Category: Prose

Puzzle Pieces – Samantha Hunter

I’m standing under a dome. My head tilts back, floating among clouds. The meticulous strokes of shade and light blur, leaving my eyes to absorb simple, white blobs. It’s round. I’ve never worked on one with no edges before. I don’t know why I’m nodding my head. The movement causes the cherubs to jostle and bounce from cloud to cloud. Their smudgy pink cheeks look lost underneath cold eyes.                               

The colors are so intense—so varied and brilliant, but the complex beauty is why it’s such a challenge. The voice whispering out of the phone fades into the disorderly realm inside my skull. The sharp clarity of pigment in the painted blue sky cuts into the cherubs, yet they smile—unlike their eyes.          .                                                                                                           

This morning, I had felt sharp. A chronic lack of sleep had injected my blood and organs with cement. The frozen tracks of someone’s previous slip crunched under my tread as my face fell prey to a vulgar seduction from the wind. It was licking me, dry tongues of glass forcing tears to leak out of their hiding places. I squinted into the wind. Everything was spinning. Blushing hilltops dusted with snow rose up as my lips cracked open to release the carbon I had been savoring.                                                                                               

The snow. It was not falling like a meteor shower of powdered doughnuts spasmodically approaching the earth, but was luminescing. The flakes were spinning together with glints of light in well-timed choreography.                                                                                                               The white chaos turned to black silence as I closed my eyes and imagined braille letters. Slowly, the snow’s rushed descent ghosted a message into my consciousness. I became a sheet of paper, ready for impact. A single dot pushed into me. Three prominent flakes followed; they shot through the left side of my body in a straight line. Then, a presence at my right shoulder echoed a feel at my left hip, forming a diagonal. Four caressing taps in the shape of an ‘L’ consecutively thumped onto my head. A pressure on my left shoulder almost covered the feel of an equal pressure on my right hip. I stayed like that, still and with closed eyes, as the word sang across my skin until I tasted it.

ALIVE.

In the midst of the snow, the cost of admission into the realm of aging had been an incomprehensible number. Now, I can hear the reality of age tinkling at the other end of the phone pressed to my upturned face. It’s intended for two or more to work on, but I’m doing it myself. Oh, you would just love the hummingbirds on it. They remind me of you, flitting around constantly, but these ones are just a picture.  I feel the 500 miles between us in my straining neck muscles.             

Blinking, the cherubs reappear on the mural. When did you say you sent your letter? I shift my weight—I can feel my forgetfulness, sealed and stamped, rubbing against me through my back pocket. My chin bumps repeatedly against my chest, knocking out a familiar apology.                                           

A tour of anxious high school students and their parents begins milling around the library’s dome shaped lobby—they watch me. I watch back. The cherubs watch nothing.

Our driveway was covered in ice. I had John come home from work to lay salt so I could check the mail, but there was nothing from you. I dance my feet around to try and shake an excuse out of my mouth so the words can find her hearing aid. The tour group is still watching me.

Wait, how much time until my next class? Did it snow on campus? Digging through my backpack to check for my homework, I mumble a response about the weather.                                                 

Finally, the swarm of sweaty seventeen year olds starts towards the exit. As I continue shuffling things around, the backpack falls over—the contents pour out across the tile floor. The sound of falling pencils echoes through the dome. I imagine the clatter mingling with the sound of the cherubs’ laughter. On my knees, the phone wedged between my left ear and shoulder, I look up at the slowly retreating parents of the tour group as I scramble for my escaping belongings. Yes, I tell them with my eyes, this is what your children’s’ future at college will look like.                                                                                    

We got two feet of the white stuff.  I watched it from my window while I was waiting for the mailman.  I inhale quickly. The snow, she had seen it. The wind, the glittering flakes, the taste of youth—had she experienced those things?                                                                              

Her voice comes across much clearer now, “It made me feel so young! Alive.” I stand up. “Do you remember how you used to build snow forts with your cousins in the backyard?” The taste from this morning clogs my throat. She continues, “Oh, my. And did I ever tell you about when your Granddad took me skiing for the first time? I think it was back in 1965—”                   

My head tilts back. The cherubs. Maybe their eyes are smiling. Maybe they are thinking of their grannies. The ones who speak in reverent tones about round puzzles of hummingbirds and call their grandchildren to remember how it feels to be alive.

Carving in Space – Olivia Buck

The snow at the bottom of my boots looks like powdered sugar. Just a big fuckin’ pastry.
Can’t tell if the drops on my face are melted ice or tears or snot but it’s fine I’m going to keep
going.

The hill up to the apartment is impossible. The white that coated the streets has turned a crusty
shade of brown. Or grey. Words always get more neutral in winter.

The street sign is missing at the top. It was stolen at some point, as a prank probably. Straight
Street—I mean.

There’s a lump up ahead, right in the gutter, caked in grimy slush. I stop a few feet in front of it.
There’s fur clumped up around the ends of it. It’s twitching, like someone is trying to shock it
back to life with those emergency room paddles, but no one is.

I take a few steps forward. The residences around look empty. Lights extinguished behind the
curtains of the windows, not a sound except for the wind against the pavement and the dried up
trees. The lump shivers slightly.

A pasty mask, connected to a crushed up torso, a long tail sticking out onto the road. Its eyes
still open.

Maybe it’s the gin in my throat, maybe it’s the smoke on my fingers, but I sit down next to it. It
doesn’t see me.

The light from the moon is casting shadows on my hands. But this is the best time. All the light is
a creature-light. The lump shivers again, and I see the head turn to look up at the moon. I turn
mine to look at it too. It’s almost full.

Homecoming – Matthias Kramer

            I stepped off the train back onto the streets of Baltimore in the late morning.  Snow swirled around grimy street corners and brushed against the boarded-up windows of foreclosed houses. It caught in the beards of the panhandlers I walked past, dragging my suitcase of belongings behind me. Though I wore a thick coat and a fluffy wool hat, I still felt a tingle on my nose where my scarf couldn’t reach. That chill spread down my neck and into my stomach where it froze my insides. I dragged my feet, fighting against the weight of the ice in my gut. The snow had begun to collect in gutters and on piles of refuse in dismal alleyways, just a thin layer of white coating the murk and the grit of the city. As little as I wanted to be back at college for my second semester, anything was better than being home right now.

            The walk to Huntington Conservatory from the train station only took about ten minutes. Though not the quickest way to my dorm, I decided to go through the main entrance, just like I did the first time I came to Huntington. I remembered saying goodbye to my parents in that doorway, together, and I remembered the smile on my father’s face as I pulled open those great wooden doors for the first time. I hoped that this semester would be a new start. Things hadn’t gone according to plan last fall, and I desperately wished that this semester would be different, somehow.

I opened the regal wooden doors and entered the great hallway of Huntington’s entrance. The marble carvings of long-dead musicians haunted the corridor. Huntington held its students to the highest standards. The message was clear—train here, and you too could one day be enshrined in stone. I lingered in the corridor, sneaking glances at the statues, watching my breath condense. Today they appeared to be carved from ice. With a shiver, I left the hallway and entered the small courtyard that separated the main building from the dorms.

I hadn’t spoken to anyone since I got off the train, not since I had said goodbye to my mother that morning. No one knew I had returned from winter vacation. I was alone. I didn’t have many friends at Huntington, not anymore at least. Right now, however, I preferred it that way. No one could ask me about home, or school, or anything. I wouldn’t know what to tell them even if they did ask. It was silent, as it should be. After all, Huntington was a home for ghosts. Forgotten music played by dying musicians echoed throughout the decaying halls of the conservatory. I didn’t want to disturb the dead.

            Huntington Conservatory, established with a generous donation from railroad tycoon Collis Huntington in the late 19th century, sculpted malleable young musicians into magnificent professional artists. The names of its alumni read like a roll call for successful American musicians of the 20th century. To me, however, Huntington was a place music came to die. It took its students and chipped away any musical imperfection, any personality in their sound, in pursuit of greatness. Students paid inordinate tuition fees for the privilege to be counted among the illustrious few who were accepted each year.

            When I first saw that acceptance letter in my mailbox, I was filled with a childish glee. My father, overjoyed with my musical success, insisted that I attend. It would be the smart choice after all, so I hastily agreed. I guess I didn’t see the coffins until I had already dug six feet deep.

 

            I arrived at my vacant dorm room and looked around. The meager light filtering in underneath my roommate’s black curtain, the acrid smell of mildew and moldy food still hanging in the stagnant air, the unmade bed—everything was exactly as it was when I left, exactly as it should be. Jarred, my roommate, must not have arrived yet, as both the fan and the A/C were shut off. He couldn’t travel without bringing the chill of his Maine hometown with him everywhere he went.

I began to try to tidy up. Last semester, I had let my room fall into complete disarray. I felt compelled to start fresh on this front as well. So, I pulled the bedsheet over the mattress and tucked in the corners. I spread the blanket over the top and placed the pillow on the head of the bed. This being done, I unzipped my suitcase and unpacked my belongings. I found the jacket I had received from my father as a Christmas gift—a long overcoat made of a thick material fit to keep me warm through even the coldest Baltimore night. I had been asking for one for years, as my father owned one just like it. While I had waited for the bus to come as a bright-eyed elementary school student, my father had waited with me, wearing that coat I admired so much.

Hesitating slightly, I lifted the coat out of my suitcase and brought it over to the closet. I noticed that I didn’t have a hanger for it, so I balled it up and threw it into the dark recesses of the closet.

After I had finished, I sat down on the now put-together bed. I felt the sudden urge to rip it apart, to tear the sheets off the mattress and throw the pillows out the window, but instead I sighed and lay down.

My father, I became sharply aware of how much he had shaped my life—from the college I attended, to the jacket I wanted for Christmas. It was he who got me into singing, and it was he who paid for me to attend Huntington. I had modeled my whole life in that immaculate image of him fabricated in my head. It looked warped now, his smile wicked, his arms threatening. He was not the man I thought he was, I knew that now. I had learned about his betrayal this morning from my mom. My hands began to shake. In desperation, I shut my eyes and begged for the thought of him to leave me. I wanted to cry but my tears had frozen solid.

            Sleep fell over me without my noticing its coming. It was hard for me to tell where reality ended and dream began in that bed.

 

I stood on a narrow rope-bridge stretching across two snowy mountain peaks. A deep valley cut between the mountains; it carved a path far below me. As I traversed across the treacherous wood planks, the ropes holding the bridge up began to fray. I started to run towards the safety of the other side. The ropes snapped.

 

            I jolted awake. The alarm clock on my desk read 6 pm. The room felt colder, and I felt the breeze from the fan against my face. I rolled over and noticed Jarred’s black leather bag leaning against his bed, quite literally overflowing with musical fervor. Despite his best efforts to remain organized, countless pages of sheet music poked out of it. I turned my head and saw Jarred sitting at his desk across the room. He was quietly whittling away at thin pieces of wood; he played oboe and was making reeds. I hadn’t noticed him slip in.

            “Jarred, you’re back.” I hesitated, and then began to get out of bed.

            “Yes?” He extended the vowel and let the end of it curl up into a question, as if he couldn’t believe I would make such an observation. He didn’t look up from his work.

Oboe was Jarred’s life. He was good at it, and knew it too. He devoted upwards of five to six hours each day to practicing, either in our room or in a practice room, if one was open. Though Huntington’s long hallways housed countless practice rooms, finding an available room at any hour of the day proved a difficult task, especially at the beginning and end of a semester.   

            “Did you have a nice break?” I didn’t want to talk to him. We never really had much to say to each other.

            He sighed. “Yes.”      

“That’s good.” I began to head towards the door. “Do you want to get dinner? Have you eaten?”

            He set down his knife and turned to look at me. “No. I’m not hungry.” He resumed his work.

            I decided against pursuing conversation with him further. I exited the room and made my way down the deserted staircase to the dining hall.

 

            The Huntington cafeteria never smelled particularly appetizing. The predominant scents mingled somewhere between sour milk and overcooked broccoli. The food tasted about as good as it smelled. I poured myself a bowl of cereal and scanned the nearly empty room for a place to sit. At a table in the center of the room, a few people I recognized were eating dinner. Their faces reminded me of happier times. We used to be friends, but it had been months since I had eaten a meal with them. However, new beginnings being what they are, I began to approach the table.  

            As I walked over, Robert noticed me. “Martin, you’re back!” A grin blossomed on his face. Robert had the perfect face for laughing.

            “Yeah, I’m here.” I smiled rigidly. “Mind if I sit?”

            He gestured me to the seat next to him. Around the table sat a couple people who lived on my floor, Vincent and Marie, as well as a girl who I hadn’t spoken to in months. Her name was Nicole. I snuck a glance at her as I sat. Her charcoal hair drank in the light around her in a way that made it shimmer with each movement of her head. We had a class together last semester, and had danced at a party once.  She always smelled like cherry blossoms.

I ached for her, but after that night in October I was afraid to speak to her. I had admitted too much to too many people. I wondered briefly how much people still remembered about that night, as I certainly couldn’t remember much. I do remember saying a lot of ill-advised things to Nicole about how terrible her boyfriend was, and I certainly remember being carried back to my dorm room by Robert, but I know I said more that night. Did I really say I wanted to die?

I still don’t fully know what inspired my behavior that night—a particularly cold day, perhaps. Although, in retrospect, I had probably just begun to realize how truly hopeless studying music made me feel, and how lonely a place Huntington would prove itself to be.  

            The conversation drifted around what our respective breaks had been like. Marie had gone home to Bermuda, Robert skiing in Aspen. I said simply that my break was fine, and I was grateful that no one pressed me further. In comparison to the happy experiences they had with their families, my own relations seemed comically depressing. They already knew enough about my self-deprecation and dissatisfaction. I didn’t want to give them my father’s face to attach to it too. I took a bite of cereal. It tasted like cardboard.

            After a few minutes, Robert, Vincent, and Marie said that they were heading out. They gathered their empty plates and trays and departed. My stomach twisted into knots as I turned towards my remaining companion, Nicole. I hoped she had forgotten everything, forgotten me. Maybe she had, and we could start over and dance together again. A sweet scent caught in my nose—cherry blossoms.

            Nicole met my gaze and gave me a nervous smile. “It’s good to see you, Martin. After what happened, I wasn’t sure you’d be back,” she said. Her eyes darted towards the floor.

            I inhaled sharply. She remembered. The memories tasted like vodka and vomit. A night spent drinking and sobbing, wandering the dorms, ranting to anyone who’d listen; maybe I shouldn’t have returned, after all.

            “Oh, yeah. I’m doing a lot better now.” I paused. “Things were bad for a little while there.” I faked a laugh and began to chew on the side of my finger, a barricade preventing my thoughts from escaping my lips.

            She met my eyes and smiled apprehensively. “That’s good.” She glanced at the floor again and cleared her throat. “I think we have theory together, again.”

            “Oh? Maybe this semester I’ll actually come to class.” I tried to appear confident, but the thought made me stiffen. I hunched my shoulders. On some level I knew this wasn’t true. I knew no matter how much I wanted to start over, no matter how much I wanted to succeed at Huntington, I would still end up slipping away eventually. It happened last semester, and that was before I knew about my father. I began to feel sick.

            “Good! We were worried about you, you know.” She turned towards the door of the dining hall. “Well, I was worried.”

            “This is the semester where everything changes. I’m a new Martin.” I sat up a little straighter, but doing so made my chest feel tight. I deflated with a sigh and looked away. It felt good to say, even if it didn’t feel true. Saying so gave me hope. I tried to smooth away some of the wrinkles on my shirt.

            “I’m really glad to hear.” She shifted in her seat. “Look, I have to go practice. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

            I nodded. “Yeah, see you then.”

I searched my head for another thing to say to her, something to put all the pieces into place. I sat with my mouth hung open, hand raised in awkward farewell, perched on the edge of communication.

            Nicole didn’t seem to notice, or at least she pretended not to, a final act of pity. She gathered her things and left me alone sitting there. All alone, as I preferred it.

 

            The first week of classes began well enough. I sat in the front row. I turned in all my homework. My classmates hardly spoke to me, but I didn’t mind too much. Even my singing seemed to be improving, though I still didn’t practice as much as I should. I began to feel the slight heat of hope burning in my chest. Though Jarred and I remained distant, I fortified some of the friendships that I had let splinter apart last semester. Particularly, Robert and I spent a lot of time together, as he seemed to be the only one who didn’t regard me with that same forced sympathy that pulled at the faces of my other peers, and he shared my work ethic when it came to practicing.

The only thing that kept me from feeling at ease were the dreams. Nightmares tormented me every time I closed my eyes.

 

            I woke up, but instead of my bed at Huntington, I lay in my room at home. It was the Sunday morning of my train ride back to Baltimore, the last day of vacation. I got out of bed and made my way to the bathroom to take a shower. The hot water must have been used up because the showerhead bombarded me with frigidity. My teeth chattered as I washed my body. Once I had finished and wrapped a towel around myself, I walked back to my room. I stumbled down the hallway. Somehow it had become unnaturally tilted while I was in the shower. Upon entering my room, I noticed rain pouring in through the open window. I rushed over and closed it, and I began to get dressed. Before I could finish, my mother knocked on the door.

            “I brought you breakfast, sweetie,” she said. She was carrying a plate with eggs and bacon. It smelled delicious. She was crying.

            “Mom, what’s wrong?” I raced over to her and guided her to a seat in my desk chair. She handed me the plate of food.

            “Martin… I’m so sorry no one has told you anything.” She began to sob.

            I froze. “What are you talking about?”

The walls started to melt, candlewax feeding the flames of my uncertainty. The questions inside of me that I had, for so long, pushed away bubbled up to the surface of my mind. The room felt sweltering.

            “Your father, you deserve to know.” She didn’t meet me eyes. She picked up a book on the desk and began to flip through the pages absently.

            “Know what?” I sat down on my bed. I shivered. I finished putting on my shirt.

            But I already knew. It sank into my gut. Those months where they had separated, I was so young then, no one would tell me why. How can you tell a nine-year-old something like that? That my father, my hero, was nothing more than an abuser, a sexual deviant, a fraud.

            “What he did to your sister, what happened to us, everything.” She looked away, teardrops wet the pages of the open book in her lap. “We didn’t want to hurt you, you and him are so close.”

            “What did he do?” My heart began to race. The sky outside was dark with rain.

            “When Jennifer was eleven, your father—” Smoke began to pour out of her mouth. The bedroom wall ignited with a deafening roar.

            “How can you stay with him? Why didn’t you leave him?” I screamed over the blaze.

            “It was so long ago, Martin. We’ve all forgiven him now. Even Jennifer.” She reached out to me and began to stroke the side of my face. “And at my age, how would I live on my own?”

            The room filled with swirling flames and thick black smoke. I coughed as the smoke clogged my throat and poisoned my lungs. The flames licked my skin, which flaked and charred. I felt myself losing consciousness. My vision began fading to black.

“Martin, wake up!” A voice called out to me.

 

            I shook myself awake. I was lying on the couch in the chilly common room covered in sweat. I must have fallen asleep watching television. Robert stood over me.

“Are you ok, man?” he said. His eyebrows knitted together.

            “Yeah, I’m fine.” I pulled myself up to sit. “Bad dream.” I rubbed my eyes.

He smiled and patted my back. He sat down on the couch next to me. The dorm’s common room was empty aside from the two of us. My hands were shaking from the remembering. I needed to get away from those memories, somehow. It felt pretty late, 10 pm? An idea formed in my head.

I turned to him. “Are you guys going out tonight?”

            He drew his lips into a tight line. “Yeah.” He paused. “Do you want to come?”

            I looked at him seriously and nodded.

            He gave me an appraising glance. “You remember what happened last time?” He asked.

I looked away. “I’m in a better place now, I’ll be fine,” I said. My throat stung.

He shrugged. “Fair enough, we’d be glad to have you.” He jostled my shoulder affectionately.  

            We talked for a little about chorus, about how obnoxious the sopranos were in rehearsal last week. We laughed and it felt like nothing was wrong. Vincent and Marie joined us after a little while. With the group assembled, Robert announced that it was time to go.

            Robert led the way out of the back door of the dorm. As I exited the building into the cold night air I felt my pace quicken. A bead of sweat began to form on the crown of my head underneath my wool cap as we snuck through Huntington’s gates and began to walk down the lonely Baltimore streets. The fresh layer of snow that had fallen on the city that morning set the normally stark light of the streetlamps glistening as it reflected off the waist-high banks of pure-white snow that flanked the icy road. A smile broadened my face.

            As we rounded a corner, I saw our destination, a small nature park in the middle of a residential district. We slipped on the slick pavement as we crossed to the far corner of the park. Overhead, a few police helicopters buzzed around the city, pouring light onto the earth with their spotlights. Robert announced that this would be as good a spot as any to set up shop. He procured the glass pipe from his bag and filled its bowl with green leaves from a baggy.

            Marie turned to me. “Hey Martin, you’re cool to smoke?”

            I looked at her, not quite sure what to say. The first time I smoked with them was just days before my big meltdown last fall. I guessed she was worried it would happen again. I clenched my jaw. A helicopter passed far overhead.

            “Come on, Marie, the kid can handle himself,” Vincent said. He clapped me on the back. I relaxed.

            “I know he can, I’m just asking.” She turned back towards Robert who nodded.

            Robert handed me the pipe and smiled. I sparked the lighter and lit the bowl. I felt a rush of smoke fill my lungs as I inhaled. A tightness caught in my throat. I choked and coughed. Robert chuckled. I passed the pipe to Vincent.

            The rotation continued. We smoked with the quiet determination characteristic of overworked conservatory students. In no time, the bowl was filled with ash. I felt a cloudburst behind my eyes, sweet raindrops, and a gust of wind pulled my thoughts across the canvas of my mind. It felt good to be in the cold air. Removing my hat to let the wind blow through my hair, I ran circles in the snow with my boot-prints laughing high and wild like a child spinning around and around until, too dizzy to stand, I fell giggling into a snowdrift staring at the dark sky above me gasping for air.

            “Martin is cooked.” Vincent marveled. He trudged over to where I lay, making wings in the snow with my arms. “Come on, buddy.” He extended a hand to me.

            I took it and let him lift me up off the ground, noticing the others looking at me with measured concern. The world around me shimmered and spun.

            “Have you ever noticed how many different colors of snow there are?” I asked to no one in particular. “Purple snow in the shadows, orange snow in the light, blue snow in between.”

            Vincent chuckled. “Yellow snow too, gotta watch out for that.”

Errant syllables rushed out of my mouth. “I always thought of snow as plain and simple, but it’s so colorful!” I slipped on an icy patch, and almost fell. I righted myself and smiled helplessly. “I’m not making any sense am I?” My tongue felt like rubber. I laughed.

            Robert and Marie exchanged glances, and then laughed along. Vincent grinned, “I see it man, colors.” He led me over to the others who stood with their arms tucked into their pockets, staring off into space.

            I felt good.

            We collected our things and began to make our way back to campus, joking and laughing the whole way. It had been so long since I felt this warm. On the way back, we stopped at a nearby convenience store. I purchased a handful of candy, a bag of chips, a donut, and a large soda. Those colorful things called out to me; I hadn’t really noticed them before.

            By the time we returned to the dorm, I could barely keep my eyes open. I sagged onto the couch in the dorm’s common room. Vincent said that he had a lesson tomorrow and needed to practice, so he took his leave. Marie said that she wanted to go make some food, and also left. Robert joined me on the couch.

“How are you feeling, man?” He grabbed the television remote. “Feeling good?”

“What? Yeah, I’m good. Real good.” I gave him a lazy smile and closed my eyes. “I feel

a bit like a pie, freshly baked.”

He nodded. “I feel that.” He flipped on the TV and began to hunt for something worth watching.

I felt the urge to say more. Erratic thoughts still swirled around my mind. “You know, last semester I felt real homesick when I first got here,” I said.

“Damn, that feels like it was years ago,” he mused.

“Yeah, well, I was worried I’d be homesick again after the break, but I don’t miss home at all.” I opened my eyes and looked at him. He had settled on a channel, some cooking show, and was checking his phone. “Isn’t that weird?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Nah, it’s easier now for me too. I guess we’re used to it.”

“Yeah, something like that.” I turned and watched a chef on the TV break an egg in a pan. It sizzled and steamed. It reminded me of the omelets my father used to make for me when I was young. A bitter taste filled my mouth. I tore open a candy bar wrapper.

Marie returned bearing Hot Pockets. She handed one to Robert and sat down next to him. We watched the television for perhaps longer than necessary.

“Guys, I’ve got class at ten,” Marie said at last. She stood up from the couch and began to walk out of the room.

As if a spell had been broken, Robert and I made our goodbyes and returned to our respective rooms. Upon entering my room, Jarred sighed audibly. Ignoring him, I lay down in my soft bed and let my mind drift across the far-away night sky.

 

            The chirping of my alarm pulled me from my restless sleep. Monday’s morning always seemed to arrive sooner than Sunday’s. Cold sweat coated my body and the thin bedsheet clung to my moist skin. I felt wrung out. I shut off the alarm and peered out the window. No light came through the glass. Baltimore winter blanketed the earth with cold and dark. Jarred stirred in his sleep. I shivered.

            The events of the night before had filled me with so much life. I had felt truly happy. Except, I couldn’t remember the sensation anymore. All that was left was a feeling of grey, empty dullness. The remnants of last night’s high drifted on the edge of my thoughts, shrouding them like a sheer curtain pulled across frosted glass. That pale white smoke filled my mind and sank into my mouth. It tasted bitter. I lay back down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Around me were scattered remains of the night’s merriments. I felt sick just looking at those wrappers of half-eaten candy bars and empty soda bottles. My stomach rumbled. I hadn’t eaten a real meal since Friday.

            “Make sure you go to class every day,” the memory of my father’s voice chastised. Except now the advice was caustic and empty. His voice sounded twisted. The man who said that was not my father. I had no father. My father was gone, and in his place was a man wearing his skin like a suit.

            My music theory class started at eight-thirty. This gave me half an hour to get up, get dressed, get my shit together, and get to class. Once there, I’d see the room fill with my dedicated peers. I could hear the diligent scratching of their pencils on paper and see my own lying still. None of them would look at me, or speak to me. Perpetual silence. I would sit in that solitary prison and watch my vacant life fly by, out the window and into the exhaust-blackened snow. Left to melt.

My head began to ache. A sharp stab of ice pierced my consciousness. I wanted to scream, but my throat felt raspy and dry. I couldn’t speak.

I couldn’t breathe.

I hated theory because everyone in the class knew everything about me. I hated all of my classes because of that. Everyone knew everything at Huntington. From the idle gossip spread on parted lips they knew about my meltdown last fall. They knew about my isolation, the afternoons I spent lying face down in my bed with tears soaking the blankets. They knew. Oh, how Jarred loved to tell those horror stories. I was tired of half-hidden glances and false kindness. I choked on the smoke pouring down my throat.

“Fuck it.” My voice came out louder than I had meant it. Jarred groaned and turned over.

I closed my eyes, settled into the covers, and fell back to sleep. My mind swam with images of drowning and falling, and feeling completely alone in a crowded concert hall.

 

Almost a year earlier, I was sitting on a bench facing a large set of double doors in a winding corridor somewhere in Huntington. My dad sat beside me. We were playing 20 questions, anything to keep my mind off of the audition at hand. My dad was a professional cellist, and so he had auditioned countless times and knew what I was going through.  

I had watched him when I was little whenever he performed recitals or gave talks about music. He seemed so beautiful and bright. I wanted to make people smile the way he did when he played. He must have felt the admiration I had for him, and so he became attracted to the idea of “my son, the professional musician.”

“Is it a musical instrument?” I asked. I readjusted the tie around my neck, had it always been so tight?

“Yes…” he replied. His voice sounded tired. He had driven us all the way from Raleigh earlier that morning.

Around us sat other Huntington aspirants communicating in hushed tones with their entourage. Some of them warmed up their voices; they sounded amazing.

I cleared my throat before speaking. “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

“It is unless you step on it.” His eyes twinkled.

I smirked. “Is it a viola?”

He laughed and threw his arm around my shoulder. “How’d you know?”

I looked at him seriously. “There’s only one instrument you’d joke about stepping on.” I joined him in his laughter.

The door opened and an official-looking woman carrying a clipboard poked her head through. “Martin?” She glanced around.

I stood up. It was my turn. My dad patted me on the back and wished me well, he couldn’t follow me where I was going now. I’d been preparing for this moment for years, all of the hours spent alone in my room practicing the repertoire that I’d be singing today. I was a tightly coiled spring, all potential energy and hot metal.

As I stepped through the double doors into the audition room, I first noticed the large windows on the wall. The light from those windows illuminated the faces of the six people sitting at a long table facing a piano. These would be the people who decided my fate. I glanced at them and took my place in the crook of the piano. I handed a binder of music to the man sitting on the piano’s bench, and turned to address the adjudicators.

“My name is Martin Hoffman.” I met each of their eyes. “My first piece is ‘Deh vieni alla finetsra’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.” It felt good to address them like this. There was no reason to fear these people. I’d impressed countless people with my voice before, and they wouldn’t be any different. That confidence swelled inside me, pushing my nerves to the fringes of my consciousness. I wound around myself tighter, and then I sprung.

My voice felt strange in my ears. In my head I was no longer Martin, but rakish Don Jon, seducing the lustful maid. I wove the winding melody around itself like a thick tapestry. In the second verse, a thread broke, a split end, a crack. I choked. I felt the beginnings of icy panic welling inside of me.

After the song concluded, one of the adjudicators requested to hear my French piece, another serenade. This time I was Don Quixote proposing my desperate love to my dear Dulcinée; I was anyone but Martin. “Et je mourais, vous bénissant,” I professed not only to Dulcinée, but also to the judges before me.

Once the final notes died away, the judge in the middle nodded. “Thank you very much, Mr. Hoffman. We will let you know the results—”

            “Now hold on a second,” a man sitting at the far end of the table spoke up. He had a magnificent blonde mustache. “I want to hear the psalm.”

            The interrupted judge looked momentarily offended, she turned to the mustachioed man with icy eyes. He met her gaze and smirked. Apparently mollified, she turned back to me. “Well, alright. Martin, would you mind singing your third piece for us?”

            I approved and mentally prepared myself. The 23rd Psalm, set by Maer Finkelstein, was my signature piece. I had sung it at churches and recital halls all over my hometown. It had brought tears to the eyes of many listeners. The song was more technically challenging than most of the music sung by singers my age, but I had the range for it, and the talent. Though it was listed as one of my three audition pieces, I rarely sang it in a live audition because it was such a risky piece. One wrong note, one slight hiccup of tone, would ruin its magic.

            It began simply, piano scales and shapes sailing up and down the keyboard, my voice a lantern leading the way through the valley of death. It swelled and sank and burst forth.  A sudden thunderstorm. The final “forever” coursed out of me like a raging river. I was a conduit for sound, a hole through which music escaped.

            The judges clapped. The mustachioed man nodded. “I love that piece,” he said.

            I turned and walked out of the room, muddy thoughts racing around my head, a whirlwind of doubt and dizziness. I felt hollow. All of the music had absconded and left me with nothing. As I crossed the threshold my father caught my eye and beamed. He stood taller than ever.

“I could hear you through the door. You sounded incredible!” He pulled me into a hug.

My voice was muffled against his thick jacket. “Really? I wasn’t listening.” Around us the world began to dissolve into smoke and haze.

 

            Groggily, I opened my eyes. Midday sun poured in through my dorm room window. My days and nights blended together as I began to skip class more and more. My life had been superseded by a meaningless cycle of waking up at dinnertime, smoking, going to sleep after breakfast, repeat. Everything felt wrong, and I couldn’t stop falling asleep. I smoked almost every night because it felt so novel, so exciting to feel whole, even for only those few hours. When I was high, I felt a fleeting facsimile of joy, and the sharp pain of my father’s betrayal became nothing more than a dull ache. Due to this, my grades began to suffer. I began to slide down the same slope I had tumbled down last semester. I felt powerless to stop my falling.

            The door banged open. It was Jarred. He stomped across the room and began to gather up some music on his desk. “Are you going to go to ear training, Martin?” He asked. Venom spat out of his mouth.

            I sighed and rolled over.

            “Because you didn’t go yesterday, or the day before.” He walked over to my bed. “People are beginning to worry.” His voice sent a shiver down my spine.

            “Whatever.” I tried to squeeze my eyes tighter, tried to sink deeper into my bed. Maybe if I closed them tight enough, I would disappear.

            “You can’t just lay in bed all day. I have things to do in here.” His voice froze into ice around the edges.

            “Then do them, I don’t care.” I turned over and glared at him.

            He grumbled and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. “He’s still in there sleeping!” I heard him yell to someone in the common room.

            It was Thursday, the day of my weekly voice lessons, which I still attended regularly. I rolled out of bed and threw on some dirty clothes laying on the floor. It’d been weeks since I’d done laundry, or cleaned, or made the bed. I gathered my wrinkled music, though I hadn’t looked at it since my last lesson. It stung my eyes to see those black notes floating across the page.

 

I sat in a thick velvety chair outside the wooden door to my teacher’s studio and waited to be summoned. At last, Dr. Stockard poked his mustachioed face through the door.

            “Martin, come in.” He beckoned me with a nod and opened the door fully.

            The magnificent snow-white piano drew my eyes to it when I entered the studio. I’d never seen a piano like it before, with its red trim and gold writing. It looked like something out of a movie, or a dream.

            “I’ve been hearing some troubling news about you from some of your professors,” Dr. Stockard said. He pulled his mouth into a frown.

            Even the professors enjoyed gossiping about the students’ affairs. “Oh?” I asked. I walked across the room and sat in a plain wooden chair next to his desk.

            He closed the door behind me and followed me to the desk. “I hear you haven’t been to diction class in almost two weeks.” He sat down in his rich leather chair and faced me. “Your performance as of late strikes me as perturbing.”

            “I’ve had a rough couple weeks, I guess.” I crossed my arms. I just wanted to sing and leave. “I looked at the new music you gave me.” I trailed off.

            He shook his head. “The Huntington Institute is a place for serious musicians. I expect you to adopt a more mature attitude when it comes to your studies in the future.” He eyed me like a hawk spotting prey.

            I lowered my head. “Yes, sir.”
            Shame sank deep into my stomach. Dr. Stockard was the reason I had even been accepted to Huntington at all. He believed in me that day, and now I was failing even him.

            “This isn’t the military.”         

            I looked him in the eyes. My jaw tightened. “Yes, Dr. Stockard.” I blinked and looked away. The room started spinning.

            I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. I felt lost.

            The voice lesson was mediocre at best. My voice wouldn’t cooperate and nothing Dr. Stockard said made any sense. I strained to reach high notes, my pitch flattened, my tone trembled. I was weakness. Dr. Stockard heard it in my voice, heard my disillusionment, my frustration.

            “Martin, why did you come to Huntington?” He finally asked as he showed me to the door.

            My father wanted me to, I thought bitterly. “I got in, and got a scholarship,” I said as I reached for the door’s handle.

            He motioned me to stop. “No, not why you chose to come to school here. Why did you decide to pursue conservatory training in general?”

            “Um,” I paused. I had never really thought about it. Classical singing was what I did, what I’d always done. I couldn’t imagine a Martin that hadn’t sought out higher musical education. “I’ve been singing for years. I always had a classical sound, so I figured here would be a good place for me,” I said. My knees shook.

            He smiled. “Conservatory life isn’t for everyone. You should take some time to reevaluate your decisions.” He nodded to himself. “Find some motivation.” He opened the door for me and bid me farewell.

            His words spun around in my head like autumn leaves. Dead things floating down to the cold earth. When I walked outside, it started to snow.

 

            That night, I decided to go for a walk. I needed to leave. I needed to escape Huntington, and music, and the bitter memories of my father. I wandered around the streets of Baltimore. The flurries from the afternoon had evolved into a thick, driving snowstorm. The world spun with shimmering tornadoes. I was caught in their turning. I took sharp turns into blind alleyways, and crossed streets without looking. I threw a 20-dollar bill on the sleeping form of a homeless man curled under an awning. I couldn’t have cared less what happened.

            I was being cut to pieces, rent apart from within. The blizzard of my mind, the smoky haze of my thoughts, it all ran together into a sea of dull white. I was lost in that sea, set adrift. I closed my eyes and walked down the unending sidewalk; I didn’t know where I would end up. When I opened my eyes, I stood on a high overpass stretching across two snowy highway lanes. The beams of headlights carved a path far below me. It looked oddly familiar.

            Tonight, few braved the snowstorm in their cars. Only a couple large trucks carrying snowplows parted the inky darkness with their headlights. Those cones of light tore a hole through the storm, throwing deep shadows across the ground. I stared out over the highway for what felt like hours, shivering and shaking from the cold. The streetlights looked unnaturally orange, like flame. I wondered what it would feel like to jump. Perhaps then I could truly break this frigid cycle, this hollow circle.

“Ey, kid! Whatcha doing sitting up there?”

Without realizing, I had climbed onto the slippery railing of the overpass, and was dangling my feet over the abyss. I turned towards the voice and saw a ragged man trudging slowly towards me through the snow. He wore a tattered coat with a dark hood shrouding his face, and a backpack slung on his shoulder. His deep-set eyes were dark circles; a skull. He held up a 20-dollar bill.

He is following me. He must not have been as asleep as I had thought. I felt strangely calm. “Admiring the view,” I said.

He let out a hearty laugh. “I prefer to stand on this here side of the rail.” He climbed up onto the railing and sat next to me. “But, the view is nice up here.” His voice reminded me of soot and soil.

I stared at him, my mouth parted slightly. “Who are you?” I asked.

His lips curved into a grim smile. “I’ve got a lot of names.” He spat onto the street below. “I’m a drifter, go from here to there.” He chuckled, revealing a yellowing set of jagged teeth. “Who are you?”

I shook my head. “Dunno.” I faced the highway. “Martin, I guess.”

A car cruised by underneath us. Its passing caused the railing to shake slightly. My stomach clenched. Bright tail lights streaked off into the distance.

I turned back to him, my voice filled with a sudden cold panic. “Why’d you follow me?” The cold wind whipping past threatened to blow the hat from off my head. I held it down with my hand.

He gestured around us with an open palm. “This here is a dangerous road, Martin.” His mouth spread into a wolfish grin. “Not everyone who walks this way comes back.”

A tremor shot down my neck. I shuddered, something in the air felt colder.

“I, myself, have sat here a few times,” the Drifter said.

The wind picked up again. The force of it momentarily threw my balance off. I grasped the railing of the overpass with white knuckles. In doing so, I allowed the wind to succeed in snatching my hat. It tore off my head and fluttered in the gale. It circled over the highway for a while, being pulled from here to there, until landing on the snowy median.

“Why here—this bridge?” I asked once the wind died down.

“It’s not so much the bridge but the ledge.” He looked away from me. I noticed now a pink scar cutting across his nose from cheekbone to cheekbone. “It’s quite the jump.”

“Quite the fall,” I corrected.

“However you like.” He smiled again and scooched towards me.

I felt fire in my throat. “Don’t come any closer.” My knuckles burned.

He stopped and held up a hand in a placating gesture. “As you say.” He pointed far down the road. “See that?”

My gaze followed his bony finger to the two little red dots shrinking away. “The car?”

He nodded. “Wonder where he’s off to. Wonder if he knows.” He scratched his beard and turned back to me. “Wonder if any of us know. I sure don’t.” He winked. “Do you?”

I shrugged.

He patted my shoulder. I didn’t flinch. “Come on, kid. Let’s get off here, eh?” He tilted his head away from the highway in front of us.

“Ok.”

We climbed off the railing. I leaned against it and breathed into my numb hands.

He readjusted the straps on his shoulders. “The only difference between me and you is that I leave a city when it’s done with me,” he said as he turned away. He waved goodbye and walked off, whistling a foreign tune.

As the snow spiraled around him, he began to fade away into whiteness. I ran after him, but around me the whole world was beginning to be consumed by white.

“Wait!” I yelled to him, to no answer.

I sprinted faster, pumping my arms desperately. I could hear him laughing as he faded away. As the ground under my feet disappeared, I began to slip deeper and deeper into the empty blankness around me.

 

I shot up out of bed. My body felt weak, my legs sore. My head ached and pounded. I looked at my clock, 10 pm. I let out a deep breath and felt my muscles relax. There was a knock on the door.

            “Hey, man.” It was Robert. “We’re about to head out, want to come?”

            I pulled the blankets off of me. “Yeah, give me two minutes.”

            I stepped out of my dorm room and walked into the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and looked at myself in the mirror. My reflection looked older, somehow. I decided I needed to shave. I turned off the water and began to dry my face with a paper towel.

            I leave a city when it’s done with me.

            I threw away the paper towel and stepped out into the common room to join my friends. Something about the room felt different, perhaps the lights looked brighter, perhaps the walls were a lighter shade of grey, or perhaps the difference was within. A new light then? I frowned. Maybe it was time to come home. Face things that needed to be faced.

Out in the common room, Vincent was telling some funny story. Marie was giggling helplessly, clutching at her sides. Robert was smiling and nodding along. He greeted me as I walked over to them. Nothing had changed, after all. Once I united with them, we set off down the stairs and out into the winter night. The sky was clear, and no snow fell.

 

The next morning, I woke up early. My mind had been made up, I was going to leave this place, leave Huntington. I was done with its vaulted ceilings and frozen statues. I was done with the false sympathy of my peers, and the weed, and the dreams. That uneasy feeling of never quite being awake, it needed to go. I needed to find a new way to cope. It seemed to me that I was done with this cold city, and it was done with me. I trekked across the frozen courtyard to my teacher’s studio, all alone.

As I passed the main building, Nicole noticed me from across the courtyard. She looked momentarily perplexed and dashed over to me.

“I didn’t expect to see you out here this early. Morning practice?” She asked. She carried her violin and a thick binder of music.

I couldn’t stop myself from bursting out laughing. “Not quite. I’ve got to talk to my teacher about something.”

She laughed without certainty and looked at me with a slightly more intense look of concern than normal. “Oh, well, I hope it goes alright,” she said.

“Thanks, I hope so too.” I paused. My feet felt unsteady. “Hey, good luck practicing.” I pointed at her violin. “I heard you the other day, Tchaik’ 5, right? You sounded really great.”

She blinked and touched my arm.

“Wha…” I stammered. My face felt hot.

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” She pulled her hand away. “I’ve just been having a rough week and it’s nice to hear some encouragement.” She brushed the front of her shirt. “Just, thanks.”

“Oh, yeah, sure. Uh, I’ll see you around.” I said and began to walk towards the building.

“Bye, Martin!” She called after me.

The way to my teacher’s studio took me past a hallway lined with practice rooms. A window looked into each room. Through the glass, I saw the haggard faces of Huntington students practicing away, each fitted neatly into their own little box. They sawed on violins and pounded on the keys of pianos. A voice trembled with unsteady vibrato. With their eyes trained on the music in front of them, not a single one noticed me pass by. I paused momentarily before passing the last door. The sounds of a well-tuned oboe resonated out of the room. I crept down the hallway, casting a quick glance through the window as I passed. Jarred sat on a wooden stool in the center of the room, eyes closed, arms steady. He swayed with the melody as it flowed languidly out of his instrument. It sounded like beautiful sorrow, serene weeping. I silently wished him well and continued down the hall.

I reached my teacher’s studio and knocked on the door. I rehearsed in my mind the words I would say to Dr. Stockard, and laughed internally at the realization that the first person to welcome me to Huntington would be the first to learn of my homecoming.

The wooden door opened and I stepped through it, without knowing or caring where it would take me, and knowing I could never return.

The conversation with my teacher went better than I expected. Dr. Stockard wished me the best and said that I’d always have a place in his studio should I ever change my mind. He closed the door behind me as I stepped out into the great hallway of Huntington’s entrance.

Something about the place felt different today. This morning, the usual sounds of music pouring out of the practice rooms and the echoing thuds of distant footsteps melded together into a voice. It seemed to be whispering to me, telling me something, or mocking me.

“My son, the professional musician.”

A shudder coursed through me and sweat began to bead at the top of my brow. I felt the twisting of terror in my gut as I started to run down that hallway towards the main entrance. The statues I passed glared at me, frozen in time. Their threatening arms reached out to me. I threw a panicked glance over my shoulder and saw behind me the corridor stretching off into infinity. Uncountable frozen statues stared at me as I fled. I pulled the main doors of Huntington open and the phantom whispering faded away into nothingness.

As the morning sun touched my face, and the crisp February wind watered my eyes, I felt like I had just woken up for the first time.

 

 

 

Cracks in the Ice – Lauren Stearley

I saw the green eyes flecked with grey. For a moment, I thought Mom was looking down on me. But when the mouth opened, the voice was squeaky.

“Wake up, sleepy head! It’s a snow day!”

I groaned and rolled over.

“Go away, Lilly,” I grumbled.

“Today’s the day! Rise and smell the fresh air!”

Lilly whipped the window next to my head open. Cold air crashed in and I hissed before drawing the covers closer around me.

“C’mon, Jenga, this is not the time for dilly-dallying!” Her voice got a little lower, a little closer to my face. I could smell her watermelon shampoo. “I’ll get meaner if you don’t get up.”

I barked out a laugh.

“Okay,” Lilly said, “You asked for it.”

Searing pain shot through my head and I bolted up, yelling.

She released my hair and I opened my eyes to see my grinning sister. In her frothy dress and sparkly eye shadow, Lilly reminded me of a demented cupcake. A determined, demented cupcake. I rolled my shoulders out.

“Fine! Fine. I’m up.”

My feet flinched when they touched the cold floor. I reached towards the end of the bed for my sweatshirt, but it wasn’t where I left it. I eyed the pile of clothes in the corner. Considered digging through them. Nope, not enough energy.

“Here,” Lilly pushed the sweatshirt in front of my nose, “I washed it yesterday.”

I took it without a word and noticed the goosebumps rising on her bare arms.

“You should put a coat on or something,” I said.

“And cover this dress? No way. Besides, if you just turned up the thermostat–”

I glared and she waved me off. “Okay, so planning. I figured we’d start out at twelve in the park…”

I shrugged and rose. Shuffling, I made it to the door before I realized Lilly was still babbling behind me.

“…And then we’ll go to the art museum, and from there we can go to that biscuit place you love, and it’s all on me, so don’t worry about that. Babysitting worked out—”

The stairs creaked under my heavy tread. A familiar crack ran the length of the wall, and my finger absently traced it as I descended.

          When I was younger, the smell of bacon woke me in the mornings. Mom knew it worked better than yelling. Now, Lilly was a vegetarian and I was just unmotivated.

I went to the small, bare fridge and opened it. A bruised apple and a jar of pickles greeted me. I’d have to get more groceries again. There went the rest of my paycheck. I snagged the almost empty milk carton before reaching for the Captain Crunch.

I turned and Lilly was an inch away. I stifled a scream.

“God,” I said, exhaling, “Are you a ninja?”

“Do ninjas wear dresses this nice? No. Speaking of which, I think you should put a dress on too,” Lilly said. “You know, that green one? It makes your eyes into yowza flowers.”

“Into what?” I said.

“Yowza flowers! You know, like the boys walk up and be like ‘yowza’?”

“God forbid. Do you want cereal?”

“Nope. But after biscuits, I figure we can go down to—“

I pulled the chair out from the half table against the wall and sank into it. I rocked on its uneven leg and the rhythm lulled me into my memories. Mom’s voice, her vowels shrugging with southern drawl.

We really should get that thing fixed, Harvey. It’s probably dangerous.

Don’t worry, honey, I’ll get around to it. Next day, I promise.

Dad never had, of course, but it’s useless holding that against him now.

Lilly pulled out the chair across from me, took a deep breath, then stared me down.

“You haven’t said anything about my plans,” she said. “I worked really hard on them.”

Her eyes were wary, and her fingers wrestled with each other on the table.

I smiled. “I know. Today is just hard.”

She nodded. “I understand. I really do. That’s why I think we should go outside and do some stuff. It’ll get the blood flowing through you.”

“How are we going to get to all these places?”

          She blinked. “I mean. Well. I thought you would drive.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because. I mean, I can’t drive…”

The cereal was stale. I swallowed and said,

“I don’t feel like driving. We can do this some other day, okay?”

“Jenny, that’s what you said last time. And the one before that.”

“And you keep asking anyway. That’s not my fault.”

Lilly’s mouth dropped open and she shot out of the chair.

“No fair!” she said. “You don’t get to just decide—I mean, you shouldn’t take it out on me!”

“Take what out on you?”

“You know what I’m talking about!”

“No, I don’t,” My voice sounded sharp, even to me. “Enlighten me.”

“Just because…just because you’re having your emotional whatever, doesn’t mean I have to be stuck in here with you,” She began to cry, little streams of sparkles twirling down her face. “I mean, I know it’s the first year after the accident and Mom…but can we just go outside today? I’m sick of being trapped in here.”

Slowly, I put my spoon down and stared ahead. My body felt still and heavy. Maybe the blood wasn’t pumping after all.

Lilly turned and stomped up the stairs. The slamming door shook the walls.

The milk tasted sour in my mouth. Turning, I could look out the window. The snow almost blinded me. The birch tree in our yard had a split trunk, the two sides constantly leaning further and further apart with each snowfall. The houses around us were silent. Most people were at work by now, probably.

The kids across the street were building a snowman. As I watched, the head fell off and cracked in half. The kids abandoned it and started throwing snowballs. The snowman was forgotten.

Suddenly, my chest felt like a black hole. I curled in and wrapped my arms around myself. I shook.

“Lilly,” I whispered.

Nothing.

“Lilly!”

Still, nothing. Panic began to clog my throat as tears blurred my eyes. I pictured my own head cracking in half, and everyone moving on. They’d make snowballs from the pieces of my brain.

But I would see Mom again, wouldn’t I?

When my voice came out again, it battered the walls.

Lilly!”

“Jenny?”

Feet pounded down the stairs and then she was there. Crouching down, Lilly wrapped her thin arms around me and began stroking my hair. The flowers on her dress rasped against my neck.

“It’ll be okay, Jenga,” she whispered. “Just… Just let it out. Let it out.”

Her hair was auburn, like Mom’s was, and it clung to my wet cheeks as I sobbed.

I was the oldest, I should’ve been holding her, but I could barely breathe. Eventually, her arms were shaking along with mine. We were both crying on the cold floor. Unlike snow, our tears fell loud and hard, burning us clean.

 

Empathy for the Devil – Kyle Groetzinger

             And somehow I ended up on top of her. I’m not sure how exactly, though I vaguely remember her legs spreading to accommodate me, my elbows finding purchase in the very slightly damp grasses of the garden. It was all strictly first base activity, but that was probably for the best. We were both a little drunk.

            “Well hello, stranger.” Her dimples were even cuter up close.

            “We’re not strangers anymore.” I whispered and it was quiet for a moment. Good quiet. I can rarely tell good quiet from bad quiet, but this time I was absolutely sure it was good quiet. Maybe it was just the rum.

            Some time and tongues later, I rolled off of her and onto the almost damp ground with a soft thud, which brought on the slightest fit of giggles from the both of us. I lay on my back, with both arms outstretched like a snow angel, and stared at the dark clouds above me.

            She scooted back and her head nestled into the crook of my arm. The bottle of rum, only half drunk, lay forgotten at my side. The thrum of the bass and laughter from the party seemed a million miles away as we lay in the shadow of the dying bonfire. For a moment we were well and truly silent. I took great pleasure in the knowledge that I was sharing the same ground with her and staring at the same clouds as her.

            She snuggled closer, almost as if she’d heard me. Had I said that out loud? After a while she spoke, “What are you thinking about?”

            “It’s interesting,” I said. “Because what I’m thinking about right now is a thought that I have had like ten million times, but right now it feels somehow more real. Ever feel like that? Like that reality just skyrocketed?”

            “Don’t hold out on me. Tell me your deepest, darkest, dumbest, smartest drunk thoughts.”

            “Okay, well, have you ever thought about what the greatest weakness of humankind is?”

            “Come on, we were having a good time. How much rum did you have?” I could almost hear her eyes roll. I didn’t blame her.

            “Empathy. It’s definitely empathy.” I forged on.

            “Empathy is a weakness?”

            “No no no I meant like…lack of empathy. The lack of an innate human ability to fully empathize. That’s our biggest problem. We don’t get other people. I have this…theory.” I paused. “This is stupid. I don’t wanna be that guy at the party.”

            “We’re not even really at this party. If it’s stupid, it’s stupid. And it’s probably not, because so far nothing you do is stupid. At the very worst it’s silly.”

            I wanted nothing more than to flop back over and messily kiss her until my lips turned blue. So I tried. She was having none of it. “Nope. That portion of the evening is on pause. You started this. Finish it.”

            “Fiiine. My theory is that the biggest problem facing human interaction and decision is empathy. Even the best of us are relatively bad at it.”

            “Relatively?”

            “Relatively. I could be the most empathetic person in the world but at the end of the day I’m not anyone else but myself. No matter what advice your mom gave you in the fifth grade, you can’t truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Even if you tried, they’d likely wear different shoes of a different size and you wouldn’t experience anything new. You’d just be trying out someone’s life or someone’s ideas, someone’s journey, but you would never actually be that person. The best we can do is try to empathize with each other, but true empathy is mostly impossible. But what if…what if you could live someone’s entire life for a day? I don’t mean, like, wake up during their first memory and at the end of the day you die surrounded by their grandchildren. I mean if you could wake up and live one average, everyday normal day in someone else’s skin, but with all their memories and all their thought patterns, all their anxieties. You can’t do that, so you never really know people. You see their smiles and their nods. You see what they let you see, but you don’t see their knee-jerk mental reaction. Do they scoff at you as they encourage you? Is their outward optimism constantly curtailed by their inner cynicism? You don’t know if they’re good or they’re bad.”

            Quiet. Good quiet? Bad quiet? Just quiet? I had no idea. I was about to apologize again for being that kind of drunk when she said softly, “So you want a day as another person?”

            “Maybe if we were in each others’ heads for a just a little while, we’d know them. And when we got out, what would our reaction be? Having seen all their life and all their good and their bad and their ugly, what would we do when we woke up next to them? Having seen their soul for all the mess that it may be, would we punch them or hug them?”

            Quiet again. I tacked on one last part. “Personally, I think it would be both. If we woke up on this grass tomorrow and you’d been me for a day, you’d kinda…you’d punch-hug me. I don’t know which would come first, but it’d definitely be a weird punch hug combo.”

            She laughed, hard. I felt embarrassed until I felt her hand graze mine. Then, bravely, I asked, “What do you think?”

            She waited a long time before answering.

            “I feel like people aren’t that static. You could sit down inside my mind for a day. You could know all my deepest darkest secrets and live as me for that day, but then it’s over. The next day I could be someone completely different. I mean, maybe not completely different, but…different. It’s not just that we’re all some mixture of good and bad and light and good. Everyone knows that. It’s that on every given day we’re a saint or a sinner or an angel or a devil or all of those things. We fall. We rise. We repeat.” She savored the last word.

 

Copper Souvenirs – Joshua Wharton

            “Caroline of Brunswick. She was German,” he said.

            “What,” I asked.

            “That’s who North Carolina is named after.”

            “Oh, that’s good to know,” I said with a smile.

            “It’s not funny, Its Not funny! You don’t know why Carolina is named Carolina,” he asked.

            “Well, I know now.”

            “It’s named after uhm, uhm, Caroline of…” he trailed off and started to mumble.

            “Brunswick,” I prompted.

            “Caroline… Germany…Caroline of- I know it I just have to find it,” he said as he tapped the side of his head with both hands.

            “Take your time.”

            “I will!”

            There was a short pause as the man put his bottle to his mouth and tipped it up. It didn’t look like there was anything left in it. Then, he scratched his cheek and chin. I could see dust and dirt rain down from his cheek onto his denim collar and canvas brown jacket.

            “Caroline of Brunswick! She was German,” he repeated.

            “Oh, I see,” I said.

            The barmaid walked by and picked up his empty bottle. He asked for another drink. Her eyes rolled in a quick circle and then stopped, set towards the man.

            “What would you like,” she asked as she leaned her right arm against the bar.

            “A cider.”

            “That will be two pound twenty,” she said as she set a pint glass of cider in front of him.

            He handed her a five-pound note. She gave him back a handful of coins. He laid them on the opposite side of the bar after she walked away.

            “I’m gonna go take a piss,” he said.

            After he walked away, I grabbed the change he left on the bar, finished my pint, and walked out.

            I liked him all right. Only Welshman I’ve met so far. Didn’t really fit the idea that the guys in Liverpool gave me of the Welsh, but that’s fine with me. He was the only person in the pub that talked to me. The barmaid gave me a nod as I ordered a drink. But, she didn’t say anything. I like talking more. There’s less commitment.

The man in there understood. We just shot the shit about Caroline and Germany. I didn’t really care much about what he was saying. I don’t think he cared either. I just wanted someone to listen to and he wanted someone to talk to. That’s friendship. Best Welshman I’ve met yet.

            I got to the hostel around 11:30. The two old guys who have apparently been living there for three months were still up sitting on the couch. Only the three of us were sleeping there that night. There were more than enough rooms in the hostel for us to all have our own. But, the owner decided to put me in the same room as one of them. I was excited to figure out whose room I was placed in.

            “Which one of you is in room three,” I asked.

            “I’m in room 5,” said the man watching the T.V.

            He had wiry grey hair. It was tied back in a ponytail that hung to about the middle of his back. He had a middle part that matched the huge gap between his two front teeth. Made his face seem abnormally symmetrical.

            “Well,” I said, turning to whom I assumed was my roommate for the night, “Do you mind if I set an alarm for around 9 in the morning?”

            He didn’t respond. He was on his laptop. I doubted he heard me. He didn’t look like a guy that would purposely ignore someone. I don’t think his eyes even moved, but I couldn’t tell. The light from his laptop reflected off his glasses so all I saw was a backwards-double image of his screen. He had that backlight on so high it even reflected off the bald part of his head. I think his neck will be stuck at that arch forever.

            “Hey, Mike, you don’t mind if this fella set’s an alarm for 9 right?”

            He was too focused on whatever he was doing on his laptop to hear either of us. So, I guess it didn’t really matter when I woke up.

            “He won’t mind. Wake up when ya need to mate,” said the symmetrical faced man.

            I walked into the kitchen and opened up the refrigerator. These two guys really were here to stay. The thing was packed full. They had everything from sausage and eggs to beer and strawberry jam.

            I grabbed a beer and stepped out the back door. I walked up the steps to the balcony and lit a cigarette.

            The balcony had a door to the upstairs. It also had windows that showed the inside of the hostel owner’s room. His name is Chris. Nice guy. He talked to me a lot when I got here this afternoon. I like him. They’ve got those 2-inch slat blinds that go vertically. One of the slats was missing.

He and his girlfriend were lying on the bed watching T.V. I couldn’t see what they were watching, but I think it was something funny. They kept laughing. Eventually, Chris grabbed the remote off of the nightstand. The blue, cold light that stuck to their white sheets and faces went out. Everything in their room, or everything in my view rather, transformed from differing shades of blue to a gray that darkened with distance. He set the remote down as he leaned in towards her face.

            I finished my beer and walked back down the steps. I couldn’t find the recycling, so I just threw the can in the trash bin. Then, I walked back into the common room.

            Mike and the grey haired guy were still there. Mike had closed his laptop and was watching T.V.

            “What are you two watching,” I asked.

            “Just some Movie Chris has got on VhS. Mike and I decided we’d just start from the first one in the box and see how far we got. We don’t bother looking at the titles. This one’s shit, but we’ve got to finish it.”

            It didn’t really make much sense to me, but I guess that’s what you do when you’re over 50 and end up living in a youth hostel for months.

            “So, where are you from lad,” Mike asked.

            “I’m from the states.”

            “Ah, and how’d you end up in Chester of all places?”

            “Well, I’m in England studying on exchange at the moment. But, my school isn’t very close to here.”

            “Ah, I see. Well why aren’t you out on the town with your mates at University?”

            “I just didn’t really feel like it this weekend. Thought I’d get a look at somewhere else.”

            “Yes, yes, I see. So, did you know Chester has some very interesting historical landmarks,” Mike asked.

            “Yea, actually. I saw it on a list of most historic cities in the United Kingdom. It wasn’t at the top of the list. But, it was the least expensive for me to get to.”

            “Hm interesting. Well, if you’d like, I could impart to you some of my knowledge on the city.”

            Mike pulled out a map of the city and pointed out a few of the places I should see before I leave. I don’t remember everything we talked about after he put the map away. But, I enjoyed myself and it seemed like they did as well. I learned the man with the matching hair and teeth was named Francis. Eventually they started asking me about my family and what I did in America.

            “Well, my dad’s a business man. Takes his work very seriously and all. He’s gone quite a bit, but always says he does it for us. You know, he’s got to bring home the bacon so we can be comfortable. Whatever it takes, he says.”

            “Ah, rightly said. And what about your mum,” Francis asked.

            “She works during the day. I don’t really know what to call what she does. But, she does it. She usually gets home before my dad and cooks dinner and stuff. She somehow always has it done before he gets home from work.”

            “Sounds like a proper wife to me,” Francis said.

            “Yea, I guess so,” I said.

            “Well, maybe she sounds like a proper wife to you, Francis,” Mike said. “But I bet she’s got other ideas of what she wants. She seems like a selfless woman to me. Probably got much more responsibility than your Da, and deals with it better too.”

            “Yea, I can see that. I’ve never thought about it that way,” I said.

            “Listen lad,” Mike said, “You’ll almost always benefit from trying to look through the eyes of others. If you do it right, you’ll probably benefit those whose eyes you look through too.”

            “Mike, he’s only been here for a few hours and you’re already givin’ him an earful. I bet he gets enough lecturin’ at University,” Francis laughed.

“Fair enough. I’m sorry lad. I tend to start moralizing towards the end of the night. I ought to go to sleep. Good night mates, see you in the morning.”

            Mike put his laptop in a case, put the case in a backpack, and walked down the hall. I could hear him put the pack in one of the lockers. After he closed the locker door, I could hear the latch of a padlock click, and then the sound of feet walking up steps. A few minutes later, Francis stood up.

            “I think it’s probably time for me to pack it in for the night too mate.”

            “Yea, me too,” I said.

            We walked up the stairs. Francis went into his room as I walked further down the hall to my room. Mike was already fast asleep when I got into the room. I brushed my teeth, flossed, and got in bed.

            The wind blew hard that night. I could hear it rip through the street and beat against the apartments and shops that lined the street. It tossed the large wooden sign for the hostel around freely. The metal chains that connected the sign to the post creaked incessantly through the night. I woke up multiple times. It woke me up for the third time at around 5 in the morning. I couldn’t fall back asleep, so I went down to the kitchen.

            I found some bread and put it in the toaster. Thankfully they had some jam in the fridge.

            As I ate, I noticed my beer can in the trash bin. I pulled it out. Using a pairing knife, I cut a triangle out of the can.

            Once I was finished with my toast, I walked to the lockers with the tin triangle. Two of them were locked. One was a new, fancy U-bolt. The other one was an old classic. A medium sized bolt on top of a metal cylinder with a black plastic rotating circle in the middle. It was perfect. I like people who use those. It’s a great padlock.

I took the tin triangle I cut from the beer can and slipped it down into the cylinder through the space left by the loosely fitting bolt. I heard a click and pulled down on the cylinder. Inside the locker was a medium sized messenger bag. I started sifting through the contents.

You can learn a lot about someone by what they have in their bag. You can learn even more about someone by seeing what they lock away. This was mike’s bag. I could tell because of the laptop inside. He had a lot of paper inside there. Some was blank while other pages were written on. He also had pages he must have printed somewhere. He had them in folders, but they didn’t seem very organized to me. At the bottom of the bag were a bundle of wooden pencils held together by a rubber band. I also found a pencil sharpener and an eraser.

I grabbed the laptop and went back upstairs. After I slipped it in the empty laptop sleeve of my backpack, I went to sleep.

I woke up around 8:00. The chains from the sign didn’t wake me up at all after I went back to sleep. The wind didn’t wake me up either. Mike was still asleep. I went to the kitchen and found some eggs in the refrigerator and cooked two up. While I ate, I found some granola bars in the pantry and put a few in my pockets. I figured I’d probably get hungry on the train.

After I finished eating the eggs and cleaning the silverware, Mike came in.

“Mornin, Lad,” he said.

“Good morning, how’d you sleep,” I asked.

“I slept great. Did the sign keep you up?”

“It made it hard for me to fall asleep, but once I was out I was out for good.”

“Ah, that’s good to hear. It took me a while to get used to the row it caused. Hey, I’m about to make some breakfast. Have you had a full English breakfast here in the U.K yet?”

“No I haven’t,” I responded.

“Ah, well I’d be happy to cook you up one along with my own,” he said

“That would be great.”

Mike was a nice guy. I liked him a lot. He cooked the best full English breakfast I had had in the U.K. up to that point.

After we ate, I started my walk down to the train station. I wanted to see some of the places Mike had shown me the night before, but I didn’t have much time. As I walked, I passed a pawnshop. I walked in and asked if they bought laptops. They did. I pulled the laptop out of my pack and the man behind the counter looked at it.

“Ill give ya 300 quid,” he said.

“Oh, come on. I haven’t even had this for very long. I bought it for at least twice that price.”

“We don’t get many people buyin’ laptops here mate.”

“How about 375?”

“350.”

“Deal.”

 

           

Looking Back – John McNair

            Why 6 AM? Why should anyone be up at this hour? Why WOULD anyone be up at this hour? Thinking back to it now, I don’t know how I made it through middle school. I guess I didn’t know any better then, but if I was sent back in time on a mission to do 6th through 8th over again, I honestly don’t know if I could. Strange times, let me tell ya. The most awkward stage in a human’s life and I was NOT a fan.

            Anyways. 6 AM. Usually, at this time I was groaning and moaning and doing my very best not to leave my sheets. Today was different.

            “Up and at ‘em Johnny Mac!” My mother called from the bottom of the steps. “It’s your last day at Martin!” She was much too jovial for six in the morning, but today I was fine with it. I leapt from my bed and quickly went through my morning routine of showering, brushing my teeth and throwing on some clothes. There would be no special treatment though. A t-shirt and gym shorts. All day. Every day. It’s not like anyone cared anyway.

            The rest of my morning was as normal as any other, aside from my mother chattering about me being a “middle school graduate,” as I sat at the kitchen table, eating cinnamon toast waffles and drinking a glass of milk. You don’t graduate middle school. You high tail it out of there as soon as they let you leave and you don’t ever look back. Not like my mom would understand. She was on the PTA at Martin Middle School and probably would love to go in my place if she could. I never had the heart to tell her how much I hated it. Well, it’s not like I hated actually going to school. I just hated the way it made me feel when I was there. I was very, very shy, and being an awkwardly tall kid with a Jew fro didn’t help my confidence in the slightest. It seemed to me that no one ever really noticed me or cared if I was around. I guess to sum it up, I felt very uncool. And back then “the cool” was everything.

            “John, I’ve got a wedding today so I won’t be home when you get back, but tonight we are going out to celebrate! Sound good?” I cracked a small smile and she tried to give me a kiss on the cheek, but I dodged it, so she settled for my forehead. “Have a wonderful day, John. I’ve got to run.”

All I wanted was a painless day. Hang with my few friends, eat some cake and ice cream, sign some yearbooks and get the hell out. But more than that, I was hoping that this day would bring something amazing to my life. Something that would make the last three years all worth it. I was planning something BIG. I was going to ask Annalise Panders to go to the Durham Bulls game with me. I had been planning to ask her for months and I had firmly decided that today would be the day that I would sum up the courage to bite the bullet.

            A rare, early-morning smile crossed my lips as my insides quivered with excitement. I made sure to duck quickly into another room so my dad wouldn’t see me looking so happy. That would be very suspicious. I sat on the couch in the living room and imagined her inquisitive, electric blue eyes that would get real squinty when she was thinking hard. I thought of that sly smirk she would get whenever she was pulling a prank on one of the “dumb boys,” as she called them in class. But most of all, I just thought of how nice she was to me. My mind raced back to the time that Mrs. Leonard, my 7th grade social studies teacher, asked Annalise and me to get a TV from the tech room so the class could watch a movie. That was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. We talked the whole time with no awkward silences! That was quite a feat for me. I even made her laugh a few times.

            “You’re funny,” she had told me. I remember thinking, I am? But, I didn’t say anything. I just smiled and continued to talk to her about sports. That is when I first learned that she was a huge Durham Bulls fan, and honestly, after that, I was hooked. A pretty girl who liked sports AND paid attention to me? I couldn’t really ask for more.

            “You ready to go, Bucko?” My dad’s voice shook me from my daydreaming. I nodded at him, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and followed him out the door. After hopping into the shotgun of his Buick, I watched him stifle an extremely long yawn and take a swig of his coffee. The only person who might’ve been more excited than me about the end of middle school was my dad. He was the designated driver in the mornings and I’m quite sure he hated it.

            “Ok,” he said with a sigh as he started the car on. He immediately turned on his classical music station, frowned, and furrowed his brow as he listened intently to Brahms pour his soul out through the piano keys. I was so thankful for my dad in these situations. He appreciated silence more than anyone I knew and in the early mornings, especially this morning, silence was crucial. I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes in order to properly visualize popping the big question to Annalise. I had it all planned out….

            Annalise and I shared the same third period, which was after lunch, and that is when I would ask her. She sat in the back of the class so I would go back there and ask real smooth, “Hey Annalise! You mind if I sit?”

            And she would say, “Oh, of course John! It’s so great to see you!” So I would sit down and make some small talk. You know, “Can I sign your yearbook?” and “What are your plans this summer?” Stuff like that. Then after some solid buildup, I would get into the important stuff.

            “So, Annalise…I remember you telling me that you’re a big Bulls fan and I actually have an extra ticket to the game next Saturday. I think you’re really cool and was wondering if you would go with me!” This was the most important part and I had to get it just right. I had practiced in the mirror all week to make it perfect. Then, Annalise’s beautiful, blue eyes would get real big and she would say, “Oh my gosh! I would love to go to the game with you! That sounds like so much fun! And John…I think you are really cool too.”

            It was fail proof. I had been thinking about this forever and all I had to do was not screw up. Butterflies erupted into some Irish jig in my stomach as we pulled into the drop-off loop. I took a big, deep breath that my dad mistook for annoyance.

            “Just one more day, bud. I’ll pick you up after and we can get some Char-grill. Sound good?” He patted me on the shoulder and I nodded.

            “Thanks, Dad. See you.” I shouldered my pack and hopped out of the car. I filed behind a group of kids and watched my feet as I prepared myself for what I considered the most important thing I would ever do at Martin. For once, I hoped that this school would just have mercy on me and let something go my way, exactly like I planned it. Not too much to ask, right?

After coming through the main entrance, I cut down a side hall that had less foot traffic and was a shortcut to my first period. As I walked down the hall a door to my left swung open and out walks Annalise-fucking-Panders, her best friend, Stacy Wilkins at her side. I nearly puked on sight.

            “Hey, John! Pumped for our last day?” She said cheerfully, with her cute little grin. She looked amazing. Her short, wispy, blonde hair tickled the insides of her shoulders playfully, as she cocked her head to one side, waiting for my response. The entire school seemed like it got a whole lot hotter.

            I couldn’t speak. I had been seized by utter shock and the only things I could move were my eyes, which darted around the hall looking for an answer to her question. A thin line of sweat had formed over my entire body and my slightly agape mouth pleaded for moisture, as it tried to form words from a language that was suddenly incomprehensible. My feet were rooted to the ground and I did my very best to convince them to run and take me as far away as they could. But wait! A word! I remembered a word!

            “HEY,” I blurted out, much too loudly. I startled Stacy, who proceeded to look at me like a dying cockroach. I couldn’t blame her. I literally could not have been more awkward. I grimaced as I met Annalise’s eyes, expecting the worst, but it wasn’t disgust that I saw; it was amusement.

            “HEY!” She responded just as loudly, clearly entertained. “WHAT’S UP?” she asked, continuing the joke. Stacy now looked completely dumbfounded.

            I laughed, so thankful that Annalise had diffused the awkward bomb that was only seconds from detonating, and responded with a hearty, “NOT MUCH. YOU?”

            “Oh my god, please stop.” Stacy looked at Annalise like she was seriously reevaluating being friends with her. Annalise paid her no mind though. We both just looked at each other and laughed for a few seconds. As it started to die down, I decided that now was as good a time as any to ask her. I took a step closer and was about to say what I had practiced for weeks, but Stacy interrupted me.

            “Hel-lo, Dun-son!” She said in a sing-songy voice. I turned and saw Dunson Griffith striding towards us, with a big, fat grin on his face. Remember “the cool” I was talking about earlier? Well, Dunson had it. Everyone knew him and everyone liked him.

            “What’s up Stacy! Annalise!” He walked right past me and gave the two girls hugs. I barely knew him, but since I felt like walking away would be too awkward, I just stood there like an idiot, watching and listening as if I was actually a part of their conversation. Dunson was more than a head shorter than me, but he made up for it with his brimming confidence. He was also the captain of our soccer team, which was the most popular sport at our school, so he was lean, yet muscular. To put it simply, when he was around, I felt much smaller. He even dressed nice. Today he was wearing khakis and a red and white button down with his ray bands hanging below his neck. For once, I wished I had worn something to school other than gym shorts. He had the habit of constantly pushing his long, wavy hair to the back, as it would always fall over his eyes. I heard girls say how cute he was all the time. I didn’t even want to know what I looked like standing next to him.

            “Hey, where are your yearbooks? I want to sign them!” Dunson pulled a sharpie out of his pocket and took the cap off.

            “You know we don’t get our yearbooks until later, Dumson.” Annalise smiled to herself, clearly very pleased with her pun. I couldn’t help but to chuckle and she gave me a quick wink. My insides started doing backflips. Dunson didn’t even notice, though. Instead he began to move the sharpie closer to the two girls.

            “Not till later, huh? Well, I gotta sign something! Hmmm, how about your shirts?” With a mischievous grin, Dunson quickly jabbed the sharpie towards Annalise.

            “DON’T YOU DARE! Dunson; this is a brand new blouse! I will end you if you get any closer with that thing.” She screamed, as she backed away from him, covering as much of her blouse with her arms as she could.

            “Ok, ok. Damn Anna. I was just kidding!”

            “You can sign my shirt, Dunson,” Stacy piped up. I noticed she hadn’t been able to take her eyes of him the whole time.

            Dunson bent down to sign the back of her shirt, while saying, “Hey are you guys coming to my party next Saturday? It’s gonna be awesome. I’ve got a pool and everything.”

            “Oh, hell yeah! That sounds like so much fun!” Annalise’s eyes got real big as she beamed at Dunson with excitement. My heart sank to the floor. Dunson was throwing a party the same day as the baseball game. And Annalise was going. Ten minutes into the last day of school and I was already ready to leave. All I could think of was how stupid I was to have thought that she would’ve even wanted to come with me. There was always going to be a Dunson that would grab her attention over me. I was completely tuning out the conversation now, as I stared down at the multicolored squares that covered the hallway. I really hated those squares.

            “Ok, then…You two want to go to class?” I heard Dunson ask, thankful that I could finally get away from the three.

            “Yeah sure.” Annalise said and began to follow them, but not before saying, “BYE, JOHN!” with a cheeky grin on her face.

            “Bye, Annalise.” I said quietly. Her smile quickly vanished and worry spread across her face, but Stacy had taken her by the hand and was leading her down the hallway, following Dunson. They turned the corner and they were gone. My feet were still planted in the same spot they had been when she had walked out that door. “Fuck.” I said loudly. Suddenly, I heard a stifled gasp. I twisted around and saw the smallest 6th grader I had ever seen. She was a chubby, Chinese girl and her mouth was agape, with terrified shock bursting from her eyes. I just stood there and looked at her for a second, cleared my throat, looked around the hallway, and then walked away.

            I slept walked through the day. Any excitement that I had was completely gone now. Now, it was just the battle with time. And time was kicking my ass. 1st period dragged by, as we gave out superlatives (I was most likely to be a basketball player) and talked about where we were going to high school and what we would be doing for the summer. When that snooze-fest was finally over I crossed the hall to English class and took a seat next to my best friend Woody.

            “Yo,” I said as I slumped down as far as I could slump.

            “Hey man. You ask her yet?” He asked excitedly. Woody had been living vicariously through me ever since I told him my bold plan of asking Annalise to the baseball game. I hated that I was about to disappoint him.

            “No. I’m not going to.”

            “Why not?!”

            “She’s going to Dunson’s party.” I could have cried. I still couldn’t get over how terribly awkward I had been when she emerged out of that room. All I wanted was to crawl in a hole and hide from the world.

            “Oh. Hey, I’m going to that!” Woody said hurriedly. I side-eyed him and he quickly put his head down as a nonverbal apology. Well, it looks like everyone is invited to this party, except me. I put my head in my hands out of pure frustration. “I’m sure Dunson would be fine with you coming, man,” Woody piped up.

            “I don’t want to go to his stupid party.” All I wanted was to go to his stupid party. Woody and I didn’t talk about it anymore after that and reverted back to our usual talk of sports. Our English teacher, Mrs. Bennett, was giving us what she called a “free day,” meaning that we could just sit around and talk and play games the whole time. Thankfully, this passed the time by rather quickly and when the assistant principal, Mrs. Panchi came in to take us to lunch, I started to become a little more upbeat. It’s almost over, John. Just lunch, a few more classes and then I can leave this place forever.

            We followed Mrs. Panchi to the cafeteria, but before she opened the doors to let us in, she whirled around on the ball of her foot and pierced us with her death stare. Mrs. Panchi, was probably the only person in the school that no one messed with. She was a large, fierce, Indian lady who had a deeper voice than my dad. There was a rumor going around that she was actually the real principal, and Rhett Thorley was the assistant, but she liked to maintain a closer eye on the students. There was also a rumor that Mrs. Panchi ate babies, so there you go. You can’t trust anything you hear in middle school.

            “All right, all of you,” her deep voice bellowed through the halls. “I don’t care if this is the last day. You will go into the cafeteria. You will eat your food like civilized humans. And then you will clean up after yourselves and leave the cafeteria. I will not tolerate any horseplay, and any wrongdoer will be punished in the same manner as always. Is that understood?” It was more like a statement rather than a question. “Yes, ma’am’s” were heard from a few students.

            “IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?”

            “YES MA’AM.” Mrs. Panchi nodded curtly and opened the doors. I walked with Woody to our regular spots. Everyone always sat in the exact same spot during lunch. We didn’t have assigned seating; that’s just what everyone did.

I tried to clear my head as I listened to the squabbling and chattering around me. Reminding myself that I was already halfway through the day, I feigned laughter and intrigue when appropriate. The good thing about lunch was that I was never expected to talk, only to listen and occasionally give some insight. I reached inside my bag and pulled out my Trix yogurt, an infamous food item at the table.

            “Trix are for kids, McNair!” teased Charles, who was two seats to my right. The right half of the table joined in a unanimous, hearty laugh.

            Is that still funny? I thought. How is the same joke still funny for a whole year? As usual, I did not voice these questions. Instead, I simply shrugged, opened the cup of yogurt, and dipped my spoon in.

            Just as I was about to take a bite, I heard, “What the…FUCK!” I looked to my right and saw Charles who sat in utter shock, a banana peel draped over his face. The table across from us erupted with laughter.

            “Take that Chaz!” shouted Dunson, a snarky grin etched on his face. I couldn’t help but smile as well as I saw Charles turn blood red. My smile quickly vanished when he stood up and launched his pastrami sandwich at his attacker. Fortunately for Dunson, Charles misfired. Unfortunately for Taylor, Brandon and Josh the sandwich exploded in front of them and they were subsequently plastered in pastrami, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise. And just like that, it was war.

            Taylor shot a pickle. Joe sniped kids with his arsenal of grapes. Woody used his lunchbox as a shield as he tossed bits of cookie. Hayden opened a bag of chips like he was pulling the pin out of a frag grenade and flung it, causing a detonation in the middle of one of the girls’ table. Utter chaos. Soon everyone was joining in, as assorted items from packed lunches and school trays were hurled from one end of the cafeteria to the other. I even saw Annalise throwing Lunchable pizzas like ninja stars. Suddenly, throwing food didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

            Before I could think anymore about it something slapped me across the face. Hard. I looked down and saw a pear rolling under the table. A fucking pear. Of all the things I could’ve been hit with, I got hit with one of my least favorite foods of all time. Suddenly, something filled my insides that I had rarely felt. A long-dormant monster awoke. That single pear ignited something in me and there was no stopping it. I was going to throw something.

            But what? I thought. I looked down at my stash. Doritos? No. Gatorade? Jesus, John you want to throw something, not kill someone. And then my eyes fell on my freshly opened Trix yogurt. Suddenly, I no longer saw a dual flavored cup of deliciousness, but a container filled with the swirling tyranny and oppression that was middle school. I saw the bullies, the early mornings and the pushy teachers. I saw my lack of confidence and desire for what I couldn’t have. In that cup of yogurt I saw my escape. So I threw it. I didn’t care where I threw it. I didn’t care if I hit anyone. I just needed to throw it and in that single moment I felt that I was truly free. I was myself and I was the happiest I had ever been at Martin Middle School.

            A few minutes more of blissful food fight passed until finally, a loud, shrill whistle halted the anarchy. Mrs. Panchi stood on a table, her hand raised firmly in the air.

            “ENOUGH!” her deep voice bellowed. No one was scared anymore though. Kids laughed and shouted and she shouted right back. I still wore a dumb grin as I looked around at the confusion. But then, in one moment, any happiness I had was quickly gone. Three tables down, I saw her. Annalise sat in utter horror as double-colored yogurt dripped from her hair onto her brand new, white blouse. The bell rang. Lunch was over. And so was my life.

            I don’t really remember too well what happened after that. All I know is that I sort of turned into a zombie. After I saw Annalise run out of the cafeteria with tears streaming down her face, a switch in my brain must have turned off. All I remember is offering to help clean up after Mrs. Panchi was done verbally abusing the entire 8th grade. She thanked me and then had everyone else go back to their homerooms where some sort of punishment would probably be held. The next thing I knew, Panchi was leading me down a hallway and I was sitting out side Principal Rhett Thorley’s office. She walked in his office and I heard her deep voice explaining the situation. Soon, she walked out, Thorley beckoned me in, and I was sitting in front of the Martin Middle School principal.

            He was a short man and if you saw him walking on the street you certainly wouldn’t think he was a middle school principal. He slicked his greasy, black hair to the back and always wound up his sleeves tightly around his forearms. His slick hair matched his skin, which was always in a constant sweat. There was a rumor that he changed shirts at least two times a day.

“Well, John, I hope you realize what a serious matter this is. The behavior that has taken place today is nothing short of atrocious. Our rules have been severely violated, and mark my words, John, I will get to the bottom of this. Just because today is the last day of school does not mean that those responsible will escape justice.”

            Jesus, man, who got murdered again? Principal Rhett Thorley squinted at me through greedy, beady eyes as he twirled his finger slowly around the closest stress ball. His desk was littered with them. This one looked like Earth.

            “Yes, sir,” I said quietly.

            “Good. Because I believe we can both help each other out here.” Thorley squeezed the ball and slid his chair to the left to examine his computer. He squinted at the screen and began to tap away violently at his keyboard. I looked to my right and saw a lonely beam of sun creep through the window and strike a random spot on Thorley’s bare, white wall. Further outside, I could see kids running around on the track. Some of them I recognized. I watched as Woody and Charles threw a football and sighed as I realized that I was as happy in that room, as I would be out there. I knew that in some bathroom Annalise was probably crying her eyes out as teachers and friends helped her wash Trix yogurt out of her hair as they hopelessly tried to get the stains out of her blouse. You are so stupid, John. SO, SO STUPID. Every kid in this school knows you eat that yogurt. She KNOWS it was you. And she HATES you. I had never been so mad at myself.

            “Well, well, well!” My head shot back to Thorley, having totally forgotten about him. “John McNair, you are quite the student! A fantastic grade record, perfect attendance and no school violations to boot! I knew I liked you when Mrs. Panchi told me you stayed behind to clean up that mess. Not surprising considering you are your mother’s son.”

I couldn’t form words. I knew the proper response was “thank you, sir,” but I couldn’t take his words as a compliment. If he had said, “John, you’re the scum of the earth” I probably would have stood up, shook his hand and asked for more. But instead he had to prattle off about what a good student I was. That was the last thing I wanted to hear and it only made me angrier with myself, and even worse, angry with Thorley. I decided to keep quiet.

Clearly not noticing, he continued, “John, I need your help. I need details. Copious details. Anything that you saw or remember. Do you know who started it? More than one person maybe? Absolutely anything you can think of would be greatly appreciated.” His last word formed his mouth into some type of grimace as he bared his teeth at me. Is he in pain? What’s wrong with this guy? I noticed that his hand was tightly wrapped around the stress ball. The grimace continued until it struck me. This man was trying to smile at me. And he was failing. Badly. What kind of lunatic doesn’t know how to smile? That is when I knew that I wasn’t going to tell Principal Rhett Thorley one damn thing. But I had to tell him something. My mind raced for some cop-out.

Moments that felt like hours passed and Thorley’s “smile” faded away. He leaned forward slightly and he no longer squeezed his ball, but his hand hovered just above it as he eagerly anticipated the impending release that my expected betrayal would bring. I looked at Thorley, glanced outside and then back at Thorley. His head dipped slightly, inviting me to indulge in the treachery of snitching. Thoughts of Dunson and Charles flashed through my mind. My vision started to get blurry and beads of sweat started to form on my forehead. I had to say something or tell on someone…but who? And then it struck me. I thought of the perfect patsy to pin the crime on. Someone who deserved any punishment they got.

“I won’t tell anyone you told m—.”

“It was me.” He snatched his ball and squeezed hard, but immediately dropped it as my words registered. His earth rolled across the desk and came crashing down at my feet.

“Wh—what?” he stammered.

“I started the food fight.” I gazed back at him calmly, totally OK with the fact that I was losing my mind.

“You…started the food fight,” he repeated back to me.

“Yes.”

“But why?!”

I thought for a moment and then said, “My mom packed me a pear. And I hate pears.”

Principal Thorley sat back in his chair hard, completely dumbfounded as he stuck his hand through his greasy hair and left it there. I smirked on the inside at how absurd he looked. But then I took it too far.

“Oh, and I hate your school too.” ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND? My brain screamed at me. But I just didn’t care. I feel dead already, who cares if they actually kill me?

A darkness took over Thorley’s face as he rose from his chair, a few strands of hair now hanging over his forehead. He pointed at me and said, “Your mother is a leading member of the PTA for this school you hate so much young man. What do you think she will do when she hears about this?”

“Well,” I said thoughtfully, “hopefully, she stops giving me pears.”

“OUT!” Thorley bellowed, pointing to his door. There was no stress ball in the world that was big enough to help this man. I immediately sprung out of the chair and hurried to the door. Rhett Thorley walked quickly behind me and then getting strangely silent he said, “Get your things. You are going home. No ice cream. No cake. No yearbooks. No friends. You will stay in Mrs. Panchi’s office until your mother picks you up. Say goodbye to Martin Middle School, John.” And with that he slammed the door in my face and it was over.

“Goodbye, Martin.” I said as I looked around the empty hallway. A sudden sadness filled me as I thought of my friends and even more so when I thought of Annalise. I realized that I might never see some of them again. I sighed as the adrenaline that had been pumping through my veins began to escape. The thrill was gone. And I was alone again.

            After I grabbed everything I needed from my locker, I trekked to Mrs. Panchi’s office, who was waiting for me behind her desk.

            “Sit.” She said sternly, pointing to a chair against the wall. I sat. “I can’t get in contact with your mother, so your father is on the way.” I had to hide a smile. My dad coming meant a much less stern lecture on the way home. My mom was still going to give it to me, but at least I wouldn’t have to be trapped in a small space with her. My smile quickly vanished when I realized how disappointed she was going to be in me. That was going to be the worst part of this whole fiasco. Hearing a parent giving you the old “disappointed in you” speech was the absolute worst. Way worse than them just yelling at you. I knew my mom was really going to lay it on me. I cringed at the thought.

            “Now I have got to go make sure none of your other classmates cause as much trouble as you just did, Mr. McNair.” She gave me a look of disgust as she walked to the door. “I expected more out of you.” That was the last I ever heard from Mrs. Panchi. I twiddled my thumbs as I waited for my dad to show up. I couldn’t believe I was really about to be done with this school AND I got to tell off the principal. It’s not like this was going to hurt me either. Thorley had said it himself. I hadn’t missed a single day of middle school and I made good grades. This was going to be just a minor blip on my radar.

            Suddenly, the door creaked open and I saw an eye peering through. I looked back at the eye, bewildered. The eye stared back at me and then the door swung open, and none other than Dunson Griffith strode through.

            “McNair! What are you doing here?” He said, clearly amused. I didn’t even realize he knew who I was.

            “Uhhh. I have to leave. They are making me leave.”

            “Why?”

            “I kind of told them that I started the food fight.”

            Dunson looked at me curiously. “Why did you do that? I started the food fight.”

            “Yeah, well. I didn’t want to snitch. And I hate this fucking place anyways. Seemed like an easy out.”

A few moments passed and then Dunson burst into laughter. “I hear that, McNair. Well thanks for not snitching. I’m here cus Panchi took my skateboard earlier this year and you better believe I’m not letting her keep it.”

            “She keeps everything she takes in that closet and it’s always locked. How are you going to get in?”

            Dunson winked at me and then dug into his pockets to bring out a huge set of keys. “Let’s just say I have friends in janitorial places. Keep watch would ya? It might take me a while to find the right one.” I nodded, walked to the door and scanned the hallway. It did take him a few minutes, but finally I heard, “AHA! Got it.” Dunson barged triumphantly through the closet and quickly emerged with his skateboard, smiling ear to ear. I was even happy for him. I had to admit it. Dunson had charm.

            “So, McNair. You coming to my party or what?” He asked as he walked into the hallway and hopped on the board.

            I was taken aback. “What?”

            “Yeah man. I asked you earlier this morning, but you were in some kind of daze. I don’t even think you heard me.”

            “Oh, damn. Uhhh. Sorry man. I guess I didn’t. The thing is…I kind of smacked Annalise with my Trix yogurt in the food fight…I don’t think I can show my face around her anymore.” I looked at the floor. Too embarrassed to look Dunson in the eyes. But when all I heard was silence I had to look up. Dunson was looking at me wide eyed. This continued for at least ten more seconds until he started laughing so hard that he had to jump off his skateboard, before he fell off.

            “That was you?” He said incredulously when he finally calmed down. “McNair, that is the funniest thing I’ve heard all day. What a way to go out.” He reached for a high five, but I just looked at it.

            “I feel terrible.” Once again, I felt like I could cry. I think Dunson could see it.

            “Oh, man. Don’t worry too much about it, dude. Look. She will be there next Saturday and that’s the perfect time to own up and apologize and gain some ground back. I’ll put in a good word too, man. Don’t count yourself out so easy.”

            “Uhh. Ok. Thanks, Dunson.” Why is he being so nice to me? Dunson had never paid me any mind before, so I couldn’t figure out why he was now.

            “John!” I turned to my left and saw my dad striding down the hallway.

            I turned back to Dunson and said, “Gotta go.”

            “Later, dude.” He held out a fist and I bumped it and watched as he skated down the opposite direction and turned the corner.

            “Hey, dude.” My father said with his classic dad sarcasm.

            I laughed and said, “Hey, dad.” We turned around and walked out the main entrance of the school to his Buick. I hopped in the shotgun and he began to pull out of the loop. He stopped at the intersection and I noticed he was giving me the side-eye along with a goofy grin.

            “What?” I asked with a laugh.

            “Nothing! How bout that Char grill?” He asked.

            “Oh, yeah.” We both laughed and he pulled out and drove away. Martin Middle School loomed in the side mirror, but I didn’t see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whir and Whistle – Courtney King

Cindy is buying snacks. Brian sees her. Dave is slipping quarters into the Pacman machine.

Cindy asks the cashier if they have fat free butter. They don’t. Brian flees to the bathroom. Dave mashes buttons on the machine, unaware of Brian’s disappearance.

Cindy gets the popcorn with the regular butter, she is alone after all. Brian is in the bathroom, fists clenched, breathing heavily. Pacman is swallowed by a ghost and Dave hits the machine in frustration, one life left.

Cindy fishes around in her purse, searching for her wallet. Brian splashes his face with water. Dave is out of lives and quarters and now notices Brian is gone.

Cindy grows more frantic looking for her wallet. Brian’s phone rings. Dave voice echoes in the bathroom from the phone speaker, asking Brian where he went.

Cindy grabs her phone. Brian meets back up with Dave as his phone rings again. Dave looks down at Brian’s phone screen.

Cindy hears Brian’s ringtone and sees the boys standing together, hand in hand, by the arcade games.

Everyone’s faces fall. The boys hands drop. No one speaks. The arcade games whir and whistle.

“Ma’am?” The cashier looks between Cindy and the boys, “did you still want the popcorn?”

Cindy’s knuckles are pale, clenched around her phone. Dave stares at his feet. Brian speaks, “hey mom.”

Cindy turns away.

“I seem to have lost my appetite,” she says to the cashier.

Two Words – Anna Pittenger

I shift my weight from foot to foot, waiting outside the library. There’s a bench by the entrance, but I’m too nervous to sit still. It feels strange to stand outside the building without going in, but today I’m waiting for someone. I can’t believe I’m doing this, I think, reflecting on the events that led me to my current situation. After my mother lost her job, she had some sort of early mid-life crisis and decided to pursue a long-time dream of hers: running a Bed and Breakfast. So we moved from Chapel Hill to Wilmington, from a tiny apartment for just the two of us to a big old house that my mother is planning to remodel. Honestly, I was a bit excited about it. After not fitting in very well in middle school, I was ready to make a new start at a high school in a different city, far away from all of my so-called middle school friends. John T. Hoggard High School has a strong arts program too, which I appreciate. I’ve only been here a few months and I’ve already made a friend, Sandra, who loves cats and fairytales as much as I do. At first, I thought the house where we’re living was pretty cool: a late 19th or early 20th century mansion. Then weird stuff started happening. First it was the usual things, the sorts of things that can be explained away—strange sounds at night, things going missing and turning up later in random places—then the less usual things—stuff getting damaged or tossed around, things falling off of shelves. I didn’t want to say anything to Sandra, because I was afraid she would think it was ridiculous, but finally when she asked why I was so tense I told her, “I think my house is haunted.” Actually, I was surprised by her reaction. She seemed interested, but not disbelieving, or even particularly surprised.

“Things like that can definitely happen,” she told me, “when I was in elementary school, in High Point, our house had a ghost cat. It would move things around, bat people’s watches under the couch and stuff like that. I couldn’t really see it—just out of the corner of my eye sometimes, or as a shadowy shape for a moment when I first entered a room, but there was this kid in my 4th grade class who could really see it clearly; my parents wouldn’t let me get a pet, so I used to invite him over to the house sometimes so we could play with the ghost cat.” She laughed. “I even bought some cat toys for it.”

I laughed too. “Are you sure you weren’t just imagining it, because you wanted a pet?”

She shook her head. “The kid I told you about, the one I knew back in High Point, I found him again. Apparently he’s in Foster Care and he gets passed around a lot; right now, he’s living with a family a couple houses away from mine. You can ask him about the ghost cat, if you want. Even better, why don’t you ask him about your ghost? Maybe he could help you out with it.”

I’m such an idiot, I think. There’s no way this guy will actually come, and if he does, it will probably just be to laugh at me. I bet he and Sandra are just playing a big joke, seeing how gullible I actually am. I look down at my sneakers, frowning at the grass stains on the toes. Maybe I should just go home.

“Hi,” a voice interrupts my thoughts and I look up. A boy is coming up the sidewalk toward me, cheeks flushed and slightly out of breath, as if he had been running. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” he says, as he comes up to me, holding out his hand to shake. “Ashlynn Peters, wasn’t it? I’m Aidan.”

I grasp his hand automatically, hoping that my face is not registering the shock that I feel. It’s him, I think, panic rising within me as I am suddenly flooded with memories of feelings and actions I had tried to bury in my past.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

It is probably one of the things I most regret. When I was in the sixth grade, I had a crush on one of the boys at my school. I was never in any classes with him, but I saw him in the hallway and he had gym class during the time I had my English class, so if I sat by the window I could watch him on the days the gym class did outdoor activities. He was short—about my height—with gray eyes, and mousy brown hair. I thought he was incredibly cute, but I was too shy to talk to him. The other kids picked on him a lot. They called him a crybaby, but mostly they said he was weird and crazy. They said he would act like he could see things that weren’t there, like pointing out a design on a blank rock or running from monsters that didn’t exist. At the time, I was a bit of an oddball myself, although I tried to hide it. I was probably the only person my age who still believed in fairies, although I never mentioned it to anyone, and I was convinced that I had seen one once when I was little, in the garden. I wanted so badly to talk to him, to find out if he like me too, to be friends—and maybe more than friends—but I could never quite get up the courage. What if he said ‘no’? What if he thought I was silly? What if he laughed at me? What if he said he didn’t like me? I was terrified of rejection—not only the act itself, but the rumors which would spread throughout the school—so I remained silent.

Then one day, I had a sleepover with another girl from my school. We did not know each other well, but my mother and her mother were business acquaintances, so I was trying my best to be polite and make a good impression, all the more so because the girl was popular in school and I wanted her to think well of me. Somehow, the topic of conversation shifted onto boys that we liked. At first, I felt too shy to say anything, but she pressed me. “Come on, just tell me his name. You’ve got to have someone that you like. Who is it? I promise I won’t tell anyone.”

Finally, I told her. I was afraid that she might laugh at me, but she didn’t. Instead, she went back to talking about herself.

“I want to be a psychiatrist when I grow up,” she told me. “That’s why I love listening to people talk about their problems and stuff. All my friends say I’m a good listener. You have to be a good listener to be a psychiatrist. That’s why I’m trying to get as much practice as I can now. And, of course, a psychiatrist has to be good at keeping secrets as well. You’re not allowed to discuss the things you talk about with one patient in front of anyone else. It’s called confidentiality. So, if you ever have any problems or anything that you want to talk to someone about, you can come to me.”

“Okay, thanks.” I believed her. I trusted her. I found myself talking with her about things that I had been too embarrassed to mention to anyone else. Things like how, when I grew up, I wanted to work in a historical re-enactment place like Colonial Williamsburg, or how much I loved fairy tales and wanted to study history and literature because I liked reading and comparing all the different versions of each story, or how much I loved drawing and how I wanted to become a children’s book illustrator someday. Somehow, I felt comfortable about talking to her about these personal things. Because, after all, she had told me about her dream first, and besides, who could be more trustworthy than a future psychiatrist?

The next day after school, waiting at the bus stop, a group of girls started talking about him. “He’s so weird,” one of them said, “always acting like he sees things that aren’t there.” “He probably does it to get attention,” another girl said. “I mean, it’s not like he stands out otherwise, is it?” They laughed. I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to say something, to make them stop, but I was nervous. “Maybe he’s crazy,” one of the girls said. “Maybe he really does think he sees things.” “No way,” someone else said, “don’t people like that have to be put in a special hospital somewhere? “Maybe he was,” she said. “Maybe he ran away.” She made a sudden lunge toward her friend, who squealed. “Ooh, scary!” They all giggled. I could feel my fists clenching. I had to say something.

“Hey!” I started. Their faces turned to me.

Then one girl said, “Oh, that’s right. Ashlynn has a crush on him. Isn’t that right, Ashlynn?” They all giggled again.

She told. I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. She said she wouldn’t tell anyone, but she did. She told them how I feel about him. What else did she tell them? Did she tell them everything? I could feel the heat rising in my face. “Don’t be stupid!” I said, more loudly than I need to. Loudly enough that other people—who had been ignoring the conversation—turned around and looked over at us to see what was going on. “There’s no way I could like a freak like him!”

I didn’t realize he was within earshot until he dashed past me, pushing through the people crowded at the bus stop and running off down the sidewalk. As he passed me, I saw that his face was streaked with tears.

The next day, I looked for him, but he didn’t come to school. He wasn’t there the day after that either. When I started asking around, I found out that he had moved to another town. I knew the things that happened were not entirely my fault. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that if I had stood up for him that day, instead of trying to save myself from being teased; if I had been a bit braver; if I had not been too scared and embarrassed to talk to him, maybe to try and make friends; then things would have turned out differently. During the years since then, I tried to put the incident out of my mind. Life went on, and I had lots of stuff to keep me busy. Still, I could never quite rid myself of my regret of what I did that day, and what I failed to do in all the days leading up to it. I wondered if he still remembered that incident and if he hated me because of it. I wished that there was some way that I could apologize to him, but I told myself that I would probably never see him again, that I didn’t even know where he had moved to, and that the best I could do was to vow to myself that never again would I allow myself to simply be a bystander in a situation where I saw bullying.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” I say, dropping his hand. “I was actually a bit nervous that you wouldn’t show up.” I giggle nervously and hate myself for it. “I mean, ‘my house is haunted;’ it’s the kind of thing you think when you hear a weird noise in the middle of the night, but it sounds so stupid when you say it out loud.” Calm down, I tell myself, you don’t know it’s him. All right, so he has the same name, but there are lots of people named Aidan. So what if this person looks a bit like that boy in sixth grade? It’s been three years since then. Who knows if he even looks like that now. Even if he does, I’m sure there are lots of people with brown hair and gray eyes, who are short and slightly overweight, …and who can see supernatural things. The problem with lying to yourself is that it never works. I know it’s him. He’s even wearing the same type of clothes as the boy I remember: a baggy sweater over a button-down shirt, and a pair of pants, all in neutral colors, with a backpack crammed so full of stuff that makes me wonder how he can stand up straight.

“Still,” I continue, “When Sandra told me that you played with the ghost cat at her house, I thought that, maybe if you could see ghosts, you could tell me what I was dealing with.”

He frowns slightly at the mention of Sandra, then smiles. “I’ll do what I can. First, I need you to tell me exactly what it was that made you decide the house was haunted.”  

I can’t handle this. I need to leave. There probably aren’t any ghosts in my house, and even if there are, I’ll figure out a way to handle it myself. Only I can’t come up with a good excuse to break off a meeting which I initiated. Besides, I’m pretty sure my house is haunted. So instead, we sit down on the bench by the library entrance, and I find myself talking, telling him all about the strange noises in the night, the things that fall off shelves when no one is in the room, the pages torn out of my favorite poetry book, the stuff from our packing boxes thrown around the room. “It’s just my mom and I living in the house,” I finish, “and I know that neither of us is doing it, so that means there has to be something else in there with us. It’s an old house; there’s no telling how many ghosts could be living in it, and at least one of them is making clear it doesn’t want us there.” I shiver in spite of myself, imagining a vengeful spirit rifling through my things, hovering over me while I sleep.

“Does your mother think the house is haunted?” He asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t think so. Even if she did, she would think a ghost adds character to the place; she doesn’t realize this thing could be dangerous. I mean, it’s already being violent with our stuff, it’s just a step farther for it to start being violent toward us.” I pause, realizing how ridiculous this all sounds. “You don’t believe me, do you?” I ask. I half-want him not to believe me, to tell me that I’m imagining things, or even just to laugh. For so long, I thought that if I ever saw him again, I would apologize, but now I just want him to go away, to disappear back into my past with all my other embarrassing middle school moments.

“I think you’re telling the truth,” he says, smiling. Then his face takes on a more serious expression. “As for whether or not there’s really a ghost in your house, I’d have to go there myself to check. Isn’t that why you wanted to arrange a meeting with me?”

I nod, standing. “Do you want to come over to our house right now? Or should we arrange to do that another time?”

He stands too, smiling. “Now is fine. James—the son of the family I’m staying with—has tutoring Friday afternoons, so I’d just be in the way if I went back to the house.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

When we get to the house, Mom is sitting at the coffee table in the living room, doing paperwork. “Who’s this?” She asks, when we come in.

“My name is Aidan,” Aidan says, holding out his hand. Mom shakes it. “It’s very nice to meet you Ms. Peters.”

“Aidan goes to my school,” I tell her. “We’re going to work on an Algebra project together.” I glance at him and he nods. “He was pretty interested in the house when I told him about it. Is it okay if I show him around a bit first?”

Mom nods. “Go ahead. I’m afraid it doesn’t look the best right now, though,” she tells Aidan. “We just moved in a couple of months ago, so we haven’t had much work done on the place yet.”

He smiles. “That’s alright. I’m interested in history, so I’m pretty excited to see this place the way it is.”

We walk throughout the house, from the first floor to the top floor, going into all the rooms. He even goes into places that I haven’t been in, like the cellar, and the attic. In every room we visit, he looks closely at the walls, ceiling, and floor. Often, he taps the wall, then pauses, as if listening for something. I show him all the things we’ve unpacked so far, the two rooms we’ve set up as bedrooms for Mom and I, the kitchen which Mom has already started to outfit with stainless steel appliances. I point out all the places where strange things have happened. As we pass the bookcase, a book suddenly falls out of it, thumping onto the floor. I jump.

“See!” I hiss, pointing. “It’s things like this. There’s no way that thing just fell on its own.”

Aidan nods, his eyes narrowing slightly as he stares at the bookcase. “Hmm. I think I might have an idea about your ghost,” he says, “but I still want to see the rest of the house.”

As we move throughout the house, Aidan’s attention focused on inspecting all the rooms, I begin to feel slightly more relaxed. He doesn’t seem to recognize me; he acts as if this is the first time we’ve ever met. The more I think about it, the more I realize I was stupid to expect anything different. I never spoke to him back then; we never had any classes together; the only reason I knew his name was because I had a crush on him and made a special effort to find out.

When we finish inside the house, he wants to look around outside, but Mom calls out to us from the living room, where she is sitting at the coffee table doing paperwork, “I know you’re excited to show him around, Ashlynn, but if the two of you are going to work on a project, you need to go ahead and get a start on it.”

“We’ll make it quick,” I call back, “I just want to show him the garden.” There’s not much outside the house; perhaps the grounds used to be more extensive, but now there’s just a small lawn—where grass pushes itself up through the sandy soil in scraggly tufts—and in the back of the house, a patch of weeds that used to be the kitchen garden, and an old well. “This is where they used to get the water for the house,” I say, pointing at the well. “It was closed up when we came here; Mom went ahead and had workers open it up again, to see if it was still usable, but it’s mostly dry now, and the little water there is brackish.”

Aidan nods, his eyes moving from the well to the rocks and pieces of brick scattered around it. “Thank you for showing me around,” he says. “I wish I had time to look around out here more closely, but we should probably get back inside and work on that project before your mother gets upset.”

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“You know, you don’t actually have to help me with my math project,” I whisper to him under the pretense of reaching for a marker. We are sitting on the floor of the living room, a piece of poster board and a package of colored markers laid out between us.

“It’s fine,” Aidan says smiling, looking up from my notes. “I’m actually pretty good at math. Besides,” he adds, “I don’t really like lying to people.” He smiles again. “I think the way you made a picture of a cat with the functions is pretty cool.”

I hate myself for it, but I find my heart beating faster when I’m near him, my eyes drifting back to him even though I’m trying to focus on my homework. I keep noticing little things about him that I like, like the way that even when he is serious, a smile flashes in between each of his sentences, like a lizard darting between rocks. My stomach clenches. Has he gotten even more attractive since middle school, or was it because I always watched him from a distance that I never noticed he was even cuter up close? I can feel my chest tighten. I can’t do this. I can’t be so close to him. I feel so guilty and nervous it makes my stomach hurt. I have to apologize to him, I tell myself. I’ve been waiting for years for the chance to tell him I’m sorry for what I said to him back then. Only, I’m not sure how to bring it up. What would I say? ‘Remember in sixth grade when a girl called you a freak? Well, that was me, and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.’ Like I could ever say that to him. I should just forget about it. That was three years ago. If he doesn’t remember, then there’s no reason for me to hang on to what happened back then.

Mom glances at the clock and frowns. “It’s getting to be a bit late; do you want to stay for dinner? You can call your family and let them know.”

I glance at Aidan. He nods. “Thank you, Ms. Peters. That would be wonderful.”

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“This is delicious!” Aidan says, smiling. “Thank you so much for inviting me to stay for dinner, Ms. Peters,” he says, “you really are a wonderful cook.”

Mom’s smiling too. It’s just the two of us most nights, so I know she appreciates having someone else compliment her cooking.

“I’m glad you think so,” she says. “I always cook too much, so you’re welcome to have as much as you want.”

All through dinner, Mom chats with him, telling him about her dream of opening a Bed and Breakfast, and he seems so interested and listens so attentively that she gets carried away and explains to him in detail all of the steps of her plan: the work that has to be done on the house, the paperwork that has to be filled out, advertising, hiring staff, and everything else. I’m a bit surprised at how easily he seems to get along with her. The boy that I remember from 6th grade was shy and quiet, often alone. Still, the more I watch and listen, the more I realize how good he is at arranging things so that the other person does most of the talking. We all talk and eat for an hour—longer than dinner at our house usually lasts—and yet, at the end of it, I realize that I still know almost nothing about him. After we finish eating, he helps to clear the dishes from the table, and he even helps wash them. Mom protests at first, but he insists, saying, “If I’m going to eat your food, the very least I can do is help you clean up from the meal.”

By the time we finish dinner, it is already dark outside. Mom frowns as she looks out the window. I know how much she hates to drive at night. “Why don’t you call your family and ask them if you can spend the night here?” She asks Aidan. “That way, you two can finish your project. It’s not a school night, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem if you stay up a bit late, and I can drop you off at your house after breakfast tomorrow morning.”

He smiles and nods, moving to the phone with an easy speed that makes me wonder if he was planning this all along. If so, it makes me even more impressed with him, at that way he has of guiding things along his own channels while making them seem to flow along unplanned and natural.

Mom starts to fuss a bit as he dials the phone number. “Oh, dear, you don’t have your pajamas with you, do you?”

“He can sleep in his clothes, Mom,” I say impatiently, willing her not to ruin what now seems a perfect opportunity. “It will be all right for one night, and he can change his clothes when he goes back home tomorrow morning. We have extra toothbrushes and toothpaste in the cabinet, too, so he can use that.”

Mom nods. “That’s true.” Then she frowns again, turning back to him. “We don’t have a guest bed yet, but you can sleep on the couch if you want. Is that all right?”

He smiles and nods, holding the phone to his ear. “I can fall asleep just about anywhere.”  

Mom seems unconvinced. Her frown deepens, and I can see the worry lines forming on her forehead. “It doesn’t seem right to make a guest sleep on the couch. Maybe Ashlynn or I should sleep on the couch so you could use one of our beds for the night.”

He shakes his head, still smiling. “The couch is fine. I am sure that it must be a great inconvenience for me to show up at your house like this and expect you to provide for me.” The phone call must have gone through, because his next words seemed to be directed toward someone on the other end of the phone. “Hello, Mrs. Stafford, this is Aidan.” Pause. “No, ma’am. Actually, I was wondering if it would be all right for me to spend the night here. Ms. Peters has offered to let me stay the night and bring me home in the morning.” Pause. “Yes ma’am; I told her that she was being very generous.” Pause. Is it my imagination, or does his face flush slightly? “No, ma’am. I’m doing my best not to be a burden to anyone.” “Yes, ma’am, thank you.” He hangs up the phone, and he is smiling again. “She says I can stay.”

Mom smiles. “All right. Ashlynn, go ahead and get a blanket and a pillow for him and lay it out on the couch.” She yawns. “I had a long day, so I’m going to head off to bed. You two don’t stay up too much longer, okay.”

I wait until Mom has left the room, then turn to Aidan. “So. What do you think?”

He smiles. “I think your mother is really nice.”

I roll my eyes. “No, about the ghost.”

“Right,” his expression turns serious again. “I have an idea about that. Is it all right if we use a few things from your fridge?” Aidan asks.

“Of course,” I say, going over and opening it up. “What do you need?”

“Milk, to start with,” Aidan says, coming to stand beside me at the fridge. “Actually,” he adds, reaching past me to grab a bottle of cream, “this would be even better. Do you have a bowl to put it in?”

I’m a little bit confused, but I go to the cabinet and grab a cereal bowl, and he pours cream into it until it is half full. “Honey too, if you have any,” he says, “and bakery bread, not the store loaf bread.” I get honey from the cabinet and he spoons some into the bowl of cream while I fetch half a loaf of Italian bread, left over from last night’s spaghetti dinner.

What do bread, cream, and honey have to do with ghosts? I wonder. It seems more like the sort of thing people would leave out as a gift for the fairies. Fairies! Surely he couldn’t think that… No, obviously what my mother and I are dealing with is a ghost. So what is he doing? I follow with the bread as he walks slowly through the house holding the bowl, staring intently at the walls. At last he stops by a place beside the bookcase where there is a large knothole in the wall and gently sets the bowl down on the floor, motioning for me to set the bread down beside it. “This is the most likely spot, I think,” he says, standing back and surveying our set-up.

The most likely spot for what? I wonder. “What now?” I ask.

“Now we wait,” he says calmly, “and possibly hide, or at least look busy.” He fetches a book himself from his backpack and sits down on the floor to read it. After a while, getting bored, I go and pull out my own book—the one with the page torn out—and sit down to read as well. It is quiet in the house, with the only sounds the ticking of the big clock in the hallway and the rustling of pages being turned as we read.

At first, I am a bit excited, waiting to see what will happen, but when we keep waiting and nothing at all happens, I begin to feel a bit foolish. I start to wonder if there really was nothing going on in this house after all besides my overactive imagination, and if perhaps Aidan really is a bit crazy. The idea that Aidan is in fact crazy gains even more force in my mind when—after half an hour of waiting with no results—he sets down his book and begins talking to the wall.

“I know you’re in there,” he says calmly, “and I won’t leave until I’ve had a bit of a talk with you, so you might as well come out.” He pauses for a moment, as if waiting for a response and then, when nothing happens, he begins talking again. “We fixed this for you, you know,” he says, gesturing toward the bread and the bowl of cream and honey, “so you might at least come out and eat it. It would be a shame to let it all go to waste.” He pauses again, but there is no response. “All right,” he says, reaching out to tear off a hunk of bread from the loaf and dip it in the cream. “If you won’t eat it, I will.” He puts the bread in his mouth and chews slowly, making exaggerated sounds of pleasure, like someone pretending to eat play-food that a little kid has ‘cooked’ for them.

I think again how weird all of this is, sitting next to a boy eating bread and cream from a bowl on the floor, while he talks to a wall as if he expects it to respond. I think that if Aidan is crazy, I must be at least half as crazy to be helping him in this, and because—even now—I am still looking on as if I really expected something to come of this.

When Aidan finishes his piece of bread, he reaches out his hand toward the loaf again, then suddenly stops, his hand halting in mid-reach, and then retracting, to lay again at his side. His expression changes, as if he is seeing and hearing something, although as far as I can tell there is nothing there besides the blank wall and the sound of the clock.

Aidan’s face flushes, but he says, in that same calm tone, “There’s no need for you to be rude. I only did it to get your attention, because I wanted to talk to you.”

I watch in fascination as a small piece of the bread seems to disconnect itself from the rest of the loaf and float through the air to dip itself in the cream. The piece of bread seems to hang in the air, growing smaller a little bit at a time, as if some invisible person were taking tiny bites out of it. I turn toward Aidan, opening my mouth to remark on this to him, but he is acting as though nothing at all strange is happening, his eyes fixed on the spot just beyond the floating piece of bread, as though he could see the invisible person eating it, and he continues his conversation. To me, only able to hear his half of it, it sound strange, like the one-sided snatches of conversation one hears when listening to someone else talk on the phone.

“Ashlynn called me over here,” Aidan says, “because she thought there might be a ghost in the house.

I watch as—the first piece of bread now gone—another piece of bread tears itself off from the loaf and dips itself into the cream.

“Not really,” Aidan says, “but I can see and talk to them, just like I can to you, so she thought I might be able to help her out. Only it wasn’t a ghost, was it? It was you who hid things and broke the plates and tore the pages out of that book. What did you tear the pages out for, by the way? Were you just playing another trick, or did you need them for something?”

“I can understand why you might be angry about this place being remodeled,” Aidan continues. “You ended up developing ties to the house, rather than the family, didn’t you? That’s why you stayed here even after they left, and you’ve had this place to your own for a few years now. Ms. Peters told me this place had been empty for a while before she bought it. You’ve done a good job taking care of it.”

Aidan nods understandingly. “I know; it’s nice to have your own secret place in a house, isn’t it? A place that only you know about; a place you can hide your special things, or a place you can go to when you want to be alone, or when you need to be safe.”

Aidan smiles, and, perhaps it is my imagination, but I think that I catch a hint of sadness in the smile as well. “The first thing I do whenever I get placed in a new house is to look for a spot like that. So, over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding all the little secret spots in a place. That’s how I managed to find your hiding place here.”

“I don’t think you should be so quick to make them your enemies,” Aidan says. “If Ms. Peters hadn’t bought this place, it would have been demolished completely, and I think there were plans to put in a parking garage. Ms. Peters appreciates this place the way it is; she only wants to make enough adjustments so that people can live here again. Of the two, I would say this is the option in your best interests. If you cooperate with her, things will go better for everyone. Ashlynn can’t see like I can,” he says, gesturing toward me, “but she believes, and I bet if you wrote her notes she would be willing to take your suggestions. Now that she knows who to thank for taking care of this place, she might even start leaving you some signs of her appreciation,” he gestures towards the bread and cream.

There is silence for a long moment, and I would wonder if whoever Aidan was talking to has gone away, except that his eyes are still fixed on the same spot, waiting patiently as if expecting an answer. I am torn between fascination with this half-heard conversation—it seems my “ghost” may have actually been a brownie-turned-boggart—and frustration with the fact that I have no role in the negotiations, even though this is my house.

Finally, there must have been an answer, because Aidan nods and smiles. “I’m sure there won’t be any problems like that.”

Aidan nods, turning serious again. “I thought I felt another presence here, when I was walking around outside the house, but I didn’t have the chance to investigate thoroughly. Where is it?”

“In the well?” Aidan says, as if repeating the phrase. “What kind of creature is it? The sort that likes blood?”

The sort that likes blood? I shiver. How can he say things like that so matter-of-factly?

A pause, while Aidan seems to be listening carefully. Then he nods. “I understand. All right, we’ll leave you in peace for now.”

“It’s a brownie, isn’t it?” I ask when Aidan turns to me, anxious to show that I know at least something about supernatural matters.

Aidan nods. “I don’t think you’ll have any more problems from him, as long as you mostly focus on cleaning the house and refurnishing it, rather than making any big changes to the layout of the place. He says there’s something else we need to worry about here, though. Apparently, there’s something living in the old well, the one the workers uncovered a few weeks ago. From what he says, it’s something fairly dangerous, and it’s been eating small animals—squirrels, seagulls, possibly a few dogs. On the way to your house, I noticed an abnormal number of missing pet notices. It’s probably trying to build up its strength so it can do something bigger.” He pauses. “You might want to have that well sealed back up.”

I shake my head. “Closing the thing up would only be a temporary solution. Isn’t there some way we could get rid of it?”

He frowns. “I’ll have to research this a bit, and I need to be at the house tomorrow and Sunday, to help out with chores, but I’ll come back here after school Monday and see what I can do.”

I nod. “Alright.” I hold out my hand, and we shake on it. His hand is warm, and his grip is surprisingly firm. Back then, I bet if I had asked him to be friends, he would have said yes. I drop his hand and mentally shake myself. You’re the one who hurt him, remember? You’re the one who pushed him away. You have no right to feel anything toward him besides guilt and regret. “I’ll see you Monday,” I say, getting up and heading to bed before either of us can say anything else.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

I end up having to stay late after school Monday, and when I got back to the house, Aidan is already there. He is behind the house, consulting a book and making marks on the ground. I come up to him just as he finishes drawing a large circle on the ground in the area which used to be the kitchen garden. Dropping the stick, he starts rummaging in his backpack.

“Don’t step over it,” he says as I come towards him. “If you want to come into the circle, you need to go through there.” He points and I see that there is a gap in the line of the circle (so that it is really more like a U but with a smaller gap). I obey and he hands me a box of kitchen salt. “Here, pour this in the groove, but be careful not to get any in the gap. Also, stay on the inside or the outside—don’t even reach across the line.” He continues to rummage in the backpack, pulling out first a large black urn with a lid, and then a plastic grocery bag. From the grocery bag he takes out two packages of ground beef. Tearing open the first package, he squeezes the meat between his hands, letting the blood run onto the ground and soak into the soil. He walks around, covering the ground inside the circle with blood.

“What are you doing?” I ask. “It looks like you’re preparing to summon a demon or something.” I have a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, and for the first time I wonder if I was wrong to call him out here, if I was wrong about the kind of person that he is. Believing in ghosts and fairies is one thing, but it doesn’t’ mean I want to be involved in some kind of witchcraft.

He puts down the lump of squashed meat in the center of the circle and opens the other package. “It’s not so much a summoning as a dinner invitation,” he says, moving out through the gap in the circle and walking toward the old well, leaving a trail of blood behind him as he went, “and, hopefully, a trap. It’s not a demon either,” he says, “or at least I don’t think so. Demons are embodiments of dark emotions: fear, anger, jealousy, etc. A demon wouldn’t have any interest in eating squirrels or dogs, or in ground beef. I’m guessing that it’s probably some monster that started living in the well when it was abandoned and is angry that people have come and messed up its house; or it’s some sort of evil spirit that was sealed in the well and has now been set free; or it might be a water spirit—perhaps the spirit of the well—that’s been contaminated, in that case, it will probably be more interested in the blood than the meat.” He has made his way all the way to the well by the time he finishes talking and he now starts back toward the circle, making small balls of ground beef, and laying them along the path of blood as he goes.

“So, how exactly does this trap work?” I ask. I’ve already finished pouring salt around the circumference of the circle and am sitting on the grass outside it with the salt box on the ground beside me.

“Well,” he says, smiling, “it’s not a particularly refined or complicated plan. The idea is that the monster will follow the trail to circle. Once the monster is inside the circle, I’ll need you to close it off by extending the line across the opening and filling in the gap with salt. Then I’ll try to trap the monster inside this jar.” He points at the large black urn. “We’ll seal the lid on using this:” he gestures toward a battery-powered hotplate and a bowl containing what looks like a large lump of wax that he had pulled out of the backpack during his earlier rummaging.

I look at the urn and the wax doubtfully. “Is that really going to be enough to hold it?” I ask.

He nods. “I think so. The pot has protective symbols written all over it, and the lid as well. I made it in art class—I’m in Sculpture and Ceramics I—as my culture pot. I thought having something like this might come in handy.”

I briefly reflect on the kind of person who makes a jar for catching monsters as a project for art class. Then my mind shifts back to the thing that it’s supposed to be focused on: the task at hand. “What about the wax?” I ask, looking at it doubtfully. “Is it really going to be enough to keep the lid on with a monster pushing on it?”

“I think so.” He’s busy cleaning off his hands with hand sanitizer and a wad of fast-food napkins. As he wipes the blood off his hands, I notice for the first time that he has a Band-Aid on his right index finger. “I put pieces of Communion wafer all through it, so it should be pretty strong against supernatural things.”

Again, I feel mildly shocked, trying to imagine someone taking some of the Host from the church and using it against monsters. It seems somewhat sacrilegious, but thinking about it I remember that Van Helsing did a similar thing in Dracula, using the Host against the vampires, and when I read it I had not seen that act as sacrilege. When I glance back over at Aidan, I see that he has taken the Band-Aid off his finger, revealing a small cut which—now that the Band-Aid has been removed—is bleeding. He has removed the lid and is running his finger around the rim of the urn, coating it with a thin layer of blood.

“What are you doing?”

He glances up briefly, then turns back to the urn, moving his finger over the mouth of the container and squeezing it so that blood drips into the urn’s interior. “I’m providing an incentive for the monster to go into the jar,” he says. “According to what the brownie said, it should be attracted to blood, and things that are attracted to blood tend to be especially attracted to my blood.”

Personally, I feel like that remark deserves more explanation, but he’s already moving on.

“Really, it would be best if all of this was my blood,” he says, gesturing toward the circle and the path leading to the well, “but I didn’t like the idea of cutting myself to get it.” He smiles again. “I happened to cut my finger opening a can yesterday, and it hasn’t fully healed yet, so hopefully we’ll at least have enough of my blood to get the monster into the jar.”

“What now?” I ask, when he finishes with the urn.

Aidan looks over at the well, then up at the sky. The sun has just started to dip closer to the horizon, but there is still at least an hour of good daylight left. “It probably doesn’t like to come out in the daytime,” he says, as if half talking to himself, “but we’ll need the light to work with. This might be close enough, though, for it to come out if I can get it angry.”

“Get it angry?” Maybe it’s just me, but somehow that doesn’t seem like a good idea. Does he even know what he’s doing? My stomach begins to tie itself into knots. What have I gotten myself into?

Aidan nods and starts to collect the rocks and pebbles that litter the yard. “I’ll just give it a bit of an incentive to come out.” He throws a rock at the well. “Hey!” He shouts, so loud that I jump. “I know you’re in there. Come on out and get me!” He throws the other rocks at the well, one by one. Most of them just hit the side, but a few of the pebbles skitter over the edge and fall down into the hole. “Come on!” He yells, grabbing some more rocks and stepping closer to the well. “You like blood, don’t you? Why don’t you come out and try mine? You hate having people mess with you, right? Come out and make me go away!” He throws a few more rocks at the well. A particularly large one goes over the edge, and I can hear it hitting the sides of the well as it goes down. Tonk, tonk, tonk, tonk, and then silence. Aidan freezes, and I can see his mouth briefly form an “O,” staring at the mouth of the well. I follow his gaze, but I can see nothing out of the ordinary.

Aidan drops the rocks he has been pelting the well with and starts sprinting toward the circle, a look of fear and tension on his face which seems incongruous to the situation. At far as I can see, there is nothing threatening here, only a ripple in the grass like a slight breeze. The balls of meat on the ground remain completely undisturbed. Then he is inside the circle, shouting at me to finish drawing the circle and fill it with salt. I pick up the stick and scratch in the rest of the line, then slosh the salt over it, catching his tension in spite of myself.

So far, it’s looked surprisingly unbelievable, like something form a movie or a dream, or watching a child play at being chased by a monster. Yet as soon as the circle is completed, I can suddenly see the reason that Aidan was acting so urgent. Inside the circle with him is a huge dark shape made of what looks like thick smoke, and as I watch it coalesces into a monster, a creature with long misshapen limbs like half-burnt tree branches that end in sharp claws. It has no eyes, but large nostrils flare at the end of its snout as it sniffs the air, and a vast mouth opens revealing rows of teeth like shards of broken glass. In the first shock of seeing it, I leap back and almost drop the box of salt.

In this moment I realize, for the first time, the difference between believing in something and living it.

I watch, gape-mouthed, like an idiot while the monster lunges at Aidan, teeth gnashing, claws raking the air. He ducks and dodges between its legs, grabbing a handful of the raw meat, he flings it at the creature’s back, and it jerks around as the meat bursts against its skin. I can see it snort in annoyance, but there is no sound. Then it lunges at him again. Aidan ducks and dodges, throwing meat and kicking up dirt, his attacks seeming to have no effect beyond making the creature angrier. Is he provoking it on purpose? Why? The creature makes another lunge and its claws scratch his shoulder, tearing the fabric of the sweater. I see Aidan wince, but I cannot tell if he is bleeding. Then the creature is on top of him, and the two of them are a blur of claws, teeth, and flailing limbs. Aidan must be fighting back with surprising success, because the creature does not immediately shred him to pieces as I had expected. They move too quickly for me to really see what is happening, but I can tell that though the creature slashes at Aidan with its claws and snaps at him with its teeth, the blows seem to fall mostly on his arms and legs, as he shields his head and torso, and every now and then the creature jerks slightly as if he had landed a blow in return. At one point, Aidan pushes the creature away from him with enough force that it falls backwards, but instead of falling onto the ground, half-in and half-out of the circle, it seems to strike an invisible barrier in the air at the edge of the circle and bounces back, as if the line we had marked was actually a glass wall. In the brief moment of reprieve, I can see Aidan bent part-way over, panting, lines of red seeping through the slashes in his clothes. Then it is on top of him again, their two bodies transformed into a battling blur that moves around the circle, ricocheting off the sides. I stay frozen in my spot, still clutching the salt box, transfixed by the sight of what is occurring. I’m standing still, but I can feel my heart beating like a rabbit’s. The drama in the circle plays without sound, as if the barrier blocks the passage of everything but light. At last the movement within the circle slows, and I hold my breath, half-expecting to see Aidan on his last legs, about to be eaten. Instead, as they come into focus, I see Aidan standing above the open urn, trying to shove the creature into it with both hands. The thing has reverted back to its shadowy state, and I have to fight back a laugh as I am struck by the ridiculousness of what looks like a person trying to stuff smoke in a container. Although Aidan seems to have the upper hand, the creature is still putting up a great deal of a fight, sending out smoky claw-tipped tendrils that slash at his arms and face as he leans over the urn. Even after it is completely inside the urn and Aidan has pressed the lid down on top of it, it continues to fight back, rocking the urn back and forth, so that Aidan has to half-lay on top of the lid to hold it closed. He turns towards me, his mouth moving as if he were shouting something, but there is no sound. For a moment I stare at him in confusion, then with a start I remember. The wax! I was supposed to heat it! I put down the saltbox and hurry over to dump the wax into the bowl on the hotplate, turning up the heat to melt it. I glance up at Aidan helplessly, biting my lip as I switch my attention between his struggles with the urn and the slowly heating wax. I’m such an idiot! How could I just stand there watching when he was counting on me to do this! What if that thing gets back out of the urn because I’m taking too long in getting the wax to him? Finally the wax is semi-liquid. I snatch the bowl from the hotplate, too desperate to worry about hurting my fingers, and run towards the circle. When I reach the edge of the circle, however, I strike the invisible barrier and bounce back, barely managing to keep the wax from spilling. I look at Aidan, his whole body tense, completely focused on the struggling urn, and bite my lip in frustration.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” I snatch up a stick from the ground and scratch at the edge of the circle, then scuff at the line with my sneaker until it is blurred and the salt scattered. There is a feeling like my ears popping, and I can suddenly hear Aidan’s heavy breathing and the sound of the urn thumping itself against the ground. I rush to Aidan’s side, holding out the bowl of wax. I’ve never done anything like this, and I want to pass the task off to him, but he obviously has his hands too full with the urn to handle anything else. I still have the stick in my hand, and now I dip it in the wax, using it to smear a layer of wax around the crack between the lip of the urn and the lid. When I finish the first layer, I add a second, then a third, but Aidan puts out a hand to stop me before I can do anything more.

“The top,” he says, gesturing, and steps back so I can pour the rest of the wax onto the top of the lid, watching as it drips down to cover the sides. The urn has stopped rocking, and is now standing completely still, giving no sign that there is a monster inside it.

Aidan flops down on the grass, his chest heaving as he gasps for breath, and I sink down beside him, sucking my burnt fingers. Neither of us speaks. My mind is still grappling with what I have just witnessed, trying to make sense of the events which have just occurred.

“What was that thing?” I’m trying to think back to all the fairytales and legends I’ve ever read, but I can come up with nothing that would be a match for what I have just seen.

He shakes his head, still breathing hard. “No idea. …Troll?”

“That thing was terrifying. And to think that it was in our well,” I shiver. I look at the urn: lumpy and slightly lopsided, it looks like nothing more than a B- Freshman art project. “I can’t believe you made that in Ceramics class.” Or rather, I can’t believe that an urn someone made in Ceramics class could be strong enough to contain a creature as large and fierce as the one I just saw go into it.

“Yeah.” He smiles.

I turn back to him, my eyes widening. Now that I’m close, I can see how much the monster actually hurt him. There aren’t any scratches on his face and torso, but his sleeves and pants-legs are heavily scratched and blood seeps through the tears in the fabric. “Are you alright?” I ask. It seems like a stupid question, but I don’t know what else to say. “It looks like that thing got you pretty badly.”

He sits up, rummaging again in the backpack to dig out a first-aid kit, then pushes back his sleeves to examine his arms, using napkins to mop up the blood, then cleaning the wounds with antiseptic wipes. “It’s alright,” he says, “most of the cuts are relatively shallow; nothing that would require stitches or anything like that. It was just going by scent, so I managed to dodge a fair amount of the time.” He smears antibiotic cream on the scratches and sticks Band-Aids on the smaller ones, using gauze and bandages for some of the larger cuts.

I want to help him, but he seems to be handling everything so well on his own that it feels awkward to offer, so I just sit there and watch him. I had not noticed earlier, because of all the new scratches, but now that the blood is cleaned up and the wounds covered, I see that his arms are crisscrossed with the pale lines of old scars.

“Honestly, I’m glad it wasn’t any worse,” he says, rolling up his pants to start on his legs. “I’ve never done anything like this before, so I wasn’t sure how everything would turn out. Normally, if I know there’s something like this in the area, I’m trying to avoid it, not seek it out.”

This was the first time he’s done something like this? Then how did he know what to do? Was he just making things up as he went along? And how did he get all of those scars? Do things like this normally just come up to him and attack him? That thing was a troll? I thought trolls only came out at night, or else they got turned into stone. And why did that thing only come after him, and not me? There are so many questions I want to ask that my throat gets clogged with them and nothing comes out. Instead, I stand and start cleaning things up. I don’t know if he has a specific way he likes to pack things, so I just pile everything beside his backpack: the bowl with its reside of wax, the hotplate—checking first to make sure it’s turned off, the book, the box of salt. I hesitate beside the urn. “Can I pick this up?”

He glances up from applying Band-Aids to his legs (there are fewer scratches there than on his arms, but still plenty). “I hope so. I’m not sure how heavy it will be, but hopefully it won’t be too hard to lift, or I won’t be able to carry it.”

I stifle a sound of exasperation. “I mean, is it okay for me to touch it?”

“It should be. The urn’s made to keep whatever’s inside from getting out, so it shouldn’t be able to hurt you, and it’s not like you can mess it up just by touching it.”

“Alright.” I put my arms around the urn and lift it, surprised at its lightness. After Aidan’s words, I had almost expected it to be heavy, but it feels as if there was nothing at all inside it. If I had not just seen the monster enter it, I would have assumed the urn was empty. I feel a momentary temptation to break the seal and open the lid to check, but I resist it, instead walking over to the backpack and setting the urn down beside it.

“What now?” I ask as Aidan finishes his legs and puts the first aid kit back in the backpack.

“Now we just have to get rid of the trap before it attracts anything else,” he says. He picks up the grocery bag and starts scooping the raw meat off the ground and putting it into the bag.   As he moves, he scuffs the ground with his shoes to get rid of the symbols in the dirt. “When I’ve cleared the area, go back over it and pour salt on it,” he says, “to purify it. That should keep other things from coming over out of curiosity.” He makes his way along the path of blood to the well, picking up the balls of meat as he goes. Reaching the edge of the well, he peers down into it. “This is dry, right? You might want to pour some salt down here too, to keep anything else from deciding to come and live in it. Or you might just want to fill it in.”

“Thank you,” I can’t look at him when I say it, so I keep my eyes focused on the salt that I’m pouring. “You’re pretty good at this,” I add, continuing to talk just to fill the silence, to make my expression of gratitude seem less intimate and personal. “Maybe you should do this sort of thing more often, even make a business out of it, like Ghostbusters.”

I can tell by the way his shoulders stiffen that it’s the wrong thing to say. He’s silent for a moment, and then he says, as if he’s choosing his words carefully, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

My mind goes back to 6th grade, to the kids taunting and teasing him, “Weirdo,” “He’s crazy,” then, like always, I hear my own voice “There’s no way I could like a freak like him!” I’m sorry. But I can’t say it now any more than I could then. “Oh,” I manage, lamely, and change the subject. “What are you going to do with the monster?”

He frowns. “I suppose I’ll have to find a place to release it. It will get angry if I keep it in the urn too long, and it would be bad if the urn broke and it got out by mistake. I’ll have to find a place where there aren’t many people, and where there are some abandoned constructions or some caves that aren’t inhabited.” He pauses for a moment, thinking. “Maybe I could get Ms. Thompson—my social worker—to bring me up to the mountains to visit Granny’s grave. I might be able to drop it off somewhere up there.”

“Ok.” I’m not sure what else to say. The salt box is empty now, and I occupy myself with flattening it out to put in the recycling. Aidan comes over and starts repacking his backpack. It’s over. The words repeat themselves in my head like a warning or a lament. It’s over, and he’s going away, and even if I see him at school, it won’t be the same. I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I have to say it now, I tell myself. I’ll never get a chance like this again. “I’m sorry.” I have to say it. I have to tell him. Otherwise it’ll be on my conscience forever. I clear my throat once, twice. “You can stay for dinner if you want,” I offer.

He shakes his head. “Thank you, but I should get back to the house and change before anyone else comes home. It would be bad for people to see me like this,” he gestures at his torn and bloody clothes.

“Right.” I nod, feeling like an idiot. I clear my throat again. “Well…I guess I’ll see you around.”

He smiles. “I hope so.” He walks away down the street and is gone.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper to the grass-stained tips of my sneakers.

 

 

Left, King Size – Olivia Buck

    “Do you mind if I lay out next to you?”

    Jordan squinted against the sun at the silhouetted figure looking down at her. The woman had on an expensive looking white bathing suit that contrasted deeply against her tanned skin. Her highlighted hair was styled to perfection, and settled gracefully against her collarbone. She had a white towel under one arm and a cone of strawberry ice-cream in her hand.

    “Sure, make yourself at home,” Jordan said absentmindedly, and turned her attention back towards the waves crashing on the shore. She had spent the afternoon on the beach, watching the families building sand castles and playing in the waves. The horizon seemed to stretch on forever, as if no stint of land existed beyond the beach that she was currently occupying.  Jordan heard the woman roll out her towel and gingerly lower herself to ground level.

    “I’m Glenda Fischer,” the woman offered, breaking the silence.

    “Hi,” Jordan said, her attention still focused on the water, “My name is Jordan. Jordan Burke.”

    “Pleasure to meet you Jordan,” Glenda’s voice carried the same inflections that Jordan had heard before in those her mother in law would describe as ‘old money’. “Are you here with your husband?”

    Jordan followed Glenda’s gaze and noticed that the rather sizable diamond on her left hand was still sparkling, though grains of wet sand stuck to its surface. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

    “Oh, now, that’s romantic!” Glenda simpered. “How long have you been married?”

    “Six years.”

    “Oh my!” Glenda sounded surprised. “You all must have gotten married very young, you don’t look older than twenty five.”

    “I was nineteen when we met, and a few months later we were married.” Jordan said simply.

    “That’s two whole years younger than I am now!” Glenda said, and Jordan couldn’t help but hearing an envious edge to her tone. She glanced over and saw Glenda licking at the cone of ice cream. Glenda followed Jordan’s gaze and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry about this mess. I passed the stand and saw that there was only enough strawberry ice cream for one person and I simply had to have it.”

    “I suppose it would taste better if you’re the only one who can taste it.”

    “Couldn’t have said it better, Jordan,” Glenda paused. “I myself have been engaged for two years.”

    “Hmm.” Jordan turned her gaze back to the sea.

    “Yes, two years, to the biggest flirt in Manhattan,” Glenda continued as if Jordan had asked for the details. “He was almost a little bit of a ‘play-boy’ before he met me.” She giggled like a school girl.

    “What changed his mind?”

    “He told me that he took one look at me and decided that I was the girl for him.”

    “Was he cut off or something?” Jordan looked at Glenda again, to see how she would react to the quip.

    Glenda gasped, and then laughed outright. “You’re very to the point, Jordan. I like that,” Glenda paused to lick at her melting ice cream. “We should be friends.”

    Jordan said nothing, only started tracing the grains of sand beneath them. She gathered up a fistful, and let the sand cascade through her fingertips. Then she did it again. And again.

    Glenda cleared her throat. “Do you have any children?”

    “One.”

    “Oh, how nice,” the faux-interest in Glenda’s voice was palpable. “How old is it?”

    Jordan fought the urge to roll her eyes. “He’s six,” she said. “His name is Sam, Sam Burke.”  

    “Is he a very nice boy?”’

    Jordan gathered that Glenda’s idea of a nice boy was one who was excruciatingly well behaved, knew which fork to use for the fish and which one to use for dessert, and carried around a silk handkerchief in his pocket. “He’s curious. So full of questions,” Jordan paused. “He has the curliest hair you’ve ever seen, looks as if he’d stuck his fork in an electrical socket.” Jordan felt herself smile genuinely for the first time during the conversation.

    “Oh, the dear!” Glenda said sweetly. “Is he here with you and your husband?” she made a show of scanning the shore, as if she could pick out a boy she had never seen before from the throngs of children playing in the waves.

    “No, we decided to take this trip for ourselves.” Well, Miles had decided to take the trip for ‘both of them’.

    “Oh.” Glenda stopped.

    “Are you here with your fiance?” Jordan forced herself to dutifully carry on the chatter.

    “Oh yes!” Glenda perked up. “Seymour’s around here somewhere, probably at the bar, no doubt. You know men.”

    “Yes, I do know men.” Jordan said softly.

    “I’m just so envious of you, Jordan,” Glenda rattled on, oblivious to the change in Jordan’s tone. “I mean, I feel as though I’ve been waiting my whole life for my marriage to begin, and here you are, years into your own marriage, and still taking romantic trips with your husband. Your life is enchanting.”

    Silence hung between them.

    “Yes, romantic trips,” Jordan echoed Glenda’s tone, but had trouble keeping the distaste out of her tone. “We’ll be headed back to Brooklyn this weekend.”

    “Oh. That’s where you live?”

    “Yes, in a loft near the island.”

    “What a charming place.” Glenda’s voice made it clear that she thought the exact opposite. Jordan would be surprised if Glenda had taken one step out of the Upper East Side.  “I hardly ever go west of Fifth but—“

    Jordan felt her brewing annoyance arrive at a boiling point and suddenly she was on her feet. “Listen, it’s been really nice to meet you.” She brushed the still wet sand from her legs and swung an arm down to pick up the towel she had been sitting on. “I really should go inside and meet my husband for dinner.”

    “Oh,” Glenda stood up too, making sure to keep her precious ice cream balanced. “Yes, Jordan, darling, this has been quite the fortunate encounter I think.” She pulled her, to Jordan’s chagrin, into a loose embrace. “Let’s have dinner together, please, and you can tell me more about your life in Brooklyn. I want to meet that husband of yours too. Do you have plans for tomorrow afternoon?”

    Jordan winced at the prospect of having to spend both an evening and an afternoon with the creature in front of her. “Well—“

    “Good. Seymour and I have signed up for a sailing lesson, and it would be divine if you and your husband would join us,” Glenda looked Jordan up and down, sizing up the differences between them. Where Jordan was pale and fragile looking, Glenda was tanned and shapely, her hair impeccably coiffed and her nails perfectly manicured. Jordan curled her fingers into fists in order to hide her bitten down stubs. She remembered when she had been able to wear a bathing suit like that, remembered when her life had been easy and bright. “We should meet at the bar tomorrow for a few rounds before the lesson. Say, one o’clock?”

    Jordan forced her face into a smile. “Until then.” Jordan turned around and walked away, digging the front of her feet into the sand, then kicking it up with each step. Glenda Fischer. Jordan shook her head. A panting trophy wife if there ever was one. That is, if her play-boy husband ever decided to actually marry her. She had almost lost track of the number of fake toothy smiles that Glenda had flashed.

    A child’s squeal distracted her as a little boy and girl blew past, running without hesitation towards the crashing waves of the shoreline. Her eyes went to other children on the beach, their toddling steps leaving tiny footprints in their wake. She thought about the first time she and Miles had taken Sam to the beach, nearly three years ago, and remembered the bright yellow bathing suit Sam had worn and how they had laughingly made sandcastles that more closely resembled sand mounds. How Miles had let them bury the lower half of his body in the sand. Though the memory felt sweet for a moment, she quickly felt her dried up heart return to its regular pulsating rhythm, and turned her attention back down at the ground. Life was enchanting, wasn’t it?

    She made her way back across the sand and towards the stately resort where they were staying. Cumberland Island had originally been home of the Carnegie family, a place where they could invite other obscenely wealthy people to drink and dance and bathe in the sunlight and in their own opulence. She imagined what splendor the old building must have once possessed, before it had been converted into a resort that allowed people like her and Miles to stay there. Well, before people like her were permitted to stay there. Miles’ Connecticut relatives would probably have been welcome no matter what decade it was, due to their ‘old-money’ status. This was their world. Jordan sighed and found herself wistfully thinking of her family’s loft in Brooklyn, of the rain that saturated the streets, the gutter water shining when the sun finally came out through the clouds and the smog. She folded Miles’ shirt more tightly around her figure and allowed the attendant to open the great glass doors that led inside. She had convinced Miles to live in Brooklyn, where she had been raised, but in an expensive, spacious loft. Another compromise.

    The lobby of the hotel had polished white marble floors, and smelled like a mixture of fresh seafood (from the restaurant across the room) and the few dozen fine colognes lingering behind the guests. A grand piano stood in the very center of the room, the player’s hands moving quickly across the keys. The room reminded her of the foyer in her in-law’s house, all the surfaces gleaming, not an object out of place, designed to create an untouchable type of atmosphere. Expensive original paintings lined the walls, each one clad in an over-the-top ornate gold frame. She shuddered, and focused her gaze instead on the elevators located to the right of the reception desk. The elevator attendant pressed the ‘up’ button on the panel next to the gold-plated doors. They slid open without a sound, and Jordan stepped into the elevator.

    “What floor, Madame?” another attendant inside the elevator asked.

    “Number six, please.”

    The ride up was completely silent, as Jordan had learned from even a few days here that the attendants preferred not to be chatted with. This worked just fine, as Jordan didn’t feel much like chatting these days. Barry Manilow sang a throaty ballad as Jordan and the attendant avoided each other’s eyes. The elevator halted with the a gentle rocking, and the doors slid open to reveal the long, painstakingly clean hallway. Room number 611, at the end of the hall. She walked barefoot, feeling the thick carpet between her toes as she made her way inside.

    “Jordan?” Miles’ voice called out. Jordan dropped her sandy towel on a nearby armchair and opened the door to the bedroom. Inside, Miles was buttoning his white dress shirt, the king-sized bed immaculately made, not the rumpled mess that she had left it in. “There you are,” Miles crossed the room and kissed her on the forehead. He had only recently started kissing her there. “Dinner’s in about twenty minutes, you’d better hurry if you want to be ready.”

    “Miles, can’t we go home?” Jordan asked, surprising herself with the urgency in her own voice. She shrugged his shirt off of her shoulders and watched it crumple on the ground. Silence  seemed to echo between them before Miles finally spoke.

    “What do you mean?”

    “I miss home,” Jordan said quietly, still staring at the wrinkles forming in the pressed linen. Miles picked the shirt up, shook it out, and placed it on one of the heavy wooden hangers in the closet across from the bathroom.

    “Jordan, this place is good for us,” Miles said, not looking at her. “It’s warm, the people are kind, the staff is attentive,”

    “I know,” Jordan said, now reaching to unhook her bathing suit. The clingy fabric was stifling.

    “We agreed this would be good for us,” Miles continued, pleadingly. Though he kept insisting that the place was good for both of them, she had the feeling that what he really meant was that it was a good place for her. He was always making decisions based on that. Jordan said nothing, and he changed the topic of conversation. “So I spoke with my mother today.”

    “Oh good,” Jordan rolled her eyes, and realized how juvenile she must look. It was hard to help feeling juvenile when she thought of Miles’ mother, a perfect picture of matching pantsuits and double stranded pearls. She looked like a first lady in training. The woman was all judgmental glares and backhanded compliments. “What did she say?”

    “She wants us to go down for Christmas,” Miles said, turning his attention towards the mirror across from the bed. He finished buttoning his shirt, and opened the drawer of the dresser, producing a cornflower silk tie. He tied it in his usual square knot, and then spent a moment adjusting it so that it it hung perfectly straight against the buttons of his shirt. When Jordan still said nothing, he turned towards her and looked directly at her for the first time. “What do you think?”

    “Does it matter?”

    “I’m asking, aren’t I?”

    “Miles, I’m tired. I want to take a shower. You should go ahead and go down to dinner, save me a place, I’ll join you in a minute.” Jordan turned on her heel and walked towards the bathroom door.

    “Jordan, please, what can I do?” Miles followed her into the tiled room, closing the door behind them. “You haven’t seen her in nearly four years, she’s just about sick with worry.”

    “Sick with worry.”

    “Yes. About us, and about you, and about Sam.”

    “Mhmm,” Jordan peeled the suit from her body and started gathering her toiletries from the bag on the counter. His mother, she was willing to bet, had called only with concern for him and his ‘sick’ relationship with his ‘sick’ wife. She had made her disapproval of her son’s marriage very clear from the beginning.  

    “I’m just saying, I want to see my family. Both of them, together. These years have been difficult but I think they’re about to get better, and we should try to establish some kind of routine. After all you’ve been doing better lately, haven’t had an episode in—”

    “You hate routine.”

    “I hated routine when I was twenty one, out of college and in the city for the first time,” Miles countered, placing himself between Jordan and the bathtub. “I only want to be a normal family.”

    “Oh, and it’s my fault that we’re not a goddamned normal family.” Jordan tried to step past him, only to have Miles move in front of her again. She felt the familiar heat in her cheeks and change in her pulse that surfaced whenever she argued with Miles about this.

    “I didn’t say that did I? I only mean that— well— I—” He stopped, unable to find the words. “Sam should see his grandparents more, who knows how much longer they will even be here?”

    Jordan merely nodded. Sam saw his grandparents enough. She could feel herself getting worked up inside, and felt her mind drying out like a flower pressed into the pages of a book. “Miles, please, I only want to shower and get changed, can’t this wait until after dinner?”

    Miles straightened up. “I feel like this has been boiling over for the past three years,” he reached out and touched her shoulder. She remembered when his touch used to make her shiver. Now it felt cold. “I want to talk about it Jordan, I’m tired of this— this—“

    “Miles, for Christ’s sake, go downstairs.” Jordan moved away from his touch, folding her arms across her chest until she could stroke her shoulder blades with her hands. “There’s a couple waiting for us to sit with them, and then to go sailing tomorrow. You’ll probably get along with them just fine.” the bitterness in her tone made both of them wince.

    “Fine, Jordan, fine.” Miles moved away, and stepped towards the door. His gait was stalking, angry, like their six year old’s was when he had been scolded. “This conversation isn’t over though, not this time. And remember to take your damned pill before you come down. I noticed you forgot it this morning.” his tone was tired, carefully controlled. He had learned to control his vocal level years ago, even if his actions were still hostile. The door opened and slammed shut again, rattling the cosmetic bottles on the counter.

    Jordan stepped into the shower and turned the knob all the way over to the hot side. The scalding water poured out of the faucet, and she allowed herself to feel wet again. She stood like that, hands ridged by her sides for a few minutes, and then quietly crumpled until she was on her knees, the water leaving trails all over her body. She remembered how beautiful Miles was when she had seen him for the first time, the only indication of his status being a watch given to him for his graduation, dutifully worn ever since. She remembered how she had felt when he touched her legs, her hair, kissed her goodnight. Sam had his wide, optimistic eyes, or at least, the eyes he had back when they first met. Now Miles’ had faded into a worn version of their original  color. Sam’s warm smile belonged to Miles too, and Jordan felt tears in her eyes when she thought of him. She began to rock back and forth, like a pendulum in a clock, swinging over the years they had shared together. Back before the pressures and the ‘episodes’. Images flashed before her eyes, the children on the beach, Sam’s curly hair, Glenda Fischer’s shining manicured nails, glazed over with melted strawberry ice cream. The hot sand on the bottom of her thighs, how the waves seemed to crash and then recede, crash and then recede, never giving the shoreline a moment’s peace. Tiny footprints in the sand, toddling steps running towards the chaos, unafraid of what might greet them when they finally got there. Jordan shut her eyes. Life was enchanting, life was enchanting.

    Her eyes opened and she stayed in the shower until the water turned cold. After a few moments of feeling the frigid drops, she stood up and shut it off. She stepped over the rim of the tub and walked out of the bathroom, stark naked, her skin tattooed with angry water marks. She paused and looked at herself in the full length mirror in front of the bed. There had been a moment when she had been blissfully happy. The kind of happiness that was hard to build a fence around. Something had clicked, something had moved, though, and now the moments of happiness felt lost in the constant emptiness. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples with her hands. It was impossible to pinpoint the exact point when she had lost sight of herself. She thought of Sam and Miles’ family and Miles and Miles and Miles—she needed to get out.

    Opening the closet, she took out the first dress she touched, and pulled it over her still-damp body. She tore a brush through her dark hair, and slipped on a pair of well-worn walking shoes. The old dress she had unintentionally selected hung loose over her frame. She remembered when she filled it out. She remembered when the blue color of it hadn’t seemed faded and when the seams of the skirt hadn’t had strings trailing away the hemline. She was a little girl playing dress up. She eyed the huge bed in the center of the room. Absurd, that it was only meant for two little people. Her eyes flashed to the bedside table, and she saw that Miles had set out the little yellow bottle with her name on the side. She picked it up, and felt the tablets crashing against the sides. She placed it under Miles’ pillow on the right side of the bed. They used to sleep tangled together, in the very center. Over the past few years, a wall had been built down the middle of the mattress, with Miles on the right and her on the left, left to keep to herself. Opening the drawer of the side table, she picked up his keys and the valet ticket. Miles had picked out the rental car, and Jordan furrowed her brow when she remembered his choice. A tiny, sleek sporty thing, fit for a normal family to vacation in.

    She crossed the room and went down the hallway. This time, she pressed the down button herself, and then the ‘L’ button herself, ignoring the resentful glance of the attendants. After the short ride, and she floated across the gleaming lobby and pushed open the great glass doors. She took a last look at all the pantsuits and double strand pearls and listened as the sonata played by the pianist hung against the walls. Jordan reminisced about the Carnegie’s shack on the beach as she stepped out into the warm evening, the sun just barely having made it across the horizon line. She pictured driving thirty miles over across the highway, chasing the path of the sun, disappearing over the land along with it. She smiled, and her pace quickened as she put more and more distance between herself and the resort, herself and Miles, herself and this nothing of a place. She crossed the parking lot without looking back, humming along as to the sweet piano chords that still rang in her ears.

Man and Cat – Paul Thompson

Man and Cat

     There is a man sitting in a room. A cat is also in that room. Notice, I did not say, “A man is sitting in a room with a cat.” No. The cat’s location is not subject to the man’s. The cat is his own entity. He goes where he wants, and is there under his own volition. The man does not enter the room with the same intent as the cat. The man has more reasons to be anywhere else.

     The man, seeking responsibility (or so he thinks), procures a kitten. In the early stages of this strange fate, the man makes sure to employ all the knowledge of kitten ownership that he can find (by this, I mean he just did a Google search and clicked on the fourth or fifth source, which was probably a website that looked slightly unofficial but was easy to use). The first fact he read was this:

DISPLAYS OF AFFECTION

  • If you’re wondering why your kitten is showing you its sphincter, don’t worry! According to research, cats flash their anuses as a way of showing you that they’re comfortable with you!

     The man, understandably upset with the concept of any living thing flashing its anus at him, begins to regularly observe the cat with a slight disgust; completely forgetful of the initial split-second skepticism experienced when reading the incredibly vague phrase “According to research.” According to research, [PROCEED TO STATE ANYTHING].

     Quite predictably, the man becomes entirely too fixated on this piece of information, and two weeks later, quite unpredictably exclaims, “He showed me his anus! He showed me his anus!” to a group of once-close friends, following the cat’s unintentional ‘DISPLAY OF AFFECTION.”

     The cat cannot leave. Yet he is constrained only by his size.

     The man cannot leave. He knows that if he leaves and walks down the street, his forehead will shine and the wind will grab ahold of his hair and reveal his (admittedly too-early) receding hairline, which is awful and hideous and makes his head look grossly incongruent, and he will sweat throughout the humidity of the day and his glasses (which contain a strong prescription and an annoyingly obstructive scratch on the left lens) will make his eyes small and birdlike and his face will look too flat, based on the way the light bends through the thick lens on the glasses, which also sit unevenly on his face and are only knurly enough to where it kind of just barely pisses you off when you look at them.

     Both the man and the cat enjoy tuna. They even alternate bites from an outstretched fork.

     The man scratches the cat’s chin. The cat purrs. The cat scratches the man’s arm. The man bleeds.

     The man scans his own reflection in the dirty mirror, pouring over his blemishes and patchy facial hair and bulbous nose, and wonders, to himself, what the girl upstairs (who reminds him, on a visceral level, of the wonderfully exhausting summers he spent playing badminton and hide-and-seek in a cramped and humid backyard on the wrong side of Long Island, NY) must have thought when he told her she looked nice today. She had smiled and said thank you. Yet the man cannot shake the hypothesis that she secretly believed he was implying that she looked comparatively better today than every day previous. He fears that such a small, intended pleasantry could likely have been interpreted as a trite banality; an admission of the fact that he’d been scrutinizing her appearance.

     The cat centers himself in a room full of humans, stretches his leg over his head, and proceeds to lick his balls for a full ninety seconds.

     A cardinal sitting on the fence outside catches the attention of the cat, who instinctively lowers his head and issues guttural, clicking noises in frustration. If the window, which the man leaves unobstructed for the cat every day, were open, there would be nothing to stop the cat from taking the life of the cardinal in the most brutally natural way. Yet the cat remains indoors. Stock-still. Waiting for the glass window to dissolve. Waiting for the cardinal to divert his attention to a centipede or worm or seed, giving the cat just enough time to spring forward with an absolute disregard for his own falling path, catching the cardinal between his outstretched paws just as the cardinal takes flight, the cat’s rear haunches thudding into the gravel below, rocks and dust flying outward and settling slowly and gently, juxtaposing a serene precipitation of earth around a scene of utter carnage; red feathers strewn amongst the dirt. The cat waits.

     If only. If only the man had spent his hours reading and writing and learning music and watching documentaries and absorbing headlines and cooking and exercising and experimenting instead of going to birthday parties and family reunions and playing countless hours of seemingly endless and expansive online video games and rolling crooked, loose little Zig-Zag joints and smoking them incognito on the uppermost levels of a nearby parking deck. If only he had talked to someone. If only he had signaled for help. If only he had communicated to someone how he felt. How he felt like he was being slowly sucked into an enormous cyclone of a storm. How he had a recurring daydream of laying quietly in a small, wooden sailboat, drifting into the void of a dark ocean, allowing the currents to guide his fate; simply surrendering himself to a greater ebb and flow just so long as it went slowly and peacefully. Just so long as he wasn’t caught in a torrential downpour. Just so long as he could remain alone, in the boat, wrapped in the softest linen, safe and dry.

     The memory of this very dream flashes across the mind of the man as he lies, spread-eagle, on the floor of his dusty living room; his head resting on the bottom of his tattered couch, his limbs stretching out across the stains of unknown origin that somehow continue to appear without conscious witness. The man is racked with an unnerving and idiopathic headache. He tries his best to simply focus on the sound of the coffee maker, which emits the all-too- recognizable whirling, dripping, coughing sounds – sounds that he had heard in his youth, when on the off-chance he would hear his grandparents going about their rising rituals at wee hours that just seem ungodly to him now. The man, seeing only darkness and eye-floaters, can feel the cat sniffing his forehead, and the man anticipates a lick. But it never comes. The cat moves on, disinterested.

     As the man leans over the exposed motherboard, the desk lamp shines intensely down on the components, and his glasses, from the right angle, are filled with a brilliant, iridescent jade. The man is prone to capricious outbursts when doing these types of tedious repairs, particularly when the cat seems so hell-bent on knowing just what the man seems to find so goddamn interesting. The cat jumps. The man drops the tiny screw into a tight crevice. The man let’s out a jarring “FUCK” as he stands and scoops up the cat, turning and hurling the cat, in one motion, toward the bed, restraining himself just enough to control the cat’s trajectory. The cat lands with a muted dup-dup onto the piled pillows, immediately making a hasty exit with special intensity.

     The man sits in the shower, his head resting on his arms, which are folded over his knees. He lets the water drown his scalp and neck, running along the contours of his face and down and off in a torrent to the shower floor, between his feet. The cat, in a curious fashion, continues his investigation of the shower with routine commitment. He probes the edge of the shower curtain, alternating touches with his paw and his snout. The man, feeling the curtain touch his arm, speaks aloud without raising his head. “What do you want? Huh?” The cat continues his prodding. The man raises and turns his head, grabbing the cat’s paw. The cat jerks backward, freeing himself. He shakes his paw. He sniffs it and licks it. He is not pleased.

     On the days when rain is falling in huge, fat sploshes, the man does his utmost to shield himself from the onslaught of moisture when he leaves his apartment. He pulls the hood of his raincoat as far over his head as possible. The water runs off mere inches from his forehead. Every time he walks anywhere in the rain, the water somehow manages to collect in a lower fold of his raincoat, and inevitably he always corrects and smooths this fold, which means the water drops and soaks his thighs around his groin, and for the rest of the day the man is wet and uncomfortable and slightly irritated. And he knows that however long his pants take to dry is an irrelevant piece of information, considering he will soon have to return home, repeating the process all over again.

     The cat, in the man’s absence, lies curled on the bed. The soft patter of the rain lulls him to sleep. His belly rises and falls. He is warm and content.

     The man returns homes from an evening spent with the girl upstairs. He is upset. She is not what he expected her to be. He can’t purge the thought that he had already known this. In reality, he hadn’t, and now he feels isolated and alone and anxious and the first thing he does when he returns home is resume his usual position on the floor. The cat sniffs his hand. The man lifts his head and looks at the cat, and all at once is filled with gratitude. “Cat” he says, “You are the only constant I have in this world. Do you know that?” The cat paces for a few feet and then sits, gazing at the man. “I love you, kitty.” The cat continues to stare blankly. The man, suddenly remembering another “DISPLAY OF AFFECTION,” blinks very slowly, making sure to maintain eye contact with the cat. The cat looks away. “Hey!” says the man. The cat looks at him once again. The man blinks slowly. The cat returns the blink. The man is pleased.

     The rain is falling still. It will continue forever. The man is sleeping, his head resting on his pillow, his arms tucked underneath him. The cat is sleeping, his body resting in between the man’s legs. Here now, they lie, man and cat, the man dreaming of the sailboat, the cat dreaming of the man.

Davey’s Day – Justin Chandler

“Ichabod! Ichabod! Ichabod!”

“Ich’bod! Ich’bod!”

“Hello boys and girls, welcome to my Tree House! Adventures await us today, so let’s get climbing!”

Ichabod, facing a plethora of smiling children sitting excitedly in rows of seats, sat cross-legged in a tree house setting crafted onto a sound stage, eager to entertain his studio audience. Strapped with a backpack, blazing blond hair, and the adventurous attire of khaki pants, a red mountain-climbing jacket crisp in appearance, and a lime green staff, Ichabod was not the most conventionally dressed individual, especially for a children’s performer. Yet, he captured the children’s attention with little effort.

Over two thousand miles away, a young child in overalls sipped quickly on a glass of juice, with his blue eyes glued to the television screen. He stared at Ichabod eagerly anticipating his next move, as the blond-haired icon cracked clean jokes with the kids, who were roaring with laughter. The boy saw the entire stage set up: the makeshift tree house, the green screen attached to the missing wall in the back of the tree house where Ichabod would run from lions and tigers and bears in his many escapades. The lush, green vegetation artificially surrounding the stage and, once the camera panned to the audience, the bright lights overseeing the padded seats and multiple LED television screens for all vantage points.

Unbeknownst to the boy, his audience position was much less glamorous.

While Ichabod filled the children’s hearts with joy in the Golden State of California, the boy lived in a place that never touched gold; Lowndesville, South Carolina. There was no tree house for him to explore in, only a trailer in need of desperate repair, on the outside with peeling white paint and grim bricks, and the inside with faucets playing music with dripping water. The television, the pathway for the boy between California and Lowndesville, was far from LED; his viewing came from a CRT model, a callback to 1997 and far from the luxuries of the 21st century. His seating was comfortable to him with a few pillows leaned against the sofa, but still not the studio seats his peers were using. Yet, the boy didn’t care, or rather he was unaware of the contrast, being at the tender age of four.

“You ready for your burger, Day-Day?” a voice echoed from the kitchen.

The voice came from the boy’s father, Bruce Conroy, who donned a white undershirt and a pair of ripped blue jeans. He shared his son’s blue eyes, and sported short blonde hair, much shorter than Ichabod’s locks. Bruce sizzled the burger on the skillet, letting the meat cook while whistling a tune.

Davey, hearing his nickname, walked up to his dad, cup in hand.

“Whatcha watching on TV, sport?” Bruce asked warmly.

“Ich’bod!” Davey said with childhood glee.

Ich’bod?”

“Ich’bod!”

Bruce finished cooking Davey’s hamburger and they sat on the lumpy sofa together and turned their attention to the vintage television and Ichabod. The performer had just finished performing a sketch with his assistant, the energetic teenager Binks involving balancing pies on his staff, when he faced the studio audience.

“Say Binks, let’s get to know some of our adventure companions! Who wants to come on stage?”

As if the ceiling was magnetic, dozens of hands shot up into the air, and you could hear the chants of, “Oooh, me, me me!”

“I pick…..you, in the back with the yellow baseball cap! Come on down!” Ichabod exclaimed.

Davey sat up slightly, interested in who was chosen. Bruce, watching with mild curiosity to amuse his son, was also drawn in.

The yellow capped child ran on stage, and Ichabod asked, “What’s your name, young lad?”

“Timmy,” he said with wonder in his voice.

“Where are you from Timmy?”

“Chicago!”

“Chicago, eh? That’s quite a long ways away. What do you want to be when you grow up, Timmy?”

“I wanna be a doctor!”

“A doctor?” Ichabod said. “You want to help people feel better Timmy?”

“Yes! And….the free band-aids,” said little Timmy, causing Ichabod and the audience to chuckle.

“Oh, I’ll need plenty of those after running from the tigers and bears; be sure to have extra!” Ichabod said jokingly. “But Timmy, I believe you can be the best doctor there is, just stay in school and keep making good grades and keep a good heart. Promise?”

“I promise!”

“Let’s give a big hand for Timmy!” Ichabod yelled as the child took his seat.

Watching at home, Bruce couldn’t help but feel a sting in his consciousness at Ichabod’s motivation. Stay in school…he played that in his head repeatedly. He had earned his high school diploma, an accomplishment in itself, but he decided not to go further in his younger days, opting to do odd jobs instead. Nowadays, his income came through unemployment checks that funded the low-rent but low-class trailer he and Davey called home. Bruce was not lazy, far, far from it. On the contrary, he previously worked at the merchandise distribution plant five miles from home, but due to the economic recession, he was cast to the curb unceremoniously. He actively searched for jobs to support his son, but with a diminished education, he could only go so far, and with Davey’s mother Lana no longer in their life, he was the sole breadwinner –relying on unemployment checks and the generous severance package the plant gave him.

Stay in school…

“Kids, we had fun today,” Ichabod started, in his cross-legged position atop the stage again, “but remember that your adventure can come from anywhere, whether it’s here, your home, books, blacktops, with your friends, with your family, anywhere! Your imagination can go anywhere, so explore the whole wide world, and have fun. Goodnight everyone!”

Ichabod’s theme music played as he danced off stage, and the camera panned across the audience of kids, cheering and chanting, “Ichabod! Ichabod!”

“Ich’bod! Ich’bod!” Davey chanted at home.

Bruce smiled at his son’s enjoyment, but he kept his eyes on the audience. He stared at the attire, most in the latest releases from brand name products. Parents accompanied kids, a mixture of professional attire and casual, yet dignified, shirts and dresses. Bruce glanced down at his own rural appearance, and grimaced.

“Ichabod’s Tree House was filmed in front of a live studio audience in SBS Studios in San Diego, California,” the anonymous voiceover clarified at the end credits.

Davey jumped off of the sofa and marched around the room, chanting “Ich’bod! Ich’bod!”

“Ich’bod, Ich’bod, yeah….time to get ready for bed Day-Day,” Bruce said.

“Okay daddy!”

***

Bruce tucked his son into bed and plugged in his night-light, and kissed him on the forehead.

“Goodnight Day, sleep tight. I love you.”

“I love you too, daddy.”

Bruce smiled and headed out of the room, when he heard Davey say softly, “Dad?”

“Yeah, Day-Day?”

“When can we go and see Ich’bod?”

Bruce stopped, and lowered his head. He knew better than to tell his son the bitter truth of their financial situation, so he simply said, “One day, Davey. One day.”

He walked into the hallway and sat on the sofa, hands cradled in his hair. He wants to go see Ichabod…how much do I have? Bruce opened his wallet and looked into the loneliness of its confines. Two twenties, a fifty, three ones, and a coupon for half off on detergent. Not even half enough to buy a ticket. No wonder Lana left six months ago.

He grabbed his lukewarm beer from earlier and took a staggering sip. Cheers, Ichabod. He set the drink back down on top of the wanted section of his newspaper, graffitied to the core with circles, highlights, and underlines of possible jobs with a hefty black marker. Bruce took a few more swigs of his liquid friend, leaned back on the sofa, and propped his feet up on the table in front of him.

Davey….I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry I can’t give you what you want. Bruce let out a sigh of exasperation and stared at his feet. Covering his small feet were two white tube socks, the only new piece of clothing in the house. He bent his toes down and said, “Ichabod. Time for an adventure kids,” in a quiet, childlike voice. He chuckled, partly due to his humor and partly from the alcohol taking effect. “Your adventure can come from anywhere…” Bruce muttered with his toes.

Adventure can come from anywhere.

He sat up, and crossed one leg over the other, examining his toes again. He mimicked the mouth movement again with his toes, saying, “Hello, my name is Tubey. Tubey…..” he looked over at the table and saw a socket wrench he used unsuccessfully to fix the faucet, “Toolbury! And we’re going to have lots of fun times today!”

I’ll be damned, Bruce thought, this is the kinda stuff Davey would love. If I can’t take him to a show….what if I bring the show to him?

He hopped off of the couch ecstatic, with newfound rejuvenation and confidence.

“That’s it! I’ll make my own show for Davey, so he can feel like he’s in San Diego too!”

All he needed was just a set.

***

Morning came quickly, and Davey woke up and yawned. He walked around the inside of the trailer and saw a delicious sight in front of him at the coffee table: scrambled eggs, soft, buttery toast, and apple juice, his favorite breakfast. He scurried to the food quickly and almost began eating his meal when he caught a glimpse of something more surprising in front of him, a box.

A rather large box, used to hold the supplies to build a child-sized bed. However, this box had been modified, with a square hole cut in the center, and the words Tube Town written carefully on the side with a black marker, juxtaposed with pointy grass, tall trees with skinny bases, and a few carefully placed houses with jagged roofs, also created in black. It was conveniently placed in front of the television, with the flaps opened out to finish the four walls of its confines.

“Daddy, where are you?” Davey asked.

“Hello little boy!” a high pitched male voice echoed from the box.

Davey straightened up quickly.

“He…hello?”

“Don’t be scared, little boy,” the voice said. “Welcome to…”

A tube sock rose from the opening of the box.

“…Tube Town!”

The tube sock was rather new in appearance, if not used recently, and anatomically it had asymmetrical eyes with brazen pupils cascaded by caterpillar eyebrows and a wide, circular mouth, all crafted in black.

“Who are you, young breakfast eater?” the tube sock asked.

“D-Davey..” Davey replied, feeling more at ease with the strange visitor.

“Well Davey, I’m Tubey Toolbury! Nice to meet you, I’d shake your hand but…” Tubey rose further out of the box, “I left it back at home!”

Davey started laughing with a childlike innocence, “You’re funny, Tubey.”

“Really, I thought I was funny looking! Oh ho ho!” Tubey bemused.

“Say,” Tubey started, “can I have a piece of that bacon?”

“Sure!” Davey said. He tore off a piece of his bacon and held it out to Tubey, who tried eating.

“Num num num! It’s good, but I guess I left my teeth back at home too. I’d forget my feet if they weren’t attached to me….” he stretched out again, “oops, nevermind!”

“Hahaha,” Davey cracked up again, “you’re like Ich’bod.”

“Ich’bod you say? Can Ich’bod fly?” Tubey zoomed around the inside of the box. “Can he dance like a worm?” Tubey rolled his body akin to a flexing worm.

“Nuh uh,” Davey admitted.

‘Yeah, Tubey is the man! Err, tube sock.” Tubey’s high voice rang out. “But, Davey, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A firefighter,” said Davey.

“A firefighter, you say? Well, Tubey has a hard time cooking in his kitchen, so I may need to see you alot!”

“But,” Tubey continued, “you need to work hard and do your best when you go to school. You’re going to see alot of kids, alot of kids who all want to be different things when they grow up. Some of them you’re gonna get along with, and some maybe not. Just remember what makes you special Davey, and remember that no matter what you want to do when you grow up, your daddy loves you very much.”

“Daddy! Daddy, you gots to see Tubey!” Davey turned from the box and yelled.

“Say, why don’t you show me your favorite toy Davey?” Tubey slyly suggested.

“Okay!” Davey scurried to his room looking for his yo-yo, unaware that the box was starting to rustle. The left flap extended out, and Bruce quickly and quietly sneaked away from the box and into the bathroom, sliding Tubey into the pocket of his jeans. He grabbed a towel from the bottom of the sink and wrapped it around his shoulder.

“It’s a yo-yo, Tubey!” Davey yelled as he hurried back to the box. “Tubey? Where are you?”

Bruce stepped out of the bathroom, pretending to dry his hair and scratching his head.

“Hey, Day-Day, who’s Tubey?” Bruce asked with a small grin.

“Oh he’s from Tube Town, and he forgot his hands and feet, and he’s funny and he can fly and dance, and – “

“Woah whoah, slow down Davey! So he’s like Ichabod?”

“I like Tubey more! Tubey Tubey Tuuubey, Tubey Tubey Tuuubey!” Davey chanted while he marched. “Dad, where’s your sock?”

“Oh, it’s in the laundry machine, don’t worry,” Bruce said. “Wish I could have seen him, but maybe he’ll come around often.”

“Yeah!”

Bruce sat down on the lumpy sofa and looked around. The walls may be peeling, the faucet still dripping, and the money still disappearing, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care about the bright lights and fashion status of San Diego, and he didn’t care about how his life lead to this point. However, he did care about one thing, the most important concept to him.

He made Davey’s day.

Small Game – Joshua Wharton

Small Game

David squatted down on a deck by bags of trash and stacks of firewood, whittling notches in sticks of rhododendron wood. Two sticks lay down, side-by-side, one longer than the other, both pointed with notches in the middle. Another lay, untouched, at his feet while he notched the third stick and tapered its edges. Satisfied with his work, he gathered the other two notched sticks and placed them by the steps. David then grabbed a broom and began cleaning up the wood shavings he had spread across the deck. As he swept, another young man came out of the house holding a cup of coffee. He had just woken up from a nap.

“So you’re actually going to do it,” he asked as he lit a cigarette.

“Yeah, I said I was going to,” David answered.

“Yeah you did. But, that doesn’t always mean you’re going to do it.”

“Well I’m doing it now, aren’t I? Give me a break, Liam.”

“You should just come out with me more often. Eventually you’d get one. I was a bad shot when I first started too,” Liam said.

“It’s not that. I’ve wanted to try this out for a while. It’s just something I want to be able to do. Might come in handy some day.”

“I guess that makes sense. My little brother thought so too. But, it never worked like his book said it would.”

“Who says I’m a bad shot?”

“I don’t know. I’ve just never seen you hit anything.”

“Well you haven’t seen me shoot much.”

“You’ve got a point. Maybe tomorrow we could set up some targets back in the woods a ways. Our neighbors are far enough away that the noise from my .22 probably wouldn’t bother them. The woods go deep enough too. It’d be safe.”

“Maybe later this week. I want to see how this works out first,” David said as he finished sweeping up the wood shavings.

He then began to brush the leaves off of the deck. Liam followed.

“Suit yourself. Where are you going to set it up?” Liam asked.

“Right where our yard ends and the woods start. I want to be able to see it from my window.”

“Do you think the rock is big enough?”

“It will be big enough for what I’m trying to get. But, I’m afraid that one of those cats that’s been getting into our trash will end up under it.”

“What will you do if you catch a cat?” Liam laughed.

“Well the cat will most likely be alive still. At best, he’ll be able to slip out. At worst, it’ll fall perfectly and break its neck. It’ll probably just break a leg or something.”

“What’re you gonna do if that happens?”

“I don’t know. I’ll probably just try to mend its leg. Might have to take it to the vet. Then I’ll make it my cat,” David said.

“That’s funny. Break its leg, heal it, then make the cat yours.”

“Yeah. I didn’t think of it that way. I just doubt the cat will leave after I’ve fed it.”

“True. But you know if the cat dies, you’ll have to eat it,” Liam said as he leaned against the railing of the deck.

“What?”

“Yeah. You gotta use it for something. I’ve never aimed my gun at anything I didn’t plan to use some way.”

“But I’m not trying to kill the cat.”

“It’d be a waste of the cats life if you didn’t. Wouldn’t you be pissed if you were killed by accident? Wouldn’t you want to die knowing at least you served some kinda purpose?” Liam said.

“I guess you’re right. But it’s just a cat.”

“What are the odds you skin it and put the pelt up over the fireplace?” Liam said with a childish grin on his face.

“Not very high. I’ll get back to you with a number if I ever walk up the steps with a dead cat. We’ll see what happens. Either way, at least we won’t have to worry about the cat getting into our trash.”

David finished sweeping right as Liam tossed the butt of his cigarette in the ashtray. He left Liam to his coffee and walked around the house to where the yard met the woods. He surveyed the land. Then, he walked to the left, where the ground was more level, and brushed a few red leaves off of the ground. Once he had a clear plot, he started fitting the notches of the sticks together. The notches didn’t fit as well as he had hoped, but the three sticks still held firm in a figure four when he pushed down on the top. As he held on the point of the four with his left hand, he slid a large, flat rock over with his right. The rock rested perfectly on the four, holding it all together. He stood up, brushed off his hands, and walked back to the house.

“Aren’t you going to need some bait on that?” Liam asked.

“That’s what I’m going to do now. The finishing touches,” David said as his cheeks heated from a pale white to bright red.

“You should have put it on before you put the whole thing up.”

“It’ll be fine.”

     The boy grabbed a jar of peanut butter and a bag of sunflower seeds and walked out. He started to spread the peanut butter on the pointed end of the only horizontal stick of the structure. His spreading caused the figure four to collapse, sending the rock falling onto his hand. A sharp cry escaped from his mouth. He lifted the rock to see his fingers bleeding, already bruised. He made a fist, spread out his fingers, and then looked back through the window into his room. Then, he continued to butter the stick. Once it was coated with sunflower seeds, he set up the figure four again and propped the rock upon it. After sprinkling a few seeds under the rock, he walked inside and washed off his hands with warm water.

     In the morning, he walked to his window and looked for the figure four. It was gone. The rock lay flat on the ground. He grabbed the first pair of pants he saw on the floor. The walls banged with the muffled thud of his shoulder on the wood paneling as he fumbled to get both legs in the pants at once. Running through the living room, he grabbed someone’s jacket that hung by the door and pulled it on.

     “I’d have known if there was a cat under there. That rocks not big enough to hide the whole thing,” David assured himself.

     It had worked. Liam would have to give him a little credit.

     “I may not be a good shot, but I can do other things,” David said to himself.

     He knelt down and slowly lifted up the rock. There was nothing under it but flattened grass smothered in peanut butter and sunflower seeds.

     He looked back towards the house, then at his watch, then at the ground around the rock. He found the three notched sticks, set up the figure four, and propped the rock up on it.

 

Drinking Alone – James Chatham

We meet for drinks at the local “hip” bar. You order an Old Fashioned and I get a beer,
something dark. A porter maybe? You mention that you think beer should be consumed at
home, preferably in the company of men with relaxed blue collars. I tell you that you’re
pretentious and that anyone who orders a drink that comes with fruit shouldn’t be passing
judgement. We agree to disagree.

We’re here on poetry night but we’re really here to drink with purpose. After all, who can
question our drinking habits in a bar full of people? As long as we keep snapping for the poetry,
we can keep knocking ‘em back. The poets aren’t very good. Most of them have written long,
overwrought pieces that veer too far into melodrama to be of any substance, though I imagine
they think that’s all they have. You enjoy the poetry, commenting on the “soul” of reading, how
precision falls by the wayside in the wake of true emotion. I tell you that you’re full of shit but
hold on to your comment all the same.

We decide on an order of cheese curds, opting for a marinara-based sauce as opposed to the
typical white sauce. This is something we agree on, although you manage to sour the moment
with an aside about the imminent cholesterol we’re about to put in our body. I say something
about dying your way and dying my way but you’ve already turned back to the poets on stage,
downing the last drop of your third Old Fashioned.

I offer to get the next round and find myself faced with the inevitable dread of having to push
through the wall of people at the bar. It is later in the evening and the locals have poured in,
edging the college students closer to the stage and leaving me with no familiar faces with which
I can conveniently strike up conversation to grab a seat at the bar. I try to get your attention to
express my irritation but you are fixated on a girl who appears to be reading poetry about a time
she never lived in. I imagine you’ll say something about her being an “old soul” and that it’s
probably a metaphor for something important in her life. I hate you for making me consider this.

I eventually wedge my way between a visibly tipsy girl staring listlessly into her drink and a man
with a face tattoo. He slides to the right to give me some room. The bartender is frantically
making drinks, her backup nonexistent, and I decide then to give her a nice tip. You are typically
more generous than I am in this department but I’m starting to pick up on your idea of karma
and decide some money in the bank can’t hurt. When she finally gets around to where I’m
sitting, I order you an Old Fashioned and a Screwdriver for myself, unsatisfied with how slowly
my beer is performing its intended job. She checks my ID and looks me square in the face,
eventually deciding that I’m not lying about our age. She delivers our drinks, yours in a glass
and mine in an unimpressive plastic cup. I guess I’ll have to stop giving you shit for the night.

You see me returning and say something obnoxious about how I must have gotten lost. I hand
you your drink, ignoring your comment and ask about what I’ve missed. You go on about some
poet who reads all her poems from the perspective of different people that pass by her on her
way to class, each stanza representing a new perspective. I tell you that sounds tiresome and
useless to which you respond with a face that says “Can’t you just like anything?”

You start to wonder if maybe I’m cynical because I resent myself for never mustering up the gall
to write and perform on stage. You have, after all, seen me agonize over never writing and then
watched me immediately pour myself another beer. You’ve wondered for a while if maybe I’m
holding out for a “brilliant idea” that will never come because I’ve simply given up on the idea of
good, original ideas. You feel sorry for me, and then feel a twinge of irritation at yourself for
being presumptuous.

You turn your focus back to the poets on stage, watching me rolling my eyes out of the corner of
your eye. You like the next poet because he doesn’t take himself too seriously and you think that
might be the key to creative success in the modern world. You guess that jumping on the idea of
creative irony now will pay its dividends in the near future, maybe even vaulting you into what
people will call the “voices of our generation” someday. You hope that you can remember to not
be pretentious the next time you write.

I’m sighing frequently and loudly now, picking at the dwindling crumbs of our once warm cheese
curds in an effort to not seem too interested in the disaster happening up on stage. There’s a
new poet and he’s trembling from head to toe, green in every sense of the word. You’re doing
your best to remain still, hoping that your lack of motion will encourage him. But you’ve started
snapping at the wrong times and it’s throwing him off his game, causing him to tremble even
more and fuck up his lines.

I decide now is a good time to go to the bathroom, draining the rest of my drink and walking
behind the audience, careful to avoid fucking up this poor guy’s performance any more. The
bathroom is blessedly quiet and I take a moment to savor it, checking my face in the mirror
because it’s there, an activity you’ve scolded me for in the past. You’re looking back at me now,
your face softer than mine ever has been. All the taut rigidity and tension normally reserved for
our interactions with others sheds in favor of a genial, if somewhat sad, expression of honesty.
None of the self-loathing is present, instead replaced by a sense of numb optimism, hoping for
the best but placing it on the back burner for now.

I take care of business and return to our table where you’ve struck up conversation with a friend
of ours. She beams when she sees me, noting how long it’s been and how we should catch up.
We agree and make vague plans for “the future” and “lunch.” You’ll want to go and I’ll want to
find an excuse not to. I worry that she feels sorry for me for drinking alone. You say I shouldn’t
worry so much.

We’re nearing the end of the first round of poets and I’m itching for a cigarette. You say we have
three left and we agree to share one. When the last poet finishes his piece, we hurry out the
front door, nabbing a seat at one of the wooden tables. We’re joined by a few friends who have
been watching the show on the other side of the room and you’re rapidly discussing which poets
you liked and which poets you thought “needed work” while I slowly drag on our cigarette. By
the second drag, you’ve become a voice in the background. By the sixth, you’ve reduced your
voice to a whisper. By the tenth, your throat is closing up. You barely acknowledge the burning
end nearing the filter and by the time you look my way, it’s already finished.

Stream of Consciousness 12.5 – Jacob Meyer

I break a bottle over your head sent like a half-empty epiphany from god. The lightbulb above your head lights up for the first time and it glows bright in the darkness of this parking lot. You’re on the ground, lightbulb horizontal, and knocked the fuck out. I take out your wallet from your back pocket and rifle through the contents. Some gift cards, a business card or two, a driver’s license, twelve dollars in cash, and a photo of a woman. I kick you in the ribs lightly to make sure you were still out and pull out the photo of the woman. I turn you over and and stuff the twelve dollars into your mouth, singles and all. I return the wallet sans the twelve dollars and the photo. You’re not a handsome man, I observe, I wonder why she loves you, or rather, loved you, as the case may be. I bet she smells nice, something like heaven and lemons, calling back to the feeling of coming up on a high, when there’s nothing on the planet that could ruin the moment shared. A single breath and it’s over, a whiff that sends me home.