she hates to call attention to herself—but everyone is either resting with eyes closed or plugged in to one kind of device or another.

She leaves her own laptop and iPod at home, where they can be disinfected at regular intervals.  She used to leave her phone there too, but her brother wouldn’t hear of it, and he got her an anti-microbial pouch to carry it in.  She still won’t put it to her ear, but she replies quickly whenever he texts her—that appears to have placated him.

She opens her purse to see if she remembered her phone today and is once again astonished by the white cotton gloves on her hands.  Most people don’t wear gloves in the summer, of course, but she tries to make them less noticeable by also donning a dress and a pretty hat, and carrying a handkerchief.  She checks to make sure she brought a clean handkerchief today and finds it—freshly starched and ironed—on top of the note.

The note.  Now she is thinking about the note.  She leaves it in its Ziploc bag and snaps her purse shut.  She doesn’t need to read it.  She knows it by heart:

 I suppose you’ll read this as soon as you find it. 

 Do you know that the first time I spent the night you left the cap off the toothpaste and your toothbrush on the bathroom counter?  It was just sitting there with a puddle forming around it.  And I suddenly wondered if I could handle looking at that toothbrush night after night.  And it wasn’t just your toothbrush.  It was your socks on the bedroom floor, your powder all over the dresser, your crumbs on the kitchen counter, and the stacks of files scattered all over the apartment.

I just can’t live in the same space with you, sweetheart.  I hope you find a man who can.

     Al

 

Wilson

He gets on the train, happy to find an empty seat by the window on the west side.  He unzips his bag, takes out his library book, and zips up his bag, settling both on his lap.  He does this quickly so he can gaze out the window as the cemetery comes into view.

He has visited Graceland many times, though he is not personally acquainted with any of its inhabitants.  He even went on an official tour once, but he disliked being there with all those other people.  All those other live people, he reminds himself.  He imagines himself buried there someday, though he knows he never will be.  But where?

On Wildwood Avenue, perhaps—that sounds both elegant and dangerous.  Certainly not Dell—too close to dull.  He is sure, somehow, that he would not care to be near all the prominent Chicagoans.  It would be lovely to picnic near the Palmers, but one wouldn’t want to be there for all eternity.  Nor by Sullivan, Van de Rohe, or Burnham—he intended to leave no monument, and he feels, somehow, that would not suffice; Van der Rohe may have said “less is more,” but he suspects the architect personality is better suited to Burnham’s “make no little plans.”  No, he would have to look elsewhere.

Hmmm.  He could never impress the McCormicks—who could?  He is too poor a speaker to satisfy monologist Anna Morgan—too clumsy a dancer to honor Ruth Page (though he believes she would be gracious in the face of his inadequacy).

He wishes his body, this awkward, vulnerable casing for his spirit, could simply disappear as he exhales his last breath.  He wishes his freed self could float throughout the city, looking down with complete anonymity—almost as he does now—on the hum and bustle of all those outdoor, animated lives.  He does not wish that day too near, nor too far.

Each time he travels past, he looks at the mausoleums and gravestones, the majestic and inconspicuous alike, quietly asking the inhabitants, “Do you envy me, or should I envy you?”  He does this with a small smile on his face and no sense of melancholy, but that doesn’t mean he knows the answer to his question.

 

Sheridan

Last night she dreamt of scissors.  Small, sharp, silver scissors.  She woke suddenly, calmly, as though cut cleanly from sleep.

She stares at the ceiling, her eyes tracing the cracks to each corner.  The strips of peeling paint look like the curls of butter her mother used to put on her pancakes every Sunday morning before church.  She doesn’t need to turn her head to know he never came home last night.  The sheets are neat, the bed cold.

She gets up and dresses quickly, moving to the broken mirror in the tiny bathroom.  In her reflection, her left eye sits apart from her face.  In spite of this, she applies her make-up deftly, simply.  As a little girl she would climb onto her parents’ bed and watch her mother at the vanity, preparing for the rare night out.  The powder, the lipstick, the hairspray, the perfume—she tried to capture the exact moment the mother became the angel.

One night she sat on the bed with an old shoe—all day she had been trying to learn how to tie the laces.  Upon completing her first shaky bow, she crowed in triumph, looking up for approbation.  The woman smiling down at her was already the angel—she had missed the magic transformation!  She couldn’t hug the angel that night—in fact, she was unable to hug her until the next morning when she became the mother again.  Her mother.

She gazes at her left eye, floating in the mirror, trying to escape the rest of her face—the rest of her self.  She thinks of the life she meant to have.  College.  Friends—maybe even sorority sisters.  Independence.  A boyfriend who loves her.  Confidence.  Her mother’s approval.  A plan.  Her left eye peers back at her.  Through her.

Moving mechanically, she makes the bed, creasing the corners, fluffing the pillows.  She opens the door to the only closet and pulls out her ratty gym bag.  She puts in a change of clothes and crosses to the bathroom to grab her makeup bag, but decides to leave it on its shelf.  Instead, she picks up her wallet and keys from the dish by the front door.  She exits the apartment without looking back.  She locks the double deadbolt, slides the keys under the door, steps outside, and begins walking east.

The early morning sun is in her eyes, and she narrowly misses stepping on a broken beer bottle.  She passes the Holiday Club, where he bartends, and briefly wonders which girl he went home with last night.  The club’s gold sign looks garish by day.  Before turning away, she catches her reflection in the window—she looks whole.

She reaches into her wallet and pulls out her blue transit card.  That card will only get her downtown.  But from downtown, she can go anywhere.

 

Addison

For this life-long Sox fan, the only downside in moving to the north side is having to walk by—and look at—Wrigley Field every day.  He cannot keep from cringing when he glances out the window before the train leaves the station.

He is quite a catch:  a twenty-five-year-old educated, professional, well-dressed man.  And handsome!  Smooth, firm cocoa skin, even features, a runner’s body, a slow, sexy smile.  A recent MBA and already the Assistant Comptroller at a prominent manufacturing company.

Just yesterday the Vice President had gone out of his way to stop by his office and compliment him on his work.  As he shook the VP’s hand, he couldn’t help but calculate how long it would be until he had the man’s job.  That calculation—though only an estimate—led him to the decision that he should marry in four years time, and he spent the ride home assessing the attributes of every woman on the train.

Most were easy to dismiss.  Not that he is looking for a specific person right now, just deciding what traits she should have.  He resumes the pre-selection process.  She should be pretty, certainly, but not too beautiful—no sense marrying a woman who continues attracting men everywhere she goes.  She should be smart, of course, and have work that doesn’t take up too much time but that she truly enjoys—something in the non-profit arena, perhaps—no sense letting her become too dependent on him for money or self-worth.  She should be a good cook.  They will have two kids, and will live in his town home until the younger is born 3 years and 6 months after the first (he read a study that concluded this was the age difference for the optimum social, psychological, and intellectual development in siblings).  Then they will move to a house.  A house in the city, not the suburbs—no sense living a long-distance life if you can afford tuition at a good school.

As he pulls out his Blackberry to make note of these thoughts, a tough-looking middle-aged black man bangs his way into the car, claps his hands and yells, “Ladies and gentlemen, I need your attention.  I am unemployed.  I am an ex-con.  I need work to support my kids and their mamas.  I have one copy of my resume—I need money to make more.  You want me to steal?  You want me to sell drugs?  I need your help.  I need it now.”

Nobody on the train looks at the man who speaks, and he walks to the next car.  The young man wonders if white people are ever embarrassed by the things other white people do.

 

Belmont

So, so tired.  The rhythm of the ‘L’ is so unlike anything that might lull someone to sleep, but still he fights the urge to do just that.  His thoughts seem distant, as if he needs to reach out, grasp them, and draw them in.  He nears exhaustion so quickly these days—thirty years ago he had so much energy. In college he pulled all-nighters every week, glorying in the giddy feeling of accomplishing so much without needing rest—studying, writing, partying sans consequence.  Or talking all night—the fiery intensity of those perpetual conversations!  So determined to save the world, right all wrongs, balance the inequities.

He smiles grimly.  Surely they ought to have finished by now.  He has to admit that some things have gotten easier—at least the days of phone trees are long gone.  It takes fewer of the dollars they never have enough of to print posters—color posters.  Permits are processed faster and with fewer arguments and agitations.  Yes, organizing a protest, rally, or parade has gotten easier, but getting people to notice—to attend—to care has become almost impossible.

These days, people would rather post some absurd political video on YouTube than hound politicians until they earn a sit-down with the big guns.  They would rather lounge at home and sign an online petition than stand shouting and waving signs in the wind and rain.  He shifts uncomfortably.  Quite frankly, so would he.

Secretly he hungers to spend his evenings in, to be settled with a nice home and a nine to five career.  Occasional nights out as a couple, weekend activities with the kids.  Just the typical life of a middle-aged married man—the kind you see on any television show.  Ah yes—a married man.  That, after all, is the point.

He stares out the window and thinks of his partner’s face and his own, changing slowly over the two decades they’ve been together.  His stop is announced, breaking through his reverie.  He grabs the bags full of fliers, and prepares himself to take another stand.

 

Fullerton

“Damn hot, I mean double damn hot, I mean retarded hot, you know what I’m sayin’? She just reeks of wanting it, I’m tellin’ you.”

The two guys are loud, putting on a show.  The one with the red Pi Kappa Alpha cap speaks again.

“Her name is Kate, right?  Or Katie, do you know?  The blonde one with the great stuff, I mean.  Incredible.  I could totally hit that, no problem.”

His compatriot, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I’M MAGICALLY DELICIOUS,” nods loosely and flicks his tongue over his lips.

“You should, then, man, if it’s a given, you know.  Friday night, man, I mean it’s still two days away but you should solidify if it’ll be that good.  I mean, what’s stoppin’ you?”

Pike considers.

“Nothin’, man, nothin’.  We’d have some good times, you know it.  A definite hook-up.  I mean, my pleasure, ma’am.  It’s just that…well, you know.  That thing.  That mole thing.  On her lip.  I mean, it’s tiny and all that, but sometimes I think it’s gonna start crawling across her face.  It’s too much, man.”

“Oh, yeah, that sucks, man.”

They fall silent and stare glumly ahead.  The train speeds up.

Delicious brightens.

“I think I’m covered, man, remember that crazy redhead that used to be the social chair for Chi-O?  She was at the Vu last night and couldn’t take her eyes off me.  The feeling was re-cip-ro-ca-ted, you know what I mean?  She is smokin’.  It’s practically a done deal.  Can’t wait ‘til Friday, man.”

Pike frowns.

Which redhead?  The one with that fuckin’ hyena laugh?  That would drive me insane, man, more power to you for puttin’ up with that.”

Delicious deflates.

“Oh, shit man, I totally forgot about that.  It was so loud at the Vu that I couldn’t hear it.  I mean, she won’t be laughin’ when I cap her, but I’d prob’ly have to take her out first and I can’t deal with that, no way.”

The guys pause long enough to crack their knuckles.  Pike makes a snapping sound with his wrists.

“Hey, man, what about those two chicks in Econ?  You know, the ones who are always whispering to those hot T.A.’s?  Just think about all that long hair.  That tall one looks like a dancer, and I don’t mean ballet, man.  I’d tap that in a second, no question.  Maybe they’d bring the T.A.’s and we could each get a threesome out of it.”

Suddenly, they both look stricken.  The blood drains from their faces.

Delicious recovers first.

“I don’t know if I’d do that tall one, man, her teeth are kinda yellow.  I mean, I don’t care if you smoke, you know, but don’t have yellow teeth.  And the short one….”

He searches.  Up and down the aisle, his audience waits.

“Well, fuck, she’s just too short, man.  I mean, what’s a weekend without my fav-or-ite po-si-tion, you know what I’m saying?”

Pike does not answer.

Delicious returns the favor.

Friday night hangs in the balance.

Pike grins.

“You know what they used to say, bros before ‘ho’s man.  Grand Central or Wrightwood Tap?”

Delicious answers immediately.

“Grand Central, man.  I wouldn’t miss the game for anything.”

 

North/Clybourn

An apprehensive, curious-looking but well-dressed sixty-year-old is on his way to see a play at Steppenwolf Theatre.  He is a subscriber.  A SUBSCRIBER.  The word rolls over his tongue, though he doesn’t say it aloud.  He tastes it and savors the taste.

He once asked a young man at the box office how many subscribers were single ticket holders.  The man had hesitated before replying:  “Quite a few, sir” so he knows it was a lie.  He briefly contemplated buying a pair, but then realized that would mean he would have to share his experience, SHARE his night with an unknown quantity.  Besides, he’s not certain he could convince anyone of quality to join him.

He glances around with a look of distaste.  He refuses to sit down.  He hates the Red Line, thinks it is dirtier than the Purple Line that brings him down from Evanston—yes DOWN from Evanston, exactly right—but he had a doctor’s appointment late this afternoon and didn’t have time to head back north a few blocks and catch the Purple Line.  He considered taking a cab, but there weren’t any on his doctor’s block, and he refused to spend any more time on the streets of that neighborhood than necessary.  He considers changing doctors.

He looks, for the first time, at the people with whom he is sharing this ride.  He wishes he hadn’t.  They are not like he is.  He wonders why they are on the train.  He stares at all the men’s shoes.  He had debated buying the ones he is wearing now.  He suspected they were too shiny.  The salesman convinced him they were the best available, and he grudgingly made the purchase.  Now he is once again doubtful.  He wishes he could go back in time and buy the less shiny pair.  He wishes this ride would end.  He wishes he had eaten dinner—he doesn’t want his stomach to grumble during the performance.

He hopes he will understand this play.  He usually doesn’t.  That is, he understands, he just doesn’t UNDERSTAND.  Not the way everyone else seems to.  It is the same way with the book club he joined last year.  He reads the book, thinks he knows all about it, then goes to the book club and realizes he knows absolutely nothing.

He wonders why he never seems to read the same book as everyone else.  Or see the same play.  He tries to laugh at the same time the rest of the audience laughs.  That way no one will know.  But he doesn’t actually want to be the SAME.  He does all this because he wants to better himself.  He wants to be BETTER.

Than everyone else.

 

Clark/Division

Clark and Division.  Clark and Division.  Clark, Clark, Clark and Division.  Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark and Division.  Division.  Dividing.  Divided.  “A house divided against itself….”  Divisible.  Divisive.  Dividend.  Diverge.  “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood….”  Digress…

Clark and Division.  Clark and Division.  Clark, Clark, Clark and Division.  Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark and Division.  Division of labor.  Class division.  Division of battle.  Homicide Division.  Division of profits.  Upper division.  Division and multiplication.  Conference division.  Voices of division.  Voices of derision…

Clark and Division.  Clark and Division.  Clark, Clark, Clark and Division.  Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark and Division.  Cellular division.  A cell divided.  Into two.  Two people.  From one cell.  Twins.  He had a twin.  He had had a twin.  He came first.  Then five minutes.  Then the twin.  The other half.  Now whole.  But five minutes.  Not four minutes.  Not six minutes.  Five.  Prime number.  Only divisible by itself.  Who wants to divide by itself?  And one.  Who wants to be only one?  He came first.  The older brother.  Then five minutes.  Then the twin.  The twin was lost.

Lost.  Lost in thought.  Lost in space.  Lost track.  “Beauty seen is never lost….”  Lost perspective.  Lost sight.  Lost opportunity.  Paradise lost.  Love’s labour’s lost.  “It is better to have loved and lost….”  He was the older brother.  He was supposed to keep him safe.  To protect him.  It was his fault.

Fault.  Fault lines.  Common fault.  Generous to a fault.  Find fault.  His fault.  It would always be his fault.  He lost the little brother.  He lost the twin.  Twin cities.  Twin peaks.  “Twin of my vision….”  Twin cornerstones.  Twin towers.  “Happiness was born a twin….”  He came first.  The older brother.  Then five minutes.  Then the twin.  They named the twin.  They named the twin Clark.

Clark.  A cell divided.  Against itself.  Cannot stand.  Clark and Division.  Clark and Division.  Clark, Clark, Clark and Division.  Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark and Division…

 

Chicago

She was born in July of 1967, the day Vivien Leigh died.  This is nothing more than a fact she knows about herself—it has no bearing on her life, really, but it sometimes occurs to her in the few moments that her mind is not actively pursuing something else.

She reminds herself that she does need to concentrate—she is traveling to meet her friends at Water Tower Place, where they will shop and lunch, and she needs to do her homework, so to speak.  She takes a deep breath and carefully reviews the names of each friend’s husband:  Marshall, Everett, Clinton, Bob—thank goodness for Bob—and …and Wilson?  No—Wendell.

She knows she should have looked up addresses before she left home.  She can never remember which suburbs they live in—each has a Lake, Oak, Park, River or Forest in its name, or some combination thereof.  Except Bob and Cindy, of course, they lived in Winnetka.  Or was it Wilmette?

The train is already slowing down and she hasn’t gone over the most critical information—the kids.  There are three sets of twins among her five friends, and they are never referred to by anything other than “the twins,” which simplified things.  Melinda was the picky eater who belonged to her friend Laurel—how to find appealing dishes was often discussed at these get-togethers.  She is both proud and ashamed of herself for never asking why children are allowed to be picky—whatever happened to the same dish of broccoli showing up at every meal until it was consumed?

Diane was the mother of Morgan and Taylor—they were less than a year apart.  At the moment she cannot remember which is the boy and which is the girl, but she does know they received iPhones on their fifth birthdays.  Her own gifts—a large roll of butcher paper with a set of finger paints and a small trio of bongos—paled by comparison.

Katharine and her son were currently embroiled in some sort of Mommy and Me controversy, Abby just paid $4,200.00 to enroll her younger daughter in a week-long pottery camp, and Laurel went downtown early so that she could pick up a dress for her mother at American Girl Place—Grandma wanted one to match Laurel, Melinda, and Melinda’s doll Julie.

It was understood that all of her friends’ children were “gifted.”  All, that is, except for Bob and Cindy’s four boys, who wreaked happy havoc wherever they went.

The train slows as it nears the stop, and she frantically tries to come up with detailed questions to ask about their lives—they never seemed to arrive in due course anymore.  This exhausts her.

She yearns to fast forward to dinner with her single friends—there, she can relax and indulge in simpler conversations, ones that involve the necessity of setting boundaries in artistic criticism, the potential dangers and communal comforts of organized religion, the perpetually egregious state of citywide politics, and the all too rapid decline of the English language.

 

Grand

He wonders distractedly if he will see eighty.  At seventy-seven, he is headed to his doctor’s office across from Northwestern Memorial.  He is going to hear results from a biopsy.  In truth, he already knows the results—if the tumor were benign, a nurse would have told him over the phone.  He realizes he has never felt so lonely.

He closes his eyes and thinks of his wife.  He can picture the tangerine scarf with the olive leaf pattern woven through it—so it looks like something can still grow on my head, she would laugh.  The tiny white scar behind her left ear from falling off her bike before she met him—was there really a time before she met him?  Her easy smile.  Her turned up nose.  Her all-too-often sunburned cheeks.  Her thin neck—every time they met an artist there had been a request to paint or sculpt that delicate neck.  The St. Anthony medal her father had given her—she never took it off.  The short wool jacket with silver buttons and the matching skirt with the small slit at the back…but wait, that was the traveling suit she changed into after their wedding, and those aren’t her hands he’s envisioning—why can’t he remember her hands?

These slips of the mind frustrate him to no end.  It’s like humming a phrase of a tune you can’t quite recall, then breaking into the words of the song only to realize you are now singing a commercial jingle from the 1950s.  He will have to wait until he is back at home with the photo albums.

He opens his eyes and rejoins his fellow passengers.  He hears the recorded announcement:  “This is Chicago and State.”  He knows he should get off at Chicago—it’s closer, and he doesn’t walk as quickly as he used to—but a memory won’t let him.

Back when his wife was still alive and they were traveling to the hospital for her treatments, the announcement had simply said, “This is Chicago.”  His wife would scoff and say, “Well, obviously, I’ve only lived here my entire life.”  Then she would turn those blue eyes toward him and ask if they could please, please wait until the next stop—it wasn’t that much farther.  He always agreed.  They would wait for the next announcement:  “This is Grand.”  She would smile, link her arm in his so he could help her up, and whisper, “Yes it is, isn’t it?  It truly is.”

The old man stands up and slowly makes his way to the doors.  He hears:  “This is Grand and State.”

Nothing is just Grand anymore.  Nothing at all.

 

Lake

Not another article about lack of depth in the bullpen.  Jesus.  He snaps his paper in annoyance—the woman next to him looks up, startled.  He doesn’t notice.  What will he do on the train when all the newspapers go broke?  Maybe it won’t happen before he retires—less than five years to go.  He dismisses the thought, then groans inwardly.  A present for his mother.

He sighs.  His sister sounded so angry when she called to ask him how he possibly could have forgotten Mom’s birthday, and even asked Mom to spend it babysitting his kids while he and that teenaged wife (a nasty nickname—Mandi is twenty-six) went to an out-of-town-comedy-club-and-resort-spa.  As if that had been his damn idea.

He sighs again.  His ex would never have let him mess up like that.  He actually misses her lists.  Her calendars.  Her spotless kitchen.  It does not occur to him that he might miss her.  At the moment he especially misses the way she always found the perfect-gift-for-everyone-so-all-he-had-to-do-was-sign-the-card.

He remembers seeing something on the news about a Free Trade Festival in Daley Plaza.  His Mom would probably appreciate a shawl or bag or something-woven-by-a-poverty-stricken-woman-in-some-third-world-country.  He can go at lunch and still have time to eat.  Usually, of course, he avoids those things.  Last week there was that Turkish Festival.  All he did was cut across the Plaza to avoid the lousy protestors up the block, but with all the people milling around the booths it took way too long.  And once he made it to the sidewalk there were those kids asking him if he could spare a minute for the environment.  At least no one tried to hand him a flyer promoting marriage equality or one of those maps of Africa with numbers labeling each country and “How many countries can you name?” written underneath.  Self-righteous jerks trying to make the rest of us feel like morons.  Christ.

He folds his paper, places it under his arm, and heads for the doors.  Macy’s on State Street.  Problem solved.  If there was a woman who wouldn’t love a pricy-perfume-silk-scarf-jewelry-or-better-yet-gift-certificate, he hadn’t met her yet.

 

Monroe

She is shockingly beautiful and completely—almost irresponsibly—unaware of the effects her beauty has on others.  Because of this, she doesn’t carry herself accordingly, so from a distance she appears quite ordinary.  Surprise, fascination, appreciation, or envy registers on each face as it nears her.  Conversations stop.  Trains of thought derail.  Errands of all sorts are momentarily (and sometimes permanently) abandoned.

Often, men stop her to ask for directions, look into her face for the first time, and forget their destinations.  Some recover more quickly than others, but never without a series of stammers and half-apologies.

Waiters drop menus and forgo their carefully memorized specials lists for a longer look.  Men who would never dare to approach her collect items that once belonged to her (a scarf, a barrette, an earring) and tack them artlessly to the walls above their dressers.  Many write her love letters—long missives that are never sent (unless the author mails one in a drunken stupor—she never knows what to do with these epistles, which are usually inscribed in pencil and slightly smeared).  Still others write her poetry and leave it, unsigned, under the windshield wipers of her car.

Once, while she was standing at an intersection waiting for a light to change, a man grasped her gently but firmly by the shoulders and said, “I’d marry you, but I could never be sure of you” before disappearing immediately back into the crowd.  All this leads her to believe that men are somewhat feeble-minded.

Of course, they are not the only ones affected.  Children flock to her, drawn to the symmetry and delicacy of her features.  Women defer to her opinions on matters domestic and foreign, certain she harbors some secret knowledge bestowed upon her at birth.  People of all ages step aside to let her pass, offer to carry her baggage, give up their places in line at the bank, the post office, the library.  She thinks this is how the world works for everyone.

She thinks most parking garage attendants let drivers exit without paying if they just smile and say hello.  She thinks the world at large receives free desserts and drinks at the majority of dining establishments.  She thinks all women receive multiple marriage proposals from men they feel they barely know.

One day all this will change.  It will not be soon—her kind of beauty lasts much longer than most.  She will notice fewer doors being opened for her.  She will stop receiving the letters, the poems.  She will start to feel invisible.  She will bemoan the callousness of youth.  She will believe courtesy has vanished.

She will never recognize the power she once had, even when it is lost.

 

Jackson

He slips on some gravel and just misses crossing with the light when he has to step aside to let a lady with a tank-sized baby carriage pass.  Shit, man—what are they doing out this early anyway?  As he runs across the street and down the stairs he remembers that he has taken two long bus trips since dawn, and by now much of the world is crawling about.

He skirts a big puddle forming at the bottom of the stairwell, lifts his case over his head, and dances through the turnstile.  He joins a group of perfumed ladies heading farther underground and hears the rhythm of the southbound train as it pulls out.  Below, there are students laughing, flirting, teasing and swatting at each other.  One girl sits apart, uninvited.  Another frantically tries to do her homework without looking like she is doing any such thing.  A man in a pinstripe suit leans precariously against a post, so tired his eyes keep closing for longer and longer periods of time.

God, he loves it down here!  Not that he could explain it to anyone.  He unlatches his case and assembles his horn—it looks so shiny, even in the anemic underground light.  His signal to begin is two trains pulling in at the same time, and today he only has to wait five minutes—that means good luck all day long!  He loosens his lips and starts to play.

He plays Roy Orbison, Percy Sledge, Marvin Gaye.  He plays James Taylor and Carole King.  An hour has gone by, and he needs to take a break, but a group of haggard-looking tourists is struggling up the stairs from the Blue Line, dragging their suitcases distractedly.  He jumps in to “Sweet Home Chicago”–after all, it’s what they expect—and they are instantly animated.  One sways to the music.  One claps his hands.  One tries to listen but an older woman—her mother in law?—won’t stop gabbing in her ear.  One tries to sing along, but it’s clear he can’t quite recall the words.  One puts a twenty in his hat, and he nods and halfway smiles his thanks.

Soon they are all whisked away and he gets his break.  Later, he plays Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder.  He breaks.  They put bills in his hat.  He eats the sandwich his ma made for him, handing it to him gently, careful not to ask him when he’s going to get a real job.  He plays Joni Mitchell and CCR.  He breaks.  They put bills in his hat.

He plays life hurts love heals time passes.  He plays up down left right lost found.  People arrive.  They listen or not.  They disappear.  He plays I am here you are here we are here.  These are his friends.  This is his real job.  This is his life.  His own little corner of paradise—what man could ask for more?

He breaks down his horn and grabs his now-heavy hat.  It has been a lucky day indeed!  He wonders if he should head north and treat his auntie to dinner.  As if to make the decision for him, the northbound train arrives.

He takes one last look around this, his favorite venue—he’s tried them all—grins, and steps onto the Red Line.

 


I chose Red Line Stories because of the decision it makes about form, and the way it justifies those decisions with its ending. This is a story about Chicago and about the unacknowledged community of passengers on the red line. I liked the details in many of the mini chapters, and especially liked the decision regarding the final stop. Here the writer successfully completed the form without violating the rules of it, made the form in a sense, transcend itself, and moved this reader all at the same time.
—Pam Houston, 2012 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize Judge


The Speed of Sound

Elizabeth Gonzalez

A new moon and a clear, cold Michigan night, the sky dead black and loaded with stars, so clear you could see the tendrils in the Milky Way dust—things were aligning, and Arthur Reel was prepared. He called the two neighbors across the road, who were kind enough to turn off their automatic lights whenever Arthur said he would be skywatching. Three a.m. found him perched in his rooftop observatory, sitting in his padded folding chair next to a telescope that was almost as big around as a basketball, waiting. He was there to watch Leo rise, Leo with its telltale sickle, the backward question mark, although to Arthur it would always be Hook’s hook—his son James had renamed it, along with most of the constellations. It had always puzzled James, made him indignant, in fact, how none of the constellations looked anything like the things they were named after, and who could argue?  Even with the aid of an illustrated chart, it was hard to make out a lion in Leo, and as for Aquarius, forget it.

Hook was a far better name, Arthur thought.

He’d come up almost grudgingly, girding himself for disappointment because the Leonids were notorious, peaking for just one hour, almost too far north to catch, and yet so spectacular that few amateur skywatchers could resist the temptation to at least show up, just in case. It had already been a good year: he’d seen a nice Capricornid shower in July. Then in September in Sky & Telescope, some French astronomer had predicted “a chance for a brief Leonid outburst in 2006.” A chance for people like Arthur, who missed the historic showers of 2001, when the meteors rained down at the incredible rate of 480 per hour. And as the date approached and the conditions fell in line one after another, he’d calmly made his plans to set his alarm and come up.

He’d just unscrewed the top of his Thermos when he saw something blaze straight out of Leo, a bright thing slipping almost too fast to follow across the sky. It left a trail, a pale streak with just the slightest arc, and Arthur stared, counting off seconds without meaning to—he’d heard the Leonids could hang in the air for minutes, they’re so bright—when he felt hot coffee on his leg. He jerked his leg and tried to right the Thermos, but the more he turned it, the more it poured, and he realized the floor was rotating, tipping up from the right until it was vertical, then beyond, overturned.

He dropped the Thermos and tried to stand, but pitched over instantly, getting bungled up in the chair. He turned over on his knees, made for the open trap in the floor, which was also rising, rotating sickly counterclockwise like everything else. Later he remembered clinging to the stair rail, then a hard fall. After that, rolling. He would recall later it felt exactly like rolling a plane.

 ~

For four years before college Arthur had served as an Air Force pilot. In his last assignment, he flew F-89 Scorpion fighter jets out of Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The base ran strategic air defense along the Canadian border, the DEW line, distant early warning, guarding against Russian planes. Any plane entering radar range of Thule was greeted by an F-89, lofted within three minutes of the first blip on the radar. If it was deemed hostile, which never happened on Arthur’s watch, the orders were to come in at a ninety-degree angle and salvo the entire payload of 104 rockets at the target, because it was understood that if the F-89 missed the target on the first shot, she would never get a second. The newer planes were lighter, faster, more advanced; the F-89 was heavy, designed for a single purpose, no great maneuverer, not a plane you’d want in a dogfight. Unlike most planes, which lift off the runway when they reach a certain speed, the F-89 could make five hundred miles per hour on the ground and never bump a wheel. “You got to nudge her up,” the instructor at Moody, a kid from Georgia, had told him. “Otherwise, Lieutenant, what you got here is basically a very big, very heavy, very fast automobile.”

It was, in fact, an old bird even back then, but the F-89 was a fun plane to fly, Arthur would tell his kids, and perfectly good for the mission, as the odds of engaging anything were very low—particularly since any engagement was likely to set off World War III. The idea was deterrence, a visible presence, and for that the F-89 was well suited.

Usually after making contact and calling in the numbers, Arthur and his radop would fly over the mountains to burn off the fuel—it was that or dump it, since it wasn’t safe to land fully loaded—and they would turn on the music, military radio KOLD out of Thule, and do Aileron rolls and Immelmans, sometimes buzz the tankers on the lonely road to the bay.

The Air Force limited duty at Thule to one year, for a reason. Thule tended to make people alcoholics, whether they were genetically predisposed or not. Six months of daylight, followed by six months of night, unshakable cold, and nothing to do off duty besides sit in the club and drink. At Thule you couldn’t trust your own eyes; day was no longer day, night, no longer night. Even the compasses were wrong there, off by a full ninety degrees because the base was just west of magnetic north.

Arthur served an extra tour there, eighteen months in all. When he remembered Thule, what he remembered first was not the cold or the hardship, but the sky.  In Thule the sky and the water were both indigo, a shade of blue Arthur believed only existed in that place, the water just a shade darker, set off by white glaciers. You could always find Thule from the small lopsided one just east of the base in Baffin Bay. The sky was cloudless, and even in the heart of the dark season it never quite went black, but just turned darker blue, like ink. Arthur thought it must have been the snow, reflecting light from somewhere, maybe even the dim light from the stars.

 ~

Arthur awoke to a bright, empty room full of harsh sunlight. It poured in a solid block through a large window to his right, lighting up the sheets on his bed and the dingy white curtain hung alongside it. The sound of a television on low volume came from the other side of the curtain, some game show, people applauding, and he felt the uncomfortable sense of being intimate with a stranger, made worse when the stranger coughed and cleared his throat. Arthur noticed the coarseness of the sheets, the smell of his blue gown, something between petroleum and soap. A bad, metallic taste in his mouth. A curve of flesh under his right eye that wasn’t usually there, pushing up from his cheek, moving back and forth as he turned his head to try to look at it.

He remembered falling and realized he’d survived. Some kind of attack.

He turned his head toward the window and felt painful stiffness all the way down his neck. The aqua curtains on either side of the window were pulled back, giving Arthur a view, made hazy by streaks of dried-up rain, of a neighboring brick wall. Susannah had been here. She would have opened the curtains, frowned at the dirt and the view, reconsidering, then left them open for the light. Susannah had to have sunlight. This was determined light, mid-morning, he guessed. The sun lit up each drop of fluid that gathered and fell from the IV bag next to his bed, making it look precious.

He heard a creak, a whoosh; the curtain swayed. His wife appeared, purse tucked under her arm, a magazine in her hand. They looked at each other, surprised.

“How do you feel?” she asked, coming to his side, leaning down to give him an awkward kiss, just making contact with his hairline.

“What happened?”

“It wasn’t a stroke,” Susannah said. “They’re running tests but they don’t think it was a stroke. The doctor said it could be a mini-heart attack.”

“A what?”

“Sometimes you can have a slight blockage, I don’t know. Let me call the nurse and tell them you’re awake again.” She pulled a pager from the side of his bed and pushed a button, giving Arthur the impression she’d been here for a while.

“Again?” he said. “What time is it?”

“Three-thirty.”

Arthur sat forward instinctively—he’d lost an entire day. He needed something for his head, that was all. Some strong pill to kill the terrible ache radiating from behind his eyes, pushing on his teeth, his skull. “I’m fine,” he said. “I need ibuprofen.”

“You fell on concrete. Arthur, nobody said you could get up,” Susannah said, taking his forearm anyway as he moved his legs over the side of the bed.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” he said. He felt her watching him and was glad for the IV pole, which he used to steady himself. For a moment when his feet hit the clammy floor, it seemed like the room was shifting, and he was afraid it was happening again. He breathed deeply, pushing the pole around the end of the bed just as the nurse came in. Arthur made an awkward introduction of sorts and nodded toward the bathroom.

When he was back in bed, lightly sweating, nauseated from the effort, he began to sort out what day it was. Friday, six days from Thanksgiving. “Did you hear anything from James?” he asked, while the nurse pumped up his blood pressure cuff.

Susannah shook her head, eyes on the nurse. The light flashed off her glasses, shone through her hair, fine as cobwebbing. It was a little flat. He could tell she hadn’t showered, but she had carefully applied her makeup, here in the room, probably, using the makeup she always carried in her purse. Trying to keep things together.

The doctor came in shortly, a bit young and chipper for Arthur’s taste, though Susannah seemed to trust him. He was thinking vertigo, he said, a little mix-up of the inner ear that makes the body temporarily lose its ability to tell up from down. Still, he would need more tests tomorrow, and Arthur had a low-grade fever. The upshot was, Arthur was stuck there for the night. Just for observation, the doctor added on his way out, as if that made it any better.

Susannah would have to drive the twenty-five minutes home, and another twenty-five back with his cholesterol medicine and the various supplies he needed to get through the night.  Her entire evening would be eaten up in the car while he sat here being observed. Arthur apologized, urged her to take her time, eat dinner, call Carrie and Matthew and tell them he was fine. As she walked out, he thought to ask her to bring the Scientific American from his nightstand.

He watched the space she’d left, watched the curtain sway and settle, fighting down the frustration that welled up as soon as she left the room. A rush of tears, insistent as tiny fingers, prodded hidden spaces behind his eyes, deep in his head, spaces already tender and swollen. He blinked hard, took a slow, deliberate breath. Why now, of all times?  He knew it was a childish impulse, knew that at his age, he should be grateful it wasn’t something worse. But James was due in any day now, Wednesday night at the latest, for his first Thanksgiving home in six years, and that was where Arthur needed to be. Home.

James was nearing the end of his final tour as a Night Stalker, a special operations transport unit of the 160th Army Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell. His battalion flew specially configured MH-47E Chinooks equipped with long-range fuel tanks, multimode radar and infrared sensors—black, unmarked helicopters that could fly all but 150 miles per hour just a few feet off the ground or over the trees, in any conditions, dropping off and retrieving special ops troops on missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’d had mountain training, had done HALO jumps, had learned Arabic. Arthur and Susannah knew little more about their son’s service than that. Because of the sensitivity of his work, he disappeared for six or eight months at a time. Arthur never knew specifically where he was, what he was doing, or when he would resurface. When he came home—long, scraggly hair, beard grown out—he never told them what he’d done. Painful as it was to go without word for these long stretches, Arthur pointed out to Susannah that James was probably safer in his unit than he would have been in most others. It was definitely safer than the infantry. Every month that went by without news meant almost certainly that James was still accounted for. The Army knew where he was from mission to mission. They had results to track.

During his time in the 160th, James had been home five times. Two were in the first year. The last time was eighteen months ago. So when he’d called in September to say he had leave for Thanksgiving, possibly through Christmas, Arthur and Susannah were elated in the measured way they’d learned over the years, knowing that there were good odds, at least even odds, that those plans might change. His leave might be withdrawn at the last minute, as it had before, maybe even suspended right through April, when his tour ended.

But then he’d called again two weeks ago to give them the number of a flight from New York to Detroit, arriving Wednesday. He would probably make it in earlier, but that flight would be his fallback, he said. Susannah had missed that call; she’d gone to the grocery store, which was probably why James said what he did. After he read off his flight information, he’d hesitated, then said, “Dad—just between us—if anything ever happens to me, if they say afterward I was spying, or doing anything other than working for the Army, don’t believe it. Okay? Everything I’m doing is under orders of the Army.”

“Of course,” Arthur had said.

“Everything’s fine, I just—if anything happens, they’re going to tell you whatever suits the unit and the Army. They’re under no obligation to tell the truth, not even to you. You understand that, right, Dad?”

“Of course,” Arthur had said again, of course he knew that. That’s what they do. Still, it had unsettled him. Since that afternoon, he’d run many possible scenarios through his head, trying to imagine the set of circumstances that would lead James to tell him that at all, let alone then, when he was due home in two weeks. Stuck in bed, with nothing to do but watch the light creep across the wall, he ran through them again. Most likely, it was something James had been saving up to tell him, something they talked about in special ops, and he had just decided to say it then because Susannah wasn’t on the phone.

Arthur had never minded James’s secrecy. In fact, he found it almost comforting. He sensed that the details would prove more worrisome than the wondering, for one thing. And it was part of the Night Stalkers’ pledge, I guard my unit’s mission with secrecy, for my only true ally is the night and the element of surprise. And Arthur knew that following orders, following his training, gave James the best chance of making it home.

The next morning, after a bizarre test involving blurry glasses and a swivel chair that struck Arthur as disturbingly low-tech, his diagnosis was confirmed. A spell of vertigo, something Arthur could cure with a pill whenever he felt an attack coming on. Probably had something to do with the frostbite he’d suffered in his left ear at Thule. “I’d avoid roller coasters,” the doctor said, giving Arthur’s arm a little shake.  Arthur accepted this gesture gamely—good news is good news, after all—and agreed to come back for some tests early the next week.

 ~

That afternoon, Arthur went back out to his observatory. He climbed the spiral stairs deliberately, his hand a little tighter than usual on the rail. Susannah hated those stairs, so steep and winding, and they struck Arthur as twisted now, narrower than before, the gaps between treads wider.

He’d purchased the observatory, a nine-foot, fully wired dome unit, as a kit over the Internet three years ago, after he got his new Celestron CPC 800. He designed the platform for it himself, and built it into his garage roof, just under the peak on the north side. The dome was generous by home observatory standards, but still quite small, just big enough for two chairs, a running ledge for the equipment, and his scope, which was mounted to a cinder block column that ran down to the garage floor. The stable mount allowed him to get deep space images, the kinds he saw in magazines. The dome had retractable roof segments that afforded a full 360-degree view. With all the vanes open, on a clear night, the sky seemed so vast and so close overhead it was disorienting, as if you could fall up.

The Celestron was an automated scope. It relied on global positioning systems to lock in targets, the same systems Arthur had worked on in his job with Syncrotek, which designed the GPS technology for General Motors in Detroit. The Celestron used global positioning only to locate itself. From there, it located everything in the heavens with astonishing precision, deducing the location of each space object in relation to that single orienting point. The CPC 800 was a technological leap; older scopes, without that absolute starting position, could only point to the neighborhood of an object. Even they were an advance over pushing the telescope around by hand.

He flipped a switch and a gray light filled the room, just enough to work by but not enough to feel lit, the sort of dull, inadequate light found inside a ship or a plane. He never liked the feel of the observatory by day, even with the dome opened wide. The daytime sky looked small in it, daffy, even, and the room felt smaller somehow, too. It was a room made for a purpose, made for night.

The last time James was home, Arthur had brought him up after dinner. It was James’s first time in the observatory, and Arthur wanted to show him what the Celestron could do. It turned out to be a poor night for skywatching, cloudy and a waxing moon, and they weren’t up there half an hour when Arthur turned around to say something to James and saw that he’d fallen asleep sitting up, the side of his head tilted against the metal base of the scope. Arthur put off waking him. He powered down the scope, straightened his papers, and then just sat, watching James sleep, watching the clouds make their slow progress across the opening overhead.

I pledge to maintain my body, mind and equipment in a constant state of readiness for I am a member of the fastest deployable Task Force in the world—ready to move at a moment’s notice anytime, anywhere, arriving on target plus or minus thirty seconds. The pledge James took. Arthur wondered, not for the first time, whether he’d charmed James into the service with his stories about the scrambles, his tall tales of the planes. The F-22 Raptor: the pilot’s dream to fly. The SR-71 Blackbird ramjet that broke Mach 3.2, so fast that the cockpit smelled like a self-cleaning oven in flight. So fast that it couldn’t even be fueled up on the ground, because it leaked fuel all over the place until it reached speed, when it grew a full two inches and everything sealed. So fast that on its trial run, the tires exploded in their bays.

How many times—two, three?—he’d taken the family up to Wurtsmith in the years before it closed, eating picnic lunches in the parking lot, then standing by the fence, watching the F-16s come out of the hangars, shimmering in the fumes and the heat, the crews running through their checklists, the twenty-foot flames as the afterburners kicked in, the roar and the plane ascending, always rolling off to one side. The coordination, the precision timing. Arthur thought that the whole family enjoyed the trips, but James was always the last to leave the fence. And the last one awake on Arthur’s skywatching vigils, the one who never tired of deciphering the charts, back when they used the Meade and they had to find everything by hand.

Arthur pulled up his files from the night of his attack. He stopped at a frame and, in spite of the tender stiffness in his face, smiled.

 ~

Sunday afternoon, Carrie came with her family. Arthur assured them that he felt better than he looked, which was good because Arthur looked pretty bad. The right side of his face was bruised from his eye down to his jaw. His eye was swollen; two spots on his cheekbone were bright red. Carrie’s older daughter, Amanda, was afraid at first—she was only eight and very sensitive, Arthur thought. He let her touch his cheek, assured her it didn’t hurt. And then said, “But look what I got for that shiner,” and brought them all back to his study.

He showed them his photo, a bright fireball with a sky-long tail tracing all the way back to Leo. “The Hook,” Carrie said, touching it with her finger.

“Hook’s hook,” Arthur said, smiling, and then showed it to Amanda. “See it? And that,” he said proudly, “is one of the fastest meteors in the world. That meteor was traveling 44 miles per second,” he added. Before long he’d opened his display case, and was passing around his collection of mail-order meteorites, specks of dirt in little plastic boxes with somber labels, Shergotty (AEUC) Achondrite, Shergottite SNC Signature Meteorite, Fell: September 10, 1935; Location: Gaya, India.

“Does anybody verify these?” Carrie’s husband asked, frowning down at one of Arthur’s specks. “What do they go by, the composition?”

“That’s part of it,” Arthur said. “Although often after a big shower they’ll find scattered debris. Sometimes you can actually see them fall.”

“It looks like dirt,” Amanda said.

“That’s a shooting star, honey,” Carrie said.

“No, you’re right, Amanda, that’s just what it is,” Arthur said. “Shooting stars aren’t stars at all. They’re just ordinary rocks. In fact, these are big ones, these made it to the ground—most shooting stars are no bigger than a grain of sand. And yet you can see them from hundreds of miles away.  Know why?  Because they’re going so fast they blast the air into plasma and it phosphoresces. They’re going so fast they make light.”

Amanda looked puzzled, handed it back to him.

“How do you like that?” Arthur said, gazing at the bit of rock in his box. “A grain of sand.”

 ~

Monday morning, Arthur returned to the hospital for scans and more blood work. It was after lunch before he sat down with his doctor. This time, no tousling, no roller coaster jokes. They’d found spots in his scans, several in the region of his left ear. He showed Arthur an image of his head, with little fuzzy areas like mothballs. “Here,” he said, “and here.”

“So, what do we do?” Arthur said, catching himself in the medical “we” he’d adopted from the doctor, shaking his head.

“I’ve asked an oncologist, Dr. Bodner, to join us. She should be here in a few minutes.” Arthur blinked at him—first a kid, now a woman—not that he didn’t think a woman could do the job, but just the intimacy of it. He’d rather take it from a guy his own age, preferably one who was falling apart at roughly the same rate as Arthur. But the kid was assuring him she was the best, and Arthur was trying to pay attention. “Surgery may not be possible, given the locations,” the doctor said. “She’ll discuss your options.”

“Options,” Arthur said, choices to make.

“Either way, you’ll want to begin chemotherapy right away. I might expect as early as tomorrow. Unfortunately, Mr. Reel, this is a fast-moving cancer.” Arthur watched him fiddle with the flap of his coat pocket, pull out a pen. “I’ll let Dr. Bodner explain,” the kid said uneasily, checking his watch.

“What happens if I do nothing?” Arthur asked.

 ~

There’s one antidote to fear, and it’s training. You do the right thing over and over in practice, Arthur liked to tell his grandkids. Then, when the time comes and you’re in an emergency, you do the right thing without thinking.

By Wednesday afternoon, they’d had no word again from James, which was unusual even for him. Arthur and Susannah busied themselves through dinner—it was his last window, in New York, to make a call before boarding the commercial plane, his fallback flight. When the call didn’t come, Arthur had a giddy sense that James might ring the doorbell instead, might appear with his bags on the porch, wave goodbye to some stranger in a pickup truck. James’s plans had changed many times before, but he’d always called at some point to cancel or confirm.

“He probably lost his leave,” Arthur told Susannah, who was chopping onions and mushrooms for the stuffing. “He probably didn’t get a chance to tell us.”

At seven-thirty, Arthur said he would go meet the plane James had reserved, even though he thought it unlikely James would be on it. Susannah agreed, reluctantly, to stay home. “He’ll probably call while I’m on the road,” Arthur told her. “Just call me and I’ll turn around.”

 ~

Sitting in a little plastic chair, bolted in a line before a large bank of windows, Arthur reconsidered their last conversation, what James said. He’d probably lost someone in his unit; maybe someone was killed and he’d heard rumors afterward about differing accounts of the death, the official report given to the family. Probably one of his buddies talked to a wife, something like that. Stuff like that got around. Arthur had read stories of body laundering in special ops, bodies doctored to match stories told to the families.

Once Moscow Molly had said in a broadcast, “To the boys at Thule—the lights at the end of your runway are out.” And the guys in the tower looked out and they were. It was understood up there who the enemy was, where the boundaries were, what it meant if they were crossed.  And it wasn’t just the troops, back then, who were in a state of constant readiness—it was the country. People built bomb shelters, stored food, something the kids laughed about today. They couldn’t fathom it, didn’t realize there was a time when the cold war was very close to becoming a hot one.

James’s war was different.

Often when Arthur told people, usually in answer to a direct question, where James was or what he did, they’d do a little check, then recover with something like, “Oh, yes, that’s terrible, isn’t it?” And Arthur would realize they forgot we were at war.

But there’s no comparing then and now, Arthur often said. Things were slipping; he couldn’t necessarily relate to them the peculiar smell of brown Fels Nap soap, the way Lynn Fontaine said “I love you” and it sounded like she meant it, the hot chocolate in little hockey pucks. Lucky Green has gone to war. The queer satisfaction of field dressing a cigarette, pressing the paper into the earth, invisible.

For a while when he was a boy, Arthur had believed that all the sound on earth traveled forever into space, the result of misunderstanding something his father told him about radio transmissions. Some years later he’d realized his error, the difference between electromagnetic waves and sound, which is a pure compression wave, a clumsy thing, stuff bumping into the stuff next to it, which bumps into the stuff next to it. Not like light, part particle, part wave, which could travel two paths at once, could travel through space for a hundred million years to bounce off a patch of snow. Much as Arthur enjoyed reading about the new physics—god particles and quantum uncertainty and multiple universes—he had to admit that most of it had very little to do with life on the planet, which tumbled along, day into day, and traveled only one path, and petered out.

A woman around Carrie’s age walked toward him, took in his face, then looked hastily past him, trying to be polite. She sat in a row of chairs across from his, looking nonchalantly everywhere but at Arthur. He felt the need to explain his appearance, to tell her it’s okay, I just fell.

In the black space beyond the windows, practically obscured by the harsh airport lights, tiny blinking lights floated silently in the sky. Every so often a pair of them would line up with the runway, seeming to hover beyond it, then finally descend, the shadow of the plane spreading between them. There was a chance James was on his plane. He’d have a story to tell when he got off it, some crazy story about getting dropped on the tarmac, jumping out of an unmarked black Chinook. Something to explain where he was, why there wasn’t time to call.

 


The author would like to thank Frank Palermo, USAF, whose experiences contributed to the story.


The details! — from the insider’s view of the F-89 to the base at Thule to the smell of Fels nap soap to the way the daytime sky looked from the observatory — “daffy, even”– this story wowed me. But even better were the emotions — the father wondering about his son’s cryptic statement; wondering if he’d inspired his son to follow him skyward; and wondering, now, if he was coming back. The author broke my heart with the end — so beautifully elliptically handled.
—Gish Jen, 2011 Howard Frank Mosher Prize Judge


Selected for inclusion in New Stories from the Midwest 2012 (Indiana University Press), guest edited by Rosellen Brown.


The Ghosts of Takahiro Ōkyo

Donald Quist

Daisuke would find them in varying levels of decomposition, bleeding out into the snow or scattered over hiking trails, half eaten.  Most would be hanging from the trees, the trunks so close and tight that in the perpetual twilight of Mount Fuji’s shadow their limbs looked like strange branches sprouting from the shaggy moss.  They were businessmen or star-crossed lovers, victims of incest and criminals.  They came from all over.  It was not the books that inspired their deaths, Tsurumi’s The Complete Manual of Suicide or Kuroi Jukai by Seichō Matsumoto.  It was because of the yūrei.  Many could not hear them—the sea of trees was as quiet as the depths of an ocean.  But to Daisuke they were clear as his own voice, the forgotten words whispered in final breaths to the forest.  Hundreds of confessions, the secrets kept by the undergrowth, were rooted in the soil and traveled the lengths of Japan like telephone wires—they called out to the lost and led them to Aokigahara.  Daisuke found them, much the same way, following the silent screams to the bodies of men and women who hoped that in death their souls might not be alone.

I

“Is it true?” Takahiro asks.  He has been talking nervously for the last twenty minutes but Daisuke has not been listening.  This is their first walkthrough together and they are less than a kilometer into the forest.  Chief Yamamoto assigns new recruits to Daisuke because none of the others want to go out with him.

“Is what true?” Daisuke asks, grabbing the foam bill of his cap and pulling it lower.  He savors the feel of the plastic mesh rubbing the bristles of his shaved head.  The forest is so dense with trees that there is no wind and in the summer, after hiking on patrol, his hair would mat against his forehead.

“The other forest workers, they call you,” Takahiro lowers his voice as if saying it at a certain volume might make it consequential, “shinigami.” Daisuke does not answer, he grunts in a way that means, yes, switching his gaze from the ground to the canopy.  “How many bodies have you found?”

Of the forty-four corpses retrieved from the woods this year Daisuke has discovered eighteen, the last six on consecutive patrols.

“Many,” he says.

They come to a fork in the trail.  Dividing the path is a large wooden sign that reads, “Think calmly once again about them, your siblings and your children.  Don’t agonize over your problems—please seek counseling.” Daisuke likes this sign.  He wishes that he too could be a means of prevention.  He wants to be one of the policemen patrolling around the forest.  He heard that they sometimes get letters from people they have saved.  But he cannot be an officer because he has hemophilia and a chronic cough.

“Doesn’t it bother you,” Takahiro continues, “that the others call you a god of death?”

“We do not work for the dead,” Daisuke reminds him.  “We work for the living.  Let’s focus on that.”

Takahiro shrugs, smoothes his hair back and replaces his hat onto his head.  He is twenty-six, five years older than Daisuke, but his height and demeanor make him seem younger.  In the forest Daisuke is the elder, a veteran to Aokigahara, and he walks ahead of Takahiro in slow but purposeful strides.  Occasionally, he stops to look up.  Much of the terrain looks the same and due to a magnetic anomaly compasses do not work.  It is easy to get lost, but Daisuke has learned to navigate by the crowns of the trees.  The sun hits the tops of the leaves and he charts the few beams of light breaking through the canopy like stars.  Daisuke is confident he can always find his way back to the station, but he is frightened of being out in the woods after dark.

The path narrows into an incline that forces them to lean forward.  They keep their hands in front of them in case they trip.  It levels out and then Daisuke hears it, a faint creaking.  He turns towards the sound and scans the trees, trying to peer past the line of bark and into the darkness.

“There,” he says to Takahiro, pointing.  “Someone’s out there.”

Takahiro seems reluctant to leave the safety of the trail but follows Daisuke as he heads into the brush.  Just a few yards from the path a man wearing a suit begins to materialize.  His back is facing them and he is looking to the ground.

Keep an eye out for abnormal behavior, the training manual suggests. There are typically three kinds of visitors to Aokigahara: those interested in nature, those looking for a scare, and those with intention of doing themselves harm. Pay attention to what they wear.  Be mindful of people in business attire.  Daisuke grew up in Narusawa, one of the three villages that surround the forest.  It was not abnormal to see taxis dropping off men from the train station in the early hours of the morning.  They would reach into the breast pocket of their wrinkled suit jacket and remove a roll of bills.  After handing it to the driver they would stumble up into the forest, disappearing into the fog.  Months, maybe years, would pass before their bodies were recovered. When he was small, after he came to live with Chief Yamamoto, Daisuke would watch the forest workers carry the body bags into the station.  If it was too late to take the corpse to one of the villages they would drop it onto a bed in the spare room and jan-ken to see who would have to spend the night lying beside a dead person.  Sometimes, if the person guarding the corpse fell asleep or went to the bathroom, Daisuke would sneak into the room and unzip the bag.  Sometimes he would find a man in a suit and run a curious finger along the collar, down to the buttons.  Sometimes he thought he recognized them.  Sometimes he would fall beside them in quiet sobs.

“Hello, sir?” Daisuke calls out.  The man in the suit turns around slowly, his head still trained at the ground.  Daisuke starts to run.  He wants so desperately to save something.

Takahiro yells after him, “Wait, hold on!”

But Daisuke puts more distance between them.  He is a few feet from the man in the suit. He leaps over a fallen tree trunk but the Earth vanishes beneath his feet.  He plummets.  Something ethereal says, “Kiyoshi Ishido.”  There is a wet pop, followed by a heavy crunch that bounces off the walls of his skull. The world is spinning now, leaves and dirt and thick branches in a washing machine.  And then he is airborne again, only for a moment, before slamming onto his back.  Daisuke’s eyes fall shut.  He lets his other senses provide context while he gathers the strength to rise. The soil under him is moist and has the tangy-iron sourness of blood and bile.  Something is dripping on his forehead and he can hear Takahiro shouting out to him from somewhere above. When he finally looks up there is the man in the suit, hanging above him, floating in a cloud of flies.  Another drop falls from the tip of a dress shoe and onto Daisuke, rolling over his naked scalp.  He twists his head slightly, to the left.

Takahiro is at the top of the large hill, vomiting.  He backs away from the drop-off, disappearing for a few minutes.  When he returns he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“He’s dead,” Takahiro shouts down.

“I know,” Daisuke barks.

“Are you okay?”

Daisuke hoists himself onto his elbows, but keeps his eyes focused on the body above him, the swollen corpse with pale blue skin that compliments the pinstripes of its suit.  He rolls onto his stomach and pulls his knees under him.  He knows the impact of the fall will have repercussions, the severities of which he can neither see nor fully imagine.  Rising slowly to his feet he hobbles forward only to collapse back onto the hard wet ground.  He is clutching his right ankle, the toe of his boot is pointing down.  Daisuke sprawls out on his back and reaches for his waist, where his radio would be.  He sits up and searches the area.  A short distance up the hill is his two-way, ripped perfectly in half.

“Takahiro, my ankle is broken and so is my radio.”  Daisuke pauses to estimate the hill. “Call the station.  Tell them we need two stretchers, immediately.”

Takahiro snatches his radio from his belt and presses the big black button.  Something is wrong. The soft white-noise-whoosh like television static is missing. Takahiro says, “Hello,” but all that comes back is silence. Daisuke watches him fiddle with the knobs, frantic.

“The walkie-talkie is dead.”

A minute passes before Daisuke finds the courage to suggest the only solution. “You’re going to have to go back to the station.”

“I can come down there and help you up.”

“You can’t carry me up this hill.”

“We can try and find another way.  We can follow the slope.  It has to lead down to one of the villages, right?”

“Or we might get lost,” Daisuke says.

Takahiro’s legs are visibly shaking but his voice is certain and dutiful.  “I will run back to the path, try the radio again.  If I don’t get anyone I will go back to the station and get help.”

Okay, Daisuke thinks.  He nods to Takahiro who turns to run, vanishing into the trees.

II

Chief Yamamato could have done something other than work in Aokigahara. He was a strong student and a natural athlete.  He could have been a businessman.  But he had watched his father grow thin in suits, giving away pieces of himself as he tried to be what others needed him to. Yamamoto could not drink away the afternoon he had discovered his father’s body, dead at an office desk, clasping a pen, successful and alone, with a sneaky half-grin like he had a secret.

When the time came for him to head his father’s ¥3 billion shoe company, he ran.  He bought a ticket for an overnight bus, caught a train and hailed a taxi to Mt. Fuji, a place that held certain significance in his childhood because his father had always promised to take him but was always too busy to go.  He watched white puffs roll off its snow capped crown and waited to feel the mysticism he had as a boy.  When he tired of its majesty he started walking and discovered a small town at the base of the volcano called Narusawa.  He rented a room at a lodge with the money he had left and applied for jobs in the area.  He accepted the first offer, a position as a forest worker.

The work was easy and kept him fit.  The worst part of the job was combing the forest once a year for bodies, but he approached it with a certain coldness that stemmed from his father having instilled in him—along with a strong skepticism of anything impractical—a will to win.  He was far from superstitious.  He did not believe in ghosts, and he could not change his competitive outlook.  He imagined life as a kind of race against death.  Those men and women he found in the forest were quitters.  They had let death catch up to them and surrendered to its speed.   They were the losers and that made Yamamoto a winner.

Years passed and work in Aokigahara became less and less fulfilling.  Yamamoto was given more responsibilities but never enough to satisfy his ambition or thirst for authority.  He looked for other jobs but finding work in Narusawa or one of the nearby villages was difficult for an outsider, a fact his friend, Takahiro Ōkyo, seemed committed to reminding him.

“Nobody is looking to hire some outsider from Kobe,” Takahiro would say.  “The only reason you found this job is because no one else would want it.”

“You are okay with being a forest worker for the rest of your life?” Yamamoto would ask.

“Why wouldn’t I?  One should aspire to only their highest level of incompetence.”

“You don’t want things?”

“Of course I do.  I want a roof over my head, heat in the winter, a fan in the summer and a cold Sapporo every now and then.  This job affords me those things.”

Eventually, Yamamoto subscribed to Takahiro’s reasoning.  He gave up trying to find another line of work, married a local girl from a nice family, he rose to the title of Deputy and settled into the idea of retiring from Aokigahara with a pension.  He started drinking on patrols with Takahiro, stumbling up and down the trails, debating everything and cursing the spirits hiding amongst the trees.  Then one day they wandered too far into the woods and they saw the true nature of the Aokigahara.  Confronted by a flaw in the laws of his existence, Yamamoto did what he did whenever he was truly afraid, he ran, leaving Takahiro behind to be swallowed by the forest.

Yamamoto went home to his wife, he did not return to the station for a week, hoping that time might correct itself and erase what he had seen.  When people came looking for him, asking about Takahiro, he gave them a myth.  He said that Takahiro had disappeared into the forest, and that was enough.  After a few short months—after Yamamoto’s chief could not spare the money or the man hours to continue the search parties—family, coworkers, the police and curious strangers, all seemed content turning Takahiro into a tale like those they had known all their lives, proof of Aokigahara’s terrible magic.  But Yamamoto never told the story enough times to believe it.  He returned to work in the forest, despite his wife’s protest, hoping that he would find Takahiro waiting to forgive him.

III

Dusk settles around him, a violet hour, turning the humid heat of the forest frigid.  Daisuke is beginning to slip in and out of consciousness.  There is something oozing inside of him and he knows that he will soon be dead.  He is somewhat surprised by his own calm.  Because of his condition he has been close to dying.  The circumstances of those near death experiences were far less dramatic, and though the fear is still real, Daisuke is comforted by the fact that his life will not be ended by falling in the shower or coughing so hard he cracks a rib.  In the last few minutes of sunlight Daisuke finds acceptance, curiosity overshadowing his anxiety about what awaits him.  He believes that at the very least his questions will be answered.

Daisuke plummets into darkness. He cannot tell if his eyes are open or closed.  He listens out for the drips from the body dangling above him, soft taps on the forest floor, but there is only silence, a void as vast and empty as the black.  He hears the branch break and the man in the suit falls with violence that is more than just dead weight. The body lands on top of Daisuke, forcing the air out of his lungs and pinning him to the ground.  He struggles to push the corpse off of him but his arms are noodles slapping against concrete. He tries to kick and wiggle himself out from under the man but it only digs him deeper into the dirt.  There is pressure behind his ears that spreads down the back of his neck and across his shoulders.  He can feel capillaries burst.  The weight is all around him now, crushing him.

Bubbling to the surface of his mind are memories that do not belong to him.  Entire lives worlds away, all of them, sin and suffering.  The floor of the forest turns to water and Daisuke is a small Dutch woman with bones like glass caught in the currents of the North Sea.  Her legs cramp and she is pulled underneath, the dark blue crushing her chest like the beauty of the Kurhaus on the coast of Scheveningen.  The salt water fills her lungs like fire and Daisuke is a young Nigerian boy, burning in a Lagos pipeline explosion. His flesh sags and hardens, and he is a forgotten female civil rights hero freezing to death alone in her rented house without heat just four miles from the statehouse she helped diversify. And suddenly Daisuke is back in Aokigahara.  He is Kiyoshi Ishido, the man in the suit, trudging into the forest, writing a note and tucking it into his breast pocket, pulling off his belt, climbing a tree, fastening the buckle around his neck.  Daisuke is sliding off a thick branch, choking, thrashing, kicking, crying, and then he is still.  As life drools out of him he sees Takahiro, standing on the hill, watching from below, folding his hat in his hands, mouthing something Daisuke knows is important.  Something that looks like, “We are Takahiro Ōkyo.”

IV

On the day my daughter was born I held her in my arms and I realized there was nothing I could offer her.  I was an objective observer.  I copied the behavior of others in an attempt to make my time more bearable.  I thought if I pursued the things that others wanted, did the things that others did, if I worked hard and married young and had a baby, I would eventually feel a part of something.  I never did.  I never felt finished and that sense of being incomplete prevented me from giving.  I had no wisdom to share with her.  No opinions.  No lessons.  I had nothing to share with anybody.  Holding my daughter I discovered that for the people I was supposed to love all I have ever felt was obligation, a vague understanding of right and wrong.  My life was a kind of déjà vu, a perpetual out-of-body experience marked by failed connections and intimate knowledge of places I had never been.  Aokigahara always felt familiar to me.  I had never visited the forest but I knew I had been there.  It called out to me.  Standing in the sea of trees, looking for a place to die, those were the only moments of my existence, the only time everything did not look distant and transparent like a copy of a real life reflected in a window.  I could feel the energy traveling under my feet, reaching up into my veins, and it was the first time I ever felt tied to anything.

– Kiyoshi Ishido

V

Yamamoto received a call from his mother. She had hired a detective to find him, her son who had disappeared the day her husband was found dead in his office.  He wept into the receiver.  Yamamoto had not thought about his mother, or the family he had abandoned.  He had not called or made any other attempt to contact them, to offer his condolences or to ease their fears.  When his mother told him that his youngest sister was unmarried and pregnant the weight of his betrayal seemed to fall down on him all at once.  Yamamoto offered to take the baby because his body had failed to give his wife children, and because he thought by doing so he might atone for his absence.

The boy was born.  Yamamoto traveled back to Kobe. His brother and mother made a point not to meet him at the hospital.  Even his sister, pale and weak from birthing a bastard child, had a faint impression of disgust under her sleepy grin.  Her eyes seemed sorrowful as she surrendered her baby over to her coward of a brother.  The boy went four days without a name until Yamamoto and his wife settled on Daisuke Matsuo, a name that would allow them to be open about his adoption and hide the identity of his real mother.

Daisuke was not a happy child and from an early age he had a peculiar fascination with death.  Yamamoto was unable to recognize that something was odd about the boy because he too was obsessed with death.  Whenever his wife voiced her concerns, the boy has no friends, he says he hears people talking even when no one is around, he suffers from night terrors, he draws nothing but black birds, Yamamoto dismissed her. “Daisuke will find his own way,” he would say. He was more concerned with the boy’s poor physical health, a persistent cough and a medical condition that often caused him to bleed into his joints if he ran too fast.  Yamamoto had hoped for a son with whom he could share his love of baseball and sports, but the boy did not have the ability or the constitution.

When Daisuke first asked to come with him to the station on one of his days off from elementary school, Yamamoto was more than happy to share his work with his son. He thought it was an indication of the boy’s character, a sign of his initiative.  However, Daisuke showed more interest in the forest than scheduling patrols or making visitor brochures.  He asked a lot of strange questions.

“Do you ever go out into the woods at night?”

“No.  I’ve made a habit of making sure my men and I are back in the station by dusk.”

“Is it true you find the bodies of people who kill themselves?”

“Sometimes, yes.”

“Why do you think they do it?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think they do it because they are lonely.”

“Maybe so.”

Yamamoto’s seniority, and his appearance as a dedicated family man, made him the clear choice to replace the chief in retirement.  His promotion meant more hours at the station and Daisuke dedicated more of his time to aiding his adoptive father, even volunteering to accompany him on overnight stays.  By the time he was sixteen, Daisuke was a regular face among the men.  Every afternoon he could be found studying forest maps, filing incident reports or going on short patrols with Yamamoto.

“I want to work with you in the forest,” Daisuke would say.

Yamamoto’s reply was always the same. “Finish secondary school. Go to university and then if you still want to work with me in Aokigahara you can.”

After graduating with a degree in physics, Daisuke returned to work at the station.  Yamamoto, though a little apprehensive, kept his promise and hired his son.  Yamamoto’s wife was concerned that working in the forest would feed into the boy’s obsessions and make it harder for him to be normal.  She tried to encourage him to use his degree, to leave the village and Aokigahara.  At dinner she would share gossip about interesting things happening in nearby cities.  At breakfast she would read aloud from a newspaper, interjecting a job advertisement between every story.

It was not long after Daisuke started that other forest workers started coming to Yamamoto with complaints, he says he hears voices, he says he would rather work alone, he is bad-tempered and rude. “Daisuke will find his way,” Yamamoto would say.

When Daisuke found his first dead body everyone considered it a new recruit’s bad luck.  Recovering a corpse was a gruesome affair that involved hiking back to the station with a decomposing body strapped to a stretcher.  It was difficult, physically and mentally.  By the time Daisuke found his fourth, suspicions that he was looking for bodies started traveling around the station.  By the sixth, Daisuke had earned the nickname shinigami, a death god.  It was getting harder for Yamamoto to ignore the fact that something was wrong.  No one wanted to work with his son.  The stories coming back to his office had the same key details, Daisuke’s neck twists, his eyes gloss over, he becomes unresponsive, he runs off into the woods and there is a body.  What scared Yamamoto most was what his men refused to tell him.  He had overheard them talking one night in the barracks about Daisuke and how, while running to a corpse, he would often scream a name.  Sometimes those names matched some identification they would find on the body.

It continued.  Daisuke started finding bodies more frequently.  He shaved his head and the effect was otherworldly.  With his long, skinny, limbs and big eyes he looked like an alien.  He stopped talking to his mother and then he stopped talking to everyone.  Yamamoto would not confront Daisuke or comment on his behavior because he was not prepared to find that he was partly responsible for his condition.

When Daisuke hobbled into the station, one of his feet turned completely around, pointing back the way he came, his clothes soaked through with blood and sweat, dragging a body by the neck with an Italian leather belt, screaming a hundred names, one of them a forest worker who died over twenty years ago, it was the first time Yamamoto had been genuinely afraid since he had last seen Takahiro.

In that moment, watching Daisuke’s wild eyes try to escape his head, two of Yamamoto’s worst fears were realized.  The first, that he was mentally ill and could somehow pass his sickness on to Daisuke, and the second, that what he had seen in the forest all those years ago was real and Daisuke had seen it too.  Worse, he knew it was his fault. He had been unfair, raising him so close to the forest—a child has no place around so much death, his wife had told him that.  She was scared that the lonely yūrei might follow him home.

As he watched Daisuke collapse onto the floor, one hand still clutching the belt wrapped around the neck of the body like a leash, and in the other hand, crushed into his fist, a single sheet of bloodstained paper, most likely a suicide note, Yamamoto knew he had failed him.  When he heard Daisuke shout the name Takahiro Ōkyo, Yamamoto knew it was his fault for running away, for giving up his search so that the weight of his redemption fell upon his son, for coming to Aokigahara in the first place, for refusing to leave just because he had stayed so long, for not knowing who he was if he was not Chief Yamamoto. 

VI

Daisuke wakes to the smell of antiseptic and sterilized linoleum.  Behind the buzz of fluorescent lights he can make out the sound of the universe expanding.  He is in a hospital bed and his right foot is missing. Chief Yamamoto stands above him, looking stern and impatient. Daisuke smiles weakly, his body heavy with the weight of his new consciousness.  He understands things now, the thin line between superstition and science, reincarnation, large concepts with many syllables, time dilation and the relativity of simultaneity.  No moment is absolute and energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  He was, is, and will be Takahiro Ōkyo and Daisuke Matsuo and Kiyoshi Ishido and over half a dozen other people throughout space and time.

Chief Yamamoto clears his throat. “What happened?”

Daisuke knows what happened. He has seen the mechanisms of God.

“I went out into the forest,” Daisuke says.

“You were not scheduled to be on patrol.”

“I know that now.”

“Why did you go out alone?

Daisuke sighs as if he were asked to explain something simple. “I was lured out into the forest by Takahiro Ōkyo.”

Chief Yamamoto eyes him curiously.  He buries his nose in the palms of his paper hands, breathes deeply and rubs his face.  “Takahiro died over twenty years ago.  How do you know that name?  You never met him.”

Staring at the end of the bed, at the void across from the toes pointing up through the linens, Daisuke asks, “Why do you make one of the men in the station sleep beside the bodies you find in the forest?”

Chief Yamamoto fails to hide his surprise. His mouth hangs open while he searches for a context.

“Why are you asking?”

“You do not believe in yūrei.”

“No, but my men do.  I don’t need them worrying about dead people walking through the barracks or screaming through the night, so someone has to lay with the corpses.”

“Their fears are no less valid than yours.  They all stem from how little we understand death.  Whether it is spirits or becoming our father, it all leads back to death.”

“I did not say…”

“That is what you are afraid of, isn’t it, that if you become like your father you might have to die too?”

Chief Yamamoto tries to scoff but he is choked by his own fear. He manages to summon a tone of condescension he reserves for new recruits to the forest station. “You seem so certain.”

“Yes, because you told Takahiro and he told me.”

“Takahiro is dead.”  Beads of sweat are running down Chief Yamamoto’s temples now.

Daisuke nods, knowingly.  “And still I met him.  Even though you left him writhing in the dirt with a broken spine, I know him.” Chief Yamamoto stands pencil straight, his eyes darting from side to side, scanning over something invisible.  Daisuke imagines it is a list of possible scenarios—Takahiro’s name was used in passing or written out on old employment documents.  “Your father passed naturally and he met death unafraid,” Daisuke says. “There was nothing natural about Takahiro’s death.  He smashed his head with a rock, to escape the pain.  He never got to understand and accept it.  He knew death only as an alternative to suffering.”

Chief Yamamoto shakes his head. “You could not know that…this would have happened before you were born.”

“I wasn’t born yet, but a part of me was there.”

“That is impossible.”

But Daisuke knows Chief Yamamoto can feel something shift in the room, reality bending the rules around them, the world reshaping into a place where the things Daisuke suggest are possible.  “I went back for him.  I kept looking. I wanted to give him a proper funeral. I at least wanted to put his soul to rest.”

But there is no absolute state of rest. A man kills himself. He is punished. His soul is divided, twenty-six cuts for every year of his life, and those pieces of himself take on entirely new lives, lives spent trying to remedy that division, to fill that void.

“I could not find him,” Chief Yamamoto says.  His eyes gloss over with regret but his voice is steady with truth.  “I never stopped looking.”

But time and the distribution of energy are relative.  More than a dozen people, sharing the same soul, each carrying an internal clock of identical design and function, moving in motion relative to each other and situated differently in regard to varying gravitational masses, will always view those other clocks as wrong. The death of Takahiro Ōkyo is simultaneous with Daisuke’s conception but it occurs later in the lives of Sarah Bal and Reginald Halpert, and precedes the birth of Adekunle Ogunleye and Becca Rubinstein.  They are not parallel worlds, just events occurring in different order all dependent on the motion of the observer.

“What did you see in those woods that day?” Daisuke asks.  “What made you so afraid?”

“We were on patrol in the forest.” Chief Yamamoto swallows hard.  He fights to finish, as if by getting it out he might absolve himself. “We were drinking rice wine out of our canteens.  We had left the hiking trails for some reason.  I think Takahiro said he had found a short cut, but he didn’t. We got lost.  We thought as long as we followed the slopes down we would find our way out. When we saw the end of the trees we thought we had made it to one of the villages, but it was a caldera, the hills of Aokigahara rolling down into a smooth basin of volcanic rock, like a navel.  And suddenly the ground started shaking.  It was so violent, so close, right under our feet.  I thought Fuji was erupting, but it wasn’t.  The Earth opened up right in front of us and something big and dark flew out.  We started running back into the forest.  I could hear Takahiro’s feet pounding behind me and behind him something heavy, ripping through the trees.  Then he screamed and I could not hear his feet any more.  I kept running. I was too scared to turn around. When I finally looked over my shoulder I saw him, folded in half, crushed in the talons of a giant black crane.”

“You saw death,” Daisuke says, grinning like he’s proven something no one knew to be true.

Chief Yamamoto moves closer to the bed, his brow falls and wrinkles from his new comprehension. He leans in until Daisuke can feel his breath and his anger.  “What are you?”

Daisuke searches Chief Yamamoto’s tiny pupils for a sign of fear but is comforted to see none, only a reflection of himself propped up in the hospital bed.  There was a time when they would have been too afraid to look into the darkness and have it stare back at them.  They are beyond that now—they’ve moved past it, together.  Daisuke closes his eyes.  He listens to the ticking of his heart and imagines the churning of cosmic cogs pushing him into another second.

 


I found “The Ghosts of Takahiro Okyo” convincing, gripping, atmospheric, and shattering — a truly creepy, original, ambitious story that moves with great agility and touches on something profound.
—Gish Jen, 2011 Howard Frank Mosher Prize Judge


Threshold (From the series “Blaxploitation”):

Delali Ayivor

I was nine years old when my mother came to me,
told me of her
designs for the modern black woman.
“No more pain,” she said. The wailed
refrain of so many heartsongs,
so many six year olds trapped
in the high backed chairs of a hair salon
twisting while another pair of work-rough hands
delved into the thicket of coiled black at their
crown, their nape.
She slapped their hands, told them
“There is dignity in suffering,”
smoothed away the slick of tears running over
rounded cheeks with the pads of scratchy,
chemical-smelling fingertips.

She gestured to her own hair,
had me stroke its waist-length smooth,
so different from the two spools of felt
curled right above the ears
I’d seen in pictures of her.
Then went back to the tin sink where it all started,
pointed out the spots where test batches
ate through the metal.
“It took me awhile,” she said,
with weak smile and crumbling touch
“to get the right formula.”

I asked her if she knew what she was starting
the first time she straightened hair,
why she wanted so badly to be
that little bit more normalized,
asked her why, afterwards, she changed
her name from Sarah Breedlove to
Madame CJ Walker.
She told me “I was an iconoclast.
The first female millionaire,”
then tucked me back into bed.

This was my bedtime story,
the smell of something living burnt
and the sense that maybe my mother
was Delilah incarnate,
teaching any woman how to
lessen her curl, how to
betray herself without so much
as a single snip.

That night, listening to the hushed silence of sleep
an elegy formed on my lips—
here’s to Sarah with the
motor oil drip jerry curl
and to my father and the
four foot afro.
Madame CJ,
means nothing to me.


This pulls in the reader with its strong sensory detail and setting. It offers emotional resonance, a reversal. The juxtaposition of pride/identity versus mainstream images of beauty/selling out leaves us with much to think about.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith, 2011 Hunger Mountain Prize For Young Writers Judge


The Office:

Delali Ayivor

It’s 4:15 am
and I have woken (again)
to read a chapter
of Lolita and the Metamorphosis, two books
that were never meant
to be read together
and leave me dreaming
of 7 foot cockroaches waltzing
with nymphettes in white, poofy gowns.

I know better by now
than to leave magazines on the floor,
but I like to leave my readings
to mate.
The toilet is leaking again—
A New Yorker, is commingling
with a Rolling Stone.
An editorial
on the loss of Brooklyn’s street cred
and a picture of Bob Dylan
have morphed into
some sick half-breed,
a pulpy mass of newsprint
that I can never finish reading now.

This is my life’s work—
sitting under the florescent lights
of this celery-green walled cubicle
that smells, always,
of stagnant water and ink.
Losing hours
trying to cure my bad dreams,
give me the sleep
that two dream catchers,
and a small village
of matchstick and wool
Guatemalan worry dolls
in my pillowcase cannot.

The dreams were worst
after reading Bukowski and Faulkner.
Earth-toned after reading Diaz,
soft-focus and dizzying after Plath and Miranda July.
Best, after Vonnegut
and a $5 paperback
entitled Savage Thunder

that I got at a Goodwill
in Washington State—already water-stained,
so I didn’t feel bad about leaving it,
face-down on the brown-flecked bathroom floor.
The sopping bathmat
dyed a third of its pages blue.

I have yet to get what I want most,
to dream in poetry.
To wake to find myself
stenciled in ghazals,
to my favorite words
lunar, oblong, viscid
inscribed into my eyelids
like a mantra
so they become
the things I uncover in sleep.


An intriguing concept—stories/media commingling. Use of imagery is evocative. The last about dreaming in poetry is simply lovely.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith, 2011 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge


Ninjaboy

Rachel Thomas

Ninjaboy is not Japanese. Ninjaboy is not even Korean. Ninjaboy is white. His mother is white. His father is white. Perhaps somewhere far up the line, as his mother claims, there is noble Cherokee blood, but it doesn’t show in Ninjaboy. Ninjaboy is pasty white, the color of Wonderbread, which is one of the few things he allows himself to eat. You can never be too careful when you have enemies like Ninjaboy’s. His main enemy is Brad. Brad is also his best friend.

Brad likes Ninjaboy, even though he is a freak. Brad likes that he can hang out with Ninjaboy and play with his game systems and watch his satellite TV and get treated to dinner. He likes that he can be Ninjaboy’s friend and still beat him up when he feels like it. Brad always feels a little bit like beating someone up, but the feeling gets stronger when his mom makes him clean his room, or takes away his cigarettes.

Brad is not always a good friend, but Ninjaboy does not mind. They say that one must keep one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer. This makes it much easier to stab them with a shuriken.

Ninjaboy has many Japanese weapons. He has more weapons than most ninjas. They are all replicas, but many of them are very sharp. Ninjaboy got them by asking his mom for them. Ninjaboy’s mom buys Ninjaboy lots of things, if he asks for them. The one thing she bought him that he did not ask for was a truck. She thought that all boys wanted their own car. It was a strange gift because Ninjaboy had only just gotten his learner’s permit at the time. The truck does not work very well, and it gets very bad gas mileage. Ninjaboy doesn’t want it. It is not that he is intimidated by driving; it is simply that it is much easier to get somewhere fast if he uses his super ninja running skills.

Ninjaboy running is quite a sight. He never uses his ninja skills where anyone can see him, but he practices the form on the basketball court. He runs with his head forward like a flying arrow, his arms thrust out and back behind him like a demon’s wings. That is how Ninjaboy thinks about it. When Brad watches Ninjaboy run, he thinks that Ninjaboy looks like a hairy goose having a seizure.

Ninjaboy, like a good ninja, has black hair. His hair is always greasy because he never uses shampoo. Floral-scented hair is a good way to get caught when you are sneaking around in the darkness. He lets his hair grow to shoulder-length and then cuts it all short and starts over. He does not care about personal appearance, it is unimportant when stalking a victim.

Ninjaboy never reveals that he is in fact a real ninja, not just a ninja wannabe like all his classmates think. To them, he is the quiet kid who wears black t-shirts and cargo pants, who might snap one day and mow everyone down in a hail of gunfire. Ninjaboy would never snap like that. That would be undisciplined. If he wanted to kill his classmates, he would sneak in through their bedroom windows and slit their throats while they were sleeping.

His classmates like to make fun of him for thinking he is a ninja, Brad most of all. Brad knows that Ninjaboy is a real ninja, but siding with the others is part of his evil plan to undermine Ninjaboy’s control and force him to unleash his powers.

˜

On an afternoon at the end of September they are riding back from a field trip to a Civil War battlefield, the class awaking from the stupor of the 1860s with a sound that makes Ninjaboy think of a mass of red-winged blackbirds. These are the only birds he can identify aside from turkey vultures. Ninjaboy is sitting next to Brad, who always takes the window seat because that’s the kind of jerk he is. Brad points out the fingerprinted glass. Ninjaboy looks. They are just entering the limits of his hometown in the rattling yellow bus. The rolling fields, beef-colored cow herds perched in the folds of hills, are fading away. The trees now are crowded and packed into corners around buildings. There are motels, chain restaurants, an old grocery store with two letters out on the backlit sign, so that it reads at night ATS, and during the day, HARTS. There are many things for Ninjaboy to see.

But Brad is indicating one particular thing, as the bus slows to round a difficult curve that bends the road up. Ninjaboy looks and sees a tall wrought iron observation tower, at least sixty feet high. It is a narrow four-sided structure with a flat top and Ninjaboy can see right through the latticework of the outside and into the ladder at its center. This ladder leads straight up, like the ladder on a child’s tree house, to the open air viewing platform at the top. There are no tourists braving the ascent today. It is rare to ever see anyone on the tower, although admission is free.

The entire edifice sits in the middle of a square of shops all selling more or less the same things: T-shirts, hats, knickknacks and bric-a-brac, twenty varieties of fudge of which only five are edible, and bags of stones, dyed to look natural and glazed to look smooth. The tourists shovel down the China-made local treasures with a ladle.

The tower, the tourist shops with their wares, none of these things are new to Ninjaboy or Brad. They pass this spot every time the bus comes in or out of town. Ninjaboy looks to Brad, certain that his motive in pointing to the tower is sinister.

Brad is only a little taller than Ninjaboy, stretched out from his boots to his plaid fedora in a spindly line of pink flesh. He is not as white as Ninjaboy. His hair is the color of dead ragweed, a dried blonde. He flicks the poking strands away from his eyes with two fingers before he speaks. His fat pulpy lips, which have always reminded Ninjaboy of a frowning frog, gape open, ready to flick out a scorning tongue at Ninjaboy. Ninjaboy begins a breathing exercise that he learned from a Wikipedia page on meditation, and prepares to control his ninja powers no matter what Brad says.

“A real ninja would be able to jump off that tower and fly, like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Ninjaboy does not say that the characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were not ninjas but actors on wires. He does not try to explain that although ninjas can walk through the air like that, it is only for sneaking onto rooftops, never for entertainment.

Ninjaboy just breathes.

“You should prove you’re a ninja by flying from that tower.” This is a very direct challenge, even for Brad, and for a moment Ninjaboy loses his breathing count and a centimeter of skin by his left eye spasms once. The others lean in, a mass of bodies in hoodies and Converses. Watching Ninjaboy’s passive face for a hint of discomfort is one of their favorite games. They are silent, like a crowd of turkey vultures watching a deer take that first step before the headlights.

“I guess since you aren’t saying anything,” Brad says, enjoying the eyes of his classmates on him, “you’re admitting that you’re not a ninja. If you’re just a loser who’s going to live with his mom till he’s thirty, don’t say anything.”

Ninjaboy just breathes. Brad begins to laugh, a screeching asphyxiated sound. A few of the others laugh, but the rest look at Ninjaboy. They pity him; he can see it in the little frowns at the corners of their lips. They think he needs their pity. He pities them for thinking that. Eventually they slide back into their own seats and Brad asks Ninjaboy if they’re going to go see the new Transformers movie tomorrow. Ninjaboy has already seen it twice, but he will go see it again with Brad because that is what friends do, even if they are nemeses. In the darkness he could slip poison into Brad’s Coke, but he will not. He just likes to know that he could.

After school Ninjaboy is picked up by his mom in her minivan. Ninjaboy is her only child. She bought the minivan not for children but for work. It is full of Labrador hair and plastic containers full of leather and clay. The hair is so thick in the carpeting of the car that it mushrooms up in clouds every time someone moves at all. The dog, Lucky, has not ridden in the car for several weeks. He is thirteen and does not go many places, but his thirteen years’ worth of hair travels everywhere in the minivan. Where there is no hair, the seats are packed with his mother’s art supplies, clay and leather and beads and feathers.

The Baltimore Catechism made her a hippy. Her own sense of how good it is to have money and how bad it is not to have money made her an astute businessperson. She has reconciled these two realities by becoming a commercial artist. She sells leather bracelets, leather roses, clay jewelry, anything she can make with animal hide or dirt. Her main source of income is Renaissance Festivals and the occasional Powwow. Ninjaboy misses the first month of school every year because his mother takes him to a Renaissance Festival in Minnesota.

Ninjaboy doesn’t mind this. You can’t learn the secret ways of the ninja in Geometry class anyway. His mother thinks he is learning business skills on their road trips, but he spends hours gleaning information on ninjas from mangas and anime.

Ninjaboy lets his mother think that she is the only person who can take care of him. He does not let her know that, as a powerful ninja, he could easily live on his own and take care of himself. He has not told her that he is going to a secret ninja training school in Japan in two years, instead of the local university. She has already redecorated the basement as his study room. His mother likes taking care of him a lot, and he lets her because respect for elders is a very integral part of the ninja code of honor.

Ninjaboy’s mother fixes him macaroni and cheese when they get home that day of the field trip. The house is much like the car, although it has wood floors not carpet, so the fur settles in drifts. The kitchen is clearest of hair for hygienic purposes, and meals often take place there. Ninjaboy sits on one side of the blue and green Formica table with his macaroni while his mother braids pink leather bracelets across from him.

Ninjaboy looks up from his bowl and at his mother. She is shorter than Ninjaboy now, but she will always be wider. She is wearing a t-shirt with a wolf howling at the moon. Many of her t-shirts have wolves on them, because they are connected to her Cherokee heritage. Her pancake-shaped face, the little features lost in plains of flesh, is very similar to Ninjaboy’s. When she smiles the oceans of flesh are pushed up towards her glasses and lift them a little off her nose. The glasses are pressed against her face now as she frowns at the hot pink leather strips before her.

Ninjaboy looks at his mother but inside he is thinking. He is thinking about what Brad said about the tower. Normally he does not think about any of the stupid things Brad says, but normally Brad does not challenge him so directly.

“Mom,” Ninjaboy says. His mother looks up from her work, her hip-length gray braid flopping off her shoulder.

“I’m very busy today. I’ll take you to Gamestop later.”

“I don’t need to go to Gamestop, mom. I went two days ago and the next Halo doesn’t come out till next Wednesday. I want to ask you a question,” Ninjaboy says.

“Shoot.”

“You know that I’m actually really a ninja, right?” As his mother she should know that she has created a supreme stealth assassin. She can dispel the thoughts of Brad, and the tower.

She puts down the half-braided bracelet and looks at him, her glasses settling into her nose as she frowns.

“Honey, you’re almost an adult now. I’ve always encouraged you to be what you want because you know how grandma and grandpa never let me be what I wanted, but it might be time to start thinking about what you really want to be. Maybe you should become a game programmer. If you became a game programmer, you could set up your office in the basement and live here. You wouldn’t have to pay rent.”

Ninjaboy does not respond to this suggestion. He thinks for a moment that he could leap across the table and strangle his mother with her braid, showing her what he thinks of being a game programmer, but that would be disrespectful. He picks up his microwave-safe plate of macaroni and cheese and goes to scrape it into the trashcan. Ninjaboy’s mother watches him with her mouth twisted into a wrinkled upside-down U, but she does not say anything. When he has finished dumping his macaroni, he puts the plate in the paint-spattered kitchen sink and goes to his room, which is up the stairs and at the end of the windowless hall. He is careful to latch the door. He has learned not to trust his mother with an unlocked door. Boys need space. Particularly when they are ninjas.

Ninjaboy sits down on his black bedspread and begins his meditation breathing. He hopes that by breathing he can clear his mind of the thoughts of Brad and the tower, and the memory of what his mother just said. Or rather, what she did not just say. She did not say “You are a ninja.”

Ninjaboy looks at the room, staying in the “now” as the Wikipedia page instructed.

His eyes drift to his bureau. It is particularly wide and tall but only the two top drawers are filled with clothes. The remaining three drawers contain his weapons. He keeps his shuriken, throwing stars, knives and darts in several plastic Pokemon deck cases, one type of Pokemon for each type of shuriken. His katana he keeps sheathed and wrapped up in a bleach-stained towel in the bottom drawer, next to his swordstick, which is useless now because Brad broke the cane that concealed the blade. He slammed it against the vinyl siding of the house while attempting a spinning, over-the-head “Viking” strike, as he called it.

Brad flashes into Ninjaboy’s freshly cleared mind like blood across a paper screen. He sees Brad again, Brad pointing to the tower, Brad leaning forward in the bus with the others behind him like an acne-masked army. His classmates believe Brad, not Ninjaboy. He has heard their whispers in the classrooms, on the bus rides;

“I just kinda worry about him, ya know? He’s just so quiet all the time, like he’s not really there. Like, what if we come back for a reunion and he’s still here in thirty years, what if he’s one of those guys that’s trapped?”

“It’s not like he does pot or meth or anything. If he gets stuck here it’ll be because his mom’s keeping him in a birdcage, or he’s locked up in an insane asylum.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Well, he could always cut his way out of the straitjacket with his ninja powers.” This was usually accompanied by waggling fingers and a dramatic voice.

He has thought of all the terrible things he could do to them, when they say things like that, but he always restrains himself. He has never even used his ninja powers on Brad, although there have been times when he has sorely wanted to. With Brad in his thoughts again, Ninjaboy forces himself to pay attention to the “now”.

His eyes pass from the bureau. There is a poster hanging next to his window, a reproduction of an old painting from Feudal Japan. It shows a figure shrouded in black, crouched low on a curling rooftop against the light of the moon. The archetypal, quintessential ninja. The poster is everything Ninjaboy aspires to. Ninjaboy has never crept along rooftops by moonlight.

He looks out the window. The pine trees outside, lit by the afternoon sun, drop away quickly into a ravine behind the house. Ninjaboy goes down there sometimes. It is a good place to practice his super ninja powers, although he only practices the form, even down there where no one can see him.

He has never used his super ninja powers really. He’s never needed to; he just needs to know that he could use them, if he wanted.

Something whispers at the back of Ninjaboy’s thoughts and he quickly turns his eyes to a new distraction. They land on his bookshelf. Dog-eared back issues of Shonen Jump are piled on one shelf. Part of the pile has shifted and several flopping magazines have slid into a heap on the floor. Above this, the colorful spines of mangas fill three shelves. They are all mangas about ninjas, or they at least have ninjas in them. Many of them have notes in the margins in Ninjaboy’s strange, half-capitalized, half-lowercase handwriting.

Ninjaboy has learned many things from careful study of these fictional works. He has never met another ninja to teach him; he has had to teach himself everything he knows.

The whisper comes again, and Ninjaboy gets up and crosses to his bureau. He opens the bottom drawer and reverently pulls out the katana. It is curved and smooth, the round hilt fitting into his right hand and the circular guard resting against the top of his curled forefinger. He wraps his left hand around the sheath and draws the blade free with a hiss. He loves the hiss of the metal coming free. They have to write it in, in the mangas, and that is not the same as the sound. It is like a little song that the blade composes with the sheath, a stealthy song of moonlight and curling rooftops. It sends a shiver down Ninjaboy’s spine.

He brings the blade close to his face, eyes following the sheer edge. It is not as sharp as it could be, but it is sharp enough. He could cut Brad’s head off with this, show his nemesis that he is a real ninja. That would stop Brad from challenging Ninjaboy to fly from towers.

His eyes alight on a small word near the hilt, stamped into the hand guard. He has never noticed it before because the hand guard is black and so are the faintly raised letters. He reads them.

“Replica” the letters say.

It is not a real ninja sword. It is fake, and so the song it makes is fake. It’s not really the hiss of moonlight and curling rooftops, but of a factory somewhere in Japan pumping out tourist treasures.

His sword is not real.

The whispering catches up to him and suddenly it is there, in his head in full volume.

Is he a real ninja?

Ninjaboy drops the sword back into the drawer, still loose from its sheath. The gleam on the blade is not the light of Feudal Japan’s moon anymore. It is the glint of fluorescent bulbs on stainless steel bread knives. Ninjaboy closes the drawer with a loud thump, like a body hitting the ground.

Is he a real ninja?

Ninjaboy can’t stand it. The thought of not being a ninja, of not being Ninjaboy, makes his insides boil and freeze and boil again. He can’t be normal. It would be too much for him to bear. He has to find a way to prove that he is a ninja.

How?

He sits cross-legged once more and clears his thoughts. It is harder this time, because every time he clears his mind the whisper is there. His mother comes and knocks on the door, calls his name, waits for a few minutes, and leaves. Ninjaboy can hear her walking down the hall. He cannot hear her walking down the stairs as he once could. He strains his ears but he cannot hear the creak of steps, the thud of her soft-soled moccasins on wood. His crisis of faith is destabilizing his ninja powers. If they exist.

Ninjaboy’s mind is invaded on all sides by the whisper of doubt. It comes in Brad’s voice, and it whispers his words. You look like an idiot and How the hell can you be a ninja? And lastly and resoundingly, you’re admitting that you’re not a ninja. And then that challenge came. What had sparked Brad to say those words? The words were at the heart of the whispering. “A real ninja would be able to jump—”

With a snap like a neck breaking his head is clear again. The challenge is the root of his doubt, so taking it on is the cure. The tower rises up in his mind, and he looks at the poster of the ninja on his wall. He sees himself, shrouded in black and masked with soft cloth so that only the glint of his eyes is visible, creeping up the ladder. He knows what he must do.

Ninjaboy sneaks from his room and takes the keys to the minivan as soon as it is properly dark. His mother is in bed, with Lucky shedding Labrador hairs on her quilt. They are both asleep and snoring. All the lights in the house are off and Ninjaboy is a shadow, slipping out the front door with the bright jingling keys muffled in his hand.

He pushes the minivan out into the road, because his mother has always been a light sleeper. She fears catastrophe to herself, to the house, and most particularly to Ninjaboy. Until he was eight years old she made him sleep in her room, for fear that he might suffocate in his sleep.

Ninjaboy does not push the van as far as he would have with his ninja strength, which he is no longer certain he has. He starts the engine just past the long gravel driveway, where the light of the headlights will be hidden by the trees around the house. He drives slowly not because he is intimidated by driving, but because he likes to maintain stealth. He is very stealthy all the way to town. Several cars line up behind him and then pass him because he is so stealthy.

The highway winds into the town, which is almost silent because everyone is either asleep or smoking pot and watching late night talk shows. The town is an amalgam of styles. Around Main Street it is leafy and full of the kind of shops that are highly attractive to retirees. The edges of the town are devoted to the necessary blights. The chain restaurants, the gas stations, the liquor stores are tiny points of light surrounding Ninjaboy on his journey towards the tower.

The tower rises from a patch of grass in the center of a rolling-hill-shaped parking lot. It looks almost like a deer blind to Ninjaboy now. It is much taller than a deer blind, rising a fatal sixty feet, but he wonders if something is up there, watching through a lens with cross hairs. He is not sure of the kind of hunter that would need a view like the one from the observation platform. From up there in the dark, the crosshairs could drift over the highway, a faded Pizza Hut, and a few Quicky-Marts. The shops around the tower are dark and abandoned, empty of any living thing that might be prey.

Ninjaboy imagines from below that he is the hunter. He cannot see the observation platform, the dark makes it invisible and ominous, but he thinks of being up there. During the day there would be many cars, perhaps that yellow school bus would pass. A hunter with good aim could hit one of the tires and send the school bus skidding off that sharp curve the road takes.

But it is not daytime. The faint glow of night clings to the iron of the tower very differently than sunlight did. Ninjaboy remembers the tower as being squat and rather dirty looking, but the glow of moonlight, the startling flash of a yellow headlight that is there and gone, and the orange tone of a streetlamp across the highway, wrap around the legs of the tower and the latticework. They make the metal clean, almost as if it is not a diluted alloy but the elemental essence of iron, purified, made smooth and unencumbered by falsities.

Ninjaboy sees all this from below. He cannot seem to get his feet to take him close enough to touch the tower, to climb the ladder.

He sits in the grass at the foot of the tower and considers it rising above him. Ninjaboy wonders if maybe it would not be so bad to be a programmer. He wonders if maybe it would be okay to keep living with his mother.

Ninjaboy thinks about what it would be like to be normal.

Ninjaboy thinks about Brad. He thinks about Brad laughing at him and punching him and borrowing his games and breaking his Xbox and splitting his cane sword against the side of Ninjaboy’s own house.

Ninjaboy thinks of how his nemesis will gloat. Brad’s evil plan was always to undermine Ninjaboy, and with one gesture to the tower it seems he has succeeded. When Brad learns that Ninjaboy is not a ninja anymore, but just a normal boy, he will laugh and say he knew it all along.

Ninjaboy looks up at the tower. He gets up from the grass and walks to it. He puts his hands on the first rung. It is smooth and he imagines that the rung is Brad’s bone, and that he is snapping it by climbing upwards. As he climbs he imagines that each rung is one of Brad’s bones. This is easy to imagine because he spent a month learning the names of almost every bone in the body. He has reached the tiny finger bones when he reaches the top. He pulls himself through the hole at the top of the ladder and stands on the observation platform. The platform is worn and strangely ridged underfoot, warped by many feet standing on it, and from here he can see all the lights of the city below him. He imagines that he is seeking out every one of his classmates’ houses. He imagines that when he has left the platform he will leap from rooftop to rooftop and sneak in through each of their windows and rearrange their furniture, paint the walls red, do something even wilder and more shocking, something that will prove to them he is a super ninja, and they are just normal.

The railing surrounding the observation tower comes up to Ninjaboy’s chest, but after the ladder it is very easy to climb over the rail. He maneuvers himself so that he faces outward, his sneakers pressed against the bottom rail his arms looped around the top one. He looks out over the city and then considers the fall below him.

The grass is a patch of different-shaded black. The parking lot is nothing but an ocean of shadow, charted here and there in lines of white. The shops are squat and square. He can see, from up here, the roofs that are hidden by the facades. Behind the curlicues and pastel colored paint there are flat spaces of concrete, full of AC units and ductwork.

He can see past the shops, and out to the highway. He can see the cars, two forward peering eyes highlighting the road ahead, riding waves of darkness. He can see beyond even that, to the rolling mass of tree-covered hills, hiding houses, hiding shops, hiding an entire city. He knows that secret, the trick of hiding something complex behind a veil of things that are simple.

Ninjaboy is no longer worried about the outcome of his next action. He was never really worried to begin with, or so he tells himself now as he stands at the edge. He is certain that he will live and die a ninja. He feels whole.

He is Ninjaboy.

He unwraps his left arm. He sticks his left foot into space. He releases his right arm and right foot at the same time. The crickets and frogs that fill the night air are suddenly deafened by a cry. Whether it is a cry of victory or of terror is impossible to determine.

There is silence.

 


“Ninjaboy” is much more straightforward in its narrative, but acquires its force through a beautifully-modulated distance from the character (referred to only as “Ninjaboy”). This narrator walks the line between irony and compassion. His/Her voice is stylistically distinctive, flatly insisting on repetitions of words and phrases which produce a dry, faintly mocking tone – but which also allow him/her to gradually draw a portrait of a boy for whom we feel tremendous sympathy.
—M.T. Anderson, 2010 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge


Some Last Things To Arrange:

Mishka Hoosen

“Adieu l’Emile je vais mourir
C’est dur de mourir au printemps tu sais
Mais je pars aux fleurs la paix dans l’ame
Car vue que tu es bon comme du pain blanc
Je sais que tu prendras soin de ma femme”

“Le Moribond” by Jacques Brel

Dear Susannah like a bird
I am going to drive out today
to the desert, you know the place
at the turn in the last road when you pass that old house
burnt-out, they never did tell us
what happened.

But you know the place, right? Of course you do.
You know how quiet it gets
when the swallows come in and sew the sky back
into place, how
you only hear the sky
touching the ground so gently, Susannah, so gently
as if it were afraid to harm it!

I am going to drive out to that place, Susannah, it’s hard
in spring, you know, but
because you are good like fresh white bread to me, and the mornings
in your house which was open to every wandering thing
like me, I want
you to take this letter
and burn it
and don’t let the dog get too close to the flames, you know
how he is, he’ll
burn himself, and make sure not to
use anything from your brother’s treehouse
I know it’s all run-down, but
you know how he loved it, how he laughed
when I was the only one of us to swing myself inside,
lie there, like Alice too big
for the house, too small
for most other things. And you shook your head when
your sister shook hers and said, “You’re crazy and I love you for it.”
And I’d told you, fever-eyed and trembling,
why don’t we all go to the desert together? A road
trip, It’ll be so wonderful. You said sure, your brother
shook his head with hair like wheat, so sad.

Your sister said she didn’t trust me to drive. I understand.
My hands were shaking anyway, so much
that I couldn’t write, only talk
so fast you couldn’t catch up, couldn’t come
walking with me
out there, in the dawn in the desert,
where even your shadow says, it’s enough.

And you remember why they call it
the devil’s bullet, don’t you? How wide your eyes went
when I told you, should anything happen, remember
the last one in the chamber. There’s always one.
They always forget it.

It goes out alone to shatter the earth
and frighten the birds.


A half-glimpsed narration of ominous events we only can barely perceive before the images scatter in a burst of gunshot and a flurry of startled birds.
—M. T. Anderson, 2010 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge


Rumor Has It in Winthrop

Lin King

A modern love story; featuring adultery and a discussion of truth

Part I: The Consensus I

CARREY LIU

I live in a town called Winthrop in Suffolk, Massachusetts. Population: 18,303.

I attend Winthrop Senior High School along with every teenager in my block, aside from Ashleigh Brown, whose dad took her out of school after she got her front tooth knocked out in Gym in the sixth grade.

My school is only four streets away from Almont Street, where I live. The most “notable” landmark of my block is a family named Diggle, who lives across from me. Mrs. Diggle has Farrah Fawcett waves colored in flaming red, and is most fond of V-necks. She has, for as long as I can recall, always maintained an “impeccable” and extremely conspicuous fake tan. She has no children and has never joined the local book club, which, as far as everyone is concerned, means that she is sleeping with everyman in town. Mr. Diggle, on the other hand, is an orthodontist whose most remarkable feature is his oddly shaped bald spot, which, naturally, only makes the gossip better.

Part II: The Enigma

CECILIA PARIS DIGGLE

I don’t know when everyone started calling me Paris. It was before I had met Harold and it somehow just stuck. Personally, I think it sounds a bit daft, but I guess it suits my hair, and the low-cut shirts, and the shiny nails, the skin tone…everything about me that everyone sees.

I do know when people started calling me Mrs. Diggle. I married Harold when I was nineteen and I haven’t loved him since. It’s not that he changed really, or that I did, or maybe he did, or maybe we both did, I don’t know. He just got very husbandly, which is, of course, understandable, but also somehow stressful. If God ever designed me to be anything, it wasn’t a wife. I never even, for example, joined the local wives’ book club, but that wasn’t because I was too daft or didn’t want to read books. It was because I didn’t want to be a wife.

Harold is, of course, clueless. For all he knows, I spend all my time in Macy’s or watching soaps or something. Maybe, if he’s thought about it at all, he’d be theorizing about me sleeping with the boys in town, which is of course all very daft. It must either be something incredibly blasé or laughably racy like that, since Harold’s imagination is completely modeled after trashy films from the 70s.

HAROLD DIGGLE

I moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts when I was twenty-nine. I am now thirty-six, and I have lost countless things to Winthrop: my interest in my job, my hair, and my wife.

Paris and I were in love once, in the days when I had all my hair. But ever since we moved to Winthrop from Goodwater, Alabama, she hasn’t been mine. She evidently doesn’t suspect that­ I know—or that I’ve deduced, in any case—of her—her misdemeanors. But it’s all been plain enough.

First it was that kid from the post office, whose hair was bleached blonde and who would always lurk around his truck for hours beforehe got to the mailbox. Then he would sneak furtive glances at Paris’ rack. If I felt that his mouth was watering too much and went outside, he would give me a guilty little “Afternoon, sir” and scuttle away.

Then there was that boy with this ridiculous tea-colored mane at Olive Garden, a high school kid, no less. But if anything ever stopped a guy from mentally undressing your wife in public, it sure as hell wasn’t adolescence.

Then one day, when I came home, he was there, tea hippie fur and all. I swear I thought I was going to decapitate him on the spot when I saw him from the driveway. I was really going to do it—just kill the cheeky little bastard—but before I could hear myself think he had sped away. It turned out that she had gotten take-out, but as I sat down at the table I noticed her hair—so much hair—was a little straighter and bigger than usual—had a bit more poof or something — and that was that.

But that’s the past. Presently, I have a new Glock 17 in my sock drawer. Presently, there is John, the pool boy, who has a buzz cut—but that’s just as well.

JIM RILEY

I never thought I’d be here again.

I was the one with the blinding future, the sports scholarship in Boston.

I was good on the field, I was good in the pubs.

I don’t see why they cared about my head.

I was never too good at using it, anyway.

I did things by instinct, like an animal, and that’s how I got the touchdowns.

Anyway, they decided that it was better to ruin my life.

So now I’m Jim the Adidas clerk, or Jim the pool boy. Jim the lawn mower.

John.

Jack.

Joe.

I don’t know what they expect of me.

Maybe they expect me to get smart or whatnot, go back to school as a kid with wedgies.

They told me things weren’t completely over for me, that I could go join YMCA or something.

I might as well move to Canada.

The only thing that remains is that I love her.

It’s better that nobody knows.

SUE RILEY

My boy Jim was sprinting in cleats down the road of success, when all of a sudden he did a 180 and charged back the opposite direction. Just like his loser of a pa, I suppose. But unlike his sorry pa, Jimmy treats me well and he tells me everything. Between us, there are no secrets.

Unlike with his pa, with Jimmy I can tell him anything and he wouldn’t judge me one bit—just nods and smiles and says yes to everything I ask of him, even if it means flirting with older women so that my love and I can be left without suspicion.

Sometimes I wonder if he’s really an angel or if he really did knock his head one time too many, just like his loser of a pa.

Being a single mom isn’t easy work. You get excluded from a lot: tanning sessions, shopping sprees, afternoon tea, all that jazz. It used to be all right waiting tables, popping gum and chatting up some of the guys, but every single man I’ve ever chosen to take home, including Jimmy’s pa, has somehow been a huge disappointment. And I don’t mean just in bed.

But I’m all right now, all thanks to Jimmy. So for that I suppose I’ll have to thank his sorry loser of a pa.

Part III: The Consensus II

CARREY LIU

The Diggles are the preferred subject whenever the town needs gossip. However, whenever the benevolent townspeople need to deposit surplus “sympathy,” they turn to the Alexanders, who just so happen to live next to the Diggles.

The Alexanders are quite the “miserable” bunch and the town mascots for pity-gossip: they lost their boy, Brian, to cancer seven years ago. Mr. Alexander is now rumored to be clinically bipolar. Mrs. Alexander now spends most of her time indoors. Their daughter, Carmen, is a year above me in school and hopelessly in “love” with her fellow junior, a guy named Kyle Logan, a piece of information which everyone knows that Mr. Alexander doesn’t know.

Part IV: The Romance

KYLE LOGAN

All my life, I’ve resented dads. My own dad has never really been good at much, and has not seen a promotion since he was thirty. My mom has therefore been obliged to work at the local library all her life, watching from afar as other mothers gathered round for their petty discussion groups.

Then there is the other hindrance of a father in my life: my girlfriend’s—though that word seems insufficient, for we are much more than that—my girlfriend Carmen’s father. Mr. Alexander is strongly opposed to the idea of his daughter having any obstructions to extreme success in absolutely everything. In his eyes, I suppose, Carmen is meant to carry the combined weight of the aspirations he had for both his children now that little Brian is gone.

Carmen says that I must be understanding of her parents because of the impact of her brother’s tragedy six years ago. It shattered her mother, she says, and it lit something up in her father—some sort of internal hellfire that burns the brightest whenever the subject of his daughter comes up.

Naturally we did not tell him about our relationship, especially not after he had looked like he was going to strangle me if I blinked one time too many when I picked her up for our first winter formal.

I can be understanding, but there is an extent. We mustn’t hide any longer. We must act.

CARMEN ALEXANDER

My boyfriend Kyle may not be the most athletic or musical, but if he’s known for anything, it’s his eloquence. He always manages to speak as if he were from another century. In fact, after spending so much time with him, I don’t even feel that out of place when watching period drama.

And it is with that eloquence that he has convinced me, convinced me of all that we are and all that we can be. That sounds stupid coming from a seventeen-year-old, but I really don’t see how we can be more in love than we are. In a badly paraphrased version of Kyle’s words, if true love were anything more than what we share, then those who have loved would have combusted from emotion already.

My friends would call us clichéd, but I don’t see how we are. How can we be a cliché when nobody else around us shares this sort of feeling? Our friends think we are cute, but when they talk of marriage and happily ever after they are only teasing. But who can understand? Who’s actually in love in this neighborhood? Not my parents, obviously, not after what happened five years ago. Nor Kyle’s. Nor the Diggles, who are so disinterested in each other that I don’t even know how they stay together, nor the Watsons, the Lius, the Rileys, the Popes…all these unfeeling people so wrapped up in money and sex and benchmarks and the latest sale at Macy’s that they smirk at the idea of true love.

But Kyle and I, we know better. He’s thought it through, and he’s talked to me, and we have thought it through together. We know that this is more than melodrama and adolescence.

So we’ll leave Winthrop the day I turn of age.

MARGARET ALEXANDER

My daughter is in love.

She thinks I don’t know about it, and to be honest she has done quite a good job of keeping it from me, but she underestimates the abilities of a mother to see through her child.

My husband Paul remains clueless, mostly because he is so focused on rage and liquor that I doubt he can see any love on the planet.

As a consequence, I have been starved of love for years, with a husband who is so caught in grief for the loss of our little boy and a daughter who believes that I will ostracize love like her dad does.

After Brian’s suffering finally ended seven years ago, I did not wish to watch films with happy endings. I did not wish to listen to music I used to enjoy. I did not wish to go to Carmen’s school and see children running about. I admit that at one point, Carmen was right in thinking that I didn’t want to be reminded of love at all.

But that all changed with him; when he first came into my life, I was the last person to associate with such a character. But in getting to know him, I have found something new under my aging skin.

If only Carmen knew what similar boats we’re in.

Sometimes I’m surprised she hasn’t run away yet. I would have run away long ago if not for her, if not for fear of leaving her to Paul’s devices—though I’m sure he would be much more careful with her than he is with me, even when intoxicated. He loves her because she is his flesh and blood, but he has no reason to hold me in that regard.

Sometimes I fancy that, if Carmen does run away, I can run away too.

Part V: The Night

JIM RILEY

I’m meeting with her tonight, when her husband is gone for some conference in Connecticut.

She told me that we will have the whole house to ourselves.

My mom will be busy with her date, and though she does not know about mine, I will most definitely be busy at it too.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s the thrill that gets my blood pumping.

But no, I think it’s more the thrill of having her to myself.

It wouldn’t be the same with anyone else.

CECILIA PARIS DIGGLE

            We are meeting tonight, which is all very well because I can’t wait to get out of this endless cycle: cleaning the house, watching daft reality shows, going to the mall, and coming home to try and please Harold—not that I’ve been working really hard at any of these things. I’ve been saving up all my energy for our little rendezvous.

MARGARET ALEXANDER

We are meeting tonight. It is a little risky, to be sure, but it always is and his mom has plans tonight. Paul has business in New Haven until eleven, and won’t return for hours after that. It is Carmen’s birthday, so she will be out as well. We will have the house to ourselves; we will love each other for ourselves and as ourselves. As long as he leaves before twelve.

SUE RILEY

            I’m meeting with her tonight. Jimmy’s being all understanding, something his loser of a pa never was, and is going out—probably on a date with some pretty girl, but that’s only the wishes of a mom.

Paris—she isn’t like other people. She really gets me. We’re one and the same. I’ve never felt like this with a man, not even Jimmy’s sorry pa, whom I actually thought I loved enough to marry. What we have, it’s nothing like anyone’s ever imagined. The laughter, the conversations we have trashing the horrendous men we’ve loved, and of course, the passion—like there’s a furnace burning right in my rib cage, like someone shot me through the lungs and I just can’t breathe.

Part VI: The Happening

CARMEN ALEXANDER

Shh,” Kyle says as I shut the door. He’s brought two backpacks, making his silhouette look like that of a morphed turtle. I purposely left the back door in the kitchen unlocked when I was doing the dishes after dinner, which I ate alone. My mom has been in her room doing God-knows-what and my dad didn’t get home until sometime past midnight.

It is two A.M. exactly, and I’ve listened and watched with painful discretion the door of my parents’ room until all the lights went off, my dad’s breathing evened and the rustling of the bed sheets reduced to practically none.

While I waited, I contemplated for the last time what will happen after I leave. My dad will be furious, of course, and will probably not speak to my mom for weeks, or months, as if it were her fault, which was what he did when Brian died all those years ago.

In my perfect scenario, my dad will feel a sudden wave of guilt when both his children have left him, and will search the country for me and beg for my forgiveness for all he has shouted and done, as my mom watches from the side with tears of reconciliation streaming down her cheeks.

Shh,” Kyle repeats as we climb over my fence to the Diggles’ yard.

He turns to me, with a brilliant grin unfolding across his face, and he makes as if to hold my hand, when out of nowhere his torso gave a violent jerk and a pool of crimson began spreading with alarming speed on his shoulder.

HARROLD DIGGLE

Nobody would have thought that I’d be one to go out with a bang.

But I couldn’t help it, not when I saw him sneaking through my yard—with her in tow —

What bothers me most now isn’t that my life is officially ruined. It isn’t that she’s now screaming in our backyard. It isn’t even that a man had been in the backyard with my wife at two in the morning.

What bothers me the most is that I feel less remorse for him than I do my hair.

Part VII: The Consensus III

CARREY LIU

Everyone’s been babbling nonstop about what happened last weekend. I’ve had many of my schoolmates bothering me about what happened, seeing as I have the honor of living right across from the site of all the commotion.

The story goes like this:

Carmen and Kyle are “rebellious” teenagers in “love,” with parents that either don’t know or don’t care. They therefore decided to run away the day Carmen turned eighteen, which was a great disappointment coming from two of the “brightest” kids in school.

So anyhow, they decided to run away; meanwhile, Mr. Diggle was being “extra careful” with his property because Mrs. Diggle has recently befriended Mrs. Riley, the local café waitress, who has a son with a shady academic record. This “secret liaison” between the two women was discovered when Mrs. Diggle was found to be absent from the scene when the thing happened—she was at Mrs. Riley’s place, it turns out, and they were playing poker while watching reruns of Gilmore Girls.

Nobody suspected that Mrs. Diggle would be friends with Mrs. Riley, but it is said that Mr. Diggle disapproved of the affiliation from the outset, being as uptight as he is, and most likely suspecting that the Rileys were some sort of conmen, what with Jack Riley’s stony expressions and buzz cut and Mrs. Riley’s “scandalous” past.

So naturally Mr. Diggle was all fidgety at night—word is that he’s been suffering from mental breakdowns because of his receding hairline—and when he saw someone sneaking around in his backyard, in his “state” he decided they were burglars and immediately fired his handgun.

Poor Kyle was shot by Mr. Diggle in the left shoulder; Carmen was screaming harder and louder than any paid actress in a horror film, and both her parents and my family and virtually everyone else down the street ran out. 911 was called, Mr. Diggle was restrained, Kyle was taken to the hospital, and Carmen has not been seen by anyone since.

It is generally agreed amongst the townspeople that this whole sorry incident has been the most tragic and romantic “love story” Winthrop has ever witnessed.

 


Alternating first person point of view works well for the setting and subject matter.  The characters are well built with intriguing back-stories, machinations, and parallel constructs. The ending surprises the reader. It’s well rounded overall with some effective dark humor.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith, 2011 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge


Name Me AMERICA: A Novel Chapter in Verse

Cori McCarthy

NAME ME AMERICA

Name me America
Because I am discovered
I am here. I am this body.
This breath a gust. This pulse a drum.
I am poised and fist-ready
And here to say, Look at me,
You look at me. I’m Not so young.
Look at me become

Someone you’d name America.

And you won’t even dream
That I was a Sara.

That I was a four-letter nothing name
The person who fit sideways in a locker
And only chirped                        come on!
When the Enemy pushed me in
And fist-slammed the door

I could have stuck out a foot, an ankle, a tongue
I could have swelled up into the size of a country,
Loomed over the walls of my nothingness

But I was not America then –

I was crying into the slits that fed me the hallway light
And cursed through snot bubbles all those sitcoms
That fed such a devil such a stunt

But I guess I’ll have to thank her in the end

Because I came out of that metal as America
And I will never fit in there again.


SEE SARA

The flick, flick flick light of the dying fluorescent bulb
Is the tick, tick tick of
Don’t forget You’re in the Principal’s Office

Only the Baddies get this chair
And they’ve spent years sawing notches
Into the faux-wood-finish armrests with contraband plastic knives.

But of course, I’m no Baddie.
I’m still a kicking, newbreath America.
Even if Princi-pal keeps calling me Sara –

Want to tell me who shut you in the locker, Sara?
Want to rat, Sara?
Want to be a big ol’ rat because you look like one in that chair…

Feel like one, too.
I saw the notches with my fingernails, adding my skin,
Chewing taffy out of my lips, waiting to breath in.

We’ll have to call your mom, Sara,
This cannot go under the rug.
You see? Do you see, Sara?

I see – I saw the crowd rowdy around my locker cage
I saw laughter like exclamation marks raining through the slits
And Janitor Steve’s snigger when he jiggered the lock free

I think maybe you don’t see, Princi-pal,
I fill up my shoulders with Grand Canyon
Mississippi Great Lakes kind of defiance

And say, Do What You Have To – America Out.
I see the Office for the trees, and shake ‘em –
Guess we’ll learn together what I’m now about.


CLEANING HOUSE

Trash bags. Ten of them. That’s what I need –
Because red is the new pink.

Oh Hunny, oh Hunny. Mom sets down the phone.
She leaks Homecoming Queen tears.

I didn’t know it was this bad. That you are teased.
Did you know it was probably just as bad for your Dad?

She doesn’t mean to rhyme. She’s out of her element.
She wanted a Gymnastics, Sleepover Giggle Girl

She got a Glasses, Ponytailed Genie-in-a-bedroom –
I unfurl two more trashbags to add to the other ten

I shrug my best answer and go back to my cave
Where the ruffle-lace curtains, the teddies and dolls

Are flying from shelves and poles and walls,
Meeting and falling into black plastic graves

Goodbye, picture books. Goodbye posters.
Goodbye anything pink or just hinting at pink.

And when everything’s gone, Mom gasps herself in,
What have you done here, Sara?

Actually,

It’s now America, I write on the door in red ink.
She can’t close her mouth – her eyes are too white

I stand up all National, grab her wallet and keys,
We’re going shopping, Mother Dear,

Because red is the new pink
And I am in need.


JULES

Phones don’t ring anymore, except in cartoons
They buzz          chirp        vibrate.                  Some sing.
But that click at the end is still a mighty                     Click.

When Jules calls, the Mexican Hat Dance,
And I don’t feel much like answering or dancing
But America, well, she ain’t afraid of anything –

What’d you do? Your mom’s calling my mom
Telling me to call you and you know I got a report due.

This isn’t about the locker thing, is it?
Because that was more funny than                      anything
And just laugh it up so you see its                         nothing

Poor Jules. She doesn’t know
I’m about to pull the stars out of shape
Make a new name out of his supposed name game

How could she know with a mouth
Intent on suck swallowing all my words?
Poor Jules. She never did know –

Okay, so I can see how traumatic it was
Stuck in the metal case and such
But shoulder up. I’ve had worse – so much

So, are we done? Cuz this isn’t going to
Write itself, stupid paper. Stupid
SHUT YOUR FACE LIL BROTHER

in the background. One wince for Jules –
Because you know a country can feel bad for an island
Particularly one like Guam – hey…

So Sara, just grit through it, Ok? OK?
I mean, really, see –
America isn’t afraid of you! So shut your lip!
Did you just tell me to shut it?

No. I just got the first of all of my last words.

Click. Double click.


FOR THE LOVE OF RUSSIA

Call him Russia
Cuz he’s big like that
A surfer without the ocean
A guitar boy sans the strings
He sails the pavement
To school on a skateboard
And out the bus window –
The yellow monster metal passes him
Stops
And he soars on…

His hay hair flips out on the sides
My mother calls him the Seventies Return
His pants are always low, his shoulders
Back
The yellow creak machine chugs up the hill
Passes Russia,
pedaling his board,
Now down the incline
And he is sliding on by

Suppose I’ve watched him
Everyday morning without knowing
And see, now that I’m a country
I should probably do something
Come to think of it –
I don’t believe countries ride the bus
At least he never has
I’ll take a cue from Russia
Send myself home on my own
Maybe buy a board and beat him
To the moon’s sky
Or otherwise just get there
With someone like Russia
rushing side by my side


DEATH TO DICKINSON

Miss Yancy is the favorite teacher
The necessary friend of sorts
That all downcast teens need

She doesn’t ask if I’m okay.
She ties her blond locks back and winks
And I thank the world for Miss Yancy

I throw out my black pens for the Red
Lean back in my chair until it creaks
And when the questions stumps the room

I raise my hand like it’s the easiest thing to do –

Sara, you know why Dickinson was obsessed with mortality?

It’s easy, really, I say,
Because the only thing everything’s got in common
Is the oncoming end.

And you could hear a feather flop
Because no one pretends to have a breathing brain
And they all thought I was the same

This is going to be easier than getting
Burned by the sun
On a Mexican beach day.

Until I lean a little too far back – CRASH
Sara, are you okay?
See guys. That’s why you can’t lean in these POS chairs…

Damn, Miss Yancy.
You shouldn’t have asked if I was okay.
Hitting the floor ain’t nothing when you’re used to hitting the floor

It’s standing that makes the dizzy spin
It’s strangling the day that makes things not okay
And I’m going to have to laugh now

I’m going to have to laugh until falling down feels funny.
And here, right smack here, America is growing up –
The dandelion that wasn’t there the night before.


LUNCH

I’m going to sit here, I say.
And every head has split into two.
But you sit over there
Says the Leader in narrow jeans narrow eyes.

I’m sitting here now.
My jello quivers like a traitor.
I pop the tray down. Then my butt.
I don’t look any different than them in my eyes

Oh, Popular Table. You are the enemy of the masses.
And I’m staking out in enemy territory.
You can’t sit here.

And I have to tell this Leader that, well,
I believe I already am.
They ignore me. They barb their words
In all my directions.

I take them like a champ. I manage down
Three bites of cheese sandwich
I fork the jello. And slurp.
I make it almost to the bell, somehow

My skin peeling in unknown places
My courage taxed out of reason
Alexandra is on the opposite end of the Leader
And she does not get through three bites

Her bottom cast eyes tell me that her food
Is hurting her
And Leader notices, too.
You should lay off the pepperoni in general, Alex.

I snort a laugh in Leader’s direction.
Like what, I say in her speak,
It’s not like you could fit sideways in a locker.
And this time, the table’s laughs are all mine to keep


HERO

Hello Daddy
Home from work with your exhaustion
In a cup in your hand.

I fall on his lap
Smell his Old Spice beard
And become his Sara for a minute

Being invincible is draining
Like a colander, he says and I laugh.
He is so good at my laughing.

Like he made it with his hands
Carved it from a block
Of something without edges

Your mother is worried.
And When is she not?
Good question.

Can’t a girl reinvent herself?
Only if the reinventing
Doesn’t involve the amputation

Of desirable, hard character stuff
He twists my chin between two fingers
No acid burns, my Daughter

And I say I swear I’ll keep it simple
Maybe not revolutionary
Maybe not yet

I take my leaving leap off him
You promise, Hero?
And since I was a Falling Down Girl

He always called me Hero
So I’ll promise him anything
Even if it means keeping some Sara within


AN ALLY

What do you want, Jules?
I should have been gentler, but I’m already in bed
And it’s been a forever first day.
Jules knows not to call me too late –

It’s not Jules. This is Alex. Alexandra. Alex.

So she doesn’t even know her name
I can relate.

She waits for my next line, but –
I should know the words to make a new friend
But that’s not something you know as a retched almost adult
So I try Hi.

I suppose that’s a start –
What was it we said as playground pals?
Will you be my friend?

Leader is going to block you from sitting with us tomorrow.

Her words say something like
I hate her
Without saying it at all.
Don’t worry, I’ll think of something.

She laughs like the world is impossible
Like someone kicked her laughing
Like she’s saying there are worse things than being locked in a locker


CONTINUOUSLY AWAY

Even though the dark is pressing
Into the window glass
I press my cheek to the pane
And whisper nonsense prayers
To things that don’t exist.

Because, did you know?
I didn’t –
That America, the hardest of
Hilled and Hummocked surfaces
With rivers that wash the world

Continuously away

IS underneath the rocks
(Paved in fist pounds)
Just the same jelly stuff
That runs at the core of
Every sort of nonsense being.

Maybe everything is wiggling
Liquid inside
Maybe everyone presses their
Cheeks to the panes of the night
When sleeping is thoughts unwashed

Maybe everything, everyone
Maybe not only me –
Feels the tide moving inside
But it doesn’t matter? It doesn’t.
Because it feels like only me

I’ll need to be Adams, Washington –
Thomas Jefferson Whitman
To thwart all the anti-heroes of the world
But I’m broke from the back of just today
And I wish a river would find me, wash me

Continuously away.


PIZZA

I brainstorm through breakfast
It’s an accident, really, that mom
Asks if I want to bring or buy my lunch –

Bring. The school is pizza.
And the pizza sucks.

Now paint a cartoon lightbulb
Over this ponytailed head

Mom, can you order me a pizza?
Have it delivered to school
At 11:40?

She stands her questions at me
Mustard in one hand
A paper bag in the other

Would you like to tell me why?

Can’t. But it will help me make friends…
I can say that one with a look.

Her questions still stand and she’s thinking
Of her homecoming tiara in one hand
With her Fit Sideways in the Locker Daughter
In the other

A whole pizza?

A large pizza.

She agrees without agreeing
So I kiss her cheek with a smile
And feel broader than I was before my cereal

Don’t worry, Al –
America is on the case
And space at the lunch table is only just space.


MIDDLE TABLE VICTORY

Hang back, I say to Al, who is all nerves in her baggiest sweatshirt,
We’re not sitting with them. We’re taking the Middle Table
And so, even though she’s thinking of running, she follows to the center

Al is a country in her own right.
Maybe not one that leads, but one with gold in her bones.

The cafeteria like a battlefield at break, weapons beside soda cans
Shields next to the potato chips. And barbed words, just a swallow away

No one ever takes the Middle Table

The hub center in the sea where segregation runs strong and hereditary
And inbred in each of us to keep to our circles. Stay clear of the larger pulse
I drop my things so that the table rings a metal clang like a gong

Al sits like a mouse

And now we have every eye, every mouth struggling to swallow sandwich
Readying for the gossip of pronounced change
And I head to the front door

Where my ordered pizza awaits.

I march it back through the crowd with their heads now swiveling
And Al and I settle down with our huge food
She sifts, but I just say, Wait

Just wait.

And the bad boys come first because they have no roots
Trading smiles for pizza
Then the smart ones and the artsy
It is a quick fix – it will never hold up, but for now, we win.

Today Al and I win in our tide of purchased friends.
Somewhere the Enemy and the Leader are hungrier than they’ve ever been
Somewhere Russia is looking on – So I fold my hands behind my head

Let them chew on my loaded smile with their bologna and bread.


COME OVER

The victory lap lands Al and I at my house.
You Have a New Friend!
My mom’s face and voice and height trumpet her surprise.
This is Al. We befuddled the masses today.
Picture my words red, on a banner beating behind a plane…

Or hoisted up by the hands of six battle-weary soldiers.

To my room, the carpet seems dingy on the stairs.
Your mom is tall.
Al’s words have a habit of hushed worn into them.
And she knows it.
I open my door, not ready to feel apologies for what I see through her eyes.

I’m in transition,
I say by way of an apology for the general lack of everything
You’re very different this week.
Al sits on my bed and checks to see if her feet have come too.
Thank you for being my friend.
Picture my words on a Sesame Street lunch box…

Shut it, Sara.

I mean wasn’t Leader’s jealousy just delicious?
Al bites her grin, taps her heels three times
Just where is her Oz anyway?
Better than the pizza, but…

But you’re scared. Me, too.

Don’t worry. I’ll think of something.
If we keep them on their toes, we’ll win. Right?
Al looks at the blank shelf, the ghosts of teddy bears in my sight.
Wonder what she sees. Wonder if we’re really friends.

If they make you choose me or them?

When they make you.
What will you do?
Al swings her feet like she’s been treading water for life
So this is no biggy. I’ve been at the popular table for four years.

Meaning she can cut just as well as she can bleed.


FORGETTING

The Mexican Hat Dance announces that Jules is lurking
What was today?!
I feel her wind through the receiver, lean from it.
Hello to you too.
Did Alexandra Depora seriously go over
to your house today?
Sometimes the moon swings into the sun’s light, trumps it.
Eclipse.
I’m not doing science, Sara.
No need for name-calling.
YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY
I didn’t think I was driving you anywhere.
WHAW WEH!
You yell too much.
What, so you got new friends for a day
and now you don’t even need to speak to me?
I’ve been your friend since afterschool care,
Remember?

I don’t like the word remember.
Don’t like remembering that I’ve forgotten –

Forgetting is so pretty. Like a good night’s closed eyes.
Until remembering spreads mud in my joints,
Clumps, cakes, clay in my sighs

And then whispers that I’m eyeing hills past my borders

I choose forgetting.
Will you call me America, Jules?
Of course NOT, I’m NOT an idiot.
I think we’ve ridden this thing out.
My dad’s business words come smooth.
What?
Sting someone else with your salt.

I close my phone. I know that Jules’ family is nine pieces of four people.
I know that Jules is two parts someone else, three halves whole.
I know that her tears run wide when she tries to hold her speaking.

But I choose forgetting, and forward.
Forward for forgetting.


WAKE

Silver hair of cobwebs shine
In the morning light’s fingers of dust,
I pull them free

The garage smells of wet worms and earth
I dig loose my long abandoned freedom on wheels.
My bike has pink foam on the handles and I spray it Red
With the can that trickles red over my knuckles
Like I’ve nicked something easy to bleed

Spray the metal, chain. Even the daisy printed wheels.

I ride to school and feel the WHIRL of GLIDing…
…in Russia’s wake

His hair can glint white when the sun sits
On its edges and the pieces fly up and back
Fingers pointing, finding me out,
But he doesn’t turn Just step, step SOARing

His board clack, clack, clacking against the sidewalk cracks

I pedal up, but feel the weight of my rust on the hill
The big hill.
The yellow submarine groans past
Faces finding out my strain in the windows…
I kick the pedals, up and not back down enough

I tilt

Faster America! Russia is killing us!
I lean forward, tilting taking over – Too Sorry Too Late –
And lose my metal on the curb with a clatter

My knee bites the pedal, but the bike’s teeth are tougher
I clutch and worry-back a cry, so far out of date,
Russia glances, his sort-of-smile like a flag trailing
In his wake


Powerful free verse with a surprise on every page. Edgy, original, thought-provoking. Wow.
—Katherine Applegate, 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize judge

The Harm in Knowing

Beth Miles

Chapter One

Unlike me, Trip never keeps his mouth shut.   “Nervous, Tullin?”  he asks, tilting the rearview mirror as he drives so he can see me in the backseat.

“Pay attention to the road,” says Dad, putting the mirror back in place.

Trip knows I won’t answer, so he goes ahead with our conversation.  “Don’t worry,” he tells me with his hands at 10:00 and 2:00 on the steering wheel.  He accelerates around a curve and Dad nods with approval in the passenger’s seat.  “Just stay away from the whistling.”

Who’s going to be whistling at me?  I look down at the front of my tee shirt.  It’s blue, baggy, new. Blending-in clothes, not whistling-at clothes.

Trip is driving us to the freshman open house at Davis High, logging hours with his driver’s permit.  He’s already seventeen, the last of his friends to drive, but everybody understands why he wasn’t eager to get on the road.  Anyway, he’s not driving today for experience.  He’s driving because he never misses a social opportunity.  Incoming freshmen are a total social opportunity.  As the quarterback of the Davis Raiders, Trip likes to meet his public.

Dad settles back in the seat, almost approving of Trip’s driving skills. “What whistling?” he asks.

“You know, the principals.  They walk around looking for people breaking rules so they can blow their whistles at them.”

I rub my palms on my knees and check my lip-gloss in the reflection of the window. The road twists and turns around brown pastures turned scraggly in the August heat. The faded sign at the county line says:  “Davis County, North Carolina, Where Progress Never Forgets.”  We’re so close to the boundaries that we’re barely legal for this school district.  Fine by me. Nobody much to carpool with.

“The only people that blew whistles when I went to school there were the coaches.  All the other adults just yelled,” says Dad.  He grasps the dashboard as we reach a stop sign.  We’re flung slightly forward as Trip stomps the brake. “Leave yourself more space to stop next time,” says Dad.  His mouth is stretched into a grim line.

I look at Dad’s graying hair parted on the side, his white starched shirt, his silver wristwatch.  Dad wouldn’t break a rule, even in high school.  I’m almost sure no one’s ever yelled at Dad.

“They also hate fighting, but they especially hate PDA’s,” says Trip. “That gets you the loudest whistle of all.”

Dad raises an eyebrow and I think fast.  Pee-Dee- Aye.  What does that mean?  Trip knows he’s got our attention, so he makes it last as we wait for a line of cars to cruise past. He raises an arm to sniff his armpit, then checks his wavy hair in the mirrored visor to make sure it’s flopping appropriately over his left eye.  “Public Displays of Affection,” he finally says.

I still don’t get it, but Dad makes a noise between a cough and a grunt. Trip glances at me in the rearview mirror.  I must look confused, so he says, “Like, slipping someone the tongue between the lockers. Don’t be doing that.”  He grins to let me know he’s teasing.

“Keep your eyes on the road!” snaps Dad, even though we’re still sitting at the stop sign.

My face burns and I hope neither of them is picturing me French kissing someone during class change.  Like that would ever happen.  Dad’s eyes meet mine in the mirror.  Yep. He’s picturing it.

Trip takes a right and the number of cars on the road increases.  The entrance to the high school is only a half-mile away. There’s a knot of dread in my stomach but most of these people won’t know me. Maybe they’ll all think I’m just silent and mysterious.  Artistic and moody.  I look down at my plain clothes. Or shy and uninteresting. That could work, too.

We ease to a stoplight beside Ron’s Gas n’ Go. There’s a small white church beside the gas station. The sign out front always offers helpful advice.  JESUS IS THE GREAT COUNSELOR. GUIDANCE IS ALL YOU NEED, it says.

Trip flips on the turn signal. “You can always go to the guidance counselor’s office if you get lost. You might have to ask for directions for the first couple of days, but then you should get the hang of it.”

Ask for directions?  Ask for directions?  What’s the matter with him? shouts my brain.

There’s silence, except for the whooshing of the pulse in my ears keeping time with the green turn signal blinking on the dashboard.

Dad turns and fixes a stare at the side of Trip’s head that ought to be making my brother’s hair product smolder.  Trip looks left and right, oblivious to the heat of Dad’s expression or the sudden crushing change of air density in the car.  In fact, one of us in here is no longer able to breathe.

“Maybe you can help her?”  Dad savors each word, tasting all the consonants and vowels.

“Uh…yeah,” agrees Trip.  “Sure.”  He pushes the knob on the radio and turns the volume up, then plays a drum solo in the air with his fingers.  “Hey, can I go with some of the guys to the lake on Labor Day?”

“Both hands on the wheel,” says Dad, turning the music back down.  There’s a new crease between his eyebrows.  “And no.  The lake is too crowded on holiday weekends.”

Trip frowns and grasps the wheel the way Dad asks. “But Jay’s Dad will drive the boat.  We’d be totally safe.”

“I said no,” says Dad, putting a period on the end of the conversation.

We drive through the crowded parking lot for several minutes before we find a spot, and it takes another three minutes of backing in and out before Dad is satisfied.  No door dings allowed.

School is a sprawling campus, building after building connected with metal covered breezeways.  I can’t tell where the front door is.  Dad and Trip walk side by side through the parking lot towards a flagpole. They’re both sunburned on the backs of their necks.  Dad’s arms have a farmer’s tan under his long-sleeved starched shirt from cutting hay on the weekends.  Their arms and backs are hard with muscle.  I flab along behind, then scurry to catch up so I don’t look like a tag-along loser.

A girl’s voice squeals to my left.  “Triiiippp!”  A streak of hot pink followed by a stream of long blonde hair shoots in front of us.  I get a whiff of flowers and hairspray and then Trip picks her up in a hug.

Dad and I stop and glance at each other.  Trip and the girl are still hugging.  I suddenly feel like I should be doing something with my arms.  Why are they just dangling around?  I fold them in front of my chest and watch the shadow of a bird drift up the pavement past the flagpole.  Dad jangles some change in his pockets.

“Oh My God!” says Blondie, pulling away and looking into Trip’s face.  “I saw you at the scrimmage game last week!  You were so awesome!

Trip smiles and shrugs.  She keeps her hand on his arm.

“Uncle Chuck says you’re going to be the next Mike Collins!”  she continues.

I feel Dad tune into the conversation.  He’s no longer looking at the ground, but watching the girl like he hopes she’ll say some more. Mike Collins got a football scholarship to Clemson three years ago.

“Annalese, this is my Dad and my sister, Tullin,” says Trip, gesturing at us.

I look into the girl’s face.  It’s open and smiling.  Her frosted pink lips are parted.  It’s possible that she may burst into song.

“This is Annalese Hampton,” he says.  “Coach Hampton’s niece.  She’s been helping out at practices.”

Dad’s face morphs into his insurance salesman’s smile.  “Nice to meet you, Annalese,” he says.  He’s the king of good eye contact.  I should take notes.  He leans forward to grasp her hand in a warm handshake.  “You tell your uncle our boy’s going to make him proud.”   Trip ducks his head and shuffles his feet.

“Are you a freshman?” she asks me, all southern charm in a sundress.  I don’t answer because I’m southern silence in a tee shirt.  I nod. “Me too!” she chirps.  “Who do you have for homeroom?”

I haven’t even gotten inside to get my schedule yet, so I shrug and flap my hands against the sides of my legs.

She laughs.  “Oh!  Sorry!  I guess you should go inside and find out.”  She moves out of our way.  “Nice to meet y’all. Bye, Trip.” She slings her fluffy hair over her shoulder and it floats back into position.  Trip watches every inch of her walk away until Dad clears his throat.

We continue in a threesome up the sidewalk.  I keep my eyes on the ground.  For some reason, there are dried-up earthworms littering the concrete.  Too many to count. Even Trip, whose chin is always at a ninety-degree angle from his neck, sees the worm genocide.

“Gross,” he says.  “What’s up with all these dead worms?”

“Probably because it rained yesterday,” says Dad.  “They tend to crawl out into the puddles. When the water dries up, they’re stranded.”

“Ugh,” says Trip.  “They look like old spaghetti.”

I sidestep one after another.  There are so many that it doesn’t even look natural. I imagine them squirming, silently dying under the hot sun.

And then, I look up at the four stories of windows staring down at me, probably full of nameless people waiting for me to come out from under my rock and introduce myself.

Stupid worms should’ve stayed underground.

 

Chapter Two

We wait at the end of the driveway for the school bus. The hot, bright day I’d imagined as my first day of school looks more like a swamp at dawn.  Thick fog chokes out sound and light and even the edge of the paved road in front of us.  The worst fog I’ve seen in years, Dad had said at breakfast.  Glad you’re not driving in it.

Trip reaches to poke at my straightened hair under the umbrella.  “I like the new look,” he says. I swat his hand away.  “Don’t be so touchy,” he says. “It’s the first day of the best years of your life.”

Says the quarterback of the football team.

Fat, scattered drops of leftover rain fall from the pine trees over our heads.  My hair is curling back up so fast it feels like bugs on my scalp.  Trip runs his hand through his own hair and it stands straight up over his temple.  Makes him look even cooler. I want to kick him.

He gives me a soft punch in the shoulder.  “It’s only high school, Tullin. Try not to look so scared.”

I swallow.  “R-r-right,” I say out loud, just to prove I’m tougher than I look.

The rumbling of the bus engine reaches us before we can see headlights shining through the gloom.  It comes around the bend in the road and the bright orange stays invisible until the bus groans to a stop in front of our unpaved driveway.  The doors swoosh open.  Fog stirs around the huge tires, beckoning us to enter.  The gates of hell probably wish they could look this sinister.

Trip trails his fingers through the tiny cyclones of white and heads for the bus.  I follow him, concentrating on the beads of wet that cling to his dark backpack.

“Mornin’,” says Mrs. Little as we climb the steps.  She smiles a gap-toothed smile from behind the steering wheel and adjusts the waistband of her Tuesday pants.  Brown polyester is always on Tuesday.  Tomorrow, it’ll be blue polyester. I try and smile at her, glad to have the same bus driver from last year.  We live so far out in the county that Mrs. Little picks up for both the middle school and high school.

I drop into a seat near the front, but Trip nudges me with his knee. “Keep going,” he says so quietly that I have to read his lips.  “Don’t sit up here with the middle schoolers.”  I stand and follow him, staring at the floor.  Halfway down the aisle, he calls to the guys in the back of the bus and deserts me.  I slip into a seat and slide to the window, staring at the wall of white pressing against the glass.  The engine clanks as the bus changes gears and I hear Trip and his friends cursing in cheerful voices, shouting happy insults at each other the way boys can get away with.  Nice job, says my brain. Your brother’s ashamed and you haven’t even opened your mouth yet.

Shut up, I tell it, but it shows me pictures of myself wandering lost through the halls because I won’t ask directions to the bathroom.  You might have to go outside…pee in the bushes, it says.  

In front of me, a head rises to peer over the seat.  The eyes watch my brother without blinking, then look down at me.  “That your brother?” the head asks.  I can’t see the mouth.  I can’t tell if the speaker is male or female.  Friend or enemy.  Animal or mineral.

I nod and look out the window even though I can’t see out because of the fog.  I feel the eyes still on me.  I can’t make myself look back.  Whoever it is might want to have a whole conversation.

“He’s hot,” says the set of eyes attached to a forehead and scalp.

I figure there’s no answer required since it would be weird to agree on the hotness of my brother.

The eyes sink back down behind the brown, vinyl seat and remind me of something from early evolution sliding back into the mud that birthed it.

Mrs. Little shifts gears and I hold as still as possible.  If the rabbit doesn’t move, the predators might not see it.  Good plan.  Maybe you can stay frozen all four years of high school, says my brain.  I lean against the window and resort to an old method of escape I used in elementary school; I pretend to be asleep.

The bus continues on its route, stopping to pick up passengers from the ocean of nothingness outside.  I wonder how Mrs. Little can see to drive.

As more people climb into the bus, the inevitable happens; a person sits beside me, jostling my arm.

“Hey.  You asleep, or somethin’?”  It’s the voice from the seat in front of me, but now it’s beside me, demanding an answer.  My eyes are closed.  I wonder if I can nod yes and still pretend to be asleep. I crack one eyelid without moving and take a peek.  A skinny girl with stringy blonde hair is beside me.  She’s peering into my face.  Her eyes seem too close together.

I close my eyelid again.  She seems to think I’ve fallen back to sleep.  I’m Lola. I’m new,” she says into my ear in a loud voice, like sleeping is a condition that also makes you deaf.  Her breath hits my cheek in a quick rhythm as she waits for a reply.

I open my eyes and move my head back an inch to escape, but no luck. Lola slides closer.  Her plaid shirt is missing the top button.  I wonder if she would have buttoned her shirt all the way to the top if that button had been available.  Probably.

“I used to live here, but my Mama’s boyfriend took all our money and run off with our dog, so we had to go live with my aunt down in Florida. That was when I was in fifth grade.  It took us four years to get our dog back.”  She holds up four fingers in front of my eyes and I try to focus on them without going cross-eyed.

“He’s still a good dog and all, even though he bit my cousin Ronald.  Now he has cancer.  Not Ronald.  Charlie-the-dog, and anyway Ronald asked for it. Not the cancer, ‘cause he don’t have that.  He asked for the bite ‘cause he was trying to steal Charlie’s hotdog.  It ain’t a real hotdog.  Just one of them plastic ones.”

She waits. Her breath is hot.  I have to do something.  Finally, I nod.  She settles back into the seat seeming satisfied that she got a response from me.

Are you in ninth grade?  I am.  I wanted to come to that orientation thing the other night but Jimmy had to work and me and Mama didn’t have anyone to bring us.  She don’t like to come out to stuff like that, anyhow.  Jimmy, he works down at Kylon.  Sometimes he brings home some of that foam they make down there and me and Ronald and Charlie-the-dog tear it up in little pieces and jump in it, like it’s a pile of leaves or something.”

I stare at her. I can’t help it.

“You ever been down to the Kylon plant?” she asks.

I shake my head no.

“You oughta go sometime.  They got this little cafeteria and this Mexican woman makes all their food.  They had a family picnic down there in July and me and Mama went, even though we ain’t really Jimmy’s family, but he lives with us so that’s close enough.  That Mexican woman made these things called fra-tee-toes…or maybe it was fa-hee-toes, I don’t know.  But we brought some home because they were so good and we were gonna have ‘em for dinner except Charlie-the-dog found the bag ‘cause Jimmy forgot to put ‘em in the fridge and he ate all of them.  Charlie-the-dog, not Jimmy.  He almost exploded with farts after that.”

She cracks herself up with the fart comment.  Her shoulders shake with laughter. “Oh God,” she says, wiping her eyes. “You should’ve seen Mama.  She had to smoke eight Marlboros to calm down.  Then she tried to read Charlie-the-dog’s fortune for punishment.  Man, he hates that.  He won’t ever hold still long enough to choose a tarot card.”

I stare at my hands lying on my lap.  Lola’s a total head case. She laughs long and hard beside me.

“Mama says I talk too much.  She says I could carry on a conversation with a brick wall if it had lips.”

The brick wall would only have to have ears, not lips, to be in a conversation with Lola.   She yammers away which is fine by me, moving on in her monologue to tell me about her Mama’s fortune telling business.  After a few minutes I give up trying to follow her story. I can’t keep the names of the people she’s talking about straight anymore.  I realize she doesn’t expect anything from me except an occasional nod, anyway.  I finally begin to relax.

And that’s when it starts to get weird.

 

Chapter Three

Whoever’s eating breakfast on the bus is doing it right.  There’s a sweet, buttery smell drifting between the seats that makes me wish I’d eaten breakfast, but I’d been too nervous.  It smells like hot apple pie. Wait, no, it’s got to be peach cobbler.  The smell is so intense that I can close my eyes and picture the warm juice seeping through the cracks in the flakey crust.  It’s like walking into the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning, where delicious smells are so thick they bog down the air.

Lola hasn’t stopped talking, but that doesn’t mean I have to look interested.  I check around me to see who the lucky person is.  No one seems to be eating anything, not even chewing gum.  The girl across the aisle picks up her backpack and starts digging inside.  I lean past Lola to see if she’s going to pull out a dish of cobbler.  Maybe it’s a back-to-school surprise for the teacher’s lounge.  She drops her bag back onto the floor with a clunk.  Obviously, no peach cobbler in there.

The smell gets stronger, so strong that I actually stand and look at the people sitting behind and in front of us.

“What are you doing?” asks Lola.

I sniff deep.  “Th-th-that smell…” I say.  That’s how intense it is. It causes me to actually speak. Out loud.

Lola stands beside me and sucks air in hard through her nose. Then she makes a face. “Smells like feet,” she says. “Or maybe it’s like how the rubber part of the bottom of your shoe smells.  I’ve never actually smelled that part of my shoes, but I think it would smell like the bus does.  Ronald, he used to have rubber sheets on his bed ‘cause he always peed at night.  Still does after he drinks tea. Man, rubber sheets stink like…”

“N-n-no!  P-p-peach cobbler!”

She looks at me like I’m crazy.  “You smell peach cobbler?  Right now?”

I nod.

I’m starting to feel wrapped in it, hugged by cobbler-scented molecules.  It might be the most wonderful thing I’ve ever smelled in my life.

Then it gets stronger.  Almost too sweet.  I sit back down, confused.  Lola sits too and keeps talking.

“I’ve never had peach cobbler, but I love them little apple pies from McDonald’s,” she says. “My aunt down in Florida tried to make some apple dumplings with canned biscuits and chopped-up apples.  Someone told her to put a can of Mountain Dew in it so she did but…”

I can’t listen to her anymore.

The sweetness is clogging my throat and the peachiness is getting more agitating.  Now, it reminds me of a peach-scented candle, the cheap kind that makes you want to open a window after you light it.  I frown and rub my nose.

“…And if me and Mama went through the drive-thru at midnight, Curtis, who worked there, would always give us all the apple pies that had been sitting there for a while.  Curtis was almost her boyfriend, but then he decided not to be, but he gave us all the apple pies anyways, ‘cause the crusts was all wrinkly and dried-out…”

I know it’s not my imagination.  The smell is changing into something bad.  It starts to remind me of that pink, thick antibiotic I took for ear infections when I was small. I want it to go away.

I bend down and put my forehead on my knees.  I hold my nose, then try to only breathe through my mouth.  It doesn’t make any difference; I can still smell it, hot and nasty now, like burning peach syrup and rotten garbage.  It seeps into my head and attaches itself.  I can’t get away.  I’m going to gag.

Then it congeals inside me and I have a sense of acceptance, like I knew this was going to happen.  The voice in my brain finally chimes in.  You couldn’t have known this was going to happen.  Something’s wrong with you!

My head is still on my knees and I reach blindly for something to hold on to.  I end up with Lola’s wrist.  I squeeze it, hard enough to make her yelp.

“Hey, are you sick or something?  What’s the matter with you?  Hey!” she hollers. “I think this girl’s sick!”

People around us are murmuring, but I can’t be bothered.  I have to pay attention; in another part of my head I’ve gone hollow. The part that was Tullin is gone, replaced with the image of…a mailbox?

A woman’s voice calls from far away.  “Zoey?  Where are you?”  A small hand reaches high, trying to get the mail.  The owner of the hand is too short to reach the metal door on the front of the box.  “Zoey?” calls the woman, more frantic this time.

I feel the presence of Zoey give up playing mailman and begin hopping across the double yellow lines in the center of the road.  My eyes seem to watch through hers as her tiny feet navigate the lines in white bedroom slippers. The bus engine roars in the distance, then surges to sudden fullness in my own ears.  Zoey’s gone.  I’m on the bus.  The bus shifts and clanks with numbing loudness as it heads towards Zoey’s hopscotch game.

I jump up and Lola falls back against the seat with her eyes wide.  I seem to have scared her momentarily mute. I put my hand on her shoulder to steady myself and try to step over her knees.  My foot gets caught in the strap of her backpack and I fall into the aisle.  “Stop the bus!” I scream.

Necks stretch as people watch me untangle myself, sloppy with panic.  My hair slings across my face and sticks in my lip-gloss.  “Stop the bus,” I screech again from the floor and there’s nervous laughter around me, but I don’t care if people think I’m crazy, because I’m not.  I know I’m not.  Confidence surges through me and in that second I know I’m wonderful and I’ve got to save somebody and they can think whatever they want.

I stand up from the floor. Mrs. Little’s eyes dart to the rearview mirror.  For the eternity of a second, we look at each other.

“There’s a little girl!”  I point out the windshield.  The words I yell are a surprise to me; I can’t understand how the feeling turned into words.  I can’t understand how the words are perfect.  Why aren’t they stuck in my throat like usual?  Why aren’t they forming a big wad of sound that can’t squeeze past the starting gate?

Mrs. Little pumps the brakes.  The bus lurches and slows just a tiny bit.

I manage to stumble forward.  “You gotta stop!  You’re gonna hit her!”

Mrs. Little leans over the steering wheel and peers through the fog.  “I don’t see anything,” she calls.  The bus slows some more, but it’s not enough.

I can’t see out the window either, but I know.  And the bus seems unstoppable as it rolls downhill.

I make it to the front.  “Now!  Stop now!” I scream.  I brace myself against the pole beside Mrs. Little.

“What are you talking about?”  Her voice is angry now, losing patience.  She presses the brake harder and everyone shrieks and falls forward when the bus jerks.

Then there’s a streak of red and a flurry of motion in the road.  We’re almost on top of it.  Mrs. Little makes a gurgling sound and stands on the brakes.  She turns the wheel in a hard left.  The rear of the bus slings into a screeching right slide.

People are screaming, book bags flying, and I’m thrown onto the metal handle that opens the door.  Just as we come to a rocking stop across both lanes in the road, there’s a thump.

I want to throw-up.

Then, silence.

 

Chapter Four

My nose and forehead mash into the ridges on the floor.  The talking inside the bus has shut off like we’ve suddenly plunged under water.  I lift my head and try to focus.

Mrs. Little is so still it’s like seeing a photo.  Her hands are double-clapped over her mouth, her eyes unmoving. Her foot in its comfortable shoe still holds the brake in a locked position against the floor.  Like a robot, she moves the gearshift to keep the bus from rolling, then slowly lifts her foot off the pedal.

The grumbling noise of the bus engine is the only thing left that’s connecting us to normal. But then Mrs. Little turns the engine off.  We’re in an eerie, quiet bubble of disbelief.  Nobody seems to breathe.

What’s outside?  Blood and brains and dead kid?  My stomach thrusts digestive juices into my throat.  I fight them down and push myself to my knees.

A high-pitched noise has started coming from Mrs. Little.  She rocks forward and backwards in her seat and makes the sound of a hurt baby rabbit, a wailing screech that comes from her chest.  Her mouth isn’t open to let it out and the hand remaining on her mouth helps hold it inside.  Her unblinking eyes are gigantic behind her glasses.

I stand and turn to look towards the seats.  Everyone is frozen. Everyone looks at me.  Someone has to do something.

“Call 9-1-1,” I whisper.

They all do it.  Every single kid with a phone pulls it out and starts dialing.  Most of them probably didn’t hear me yelling about the kid outside but they’re all freaked out.  Somewhere towards the back of the bus I can hear a choking sound.  Someone’s crying.  Someone’s hurt?  Another joins in.  I can’t locate the criers.  Their tears are camouflaged by the look of horror on everyone’s faces.

I turn back to Mrs. Little. The big hand pressed over her mouth looks sunburned against the white of her cheeks.  “Are you okay?” I ask. She doesn’t seem to hear me. My voice is coming from a tunnel inside my head.   Did I actually speak?

Someone needs to go outside.  I’m the closest person to the door.  I wait for my brain to point out that I’d be the worst possible first responder, but it stays silent and I’m still invincible.  I push at the handle that opens the doors and the rubber flaps give up their seal and suck apart. Fingers of white mist follow the motion of the doors as they open.  All I can think about is the color red that was in the road. I need to find it, wherever it lies.

And then someone is coming towards me from the back of the bus.  Trip.  He catches my elbow as if to hold me steady and looks down at our driver.  “Mrs. Little?”

She’s still unreachable.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for Trip. Too much emotion suddenly swims below the surface. I can’t speak or it’ll come up for air.  I have to stay steady.

I turn and go down the stairs, stepping off the bus into a mound of flowers–pink, white, and coral around a mailbox.  The mailbox tilts to the right, away from the front corner of the bumper.  Was this the thump?  We mowed down the mailbox?  A statue of a cement frog is lying on its side in the flowers.  Its cheeks are creased in a permanent, gruesome smile.  Joke’s on you, it seems to say.  You only killed the mailbox.

“That must’ve been what we hit,” says Trip, from the steps behind me.  “Better that than a dog or something, I guess.”

He doesn’t know.  He was too far back to hear what I said to Mrs. Little.

“What was wrong with you?” he asks.  “Why were you yelling?”

Might as well tell him.  He’ll probably hear about it soon, anyway.  “I saw somebody,” I say.

He follows me through the flowers. “You saw someone in the road?”

“Yeah.”  I circle around the flowers, checking for a crumpled body.  Then I cross through the beam of the headlights, scanning the weeds on the side of the pavement.  Nothing.

Trip’s still confused.  “You could see out the windshield from where you were sitting?”

I don’t bother to answer.  Where’s the red?  It has to be here somewhere.  I take a deep breath, squeeze my eyes shut and lower myself to the ground beside the wheel. I force myself to look underneath.

And there’s an empty little girl’s white bedroom slipper, turned on its side, just behind the front tire.

A screaming starts.  It blends together with the sound of sirens from all directions.  I squat onto my heels and curl into a ball.  Trip crouches beside me and I wonder if I’m a basket case, but the screaming isn’t me at all.

Beside the mailbox, there’s a driveway.  The scream comes from beyond the fog on the other end.  As it comes closer, I see it’s a woman in her pajamas.  Hysteria makes her into a banshee.  Her robe flies out behind her as she runs towards the bus.  Her hair stands in points.  Her mouth is a hole of dark in the white air.

Police cars arrive.  Cops swarm the scene.  Two hold the woman back at the end of her driveway, while three drop to their knees in front of the bus.  Just before I close my eyes again, I see Trip’s panic.  He reaches to cover his ears with his hands and draws his shoulders up, finally realizing what’s happening.

The invincibility is still with me.  I’m okay, I’m okay, I tell myself.  I stand and back away from the bus, letting the policemen crowd around the tires, so intent in their search that they don’t ask us why we’re not on the bus.  I watch them knock their hats off and scrape their gun holsters to push themselves underneath.

A movement inside the bus makes me glance up.  Faces in the windows above me. Fingers pointing.  The latches on the windows click and slide and the glass is lowered.  People yell out, their hands waving in the direction of the trees behind me.  “There’s a little kid over there! Back there!”

I turn in time to catch sight of a snatch of red.  It moves behind a bush.  I run towards it with the shouts from the bus following me, crashing through briars that grab and snap at my ankles.  I twist away from limbs until I reach a thick area of undergrowth.

A tiny girl in a red nightgown crouches behind the bushes.  Her thumb is in her mouth.  Her red nightgown has ripped and a bloody knee pokes through the tear.  She sees me with wide eyes and jerks her thumb from her mouth, startled into crying.

I walk carefully towards her and hold out my hand.

“I want Mommy,” she sobs.

I kneel beside her and she slides her small hand into mine.  All the air leaves my lungs and I’m heavy, then I’m weightless.

Then in relief, I soar.

 

Chapter Five

You’d think it was all about Lola.

“…And then, after you grabbed my arm, I was like, what’s the matter with this girl?  And then I said, ‘Hey, I think this girl might be sick,’ ‘cause I thought you were gonna heave all over the floor ‘cause you were bending down, and I was like, ‘Hey, something’s the matter with her!”

Lola twitches in her seat.  We’re back on the bus, waiting for a new driver.  Mrs. Little is in no condition to take us the rest of the way to school.  I haven’t figured out what kind of condition I’m in, yet.  I scratch my arm to make sure I can feel it.

I can’t.

Lola bites her thumbnail with nervous excitement.  I’m the newest topic in her never-ending conversation.  I should feel flattered.  Ha!  Take that, Ronald, Jimmy, and Charlie-the-dog.  She’ll be telling you all about me.  Except she doesn’t know my name.

 “Hey.  What’s your name, anyways?”

I sigh and relax my shoulders.  “Tullin,” I say, perfectly.  Still no bumps, no stumbles.  The blue lights keep flashing in the fog.  The police asked me a few questions and wrote down my answers, which were either yes or no, even though I could speak normally.   Mrs. Little was crying too much to give many details.

“You’re kidding,” says Lola.  “That’s the weirdest name I ever heard.  One time, we had a cat named Tennessee, but it got stuck in a drainpipe under the neighbor’s driveway and we didn’t know, so it starved to death, even though it was really fat to start with.  Mama named it Tennessee because we found it at this truck stop in Tennessee where the bathrooms were painted to look like…”

“Tullin was my mother’s maiden name,” I say.

“Huh?” says Lola. “What’s that mean?”

“H-her last name before she g-got married.”  No.  Please, no.  The smooth speech is sliding away like an egg yolk down a drain. The place where I scratched my arm begins to tingle.

“Why’d she change her name after she got married?  I’m not doing that. I’m gonna just be Lola, always and forever.  I don’t even care if my first husband hates it.”

Disappointment is crushing me, but I still wonder how many husbands Lola plans on having. The scratch is burning.  I look at it and see I’ve made a swollen whelp on my skin.

“It w-was h-her last n-n-name,” I say.  My throat tightens with tears.  Why is it going away?

Lola scratches her head and frowns. “You sound kinda shaken-up,” she points out.

I nod.

“You want them ambulance workers to check you out?”  She springs from her seat as if to run for help, but I grab her arm and snatch her back.

“I-I’m f-f-f-fine.”

“Nuh-uh, you’re not.  You’re talkin’ funny, now.  I’m getting you some help.”

The ambulance crew had already escorted everyone with cuts or bruises off the bus and given them Band-Aids and cold packs.  They seem to have finished their duties, then packed up and left, so there’s no danger of Lola hauling me anywhere.  Still, no need to call attention to my situation.

Someone opens the door of the bus and climbs in.

Lola elbows me and asks loudly,  “Who’s that?”  The talking dies down just in time for her to exclaim, “She looks like Oprah!”

It takes me a minute to place the woman who’s facing us.  Then I realize it’s Ms. Kelly, the new assistant principal.  She’s the one who gave the speech during the orientation about making good choices, and she assured us she wasn’t talking about choosing green beans over french fries in the cafeteria.

Ms. Kelly inspects us from behind her steel-rimmed glasses. Her brown eyes seem kind but authority overrides any warmth in her face.  A silver whistle hangs around her neck. “Students!”  she calls.  “I know this is upsetting. Thank you for waiting patiently while we sort things out.”

People start raising their hands and waving them.  One hand is waving a phone.

“My Mom wants to speak to an administrator.”

“How much longer?  I gotta go to the bathroom!”

“Are we going back home?”

Ms. Kelly blows her whistle and everyone shuts up, but they don’t stop waving.   “We’re heading to school now,” she says.  “There will be a recorded phone message going out to all your parents.  Everything’s fine.  Everyone remain calm.”

Lola waves her hand along with the others, jabbing it towards the ceiling like her news is extra important.  Ms. Kelly ignores them and sits in the driver’s seat.  She cranks the engine and inches the bus away from the accident scene.  We bump back into the road and gain speed so that it almost feels like a normal first day of school again.

And just like the way things were before the accident, if I even think about speaking, the muscles bunch and work in my throat.  I drop my chin onto my chest and take deep breaths so I won’t cry.  It was like giving one bite of delicious food to a starving person.

“Hey,” says Lola, after a few minutes of riding.  “Remember how you went running up there before we slid all over the place?  How come you did that?  Seems like you said something about that little girl.  I guess you could see her in the road after you stood up.  Hey, wait.  Why’d you stand up and start yelling in the first place?”

I shrug.

“You were gonna puke, right?  I knew it.  It was so weird that you smelled that peach cobbler.  I couldn’t smell it.  I think it must’ve been your breakfast already trying to puke itself back out.  Maybe your nose could like, smell it from your throat.  Did you eat peach cobbler for breakfast?”

I stare at the back of the seat in front of me and fold my hands in my lap, concentrating on not clenching them.  Or wrapping them around her neck.  I don’t want to think about the stupid peach cobbler.

“Hey, did you maybe eat peach jelly on your toast? Or drink some peach juice?  That’s where the smell came from, right?  From your own stomach!”

I might have to slap her.  Who drinks peach juice, for God’s sake?

I’m starting to notice a tremor in my midsection.  Probably, it’s waves of Lola-directed anger flowing from the core of my body.

Someone shouts Ms. Kelly’s name from the back of the bus.  We turn to see.  “Something’s wrong with David,” call some of Trip’s friends.  They stand against the windows, their focus on a bent, unmoving head.

Another guy says, “We told him his arm was probably broken, but he wouldn’t listen.”

Ms. Kelly pulls the bus onto the shoulder of the road.  She leaves the motor running and moves down the aisle towards David Turner, a football player and hot-guy-that-everyone-knows that I remember from Trip’s class in middle school.

When she touches him on the arm he yells out and jerks away. His face is pale and his lips are drawn back over his teeth.  This was only supposed to happen to him on the football field, not on the bus. He must’ve tried to pretend everything was fine.

I know about pretending.  It only works for a while, then the problem’s still there.

Ms. Kelly looks worried as she tries to make him comfortable.  She rearranges the guys around him so he won’t get bumped.  I’m sorry for him, but selfishly, I’m glad it wasn’t Trip.

By the time we make it to school, the bus is a shook-up can of soda, building pressure, ready for the doors to pop open so it can spew the story on everyone.  The tremors in my midsection have spread into my arms.  They shake like I’ve been pulling weeds in Dad’s garden for two hours without a break.

Lola’s close to bursting.  She talks nonstop and fidgets with the zippers on her backpack, but I can’t take in her words.  They’re fluttering in the air around me, a flock of annoying birds. I close my eyes and wish I could close my ears.  Lola finally bounds away into the parking lot, probably on the lookout for potential listeners.

I jostle along with the crowd, focused on my shoes as they slap the pavement.  The tremors have made their way into my legs, my shoulders, my fingers.

Everything’s fine though.  The tremors will go away.

Yeah, right, says my brain. David Turner isn’t the only one pretending.

 

Chapter Six

The next thing I notice is that I’m breathing in…and out…and in…and out.  How random.  How surprisingly interesting.

I blink and I’m in the hall beside the bathroom.  Time is slowing down.  Or I’m not keeping up.  Something is.  Strange.

To the left is a restroom.  Women. That’s me, isn’t it?   I push through the door and stand in the middle of the room.  Why did I come in here?   I go into a stall, close the door, lock it.

There’s rattling.  Skeleton teeth clacking on Halloween.  The tip of my nose vibrates and I realize the clacking is my own teeth.  The tremors are out of control.  I grasp my chin and try to push my lower face towards my cheekbones so my mouth will hold still, but my arms shake so hard that I can’t lift them.  I sink to the edge of the toilet and clench every muscle.

Water runs from the faucets.  Girls’ voices float through the room;  “Did you hear about the bus accident this morning?  I heard somebody broke both legs.”

Then another voice:  “No, it was just his arm.  I heard it was that guy David Turner that Cassie Winecoff went out with last year.”

Paper towels are wrenched from the holder and a metal trashcan lid snaps closed.  “What’s that chattering noise?” someone asks.

I clamp my lips together to hold my teeth still, which makes the shivering intensity in my stomach. There’s a tap on the door. “Are you okay in there?”

“I’m okay,” I try to say with my mouth pressed tight, but it sounds like, “M’m mmm…mmm.”

“Freaky,” someone whispers.  Then there’s giggling and the sound of running feet echoing from the walls.

I stare at my knees and concentrate on keeping my mouth from making a racket while other people come in and out.  Toilets flush and the bell rings.  Can’t move.  Can’t care.

The room finally seems to be empty and then there’s the sound of high heels walking across the floor.  Someone peeks under the door, followed by a gentle knock. “Tullin?”

I picture myself standing, lifting my hand, unlocking the door.  Nothing happens.

“Come on, Tullin.  Open up.”  The voice floats over my head and I look up.  Ms. Kelly looks down at me over the stall divider.  Her glasses are slowly sliding down her nose.  How is she that tall?

Stand up and open the door, Sweetie,” she commands.

I hiccup.  Then I’m laughing and my teeth are chattering at the same time because I realize she’s standing on the toilet in the next stall.  Hiccup.  That’s funny.

Her heels walk out and back in and I don’t know how long I’ve been on the edge of the toilet anymore.  I watch a credit card slide between the door and the lock of my stall.  Visa.  It’s Everywhere You Want to Be.  Well, that’s the truth.  Hiccup.  The card pushes at the latch as it lifts and rotates down.  The door swings open.

Ms. Kelly squats beside me and puts her hand on my cheek, looking at me with concern.  It seems like something a mother would do and I don’t know how to feel about it.  “It’s all right, Tullin.  It’s going to be okay.”  She puts a hand on my shoulder and pulls me towards her.  I lean against her with a shudder of relief while she presses a wad of toilet paper to the tears on the side of my face.

So much snot.

I want to go home.

 ~

I’m lying in the nurse’s office with David Turner.  We’re stretched out on matching paper-covered cots.  David’s face is tan against the white paper, but there’s a gray edge around his lips. The way his hurt arm is draped across his stomach and his eyes are closed reminds me of a soldier in a casket.

Ms. Kelly half-dragged me down the hall and stuck me in here beside him, a shivering blob, alternately freezing and sweating.  “I’m calling your Dad,” she says, then backs away, watching us with worried eyes.  How does she know to call Dad instead of Mom?  She must’ve spent the summer reading people’s records.

After she leaves, David opens his eyes and turns his head slow to look at me.  The paper on his table crinkles.

I’m on my side facing him, trying to get everything under control, only I can’t.  Clamping down on one body part just transfers the shivering to another.  I raise a shaking hand to scrub my face with a soggy scrap of toilet paper.

“You’re that girl,” he croaks.  “You found that kid.”

My teeth chatter at him.

“What happened to you?” he asks.

I chatter some more, like I’m trying to speak in dolphin.

He turns his head away and closes his eyes with a groan. “Oh God,” he says.  “…shouldn’t have moved.”

Even in my current state, I realize David Turner is cute on some level that feels personal, like I’m the only girl in the world who can fully understand and appreciate what a nice shape his head is and how perfectly his arms are attached to his wrists.  He has really strong-looking arm tendons.  I’ve never realized how attractive arm tendons are.

His body lurches a tiny bit, then he rolls towards me on his side and barfs onto the floor between us.   It hits the beige linoleum in a disgusting three-part smack. His eyes meet mine and we stare at each other in disbelief.  Then he flops onto his back, cradling his hurt arm.  “Sorry,” he whispers.

“S-s-s-s-okay,” I whisper back, but I cover my face with my hands.

Someone bursts in. I peek through my fingers.  It’s a woman in a white medical jacket.  She’s short and round and reminds me of a teapot.  “Call a custodian, Gina!” she shouts into the hall.  “Tell them to bring the body fluid neutralizer!”

David moans.  The gray color from his lips has moved in under his tan.  His eyelids twitch but stay closed.   She hands him a small cup of water, which he doesn’t take, probably because his eyes are shut, so she sits it on his chest.  It rises up and down as he breathes.

Teapot steps to the to the other side of my cot and pulls a blood-pressure cuff from around her neck, then attaches it around my arm with Velcro.

“Wh-wh-wh-what’s wrong w-w-w-with mm-m-me?”

She ignores my question.  She’s too busy trying to watch the little dial as she listens to my pulse.

Ms. Kelly leans in the doorway.  “The paramedics are on the way,” she says.

“Good,” says the teapot.  “Tell them this one’s probably in shock.”

“In-in sh-shock?  Wh-wh-what’s that mean?”

She finishes timing my pulse and rips the Velcro from my arm.  “I think you’re just having some emotional shock,” she says.  “Your blood pressure’s only slightly elevated, but your body’s telling you it didn’t like what you experienced.”  She looks into my face and breathes coffee-breath on me. “Usually people who react like this have been in some similar situation.  Have you ever been in a car accident, honey?”

I shake my head no.  Ms. Kelly comes back into the room and overhears the last of the question.  She moves behind Teapot, pokes her in the back, then leans in and whispers. I hear snatches of “…her mother…couple of years ago…” I focus on the ceiling tiles and pretend not to listen.

She definitely read my records.

An overgrown custodian slumps into the nurse’s office.  He dumps some vile green powder on David’s puke as he chews gum.  Then EMTs come in and work David’s arm into a plastic splint.  “God, it’s too tight,” pants David.  I slide the flat pillow from under my head over my face to give him some privacy as a woman in a denim skirt and tennis shoes barrels into the room.  I peek from under the pillow.

David’s eyes flutter open.  “Mom?”

Whoa.  That’s his mother?  She totally has grandma hair, frosted and curled tight.

David’s mother sucks in a lungful of air.  “Dear God Above!” She reaches a finger to touch the plastic chamber on David’s arm but jerks back before making contact.

“It’s a splint, ma’am,” says the EMT.   “We need to put him in the ambulance now.”

“The ambulance!”  David’s mother grasps her son’s cheeks in her palms and jerks his face towards hers.

Ms. Kelly puts a calming hand on David’s mother’s elbow.  “Mrs. Turner, everything’s okay,” she says.  “There was a slight bus accident this morning, but no one was seriously injured.”

“How was this a slight accident? How can you say no one was seriously injured?” Mrs. Turner’s voice is rising. “They’re taking my son away in an ambulance!”  She catches sight of me and turns away from David.

“And what happened to this child?”  She yanks the pillow from my head, lifting it high.  “Is she the one the bus hit?  You people scraped her up and brought her to school?”

“No, no,” says Ms. Kelly, plucking at Mrs. Turner’s white sweatshirt.  “She’s just shaken up. That’s all.”

Mrs. Turner drops the pillow back onto my head and her voice cracks.  “I don’t understand.”

“Ma, it’s okay,” says David.  “It’s just my arm.”

My admiration for him ratchets up a few notches.  What a considerate guy, being brave for his mother even in the face of a broken arm and the remnants of his own breakfast.

“What about football?” she demands.

David closes his eyes and doesn’t answer, the way Dad does when Trip asks an impossible question.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” David’s mother says to Ms. Kelly.  “If this thing that happened to my son on a Davis County school bus affects his chances at a football scholarship, you’ve got a problem on your hands.”  She pulls her shoulders back causing her pointed chin and huge chest to rise several inches.  “I’ll drive him to school myself from now on, even if I have to miss work.”  Her cheeks are growing redder.  “You tell your careless driver to forget stopping at our house!”

“Mrs. Turner, if you’d listen for a minute, I’ll explain…”

“And this poor child, too.”  She looks down at me. “She looks like she’s having a nervous breakdown.”

I move the pillow back to cover the side of my face.  “I-I’m f-f-fine,” I say.

“You’re not fine,” she insists.  “You can’t even speak properly. Where do you live, honey?”  She reaches into her purse and pulls out a small address book and a pen, which she uncaps and points at Ms. Kelly.  “It’s a shame and a sin when God-fearing, tax-paying members of society have to provide safe transportation to the children at a public school.” A tiny droplet of spit arches from her tongue towards my shoulder.

David is watching me.  I let my eyes meet his, see the pain drawing his eyebrows into a straight line and watch his eyes flicker from his mother, back to me.  It’s an apology.  It’s the same look he gave me after he puked.  “Ma, leave her alone,” he says.  “She doesn’t want a ride.”

I shudder with renewed force.  David Turner doesn’t want to have to ride to school with me in his mother’s back seat.  I’m a random freshman girl he just barfed in front of.  I give in to the spasm and close my eyes.

Then I imagine getting back on the bus and a roaring begins in my head.  What if the smell comes back? What if everyone points and talks about me?  I bite the inside of my lip.  The words pause in the back of my mouth, then get a running start and leap out.   “265 H-h-h-obb’s H-hill R-ro-road,” I say. Good God, says my brain.

“Perfect,” she says, writing it down.  “We’re only a few miles away.”

Someone sighs.

Please don’t let it be David.

Then there’s the sound of heavier footsteps and I know before I turn my head that it’s Dad. Relief floods through muscles I didn’t even know were clenched. He comes straight to me without acknowledging any of them, slides an arm under my shoulders and lifts me to a sitting position.  “C’mon Tullin, time to go.  I’m taking her home,” he says.  He looks at Ms. Kelly and I’m surprised to see dislike in his face.  “I got your message,” he tells her.  “Fortunately, my son also texted me after his first class. You could have told me the whole situation.  I would have been here sooner.”

Mrs. Turner sniffs, apparently in agreement.

“I told you there was an accident and Tullin was upset,” says Ms. Kelly defensively.

“You could have told me she was the one who got off the bus to search for the child.  You could have mentioned she was the one who looked underneath to see if the child was lying there dead…”

Ms. Kelly’s eyebrows rise.  “I didn’t know.  I called you before…”

But Dad is half-pulling, half-carrying me out the door.  He stops just before we leave and sighs.  “Look, I’m sorry, but our family’s been through a lot in the last few years.  Tullin is in no shape to deal with something like this.”

Wait…what?  Maybe I’m a total head case and don’t even know it.  Obviously, you’re more screwed up than you realize, points out my brain.  

Dad shuffles me past a reporter, the secretary, and the line of students still waiting for the phone.  There’s pointing and whispering.  “It’s her!  That’s the one I was telling you about…” Their gazes land on me and I feel myself shrink against Dad’s side.

Good job.  You’ve been at this school for one hour and you’ve already crawled out into the open and started to shrivel.        


It takes a deft touch indeed to pull off a believable YA voice, let alone do it with humor and style. I adored Tullin.
—Katherine Applegate, 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize judge

The Paper Lantern

Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer

It was Gaga, my grandpa, who told me about Vesak lanterns.

Vesak is a holiday.  People celebrate it in Sri Lanka, Gaga said, but not here in the United States.  Vesak is for remembering Lord Buddha, a teacher who lived a long time ago.  Lord Buddha was very wise, and he understood the truth about everything.

In May, on the day of Vesak, people wear white clothes.  The smell of incense floats in the air.  Roadside stalls serve food for free.  There are theaters in the streets, with plays and puppet shows.  Flags flap, drums beat, and people dance and sing.

At night, Vesak is a festival of lights, winking on the city streets.  A full moon beams in the sky.

And best of all, Gaga said, there are paper lanterns.  They are strung outside houses, from roof beams and tree branches.  They are every color you can imagine, yellow and lime-green, pale orange and red like fire, sky-blue, clean white.  Tails trail from them, rippling and waving.  Inside the lanterns are dipping, dancing flames.  They make the lanterns come alive, shining like happy souls.

I wanted to have a lantern, to share Gaga’s memories.  So together, we made one.

We bought red and white tissue paper from the drug store.  It was so thin we could see our hands through it.   We took it home.  We cut out paper squares.  Our scissors clicked, and the paper rustled softly.

We made a frame with sticks from the garden.  We used the straightest sticks we could find.  We glued the paper to the frame.

The lantern was open on the top.  There was a place inside for a candle.  We put a candle there, held firm with wax.  We hung paper tails from the corners, red and white.  I watched for night to fall, for Gaga to light the lantern.

I asked Gaga, when will the sun set?  Wait, he said, smiling.  When it is time, it will.

Dusk came at last, and he lit the candle.  He hung the lantern high, from a branch of the maple tree.

The lantern was glorious.  Its tails flowed down.  It gleamed in the dark.  The flame inside was strong.  Gaga and I sat outside, watching it.

When the wind started, I didn’t worry.  It was only a breeze at first.  Leaves shivered, shshshshhhh, and the branches sighed, owhoooohaaaah.

The wind blew harder, and the maple tree shook.  The lantern swung.  Its tails whipped back.  And then the lantern caught fire.

I shouted, no, no, no!  But it was too late.  Flames ran over the paper.  They ate up the lantern.

The wind gusted.  It caught up the lantern, and tossed it in the air.

The fiery tails rose up over the trees.  I cried, seeing them drift away.  My beautiful lantern was gone.

Gaga hugged me, and stroked my hair.  It was time for it to go, he said.  It was here for the night. It did its work.  It was beautiful.  Now its ashes will float up to the sky, he said.

We lay outside and watched the stars, hanging like a million lanterns in the sky.  The darkness was warm.  The crickets sang.  Frogs chirped.  The air smelled of cut grass.  Gaga told me stories.  It was a good Vesak.

Next year, we will make another lantern and set its light loose on Vesak night.


Evocative images, an original premise and a touching relationship make this a winning text. Delicately rendered and moving.
—Katherine Applegate, 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


A Skeleton Story

Val Howlett

A young girl has a dream about a monster. The monster is gray. It enters her window at night, just pulls it open and slides through, facing her, sagging and infinitely wrinkled, with rotting teeth. It reaches its long shadow-arms into her parted lips and down her throat to grab her life, to take it from her. She wakes up screaming.

Her parents rush upstairs, stroke her hair, tell her that monsters aren’t real. They are lying. They have lived many years and have encountered innumerable monsters: cancer monsters, plastic surgery monsters, drug monsters, monsters driven by money, or doctrine, or flattery, who are consumed by dead love, who are consumed by fear, monsters who feed on sex, or pity, or control. The modern world is full of monsters.

It is easier to be a monster than a girl.

 

Rattled

Sonia opens her front door to behold Nicole, back from a weeklong family vacation in Cancún. She is newly tanned, with colorful beads tapping against each other at the ends of her hair. She is wearing a blue dress that wraps around her body, and she carries a matching sky-blue handbag. She looks a lot older, not like a girl from Conshy anymore.

“Hey, loser!” Sonia says. She holds out her hand so Nicole can slap it, which is the first move in their secret handshake. Instead, Nicole steps forward and gives the air around her a hug.
“Sonia,” she coos. “How are you?’

Sonia doesn’t return the hug. “Why are you talking weird?”

“What do you mean?” asks Nicole, but she can’t hold her innocent look. “It’s part of the new me!” she says. “Let me in and I’ll tell you about it.”

She can’t even wait until they reach the kitchen. She follows Sonia, saying, “So you know my cousins went with us on the trip, right? The ones that are in high school? Well, they never paid attention to me before, but this year they decided to make me over!”

There is no nervousness in Nicole’s face, just a stupid oblivious doll smile, like it doesn’t even matter what Sonia thinks. Sonia rips open a bag of chips. She doesn’t say anything.

“I have all these plans now that are real seventh grade plans, you know?” says Nicole.  “Like getting a boyfriend. And I want to go to a real party, not a kid party—one where the parents aren’t there and there’s music playing and, you know… all that stuff.”

She lays her handbag on the counter. “Cori says she can get me into her friend’s Halloween party. You can probably come too.”

That’s when Sonia loses it. “Probably?” she says. “Trick or treating is ours. We’ve been going together since fourth grade!”

“Okay!” says Nicole. “I didn’t mean probably. Definitely. We can definitely both go to the party.” She flashes Sonia another doll-smile, as if the problem is solved.

There is so much more Sonia wants to say. Like: I don’t want to go to the party. I want go trick or treating. Like: How can you change your whole self in just one week?

She doesn’t, though. Nicole seems so happy. What if she protests and Nicole decides to go to the party without her?

“Oh,” says Nicole. “I got you something.” She reaches into her handbag and shuffles its contents until she locates something small. She pulls it out. It swings around as Nicole stretches out her arm, offering it to Sonia.

“A skeleton?” Sonia asks. She doesn’t take it.

“Well it was either that or a keychain that said ‘Mexico,’” says Nicole, and her voice gets closer to deadpan, like way she used to talk. “I figured this was better.”

“I guess,” says Sonia, watching the skeleton’s legs dangle. Nicole is holding it by the skull.

“You guess?” says Nicole, but then she stops. She pulls her face into a smile, forces a too-high laugh. “Well, you’re welcome!” she says.

“Thanks.” Sonia takes the skeleton keychain. It rattles until she stuffs it in her pocket.

 

Confession

Sonia is over most monsters, like ghosts and zombies, but she is still afraid of skeletons.

 

Connected

When Sonia was four, she and her sister Rose owned a DVD called Kids Sing. They devoured it, sucked it dry, played it every day until it skipped and sped and the songs sounded drowned sometimes. During most numbers, Sonia and Rose sang along, jumping on the couch, out cool-ing the pitch-perfect DVD kids. Rose was the better singer, but Sonia could always make her laugh with her wild saunter across the living room during “Hound Dog.”

But when “These Bones” came on, Sonia could not watch. The song itself did not scare her; the words were just about how human bodies are built:
The toe bone’s connected to the… foot bone!
The foot bone’s connected to the… ankle bone!
The ankle bone’s connected to the… leg bone,
These bones gonna walk around!
But the kids on the DVD sang the song in a science classroom next to a grown-up-sized skeleton, and on that last line, on “These bones gonna walk around!” the skeleton came to life and started dancing with the kids.

Even if Sonia braved the beginning, the dancing skeleton would always get her running. She would hide in the shadows of the blue bathroom, covering her ears, until Rose yelled that it was okay to come out again.

She’d slink back warily, just in case, and Rose would laugh in a tinkling mommy way and slide her arm over Sonia’s shoulder and keep it there for all of “Lullaby of Broadway.”

“What are you so scared of, Sonia?” she’d say. “Skeletons are just bones inside us, you know. Everybody has a skeleton inside.”

Sonia could not explain why they were scary. They just were. It was something about the way they danced—shaking, out of control—and their big gaping hole-eyes, and the way the shapes of their jaws looked like exaggerated empty smiles.

 

Contorted

There is no skeleton in Sonia’s dad’s classroom, but there is a poster of one on the wall. It stands, of course, beside Sonia’s desk, grinning down at her during class. If she looks up, she can see the names of bones stacked up on either side of the skeleton.

Cranium. Mandible. Femur. Firm, imposing words that make Sonia think of companies with big buildings or villain names in superhero movies. But when she looks at Rose’s bones, they seem the opposite, so frail.

Her dad doesn’t see Rose’s skeleton.

He is Rose’s defense at dinner, when their mother announces that Rose can’t leave the table until she eats all her pasta—not just cuts it into pasta confetti, but gets the contents of the plate into her mouth.

“I can’t!” she wails, balling her metacarpals and twisting her vertebrae until she’s appealing to the air above them. “Can’t you understand that I’m full? I’ve eaten so much already, Mom! I swear I’ll throw up if I have to eat more.”

And there’s Mr. McGinter, turning away from his daughter. “Susan,” he says, “don’t make her sick, for Christsake! She’s fine.”

“She’s not fine,” says Sonia’s mother, and Sonia tunes her out. She can’t stop looking from her so-smart sister, all contorted, to the mashup on Rose’s plate.

Sonia stands up, demands, “How could you possibly be full? I mean, how could you think we believe such a total lie when your plate is filled with food? You didn’t even eat lunch.”

“Sonia?” Rose says, “Shut up. You don’t know anything.”

And even in the room’s shocked silence, Rose holds her ground. “I already have Mom barking down my throat, watching me all the time,” she says. “I don’t need you too.”

 

Threats

Do not expect loyalty from skeleton girls. They will be fiercely devoted, adamantly your friend or sister, until you threaten their skeleton. Then, forget it.

Their skeletons take over.

Skeletons’ words are confusing, babbly. Don’t touch me. I’m fine. You’re butting in. You’re just jealous. You’re crazy. Why are you doing this to me?

Don’t listen to the words themselves. It’s more about their ferocity, the threats in them that seem to say something else.

Like: Push me and I will push you away.

Like: Take me like this, or you’ll lose me. Your choice is either skeleton or nothing at all.

 

Watching

Nicole is getting a lot of looks at school.

She wears a wrap dress almost every day (she must have bought forty of them in Cancún) and when she doesn’t, she wears ruffled tops and gauzy skirts that trail after her when she moves, and it looks like she glides instead of walks the way normal people do.

She already has a boyfriend. He goes by Tommy C., because there are two boys named Tommy in their class.

“He’s just my practice boyfriend,” she tells Sonia. “I really want a high school boy.”

She texts Tommy C. during lunch, smiling when he texts her back, laughing like an old movie actress when she reads the messages. Sometimes she walks to class with only him, leading him, holding his hand.

The other girls in seventh grade swarm Sonia, asking her questions. What happened to Nicole? Did she tell you why she changed? Why is she walking with Tommy C. instead of you? Does she think she’s better than everybody else? Aren’t you jealous? Aren’t you mad?

Yes, Sonia wants to say, YES! But she doesn’t. She defends Nicole, because they have always defended each other, because she doesn’t want to be friends with these girls either, these girls who watch her and Nicole like reality TV, like they can’t wait for things to get worse.

“Stop talking about Nicole,” she forces herself to tell them. “Mind your own business.” She walks away. From her backpack zipper, her skeleton keychain swings.

 

Trouble

“We can’t dress up as babies for Halloween,” Nicole says. “That’s… that’s like the kind of thing we would have done last year.”

Nicole has gotten an official okay from Cousin Cori: she and Sonia can both tag along to the Halloween party of a girl named Stacy Landen. Stacy is a Plymouth Whitemarsh High freshman, which means she is in the same class as Rose.

Rose was not invited to the party.

She has been so nice about it, though. “Oh, I know Stacy!” she said without even a hint of jealousy when Nicole bragged about it. She even baked for Nicole and Sonia’s costume brainstorming session, chocolate chip cookies she mixed and shaped and removed from the oven, setting the tray on the stovetop to cool. “I can’t wait to eat them,” she said, and for a moment, Sonia let herself hope that the real Rose, the Rose of the past, had gained control over her skeleton.

Nicole leans on the counter in a thinking pose, her head in her hand. Then she gasps, a smile spreading slowly on her face.

“What?” asks Sonia.

“I have got the best idea,” Nicole half-whispers. “We could be an angel and a devil.”

Sonia tries not to roll her eyes. “Let me guess,” she says. “You want to be the devil.”

Nicole bites her lip. “Yeah,” she admits. “Why, did you want to be…?”

“Nobody wants to be an angel.”

“Well,” Nicole glances at the ceiling, setting off her hair beads in a series of clicks. “You don’t have to be, like, a childish angel. My cousin Andrea was an angel last year, and she just wore a white peasant top and a tennis skirt and lots of body glitter, and, you know, wings and a halo. She looked really cute.”

Sonia doesn’t want to look cute, but she doesn’t want to look hot, either. She has no idea what she wants to look like. She isn’t excited for the party at all, where Nicole hopes to snag a high school boyfriend, where everyone will probably be kissing. She doesn’t want to kiss. She’s never had any desire to kiss a specific, actual boy, one she’s seen in class instead of the movies.

She changes the subject. “I think the cookies have cooled down,” she says.

And then Nicole says, “Oh, I don’t want one. I’m on a diet.”

Sonia’s eyes snap to Rose, but her sister shows no signs of listening. All Sonia can see is the back of Rose’s French braid bent over her textbook.

“That’s stupid,” says Sonia, and she jumps up to grab the cookie tray. She clanks it in front of them. “Diets are stupid,” she practically yells. She wants to scream.

“Well,” says Nicole, smiling like it’s all a joke, “maybe just a little one.” She holds her hand over the tray for a minute before selecting a medium-sized cookie. “I didn’t eat any junk food for lunch,” she says, “so it’s okay.”

“You don’t even need to diet,” Sonia tells her, but she looks at Rose. “No one in this room does.”

“I do, though,” says Nicole, in a gooey apology voice. “I have, like, love handles.” She whispers the phrase love handles. Sonia doesn’t even know what it means.

“Plus,” Nicole says, “My face is fat.”

Rose stands up, grabs her book.

“Where’re you going?” asks Sonia.

“Upstairs. Geometry is hard—I need total silence to focus on it.” Then Rose smiles, so kindly. “Have fun, though.”

She leaves before Sonia can ask Rose to have a cookie, although who would want a cookie after Nicole’s speech? Nicole, though, is reaching for a second.

“I thought you were on a diet,” says Sonia.

“I know,” moans Nicole, stuffing her face. “I just can’t control myself!”

Sonia excuses herself to the bathroom, even though she doesn’t have to go, just to get away from Nicole and her disgusting, fake, showy diet. What Rose is doing is terrible, but at least it’s real. Sonia can’t help admiring Rose’s willpower and thoughtfulness, the way she eats so little food even though her body must ache for more, the way she bakes cookies without eating a single one, the fact that though she is hurting herself, she is trying so hard not to trouble anyone else.

 

Somewhere

A week later, Rose collapses for the first time.

Sonia finds out at the end of the day, when she opens the door to her dad’s classroom and her English teacher is there. The teacher starts babbling, but Sonia doesn’t have to listen to know that within the three hours since science class, something happened to Rose.

She is surprisingly calm as she waits for her Dad’s car, as if her mind has been turned off and her body is moving without it. She gets into the car. She hears her Dad’s story in pieces.

Bus line

Fainted

Kids ran for help

What would it be like, to be doing something completely ordinary one moment and the
next be somewhere else—in the grass, looking up at a sky of stricken faces? Would it be scary, or just strange, the way Sonia is feeling now, as if nothing that’s happening is actually real?

Sonia stares out the window, watching the world move on the other side of the glass. She wonders if this is what it’s like to be Rose, if not eating somehow keeps her from feeling. It is human to feel, and after all, you need to eat to be human.

 

Hunger

Rose doesn’t look human. She is all skeleton in her bed, pretending indifference, rolling her eyes, her smirking skin stretching over her skull.

“This is such an overreaction,” she tells her parents, ignoring the tray of food her mother brings her, ignoring her doctor’s threat that if she doesn’t gain five pounds in the next week, she will have to be hospitalized.

“All I did was skip breakfast,” she says. “People faint all the time.”

Sonia wants to shake her, to grab hold of her humeruses and clavicles and joggle them until Rose snaps back into herself. Sonia could probably do it, too. Her sister is that small.

Sonia yells instead, hollers, “How did you get so stupid?” and “Why are you doing this to us?”

But Rose’s skeleton is admirably stubborn. It holds its ground, not cracking when Sonia starts crying, nor even when their mom joins in. When Mr. and Mrs. McGinter turn on Sonia, telling her to be quiet, Rose stares glossily ahead, her eyes two even-colored stones.

Later, over microwave dinners, the McGinter parents speak to Sonia. You can’t talk to your sister that way, they say. She’s sick. It’s frustrating for us too, but we have to encourage Rose. We can’t blame her for this.

Sonia doesn’t want to eat rubbery food in individualized tray compartments. She just doesn’t. She shuts her mouth, leaves her body, hovers around its edges. She throws out the tray once she’s left alone in the kitchen and doesn’t eat breakfast the next day, either.

Her parents don’t notice.

 

Look

Skeleton girls don’t outwardly beckon you to join them. They will bake you cookies to feed your flesh, as if the parts of them that are still girls are fighting for you. They’re magnanimous when you think about it, skeleton girls. They’ve succumbed, but they’ll be damned if you do too.

But don’t be fooled. The draw of the skeleton is subtle—the allure of power. The knowledge that when your skeleton enters a room, heads will turn.

Skeleton girls want to be invisible, but they want a visible kind of invisibility, a presence that says look how I’m starving and still I won’t bother you, still I can keep it to myself and not say a thing, can stretch out my mouth and smile.

 

Floating

The day of Rose’s weigh-in approaches. Mr. McGinter has taken to cooking rich food—steaks, mac ‘n’ cheese, barbecue even though the weather is getting cold. Rose picks at all of it, but her skeleton writhes, fighting for control.

“Shut up,” it snaps at Mom’s steady encouragements, her toneless stream of “you’re doing great.” It snaps, “I hate you,” and spits out other things, too, curses and threats and pronouncements that would make any sane person fantasize about shaking Rose until her eyes go vacant. Anything to remove that remorseless anger, that steel in her voice, that emptiness glaring around her bones.

Sonia doesn’t, though. She cuts her rich food, rearranges it, taking tiny bites and counting them in her head. Rose is so stupid. If she would just give their parents a little of what they wanted, eat a fraction of food, toss them nuggets of her former sweetness, they wouldn’t even notice her skeleton. They would completely leave her alone.

Sonia is smarter, and the better daughter too. She is not going to faint. She eats grapes for breakfast, bags of cucumber slices plus a measured amount of pretzels for lunch, and a variety of crumbs of all her dinners.

The first few days are excruciating, but after that, it becomes strangely easy to turn down food. It’s thrilling, actually, to give up just a little bit more, to offer Nicole half her sandwich at lunch and watch her eat it and imagine how good that peanut butter and jelly tastes all mixed together, the perfect combination of savory and sweet, but she won’t have any, she won’t snatch it back, because she is bigger than that. She is stronger than her physical self.

She isn’t even scared of the Halloween party anymore. She turns on music and compiles her costume, floating from the closet to the dresser to the bed, dancing a little. She teeters and her heart bounces around like she might fall but she keeps dancing. Will this wildness be what the party’s like?

Dressed, she poses in the mirror. Her tank top and tennis skirt hang off her like leaves. She stares at her fat face, rubs a glitter stick along her bones. Is she kissable? She’s ready to be kissed. Fear only lives outside her, now—not in her stomach and head and footsteps, the way it did before.

Sonia’s backpack sits on her bed. Her keychain watches her with its vacant-hole-eyes. It is always hungry.

 

To the Bone

Sonia and Nicole shiver their way up the stairs to Stacy Landen’s house. Nicole is wearing a short red dress that ends in jagged triangles, red fishnet stockings, and little red horns. She is carrying a plastic pitchfork. Sonia was right about the angel/devil debate—Nicole looks way more gorgeous than she does. It’s better to be the devil.

They go downstairs to the basement but it’s not like a movie teenager party. It’s not crowded or dark, and there are more girls than boys. Music is playing, but not loud enough for dancing.

No one is kissing.

Nicole screeches suddenly and runs toward two similarly tanned girls in French maid costumes, arms outstretched. Sonia sways in the center of the room. She doesn’t have the energy to follow.

Does she look high school? She doesn’t. She can’t. She screams “baby.” She has to move to the side and figure out what to do and everyone’s probably looking at her and she doesn’t want to be looked at, that’s the whole point. She was going to lose herself in this party and it’s not even dark.

She doesn’t feel well.

She stumbles toward the snack table, but there’s only a bowl of chip crumbs and a lot of bottles of soda and one bottle of some sort of clear alcohol. She can’t see what kind it is because the words on the label are blurring.

A couple of older boys surround the alcohol, joking and laughing as they pour it into cups, mixing it with the soda. They’re not like boys from Sonia’s class. They’re more like movie boys. Could she kiss one of them? But she can’t think like that when she’s a stupid angel and not with a friend and probably looks like a monster.

Still, when one of the boys stares back, asks, “Who are you?” sort of friendly, she smiles too, until the next boy elbows him and grins at her and says, “Fresh meat.”

Humiliation rises hot in Sonia’s throat. She turns away, but the world is spinning faster than she is. She was wrong about fear. It isn’t something you can keep away with starving or dizziness. Fear is inescapable. It’s everywhere.

Fainting is supposed to be romantic, but it is anything but. It feels like a mix of rising and falling, of throwing up and being strangled, of all your organs collapsing in a heap.

 

Sky

When she opens her eyes, it’s loud and Rose’s face is the sky.

“Let her breathe!” Rose yells, and the noise fades to a jostle of people moving back.

“You’re here?” Sonia asks. It’s really Rose, with her French braid and baggy sweater and bitten lip.

“I had to come,” Rose said. “I was worried.” Her eyes are full.

She stretches her radius out toward Sonia and they grip ice-hands, pull at each other until Sonia is standing up. But then Rose looks around instead of at Sonia, as if the other people are all she can really see.

“Rose?” Sonia asks, but Rose doesn’t look. Her head is bobbing for the exit, and when she spots it she says, “C’mon,” and starts walking. She doesn’t look.

There’s a choke in Sonia’s throat and she wants to talk but the choke is closing in. She pushes through it with her sister’s name, a strangled, “Rose,” and she closes her eyes so she can’t see if Rose has finally turned around to look at her. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” she says.    Rose has frozen on the stairs. She starts to turn around, but crumples into herself instead, a ball of Rose on the steps, gripping the banister like she needs it to survive. “I don’t either,” she howls, and the sound is base and piteous and undeniably human.

 

Human

You must be human to fight a monster. It seems wrong—your humanity, with all its messiness, is also what makes you susceptible to monsters, lets them in.

But you need the messiness. You can’t turn away from any part of what the monster is, why it’s there, what it means. For a monster to truly be defeated, it must be grappled with and known.

Knowing a monster is risky. Countless stories warn us—the actor playing a monster who cannot shake the role, the psychiatrist slipping into the mindset of a dangerous patient. The girl who wants to save her sister from a monster, but gets too close.

There is a fine line between thinking like and becoming a monster.

Sonia will throw her skeleton keychain out the window, but it will still exist in the darkness. Once you awaken a skeleton, it will always be with you, smiling, beckoning with its long, almost graceful hand of bone.


Finalist, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize

Covered Up Our Names

Jackie Lea Sommers

“Welcome to Raphaela House,” the sour-faced kid in the wheelchair said to Jonas.  “I’m Simon.  What’re ya in for?”  He didn’t extend his hand to shake; in fact, he was playing with some small firecracker-type contraband in his lap, and when he noticed Jonas looking, he covered whatever-it-was with his hands and glared at him. “Never mind.  I can guess.  Bald as a cue ball.  Swollen face.  Port under your t-shirt.  Some kind of blood cancer.”

Jonas was a little stunned, though he tried not to show it.  “Leukemia,” he muttered without looking up at his new roommate.

(He had never once assumed he’d have a roommate here, what with the sensitive nature of his condition—of all their conditions.  But Dr. Jones had rushed through some explanation of state funding and cutbacks and hard times and what-can-you-do that resulted in this unpleasant greeting.)

“How long have ya got?” Simon asked from where his wheelchair sat in the corner of the small, square room, over near the window, which was closed even though it was summer.  The stale air in this space was gummy with the sickly-sweet scent of illness.

This time Jonas looked up.

He didn’t like this kid, who couldn’t be older than fifteen, and though Jonas was a couple years older than that, Simon maintained a sneer of superiority.  His mouth was like the slash of a razor blade, and his eyes had a hard, jaded look. But then again, Jonas thought, my eyes might look the same way.

“What?” Simon asked, a menacing grin twisting on his face.  “You’ll get used to the question.  The place is like a fucking terrorist zone.  All full of ticking time-bombs, me included.  It’s fucking ironic, since Raphaela means ‘God has healed’ or some shit like that.  What happened to your family?”

Now, there was a question Jonas could answer.  A stock response he’d given through years and years of foster care: “Never knew my dad.  Mom was a basehead.”

“Basehead?”

“Coke.  Spoon.  Flame.” Strangely, he thought of Abby, the ten-year-old foster sister he’d had once upon a time.  But she wouldn’t be ten anymore.  How old—

“Oh.”  Simon was quiet for a moment.  “Jonesy and The Chap tell you everything when you got here?”

“Sort of.”

“The food’s not too bad.  They mostly let us do what we want.  One of the nurses—Lisette—is hot as fuck with these incredible tits … you don’t talk much, do ya?”

“Not much.”  Jonas wished that Simon would stop talking long enough for him to nap.

Simon held up his hands, revealing his firecrackers.  “I’m a fucking pyro.  Tell anyone, I’ll set these off in your bed.”

“Okay.”

“They’re fucking loud.  They’d destroy you.”

“Okay.”

Simon slid them safely into a plastic bag, which he then hid behind a painting on the otherwise-empty wall of their small room. The painting was of poppies—red, yellow, pink, indigo. “Want me to show you around?” he asked.

No. 

“Sure.”

Jonas followed Simon’s motorized wheelchair out the door of their room.  He just wanted to sleep; that’s pretty much all he ever wanted even before and through all the chemo.  Being awake in this place meant acknowledging that this was it, and he wasn’t ready for that—he felt no different from the days before they’d used the word terminal: apathetic, pissed off, and exhausted, but still strong.

He felt stronger still as he walked the corridor with Simon, glancing briefly into rooms full of young people who would probably never leave them, even for a short walk like this one.  It woke him up a little.  He wanted to lift weights like he used to when he lived with Abby and the rest of the Andersons, though he knew that was foolish.  She’d yammer out poetry stanzas while he’d bench press till he felt like a god.

“This is the rec room,” Simon said, as he rolled down the hall, gesturing toward an empty room completely void of recreation.  “Cafeteria.”  An open area full of tables that looked a lot like the lunchroom at his last high school, only much smaller. “Meds station.”  This time a gesture toward a corner of the cafeteria. “This whole fucking place is filled with meds.  One guy I know takes thirteen at a time!  Thirteen fucking pills and no water.”

“Impressive,” said Jonas, unimpressed.  They walked past another room.  A smaller one, with lilac walls and a row of small windows that faced the lake outside.  In the middle of the room was a round table, and at the table was a group of three kids—a boy and a girl around Jonas’s age and one kinda young-looking guy in a wheelchair.  The boys were leaning in to hear what the girl was reading from a sheet of loose-leaf paper.

They were laughing.

Jonas hadn’t seen anyone laugh yet at Raphaela House, though, granted, he’d just arrived that morning.  Dr. Jones (“Jonesy,” he supposed) and Reverend Sevan (“The Chap”?) had been friendly enough, had even smiled at him, but Raphaela House held an ugly heaviness in its halls, in its rooms.  It felt like a place where … well, where teenaged wards of the state went to die.

But this room was laughing.  It was like the light was different, even though Jonas knew it couldn’t be.  Maybe they weren’t all residents.  “Do people get a lot of visitors?” he asked, staring into the room at the group of three.  The girl had hair such a deep, dark shade of purple that it was almost black.

Simon wheeled back to where Jonas had stopped to look.  “Shit, no!  This is the Raphaela House.  No one here’s got anyone to come visit them.  Duh.”

Jonas still stared.  The purple-haired girl had the whitest skin he’d ever seen and the tiniest wrists.  And maybe the loudest laugh.

“The motherfucking Triumvirate,” Simon said, looking into the room and flashing his middle fingers at the group, which didn’t notice.  “They have the goddamn guts to act like they run the place.  Well,” he reconsidered, “Mack kinda does.”

Jonas wondered which one was Mack.  Maybe the other teenager, the tough guy.  Well, tough for being in a hospice.  He looked like Matt Dillon in The Outsiders—if, you know, he were dying.

“Let’s go; I have meds in ten minutes,” Simon said, and when Jonas didn’t follow him, he sneered, “Triumvirate means three, if you didn’t know.”

 ~

Jonas was drawn to them, the Triumvirate or whatever-the-hell.  The girl with the long purple hair.  The greaser with the big grin.  The kid in the wheelchair.  He saw the three of them together all the time: they ate their meals together, at their own table, separate from the rest.  They often were huddled together at the table in that tiny lilac room, laughing over whatever that girl was always reading aloud.  They weren’t in any of the support groups offered; Simon said they refused to go.

“Look at him,” Simon sneered one afternoon in the cafeteria, nodding his head in the direction of the grinning Outsiders kid sitting at his separate table with the rest of his crew.  “I’d be smiling too if I were getting some in here.”

Jonas monitored his surprise, settling his face into a frown, eyebrows furrowed if he’d still had any.  “You think they’re sleeping together?  That can’t be allowed.”

“Of course they are,” Simon said.  “What did I tell you?  Mack runs the goddamn place.”

“What makes you think that?  Are people afraid of him or something?”

“Him?”  Simon looked at Jonas like he was an idiot.  “Mack is the girl, dumbfuck.  Macaulay Kennedy.  And Ty Johnson is totally boning her.  Look at the way he worships the ground she walks on.  Everyone does.”  Simon looked over at the table, and though his scowl remained painted on his face, it softened.

“Do you?” Jonas asked.

Simon, for once, stuttered a little bit, which almost made Jonas want to laugh.  “I mean … I’m not saying I wouldn’t bang her.  She’s—”

But at that moment, Macaulay “Mack” Kennedy stood up and faced the rest of the cafeteria.  And even though she was in the corner with Ty Johnson and the wheelchair kid, the rest of the cafeteria stopped.  It only took about nine seconds before it was silent.  The girl with the purple hair announced, “Let’s have a talent show.”

 ~

And so, because Mack Kennedy apparently ran the goddamn place, they did so the following evening.

Simon didn’t attend.  He said he wasn’t breathing well and wanted to be connected to his ventilator early that night, but Jonas figured he was just horny and pissed.

It wasn’t well organized.  Jonesy and some of the nurses had set up a makeshift stage, and people, in no exact order, stood up and shared.  Someone did stand-up comedy that wasn’t particularly funny, and another played the piano—well, a keyboard that Jonesy had brought in from the rec room.  Ty Johnson strummed a guitar while Mack sang a song, and her voice was sweet and light and breathy, like you’d imagine a bird would sing if it only had words. It made Jonas’s throat hurt in a strange, greedy way.

“Who else?” Mack said afterward.  “We need a closing act, and it’s got to be good.  You.  New guy.  Got anything?”  She pointed to Jonas and then curled her finger back toward herself, beckoning him onto the stage.  She had a tiny grin on her face, and it pulled him in like magic.  It had to be magic, because there was no other way in hell that he would be getting out of his seat and moving to the front of the room without it.  Only magic could explain the way he locked eyes with the purple-haired girl for one second, and in that moment remembered an Emily Dickinson poem that his former foster sister Abby had memorized aloud while he lifted weights.  It had been three—maybe four—years ago, and he hadn’t thought of it since, but as he stepped onto the tiny stage, he knew the words were in him.

He recited:

 

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, — the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

 

He spoke the last line breathlessly to a room quiet and thoughtful.  Then Macaulay Kennedy started to clap and the rest of the room followed, and the silence was broken.  A twelve-year-old in the corner of the room started to cry, hardly knowing why, and Jonas felt guilty.  The talent show was clearly over.

“Hey,” said Mack as he started to leave the stage.  “That was good.  Poetry.  We needed a little poetry tonight.  Dickinson?”

He nodded and began to walk away, thinking of Abby and the Andersons and of Mack’s feather-light song that made him ache tonight.

“What’s your name?” Mack asked his back.

Jonas turned around.  “Jonas,” he said.  Don’t invest, his bones told him.  Don’t even think about it.  And again, Abby flitted through his mind, the little sister he’d always wanted.  The hurt flashed in his throat again, though it was different this time.

“I’m Mack,” she said.

“I know.” He turned away.

He was exhausted.  It felt like the poem had been a globe of energy burning in his chest, though he hadn’t even known or remembered it was there, and now that he had removed that ball and tossed it to the crowd, he felt empty.

The meds station was in the corner of the cafeteria, and Jonas stopped by to get something to help him sleep well that night.  “Thanks Lisette,” he said, knocking the pills to the back of his throat and swallowing them down with a Dixie cup of water.  “Appreciate it.”

“Nice work tonight, Shakespeare,” she said, and he didn’t correct her.

As he made his way down the corridor to the room he shared with Simon, Jonas saw Mack hugging the young girl who had cried at the poem, and he wondered what could heal whatever wound a poem would make.

 ~

The next day, when Jonas made his daily trip past the Triumvirate’s lilac room, Mack looked up and saw him, then motioned for him to come inside.  He hesitated for a moment, but Mack gestured wildly, and he entered the room.

“This is the poetry guy,” she said to Ty and the wheelchair kid.  “From last night.”

“I’m not really a ‘poetry guy,’” admitted Jonas, making the quotations with his fingers.  “I don’t even know how I remembered that one actually.  Sorry.”  He wondered stupidly if being a “poetry guy” was the only reason he’d been invited into the room and if he’d foolishly just snuffed out that candle.  Was it foolish though?  He felt drawn to these three, especially to the girl with purple hair, but it was just so hard … and he didn’t know how much capacity he had left for connection.  Not in a hospice.

But Mack said, “Doesn’t matter.  What was your name again?”

“Jonas,” he repeated.

“I’m Mack,” she said.

“I know,” he said again.

“This is Ty, and this is Caleb,” she said, gesturing respectively.

“Hey,” said Ty, half-amused and half-suspicious.  His dark hair was buzzed short with a tiny patch missing on one side.  The whites of his eyes were tinged with yellow, giving him a hardened, feral look.  Liver problems, Jonas thought. Sucks.

But the kid in the wheelchair said, “Nice to meet you!” as if he belonged anywhere but here in Raphaela House.  He was probably thirteen or so, but he had babyish features and a voice that hadn’t yet dropped.

“Hi,” said Jonas, then moved to run his fingers nervously through his (non-existent) hair.  He didn’t know if he should stay or go.

“Want to hear a story?” Mack asked.  She raised her eyebrows, expectant.

Did he?

“Um, sure.  Yeah.”

“Grab a seat.”

Jonas pulled a folding chair out from the table and set it down a tiny bit out of the circle.  Mack picked up a piece of paper from the table.  “It’s a continuation,” she said.  “You’ll have to just catch yourself up.”

He nodded.

She read:

It was finally the night of the midnight swimming race, and Tyler and Caleb stood together on the dock, staring out across the lake, a dark mirror reflecting the stars.

 “It’s pretty far to the other side,” said Ty.  “Sure you’ve got this?”

 “Wuss,” Caleb replied.  “I’ll be there and back before your ass has time to sink to the bottom.”

 Ty shoved him playfully into the water.  Caleb came up spluttering but laughing.  “Holy shit!  It’s freezing in here!” he said through chattering teeth.

 “Did you think it was a hot tub?” Tyler asked and dove in himself, graceful as a swan.

 “When do we start?” Caleb asked, treading water like a pro.

 “Now,” said Tyler, and they were off.

 

Mack put the paper down.  “That’s it.”

“That’s it?” Caleb complained.  “That was like nothing!”

Mack laughed.  “I’ve only had since last night, Caleb.  What’d you expect?”

“Next page I’d better have kicked his ass,” he said, giggling as he shouldered gently into Tyler’s side.

“Dream on, little shit!” said Tyler, but his eyes were happy, twinkling.  It was obvious that Mack and Ty thought the world of Caleb.  Like Jonas had thought of Abby.

“Is this what you do every day?” Jonas asked, a little surprised to learn the daily meetings were a story hour.

Ty narrowed his eyes at him.  “Have a problem with it?”

“No,” said Jonas quickly.  “No, not—I was just wondering.”

“Mack’s writing a book,” Caleb explained.  “And I’m the main character.”

“I repeat: dream on, little shit!” said Ty, with that same grin only reserved for the Triumvirate.

“I like it,” Jonas said quietly.  “I want to hear more.” What was he really saying?

“Okay,” said Mack, while Ty and Caleb wrestled—or wrestled as much as two dying kids could when one is in a wheelchair and—Jonas noticed for the first time—a double-amputee.  “After dinner.  Meet back here.”

 ~

Simon slept all afternoon, connected to his ventilator, while Jonas rested on his own bed on the opposite side of the room, bored but tolerant while Darth Vader noisily drank his fill of clean oxygen.  Every so often, a small alarm would go off, startling Jonas, who wondered if he should be going to find a nurse, though he figured they were monitoring it all remotely.

Raphaela House, thought Jonas.  God has healed.

It did feel ironic.

He didn’t like the quiet afternoons in this place.  He’d been transferred here from Children’s, where there were a million activities going on all the time.  Visitors, therapy dogs, even the clown care unit that he found a little creepy—they were all signs of life.  The silence, perforated only by the breathing ventilator and its occasional beeping, felt just the opposite: a sign of death.

He didn’t like to think about it.

Simon was still asleep at dinner time, so Jonas, who usually ate with his roommate in the cafeteria, sat there alone, until Mack called out, “Jonas!  Come sit with us!” and gestured him over to the Triumvirate’s table.  The rest of the cafeteria seemed to pause for a moment—Jonas thought he could almost hear a jealous intake of breath, but he had to have been imagining that.

“Hey Mack.  Caleb.  Tyler.”  He nodded at each as he sat down, bringing over his tray.

“Ty,” corrected Ty, an eyebrow raised.

“Oh be nice,” said Mack.  “I call you Tyler all the time.”

“Well, sometimes it slips out during—”

“Ty!  The child is here!” she admonished, her eyes alight.

Caleb giggled.

Wow, thought Jonas, and for a second his mind marveled at the complicated orchestration that would make sex even possible in a house with almost no privacy and lots of rules.  The complexity of it impressed him.  Loneliness licked all over his body like a quick flame.

Taking a hint from Simon, Jonas asked, “So, what’re ya all in for?”

“Osteosarcoma,” said Caleb, then flipped his thumb back and forth between him and Ty.  “The both of us.”  Ty just looked tired.

“Pulmonary fibrosis,” said Mack, “but …”

“She’ll get a lung transplant any day now,” said Ty and Caleb in unison.

“Exactly,” she said, grinning, and her grin was like a gold medal.

Jonas couldn’t bring himself to ask Simon’s second question—How long have ya got?—so he changed it a little.  “How long have you guys been at Raphaela House?”

“Ty was here first,” said Mack.  “He got here—what—last winter?”

“December, yeah,” Ty agreed.  “Worst two months of my life till Mack showed up.”

She made kissy-lips at him.

“And I came in March,” added Caleb.

“They’re my boys,” Mack said, throwing an arm around each of them.  She leaned in conspiratorially toward Jonas.  “I don’t know if you’ve realized this yet, but people around here can be a bit … morbid.”

He laughed at the understated sarcasm, and spit out a little of the milk he’d been drinking, which made Mack laugh too.

“We try to keep things a little lighter,” she said, stealing something off of Ty’s tray and then eating it while making a flirty face at him, all scrunched-up nose and squinty eyes.  He looked at her like she was his god.

I wonder if I look at her the same way, Jonas thought.  Then, for just a second, he thought of Abby Anderson, ten years old and the only good thing foster care had ever brought his way.  While it had lasted. She’s fourteen now, he realized.  He wondered if she still liked poetry.

“It’s my job to write the stories and theirs to enjoy them,” Mack continued.  “Which you do,” she added pointedly toward Ty, changing her face to an “I-dare-you-to-disagree” expression, eyebrows raised.  Caleb giggled again, and Mack looked at him, affection emanating from her like the beam from a halo.  Jonas used to look at Abby the same way.

He hoped she still liked poetry.

“So what’s up with you?” Ty asked.

“Leukemia,” Jonas answered.  “They gave me five or six months.”

The admission shocked him; it was the first time he had vocalized his prognosis. Jonas thought his heart had stopped; his ears plugged up, and for a moment, the cafeteria sounded like it was underwater.

And yet, none of the three were reacting as if he’d said anything especially important, so Jonas swallowed hard and tried to slow his breathing.

“I’ve already outlived my sentence,” Ty said, and it wasn’t bragging, just a fact, a statement spoken in the same tone as “I need to buy toothpaste.”

Caleb added, “When Mack’s new lungs come, she’s gonna live forever.”

Forever,” she repeated and poked his nose as if it were a button.

 ~

After dinner, they retreated to the lilac room with the lake-facing windows.  Caleb maneuvered his motorized wheelchair down the corridor, and Ty and Jonas followed.  Mack went to her room to get the new scene she had written.

“I mean, you realize we’re together, right?  Me and Mack,” Ty said to Jonas.  “I just don’t want you to get any ideas.”

“Oh.”  He’d never encountered so much bluntness in his life.  “Oh, yeah.  Totally, man.”

It was a little uncomfortable until Mack reappeared with a page in her hand.  She waved it around as if it were her golden ticket to the chocolate factory.  “Okay, listen up,” she said, and read:

 

Ty was strong and buff and hot as hell—

 

She winked at him.

 

—but it was hard for anyone to match Caleb as a swimmer, who had been, after all, the number one swimmer in his age division for all of junior high.

 

“That’s true,” Caleb remarked to Jonas.

 

Caleb’s legs were strong, and he moved like a dolphin through the dark waters, neck and neck with Tyler as they made their way across the lake.

 

The story continued on, keeping the two competitors evenly matched, and for those few minutes, Jonas believed in a world where these two had never heard of osteosarcoma, believed that when he looked up, he’d see Caleb’s legs where they ought to be, see him get up and walk out the door and jump into the lake they could see through the windows.

“I want to go swimming,” Caleb whined when the story was over, still without declaring a victor.  “Like, so bad.”

“There’s a therapy pool, right?” Jonas asked.

Caleb rolled his eyes.  “Yeah, not the same.”

“How come that’s all the further you got, Mack?” Ty asked.  “What were you doing all afternoon?”

Jonas was intrigued.  He’d been imagining that the three of them—or at least Mack and Ty—spent all their time together.

“I was around,” she said airily.

“Were you with The Chap again?” Ty asked.

“Maybe.”

“Doing what?  Getting religion?” he teased.

“Maybe.”

You?”

“Yes, me,” she snapped back, although there was no anger in her voice, though it did sound a little displaced, as if her thoughts were in Reverend Sevan’s office and not this room.

“Well, fine, if you don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

She laughed.  It was the loveliest laugh Jonas had ever heard; no one, least of all Ty, could be upset after hearing that laugh.  Since his diagnosis, Jonas had scoffed at the silly phrase “laughter is the best medicine,” but when he heard Macaulay Kennedy’s, he wanted to believe that.

“I need to go to bed early tonight,” she said.  “Sorry guys.  I lost two more pounds, and I feel tired as shit.  Oxygen therapy tonight for this gal.”  She kissed Caleb on the top of his head and Tyler on his lips and was gone as quickly as that, squeezing Jonas’s arm on her way out the door.

“She’s hurting,” Ty remarked to Caleb when she had left the room.

“How can you tell?” Jonas asked, and as soon as he did, he wondered if he was being too nosy.  For all he knew, he wasn’t even welcome in this room when Mack wasn’t in it.

“Her cough has sounded really dry all day,” Caleb answered.  “And she doesn’t go to bed this early unless she’s really zonked and needs oxygen.”

“Scar tissue on the lungs,” Ty said to Jonas’s unasked question.  “I’ll wake her up in the morning.  Homegirl sleeps naked.”

“Isn’t that against the rules?” Jonas asked.  “And how would you even know?”

“Mack makes her own rules.  And how the hell do you think I know?”

“Oh.”

Caleb giggled.  Again.

Jonas chewed on the inside of his lip, awkward and uncomfortable and wondering if he should leave.

“You don’t have to go,” Caleb said, a smile tugging at his lips.  “If that’s what you were thinking.”

Jonas gave the kid a funny little look.  “Thanks, man.”

 ~

Jonas couldn’t sleep that night.  Simon’s breathing made a gurgling sound that make Jonas sick to his stomach.  Nurses were in and out of his room all night, changing Simon’s position, elevating the head of the bed, administering patches of some sort behind his ears and then changing the IV bags.  “Sorry about this,” Lisette said to Jonas when she saw him lying in his bed, eyes wide.  “We’ll switch you into another room tomorrow, sweetie.”

“It’s fine,” said Jonas.  “Is he okay?”

Lisette gave him a sad smile and said, “Get some rest, sweetie.”

Jonas realized what a dumb question it had been.

 ~

Mack didn’t show up to breakfast, but Jonas went to sit with Caleb and Ty anyway.  “Where’s Mack?” he asked.

“Still sleeping,” said Ty.

“I’m getting switched out of my room today, I guess,” said Jonas.  “Simon’s not breathing well.  It sounds terrible.”

Caleb and Tyler looked at each other knowingly.  “Rattle,” said Ty.

“Huh?”

“Death rattle.  When it gets close, sometimes you can’t swallow and saliva accumulates—”

“—okay, enough,” said Jonas.  “I get it.”

“It’s probably going to happen to most of us,” Ty persisted, stabbing at his food with his fork.  “I mean, you do realize this is hospice care, right?”

Jonas frowned and rolled his eyes.

“Just saying,” Tyler said, leaning back in his seat.

“I get it,” Jonas repeated, quieter this time.

Caleb was watching the two boys and finally decided to break in.  “I like being here,” he said suddenly.  “I actually like it here.”

Jonas looked at him in surprise, but Ty agreed, “Raphaela House is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“How … how can you say that?” Jonas asked.

“Listen,” said Ty.  “I’ve been dying my whole life.  Not just since my diagnosis, understand? When Mack came, I finally started to live.”

He got up and left the table while Jonas and Caleb stared after him.

 ~

When Jonas went to return to his room after breakfast, The Chap was just leaving his room and intercepted him.  “Jonas!” said Reverend Sevan, gently redirecting his shoulders.  “Could I have a word with you?  A little walk maybe?”

Jonas tried to peer into the room, but Reverend Sevan redirected him.

“How has your first week with us been, Jonas?” he asked, seeming genuine enough.  The Chap wore an outfit similar to the one he’d worn when Jonas had first moved into Raphaela House, khaki slacks and a Mr. Rogers cardigan.  He had gray hair, glasses, dark skin stretched over a kind and honest face.

“It’s been … fine.  I mean … yeah.”

“Making friends?”

“I guess.  Macaulay Kennedy.  And Ty Johnson, sorta.  And Caleb … I don’t know Caleb’s full name.”

“Ahhh!  Wonderful!” said The Chap.  “That Mack Kennedy is a special, special girl.”

Jonas now remembered what Ty had said about Mack spending time with The Chap, “getting religion.”  He had a strong suspicion that The Chap wouldn’t talk about it, even if he asked. Besides, he thought, why would I ask?

Jonas thought of Mack, her gold medal smile and her laughter like a prescription he craved, and then pictured her on a respirator just like Simon.  He shuddered.  It seemed wrong for a girl so alive to be in a place like this.

The Chap sighed as they walked down the corridor together; though Jonas hadn’t spoken, The Chap seemed to know what he was thinking.  “The important thing is to find meaning in life and death.  You know, Jonas, if you ever have any spiritual needs, I’d be happy to talk with you more.”

Do I have spiritual needs? Jonas wondered.  “Okay,” he said.  “Do … do a lot of kids in here have spiritual needs?”

“I meet with a fair amount of residents as they sort through their thoughts about the end of this life and the possible start of a new one, making peace with God, that sort of thing.”  The Chap waved to the receptionist at the front door and held the door open for Jonas.  “Have a few minutes?  Want to walk to the lake?  It’s a beautiful day.  Lisette won’t yell at me, will she?”

“Sure, no,” said Jonas, his mind split between the absences at breakfast: Simon, Mack.  How much did they think about an afterlife?

Jonas and The Chap took a slow stroll over the short lawn to the lake, the same lake that featured in Mack’s stories.  It was navy and full of summer sunlight, still and silent.  “I suppose a lot of the kids in Raphaela House need to make peace with God, huh?  I think most of us have pretty shitty stories.” Even as he said it, he thought of Abby.  Just a kid when he last saw her, the closest thing he’d ever had to a little sister.  “Sorry,” he said as an afterthought, in reference to his swearing.

The Chap didn’t say anything, only picked up a rock from the shore, drew it back, released it, and let it skip across the waters.  He grinned at Jonas.  “Just two.  Not my best,” he said.

Jonas picked up a rock himself and tossed it toward the lake.  Three skips.  He looked at Reverend Sevan, who was grinning.  “Nice one!” said The Chap.  “I saw that you’ve been in foster care since you were seven, is that right?  That had to be hard, hmmm?”

Jonas skipped another rock.  Three again.  He shrugged.  “I guess.  Mostly it’s been a hassle—for me, for my foster parents.  And with the cancer, just a mess.  In some ways, it’s good to be here.”  He thought how he’d reacted to Ty’s nearly identical statement just a half an hour earlier.  “I don’t know,” he said again.  He wished he could just get a message to Abby.  But how do you find a specific 14-year-old with the last name Anderson?

The Chap was looking hard at him, and it made him uncomfortable.

“So what happens after we die?” he asked The Chap.  He tried to make it sound like a joke, but he found he was really interested to hear the answer.  “Heaven?  Hell?”

“I believe in both,” Reverend Sevan said.  “How about you?”

“Haven’t thought about it much.”

The Chap released a short burst of laughter.  Jonas looked at him.

“You will,” he said.  “And then we’ll talk.  What else can I do for you, Jonas?”  He put a hand on Jonas’s shoulder.

And the request was there in an instant: “I need to find someone.”

 ~

When Jonas returned to his room later that morning, Simon was gone.

Jonas knew.  He knew, but he asked anyway: “Where’s Simon?”

Lisette gave him that same sad smile as she had before and said, “Simon passed away earlier this morning.”  She waited for a little while, then asked, “How are you?  Do you want to talk to Reverend Sevan?”

“No,” Jonas grumped.  “I was just with him.”

“There’s a grief group meeting after lunch; you should go,” she insisted gently.  “My shift is almost over, but you really should go after lunch, okay?”

“Maybe,” he said, then crawled into his bed to doze till lunch, though it was hard to fall asleep with the empty bed beside him like a stark, spare prophecy.

 ~

But finally, he did nod off, even sleeping through lunch, and though someone brought lunch to his room, he ignored it.  When a nurse reminded him about the grief counseling going on afterward, he snapped, “I didn’t even like him.”

The third knock at his door, he barked out, “Leave me alone, dammit!”

The door pushed open regardless of his yelling, and Macaulay Kennedy peeked into the room.  “That’s not very friendly, Jonas,” she teased lightly.

He softened at seeing her.  “Hey,” he whispered and sat up in bed.  “How are you feeling?”

She stepped into his room and sat down on his bed.  “Okay.  Sort of.  Not really.”  She was facing Simon’s empty bed.  Her shoulders were so small and angular beneath that cascade of deep purple.  “I heard about your roommate.  I’m sorry.”

Jonas shrugged.  “It’s okay.  I barely knew him.  He was kind of a prick.”

“But still.”

They were quiet for a little bit, and then Mack said, “I heard you talked to The Chap this morning.”

“Yeah.”

She didn’t ask what they talked about.  Instead she said, “I like him, The Chap.  He does a lot of listening and not a lot of preaching, you know?  Like, he’s not super pushy with his own beliefs, but he’ll answer questions if I ask.”

“What do you ask about?” Jonas asked quietly, as if a louder volume would repel an answer.

She sighed.  “The Bible.  Communion.  Baptism.”

“Baptism?”

She shrugged again.  For a second it looked as if she was going to say more, but then she reached out and squeezed Jonas’s arm and said, “Come on.  Let’s go read.”

 ~

Caleb and Tyler were already assembled in the tiny room that looked out on the lake.  In fact, Caleb had wheeled himself up to the row of windows and was staring down at water just past the shore Jonas and The Chap had visited that morning.  “It’s not that far,” he said to Ty as Jonas and Mack joined them.  “I could have kicked your ass if I still had my legs.  I was fast, man.”

“I believe it,” Ty said.

“Do you miss it?” Mack asked, coming up behind Caleb and putting her hands on his shoulders while he gazed out at the lake.  “Being in the water?”

“Every day,” he said.  “Every single day.”

Mack rubbed her hands along Caleb’s back.  “Next best thing,” she said and nodded toward the table.  When they had all gathered around, she read:

 

Caleb and Tyler raced across the lake with a furious energy; the distance to the opposite shore seemed farther than it ever had looked from land.  And yet, they powered across.  The waters were dark, and there was no moon tonight.  Heads down, strong strokes, wild legs, Caleb started to lose his sense of direction.

 

“Hey!” he complained.

“Shhh,” said Mack and read on:

 

It was a strange feeling, especially for someone who was so comfortable in the water.  He could hear Tyler next to him in the dark, could hear his sharp intakes of breath, and Caleb knew he was disoriented too.

 The disillusion spread across the black waters like fog.  Without seeing the opposite shore, Caleb’s arms and legs started to feel tired.  Forget winning the race, he thought.  I just need land.

 And then, there she was.  A girl swam up behind them; she had purple hair and a face so pale that she looked like a ghost or an angel.  “I’ve got this,” she whispered to the boys, and then—quite suddenly!—in the sky there were flashes of all colors.

 Fireworks, thought Caleb.  They streaked across the sky, lighting it in a way that he could see the further shore.  He powered on.

 

“Is the race ever going to end?” Caleb asked, not so much whining as intrigued.

“Does anything end?” Mack asked.

 ~

Mack went to bed early again that night, and Jonas was worried.  That was what Simon had done before … well, before.

But Caleb and Tyler assured him she’d be fine.  “It’s Mack,” Ty said.  “All she needs is her new set of lungs—”

“Which are coming any day,” added Caleb.

“—which are coming any day,” agreed Tyler.  “She just needs rest and some O2.”

“She told me today that she’s been talking to The Chap about communion and baptism,” Jonas told them.

“When did she tell you that?” Ty asked, suspicion in his voice.

“When she came and got me before she read.”

“Oh.”

“Do they do baptisms here at Raphaela House?” Jonas asked.  “Maybe in the … therapy pool?”

“I’m Lutheran,” Caleb said with a shrug.  “Sort of.  Lutherans don’t need a pool.  They sprinkle.”

Tyler was deep in thought; over what, Jonas didn’t know.

 ~

At breakfast, Mack seemed to be breathing well and was, in fact, thrilled about her newest idea.  “Okay, two parts,” she said.  “Part one.  The fireworks.”

“The fireworks?” asked Jonas.

“From the story, duh!” she said.  “Keep up.”  But she winked.  “I looked some stuff up online, and the Perseids Meteor Shower is happening now, with the best night for observation next Tuesday.  So, we watch,” she said, then lowered her voice.  “From the lake.  At midnight.  That’s part two.”

“What?” all three of the boys asked in various volumes of hushed whispers.

“Caleb wants to swim,” she said simply.

“Caleb is also legless and in a motorized wheelchair and not allowed out of the building without a Raphaela House chaperone,” hissed Ty.

“We’ll figure it out,” she said.  “My gosh, it’s not Alcatraz.

Caleb giggled.  “I’m in,” he said.  Mack winked at him, beaming.

“It’s not safe,” said Ty.  “For any of us.”

“It’s warm out,” Mack said, “so we won’t catch colds.  It’s the lake—not chlorine, so I’ll be fine.  We’ll carry Caleb and help him in the water.”

Tyler looked skeptical.  In the short time Jonas had known them, he’d never seen Ty not in wholehearted agreement with Mack.

“I’m in too,” said Jonas, trying hard to not make it sound like a competition with Ty for Mack’s favor.  It didn’t work.

Ty sighed.  “Okay, fine.  If it’s not dangerous—like you say—then why don’t we just ask for permission?”

Mack stood up, and from behind him, put her arms around his neck, and whispered lustily into his ear, “Do I ever do that?”

He grinned.

She stood there with her hands on Ty’s shoulders, piquing that envious sting in Jonas’s throat.  “Listen,” she said, “when I went to see The Chap the other day, he and Jonesy were talking in Jonesy’s office, and he was saying how upset he was because the back door—you know, the one by the nurses’ breakroom—had a broken alarm system, and he was pissed because the company wasn’t coming out until next Wednesday to fix it.  ‘What are we supposed to do in the meantime?’ Jonesy asked, and The Chap—God bless the dear man—said, ‘It’ll be fine, Arthur.  You worry too much.  It’s only a week.’”

“So, we’re sneaking out the back door, past the nurses’ breakroom?” said Ty.  “There are stairs outside of that.  Caleb can’t take his chair.”

“We’ll carry him,” she said.  “We just need something to distract them.”

Mack, Caleb, and Ty all fell silent in thought.

Jonas cleared his throat.  “I can help with that,” he said.

 ~

They used Simon’s homemade firecrackers, which were still hidden in their plastic bag behind the painting in Jonas’s room.  Jonas watched the whole “escape” happen with a foggy detachment.  He heard the mediocre explosion down the hall as if he had earplugs, scrambled past the breakroom as if he were in a dream.

But outside—outside everything became sharp.  Sharp as a razor or a winter icicle.

The air was crisp but not cold, and they all realized, as they stared down the five steps that led toward the lake, that it was going to be a bigger effort to carry Caleb than they had thought.

“Mack, you can’t,” said Ty.  “Your lungs have been shit lately.”

“Well, I hardly think someone with bone cancer is the better option,” she argued back in a whisper.

“We should have thought of this beforehand,” Ty hissed.  “Maybe we can …”

“I can do it,” Jonas volunteered.  “Here, help him climb onto my back.”

And so the four of them stole through the dark grounds, Mack and Ty holding hands like absconding lovers leading the way—Mack a little ahead of Ty, tugging on his hand in excitement—and Jonas behind them, with Caleb on his back.  It was exhausting, and he never would have imagined he’d have the strength to do it, except that Caleb weighed about eighty-five pounds, and Jonas was high from rule-breaking and night air.  He felt strong—the way he’d always felt while Abby would recite poetry while watching him work out.

He hoped she’d gotten the letter.

Mack’s eyes were electric when they reached the shore; there was a light in them Jonas had never seen before.  She peeled her shirt and shorts off, wearing nothing but bra and panties, utterly unashamed.  Her dark purple hair fell down her small white shoulders.  She was terribly thin.

She waded into the water up to her ankles, and then threw her arms into the air in a victorious pose.  Tyler smiled at his girlfriend with a soft, sensitive love that made Jonas feel as if he should look away from him.  So he looked at Mack, a white swan on black waters.

“Help me, Ty,” Jonas said, and the two of them carried Caleb into the lake.  The boy giggled as he started to tread water furiously with his hands.

“You got it, man?” Tyler asked Caleb.

Mack waded back over to where the boys stood and put out her hands.  Caleb took them, and she was his buoy.  “How does it feel to be back in the water?” she whispered.

“Incredible,” he said, grinning at her.

“Look!” Jonas said, pointing up at the sky.  A streak of light had shot across it like a shooting star.  “You were right!” he said to Mack.

She laughed.  “Of course I was right.  Look, there’s another one!”  She pointed.  “There can be up to sixty an hour at the peak.”  She looked around.  “Tyler?” He took a step closer to her in the water.  “Help Caleb for a second.  I have to do something.”

“What?”

“Shhh,” she said, then she moved away from them, into deeper and deeper waters.

“What’s she doing?” Jonas asked.

Ty shrugged.  Caleb said, “Let me float, Ty,” and Tyler helped Caleb turn onto his back.  “Wow.  Wow!” he said as he stared straight up into the black night.  “You could get lost out here, just like in the story.  Lay on your back.  Look.”

Ty glanced again at Macaulay, who was in water up to her shoulders now.

“Ty!” Caleb said, and Ty did as Caleb requested, lying on his back beside his young friend.

Jonas watched them for a second, but then he looked back toward Mack.  Even though Caleb was chattering on about another meteor and the night air, Jonas could hear Mack saying something.  He strained to hear the words but couldn’t catch them.

And then she went under.

“Mack!” he shouted, startling Caleb and Ty—and even himself.  “Mack!”  He started toward her, though the water slowed him down.  He wasn’t sure what he was so afraid of, but the fear lasted only for another second.  She came up out of the water, laughing and grinning, and her smile was brighter than the moon.

She passed Jonas as she waded back to where the boys were, lay down on her back between Caleb and Ty, then locked elbows with them.  The water on her face glistened as her hair floated behind her like a flag.

Jonas stared.  The Triumvirate.  He had a strange feeling in his stomach, as if maybe this had all been a terrible idea, but then—

“Jonas,” Mack called softly from where they rested on the waves.  “You too.”

And he padded over to join them where they waited for the heavens to fall.

 ~

She was gone four days later.

Jonas thought she must have known it was almost time, wanted one last story before the end, wanted to celebrate with her friends.

Caleb was a wreck, wondering if his swimming wishes had cost Mack her life.  “No,” Jonas said, the voice of reason.  “No, Caleb.  She was dying long before that.”

“She just needed new lungs …” the boy wept.

Tyler was destroyed.  It was as if all his reason to fight had been drained from him overnight.  He looked lost, disconsolate, wouldn’t speak to anyone except Caleb.

Somehow, it had the opposite effect on Jonas.  He became stronger.

And he hated himself for it.

 ~

“Lisette?” Jonas asked the nurse one day.  “Did Macaulay Kennedy leave anything behind?”

“She came to Raphaela House without much,” Lisette admitted, “so no, I don’t think so.  I can ask Jonesy and Reverend Sevan though.  Were you thinking of anything in particular?”

“Yes,” he said airily, staring at the ceiling.  “She was writing a story.”

 ~

The Chap brought it to Jonas’s room that afternoon, setting the papers down on Jonas’s bed and then sitting down on the edge of Simon’s empty mattress.  “She was a special, special girl,” he said.  “Always liked Mack Kennedy.  She had great questions, the mark of a good life.”  He thought for a second and added, “Mark of a good death too.”

“Was she ready to go?” Jonas asked.  “Had she made peace with God, like what you say?”

“Oh, I think so,” The Chap responded.  “There were things that she wanted though, things she never got around to doing.  She was planning a house-wide communion service.  We’d been talking about baptism.”

“You mentioned that,” Jonas said, then sighed.  “Thanks for the story.”  He held up the hand with the loose-leaf papers in it.

When The Chap had left his room, Jonas started to organize everything on his bed.  There were parts of the story from before he’d come to Raphaela House.  Then there was the race across the lake, which she’d read to them in the tiny room with the lilac walls.

And there was another page—a newer one, written in her tiny scrawling handwriting.

 

When Tyler and Caleb reached the other side of the lake, guided by the fireworks in the sky, they argued over which boy had won the race.

 But then they noticed the girl with the purple hair; she was sitting on the shore with her knees pulled up to her chest.  Her long hair dripped down her back.   “I win,” she said, and they couldn’t tell if she was happy or sad.

 

Then he understood.

A baptism.

The Chap poked his head back into the room.  “Sorry, Jonas, I forgot,” he said, and tossed a letter onto his bed.

 


Finely shaded and beautifully characterized, Covered Up Our Names is a story that doesn’t lean too hard on its dramatic turns, a story unafraid of its own heart.
—Rebecca Stead, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


There Was a War On

Erin Hagar

In the winter of 1917, Helen Stevens was a college girl living in New York City. She’d never held a hoe or milked a cow. And she’d certainly never worn men’s overalls. But times were changing. There was a war on, and everyone needed to do their bit to help the cause.

Some girls rolled bandages and knitted socks for soldiers overseas. Others volunteered to be nurses or to work telegraph machines. But Helen saw a sign that took root in her heart. She knew farmland in Europe had been destroyed by fighting, and people there were starving. America’s farms were more important than ever. Problem was, there weren’t enough men to work them.

Some people thought that healthy young women could be trained to work the farms. Many folks laughed at that idea, but not Helen. That spring, she traveled north to a training farm in Bedford, New York. She joined other women– college students like herself, dressmakers, teachers, factory workers, and secretaries. Some of them had husbands and children at home. They didn’t know much about farming, but there were people there to teach them. The women were eager to learn.

And learn they did. They learned how to plow and hoe and pitch hay. Helen learned that potatoes don’t grow on trees, and her friend Alice learned the difference between a bean plant and bindweed.

They milked cows, drove tractors, mended fences, and whitewashed the hen house. On rainy days, they learned how to can vegetables and swept out the root cellar.

Just about the only thing Helen couldn’t learn was how to make peace with snakes.

On Sundays, they’d relax. They had an rickety Ford automobile that they named Henry, which they’d ride into town to take in a picture show.

When the training was over, Helen’s muscles were stronger. Blisters had turned into calluses. Shovels and pitchforks felt like parts of her body. Helen and the girls called themselves “Farmerettes,” and they were ready to load up Henry with tools and lunch buckets and drive to neighboring farms. They wanted to work those fields, to do their bit.

But the farmers wouldn’t hire them.

“I got enough to do without minding of bunch of girls,” one said.

“They’ll be more trouble than they’re worth,” said another.

Helen knew the Farmerettes just needed one farmer to hire them. Once that farmer could see what they could do, he’d tell another farmer, who’d tell another. Word would spread like bindweed.

Would anyone give them a chance?

Helen and the girls waited. And waited. Days turned into weeks. They puttered around, tending camp and sharpening tools. But Helen wasn’t trained to putter. She wanted to work.

One day, Helen drove Henry to the Davies’s farm, a few miles away. She looked around at fields that needed plowing and planting and seeding and weeding, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door.

Helen was a sight for the farmer’s wife. But Mrs. Davies motioned to where her husband was out thinning the spring turnips.

“Mr. Davies,” Helen said. “I’ve got twenty-four girls at Bedford, trained and itching to work. Let us come tomorrow to show what we can do. If you don’t find us helpful, we’ll not bother you again.”

Farmer Davies stood up and stretched his back. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow.

“I heard you girls expect men’s wages,” he said.

Helen dug her boot heels in that hard, packed earth. She wanted to work; they all did. But she knew her team deserved fair pay.

“We’ll work tomorrow for free,” she said. “But if you ask us back, we’ll take the going rate. Two dollars a day, same as the men.”

Farmer Davies looked out toward the cow pasture. I do need to mend that fence, he thought. Maybe these girls could work the turnips. He scratched the dirt with his toe and spat.

“Bring your five best girls. Be here by seven, ready to work.”

The gong sounded at 5:30 like it did every morning. Helen and her team buzzed like honey bees, racing to wash up, get dressed and eat breakfast. They loaded their tools and their lunch pails into Henry and settled in. Today was the day they’d show what they could do.

Except Henry wouldn’t start. They cranked and cranked the engine, but Henry only sputtered and hissed. No, Helen thought. Not today!

“Harriet, take the wheel,” she ordered. “Everyone else, get out and push!” Five girls pushed that Ford automobile down the hill, until the engine finally caught and they scrambled back in. Nothing would keep them from working that day!

The sun beat down and the sweat ran down, and the Farmerettes worked. Helen had never smelled anything as nasty as a turnip plant, but she didn’t let up. Not even when a black snake slithered between her boots. She was a Farmerette, and nothing would stop her from doing her bit.

At the end of the day, the girls had thinned the turnips and weeded the peas and even helped with the fencing. Farmer Davies looked around and let out a long, slow whistle. “Glory be,” he said. “What you girls can do! I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.” Mrs. Davies brought them out some pie.

Back at the camp, the girls washed up and ate supper. A few danced to tunes coming from the Victrola. Some wrote letters to family back home. Before it was fully dark, Helen flopped down on her cot and fell asleep to the sounds of cicadas whirring in the trees. She was tuckered out.

In a year’s time, she’d travel the country, telling stories about her days as a Farmerette, encouraging young women to give farm work a try.

But come morning, she’d wake to another long day, working those fields. And she’d work, yes indeed. She’d do her bit.

There was a war on, you see.

 


A great mix of history, humor, and some really nice writing, There Was a War On tells a terrifically appealing story.
—Rebecca Stead, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


Printed here with permission of the author and Charlesbridge Publishing, “There Was a War On” is forthcoming as Doing Her Bit from Charlesbridge in fall 2016

The Mapmaker’s Boy

Christina Soontornvat

Anyone walking down Feltwhip Road early that morning would have noticed the light in the shop window. The clouds were heavy with water scooped up from the sea, and they threatened to dump it all at once onto the dark streets of Graves. Even so, the golden flicker of that lone candle in the window might make someone stop and linger for a moment. They would peer through the rippling glass, see the blurred figure hunched over his drafting table and think, There’s the Mapmaker again, hard at work charting the Great Unknown. And it’s only ten to seven! Then they would shake their head at this industrious soul before hurrying off to beat the rain.

They’d never guess that the blurry figure they saw was only a boy. This boy was not the Mapmaker and he was not charting the Great Unknown. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to be there at all.

Thomas Ledger pressed his hands on the edge of his drafting table and leaned back to inspect his work. His eyes traveled back and forth between his map and the original hanging above him on the wall. He’d already checked it a dozen times, but he wanted to make sure he hadn’t drooled on it when he fell asleep. He rubbed his eyes and smiled. This time it was perfect. Each tiny bump and divot in the coastline was identical. It couldn’t be better if he’d traced it on vellum.

Tom arched his back and stretched his stiff neck side to side. He glanced at the clock on the mantle. Tripe! Ten to seven already! He hopped off his stool. That meant he only had nine minutes and fifty seconds to make it look like he hadn’t just spent the night there.

Tom tidied up his drafting table: pens back into their boxes, lids onto ink jars, blotting paper neatly stacked. He licked his fingers and pinched the candlewick so it wouldn’t smoke. Next, he rolled up the blanket on the floor and tucked it back in its hiding place behind the bookshelf, then hurried to the front of the shop and pulled on his boots and jacket. As he smoothed the wrinkles out of his trousers, he saw how cold and damp it was outside. I’d best look cold and damp, too, he thought.

He knelt down beside the door, pressing his cheek up to the shop window. With his face against the glass, he looked at the shops on the other side of the cobblestone road, still waiting for owners to trudge in and open for business. Tom wished he could have Feltwhip all to himself for just one more hour. With no one else around, he felt like the guardian of that tidy, stone-paved kingdom.

He switched cheeks and looked up at the arc of painted letters on the window. The “G” in Master Cartographer was peeling slightly. He’d probably have to repaint that later. His cheek numb, he stepped away from the window and unlatched the front door. Then he pulled his shop key out of his pocket, turned his back to the door and waited. As the clock began to chime, the door behind him clicked open. Without looking, Tom knew who it was. The Master Cartographer was never late.

“Ah, Thomas, you’ve beat me again!” puffed Horace Earnshaw.

“Only just, sir,” said Tom as he wheeled around, keys in hand.

Earnshaw struggled to take off his hat and scarf without dropping his armload of papers. His face was wet and rosy from the walk in and he sniffled a little. “Chilly morning, isn’t it?”

“It is, sir,” said Tom, rubbing his own red cheeks and pretending to shiver. He took the papers, then helped the old man out of his coat and hung it by the door.

Earnshaw wiped the fog off his spectacles and walked to his desk, his belly leading the way. “Lights, Tom, lights! I can’t see a blasted thing.”

“Yes, sir,” said Tom, already busy turning up the lamps.

“Blast this weather, it’s supposed to be May, not March.” Earnshaw reached into his snug waistcoat and pulled out his pocket watch. The polished gold case gleamed like it made its own light. “If the sun doesn’t come out soon, I’ll go blind and you’ll ruin your eyes before your thirteenth birthday.”

Tom nodded, but he actually loved the shop best on gloomy days. The drearier it got outside, the more the lamplight danced off the surfaces of Earnshaw’s surveying equipment and the glass frames of his maps. So many maps! They covered the walls, floor to ceiling. Even though he’d worked for Earnshaw for over a year, Tom still hadn’t had a chance to study them all. During his thirty years as surveyor for the Royal Navy, Earnshaw had sailed all over the known world, charting more of it than anyone else in Ossian. He specialized in intricate maps of treacherous coastlines. Tom had once heard someone say of Earnshaw, “That man would draw the pebbles on the beach if he had a pen fine enough.”

Earnshaw settled into his desk chair and began winding his watch. Tom knew that soon the old man would dive into his work and wouldn’t want to be interrupted. If Tom was going to say anything he had to do it now.

He cleared his throat and nodded toward his drafting table. “I finished copying the chart of Holloman’s Harbor yesterday, sir. Perhaps you could take a look. When you’ve got a minute, I mean.”

Earnshaw put his watch back in his pocket and met Tom at his table. He inspected the chart, chin down, lower lip out while Tom rocked back and forth on his heels. Earnshaw couldn’t fail to be impressed this time. Surely he would see Tom could handle a more challenging task. Tom wondered what it might be. Maybe Earnshaw would finally teach him how to use the level or one of his other surveyor’s tools.

“Mm-hm, yes…very good,” Earnshaw mumbled. He straightened and clapped a hand on Tom’s shoulder. “Very tolerable work. I should think one more copy will do it!”

Tom dropped his head. He had copied Earnshaw’s map of this port seven times now. Tom had never set foot outside of Graves, much less been on a boat, but he was pretty sure he could sail that harbor blindfolded.

“Yes, sir.” Without meaning to, Tom let the words out with a sigh.

Earnshaw eyed him over his glasses, one bushy gray eyebrow pinched down. “Tom, I hope you don’t think copying is beneath you.”

“Oh no, sir, not at all. I just – ”

“Holloman’s is a tricky harbor, full of rocks and sand bars. Suppose you left off some detail in your haste to do work that better satisfies your vanity? And suppose a ship went down because of it? Would you want that on your conscience?”

Tom chewed his lip. As Earnshaw’s shop boy, he knew he was lucky to do anything more than sweep the floor and keep the fire going. Getting to copy maps was a privilege and he had no right to complain. But Tom also knew he was too good to just make copies. He reckoned that no one in Graves could tell the difference between one of Earnshaw’s maps and his own. When would the old mapper realize he was ready for more?

Earnshaw took off his spectacles and rubbed one hand over his balding head. His black eyes always looked so small without glasses. Tom wondered if Earnshaw was about to yell at him. Or worse, call him ungrateful and tell him to go back to sweeping. But when the old man put his glasses back on, he didn’t look angry, just very tired.

“Perhaps this morning we are both in need of a little inspiration,” Earnshaw said softly. “Come along, I’ve been meaning to show you something.”

Tom followed Earnshaw back to his desk, relieved not to be in trouble. Perhaps the old man would show him the mapmaking tools after all. Earnshaw’s knees creaked and popped as he knelt down in front of a large wooden trunk behind his desk. Tom leaned as close as he could without blocking the lamplight. He knew the surveying equipment wasn’t kept in there. Because of his cleaning duties, Tom had seen the inside of every chest and cabinet in the shop. But this trunk was always kept locked.

Earnshaw’s keys jingled softly as he pulled them out of his pocket. “You know I prefer not to rely on maps made by others.”

“No need, sir,” said Tom. “Yours are the very best.”

Earnshaw chuckled. “I see I’ve taught you well!” The trunk lid creaked as he opened it. “These maps are different. I like to bring them out from time to time to remind myself why I do things the way I do them.”

Earnshaw carefully lifted out a stack of curling papers, their edges brown and cracked. “I keep them in the trunk because I can’t risk them fading, not even in this poor excuse for sunlight.”

“Amazing,” whispered Tom as Earnshaw laid the papers on his desk.

The first map in the stack showed the Isles of Ossian drawn in red and gold. Tom guessed the map must be very old from the funny way the counties and towns were spelled. Castles marked the more important cities; Graves was depicted as a walled fortress by the sea. Scaly dragons poked their crested heads among the islands along the northern coast.

“I’ve never seen a map like this before,” said Tom, his finger hovering over one of the sea monsters. “Why don’t people draw maps with decorations like this anymore?”

“It’s not just decoration,” said Earnshaw. “Whoever made this map likely believed dragons prowled the coast. Treacherous rocks, treacherous monsters. All the same to the ancient sailor.”

Earnshaw slid the map to the side. The next one looked more recent than the first. It centered on the continent of Ansibar, with Malay and the islands of the Orient trailing off the edge of the map to the east. A web of thin black lines swooped along Ansibar’s western coast and dipped far below the Cape of Lost Faith before ending in the Orientale Sea. Tom had learned enough about navigation to know these lines were the trade winds.

“Lying little trickster,” said Earnshaw.

Tom caught his breath. “I – I beg your pardon, sir?”

“The mapper who made this. It’s a complete fabrication!”

“Oh,” said Tom, relaxing. “How so, Mister Earnshaw?”

“The Madrigals were the first to sail ‘round the tip of Ansibar and reach the riches of the East. Their maps of the trade winds were state secrets. Someone had the idea to leak these false charts to enemy nations. Imagine how many ships must have been lost at sea, following what they thought were the right maps. I can’t understand how a person could lie like that, can you?”

Tom shifted on his feet. “Can I see the others?”

The old man leafed through the rest of the pile: yellowed maps of now-known places, but with different names and borders. Earnshaw could read Latin and Deutsch and he translated some of the names for Tom. Going through this collection was like having a geography, history, and language lesson all at once. Or so Tom imagined. He had stopped going to school years ago and his lessons had never been much more than reading and punishments.

They made their way to the bottom of the pile and the very last map. This one had been drawn on a small piece of washed silk instead of paper. When Earnshaw held it in his hand, the edges barely covered his palm.

“Ah, my brother’s map,” he whispered, holding the silk out to Tom.

Tom wondered what he meant. Earnshaw only had sisters, both dead. Tom took the map and held it under the desk lamp.  A wrinkled coastline bisected the silk, dividing it into land at the top, sea at the bottom. A chain of five islands curved away from the mainland, toward the map’s lower right-hand corner. There were no words on it at all, save for one: Presagio, written in small, looping script in the middle of the sea. As he marveled at the detailed coastline, intricate as a piece of lacework, Tom understood why Earnshaw had called the mapmaker his brother.

“How did you come by this, Mister Earnshaw?”

Earnshaw recounted his tale of wandering through the markets on Sowston Street, perusing the stalls of fake old maps just for a laugh. When he saw this scrap he immediately knew it didn’t belong with the other sham souvenirs.

“Cost me five shillings. The woman I bought it from tried to sell me one of her “more elegant” pieces. She said this one was drawn like chicken scratch!” Earnshaw laughed and the corners of his eyes crinkled up. He pointed to the shore with an ink-stained finger. The mapmaker had used short, angular strokes to draw the coastline. “What she didn’t know is that those “scratches” indicate the mapper was looking back and forth between the map and his readings.” Earnshaw mimed holding a sighting scope in one hand, a pen in the other. “He would take a measurement, then mark that distance on the map, take another measurement, and so on. It’s not until a mapper gets back home that he redraws his coastlines in a smooth, elegant way.”

“I’ve never heard of a map drawn on cloth before,” said Tom.

“Keeps it from being damaged at sea,” said Earnshaw. “You can fold it and it won’t crease.” He pointed to the island chain. “It’s a wonder the mapper discovered this place at all. See the way the islands curve away from the continent as they grow in size? A ship might follow their curve, thinking they lead toward the mainland, when really it’s in the other direction. And this river is strange as well.”

The map showed a mountain range near the coast. A wide river started up in the mountains. It snaked south between the peaks, then suddenly turned into a thin trickle before dumping into the ocean.

“You expect rivers to grow in volume as they head toward the sea, not the other way around,” said Earnshaw. “It’s very curious.”

“Maybe the mapper didn’t know what the river really looked like,” offered Tom. “Maybe he made it up.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. You see, a man who would make a map like this would rather leave it blank than make something up.” Earnshaw turned to Tom and peered at him over his spectacles again. “Anyone can draw a bit of coast and call it a map. A good mapper sees things with his eyes only. He records what is actually there, not what he wants to see.”

Tom looked down at the silk map again. “I wonder where it was made.”

“That, my lad, is the question.” The old man stood up and walked to the far wall of his shop, where his most recently completed maps hung.

“Cannot be here in the North,” said Earnshaw, passing over Ossian and its neighboring continents, almost black from being filled in with features discovered centuries ago. “Not Amazonia,” he said, referring to the well-explored coastline of that tropical world. “I once thought it could be the West, you know, perhaps a map of the Colonies…” Earnshaw’s longest journey was to the Western Colonies. He knew their features as well as his own. “But no, it can’t be there either.” Earnshaw stood for a while staring at the wall, lost in his thoughts.

Tom stole one last look at the tiny chart before setting it carefully on top of the others on the desk. “Who do you think made this, Mister Earnshaw?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever know. But I can tell you one thing.” Earnshaw turned to Tom and touched his finger to his nose. “He started out making copies.”

Before Tom could say anything, they heard a knock at the front door.

Earnshaw checked his pocket watch. “That will be the post,” he said as he moved the stack of old maps back to their trunk. “Quickly, Tom, I’m expecting something rather important.”

Tom opened the shop door and the post boy handed him a large square envelope. Tom turned the letter over as he shut the door behind him.

“Here Mister Earnshaw,” he said, handing it over. “It’s from the Geographical Society!”

Earnshaw sliced the envelope open with his letter knife. Tom watched his face as he read the letter to himself. Earnshaw didn’t come from a highborn family, which was almost a requirement to be a member of the Ossian Geographical Society. But the admirals respected him and sometimes asked for his input on cartographical matters. Earnshaw’s eyes scanned the letter hurriedly. When he finished, deep wrinkles spread over his forehead.

“What do they say, sir?” asked Tom.

Earnshaw looked up from the letter, his face still wrinkled in thought. “What’s that? Oh, nothing much. Just an invitation to one of their frilly luncheons, that’s all.” He smiled and pointed to Tom‘s work table. “It’s time we both got to work.”

Tom sat down on his stool and pulled out a fresh sheet of charting paper. Before he started on yet another copy of Holloman’s, he looked at Earnshaw again. The old man drummed his fingers on his desk and stared at the square envelope lying in front of him. Whatever it was, Tom knew that letter was no luncheon invitation.

Earnshaw might be the Master Mapmaker, but lying was Tom’s domain.


Gorgeously imagined, gracefully plotted, and confidently realized, The Mapmaker’s Boy promises a great deal of reading pleasure. I knew I was in good hands from the first line to the last.
—Rebecca Stead, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


Crabcake Charlie

Sally Derby

This is a story my grandfather’s grandfather told him, and my grandfather told me, and though I can’t vouch for the truth of it, my grandfather believed it and that’s good enough for me. Every year round about Halloween, I get to thinking of it, and remembering Crabcake Charlie….

 

Chapter One

In Which We Meet Charlie

Old Crabcake Charlie was a sun-wrinkled man, with a face like a shriveled raisin.  His jaws bristled with stubby white whiskers (for he only shaved on Sundays) and his eyes danced blue as chicory by the roadside. If you listened to his stories you’d think, like most folks did, that Crabcake had spent his life on the sea. But the unvarnished truth was that in his younger years Charlie had been a farmer. For years he’d followed the plow and tended stock, but all that time he was dreaming of the sea. And when his wife died he sold his farm, down to the last chicken, and headed towards the ocean.

There he lived just the way he’d always wanted. Mornings he’d stand at the door of his cottage listening to the cries of the gulls, the swish of the surf, and then stride off down the beach for an early walk.

Come afternoon, he’d fish or swim or—on rainy days—clean his cottage. When he had everything neat and tidy, he’d sit in his rocker, light his pipe, and pick up a book.  He liked to read about pirates—Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Captain Kidd, and most especially Haldan the Wanderer, who had plundered the local coast many years before.

Evenings, though, were Crabcake’s favorite time. After his supper (crab cakes, more often than not) he’d put on his sailor cap, button his jacket and stroll down around Eagle Point to the harbor. He’d join his friends at a table in the Jolly Buccaneer, where evenings passed lively with laughter and talk and good company.

Round about nine or so, someone was sure to cry, “Tell us a story, Crabcake!” and he was happy to oblige. As the night wore on, his tales would grow taller and wider, and if he stretched the truth a little, letting folks think he was a seaman, why, what was the harm?

When at last the fire grew low, and one by one the locals left the inn, Crabcake would stride back up the beach, his feet sinking into the sand, his head bent against the wind, while offshore a lonely whistle sounded, and up the coast the eye of the lighthouse blinked against the black sky.

 

That’s how it was for Charlie, year after sea-blown year, till late one October afternoon, a Halloween afternoon, when summer decided to make a brief return visit.

 

Chapter Two

Charlie Makes a Fateful Decision

The bay was almost flat that day, and Crabcake was fishing late, anchored in a sheltered cove not too far from his cottage.

He was puffing his pipe and watching the sea birds dip low over the smooth water when a hard yank on his line almost pulled the pole from his hands. “By dinghies,” he exclaimed. “She’s a big one!”  He began pulling, but he didn’t feel the jerks and thrashing of a fighting fish. “Shucks,” he said, “whatever I’ve got, it ain’t alive.” But just then the head of a sea turtle rose from the water. “Blimey!” he exclaimed. The muscles in his arms bulged and his face grew red as he struggled, but finally, with a last mighty effort he hauled the turtle up over the side and onto the floor of the boat. “Will you look at the size of him!” Charlie said. “I’m lucky my line didn’t break.”

The turtle raised its head at the sound of Charlie’s voice. Thinking thoughts of turtle soup, Crabcake bent over to retrieve his hook. Then he saw that the hook was caught on a heavy loop of metal wedged between neck and shell. “You didn’t even take my bait!” he murmured, “‘Twas just your bad luck to swim too close and get hooked accidental-like. And this isn’t your first brush with death, I figure, not from the look of that scar on your face.”

He wiggled the hook, and with his final tug, out it came along with its attachment. He whistled in amazement. In his hand he held a barnacle-encrusted key. It was large, nearly eight inches long, and heavy. The end of the shaft was fashioned into a twisted circle inset with the letter H. Crabcake used his thumbnail to scrape off a barnacle. The metal of the key glowed richly in the light of the setting sun. “Can it be real brass, or even gold?” Charlie thought in wonder. “What a find that would be!”

Turning the key over and over in his hand, he happened to look the turtle in the eye, and something about its steady, unblinking stare made him think. “Wonder how old you are?” he mused aloud. “I’ve heard tell turtles can live pretty long. Bet you’ve seen a lot. Maybe even pirates.”

Laying down the key, he wiped his palm on his pants leg and picked up his pipe. He fumbled in his pocket for a kitchen match, pulled one out, and relit the pipe. As he sat there puffing away the sun sank lower, and a line of clouds was rimmed in rose and gold. “’Red at night, sailor’s delight,’” he murmured. “Pretty day tomorrow.” He looked down again at the turtle, which hadn’t moved but waited stolidly for whatever might happen. He made up his mind. He grasped the shell in both hands and with a mighty heave he lifted the turtle up and over the side. It hit the water with a splash. The boat rocked wildly. By the time the rocking ceased, the turtle had disappeared.

Crabcake judged it was time to head back to shore. But as he dipped his oars into the water, a distance over to the east he saw the turtle poke its head out of the waves. It looked at him for a long minute, then down it dived, and was gone.

Crabcake continued toward shore, rowing briskly now, for the sun was almost set. Gaining his own beach, he shipped his oars and jumped into the shallow water. He dragged the boat up the strand, and when it was safely beached he reached into the boat and picked up the key. Just as he slipped it into his pocket, the sun dropped below the horizon. Down from the darkened sky blew a sudden wind that chilled the back of his neck. A sea gull called harshly, and Crabcake shivered.

There’s those who say that right then he should have read the signs aright and throwed the key back in the water, but Crabcake wasn’t the superstitious sort, so he just pulled his jacket tighter and tramped up the sand to his cottage and supper.

 

Chapter  Three

Evening at the Jolly Buccaneer

Later, when he set out with the key (newly polished and barnacle-free) in his pocket, Crabcake had no suspicion that this Halloween night would be different from any other. But according to my grandfather’s grandfather, some who were at the Jolly Buccaneer that evening swore later that they’d seen trouble coming and tried to warn Crabcake. That’s as may be. But the fact of the matter is, old Crabcake was in rare form. Story after story slipped off his tongue just as easy as you please, all of them about pirates and such.

It was getting along toward closing time when he slowly reached into his pocket and brought out the key. He laid it with a clank on the broad, black table where it shone in the lantern light. “See that H in the loop?” Crabcake asked. “That stands for Haldan, and this here is the key to his treasure chest, if ever I can find it.”

Someone gasped, and someone whistled softly, and the local skeptic protested, “Wait a minute. Haldan went down with Hildred about a hundred years ago.”

“That’s right,” Crabcake agreed serenely. “Halloween night, ninety-nine years ago. A sudden storm came up sometime around midnight. It must’ve caught the Hildred’s crew unprepared, for she slammed into the rocks off Eagle Point. The books say she went down with all hands aboard.”

“Are you sayin’ the books are wrong?” the Skeptic asked. “How would you know? And if that’s the key to the Wanderer’s treasure chest, how did you come by it?”

Charlie took a slow, deliberate minute attempting to relight his pipe. Then he laid it down and eyed his questioner sternly, “How I got it ain’t as important as how it was lost,” he said. “But seein’ it’s you who’s askin’, Jack, if you’ll stand me to a pint I’ll tell you how this key came to be loose in the bay, stead of buried on the ocean floor among the timbers and bones of the Hildred and her crew.”

The Skeptic nodded to the proprietor who brought over a pint and set it before Charlie. Crabcake took a swig, wiped his lips, then picked his pipe back up and pulled out another match. A wind had begun blowing in from the ocean, and the lamps in the tavern were burning low. Finally the pipe was lit to Charlie’s satisfaction, and he began to speak. His voice grew deep and mysterious.

With their eyes fixed upon Charlie, his listeners settled more comfortably on the benches lining the table, so only the proprietor noticed a tall stranger wrapped in a black cloak slip quietly into the tavern and settle himself at a small table in the shadows of the far wall. The newcomer motioned to the proprietor, and when he received his pint, he reached into a small purse and pulled out a bright coin. He put it silently in the proprietor’s outstretched hand.

The proprietor viewed the coin on his palm with a mixture of surprise and suspicion. He opened his mouth as if to ask a question, but something in the stranger’s mien made him think better of it. He turned and retreated behind the bar, but he put the coin to his mouth and bit down hard on it before dropping it into the till.

Meanwhile Crabcake, mixing snippets of stories he’d read, plus bright imaginings of his own, was spinning a tale of gold and pirate greed, of thieving and treachery—a story of Haldan, his treasure, and the last, fateful night of the Hildred.

 

Chapter Four

Crabcake Spins a Tale

“There’s nobody ain’t heard of Haldan,” Crabcake began. “It was one of his own men nicknamed him The Wanderer, because he said Haldan never had a plan anyone could count on. He’d just let the Hildred head wherever the winds wanted to take her, and nine times out of ten that way he’d come upon an unlucky ship ripe for the taking.

“No one knows for sure how many ships he plundered, but rumor was he had a treasure chest full of gold and jewels locked in his cabin. His crew was mostly made up of bullies and braggarts, not to mention thieves and thugs, robbers and ruffians.” Charlie took a minute here to admire his way with words, but seeing an impatient glint in the Skeptic’s eye, he hastily continued.

“They were a dangerous group, that crew, but they stuck with Haldan because he’d promised them that his plan was to retire and become a gentleman farmer one day. On that day he’d divvy up his treasure among them all—each man getting a share based on how long he’d served. That was cunning of him. Cut down on rivalry among the men, you see, because there wasn’t no changing or arguing about when a man had first come on board.

“So for a pirate ship, the Hildred was thought to be lucky, and if she lost a man in a raid or some such, there was always someone at the next port eager to take his place. And this way Haldan’s luck held out over the years, held out until that last fateful trip.

“The trip’d begun badly. Haldan had taken on three new men, and one of them, no more than thirteen, stumbled going aboard and accidentally put his left foot on deck first. Thinking quick, the man behind pushed the youth into the waves, so the bad luck wouldn’t take, but it made the men uneasy, just the same. And that wasn’t all. Other unlucky things kept happenin’—one day a broken mirror, the next day, a cormorant flying across the sun, the next, a sighting of sharks following the ship’s wake.

“Things came to a head on Halloween day. For months the Hildred had been prowling the bay, but not a likely target had showed. Now she was becalmed a mile or so off-shore, not too far from here. Her sails were hanging useless, and her black flag drooped like the tongue of a dog on a hot summer day. She’d sat there for weeks through days and nights that were beastly hot, more like August than October. Tempers were short, and so were rations. Every man was wonderin’, but no one was brave enough to ask out loud, was Haldan’s luck running out?”

“Now, Jack,” Charlie said suddenly to the Skeptic, who had begun to fidget on the bench, “pay attention, cause this part’s crucial. Everyone knows about Haldan, like I said, but do you, or does anyone else here, know a thing about his first mate? Even know his name?” Charlie let his gaze travel from one fire-lit face to another.

“I thought not,” he said with satisfaction. “Scarface was his name, and I’ll warrant there wasn’t another pirate like him up or down the coast.” All eyes were on Charlie, now, so not even the proprietor noticed how the stranger in the corner started at the name Scarface, sloshing a good portion of his pint in a spreading puddle on the table top.

“How Scarface come to be one of the crew, and first mate at that, is a story in itself, and I won’t go into that here. But there are two things you need to know about him. First, he was a decent man; not many first mates were in those day. Second, he was a Jamaican.”

Ignoring the starts of surprise here, Charlie continued, “I warrant in the early days there might have been one or two of the crew say they weren’t going to take orders from a Black man, no matter what. But they soon changed their tune. Scarface was strict, but fair, and if he had a man flogged, everyone on board knew the punishment was deserved. No one ever heard of him getting drunk, or stabbing a man in the back, or cheating at cards. He kept to himself, said little, saved his money. And it didn’t hurt none that when the Hildred docked in southern ports, the crew would see islanders nod respectfully and move aside to make way for him. Islanders didn’t call him Scarface, though—they had another name for him, Obeahman.”

Like all good story-tellers, Crabcake knew his audience, and he sensed it was time for a small recess. He picked up his empty glass and stared at it in mock surprise. “Shucks,” he said to the proprietor, “Story-tellin’s dry work. Fetch me another, will you?”

“I ain’t payin’ for this one,” Jack growled.

“Course you ain’t, I’m not asking you to,” Crabcake said with a grin. “Anyone else need something before I get on to the part about the key?” At this, some of his listeners availed themselves of the chance to stretch their legs or put in another order.

The proprietor approached the stranger’s table to wipe up the spill. He was going to offer another pint, but he saw that the first had been hardly touched.

“He’s quite a raconteur, our Charlie, ain’t he?” he asked. The stranger shrugged, seeming neither impressed nor puzzled by the fancy word the proprietor was proud of using.

“He tells a good story,” was all he said.

Seeing that the other didn’t seem inclined to conversation, the proprietor contented himself with offering another pint whenever it was wanted, and hurried away.

By this time most of the others were back at the table, their faces turned eagerly towards Charlie. “Let’s see now, where was I?” Crabcake said, “Oh, yes….Halloween day.”

 

Chapter Five

Halloween on the Hildred

“All that hot, miserable month Scarface had been watching and listening. He’d noted how the men were growing short-tempered and sullen, the way seamen’ll do when they haven’t enough work to keep their hands and minds busy. And he could sense anger and frustration building up like a layer of gunpowder on the Hildred’s deck.”

Here Crabcake paused to take another swallow, and wipe the foam from his lips, while his motionless listeners, even the Skeptic, waited silently for him to continue.

“Well, like I said, October 31st begun hot and muggy, same as October’s first thirty. The morning sky was an angry red, and the crew begun thinking maybe a storm would break the heat. But the hours passed with no signs of relief, and the men went about their work listless and irritable.

“Scarface knew something was bound to happen, and something did, but sooner than he expected. He was leanin’ against the rail, staring out at the empty waters when a strong arm suddenly encircled his neck, and he felt the cold blade of a knife against his throat. “Now, sir, you’re going to listen to us,” said a voice.

“Scarface knowed better than to show fear. “I’m listening, Irish,” he said, recognizing the voice right away. “But I could heed you better without a knife blade at my throat.”

“The pirate gave a low laugh, released Scarface, and shoved him aside. “That was just so you’d know we’re serious,” the pirate called Irish said. When Scarface turned around, the whole crew was standing together, facing him. Irish wasted no words laying out the crew’s plan. Scarface was to knock on the cabin door when Haldan was at supper inside. Soon as Haldan unlocked the door to let Scarface in, Irish would follow along and listen while Scarface presented Haldan with the crew’s demands.

“What they wanted was simple enough. They wanted the treasure divvied up that very night, and as soon as they got a breeze to start the ship on its way again, they planned to make for the nearest port. There, those who wanted to could leave the Hildred for good, and Haldan could either find himself men enough for a new crew or take up gentleman farming then and there.

“Well sir, as pirate demands go, that one wasn’t too unreasonable. But Haldan, ‘acourse, didn’t see it that way. He got it in his head that Scarface had put the crew up to this, so when the two of them (followed by Irish with his knife at the ready) went out to face the men, though Scarface didn’t know it, Haldan was his enemy.

“Now just what went on in those next few hours, just how Haldan did it, no one knows for sure, but somehow, when the storm finally broke, the men were taking orders from Haldan again. What had happened to Scarface? I wish I knew. The books don’t say. But soon as I found this key, I knew one thing for certain—some way or another, Scarface ended up in the waves, and when he did, he still had the key with him. Just how he went overboard, whether he jumped or was thrown, I ain’t sure. But one thing’s certain—he was alive when the Hildred hit the rocks, when she broke apart and went down. And when he saw the ship with all its wealth begin to sink below the waves, Scarface cursed Haldan and the crew, swearing they would never rest until he got his share of the treasure.

That’s why on Halloween night no one goes out on Eagle Point. Old-timers say if you stand on the breakwater there, you can hear the waves whispering, “My share, my share, my share.”

Crabcake’s voice had dropped almost to a whisper as he spoke the last words, and for a few minutes not a soul was willing to break the ghostly silence.

Then, the Skeptic stood. He made a clumsy bow to Charlie and said, “Got to hand it to you, Charlie. That was a capital story. Mind you, I’m still not convinced that’s The Wanderer’s key, but if it is, and if I was you, I’d throw it back in the bay where it belongs.”

The proprietor came over to clear the table then, and the regulars began to think about leaving. One or two ordered a last pint, and drank it while they argued about how Haldan managed to gain command again, whether his plan was to set Scarface adrift in a small boat without oars or provisions, or throw him, bound, overboard either to drown or make a meal for sharks. In the general stir, not even the proprietor noticed the stranger slipping quietly out the door. Soon almost everyone was heading for home, and more than one was looking back over his shoulder now and then, glad to have company on his way.

 

Chapter Six

An Encounter on the Shore

Crabcake himself had the farthest to go, so soon he was alone on the beach.  The wind was sighing and the waves were rolling in, and Crabcake, deep in thought, plodded along with his head down.  You can imagine the fright it gave him, then, when a raspy voice behind him said, “That was a fearsome yarn you told back there.”

Crabcake spun around and found himself looking up into the face of a stranger. The stranger was a head taller than Crabcake, with black hair hanging to his shoulders, a short, pointed beard, and rings of gold in his ears. Charlie was sure he’d never seen the man before, but still, something about him was familiar.

“Well, sir, you have the advantage of me,” Crabcake answered politely. “Was you back at the Buccaneer? I’m afraid I didn’t notice you.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” the other answered with a low chuckle that struck Crabcake as somehow alarming, “or you wouldn’t have been so bold as to show my key.”

“Your key?” Crabcake stepped back a pace. “Who are you, then?”

“Haldan, called The Wanderer, at your service,” said the stranger, with a mocking smile and bow.

“You’re the Wanderer?” asked Crabcake. “No! Haldan drowned long ago, in a storm off Eagle Point.”

“That’s right,” said the other. “Halloween night, ninety-nine years ago. Curse Scarface for picking that night, of all nights, to set my men against me. He claimed they all wanted their share of our booty, and they wanted it that night. Said they were tired of waiting for me to divide the spoils. Just like you told back there at the tavern, though how you could know I haven’t figured out.”

“But…” Charlie began. Haldan ignored him and went on, as if—Charlie thought—he were seeing and hearing events just as they happened.

“Well, I knew that crew,” and here Haldan sniffed disdainfully. “I knew them for a scurvy, thieving lot. The only one worth thinking twice about was the Black, and now he had turned against me too. It would have been the end of me to give in. Maybe they wouldn’t have killed me, but I’d never regain their respect or loyalty. So I had to outsmart them. I handed the key to the treasure chest to Scarface, but I told them all I’d keep charge of the chest till they’d decided everyone’s fair share. Then I opened a storage bin in the galley and told them to help themselves to grog while they figured it out.

“They cheered me then, I can tell you. I went back into my cabin, locked myself in and left them to it. I knew Scarface couldn’t control them, that they’d be drunk by ten, fighting by midnight, and by morning, with any luck, Scarface and any other trouble-makers would be dead or overboard.

“And that’s what would have happened… except for the storm. When it suddenly hit, and they banged on my cabin door for help, they were in no shape to cope. They’d turned on Scarface, of course, and had him bound to the mast. I planned to deal with him later. I started giving orders, set the men to work, but over the boom of the waves, the wail of the wind, I kept hearing Scarface chanting some mumbo-jumbo. I turned the wheel over to Irish, and went over to where Scarface was tied.

““Your Obeah won’t help you now,” I told him. I figured it was time for the crew to see I wasn’t afraid of Scarface or his charms and spells. As far as I was concerned an Obeah man was only a native who was just a little smarter than the others, so a little more able to fool them.

“I’ll say this for him, Scarface didn’t act disturbed or afraid. Bloody and bare-chested as he was, he just looked at me for a minute, and then said plainly and slowly. “One night a year is all you have. One night a year, and neither you nor the crew will be able to rest until you give the Obeah man his due.”

“I’d had enough. I went back, took over the wheel again and sent Irish over to silence him, but before that ox could get there, somehow Scarface managed to slip out of his bonds and dive overboard. Irish lunged for him and almost went into the water himself. By the time I got to the rail, Scarface had disappeared. He must have drowned right away. The strongest swimmer couldn’t have survived in those angry waves. Even the sea turtle I saw swimming towards the rocks was having trouble making headway.

“Minutes later the storm reached its height, and our best efforts couldn’t save us. A giant wave pushed us into the rocks, and my good ship the Hildred went down, taking us all with it. Taking my treasure too, down to the ocean floor.

“His curse has followed me ever since. A lost key, a lost chest, miles of ocean, and only one night a year to search! Year after weary year the crew and I have sought them. I’d be looking still, if your tongue hadn’t run away with you tonight.”

“But…but that was make-believe!” Crabcake protested. “I was making it all up!  And this key, it could be any old key. Why should you think it’s yours? Here, look!” He pulled the key from his jacket and held it out.

“‘Tis my key. It has my sign,” said the stranger, taking the key and running his finger over the H. “And now you will take me to my treasure!”

“To your treasure?” asked Charlie in astonishment. “How could I have that? You just said it must be on the ocean floor somewhere.”

“Do you take me for a fool?” demanded Haldan. “I heard you tell your friends about that last night on the Hildred. I heard you tell them that this was the key to my chest. How would you know that, if you hadn’t found the chest and tried the key in the lock?”

His hand shot out and grabbed Charlie by the neck. He pursed his lips and whistled. As he did, the wind dropped, and Crabcake could hear a quiet splash of oars. A small boat with three oarsmen approached. The cold hand of Haldan gripped the back of his neck, and he was propelled through the surf and into the boat. Haldan settled in the stern, gave the order, and the boat headed back out to sea. Crabcake sat in the bow, trembling with cold and fear as he watched the shoreline recede.

“Where are you taking me?” he asked. The figure in the stern pointed. Crabcake looked over his shoulder. He shuddered. Ahead of them loomed a frigate of the kind he’d read about, the kind that had figured in so many of his stories. As the moon slipped out from behind a cloud, its light fell on the prow, and he read there the name Hildred.

 

Chapter Seven

Commanded to Do the Impossible

The little boat came alongside the frigate, and Haldan motioned for Crabcake to start up the ladder. Hand over hand Crabcake climbed. The rungs were slippery, and the ladder swayed as the ship rocked in the water. Waves flung up spray that stung Crabcake’s legs and back. Reaching the top of the ladder and clambering aboard, he found himself surrounded by a silent pirate crew.

The pirates moved back as Haldan came aboard. With icy fingers Haldan forced Crabcake across the deck, down a flight of wooden steps, and along a musty-smelling hallway that stretched away into blackness. The hall ceiling was so low Crabcake had to bend his head as he walked. Here and there sea water oozed up through the cracks between the floorboards, and a clamminess in the air caused him to pull his jacket closer. At the end of the corridor, Haldan opened a door and shoved Crabcake into a small room lit dimly by lantern light and stinking of bilge water and whale oil.

As soon as the door was shut, Haldan gave Crabcake a measuring look. “The night goes fast,” he observed. “You have not much time. Before daybreak you must lead me to my treasure, or you will wait with us for next year’s Halloween.”

“Wait? Wait where?” asked Crabcake.

“Beyond land and sea. Where the night is filled with sounds of misery and terror, where fog, foul and chill, shrouds all, where there is neither rest nor peace.”

“But I don’t know where the treasure is!”Crabcake wailed.

“Don’t you? That is too bad, indeed. Perhaps you need some time to think. Some time alone.” Smiling coldly at Crabcake, Haldan walked across the room and opened the door. He shut it behind him, and Crabcake heard the scrape of a bolt sliding into place.

Crabcake’s head drooped. He sighed and shook his head. Then he tightened his lips, looked up, and spoke out loud. “Well, Charlie, my boy, Mother always told you your tongue would lead you to trouble. What are you going to do now?” Though his words were light, he knew his predicament was serious. “If Haldan plans to hold me till I give him a chest I don’t have, he’ll have to hold me till Doomsday,” Crabcake thought. “I wish I’d let that turtle keep his blasted key. I wish I’d never made up the story. How could I know it would turn out to be true?”

Hours passed. Crabcake spent some time trying to force the door, but it was thick and strong, and the lock showed no sign of giving, even when he threw his weight against it. To add to his misery the oil in the lamp had not been refilled and there came a moment when the light flickered and went out. Crabcake sat alone, while all around him the dark whispered and rustled with creaks and groans he couldn’t interpret. Suddenly something brushed against his leg, and he jumped up, knocking over his chair with a clatter that jarred the darkness.

Strangely, the terror he felt at that minute seemed to steady him. Nothing, he thought, could be worse than that touch of the unknown. He gathered the scraps of his courage and wrapped himself in them. “I’m not giving up,” he told himself. “Storyin’ got me into this predicament, and if I keep my wits about me, storyin’ may get me out.”

As he thought this, Crabcake felt his heart, which had been jumping and thumping, slow to a steady beat. He righted the chair and sat quietly in the dark, thinking, thinking…. How long he sat there, he didn’t know, but eventually he heard the sound of footsteps, the rasp of the bolt, and the door swung open.

 

Chapter Eight

Charlie and the Pirates

Haldan stood in the doorway.  “Well?” he demanded.  “Are you ready to tell me where my treasure is?”

“I’ll tell,” said Crabcake, with what he hoped sounded like surrender in his voice. “I buried it. I buried it under a rock at the north end of the harbor.”

“Buried it? Why?” demanded Haldan Skeptically. “Why not just enjoy the treasure?”

“No sir!” said Charlie. “I knowed as soon as I would start showing that gold around, somebody’d rob me, for sure. Best to save it, I thought, spend a little at a time, not raise no suspicions. I know me a spot along the coast where no one ever goes, and that’s where I hid the chest.”

Crabcake held his breath as he finished speaking. Would Haldan believe him? Silence filled the small room.

At last Haldan spoke. “You will take me there,” he said. Jerking his head for Crabcake to follow, he led the way back down the low hallway and up the stairs. Crabcake felt his breathing ease when he was out in the night air with the open sky stretching above, but he didn’t much care for the way the crew looked at him. He stayed close to Haldan.

At the edge of the deck, Haldan motioned to Crabcake to start down the ladder. Now was the time! “You’d better make them believe you, Charlie my boy,” he told himself.

He turned his head to look back at Haldan. “You didn’t forget the map, did you?” he asked, loud enough for the other pirates to hear.

“Map?” Haldan sounded surprised, as well he might. “What map?”

“The one I gave you—the one that shows the—you know,” Charlie’s voice had just the right touch of impatience in it. He saw the crew move closer when they heard the word “map” and pretended to notice for the first time that they were listening. He lowered his voice. “Oh, I get it,” he whispered loudly to Haldan. “Two’s better than twenty when it comes to sharin’, ain’t it?”

He moved closer to the rail around the deck, but as he did so, a hand clamped down on his arm.

“What kind of map?” The pirate who asked fingered the knife in his belt. Crabcake tried not to look at it.

“Oh, just an old map I showed Haldan. Probably nothing to it,” he said.

“Liar! You showed me no map!” Haldan’s voice was loud and angry. A sullen mutter ran through the men. They shuffled and shifted and shouldered one another until a circle of them stood between Haldan and Charlie.

Crabcake pretended to be indignant himself. “Now see here,” he said. to Haldan, “If you don’t want to share with these fellows, that’s not my look-out. But don’t go calling me a liar. Next you’ll be saying you don’t have the key either.”

Haldan’s hand involuntarily moved towards his pocket. One of the crew uttered an oath and thrust his own hand roughly into Haldan’s pocket. He pulled out the key and held it triumphantly high.

The muttering grew louder. Now even the pirates next to Crabcake moved threateningly towards Haldan.

“Yes! That’s my key,” Haldan said challengingly. “How this villain got it, I don’t know. But I took it from him, and I’m making him show where he hid the treasure. There is no map, only what he knows. Now stand aside.”

Crabcake could see the crew hesitate. They didn’t trust Haldan, but they were used to following his orders. Now was Charlie’s last chance.

He shook his head mournfully. “I shoulda knowed better,” he said. “I shoulda left the map home when I went to the Buccaneer tonight. Now Haldan has the map and you all have the key and poor Charlie ain’t got nothing.”

“You gave me no map!” Haldan’s voice was high and desperate. The crew advanced on him, and as he backed away, he drew a gun from his waistcoat. It glittered in the moonlight, and the barrel waved threateningly. Now it pointed at the pirates, now at Crabcake. But the pirates were not deterred. A knife whizzed past Haldan’s ear, missing him by inches. He stumbled, and his gun fell to the deck. “Get him!” someone yelled. Other pirates took up the cry, and they surged forward.

The night air filled with shouts and oaths, sounds of scuffling, clang of steel on steel. Crabcake didn’t stay to watch. As soon as he found himself unguarded, he moved towards the ladder and started down. He was on the fifth rung, his head just at deck level when a lurch of the ship sent an object skittering across the deck toward him. There was a glint of gold, his hand shot out, and once more Crabcake held the key. He tucked it into his pocket and scrambled on down the ladder.

Jumping into the small boat, he untied the line and began to pull on the oars. He was yards away from the ship when a chorus of shouts told him his absence was discovered. “I’m too far,” he chuckled to himself. “By the time they get another boat launched, I’ll be long gone.”

But a thunderous roar rang through the darkness, a crash shook his small craft, and water came surging through the splintered wood where the pirate shot had hit. Crabcake felt the boat sinking beneath him. He cast a despairing glance at the faraway shore.

 

Chapter Nine

Alone

All the storytelling ability in the world couldn’t turn Crabcake into a long-distance swimmer, and he knew it. The water closed around him with a welcome warmth, but the sea was rough, and he was no longer a young man. He swam underwater as fast and as far as he could. Finally he surfaced, gasping for air. He looked frantically behind. To his surprise he saw no pursuing boat. “They think I’m drownded,” he decided with relief.

The need for speed was gone, but the distance to travel was great. One arm after another, stroke upon stroke, till Crabcake could do no more. He felt himself sinking lower in the water, lower, and lower. He closed his eyes and was composing his final prayers when—glory be!—he felt something solid, he grabbed hold, and was brought sputtering to the surface.  By the light of the moon, he could see that he was lying upon a turtle’s back.

The turtle swam steadily towards shore. Crabcake didn’t have time to wonder how or why it had found him, he just held on. The turtle rose and fell with the waves, but Crabcake could feel it making headway. Suddenly it dipped sideways, sliding him off. One panicky minute, then he felt his feet touch sandy bottom, and he found himself standing waist deep in water, not fifty yards from his front door!

He was staggering forward when he felt a sharp tug at his pocket. He turned just in time to see the turtle surface, holding the key in its mouth. Crabcake and the turtle stared at each other. “I knew what he wanted, and I figured I owed him,” Charlie used to say. He reached out, took the key from the turtle’s mouth and tucked it into the hollow between head and shell, back where he had first seen it.

Now where the moonlight made a shimmering path on the water, the turtle paddled lazily. “Can a turtle wink?” Crabcake used to ask his listeners. “You may not think so, but this one sure did. He winked right at me and I knew he was saying we was all square now.”

Crabcake watched  the turtle turn to swim away. He could see the scar on its face, see the strong, broad shell he had ridden to shore, the faint glitter of gold next to its head. He watched till it was nothing but a dot, then stayed for a minute more, staring into the night. Sure enough, far out on the bay he could see the Wanderer’s ghostly frigate sailing away from shore, out into open water.

“And, by dinghies,” Crabcake Charlie said to my grandfather’s grandfather, “that was the only time I ever watched a ship sail away without wishing I was on her.”


Here is one walloping tale. Smart, inventive, and surprising, Crabcake Charlie uses the art of story to illuminate the power of story. Readers will feel enchanted and enriched by this story’s end. They’ll want to sit on Charlie’s beach until the sun sets and beyond, just hoping for more of his wonderful tales, and especially for the turtle to return with the key.
—Kathi Appelt, 2012 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


In Your Head

ZP Heller

UNKNOWN STUDENT SPEAKS SOFTLY (AND CARRIES BIG STICK)

Breaking news on In Your Head. Bill Blair here to tell you about a fight breaking out at Central High School in Philadelphia that could have a huge impact on next Thursday’s presidential election. You’re looking at a live shot of the M-shaped school, as seen from our In Your Head chopper, the aerial eyes behind The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine. Most of the school’s 2,500 students are exiting down the North Lawn toward buses at the corner of Ogontz and Olney Avenues, but the big story we bring you exclusively this afternoon is happening on the Blacktop, a raised student parking lot on Central’s west side. Zooming in, we see a crowd of students dispersing after a ferocious slugfest between a couple of jocks and a virtually unknown junior named Michael Washington Maddon. And that’s where our story is developing…

 

Batshit crazy. That’s what Mikey would call anyone who predicted he would run for senior class president, in an election that would nearly kill him. But aside from his best friend Smiles, Mikey doesn’t talk to many other students, let alone anyone clairvoyant enough to see one batshit crazy week into the future. In fact, he doesn’t even make eye contact with his classmates walking up the Blacktop steps toward their cars. Instead he stares at dandelions popping through pavement scars as he sits on the grimy hood of Smiles’s white LeBaron, waiting for a ride home.

A brisk wind rips across the Blacktop. It shushes all other sound, skittering dandelion seeds in all directions. Damn cold for May, Mikey thinks, tugging at his threadbare pea coat collar. Once his dad’s, the charcoal-colored coat is two sizes too big and reeks of mothballs. And if it can’t handle a Philly spring, how worthless must it have been in the mountains of Kashmir, or wherever the hell Dad had been embedded? Mikey wonders as he absently loops his arm through the strap of his textbook-swollen backpack, which wouldn’t budge unless a freak tornado blew through this neighborhood. But as Mom once said, even downtown Kabul’s got less violence than North Philly.

Mikey hears a muffled cry from the steps. He looks up but sees only Central High pointing its thick brick knuckles at him, a single smoke stack smoldering close in the middle. Is school giving him the finger? A big brick fuck you? Focusing above the wind, Mikey can just hear the end-of-day scraping of desks and chairs, along with a screechy chorus of student voices echoing into the two courtyards below. Once, when Mikey was a child, his parents drove through Central’s campus on the way to dinner somewhere. He had been napping in the backseat and awoke in the middle of one of those courtyards, grated windows staring down at him. “There,” Dad said, pointing toward a corner of lusterless brick. “That’s where my buddies and I used to play handball at lunch.” When Mikey asked what happened if the ball bounced into the ditches beneath the windows, Dad turned around and smiled through his bushy brown beard, his Brut cologne wafting into the backseat. “You were out. Unless of course you dove down into the window wells without a teacher seeing…or the Head of School.”

Suddenly Hector Rosa stumbles up the Blacktop steps, snapping Mikey out of his reverie. Hector’s a chubby sophomore who transferred last year and sports a mustache that looks painted-on thick. He and Mikey have been on nodding-in-the-halls terms ever since they bumped into each other at the Roots concert last summer down at the Festival Pier. Trailing him are Sean Hanrahan and his acne-plagued brother Lou.

“You callin’ my brother a liar?” Sean demands, tripping Hector into the rusty wrought-iron rail—the only safeguard against plummeting a good 20 feet onto the faculty parking lot below. The Hanrahans are jocks seen on the ball fields at the far end of Central this time of day; Sean pitches varsity baseball while Lou runs JV track. What the hell are they doing here?

“P-please,” Hector stammers, cowering behind his hands.

“P-please, what?” Lou mocks. “You sayin’ you didn’t tell Mr. Armstrong on me? Huh? You know how serious that plagiarism shit is?”

For fuck’s sake, Mikey thinks. Everyone on the Blacktop knows plagiarism is Central’s most offensive crime. Maybe worse than doing drugs. A teacher’s formal accusation alone means a summons from Dr. Knapinski and a five-person faculty committee for review. You’re temporarily banned from all activities and sports and shunned by friends coerced into testifying at your hearing, less they be Knap-listed. Lou may as well have pink eye or crabs or the bubonic plague for all the kids who will steer clear of him now.

“Is that what yer saying, you fat fucker?” Sean screams.

“Please, I didn’t—”

“Now yer gonna lie to us on top of it?” Sean kicks Hector’s puffy brown jacket and less protected legs.

“Get ‘em, Sean! Get that wetback fuck!”

Mikey doesn’t know what to do. Where the hell’s Smiles? Isn’t anyone going to step in? A handful of students wince by their cars, faces frozen in anguish. Mikey’s never fought anyone. He doesn’t want to start by taking on two brothers, each a head taller than himself. And for what, to defend a kid he barely knows? Lots of Centralites were at that Roots show. Is Mikey going to step up every time one of them gets into a fight? Is he that batshit crazy? Mom would kill him if she hears he’s been fighting. And what would Dad say?

Then Mikey sees blood. First a trickle, then a gush, spilling from Hector’s nose and mouth. It mats his mustache, darkening his jacket collar. Without thinking, Mikey grabs his backpack and swings it bowling ball-style into Sean’s side. Sean groans and trips along the uneven asphalt. He stumbles headfirst into the grill of an old Jeep Cherokee with a whonk!

Everything blurs. Mikey grabs Lou by his green Eagles jacket, hot and slippery to the touch. “Yo, you got a fucking problem?” Mikey screams above the wind. “Huh? Huh?” Cursing more than makes up for lack of muscle. He shoves Lou so hard against the rusty railing Lou’s about to fall over the edge when Mikey grasps his jacket.

“Yer crazy!” Lou shrieks, face turning the color of his pimples. “Who the fuck do you think you are, you stupid bitch?”

Lou slaps Mikey hard across the face. Mikey’s ear feels like it’s being smothered, first under one pillow, then hundreds. His face burns in the crisp air. His mouth tastes of metal, but he only tightens his grip. Barely able to hear himself, he shouts, “Crazy? You want to see crazy? Try that shit again and I’ll show you crazy!”

Out of nowhere, there’s a frosty hand on Mikey’s neck. Its touch is like the ice-cold shower Mom once made Mikey take when he was home for three days with a 102° fever. He turns to see his own face, apoplectically purple in Smiles’s aviator shades.

“Easy, bro,” Smiles says with a quizzical expression, earbuds plugging his ears. “No need to take the piss out of these bulls just ‘cause I’m 20 minutes late.”

Mikey realizes a couple dozen people have gathered around, including their arms-crossed homeroom teacher/school disciplinarian Ms. Walker, and Officer Roberts, a ruddy-faced campus cop with a twitchy gray mustache thicker than Hector’s. Mikey lets go of Lou, who runs to his still-stunned brother, tears streaming down pimply cheeks. Ms. Walker helps Hector to his feet. She’s seen the whole thing, or at least enough to know Mikey finished the fight but didn’t start it; either way she doesn’t bother asking him what happened. Instead, she and Officer Roberts begin escorting Hector and the Hanrahan brothers inside to Dr. Knapinski’s office, leaving Mikey head in hands on the top step.

Mikey can’t move. He doesn’t hear Ms. Walker say, “Hey Smiles, is Dances Like a Butterfly Stings Like a Bee gonna be all right?” He doesn’t hear Smiles swear he’ll get Mikey home safe, or Ms. Walker warn them not to go home by way of the South Lawn. Nor does Mikey hear the slow procession of students honking and shouting congratulatory notes as they rubberneck off the Blacktop, one junior even yelling, “Dude, you should run for president!”

Mikey hears none of this.

All he hears is a wash of distortion. The sound of blood in his ears. It’s followed by a sort of patriotic theme song: a squealing guitar riff reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” cut short by a heavy drum solo—tattatta-tattatta-tattatta-tattatta. Then voices both stern and velvety smooth. Voices so familiar they sound as though they’ve always been there, but in the background, like the sound of Broad and Olney traffic. Voices not exactly natural, yet the instant Mikey hears them, he knows they aren’t unnatural either…

 

…Welcome back to In Your Head; I’m Bill Blair. Joining me now is The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine to break down the colossal implications of this afternoon’s Blacktop Bout. Our Chief War Correspondent, Ezra Savage, is standing by live at the scene. Ezra, what’s the situation from where you are?

Shock and awe, Bill. Shock and awe. That’s what Centralites are feeling out here on the Blacktop. Shocked that Michael Washington Maddon, a student who has done everything possible to avoid the limelight for the past three years, took on two jocks to defend a helpless classmate, and awed by his heroism. If you can hear the honking behind me, students are praising Maddon for his valor as they drive off, and rightly so. He showed real cojones this afternoon, taking action without stopping to consider the consequences. Some would say that’s the stuff real leaders are made of. And you know what? My sources are telling me this could launch Maddon’s surprising bid for the presidency.

Yes, Ezra, I’m getting reports of that too. Let’s turn to our Senior Presidential Analyst, Dr. Edie Riley, joining me here in the In Your Head newsroom.

Thanks Bill, good to be here.

What do you make of this staggering development, Doctor, considering the election is next Thursday morning, a little less than a week away?

I should start by saying Central is widely recognized as one of the oldest and most respected public high schools in the country, which means the presidency carries with it a heck of a lot of prestige and power. But though this is an academic school, it’s located in the heart of one of Philly’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Today’s fight may have been among students, but chances are the next one won’t be. And you’d better believe Maddon has proven himself capable of cleaning things up around here, both in the school and in the surrounding neighborhood. He’s thrown down the gauntlet, ready to fight for what’s right. If Maddon runs for president, you can just imagine the excitement he’ll breathe into what has otherwise been a dull, uncontested race run by Greta Slyke alone.

I certainly can, Doctor. My thanks to you both, Ezra Savage and Dr. Edie Riley. Stay with us as this monumental story continues to develop, only on In Your Head.

 

MADDON’S NOT-SO-SURPRISING STAR TURN

The next morning Mikey awakes to knocking. His right ear—that whole side of his head—rings with dull pain. The TV hisses from across the living room, filling the air like the lingering smell of burnt coffee left over from Mom rushing back to work at Children’s Hospital before dawn. As Mikey turns to his side, a makeshift blanket of Latin and history textbooks falls to the hardwood floor with a dull thwirp. He wipes a thread of drool from his dirty blond chin stubble, using his other hand to reach the remote lying on the glass coffee table. Beside the remote, Mikey finds a folded note in Mom’s cursive: “Make me proud, M. Don’t sweat the small stuff. As your father would say, ‘Hasta faggiore!’”

Dad’s nonsensical expression. The last words of his last e-mail from two, no, almost three years ago, which ended: All life as you will know it begins at the end of high school. “Be not afraid of greatness.” And always remember, Hasta faggiore! Nothing about his own safety in Afghanistan, covering what he called “The Forgotten War.” Just Shakespeare cloaked in creepy prophecy and Italian gibberish. Maybe it wasn’t gibberish. Maybe it was code for all the misgivings Dad must have had reporting from a war zone while his wife and teenage son were continents away.

Mikey switches off the TV as the patriotic theme song howls back on between his ears—tattatta-tattatta-tattatta-tattatta.

 

Good morning and welcome to In Your Head. I’m Bill Blair and on today’s show, we’re taking an in-depth look at the newest presidential contender, Michael Washington Maddon. And what a presidential name he has too! You know, many called this election over before it even began. Many said no one had the guts to run against the girl with the bullet-proof resume, Greta Slyke, but the turbulent events of the past 24 hours have opened the door to a fresh face on the political scene. Still, what do we really know about Maddon, and does he have what it takes to be president? Our Chief Presidential Profiler, Ezra Savage, filed this report.

At 5’6”, with a reserved demeanor and shaggy hair covering a faint spray of pimples across his forehead, Michael Washington Maddon, or “Mikey,” as he’s known among his few friends, doesn’t exactly strike you as presidential material. And looks aren’t the only thing limiting Maddon as he enters the political fray. It was almost three years ago that Maddon lost his father, a war correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer who died in Afghanistan when his military escort ran over an exposed IED. That event tormented Maddon as he entered high school, relegating him to the social sidelines and Central’s stoner scene on the South Lawn, which is all the more reason why yesterday’s fight is particularly noteworthy. We’re witnessing Maddon’s meteoric rise from relative obscurity to instant celebrity. Yet the question remains whether Maddon will embrace this chance to step out of his father’s shadow, or whether he’ll continue to be haunted by—

 

More knocking.

Mikey gives his head a painful shake. Keeping the TV on all night helped keep In Your Head in check, or maybe the show just signed off on its own accord. Either way, the voices are back, but to say what? Running for president had never occurred to him before yesterday afternoon. He’d have an easier time getting a 5 on his AP Physics test than winning the presidency. Hell, he’d have better luck asking Greta Slyke to prom than trying to beat her in an election.

More knocking, this time coupled with the brr-brr-brrrring of an impatiently-pressed doorbell.

Mikey peers out the bay window to see Smiles at the front door, his white earbuds disappearing into the hood of his rust-colored sweatshirt. In the street the LeBaron idles, double-parked. Its exhaust puffs away in the crisp morning like a smoke signal to two heavy-breathing joggers heading down Bainbridge Street.

“What up, bro?” Smiles says as Mikey opens the door. They exchange their traditional shake—a fist bump escalating into an all-out thumb war—though Smiles smushes Mikey’s thumb without resistance. “Question,” Smiles asks with an abrupt head tilt; “where’d you disappear to last night? I kept callin’ and—”

“Just here studying,” Mikey sighs. With thick-rimmed glasses in his thumb war-losing hand, he buries his other palm into his right eye—a futile attempt to rub away the pain. “But I didn’t last long. My fucking head’s killing me, man.”

“From where that pimply runt laid the smack down?”

Mikey nods, unable to make out Smiles’s expression without glasses. He doesn’t want to lie, though he can’t tell Smiles the truth either, since he has no idea what the truth is. That he’s stuck in some sort of batshit Kafkaesque tale of transformation narrated by a news network in his own fucking head? Gregor Samsa never had it so good!

“Guess it was totally worth it though,” Smiles says, slapping Mikey on the arm.

“Whaddya mean?”

“Dude, didn’t you hear? You went viral!”

“What?” Mikey asks. “I went what?”

“Viral, dude! Someone must’ve taped the fight. It’s all over the Web. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter—you name it. Yo, you’re hotter than a Miley Cyrus sex tape!”

Didn’t Mikey hear? Of course not. As low a profile as he keeps at school, he’s been completely off the online grid for months. No e-mail, no Facebook, no Twitter—nothing. Why? Here’s a hint: She’s 5’4” and looks kind of like Mikey 30 years from now, what with her broad nose, high cheek bones, and dirty blonde hair. As if texting every few hours from the hospital to check up on him weren’t bad enough, Mom created a phony Facebook profile for spying purposes. Mikey didn’t know something was up till Smiles got a friend request from “Mrs. M,” who had no profile pic but lived in Philly with the listed interests: “yoga, romantic comedies, and my beautiful, darling son.”

Smiles dashes over to the coffee table and brushes aside the handwritten note to flip open the laptop underneath. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” he mocks in a high-pitched voice that sounds more like Cleveland from “Family Guy” than Mikey’s mom.

“Anyone ever tell you you look like a black Chester Cheetah in those shades and sweatshirt?” Mikey wants ibuprofen, better-smelling coffee, and for everyone to stop speaking in contradictory fortune cookie speak. He considers telling Smiles to drive on without him but doesn’t want to ride the crowded, sewer-stinking subway to school.

“Why you always gotta make it a race thing, huh?” Smiles grins as he boots up the computer.

They’ve been this way since day one of freshman year. After discovering nearly identical class schedules, they also found common ground in cartoons and comedies, hip hop and alternative, and, perhaps most importantly, “horticulture.” That was also around the time Ms. Walker dubbed Walter Peterman “Smiles” for walking into homeroom from the South Lawn “smilin’ like a damn fool.”

“Yo, better get your whaki on so we can roll out,” Smiles says, absently pointing to the baggy khaki pants and white polo he’s wearing beneath his sweatshirt. Mikey grabs his clothes from his bedroom upstairs while Smiles loads the fight on YouTube.

The footage is Cloverfield shaky. It’s almost too nauseating for Mikey to watch. He can barely hear anything above the fooffittafooffitta of the howling wind in the microphone. But there he is, in all his embarrassing glory. “Jesus,” he groans. “I didn’t see anyone taping it.”

“For real,” Smiles says. “You can’t do nothing these days without some bull goin’ all Zapruder on your ass.”

The video has nearly 5,000 views already—5,000! That’s twice as many students as there are at Central. Nearly ten times the number of kids in the junior class. How have so many seen it so fast? Imagine if Mom ever comes across it. Mikey’s been at Central almost three years and she still worries about him commuting to such a dangerous part of the city, even if he’s honoring Dad’s memory by attending his alma mater. But this? This will make the rest of Mom’s hair match that one silver streak—more Storm than Rogue from X-Men, and Mikey does not want to invoke Storm’s wrath. Who’d be sweating the small stuff then?

“And look at all the comments!” Smiles says, scrolling down. Despite the first few calling the fight phony and the people in it “a bunch of fags,” there’s an unmistakable progression to the majority, from “Who’s this kid?” to “Maddon’s the man,” to “Rocky’s got nuthin’ on him!” to a whole thread following “Maddon 4 President!”

“Hasta faggiore!”

“You said it, yo,” Smiles laughs.

It’s just as Dad had written. Worse, it’s just as In Your Head predicted.

 

…This is an In Your Head Extra Special Alert. An amateur video highlighting Maddon’s Blacktop Bout heroics is making its way around the Web as Maddon’s presidential aspirations continue to gain steam. Our motto here on In Your Head is “Just Facts, Never Fiction,” and right now the fact is that The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine was first to bring you this story yesterday afternoon. Now let’s take a look at the rest of today’s In Your Headlines…

 

ACE PITCHER TOSSES CAP INTO RING

In the locker room that Thursday afternoon, the guys passed around a video of the Hanrahans’ fight on someone’s iPhone like it was a leaked copy of the latest Kanye album. Russell Tucker, the Lancers’ closer, called Maddon a pussy. Others talked trash and some sort of Carrie-like revenge fantasy involving Maddon, the junior prom, and a bucket of pig’s blood; they wondered if they could get actual pig’s blood or if a bunch of ketchup bottles stolen from the cafeteria would work equally well. Steve Park just wished they would all shut the hell up.

Sure, he and Sean shared an undeniable bond as teammates. They were doubly bonded as pitchers. Like it or not, Steve would have to go along with whatever payback Sean and the rest of his teammates plotted. Right now though, all Steve wanted was to focus on his pre-game ritual: head bent over his knees; noise-canceling earphones on; and a towel loosely draped over his head as he straddled the wooden bench in front of his chipping, gold-painted locker, listening to the random playlist on Melanie’s iPod until inspiration struck.

Steve never knew which song would do the trick. Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—there were thousands of possibilities. 2,571 to be exact. Earlier in the season, after he’d heard Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”—a song Melanie had stripped to on their one-month anniversary, before sending him home with the worst case of blue balls he’d ever had—Steve’s cheeks turned so red Coach asked if he was drunk. But he went out that afternoon and threw a four-hitter to win the game against Olney High.

Other kids on the team followed more conventional superstitions. Some refused to shave all season or wore the same dirt-stained socks for each game. Steve even saw Sean bury a rabbit’s foot in his jock before taking the field a couple times. “To tickle them balls before I tickle them balls,” Sean laughed, loud enough for everyone to hear. But for Steve, it was the music. He had no clue why, and he couldn’t have cared less. All he knew was he’d done this before each game and was 4-1 for the season. The only loss came when he was running so late from a chemistry test that he hit the skip button rather than letting the songs play out in full. How dumb of him to squeeze inspiration from Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” after using that same song in the game against Frankford two weeks before. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Suddenly, Steve felt a sharp blow to his shoulder. Reluctantly hitting pause, he yanked the towel from his head, more annoyed about the interruption than the punch. It was Russell, who kept his hair slicked back and sprayed much too much antiperspirant into his armpits before and after each game. He was the bullpen’s Pigpen, except instead of stink lines Russell had an almost visible aura of Axe.

“Yo, you hear Sean won’t be startin’ no time soon?” Word was Dr. Knapinski had suspended Sean for a week, but kids were already saying Coach planned to ban him for the rest of the season, just to set an example.

“Yeah,” Steve said, looking around to gauge how much time he had left to find his song. Most of his teammates were almost done changing, tucking in their crimson jerseys with the golden jouster printed across the chest and lacing up their cleats. Lots of lockers slammed. Steve had to end this conversation. He began bouncing his right knee—a nervous habit that drove his parents nuts at dinner because his legs were so big he shook the whole table. “Guess I’ll get some extra chances to throw before the season’s over, huh?”

“Even better!” cried Russell. “Coach says he’s moving me outta the bullpen. I’ll be in the starting rotation, can you believe it?”

“That right?”

“Yeah, alls I gotta do is give up my ABCs.”

“ABCs?”

“Always Be Closin’ games, son,” Russell nudged, bringing his armpit so close Steve had to breathe through his mouth. “But I’ll be pitching right behind Steve Park!”

Ever since he’d accepted Coach’s try-out invitation earlier this year, Steve had begun to hear his whole name said that way. At first he figured he just had one of those names you had to say in full, like Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels. Then he thought maybe his physique had something to do with it; he was 6’2” and 210 pounds, with broad shoulders and muscles he toned every day, if not in the gym then on the chin-up bar in his bedroom when he should have been doing geometry proofs.

If he towered over most Central kids, he may as well have been Paul friggin’ Bunyan at home. His many cousins and four tiny, visor-wearing aunties and uncles said his name with similar amazement whenever they dropped by, and in English too—the only non-Korean Steve ever heard his older relatives speak. More and more, Steve saw himself as one of those towering bronze statues of athletes that used to greet fans entering Veterans Stadium, which now held daily vigil outside the parking lot where the Vet once stood.

“Know what else?” Russell said. “I hear Maddon’s gonna run for president.” He sprayed his hairy right armpit, filling the locker room with a noxious chemical pshhhh.

“That so?” Steve asked, closing his eyes and trying not to gag.

“Yeah, he must think he’s hot shit now or something.” Russell’s beady eyes widened. “Dude, you should run! Teach that dickcheese a lesson for fuckin’ with a Lancer.” Without taking his finger off the Axe, he tapped Steve again on the shoulder. Steve could feel the spray sticking faintly to his neck.

“Me? Up on a stage instead of a mound? Making speeches? That’s funny!” Steve shrugged, wiping his neck with a towel. “I got too much riding on this season to give a crap about politics.” He had to keep training, had to keep toned, had to stay focused to have any shot of scoring a baseball scholarship. Not that his parents couldn’t afford college; they kept insisting they were prepared to take out whatever it took in loans, even ask his aunties and uncles to pool their savings, just so Steve could be the first in the family to go to an American university. But how would he get in anywhere if not by pitching? His GPA had been falling further than his sinker recently—all the more reason why he had to get back to Melanie’s iPod now before taking the field. “Anyway, we both know I ain’t smart enough to be giving speeches.”

The minute Steve made the team, he’d started downplaying his already limited brains. Traded the Asian Students Association for jocks, mathletics for athletics, Xbox for beer pong, porn for Melanie. It was in his Korean DNA to be like everyone else. In Seoul, if an empty flat-screen TV box suddenly appeared in the trash outside the high-rise where his family lived until he was eight—one of many near-identical apartment buildings in his neighborhood distinguished only by the huge blue numbers painted vertically on the outer concrete walls—the next week there would be dozens and dozens of empty boxes for the exact same model. Yet though Steve wasn’t the brightest bulb in Central’s circuit, even he recognized the irony of trying to be like all the other kids on the team when none of them was Asian. But he couldn’t help it. During try-outs, he swapped his Korean “Jae Won” for the more Americanized “Steve”; it was his own little tribute to Hall-of-Fame Phillies hurler Steve Carlton, who, like Steve, was a southpaw.

“C’mon, how hard could it be to give a few lousy speeches?” Russell went on. “George Bush did it, like, all the time.”

“But Slyke will mop the floor with Maddon anyhow. She’s been preparing for this shit since before she transferred to Central.” They both knew Steve was right. Greta Slyke wasn’t just a cheerleader. She was Miss School Spirit, one of the hottest, most dedicated girls in school. Every girl wanted to be her; every guy wanted to bone her. Who was going to get in her way? Who could top all her sexy posters with glittery slogans lining the halls? Greta mid-air in a short crimson-and-gold skirt with matching pompoms: “Give Me an S!” Greta atop a cheerleading pyramid: “Psyched for Slyke!” Greta mid-split: “We like Slyke!” And if she created all those posters when she was still running unopposed, imagine what running against her would be like.

“I wouldn’t mind mopping the floor with Slyke, if you know what I mean,” Russell whispered, switching to his left pit. “Or at least one of those Becker twins always following her around.”

“Me too,” Steve said without thinking.

“What about Melanie?” Russell cried. “You telling me Steve Park ain’t tappin’ that ass on a nightly basis?” He tapped the rattling Axe canister for added effect.

“Oh, no,” Steve said, feeling his cheeks flush. “Of course I am!”

“Yo Cooper,” Russell yelled over his shoulder. “Beckers gonna be at your party Saturday night?”

“If Greta’s in,” said Cooper Phillips, lacing his cleats further down the bench, “then you know they’re in too.” Cooper was heir to the Phillips for Philly real estate fortune, whose yellow signs Steve saw scattered throughout his Mount Airy neighborhood. Cooper didn’t have to play ball—he was so set he didn’t even have to worry about college—but he was the team’s center-field slugger, not to mention Greta’s boyfriend. Coop looked up and winked at Steve without Russell noticing. “But yo, Russell, what makes you think you’re invited?”

“Aw, c’mon, Coop, really?”

“I dunno. Cops would sniff the trail of booze leaking from yer big mouth right to my front door.”

“All right, you meatheads,” Coach called from the locker room entrance. “Listen up!” Coach was fit for a middle-aged guy. Way fitter than Phillies coach Charlie Manuel, even though Good Ole Charlie had a World Series ring and a team of perennial contenders, and Coach only had a pack of meatheads to manage. He had the small-but-sturdy look of a bulldog, jowls included, but he didn’t carry the paunch that haunted other gym teachers. “As you know, we’ve had a huge setback today, losing Sean for the rest of the geedee season. So I’m giving Russell here a shot at Sean’s spot in the rotation starting next Tuesday.”

“Oh yeah!” Russell said, raising Axe-covered arms and flexing stringy muscles.

“Don’t make me regret that decision,” Coach said. Cooper snapped a towel at Russell with a wet thwap! and everyone laughed. Steve admired how Coach was always giving guys a chance to play, even when they stank up the field. “Let this be a lesson though,” Coach continued. “And do me a favor; try to keep your cool on and off the field, will ya? At least till the end of the geedee year. Then you can beat each other senseless all summer long for all I care.”

More laughs.

“Now,” Coach said, raising his voice, “who’s gonna take Northeast High to school today?”

“We are,” came a handful of half-assed calls.

“I can’t hear you. Who?”

“We are!” everyone cried.

“That’s more like it. I wanna hear the Central Mambo, and I wanna see every last one of you geedee Lancers on that field in five.”

All of Steve’s teammates filed out of the locker room, chanting their fight song:

“Central mambo,

Olé olé,

Fuck Northeast!”

Those were the song’s only words, adapted to fit whatever team they were playing. It wasn’t Central’s school song—the one heard during assemblies, alumni meetings, graduations, and sports award luncheons—where the collective stomping of feet during the chorus sent a proud shiver down Steve’s spine every time. “…On ball field or in life,”—stomp! stomp!—“in peace and deadly strife. For thee we all will labor, for thee, oh, dear old high.” But the Mambo got the message across, loud and clear. And speaking of songs, Steve put his clunky headphones back on, worried now he wouldn’t have time to find the right one.

The Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” was ending. Its whiny chorus and twangy guitar riff left Steve uninspired. His knee was trembling uncontrollably. What if he didn’t find inspiration in time? What if his song never came on? Or what if he only heard songs he’d previously drawn inspiration from between now and game time? Would he delay the game? Coach would say Steve had lost his geedee mind!

The next song was Kanye West’s “Stronger.” Steve wasn’t feeling Kanye—how he was always mouthing off in public and speaking his mind, not exactly the way to fit in—but he couldn’t wait any longer. It would have to do. Psyching himself into it, Steve pumped his hand in the air as a robotic voice came on: “Work it. Make it. Do it. Makes us harder, better, faster, stronger. That, that, that, that, that don’t kill me, will only make me….”

The music cut out. What now? Was the battery dead? No, there was static, like the headphone jack had been jerked too hard or something. Steve fidgeted with it.

“C’mon! C’mon!” he muttered, desperate to bend the cord in just the right way for the wires to work. That’s when a different song cut in—tattatta-tattatta-tattatta-tattatta—followed by a velvety voice.

 

Breaking news on In Your Head.  Bill Blair here to tell you that within 24 hours, Central High’s Presidential election has gone from one candidate running unopposed to a thrilling three-way race. Steve Park—

 

“What the fuck?” Steve yelled, ripping the headphones from his ears. Was this a joke? Were his teammates messing with him? Melanie? Coach? He glanced around to see if anyone was peeking out from behind the row of lockers, half-expecting to see Russell punking him.

The locker room was empty.

He looked down at the black headphones dangling listlessly from the wooden bench, a tinny trace of whatever the hell he was hearing still audible. Cautiously and against his better judgment, Steve picked them up again. Then, just as he was stretching the phones over his head, the voice continued:

 

…We bring in our Senior Election Analyst, Ezra Savage, for more on this late-breaking development. Ezra, what do you make of it?

I’ll tell you, Bill, this race is turning into one hell of a match-up. One of the most popular girls in school, the newest schoolyard hero, and now the baseball team’s ace pitcher—if it gets any hotter in here, I’ll be standing at the gates of Hell interviewing Lucifer himself. This race is Park’s chance to show he’s more than just a talented jock. And can you imagine a better all-American story? Kid comes to our country all the way from South Korea in fourth grade without more than a few words of English, learns to speak the language, learns to dominate our national pastime, and now he’s got a legitimate shot at the presidency. I’m telling you, colleges are going to be fawning all over this kid, fighting to figure out who wants to throw him a bigger scholarship. You heard it here first on In Your Head: This is Park’s race to lose.

It certainly seems that way at the moment, Ezra. More from The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine when we return…

 

The show faded and Kanye returned as Steve tightened the phones around his ears: “…Don’t act like I never told ya. Don’t act like I never told ya….”

Steve felt an unbridled surge. He pictured himself up on the auditorium stage next Thursday, standing at the podium in front of his 500 classmates wearing the linen jacket and baseball-printed tie Pa bought him for this year’s sports award luncheon. He had no idea what he’d say. And he was damned if he could see himself opening his mouth to speak. Though for whatever reason, he could picture himself at Harvard, getting laid on their pitcher’s mound by some boarding-school blonde—scratch that, by Melanie. All of that would come in due time, though. For now, Steve tucked Melanie’s iPod and headphones into his locker, took the field, and threw a no-hitter.

 

MADDON’S PAST CLOUDED IN PURPLE HAZE

“Whaddya mean you don’t think it’s a good idea?” Smiles asks. He and Mikey are winding down Kelly Drive, a tight four-lane road that snakes back and forth along the swift-moving Schuylkill River. Joggers, bikers, and skaters flash past as the LeBaron cruises by Boathouse Row, where the ornate houses of college crew teams light up the river at night. Though not the most direct route to Central, Mikey finds Kelly Drive a pastoral alternative to the incessant traffic and truck exhaust of the Schuylkill Expressway running parallel along the opposite riverbank. “Question: Is this because of my playlist?” Smiles continues. “It’s just a little presidential humor, bro. Gets more uplifting from here, I swear.”

“It’s got nothing to do with that,” Mikey says as Wyclef Jean strums an acoustic guitar and sings, “If I was President, I’d get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday, buried on Sunday. Then go back to work on Monday. If I was president. If I-I was president….” As if that guy would ever run for president, Mikey thinks.

“Yo, my pops says no one respects the art of the playlist no more,” says Smiles, “not since iPods declared the mix-tape era deader than Biggie. Pops says it doesn’t take the same amount of effort, now that you’re not hitting record and stop, rewind and play, fast forward and record again—just to make sure each song sounds tight.” He presses imaginary tape deck buttons on the LeBaron dash, leaving a trail of dusty fingerprints. “But this jawn right here took time and heart last night, believe that.”

“It’s a great playlist,” Mikey says. “Best you’ve made since ‘Stutter Rock.’”

“Now that shit was the shit, wasn’t it? I knew you liked it. ‘My Sharona,’ ‘Bad to the Bone,’ ‘Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,’ ‘My G-g-g-generation.’” Smiles pops a piece of Big Red into his mouth, and the smell teams up with the artificial cinnamon of his heart-shaped car freshener dangling from the rearview.

“Listen,” Mikey says, “the thing is—” He falls silent, watching two rowers glide parallel along the river with oars that don’t splash. The thing is what, exactly? What’s he supposed to do about In Your Head—tell Smiles he’s hearing voices? Some personal pundits editorializing his every move, reporting he’s running for senior class president when he hasn’t even decided whether he will? Who in their right mind would believe him? He can barely believe it himself. Smiles would say he just put the “batshit” in batshit crazy. That he’d better share whatever he’s been smoking. “The thing is,” Mikey continues, “I’ve just got too much on my plate already.”

“For reals?”

“We’ve got two huge tests today in History and Latin, remember?” Mikey picks up the ratty, brown paper bag-covered U.S. history textbook on his lap and gives it a vigorous shake, either to loosen extraneous bits of knowledge or to strangle the book to death. “So there’s that, plus the Lord of the Flies essay on the conch’s symbolism, which I haven’t started. Plus the physics AP test in two weeks. Plus prom coming up, which, by the way, I still don’t have a date for.”

“Dude, those sound more like minuses than plusses.”

“Not funny.”

Smiles removes his iPhone from his whaki pants pocket. “But look, yo, I’m blowing up here. All these texts and tweets and comments on my wall asking what your deal is.” He thumbs through messages, his other hand slack upon the wheel. How does Smiles know so many students? Only two people have Mikey’s number: Mom and Smiles. Three, if you count Central’s main office.

A great metal statue of a somber-looking general on horseback peeks out between trees and rocks to the right, one hoof high off its stone pedestal. Does that mean he died in battle? Mikey can’t remember what Dad once told him about those statues, and he feels a pang of guilt for forgetting. Died. No, lived. Lived, since one foot up means taking a step, which you’d have to be alive to do. But then what do two hooves up mean? Mikey knows he’s seen a statue like that somewhere along Kelly Drive.

Out of nowhere, a black Humvee flies up, cutting them off within inches of Smiles’s bumper.

“Dude, dude, dude!” Mikey exclaims. He stomps on the floor where he wants the brake to be.

“I see it. I see it,” Smiles says, tapping the real brake and pounding the horn as he swerves. The Hummer whooshes off through concrete and stone tunnels ahead.

“I should have my pops ban those damn things in the city.”

“Can’t you get a ticket for using your phone in the car these days?”

“Yeah.” Smiles sneers. “But cops are too busy texting to give them out!”

“Funny, but maybe you shouldn’t be taking us for a text-drive. My mom says all these accident victims keep coming into the ER because of that. Horrible shit where teens are paralyzed from the neck down.”

“Yo, but didn’t your moms also say she’d been seeing an awful lot of patients with the clap last year, back when you started going out with Campbell?”

“Yeah,” Mikey sighs. Mom could be so subtle that way.

“You could always take her to prom.”

“My mom?”

“No, jackass. Campbell. Word around the playground is she wants you back.”

Campbell Brzezinksi, the sophomore whose perky laugh and lilac perfume Mikey once found intoxicating; whose breasts pushed her corduroy overalls to the point where one strap hung perpetually loose; and who had Walt Whitman tattooed in cursive along the small of her neck, just below her blond hair: “And your very flesh shall be a great poem.” But it wasn’t just her hyper-sexuality or the fact that she’d been poetically tattooed at 14 or the way she would hold forth about things Mikey had never thought about before, like Bob Dylan owing his lyrics to Whitman; Campbell had this ease with people that Mikey both envied and mistook for sophistication. She was his first.

“Out of the question, and you know it,” Mikey says. He and Campbell haven’t talked in at least seven months. Not since she cheated on him with Stewart Kolby, an Ultimate Frisbee player from the North Lawn, who always wore a beat-up army jacket and rings of hemp necklaces—an ensemble that Mikey thought looked more idiotic than ironic whenever Stewart sat in History extolling pacifism’s myriad virtues.

The LeBaron screeches right onto Hunting Park Avenue, cutting toward North Philly along the bottom of a concrete canyon that bisects Laurel Hill Cemetery. Always so eerie here, Mikey thinks, what with the dead suspended above the road. Stranger still that they’ve got a fake grave somewhere in there dedicated to Rocky’s beloved Adrian. Leave it to Philly to give as much historical weight to the fictional wife of their fictional underdog hero as they do to real people like General Meade. Yo Adrian, Rocky’s got nuthin’ on this kid!

“Listen,” Smiles says. “Forget Campbell then. Sorry I even brought her up. There ain’t no hottie on campus who won’t want to go with Prez to prom. You’re gonna have pointy-titted Marilyns all over you, popping out of cakes and shit, singing, ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President.’”

“You’ve just got cakes on the brain because we’re passing the old Tastykake factory,” Mikey snickers as the buttery smell of baked goods invades the car, dueling with the air freshener. “But better Marilyns than Monicas, I guess.”

Smiles ignores him. “And second, as your campaign advisor, it’s my official duty to advise you to stop cramming. You’re gonna burn out.” He snatches the book from Mikey’s hands and flips it into the back seat with a heavy thud.

“Easy for you to say,” Mikey replies. And it is. Smiles never has a book in hand, much less becomes stressed to the point of text strangulation. His backpack hangs loose with nothing to weigh it down except a pen, a legal pad filled with more rhymes and doodles than notes, and a carefully rolled joint or two. Yet somehow, whenever test time rolls around, they both end up in the B/B+ range. “Besides,” Mikey adds, “you’re the one still burning out on the South Lawn.”

“Well, well, well, if that isn’t the pot calling the motherfuckin’ kettle black!”

Mikey laughs. “Always gotta make it a race thing, huh?”

Wyclef trails off and Green Day’s “American Idiot” thrashes on with guitar and drum riffs. “Don’t want to be an American idiot…”

“Yo, but wouldn’t you know it?” Smiles says. “Pops gave me a little heart-to-heart on burning out last night when I said you were running.”

“I never said I was running.”

“Okay, okay, have it your way.”

“So what did Judge Peterman say?”

Smiles removes the pick from his short ’fro and wags it for added emphasis. “He’s all, ‘Smiles, I trust you and Mikey aren’t still smoking dope out on the South Lawn, if you know what’s good for you. His presidency and your entire future are at stake, son.’ My future? How does Pops know my future? Now he’s all Doc Brown and I’m Marty McFly, or some shit. Great Scott, Pops, you’ve disintegrated Einstein!”

“So, what did you tell him?”

“I was like, ‘Thank you for taking an interest, Your Honor, sir, but let the record show Mikey and I never inhaled.’ I mean, is that batshit crazy or what?” Smiles fluffs his ’fro at a red light with more tonsorial care than necessary. Mikey laughs, running his fingers through his own unkempt hair and realizing he should have used a comb when he had the chance.

The South Lawn started as a sanctuary freshman year. A safe haven whenever Mikey and Smiles would reverse cut—arriving too late to be marked “present” in Homeroom, then skipping inessential classes to study for critical ones like world history, where that whiny Abe Lincoln-looking fart Mr. Rooney would flunk you for missing so much as a pop quiz on the parts of a medieval knight’s body armor. Soon the South Lawn became a place to chill during free periods and after school. A paradise where people were always laughing at lame jokes, playing guitar, and passing a pipe. Where no one got in your face to be all like: Whaddya get on your PSATs?

“Still,” Smiles continues, “the Honorable Judge Peterman’s got a point. Hope Dr. Knapinski and The Centralizer don’t make a federal case out of it.”

“Oh for Chrissakes!” With everything happening so fast between yesterday’s fight and In Your Head, Mikey hadn’t thought of this at all. “Of course they’ll make it an issue,” he says. “You know how good The Centralizer is at getting up in people’s grills, especially when Campbell’s sister Amanda is editor-in-chief. And L’il Knap? He’ll probably sit me down for a heart-to-heart and throw around big words that don’t mean what he thinks they mean. Rambling on like Grandpa Simpson about the days my dad went to Central. And how Dad would be shocked—shocked—to hear his son was hanging out on the South Lawn.” Though come to think of it, Mikey might never have gravitated toward the South Lawn in the first place if Dad were still alive.

Central could be so cliquish with its predetermined hangouts. Besides the South Lawners and ball-field jocks, you could always find Ultimate Frisbee kids like Stewart Kolby on the North Lawn, the Asian Students Association congregating further down around the flagpole, cheerleaders practicing in the dance studio, the Drama Club rehearsing backstage in the auditorium, mentally gifted geeks playing mancala in the second floor rear corridor, and the orchestra crew practicing away in the middle corridor on the third floor. Hang out for a few weeks in any one place and it’s hard to move around. Hang out for a year or two and you’re damn near branded for life. It won’t matter that Mikey hasn’t smoked or cut school since the beginning of the school year, which he claimed was because Mom was hounding him to take his studies seriously (she even ended one concerned text: “What would ur dad say?”), though everyone knew the real reason was because Mikey couldn’t stand the sight of Campbell anymore. Still, in the eyes of The Centralizer and Dr. Knapinski, Mikey may as well have a crimson-and-gold “SL” seared into his hairless chest Hawthorne-style. It would take a hell of a lot more than Dad’s coat to cover that up. Hasta faggiore!

“I’m sayin’,” Smiles continues, “as your press secretary, I got your back deflecting that shit. And I advise you to roll with some other bulls for a while too. Lay low on the Lawn.”

“But even if no one brings it up—and I can guaran-fucking-tee they will—you really think I got a shot at beating Psyched for Slyke?”

“Yo, would I have made these jawns last night if I didn’t think so?” Smiles reaches into the backseat and hands his heavier-than-usual backpack to Mikey. Inside, Mikey sees a stack of multi-colored papers with the words “MAD FOR MADDON” printed on the first few pages in different fonts and sizes.

“Dude!”

“What else would you expect from your chief publicist?”

They hang a left onto Broad Street, where shabby storefronts butt against each other in no apparent order. Church’s Chicken next to Wally’s Cell Phone World next to ABC Carpets next to Leave Them All Day Care next to Pablo’s Ice Cold Beer—all left to decay until they’re bought out and torn down to make way for 24-hour pharmacies with ample-parking plazas. The one place that strikes Mikey as oddly appropriate is Exodus, a seedy hole-in-the-wall bar that’s open (at 7:43 in the morning) right next to a shuttered church, where only the outline of a cross remains.

“Now as for how to press the flesh,” Smiles continues. “First, you gotta kiss them babies. Absolutely gotta kiss them motherfuckin’ babies, or Central’s equivalent of babies, which are…”

 

…Mikey Maddon has been in politics less than 24 hours and already we’re hearing reports of rampant drug abuse within his campaign. If these allegations are true, they could have a serious impact on voters when they go to the polls less than a week from today. We bring in our Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Edie Riley, for the type of analysis only The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine can deliver. Doctor, is Maddon putting the “high” back in “high school,” and should we be worried?

Thanks, Bill. The use of drugs is never something we on In Your Head condone, but let’s be realistic. Drugs are pervasive on high school campuses across the country, particularly when those campuses are in rough neighborhoods like North Philly, where marijuana is likely the mildest narcotic floating around. In a recent study that In Your Head conducted in collaboration with Philadelphia University, nearly 82 percent of over 2,000 Philly-area students admit to having tried some type of recreational drug in high school, while 97 percent say they are likely to try drugs in college. Qualitative research suggests the serious careerists may start sooner so they have more time to “toke up” and clean up before some future employer makes them pee into a cup.

Simply astounding, Doctor.   

Look, we’ve come a long way from the “I didn’t inhale” Clinton era, especially when you consider President Obama admitted to cocaine and marijuana use in his memoir, published prior to his election run. And let’s not forget President Bush’s DUI and sordid track record, which all but disappeared after he reportedly cleaned himself up and found God. My guess, though, is that voters in the coveted teen demographic might be willing to give Maddon a pass on this issue if nothing more is made of it. And the latest In Your Head Public School Opinion Poll backs up that conclusion. 57 percent of voters say they don’t care if their president has smoked marijuana, as long as he doesn’t do it while on the campaign trail or in office. Of course, those numbers could plummet if his opponents or the press hammer him on this issue. Interestingly, while 17 percent claim they won’t vote for a candidate who admits having tried pot, another 6 percent think he’ll need to keep toking up in order to handle the pressures that come with the job, such as working with Central’s Head of School, Dr. Reginald Knapinski.  

Thanks, Doctor. We now turn to Senior Legal Analyst Ezra Savage. Ezra, do you agree with Dr. Riley’s assessment?

Well, Bill, the good doctor said we can’t condone smoking dope, so let’s not. Marijuana is against the law, to put it bluntly, no pun intended. That means even if Maddon isn’t using drugs anymore himself, he’s still going to have to distance himself from the criminals within his own campaign. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before voters follow the spliff-smelling trail that leads right from those drug-addled doofuses on the South Lawn to the extremely dangerous dealers in the neighborhood.

My thanks to Dr. Edie Riley and Ezra Savage. Stay tuned for more on In Your Head, as the sweet-smelling smoke continues to—

 

“Are you hearing this?” Mikey shouts, slapping the dusty dashboard and turning up the radio.

“What, Radiohead? This ain’t new. It’s off ‘Hail to the Thief,’ in your honor.”

“What?” Mikey says. Then he hears Thom Yorke’s melodic voice return with haunting sonic undulations. “Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there. Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there….”

“Bro, you all right?”

“I’m fine, fine,” Mikey says. “I just can’t run is all. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I know this could be a chance to make a name for myself. And it could guarantee a good college for me or even you as my campaign manager/press secretary/private chaffeur/whateverthehell you’re calling yourself. But I don’t belong on the campaign trail or in the class office. I belong there.” He points to the oak-shaded South Lawn sweeping up toward Central—a squat brick-and-concrete fortress on a hill. The South Lawn has been eerily empty on recent mornings, what with Dr. Knapinski’s rule that all students must enter through metal detectors at the top of the North Lawn. “Let’s just go back in the fucking DeLorean to yesterday afternoon. I won’t step into that fight. I’ll just keep myself to myself, keep my head down in my books, and keep praying for a miracle from the prom gods.”

The grin fades from Smiles’s face as they drive along Ogontz Avenue, silently making two quick lefts around a throng of students entering Central, and pulling onto the Blacktop.

 


Two very different high school boys hear a voice “in their heads,” that comes to
them as a news report. Are they going crazy? Should they each run for class president?
What’s up with all that? Funny, fast-paced, intense, with a veneer of danger running
throughout. Mikey and Steve are dealing with the cards they’ve been dealt, but only
barely, and it’ll take more courage then either of them have to get through the daily news.
—Kathi Appelt, 2012 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


The Flood

Kathleen Forrester

The river was brown and full. The February floods had come and gone, leaving the banks strewn with branches and tangled vines.  The Rock baked, round and familiar, three backyard-swimming-pool lengths away.

You waded in knee deep, toes reading the slimy uneven stones, skin crawling through weeds. Pushed off. Boogie board slapping the stillness. You were tempted to lift your knees and feet and hands and arms out and above the murky unknown, balance on your belly and hold the monsters at bay, never touching down, but The Rock called for late summer adventure, so, with the thrill of courage slipping down your spine, you dipped in and started paddling quickly across the divide.

There was Dad swimming freely ahead, coming up to The Rock, splashing its surface with river so it wasn’t too hot, and then hauling body up the slippery side to flop down in the steaming warmth. His red Speedos loomed closer than real in the shifting afternoon heat.

~

I am paddling hard. I hear my little sister splash in behind me. Her whole body in the river and just her moppy, straw-colored head poking out, chin resting on the board. “You’re a water baby, Shaeli,” Mum would tell her; “you always were. Look at those strong shoulders and broad chest. You’re a born swimmer.”

And she is. She’s just turned eight but she’s got big arms and lungs and she’s not scared of the river; she doesn’t seem to feel things gripping and slipping and pulling her under as she chugs along, kicking to her own little song: Row row row your boat, row your motor boat, kick start a monkey’s fart, don’t forget your coat.

Behind Shaeli I see Mum on the causeway fussing with my little brother, her belly big, big, big. I wonder if she’ll push and glide her way out to the rock today, on her back, roundness to the sun, with little Jack in floaties splashing along beside. Lately she’s been slowing with the heat.

I am nearly eleven so I can’t tell anyone about the monsters, and, of course, they’re not really real. It’s just the weeds and shadows from the straggly casuarinas hanging out over the water. It’s fish and platypus. Eels, as scared of me as I am of them. It’s just my very active imagination. Still, my heart is beating too hard as I pull up to the hot rock and scrabble onto its dry-land safety. Hopping from one foot to the other. The soles of my feet are burning, but it’s not just that; I’ve got the willies in me today. This flood has stirred things up, the river is all reddy-brown and thick, and I don’t trust what I can’t see.

~

Just a few weeks before, you had watched the neighbor’s music shed get gently swept off its bearings and flipped upside down by the flood. It had silently made its way, like a raft on an invisible rope, across the paddock of brown water and ended up in some trees downstream. You had watched the cows in the field below gather and low on their shrinking island until the river enclosed that too, and they were forced to swim with the rising current. You wondered if the water would keep on rising forever. The rain had stopped but still the river was fed relentlessly from the surrounding mountains. The roads were blocked, and Mum and Dad made jokes about an early labor and an unexpected home delivery. It was Valentine’s Day. The Valentine’s Day flood of ’92, they came to say.

You and your sister rode the rivulets like water slides down the creases of hill. Bright yellow rain coats billowing as you bailed onto lush green grass. The water gushed on, flowing out under the barbed-wire fence and across the road, peeling, like your laughter, into the field below. Everything sparkled and groaned with growth and the sudden weight of water—it had been a dry summer.

There you were on the side of the small mountain you called home. Listening to the build-up… the rain, the radio and the adults’ voices. Watching the river rise into view and then break its banks as if it were an overflowing bath, gently filling in the gaps and spaces up to and across the road. It was exciting, and besides, you got to skip a few days’ school.

~

“Here, jumpy!” Dad pulls the boogie board onto the rock beside me. “You don’t want a hot bot, do you?” he jokes. I sit on the board, grateful for its damp coolness. “It’s a scorcher!” Dad’s up and squinting back across the river’s slow expanse to where Mum stands with her feet in the shallows. She waves, and he waves back in this silly exaggerated way that ends with him half falling, half diving off the rock.

I’m still laughing as Shaeli reaches us, pulling through the water with one hand, the other hand resting on the bright orange board. As she reaches for the rock, Dad swims under her and launches her up and over the lip so she lands with a splash in a jumble of arms and legs next to me. “Do it again! Do it again!” she squeals and skids back down the slimy bit we call the slippery-dip. Dad’s swimming around just below the surface with his hands poking up together like a shark fin. He’s coming toward us. Shaeli screams…. Whoosh! The shark sends her back up the slippery rock in a wave of water and high-pitched squeals.

My board shifts below me. “Daa-aad! It’s like a tidal wave up here. You nearly knocked me off!”

I tuck my feet in so I’m almost a ball. Lean back, eyes closed, face to the sun. I see red patterns dancing across the inside of my eyelids, a swirling world of shapes and shadows moving in and out of focus. I screw up my face, trying to make sense of the shifting pictures, but they keep moving and merging, like clouds trapped in a kaleidoscope. I think I see faces—a boy’s face, maybe? I see crisscross light and dark in an arc like a bridge; it gets swirled off out of sight by a whirlpool that seems to hollow out to some place beyond the red, into some kind of other world or universe, like a vortex or a black hole I feel myself sinking through…

~

You dreamed of monsters. The same dream as always. Of small hands with too many fingers reaching from murky, slimy depths. Of anonymous body parts, separated from person, drifting and bumping against your feet as you try to kick free.

You awoke, or at least you thought you did, gasping for air, held under some kind of wooly blanket. Red suffocation. Something or someone sitting on your chest, bearing down, your face smooshed sideways, mouth open, breath rasping. You wanted so badly to get up, to live and walk and gulp back cool air and water. Every fiber of your being strained for movement as you lay there pinned to The Rock like an insect specimen. Body told it is no more than this. Hot. Thirsty.  Somewhere you heard crying… no, laughing! that… is… laughing. You tried to find your voice to call out. Help! The word bounced around inside your head.

Then there was roaring.

~

Whoosh! I am lying on the rock and covered by a small, wet, squirmy body.

 I am awake.

My sister is pulling herself off me, giggling. Dad the shark prowls the waters below with a big sloppy grin plastered across his face. Shaeli stands over me, triumphant and dripping. She throws her head back and releases a high-pitched cackle. She has river weeds in her hair, and so do I.

“Shaeli, I was, like, sleeping. Ugh!” My voice is shaky.

“You were daydreaming, more like it,” she reports in her smarty-pants voice, “and you daydreamed me into the land of the living. I am the witch of the river-bottom. The River-bottom Witch. And I’ve come to get yoooooouuuuu!” She is shaking her witchy river-bottom in my face and cackling and laughing like a lunatic.

I’m not impressed. I pull the weeds from my hair and stuff them down her swimmers.

 “Last one off the rock is a river-bottom witch’s itchy bottom,” yells Dad.

Now I shriek with laughter. I don’t stop to think. I stand and leap two steps. One, two. Jumping a great jump, curling my legs up tight beneath me, I bomb the bejeezus out of my little sister, who’s still standing on the rock pulling green tendrils from her crotch.

Splash! I feel with relief the coolness of the brown water. It is soft and smells all earthy. I can touch the edge of the rock with my toes if I want to. Gently, I do a backward mermaid roll, feeling the grace and ease of the water on my baked skin. Dad slides by and gives me a gentle smile. I am awake, and monsters are about as real as my sister’s river-bottom witch with her river bottom itch.

~

How deep is it, Dad? you asked. Can you touch the bottom? He looked at you and your sister, and perhaps there was a slight fear playing around his mouth, but he took the curious dare with a big breath and disappeared beneath the still and murky surface. You counted one elephant skin… two elephant skin… three… it felt like a long time and you found yourself moving over to the shallowest submerged part of The Rock as the seconds stretched on.

You had heard the adults talking that night of the flood. The Friday you couldn’t go to school because all the low parts of the roads into town were covered with rushing water. The Brushbar bridge had been washed away, they said, and with it six people. A wall of water, the local radio said; it pulled the clothes from their bodies. It’s a miracle anyone survived.

~

 “Thirteen elephant skin… fou—ahhhhggh!” The shark’s back and this time it tickles my toes, so softly it takes me a whole count to notice and another to leap out of my skin. “Daaa-aaad! You scared me!” I protest as his face bursts through the still surface. I am pleased to see him though.

He looks at me thoughtfully. “Ya know, it’s not that deep,” he says. “If you can hold your breath for ten seconds, you can easily touch the bottom and live to tell the tale.”

“Let me try. Let meeee.” Shaeli is up and bouncing.

“No, no, Shaeli. This is for people who have double digits in their ages”. He winks at me. “Shaeli, we need you to count!”

The river tries to hold me up. I feel its thickness balancing me toward the sky, like it is more solid then water. I give Dad my hand, take a deep breath, and let him pull me through.

~

It’s not as though he really knew them, but something about the missing father and son hit close to home for Dad. You heard him one morning soon after it happened: They were all just standing on the bridge watching the logs roll by on the floodwaters below. It was an old bridge, but not that old. It was a freak accident. It could have been anyone. It might have been us. He had been crying as he spoke. You could hear the low, comforting murmur of Mum saying something. It was a private grief witnessed by small ears through a thin wall.

He’d joined in the search. Three days of scoring the river’s banks downstream from the bridge, but to no avail. You wanted to go too. Mark had been two grades above you at school. You had ridden the same school bus since you first moved to the area five years ago. One time, in choir, the music teacher singled you both out to demonstrate the harmonies. The song was “Bright Eyes.” You each held your part. You’d felt all warm inside for the sound of it.

~

Eyes squeezed shut, I feel the slow warmth of that upper layer give way to cold and slick. Dad is moving strongly beside me, pushing up and out with his free arm. We go feet first. Down, down. His hand is tight on my wrist.

I open my eyes. It is mostly dark except for the dim sunlight filtering through the murk above and casting eerie shadows. I should be afraid, but instead I feel held. Like the water is my friend and I may never need to breathe again. I let myself be pulled deeper.

~

The evening before it was washed away, you and Dad had stopped off at the bridge on the way home from your after-school music lesson. Just a quick look, he’d told you. It was almost dinnertime. The river sure had come up fast since the morning. You scuttled over to the railing, through warm, heavy drops, and squinted in some kind of awe at the closeness of the water, reached your hand down as though you might touch the thick frothy chocolate milkshake river and lick your fingers after. Good chance she’ll break her banks if this keeps up, Dad had shouted over rain and river as you skipped back to the car. Soggy and thrilled, you sat in the front passenger seat on the way home, staring transfixed as sheets of water bucketed off the windscreen.

~

 I see swirling patterns of dusty red. Around me, flickering pictures emerge and play across the periphery of my vision, ceaselessly shifting in the eerie half-light, dissolving back into general ebb and flow wherever I fix my gaze. I see the crisscross of bridge belly and sides. There are people suspended above me looking down. Here is a snapshot of surprise. And here is horror as the solid structure melts away from beneath their feet. It is almost effortless the way the river reaches and pulls them in, merges their individual forms with its own until they are one, until they are none. Beneath the surface is chaos of bodies and broken bridge wood. I feel limbs brush against me like monsters. I know the terror in the gripping and the sadness in the slipping. I make the boy’s face out of the shifting shadows. He is scared. My head pulses with lullaby: “Hushabye, close your eyes, nice and tight, you’ll be all right, you couldn’t know, it’s time to go… It’s time to go… It’s time to go.”

My feet touch the river bottom’s silt and I wrench my hand free from Dad’s grip. This is no place for me. I need breath and light and trees. I need the steadiness of the rock, with my sister counting and my mum and brother paddling in the shallows, that unborn baby swimming into position. I pull through a long weed and shoot toward the light. I am ready. The boy is there too, swimming loosely beside me; he is not grasping anymore. I feel his strength pushing me up, giving me back. I hit the warm thick of the surface and the last thing I see is his hand waving, swirling off into the currents and eddies of river red and brown. He will go now, I know. I burst through into sweet, sweet everyday miracles of nothing and everything. Shaeli counts “ten” and Dad is beside me shaking his curls like a dog on the beach.

~

Some kind of a deal was brokered with God, or was it with the river, that day. You said you wouldn’t be afraid of monsters anymore if the river would just offer up its secrets. You would be so brave forevermore if the river would just give up its special hiding place for Mark and his dad. Let them be found. Let their spirits rest. Courage seemed like the biggest thing you could offer the river. The monsters had always scared you.

~

One, two three, there we are back in the brown sluggish water. Me on my board paddling slow, paddling strong. Dad’s on Shaeli’s board; it looks small beneath him. Shaeli is on her back holding his feet and kicking out behind her. She’s singing again, and I hear bits of “Puff the Magic Dragon” through the splashing sounds. I can see Mum, chatting to a neighbor on the causeway; he’s hanging out the window of his truck, engine running. Mum’s hands are moving, making pictures out of air. She’s always good for a yarn.

We paddle into the shallows. Jack’s sitting there amongst the slimy rocks, floaties on, sucking on a big old mussel shell. Dad pulls him onto the orange boogie board, and Jack flexes his little body and makes motor sounds in his throat.

 A hat brim is touched and the truck drives off. Mum picks her way over to us.

“Hoody?” Dad asks.

“Yes. Hoody. He’s on his way back from the sale-yards.” Mum pauses to grab Shaeli, who is sneaking up behind her with some river weeds. “Oh, you little monster!”

“I’m the river-bottom witch,” she chirps.

“With the river bottom itch,” I pipe up. Mum raises an eyebrow at Dad.

“Witty children?” he suggests.

“If fart jokes are witty, yes.” Mum has a wry smile. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, now, does it?”

I like it when they talk like this. Teasing and in their own world. Mum scoops Shaeli into some kind of hug across her broad belly. Shaeli rests her head there, listening in quiet concentration.

“Hoody says they found the boy; they found Mark.” Mum’s voice is low.

“Oh.” Dad, delicately lifting his spirit to the news. It’s always hard to hold these things.

“This morning. Down by the weir in Parry’s field.”

“No sign of David yet?” So that was Mark’s dad’s name.

Mum shakes her head.

“He was such a good artist, that kid. I remember even in grade three, when I taught him, he would draw the most interesting pictures. Detailed. And really stylized. His own way of seeing.” I had heard this before. This was Mum’s way of remembering Mark. I wonder if he still liked art in high school.

Shaeli yelps. “It kicked me. The baby kicked my head”. I move in to feel, to rest my head. To listen. To hug Mum. Hum to the baby.

“I reckon this baby’s about done.” She’s smiling a great weary smile at Dad.

“Let’s go home and make tea.” He’s up, board under one arm, Jack wriggling under the other, singing, “You gotta fly away on home, hallelujah,” as he makes his way over to Mum. The end of the hallelujah is swallowed in a firm meeting of lips and breath. I look back across the river’s brown to the distant rock; it’s mostly in shadow now, the sun dropping behind the casuarinas. I turn, hopping my way over the hot uneven stones. I know the words.

“Standin’ in the trees, I get lifted by the leaves

and carried away by the wind.

Turnin’ around, I touch down on the ground

and then I’m drifted away again.

You’ve got to fly away on home, hallelujah.

Fly away.

Fly away on home.

And get carried away by the wind.”

~

You thought I was gone but I linger still. I heard the song on your father’s lips, the prayer on your mother’s tongue. Things change form, shift space, but they never just disappear. The river is never the same river twice, and stories change in the telling. I slipped between the folds of red and brown and you saw me go. And then you didn’t see me at all. But you sang along anyway.

 

Note: Song lyrics are from “Fly Away Home” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

 


Told from the alternating voices of a flood survivor and a boy who was drowned,
this provocative story draws the reader in and won’t let go. In stunningly beautiful prose,
we are swept into the twining currents of hope and sorrow, until no breath is left on either side.
—Kathi Appelt, 2012 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


Him

Heather Smith Meloche

I’m in a stranger’s bed

 

a college guy from the cigar shop at the mall. He smells like

tobacco, tastes like mints. He pulls my shirt over my head, weaves his fingers

through mine to pull me down. And I get the same thought.

Every time. The same. I shouldn’t be here.

But the bedroom is dark. Warm. So distanced from everything I hate.

His lips find my neck, seeping heat through me, a simple sedative.

I slump against him. His fingers run up my spine, rest at the base of my

skull, bury in my hair. I shouldn’t be here.

I move a leg toward the edge of the bed.

“You’re so beautiful, Steffani,” his voice soaks into my ear.

And the rush comes. Blood and adrenaline and a surge of power.

I lie still. Think of the things that don’t matter anymore.

My pathetic home. My lame grades. How dying,

at least for this moment, doesn’t seem like the best option.

My phone on the corner table chimes, light and innocent as a church bell.

“Who is it?” he asks, untwining himself from me. I glance quickly

at the phone’s face, but I already know. “My boyfriend.”

He waits for me to answer. To make a choice between him and the voice in the phone.

But I’m too far gone to choose. The choice is his.

He nods, wraps his fingers in my hair, pulls me to him.

I drop the phone onto the shag rug. Because this, right now, is all that matters –

his lips like a bandage against my own, his legs wrapped around me like gauze, this

simple fix to get me through the day, to curb my voracious need,

my steady craving, my F’d-up thirst for

him.

~

“Where were you today?”

 

Seth’s question is expected, but my pulse

races when it hits me.

“When?”

I keep my voice as light as the

early spring sun pouring down on us in the park.

“When I texted earlier.”

A million senses flash in my head – I smell the tobacco shop guy,

taste him, feel him all over me. I soften my eyes,

crinkle the corners to caring, grab Seth’s face –

beautiful chin, pupils floating in super blue irises,

perfectly angled nose. I kiss him until

he smiles.

“Library,” I say. “For that killer report due tomorrow.”

(The one I finished last week.)

He nods. Satisfied. We lean back against the park bench,

watch children hang by their knees from iron bars.

“Marshmallows or sprinkles?” he says, and I flood with

happiness. I love Random Question Time.

“Sprinkles, totally.”

“Uh, hm.” He nods, agreeing. “Doberman or Shi-tzu?”

“Doberman. Definitely.” He smiles, eyes the playground.

Then his finger flies up, points at the

upside-down children. “Let’s do that!”

“What?” I ask. He takes my hand, drags me

to the monkey bars, makes me giggle

like crazy as he flips me upside-down

and hooks my knees over the bar.

He finds his own bar next to mine. We stare at each other,

our heads toward the ground. Swinging. Laughing.

And I think how upside-down and

backwards we are in so many ways.

How I’ve cheated on him so many times.

And he doesn’t even know.

How I’ve lost several boyfriends

because they suspected, accused me

of lying even though they had no proof besides

the hollowness in my eyes.

But Seth is different. Never suspects too much. Never accuses.

Trusts. Loves. Makes me feel good without even touching me. It’s a precarious balance,

being who I am and being with him. But I want to hang on to him.

I want to be carefree like this. Relaxed

and swinging wild. I want to be

upside-down with

him for a long,

long

time.

~

Before her debate practice

 

Juliette stops by. Slumps on my bed. Sprawls across the aqua comforter.

“I really like Weber Graham.” She sighs, staring at my ceiling.

“I know.” I hover over my open math book.

I’ve drawn dancing figures and swirling flowers in the white

spaces between the numbers, overlapping some

of the crisp, straight integers until they blur into art. I can’t stand

the rigidity of numbers. Can’t stand how definite they are. You

are either right or wrong. I’m usually wrong.

I’m more comfortable when things are grayer.

 

Juliette rocks at math. Like she rocks at most things.

“I want to kiss Weber Graham,” she says.

“I know,” I tell her.

“Why won’t he even look in my direction?”

Her head lifts, her face rising like a pale flower from the aqua bedding behind her.

“Am I ugly?”

“No way!” I tell her. “He’s just blind.”

And she nods, knowing, as her best friend, I’d say that. I smile, but

there are many things I can’t tell Juliette, like how far

I go, who I go there with, how often I’m there. And I can’t tell her

now that Weber Graham is far from blind. It’s that he sees

her too clearly. He sees she is definite and strong, like the numbers

in my math book. As perfectly angled as a seven, as ripe

as a nine. She knows where she stands – University of Michigan-bound, oldest

child of two world travelers, a moral compass as solid

as steel. Her success mere steps in a forward direction.

Weber Graham can see that for sure. Can see she’s as true

as x. As right as any square root. He can see she’s as pure as Pi,

and she never gets it wrong.

But Weber Graham likes it gray. Most

guys like it gray. Otherwise,

they wouldn’t agree so freakin’

quickly to blur the lines when

a girl like me

catches their eye.

~

The phone rings

while I’m getting ripped into.

My step-dad’s got me in a corner. It’s a doozy

of a night. Apparently, I’m stupid, irresponsible,

and a bitch. His eyes are glassy. His words

are slow. I’m going to say… um, eight beers.

Maybe nine tonight. He loses strength after ten, has to

sit down to yell at me. But tonight he’s hovering.

Somehow backed me against the wall with his words.

 

My sister, Breanna, locked herself

in her room hours ago.

She’s conditioned. When she was

super young, my mother and I

would hide her away when the first shouts came, shuffle her off, play

Sesame Street CDs to cover up the craziness. Now that she’s

older, it’s a habit — hear the yelling, close the door. Purely Pavlovian.

 

My mom went to bed during a lull,

thought the fighting was done for the evening. But apparently,

my step-dad was just reloading with two beers and six

more reasons why I suck. So now

I’m left alone to deal with it.

His breath is rank. His gestures — swinging arms

and hands — are close to being blows. But the chime

of the phone stops him short.

“Who is it?” He asks me like I’m telepathic. Like

the receiver isn’t half-way across the room.

“I’m stupid, remember?” I say. “I don’t know.”

“Shut up,” he says and stalks into the bathroom to pee.

 

When I answer the phone, the voice is familiar. “Steffani?”

“Hey.” It’s this guy from Coffee Haven. I met him last month.

He’s called several times now. Which is good. The attention,

I mean. But I can’t get close. He knows that.

I have Seth.

“Can I see you?” The silence on the other end waits for

me to think, to make a choice.

I shouldn’t.

But I’m weak tonight. Stupid. Irresponsible. And a bitch.

So I write down his address. Grab my car keys. Head for my coat.

Slip out before my step-dad stops me. Think of what

I’ll say if Seth calls and I’m not here.

~

I choose

 

my locations carefully, as carefully as I choose the guys.

Can’t meet them too close to my hometown. Can’t meet them

anywhere where Pineville High students frequent.

Rumors are whirlwinds through school. And I have to maintain

my image – passable student, good girlfriend to Seth, not a trouble-maker.

So I choose guys living several towns away,

I make the drive to feed the habit.

Huh… funny I call it a habit. Like I’m into crack,

all syringes and snorts. Like I can’t get enough Jim Beam

or I live for vodka shots.

 

I mean, I’m not jittery or anxious.

I don’t have withdrawal symptoms. I’m not my step-dad.

I just hate myself more than usual when I’m not with a guy for a while,

when I can’t press someone’s lips to mine,

when I don’t feel arms around me hard enough

or hands gripping my back or words that seep

out breathy and half-sincere like “You’re amazing” or

“God, you’re beautiful.” Or sometimes, if the guy’s

super weak and things are going really well, a

loose “I love you.”

I can coast on those comments for days, lick

at the residue of their echoes in my

skull like they’re chocolate

batter in a cake bowl.

It may not be cooked or whole

or done, but it’s

still

delicious.

~

My heart jerks hard

 

when I pull into Coffee Haven guy’s apartment complex and realize

this place is unsafe. I’ve been here before.

With a friend who has cousins living in Building 203. If I’m seen,

that’s a problem. I pick up my cell, call him.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” I tell him. “I’m outside right now.”

He slips through the building door, slides through the night and into

my passenger’s seat. “Hey,” he says, looking

clean-shaven, smelling like a mix of cigarettes and fresh moss. “Where?”

“Just somewhere else.” My voice is urgent. I sound on edge. Try

to slow my heart. Try to forget I’m doing something I shouldn’t be. Think

natural. Think organic. He likes me. I like him. It happens. It happens.

 

He points to the main road. “Take a left. We’ll go to Coffee Haven.”

I hesitate. That’s not safe either.

He smiles, knows we’re undercover. “We’ll go in the back way. I have a key.

We’ll bolt to the basement store room and no one will see us.”

No one will see us.

So I slip the car into drive and ease through the darkness.

~

His keys jingle

 

way too loudly outside the back door of the coffee shop.

His             hands             are shaky.                         He             fumbles for             the                         right

key on                         a key             chain of                         twenty                         or more.

“Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” I say. Watch a car with the stereo blaring

P!NK weave through the back lot before easing toward the front.

I pull my hoodie over my head,

hide my face.

“Got it,” he says as something clicks. He glides the door open. Light spills

onto the ice-covered concrete in front of me. Inside, a girl

giggles super loud. A coffee grinder drowns her out. I follow

him in, past shelves of Styrofoam cups, plastic

lids and piles of fake sugar packets. The smell of coffee

grips my nose, makes my nostrils flare. My eyes

dart sideways. My heart beats fast.

It always does beforehand. But tonight,

I don’t feel right. Tonight is too dangerous. Still, I follow

him down a flight of stairs, leave

the giggling girl, the steamy gurgling of coffee behind.

~

His fingers twine

around mine. He pulls me down the stairs, down, down

where it’s black, and I realize there’s a moment, every time, when

I reach a point of no return, when I’ve gone far

enough that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore what

I do after. I’ve come here.

Into the darkness.

I’m already

far enough. I’ve

already crossed

the line. And I’m

not leaving

now.

~

It’s so completely dark

 

that we bump against boxes like pin balls. His fingers scrape a wall, finding a trail in the

dark to someplace. I wonder where he’s going. Then his lips are on mine, his tongue flicking

against my own for a long minute. His breath beats warm and fast against my face before he

slides away from me. First his lips and then his hands slipping over my back and arms before

he disappears completely.

 

I’m left flailing in the darkness. I try to see him, wish my eyes could adjust to the dark,

but there’s not a shred of light to help me. It’s a weird feeling, when your eyes are wide

open but everything is still black.

 

My hand reaches out to find him. His fingers find me first, curl around my thighs as my hands

fall against his head now hovering near my stomach. He is seated in front of me. With a groan,

he pulls me onto his lap. My knees dig into firm cardboard as I straddle him. He lies back,

yanks me to him to kiss him more, and my mouth finds his smiling in the blackness.

“Told you no one would see.” His voice is husky.

“I can’t see a thing,” I say.

He laughs. “Just feel then.”

So I

feel my jeans slide off.

feel he’s got decent biceps for being on the thinner side.

feel his tongue trace a warm line behind my ear.

feel a twinge of guilt before I

feel that feeling that brought me here. That ripping,

crawling

howl inside my gut, a starvation for something I

can never quite feed enough. I wish I knew why

it rises out of nowhere when I least expect it. I wish

I knew why Seth – amazing, sweet, loving Seth – is never enough,

why no matter how many times he tells me he loves me, I still find myself

in my beat-up Civic at 9:30 at night driving

two towns over to get my fix from a stranger.

~

In the middle of it all

 

a toilet flushes. A door swings open. Light

sprawls across boxes of coffee stirrers, bags

of sugar, my bare legs and back. Coffee Haven guy sits

up from underneath me, peers around my torso as I turn

to see Ty Blevens – basketball player at my high school, the

guy who sits behind me in Social Studies. His half-wet

hands clutch brown paper towel. His eyes widen as he

realizes what he’s seeing – my bare

skin, this guy

beneath me, the most

private of acts.

~

And

the

moment

explodes

with

Seth’s       face

flashing

like a strobe in my head and every muscle

tensed and rock hard, the anxiety buzzing, spilling

out, overflowing, the way it might feel for a soldier on the ground

to watch a dropped bomb fall toward him, starting in slow motion, then

moving closer, closer for a long time. And the knowing. The anticipation.

Waiting. For the moment when it all combusts. I’ve been moving so, so

slowly toward this moment. Waiting. Knowing it would come.

And now, for the first time, I’ve been caught by someone

who knows me.

~

I lunge

 

for my hoodie as Coffee Haven guy jerks out

from underneath me.

“Wow,” Ty says. I can hear the smile, the amusement

in his voice. “This is unexpected.”

I slide on my jeans, flip the hoodie over

my head, down over my face as far as I can

even though it’s too late.

I can’t hide now.

“Steffani. Wow,” Ty says again,

everything sinking in, his eyes blinking,

adjusting to the dimness, and I yearn

for the blackness again, yearn

for the moment when my eyes, when

everyone’s eyes were wide

open but no one could

see a thing.

~

I turn

 

to face Ty. My head still half-covered.

My hands, my legs, my organs and bones, shaking from

the impact, from the silence that’s crawling like spiders out from behind

the cardboard boxes. There is nothing to say. Nothing to explain.

I just have to get out now. Get out now.

 

“I have to go,” I say.

I take the basement stairs two at a time,

push the back door open,

plunge into the night.

But nothing seems dark anymore.

Everything is hyper-bright,

as if the parking lot, the trees,

the towns for miles around,

as if the whole freaking world is

blowing up around me.

~

At home

 

as soon as I walk in, Breanna’s bedroom door opens. She stomps

down the hall toward me. “Where were you?” Bree says.

She pushes close to me, accusing, as aggressive as the paparazzi until

I fall back against the pea-green couch covered

in booze stains and cigarette burns.

“You left.” Her face is streaked

with dried, salty lines. “You left and dad came after me.”

The spike of guilt lodges in my chest.

“And Seth called four times,” she says.

I check my phone. He texted, too.

“Four times,” Breanna says again, like an annoying conscience,

like a moral compass that I want to knock off-kilter.

“Shut up, Bree.”

She looks shocked, then bugged. “Don’t tell me to shut up.”

I rise from the couch, wanting to leave, wanting to stop the accusations.

Bree steps even closer. Unafraid. She doesn’t see the bombs

blowing up around me. She doesn’t see the fight or flight craziness in my eyes.

She says, “You were out with someone else, weren’t you?”

“Shut up, Bree.”

“Seth’s a good guy, Steff. Why are you screwing it up?”

“I said shut up!”

“You can’t make me,” she says, lifting her chin in defiance.

And I don’t think. I just lunge. Grab her by the shoulders.

Shake her. “Shut the hell up!”

Her head snaps back as I dip her down. It slams

against the cheaply padded arm of the couch. She grunts in pain.

I let her go, shell-shocked. She stumbles forward, grabbing

the sofa she just cracked against to help herself stay upright. And her eyes

burrow into me,

hurt, shocked, confused.

Get out now, my head demands.

Get out now.

I run to my room, slam and lock the door before I melt against the aqua comforter,

huddle against the fake pink rosettes, wait

for the bombs

in my brain

to stop

dropping.

~

The bloody tissues in the bathroom

 

trash can the next morning send me to the toilet

to puke. Not because I can’t stand blood.

But because I know they came from

Breanna’s head, from my pushing

her against the couch, from my

anger, my guilt, my fear.

I wretch and wretch,

try to purge it all, but I still

feel the same when I stand up, slip

out of the bathroom, want to slip out of the

house and get to school way early so I won’t have to

see anyone – not my parents, not Seth, definitely not

Ty Blevens, not even Juliette – before I absolutely have to.

~

I head to my Civic,

 

my keys jangling in my fingers, but

I stop cold in the driveway. My step-dad is already

in his truck, classic rock belting

on the radio. Across his mud-stained jeans rests

his grease-streaked metal file box filled with today’s

schedule and invoices – a lawn sprinkling installer’s briefcase.

 

He looks up at me. His eyes are dark, tired. His face sags. It’s early for him, too. He looks

like I feel.          And I wonder if he feels           this every day.

I wonder if          cracking me into a corner          every night

with his You Bitch! and his Fuck You! with his flailing arms and fiery eyes makes him

feel as if he’s drawn blood. I wonder if he grinds me down, slams me down over and over

because he          can’t stop whatever the hell          he’s feeling. I

wonder if          pretending like everything          is fine the next

morning makes him want to stay in one of the deep, muddy pits he digs every day in the front

yards of the rich and frivolous. We stare at each other, really looking for a minute until he

blurts, “Have a good day, Steffani,” and drives away. And a feeling of nausea so thick bursts

through me that I bend and puke against the wheel of my mother’s Subaru. And still, when I

stand up and stumble into my car, I don’t feel the slightest bit of relief.

~

Raw

 

Yes, I am. Like every nerve

is exposed. Like I’ve been third-degree-burned beyond

recognition. I walk zombie-fashion through the school halls. Avoid

the hallways that I know Seth strides through,

the ones Juliette marches down to get

to class. But while my body trudges, my eyes dart around, hyper-fast. I

wonder what Ty has told people.

I watch every muscle in every face, try

to read lips, wonder what’s been said, who knows what.

I gauge the gazes that fall on me, try to read if the shooter of the look is

sickened by me, disgusted, amused,

suspicious. But all the looks blur together. Or maybe

it’s my head that’s blurred, that can’t process the way it should.

 

When the hour for Social Studies comes around, I’m too tired

to try to get through it, too scared to make myself move toward

the classroom. I can’t make myself sit in front of Ty Blevens and face

whatever will be on his face or tongue. So I go to a far

bathroom, the one by the back exit that the girls never use because

the toilet paper is always out and it always smells like whatever

disgusting low-grade concoction they’re cooking in the cafeteria on

the other side of the wall. I sink down on the grimy floor, my back flush with

the cool, cracked wall tile.

 

I’ve never skipped class. I don’t skip class. Giving my step-dad another

reason to call me shit is not on my priority list. I want to

follow rules. I need them. Even now, as I’m skipping, I don’t have

the guts to leave the school. I hang in the bathroom so any minute, if

I change my mind, I can go to class. Can do the right thing.

 

I check my phone. Over fifteen texts and calls from Seth. A sorrowful text

from Juliette about how she overheard someone saying

Weber Graham is going out with a girl from a neighboring

school. The first thing I think is that I’ll have to be even more

careful where I choose my guys. And then I hate myself for not

caring more about how crushed Juliette must be.

 

I bounce my head hard against the wall tile, feel the pain pound

into my skull, the pain that I deserve. I’m a crap friend.

“But I’ll be ok,” Juliette has written. “I’m Xtra solid at the core! BTW, where R U today?

Can’t find U.”

I almost laugh. “When you find me,” I say to Juliette, to the reeking bathroom air,

to myself, “let me know.”

~

I trace the blackened grout between

 

the floor tiles with my finger nail, think of how much I’ve broken the rules

lately.                                                 My step-dad’s.

The school’s.                                     Even my own.

I think of Bree’s blood staining the white tissues in the bathroom trash. I think of how

opposite I am                                     from Juliette,

how the inside                                            of me is

hollow, empty, endless. How whatever a guy does to fill me up just drains so fast,

empties me                                     again so quickly.

I think of                                     how, if I could

step into myself, I could jump into my gut and fall for years, nothing to catch me.

 

Then, the bathroom door swishes open. I look up, expecting

to find some chick with a cigarette, ready to smoke, or even

someone who legitimately has to pee. Instead, I see Ty Blevens. My heart

stops. The nausea I’ve fought all day tramples in my stomach.

“Someone said they saw you go in here,” he says. His tall, lanky body looks

odd in the girls’ bathroom. I’m sure the guys’ bathroom

looks the same as this one, but he’s out of place. So out of place.

“What are you doing in here?” I think of running. I think of pushing

past him and bolting back to class or even out of school. But he’s

blocking the door with his wide shoulders.

“I wanted to check on you.”

I stare at him, suspicious. He doesn’t owe me anything. Why would

he care? He steps closer. I press hard against the tiled wall.

“I haven’t told anyone what I saw.” His words should be like a steel

beam lifting off me, but I’m so used to feeling crushed and afraid, it takes me

a second to realize I don’t have to worry right away. That people

don’t know. That Seth doesn’t know. At least not yet. But Ty is looking

at me oddly, his lips curling, his eyes lazy and lax.

“Why not?” I ask.

He shrugs, steps closer. “Why should I? What you do is your business, right?”

And then he’s next to me, sitting on the ground right beside me, his thigh

pressing against mine, and I am throbbing with remnants of the fear that people

know who I really am and what I do, with anger at myself for being so careless, so stupid,

with guilt over shedding my sister’s blood. And it’s like he knows. He knows.

“What anyone does is their business.” His eyes look into mine. “Right, Steffani?”

His hand slips over my knee. And he’s so close. So close. His body is warm. I

want to soak up every heated cell and sponge it intomy system. I want to

fill myself up. I am so empty. So raw.

His face gets close. His nose touches mine. “Right, Steffani?” he says again.

His hand slides from my knee to my thigh. And my hand, as raw as the rest of me, reaches up and presses hard and fast

against his hot, flushed cheek.

~

When it’s over,

 

I stumble toward the door of the bathroom. Adjust my clothes, but I can’t feel my skin. Can’t feel my face. My brain is way, way

numb. The line of what’s right, my line of rules – no skipping class, no hooking up with someone I know, in a place where I could

get caught – that line is so blurred, so far away, I can’t even make it out. What have I just done?

 

Ty is behind me, at the door. I think his hand is on my shoulder or resting on the back of my neck. But I can’t feel it. Can’t feel a

thing. The door swings open to the gray of the hallway. So gray. And there, stopped and staring, a bright pink hall pass in his

hand,

is Seth.

~

And I am frozen. I am

ice for bone, frost for

blood. I am the girl

whose world has

ceased. In one

second, I’m a

tundra of

what I

used

to

be.

“Why?” Seth whispers, or maybe yells. I

can’t tell. And I can’t answer him

back. My mouth won’t move.

My vocal cords are glacial.

My lips are too heavy,

too cold. Somewhere

in my head, the truth

of what I’ve done

trickles like a

tiny current

through

the

ice

in my brain. But I can’t retrieve

it, can’t wade past the freezing,

the clogging to gather it.

And if I collected it,

if my lips could

thaw instantly,

what would

I say to

him?

 

What would I say?

That I’m a skank? A slut? A cheater?

A goddamn bitch? That I suck?

Just like my step-dad says I suck.

A thousand times over.

~

The school bell rings

 

around us. But Seth, Ty and I stay frozen, a triangle of deceit,

an electric fence of emotion connecting us while all the

students pour                                            from the classrooms.

Eyes focus,                                                             connect,

hook on us.                                            On me.

Knowing.                   Knowing.

Finally, knowing.

~

I think

 

I’m on my knees.

I think I hear Juliette.

I think the sun is on my face.

I think I’m thawing.

 

“It’s going to be O.K.,” Juliette says. “Seth was awesome, but he

was just not the right one for you if you felt attracted to Ty.”

I look at her eyes, clear as zero, endless as Pi. So right versus

wrong. So cut and dry. I love that about her.

Respect it.

Need it.

But it’s so far from the way things are.

“I wasn’t attracted.”

My brain rushes faster, the folds of tissue unfreezing, the truth surging

forward, finding my nerves,

dribbling to my throat,

dripping down to my tongue.

“What? Then… I mean…why?” she asks, her eyes spilling against mine.

 

The truth lodges like an ice cube in my stomach,

tumbles out between us, cold and pure and clear.

“I can’t help it.”

Juliette’s forehead crinkles. Her eyebrows bend in confusion.

“I need it,” I say. “Sometimes, I just need

to be with someone… like that. Like in that way.”

Juliette shrinks from me, wilting

in the opposite direction, even as she nods, her mind

processing, crunching the factors for my indiscretions, carrying the

enormity of it all from one column to another, assessing

the remainders, finding the ultimate solution.

Finally,

she spits out, “You need help, Steff.

You know, like a therapist or psychologist. If you

can’t stop, you need to go figure out how.”

At first I think she’s copped out by passing

my problem to someone else,

that I’ve stumped her, given her

too much gray to work with, left her lacking

a solution.

But then I realize she’s probably right. It could be

that black and white. It could be the inevitable

answer to my absurd,

spiraling,

uncontrollable

x.

~

Two hours past

 

the time I usually get home, but I needed

talk-time with Juliette. So much to talk about. My step-dad

is singing limericks in the shower when I walk in, a sure sign

he’s boozed up and the night will suck. Breanna’s door is closed,

but she’s not in her room. I go outside, find her

on the swings of our ancient play set, the metal hooks

and chains super rusted from years of Michigan weather.

Breanna won’t look at me. I sit on a swing next to her, sway

in the same rhythm she does. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s over, Steff,” she says, her eyes on the gravel of our driveway.

“Let it go.”

Hide it away. Close the door.

And I want to fight it. In some ways, I want to make her talk

about it, the way I’ve been talking about it all afternoon with Juliette.

I want to tell her I’m thinking about asking Mom to take me to a shrink,

that maybe she should go too. Just to let some things out of ourselves,

let some things out of our house. Open the door, even just a crack.

But her face is turned from me. She’s done talking.

We all have our habits.

 

Inside, the phone rings. Mom comes out holding

the receiver. She smiles when she sees Bree and me

together, swinging like we are little again.

“My sweet girls,” she says, more to herself than to us. Then

she holds the phone out to me.

“Steffi, there’s a boy on the phone for you.”

I stop my swinging, my lapse into childhood sloughing away quickly.

I feel the lilt of excitement, the rush the unknown boy brings.

It’s a conditioned yank and pull — my step-dad slurring

already, the night promising to be full of shards and rips and prickling insults, the yearning clawing up from my gut, a guy waiting for me.

It could be Seth.

It could be the guy from the movie theater concession stand or

the one from Game Hut or Ten Lanes Burger and Bowl

or the car wash. It could be any boy.

Any boy.

I take the receiver from my mother, walk away from

my family and get ready to speak.

Inside the house, my step-dad swears loudly,

slams something hard.

“Hello?” I say into the phone, in a voice

as sweet and as sexy as I can muster.

And I wait for the guy to answer, wait for the vibrating current of his voice

to drip and drain into me, feel my spiking thirst for it.

Because, well,

because

some habits

are really hard

to break.

 


My only disappointment with [Him] was I couldn’t read beyond what was submitted. From the start, “Him” took me to a different world. The writer is one of those rare talents who can create a realistic setting and characters with few words. Aside from those attributes, I felt an instant compassion for the flawed main character, despite her bad choices. That is no easy task. Bravo!
—Kimberly Wills Hold, 2011 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


Forty Thieves and a Green-Eyed Girl

Christy Lenzi

Chapter 1

 The moon is a pearl against the black skin of night. Morgiana reaches for it as she lies on her mat beneath the window. She cups her hands around it and sighs. Her little brother sighs too. The snores of the nearby women and children drone in their ears like mosquitoes, but that’s not what keeps them from sleep.

Jamal’s nose almost touches hers. “I don’t like when you wake me up with your dreams.” His worry forms a line across the smooth surface of his forehead. “If the dreams are about Mother, then why do they make you cry?”

She draws in a deep breath. If only the scent of jasmine could fill her up like a bottle of perfume, she might not feel so hollow. “It’s not the dreams that make me cry.” She closes her fingers over the moon until it disappears. “It’s the waking.” She rolls onto her side toward Jamal.

He wiggles closer. “Tell me about Mother’s name again.”

“Amani.” She rolls the word slowly over her tongue like a savory morsel.  “It means wishes.”

Jamal edges himself into the curve of her body. “Tell me the twirling story,” he whispers. His skin smells of olive oil and goat’s milk.

“Close your eyes, little donkey.” She runs her hands through his black curly hair. “It was about seven years ago. I was a twig of a girl, maybe five years old. You were fat and round inside Mother’s belly; she could barely hold the lute to play a song, because you were in the way.” She tickles her brother between the ribs, making him giggle.

“But one day Amani played the Magic Twirling Song. She said if I spun around to the music, it would carry me away to Allah in Heaven, and when it stopped, His angels would fly me home. So Mother played the lute, and I twirled until all the colors of the world ran together. I spun until all the people and the creatures and the earth and the sky melted together and became one beautiful, perfect Heaven. When the music stopped, I fell to the floor, and the world kept spinning. Mother’s laughter danced around and around with the colors until everything finally slowed down, and the angels brought me back to earth.”

Jamal gazes at the ceiling, wide-eyed.

Morgiana traces his profile with her fingertip. “That’s one of the last things I remember about Mother.”

“Why did she give us away to Mistress?” Jamal’s shoulders tense. “Why did she send us away from Baghdad?”

Morgiana sighs. He’s heard it explained hundreds of times. “You know she didn’t give us away, Jamal. Mother was a woman’s slave. When the woman died, her husband sold Amani to the bath house in Baghdad and gave you and me to his sister as a wedding present.”

“Mistress?”

“Yes, he gave us to Mistress when you were just a slobbery, smelly baby. Not much of a wedding present.” She digs her fingers into his side to make him smile again, but he shrugs her hands away.

“You should learn how to play the Magic Twirling Song on your lute, Morgiana. When you play it, I’ll spin up to Allah and ask him to fly me all the way to Baghdad. I’ll find Amani and bring her here. Then you won’t be empty inside when you wake from your dreams.”

A lump swells in her throat. “I can’t play the Magic Twirling Song, Jamal.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve forgotten the tune.” She pushes him gently away and rises from her mat. “I’m hungry. I’ll go slice a pear for us.” It hurts to think about the emptiness inside her that Jamal can see. She concentrates instead on stepping only on the patches of moonlight that slip through the openings in the carved window screens onto the floor. She makes it all the way to the cupboard without touching a single dark spot.

Finding a silver paring knife, she cuts the skin from a pear in one long coil as a thrush sings a lonesome tune outside the harem walls. The ribbon of fruit-skin drops to the table, and the birdsong ends, replaced with a new sound—a low rumble of thunder.

But that’s impossible. The monsoons won’t come for several months, and there’s no smell of rain in the air. The little hairs on her arm stand up. The sound’s not an approaching storm, but the thundering of many hoof beats like an army galloping into battle. The noise grows louder.

The pear slips from her fingers and rolls across the mosaic floor. Her heart changes its rhythm like a drum banging out a warning. Hoof beats rumble in her chest and under her feet. When the knife shakes in her trembling fingers, she clutches it so tightly her knuckles turn white. It’s as if the wind of fate is hurtling toward her like a hurricane.

The storm of hoof beats roars right up to the house.

Her heart pounds against her ribcage trying to escape.

With a sound like lightning, doors crack and rip off their hinges. An army of men on horses crash into the house with gleaming sabers.

Morgiana screams, frozen in place. Other screams pierce the air as the sleepers in the harem wake to a nightmare. Slave women grab their children. Mistress and her female relatives clutch each other, their eyes wide with terror. Jamal’s face turns white as a leper’s.

A tall thin man with a dark beard and a face as cold as the devil’s rides a black horse up the front steps and through the doorway. The stallion rears and snorts, nostrils flaring.

A chill runs down Morgiana’s spine.

Master rushes into the harem with the eunuch guards, their swords drawn, but they’re outnumbered. When the devil-man sees Master, he spurs his horse and charges.

Morgiana screams and turns away, but the thwack of the man’s saber tells her Master’s dead. The shock of it makes her feel like the blood’s draining from her own body, and she grabs the table to keep from sinking to the floor. The riders attack the guards, shouting in victory when they fall. Mistress flings herself on her husband’s body, sobbing, as the men crash through the house, grabbing Master’s silver and gold and anything of value that they can carry. The women scream and try to hide the children as the riders whisk people onto their horses.

A slave grabs Morgiana’s arm, trying to pull her under the table to safety. Jamal. She struggles free from the woman’s grasp. Her brother’s a stone statue, standing on his mat in the moonlight, miles and miles away.

She runs toward him, but it’s like she’s moving through deep water. Faster, she orders her legs. But she’s too late—one of the riders snatches Jamal and pulls the horse’s reigns around, ready to gallop away with him into the night. She rushes at the rider, and beats his legs with her fists, forgetting she still has the small knife in her hand.

An arm hooks her waist, jerking her upward. The devil-man.

Morgiana kicks and fights against his hold, but his arms are like metal bindings. She bites him hard, but he thrusts her into the saddle in front of him and locks her in a tight grip. He doesn’t even notice her teeth clamped onto his flesh. She struggles to turn and see Jamal, but the man raises his fist in the air, shouts to his men, and spurs his horse toward the door. With a jolt, they burst out of Master’s house into the night. The sound of hoof beats and wild shrieking fill the air.

At first, she can only scream. The gold rings on the man’s bare arms cut into her ribs. The hard edge of the saddle presses into her thighs as she’s thrust forward with every stride of the horse. But after a while, her throat grows raw and her body stiffens against the pain.

A tattoo of a green serpent curls around the devil-man’s arm, baring its fangs at her in the moonlight. As if in a trance, she notices the blade of the small paring knife in her hand, hidden by the folds of her qamis. She should plunge the blade into the man’s thigh and leap from the horse. At once her heart comes alive; the blood rushes to her fingertips as she tightens her grip on the knife.

But just as quickly, her heart sinks back into its stupor. By stabbing him, she might have a chance at escape, but she’d lose her chance of saving Jamal. She slowly inches the knife farther into her palm until the blade’s hidden in her fist and the handle’s concealed beneath her sleeve.

The riders finally halt at a cedar grove where a man with a drove of mules waits. Morgiana’s body has turned so numb, she can barely move. The riders dismount to rearrange their plunder to the backs of the mules and tie up the captives. She strains to catch sight of Jamal in the darkness among the blur of people and horses, but the devil-man forces her arms behind her back to bind them.

She holds her breath and clasps her hands together, hoping he won’t discover the knife hidden between them, but he winds the rope around her wrists without hesitating. He turns her around and stands in silence for a moment, his back to the moonlight. His face is in shadow, but he can see her plainly enough.

She longs for her gauzy head scarf. Even though she’s a slave, she sometimes lets it fall over her face like a wealthy woman’s veil so people can’t see her eyes. Despite her dark hair and olive skin, she has light green eyes like a Western infidel—undesirable. Ugly. Weak.

The devil-man touches her cheek. His nails are long like a cat’s claws. He runs his fingers down the side of her face and lifts her chin. It reminds her of the way Mistress’ cat plays with the mice it catches before killing them. A shiver curls down her spine, but she stands tall and straight, facing him in silence. The tattooed serpent’s body winds all the way up his arm and coils over his chest. Instead of a tail, the serpent has another head, even fiercer than the first, with fire erupting from its mouth. As the man’s chest rises and falls with his breath, the serpent undulates back and forth, preparing to strike her.

A blinding white heat races through her body and fills her mouth; it tastes like fear. But this devil of a man won’t see it on her face. She gathers her courage and spits at his feet.

His features are half hidden in darkness. Did he smile to himself? He calls to the man in charge of the mules, who lifts her onto one of the animals. The man takes the loose end of the rope fastened around the mule’s neck and ties it around her neck so she can’t run away. The slack’s not enough for her to twist around to look for her brother among the captives. She tries, but the rope digs into her skin. Tears sting her eyes but she can’t wipe them away

After all the plunder’s secured, the man in charge of the mules mounts his horse and drives them behind the band of riders. Morgiana’s mule lurches forward, the rope yanking her with it. Her head slams against the mule’s neck. If she doesn’t hold still, the rope will choke her, so she rests her face alongside the bristly mane and allows her body to go limp. The cold desert air seeps all the life from her bones. Before long, she drifts in and out of sleep.

Morgiana awakes some time later to the sounds of the men calling to each other. When she tries lifting her head, a bolt of pain shoots down her neck to her shoulders. She holds still and glances around. The full moon’s vanished, but the sky’s getting lighter in the East. Though it’s still dark, she sees the riders more clearly, now. They point to an oasis of palm trees up ahead as they talk. The men are all bare-chested and tattooed. Gold and silver earrings, necklaces, and arm rings glitter against their skin. Their turbans shine a brilliant white. Jamal must be with the other captives on the mules behind her, just out of her sight.

They’re traveling north toward Basra, a seaport trading town she’s been to once with Master and Mistress several years earlier. It’s probably only a couple more miles away. The men will surely sell the captives when they get there. Her breath catches in her throat. Jamal might be taken from her and sent far away where she’ll never find him.

The riders direct their horses toward the palm trees and soon dismount and stretch. She aches to do the same. Dried blood cakes the mule’s mane where the rope scratched her neck. Her throat’s parched and swollen. She calls out for water at the gurgling sound of a nearby stream, but the rag in her mouth turns the noise into a groan.

Rough hands cut the rope from her neck and pull her to an upright position. She cries out at the pain of moving her numbed muscles. Despite the ache, she twists in her seat, scanning the captives.

Jamal. He sits on a mule near a palm tree not ten feet away as another man cuts the rope from his neck. Her brother’s already been watching her, his eyes round as platters, his face tight and pale. The man flings the rag from Jamal’s mouth and sets him roughly on the ground near the stream. But instead of drinking, he calls out to her. His voice sounds cracked and small, like a broken hand-bell.

She nods to him and tries to smile around the rag in her mouth. The hands pull the cloth away and lift her from the mule.

“Jamal! It’s alright—we’ll be alright.” Her voice sounds like a croaking frog, but her brother looks as if he hears an angel singing.

When she reaches the ground, her legs buckle underneath and she falls on her stomach, knocking the wind from her lungs. Lying there for a moment, she tries catching her breath until the taste of dirt makes her cough. With hands still tied behind her back, she wriggles to the edge of the stream and laps up the water like a dog alongside the other captives. She recognizes them all—most of them slave children like Jamal and herself, along with some of Mistress’ nieces and nephews. Their faces are ashen, everyone wearing the same stricken expression of a person waking from a nightmare—unsure of what’s real and what’s not.

Jamal still watches her from the stream, his face now streaked with mud. She sits up and tries to stand, but her knees are too shaky. Lifting herself off the ground with her hands, which are still behind her back, she pushes her lower body forward along the ground. By resting every once in a while, she finally inches her way over to Jamal.

He falls across her lap and curls himself up into a ball around her knees. “Morgiana, they made Master’s blood spill out on the floor,” he whispers. His thin body turns taut like a bow string. She wishes she could place her finger over his trembling lips, rest her hand on his head, and smooth his wild hair, his wild thoughts.

“I know. But they won’t do that to us, Jamal. We’ll be all right.”

“How do you know?” His voice is the squeak of a mouse.

“We’re valuable to them like the gold and silver around their necks. They wear them proud as peacocks, see? We’re treasure, Jamal.” She gives a little laugh. “A dirty runt like you—not much of a treasure if you ask me, but this pig-headed captain of the thieves won’t listen to me. He seems to think you’re quite a prize.” She glances at the devil-man who stands with his arms crossed over his chest, surveying the plunder.

Jamal’s lips tighten into a small grin. “Will they take us to a palace?”

She pretends to carefully consider his question as she strains her ears to listen to the captain. It sounds like he’s ordering his men to plunge the captives in the stream to scrub them and have them dressed in clean clothes for the next morning. The looming slave market makes her stomach churn, but she tilts her head and looks thoughtful for Jamal. “Well, I’m not sure. They certainly seem to like gold and silver. They may decide they want to trade some treasure.”

“Trade treasure?”

“Well, a boy like you might get them some valuable jewelry in trade at the Basra market. I bet that thought has crossed their greedy little minds. Look how they show off their pretty arm rings, strutting around like monkeys.” She wets her lips. “But the thing about being traded is . . . well, we want to be traded together, don’t we.”

Jamal sits up. “They might trade me without you?” His mouth falls open.

She shrugs her shoulders, trying to appear unconcerned. “They don’t look very smart. You and I go together. Like a pair of earrings. We’re too valuable as a pair to be separated, but they might be too stupid to think of keeping us together how we belong. Fortunately, I’ve already thought of that.”

As Morgiana speaks, she edges up to the palm tree. Opening her fist, she lets the knife slip to the ground near the trunk behind her back and covers it quickly with sand as best she can. “I won’t let them separate us.” She lowers her voice as one of the men approaches to make them start washing up. “Don’t worry, Jamal. I have a plan.”

Chapter 2

The water feels cool on her feet. The man scrubs her skin with sand and a horse brush, bringing tears to her eyes, but afterwards, it feels like Paradise when he pours a bucket of water over her head to rinse off.

Some of the men stand posted around the grove to watch for any approaching parties, but most of the others have fallen asleep leaning against a palm tree or lying in the sand. She counts forty men in all, including the captain.

After Morgiana and Jamal dress in clean clothes and she puts on the red head scarf she’s been given, the man ties their wrists behind their backs again and tells them to return to the tree and sleep.

Now’s the time to dig up her knife and keep it hidden in her sleeve so she’ll be ready to cut their ropes and escape with Jamal. She tries not to think of the men keeping watch. But they’ll be on the look-out for intruders, not escaping children. Besides, the men won’t harm the captives—it would decrease their value at the slave market. At least she hopes they won’t.

She heads back to the tree, but stops mid-stride. Her heart almost stops as well. The devil-man’s walking toward the very tree where she buried the knife. She glances at the spot and almost chokes on the breath that catches in her throat. The silver tip of the knife blade’s sticking up through the sand. Sunlight glints off it like a sparkling diamond.

Morgiana bites her lip and walks quickly toward the tree with Jamal as she watches the devil-man. He doesn’t seem to notice them, so she pulls Jamal down with her on the ground to wait, several feet away.

The captain unwinds part of his turban cloth and dabs the sweat on his forehead. He looks as if he might sit down to rest, too, but then he stops. His body straightens. He’s seen it.

She holds her breath.

He bends down and plucks the knife from its pitiful hiding spot. After turning it over in his hands several times, he slips it into the sash at his waist and sits down with his legs crossed. He places the end of his turban cloth over his eyes and leans back against the tree to sleep.

Morgiana sighs and lets her head fall to the ground. No knife, no escape. She, too, closes her eyes so Jamal won’t see the tears rising in them. She lies in silence for a long time until she feels a tickling in her ear as Jamal whispers, “Morgiana, what’s your plan?” His eyes are bright. When his face is clean and his hair shines, he looks like a little prince. He’ll certainly be one of the first children sold at the slave market in the morning.

The devil-man snores quietly.

Staring at the tip of the silver knife handle poking out of his sash, she whispers back, “It’s a very tricky plan, Jamal. I need lots of help. Lots of wishes.”

“I can wish for you.”

“Then lie here as still as you can. Now close your eyes and think of Mother. I need you to say her name over and over—

“Amani, Amani, Aman—”

“Shh. Say it in your head.”

His lips move as he thinks the name.

“And wish with all your might for my plan to work until I come back.”

Jamal’s eyes pop open. “Where are you going?”

“Shh. Just concentrate on your wishes, Jamal. I’ll be back in a moment.” She glances around. The guards at their posts have their faces turned away from them, and all the men nearby are sleeping. The other children huddle in small groups like sheep.

She lifts her chin. Being a sheep means letting these men lead her and Jamal off to market where who knows what will become of them. Never. As quietly as possible, Morgiana pushes herself to her knees and moves closer to the devil-man. She stops and looks around. No one’s watching her. She rises and moves even closer, until she’s side by side, almost touching him.

The green serpent glares at her, daring her to come any closer. The man’s loose headcloth covers his eyes and nose, and his beard hides most of his mouth, but even the fierce set of his jaw makes her tremble. The knife handle’s in easy reach, but with her hands tied behind her back, she’ll have to twist around and slip it from his sash without seeing what she’s doing.

Amani, Amani, Amani, she chants inside her head as if the thought of her mother might somehow give her the power to free herself and Jamal. She glances around one last time, licks her lips, and stretches her fingers out for the knife. His silken sash brushes against her skin, and she freezes. But her touch wasn’t heavy enough to disturb the devil-man. She tries again. The shock of the cool silver handle assures her fingers, and she slides them around the hilt.

Again she pauses. The man’s snores continue—no one’s noticed her. She pulls on the knife. It slides partly out of the sash, but in order for her to draw it completely free, she’ll have to move forward on her knees, away from him a little as she tugs. Her hands are sweaty now. If she fumbles, he might wake thinking she’s attacking him and he’ll defend himself. The memory of how he killed Master with his saber comes to mind. She swallows with difficulty and steadies her grip.

Amani, Amani, Amani.

She moves forward as she pulls. The knife slips free of the sash. As the weight of it lifts from his waist, the devil-man stops snoring.

Morgiana forgets how to breathe.

“Captain!” Shouts erupt from the guards. They’ve seen her.

Her heart races. She drops the knife behind her and crumples to the ground, bracing herself for the strike of the man’s blade on the back of her neck.

“Captain, they’re coming!”

The devil-man leaps to his feet, his saber already drawn.

“Arise!” He shouts to the rest of his men. “Mount!” They spring into action the moment the words leave his mouth. He points his weapon.

Shaking, Morgiana lifts her eyes and follows the tip of the saber. She stares past the palm trees to the desert at what looks like a dust storm coming from the direction they traveled the night before.

“Attack!”

The men thunder by her on their horses. The devil-man, too, jumps on his stallion and races away, toward the dust cloud.

“Morgiana, how did you do that?” Jamal’s eyebrows slide to the top of his forehead. “That was strong magic. It made them all go away!”

The dust cloud must be men gathered by Master’s and Mistress’ relatives to catch the thieves. Perhaps they’ll defeat the robbers and rescue the captives. But perhaps they won’t. This moment might be their only hope of escape—the chance they’ve been wishing for.

“They may come back, Jamal. We have to hurry.” Morgiana fumbles on the ground behind her till she finds the knife. “Turn around; I’ll cut your ropes, then you cut mine.” She must rock her whole body back and forth to move the blade across Jamal’s ropes like a hand saw. As she works, the sounds of shouting and the clash of weapons rise in the distance.

All the huddled children wear a new look on their faces: hope. Is she doing the right thing? She and Jamal might find themselves sleeping safely on their mats the next evening if they just stay here with them and see what happens.

But the wind of fate seems to whisper in her ear, Amani, Amani, Amani, and tug alongside her fingers until the blade severs the final thread of Jamal’s rope. When he finishes cutting through hers, she takes the knife and ties it around her thigh. “We’re free, Jamal.” The words sound strange and beautiful, like music sung in a foreign tongue. “We’re free.” She squeezes her brother’s hand and points north toward Basra. “Let’s go!”


Author’s Note

I first heard the exciting story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” as a child, listening to a collection of audio recordings from the Arabian Nights. It was my favorite of the tales, and daring young Morgiana never ceased to intrigue me. Around that very time, my father took my brother and me to see the film Gandhi, staring Ben Kingsley, which had a lasting impression on me. Afterwards, the kind, unassuming voice of Ali Baba was forever paired in my mind with Kingsley’s image of soft-spoken Gandhi, and most likely influenced my idea of making Ali Baba a peaceful humanitarian, who gave away his treasure instead of keeping it for himself.

The Arabian Nights or Thousand and One Nights is part of both Arabic and European literature and is a jumble of narratives—epics, fairy tales, fables, comedies, political works, etc.—some of which have roots in Sanskrit, Persian and Greek literature. The tales are framed around a central story of a young woman named Shahrazad, who volunteers to marry a king known for murdering a new wife every night. Each evening Shahrazad tells him tales that stop on such cliff-hangers that he keeps her alive in order to hear the endings. In this way, the thousand and one stories save her life and the lives of countless other women.

An important and recurring theme throughout the Nights tales is the idea of predestination and the relationship between freewill and fate (“That which is written on the forehead”.) Much of this is due to the Muslim world-view of the storytellers. Many protagonists of the Nights’ tales set out to beat fate but find that their evasive actions actually become the very vehicle fate uses to bring about their destiny. I loved this element in the Nights and wanted to highlight the irony of free will’s tie to fate in Forty Thieves and a Green-Eyed Girl. Morgiana sees fate as a wind blowing toward a certain destination, but Captain Khoja’s notion of fate is connected to the troubling voices he hears whispering on the breeze. Both Morgiana and Khoja exercise free will by acting upon their wishes, or desires, thereby working with fate to bring about their destinies.

Morgiana’s story takes place in the early 10th Century AD, a time when medieval Baghdad was home to a vast counter-culture of street folk like those who appear in our story. Beggars, pickpockets, treasure hunters, musicians, comedians, mimics, snake charmers, sorcerers, swindlers, drug-addicts and story-tellers crowded the busy markets, all desperately surviving by means of their wits and wiles.

Around this period, territorial bands of ruffians and vagabonds called ayyarun plagued the streets. These armed gangs collected money from area merchants in exchange for protection from rival gangs. Their leaders really did ride on each others’ backs and used helmets, shields and harnesses woven from plaited palm leaves.

Tucked inside this rough and tumble setting lies another historical reality of Morgiana’s world; in the medieval Middle East, women moved in a sphere completely separate from men. The harem is the best illustration of the sharp divide between the genders. All wives in a household lived in a separated section of the home with their young children and extended female relations, servants and slaves, forming a close, sometimes complex community. Marriage was not usually seen as a romantic union between a man and a woman but a matter of property transfer from the father to the groom, who acquired the woman to begin his own familial line.

Though women were generally discouraged from stepping outside these bounds, there existed subcultures within the broad, rich culture of the medieval Middle East that offered alternative perspectives on women’s roles. During the time of our story, there was a growing movement of Muslim mystics called Sufis who sought to experience the spiritual reality behind their religious texts and rituals. Like Ali Baba’s family, they emphasized the unity in nature and devoted their lives to meditation and devotion to God and to living a life free from worldly gain. Sufis advised respect and honor for the feminine and integrated women in their ceremonies, valuing them as active participants. Eighth century Sufi, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya of Basra, is one example of the many celebrated women in the history of the movement. As a child, Rabi’a was sold into slavery and freed herself from a cruel master through her faith in Allah. Later in life, she chose not to marry in order to devote herself to God. Rabi’a is remembered as one of the greatest Sufis in Islam.

Another intriguing sub-culture involved the Safavid women from Iran. Their “soul sister” vows were common in the 16th century, and I wanted to include this fascinating ritualistic union among two female best friends in my 10th Century story. These unions were considered vital and were recognized and fostered by the entire community.

Ali Baba’s wife, Leila, mentions several actual ways in which these kindred spirits communicated their most intimate moods and feelings using kitchen supplies as secret gifts with coded meanings, though I have altered their meanings slightly for the sake of the story I wanted to tell. The vow of sisterhood entailed a fierce loyalty and was often displayed by dressing alike, moving in the same social circles, not talking about each other behind one another’s backs, and even inheriting property. The engagement involved a sort of match-maker, a reputable woman, who arranged the union just as Leila describes it in the story. The couple then visited a shrine on a religious holiday to make their union public. One woman would declare, “In the name of Ali, the Shah-conqueror of Khaybar,” and the other would reply, “Oh God, accept and fulfill our desire.” Afterwards, there was celebrating with dancing and drinking of sherbert.

While these historical pictures of medieval Middle Eastern women are refreshing and complex, female characters in the Nights tales were generally confined to two strict categories: dangerous women—adulteresses, witches and prostitutes, or safe women—devout sensible creatures who were merely decorative to the plot. Morgiana, the slave girl in the tale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” was one of the few females in the Nights who seemed to possess both the bold, passionate characteristics of the former and the loyalty and integrity of the latter.

As a dancer, the Morgiana character possessed an energy and vivaciousness. She certainly embodied boldness, taking over Ali Baba’s mess, patching up his brother’s mishap, diverting the robbers, then killing them when they showed up later, and finally saving Ali Baba and his son from the captain. No one could deny Morgiana’s fierce loyalty. But what were her motivations? Why was she so passionate and brave? What could possibly provoke a slave to risk her life more than once for the sake of a new master?

Since the traditional tale never gives us the answers to these questions and relegates Morgiana, the natural choice for leading role, to the background, I thought it time to pull this fascinating young woman into the limelight and let her shine.

 


The opening of the story manages to show a lot without the reader feeling overburdened. I quickly cared about the main character because of the way she interacted with her brother on page one. And because I cared about her, my heart pounded for her when she was in peril. That’s important when trouble comes so early in a story. Some writers expect readers to care just because the main character is in trouble, but you have to care about them first. This writer accomplishes that.
—Kimberly Wills Holt, 2011 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


Cesar

Betty Yee

Rosa woke up long before Jose, the old one-eyed rooster, began his morning crows. Today was January 17th, the Feast of St. Anthony the Abbot. For years, she’d watched her brother Daniel take his pet turtle out of its cage, wipe its shell carefully with oil until it shined, and put it into a new shoe box lined with fresh newspaper and straw. Then Daniel and Papa drove off to town in the truck and didn’t come home until supper time.  Daniel always came back with a pocket full of candy, a head full of stories, and a stomach ache.  This year, Papa had promised Rosa that she could bring an animal of her choice to the church in Mexico City to be blessed by the Padre.

“Any animal?” Rosa asked.

“Any animal that will fit in the truck,” her father replied, laughing.

Rosa’s mind raced.  Which animal should she bring?  Their farm held many animals, and Rosa loved them all.

The clatter of pots, and pans in the kitchen reminded Rosa that she had chores to do, Feast or no Feast.  The golden light in the sky grew brighter as she jogged down the muddy path to the hen house. As she reached the bend just past the vegetable patch, she heard a thin, high-pitched wail.

Rosa stopped.  The wail came again, louder this time.  It seemed to come from behind the big bougainvillea that grew against the side of the tool shed.  Rosa crouched low and pushed the branches out of her way.  She squinted into the shadows; her nose twitched at the familiar stink of damp, unwashed fur that filled the close space.

“Cesar!  Are you in there?”

She was answered by a low growl, followed by a shrill squeal.  The bush began to shake.  Something dashed past Rosa and out into the vegetable garden, followed by something larger covered in twigs and dead leaves.  It knocked Rosa hard against the stone wall and she fell into the tangled branches.

A grey cat zigzagged around the cabbages and squash, trying to evade the dog that snapped at its heels.

“Cesar!”  Rosa shouted.  “Leave it alone!”  She picked up a stone and threw it as hard as she could.  It struck Cesar on his left flank.  Cesar spun around with a snarl, ears back. The cat dashed up the nearest tree and disappeared.

“Ha!”  Rosa said, dusting herself off.  “That shows you, you big bully.”  She picked up the basket that she had dropped and started down the path again towards the hen house.  Cesar, however, continued to growl softly.  He stood in her way, hunched and shivering on the path, tail tight against his legs.  Startled, Rosa took a step back; Cesar took a step forward, growling a little louder.  She tried to walk around him but Cesar sidled to the left and right, blocking her way each time.  He wouldn’t let her down the path to the henhouse.

“Get out of my way, Cesar,” she said, trying to sound like Papa.  He was the only one Cesar obeyed.  She stamped her foot, but Cesar only took a step closer.

Cesar was not a large dog.  When he held himself erect, which was rare, his head barely reached mid-thigh.  One ear was torn and scarred from an old fight, and his black eyes were always runny.  His coat, the color of butterscotch, was ragged, and matted with dirt.  Once, Rosa had tried to brush him clean, but he snapped at her hands so furiously, she gave up.

“That dog was born mean,” Abuela said.  And privately, Rosa agreed with her grandmother.  In the winter, when the farm dogs huddled together beneath the house for warmth, Cesar crept into a dark corner by himself.  He attacked any dog that went near him.

“Cesar’s a tough old thing,” Papa said when Rosa repeated Abuela’s comment.  “He’s had a tough, hard life.  But he’s a good farm dog and I know I can trust him.”

Rosa wondered if Papa would still trust Cesar if he saw what was going on.  Cesar had never acted this way before.  He might not be a large dog, but watching him stand there with the ruff around his neck raised and his teeth starting to show made Rosa’s heart beat in her throat.  Rosa bent down and scooped up a handful of loose pebbles.

“Get away from me, Cesar!” she cried, tossing the pebbles at his face.  Cesar yelped and ducked, but some of pebbles hit him anyway.  He scampered off the path and back under the bougainvillea bush.  Rosa ran the rest of the way to the chicken coop.

She scattered the feed for the chickens and gathered the eggs.  Only nine today!  Were the hens hiding their eggs?   Outside, Rosa found a small, freshly dug hole beneath the wire mesh.  It opened onto a path that led into the woods behind the farm.  From where she stood, Rosa could just make out broken eggshells on the other side of the fence.

“Coyotes!” Rosa breathed.  She was about to run back to the house when movement made her look towards the rabbit hutch.

“Oh, no!”

The wooden hutch lay shattered on the ground.  The rabbits were nowhere in sight.

Something scurried through the tall grass and squeezed beneath the fence.  It was fast, dark, and just about the same size as Tomas the rabbit.

Rosa ran to the gate in the fence that opened out to the woods.  “Tomas!  Tomas!”  she called.  Something raced across the ground in front of her feet and darted under the brambles.  Rosa crawled under them as well.  In the shadows, she could just make out the dark, quivering shape of Tomas, huddled against the roots.

Rosa gently scooped Tomas up and, holding him firmly, backed out from the brambles.

She never saw the thing in the shadows until it sprang at her, smashing against her left shoulder, making her tumble over and over.  The air was filled with a thick, musky odor and something growled in her ear.   Rosa screamed and tried to push the coyote off her, but she was pinned beneath its full weight.  Sharp, wet teeth snapped at her face and throat.  Rosa screamed again and closed her eyes.

Then, the weight was gone.

Rosa heard deep-throated growls that turned into higher pitched screams of fury as the branches of the bush beside her thrashed as though it had come alive and was trying to tear itself out of the ground. Almost as quickly as they began, the sounds stopped.  Silence filled the woods as yellow leaves fluttered to ground.

“Rosa!  Rosa!”  Papa shouted, as he and Daniel came running down the path from the farm.

Rosa started to tell them about the coyote, but Papa gestured for silence.  Slowly, he walked around the bush.  A minute later, he called out to them.

Rosa and Daniel hurried over to where their father stood, a few yards deeper in the woods.  At his feet was the coyote that had attacked Rosa, its body now broken and still.

Nearby, Cesar crouched, panting, beside a fallen tree trunk.  Patches of fur had been ripped off his neck and back.  His front leg was bloody.  But his ears were high, and his eyes bright. Filled with gratitude, Rosa started towards him eagerly.  Cesar backed away quickly and snapped at her outstretched hand.

“Never mind,” Papa said gently, lifting a tearful Rosa.  “Cesar will be Cesar.  He’s a tough old thing.  But he’s a good dog.”  Over his shoulder, Rosa saw Cesar’s head lift at the sound of Papa’s words.  His tail wagged; just a little.  Then the moment was gone, and Cesar hunched back down again on the ground and licked his leg.

Rosa had an idea.

“Papa, can I still pick any animal to be blessed at St. Anthony the Abbott’s Feast?”

“Of course, Rosa.”

“Then I pick Cesar.”

Daniel stared at her, then started to laugh.

“Even if you could get Cesar to go in the truck, you know he’d try to bite the Padre when he sprinkled holy water on him!  Why not Tomas?”

Rosa looked down at Tomas’ sleek black fur, then back at Cesar.  Leaves and twigs were still tangled in his coat.   She thought about how nobody ever tried to brush him except herself, and what happened when she did.  She remembered the look in his eye when he tried to keep her from going to the hen house.

“Cesar is the one I want to bring.”

The trip to Mexico City did not take long.  Even so, when the truck pulled up to St. Agnes, there was already a long line winding around the church.  Everyone was dressed in their best, and so were the animals.  Dogs, cats, birds, goats, pigs, mice, lizards, chickens, all were brushed, combed, or polished.  Many had ribbons, kerchiefs or flowers tied around necks, horns or tails.  Rosa had never seen so many colors in one spot.  She felt very plain in her clean white Sunday dress.

Then, the tall, bronze doors opened, and Padre Salvatore came out.  He walked along the line, chanting and sprinkling holy water over the animals.  As he came closer, Cesar huddled behind Rosa’s legs, shaking.  She knelt down and stroked his brittle fur.  She could feel his bones beneath her fingers, and deeper down, the rapid beat of his heart.  This time, Cesar did not growl or snap at her, so she stayed where she was, with her hand on his back until Padre Salvatore came up to them.

“And who is this, my child?”  Padre Salvatore asked.

“This is Cesar, ” Rosa said.

And then, because she was keenly aware of how mean and skinny and dirty Cesar must look to the Padre, she added, “He’s a tough old dog.  But I know he’s a very good dog.  And I think he needs a blessing from you so that God can tell him that too.”

Padre Salvatore nodded solemnly at her words and shook the holy water over Cesar’s head and shoulders.

Cesar’s tail wagged: once, twice.

 


The writer told a short story which included a strong opening, an interesting situation, realistic dialogue, and a relatable main character. The simple story is told with clear focus as it works its way toward the outcome.
—Kimberly Wills Holt, 2011 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


Something at the Hill

Jane Kohuth

One morning Field Mouse woke up in her nest, which was tucked in a hollow between the roots of a big, old maple tree. She had been sleeping for a long time, on and off, through the cold and ice and snow. But something had changed. Something was out there, calling to her. Not in a voice, not loudly, but there all the same. Field Mouse pushed aside the feathers and brown leaves that blocked her doorway and went out.

She cocked her ears and listened. There was definitely Something. Something calling from the Hill—the Hill, which rose up from the dark woods into the sunlight. She would go there. But first she needed something to eat.

Scrambling through the brambles and brush and thorny bare branches, Field Mouse went to scout for dry berries. She spotted Gray Squirrel taking the last of his acorns from a small hole in the trunk of a tree.

“Gray Squirrel!” she called. Gray Squirrel looked down from his perch.

“Hi, hi, Field Mousie!”

“Gray Squirrel,” she said, “Something is out on the Hill. I can hear it, but I can’t see it.”

“Yes, yes, the Hill!” cried Gray Squirrel. “Something is surely up at the Hill. I can smell it!”

“Come to the Hill with me,” said Field Mouse. “Help me find the Something.”

“Sure, sure!” Gray Squirrel agreed and skittered to the ground.

On the way to the Hill, a dark shadow passed over Field Mouse and Gray Squirrel. They froze, then relaxed. It was Doe, coming silently through the woods just behind them.

“Hello there,” said Doe, in her soft voice. “And where are you going, so quickly, today?”

“We’re going to the Hill,” said Field Mouse. “To see what’s there. We can hear Something.”

“And smell Something,” added Gray Squirrel.

“I too am going to the Hill,” said Doe. “That is the place to be today.”

Then Stag emerged from the trees. “She’s waking up,” he said.

“She?” asked Field Mouse.

“She?” asked Gray Squirrel.

“The Hill,” explained Doe.

Field Mouse had not known that the Hill was a “she.”

Together Field Mouse, Gray Squirrel, Doe, and Stag made their way toward the Hill. They passed a brook, where the water was rushing over the rocks. The ice had gone. Turtle sat on a log that had fallen into the water.

“Going to the Hill,” he observed, raising his eyes to the small group passing by.

“You know about the Hill, too?” asked Field Mouse.

“Oh yes. It goes like this each year. And I have been in these woods many years.”

“Come with us!” called Gray Squirrel.

“I suppose I may as well.” Turtle sighed and plopped from his log to the bank of the brook. Then he lumbered up the slope to join the group.

Now they slowed to keep pace with Turtle. The brook fed into a little pond. In the center of the pond white ice still lay, like a dinner plate, but at the edges, the water lapped and rippled. The Mallard Ducks, He and She, swam near the brown grasses at the pond’s edge, turning their beaks to the sun. They both saw the group of animals ambling by their pond.

“Something is afoot,” said Mallard He and nodded his green head.

“Something at the Hill,” agreed Mallard She.

And without asking questions, they waddled up from the water and joined the parade.

Possum and Raccoon, though they were not usually up when the sun was high, heard the animals chatting and rustling through the trees. They poked their heads from their dens and blinked the sleep from their eyes. And as the line of animals passed their homes, they hopped out and followed, curious.

The group passed the entrance to a cave, set in a rocky cliff.

“We should wake the Bears,” Field Mouse whispered. The animals looked at one another and then at Field Mouse.

Field Mouse straightened her back and held herself tall. She tiptoed into the cave and said in a small but clear voice, “Wake up Bears! Something is waiting for us at the Hill!”

Mother Bear opened one eye, and the two Bear Cubs yawned. Then they all stared at Field Mouse.

“Will you please come with us?” requested Field Mouse politely, her whiskers quivering just a little.

“Come children,” said Mother Bear in her deep rumbling voice. “Time to get up and go with Field Mouse.” Field Mouse let out a tiny sigh, smiled, and hurried back outside.

The Bears rose and stretched and squinted in the light as they stepped out of their cave.

The expedition had grown large. Finally the animals emerged from the trees, and there, in front of them, was the Hill, awash in sunlight.

They climbed the Hill. Overhead a flock of Sparrows circled, and a Red Robin sat watching them, from a high tree branch.

Something was certainly here—

Something trembling like a Mouse,

Something quick like a Squirrel,

Something gentle and quiet as a Deer,

Something old and slow like a Turtle,

Something warm and wet as a Duck,

Something blinking in the sun like a Raccoon,

Something stretching like a Bear waking after a long sleep, fierce and rumbling.

The animals waited, holding their breath.

And then, all of a sudden, it was there, poking from the earth, tiny and green.

Spring had come.

 


A lovely story that would make a great read-aloud and which leaves room for accompanying illustrations.
—Holly Black, 2010 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


The Ugliest Dog in the World

Marcia Popp

Maybe it was some kind of Christmas spirit that trailed along after me from Vandalia when I joined up as a drummer with an Illinois regiment in ’63. Or maybe I was just following in Pa’s footsteps, when it come to playing Santa Claus. It was surely something other than good sense that prompted me to deliver a Christmas gift to a Reb camp, in the dead of winter. In secret, almost.

It all began in November, when our regiment got separated from the division during a retreat down in Tennessee, and the Rebs run us right up to the top of a mountain. Then this little bunch of graybacks just set down at the bottom, made theirselves at home, and dared us to come down.

With Christmas coming on, most of us was in a low mood, but the boys at the bottom of the hill was in no better shape than us. Our captain tried to keep spirits up by drilling us regular and ordering a little cannon noise every once in a while to demonstrate spirit, but there wasn’t no genuine attacks past the one that sent us up the mountain in the first place.

Other than that, our pickets reported that the Rebs was just as bored, cold and hungry as we was, and both sides was too low on ammunition to cause any real trouble. It was just a matter of seeing who could wait the longest, since the significant fighting had moved north, and we wasn’t neither side about to get fresh supplies any time soon.

On Christmas Eve, we sat melancholy ‘round the fire, shivering under our ponchos and trying to keep warm in what was supposed to be the balmy Tennessee weather our southern relatives always bragged about in their letters. Occasionally we stood as close to the fire as caution would allow, lifted up the poncho flaps and trapped some of the heat inside, which made us look like a bunch of crows flapping their wings. It was still a sight better than freezing our skinny selves on the cold straw ticks inside our tents. Some of the boys heated rocks and put them in spare socks to warm up the beds, but there was certain hazards if they got them too hot and blistered their feet or set the ticks on fire, as happened more than once.

Our company captain sat huddled with us ‘round the fire. He’d caught a mini ball in the leg during the skirmish that sent us up the hill and had considerable trouble sleeping. Every night he hauled his old dog Rex up to the fire with him and Rex just sat there as the official company dog, a good natured companion, but possibly the ugliest dog in the entire world.

Ol’ Rex wasn’t all beat up like Calamity, our dog at home, who was missing part of an ear and tail from a set-to with a raccoon. He was more the mixed breed type, who’d got the short end of all of his ancestors and looked like he’d been stomped on as a pup. The captain reached over and patted Rex’s head, like he could almost hear us evaluating the condition of his dog in our minds.

“All right, boys,” the captain said, “time to stop admirin’ Ol’ Rex here, and get some entertainment goin’.”

We perked up at these words, wondering what the captain had in mind.

“You gonna read to us?” one of the men asked. “Some more of that Dickens story with the ghosts, if you’re takin’ requests.” Others ‘round the fire voiced their strong agreement.

“Naw,” the captain answered. “There’s just a few pages of that left and I’m savin’ it for Christmas Day – for after the big feast with turkey and pie.”

A couple of the boys that still had a sense of humor gave the captain a few laughs. We’d been promised a ration of brandy for Christmas Eve, but no supplies had come through for nearly three weeks, and we’d be lucky to forage some hickory nuts to serve up with melted snow for our big holiday meal.

The captain reached over and rubbed Rex’s ears, and I swear that dog grinned at us. “You’re gonna entertain me tonight,” he said, “seein’ as how it’s Christmas Eve and none of you has seen fit to present me with any tokens of your esteem.”

This time we all laughed, as none of us had but the clothes on our back and the tools of our trade—guns for the men and drums and horns for those of us in the band.

“I’ve decided that I want stories from you boys. Let’s hear a little somethin’ ’bout your favorite Christmas.”

We all looked sideways at each other. We was already feeling pretty bad about not being at home for Christmas and talking about it was about the last thing any of us wanted to do.

“No story past when you was ten years old,” the captain added, which made things a little different, but not much. Then he turned and looked square at me. “Let’s start with the youngest,” which was me of course, having just turned thirteen in November, and shy by four years of all the other drummers in the company.

The captain nodded at me to commence, so I told how Pa owned a general store in Vandalia and we lived upstairs over the business. Me and my brothers slept on the third floor in the loft, so we was just a few feet away from all the action early Christmas morning. Every year we woke up to the sounds of Santa Claus stomping all over the roof and jingling reindeer harness, and all excited, we’d quick climb down from the loft to wake up our folks.

Pa was never there and Ma told us he’d gone to see what all the ruckus was about.

“That ain’t no ruckus, Ma,” we cried, “it’s Santy!” but Ma never looked any relieved, especially if it had snowed the night before, which made roof-stomping hazardous for even Santa.

It seemed like no time until Pa would shout up the stairs that it had indeed been Santa Claus up on the roof and he’d just seen the sled and reindeer flying off into the sky. We ran down the steps two at a time and when we got to the little storage room just off the main part of the store, there was a tree lighted up with candles and a present for each one of us.

As the years passed, we grew to be even greater believers in Santa Claus and felt sorry for our friends who said it was their folks who really played the part.

“Well, sure,” Pa said, when we told him this heresy, “Them poor parents has got to buy the presents because Santa can’t visit anybody’s house where there is non-believers!”

After hearing this news, my brothers and me made a pact never to speak in an unbelieving way about Santa Claus our whole entire lives.

The boys got a chuckle out of the story and one of them asked me if I still believed in Santa.

“Yep,” I said. “Us boys do it as a favor to our folks, ‘cause they couldn’t afford all them presents on their own.”

That remark got me a good ribbing, but it put the rest of the men in the mood to tell their own stories. All in all, the captain’s idea turned out to be a fine way to warm up the evening.

Finally, one of the boys said “Your turn, Cap’n.”

“You’re supposed to be entertainin’ me,” he grumbled, but we all insisted.

He sat thinking to hisself a minute, then turned to ugly ol’ Rex. “What do you think, boy?” he asked the dog, and Rex just wagged his ugly stump of a non-tail and drooled.

“Take a good look at this noble creature, boys,” he said. “You’ve got to look close at this critter to have full appreciation for the story.”

We all looked at the dog, and he looked back. He was certainly friendly enough, grinning and wagging when you talked to him, but he had a certain dilapidated look, like he was put together with the wrong parts. His legs was so short, somebody had to carry him on long marches. His ears was way too big for his flat little face, and his eyes bulged out like he was always surprised. He had a kind of mottled coat—not black, brown or tan, but a smudgy kind of mix that put you to mind of mud puddles at the end of winter.

“This here dog is truly one of a kind,” the captain said, and one of the men coughed to cover up a choking laugh.

“I see you agree,” the captain said, and the men kept their silence.

Then he grabbed the scruffy old dog and hugged him tight, which the dog seemed to enjoy. When he let him loose again, the captain put his face right into Rex’s and said, “Rex, you are one ugly little varmint,” and the dog grinned back at him like he’d said the most loving thing in the world.

“My brother George give me this dog for Christmas when I was ten years old,” the captain began. “He was just a pup, not more’n a month of Sundays. And I got to tell you boys, in all truth, he wasn’t no purtier then than he is right now. George rescued him out of a pond where somebody had throwed him in, fastened inside a canvas bag.”

This piece of news made us all take Rex more personal, as he’d nearly been cut off from living at all, and ugly didn’t count as a reason for getting drowned.

“George give him to me as a big surprise and I mean to tell you it was. I’d been wantin’ a dog since I seen the big black one the farmer down the road brought from his home in Germany. It was just a beauty, that dog, and knowed all kinds of tricks besides being good to take huntin’. Let’s just say that ol’ Rex here wasn’t what I had in mind, but George was so happy about his special surprise, I couldn’t hurt his feelins’ and it didn’t take long for me to begin to appreciate Rex’s finer, if not immediately noticeable, qualities.”

“The next year I give this old dog to my younger brother Matt for Christmas, ‘cause I didn’t have nothin’ else to give him, and Matt was poorly with the diphtheria. He was just four years old and loved ol’ Rex, followin’ him ‘round the yard wherever he wandered. I figured Rex could still really be my dog, but Matt could play with him more, assumin’ he survived the diphtheria, which wasn’t certain at the time.”

“What did George say when you done that?” someone asked.

The captain sat quiet for a minute, rubbing the dog’s ears. I noticed for the first time that Rex had pretty good looking ears for an otherwise unremarkable dog. They looked soft and silky.

“George was taken aback, and it was then I realized I’d give away his gift to me and didn’t know what to say. But Ma told him it was a noble thing—to give away somethin’ that you prized.

“Anyway,” the captain continued, “George really perked up at that and Matt was listenin’ too, ’cause the next Christmas, he give Rex back to me. He was only five then, but he’d tied one of Ma’s ribbons ‘round his neck and announced to me on Christmas morning: ‘I give you this dog, ’cause I prize him and it’s a noble thing.’ Ever since that time, we’ve given Rex back and forth at Christmas, each year dressin’ him up with fancier and fancier bows.”

We all give a round of applause to the captain, as the story ended up being a good one, and I don’t think I was the only one there taking a good look for the first time at ol’ Rex, who somehow seemed more appealing than when the story began. I realized with a start that Rex was older’n me, and considering how long dogs usually lived, in dog years he was older’n my grandpa.

The captain got up, stirred the fire and then set back down. Though we’d all continued talking and laughing among ourselves, he seemed to draw in and not have much more to say.

“You all right there, Cap’n?” one of the boys asked. We figured his leg might be giving him pain.

The captain looked down and shook his head. “This story ain’t got a happy ending, boys,” he said, and we all shushed up.

“I won’t get to be noble this Christmas.”

All of us understood, because nobody ‘round the fire would be exchanging gifts at home this Christmas.

“Maybe I ought to just chase him down the hill,” he said. “That’s where Matt’s celebratin’ Christmas this year.”

This was the first any of us knowed that our captain had a brother on the other side. “A picket brought word from Matt, shortly after that set-to three weeks ago,” he said. “Our pa disowned Matt when he went to fight for the Confederates.” Though he didn’t have to tell us any of this, he added, “Pa took him out of his will,” which we all knowed was a terrible disgrace for a man.

Nobody said anything about the captain’s brother, because the captain wasn’t the only person ‘round the fire in the same fix. But none of our Reb relatives was brothers and, to our knowledge, none of them was sitting right down the hill.

The mood among the men began to droop, so the bandmaster told us to get out the chapbooks and sing ourselves warm with a few Christmas songs. We knowed it wouldn’t be but a short while before we’d hear the Rebs come warbling back at us from down the hill, and we wasn’t disappointed. Sometimes they sang along with us, and other times we’d take turns.

Just to be ornery, we sang different versions of “Dixie,” using our own words, which was none too complimentary. And for every one of our verses, we got back versions of “Yankee Doodle” that was of an equally insulting nature.

Later on, the captain give everybody a ration of brandy and wished us all a merry Christmas. Then he excused hisself and retired to his tent. Some of the band decided to play for a bit, so I headed for my tent to get my drum. But as I passed the captain’s tent, something stirred inside my brain and I thought about his brother down in the other camp.

The captain had tied up Rex as usual outside his tent, and I bent down and rubbed his ears. They was as silky as they looked, and he grinned up at me, happy for the company. I stood and looked at him, a plan stirring itself up in my head. It was risky, and I knowed the captain wouldn’t approve, but what if it all got done before he found out?

I kept rubbing Rex’s ears while I untied the rope and led him away from the tent, thankful he wasn’t a barker. I’d heard the captain snoring a bit inside, and since he’d put down a double ration of whiskey because of his bad leg, he’d likely slumber on until dawn. The rest of the boys was feeling pretty happy from the brandy and would be unlikely to miss me ‘round the fire, considering the state most was in.

I skirted the campfire, pulling Rex quietly along with me, and made my way in the dark behind the tents. I knowed where both our pickets and the Reb guard generally stood watch and figured they wouldn’t be roaming too wide, since there hadn’t been any action in weeks. And from the sound of things earlier, they was pretty well wrapped up in celebrating, just like us.

There was a bit of moon to see my way through the trees, but I had to go slow and make as little noise as possible. It helped that the wind rustled the few leaves left on the trees for sound cover, as I crept down the hill. But it was colder’n blazes and it wasn’t long before my hands was nipped and my feet felt numb in my boots.

The incline was fairly steep, so I picked up Rex in one arm to keep him from slipping and immediately discovered why the captain kept him inside his tent some nights. That scruffy-looking dog was plumb toasty, so I tucked him away under my poncho and warmed up considerably.

As I picked my way toward the Reb camp, I was careful to stay a good distance from the singing, which I figured was somewhere about the middle of their camp. After about ten minutes of making my way down the hill, I could see the campfires burning not too far away. I planned to creep up close and tie Rex to a tree near a tent, hoping he would eventually draw some notice.

I tore off the back of the chapbook I still had in my pocket and used a bit piece of charred wood I carried around in my pocket to write “Pvt. Matthew Fleming” on it. Then I folded it up and put it under the collar on Rex’s neck. I didn’t have no fancy bow for his collar, as had been the custom for the captain and his brother, so I tore off a bit of ribboning from the side of my trousers and tied it next to the note.

It was good fortune that the tree line reached down almost into the Reb camp. Like us up the hill, they was probably cutting trees from the other side of camp for firewood, leaving the timber next to the hill for cover. There was only a short ways to go, so I went over the plan in my mind until I knowed I could do it almost without thinking. Rex whimpered at something in the dark and I hushed him. He looked at me with his big poppy eyes and seemed confused.

This close to the camp I was making too much noise, half-sliding down the hill, so I decided to turn around and crawl down backwards the rest of the way. I set Rex down on the ground, but as soon as I turned around and looked back up the hill, I saw the Reb picket, who’d probably followed us for some time. He had dead aim on me.

“Don’t make no move, boy,” he said, almost in a whisper, and was down to me in less time than I could draw a breath. “I know you’re smarter than to raise a ruckus, ‘cause the boys down the hill will come out shootin’. Keep that dog quiet, too. You don’t want no more trouble than you’re in.”

I shook my head, well aware that gunfire would draw attention on both sides and this would be an even bigger mistake than the one I’d already made. Rex snuffled his head between my legs, not sure what to make of things.

“I know you don’t want to start somethin,’ this bein’ Christmas Eve and all,” the picket said, and lowered his gun. “There’s just you and me here and maybe we can sort things out twixt the two of us.”

I looked down at the ground, my heart pounding so hard, I couldn’t talk.

“Gollee, boy!” he said, still in a whisper. “If you was plannin’ to sneak past lines, you ought not to stomp around like some bear in these woods. And a dog? You brung a dog along?”

Rex pulled his head out from between my legs and the picket exclaimed: “Lordy,”

Rex give him one of his grins, but I could scarce breathe and my brain wouldn’t work at all, so I just shook my head.

“Guess we’ll have to pay a little visit to the Colonel,” the picket said finally. “Though I doubt you’re what he was expectin’ for Christmas.”

He checked me for a pistol, then took Rex’s rope and led the two of us on down the mountain to the camp at the bottom. All the time we was picking our way through the trees, I tried to think of what to do or say, but my mind was about as froze as my hands and feet. Rex set to whimpering, not sure what to make of what happened. For a captain’s dog, he wasn’t no model of fierceness, but if he’d caused a stir, we might both have got shot, so it was just as well.

The picket pushed me into a tent that was lighted up bright with a lantern. A Reb colonel was sitting at a table drinking coffee and looked some surprised.

“I found Santy Claus out wanderin’ ’round in the woods, Colonel, and thought you might like to have a talk with him. Brought one of his reindeer along, too,” the picket said, as he tied Rex to the table leg.

“Merciful Lord!” the colonel said, getting a good look at Rex. Then he gathered hisself and looked me square in the eye.

“You tryin’ to slip past lines, boy?” he asked.

I shook my head, my tongue still froze solid.

“There’s no Federals anywhere around here. You’d do best to climb right back up that hill and commence singin’ insultin’ verses of ‘Dixie’ down at us.”

Something about that remark and the heat of the colonel’s lantern helped thaw out my brain.

“Not crossin’ lines, sir,” I mumbled at him.

“Then what you doin’, comin’ down that hill this time of night—spyin’?”

“No, sir,” I said. “I’m just a drummer.”

“You don’t think drummers can be spies?”

“I’m not a spy, sir. And I don’t want to cause no trouble for my company.”

I figured I had to tell the truth, because I’d never been good at lying. “I’m bringing this here dog as a Christmas present for Private Matthew Fleming.”

“Compliments of Captain Josiah Fleming, I presume?”

My jaw musta dropped, because the colonel said, “We knew each other…before. Did he send you with this dog, in the middle of the night?”

“No, sir!” In my foolish haste to help out the captain, I’d only made things worse. “It’s Captain Fleming’s dog, but he don’t know I took him or that I was trying to get him to Matt.”

“Didn’t think so,” the colonel said. “Not his style. But what’s so important that it’s got to be delivered across lines on Christmas Eve?”

I knowed it was now or never to get this thing done and since there didn’t seem to be much more to lose anyway, I told him the whole story, during which time, he kept looking down at Rex, who grinned back at him companionably.

“Dear Heaven,” the colonel said, as he looked at the dog. Then he stood up and pulled on his cape.

“Come on, son. It appears that this gift needs delivering right away.”

The colonel lifted the tent flap and led the way, with me and Rex following close behind. We passed the men’s tents and their rifles stacked in the clearing like bean poles. The Reb camp looked much the same as ours, with men huddled ‘round little fires, trying to keep warm. From the looks of them, they wasn’t any better provisioned than us up on the mountain. They’d obviously had some Christmas cheer, because they paid us no mind as they sang along loud and off-key with our carolers up the mountain.

We kept on going to a larger tent that was lit up inside. When the colonel pulled back the flap, I saw that it was an infirmary, with men bundled up on cots. Most of the men was asleep, but a few was still awake and turned their faces toward us as we come in. Rex, who’d followed along peacefully for our whole journey, jerked the rope outta my hand and took off to one corner, where he proceeded to whine and carry on. We followed him over to a cot where a Reb lay, looking pretty much dead.

By this time Rex was jumping up and down, more animated than I’d ever seen him. The colonel steadied him with one hand, and then pulled the man’s hand out from under the blanket and held it in his.

“Still with us,” he said, and an orderly nodded his head, but didn’t look real hopeful.

Except for his beard, Matt looked enough like the captain that I would have knowed him anywhere. “What happened?” I asked.

“Typhoid,” the colonel answered. “He’s in a bad way.”

Rex whimpered and tried to crawl onto the cot with Matt. I grabbed at his collar, but the colonel motioned for me to leave him be. Rex burrowed hisself right under the covers with Matt, who didn’t stir the whole time. Then he poked his head back up and laid it next to Matt’s, breathing soft in his ear.

Matt stirred, and said something in his sleep, and Rex barked. The whole tent came alert at the sound, and some of the boys sat up on their cots to see what was going on.

“Go on, boy,” the colonel said, nodding to me, “I think you know what to do. It’s what you came for.”

It wasn’t the way I’d planned it, but it seemed right that I say something to Matt, though I doubted he’d hear anything I said.

I picked up Matt’s hand and laid it over Rex’s funny little head, right on one of his velvety ears. I noticed with a start that the plumb ugly dog had gone and got hisself almost beautiful as the night progressed.

I knowed then that I’d have to leave Rex with Matt, even though the captain would likely never see him again. I could only hope that if he was standing there instead of me, he would have done the same thing.

Matt hadn’t showed any sign of knowing what was going on, in spite of Rex licking at his face and chewing away at his fingers. I leaned down and whispered in his ear. “I’m deliverin’ the noble gift, Matt,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

We stood next to Matt’s cot long enough to see him move his hand a little, as if to pet Rex, and Rex rewarded him with another face licking. Finally the colonel turned away and I followed him out of the tent and back through the clearing, where the Reb boys was still singing lively ‘round the fires.

When we got back to the tent, the colonel put his hand on my shoulder. “You’ve done a good night’s work, Santy Claus. Now it’s time to head back on north.”

He summoned an aide and give him orders to take me back to where I was found by the picket. “I’d like to send my best to your captain, son,” he said, “since we knew each other in better times. But this isn’t exactly an official visit and nobody ever sees Santy Claus, so you don’t have to mention it.”

I crawled back up the mountain without Rex, cold to the bone, missing the warm dog under my poncho. I made my way to the fire, where the boys was still holding forth, this time bragging about what they’d be doing next Christmas, once they got off this dad-blamed mountain and whupped the Rebs back into the Union. I stood close as I could to the fire and flapped my poncho up and down to thaw out.

The bandmaster yelled over to me, asking where I’d been. “We need a little drum-tappin’ over here to cheer things up,” he said.

The captain limped up behind me and pulled me away from the fire.

“Where have you been?” he asked, and it was clear he’d been worried.

When I told him the whole story, he kept shaking his head and giving me all kind of grief about sneaking away.

“You coulda been killed, boy! What were you thinkin’?”

I didn’t say anything back to him, because I knowed he had to be feeling bad about Matt, and then losing Rex, too. But when he was through yelling at me for what I done, he finally said that getting Rex back to Matt was the best Christmas present he’d ever had.

A week later, on New Year’s Day, the pickets come back to camp, carrying old Rex, who looked woeful beyond description. The captain took the dog from the men and went back to his tent, where he stayed the rest of the day. All we heard from the tent was a mournful whimpering, and we knowed that Rex was telling the captain the rest of the whole sad story.


A heart-warming, relatable historical adventure with clever turns.
—Holly Black, 2010 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


Chasing Shadows

S. E. Sinkhorn

They committed her again.

Kay’s seventy-two-hour hold ends today. She called me to come get her. I guess the doc put her on suicide watch, but now that she’s sober they decided she’s not a risk. I wish they’d just fix her already.

Her parents tried to tell me she was away for spring break. At her cousin’s place or something. I knew better. You don’t send someone to the beach when they’ve been scratching their arms open to get the bugs out. Not even in their family.

The ward is decorated in disinfectant and ice. I’m glad I’m not here for an exam. The metal tables they use would probably freeze-burn my ass.

The nurse’s assistant behind the counter is only a year or two older than I am. Cartoon rabbits chase each other across her scrubs. I look around for the on-duty nurse, but she must be attending to people who actually need her.

Bunny Girl is staring at her computer screen and ignoring me. I lean forward over the desk to see what she’s doing. Spider Solitaire. Just the person I want to be the gatekeeper to the sick and the crazy.

“You can’t lean over the counter.” She doesn’t even look at me when she says it. Her voice is wishing it were anywhere else.

I don’t lean back. “Community service hours or what?”

Now she looks at me, pulling her eyes away from the two of spades. “Are you here to see someone?”

“Kaitlin Sugiyama called me to pick her up.”

Bunny’s eyebrows knit together as she pulls out Kay’s file. “Are you her sister?”

“Yeah. Identical twin, actually.” I indicate my freckles and strawberry blond hair.

“Look, smartass, her file says only a parent or guardian can pick her up. She can’t leave with you.”

“Oh.” Typical Kay, forgetting little details like the fact that we’re not related.

Typical me, taking everything she says at face value.

“You can go out and see her if you want. I think she’s in the Courtyard. Sign in.” Bunny slaps a neon green clipboard down in front of me and goes back to her card game.

I grab a pencil and start writing “Becky,” but it looks ridiculous in this iodine-smelling hallway. The eraser is crap. It leaves a gray smudge in place of my nickname. I write “Rebecca” over the blur, but you can barely see. The gray swallows it up.

I take a visitor’s pass out of the basket and go to the locked door. The handle feels oily in my hand. Gross. I give Bunny a full minute before I try to get her attention. “Holding this door up is awesome for my upper body strength, but I’d like to actually go in, if you don’t mind.”

She makes a noise like I just asked her to fetch me a sparkling water, but hits the button to buzz me in anyway. An old guy on the other side jumps at the sound, looking around like he’s expecting something to eat him. I ignore him and walk past.

The Courtyard is this enclosed area in the middle of the psych unit. It’s open-air so the patients can get rained on if they want. There are concrete walls and concrete benches and concrete planters with little splashes of ferns and flowers. I think it’s supposed to make them feel free or close to nature or whatever.

The on-duty nurse is just outside the door, watching the patients slowly collapse in on themselves. She’s got a Nurse Ratched thing about her, all big-busted and severe, but when I ask for Kay, she calls me “honey” and tells me she’s out back with the smokers. Her voice is tired and sad, but not cruel. I tell her about the pain-in-the-assistant, and she sighs and goes back inside.

I watch the patients for a little while. A few are wandering around in nothing but their hospital gowns. I catch a glimpse of ass cheek and look away. The guy to my left is pulling his hair out and eating it.

I decide to keep going through to the back after a woman with foul breath asks me if I bleed green. Four visits in three years and the ones that ask me about blood still freak me out.

Two attendants stand outside the door like pillars holding up an archway. The back lot is a lot like the Courtyard. More flowers, more concrete. There’s a court where a basketball game’s going, though several of the players obviously don’t know the rules.

Kay’s sitting on a bench, watching the game and pulling on an herbal cigarette. Real cigarettes are where she draws the line. Acid and coke are fantastic, but she doesn’t want lung cancer when she’s fifty. I walk toward her. My shoes slap the court.

I see us at tennis practice. She serves, I return.

I hear her voice on the phone, sobbing and screaming and begging me to make the bugs go away.

She doesn’t look at me when I sit down beside her. Just blows the smoke out and watches it meld with the air. The black hoodie she’s wearing reeks of plastic cherries. The sleeves are rolled up to her elbows to let the bandages breathe.

“I see they’re letting you have lighters and drawstrings again,” I say.

She pulls her hood up to show me the drawstring’s been removed. “The cute one over there gave me a light.” Flick, flick. Ash falls on her leg and I brush it away for her.

The patient she points out looks like a guy we used to know.

We were sneaking into a rated R movie for the first time. The usher caught us, but Kay flirted and laughed. She told him she was eighteen. He knew she was lying, but he didn’t care. They slept together for two months. He was twenty-two. She was thirteen.

The purple in her hair is growing out. It leaves her roots bare and black, making her look like some sort of reverse tie-dyed skunk. She’s leaning back against the bench with her legs stretched out, looking at the world with hooded eyes. Even when she’s coked out and institutionalized, she still looks like a moon goddess from one of those crazy video games with the CGI people. I kind of hate her.

We sit a while and watch the other smokers talk to the ghosts in their exhale. I almost ask why she called when she knew I couldn’t take her home, but I know. She wanted to see if I’d come.

“How’d you get here, Becks?”

“I drove.”

“You can drive now?”

“You know I can. Turned sixteen two weeks ago. You were at the party.” For five minutes.

“Huh.” Flick. Pull. Blow. A familiar prickle pushes behind my eyes and I will it away. I don’t cry about it anymore. I tug on my earring until the feeling’s gone.

There’s another scratch on her leg, just visible beneath the cuff of her capris.

I picture our old playground, where we hung upside-down on the bars. Kay told me our friend Donna was fat because she started putting loose change into a cut on her leg and couldn’t stop. I asked why she didn’t clink when she walked.

Finally, she looks at me, smirking with a secret. “I have to tell you about the guy in the room next to me. He’s crazy. I mean, you know, everyone in here is crazy, but I’m talking seriously crazy. He drew a face on the wall with his own crap just so he’d have someone to yell at whenever they left him alone too long.”

“Come on, Kay. You’re staying in the women’s ward. They’re not keeping any men in there.” It comes out sharper than I meant it to. I’m not in the mood for her stories today.

I almost want her to get pissed off at me, to tell me to screw off and never talk to her again. To cut me loose. But all she does is laugh. “Fine, whatever, dude.”

The smile fades into the silence. She chews on her thumbnail and drops her hand back into her lap. There’s a speck of blue nail polish on her lip. I don’t tell her.

She skipped the second grade. Mrs. Sugiyama thought it was a bad idea, but her dad was too proud. His daughter was brilliant, and it made him look good. He didn’t see the freaked out seven-year old that walked into my classroom and spent the next period drawing mice in the margins of her notebook. I showed her the cats on mine and we traded phone numbers.

I sigh. “What happened?”

“Oh, you know. Poor little surgeon’s daughter couldn’t handle the pressure of being a genius. Started getting hit on too young by the wrong men. Deep-seated daddy issues. Searching for control in chaos.”

That’s not what I meant, and she knows it. “Your shrink give you that laundry list?”

“Sure did.” The cigarette is done. She puts it out and tosses it into a rosebush. “But you know what the real problem is?”

“Enlighten me.”

“Maybe I’m just tired of being your shadow.”

I snort so hard that a wandering attendant looks over and raises an eyebrow at me. “My shadow?”

“Yep. Perfect Becky Dillon’s shadow. Quiet, smart, tennis ace Becky’s shadow.”

My mind skips. I stare at my best friend in all her smashed-out glory, and all I can see is her beauty, her brilliance, her charisma. Every guy we’ve ever known wrapped around her little finger. Our teachers all fawning over her. The storybook existence she’s been chipping away at since we turned twelve.

I think of all the guys that never asked me out. My divorced parents screaming at each other in the foyer. My screw-up older sister.

I’m the shadow. I’ve never blamed her for it. That’s just how it is. I open my mouth, but my tongue won’t cooperate, so I look away. Take in all the broken minds around us. I’m no better. Just quieter about my defects.

“Look, I’m sorry.” Kay pulls her knee up under her chin and stares at the ground. “I’m not trying to be a bitch. I know you didn’t do it on purpose. You couldn’t have known.”

“Known what?” I’m still clueless.

“That you’d be the one to outgrow me.” Her bandages are clean, but I know she’s bleeding somewhere. “It’s not your fault. I know I’m full of shit.”

“You’re not—”

“Dude, please. I don’t get pissed when you call me on my bullshit because I know it is what it is. But I swear, if you try to tell me everything’s fine and we’re still best friends and I’m the same person you’ve always known, I’ll know you’re a liar and I’ll pop you in the mouth.”

There’s a water fountain dripping behind us. Dripdrop. Dripdrop. Each drop is hitting the ground like a crash.

For a second, we’re kids running through the sprinklers. Kay’s hair is an oil slick down her back. We fall onto the grass and laugh at the sun.

“What now, Kay? We’re broken? That’s it?” My throat hurts.

“Nah, Becks. I’m the one who’s broken. You’ve been trying to put me back together again, but the pieces won’t fit anymore.”

I know she’s right. My breath pulls on my heart. “What do you want me to do now? Walk away?”

She takes my hand. Traces the lines of my palm with her chipped nails. “I have to fix myself. You do a lot for me, but you can’t do this. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Maybe years. Maybe never.”

The fountain dripdropdrips some more.

I stand up. The ground pulses beneath my flip-flops and Kay lets go of my hand. I let it fall. “You didn’t call me to come and get you, did you?”

“Nope.” She pulls out another cigarette and looks around for the patient with the lighter, but he’s nowhere in sight. “I called to give you your out.”

I try to nod, but all I can do is dip my head. A half-hour ago, I was hoping for this exact thing. Now my stomach’s full of pins.

Kay sees it. “It’s cool, you know. This really wasn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything except be you.”

We look at each other and I don’t know her. We’re meeting for the first time. “Call me when you’re not a belligerent asshole anymore, all right?”

Her laughter peals and fades like wind chimes. “Sure, dude. Sure.”

The sickly clean of the inner hallway slaps me in the face after the flowers and ash of the lot. I lean my forehead against the wall and hold my breath. When I’m solid, I make for the exit.

Bunny Girl stabs me with her eyes as I walk by. I guess Nurse Un-Ratched had a talk with her.

It’s okay.

I deserve it.

 


Beautiful and lyrical writing and an interesting emotional study of the two characters had me fascinated.
—Holly Black, 2010 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


South Omaha From the F Street Exit, JFK Freeway

Lee Reilly

We stop at the red light even though we don’t really have to.  There’re no cars coming; a few, maybe, if it were Saturday when the little men and ladies sally from their wooden houses, making their way to vigil mass at St. Bridget’s, a semi truck maybe lumbering up the hill from the warehouses to the freeway, but we’d hear him.  There’re no cops either.  They are busy elsewhere.  But we wait anyway, my husband and I, under the red light and the sign that tells us to wait for green to turn right.

That building in the distance—the blocky, brick one with the fire escape stuck out the back like a spine, the only tall building peeking its head from this low, little landscape—that’s the Stockyard Exchange Building.  It used to be offices and boutiques and barbershops back in the 50s when Omaha became the largest stockyard in the world, but the stockyards are closed now, the building converted with thermostats and sub-floors and cabinets to low-income apartments where the adjuncts from the community college live beside low level drug dealers and immigrant families come to work in the packinghouses.  But they’re pretty apartments: all brick and window, the names of old businesses still stenciled on the doors.  The arched windows up top—those are ballrooms, a north and south ballroom where my brownie troop once won the gold metal in a talent competition for a song about housekeeping.  I got to toss the stuffed cat off the stage as we sang.  There’s a Polaroid of the moment somewhere in my parents’ house.  What I mean to say is that the ballrooms survived the other closings and changes.  A catering company in the suburbs owns full rights to them now and rich people drive into these old parts to get married and celebrate.  We couldn’t afford the fee—not even for the cheese and crackers buffet.

From here to there: all train track and decomposing cow shit where the pens used to be.  And Johnny’s restaurant, where Jack Nicholson filmed a scene for a movie in which he played a lonely and pathetic old man.  We all rushed to the theaters, to see our Johnny’s lit on the big screen, but came away quiet—the restaurant looking as lonely and pathetic as Nicholson’s widowed character.

The light turns green and we turn right.  My husband shimmies in his seat, a wiggle that begins in his hips and moves through his torso and shoulders and head.  I know that shimmy.  It speaks.  It says, “Thanks for not offering to drive, Dan,” and it says, “Here we go,” to the popped-spring mattress we’ll sleep on for two nights, to the constant nagging of my nephew to play, Chris, play, to the odors of dried blood and creosote, and to the clanks and bangs of the cars backfiring and the slaughterhouses waking that will call us from our weekend sleep before the sun rises.

We cross the bridge over the train tracks and the industry: the warehouses and the lots of the trucking company, the storage piles of loose asphalt, the byproduct processing plant that smells like dog food. This is the bridge of my dreams.  It appears often, sometimes grand and gold like a national landmark, and disappears just as often, once in patches as I light-stepped across it, toeing each section before committing my foot, should it crumble before me, and when it did, moonlight coming through the holes, inexplicably from below.  Once it was gone completely—simply no bridge—and I found myself sprinting at the great gap, ready to jump across the pit, launch my body into the smelly air, until my sister stopped me, yelling at my back and, when I turned around, pointing to a jet liner waiting to ferry me across.  The next morning over cereal, I couldn’t recall whether I was trying to get in or out.

We drive past Vanivar, where the train tracks split and angle into a yard ringed with chain link, where liquid cars sit filled with hazardous waste.  When one year the maples starting dying, people pointed towards Vanivar and whispered leak.  The city sent inspectors and we watched ours trees for other signs of unhappiness, scratched our fingernails at the bark and pulled the lowest branches down into our faces to smell the leaves.  When the report came back clean, we were left to wonder from where else the death might be coming.

The houses climb up the hills and sit atop the little canyons carved out by the tracks.  They are small and pale and dusty and have shutters decorating the sides of the windows and metal swing sets in the yard.  A thin, blonde brick steeple sits above the neighborhood, like a dunce’s cap.

The bridge descends steeply and Chris steps on the brakes early to stop at the stop sign below.  After sunset, we might not stop here—“Just don’t even bother,” my mother used to tell me when I first began to take the car out alone and late—but since it’s not quite dark, we behave.  The left headlight of our little car, which has been out for over a month, flickers on as we slow. We both stare dumbly through the windshield at the street illuminated in front of us.  “Magic,” I whisper.

Chris rolls his eyes at me and steps hard on the gas. We pass the power station and the empty lot where they’ve torn down the condemned house, we pass WC’s Place and Cheepo’s Mechanics, who have painted their garages cobalt blue.  We pass the sign requesting us to report odors to this telephone number.

Not far down the tracks is the slaughterhouse, hunkered down in sheet metal among the other buildings, surviving still, churning out meat and muscle, hide and bone, exhaling into the air over the neighborhood a melancholy cloud of cow souls.  At five p.m., a worker showers the ground with a fire hose, washing from the lot a day’s worth of death into the sewer where it courses under the city or into the road, where car tires dampen with it and trace it through the streets.

“People live here,” a college friend said to me—the first one I ever invited home for a weekend.  “Sure,” I said, leaning away from the steering wheel and over her, pointing out the bicycles lying in the yards, the flowerpots and uncoiled garden hoses, “people live here.”  She sat on her hands and stretched her legs out straight.  “Why?” she asked.

~

My parent’s house is a big yellow shoebox with a green-shingled roof and gable scrolls that my mother ordered from a catalogue.  The picket fence that lines the yard is warped and worm-eaten and swallowed here and there by bean vines, morning glories, moonflowers.  There’s a cowbell hanging from the front gate, jingle bells hanging on the back.  There’s a bear standing in the fountain at the side of the house, his feet glued to bricks so that he’s harder to steal.  My father calls him Guido.

Two garages sit along the back alley, slowly covering themselves in trumpet vines.  The small one is old, original, swallowed also in front by a dense cloud of wisteria, and my parents stopped bothering to open the gates and move the toys and wheelbarrows to park in there a long time ago.  It’s filled now with sawhorses and old cans of paint, bags of cement mix and broken lawnmowers: leftovers and remnants from the transformation from shoebox to home, evidence of work and work and more work. I learned to play tennis against the garage’s door, until I shattered all the windows and could hit the ball hard enough to crack the rotting wood.

The big one is new, doublewide for the ping-pong table and radio, a line of rusting lawn chairs along the wall, punctuated twice with stacked milk crates, tables for spectators’ beers.  A set of stairs stained mustard yellow and decorated with super heroes leads to the Boys’ Club, a space wedged between the ceiling and the roof where my five-year-old nephew conducts secret meetings with my father, my brother, and my husband.  They make exclamations like horseshit (which might be the Boys’ Club password) and talk boobs until the plywood floor pushes slivers through their jeans.

An airplane propeller noses out from the peak of the roof, spreading dual blades into the evening air, and spins along at a clip so fine the garage might just lift from the ground.

My father built the new garage—his therapy after he was shot delivering his mail route between the park and grade school.  He slept for two days after the shooting, emerging from his bedroom for only minutes at a time to watch the still-endless news footage of himself post-incident, the newscasters never saying gang-related, his head and neck a blaze of red where the pellets skimmed across his skin.  He holed up in the living room another three days, tired and teary, waiting for someone to come finish the job.  No, no, no, the detectives said, a random act of violence.  Freak occurrence.  Fuckhead kid.  And then he seemed finally to hear them.  He put pants on and stepped outside into the afternoon and built a garage.

I’d been looking at myself in the hallway mirror when the call came from my sister: “Dad got shot in the face or something,” she said.  Four weeks later, we had a new garage, an unpainted, hulking plywood shell in which my father offered to host a party for Chris’s and my upcoming wedding. Our already cheap plans I knew were a certain affront to Chris, whose personality tends toward pomp and ceremony: he attends every possible wedding, baptism, and graduation and celebrates his birthday like an annual astrological festival.  My father looked into Chris’ genteel, small-town face, as round and honest as a pumpkin, and said, “Pizza.  Ping-pong.”  And no one will tell a recently shot mailman no, so.

We park in the alley next to an electrical pole posted with the red, white, and blue sign of the Burlington Road Neighborhood Association.  Violence in South Omaha has increased in the past few years and the shootings and beatings and stabbings are pressing in on even the oldest and quietest neighborhoods, renewing their immigrant-era reputations as places of blood and bruises.  A local state-senate hopeful stepped up and that’s when these signs made their advance onto every streetlight and electrical pole within ten square blocks.  “For the kids,” the crusader said, we needed friendship, unity, and so we got a name like a suburban subdivision—we are Burlington Road.  The sign says “KEEPING THE NEIGHBORHOOD ON TRACK.”  It is dented and sticky with something someone threw at it.

Ahead of us, the alley extends a lunar landscape to 36th Avenue, pockmarked and potholed with cavities that swallow tires whole and fill with water when it rains and become a great chain of lakes.

The dogs come running, chewing at each other’s throats in excitement, and sniff at us through the fence—the grey-eyebrowed beagle bays into space, the mutt, a foxy, slinky animal with only half a brain, puts his paws on the fence and whines.  Bagel and Lyle.  Gustavo, the Mexican immigrant next door, calls them Beggar and Liar.  He edges his sidewalk with a steak knife, just as my mother taught him when he was new to the neighborhood, and calls to Beggar and Liar to shut up por favor as the two idiots yap at him while he does his yard work.

My mother pokes her head-full of hippie-gray hair out from behind the big garage and waves her plastic broom in the air.  Chris nudges me away from the overfilled laundry basket that I’m wrestling from the backseat.  “Go see your mom,” he says.

She’s walking toward us now, thin-limbed and covered, as always, in paint and dirt and grass stains, dragging the broom on the ground and talking and talking and talking.  I catch snippets of her conversation through the cry of the dogs: didn’t know to think before dark or after, need to call my sister, pizza for dinner, good god how much laundry.  We meet at the gate and she grabs my head with both of her hands, pressing the broom handle into my cheek, pulls my face to hers, and kisses me.  I taste Vaseline on her.  “I have a surprise for you,” she says.

“It’s a surprise for you too,” she yells to Chris, who’s lugging the laundry basket towards the gate.  He reaches us, balances the basket on the line of picket points, and she kisses him on the lips, leaving a shiny smear.

She glances past us to our car, the leaky and stuttering two-door glowing green in the last light.  Then, with all the sternness she can muster, she looks me in the eye and says, “Oh, you washed it.”

We wash the car each time before we visit my parents.  I take it the day before we leave and hit it with the spray gun and foam brush.  Sometimes I try to wax it, but I can’t get rid of the white marks from when we got sideswiped or the rust starting to grow out from the wheel wells, so I’ve stopped.  I vacuum the insides though, even the trunk, so that if my dad peeks in, he’ll know that we take care of things.  “That’s why I wash the car,” I tell my mom, but each time we pull up in the alley, she chides us for wasting our time and quarters.  “The cow dust’ll come tonight,” she says, “and muck that pretty thing all up.”

Two blocks away—closer even if you walk the diagonal path over the train tracks—is the slaughterhouse, where thousands of cows moo and poop and sweat and bleed awaiting their entrance into the low door of the cattle chute, where the air gun pops and reels and delivers fate.  Until then they breathe and belch methane, flank to flank, their massive and collective body agitated and respiring in its concrete and metal yard.  A living cow seems to me all fluid: piss and perspiration, watery rolling eye and liquid sadness.  Even before death they are rising like steam into the atmosphere, a humidity that mingles with the dust shaken loose from trains, the brown exhaust of semis and the sharp curses of their drivers.  And in the morning, they descend with the dew, coating the world like a black pollen.

We wipe the cow dust away with paper towels and the pages of yesterday’s newspaper because the dust is also greasy.  Glass in the neighborhood shows smears of rainbow when the light hits it just so and the dogs go radiant and slick when they roll in the grass.  My mother spends her weekends power-washing the house and the car, hanging her body half out open windows with a rag and a bottle of diluted vinegar.

I live a state east now.  In a city busy with farmer’s markets and film festivals, Friday night jazz and poetry readings.  The people there use words like probiotic and drink tea imported from Japan and darkened with clouds of bacteria, which they explain to me is good for digestion.  They go to yoga classes and stretch into downward dog in their offices over lunchtime.  They can palm the floor from a standing position.  “You never use pesticide,” a friend once explained to me as she talked about the challenges of gardening kale among vines of creeping jenny and clumps of dandelion.  Chemicals are a strict no-no.  “Bleach?” I’ve asked.  No bleach.  “Bug spray?”  I’ve asked.  No bug spray.  Embrace the weeds, the bacteria, the bugs—all natural, people explain to me.  All good. I go to Pilates classes now, and I know what beets taste like and that they taste excellent.

It is like heaven in my new city and I am flexible and well-nourished and blessedly regular.  But South Omaha has its meat hooks in me. It is in my bones, my blood, my teeth: the chemical, the crap, and the cow built into me as I developed in the womb.  The head bone is connected to the slaughterhouse.  And to the baseballs knocked solid onto the train tracks by boys, to the beer, and to the bright foam coozie that protects my father’s hands from the dampness and chill.  It proclaims in orange letters that THESE ARE MY DRESS CLOTHES.

The graffiti is pressing into the old neighborhoods, artless tags on a shed, a fence, a lamp post, un-love letters to people and rivals announcing: someone will scare you, someone will hurt you, don’t dare tread here.  And sometimes when we get home from a weekend at my parents, I want to smear at the cow dust stuck to the hood of our car, get my hands all good and smudgy with it, ring all my neighbors’ doorbells, and raise my oil-black hands to them, say, “Smell.”

~

My mom has told me before that she has a surprise.  Once, it was a flower opening at night, her first moonflower, escaped from the casing of its tough and unfriendly seed, unwinding itself into a blossom as broad and white as a paper plate. Another time, it was a pint of orange sherbet waiting for me in the freezer, and another the neighbors across the street, blinds up, lights on, fighting and eating and kissing, their bright picture window our theater all evening as we sat on the porch and drank beer.  “You’re selling the house,” I guess as she slides open the backdoor for us.  She pushes air through her lips at me.  “No,” she says, “no.”

I look for the surprise all evening.  We eat the pizza reheated in the microwave with mismatched forks bought from Goodwill—“Isn’t that a cute one?” my mom asks as I raise a bite to my mouth.  I look at the fork, the scallops on the handle, and nod.  We whack away at the florescent orange ping-pong ball with paddles worn to their sandpaper faces and listen to the Blues Brothers.  We play the song “Rubber Biscuit” because John Belushi trills that last note so high and ridiculous and my nephew laughs deep and long from his full-moon belly, so we play the song again and again.  My mother tours me around the yard pointing out new blooms and where she’d like to plant a tree.  But there’s no surprise.

We watch the evening news together and I wait to see a picture of a high school friend during the Most Wanted segment, which was once another of my mother’s surprises.  “Remember when Joe Jaworski robbed Radio Shack?” she asks.  “Remember how big his ears were?  That’s how they knew it was him.”  The anchor reports another execution-style murder, a man shot kneeling in front of his TV, a video game playing and a child upstairs.  “That’s on your dad’s route,” she says, nodding at my father asleep in his robe on the floor, spread-eagled and with a hole in his longjohns.  The anchor reports on the local campaign to save the old ball stadium and my mother grumbles non-committedly.  Then she falls asleep in her chair, head back, mouth open, her nightly bowl of popcorn half-full and cradled in her lap.

Upstairs, Chris pulls the sheets down the mattress I slept on as a child.  He stares at it, the lumps of spring and cotton pressing upwards underneath the flower-printed linen and asks without looking up how I possibly ever slept on this thing.  I bump the door with my hip until I hear the latch catch and shrug at him.  “I thought it was comfortable,” I say.

At home, we sleep on a five hundred dollar mattress and box spring, a happy co-habitation gift to ourselves after we’d spent our first week together crashing on the floor amid paint cans and balls of used edging tape as we turned our apartment the pale yellow of lemonade.  So when we got the mattress home—after a saga of cross-town trips, bungee cords, twisting staircases, and doorways—we spread new polka dotted sheets down and turned out the light.  But I tossed and rolled and left bed three times for a glass of water.  “What’s wrong with you?” Chris asked, rightfully irritated.  “Nothing,” I said.  “It’s too soft, isn’t it?” he said.  “No,” I said, not lying—it was the best thing I’d ever laid my body on—“It’s just,” I downed the third glass of water, “I sleep on a nicer mattress than my parents.”

Chris sits on his haunches in his sweatpants, then crawls reluctantly into the bed.  It’s too small for him, too short for his giraffe body and he has to lie diagonally to fit.  So I drape my legs over him, make us into a lopsided X on the bed, reach behind me and turn out the light.

In the dark, I think that I can see better the splotches of water damage spreading through the white paint on the ceiling.  The headlights from cars driving up the hill outside trace blue arcs across the walls and I’ve never liked this room.  I’ve never liked the sheet hanging as a curtain in the closet doorway or the baseboards nailed crooked into the drywall.  The fan makes clicking sounds inside its engine.

I feel afraid in this room, these peachy walls where I once pinned concert posters of Fleetwood Mac and Huey Lewis to the flowered wallpaper, the strips of pattern so carefully lined up, to the A-frame ceiling that folds guests so intimately in.  My husband begins snoring gently beside me and I roll him onto his side.  I am too old to be afraid.  There are no ghosts here, just a moneyless, dirty desperation that grips at the throat of some, fierce and relentless, until they pick up a gun or knife with which to beat it off.

It’s been bad since the day Dad was shot.   Only a boy, the police had reported, who’d decided that morning that he was bored, that he was out of options, that he would feel what it felt like to kill.  He walked into the neighborhood and pulled the trigger in the face of the first person he found—the mailman.  He had sawed the shotgun too short, and so the pellets spread wildly, grazing my father’s bald head and searing his ear before tucking themselves snug into the gray siding of a garage.  But such a nice boy, people would say of the shooter.  But not an S.O.B.—a South Omaha Boy—my father would say, the refrain of his convalescence, his return to the living, taking peace in the kid’s cross-town address, as if that made it okay, as if it didn’t mark our neighborhood as the city’s playground for its lost and violent.

I heard one morning, five steady times, a pop pop pop pop pop.  The sound bore me from my sleep into the gray predawn, the time when the cow dust settles silently to the earth.  I rolled to look at Chris and found him already looking at me.  “Fireworks,” he whispered, “Or someone slamming a gate,” I offered back, rolling over and patting his arm as if to say, silly boy, nothing to worry about here.  But downstairs, the snap of the bathroom light switch, the angry snap of the old, stuck toggle: my father waking for work.  I tried to sleep but the glow under the door grew brighter as he flipped on other lights—hallway, kitchen, living room, staircase, where he fumbled around the coat hooks finally for his jacket.

I caught him halfway out the back door.  “I heard gunshots,” I said to his back.  His body jerked in surprise at the sound of my voice, and he turned back into the house, closed the door behind him.  “What?” he said.  I rubbed my face, beginning to burn with embarrassment already, knowing, and stepped in front of the heater vent to keep my legs warm.  “I heard gunshots,” I said again, “I think.”  My mother appeared in the living room in her floral night pants.  “What?” she said also.  “Gunshots?  That was the neighbor’s car, Dan.  Not gunshots.”  She pursed her lips in that way that suggests she’s tolerating stupidity, but barely.  I sat on the couch and my dad came over to pat my back.  “Oh,” he said to my mom, “she’s just worried about me.”  He landed his palm flat on my back a few more times and bent down to kiss me goodbye.  “Well thanks,” he said into my face with sincerity and pity.  Then he left.

My mother came and sat on the couch beside me, at an arm’s distance.  Outside the window, an old Buick popped and rolled down the street and she nodded.  “You’ve got to get over this,” she said.  “I am,” I said.  “You’re not,” she said.  “And we’re not moving.  This is your home, little girl.”  We sat together a few moments longer, both of us pissed and tired.  “I should have never told you about the Pilates class,” I said.

~

In the morning, the hoarse bark of Zeus, the angry chow-chow next door, wakes me up.  Zeus is part lion, tearing raccoons limb from limb and rabbits as they shriek, pinning Gustavo’s Chihuahuas to the ground with his massive teeth.  He nips at Deb, his owner, and winds himself into fits that send her into the house screaming and swearing.  There’s a look on his face, a promise to eat you.  The clock says seven something and I try to fall back asleep, but I hear my parents’ alarm go off, and then the sink and the toilet and the long whistle that issues from the pipes after a flush.  A shade snaps open, then another and another, six times.

A rooster crows.

I’m only a few steps down the staircase when my mom yells, “You heard it!”  She must be watching my feet come down the stairs, watching my body appear from the bottom up.  I stop halfway and sit, looking down into the living room, where the early morning sun pours in through the open windows.

The rooms are bright white like heaven.  The walls are white and the curtains are white and my mother’s hair is white and glowing.  There is so much light.  Six tall windows in this room alone, the selling point when my parents bought it decades ago, dusted over and shining.

The rooster crows again and my mother looks at me expectantly.

I look at her and she says, “It’s a rooster!”

“You bought a rooster?” I say.

“No,” she scoffs at me. “It lives down the street in Mr. Swinarski’s pigeon coop.  And it crows all the time.  Surprise!”  She stretches out her fingers like fireworks and in the kitchen the skillet pops as my dad spoons grease over the eggs and rolls the sausage around the pan.

Mr. Swinarski is dead.  He had serial numbers from his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz tattooed across the backs of his hands and kept homing pigeons that flew to New Jersey and back again in a chicken wire coop against his shed.  “They always come back?” I asked.  “They always come back,” he said.  Even the one, he said, that blew off course and looped around Costa Rica.  Of course, why they came back wasn’t in question.  I felt the answer even then, resting in my leg bones: training and love and fear kept them coming home and sometimes they bonked into our picture window, breaking the afternoon stillness and scaring the dogs.  We scooped them blinking and flapping from the porch and returned them home wrapped in rags marked with bleach and grease.

I look out the window at his house, the peach awnings still sagging over the windows but a different car in the drive.  It is the Buick that pops like a gun.

The rooster crows again.  Chris comes down the stairs and asks if that’s actually a rooster crowing.  “Surprise!” my mom yells again and my dad sets a plate heaped with fried eggs on the table with four forks.

I step outside to hear it better, to feel what it feels like to stand in the city and hear a rooster let loose in the morning sunlight.  I grab the railing of the porch and stretch my body backward like a cat, a move I learned in Pilates class.  The railing is covered in cow dust—everything is covered in cow dust—everything covered with dirt and rainbows, my hands, the green shingles of the roof, the leaves of the maples and the bean vines, the telephone poles tagged anew each weekend, the bells on the gates, and it strikes me this morning that should anyone intrude into this yard, whatever pain they might bring, we would know first, by the tinkling of the bells that it was coming. I look at the car and think that we should have waited to wash it.

It’s Saturday morning and still the slaughterhouse chugs along, making the cows at one end into the packages of meat at the other.

My mom walks out and stands next to me, stares at the car glinting oily in the sun angling through the branches.  “I told you,” she says.  I nod.  “A good surprise though,” I say.  She nods.

Across the alley, Gustavo’s back door squeals open and he emerges sideways carrying an old boombox, inching the door open with his elbow.  He sets it on the sidewalk and waves, then bends to fiddle with the machine.  Music starts and stops: garbled guitars and drumbeats and piano, pieces of noise as he winds the knob through the frequencies.  Suddenly, voices speaking in Spanish come from the speakers and he turns the volume up.  My mother and I stand there, listening.  The music starts and it sounds like polka.  She smiles.  “I like this music,” she says.

Her ears are large and uneven, shiny saucers stuck to the sides of her gray head.  I want to grab them and shake her.  The music is not just polka.  It is a narcocorrido, a drug ballad about power and protest, death and don’t fuck with me.  There is tar in her hair from resealing the driveway this week and she screws up a smile at me.  When she dies, she says cremate her.  Then toss the ashes into the garden and turn her into a cleome.

The music is lovely.  It is wonderful, in fact.  Loud and fast.  Dancing music.  And for the moment, I decide that I don’t care.  I grab my mother’s hands, and we do a quick two-step across the porch.

 


The author’s compelling use of sensory, metaphoric imagery brings the reader into a fully realized, evocative, and particularized place. I felt as if I lived in this neighborhood, on this street, in this house. The urgency of the language grabs you in the first paragraph and doesn’t let go.
—Sue William Silverman, 2011 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge


Blackout

Daisy Hernandez

I didn’t think white people got jobs the way Latinos did, just by talking to each other. But they do, and that’s how it happens for me. My first big job as a writer.

It’s the end of a journalism class at New York University. The room fills with the familiar cacophony of a class ending: chairs scraping floors, students unzipping bags, murmurs about lunch and papers due. The professor, a thin, white woman, fastens her eyes on me.

“An editor at the New York Times is looking for a researcher for a book she’s doing on women’s history,” she says, matter-of-fact. “I thought of you. You write about feminism.”

I smile politely, uncomfortably. I’m twenty-five and writing for Ms. magazine but I don’t consider myself to be someone who writes about feminism. That sounds like work other people do, people who are rich or famous or smart. I’m not a boba though. I have spent enough time around white women to know it’s better to not argue with them.

When I meet the editor, I like her immediately. She’s unpretentious and direct but warm in that “do you want water or tea” sort of way. I have no idea that she’s the first woman to run the editorial page at the newspaper. What I do know is that Gail is going to be the first (and only) lady who pays me money to track down what indigenous women used as menstrual pads back in the pre-tampon days. That’s my first assignment and I set off, gathering phone numbers for anthropologists and historians, generating a spreadsheet to track my interviews and library reading, and returning with my final report. (They used rags. The natural kind.)

Months later, I e-mail Gail an opinion piece I wrote for an online wire service and she shoots back: “Oye, you should apply for this internship here in the editorial department.”

She doesn’t write “oye,” but she might as well have because the way she emails with such ease is how a woman on the bus tells my mother, “Oye, there’s this factory down on Hudson Avenue that’s hiring.”

Oye, and just like that I send my resume, which now includes research on indigenous maxi pads, to the editor at the Times hiring interns even though I have no idea what an editorial is. That’s right. I am twenty-five, I am writing for a national magazine, I have been in journalism school, and I do not know what an editorial is.

I want to say that it’s never come up, that no one has ever talked to me about editorials. But they probably did and I didn’t know what it was and as I’ve been doing since I was in English as a Second Language classes in kindergarten, I acted like I knew what they were talking about and promptly forgot it.

Now I walk around the block to the Greek deli. I pass the women and men waiting at the bus stop, buy a copy of the Times and flip the A section over. A friend has told me to look at the left side of the last page, at the short paragraphs stacked on the page likes shoe boxes in a closet.

The writing carries no byline. It’s monotonous, and I realize why I don’t know what an editorial is. I’ve never made it past the second line.

My feelings though are irrelevant. This is the New York Times. They have Maureen Dowd and stringers all over the world including countries I have to find in the Britannica encyclopedia. If I get the internship, they won’t actually let me write.

But they do.

~

My summer internship begins on the tenth floor of the New York Times building on 43rd Street in Manhattan.

The first days are heady: the large, revolving doors at the main entrance, the elevator racing upward, a massive desk of my own, the thick solid wooden shelves in the library filled with old books and newspapers and magazines. It’s nine months since Sept. 11 and Howell Raines is the executive editor. He supposedly has a penchant for the visual, which is why, a staff reporter tells me, the corridors are now filled with large scale reproductions of photographs that have been in the paper. My favorite ones, the ones that make me pause, are the aerial photographs of New York City, the tops of skyscrapers like the closed beaks of birds turned toward the sky.

I’m taken to lunch that week, shown how the computer system works, told to wait a minute while an editor, a white man with sharp eyes, answers a call and laughs about how India and Pakistan need to get it together and play nice. I’m told how to put editorials in a queue, how to see what other people are writing for the next day or the weekend edition, how to answer my editor’s questions online. I’m told to join the editorial board for their meetings in the morning.

The meetings take place in a conference room. Inside are a long wooden table, large heavy chairs, and a television in a cabinet. Men show up in stiff white shirts with cups of coffee in hand, notepads and pens, and the day’s paper. The women show up in slacks and button-down shirts with notepads and pens and the paper. They file in one by one, welcome me, make jokes about this and that, and it begins to dawn on me that they are regular white people.

I’m not sure what I expected them to look like but I figured that writing for the New York Times would turn a person into something close to God, or at least Oprah Winfrey. I expected that they would look different somehow, more beautiful, more pristine, that they wouldn’t have to read the day’s paper because they would have a secret telephone they could pick up and hear about what was happening in the world.

What’s not surprising is that they are white.

It’s about a dozen people and they’re all white except for one black man and one man who is white (blond actually) but Mexican. I sit at the table terrified that I’ll say something stupid and more terrified that I won’t be able to say anything at all.

The meetings begin with Gail saying, “Let’s get started.” They go around the table, pitching ideas, shooting down ideas, bantering. A writer with a head full of white hair, a man who could be a grandpa on an after school TV special, says, “Now I have an idea you’re not going to like…” and everyone grins. There’s much about which to have opinions—the war on terror, Bush, stem cell research—but this man wants to write about pollution, about the Superfund sites everyone else wants to forget.

Assignments are made. One writer sighs. “Yes, I guess I’m the one to do it,” he says. Then they retreat to their offices to make phone calls, conduct interviews, and write opinions.

~

My first idea for an editorial is straightforward, a no-brainer really. I think the New York Times editorial board should urge President Bush to grant Colombians political asylum in the United States. The issue is clear: the U.S. funds the war in Colombia and the people deserve relief.

To back up my idea I start making phone calls and I quickly learn that people will talk to me. The words “New York Times,” in fact, produce the most spectacular effects on people. Local advocates return my calls with eager voices. Government spokespeople chat me up with fake smiles. A number of people bristle at the name; others ask to have lunch with me. Me. An intern.

By the time I call an advocate at Human Rights Watch that summer, I am brimming with the confidence of the arrogant. I announce that I’m phoning from the Times but when I pause for effect, the woman snaps, “Which Times?”

I bite my lip, sure this woman has, with female intuition alone, figured out that I’m only a summer intern. “The New York Times,” I answer doing my best to control the pitch of my voice.

“If you don’t say that I can’t possibly know,” the woman answers, adding that there is the L.A. Times and Time magazine. But I hear it in her voice. The nervous laugh. The slight faltering, the retreating.

The paper, I begin to learn, is not a series of pages bound together. It’s not even the people themselves, the ones sitting at the conference table three times a week or the ones reporting the news. It’s something else, an idea that produces tension in people or flattery. It has the power to agitate people. It’s kind of like God but not in the way I expected. It doesn’t feel good.

The other discovery I make is about white people.

One of the editors, a skinny man who I’ll call Mr. Flaco, listens to my initial idea for an editorial about granting Colombians asylum. “Why Colombians and not another group of people?” he asks, smiling, patronizingly. “If you open the door for them, do you open the door to every other country with internal conflicts?”

Mr. Flaco’s questions are good ones, rational ones, but they also feel odd somehow—the proverbial shoe that doesn’t fit. I mull them over for the rest of the day. I board the bus for Jersey still thinking about his questions and the feeling that something is not quite right.

In Jersey, I step off the bus a few feet from the Greek deli and Chinese restaurant. The street is littered with candy wrappers, the trash bin filled to capacity with soda cans. I walk past the long line at the bus stop, wondering who there is a salvadoreaño with political asylum and who is Honduran and Guatemalan. They wear, all of them, jeans and jackets and baseball caps. They’re waiting for the 165, the 166, transfer tickets and bus passes in hand.

Do you open the door to every other country with internal conflicts?

It falls into place somewhere in me. It’s true that Colombians are not the only ones in need of asylum. It is every group from practically every country where the United States and Europe have at some point staked a claim on land. From the perspective of here, which is to say from the perspective of the United States, of this skinny editor, of people who have power, Colombia is not as devastated as Rwanda or even as Salvador was in the eighties.

Colombians are suffering, yes, but not as much.

There is a hierarchy of pain and it is no longer confined to the pages of my books about political theory. It is here in Mr. Flaco. Pain in and of itself is not enough. It matters how many are dead, how many wounded, over what period of time, how much public outrage there is in the West. The pain has to be significant in relationship to those in power.

Realizing this doesn’t depress me or even bother me. I actually call one of my closest friends radiant to report this discovery because it does feel that way, like a discovery, like I have entered the collective mind of white people with political power everywhere and managed to see one of the strange rituals by which they reproduce.

This, I can only imagine, is how Darwin must have felt.

I call Keely, who is herself white but a lesbian and liberal. It’s not that they’re bad people or even weird, I tell her about Mr. Flaco, about all white people. I’m talking now as fast as I can. “They are just seeing everything in relationship to the power they have. They’re afraid to lose what they have.” By contrast, we (here I mean my family and the men at the bus stop), we are free to make demands, to share outrage, to know solidarity.

I pause to catch my breath and find that Keely is not as impressed with my discovery as I am. But I don’t care. The world looks different to me now, rocks back and forth in all its strangeness.

~

Because it’s the beginning of summer, NPR has an obligatory story about how more girls are going to tanning salons. I listen to this while lying in bed next to my girlfriend, who frequents these salons. Biracial, Cristina is a little sensitive about not looking Latina enough. She once put her arm against mine and declared, “I’m darker than you.”

With my idea for getting Colombians political asylum stalled, I suggest writing on the evils of tanning. Mr. Flaco loves it. Of course he does. White men can always be counted on to agree that girls do crazy things in the name of beauty and that they need to be chastised. Who better than to scold teenage girls than a young woman herself?

I put these thoughts aside and sit at my computer monitor in my office on the tenth floor writing the best little opinion piece I can muster. Although the topic is one that slightly depresses me (I could be writing about the impact of the civil war in Colombia!), I nevertheless find myself humming and tapping away at the keyboard, having the experience that comes whenever I write: a rush of joy through my body. I feel energized, happy, strong even.

At the end of the day, I get on the elevator exhausted, my face slightly flushed. I am living a life I could never have imagined, even if it is just about sun tans.

~

At the Times, people spend their days writing and then get paid every two weeks. It happens even if you disagree with Mr. Flaco or if you write a bad piece that needs tons of editing. You still get paid.

So convinced that this life can’t be mine, I insist on taking my intern paycheck to the bank every two weeks and cashing it. Each time the black teller hands me the stack of hundred dollar bills, I feel that I am real and this is really happening to me.

It is a lesson I learned from my mother.

On Fridays, if she had been paid at the factory, my tía would take my sister and me to meet my mother at the bank where she would be waiting on line with a check, that precious slip of paper in her hand. She would take the money from the bank teller in one swift move as if someone was going to steal it from her and then she would move over to the side and count the bills, slipping them into a small envelope the way she would place a pillow in a pillow case. Those dollars were freedom. We could afford an evening meal at McDonald’s.

Although I can now afford a navy suit and a briefcase, I refuse to spend the money. Without knowing it, I am hoarding. I don’t believe this is going to last so I need to keep every penny for when I wake up from the dream.

~

Several times a month, people visit the editorial board. Sometimes they are invited; sometimes they have lobbied to meet with the board. Sometimes it’s the person’s chance to talk about their issue; sometimes it’s the board members who have asked to hear their perspective.

Cookies and coffee are served and we show up with notepads and pens. If it’s an extremely important person like the head of the FBI or an academic who wrote a new book about the economy, lunch is served.

It is during one of these visits that I find myself meeting Mr. Alvaro Uribe.

For months now my mother’s kitchen has been plagued with Mr. Uribe’s name. Colombians in Jersey and Queens and Florida and other areas of the diaspora were able to vote for him in the presidential election and my aunties have been anxious. Will Mr. Uribe be able to do anything, however small, to end the civil war that’s plagued Colombia since the sixties? The answer, of course, is no. It takes a movement of people to end violence, not a lone man, but people being people and aunties being aunties, they fantasize about being rescued.

Mr. Uribe comes from a wealthy family. Young and educated at Harvard and Oxford, he’s promising to be Colombia’s Rudy Giuliani. He is vowing law and order in a country known for drug cartels, magical realism, and the kidnapping of gringos. His own father was killed by the so-called rebel groups who are now better described as drug traffickers and Mr. Uribe is rumored to have ties to the paramilitaries, the privately funded armies who massacre civilians.

But in the editorial conference room on the tenth floor, Mr. Uribe hardly looks like someone privy to murders. He could be one of my uncles, a small man stuffed into a suit and not permitted, for the moment, to drink whiskey or curse in front of company. He proclaims that the coffee is not very good and then he makes a little speech about his Giuliani-style plan and takes questions. It dawns on me that he is here because he has to be like when my mother and tías would force me to leave the books in my bedroom and meet their friends in the kitchen.

“Many Colombians in the States are hoping for temporary protection status,” I note. “Will you take up that issue?”

“They voted for me so I have to ask for it.” His lips curve into a small sneer.

Later in the day, it occurs to me that for the first time I met someone who may be responsible for the murders of many people and I asked him a polite question.

~

It is a custom in Latino families like mine that you live at home until you marry. Even if you go away to college, which I didn’t, you still come home when you are done.

I have already broken this rule once, going to live with a boyfriend at nineteen. But the moment the relationship failed, about a year later, I returned home. Now at twenty-seven, I am ready to leave. This time permanently. I just have to deliver the news.

In the kitchen, my parents and tía are watching the noticias. It is evening and everyone is done with dinner. My father is drinking his beer. The window shades are still drawn and the world outside is dark. The voices of children playing in yards and on the streets come up to our windows in bursts of little firecrackers.

“I’m going to live in the city,” I announce.

Everyone turns their heads toward me. No one speaks. Then my father looks back at the television and my mother and auntie do the same. I wait for some questions but they don’t come. Not then. They come the next day and the one after that: Is it a safe place? Are you sure? You’ll be closer to work, yes, but…

They want to argue with me but they can’t. I have married the best man I could possibly find—the New York Times—and we all know it.

My mother and tía go with me to buy spoons and forks, a Brita water filter and curtains with flowers. They help me set up the apartment, a tiny studio on the Upper East Side that’s about the size of the bedroom I shared with my sister growing up in Jersey. When they leave, I am left with myself in a way that feels new. I am on my own for the first time in my life. My very own place. I have the sensation of having escaped a burning building. I have a job. A good job. And my own illegal sublet. I am paying my rent and groceries and not doing it by working at a factory or cleaning toilets.

~

The New York Times building has windows like a cathedral’s: tall, large, indulgent with how much sunlight they permit indoors. I walk up to the fourteenth floor one afternoon and stare out a closed window, mesmerized that Manhattan can actually be reduced to a miniature city, that the millions of feet and voices cannot be seen or heard from here but are nevertheless in perpetual motion.

I love the quiet here, the space to contemplate how quickly perspective can be changed, to wonder how a man like Uribe who loses his father makes peace with grief, to think about what a man on the editorial board said to me: “I bet no one else has written for this editorial page whose parents didn’t speak English.”

In a few weeks’ time it will be the first anniversary of Sept. 11 and with it will come the rush of memory, of women and men who—hundreds of feet above the city—stepped into the sky that morning to escape the heat and the twisting metal and the violence of not choosing their last moments.

But before the anniversary, about two weeks before, a white man from the Times, a business editor, will look out a window like this one. He will be up one more flight of stairs and maybe he will wonder about the sky and the city and perspective. Or maybe not. The pain by then will be squeezing at him too much. He will prop open the window, place his face to the city air, and step into the sky himself.

~

Mr. Flaco is curious to hear what I might want to write about a new report showing that boys are being left behind in education. Nervous, I stumble through my pitch about how it’s not all boys. It is black boys and teenagers. “Racism,” I begin, “has, you know, shaped the expectations the kids have of themselves and that teachers have of them.”

“What’s going to be your recommendation?” he asks, a smile at his lips. “Tell teachers to raise their self esteem?”

I force a smile and stare at the carpet. He continues.

“What’s remarkable is that when you look across socioeconomic levels, black boys consistently do badly in school. It doesn’t matter if they are living in Westchester or Harlem.”

The air around me grows thin, choking.

“By comparison,” he says, “Chinese kids do well in school even when they just got here yesterday.” He chuckles. He grins. “It’s like it’s genetic.”

I glance at him to make sure he is really here in the room with me, that he has actually said those words. I don’t expect to see the smiling face of the skinny man I have known for two months. Surely his words have distorted him, have made him into something ugly and horrible, a monster.

But no such thing has happened. He is still the same man with the skinny face and a high-up job at an important institution. A Mr. Uribe. He smiles at me.

~

In Times Square, the taxis blare, the trucks screech, the tourists squeal and position themselves for photos. It’s August and the air is thick with humidity and the grease of hotdogs being sold by street vendors. I stare at the crowds of tourists pointing their cameras at each other and then up at the billboards. They have come from all parts of the country and the world to be here under these towering ads and bright lights, and as I watch them I begin to consider that maybe I don’t want to be here.

It’s not because of Mr. Flaco the Racist. Or Mr. Uribe the Killer.

It’s not about them as individuals. It’s about…here my mind pauses. The streets vibrate with people, too many people, and the billboards tower over us with white faces, white smiles, white summer cotton, and I find that I don’t have the words. All I know is that as much as I want to leave, I can’t.

This is my big opportunity, the moment I have been preparing for my whole life. People like me, from the community I come from, we don’t just get to work at the New York Times. Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King Jr. stood up, and my parents paid for Catholic high school so I could be here. Whatever I do, I can’t say no. I have to say yes, yes, and yes again.

When Gail asks if I want to pursue this journalism business, I say yes and I find myself with a year-long internship on the third floor reporting for the metro desk.

~

Newsrooms are set up like mazes.

It is an endless series of desks and television screens and everywhere you turn is another white man. You are meant to be the intern who gets lost and can’t find the elevators, or at least I am. Looking out across the third floor, I see only receding hairlines, white foreheads and bushy eyebrows. Somewhere in that I am supposed to find an editor with a name like Bob or Jennifer. Locating my new desk amid the clacking of keyboards and droning of television news, becomes my accomplishment that first week.

It doesn’t take long though to see that I am missing a crucial asset: a talent for talking to white men.

I have a good deal of experience with white women. I learned their mannerisms right alongside lessons in English, algebra, and chemistry. If I count my entire schooling starting with kindergarten, that’s nineteen years of studying white women. It’s easy now to make small talk with them. I nod sympathetically about children, inquire about their favorite movies, commiserate about the morning commute.

But white men are different.

After two weeks in the newsroom, I see that talking to white men boils down to a crude combination of cracking jokes about children and the morning commute, referring to sports teams and events at random, and imparting snide comments about this book or that article. It is especially impressive if you can comment on something buried deep in a news story since everyone knows that no one actually reads the story to the end. Talking to white men then has a pattern, a set of rules, but try as I might, I can’t learn it. My mind blanks when they joke with me. I find myself nodding, forcing a smile and looking the other way, hoping they will leave me alone.

What’s worse is that I have absolute no instinct for reporting. None.

“Here’s a news release,” an editor tells me. “I need copy by three.”

I nod, sit at my computer, and look at the paper. Something about a food-borne illness. I stare at the words and wonder what I’m supposed to do.

Writing an opinion, even a stiff editorial, comes easily to me. My mind immediately reaches for questions, important points, people to interview. But reporting produces in me a condition akin to stage fright. My body freezes, my mind stares at a blank white wall. Even though I’m doing exactly what I would do on the tenth floor with the editorial department, here on the third floor without the option of forming an opinion, I have to remind myself of what to do: make calls, summarize, send to editor, wait.

After that first story, I’m sent to get quotes from people on the street about an increase in subway fares. Then, I’m sent to get quotes from people on the street about the mayor’s new idea to ban loud noises. Then, I’m sent to Brooklyn where a fire has killed a black child. Then, the governor’s going to show up at a Latino event and I’m sent to get a reaction. Eight hours become ten, eleven, twelve. The copyeditors call at seven, eight, even nine at night.

In the morning, I board the subway exhausted. I spot that day’s paper in someone’s hands. A small thrill comes into my heart. Someone is about to read one of my stories. But the woman scans the headlines, flips the pages, and then folds the paper and puts it in her bag.

That’s it. Twelve hours of work—by hundreds of reporters, stringers, editors, copyeditors, designers, and delivery men—were considered for a total of five seconds by a white woman on the number 6 train.

I meet humility for the first time and I hate it.

~

One of the young reporters at the paper decides that we need to meet with veteran reporters for informal conversations about the trade. This is her code for “I’m trying to move up in the paper,” and the rest of us agree that it’s a good idea. Someone from the powers-that-be at the paper says we can meet on the fourteenth floor where the big private events happen.

I arrive early. I want to enjoy the quiet here, the cathedral windows, the sense that the city and even the newsroom with its ringing phones and chatty television screens are at a distance.

The veteran reporter steps into the room. He’s an older man with a kind voice and gentle smile. We say hello but then his eyebrows furrow. He’s staring at a door off to the side of the room. “Is the stairwell through there?” he asks.

“I think so.”

He’s lost now in his own world as he walks over and props the door open. I follow him. In the stairwell, he pauses at one of the windows, mentions the editor, the white man who killed himself, and grows silent.

The window here is dusty, viejo, and yet a golden light filters through the pane. It’s late in the afternoon and the light bathes the parapets of the building, the stairwell, and even, I suppose, the place where the man met his final moment. The older reporter stares out the window, inspects the window frame, sighs deeply, and I begin to understand that I believed the TV shows I watched as a child. I believed bad things didn’t happen to white people, not in places like this. But now here is the window, the man grieving, the light golden and punishing.

~

While I’m reporting for the Times, my father is spending his days in the basement where he’s made a little home for himself apart from the family. He has his beer, his radio, even a mattress so he can take naps. He has set up a shower for himself.

Somewhere in this basement are letters from Cuba, probably still tucked in their envelopes with murmurs from relatives of how difficult things are there, of what size shoe so-and-so needs and the prescription for someone’s glasses. Here too in cardboard boxes are the orishas hidden. My father does his praying here in the basement and his drinking too. At night, he joins my mother upstairs for the evening news and dinner.

I am afraid of finding him dead in the basement one day.

Already, the basement has been the site of accidents. It is here that too drunk to stand up, my father fell and cut his head open and we had to rush him to the emergency room. But there is no use trying to get him out of the basement. It is a blessing that he leaves it for visits to have Doctor Goldstein check his blood pressure.

During one such visit, my father asks me about the New York Times, how I am doing. I brave a moment of intimacy, confiding that I am not enjoying the work. He stays quiet and looks at the gray floor. He’s sitting on the exam table, dressed in his usual dark jeans, construction boots and flannel button down shirt over a white Hanes T-shirt. I am sitting in the chair reserved for parents or partners and I figure Papi is not going to say more. He’s a man of few words. But just then he says, “¿Tu piensas que a mi me gusta mi trabajo? A mi no me gusta mi trabajo. Tu mama tampoco.”

That is what I record in my journal that night: “Do you think I like my work? I don’t like my work. Your mother doesn’t like hers either.”

When Dr. Goldstein comes in, I begin moving back and forth between Spanish and English admonishments: stop drinking, stop smoking, eat more vegetables, more fruits, like maybe oranges.

“Oranges?” my father exclaims in Spanish. “No, that’s all I ate in Cuba, only oranges. No oranges.”

The doctor and I look at each other. After so many years of working in our community, Doctor Goldstein knows like I do that there’s no use in arguing against memory.

Neither do I disagree with my father about whether or not a person should have work they enjoy. But the next morning, I notice I have a hard time getting out of bed. Not an impossible time. Just a heaviness about me, as if the air itself were an open hand holding me down.

~

It’s a cool night in November and I’m walking on the Upper East Side, past doormen and women in three-inch heels hailing cabs and men in their fifties walking dogs the size of pillowcases. I am, as usual, lost in my inner world. I am contemplating a conversation or rewriting an article or wondering about the origin of three-inch heels. I am acutely aware of the streets in Manhattan, of the way darkness never wins here, not even at night, but is always kept at bay by street lamps and the bobbing headlights of taxis and limos and buses. The city is a blitz of lights and sounds and smells but I have learned to shut it out, to be in my own quiet place.

Tonight, however, is different.

Tonight, I turn a corner and the city yanks me from my inner world in one swift moment. Fifty feet up in the air is Kermit the Frog and Charlie Brown and Barney and Dora the Explorer, their bellies nearly touching the top of the street lamps, their fingers reaching to tap the windows of high rise buildings, their inflated balloon bodies covering the stretch of the Manhattan street.

It’s the night before Thanksgiving Day and the balloons are being prepared for their annual walk in the Macy’s parade. It’s the sort of the thing that can only happen in New York, not the balloons but finding them around the corner, the way they make even this city feel small, insignificant. It feels magical, bizarre too, how the world can contain all of this, the plastic smile of a green frog, the memories and the oranges, the dead white man.

~

Editors were invented for several reasons, one of which is to torture interns.

It’s a metro editor who decides that interns will spend time on the police beat helping to cover New York City’s homicides, rapes, and robberies. The work mostly involves chatting with white police officers in charge of information they won’t give you unless the two of you get along and they consider you something of a person they’d want to have a beer with. To say that I’m terrible at this would be putting it kindly.

The rest of the work, at least for me, involves watching a veteran reporter with reddish curls call the families of crime victims and say in a mournful tone, “I’m sorry for your loss. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”

I stare at him the first few times, and when it’s no longer polite to stare, I pretend to read online while listening to him. He sounds genuine and compassionate during every phone call. He modulates the tone of his voice and I note how his English is comforting the way a hand-rolled cigar feels, as if the earth has been gathered up, made compact, held steady. His voice reaches out to the other person, yes, but it also allows for mutual silence and then directs back to the questions, the information that’s needed, the interview.

Then, the call is over, the moment has passed, and he’s on to other calls, detectives, cops, higher ups, and he’s issuing orders because another paper caught a piece of information we didn’t, and I’m off to the Bronx for a story about a young man named Buddha who killed a boy on the twelfth floor of an apartment building.

The hierarchy of pain has nuances.

Buddha’s killing and his arrest are a story because the victim was a child. If the child had been a few years older, if he had been not a child but instead a young black man, the editor would have said, “Victim and perp knew each other,” which is the preferred way to explain that black men killing each other is not news.

But Buddha murdered a child and he did so three days after Christmas, on a day when the news was slow.

He’s in jail. Buddha. It’s his mother I am after. Me and reporters and stringers for local newspapers. I interview the neighbors, note the holiday decorations (Peace and Joy), listen to the speculations. The district attorney’s office will verify that the young man was called Buddha because he was tall and fat, that three days after Christmas, Buddha was bruised, not his body, but somewhere else. His heart or his ego. Another man, another tall, fat black man, had teased Buddha. Words were thrust back and forth between them, threatened to erupt into fists, into gunshots, but the women stepped in. The girlfriends. And the air grew if not calm then at least hesitant.

It didn’t last. The hesitancy.

Buddha followed him, not the tall, fat man, but the man’s little cousin, thirteen-year-old Brandon. In an elevator, Buddha towered over the youngster, and while boasting of how he planned to hurt the other man, his mirror image, Buddha thrust little Brandon against the wall of the elevator and shot him in the head.

The elevator reached the twelfth floor. It was after midnight. The door must have opened then, mechanically, indifferent.

Now the elevator door creaks open and Buddha’s mother steps into the narrow hallway. She’s pushing a shopping cart off the elevator. It has two six packs of beer. She refuses to talk to us as she opens the door to her apartment. She’s a heavy black woman with colorless eyes and deep lines set in her face and my first thought is that no one is going to tell her story, the story of how she probably falls asleep at night in front of the television with a can of beer still open, just like my father, how she raised a family here so many hundreds of feet above the Bronx, how she mothered a boy nicknamed Buddha. I wonder what stories she tells herself.

There are also the other stories, the ones about how these neighborhoods were set up, how white men decided where black families should live, how it came to be that Buddha grew up in a place where you carry a gun to come and go from home and kill a boy who looks like a younger version of yourself.

I don’t have words for these other stories, just the feeling of them inside of me like pebbles piled at the corner of a child’s desk.

~

There must have been more than one. I can’t remember the other one, but there must have been at least one other black reporter in the newsroom at the New York Times besides Jayson Blair. When I think back to that time though, to the spring of 2003, I can only see Jayson.

He had been an intern once like me. Now, he is writing front page stories for the paper. Stories about war veterans from Iraq. I haven’t figured out if he’s quiet and withdrawn because he’s brilliant or if something is wrong with him. The fact that he wears long sweaters instead of shirts and ties unsettles me. It isn’t the sort of thing a white man would do, let alone a young black man. I keep wanting to tuck his shirt in. I tease him once or twice about being short. He’s polite but clearly not humored and I leave him alone.

It turns out though that he has good reason to keep to himself. Jayson is drinking, lying, and plagiarizing his stories. Front page stories.

“Did you hear?” another intern asks me.

I nod. “Crazy.” I figure the paper will run an apology and move on.

But there isn’t an apology. The story unravels. The anxieties of white people, the ones kept behind private doors, burst and the other newspapers report them: Jayson only got as far as he did because he’s black. A fellow intern comes up to me, irritated. “Why are people thinking it’s okay to say racist shit in front of me?”

She’s holding a cup of coffee. We both glance across the newsroom, across the cubicles, the tops of people’s heads. I have no way, none really, of knowing who in the room is a Mr. Flaco, and this is part of the agreement I made by working here, that people of color make over and over again when they enter PWIs (predominantly white institutions). We don’t know who in the room is an idiot. We don’t know who harbors doubts about our capacity to think and work and write.

Jayson, meanwhile, is rumored to be shut away in his apartment, and as a friend of mine puts it, the white people do what they always do when they get nervous. They call a meeting.

~

The meeting is held on 44th Street, in a theater. I get in line along with hundreds of white reporters and administrative staff and editors. The executive editor and managing editor and publisher sit before us on a stage. They’re going to explain what happened.

Sort of.

There isn’t an easy way to explain that someone who was mentally unstable managed to get a job at the world’s most recognized newspaper and snuck lies past more than one or two or even three editors. I sit in the audience and inspect my identification card. I don’t like sports where a person is put in a ring to be beat up. Besides no one is going to talk about race. Not in an honest way.

But I’m wrong.

The executive editor has the mic. He’s from the South, he reminds us, a place where a man has to choose where he stands on race. “Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama with those convictions, gave him one chance too many….”

I wince and I pray that he won’t go there. I pray that he won’t go there because if he does it will not be pretty. It will not be understood by the hundreds of white people in the theater.

But he goes there.

Did he, as a white man from Alabama, give a young black man too many chances?

“When I look into my own heart for the truth of that,” he says, “the answer is yes.”

I walk out of the theater.

~

It’s been eight years since that day in the theater and I’m thinking again about the hierarchy of pain, about a white man admitting to his own people that he cared about the black community, that he thought he could single-handedly change a hierarchy. I’m thinking about the whiteness of the news organization and how that whiteness reproduced itself with every hire, every promotion, but how that is not a scandal.

He left, the editor. He was fired and the metro editor—a white man who once told me that community-based organizations, the ones helping poor people of color, were no longer relevant—was hailed as a savior because he had tried to stop Jayson from writing for the paper.

~

A week or so after the theater meeting, I meet the Jourdans.

The Jourdans are Haitians. They came to New York City one by one over the course of thirty years: Patrick, Paul, Cosner. They knew that life would be easier the closer they lived to white Americans. They earned their money; they sent it back home. They brought another brother, a sister and a young cousin. Together, some of them with spouses, they shared the basement apartment and second floor of a two story home in Brooklyn.

They learned to have familial love by telephone calls. Like my aunties, they probably bought the wallet-size phone cards and used pennies to scratch the personal identification numbers. The Jourdans probably called the 1-800 number and an automated woman’s voice asked them for the PIN and then told them how much money they had to call Aquin, their home town, how much time they had with the people they loved.

Maybe that’s what Cosner Jourdan did on Saturdays. He walked the neighborhood most days, making friends and talking. At sixty-six, he had diabetes and had retired from factory work. He had been in Brooklyn for ten years and he took care of two trees outside of his basement apartment. He had friends, people who loved him. Cosner was a hero of the everyday variety.

On the night of May 29, 2003, however, a fire breaks out around three in the morning. It rips through the basement apartment. The smoke spreads to the other floors and the brothers, their spouses, sister and young cousin flee to the streets. But not Cosner. He dies in the basement from smoke inhalation.

Because his death happens on a day when the news is slow, the story catches the attention of my editor and I am sent there along with reporters from other papers. We all scribble the pertinent facts: Cosner’s age, the names of the brothers, the cause of death. The other reporters leave the scene in a matter of minutes having deduced that there is no news. I see the same thing but something keeps me in place.

Perhaps it is the basement.

Layers of soot cover the basement, including a bicycle and shopping cart. Hours after the fire, it feels uncomfortable to breathe inside the building. I sit with the Jourdan brothers on the front stoop as friends and neighbors come by. They speak in Creole about the night and Cosner’s death. I listen mostly. I ask a few questions from time to time. I watch the sadness on the faces of Cosner’s brothers and the people who loved him.

The day is hot; sweat coats my back and drenches my button down shirt. In his last moments, did Cosner dream of his father, of his homeland? Did he wake up and think it was his father’s birthday that day, that the old man was turning ninety-eight and what would he say when he received the news? His son dead.

~

Remembering now that day with the Jourdans, I think: we were not meant to be here. We were not meant to die underground engulfed in smoke. Not Cosner, not any of us. The death of a Haitian man is not some accident in the middle of the night but that is how it is reported. It’s how I reported it.

I wish I had saved my reporting notes from that day, but I threw them out. I discarded them because it was perhaps that day sitting in the thick heat of a Brooklyn summer with the Jourdans that I began to feel a cracking inside of me.

I had first read that word “cracking” in an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay called “Crack-Up.” I didn’t know much about his writing, only that he had become a writer and earned a lot of money and did not live in basements. Everyone had told me as a child that I would be like Fitzgerald one day without the booze and early death. I would do more with my life than work to pay the rent. I would write and in writing I would help people.

But sitting in Brooklyn surrounded by the somber faces of Haitian men and the smell of soot, it begins to seem that things are not going to turn out as people said they would, as my parents hoped for, as I wanted. At least not at this newspaper, not now. I need time away to find words for what I am seeing, for the grief and the killings, for the whiteness of the third floor and the tenth, even for the people who wake up each day and help to keep a hierarchy in place because they are afraid.

~

The bravest thing a woman can say is “I don’t know.” That’s my answer when my family asks what I am going to do with my life if I am leaving the New York Times.

I don’t know.

They give me blank faces and some of my friends give me sympathetic looks the way you do when someone is about to file for divorce and you really liked both people in the marriage and you feel sad and wonder what it says about life that two good people couldn’t make it work. I force myself to smile, eat dark chocolate, and say, I don’t know.

~

My last months at the newspaper are a blur of reporting and long hours. When a blackout hits that August, the city is without cell phones or computers or subways and Manhattan turns into a small town. People start walking home. They laugh and curse and eat ice cream at the deli before it melts and I interview people at the Lincoln Tunnel trying to get rides to New Jersey. An old man hollers, “East Orange! South Orange! Any Orange!”

I find myself smiling. Maybe it’s perfectly acceptable to not know what’s going to happen next in life. I walk back to the office in Times Square, where editors are frantically shouting into phones and I file my story on the man and the oranges. It’s after eight or nine when I start the walk home to my little studio on the Upper East Side.

Times Square is silent. It’s not an absence of sound but of color, of lights. The darkened billboards loom like empty picture frames. I squint my eyes to adjust to the dark. At Grand Central Station, I can barely make out the grown men in suits stretched out on the sidewalk, their heads on their brief cases, fast asleep, because they can’t get trains home tonight. The only lights are from the taxis, from the city buses which groan past me, their doors open, people teetering from the steps.

There is comfort in walking through Manhattan when it has been flung into darkness. There is humility, some brief quietness, and I find that I am not afraid or confused or maybe it’s just that when those feelings rise up, I am focused on my feet, on where the sidewalk ends and where it begins and on the headlights of the buses which help me make out the street signs and find my way home.

 


As in the best creative nonfiction, the author of “Blackout” casts an unwavering eye on personal experience, and, by doing so, comments on a wider world – in this case that of racial politics. This essay never preaches; instead, it reveals its universal message metaphorically and, by the end, with grace.
—Sue William Silverman, 2011 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge


I Got So Much Love, I Don’t Know Where to Put it

David LeGault

Taken from the ancient city of Pompeii

(In the basilica): Let everyone one in love come and see.  I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins.  If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?—Anonymous

 (On the walls of a tomb): Greetings to Primigenia of Nuceria.  I would wish to become a signet ring for no more than an hour, so that I might give you kisses dispatched with your signature.—Anonymous

(House of Orpheus): I have buggered men—Anonymous

~

My name is written on a bathroom wall at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. I put it there. The words appear in blue highlighter (earlier attempts with a ballpoint pen were unsuccessful, the numbers and images wouldn’t take to the surface, not to mention the thinness of the marking, the lack of visibility). The image is the focal point of the otherwise unmarked wall—this stain, this unauthorized addition, commanding attention among the Muzak piped in through the speakers in the ceiling, the immaculate tile and faux-gold fixtures.

My name is written on a bathroom wall at an Oasis rest stop: highway overpass turned Mecca of convenience, souvenirs, greasy food: a necessary break from traffic, a place to stretch your legs while standing over eight lanes of interstate, spreading and distributing its passengers into the tributaries of suburbs across northern Illinois. The stall is constructed in metal sheets overlaid with a diamond pattern, making writing next to impossible, meticulously designed to obstruct this type of behavior. I keep at it long enough to make the words stick. It is beautiful: the reflective material holding the ghost of color; my design taking on the criss-cross characteristics of the uneven terrain, words illegible against the stainless steel finish.

My name is written in black, though sometimes green, sometimes both. Wherever I go I leave a trace: an image, a casual obscenity, a message to anyone. Lately, I’ve been fighting the desire to get increasingly personal, to write my email, my phone number, my home address.

~

I am collecting photos of my favorite latrinalia. The term, a shorthand for the study of graffiti etched onto bathroom walls, was coined by folklorist Allen Dundes when shithouse poetry didn’t quite encompass the content outside of verse or poetic form. The best among them are pre-meditated works: the type where the stall occupant has the foresight to bring a marker or other device, puts the necessary time into thought and composition. Think of the elaborate drawings that must have taken minutes to create: I’ve encountered intricate murals throughout the art buildings at the university I attend, Melville quotes next to Afroman lyrics in the English department restroom, the compulsion to draw or compose or argue politics unchanged as I venture across the campus and disciplines. Some phrases are written on the stall door or high on the wall: content not created while the creator is using the restroom, but composed before or after or even without ever using the facilities. Consider location, the increasing risk of being caught in the act: words above open area urinals or sinks, places where the writer could easily be spotted. Consider instrument: those among us who don’t have a writing utensil but actually scratch their words into paint. Such a serious commitment to the written word—even if the word is a poorly etched “SHIT” where the rounded curves of the S are constructed in straight lines and corners.

I usually stick to text: revision work or quotations from books or poems. Occasionally I go for anthropomorphization: a door handle mouth, a coat hanger turned into the nose of a poorly drawn face. If I do draw, it consists of a single image, the only thing I’m capable of sketching with any real consistency: the image of a cartoon snail. I’m trying to place it everywhere, hoping others pick up the design and begin using it themselves.

There’s value in these images and words, and in the unknown writers who make them. I get the feeling that these writers, like the art they are creating, have little chance of gaining any real recognition.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a case of famous latrinalia. Other than the “Here I Sit” variations, there isn’t a singular symbol for the genre, no Kilroy appearing inside countless airplane fuselages, no iconic Banksy and his more accepted street graffiti. Street grafitti brings up a different set of emotions because of its connection to gang territory and the defilement of larger, more communal spaces. Reactions are more forceful when the vandalism can be shared with a large number of people, when outrage or admiration can be accumulated into some kind of action: anti-graffiti alliances or a neighborhood watch, the ban on spray paint sales to minors that was easily circumvented in my teenage years.

But when the same image or message is encountered in the bathroom, in a brief moment of privacy in public, during the loneliness that comes when we’re most vulnerable, there’s no outlet for expressing disgust or amazement. Instead, your thoughts and responses resonate in the mind; the ideas are given a more serious consideration, a mounting head of steam. Or you release it: take to the wall, revise or augment, the art becoming communal—a vandalism of a vandalism. You are drawn into this pre-wiki conversation. What other writing has this kind of power?

~

In Dundes’ article, “Here I Sit—A Study of American Latrinalia,” he puzzles his way through the psychological motivations that could explain the craft: the author’s desire to participate in the taboo, both in the act of vandalism and the messages themselves, which often include subversive language or reference subversive acts. As the article progresses Dundes gets increasingly Freudian, suggesting a primitive smearing impulse from our anal psychosexual stages, meaning that we are losing filth and therefore must create our own to sustain homeostasis; that, in the case of men, there is an ever-increasing pregnancy envy, that our inability to produce life drives our masculine desires to always be producing, creating legacy, writing or drawing something that allows us to leave our mark or stain upon the world.

We want a space that appears to be clean, that we can pretend has not been used before. We like hygiene, cleanliness. But latrinalia reminds us that someone else has put this space to use in a way we don’t often discuss. It creates a trace of use, a history, a new space for publication and expression. It creates a space where we may never be alone, where our companions are unknowable.

A study of restrooms at an unnamed west coast university concludes that the main themes of latrinalia are sex, relationships and drugs.  More often than not the writing comes across as angry, confrontational. We know that thousands of people out there are so desperate to let out some kind of thought they must scrawl it on the side of a bathroom stall. Location matters, particularly to this kind of writing: the stall minimizes the risk of getting caught, a rare instance of public privacy, a crime that can be safely committed and widely noticed, which is to say that it’s pretty fucking great. Names are sometimes attached, taking away from the anonymity, the classic “X Wuz Here,” though there’s no possible way of knowing that X actually wrote anything. The anonymity of the act means it cannot be trusted and is therefore liberating. There’s no baggage connected to the work, no history or biography outside of what appears on the wall, no fact checking or calls for a second draft. The absence of authorship makes it democratic, somehow less offensive than it would be in a more public context. You can (and I would argue, should) write anything here.

~

My name is written on the walls of a Caribou Coffee, on the walls of a hundred coffee shops across the Midwest. All lined in tile—the smell of antiseptic cleaner, of roasted grounds.

~

I spent a significant amount of last summer writing researched articles on cosmetics and skin disease. Each article was written with a contractually obligated inviting tone, with clear and casual language that can be easily understood in a single reading, with sentences that are not overly long or riddled with clauses or unusual punctuation. These articles—the product of most of my writing time and creative energies—do not bear my name, nor the names of my fellow writers on the project, but are ascribed to a person who does not exist.

Ghostwriting requires a skewed sense of authorship. It allows us to disconnect from the words we compose, to attribute them to someone else, to no longer worry how the work reflects on us as authors or people. While David LeGault may know nothing about scabies, my alias John Barrymore certainly does.  In my case, the job allowed me certain liberties that I don’t encounter in my creative work: a disregard for the beauty of language and sentence structure, a specific set of topics and talking points to explore in a paint-by-numbers template, an editor to take care of the grammatical pitfalls I so often fall into. It was publication without pressure, a fictional persona inserted into the nonfiction form. What’s not to love?

Most writers I’ve questioned disdain the form: they say that authors writing trashy romance novels under pseudonyms lack integrity, that celebrity memoirs aren’t written so much as dictated. They don’t like that mediocre writing can gain more attention or acclaim based on a well-known “author’s” name. They don’t want to read three new Danielle Steele novels every year; they’d rather read a Tom Clancy novel than a novel from “Tom Clancy’s” series.

But I believe there’s more to it than that. Ghostwriting strikes at the author’s deepest insecurities: the writer feels threatened because it’s clear that what we believe to be a unique style or voice can easily be faked or emulated. That a good deal of writing can be broken down into formulaic patterns of sentence structure and organization. That, just maybe, our words are not as profound as we had hoped.

~

My name is written in the Masonic temple in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Such storied history, such lovely architecture! O, what it means to take my place in this impressive structure, this inner most sanctum!

~

Or maybe this is another case of me making everything about words and their necessary weight, me spending too much time thinking about nonfiction, its implications of truth and infallibility. Because all stories, even those based on fact, are sliced and shaped and structured out of the greater whole of reality. More simply, we live in a world made out of more than words, so how could words possibly represent its entirety? Heat can be described, but not felt, not on the page. A description puts an image in the mind, one that may even move and inspire, but it’s still an image, a reality that does not exist outside of the self. At best, our literature is a chipped-away imitation of the truth, a vandalism of sorts.

So when someone writes “I’m Gay!” on a wall, and another hand writes “Me too!” underneath it, can I believe these words, the world they inhabit? May I call this memoir? Fiction? Does it even matter?

All writing, especially nonfiction, calls to mind the avatar: a character representation, a constructed persona that (sometimes) approaches truth. It’s liberating, really, to understand there’s no way to represent every thought or memory. I can’t even adequately present all of my thoughts surrounding latrinalia. All the photos in the world couldn’t give an accurate account of the genre or of this narrator without omitting something from the frame. The persona is nothing more than a technique, a way to communicate a part of myself to you.

These issues don’t come up in fiction, at least not with the same type of intensity: as readers we allow our focus to shift from the realness (which we understand to be hopeless) to the story itself, to the beauty of language, to the ideas and characters. We may get caught up in a particular writer’s style or character voice, but we don’t require the same scrutiny or verifiable fact we ask for in nonfiction. We separate story from the person writing it.

If we want to better connect with our literature, we must separate the words from both person and persona, find truth in ideas and not their source, bask in the anonymous. And what better model for this than the bathroom wall?

Latrinalia is rare in that it exists completely outside of our typical definitions of genre: its truth-factor cannot be verified, would not pass any Wikipedia test of credibility, so it’s processed in the way that makes the most sense to its audience. The audience experiences a sense of joy that comes when interacting with the unknown writer: we could literally be connecting with anyone. We could be reading confessions, stories, or lies. Maybe this is crazy, but for me, there’s love in this potential relationship with everyone around me, the possibility of infinite kindred spirit.

~

 Amy’s phone number is (715) 790-6339, written on the wall of a Cenex gas station men’s room somewhere in the long stretch of highways crisscrossing northern Wisconsin. Here’s what we know: based on area code, Amy could conceivably live anywhere in the northern half of the state. We know Amy has a friend or enemy (presumably male) who wrote her name and number on the wall, unless of course she wrote it herself. We also know that when we call this number, it goes straight to voicemail, where a message tells us “Hey it’s Scott. Leave me a message,” then we hear a beep and quickly end the call. Here’s where we ask ourselves: Is this really Amy’s number? Did the writer give us the incorrect digits? Does Amy share a phone line? Is the whole thing a hoax? Is Amy Scott’s girlfriend? Wife? Daughter? Does Amy even exist?

My guess is that the number was written by one of Scott’s friends, trying to piss him off if and when anyone calls for Amy. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Amy changed her number and I’ve waited too long to call.  Maybe Scott is lonely, longs for the ringing of his telephone, and puts Amy’s name because more people will call for a woman. Maybe Scott feels constricted by who he is, by the choices he’s made or continues to make, creates new selves as a temporary escape. Maybe Amy is an alter ego, a persona or performance he likes to enact. Maybe Scott is into role reversals, gender ambiguity, something kinky. This is the mystery of the wall, the necessary disconnect between the written word and reality, the imagined possibilities more powerful than anything Scott or Amy or I could ever provide.

~

In a different realm of creation and legacy, new technologies are constantly emerging, impeding the efforts of potential latrinalia artists: specially engineered paints and polymers forming chemical bonds that don’t allow graffiti to dry to a surface; wall partitions overlaid with stainless steel diamond patterns that resist paint and scratching; chalkboards that offer a simple, erasable alternative to ink and wall. Imagine, as you read this, there are engineers at American Polymer, U.S. Coating Solutions, countless other businesses of patriotic chemistry, designing paints that seal away our porous walls! That make the ink of your Sharpie bead like a Rain-X’d windshield! And these innovations aren’t exclusive to the restroom. There are countless products designed to prohibit inappropriate use: I’m thinking of the thin strips of metal bolted to nearly every railing in my city’s streets and parks that prevent skateboarders from grinding the surface, the metal angles welded to the concrete under overpasses to discourage the homeless from sleeping in the relative cover.

It’s worth mentioning that all of these technologies exist to deny privilege or access, and in the case of latrinalia prevention, it may be actively preventing a person or entire subset of our culture from expressing opinion or any kind of communication to a larger audience. At its core, latrinalia is a form of self-publication: an expression of the powerless. Latrine artists express frustration, anger. They long to send a message, and do so anonymously because their names do not matter. To the world they are ghosts, and I worry what will happen if these voices speak no more.

I don’t think I need to worry, though. The performers of latrinalia are committed to further subversion. I recently encountered a chalkboard in a restroom where, rather than using the chalk, someone scratched the word FUCK directly into the granite, which must have taken a serious amount of time and effort. Perhaps the latrinaliast writes precisely because it’s not allowed, because of the power inherent in the act. Graffiti subscribes to that pry-my-gun-from-my-cold-dead-hands mentality that we all occasionally possess. We like control, at least the illusion of it. We want to be part of a powerful minority, to mark our territory by repurposing the otherwise ignored wall. By being the first to mark a wall, we make it our own. By being the second, we challenge the authority of the first. This is probably the same reason we try to guess user passwords online, the same reason we climb over chain-link fences and through broken windows. The same reason I recently purchased a key for the switchless lights used in so many school buildings and shopping malls, the reason I sometimes can’t resist the urge to fill these spaces with darkness.

~

CHEAP SEX can be acquired by dialing (507) 401-6891, according to the second stall in the men’s room of the Eau Claire Travel Center in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. When I call, an operator tells me this number does not exist.

~

Or maybe latrinalia is a dying form: the powerless voice finding new outlets in Internet anonymity: the message board, the avatar, the ability to take on a persona, attached to a name that is not our own, and write whatever shit we want. Sites like 4chan and Wikipedia pride themselves on their democratic models: allowing anyone to include or modify their content anonymously, making every voice as powerful as the next, taking reputation out of the equation.

The online self is just another model of created persona, a username that becomes a person in itself, an identity with its own kind of reputation—our Wikipedia accounts becomes increasingly credible with every successful edit or revision; less scrutiny is placed on a user with a registered ID and profile. And even unnamed posters are tied to an IP address, leaving small bits of personhood and location that can be traced back with enough technology. Unlike latrinalia, we’re still held accountable for the things we say when we believe no one’s watching.

The Internet identity is more closely aligned with the nonfiction writer. Readers look to the writer (or the writer’s persona) for a sense of context; our narrator’s age, gender, race, religious background, and countless other traits influence our reading of a text, especially when it comes to memoir. It’s much easier for a registered Wikipedia user to make false edits after a few authentic ones, just like it’s easier for Margaret Jones to find an audience for a south-central L.A. gang memoir when they believe her to be a dark-skinned, Ebonics-writing member of the Bloods (she is none of these things). There’s a contract between the reader and the writer, though the writer is more aware of this fact. The nonfiction writer uses their persona to direct the audience, to take advantage of the reader’s expectations. This is why we get so upset with the false memoir: we put too much stock in the author’s authority, and we lose the value of the story being told.

~

An Incomplete List of Known Personas/Identities/Avatars:

David LeGault, Dave LeGault, David Arthur L, dleg, DL, DAL, electricorgan4, daaaaave, legaultd, lega0044, Livejournalmatt, Kid Shazam, {Wnt}Daaaaave, Techno Dave, Super Dave, Big Wave Dave, The Georgia Homeboy, Nomenclature, Anonymous, Anonymous, Anonymous, 3934984, Paul Legault, John, Kevin, Kristen, Sir, Professor, Current Resident, Tara, Mud Turtle, Lobes, The Weed Man, Crazy Charlie, Mr. LeGault, Anonymous, leggomyeggo, Guy, pixie_bubbles, yeahright@noway.com, 123 Fake Street, Sarah Siddons,  John Barrymore, Anonymous.

~

Even the best repellants leave ghosts on the wall.

~

My name is written so frequently that it begins losing meaning. Despite countless signatures and pleas, no one has ever called me back. I hoped that by sharing my information I could reach out to the anonymous audience, but no one believes or trusts the information enough to reach out to me.

Maybe this is why, despite my love of latrinalia, I still find myself writing essays like this, work attached to a name and contributor’s note. I hate myself for wanting my words to be taken more seriously—my need to be recognized makes this whole essay one big hypocritical mess. My name on a wall doesn’t have the same effect as it does on the page: For a good time, my number is (616) 204-7962. My address is 5226 Irving Avenue North/Minneapolis, MN/55430. My locker at the University of Minnesota field house is M-2111 and the locker combination is 38-16-26, my bike lock has remained for years on the factory pre-set – – – -. Giving this information here, where my words will (hopefully) be taken more seriously, may have some real-life repercussions depending on what you, dear reader, decide to do with it. I hope that you use it in the spirit of latrinalia: step into a different persona, one that cannot be traced back to you, and use that freedom to write something true without the fear of recognition. Perhaps by using my name, there’s the added bonus that I could some day come across it, discover things I never knew about myself.

~

The blank wall, this accumulation of paint. It’s geometrically perfect: square beside square, fine lines of grout trailing up to down and left to right, a grid pattern of white on white. Yesterday this space contained obscenities, my name and phone number, several manifestos. Now, this perfection surrounds us, consumes us, forces clean air into our lungs. Like a brand new car, the flawlessness is nearly overwhelming, how we try to protect that perfection for as long as possible, how even the littlest scratch or dent or dirt would free us all at once. Here, the world seems so simple, so full of order that we want to believe in it. But the world I know is not that simple. It is the opposite of this place: impossible to process, full of chaos, at times so disgusting that I can’t even breathe. But in that dirt and grime we find a certain understanding, one that we can help to create or revise, uniquely ours in the surrounding sea of white.

 


Latrinalia (graffiti written on public restroom walls) might seem an unlikely subject for an essay. However, through a sophisticated exploration of form – that of a fragmented narrative – as well as through the use of fine irony, the author tells a personal story while also seeking deeper meaning in society.
—Sue William Silverman, 2011 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge


Birds Have Eyes

Valerie Arvidson

A dead bird is impossible.

It is impossible to feel my own death before my own death. The dead bird, my own death, is impossible to touch, to pick up, to hold.

Yet, as a child, I often found dead birds completely intact, lying at the base of a building or under a tree as if frozen in time. Their feathers were still oiled and smooth, their glassy eyes were still open, and their tiny claws were still outstretched, reaching for something.

I discovered the strange borderlands between wild and house by hearing birds hit windows: their light bodies and tiny beaks dinging the glass in an unmistakable tone. I would later see some of their small, broken bodies on the ground below the window.

When standing before a dead bird, it became difficult to move or to turn away. How familiar and yet how foreign, this most beautiful being, this thing so impossible to catch and hold still while alive, now waiting there stagnant and hollow and within reach. But since I wasn’t meant to touch it, since it wasn’t my task in the world, I managed to back away from this death into my own life.

There were many birds I left behind. Later to discover, that someone else had taken them away. Whose task was it to usher these beings away? I deduced it was my father (just like a local fox or owl): the one who took out the trash, the one who took in the mail, the one who ushered things—life, and money—in and out of the house. I imagined he knew a special burial ground for them. For in my father’s world, everything had a place.

And after all, it was my father who had marshaled me in and out of nature; it was he who had led me to the edge of house and pushed me towards wild, saying, “Go on, go ahead.” And I’d enter the woods, the marsh, the lake, the field, as if the universe had opened its hand up especially for me. My father would sit outside with me sometimes on the periphery, smoking a cigar in a lawn chair, watching me and the birds move across the horizon. Wild was my other house—my solace from the human dramas contained between the walls of our Massachusetts colonial on Pond Street.

When I went outside to play at my childhood home, I would begin and end my adventures laying on the ground, as still as I could, only listening and looking. I wondered who the land was, and what it would tell me if it could talk. At first, it all seemed so dead under my living, breathing body. I was hot and it was cold. Or I was shivering and it was stable. But after a few minutes, we would synch up, and I could feel it breathing too. Our temperatures would align, and we became extensions of one another. I even thought I felt the world slowly spinning, both of our bodies in the universe whirling in one large inhalation. Sometimes I would close my eyes and spin in darkness until the movement became too fast and centrifugal. I would open my eyes, gasping for stillness, with my hands grabbing at the earth. Out there in the darkness, in the galaxies behind my eyes, things broke and spun out of control all the time, but there was room for that in there.

Whose body was this?—where birds hit the window and fell to the pavement leaving a bloody streak and a beak mark on the glass; where the hedgehog burrowed in the soft soil beneath the tool-shed; where the wild blueberries and the last of the lady slippers mingled with the new tropical flowers; where the snapping turtle blocked traffic; where the shouts of my parents could be heard up in the treetops and roused the birds out of their roosts? What a messy dream-head hurling through the cosmos.

I went outside not only to connect with the world, but also to get away from the inside of my house, so far away that I could no longer hear the arguing of my parents.

When their fighting became too much to bear, often past dusk, I would run into the yard, then to the threshold of the woods. Breathing in the sharp, cool air of evening, my body palpitated with emotion. In this place between our house and the woods, I could still faintly perceive the exhausted shouts of my parents. As my eyes adjusted to the blackness, the forest seemed far less primitive and frightening than the primal anger and cruelty that filled the building called home. I’d run outside for safety, knowing that the knots in the birch tree were eyes; that the moon had eyes. The world had eyes made for watching over me that did not belong to God. And this was an important distinction for me, even as a child. No matter how unknown I was to myself, these wild things would always know me. They could always see me and know me, and I could always see them and know them, and we would honor one another’s existence. And we didn’t have to say a word.

In summer when I ran outside, the sounds of night creatures flared around my ears, blaring out all human noises. Wilderness slowly replaced the phantom sound-memory of screaming that appeared in my head like tinnitus. There at the threshold of the woods I would wait, at the place where the lawn met the path, where the white dogwood tree created a flowery arc, like a doorway, glowing under the moon. This was civilization: here in the land of badgers, mud, and night-crawlers. Here in the woods was a balanced kingdom of kings and queens all—not the zoo of oppressed people clawing at each other behind closed doors.

Sometimes, I’d go to my own little house that my father built. It was a special place just for me, a miniature replica of our colonial. I thought it was a secret, the solace I found there. He could not know how fierce my loneliness was, though he had built the place for it to live.

It smelled of sweet pine sap inside my little house, because I kept a small apothecary. I’d wait in there, to slow down life, breathing in the smell of the wood and my mixtures of organic matter. I had blended my tinctures and crushed my herbs in the bronze mortar and pestle that once belonged to my Grandmother Agnes. I stored the potions in small glass bottles and bowls on the shelves inside. When other children hurt themselves at play, they would come to my apothecary. I would clean the wound, put a salve on it, and wrap it in soft rabbit-ear leaves that I tied with twine. We would rest together in the cool shadows of the little house and then I would remove the cure, rinse the wound clean, and tell them to let the air heal it.

˜

One June morning, I rose at dawn to the sound of my father raising a ladder against a tree. The sun strained to burn off the ground-fog that lingered over the dew-wet grass. I went to the window of my bedroom to watch my father climbing his ladder. It was fifty feet to the highest bird box. His right hand nodded with the tiniest paint brush, touching up the cranberry red sides of the little bird house he had built, an even smaller version of my own little house. He rested his body against the ladder that now and then wobbled under his slight movements. A tinkling of metal came and went from his keys clanging against the aluminum rungs.

I could almost see the strain in his face, his brows tense and knotted and his mouth tightly pursed. Now and then he grabbed at a red handkerchief that ruffled out of his back pocket in order to wipe his brow. When finished painting, he placed the wooden brush in his mouth, holding the handle between his teeth as he slowly descended the ladder. When he arrived at the bottom, he lowered the ladder down, carried it under the porch, and then emerged again with a hammer and nails. So began the first thump and reverberation of the work being done on our big house—only after the place for birds had been perfected.

˜

He had begun to pack before the rest of the family had even started to think about it. My parents separated when I was ten, and my father would move to Norwood, returning to the same house in which he had been raised. I wanted to go with him, but when the lawyer asked me who I wanted to live with, I knew the most practical thing would be to stay with my mother—the one who’d be best able to care for me as I grew into a woman—though the boy in me wanted go where dad was going, where I knew wilderness was always accessible.

Even before I knew what to call my father’s drinking, I had forgiven him, for I believed he was the innocent one—that he had the broken heart. I layered my heart onto his heart, and cast out my mother as the wrecking-ball. In reality, it was a mutual breakdown. All was good and all was evil, all at the same time.

Flawed though he was, my father had been the one to unwittingly provide me with a place to go when I could not bear him or my mother, or the monster they created when they were together. It became easy for me to shut my eyes and leave behind the inside, because the outside, the wild, would always be able to adopt me. So I had to forgive him, for he had given me an out.

˜

The house had formerly been strewn with my father’s things, his collections of Audubon prints, paintings, nature books, and bird decoys. He had collected miniature hand-painted lighthouses, model ships, blue glass bottles, oil lamps, and more. I had learned about the outside from the inside first. I had learned about him, by looking at his things. I remember sometimes even being frightened by the realistic dark stare of the fiberglass trout mounted on the kitchen wall, its limp mouth hanging open so perversely.

I saw my father pack all these things gently into boxes, wrapping them in newspaper and masking tape as we prepared to leave. The antique cobalt-blue glass bottles were the last things to go for some reason. They sat on the bedroom windowsill, bright clean tokens in the emptying house.  I imagined that I too would someday start my collection of blue bottles when I was old.

He eventually packed them carefully on the last day. I asked him if I could have one and he said no with a scoff. But I replied with a smile, “Can I inherit it when you die?”

He looked at me over his glasses. “They’re all coming with me to the grave.” Then he laughed and said, “Already thinking about when I’ll die?”

Smiling, I replied, “Yup, just counting the days at this point.”

We talked about dying often, always with laughter following our words. Did he want to be cremated and have his ashes scattered, or did he want to be buried, and if so, where? He changed his mind every time we talked about it. At first he wanted his ashes scattered into the Atlantic, and I liked that idea very much. I said I would do it for him. But as the years passed, less laughter followed our words when we spoke about our dying, and he became more inclined to being buried next to his parents, Agnes and Eldon, in Norwood.

I told him if I died before him, I wanted to be buried in a pretty white dress, and that I wanted my body put directly into the soil, with flowers all around me. Then I wanted him to plant a tree over my grave so that I would decay amongst the roots, and the roots would grow through my skeleton. I would live another hundred years in the form of a tree. A tree where birds could live. He laughed and said, “Is that so?”

I had thought so much about our dying. It was almost easy to do.

˜

It was summer, and I went outside to find my father, but instead I found a dead black-capped chickadee lying on our driveway beneath the bay window of our dining room. I stared at it, and I could not move. Chickadees were my favorite bird. Its little boot-black eyes reflected my face, white and watery. As I looked at it, I wondered what that little bird had seen in its short life. It had probably seen more life and death, more violence and more joy, than I had ever seen in my whole time on earth. And I wondered if it knew what it saw. And as I knelt down to touch it, I saw a trail of ants snaking in and out from its broken wing, and I knew that it had known and understood everything it saw and more.

I looked up to the glass window, seeing as the bird had seen: the reflections of the white pines shifting in the wind across the way. Our house almost occupied an invisible veil in that shifting light, in that certain place. Anything, even I, would kill myself unknowingly, to get to the other side of the forest.

My father had either not seen the bird, or had neglected to hide it away. His mind had been preoccupied, I knew, and his attention had turned to caring for the remaining aspects of himself at our house on Pond Street: painting the shutters on the house, tending to the bird boxes, neatening up the landscaping for curbside appeal. We were, after all, planning on selling it to another family soon.

As I looked down at the little bird, I felt perhaps it was my turn to be the undertaker. But how do you bury a bird? Do you build a small coffin out of a shoe box? That seemed irreverent. Do you leave it for the hawk, fox or coyote to eat? A dead bird—where did it belong? Surely not on the hot black pavement of a summer day where it would swell and burst and beckon flies.

Where to let it rest in peace?

On that hot summer day, I chose to take care of the bird myself. Its migration would not end on the pavement. I put on my father’s gardening gloves, picked up the bird in my hand, light as a feather, and carried it to my apothecary. There I treated it as I would any wounded child, wrapping it in rabbit-ear leaves, tying it up with a string. At dusk, I took it to the pond behind our house to let it be at rest in the water. I sent it off like a tiny ship sailing on vacant bones. I watched it float towards the center of the pond, stop, bubble, and sink as it became saturated with the brown pond water. Nearby, a snapping turtle popped its head up, creating rippling circles on the surface. The peepers sang, chiming like little church bells. I sat on the mossy bank trying to think of some prayer. But of course it was not God watching us, but the trees, and the moon, and the other eyes of the world who understood I drowned my child-self that night. There was no judgment, only infinite patience. That was what the world gave me that I could not find in people: unhurried time. I promised them all that I would return.

When my parents officially divorced, we sold the house to a young happy family. The day we left I had to say goodbye to the places I loved at our house. I had to say goodbye because I had to acknowledge I had been known and I had known. I had to say I love you. Naming and knowing the parts of the place that I loved was like naming the parts of myself that I loved, and seeing them as dying living things that all one day would fall apart and go.

I said goodbye to the mossy hill that sloped into the pond where I had sunk the bird, and to the soft decaying logs en route to the hill that were hollowed out and cold inside. I said goodbye to the teepees I had built, tall cones of long branches that remained unchanged through the seasons, even as the nearby vernal pool rose and fell. I said goodbye to the black swamp covered with skunk cabbage, the creek, the pond, the swing-set that gave me splinters. I said goodbye to the edge of the forest, the crossing-over point where possibilities emerged for me.

I said goodbye to those red maples whose leaves were so purple they looked black as old blood; and to the Japanese cherry tree that was slowly corroded by caterpillars, its black oozing scars creating gnarled scabs—for all these natural forms were once appendages of my own body, humps on my back, moles on my skin, hair on my head.

I said goodbye to the two blue spruces in the front yard. My father had planted each one to represent the births of my sister and me. I said goodbye to my birth and my sister’s birth. I said goodbye to the soggy wooden steps that led up to the front door from the driveway, and to all my imaginary medicines that fermented into wine on the shelves of my apothecary. I said goodbye to my father, and I did not stop. I said goodbye to my father every night he was not there.

˜

My little house smelled of rot the day I left. I cleaned out all the plants and salves and potions I had made there, scraping and pouring them onto the gravel underneath our porch. But still that little house would not be empty of me and my wild cures for weeks to come. I cleaned it the best I could. Then because there was nothing left for me—of me—I had to leave my mark of territory. I had once reigned in this kingdom of loneliness—and it was mine, and it was wild.

I stretched out my claws, and opened wide my boot-black eyes.

I carved my name in the threshold. On the wooden beams of the ceiling. On the panels in the door. I carved my name in nearly everything I could.

 


“Birds Have Eyes”… demanded to be read.  By this I mean that I read it early on and was moved…then I put it aside and read the others over a week.  But my mind kept returning to this one.  Then after I finished reading the others I took “Birds Have Eyes” again and headed downstairs to give it another look.  I didn’t even make it downstairs.  I stopped halfway down the stairs, mesmerized once again by the simple beauty of this piece, and then I sat down on the stairs and by the end, I’m a little embarrassed to say, tears were flowing.  I’m not particularly sentimental and this writer isn’t sentimental either.  But she knows how to tap into raw grief and lyric beauty all at once and just sucker punch you.  I’m still moved by this piece and will be for a long time.  I want to read it again.
—Robin Hemley, 2009 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Judge


How the Film Flint Distorts the Truth

Mojie Crigler

  1. We smoked crack, not heroin. Jeter Flint bought crack on 16th and Mission and brought it back to the loft (which was on 19th and Bryant, not 23rd and Shotwell) where we cut the crack with cigarette ash, packed it in a pipe and smoked it, exhaling into someone else’s mouth to make the crack last as long as possible. The film gets Jeter’s basic facts right, though: a painter, from Laredo, Texas via Las Vegas, New Mexico. Someone should make a prequel about his childhood growing up in the border town without electricity or running water or shoes. Casting Paul Bettany as Jeter was brilliant; they could have been twins.
  2. Jeter lost Russian roulette on the first round, not the third. He lost immediately. I know: I loaded the gun.
  3. My inheritance comes from timber, not oil.
  4. Beautiful Anna Paquin could make the phone book sound thrilling, but she bears absolutely no resemblance to me. I have black eyes, a large but elegant nose, and I was, without shoes, the same height as Jeter. She’s got the right desperate desert-flower spirit, though. She got that right, even with a lousy script.
  5. We rode BMWs, not Harleys. This was San Francisco in 1995, not 1967. We rode R100s and R65s, salvaged, rebuilt and sold at a little shop near South Park where Jeter worked, on and off, and from which everyone “borrowed” bikes for spontaneous trips to Tres Piedras or K58. I wore a gold sparkly helmet (yes, Ms. Paquin, I wore a helmet) and my favorite coat looked like it had been skinned off a lion.
  6. The film makes the loft look clean and far too empty. Always, someone was crashing on our couch (nubby green, not worn leather). Every week—sometimes every night—we threw parties, so mess and wreckage became part of our decor. The studio took up half of that big loft and we lived in the other half. Jeter built the kitchen and bathroom from scratch, with pipes and appliances rescued from junkyards and scrap heaps. Do It Yourself was the prevailing wisdom of the time. People even frowned on taking a car to a drive-through carwash—why, when, with a hose and sponge, you could wash it out back, out by the coffee roaster and the bakery? The stove ran off a propane tank. When it rained, we put pots under the leaking skylights. The loft lacked a heater, but if we remembered to close the windows, we’d catch the afternoon sun and make it last through the evening.
  7. Jeter painted 71 portraits of me, not 50, like the film claims.
  8. After Jeter shot himself playing Russian roulette, years passed before the art dealers woke up. First, I called the ambulance. (They took us to SF General, a few blocks away, and I thought, “We could have walked,” forgetting that Jeter was dead.) Then I called our friend Hambone to take away the gun. Maybe the filmmakers coerced him to say, but I never knew Hambone threw the gun in Lake Merced. After I wiped blood off Jeter’s last series—Puerto Angel, i-xi, not Suchitoto, i-viii (for which, by the by, Jeter used knitters from the downstairs factory as models)—I left the loft with the clothes on my back and didn’t return for three years. The film makes up a hero at the Whitney who discovers Jeter’s genius while the gun report still echoes. Yeah, right. I needed three years before I could open the studio door again. Then we—yes, not just me the widowed muse, but everyone in that crowd, all those musicians and actors and writers and painters: Hambone, Pike, Lucius, Ervina, Mabel Martin, Rosie Coo, and Zon—we spent a year and a half cataloging Jeter’s work. We started with a small show at Intersection for the Arts, because Jeter loved that space. The show killed. No one in the world cared. Five more years—of mailings and small, nothing shows and moving his paintings out of the studio into a Public Storage in El Cerrito—before New York came calling, during which time I was in and out of rehab, married, kids, divorced, custody lost. But that’s the power of film—to skip the truly awful parts.
  9. A lot of people were smoking crack back then, not just crackheads on 16th and Mission. Some software CEO came to look at Jeter’s paintings one Friday afternoon and smoked crack with us like it was Virginia tobacco. That man was loaded—and he was smoking crack. The world was a wasteland. Why bother with cocaine, grass, speed, pills—we’d done that, and others had before us, and where had it taken us—all of us? Our neighborhood was half Mexicans trying to eke out a decent life, and half post-industrial wreck, like the crumbling graffitied mayonnaise factory with its ripped up railroad tracks. At night, we were alone in our building. The knitters, the coffee roaster, the baker went home. At night, the place was desolate, not unlike the desert, an urban desert.
  10. I did not raise the gun to my head. I did not pull the trigger. There were always guns around. Some of our friends had guns. Once Jeter fired a gun in the loft and put a hole in a poster of Miles Davis, right through his forehead. We were playing Russian roulette long before it was just Jeter and me in his studio (at 5 a.m., not midnight: dawn’s ugly crack, not the clock’s fresh start).
  11. The film tries to be a love story. (Whether it succeeds is not for me to say.) A young man and young woman meet—introduced to each other by Bruce Conner at an art opening—and it’s like oil hitting the skillet. They love. Color. Music. People. Sex. Speed. Desert. Space. He paints. He paints her. Over and over. He loves her. She wears nothing made after 1976. Often, she wears nothing at all. She loves him. But the film doesn’t mention that he is secretly fucking Mabel Martin and Rosie Coo, which she doesn’t find out until after his death. Nor does the film acknowledge that when she first met him, he was dating Ervina who was always angry afterward. The film says love is a widow’s devotion to a dead man’s art. But really this widow felt robbed. To let the dead man’s work languish—which it would have if she hadn’t done something—would have been a waste of her life, too. In the end, it didn’t matter. One second he was there, the next he was gone. Making his art famous after his death didn’t make him alive again. Making a film about him didn’t either.
  12. Paul Bettany did not capture the part of Jeter that was a son of a bitch. Jeter yelled, loud, so close to my face I was wet from his spit. In bed, he called me a whore. Once, he held my face in his hand so hard there were red imprints on my cheek and jaw where his fingers had pressed in.
  13. I didn’t always sit for the portraits. It wasn’t hours of me naked with a dead bird on my shoulder. Sometimes he took a photograph and painted from that.
  14. Yes, I inherited a fortune, but it was not a large fortune and I had a part-time job getting my hands on cash every month. I’m sure it’s easier to make my “character” filthy rich, but in truth my finances were entangled with the family lawyer, who treated me like a street urchin, and my mother, who would have preferred that I was dead. My family knew wood (remember: timber, not oil). Trees. Logging. Forests. My family thought art was for queers. They thought painting was what children do in kindergarten. They thought I had thrown my life away. But I went to them every month to collect my allowance. I don’t care what people think of that. I believed in Jeter. What else could I do that would pay that much money? Sell my body or sell drugs. But I wasn’t the insouciant benefactress. I was the strung-out family fuck-up who once, after leaving the lawyer’s office, tripped and fell on the sidewalk and no one helped me up.
  15. I imagine it’s difficult for anyone to understand why a man would pick up a gun and shoot himself in the head. People want to think Jeter was suicidal—that’s what the people who made this film think—or he made a mistake influenced by drugs—that is also implied by the filmmakers, who set Jeter’s death a room away from a debaucherous party. Does he think he’s invincible? Does he think life is worthless? Is he wasted on heroin? (never heroin! we smoked crack!) Actually, the evening started in a quiet way. For dinner, we ate prosciutto and Gruyère on a stale baguette. We were drinking a bottle of champagne, a gift from Lucius and Pike. We ate standing at the kitchen counter that Jeter had built. I was wearing my lion-skin coat. Jeter’s clothes were covered in paint. He had just finished Madonna on the carousel. After dinner, he put on some music—a local band called Thin—and we danced. We danced well together. We had a dance we’d made up. We called it our shuffle. I loved dancing with him. Then we threw a television out the window, followed by a couple of shoes neither of us wanted anymore, some clothes, an old 16 mm camera that didn’t work anymore. We watched everything land on the sidewalk and smash into pieces. The loft had big windows, good for throwing large objects onto the sidewalk. I don’t know why we did it. We did what we wanted, when we wanted. I don’t know where the gun came from.
  16. I’ve never received a dime for Jeter’s work. We weren’t married. I’ve done enough fighting for money.  I do all right between my Public Storage sites and my divorce settlement (I married a computer software developer a year after Jeter’s death; we divorced after my third turn at rehab). I blew the rest of my trust fund on booze and then the timber business was sold. Anna Paquin looks great in black and I agree with her speech at the museum, that the New York art world ignores the West, but I never said those words. I guess the filmmakers needed a rousing ending to suit the sappy score they ordered up.
  17. Maybe the story would have fared better as a documentary. Once I said to Jeter that my life was like a short story collection, full of strange moments that seemed like lessons I should understand but didn’t. Jeter said life was like a film, because everyone was beautiful and eloquent and backed by a great soundtrack. He meant even the bums and the crack dealers. He saw beauty in everything. He would have hated the film’s soundtrack. We didn’t listen to popular music. We listened to local bands. And we’d listen to one album over and over and over again, just one album, until we were sick of it, or the next one appeared, ready to take its place. If the filmmakers wanted an authentic soundtrack, they should have played Jim Campilongo & the 10 Gallon Hats non-stop.
  18. The night Jeter shot himself, we were drinking champagne, not whiskey.
  19. Why must films about artists always include a montage in which the artist works furiously? Why the compulsory fugue state? Jeter worked long hours and sometimes was frustrated or exhilarated, but most of the time he was simply working, the way a lumberjack takes down one tree and then the next. He was methodical. He had endurance. He needed little sleep. He did not rush. Unlike Mr. Bettany, Jeter did not furrow his lovely brow. (His raggedy brow, and especially his long eyelashes, made me think I could see through the man before me and know him as a boy.)
  20. Jeter painted much more than portraits, although to watch the film, you’d think he was John Singer Sargent.
  21. The sun was coming up and it was that creepy part of an all-nighter when the next day appears and you realize you missed out on sleep. When I was a girl, I was insomniac and I would hear the birds start up at 4 and want to slit my wrists. The feeling is: oh shit, it’s here. On his worktable were an ashtray, brushes, a half-burned Rolodex, sponges, rags, old sketches with phone numbers scribbled in the curling margins, eraser dust. Why did he shoot himself? I think he thought he wasn’t going to. But Jeter was always ready to die. I opened the cylinder, dropped the bullet, spun it, closed it. I didn’t think he was going to die then, either. Death came quick. He fell down, off the chair. His eyes were fixed. He was gone. But I have been there ever since. Would that he were something I could end and leave behind as I brush popcorn crumbs from my lap and wander slowly to the exit and the street, the night, the people, returning to myself, remembering that there is a real world outside and I have only been watching a film.

 


I’m on record as hating stories that traffic in excessive pop cultural references. But this story is ingenious precisely because it appears to be about a film when, in fact, the film itself is made up. The story manages to create an entire imagined world around this film, and a real world around it. In a short space, it says a great deal about the nature of fame, celebrity, artistic creation, and media representation. The voice is smart, mordant, and brutally honest – wounded without being angry. Most important, I simply loved reading it. That’s the first and last thing we can ask of a story. Bravo!
—Steve Almond, 2010 Howard Frank Mosher Prize Judge


What You Can Tell from My Childhood Heroes

Sophie Haigney

I thumb through a pocket-sized pink book, rediscovered amongst multiplication tables and half-finished watercolor still-lifes from art class in fourth grade. I can see that it used to have a lock but doesn’t anymore, this dime-store diary that must have been a party favor. I turn the pages slowly, mesmerized by the loops of my h’s and my cursive b’s, by handwriting that is both mine and not mine simultaneously. Handwriting, like a rediscovered childhood photograph can seem at once distant and startlingly familiar. I recognize my letters on the page, but are they really my letters? I still slant my lower-case l’s like that. How strange—I used to cross my z’s.

As a bizarre and bookish eleven-year-old, I had addressed my diary entries to my heroes. In my world, where girls walked through wardrobes into enchanted forests, it was easy to imagine that my idols (living and dead) could somehow peek at my most private thoughts. “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt” began the first. I begged her to forgive my meanness to my younger brother. “Dear Ingrid,” I had written, in another. “If only I were as pretty as you were in Casablanca.” I complained to Alice Paul that I was not very good at soccer. I confessed to Jennifer Aniston that I was worried no one would ask me to dance next year at cotillion—had she ever been afraid of that?

It went on. Clearly, I had changed heroes like most middle-school girls change nail polish colors. People say you can tell a lot about someone from who their heroes are, but what, from these pages, can you tell about me? What do sitcom actresses have to do with militant women’s rights leaders, and what do either have to do with me? They are all women, yes, but only some, it seems, are women’s heroes. Eleanor Roosevelt is a fine role model for a young girl, but Ingrid Bergman played Ilsa Lund in Casablanca, perhaps one of the weakest female characters in cinematic history. What the hell had I been doing, dreaming of being her?

Feminism was not a word I learned, consciously, until my 20th century history elective in ninth grade. It was strange to discuss its definition, to think of it as a movement—and a controversial one—because it was something that for so long I had taken for granted. I think the definition my history class agreed upon was something vague and open-ended, like “a celebration of womanhood.” I remember wondering then who did not celebrate womanhood.

My eight years at an all-girls school had been a zealous celebration. Each year, we took women’s history. In April we dressed up as various women’s rights pioneers for the annual “Famous American Women’s Tea.” No one offered us dolls in kindergarten. We read books starring female heroines, beginning in kindergarten with reworked fairy tales with titles like The Real Cinderella (in which she doesn’t even need a fairy godmother!). We analyzed Elizabeth Bennett’s defiance of social norms and admired Jo March’s pluck. In later years, we attended workshops that focused on “The Female Experience,” intended to demonstrate the ways in which women were objectified and oversexed. We watched Covergirl advertisements and then tore them apart. We wore uniforms that included ties. Make-up was not permitted under any circumstances.

It was only when I was in my fall term of coed high school that I came to understand that this was not part of a “typical education.” Indeed, my grade school’s philosophy was part of a movement, an ism just like communism or atheism. I had been schooled as a feminist, though no one had ever asked me if I wanted to be one.

The history class where I discovered all of this was also the class where, for the first time, I was tested as a woman. There were twelve of us: me, one quiet dark-haired girl, and ten boys. These were the boys I had been told I was as smart as, or smarter than, throughout my childhood. And I was. I liked the sound of my own voice. Overeager and a little vicious, I said what I thought. I learned how to lean back in my chair and move my hands in such a way that people would listen. I learned how to say, “No, I disagree with that,” rapidly but quietly, and how to wade through lines of text for that one word I wanted. But I learned other things in that class as well.

I learned, for example, that when talking to boys, I ought to lean in just a little bit and run my fingers through the ends of hair. I learned how to arch my back just so. I learned how to laugh so that boys would laugh with me, a little higher than usual and a little softer. I learned how to walk out of class, with my hips, and what to wear to dances (not a dress, but tight, colored jeans) and what to wear the rest of the time (button-downs undone to the third button). I learned how to smile with a kind of half-smirk.

Most of it was subconscious, these strange shifts in attitude and dress and manner, picked up from girls around me, or the result of some kind of natural instinct I never knew I had. I recognize it now as a desire to charm and be adored and even objectified. I liked to hear that boys were talking about my body, or that so-and-so thought I was “hot,” or, even better, “banging.” I began to underline my eyes with soft black pencil.

I liked the way eyeliner smelled, waxy and synthetic and a little bit like wood. It reminded me of my mother. There had been no occasion for me to wear makeup throughout my younger years, so I associated make-up only with her as she prepared for parties, evening light splattering her mirror like white fire. I used to think it was the light that tasted like violets, but it must have been her perfume. She would dab it with two fingers on the back of her neck, twisting her back to smile at me. Her blonde hair was usually swept up so that her cheekbones jutted out, and the pins must have dug into her scalp, hard, but I remember someone (her?) saying that pain was beauty and beauty was pain. I liked to watch her reflection, distorted, warped by refracted rainbows.

When she was gone, out dancing, I would copy her sometimes. The light was purple and I would smear on bright red lipstick, missing my lips most of the time, and licking them repeatedly. It tasted like chalk and chemicals and my mother’s kisses. I felt like a lady.

Feminists speak of the moment when one becomes a woman. Simone de Beauvoir said it first, perhaps. I vividly remember a quote of hers from The Second Sex that I read on a pink Post-It note in my sixth grade French teacher’s classroom. On ne naît pas femme, on le devient. One is not born a woman, but becomes one. When, though? Did I become a woman in front of my mother’s mirror, trying on her face and feeling feminine, without even knowing the word for it? Or was it in my fourth grade class when I starred as Victoria Woodhull in a play, declaring my intentions to run for president in 1872, and feeling something like proud?

It seemed, that ninth grade year, that despite my education in feminism, it was still the early moment that had shaped me more, that moment when I felt for the first time the raw physical desire to be beautiful. It began to define me, the pursuit of beauty. I ate less. I became obsessed with the “Hot Lists” I knew were being made in the basements of boys’ dorms. Where would I fall? Would I be picked at all? Always the competitor, I compared my legs to my friends’. I compared my eyes and hair and lips and butt and cheeks and smile. I burned through a series of boys, quickly and without much success. No one seemed to like me quite as much as I liked them. Always, when it didn’t work out, I blamed it on my looks. I was too pale. I was too fat. I cried in front of the mirror, and then cried harder at the sight of my blotchy cheeks. I wrote a lot of bad poetry. I still talked in class, perhaps too much, and did my homework diligently, but my mind was consumed by thoughts of boys and, as a result, my body.

In tenth grade, an older dark-haired boy broke my heart. I use the cliché of a broken heart because that is what it was. Everything I thought and did might have been a scene from a bad movie, or lines from a Taylor Swift song. I refused to understand, as usual, why he had rejected me, attributing it to my freckles and bumpy nose. But this time, for some reason, as I stuffed myself sick with ice cream (and then squeezed my stomach, self-conscious) I got bored. I couldn’t stand myself any longer. I resolved that I wouldn’t cry any more, and I didn’t. I began to hide in the library, even skipping meals and dances to work on papers. I swore off boys. I didn’t brush my hair, some mornings, and I started wearing my thick glasses to class other days. It wasn’t that I stopped caring about my appearance that winter. It was simply that I tried a new approach, or an old one. I made an art of not trying. I tried to, anyway. I woke up and buttoned my flannel shirt and told myself, to hell with it. I don’t care.

I don’t care. It’s still the first lie I tell myself in the morning, and often the last as I climb into bed. I bend like a broken lily in front of the mirror, trying to find some shape of my body that pleases me, and then I shake my head and tell myself that it doesn’t matter. I don’t care.

These days, I wear no make-up and I like saying that out loud. It’s the truth, strictly speaking. Mornings, I run my fingers through my hair, yanking at knots, before stumbling naked-faced out of my room. I guess I take some kind of pride in the purple circles that underline my eyes, the blackhead blooming near the corner of my unpainted lips. Look at me. I don’t care. Not about what dress I’m wearing or the curve of my hips. Not about whether she looks better than me in those jeans (she does) and not about whether he notices that she does (he must). I don’t care about who whispers what when I walk by, or my place on this list or that. I don’t care. Look at me.

I like watching girls sweep bronzer onto their cheeks with butterfly hands. I like watching them straightening their hair, strand by glossy strand. I like half-smiling in my superiority. I am a strong woman, and this is “The Female Experience.” I’ve read de Beauvoir and Nancy Cott and even some Virginia Woolf (though I didn’t understand much of it). They haven’t.

Meanwhile, I’m sneaking sidelong glances in the mirror. The truth is that not caring is as thick a mask as two pounds of La Mer foundation. The truth is that I do care, that I am confined by my body as much as any other girl. I’m trying desperately not to try. And there is still a guilty part of me that is obsessed. I google fad diets and natural ways to lighten my hair. I like to stare at pictures of 50’s movie stars. I buy Cosmopolitan and I devour articles with titles like “How to Make Him Fall in Love.” Then I shove the magazine behind piles of paper, or under back issues of The Paris Review.

I am not the exemplary graduate of the Sarah Dix Hamlin School for girls. I am not a pure feminist in the spirit of de Beauvoir, but I suppose that I would still consider myself a feminist of some kind. I can think of no overarching definition of the movement, and perhaps my history class was right to be ambiguous. I celebrate my womanhood as much as I struggle with it, but in any case my womanhood extends beyond my intellectual achievements and convictions. It includes my femininity, and my body, the very thing that makes me female. I want sometimes to dance provocatively, to lean on a boy’s shoulder with all my weight. I want to eat Ben & Jerry’s and watch Mean Girls just as much as I want to flip through volumes of Carolyn Forché. I want to win prizes for my history papers, but I also want to be on the top of whatever “Hot List” is being made. Sometimes, I do like the empowerment of pulling on my sweatpants and leaving my hair limp. Other times, I think that beauty is worth endless pain.

These are a few of the things that I would never say out loud. I like my mask of intellect and haughtiness; it’s less messy than make-up, and more consistent with the woman I was taught to be. If I were ten years old, though, I would record these small and bothersome truths in my diary, and try to make some sense of these inconsistencies and conflicting desires that plague me and define me. Depending on the day, I might address the entry to Dianne Feinstein, my living example of feminine power. Or perhaps I would write to my mother, a blonde beauty with smooth skin and wide eyes, the first woman who I ever tried to be.

Dear Mom, I might write. The smell of your perfume makes me both giddy and nauseous. I feel compelled to hate it, but I am drawn to it now just as much as when I was six years old. I can still taste the light in your dressing room. Did you know, Mom, that I tried on your lipstick and then rejected it? Everything’s a paradox as far as I can tell. I am trying desperately to be like you and not like you at the same time. I wish you could just tell me if I should dress up or down, whether or not I should read fashion magazines, how I should smile at boys. I wish you would tell me what to do, though I’m not sure if I would listen if you did. I love you.

 


An excellent essay on gender empowerment, conflicting expectations and the natural adolescent preoccupation with fitting in. The diary to heroes would be an intriguing device to develop into a novel or larger collection of essays.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith, 2011 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge


Fefe Naa Efe

Delali Ayivor

“To find a place that fits. Where past and present coincide. Where the landscape feels like a version of the self. To walk out into such  a place, so at home in its vocabulary that you don’t need words. Memory eased, exonerated. The mud-covered streets of the heart so prosaic they promise a life of their own.”

–Judith Kitchen 

The sound of this country is the cowbell. That same five beat refrain:

ding ding ding      DING DING,

The background for beer as well as church, the pulse underneath the red earth. Everything is in the dirt here, the body, the blood and the Holy Ghost. Forget the stars, though once you get out of the city, out of Accra, out of the exhaust they are quite beautiful. In the city there are no great astral beauties, just great hacking coughs, rust colored spittle settling into the corners of mouths, wet burgundy drying deep into the cracks of ashy toes.

And here you are, in the midst of  harmattan, the season of Saharan dust settling over the city, the sky a flat, lifeless brown, sneaking out of school to buy fried yams with your friends. Here you are dodging traffic and security guards to make it five feet from the school gates, slide stained money out of your pocket and hand it to the sweaty braless woman manning the dull silver pit of grease. You later find out her name is Happy, which seems fitting, considering the face she makes every time you hand her a 5,000 cedi bill.  Here you are, stuffing your face with sticks of yellow yam and orange sweet potato until your face shines with grease. Here you are, sticking your hand into the accompanying bag of red and black pepper sauce, running your finger around the edge, flipping the bag inside out, placing it in your mouth, sucking out the juices. Here, you are taking it all in.

You drive everywhere or rather, are driven everywhere in this country. You never get anywhere on foot unless you’re stumbling down Oxford Street, dodging the outstretched hands of beggars and men of dubious intent. And even then, sometimes you smack the wrists away from the safety of the interior of your taxi. You forget sometimes there is a natural world, being a city girl through and through. The closest you get to wildness is the goats wandering down the middle of the street, the memorable image of chickens falling into open gutters, a mushroom cloud of white feathers and feces molded green.

There are still times where you get back to the wild. Back, because it’s where you are from. Back because your veins and the soil are sisters. On a Habitat for Humanity trip in eighth grade you spend all day carrying plastic buckets of water up and down a hill. The buckets are green and give the water a pale tint, the color of celery. The second day you mix huge batches of concrete, grey and mealy. A boy named Derek Achampong splashes some of the watery mixture onto one of his shoes, exclaims “Hey yo! These are hundred dollar kicks.” He doesn’t even have the decency to look ashamed, doesn’t even have the decency to look around at the villagers, their eyes large with the sum of $100, of more money than they will ever have at one time.

You first come to know nature when you move to Michigan, not outside, but fittingly, in the pages of a book; in the story “Making Love in 2003,” by Miranda July. It’s a story of a girl who sends her longing out into the world, who wants so much for love that she can’t help but pray to everything, to the linoleum beneath her feet, and deeper. The world answers her call, gives her an amorphous black mass that makes love to her every night; that fills her.

This idea, that the world can answer your prayers, that the idea of heaven could be not above but all around, in the oxygen you breathe, in the food you eat, is everything you’ve wanted to hear. You don’t know how to adequately express your wonder but you try to tell your best friend one day at lunch. “Isn’t that the most fucking amazing idea ever?” you say, searching her eyes for some sense that she understands. And she does. This is a girl, after all, who spends hours in the woods, crawling on all fours, who comes to your room scratched and smelling of white pine and says “I have a poem I want you to read.”

You resolve to spend as much time as you can stupefied, to open yourself to the world completely. You find yourself wanting to absorb the world, to take on people’s sadness, their love. You become a vehicle of consumption and you want nothing more than to unhinge your jaw and swallow the world whole, contain all the horror and beauty within yourself. You write lots of bad poetry.

When the snow falls that winter, your second winter, you find yourself depressed. You have come, in this winter to know sadness, to find a place inside yourself that is larger than you will ever grow, that is rooted deeper than inherence. Your sadness is not dark and cavernous but dazzlingly white and never-ending. It is months long and well lit but ill formed at the edges, blurry at the horizon and soft, easy to get lost in. You think maybe if you stop moving it will go away but you start to go numb, lose your train of thought.  Like the snow, your sadness is seemingly unaffected by salt water, the warmth emitted by your body, your sibilant prayers for the world to stop spinning. And like your sadness, the snow is a constant reminder that you are not in control of much.

As time wears on you find yourself no longer a citizen of any land. You still cannot walk on ice but the heat in Ghana makes you break out into a rash. You have never really had a sense of belonging to any one place except this galaxy, but this loss is sad for some reason. There is fodder for poetry in this nomadic existence at the very least. You find yourself doing this a lot lately, trying to quell your pessimistic urges, thinking ‘there’s a poem in there somewhere.’ And if there is something strong enough to bridge the gap then it is this, finding beauty in the red smears your shoes leave in the snow.


“Fefe Naa Efe” also relies on incredibly concrete details worked into a half-seen scenario – in this case, a childhood divided between Africa and the States.
—M.T. Anderson, 2010 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge


First Kiss

Rachel Furey

Mom always said my first kiss would make my scalp tingle—make it light up like a summer field filled with fireflies. My first kiss wasn’t like that at all. My legs dangled from a chair in Nurse Jenkins’ office. I had a roll of gauze twisted into my right