Marginalia

Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti

There is a crush of Storm Troopers, Men of Steel, and Optimus Primes milling around the cavernous confines of the Javits Center. Surrounded by freaks and geeks, Astrid Atangana wonders how she and her friends—the self-styled Nyanga Girlz—come across to the Comic Con crowd. Mbola, rocking grills and street gear, calling herself “Fly Girl: Superman’s dope-ass cousin from the hood;” Mimi, in the Psylocke cosplay costume, pre-ordered from China a full month in advance; and her, a too tall black girl in a too short red kimono. Wearing bifocals, no less. She takes off her glasses. She cringes, thinking about the Princeton admissions letter, secreted away in a notebook, in the far reaches of her knapsack, then secures the bag’s straps, along with the side slung holster of her katana, for what feels like the kajillionth time.

“Batman has a nice booty,” Mimi opines, twirling an eely, purple hair strand that slithers and coils around her index finger. Her flinty eyes are fixated. Medusan, Astrid thinks, filled with equal parts fascination and disgust, watching her friend watching yet another guy.

“Which Batman?” Mbola asks. “There are like a billion Dark Knight wannabes up in this piece.”

Mimi is jerking her head to their left, whispering rapid-fire, “It’s the retro, Adam West-y one, over there, over by the Halo booth,” then loudly, “Oh my God, Astrid! Don’t look right at him.”

Astrid is already looking right at him. Staring, in fact. Mbola rolls her eyes in exasperation, yet all too soon she is staring too. Batman catches their gaze and gives them all an even-toothed, Tic Tac grin. Mimi denies him a smile. Instead she turns away, flips her synthetic tresses, then tosses him a knowing, coquettish look over her shoulder. Classic Mimi. Astrid hopes he’s worth it; hopes she gets a bang for her buck. The girl spent two weeks’ worth of pay to buy her wig—its shock of violet locks had to be the exact shade of purple as her costume; the cheapo wigs at the beauty supply in the West Orange mall where they all worked were deemed insufficiently “Con-worthy.”

A schlubby, East Asian Boy Wonder sidles over and palms Batman’s left butt cheek, his lingering hand partially obscured by a waterfall of midnight blue polyester. Manhandling, Astrid thinks, her brain continuing a week-long streak of randomly churning out “M” words, morphing her into some Tourette tic-ish freak. It was weird but strangely familiar, like the month after their class trip to see Hamilton on Broadway when quotidian conversations tempted her to segue into song. That month, talk of Batman’s heinie might have triggered wordless humming of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ’90s throwback hit “Baby Got Back” under her breath. Or at least some bars from the Nicki Minaj remix.

Mimi is glaring at the Dynamic Duo now. “Look Astrid. It’s one of your fairy tale up-the-rear endings.”

Mbola sniggers her approval of the diss.

Maleficents, Astrid thinks. She mentally kicks herself, again, for ever, EVER sharing her slash fan-fiction with these so-called friends. For months, they had cracked on her about Luke Skywalker letting Han Solo stroke his light saber during long and lonely desert nights on “Brokeback Tatooine.” She had almost given up on writing before she met Young Yoon at the comic book store. He was the one—the only one—who hadn’t laughed. Instead, he had pulled out a sketchpad and shown her his storyboards, shared panel upon panel of darkly rendered swordplay. The only text was his name in Hangul: 영윤. They’re pretty much just mimes right now. I need someone to give them a voice. Can you help with that, Astrid? And Astrid, knowing what it was like to be kept mute, had said yes. He was upstairs right now, manning their spot in artists’ alley. The one they had spent months scrap-ing together funds for in hopes that they could really make a go of all this.

Silently, Astrid packs up her ever-growing collection of Jetstream uni-ball pens, her glasses, and finally her notebook, its pages full of secret letters, story scribblings, and haiku descriptions of pass-ersby: Rotund Robin comes/Caped Crusader smiles, grateful/ Their night play begins.

“Where you goin’?” Mimi demands.

“The booth,” says Astrid. A misnomer really, it was just a table they were sharing with some other dude hawking a cheesy, bootleg comic about homicidal bees called Stinger.

“Yeah, tell the booth I said hi,” Mbola says, then turns to Mimi. “’cause that booth is fine as shit.”

Mbola has a crush on Young Yoon. An insistent one. She thinks he looks like Night—the humanoid robot cum heartthrob from her fave Japanese soap opera, Zettai Kareshi. She also thinks Astrid is secretly dating him. She is a dim bulb: her belief in Astrid’s fre-quent assertions that they are “just friends” flickers off, and on, and off again, fickly.

“You hear me, Astrid?” asks Mbola. “I said tell Young Money I said ‘make that paper.’ Get that shmoney. Get it. Get it.” She’s dancing and dipping low as she chants the last of it. Laughter wild, feral.

“Shut up, Mbola.” Mimi commands. “Come on Astrid . . . don’t get mad, girl. You promised. The panel, remember? The open buffet of K-town hotties.”

The panel that afternoon featured stars from Boys Over Flowers, Mimi’s fave Korean soap. Astrid was supposed to be Mimi’s Rosetta Stone wing-woman, pulling guys with the few Korean phrases Young had taught her. Simple stuff, really, like ‘hello,’ annyeong and ‘goodbye,’ annyeong.

Annyeong,” Astrid says, fidgeting with her katana strap, looking at the growing frown on Mimi’s face. “I’ll be back. Just going to check in, see if we sold anything.”

She doesn’t want to come back, doesn’t want to return to the cutting laughter and faux camaraderie of these frenemies, but she knows she will. She is “Elasti-Girl,” (cue sad trombones) bending and contorting to the will of others in a single fold. She hates this about herself, knowing that she will give up all this comic book mishegoss and cave under seismic maternal pressures to head off to an Ivy far, far away, leaving Young in the way more experienced hands of Mbola. It doesn’t take x-ray vision to see this. But for now, in this fantasy land, nothing is decided. She is surrounded by mild-mannered accountants, data entry specialists, computer analysts—all shedding their daytime skins. They thrill to their secret identities in a dreamscape free from the mundanities of rumored downsizings, late mortgage payments, and vacant relationships. For a brief time, they all are heroes. Her too.

#

That morning, Astrid had marveled at the surprising ease of her escape from home. As strongholds go, the Atangana household is rather well fortified, its days regimented by a rigorously upheld agenda of activities sanctioned by her mother. The totemic family calendar marks them all: “Saturday, October 27, 10am-2pm: Mrs. Atangana—church dinner planning meeting // Mr. Atangana—golf with colleagues at Fairlawn // Astrid—college prep with M.F.” M.F. is Mimi, with whom she is supposedly prepping for next week’s college campus tour. As alibis go, Mimi is pretty ideal. She is a play-cousin, from a suitable Cameroonian family that attends the same church as her own and who, above all, possesses the same immigrant values: education and hard work. The Forjindams own a similar beige-painted-by-numbers, prefab mansion a few blocks away from the Atanganas. Both families stoically take their steep suburban tax lumps so that their kids can grow up in nice homes, with really nice neighbors and even nicer school districts.

Mimi never makes straight As like Astrid in said schools, but she does sing in their church’s youth choir, the ultimate imprimatur of a “good girl.” With a thrill, Astrid sometimes likes to imagine the look on her mother’s face if she ever found out that Mimi had had her purity ring resized so she could slip it off effortlessly when she went out on dates. She knows what her mother’s face looks like around Mbola already: the upturned nose, the repeated sniffing. Mbola is a distant relative of the Forjindams. She lives in East Orange, the bizarro West Orange, where her asylum-seeker parents braid hair, tend other people’s lawns, and receive ill-con-sidered hand-me-downs and hand-outs from their West Orange kin. Even further removed from making straight A’s than Mimi, Mbola teases Astrid for “talking white” and attends a crowded high school with metal detectors and girls named after luxury cars and liqueurs like Alizé or Lexus. Astrid’s mother thinks Mbola is an unsavory influence. “Unsavory” like corrupt food left too long on a countertop.

“…And make sure you remind Mrs. Forjindam to bring her okra stew to the church dinner this Sunday, Astrid,” said her mother that morning, cleaving through the family room and its stuffy coterie of plastic-covered couches on her way to the garage. Astrid, her proximity alert blinking rapidly, had hurried in from the kitchen, only three steps behind the hull of her mother’s retreating form.

“Astrid! See me trouble, oh. Where is that girl?” Her mother had stopped, mid-stride, suddenly sensing that perhaps she hadn’t been automatically attended to.

“I’m here, Mummy,” Astrid said.

“Yes, you are. Don’t forget what I told you about the dinner,” said her mother, charging forward once more. Into the garage, then hiking up into her towering Benz M-Class; her mother ticked through her checklist: put dishes in washer, Astrid (garage remote in hand, slow mechanized garage door lifting with the creak of an outdated android), call your grandmother, Astrid (keys turn in the ignition, the craft readies for departure).

“Yes, Mummy,” said Astrid, then again, “yes, Mummy.” The last said to empty air. Her mother had finally taken off.

#

On the PATH train platform into the city, Young, Mimi, and Mbola had assessed Astrid’s costume.

“What are you supposed to be?” Mbola had finally asked, her voice filled with no small amount of suspicion.

“What she is is highly ‘sketch,’” Young answered, giving her his highest praise in a worldview filled with two types of people: those noteworthy enough to be “sketch,” and all the rest who were just plain old “unsketchable.”

“She’s that ninja superhero chick from their comic book,” said Mimi.

“She’s a samurai. And it’s a graphic novel,” said Young.

“Whatevs, superheroes don’t wear glasses,” said Mimi, with finality.

“What about Clark Kent or Beast?” Mbola said, eager to support her wished-for future baby daddy.

“And Cyclops wears that visor thingy so he don’t burn folk up with his eyes. Ooh, ooh, and what ‘bout your girl Wonder Woman, Mimi, what about her?”

“Alter egos don’t count,” Mimi said. “When she’s Wonder Woman, she’s perfect.”

The two girls bickered as Young and Astrid swapped home evasion stories involving synchronized watches and draconian parental curfews.

At the mention of his father, Young sighed repeatedly, running charcoal-stained fingers through his crazed, anime hair, its spiky tufts defiant, jabbing the air excitedly like inky exclamation points. His Dad, senior pastor at the biggest Korean Presbyterian church in Central Jersey, bowed a head full of gelled, upstanding Kim Jong-Il hair in prayer every Sunday morning at 8 am, 10 am and 12 o’clock services. The right Reverend Yoon had serious hair and serious plans for his son to be leader of his flock someday.

Plans that did not involve Young’s blind older brother Park or having his youngest son succumb to a life of frivolous etching.

“You’re going to have to tell him about the letter sooner or later,” Astrid said. “You have to speak up for yourself someday, senpai.”

“Right back at you, kōhai.”

There were two letters actually: Young’s acceptance to a fine arts program at Pratt and Astrid’s to Princeton. Hers was in the note-book she carried everywhere, kept close to her chest like a breath or a promise. Young’s was tucked away, alongside his art supplies, in a hidey hole at school. Both were safeguarded from mothers who “accidentally” read your diary or fathers who sprinkled your “heathenish” art work with holy water.

Young had sighed once again. “Look, tell her you don’t want to go to Princeton. What’s your mother gonna do? Whip out The Photo again?”

The Photo was legendary among her friends, holding sway in their collective imaginations like lore of the One Ring or the Sorcerer’s Stone. Astrid had first seen The Photo when she was ten years old, slipping peas to their dog, Ahidjo under the dining room table. Her mother put her fork down and left the room. She returned with a photo—it was not The Photo yet—but her mother held it up to her face with all the import that it would soon come to hold. You see, Astrid had grown up listening to her classmates’ stories of how tricky parents guilted them into eating liver, Brussels sprouts, and the like with tales of all the little children starving in Africa. Except for Astrid, there was no mystery mal-nourished African child behind door number two.

That child was real.

That child was a relative.

This is your cousin Adama,” her mother had said, pushing the photo even closer to her face, “Look at her! Do you think she can refuse food? Do you?” And Astrid had looked at the little girl standing barefoot in a blush of red dust, yet improbably clean; clad only in a trophy-shiny Super Bowl T-shirt, donation bin-wear from a team that had lost the championship. Adama stood there smiling, a mud brick hut behind her, an uncertain future ahead of her, and the photo became The Photo: her mother’s insurance for her good grades—Adama’s parents could barely afford her school fees—and good behavior—if Adama misbehaved, she was disciplined with a caning. It had worked for a longer time than Astrid was willing to own up to, even to herself.

“I can’t tell my mother anything,” Astrid said. “She’ll kill me.”

“Sure, she will.”

“No, I mean it.” Suddenly, Astrid had a vision, so vivid—Mittyesque her mind supplies. God, she wished her life was that Technicolor, or un-life, as it were. There she lay, her lifeless body prone with arms akimbo in a ghoulish foxtrot, in a photo labeled “Exhibit A.” There was Gwendolyn, her somber older sis the attorney—African parent-approved career #1—defending her mother in court as her brother Elias, the doctor—African parent-approved career #2—testified about “mental duress” and “temporary insanity.”

“If only she had gone to Princeton and become an engineer!” Her mother wailed as a jury of sympathetic peers nodded in understanding. Lawyer, doctor, engineer—the high holy trinity of professions blessed by African parents. Writing graphic novels? No. Friggin’. Way.

#

Astrid and Young “Money” Yoon’s table is at the tail end of a striv-ers’ row of indie comic labels, one-off prints, and handmade fabulist’s figurines. For a moment, Astrid is hopeful when she sees Young talking to a guy who is leafing through their dwindling maybe? stack of merchandise, but then she puts her glasses back on and realizes it’s no customer, just Abel—the skeevy owner of the comic book store at their mall.

“How big was your print run?” Astrid hears Abel ask, as she steps up to the pair, lychee bubble tea in hand.

“’Bout 1000,” Young says.

Astrid nearly spit-takes her boba at Young’s inventive salesmanship. They had really only printed 300 copies of The Seer: The Tales of Augur Brown, a blind swordswoman—Zatoichi meets Cleopatra Jones. Augur had an eerie ability to see inside evildoer’s souls and dispensed a blade-based justice, according to a personal ethos loosely derived from bushido code and the laws of the street.

“Wow, you mean business, dude. I thought this was some sorta vanity project.”

“We told you we were serious about this,” Young says.

Astrid smirks at his emphasis, she can’t help herself.

“Tell you what. I’ll display a coupla copies on my shelves and go in 50/50 on the sales price. Deal?” says Abel, head bobbing in emphasis. His graying ponytail practically wagged with excitement at the thought of profits.

“I’ve got to discuss it with my business partner.” Young looks at Astrid.

“Sure, sure. You do that,” Abel says, then turning to Astrid, says, “Nice get-up.”

Astrid looks at his retreating Hawaiian-shirted bulk, then at Young. She raises an eyebrow.

“I know, I know. He’s a chauvinist ass, who only likes his girls chesty and splayed across comic book covers. Blah, blah, you said it already. Now get over it.” He smiles.

They both knew about Abel’s collection of hentai back in his store room; his top shelf titles held for special clientele with a taste for saucer-eyed dakimakura girls, kitted out in abbreviated plaid minis with Hello Kitty backpacks, and being ravaged by slimy tentacles in every orifice.

“Whatevs,” says Astrid, turning to go. She smiles sweetly. “BTDubz, your girl Mbola says ’Hi’.”

“She’s sooo not sketch,” Young replies.

The first time Young had called Astrid “sketch,” she had kept quiet. She’d just shown him the first draft of her script for Augur Brown’s next installment. They were sitting together on a tweedy brown sofa in a tucked-by corner of the library, their legs inches apart but no actual contact ever made. Astrid found herself wiping suddenly-clammy hands and then her glasses on the hem of her flowery summer dress. Daffodil petals swept clean one lens then the other. Young was silent, poring through her work. When he looked up his eyes seemed to pinball all over her. What was he thinking?What was she thinking? She wrote stories in the margins of textbooks: tales of a father killing his infant son to end a family curse unfolded alongside tangents and quadrants in Bittinger’s Algebra and Trigonometry: Seventh Edition with enhanced study guide: a tale of two sisters on a Jack Sprat spectrum of eating disorders: one anorexic, the other obese, was in the paginated sidelines of Essential Physics by E. W. Rockswold. A niggling shame began coursing its way through her body, burrowing in deep like a chigger, down, down, down. Young finally looked her in the eye, then cast his gaze on the page, then on her again.

“Thank you,” he said simply, pulling out a vast, world-building expanse of drawing paper. He drew her. It had taken all of five minutes but when he finished it felt like the first time, in a long while, that anyone had ever seen her, the real her. Not the “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” or the “damn you tall, shorty” regard that made her feel like some gawky girl Groot.

Young found her lovely. He found her, like he had set sail that day and miraculously discovered her, landing, wide-eyed and intrepid on uncharted shores.

That night she went home. Said the proper “yes, Mummys” at the dinner table and dutifully passed the egusi stew when prompted, all the while this new awareness surging inside like a secret superpower, tingling through her. She looked up sharply. Had her mother just given her a look from across the gari? She gulped the rest of her food as quietly as possible.

Later, in the dark of her room, she was glowing. A thousand Christmas lights flashing and manic, just under her skin. The sensation only just bearable. She knew how to be quiet about relieving the tension, no telltale rustling of bed sheets, no sighs—just a long pillow held tight between the soft V of her thighs, then a squeeze, a squeeze, a squeeze.

#

After way too many texts—where u at? /getting sumthin 2 eat/by auditorium/naw, by Spidey statue/huh?—Astrid finds Mimi in a clutch of adoring fans posing for photos. Mbola is ringside, holding Mimi’s Gucci purse. Astrid supposes all the attention is partly the novelty of Mimi as a “black girl Psylocke,” but most probably because her costume is basically a leotard and some strategically placed purple scarves which barely conceal her massive boobs. Mammaries, Astrid thinks. Mammaries.

Back home in Cameroon, some tribes iron girls’ breasts when they develop too fast. Wooden pestles pounded foufou and flesh alike, anything that was sharp or unyielding would do really: a grinding stone, a coconut shell, a hammer held steady-handed over hot coals. Mothers beat down their daughters’ breasts to keep them safe from come-too-quick womanhood, from the lingering gazes of that older Uncle, that school master, that strapping boy in the classroom’s corner desk at their secondary school. Her mother was born of this tradition. Astrid sometimes caught her mother eyeing her long, wayward limbs in exasperation, as if her growth spurt was somehow a calculated rebellion. Astrid tries to be good, she does, but the harder she tries the harder her mother becomes, still. Her sister Gwendolyn had tried to explain it once, stuff about Astrid being the “last cocoa,” the late-life child their flagging mother tried doubly hard to keep in line yada, yada, yada. It was all so exhausting—her mother’s worries, her nameless fears—but Astrid supposed this was why her mother had lied about The Photo.

A week ago, Astrid had learned the truth, surrounded by dark Twilight poster boys vamping at her from the walls of Mimi’s bedroom. She was checking her Facebook page: scrolling past four pokes, two event invites, and then onto three friend requests. Two were easily dismissed but the third was from some girl she vaguely felt she should know. Someone from summer camp, a Sugar Pine alum maybe? No, the girl listed her hometown as Bamenda, Cameroon. She almost asked her girls if they knew her, but they were busy: Mimi, supposedly studying but in actual truth, instant messaging with a Parisian bodybuilder on Snapchat and a Filipino Tinderoni in BK; Mbola, checking out YouTube tutorials, how-to vids by Ms. D. Vine on the best way to install your own lace front weave. She looked at the girl’s warm, glossy-lipped smile again and stopped cold. It was Adama. As in her cousin, Adama. Adama with 579 friends. Astrid had 32. Adama in dozens of duck-faced selfies and ussies. Astrid had a grainy, class photo as her profile pic. Wearing bifocals, no less. There was Adama with a braided faux-hawk, with kinky twists, in an Escalade, on a merry-go-round, with a cleft-chinned guy tagged as Okono Tambe and a barrel-chested footballer, a Mark Konwifo. What the–?

Astrid jumped up, stumbled to the bathroom, and promptly threw up.

How lame is my life? She thought, then dry heaved once more. Twice more. What life?

Two days later she got her acceptance letter to Princeton, its words standing dark and ominous against the creamy paper. It was official. The reality of that almost made her throw up again. She felt ridiculous for dreaming beyond the picture-perfect life her family wanted for her: nice cars, nice houses, nice husbands, nice jobs. All so tidy. So prefab. Sometimes she went to the mall to get messy, to fuck things up. To pocket pens behind the cashier’s back and fill that well inside herself. Why? Why did she have to make such a mess of things and want more?

“Ouch. What the–?”

Someone just stepped on Astrid’s big toe. Post-photo-op, there is some slight jostling and jockeying for position among the tight band of young men—some spandexed, some not, some with eager lenses jutting, some with limp camera straps dangling and tangling as they pressed in close to her friend. Astrid moves back a bit and her sheathed katana pokes a guy in the belly.

“Sorry,” she mumbles.

“No worries,” he says, looking her over as he rubs his deflated paunch. “Who are you supposed to be?”

“I’m still trying to figure that one out,” Astrid replies.

#

Astrid stares down at the NYC subway bench with its ritual scar-ifications, its palimpsest of celebrity memorials: Tupac 4 Life, R.I.P. Biggie, Forever Whitney. On their trek back to Jersey, Mbola and Astrid sit together silently for a number of reasons.

First, their mouths are full. Astrid is chewing wasabi nuts; Mbola is sucking on sunflower seeds, spitting their recently desalinated husks in a long trail that makes Astrid think of children lost in fairytale woodlands.

Second, they are exhausted. The rest of the afternoon had surged forward in a blur: an advance screening of a new Whedonverse TV show; Mimi’s “honorable mention” in a cosplay contest; a pretty informative panel on how to survive the impending zombie apocalypse. While the “panelists”—three guys in fatigues toting Day-Glo orange rifles—handed out copies of an actual Center for Disease Control zombie-preparedness guide, Mimi and Mbola argued survival scenarios, should an outbreak happen in Africa. Mimi figured high body counts: They can’t even cure Ebola, let alone some zombie virus. Mbola was a tad more optimistic: Stop playing. They would ether them zombie mofos. Them motherland Africans stay packing machetes. Astrid tuned them out and took detailed notes, research for her lemony Richonne one shots, on the instruction drills for how to kill or successfully elude the walking dead. Differentiating, of course, between Romero’s slow, lurching Dawn of the Dead revenants and the fast-moving undead “zoombies” of 28 Days and its ilk. Kill shots to the head were deemed universally appropriate.

Third, and most importantly, Astrid and Mbola are silent because they are alone. Mimi, their buffer, had decamped to a cousin’s house in the Bronx, leaving them in one of those awkward moments when their simmering dislike—usually confined to the occasional whitehead flare-up—now took on a life its own, gained sentience, planned world domination.

Mbola spit out another sunflower seed, breaking the silence, saying, “I read your stuff today. It’s mad dark.”

“Yeah, that’s Young’s style,” says Astrid. Young was crazy for chiaroscuro—all inky blacks, bone-whites with the occasional splash of red in a flagrant homage to his idol, Frank Miller. Her story lines fit the tone.

“You know just what his style is, don’t chu?” Mbola says. “The way you be all up on him, all the time.”

Astrid knows that Mbola is decidedly not Young’s style. He had dismissed the idea of dating her in less than a minute.

Mbola? I’d rather date a Japanese body pillow—better personality.

She’s not all that bad.

She’s crazy, and loud, and –

Whatevs, date the pillow chick. I’m sure you and Keiko-tan will have a nice life together.

Damn straight. Once you go moe you never go back.

Mmmhmm. Better not honeymoon in Paris though.

Astrid had dropped an imaginary mic as she said this, then threw her hands in the air for that burn to end all burns. Shinnichis that they were, that Sunday night’s viewing pleasure had been a docu-mentary on the frequent mental breakdowns of Japanese tourists in the land of croissants and vin rouge.

Alright, alright. I gotta give it up for a PBS snap. Young said, laughing.

“Astrid! Is you listening? You don’t got nothing to say? You too good to talk to me?” Rat-a-tat questions from Mbola, who was working herself into a state, firing up.

“No, I just–”

“Yes, you. You always looking at people and writin’. What you got in that pad about me? You know you ain’t better than nobody. You ain’t no hero.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Tahlmbout you, bitch. You s’posed to be that blind ninja chick, Blue Ivy, Augur Blue–”

“Brown.”

“Blue-black, doodoo brown, whateva . . . You ain’t her, you weak,” says Mbola, poking a long acrylic talon at Astrid’s face. “She can’t see but at least she can open her damn mouth to talk. More than your ass can do.”

“Get your finger out my face,” Astrid claps back, refusing to step away, to cower, but then she falls silent. She always falls. The platform is hollow with her silence till the homeless man slumped over three benches away lets out a random fart. Till Astrid hears the muffled rumble of a train approaching on the opposite track. No more, no more, no more, no more, she thinks, feeling a pounding in her blood as the train, and Mbola draw nearer. No more, no more, no more, no more!

Astrid flashes to a vivid scene, another vision. Her katana slashes at air and sinew and bone. Blood blossoms from jagged platform cracks like vengeful roses. All that is left of Mbola, and her scorn, lies ruined at her feet.

Art Credit: Rossowinch Art

“Hey! I’m talking to you!” Mbola’s strident voice zaps Augur/Astrid back to reality.

“Yeah, get all quiet again, smart-girl,” Mbola continues. “You so smart, why come you got to sneak out your house? Why you stay lying to your Momz all the time?”

Mbola pushes her then. And for the first time in her life, Astrid pushes back.

She slaps, she jabs, she dodges Mbola’s left hook. In their tussle, Mbola grabs her knapsack. Pulls away, panting and triumphant, holding it over the tracks.

“I’ll drop it, bee-yatch,” Mbola snarls through a bloodied, already swelling lip.

“Just try it,” Astrid says, slowly unsheathing her katana. It’s a dull replica really, but she knows if she puts enough force behind a blow, it will hurt like a motherfucker. Her mind fills with chiaroscuro, a darkness of slashing things: Mbola, Abel, her mother, and finally The Photo—nearly bowling her over, nauseous with a need to hurt something. But then suddenly there is a lightness. She feels freed, and is filled with an awareness of her life beyond this moment, a future that is hers to choose, so she hopes. And there’s that tingling again, the itching, sticky glow of it under her skin. She knows the truth of it now.

Mojo, Astrid thinks. Mojo.

She lifts her chin high, lowering her sword to her side as she walks towards Mbola.

“Just try me,” she says.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Image: Nowinski, Maggie. “Untitled Adaptation (Musclehead).” 2016. Pen and ink on paper, 26” x 40”.

Objects of Unexpected Beauty

Lara Ehrlich

My father sits at the kitchen table with his shoulders hunched, staring at a feather cupped in his rough carpenter’s hands. Its barbs are clean and white. The table is bare except for the wooden box still encrusted with dirt. It has no latch, no key. My mother had to bash it open.

The kitchen is cold, and there is no dinner. Seventh grade ended today, so there is no homework. We sit across from each other in silence. I’m often restless, though I try not to be. “Young ladies should not fidget,” my father always says. I will never be a lady.

I try not to fidget tonight, and even sit up straight. There is dirt under my fingernails. I hide my hands in my lap so my father won’t see, but he has forgotten I’m here. He just stares at the feather and doesn’t say goodnight when I go upstairs, my stomach growling.

In my room, there is a feather on my pillow. It glows white in the dark; the special kind of dark that makes you worry you’ve gone blind. When I was little and still afraid, my mother would lie with me, telling me story after story. Little girls who fell in love turned into sea foam or wind. They walked as if on knives, kept silent for seven years, wove thistle shirts until their fingers bled. They never learned to leave locked doors alone. Hunters and thieves and kings pursued them, carved out their hearts, scooped out their eyes, and snipped off their tongues. She told her own story like a fairy tale.

I do not brush my teeth tonight, since she is not here to make me. I cannot hear my father. Maybe he has fallen asleep at the kitchen table. The only sound is the house groaning as it settles.

My father built this house with his own hands. He learned to build from his father, who learned from his father, who made whaling ships. People came from miles around to watch my great-grandfather erect giant ribcages on the shore. He sliced the trees into wide planks and laid them side-by-side. He ran rope between the boards so when they swelled with water, they wouldn’t crack.

My father makes houses like boats, with wood and rope. He built our house for my mother over the pond where they met. He filled the pond with stones, a foundation for their love.

#

There are scraping noises below my window. It is still dark, but I can just make out my father at the edge of the yard by the woods. He digs up the grass from the back door to the edge of the forest. He digs until our yard is a pit of stones surrounded by mountains of dirt.

My father thrusts his shovel under each stone and leans on the handle, so hard it creaks. Finally, the stone sighs a puff of dirt and my father picks it up, bending his knees and keeping his back straight the way we learned how to lift weights in gym class. It was the only useful thing I learned in gym class. He heaves the stones to the side along the tree line until they make a wall around the hole.

My father does not eat the sandwich I make for him. When I ask what he’s doing, he just shakes his head, so I do not ask again. He doesn’t seem to remember that he signed me up for ballet this summer, and I am not going to remind him. I pack my compass and canteen, and slip into the woods.

My mother used to send me searching for what she called “objects of unexpected beauty,” as though she didn’t expect me to find beauty in Stone. But it is here, in the wide fields with crisscrossing stone walls—and the stones themselves. They seem so plain at first, but upon closer inspection, there are threads of quartz glimmering through the granite. It’s true that there’s only so much to Stone, but I have walked the perimeter exactly two hundred and ninety-nine times and I’ve discovered something new on every journey.

I used to bring my treasures to my mother—a stuffed bear with one eye, an hourglass with no sand. In the beginning, she pretended to admire my treasures, but as time passed, she stopped looking, until I no longer brought her anything. The box was different. When I offered it to my mother, her hands shook.

My mother said girls have to take care of themselves. That’s how we avoid turning into sea foam and falling down wells. That’s how we escape hunters and kings who chop and carve and snip and steal. That’s why I practice punching every afternoon.

I got my boxing pad from Old Bob Brick, who works at the deli counter. The veins on the backs of his hands bulge like roots. He was a boxer, and his knuckles are calloused from breaking noses. I like to stare at them while he carefully slices the deli meat. One day, I will have hands like his.

There is a nail on the side of the house where I can hang my pad at punching level. The ground is eroded at the base of the wall here, like gums worn away at a tooth’s root. The box was wedged between two exposed foundation stones.

I do one hundred punches on one side, then a hundred more on the other. The first few weeks of training, my arms ached after twenty punches. Then fifty. Then seventy-five. Now I have calluses on the first two knuckles of each hand.

My father does not like the calluses. He says my bones are still growing. He does not understand that I have to take care of myself. “That’s my job,” he says, while he combs the tangles from my hair.

He has not combed my hair since the night before last, and the tangles may never come out. He has been digging without rest. His palms are blistered and bleeding. He’s tired, but he is not weak. When David Redd pushed me into the deep end and I couldn’t make it to the edge, my father dragged me out. He threatened to kill David if he ever touched me again. David tripped me in gym the next day, but I didn’t tell my father. I just punched him in the stomach, and he hasn’t bothered me since.

When my knuckles are sore, I make my three-hundredth journey around Stone. It feels like time should have stopped when my mother left, but the town continues without us. People go about their lives, shopping for groceries and discussing car repairs in loud voices. The sidewalks and shop windows are too bright, as if it’s just rained.

I return to the dirt and the stone walls and my father’s silence. I help dig.

Digging is useful. I can feel my muscles tearing and reknitting stronger than before. I pretend I’m searching for treasure. I find a trove of shells that gleam in the sun. I find a skeleton with wing bones folded tight around a hollow heart space. The swan’s long notched neck is graceful even in death.

My father won’t let me keep it. He lifts it with his shovel and deposits it gently in the woods.

#

When the wall of stones has reached my waist, my father pries up a rock, and the earth below it becomes wet, the way blood wells up after a tooth is pulled. He shouts, and I drop my shovel. He spins me in circles, slipping in the mud. He has never had trouble lifting me before. His eyes are wide and his mouth is open as if he might laugh.

He digs with renewed purpose, though he will not say why. Blood runs down the shovel handle. I help him dig into the damp space, and by evening, a pocket of what used to be our backyard is filled with water.

My father is still digging when I go up to bed without brushing my teeth. I haven’t brushed them in three days, since my mother left. I lie on top of the sheets, guarding my treasures. It is too hot to sleep, and the shovel scrapes below my window.

Sometimes, when my mother did not feel like telling stories, she would ask what I wanted to be when I grow up. An archaeologist. Geologist. Anthropologist. “What else?” she asked. Architect. Historian. “What else?”

She would lament that she had never accomplished anything, except having me. She wanted to be an artist, but had nothing to paint. My father suggested art classes at the community college, but the house would fall apart without her, she said.

She’d lie in bed beside me in the dark, and as she drew one finger between my eyes, she’d say, “You’re the best thing in my life.”

#

My father is asleep on the steps with his head resting against the house. His legs are outstretched, his feet submerged in the pond that has conquered our backyard. His face is tipped to the sun. His nose is peeling, and his cheeks are shadowed with stubble. When I sit beside him, he drags his eyes open, as if they are made of iron.

“Now she’ll come home.” His voice is rusty.

My father knows better than that. He knows my mother’s stories as well as I do. One task is not enough to win her back. He must move a mountain with a silver spoon. Or plant an orchard in a single day. And when he finally finds my mother, he must keep his arms around her, even when she turns into a viper or fire or cloud of wasps. He must prove he deserves her.

The totems that help a hero along a magical quest are as elusive as breadcrumbs. Knotholes disguise entries to other worlds. Wooden shoes take the hero bounding across the ocean. I keep my powers of observation sharp so I won’t miss something and end up spitting toads.

Armed with my compass and canteen, and my mother’s feather in the pouch around my neck, I scour the woods for enchantments. While my father is resting, I will discover the next task. It’s my fault she left, after all.

I’m concentrating so hard I trip over the swan skeleton tangled in a nest of vines. Its neck bones have tumbled into a heap. They are smooth, as if worn by waves. I arrange them like a puzzle, except for the one I slip into the pouch with the feather.

A pebble glances off the top of my head, and a boy laughs in the branches. Though he is very high, I can see that when he laughs, the corners of his eyes crinkle.

“Who are you?” he calls down to me.

“Alex.”

“That’s a boy’s name.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s short for Alexandra.”

He looks at me thoughtfully, without blinking.

“I’m Amir,” he says. “You can come up, if you want.”

I don’t need his permission, but I’m good at climbing trees. I know just where to put my feet. And a tree is almost as good as a roof for searching out secrets. The light sifts through the branches as though I’m underwater, climbing toward the sun.

Amir slides back on his branch to let me sit beside him.

“Most girls can’t climb that well,” he says.

His voice rises and falls. I know all about how boys’ voices fly out of their control, which must be embarrassing.

“They could if they trained.”

He raises one eyebrow, as if he’s practiced in front of the mirror.

I can see everything from here: my father’s pond, my father on the steps, the road running out to the highway. I can see all the secrets in a town that says it has no secrets.

“Did you hear about the bear bullet?” Amir asks. “Last week on I-90, two cars were driving from opposite directions, both going about eighty miles an hour—”

“Is this a math problem?” It’s rude to interrupt, but I don’t like math. I don’t like questions about two trains coming from opposite directions and what time they would reach the station. In the real world, you’d just check the train schedule.

“Two cars were coming from opposite directions,” he says, as if he hadn’t heard me, “and a bear came loping out of the woods. One car hit it—whack!—and sent it flying like a bullet right through the windshield of the other car.” He slams his palms together. “A bear bullet.”

“Was the bear okay?”

“Of course not.”

His smugness is annoying, but my father says it’s not polite for a young lady to point out other people’s faults, especially when she has so many of her own.

“Have I disturbed you?” He looks a little nervous, as if I might cry. So I tell him one of my mother’s stories, about the Marsh King who dragged a maiden down into the deep, black mud to be his bride.

A smile cracks across his face. He unwinds a rope from the trunk, and a basket descends from the branches. He is well fortified. There are other ropes leading to a box of cookies, a flashlight, a bucket of rocks he calls missiles. He even has a net to trap intruders. He says I am lucky he didn’t use his net on me because he made it himself and it’s strong enough to capture a full-grown man. He could live up here, if he had to.

Across the pond, my father stands and steadies himself against the house. His ribs poke through his shirt. He rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms like a little boy, but no one would dare to pity him.

“What’s wrong with him?” Amir asks, his eyes gentle with concern, as if he pities me.

“Nothing’s wrong with him.” I have my father’s temper. My eyes bug out and a vein in my forehead twitches like a worm on a hook. Sometimes, I make myself mad on purpose, just to watch my face change.

“We’re on a quest, and you’re wasting my time.” I shove back on the branch so fast I upset one of his baskets, and missiles rain to the ground. Amir grabs my wrist.

“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice soaring out of reach. “If you tell me about it, I can help. I can teach you to make nets and launch missiles.”

His fingers are hot. His eyes are blue. My mother warned me not to trust boys; they will take what they want without asking. But Amir can’t take anything from me. I have calluses on my knuckles and scabs on my knees. I’ve made it to one hundred and ten punches without getting tired.

“I don’t need help.” I leap from the tree in a single bound.

#

How My Parents Met, my father’s story:

He was putting a roof on Old Bob Brick’s house. You can see everything from a roof, like how the forest around Stone goes on forever. You can see all the secrets in a town that says it has no secrets.

From the roofs of Stone, my father saw Mrs. Milne the librarian kissing Mrs. Fuste the pharmacist behind the grocery store. He saw Millie Rosewood sneak a cigar out of Old Bob Brick’s pocket while he napped in his backyard. He saw Marcus White’s fiancée break his heart, and he saw Marcus walk into the woods without a compass or a canteen. My father watched and watched, but Marcus never returned.

My father saw many other fascinating things—but by far, the most fascinating was my mother. He was sitting on the roof, eating his supper and looking for secrets, when he saw her, bathing in the pond.

My father stole through the trees to the water’s edge. My mother had left her dress on the ground, and he picked it up so it wouldn’t get wet. He stood there, holding my mother’s dress.

He says she wasn’t embarrassed. She waded from the pond and held out her hand. And that is how my parents met.

How My Parents Met, my mother’s story:

She would say nothing, only sigh.

#

My stomach groans in my sleep. The house groans too, shuddering away from the water that laps at its sides. A film is closing over my father’s pond, and mosquitoes hum above it like a storm cloud. My father waits on the back steps. He waits for the king of the birds, or the wise fish, or the wind. He waits for someone to tell him what’s next.

He doesn’t answer when I ask why he’s not eating his sandwich. He just stands in the shadow of the house, staring at the pond. Maybe he has sold his voice to the sea witch, or taken a vow of silence.

He has deep wells below his eyes. I wrap my arms around his waist like I did when I was little. The mosquitoes whine above the pond. My father’s heart beats against my cheek. I used to find his hug reassuring.

He breaks free of my arms and staggers inside as if he has never walked before. The hallway light gleams off his scalp where his dark hair is wearing away. At the end of the hall behind the staircase, he shifts aside the chair that guards my mother’s studio. It was a storage room until one day he covered my mother’s eyes and led her inside. He’d exchanged the boxes and cleaning supplies for a couch and an easel with a fresh canvas. He’d hung her favorite picture on the wall. In it, a woman stands at a window with her hips cocked, one foot tipped behind her. Her hair is tousled like she just woke up. All you can see out the window is water, as if the house is floating on the ocean.

My mother flung her arms around my father’s neck, her dark hair falling loose. My father dipped his hands into it, as she looked up at him, smiling. I remember that smile because I saw it so rarely—when I asked for another bedtime story, when I brought her my first treasure.

My father closes the door behind him. The flies circle his uneaten sandwich. I should have kept my arms around him.

I won’t let the house fall apart. I wash my father’s dish and sweep the dirt from the doorway. There is nothing left to do, and yet my mother was always harried. She washed the dishes and the laundry, and when the dishes and the laundry were finished, she mopped the floor. By the time the floor was dry, there was more laundry, and then dinner and more dishes. Endless chores kept her from leaving the house, until her skin was so pale her veins shone through it like rivers.

A plank jumps beneath my feet. A moan shakes the foundation. The floorboards ripple from wall to wall, but the straining ropes hold them in place as they crack like knuckles. I press my eye to a knothole. Water glimmers below the floorboards. The spark of golden fish. The Marsh King’s milky eyes glowing in the gloom. A knock so loud I thump my forehead on the floor.

It’s just Amir on the front steps. He holds out a bag of powdered donuts and asks if I’ll teach him how to punch. The Marsh King moans deep under the house.

#

Amir’s fingers are long and narrow, and his nails are bitten down. My hands are not as quick—but they are stronger. He admires my calluses, and I teach him to keep his thumb folded over his knuckles as he punches. He leaves streaks of blood on my punching pad. When sweat runs into his eyes, he asks me to tie a bandana around his forehead. My fingers fumble in his hair as I pull the knot tight.

While my father sews robes from thistles or spins flax into gold, Amir and I collect missiles. He shows me how to weave a net that can capture a full-grown man. He doesn’t tease me like the boys at school, or tell me I don’t act like a girl. He doesn’t care that I haven’t brushed my teeth in days. And he is a good audience for my mother’s stories. He likes their darkness, full of wind and stolen voices.

Amir has heard the same stories—except the versions he knows have been milked of their poison. They have cartoon villains and happy endings. He likes mine better, he says, while his fi ngers knot the twine. In my mother’s stories, the monsters are real.

The trunk warms my back. The branch grazes my thighs. My legs hang in the hot air as Amir pulls a picnic basket up through the branches. Sandwiches and lemonade and chocolate chip cookies. He smells like chalk on hot pavement.

“Do you believe in monsters?” he asks. His hands tighten on the rope. Our picnic swings in the sun.

“Of course.”

“The Marsh King and the troll at the bridge, Rumpelstiltskin and the Undertoad—they’re all the same,” he says.

“I guess they could be.”

When I close my eyes, the sun glows through my eyelids. I practice heightening my other senses. The hairs on my arms lift as the wind swings to the east. I feel the warmth of Amir’s legs, so close to mine but not quite touching. If I listen hard enough, I might hear what the wind is saying.

“I’ve seen him,” Amir says, hugging the branch with his knees as if afraid he’ll fall.

“Who?”

“The Marsh King. He’s as big as a bull and covered in warts. He eats children and pets, and his mouth is so wide he could swallow you whole. He waits below your bed, and under the stairs, and in the pool to drag you down by the ankles. And he’s not always hiding. Sometimes, he’ll sit at the kitchen table with a newspaper. Or wait in the truck, listening to the radio. He could be anywhere.”

He weighs a missile in his palm.

The missiles are chunks of granite mottled with quartz. I slip one into my pouch with the feather and the bone. It knocks heavy against my chest.

I let him hold the feather, burning white against his sun-dark hands. He strokes the barbs with his fingertip so they separate and reseal in a neat row. He listens as I tell him the one story I’ve held back, the one that bound my mother to Stone, to my father and me.

Amir spins the feather between his fingertips. He is silent so long I wish I hadn’t said anything. Then he tucks the feather behind my ear.

#

Cracks spider up the walls. The Marsh King’s milky eyes glow beneath the floorboards. He will not answer my questions.

Amir and I search for entrances to other worlds and the wooden shoes that take the hero bounding across the ocean. We trace the same old paths through the woods and collect missiles and weave nets, but nothing happens.

We wait on the back steps for the king of the birds, or the wise fish, or the wind. I don’t know what’s next. The day is empty and heavy. Amir stirs the water with his toes, sending sluggish ripples against the house. My knee sweats where it presses against his, and our feet are ghostlike beneath the water. A mosquito alights on my wrist. Amir brushes it away, and the pressure of his fingers remains long after his touch.

The studio door is locked. I press my ear to the wood, and though I can’t hear my father, I know he is still hard at work. But he needs to act faster. Soon, she will forget us.

#

The darkness is so thick my eyes ache. My bed skates across the floorboards. My pictures tip off the walls as the house keels like a ship on a rough sea.

The water ripples from my steps in oily rings. Here, at the spot where I found my mother’s box, the house rises off its foundation. The pond has reclaimed the land beneath it. Between the house and the pond there is a sliver of space like a cavern at low tide. All this time, I’ve been peering into knotholes, while this must be the entrance to my mother’s world. The cavern is just high enough for me to crawl inside.

“What are you doing?” Amir kneels beside me. He peers under the house, the planes of his shoulder blades lifting beneath his shirt. The mosquitoes swarm around us. The water soaks up my legs as I crawl into the cavern.

Amir grabs me around the waist. My shirt rides up, and his hands skid across the bare skin of my hips.

“Please.” His fingers hook onto my hipbones. Everything rocks above me, open and ravaged. My mother warned me.

“Let’s do something else,” Amir says. “Something normal. We could go to a movie.”

“No.” Like knuckles on a punching pad. That’s how it starts: movie, then house and child, laundry and dishes and more laundry. Amir releases my waist.

The pond is black and still as pavement. I almost apologize, but I’m not sure I should be sorry.

“I saw her,” he says. His voice is thick, as if he’s struggling against a spell compelling him to spit words like toads. “I was in the tree and I saw her, days ago. She came out of the house with a suitcase and got into a car on the corner, and she drove away. Your mother left, and you know it. Grow up, Alex.”

A cloud of mosquitoes lifts around him as he splashes away, and I kneel in the greasy pond until he is gone.

A moan ripples through the water, more a vibration than a sound. The Marsh King crouches below the house. His milky eyes glow in the gloom. His hide quivers with anticipation. He could swallow me whole.

#

My father does not answer my knock. The key to my mother’s room still hangs on the kitchen hook. When I open the door, dust sifts through the air and settles over him. He is lying on my mother’s couch with his face to the wall. The curtains are drawn. He does not move an inch. He does not make a sound. I hold my breath, afraid he might be dead, but I can just barely hear him breathing. The easel stands empty in the corner. My mother never bought paint.

There are no thistle shirts, no skeins of gold, no boots that take the hero bounding across the sea. There is nothing except a sad man in a quiet room. All this time, my mother has been waiting, while my father has been lying here. And instead of helping, I was playing with a boy.

The blood rushes in my ears. The vein in my forehead throbs. I press my hands against his back. He does not turn away from the wall.

“What about the quest?”

My voice hangs empty in the air.

#

In my mother’s stories, the maiden sinks through the swamp, through the ceiling of a crystal palace where toad servants clothe her in silken gowns. She tumbles down a well into a golden forest. She walks for seven days that feel like seven minutes. Oceans peel back like orange rinds. Her dress always stays clean.

The ground slopes and the water deepens. I am not afraid. I have calluses on my knuckles and scabs on my knees. I’ve made it to one hundred and twenty punches without getting tired. I have trained for this.

The ground drops away beneath my feet. It’s so dark I can’t tell whether my eyes are open or closed. The water slides against my lips. My legs tingle with the brush of darting fish. Moss seeps from the house’s belly, and the water trapped here is sluggish. Wood rasps the top of my head. The water is rising—or the house is sinking.

One last gasp of air, and then nothing but the weight of water on all sides. I hold my breath, pushing through the quiet and the cold. Oily bubbles erupt against my cheeks. Though I kick, I’m no longer sure I’m moving, and there’s no space to turn around. My lungs ache. No one knows I’m here.

The treasure pouch knocks against my chest. I fumble at the swollen knot. The feather, the missile—the bone. I put the bone between my lips, and air trickles into my throat.

Moans swell around me like whale calls. The Marsh King crouches below, milky eyes glowing in the gloom, greasy hide quivering with anticipation. His talons dig into my ankle, and he yanks me down, tearing at my legs. He spins me like an alligator rolls its prey. My head slams the underside of the house. Colors burst behind my eyes. I grip the bone between my teeth and wrestle Amir’s missile from the pouch.

I draw my knees to my chest, making myself small, and smash the missile hard between my feet. A groan thrums through my bones. The shock of it jumps in my eyes like tears, and the grip on my ankle loosens. I strike again and again, turning the water coppery, kicking until his grip releases. His groans thunder through my stomach. Water pours up my nose, burning my throat. My heart drums in my ears. My knees scrape stone.

The ground slants upward. The water lowers, and I breathe deeply again, emerging onto the bank of a lake surrounded by pines as tall as masts. Stars peer through branches. The night smells like pine, rainwater, the musk of bears. When I wade from the lake, my clothes are dry. The sun hangs in the treetops, turning the forest gold.

A blizzard of feathers darkens the sky. Twelve swans swarm the bank of the lake, their eyes sharp with suspicion. They circle me, swiping at my ankles with their beaks.

I should recognize her by the way she holds her head or by the slant of her eyes. They fix me with an unblinking gaze, their necks weaving like snakes. But I do not know her. I don’t know what she wanted before she met my father, or why she stayed with us so long. I don’t know who she would have been, or what she would have painted.

They crowd me, striking my sides, my arms, my thighs, leaving angry stripes on my skin. One rears back, revealing a bare patch just inside her left wing.

The feather is still in my pouch. Its barbs are clean and white. I place it before her, pointed at her breast.

The swans fall still. My skin throbs where the marks are turning blue. The swans enfold me and press their bodies close. The one with the bare patch lays her head in my lap. I curl my fingers around her neck and close my eyes.

“I came to bring you home,” I say.

She turns cold, contracting into coils sliding around my waist. Then she expands, her scales shifting to thick, hot fur. She grows until my arms cannot reach around her. She thrashes and bites, slicing my skin, but I cling to her and do not cry out. She breaks into a swarm of hornets, and I gather them in my arms, even as they drive their needles into my chest and neck and cheeks.

The hornets collapse in on themselves. The sting dissolves. My arms are empty.

Fingers trace my forehead, my eyelids, my tears. I was the best thing in her life, she said. I keep my eyes closed tight, memorizing her touch even as it fades.

The beat of wings forces me to kneel among the leaves churning across the forest floor. The trees thrash in anger. The wind rebels on my behalf, but the swans are stronger. They rise, sweeping toward the pines. Her long neck arches as if in pain. Her mournful call shivers, as it is whipped away by the wind.

The sun casts her shadow on the pond. Her feathers stand out in relief, like the prints I used to make in school by resting an object—a coin, a key—on paper. The sun burns the world away around each feather, leaving it imprinted in negative space.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Image: Nowinski, Maggie. “Untitled Specimen (Anthropocenic Torque)” 2017. Pen and ink on paper, 26″ x 40″.

Honey and Cold Stars

Amy Rose Capetta

One day Megi asked me how the third faerie war started, and I worried that if I gave the wrong answer, she would devour me.

A lot of our friendship was like that.

We were sitting on a picnic table near the park, our butts on the tabletop, our feet on the bench. Everywhere my body touched the table I felt like a cold plank, and everywhere I pressed against Megi was warm and melting. Our arms had been linked for at least an hour, our legs lined up ankle to thigh. I thought if anyone spotted us from far away, we would have looked like one creature, a tangle of human and faerie.

“Ummm,” I said. “The third faerie war, like all wars, had a tangled set of causes…” This sounded like the start of a bad essay for World History. “Why do you think I can tell you anything new? I’m not an expert on human-faerie relations.”

“You seem pretty advanced to me,” Megi said in a whisper that would have made the word sultry pack up and go home.

I kept my eyes in front of me. The woods were broken up by the remains of a mall. Trees sprouted off the top of a Macy’s at one end as if the store were a giant planter. The sunset raged red and purple, and Megi and I might have been the only human and faerie in the whole world watching it together. I tried not to let my worries about that spike into panic.

“Come on,” Megi said. I caught the corner of her smile without turning to face her. “Play with me.”

“What can I win?” I asked, my voice crackling over the words.

I wondered, for the billionth time, what would happen if I kissed her. Would my solemn lips cancel out Megi’s smile? Or would her smile drip into me, one slow drop at a time, until I was grinning wide?

I packed up my anger at faeries and humans and the whole broken world, packed it up tight enough that I could keep carrying it.

“I don’t remember that much about the war starting,” I lied. I remembered the exact day; I could crawl back into it, sitting in eighth grade homeroom, listening to other people stumble over the first reports, try to wrap them up in words that made sense, even if it was the worst possible kind. Attack. Invasion. Terrorism. But it wasn’t really any of those things.

I remembered the school closing, but that was later, right after the Great Planting.

“We didn’t have homework that first day.” I’d always been one of those kids who liked school, who craved books. Mostly fantasy. Megi told me that anything with faeries in it gets read at Court while everybody laughs at how wrong we got it and drinks honey spiked with whiskey and moonbeams.

Megi took an axe out of her leather shoulder bag. It had six identi-cal blades. A snowflake axe. She went to work sharpening it against her fingernails.

“It started with global warming,” I said. It felt good to be talking, even about this, because it meant I wasn’t just staring at Megi as she took me by the shoulders and turned me to face her. She had a broad face and a broad curving body. The sunset lit her edges on fire. Her garment of leaves and leather constantly shifted, as if some wind was rustling it, exposing new patches of skin. “Humans screwed up the planet so hard that it was never going to recover. And the faeries, ummm, they’d been hiding out since the Industrial Revolution. Before that, humans could talk to them, and sometimes they made out with each other.” This was starting to feel like a tangent. I circled back to the main point. “The faeries came out of hiding because the world was about to be unlivable, and taking over from the humans was pretty much the only way to save it. Well, first you tried to leave Earth, and then you came back. That’s when the battles started. Humans outnumbered faeries a thousand to one, and we still thought guns and tanks and bombs were a big deal back then.”

“And yet, here we are.” The blade sparked against Megi’s nails. “Babysitting the human species is not really fun for us, Ayla. In a few generations, if the balance is right again, I’ll get to be a seam of crystal in a rock.” Megi’s smile was so full and bright that it felt dangerous—like the kind of moon my gran always said made people do strange things. Deeds that glistened at the edges with wildness.

I looked away, toward the woods.

When I was a kid, I lived in a suburb where I had to walk half a mile to the lot behind the CVS to reach the only thing that looked like real woods. I spent hours back there finding things. Moon-colored rocks and tightly curled ferns. Scoops of dark earth or mirror-water that sat perfectly in my hands.

I wanted to ask Megi if those had been faeries, too. But she got to the asking first. “Who started the war?”

“Why do you care about this all of a sudden?” We had known each other for years and we’d never talked about what happened before we were friends. Maybe that was how we stayed friends.

“Who. Started. The. War.”

“Humans did,” I said, because that’s how I felt most days. “We started it without meaning to.”

Megi didn’t tell me if I was right or wrong. But she didn’t devour me either.

She slid down one strap of my tank top, baring my shoulder to the cool air. She trailed a finger down it. That quick, sliding motion reminded me of a single tear running down someone’s face.

And then she went to work on me. She took out a small tin of bright blue powder and spat in it. Dipping the snowflake axe into the dye, she laced the edge with color. Then she set the blade to my shoulder. Lightly.

“Humans didn’t make out with faeries,” she corrected, her whisper hitting my bare shoulder. “They made love. Long and slow and languorous.”

If talking about sex was a path in the woods, Megi was always veering onto it. Not that I didn’t think about sex. I just didn’t tellher I was thinking about it. “Sadly, we don’t do that anymore.” Her whisper was closer to my ear this time. Her breath stayed on my skin, but the words went right to my brain.

I wondered what color my face was. It probably matched the red-purple sunset. That was probably what she wanted. “Yeah,” I said. “Tragic.”

She swirled the blade against my skin.

“Why don’t do they do that anymore?” I asked. It was the first question I’d managed. Any little skitter of triumph I felt disappeared as she frowned at my shoulder and answered me with a deep, deep silence.

“Do you want to go to Court with me tonight?” she finally asked, her voice as edgy as the axe on my skin. Megi asking me to go to Court was like being invited to prom by the prettiest girl in school, and also to meet ten generations of her family at the same time.

“Is that…allowed?” I asked.

Megi clapped a hard look over her face. “It is if I want it to be.”

I looked down at my arms and found them slick with spirals—shells, or maybe galaxies. She had been painting me so I could go to Court. That had been her plan the whole time. I was probably the first human who’d been asked in at least a hundred years. “Of course I’ll go with you, Megi.”

She smiled, her face spiky with pain. “Of course.”

“What?” I hated how clumsy I was with her. It felt impossible to say the right thing. When I managed, there was this beautiful humming balance, and then somehow I would crumble it.

Megi leapt off the picnic table, and the light took hold of her hair, which was multi-colored like an autumn morning—red, brown, and the smoky blue that rose from chimneys. Her hair was also a mess, and it writhed around her shoulders as she paced. “You don’t think you can say no to me. You know I would never turn you into a tree, right?”

“It’s hard not to think about sometimes,” I muttered.

The war had started out in favor of the humans, rumbling along victory after victory, as our weapons did exactly what they were designed to do. But we forgot about magic, and desperation, and then in a single week, faeries turned ninety-five percent of the human population into oaks and birches and maples. Of course, the types of trees were different depending on which ones were native to that part of the world. Faeries would never magic someone into an invasive species. But the main point was that so many trees were now people we used to know. There was no way of being sure who had started out as a conifer and who was your old history teacher. It was smart. It kept us from cutting anybody down.

I looked out at the woods and tried to see them the way I was supposed to—as the end of some glorious era of humanity. All I could remember was the oily stomachache I got after eating McDonald’s, the hours spent filling in test bubbles, the way Mom couldn’t stop worrying about getting the best price on car insurance. “I don’t think it would be terrible to be a tree,” I whispered.

Megi ran her fingers through my hair, all the way from the roots to the messy tips, tugging gently when she reached the ends beneath my chin. “That’s why I like you, Ayla. You think about these things.”

#

My family lived inside a hill, which was better than a cave, because frankly, bats are disgusting. It wasn’t as good as a cliffside or a treetop village, but by the time we resettled, those were all taken.

Mom had gone out, probably tracking a deer or something, but Dad was in the kitchen stabbing at his dead calculator. The batteries had been out of juice for over a year, but he still tried it every day. He was adding up columns of numbers he’d carved into the table with a tiny knife. Before the third faerie war, Dad was an accountant. He thought that staying an accountant made him a rebel. I thought it made him sad and a little bit squinty.

I passed through the earth-walled room, picking up a candle on the way. It would be dark soon, and I wanted to see as well as I could while I got dressed in the little nook we called my room. “Going out,” I said.

Dad didn’t look up from his dead slab of plastic. “With Rob? Gustavo?”

I made a noise that wasn’t a yes or a no. Sort of a hmhmpfh.

Let Dad think I was going on a date and repopulating the earth.

He had told me once that it was my rebel destiny to have babies. Lots and lots of human babies. Mom didn’t care about rising up—she just wanted to live a quiet life as far away from the faeries as she could get. They had turned her parents and brother and nieces and nephew into Douglas firs. She didn’t like Christmas anymore. She said that the overlap of good memories and bad ones made her brain swirl.

“I’ll be back before dawn,” I said.

“Good,” Dad said. “Sounds good.” Then he threw the calculator at the dirt wall and a clod of dirt exploded.

With no school to take attendance and no phones to check up on us, it was shockingly easy to sneak around with Megi. Most of the teenagers I knew were taking full advantage of this in their own ways—they just weren’t spending time with faeries.

I wanted to explain to Dad that I’d tried to hang out with humans. And then Megi showed up at my elbow one day, bright and chattering. She looked more nervous than I felt, worries writhing on her face like freshly caught fish. I liked that I could see exactly what she was feeling, even when it was bad. I liked that my own feelings doubled, then tripled, as I walked next to her through the quiet woods.

Within an hour, she’d told me that she was an outcast among the faeries. “I’m pretty much reviled.”

“Why?” I asked, way too fascinated.

“Oh, you know, I think we should be making some kind of patch-work future with the humans.”

“I would sleep under that quilt,” I said. “But it might give me weird dreams.”

Her wide lips split into a grin, and then she laughed, and the earth under our feet cracked slightly. I stepped back, almost ran into a tree, and then whirled around to apologize to the person who was probably trapped inside. “Sorry, sorry,” I said, backing away from the trunk.

When I looked back at Megi, she was staring at the ground. Right where her laugh had fallen, a starry white patch of Queen Anne’s lace had burst into flower.

I was down on my knees as quickly as Megi. She studied the flowers intently. I’d never seen a faerie actually use magic before, and it made breathing feel new and complicated. She pinched her fingers and ran them up the stem of a flower, and I wondered if any human would have felt their blood sliding around in response, or if that was just me. Then she plucked the flower and was leaning forward to slide it behind my ear before I could even think about how close that put us.

Her body, my space.

Her frown, my smile.

“No one has ever made me laugh before,” she said, her lips offset with mine, but only slightly. If I pressed forward an inch, and then another, I would catch the edge of her mouth with mine.

“You mean… today?” I asked.

“I mean ever,” she said.

“I wasn’t alive for most of ever,” I said. “But if I’m the funniest thing so far, it must have been grim.”

She laughed again, and the ground beneath us grew snowy with white flowers.

“Aren’t faeries clever?” I asked. “They must laugh all the time.”

“Clever and funny aren’t the same thing,” Megi said. “One is all about amusing yourself, it’s a sort of trinket for your brain to play with. Faeries are very fond of trinkets. They’re less interested in jokes.”

“I’m not a stand-up comedian or anything,” I said, which felt strange as soon as it came out of my mouth. That profession had gone extinct.

Megi ran one hand down her throat. “I can’t laugh unless I’m in this body, and it feels so strange.”

It didn’t look strange to me. It looked glorious. Maybe that wasn’t how it felt from the inside, though. She twirled a piece of her hair around her fi nger, tighter and tighter, until a curl of smoke spiraled into the air. I snatched her hand away.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, even though my fingers were throbbing. A blister rose where I’d touched her. “Only you can prevent forest fires,” I muttered.She didn’t laugh at that one. Too human, I guess.

Megi looked at my bright red hand. “You’ll never speak to me again,” she intoned, each word like dire prophecy. I must have given her what my mother calls A Look, because she added, “None of the other humans will speak to me more than once.”

“Maybe I can help with that,” I said, even though most humans barely talked to me.

“Maaaaybe,” Megi said, the word flaring with possibility. “Or it could just be you and me for a while.”

I nodded a little too eagerly.

After that, Megi showed up a few times a month, only when I was alone. She never had to tell me we were a secret. Until today, I thought we would stay a secret forever.

#

When I left the hill currently known as home, electric blue dusk had already fallen. It saturated me fast. I wondered if it made me look slightly more magical in my best shorts and a shirt made of scraps from the shirts I’d outgrown, sewed back together. Going to Faerie Court probably required something better, finer, more enchanted, but this was all I had.

I stood in the nearest moon-brushed field and waited. Megi loved entrances. I loved watching them. This time she floated in on a sort of armchair made of clouds, wearing a cobweb dress that didn’t cover much.

Megi was young for a faerie, which meant she had been around for only a hundred years. But she hadn’t been alive in the human sense. Most of that time had been spent as a rock at the bottom of a river, a grain of sand off the coast of Maine, a white dwarf star. So many nights, she’d laid on the ground, our heads touching, our bodies pointed in opposite directions. She told me about the few times she’d been in a human body, to dance in honeysuckle rain or to test what a storm felt like against her skin. I loved all of her stories, except for the star ones. They were too lonely for me. When she told them, I ached cold for hours.

“Oh,” she said, running her hand down the veinwork of my shirt. “All of your seams are on the outside.”

“Is that a bad thing?” I asked, shivering.

“It’s an Ayla thing,” she said. Which didn’t really answer my question.

She stepped down from the cloud chair, patted it like an obedient dog, and it dissolved. She offered me her arm, and I noticed that her arms and legs were painted with the swirls she had put on me, except hers were shimmering green to go with my blue.

Megi led me into the woods. We walked through the woodsy silence, which is actually full of sounds—cracking branches and tree whispers and insects trying to hook up.

“Watch this,” Megi said. I turned to face her. She held up her thumb and forefinger and rubbed them together. A blue-green wisp rose from her fingertips. I heard the small but satisfying crack of a nutshell coming apart.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A second,” Megi said. “It was closed up tight, so I opened it. I wanted to feel like we had more time together, just the two of us, before we got to Court.”

I nodded, secretly thrilled. I tightened my arm around hers. She smelled like the world’s best apple cider, sharp and sweet with twelve distracting spices. I wanted as much time with her as I could get. And then I thought—maybe she was just afraid of what would happen when we made it to Court. Maybe I should be more afraid.

I followed Megi further into the forest. In a little while, we came to a clearing with a shiny hill in the center, pushing up toward the canopy. I walked over to it and slid my fingers along the metal. It was as warm as skin, etched with the sort of markings Megi had put on our arms. She opened a door that I never would have noticed, and fog rolled out. I stepped back to get a better look at the whole thing.

“Faerie spaceship?” I asked, to be one hundred percent sure.

“Faerie spaceship,” Megi confirmed. She shrugged like it was no big deal. “They make great ballrooms.”

I had always wanted to see one of these up close. The year when I was thirteen, the planet was ringed with faerie spaceships. We wasted a lot of time thinking it was an alien invasion. The humans had never considered that there may have been creatures on our own planet that were highly intelligent and also highly interested in escaping our mess. In the end they came back, though. Megi told me they couldn’t stand being away from everything they had loved for so long.

#

Inside the spaceship, the faeries were brilliant and gorgeous and perfect and everywhere. It was like staring into a kaleidoscope that had come to life. I had to blink a lot and rub my eyes. The whole body of the ship was curved and open, filled with hanging plants that had long spiky tendrils and didn’t need soil to grow. The floor was covered with earthy-colored tiles in organic shapes that fitted together snugly.

“Do you want something to eat?” Megi asked, turning us toward a room that seemed to be a dedicated feasting area. There were tables heaped with roasted meat, shining fruit, oozing honeycomb. I thought I saw someone biting into a live peacock. Megi shook her head, the exact same way I would if I took her home and Dad did something embarrassing, like showing her his calculator. “Let me get you a drink,” she said. “I would stay away from the moonbrew. But everything else should be safe.”

“I don’t think any of this is safe,” I whispered.

Megi stared at me. Sometimes it felt like her stare could slice through me without any help from an axe. “Do you want to dance?”

“Ummmm,” I said. “Okay.”

Yes, I meant. Yes.

I had gotten so good at hiding the truth, or maybe just the magnitude of it. Megi would press herself close to me some days, but the next time I saw her, she would be as distant as a long-dead star. I thought if she knew, if she felt what I wanted, I would blink twice and she’d be gone.

Megi pulled me out to the center of the floor, which was also the center of the ship. I took a single nervous breath before the music started. The band stood above us on a little platform, clutching instruments I knew—fiddles, flutes, guitars. I wondered if we had stolen those from the faeries, or if they had stolen a few things from us.

Megi nodded to me as the dance started, and I nodded back. The fiddle slurred high and lonely. When the drums leapt in, we stomped and spun and clapped so fast that the room sounded like rain.

I knew the steps. I could feel them without thinking.

“Hey!” I yelled as I spun with Megi. “Did you implant these dances in my head?”

“I can’t do that,” she said. “You’re not mine to touch.”

I heard someone laugh, high-pitched and shattering. It didn’t sound anything like Megi’s laugh. She and I twisted and swam and touched each other’s waists with little darts of our hands.

“How do I know how to do this?” I asked.

Megi yelled, “You’ve always known.”

My feet worked faster, heels tapping strange rhythms. The dance formation broke, and other faeries passed me in and out of their arms, as strong as metal bars and supple as spring branches. I fought my way back to Megi.

“You’re not telling me I’m a faerie, right?” I whispered.

“Some things have always been inside of you,” she said, “waiting in your cells, caught in the spirals of a helix.” She traced the lines she’d painted on my shoulder. “It’s one of the reasons humans and faeries keep separate. Even in the old stories they were never together for more than a minute, an hour, a carefully bounded set of days.” Her voice threaded itself into the song—I didn’t hear them as two separate things. “You and I are more alike than we are different. They don’t want us to remember that.”

“Why not?” I asked. “Faeries don’t want humans on their genetic turf?”

“No.” Megi’s hands found my waist. “We know that we can cross a line, too. Become more human.”

The room split into a formation I didn’t know, everyone stream-ing as Megi and I stayed put. There were wicked smiles, stony faces, moving fast. And then the faeries whirled into place, as if this had always been part of the dance. A circle formed around us, weapons pointed inward like a mouth full of sharp, mismatched teeth.

Some of the things they were brandishing looked like thorns grown long enough to be daggers. Others were staffs made of moonglow, hooks carved from silvery ice. No snowflake axes, though. That must have been Megi’s special thing.

“Thank you for having me,” I said. “Now I’ll just…go.” I resisted the urge to back away, because there were pointy objects behind me. I spun around, but the door that had allowed me into the Faerie Court had vanished back into the seamless metal walls.

One of the faeries stepped forward and took Megi’s chin in her hand. She forced Megi’s face toward me. “What will you do? Turn her into a sapling and plant her in your courtyard? You can make love in her shade. The human will have to watch it until she withers.”

The faeries laughed and laughed, and the sound was so cold that ice crystals splayed across Megi’s cheeks.

“Is that why you brought me?” I asked in a crumbling voice.

The faeries laughed harder.

Was that the point of all this—was I Megi’s human weakness? Did she bring me to the Faerie Court to come clean?

“That’s not what I want,” Megi said, and I knew from the look on her face that she wasn’t lying. But that didn’t mean we were out of the woods. The faeries pressed in tighter. The points of their weapons paled in comparison to the stab of anger in their eyes. My heart froze and then melted, and the feelings I had for Megi, the feelings I’d been holding back for over a year, finally spilled out.

I cried. The spaceship cracked at the seams as the sky above us poured stars. The faeries gasped and screeched, their voices tearing at the night. My blurry vision swam all the way to Megi. She was crying, too—a single tear dropping off the cliff of her high-boned cheek. But it didn’t do anything. It didn’t change anything.

She was just a girl leaking saltwater.

Megi looked into my eyes and for the first time I didn’t worry if they were pretty enough. I wasn’t afraid of saying something stupid. But I was afraid.

So was she. I had never noticed it.

“Tell me about the third faerie war,” she said, thickly, urgently.

I could see what she was doing now—what she was desperate for. Megi wanted me to remind her that we were enemies. But I didn’t want to, and the not-wanting was so deep and heavy that I became immovable. The moment flowed around us. I was a rock at the bottom of a river.

And then we took a breath at the same time, to the exact same depth, a sort of music that we both knew, and when we exhaled the entire court was gone. Megi and I were sitting on the cold dirt of a bare hill, our legs splayed out in front of us. The only proof that the Faerie Court had been there a moment before was the char of roasted meat and a final strain of music.

“They’re not coming back, are they?” I asked.

Megi shook her head.

“I can’t…I can’t bring you home.”

Megi nodded. She already knew that.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

Megi pulled me closer, until we were as close as two people could possibly get, until our skin ran together like rivers. I closed my eyes—the darkness behind them was warm and ripe. She kissed me, and it tasted like salt and skin. I kissed her back, and it tasted like honey and cold stars.

We left the dark mound where the court used to be, the galaxies on our arms pressed together, our faces close enough for whispering. We didn’t care about being quiet, though. We laughed our defiance until I felt sure that humans could hear it, miles away in their hills, living inside of their new tree-bodies. Megi rubbed her fingers together and with a wisp of blue-green, another second split apart.

We found a perfect spot in the woods. And then we devoured each other.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Image: Nowinski, Maggie. “(In) Habitat (Feathered Fiddlehead).” 2016. Photopolymer intaglio on Hahnemuhle copperplate, 13″ x 19″.

A B.S. in Environmental Science

Rebecca Thomas

Hector’s brother, Berto, wakes him at a quarter to midnight. He slaps Hector’s face with his fingertips until Hector throws out his arms, swinging. Hector starts to shout, but Berto puts his hand over Hector’s mouth and points to their sister, sleeping.

The streetlight coming in through the blinds stripes Berto’s face. He grins, and his teeth gleam white in the darkness, transforming him into the Cheshire Cat of Ash Street. “Undie run,” he whispers.

Hector gets up.

Their parents’ door is closed. No light escapes under it. But the two know that even if their parents were awake, their dad would talk their mother into letting them go. He would grin and say, “Boys will be boys,” and they’d wait for their mother’s death stare, then eye roll, then wave of her hand before they left.

They grab coats and put on their sneakers outside, shutting the door behind them, so only they can hear the click. They can see their breath outside, white plumes from their mouths. Berto nudges Hector, winks, and pretends to smoke. Hector joins him. The two grin before looking away. They haven’t pretended to do that in seven years, not since Berto went into junior high and Hector was in fourth grade, but it feels perfectly natural now that they should be out pretending to smoke in the middle of the night. Berto nods, and with their shoes on and coats zipped, they walk down the stairs and head east toward the nice part of Old Towne Orange that starts just half a block away. They walk without talking, their footsteps pushing them closer to the college, away from the train tracks and the defunct packinghouses, to a place where people run in their underwear to celebrate finals week.

“You came up just for this?” Hector asks.

Berto nods. “Well, that and Mom said she had a batch of my laundry done.”

“You been to this before?”

Berto nods again, slower. “Oh yeah.”

The houses transform from Craftsmen with barred windows and chain link to ones with landscaped lawns and crisp white fences. The doors become windowed. Furniture stands on porches with throw pillows and outdoor rugs.

Closer to the university, girls’ laughter blankets the air, light and fluffy and full of next-day misgivings. They stop next to a falafel place closed for the night, and Berto pauses next to the dark windows. Suddenly, he takes off his jacket, stuffing it in the bushes. He strips off his shirt and moves to his pants.

“What’re you doing?” Hector asks. He looks around, but all he sees are houses and shops shut up tight.

“Blending in,” Berto says.

“This is blending in?” He points to Berto’s bare legs.

Berto’s jeans are bunched in his hand. “What did you think we were doing?” He stuffs the jeans in the bushes, too.

Hector shrugs.

“This isn’t like a parade or something, Hector. You don’t stand on the street and watch girls jog in their bras. They’d have us arrested or fined for being out past curfew…for you at least. ” He stares at his brother. “So if we’re going to do this, we need to do this.”

Hector’s heartbeat covers his body. He can feel it in his fingertips. He looks around, checking both sides of the street as if he were going to cross it, before taking off his jacket. He takes off his pants next, and then he’s left standing next to a restaurant in nothing but navy Walmart boxers and an undershirt. He glances at his brother, who’s wearing Christmas-themed boxer briefs with ho ho ho over the crotch. Berto stretches in the cold, his six-pack goosebumped. Hector smooths his undershirt into place.

“The shirt next, bro,” Berto says.

“Come on.”

Berto nods, points to the shirt.

The night is cold on Hector’s face, but he can feel the heat as he blushes. He checks the street again.

“You won’t get a girl in an undershirt, dude,” Berto says.

“Who said anything about getting girls?”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t to hear that. The shirt goes next.”

“Don’t you have a girlfriend?”

“Mind your own business. Do you want to get a girl or not? The shirt next.”

Looking at the ground, Hector pulls off his shirt. He can feel the tug of cotton on his belly as he takes it off. He shoves it in the bushes with the others.

“Better.” Berto grins and gives Hector a Santa hat. “It’ll make you seem festive.”

“Where’s yours?”

Berto winks and puts on an elf hat.

“Really?” Hector’s body shivers. He can feel his belly jiggle as he moves. He’s begun to dance from one foot to the next, pulling his knees almost up to his chest.

Berto puts an icy hand on Hector’s shoulder. “Girls like it if you can make fun of yourself. No one wants to date an asshole.”

“Who said anything about dating?” Hector hears panic in his own voice.

Berto punches him in the arm. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Hector shrugs and puts on the hat, brushing his black hair away from his eyes.

Berto starts walking and Hector follows. “Now,” Berto says, “what are you majoring in?”

“Nothing.”

“You need to be majoring in something. Something preferably endearing.”

“I’m a junior in high school.”

“Yes, but they don’t know that, and please don’t tell them that, Hector.”

They turn the corner and enter through the university’s gates.

“Environmental science,” Hector says. It’s the first thing he thinks of, but he stops and realizes how good that sounds. “You know, yeah.” He nods. “I like biology and these guys came into class last year and talked about it. It’s kind of cool, looking at problems and figuring stuff out.” Music flashes into his head seconds later. Girls like musicians.

Berto nods, his face serious. “Environmental Science is good, dude. That’s some smart-ass shit right there, and it looks like you care about the earth. That’s on point.”

“Thanks. I was going to say music.”

Berto touches his shoulder, looks him in the eyes. “You made the right choice. A music major is a nerd.
A music enthusiast is a man who gets laid.” He holds up a finger, pointing to Hector and then to the heavens. “And tonight, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to you.”

Hector grins, but he can feel the sweat pool in his armpits. “What about you? What’s your major?”

Berto snorts. “Econ.”

Hector pauses, stares at his brother. “Why not make up something better?”

Berto holds up a hand. “Okay, first off, econ is awesome. Don’t act like it’s not. My degree is the shit. Second, econ makes it seem like I know money, and knowing money means that I’d make money, and making money is good to bring up to women. And finally, I know econ.” He leans forward. “And this brings me to my first rule of the night….” He pauses. Hector rolls his eyes, but Berto continues, “Always keep your lies as close to the truth as possible. You get in less trouble that way.”

“Whatever, dude,” Hector says. “You still go to Fullerton or here?”

“Here, of course. Otherwise, why would I be here? Think, Hector.”

Across the university, streetlights pool, illuminating patches of cement, grass, art. The two pass a statue of the founder sitting in a copper chair surrounded by orange trees. They pass a plaza complete with a fountain that shoots up water in a cascade of ever-changing colors. They pass the college’s original buildings, painted to Victorian-era specifications, and then they stand next to the hundred-year-old auditorium and see a sea of underwear. They stop. Hector stares.

Never, not even at the beach in August, has Hector seen so many undressed people.

Berto leans next to him. “Isn’t this worth losing some sleep?”

Hector stands in his navy boxer shorts, white socks pulled up to his knees, black converse flat against the sidewalk. He nods as a flock of girls passes in bras decorated with twinkle lights.

The crowd builds, and packs of girls huddle together to keep warm as if a magical magnet connects them all. Bottles snake through the groups, being passed around like collection plates on Sunday. Everyone freely takes, until someone presses the bottle into Hector’s hands and Berto grins and Hector drinks. It burns his throat. It’s not the first drink he’s taken, but the burning still surprises him, makes him sputter. Girls giggle. He drinks again, longer this time, until he can feel the heat straight from his lips through his esophagus and deep into his belly.

Berto places his hand on the bottle. “Share the wealth,” he says loud enough for everyone to hear. “Don’t make me kill you,” he whispers. “I am not about to handle your drunk ass, and Mom would murder us both if you woke up hung over.”

Hector gives him the bottle. Berto holds it up, the clear plastic bouncing in the streetlight, and drinks a quick drink before passing it along. He leans over to Hector. “Rule two, don’t get drunk in a strange situation. It will always end poorly.”

In front of them, two girls with the symbol for Delta Gamma on each ass cheek suck something from a baby bottle. Their straight hair, dyed in different shades, floats behind them.

“And rule three,” Berto says. “Being the sober one can pay off.” He walks up to the sorority girls, cheering. They cheer back, and Berto gives them a high five before maneuvering them into a side hug. The girls cheer again, sandwiching him, jumping up and down, and Berto winks at Hector.

Hector can feel the alcohol swirl inside of him, eating its way through his stomach lining. “I am an environmental science major,” he says. “I like the earth and music.”

All at once, they run. The mass of people surges and moves. Hector’s Converse beat against the pavement, the night air against his chest, his back, his legs. Everyone bounces back and forth as they make their way past the lawn and the sign that announces the school, crossing onto public property. Hector’s body moves without him telling it to. He can no longer feel the air on his chest. He is warm, and there is underwear everywhere. He runs, staring at a lacy black bra. His body grows red. Things swell, and he looks away. “Concentrate,” he whispers. “Concentrate.” He does, making himself look at the buildings instead of the girls—the law school, the dentist, the lawyer, then the abogado right next door, the Craftsman refashioned into a café, and the gas station changed into a restaurant. They pass the halfway home, the mechanic, and move on to the true downtown. To the church that used to be a vaudeville stage (and once was a pornography theater), to the sandwich place that used to be a key and safe store and originally was who knows what, to the antique stores, the record company, the candy store, the facades for countless films set in the fifties. Hector focuses on this, the buildings’ past that his father always talks about. His body calms as he reaches the park in the traffic circle.

A giant tinsel Santa and Frosty wave. Already, students are getting into the Nativity scene. A girl pole dances on the menorah. The crowd bunches as it reaches its destination—a fenced-off fountain in the middle of the circle. The city blocked it off after one too many semesters went by with college students bathing in the historic water. Students try to climb over the fence—guys being extraordinarily brave, in Hector’s opinion, as they climb in their loose boxer shorts; women being extraordinarily wonderful, in Hector’s opinion, as they climb in their cross-trainers and panties. Cops lift the students off the fence, and Hector joins the crowd in booing.

He looks around for his brother, but Berto has disappeared. He cannot see that green hat anywhere. Of course, Hector thinks. Of course, Berto would do this—trail off with some girl when he has a sweet-ass girlfriend already; of course he’d pretend to be all friendly and then ditch him the first chance he gets. With nowhere to run, Hector jogs in place. He likes the bouncing up and down. It gives him something to do. It lets him forget that he is actually just a half-naked sixteen-year-old boy who has to wake up in six hours for school.

Plastic clatters to the ground. A girl curses. He turns to see a bright pink bra and a girl with braided pigtails, bending over. He checks out her ass. It’s small but good. And then he has to remember to concentrate and focus again. She points to her phone on the ground and curses again. He looks for friends of hers, but she’s by herself, pointing, cursing, bending, swaying. Berto’s warning about staying sober enters his head. Okay, so he’s not entirely sober, but he seems more sober than she is. Plus, she’s pretty. He could go to school here, he thinks. Yes. She doesn’t know. He nods to himself. He jumps up and down, and hits his leg twice. “Let’s do this,” he says, and then walks over to her. “Hey.” He keeps his voice calm.

She looks up. She has green eyes. Freckles. Her face is flushed.

Hector grins, and he can tell that it’s his creepy grin, the one where he just parts his lips slightly and keeps his teeth together like those cabbage patch dolls his sister had.

“Hi,” she says and looks back down. She sways.

“Need help?” He’s still grinning.

She holds up her phone and the case, reassembling it, using her beautifully flat stomach as a prop. “I got it.” She looks back at him, smiles. “But thanks.”

“I’m an environmental science major,” Hector says.

“Okay.” She grins again but a bit more uncertain.

Get it together, Hector reminds himself. “Where are your friends?” he asks.

She huffs. “Well, my roommate ran off with some guy.”

“He wasn’t wearing an elf hat, was he?”

She laughs. “No, but I like you, Santa.” She blushes. “I mean, your Santa hat. I like it.”

“Thanks,” Hector says. “How’s your phone?”

“Works fine. See?” She holds up the lit screen to Hector.

They exchange years and names—she’s a sophomore. Her name is Samantha—and Hector, without thinking, admits to being a junior. “A junior?” she asks. “You look so young.”

“I graduated early,” he says. “From high school. I graduated early from high school because you need a high school diploma to go to college.”

Samantha tilts her head. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen?”

“You’re like Doogie Howser.” She shouts it as if this is the discovery of the night.

“Okay.”

“Because you’re young and stuff.”

“Okay.”

In front of them, police usher everyone back. A bullhorn tells them to return to school. The crowd moves again, slower this time, with less urgency. A few people stay around, pop into the bars, but the rest move en masse to campus.

Samantha asks about finals. Hector says he has six. She asks about his other classes. He says he’s taking history and science and art. That’s her major, she says. Art. And when he asks her where she’s from, he can hear the lie in her voice when she says, “New York City. How about you?”

“Here,” he says. “I’m from down the street.”

“No.” She bats at Hector, her hand on his shoulder. “Not where you live. Where are you from?”

“Here,” Hector says again. “I grew up two blocks away.”

She sighs. Leans forward and moves her hand to Hector’s chest. Concentrate. Focus, he reminds himself.

“No,” she says again. “Where are you from? Like…” She waves her other hand. “You know, Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala. Like, I’m Irish. What are you?”

“You’re from Ireland?” Hector asks.

“No.” She shakes her head. “I’m from here.”

“Me, too,” he says.

But she sighs. “Come on. Tell me. What are you?”

Hector closes his eyes. “Mexico, then, I guess. I was born in Mexico City.”

Samantha takes her hand from Hector’s chest and puts it over her mouth. “That must have been so hard.”

Hector looks away. “Being born?” he asks. “I don’t remember.”

“No, silly,” Samantha says and bats at his chest again. She trails a finger along his stomach. Everything inside of him clenches. Concentrate, he reminds himself.

She tilts her head to the side. “Like, it must have been rough transitioning. I once took a class—”

He interrupts her. “I was two when we moved here, so I managed.” He looks at her hand on his stomach. He looks at her chest just a few inches away. “But, you know,” he says. He takes her hand. “It’s never…” He searches for something to say, anything. “It’s never easy?”

Samantha leans on him, nods. “You, sir, are brave.”

“Okay,” Hector says.

Her eyes grow wide. She smiles. “You want to walk me home?”

“Yeah,” Hector says. “Where do you live?”

“Lemon. You?”

“Over on Ash.” He points left.

“Where?”

“Ash,” he says it louder. “One street over from you.” Her face is blank. “Last one before the train tracks.” Still blank. “By the parking lot.”

She stops and stares. Her green eyes look over Hector, and he instinctively covers his chest, making an x across his nipples.

“Really?” she asks.

“Yeah, in the apartments.”

“I didn’t even know there were apartments there.” She laughs. “Rent must be ass cheap.”

“Why?”

Samantha looks down at her shoes, pink Pumas, before looking back at him. “Oh, you know.” She lets her voice trail off.

Hector looks at Samantha, at her tan body with pink, pink, pink. He wants to tell her that he has to go back to his street that is cheap for a reason, but isn’t cheap like she thought. Back to his life that apparently is hard and worthy of bravery, but he sees her and follows her down the street, heading towards both of their homes. Her street is quiet. It isn’t crowded with cars or shadowed with empty lots. It is a street where people are sleeping deeply.

She leads him behind a yellow and green Craftsman to a backhouse covered in ivy. “This is me.” She leans against a bright blue VW Passat.

He waits for her to say more. He thinks this is the moment where girls invite guys in.

“Thanks for walking me. I always feel a bit unsafe around here at night, you know.”

His stomach pushes him forward into her, and he kisses her, hard. But she kisses back, and she tastes like Fruit Roll-Up. She’s in a bra, he thinks, she might be kind of racist, but she’s in a bra—he pushes closer—she’s in panties, too.

She pulls away. “This is nice, yeah?”

“Yes!” He leans in for more.

But she stays back. “We should do this again.”

“Yes!” Hector steps forward.

Samantha steps back again, but he finds himself reaching out for her, touching her waist and pulling her towards him. They kiss, and she leans into him. Half of his brain is telling his body to behave. The other half of his brain is focusing on her body. The latter half wins. He backs away from her, hoping she won’t notice.

“Come here.” She leads him up the stairs. He follows. His eyes widen.

Her apartment is pastels. Candles. Framed pictures of Rome and Paris. There are throw pillows on the couch. They match. Hector notices this, but he doesn’t have time to process the information. Instead, he stares at her ass and follows. They sit on the couch, and Hector sweats against a purple fleece throw.

“You want to watch a movie or something?” She points to a collection of romantic comedies.

“Sure.” Hector brings his shoulders up to his neck once. Sweats some more.

She puts in a movie. Hector doesn’t pay attention to what it is. This is happening, he thinks. It’s happening. Holy balls. It’s happening. She sits back on the couch and kisses him. She lies on top, pushing her weight into him, until she pauses and leans back. “I’m not really from New York,” she says.

“I’m from Indianapolis. New York just sounds better, you know.”

“Mmhmm,” Hector says, rubbing his hands up and down her back.

“And here you are from Mexico City.”

“I’m from here, really. Orange. I grew up here.”

Samantha shrugs. “Yeah, well.”

“I’m from one block away.”

But she isn’t listening. Instead, she’s prattling on about Mexico. How’s she’s always felt an affinity with the region. How she wants to go there and see the culture. She’s not afraid, she wants him to know. She’s heard about the shootings, but she’ll get along. She’s tough, she says. She wants to see their art museum. She finds Frida Kahlo dreamy.

Hector leans his head back. He laughs. He can’t help it. “Dreamy?”

“So what if I find her dreamy?” She moves to the other side of the couch. She coughs, once, her cheeks bright red, and turns back to the movie.

“Hey,” Hector says.

“I’m watching this.” She crosses her arms.

Music plays. A phone on the television won’t stop ringing. Hector can’t stop looking at her, trying to catch her attention, but she keeps her eyes locked on that screen like it could save her life. As the movie plays, he moves down the sofa like a caterpillar, inching along until he’s by her side. His leg grazes hers—his bare leg all hairy and goosebumped, hers smooth. “Hey,” he says again, only now he looks at her face.

She’s asleep.

He pushes his leg against hers, but she doesn’t budge. She doesn’t wake up. “Fuck, man,” Hector says. He tries again, but she’s asleep. He checks out her rack one last time, gets up, goes. On his walk back to the restaurant, he can see others heading home, but no one is near. He can walk without having to make eye contact, without having to nod his head hello. He pulls on his clothes to the sound of drunk people trying to walk quietly.

Hector slaps his feet against the cement as he walks home, trying to fill the night more with his steps and less with his thoughts. Behind him, he can hear an occasional shriek, but for the most part, the night is quiet. At his apartment building, he creeps up the steps, and there is his brother waiting for him.

Berto grins. “Where were you?”

Hector opens his mouth to explain, shuts it, grins, laughs. He sits down next to his brother. His breath poofs white in front of him. He nudges Berto and pretends to smoke. They smile.

Five Poems

Lafayette Wattles

For a Time

— after “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

Saturdays my dad wakes beneath the still-bruised
sky. Then with number-crunching hands,
arthritic from calculating sixty hours
a week, he jigsaws silhouettes out of pine
for people’s yards, making vacation cash
we use each year. I never thought to thank him.

I’d forgotten the pattern for the capped boy,
shoulder slung with baseball bat, was a fourth-
grade photograph of me. The little girl stooped
over her midnight kitty was Laney three years ago.

As I watch him through the basement
window staining the wood jet black, sealing
us in shadows from the past, he’s gentle,
stroke after stroke. And, for a time,
so like the man I used to know.

 

Offseason Workout

I’ve already lost two whole days
saying goodbyes and getting here,

but I won’t let our move stop me
from training, which means

it’s back to pumping iron, followed by a jog
to the nearest store for a dozen eggs,

for the making of two soft hands,
which started with me and Dad

in the backyard my eighth-grade year,
after I told him football was everything.

Now, it’s just me standing
at the edge of the driveway

tossing those smooth white shells
higher and higher into the air,

like bones of some delicate thing
that’s not quite here yet.

And it’s up to me to keep them from shattering,
like babies falling from the sky.

That’s what Dad had told me to imagine.
At first, I had thought of Laney,

had tried too hard, my hands stiff like wood.
But you just need to put your fingers out

all loose and like they’re not connected the way we know.
Like there are nets between them,

webs that nothing can fall through.
Once you trust them to do their job they do.

Now, I can throw those eggs up forty feet at least,
and watch them fall back into my hands,

like a part of me that keeps returning
even after I let it go.

 

Quick Hands

Coach says, your legs, your feet
will only get you so far, says, blazing
down the sidelines isn’t much good
without the prize in your fingertips,
says, you need quick hands, and eyes
always on the ball, so he’s got you
on your back, arms at your sides,
palms flat to the ground
(only you aren’t allowed to lift them,
except when there’s a ball
nearby), and he stands at your feet,
tosses the pigskin at your chest
(only it’s never where it should be,
the way it is with you being anywhere,
even out there on the field),
and your hands fly up
like hungry birds of prey, like falcons,
maybe, with all that quick in their feathers,
rising up from a dive
(opposite the way that’s in their nature),
just in time to seize, thumbs
always in toward the numbers.

 

 

Strong Hands, Sure Hands

After watching too many Rocky movies,
Dad got the bright idea of using ordinary things

in not-so-ordinary ways, and he invented Drill #2:
me in the yard, hoisting his old bowling ball

overhead, just above my fingertips, letting both hands fall,
cradling that weight to my chest like a second heart.

 

 

Tryouts

I’m third fastest in all the sprints,
fast enough to make sure Coach won’t cut me,
but, even holding back, I can’t not use my velcro hands,
and my catching nearly everything
has some of them in fists and grumbles,
until all-everything looks-like-a-rock
star defensive end Chuck Stone,
with his red, white, blue ponytailed mohawk
and all those muscles ready to pop,
cracks pads with me, again and again,
and I manage to jump to my feet,
split lip and all, like Dad taught me
all those times in the yard. That’s what turns them.

By the time my feet are needles
threading together obstacle course tires with their silky speed,
the guys are all cheering, and they act
as if I discovered a spark of leftover lightning,
like that’s what’s running through my veins.
Chuck’s there, too, in my face
with his primal scream, pounding his chest,
again and again, as if we’re celebrating fire,
as if this is some essential part of us.
Pretty soon, I’m screaming, too,
I’m pounding my chest with the rest of them.
Then Coach calls us in,
says, good job, and the guys grow silent
all the way back to the locker room.
But I know I’m part of them now,
fleet-footed receiver of the pass,
brother in blood, keeper of the flame.

Slip Kid

Stephen Eoannou

Slip kid, slip kid, second generation

Only half way up the tree
– Pete Townshend

My bedroom walls are covered with posters of my heroes: Pete Townshend windmilling his guitar, Roger Daltrey clutching a microphone to his mouth, Keith Moon flailing on his drum kit, his arms a blur. I’m listening to their latest album, the volume kept low because my mother is already asleep across the hall. My head is fuzzy from too much beer and too much weed. I think I hear my old man running up the stairs. Then I hear him calling my mother’s name, and I know some serious shit must be hitting the fan. The old man never runs.

Then I’m running too, to see what’s going on, hoping I don’t smell like dope. The old man is already filling the stairway when I get to the hall. The Greeks call him Tavros—Bull—because his shoulders and arms are so heavily muscled from years of heaving tool cases down at the warehouse. He stands on the top of the step, his collar loosened, his face stroke red.

Mother comes out of their bedroom, her hair mussed from the pillows. Without makeup, she looks haggard, her face drawn and colorless.

“Paul?” she asks.

The old man’s thick chest heaves with each breath.

“Paul?” she asks again, louder.

He raises both arms and turns his calloused palms upward before letting them fall to his sides. “They shot Father George,” he says, and the first thing I think is, Billy, what the fuck did you do?
Mother covers her mouth, her eyes blackening to puddles. Before he can tell us more, a piercing scream from Yiayia, my grandmother, cuts through the house, pushing every other sound right out the damn walls.

We find her lying in bed, propped up by two pillows, the room dark except for the flickering black and white television on her dresser. An arthritic hand points towards the TV. Mother rushes to her and sits with one arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. I stand shaking beside the old man, feeling smaller than I usually do next to his bulk, and stare at the screen. I recognize the gray cut limestone of our church. The camera pans the parking lot, then focuses on a sign, “Reserved For Pastor;” Father George’s Toyota is parked in front of it. The camera cuts to footage of a body on a gurney being rushed towards an ambulance, its back doors swung wide. One paramedic trots alongside, holding a bag of plasma above the body. The gurney stops and another paramedic pounds on Father George’s chest.

“Mother of God,” the old man whispers in Greek. He places a hand on my shoulder and squeezes as if looking for something solid to hold onto. I swear to Christ the only thing keeping me standing is his grip.

Yiayia makes the sign of the cross in Orthodox fashion—right to left. Her lips move in silent prayer as she crosses herself three times. Her whole body is shaking, like she has palsy or something, and now I’m scared the news is too much for her.

Goddamn you, Billy.

Mother’s tears catch the TV’s flickering light. “We have to call somebody. Somebody must know something.”

“Yes.” Father straightens. “Yes.”

This new mission of discovering the details of the shooting revitalizes him. The old man strides from the room as if he plans to call Billy himself. I lean against the wall, my head buzzing worse than before, wishing I could be absorbed into the floral wallpaper that’s hung in this room for as long as I can remember. I choke down the bile.

Yiayia pulls away from Mother and shoves her blankets aside. Her yellow-white hair, normally rolled tight in a bun, hangs loose to her shoulders. She shuffles to her altar, a small table covered with a white cloth; icons of Jesus The Teacher and Saint Peter hang above it. Resting on the table sits her worn Bible, a small vial of Holy Water, a blood red egg wrapped in white mesh from the previous Easter, and her Candelie. She lights the candle and starts praying in Greek, but I’m thinking it’s too late for that.

Mother and I leave her mumbling in front of the icons and head downstairs, where the phone book lies open on the kitchen table. The old man hates the phone and holds the receiver in his thick hand away from his face. Clipped bursts of Greek shoot from his mouth like rounds from an Uzi. I can only make out a few words. I sit at the table and listen as he rattles into the phone. His muscles tense and bunch beneath his clothes as if he’s about to rip the damn phone right off the kitchen wall.

Mother sits next to me and follows his half of the conversation, shaking her head at what she hears and what I can only guess at.

The old man hangs up the phone and turns to her. “He’s gone, Christina. They shot him. Five times.”

Five times? Jesus, Billy.

Mother’s whole body shakes. “Who?” she manages to say, her voice twisted like her throat’s not working right.

The old man opens and closes his fists. “They don’t know. They think it was a robbery.”

The robbery I planned.

The old man is breathing hard now, like he’s still running up the stairs. “They found him in his office. Shot in the back. He died on the way to the hospital.”

Mother leans forward, her arms crossed in front of her stomach like she’s going to be sick, and asks again, “Who shot him, Paul? Who?”

The old man shakes his head. “They’re still looking,” he says.

I sit in the chair, the beer souring in my stomach, my head feeling like it’s in a vise, and wonder where the hell Billy is now.

~

“It wasn’t a robbery,” Mother says the next morning, freezing me in the kitchen doorway. For a minute, I think maybe Billy didn’t kill him after all.

Outside the kitchen window, the early morning sky has lightened to purple, the same color as a deep bruise. Mother sits at the table still in her robe, her eyes swollen and circled from crying and lack of sleep. The Courier-Express is spread before her. I feel like shit and I can’t tell if I’m hung over or if it’s the guilt eating me.

“What are you talking about?” Father asks from the stove. He holds the coffee pot in one hand, a cup in the other. “Of course it was a robbery.”

She shakes her head. “Not according to this.”

“It has to be a robbery. What else could it be?” He sets the coffee pot back on the stove and then sits at the kitchen table holding the empty cup.

“There was no sign of a break in. No broken windows, no kicked in doors. Nothing.” Mother has delicate fingers, the kind that should have plucked harp strings or glided over ivory keyboards, not the kind that should trace the details of a homicide in the morning paper.

“How’d they get in then?” the old man asks, the coffee cup small in his hands.

“An unlocked door.”

“Which one? The one from the parking lot?”

Mother shakes her head again. “No. The little one on West Utica. The blue one.”

The blue one that doesn’t lock right, the one I told Billy about.

Fuck.

“The one to the basement? Who’d leave that unlocked?”

Mother looks up from the paper. “It’s been years since I was down in that basement. It’s all winding hallways. Somebody must have known their way around pretty well to get in and out of there, especially in the dark.”

The chords and tendons are visible in the old man’s neck. “Who? A Greek? Ridiculous!”

He stands up, crosses to the kitchen stove, and finally pours his coffee. I grab a box of cereal from the counter and begin to eat directly from it, just to give my shaking hands something to do. The cereal tastes like sawdust.

The old man bangs the coffee pot down on the stove and turns towards Mother like an idea has just smacked him in the forehead. “What was taken?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” he repeats. “Nothing?”

“Not a thing.”

“This can’t be,” he says in a small voice, the possibility finally taking hold.

I plunge my hand deep into the cereal box. “What’s there to steal anyway?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“What’s there to steal?” Father asks, his voice loud again. He holds his cup so tightly, I wait for it to shatter. “What do you mean, ‘what’s there to steal’? There’s plenty to steal. The Sunday collection money. Gold chalices, sterling silver candle holders, the jewels on the gospel. There’s a fortune in that altar.”

It’s the same list I told Billy when he asked.

~

The walk to school is cold. Wind from Canada swirls across the lake and loosens the last grip of summer. Every brittle leaf that scrapes across the pavement reminds me that snow will soon blanket the city and accumulate on the roofs, in the gutters, and on the dead limbs of skeletal trees. I hate winter and already feel weighted down by the layers of clothing I’ll wear in the coming months: thermal underwear, heavy sweaters, down-filled parkas.

I walk towards Kenmore West High School, unable to think of anything else but Father George. I try to piece together his last minutes. I knew he had attended the wake of an old Greek; my parents had gone to pay their respects. The funeral parlor is here in Kenmore, so Father George would’ve traveled south on Delaware Avenue to get back to church. I picture his blue Toyota moving down the street like a scene filmed from a helicopter. The car makes its way through the ‘S’ turns in front of Forest Lawn Cemetery, the headlights knifing through the darkness, before accelerating out of the curves. Father George picks up speed as he heads towards church, only slowing to go around the fountain at Gates Circle. After several more blocks, the right turn signal flashes amber and the Toyota turns into the church’s deserted parking lot. He pulls into the spot reserved for him near the side entrance and kills the engine. He gets out of the car, slams the door shut, and heads to the side door. After unlocking it, he makes his way down the hall, past the church office, to his study.

Where’s Billy? Hiding in the corner? Did Father George turn on the lights? How many steps towards his desk did he take before the shots ring out? Three? Four? And why the hell did Billy shoot him? That was never part of the plan. I picture Father George sprawled on the floor, the blood soaking through his black suit coat, and I vomit in the bushes near Kenmore West.

Where the fuck did Billy get the gun?

When I straighten, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and see my friend McGuire laughing at me along with everyone else who saw me throw up; the girls turn away in disgust. Kenmore West, a four story brick building built during the thirties as part of the WPA program, looms behind them like a factory. A giant smokestack rises from the roof, but I’ve never seen smoke come from it. The school looks like it could survive a Soviet blast.

I walk towards McGuire and the rest of the juniors and seniors who are smoking just off school property. McGuire’s hair is longer than mine, brushing the tops of his shoulders. He wears faded jeans and a green fatigue jacket. He’s growing his first mustache, a ratty thing he constantly strokes like a two-inch pet.

Another kid, one I don’t know, stands next to him. His red hair is cropped short and cut around the ears, marking him as a “Joe’s Boy,” a kid who goes to Saint Joe’s, the all-boys high school a few blocks away. He isn’t wearing the khaki pants and blue shirt and tie they’re required to wear. Instead, he’s dressed like me and McGuire in tight Levis and motorcycle boots. He bends forward, cups a match with a freckled hand, and lights a cigarette.

“Still sick from last night?” McGuire asks, grinning at me. He fingers his mustache.

“Fuck you,” I say, stopping in front of him. I nod at his cigarette, bumming one without speaking.

He reaches inside his army jacket, pulls out a pack of Camels, and shakes one loose. “You look like shit.”

“You seen Billy?”

He digs deep in a pocket designed to hold hand grenades and ammunition and pulls out a plastic lighter. “Not since last night when he dropped us off. He was so wired, we might never see him again.” He turns to the red-headed kid. “You’ll love Billy. He’s fuckin’ nuts. Last night we’re in his car and he shoots the ‘S’ turns on Delaware with the lights off, driving totally fucking blind. We must’ve been going about eighty, sliding from lane to lane, beer spilling everywhere, all of us screaming. Then he comes out of the last turn and pops the lights and we’re almost off the fucking road.” He shakes his head. “Fuckin’ Billy.”

He lights my cigarette, still shaking his head, and I inhale and let the smoke fill my lungs and calm my stomach. I blow smoke just past the Joe’s Boy’s face but close enough to make him blink.

“Who’s this?” I ask.

“Fehan. They kicked him out of St. Joe’s last week.”

“I’m Pete,” I say, and shake the freckled kid’s hand. We all call each other by our last names, like we’re in the army or something. Except for me. My Greek name is too hard to pronounce, so I’m just Pete. Billy isn’t Greek, but he’s always been just Billy, too, ever since we were kids. His old man used to call him Billy The Kid before he took off.

Jesus.

“So you going?” Fehan asks me.

“Going where?” I ask.

“What the fuck,” McGuire says. “Don’t you Greeks own a friggin’ radio? Haven’t you heard?”

The old man had tuned every radio in the house to WBEN, the all-news station, and kept the black and white Philco blaring in the front room in case of breaking news about the murder. Even with all that I still don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, so I just shoot twin streams of smoke out my nostrils to show how bored I am with them.

“The Who’s coming here,” McGuire says. “In December.”

“Here?” I ask, looking from McGuire to Fehan then back to McGuire. “You’re kidding.”

Fehan shakes his head. “They just announced it. We’re camping out for tickets to get good seats. You in?”

“In? I’m first in line,” I say, but I’m looking past them, hoping to spot Billy on the street.

The warning bell rings, signaling ten minutes until homeroom. Both Fehan and McGuire take final drags on their smokes before flicking their butts at a couple of freshman. They start heading towards school, but I don’t move.

“You coming?” McGuire asks, over his shoulder.

“No,” I answer. “I gotta find Billy.”

~

I walk fast towards Billy’s house, the taps on my boots clicking out a warning on the sidewalk. Billy, McGuire’s cousin, is older than us, already out of school and on his own; he shares a flat with three other guys on the west side. He buys booze for us and sells us weed, sometimes lets us hang out at his apartment and listen to albums. I don’t have to walk far, though. Billy is waiting for me when I turn the corner from Kenmore West. He’s leaning against his car, a black ’72 Cutlass. His arms are folded across his chest; a forgotten cigarette burns between his fingers.

He looks worse than I do. His thick, sandy hair is parted in the middle but sticking up in back, like he slept in a chair all night. He’s still wearing the same Who t-shirt from the day before—the black one with the Kids Are Alright album cover on it, the one where the band is sleeping against a wall, their heads resting on each other’s shoulders, a giant Union Jack tucked under their chins. Sunglasses cover Billy’s eyes, but I know they must be red and burning, sensitive even to the pale autumn sun.

“Motherfucker,” I say, walking right up to him.

“What are you going do? Hit me?” he asks.

Even in my boots he still has a couple inches on me; he outweighs me by twenty pounds. “What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking anything, Petey Boy,” he says, his voice so soft and low I can barely hear it over the passing cars. “You’re the thinker, Pete. It was your plan.”

“It wasn’t a plan, Billy. It was us bullshitting around. It was a game—which place we could rob and get away with it, like which girls we’d fuck if no one would ever find out. I wasn’t serious.”

“The cops aren’t going to think it was a game, Petey Boy. You’re in this as deep as I am.”

“You’re crazy, man. I’m not in this at all.”

“You’re not, huh?” He leans close so I can smell last night’s booze on his breath. “If I get pinched, I’m telling the cops you were with me, that you pulled the trigger.”

There’s a roaring in my ears, like too much blood is running in the wrong direction. “They won’t believe you.”

“Only a Greek would know about the blue door with the shitty lock. Or how to get from the basement to the church office.”

“Shut up.”

“You’d know the collection is biggest on the first day of Sunday School when all their parents bring their kids, not me.”

“I wasn’t there, asshole.”

“No?” Billy jerks a thumb over his shoulder towards the Cutlass. “How many people saw you driving around with me last night—the kids at the arcade, the guy at the beer store, the waitress at the pizza place? How many is that? Eight? Ten witnesses? Maybe more?”

“That was earlier, Billy. Before you shot him.”

“Was it? You think a jury won’t put the pieces together?”

“My prints aren’t on the gun,” I say, my mind racing, trying to find a way out of this.

“I’ll tell them you wore gloves, Trigger Man.”

“Jesus, why are you doing this? What do you want from me?”

Billy sighs then, a long, noisy exhale the way my old man does when he finally gets to the friggin’ point. “You gotta help me.”

“Help you? How the hell can I help you?”

He notices the cigarette he’s holding and looks surprised that it’s still between his finger and thumb. He takes a drag, blows smoke out of the corner of his mouth.

“You gotta help me find the gun,” he says, his voice breaking for the first time. “I lost it.”

~

We’re driving down Delaware in the Cutlass. Empty beer bottles from last night roll by my feet. This ride is different than when we blindly shot the ‘S’ curves; there’s no yelling or laughing, no Who blaring from the 8-track; Entwistle’s bass isn’t pounding in my chest like a second heartbeat. Billy’s not talking much, just ashing one cigarette after another. Like my father, he has the radio tuned to the all-news station, but Billy’s waiting to hear them say his name. I half expect them to say mine, too, but I know that’s just me panicking.

I’m trying not to look scared. The window is rolled down and the cool fall air is rushing over my face and blowing my hair back. The wind is the only thing keeping me from getting sick again. My stomach clenches every time I think about getting arrested, thrown in a cell, and having my face and name all over the papers and TV. The Greeks will have nothing to do with my family if that happens, and it will kill my old man. He’s always down at the church for some meeting or another, volunteering for this committee or that fundraiser. If this were back in the old country, they’d run us out of the village and burn our house behind us. Hell, they still might.

Police cars are angled in front of the church and along West Utica. News trucks from all the local channels—WBEN, WGR, WKBW—are parked on the opposite side of the street, narrowing the road so we have to slow down to pass; Billy grips the steering wheel like he’s afraid of being yanked out of the Cutlass by his hair. Yellow police tape marked “Crime Scene” cordons off the area in front of the small blue door. A newspaper photographer is snapping shot after shot.

“Jesus, there’s cops everywhere,” I say, turning in the seat to watch a cop on his knees crawling behind bushes.

“They’re looking for the gun,” Billy says, checking his rearview mirror to see if anyone is following him.

“How the hell did you lose it?” I ask.

Billy lights a fresh smoke from the butt dangling from his mouth. “I parked a few blocks down so no one would see the car. After…I shot him, I panicked. I just ran. The gun was in my jacket pocket. It must’ve fallen out. I didn’t hear it hit the ground. It must be laying on the grass around here.”

He turns on a side street off Utica and pulls to the curb out of sight of the cops. “I parked by that mailbox,” he says, pointing. “Let’s look from here to there. We can’t search for it on Utica, not with all those cops around.”

“Jesus, Billy. What if someone recognizes the car from last night? Or thinks it’s weird that two guys are crawling around their lawn just a couple blocks away from a murder scene?”

Billy gets out of the car and eases the Cutlass’ door closed. “Welcome to my world, Petey Boy.”

I get out of the car but don’t take a step. Billy is walking with his head down, checking the grass on either side of the sidewalk. He goes about ten feet before he realizes I’m not moving. “What?” he asks.

“Why’d you shoot him?”

Billy just stares.

“Everybody loved that guy. My mom was up all night crying and my old man looks like he’s going to explode. Our phone’s been ringing off the wall with other Greeks calling and crying. It’s like you shot the whole damn Greek community, Billy. It’s fucked up.”

Billy walks towards me with his head down. He stops a few feet in front of me. When he looks up, his eyes are all red and watery, but I can’t tell if that’s from chain smoking or if he’s about to bawl.

“I pulled the gun and told him to back the fuck off when he walked in on me, but he wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t even scared. He looked pissed, like he couldn’t believe anyone would rob his church. Then he said he was calling the cops. When he turned and reached for the phone, the gun just went off.”

“Five times? The gun just went off five times? What the fuck, Billy.”

Billy shuts his eyes and sways. “I don’t know, man. All the booze and pills and dope. It just happened.”

“And for nothing. The paper said nothing was stolen.”

“I got something.” Billy says, and opens his eyes. “Twenty bucks.”

~

The whole family is crammed in the Front Room, waiting for the six o’clock news. The room, the smallest in the house, is long and narrow like a shoebox. We’re the only family I know that doesn’t own a friggin’ color TV. Each time I ask the old man about getting one, he tells me he’ll buy one when the black and white dies. The damn Philco shows no signs of giving out, as if it could go on showing us the world in two colors for another ten or twenty years.

The old man fills the overstuffed chair, a chair too damn large and bulky for the Front Room but perfect for him. He lowers the paper.

“You’re just getting home from school now?” he asks.

I tell him I stayed after to get extra help in math and then hung out with the guys. No one notices the mud on my boots or grass stains on my knees. He opens his mouth to ask another question but stops at the first beats of the snare drums announcing the start of Channel 7’s newscast. Fast cut images of the city flash on the screen—City Hall; springtime in Delaware Park; skiers swooshing down snowy slopes; O.J. juking left, then right. I imagine the colors—O.J.’s red and blue jersey, the greens and yellows of the park, bright ski vests against a backdrop of white—but all I see is gray.

The murder is the lead story. The same video of the exterior of the church and the parked Toyota are shown again. The anchorman tells us that the police still have no motive, no clues, no weapon.

We couldn’t find the gun either.

“I wish they would stop showing that,” the old man says as we again watch the paramedics pound on Father George’s chest. He grips the arms of his chair so tightly his knuckles whiten.

“They showed it at noon, too,” Mother says. “And during those news breaks between my shows.”

The video of Father George being wheeled to the ambulance ends. The camera is now inside the church, just outside Father George’s study; yellow police tape blocks the doorway. The shot zooms in on the bloodstained carpet, the stain wide and expansive. There’s more blood than I imagined.

“They can’t show that!” Father yells, sitting now on the edge of his chair.

Mother holds a hand to her mouth as the camera focuses on the splattered desk.

Jesus, Billy, I think, and slide down the wall so I’m sitting on the floor. I hug my knees to my chest, wanting to turn away from all that blood, but I can’t. On the screen it’s black and white, but in my mind it’s bright fucking red, so bright it’s searing my brain.

The camera cuts to the airport. Father George’s wife, Presveteria Vicki, had been visiting her family in Cleveland; the reporters are waiting for her when she arrives. Dr. Lambros, our Parish Council President, has his arm around her, trying to console her. Her head rests on his shoulder. She weeps uncontrollably, her whole body shaking. The cameraman must have been kneeling, angling the lens upwards to capture the tears and the way her face twists.

“Poor Vicki,” Mother whispers. “Poor, poor Vicki.” She pulls the afghan to her chest.

I hadn’t thought of Father George’s wife, his widow now, or their three kids, all younger than me. For the first time since I heard my father run up the stairs to tell us about the murder, I feel like crying. It’s like those five bullets ripped through his body and hit everybody.

“Look at those reporters,” Father says. “Damn vultures.”

I’m hoping Billy’s mug shot fills the screen next, and at the same time I’m scared that it will. Instead, they run video shot outside the church earlier in the day. A pretty reporter is interviewing a tired-looking homicide detective. Thick bags hang under his eyes. He licks his lips and swallows, as if he’s trying to rid the taste of cigarettes and coffee from his mouth. The detective stands a foot taller than the reporter. He tells her that they’re considering every angle and following up on all leads, that they haven’t ruled anything out yet.

The old man starts to say something in Greek, but the phone rings, cutting him off. I don’t move to answer it. I know it’ll be another Greek, another person hurting, who just needs contact with someone feeling the same way. My father heads to the kitchen to answer it. I wonder if they call other Greeks or just my old man. They probably think if anyone knows anything, if anyone has any answers, it would be him.

The phone’s still ringing when the doorbell buzzes, and I’m afraid it’s Billy wanting to go back and look for the gun again. I get to my feet and open the front door, but it’s not Billy wanting to conceal evidence or McGuire wanting to make plans about getting Who tickets. Two men stand on the porch, and I recognize the taller one from the news. Up close the bags under his eyes seemed heavier, but the skin coloring is the same shade of gray as it looked on the Philco. My heart starts to pound, like Moonie is smashing it with drumsticks. A weird vibration makes my hands tremble so bad I stuff them in the front pockets of my jeans. I think of all the cop shows I’ve watched on TV—Kojak, Baretta, Hawaii Five-O—and I start hearing the word “accomplice” bounce around in my head. I expect the detective to reach for the handcuffs, to spin me against the wall, to read me my fucking rights.

The tall cop, the one from the news, pulls a gold badge from his suit coat pocket and tells me that his name is McCarthy and his partner is Gorski.

Gorski nods. Neither of them smiles. It’s like fucking Dragnet on my front porch.

I nod back, too stunned to talk, and McCarthy tells me they want to speak to my mother.

“My mother,” I repeat, sounding retarded.

Gorski stares at me, taking in my long hair, my grass-stained jeans, the mud-caked boots. I imagine him running my face through mug shots and wanted posters and I hear Daltrey singing, “I’m the punk with the stut-ter.”

I step aside and he smiles before squeezing past me into the house. The smile looks unnatural on his face, as if he doesn’t use those facial muscles much. Thin lines crease from the corner of his eyes and the sides of his mouth, but they weren’t laugh lines. I can’t imagine that tall bastard laughing at anything.

“Peter? Who’s at the door?” Mother calls from the Front Room.

“The police,” I answer, pushing the words out my dry mouth. “They want to talk to… you.”

She walks towards us, taking small steps, as if her legs can’t be trusted. She pats the sides of her hair, feeling for forgotten hairclips, and motions them towards the Front Room. I’m not sure why she bypasses the larger, more comfortable living room. Maybe she feels safer in the room we use every day. She leads us there and turns off the television.

The detectives sit beside each other on the couch. Gorski pulls a small notebook from his shirt pocket and flips it open. Mother sits engulfed in Father’s chair, and I take my place in the doorway, still stunned that two homicide detectives are in my house and that I’m not handcuffed in the back of their Crown Vic.

The old man joins us, summoned by the strange male voices. He stands next to me, and I feel small again.

“They’re detectives.” Mother twists a handkerchief in her lap. “They want to ask me questions.”

Father nods at the two men. “Gentlemen,” he says, his voice strong and unwavering, as if talking to the police is a daily occurrence for him. “What kind of questions could you have for my wife?”

“Just a few, sir,” McCarthy says, and he starts right in, asking us our full names and Gorski writes down our answers. Then he wants to know about the volunteer work my mother does at the church, but he’s not interested in her singing in the choir or baking for the Greek Festival; he wants to hear how she covers the church office on Wednesdays, especially last Wednesday.

“Who else was down there with you?” McCarthy asks, and I swear Gorski is staring at me the whole time, his cop eyes boring into me. I can’t even look at him.

Mother turns to the old man for help, but he only shrugs his thick shoulders. None of us knew what the cops want.

She looks back at McCarthy and sighs. “Father George was there and Manny, the accountant, came in to do the books around ten.”

“Anybody else?”

Mother rubs her forehead, trying to massage the memory back. “Father George had several appointments. The Morphis girl and her fiancé, Mrs. Tzimas from Greek School. I don’t remember the others, but their names would be in the appointment book. Oh, and Frank. Frank was there.”

“The custodian?” Gorski asks, without looking up from his scribbling.

“Yes, he was there when I arrived.”

“But he didn’t work all day, did he, ma’am?” McCarthy asks.

She looks at Father, her eyes widening, as if she had just remembered something horrible. “No.”

“Father George fired Frank last Wednesday, didn’t he, ma’am?” McCarthy asks.

“No.”

Gorski’s head jerks up from his pad. “No?”

Mother eyes Yiayia’s afghan folded neatly on the couch. I can tell she wants to grab it and cover herself. “Frank quit.”

“Why did he quit?”

She folds her hands in her lap, lacing her fingers tightly together. Then she unlaces them and crosses her arms in front of her chest like the old man, leaving the handkerchief on her lap. Mother tells the police that it’s a big church with a great deal of wood to polish and carpet to vacuum. There are Sunday School rooms to clean, lawns to cut, sidewalks to shovel and steps to salt in the winter. Frank told Father George he wasn’t being paid enough for all the work he had to do. They argued in the church study, the same room where he was later killed, and Mother had heard it all.

I see where all this is going, and I want to scream at the cops that it wasn’t Frank, that it was my friend Billy who pulled the trigger, that I was stoned but home when it happened. But I don’t say shit. I just stand there, trying to avoid Gorski’s eyes, feeling everything spiral away from me.

“Did Frank threaten Father George when they were arguing?” McCarthy asks.

“He yelled that Father George was always riding him, and Father George yelled that Frank was sloppy and that we were paying him to do the job right. Then Father George said that if he couldn’t handle the job, he should quit. So Frank did.”

“You didn’t hear Frank threaten Father George, ma’am?” McCarthy asks again.

“The yelling was so bad, so ugly, I left the office. I went to the ladies’ room.”

“The accountant said he heard Frank tell Father George to watch his back. You didn’t hear him say that, ma’am? That he should watch his back?” McCarthy asks.

Mother sinks way back in the old man’s chair, like it’s swallowing her. She shakes her head. “I was in the ladies’ room.”

I swear to Christ the only sound in the friggin’ Front Room is the ringing in my head. It’s so loud I’m sure everyone can hear it, especially Gorski. I can feel his eyes on me without even looking.

“Did they argue a lot before last Wednesday?” McCarthy asks, interrupting the ringing.

Mother shrugs. “Father George wanted his church clean and that’s what he expected.”

“I see,” McCarthy says. “Can you think of anything else that might have happened last Wednesday or recall anything else about the argument?”

Mother shakes her head. She looks drained, like she just did something really hard and is now exhausted.

The detectives exchange looks and stand. Mother rises with them. Gorski slips his notebook back into his shirt pocket.

McCarthy hands Mother his card. “If you think of anything that might help us, please call.”

Mother takes the card, her hand shaking, and places it on the arm of the chair, as if the business card was burning her fingertips.

“I’ll walk you out, gentlemen,” the old man says, and the three of them head for the door.

Mother slumps back in the chair. The color is gone from her face. “Peter, get me some water.”

When I return, the old man stands with his hand resting on her shoulder. They talk in quiet tones, stopping only when they notice me.

I hand her the glass.

Father pats her shoulder. “At least we know who did it now.”

“Frank didn’t kill anybody,” I say.

“Of course he did,” he says, his eyes black stones. “He knew his way around every inch of that church. He could have slipped in and out of there easily in the dark. He could have left that door open or had a key made. He probably even knew Father George’s schedule. And now we know why he did it. They’ll search his apartment and find the gun and that will be it.” He turns away from me, his final point made, the conversation over.

And I still don’t say shit about Billy.

“Come on,” Father says, offering his hand to Mother. “Let’s get some coffee. The pot’s still warm.”

She takes his hand and leans into him as they walk to the kitchen.

I flop down in Father’s chair and throw a leg over the arm. My parents’ wedding picture stands on one of the end tables. No one will ever call me Tavros. From my mother’s side, I have inherited the slight build, the thin bones, the narrow shoulders. My face, however, is a carbon of the old man’s, especially when he was young. We share the same oval face, the same cleft chin, the identical straight nose. Our faces are mirror images, but that’s where the similarities end.

The ringing in my head grows louder.

~

The next morning, I sit at my desk, forging the old man’s signature on a note excusing yesterday’s absence, when the phone rings in the hall. I hear the bathroom door unlock and my old man answer it. He talks for a long time, his voice a low grumble. I’m surprised to hear him hang up the phone and knock on my door.

He enters my room shirtless, his skin warehouse white, his stomach soft and loose over the waist of his pajama bottoms. Even his arms and shoulders don’t look quite as thick with his shirt off, as if his muscles had shrunk during the night. The towel draped over his right shoulder is smeared with shaving cream; a daub still clings to his earlobe. His hair, rumpled from sleep, looks more silver than I remember, the same color as newly forged tools. He sits on my unmade bed.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, turning the note over so he can’t see. “You look sick.”

“I am sick.” He runs his fingers through his hair, rumpling it even more.

“Should I get Mom?”

“No, not that kind of sick.”

“Who was on the phone?”

“Mr. Pavlakis.”

“So early? What’d he want?”

Father takes a deep breath and looks at me; his face is shaved smooth on one side and dark with whiskers on the other. “I want you to come home right after school today. Don’t stay late, not even for math.”

“All right,” I say, not knowing what the hell he’s getting at. “Why?”

“Get some rest after school. Sleep if you can. Don’t eat much. Just something light. Then try to sleep again.”

“What’s happening?”

He looks at me for the first time. “Threats have been made.”

“Threats? What kind of threats? Against who?”

“Father George.”

“He’s dead,” I say, and the old man looks at me like I’m one sorry bastard. His voice is a whisper now, and I have to lean forward to hear. “His body, Peter. They threatened his body.”

He looks at me to see if I had understood, then hisses, “Desecration.”

Billy, I think, what the fuck did you do now?

The old man rubs his palms on the top of his thighs as he talks. “The threat was called into the police. They don’t know who it was. Some lunatic, probably.”

“What did they say they were going to do?” I ask. None of this is really making sense.

He takes several breaths, as if he’s pulling the words from deep inside him. His eyes grow bright with tears. I don’t remember ever seeing the old man cry and it scares me.

“Cut him,” he says. “His face, his heart.”

“Jesus,” I say, and slump in my chair.

Why would Billy do that? To throw the cops off his trail? I picture him calling from some corner phone booth, the Cutlass rumbling in neutral at the curb, the cherry pipes sounding angry. I wonder if McGuire is with him, riding shotgun, fingering his mustache and doing one hitters while he waits for Billy to finish his call.

“The wake will be at the church, not a funeral parlor. There’ll be police there guarding him,” the old man says, “but the Greeks need to be there, too. The Parish Council and their sons will be sitting in the church around the clock keeping watch. We’ll do it in shifts so we’re fresh in case something happens. I signed us up from eleven o’clock tonight until seven tomorrow morning. The graveyard shift.” His smile is sad, ironic. “That’s why you need to rest.”

My mouth gapes, unable to form words. It’s all too fucking surreal to be true.

He looks towards my bedroom door. “I need to tell your mother. I don’t want her to hear about the threats on the radio or read about it in the papers.”

He stands to leave.

“I have plans,” I say.

“What kind of plans can you possibly have at eleven o’clock at night?”

“There’s a concert. I want to wait in line for tickets with some friends.”

I wonder if Billy will be there. I suppose it would look strange if he wasn’t. I try to picture all of us—me, Billy, McGuire, Fehan—riding to the concert in the Cutlass like nothing happened. The car would be smoky with dope and loud from laughter and Townshend’s power cords, but somehow I can’t see me there.

The old man sits back on the bed. “A concert.”

I nod and wait for him to explode, but his voice is dead calm.

“What kind of concert?”

“The Who,” I say.

He just stares.

I point to the poster behind him. “Those guys.”

He turns and studies the poster of my favorite album cover. I’d bought it from a used record store just days before. The poster hadn’t been for sale; it was part of a display, but I slipped the clerk ten bucks when the owner wasn’t there, and he looked the other way when I took it. The poster is an outdoors scene. Blue skies streaked with clouds contrast with the rocky terrain that dominates the shot. The picture was taken right after the band finished pissing against some cement structure; they’re zipping their pants, buckling their belts, as they walk away from the wall, the piss stains clearly visible on the cement behind them. Across the top of the poster written in blue is the title of the album: Who’s Next.

The old man turns to me and gestures over his shoulder with his thumb. “Those guys?”

I nod. “Their drummer died last year, so this is probably their last tour, my last chance to see them.”

He begins rubbing his eyes with the tips of his fingers, talking while he rubs. “How’d he die?”

I clear my throat, knowing it’s going to sound bad even before I say it. “Overdose.”

The old man stops rubbing his eyes, leaving them red and watery. He looks at me for what seems like forever before he speaks. “When I was your age, I dropped out of school to work,” he says, starting in on a story I’ve heard a million times before. “Your Papou died and all his responsibilities became mine. Mr. Aleveras hired me as a picker at the tool factory. I’ve been working there ever since.”

The old man looks at the poster behind him again, then turns back to me. “You need to start making your own decisions. You’re not a baby anymore.”

He rolls his head from side to side, as if his thick neck muscles are bunched tight. The numbers flip on my clock radio with an audible click. We both glance at the time.

“I better tell your mother about tonight.”

The old man starts for the door then stops. “Oh, they arrested that bastard Frank,” he says. “His fingerprints were all over Father George’s office, and they found keys to the church that he never turned in. And the sonofabitch doesn’t have an alibi either.”

“They don’t have the gun,” I say, wondering where the hell that piece is, whose jacket pocket it’s stuffed in now.

The old man waves at the air like he’s swatting my words away. “They have enough without it, but that will turn up, too.”

I sit in the chair but don’t move, like my ass is bolted to the seat. I stare a long time at the door after my old man closes it behind him. The only sound I hear is my breathing, the numbers flipping on my clock radio, and that damn ringing in my head, like someone is holding a tuning fork to my ear.

~

I walk the long way to Kenmore West. I don’t want to hang out with McGuire and Fehan and the other smokers this morning. I don’t want to talk about The Who and what songs they might play or if we’ll get tickets on the floor. The morning news ran video of Frank being taken away in handcuffs, McCarthy and Goski holding each arm; the image is burned into my brain and I can’t shake it. In the clip, Frank is wearing his Yankees cap, the one he wore when he cleaned the church, and he’s yelling at the camera that he didn’t do it, that he was home alone watching the Yanks on TV the night Father George was killed. Then the mayor, Jimmy Griffin, fills the screen. He’s a little prick Irishman and doesn’t give a shit about anyone except the Irish in the First Ward, his old neighborhood. He’s praising McCarthy and what a great job he’s done to crack the case so quickly, blabbing on about what a safe city we have and how priest killers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. He doesn’t mention Gorski at all.

The whole thing makes me sick and I’m still sick as I walk to school. As soon as I saw the mayor I knew Billy was going to get away with it. Old Jimmy Griffin and the cops wanted to arrest somebody—anybody—as quickly as possible. Murdered priests are bad for the city and they want this story off the news and out of the papers right away. I know sure as shit that they’ll railroad Frank straight to Attica. There was a guy on the radio this morning already talking about bringing back the death penalty for priest and cop killers; my old man said he’d be the first one to sign that petition, to cast that vote, to pull the damn switch.

Then part of me thinks that if Billy gets away with it, then I get away with it, too, even if I didn’t do anything more than come up with an idea of how to rob the church, an idea I never took seriously. If Frank’s convicted, then things will eventually get back to normal for me, for Billy, for my old man. I won’t go to juvie, Billy won’t go to jail, my family won’t be shattered and run out of town. And that part of me that’s thinking all this shit, that voice that’s getting louder in my head with each step I take and that sounds nothing like my old man’s voice, is the part of me that I hate the most.

~

By third period I’ve had enough. The teachers’ words are just noise; I didn’t take a single note all morning. McGuire and Fehan aren’t in my English class and I don’t see them in the hall between periods. I keep seeing Frank, though, wearing his Yankees cap and yelling at the camera that he didn’t shoot anybody. When the bell rings, I blend in with the BOCE kids, the ones who go to school for a few hours, then get bussed out for vocational training—welding, food service, auto repair. Billy told me once that half the kids in the program end up working the line at Chevy and the other half end up in the Marines catching bullets. Nobody stops me or notices me and then I’m out the door, around the corner and gone. I don’t even try to be cool. I’m running now, my legs and arms pumping hard, my breath short and gasping from too many smokes; pain stitches across my right side and down both shins, but I keep running straight to Billy’s house.

The Cutlass is parked right out front for everybody to see. It’s been washed and waxed since yesterday, the black paint glossy, the chrome gleaming, and it pisses me off. The shiny car looks like a big middle finger, Billy’s way of saying that this is the getaway car that nobody saw, that he killed a good man and will get away with it, that some other poor bastard will get twenty-five to life instead of him. After I catch my breath, I kick the rear quarter-panel as hard as I can, leaving a good size dent, my own middle finger to Billy.

I can hear The Who even before I get to the door. It’s the part of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” where Daltrey gives one of his vocal cord-ripping screams, the kind that hurts the back of my throat every time I hear it. The sound is raw, predatory; it’s why Billy likes Daltrey so much.

The door is open. I don’t bother knocking; no one would hear it above The Who anyway. The living room is dark except for the weird glow of a lava lamp and the lights on Billy’s stereo spiking and dropping with the volume. The sweet smell of hashish hits me. Fehan is sitting on the couch Billy and I garbage-picked a few months ago. He’s doing hash under glass. A sewing needle pokes through an album cover with a piece of hash stuck on top. He lights it and covers it with a glass and waits for it to fill with smoke. When it does, he tilts the glass, sucks it empty, and then sinks far back in the cushions.

Billy and McGuire are standing in the corner by the speakers. They’re passing back and forth a bottle of George Dickel Tennessee whiskey. The commemorative bottle is shaped like a powder horn from pioneer days. McGuire holds it by the neck and waves it around as he sings along with the music like Davy fucking Crockett at a rock concert. Billy doesn’t see me at first but when he does he lets loose a rebel yell and walks towards me with his arms outstretched. He’s still yelling when he wraps me in a bear hug and lifts me off the ground.

When he puts me down, he keeps his arms resting on my shoulders. Our faces are close, his eyes wild and dilated.

“It’s over, man!” he yells, above the music. “It’s fucking over! They busted someone else. They’re not even looking for me anymore.”

McGuire lets out his own rebel yell when he hears this and walks towards us.

“He knows?” I ask.

“Hell, yeah, he knows,” Billy says. “He’s my cousin. Besides, I had to tell him why we’re celebrating, didn’t I?”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the plan,” McGuire says, smiling like an idiot. His face is slack from whiskey and dope. He stops in front of us but his body keeps swaying.

“There wasn’t any plan,” I yell. “It was just me and Billy talking one night.”

“Fuck that,” Billy says. “It was a great fuckin’ plan. It would’ve worked, too, if they didn’t make the bank deposit right after church.”

“And if that priest didn’t try to be a fucking hero,” McGuire adds, and I want to punch his stupid Irish face. The album side ends and the needle keeps hitting the record label so a scratching sound comes from the speakers. Fehan’s too hashed to get up and flip it.

“What about the gun?” I ask, keeping my voice calm like I’m just making conversation with two old friends. “That may still turn up. Your prints might be on it. You got a record, right? For that Drunk and Disorderly? They got your prints on file, dude. They’ll match the bullets to the gun and the gun to you.”

Billy’s face goes a little gray because he knows I’m dead right. “Then we’ll just have to find it first, Petey Boy,” Billy says, and squeezes my shoulder until it hurts, that scratching and popping sound coming from the speakers the whole time.

~

Billy laughs when I tell him I’m not camping out for Who tickets.

“No one’s going to cut his body, Pete,” he says, grinning, but he never admits to making the threats.

My family, even my Yiayia, stops talking to me when I tell them that I won’t be standing guard over Father George. My old man doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t even glare at me when I tell him. I wait for the yelling, the curses in Greek, the long listing of reasons why I’m a piece of shit, but I get nothing, just a nod, leaving me to fill in that long list for him.

I’m at the church but not inside with all the other fathers and sons. I’m not sitting in the hard pews with the saints’ sad faces staring down at me from the stained glass windows. I’m not sneaking looks at Father George laid out in gold vestments in his coffin in front of the altar, or smelling the stale incense that shrouds the church, or jumping every time the old building creaks, thinking it’s some madman breaking in with a knife. I’m not crying.

I’m outside, dressed in black like I’m in some bad movie, crawling around trying to find the gun. I move slowly, looking everywhere, pressing myself into the ground when a car goes by, the dew soaking through my clothes. I picture Billy and McGuire and the long line of kids in front of the Central Ticket Office on Delaware, wrapped in blankets, trying to stay warm, counting down the hours until tickets go on sale in the morning. A hundred different cassette players are probably playing a hundred different Who songs at the same time in a weird jumble of sound. I see and hear it like I’m there, but I’m not.

I cover the same ground, search the same lawns that Billy and I did before and the same ones the cops must’ve already checked; even in the dark I can see the pressed grass and the footprints of everyone that’s come before me. Time passes, but I don’t know how much and I keep looking, moving slowly, my eyes roving back and forth, my hands feeling in front of me. If I don’t find the gun, I’ll have to rat Billy out and testify against him. Then he’ll tell them it was my plan, that I pulled the trigger, that he only drove. Except for Billy, I’ve never heard of anyone as deeply fucked as I am.

Then, on a lawn overgrown with ankle-high weeds, I see the gun, the streetlight reflecting off the bluish barrel. The size, the smallness of it, surprises me. I thought something that had done so much damage, hurt so many people, affected so many families, would be a hell of a lot bigger, but it’s not. It’s a deadly little thing. I wonder if Billy really did wear gloves, if dew wipes out fingerprints, if he’d really pin the murder on me. It would be easy for me to take it, to dump it in the river or bury it someplace. It would be even easier just to walk away, to leave it there in the grass for the cops or some other punk to find. I lie there in the weeds not moving, hardly breathing, like I’m the one who’s been shot, and stare at that gun a long damn time, trying to figure out what the hell I should do now.

When I finally do stand up, I walk the few blocks to the corner of Elmwood and Utica and call the cops from a payphone in front of a bar. The lies come easy. I tell them I found a gun not far from where that priest was murdered while walking my dog, that I don’t want to be involved, that I’m going to stay anonymous. I give the address where I found the gun and hang up fast. My hand shakes when I light my cigarette. I lean against the wall, the orange neon light of the Elmwood Lounge washing over me, and wait for the sirens.

The Water is Wide

Jan Lower

Ford walked through the empty lot next to the parking garage, stepping over clumps of dead grass and avoiding the bottles and trash. He looked at the steely sky above the top level and wiped his nose with the back of his glove. At his elbow, his brother skipped and hopped and sang in a high voice, “Little frog and little toad, walking down a country road,” a tune he had learned last year in kindergarten. They were heading for the mall, to spend the last couple of hours of Saturday afternoon away from the house where they lived with the Hardisons. As foster parents went, Ford guessed, they were decent; but without kids of their own, everything they did seemed off.

He took Eddy’s hand and swung him onto the ledge of the garage’s street level. Then he jumped up himself, and they both scrambled over. The garage was half empty. Ford steered Eddy toward the stairs; they would use the second floor entrance, to avoid the fast food stands on the ground floor. Ford had counted out the coins in his pocket, and he didn’t want to make excuses all the way to the bookstore on the top level.

The door squealed as Ford pulled it open and guided his brother through. Eddy had barely put his foot on the first step when he stopped short and grabbed for Ford. Ford looked past him up the stairs, muscles tensing, his instant response whenever Eddy was alarmed. Midway up the staircase was a plastic grocery bag, and beside it was a blanket, folded around a lump of something. The lump was moving. They heard a faint cry. Eddy squeezed Ford’s hand and leaned against him. It can’t be, Ford thought.

“What is it?” whispered Eddy. “An animal?” Ford pulled his hand away and put his arm in front of Eddy’s chest, pressing him back.

“Stay here.” Ford moved up the stairs to the bundle. It wiggled. He pulled away the edges of the blanket until the face was exposed. It looked at him with a steady gaze.

“It’s a baby!” Eddy leaned over Ford’s shoulder.

“I told you to stay back. Yes, it’s a baby.” Its skin was pale and clear, and tufts of caramel-colored hair stood out on its head. The baby looked at them, from one to the other.

“Somebody forgot their baby. Or they lost it.” Eddy bounced up and down. “Do you think they’ll come back soon?”

Ford didn’t answer. He picked up the bag, surprised that it was heavy. He sat down on the step and went through the contents, Eddy’s head close beside his. A plastic baby bottle filled with a tan liquid, two empty ones, a can of powdered formula, a box of diapers, and a package of wipes. There was no note.

Ford looked at the baby. It waved its hands, quivering.

“What are we going to do?” Eddy clapped his mittens together. “I’m cold.”

“Okay, okay.” Ford stood up. “We can’t leave it here.” He handed the bag to Eddy. “You carry this, and I’ll carry the baby.” He took off his gloves, shoved them in his pocket, and picked up the bundle, making sure to fold the blanket around the baby’s body.

“Ford? What if it’s Willow?”

Ford looked at Eddy. His face was drawn and pale, no longer pink from the chilly air. Eddy almost never mentioned their baby sister. They hadn’t seen her for more than three months, not since the police came and took them out of the apartment after their neighbor called the ambulance for their mother. Ford had deflected the neighbor’s intrusions as long as he could, although in the end he had been glad when the paramedics came. But he was still angry at the social services people for sending their sister to a different foster home.

“It can’t be her. This baby’s hair is light brown, and Willow has dark hair like you and me. And brown eyes.” He tilted the bundle toward Eddy. “This baby’s eyes are light.” They’re blue, he thought, like a summer sky reflected in a lake. He had seen a picture like that once on a calendar in a gas station. “And we don’t even know if this one is a boy or a girl.”

“What if the people who are taking care of Willow leave her in a stairwell?”

Ford felt the yawning space inside, of worry and not knowing, that always came when he thought for more than a moment about his mother or his sister. He took a deep breath to squeeze the space smaller.

“They won’t. They know they’re supposed to take care of her. The police won’t let them leave her alone.” At least he hoped that was mostly true. He started up the steps.

Inside the mall, Ford walked quickly, trying to look as if he belonged with the baby and the boy holding onto his sleeve.

“What are we going to do now?”

“I don’t know. Give me a minute.”

“Well, where are we going?”

Ford wondered what kind of person would abandon a baby. It didn’t seem hungry. Did it need a clean diaper? At the end, before his mother went to the hospital, he had changed all of Willow’s diapers, for days. And made up her bottles. And fed her.

“We’re going to the bathroom to check its diaper.” He veered off the mall’s corridor into a department store and started searching for a men’s bathroom. He found one without having to ask anybody, in an alcove off the shoe department. Ford ushered Eddy inside and was relieved to find no one else there. It even had a pull-down shelf where he could lay the baby down.

He unwrapped the blanket and unsnapped the fleece pajama. It was a girl, and her diaper was dirty. Free of the blanket and cloth, her legs wiggled and she waved her arms. I bet you’re glad to be out of this, Ford thought, folding the diaper and tossing it in the trash.

The door swung open and a man strode in. Ford opened his eyes wide at Eddy, warning him to be quiet. Eddy moved behind Ford, away from the sinks and stalls. Ford leaned over the baby and put on a new diaper as the man flushed the toilet and washed his hands.

“Wish my son could take care of the little ones like that.” Ford looked up quickly to see the man smiling at him. He smiled back, and the man pushed open the door and went out.

“He thinks she’s ours,” Eddy whispered.

“I know,” Ford whispered back. He snapped the baby’s clothes together and returned her to the folds of the blanket.

“Can we keep her?”

How could they? “Come on. To the bookstore.”

They walked through the mall and took the escalator to the third level, Eddy skipping along, hanging onto Ford’s arm, trying to get the baby’s attention. Ford felt uncomfortable, as if everyone knew the baby wasn’t his, but he also felt like he fit in, like before, carrying Willow, leading Eddy, when his mother was okay, only starting to be sick.

They went to the children’s section. This time, instead of choosing books to look at, Eddy sat on the floor beside Ford, leaning against him, while Ford held the baby on his lap. She grasped Eddy’s fingers and he made soft animal sounds at her, laughing, his eyes shining. Ford glanced around and saw a woman watching them, but he relaxed when she turned back to the two children sitting near her. Listening to Eddy, Ford felt like he had jumped back to a time before anything bad happened, when he and Eddy and Willow were together.

He checked the cat-shaped clock on the wall above the picture books. Almost six. The Hardisons were hosting a football party tonight and wouldn’t expect them back yet. The baby’s fist was in her mouth, shiny with saliva. Now that she was in the warm air, she had a sweet baby smell. Willow had a sweet smell too; it came back to Ford as he pressed his nose into the baby’s hair, and he closed his eyes.

“Ford, I’m hungry.” Eddy tugged on his jacket sleeve. The baby rubbed her eye and whimpered. Ford realized he didn’t know when she had eaten last. Shifting her to one arm, he stood.

“Can I get a snack?” asked Eddy.

“A soft pretzel. I have two dollars.” Ford settled the baby on his shoulder and she put her head down. He pulled the blanket between her cheek and the scratchy wool of his jacket.

“But I want a chocolate chip cookie.” They walked out of the bookstore to the escalators.

“Okay, okay, you can have a cookie. One cookie. That’s all the money I have.”

When they got to the food stalls, the baby began to cry. Only three tables were occupied, all by adults. Ford gave Eddy the money and sat down at a table away from the others. He felt around in the bag beside him until he found the full bottle. He unscrewed the top. It smelled like formula. He remembered to shake it. It was room temperature but the baby didn’t protest. As he fed her, she reached up, her fingers pinching the bottle. Just like Willow, he thought. Ford felt the yawning, the worry, again.

“Are we going to keep her?” Eddy stood next to him, licking chocolate off his fingers. He put some coins on the table.

“I don’t know.” Ford’s eyes were full of the baby’s face, her tiny lips, her blue eyes looking around, her hair catching the light, sparkling. They couldn’t put her back on the stairs. Someone might see them leaving her. Or someone who shouldn’t have her could pick her up. If they told a security guard, he’d call the police and they’d be in trouble, kept at the station for hours. That would be like the bad time before; Eddy would get scared again. And wouldn’t this baby be sent to a foster home?

A scraping noise made Ford look up. A gray-haired woman in a baseball cap that said Broadway Curly Fries was clearing tables nearby, watching them. She had thin lips pressed together in disapproval, like their old neighbor.

“Please?” Eddy leaned over and kissed the baby’s hair. “She can sleep in my bed.”

Ford shook his head. “Keep your voice down. No, she can’t. The Hardisons would find out, and they’d never let us keep her.”

Eddy frowned. “Then where will she sleep?”

Ford glanced again at the woman. She still had her eyes on them. He looked down at Eddy for a long moment, deciding. “In the boat.”

Eddy tapped the toe of his sneaker on the floor. “You mean the boat in the garage?”

Ford nodded.

“But there’s no bed in there.”

“I know. We’ll have to make one.”

“But isn’t it cold in the garage?”

Ford remembered that Eddy had only been in there once, when they had stored their suitcases after they moved in with the Hardisons at the end of the summer.

“The garage is heated. It’s not as warm as the house, but it’s a lot warmer than outside.”

Eddy scratched his ear. “But won’t she feel lonely in the garage by herself?”

Ford put the empty bottle on the table and sat the baby upright, patting her back. She rubbed her eye with her fist.

“You kids can’t just sit here without buying food. Where’s your mother?” It was the woman in the cap. Her voice grated, and she smelled like cooking grease. She frowned at them, a dirty rag in the hand resting on her hip.

Ford stood up quickly with the baby in his arms and put the empty bottle in the bag. He faced away from the woman and whispered to Eddy. “You carry the bag. Hurry.”

Moving toward the exit, with Eddy trotting beside him, Ford tucked the blanket snugly, arranging it so that a flap covered the baby’s head. He held her tightly in one arm and clumsily pulled on his gloves. He pressed her head gently into his shoulder.

The house was bright with lights inside and out when they got back. Several cars were in the driveway and at the curb. Ford and Eddy stood with their breath puffing in pale clouds.

“This way,” Ford said. He led Eddy around the side of the garage to a door by the trash bins. It was unlocked, but a pile of newspapers inside blocked it, and Ford and Eddy had to push the door to move the stack out of the way. Ford flipped on the light. He closed the door and walked quickly to the boat, which was parked on a trailer in the middle of the garage. Ford was relieved to see that the covering was thrown loosely over the stern; Mr. Hardison had re-varnished the deck a couple of months ago.

“Help me make her a bed.” With one hand, Ford pulled the cover back and helped Eddy up the boat’s ladder, handing him the bag of supplies. The deck angled up to the bow, following the trailer’s tilt.

“Do you see any rags or blankets or anything in there?” Ford asked.

Eddy shook his head. “Just some really stiff-looking cloth. It’s folded up.”

The baby whimpered. Her hands were together in front of her chin, and her mouth was pulled down at the corners. “Just wait, baby, a little while more,” Ford whispered, his lips against the side of her head.

Ford found an old wool coverlet in a plastic storage bag and gave it to Eddy, who folded it on the canvas. Ford climbed the ladder, and kneeling on the deck, laid the baby down, then slipped his gloves into his pocket and pulled off his jacket. He could just see her in the dim light of the single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Her eyes were half-closed. She reached a hand up toward Ford; he put his thumb out and she closed it in her fist. With his free hand he wrapped the sides of the coverlet around her. After a few minutes, she drifted off to sleep, and Ford gently peeled her fingers away.

“Now what do we do?” whispered Eddy.

“We have to go inside.” Ford rubbed his arms from the chill. “Pretend that we just got back from the mall. Leave your jacket out here, though, for later. We’ll use the door into the kitchen.”

“What if she wakes up?” Eddy laid his jacket on the deck of the boat.

“They won’t hear anything. The game’s really loud. And babies sleep a long time.”

Again, Ford hoped it was true. They turned off the light and quietly opened the door. There were voices down the hall, but the kitchen was empty. Ford and Eddy filled paper plates with food and went to stand by the door to the living room, watching the TV as if they were interested in the game.

“There you are!” exclaimed Mrs. Hardison. “I wondered where you’d gotten to—didn’t hear you come in. Everybody who hasn’t met ’em, these are the boys we’re taking care of.” Some of the people looked up and smiled; a few just waved without taking their eyes off the TV.

“Dinner is good, Mrs. Hardison. We’ll just finish eating and go to our room,” said Ford.

“Fine by me.” She waved her hand and turned back to the game.

After they threw their plates into the trash, Ford rinsed out an empty soda container; he’d need it later for water to make formula. When they got to the room they shared, he closed the door.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” He sat down on the bed he used and Eddy plopped onto the floor. “We’re going to pretend to go to sleep, and then I’m going to get up and bunch some clothes under my covers so it will look like I’m still in bed.” Ford rubbed the back of his neck while he thought. “Then I’ll sneak back to the boat and spend the night—”

Eddy jumped up. “Me too!”

“Shhh. Listen. What if they check on us and we’re both gone? I need you here for that.”

“But I’m scared to sleep alone. And when do I get a turn to be with her?”

Ford studied him. Eddy’s eyes were pleading. Maybe Ford couldn’t manage this after all. He missed his mother, the way she was before and right after Willow was born, until things got bad. He missed his sister more than he had known. The hollow feeling, made of worry and uncertainty, was creeping up into his chest. He took a deep breath.

“Soon,” he said softly. “I’ll come and wake you early. We can all be together then.”

It took Ford a while to get Eddy into bed. The noise from the living room ended, and Ford sensed that the crowd’s team had lost. He heard a heavy door open and close. His heart pounded until he realized it had been the front door, not the door into the garage. He put some clothes under the covers and then sat on the edge of his bed in the dark, not moving, willing the baby in the boat to keep sleeping. By the time the sounds of cleaning up had ended and the Hardisons’ voices had moved into the hallway and the bathroom, Eddy was asleep and snoring. When Ford had heard nothing for what seemed like a long while, he tiptoed down the hallway into the kitchen with the empty soda bottle.

He stopped there in the darkness. Ford pictured the baby in the boat, and Eddy in his bed. He couldn’t be with one without worrying about the other, more than he could stand. At the sink, feeling for the tap, he filled the soda bottle and put it by the door. Back down the hall, he felt his way across the room and shook his brother awake, holding one hand near Eddy’s mouth in case he made a noise.

“Eddy, wake up. It’s time to go sleep with the baby.” Eddy climbed out of bed and followed Ford’s whispered urgings to put on socks and sneakers, and a sweatshirt over his pajamas. They got the soda bottle, went quietly into the garage, and flicked on the light. The baby was still asleep. Watching her, they put on their jackets. Her pale skin looked soft, and Ford thought her eyelashes seemed like tiny feathers, long and thick. Her hands were curled under her chin, and her mouth was relaxed. Ford reached for the bag and opened the container of dry formula.

“Do you think she’s hungry?”

“No. But she will be when she wakes up. And I don’t want her to cry.” He peered at the label on the formula can, reading how many scoops he should use. He held one of the empty bottles up to the light, then smelled it to see if it was clean, and looked at the nipple inside and out. He measured out the formula, added water from the soda bottle, and shook it. It would be all right for a few hours, he decided, until she was hungry again.

Eddy yawned. “We have to tell them sometime that we have a baby and we’re keeping her.” He lay down on his side with his head on the edge of the folded canvas. “And we have to give her a name.” He pulled his jacket around him against the chilly air.

Ford sat in the dim light, gazing from the baby to his brother and back, imagining the baby was Willow. Suddenly he felt it was all right, just at this moment, this exact part of time. The yawning feeling was much fainter. Just Eddy, Willow, and him, here in the boat. For now. He wished he could make it stretch out, last for hours and days. Ford put his hand on the coverlet and listened to the silence. He closed his eyes, leaning against the bench in the boat’s side.

Ford woke with Eddy shaking his shoulder.

“Ford, I’m freezing, and the baby’s crying.”

He sat up, every muscle stiff. His hands and feet were cold. The baby was fussing and wiggling, kicking the blanket. Ford rubbed his eyes and hair, and found the bottle where he had left it in the bag. He held it for her, but the baby twisted up her face and howled.

“Why doesn’t she want it?” Eddy patted the baby’s leg. “Shh, baby. Shh.”

“It’s too cold.” Ford shoved the bottle under his shirt, against his skin. The shock of the cold plastic woke him fully. This won’t work, he thought. The baby’s crying stopped when she crammed her fist into her mouth for a moment.

“Ford, she’s hungry.” Eddy kissed the baby’s head, then looked at Ford, his eyes wide. He began to pat her leg again. She started to cry once more.

Ford stood up stiffly and pulled the bottle from his shirt. He put it on the deck. “I need you to stay here for a minute.”

“What are you doing? Are you going away?” Eddy grabbed his sleeve.

“I have to go inside to warm the bottle.”

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“Shh, keep your voice down.” Ford picked the baby up. She stopped crying for a moment; then her face crumpled again.

“Sit down.” Eddy sat and Ford put the baby in his arms. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around them, tucking it in under Eddy. “Hold her tight – not too tight – and sing to her. Softly, close to her ear. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed the bottle and hurried down the ladder.

“What if she doesn’t stop crying?” Eddy’s voice quavered.

“I’ll be right back,” Ford repeated in a loud whisper. He moved quickly into the kitchen, trying to muffle any noises from the boat, then stood listening. The Hardisons slept with their door closed but Ford knew that sound traveled through the thin walls.

For a moment he pictured Mrs. Hardison appearing in the doorway, wanting to know what he was doing. He felt himself closing off, going silent, protective. But she was kind, he thought, kinder than the social workers and the people who had come to the apartment from the school. Would she help them? He frowned. Mr. Hardison wouldn’t, he knew instantly. Ford’s mother had always said to be careful about trusting people. If Ford told them about taking the baby, maybe they would send him to a different family, leaving Eddy here alone. Ford breathed in sharply and realized he was gripping the bottle so hard a drop of formula had squeezed out and run down onto his fingers. He had filled it too full.

He heard the baby crying. Ford crossed the kitchen, wiping his fingers on his shirt. At the sink, he poured a small amount of formula down the drain. At their apartment he had run hot water to warm Willow’s bottles, but the Hardisons had a microwave. He put the bottle inside, standing close to block the light and mute the click of the door. The digital time glowed green. How long? He stood frozen, his mind scrambling, until he heard a squall from the garage. He punched in thirty seconds and hit the start button. Ford held his breath as the numbers counted slowly down, then hit the stop button before the timer ran out so it wouldn’t beep. He grabbed the bottle, put the top on, and shook it as he slipped back into the garage. A wail erupted as he squeezed the door shut. Ford ran to the boat and jumped up the ladder.

Eddy had tears running down his cheeks. The baby’s face was bright pink, streaked with damp, her eyes brimming, eyelashes sticking together. Her mouth was a wide circle, the corners pulled down around her tiny fist. Ford’s jacket and her blanket had slipped off.

“I sang, Ford, but she didn’t listen.” Eddy’s nose was running.

“It’s okay.” Ford put down the bottle, sat beside Eddy and lifted the baby from his lap. Her cries eased to whimpers and Ford wrapped the blanket around her. Eddy wiped his eyes and nose on his jacket sleeve. Ford shook a drop of formula onto the back of his hand. It was warm. He tilted the bottle to the baby’s mouth. She drank hungrily, tears sparkling in her eyes.

They sat quietly until the baby finished. Ford dried her eyes with the edge of his sleeve.

“I want to go back to my bed.”

Ford turned to Eddy. His shoulders were hunched in the chill. Ford put his arm around him, the baby kicking softly on Ford’s lap. Ford’s whole body ached.

He stood up, and transferring the baby from one side to the other, he shrugged on his jacket and put the empty bottle in the bag. They climbed out of the boat. The sky was pearly; the garage and everything in it was colored gray.

“Go back in,” Ford said softly. “You need to be brave and go by yourself.”

“Where will you be?”

“Taking care of the baby,” Ford said. “It’s all right. I’ll be back soon.”

Eddy nodded and went into the house.

Ford laid the baby on the newspapers, changing her diaper in the cold morning light. She never took her eyes off his face as he bundled her back snugly into the blanket. He picked up the bag and they silently left the garage. He threw the diaper into the trash bin. The streetlights began to shut off as he crossed to the empty lot.

Ford walked around the parking garage and in through the car entrance. It was early; no shoppers would arrive for a little while. He opened the door to the stairwell, climbed the steps and sat down. He settled the baby on his lap so she could look at him, and slid the blanket off her head. She reached her hand toward his face. The overhead florescent lights clicked off; a thin light came in through the windows in the wall. The baby’s eyes were the color of deep arctic ice.

“I’m glad I could take care of you,” he told her softly. “I wish it could have been for longer.” He looked into her eyes. “I have a sister. She’s called Willow.” He stroked the baby’s hair. He tried to picture Willow; she’d be bigger now. “I used to ask them if we could see her, but they always said no.” He thought about how he had eventually given up and how she had fallen into the empty place inside him. He held the baby close; she gazed at him. “But now, maybe they’ll let us. I don’t know. I want to ask again.” The answer might be the same, he thought, but he would try until he saw her, until he could hold her again.

He heard a car moving past the stairwell door. He waited until he heard a second car before he kissed the baby on the cheek. He stood up and laid her on the step, making sure the blanket was around her to keep her warm. He tied the handles of the bag and set it beside her. Ford pulled open the door into the parking lot. Other cars were arriving. He ducked around the corner and crouched behind a trash can. He heard a wail in the stairwell. A car pulled into a space a few yards away and a woman and three children got out, laughing. Ford pressed himself against the wall and closed his eyes. Their chatter echoed as they entered the stairwell.

The talk stopped abruptly. Ford heard cries of surprise and concern. He stayed frozen, listening to the voices. Then a sudden energy flooded him and he burst from his hiding place and bolted across the garage to the low wall. He vaulted over it as if he had wings, landed on the grassy lot, and ran fast into the morning.

Pieces of Sky

Christy Lenzi

My fingers freeze, hovering over the threads of my loom. Everything turns quiet again, but the scream hangs in the night air like an icy breath. Mother rises up in bed with another cry. The sound turns my blood to cold rushing rivers.

When she lifts her hands toward the firelight, they’re stained dark red. Frída runs to her, throwing off the covers. Mother’s legs are red. The linens are red. It reminds me of my first cycle, four summers ago. But Mother has the wild rolling eyes of a frightened cow.

Dear gods! I hope the baby inside her lives.

“Jón,” Frída cries, “get Old Aud.”

He stumbles to the door, but it’s too late for that.

Frída turns to me, the whites of her eyes shining like moons in the dark. “Anja, tend to your brother.”

Bikki cries in my bed. Hands shaking, I pick him up and give him my spindle to play with as I bounce him roughly on my hip. The sound of Mother’s sobs tightens something in my chest, making it hard to breathe.

“Get the soothing herbs and put them in a horn of beer,” Frída says. “The baby’s coming. Now.”

Mother’s only in her eighth month. I put Bikki back on the bed and hurry to the pantry to mix the herbs into the drink. My fingers shake, sloshing some of the potion on the floor. I haven’t taken the cords of protection off the baby’s tree yet. The black cord of death hasn’t even been burned or buried. Curses! I have to do it before—

“Hurry!”

I hand Mother’s horn to Frída and run out of the hall into the chilly night. The green rippling ribbons of light in the sky look like the swirling skirts of dancing Valkyries. The moon shines, waning, but it’s still large enough to see the birch grove and my unborn sister’s tree that Father dedicated to the gods for her. The three-colored cord hangs from its boughs. I hung it there to dry after I dyed it, just as Old Aud directed, according to her dream. I break off two branches and run back to the hall to light them in the fire, continuing the instructions I memorized from Old Aud. I try not to look at Mother’s bed and hurry back to the grove to complete the ritual of protection.

Blowing out one flame, I use the smoldering end to burn apart the black, white, and red sections of the cord. I stuff the white and red threads into my pocket and drop to my knees to burn the black death-cord with the other flame. As the flame consumes the thread, I scrape at the hard dirt under the tree with my fingers. It needs to be deeper. I grab a stone and dig into the ground.

Mother’s cry becomes one long howl, like the sound of Father pretending to be a wolf-man when he tells old stories from Norway. The noise usually makes the hairs on my arm stand on end, but this time it takes my breath from me.

I have to bury the black thread’s ashes before the howling ends. I slap out the flame and shove the cinders into the hole I made, pushing dirt over them as quickly as I can. As soon as the dirt covers the ashes, Mother’s voice breaks. The quiet that comes after it is louder than anything I’ve ever heard. My body shakes. I rise and stand on top of the little mound of dirt. Stomping on it, over and over, I want the thudding of my bare feet to drown out the unbearable silence. I drop to my knees and hit the dirt with my fists until they turn numb and my eyes swim in tears. Oh please, gods. Frey! Freyja! Slumping against my sister’s tree, I pull my knees up to my chest and clap my hands over my ears to drown out the quiet.

A sound like the bleating of a goat tears through the stillness. I loosen my hands and listen. A baby’s weak cry. Jumping to my feet, I run to the hall. Mother looks like a crumpled rag, her face ashen and slack. Her eyes flutter at me, but seeing the limp baby in Frída’s arms, she clamps her eyes shut and turns her face away.

Frída takes up the iron scissors. “I must cut it loose. Give me a thread to tie the cord.”

I pull Old Aud’s white thread from my pocket and tie the baby’s belly cord myself. Frída cuts the childfree. The baby’s blue skin is lightening to purple, but the infant’s not well. She’s too small and still. Almost dead.

No.“Rub her,” I cry. “Wash her!”

Frída won’t look at me and only whispers, “Fetch me a basket and linen.”

“Let me hold her!” I pull at Frída’s arms, but she turns her shoulders away.

“It’s come too early like the other one,” she says. “It’s too sickly—it doesn’t have the strength to live. There’s nothing we can do for it. Your father gave orders that if it was frail and came too early again, we couldn’t keep it. Fetch me the covered basket and linen. This is the way things are.” Frída’s voice trembles, but her body’s rigid as stone. “Hurry, Anja, your mother needs tending and the afterbirth hasn’t come out yet.”

Like the other one? The world spins. That time before Bikki was born, when Mother’s swelling belly disappeared overnight—now it’s happening again. I was too young to understand then, too young to stop it. I lunge to Mother’s side. “Make Frída listen, Mother. Make her warm the baby. Make her give you the baby. She’s still alive. She’s breathing. Father wouldn’t want this.”

A sob breaks from Mother’s throat, and she turns her head away. “Go, Anja. Do as Frída says. You’re hurting me with these words—it’s so hard as it is. Go quickly. It’s your father’s order.”

I turn and stare at Frída, who’s found the lidded basket and linen herself.

“Get your boots and cloak.” Frída doesn’t even wrap the whimpering baby in the blanket before putting her in the basket.

But I can’t move. I stare at her like a stone statue.

“Now!” Frída’s voice sounds shrill and wild like a trapped animal, startling me into action.

I pull my boots on in a panic as Mother weeps. Frída, her jaw set and lips pursed, shuts the lid over the baby. How can she do this terrible thing, especially when she longs to have a baby with our other slave, Jón? But I already know the answer. It’s the same reason I slip my boots on and do what Frída says—Father. Father’s word is law; going against him is like blaspheming the gods. I have no choice. Father is the god of our home. He is quiet and cold like a snow-covered mountain, but when he is angry, he erupts like a fiery volcano, burning everything in his path. I sometimes feel sorry for his enemies in battle. The thought of disobeying him scares me more than a thousand malevolent spirits. Besides, if Father ordered it, it must be for the best, even though I can’t understand it.

I open my trunk with shaking fingers, feeling as though I’m moving through deep water. Is this what it’s like to be in a trance? My duty presses on me with the weight of an avalanche. But as I slip my feather cloak around my shoulders, I realize there’s still one thing I can do.

I find the silver bracelets with the green and red gemstones that Father brought back for me from one of his Viking journeys when I was a baby. The two arm rings are part of my bride’s treasure for when I marry. I slide one of them into my pocket. As I return the other to the trunk, I see the wooden Valkyrie that my brother Vali carved for me years ago. The warrior maiden’s arms and wings feel strong in my fingers. I place it in my pocket next to the wedding bracelet.

“Hurry, Anja.” Frída presses down on Mother’s stomach, trying to release the afterbirth. Mother still faces the earthen walls as she coughs and moans. Frída whispers to me so Mother can’t hear. “It’s sickly and the same as dead. It hasn’t been given a name, so by law, no child has been born here tonight. It must be removed—your father said so. Take the basket to the lava fields. Don’t stop, don’t open the lid. Leave it there and come straight home.” Frída’s eyes are red. “It must be done.”

I nod, though my heart resists. I lift the basket, no heavier than a bundle of linens, grab the blanket off my bed, and leave the hall. But I won’t go to the faraway wasteland of the lava field. I’ll fly, instead, to the rocks near Bjarta River where the guardian spirits dwell.

When I reach the place, the moon shines between the clouds and casts a silver glow over the stones. Setting the basket down, I pull the baby to my chest. “You are Björk.” My little birch tree. I clutch her closer, rubbing her tiny back, her legs. “You have a name. You have a tree. You have a sister.” I cry into Björk’s soft neck. Her skin smells sweet and new.

Resting my sister’s belly on my lap, I pat her back until she gurgles and coughs and starts to breathe more strongly. Her skin’s no longer such a deep shade of purple. I cradle her in my arms and stroke her wrinkled face and limbs. Taking the red thread from my pocket, I tie it around Björk’s right arm for protection. I slide the silver bracelet over her left arm, a gift for the nature spirits.

My voice cracks as I speak a prayer into the darkness. “Please accept this gift and take care of my sister. Oh gods, protect her.” I kiss the baby’s forehead and wrap her tightly in the blanket before laying her back into the basket. Water burns my eyes as I run home.

I make it to the hall about the same time Jón does; he couldn’t find the hidden path to Old Aud’s homestead in the dark mountain. After I help Frída bury the afterbirth under Björk’s tree, I crawl into bed with Mother like I used to do when I was a girl. I edge myself into the curve of her body, feeling the strangeness of her newly flattened stomach against my back. The rattling noise that escapes Mother’s chest every time she breathes in and out makes my own chest ache, and the sound of her quiet sobs draws tears from my eyes.

Dark thoughts plague me. My oldest brother, Sverting, is married and lives downriver, but he used to tell of a troll who lives in a rock near Vík, a quarter of a day’s journey from our home. The troll longs for the flesh of young children. It only leaves its rock at night, but when it does, it can smell a lost child from twenty miles away. Sverting’s a trickster; everyone knows it. But our brother Vali said he’d heard serious men say the same and Vali wouldn’t lie to me.

The cover gets twisted around my legs as I toss in the bed long after Mother falls asleep. My ears strain for the sound of a baby’s cry, but the only noise is Mother’s shallow breathing. Will the guardian spirits accept my gift and care for Björk? I try not to imagine a hungry beast lurking near the stones, or that hunched-up old woman who was seen over the winter, wandering around the area, mumbling to herself. Sverting called her a crazy hag.

Surely Father couldn’t have wanted this. Why would he do this? A new thought rises in my mind. What if it had been me? What if I had been born frail like Björk? Father’s orders would have been the same—to let me diealone out in the cold night. A sourness rises from my stomach to my throat, and I want to heave my insides out.

Even if Father is the god of our home, I don’t want to obey him anymore.

Father was wrong.

The thought shakes me to the core. I can hardly believe the words have entered my head. I sit up in bed, shaking. My heart’s beating like a battle drum. Have the gods heard my thoughts? Do they know I don’t believe in Father anymore? My breaths are coming so fast and hard, I feel dizzy.

But I can’t un-think my thoughts. And now I am angry at myself for believing for so long that Father was always right. Everything inside me told me not to leave Björk. I do have a choice. Fury fills my blood and turns it hot. I toss the covers aside.

Trembling at what I’m about to do, I rise from my bed and creep to the door, not bothering to put on my boots or cloak, and slip outside. The night is cool. It raises the hairs on my arms. Sharp pebbles cut into my feet as I run toward the stones.

I’ll hold the baby in my bed until morning, giving her goat’s milk from my finger to keep her quiet. In the light of day, when Mother sees her new daughter alive, she’ll agree I did the right thing. We’ll beg Father to name the baby when he comes home. It won’t be so easy for him to demand that his ugly orders be obeyed when he’s looking at Björk and Mother instead of being far away at sea where daughters and wives don’t exist.

I fly like a night bird straight to the rock dwellers, imagining my sister’s pale round face shining up at me like a reflection of the moon. But as I approach the slabs of stone and stare at the spot where I left the baby, a bolt of lightning from somewhere inside my body strikes my heart and stops my breath. My legs buckle beneath me and my knees hit the dirt. I crawl on the rocky ground to the baby’s basket. It lies just where I left it. But Björk is gone.

~

The next morning, light shines down through the smoke-hole in the roof, making a round golden sun on my chest. I lie there for a moment, enjoying the feeling of warmth on my heart even though the rest of my body is cold. Then I remember Björk and what happened last night, and the warmth disappears.

I hurry out of bed and to the guardians’ rocks before anyone else rises. I don’t climb on the rocks, so as not to disturb the nature spirits, but move gingerly around each one. I look behind every stone and bush, but find no footprints, no animal tracks—nothing. The ground is hard by the place where the guardian spirits live. If a hungry creature had come here, it wouldn’t have left tracks when it carried Björk away.

Oh my gods, my gods! I shudder as I stand by the river, stricken at what I have done. I never should have obeyed Father instead of the voice whispering in my own heart. The day is sunny, and my feather cloak’s warm, but I shiver. From now on, however quietly the voice whispers, I won’t ignore it again. Ever. No matter what Father or anyone else says.

~

For days after my sister disappears, she is the only thing I can think of. What has happened to her? Did the spirits really take her? I wonder if they’ll ever return her to me. I come every day to the rocks and look for signs of change, but I see nothing. On Thor’s day, the cold stone of grief in the pit of my stomach weighs so heavily thatI sink to my knees, letting the tears come. A flock of gulls soar overhead, mimicking my cries.When I think I’ve emptied myself of an ocean, I walk to the river.

On the other side, the Christians’ hayfield has burst into bloom with flaming orange poppies. Their brightness rivals the sunlight that’s burning its way through the clouds. I’ve often longed to pick one of the flowers for myself, but when the Christian family arrived last spring, Father ordered me never to cross the river. I’ve never met a Christian before, though Sverting says they are invading Iceland like vermin this spring.

I stand on the bank and stretch my arms out from my sides, staring at my rippled reflection in the water. My frame’s small, but I look more like a grown woman than I did the last time I gazed into the water. My breasts and hips are almost as full as Frída’s, though not as round as Mother’s. But in my feathered cloak, I look more like a black bird, spreading its wings for flight.

Someone’s watching me from the outcropping. The tiny hairs on my arms rise as I slowly turn upriver to the grey jumble of boulders. I finally make him out, looking back at me from where he sits on the rocks. If he’s a human boy, he must be about my age, maybe a couple of years older, but he doesn’t look quite human. Mud streaks his white and yellow hair and makes it stand on end. He’s painted mud designs on his cheeks and forehead the way Vali and Svertingdo do when they practice their battle skills with Father. The bird in flight that’s painted on his bare chest rises and falls as he breathes.

Is he a guardian nature spirit, or a human, or one of my dreams? He climbs over the rocks until he reaches the low edge overhanging the river where he slips into the current and swims for the other side. A human boy might not have braved the frigid mountain water. Surely he’s spirit or vision.

When he climbs out on the Christians’ side, he walks straight toward the poppies and plucks one by the stem. Returning to the muddy bank, he stares at me. His gaze doesn’t frighten me, yet a quiver runs through me as if I’m the one who waded through cold water. His pale, wet body is taut and muscular like a wild colt’s. He stands near the water, twirling the orange poppy under his chin as he watches me. When he places the flower into the current, it floats down the river like a swift knorr, its flaming petals like little sails set ablaze.

The poppy moors in a pebbly bay at my feet. I lift it to my lips and taste the bead of water it leaves there. The wet, earthy tang of river and grass lingers on my tongue. When I slide the stem behind my ear, the boy smiles. Again, the quivering shakes me inside like an invisible spirit running its fingers across my soul. The boy turns and bolts away through the poppy field like a wild horse.

Who is he? What is he? Even when I can no longer see him in the distance, he doesn’t disappear from my mind. The next morning, I hurry to the stones, hoping the mud-boy might be waiting. I want to ask him if he knows anything about Björk. Maybe he will tell me she’s safe, that he found her and took her in. I still almost believe he’s a guardian spirit, and something inside me longs for it to be true for Björk’s sake. I wait for him until Frída’s voice finally rises over the meadow, calling me to tend Bikki. My heart sinks deeper and deeper with every step I take back toward the hall.

I fly to the rocks the next day and the next. Still the boy doesn’t come. But on the fourth day, I find someone’s made a bridge of stepping-stones across the shallowest part of the water. An orange poppy shines brightly atop each stone. My heart comes to life. Picking up the first flower, I step onto the rock and watch the water swirl and flow around me. Father’s rule against crossing the river seems to wash away downstream as my feet follow their own orders.

I bend to get the next poppy and almost lose my balance. Was that movement in the field? Stepping forward, I collect all the flowers as I make my way across the rocks to the far bank. My hand’s full by the time I stand on the other side.

The boy rises from his hiding place in the field and stands, watching me approach. But I’m wrong to think of him as a boy. He looks strong, as if he already does the work of a grown man, and he’s as tall as my brother Vali. His face is clean and he wears a linen shirt and homespun breeches, but his hair is the soft wild down of a thistle, and his eyes are full of sea and sky.

“Are you análfr?” I ask.

Handsome nature spirits are said to sometimes seduce young women who stray too far from home. My pulse quickens. The idea makes me nervous and curious at the same time.

He wears a thoughtful look and glances around at the field, the water, and the stones. “I don’t know.” His voice is solemn. He has the strange, lilting accent of the people of Írland.

“How can you not know what you are?”

He stares at the field of poppies. His face darkens as if he expected to find the answer there. He turns back to me. “Are you an angel?” His words gently mock me, but his eyes are kind. “Or a bird-girl?”

“I—” My words get lost on the way to my lips. I’m not sure what an angel is. The image of Vali’s winged Valkyrie rises to my mind. My fingers slide over the edges of my feather cloak. I do long to fly with the birds, and I’ve understood their language since I was a child. I smile and admit, “I don’t know.”

The young man’s intense expression dissolves into a grin.

Something flutters like wings in my chest every time he smiles. “I am Anja,” I say.

“I’ve heard your people call your name.”

“Who are you?”

“Kol.”

The name sounds honest and strong. Kol. I glance at my flowers. “I thought maybe you were my guardian spirit.”

“Maybe I am.”

His voice sounds serious, but something in his eyes tells me he’s still teasing me. It feels different than Sverting or Vali’s jokes. My brothers aren’t gentle with their words like Kol, and they never make my face flush.

Flustered, I say, “Where have you been? I waited for you every day.” I didn’t mean to say it out loud, but the words tumble out before I can stop them. My cheeks turn hot.

Kol’s expression stays serious, but his eyes lighten at my words. “We had guests for a feast. My sister was christened.”

“Christened?” Then it’s true—he does belong to the Christian family who took the land west of the Bjarta River. Father spits on the ground in disgust after he speaks of them, though they’ve never even met.

“It’s a naming ceremony. She is Brigid.”

Kol’s words remind me of Björk. My throat hurts when I swallow. The memory’s too painful to speak of, but I have to ask him my question. “I left a basket at the rocks seven nights ago with a special gift for the guardian spirits who dwell there.” I can’t bring myself to say the horrible truth that I left my own sister there. I lick my lips. “Did you . . . see it?”

Kol shakes his head.

I sit down and hug my knees to keep the sharp pain in my heart from bursting it open. I wish I could cry and scream like little Bikki.

Kol sits beside me without speaking for a long time. Finally, he says, “When I first saw you come to the river a month ago, you weren’t sad. You lay in the melting snow and smiled at the sky.”

I remember the first day of spring, when I swept my arms up and down, making Valkyrie wings in the snow as I listened to the ravens bickering in the trees, slinging clever insults at each other. I didn’t even feel someone watching me.

“But lately when you come, I can tell you have a heavy heart. I wanted to speak to you, but I never knew what to say.” His words turn so tender they pull tears from somewhere deep inside me to the surface. “Why are you sad, Anja?”

Lying back in the poppies, I stare at the sky. So many images crowd my mind. Father and my brothers away at sea. Mother, silent and distant, curled into a corner of her bed. Old Aud, hidden on her mountain. Björk. Oh gods, Björk.

A hunger for something I can’t name eats away at my insides, and I don’t know what will ease it. I glance at Kol, who listens, waiting to hear what I’ll say. Then I realize what I yearn for: someone who understands me. Someone I can tell my secrets to. My secret about Björk, and my other secret that only Old Aud knows. But Old Aud hides away on her mountain where no one can touch her. She doesn’t care about me.

“I’m sad because I’m alone,” I say quietly.

Kol lies down on the ground beside me. I turn my face from him so he won’t see my eyes turn wet.

“No,” he says.

Is what I imagine about Kol true? I turn toward him. Yes. His eyes don’t just glance at mine as if all that can be known about me might be gathered in a moment. When he looks at me, his eyes catch on something in mine and linger there, like he sees something written in runes—a mystery he’s riddling out.

“You’re not alone here,” he says.

His words ease the hollow aching inside. I take a deep quavering breath. And another. The lump in my throat slowly melts until I can breathe without shaking. I look at the sunny poppies in my hands and smile at Kol.

He says, “I have five brothers and three sisters, but sometimes I feel alone even when they’re right beside me.” He gazes into the field. “They don’t know me.”

It’s strange to hear someone say his own family doesn’t know him, but I know exactly what he means.

“When I feel that way, I come here to the river,” he says, “like you do.” Kol glances around at the water, field and sky. “Maybe you and I belong here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everything here grows and lives without being told how it should be done. Look.” He points to the sky at two hawks flying directly above us. They dip and swoop over and under each other and then fly side by side. “I want to be like that, free to fly wherever I want.”

His words are like my own thoughts. I’ve never heard anyone say such things. I smile up at the birds. “Sometimes I almost feel like I can.”

Kol grins and glances at my feather cloak. “Maybe because you have wings.”

I laugh. When his smile makes crinkles in the corners of his eyes, I wish I could capture the sight with a net and slip it in my pocket to look at again and again.

He rolls onto his side and props himself up with his elbow. A small wooden cross hanging from a cord around his neck rests for a moment in the hollow of his breastbone before sliding down under his shirt. I close my fist against the sudden urge to reach out and retrieve the amulet.

“What are angels?” I ask. “Do they have wings?”

“They’re spirit beings. They’re so bright and beautiful it almost hurts to look at them.” He gazes intently at me. “But a person can’t help themselves.”

My skin grows warm from his steady stare.

“Angels are powerful. Their voices make you tremble inside, and they leave the air smelling sweet long after they’re gone. Once you see an angel, you’ll never be able to forget it.”

My heart beats faster. The hawks cry as they circle back over the field. I glance up at the birds. “Angels sound like good spirits.”

Kol nods and watches the hawks. “Some angels are brave warriors and some are messengers. And when Christians die, the angels are the ones who fly them to Heaven.”

“We know beings like that.” I pull the wooden Valkyrie from my pocket and hold it out to Kol. When he takes it, his fingers brush against mine. The simple touch stirs something inside me like an approaching storm charging the air with Thór’s lightning power. Did Kol feel it too?

He runs his finger over the wings and muscular arms of the battle maiden. “What is she?”

“A Valkyrie. When I was little, my brother Vali carved her so I’d remember to be brave when I wasn’t.”

“She’s strong. And beautiful.” Kol fashions each word before handing it to me like a gift.

“Yes, she’s like a secret I carried—whenever I needed to find courage, I thought of her.”

Kol gazes quietly at the Valkyrie.

What’s he thinking?

When he finally hands the figure back to me, he rolls over onto his stomach and stares into the field of flowers. “I want to show you something, Anja.”

Whatever Kol wants to show me, I want to see. “What is it?”

He raises one eyebrow and smiles. “It’s a secret of my own. But the way’s too far for walking; we need help.”

“Help?”

Kol points into the field.

I roll over and look at the wild herd of small Icelandic mares grazing nearby. “Have you ever ridden one?”

“The white filly—I call her Svala.” He nods toward the horse. “Her coat turns silver in the sun when she runs through the shallows.”

“She doesn’t look easy to catch.”

“She likes me.” Kol stands up and walks slowly toward the horses. They raise their heads from the grass and stare at him, calm and serious, their nostrils flaring. Kol stares back at them with the same expression on his face. Finally, all the horses except the white one lower their heads and start grazing again. Svala blows air through her nose and tosses her head before walking over to Kol.

“How do you do that?” I whisper.

Kol grins over his shoulder. “Salt from the sea.” He pulls a small handful from his pocket and holds it up for the filly. “That’s why she likes me.”

I stand up and walk to them as quietly as I can and stroke Svala’s neck.

“Step up.” Kol makes a stirrup with his hands. I hold on to Svala’s mane as I step up and swing my leg over the horse’s back. Kol pulls a thin rope bridle from his breeches pocket and slips it over Svala’s head. Icelandic horses are small, and Kol has no trouble pulling himself up behind me. He reaches both arms around me and takes hold of the rope and Svala’s mane. The warm scent of his skin, his nearness, and the way his arms seem to gather me to him send a rippling current through my body like I’ve never felt before.

With a nudge of Kol’s heels, Svala gallops south through the fiery field of poppies toward the mouth of the Bjarta River where it empties into the sea. I raise my arms out to my sides like wings over Kol’s arms as we fly across the cove. I’m a bird-girl and he’s a nature spirit. The wind from the sea smells of salt, waves and wet rock; it whips the hair from my face. Before we reach the beach, Kol turns Svala to the river and we enter it through the shallows. When she splashes across, the spray flies around us like flakes of snow, and Svala’s coat glistens silver in the sun.

We gallop all the way to Skógafoss, the waterfall where Father sometimes leads the people in special offerings to Frey and His sister, the goddess Freyja. Worshippers go to the top of the cliff and throw gifts over the sacred falls so the gods will bless them. Kol walks Svala right up to the place where the cascade falls in great sheets of water, bubbling and foaming in the river. The sound of the crashing water thunders in my chest; the mist clings to my eyelashes and wets my lips.

We slide off Svala onto lush green grass. I follow Kol as he climbs a slippery path along the falls that stop at Skógafoss’ giant curtain of water. As we come to where the water spews over the path, Kol ducks into the spray and disappears.

Loki’s Beard! “I didn’t know—”

Kol reaches an arm back through the watery curtain and grabs my hand, pulling me in. I cry out at the shock of cold spray drenching my hair and shoulders. Laughing, I wipe the water from my face and look around. We’re standing behind the falls in a long cavern that stretches to the other side of the cliff. Water roars down in front of us, a thousand horses galloping across my heart. Sunlight shines on the water from the outside, turning it into a melting wall of bright sea glass. I shiver from the cold. “It’s beautiful.”

Kol’s wet hair and damp clothes cling to his skin. His cross amulet shows plainly through his shirt. Father would be so angry to know I came here with him, especially since Kol is a Christian. But Father’s far away across the sea, and Kol’s right here, standing near enough to touch. Besides, Father’s wrong about the Christians. Kol isn’t a foul, weak-witted fool like Father claims all Christians are, and I can’t bring myself to leave. Surely there’s no harm in staying with Kol a little while longer. Being with him somehow eases the heavy burden I’ve carried the last several days. I watch him gaze at the blue and green world flashing through the gaps in the water-wall.

“I come here to think,” he says. “Or when something troubles me.”

I imagine him alone at the cave with a dark look on his face. “It’s a good place to think,” I say. “And a perfect secret—I never knew it was here.” I run my hand over the wet rock. “They say a man once buried a great treasure at these falls, but it’s never been found.”

“I’ve heard that tale.”

“Have you found it?”

He laughs. “No, but this is a good place to hide a treasure.” Turning to the wet rock, he squats and runs his fingers over the slick surface of the cave to a cleft near the ground. “Look.”

I peer inside, but the hole’s too dark to see anything. Slowly, I reach into the crevice, feeling the slimy wet rock until my fingers brush against a smooth object. I take hold of it and pull out a wooden box with knotted cross designs carved over its surface.

I draw in my breath. Turning to the light, I pry off the lid of Kol’s box and look inside. A black raven feather’s the first thing I see. When I hold it to the light, its blue sheen warms me. It’s mine, fallen from my cloak. Did Kol save it because it belonged to me? I smile as I lay it aside and pick up a pebble with a hole in its center. It looks like a miniature of the large heavy stones I use to weigh down the yarns in my loom. I lift it to my eye and squint through the opening.

At once, everything in the world disappears except for Kol’s earnest face framed in the tiny stone. His wet tangled hair hangs in his eyes, and fine beads of water coat his skin like dew. I place the image, the moment, into the treasure box of my memory. Whenever I raise it to my mind’s eye, I’m certain everything else will vanish just as it does now.

I set the pebble back gently into the box and my eyes fall on a solid horn-shaped object the color of bone. When I lift it from the box, its heaviness surprises me. “What is it?”

“A whale’s tooth.” Kol’s eyes grow wide.

I often see the giant sea creatures from shore. As I imagine a whole set of such teeth, my eyes widen too. “How did you get it?”

“My oldest brothers, Sam and Lambi, helped my father and his men kill the whale off the coast of Éire, the land of my mother’s people. My father brought us here last spring. Iceland’s his homeland.”

“Éire.” I try saying Írland’s name the way Kol does. “Your mother must miss her people.”

“Yes, but she brought their stories with her. At night she tells them to us so we won’t forget. Her sad stories turn the coldest men and women into crying babies, and her gruesome tales make warriors shiver. But the ones she likes best are the tales of romance. Her love stories wring people’s hearts and iron them out new.”

“I like her already.” I smile. “You must miss your Éire land.”

“I do. The rivers, especially.”

A stream of water trickles down the wall of the cave, and I trace its course. “Tell me about them.”

Kol gazes out at the tumbling waterfall and speaks a poem that sounds like music. It tells of the blue and crystal rivers, lovely as a fair white swan, that carry sons of Éireto the sea. Kol’s poem leaves me breathless. The lilting words sound lonesome and beautiful and so different than the battle poems my uncles recite at feasts. What had it been like for him to sail on a longship so far away from the land he loved? I run my fingers over the whale’s tooth. “Kol, how could you bear to leave your home?”

“I’d always wanted to sail with my father and brothers and I wanted to see a new land—this land of fire and ice.”

I wonder what his family’s like. “Your brothers and father must be fine shipmasters.”

“Yes, and Lambi’s a skilled ship builder. When he paid homage to King Olaf of Norway, the king praised his work, and Lambi built him a longship as tribute. The king honored all of my older brothers because he was so pleased, and they were pledged into his service. King Olaf filled Lambi’s ship with fine timber as a gift, and when Lambi returned to Iceland, he carried the king’s missionary with him.” Kol’s eyes shine with pride.

“Lambi’s teaching me to take over the trade now that he’s a warrior for the king. One day I’ll travel across the sea on my own longship even farther west than Iceland. Lambi says there are new worlds out there for those who are brave enough to go. A man from Reykjanes told him that a huge white bear as big as a knorr floated into his bay on an ice floe from one of the those lands.”

I smile, imagining a shipmaster bear. “Think of all the stories from those strange lands that the bear carried with him to Iceland.”

Kol grins at me. “If I’d met the bear, we would’ve had a long talk. I might have signed him on as my first shipmate.”

Laughing, I return the tooth to the box. I try imagining Kol as a grown man like Father, master of a great ship. “You make me want to see such a land myself.”

“Well, I could probably make room for a brave Valkyrie on my ship. I don’t think the bear would mind.”

I like the way Kol’s voice sounds serious at the same time his eyes are laughing with me. I pull a piece of flat rock with seashells carved into it from the box. Some are rounded and some are only imprints, as if shells have somehow been pressed into the hard stone and then removed. “Who carved this?”

“I broke it loose from inside a cliff face. I think my god made it.”

“I’ve never seen a carving like this. Its beauty is so strange.” I run my finger over the stone shells. How did the Christians’ god hide His carved shells into the cliff? Did the god know Kol took them? I place the stone gingerly into the box.

The last item is a long piece of soft juniper bark. Turning it over in my hands, I discover runes on the other side. I wrote these signs myself! The morning Old Aud taught them to me, I practiced making the runes with a chalky rock on a juniper tree by the river. Kol must have found them later that day.

“Anja,” he says, “I’ll trade one of the treasures if you’ll teach me how to read and write your signs.”

My fingers come alive as I trace the familiar shapes. Perhaps it’s my heart that’s come alive and every part of me feels it. No one else has asked about my runes. They don’t know that I will need rune knowledge to become a seeress like Old Aud. They don’t even know she dreamed the gods told her she must pass her gift of seeing on to me, even though she is so old that I am afraid she will forget everything before it is too late. Frída complains I write when I should be working, and Mother doesn’t seem interested anymore in what I do. Jón only shakes his head as if it’s a waste of time. They don’t understand how it makes me feel to write out my thoughts—thoughts that someone can read only if they ask me how. I smile at Kol and nod.

His eyes light up. “Which one do you want?”

I move aside the whale tooth, the sacred shells, the bark and the feather until I find what I’m looking for. Then, rummaging in my pockets, I pull out a piece of yarn, thread it through the pebble’s tiny hole and lift it to my neck. Kol takes the ends from me, and I hold up my hair as he ties the necklace behind me. As I let go of my hair, it falls over Kol’s arms like a curtain. He gathers it gently and lets it run through his fingers, his hands slowly trailing down my shoulders as if he doesn’t want to be done with his task.

I close my eyes, wishing I could feel it all over again. When I turn back to him, I don’t feel the dampness of the wet cave or the chill in the air or even the dark thoughts that haunted me earlier that morning. Everything seems different now that Kol’s seeing-stone rests over my heart.

I don’t want to leave Skógafoss, but a nagging voice that sounds like Frída’s in the corner of my mind won’t be still. I sigh. “I must go. Frída needs me to help make the cheese, and if I’m not home soon, she may never let me out of the hall again.”

Kol nods. “My father sent me to repair the wall around our western hayfield. He’ll think I’m a lazy fool if I’m gone much longer.” He doesn’t move. “But I don’t want to leave.” He reaches out to catch the spray from the falling water. “What if I wake in the morning to find that I dreamed you up and you aren’t real?”

I smile. “If that is so, then poor me.”

“It would be a poor situation for us both. I would just have to go back to sleep and keep dreaming.”

I laugh and dart under the falls, out of the cave. As the water drips down my shoulders, I gaze at Kol through the curtain of water between us, and he stares back at me. His blurry shape does look like something from a dream. The dream parts as Kol steps through the water and becomes real again.

“Come with me tomorrow, Anja,” he says, brushing the wet hair from his face. His eyes are clear and deep like pieces of sky.

“Where?”

“I don’t care. Wherever you want to go.” His wet skin catches the sun when he moves and looks like the sleek glistening hide of a seal emerging from the sea.

I want to run my hand over its smoothness. “I know a place that’s like another world. I doubt you’ve seen such a place in Írland.”

Kol raises his eyebrows. “Another world, hidden right here in this one? That’s where I want to go.”

“What about your wall?”

“What about your cheese?”

I laugh. “I’ll just have to go early so I won’t be missed.”

Kol laughs too. “Then I’ll be at the river before the fish wake up.”

Gods! What would Father do if he found out?

But Kol’s smile quiets the tremors that rumble through me when I worry about Father exploding like a volcano. His gentle words fall over my sad thoughts of Björk, too, like rays of sunlight after a bleak winter. Kol makes the whole world more peaceful and bright. And as I feel the darkness inside me slipping away, nothing else matters.

Love at First Book: A Story in Verse

Sarah Tregay

Hopeless Romantic

I’m at the hospital hours after my shift has ended
still dressed in my candy-striper uniform
still waiting for my father to finish in surgery
and give me a ride home.

I turn the page, read the next sentence theatrically
just loud enough for Mrs. Hartford to hear.

In vain have I struggled. It will not do.
My feelings will not be repressed.
You must allow me to tell you how ardently
I admire and love you.

I clutch the paperback to my chest
and exhale a longing sigh.

“That Mr. Darcy,” I whisper to my patient.
“He gets me every time. How about you?”

Her only response
the softest of snores.


Love at First Sip

“The usual, Lorelei?” Ross,
my favorite barista, asks
when I plop my bag
on his counter after school
the following day.
“Mmm hmm,” I say.
“And a chocolate chip cookie.”

He places a cookie on a plate
and slides it across the counter.
He plucks a red mug from the shelf
with a little dancer’s flourish
and sashays to the espresso machine.

Soon a hot vanilla latte
topped with a swirling white heart
appears before me.


Phone Booth

I carry my cup and plate
to my very own
phone booth office.

(No one ever uses
the payphone anymore.)

Just past the hallway
that leads to the kitchen
in a little side nook

I drop my bag
on the wooden bench
and curl up like a bug.

I balance my Mac on my lap
and press my sneakers
to the graffitied wall
my toes pointing to a heart
Brandon + Molly TLA.

This is where I write
or get lost in a paperback
remember my mother
and her red hair
(before it fell out)
and forget
that my father
doesn’t have time for me.


Doctor

My father spends his days
mending other people’s hearts.

He cuts them open,
sees the secrets they keep deep
down in their hearts.

It’s delicate work, he tells me.
Holding someone’s heart
in your hands.

I smile and nod, knowing it’s true.
But wondering deep down inside
how can he stitch them up
when his own heart is broken.


Gone

If only it was
my mother’s heart
that had stopped working.
Dad could have saved her.

But it was cancer.
And he couldn’t.


Footsteps

I want to be a doctor, too.
All I need to do is focus on
every step
every grade
everything.

Someday I will follow
in my father’s footsteps
after college
after med school
afterwards.

So I volunteer at the hospital
two afternoons a week
taking patients places
taking flowers to rooms
taking it all in.

But sometimes I get so overwhelmed
I just need to
forget about my GPA
forget extracurricular activities
forget it all.

So here in my phone booth office
in the corner of the coffee shop
I dream of life in poetry
dream of falling in love
daydream.


Love at First Book

I sip my latte and let my eyes drift over
the mismatched wooden tables
the old church pews
and public school-issue chairs
that give my coffee shop that lived-in feel
that Starbucks is missing.

I take in the paintings on the gallery wall:
spaceships with octopus tentacles
Martians with gecko fingers
and a blue cheese moon.

I look over at the free bookshelf—
tell myself, No. No more books.
And, No. No need to straighten them.

That’s when I see him—
a boy about my age
with a book
in his low-slung
back pocket.


Details

The book is vintage
the corner of the cover torn
the pages dog-eared
and yellowed.

The pocket is denim
faded and worn
stitched with a Levi’s V
and red tabbed.

The boy is tall
his arms unadorned
well muscled
and brown.

The heat is slow
crawling warm
up my cheeks
until I look away.


Courage

The blush on my cheeks cools
and I dare to look his direction           again
secretly hoping
to catch another stanza
of heart-stopping description.

But when I look up
all I see is a blur
of heather gray and denim
step out the double doors,

leaving me with                                          déjà vu.


The Book

Didn’t I just tell myself I didn’t need another book?
Didn’t I just say I did not need to organize them?

But when I spy the worn-covered, dog-eared title
lying on its side in a previously empty space

I put down my coffee cup, my Mac, and my cookie
leap up from my office and sprint across the room.

Heart pounding, I reach for the memento from the boy
close my fingers and prepare to be sorely disappointed.

Because the boys I know—private-school jock wannabes—
don’t read anything an English teacher hasn’t assigned.

And this book—this remnant of my minute-long blush crush—
is probably Homer or Hawthorne, or something read in school.

I turn it over. Read the title. To Kill a Mockingbird.
An English teacher favorite. Be still my sinking heart.

I sigh and tell myself it was never meant to be.
Boys like that don’t fall for bookworms like me.

But as I put the book among the Ls where it belongs
I notice a piece of lined paper poking up like a bookmark.

I free it from among the pages, unfold it in slow motion
and read the scrawly boy writing.


My Angel

She’d come to me from among my dreams,
her voice just this side of an angel’s song.

Sometimes I’d think she was a mere figment
or fiber of my imagination—too perfect to be
a living-breathing girl, her hair too bright,
and her skin too pale, and her voice so sweet—
as she read me tales from not so long ago.

She’d sit among my machines (my heartbeat
like mountains and plains over her shoulder)
her pink-striped uniform just this side of 1950.

Sometimes I’d watch her lips as she read, as if
they were proof that I was still among the living—
because no dead man in heaven could imagine
kissing those lips more longingly, lustfully, lovingly.

She’d read me novels, not from beginning to end, but
from where she left off in the room across from mine.

Sometimes leaving me to fill in big gaps between
chapters with my own imagination—my stories
outlandish, my plots as twisted as my bed sheets,
all because of her angelic voice, her pink stripes,
and hundreds, no thousands, of imagined kisses.


Dumbstruck

I stare at the letters
the loops, lines and curls
not quite believing

the words
they formed
the images
they conjured
the story
they told.

Because their story
about a boy in a hospital bed
and the girl at his side

is one
I know
as well.

I bury my face
in the paper
inhale the scent

of old books
ballpoint pen
and hope.


After-Shift Secret

Okay.
So no one is supposed
to know about that.
Not the head nurses, not my father.
(No one important anyway.)

But sometimes
the patients look so lonely.
And no one is around
even though it’s visiting hours.
So I read to them—

from the book
I happen to be reading.

Not that they listen
not exactly.
They’re asleep
or drifting in and out.
But it doesn’t matter.

Not to me
lost in a book
in time and space
with a soul beside me
keeping away

my loneliness.


My Mind Whirrs

back to last semester
Ms. Stein’s Bildungsroman class:
David Copperfield and Jane Eyre
J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee.

back to the hospital and its maze of rooms
the patients without visitors:
wisp-thin elderly ladies
mere wrinkles under their blankets.

rotund middle-aged men
sturdy-looking fellows
with too many chins and too-weak hearts.

and an out-of-place teenager
too old for the brightly-painted children’s room
too young to be needing my father’s care.

back to him, the teenager without a visitor:
heart-shaped, widow’s-peaked face,
curly, bi-racial hair, ditto eyelashes.


My Heart Flutters

as I remember him lying
in that hospital bed, his breathing
making the blanket rise and fall.

His name would have been on his wrist,
his chart, on cards and flowers,
but I can’t remember it.

Just that it was something boring
four letters and typically male—
like Dave, or Matt, or Mike?

But this Dave or Matt or Mike
is obviously not boring or typical—
not if he wrote a poem.

A poem!

A poem about a bright-haired,
pale-skinned girl so careless
she left out huge chunks of plot?

This Dave or Matt or Mike
is obviously not just any boy—
not if he wrote a poem about kissing me.

I pluck his copy of Mockingbird from the shelf
slide his poem back between the pages
and hold both over my hummingbird heart.


Boys

don’t come with GPS attached
nor are they on Google Earth
and I know better than to bother looking up
Dave or Matt or Mike on Facebook.

And this boy
he traveled on foot
so I can’t report a suspicious Honda
or a classic VW Bug to the authorities.

“911,” a woman would answer,
“What is your emergency?”

“A robbery,” I’d tell her,
“He stole my heart.”

There’s no way he goes to my school.
Because I know everyone there—and there
are no Mockingbird-reading poets to speak of—
so I draw a mental map around my coffee shop.

The only high schools within two miles
are mine and Central High.

So I make a note
to stalk him there.


Stalker

Stalking is harder than it looks
because, according to the website,

Central lets out 13 minutes
before my school.

And, according to Google Maps,
is 1.3 miles away.

So by the time I set foot on campus,
only a few students linger in the quad.

And none of them are a poet
named Dave or Matt or Mike.

So on my next free afternoon,
I try riding the city bus.

But it loops around the block
slower than a dog on a walk.

And I arrive at Central High
when it’s graveyard quiet.


Thursday

I see Nora, a fellow candy striper
balancing three potted plants
and a flock of It’s a Boy! balloons.

I run over and catch the balloons
before they take flight.
“Thanks, Lorelei,” she says.

As she smiles, it occurs to me
that I could ask the other candy stripers
if they remember my mystery poet.

But even in my head
the question sounds out of place
among our usual conversations

Do you need a hand?
Are you done with that cart?
May I borrow this wheelchair?

Do you know that guy our age?
The one who had a heart procedure?

Instead, I follow Nora to the parking lot
hand the balloons to the new parents
and admire their sweet-faced son.

On our way back inside, Nora asks,
“Have you met the new volunteers?”
I shake my head no

and wish I knew her better—
or at least well enough—
to inquire about Dave or Matt or Mike.


I Try Bribery

I start by adding a few titles
to the free book shelf.

(Each carefully selected
and purchased from
the Friends of the Library
ongoing book sale.)

Each with my name
and e-mail
carefully printed
inside.


Expert Advice

Every time I visit Ross for a latte, I check the shelf,
but my books are still meticulously alphabetized.

“Looking for something?” Ross asks, waltzing by with a mop.
“The books are in order. I dusted them myself.”

I sigh.
“Why didn’t Harper Lee write a trilogy?”

“Lorelei,” Ross says.
“Is something wrong?”

I shake my head.
“Just a boy.”

“Oh,” Ross says dramatically.
“Honey, there is never just a boy.”

I grin. Dave or Matt or Mike isn’t just any boy.
“Got a minute?” I ask.

Ross leans his dance partner against the wall.

I pull Dave or Matt or Mike’s poem from my bag.
I hand it to Ross and wait in the coffee-scented silence

for him to read it
and tell me I’m crazy.


Ross Looks Up

“Hundreds, no thousands, of imagined kisses?”
He waggles a finger at me.
“You don’t want a boy like this one, Lorelei.”

“Um, yeah. I do.”

“Nuh uh.” Ross hands the poem back.
“Two words. Chapped. Lips.”

And goes back to mopping.


My Face Heats

“Not the point,” I say.
(Even though it is the point.)
“Have you seen him?”

“I see lots of moody, broody boys.
This is a coffee shop.”

I stomp my foot like a spoiled child.

He spins around the mop
like it’s a lamppost
and he’s Gene Kelly.
“What does he look like?”

My heart lightswitches on.
I beam as I describe
my very own
poet-in-residence.


Five Days Later

I slump on Ross’s counter,
my shoulder aching from
the weight of my homework.

Ross reports, “I saw him.”

I feel instantly lighter.
“What’s his name?”

“Didn’t get it.”

I deflate. “Didn’t say you needed it for his order?”

“A cuppa drip?”

“You did not just say what I think you said.”

I lean on the counter for moral support.
Dave or Matt or Mike
didn’t even order
one of Ross’s masterpieces?
“A cup of drip? How mundane.”

“Not with all that cream and sugar, honey.”

“A coffee newbie?”
I bang my forehead on the Formica.

Ross nods sadly,
because he understands
that my crush’s coffee habits
could very well
make or break
our relationship.


Then, to Cheer Me Up

Ross says,
“You didn’t say he was that cute.”

“Did too.”

“Did not, Lorelei.
He has the most amazing
storm-clouds-in-August eyes.”

“No fair!”

I’ve never seen his eyes—
he had always been asleep
when I read to him.

Even though
now I know

he wasn’t.


Poster Child

I had seen the girl’s picture
on the New Volunteers poster
in every nurse’s station.

I even know her name. Alexis.

So when my boss asks me
to bring a box of books
to the children’s playroom

I shouldn’t have been surprised

to find a dark-haired girl
reading Harry Potter out loud
to a small circle of listeners.

She glances up. Smiles.

I try to return the gesture
but my cheeks only twitch
as my eyes grow wide.

Her hair.

It’s different than her picture.
Dark, straight, and shoulder length
but now with a wide, brilliant blue streak.

In my mind, I recite:

a living-breathing girl, her hair too bright,
and her skin too pale, and her voice so sweet—
as she read me tales from not so long ago.

and feel incredibly stupid.


The Nerve

Who does she think she is?
Hijacking my poet
by reading to him.

Doesn’t she know?
That reading to patients
is my thing.

What is she thinking?
That blue stripe in her hair
looks absolutely ridiculous.

What was he thinking?
Dave or Matt or Mike can’t possibly
want to kiss her instead of me.

Can he?


Hurt

Turning my back on Alexis
and the circle of children
I focus on the library corner.

I separate the fiction titles
from the nonfiction ones
then alphabetize them by author
or subject as needed.

But even books cannot quell
the feeling of hope
extinguished in my heart.

I squeeze my eyes shut
breathe in through my nose
willing myself not to cry
over a poem
a boy
and what would never be.

I pull the new books
from the box
linger over the colored covers
the smell of ink and paper
before shelving them
and my desires

away.


Dinner Conversation

My father and I sag into plastic chairs.
Too tired for take-out
we eat in the cafeteria.

He asks about my day
my homework and
my shift.

I ask him about his.
How many stents?
How many pacemakers?

I want to ask about Alexis
and if he ever saw her
read to a boy.

But I know my father
can’t talk to me
about patients.

My father’s pager vibrates
and he apologizes
like he always does.

I tell him not to worry
that I can do homework
at the coffee shop.

He kisses my forehead
and leaves me with two
half-eaten spaghetti specials.


Math

I shoulder my bag
take our tray to the conveyor belt
scowl at a New Volunteer poster.

Seeking solitude,
I weave my way into the belly
of the hospital.

The tunnels connect buildings
cross under streets
a secret refuge from rush hour traffic.

I think of Alexis’s picture
the new bright blue streak in her hair
wonder when she dyed it.

A month ago? Two?

Then
like a bubble of carbonation
light, sweet, and popping

I realize
that Dave or Matt or Mike was in the hospital
months before Alexis volunteered.

She couldn’t have read him Harry Potter
with her bright blue hair
falling over his view of her lips.

The poem—
his poem—
could still be

about me.


Rush

I take the nearest exit
race up a flight of stairs
burst onto the sidewalk

the setting sun
splashes me with pink yellow orange
as if to welcome me back

to a world
filled with warmth, light
and possibility.


Blue

I had not seen Ross
at the coffee shop last night
so I didn’t get an update
on if Dave or Matt or Mike came in
for a cream-and-sugar-laden cuppa drip.

So today after Key Club
I stop for a latte.

Ross must have seen me coming
because he meets me at the door—
more blocking my way
than holding it open.

“Is something wrong?”

Ross bites his lip
waves one hand like a fan
as if he needs to cool his face.
“He’s here.”

“He’s here?”

Suddenly breathless
I brush past him
into the caffeinated hum.

And sure enough
under the blue cheese moon
sits a boy in a sky-colored button down
and a girl with a blue streak in her hair.


Hide

I run to my office
yank the door shut
before

my boy
Alexis
Ross

anyone

can see

me
blinking
back

tears.


Spy

I sneak a peek
I can’t help myself.

Backlit from the window
his profile is all curves
the curls of his hair
the shape of his forehead
the arc of his nose
the swell of his lips
the dimple in his chin
the bump of his Adam’s apple
the hill of his bicep.

I stare
I can’t help myself.

Alexis is all angles
brow
nose
cheekbones
tight ponytail
thin arms
shake of her head

even her name.


Phone Booth Office Haiku

I open my Mac
pour my soul, my broken heart
onto the blank screen.


Farewell

I take his copy of
To Kill a Mockingbird
from my bag

pull his poem
from between the pages
and read it one last time

slowly, carefully
as if to savor
each bittersweet word

as I say goodbye
to him and me
and the us

that will never be.


Book Return

With the poem
secured deep within
the yellowed pages
of Harper Lee’s
only novel

I stand
muster up
my remaining confidence
and steel
my heart.

Lip gloss on
shoulders back
chin up
I march
across the room.

Not looking left
or right
I place the book
back on the shelf
where I found it

lying on its side
forlorn and

unalphabetized.


Chemistry

Half an hour later
Ross knocks on my glass door
“Latte?” he asks
holding up a red mug.

I nod
slide the door open
take the hot cup from his hands.

“They’re gone.”

I sigh.

“I’m sorry,” he offers.

“It’s okay,” I say.
“It’s just that I had just convinced myself
that Alexis wasn’t the girl in the poem.”

“I thought the poem was about you.”

“So did I. But then I saw her…”
I point to the spot on my head
where her blue streak began.

“If it helps,” Ross says.
“They were studying chemistry.”


Going Up

Mid-shift Tuesday afternoon
I’m balancing a bouquet of roses
and two plastic pots of daffodils
trying to press the twelve
while trying not to get
potting soil on my uniform
when someone steps onto the elevator.

“Twelve please,” I plead, too busy
juggling floral arrangements to look up.

The person must have pressed eight,
my father’s floor, and twelve, mine,
because the lights illuminate, and
halos glow around the numbers.

“Thanks,” I say and peer out
of my personal garden
into a pair of gray ocean eyes.

I’m so lost in their depths,
the rest of his face doesn’t register
until his lips whisper my name

“Lorelei?”


My Boy

I forget all about Alexis
and soak him in like sunshine
on the first day of spring

starting with his lips—
full and sweet and
saying my name

moving to his eyes—
soft and gray and
wool-sweater warm

around his face—
surprised, smiling
and waiting for me

to say something.


Elevator Haiku

“How’s your heart?” I ask.
“Beating like crazy,” he says.
“Mine, too,” I whisper.


Chivalry

He gestures at my flowers
and I remember I am holding them.

“Do you need help?” he asks.

I know he means with the flowers
but I need help standing.

Especially when his fingers
brush my arm as he reaches
for the daffodils.

My blood puddles in my toes
like it’s lost the battle with gravity
leaving me lightheaded.

“Thanks, I probably should have
used a cart—standard procedure—
but the elevator’s usually so crowded—”
I rein in the tumble of words.

“Yeah,” he says,
even though

we’re alone.


Chance

Then I remember
last week at the coffee shop.
“How’s Alexis?” I ask.

“Alexis?” he echoes
like he has forgotten
that they are friends.

“Yeah, I saw you
like, hanging out.”

He swallows half a laugh
looks down at the daffodils.
“No. Not hanging out.
She’s tutoring me.
I’m behind in school,
you know, from the surgery.”

“You’re not… um?” I ask
the pause implying everything.

He shakes his head.
“She’s the most popular girl in school.
I don’t have a chance.”

Meaning

I do?


Urge

Right
then,
like
a
white hot
flash
of
lightning,
I absolutely

need

to know
what it
feels
like to
kiss
a boy.


So I Do

Roses still in hand
I stand on my tiptoes
wrap my arms
around his neck
and press my lips
to his.

It takes him
a minute to
catch up.

But when
he kisses me back
it feels like
every lonely moment
in my pitiful life
has been
instantly erased.


Karma

We’re so busy kissing
absorbed only in each other
in lips and tongues and warmth
that Dave or Matt or Mike and I
don’t realize that the elevator
has other plans for us.

Like stopping on the eighth floor
and opening its doors for all to see.

Or, specifically,
for my father
to observe
our escapade
into the valley
of amazing.

I may have missed
the ding and swish
of the doors
but I did not miss
my father
clearing his throat.

“Lorelei?” he asks. “Will?”

Who’s Will?


Excuses

“Dr. Carmichael?” my boy asks
his lips still damp from kissing.

“Dad, I can explain.”

My father’s eyebrows arch up.

“I, we, um… I mean, it’s not what… It is, but it isn’t…”

The boy who must be Will rescues me.
“I was going to ask Lorelei out for coffee
but, well, we got a little ahead of ourselves.”

I smile my sweetest I-love-you-Daddy smile.

“I see,” my father says and tries to suppress a grin.

“Dad!” I scold, because he looks almost happy
about finding his teenage daughter kissing a stranger.

“We’ll talk about this later,” he says to me
then to Will, “It’s a good thing we patched up that heart of yours.”

“Real good,” Will agrees, handing me my daffodils.
“See you later, Lorelei?”

I nod.

And soon I am rising skyward
the elevator barely keeping up

with my soaring heart.


With thanks to Jane Austen for the use of text from Pride and Prejudice in the poem “Hopeless Romantic.”

The Signs

Danielle Pignataro

This isn’t one of those cheesy stories where the dog dies, and everyone cries, and then at the end everyone’s happy for one reason or another. In fact, the dog’s already dead. But why dwell on the past?

This also isn’t one of those girl-meets-boy stories. But don’t get the wrong idea, either. It’s not a coming-out story, where the parents get upset, and then everyone cries, and then everything’s okay at the end. That also happened already.

I’m not sure what type of story this is. It just is. I mean, I’m just going to start by telling you what happened that day. The day I met Her.

~

I was waiting outside the main office on a Friday afternoon. I had a dentist appointment, and my mom was picking me up from school. And no, I don’t have braces. Not all of us teenagers have braces. It was just a check-up and cleaning. I love my dentist. He’s also a clown when he’s not filling cavities. Seriously. You can hire him to make balloon animals and stuff. Not that I ever have. So I was standing there, leaning against the brown tiled wall, wondering why anyone would choose to decorate one wall—never mind our entire school—with brown tiles. My mom came out of the office and said, “Let’s go,” so we did. And there She was.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Forget it. This isn’t one of those music-playing, spotlight-shining, birds-chirping moments. But it was pretty close. She was coming up the steps, very late for school—the day was over in two hours—with Her floppy blue faux-hawk flying, boots stomping, and mouth chewing gum. She was a senior; I could tell by the color of Her skirt. It was all grey—not the terrible plaid we sophomores had to wear. And no, She was not the new girl. I mean, I’d seen Her before—passing in halls, at school assemblies, waiting at the bus stop. I just never really noticed Her before. That day, with the way the sun shone, or the wind blew, or the leaves flew, or one of those other clichés…I don’t know what it was, but it was the first time I noticed She was beautiful. Hot, even, in that “Gay or Punk?” type of way. And those boots! Man, those boots. I definitely have a thing for girls in boots.

But I didn’t do anything except sneeze. And Her eyes didn’t even glance in my direction. I kept walking; she kept walking. And I had two cavities.

~

My parents are so old-fashioned. They still think that the NYC subways are the way they were in the eighties—covered with graffiti and filled with criminals waiting to mug/rape/bother their teenage daughter. While all my friends go into the city and buy awesome shoes and see awesome shows, I don’t. Well, I did once, but that’s another story, and I’m not allowed again until I’m sixteen, and that’s still three months away.

So when I can convince my friends to stay in Brooklyn, we take the bus to Park Slope, eat some Thai food, buy coffee and brownies, and walk the Avenue until we get back on the bus to go home. We spend more time traveling than actually being there, and I know what you’re thinking: What’s the point? But trust me, it’s totally worth it. Our neighborhood is in the middle of nowhere, there’s nothing to do there, and we’re sick of hanging out in each other’s basements listening to music. Park Slope is different. Freer, somehow.

So this day, the day I met Her, I was taking my must-have Friday nap after the dentist when my phone rang. I knew it was going to be either friend A or friend B, since I really only have two good friends. It was A, who always likes to have a plan, calling to find out: 1) when we were leaving, 2) what I was wearing, and 3) what time I had to be home. We made our usual deal: 7:30 p.m. at the bus stop. We hung up so she could call friend B, known for keeping us waiting, and tell her 7:15.

~

We waited forever at the bus stop, as usual. First for B, then for the bus. The ride took forever, as usual. But when we hopped off the bus at Flatbush and 7th Avenues, we were invincible. Three teenage girls on a Friday night, walking shoulder to shoulder like I’ve seen in ’80s movies where their steps are perfectly in sync and there’s synthesized music over the montage. A and B tapped out cigarettes and lit them. We were far enough away from home to be safe from discovery.

We were so cool. I know, I know. We would have been way cooler if we were in the city. But we weren’t. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

We ordered the usual at the restaurant: pad Thai all around, one without meat for B. A got a Thai iced tea. I stuck with water. B got a green tea.

We ate. We paid. We left.

We stepped off the curb and started to cross the street, heading toward the coffee shop. I stopped walking and started staring. There She was. Her head was half-turned, so She didn’t see me. She was with a couple of girls, a few doors down from Café T. And they were cool, hands-down cool—smoking, drinking coffee, and talking loudly, not-even-trying-to-be-cool cool. They put our shoulder-to-shoulder walk to shame. Immediately I was lost in thoughts of who these friends were, and how they knew each other, and, of course, how She would never be interested in me. Not with friends who looked like riot-grrl rock stars.

A horn honked. A and B turned around and yanked me the rest of the way across the street, the same side of the street that She was on. A car sped past, giving one last, long honk. B gave it the finger as she pulled me closer to the curb. I looked up.

She had witnessed the whole thing—me, standing in the middle of the street, almost getting hit by a car, staring in Her direction. Any essence of non-dorkiness that I had left had faded with the sound of that honking horn as the car drove away.

~

A and B laughed and walked ahead, and I should have just shrugged it off, laughed at myself and continued on, too. Maybe pretended like it didn’t even happen. But this is me we’re talking about, and “adding insult to injury” should be stamped on my forehead. I started babbling incoherently about how I’m such a klutz, and how this type of thing happens to me all the time, and how people need to learn how to drive. Her friends had taken a step or two back. They were staring at me, eyebrows raised. A and B had continued on ahead, oblivious. I was officially a fool. I looked both ways, then at Her. She was still looking at me. My face was on fire.

“Hey,” I said. Nothing left to lose, right?

“Hey,” She said, tossing Her cigarette butt on the ground and stepping on it.

Silence.

I was about to walk away, catch up with A and B, who had finally noticed I wasn’t with them and were waiting, when She continued. “You go to OLPH, right?”

I gulped. “Uh, yeah. I’ve seen you there.” Damn. I was already giving away too much.

“Yeah,” She said, brushing her hair out of her eyes. “You look familiar. Looks like your friends are waiting.” She motioned toward A and B, who were standing in front of G&Y Realty. Instead of looking at the listings, they were eyeing us. Their mouths were agape.

“Um, yeah,” I replied. “Bye.” Why was I only able to mutter one-syllable almost-words?

“Bye.”

I caught up with A and B, who were both giving me the same odd look. “Who was that?” A asked. “Did you get a load of that hair?”

“Um, 1985, anyone?” B said with a laugh.

Not funny.

~

Okay, just wait a minute. I know what you’re thinking here. That my friends are judgmental, and why do I hang out with them? Well, they are judgmental—most teenagers are—but they’re my friends. And have been for years.

I met A in 6th grade, after rescuing her from a kid making fun of her haircut in the stairwell. “Who’s that, your boyfriend?” the jerk asked.

“What if I am?” I responded, trying to look tough. He walked away. A said thanks; we’ve been friends since.

B and I have known each other since first grade. Our parents became friends when our younger brothers joined the same T-ball team. We were Brownies together, but realized what crap it was early enough to never have to live through Girl Scouts.

Plus, I don’t have any sisters, so I need them. So what if they’re mean every once in a while. Everyone is.

~

“Do you know her?” A asked, brushing her long bangs out of her eyes to look at me.

“Sort of. I mean, She goes to my school.”

“Oh, God. That school keeps getting weirder and weirder,” B said. B hates the fact that I go to Catholic school. I think it’s because she wanted to join me this year, but her parents wouldn’t pay for it.

“She’s okay,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” they replied simultaneously as we entered the café.

~

“Double latte and a brownie,” I said to the girl behind the counter.

“Whoa,” B said. “Are you sure about that?”

“Yeah,” A agreed. “Remember the last time you had coffee?”

I don’t react well to caffeine. It makes me shaky and crazy and gives me a stomachache. It’s not pretty. But I had just completely humiliated myself in front of Her, then actually talked to Her, then listened to Her get dissed by my best friends. I needed something.

And the last time, well, the last time doesn’t count. So what if I made a myriad of prank phone calls and stayed up until 3:00 a.m. on a school night? X had crushed my heart that day. I was in a state of distress. That has to count for something.

“I do remember,” I told them. “I will take responsibility for my actions.”

“Fine, then,” B said. “Same for me.”

“Me too,” said A, and we sat down and waited for our drinks.

~

I was picking at my brownie crumbs when the caffeine began to take effect. My hands started to shake a little, my tummy felt weird, and I had to pee. When I returned from the bathroom A and B were standing up, ready to go.

“Why the rush?” I asked.

“Um, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s almost 8:30, and we have practice in the morning,” A said.

We’re not in a rock band or anything cool like that. We’re in a concert band. And we’re in a bowling league. You know, with rented shoes and button-down old-man shirts. It’ll all look good on our college applications, or so they tell us. Bowling is usually Fridays after school, but since I had to go to the dentist, I missed the game yesterday. We were going to practice on Saturday after band so I wouldn’t get behind on my training. I’m pretty serious about bowling. Teenagers are not exactly busting the doors down to join our league, but we like it. I’m not a great bowler. Well, actually, I am. But that’s a story for another time.

~

We exited the café and turned left, heading back to Flatbush to get the bus. I stopped dead in my tracks; A bumped into me from behind. “What is it?” she asked.

“I need to pee again,” I said, heading back into the café. A stayed out front and lit a cigarette. B followed me.

“What’s up?” she asked as we stood in front of the bathroom door. A bell rang and I looked to the front of the store to see if maybe She was walking in.

“Nothing.”

B stared at me. Her eyes told me she knew I was lying.

“Okay,” I said. “That girl. The one with the hair. I think I like her. And She’s still outside.”

“Oh, geez, Angela. You always do this. We’re all out having a nice time together, and then you see someone you like and freak out.”

“I do not freak out. Maybe later, when we’re home, and I’m replaying the entire night in my head. Take it back.”

“Okay, fine, you don’t always freak out.”

“Well then, maybe I should talk to her. What should I do?”

“What do you mean, what should you do? Leave it alone and come home with us. Now.” She walked out. I was supposed to follow.

B is still not comfortable with me being gay. If it was a guy I was interested in, she would have said go for it. If she were interested in a guy, I would have said go for it. So B’s advice—advice on this, anyway—doesn’t matter. I’m going for it. I walked into the bathroom to check myself out in the mirror. I hope she likes Mediterranean girls with zits about to bloom on their noses.

~

Back out on the sidewalk, A and B were passing a cigarette back and forth. She and Her friends were still up the block.

“I think you guys should go home without me,” I told them. They looked at each other. “I’m not tired, and I don’t have to be home for another two hours, and I just want to walk around a little before sitting on that damn bus for an hour, you know? Especially since I might need to use the bathroom again. And can I have a cigarette?”

“You don’t even smoke,” B said.

A shrugged her shoulders and passed the pack. I took one out and tucked it behind my ear, like James Dean does in one of those awesome old movies we like to watch on rainy Fridays.

B wouldn’t give up. “Listen, don’t think I don’t know what this is about. Go ahead. Stay. Flirt, even. But don’t come crying to me again when you find out she’s just punk and not gay. I had enough of that with your whole X debacle.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t.”

“I’m not sure you’re her type,” A said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said.

“Look at them, Angela. They’re so…old. Older than us, clearly.”

“So?”

“So I’m just saying be careful, okay?”

I watched them walk away toward the bus stop just like we’d arrived, shoulder to shoulder without me, their shared cigarette burning down to the filter.

I sat down on the bench outside of Café T, wishing I’d asked A for a lighter before she left. I really don’t smoke, but maybe this was a good time to start.

I picked up the free weekly paper from the pile near the door. I strained my neck to look over at Her, over the paper. She was smoking a cigarette.

~

I wasn’t always shy. Or scared. But one day I came home from my summer job at the Little League field, and my house was still smoking from the fire that had just been put out. My entire family had been out and someone (me) had left a fan on. The fire marshal said the motor overheated and melted the plastic, which dripped in flames. The plastic set a bookshelf on fire, and, well, you can imagine the rest. We were lucky that our nosy neighbor noticed the smoke. Otherwise we would have lost everything, and not just the living room.

I missed my dog, too. This was the worst part—the part I couldn’t even think about, let alone talk about. Dogs and smoke don’t mix. Smoke doesn’t really mix with anything.

After that, I couldn’t leave the house. I was constantly worried that something would happen while I was gone. I felt guilty about ruining our lives—although my mother reassured me we weren’t ruined, that the damage was repairable and the water-damaged stuff was replaceable. That our hearts would eventually repair themselves, too. But when I did go out, I jumped at the sound of sirens and began to panic. What if it was my house again? The world would become fuzzy, my teeth would hurt, and my fingers would tingle. I would immediately need the bathroom.

A and B were around to comfort me and didn’t make me go anywhere if I didn’t want to.

When school began that September, I was starting high school. Away from A and B for the first time in my school career, I felt lost. They would call me every day to see how I was and invite me over. I usually said no, and they said they understood.

One day B had had enough. “All right already. We know you’re sad. We’re sad, too. But you can’t stay in your house dwelling on the past every day. Come out with us. It’s a Friday night. We’re going to the Slope.”

Initially I said no, but after some cajoling I gave in. I went. I left the house, got on the bus, and had a good time. That was the beginning of our Friday night ritual. I still get scared, though, like at any moment something might go wrong and someone might get hurt and it will be my fault. That’s how I was feeling, sitting on that bench, cigarette tucked behind my ear, pretending to read that paper.

Wanting more than anything to talk to Her.

~

I tried to look without looking. I wanted to know if She saw me sitting there. What could I see from behind my paper? Three girls. Two standing, one sitting on the steps in front of the building a few doors down. Very hip girls. Super hot short haircuts and ultra-cool shoes. The kind of girls who can break hearts, and they know it. And I know it, too.

X was one of those girls. She stormed into my life—faux-hawk, boy jeans, steel-toed Doc Martens. Oh, those boots. Whenever I think of X, I think of those black boots stomping all over my heart. How corny is that?

But maybe She is different.

Maybe She’s not even gay. I got nauseated when I thought that.

A and B have warned me to stay away from any girl who is not clearly a lesbian. “Look for the five signs,” they’ve advised. “Surefire signs that tell if she’s a lesbian. Short hair, cool glasses and/or shoes, nose ring, thumb ring, and short nails. A wrist cuff can replace any of the above except short nails,” A had said, “but there must be five signs. Any less, walk away.” I don’t know where they got this from—probably the Internet—and I think it’s a load of crap, but I couldn’t resist trying to look for signs on Her. I couldn’t really see her arms.

I had to get closer because I had to know if my obsessing was useless.

Or maybe this whole thing was useless. I mean, even A has five signs on some days, and she’s not a lesbian. Me, I’ve got five signs without even trying.

~

Couldn’t I casually walk by and ask for a cigarette? I mean, I know they’re expensive and all, and I don’t really smoke, but that would be a good way to tell if She’s at least a little interested in me, right? Then, I could just light up and hang around and check for The Signs.

I sat on the bench and debated. I looked at my watch. I had to be home in an hour and a half, and I needed at least 50 minutes of travel time. I looked over at the group again.

They were gone.

I had missed my chance. I ran my fingers through my hair, and I knocked my James Dean cigarette onto the floor. Thank God I hadn’t gone over to ask for a cigarette with one right behind my ear.

I bent down and looked on the floor, under the bench. Damn. I didn’t see the cigarette, and I definitely didn’t see someone walk over and stand right in front of me. Finally, I saw the cigarette and grabbed it. I looked up and saw a silhouette in front of the streetlight. It moved over and sat next to me.

It was Her. Right there.

This is not another one of those moments, but I swear, the way her faux-hawk was waving and her nose ring was gleaming, it could have been. And instead of my head imploding as you might expect, my heart exploded. In a good way. I got chills. Her ripped-denim-clad knee was next to mine.

“Beth,” she said, sticking out her hand—short nails, thumb ring, wrist cuff….

“Angela.” We shook. I swear there were sparks, and not the static electricity kind.

“You smoke?” she said.

Half hyperventilating, keeping cool, I responded, “Sometimes. Why?”

“Eh, just never saw you smoking before, and now you have a cigarette.”

“When have you seen me to see me not smoke?” I asked.

“At school. After school. At the bus stop. On the avenue.”

Wait a second!

Had she been watching me? It sounded like she had been, but I didn’t know if I should ask. Would it be flirty? Or presumptuous? And why had she come over? The girl practically went out of her way to avoid me earlier in the day.

“Have you been watching me?” I asked, trying to sound coy, or something.

Was that a blush creeping up her neck? She chewed on her bottom lip for a second. She took a Chapstick out of her pocket and played with the cap. Her dark blue nail polish was chipped in a cool way. Kind of punk.

“Uh, maybe. Why?”

“Um, ’cause you pretty much ignored me this afternoon outside of school.”

“I didn’t ignore you!” She leaned closer to me.

“No?”

“No! I was nervous. I get shy sometimes. And wasn’t that your mom or something?” She picked at the polish on her right thumb and rubbed the ring on her left thumb.

“Yeah. I had a dentist appointment. Two cavities. Totally sucks, you know?” Pause. “So the faux-hawk and nose ring are just a front? You’re not really a mean punk?”

“Punk? God no! Dyke chic is more like it.” And then she laughed. It was a wide-mouth, head-back type of laugh. It was nice.

I’m sure you’re thinking that this is where we slow-mo kiss or something. You know, the camera zooms in, and the picture begins to fade to black, and a heart-shaped frame envelops us as “The End” writes itself across the screen.

That didn’t happen. I was so shocked she had just come out like that, not a breath or anything, like it was no big deal. I mean, anytime I’ve even mentioned the words gay or lesbian or dyke to anyone, it’s been this taboo. You know, my mom’s all like, “It’s okay that you’re gay, honey, just don’t tell anyone we know,” as if it’s an embarrassment to the family or something. As if it will reflect badly upon her. A and B are less uptight about it, but still.

~

So, get this, Beth says, “You know, I thought you were, like, straight until a few hours ago.”

“Huh?”

“Well, I’ve seen you in this neighborhood on Friday nights. And you’re always with those two girls, who may or may not be gay. But this is a gay neighborhood, you know?”

I looked up and down the street. I turned around and checked out the café. I just came to the neighborhood because it was cool. And not my neighborhood. I had no idea. But I played it off like it did.

“Yeah, I know. We just like the food. But you’re right, about me, I mean.”

Beth leaned her head to the side and smoothed over her hair. The faux-hawk was overgrown, and it flopped in front of her eyes, almost reaching the freckles you couldn’t see unless you were this close. She pushed her hair back, and it fell again.

“When I realized you weren’t straight,” she said, “I figured one of them was your girlfriend.”

I nearly choked with laughter. A and B were going to love this. Or maybe not. “Then I thought they were a couple. And tonight, when they left without you, when you stayed here, I figured they’re just your friends. And that you wanted to stay for a reason.”

I gulped. “I did.”

“Why?”

“Why are you sitting here?”

“Why haven’t you left?”

“Why haven’t you?”

We both laughed. I smiled a little, because, well, I hadn’t felt like this since X.

~

Beth reached over and touched my hand.

“But how did you know?” I asked.

“Know what?”

“You know, that I wasn’t straight?”

“Well,” she said, running her fingers over mine, “my two friends over there….” She motioned down the street toward the girls. “They were reading this article on a website. It’s like Cosmo for gay girls. Anyway, they found this article called ‘The Signs.’ It had…”

“…surefire signs that tell if she’s a lesbian!” I finished.

“Exactly! You’ve seen it?”

“My two friends…” I began, trailing off.

“Huh.” She smiled. “Well, whenever I saw you I’d start counting signs. One: short nails,” she said, touching the tips of my fingers.

“Two: wrist cuff.” Her fingers passed the top of my hand and encircled my wrist. Her hands were warm.

“Three: nose ring,” Traveling up my arm and over my shoulder, her finger tapped the stud on my nose. I shivered, but not because I was cold.

“Four: short hair.” She brushed my forehead. “Then I’d get stumped. You never wore glasses or a thumb ring. And I think Converse are neutral. So today…”

“When I wore the Docs…”

“When you wore the Docs….” We both looked at my feet and laughed.

“And my glasses! I usually wear contacts but I was having allergies this morning.”

“And your glasses. I figured that was, like, six signs. I came out tonight to look for you, you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, I did.”

“Well, I’m glad you did.”

“Me too.” We smiled again. There was way too much smiling going on.

~

We sat there for a while like that. On the cold wooden bench outside the café. Watching people and dogs and cars pass by. Her friends looked over every once in a while.

“Oh, shit.” I jumped. “I gotta go. I’m gonna be late.”

“Relax. I’ll walk you to the bus.”

“How do you know I take the bus?”

She smirked. “I know a lot. When I like someone, I really like her.”

“Huh,” I said, suddenly knowing what it’s like to have someone really like you.

We walked toward Flatbush Avenue in silence, holding hands.

 

I guess that’s it. That’s how the story ends. It’s not particularly riveting, but it’s the start. It’s our start. I made it home in time, but just barely. And I only realized just now, thinking about it, that on our way to the bus that night, a fire truck passed by. I guess I was too busy to notice or too happy to care.

I think it’s a sign.

Your Move, World

Sara Kocek

1.

SUPERMODELY

Fiona’s plane is late, so I play Hangman on Dad’s phone. It’s getting close to dinnertime, and Baggage Claim is packed. Mom gets up to check the arrivals board while Sebastian, my small and very pokable brother, tries to sneak crackers into my sweatshirt pocket. The whole time, we keep losing Hangman because I’m choosing letters that spell PLANE, HURRY UP and FIONA, I HOPE YOU LIKE LASAGNA.

When she finally comes down the escalator, I feel like flushing myself down a toilet. I knew she was going to be pretty, but not that pretty. People standing around the baggage carousel follow her with their eyes like flowers turning toward the sun.

“Look how tall she is,” says Mom. “Can you believe we’re related?”

“I can’t believe we belong to the same species,” I answer, pulling on the bottom of my sweatshirt and discovering a cheese cracker. I flick it at Sebastian while Fiona disappears behind a family collecting their luggage. When she appears again, she’s taller than my dad and twice as tan. “Here I am!” she calls, throwing open her arms. Mom and Dad reach her first. While they hug, I see the whole airport curved and reflected in the sunglasses on the top of her head.

I have just enough time to think this spells trouble before she lets go of Mom and smothers me in a hug. “Piper! It’s so nice to finally meet you!”

I should say “Nice to meet you too,” which is what a normal person would say. But I’m not normal, and neither is Fiona. She’s too pretty. Instead, I stare at her shirt. It’s dark purple—the color of a frog’s heart. I know because we dissected a frog last summer at Port Jefferson Smart Camp, and its heart was dark purple and shimmering. Usually animals are iridescent on the outside to attract mates, but frogs have it the other way around. What I end up saying out loud is, “I like your shirt.”

“Thanks!” says Fiona. “I like yours too!” She tilts her head and reads the words New York State Science Olympiad: First Place, Grades 6-7.

“I just got it,” I say, but she doesn’t hear me. Sebastian, who’s four, pulls on her sleeve and asks, “Are you a grown up or a kid?” Fiona grabs her purple wheelie suitcase from the carousel, leaving Dad to grab the others she points to, and leads our whole family through the sliding airport doors.

It’s hot outside, even for June. The sun is setting and little bugs pop up around the headlights of the taxicabs. I swat at them while Fiona tells Sebastian that she’s more of a grown up than a kid. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad walk behind us, watching Fiona like an animal at the zoo. I wonder if they’ll decide she’s too fancy for our family, like the class Cockatoo I almost got to keep at the end of fourth grade. But when she buckles Sebastian into his booster seat in the back of our car, I hear Dad whisper to Mom, “BINGO.”  

Fiona is here because she wanted a job for the summer, and Mom wanted a babysitter for Sebastian and me. In my opinion, girls going into seventh grade don’t need babysitters; we are babysitters. Unfortunately, Mom doesn’t think so.

On the drive home from the airport, Fiona tells us about her high school in California, where all the teachers go by their first names and the cafeteria is called “The Café.” In September, for her junior year, she’s going to get to drive herself to school. Her life sounds so perfect, I throw up in my mouth just a little.

Even though it’s summer, Mom and Dad keep asking her about school. They want to know what subjects she likes, and where she wants to go to college, and how it feels to be a straight A student. Fiona answers each of their questions like she’s practicing for a college interview, and Mom and Dad keep smiling at each other in the front seat like they can’t wait for this amazing person to rub off on Sebastian and me.

I’m not fooled. I’ve met people like Fiona before, and they usually treat me like I’m a piece of gum on their shoe. I need to make sure she knows she can’t outsmart me.

“Congratulations on winning your school’s math-a-lon,” I tell her as we cross the bridge into Manhattan. Mom told me about it on the way to the airport. She thinks Fiona and I will get along just because we’re both good at math. She doesn’t understand that people as pretty as Fiona don’t even need numbers.

“Thanks!” says Fiona.

“Of course, I won the statewide Science Olympiad,” I tell her. “Much bigger than a single school. Not to brag or anything.”

Before I can see the expression on her face, Dad turns around in the front seat and says, “How about that toothpaste commercial, Fiona? Was it fun to be on TV?”

Not this again. He’s been talking about the toothpaste commercial all week. We were watching Nickelodeon last Saturday when all of a sudden he looked over at the TV and said, “I don’t believe it. That’s your cousin!” Mom made us rewind the commercial and watch it six times. I’m telling you—they’re obsessed.

“The commercial was fun,” says Fiona, flashing Dad her best Honor Roll smile. “But winning the math-a-lon was even more fun.”

It isn’t fair. A person shouldn’t be allowed to be smart and beautiful at the same time—it ruins the odds for the rest of us. I almost blurt, “It must be nice to be perfect,” but close my mouth just in time. I don’t want to sound jealous.

Mom speaks up from the front seat. “Piper, tell Fiona about your Science Olympiad project.” She acts like every person I meet is a private school admissions officer.

I roll my eyes at my reflection in the window. “Mom, Fiona doesn’t care about mirror neurons. Trust me.”

“Mirror-what?” Fiona looks up from her purse. In her hand is a small, foldable hairbrush with a mirror on the back.

“Mirror neurons,” I sigh. “They’re the reason smiles are contagious.”

Fiona uses the brush to check her hair, and I tell her what I wrote on my poster—how the human brain is such a party animal, it celebrates when someone else is happy. If she were to enjoy an ice cream cone right there in the car, my mouth might water. If she were to yawn, I’d feel tired. This is because, on some creepy level, your brain doesn’t know the difference between you and anybody else.

Fiona looks fascinated. “Are you saying you know what it’s like to be me?”

“I wish,” I say. “Then I’d know what it’s like to have everything.”

She laughs her big movie star laugh, only I’m not joking. I do wish I knew what it was like to be this beautiful with hair the color of sunlight. Probably whenever she looks in the mirror, she has to squint at herself.

Speaking of the sun, it’s setting. Orange light floods the car and shimmers on Fiona’s tank top. Part of me wants to tell her about the shimmery frog heart at Port Jefferson Smart Camp, but I wouldn’t be able to explain it. I’ve thought about that heart a lot, and how there’s no scientific reason why something on the inside should be so pretty. 

2.

WELCOME TO MANHATTAN

When we get to the Upper West Side, Dad drops us in front of our building and leaves to look for a parking spot.  “Hello, Ivan?” Mom calls as she leads us through the revolving door. Ivan, our mushy-faced doorman, looks up from behind his desk. He’s a million years old and completely bald except for the hair coming out of his ears. 

“Ivan, I’d like you to meet my niece,” says Mom, all business. “She’s going to be living with us this summer, so she’ll need a key to our apartment.”

Ivan’s cheeks turn pink as Fiona beams at him. With a small, dopey smile, he stands up, hurries around the desk, and carries her suitcase to the elevator.

“He’s not a real doorman,” I whisper to Fiona. “We have a revolving door, so he doesn’t even have to open it. Don’t you think he looks like a naked mole rat?” 

“A naked what?” she asks.

“Mole rat,” I say. “Because his head’s so bald.”

Fiona wrinkles her nose as she watches him load her luggage into the elevator, but by the time we catch up, she flashes him a big thank-you smile. Even his ears turn pink.

Upstairs, Mom apologizes for not vacuuming the apartment. “I love it!” Fiona says as we walk through the small, cluttered living room, down the small, cluttered hallway toward the three cluttered bedrooms. I start to tell her it isn’t as big as most of the apartments in the building, but Mom gives me a warning look, and by then we are in front of Fiona’s room, a tiny office with walls the color of a banana. I have to stand in the hallway for a few minutes because the room can’t fit all of us at the same time with Fiona’s luggage in it.

“Welcome to Manhattan,” Mom says from inside, twiddling the blinds. “Sorry about the view.” Through the window, another window on the opposite brick wall stares back at us.

Fiona grins. “If this were a TV show, a cute guy would live there.” 

“I’m afraid it’s just Mrs. & Mr. Finkelstein,” says Mom. Then she gives Fiona some sheets and a pillow and leaves to give Sebastian a bath before dinner.

“Sorry the room’s so small,” I say, lingering by the door. I can’t tell yet whether Fiona will be nice to me once Mom and Dad are gone.

“No worries!” she says, so I take a few steps inside.

“There are some hooks over the desk,” I point out. “You can hang necklaces off them.” At the top of Fiona’s suitcase I can see a whole Ziploc bag of colorful jewelry.

“Good idea,” says Fiona, looking around the tiny room.

I stand awkwardly by the bed, wondering if she wants me to leave. But before I can step out, she looks over and says, “How crazy is it that we’ve never met until now?”

Something in my stomach unclenches. “I know,” I say. “Crazy.”

“Why don’t you guys ever visit California?” Fiona bends over her suitcase to pull out the bag of jewelry, and underneath I see dozens of tiny tank tops rolled up into balls, like socks.

“Because my parents work all the time,” I answer, sitting down on the edge of her bed. “Mom’s idea of a family vacation is going to see a movie.”

“Mine work a lot too.” She reaches for her second suitcase, so I tilt it onto its back and push it toward her with my feet. “Thanks,” she says. “Any hotties in your life, Piper?”

I drop the edge of the suitcase on my foot. “What?”

Fiona comes over and sits cross-legged on the bed. “Don’t tell anyone, but today I had a crush on the male flight attendant on my plane. Ever had a boyfriend?”

Is she serious, or making fun of me? I can’t tell.

“Well?” She raises her eyebrows. “Have you?”

“Once,” I admit. “But just for ten minutes.”

She laughs.

“I mean, not really.” My cheeks heat up. “I was actually helping him make Boris Klompus for President signs.”

A grin spreads across her face. “Boris Klompus?”

“Don’t make fun of his name,” I say. “That’s how it all got started.” I explain how one day at lunch Boris decided to throw food at anyone who teased him about his name. For some reason—possibly because I loaned him a pack of chocolate pudding—everybody started saying we were going out. It was one of my top-ten most humiliating lunches. Boris had to break up with me in public, just to stop the rumor.

“So you were going out?” asks Fiona.

“No!” I feel desperate all over again to set the record straight. “I was just helping him run for class president. That’s why I was sitting at his table.”

“Ooooh!” Her eyes light up. “I was the class secretary in eighth grade.”

“Congratulations,” I say, even more depressed. “Boris lost.”

In truth, he got creamed. Our opponent was a popular dyslexic kid named Michael Spence who got on stage the morning of the election and said, “I’ve worked hard to overcome my disability—but not as hard as I’ll work for you.” Boris went up after him in loafers and a Ghostbusters tee-shirt and said he had a disability of his own: In kindergarten there was a puzzle of the United States on a table in the middle of his classroom, and for some reason, he got into the habit of standing on the Canada side while doing the puzzle. Now whenever he sees a map of the United States, he has to mentally flip it over so that Texas is on top, pointing upward, otherwise it’s discombobulating. And that was only one of the reasons he lost.

“Well, not everybody can be a winner,” says Fiona, unearthing a mountain of shoes from her suitcase and lining them up along the wall. “What about the girls? What are they like?” She begins pulling socks out of the boots and handing them to me to put in the sock drawer. I have the weirdest urge to sniff them.

“What girls?” I ask. “The ones in my class?”

“No, the ones you hang out with,” says Fiona.

My stomach does a flip. Why would she ask that? Has Mom told her about my situation? Then I have a terrible thought: maybe she can tell just from looking at me.

“Most of my friends aren’t from school,” I say carefully.

“Oh.” Fiona is busy lifting some jeans out of her suitcase. “Why not?”

I pause before answering. “Because they’re older than me.”

She looks up, surprised.

“I skipped fourth grade,” I tell her. “So I’m a year younger than everyone in my class.” I hate revealing this to people. It’s like ripping off a band-aid.

“Wow.” Fiona puts down the pair of jeans. “You are super smart.”

“You are too,” I say, trying not to sound too bitter about it.

She rolls her eyes. “I just study hard. You have to be naturally smart to skip a grade.”

“I guess,” I say. It’s not all that hard to skip a grade in elementary school, but I don’t want to get into it. Even back when I was the same age as everyone in my class, I still didn’t fit in. I used to call myself a platypus, because nobody knew how to classify me. A mammal? A bird? A reptile? Platypuses are mammals, but they’re duck-billed and they lay eggs. Eight-year-olds who love science are sort of like that. When some kids  in my third grade class made a popularity chart, I wasn’t even on it. They put my name outside the box and wrote, “Too weird to tell.” I cried a lot that year.

“If your friends aren’t from your class, then where are they from?” Fiona asks.

“Camp,” I say. It’s the same lie I tell people at school.

“Camp!” Her eyes brighten. “Are you going to see them this summer?”

My stomach twists around like a sock in a washing machine. “Maybe,” I say, trying to ignore it. “In August, after you leave.”

“Oh.” Her face falls. “Where do they live?”

“Um—Pennsylvania.”

“All of them?”

A little voice in my head is telling to shut up, but I ignore it. “Can I be honest about something?”

She looks up from her suitcase. “Sure.”

“I don’t really have friends from camp,” I say. “I mean, I used to, but I haven’t gone there in two years.”

I wait for her to look at me like I’m a moldy slice of bread, but she just pulls some underwear out of a boot and says, “Well, who cares? I’m your friend now.”

A weird, prickly sensation shoots through my arms and legs. She’s just being polite, right? She has to be.

Just then, the door bursts open. It’s Sebastian, fresh out of his bath and hyper as a puppy. Wearing nothing but an enormous brown towel, he hops into the room and head-butts me four times in the leg. “It’s, time, for, dinner,” he says, one word per bump.

“Sebastian!” Fiona scolds, “Is that a nice way to treat your sister?” But she sounds so harmless and cheerful that Sebastian only grins and shakes his head. Fiona laughs and pulls him onto the bed so she can comb his wet hair with her fingers.

“You have such handsome eyes!” she says, looking down at his face. “I bet they’re made of chocolate, aren’t they?”

“No,” says Sebastian.

“Yes they are,” I tell him. I love messing with his head. “They come from a chocolate chip cookie. And mine come from an oatmeal raisin cookie.”

Fiona laughs. She probably thinks I’m joking, but I actually kind of mean it. Chocolate chip cookies are like the cute child everyone wants to gobble up. That’s Sebastian. Oatmeal-raisin cookies are like the unpopular child with the better personality. That’s me.

“Eyes aren’t food!” Sebastian climbs off the bed, forgetting his towel, and walks stark naked toward the full-length mirror on the back of the bedroom door.

Thwack. No sooner has he leaned forward to inspect his eyeballs than the door swings open from the other side and bops him in the face. Reeling backward, he bumps into Fiona’s legs and lets out a howl.

Fiona knows what to do. She grabs the brown towel off the bed and wraps him in it. “You’re OK, cutie pie,” she says, stroking his hair. “You’re a tough cookie.”

Sebastian stops crying instantly and sucks in a long sniffle.

“Wow!” Mom looks amazed. “You have a magic touch, Fiona.” Then, holding up Sebastian’s dinosaur underpants, she adds, “Come, I’ll show you his room.”

As Sebastian wipes the long rope of snot hanging from his nostril, the three of them file out of the door and Mom calls over her shoulder, “Piper, dinner will be ready in five minutes.”

“Oh joy,” I say to the empty room. Now I get to watch them drool over Fiona and their food.

3.

ORANGELLO + LEMONGELLO

In the dining room, Dad clenches five plates under his left armpit as he sets the silverware on the table with his right hand. “Piper, can you—?” he calls as I hurry forward to grab the plates. If there’s one thing my dad can’t stand, it’s going back to make a second trip.

As soon as I set down the plates, I head for the kitchen. Mom is stirring salad at the counter while Fiona gathers napkins for the table.

“What should I do?” I ask. “Pour water?

A cherry tomato escapes Mom’s salad prongs and rolls onto the floor. “Just stand out of the way while I check on the lasagna,” she tells me, stepping on the tomato. “Oop—”

“I’ll get it,” says Fiona. Handing me the napkins, she sweeps her hair into a ponytail and ties it with a blue elastic. The gesture has all the grace of an ice skater in the middle of a pirouette.

I wander out of the kitchen and into the living room, where I pull a yellow elastic off the remote control and try to tie my hair in a high ponytail like Fiona’s. It’s not easy in the fuzzy reflection of the TV, but I manage. When I get back to the dining room, everyone is sitting down, and the back of my neck feels strange and breezy.

“We’re counting on you to prepare dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Mom is telling Fiona. “Those are the days I work late. You’ll pick Sebastian up from daycare and take him to his swim lessons.”

“No problem,” says Fiona, lifting the silverware off her napkin. She places the napkin in her lap, which I bet Mom loves. She’s crazy about table manners.

I can tell right away that dinner is going to be different than usual. Normally the conversation goes something like this:

Mom: How was everybody’s day?

Dad: I had a client blah blah blah in the disposition blah blah over the rights to blah.

Mom: I had a client blah blah blah in the disposition blah blah

over the rights to blah.   

Me: My day was weird. Some aliens abducted me and took me to their lab because they wanted to know what a spleen was for.

Mom: Did these aliens require you to sign any official documents or put a lease on the spleen in question?

At this dinner, there is not a single moment of lawyer-speak. “Did I tell you about the baby I saw on the plane?” Fiona asks while we eat our lasagna. “Her name was ‘Orangello.’”

“Orangello?” repeats Dad.

“Weird, right?” Fiona takes a sip of water. “Well, I asked the mother how she thought of such a unique name, and guess what she told me?”

“I don’t know,” says Mom. “What?”

“Well, she had the munchies, so she went to the kitchen and opened her pantry. There, on the side of a box of Jell-O, were the perfect names for her new twin girls.” Fiona looks around at us, grinning. “Orangello and Lemongello!’”

Mom and Dad smile at each other so sweetly, I feel like barfing all over my plate. It’s obvious what they’re thinking: Not only is Fiona a straight-A student with good table manners, but she’s also funny—a perfect babysitter for Sebastian and me. I can barely stop myself from digging my fingernails into my fists. I’m old enough to baby-sit my brother myself, but they aren’t going to pay me $100 a week, are they? I’m not perfect enough.

Fiona doesn’t notice Mom and Dad exchanging nauseating smiles. She just keeps laughing long and loud, like a movie star. It annoys me even though I knew she’s just being friendly.   

I’m about to ask to be excused from the table, but Mom has other ideas. “It’s time to go over the house rules,” she announces, pulling a piece of paper from her pocket.

“Oh, goody,” says Fiona, setting down her napkin. “I love rules.”

This time I do actually roll my eyes.

Mom gives me a look as though to say, “You could learn something from this, missy.” Then she lays the piece of paper on the table, and I recognize the writing at once. The page has been posted on our refrigerator under a cow magnet for years. It says:

  1. No flushing broccoli down the toilet. IT’S GOOD FOR YOU.
  2. No friends over without permission.
  3. No eating in the bedrooms. Except for broccoli, which is GOOD FOR YOU.
  4. No phone calls after ten o’clock.
  5. No dessert unless you EAT YOUR BROCCOLI.

“This list is a little outdated,” Dad tells Fiona. “When Piper was little, she hated broccoli.”

“That’s not true,” I say. Everyone in my family is always remembering my childhood wrong. I had nothing against broccoli.

“Anyway.” Mom waves a hand. “Ignore the stuff about broccoli—”

“I thought they were small trees!” I put my fork down. “I didn’t hate them.”

“You’re free to talk quietly on your cell phone whenever you like,” Mom continues, ignoring me. “Just ask one of us before you invite over a friend. OK?”

But instead of nodding, Fiona turns and gives me a look like I just said something brilliant. “You are so right, Piper! They do look like trees!”

I flash Mom an I-told-you-so look. At least Fiona is sucking up to me too—not just Mom and Dad. You only suck up to people you want to impress.

“Fiona?” asks Mom. “Did you hear me?”

“Of course!” Fiona snaps back to life and smiles at her and Dad. “No friends over without permission. I wouldn’t dare.”

Mom looks like a puppy in love as she folds up the list of rules and slips it into her pocket.

4.

HOW TO DOMESTICATE A STINK BUG

After dinner, I follow Fiona to her room. I want to know why she’s sucking up to everyone in our family; plus she’s not even halfway unpacked. 

“Want some help?” I ask from the hallway. Offering to help is the best way to find out what somebody is up to.

“Sure!” she says, untangling a string of paper lanterns from her suitcase. This time I don’t hesitate before stepping through the door.

“Do you have any thumbtacks?” she asks, looking up from the lanterns.

“They’re in the desk drawer,” I answer. “Why? Are you going to hang those up?”

“Yep,” she says. “Once I empty them.” There are clothes balled up inside the mouths of the lanterns, and as she pulls them out I see a lot of fancy underwear. One pair, I know from TV, is called a thong—it has a string on one side instead of fabric—but whether that string goes in the back or front, I’ve never been sure.

Averting my eyes, I climb up onto the bed with the box of thumbtacks and push one into the wall about two feet below the ceiling. “Is this a good height?” I ask. I might as well be useful while I gather information.

“Perfect!”

She hands me one of the lanterns, which I loop over the thumbtack. There’s silence as I try to think of the best question to ask her other than what’s your deal? Why are you being so nice to me? Finally I ask, “Do you have a boyfriend?” It seems like the kind of thing Fiona would like to talk about.

“Nope!” she answers a little too brightly.

I hop off the bed, kind of relieved. Maybe we’re not so different after all. But then she laughs and adds in a sing-song voice, “Devon Moore—not any more!”

“Who’s Devon Moore?” I ask.

“He was my boyfriend,” she says. “Until he cheated on me.”

It’s hard to believe anyone would cheat on someone as beautiful as Fiona, but she doesn’t seem too upset about it. She just laughs. “Don’t worry. I’m in love with someone else.” Then she reaches into her duffel bag and pulls out a half-rolled up poster of Jonah Blue, the lead singer of the band Blue Tomb. Probably a million other girls in America are in love with him too.

I grab two more thumbtacks and stand up on the bed again, rising to my tiptoes to help her hang the poster. Jonah’s famous pale grey eyes stare down at me like wolf eyes.

“Did you know that Jonah and I are the same age?” Fiona asks. “And that we both live in Los Angeles and have divorced parents?”

“So do a lot of people,” I point out, but she doesn’t seem to hear me.

“If I was lucky enough to date Jonah, I wouldn’t even care if he cheated on me,” she goes on. “Too bad he doesn’t know I exist.”

“There are plenty of other guys in New York,” I tell her. “And plenty of date spots.”

Fiona raises her perfect eyebrows. “Are you telling me you went on a date during the ten minutes you had a boyfriend?”

I meant that hypothetically New York has a lot of good date spots, but I don’t want sound like a baby. “Um, we went on a date later,” I say. “A different time.” I don’t mention that it was technically a campaign meeting, or that it took place at Dunkin Donuts.

Fiona looks impressed. “Was it fun?”

“Oh yeah,” I lie. “It was a blast.”

“What did you guys talk about?”

I open my mouth to make something up, but nothing comes out. What do people talk about on dates? Homework? Sports?

“Well?” 

The embarrassing truth pops out. “Bugs.”

“What?”

I have no choice but to explain myself.  “Do you know how to domesticate a stink bug?”

She stares at me, which I take as a no. So I explain how you scrape their butts against the pavement so they can’t spray stink. Then you paint their backs with nail polish to tell them apart. “And that’s pretty much all we talked about,” I say. “Until Boris got a call from his mom and talked to her in Russian for ten minutes while I ate my donut.”

I wait for her to give me the you-poor-weirdo look, but instead she laughs. “You’re funny, Piper. Let’s change into our PJs and meet back here in a few minutes.”

“OK.” I get to my feet, wondering if I’ve just passed some kind of test.

Out in the hallway, Mom passes me carrying a heaping basket of laundry. “Going to bed?” she asks. I tell her yes, which is true if you add the phrase “at some point tonight” to the end of the question. Then I slip into my room, right next door to Fiona’s. 

The first thing I notice is my stupid ponytail. I can see it in the mirror on my wall, and it looks nothing like Fiona’s. For one thing, mine is shorter. For another, it’s a wimpy shade of brown. Before I can look at it for another second, I tear out the elastic and stare at my reflection. My cheeks are too big. They make the bottom of my face look heavier than the top.

Getting into my pajamas, I try not to look at my body. Only it’s literally impossible without tripping. In my peripheral vision, I see light brown hair dusting my arms and legs. Am I supposed to shave my arms? Do people do that? I’ve never thought to look.

Back in Fiona’s room, I find her wearing silk pajamas. When I step inside, she plugs in the lantern chain and the room becomes dark and purply, like we’re sitting inside a kaleidoscope.

“It’s so romantic in here,” I blurt because the lights remind me of a fancy restaurant in Central Park where Dad once grabbed Mom by the arm and twirled her while we waited for our food. Immediately, I want to cover my mouth with duct-tape.

To my surprise, Fiona nods. “Totally. I used to keep these lights in my basement, and I’d turn them on when certain people came over.”

“Certain people,” I repeat. “You mean like Devon Moore?”

Fiona laughs. “You’re older than you look, Piper!”

“Never mind.” My cheeks flood with warmth.

“No, it’s OK.” She undoes her ponytail and the hair slides out smoothly around her shoulders. “It’s funny because it’s true.”

I cross my legs on the bed and wait for her to continue. It’s almost too much to hope that we’ll be friends, but maybe she’ll talk to me like a normal person. It’s more than I can expect from people at school.

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Fiona says, leaning back against the wall. “It was all perfectly innocent…until it wasn’t. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” I lie. “Totally.” When you skip a grade, you learn a lot of tricks to make yourself sound older. One of them is pretending you know exactly what people mean.

It’s working. Fiona relaxes her shoulders. “See, here’s the thing. I think the relationship worked better when I was playing hard-to-get. Does that sound crazy?”

“Not at all,” I say. “It’s actually built into our biology.”

“What is?”

“Playing hard-to-get.” I tell her what I read in National Geographic—how human females play hard-to-get if they think a guy likes them, which isn’t all that different than what emperor penguins do. First the male penguin does a song and dance while the female penguin pretends to look the other way. Then the female penguin lies flat on the ground while the male penguin presses his cloaca onto hers and passes the sperm through.

“That’s disgusting!” says Fiona.

“Never mind.” For the millionth time since third grade, I feel like taping my mouth shut.

“It’s OK,” she sighs. “We should go to sleep, anyway.”

I wonder if she’s going to brush her teeth first, but she just pulls back her covers and climbs into bed. So I head for the bathroom by myself, gather a lot of foam in my mouth, spit, wipe my face, and go to bed.

It’s hard to sleep. Questions ping around in my head like little bumper cars. Is it  possible that Fiona actually wants to be my friend? Was she born with eyebrows like that? Does the string part of the thong go in the back or front?

When the clock strikes eleven, I’m so wide-awake I can’t stand it. I flip on my lamp, reach under my bed for my spiral notebook, and write: REMEMBER TO ASK ABOUT ARM HAIR. Then I tear out the page, place it on my nightstand, and go to sleep.

A Secret Never Told

Sandra Nickel

Elisabeth A. Wallace
Headmistress
Clairmont School
Switzerland

9 December

Dear Miss Wallace,

Don’t be alarmed by my signature at the bottom of the page. You are not crazy or otherwise bonkers. I know you thought I was long gone. But, I’m not. When I died, I knew I couldn’t move on—I had to stay. For Lorna Miller. And for Clairmont.

And thank goodness I did. Because I’m the only one who can prove Lorna is not lying. Yes, you’ve caught her leaving trick messages in the frost on your window, stealing a professor’s letter, even breaking into the Headmistress’s Office. You don’t have the tiniest reason to trust her. Or, Jeannette Li Jones, for that matter. But every word of Lorna’s note is true. It is not a prank. And she and Jeannette are in grave danger because of it.

Being in a ghostly state has its advantages. Invisible and made out of vapor, I’ve been able to observe Lorna from the moment she stepped into Clairmont. I know you, Miss Wallace. The only way you will believe everything that happened is to hear the entire story. How Lorna uncovered the evil conspiracy to destroy the school. And how she discovered a secret that could save it—your secret, Miss Wallace, and Lady Halfrey’s. But to believe, you must read every page that follows.

You, at the very least, owe me that.

Most sincerely yours,

Miss L.C. Eastwood
First Headmistress of Clairmont School
And now, of course, Ghost

 

We must go back in time to Lorna Miller’s first day at Clairmont and to . . .

 

~1~

The Start of It All

Lorna had never had a single sleepless night or nagging intuition about Clairmont. For as long as she could remember, she couldn’t wait to turn thirteen, so she could go there. She’d hop on a plane in New York City. Step off in Switzerland. And head to the old Abbey her great-grandmother turned into a school, high up on a cliff above Lake Geneva. Her parents would fly over with her, lug her boxes up to Matterhorn House—her mom’s house when she had been at Clairmont—and build the rotating loft bed her mom had designed in the hospital the day Lorna was born. When they said goodbye, they’d all break down and sob, and then console themselves with heaps of Swiss chocolate.

That’s how she had always imagined it would be. Until a year ago. When her whole world was blown apart.

Arriving at Clairmont on her first day, Lorna wore her uniform like a suit of armor. Starched white shirt. Perfectly pleated plaid skirt. Tie tucked flawlessly into her navy sweater. She shoved aside a stray strand of light brown hair, pushed open Matterhorn’s arched front door, and immediately examined its ceiling to see how sturdy it was. It was a habit she’d picked up over the last year. And Matterhorn’s ceiling was like no other she’d ever seen. Unbelievably high—probably two stories—and round and wooden like a giant barrel. She examined it closely, making sure the wooden planks didn’t have any cracks or gaps, making sure it would be hard to bring down—even with a wrecking ball—and then dropped her gaze to the massive stone hall, as wide as a street—and to chaos.

Suitcases, boxes, and bags covered every plump sofa and feather-stuffed chair that lined the hall. Girls of all shapes and sizes dodged around them, darting in and out of rooms, laughing and hugging. A tall girl with a short afro leapt over a chair to a giant fishbowl loaded with Toblerones and lobbed chocolate bars down the hall to any girl facing her.

Lorna examined the girls one by one, and came up with a theory for who was scholarship and who was pay-her-own-way. The girls wearing their uniforms like they had just stepped out of a picture on the website had to be scholarship. The sloppier ones, wearing wrinkled sweaters, like they took it all for granted, had to be pay-their-own-ways.

When a white-haired man in red work pants heaved a large, flat box through the door next to Lorna, a girl shouted, “Hey Mr. Brun! What’s that? Lady Halfrey’s painting?” And then a huge black fluffy dog, with a white chest and nose—who someone had dressed up in a large pink bow—pushed through the door and turned chaos into pure pandemonium. He barked and leapt at anything that moved—a Toblerone foil tossed on the floor, a tinkling wind chime on a door handle. He was so excited he chased after a girl and nearly caught her skirt as she fled into the women’s room.

Lorna rubbed the back of her neck. A Dog? In Matterhorn? She liked dogs as much as the next girl, but she knew for a fact not everybody did. The girl who had just sprinted through the restroom door, for one.

Lorna took a step toward the women’s room, then spotted Jacques Charity Van der Mere, the girl who was supposed to be her ‘mentor.’ She had the same yellow hair and blue eyes as in the picture the school secretary had sent —pretty, Lorna guessed. But, as Lorna watched Charity talk to a group of older girls wearing wrinkled sweaters, a crease started to form across her forehead. Charity kept fixing her hair so a single curl hung over her left shoulder and then checking to see if others were looking.

Lorna narrowed her eyes. She probably deserved a mentor like that. She deserved everything she got. But she’d counted on things being different once she got to Clairmont. Change your life, change your luck. Okay, she hadn’t exactly counted on it. But, she’d crossed her fingers on the airplane and allowed a thin sliver of hope to cross her mind.

Before Lorna could look away, Charity turned and caught her watching. She inspected Lorna from head to toe, pausing on the faded backpack over her shoulder and grimacing at her old shoes. When one of Charity’s friends giggled, that was enough for Lorna. She pulled a book from her backpack and headed to the restroom.

The huge dog was still there, trying to nose his way through the door. “See these two words?” Lorna asked. “They say Women’s Room. Not Dog’s Room.”

The dog let out a whimper.

“Yeah? You really think no one cares? Tell that to the girl you chased in here.” Lorna slid inside, looked under the cubicles, and tapped open the first door. It bumped straight up against something—someone—against a girl hiding there. A girl with a cloud of thick, nearly black hair, a sweater that had crease lines as if it had just been pulled from its wrapping, and the face of an angel.

“Let me guess,” said Lorna. “Jeannette Li Jones. Formerly of Hong Kong. Now, from London. Master of the Blowtorch.”

Both of Jeannette’s eyebrows went straight up and a sort of glow radiated from her. Jeannette was also Master of the Amazing Face. Lorna had been impressed by it ever since their first video chat. Jeannette had the type of face that would win a Nobel Prize for convincing the earth’s population that it must have World Peace. Or at least, she would win an Academy Award.

Jeannette glowed a little bit more and said, “You forgot: Roommate to the famous Lorna Miller.”

“Not famous,” Lorna corrected.

“Famous to the Li family. Your picture’s been sent by granny Pau-pau to every aunty and cousin and not-even-cousin in Hong Kong.”

“Just like the World’s Most Wanted.”

Jeannette’s face opened into a wide grin. “I brought the blowtorch, you know.”

“Would’ve of loved to see airport security deal with that. But since you’re here to tell about it, you must have come over the Channel with an unsuspecting driver.”

“With some not-even-cousins.” Jeannette nodded. “I got to bring a mass of other things too.” Things, Lorna knew, meant tools. Jeannette had spent the summer watching nonstop episodes of Restoration Home, DIY SOS and that show where a squad of gardeners turns some ugly piece of scrub into an amazing garden in a single weekend. Before she’d become a Master of the Blowtorch, Jeannette had conquered the crowbar, needle nose pliers, staple gun, and duct tape. “The not-evens said they were sorry they couldn’t wait to meet you—they had to get up to the real Matterhorn Mountain by tonight. They said you looked nice.”

Lorna imagined the picture she’d sent Jeannette flying over the Internet to the greater Lis everywhere. She really didn’t like people looking at her. Or her picture. She couldn’t shake the idea that people could see things she didn’t really want them to see. She’d told Jeannette everything about her, and she hadn’t minded. But that was angel-faced, generous, look-on-the sunny-side Jeannette. Others wouldn’t be so kind. Lorna looked away from Jeannette—then drew her gray eyes back.

Jeannette studied Lorna, her eyebrows smushing together, then asked, “Met anyone yet?”

Lorna flicked the binding of her book, thinking about Jacques Charity Van der Mere. “Nobody.”

“You mean, nobody, yet.” Jeannette was still grinning. “I can introduce you to all the other Matterhorn Year Sevens, I’ve met them all—and you’ve probably seen them and just don’t know it. The shy girl with the braid down to her waist is Isha Khan.”

“Ten dollars says she’s from India.”

Jeannette wrinkled her eyebrows, “I don’t think so. She said, Bihar—wherever that is.”

Lorna pursed her lips. “India. North India.”

“Oh.” Jeannette flushed a rosy pink. “And did you see the girl with the brown spiky, sort of messy short hair? She had running shoes on with her uniform.”

“Tomboyish?”

“I guess, now that you mention it. That’s Scylla Rodriguez—from Brazil. Then there’s Osythe Gibbons—with the ghosty white hair and glasses—her sister’s Captain of Matterhorn. And the last of us is—”

“Belvie Kyenge,” Lorna said. “I saw her name on Isha’s door. She’s from Mali—and the only one to ace the scholarship test. According to Miss Hopps.”

“Aced it? I didn’t even know that was possible. That test’s a monster.” Jeannette’s brown eyes jumped to Lorna’s book, noticing it for the first time. “Did you come to hide out here too?” Jeannette reached down and examined the hem of her skirt. “That dog nearly got me. Something unbelievable is going to happen to you for keeping him out. Endless chocolate, maybe. The Universe owes you.”

“Instant karma,” Lorna scrunched her nose. “I think you might have mentioned it once or twice.” Or ninety-six times. And Jeannette’s life honestly seemed to work that way. Lorna’s didn’t. Unless negative karma existed.

The huge dog barked at the door—and Jeannette jumped to the back of the cubicle, then turned pink again. “I know he’s big.” Lorna nodded. “Bernese Mountain Dog. But I think he’s okay—really.”

“It’s just—just . . . ,” Jeannette didn’t finish, instead waving her hand, as if she were waving away a bad memory.

Lorna knew what that memory was. Jeannette had told her. The one and only exception to Jeannette’s Super Karma life. It had happened when she was three, but she still had nightmares about it. Hong Kong. A pack of stray dogs lunging at her. Hot breath on her legs. The rip of her skirt. Agony in her calf as the leader clamped down with his razor-sharp teeth. 

The door to the bathroom banged open—and Lorna stepped in front of Jeannette, sure it was the dog. She relaxed when a couple of sets of footsteps clattered in, along with a voice Lorna recognized as Charity’s.

“ . . . and I simply can not believe that they gave me one of the new girls to mentor. I hope they don’t expect me to be friends with her.”

“The same goes for the new girl they gave me,” said a second voice. (Hughes Grace Carnegie. Charity’s cousin and roommate.)

Lorna looked at Jeannette and raised her eyebrows, as if to say: Is that you? The other new girl? Jeannette grimaced and nodded. Lorna quietly pulled the door of the cubicle shut and slid the lock into place. She then took a giant, silent step toward the back of the cubicle where Jeannette was, so her legs couldn’t be seen under the cubicle wall.

Lorna shifted her head so that she could see through the slit next to the door. In the reflection of the mirror over the sinks, she saw Charity go into the cubicle at the far end, next to the window. Charity shut the door so hard, the line of cubicles rattled.

Grace went into the cubicle next to Charity and slammed her door. A screw bounced to the floor in front of Lorna, and the cubicles tottered as if another slam would send them crashing to the floor.

“It’s just that Miss Wallace knows that I’m only sixteen names away from the next spot at La Violette,” Charity said. “She knows I can’t wait to get out of this dump. So what’s the use—”

“Did I tell you?” Grace cut in. “I’m up to twenty-one on the waiting list. We could be there before you know it!”

“With girls like us. And boys.”

“And nonstop phone rights. Monsieur LaFleur already took mine away. Can you believe it?

“If we could only dream up some emergency—some reason why we couldn’t stay here, La Violette would take us right now. It says so in my letter.”

“Hmm,” Grace mused. “That’s worth thinking about.”

Charity came out of the cubicle and sighed at herself in the mirror. “Did you see my new girl?”

“Scholarship? At the end of the hall? Rigid as an old crone?”

Lorna stiffened, then glanced at Jeannette and shrugged.

“That’s her.” Charity patted her yellow curls. “Miss Hopps told me to look out for her. My mum too.”

“Ooh, that’s a bit of bad luck.” Grace came to stand behind Charity and curled her cousin’s hair into a messy sort of bun high on her head. “Okay, we don’t have a choice, we have to invite the new girls to Opening Tea. And they’ll love it. Newbie Sevens sitting down with two Year Eights. Then”—Grace let Charity’s hair fall in a tangle to her neck—“we’re done. That’s fair. We don’t want them becoming too reliant on us.”

Charity combed through her hair with her fingers. “Since we’re getting out of here, you mean?”

“Exactly.”

Charity nodded and headed for the door. “I don’t mean to be brutal, but it’s not my fault her parents died in a car crash and she had to ask the State of New York or whoever it was to get her out of her foster home and send her here.”

“No—no it’s not.”

Charity yanked open the door and went out. Grace followed.

As the door banged, Lorna stared at the fallen screw on the floor. It had been a year ago. A year and three days, to be exact. A Monday morning like any other Monday morning. Well, almost.

When Lorna and her dad had headed down the stoop of their brownstone, ready to drive into Manhattan for work and school, Lorna had found her mom, waiting next to their Fiat, staring at the screen of her phone. Her hand was trembling. She glanced up at Lorna, blinked, and then fumbled to close the screen of an email.

When she dropped the phone in the street, Lorna picked it up—and read what the note said. Remember when we found Lady Halfrey’s letter on Miss Eastwood’s desk? Well, I’ve been trying to fix it, but it’s like a curse. Bad after Bad. And now, it’s finally happening. I’m sorry. Lorna asked what it meant. Her mom took the phone, closed down the screen, and said that it was a long story—she would tell her that night at dinner. Well, that night at dinner never came.

In the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, Lorna had finished her book and begged her parents to stop at the Barnes & Noble near her school. When they’d said no, she pestered and begged until they stopped to let her out. One hundred yards from where her parents usually dropped her off, a truck driver forgot to put on his brakes and barreled through the backseat of the Millers’ car, coming to a halt only when the tangled Fiat stopped it. Lorna had heard the scream and crack of exploding metal as she stepped onto the Barnes & Noble escalator. When she pushed through the crowd in the street and saw the Fiat, Lorna flung herself at the car and would have jumped straight into the flames to get her parents, if a policeman hadn’t dragged her back.

After that, it was just like the email. Bad after bad. A double funeral. Five different foster homes. Mrs. Cranch of the Office of Children and Family Services. Their brownstone in Brooklyn was sold because her parents had used it to get a loan from Temple Bank. And Mrs. Cranch, with her frizzy hair and red, bony face, only told Lorna after the bank had sent a wrecking ball to smash it to pieces.

Lorna stuffed her book into her backpack. Bad after bad. But she’d deserved it. There was no getting around one small, blinding fact. If she hadn’t been so bratty and obnoxious, if she hadn’t made her parents pull out of traffic to let her out, they would have never been in front of the truck in the first place. So, yeah, she deserved whatever she got. And she’d bet hard cash that didn’t include endless chocolate. That is, if she had any hard cash.

Lorna picked up the fallen screw off the bathroom floor and shoved it back into place. She then half-smiled at Jeannette. “I’m not sure you noticed, but we’ve hit the lottery with Grace and Charity. Winning numbers, both of them.”

Jeannette pushed the screw in further with her thumb. “And there I was trying to figure out where my staple gun was. It can nail bed sheets together, you know.” Jeannette gave Lorna a devilish smile. “And I was really hoping to see what it could do with leg holes of underwear.”

~ 2 ~

The Opening Tea


Lorna was lining up the finishing touch on her desk—the only picture she had of her mom from her Clairmont days—and Jeanette was stashing her last tools in the cupboard above her closet, when the tall girl Lorna had seen throwing Toblerones stuck her head into their room. “Hi, I’m Abana Ramphele.” She nodded toward the hall in a sergeant-major way. “Come out here.”

Osythe, Scylla, Belvie, and Isha were already lined up against the wall, looking like they thought they were in trouble. Lorna took the empty spot next to Isha.

“I guess you know Opening Tea’s at five o’clock. What you don’t know is that you can’t go down until I say so. All of you Sevens—the ones in Jungfrau and Monte Rosa too—are led in together. So, stay put.” Abana thrust her fists on her hips and glared at them. “And that’s coming from me as Matterhorn’s Vice-Captain. You let me down—you embarrass Matterhorn—and I have the power to make your lives miserable.”

Abana yanked a blue bandanna out of her skirt pocket. “But first, I’ve got to find Monk. There is absolutely no way I’m letting our guard dog wear Monte Rosa pink to Opening Tea.” Abana gave the girls a last glare and ducked out Matterhorn’s back door.

“She could have saved the scowl,” Lorna murmured to Jeannette. It’s not like I’m rushing down so I don’t miss a single precious moment with Grace and Charity.”

“Ditto,” said Jeannette. “But we’ve finished unpacking and I’d love to see more of Clairmont.” She turned to the other girls. “The Dining Hall’s not a bad place to start. The famed Opening Tea.” She raised her eyebrows meaningfully. “My granny Pau-pau pulled something like 213 photos of it off the Internet.”

Yeah, Lorna thought. She’d risk getting caught by the sergeant major to see more of Clairmont. Breaking out of the trees, after winding up the mountain road, Lorna’s first glimpse of the school had been the Abbey’s red tiled roofs and ancient stone walls towering in front of the van. It was massive. Thick, like a castle. Her mom had said the Abbey had been there for 700 years—survived an avalanche and two World Wars. Nothing could take that place down—not even Temple Bank.

Once inside the iron gates, Lorna hadn’t seen much from the van’s window other than Clairmont’s one big surprise, the nearly black Chalet. Lorna couldn’t take her eyes off it—it was strangely beautiful with its steep roofs and dark wood—and then the van jolted to a halt at the cloisters’ door and she’d been ushered straight up to Matterhorn.

Lorna would definitely risk getting caught to see more. And so, when Jeannette peeked out the main door and motioned that it was clear, Lorna followed her and the other M-7s down Matterhorn’s circular marble staircase to the Dining Hall’s back entrance. Two massive wooden doors stood open, so even peering from the stairwell, Lorna could see the ceiling. Eighteen pillars reached up to it and fanned out at the top like great stone palm trees. Red and white banners fluttered from brass poles. And the House tables Lorna had seen on the website—the ones that usually ran from giant fireplace to giant fireplace—had been broken into squares, decorated with miniatures of the Abbey, and piled high with mounds of cakes, finger sandwiches, and scones. Hundreds of returning girls already filled most of the chairs and were laughing and calling out to their friends at other tables.

“Pinch me,” said Jeannette.

“Impressive,” nodded Lorna. But just as she said it, she noticed that a thick layer of dust covered the top of the pillars and two of the banners were crooked, their brass poles bent. The past year when Lorna had been shuffled from foster home to foster home, she had spent every second she could get reading and rereading the Clairmont website. She’d memorized every word and picture. And the dust and bent poles hadn’t been part of them—not the rickety bathroom cubicles either. Clairmont wasn’t exactly the bright and shiny place she’d seen on the website.

The white-haired man who had been up in Matterhorn—Monsieur Brun—flung open the north door of the Hall and the faculty, all dressed in crimson and white scholar’s robes, filed to their places at the head table. Monk, the floppy pink bow switched out for a blue bandana, padded after them and sat commandingly at the end of the table. Miss Hopps, who had scurried over from the Gate House office a little too late, squeezed through the door just as Monsieur Brun was shutting it.

Osythe peeked over Lorna’s shoulder and pushed her pale blonde hair back from her black glasses. “Olwyn—my sister—she’s the Captain of Matterhorn, you know—she told me all about the Tea. See the things on the table in front of them, they show who they are—what they teach.” She pointed to a short stocky woman with wild silver hair at the end. In front of her, a fluorescent-green liquid bubbled in a glass globe above a crucible and flame. “That’s Madame Melchior.”

“Let me guess,” said Lorna, “Official Title: Mad Scientist.”

“Or, witch,” Scylla snorted. “I heard she’s obsessed with the old monks and all their potions.”

“And next to her,” continued Osythe, “is Miss Kapoor with the giant smiling mask because she’s Drama. The woman with the florescent green bow in her hair, that’s Miss Dunn and she’s got a frowning mask because . . . because I don’t know why. She teaches Geography.”

“I guess it’s no mystery who the tiny old woman is,” said Belvie, straightening a pencil she’d stuck in the braids of her ponytail. “The Eiffel Tower’s a sure give away.”

Wait,” Scylla laughed. “Is that a bird cage?”

A giant birdcage in the shape of the Eiffel Tower sat in front of a woman with soft blue-grey hair. Inside the cage, an orange canary flitted and chirped happily. “The woman’s Madame Moreau—Madame Mo—the French teacher,” Lorna said. She’d been her mom’s favorite. “She was the Head before Miss Wallace.”

“And the bird is Debussy,” Osythe added. “Olwyn says he could probably be in the Guinness Book of World Records, Madame Mo’s had him for so long. She’s crazy over him—keeps him with her in class.”

“He is sweet,” said Isha. “Fluffing his feathers like that.”

“And, what about the chic, miserable guy?” asked Scylla.

Sitting next to Madame Mo was a man, whose blonde hair was perfectly styled back from his forehead. A tailored shirt and tie peeked from beneath his robe. He was scowling at the tall gray-haired woman on his other side, whose giant German dictionary was poking into his chest.

“That’s Monsieur LaFleur,” Jeannette said. “The Deputy Headmaster.”

“And art teacher,” Isha added timidly.

“And the Headmistress—where’s she?” asked a stern voice behind them. “She seems to be missing.”

Osythe jumped, accidentally knocking her glasses to the floor. Lorna quickly took in the empty chair at the center of the table—behind a shield bearing Clairmont’s even-armed cross—and was sure Miss Wallace herself was standing behind her. She spun around—but it was Abana, wearing a Matterhorn-blue scholar’s robe, scowling, hands on her hips.

“Was there something unclear about the words: Five O’clock?” But then Olwyn—also wearing a blue robe—joined her, and Abana’s face broke into a wide, toothy smile. “Don’t look so serious. I couldn’t wait either my first time. And anyway, the other Sevens are here now too.”

Lorna barely got a glimpse of a couple of Year Twelves in orange and pink robes leading the Jungfrau and Monte Rosa Sevens before Abana caught her by the elbow and started leading her straight into the Dining Hall. As everyone craned their necks to get a better view, Lorna found the table with Charity and Grace, and trained her eyes on the model of the Abbey. She really did hate people looking at her. One-on-one was no problem. The other person was too busy hiding her own secrets. But if it was one-on-two hundred—like it was then—Lorna kept her eyes straight ahead.

As Lorna and the rest of the Sevens marched in, all the girls in the Hall jumped to their feet, applauding. The professors rose too and clapped just as loudly as the students. From the corner of her eye, Lorna saw four girls at one table stamping out a rhythm and two girls at another balancing on the rungs of their chairs, whistling through their fingers.

Monsieur LaFleur stood, clinking his spoon against his teacup to get everyone’s attention. Lorna slid into the chair next to Jeannette, and the room immediately quieted. Monsieur LaFleur threw his arms wide, still holding the cup and spoon. “Welcome! Welcome back. And to our new girls, welcome to your new home. Tomorrow and the beginning of classes will come soon enough. Today is for catching up with your old golden friends, meeting the new silver ones, and indulging in Chef Louis’ glorious little sandwiches and cakes. And so, with no further ado”—he clinked on his cup as if it were a drumroll—“Let the Tea begin!”

As the room erupted in cheers, Charity played hostess, placing a scone on Lorna’s and Jeannette’s plates. She smoothed her skirt, daintily stirred her tea, and sweetly smiled at Lorna. Lorna could tell Charity wanted her to start the conversation, but all of Charity’s oh-so-polite manners following in the wake of her not oh-so-polite bathroom self had elbowed the will to talk right out of Lorna.

Charity let out a little huff and finally said, “So . . . I guess you’ve heard that Lady Halfrey was Clairmont’s patroness.”

“Clairmont’s crazy patroness,” Grace added.

Lorna rubbed her chin with the back of her hand. Her great-grandmother had been special. Even her mom had said so. “Well—what do you expect? She was a free thinker. A pioneer. She practically invented girl power before anyone even knew what it was.” 

Grace stared. “How do you know so much about her?”

“Because . . .” Lorna glanced at Jeannette. She was the only one Lorna had told about her great-grandmother. Nobody else would guess, because Lady Halfrey had been so certain that a good school was the only thing that counted for girls, she’d given all of her money to Clairmont. She didn’t save any of it for her own daughter. Or her granddaughter. Or Lorna. She had received a scholarship, just like a hundred other girls.

Lorna looked back at Grace. “It’s all there on the website, isn’t it? How’s it go? ‘When everyone else thought girls should learn to boil rice and sweep a room, Lady Agatha Halfrey had a better idea.’” Lorna shrugged. “And anyway, my mom went here. She told me about her.”

“Well, my mother was a Clairmont girl too and just loves this place,” said Charity. “She’s the whole reason I had to come—but my father dug around and told me the real story. You know Lady Halfrey wasn’t nobility, not by birth. She was a gold heiress from South Africa who married Lord Halfrey. She kept bars and bars of gold in the vegetable cellar underneath Halfrey Manor.”

“Filthy rich—new money, in other words,” Grace said, eyeing Lorna. “Still sound like the amazing Lady Halfrey you know?”

By Grace’s tone, Lorna was pretty sure if she said yes, she’d be agreeing that her great-grandmother was a she-devil or ogress, so she chose not to say anything.

Charity lifted her teacup and sipped prettily. “She was exceedingly comfortable and with only one daughter and some distant great-nephew as Lord Halfrey’s heir. I guess she was a liberal or something because when she heard a brainy Oxford grad wanted to start a girls’ school—”

“She’s talking about Miss Eastwood,” Grace said, cutting in.

Charity smiled tightly at her cousin. “Yes, Grace, that’s right—when she heard Miss Eastwood wanted to start a school, she gave her this old Abbey. And then, she remembered she’d bought a chalet at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. She shipped it here for Miss Eastwood to put back together piece by piece.”

“See what I mean,” Grace said, dumping a load of double cream on her scone. “That proves it. Crazy, with a capital C. Who goes to Paris and buys a Swiss chalet?”

Lorna glanced at the ceiling above her. A thick crack ran from one palm-tree column to another. Maybe the ceiling would come crashing down on Grace and she wouldn’t have to listen to her insult her great-grandmother any more. But then, the school would probably close down as a safety hazard. And then, Lorna would be homeless—but that wouldn’t matter since she and Jeannette probably would have been crushed too.

Maybe she should just punch Grace instead.

Lorna felt Jeannette watching her and put a little pastel green cake on Jeannette’s plate so she wouldn’t worry.

Jeannette took a bite and restarted the conversation. “The chalet, that’s the one they’re having the big party for, right? Seventy-five years at Clairmont. It’s beautiful.”

“Mysterious,” added Lorna. “Like something out of a legend with all that black wood and the dragon on top.”

“Well, you’re American, aren’t you,” said Grace. “Y’all love cowboys and barns and that wooden stuff.”

Charity chortled, gurgling into her tea. She quickly checked if anyone at the next table had seen, then dabbed the sides of her mouth with her napkin. “Anyway, Lady Halfrey also gave the school a painting. It’s even more of a joke than the Chalet.”

A painting? Lorna thought she knew every story about Clairmont. But her mom had never mentioned that.

“The story goes—” Grace said, dropping a large dollop of strawberry jam onto her scone, “the story goes that Lady Halfrey had bought a painting by some French artist at the same time the Chalet was being packed up. Since she and Lord Halfrey were leaving Paris to trek around the world for three years”—Grace took an enormous bite of her scone—“Shea shtuffed za p—” A wet piece of scone went flying out of her mouth and—plunk—landed in the bowl of cream. It disappeared from the surface, leaving a red pool floating on top.

“Don’t worry,” Jeannette quickly said, “we weren’t planning on having cream, anyway. Were we, Lorna?”

Lorna dragged back her plate so it no longer touched the cream bowl. “Not now anyway.”

Charity snatched up the cream and stuffed it under Grace’s chair, then smoothed her skirt again and smiled stiffly at her cousin. “What Grace meant to say is: Lady Halfrey put the painting in one of the boxes with the Chalet. But, seeing the pyramids and the Kremlin and the Taj Mahal pushed the painting right out of her head.”

“Shea shonly—” Grace took a gulp of tea, swallowed, and began again. “She only remembered it when she was on her death bed and her nurse read her a story from the newspaper. Some American—”

“A cowboy?” Lorna asked. Grace glared at her. “Just wondering.”

“Some American had paid millions for a painting at an auction—a painting by the artist who had done her painting. She called in her lawyer, changed her will to give the painting to Clairmont, and wrote a letter to Miss Eastwood explaining where to find it.”

“She sealed it,” said Charity, “with her personal mark. Purple wax—so kitsch. And only wanted it sent after she died. A last gift so the school would be taken care of forever—or some stupidity. I mean, didn’t she get that the most important thing in the whole world is who you know.” Her eyes swept over the girls at the other tables, landing on Isha and Belvie. Her lip curled. “At La Violette—”

Jeannette quickly cut in, “What about the letter?”

“The letter?” Grace bent over the table. “It never came.”

Lorna thought about the email her mom had received the day she died. It said someone had seen a letter from Lady Halfrey on Miss Eastwood’s desk. So some kind of letter had come—and the only way anyone would know it was sealed with wax is if someone had seen it. Lorna scowled at Charity. “If the letter never came, how do you know it was sealed with wax? Purple wax?”

“My mom told me. She was here then.”

“Wow,” said Grace, grabbing another scone and a handful of sandwiches. “Aunt Sisilia was here at the time of the letter? You never told me that!”

“Well, she was—same as Lorna’s mom.”

Lorna’s frown deepened. “But it still doesn’t make sense. If the letter didn’t come, how would your mom know about the wax?”

“Are you saying that my mother,” Charity narrowed her eyes, “that my mother is a li—”

Jeannette rushed in again, “Maybe it’s part of the legend. You know, part of what is told from one girl to another. Legends always have part of the truth in them, don’t they?”

“Exactly,” Charity said, shooting a withering glance at Lorna. “And anyway, Lady Halfrey only imagined the painting.”

“She made the whole thing up,” said Grace. “Miss Eastwood had the entire school search for the painting after the lawyer told her it was hidden in the Chalet—made them search a hundred times. And they never found anything. Not a hint of the painting. She was C-R-A-Z-Y, I told you.”

Grace.” There was a sharp edge to Lorna’s voice. “Stop calling my great-gran—” Lorna cut herself off and pressed her lips together.

“Great-gran,” Grace repeated. “Lorna. As in Lorna Miller.” She twisted to face Charity. “Did you know?”

“Know what?”

Grace gawked at Lorna. “The poor last heir of Lady Halfrey. Read all about it in The Telegraph.”

After the accident, there’d been articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, too. Lorna hadn’t read them. But Mrs. Cranch with her little beady eyes had. Don’t expect any special treatment just because you’re the great-granddaughter of some high and mighty English lady. Lorna hadn’t expected any special treatment. Hadn’t even known Clairmont and Lady Halfrey were so famous that her mom’s death would be in the newspaper.

Charity eyed Grace and then took Lorna’s hand in hers and patted it. “You know, Lorna,”—her voice was syrupy sweet—“Grace and I were just joking about Lady Halfrey. But you know that, don’t you? Being one of us.”

Lorna jerked her hand out from between Charity’s. “I heard what you said in the bathroom. And you meant every word about my great-grandmother, so don’t say you didn’t.” She stood and pitched her napkin onto the table. “And I’m not one of you. Whatever that is.”

As Jeannette joined her and they strode past the next table, Abana called, “They’re idiots—just ignore them. Don’t even ask me how they got into Matterhorn.”

“No kidding,” said Jeannette, as they continued toward the door. “The staple gun’s too nice for those two. Duct tape is what they need.” She mimicked plastering tape over her mouth and ripping off the end with a swift twist of her wrist. “What do you think?”

“I think your Universe wouldn’t like that very much,” said Lorna. “And anyway, I’d rather just forget them.” She’d met her ‘mentor.’ She was done.

“You’re right,” nodded Jeannette. “Forgotten. For now. But I’m telling you, if those two don’t behave, I might even have to pull out the blow—”

“Jeannette.” Lorna gave her a sharp look.

“Right—like I was saying—forgotten.”

As they crossed the double doors, Lorna glanced over her shoulder. At the head table, Monsieur LaFleur was gesturing theatrically, telling a joke to a black-haired woman at the center of the table. The Headmistress of Clairmont had finally taken her seat behind the Clairmont shield. But she wasn’t laughing at Monsieur LaFleur’s joke. Her mouth was flattened into a grim line, and her brooding black eyes were staring across the room—straight at Lorna.

Well, Miss Wallace, never stare like that again—practicing smiling in front of a mirror might help—because that night Lorna had a terrible dream. She had just pitched her napkin on Charity and Grace’s table at the Opening Tea, when she spun around—and found the Headmistress of Clairmont waiting for her with an enormous magnifying glass. The Headmistress scowled as she inspected her. “Right there behind the eyes—tainted by bad.” The Headmistress bent closer. “I’ve seen it before. Like a curse. I won’t have her at Clairmont—no—not for another day.” She lowered the magnifying glass, and Mrs. Cranch, her red face stretching into a tight grin, stood in her place.

Lorna bolted—and stumbled to her feet in her and Jeannette’s room.

“All right?” Jeannette whispered.

Lorna backed away from her bed. “Yeah.” The word scraped, it was so tight in her throat. “Yeah, I’m all right.”

In Like a Lion

Caitlin Corless

 

Chapter 1

When Theresa Miller told her mother that she’d almost been kidnapped, the neighborhood went nuts. She told her mom who told the police who told all the moms on our street that a scary man with a spiky purple mohawk, yellow eyes, tattooed arms, piercings, and a gold medallion around his neck had tried to get her into his convertible by offering her candy. She told everyone that she sped away on her roller skates, leaving the scary purple-haired, tattooed, yellow-eyed, jewelry-wearing man in her dust. I spent the rest of that day on our front doorstep, watching as the police and news reporters walked in and out of her house. Our street, normally crazy with kids everywhere, was completely empty and quiet. Every single door was closed up tight. Every door but mine.

Theresa Miller’s story made the Hartford Courant the next morning with the headline “Is Your Child Safe Outside?” and a sketch of what the man would have looked like if he had actually existed. What the headline really should have said is “Theresa Miller is a Liar Who Just Wants Attention,” because there was absolutely no way any of this actually had happened. Not only was the description of the man ridiculous, it was common knowledge that Theresa Miller was the worst roller skater in the neighborhood. She could barely stand up with her skates on, let alone speed away from a convertible driven by a dangerous criminal. Besides, Theresa Miller would never say no to candy. Not in a million years.

But as ridiculous as all of this was and as much as I thought the neighborhood moms were overreacting, I couldn’t help but think it might be nice to have someone call out your name and pull you inside, even on a beautiful, sunny day, just to make sure you were safe from a purple mohawked, yellow-eyed, tattooed man. You know, on the off chance that he exists.

 

Chapter 2

My alarm goes off at least three times before my mom swings open my door, rolls up my blinds, and starts singing my name in her annoyingly high-pitched vibrato, “Jenna girl, rise and shine!”

I get up, because I know it’s the only way to make her stop. Besides, it’s nice to see her happy like this. It’s been awhile.

“Come downstairs!” she says as she dances out of my bedroom and into the hallway. “I’m making waffles!”

I take my time getting ready, put my hair in a ponytail, and slip on jeans and my favorite blue sweater. When I walk into the kitchen my little brother Francis is already sitting at the kitchen table, acting like he’s all grown up and pretending to read the paper when he is probably just reading the comics. My brother recently got glasses and ever since then he’s decided that he’s going to be, as he calls it, “an intellectual.” As if wearing glasses automatically makes you smart. Before three days ago, I didn’t even know he knew what the word “intellectual” means.

The mixing bowl is on the counter and the waffle iron is on the stovetop, but my mother is nowhere to be seen.

“Did Mom already leave?” I ask Francis.

“Yeah, I think so. She left without saying bye.”

“Again? Are you kidding me?” I look out the window to the driveway. Her car is gone.

“Well, I guess we’re having cereal this morning,” I say as I take the waffle iron off the stove and reach up to the cabinet for two bowls and a box of Crunchy O’s. I pour the cereal and then open the refrigerator door only to discover we are out of milk. Perfect.

“I guess we’re actually not having breakfast at all.”

Francis shrugs. “It’s okay. I’m not really hungry anyway.”

“Well, what can I make you for lunch?”

“A cheese and cucumber sandwich and an apple. In a paper bag,” he says as he flips to the next page of the newspaper. Francis decided last week that he has outgrown his Spider- Man lunchbox and peanut butter and jelly. Now that he is an intellectual he prefers more serious things like brown paper bags and cheese and cucumber sandwiches.

“You got it. One cheese and cucumber sandwich coming right up.”

When I finish making our lunches, Francis and I head out the front door and walk down the street to the bus stop. I can see my breath in the air and immediately wish I’d worn a heavier coat instead of my thin windbreaker. As sunny and as warm as it looked outside my window this morning, spring is still a couple of weeks away, and I should know better. This time of year, the New England sun always keeps you guessing. Francis doesn’t seem to mind the cold though and is still reading his newspaper as he walks on the uneven sidewalk.

“Be careful, Francis,” I warn him, but the approaching bus drowns out my voice as it pulls to the curb. Rita the bus driver pulls the lever to open the door, and we climb up the steps.

“Good morning, Sunshines!” she shouts gruffly to us like she shouts to every kid who walks onto her bus. Her friendly words don’t match the sound of her voice, which is scratchy and deep. I’ve been riding her bus for eight years, ever since the first grade, and I still don’t think she knows my name.

I walk to the back of the bus and sit down next to Sarah, my best friend since the third grade. As usual, Francis sits near the front and keeps his eyes straight ahead. He knows that things are different when we step onto the bus. When we’re on the bus or at school, he knows that I’m not the girl who plays Legos or trucks with him at home. He knows that I’m not interested in hanging out with my dorky second grade brother. But the truth is that it’s sort of nice to have him around. I would never tell him this, because then he’d never leave me alone, but I like having him close by. That way I can be sure he’s okay.

Even though I just talked to Sarah yesterday afternoon, she somehow always has plenty to tell me. She starts to talk about what she did last night, but she’s interrupted by the sound of sirens as two police cars pass us on the left. The bus suddenly jerks forward and we come to a complete stop.

“What the?” we hear Rita mutter, her voice filled with the grouchy attitude we know all too well. Rita has been known to scream at any kid who stands up in the aisle or “horses around.” Once she even kicked a kid out and made him walk the rest of the way home. But today the problem isn’t inside this bus. Something is going on out there, and she has no control. It must be driving her crazy.

Sarah stands up, pulls open the bus window, and unsuccessfully tries to stick her head through to see what’s happening.

“I can’t really see anything,” she says, shaking her head. “There’s just a huge line of traffic.”

We’ve hit traffic on the way to school before, but never the kind of traffic that makes us stop completely. I’m dying to know what the holdup is. An accident? Construction? Whatever it is, we’re going to be late, which is fine by me. I have a math quiz first period and I could really use an extra day to study.

Kids are shouting, laughing, pushing each other around, and for the first time ever Rita’s not saying a word. I’m expecting her to get out of her seat any second now and scream for us all to shut up, but she’s gotten quiet and is just sitting there. The only thing scarier than Rita yelling is Rita being completely silent.

All of the windows are open now, and I swear every hair on my body must be sticking straight up. I can’t stop my teeth from chattering.

Blue lights are flashing up ahead, so it’s clear that something really serious has happened. Somebody must be hurt. My mind jumps back to my mom dancing and singing in my room this morning, and I panic. Her office is just down the road. She drove this way this morning.

Francis stands up and turns around, his eyes wide and terrified. “Jenna!” he calls out to me, but he doesn’t have to say another word. I know that he’s thinking the same thing as me.

We start moving again, though still slowly. My heart feels like it’s twisting and I’m thinking I might throw up, so I hold my breath as we get closer and closer to the flashing blue lights. I’m so panicked, I’m not even cold anymore. There is a crowd of police officers and men in orange vests huddled around something. Part of it is wrapped in a tarp and I squint, trying to make out who or what it is. There is blood smeared across the pavement, and I cover my eyes with my hand until I feel Sarah’s elbow against my chest.

“Jenna, look!” she says, her voice high-pitched and excited. I slowly remove my hand from my face, look out, and let out a sound I’m almost certain I’ve never made before. It isn’t my mother; it isn’t a person at all. It looks like Theresa Miller’s cat, the one that’s always loose and roaming around the neighborhood, except it’s huge. It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, this enormous, beautiful creature, so dead yet so perfect. The bus is now entirely quiet and everybody’s sitting like the good little boys and girls we’re supposed to be. Finally someone speaks up, “Well, what the heck is it?”

My brother, the intellectual, is the only one to reply. “A mountain lion,” he says as he stands up and turns around to face everyone. Even from all the way in the back of the bus, I can see that behind his glasses my brother is crying.

 

Chapter 3

The bus is still dead silent as we push up the hill to the entrance of Wakefield Elementary and Middle School. As we slowly turn into the bus drop-off lane, Rita’s snarkiness comes back to life and she shouts at us to stay seated until we come to a complete stop, familiar words that everybody knows but still ignores. As soon as she starts yelling, everything goes back to normal, and by the time the bus door flies open, kids are shouting at each other and pushing their way down the aisle. Francis stays quiet though and keeps his head down as he gets up. A part of me expects him to wait for me outside the bus. A part of me thinks he needs me right now. But since he sits up front, he’s one of the first kids off the bus and by the time my feet hit the pavement, he is already entering the school. His backpack hangs down low, looking huge and heavy against his tiny body. But he walks forward, not even slouching.

Francis’s backpack used to be mine. It’s light purple and kind of ripping apart at the front pocket. Only one of the zippers works—the other won’t budge, no matter how hard you pull. The bag’s even got my initials embroidered across the top, J.E.M., and I wonder for the first time if it bothers Francis that nobody has ever bought him his own backpack, that he is always getting my girl hand-me-downs.

“Jenna, are you even listening to me?” Sarah interrupts.

“Sorry,” I tell her as I turn to face her. Francis is out of sight now. “What were you saying?”

“Oh never mind,” she says as she frowns. “I’ll just see you later, ‘kay?” She smiles and hugs me.

Sarah has started doing this thing where she hugs everybody whenever she says hello or goodbye to them. A lot of the popular girls in school already do this, the girls who wear lots of makeup and talk too loudly about things that nobody really cares about. It can get kind of annoying after awhile. I mean, it’s not like we’re not going to see each other for a long time. I’ll see Sarah again at lunch and neither one of us will have anything important to say. But I don’t tell her any of this. I just hug her right back.

The school halls are quiet, since everybody but the kids on our bus are in class. The school administrative assistant, Mrs. Andersen, calls out to us from behind the main desk, “Head to second period!” They made an announcement this morning and all the teachers know Bus D is running late today.

I’m supposed to go to Language Arts, but I can’t stop thinking about my mom. I should be relieved, but even though I know it wasn’t her in the road, I have this sinking feeling in my stomach that something is wrong. I need to hear her voice.

They don’t usually let you use the phone in the Main Office unless it’s an emergency, and when I go up to the desk and ask Mrs. Andersen, she immediately says no without looking up.

“Please?” I add, and something in the tone of my voice must make her reconsider, because she looks up, pushes the phone over to me and says, “Dial 9 and then the number.”

I pick up the phone, dial nine, and call my mom’s office. It rings three times before she picks up.

“This is Vanessa Marra,” she says in her serious, professional work voice. I hang up without saying a word. I don’t actually want to talk to her. I just want to hear her voice and know that she’s okay.

“Thanks,” I say to Mrs. Andersen as I fake a polite smile.

“Nobody there? Do you want to try calling someone else?”

“No, everything’s fine.”

“Okay,” she says, but I can tell she knows I’m lying.

Just as I’m about to turn around and walk to class, I hear the scraping of tree branches against the window behind Mrs. Andersen. The wind has picked up, and the sun has disappeared into a gray sky. Snowflakes are falling fast, already collecting on the ground. Mrs. Andersen turns to look out the window, too.

“I heard we’re supposed to get about six inches today,” she says as she sighs and shakes her head in disbelief. “I thought for sure that spring was here, but I guess it’s true what they say. March comes in like a lion.”

I nod. “Yeah, I guess so.”

With my backpack slung over my shoulder, I head down the empty hall to Language Arts and try to pretend it’s an ordinary day.

 

Chapter 4

Mrs. Joy hates when kids are late for her class, even when you have a note and a good excuse like a dead mountain lion lying in the road. “I don’t condone tardiness,” I’ve heard her say about a million times. Mrs. Joy always closes the door and locks it as soon as the bell rings so that she can make a big deal of walking over to open the door and embarrass all the “tardy arrivals.” Needless to say, I’m not looking forward to walking into her class today.

When I reach her classroom though, I’m surprised to see the door still propped open. I’m even more surprised to see a stranger standing up front near the blackboard.
The stranger is the opposite of Mrs. Joy in every way. He’s young, tall, good looking. Most alarming of all, he’s smiling. All eyes are on him, and everyone is laughing at something he’s just said. Even though I’ve missed the joke and have no idea what he’s said that’s so funny, I like him right away.

He is wearing a button-down light pink collared shirt. He looks really put together, his khakis are perfectly pressed, and he’s wearing dark brown loafers, the expensive looking kind. It’s strange though – he’s not wearing any socks. Socks are kind of a necessity this time of year, and I can’t help but imagine how cold his feet must be.

“You must be Miss Marra.” He turns to face me with a smile.

I nod.

“I’m Mr. Zawitowski, but you can call me Mr. Z,” he says pointing me towards the only empty desk in the classroom, which is not my assigned seat. Something tells me that Mr. Z is the kind of guy who likes to switch things up.

 

Chapter 5

I wake up on Saturday morning to a loud buzzing sound outside. It’s 6:33, and the Millers across the street have decided it’s a good time to vacuum their garage. The sun is barely up and this is supposed to be my day to sleep in, but I’m completely awake. I guess I’m not the only one bothered by the Miller’s morning chores, because when I walk downstairs to grab a drink of water, my mom is at the kitchen table, drinking her morning coffee and staring out the window. I walk over to the cabinet, grab a glass, and turn the faucet on.

My mom looks up suddenly, and I can tell that I’ve startled her. “Oh, Jenna! You scared me,” she says laughing. “What are you doing up?”

“That stupid vacuum. I couldn’t sleep.”

“Yeah, welcome to the club.”

She pats the seat next to her and I walk over to her, glass of water in my hand.

We sit in awkward silence, and I’m relieved to hear the back door creak open and Francis’s little footsteps walk back inside the house. As usual, Francis has started his day before us and has already been outside enjoying the early morning. I swear that kid never sleeps. I’m guessing he probably watched the sunrise and the birds wake up.

Francis goes “birding” a lot in the mornings. Before this became his hobby, I didn’t know this was an actual term. Birding is just bird watching. I’m not sure why they just don’t call it that. Maybe by calling it “birding,” you can trick people into thinking it’s a sport instead of a thing where you just sit there and look at things.

A few months ago he saved up his cereal box UPC proof of purchase labels and sent away for binoculars. They took forever to get here, and everyday he’d get off the bus and run straight to the mailbox. He waited for weeks for these dumb things and when they finally came they were really small and hollow, and they had a white stretchy string instead of the nice head strap that they showed on the front of the box. They were wrapped in more bubble wrap than was necessary, as if these were priceless gems in danger of being destroyed on their way from the plastic factory to our house. When Francis unwrapped them and saw what they looked like, I expected him to be disappointed. He had waited so long and had saved up seven whole UPC labels to get them, and here they were: small, red, weightless, and most likely useless. But when I looked at Francis’s face, there was no disappointment. There was just pure joy. He put them up to his eyes right away and ran outside. I’d never seen such a big smile.

If Francis had just asked for a pair of binoculars for his birthday, I would have saved up my money and bought him a pair. They would have been a lot nicer. But for some reason he wanted this pair.

This morning he walks into the kitchen all bundled up in his camouflaged jacket with his binoculars hanging off his neck. The stretchy white string looks dangerously close to breaking. He looks surprised to see us at first, but then a smile takes over his face.

“See any cool birds out there, Francis?” I ask.

“Oh yeah, lots of ‘em. I saw four turdus migratorius! That’s another word for robin, in case you didn’t know,” he says very proudly.

“You get smarter and smarter every day. It must be those glasses.”

Francis smiles at me and nods. “Probably.” He shifts his eyes over to our mother. “Mom, did the paper come yet?” he asks.

But my mom doesn’t seem to hear him and is staring out the window again.

“Try the front steps,” I tell him.

He races to the front door and comes back with the paper. He’s already unfolded it and is flipping through the pages.

“What are you looking for?” I ask.

“I want to see if there’s anything about our mountain lion.”

Our mountain lion. He says it like it belongs to us.

He walks over to the table, and I scoot over so that he can sit with me. The headline says what we already know: Mountain Lion Killed on Busy Connecticut Road. I read on.

Officials report this is the first confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in the area since the 19th century. The eastern mountain lion was relentlessly hunted and is now classified as extinct. Department of Environmental Protection officials believe the animal was being kept in captivity and was accidently released. There is also speculation that it traveled from out west.

“They think it was someone’s pet that got loose?” Francis asks, wrinkling his forehead. “Do you think someone really had a pet mountain lion?”

He looks at me like I should have an answer.

“I have no idea, Francis. I can’t really imagine having a mountain lion as a pet, but you never know.”

The Department of Environmental Protection advises Connecticut residents to watch their children and pets and not leave any food outside.

“Geez, maybe birding in the morning is not the best idea, Francis.”

Francis crosses his arms and sighs, the way he always does when he desperately wants to be taken seriously.

“They don’t travel in packs, you know. Mountain lions live all by themselves. And they don’t like to be near people,” he informs me.

“Sheesh, where’d you hear all that?”

“Research, Jenna. Research.”

“Ah, yes. I should have known.” I do my best not to smile.

Francis tilts his head. “If it came from out west, where do you think it was going?”

Again he looks at me like I have all the answers.

“I don’t know, Francis.”

“Maybe it was searching for something,” he suggests.

“Aren’t we all?” my mother finally chimes in, reminding us that she is still here with us. She takes a sip of her coffee and sits back in her chair. Holding her mug with both hands, she continues to stare out the window.

 

Chapter 6

We’re watching some boring nature show that Francis loves when the doorbell rings. Sarah’s at the front door, her bike leaned up against the tree in our front yard. It’s not much of a tree anymore. Last year during a big windstorm, the largest branch, the one we used to hang on, broke off. So now it’s unclimbable, kind of useless but still there, reminding us of how much fun it used to be.

To be honest, Sarah’s not always as much fun as she used to be either. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s the new blonde highlights in her hair or the new stylish wardrobe her cousin from New York helped her pick out. But today, Sarah looks like the old Sarah. Ripped jeans, dirty sneakers, hair in a messy braid. Sarah, my best friend since the third grade.

“Dairy Freeze is open!” she shrieks. “Let’s go!” She doesn’t need to say anything more. I leave the TV to babysit Francis. I grab my bike and helmet from the back porch and hop on, riding through the grass towards the road. Sarah’s already back on the street, pedaling fast. I follow.

Dairy Freeze always opens for the season the first weekend in March and we always go together as soon as it opens. It’s sort of a tradition. Once it opens for the season, Dairy Freeze is always so busy that if you didn’t know any better, you’d think it’s the only place around that serves ice cream. When we get there, there’s already a huge crowd of people. We lean our bikes against the side of the building and get in line.

“Oh no!” Sarah says as she turns around to face me.

“What is it?” My heart skips a beat, imagining that something terrible has happened. “Tell me!”

“Ricky McGill is up there.” I squint and see the one and only Ricky McGill, pushing his way to the front of the line. Pretty typical of Ricky McGill, pushing little kids out of his way. He’s always thought the rules don’t apply to him. With his hemp necklace and blonde streaked hair, you can tell he thinks he’s pretty cool. I’m not fooled.

“Okay, so Ricky McGill’s over there. So what?”

Sarah rolls her eyes and sighs. “I can’t let a guy like him see me like this. I’m such a mess!”

I don’t even know what to say.

“Will you just order something for me while I wait by our bikes?” she whines as she backs away.

“Okay, whatever,” I say, rolling my eyes right back at her. “The usual? Chocolate peanut butter swirl?”
Sarah shakes her head no. “No, just a lemon popsicle, okay? Fewer calories.”

 

Chapter 7

The school gave Mr. Douglass, the cafeteria monitor, a microphone, which was probably the worst idea in the world. Mr. Douglass is loud, big, mean, and frightening, and the microphone just amplifies everything about him. He’s also the music teacher and band director for grades six through eight, so he already knows how to project his voice. He absolutely does not need a microphone. In the fifth grade, Sarah and I both played the clarinet, but we decided to quit when we got to the sixth grade just because we were scared of him. A lot of kids refer to him as the last three letters of his name, which I think is actually pretty funny. No one would ever dare call him that to his face though.

Today, he walks around as usual with his mic as if he is the most important man in the world, as if this microphone is a magic wand that gives him a special power over everyone else. Sarah always says that he thrives on embarrassing kids. He has this cruel confidence about him.

Lunch is twenty minutes long, which in my opinion is not enough time to eat. Now that we’re in the seventh grade, we don’t get recess anymore, and lunch is really our only time to be with our friends, but Mr. Douglass doesn’t seem to care or understand this.

“Settle down,” he demands. “If you don’t quiet down, you don’t get to eat.”

He walks around and points out the tables of kids that he’s decided are worthy of getting in the cafeteria line. Sarah and I and the rest of our table sit perfectly quiet until he points to us.

“You may line up.”

By the time I buy my milk and sit back down at our table, Mr. Douglass has granted permission to talk again.

“So, what do you really think of Ricky McGill?” Sarah asks in her gossipy, high-pitched voice. She motions over to his table. “He’s pretty cute, right?”

I look over at Ricky McGill’s table. “I don’t know, Sarah. He’s not really the nicest guy.”

“But he’s cute, right? Plus, I think he likes me. What do you think?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I never know these things.”

“Speaking of liking someone, check out who’s been looking at you this entire time,” she says elbowing me.

“Who?”

“That new kid. He’s been staring at you all lunch.”

She points to the back corner of the cafeteria, not even trying to be subtle about it. In the corner sits the new kid, though he’s been here for at least two months so he’s not really all that new anymore. He’s reading a book and is definitely not looking at me at all. Sometimes Sarah just makes things up to stir up drama.

The new kid always sits in the corner, and he doesn’t smile or look anyone in the eye. He’s in my Social Studies class, but he keeps his head down and never says anything to anybody. He’s pretty much always reading. Since he’s been here for a couple of months, you’d think he’d have made some friends by now, but I’ve never seen him hanging out with anyone. I know nothing about him other than the fact that his name is Michael. Michael Martin.

When Michael Martin first arrived, I think we all found him very interesting. We don’t get a lot of new kids in our school, so his arrival was kind of exciting. But then he never really did anything—he didn’t smile or laugh or talk—and I guess we all lost interest in him. We left him alone. It seems like that’s what he wanted.

Today he’s surrounded by a bunch of kids who are laughing and yelling, but he just continues to read. It’s almost like he doesn’t hear or see them. And for some reason, I am dying to know what he’s reading.

Lunchtime flies by way too fast, and Mr. Douglass clears his throat into the microphone.

“Social time is over,” he announces.

When the talking doesn’t immediately stop, he adds, “Sounds like we’ll be having five minutes of silent lunch tomorrow.”

A couple of kids groan.

“Make that ten minutes of silent lunch.”

More groans.

“Fifteen minutes of silent lunch.”

A soft yet clear voice speaks up, “Man, just get over yourself…”

Mr. Douglass’s face turns bright red, and the way his eyebrows slant downward is just pure terrifying.

“Who said that? Whoever said that, stand up now.”

No one stands up.

“Well, thanks to the mystery voice, we’ll be sitting alphabetically for the next month. Starting tomorrow, you can say goodbye to eating lunch with your friends.”

 

Chapter 8

The next day at lunch, I cross my fingers hoping that Mr. Douglass will have forgotten all about alphabetical lunches, but it’s no use.

“Take your seats everyone. Find the letter of your last name,” he says, pointing at the signs that are taped to the tables.

I wander a little until I find the table labeled “M.” I am the first M to arrive.

Sarah is all the way across the cafeteria seated next to Nina Chase and Laura Carter. I wave to her and smile, but she is too busy chatting and doesn’t see me.

“Is this seat taken?” a voice asks.

“Nope,” I say as I turn my head. As soon as I see who it is, I regret my answer.

Sitting right next to me is Theresa Miller.

“Looks like we’re lunch buddies!” she says way too loudly as she gives me the world’s tightest hug.

I look down the table and realize it’s even worse than I thought. Next to Theresa Miller is Ricky McGill. He’s drawing in pen on the table, and even though I can’t see what he’s drawing, I’m pretty sure it’s something disgusting.

He looks over at me, chewing his gum loudly even though he’s not supposed to even have gum. “Gina, right?”

“Jenna.” I shake my head in disbelief. There is no way Ricky McGill doesn’t know my name. We were in the same 3rd and 4th grade class.

Mr. Douglass lists off letters and announces into his mic that Table M may push in their chairs and line up.

I walk right by Sarah’s table and get in line behind Ricky McGill. She opens her mouth like she is about to say something, but then she just gives me an odd smile. I can tell it’s killing her that I get to sit with her precious Ricky McGill.

I buy my milk and head back to my table and find that another M has arrived. A double M, in fact. Michael Martin sits in the chair right across from mine. As I take my seat, I try to catch his eye and give him a smile, but he doesn’t even look up from his book to acknowledge that he is somewhere new. I try to peek at what he’s reading, but he’s got the book curled over so I can’t see the cover. A part of me wants to ask what the book is, but I don’t. It looks like he wants to keep it all to himself.

 

Chapter 9

Last night I dreamed of the dead mountain lion, but in my dream he was alive. He was strolling through the neighborhood, holding his head up against the breeze like he belonged there. He was barely twenty feet away and there was nothing in between us, but somehow I wasn’t afraid.

I was sitting on the front steps with Francis and Sarah. Sarah was reading one of her mom’s celebrity fashion magazines, and Francis was reading the newspaper. Neither one of them seemed to notice the mountain lion strolling down the street.

The mountain lion walked past our old climbing tree and through the Miller’s front yard. I could hardly believe my eyes, and when I went to whisper to Sarah, she was gone.

As the mountain lion moved away, I followed him. I yelled out to Francis, “Come with me!” but when I turned around he wasn’t there anymore and the pages of his newspaper were spiraling down the road with the wind.

Across the street, Theresa Miller was sitting on her front doorsteps with her roller skates on. Francis’s plastic binoculars dangled from her neck. As the mountain lion passed her, she lifted the binoculars to her eyes, and her mouth dropped wide open. I knew that she could see him, too. She gave me a strange wave just as the door to her house opened. A hand guided her inside and she effortlessly rolled through the doorway. The door slammed shut.

I spun around, looking up and down our empty, quiet street. Every door was closed up tight. Every door but mine.

The lion stopped, turned, and looked at me like he knew exactly who I was. Then he turned back around and walked farther and farther away until he faded into the sun. Then he was gone, and it was just me. On an empty, quiet street. Alone.


Special Mention, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize, judged by Rebecca Stead

The Bus

Maggie Lehrman

The bus is on fire.

No, wait—before that.

It’s 5 AM and I’m in a panicked scramble for my duffel bag. Wendy, down in the driveway in her dust-colored third-hand Toyota, won’t stop honking even though I specifically told her not to. When I get to the hall my dad stands in the doorway to his room with a shoe in his hand like a weapon.

It’s just Wendy.

He blinks and looks at the shoe. When will you be back?

Monday.

Good luck.

I roll my eyes because I know we’re going to lose and Dad knows we’re going to lose and so I’ve woken us both up at 5 AM on a Saturday so I can go to Denver for no reason, but no one can say no to Owen. Thanks, Dad.

He turns to go back to bed. Tell Wendy not to do that anymore.

Wendy hands me hot coffee in a plastic collectable Big Gulp cup. The Toyota’s weak speakers pump Irish folk music at full volume. We drive to the school parking lot in the dark, but I don’t need to see to know what’s out there. Corn corn soybeans, corn soybeans corn, soybeans corn corn. It smells like fertilizer and wet dirt, even though the air is dry and the sky is so clear I can still see the stars when we get out at Sandhills. We leave Wendy’s car with the other half-dozen familiar vehicles and head to the bus, a rumbling shadow in the corner of the lot.

We climb onboard and ignore Gen Brown, sitting straight-backed and stiffly smiling behind the driver.

Owen, in a seat to himself exactly halfway back, touches my leg as I pass him and I feel the shock straight up, buzzing from knee to lips. I make a plan to wait one hour of the five and a half hour drive before going over to him, because Wendy deserves one hour, and I like the idea of prolonging the wait, letting that buzz build until it’s a force stronger than the gravity that keeps me in the seat next to my best friend.

Wendy and I sit in the very back of the bus.

I’m thinking of going blonde.

You’re an idiot.

Wendy twists her naturally red hair around a finger and scowls. It’s too loud. I need to quiet down.

Then you should dye it mouse-brown like mine.

I said quiet, not invisible.

She laughs her cackle laugh, rough on the ears at six in the morning even after a Big Gulp of her home-brewed prescription-grade coffee, and we sit and talk about nothing and everything.

Exactly an hour passes and I stand. Wendy groans and makes a gagging face.

Give it a rest, Wendy. 

I feel very tall and grown-up because I’m usually never even slightly mean to Wendy but I’m sick of her not being happy for me. So I march over to Owen and immediately forget about Wendy and what her problem is until the bus is on fire.

The bus is on fire.

I don’t turn around to see, but I can see the reflection of the flames in the corners of the lenses of my glasses, even as far as we’ve walked, which feels like forever on the smash-flat plains.

Fire is quiet from this distance. They must add crackle and snap for the movies. It’s almost peaceful, licking little flames reaching out the windows and waving us away. Go. Go farther.

“I’m tired,” Gen Brown says. She is the only one with enough energy to complain. She is the only one still carrying her duffel bag. Everyone else dumped them, and the expensive gear inside, after the first five minutes.

Except for me—I don’t know where my bag is.

No.

I know where it is. But it’s lost anyway.

When the bus flipped I had just moved to sit with Owen, and my bag was in the back with Wendy and the others in the back and there wasn’t enough time for Wendy and the others, let alone my bag.

“Where are we going?” Gen says.

Answering Gen got boring a long time ago.

“Have you checked your cell phone again?” No one answers. “Mine still has no bars.” Another pause. “Can someone else check theirs?”

“Shut up,” someone says, or maybe several someones, or maybe even me.

Gen slows down and wanders toward the center of the road. We’re walking right on it because the high grass in the shoulder tangles in our laces so we have to walk like we’re wearing snow shoes, and the May mud gets stuck in the treads of our sneakers and the slurp-plop, slurp-plop of our steps slows us down.

And it doesn’t matter that we’re in the middle of the road because there hasn’t been a car since we set out an hour ago. If one did come we’d risk getting run over to make it stop, because Owen and Ruby Lagaro are still back there if they aren’t dead yet.

The plains go on forever. At the very edge of the curve of the earth there’s something that may be a building or it may be a funny-shaped rock.

That’s what we’re walking toward, all six of us, me and Genevieve Brown and James Lesh and Victor Rodriguez and Amy Oberst and Bill Priest. Owen and Ruby stayed where we dragged them free from the bus. They’ve got broken bones or worse. I couldn’t look too closely into Owen’s dazed face; his eyes weren’t focusing. I’m supposed to be hopeful, though. Ruby said she’d look after him, but she couldn’t stand.

Everyone else is dead.

The bus is on fire.

We are rolling along past broken rocks and the sun is in our eyes when I’m not closing them to kiss Owen and then there’s a gut-punch and we’re flying, faster than a movie on double fast-forward, up down and down up in a split second before the shuddering, skipping jolt. There’s a shocked pause, an intake of breath, before the flames.

The bus is on fire.

Before that.

Before.

The twelve seniors of Sandhills High, our entire class, stand in front of the low flat school building getting our picture taken for the paper on Friday after school.

No one from Dunning has ever formed a robotics team before, and no one else in all of Nebraska has ever competed in a robotics competition, but that’s Owen: He does what no one else does. So the next day we are going to Denver, five and half hours, because that is the nearest place where we can compete and probably lose, but it’s the competing that matters.

Smart kids, right? The photographer wears dirty flannel and hasn’t shaved in a while. He tells us he usually works weather, chasing storms up and down the plains.

He’s a busy man. We may not have a lot of news here, but we do get a lot of weather. Hurricanes and big solid sheets of rain and baseball-sized hail. Sometimes it even snows in May, though it’s so clear and crisp and cloudless as the man takes our picture I can only imagine that snow would feel like bits of glitter sprinkled onto our skins. We would sparkle in the daylight.

We’re not that smart, Owen says to him. We just wanted to try.

Owen’s going to Brown University in the fall while the rest of us are split between state school and nothing. He’s the type of guy that would’ve been class president and quarterback and valedictorian if he’d gone to a city school, and never would have had time for people like me and Wendy and Gen Brown and the rest of us.

Sometimes I feel like Owen’s I-80 speeding along, and I’m an old exit sign that he studies for a second and can’t quite make out before the road carries him past.

This occurs to me even when Owen has his arm around me, which he does now, during the picture and then after as the weather-chaser carefully takes off the camera’s lenses and places them in a velvet box. The man spends more time gently lowering the lenses than he did taking our picture.

Owen’s arm wraps firmly around my shoulder which means our sides are smooshed up together and I can feel the tensing of his muscles under his shirt. The heat of it shorts out some synapses. I can actually feel them flare up and die in excited little bursts. I wonder if my girl bits smooshed against his chest make him feel any sort of anything toward me. Maybe it’s too much to ask for bursting synapses, but I hope at least for a little glow. It’s hard to tell what Owen thinks because he’s still talking and laughing and reminding us that the bus leaves at 5:30 tomorrow and we better remember our supplies.

I wouldn’t be able to do that, be bossy and together and coherent, not with his arm around me, but then again I wouldn’t be able tell everyone what to do in any situation, not just this one.

You okay? He looks down at me and I don’t know what he sees but what I see is his care and focus and goodness shining brighter than the sky, and I bet when the photographer develops his shots you won’t be able to see anything but Owen, a lens flare in the center of the frame.

Perfect, I say, and I mean it.

He leans down and kisses me near my temple. I hold still, heart beating, afraid if I move my head I’ll break his nose or he’ll change his mind, because I’m not sure what it is that’s making him notice me and hold my shoulders and kiss my forehead. Not knowing means that I can’t grab hold of it which means it could vanish any second, just disappear like vapor.

He lets go of me and that side of my body droops. He nods and half-waves and backs towards his friend Sean who’s just pulled up in his truck. See you tomorrow, he says, looking right at me.

I can keep myself from sprinting after him but I can’t keep the wide smile from my face. See you on the bus.

The bus is on fire.

After another punishing hour of walking, the thing in the distance is only slightly less distant. It’s probably noon, or close to it, judging from the beating of the sun. James goes and lies in the mud on his back. Bill and Victor and Amy sort of slump down onto the ground like their bodies just evaporated out of their clothes.

They sit in a half-circle in the middle of the road. I can’t see the bus behind us anymore, except every time I close my eyes.

“What are you doing?” Gen says. She’s standing in the middle of the road a little bit behind where the others sit. “You’re not stopping?”

No one answers Gen. Amy and Victor have tears on their faces but I can’t see them crying.

Gen turns from one of them to the other, a wide, dazed look on her face. I think she’s going to sit with them and start talking again, about Wendy and Mr. Oliver and Pam Lightman and Kerry Haight and Sean O’Donnell, about how they are in heaven now looking down at us and how we should be happy for them and how God makes buses flip over for a reason. That’s what I expect from her. James screamed in her face and the rest of us ignored her once already, but she’s never taken a hint in her life so why should today be different.

But she doesn’t start in on us about heaven. She just re-hoists her duffel bag over her shoulder. It makes a metal broken noise. She’s gripping the strap white-knuckled, like it’s filled with money or a collapsible car. She steps around Bill and Victor and Amy, carefully, like the mud is still sticking to her shoes, and passes me where I stand.

My legs quiver and I’m pretty sure I’m going to throw up again.

“Someone will come for us,” Bill says. “When we don’t show up in Denver. They’ll figure it out.”

Gen keeps walking, doesn’t turn around to acknowledge him.

Amy says something but I can’t hear her. My mouth is dry and my heart’s beating too fast. I want to pull Bill up from where he dropped to the ground and then push him down again as hard as I can. Cover him with mud until he’s spitting and choking with it. My arms start shaking with the wanting. But I don’t move.

“That’ll be hours,” I say. “Hours from now. That’s when they’ll look for us. Twelve kids from nowhere Nebraska—might even take longer than that.”

Bill doesn’t look at me. “They’ll come for us.”

“Don’t you—” I stop suddenly. I was going to ask, Don’t you care about Owen? But I can’t finish. I’ve got no more air in my lungs and my chest crumples in.

Leaning down with my hands on my knees, I know in my gut that if Owen were here and I were the one by the bus, he would not stop and wait for someone to come. He would not let anyone else stop and wait, either. With him around it wouldn’t occur to anyone that stopping was even an option.

I suck in a breath. If Owen were here instead of me, he’d do everything he could to help me. Not because I’m me. Not because of some tingly special feeling he may or may not ever have had, but because he is Owen and that’s what he does.

But Owen is back at the bus and I’m the one on the road, and I can’t make anyone do anything. I can’t convince a single one of them to keep going.

I turn away from Victor and Amy and Bill and James and look for Gen Brown’s back. She’s going so slowly it only takes a few quick steps for me to reach her. She looks at me with her usual open, blank stare and keeps walking.

I’m not walking for the same reasons Owen would. I’m not brave, or a rescuer, or the only one who can do it. I’m walking because if Owen dies and I didn’t walk as far as I could, I would know that in my heart forever.

It’s already my fault that I’m alive and Wendy’s not. I can’t have Owen be my fault, too.

I walk next to Gen. After a while she unzips a side pouch of her duffel bag, takes out a granola bar, and hands it to me.

It’s right to say thank you. It’s easy. She deserves it. Not just for the food, but because she’s still walking.

I rip open the package and stuff half the bar in my mouth.

I don’t know why I can’t say thank you. The words crash in my head, loud and spinning, but my mouth is stuck shut, teeth clenched.

Gen doesn’t seem to notice. She just keeps walking.

I follow, because we’re moving away from the bus.

The bus is on fire.

But before—days before.

Twenty-seven days until we leave for Denver.

Wendy and I wait for the bell to ring. We’re sitting on the trunk of her car. It’s raining a little bit but not enough to make us go inside. Wendy has her pre-calc book open on her lap and is trying to get me to help her, but I can’t pay attention because Owen just got out of Sean’s truck and he’s walking over to us.

When she looks up and sees him coming over Wendy snaps her book shut. What does he want this time?

Be nice.

I’m always nice. Aren’t I helping with his stupid robots?

They’re not stupid.

They are. And I’m not doing it for him. Maybe I just want to go to Denver for the weekend. 

Yeah, right, I say, laughing, because she can’t be serious. Beautiful, glamorous Denver. City of dreams!

Wendy shoves her book into her backpack and mutters, barely loud enough for me to hear. At least it’s somewhere.

Owen says hi to us both and then just stands there looking at me. The rain drips in little rivers down my glasses, distorting his face.

Okay, well, bye or whatever! Wendy jumps off the trunk of her car. I guess I’ll probably see you later.

I don’t answer her because before I can open my mouth Owen takes her seat next to me. I want to wipe the rain off my glasses but if I take them off I won’t be able to see him and if I can’t see him I can’t tell his expression and if I can’t tell his expression I’m sure to misinterpret something and end my life in agonies of embarrassment.

I don’t think she likes me, Owen says.

Everyone likes you. I say it automatically and then my face burns when I hear it out loud.

Owen looks at me curiously. You like me?

I try to laugh it off, like we’re all pals, of course, hahaha, but my face won’t smile—the muscles have seized up. When I notice I no longer have any idea what my face looks like a terrified jolt runs down my spine.

Owen scoots closer on the trunk and reaches out to hold a strand of my wet hair between his fingers. Because I like you.

I can only sort of half-comprehend that sentence before he leans in and kisses me lightly on the mouth. I have no idea where I am or what’s happening but I’m pretty sure I don’t kiss back and the thought is like an arm being pulled out of its socket—what if, after all this time, after years of wanting him, he thinks I don’t like him because I didn’t kiss him back?

A second later the question vanishes because he smiles, his hand on the back of my neck, and closes his eyes like he’s going to lean back in for another kiss—

but the  bell rings and we jump and shuffle for our bags and go in to class.

It’s all I think about for the rest of the day.

And the next few days.

And a few after that.

Spring blooms into summer, and we board the bus for Denver.

Summer crumbles into fall, and I step through the doors of a three-story stucco house.

Three men in wheelchairs sit motionless in the living room. I pad on wall-to-wall carpets and breathe in disinfectant. Disinfectant and boys’ locker room. Every time I smell it I feel the wrongness of the combination in my bones—young and old, healthy and sick, normal and broken.

On the second floor, halfway down, I knock on the unpainted wooden door but I don’t wait for an answer. Owen sits in a chair, staring out the window, with a book on his lap. If they take away his book he screams, but I’ve never seen him read it. Not yet.

The changes are superficial, and they’re not. They keep his head partially shaved because of a shunt in his neck. The right side of his face slips a little, especially when he’s tired. He snaps at the nurses, now that he can talk. He squeezes my hand, but he doesn’t always recognize me.

I sit on the bed a few feet away from him.

Hi.

He doesn’t turn to look at me.

He raises his right hand to scratch his ear and I almost start crying, because two months ago he couldn’t move his right side at all and now here he is scratching—scratching!—like it’s nothing in the world.

The doctors are right; the nurses aren’t lying because they feel sorry for me. He’s getting better.

The doctors say that patients often make big leaps and they don’t know why. They don’t know a lot. They say he could be here for another six months, or maybe a year, or maybe something crazy happens and he’ll be home in a month.

Or he’ll be here forever. That’s the one option they tend to gloss over.

They really don’t know. It’s shocking, actually, how they have no way of knowing these things. Yet it doesn’t bother me so much anymore. I used to take comfort in things that were known and rules that we followed. But it’s a relief to finally understand how little anyone knows about anything.

I take a deep breath. Owen hears and turns to look at me.

I just wanted to come and let you know I was leaving.

He nods. Where are you going? His words only slur a little.

I’ve told him before but the fact that he doesn’t remember doesn’t rattle me. It could be the injury or it could just be he has other things on his mind. College.

Owen flips through the book on his lap, like the thought of college reminded him it was there. I’m going to Brown.

I know. Not this year. But I don’t say it.

Where are you going?

St. Thomas. In Minneapolis.

He doesn’t say anything to that, probably because he has no idea what it is. I hadn’t heard of it either and picked it somewhat at random from the fliers that came in the mail. Back before, I had applied there as a safety. But I don’t want to stay in Nebraska, and so Minneapolis is as far as I can get, for now.

Good luck, he says. In it I hear a sliver of the old Owen—the one who was generous and encouraging.

You too, Owen. 

When I stand I’m much taller than him in his chair and he looks up at me like a little kid. My heart thumps once just to let me know it’s still there. I lean down and kiss him on the forehead and he submits to it with his eyes closed.

At the door I look back and he’s gazing out the window again, at the freshly-mown field and the cars going by on the highway, two and three at a time.

I don’t ask him to stay in touch. I don’t ask him why he kissed me in the rain in the Sandhills parking lot. I don’t ask him if he thinks about the crash or if he remembers what happened that day. I don’t ask him if he wants me in his room, if I should stay, if he thinks I’m growing up or wimping out.

Asking would be hard, like robotics-level hard, but that’s not why I don’t do it.

I don’t need Owen to tell me the answers to these things.

The bus is on fire.

Somewhere behind us. Hours down the road.

I start walking in the mud because the pavement is too hard, like diamonds cutting up my soles. Even in the softer mud, pain shoots into my left knee with every step.

Gen and I pass the thing that might’ve been a building. It is a boulder. A reddish jagged ledge jutting up out of the new corn.

Gen sort of sighs and I want to ask her what she’s thinking but I’m afraid of the answer and afraid of what my voice might sound like. Besides, I’ve never shown any interest in Gen Brown before today. It feels wrong to want to know what she’s thinking now. Like I’m betraying Wendy.

It’s better to ignore Gen and keep walking, because eventually we’ll reach something or we won’t be able to walk anymore and either of those two outcomes means it’ll be over, and I’m not really sure which one I’d prefer. For all we know the rescue has come already from the other direction, sweeping up Owen and Ruby and the rest of them and taking them even further from us with every step.

I smell the rain first, dung-heavy, blowing into my face thick and tangy. Then some clouds appear off to the left of us. But the sun is shining on my head and shoulders and I lower my eyes so that I can only see grass.

In no time or another hour the grass fades from bright green to dark, beaten gray. I turn and there’s lighting in a bank of what looks like solid black slate, moving toward us.

Gen and I edge closer together and shuffle back into the road and keep walking.

It doesn’t start to rain slowly and then grow into a storm. One second it’s not raining and then the next a hard sheet of water crashes from the sky. I wonder if it’s raining back where Owen and Ruby are and if they can crawl somewhere to wait it out. I wonder if this means the bus isn’t on fire any more.

I’m thinking about Owen’s knocked-around face, his tongue lolling in his mouth, when Gen slips and starts to fall. Without thinking I grab her upper arm and pull her close to me before she goes down. She steadies, and with my arm hugging her upright I can feel her heart beat wildly.

She draws away and I drop my arm self-consciously. The weight of the rain pushes me into a hunch, and I have to look at her from over the top of my glasses, so she’s just a fuzzy, wet form in the eerie day-darkness. From her bag she takes out another granola bar, a plastic water bottle, and an extra sweater, all completely soaked through. Then she winds up and throws the duffel bag as far as she can off the road.

“I never really liked robotics,” she says. Screams, really, to be heard over the pounding of the rain.

We start to walk again. Throwing her bag seems to have given Gen a new burst of energy. If I pretend to be her—imitating her steady walk, or copying the way she holds her hand in front of her eyes—I can keep going, too.

“I don’t think any of us—” I shout back to her, then wait for thunder to pass. “I don’t think any of us liked it except for Owen.”

“Maybe that’s why we weren’t very good.”

She’s right. I’ve always known we weren’t good, but I thought it was because we were all stupid compared to Owen. But it’s not that we’re stupid—we just don’t care. “So why did you decide to join?”

She doesn’t answer right away. I think if it wasn’t raining so hard she would shrug, but it’s too hard to fight against the downward force of the rain. “Everyone was doing it. I didn’t want to be left out.”

I thought of all the times Wendy and I left her out. We were even planning on leaving her out completely in Denver, back when it was the twelve of us on a bus.

Instead it’s me and her in the rain on an empty road.

Welcome to the club.

“So why did you want to go on the trip?” she asks.

“Owen,” I say without thinking.

“That’s it? Just because of a guy?”

“Not a guy. Owen.” I can hardly see her at all, which means it doesn’t feel so odd to laugh, suddenly. “I thought everyone was doing it because of Owen.”

She shakes her head and water swirls around her. “You’re the only one in love with him.”

“Is it that obvious?”

“I saw you on the bus. And it’s all over your face.”

“I thought…” But I don’t know what I thought.

That Owen was my secret? No. I thought that Owen was a secret for all of us. That we shared him, together. He was the one that made us a group. I thought everyone saw it the way I did—even when Wendy told me flat out she didn’t. I hadn’t believed her. Not really. I thought she was jealous or trying to make me mad. I hadn’t thought about Wendy wanting to join up for her own reasons, which might have been different from mine.

Now I don’t know what I think.

We keep walking, soaked through, water getting up our noses and making us cough. I can’t tell if I’m near the road anymore, let alone whether a car is coming. I force myself to stay in step with Gen.

There’s a flash of light and a crash of thunder.

I blink and see in my mind the blackened skeleton of the bus, rain putting out the last flames, and then lightning hitting and igniting what’s left of it. I blink and Owen and Ruby crawl to shelter by a bush, then they flash and burn with lightning that shakes the ground. I blink furiously and try to wipe it all away, but I can’t, not until someone tells me exactly how many bad things can happen all at once until there isn’t any more badness to hand out.

I stumble slightly and Gen takes my arm, just as naturally as I took hers. Except when I’ve steadied myself I don’t pull away and she doesn’t drop me, and we keep walking, side by side, connected, through the rain.

She’s holding my arm and setting the pace, and I know I always hated her but she kept walking when everyone else stopped.

A ball of heat gathers and pulses in my chest and I can’t hold it in.

I start crying again. Small choking sobs coming out of my whole face at once, not my eyes or nose or mouth but all of it including the skin. I can’t see anything anyway, and Gen’s got my arm so I don’t stop walking.

I cry for Owen, the perfect shining person keeping us whole and together, who may have been only perfect in my head.

I cry for Wendy, who I left in a seat by herself to be with him. Who, because of me, died alone.

At first I think Gen won’t notice the tears because of the rain and the noise it makes, but after a few minutes she takes a tighter hold on my arm and leans her head in toward my ear.

“You are bigger than this,” she says.

I have no idea what she means. I doubt she could say anything that would make me stop crying, but even as I’m blinded by tears it occurs to me that maybe the point isn’t to stop crying but to cry and keep going.

So I keep crying, and she keeps holding my arm.

We walk and walk.

Eventually it feels better. Or at least less terrible.

And that’s when the lights of the truck stutter on in the distance, and Gen and I choke on inhaled rain water and then start running, slipping, sliding, muddy, tired, yelling—flying down the road until at last—because of Gen’s shouts I can be sure that it’s not the glasses or my eyes closing or my imagination cracking into pieces—the truck flashes its lights.

We are put in the backseat under a blanket. The road that we’d walked step by step runs invisibly under us as we speed back, past Amy and Victor and James and Bill’s relieved faces, back to where the bus is no longer on fire.

Later.

Months and years but not that long later.

I turn 18 and cry all day because I will always be older than Wendy now and for the rest of my life.

Then I dye my hair blonde as a tribute to her, and I like it so much I wonder if she wasn’t really telling me that I should dye it all along.

Gen Brown writes me an email saying that Owen left the hospice, and then another saying Owen went to Brown. Eventually. He doesn’t email, but I don’t mind. Things are back on track for Owen, and I’m glad. I’m glad he’s happy. I’m glad I had twenty-seven days of him, and I’m glad I saw him start to get better, and I’m glad I can leave it behind. Mostly I’m glad I kept walking.

Gen Brown and I email back and forth. She’s the only one I talk to from Sandhills. When I come back and visit, James and Victor and Amy and Bill can’t quite look me in the eye. Ruby moved to Alaska and no one’s heard from her in a long time. There’s no one else left, and that’s a cold emptiness.

Talking to Gen, writing to her, is not what I expected. She never mentions me and Wendy ignoring her or leaving her out. She doesn’t mention God or heaven or the people at the back of the bus. It’s not a string of a thousand unanswerable questions every hour.

She’s helping her family with the farm. She’s going to move to Omaha to go to veterinary school. She has a boyfriend she met on the internet who lives in Iowa, and when she moves to Omaha he’ll drive out and visit on the weekends.

She wishes Minneapolis weren’t so far. She’s sympathetic when I go on a bad date. She’s happy I picked a major. She hopes she’ll hear from me again soon.

There’s a place in my mind where I keep the bus and Wendy and the Owen I had and the person I was. It’s where the bus is on fire, always. If it were up to me alone I’d push that place away and bury it beneath a vast, rocky field, so it never had to brush up against another memory, ever. Even if that meant burying myself along with it.

Gen builds a bridge from there to here, so I can visit.

But also so I can get out.


Category Winner, Young Adult, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize, judged by Rebecca Stead

Steve

Jaramy Conners

He was waiting there as I finished my jog, just standing on the corner, acting like he was out for a walk or whatever, but I knew he was looking for me.

“Hello,” he said. Steve Wilkes, my across the street neighbor. He had the arms of a ten-year-old girl and a chest like a textbook—not a biology book, either; a thin one, health class, paperback. I couldn’t help but think he probably shouldn’t be outside at this time of day; hair that light, he could burn looking at the photograph of a sunny day.

“Hey,” I said back, too winded to get out a full hello.

“Did you have a good jog?”

“Not bad. Lost track of how many laps I did. Twenty maybe.”

“Wow!” Steve sounded genuinely impressed, not just smile-and-nod impressed like most of my friends at school.

“You run at all?”

“I used to run cross country when I was younger.” I wasn’t surprised. Cross country turns you into a set of human chopsticks.

“Listen,” I said. “I gotta grab a drink and a shower. I’ll catch you around.”

“All right,” he said. “It was good to talk to you.”

“Yeah,” I said, and I headed in for a glass of watered-down lemonade with a pinch of salt.

˜

“Yo, Andrew!” Marc Johnson was waiting beside my locker, probably looking for the answers to our bio homework.

I was walking with Steve, who caught up to me as I was heading to school. He had this slow sort of meander, like he was thinking about the clouds and didn’t really care where he ended up on the ground, so we were running a few minutes late.

“I have to get to homeroom,” Steve said. “Maybe I’ll talk to you later on.”

“Cool,” I said. Apparently I was his new best friend. It was news me to me; we had only talked a few times. But whatever. I wasn’t rushing to recruit Steve for the soccer team, but he was alright. So far as I could tell, he didn’t seem to have an unhappy mode.

Steve wasn’t even out of earshot when Johnson started in. “What’s the deal, dude? You know he’s off, right?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Let’s just say he ain’t playing for the same team as me and you.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Dude! Nobody smiles that much and still’s into chicks.”

“You know how stupid that sounds?” I asked him. Johnson had an opinion on everything and everyone; and his opinions were always wrong. On the other hand, he hadn’t let a ball slip past him into goal all season, and he was the best catcher in the county. “If that’s true, then being straight must be the root cause of depression. Forget Zoloft; just get yourself some man kisses!”

“Hey, there’s a reason they call them gay!” It was the wittiest thing I’d ever heard come out of Johnson’s mouth. He must have heard it somewhere.

˜

“I can’t wait to show you what I got yesterday!”

Steve and I were walking home from school. We’d made a habit of it over the past few weeks. Made sense. He lived across the road. And it was a good break from the usual crowd of jock-brains I was stuck with at school. Steve was in concert choir, drama, and advanced art. Didn’t make him the most popular guy at school—and definitely didn’t help me defend him to guys like Johnson—but it was cool to see the kind of passion he got when he talked about practicing a new song or learning his lines. About the only things Johnson and the rest of my teammates ever got passionate about were breaking their max bench or stealing a Playboy.

“You should definitely join choir next quarter. It will be so much fun!”

Steve had been trying to talk me into joining concert choir ever since I let slip that I used to be in chorus up until halfway through 7th grade when I dropped out because Stacey Wallach told me that real men don’t sing.

Steve’s house was like a museum. Something out of the fifties when moms stayed home, spent all day cleaning, and made sure everything had its rightful place. It would have given my mom nightmares. I didn’t know where to sit, or if I should ask for a coaster before setting a drink down, or if the candy in the candy dishes was actually to eat or just part of the decor—it matched the accent throws. But Steve told me to make myself comfortable, just like I was at home. Yeah, as if I could put my feet up on that coffee table!

“Wait here,” Steve said with that high-pitched inflection he got whenever he was excited about something. “You are going to love this!” He disappeared into the big walk-in closet off the family room and reappeared half a minute later holding a record player. Not one of the new, nostalgic record players either; this was a classic 1970s record player, imitation wood finish, tinted plastic cover, bright silver knobs. “My dad bought me this at an antique store in Albany, along with a bunch of old records. They’re classics.”

He pulled out a stack and handed them to me: Chicago, Jefferson Airplane, Journey.

“Journey?” Sometimes I found myself wondering about Steve. Maybe there was something to what Johnson said about him. I didn’t know anybody who got excited about Chicago or Journey, except maybe a couple of my aunts.

“Just listen.”

I had no choice. My dad wasn’t going to be home for another hour, and there wasn’t any food left at my place. At Steve’s at least I had a bowl of popcorn—hot air popped, real melted butter like we never got at my house—to tide me over until dinner.

The records sounded horrible on that old player, crackly, muffled, skipping. But it didn’t matter. A set of waveguide speakers from Bose couldn’t make Journey sound even close to cool.

“If they actually play Chicago in Chicago,” I told Steve around the time we hit a song I recognized from the oldies station my mom forces me to listen to when I visit every couple of weekends, “I’m never going to Illinois.”

I couldn’t believe they actually called this rock at one time, but Steve was in heaven. He knew the words to every song, and he sang along with a big dopey grin on his face.

“Are you kidding?” he asked, looking as if I’d just suggested LeBron James switch to Tennis. “Fine. Maybe Chicago’s not for you.”

“Or Journey,” I added.

“Okay,” he said as if I’d just taken a sledgehammer to the baby grand in their family room. “But just give this one a try.”

I was debating whether or not I should force his hand from the last record and drag him back to my place so we could listen to some real retro music—a little Nirvana, early Pearl Jam, maybe even some vintage 80s Metallica—when he plunked that needle down onto the Jefferson Airplane album. At first he tried to sing along, but he didn’t actually know the words to any of these songs, and he definitely didn’t have the voice for it. Plus, for the first time in almost an hour, I was actually listening to the record. Somehow that scratchy, old-record quality fit songs like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” This music had a raw intensity that made Chicago and Journey feel like over-produced, American Idol crap.

We listened to the whole album twice and those two songs five times each. By the time I left for dinner, we were even attempting to match Grace Slick’s shrill vocals.

“One pill makes you—” Steve tried, but we both burst out laughing at how off-pitch he was, which was about ten times closer than me.

Back home I even downloaded the album to my Zune, but somehow it wasn’t the same on mp3.

˜

“What is that, from one of them Narnia movies or something,” asked Johnson the next day when I asked if he had ever heard “White Rabbit.”

“It’s about Alice in Wonderland,” I told him. “But it’s definitely not a kid’s song. It’s sixties psychedelic, crazy intense. Gets your adrenaline pumping.”

“Yeah sure,” said Johnson, looking doubtful. “I want my adrenaline pumping, I’ll stick with Korn thanks.”

As we were heading to the field, he asked, “What other fairy music do you and Neil Patrick Harris listen to? He sing you any love songs?”

“Screw you.”

“Can’t,” he said, running off toward the goal. “Wouldn’t want Steve to get jealous!”

˜

Hayden High has two levels of chorus. General chorus, which just about anyone can get into so long as you aren’t completely tone-deaf. And Concert Choir, which requires an extra audition, and only the best get selected. Steve tried helping me practice over Christmas break, but I still wasn’t good enough to make Concert Choir. Steve took it harder than me. I was happy just making chorus. We could hang out during practices, and I still got to perform in the spring. It wasn’t like I had a lot of time anyway; soccer season was over, but I still worked out with the guys after school, and baseball season was starting in a couple of months too.

“Luckily,” said Steve, “everyone sits together in chorus. We’ll be in different sections, since I’m a tenor and you’re a baritone, but they’re right next to each other!”

Thank goodness. The thought of suddenly having to find someone new to sit next to in a room full of unfamiliar chorus types had actually been scaring me half to death. It was one thing to hang out with Steve—he was my neighbor. But what the heck do you talk about with chorus types? Seen any good show tunes lately? How’s that honey tea working out for you? Was Simon way off base last night, or what? My usual break-the-ice-with-jocks line—So how much do you bench?—probably wouldn’t cut it.

“Over here,” Steve said as we entered the chorus room. He led me to the back corner of the classroom, where the handful of other early arrivals were mingling by the piano. “I’ll introduce you to everyone.”

Everyone turned out to be the Concert Choir.

“This is Jamie, he’s a bass. And Kevin, a baritone like you. And this is Claire, she’s in my English class. I think you know Alexxa already. Todd. Oh, and here comes Jeanette.”

As Jeanette strode across the chorus room, her long, red hair flowed seamlessly behind her and tossed from side to side with each step like some kind of music video goddess. Tall, confident, and my new answer to any jock friends who gave me a hard time about joining chorus.

“Steve!” she said, rushing up to him like she hadn’t seen him in years and throwing her arms around him. As Steve hugged her back, something pulled at the inside of my gut, and it wasn’t anger that he hadn’t told me about her. It was something very different. Instinctively I shifted so that I had to support myself against the nearest desk, causing the muscles in my arm to tense up and, I hoped, the vein in my bicep to bulge impressively.

“Is this the famous Andrew?” Jeanette asked. I would have been excited that she knew my name, if she hadn’t added a cheek-kiss to Steve’s hug.

I should have been psyched for Steve. Jeanette was obviously crazy about him. Even saying hi to me, her eyes never left him. And the way she was glowing had nothing to do with the fluorescent lights. But still, I couldn’t help thinking a girl that beautiful should be with a guy a bit more like—well—me.

“Sorry,” I said. I’m not sure why I said it out loud, except that maybe my brain was thinking the added vocalization would help me undo that last thought. It was a stupid thought. Truth was, if I’d been a girl like Jeanette, I would have been all about Steve too. He wasn’t muscular or athletic, and he didn’t have those chiseled facial features you see in underwear ads; but he wasn’t bad looking for a guy, he knew how to treat people right, and he was the kind of guy you could talk to about anything and everything. No doubt in my mind, he would have made a great boyfriend for any girl.

“Sorry for being Andrew?” Jeanette asked, squinting her eyes suspiciously at me. “Or famous?”

I took a slow breath, tucking away the momentary surges of jealousy and guilt. And as I reached out to shake Jeanette’s hand, I felt happy for Steve. If she hadn’t been there, I would have given him a high five.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” I said. “I don’t know what Steve’s been telling you, but I’m not half as cool as him.”

“Interesting,” Jeanette said, taking a good look at me for the first time. Her eyes seemed to fix on my arm, and it took a moment before I remembered I was still flexing my bicep. I tried as casually as possible to shift my position, but it was too late. “A modest jock. I don’t think I’ve met one of those before.”

“What are you guys doing tonight?” Steve asked, oblivious to the fact that his maybe-girlfriend was shooting me death glares.

She and I both shrugged.

“Come over to my house,” Steve said. “Let’s have a movie night!”

“Only if there’s some Jefferson Airplane involved,” I said.

“Oh no!” said Jeanette, but the way she was looking at me changed. Suddenly she wasn’t sure whether to hate me for being the cocky jock trying to infiltrate the protected space of their Concert Choir corner, or pity me the way you do the kid brother on an episode of Intervention. “He didn’t get you hooked on that garbage too?”

“Don’t knock the Airplane,” said Steve. “Or you’re not invited.”

“Whatever! Maybe I don’t want to go.”

˜

She went. So did Kevin, Alexxa, and another girl from Concert Choir named Brianne.  Steve introduced us all to an old movie called Airplane. “It’s a theme night,” he said at the start of the evening, right after we made everyone listen to the one woman in his life he actually told me about—Grace Slick.

Airplane is one of those ridiculous spoof movies, but probably the best spoof movie of all time. I never laughed so hard in my life. I couldn’t even eat my popcorn, because I was afraid I’d spit it all over Steve’s mom’s Oriental rug.  I was laughing so much, I almost missed Jeanette and Steve slipping off upstairs together. I probably would have, if Kevin hadn’t nudged me.

For a split second I felt that same sting of jealousy, but I forced it down, thought about how much wider Steve would smile if Jeanette really kissed him. I pictured Steve grinning like The Joker, and the image left me doubled over laughing again. Or maybe it was something from the movie that made me laugh. I can’t say for sure. But I laughed long and hard, and only stopped laughing when Steve and Jeanette reappeared a few minutes later, not looking even slightly disheveled.

After that, the movie wasn’t as funny.

˜

“What happened?” Kevin and I waited until it was just the three of us left in the car. We were driving in Steve’s dad’s baby-blue Prius, the engine humming along in that way only hybrid cars do—something like the grown-up version of a remote control car.

“Nothing,” said Steve.

“Exactly,” I said. “How could nothing happen? She’s totally into you!”

“It’s not like that,” said Steve. “We’re just friends.”

“Get out!” said Kevin. “How can you be just friends? With Jeanette? On a scale from one to ten, she’s a ten to the tenth power. And she’s completely into you!”

“Seriously, how can you not be into her?” I said. “Unless there’s someone else? Some secret crush?”

Steve didn’t say anything for a minute, but his face turned red.

“I think Soccer Boy nailed it,” said Kevin, slapping his knee. “Stevo’s got himself a serious crush! Who is she? Come on, don’t hold back.”

“It…it’s…” Steve was flustered, redder than the Webster’s dictionary. “It’s no one,” he said.

“Don’t try to get out of—” started Kevin, but we were already pulling into his driveway and his mom was waiting at the front window.

After Kevin got out, Steve and I drove back to his place in silence. I could tell he didn’t want to talk about Jeanette or any secret crush he might have. And, truth be told, I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear about any other girls in his life. I wasn’t jealous—at least, not of the girls. It was just—

“Why didn’t you tell me about Jeanette?” I finally asked as we pulled into his driveway.

Steve didn’t answer. He popped the sunglasses compartment above the rearview mirror, where they kept the garage door opener, and pressed the open button.

As he turned the car off, he asked, “Do you think Jeanette’s pretty?”

The question caught me off guard, but I answered honestly. “She’s beautiful.”

“I thought you might have a thing for her.”

“That’s not why you didn’t—” I said, suddenly feeling unbelievably guilty. “You didn’t pass up a chance to be with her on my account?”

“No,” said Steve honestly. He turned away and reached for door. “She’s just not my type.”

I couldn’t imagine how it was possible for Jeanette not to be any guy’s type, but I said, “So there is someone else?”

Steve nodded.

“Who is she? Come on,” I said. “Look, I’m your best friend. You’re supposed to tell me about stuff like that.”

Steve took a deep breath. “Do you talk to Marc about stuff like that?”

“No,” I said honestly. “Marc Johnson and I play soccer together. I let him cheat off me once in a while so he won’t get kicked off the team. But when it comes to serious conversations—well, that’s why I hang out with you.”

Steve let go of the door handle and turned back to me. There was a serious debate going on inside his head. I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming.

“You have to promise not to tell,” he said.

“Okay.”

“No,” he said, looking straight at me so that I could plainly see that probably for the first time in his life, Steve was not smiling. “I mean, you have to swear.”

“Okay. I swear I won’t tell.”

“I’ve never told anyone,” Steve said.

There was another long silence, just breathing, the rattle of keys as Steve tucked them into his coat pocket, a single bark from the retriever next door. But finally Steve said, “Andrew, I’m gay.”

And at that moment, I realized two things:

  1. For the first time in his life, Johnson was right.
  2. Steve didn’t stand a chance with his crush, because I would never play that side of the field.

Without saying a word, I got out of the car and walked home.

˜

It was a cold night. I should have worn a jacket. The wind whipped down Filmore Street so hard, I was shivering halfway across the road. A part of me felt awful for not responding, but another part of me was freaked the hell out. All that time hanging with Steve, just the two of us. Christ, I even spent the night over at his place a couple of times. Slept in the same room. He’d seen me in just my boxers.

Was he checking me out?

How can you keep something that serious from your best friend?

What kind of friend does that?

˜

I walked to school alone over the next few mornings. Saw Steve in chorus, but we didn’t say anything to each other. I didn’t have anything to say to him. A couple of our friends asked what the deal was; I told them to mind their own business.

I wasn’t sure if I was angry with him for not telling me, frightened because he had or because of the implication, or just confused. I’d never known an openly gay guy before. I didn’t even know what the hell that meant.

So he likes guys. That just seemed so, so—

I tried to imagine some of the guys on my soccer team with their shirts off in the locker room, and it just turned my stomach. How in the hell could anybody be attracted to that when there were girls like Jeanette in the world? Was Steve even really my best friend, or was he just being nice to me because he wanted to—

“It’s a good thing you and your boyfriend finally broke up,” said Johnson at lunch on Wednesday, not for the first time that week. “Me and the guys were starting to think you were turning into a real pansy.”

“Kiss it!” I said, slamming my tray down at my old spot at the jock table.

“Ouch! Someone’s touchy,” said Johnson. “You still pining for your little choir boy?”

“Would you drop that crap already?”

“Maybe if you sang him a love song, he’d take you back.”

My hand shot across the table, grabbed Johnson by the shirt collar, and yanked him forward until his face was less than an inch from mine. All kidding aside, I said, “Drop it now, or I’m going to break your girly little nose on this lunch tray.”

“Okay, okay!” said Johnson, jumping backward the moment I released him. “I’ll stop calling you his boyfriend. But seriously, you know you’re better off without that guy, right? I mean, ol’ Steve’s about as fruity as a bowl of Fruity Pebbles.”

I didn’t even bother picking up my tray, just left it on the table, food untouched, and walked out of the cafeteria.

˜

It wasn’t that Johnson kept calling Steve my boyfriend that bothered me. Or even his saying that Steve was gay. I knew he was just messing around with the one; and he was right about the other. What got to me was the attitude, the loathing in his voice when he accused Steve of being gay, like that was the worst thing anyone could ever be.

I bolted from that cafeteria so fast, I nearly ran over Jeanette. We collided as I rounded the corner into the hall, and she went flying backward.

“Oh my god!” I said, reaching out, grabbing her arm before she lost her balance completely. “I’m so sorry. Really. Very sorry.”

Jeanette collected herself, picked up the bag that had fallen from her shoulder in the collision, and glared at me. “Do you jocks ever watch where you’re going?” she asked. And before I could respond she said, “I thought you might actually be different. But obviously I was wrong. You know, Steve really likes you. I don’t know what happened between the two of you, but friends don’t just walk away from each other.”

“Wait!” I said, but she didn’t stop, and I didn’t know what to say if she did. I wanted to ask how much she knew, if anything. I wanted to ask if I was right, if she liked Steve as more than just a friend. I wanted to ask what she thought about me. I wanted to ask if she thought that guys like me were attractive. And if so, why?

But she was already gone.

I wanted to ask if she would ever laugh at a joke about Steve and me dating, the way Johnson and all my soccer friends did.

What if we had been dating? What if I were gay too? Why wouldn’t I date Steve? Why did Johnson think the idea was so funny?

And why did that question bother me so damn much? What did that say about me?

I skipped all of my afternoon classes. Just sat on my soccer bench in the jock’s locker room, thinking. A couple of guys came in during their gym classes, but I told them I was ditching, and they seemed cool with that, didn’t ask any more questions.

I thought about Steve, me, his big secret, that crap Johnson was saying, and what Jeanette said about friends. And I kept coming back to the same thing: I was wrong the week before to think that Steve would make a great boyfriend for any girl; truth was, he would make a great boyfriend for anyone.

I wasn’t upset with him for being gay; I wasn’t afraid of him. I was mad at myself. A real friend should want to do everything they can to see their friends happy; but there was nothing I could do to make Steve happy. Steve had a crush on me, and I couldn’t help him. Not because the thought of a gay relationship revolted me—I didn’t quite understand it, but maybe if I asked enough questions I’d figure it out—or that I thought there was anything wrong with being gay, or anything else like that. I couldn’t help Steve because in a million years I knew I’d never be able to think of him the way he thought of me.

If I could, I’d be a very lucky guy.

˜

“You and me,” I told Steve that night, standing outside his front door. It was another cold evening, even with my jacket. But I didn’t care. I had to say this. “You know that we can’t—”

“I know,” he said.

“It’s just, I’m not—” I wasn’t sure how much I could say, who else could hear me.

“I know,” he said again.

“And you’re cool with that?”

He looked puzzled. “Are you okay with it?”

“I’m cool with it so long as you’re cool with it.”

“Okay,” he said, revealing a faint hint of that smile he’d been hiding all week. “My dad brought back another box of records over the weekend. There are some Beatles, Rolling Stones, and even a Jefferson Starship.”

“Jefferson Starship?” I followed him to the kitchen, set the bag I was carrying on the counter. “Seriously? How is it?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “It’s awful.”

“Good,” I said, reaching into my bag. “We have better things to listen to. This was supposed to be a birthday gift, but I just thought—”

Steve took one look at the record sleeve for Conspicuous Only in Its Absence by The Great Society, Grace Slick’s original band, and threw his arms around me. For a half a second, I just stood there, not sure what to do. Would it give him the wrong idea if I hugged him back? Was this his way of trying to sway me to the other side?

“Sorry,” I said, but not to him, to me, for even thinking that. The only thing this hug meant was that I’d just gotten my best friend back. And at that moment, he was waiting for confirmation that he’d gotten his best friend back too. I didn’t hesitate again. I hugged him back and it didn’t mean anything more than that.

As we settled in to appreciate the one woman we could both agree on, I asked, “Jeanette really hates jocks, huh? You think she could ever get past that?”

“No,” Steve answered honestly. “But you’re not a jock. You just play sports.”

I could have corrected him, but I didn’t want to.

“So Marc Johnson really hates guys like me, huh?” Steve asked a few minutes later, a sly grin on his face. “You think he could ever get past that?”

“If anyone could convince a guy to switch teams, it’s you,” I said, and I couldn’t remember ever speaking more truthfully. “But I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

 


This story really fleshes out each of the characters and an interesting personal conflict as well as setting up a surprising last line that resonates long after the story is over.
—Holly Black, 2010 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge


Crazy Cat

Liz Cook

I fly. Here in the white air I am not Catherine George, invisible sister of Invincible Ivan, champion skier.  I am not Dear Catie, accommodating daughter with yet another weekend alone. And, I am not Klutsy Kate, fifteen-year-old ditz who totally bombed her first real kiss. Up here in the air, I am Cat, Crazy Cat, daredevil dame of the mountain, red hot chillin’ explosion of white air.

My board lands on the snow and ice, and even then I am flying, land-flying, speeding down the slope, skidding to a halt, spraying a white fountain of powder on the three boarders waiting below.

Dougie! Dougie! as we call him, always with exclamations, always his name twice, gives me the snowboarder’s hug, somewhat celebration, mostly tackle, landing us both on the hard-packed snow.

“Awesome!” he yells too close to my ear. “That was so sick!”

“You’re a freakin’ idiot!” I yell back, socking him in the arm and pushing him off.  A natural acrobat, he bounces his board back onto the snow, grinning. Evidently, not too disturbed by last night. I still blush just being around him. Dougie is your typical snow surfer dude with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a smile that will make a sucker of any girl. I should know.

One of Dougie’s friends, the girl, helps me to my feet. I just met her before the last run. Her hair is covered by a knitted hat, but with her goggles now on top of her head, I can see her eyes. Black Asian eyes.

Dougie puts one arm around her and the other around me. “You girls have a lot in common. Sophomores, queens of the snow.” He squeezes our heads together so they almost touch. “My fun girls.”

At that, the other girl untangles her head from his grip. Dougie keeps his arm around my shoulder for a few too many seconds, while I’m wondering what kind of fun he means. He releases me abruptly, then pushes off towards the lift.

“Last one’s a skier’s footstool,” Dougie calls. Whatever that means. He tries to come up with a new insult each run. He takes off for the J-bar lift, his friend Joe-Joe, skating after him.

The girl and I look at each other for a moment. I can feel her wondering the same things about me as I am about her. But she looks like someone who knows how to kiss.

She jerks her head towards the J-bar lift, and we shuffle up in line, pushing our snowboards with one foot. “That was a pretty good run,” she says.

“Pretty good? I owned the air.”

“Yeah. I can do better.”

Despite myself, I like this girl. “What’s your name again?”

“Michelle.”

“Michelle.” I won’t forget it this time. I put out my gloved hand. “You’re on.”

She smiles, like she shows everything and reveals nothing. She gives my glove a hard tap with hers, and she has instantly become my archrival and my best friend for the day.

Dougie and Joe-Joe are three spaces ahead in line. Their heads bounce around like their bodies can’t hold in all the excitement. They don’t look back. When conditions are this good, it’s all about snow.

I take the lift first, Michelle follows.

The lift gives me too much time to think. It slows everything down. I’m impatient to get to the run where you don’t think, you just do—you speed, you flip, you glide through the air. I want to live through the jumps, but my mind goes to that kiss. I feel that jolt of anxiety again. How my mouth clamped shut, my tongue felt dry. His lips mashing against mine. I bet Michelle’s lips don’t clamp shut.

At the top of the hill, I look down to see the boys going over the first jump. Dougie! Dougie! does a straight jump rising in the air, seeing how far he can go. I can’t even see him when he lands. Joe-Joe does a cool 360, but lands off balance, and finally bails into the side snowbank.

Michelle skates up next to me, the mid-morning sun glinting in her eyes, and motions for me to go down first. The snowboarders’ run is still fresh, well groomed with different size jumps and landings.

I push off, bend down to gather speed, head straight for the jump. There is that moment, when your board is gathering speed, when you can almost feel the jump as you approach. Then you hit the jump, bend your knees and spring. Flying, I twist my legs sideways, grab the back of the board, my other hand raised in the air, and phwoof, I land in a perfect glide. The boys are gone, Dougie doesn’t even glance back. But when I look to the top of the hill, Michelle is pumping her fists in the air.

Her turn. I glide to the side so I can see her whole run. She gathers so much speed, its crazy-scary and when she lifts, I can hear her slice the air. She does my same trick, twist, grab, other hand punching the air, but she adds a 180, landing backwards, and another 180 on the snow. She glides up to me all teeth and sparkle. I can see how this is going.

“You go first this time,” I say.

She laughs and races me to the lift. We take turns, all morning, each run trying to outdo each other, each jump pressing our limits a little more.

I am a star. I am awesome. I am the Unidentified Flying Athlete, a rocket, a streak of light. I do 180s and wheelies, I go fakie, sliding backwards, then turn around to gain speed for the jump. I go over the jump with flips and twists. I make the board do scissors and crazy-eights. I even do a cartwheel, though that isn’t intentional and I end up with a bruised eye.

But Michelle. She is awesome too. She’s smaller than me, she’s like this bundle of speed, her spins are like high velocity turbines. When she flips she’s a compact ball wound tight like yarn. She crouches so low her butt almost touches the board, her front leg straight out. In the air she grabs the board in the front, in the back, or crosses over for twists and turns. She is pure art, that Michelle. I wonder if she’ll crash.

Her last run she does a cartwheel through the air. But she lands on her feet.  She finishes by swooping around me. “Hey, Dude. How’s the eye?”

“Dude, you just worry about how I’m going to smoke you on the next run.”

She takes off her goggles and hat, to let off some of the heat. Her long black hair gleams in all the whiteness that surrounds her. She smiles, her eyes mischievous. Beautiful. I am not beautiful. I’m not bad, but I’m not glowingly, stunningly, off the charts beautiful like Michelle. Skiers usually glower at snowboarders as they pass by, but they smile at Michelle. One skier even crashes, tripping over his own skis. No skier ever tripped because of me.

Dougie! Dougie! slides up, with Joe-Joe close behind. I’d forgotten about the boys. Dougie puts his arm around Michelle’s shoulder. “Isn’t she the awesomest?”

Yeah, the awesomest. He used to say that about me. Dougie doesn’t seem so much like two exclamation points anymore.

Michelle must have seen the look in my eyes. “Hey, Crazy Cat.” She already knows how to soften my edge. “How about a race?”

“Yeah, let’s go!” Dougie shouts.

“I wasn’t talking to you.” Michelle is looking straight at me.

“Harsh.” Dougie pretends to look dejected, then pats his buddy on the shoulder.  “Okay. Winner gets the afternoon with me. Runner-up gets my pal Joe-Joe here.” Joe-Joe’s smiling at me. He’s got a big forehead and unfocused eyes like he’s done a few too many drugs or banged his head against the wall a few too many times. I can’t remember if I’ve ever heard him speak.

Dougie puts his arm around his buddy. “I don’t mind sharing my little adventures.” My. Little. Adventures.

He puts his arm around me and squeezes my shoulder a little too roughly. “We’ll see you girls at the lodge at oh-one-hundred hours.” He means thirteen hundred hours but no one corrects him. Dougie puts out his fist. Joe-Joe puts his fist on top. They wait for Michelle and me to seal the pact.

Michelle unbinds her back boot and skates away towards the chairlift. I feel the boys’ fists waiting there, but my eyes are pulled to Michelle’s retreating jacket. Aqua blue with white zig-zag stripes that seem to always move. I push off after her.

“We know we’ll see you, Cate,” Dougie calls. I look back at him. He adds, with extra enthusiasm, “Little Catie!”

I catch up to Michelle. She smiles when she sees me.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“All the way to the top.”

“Skiers in the way.”

“The mountain’s emptying out for lunch.” I look around. She’s right. The lines are thinning, the slopes less crowded. “We’ll be careful.” She laughs. Careful. Right.

We slide up quickly to the front of the line. The chair lift swoops around and scoops us up, and we’re on our way. The ride to the top is long. I suddenly feel shy, but Michelle talks enough for both of us. I don’t hear everything she says.

At the top, we’ll face the Black Diamond expert slope. I’m not as used to racing as doing tricks. But it will only be a short run before it turns into a blue intermediate slope. I am not going to win this race. Michelle is faster. Dougie is counting on that. Joe-Joe is creepy weird. After the run, I’ll just skate to the lodge and call Nana to come get me.

My is such a possessive word, don’t you think?” I hear Michelle say.

I come back to the chair lift. We are nearing the top. “Huh?”

“Like Dougie owns you. Us, I mean.”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been anybody’s anything.”

“You want that?” she asks. I look down at my gloves, moving my fingers inside to keep them warm. She laughs.

My. Little. Adventure.

We put on our hats and goggles, and Michelle opens the bar. “Want to jump?” she asks.

It’s a good fifteen-foot drop. “We’ll get kicked off the mountain.”

“Yeah.” She has that glint again. I am tempted. But there are patches of grass right under the lift, and ice on either side of it. We are too close to the landing anyway. “Next time,” she says.

We glide off the chair lift at the landing and push up our goggles to look down the mountain.

“Shhhh—oot,” I say. If it were powder, it would be no problem. But the black diamond slope is pure ice. And the noon sun is blinding in its reflection. No one is on the slope. Moments like these end up as newspaper headlines. Ivan George’s Fifteen-year-old Sister Kills Self While Stupidly Trying to Race Hot-Shot Girl Down Slope of Death in Stupid Race She Was Never Ever Going to Win in First Place.

I can’t concentrate on the hill. I can only think how I’m fifteen and I’ve never really kissed a boy, except for that lip mashing with Dougie that felt more like a bruise than a kiss.

I don’t feel like Crazy Cat anymore.

Michelle looks hesitant, too. Not a good sign.

We stand there for a while, just looking. It’s not a long hill. If we can just get down to the next level, then it would be easy from there.

“There’s no way to go but down,” she finally says, and puts her goggles over her eyes.

I watch her cut a long track sideways across the ice, too fast. Somehow she manages to stop at the edge. I don’t think I have a choice, so I follow. The whole run is too fast and out of control. The board doesn’t turn easily, so it gathers speed, cutting more down than across. I’m going to bail, I’m going to crash, it’s going to happen at some point, there is no grip underneath me, there’s a tree, and somehow my fear finds a way to turn. The board is pulling underneath me. If I crouch to get more control I will speed up, if I straighten the board will slip and I’ll tumble-slide down the hill. I’m going crazy-fast, crazy-fast, how did I get myself into this, God, I’ll be good, I’ll be good, I’ll hug my mother, I’ll call my father, I didn’t mean to yell, ahhhh, a tree a tree, move board, move, thank you God, I’ll be good, I promise, thank you God.

We zoom into the intermediate section, no time to gain control. We’re going to get kicked off the mountain for sure, speeding too fast with other skiers around now, not many, but a few. Less icy, but crazy moguls all over the place. One bump leading to the other, bending my knees to soften the blows, I can’t make wide turns because I would crash on the next mogul or the next skier. Barely in control, fast and furious turns around the moguls straight in front. I am going too fast the speed still speeding up, until somehow I make it to the bottom of the intermediate slope. I stop with a huge heart-pounding plume of snow beside Michelle who is waiting for me.

“Awesome! That was so sick!”

“You are one freakin’ crazy chick,” I say.

Michelle puts her goggles on and tears down the hill, a bunny slope after that Mountain of Death. The race is on. I take off after her. This slope is perfect. Lower on the mountain it is mostly powder, with just enough icy patches to give your heart a little jolt every once in a while. You can gather speed without completely losing control. I am three seconds behind her, no way to catch up. She bends all the way down, aiming the board straight down the hill. Man, that girl can pick up speed faster than anyone I know. I concentrate on the back of her head, on her jacket flapping in the wind. The tinted yellow of my goggles gives the mountain a muted old-picture look, distant and unreal. It makes me feel safe.

Michelle turns backwards into a fakie, her bug eye goggles looking at me, standing straighter to intentionally slow down. She points behind me. I do a fakie, too, and there up the slope, I see Dougie’s yellow jacket and Joe-Joe’s luminescent green one, flapping with the speed of their chase.

I turn around. Michelle has already taken off. I crouch down to speed up. I love that laughing thrill. Run, run, run. Escape. Survive. Don’t get caught. Run, run, run, run.

I crouch down, but I can’t make myself as small and fast as Michelle. I don’t look back, but I can feel Dougie and Joe-Joe descending upon me. Then it hits me. I don’t want to get caught. I don’t want to feel Dougie’s hands grab me. I crouch down farther, press my head into the wind. I am not anybody’s anything. I am not little. I am my own freakin’ adventure. Cat. Crazy Cat. Red hot chillin’ explosion of white air.

I see Michelle’s aqua blue jacket. Somehow I am catching up to her.

She turns her board into the woods. My board follows her without waiting for my brain to think. There is a bumpy tire grid along the edge of the woods. Churned up snow, just to keep people like us from veering off the groomed slope. I follow her, my board vibrating under me. I manage to right myself as I enter the woods, but I never quite regain my balance as I steer between the trees. Wouldn’t it be stupid to survive the Mountain of Death and to escape the snow-boys only to die here in the woods of a bunny slope? A quiet whoa, whoa whispering through my breath, I head straight for the biggest tree. I kick up my board, raise my hands so I don’t break a wrist, crash onto my back, and I sink into the powdery snow.

I am covered in snow for ages, but through the sea of white, I can hear Michelle’s laughter. “Are you all right?”

I push myself up on my elbows, and she grabs my arm to help me sit up.

I shake my head at her, but I laugh too. That is the difference between being alive and not. You can laugh. “You are one crazy chick,” I say again.

“It’s all about living in the moment.” She’s kneeling beside me in the snow. She has taken off her bindings. She looks towards the slope, where we can see the skiers through the trees. “We lost them.”

“Yeah.” I shake the snow off and squeeze my arms and legs. Nothing hurt, nothing broken. Not this time. “You’re either going to kill me or cause me a lot of damage.”

“Yeah.” She takes off her gloves and touches the bruise on my eye. Her hand moves down to my cheek. “You got a little scratch here.”

She runs her fingers from the scratch down to my mouth. She runs them across my lips. Every part of my skin tingles, and my mouth opens slightly. “Do you want to see how much damage I can do?”

I don’t answer, just look into her black eyes. She leans over and barely brushes my lips with hers. It is the softest, sweetest kiss, barely there and yet so much more than anything I could have imagined. Her kiss is so light it goes through my skin into my blood, entering my body like that sweet excitement that is Michelle. She smells like fresh snow and ice, she tastes like cold air that has been warmed, her touch, her lips, are like the lightness of soaring through the air. My body is trembling under her kiss.

She pulls away slowly, her fingertips lingering on my cheek. I have nothing to say. She stands up, holding out her hand. “Come on.” That smile. “We’re not done yet.”  She tilts her head towards me with that gesture, Are you coming?

I take her hand and she pulls me up.

“Let’s do it again.”

I wonder which part she means.

Once out of the woods, Michelle stops short. Dougie and Joe-Joe are standing there, Dougie’s eyes a steely blue, Joe-Joe’s mouth hanging open.

“She just kissed you!” Dougie is looking at me, his face twisted in disgust, an anger in his eyes that makes me catch my breath.

Then my heart stops pounding. I pull Michelle towards me and kiss her. On the slope. For everyone to see. A passing skier trips over his skis.

Joe-Joe bobs his head up and down. “Cool.”

“That’s sick!” Dougie shouts. He looks around the mountain, like he’s being seen.

“Yeah!” I shout to the world, raising my arms in the air. “That’s so sick!”

I push Michelle forward and follow her down the slope. I turn into a fakie, looking backward. Dougie and Joe-Joe are stock still, then Joe-Joe pumps his fist into the air. I turn my board back around. Cat. I am Crazy Cat.

Gathering speed, I catch up to Michelle. We fly. No longer racing each other, but racing together, crisscrossing, carving our paths, speeding headlong down the hill to whatever lies at the bottom.


First Place Winner of the 2009 Katherine Paterson Prize, judged by Katherine Paterson

Tornado

Susan Hill Long

An excerpt

Chapter 1

It was June, the middle of the day I was supposed to quit being a boy.

We were all of us sitting in rows watching Miss Pipe chalk out a problem on the board, a problem I wasn’t going to bother with. Normally I would, but not today, not now.

Someone had made a colored-paper pinwheel on a yellow number two pencil and it was making its way around the room and now it came to me.

The day was still and warm and bright. The windows all opened out onto the redbuds standing on the edges of the dry playground, and there was no breeze to catch the paper corners. I breathed in, and because of this day being the end of things, on purpose I took in the smell of the redbud, and the dusty hot smell of packed dirt, and the lead of the pencil, and also a whiff of something different, maybe some rain on the way, as if I’d never smell those things again, or if I did, they’d be changed somehow. And then I let the air out, slowly, measuring the flow of it. The pinwheel began to spin freely, the paper anchored to the pencil eraser with a silver straight pin.

I took another breath and blew again. The pinwheel made a sound, soft like bird wings flapping, and the deep color went from purple to lavender with the speed of the whirling. My breath turned the thing from dark to light, almost transparent, like something seen through water.

Then I heard the small sound of someone standing beside me. I looked away from the slowing pinwheel and into the face of Miss Pipe, framed like a picture in the window, her and her clean white dress. I couldn’t see her face. She was dark against the bright window, but I could see she held papers against her dress in one hand. The other hand she reached out to me as if to say, “come along,” or, I don’t know, maybe, “stay put.” My heart took a little jump under my shirt buttons.

“Yes, Miss Pipe?” I asked.

She stepped closer to my desk and when she did she moved out of the window frame. Now sunlight showed her face. A small line gathered between her eyes, and her mouth went up at the corners in something like a smile, but thinner and sadder.

“The toy, Clemson,” she said. “I’ll have to take it.”

I noticed I was holding the pinwheel up in front of my face like a hand mirror. I set the pinwheel on Miss Pipe’s hand.

“Thank you,” she said. She looked at the pinwheel and her mouth opened as if she was going to say something else. Then her hand closed around the number two pencil and she closed her lips around that thin smile, and she looked at me and nodded and tucked the pinwheel in her pocket. Then she handed back my paper and she went on down the row.

I looked down at my paper. Two hundred fifty words on the topic “I believe…” was the assignment. Across the top margin there stood an “A” and one comment in Miss Pipe’s firm lettering: “Good Luck.”

“Clemson Harding, because this is your last day, I’ve chosen you to read your paper aloud.”

Oh, Jesus Pete. I stood and walked to the front of the room, clutching the paper in my hand. I could feel everybody looking at me, but when I turned to face the class I saw in fact that half of them were staring out the window, and that made me feel more easy. I gripped the sides of my paper in front of me like a shield and I began to read out loud.

“I am awake but I don’t know it yet.” I glanced up over the top of my paper at Miss Pipe, then down again. “I hear the tang-tang-tang of the woodhen knocking on the chimney cap and the rattle of beak on tin snaps my eyelids up like roller shades, and I’m out of bed and out of the house and I’m feeling the damp on my skin and I’m feeling the sun hot red on my eyelids, and the small gritty bits of earth under the soles of my bare feet don’t trouble me at all. I run flying toward the creek in the woods. I run there so typical I wear out a path in the ground getting to the water. In the trees, now, I run slower, lightly, because the ground is springy with fallen things and growing things. I’m dodging trees and panting like a dog, which is something I believe I want more than anything in the world. I get to the creek and I drop to my knees in the spongy place along the bank and I lower my head and reach my two hands into the creek, cupping water. I see myself, but the running water is nothing like a mirror. I can’t make my face out to be anything more than a white shadow. Now I splash creek water on my face and it’s so cold and sharp it almost hurts. It takes my breath clean away.”

I glanced up again and my little sister Esther was looking right at me. I dropped my eyes to finish.

“I believe that a person should get up as early as possible, especially in summer. I believe a person should be wide awake.”

Two hundred fifty words exactly, including the woodhen knocking, if anybody wanted to count. I hurried back to my seat and people clapped because that is what we do when some poor kid has to get up and read in front of everybody like that.

And that was how it ended, my last day of school. Everybody clapping as if I’d done something special or I’d won first prize. But I hadn’t done anything, except what I was told. And where I was headed there wasn’t any prize. I knew all along some day I’d have to go, follow in Pap’s footsteps, but still, in my daydreams I was someone else altogether, someone out in the world, out to discover things. New things, interesting things, things like what you read about.

Now I packed up my pencils and my papers and my windbreaker and Esther and I walked right out the door as easy as if it didn’t mean a thing. I guess I half-thought someone would stop me.

I walked by Miss Pipe and she put her arm out straight in front of her. I took her hand and shook it once, up and down, like I’d been taught, and then let go.

“I hope you’ll stop by and visit when you can,” said my teacher. Her voice sounded dry in her throat. She squinted into the sun behind me, and then shaded her eyes with her hand.

I looked at her, almost directly into her face, I’d got that tall, and I nodded. “I will.”

I folded my essay paper longwise and I played with the hard crease of it, tapping the fold against the knuckle of my thumb in slow beats. I stood and watched Mickey and Junie and the other kids scatter the way we all do after school. Tomorrow, Mickey and Junie and the rest—Esther, too, if she was up to it—and Miss Pipe and one of her clean, pale dresses, they’d all be back here again. Not me.

Leadanna, Missouri, is a Company town. Most of the men and some of their boys work in the St. James Lead Company mines. They wake up before the sun, and step into an elevator that takes them down into the ground, five hundred feet or more into the mine. They put on their cap lamps, and that burning carbide is their weak light all day long. I shouldn’t say “them” and “they;” I should say “we.” I was about to become a miner, too, now I’d graduated the eighth grade. Not graduated so much as left.

The insides of my eyelids began to smart. I rubbed one eye with the back of my hand, and then I crushed my paper into a ball, packed it good and hard, and pitched it away into the bushes at the edge of the school yard. The ruffling of the hawthorn leaves scared up a pair of robins and they flew away.

“Come on, Ettie,” I said to my sister. We turned and walked away down First Street toward home. At one end of town was the Charles A. Snow school, and at the other end was the St. James Lead Company’s American B mine, and in between, First Street, Second Street, and Third all struggled to stay in neat lines as they rolled up and over the ridges of limestone buried in great shelves below. The residential streets were lined with one-story houses, each with one or two front steps and a saggy porch and bare or peeling or painted clapboard siding, all the same and Company owned. And then closer to the mine on Main Street huddled a little gathering of businesses: Miller’s Store and The Tunnel Tavern, and Travers’ All Day Breakfast. I could see the giant chat dump looming over the other edge of town, and beyond that squatted the lead mine where at this time of day Pap was still on his shift, and where Grampy had worked till the miners’ consumption made him sick enough he couldn’t go down anymore.

I stopped and stared at the chat dump. It looked so solid, permanent, as honest a mountain as old Taum Sauk. But it was really just grains of sand, piled there by miners like Pap turning the earth inside out. One good puff of God could blow it all away.

“You okay?” Esther asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“Liar,” said my sister.

She laughed and grabbed my hand in her small ones. At first I curled my fingers under so she couldn’t see, then I fanned them out. I knew she wanted to count the white spots on my fingernails and see how many lies I told.

She counted under her breath while I held my hand still. “Six!” she said. She dropped my hand and counted on her own fingers. “A gift, a ghost, a friend, a foe, a letter to come.” That was five fingers, one hand. Then the thumb on the other hand, stuck up skyward as if to say “okay!” She looked up at me. “A journey to go. That’s for six,” she said. “Your fortune.”

I nodded. Fair enough. “Okay, Ettie,” I said. “Let’s go.”

Tomorrow I would celebrate my birthday. I know to the minute what time I was born because Ma remembers those moments, those things that might be taken for signs. She used to watch and see I didn’t smile in my sleep, a bad sign I might be talking to the angels.

My birthday, June 2, 1924. I would turn thirteen years old at exactly eleven in the morning, and I would be completely in the dark.

Chapter 2

The morning was cool and the air felt clammy on my skin. A chilling breeze swept fingers of mist around our legs, as Pap and I came up over the rise and down into town past Miller’s.

“Best part of the day, right here, Clemson,” Pap said.

Mouth full of biscuit, I didn’t trouble myself to answer.

“Our folks have lived in the Southern Missouri Ozarks a hundred year or more,” Pap said. His voice faded and drifted off, like the mist in the hollows. He swept a hand back over his shoulder and then pointed ahead of us, and my mind followed, running along the whole of the Lead Belt, a swath from Fredericksburg to Bonne Terre.

“Oh, I know it might not seem like much, heading down for a long day of it like we are,” he said, his voice warming again. “But I tell you what, Clemson—we’re part of it. Part of the land, part of the Ozark Mountains themselves.”

I swallowed a dry gulp of biscuit. I wished I’d had time for a longer breakfast, something strong and salty. A plate of bacon might have screwed up my courage a little tighter. “I’d rather be part of Wappapello Lake, fishing for crappie.”

Pap chuckled.

“Or part of the woods, climbing a redbud. Or part of my own backyard, playing fetch with the dog I don’t have,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” Pap said. “Soon you won’t feel the dark so much. Your cap lamp will be your best friend.”

I kicked a stone down the street ahead of me. “A dog would make a better one.”

Pap sighed. I’d talked about my wanting a dog before. Once or twice.

Beyond Travers’ All Day Breakfast, the chat dump rose up like the hump of a ridgy-back beast, making the buildings look small.

“It rivals the ancient somber peaks that hem it in and give it birth,” I said.

Pap looked at me like I’d said something French. I shrugged. “I read it in a poem one time,” I said. “About the chat dump.” I looked up at the housing for chat transport running like a scar up the steep slope, and dumping rail car loads of rocky debris even at this hour.

“Poetry,” Pap said, and he nodded like he knew all about that poem already, and plenty others besides.

We followed the road around the great mountain of the chat pile, and when I saw the rolling mill, the powder shack, the office, the head frame, any poetical thought went straight out of my head. It was everything exactly the same as I’d seen a hundred times before, but it all looked different. Dirtier and older and scarier.

I took a few deep breaths and studied the ordered windows of the mill. I counted windows while we walked on, to steady myself. The twenty-first window was broken, I noticed, and that little careless hole in the glass gave me an uneasy, churny feeling, cold, down in the pit of my stomach.

About fifty men stood around the head frame, waiting to go down, all dressed in drab clothes, but clean, all with caps—mostly soft felt fedora types, some hard hats like mine—each one fitted with a carbide miner’s lamp.

A man I knew called Mr. Sawyer hailed us.

“So, I see we got a new recruit!” he called. He squinted watery eyes at me. “You afeared, young Clemson?”

“Nope,” I said, fast and loud.

“Well, you ought to be,” said Mr. Sawyer.

Pap started to walk away, leaving me with the lunch pails and Old Saw.

I called out to him. “Pap?”

“You’ll be all right while I go check us in with the Shift Boss,” he said, and he disappeared into the office.

The moment the door swung shut behind Pap, Old Saw leaned forward eagerly. Stringy gray hair hung around his white, sickly-looking face. His cheeks sunk in where he was missing some teeth. A whiff of his breath made me figure what teeth remained must be rotting in his head.

Sawyer scratched the sandpapery gray stubble that lined his jaw and looked me up and down. “Boy, I got some stories that’ll liketa curl your hair!”

I had been afraid of Old Saw all my life—that witchy hair, those awful sunken cheeks, those grubby, yellowed fingernails, the whiny voice. I didn’t want to hear any of his stories. But Pap had told me to stay put.

“Bout four years ago, a rough colleague of mine called Charley Underwood died a horrible death,” Sawyer began. I glanced around to see if anybody might be going to rescue me, but nobody did.

“Charley used to ride the shaft cage whenever it was called to the different levels of the mine. He took me and a bunch of boys on the crew down to begin our shift, and we’d only gone a little ways from the shaft when we heard something. We ran back, and do you know what we saw there? Why, it’s a sight I’ll not soon forgit.”

I shook my head slowly, sure I didn’t want to know, but just as sure he was going to tell me.

“It was Charley Underwood’s ruin of a body. Fell two hundred feet down the shaft to his death. I’ll spare you the rest.” He smacked his lips, as if holding back the gory details gave him as much of a charge as telling would have.

Old Saw sat back and slapped his thighs. “What do you think of that? Give you a case of the heebie-jeebies, don’t it?” he cackled.

“Yessir,” I mumbled.

Pap came over just then. “Come on,” he said. “Lead Man says we’re all set.”

Old Saw stood up. “We’ll talk more later,” he said. He pointed at me with a bony finger and shuffled away.

We walked over to the elevator cage. The head frame that operated the elevator loomed over us like a gallows. I felt sick. I didn’t want to set foot inside that cage. But I went, and I felt almost as if I wasn’t really the one taking the steps that moved my feet, like I was only watching someone who looked like me. Eighteen or twenty of us pressed in the cage and the shaft operator closed the door. The elevator jerked once, then began to sink. I turned my face up to the roof of the cage, and through the metalwork grille I watched the square of daylight shrink smaller and smaller and then disappear. I clutched my cap to my chest and I choked out a word, just one small whisper of prayer: God.

Then the cage dropped with a screech that made me wince. I thought maybe I could let out the scream I felt bubbling inside and nobody would hear. But I kept it in. I only heard it in my ears. God.

Now the men fired their cap lamps. I watched their faces change in the new, false light. Their eyes disappeared in shadow, cheek and jaw bones jutted out. Pap gave me a nudge, and so I hurried to set the cap on my head, and I reached up and struck the wheel with the palm of my hand, making the sparks that fired the flame. The little wheel scraped my hand. I wondered if the soft pads of skin would harden and toughen, if I’d be numb to it one day.

And then the cage lurched and stopped, and the operator threw the door open. The men poured out the cage, and I moved with them. Somebody elbowed me in the rib.

“Hey! Clem!”

It was Otto Pickens, a skinny, freckly boy I used to know from school. He was still freckly, but he sure wasn’t skinny any more. He looked like a man, and him only one year older than me.

“I heard you was coming,” Otto said. At first I thought he said he’d heard me screaming, and it took me a second to understand. I didn’t want to seem scared in front of Otto. He shuffled out the cage, rolling his big shoulders, and I got moving, too. At school I was better at my numbers and my letters than him. But look at Otto, now, the easy way he held his pick, eyes calm and blue as fair weather. Numbers and letters don’t matter in the deep dark. Muscle and stone-cold nerves matter, and he had them plenty, like a man. Looking at him, I wished I was strong, too, and not scared. To know I’d make Pap proud. I felt myself staring, and so I glanced up beyond Otto’s wide shoulders. I thought I could see the tiny speck of light way up there where the shaft met daylight. But I squinted my eyes to see better, and saw it wasn’t anything.

I lowered my eyes, cleared my throat. “How you been?” I asked Otto.

“Good. Pretty good. You had about enough of school, too, then.” His voice was full of knowing.

I looked away and then back at him. I nodded slowly. “I guess.”

He smiled, small. “Enough of the sun, and playing ball, too, I reckon.”

I stared at him. Maybe not all of a man, yet, then. Or anyway, a man still new at it, and with memories of being still a boy like me.

“Let’s go, boys,” Pap called.

Otto smiled. He rapped on my hard miner’s cap and I ducked my head.

“You heard him,” Otto said. “Let’s move on.”

We all climbed into waiting rail cars, and then the locomotive began to move, ferrying the crew along the adit tunnel.

The locomotive passed by a couple of men hugging the side of the tunnel.

“Those are the roofmen,” he said to me. “They’ve finished checking for loose back.”

“Otherwise, a chunk might fall and liketa crush a man!” said Old Saw. He licked his lips with a quick dart of his tongue, like a lizard.

We had to duck our heads at a few spots, or else get a crack from a support timber running crosswise. Then the car stopped and some of us got out. The men all seemed to know what to do, and where to go. I didn’t know anything, so I followed Pap. The area we were to work was high enough to stand up in, and wide enough for five men, with rock columns left at regular enough intervals so the roof wouldn’t collapse and bury us. The mine smelled like a hole in the ground, like dirt, until most of the men lit their cigarettes and then I fairly choked on billows of smoke. And more horrible, it wasn’t long before I began to gag on the stink of pee. Old foul piss. My stomach heaved and then I was grateful for the smoke, which was at least better. The air in the tunnel felt cool on my skin, but I was sweating like a pig. And the noise! Explosions, hammering, the thock of fifty shovels, the muttering of the men and all their other bodily utterings, the clanking sound of rail cars moving constantly along the track, all this noise but you couldn’t hear anything. Frightful and also familiar, in the way a nightmare can seem familiar. There was nothing about the mine that would ever change my first impression: It was a busy little hell straight out of the Bible. I stood there and felt like I might burst into flames.

“Let’s get to work, then,” Pap said to me. And we began to muck ore. We shoveled the heavy rock and ore into containers that got put in the underground rail cars, to be hauled away and later crushed and milled and the lead extracted. That was it.

I shoveled and shoveled and shoveled. At one point I wondered about what Miss Pipe might be writing on the board, and who might be sitting at my desk by Mickey. Mickey’d been kind of jealous of me leaving school and going to work. I think he half-wished he was different. His father sold automobiles at a dealership up in Bonne Terre. Mickey could stay in school and go on and be a big shot, too. Most boys got to stay in school. But we had Ettie’s doctor bills, and Grampy off the job, and like Pap said, I was able, even though I was having my doubts about that.

My hand stung all of a sudden, and I saw I’d been working so hard I’d worn a hole in my glove and another one in my skin. I took the glove off and inspected the wound. It was bright red and shining. I blew on it and it burned like fire, but I felt an odd satisfaction about that raw blister.

My stomach growled and I thought it must be about time to break for lunch and so I asked Pap what time it was.

He drove his shovel in the ore and stood and pushed his cap on his head to look at his wristwatch. He nodded once and set his cap right before answering me. “Eight-thirty,” he said.

Eight thirty! Only one hour and a half had passed. It wasn’t even close to lunch time. Lunch time was three and a half hours away. I kept working. I don’t know how long.

“Now here’s a boy who makes a good miner,” Pap said after a while, giving Otto a clap on the back. Otto had three full drums lined up in the time it took me to fill one half of one drum. My cheeks burned hot. I turned my face away and my lamp lit up the earthen wall hot as shame. I thought I’d been doing okay. I thought I’d been doing so great I’d earned a hole in my hand and a rumble in my stomach. But I hadn’t been doing okay at all.

“It’s all right, son,” Pap said, looking in my bin. “You’ll catch on and you’ll naturally get stronger as you go.”

I went back to mucking. Another long while ticked by, and I struggled with my enemy the shovel, and still the work dragged on. I wanted to get away from Pap, and from Otto the Man. They weren’t looking, and I snuck away, not far, just a little ways down into the tunnel we’d come in on. Just a hundred feet or so. I leaned against the tunnel wall and I closed my eyes and I took several deep breaths. It had to be close to lunch. A break, some food. Ma likely packed me something special on my first day, and my birthday at that. Lousy birthday.

I ran my fingers over the hard shell of my miner’s cap, brushed off the dirt. Pap had given it to me first thing this morning as a birthday present. It had looked too big, and I doubted it would fit, but I put it on, and it fit okay. Pap was grinning at me, satisfied, and Grampy was shaking his head, and Ma was dabbing at her eyes, and I had felt proud and sick with dread, all at the same time.

When I was little, younger than Esther, I tried on Grampy’s cap. It was so big it was like sticking my head inside a cave. I’d said something out loud inside the shell of it, something jokey, and my own voice sounded funny, unfamiliar and muffled, as if I’d been swallowed up whole by the cap, or the cap had by a sour magic turned me into someone else. But, “Look at my little man,” Pa had said, sounding proud. And then I’d swaggered around all over the house wearing that cap and I’d felt big.

Now I slid my back down the wall and let my knees fold, and I sat there like a little kid. I wondered how long I could hide. Pap would notice I was gone, I’d better get back. I didn’t want to go back. With a quick movement, I reached up and put my light out.

I sat there. I opened my mouth and my eyes very wide. The darkness was as thick as wool, like a felted blanket pulled over me, pressing over my face, folding into my eye sockets, wrapping down over my nose and mouth and I could scarcely breathe. My heart was pounding and I knew the dark was not filling my ear holes because I could plainly hear my blood rush and pound, and the pounding, too, of the men shoveling and the rail car pounding on the track in another dark tunnel somewhere close. I took great gulping breaths of woolen air. It was as frightening as any nightmare I’ve ever had.

I shot my hand up and hit my palm against the wheel to quick fire the lamp— hiding in the dark had been a bad idea, a stupid baby idea—and I knocked the cap off the side of my head and I heard it thud and skitter. I scrambled on all fours like a mole till my hands found the cap, and then I stood, breathing hard, one hand holding the wall of the tunnel. I held the cap under the other arm, and now, turned this way, I could see lightness where Pap and the other men were working, and I went toward it. I stumbled out of the tunnel with the confusing, sickly feeling of waking from a bad dream. I saw the figures of the men hunched over their shovels like trolls, and nobody even looked up.

I fired my lamp and went over to where Pap was working.

“What time is it?” I asked him.

He set his shovel aside to look at his watch. “Goin’ on eleven,” he said. He pushed his cap back so the lantern wouldn’t shine in my eyes. He smiled, teeth white in his dirty face. “How you likin’ it so far?”

I couldn’t think of a single good thing to say about this horrible place. I was still breathing hard from my little game in the pitch black. “I miss the sun,” I said, stupidly. My voice came out high and thin, like Esther’s. Because there’s missing the sun on account it’s gone behind a cloud, and then there’s missing the sun on account you’ve been buried alive.

“You get used to it,” Pap said. Old Saw opened his mouth, a gash in those greasy, sunken cheeks, and he laughed.

I made up my mind that very morning at eleven o’clock: there was no way on God’s earth I was going to end up a miner.


Winner in the Middle Grade Category in the 2009 Katherine Paterson Prize, judged by Katherine Paterson

No Mistake

Tricia Springstubb

Winter was almost over, but deep in the woods where old Jess lived, the nights still grew cold.

One evening, as the sun slipped through the trees’ fingers, she gathered twigs for her fire.  Tying them into a bundle, Jess thought she heard someone sigh, or maybe groan.

“Hello?” she called.  “Who’s out here with me on this bitter night?”

But no one answered.

Just the wind, Jess told herself, feeling sad.  How lonesome these long winter nights could be!

Her snug little house breathed upon her glasses, fogging them up, so she laid them on the mantle, and set to building a cheerful fire.

But, what was that sound?  The very same groan! Or was it a growl?

Old Jess squinted over her shoulder.  In her doorway crouched a large, shivering dog.

“Sweetheart!” she cried.  “Come in, come in! Are you lost?  A crackling fire will warm you right up.”

In hurried the poor creature.  He sniffed and snuffed and at last settled down in a corner.  Glad of company, she threw an extra log on her fire, and bustled about preparing toast with honey, and a bit of sausage she’d been saving.

“Are you warm yet, sweetheart?” she asked.  No sooner did she set the food down than the animal began to gobble it up.

It was then that Jess reached for her glasses, and settled them on her nose.  It was then that she discovered who her guest truly was.

(Art Note: Here Jess and the “dog”, who is actually a bear, come face to face.)

Jess’s old heart tumbled inside her.  A frightened scream caught in her throat.

Oh, she thought.  I have made a mistake! A dreadful, most serious mistake!

With trembling hand, she reached for the heavy poker hanging beside her fire.

But now, from somewhere inside the young bear, came another sound.  Not a sigh, or a groan, or a growl, but unmistakably a sound of pleasure.  He had been cold, and now he was warm.  He had been hungry, and now he was fed.  Swiping another piece of toast and honey, he gave Jess what she was sure was a smile.

When I took him for a dog, I was happy to help him, she told herself.  Why not treat a bear with the same kindness?

And so Jess toasted the rest of her loaf, and the bear ate every crumb.  By then his dark eyes had begun to droop, so Jess got her extra quilt and tucked it around him.  With the beast snoring beside the fire, she slipped into her own bed.

Now, a supper of toast and tea will only satisfy the belly of a growing bear for so long.  A few hours later, when the moon had slipped behind the trees, and the night was at its darkest, the bear woke up.

Hungry.

With clumsy paws, he tugged open Jess’s cupboards, only to find he’d already eaten every bite of food she had.

With a sound that might have been a groan, or maybe a growl, the bear made his way to Jess’s room.  Standing over her bed, he watched her sleep.  He licked his lips.  His stomach rumbled.

Oh, was he hungry.

Jess woke and rubbed her eyes.  Without her glasses, she made yet another serious mistake.

Poor thing, she thought. Just look at him.  He’s as lonesome as I am.

“Sweetheart!” she cried. “Would you like me to sing you a lullaby?”

Old Jess sat up.

“Here’s one my mother sang me,” she said.

For a scrawny woman, her voice was surprisingly full and sweet.  It made the bear remember his own mother, who’d once brought him honey to eat, and always kept him safe through the deep, dark night.  His empty heart grew full.  His aching hunger eased. Jess sang on, enjoying herself.  Before he knew it, the bear was curled up, fast asleep.

“Good night, sweetheart,” whispered Jess.

Outside, the trees danced in the wind, and the forest shook off the last of winter’s bitterness. Early the next morning, when Jess woke up, the sun shone down with new warmth.

But the bear—the bear was gone.  Old Jess was sad, though not surprised.

After all, she thought, a bear is not a dog.  He was never meant to live in a house.

But oh, still, she missed him.

Yet that very day, as if the bear had packed up the mean-spirited winter and taken it with him, the first green shoots stole up from the ground.  Within days, the trees put on shiny new leaves, and wore blossoms dainty as earrings.

Early one morning, as the birds sang the songs their mothers had taught them, Jess discovered a rough piece of bark left on her doorstep. Bending to look, she found that it cradled the year’s first, wild strawberries.

What’s this? she wondered.  Someone worked hard to gather these, then forgot them.  What a dreadful mistake!

A few of the heart-shaped fruit were squished, as if by a clumsy paw.  Unable to resist, Jess put one in her mouth. The sweetness went all through her, as if she’d swallowed a song.

And then she knew.  She knew.

Old Jess ate the delicious red berries slowly, one by one.

“Thank you,” she called, when she finished.  “Thank you, sweetheart.”

No one answered.  But still, Jess smiled.

For this kindness was no mistake.

As no kindness ever is.


Winner in the Picture Book/Writing for Younger Children Category in the 2009 Katherine Paterson Prize, judged by Katherine Paterson

Beasty Things

Carrie Jones

The snow fell hard that night. It fell hard and fast and quiet as if it were trying to hide not just everything that was happening, but everything that could be about to happen. It didn’t need to bother. Except for James Hephaistion Alexander and a few others, nobody was awake to notice what was going on.

The little village of Mount Desert was mostly still this particular cold December evening. No cars zipped through the tiny mountain range that surrounded most of the town. No tourists motored along Route 1, craning their necks out of the windows of their sport utility vehicles to gaze at the dark and heavy ocean waves that crashed into the granite rocks and cliffs. Even the local police station positioned at the bottom of the town office building was quiet and motionless. Officer Frost, the only policeman on duty, hung out in the squad room trying to get warm. His eyes were glued to his computer screen where he’d uploaded various music videos about partying in the USA.

In the center of town, shops waited for winter’s end so that they could open again. Mount Desert was a town with a split personality. In the summer, it was full of wealthy people from away, people from places like Connecticut and New York, people with last names that were on libraries and museums. In the winter those people went back to their real homes, leaving a town of 1,000 or so lobstermen, teachers, artists, and scientists who worked at Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor. The shops were boarded up except for Gut’s, the tiny grocery, and First National, the bank. This night those boards over the windows stayed up as if the stores were hiding behind them, afraid of what might happen in the dark.

And it was dark. Very. Despite the snow.

Though it was hours past his official bedtime, James Alexander crept on his hands and knees across the icy floorboards to his bedroom window, making sure to avoid all the creaky places. His grandmother had been stomping around downstairs. James refused to think about her because thinking about her made him shudder all the way down to the middle of his bones. It was her teeth, maybe, and the way they seemed five sizes too large for her wide mouth. Or maybe it was just her voice and how she cackled and barked more like an angry dog than like a person. Or maybe… No, he would not think of her.

Instead of thinking, James pressed his small nose against the icy windowpane and wished: Make her go away. Please, please, please make her go away. As he stared down at the snowy lawn, his breath came out in a quick, excited gasp and fogged up the window. He wiped a circle clean so he could see better. It turned out he didn’t need to worry about his grandmother hearing him sneaking around the bedroom. She wasn’t in the house at all anymore. Instead, she stood out on the side lawn. The wind whipped at her thin gray hair, yanking it up in straggly strands. She wore no shoes, but waited in the snow barefooted. James had never seen her naked feet before. She always kept them inside these hideous pink running shoes that were so large he thought they must be super-sized. Now, he could understand why she always wore them. She was trying to hide her huge and misshapen toes.

“Why isn’t she wearing shoes?” he murmured, but instantly realized that a better question might have been why she was outside at all, standing naked-footed in the icy snow. He shivered just thinking about it, or maybe he was shivering from the cold in his room. She had duct-taped the radiators shut because she thought heat made boys weak.

She began stomping, which Jamie knew from personal experience was never a good sign. She seemed to be saying something even though she was alone. Against his better judgment, Jamie leaned an ear against the window. The cold snapped at him, sending icy shivers of pain through his skin. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite hear what his grandmother was mumbling, but he could hear something else . . . the deadly stomping of heavy things coming closer. He pulled away. His pulse pushed hard and fast against his skin as his grandmother began clapping her hands the way people do when telling dogs to hurry.

Jamie stayed silent as he watched, silent even as fear froze his fingers against the windowpane.

Twenty large, ugly creatures with bulbous noses emerged from the woods at the edge of the yard. They each stood about seven feet tall. They thundered across the property directly towards his grandmother. James almost shouted out a warning, but something inside him, some tiny little nugget of common sense, stopped him.

His grandmother waved the creatures along. They rushed toward her, green-skinned, and so much larger than regular people. Their ears stuck out from their bulbous heads and their hands—James shuddered—their hands were as large as tigers’ paws with thick fingers that looked as if they could smash rocks.

They weren’t people at all, he realized, forgetting to breathe. They were monsters.

His grandmother jumped up and down in her excitement. The creatures caught up to her, and for a moment James couldn’t find her among all the greenish gray skin. Then he saw her at the end of the line, taller than normal, her skin tinted both greener and grayer. Her ears and nose had broadened out, but it was her. He recognized the hideous orange-flowered housecoat and her cackling laugh as she ran off with the rest of the beasty things into the dark night, gone.

The Tall Grass

Jennifer Wolf Kam

It was the kind of morning when the sun hung weary in the sky and the grown-ups, surrendering to its incessant rays, baked and blistered in lawn chairs, cooling themselves with fat pitchers of Aunt Vera’s lemonade. Even the birds were plain tuckered, sticking to the leafy parts of the trees, their morning songs dulled by the swelling heat.

“’Tain’t no place for a child,” Aunt Vera said to Mama, heaving her large, lumpy self off of a stringy, frayed chair. Jessie Jean stood with Mama on the lawn of the small green farmhouse in the way out back corner of Threadgill Depot, at the other end of the state. She squeezed Mama’s hand.

“I got my work,” said Aunt Vera, “got to cook, clean house, take care of all them kin who planted themselves like weeds in my garden. Can’t take care of no child, too.”

“Ain’t no one else, Aunt Vera,” said Mama, shaking her head. “You know there ain’t.”

Aunt Vera looked at Jessie Jean, her thick face a maze of lines and sagging skin, her gray hair going every which way to avoid her bun. Everything about Aunt Vera was gray—even her small, round eyes.

Jessie Jean stood up straight. If she made herself taller, maybe Aunt Vera would forget how young she was, forget she might be any trouble at all. Jessie Jean had heard Mama loud and clear. There wasn’t no one else but Aunt Vera.

Aunt Vera turned back to Mama. “What about the tall grass?” Her gray eyes narrowed, her voice plunking the words like acorns caught in the wind. She looked out the window. In the distance, maybe a hundred paces, was a field of tall, spindly grass growing out from the earth on Aunt Vera’s land. “It’s still there, you know. Don’t never go away.”

“I know it.” Mama’s nose twitched the way it always did when she was nervous. She kneeled down in front of Jessie Jean and put her thin hands on Jessie Jean’s face. Her eyes were wide open. “See that patch of tall grass out yonder, Jessie Jean? You stay away from it, understand?”

“Yes, Mama.” She tried to smile back, but her lips just wouldn’t budge.

“I mean it, Jessie Jean. You stay away.” Mama placed a warm, bony hand on Jessie Jean’s cheek. “Jessie Jean’s a good girl, ain’t you, darlin’?”

Jessie Jean curled into Mama, her eyes stinging like they’d been soaped. Mama smelled of dime storetoilet water and cigarettes. She hugged Jessie Jean for a long time, squeezing the peas out of her. Then she moved back and held onto Jessie Jean’s face.

“I’ll be back for you soon as I can, darlin’,” she said, smoothing out Jessie Jean’s bangs. “Soon as I can.” Mama stood up and pushed some of her own thick hair behind her ears. Then she turned on her worn heels, leaving Jessie Jean and Aunt Vera alone on the faded brown lawn.

Jessie Jean wanted to watch Mama go, wanted her eyes to soak up every last detail of Mama, so that even if they were closed, she’d still see Mama’s willowy shape behind her eyelids. But she kept her head down so Aunt Vera wouldn’t notice that Jessie Jean’s eyes were filling up with something else entirely.

Aunt Vera turned her gray-spectacled eyes down on Jessie Jean. “You’ll be all right here. Just mind you stay out of the tall grass.”

“Why, Aunt Vera? You got snakes?” Mama was always telling Jessie Jean not to ask so many questions, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Ours is not to ask why,” said Aunt Vera. “Just mind you stay out of that grass. I catch you near it, I’ll get the switch. That clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Jessie Jean rubbed her bottom.

“Hmph,” said Aunt Vera. She patted Jessie Jean on the head like she was patting a field dog and went off to her chores.

Jessie Jean looked out across the field. “What is it about the tall grass?” she said to herself. “Looks like plain old grass to me. Plain old grass just begging to be trimmed.”

Then, something started to happen. A moment ago, the tall grass had been still, high and motionless over the dry patchy earth. Now it moved, just slightly, side to side, as though dancing on a late summer breeze. Dancing, waving maybe, welcoming Jessie Jean. Only, funny thing, there was no breeze. The patch of sunflowers just left of the tall grass was perfectly still. There was no breeze at all. Not even a hint of movement in the stale summer air.

~

The next morning, Aunt Vera made eggs and griddlecakes for breakfast. Jessie Jean sat at the table with Nelson, Zeb and Old Hank, distant cousins or old family friends; Aunt Vera couldn’t remember. “Our family tree’s so riddled with decay,” she’d said, “all the branches got twisted up.”

Aunt Vera wiped her brow as she placed breakfast on the table. “It’s like the furnace was left on. Can’t even get relief at night.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Jessie Jean, carefully taking her plate. Best to stay on the right side of things. Old people were cranky enough. Hot old people were another thing altogether.

“Hmph,” said Aunt Vera, without looking up.

No one paid much attention to Jessie Jean at breakfast, but Old Hank had kind, sleepy eyes and a hearty appetite. When the others left, she and Old Hank sat staring at each other across the wooden table.

“So, young’un’,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Got plans for today?”

Jessie Jean shrugged. If she’d been home with Mama, they’d have cleaned up breakfast and then Jessie Jean would’ve hunted for potato bugs behind the Chesterville greasy spoon while Mama waited tables.

“There’s a nice swimming hole up past your aunt Vera’s fields,” said Old Hank.

“Hush up!” Aunt Vera turned sharp eyes on Old Hank. “Any fool knows that’s a frog’s leap from the tall grass!”

Old Hank nodded, licking his fingers like a wounded barn cat. “Yes, ma’am, I’d forgotten ‘bout that.” He sighed. “Been so long since we had a child around here.” His eyes were far away, like they were looking at Jessie Jean, but not seeing her.

“I know it,” Aunt Vera said, shaking her head. “’Tain’t no place for a child.” She clanged around some more in the sink and Jessie Jean watched as Old Hank put away another griddlecake in one whole bite.

“Aunt Vera,” said Jessie Jean. “Ain’t there any other kids around here?”

Aunt Vera frowned. “No, no there ain’t.” She went back to her dishes and mumbled something under her breath.

Jessie Jean was used to being alone, but she’d hoped that maybe there’d be someone to play with on the farm. “Guess I’ll find me some potato bugs,” she said. “I had a real big collection back home. Kept them in an old detergent box.”

At the mention of home, Jessie Jean got a sour taste in her mouth, as though her orange juice were making for a return trip. “Yes, sir,” she said, swallowing. “I lined the bottom with grass and poked some holes in the box top.” Those bugs were long gone now. Jessie Jean had set them free the day before, depositing them under rocks and into crevices behind the Chesterville greasy spoon. She was sure they’d want it that way. Even bugs had a right to stay put.

“Potato bugs are nice,” said Old Hank.

“I think so,” said Jessie Jean, clearing her plate off the table. She made sure to be real helpful so Aunt Vera wouldn’t find her a bother.

Aunt Vera nodded as Jessie Jean placed her dirty plate and fork into the big sink. “Hmm,” she said.

“May I be excused, Aunt Vera?” said Jessie Jean. “I’ll keep real busy, I promise.”

Aunt Vera looked down at Jessie Jean over the top of her glasses. She reached for an old detergent box on a shelf above the sink, then handed it to Jessie Jean. “Go find your bugs,” she said. “But stay out of the tall grass, you hear? I ain’t afraid to use the switch on a tender bottom.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Jessie Jean took the box from Aunt Vera.

Aunt Vera grunted, already elbow deep in greasy dishes. Jessie Jean headed out onto the dry, brown grass of Aunt Vera’s land to look for potato bugs.

Old Hank stumbled out soon after. “Happy hunting,” he said, lighting up a pipe.

“Why can’t I go in the tall grass, Old Hank?”

Old Hank coughed. “Not sure I’m the right one to answer that for you.”

“Aunt Vera won’t,” said Jessie Jean. “Aunt Vera says, ‘It’s not ours to ask why.’”

Old Hank puffed on his pipe. “That sounds like fine advice.”

Jessie Jean frowned and leaned back against the old farmhouse. She brought her knees up to her chin. “Looks like plain old grass to me,” she said. “Just needs someone to take a razor to it.”

Old Hank nodded. “Done that myself,” he said. “Years back. Makes no difference.” He took another puff and then brought his pipe down to his side. “’Tain’t no ordinary grass.”

“Looks like it to me,” said Jessie Jean.

“You’re old enough to know things ain’t always what they seem.” Old Hank puffed again on his pipe. “Listen to your Aunt Vera. She’ll take good care of you. Takes good care of me.” He patted his stomach and smiled, then walked off with his pipe.

~

After what seemed like hours, Jessie Jean had found only one small potato bug. Usually, she could spot a few digging in around the rim of her house, or better yet a whole family of them hiding on the cool underside of a rock. She wiped the sweat from her forehead and plunked herself down against Aunt Vera’s faded green farmhouse. The humid air pressed against her.

“It’s too hot, even for the bugs,” she said out loud to no one in particular. “Maybe I’d best set up your house, little bug, so that when I find you some friends, we’ll be good and ready for them.”

She pulled up some grass. It was brown and scratchy, and it crinkled when she held it. “This won’t do,” she said. “A bug’s got to have green grass. Soft green grass, the kind that tickles your toes. Ain’t that right, little bug?”

Jessie Jean knew exactly where she might find that grass. Straight ahead of her, on the other side of the sunflower patch, was just that kind of grass, swaying back and forth, like the other day. Tall grass, green, wispy and soft, somehow growing out from the parched earth.

“That’s what we need, little bug,” she said to the tiny creature in the detergent box. What could it hurt to take just a little?

Jessie Jean peeked into the house. Aunt Vera was still busy in the kitchen. Old Hank, Nelson and Zeb were parked on lawn chairs, snoring like hogs at high noon. No one would miss her. No one ever did, only Mama, and Mama was far away by now. Had left her on this dull-as-dirt-farm with a bunch of old folks! Thinking of Mama just then tied Jessie Jean’s stomach into a real good knot.

She looked around one more time, then got up off the ground and set out for the tall grass. The air grew thick as she made her way across the field, and it pushed against her like she was walking up a steep hill, only there was no hill, just yards and yards of flat, brown, sun-scorched earth. Jesse Jean stopped every twenty paces or so just to catch her breath and wipe the sweat that dripped from her forehead and stung her eyes. It was almost as if there was no air at all in Aunt Vera’s fields, no air at all, but for whatever small breeze rocked that tall grass.

Up close, the grass was high, real high, at least a few feet higher than Jessie Jean. It seemed to go on forever, miles of tall, soft spindly things, thin but dense, so that Jessie Jean, try as she might, could not see through to the other side.

“This sure would be a good place to hide,” Jessie Jean said to the potato bug as she neared the tall grass. “Maybe that’s why I’m s’posed to stay away. Maybe crooks and cat burglers hide here during the day and then jump out when someone gets close.”

Jessie Jean backed up. She shouldn’t be here. She was a good girl, like Mama said, and almost always obeyed the grown-ups. Just the thought of Aunt Vera’s switch made her bottom hurt. But Aunt Vera would never know—she was too busy anyhow to pay attention. And it was grass, for gosh sakes! What harm could come, really? What was all the fuss about? She took a step closer.

Then she felt it, cool, crisp air, gently kissing her face, wrapping around her, pushing into her lungs. Jessie Jean breathed deep. The fresh, cool air soothed her insides and chased off the unbearable heat.

“Well, now what is so bad about this place?” Jessie Jean said to the potato bug, but mostly to herself. “All this nice grass keeps it comfy and cool. No need to fry like griddlecakes on Aunt Vera’s front porch.”

Jessie Jean reached out and caught a few strands of grass in her hand. It was soft all right, like fresh spring pasture, the kind of grass you’d expect to find after a few weeks of rain. Jessie Jean rubbed it between her fingers, enjoying its velvety feel. “Just you wait, little bug,” she said looking down inside the detergent box, “a few blades of this fine stuff, and you’re going to live like a king.”

Jessie Jean grabbed a handful of grass and gave it a real good tug. Only, the grass didn’t budge. It remained firmly planted in the dry soil. “Maybe I need to hold it lower, towards the root.” Jessie Jean bent down this time, and yanked one of the blades as hard as she could. Nothing. That grass was as stubborn as a two-headed mule.

“Old Hank was right,” she said. “This ain’t no ordinary grass.”

She moved forward, so that now she stood in the middle of the patch, the tall grass surrounding her. “Sure is nice in here,” she said. “Real, real nice.”

She sat down on the silky grass and lifted her face, soaking up that fine breeze. For the first time since Mama had left, Jessie Jean felt at ease, felt calm, like everything was going to be all right. She stretched back, knees to the sky and rested her head in her hands.

“Know what, little bug?” she said. “I’ve a mind to spend the rest of the summer right here.” The grass began to sway again, tickling Jessie Jean’s arms and cheeks.

She closed her eyes and let the gentle winds wash over her. It was then she heard the voices. Soft at first, whispers, really. Children’s voices.

She came, one of them said.

I knew she would, said another.

Come play with us, said the first voice. We’ve waited so long

Jessie Jean sat up. “Where are you?” She scanned the large patch of tall grass, but there was no one, only grass as far as she could see.

We’re here, said the voices. Come with us. Come play.

“I would,” said Jessie Jean, looking around, “if you’d show me where you are.”

Just then something squeezed her ankle. Jessie Jean sprang up, and her heart bumped against her ribs. The voices were gone. There was a hard tug on her leg and Jessie Jean was pulled, feet first, out of the calmness of the tall grass.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Old Hank let go of Jessie Jean’s leg, his kind face now dark and stormy. “You been told to stay away!”

Jessie Jean scrambled to stand up. “I, well, I was just looking for nice soft grass for my potato bug. And catching a breeze. It’s so hot back by the farmhouse.” Maybe making some friends, too.

“Potato bug!” Old Hank shook his head. “No, no, no! Don’t you see? That thing gets a taste of you, it’ll want more, it’ll….” He shook his head and pursed his lips. “You get on back to your Aunt Vera,” he said.

“Old Hank, what thing?” said Jessie Jean. “I was just lying in the grass. That’s all. Talking to the children.”

Old Hank’s sleepy eyes woke right up. “Children?”

“That’s right,” said Jessie Jean. “Playing out there in the fields, I guess, because I couldn’t see them.” She grinned. “I could hear them, though, and they were having an awful good time.”

Old Hank shook his head, shook it so much it might’ve fallen off if it wasn’t on tight enough. “There ain’t no children, here, Jessie Jean. No children here besides you.”

“But Old Hank, I—”

“It wants you to think that, but it ain’t real. You understand? It ain’t real.”

Jessie Jean shrugged. “Sure, Old Hank.” She knew better than to argue with a grown-up. Especially a grown-up as spooked as Old Hank. Had to be the heat. After awhile, some people just couldn’t take it.

Old Hank frowned. “I won’t tell your aunt this time. Can’t bear to think of a little girl getting the switch. But I catch you here again, I’ll tell her, I will.”

“Yes, sir.” Jessie Jean wiped some dirt off of her behind.

“Go on,” he said. “Get!”

Jessie Jean ran all the way to the farmhouse. She turned back and looked across the field at the tall grass. It had settled down, stopped moving entirely, in fact. She took a few deep breaths, just now realizing how hard she’d been breathing.

I know there were children there, she thought. I just know it.

~

It was getting hotter by the day and the grown-ups had taken to sponging themselves on the porch while they drank lemonade and snoozed.

“Heat like this ain’t natural,” Aunt Vera said the next morning while she mopped the kitchen. She stopped and leaned on the mop, shooting Old Hank a long, hard look. Old Hank, who was just finishing off his griddlecakes, shoved in the last bite and seemed to catch Aunt Vera’s eye for a moment. He looked quickly at Jessie Jean and then back at his empty plate.

“Just a bad spell, is all,” he said. He wiped his mouth. “Guess I’ll go outside now and have my pipe.”

“Don’t know how you can even stand to light that thing in this heat,” said Aunt Vera. She kept her eyes on him for a short while, then said, “Hmph,” and went back to mopping.

“I’m going to find me some bugs,” Jessie Jean said, and she slipped out of the kitchen. She waited on the front lawn until the grown-ups stopped to catch some late morning winks. Then, she crept silently into Aunt Vera’s field, towards the tall grass. She was going to find those children.

The grass was still, but almost as soon as she arrived, it started to move, back and forth, ever so slightly. Jessie Jean poked her head through the blades, a sweet breeze catching in her hair.

“I’m back,” she said. “Are you here?” The breeze picked up some more and it felt good against Jessie’s Jean’s sticky face.

We’re here, said a voice.

We’re glad you came back, said another.

“Where are you?” said Jessie Jean. She held out the detergent box. “Do you want to see my potato bug? I brought him to show you.”

The grass began to sway again, tickling her arms, her neck and her cheeks. Jessie Jean giggled. She brought her hand up to her face, and as she did so, a soft strand of grass began to wrap itself around her wrist. Jessie Jean moved to bring her arm down to her side, but the grass continued to coil around her, tightening its grip. She tugged at her arm, but the grass just pulled tighter around her. A second blade looped itself around her ankle. She kicked it off, but another strand caught her by the other ankle and several more curled around her knees.

“Hey, what’s going on?” she said. “Stop that!” Her cry was stifled by the grass that wound itself around her face, closing in over her mouth. She could taste it now, green and bitter, poking its way up into her nostrils, stealing her breath. Jessie Jean struggled against the pull of the grass, but the more she thrashed about, the tighter the grass’s grip became. She dropped the detergent box and, with it, her little bug. The cool breeze grew into a wind that blew against her, rushed through her ears.

Don’t wriggle so much, said one of the voices.

Jessie Jean tried to turn her head, but the strands of grass held it tight.

It won’t hurt, said the other.

And then you’re like us.

And we can play.

Here, it’s almost here….

Jessie Jean was aware of a low, dull rustling sound in the distance. Shhhh… ShhhhShhhh…. It sounded as though something, something slow, something soft were pushing its way through the grass.

Green stems wrapped themselves around her eyes until she could only see shades of light between the slits of grass. Jessie Jean spat hard and pushed some of the grass out of her mouth. “Where are you?” she yelled. “If you’re there, help me already!”

We are here, said the first voice. We are the grass, forever and always. We once lived and breathed like you, a child, a small lonely child.

We aren’t lonely anymore, said another voice.

“I’m not lonely,” said Jessie Jean, “and I don’t want to play with you!”

Shhhh… Shhhh… Shhhh…. The sound grew louder.

Where’s your Mama? said a voice. Where’s your Aunt Vera? No one even knows you’re here.

Or cares, said the other.

We care.

“My Mama’s coming back soon!” she said.

Poor, poor girl.

Shhhh… Shhhh… Shhhh….

Jessie Jean continued to struggle against the encroaching stems. “My Aunt Vera’s got her chores, but she took me in and even gave me a detergent box for my potato bug!”

There wasn’t no one else, said a voice eerily like Aunt Vera’s. No one else

“Old Hank, he pulled me out of here the last time! And I even got me a potato bug for a pet, and he and I look out for each other!”

None of that matters. You’re with us, now. You’re part of the grass.

Shhhh… Shhhh… Shhhh…. The rustling noise was so close, the dry earth crunching beneath it. Whatever it was, whatever was coming, was there. Almost there.

“Am not!” Jessie Jean yanked as hard as she could and freed her left arm. She used it to rip the tendrils of grass off of her face and, at the same time, she kicked her right leg with all her might.

You’re hurting us, said the voices. Wait, wait, it’s almost here!

Shhhh… Shhhh… Shhhh….

“You’re not children!” said Jessie Jean. With a large surge of strength, she ripped free her arm. The grass continued to coil around her, but she was moving so quickly, it couldn’t take hold. She scooped up her bug and tossed it into the detergent box. With one last strong kick, she freed her other leg and scrambled out of the tall grass. The grass shook, shook and shuddered, and it sounded loud and angry.

Come back. The words trailed behind her long after she’d escaped. We need you….

Jessie Jean ran toward the farmhouse, her heart knocking hard against her chest. She pushed against the lifeless air of the field, which felt even heavier than before, as though it was piled high with logs and rocks and bales of hay, everything and anything that made it difficult for her to move through it. Her breath came in short, hard spurts, the hot air searing her lungs. She didn’t look back again until she was square on Aunt Vera’s front lawn, the worn-out, lolling grown-ups still snoring under the summer sun.

“Aunt Vera!” she called, gasping for air. “Aunt Vera!”

“What is it, child?” Aunt Vera jumped up from her lawn chair and ran, quick as she could, thumping down the rickety front steps and out onto the lawn. Old Hank, Nelson and Zeb ran after her.

Jessie Jean grabbed onto Aunt Vera and buried her face in her aunt’s soft middle. Aunt Vera held her tight.

“I’m sorry, Aunt Vera,” she said. “I was in the tall grass and it had me and it tried to keep me, and—”

“Hush, child,” said Aunt Vera. “You’re here now and you’re safe and that’s all that matters.” Her small gray eyes were wide like silver dollars.

Jessie Jean held onto Aunt Vera as tightly as she could. Aunt Vera squeezed her, too, and she smelled of cinnamon and soap. After a time, Jessie Jean looked up at her.

“Aunt Vera,” she said. “Is my Mama coming back?”

Aunt Vera wiped her brow and tightened her lips. She sighed. “Your Mama loves you, child.”

“But is she coming back?” said Jessie Jean.

Aunt Vera brought her hand down onto Jessie Jean’s chin. She looked down at her. “Your Mama will find her way back.”

Jessie Jean nodded, the sting of tears burning up her eyes far worse than any old hot air could.

Aunt Vera looked down at Jessie Jean, her gray eyes warmer somehow, like bowls of oatmeal. “This is your home now, darlin’, as long as you need it to be.”

“But Aunt Vera,” said Jessie Jean. “You’re so busy. You got your chores, got to take care of everyone else, got to—”

“Hush up, child,” said Aunt Vera. “Ain’t nothing more important than taking care of a little girl. Even your cranky old Aunt Vera knows that.” Aunt Vera smiled, and at that moment she didn’t even look so old or cranky.

Old Hank, Nelson and Zeb, all gathered ’round, smiling at her, and even though Mama wasn’t there, and Jessie Jean missed her in every which way, she was sure she could be happy here, and maybe not even so lonely. She still had her little bug, too, and that was something. Jessie Jean looked down at her detergent box, and it was then she noticed her missing sneaker.

“For Pete’s sake,” she said, eyeing her foot. She wiggled her big toe through a hole in her sock. “I must’ve lost it when I ran off. Probably somewhere in the field.”

Aunt Vera loosened her grip and turned from Jessie Jean towards the field. “Oh, Hank,” she said, her words escaping in a burst of air.

Jessie Jean looked across the field, and sure enough, she could make out a splash of red-and-white-striped sneaker poking out from the tall grass. The grass began to sway again, rhythmically, back and forth, waving, bending gently in the airlessness of Aunt Vera’s land. The sneaker lay there for a moment, lost without its twin, then slowly but certainly disappeared into the grass.

The Secret Zoo

Christy Lenzi

Mama’s breath hovers over me in the frosty air. “Get up, little Lynx.”

Light pushes through cracks in the boarded-up windows, reminding me how the buildings shook and the glass shattered during the Nazi air raid only days ago. I screamed like a baby when the fiery bolts pelted the zoo, exploding the animal cages. Just thinking about it makes my face hot. That’s the only time I was glad Papa was away, fighting on the front for the Resistance—he might have thought me a coward.

I breathe in the smell of burnt wood, straw, feathers and fur, and close my eyes, wishing I could go back to sleep. I wonder how long it will take before I don’t miss the morning racket of zoo animals waking—gibbons hooting, wolves howling, lions roaring, and peacocks screeching. Even the people of Warsaw have grown quiet—we’re all in shock.

I miss Tofi and Tufa, the lynxes we raised as kittens. A whistling shot of fire hit their cage and took them from us in one blinding shot. And poor Tuzinka, the baby elephant, whose mother was hit by a shell. Only a few of our animals escaped the blasts. Thinking about it makes me ache inside, under the ribs, like a hunger. I groan and roll onto my side.

“Hurry, Rys,” Mama says. “Get ready for school.”

“School?” I can’t believe she’s making me go. “I need to help the workers take care of the wounded animals.” My heart twists like a dishrag being wrung out. “And I have to find Borsunio.” I took care of our pet badger since it was a baby, feeding it a bottle and paddling with it in the Vistula River—I can’t go off to school and pretend nothing happened.  Mama and I fled the villa at the bombing, and when we came back, Borsunio was gone. A Polish soldier whose troop sheltered in our house during the air raids told us, “Some badger banged and scratched on the villa door a long time, but finally disappeared through the bushes.”

When I imagine frightened little Borsunio begging to be let in, I can hardly swallow from the lump in my throat.

Mama squeezes my shoulder. “He’s a clever badger. If anyone can outsmart the Germans, Borsunio can.” She smiles. “But you shouldn’t miss more school.”

I know if I complain, she’ll say returning to school is the right thing to do and remind me how brave it was for members of the Resistance to enroll their children in secret schools when Hitler closed the Polish schools. At first it was exciting, but now I hate the idea of walking through the torn-up city.

“When you return, you’ll find a surprise. New animal guests arrive today.” Mama’s eyes look both happy and sad. She pours water into a bowl for me to wash up.

“Where do they come from?” My heart beats faster. “Where will they stay?” Maybe this day won’t be as bad as I thought.

Mama dips into the water and flings drops at my face. She laughs when I jump. “You’ll see, little Lynx.”

~

The large craters in the streets and the broken buildings make it look as if a giant monster has stomped through Warsaw. Papa faces the monster every day. My stomach churns. At least he’s doing something to help, something courageous. Even kids in the underground Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are doing bold, important things for their country. I hear stories whispered about teenagers working for the Resistance as couriers, firefighters, and saboteurs. But I’m stuck going to school and taking care of animals at home. I kick a broken piece of brick into the pile of debris that used to be Mrs. Caderska’s cozy little lampshade shop.

After school, I run home to see the new animals. I wander the zoo grounds looking for signs of the new arrivals Mama promised, but everything is quiet. The zoo’s a mess. Cage bars have melted into nightmare shapes that stick out from the rubble. I check every cage but can’t find any new animals. The ache under my ribs gets worse, like a torn piece of my heart’s being ripped away.

When I walk into the parlor, Mama’s whispering with a small, dark-haired woman—our old friend, Magdalena.

“Rys! You’ve grown!” she cries when she sees me.

“Starling!” I let her hug me. Mama always nicknames her favorite people after animals. We haven’t seen Starling in months—she used to visit our zoo to sketch the animals and sculpt them in clay.

“Where have you been?”

“Doing what starlings do—flying from nest to nest.”

“Why?”

Mama draws Magdalena close to her like someone might try to steal her away. “When Nazis ordered Jews to the Ghetto, our brave Starling refused to go. But her beautiful sculptures have made her too famous—if anyone recognizes her, she’ll be in great danger. I’ve invited her to live here as our secret guest until we can help her find a safe passage out of Warsaw.”

My heart beats faster than a cheetah. “How will we keep her a secret—what if someone sees her?”

Magdalena wears a fearless expression, but the color drains from her face.

“We should have a signal.” The idea comes to me so quickly, I want to jump up and down like a chimpanzee. “A secret warning when there’s danger, so she can hide.”

“Yes.” Mama nods. “But what would be a good signal that won’t alert anyone else?”

“I know!” I run to the piano. “Whenever she hears me play this song, Starling can fly to the rafters!” I pound out the loud, galloping chords of my favorite piece, Go, Go, Go to Crete!

Mama and Magdalena clap their hands and cheer. “That’s perfect, Rys!” The bubbling song is from La Belle Helene, an opera about Helen and Paris, who wanted to escape the Trojan War to find a better world.

Just as I finish, the doorbell rings.

Mama draws in her breath. We all turn quiet.

The animal delivery!

“Rys, go slowly to the door to answer it,” Mama whispers, “Slowly! And I’ll hide Starling, just in case.”

As Mama hurries Magdalena from the room, I move like a sloth toward the door, inch by inch, and turn the knob. But instead of lion or hippo, I open the door to an elderly man with a suitcase. A kitten pokes its head from his pocket and meows.

The man clears his throat. “I’m the fox man.”

He’s delivering a fox? Mama comes back into the room and smiles. The tight lines on her forehead disappear. “This is Mr.Wroblewski. The Germans are turning our zoo into a fox farm, Rys. Mr. Wroblewski will be the director and live here. I do like the name Fox Man, don’t you?”

The man laughs. “Indeed.” He tips his hat as Mama closes the door. “Fox Man at your service.” When he bows, a furry head pokes out of his other pocket. I can’t help laughing at the beady-eyed hamster.

Starling peeks her head out from behind the corner, smiling. “Fox Man is in the Resistance, Rys.”

Mr. Wroblewski nods. “I know your father.”

Pride flows through me and puffs up my chest like a parrot’s feathers when I see the admiration in Fox Man’s eyes.

Mama takes his suitcase. “Fox Man is going to help people in danger like Starling come to the villa as secret guests.

“Yes, and I’ll need someone to help me work out some signals and plan my strategies. Someone clever, someone brave. Your father tells me you are such a person.” Fox Man squints at me, sizing me up.

I stand up straighter and take Fox Man’s hand, shaking it firmly. “I’m your man.” The wings of my heart beat against its cage. This is how I’ll work for the Resistance—helping people escape the war to find a better world, just like Helen and Paris longed to do.

As Mama shows Mr. Wroblewski and Magdalena their rooms, I gaze out the window and think about our guests. Starling, Fox Man, Kitten, Hamster, and more to come. These are the new zoo arrivals Mama promised. She’ll need lots of new nicknames!

My body stiffens as I glimpse movement outside the window. A man in a soldier’s uniform is walking up the front steps to our villa. My heart thumps so hard, it feels like a kangaroo inside my chest. I spring to the piano and bang out the chords to Go, Go, Go to Crete!

Scuffling sounds come from the other room as Starling and Fox Man hurry to hide. By the time the doorbell rings, they’re safely upstairs and Mama walks into the room, her hands shaking. “We’re not expecting anyone else!” she whispers. “I hope no one has seen; I hope no one knows—”

I squeeze Mama’s arm, hoping to pump some of the courage I’ve found into her trembling body. “I’ll answer it.” I swallow my fear and open the door.

A Polish soldier stands on the doorstep holding a large pickle barrel. A gun is slung over his shoulder. What could he want with us?

“I have something that belongs to you.” The man lowers the barrel and opens the lid.

I hold my breath.

Out of the barrel climbs Borsunio!

The soldier laughs. “He must have swum across the Vistula during the bombardment. What a brave creature.”

I sweep Borsunio into my arms. My heart’s leaping like a gazelle. The clever little badger outsmarted the Nazis, just like a true member of the Resistance. And he did it just in time to join the new arrivals in our secret zoo.


Author’s Note

“The Secret Zoo” is set in occupied Warsaw and is inspired by true events in young Rys Zabiniski’s life. Rys’ parents, Jan and Antonina, kept a popular zoo in the middle of Warsaw that was destroyed when the Nazis bombed the city. Disgusted with Nazi racism, the Żabińskis decided to turn their zoo into a sanctuary, hiding refugees in the empty animal houses. During their stay, guests were given animal code names while the Żabińskis’ real animals were given human names. In this way, Rys and his family managed to harbor over three hundred people in their zoo, which was given the code name, “The House Under a Crazy Star.” I first learned about Rys’ family and their extraordinary history when I read the best-selling non-fiction book for adults, The Zoo Keeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.


Bibliography

Ackerman, Diane. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story. New York: W. W. Norton &

Company, 2007. The remarkable account of the Zabinski family’s efforts to shelter 300 Jews and Polish resisters in their villa and zoo grounds.

Fogelman, Eva. Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Paulsson, Gunnar S. Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

 

The Seal King

Jen Welch

The girl with apricot-colored hair sits on a dock the color of driftwood, her back against a stone wall retaining the land against the push and pull of the sea. Buoys bob and clang. On this small peninsula on the shoulder of the Atlantic, close-set fishermen’s cottages cluster together for comfort. When the wind rakes the swells into whitecaps, yellow foul-weather waders lift on the clotheslines.

It is early September, and the saline haze of summer still hangs ripe and full over the harbor. Louellen, or Lou, as she is called, pulls the frayed cuffs of her father’s coat farther over her hands and presses her spine against the afternoon of too-busy family and heckling high school classmates. The splashing kids have cleared the dock platform and small swimming beach for another season, leaving her mind to dance with everything and nothing.

Hidden from the village’s view, she is the only one to hear the sound of water breaking, followed by the sudden motion of a weak hand on the dock ladder. When the form of a young man hoists itself over the edge and collapses on the sun-baked wood in front of her, she confirms his body’s unbroken whiteness before darting her attention away, embarrassment heating her cheeks.

A joke, she thinks. Some prank on a party boat where they stole the young man’s clothes and threw him overboard, yelling “Swim!” as their cruise ferried tourists in a tame circle out to the lighthouse on the point and back.

But the young man doesn’t speak of this. The young man says nothing, in fact, but stares at his hand spread against the weather-cured planks, ragged gasps escaping his throat.

I should leave. I should get help, she thinks, drawing her legs away. Yet at her movement he jerks aware, staring her in the face, and she is reminded of a childhood moment when she held an amber banner of kelp up to the sun. The stranger’s eyes are the same color, like light through a brown bottle, and as he takes in her rumpled pants, baggy work-jacket and checkered blouse, a voice rushes into her mind like wind through sea grass.

They took my skin from me….

His lips haven’t moved. “How did you—?”

His words, more vehement now, startle her again.

I’ve lost the tribe. I’m forever cast out.

He collapses once more, pale ribcage heaving in and out, rivulets of water spilling through the planks to the slow rise and fall beneath.

A drunk. A loony, near-drowned, she thinks. The hair at the back of his neck swirls in dark eddies, like the wet sheen of a cormorant’s back.

Some essence of the tides issues from him, ancient and salt-soaked, as familiar to her as her own village, which with its single general store cannot be called a town. Something about the young man is part of the first breath of air she ever drew, so she sheds the coat and lifts his shoulder to draw the threadbare canvas around his unmarked skin. Still, she shudders when his wet head falls, like a dog’s, on her leg.

My skin…

A breeze tickles the hair around her face, and when she shuts her eyes against it, she sees sleek, dark shapes circling in an aura of light. A rocky amphitheatre appears to her, far beneath the fluttering currents, where a colony of seals darts with nervous curiosity, half-watching, half-hiding from a commotion at the center of the sand clearing. She beholds in the inner landscape of his memory a young seal hovering, his eyes regal like those of the youth in front of her, and knows. It’s him.

“Your reign of lies has ended!”

The accusation reverberates from a wizened bull, who rotates slowly, commandeering the attention of a group of Elders. As he uses the mind-speech again, his eyes narrow.

“The old king gave up his life to the moon-tide, like the old queen before him. Gave over his crown to Kells, here before us, ocean-shifts ago. But at last the truth has come, on the sacred currents. I say to you, Kells. You are not the son of the old sire!”

“Rannick, I am as much son as the king ever had.”

“Listen! He does not deny it!” Veeren, the squint-eyed mouthpiece of the females, floats to her mate’s side.

Kells’ thoughts boom out to the gathered colony. “I’ve kept no secrets from the Elder Council. We’ve had our disputes, but this agitation…. You bring discord. Pointless turbulence.”

Rannick’s eyes widen in mock innocence. “I bring nothing but revelation! Are you or are you not the former king’s blood kin?”

Kells’ eyes lift to the perimeter of dark faces, stirring in the folds of the walls above. Even as an eavesdropper on the memory, the girl can sense his indecision.

“I am the offspring he made his own.”

A pock-riddled male with a propeller-scarred shoulder barks out to the listening assembly. “But not of his blood, as our tribe requires. How long have we been deceived, all of us? Have we made one addition to our territory in the moons since this pup became king?”

“No!”

“He has no right to lead!”

 The Elders bob with gratification at the shifting murmurs around them.

The seal king’s flipper, beyond his control, flicks with annoyance.

“This is a colony of plenty. Who among you has gone without? There is no need to seek war and conflict, to hoard the excess!”

Rannick calls out. “What king would ban from you your deserved tide-reapings? Not I, I promise you.”

The gray shapes hang nearer over Kells, pulsing with turbulent fervor. Other voices join in.

“You kept secrets from your Council. From your colony!”

“Mongrel!”

Rannick circles. “Yes, a mongrel!”

Veeren’s voice speaks suddenly at Kells’ neck, vicious and close. “You are not selkie-folk.”

Selkies? Lou repeats. Her mind whirls.

Above him, they have begun to slap the rocks, a rhythm, wild and terrible. As though she is inside his body, the girl feels Kells’ heart quicken.

“Mongrel! Mongrel!” The colony has unified in a single voice.

Kells senses the verdict before Rannick speaks. “A deceiver forfeits his skin!”

“Yes! His skin!”

Impossible, now, to go back. To project his single thoughts into that maelstrom. The shapes close in, a vortex of rage, and the blows begin to land. Rough thuds of shoulders and flanks. In the midst of it, he feels his pelt begin to loosen. At the sensation of a foreign, cold trickle, he is gripped with sudden revulsion by the idea of what will happen. He could thrash and dart from them in one colossal movement, he thinks. But just at that moment, his skin ripples and begins to lift.

The change is a sideways, painless dislocation. A baffling chill presses upon his limbs, loosened from their mantle. No longer flippers, but forearms. His body twists at the blasphemy of the sight, every frustrated move, now, separating him from the velvet folds. The last brush of that floating warmth is a tender agony. Spread-limbed and human, he reels with nausea, seeing the other half of his soul now become a living cape around Rannick’s shoulders.

“To the shallows!”

What threat is he, this shivering boy-form, to the new king? Nonetheless, Rannick’s minions drag him, nipping and buffeting. Through miles of middle water, to the mouth of the harbor channel, and further in, where their nostrils clog with wave-dust and strange streams of scent. Leaving him adrift in water where he can now… stand, after all, as that is what befits a fallen king. A cast-off selkie. Now become a man.

He pulls away and fixes Lou with that broken stare.

You see, now, what they have done to me. The sleek voice, again, in her head. But you cannot understand what it means.

For the first time he raises himself to stand, swaying on the balls of his feet.

Without my skin, let the depths take me. Let the ocean drown this worthless half-body on the outgoing tide.

He drops from the dock, then grits his teeth and wades (oh humiliation!—she can see the shame on his face) to sit on a wave-slicked boulder, waiting for the sea to turn. A pale man in a borrowed coat.

She could walk up the hill. She could return to her lamp-lit porch. A kitchen steamy with cooking and damp clothes. A warm, heaped plate. But at the base of the slope she turns, remembering in the fading afternoon a far-off tale. A rocking chair memory. And she knows she will not walk up the hill.

In a moment she stands next to him in the shallows, wavelets slapping against the bulky denim of her jeans.

“What if that’s not the way it has to be?”

~

Her grandmother’s house with its weathered gray shingles and evergreen shutters still stands like a figurehead on the bluff. Before selling it, the small woman, grizzled, content, lived there alone. Whatever season—dry leaves blowing from bare trees, first grass sweetening the hill-slopes—Lou rode her bicycle to find her mother’s mother sitting on her porch, watching the play of sun on the water.

Lou would lean on the railing, finger extended towards the chain of islands they called the Dumplings. “What is that island, Granny? That last one. With the trees.”

Her grandmother’s eyes crinkled with mischief. “That is the island of the selkies. On the far side of it, the old fisher folk said, you might try to find the Blue Tide. When the full moon appears, a different current comes up deep, from Race Reef. Meet it, and then!” She smiled. “Then, you might dance with the selkies, under the surface of the sea.”

Race Reef. Bluefishing over it from their little skiff, the girl had heard the warnings from her father. The underwater chasm pulled down in strange vacuums wayward chunks of driftwood, the refuse from trawlers on their way back to harbor, the accidental swimmer. She had seen it once. A man overboard who never surfaced. A life ring drifting on the indifferent swells.

But her grandmother told a different story. “Swim down, they say, to where you feel the Blue Tide’s pull. Give yourself over, give up all your breath, and maybe, that stream will enter you. Then, you will hear the song of the sea.”

“The song, Granny?”

“I hear it on the wind sometimes, after a storm. Or that’s my wishing. Such peace, in that sound!”

With no more to offer, Lou stops. During her story Kells’ face has grown wary. When he speaks the words aloud, they are accented with a strange lilt.

“Th—That is impossible. For your people to hear the song. To travel the middle waters. Lou, is it? We have our own myths of the water visitors, who tried and failed. They are tales of sunken hearts and drowned bones.”

She shakes her head. “You can see the island from here. The tide turns after midnight.”

“And the night-orb is coming full circle. What does it matter?” From behind the coat collar, his teeth flash bitterly. “As I am, I couldn’t even cross that distance.”

The girl watches him turn away, before her gaze comes to rest amongst the grasses on shore.

“Not without help.”

~

So much vocalization for a species, Kells thinks. Rowing the small skiff alongside the peninsula in the direction of the islands, the human female, seeming nervous, has chattered without interval.

“Dad and I scallop just off that marsh. And there’s the East Light.”

He sits in the stern, amazed at the workings of her body, tugging the oars, left, right, left, then in tandem. For a short time they had sought for him to take a turn, but found his hands weakened and unnerved by the motion. The foreign garment, too, he had cast up toward the bow once they left the land, muttering, “Not the same.” She had reddened, then shrugged at his disrobed presence and kept on rowing.

“Scallops, lobsters…. We eat every kind of fish, ‘til we can’t stand it, I swear.” She quiets suddenly, and he spots in her mind the memory-echo of the swimming shapes, the discomfort of an unasked question. Her brief, self-conscious glance is the color of a wave-peak.

Where his whiskers would have twitched with amusement, he feels an odd pull at the corners of his mouth. “You think we, part fish, do not eat fish?”

“Right. You’re a seal.”

By the day-orb, he scoffs to himself. “I am a selkie. Seals surface to breathe. They cannot mind-speak. They live a fraction of our lifespan.”

“Really?” says Lou.

In actuality, he does not mind the talk, which distracts him from the tease of the green sliding deep on his trailing fingers. So thin and terribly exposed, he thinks. But considering the girl’s hands, he is not so sure. Calloused, square and brown, they slide and tug, slide and tug on the ocean-splashed handles, punctuating each stroke with the oarlocks’ clank. She is using her back, now, long wooden blades feathering through the resistance like fins through water. He had never enjoyed shedding his pelt at will, unlike some other selkies, and the sight of his human frame has only just ceased to appall him.

He had asked Lou, when they dragged the small vessel from the reeds lining the harbor, “Your kind. Who is your clan?”

“Up there,” Lou had motioned. “In the village. Don’t worry. I take the boat out all the time.”

“You were—” He tests the word against his meaning. “Separate. Where is your colony?”

“Colony?” The word was a blank. “Like school? My class?”

“The others to which you belong.”

She had stared at him then, before busying herself with the bow-rope. His efforts to explain further flapped like a dropped shell to the bottom of a shallow silence. Together they had righted the boat amongst the fleecing cattails, which were turning bronze in the last of the daylight. When he felt the bouncing of the boat on the water for the first time, his gut had lurched with the sharpest pang of longing.

Then mirrored coves had replaced the harbor, giving off whiffs of strange vegetation and once, the shuff-shuff, shuff-shuff of metal rocketing against metal. “Just the train tracks,” Lou had said, but not before Kells had shamed himself by flinching like an unweaned pup at the sounding horn.

A muffled knocking brings his attention back to the boat.

“Something’s caught on us,” Lou says. “Stupid. I forgot to pull the bowline in when we launched.” They are out into deeper water, and she is hanging over the side, pulling at a massive snarl of rope. At the sight, Kells shudders. Every loop from the land is a noose. The old training comes back. Don’t touch it. Rocks, shells, bones, are playthings. Not this.

“An old trawling net,” Lou says. “Too heavy to pull into the boat, but I can’t steer with it dragging. We’re going to need the keel free, once we come around the point.” Balancing, he moves to her side, surveying with dread the knotted fibers, green with weeds. He had told no one, that time, when Tenny had looped a piece around his neck, playing at something, and they had had to bloody their gums to free him. His thumb moves to the white row of his teeth, testing the points.

These land-walker jaws might sever it.

Whether or not he intended to speak into her mind, she responds, startling him. “No time. The water picks up past the peninsula. I can cut the net without losing our line.”

When she rises from the bottom of the boat with something in her hands, Kells’ heart leaps at the flash of silver, so like a fish. But no. Only a flat length of metal, attached to a stout handle.

“My dad’s shucking knife. We’re too far out for rocks. If you hold the oars flat, nothing will swamp us.”

“You won’t be able to stand.” He takes the handles from her, noticing the smirk on her lips.

“I may be a ‘land-walker’, but I’ve been over my head before.”

As Lou lowers herself over the side and into the water, her boots, thrown towards the stern, captivate him for a moment with their intricacy of undone bows and laces. Between wet gasps and long silences, the boat shakes with the force of her sawing.

“It’s just about there,” she says. “Get ready for the current to take us.”

Bracing her feet, Lou reaches below the water and tugs mightily, and the rope snaps. He feels the knots bumping free underneath. She calls to him in triumph.

“There!—Huhk!”

Silence presses upon him. Standing, he glimpses, under the water, a flash of checkered shirt in a tangle of line, sweeping down and away in the undertow below the surface current. He does not think. He does not speak. He plunges into the sea.

~

No wave-music. No breath. Were these paralyzing waters the ocean that had once embraced him? The girl with her empty lungs is borne down easily, the net twined around her and spreading like a sail on the current, drawing her body away. Kells kicks after her, fixated on the tightly pressed line of her lips, willing it not to break. She ceases striking out in fear as he seizes her ankles, working swiftly with clumsy hands, teeth, anything, to loosen her. Lou twists one arm free, and struggling against the weight of water and rope, they work upwards. Air splits their lungs, and immediately he dives again. Somehow, in the fury of his hands, her legs come free, and the net is gone. At the surface he grasps her close, her breath frantic in his ear. Her eyes are reeling, fixed on the heavens.

“We’re safe. You saved me!”

When her grip on him loosens, he barks with concern, “Don’t stop holding!”

“Where—” Her head lolls, twisting to look. “Oh god, the boat!”

~

Rattle rattle rattle rattle rattle….

Lou’s forehead hurts where it rests, mashed against the keel, and tracing the source of the sound, her brain awakens with a pinch. The coat is wrapped around her shoulders, and somewhere a steel cleat is vibrating. Raising her head, she remembers. The skiff, the size of a tiny teacup, spinning lazily towards the horizon. Are those really the first stars? had been her last thought, before her eyes swam and the darkness swallowed all.

In the stern, the seal king hugs his curled legs, shuddering uncontrollably, his eyes locked on her face.

“You did it,” she whispers. “How did you….”

Forming the words, he seizes, his voice fluttering into her head instead. S-swam. I had t-trouble pulling you back in. I’m s-sorry. He nods at her side, and Lou finds a bleeding scrape above her hip.

Coming sharply back to herself, she notices that his features are tinged green with cold. “You’re sick.”

N-no. Just c-c—

“But the water’s still warm, from the summer.”

His thoughts hold no judgment, only a statement of fact. Without my skin, If-f-freeze.

She is shrugging off the coat already, pushing it back to him. “You knew that. And you—”

“Turn the boat around,” he says, finding his voice.

“The water will take us right to it. We don’t even have to row.”

“My loss is not your burden. Turn us.”

“Look how close we are!” she shouts, flinging her hand toward the distant hump of land, low and symmetrical. When he regards her with confusion, she continues, the familiar stiffening coming into her throat. “My Granny was my colony. The only one who understood me. Why would she tell me of the Blue Tide, if I wasn’t meant to see it?”

Kells squints over the bow. She hears him exhale, long and slow. “Very well. Each of our lives is our own.”

Lou flips the end of one oar over the stern to steer them, hesitating only to press his frigid hand where her words can’t make the thanks.

~

Stars above, now, and stars below. Protected by the island’s lee side, the skiff noses through glossy blackness, Kells standing in the bow. Despite the resentment he has expressed towards his human form, Lou notes he has found the balance of his legs.

“My eyes are different,” he says. “I can see farther above, now. The sky is deep. How deep?”

Lou, leaning on the steering oar, considers the glimmering sprawl of the heavens. “I don’t think anyone knows. Humans used to make up stories about the sea—giant monsters, strange creatures. Funny. Now we’ve turned to outer space.”

“Is that so?”

She smiles. “I never knew what was swimming in my backyard.” She lets the boat coast for the last five yards, then beaches it on the island’s shoal of fine pebbles. Water lapping at their ankles, they drag the shell past the scalloped line of detritus left by high tide.

“I’m here. Standing on it,” Lou murmurs.

In the light from the full moon, the slope looms above them, a handful of wind-sculpted trees here and there among the whorls of silvery grass. Just as she imagined. A wild place that countless storms had ravaged, given over, now, to the hushed sigh of bivalve and wavelet.

“The sea has blessed this place,” Kells says. Yes, she thinks. There could be no fakery here, where all life is pared down to its rarefied bones. How long had it been since a human touched this land? Decades? Centuries? She summits the hill first, finding, as if in answer, a ring of standing stones set into the flat knoll.

“Sentinels,” Lou says.

Kells joins her. “Made by whose hand? Selkie? Human?”

“Both?” she says. “Who knows.” Down the opposite windward slope, the open sea gradates away from them in pale shallows, then darker depths. She points. “That’s where it will come. The Blue Tide.”

He looks back behind them. “You’ll have a long return to make alone.”

“I’ll know Granny was right. That’s all I want.”

“If your story is true—”

“You’ll have the rest of your life in your own skin, back where you belong,” she says. “When it’s over, the sun will show me home.”

“Then you do have a colony,” he says.

“I don’t know.” She sits next to him against one of the granite spurs to wait for the turning of the tide. “I watch everyone trudging through the halls at school, my mom falling asleep in front of the TV, my dad, who doesn’t really talk. I’m not the same. I can’t stop myself from wondering. Is this all I should expect? Is this what life’s for?” She feels the familiar hysteria fidgeting beneath her sternum. Only Granny had been able to comfort her when it came.

“Our restlessness is why we’re drawn to the sea,” the old woman was fond of saying. “Though the water smothers our sight and sound. We can only make up our dreams about it from the outside, can’t we?” Just once, before the end, Lou had noticed wetness on Granny’s lashes. “If one could slip beneath and breathe oneself a part of it…. How could anyone resist dwelling in that peace forever?”

Kells speaks, breaking her concentration on the horizon line. “Families bring us into the world. Finding kin is different.” He combs the grass with his fingers. “I was a bastard. But for a time, I was a king.” She looks away, afraid to distract him from continuing. “My mother found her soul-kin in Krinn, a selkie from another tribe, displaced by a storm. Our territory codes forbid coupling outside one’s tribe. Krinn’s presence brought tension into the colony, and he was forced to leave. When my mother’s belly swelled with me on the next tide, she knew she couldn’t follow him, vulnerable and alone. So she sought help from the king. He had been a friend, and he and my mother loved each other, in their own way. Knowing his fondness could easily be mistaken for more, he granted her the favor, taking my mother as his mate and claiming credit for me. No one would have known I carried a foreigner’s blood.”

She sees his face darken.

“Except, half a moon ago, Rannick led a hunting party far from our colony. From another group of selkies, they heard of an Elder, Krinn, who on his deathbed rambled about my mother, to whom he thought he’d given a pup. Rannick recognized what had happened, and it was over. Banishment is death.”

“You’re alive,” she says.

Kells shakes his head. “A selkie’s skin is his soul. A tribe takes it away knowing it will call us back to the sea to drown.”

“If the Blue Tide lets you return….”

“I will fight to convince them. But without my pelt, they will not recognize me as an equal.”

“I’ll go there with you.”

“To risk your life, like you did in the channel?”

“It’s my choice.”

“What is it about you?” he says. “You’re so young you don’t even know the world you’re trying to leave.”

She finds her fists clenching. “My world is—” She jumps as he grasps her shoulder suddenly, inclining his head.

“Listen,” he says. She strains, hearing only a breeze lifting the treetops. “The tide has turned.”

Gazing out towards the water, Lou clambers to her feet. “It’s happening. Look.”

Below them, an aquamarine sliver is shimmering, tracing the edge of the underwater drop-off with exploratory fingers.

“The Blue Tide,” she says. “It’s here.”

~

Running down the slope and charging into the water up to her knees, Lou suddenly stops. A hundred points of turquoise light agitate into brightness when she breaks the water’s surface again, this time with her hand. The luminous specks, like the rim of eyes on a scallop, cling to her skin, and tears spring to her eyes. “Phosphorescence. Jelly creatures. That’s all it was!”

Kells stops short at the water’s edge, staring at her extended hands. “An old human myth. Explaining something they couldn’t understand.”

Silly tales to amuse a child, Lou thinks. Blue Tides. Selkie songs. Her doddering granny, now dead and gone.

“No.” Her voice surges with anger. “It can’t be. The Blue Tide will follow behind. If there’s any chance—” She plods forward.

“Lou.” Kells has followed, wincing at the water encircling his waist. “You’ll drown.”

“I have to try.”

He hollers at her again. “I have nothing to lose. To go down, not returning, not seeing the sky again, that does not bother me. But for you…. Lou!”

She pulls free from his hand, striking with her arms against the resistance of the water. Ten strokes out, her feet leave the island. Twenty strokes out, no longer sensing Kells behind her, she takes a last breath and kicks down, fighting the air’s claim on her body.

Give yourself over, give up all your breath, and maybe, that stream will enter you.

A new plane of coldness brushes her face, and she opens her eyes upon bright blue veins, streaming through the sediment before her. Forgetting herself, she gasps with surprise. The light meets her lips, dissolving the thumping ache in her chest, and whether it is death or liquid breath filling her with song, she cannot tell.

~

Fathoms deep, the seal king dreams he is a pup again, dozing in the old kelp grove, sunlight slanting through the brown ribbons. Something nudges the side of his face, and he jolts awake to find himself in an azure haze, his cheek on the ocean bottom. He had followed Lou, fighting his lungs’ agonized clamor and the coldness tightening around his skull. But then—

You will hear the song.

Some gentle draught moves in his chest. The old music is back in his ears. His vision clears. Not far away, Lou hovers, her feet pointing delicately towards the sand, her face crowned by the wreath of her hair. He has never seen a human form so beautiful. She beams, her tears one with the sea, and peers beyond him to the open waters.

“Please,” she whispers into his mind. “I love it more than ever. Show me.”

He looks down. His body is still human, but the selkie gracefulness has returned. Hope buoys his heart. With a grin he takes her hand and they are racing, out beyond the islands, beyond the reef, to the deeps.

~

They revel with abandon. He lets his seal-nature emerge. Playing the merman, showing her gardens of lavender anemones and sand as soft as fur. He catches her flying body, riding the currents in a laughing spin. When a rough surge sends them tumbling, they come to rest with Lou’s arms around him and his nose buried in the hair behind her ear. As they separate, their lips brush as unconsciously as a wave folding onto the land. He forms a circlet of golden-green pop-weed for her hair and surprises her with a cave lined in glittering quartz. Breaks open mollusks, reveling in her reaction to the tastes and textures.

They race across boulder fields and canyons. Only once does she stop to marvel at the distance they have come.

“Your homewater. Is it far?”

“How far is far?”

He grins, holding out a hand. But reaching to take it, she glances up. Two shapes are watching them. Slick fur and whiskered faces. Wise black-brown eyes, taking in the levitating pair, joined by hands.

“Look. A human that breathes. And the one shunned.” Kells starts at the sight of a wound torn in the larger selkie’s side.

“We have to keep on!” says the other, and muscle-propelled, the watchers dart away, dissolving into the distance.

“Those were tribal Elders,” Kells says. He frowns. “Time is shorter than I thought. We must go.”

~

The absence of singing impresses him before anything else. Where hundreds of voices in the colony would have been ringing out in chorus, he can sense only hushed murmurs. Rannick has broken them already, he thinks.

“This is your kingdom?” Lou asks.

“It was,” he says.

She glides to look over the edge of rock, and her eyes widen at the sight so familiar to him: a massive crater, extending down through jagged ledges, thronging with selkies.

 “Like a coliseum.” She glances at his body. “There are so many. Without your skin—”

He draws his fingers into his palm, feeling only frailty there. “I know.”

“What will you do?”

“Go down and reclaim my pelt. I have no other choice.”

“All right.”

When she moves to clear the crater’s edge he puts out a hand. “Alone.”

“Why?” He has come to recognize that defiance on her face, more selkie-like than she knows.

“Your presence as a human won’t help. Whatever happens, I’ll bring you back to the boat.”

“We’ll both return.”

“Yes. Before….” An image of a floating, orange-haired body escapes from his mind before he can prevent it. “Before the dawn ends this,” he finishes, gesturing to their water-breathing forms. If his darkest thoughts have transferred to her psyche, there is no indication on her face. She accepts his hands, ushering her into a rocky cleft.

“If they murder you?” she asks.

“There would be no purpose. I’m dead to them already.” He squeezes her hand. “But I promise. Before the Blue Tide recedes, I’ll bring you home. I owe you that.”

“Even though I’m human?” she says.

“I know, now, what it is to be both.”

He hovers a moment on the crater’s rim, studying the look of concentration on her face. Then he swims down.

~

Kells immediately locates Rannick at the grotto’s center, with no one but Veeren beside him. He has driven off the Elders, then, Kells realizes. At the moment he spies his pelt around the bull’s shoulders, his stomach twists sharply, like a caught fish. For an instant, those plush dark folds are all that compel him.

Halfway to the bottom, his presence draws gurgles of surprise from a nearby selkie and calf. Others turn, and the gray bodies begin to circle quizzically, the stares like pinpricks on his sprawl-limbed body.

“Him!”

“The old king’s changeling.”

“Bare, yet he lives!”

“A land-walker, but look—he breathes!”

Closer, now, poking with bristled snouts, curious.

Among them a voice, afraid to hope, pipes up.

“Kells has come home!”

Could I have a chance after all? Kells thinks. He can imagine the spectacle he present—an angular boy-man with black-sheen hair. But behind the colony’s fear, he can sense wonder stirring.

A voice thunders from below. “Are we a haven for deceivers?” Rannick whirls, catching the attention of the assembly, his nostrils wrinkling in disgust. “I warn you! Do not be taken in by this liar a second time!”

“Rannick,” Kells hears Veeren caution from her mate’s side. “The outcast breathes!”

“Illusion! Land-magic!”

Kells can hardly concentrate, so close is he now to the cloak of his own fur.

“No one can take from another the skin in which they were born, Rannick. I travel here at the will of the ocean itself.”

“Listen!” says Rannick with a bitter laugh. “The whelp demands his disguise!” Murmurs of agreement toss back and forth above him, and Kells stiffens as Rannick draws close. “What is he? This body—” The old bull noses intrusively at Kells’ spine, and it is all he can do to avoid crying out and grasping like a newborn for that part of him that flutters by his shoulder like a live thing. “Inefficient. Protectionless.” Rannick’s hind claws rake across the small of Kells’ back, and for a moment, he thinks he hears Lou’s voice above him.

Ignoring the tang of his own blood in the water, Kells calls out. “It is not my blood that makes me who I am. Nothing has changed!”

“Right you are. You remain a liar.” Rannick rears up to his full length. “A liar who in twelve moons did nothing to expand our territory!”

The selkies close by are averting their faces. But they’re still listening, Kells thinks. I haven’t lost them yet. He presses forward, projecting his thoughts to the upper ledges.

“This is what it’s about? Not bloodline after all, but territory? What plenty results from greed, and tribe warring against tribe? Not more to eat, but fewer mouths to feed!” He feels their dark gazes back upon him, the old loyalty emerging. “It was not my father’s way. It is not our way!”

“Hush, outsider!” Veeren hisses, and then, with a bulleting rush of muscle, she and Rannick have slammed Kells against the crater-wall.

“Half-breed,” the bull taunts. “Your rags are no use to me. I’ll send your hide on the outgoing tide. You’ll stay and watch it dissolve in the day-orb’s light.”

“Stay?” They would hold him here. And then—Kells’ dread spills the words from his mouth. “No. Destroy my skin, but she must return.”

“She?” Rannick scoffs. “Mother? Mate? You have no one. This colony will prosper long past the memory of you, the bastard son. Do you hear the waters turning, impostor? Do you feel it?”

With Veeren’s bulk pinning him low against the rock, Kells notices, for the first time, how the sky-circle has lightened above them. Then Rannick shrugs his pelt from around his neck, shoots upwards and sets the garment free. The colony quiets, and Kells’ heart keens. The mantle waves away, further with each moment, a dark void against the surface.

“Watch the dawn take it!” Rannick cries, delight in his eyes.

But like an arc of light, a girl shoots across that silvery sky, catching the yielding pelt in her arms. With uncontrolled speed, Lou flies to Kells, racing downwards, flinging the skin over him and sprawling headlong over the sand.

And there is a hush.

Like the soft fragrant flank of his mother, under her flipper, where no roughness could ever be, the velvet cape enfolds him, and he is home again. He tests, and yes, there are the webs between his claws, there is the contained might of his tail. He opens his eyes, and the colony resumes its song.

“His skin. Regained!”

“The king! The king!”

Rannick’s roar splits the melody. “He is not your king!”

Kells whirls to find that Veeren has already ground Lou into the grotto floor. Before he can think, he has barreled into the other seal, striking with his teeth again and again. Veeren bawls in panic and bolts, streaking unbalanced over the rim.

He turns to find Lou dumbstruck, taking in his new form from nose to tail. She scrambles against the rock as Kells, back in touch with the power of his body, takes his place before her.

“I want my kingship returned.” He glares fiercely at Rannick. “You had no right. You never had a right!”

“You’ve already lost everything!” the bull retorts.

At this, the selkies’ voices resound as one from the walls. No. You have sought for yourself alone, Rannick. Though you are born of our blood, we do not know you.

“Moments ago, this was a man!” Rannick bellows. When the singing continues, he rockets into the seal king’s right flank. Kells’ side explodes in pain, and in a frenzy they roll, jaws fastening and shaking. Then the bull’s teeth clench deep into his neck.

“No!” Lou shouts.

Wrenching free, suffering the tearing of his flesh, Kells knocks the Elder clear with his tail.

“Rannick,” he pants, rising, haggard. “Stop this madness.”

The selkies echo around them. You are offered mercy, Rannick. Take it. This colony will heal.

Shaking with rage, Rannick sneers. “And let him muddy our path? Your skin may be your own, but I promise, I’ll take it from you piece by piece!”

With a roar, Rannick sets upon him. A fury of adrenalin courses through Kells’ limbs, and he loses himself momentarily, savaging the older selkie’s body with his claws. Coming back to his senses, he discovers Rannick tiring, one flipper dangling half-free. Blood clouds the water.

“Don’t make me, Rannick. Yield,” Kells says.

The fallen Elder lurches upright, his ripped muzzle twisting in a grin. “I will not yield.” His gaze drifts sideways. “And if I cannot kill you, I will do the next best thing.”

Setting his head, the bull courses towards the girl with his remaining strength. Kells sees Lou draw her knees to her chest in fear and cries out, his every fiber seizing at the impact. But Rannick’s massive body inexplicably lifts, floating upwards in a dead spiral, revealing Lou, his human girl, her fists around the silver shucking blade’s hilt. Her smiling eyes meet his a moment before following her departed breath up to where the gold of dawn has just broken the Blue Tide’s spell. And she is gone.

~

Current, pulling on their bodies. Dragging against them, but Kells fights it, muscles afire. Streaking through the middle waters, past the last traces of the Blue Tide, now expended and receding. Past the reef, to cast her onto the pebbled shore of the island.

He has shed his skin once more, all cold legs and hands, now, pulsing upon Lou’s heart as he has seen the humans do. Water dribbles from her mouth. Gone. She is gone. Like the night-orb. Like the scent of his mother. Like the foolish tide that led them from the land. On the barnacle-scabbed beach he rubs her in the folds of his mantle over and over, and as the full force of the sun slants over the horizon, he feels her limbs twitch. She shudders and coughs, her face full of disbelief and pain in the coppery rays of morning.

“I don’t have to wonder anymore,” she gasps. “Where I belong. What life is for.”

Tears stream into her wet hair, his sob is a bark in his throat, and she is caught in his kiss.

~

Miss Lou, they call her. The lady running the corner store with the milkshakes and the jars of penny candy is one of the young who stayed. Of which, in the village, there are few.

Was she married? She acted married. But no, no one had seen her wed. Through the years she had lovers come and peaceably go. But whether they never got close enough or whether she favored her solitude more, they never knew. She waited customers at the breakfast counter. She sewed doll clothes for the local children and kept up the flowers by the docks, where the boatmen ate their lunch. In middle age she bought back her grandmother’s house with the narrow steps down the hill-slope to the foot of the sea, where there was a tiny dock and beside it, a tiny boat.

The locals paid scant attention to the island. Not much more than a low hump of earth, grass, trees, and stone rising out of the Atlantic. Nothing there but bird droppings, a man said to his son from their lobster boat passing through on the far side of the channel. Can’t stop. Too busy. Oh, and that story about the Blue Tide? That was just a fable.

But month after month, year after year, she saw him. Leaving the fabric of her land-bed, no matter who shared it, leaving the gray-shingled house with the evergreen shutters. Rowing out, though she could never be a part of his world again. That was all right. For that was her great secret. Her great surprise, discovering, after he had pulled her from the sea, that he could return. Each time walking up the slope to meet her, carrying his skin. Each time laying her on the grass amongst the standing stones, beaming, smelling of that beloved foreignness, tasting of the tide. They laughed like children, girl queen and seal king, and the moonlight melted all else away. Out of all her life, and for all her life, that would be the best part. For the girl with the apricot-colored hair, it would be enough to know, at the end of her story, there would be a full moon, and an outgoing ebb, and a note, reading:

When I am too old to keep on, take me to my little boat and push me out to the arms of the deep. Let the current carry me, where going out meets coming in, and the Blue Tide will take me. To my home. To my soul. To the sea.

North of Hell’s Canyon

Anna Craig

Chapter One

It was almost lunchtime when Bartlette Blue sat down on her front porch to watch the gnats swarming over the lake. Taco, her dog, sat with her.

Taco was a good dog. He’d belonged to Bartlette ever since she could remember—way back to the days he’d had to be especially patient because she was a baby who didn’t know any better, and would sometimes pull his tail. That was the kind of goodhearted dog he was. It wasn’t Taco’s fault he was small and scrawny, or that his fur was missing in patches, or that his knees were knobby. It wasn’t his fault one of his eyes turned out the wrong way.

The girl and her dog stared together at the large man standing by the lake. As they watched, the man aimed his shotgun into the air, steadied it on his doughy shoulder, and squinted his large, bug-like eyes in concentration. “Watch this, now,” they heard him say in the distance. He peeked to make sure the woman next to him was watching. He dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief, stuffing it back into his pocket.

The woman daintily plugged her ears. She was Bartlette’s mother, and next to her date she seemed to Bartlette even more delicate than she usually did. Her hair glinted like gold in the sunlight. Her dress waved just a little in the wind, and her straw hat hid her tired, lovely face.

POW! The gunshot split the air, and instantly an angry, squawking cloud of ducks fanned out, scolding in every direction. They did not appreciate having their quiet disturbed. Neither, for that matter, did Bartlette and Taco.

“Did I get one?” the man said. “Aw, come on. Not even one? Well, lo and behold.”

Bartlette’s mother shook her head gently. “Maybe next time. Why don’t we call it a day.”

Bartlette hugged Taco close and scratched behind his ears.

The man was Preacher Dell, and he was over every week. Usually he arrived on Saturday nights in a rumpled suit with flowers from a parishioner’s garden. Mother always accepted them graciously, but Bartlette believed this was because her mother was gracious, not because she was happy to see him. Sometimes, like today, he came over during the daytime to show off his duck hunting skills or some other nonsense.

He and Mother strolled up to the house. Preacher Dell was so large that his footsteps made the porch creak. “Hello there, Bartlette,” he said. “Taco.”

“Hi,” Bartlette said without much enthusiasm.

“I’ll get us some lemonade before I start lunch,” Mother said, disappearing through the screen door.

Bartlette sat on the porch while Taco busied himself chewing what little hair he had left on his back leg. Preacher Dell made himself comfortable on the swing and sat there rocking contentedly. Bartlette wished he wouldn’t feel so comfortable at her house. He belonged at the church parsonage where he lived.

Bartlette’s friend Sally Rae told her once that Preacher Dell was looking for a wife to carry out church duties he didn’t conduct, like putting on church dinners and potlucks and sing-alongs. He had come out from the Midwest to find a wife, and Sally Rae said he had his eye on Mother. That all the visits he paid were to test out her cooking skills, and to make sure she could sing.

Sally Rae also said her mother told her that Bartlette’s mother didn’t really have any choice but to marry Preacher Dell. It’s what everyone in town was saying, she said. That Bartlette’s mother was living off the charity of relatives as it was. That she was poor, she was about to lose her home, and that she would be a fool to pass up a good, decent opportunity like marrying the town’s preacher. That, any day now, he would be proposing marriage to Mother.

“Thank you, Cambria,” Preacher Dell said as Mother handed him a glass of lemonade. Bartlette kept a close eye on him. If he was planning to pop the question, it was up to her to stop him. Secretly she hoped Mother forgot to put the sugar in the lemonade so Preacher Dell would get a mouthful of sour lemon juice. Then he would think Mother couldn’t cook after all, and he would move on to visiting some other lady. Mother handed a glass to Bartlette, too, who took a quick sip. Darn it. Perfectly sweet.

“Lo and behold, Bartlette, I swear you never get any taller,” Preacher Dell said lazily after several long seconds of chugging down his drink.

Bartlette winced. She knew she was small for a nine year old; he didn’t have to remind her. She had been growing out her short hair ever since a girl at school said long hair makes a person look taller. But it didn’t help. She was still short, her eyes were still small and black, and her skin still burned easily in the sun. Her hair was still dark and stick straight. People still said her face was pointy like an elf’s. Preacher Dell always noted these things as if there was something she could do about them. She wished he would keep his opinions to himself.

“So,” Preacher Dell said, leaning back on one elbow, “what will the lovely Cambria be taking to the church picnic tomorrow?”

This is exactly what Bartlette’s friend had been talking about. It was a test question, to test Mother’s potluck skills.

“Oh, I guess a huckleberry pie,” Mother said.

“Her famous huckleberry pie,” Bartlette added. If Preacher Dell hadn’t been such a recent arrival to the Canyon, he would have known that. Everyone did. Mother always brought huckleberry pie to the summer picnic. Peanut butter ice cream, too, if she had time to make it.

That was the thing about outsiders. They just didn’t understand there were certain ways things were done in the Canyon. Plainly, Preacher Dell did not understand these ways.

For a moment he held his nose and closed his eyes. “Oh, thought I was going to sneeze,” he said. He started to say something else, but then he did sneeze, violently and unexpectedly.  The sneeze was so powerful that, all of a sudden, the hairpiece he wore atop his head dislodged from his scalp and landed with a soft plop! in the pitcher Mother had set out next to them. To everyone’s horror, it floated in the lemonade, stirring around in circles like a drowned rat. Taco growled at it.

“Lo and behold,” Preacher Dell said with a giggle that sounded like an apology. “Lo and behold.” He set his glass down, replaced the hairpiece after a moment of vigorously shaking the lemonade from it, and sat up taller.

“Cambria,” he said now, turning to face Mother, “I was hoping I might be able to talk to you about something….” He sat up. A drop of lemonade snuck out from his hair and dripped down his temple. “Something,” he said, wiping his face, “of great moment.”

The question!

Think. Quick! Bartlette ordered herself.

Looking around, she took tally of anything she could use to distract them. There wasn’t much to work with. She and Nana and Mother didn’t have much. Really, it boiled down to one thing: Taco. In Bartlette’s pocket was the little chewed up toy mouse Taco went crazy if he saw. When no one but Taco was looking, she slipped it out and tossed it in Preacher Dell’s direction. It landed just behind his seat. Taco growled, low, and sprang for it with a series of barks and a fierce snap of his teeth. Which, unfortunately for Preacher Dell, sunk partly on the toy, and partly into Preacher Dell’s trousers.

“Oh, ho ho!” he bellowed, springing up, both hands over his rear.

Mother lifted her eyebrows. She hadn’t seen Taco bite.

“Ha ha ha,” Preacher Dell said. He chuckled again and patted Taco’s head. “Nice dog,” he said, patting some more. “Nice, nice pup.”

But Taco still had Mousie in his grips, and he was in no mood to be patted. Mousie made Taco think he was fierce. A monster. A wolf. A bear! He dropped it just long enough to bite Preacher Dell’s finger.

“Ouch!” Preacher Dell thundered, pulling his finger into his mouth and holding back what looked like the urge to swear quite loudly.

Bartlette could have kissed her little dog.

“Taco!” Mother scolded. “Oh, my. Here”—she reached for Preacher Dell’s hand—“let me look at that.”

“No,” he said with a sideways glance at Bartlette. He gripped his finger. “No, I really should be on my way.”

“But…” Mother asked, “won’t you stay for lunch?”

“I really should go…” he said, clearing his throat, “…work on my sermon.”

“Oh,” Mother said.

Bartlette was triumphant. “That’s too bad,” she said.

Preacher Dell was leaving. Even Nana was away for the day visiting friends. Bartlette would get Mother all to herself for lunch!

“Well,” Mother continued, “I’ll see you at the picnic tomorrow?”

Preacher Dell’s eyes crinkled, and he smiled warmly. “Yes,” he said. “I’ll be there. Till tomorrow, then.”

Bartlette and Taco watched him cross through a swarm of jubilant gnats down by the lake. Poor Mother. She simply didn’t understand what was going on here, just sashayed around the kitchen, humming to herself as she prepared lunch. Preacher Dell’s figure grew smaller and smaller. When he was out of sight, Bartlette brushed off her hands and took Taco indoors. At last. Preacher Dell was gone, and she had Mother all to herself. A whole afternoon together, just the two of them.

And good thing, too. Because it was to be their last.

 

   Chapter Two

Later that night, Bartlette sat at the kitchen table coloring, curled up next to the hissing Rochester lamp. The windows were flung wide open, and a chorus of frogs croaked companionably. “Will the DeWitts be coming up Suicide tomorrow?”

Nana didn’t look up from her knitting. “I believe so.”

Suicide was the perilous trail that lined the impossibly deep mouth of Hell’s Canyon, and it was unforgiving──hungry for failure. The tiniest misstep of man, child, or mule, and it would grab you by the ankle and swallow you up in one big irreversible gulp. But that was life in the Canyon. It wasn’t enough to stop the DeWitts or the other families from coming to the summer picnic. And thank goodness for that.

Way out where Bartlette lived with Nana and Mother, there weren’t many children to play with once school was out. Unless you counted the three-year-old Bascal twins up the road, which Bartlette did not. Beyond her house, past the frogs on the riverbank was an old abandoned log cabin that served as Bartlette’s own playhouse. It had been built by horse thieves with enough money for screens on the windows, and it sat in a cheery meadow of lilac bushes sprinkled with ancient, gnarled apple trees. A cheery house in a cheery lilac meadow. Whenever Bartlette could steal a break, she played school in her fresh air playhouse. She was always the teacher. And since there were no kids to play with, Taco was the student.

“Bartlette, get me another jar of huckleberries, would you?” Mother, in the dim, hissing light of the lantern, was still in the kitchen preparing for tomorrow’s picnic. Kettles hummed on the stove, and on the counter sat an enormous jar of ice cream.

“Honestly, Cambria, I don’t know what you’re going to all this fuss for,” Nana scolded. “Leave well enough alone.” Bartlette got the sense Nana didn’t want the question popped any more than she did.

Sliding from her seat, Bartlette opened the hatch door and headed down cellar. All Mother’s beautifully canned things lined the shelves, with red checked cloth under their lids. Apricots, huckleberries, and green beans sat next to squashes, kettles of cream, and large pats of butter, all the result of their hard labor and the care they took of their garden and Daisy, their milk cow.

“Careful of snakes!” Mother shouted from upstairs.

Bartlette hesitated. “Don’t worry.”

Down in the cellar, the frog chorus was muted and everything seemed very still and dark and cool. Just the way rattlesnakes liked it. Bartlette grabbed the berries and ran upstairs as quick as she could. A sheep ranger down the Canyon was rumored to have survived four snakebites, but if Bartlette had her way, she would never endure one.

As she reached the living room, she watched Nana pack away her knitting needles. “Day is done; we’ve earned our rest,” Nana said.

“You two go on to bed,” Mother said, crouched over the oven. “I just have a few more things to finish up.”

Nana shook her head, but then she kissed Bartlette’s cheek. “Goodnight, dear.”

In her room that was just big enough for a bed and a dresser, Bartlette slipped on her nightgown, cool as the silky moonlight. Taco jumped up, turned around exactly three times, and closed his eyes. And then, in the dry Idaho heat of their snug lakeside cabin, a million frogs sang them both to sleep.

~

Toward afternoon the next day, Bartlette’s family loaded up potato salad, pickles, ice cream, and pie, and headed for the Brodie Sheep Ranch. Crab apples scented the air as they hiked, and birds chirped through the sunlight.

“Look who’s here,” Nana said, looking ahead while Bartlette watched a cottontail rabbit frisk across her path.

It was Nettie. The DeWitts had made it up Suicide! Bartlette broke into a run. “You’re here!”

Nettie, tall and lean and raven-haired, threw her arms around Bartlette, bucket and all. “In the flesh,” she said. “Came through Suicide on Foul Beast, four of us kids astride, and we made it!”

Foul Beast was the mule the littler DeWitt kids rode.

Nettie was so lucky. If only Bartlette had sisters to ride a mule with. She didn’t say this aloud, though. If she did, Nettie would just say, “You can have one of mine!”

Up ahead the picnic was already teeming with children. Everyone, young and old, was dressed in their Sunday best, even though it was Saturday. A picnic was a dressy event! Bartlette, for her part, wore her Sunday dress with the heavy black boots she always wore. Everyone in and around the Canyon wore them, fancy dress or no. Those rattlesnakes.

“Did you hear what happened to Slim Brodie?” Nettie asked, slipping her arm through Bartlette’s as they walked.

“No. What?” A picnic was not only a place to dress up and eat peanut butter ice cream. It was the place to catch up on all the latest gossip.

“Last month he turned eighteen, and he told his parents he was leaving home. Leaving the Canyon.”

“No.”

“Yes. Just up and left.” Nettie smiled scandalously, making the dark freckles splashed across her nose more visible against her tan. Her hazel eyes lit up. “You can imagine how shocked his parents were.”

Ahead was a decorated table with all the food—the best recipes the women of the Canyon had to offer. “I can.”

“It gets worse,” Nettie continued. “When he left, he went straight to Kennewick, and you can imagine, there’s nothing good going on there.”

“No sir,” Bartlette agreed. It was delicious to be in such close agreement with Nettie. “Nothing good going on outside the Canyon, if you ask me.”

“Well, in Kennewick, he got to hanging around bootleggers.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

Bartlette narrowed her eyes. “Hooch.”

“Mmmmm hm.” Nettie brushed her bangs away from her eyes. “And one night he was just drunk out of his mind, and a young lady convinced a judge to marry the two of them, right then and there.”

Bartlette blanched. She could not have been more stunned. Not if Nettie had told her aliens had landed a spaceship down at the bottom of the Canyon in the DeWitts’ sheep pasture and gotten out to introduce themselves. Slim was a boy who had walked to his last day of school with them not three weeks before.

“No,” Bartlette said.

“Yes.”

“Slim Brodie got married?”

“Yep,” she said, “he did. To a drunk girl. She’s living in the Brodies’ house now. My mom says she’s a ‘real winner’. And then she rolls her eyes. Like this.” Nettie did a dramatic eye roll that stretched all the way from one side of the earth to the other. Bartlette was entranced. This was almost too much to believe. It couldn’t have really happened.

If it did, it only confirmed what Bartlette had long suspected. One, that nothing good came of question-popping. Especially if a girl drunk on hooch was the one who popped it. And two, no good, ever, could come from leaving Hell’s Canyon. Terrible things happened when people left. Mother had never left: Nana had never left: Nettie had never left. And Bartlette would never leave. She had been born in the very house she lived in, had slipped into the world and into Nana’s calloused, waiting hands, and then she’d been proudly displayed to a river of guests streaming through the door bearing homemade cheese, bread, and jarred pumpkin.

Bartlette’s own father had left a long, long time ago, and no one in the Canyon had heard from him since. No one had the slightest idea what had become of him. It was as if he had blown away into thin air, like the curling gray smoke of a campfire.

“I’m never leaving,” Bartlette announced to Nettie. “There’s enough trouble here in the Canyon. Safest thing is to stay put,” she said, knowing Nettie would heartily agree.

“Pinky swear?” Nettie implored.

Bartlette held up one finger. “Pinky swear.”

“Oh, you’ve brought your mother’s peanut butter ice cream,” Mrs. Brodie said, standing at the table of food, nibbling here and there. “You know we just couldn’t have a picnic around here without it. Just wouldn’t do!”

The compliment warmed Bartlette. She skipped off with Nettie through the shade of a great oak tree and on to a grassy hill before the cliff. They plunked down tummies-first.

“So what’s new up north of the Canyon?” Nettie asked. “I haven’t been up here for an age.”

Bartlette shrugged. “Nothing much.”

“Has the preacher popped….”

No,” Bartlette said. “And he won’t, if I have anything to say about it.”

They both looked over the guests. Preacher Dell and Mother snuggled close together on the porch steps.

“Don’t worry,” Nettie said sagely. “He won’t ask her now, not here.”

“I sure hope you know what you’re talking about,” Bartlette said. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep him from asking.”

Lying under the enormous cloud-filled sky with Taco usually gave Bartlette a sense of contentment she just didn’t feel today. Something gnawed at her. Something she couldn’t shake.

She sighed and turned away from the party. From the Brodies’ ranch she could see all the way over to the Idaho edge of the Canyon. Every night she watched the sun sink behind that wall, illuminating the steep, rugged cliffs and the valley below. The trail stretched so deep that if Bartlette hollered down, her voice wouldn’t reach to the roaring river. Bartlette and Taco watched a bald eagle glide across the Canyon screeching its eerie, echoing cry.

“Don’t worry,” Nettie whispered. She squeezed Bartlette’s hand. “Hey,” she said, “guess what?” She fished out a pad of paper and pencil from her canvas bag. “Mother is taking three of us kids to see a moving picture tomorrow while we’re up here. Come with us!”

“A moving picture?” Bartlette said. She was surprised Nettie’s mother would splurge on something so impractical. Bartlette was poor, but Mother and Nana didn’t have seven little mouths to feed the way Nettie’s parents did. “How did you get so lucky?”

“They’re having a nickel show.” Nettie scratched out in curly cursive the title of the film and handed it to Bartlette. “Every Dog Has Its Day.”

Taking the paper from Nettie, Bartlette scrunched up her nose. “And you really want to go?” She had only been to the pictures once before.

Nana had talked endlessly about films ever since she heard of them, and one day her curiosity had overcome her. In a completely out-of-character splurge, she had pulled Bartlette into the little makeshift theater to see what this was all about. Nana had not been disappointed, but Bartlette wasn’t as enthralled. Going to town was enough excitement for her. Buying fabric, brown sugar, flour, garden tools—just seeing people rushing about their town business—that was much more fun. Moving pictures were silly. Silly people doing silly things.
“Are you joking?” Nettie gushed. “I’ve never been to see one, but I just know I’m going to love it! Everyone says they do. Come with us. We’re only up out of the Canyon one night.”

“BOO!” said a voice before Bartlette could answer.

Taco shook next to Bartlette.

An impish little face framed by curly brown hair popped up in front of them. His nose and cheeks bore the dark tan and trademark freckles of all his siblings.

“Sam DeWitt!” Nettie hollered. “How dare you startle us like that?”

Defeated, Nettie’s little brother settled himself next to them. He rested his chin on chubby fists. “What do you got there?” he asked, pointing.

Nettie took the pad of paper from Bartlette and handed it to him. “Here,” she said. “Read it.”

“You know I can’t read cursive writing,” he said, taking the paper and frowning at it miserably.

Nettie always loved a good chance to torment her little brothers. “Lord knows they torment me enough!” she would always say in her own defense.

“What does it say?” Sam demanded. “Tell me! I’m telling.”

Nettie snatched it back from him. “It says monsters hide at the bottom of the Canyon to eat little boys who are a nuisance to their sisters!”

“That’s not what it says,” Sam moped. “I’m telling.”

“Go ahead. Tell. Mother will take my side.”

Sam jumped up and stomped off to the food table, frowning, but he lit up when he realized a plate of devilled eggs was within reach. Grabbing one, he stuffed it in his mouth then announced, “Bartlette, your mother is swinging with the preacher!” And he ran off to play with the other boys.

“What?”

Both girls turned to look at the swings hung from high branches in the shady oak tree. Sure enough, Mother and Preacher Dell were sitting, side by side, gently swinging with their boots touching the ground.

“Ugh,” Bartlette groaned. “Nettie, help.”

“Say you’ll come to the movies with us.”

Bartlette sighed. She hated to think of wasting a whole week’s allowance on a film, but, after all, Nettie was her very best friend. “Okay, I’ll come.”

“Hurray!” Nettie said. She sat up, cupping her hands around her mouth. “Sam, come here.”

Sam came scurrying back, his pockets stuffed with cookies. Delicious food was not in plentiful supply in the DeWitt household. Not when money was better spent on warm coats for winter or boots to keep rattlesnakes away. “What?”

“Go tell Bartlette’s mother she’s needed to help dish up the lunch.”

“No.”

“Go on,” Nettie said calmly. “Tell her Mrs. Brodie asked for her.”

“Won’t.”

Nettie crossed her arms. “Sam DeWitt,” she said. “Am I going to have to tell Mother you were the one who let the frogs out of the jars? The night she stepped on one and screamed as if she’d seen the ghost of Grandma Alice again?”

Sam wriggled uncomfortably. “No.”

“Then go and tell Bartlette’s mother.”

Sam huffed and stomped his little foot. “Fine.”

This greatly impressed Bartlette. Oh, the things she could learn to do, if she only had a brother or sister.

“Come on,” Nettie said. “Let’s go find those cookies.” The two girls returned to the picnic table and took one each.

From around the back of the house, a group of ranch hands from down in the Canyon was assembling near the kittens that had recently been born to Brodie Sheep Ranch.

“That ain’t good,” one of the men said, shaking his head gravely. “That sure ain’t good.”

Other ranch hands closed in around him. With soft marmalade fur and marble blue eyes, a kitten was hopping on all four feet to her left. She was so light, it was like watching an orange feather bounce. Taco hid in Bartlette’s arms, whimpering. No stranger to the Canyon, Taco had encountered sharp kitten claws before.

“I seen it, too,” one of the other men said.

“Six toes,” a third whispered.

They all leaned in to look more closely.

The kitten, spooked by the attention, walked in front of a church lady carrying a plate of butter. Tripping over the little ball of fur, the lady lost her grip on the plate, and the butter went sailing through the air, landing a few feet from the startled kitty. But she smelled the butter. And the expression on her little orange face was as readable as a book: I’m going to eat that butter.

“What are you talking about?” Bartlette asked. “She’s a sweet little kitten.”

The orange fluff ball busied herself lapping up the creamy butter, oblivious to the turmoil she was causing.

“Don’t you know?” the third man whispered. “It’s bad luck. It means…”

With their eyes shifting around nervously, none of the men seemed able to say the rest.

Nettie and Bartlette exchanged looks.

“Means?” Bartlette said.

The first ranch hand looked left, then right, then took a step closer to the girls. “Means something bad’s going to happen,” he said. “Soon.”

Nettie giggled. “That’s just superstition,” she said. “You sheep ranchers are all just too superstitious.”

“Yeah,” Bartlette agreed. But the look in Nettie’s eyes told her Nettie wasn’t any more convinced of this than she was. And she wondered if the bad thing could have anything to do with a certain preacher making a certain proposal to a certain Cambria Blue. “Nettie, let’s go check on Mother.”

The two girls scurried across the lawn to the tree swings, but Mother had already gone to help in the kitchen.

“Automobiles,” Mr. Brodie was telling Preacher Dell and a merchant from town. He sniffed. “They’re just a passing fancy. Never replace the horse and buggy.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” the merchant replied. “Have you ever ridden in one?”

“Don’t need to,” Mr. Brodie said. “The day we see a car on Brodie Sheep Ranch, that’s the day they’ll put me in my grave.”

“Oh, now don’t be so dramatic,” the merchant said. “I’ve ridden in one several times. They go nearly forty miles per hour. With no need for a rest. Horses can’t do that!”

“Automobiles are just an amusement for men with too much money and too much time,” Mr. Brodie said. “They’re the devil’s work.”

Mrs. Brodie emerged from the house with her son, Slim, and a girl on his arm. Nettie jabbed Bartlette in the ribs. “That’s her,” she whispered. “Slim’s bride.”

Bartlette sized up the outsider. Once again, she concluded that she didn’t need anything or anyone from beyond Hell’s Canyon.

“Lunch is served,” Mrs. Brodie announced.

Mother, her face flushed from being in the hot kitchen, carried out a tray on each arm.

The young new wife set a large plate of chicken salad on the table.

“Let’s bow our heads in prayer,” Preacher Dell said, and, obediently, every head bowed while he gave the blessing. Bartlette began with her eyes closed, but halfway through the interminable prayer, she peeked. Everyone, including the ranch hands, including the DeWitts, including Mother, was listening intently to the preacher’s words. It made Bartlette realize something she would rather not admit: Preacher Dell commanded respect. He didn’t just act authoritative: he was an authority. Whatever Bartlette’s own misgivings were, Preacher Dell was respected by Canyon folks.

~

Walking back through the lilacs in the late afternoon sun, Preacher Dell spoke softly to Mother. Nana had stayed behind to help the Brodies clean up, so it was just the three of them, but Mother and Preacher Dell were ignoring Bartlette, so she tagged along behind.

She thought, not for the first time, how their house looked like a very cheery face from a distance. The windows upstairs looked like eyes, the red door like a kind smile. Without anyone home, it seemed asleep, like it was napping peacefully in the late afternoon sun.

“Cambria,” Preacher Dell said suddenly. He cleared his throat for several long seconds. “I really need to talk to you…”

And then, they heard it. An automobile. Preacher Dell glared at it, then at Bartlette, as if the interruption had been her fault.

All the forebodings of the ranch men came flooding back to her. The six-toed kitten. The men had been right!

Chapter Three

The auto in the distance headed toward the cabin. Out by the lake where they lived near Hell’s Canyon, no autos ever drove by. In fact, not many small-town people even had cars in 1928. As Bartlette and Taco watched, Mother shielded her eyes to see if she recognized who was coming. “Who in the world?”

It was an elegant car bouncing over the holes in the dirt road. Bartlette had never seen anything quite like it. Resplendent with two different colors of paint, beige and dark brown, it sported fancy white wheels, and its horn sounded, “Aoooga.”

It was heading straight for the cabin, though nobody had any idea who it was, and it kicked up dirt as it went, sending it up in dusty clouds.

When the auto stopped in front of the house, they were all astonished to see a petite, curly-haired woman step out and say in a friendly manner, “Hola, I am Maria. I’m here for Bartlette.”

For a long moment, no one spoke.

Mother’s hand went to her throat. “For Bartlette!” she sputtered. “What in the world….”

“Did you not get the telegram?” Maria continued, unfazed. She pulled a piece of paper from her bag and unfolded it. “It’s from—”

But Mother snatched the paper from her hands and read it herself.

“It’s Blue!” she said with uncharacteristic venom. As she continued reading, her jaw dropped, and Preacher Dell peered over her shoulder.

Lane Blue. Bartlette’s father.

“He’s sending for Bartlette,” Mother said, reading frantically. “Wants her to spend the summer…” she sputtered. “In Los Angeles.” She couldn’t continue. She dropped the papers and put her hands on her cheeks.  “No…no.  I will not let him do this. He can’t just swoop in and disrupt Bartlette’s life. I won’t let this happen. I won’t!”

Relief coursed through Bartlette’s veins. Mother wouldn’t make her go. Mother was on her side.

“Well, now,” Preacher Dell said, picking up the papers, “let’s not be too hasty.” His voice carried that air of authority, something he was well used to in stewarding his congregation. Bartlette didn’t appreciate him flaunting his authority in her mother’s home. “This could be a real opportunity for Bartlette. Think, Cambria.”

“What?” Mother said. “What in the world do you mean? I couldn’t just send her like that with no warning to California. She’s never been out of Hell’s Canyon. No. I won’t do it. I won’t hear of it.”

Preacher Dell put his hands on Mother’s shoulders. “Now, now. Of course it’s sudden.”  He had a pious and, Bartlette thought, fake look of sympathy on his face.“But think of your child, Cambria.” Preacher Dell looked at Bartlette, and so did Mother. “After all, Bartlette is a Blue, and she has the right to know her own father. It’s at times like this we must set our own selfish interests aside and think of what’s best…” he said, smiling smugly, “…for another.”

Oh, go away! Bartlette thought.

“I am sorry,” Maria said, as calm as the cool waters of the lake behind her. “I did not know you weren’t expecting me. I thought the telegram would have gotten to you by now. But the train is leaving soon. Mr. and Mrs. Blue will expect me to return with Bartlette.”

“Mrs. Blue,” Mother repeated flatly. “So Blue has taken up with a new wife.”

Never, in all her life, had Bartlette seen her mother so upset. Anything Canyon life could throw at them, Mother always responded in her strong, graceful way. Unlike now. Now, Mother shook from head to toe, her face pinched with emotion.

But Preacher Dell gently pushed Mother toward the door of the house. “Just go inside and pack a few things. Think what a wonderful time Bartlette will have in California, Cambria. Like summer camp! She’ll be back in time for school to start.”

“Mother, no!” Bartlette pleaded. “I don’t even know Lane Blue. Please, don’t make me leave!”

Leave. The very thought made the hairs on Bartlette’s arms stand on end. Leaving meant going where Outsiders came from. Where terrible things happened and people were completely ignorant of the Canyon way. Where people disappeared like smoke, then reappeared like a rabbit  pulled from a magician’s hat. Bartlette’s knees went weak.

Preacher Dell whispered something to Mother, and a tear appeared on her cheek.

It was no use. Bartlette’s fate had been sealed. Without warning.

She was going.

An hour later, clinging to Mother’s old, broken carpet bag, Bartlette sat petrified on the unmoving train in a seat next to Maria. Mother, Preacher Dell, and Taco all stood on the platform waiting for the train to leave. Almost all her family was there—Mother, holding back sobs as she clutched Taco in her arms; Taco, watching the train, with his good eye anyway, and shaking all over. Nana hadn’t even come back from the picnic yet. They never got to say goodbye.

Bartlette leaned her head out the window. She was crying, and she held a handkerchief to her nose. She had never been sadder in her life. Her heart was breaking—it seemed she was leaving everything important in the world behind. She’d had absolutely no time to prepare herself for this wrenching goodbye. And she was scared.

“‘Board!” the conductor shouted, and the train let go a mournful whistle.

Preacher Dell waved cheerfully. “’Bye, Bartlette Blue,” he said. “Have a wonderful summer.”

I hate you! Bartlette silently screamed. She hated him for being so cheery, hated him for convincing Mother to make her go. Bereft of her loves ones, Bartlette’s thoughts were dark and chaotic and stormy. Her thoughts were especially grim toward Preacher Dell.

Mother lifted a limp hand to wave just as the train crept into motion. She gave a leap and began walking alongside on the platform. “Bartlette,” she said, “write me as often as you can.” She seemed to want to say more, but just as she was about to, Taco wriggled out of her arms. “Taco!”

He was on the platform in an instant. Just as Mother reached down to grab him, he took a running leap to the window where Bartlette sat. He lifted off and was airborne.

The problem was that, from the second he leapt, the train picked up speed, and Taco realized too late that he was heading not for the open window but for the side of the car. Midflight, his expression fell into a worried one. He froze and looked around for any possible escape. If he could talk he would have said, “Uh-oh.”

But Bartlette was quick. As Mother stood with her hands over her mouth, and as Preacher Dell’s bulging eyes bulged even more, Bartlette leaned out the window, spread her arms wide, and caught Taco just before he landed, splat! against the car. He whimpered in gratitude. She pulled him inside as the train chugged away. She held him, a trembling, warm little bundle, tight in her arms, close to her sorrow. She had never loved him more than she did at that moment.

Maria sat next to them, staring in stunned disbelief.

The train wheels clattered over the tracks, picking up speed.

But Bartlette clutched her dog tight and whispered in Taco’s pointy little ear.

She told him he didn’t have to worry. That he had been very brave, and she wouldn’t let anything happen to him. And that they would never, ever be apart.

With a long look back, Bartlette Blue said goodbye to Hell’s Canyon and faced the future in California, where she had no earthly idea what to expect.

But whatever was going to happen, Taco would be with her.

The Popinjays Die Lightly

Caroline Misner

Three days. It’s been three days now and people are starting to ask questions.  David Jones is no longer a name on an attendance sheet; he’s no longer a member of the computer club; he’s no longer one of the blank-faced rabble that pass through the corridors of Hederton High in preparation for a lifetime of obscurity. David has risen above all that. He is now officially “the boy who went missing.”

I sit at the dinner table with my family and prod a mound of tacky mashed potatoes with my fork, trying to look indifferent to the conversation hovering over the plates. Dinnertime is important to my mother. Both she and dad work, but she always makes it home in time to prepare an evening meal for the three of us. We all have to be there with napkins in our laps and proper silverware on the table and the TV off. It’s a ritual performed with the same protocol as a religious rite.

“His mother must be frantic, poor thing,” Mom says and shakes her head and clicks her tongue in sympathy.

“Don’t you know her?” my father asks.

“I know of her. She’s a single mother. It’s just her and David.”

“No word on the boy?”

“None.” My mother turns to me and says, “Gary, you go to school with him. Did you see him anywhere the day he went missing?”

“No.” I try not to look at her but I know she’s looking at me.

“Maybe he ran away,” my father says. “Kids from broken homes tend to do that sometimes.”

“Can’t we talk about something else?” My voice is harsher than I intended and my fork clatters against the plate. I want to flee the table, flee the conversation. But I know better. According to the Rules of the Table, I have to wait to be excused.

“What’s the matter with you?” Dad asks.

“Nothing, I just don’t want to talk about it.” I look to my mother for a grain of support. “Can I be excused now?”

She stares at me, a salt shaker poised over her plate, the machinations of suspicion rolling through her mind. Oh, God, what if she finds out?

“I suppose so,” she says.

A grab a few rolls from the platter in the centre of the table and stuff them in my pockets before dabbing my mouth with my napkin—a feckless exercise since I haven’t eaten much.

“Where are you going?” Dad calls after me as I leave the dining room.

“Out!” I call. “Jim’s having a get-together at his place. I’ll be home late.”

“Don’t forget your key!” Mom calls at my back.

I find my bike in the garage and pedal out past the blocks of proper houses nestled on manicured lawns, past the shopping plaza with its gas station and convenience mart, past the rows of older, more decrepit houses—part of the original neighborhood built before our subdivision encroached on it. Out beyond the twisted roads of the residential area lies the rural communities. Only a few of the farms are still active. Dilapidated houses over a century old squat on fallow land with crumbling barns in the back yard that now house old cars on cinder blocks and broken tractors instead of livestock. I veer to the right and head down Township Route Number 8 toward Jim’s house. The journey takes me a good half hour, even when coasting downhill with the wind at my back. But I don’t mind the ride. The tepid evening breeze whisks the sweat from my face and the exercise energizes my mind, allowing me to think.

We still haven’t decided what to do with him. I want to let him go. Fun is fun, after all, and he’s suffered enough. At first Bryan agreed with me—he agrees with everyone no matter what they say, but Jim promptly shot the idea down. Jim already has three strikes against him and even though he’s a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday, he could still be tried as an adult. He hasn’t set foot in school for months, not since his suspension for threatening the math teacher. He quit, saying the whole school could suck him dry before he sets foot in its halls again.

But that doesn’t stop him from hanging around the property, especially after three when classes let out. Other than me and Bryan, I don’t think he has many more friends, and he waits for us in the parking lot across the street, smoking and eyeing the kids over the rim of his steering wheel. He drives his father’s beat-up old Chevy pickup with rust stains around the bumper and a muffler that sounds ready to drop off. I usually don’t hang out with guys like him. They’re bad news and Jim has already done time in juvenile for break and enter. But he has wheels and I can usually get a ride home if he’s in a good mood. First, though, we have to sit and watch the other kids swarm from the school doors, backpacks swinging from their shoulders. I know most of them and they’re generally a good bunch of kids. But Jim has other ideas and he holds nothing back.

Bryan is his little crony. He always sits wedged in the seat between us, readily agreeing with whatever Jim has to say. He’s not too bright, either. He goes to a special education class for slow learners and there are rumours that he’s borderline autistic. (It’s not nice to say someone’s retarded anymore).

I’ve gotten myself in too deep with these guys. To be honest, I’m a little afraid of them, especially Jim. I know he’s somewhere in the depths of his house. I can hear dishes clattering amid the loud music blasting from the opened kitchen window as I park my bike against a dying oak. The house is like any other in this area: peeling paint stained grey from neglect, sagging porch, missing shingles and a broken upstairs window patched with a sheet of jaundiced newspaper.

A shed stands on a cracked foundation at the opposite end of the weedy property, right at the edge of a neglected field that once produced acres of alfalfa and potatoes. It’s never been painted and the wood is drab and splintered. The door is bolted shut with a chain and padlock. There are no windows except for a cut-out in the shape of a parrot on the door. Jim calls it a popinjay. The shed was built decades ago by his late grandpa, a man who, according to Jim, could do no wrong. He was an old Navy man, served in World War II, a hunter, a marksman, a real man’s man. He even used live birds for target practice, calling them his popinjays. He not only built the shed and the house, but he also single-handedly cleared the land that we now stand upon. We can say whatever we like about the kids in school, the people at the mall, our own parents, even Jim’s drunken lout of an absentee father, but no one—absolutely no one—had dare say a thing about Saint Grandpa.

The shed is quiet for now. David must be sleeping, or more likely passed out. I creep toward the door, hoping no one will see me from the house, and push the dinner rolls through the parrot cut-out on the door. They thump against the floorboards and all is silent again. I turn to head toward the house when I hear the shuffling inside, the sound of dirty denim brushing against wood, the sound of fingernails clawing against the floor.

“Hey!” The voice is as dim and far away as if it came from the bottom of a cellar. David must be getting weaker.

“Hey!” he calls again, his voice a little stronger this time. “Who’s there? Get me out of here!”

He pounds feebly against the door and the padlock jumps. The door rattles and the chain jangles like a ring of keys whose locks have long since been forgotten. I want to turn back and rip the padlock from the bolt but Bryan has already seen me. He’s sitting on the sagging porch steps, gnawing a sandwich and watching me with all the fascination of a toddler at his first circus. I wave and head toward him, trying to ignore the pounding behind me.

“What are you doing?” Bryan calls. Crumbs dribble from his chin and scatter across his lap. He chews with his mouth open and I can see the masticated mash of ham against his tongue.

“Just checking.” I cock my head toward the shed.

“He awake?” Bryan asks.

I nod and wonder if he saw me drop the rolls through the popinjay. For three days I’ve been sneaking whatever food and drinks I could into the shed—half cans of flat Coke, crumbled candy bars from my pocket, broken cookies, whatever I could spare. Jim has forbidden it, at least until he decides what to do with David, but I can’t leave him in the shed like that. If Jim and Bryan suspect anything, they don’t show it.

“He’s banging at the door,” I reply.

Bryan nods and looks past my shoulder. His eyes are so crossed I wonder how he can see anything. It doesn’t matter anyway. The light in his eyes is a dim as a candle on a mountaintop. He shoves the remainder of his sandwich in his mouth and stands up to dust the crumbs from his jeans. He’s so thin he wears a belt cinched at the waist with a few extra holes bored through the leather. His jeans bag against his scrawny hips; they’re faded at the knees and caked with dust.

Jim steps out of the house and looks down at me. For three days now I’m swallowed by a cloud of dread whenever I see him. I used to feel pity for him, but not anymore. After all, he’s had a rough life. You can’t expect much from a kid whose mother abandoned him as a baby and who was raised alone in this ramshackle homestead by his alcoholic father. When I first met him he already had a homemade blue tattoo of a die on his left forearm, pocked with little round scars that looked suspiciously like cigarette burns. He said he gave himself that tattoo during his first stint in juvenile when he got caught shoplifting hockey cards from the Mac’s Milk. He won’t talk about where the scars came from.

“Hey, Gary,” he says. He doesn’t smile much anymore. Only when he goes back to the shed to check on David. Even then, there’s no humor in it.

He steps off the porch and the boards whine under his scuffed boots. The chains around his belt jingle. I want to back away and run, ram the door open with my shoulder and drag David out behind me. But I can’t. I have to look cool. I have to look aloof. If he can do this to David, God knows what he can do to me.

“Hey, Jim,” I say.

“You’re early.”

I shrug, not knowing what to say. Bryan watches us, completely nonplussed by our conversation.

Jim nods his head toward the shed. “What were you doing back there?”

“Nothing.” I kick at the dusty ground with the toe of my running shoe. “Just checking on him.”

“How is he?”

“Awake, I think.” I can’t look at him but I have to do something with my eyes so I look back at the shed.

“You weren’t feeding him, were you?” Jim demands.

“No.” I feign a snicker to hide my disgust. “I just wanted to see how he’s doing.”

“Good.” Jim nods. “Don’t waste food on him. He ain’t going to need it where he’s going.”

“Where?” Bryan pipes in.

Jim grins wickedly. His teeth are stained and the one in the front is dead and black. He won’t say how that happened, either.

“We’re going to have a bonfire at the party tonight.”

Bryan’s eyes spark to life and he smiles stupidly at Jim, who turns and heads back into the house. Bryan trails after him, giggling and begging Jim to tell him more about the party and the bonfire. Who’s going to be there? Where’s the wood for the fire? Can he help light it? Jim won’t answer. He never tells anyone anything he doesn’t want him to hear.

My heart beats so hard I’m afraid it will boom across the yard, afraid David will hear it all the way in the depths of the shed, afraid it will divulge his fate. I can’t believe Jim would even consider such a thing. He always said he’d rather die than go back to juvenile. He’s been pretty good at covering his tracks these last few months, too. From a distance it looks like he’s keeping his nose clean, staying out of trouble, even looking for a job. If only they really knew.

I stand numbly at the foot of the porch and watch Jim and Bryan push through the battered screen door. This has gone far enough.

~

Sometimes I feel so sorry for all those kids. They don’t know what they’re in for in life. Most of them look downright miserable, or at the very least indifferent. They go through the motions like animated marionettes, oblivious to what’s in store for them. I sometimes wonder what their lives are really like. Are they really happy? Are they loved? Who is waiting for them at home?

Jim and Bryan and I would sit in the cab of his truck in the gas station parking lot across the street and watch the kids pour out of the school. The guys walked in groups, their eyes to the ground in front of them, as though eye making contact would violate some unspoken social taboo. A lot of the guys walked alone, or at the most in pairs, their knapsacks swinging against their backs. These guys weren’t afraid to look one another in the eye. They didn’t care about the conventions of intimacy that eye contact suggests. They didn’t seem to care much about any protocol; they did what they wanted. Those are the ones that pissed Jim off the most.

Jim had an opinion about every one of them and he held nothing back. The girls in their short skirts and thick makeup and expensive shoes were all whores and skanks; the quiet girls in clean fitted jeans and bags bulging with homework were all cock-teasers and Miss Prissy Goody-Two-Shoes. The guys were pigeon-holed into two categories: the jocks and toughs or the nerds and geeks. Those were the ones who travelled in groups. The loners like David Jones were Gweebs, a term Jim made up and used liberally. He despised them the most.

Only a few of us could pass muster in Jim’s book and I was surprised that Bryan and I were among them. I really don’t know what he sees in me. After all, left on my own, I’d probably be a loner like David. Jim once said he liked me because I was always fair and non-judgemental. Perhaps I am. I don’t really see it in myself. Now I’m starting to doubt that. I see a lot of things to judge. Bryan has no other friends and I guess he figures it’s better to be Jim’s ally than his prey.

Jim always has a stash of contraband cigarettes in the glove compartment and the three of us sat smoking and watching the customary parade of kids stream from the school doors. Jim was in an especially foul mood that afternoon. It was Wednesday and the weekend seemed a long way off. He leaned into the steering wheel, sneering insults at all the kids that passed us. A few of them avoided the truck. They had been targets before. The radio was on and Bryan fiddled with the dial, hoping to catch a song that Jim would approve.

“Like this one, Jim?” he kept asking. Jim grunted and shrugged; his eyes narrowed as he peered through the smudged windshield.

We’d been sitting there a long time and I was considering climbing out and heading for home on my own. It was a warm spring afternoon and I didn’t need a ride that badly. The parking lot in front of the school had pretty much emptied by then. A few stragglers loitered under the lamppost and the sign that warned of upcoming exams in only two weeks, smoking and chatting, their heavy backpacks sagging over their shoulders. I didn’t know any of them.

David stepped out of the main building, tucking his hands into his jacket pockets. He stepped toward the curb and checked the traffic in both directions before dashing across the street. He must have not seen Jim’s truck idling in the parking lot. If he had he never would have come so close to it. Jim had tormented him for months prior to his expulsion from school and David knew the avenues of avoidance. After all, he was a pretty smart kid. I guess that’s what made him a scapegoat.

Jim’s eyes lit up like headlights when he saw David. He grinned maliciously and slipped out of the truck before I had a chance to ask him what he intended to do.

“Watch this!” Jim muttered.

Bryan gleefully jumped out and followed him. I could have joined them. Perhaps if I had, I could have prevented it, but I didn’t want to be a part of Jim’s little game. Besides, I never thought he would take it that far.

Jim stepped directly in David’s path. Bryan crept up behind him and the two of them circled David like a pair of predators, blocking any chance of escape. At first David tried to ignore them and walk past, but Jim kept jumping in front of him. Finally, David stopped. I couldn’t hear what he said through the windshield and the drone of engine. He threw up his arms and raised his voice a little higher, probably asking what Jim wanted from him now. Jim laughed and crossed his arms in front of himself. David tried to walk past him but Jim grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him back. David stumbled over his heels and nearly fell. He regained his footing just as Jim moved toward him. He shouted back at Jim, who only laughed harder.

I was out of the truck by the time David crumpled to his knees. There is an unspoken code of combat that no matter what, no matter how badly you want to kick your opponent’s ass, you do not under any circumstances kick a guy below the belt. Jim’s thick-toed boot hit David’s groin with a thud so loud I could hear it through the windshield.

“Hey!” I called, waving my arms as I ran up to them. “Cut it out! That’s not fair!”

David was on his knees, clutching his crotch and groaning between heaving breaths. I was sure he would throw up. Jim looked up at me, his laughter inviting me to join the fun.

“What?” Jim said. “I shouldn’t kick him there? What about here?”

Jim hauled his foot back and kicked David square in the face. David flew backward, knocking his head against the pavement. Blood spurted from his nose and a deep cut in his upper lip. He hoisted himself up on his elbows and scrambled backwards like a crab.

“You fuck!” he screamed, and blood sprayed from his mouth. His eyes held the desperate fear of a caged animal. He looked up at me beseechingly. He knew I had never deliberately attacked anyone and that I might be his only salvation.

I didn’t know what to do. If I physically tried to stop Jim, he would turn on me, and Jim is almost a head taller and outweighs me by fifty pounds. I looked back at the school. The kids who had stood under the lamppost had scattered and the parking lot was deserted. A few cars trolled by, oblivious to what was happening right there in front of the Shell station. My only hope—David’s only hope—was to calmly try to talk Jim out of whatever he planned to do next. A distraction might be good.

“That’s enough!” I said. “Leave the guy alone. Let’s go hang out at the park. There’s probably some guys drinking there.”

If Jim heard me he didn’t show it. Bryan was excited, bouncing from one foot to the other and flapping his arms like some flightless bird, egging Jim on.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Jim said. I didn’t know if he was speaking to me or to David.

“Leave me alone!” David hollered.

He tried to toddle to his feet but he was still in too much pain from the first blow. He looked desperate, ready to cry. By then Bryan was laughing too

“Like this, Jim?” he squealed.

Just as David managed to stagger to his feet, Bryan grabbed his arm and swung him against the cinderblock wall that separated the gas station from the vacant lot next door. I never would have guessed that Bryan had that kind of strength in his scrawny body. Perhaps it was because David was already weakened from the last two blows. David hit the wall with an audible “oof!” as a rush of air escaped his lungs. The back of his head hit the wall with a crack that sounded like breaking plastic. Something red bloomed against the dry grey brick behind his head. David’s eyes widened as though he’d just been hit with a lightening bolt. His pupils rolled up in their sockets until only the whites were visible. He fell face first into the pavement. He didn’t crumple or slide down the wall with his back against it. He dropped like a tree cut down at the roots and lay with his face in the pavement, blood streaming from the gash in the back of his head. Both arms were splayed and the fingers twitched against the gravely asphalt.

Bryan was still laughing, skittering around David and pointing.

“Shut up!” I screamed. Even Jim had stopped laughing and stood staring down at David.

I’ve never really seen anyone badly hurt before. Once, when I was a kid, we drove past an accident on the highway between a small car and a semi tractor-trailer. The car was charred black and three paramedics were hoisting a gurney with a body on it draped in a white sheet toward the ambulance. I knew whoever was under that sheet was dead and the thought brought a ripple of fear and guilt through my gut, as though I could have somehow prevented the accident, saved that person from dying.

I dropped down beside David’s body. His hair tangled in the wound in his head. Thankfully, the gash wasn’t as deep as I’d feared but the blood kept flowing and soaking the back of his jacket. I nudged him and his head wobbled loosely. His fingers curled into the pavement, the nails scraping up bits of loose stone and dust.

“Oh, shit!” I’d never been so scared in my life. “He’s hurt bad. What have you done?”

“He’ll be okay,” Bryan snickered and rocked David’s body with the toe of his Nike. “Hey, you. Get up. It was just a goof.”

I looked up at Jim. His face had paled into a mask a panic and regret. He backed away, his whole body trembling. I thought he’d puke.

“He’s not okay,” I said. “What are we going to do?”

“Oh, shit!” Jim pulled away and began pacing the sidewalk, shaking his head and smacking his balled fist into the cup of his other hand. “Oh, shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!”

David groaned and rolled his head from side to side. His arms reached out in front of him as though he was trying to crawl away from us. I looked up at the convenience store behind the gas pumps. It was deserted except for an attendant mesmerized by a baseball game on a small TV over the counter. He’d seen nothing.

“I’ll go get help,” I said and got to my feet.

“No!” Jim stopped pacing. The fear had dissipated. He was back in charge.

“He needs to go to a hospital,” I said.

“We’ll take him,” Jim said. “I don’t want nobody else involved.”

“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “It’s too late for that.”

“Help me get him in the truck.” There’s no use trying to talk Jim into doing anything he doesn’t want to do.

David was a lot heavier than he looked. We hoisted him to his feet. His eyes were at half mast with nothing by milky white between the slits of the lids. His head lolled back and fresh blood dripped into the pavement. The slash in his upper lip had already begun to clot into a jammy scab. He moaned again and tried to stand but his knees bent awkwardly under him.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Jim cooed as though David was suddenly his best friend. “You’re going to be okay. We’ll get you to the hospital.”

On the count of three we lifted him into the truck bed littered with garbage and grit and empty jerry cans. The straps of his backpack slipped off his shoulders and Bryan pulled it off.

“Aren’t we going to put in him in the cab with us?” Bryan asked.

“No room,” Jim said.

We slipped into the cab and Jim gunned the engine. We sped through a yellow light in the first intersection. Cars in the turning lane screeched and blared their horns at us. I sat wedged between Bryan and Jim, who drove too fast, his chin propped on the top of the steering wheel and his jaw clenching and unclenching. I kept looking back at the rear window, half expecting to see David make a miraculous recovery and leap from the truck bed into the streaming midday traffic. A part of me hoped he’d do it.

Bryan rifled through David’s knapsack. There wasn’t much in there: some dog-eared notebooks and homework sheets stuck between the pages of a math textbook, a plastic water bottle with some warm water still sloshing near the bottom. And a cell phone.

“Hey, look at this!” Bryan said and held it up to show us. Jim couldn’t have cared less and ignored him. I snatched the phone away from Bryan.

“Give me that!” I said and stabbed my thumb into the buttons, hoping to find the directory. Maybe we could call someone and let them know what had happened to David.

“What are you doing?” Bryan asked.

“I have to call his parents. Let them know.”

“No!” Jim barked and jerked his chin from the wheel. “I don’t want nobody knowing what happened.”

“They have to know!”

“Not yet!” Jim growled and pressed his rigid chin back into the steering wheel. “Now shut up and let me think.”

“There’s nothing to think about.” I looked out the window. We were speeding past the strip mall at the edge of town, out toward the country.

Bryan noticed it too and said, “Where’re we going? This isn’t the way to the hospital.”

“Change of plans,” Jim said. “We’re not going to the hospital.”

“But we have to; he’s hurt!” I said.

“We don’t have to do nothing!” By now Jim’s cheeks were flushed, and globes of sweat leaked down his brow. “If we take him to the hospital, they’re going to ask all kinds of questions I don’t want to answer. I’ve got my two strikes. One more and I’m tried as an adult. Not juvenile. The real thing. And I ain’t going. I don’t care what I have to do. I ain’t going.”

I really thought Jim had lost his mind at that point. I didn’t know what to say. I tucked David’s phone into the front pocket of my jeans and slumped in the seat, one eye on the rearview mirror, hoping David would sit up and wave to a passing car.

Jim turned down the two-lane road leading up to his property.

“What do you plan to do?” I asked.

“We’ll keep him at my place,” Jim replied. “The old man’s out on a job for the rest of the week and I got a shed out back we can keep him in till I figure something out.”

“You’re out of your mind,” I said. “People are going to start looking for him.”

“Shut up and let me think!”

A dog barked from some distant place as we rolled to a stop on the grassy patch that separated the house from the shed. Jim had driven right over the gravel laneway and across the yard to the back of the house. We slipped out and peered into the truck bed. David was still there, coated with dust and road grit. But at least his eyes were opened and staring fearfully at us. He lay on his back, one arm bent around him and cradling his head. He panted like a wounded animal, his bloodshot eyes darting from Jim to me to Bryan.

“Help me.” His voice was strained and a gurgle echoed in the back of his throat. “I’m hurt bad. I think I have a concussion.”

“You’ll be okay.” I tried to sound reassuring but I only came off sounding stupid.

Jim didn’t say anything. He rounded the truck and pulled a string of jangling keys from his belt. He used one to unlock the shed. The door swung open and a beam of sunlight shot through the popinjay cut-out, casting a golden silhouette against the dusty ground.

“You can stay here for a bit,” Jim said to David as he and Bryan lifted him from the truck.

David’s feet wobbled beneath him but he managed to stand on his own. He looked behind him at the dark yawning shed and a shot of panic froze in his eyes.

“No!” he wailed.

He tried to run away but Jim and Bryan held him fast by both arms. They half carried, half dragged him toward the shed, David’s legs flailing and dragging in the ground like a drunk being tossed from a bar. They pushed David headfirst into the shed. David tried to make a run for it; he put his head down and charged like a wild bull. Jim smacked him with the door and shoved him back in.

“Get in there, you fucker!” he hollered.

David kept wailing “Noooooo!” and throwing himself at the door, making it difficult for Jim to secure the bolt and snap the lock into place. We stepped back and watched. I don’t know where David found the strength. He screams were muffled and the door shook; the lock jumped under the force of each blow.

“Let me out!” he screamed, and the door thumped again.

We watched for I don’t know how long. A few times I thought he’d actually break the door down. I could hear wood splinter near one of the hinges. But it held its place. David’s screams gradually grew duller and weaker, and the thudding against the door dwindled. It was nearly dark by then. David was sobbing and scratching at the wood. White fingertips poked through the popinjay and clawed at the edge. Finally we heard him collapse. The sobs in his throat were coarse as grains of sand.

“You swear you won’t tell nobody?” Jim demanded when we walked back to the house and stood on the porch.

“I swear!” Bryan held up two fingers like a dutiful boy scout.

Jim looked over at me. His face hung whitely in the encroaching dusk. “What about you?”

“Jim….” I stammered. How could I swear allegiance to something like this?

“Swear it!”

“People are going to be looking for him….”

“Swear it, you fucker!” Fury blazed in his voice. “Swear it now, or I’ll kill. I’ll hunt you down like an animal and kill you.”

“Okay. Okay.” I held up both hands defensively. There was no doubt in my mind that Jim would do it.

“Just till I figure out what to do with him,” Jim said and held out his hand. “Now give me the phone.”

I was hoping Jim had forgotten about that. I reached into my pocket and gave it to him. A smile splayed across Jim’s lips as he toyed with the buttons, the screen illuminating his face in pale green light. He tucked it into his own pocket and went into the house without saying another word to me or Bryan.

It took me two hours to walk home that night.

~

Jim toyed with that phone over the next couple of days. We gathered around and checked the messages every time that phone rang. I pretended to laugh along with Jim and Bryan, but my heart wasn’t in it, especially after the second day. Most of the messages were from his mother and grew increasingly desperate. A girl named Amanda sent a couple to him, and some guy who only signed off with the name JB wanted to know why he hadn’t shown up for class Thursday morning:

Wednesday 5:45 pm:
David. I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon. Call home soon as you can. Mom

Wednesday 7:16 pm:
David. If you’re not home by curfew, you’re in big trouble, mister. Call and let me know where you are. I’ll pick you up. Mom.

Wednesday 9:04 pm:
It’s getting late. Call me. Mom.

Wednesday 11:17 pm:
Ok. It’s past curfew and you are now officially grounded. Get your ass home now!

Wednesday 11:42 pm:
Hi, Dave. Your mom called asking if I knew where you were. Haven’t seen you all day. Call me or your mom. Amanda

Thursday 12:12 am:
This isn’t funny, David. I’m getting worried. Call me now! Mom

Thursday 1:37 am:
I got you this phone for a reason. You can kiss that field trip goodbye. You are in big trouble. I have no intention of waiting up for you all night. I got work in the morning.

Thursday 6:18 am:
You are really trying my patience, buddy. If you don’t call in an hour, I’m going down to the school. Mom.

Thursday 7:59 am:
Time’s up. You are in so much trouble! Just wait till I get my hands on you!

Thursday 9:27 am:
Hey, Buddy! Missed class this morning. Big test. Mr. B says you can make it up tomorrow. Your mom’s been calling wanting to know where your at. Call me. JB

Thursday 11:03:
David, if you don’t call me right now, I’m calling the police. I mean it. I don’t have time for this nonsense. Mom.

Thursday 2:11 pm:
I called the police. School is looking for you too. You better have a good excuse! Mom

Thursday 5:27 pm:
No one’s seen you. Where are you???? Mom.

Thursday 6:51 pm:
Saw your mom crying in the school office this pm. Cant find you nowhere. Call. JB

Thursday 8:55 pm:
Everybody looking for you. Police asked me if I saw you today. Told them no. Better call soon. Amanda

Thursday 11:49 pm:
David. Please come home!!! Love, Mom.

Friday 8:14 am:
Still no hear from you. Call. JB.

Friday 10:45 am:
Oh, god! David where are you????

Jim started to panic. He threw the phone across the yard and it landed in the weeds in a plume of dust. We’d skipped school on Friday and met at Jim’s place. I knew we’d be in big trouble for truancy, but it would be nothing compared to the trouble we’d be in once David was found. Besides, there was a cop at school now, interviewing all the students. I didn’t want to be a part of it.

“I told you they’d come looking for him,” I said. I pushed some of the stalks aside, brittle and dry as shredded wheat. I found the phone in a nest of tangled weeds and shoved it into my pocket. “Great, you broke it.”

“Good,” Jim snarled. His lip curled like a caged pit bull. He kicked at the ground and started pacing in his customary way. “They won’t be able to trace him.”

“What do we do now?” Bryan asked.

Jim pushed him aside and refused to look him in the eye. “I don’t know. Let me think.”

“You’ve been thinking for three days now,” I said. “We should just let him go.”

“No!” Jim slapped his fist into his hand. “Not with the cops involved. They’re not taking me in!”

“We have to do something.”

“Tonight.” Jim straightened his shoulders and stared down at me and Bryan, his grin widening with growing malice. “I’ll figure something out by tonight. Meet me back here after supper.”

What kind of supper would Jim have? Perhaps a can of cold beans; if he was lucky, a stale sandwich from whatever he could scrounge in the mostly empty fridge. At least it would be more than David got.

Jim stomped into his house, slamming the screen so hard it bounced back a couple of times on its hinges. I boarded my bike and headed home, hoping to catch the message on the answering machine from the school. With any luck, my parents would never know. No one would ever know.

~

People have started to arrive. Most of them are older than us. They’re all Jim’s friends, the ones he met in juvenile or at the bars he frequents using a fake ID. They arrive in old cars with crippled mufflers and pick up trucks like the one Jim drives. They’re out in the far field now, smoking and drinking from the cases of beer they lugged from their vehicles. I doubt they know about David. Not even Jim would be that stupid, even when he’s drunk.

I can see the apricot glow of the bonfire in the far field. The partiers are whooping and laughing and piling splintered boards onto the flames. Bryan is with them, probably feeling like an insider for the first time in his life. He’s not much of a drinker and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before he gets sick. I wonder how long it will be before those people turn on him, make him their sacrificial lamb. It doesn’t take much. They prey on the weak and Bryan is the weakest person I know.

I can’t bear to join them. I don’t know them and I don’t want to know them. I turn away and head out to the yard. Stars are scattered like paper glitter across the sky, smoky now from the bonfire. The shed is eerily quiet. Surely David must know what’s going on. The music and the noise are echoing off the still night. I tap at the door.

“David?”

There is a low shuffling inside the shed but David doesn’t speak. I pull his phone from my pocket and turn it on. There are more messages waiting for him but I don’t read them. They’re personal. I dial 9-1-1. The phone barely fits through the popinjay but I manage to push it through. It lands with a thump inside.

More shuffling behind the door, then a weak voice:

“This is David Jones. Help.”

Three Poems

Sarah Stanton

When The Rain Stops

I’d tear the ceiling from the sky
to grow taller; dove-tail,
pigeon-tail and rip its bonnet
smaller. In spring the good earth
rumbles, but I a greater fuel—

I want more! A pepper sky
shot up the fields with blue,
the rounding ache of sleep
and the day hot on its hands;
shepherds hop and wailing
upon the fat hill’s side,

the lonesome moan of ewes
and the sob of lambs—

I’d eat this whole world up:
dove-tail, pigeon-tail
and rush it all together;
make my each ambition full
of sun and dirt and heather.

 

 

Scarecrow Song

jackstraw,
where are you
wobbling—cap off
and tum fat, the sum
of grain? did the rain come
slapping at your itchy head
in jealous drops and scare you
once again? tell me, as you wiggle
by the piggles snorting in the barn,
tell me, little yarn and button-eyes:
did the crows come and pick at you
like mutton, scratch your fat bum,
stomp you with twitchy claws
and hollow out your brain?
and when they’d finished
chomping it, were you
just the same?

 

Cloudbursting

girl, go slowly in the yellow evening:
old man thunder’s got a grumble on
downtown and the hot drops of rain
are ready falling with a whip-smack,
a whistle horn of storms singing low.
old man trouble’s gonna blunder on
despite your twirling skirts; despite
your pretty hands the flowing spits
of wind will wander on, that steady
summer song will blurt a sharp note
and bring the showers down again.
but you, I hear you hear the growl
and match it, sing the crackle-hum
and dance the water down as well
as any purple sky, and maybe you
could catch it sleeping. get it loud
and stalk the streets, girl, shake it
out of hiding; let your totems drop
where the worry stops and gyrate,
spin, clap, slap your shins and sing
for sun to come and melt the haze.
ahead is unashamed; behind is just
an empty brolly tottering in the rain.

The Rivals

Sayantani DasGupta

an excerpt from Karna: A Re-Imagining of the Indian Epic The Mahabharata

There is blood all over the battlefield, the broken bodies of warriors and weapons. Spirit shadows rise like mist from the ground, and among the fallen soldiers rides Yama, the god of death, upon his mighty buffalo. Dark as a rain-cloud, with eyes of burning flames, he brandishes a noose and spear in two of his four hands. Newborn babes in Bharat are never given names too early, lest Yama call them to him. And until they are old enough to protest, mothers mar the cheeks of their sons with black spots of kajol, so that the god of death is not tempted by their beauty.

But I cannot be distracted from my goal. Not by the calls of Yama; not by the trickster Krishna, who I know seeks my downfall; not even if Indra, king of the gods, were to charge down on me upon his trumpeting elephant.

I am not afraid, though I have been thrown down from my chariot. Its wheel is stuck in the mud, and even if I were to dislodge it with my great strength, I could not fix its splintered spokes. And so I wait for my enemy Arjun. I wait to kill him, or be killed myself.

Sometimes I think it’s what I was born to do. My only reason for being.

My lips form, over and over again, the holy words of the mantra I will use to kill him. Despite the mystic’s curses, I refuse to forget their magic power. A hundred arrows may fly from his bow toward my armor-covered chest, but I do not need such showmanship. I will send from my bow only one arrow, straight and true. The very sun will burn and fire rain down from the sky.

But I am not the hero of this tale. I am an interloper, even in my own life. This much, the blue-skinned Krishna has shown me. By my very existence, I’ve somehow screwed up the mechanics of the universe, broken the spokes of the wheel of life. Unless Arjun kills me, or so the gods say, the circle cannot turn; life cannot go on in its unending cycle of birth and death.

They know this because it has all happened before. And it will all happen again. They say our lives were already lived out during other ages in other bodies, our joys and sorrows all played out in other times. They say that existence itself is a recurring illusion, veiling us from seeing the truth of the universe.

I don’t know if I believe it.

Reincarnation always seemed like a lot of nonsense to me. Made up by the sages and mystics to keep us lower sects scared. Get out of line and be reborn a cockroach. I never had the patience for that kind of thinking. I knew what I knew. I felt what I felt. This life, this body, this time, this self, was all I had.

But now I wonder if it’s true—if we’re living a story that’s been played out a hundred thousand times, an epic rivalry much bigger than our individual lives.

And so I wait, hoping that this time I can kill my enemy rather than be killed. Reverse the way the wheel spins, I don’t know. Maybe in this life I can change things for good.

~

The first time I saw Arjun, I was thirteen years old but big for my age, so that, when I was out doing chariot repairs for my father, I could get mistaken for a boy of seventeen or eighteen.

Which would make my cousin Avi twelve—but looking like she was about nine.

Avi and I were in the forest. I was up a mango tree, tossing down the ripe fruit to my cousin. Well, not all the mangos. I made sure to eat a good number myself.

“Hey, come on, leave some to take home!” Avi called.

“Two for me.” I ripped into the mangos with my teeth like a ravenous dog. “One for you.”

“You’re disgusting,” laughed my cousin, catching the fruit in her slim hands.

I had yellow juice dripping down my cheeks and chin, but I didn’t care. So high above the ground, the hot sun baking down on me through the tree branches, I felt like I could do anything. I beat the golden armor on my chest and howled, which made Avi laugh even more.

It was nice when Avi laughed. Usually, I didn’t think of her as anything different than me. She was small and wiry, but that made her fast—which came in handy whether we were swiping some chapatis from a chariot stop or taking down some tough guys from another trade sect with a well-aimed brick. But when she laughed it made a sound like a river skipping over stones, and I remembered she was actually a girl.

I surveyed the forest from my treetop perch: the swaying leaves and vines, the cawing birds, the occasional monkey. I was watching a herd of deer darting through the forest floor when I saw them—the saffron-robed man and the boy. They were coming our way fast.

“Avi, up!”

I didn’t need to say anything more. Without a word, she scampered up the tree. I grabbed onto her wrist as soon as she was within my arm’s range and lifted her easily onto the branch. I didn’t even bother to see if she got scratched or anything. We were going to get hurt a lot worse if we were caught.

Avi stilled her breath. She knew as well as I did that we worker sects weren’t supposed to be out in the woods, and we certainly weren’t supposed to be pilfering fruit from Queen Kanti’s mango grove.

I pointed toward the ground. We were hidden by a thick curtain of leaves from below, but we had a good view of the clearing.

The man and boy came into sight. I could see that the man was a scholar as well as a sage, for above his robes he had a shorn head. He was entirely bald except for a tiki, a topknot right at the crown.

The boy was the son of a wealthy warrior family, dressed in a silk dhoti with gold necklaces and armlets. The bow and arrow over his arm were intricately carved and delicate.

“Arjun,” Avi breathed near my ear. Her breath was warm, and I shivered.

So this was Arjun, the Lady Kanti’s third son, the gifted archer. Though he was only Avi’s age, he was already known throughout the kingdom as a warrior of unmatched skill. I’d even heard murmurs that his real father was not the long dead Pandav king, but Indra, king of the gods himself.

Since Avi’s father was Queen Kanti’s chariot maker, he and Avi lived above the palace stables. Which meant my cousin had seen Arjun—at least at a distance—any number of times. But I was an ordinary village boy, and my father fixed chariots for merchants and low-level soldiers, not royalty. This was the first time I’d seen the famous Arjun in the flesh.

The teacher took a few minutes to set up various natural targets around the grove—a stick, a leafy palm frond, and, I noticed with disgust, an overripe mango. Just like the sages and warriors to waste perfectly good food while people went hungry.

Then the teacher did the most remarkable thing. Taking a thin piece of silk out of his waistband, he bound it around Arjun’s eyes.

“All right, your majesty.” The teacher’s voice was soft but full of power. I could hear it as clearly as if he was sitting right next to us on the branch. “Imagine the leaf in your mind, then see yourself hitting it. Feel the arrow leaving your bow as an extension of your own body.”

I took in a quiet breath. There was no way Arjun was going to do it, no matter how good an archer he was. It was hard enough to hit those targets with your eyes open, but with your eyes closed? Impossible.

Everything was silent for a few minutes, as if the trees, animals, the very blades of grass had stilled themselves in anticipation of the warrior boy’s feat. And then Arjun let his arrow fly. He hit the leaf just where his teacher had marked. Then he hit the stick too. It was pretty impressive, I had to admit. But I couldn’t help but feel gleeful when the third arrow missed its mark, hitting just to the left of the overripe mango.

“Your highness, forget the other successes. There is no past, no future,” The teacher said, his hand on the boy’s muscular shoulders. “Think only of the fruit, this moment, this arrow.”

I wiped the drying mango juice from my mouth onto my shoulder. Without even realizing it, I took out my homemade bow and threaded one of my crudely crafted arrows onto the string. Closing one eye, I cocked it halfway back.

“What are you doing?” hissed Avi. I don’t know if she spoke the words out loud or if I just knew her well enough to hear them without her having to actually say anything.

I shook my head. I wasn’t going to shoot the arrow. I wasn’t completely crazy. If we worker sects weren’t supposed to be in the Lady Kanti’s fruit orchards, we certainly weren’t supposed to be there with homemade weapons. In fact, no worker sect was supposed to own weapons at all. Such a crime was punishable by exile, or even death.

But the prince missed again. The teacher sighed.

“Concentrate, young majesty.”

“I am,” Arjun protested, yanking off his blindfold. “Guruji, I don’t want to disappoint you, but I can’t do it. I’m not good enough.”

I almost snorted aloud. The best equipment, the best training, the best of everything, and this spoiled rich kid was giving up so soon? If I had those kinds of opportunities, I would never give up, I vowed to myself. Never.

It was only a few seconds later, though, that I’d have to live up to that promise.

“All right then, young man.” The teacher looked straight up at our tree branch. “I know you’ve been wanting to give it a try. Do you think you can hit that mango from where you sit?”

Avi gasped. The teacher knew we’d been up there the whole time. I should have guessed. Damned holy men and their magical ways.

My cousin shook her head, her face screwed up with terror and fury. “Don’t you dare,” she whispered.

But I could feel the excitement building up in my blood. I was an excellent shot, even at thirteen years old, and with no training at all. I tried to remember the teacher’s words, and visualized my arrow plunging into the mango’s soft flesh.

“NO!” Avi breathed, as I let my weapon fly. From our angle up in the tree, I could barely see the yellow fruit. I felt, more than saw, the arrow pierce the ripe skin of my target.

“Very good.” The teacher clapped. “Now, would you like to come down and show us your face, young marksman?”

“Stop!” Avi practically yelled. “You idiot!”

But I was already on the ground in one leap, leaving her to clamber down from the tree by herself. I clutched at my weapon and pulled myself to my full height, which was an inch or two taller than Arjun.

But I didn’t have time for the rich boy right now. My heart was hammering in my chest as I faced the teacher.

I knew he could have me taken by the morality patrols, have my family shamed, even exiled from our village. But somehow, I knew he wouldn’t. The robed man wasn’t exactly smiling, but his narrowed eyes gleamed with something as they stared at me. Curiosity?

“Your name is Karna?”

I bowed low to the teacher. In Arjun’s direction, I gave a half-hearted bow as well.

“You’re a worker boy!” Arjun sputtered. “You shouldn’t have a weapon! Where did you get that?”

I gritted my teeth and was about to take a step in his direction when the teacher’s comment to Arjun stopped me as firmly as if he’d put a hand on my armored skin.

“A man is like a river, young majesty. One cannot always know his origins.”

Something in this odd statement pricked at me, like a mosquito nipping at my subconscious. But like most things I couldn’t understand, I swatted the discomfort away. Damned obscure holy men.

“I would guess that young Karna made his own bow and arrow,” the teacher went on. “And even taught himself how to shoot it.”

I swelled with pride.

“Am I right?”

I nodded. “I don’t have too many.” I plucked the arrow out of the fruit I’d split in two and placed it back in my makeshift quiver. Then, hoping the teacher wouldn’t notice, I slipped the fruit into my pocket too.

It was only then that I realized that Avi hadn’t made it down from the tree yet. In fact, she was hanging off a low branch, still a few feet from the ground.

“My cousin,” I started, running back toward her.

But Arjun made it there first. “You can let go, boy,” he called. “I’ll catch you.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. With her hair covered, in her dusty boy’s clothes, there was no reason that Arjun would think she was anything other than what she appeared to be.

Avi dangled a few more seconds from the branch. “I can’t….”

“Of course you can, boy; I won’t harm you,” Arjun laughed. “Let go!” His voice was light. How easily he shrugged off his failure, and our little conflict. It was never so simple for me. I seethed as he held his strong arms in her direction.

Maybe forgiveness was a privilege only the rich could afford.

“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t mean to cause trouble.”

I ground my teeth. We may not be royalty, or warrior sect, but why should Avi humble herself to this spoiled rich boy?

But then she let go. I watched as my cousin—whom I’d thought of up to that point as nothing but my buddy, my best friend—landed light as a feather in Arjun’s outstretched arms.

They were both laughing as he set her down. He may have had a baby face, but Avi still had to crane her neck to look up at him.

“Thank you, sir,” she breathed. “You’re too kind.”

“Don’t I know you?” He squinted at her. “Wait a minute….”

It was about time to nip this friendship in the bud.

“I’d better get my cousin home.” I gripped her wrist, and yanked her away from the curious archer. I noticed with a pang that Avi’s eyes were still locked with Arjun’s. Despite his dark skin, his eyes were shockingly blue, almost as blue as mine, and she seemed to have taken a wrong turn somewhere within them.

I pulled a little more firmly on her arm. She didn’t budge.

“I’d better get my cousin home,” I repeated, louder.

The teacher muffled what I thought was a laugh. “Meet me in the grove tomorrow morning, young man.”

“I’m sorry?” Avi and I both whipped around to face him.

“Bring your bow and arrows,” the teacher went on. “As long as Queen Kanti approves, I’ll be training you every morning before I work with the young princes.”

With a wave of his hand, the teacher silenced the protest on Arjun’s lips.

“You’re going to train me?” I breathed. It was unheard of. A worker sect being trained by a proper teacher? We weren’t even allowed to learn our letters anymore. And I was going to learn the ancient ways of war? It was a dream come true.

The teacher nodded. “And you can bring your young cousin here, too, if she would like to watch.”

Avi froze, as if she were a statue. For me, it took another second to register.

She. He’d said she. Oh, gods.

I saw Arjun’s azure eyes widen as he turned back toward Avi. “Wait a minute….”

“If you tell anyone, rich boy, I’ll rip your throat out,” I roared, but the teacher’s hand was firm this time on my arm.

Avi fell on her knees before the archer. “Please, sir, no one at the palace knows….”

I roared again, this time at the sight of her kneeling, but everyone ignored me.

“Never will your secret pass these lips,” he murmured, helping her to her feet. “If only to pay penance for ever thinking you a boy.”

They locked eyes again, and I felt… what? Jealousy? No, it couldn’t be. Yet Avi’s awe-filled expression churned up a bitter emotion in my gut I’d never felt before.

“Don’t forget, Karna, tomorrow morning in the grove,” the teacher called.

I yanked an unusually quiet Avi out of the forest behind me. “I won’t forget.”

I could never forget that day. The day I met my teacher. The day I met my enemy.


To read an essay by Sayantani DasGupta, click here.

To read more YA and Children’s Literature, click here.

An Excerpt from Marble Boys

Tamara Ellis Smith

ZAVION

From high in the sky, above the pathways of parrots, above cloud lines, above the blue—where the moon and the sun take turns shining over rivers and valleys, oceans and forests, towns and cities and farmlands—from here you can see things. A spiral of thick white wind chases its tail; rain crashes down like an endless bucket of marbles tipped on its side; fish dive deep to escape the deafening sound; stray dogs slink to the edges of buildings and press their bodies against the walls; people fill plastic bottles with water, push furniture against doors, grab the hands of their children and pull them up flights of stairs.

It is a hurricane.

~

The wind wrapped itself around the two-by-fours that held Zavion’s house straight and tall. Zavion sat on the floor in the attic. The wind pushed and moaned just beneath the sheetrock. Papa had called the attic the top of a mountain. But a real mountain would rise above this wind and Zavion would be safe.

He was not safe. Not here.

The wind snuck through the walls. First up and then it pounded. Then sideways. Pound. Then down. Pound. Then down again with a piercing squeal. Zavion didn’t know where he would feel it, or where he would hear it next. His teeth chattered. He squeezed his eyes shut, but that didn’t stop the wind and that didn’t stop his body from shaking so hard he thought his heart might shake right out of his chest.

~

HENRY

From high in the sky, you can see the spiral of ocean water, moist air and wind. You can see the hurricane.

But that’s not all you can see. If you turn your head, if you look north, you can see another spiral. A spiral of cold mountain air, a boy and his heart. Listen to the beating of that heart. Pounding, pelting, whooshing like rain and wind. Inside the boy, rain falls fast and wind blows hard.

It is another kind of hurricane.

~

Henry’s legs ached; his breath and heart pounded in his ears. But he wasn’t running. His legs itched to run. To run on the mountain, behind Wayne’s house, in their small town in northern Vermont, half a continent away from the hurricane in Louisiana. Henry wanted to run on the mountain with Brae at his heels and Wayne by his side. Like the very last time.

~

ZAVION

“Zavion!” Papa called through the wind. He sounded far away but he was only downstairs.

“Papa!”

“I’m coming up!”

Zavion’s eyes darted around the room. Nothing was where it should be. Papa’s rolls of canvas caught and tore on nails protruding from the walls. They flapped in the wind like shredded flags. Zavion crawled over to the window and held onto the sill. He peeked outside. It was morning, but it seemed like the wind had blown the hours forward into night.

The dark sky poured rain on Zavion’s street. Only it wasn’t a street anymore. It was a river. The wind came again and Zavion’s hands shook as he gripped the wooden sill. He pressed his chin against his hands to still them, but then his chin shook too.

Outside lay an enormous oak tree split in half. A work boot, jammed between two dangling branches. A lamp, sucked in and out of the water. Some of the roofs had broken off of his neighbors’ houses and sped down the river. Someone clung to one of the roofs. He strained his eyes to see who it was and—was it? Yes. His neighbor’s daughter, Tye. Her father was a painting buddy of Papa’s. Zavion took care of Tye sometimes, when her father and Papa painted together. It was so easy to make her laugh.

The wind gusted. She slipped on the wet roof.

Zavion closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he couldn’t see her. He couldn’t see her. All he could see was water.

Papa was wrong. This was not the top of a mountain. A mountain would rise above this.

This was the end of the world.

~

HENRY

But he’d never do that again. He’d never run on the mountain again. Not with Wayne.

It wasn’t going to happen. Ever. Again.

Because here he was, in front of Wayne’s casket.

His legs twitched. His breath and heart too. Henry imagined he would twitch and twitch and twitch and explode. A loud bang and bits of his body would tear off and land all over the church. A hand in an organ pipe. A leg on a pew. His nose on the pulpit, right on the open page of the Reverend’s Bible.

“Henry.” Mama’s voice through the downpour of body parts. It sounded so far away but she was right by his side.

Henry didn’t answer.

“You can touch him if you want to,” Mama whispered.

Henry’s arm was outstretched. His hand hovered over the casket. He yanked it back. He didn’t want to touch Wayne; he didn’t want to look at Wayne; he didn’t want to be in this church on this day staring at Wayne, dead. Wayne’s mouth was closed, but the corners of his lips were turned up and the middle parts were pushed down so he looked like a stuffed animal. He looked like a stupid stuffed dog that some girl would carry under her arm. He stared at Wayne’s mouth, searching for thread or glue. Whoever it was that fixed Wayne up had done a real crap job. He must have used Wayne’s school picture from last year because Wayne had made that same stupid face for the photographer. Henry had called him Rover for weeks.

And now Mama wanted Henry to touch him.

Jeezum Crow.

~

ZAVION

Zavion’s fingers dug into the wood on the sill. He tried to calm himself. He remembered the bench outside his school where he sat to tie his sneakers before he ran home every afternoon. Tye sitting on the stoop, her nose wrinkled and popsicle juice dripping out of her laughing mouth. His bed neatly made. Bread baking in the oven. His turkey and cheese sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper and lined up in the refrigerator.

“Sweet Jesus!” Papa stood at the top of the attic stairs, soaking wet. “The first floor. It’s flooded. Sweet Jesus. I couldn’t save anything.”

“What about your paintings?” asked Zavion.

“All my murals. All my paintings. They’re gone.” Papa dropped an armful of cereal boxes and two cartons of juice onto the floor. “This was all I could get.”

“I’ll get the survival kit,” said Zavion. He’d made it himself, put it in the downstairs hall closet.

“There are water moccasins down there, Zav. Snakes swimming in our kitchen.”

“What?”

“You’re not going downstairs.” Papa stood like a gate in front of the stairway, but his eyes moved frantically around the room. “We gotta get out of here.”

Zavion pulled the ruined canvases over to the window and he and Papa waved them like flags, trying to get the attention of the helicopters flying overhead. One, two, three helicopters passed them by. They kept on going.

The wind gusted and flung Zavion to the attic floor.

~

HENRY

Wayne didn’t belong here. He didn’t belong here with pink lipstick on his lips and his hair slicked back with gel, a wacked-out fake dog stuck in a box. Wayne belonged on the mountain.

The treasure box didn’t belong here either, but there it was. Sitting there, tucked under Wayne’s stiff arm. The brown leather, rubbed through at the hinges from opening and closing so many times. Henry remembered talking with Wayne’s mother and father, Annie and Jake, about what should go into the casket with Wayne. Annie hadn’t wanted to put anything in, but Jake convinced her that the treasure box, and a few treasures, should be with him. Henry just stood there.

Until they put the marble in the box.

Henry had found the marble on the windowsill in his room when he and Mama moved into their house six years ago. He’d put it in his pocket, and that was the afternoon he’d met Wayne. That was the beginning of the luck.

Henry and Wayne traded the marble back and forth after that. Whenever Jake went on a long truck job, Henry gave it to Wayne. Whenever Henry went to visit his own dad, Wayne gave it back to him. If Wayne had a baseball game, he got it. If Henry had a football game, he got it. The marble practically had a string attached to it. Back and forth. Back and forth, it wove the luck between them.

Now the marble was stuck in the box, stuck in the casket, about to go under the ground, about to be buried, buried forever with Wayne’s dead body.

~

ZAVION

“The walls are breaking,” Papa said. “We have to find a way out of here.”

The wind found a path it liked. It was a violin bow then, squealing back and forth across the two-by-fours. Back and forth, back and forth. Screaming. It splintered the walls of the attic and set itself free.

But the wind stayed inside of Zavion. The screaming wind filled him. Stayed twisted around the bones in his body.

Zavion pulled himself up. He and Papa waved the white flags again and this time when a helicopter flew overhead it shone its lights on them. But then it just kept on going. It kept on going. It kept on going.

~

HENRY

Henry’s legs throbbed.

“I have to get out of here,” someone said behind him.

Henry turned. It was Jake. His voice sounded too loud for his body.

Mama was in the back of the church, hugging Annie. The door opened, clapped shut. Jake left. A group of Henry’s schoolmates sat on the back of a pew. The Reverend picked up hymn books.

No one looked at Henry. Or at Wayne. No one.

Henry put his hand into the casket. He opened the treasure box and grabbed the marble between his thumb and fingers. He closed the old leather lid. He touched Wayne’s arm—a cold, rubbery arm—and he exploded. He exploded into a million fiery pieces as he held the marble in his hand. He exploded. He felt his eyes, his ears, his belly, legs, feet, heart all scattered and burned. All over—in the organ pipes, the pews, the open pages of the Bible.

Then Henry clutched the cold, cold marble. He pulled himself together and ran out of the church.

~

ZAVION

The street was gone. Just an endless river, rising higher and higher and higher. Crouched in the attic, Zavion wished he could reach up into the sky. Turn off the faucet before the whole world overflowed. But wishing did no good. The world was falling apart.

Zavion wished he could climb to higher ground.

But wishing did no good.

The real night had come and gone. Not one helicopter had stopped for Zavion and Papa. Their cereal was gone. Juice, gone. The shingles on the roof of their house cracked and snapped. Zavion watched the dark, rising water suck them down.

“We have to get out of here by ourselves,” yelled Papa. His voice was sucked into the wind and rain too. “The house is falling apart.” He stared out the window. “Look—”

Water. All Zavion saw was water.

“That—” said Papa, pointing. “I think it’s a door.”

Zavion strained his eyes and saw something flat racing toward them.

“I’m going to jump onto that door,” said Papa, “and then you’re going to jump after me. Understand?”

A piece of the window frame tore off the house and plummeted into the water.

Papa balanced on the ledge of the attic window and jumped. The water was so high that it wasn’t far, but Zavion still held his breath until Papa’s feet hit the door. It tilted back and forth like a seesaw. Papa grabbed onto a corner of the house to keep the door from rushing down the river.

“Jump!” Papa yelled. Another piece of the window frame tore loose.

Zavion climbed onto the window sill. He had a strange, strong urge to jump up, not down. To jump up and fly. Fly up, and up, and up.

The wind squealed through the walls of the attic. Long and loud. An entire length of clapboard peeled off the side of the house.

“Zavion!” Papa yelled again. His voice matched the wind. A high-pitched scream. “Jump!”

Zavion closed his eyes and jumped.

The Screaming Divas

Suzanne Kamata

Trudy was riding a city bus, trying not to inhale. The passenger next to her smelled of sweat and garlic. Someone had let out a fart.

She was trying not to listen either. She was doing her best to tune out the endless nattering of the woman behind her. It wasn’t that hard. Trudy had a radio in her head, and whenever she wanted, she could turn up the volume. Right now, Diana Ross and the Supremes were singing, “I’m livin’ in shame / Mama I miss you / I know you’re not to blame / Mama I miss you.” It was one of their older songs, recorded after Flo was gone, and just before Diana set out on her own. Before things started to go downhill.

Trudy was a little scornful of Diana for deserting the group. She’d never do that to her girls. And they’d never be Trudy Sin and the Screaming Divas. It sounded stupid anyway.

She fingered the stuffing coming out of the ripped vinyl seat in front of her, then turned her attention to the scenery outside. They were passing through a neighborhood of one-story brick houses with neat lawns, many decorated with garlands of colored lights or pine branches.

Sometimes, when she found herself alone, she’d go out walking around. As she passed each house, she’d make up a little story about the people who lived there. She could sometimes see them through the windows, especially at night when the houses were lit up and she was covered by the dark. They’d be watching TV or having dinner or reading the newspaper.

Once she saw a mother and daughter dancing together. A waltz, it looked like.  Maybe the woman was trying to teach her something. Trudy stood on the sidewalk watching until they missed a step and collapsed against each other in a fit of giggles.  She and Sarah had never laughed like that together.

If only her mother had been a stay-at-home brownie baker—and she wasn’t thinking of Amsterdam hash brownies—a one-man woman, someone who cared about what other people think, even.

Instead, Trudy had gotten a mother who squeezed out babies and then played favorites. She wasn’t really into the kids. She’d had her own agenda from day one.  She’d wanted to rebel against her staid upbringing, the all-girls’ school, the white gloves and embossed stationery, “sir” and “ma’am.” Trudy thought that she understood.

Now, the bus wheezed to a halt and Trudy got off. She walked a couple of blocks under oaks and maples until she reached her destination. She stood at the foot of the driveway, unable to move any further, staring at her mother’s house. It had been her house once, too, back before she’d gotten arrested.

Trudy’d been hauled away, at her own mother’s behest, for a pair of sunglasses.  She’d been bold—too bold—taking the mirrored lenses into the dressing room along with a pair of jeans. When she’d emerged from the curtained cubicle, sunglasses perched on her head like a tiara, she’d found a clerk hovering just outside. “Too big,” she said. She handed over the jeans without even looking at the middle-aged woman in the faded employee smock, and strutted out the door.

“We’ve been watching her for some time,” the store manager told the cops later.  They were sitting in a little room at the back of the store: Trudy, the policeman, the manager, Trudy’s mother. Sarah sat there chain-smoking. She didn’t say a word, but Trudy knew that she was trying to distance herself from the whole scene. Fight the negativity. Focus on the positive. Sarah, the rich Charleston deb-turned-hippie. She was probably imagining peace signs or colors—green, maybe—or sheep.

Trudy sat staring at the sunglasses on the desk. They were ugly. She didn’t really want them. She probably would have given them away or ditched them in the parking lot. It was the thrill that she was after, the sweet adrenaline rush.

They’d all had their say. Officer Fred looked from the store manager to Sarah’s mother and back again. “So what do y’all wanna do?”

Trudy could tell he was hoping for an easy solution. An apology and a few weeks of sweeping up the shop floors, for instance. Maybe he was overdue for a donut break; maybe he was sympathetic to her situation. But she knew by the way the manager avoided her eyes that the woman didn’t like her. And she knew all about her mother.

Sarah fixed a cool gaze on her daughter and blew out a long stream of smoke.  “Officer, I’m afraid I don’t know how to deal with her anymore. I think she needs to be taught a lesson. Why don’t you go on ahead and arrest her.”

Officer Fred looked to the lady in the smock, registered her timid nod, and sighed.  “All right then. Trudy Baxter, you’re under arrest.”

~

Now, having served her sentence, she stood at the edge of the yard of the house where she’d once lived. She tried to guess at what was going on inside. Maybe Sarah was walloping Baby Ken, who must already be about two. Or maybe she was sitting on a pillow, meditating, trying not to think about all the sorry details of her life.

Sarah must have had big dreams at one time—something more than a series of loser husbands and this house in suburbia—but Trudy couldn’t remember what they’d been.

She reached into her jeans pocket and felt the cassette: a tape of Supremes songs as covered by The Screaming Divas. It wasn’t studio quality; they didn’t have that kind of money yet. But it would show Sarah that she’d been doing something with her life.  That she was going to be somebody.

She took a deep breath and a step up the driveway. Then another and another, till finally she was on the porch, at the door with her fingertip hovering over the glowing button of a doorbell.

What if Sarah wouldn’t let her in the house?

She closed her eyes and summoned up whistles and applause, the girls in the front row who copied her clothes. She was a diva, damn it, and nothing was going to get her down.

She pressed the doorbell.

She could hear the commotion inside—the blare of a TV, Ken’s squalls, her mother’s sharp voice. And then footsteps, a pause as someone looked through the peephole, followed by the jangle and clink of the chain lock. The door opened.

Sarah stood there, eyes narrowed, hip cocked, cigarette held like a roach. She took a drag, studied her daughter. “You’d better not be in some kind of trouble again.”

Trudy ignored her and held out the cassette. Now seemed as good a time as any to give it to her. “Merry Christmas,” she said. “I made this for you.”

Ash from Sarah’s cigarette dropped to the floor, but she didn’t seem to notice.  She put the butt in her mouth and squinted through the smoke as she examined the tape, turning it over and over in her hands.

Sarah looked older. It had been less than a year since they’d last met, but the crinkles that rayed out from her eyes were deeper. Her hair looked a little ratty and her roots were showing. Trudy wondered how her latest marriage was going, but she wasn’t about to ask. She was still standing on the porch.

“I have a band now,” she said. “We play in Columbia all the time. People say we’re really good.”

Sarah looked up then. “You look like you’ve lost some weight. Are you eating all right?”

“Yeah, ma. And working hard. With my band.”

“Huh. Your daddy was in a band once. He never made any money at it, though.  Never got famous.”

“I know. I lived with him for awhile.” She’d stayed with him after she got out of juvie. That’s when she’d started her band.

“Guess I knew that.”

At last, Sarah opened the door wider and stepped back. It seemed she’d figured out that Trudy wasn’t about to torch the place.

“Well, let’s see what this sounds like,” she said, brandishing the tape.

The living room looked the same as she remembered—thick beige carpet, stained in some places from coffee spills; a maroon vinyl sofa; a glass-topped coffee table stacked high with magazines. An artificial Christmas tree hung with candy canes took up one corner. It was so utterly middle-American that Trudy could hardly believe they’d once lived in a teepee.

Just then, Ken toddled into the room. When he saw Trudy, he went for cover behind Sarah. He didn’t remember her at all. Trudy guessed that her name never came up in conversation and that they didn’t keep pictures of her around.

Her other half-brother and sister were nowhere in sight. They were probably with their father for the holidays, as usual.

She plopped down on the sofa while Sarah tried to disentangle herself from the curly-haired boy attached to her legs.

“What’s this?” she asked, nodding in the direction of the tape player. “Sounds like ‘Baby Love.’”

“…all you do is treat me bad / break my heart and leave me sad….” Trudy’s voice blasted out of the speaker, fast and frantic. You could hear her gulping for breath between phrases.

“Yeah,” she said. “We do a lot of Supremes covers.”

Sarah shook her head. “You ruined my favorite song.” But she was smiling.  Amused. “You want something to drink? Beer? Iced tea?”

“Tea is okay.”

Sarah kept talking as she went into the adjacent kitchen, Ken still tugging on her leg. “Hey, whyn’t you go say ‘hey’ to your sister?” And then, “So you’re keeping out of trouble, huh? That’s good. I heard Grandma and Grandpa were sending you some money, and you know that if they hear anything bad, they’ll cut you off. Like they did me.”

“I know that.”

Sarah came back with a tray of drinks and pretzels in a bowl. “You’d better eat a little. You look skinny.”

They sat there, side by side, for a few minutes, listening to the tape.

“I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you that we’ll be moving soon,” Sarah said at last.

It figures, Trudy thought. She probably would have skipped town without saying a word if Trudy hadn’t dropped in. Trudy stared at the ice in her drink.

“We’re going to California,” Sarah continued. “End of next month.”

Well, California might be a cool place to visit someday. Trudy had always wanted to go to Hollywood. If things kept going well, maybe the Divas could go on tour out West.

“Good luck,” she said, forcing herself to meet her mother’s eyes.

Sarah reached out then as if she were going to touch Trudy’s cheek or smooth down a strand of hair, but midway, her hand dropped to the sofa. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know I haven’t been the kind of mother you wanted.”

Trudy shrugged. “I guess you did your best.”

As soon as she finished her tea, she stood up. “I’ve got a bus to catch. See you later.” She was walking out the door before Sarah had a chance to stop her. Or not.  Her heart was banging like drums.

She was halfway down the driveway when she heard Sarah call out, “Thanks for the tape!”

“Hey, no problem,” she shouted back. “Send me a postcard when you get where you’re going.

The Stage Manager

Jennifer R. Hubbard

My father would not get out of bed. Well, he did sometimes, usually to go to the bathroom, but other than that, he pretty much lived in bed. Although he didn’t get up, he moved around a lot. Sometimes he’d lie on his stomach; other times he was flat on his back. Every time I came in, I’d find him in a new position.

“Why do you keep moving around?” I asked, dropping the dinner he’d wanted (two chili burgers, small fries, Coke with no ice) on the nightstand. He was lying upside down with his feet resting on the headboard.

“Circulation, son. I don’t want to get bedsores.”

“Oh. Well, why don’t you get out of bed, then?”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?” I really wanted to know. But he only shook his head dramatically, eyes closed.

 ~

After school and homework and dinner, if my friends didn’t have anything special going on, I’d wander into Dad’s room. Sometimes I read to him. Not that there was anything wrong with his eyes. I think he felt it was part of the role: When you’re sick, people read to you. And he was sick, or said he was, so I read to him.

“Son,” he interrupted me one night. I tilted my chair back and put my feet up against the foot of the bed. “Do you remember when I took you digging for clams? The salty froth, the squeaky wet sand, the greedy gulls dipping down to try and snatch a clam, the roar of the surf?”

I hesitated, thinking how nobody else ever talked the way my father did. “No, Dad.”

“Oh.” He laughed to himself. “We never did that. I did that when I was little. But you grew up here.”

That was true. My father did grow up on the coast; he did go digging for clams. I had never seen the ocean. I was skilled at unraveling his statements, separating the true threads from the false ones. I had to be, since talking to my father was like talking to someone out of a Lewis Carroll book.

“I should’ve taken you digging for clams,” he said dreamily. “And had a clambake on the beach. You’ve never tasted anything like good gritty clams dripping butter, never smelled anything like a driftwood fire.”

“Well, we’ll do that when you’re better,” I said.

He only gave me the closed eyes, the dramatic shake of the head, again. On the bedside table were books with titles like The Do-It-Yourself Will and Everyperson’s Essential Estate Guide.

  ~

I cornered my mother right after that. We couldn’t talk about my father in the house at all. He would hear the softest whisper and call out from his bed: “What’s that? What are you talking about?” I had to get her in the yard.

“What’s wrong with Dad? Is he dying or something?” I demanded.

She grunted and yanked a weed out of her garden. She was used to me bearing down on her, trying to nail down the truth in his stories. She was the one who taught me how to tell the real from the imaginary, after all.

“Dying?” She pulled another weed. It slipped smoothly out of the soil: green top, white stem, and finally the roots like little hairs. “Did he tell you that?”

“Not in those words. But that’s the way he acts.” I paused, watching her hands in the dirt. “He doesn’t have cancer or anything like that, does he?”

“No. He had a physical two months ago, and he was perfectly fine.”

“Then why does he have books about writing wills?”

“Well, every adult should have a will. It’s nothing to worry about. You know how he throws himself into things. He’s just going through a phase.”

“I’m fifteen,” I said. “I’m supposed to be the one going through phases.”

“Just humor him, won’t you? You know the way he is. This is his latest role. He’ll get tired of it.”

“Maybe I’m tired of it.”

“It’ll pass. Anyway, you wouldn’t want a father like everyone else’s, would you?”

  ~

No, I did not want a father like everyone else’s. My friends’ fathers yelled at them for leaving their shoes in the hall or forgetting to take out the garbage. Imagine my father caring about something like that. Or even noticing. In our house, we were always tripping over shoes, books, dirty dishes, and pieces of Dad’s projects.

Dad was the favorite car-pool driver when I was in elementary school. When he picked us up after school, he’d pretend he was flying a spaceship. Gripping the wheel with stiff fingers, as if his hands were encased in thick astronaut’s gloves, he shouted out “readings” from the “instrument panel” and yelled at us to “look out the left side of the craft as we cruise by Neptune!” The other kids loved it. The thing is, I think he did it to amuse himself just as much as to amuse us.

~

Dad would not get out of bed. I read to him. He stopped me, tapping my foot. “Son?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think I’ve been a good father?”

“What? Oh–sure.”

“I always went to your Parents’ Days at school. I always tried to be involved.”

He didn’t miss a single Parents’ Day, that was true. He was the star. Kids tried to guess what he would wear, placed bets about what he would do. One year, he walked around wearing an enormous top hat, totally nonchalant. Every teacher eyed that hat–you could see their eyeballs roll upward–but none of them mentioned it. There was always scuffling and giggling and whispering while my father was in the room. Kids who’d never met him before turned and gave me long, strange stares.

Word spread among the teachers. It got to the point where they would see me come into the room (my father was always late, always made an entrance) and ask me, grimacing, “Forrester, is your father with you today?”

  ~

When my father was still ambulatory (a word he taught me), I never knew exactly what the house would be like when I got home. Once, I found giant potted plants in every room (“It’s good to have some greenery around,” Dad said). Sometimes he’d dress up in costumes, lip-synching to opera on the radio. He was constantly moving the furniture around. One time, I couldn’t find my bed at all.

“Oh, it’s in the attic,” he told me.

“I’m supposed to sleep in the attic now?”

“No. It’s healthier to sleep on the floor. It’s good for your back.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my back.”

“There will be if you don’t sleep on the floor.”

“I’m willing to take that chance,” I said, and stormed upstairs to haul my bed back down piece by piece.

“I don’t think it’s good to keep disrupting him this way,” I overheard my mother tell him the next morning while I was still in bed. They were eating breakfast. “How is he ever going to develop a sense of security?”

“Why should he have a sense of security? Life’s uncertain.”

“Still, I wish you’d at least leave his room alone. Let him have one place all to himself.” She didn’t usually get on his case. My father was not like anyone else, she often said, and the way she said it made it a virtue.

“Son,” he called out to me, “do you want me to stop moving your things around?”

I lay in bed, not knowing what to answer. He frustrated me, but there was also a certain spark to coming home. I never had to worry about getting stuck in dull routine.

“Son?” he called again.

“I don’t know,” I yelled back.

He laughed heartily, approvingly. “The kid’s my son all right, all right,” he said.

 ~

As he lay in bed, my father reviewed the things he had done for me or with me. In my fifteen years, I had eaten frogs’ legs, learned some basic Japanese phrases, visited the local electric and water plants (“Very important; everyone should know where their essentials come from,” he said), learned to play the harmonica, memorized “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (“Memorization is excellent for the mind, but don’t ever confuse memorization with learning”), suffered severe altitude sickness (a mountain vacation gone wrong), learned to change a tire and check the oil in the car, marched on Washington (for gay rights, I think; I was eight and only vaguely understood the whole thing), and learned the seven basic warning signs of cancer. Dad alternated between teaching me practical things, like how to recognize poison ivy, and things of questionable usefulness, like making me sit though four hours of Henry VIII, King of England on PBS. I had taken lessons in emergency first aid, karate, and French cooking.

“Hey,” Dad said, elevating his arms as he lay in bed, “have you ever used any of those lessons?”

“I’ve never had to save anybody’s life, no.”

“But you made that soufflé on Mother’s Day.”

“That’s true.”

He wiggled his fingers (to keep up the circulation, he said). “What about the karate?”

Karate had taught me how to breathe, how to concentrate. I hadn’t had to use it in a fight, but the breathing and concentrating did come in handy when I was taking an exam or crossing the single-log bridge in the South Woods. “I guess that’s been useful.”

He cleared his throat and lowered his arms. “I want to tell you something.”

I waited. He didn’t speak. “Go ahead, Dad.”

He cleared his throat again. “I may not have told you this before, but you’ve always been the best thing in my life. If you get the chance, someday, to have a son of your own….” He closed his eyes. “I highly recommend it.”

That made me feel grubby, small. I couldn’t see that I’d ever done anything so great for him. And now I was sitting here, not believing him, not getting wrapped up in this scene because I didn’t think it was real.

“I have to tell you something, Dad.”

He opened his eyes. “What is it?”

“I don’t believe you’re dying. I can’t go along with this whole thing.”

His eyelids snapped shut. “I would rather not discuss it.”

I took a deep breath. I stood up; he didn’t move.

I walked over to the window, where I could see my mother watering the lawn. The setting sun made rainbows in the wet spray. Humor him, she had said. Go along with it, as always.

But I didn’t want to have emotions like that pulled out of me, heartstrings plucked, tears jerked, if it weren’t true. This time I wanted to sneak into the wings and ask the stage manager, “Is this part real?”

He wouldn’t tell me, though.

Those weren’t the rules we had always played by.

The Violin

Jennifer R. Hubbard

It was April and all Monticello was stirring, but in their cabin Mama had just put baby Maddy down to sleep and she told Beverly and Harriet to be still.

Beverly did not want to be still.

Harriet reached under the bed for the box where she kept things and pulled out the sampler Mama was teaching her to sew. Beverly knew what would happen next. Harriet and Mama would talk sewing, and ignore him. He aimed a kick at his little sister. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Let’s do something fun.”

Harriet sat down on the stool beside the hearth. She beamed at Mama with what Beverly called her good-girl smile, like she was trying to show off how sweet she was. Harriet was almost four years old. She was not a sitting-still little girl, but sometimes she took a mood to act like one. Beverly reached out with his foot again. His toe grazed the end of one of Harriet’s braids. Harriet screeched.

“Beverly,” Mama said, not even looking up, “don’t wake your brother.”

“I didn’t yell,” Beverly said. “Harriet did.”

“You’re the one looking for trouble,” Mama replied. “Do you need something to do?”

Beverly knew better than to say yes. Mama would make him do chores. “No, ma’am,” he said. “I guess I’ll go visit Uncle Peter.”

“Don’t you bother him, neither,” Mama said, but she let him go.

Beverly went out the cabin and down Mulberry Row. The spring wind whipped the still-bare branches of the mulberry trees. The packed dirt road felt cool and firm beneath his bare feet.

Beverly spread his arms into the wild wind. He felt wild too.

The kitchen was halfway down the row, in the basement of a little brick guesthouse. Uncle Peter, one of Mama’s brothers, was the cook. Uncle Peter didn’t hand out treats very often, but you never knew. It was midmorning. If the folks in the great house hadn’t been hungry at breakfast, there might be muffins left over.

Beverly slid through the open door. On the hearth Dutch ovens steamed in a row over piles of coals. Uncle Peter and the two girls that helped him stood behind the long table, chopping vegetables. Uncle Peter gave Beverly an eye. “What do you want?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Beverly said. He edged closer to the table. There were muffins left, and slices of ham too.

Uncle Peter whapped Beverly’s hand with the end of a towel. The girls laughed. “Get out of here, Beverly!” Uncle Peter said. “Two hours since breakfast, you can’t be hungry yet!”

“Can too,” said Beverly, but he went.

Outside, the wind still howled. Beverly stopped and thought about what he wanted to do. He was too little to have a real job. Most days he helped Mama while she sewed in the cabin, or visited his aunts and uncles, or ran around the gardens or the orchards. Sometimes he walked with Mama to the great house, where she checked to see that everything in Master Jefferson’s room was all right. Master Jefferson spent most of the year in Washington. When he was gone the great house stood empty. Besides taking care of Beverly and Harriet and Maddy, Mama didn’t have much to do.

Now Master Jefferson was home for a month and everything had changed. He’d brought his grown-up daughter and all her children with him, and invited friends to visit, so the house was full to bursting. Mama worked and worked.

What’s more, she stayed up at the great house every night.

Beverly didn’t mind the bustle. But whenever he thought about Master Jefferson, his stomach gave a little twist, almost like he was hungry. It twisted now. He wished Uncle Peter had given him a muffin.

He looked to his left, toward the woodshop. His uncle John worked there, learning fancy carpentry from a white Irishman named Mr. Dismore. Beverly loved Uncle John, and he loved watching him make things out of wood, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about Mr. Dismore. Unlike the overseers, Mr. Dismore was cheerful and funny, but he also sometimes said things like, “I don’t want you pickaninnies hanging around my shop.”

Beverly hated the word pickaninny. It sounded like something you’d stomp on if you saw it running across the floor.

He was not, he thought, a pickaninny.

Straight across the road was the smokehouse, locked so the hams couldn’t grow legs and wander away. To the right was the blacksmith’s shop. Beverly often went there to watch the nail boys work. He knew he’d be a nail boy himself when he was older. The nail boys made nails all day long, tap, tap, tap! They cut nail rod into short pieces, then hammered one end of each piece long and pointy and the other square and firm. The nail boys’ muscles stood out on their arms. Master Jefferson was proud of them.

The only problem with visiting the blacksmith shop was Mr. Stewart. He was head blacksmith, a white man, and mean when he was drunk. Lately he stayed drunk all the time. Only yesterday, Master Jefferson’s daughter, Miss Martha, said it was about time she took matters into her own hands and showed Mr. Stewart the door, before he grew careless in his inebriation and burned the blacksmith shop down. She said it was a good thing they had Joe Fossett, or that place would be a ruin.

Beverly’d heard her. He was good at hearing things. “If you’re smart,” Mama often told him, “you’ll keep your mouth shut and your ears open. You’re a smart boy, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he’d say, proud that it was true.

Beverly loved the word inebriation, even though Mama said it was just a fancy name for drunk. Beverly savored beautiful words. They were like music in his head. He didn’t care what words meant nearly as much as how they sounded. He loved it when Mama and Miss Martha spoke French together, even though they only did it so no one else could understand them.

“Teach me,” he begged Mama. “Teach me how to talk like that.”

Mama taught him a song in French, and how to say “I love you, Mama,” but she said she didn’t have time to teach him more, and besides it would upset Miss Martha. No good ever came from upsetting Miss Martha.

Miss Martha’s full name was Mrs. Martha Randolph. She was the only one of her mama’s children still alive. She loved to come to Monticello and act like the boss of everything.

But she wasn’t the real boss—Master Jefferson was—and she wasn’t there very often. Beverly didn’t care if he upset her or not. When he said so, Mama shook her head. “Trust me,” she said.

“It’s better to stay on her good side.”

“Does she have a good side?” asked Beverly.

For a moment Mama looked like she might laugh, but then she set her lips together and told Beverly not to act like he was too big for his britches. She said everyone had a good side, even if with some folks you had to look mighty hard to find it. She told him again that smart boys kept their mouths shut, was Beverly listening?

Beverly was. He wondered where Miss Martha kept her good side. On the sole of her left foot, maybe, safe inside her shoe.

Miss Martha was two years older than Mama. Once upon a time, after Master Jefferson’s wife died, but when Miss Martha was still just a girl, Master Jefferson and Miss Martha went to live in France. After a few years they sent for Master Jefferson’s other daughter, Miss Maria, who was still alive back then, but little and scared. Beverly’s mama was just fourteen years old, but she got the job of taking Miss Maria on a ship across the wide ocean to France. They all lived in Paris for three more years. That was where Mama learned French.

Miss Maria grew up, married a nice man, had a son, and died. Mama told Beverly that. Miss Martha grew up, married a loud, angry man, and had too many children. She walked around looking like she’d just tasted sour milk. Mama didn’t have to tell Beverly that; he could see it for himself.

Beverly had two dead sisters and one dead brother. He couldn’t remember any of them, but Mama told him and Harriet about them because she said it was important to keep their stories alive.

Family counted, living or dead. Baby Madison seemed healthy, Mama said, but you never knew for sure. One of the dead sisters had lived for over a year, walked and talked and everything.

Beverly looked out over the blacksmith shop, past the gardens and down the mountainside. He sighed. There was only one place he wanted to go. He knew it, and he might as well go there. He lifted his chin and tried to look like a boy with an important errand to do, not one sneaking off where he didn’t belong.

He went to the great house.

It was in pieces. It had been a fine big house, but not fine or big enough to suit Master Jefferson. He’d hired workmen to rip the walls open and add rooms off the long sides, and remove the roof to add a third floor. Right now the work was about half-finished; to live there you had to not mind dust and dirt and no roof and holes in the walls. Master Jefferson didn’t mind.

Miss Martha did, but she was there anyway, because she preferred a house with no roof away from her husband to one with a roof and her husband inside.

Beverly’s grown cousin Burwell was the butler whenever Master Jefferson was at home. Burwell hated mess even more than Miss Martha did, but he didn’t have any say. He just had to cope the best he could. Master Jefferson expected a fancy dinner on a clean tablecloth with china and silver and lots of good wine, every afternoon at exactly three o’clock, whether there was a roof over the house or not. Burwell always managed to make everything right.

I’ll go see Burwell, Beverly told himself. He’ll let me polish spoons. But he knew Burwell wasn’t the person he wanted to see.

He slipped between the poplar trunks supporting the unfinished porch roof and through the back door into the great house. Upstairs a baby wailed. Beverly heard footsteps hurrying across the hall. Burwell’s dining room was to the left, but Beverly turned right.

There in front of him stood a wide-open door.

Beverly stared. His breath came quick with happiness and surprise. It was open—the door to Master Jefferson’s room was open! Beverly’d been inside many times with Mama, but never, ever when Master Jefferson was home. When Master Jefferson was home, he kept the door locked. He did not want his papers or books or self disturbed. Only Burwell and Beverly’s mama had keys to the door. Even Miss Martha had to stay out.

Beverly peeked inside. Nobody. The fire had burned down, but a new pile of wood waited by the swept hearth, so Beverly knew Burwell had come and gone. The curtains at the open windows fluttered in the breeze.

Beverly took a cautious step. The room sure looked different with Master Jefferson home. When he was gone Mama kept the desk swept bare and all the books shut up safe in cabinets behind glass. Now piles of books covered the floor and tables. Some had scraps of paper or ribbon sticking out of their sides, and one lay upside down on the polished wooden desk, with half its pages cut, and the paper knife lying beside it.

Then Beverly saw, beside the half-cut book, the violin.

He sucked in his breath, fast. His heart hammered. Oh, that violin! How he loved the sound of that violin! Master Jefferson had brought it with him from Washington, and sometimes in the evenings Beverly could hear its music all the way down Mulberry Row, sharp quick notes, long dancing bits, ta-dum-dum-ta-dee. He had never heard anything like it. Better than inebriation or the sound of words in French was the glorious music from Master Jefferson’s violin.

Beverly crept forward. He’d never seen a violin up close before. Now he stood over it, admiring the shiny honeycolored wood. Next to it was the stick thing you drew across the strings.

Beverly reached out and touched the stick, just once. His fingers kept moving and brushed the smooth wood of the violin itself. He thought he could feel the music inside.

Right on the bottom was the dark spot where you were supposed to put your chin. He’d watched Mr. Jefferson through the open windows one night.

Quick as a flash, before he could think hard enough to make himself stop, Beverly tucked Master Jefferson’s violin beneath his chin. He pushed on the strings beneath the fingers of his left hand, and curled his right hand around the stick. He told himself not to make a sound. Burwell would hear—Miss Martha would hear—he would be in a heap of trouble, and Mama would be upset.

But he couldn’t stop. He raised the stick in the air.

Right behind him a soft voice said, “You’re not holding the bow right.”

Beverly jumped. His hand clutched the violin. He knew that voice. Master Jefferson. Beverly’s heart beat faster; his mouth went dry from hope and fear. He wanted to set the violin down, tell Master Jefferson he was sorry, and run home as fast as his legs would go, but he couldn’t move. His feet had frozen to the floor.

Master Jefferson’s smooth, long-fingered hand came from behind Beverly, and carefully covered Beverly’s hand on the stick—on the bow. Master Jefferson plucked at Beverly’s fingers to loosen their grip, and then curved around them. Master Jefferson held the bow like it was something alive. His other hand covered Beverly’s hand on the strings. Softly he drew the bow across the strings. It made a sound.

Master Jefferson said, “Hold it gently. You’ve got to coax the music out.”

Beverly turned and looked up at him. The last time he’d been close to Master Jefferson had been at Christmas, months ago. Master Jefferson was tall and thin and loosely put together, his joints floppy like the ones on Harriet’s wooden doll. His gray hair hung untied around his shoulders. He wore old gray breeches and a red waistcoat Beverly’s mama had made last year.

“Hello, Beverly,” he said.

“Hello,” Beverly whispered.

“How old are you now?”

“Seven,” Beverly said. “Seven years and one day. Yesterday was my birthday. April first, that’s the day I was born.”

“I remember. Happy birthday.” Master Jefferson smiled. The lines around his eyes crinkled. “It’s good to see you again. I like having children around. In Washington Miss Martha’s
been keeping house for me, and her children stay with us there.”

“They’re here now,” Beverly said.

“Yes,” said Master Jefferson. “Aren’t I lucky?”

“But Miss Edith and the new baby had to stay behind.”

Master Jefferson raised an eyebrow. “Miss Edith?”

“Miss Edith,” Beverly said, “that went with you to Washington.”

Master Jefferson looked puzzled, so Beverly explained.

“Miss Edith that’s married to the blacksmith, Joe Fossett. Miss Edith that lives with you. She just had a baby, right before Mama had Maddy, and it was a boy and they named him James.”

“Oh. You mean Edy? The cook? My apprentice cook?”

“Yes, sir.” Beverly nodded. “Joe Fossett’s real sorry they didn’t come home with you. He understands, ‘cause the baby’s so little, but he wanted to see them. He misses them. We all do.”

“I see.” Master Jefferson pulled a chair closer and sat down. He turned Beverly around to face him and held him lightly between his knees.

Beverly smiled. He touched the side of Master Jefferson’s face. “Your eyes are gray,” he said. “Just like my baby brother’s. Maddy has eyes just like yours.”

“Is that what you’re calling him?” Master Jefferson sounded amused. “Maddy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“His name is James Madison. He was named after the patriot James Madison, a good friend of mine.”

“Yes, sir. Mama said so. But she calls him Madison so we don’t get him mixed up with Miss Edith’s baby James, and Harriet and I call him Maddy because Madison’s too long to say.”

“I see. And do you call Harriet Harry?”

“No, sir,” Beverly said. “She smacks me if I do.”

Master Jefferson laughed. “You don’t smack her back, I hope.”

“No, sir,” Beverly said. “Mama said I can’t ’cause she’s littler than me, and a girl. But it’s not fair. She’s little, but she hits hard.”

“Little sisters are never fair,” Master Jefferson said.

Beverly thought about this. “Do you have a little sister?” he asked.

“I do. I had four of them when I was growing up.”

“Did they smack you?”

“I don’t recall.” Master Jefferson poked the top of Beverly’s nose. “But I do know that I never, ever smacked them back. Neither must you. A gentleman never hits ladies. Nor sisters either.”

Master Jefferson had patches of sunburned skin on his cheeks, and a dark spot on his waistcoat that looked like ink. Beverly touched it.

“Mama’ll have a job getting that out,” he said.

Master Jefferson looked at the spot too. “I write so many letters, I’m always covered in ink.” He looked back at Beverly. “So, why are you here? Did your mama give you a message for me?”

Beverly bit his lip. He wished he could say yes. “No, sir.”

“Did Burwell, or someone else?”

“No, sir. I just sort of came by myself.”

“My bedroom’s private. Do you know what that means?”

“Yes, sir. It means I’m supposed to stay out.” Beverly took a deep breath. “I just wanted—I wanted to see—” He looked around. How much could he say? His hand came down on the violin.

“You wanted to see the violin?”

“Yes, sir,” Beverly said. It wasn’t all of the truth, but it was a piece of the truth. “I love this violin.”

Master Jefferson looked surprised. “You do?”

“Yes, sir,” said Beverly. “I like—I sure like to listen to you play.”

Master Jefferson held up his right hand and slowly flexed his fingers. “I used to play for hours on end,” he said. “A long time ago. I played in string quartets before the war. But I broke my wrist; it doesn’t bend very easily, and it aches after a while. So I don’t play as often or as well. You know about the war, don’t you? The Revolution? How we started a new country?”

“No, sir,” Beverly said.

“You must learn about it. It’s important. We broke away from England and . . .” Master Jefferson paused, and smiled again. “You’re young, I forget. My grandchildren don’t understand it yet either.”

He lifted the violin and set it into place beneath Beverly’s chin. “But seven years old might be old enough for this. Give it a try. Be gentle.”

Beverly didn’t know which strings to push or how hard to push them, but he moved the bow the way Master Jefferson had. The violin screeched. Beverly stopped. “Did I break it?” he asked, alarmed.

Master Jefferson laughed. “No. It always sounds like that at first.” He seemed to be thinking about something. After a moment he asked, “Are you a hard worker? Would you work to learn to play the violin?”

Beverly’s eyes widened. “Oh, yes! Yes, sir!”

Master Jefferson smiled. He cupped his hand around Beverly’s face, so quickly Beverly barely felt it, then rose and went to a cabinet built into the wall. He came back with a small wooden case. “I have several violins,” he said. “The one you’re holding is my best. Italian. It’s not an instrument for a boy. But this one”—he took the Italian violin away and put the case he was holding into Beverly’s hands—“this is what they call a kit violin. You can strap this onto the back of a horse to travel and bounce it around without hurting it. It doesn’t sound as pretty as the Italian violin, but it’s a good deal harder to break. Mind, you’ll still have to be careful.

“I’m going to give you this violin,” he continued. “Do you know Jesse Scott, down in Charlottesville?”

Beverly nodded. Jesse Scott’s wife was Joe Fossett’s sister.

“He’s a good fiddler, and a good teacher,” Master Jefferson said. “You go down to him with this violin, and tell him I said he’s to give you lessons. Once a week. And in between you practice. I’ll expect to hear progress by the time I come back here this summer. All right?”

Beverly clutched the wooden case tight to his chest. He swallowed hard. “Sir?”

“What’s wrong? You need lessons, in order to learn.”

“Yes, sir, but—” Beverly bit his lip. “Couldn’t you teach me?”

Master Jefferson looked away. “No,” he said. “Jesse will suit you better.”

“Yes, sir.” Beverly knew he shouldn’t have asked.

Master Jefferson patted his back. “Go on home. Your mama will be wanting you, and I have work to do.”

Beverly was halfway to the door when Master Jefferson spoke again. “Beverly—”

Beverly turned.

“Do you know who I am?”

“Yes, sir,” Beverly said. He smiled. “You’re the president. President of the United States. Mama says it’s a very important job.”

An odd expression flitted across Master Jefferson’s face. For a moment he almost looked sad. Beverly wondered if he’d said the wrong thing. But the look faded. Master Jefferson said,

“That’s right. You go on home.”

Beverly walked quietly out of the great house, but as soon as his feet hit dirt he ran. He tore into the cabin and didn’t care if he woke the baby, not one bit.

“Mama, Mama!” he shouted. “Papa gave me a violin!”


This excerpt is the first chapter of the book “JEFFERSON’S SONS” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.
Published by Dial Books.
Copyright © 2011 by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. All rights reserved.

Quarry

Kevin Waltman

Be nice. That’s the second rule. Even when they’re being assholes, or putting you down, or leering at some other girl—be nice. That’s Gospel, according to Janice, who hasn’t been a virgin for a year and a half now, because there’s nothing guys dislike more, she says, than a disagreeable girl.

But I looked at her in the back of that pick-up, a thumb-shaped bruise hidden by her hair, her eyes wide as moons as we bounced so hard along that country road that we were both holding on for dear life, and I wondered if she had ever broken Rule Number One.

Frank and Bigby had been drinking schnaaps first thing in the morning. When they showed up, Janice and I were sitting on her porch, and we could smell that sickening peppermint as soon as they stepped out of the truck. The guys’ eyes looked like roadmaps, and Frank, trying to make a grand entrance by hopping from the passenger side before Bigby had stopped completely, fell and skinned his elbows and knees on the driveway.

“Christ almighty,” he said. “I’m a goddamn wreck.”

Janice laughed, but not in a mean way, just this cute giggle as she walked over to help him brush the dust from his shirt. That’s her third rule: always laugh. Make them think they’re adorable—though she’d never use that word around Frank. Frank had a dab of blood on his palm, but he wiped it off on his hip, a pink streak on his tan shorts. He offered Janice a nonchalant Hey babe and a kiss on the cheek, both of which she accepted as if they were shining jewels.

Bigby leaned up against his truck, maybe to steady himself, and he looked at me slow, his gaze kind of moving around me rather than focusing. He wore a western shirt that was a tad tight on him, giving him a chance to show off his biceps, and the sun brought a blonde glimmer out in his sandy hair.

Bigby is, by far, the best looking guy who’s ever been interested in me. Come fall he’ll probably be the starting running back for our football team, and until Janice prodded him into asking me out, the only guys who called me were more likely science fair winners than lettermen. They’d get the jitters as soon as they heard my voice, as if speaking to a sophomore girl were as daunting as testifying before God and country. But it was cute. And underneath all their awkward goofiness, it was clear they really liked me, really wanted me to have a good time, even if the best date idea they could come up with was a round of miniature golf. Part of me misses that, the same part that knows the Bigbys and Franks of the world are nothing but bad news dressed up in rich boys’ clothing. But then, that day, I looked at Bigby and saw those muscles in his arms ripple as he scratched his chin—no sentimental science fair boy has that, I’m sorry to say.

Bigby took a few lumbering steps from the truck and threw his arm around my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chelle bell—” he’s the only one who can call me that without sounding infuriating—“Frank’s a wreck, but you got nothing to worry about with me. I know the way to the quarry blindfolded.”

And just like that, we were off. Years of lectures and heart-felt talks from mother and stern warnings from father and alcohol awareness weeks from the time you’re in sixth grade: all out the window when Frank and Bigby roll up, buzzed on schnaaps but looking good.

~

I thought that Frank would hop into the truck-bed and let Janice and I squeeze into the cab with Bigby, but the most chivalrous offer Frank made was for Janice to sit on his lap. She laughed, then thanked him for the offer in this way that made me blush for her. “But,” she said, “Chelle and I have girl things to talk about. We’ll just ride in the back.”

“Girl things?” Bigby said.

“You really wouldn’t get it,” she said. She elbowed me as if I should say something else, something to at once enchant Bigby and make him back off.

“Yeah,” I said.

Bigby laughed knowingly. “Suit yourselves,” he said.

Into the back we climbed, kicking out space amid plastic cartons and coke cans and other debris, the metal hot even through my shorts. Bigby revved the engine and ripped from Janice’s driveway so fast we almost tumbled out of the truck bed, Janice laughing as she gripped the side with both hands. But after that the ride evened out a bit and Janice and I talked while, in the cab, Bigby and Frank passed the schnaaps like a pipe between them.

Some people think Bigby and Frank are country boys, and I can see where they get it—there’s the camouflage caps, the pick-up, their general rebelliousness—but anyone who thinks that has never met a real country boy. No, Frank and Bigby pretend down-home, play country, and there are times—like when they talk as if they’re big hunters, when the most either has fired is a water gun—when it grates.

But then I stop and take stock of all of us. Really, we’re all just trying on costume shop masks. That day, I was a wild girl, a don’t-give-a-goddamn-so-let’s-go girl, the one Janice wants me to be. Maybe that’s what I saw in Bigby, like the part he played made it easier for me to believe my own act. On our first date a week before, I sat with him in his front seat for half an hour, his hands going places nobody else’s have ever been allowed. Not that I went as far as Janice would, but it was a thrill to feel his heat rise, to feel him get more excited with every touch. In the end, I climbed out of his truck and walked back to my front door, gave a glance over my shoulder and saw him staring at me, a small hurt look on his face, and I have to admit seeing that frustrated gaze gave me a thrill. I did that; I made it happen. Until the next morning, when I was back to being Mom and Dad’s Chellie slopping cereal into her bowl, and I couldn’t believe what I’d done.

We ripped past pines, past long stretches of kudzu shimmering in the sun, past barren stretches where the red clay crept up toward the road like bared, bloody gums.

“You haven’t done it with Bigby yet, have you?” Janice said.

Janice!”

“What? One of the reasons for you to do it is so that we can talk about it,” she said. “It makes us even closer friends that way.”

Bigby took a sharp curve and the force slid Janice across the bed, slamming into me. There was no danger of us falling out, but she let out a shriek. She hollered for Bigby to be careful, a pathetic whine to her voice like she needed saving. I knew this one—Rule #4: Be weak so they can be strong.

Bigby gunned it and we shot down a straightaway so fast the live oaks looked the width of toothpicks as we passed them. Our hair whipped and tangled together, and the wind swirled over us so hard that for a few minutes we couldn’t even feel how hot the sun was beating down on us. I yelled, but the wind ripped the breath right out of me.

Once we slowed back down, Janice said, “He’s not the kind of guy to wait around forever, you know.”

~

You would think in our rural county, little bad would ever happen. You would think, from afar, that everyone here rises before dawn, picks okra and tends the livestock, then whiles away the afternoon on the porch, iced tea pitcher propped on a table by the rocking chair.

You’d be wrong. There’s murder, there’s prostitution, there’s enough meth to fill the quarry. But even then the stories of such behavior come to us as if from a foreign land. People like me and Janice just hear reports while our parents are watching the news, or pick up on tales trickling through the high school halls, and even though it happens so close to us, the people involved always seem far away, alien as a movie star on the big screen. In fact, high school here is so boring that whenever anything crazy happens, most people angle for some connection to the event, bragging in the hallway that the guy picked up in a rolling lab is a second cousin, or that gunfire opened up just a block away from where a really good party was going on. Maybe we do that because, for most of us, the only way to seem wild is to have a good story.

Which may be why Janice talks up sex so much. It gives her this authority over me. “I can’t believe you’re seventeen and still a virgin,” she said. “God, you’ve got to live, Chelle.” Even then, though, I could tell she wasn’t having fun—she smiled as always, but it seemed more like a grimace. “Isn’t this fantastic?” she said. “Man, Frank is so…” she paused here, grinning and shaking her head as if so in disbelief of his powers that words failed her. “God, he’s just so real. He makes it all real. Every other guy before him was, like, a cartoon, Chelle.”

~

We bounced along for twenty minutes, maybe more. Frank and Bigby could have been lost, but they never would have admitted that, and by the time we got to the quarry, I could feel a welt rising where my hip banged against Bigby’s dad’s toolbox, and my forearms were already glistening with the onset of sunburn. We came through a narrow passage where blackberry brambles stretched into the road, snagging us until we pulled our arms back in, folded our hands in our laps like we were sitting in church.

The quarry ranked high in local lore, the site—depending on whose story you were listening to—of a lover’s murder-suicide, of satanic rituals, of parties so raucous and decadent the revelers flashed back even still. In reality, though, it was merely another dead quarry filled with water.

Arriving at last, the boys spilled out of the front. Bigby sauntered around to lend a hand so Janice and I could climb from the bed. My legs were stiff from the ride, and I wobbled a bit so Bigby had to catch me, my chest pressed against his shoulder and his arms wrapped around my upper legs. The fall was perfect Rule Number Four for Janice, and she gave a wink, thinking I’d intended to do it. Frank, meanwhile walked toward the edge of the quarry with the now empty schnaaps bottle dangling between his fingers. With a snap of his wrist he sent it spinning across the water toward a nearby jut of rock, where it exploded like a tiny firework.

~

The three of them treaded water, their arms moving like tentacles around them and making ripples circle away from their bodies. Janice and I had stripped down to bathing suits, and the guys to their shorts, our discarded clothing in a small mound beside me. I had watched each of them jump, Bigby then Frank then Janice, in effortless arcs. About fifteen feet straight down, a jagged rock jutted from the side, and if you let your imagination get going you could see flecks of dried blood where previous divers met their doom, but my friends had all cleared it easily, splashing down safely a good twenty-five feet below. I didn’t want to seem like a child, but just looking at the drop made my chest grew tight.

I could hear them talking to each other, but I couldn’t make anything out, except for a wild laugh from Frank. At last I heard Janice calling to me: “Come on, Chelle! The water’s great.”

I knew I was breaking another rule—her follow-up to number four: Be weak, but not too weak. I edged within a few inches of the drop, then knelt down so I didn’t get dizzy. I thought again about all the stories about it—the radioactive waste, the corpses anchored to the bottom, the ghosts of old quarrymen abducting people after dark. Nonsense, I knew, but once one fear walks through the door, it’s there to stay.

“Chelle!” Bigby yelled. “Just jump. Just do it.”

“How are you guys even going to make it back up?”

“Easy path over there,” Frank said, pointing to a narrow passage in the quarry face. Loose rocks were wedged against each other on the path, and fast food bags and coke cans were trapped beneath broken branches. At one spot a ripped t-shirt clung to one of the rocks. It sure didn’t look “easy” to me.

“Nah, just stay up there if you’re so scared,” Frank yelled. “Wait for someone from that meth lab to come get you.”

“What?” I asked. It didn’t make any sense.

“That meth lab we passed a few miles back. You didn’t see it?” Frank laughed. “Ah, I bet those guys in there saw you. They’ll be down here any minute.” His voice seemed far away, not quite real.

“Stop it, Frank.”

“Or what, Janice?” I heard a violent splash and then heard Janice say Hey. “You want her to stay up there and get violated by a bunch of tweakers?”

“Come on, Frank, that’s enough.”

That last voice was Bigby’s, but I was already past paying attention. I wasn’t scared of Frank’s lies. I wasn’t scared of them thinking I was a baby. I wasn’t anything at all, really—I seemed outside of my body, my head a balloon floating several feet above me as I rose from my knees, took a step back and then two quick steps forward, leapt and went rushing through the air. I was only vaguely aware of all that until my legs whacked against the face of the water, snapping me back to reality. The impact pushed the air from my chest and I flailed back to the surface, where my three friends were waiting, grinning, proud.

~

Later, Bigby ushered me into the woods. He tripped as he stepped over a fallen tree and nearly pulled me down with him. I warned him to watch out for a patch of poison ivy but he pushed right on through. Janice and Frank had stayed behind, and after we’d walked for only a minute I could hear her laughing seductively.

Bigby found a small clearing under some pines where the earth was softer and cooler. He sat down and pulled off his shoes, then reached his hand up to me. There was an intense warmth in his fingers, and it sent my heart racing.

I knew what he wanted. I knew what had been expected of me in the very act of agreeing to go the quarry. I thought back to our first date, sitting in the cab of that truck, remembered exactly where his hands had touched as if his fingers had burned imprints, and the thought of doing more excited me—but until that moment, until he reached up and took my hand, I hadn’t thought really about what it meant. I mean, of course I’d thought about what it would feel like, how Bigby’s touch would be, who I’d feel like afterward, but all those things were just roles I might play—I’d even thought of what to say when I had to tell Janice about it later, piecing things together from good sex scenes I’ve watched or read.

“Come on down here with me, Chelle bell,” Bigby said.

The strange thing is, I thought of Janice—not the Janice I could hear through the trees laughing and teasing, but the Janice who showed me the bruise last week, who showed me how it matched the purpling marks on her ribs. Maybe thinking of that was just one more way to keep pretending I wasn’t there, flesh and blood, with Bigby in the woods by the quarry, mosquitoes swarming over our heads and birds rustling in nearby bushes. But that’s what I thought of: Janice, bruised, saying, “He’s only hit me the one time,” sounding just the way someone talks about smuggling wine coolers from the convenience store, a way of saying Look how dangerous I am. I’d reached out and touched the bruise closest to her hip. “Don’t!” she’d said. “That hurts.”

I yanked my hand away from Bigby’s. I stood.

“What?”

“No,” I said.

“No what?” he asked. Then he laughed, a drunken burbling back in his throat, and he rolled around a bit on the pine straw, eyes lolling this way and that. “Hell with it,” he said, and then he fell silent and curled up like a baby. I hadn’t realized how drunk he was. I thought about how far away we were from anyone else, thought again about what Frank had said about that “meth lab.”

“You’re uptight Chelle bell, but I’m going to help you out with all that,” Bigby said, but he wasn’t talking to me now.

I stood with my arms crossed, a bit cold all of a sudden in just my bathing suit, the pines blocking out the sunshine. After a minute I pushed Bigby with my foot, felt my toe sink into the fat around his waist. Right then, he was ugly, passed out drunk with a smear of mud in his haircut, but I knew this wasn’t the end between us. Maybe I thought I had further to go with him, or—and I really hope this isn’t what I hoped for then, hope for still—that I could improve him, shape him into something just as attractive but more appropriate.

I sat down on a dead tree not far from Bigby, the moist bark giving a little beneath me. I’d broken one of Janice’s rules—which number I didn’t know and didn’t care—which was When in doubt, say yes, a rule she claimed to be almost as important as Rule #1. I felt sick again, the way I had standing on the quarry edge staring down at the water, and I realized that Janice and Frank had gone quiet.

Then Janice screamed.

~

I thought the worst. Anyone would have. She kept screaming while I ran toward her, Bigby left behind, dead to the world on a bed of pine needles. Only when I got closer did I hear Frank moaning.

I reached them, saw Frank by the quarry edge gripping his ankle. He was naked, but had pulled a shirt across his body to cover himself. Janice was still dressed, and turned to me with a look of panic. “What happened?” I asked.

Janice waved her hands in front of her like she was shaking them dry. “A snake,” she said. “A snake.”

I looked closer now and could see blood running from under Frank’s fingers, making rivulets on his foot.

“What kind?” I said.

Janice shook her right hand frenziedly. “It rattled. It was a rattlesnake.” She grew more frenetic as she spoke. “What do we do? What do people do when they get bit by a rattlesnake? What are we supposed to do?”

“Stay calm,” I said, not feeling very calm myself. Frank looked pale, and it worried me that he lay there almost fetal, looking like he barely had the strength to hold his hand to his ankle.

“This isn’t happening,” Janice said. “This can’t be happening!”

But it was. There we were; Frank snakebit and Bigby passed out drunk, the four of us miles from help. The sun beat down relentlessly on us, and the quarry’s still water stared up, flat and unrippled as a sheet of glass.

The next hour remains blurry. I was lucid the whole time, and there was a frenzy of activity, but it seems like we were simply there at the cliff, calculating Frank’s odds, and then there was a finger snap and we were waiting for him in the emergency room. I know Janice and I got Frank into the cab, managed to wake Bigby just long enough to help him into the truck bed. I know, too, that Frank got sick, vomiting three separate times in between giving us slurred directions back to town. All of that is fuzzy, though, except for the moments just as we pulled up to the hospital, when Janice asked Frank how he was feeling and he didn’t respond. His head was slumped against the window, and I remember Janice lifting her shaking fingers up to his neck, checking for his pulse in the same spot where, on her own neck, she was still bruised.

He didn’t die. His ankle swelled up to twice its size, but Frank didn’t die. It turns out you have to be even stupider and unluckier than Frank to die from a rattlesnake bite, and by Monday it was a great story for Frank to tell, with Janice adding in little embellishments while she clung to him. But right then, with her fingers on his neck, Janice started crying, breaking Rule Number One, which she claims is more important than all the others put together.

As far as me? As far as Bigby? We don’t really talk about it at all.

Stone Field

Christy Lenzi

1.

I’m a loaded gun.

Henry knows. He thinks he and Jesus can save me from myself.

“Catrina, what you want is discipline.” Henry lowers the new issue of Farmer’s Almanac and sets it on the breakfast table to show the gravity of the situation. “I know you snuck out to the cave again last night. If Father won’t tend to you, somebody has to. You’re wild as a brush hog. Whoever heard of a girl roaming up and down the hills at all hours? Look at you—wearing boys’ pants and your hair hanging loose and tangled. It’s not proper.”

I don’t give a damn about being proper. It’s just a mess of rules that people make up so they can have a say in other people’s business. But I don’t waste my words on Henry.

He crosses his arms over his chest, looking at me like I’m dirt on a stick. If the high slant of his cheekbones and the soft curve of his lips didn’t belong to our dead mother, I would slap his face.

“Plenty of girls are courted or already married at sixteen, but no man in his right mind would want to chase down and tame a wildcat like you. You should be here at home.” He tilts his chin up as he talks so the righteousness he spouts will fall on me like manna from Heaven. “When you feel troubled or restless, you should turn your idle thoughts to the Bible and your idle hands to work. That’ll sweep the wickedness out of any girl’s heart.” He nods, agreeing with himself.

But Henry and Jesus don’t know a thing about a girl’s heart. And they don’t know what it feels like to have a soul bent on wandering through dark places, looking for the missing piece of itself. They can’t help me.

Mistaking my silence for acceptance, Henry opens the Almanac and shuts the invisible door between us. He doesn’t realize his words are bullets dropping into the barrel of my soul. I wonder what he’ll do if someone pulls the trigger.

But Henry’s already forgotten me by the time his coffee’s gone. He finishes his biscuits and molasses and slaps the Almanac down as he shoves away from the table. Dirty dishes are women’s work.

When the back door shuts behind him, I stretch my arm across the table and slide it over the surface in a great wave. The wave pushes the Almanac and the clattering tin plates and cups over the edge like God sweeping the Egyptians into the Red Sea. They tumble to the floor with a satisfying crash. I step over them and out the door. By the time Henry arrives in town, I’ll be sitting on top of the world in a place where no dishes, Bibles, or brothers exist.

~

The fresh scent of rain and wet cedar fill the air from a late night shower that scrubbed the earth clean. I part the bushes at the edge of the ravine, and a small flock of thistle birds takes flight. The flutter of their wings sets the pace of my heart. A rush of cold dank air from the cleft in the rock lifts the hairs on my arms and finds its way under my clothes like icy fingers. I shiver and close my eyes, imagining the lonesome spirit of a dead man sliding its hands over my body, beckoning me inside like a long lost lover. The rim of the cave is as high as my hips, but I pull myself up easily without any foolish skirts to tangle my legs.

The cave’s main tunnel is long and winding and leads to my thinking spot, a small opening high in the bluff overlooking Roubidoux Hollow. Henry doesn’t understand the darkness that settles over me or why I need to come here, but Papa does. When Papa needs to get away, he locks himself in his study with his books. He has his stories and poetry, and I have my tunnel to the sky.

Henry’s never opened Papa’s books or climbed into my cave to learn where it goes because he doesn’t own the patience or curiosity for it. If he can’t wrap his mind around an idea in a heartbeat or see all there is to see of a thing in a glance, he can’t abide it. That’s why he never took a liking to me. He knows I’m a quiet cave with secret tunnels and open rooms beneath my stone face—dark places he doesn’t want to find.

And, Lord, how I want to be found. I ache for it. But not by a coward like Henry. I want someone who will climb right into me and explore every inch, knowing they might never find their way out.

I breathe in the smell of cool wet rock and mud as I crawl in the dark to my thinking spot. I creep up through the muck and mire till I see a blue spot of shining sky. When I reach the opening on the edge of the high bluff, I lean against the damp wall of the tunnel. No one can see me way up here. Cold water drips from the top ledge onto my eyelid and slides down my cheek.

The gray snaky curves of Roubidoux Creek glint silver as the sun climbs over the hills. The stream winds around the lumpy slope of Hudgen’s Cemetery and slips through our cedar grove toward Stone Field where our sorghum cane grows.

My eye lingers on Mother’s small mound of earth. Last night, a silver-dollar moon floated over the cemetery, casting black shadows and blue light around her grave marker. I considered taking a shovel over there and digging a tunnel down to her coffin. I wanted to break it open and crawl in beside her like I used to climb into her bed after bad dreams when I was little. Even though her arms are cold and stiff now, I still want them around me. I want to believe she forgives me for being the one who killed her.

But I didn’t go. It wasn’t the fear of going down into the grave that kept me from getting the shovel—I was afraid I might decide to never come back up. I don’t want to break what’s left of Papa’s heart. So I gaze at her mound from a distance.

Soon worms will slip into her coffin and chew her body into dirt. I imagine them crawling through her raven-colored hair that looks like mine and eating away her lovely skin that was once smooth and white as a new laid egg. Effie Lenox said it’s wrong for me to say such things or even think about them. I said if the truth is wrong then what the hell is right? Effie thinks I should imagine Mother in Heaven, dancing around on streets of gold. That’s bull.

When I die, I’d rather wake up here inside this place, be a part of it like the roots of the black walnut trees. Like the wild pawpaws and persimmons with their sweet smell as they rot in ground, turning back into dirt, becoming something different, something new. I’d be the creek water that changes into mist and lingers in the hills, then rains on the fields, trickling down into the cracks where all the seeds hide. I don’t want to leave this world. I want to go deeper into it.

Two hawks swoop over the rocky ledge above me. They call to each other like old friends or lovers and glide in circles over the valley together, picking out their breakfast down below. Their hungry cries pierce me near the heart in the spot behind my ribs where the loneliness festers. Watching them soar side by side makes the wound throb, and I screech my own wild bird call into the sky. It ricochets off the hills.

Someone below returns my call. I jump and shiver at the sound, even before I turn toward Stone Field. When I look, my heart stops beating. I forget about finding the person who echoed my call. I forget how to breathe. I’m struck like a slap to the cheek when I see the field.

I blink, but it’s not my imagination. Great swirling lines curve and spiral through our sorghum crop as if God’s played a boys’ game, drawing giant circles in the cane field with his finger. The design stretches across five acres as if it were meant to be seen from somewhere up high. It’s beautiful and terrible at the same time. I wonder—did I make it myself when my mind was too dark last night to think straight? I don’t think so. What does it mean?

I scan the field for the person who returned my bird call, and my breath escapes me. A dark-skinned stranger sits on the black boulder in the middle of Stone Field, almost hidden by the cane. He’s naked as Adam and Eve and he’s staring straight at me.

Our dogs start barking from the edge of the cane, warning Papa about the man in the field. Their urgent voices bounce off the hills and crisscross over the hollow, howling for him to get his gun.

No.

I scurry back through the tunnel like a mole on fire. But the cave floor is slick,  and I fall flat on my stomach, scraping the side of my head against the wall. I push the hair out of my face with my wet hands and crawl the rest of the way out. I race toward the field. Mud coats me like a second skin, drying and cracking as I run. I push myself faster so I can get there before Papa finds out what the stranger did and shoots him dead.

But as I round the hill, Papa’s already standing in front of the field, ramming black powder and a bullet down the barrel of his gun. The stalks are too high for him to know about the crop design. He sees only a gap in the rows like a path entrance cut into the cane. He steps into the opening.

“Papa.”

He glances over his shoulder. “Where’ve you been, Cat? Looks like the dogs dragged you under the porch.”

“There’s a man in Stone Field.”

Papa pulls the hammer half cocked and slips the cap into place.

I keep walking, hoping I can get ahead of him, into the gap. “But he doesn’t need shooting—he needs dressing. And eating, most likely.”

Papa pauses as he holds the rifle. “I’ll take care of this, Catrina. Get to the house.”

“I can’t.” Something pulls me to the center of the field like iron to lodestone. I push the barrel of Papa’s gun aside and pass by him, but at the last second, I grab it from his hands and run ahead of him into the narrow maze.

“Dammit, Cat!” Papa barks like the dogs at his heels. “Careful!” His heavy footsteps follow me into the gap.

The path is smoother than I thought. Padded. The stalks haven’t been cut or removed, just bent near the bottom and pressed to the ground. The man didn’t destroy any of Papa’s cane. A path splits off to the left, but I keep going. I imagine myself moving through the design I saw from the bluff. Papa’s footsteps hesitate behind me at the division, and I push my legs faster, trying to reach the bend ahead. As soon as it curves, a narrow branch splits off to the right and I take it.

My heart beats my blood so hard it comes thumping on my eardrums begging for mercy. The sharp blades of the cane slash my face and arms along the narrow path, but I keep running. The dogs follow Papa past the split, away from me. They’re headed into a spiraling circle. His curses ring out from the northwest corner of the field when he realizes it’s a dead end, but I’m almost to the black rock in the center of Stone Field.

I slow down when I hear singing. It comes from up ahead—a deep rumbly voice.

“Come, live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove
And if these pleasures me thee move
Then live with me and be my love.”

The tune’s strange, but I’ve read those words somewhere before, in one of Papa’s books. His low voice sends a chill curling up my spine like a snake slithering up a pole.

I stop walking and peer through the stalks, straining for a glimpse of the stranger. For a moment I think I see him, his head and shoulders above the tall cane only a dozen paces away. I stumble several steps before I realize it’s only the scarecrow Henry put up last spring.

“There will I make thee beds of roses
With a thousand fragrant posies
A cap of flowers and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle.”

As soon as I round the bend, I see him—a madman, sure as I’m born. He paces around the rock like a restless mountain cat. He’s not much older than me. Little leaves twine through his black tangled hair that hangs in his face and covers the back of his neck. I’ve never seen anyone like him. His skin’s neither pale like mine, nor midnight like Effie’s. He’s dark but golden, like a copperhead glistening in the sun. I want to touch his skin to feel if it’s hot or cold. I want to see if he’ll strike me like a snake. Lord, I’m mad as he is.

The stranger’s voice rumbles like wheels on a gravely road, traveling straight to me.

“A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs
With grey feather of the dove
Oh, live with me and be my love.”

He stops singing and turns to me. I forget how to breathe. His eyes speak a foreign language, but I understand it clear as day. They say they can see straight through me to the inside. They tell me I’m more naked than he is.

The shock of it sends a thrill though my body, first of pleasure, then fear. I’ve always wanted someone to look at me that way, but I never knew how dangerous it might be. The little hairs on my neck lift like there are lightning charges in the air from an approaching storm. I raise the rifle and point it at the madman’s chest. “Who the hell are you?”

He doesn’t blink. He steps forward, as if the gun’s an invitation, not a warning, and stands five paces from me. “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

I’ve read those words before—Ophelia says them in Papa’s Hamlet. I wish he’d come closer. My thoughts spin like a weathervane, and I can’t tell which way the danger’s coming from—him or me. I place my thumb on the half-cocked hammer. “I don’t know what you are.” I pull the hammer all the way back till it clicks. “But I know you may be a dead man mighty easily.”

My heart pounds. Ophelia went mad and killed herself—she walked right into the river. I know how it feels to want something like that. Is that what he wants—to walk right into my bullet? My fingers shake. I don’t want to shoot him, I just want him to come closer to me like he did when I raised the gun.

He does.

He steps so near to me now that one shot would blow his troubled heart clean out of him. His eyes are deep water. Lord. I can see myself in them. Something makes me quiver as if an invisible spirit’s running its fingers across my soul. My arms tremble, the rifle shakes in my hands. I’m not afraid of him anymore, I’m afraid of me. I want to put the gun down, but my fingers have clenched up tight and won’t work. They ache to pull the trigger, snap fire into the pan and release the bullet.

“Catrina, put the gun down!”

Papa’s voice strikes me like a bolt of lightning, and I feel like I’m exploding. It’s the gun in my hands, firing with a loud crack that splits the sky and echoes across the hollow. Oh God. My fingers turn numb, like they don’t even belong to me, and the rifle slips away, falling to the ground with a soft thud. The smell of burnt sulfur fills the air. Black smoke hangs like a curtain between me and the stranger. As the smoke rises, he sinks to his knees, his beautiful body crumpling at my feet like a dropped handkerchief.

In my stomach, a stone falls. Its weight drops me to the ground beside the madman. He’s so near, I can smell the salt and sun of his body. His eyes have rolled back in his head, showing only the whites. Have I killed him? My hand shakes as I reach out to touch his face.

His golden skin burns hot as hellfire.

Papa kneels beside me.

“I didn’t mean to—” My throat swells up and I can’t finish.

“I know, Cat, I know.” His breathing comes fast as his big hands travel over the hills and hollows of the man’s muscles and joints, searching out the wound. “He ain’t shot.” It sounds more like a question. He says it again, stronger, to feel the truth of it better.“He ain’t shot.”

I didn’t kill him. My body goes limp and shaky. I didn’t kill him.

“It’s a mad fever that’s got a-hold of him, poor devil. He’s burning like the dickens.” Papa shakes his head. “I’ll get him to the house and you take the mule to fetch Effie Lenox to come doctor him.”

“I won’t.”

“Cat—”

“I’ll tend him myself.” I don’t care if Henry raps my knuckles later for disobeying or threatens to whip me with a switch for not being proper. I don’t care about anything except saving the man from Stone Field. When I thought I killed him, it was like seeing my own self dead on the ground. If I can fill him back up with life, he can fill me up too—I know it in my bones sure as I can sense when it will rain or when the persimmons are ripe. He won’t have to die like Mother. And neither will I.

“I want to be with him.” I glance up at the hawks, still circling together above the bluff. “And no one can stop me.”

He doesn’t try to stop me, but as soon as we lay the man on the cot in his study and he covers him up so I won’t see him naked anymore, Papa still runs off to fetch Effie. I start brewing some willow bark tea, using Mother’s recipe for Fever Cure, and wash his burning face and neck with cool well water. While the tea boils, I prop his head up with a pillow, pull Papa’s reading chair up next to the cot, and stare at the man from Stone Field.

The leaves in his hair make me think of Puck, the sprite in Papa’s Shakespeare. But he doesn’t look like a pesky little nature spirit. He looks strong and human. And handsome as the Devil. More like King Nebuchadnezzar from the Bible who went crazy and wandered around naked in the wilderness like an animal because God got mad at him. Maybe God was jealous.

I pick the leaves out of his hair one by one, and stick them into mine like a wreath around my head as I wash his face again with cooling water. After I strain and cool the tea, I dip a clean rag in it and squeeze the drops between his lips. His skin isn’t so hot now, but he’s quiet and still as a dead man and it makes me all-overish. I grab Papa’s pipe and pace the floor as I fill it with tobacco and light it with a stick from the stove. Papa used to try and keep me from smoking, but he knows it helps calm me when the darkness settles over my moods so he leaves me be. I puff on the pipe as I scan the shelves for Hamlet.

The cover’s worn soft from Papa’s fingers. I sit down by the Stone Field man and look for the words he spoke to me in the cane. We know what we are, but know not what we may be. I blow a smoke ring toward him. The image of his face fits perfectly inside the white round frame, like a tintype photograph. I wish I could put it in my pocket.

Damn it, God, don’t you dare let him die. I pull and puff more smoke and read out loud the line I already know by heart. “To be, or not to be—”

A low voice rumbles, “That is the question.”

I can’t see him through the smoke, but as it fades away, his image slowly appears. He opens his eyes and blinks at me. His eyes are the golden brown of barley ale, sweet molasses, dark honey. “I saw you.” His voice is dry and rough like a croaking frog. “In the cliff. You looked like a bird ready to fly away. I didn’t want you to go.”

My hand shakes as I dip the rag in the cold water and squeeze him a drink. He’s going to be okay. Finally, God did something right. The man’s eyes don’t leave me once. They’ve lost some of their glassy fire, but they still look lit up from the inside. As I give him water, his lips brush against my fingers and make everything inside me shake and rattle like a tornado coming. “Who are you?” I ask.

“I don’t know, yet.”

When the fever left him, it must have run off with his memory. But he remembers seeing me up in the cliff. I take another puff on the pipe and stare at him.

He props himself up on his elbow. “Who are you?” He stares back at me strong and steady, like I’m the one who’s the mystery, and he’s the one to solve me. My heart beats faster. Lord. Maybe he is.

I scoot my chair closer to the bed, not knowing how to answer. “Why did you make the circles in the cane?”

“So you’d look at them.” He reaches out and takes the pipe from my hand. I feel a tiny charge of lightning when his fingers brush against mine. He puts the pipe in his mouth and takes a long pull. When he blows smoke rings, it looks like he’s kissing the air between us. Soon it’s full of swirls and spirals like the ones in Stone Field.

I take the pipe back. “You should rest.”

“But what if I wake up and find out I only dreamed you and you’re not real?”

My face feels strange when I smile—it’s been so long, I’m surprised I remember how. “If I’m not real, then poor me.” A leaf slips from my hair and falls into my lap.

He picks it up and tucks it back into my hair. “It’d be a poor situation for us both. I’d just have to go back to sleep and keep dreaming.” His smile is slow like deep water with a current so strong it pulls me right under. Everything in the world disappears except for him and me, and even when our words are gone, his eyes still speak. I swear I hear his rumbly voice in my head, even though his lips stay still. Right now he’s saying, If the question’s “to be or not to be,” then the answer’s “to be.” As long as it’s to be here, with you.

I nod because I feel the same way. It’s like his thoughts are mine. I must have fallen into a trance, because when Effie and Papa burst through the door, I can’t think straight and just sit there watching. They’re the ones who don’t seem real. Papa looks worried and lost, but Effie’s clutching her fancy bag of medicines that she won’t even need and has that look of determination she always wears on her face. She marches right up to the Stone Field man and feels his forehead at the same time that she pushes his head back onto the pillow, making him lie down again. She clucks like a hen as she pulls the blanket back up over his naked chest.

Effie’s the smartest person I know. She talks just like a book and she showed me how to read and write when we were both little. She’s an expert on being proper and good, too, because her papa’s a missionary. Sometimes I can’t stand her. I try to be nice, though, because she’s my best friend and she lost her mother in the Congo when she was little. Mrs. Lenox had the same curly hair and black skin as Effie—her tintype’s inside the locket that’s hanging from Effie’s neck, dangling over the Stone Field man, right now.

Effie sniffs the pan of Fever Cure I made, trying to figure out what’s in it without having to ask me. “What an odd concoction. You come up with the strangest tonics, Catrina.”

She can’t figure it out and I’m not going to tell her. I cross my arms over my chest and sit back in the chair to smoke some more. “Well, who cares if it’s fancy store-bought pills or a witch’s brew, as long as it makes him well?”

Stone Field man grins at me and it makes me laugh out loud.

“Catrina Dickinson, you are a witchy girl—you think it’s funny, carrying a strange man who wore next to nothing in from the field—”

“It wasn’t ‘next to nothing’—he was completely naked. And Papa helped me. Stonefield was too heavy for me to carry on my own or I would have done it.”

“Stonefield?” Papa and Effie say it at the same time.

“He lost his name somewhere in the field. Maybe he can borrow that one till he finds his memory.”

Stonefield sits up. “I like it.”

Effie looks at him like she smells a skunk, but Papa beams when he sees Stonefield’s all right. I swear I never loved Papa more than I do right now. He smiles and reaches out to shake hands. “Good to meet you, Stonefield. You can stay with us as long as you like.”

Stonefield nods, but his eyes are on me, not Papa. The look on his face lights up the whole world, like when lightning strikes at night turning everything clear as day.  I almost forget what my darkness feels like. And I’m so happy, I hardly even think about what Henry will do when he finds out.

Monsters

Jennifer R. Hubbard

I was born a monster. Doctors gathered around my bed, arguing about what to do. They batted five-syllable words at one other. They considered zapping me with X-rays, depriving me of various vitamins and minerals, filling my bloodstream with drugs, slicing me with scalpels or lasers.

~

People knew there was something wrong with me, but they didn’t know what. They shied away from me, but they could never point to a physical sign. I marked my skin with razor cuts, but they couldn’t see that. I gave off an aura of violet and blue; I gave off a scent of despair. The twisted soul can be smelled.

~

I put an ad on the Internet, looking for other monsters. I got email messages from people who wore Bigfoot masks, people with big purple lumps growing out of their heads, people who bragged about stealing other people’s dirty socks. Those weren’t the monsters I was trying to find. Nobody was a monster in the same way that I was a monster.

~

I found a support group for monsters like me. We sat around a classroom on the second floor of a hospital. We put our chairs in a circle and sipped coffee out of styrofoam cups while we talked about our monsterhood. The fluorescent lights hurt my skin. Someone always brought fudge-striped cookies. Almost everyone brought store-bought goodies in cardboard and cellophane, but there was one person who baked from scratch and secretly, I think, sneered at the offerings of everyone else.

~

You may not know that monsters need to be stroked, like anyone else. That we crave the feel of fingers tracing our brows, noses, lips. That we love the taste of tongue and skin, and the smell of hair, and the unexpected gasp when tongues touch. That we wanted to go to proms decked out in satin ruffles or tuxedos, that we would look as good as anybody else when we danced.

~

The teachers and the kids at school may have known, but they never said anything. The other people who lived on my block may have known. People kept to themselves and didn’t care if you were a monster, as long as you didn’t blast your stereo or steal their newspapers or let your dog pee on their grass.

~

I wondered if I could fall in love with someone who was not a monster. I tried dating people like me and people not like me. With other monsters I had a shortcut, an immediate crack in the shell, through which I could feel the heat of their true beings. I wondered if normal people had that shell, or if it was only we monsters who needed that. Whenever I met other monsters, I felt the way it must feel to run into someone from your home country after living abroad. What a relief it must be when your own language pours out over your tongue, without strain or hesitant translation, when the screen between you and another dissolves.

~

I didn’t know any other way to live. I imagined it, read about it, saw movies about living as a normal person, but in the end I lived in my monster shell. More than a shell. So thoroughly was I a monster that I did not know if I would honestly choose to change, even if I could. Everything about me that jarred, the twisted and freaky parts of me, I came to love. If I’d had yellow scales or breath of flame or horns jutting from my head, I am sure I would have found those beautiful too.

~

I am not unique. I found others like me and we wept together, licked up one another’s tears, wove our hands together, whispered our secrets.

~

We did not always recognize one another immediately, but eventually we would catch a flash of something. Our eyes would meet, and we would know. We could sense things others did not need to sense. No, we did not have a secret handshake. It was a buzz, a subsonic hum in the air. An itch inside the ears, a heat in the skin, a tingle in the stomach.

~

There are other monsters. So many, and of so many different types, that sometimes I wonder who draws the line between monster and non-monster. Monsterhood left me untouched. Monsterhood permeated me. Sometimes I could forget about it, until people who were not like me noticed my difference, and fear would snap in their eyes like sparks popping off a fire. At times like that, I wondered if they would ever outlaw my particular kind of monsterhood. I wondered if we would be rounded up and branded, jailed and hanged. “By definition a monster is less than human,” I could already hear some earnest hate-monger from the future proclaiming. And I could see monsters’-rights advocates hanging posters: “Have you hugged a monster today?” As if to say, all a monster really needs is love. Like anyone else.

The Proposal

Lindsey Lane

Marshall steers the lumbering station wagon past the edge of the pull-out behind the cactus and scrub cedar. He turns off the car and opens the windows. He knows no one can see his car tucked back here. Especially at twilight. It’s like the gathering shadows swallow him. He closes his eyes and tunes his ears to the sounds outside his car. First, a few birds chirrup. Then he hears a rustling, maybe an armadillo, creeping under the brush. Last, a breeze. Marshall can hear it stir through the trees before it creeps inside his car. Always the air moves out here even when it’s dead still in town.

Marshall found this spot right after his grandfather gave him the car. He drove around looking for someplace quiet. When he stopped in the pull-out, he noticed a break in the cedars along one edge and drove out past it to this spot. He likes to come here to think. Sometimes at school—people, gossip, drama—it all comes at him too fast. Out here, though, he can slow it down, think about what each person said, how they looked when they said it. Out here, he can think about Leann.

Asking Leann to the senior prom had been the easy part. All he had to do was bring it up at lunch when they were sitting with Robert and Mary Louise. All he had to do was bring it up casually.

Like, “Hey, why don’t we all go to our senior prom together?”

Once they were all like, cool idea, then he’d bring up the next part.

It was a little trickier.

“What do you say we go together, but as dates? Like I’ll take Leann. You and Mary Louise can go together.”

Leann sounded suspicious. “Why would we want to do that?”

Marshall was prepared. He rocked back on the cafeteria bench and shrugged his shoulders. Then he looked her in the eyes. Her translucent blue eyes. “Because it’s prom. We should have the full prom experience, you know, tuxedoes and corsages. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be romantic. We’re still hanging out, but why not go for the full meal deal?” Marshall made sure his tone was not defensive. He couldn’t sound like he wanted the corsage or the tuxedo. Even though he did.

Mary Louise went for it right away. “I think it sounds cool. We could be like prom pretenders. We’d get the experience without getting all weird and nervous.”

“But I’m the one who has to shell out the money for the corsage and the tuxedo,” Robert said.

That’s when Leann jumped in and backhanded Robert on the shoulder. “Quit whining,” said Leann. “You think I have a prom dress hanging in my closet? I think this sounds just weird enough to be fun. Let’s do it. You and me, Marshall, the prom pretenders.” Marshall couldn’t have planned Robert’s reaction any better. He’d hoped Robert would be a little negative. He’d seen Leann counter Robert’s resistance before. Her hesitation about all things social seemed to evaporate when Robert dragged his heels. Pushing him moved her.

Marshall smiled. Not too big. Just a slight upturn on one side of his lips and then he grabbed the apple from his lunch tray and took a big bite, saying, “Cool,” as he chewed.

Getting her to come out here after the prom might be a little more difficult. Marshall turns the key in the ignition. The engine chugs and then turns over with a roar. It silences all the night sounds. Marshall maneuvers the car around the cedar break, across the pull-out and back on to Hwy. 281. He’d figure it out.

He’d been studying Leann from the moment she entered Fredrick Johnson High last August. Usually the first day of school is a parade of everyone trying to make the best first impression. Not Leann. Her long, almost-black hair was, well, messy. And a little greasy. It sort of hung limp, close to her cheeks, nearly covering her eyes. Except behind the dark strands, Marshall could see she was watching everyone. She didn’t smile at anyone. When she said her name in class and where she came from—Midland—she didn’t offer up any more information. She didn’t giggle or wink her eyes at the class or do anything that looked like she wanted a friend or that she even wanted to be liked. She looked like she wanted to fade into the background. Her t-shirt and jeans had no graphics or labels. She sat a little hunched over as if she was afraid someone might come up behind and surprise her.

Marshall wondered if she was doing it on purpose.  Or if she was really shy. He watched her. A week after school started, no more dirty or messy hair. She still let it hang in her face but by then, no one noticed. She’d slid off everyone’s radar but his. Two weeks later, she wore a nicer t-shirt.

~

Leann was cursing herself as she ran, late, down the empty halls. She should have known she didn’t have time to change her shirt again but she was tired of looking so plain. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself, just wanted to look a little bit nice, but now she was late and everyone would notice her as she opened the door to her first period biology class.She kept her head down. Mr. McCloud kept talking and handing back their corrected quizzes. Leann glanced up, looking for a seat. She spotted one in the middle of the back row and headed towards it, careful not to trip or step on anyone’s shoes. Extra careful not to look in anyone’s eyes.

She sat down and glanced to the right. An A+ at the top of a paper on the desk next to her caught her eye. She read the name next to the grade. Marshall Johnson. She couldn’t remember the face of anyone with that name. She fought her curiosity. She glanced up. Just long enough to notice that he wore rimless glasses and his eyes were hazel. Just long enough to feel her cheeks prickle with heat. Then she looked away.

~

Marshall hoped the A+ would get her attention. Whenever he sat behind her or near her, he noticed she got A’s on every paper and quiz that he’d been able to see. Someone who was smart would only be curious about people with the same grade or better. When McCloud handed him the A+ and she sat next to him, it seemed like a sign so he left the quiz on his desk. He felt her look at him but he kept staring ahead as if McCloud was imparting the secrets of the scientific universe. Really, Marshall was counting how long she looked at him. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three—

Almost three seconds. She noticed him.

After that, Marshall made sure to sit near her. Not in an obvious way. He tried to get to class right after her and sit down near her. He kept to himself but one time he looked at her as he sat down and she said, “Hey.” He nodded back at her. Marshall was careful to hold back. He didn’t want to scare her away. She seemed like she could be easily scared.

At the end of class, one day, she passed him and said, “See you tomorrow.” Then she said “Hey” every morning. Once, when she sat next to him, he saw her double-check her homework assignment with what he wrote down.

By January, Marshall noticed she was eating lunch with Mary Louise everyday. He eased into the cafeteria line behind them one day. As Leann picked up her tray, she glanced at him and said, “You want to sit with us?”

A week later, their threesome sat at a table where Robert was sitting alone. The next day, they were a foursome. Marshall didn’t mind. He liked that Mary Louise and Robert were there. It helped him blend in better. He could pretend to be eating while listening to them talk. Listening to Leann talk. Listening to how she feinted and dodged and never really opened up but made it seem like she was there, a part of them.

~

Leann thought she could hold her breath for a whole school year and not talk to anyone. She wondered if it were possible to live someplace and not know anyone the entire time you lived there. It turned out it wasn’t. Something happens. You forget your gym shorts and you have to borrow some from this girl Mary Louise and after that Mary Louise says something to you everyday. Something nice. Not very prying. You say something nice back. Not very revealing. You find yourself liking not being alone. Pretty soon you have one friend and then two and then three and presto you’re going to the prom. Maybe it’s just the thing to do to finish off this exile from Midland, her home. A prom. A step toward normal. With friends. No romance. A sort of date with Marshall. It would be all right. A sort of date. With Marshall.

She still wasn’t sure about him. He looked like a dangerous combination of smart and sensitive. She liked smart because she hated dumb. But smart meant she had to be watchful. Smart meant someone could pull a fast one on her. Smart meant she wasn’t sure she could trust him.

Sensitive confused her. She thought he was sensitive. Maybe it was his eyes. Or those glasses. They made him look vulnerable. Breakable. Maybe it was the way he didn’t look at her directly. Or push himself at her. He couldn’t hurt her if he was sensitive. Could he?

It couldn’t hurt her to go to the prom with a pretend date. Could it?

She was never sure what would hurt. It was like all her antenna mixed all the signals up when someone got close. She couldn’t figure out what they wanted. Or she did know what they wanted and it was wrong but they said they loved her so it couldn’t be wrong but it was her uncle so it was wrong but he said he loved her but it was wrong. Then it was her cousin but it was wrong but he said he loved her but it was wrong. It was wrong every time. But they said they loved her. They said so. Then her mother found out, said Leann was a “little tease, the kind of girl that gets boys in trouble.” No one said any different. Her mother sent Leann away. “Go live with my sister. See if she can teach you to keep your hands to yourself.”

The night before she left, her cousin whispered at her door, “Wanna suck me off one more time before you go?” Leann didn’t move. She wasn’t sure what she should do. She sat up, thinking she should go to the door. He was always nice to her afterwards. She could hear him breathing. Then he kicked the door and said, “Bitch.” Leann gripped the edge of her bed and held her breath. She pushed away the wish that she should have opened the door.

When her aunt picked her up at the bus station, she didn’t ask what happened. She never pried. She let Leann be. After a month, it felt like Leann took her first breath of air. Then a second and a third. When it came time for the prom, Leann was almost breathing normal.

~

Marshall pulled up in front of Leann’s house. This was it. He had to keep reminding himself it was pretend. It wasn’t really a date.

Somehow he’d convinced all of them that picking up their pretend dates was part of the prom ritual. “We’ll meet outside the dance in the parking lot and walk in together but we should each pick up Leann and Mary Louise.”

Leann didn’t like the idea. “This sounds more and more like a real prom date. I think we should all go together.”

Marshall shrugged. “Okay. Then I want to be the driver.”

“No way,” said Robert. “I want my own ride.”

“I get carsick if I ride in the back,” Mary Louise added.

“Okay, I get it,” said Leann. “No one wants to be the cute couple in the back seat.”

Marshall wouldn’t have minded being the cute couple but he wanted to ask her to drive out to the pull-out with him in his car after the prom. If they’d driven together, it wouldn’t have worked.

Walking up to Leann’s door, Marshall composed himself. He had to act like this wasn’t a date. He knocked. An older woman answered. She had Leann’s long dark hair streaked with grey.

“My name is Marshall Johnson. I’m here to take Leann to the prom.”

“I’m Leann’s aunt. Jackie.” She reached out and Marshall shook her hand. It felt callused like a man’s. It felt strange to hold this hand and stare into a face that looked like an older version of Leann. Then Leann stepped forward. Standing next to her aunt, it looked as if time had split their cells. Neither smiled. Both had that same wariness in their eyes. Except Leann was beautiful. Her blue dress was dusted with silver so that it looked as translucent as her eyes.

As Leann stepped toward him and waved goodbye to her aunt, Marshall sucked in his breath and held it. He almost gasped. He almost exhaled an audible “Ahhh.” If he had, he would have had to pretend that he was acting like a real date. He was glad he didn’t slip up. He was glad he held it together as they walked to his car and he opened the door for Leann.

~

Anxiety rose in Leann’s throat. She slid into the passenger seat of Marshall’s car. As he walked around behind the car, she touched the door handle. She could run back inside. She could tell him she had food poisoning. She could fake stomach heaves. She could…

She held onto the cold metal handle. She breathed. Holding onto the door handle calmed her. If anything bad happened, she could fling herself out the door. When Marshall clicked open his door and sat down, she looked over at him. He didn’t look any different, right? He hadn’t done anything wrong, right? It was a fake date, right?

~

Leann looked a little ill. Marshall wondered if he should notice, out loud. You know, be concerned. But he wasn’t sure a friend would do that. Would a boyfriend?

“Oh, I got a corsage for you.” Marshall tried to sound as offhand as possible as he handed her the plastic box. “They’re gardenias. I wasn’t sure what color dress you would wear so I got a white flower. To go with anything.” Only it wasn’t meant to go with anything. It was meant for her. He wanted her to have those beautiful white flowers wrapped around her wrist all night.

Marshall watched Leann open the box and stare at the corsage. He heard her take a short sip of air as if smelling the flower would hurt. Then it sounded like she held her breath. Marshall wasn’t sure if he should start the car or not. She looked like she might open the door and puke. Marshall scrambled, “I hope you like it. It was weird bringing you the corsage. I got a little nervous. You know, like I worried if you would like it. This pretend stuff started to feel a little real, ya know?”

~

Leanne laughed. The thought that he was nervous made Leann laugh. A short, sharp “Hah” popped out of her mouth. Marshall jumped as if she had scared him. That made her laugh some more. “Yeah. A little too real,” Leann said and loosened her grip on the door handle.

“Maybe it’s the corsage. You don’t have to wear it.”

Leann took the corsage out of the box and put it around her wrist. She stretched her arm in front of her and looked at the bracelet of white petals. “Yeah maybe it is the corsage. It’s beautiful, though.”

“Good. I mean, let’s—I mean, it doesn’t mean anything. They’re just flowers, right? Just a tradition, right?”

“Right.” Leann raised the white flowers to her nose and breathed in their fragrance.

~

Marshall steered the car into the Fred High parking lot and looked for Robert’s truck. He was sitting on the tailgate. The cab windows were open and Travis Tritt was crooning, “I’ve had the best of intentions from the start.”  Mary Louise was twirling around in an empty parking space next to the truck. She looked like one of those ballerinas that pop up in a jewelry box. Her skirt was even that white net material.

“We saved you a spot.” Mary Louise stopped twirling and jumped out of the way. “Actually I saved you a spot. Robert wouldn’t dance with me. He thought it was too romantic for a pretend date.”

“Hell, yes,” said Robert. He strode over and clicked off his radio. “I already can’t believe I spent $20 bucks on a damn corsage and $10 on this tuxedo from Goodwill.”

“Ooooh…you’re lucky, Mary Louise,” said Leann, admiring the bridge of sweetheart roses circling her wrist. “He spent more on your corsage than his tuxedo.”

Leann and Mary Louise laughed and headed toward the gym. Marshall trailed behind with Robert. “Phew, that tuxedo smells.”

“Shit,” said Robert. “I dumped a whole bottle of Old Spice on it.”

“Yeah, now it smells like cinnamon spiced cat pee.”

“Shit.”

“Mary Louise didn’t say anything?”

“Naw, she’s too nice. Do you think I should change? I’ve got some jeans in the truck. I can still wear the shirt. It’s my dad’s.”

Marshall weighed Robert’s question. He’d gotten them to the prom. Leann was his date. It didn’t really matter if Robert dressed the part. “Yeah I think smelling like cat pee is a really bad idea.”

Robert loped back to his truck. “Tell Mary Louise I’ll be there in a minute.”

Leann and Mary Louise grabbed a table close to the dance floor. They waved to Marshall. Just as he got to the table, the band started playing a fast song. On impulse Marshall took both girls by the arm and pulled them onto the dance floor. When Robert came in, Leann pulled him into their circle. After a few fast songs, the band slowed it down. Marshall wanted to ask Leann but he had to pretend this wasn’t a date. He took Mary Louise by the hand and bowed, “May I have this dance?” Mary Louise giggled and nodded. As they pulled away from Leann and Robert, Marshall made himself not look at Leann. He pretended he wanted to slow dance with Mary Louise first.

~

Leann looked over at Robert to see if he was going to ask her to slow dance. He turned to go back to the table. Leann felt disappointed. She was enjoying herself. More than she thought.

She grabbed Robert by his elbow and pulled him onto the dance floor. “Come on.”

Robert moaned. “I hate this song.”

“Tough. This is our prom. We’re dancing.”

“Can’t we just pretend dance?”

“You want me to pretend slap you?” Leann raised her hand above Robert’s shoulder.

Robert moaned. Leann smiled. She didn’t have to pretend. She was having fun.

~

They danced every dance. When Marshall slow danced with Leann, he couldn’t let himself relax. He kept thinking of things to talk about. What he really wanted to do was concentrate on how one of her hands cupped his shoulder and the other hooked around his thumb.

One time, when all four of them were dancing together, sort of jumping in a circle, Leann leaned in close to Marshall, “Thanks. This is really fun.” Then she smiled. It disarmed him. He stopped dancing for just a second. He leaned in toward her. He could smell the gardenias, the sweetness hung between them. He wanted to kiss her. Her cheek was an inch from his lips. He stopped himself. “You’re welcome,” he said close to her ear. Then he jumped away from how perilously close he was to the edge of her and kept dancing, glancing over again and again, hoping she hadn’t noticed that the mask he was wearing had slipped for an instant.

~

Leann barely heard Marshall say, “You’re welcome.”

They were all laughing. They were all having fun. Even when the band took a break, they goofed around at their table. Leann thumb wrestled each of them and won.

When Marshall suggested they go to the Whip In afterwards, Leann didn’t hesitate. They were all in. Burgers, fries and sodas filled their table.

Ravenous, sweaty from dancing, Leann felt good. She sniffed her gardenia corsage. “I wonder where this corsage tradition came from.”

Robert waved his hand in front of his nose. “To cover up body odor.”

Leann backhanded his shoulder. “To cover up their date’s stinky tuxedo smell.”

“Hey, that’s in the car.”

Mary Louise waved her hand in front of her nose and smelled her corsage, “Still too close.”

They fell into laughing again. Mary Louise never insulted anyone.

“I have the receipt. I bet I can return it.”

“No way,” said Marshall. “You’ll have to donate it back to Goodwill.”

“You might even have to pay them to take it,” Mary Louise added and they started laughing again.

~

Outside the Whip In, Marshall opened the car door for Leann and took a deep breath. Here was the big moment. He was scared. What if she said no? Except they’d had a good time. Why couldn’t he just say it?

“Leann, can I show you something before I take you home?”

“Sure.”

It was that easy. Minutes later, he was pulling off Hwy 281. No other cars were there. He slowed down and eased the car over the edge at the back of the pull-out. Sprigs of scrub cedar scraped the underside of the car. He turned off the car and rolled down his window.

“This is my favorite place.”

~

Leann glanced over at Marshall. His head was tipped back and his eyes were closed.

“Close your eyes and listen. It’s amazing.”

Leann reached for the door handle. She wasn’t going to close her eyes. Ever.

“Here.” Marshall reached over and cranked open Leann’s window.

Leann flinched and pressed back into the seat away from his arm.

The cool night air crept in the window.

Leann held her breath.

~

Marshall saw Leann reach for the door handle. That isn’t what he wanted. “No wait, Leann. I didn’t bring you here to kiss you. Or do anything. Honest.”

Leann’s hand didn’t move away from the handle.

“I wanted you to see this place. Hear it. I like to come out here and open the windows and sit and listen.” Marshall stopped. He didn’t want to use this many words to explain this place but he felt like if he didn’t talk she would open the door and walk away. Maybe even run away.

“I once walked straight out from here. A couple of hundred yards. Maybe more. I came across the old Stillwell house. Only it was barely a house. Bit by bit, the wind and the animals, even the insects had taken it back. I bet if we walked out there now it might even be gone. Completely. Gone.”

Leann didn’t say a word. Marshall could barely hear her breathing. He could smell the gardenias. The sticky sweetness fought with the cedar-tinged night air.

Leann stared straight ahead. The moon had come out from behind a cloud and it caught a bleached rock in its gaze.

“Leann, I need to tell you the truth. Is that all right? Can I tell you the truth?” Marshall waited for her to answer but she didn’t. “I noticed you right away. I saw you on the first day of school last August and I, well, I wanted to bring you here the minute I saw you. I noticed how quiet you were. I thought you would like it here.”

Marshall let himself stare at Leann’s profile. Now that he wasn’t angling to get behind her defenses, he was lost. He thought she would understand this place. He thought she would understand the silence. He thought about starting the car and going back, but he couldn’t give up. Yet.

“Everybody at Fred High thinks they’re going to be something someday. That’s what we’re there for, right? To be something more than we are. But what if we don’t do that? What if we just get jobs and get married and have kids and grandkids and then die? What if all we’re supposed to do is be happy with that? Do you know what I am saying, Leann?”

Leann still hadn’t moved. Marshall was running out of words. He couldn’t see what he was doing wrong.

“I mean I’ll probably go to college and do something, I don’t know, engineering, teaching. But then I come out here and I think, what if I just loved someone? What if that was my whole life’s work? To love someone. Be a good husband. A good provider. What if, when the wind and bugs erased me that was all I’d done: Loved one person? Wouldn’t that be good enough?” Marshall said every word he had dreamed of saying to her but instead of weaving some beautiful picture, they fell in a mess on the seat of the car.

Marshall reached his hand toward Leann. She flinched. He let his hand drop on the seat beside her. She pressed her body closer to the door.

~

Leann wasn’t sure if she should open the door and run. She tried to find the edge of her skin where it touched the night air, the seat, the door. He kept talking to her, pelting words at her.

“I wanted you to know that if you ever thought you wanted to be that one person, I would love you. I swear.”

Leann counted each breath of air she took. In between, she heard Marshall’s words. One “I” Two “Would” Three “Love” Four “You” Five “I” Six “Swear.”

“I thought maybe you would understand,” Marshall’s voice trailed off.

Leann swallowed another sip of air. Held it hard inside her. Love. The word dripped like acid down Leann’s throat. She stared ahead, but in her periphery, she could tell Marshall hadn’t moved. She pushed the words out. “Take me home.”

~

Marshall looked at her profile. The way the shadows cut across her face, it looked like her mouth and her jaw line were lopped off. Marshall wanted to believe she hadn’t said those words. If he couldn’t see her mouth, maybe she hadn’t said them. Maybe it was the quiet playing tricks on him. Maybe it was the wind that always blew out here, whispering those words. But how could that happen? Wasn’t this where he was supposed to reveal himself and she was supposed to understand him? Wasn’t this place meant to bring them together?

Then, “Please.”

It was her. Marshall rolled up his window. The smell of gardenias filled his nostrils. Even though he couldn’t see them, Marshall knew the bright white petals had turned yellow. He started the car and turned back to the highway.

~

Leann stared ahead. She didn’t roll up her window. The wind blew over her. She shivered a little. Her hair whipped across her face. At first, she liked how the strands of hair lashed at her. Until she saw the moon. Then she reached up with one hand and held her hair back so she could watch the moon float next to them. When it slipped behind a cloud, she wished with all her heart it would come back out.

The Kneebone Boy: Excerpts from a Novel

Ellen Potter

Chapter 1

In which we meet the Hardscrabbles,
unearth a triceratops bone, and begin to like
Lucia even more

There were three of them. Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better. They lived in a small town in England called Little Tunks. There is no Big Tunks. One Tunks was more than enough for everyone. It was the most uninteresting town imaginable, except for the fact that the Such Fun Chewing Gum factory was on its west end, so that the air almost always smelled of peppermint. When the wind blew just right you could think you had been sucked down a tube of toothpaste.

I was the one voted to tell this story because I read the most novels, so I know how a story should be told. Plus I’m very observant and have a nice way of putting things; that’s what my teacher Mr. Dupuis told me. I can’t tell you which Hardscrabble I am— Otto, Lucia, or Max— because I’ve sworn on pain of torture not to. They said it’s because the story belongs to all three of us, and I suppose they’re right, but it seems unfair since I’m doing all the work. No one can stop you from guessing though.

The story will begin on a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July. I think that’s a good time to start because everything is so nice and pleasant at that time, with flowers blooming and birds singing and all that rubbish. You have to start nice and pleasant before you get to the more heartthumping bits, in which the weather turns nasty and so do the people. And also, the story actually did start on a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July, so I wouldn’t be lying.

On a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July, when the flowers were blooming and the birds were singing, Otto and Lucia were walking home from school arguing about what they were going to do when they grew up.

“We’ll open up a tattoo parlour in Little Tunks,” Otto said.

“Well, that’s fine for you. You’ll be the one drawing skeletons and tigers on people’s bums,” said Lucia, who incidentally looked exactly like her name. If you don’t know what I mean, just picture long, thick, black hair that needs loads of shampoo to make a lather; a delicate, proud nose; and beneath two unapologetically thick eyebrows, dark eyes that were endlessly searching for something interesting to happen. If you think she sounds suspiciously heroine-like, be advised that she has flaws. She had a terrible sense of direction, fought quite a lot with Max, and was on the short side.

“I won’t tattoo bums,” Otto said staunchly.

“You would if someone paid you loads of money,” Lucia declared.

“Not even then,” he said.

“Well . . . you would if the Queen came in and asked to have her bum tattooed,” Lucia said, since she hated to lose an argument.

Otto and Lucia both silently contemplated this for a few moments.

“I might,” Otto admitted, “just to say that I did.”

Here’s what Otto looked like, because I know you’re going to wonder pretty soon: He was a tall, thin, slipperyjointed thirteen-year-old. His posture was appalling. His shoulders humped and his head drooped down, so that he always looked like he was up to no good. He had shiny, pale blond hair that always swung over his pale blue eyes. Wrapped twice around his neck was a long black cloth scarf embroidered with twisting oak leaves in silver thread. He wore the scarf all the time, in winter and summer. Even to bed. His front tooth was chipped, due to an incident in which he was up to no good.

The other very important thing you should know about Otto is that he didn’t speak. I know I’ve already written that Otto spoke to Lucia, and it’s not a lie really. He spoke with his hands, using a sign language that he and Lucia had devised long ago, after he suddenly stopped speaking at the age of eight. Their younger brother, Max, understood quite a bit of it, because he was fairly clever and extremely nosy; their father had tried very hard to decipher it but rarely could. The teachers never understood him at all but they didn’t make a fuss over it. Truth be told, they were a little bit afraid of Otto. Most people in Little Tunks were.

From here on in, when I write “Otto said” you’ll understand that he was signing the words with his hands. Lucia, on the other hand, usually spoke to him out loud. He could hear perfectly well, after all.

“And anyway,” Lucia said, frowning, “what am I supposed to do at the tattoo parlour?”

“You can console the people who are crying and mop up the blood,” Otto answered promptly.

“Oh, that’s appealing.” Lucia puffed out her nostrils. It was a lovely gesture of contempt that she used quite often. “And anyway, I don’t think there’s much blood involved if you do it properly.”

They travelled through the narrow, winding streets, passing the brick terrace houses, the town park with its small pond and its three bad-tempered swans, and the sweet shop, which was owned by the Pakistani man who gave you back your change in little coin towers, the biggest coins on the bottom. Occasionally, they walked by other kids, also on their way home from school. The kids nodded at Otto and Lucia warily, but none of them stopped to toss them a friendly word, or even a filthy one. As a rule, no one in Little Tunks meddled with the Hardscrabble children. This was 75 percent due to the suspicious disappearance of their mother several years before, 20 percent due to the fact that the people in Little Tunks thought that the Hardscrabbles were strange, and 5 percent due to the Hardscrabble children— the two eldest, at least— being happiest in each other’s company.

“Well, I say we buy a fully rigged ship and sail around the Pacific Rim. We’ll navigate by the Orion constellation, and we’ll search for people who’ve been shipwrecked on islands, then rescue them,” Lucia said. (I’m beginning to think that you are pronouncing Lucia’s name as though it were Lucy with an a at the end of it. That’s wrong. You pronounce it Lu-CHEE-a. Say it a few times out loud and you’ll forget about Lucy-a.)

“You won’t need to navigate by the Orion constellation,” Otto said. “You can use radar equipment.”

“Yes, but maybe I’ll choose to navigate by the Orion constellation.”

“And people generally don’t get shipwrecked on desert islands anymore,” Otto said.

“I know that,” Lucia said, her nostrils puffing again, although not very widely since she hadn’t really thought of that. “But back in the old days, ladies travelled on those ships sometimes. If they got shipwrecked on an island with everyone else, don’t you think they might eventually have children? And then their children might have children, and then there might be a whole pack of them by now, living on seaweed and mud, just waiting for someone to come rescue them. Imagine how excited they’d be to see our white sails fluttering on the horizon.” Lucia’s glittering black eyes were now fixed on the horizon of Little Tunks, which consisted of some grimy terrace-house roofs, the Such Fun Chewing Gum factory’s chimneys pumping out peppermint smoke, and a cow pasture beyond that. “After we rescued them, we’d be on all the telly news shows and they’d put up plaques about us on park benches.”

She glanced over at Otto. He’d shoved his hands in his pockets and looked markedly unimpressed. She frowned, considered, then added, “Of course, it’s likely that there’d be some strange deformities among the stranded people. Inbreeding being such a problem.”

Beneath his overgrown hair, his pale, interested eyes slid toward his sister. “What kind of deformities?”

“Oh, children with hair growing on their faces, people with twelve toes. Like that.”

Otto was an avid collector of the strange and unusual. In fact, he hoped one day to open a museum of abnormalities right in Little Tunks, but he needed to enlarge his collection first. Thus far, he owned three specimens: a two-headed cornsnake; a one-eyed frog; and a lobster with an extra claw on one side, all of which he’d purchased from a catalogue.

“Well,” Otto said, “that’s all right then. But I still think a tattoo parlour is better.”

Suddenly Otto stopped walking. His body stiffened and his hand reflexively yanked his scarf tighter around his neck, something he always did when he was nervous. Lucia looked at him questioningly, then followed his gaze across the street. A thin woman with a cap of thick grey hair was prodding at a small object on the sidewalk with a stick.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Lucia hissed. She grabbed Otto by the elbow and quickened their pace. But it was no use. Mrs. Carnival had spotted them.

“Hoo! Hoo, Hardscrabbles!” Mrs. Carnival called to them, waving her stick.

Ignoring her was no good, they knew. They had tried it before. She would hunt them down clear across town if need be.

Reluctantly, they crossed the road while Mrs. Carnival waited, tapping the stick against the pavement. Her eyes, which were the exact color of bananas when they go thoroughly rotten, fixed on them impatiently.

“Come on, don’t drag your feet, Hardscrabbles! Stand up straight, Otto, I’ve told you a hundred times not to walk like a baboon. You may act the part of the village idiot but there’s no need to walk like one!”

Lucia opened her mouth to shoot back an angry response, but Otto stopped her with a quick shake of his head. He was right, of course. It was no use arguing with Mrs. Carnival. She would always have the last word, and besides, they had to stay at her home several times a year. It wasn’t a good idea to get on her bad side.

As Lucia and Otto came close, Mrs. Carnival turned her attention back to the object on the ground.

“Get rid of this thing,” she demanded, nudging it distastefully with the tip of her stick. “I don’t want to touch it, and it’s spoiling the street.”

It was a robin, tiny and plump and lying horribly still. Otto knelt down next to it. Its thin eyelids were closed except for the tiniest slit, through which a still-bright dark eye gleamed.

Otto shook his hair to the side in order to see better, and with one finger he gently touched the bird’s small russet chest.

“Is it dead?” Lucia asked Otto.

He shook his head no.

“Well, it should be if it had any sense! Flew into my window, the nitwit,” Mrs. Carnival said. “What are you doing down there, Otto? I asked you to get rid of it, not groom it! Oh, get out of the way, I’ll kill it myself.” And she lifted her stick in order to bring the pointed end down on the little bird’s chest.

Swiftly, Otto slid his hand beneath the little bird and scooped it up before Mrs. Carnival could touch it. He wrapped his scarf around it gently and cradled it against his chest.

“Ridiculous boy,” Mrs. Carnival muttered, shaking her head. “Remember to wash that scarf afterwards,” she called
to Otto as he and Lucia walked away. “That bird is certainly diseased. I won’t have you staying at my house if you catch something from it.”

“As though that’s punishment,” Lucia said, almost loud enough for Mrs. Carnival to hear. But not quite. Mrs. Carnival was the only person who was willing to take care of them when their father went on his trips abroad. The Hardscrabbles didn’t like her but they needed her. Or Dad felt they did anyway, though I’m sure they were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.

Otto cupped his hand over the small lump under his scarf as he and Lucia passed through the heart of town and then turned up a lonely street whose broken pavement tilted this way and that. On either side of the road were a few houses in moderate states of disrepair. Their own house was at the very end of the street, a ramshackle butter yellow house with a wild- looking garden in the front. Ruffled pink and white roses spilled giddily every which way, blue lobelia carpeted the ground, and gangly lilies stretched up toward the sun, their lemon-colored petals unfurled. Arched over the brick path leading toward the house was a rickety arbour that was thatched with bright purple clematis.

A black-and-white cat named Esmeralda was sunning herself on the path, but when she saw Otto and Lucia approaching she popped up and bolted out of the garden and across the road. She wasn’t their cat anyway. She was only one of the many street cats that hung around their house. The cats came when their mother had still lived with them and they still kept coming after she was gone. Their mother didn’t believe in keeping animals, Dad told them, any more than she believed in keeping humans. Creatures stayed as long as they needed to stay, she had said, and when it was time for them to leave, you just had to tip your hat and wish them well.

Ironically, though, the cats never thought it was time to leave the Hardscrabble house. It was really as if they were hanging around waiting for Tess Hardscrabble to return. Consequently, as Lucia and Otto approached the house, they startled six other cats out of the depths of the garden. A seventh, a big fat tabby, had draped itself in front of the door and would not move, so they had to step over him.

Inside the hallway, Otto and Lucia dropped their schoolbags and headed directly to the kitchen, just as they always did, but they stopped short at the entrance. Sitting at the kitchen table was a chubby red-haired girl they’d never seen before. In front of her was a large bowl, into which their younger brother, Max, was scooping chocolate ice cream from the carton. He stopped when he saw Otto and Lucia, and his face grew a little pink.

“Who’s this?” Lucia demanded.

“Her name is Brenda. She’s new at school, moved here all the way from Loughborough, and doesn’t know a soul, so I thought wouldn’t it be a good thing for her to come over.” Max said this very quickly, and there was a pointed tone to his voice when he said that Brenda was new at school.

What followed was a long awkward silence, during which Otto slouched even more than usual and cradled the robin closer to his chest. Lucia flashed an irritated glance towards Max then turned her dark eyes on Brenda. Her expression was stern but kind.

“Did Max tell you that he has a time machine in the basement?” Lucia asked Brenda.

The girl shook her head while Max hastily plopped another scoop of ice cream in her bowl.

“Did he tell you he has a pair of llamas in the backyard?” Lucia persisted.

Brenda shook her head, but her eyes flitted to the window that faced the backyard.

“No, Brenda, there aren’t any llamas there,” Lucia said. “Nor time machines. Nor anything else that Max might have told you. Incidentally, what did he tell you to make you come here?”

Brenda looked down at her bowl of ice cream wistfully, as though she sensed that she was not going to have a chance to eat it.

“Why don’t you mind your own business, Lucia,” Max said, scooping out the last bit of ice cream from the container.

Lucia ignored him and kept her black eyes on Brenda, who was beginning to squirm. “Well?” Lucia demanded.

“He told me he’d found a brontosaurus bone in the garden,” Brenda said. Then she looked at Max. “Was that a lie?”

Lucia snorted. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, of course it was a lie! I’m surprised a girl your age would believe such rubbish. I honestly think kids are getting stupider by the year.” She murmured this last bit to Otto.

Brenda frowned over at Max, who quickly turned his back to grab a container of milk from the fridge.

“Can I eat the ice cream, at least?” Brenda asked Lucia.

“You don’t have to ask her permission, you know,” Max said, placing a glass of milk in front of Brenda. “She’s
not the parent.”

The real, actual parent walked into the kitchen just then. He didn’t look much like a real, actual parent. Casper Hardscrabble was a tall, thin, bespectacled man with curly dark hair down to the base of his neck and a grizzled, unshaven face. His eyebrows were thick, like Lucia’s, but his were the scowling type. Had he plucked them, he might have looked more friendly to his neighbours. He would have resembled a shy, rumpled college professor, and his neighbours might not have thought the awful things that they thought about him. But he wasn’t the type to pluck them, so there’s nothing to talk about really.

Oh, and he was wearing yellow pyjamas.

“You’re new,” Casper said to Brenda.

“She was Max’s idea,” Lucia muttered.

Casper looked at Brenda’s bowl of ice cream, then at his youngest child, who was now sitting across from Brenda, pretending to be engrossed in smashing the lumps of sugar in the sugar bowl with the back of a spoon.

“I see you’ve finished off the ice cream,” Casper said, glancing at the empty ice cream carton on the kitchen counter.

Brenda squirmed a little.

“Well done,” Casper said. “I was just about to throw it out to make room for the triceratops bone.”

They all looked at him with puzzled expressions.

“What?” he said, gazing back at them. “You have to put dinosaur bones somewhere before the museum comes to fetch them, don’t you? A freezer is the best place. Keeps them nice and fresh.”

“You never said anything about having a dinosaur bone, Dad.” Lucia narrowed her eyes at him.

“Not to you, maybe,” Casper said. “But I told Max all about it this morning, didn’t I?”

Max stared at him for a moment, then nodded.

“Really? Then why did he tell Brenda it was a brontosaurus bone?” Lucia persisted.

“Well, that’s what I thought it was at first,” Casper said. “But I looked it up afterwards. It’s definitely triceratops.”

“Can I see it?” Brenda asked, already making a fair sized dent in her ice cream.

“Oh, yes, let’s all see it,” Lucia said, throwing a dry look at Max, who had wilted in his chair.

“All right. Wait right here. I’ll go get it.” Casper opened the kitchen door and walked out into the garden. All the kids went to the window to watch what he would do next.

“My dad is never home at this hour,” Brenda said. “Doesn’t your dad work?”

“Sure, he does. He just works at home,” Max explained. “And every so often he goes away.”

“Where?” Brenda asked.

Casper was now circling the garden in his bare feet, staring hard at the ground.

“All different places. The Philippines, Africa, Indonesia,” Max said. “He paints portraits of kings and queens and empresses. Not the famous ones, though. The ones he paints have been booted off their thrones.”

Brenda scrutinized him doubtfully, then turned to Lucia. “Is he lying?”

“No, he’s actually telling the truth this time,” Lucia replied distractedly, her eyes fixed on her father. Casper was kneeling down, frog fashion, and was clawing up the earth. It flew backwards between his legs.

“Do you get to go with him?” Brenda asked.

Max shook his head. “He’s too busy when he’s there to look after us. And we’d miss too much school.” He added in a grim voice, “We stay with a lady in town.”

“What about your mum?” Brenda asked, looking around suddenly as though their mum might be hiding in the room
somewhere.

“Haven’t you heard about our mum?” Lucia asked.

Brenda shook her head.

Max flashed a warning look at his sister, which Lucia completely ignored.

“She’s dead,” Lucia said.

“She’s gone missing,” said Max.

“Dead,” Lucia said.

“Missing,” Max said. “Dad says she’s missing.”

“He just says that to make us feel better. She’s dead.”

Now Brenda appeared completely confused. Her eyes darted around nervously between Lucia and Max, stopping briefly to look at Otto, who would not look back at her.

A scurrying movement out the window made them turn their attention to Casper again. He was down on all fours, one hand pawing around the hole he’d dug in the ground. He pulled something out, something largish, and began brushing the dirt off of it. Then he hopped up very nimbly and trotted back to the house. The front of his pyjamas was filthy and there were bits of soil in his hair and on his spectacles, but when he entered the kitchen, he held up the dirt-encrusted object triumphantly.

“Found it!” he cried. “I put it back in the ground earlier, just until I could get the freezer cleaned out.”

He placed the thing on the kitchen table with a thump. It was definitely a bone, and a very large one.

“Whoa,” Brenda said quietly.

“Max believes it may be the beast’s ankle bone,” Casper said, looking at his son admiringly. Brenda did the same, and Max’s face turned bright red.

“Oh, for goodness’ sakes, that’s just an old beef bone,” Lucia said. “One of the neighbourhood dogs probably buried
it.”

“Really?” Casper raised one eyebrow at Lucia, a thing that none of his children could do, though they all had practiced in front of a mirror. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Lucia said resolutely.

“How much do you want to wager?” Casper asked.

Lucia shrugged carelessly but she looked a little uncomfortable.

“How about your birthday money?” Casper suggested.

Lucia hesitated while Otto examined the bone with his free hand, as though he were trying to assess Lucia’s
odds.

“Forget it.” Lucia backed down. Her nostrils puffed out very widely and she added smirkily, “Believe what
you want to believe.”

“Well said!” Casper exclaimed and he kissed Lucia’s forehead, leaving a smudge of garden dirt on it.

˜

Later, Lucia watched out the window as Max walked Brenda down the front path, then stood at the edge of the front lawn and watched her walk away. Brenda turned around once to look back at him and he waved enthusiastically. She waved back. A small careless wave.

Here’s what Max looks like: dark hair like Lucia and blue eyes like Otto. Chin slightly cleft like Lucia and nose on the snubby side like Otto. If you studied him, you would swear he looked like a perfect combination of the two, but if you looked away from him suddenly and then you looked back at him, you’d think that he didn’t look a single thing like either of them.

“He thinks she’s going to come back,” Lucia murmured.

Otto looked up from the robin, confused for a moment, then followed Lucia’s gaze out the window.

“Brenda will go to school tomorrow and tell everyone about the dinosaur bone,” Lucia continued airily, “and everyone will tell her about Mum. Then Brenda won’t ever step foot in this house again.”

Here is what happened to their mum. One day she was gone. Casper looked everywhere for her. The police looked everywhere for her. The police searched their house too, and they brought dogs to sniff through the garden, as though Casper had done something fi endish, you understand. A crowd of neighbours stood outside, watching. In the end, the dogs found exactly nothing, but you can’t have dogs sniffing through your garden to find your missing mum without there being some serious damage to your family’s reputation. Mum was never found. Soon after that, Otto started wearing his scarf all the time.

Here is the part I hate to even mention, but since it figures into this story you’d better hear it now. An ugly rumor started going around. People whispered that Otto had strangled his mum with that very scarf in a fit of rage, and that Casper had buried his wife in the yard to cover for him. Otto had always been a strange, quiet boy. Strange, quiet boys are never popular in small towns. Kids in school started harassing Otto with questions about what he’d done to his mum and where her body was buried and did her ghost haunt him at night until, quite suddenly, Otto simply stopped talking. He’d never talked much to begin with, so it was just a stone’s throw to nothing at all. Still, that made things even worse, of course. Before long, all of Little Tunks acted as if the Hardscrabbles had the lurgies, which in case you don’t know is what kids say you have when they don’t want anything to do with you, as in “E www , don’t touch the Hardscrabbles, they have the lurgies!”

“Don’t you think we should warn Max?” Otto asked. “So he won’t get his hopes up about Brenda coming back?”

Lucia stared at her younger brother, who was now walking toward the huge oak tree by their house, which he would certainly climb to sit on his usual rooftop perch by the chimney. His stride was bouncy and his eyes were lost in some imagined future that was clearly much brighter than the present.

“No. Let him believe what he wants to believe,” Lucia said. Her voice didn’t sound smirky this time. It sounded full of genuine pity. Which should make you like her even more.

Chapter 2

In which Otto finds something interesting,
Lucia listens to nothing at all,
and more stuff happens

The little robin stayed wrapped in Otto’s scarf throughout dinner, perfectly motionless except for its tiny chest, which rose and fell with rapid breaths. Toward the end of dinner, though, the bird began to twitch. It lifted its head, then attempted to right itself, its claws scratching at the scarf to gain a grip.

“I think it’s coming round,” Otto said, gazing down at it.

Casper looked over at Otto through his thick round spectacles, then at Lucia.

“What did he say?” Casper asked her.

“He says it’s coming round,” Max interjected. He took every opportunity to show that he knew Otto’s language
as well as Lucia did.

“What is?” Casper asked.

“A bird, Dad,” Lucia said. “Otto’s got a bird in his scarf.”

“Ah,” Casper said, and went back to his dinner. He saw so many odd things in his line of work that a bird in a scarf at dinner was fairly ordinary.

“Oh, poor thing,” Lucia said, watching while Otto carefully disentangled the pinny little claw from the scarf. “We should put it in a box. Just until we’re sure it’s fine.”

So off they went to search for a spare box. You always think there is an endless supply of spare boxes, but there never really is. The spare ones are nearly always smashed or else have a mouse corpse curled in the corner. There were no spare boxes to be found in the basement or in any of the closets and the poor little robin was beginning to really make a fuss.

“We might try Dad’s studio,” Otto suggested.

That hadn’t occurred to Lucia. Casper’s attic studio always seemed like its own separate flat that coincidentally happened to be attached to the top of their house. They opened the door at the far end of the upstairs hallway and climbed the steep, narrow stairs, right away smelling the nutty odor of linseed oil and, lurking behind that, the nostril-wincing sting of turpentine.

They didn’t often enter Casper’s studio when he was in there. The room wasn’t off-limits exactly; it was just that Casper acted differently while he was at work in his studio. He stared at his sketch pad when he spoke to his kids. His voice grew vague, and his eyes had a faraway cast. In the studio, Casper’s children felt slightly less substantial, as though they were one of Casper’s daydreams, that might grow fuzzy around the edges and vanish without warning.

When Casper wasn’t in the studio, though, the children did like to come in to see the sketches hanging on the wall. They were the sketches that Casper brought home from his travels abroad— sketches of princesses and sultans, barons and kings, and an occasional knight (the actual paintings were left with his clients, of course, but Casper was able to take home the preliminary sketches).

In fairy tales, kings and princesses always look different from the everyday person. They’re better looking or taller or fatter or even uglier. You’d think that was just all nonsense in real life, since royals are just people like everyone else.

Except, they’re not.

They really do look different from the average person, even royalty who have been booted off the throne or have lost all their money. Casper’s sketches proved it.

The Duchess of Hildenhausen, for instance, was a thick- jawed, middle-aged woman with long blond ringlets that were spiked with tiny cornflowers. One of her huge blue eyes went the wrong way, so that she looked just like a doll that had been rattled about by an angry child. And there was Prince Wiri, who had ruled The Sister’s Islands in the South Pacific until his family was accused of witchcraft and they were exiled to Fiji. The black- haired Prince Wiri, dressed in a white military uniform crowded with epaulets, was an exceptionally handsome young man— as handsome as any movie star— but he would not smile or even show a hint of happy in any of Casper’s sketches. Lucia enjoyed feeling sorry for him. Then there was the immensely fat Prince Andrei, whose family had once ruled a small principality south of Bulgaria. He had squinty eyes and a long, thin black beard, frayed on the ends. Perched on his shoulder was a black fox. Casper said that the fox was very clever and could bounce on a tiny trampoline that Prince Andrei had had built for him. Still, the fox didn’t like Casper and would occasionally leap off the prince’s shoulder to vomit on Casper’s shoe.

Ex- royals were more difficult than regular people too. Casper said this was because they were frustrated. A duchess who lives in a tiny four-storey walk-up with a leaky toilet will never be a happy duchess, he said. They snipped and snapped and did strange things. While painting the Duchess of Hildenhausen— the lady with the wonky eye— Casper was interrupted dozens of times while the duchess leapt up to throw boiled potatoes at a mouse that she swore had been harassing her for months.

Also, unlike regular people, royalty didn’t feel the need to pay their bills. Once in a great while they paid Casper what they said they were going to pay him. But more often than not Casper would come away with little more than partial payment, a box of expensive chocolates, and a promise of payment in full when their “affairs were settled” or “after the sale of a house in Spain.” Ex- royals, it turned out, were a pretty shifty lot.

So Casper supplemented his income by doing illustrations for small kitchen appliance repair manuals and occasionally for the Journal of British Hog Farming.

“Why don’t you just paint regular people, Dad?” Max had once asked him. “At least they’d pay their bill.”

“Probably,” Casper said. “But there is something extraordinary about the face of a person who has fallen from greatness. They remind me of angels tossed out of heaven who are now struggling to manage the coin-operated washing machine at the Scrubbly-Bubbly Laundromat.”

You must make allowances for artists like Casper. They get romantic ideas about things.

There were plenty of boxes in the studio crowded into the low corner of the attic, but they were all filled. Some contained bundles of old sketch pads and others had loose drawings and still others held copies of toaster repair manuals that Casper had illustrated or back issues of the Journal of British Hog Farming.

“Here,” Lucia said, picking out a small carton from the back and handing it to Otto. “This one’s not full yet. We could just shift some of the papers inside to another box and free it up.”

Otto put the box down and looked inside. “I think it’s just garbage in here. See, most of it’s crumpled.”

“Well, no wonder,” Lucia said, walking over to Casper’s dustbin. The dustbin was heaped up high with papers. Bits of pencil shavings were spilling off the top of the heap and had pooled around it on the floor. Lucia scooped up the shavings and tucked them in the corner of the dustbin, then shoved the rubbish down with the heel of her hand.

“Honestly, this place is beginning to look as wild as the garden,” she said, lifting up the dustbin. “I’ll go empty this downstairs.”

And while she did, Otto found something interesting in the box of crumpled things.

This isn’t surprising. Otto was very good at finding things that were not meant to be found. He often found birds’ nests tucked in bushes. Once he found a litter of kittens that Esmeralda had stashed beneath a loose floorboard in the garden shed— two white ones and a little black one. Last year he found a bunch of love letters that Casper had written to their mum. They were shoved in the pocket of her dressing gown, which was shoved in the back of Casper’s closet, along with all her other clothes. The clothes still smelled of peppermint from the Such Fun Chewing Gum factory.

What is surprising, however, is that Otto didn’t tell Lucia he had found the interesting thing in the box. He usually told Lucia everything. By the time she returned he had tucked the interesting thing in his back pocket, and all Lucia saw was a robin standing upright in an empty carton and Otto looking slightly paler than usual.

(I hope you don’t think I’m teasing by not telling you what Otto found. I will, I promise. It’s just that there is a right time and place for everything, and 7:19 p.m. on a Thursday in Casper’s attic studio is simply not the right time and place.)

˜

That night, Lucia lay in her bed, listening to nothing. The sound of nothing is the most ominous sound in the world. It’s the sound a cat makes a second before it lunges for a mouse and sinks its arrow-tippy teeth into the poor thing’s neck. The sound of nothing was also the sound that Casper made right before he was about to leave them.

Usually, Casper was a night owl. The darker it grew, the busier he became. He cooked at night, he painted at night. His children went to sleep to the lullaby of the radio that he played in his studio or his quick footsteps creaking through the house until the wee hours of morning. But right before Casper was to leave for a job, he slept. Perhaps it was anxiety that tired him out. Or excitement.

But he hadn’t mentioned a new job, Lucia thought. And he’d been away just two months before. Surely he wouldn’t make them stay with Mrs. Carnival again so soon?

To take her mind off the sound of nothing, Lucia did what she always did when she felt troubled. She stared at the Sultan of Juwi. She had strategically hung him above her dresser, directly across from her bed, so she could gaze at his face before she went to sleep and wake up to the sight of it in the morning. The white-robed sultan sat in the center of a fountain, on the head of a stone cherub that poured water out of a jug. The sultan held an egg in one hand and a silver demitasse in the other while he looked directly out at Lucia. She knew his face by heart: the creamy skin, the fl at disk of cheekbone, the amused wideset dark eyes that seemed to see all her worst qualities and like her even more because of them. Perched on his head was a crown that looked like a large bejewelled mustard lid, and his white robe was cinched around the middle with a black sash. The left ear had a small hoop earring in it, and the right ear was a bit mangled looking. A mischievous half smile curled one side of his mouth. It was the smile of someone who has recently made a prank phone call. When Lucia told her father that, Casper nodded.

“Quite possible, knowing the sultan.” Then Casper’s face grew sad, as did Lucia’s, because they were both thinking about the awful thing that had happened to the sultan shortly after the sketch was done.