2019 Creative Writing Award Winners
Lois C. Bruner Creative Nonfiction Award
The entries were judged by Toni Jensen.
Toni Jensen is the author of Carry, a memoir-in-essays about gun violence, forthcoming from Ballantine. Her essays and stories have been published in journals such as Orion, Catapult and Ecotone, and have been anthologized widely. Her story collection, From the Hilltop, was published through the Native Storiers Series at the University of Nebraska Press. She teaches in the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas and in the Low Residency MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is Métis.
- First Place is Marissa Purdum with her story The Dog Days
On the story Jensen says: Marissa Purdum’s “The Dog Days” is a vivid, heart-wrenching account of her time as a homeless youth. Though the story itself is compelling, it’s Purdum’sexecution of the story that makes it so—from watching her teddy bear be auctioned off, to the loss of her dog, each moment is rendered through clear-eyed details.
- Second Place is Marcus Sweeten with his story A Dose Of Change
On the story Jensen says: Marcus Sweeten’s “A Dose of Change” looks straight at the experience of first love and first loss. Sweeten gives each scene, each moment through distinct scenes. In particular, the pool scene is lush and memorable for its language.
- Third Place is Kendrick Keller with his story Flight
On the story Jensen says: Kendrick Keller’s “Flight” puts in motion everyday and also extraordinary experiences. The scenes move so well, and the language used to describe the college experience make each scene feel like something new, something strange but familiar.
Cordell Larner Award in Fiction
The entries were judged by Brandon Hobson.
Brandon Hobson is the author of the novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, which was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction and winner of the Reading the West Book Award. His other books include the novels Deep Ellum and Desolation of Avenues Untold. His work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize anthology, The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, Conjunctions, NOON, Post Road, and in many other places. Beginning in fall 2019, he will be an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at New Mexico State University. Hobson is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma.
- First Place is Adam Norris with his story Cheap Rubber Mulch
On the story Hobson says: I really loved the dialogue and playfulness in the prose. The writer maintains an urgency by being innovative with form. Great work.
- Second Place is Angelique Herrera with her story Hush Hush
On the story Hobson says: I loved the sense of conflict right from the beginning. The writer was able to keep a consistent sense of immediacy and conflict throughout the story.
- Third Place is Brandon Williams with his story End Measured Mile
On the story Hobson says: I loved the prose here. Really beautiful writing, and very strong dialogue. Also, the pacing was really nice, which is very hard to do well; this writer succeeded.
Cordell Larner Award in Poetry
The entries were judged by Justin Bigos.
Justin Bigos is the author of the poetry collection Mad River (Gold Wake, 2017), which was a finalist for the Emily Dickinson/Poetry Foundation First Book Award; as well as the chapbook Twenty Thousand Pigeons (iO, 2014). His poems, stories, essays, and interviews with poets appear in publications including New England Review, The Seattle Review, Ploughshares, Southern Indiana Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Rumpus, and The Best American Short Stories 2015. Justin cofounded and coedits the literary magazine Waxwing. He has recently joined the faculty of the MFA Program in Writing & Publishing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and makes his home in Barre, VT.
- First Place is Eric Short with his poems You’re Old Country Now, The Drinking Game, & Speak To Us On Freedom
On the poem Bigos says: Eric Short’s poems look so hard at the world that the world looks back–and speaks: an America whose past and present overlap in “a hundred Missouri spring thunderstorms,” the revving and belching of ” ’91 Pontiac Grand Prixs” and Beavis and Butthead, and the oily beads of sweat rolling down a glass during a drinking game. These poems are not things merely seen, but visions.
- Second Place is Marcus Sweeten with his poems Zerzan & 102 E. Clay
On the poem Bigos says: Marcus Sweeten’s portraiture and self-portraiture collide and spark and flare in these beautiful poems of longing, conflagrations my mind cannot stamp out. They are nothing less than ars poetica and ekphrasis in the ancient traditions, and I salute them.
- Third Place is Janae Imeri with her poems The Puppeteer And The Puppet & Train Of Thought
On the poem Bigos says: Janae Imeri’s dreamy nostalgia has a rare honesty to it, a raw tenderness, an ache. And it is shaped into lyrics so particular to this poet’s experience that, paradoxically, we feel their hot breath on our necks as if they were our own. In these poems I feel nothing less than wonder.
View these submissions in Elements 2019 (pdf)
(On the web):
“The Dog Days”
Imagine the beginning of the summer of 2009, about a year and a half after the Great Recession had started. Imagine a small city, about 25,000 people, in the southeast corner of Iowa called Burlington. Imagine a duplex, split top floor and bottom. Both the top and bottom had the same layout. The living and dining room were connected to a small room. Then that room connected to a hallway which had the kitchen, bathroom, and two bed rooms branching off of that.
Now imagine a twelve-year-old girl, brown hair, blue-green eyes with a family that consisted of a jobless mom with the same hair and same eyes, and a golden retriever puppy, named Pumpkin, living on the top floor of the duplex. The bottom floor housed my grandma, who also was the landlord. The last day of school was finished and now it was time for summer. It was also time for me to leave my childhood home forever.
My mom was packing up the last few boxes into our blue Chevy Impala as I was sitting on the wooden floors of my old room. With a small knife in hand, I carved my name, along with the words ‘Fuck you’ and ‘Bitch’, into the floorboards, right where my bed was once. I looked at my handiwork and I didn’t feel bad. I felt vulnerable, like this naked, white room. Everything that was in this room was already in the storage shed my mom had rented. However, we weren’t leaving on our own accord. My grandma decided to sell the duplex and move into a new house, so she was kicking us out. I never understood why she decided to leave me and my mom homeless and I still don’t.
I had just gotten up and hid the knife in a box when my mom came in.
“Hey, I’ll get the last few boxes into the car. Why don’t you take Pumpkin for a walk in the park?”
I nodded and asked, “Alright. Is the leash still next to the door?”
She shook her head and her expression changed from calm to sorrow.
“No, I packed it up. Take her,” she paused, “and lose her.”
I clenched my jaw. I knew what she wanted me to do. She expected me to walk around until she ran away from me, and then I come back home, without her.
I nodded to her. “C’mon, Pumpkin. Let’s go.” Then me and my dog went outside and walked across the street to Perkins Park.
Perkins Park was a relatively small park. The playground was filled with kids plying, so I directed Pumpkin away from them. I didn’t want her running off to one of them. Eventually I came upon a random bush, so I stopped behind it with Pumpkin.
“Oh sweetheart,” I hugged her and cried into her light golden fur. “I don’t want to leave you here.”
She nuzzled me in response. Pumpkin had always been smart like that. She picked up on a lot, and this scenario was one of them. I think she knew that this was meant to be goodbye. I sat there crying into her shoulder for around thirty minutes, and she didn’t move an inch. That’s how I knew I couldn’t lose her yet, so I told myself I needed to compose myself before I returned home.
I wiped the last tears from my eyes and said, “Alright, Pumpkin. Let’s go.” I started to walk back and close by my heels, the dog I loved so much followed.
We had been camping for a month now at Geode State Park, since it was all we could afford. This campsite in the middle of nowhere was our new home since we were kicked out. Our campsite rested under the shade of this big oak tree, which we used to tie up Pumpkin. We had a pretty large orange tent that had three sections. The middle section was our living room, and the two smaller side wings were our changing room and bedroom. We had a totally of four folding chairs, two outside and two in the living room. Our campsite also included a fire pit with a iron grill attachment. We were trying to come up with creative foods to roast over a campfire, such as bacon or grilled cheese. However, most days we ate hot dogs and cheap burgers.
In order to shower, my mom and I would drive into town and walk into the hospital. Geode normally does have showers, but during that summer they were closed for maintenance, so we had to make the drive into town. My mom had worked there once upon a time, so she knew where the hospital’s family shower was located. The shower was a privilege that we allowed ourselves every three days. There, I would shower first, in a small, blue tiled shower stall. I would dry off then get out and wait for my mom to take her turn. During this time, I often thought of my childhood home. The one I ached to live in again. The home where I etched her name into the floorboards to claim the house as my own.
My thoughts were interrupted by my mom’s shower ending. We would then return to the campsite because Pumpkin was there. Once back at the campsite, my mom would turn on the radio, and we would both sit singing to “I Gotta Feeling’” by the Black Eyed Peas or “Fire Burning” by Sean Kingston in the blistering hot sun. When we got tired of doing that, we would play whatever card games we had on hand, which was usually either Skip-Bo or Crazy Eights. Sometimes we would explore the trails with Pumpkin, but after awhile of that, it became older than hearing the same songs on the radio five times a day. It was a boring existence, but at least I still had my best friend, Pumpkin.
The summer of ‘09 had brought a lot of changes. When we first moved out of the duplex, we had rented a storage unit for all of our belongings. However, as the summer continued, we could no longer afford to rent the storage unit anymore. So, all of our things were locked up and out of reach. Not only were our possessions locked up, but the cheap storage unit that we had rented was at the bottom of a hill, and every time it rained, it flooded. So I thought everything was ruined by the water.
During the summer of ’10, in the heat of July, an auction was taking place at the storage unit faculty where our things once resided. So my mom and I decided to go to see if any of our stuff had survived.
When we arrived, there were over a hundred people there, hopping from one unit to the next looking for their next hidden treasure.
“Mom! Look!” I pointed into one of the units. It wasn’t our unit but I recognized my pink stuffed animal dog named Mama along with a few of my other stuffed animals and my baby blanket. That gave me hope that some of our other stuff survived the flooding as well. We ended up finding a lot of our old VHS tapes, our old TV stand, and some more blankets.
“Next item up for bid is a couple of stuffed animals with a blanket. Who wants to start the bid with a dollar? Do I hear a dollar?” said the auctioneer.
I looked at my mom with pleading eyes.
My mom raised her card to bid.
“A dollar over there, do I hear two?”
A man and his wife raised their card next. And thus the bidding war commenced.
One by one, my personal possessions were sold to the highest bidder. My mom tried to bid on some of the items, but the price was always too high. When everything was sold and the auction was over, my mom and I walked away empty handed. I wondered why it seemed like everything I cared about always became “lost”.
The end of the summer of ’09 neared and it was also the time for a new chapter of my story. We were packing up our summertime campsite because we had to move on due to the new school year approaching and the cold weather. So, my mom did what she had to do. She got a hotel room for me that night, so I could rest comfortably while she went and started her new job at a weed killer factory. Then the next day we were going to live with the cruel woman who had made them homeless in the first place, my grandma. She was reluctant to let us stay with her, but she knew we were desperate, so she agreed to let us stay at her house.
Once we were in town, my mom pulled into a neighborhood a block away from the hotel. It was a small and quiet neighborhood where little to no traffic ventured.
She stopped in the middle of the street. I was so confused as to why we were there.
“Let her out,” she said, referring to Pumpkin. She refused to make eye contact with me.
“What?” I asked in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought we were taking her with us.
“Let her out and take off her collar.”
I paused for a brief moment before I got out. I opened the back door and rubbed behind Pumpkin’s ears then kissed her forehead goodbye. I removed her collar, then got out of the way so she could jump out.
“Hurry up and get back in,” my mom ordered.
I close the back door and hopped in quickly. My mom immediately drove off. I looked back and saw her running after us. Then she stopped to sniff something on the ground as we turned the corner. That was the last time I ever saw her.
Then I started to bawl. It was an ugly cry, complete with gulps and gasps as I tried to catch my breath between my screaming cries. As my mom pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, I was still bawling. This was the first time my heart was broken.
“You need to stop crying. I can’t leave you in here bawling while I go get the room key,” my mom said.
That only made me want to cry harder, but I slowly choked it down. She went inside, by herself, to get the key then we went up to our room. The lonely bed was draped in a dark red blanket. Once we were settled, my mom got ready for work and left. As soon as she was gone, I stood by the window for hours, hoping to see Pumpkin run down that street and find me. When it turned dark, I gave up my spot next to the window and went to bed, accepting defeat. I never got my gold trophy back. Instead, my consolation prize was crying myself to sleep in the fetal position as I gripped my best friend’s collar.
“A Dose of Change”
I stole $35 from my mom. It was just sitting on the kitchen counter, left out like a steaming hot pie or some damp dishes set out to dry. I needed the money to buy Valium and some weed. I was a good kid, I promise. I would have bought the drugs myself if I had a job or a source of income, but I was just a little punk if I am being honest. Later I would cop to stealing the money and she would kick my ass. I had planned to leave that detail out of the story because it doesn’t necessarily fit the grand narrative, but I guess every point of conflict needs a resolution.
You could have called me a kid on a mission. I was goal-oriented. I hurriedly bought a single pill of Valium and a few joints from a dealer who lived a few blocks away. My plan was to split the pill with my girlfriend and maybe smoke a little with her. Later, this will turn out to be the last time I will see her. No, not for the reason you think. She didn’t overdose or anything. She was actually going to college — Columbia, in fact — on a full-ride.
For the sake of conversation, let’s say her name was AJ. You know, protect the names of the innocent and all that shit. Her parents immigrated to America from Poland and they had just recently within the last year moved to my town from Chicago. She was the most darling person I had ever met. I was utterly fascinated with her. Her hair was thick and dyed black and had faint curls that slightly danced when she moved her head. Her pale skin never burned and would always reflected in my eyes as if I were a deer caught in the high beams of a semi. Glasses rested on her nose that would just faintly obscure her green eyes from me. Which was probably a good thing, because I would have devoured them like candy. Her nose slightly protruded and so did her chin. It made her beauty more unique, though some of the bullies in school said it made her look like a witch. They were just typical Polish features, I figured. I was just so utterly captivated by her.
She was so smart, obviously so since she was leaving for Columbia. Every word she spoke enlightened me. The accent she had developed from her parents was so cute that it hurt. She would always stumble on her words and smile with a tint of frustration. Her smile, God, her smile, made my heart skip beats at a time. I was madly in love with her. A love that was intensified by my age. I was only sixteen. While I had just gotten my license, she was going to a prestigious university in New York cost-free.
I was her first love, too. Other guys never saw what I saw, at least up to that point. She was the new cute girl at school who kept to herself and would always wear the shirts of bands that I loved. I always saw here roaming around in the hallway, diverting attention from herself. I knew I had to talk to her. Soon we befriended and I took every opportunity to learn everything about her. She used to tremble and shake when she talked to me, partly because she shared the same fascination with me, but also because she was inexperienced with guys and her father damaged her. He was a miserable bastard. An incorrigible drunk that her mother never had the heart to divorce. He used to hit AJ. He defiled her. He robbed her of the recognition of her beauty. She was a sight that was too gorgeous for even me to bear, yet her trauma often controlled her. If I had ever had half-the-mind, I would have shot that motherfucker for what he did to her. But that would have complicated everything, rather than solve any problem.
If there was ever a thing as a soul mate, then I suppose she would have been mine. And, on a humid summer day in August, I decided that the best farewell to AJ that I could think of was to get high as hell with her. We would smoke pot together from time to time, but I hadn’t ever done any other drug. I did a little research on Valium and I thought that it was safe enough for us to try. She had always expressed interest in doing drugs with me. So what better method of parting ways than to be utterly vulnerable together on a drug we had both never tried?
I walked to her house with a ziplock-bag full of the drugs in my pocket. I had to jump the fence into her backyard. Her parents were at work, but I had to sneak around or else I ran the risk of catching the attention of her neighbors. They would have ratted me out to her parents. Her parents didn’t really like me at all. To them, I was just some punk kid whose hair was too long. They thought I wasn’t worthy of her because she was smart and had a future and I was just some poor kid. They thought I was some sort of exotic attraction to AJ that she would soon outgrow. We would always just sneak around together. It made everything more fun, like our love was forbidden or something.
I sat on her patio in the backyard and stared into her outdoor underground pool. Her parents were more well off than mine. The $35 I had stolen from my mom was what A.J.’s mother made in an hour. It was a nice pool, but sort of unkempt. There would always be loose strands of leaves floating and maybe a few bugs who had succumbed to the elements and drowned. The water was crystal clear, despite those blemishes.
I sent her a text that I was in her backyard. Readily enough and without much hesitation, the backdoor porch had swung open. There she was: my love. Sometimes I would have to do double-takes when I caught glimpses of her, just to make sure she was real. Her hair was in a bun. She was wearing loose shorts and a tight Joy Division shirt that showed off the wondrous shape of her body. I have always been told that it was impolite to stare, but I must have missed the memo with AJ. Gladly she didn’t mind being admired.
Her resting face was always full of anguish. Though when she saw me and our eyes caught each other, her smile would radiate the world and could make even the grayest of skies emit the sun’s rays. Despite the beautiful August weather, it was her gaze that laid upon me that felt more intense than the sun.
“Hey!” I excitedly said, probably with the biggest of grins on my face. “I’ve got the stuff, do you want to do it now?”
“Sure, Marcus,” She said, grabbing my hand and taking me to the edge of the pool. She had a really cute way of saying my name. She pronounced it like “Mardkoose.” Like I said before, her accent was unapologetically Polish and just added to my admiration of her. She sat down at the edge of the pool, submerging her heavenly legs and her bare feet inside the water. “Join me!” She said with a small giggle. Of course I had to oblige. I took my off my shoes and socks, and I sat right beside her. She placed her hand on my lap and her head rested on my shoulder. The most serene scenes that I could ever possibly imagine were when I was able to spend my time with her.
I took out the bag and was hit with the spicy smell of sativa. The joints fell into my hand with grace, though the pill took some coaxing to get out. I held the pill in my hand. It’s blue color and its solid state was so intimidating. I placed it near the edge of the pool, along with the joints. I had an exacto knife in my pocket that I intended to use to split the pill with her. The pill was 10mg, probably enough to put a horse to sleep. I was afraid that if I had gotten two 10mg pills and gave one to her that, with her small frame, only 5’4,’’ maybe 120 lbs., she would get knocked out for like fifteen hours. So, I decided splitting it would be the most effective option. It wasn’t easy to split the pill open, but after some trouble, I was able to cut it in half. Some of the pill’s coating came off, looking like grains of baby blue sand right near the edge of the pool.
“Okay, here goes nothing, right?” I say as I give half of the of pill to my beloved AJ as if it were an offering.
“Right,” A.J. replied. She was very confident, calm, and collected in her response. I would like to think that the confidence came through her association with me and that I was able to give her the strength she had to conquer the world, but I don’t really know if all of that is true. She grabbed the pill with her left hand, refusing her right hand to leave my thigh.
We downed the pill together. She did it with ease. It was damn-near a graceful display. On the other hand, I struggled with mine. The jagged edge got stuck in my throat and I had to hit my chest a few times in order for it to go down. I joked with AJ, saying that I should have used the pool water to help it go down. She laughed and said something to the effect of the chlorine not being the worst thing I had put in my body.
It didn’t take long to feel the effects. Within the first thirty or forty minutes, I was already feeling very spacey. It’s a very powerful depressant. AJ was feeling it too. It was like a wave of nothingness descended upon us. Everything felt absent and vacant. It was too relaxing, honestly. It was uncomfortable to realize that I was not control of myself and that my inhibitions were so decreased that I had no desire to do anything or to be anything. It was extremely hard for me to breathe. I would like to think that it was symbolic of a death wish that we were beside a pool and that I had planned on smoking. We very easily could have drowned and if I had smoked it would have deprived me oxygen. Though it wasn’t necessarily symbolism for our self-destruction at all. We just wanted to get high together in a beautiful place. That beautiful place just happened to harbor danger. It was all worth it to sit beside AJ and to hear the water run against our legs as we swayed our tangled legs, entwined in the water.
“Marcus,” AJ murmured, absentmindedly. “I don’t know if we can keep seeing each other when I move.” Her words would have wounded me if I were sober. Rather, the words haunted me like a specter. Sometimes I hear those words, even today. They linger in my brain. Sometimes I wake up to the faint sound of her crying, even though there is no one in my room. Maybe the wind from the window reminds me of her, I don’t exactly know.
She was sobbing into my shoulder. I would have been crying too, but the pool had enough water. I wasn’t able to cry because I wasn’t myself anymore. I wasn’t the person that A.J. helped sprout with her admiration and I wasn’t normal because my brain was out of sync with my body.
“I’m really sorry, Marcus,” AJ sobbed into me. I can only assume that was what she said, because her accent and the Valium made her borderline unintelligible. “I still want you in my life. I will message you all the time and video chat. It’s just, such a transition that I am not prepared for.”
“You don’t have to lie to me,” Is what I would have said, if I hadn’t been absent within my own mind. But my words were never able to come out. I understood her fully. She wanted to move on and I was just an anchor. She wanted the freedom to experience New York and Columbia without worrying about me. I knew this day was coming. I just didn’t want to it to happen. Maybe that is where the drugs come in. I don’t really know. It’s hard to explain because it is hard to understand.
“Stop crying. You’re fine, dear.” I managed to somehow muster those words. I pulled her closer into my arms and she nuzzled her head into my chest. I could smell the flowered fragrance in her hair. Rather than being enamored by it, it replaced the air in my lungs as I struggled to breathe. Suddenly, I staggered to my feet. AJ slumped over to the cement as I was her only support. My arms and my legs were heavy. Moving was taxing, but I had found a different motivation.
“Do you want to go for a swim?” I asked with a massive slur. I pulled my shirt off and threw it at her, which aroused a giggle from my watery-eyed star-crossed lover. I kept my khaki shorts on as I sat down beside her and gently positioned myself in the pool. The water was shrill and cold. My breath was only coming in spurts now, but I was happy. I wanted to make the most out of these final moments with AJ.
“I don’t know about that, Marcus,” AJ said within a haze. I gently splashed the water at her, soaking her shirt and her shorts. She laughed again. I realized at that moment that her happiness was what I had been living for.
“Okay, I’m coming,” AJ conceded in what I could assume would have been a hurry had the drug not intoxicated her. She pulled up her shirt and threw it behind her, exposing her stomach and a black bra. I can still trace the outline of her body just from memory. I don’t know if I will ever become that great of a writer to truly convey her beauty.
I moved towards her as she was still sitting with her legs in the pool. When I got to her, her legs wrapped around me as I placed my hands on the small of her back. I gently moved her into the pool. She clutched tightly to me. Her arms were weak. Letting go of me, her foot slipped on pool floor. Her head suddenly submerged under the surface of the water, knocking her glasses off in the process. She would have probably frantically tried to make her way up above the water if she had the willpower. Luckily, I was there as I clutched her and pulled her back to the surface. I rotated her so her back was touching my chest. I tightly wrapped my arms around her and held her as we swayed against the pool wall in the water.
Within that pool on that humid day in August, AJ and I created the most beautiful scene where I clutched her and kissed her neck, assuring her that everything would be fine despite the fact that we both knew that it was out of my control to decide that. Within this story, I can create a timeline where that segment of our life just repeats and stretches itself over and over again throughout the rest of time, ignoring the bludgeon of reality.
Had the story of our love ended here, then it would have been perfect. But I have never been able to let go, not without digging my fingers into the skin. If the story ends here in the scene of the pool, the reader wouldn’t know that I showed up to her doorstep a few days later, only to find out she had boarded a plane to New York without saying goodbye. The reader wouldn’t know that my texts would go weeks without a reply. The reader wouldn’t know that I would call and call and call and she wouldn’t answer. The reader wouldn’t know that she only responded to me months later, telling me that she met a guy who reminded her a lot of me. The reader wouldn’t know that he broke her heart. The reader wouldn’t know that a few months later she fell for a marine who fucked her just so he could get his dick wet before deployment. The reader wouldn’t know that she would call me in the middle of the night sometimes, drunk off wine, and cry about how her most recent lover didn’t kiss her like I kissed her. The reader wouldn’t know that I haven’t talked to her in a year.
And now here I am, four years removed from you. Going to a university in the Midwest that is far from Columbia. What the reader wouldn’t know about me is I can just divide my life into segments of affinities that diminished and wilted. What the reader wouldn’t know about me is that I would met other people. I thought they had outshined you, but maybe that’s all due to recency. After sitting down and having to confront the very tangible feelings I had suppressed, I must say that even the image of her in my mind takes my breath away. One of these days, I’ll find the person that eclipses AJ. Though I am so grateful to have ever met her.
I felt like I was in a straight jacket. I had full range of movement with my arms, but the quick shallow breaths I was taking used up all of my finite attention. On the long black leather couch sits my sinking frame, next to it the TV remote so I can swap between Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and the Nickelodeon classic Chalk Zone. I do like the mask even though I have to remove my glasses to wear it. The clear rubber mask of the nebulizer forms to my face, covering my nose and mouth. The thing looks like a slimmed down gas mask so I can at least pretend that I’m a 90’s movie villain. The inch wide holes in the mask pour out a thin smoke. The vapor careens around my head as I try to breath in as much as possible while simultaneously blowing it from my vision so I can see the screen awash with color. The green band that wraps around my curly mass of low black hair keeps the mask seated on my face. In my small lap is the nebulizer itself, a grey box with tubes that stretch upwards towards me embed themselves in my mask. The nebulizer is loud so I try to get the breathing treatment over with because over its droning washing machine like sound, I can barely make out the TV. When the translucent fluid encased in the capsule connected to the underside of the mask grows low, the nebulizer begins to spurt. The droning becomes a loud stutter that pierces the ear. I had to reach my eleven-year-old hand around the capsule and shake it while attached to my face in hopes that it would stabilize. When the fluid was all either in the air or in my lungs, I could turn the device off. The end of the whirling sound was a relief, but the trade off was a jitter that reverberated through my skeleton.
I was a few months of freshman year of college and I was In the closet. I didn’t like dudes or anything. I was sitting in the very non metaphorical closet of my room in the 3rd floor of Bayliss hall. I’m on a chair that I put in there for situations exactly like this. A combination of button ups and superhero shirts hit me in the face, I could feel their full weight on my shoulders because while I can fit in this closet, that definitely wasn’t the school’s intent. There was no light in my closet, no smell, and I had very little feeling left in my legs after sitting here for twenty minutes. But a sense that did remain was the sound. Even after my disappearing act, I could still hear the group that was gallivanting around my room. There were about five people besides myself in my blue and white colored corner room at Western. I don’t know why but today that’s too much babble for me to handle without the aid of heavy anesthetics. I was fine with some of them; I was friends with the one girl and my roommate Josh isn’t always a total nuisance. Josh’s physical appearance can only be summed up as unoffensive; the guy has a medium height and a light muscle tone. I think of him as a Twinkie that used to have a gym membership before he called it quits to pursue music. The short girl in the green sweater with the high pitched voice was so loud that I felt claustrophobic, so ironically, when no one was looking I ducked in the only closed off, dark, confined space I could find. For the first few minutes I counted a few times and breathed deeply while looking up at the ceiling. Once the pressure in my eyes dispersed and I no longer had the urge to chug the gallon of Great Value bleach, I kept on the top shelf, I could relax. I read comic books on my phone for a good 15 minutes before making my exit after everyone left the room to look for me. While in the dark closet, I bent myself over trying to change my clothes. We have to go to the wind concert in an hour so I might as well be dressed. I swapped out of my Green Lantern t-shirt into a plain grey one and threw on a shaggy black hoodie. Maximum effort. Josh and two of his friends returned to the room soon after.
“There you are. We thought you might’ve been in Jake’s room,” Josh said after seeing my in my rotating chair.
“Nope. I was just in there.” I point to my temporary place of refuge.
“The closet? You were gone for like half an hour or something?”
“Yeah. Time flies when you’re having fun. And it’s been a blast,” I smugly say while making my way around the room to pick up the place. “I’m ready to go so tell the others. You found me.” I leave the room without saying another word. Sure I’m not fond of talking when it’s not needed, but mostly I just like how confused Josh gets when I leave without explanation.
The effects of the breathing treatment had begun in full force. My body’s small dark frame sat perfectly still, but internally it felt like my bones were doing the Monster Mash. It was late, so I moved off the couch and through the archway in my flat Texas home to get to the hallway. When I set my hand on the wooden white door of my room, every movement looked full of motion blur. To my eyes I pushed open the door two or three times before walking in and climbing the steel ladder of my bunk bed. The climb to the top takes five seconds, but the placement of each hand and foot on the cool bars of the bed frame is a slog that is as difficult as recovering from a bad tumble at soccer practice. Laying down once I reached the summit was easy. My chest cavity could have weighed sixty pounds for all I could tell. My ceiling fan had five blades, all blue. I left the switch up permanently, so it’s always in rotation. The lights may be off but I can still track it’s movements with my eyes. The fourth blade (or any other number between one and five depending on which you start with) was limp, the thing drug a few inches lower than the rest when the fan was on. To me the fan looked faster than it could possibly be moving, and that was wrong. The rectangular blades with their inward arched points speed up and slowed down as I watched. The darkness swirled around them and bits shifted in the night below me. I could see movement coming from my closet that lacked a door. I could hear the creaking of the fan every time it went a full rotation. Even count it down.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.
I tried to close my eyes and sleep, but I can still hear the movement, I swore to christ it was speeding up.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.
Knowing nothing was there, I should’ve stayed in bed, but I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to close my eyes and forget. I shut the tight enough to break skin. I waited for about five minutes then threw my sheets off of myself and climbed down. Flipping on the light switch, I looked around and up at the slow moving fan. Before getting back into bed I look at the closet again and refold my sheets and straighten the wine red comforter. Once I’m back in bed with the lights out, I still think about the fan, but it’s soothing now.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.
I’m in the bathroom washing up before the concert in Brown Hall. My hands felt like a thin sheet of grime sat between the air and my skin. I soaped and washed quickly. When all the sods fell into the drain, I turned up the heat in full. The water caused my hands to heat up. My palms were clean, so I kept them closed and balled them into fists. When I turned it off, my hands glowed a soft red. Closing them tightened the up my red/brown skin and even though it hurt, it felt better than before. I could think, I could focus. I left the restroom and after a few minutes of playing video games in the room, the five others and myself went outside to wait on the bus. Mark, a dark-skinned dude with messy hair and a white button up was the first to get off the bus at Brown, followed closely by Josh, the rest of the pose, with me watching the rear. Brown is a sprawling almost circular building that sits upon a hill next to the bus stop. We walk through the grass, pulling our jackets tight because of the brisk night air. When we entered, we were greeted with bright yellow lights and many creepily happy faces handing out flyers with the set list printed on them.
The group moved through the double doors into a large auditorium that had black wires dangling from the ceiling. The wires were so thin and light that they could be used for trapeze; it made this feel more like a circus than a concert. I bet it wouldn’t take me long to find a few professional clowns at WIU. Josh had to walk over to the corner of the room to get proof he attended the event. He stuck his face in a circular recognition device that showed a mirror image of himself on screen. He took his fingers and ran it through his blonde hair before smiling cheesily for the camera. After Josh gets his headshots, we trailed off to find our place among the desert of theater seats. We were seated near the back left of the room, no reason the mix too much in the crowd of students, parents, and professors. The concert was John Williams themed, the only reason I was there was to hear overworked music majors play live music from Jaws, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park. They open with the ladder, I’m excited by the deep sounds coating the entire room in an eerie melody that makes you squirm a tad in your seat. After all the metallic groans and lovely sounding whines, I could feel an energy welling up within myself. An energy that after the first fifteen minutes manifested itself in stark boredom.
My eyes darted around and I started thinking of the million things I’d rather do than sit here. My wandering eye eventually saw the double door behind me open and in walk Jess. Walnut brown hair at mid shoulder length, black glasses that push up her face and slightly magnify her eyes to be larger than life, and a shiny black dress that followed down her length to blend in with the dark floor. She looked wonderful and was smiling bigger and brighter than the spotlights filling the stage in front of me. Seeing her turned me into the last guy on the floor after John McClain leaves a room bloody and without bullets. I was conscious but barely and I had no clue what I wanted or where I wanted to go. All this because Jess danced onto the scene clutching the arm of some dude with a blazer.
Falling to sleep took plenty of work, considering it’s usually a chore to quiet my brain without an induced panic. Unfortunately, my lack of consciousness didn’t lead to a lack of fear. I was burning. My entire being was sweating, when I looked down at my short legs, I could see my skin boiling over, acting almost like rubber in a microwave. The floor underneath was charred and red; looking black and cracked like the tops of a mountain. The terror inside climbed as I realised that I was incapable of movement and had a great pressure that forced me down. I tried to disobey the force, this gravity that compelled me to bend down. I was small and young, there was no way I was going to break free.
When I finally looked forwards, I could see my favorite heroes sprawled out in chains. They would be suspended and held up on a wall ripped straight from Satan’s chambers. Blood would run down their tour up multi colored outfits, open sores with flies buzzing around them. The screams I would hear didn’t necessarily match the voices of those yelling, all I could distinguish was the anguish in their voices. Just like every time, I’d cry. I’d weep and my tears would evoke a taste as memorable as liquorice. The heroes changed, this time the cast of Dragonball Z, last time the Power Rangers, once my family. When the pressure reaches its peak, it would break. I’d wake in my bed, sweltering under my sheets. Afraid enough to not wait around to turn on the lights this time. I grabbed my tv remote and sat on the floor. I’d need to be up to catch the bus in five hours and I clearly would not spend them sleeping.
I don’t care. I shouldn’t care. I’m better than caring. I’ve always been better.
The thoughts burst into my skull when sitting there watching Jess wrapped around this guy as she took her seat. I whipped my head forward at the speed of sound; she was not going to catch me watching.
I don’t care. I shouldn’t care. She doesn’t owe me anything.
I hadn’t known her longer than a month, but time with her was magnetic. Snapchatting her. Texting her. Flirting with her. I needed to move. My legs were bouncing. My upper body tingled while my breathing increased. The music got louder, the crescendo. My spine crawled up my back like a snake wiggling up my shoulders to bite through my neck. I couldn’t stop it. I knew we weren’t anything, yet I was reacting. My vision focused and unfocused. No one in the row was looking at me but if they did, they could tell I was disturbed. The decision was made, I couldn’t do this anymore. I needed to move.
I don’t care. I shouldn’t care
When the band was in full swing, arms flailing and brass flying, I stood and bolted. I left my skateboard in the back and it was the only thing I was used to at this point. I felt like I was in a game of paintball. Running to the objective so that my cowardice could be hidden for just a bit longer. I grabbed my board, and I fled out the doors and into the cold. I planted both legs on the board and realized I was either breathing too fast or not at all. Seeing her for some reason made me shit bricks. I shat so many bricks you could hire some immigrants and build a house. Then I could live in that house. I could live in my shit house and never go back out; it’d be rent free.
I had no plan and knew everyone would be annoyed when they looked for me. I didn’t even last until they played Star Wars. At least I was moving. I pushed my board for so long and so fast that the rusted bolts under my feet transferred the rough vibrations from the road up the length of my right leg. It was painful, but I would not stop pushing, because when I push I don’t think. Kick push. Kick push. Count the kicks.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.
“Cheap Rubber Mulch”
The stage is lit to an unnecessary degree; on that, both parties agree. The recently erected stage is gratuitously flanked by several light trusses, courtesy of Fulton State University’s theatre department, that bathe the temporary platform in a flaxen brilliance, slicing the room in half: on one side, an apprehensive darkness, littered with hushed voices (How long is this supposed to go? This guy isn’t a teacher, right? Do you have a charger for an iPhone?), on the other side, the battlefield upon which the contenders are to compete.
Who are these competitors? One is a five foot five undergrad by the name of Sharon Stiegler. The other, a five foot ten bachelor named Peter Tumlin who’s two years too late for a mid-life crisis and only just beginning to show the signs of male pattern baldness.
Five weeks prior, neither of them knew the other existed. Sharon attended Fulton State University. She majored in Biology. After only two semesters, she was elected an officer of the Fulton State environmental club. After her third, she was elected president. It’s been 4 weeks, 6 days, and several migraines since the commander-in-chief of Fulton State’s eco army popped up in Peter’s work email. Since that day, a string of correspondence has plagued him.
To Whom It May Concern,
Hello. My name is Sharon Stiegler, and I’m a student here at Fulton State and president of the Environmental club. I’m emailing you today because of an issue we have with the new playground that was just constructed on the west end of campus. We’re concerned about the rubber mulch, which studies have recently shown leach known carcinogens into our environment. We are attaching a recent study conducted by The University of Santiago in Spain. Thank you.
President, FSU Environmental Club
Thank you for looking at the study, but I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean by “take it into consideration.” Does that mean the mulch will be replaced? We have compiled a list of locally sourced, environment-friendly alternatives. I’m attaching the word document to this email. Thank you.
President, FSU Environmental Club
That kind of shit went on for weeks.
I still don’t understand why the amount of recognized carcinogens, the zinc, the lead, the VOC’s, and all the other nasty things that leach into the environment when that stuff decomposes (which it is proven to do BTW!) doesn’t alarm you! And it’s not just into the air, that stuff can get into ground water and cause all sorts of problems!
President, FSU Environmental Club
I don’t think I was disrespectful in the last email at all, sir. I think you’re misconstruing respect with letting you disregard the evidence I’m presenting you. I’m attaching a page from a recent essay I wrote on carcinogens. PLEASE READ IT!!!
President, FSU Environmental Club
Dr. Baisden has informed me that you have accepted our invitation. I look forward to meeting you and discussing this matter in a public forum.
And so now here we are.
Sharon enters stage right, a confident young student eager to take a logic she can’t wrap her head around and thrust it into the brilliant light of this decently-attended-for-a-Friday-afternoon public debate, where she trusts that either her peers will help her make sense of this man, or that this man will be exposed for a fraud, a con artist, or at least a lousy University employee.
Peter enters stage left. He squints under the heavy wash of the PAR cans and mentally kicks himself for getting roped into this (Dr. Baisden is known to be an extremely persistent, notoriously headstrong woman). A student moderator, no doubt another member of the Fulton State Environmental Club, is already seated at his station. He taps his lapel mic, and the corresponding “thump” that comes from the speakers confirms that, indeed, it is on.
The champions spar for a redundant 12 rounds of prepared bullet points. Evidence is presented. Rhetoric is employed. Scientific jargon is mispronounced. Credibility is questioned. Nevertheless, Sharon receives a front row thumbs-up from her faculty advisor, that wiry, old Dr. Baisden. The crowd does not notice the mispronunciation.
But enough of this narration, enough of this set up. Let’s tune in and see what these challengers are saying…
Int. Fulton State Auditorium – Night
Furthermore, Ms. Stiegler, had you approached me with questions concerning this matter, rather than some immature campaign where you assume that my office does not know what it is doing, I would have told you that your one study you’ve provided from the University of Santiago is one of many studies on this subject. Though it may shock you, Ms. Stiegler, and any of you students currently working on research projects, one Google search does not provide the full scope of any scientific issue. Here’s an even bigger shocker, guys: my office thoroughly researches all of our Go Green Initiatives before we ever implement them, and this includes the rubber mulch your club is so concerned over. Did you know, and I’m asking in a purely rhetorical fashion, of course, that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has conducted extensive studies on the effects of rubber mulch on the environment? So have similar agencies in New York, so have similar Agencies in California. Do you know what they determined, Ms. Stiegler? They determined that certain components in these rubber chips do contain allergens, and that if you or your child should have an allergic reaction, you should see your family doctor. They determined that, indeed, the high concentration of Zinc found in storm water runoff from artificial turfs like our rubber mulch can pose environmental risks. Like so many substances in our world, yes, rubber mulch contains known carcinogens, and therefore can introduce these carcinogens into the environment, but all of these studies I have referenced concluded that the amount of risk involved does not surpass the threshold of an acceptable cancer risk.
Acceptable cancer risk? What the hell is that supposed to mean?
(The moderator is blind-sided with inner-turmoil. Should he say something about his colleague’s language and preserve the prestige of his title, or is this one of the cool college moments the tour guides told him about? Before he can make that split second decision, Peter beats him to the punch)
See now, that’s better. Questions. It means, disregarding the vulgarity, that scientists with much more schooling than you have determined that the risk of our rubber mulch causing cancer is no greater than that of the beer you’re all drinking at parties, or the cigarettes you’re all smoking on our smoke-free campus, or the UV radiation we all enjoy from our Sun. It means that scientists have already determined that you are wasting the time of everyone within this auditorium.
(A single chuckle comes from the back of the audience)
So, basically, what you’re telling us is that, because the scientific consensus is less than 100%, more research is needed before any action could be taken? Surely, Mr. Tumlin, you must see the irony here?
You’re associating me with climate change deniers now, Ms. Stiegler? Surely you must see the irony in that.
Yes I believe we’re discussing the same irony, Mr. Tumlin, only you seem to think you’re not the butt of this joke.
(The crowd erupts into raucous applause and whooping)
I will not be insulted in any forum, ma’am, public or private. I was made certain promises before I agreed to this event, the very first of which being that this discussion would be civil and productive. As for your strange accusation, I am, perhaps first and foremost, a lover of science. Real science. It’s been a passion of mine since junior high. As I’m sure you can tell, that’s been a while. I have a Master of Science from Oregon State University, and I have been an outspoken critic of climate change deniers for years. For you to use your privileged position to stand on this stage and insinuate that I am not committed to my job, is…well it’s disappointing, and highly inappropriate.
Perhaps if we returned to one of the prompts…let’s see… “How can an individual best mitigate-“
No, I don’t think so. I’m not letting you off that easy, Mr. Tumlin.
(A collective hush spreads throughout the crowd)
Excuse me miss? I’d remind you, you are still expected to show respect-
Explain to us how your lackadaisical response to this legitimate environmental concern is any different than a climate change denier’s bread and butter. In the face of good, reputable science, you are choosing to ignore- let’s say a significant probability – that your cheap rubber mulch leaches dangerous contaminants into the atmosphere, all for the sake of saving money. All for the sake of doubling down on a bad decision you already made. Please, Mr. Tumlin, with every ounce of due respect, please explain to me how you, the director of our school’s office of sustainability, are any better than any climate change denier.
(The crowd goes fucking nuts)
Are you kidding me?! Because I’m not making policy decisions here! We’re talking about some old recycled, repurposed rubber chips! For the ECD’s daycare! At the high school, right over there, people! You can go look at them! So again I repeat, this is NOT even a matter of YOU OR YOUR CLUB’S CONCERN. You know, I don’t know why I agreed to this. You’re clearly not here to for an informed, civilized, academic public forum, and I have no interest participating in this misguided pep rally any longer, good night every-
Do you believe the Earth is heating up, Mr. Tumlin? You say you do, and I’m inclined to believe you, because, despite what you may believe, I think you seem like a very intelligent man. If you weren’t so stubborn, we might even get along. I mean, not in a creepy way. I’m 20, and you’re…but what I’m saying is, I mean what I’m asking is, do you really believe this place is going to burn? Do you believe, as I do, that future generations are fucked? Because if you do, and you recognize the big problem, I am here to tell you sir, those rubber chips over there, what you’ve done here, what you’re refusing to even consider doing…this is the little problem. This is symptomatic. It is a symptom of the big problem you claim to be an outspoken critic of. This behavior, this ideology… it takes a population to ruin this planet for posterity, but it takes just one person to get the ball rolling. If nothing else, you are one of millions of hands willingly pushing this ball along. What’s going to be your legacy, Mr. Tumlin? What will it say on your tombstone? Don’t blame me,I wasn’t the only one? Don’t blame me, I always did my job, and besides, the Connecticut Department of Whatever assured me that the risk of cancer was acceptable? Don’t blame me, my lazy response to environmental concerns was no worse than most, and better than many? Do you feel like you’re sustaining anything other than your salary, Mr. Tumlin?
Future generations are, as you say it, are fucked…because of our Rubber Mulch? That’s your assessment.
In part? Absolutely.
So now I’m a murderer as well as a climate change denier?
Is there a difference?
Sure. One’s not murdering people.
That’s rich. You claim to be an ally of environmentalists the world over, and you don’t see a connection between the victims of an insufficient response to the climate crisis, and the forces behind that insufficient response? When the seas rise, and the coast lines erode, you don’t think any guilt lies with the generations past who said no, those ice caps are fine, no those maps are here to stay?! I call bullshit, sir; do you not have any sympathy for people of the future?!
PEOPLE OF THE FUTURE?! I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THE PEOPLE LIVING RIGHT NOW!!! I have a job. It’s a good job, and it’s challenging, and it’s rewarding. My office, our initiatives, we do a ton of good on this campus. For the environment. And for the school. You know why your tuition has been stable? You know why you enjoy a beautiful campus, with efficient, innovative technology? It’s because my office does a damn good job promoting the welfare of this school and its student body.
But yeah, Ms. Stiegler. Can I call you Sharon? Might as well, this thing has gone as horribly as it could have, I see you all with your parents’ phones out…yeah. If you want me to be honest, I don’t really give a shit about the people on this planet right now, and I don’t really give a shit about the people still to come. And I don’t have to. That’s not required of me by this university, or anything else, or anyone else. At the end of the day, I’m looking out for myself, just like everybody else, whether they want to bullshit about altruism and community and work themselves and everyone who’s gullible enough to believe them into some grand circle-jerk, or they’re like me, and they just want to do their fucking job, and do a damn good job at their fucking job, and then go home, and have a beer and watch some television, and not be harassed by some temporal world savior. I told you I’m a lover of science. I know where this is headed. You might even say I know it better than most. Life on this Earth, as we know it, is not sustainable in the long term, not with our species, not with our habits, not with our instincts. Our nature and this planet’s nature are opposed, and we are not on the winning side. Not in the long term of this universe, anyways, and there’s nothing that this office can do about that. It’s going to end. We’re going to choke to death on our own emissions! Yes! We’re going to flood the earth, you bet! We’re going to go crazy in little fucking rooms counting numbers and writing stories and coming up with holidays while the planet burns, sure! And humanity will go to its grave complaining about gas prices and the weather, and just before we all disappear up our own asshole, people like me will get to say “Ha! Told you so! Now let me die in peace!”
So if my time here at Fulton State is coming to a close, and after this fun event, I do believe it is, let me leave you with some knowledge…
There are people suffering, guys. I mean right now. Horrible, terrible suffering. Starvation. Oppression. Heartbreak. There were people suffering yesterday, there’ll be suffering tomorrow. I’m suffering a little right now. I’ve suffered worse. I’ll suffer worse. And at no point during my suffering, or anybody else’s suffering that’s continued without ceasing for the entirety of recorded history, has Sharon Stiegler, college sophomore, public speaker extraordinaire, or any other member of the Fulton State Ecological Society, jumped in to save the day! No one has ever come to ease our suffering! No one ever started a Gofundme! I never heard about any benefit concerts! Shit I can’t even remember getting any words of encouragement or moral support! Tell me Sharon, are future generations going to finally develop that time machine and retroactively make my life easier, save me from cruelty and anguish?
You stand there and act as if victims of tomorrow are any more important than victims of today or victims of yesterday, because what? Because notions of the future are just inherently cool? Because future suffering holds more value than current suffering? The generations that are already here starve and suffer and find themselves pummeled with injustice, but that’s a lost cause, let’s save the coastlines’ future, right? Let’s tell Peter he needs to get in line and change out the mulch on a playground, and if he doesn’t, well we’ll just put him on display for everyone to come see the devil, come see this man who would dare look in the face of something in this universe that might kill something else in this universe, and be thoroughly unsurprised, unimpressed, and uninterested! Well if what you’ve said is true, Sharon, if my choice of goddamn rubber mulch is the momentum that gets the gears turning, that ignites the engine of abuse and torment, the seed of some trans-generational suffering, well then I say LET ‘EM SUFFER FOLKS!
…Err-And that’s going to be all the time we have this evening, folks! On behalf of the Environmental Club, I want to thank everyone for coming out, and don’t forget, tomorrow is Earth Day! Let’s all find ways to save the planet guys, thanks and good night!
As the crowd disperses, additional club members hand out 6×8 flyers, which advertise the following day’s activities, as well as the remaining semester’s calendar. Peter has already stormed out of the auditorium, and is on his way to his office to pack his things. He’s going to beat this thing to the punch. He’s going to resign. He’s going to move. He hasn’t decided where.
Sharon stands with a cluster of her most trusted classmates and discusses the alarming turn the evening has taken. All in all, she says to her confidants, the forum went well, and she has done what she meant to do: expose injustice. She had been in the right all along, she reflects, but she didn’t know just how much of a head case that man really was.
A hand on her shoulder interrupts her train of thought, and she turns to find a warm hug from her hero, Dr. Baisden, who tells her that she was just so good. The two of them walk out into the atrium together, discussing the debate. No one in the remaining congregation asks what’s going to happen with the rubber chips. Most of them assume it’s now going to be taken care of by someone, and a few even forget why they were there.
The dimly lit chandelier casts a shadow against the stark white vanity and matching dresser, pushed against one of the egg-shell colored walls. Beneath the soft light, two men are splayed across a king-sized bed. Everything is silent, except for the sounds of the men gasping for breath. They face each other, both lying on their sides; only a black silk sheet covering the two of them. The Hispanic man, with dark, sharp features reaches out and caresses the caucasian man’s smooth, angelic-like face, running his long fingers throughout the man’s golden curls.
“Marc,” the Caucasian man says in a sultry voice, as he leans into Marc’s touch.
“Yes, Eric?” Marc says, as a slight grin appears at the corner of his mouth.
“Why does time go by so quickly when we’re together, but feels eternal at the same time?”
Marc chuckles slightly at how cheesy Eric’s words sounded, “It’s because the time we have with each other is usually limited. Honestly, It’s refreshing being able to get a full night together. I do cherish these special moments with you Eric.” He winks.
“I do too Marc,” He sighed, turning slightly red. “I just wish we didn’t have to freaking hide anymore.”
“Baby, you know we can’t bring this out in the open yet.”
“Why not? Don’t you think five years has been long enough?” Frustration slowly building up in his voice.
“Cálmate, cálmate. How would that look on me Eric? I’m married. I’ve been married for seven years, and with the same woman for fifteen. One of your good friends I may add.”
Eric blushed shamefully at his remark.
“Plus baby, I’m up for district attorney next year. I can’t have drama come out of the woodwork. The voters would have an uproar if they found out I’m having an affair, especially if they found out it was with a man.”
“I know, I know. I’m just tired of keeping everything a secret. I’m tired of the lies. What kind of person does it make me, being her friend, yet in love and sleeping with you. Why can’t you just ask her for a divorce? You’re unhappy, it would make the most sense.” Eric looked Marc in the eyes pleadingly.
“Eric, it’s not that simple,” Hurt flickered in Eric’s eyes, as Marc continued to speak. “Now stop talking about this mess, and let’s make the most of this night.” His eyes lowered, looking lustfully at the nape of Eric’s neck. He leaned in, placing rough kisses down his neck.
Eric let out a groan, “Fine, but this conversation isn’t going to go away. It will continue later” He closed his eyes, allowing Marc to continue kissing down his neck. They both slowly sink back into the mattress, their hands roaming once again.
A faint clicking sound made its way throughout the house.
“Marc,” Eric jerks suddenly, whispering, “Did you hear something?”
Marc chuckles, “Relax mi guerito, you know Alicia is away on a girls trip. Your anxiety is getting to you. You’re starting to hear things loco.”
“You’re-you’re probably right, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m so jumpy tonight. I might have had one too many glasses of wine earlier”
Marc presses his pointer finger against Eric’s pouty lips, “Shhh mi angelito, enough talking.” He grabs his chin, gently tugging him closer. Their bodies medling together, as if they were matching puzzle pieces. Their lips touching ever so slightly.
A female voice suddenly rings out, “Marc? Mi novio, are you here?”
The door swings open, bright white lights turning on suddenly. Too fast for either men to react quickly enough.
“Marc?” Alicia says in a confused voice. Her eyes focus on the king-sized bed in front of her; registering what’s actually going on. Her gaze drifting towards Marc, then switching to Eric. Her mouth falls open in disbelief as she stumbles backwards. She leans against the wooden door, trying to regain her balance.
“Fuck.” Marc thinks to himself, shaking his head slightly.
“Alicia,” Marc says in quiet, hesitant voice, “it’s not what it looks like preciosa.”
He begins to get up from the bed, his hands out in front of him. Alicia pushes herself off of the wall, throwing her fists down to her sides.
“Sit the FUCK down, Marc! Are you seriously trying to tell me that THIS,” She waves her finger at Marc and then to Eric. “Isn’t what it looks like. You’re CHEATING on me, with a fucking DUDE for Christ’s sake!”
He sighs, “Baby. I can explain, if you just could calm down.”
‘Cálmate? Mi Cálmate? Ay dios mío! We’ve been together for fifteen years, and married for goddamn seven years! I just caught you cheating on me with your best friend, and you’re telling me to calm down? HOW DARE YOU!” Alicia then looks at Eric, “And you! Pinche cochino, I fucking trusted you, Eric! I thought we were friends. We have dinner every goddamn Tuesday; you were in our wedding for Christ’s sakes!” She lets out a hysterical laugh, “But you’re sleeping with my husband? How could you do that to me? All this time I’ve been worrying about him going off and cheating with another woman, but he’s over here sleeping with dudes now too! Damn bastard!”
Eric’s face turns stark white, stammering, “A-alicia, I’m so sorry. We just didn’t know how to tell you. I never meant to hurt you.”
“Tell me?” She scoffs. “Bullshit. Who the hell knows how long you two have been fucking behind my back.”
She looks over at Marc once again.“Marc, did our marriage seriously mean nothing to you? If you were unhappy why didn’t you just say something. Instead, you fuck our friend. Can you even look me in the eyes and show me an ounce of remorse for this shit?”
He groans in annoyance, totally over the entire situation.
“Look Alicia, I’m sorry…that you caught us. You were supposed to be away”
Alicia screams in frustration, “My flight got cancelled you narcissistic bastard! You do this and can’t even apologise? Do you even care how much this hurts me? God you’re sick! Four times you cheated on me! FOUR TIMES!”
She begins shaking her head furiously, her black curls springing in every direction. Fury forming behind her caramel colored eyes. She reaches down, pulling off her shiny, black, stiletto heel. Kicking the other one across the floor. She clenches the heel tightly, her petite fingers turning white at the knuckles. Her eyes narrowing in on Marc.
“Y-you,” she says through clenched teeth, “You are going to pay for this. I loved you despite all the affairs, the long hours at the office, the cold shoulder, not wanting kids, not wanting to have sex. I loved you through all that and this is what happens! I’m fucking done! No mas!”
“Wait, Marc has been sleeping with other women too?” Eric thinks to himself, his blood boiling slightly.
She lunged at Marc, swinging the shoe towards his head. Screams gurgling from her throat as her eyes glaze over, becoming animalistic. He jumps backwards, the tip of the stiletto grazing his nose.A stinging sensation shoots through his face; he grabs his nose, as he falls backwards onto the bed. Eric starts to scream, lifting the sheets over his face to protect himself. Screaming, “Alicia, please calm down!”
“Shut the hell up you homewrecker!”
“Alicia!” Marc screams, “ Are you loca!? What are you trying to do, kill me?”
She looks at him, then began chuckling slightly.Realization settling on her face. She looks down at the wooden floor, her breath hitching, as she lets the heel slip from her fingers. Everyone’s eyes focusing on the heel as it falls to the floor. The shoe making a small clunk as it makes contact with the wood.
“You know what, I could be crazy. But…you know, you’re just not worth it anymore.” She pauses slightly. “B-both of you,Get the fuck out of my house.”
Anger begins to overcome Marc, as he sneers, “This is my house puta, my job is what pays for most of this shit in here. You used my money to buy this furniture, all those name brand clothes in your walk in closet, and those fucking Coach bags of yours.”
Eric peeks out from under the covers, slowly putting the sheets down. He whispers, “Marc, I think we should probably leave.” As he thinks guiltily to himself, “This never would have happened, if Marc would have told her earlier on. Instead of keeping me as a closet freak. Or if I never got in between them, but apparently he’s been lying to us both. God, I love him though…”
“No Eric. This is my house. If you want to scram, fine. I ain’t leaving though”
“Actually Marc, this is OUR house. You may have bought things, but don’t act like you cutting the checks for things, wasn’t just a way to shut me up. I may have designer labels, but that’s besides the point. We’re married, and your money is my money. I married you before you even had money. I’m tired of you undermining me. I work. I work very hard. I know I didn’t go to law school like you, but I work more days than your lazy ass does.”
“Oh please woman, you’re just a high school English teacher.”
“I may be “just a teacher”, but I’m more literate than you’ll ever be.”
“Again, this is my house. Your salary wouldn’t even cover the electricity costs in this house.”
Alicia threw her head back and cackled.
“Let me tell you something idiot, this house is already paid off. The lease is co-signed under both of our names, so technically, it is mine regardless of whom has paid it. Also, I want a fucking divorce Marc. I’ll enjoy seeing how “sorry” your ass is going to be when we’re both standing in front of a judge, discussing who gets what. I’m more than sure that the judge will empathize with a distressed wife, who just got cheated on AGAIN, by her unloving husband. Her husband who happens to be running for district attorney, and who happens to now be gay,” She sighs. “Now, both of you. Get. The. Fuck. Out. Of. My. House,” She stares Eric directly in his wide, blue eyes as she says, “Before I call the cops on his ass.”
“I’ll go.” Eric says quickly.
“No,” Marc says, “we both can go finish the night elsewhere.”
“Is this guy seriously just thinking about sex right now?” Eric thinks angrily.
“Good, grab your shit and get out. You have five minutes before I call the huda”, Alicia says, as she walks out the door and down the wooden staircase.
Eric flies up from the bed, frantically searching for his clothes. Pulling them on as he finds each piece. “Marc, I’m so sorry. I ruined your marriage, and I hurt someone who was my friend. We shouldn’t have kept this a secret for so long”
“Don’t worry about it, that bitch isn’t going to get shit.”
“Stop calling her that.”
“What you’re defending her now? After all this secrecy, and sneaking around. I’m finally free of her, we can be together now.”
“Now you want to be together? I asked you to leave her numerous freaking times. Even earlier today, you said it would cause too much drama if you did. But, she just threatened to take all this to court and you didn’t even bat a fucking eye! You cheated on her with me, and other people too. You weren’t going to tell me that one were you asshole? You could have prevented this shit though, but no. You wanted to keep me a secret. Your dirty little gay secret, huh? The only reason you’re leaving now is because she found out about it. If you really “loved me”, you would have ended things with her two years ago.” He stammers, “I-i don’t think I want this anymore. I know I was wrong on my part, but you’re wrong on all parts.”
“Are you fucking serious? You want to leave me now? What the fuck. Ha, fine. Leave. You and her will both come crawling back to me sooner or later.” He sneers.
“You know what Marc, Alicia is right. You are a narcissistic bastard. You only care about yourself, and boning”
Marc lets out a roar, his tanned arm cocking back. He swings at Eric, nailing him right in his left eye socket. Eric falls to the ground screaming, while holding a hand to his eye. Bruising and swelling begin forming around the area he was hit.
Alicia runs back up the stairs. Screaming, “What the fuck is going on?”
Marc turns and faces the doorway where Alicia is standing, “This bitch wants to leave me too, but he got what he deserved. You’re lucky you aren’t a dude too.” He smirks.
Eric, still holding his eye, inches towards one of the fallen heels that Alicia had thrown aside earlier. He looks up to see Alicia watching him carefully. He puts a finger to his lips, signaling her to hush and not give anything away. He grasps the top of the heel firmly in his right hand. Silently standing up.
“Hey, Asshole.” Eric says tauntingly.
“You shouldn’t have anything to say to me, seeing how I just beat your ass.” Marc says, as he turns around to look at Eric.
As Marc turns, Eric swings the stiletto down. The heel landing directly into Marc’s right eyeball. His eyeball pops and he screams violently, as blood begins spurting from his eyeball. The heel lodging itself deeper into his eye socket. He falls to the floor, curling up into a fetal position. Blood spurting in multiple directions, pooling onto the wooden flooring.
He screams hysterically, “You are sick!” He clutches his face, his breath hitching “You ruined my FUCKING EYE!” Sobbing, he yells out once more, “Alicia, don’t just fucking stand there. Call 911! Do you want me to die? I’m your husband!” He cries.
“An eye for an eye you bastard. I’ll call an ambulance for you. I am going to claim this incident as self-defense though, and I’m sure your soon to be ex-wife will back up my story.” He looks at Alicia, “I’m sorry for sleeping with your husband, he fed us both lies. I know this doesn’t make up for it, but I do sincerely apologize.” He then pulls out his phone to dial 911.
Her gaze towards the pool of blood breaks, looking up at Eric.
“ First of all, I don’t accept your apology. I will not be backing anyone up. You cochinos are on your own, I’ll say what I saw but that’s that. Now get the hell out of my house, and wait outside for the cops.” She looks over at Marc, “This isn’t even all you deserve. You’re lucky. Get the hell up off of the floor and get out of my house, you’re bleeding all over my floor. The ambulance should be coming.”
Marc sobs, as he attempts to get off of the floor. Grabbing a sheet and putting it around the heel, to prevent the blood from spurting any further. He finally gets up, and hobbles towards the stairs. She watches both men as they walk down the stairs, following behind shortly.They all begin to patiently wait for the ambulance. Both the ambulance, and the police showed up to the scene of the events. The first person to show up to the scene, was an officer by the name of Officer Weathers. He was a younger black man, average build, and a stern face. He cautiously approached the three by the front steps. Taken aback by the distraught looking woman, the half-naked white man, and the hispanic man, covered in blood. With a heel protruding from his eyeball.
“Hello all, my name is Officer Weathers. I’ve come to take statements, about the ordeal that’s happened here tonight.” The officer looks to Marc, “Sir, the ambulance is on its way. Are you light-headed? I’d like to collect your statement, before the medic arrives. If possible. Please sit down on the steps if you’re more comfortable. Meanwhile, the other two can stand over there.”
He points to a tree, about fifteen feet away. Eric and Alicia make their way over to the tree. Marc then gives the officer his perspective on what happened.
“Officer, Eric and I were having an affair. We have been on the low for years, but my wife and I have not been happy for a long long time. Yes, I know it was wrong. I just couldn’t stay away from Eric, he’s the love of my life. My wife was very angry, she threatened my life, my job, and to take away my house. After that, Eric threatened to leave me too. I had a mental break, and black-out. He said I punched him, but all I remember is the way his eyes looked before he swung the heel down. It was awful officer.”
“Sir, I have all the information I need from you. Thank you. The ambulance is pulling up now.”
The ambulance pulled into the driveway and, Marc was taken to the hospital immediately. Officer Weathers signaled Eric over to give his side of the story.
“Sir, please tell me your perspective on the events that transpired today.”
“Yes officer. So, today Marc and I wanted a night to ourselves. His wife was out of town, and we were having an affair. She ended up coming home, without our knowledge and caught us. She was very upset, and she had every right to be. They did end up getting into a verbal argument over the house, but nothing terrible. She almost went after Marc, but regained her composure. She told us to leave, and I got my stuff to leave. Marc however, was not happy about it. Him and I got into a heated discussion over our relationship. I told him that he could have prevented all of this, and I told him I no longer wanted to be with him. He got very angry, and knocked me right in my eye. Then he made a snarky comment about how Alicia and I going to come crawling back to him.”
“Sir, tell me about the heel in his eye.”
“Well officer, he hit me really hard. I felt defenseless, so I picked up the heel and swung at him. It got stuck in his eye. It was a spur of the moment thing.”
“Okay sir, I have all the information needed from you. Go back to where you were standing, and tell the Mrs. to come give her statement.
Eric walks over, and Alicia soon walks to where the officer is standing.
“Ma’am please tell me your side of the story.”
“Okay, so I was supposed to be going on a trip. My flight was cancelled, so I came home. When I got here, I found my husband in bed with one of our good friends. I was furious, and almost hit Marc. I didn’t though, I was in shock. Like, I knew we weren’t happy but I never thought he would be sleeping with a man…” Her voice breaks slightly.
“My apologies ma’am, but keep going.”
“Well we got into an argument over the house, and I threatened him with court. His responses were vain of course, he’s diagnosed with narcissism. I told them to leave then walked downstairs, only to come back minutes later. I heard a scream, and Eric was on the floor when I got up there. Marc had punched him, and then was laughing about it. He said I was lucky to be a woman, or I would have ended up the same. Anyways, that’s when I noticed Eric going for the heel. He like, put his finger to his mouth to tell me to almost keep it hush hush. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening sir, but then in like moments. A shoe was in Marc’s eye. I stood there shocked. Now, you’re here.”
“Well ma’am, after collecting everyone’s statements; I will not be putting you under arrest. However, I will be arresting your husband with aggravated battery. He may serve jail time, but there’s a possibility of bail if you want him out.”
“He can rot in there for all I care. I’ll be serving him divorce papers whether or not he’s in jail.” She thought to herself briefly.
“I will be arresting Eric as well, with a higher charge.”
She nodded at the officer, watching him walk over to Eric.
“Sir,” The officer said. “Can you please tell me your last name?”
“Yes, it’s Edwards.”
“Alright, thank you. Eric Edwards, turn around and put your hands on your back.”
“Wait…what? No!” Eric steps back.
“Sir, turn around and put your hands behind your back. You’re being arrested for attempted involuntary manslaughter.”
“No! No! He deserves to be arrested, not me!
The officer proceeds to detain Eric, finally getting him in the squad car. Officer Weathers then comes back over to Alicia, “You have a good night Miss.”
“Thank you officer.”
The squad car exited her property, and Alicia made her way back inside. She climbed up the wooden staircase slowly. Walking towards her bedroom door, she pushed the door open gently. Her eyes fixated on the tousled bed in front of her. She sighed loudly, “Great, they just had to screw in the bed I sleep in. Now I’m going to have to burn the sheets and mattress.”
She tries to laugh at the joke she made, but instead, a sob escapes her throat. Her body begins to convulse. She falls to the floor, landing in the pool of Marc’s blood. Sobs erupting from her throat, as she convulses uncontrollably. Blood staining her hair and skin. Her sobs finally quiet down,and the shaking ceases. She puts her fingers up to her mouth, whispering to herself, “Hush hush Alicia, hush hush.”
“end measured mile”
It’s probably eight o’clock or so when the van rumbles to a stop and the overhead light comes on like a dim yellow alarm. Everyone’s blinking against it, staggering out of their seats and stretching, freed from the too-tight seatbelts, the stale air conditioning and the ever-present scent of Cheez-Its. Sue stays bundled up in the old army blanket, blinking blearily at the intrusion of noise and the sudden cessation of motion.
The sliding door just past the top of her head opens, sending her backpack thumping to the asphalt along with a half-eaten packet of Starburst. “Come on, girlie,” Dad says, patting her on the shoulder. He’s talking too loud, ears deadened by twelve hours on the road.
Sue just squeezes her eyes shut more tightly. The sooner she gets up, the sooner she has to help unpack.
All too quickly she finds herself making the weary trek to the back of the van to grab the nearest suitcase, her hair floating free with static, the army blanket draped over one shoulder like a half-hearted toga. The driveway is on a steep incline from the road, ending at the big white door of the garage. Sometimes she feels like the walnuts that fall from the huge, crabbed tree at the top of the hill, rolling down to where Grandad has to sweep them off the front walk. No matter where she goes, she rolls back here.
She falls into the line of suitcases trundling towards the front door and watches from the rear as it opens, dutifully stepping forward one vacated space at a time, eventually taking her place at the front. Her turn to hug, pat on the back, make awkward noises in her throat when she can’t take a compliment, can’t think of anything pertinent to say about the fact she’s taller (she’s not) or prettier (nope) or maybe wider, if Grandad makes a joking jab (but it’s funny because it’s true).
“How was your trip?” Nanny asks, putting her long arms around Sue. Nanny, tall and frail and beautiful, like a stilt-legged bird.
“Long,” Sue says.
“Never gets any shorter, does it,” Nanny says with a small laugh. She pulls back and cups Sue’s cheek, piano fingers dry and cool. “Glad you could make it, hon.”
Sue just smiles and gently pulls free.
Then Nanny and Grandad gather up to make a fuss over Benji; and look how tall he’s gotten, how broad his shoulders are, he’ll be shaving soon and, goodness, they heard he made the track team. Benji soaks it up because he’s conventionally attractive and athletic and accomplished and fits in his skin, it’s tailormade.
Sue is ninety-percent sure she doesn’t hate him for that.
She doesn’t miss how all this is happening in the middle of the foyer. Sue is on the right edge and Mom stands on the left and Dad, Benji, Grandad and Nanny all huddle between, talking over each other, providing a barrier. Because this is the distance proscribed by this summer’s cold war. Nobody ever said, ‘keep Sue and Mom apart’. Nobody had to; there’s ice there, forming crystals in the gap, and they all feel it.
Sue turns and pulls her suitcase away.
Her room is the laundry room. Once upon a time she and Benji had shared the kids’ room, but that was before high school, before bras and blemishes and all the other plagues of puberty. ‘A growing girl needs her own space,’ Nanny had said, and if that space is mostly taken up by a washer and dryer, well, Sue isn’t that picky. Besides, she likes the way it smells: Tide and clean cotton and dryer sheets. Her airbed is wedged against the opposite wall, already fitted with sheets and a pillow. There’s a small bathroom right across the tiny hall.
She’s brushing her teeth when she looks directly into her own reflection and freezes, toothbrush prickly against her gums. She has the sensation that she’s looking through a window, not a mirror, and another Sue is staring back at her, caught in the same moment. For a long, shuddering second, she’s hesitant to move because the reflection might not move the same way. And what would that mean?
It’s a child’s thought, something long leftover from the days when she would peek around the doorframe, pretending the silvery sheen crouched above the sink was a window to another world. Now here she is, in front of the same mirror; fully formed, fully reflected. No magic, no shades of Mirror-Sue. Just her, facing herself and a future she can’t seem to find the shape of.
It’s always just her.
She goes back into her room and collapses onto the air mattress with a rubbery squelch. Getting comfortable always sounds like someone molesting a balloon. She reaches over into her backpack and pulls out the letter, with its creased edges and faraway zip code. 90095—California. The same country but still so distant—so different—from Michigan, from Arkansas. She tugs it out of the envelope just enough to see the words that make her heart race.
You have been accepted
She tucks it back away.
The next morning is the first day of vacation, always set aside as the laziest day. Sue eats a quick breakfast of cereal, after which there isn’t much to do except wait for lunch. Benji is still sleeping in the kids’ room, so the Sega is off limits. She doesn’t feel like watching TV; she does plenty of that at home.
At the back of the dining room is the sliding door to the second-story deck. She steps out into a day just beginning to hit the first edge of summer heat; dew sits heavy on the thick-bladed grass below, the planks of the deck moist beneath her bare feet. Two clear acres stretch out and down to the drop off at the far edge where the creek cuts through the red clay and winnows past the trees dotting the high bank. Across that shallow ribbon of water is a fence on the other bank, backed by high grass. The Ozarks roll above it all, estival greens rising and falling like the wooded humps of whales breaching on that misty horizon.
She descends the creaky wooden steps to the lawn. Down near the edge of the creek is a shady oak tree with a trampoline beneath it. Per usual, she tires of jumping within fifteen minutes. She’s lying on her back enjoying the dappled light winking through the shifting leaves when Benji finds her. The trampoline is kind of a first day tradition.
He pulls off his shoes and rolls onto glossy black mat. “Mom said she’s going shopping with Nanny, so we’re on our own for lunch,” he announces.
“Cool,” Sue says, which it isn’t, really, but she doesn’t feel like talking.
Benji always feels like talking. “So are you still all brooding and stuff?”
“Shut up, Benji.”
“What? I’m just asking,” he retorts in a tone that’s nothing close to innocent. “Unless you’re just going to hate Mom forever and still stay.”
“Seriously?” Sue kicks out blindly with one foot and connects with what feels like Benji’s midsection, getting an indignant squawk for her effort. “Go. Away.”
“It’s my trampoline, too!”
“No, it isn’t, it belongs to the neighbors.”
“Well, I was there when they said we could use it,” Benji states, like that’s the ultimate argument.
Sue sighs and rolls over, intent on ignoring him.
“I just wish you’d do something,” Benji mutters. “You and Mom are making things so weird.”
She doesn’t know what he’s complaining about. He’s the golden boy—always has been, always will be—and if Mom ignores Sue from now on then he’ll get that much more attention.
But it’s hard to push him away, here on the trampoline. A thousand echoes of their younger selves flit through memory. Benji isn’t Sue’s enemy, and she misses the days when the gap between younger brother and older sister hadn’t seemed so wide and meaningful. Now she’s grown up (yeah, right), and he’s waiting to catch up.
“Maybe you should talk to her,” Benji suggests. He makes it sound that easy because it would be, for him.
“She doesn’t listen,” Sue tells him.
“You haven’t tried.” Benji sits on crossed legs, tearing up a fallen leaf into tiny green shreds. He shrugs uncomfortably. “This just sucks, you know?”
Dad shows up on the ATV about twenty minutes later. The noise of the engine cuts through the peaceful morning like a buzzsaw; Sue can track his progress without opening her eyes. He pulls up alongside the trampoline and kills the engine.
“You guys been down to the creek yet?” he asks. He looks them over. “You’re still dry, so come on. Let’s see how it’s doing this year.”
Dad doesn’t own the property or the creek, but he still treats it like it’s his own pet project, noting slight changes in its course year by year. Since Nanny and Grandad moved here from the old house the creek has eaten away a good twenty feet off the end of their yard. It’s never safe to walk right up to the edge of the ravine. Sue and Benji follow Dad around to the narrow trail that cuts through the tall grass, meandering down to the creek bed.
Benji and Dad start skipping rocks; it takes about a minute for it to become a competition. Sue finds a spot that’s deep enough for her to sit in and settles there with the water lapping up and down between her chest and stomach. She turns over the smooth rocks, watching tiny minnows scatter and the small clouds of mud get swept away. No crawdads so far.
Once, she found an arrowhead mixed in among all the other rocks. It was a lustrous, speckled red-brown, its edges long since dulled with age. She had wondered if anyone would find something left from her after she was dead. If they did, it wouldn’t be as cool as an arrowhead. ‘Someone wrote ‘SUE’ on this rock,’ they would say in that distant future, ‘but we don’t think they were important.’
She’d scared Benji with the arrowhead, telling him it was haunted by an Indian ghost and then hiding it under his pillow that night. He’s too old for that to work anymore, but she feels like she might have been half right. Not because ghosts are real, but the person who had made the arrowhead had been, once, and sort of still is. The arrowhead sits at the bottom of a drawer in Sue’s room, an extant piece of a life long since lived.
So, maybe everything is haunted, because everything has been touched by someone. And everyone leaves pieces of themselves behind, even though they don’t mean to. The past never fully fades away. It’s a sea of ghosts, beneath the map.
“Sue!” Dad yells, breaking her from her thoughts. “We’re going back for lunch.”
She stands and walks heavily to the rocky bar, slow with the weight of the water and its cold. Her arms are covered in goosebumps despite the glaring sun. She looks back at the creek and she can see the impression where she’d been sitting; she wonders how long it’ll last.
Benji strides by, shaking off droplets like a dog. She’s about to fall into step with him when he raises his hands in front of her face, forcing her to halt. He’s got a toad perched on the seam between his palms, its tawny little eyes glittering like gold flakes.
“Kiss him, he’s a prince!” Benji says with a wide, mischievous smile.
“He’s your toad; you kiss him,” Sue counters.
“I tried, but he’s a reverse-toad prince. He needs a kiss from another toad.” Benji thrusts the toad even closer to Sue’s mouth. “He said no tongue.”
“Come on, guys!” Dad calls from further up the bank, distracting Benji.
Sue sidesteps her brother and gives him a five-star square on his developing sunburn. As Benji screeches the toad makes a heroic leap for freedom and flies in a graceful arc like a warty comet; it dives back into the welcoming waters of the creek with barely a ripple.
Ten out of ten, Sue thinks.
She wonders if toads can remember things like this.
Dad’s in charge of lunch, which means Sue and Benji each get a can of Campbell’s finest Chicken & Stars. Afterwards they convene in the kids’ room to kill some time with the Sega Genesis in the TV cabinet.
“Bet I can get past the Labyrinth Zone,” Benji says, grabbing the controller.
“Bet you can’t,” Sue says.
She’s right. Benji throws himself onto his bed in a huff, followed by the taunting tones of the Game Over music. Sue takes up the controller and makes it all the way to the Star Light Zone, earning an obscene gesture from Benji.
She pauses the game and goes out into the garage to grab a soda from the second fridge. Grandad keeps the place obsessively clean and the concrete floor is cool and smooth against her bare feet. It smells like oil and metal, underpinned by the acrid hint of gasoline. She finds Dad at one of the workbenches against the far wall. Curious, she comes up next to him to see what he’s working on.
“Just weighting these lines,” he tells her, crimping a lead ball onto the fishing wire.
“We fishing tomorrow?” Sue asks.
“Probably not tomorrow. We’re going shopping, remember?”
She watches his hands as he squeezes the pliers, smashing the lead closed. Dad works with his hands, always has. There are tiny white scars all over them, scratched onto the pitted leather of his skin like counting notches. They remind her of the sketches he sometimes draws, spindly pictures in blue pen made of dozens of quick little lines. The scars make his hand a weathered parchment, each small cut a scratched-in memory. It’s his history; and Sue’s, too. It’s the work he’s done for her, to bring her into the world, to bring her to the here and now. The scars of a family tree, drawn in thin white lines. Hers is the branch that skews towards the wrist, about to fall off the page.
“Benji said I should try talking to Mom,” Sue blurts out.
Dad’s practiced motions stop for a fraction of a second, the only sign of his surprise. “I think he’s right.”
Sue isn’t so sure. “What if it just makes things worse?”
The final lead weight goes onto the line. It dangles heavily from Dad’s fingers, straining towards the floor. “You won’t know unless you try, Susan.”
“I don’t even know what her problem is,” Sue mutters.
“She misses you.”
Sue frowns. “What? I’m right here.”
“Well, sometimes,” Dad says.
Sue rolls her eyes. “Yeah, thanks, I prefer my advice to be cryptic.” She grabs a soda from the fridge and stalks back into the house.
Truth is, she knows exactly what Dad’s talking about.
Fireworks tents back home are primarily filled with disappointment: weak smoke bombs, sparklers, maybe some snakes if you get lucky. Party favors passing themselves off as fireworks. Down here, it’s the real deal. Sue, Dad and Benji load up on the good stuff and back home they put everything in the shed where it will sit until they start setting up tomorrow afternoon.
Inside the house, Nanny’s in the kitchen prepping all kinds of food for the family who will arrive for the Fourth. Sue gets roped into helping, which she has long since resigned herself to. Chores are just a part of staying with Nanny and Grandad, the price of an otherwise great vacation. As Sue putters around the kitchen she can hear Benji running the weed eater at the side of the house while Grandad’s riding mower drones in the distance.
“How you likin’ vacation so far, Susie Q?” Nanny asks in her honeyed drawl as Sue dutifully chops carrots for a chicken pot pie.
“Good,” Sue says. Then, more animatedly, “We got a great haul this year from the tent. Tomorrow’s show will be awesome.”
“You always did love those fireworks,” Nanny remarks, and while there’s that same hint in her tone that Mom always has—the one that says ‘I don’t get it’—there’s something else there that Mom lacks: acceptance. “Well, I look forward to it, hon. Pass me that salt, wouldja?”
Mom passes by the kitchen with an armful of tablecloths, headed for the laundry. Sue keeps her head down and chops, fearing eye contact.
“You know we all want what’s best for you,” Nanny says.
There’s a part of Sue that wants to let it go, but she doesn’t. “Even if I’m moving away?”
“Well, we don’t hardly get to see you but once or twice a year anyway,” Nanny says with short laugh. “You aren’t moving to the moon, are yuh?”
Sue looks down at the half a carrot on the cutting board, surrounded by its own parted segments. “I’d still try to visit.”
“Well, that’s good for me and Grandad. But maybe your momma isn’t used to that. She’s used to having you around.”
Frustration surges through Sue, drowning out the first pangs of empathy. “Okay, fine, but why doesn’t it matter what I want? I thought it was my decision.”
“It’s your decision,” Nanny says mildly. “You’re eighteen now. I’m just sayin’ that it might be hard for your mother, that’s all. It doesn’t hurt to try and understand.”
Nanny isn’t the person Sue wants to vent at. She takes a deep breath through her nose. “I really would try to visit,” she murmurs, resuming her chopping.
“You’re always welcome,” Nanny tells her. “Always will be. You’re my number one granddaughter.” A gentle squeeze of Sue’s shoulder leaves behind the floury imprints of Nanny’s fingers, a white half-star.
Sue doesn’t bother to brush it off.
The next day Sue’s cousin Jessie arrives bright and early, rushing through the doorway with a big hug for everyone. She’s about three years older than Sue and every time Sue sees her she’s got another color in her hair or tattoo on her freckled skin. She’s loud and fun; Sue has always been close with her.
They take the ATV out like they always did when they were kids. They roar a circle around the house—careful to avoid the lip of the driveway so as to not crumble the asphalt—and swing wide around the walnut tree, racing down the hill with the wind howling in their ears. They cut through the neighbor’s yard and find the hole in the barbed wire fence on the far side. Past that is a long series of trails through the woods and fields, thickets of trees ending as suddenly as they begin, giving way to wide overgrown spaces where the grass whips at their exposed legs. Sue holds on tight to the bars across the ATV’s wide back, swaying with the terrain, every hard bump reverberating up her spine. It hurts, but it’s still a great time.
They roar through a clearing to the rocky embankment ahead. The ATV chugs up it, the tires sending small rocks clacking down the incline. At the top are the train tracks; Sue’s never seen or heard a train go through, but the tracks aren’t overgrown, so they must. A little way down the line is a rectangular white sign, rusted around the edges and pockmarked from someone’s BB gun.
Sue’s probably seen it a dozen times. If she’s asked about it before, though, she doesn’t remember.
“What does that mean?” she shouts close to Jessie’s ear.
“The sign. What does that mean?”
Jessie shrugs, goosing the ATV over a hump. “Dunno. Something to do with trains, I guess.”
She guns the engine and the ATV shoots forward past the sign. Sue wraps her arms around Jessie’s middle and doesn’t look back.
It’s getting close to evening. The house is filling up with extended family, clustering around the living room, congregating on the deck. Dinner soon, then fireworks as dusk descends. Sue gets her share of hugs and answers the same questions about college repeatedly. Yes, that far away. Yes, she’s excited.
At dinner she sits at the adult table for the first time, squeezed uncomfortably between Uncle Fred and her dad. She can hear Benji and her younger cousins goofing off at the other table and she kind of misses them, though she would never admit it. The kids’ table erupts with laughter, high and bright. Dad raises up in his chair a little to tell them to quiet down. The balance is restored. Sue thinks the weather is fine, yeah, definitely.
“Sue, can you pass the ham?” Mom asks.
The question hits exactly at a moment when the table falls temporarily silent, and suddenly the air is charged. Sue sees her dad watching her out of the corner of his eye, sees the quick glances that come her way. Does everyone know? What the hell do they think she’s going to do, refuse? Throw the ham in Mom’s face? What is this?
“Yep,” Sue says, and passes the ham down Mom’s way.
Maybe the crowded setting makes it clearer how awkward this all is; or maybe it’s just the last sign in a series. But this is the moment Sue decides to do something about it.
The show doesn’t start right after dinner. As the sun dips towards the far horizon there’s setting up to do while they wait for darkness. Sue carries out a few of the makeshift tables and boards to the base of the hill and then slips away, going through the garage and back to her room. In the hall she can hear the hollow echoes of clothing being dropped into the washing machine.
Mom is there with a laundry basket, working in the light from the overhead fan with her greying hair tied back. Sue pushes the door open but stays in the hall; it’s sort of a one-person room.
“Did you need to get something?” Mom asks with a brittle half-smile.
It’s one of life’s provided ironies that Mom and Sue look so much alike. Same small, rounded nose, same dark brown eyes, same lank black hair; same wide hips, curved lips and short square fingertips. They are books with the same cover, the pages reading in ways that wildly diverge. And if Sue lives in the clouds then Mom lives in the dirt, in the hard clay, on the solid ground with the solid people, God Bless America.
Sue picks up right where they left off a month ago, as if the space between one breath and the next has been erased and they are still standing in the wreckage of a screaming match, their house shaking with the sound. “It’s not about being better than anyone,” she tells her mother.
Mom doesn’t explode. “I know,” she says sadly. “I’m sorry I said that. I know that’s not what you think.”
Sue’s already lost her footing. She expected anger; she’s ready for a fight. “I… okay.”
Mom turns back to the laundry. She unfolds a shirt with a sharp, jerking motion, fingers digging into the fabric. “I just didn’t know you wanted to get away from me that badly,” she says, and there’s no rage. Just defeat.
Sue’s heart plunges, rattles around her ribcage. “Mom… No, it’s not… I’m not trying to get away from anyone.”
Mom faces Sue again, mouth pinched. “Then what? I don’t understand. What is it you can only learn across the country? We have schools back home, good schools—there are schools here you could go to, Jessie would love to have you as a roommate! Why do you have to go so far…?”
“I don’t know.”
The flat of Mom’s hand slaps disbelievingly against the top of the dryer. “Well that’s not good enough—”
“No, I mean I don’t know yet! The why, the…” Sue wants to reach around and pound on her own back until the words come out. “I— I’ve just always been at home, or here, and I want to know who I’ll be somewhere else. Doesn’t that make sense? I don’t know what’s over there, but I never will if I don’t go! I’ll just… be the same.”
“What’s wrong with that? There’s nothing wrong with you!”
Sue knows that she can keep trying to explain, but it won’t matter; Mom will never understand. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because she can’t. Mom’s world is small by design. What Sue wants is bigger; is outside.
“No, Mom…” Sue sighs. “I need to do something different, on my own. And even if you don’t get it, can’t you at least be cool with it?”
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to ‘be cool’ with my baby girl running halfway across the country,” Mom says tightly. Sue starts to brace herself for an onslaught. Then Mom takes a breath and her expression twists into a wry and melancholy resignation. “…but I’ll try.”
“I’m not running,” Sue says.
“Okay,” Mom says.
Sue steps forward and feels her mother’s arms wrap around her, and for a moment she is not eighteen and standing on the edge of an unknown tomorrow; she is a child finding solace in the safest space she knows.
That night, the air is cooling as the sun descends behind the Ozarks. The horizon glows with layered strata of orange below a thick band of violet as the moon crawls up and over the fading light. Sue plunders the cardboard boxes for the best explosives, setting them out by order of desire.
As Sue stands ready, she hears shoes brushing through the grass. She turns and sees Mom approaching. She’s holding a few cookies wrapped in a napkin.
“Thought you might want a snack,” she says.
Sue takes the cookies gratefully. “Thanks.” She’s not sure if she should say more. The air between them remains stilted.
Mom assesses the massed firepower with a raised eyebrow. “Your father always spends more than he should.”
“Looks about right to me,” Sue mumbles, unwilling to agree.
Mom rolls her eyes and for an instant Sue feels like she’s looking into the mirror again. “I’m sure. Have fun and be careful, okay?” Mom’s hand rises to briefly touch Sue’s, then falls away. “I’ll be watching.”
An unnamable feeling swells in Sue’s chest; a sweet ache like the opposite of heartbreak, like something clicking into long-absent place. “It’s going to be amazing,” she promises.
Mom smiles, though Sue thinks there is a soft sadness at the corners of her mouth and the bottoms of her eyes. “I know it will.”
The fireworks show is spectacular. When it’s her turn, Sue runs down the line of mortars with a propane torch and steps back to feel the deep, rhythmic thud of each launch in her chest. The explosions blast and sizzle against the black velvet of the empyrean, stars being born and dying in the same bursting instant, sending their crackling contrails to all sides and leaving behind the ghostly imprint of their smoke. It’s a war on eardrums and retinas, achingly loud and searing bright. The audience claps from their array of lawn chairs, lemonades and teas in hand.
Dad puts a hand on Sue’s shoulder. They watch as Benji shoves three bottle rockets into the PVC pipe all at once, showering the grass with sparks.
“Proud of you,” Dad says.
Another mortar goes off and the sound breaks across Sue’s face, the night fragrant with the smell of powder. This is hers, this moment. And there will never be another exactly like it.
Later, when everyone else has left or gone to bed, Sue steps up on the patio table and clambers onto the roof. She lies down on the scratchy shingles and looks upward. Above is a field of stars like bright, distant gems, dappled over the deep endless black of a universe which stretches away into unknown infinity. They disappear at the horizon in the barest remnant of the late day sun. It has sunk to nothing but the faintest tinge of amethyst at the very bottom edge of the sky, like the light from beneath a door.
The wind stirs the tree at the side yard and ruffles gently across roof, cool and welcoming. Stars wheel above, shingles brace below; the house sits on the hill and inside is her family. It is all one piece, one unbroken road glittering on the cosmic thread. She lies beneath the wide bright dark; listening, absorbing the world in its active slumber. Shining along with this single brilliant pebble winging through a limitless dark. Sue closes her eyes and just feels it. All of it.
And for a moment, she thinks—she knows—that she can feel the love that insulates against all that far-flung darkness, the ties that bind them to the earth and to each other. That they are not, cannot be, alone. There are candles in the constant. And each candle is a heart that burns until it lights another, passed palm to palm, cheek to cheek, until the rows become a choir. That joyous heightening becomes a murmur, becomes a clamor, becomes the bright curve of arcing song. The glow swells in her chest and flows to the tip of her tongue and the words are what she is to them and they to her and it’s right there; she can nearly hear the chorus. They are all who can love and are loved. Hers here with her, in the strings they tied themselves, in concert and company, in a copse.
She blinks. The stars come back into focus.
And it’s gone.
“Speak to Us on Freedom”
I had a ’91 Pontiac Grand Prix that was a real piece of work
Stuff was always falling off and you had to hold your mouth just right for it to start; not really a smile but more like a sarcastic grin
Sounded like Bevis and Butthead when it was running
I didn’t do much cleaning on the old beast and I swear you could make out the drawings of Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet in the dust on the dashboard
Wispy dancing muses
I would speak to it on freedom and it would get me to work
With us, both laughing all the way – huh huh huh huh huh
“The Drinking Game”
Half way down the glass
A bead of condensation
Not exactly straight
The wind is no factor
Nor the conversation
It must be the subtle film
Of oil from my touch
But I am convinced
It is always something
Changing the outcome
I wipe it away
With my thumb
And for my amusement
Here comes another
“You’re Old Country Now”
I wanted to describe you
As an old telegraph pole whose glass insulators had
Survived a hundred Missouri spring thunderstorms
And year after year of relentless wind and ice
Yet still ready to bring news of the gold rush and western lands
To the smallest towns
I wanted people to know that the forest’s attempts to swallow you whole
Were taking a toll but that you could carry on waiting
Waiting for revivals and handmade everythings
I wanted people to know that although you have been forgotten
You could still be found in hidden byways and valleys
Standing tall and dappled in the morning’s shadows
Insulators gleaming blue atop the cross timbers
Waiting for nothing now but the red feathered cardinal
To land upon the cross and sing
Blessings for the testament of your old America
“102 E. Clay”
The house had diminished throughout the years,
one could assume at one point it was perfectly perpendicular to the ground,
but there it stood,
tilted and slanted off of its foundation,
nothing more than a three-dimensional parallelogram,
its once stained-brown wood weathered into a mass of gray splinters.
Each room of the degrading monolith became an unsalvageable time capsule.
I drove by it every once and awhile,
coasting the car to stare at the relic.
I knew from the town’s gossip
that the house was built well over a century ago
and housed four generations worth of a family.
One day, city workers came by,
and taxpayers footed the bill
for the oldest house in the town being
disposed of and sent to the scrapyard.
The city claimed that the house was a hazard to children.
The neighbors swiftly conquered the land for pennies on the dollar,
and a housewife planted a garden full of watermelons
that were imprisoned behind a white picket fence.
Of course, I was never consulted on the matter.
Without much notice,
the memories of the house degraded within
the thoughts of the community
and though I had never had a home within that house,
seeing the vacant lot
on that block
caused me to feel like a trespasser in my hometown.
There would be no more voyeurs (like me) to imagine the history
that had been confined between those walls that were
insulated with the hollow yearning of progress,
by the arbiters of the original American Dream;
as the house was reduced
into some fragment on the town’s property line archives.
Sometimes words are missing
at the end of a sentence,
and in the absence
is a ghost of the mind.
It’s known that within all of our art
comes the fragrance of our own demise–
the construction of annihilation to blackmail the eyes.
I recently sold all of my canvases,
my easel, my paint, and all of my brushes,
I made more money off of that than all of my paintings,
what a convenient narrative:
that poor bastard with a dream.
The palate gets cleansed in a fury with absinthe,
as the body is now the canvas,
the brush gets traded for stainless steel:
sharp to the touch,
puncturing the skin to create a delicate precipice
as the silk cream icing
drowns the subject in the flowing magnum opus
that drips like a moldy faucet.
The reviews are missing;
the critiques and the words never come but aren’t necessary,
as no tapestry, painting, or sculpture can convey
the tranquil scene of the true image.
“The Puppeteer” “The Puppet”
She was once a graceful dancer I was once a graceful dancer
Every step was poised and lively, Every step was poised and lively,
Charming and gay Charming and gay
Until I tied strings to her hands and feet. Until he tied strings to my hands and feet.
Her dance became mine,
Then her once-poised steps grew circumspect,
I guide her through new choreographies
I pull strings for her every step I let him pull my every step
Through tearful eyes I watch my
now-careful feet step to each beat
They used to be so brave.
And still, And still,
Her feet match each beat to the music, My feet match each beat to the music,
through shaking knees and trembling hands through shaking knees and trembling hands
She doesn’t run offstage. I don’t run offstage.
Through each dance, I wear away the
I begin to love the steps I take again
and with every snapped string
My grace, my poise, my charm
Begins to come from me again.
“Train of Thought”
My thoughts always deviate
From the clear path set circumspectly
Before them; they
Dash from work to home
To what’s on tv at three
To in five years what could be
Suddenly the lingering
scent on my pillowcase
Transports to transparent times
When I could color
the sky eloquent emerald
And decorate the grass a vivid indigo,
When dreaming was easier to come by.
Take me back to when dad made breakfast each morning
The smell of cinnamon in the air as I get dressed
But not too far back
Towards darker days of fighting and yelling
Bouncing off the house walls,
Take me forward
To the no-homework, bills-are-due days
To the dancing in my own home with no pants on days
To days where I see my lover everyday days,
Then, zip, zap, whoosh!
Like the wind brushing my hair,
Goes the never-ending train of thought
To each and every