Michael’s eyes flash in the flickering light of the fireplace as his story reaches its climax. He likes the way his story makes Beth squirm, but he’s overdoing the theatrics, trying to get a reaction from John. I listen carefully, using the climax of the story as an excuse to curl closer to Kyle.
“He lunged at the knife in his attacker’s hand. He wanted to kill the girl. He couldn’t help himself. Tears blurred his vision, but his anger propelled him forward to overpower the stunned girl. And without hesitation, he stabbed her in the stomach. One penetrating blow into the hot, slick flesh wasn’t enough for him. No. He stabbed the girl again, and again, and again until the blade finally slipped in his bloody hand, slicing his palm open. Done with that. He went to find his lover’s body, weeping over the almost decapitated corpse.”
Michael stares at each of us in the silence, letting the images from his horror story sink into our psyche. Beth has an iron clad grip around John’s arm and her face buried in his shoulder. I try not to laugh at Beth’s overreaction and Michael’s theatrics as he finishes. Somehow, he has roped us into sitting next to the fireplace as he waves a flashlight in his face attempting to scare us all. This is not how I planned for the weekend to go, but I’m content right now, sitting next to Kyle who cannot take his eyes off of Michael and his story.
Once he feels like the silence has completed its purpose, Michael lowers his voice, angling the flashlight under his face so the contours of his features are more pronounced.
“He glared at the body of his attacker, angry he could not reanimate it for the sole purpose of killing her again. He didn’t want to remember what had happened and what he had done. He grabbed the spare tanks of gasoline from the shed, spreading the contents throughout the house, taking slight pause in his work to douse each body thoroughly. Outside, in the night, he threw a lit match on the doused steps, watching calmly as the cabin was quickly engulfed in flames, burning brighter than the stars in the sky. Satisfied. He walked away without looking back, not wanting to think of that dismal weekend ever again. Today, he walks among us as a broken man.”
Once Michael finishes his story the spell breaks, and Beth fills the silence. “Did they really have to be in a cabin in the woods? I’m terrified now.” Beth’s voice breaks as she cautiously looks from around John’s shoulder.
“So it worked.” Michael says with a charming wink.
John gently pries Beth away from him, shaking his arm to regain blood flow. “At least someone makes it to the end. It should have been the black guy for once. You know, mix it up a bit. You should have thrown in a lesbian, a samurai, or a witch. They are very underrepresented parties in the creepy campfire genre.”
“Or, their parents could have showed up and baked them cookies. Well, not in my story, buddy.” Michael retorts, slightly annoyed at John’s slight critique.
John ignores him turning to Kyle, “What did you think of it, Kyle Earl Scott?” He smiles at the mention of his full name. John’s the only one that calls Kyle by his full name. It’s weird.
“I think there was a great moral to the story.” Kyle looks between me and Beth as if he knows he’s about to say something he shouldn’t. “Chicks are crazy.”
“Shut up.” I playfully hit Kyle across the shoulder, but all of the boys can’t stop laughing.
“Ow, Natasha,” Kyle rubs his shoulder, speaking only after his fits of laughter subside. “It was only a joke.”
Beth doesn’t respond to Kyle’s comment at all. She’s still terrified from the story. She has her hands clasped together, shaking in her lap. Her makeup is smudged all over her face, but her hair is still tied back immaculately, a glimpse of Beth’s true nature when she’s not scared out of her mind. “Can someone please turn on the lights? And get some firewood? I’m freezing.” Beth starts rambling off demands that are hidden as requests.
I like the cold. I like the draft that’s natural to the cabin and the random creaks of the old wood. It comforts me to know that this place has history. People have lived here. People have died here. It’s wonderful.
Michael turns on the light, while John offers himself and Kyle to go get the firewood. Kyle agrees because he’s a nice guy, but I want him to stay. That is the whole point of the weekend, for me to be with Kyle. But, somehow, John got invited and then Beth and Michael. I’m just trying to make the best out of the situation. Think positive like the book my mom gave me tells me to.
John puts on his letterman jacket before leaving, beckoning for Kyle to follow, “C’mon. We have tiring work ahead of us.”
“Don’t worry Natasha.” Kyle gently adds, still trying to get away, “If a mad slasher woman comes barreling through the woods, Michael will be here to protect you.”
“Yeah. Whatever,” I can only roll my eyes at the ludicrous comment, before finally letting go of him.
“Fat chance,” Michael retorts from the kitchen. “I know what happens to people like me. We die. First sign of trouble, I’m hopping in my car and driving until I get a signal on my phone. It’s everyman for himself. Survival of the fittest. It’s only natural for-” The rest of his rant is lost in muffles as he begins to stuff his face with food.
“You don’t mean that,” Beth snaps, slowly getting back to her normal self. She’s opened a compact mirror and has begun to put back on the foundations of her face.
“It’s okay,” John remarks in the frame of the door, obviously eager to get out into the night. “If you scream loud enough, we’ll come running back.” Kyle slips out the door behind John and the wait for him to come back begins.
“You ladies hungry?” Michael momentarily surfaces from in the kitchen, offering us a plate of food.
Beth waves him away with a hand, and I leave as an answer. I don’t like either of their presence here, ruining my weekend away with Kyle. I go upstairs to my room. My parents and I move around a lot because bad things always seem to happen around us. This cabin has been in the family for years, and it just so happens that this year we live close enough to it that I can use it on a regular basis, instead of as a vacation destination. I haven’t been back long enough to redecorate my room, so it is still filed with all of the things I loved when I was seven. Random CDs and a picture of me and my best friend at the time at the pool are scattered on my dresser. Her name was Alice. I saw her drown. Then we moved for the third time in two years.
The Secret, a book my mom gave me so long ago but I only recently cracked open, lays on the bookshelf as the only new addition. My mom gave it to me as a not so subtle hint. I resented her at first, but I’ve been trying to follow what it says about positive thinking lately. If the start of this weekend is any indication, positive thoughts don’t work.
Someone knocks on my door. Michael pops his head around the wood, with the last vestiges of his sandwich disappearing between his lips. If I’m not with Kyle, I want to be alone, but Michael can’t seem to get the hint.
“Go away,” Even before I spoke, I knew my command would fall on deaf ears. He walks into my room anyway and sits next to me on my bed. Wait. Positive thoughts. Hopefully Michael will get hungry again an walk away.
Michael begins to do the most irritating thing he could possibly do right now. He opens his mouth and words start to come out. “I’m trying to figure you out. You invite us all down here yet-”
“I didn’t invite all of you.” I interrupt him, trying to make it clear that this weekend has not been going the way I wanted it to. If he knows that I positively don’t want him here then maybe he’ll go away. “I only invited Kyle.”
“Oh, if that’s the case then let me tell you right now that it’s not gonna happen, sweetheart. Trust me.” Michael smiles as if he’s laughing at an inside joke. “Don’t waste anymore time on him.”
Positive thoughts aren’t working. Michael isn’t going away, so I have to make him got away.
“Follow me,” I say with a smile, instantly switching strategies.
“Um, okay,” Michael stutters before stupidly following me into the bathroom. “What’s going on?”
“I just want to show you something,” I turn on the shower first then quickly look for the knife I used to keep in here. “Here it is.”
I turn around and jam the dull knife in Michael’s neck. He doesn’t even have enough time to look surprised. A soft gurgle escapes his red lips, but his noises are drowned out by the shower. His fingers weakly grab at me as I stab him again with more precision, making sure to hit a major artery. He crumples on the floor in front of me. For fun, I stab him in the chest, his last heart beat reverberates from the steel of the blade to tingle the palm of my hand.
“Everyman for himself, right?” I whisper mockingly over Michael’s corpse. Not wasting any time, I drag his body over to the bathtub. First, I lift his legs into the tub, then the rest of his body. I’m covered in blood so I decide to take a shower while I’m here. The water feels nice cascading down my back as I straddle Michael’s body, my feet completely immersed in his blood. With one down, I have two more to go before I’m alone with Kyle. This weekend might not be so bad after all.
After I’m all cleaned off, I hear boots and the door opening downstairs. That has to be Kyle returning. I can’t help the smile that engulfs my face and the excitement I feel as I put on fresh clothes.
I reach the bottom of the steps before I can see Kyle. His smile beams as he puts his logs on the fire with one hand, using the other to brush leaves and twigs out of his dirty hair. If we were alone, Kyle and I would be sitting next to the fire together. He would whisper in my ear and I would-
“Where’s Michael?” Beth interrupts my thoughts.
“I don’t know,” I answer with a shrug of my shoulders, switching my attention from Beth to John. “You guys didn’t bring back enough firewood.”
“That’s all we could find. We checked everywhere,” John shares a laugh with Kyle for some reason.
“Well you didn’t go in the shed. That’s where we keep most of the firewood. Follow me John. I’m going to need some help,” This time John follows me out the door, and we make the short trek to the shed.
“So why do you call Kyle by his full name?” I ask, wanting to know before I kill him.
John opens up easily, “With a name like Kyle Earl Scott, how could you not?” John gets oddly animated when talking about Kyle’s name. “It’s so perfect. Each part of his name could be a first name. And it’s like you just know one of his parents wanted to call him Earl and the other didn’t want their son to go through his childhood years with the name of a grandpa. And it’s just one of those names you have to say it fully because it just sounds better. And of course, once I started calling him by his full name, I couldn’t stop.”
We finally make it to the shed, and I let John enter first. I follow, but instead of going to the piles of firewood, I go to the back of the shed, grabbing my axe. I stand there for a moment contemplating what John said about Kyle’s full name. Kyle Earl Scott. Kyle Earl Scott. Kyle Earl Scott. It sounds nice, but I don’t like it. Kyle Scott sounds better.
I turn around and John is still bent over the pile of firewood. Without a moment’s hesitation, I swing the axe high, aiming for his neck. I feel a satisfying thunk as the blade of the axe connects with bone. Blood splatters against the wall and along the piles of wood but thankfully none gets on me. I could explain one costume change but not two. Beth already thinks I’m weird.
John slumps onto the ground, his head jutting off at an unnatural angle but still connected to his body. I’m impressed with my work. John has a thick neck, but I easily cut through half of it with one swing. Those trips to the gym have been paying off.
I want to move him into my bathroom so all of the bodies are in the same place. I wrap John’s body in a tarp and drag him to the back door of the house. I make sure Beth and Kyle Scott are not around before entering the house. For being a starting football player, John is oddly light. I get him to my bathroom without any problems. When I come back downstairs Kyle Scott and Beth are sitting on the couch together, looking worried.
“What’s wrong?” I feign concern.
“Michael. We can’t find him anywhere and his car is still here.” Beth answers truly concerned.
“Where’s John?” Kyle Scott asks, his eyes wide with panic.
“He’s still getting firewood. Calm down.” I answer, sitting next to him on the couch and grabbing his hand. “Maybe Michael saw trouble and left. Everyman for himself and whatnot.” I say with a half hearted laugh.
“But his car is still here.” Beth says, clinging to logic.
“We can look for them again if you want,” I say, giving in so I can get her alone with me. “You and I can check upstairs and Kyle Scott can stay down here.”
“What did you call me?” Kyle Scott asks stunned.
“Kyle Scott. I like the way it sounds.” I look at him, wanting him to smile like he did when John said his full name, but I don’t even get a smirk. That will change when we’re finally alone.
I walk upstairs and Beth follows. “We should look in my room first since it’s at the top of the stairs.”
Beth can’t find the words to answer but she nods. Beth had just finished putting herself back together, now she’s starting to unravel again. Her usually pristine nails are chewed to bits. Her clothes seem ruffled and her face seems to be riddled with lines. She is stressing herself out and it is tearing her apart. If I toyed with her a bit more, I bet she would go crazy and take her own life. But I don’t have that kind of time.
I slip into the bathroom, grabbing the knife I used to kill Michael. I do have some time. Maybe I can gag her and have a little fun. I could get rid of the rest of her nails or make my own lines on her body. The knife is old and dull so it will hurt, and I will be able to see the pain in her eyes. I scurry out the bathroom in my excitement, careful not to open the door too wide.
Immediately, I see the red cover of The Secret flying at my face, knocking me on the head. Someone throws me against the wall and my feet give out from underneath me.
“It’s you. You’ve done something to them?” Beth says calmly while kicking the knife out my hand. For once someone has taken me by surprise. “Michael goes to look for you then we can’t find him. John gets wood with you, and he still hasn’t returned. Where are they? What have you done?” Again her questions demand answers.
I try to get off the floor but she kicks me back down. Instead, I tackle her knees, taking her down with me. We grapple on the floor, but I easily gain the advantage. I wrap my arm around her neck, pulling tight. She struggles. Who knew Beth would be the fighter in the group? I like it. I like not knowing if she will overpower me or not. She struggles and struggles until she’s finally still in my arms.
“Is everything okay up there?” Kyle Scott yells from below while running up the stairs. Panicked, I quickly kick Beth’s body into the bathroom, unable to fully close the door before Kyle Scott finally barges in.
Getting over my initial panic, I can’t help but smile. We’re finally alone.
“What’s going on? Where’s Beth?” He belts, frantically walking to the other end of the room as if one of his friends will magically appear.
“She’s down the hall, looking for Michael.” I answer calmly.
“I heard something in here, though. It sounded serious.”
“That was just my books falling.” I lie unconvincingly as Kyle Scott’s eyes find the smallest book on the floor. He raises an eyebrow, trying to connect the amount of commotion with the small novel. I should really get better at lying on the spot. I don’t want to have to kill Kyle Scott. That would make this weekend a waste.
His eyes find the knife instead still coated with Michael’s blood and his eyes turn wide. “John never came back. Michael is gone and now Beth. What have you done, Natasha?”
“Nothing,” I answer. “I just wanted for us to have a nice weekend together and they were in the way.” I try to grab Kyle Scott’s arm and pull him toward the bed but he doesn’t budge.
I can tell that he’s not taking it well. My parents didn’t take it well the first time they found out either. I don’t want to hurt him, but I might be forced to. Maybe, he will see that I did this all for him.
“Natasha. Where are they?” Kyle growls at me, demanding an answer. I point to the bathroom. He gently tries to open the door but is stopped by Beth’s body. He steps over her body and disappears behind the door.
“No! No!” Kyle Scott yells as he fully begins to comprehend what I’ve done.
“But we’re alone now. We can be together.” I try and convince him through the door, but I pick up the knife in preparation.
“I’m gay, Natasha!” Kyle Scott yells barreling through the bathroom door, blood on his hands and tears streaming down his face. I see the fury in his eyes, and he lunges at the knife in my hand.
I’ve already been told what’s going to happen next. I’ve already lived this life. This is the story of how I die.
A minute passed— he could feel his insides burning up, his hands felt liquid-like
“You need to open me up.”
“Owen, I can’t! I don’t know how!”
He took a big gulp of air and let it out slowly, “Here’s how you’re going to—”
“No! No! I can’t do this. I’m scared!”
Owen knew there was no one coming. He knew he didn’t have much longer, he was going to lose consciousness any second,
“Lori, you have to. Please. Relax. You can do this.”
She started to sob, “Maybe they’re coming! Maybe someone heard the car roll down the hill!” She started to look around frantically.
“Look at me!” He gasped, “Look at me. You’re going to go back into the car and get my hunting knife. There should be a kit where I keep my sewing gear,” She kept nodding, “Okay. You’re going to see a lot of blood. Don’t freak out, okay?” Nod, “You’re going to cut just under my chest all the way to my navel, about two inches. I’m going to pass out, make sure to keep me on my back.”
“You need to get a hold of my liver. I punctured it going down the hill. I’m not sure of the damage, but that’s the source of the bleeding.”
“What if I kill you?”
“I’m already a dead man.”
He shouldn’t have taken the scenic route, he didn’t see the goddamn edge, it was too dark, he just wanted to get home—
“Lori, I’m sorry—”
“I didn’t think our third date would include me cutting into you,” He chuckled a little, blood escaped from the corner of his mouth.
Lori got the knife from the wrecked car, “I’m going to marry you if you save me. I promise.”
She dragged the knife across his body.
The screaming woke up the nearby owl.
Wedding bells drowned his memory.
You and I have had a rough relationship. You’ve been lacerating me for as long as I can remember. When I attended my first wedding you pressed so deeply into my five year old skin that it must have drawn blood and I couldn’t say how, but I thought those red petals might have been made of broken glass, the way they stung me. Looking back I see that it was really you. You were always making me bleed. Every time the sun sank exhausted to the horizon, recklessly anointing the earth with the last of its warmth, every time the night sky was mercilessly punctured by gleaming points, I was left breathless with pain. You didn’t need an entire sky, you know. A single blade of grass, in your hands, is enough to leave bruises on my soul.
But, I have always been the one to use you. I kept you on my shelves. I posted you along my streets, left you out in the rain, just to keep me from getting lost. I stretched you thin across an entire continent and let you burn yourself out into the atmosphere, until they called you pollution. But, please believe, I just wanted you to be a part of every where I call home. Because, to be honest, I never want to lose the pain your loveliness has always created beneath my ribs.
There’s this redhead I like, beautiful always, but only lets it show sometimes when she lets her hair down and it gets hot enough that she wears only her undershirt, instead of those ridiculous sweaters I’m sure somebody must have made her.
The entirety of our friendship is me talking to her about my issues as she drives these back-roads in the middle of the night. I want someone to talk to, but I think she’s after adventure. We’re always going further and further away.
I asked her out once; it was awkward and didn’t go over well.
Eventually she met this friend of mine and took his mind off someone else’s fiance.
And that little ember is emailing me still, and I’m still responding ‘cause I think maybe, just fuckin’ maybe, she’s reachin’ out after making a mistake, and she wants to flirt and talk like we used to, but she just keeps goin’ home with him, just keeps kissin’ him, just keeps fuckin’ him. She just keeps emailin’ me.
The woman with the suns in her eyes shows up in this somewhere. She starts as a drinking buddy for me and my good friend as we drink shot after shot of cheap whiskey and tequila in a little house just behind the campus chapel. Snow or ice we walk ourselves there and get shit-faced, snow or ice, we walk back singing songs to ourselves.
And the woman who owns the house gets tired of watching us drink eventually, and she wants to go out and see the beautiful midnight Arkansas that I mumble about sometimes when I’m feeling pensive, and we all pile into her little Honda and listen to Muse and Shiny Toy Guns and Brittany Spears and just everything she has in these beat-up cd cases underneath her front seats. We crank the music, and us three drunkards keep the party flowing, passing mixed drinks back and forth and singing. And we wander up mountain roads in the dark, parking where we can to look out at the lights of our little city way way down in the valley. We climb out on the bluffs sometimes and build fires, rummaging for wood in the national forest. None of us know how legal this is, and we all cringe at lights flashing past the trees above us, fantasies of getting dragged off in cuffs by burly policemen and explaining to anyone else stuck in the drunk tank that we got snatched for building a fire, of all things, or explaining to the school why three freshman and a sophomore, all underage, are drunk enough to tip a breathalyzer at ten paces.
We’re in that fluorescent beast of a general store that Bentonville Arkansas was kind enough to give to the world, and I see this black plastic serrated flip knife on the rack for a dollar. I buy it to make the wood gathering and breaking easier.
Of course, the woman who owns the house just buys a fuckin’ machete.
-Stephen T. Kennedy
Next - Birthday Gift
428. The Peeping Tom's Frustration
The name of this story is “The Peeping Tom’s Frustration.” There should be T-shirt that sez, I’m with James Thurber.
My neighbors thought I was strange for doing what I do. What I do is: I stare into other people’s homes. I take walks at night, under the moon that peeks out from the velvet linen of the night sky and bends like a beautiful woman’s kneecap in the sky, and enjoy the dioramic delights of my neighbors’ inner lives.
It is hard to not enjoy them.
They are so much on display it is hard not to look.
This is often what I say to them when they come yelling and screaming at me. That is, they only yell and scream if they see me. Most do not see me. Or at least used to. I am very good at not being seen. Or at least used to.
It is different now.
Sometimes I think it is this: it is that they are looking out for people watching them. I think it is a strange want within them that they desire me to look in on them doing domestic things in the privacy of their inner sanctums.
What is stranger than my staring at my neighbors is: my neighbors think I am strange when I do not stare into their homes. They will stomp out of their homes and cross the street and stand there in their underwear, imploring me to come out of their neighbor’s bushes. Is there something wrong with us? they ask themselves. Do we not excite you? they ask me.
All I can do is shrug my shoulders.
It is an epidemic of sorts in my neighborhood.
Being a Peeping Tom is very hard.
The Taylors have begun eating their family dinners in the nude with the bright chandelier on. Mrs. Svey seems to constantly be trying on pairs of stockings and garters. Mr. and Mrs. Byrne make sure to open their windows and use their best theatrical voices when they commence their knockdown-dragout fights.
Rarely do I need to hide anymore.
Rarely do I need to even leave the house.
I feel bored at all the un-mystery. I feel powerless, sitting in my chair, peeping out my window.
Mr. Close walks down the street in high heels screaming at his daughter on the phone, asking her why she is such a bitch who will never grow up. Across the street, the Dorsets have moved their bed out onto the front lawn and perform strange and wild sex acts while their dog, Udo, watches from the house.
And this strikes me for some reason. I feel an odd kinship with the faraway, inhuman face in the window across the street. This face of Udo: his soft lonely nose and eyes in the window, watching with interest his masters hump trapezoidally on their bed outside, every now and again expressing his contempt for such displays of bawdy showmanship by barking.
All that in Udo’s face, which could be mine.
Also this: a silent wishing that his humping was just as mysteriously free and mysteriously poetic and mysteriously alive with eyes.
Today I downed some vodka after school. Otto was there but he didn’t drink anything. He brought along his typewriter and we sat in my bedroom and ordered a pizza. At three in the afternoon. You know, some days I wish Otto would just go crazy. He’s too nice. I want him to snap my rib cage open and bury his face in my cavernous chest and come out and kiss me with my blood on his teeth. I want him to really like me.
I am Ben Willoughby. A car struck me dead but I am alive. There are red streaks across the pavement where I once lay; they look like the stripes of our flag. I am Ben Willoughby, I come back swishing angels in my mouth. I died red and he will die pale, watch as they hang him and burn flowers at his feet. What do you mean I am not Ben Willoughby?
Some things are unforgivable. When he dug into me the thing between my legs became a mouth. It spewed curses and now he is buried where my mouth cannot bite him. Girls: you are more terrifying than you know. He will remember you and he will burn, he will die and he will burn, and when you piss on his grave at night he will taste you and call you Maria.
(Evil evil evil oh shit here he comes. Malice—bladed edges—trees bleeding sap when he passes by; he sucks them dry. He sucks and sucks and sucks everything dead: flora and fauna and faunlets and saints. What do we pray to, where do we go? Andrew is Rome, Andrew is Avignon, Andrew is cathedrals with child-bone organs. Andrew is our holy land, Andrew is our mecca. Andrew is what happens when God is an infant.)
Spring Cleaning, Summer Jobs
When I turned sixteen the first thing I did after getting my driver’s license was load up my mom’s taupe 2000 Toyota Camry with all my old notebooks full of stories, ramblings, and errata dating as far back as fifth grade, and I drove them fifteen miles away to the dumpster at the back of a meat and cheese store in Columbia Station and threw them all away.
Then I tried to go to the mall but got lost. I ended up calling my mom to ask her for directions. When I arrived at the mall, I put in job applications for Delias, Bath & Body, Electronics Boutique, the Gap, and the pet store. The Gap hired me, then moved me to the Old Navy on the other side of the state route when they realized I wasn’t eighteen.
When I turned eighteen, the first thing I did was drive down to the Cuyahoga County courthouse in downtown Cleveland to find a magistrate and file for a legal name change. I got lost on the way. When I got there, I ponyed up $110 of my semi-hard-earned retail money to file for a name change and place an announcement in a legal registry. After six weeks of public vetting and no documented complaints from any parties, my name went from Erika Dawn Bohannon to Erika Dawn Price.
I worked at an Old Navy for a little over a year until I was fired for not signing people up for their bullshit exploitative credit card. Also maybe for hiding in the men’s department folding shirts and not talking to anyone and for staging sword fights with the long tubes of wrapping paper after hours. I told my friends I’d quit because the managers made us follow black customers around (they did) and because a senior sales associate kept answering the phone like, “Welcome to Old Navajo, how may I scalp you?” (she didn’t, but she talked about it).
When I was fired from Old Navy I went on another madcap self-loathing fueled search for employment and, after about a month, ended up at a Hallmark in the bad mall with the good Santa. I worked there for a year and a half, stealing jelly beans, box cutters, plastic jewelry, ceramic tchockes, and Gold Crown stickers (all with the junior manager’s encouragement), chatting with the mall’s resident wackjobs, and masturbating in the stock room when I was supposed to be unpacking Precious Moments figurines.
I quit to become a lifeguard at a small neighborhood pool shaped like a kidney bean. I swam, I told kids stories from atop my perch, I played Spank Rock and NPR despite everyone’s protestations, and I masturbated in the pump room.
I went to college and became a secretary. Then a computer lab manager. You can infer what I did during my down time there. I took a job running psychological experiments and entering data, and stayed there until graduation. Now, in graduate school I conduct experiments and teach statistics to nursing majors, for some reason. I also make personal copies on the copy machine and eat the Political Science Department’s popcorn and hot cocoa surreptitiously in the middle of the night.
From age sixteen to twenty-five I have never been unemployed for more than a month. I’ve always saved money off my paychecks. I’ve been effortlessly mediocre at basically everything. I’ve taken some kind of license to be disgusting at every place I’ve ever worked.
At some point, at the pool where I worked, I took up writing again. I sat by the glassy-still water with my back turned to the neighborhood, and god only knows what I wrote, because I threw it all away too, in the trash where the dead mice that got caught in the water filters went. I wrote in the backrooms and closets and work stations of all my other jobs, too, but always as surreptitiously as if I had been masturbating. I always crunched the papers up and stuffed them in my apron pocket or down into the trash.
But really, if I really want to get down to the bottom of the practice, it all started before I was legal to work a job. At thirteen I got paid under the table to stand beside the Funhouse’s spinning barrel and hit an emergency stop button if anyone attempted a handstand, broke their neck, started fucking, or got hurt (they all did). It was a sixteen-hour day in the stifling heat, in the dirt across from the stand where you could have your picture taken with a chained-up mentally-impaired white tiger.
This was before the days of ipods. I just stood there, back to the rustbucket semi-truck-loaded spinning barrel contraption, stuffing out the screams and peals of delight and stared into the dusty morass of barely-clad Midwestern bodies slogging from one fried food stand to another. Two tickets to ride, or two dollars, keep moving forward, hands down, stop that right now I swear or I’ll hit this button, I’ll blow this whole thing to ribbons, I’ll unleash the tiger and the horses and I’ll let the kids who do chainsaw tricks everyday at 1 and 3pm run free, I swear to god if you don’t. Stop. Doing a make-out handstand in that godforsaken barrel. You bastards.
There was nothing to do but write in my head. Which doesn’t count, of course. Imagined drafts are always perfect.
I took the money ($300 in all for a week’s work) and started a bank account. Little Erika Bohannon, junior savings, and I accrued that shit until one day I dipped into it, $7000 at eighteen, to buy myself a new name, new checks, new state ID, new social security card, and all the other trappings. I threw all kinds of things out before I left for school, more than I actually kept, and never spoke a word about them to anyone, so it almost seemed like nothing was gone at all.
A dark blue pickup truck is parked in the middle of an empty field underneath a midnight sky full of twinkling stars. The cab is dark, but the radio is on and slow music flows from the open windows. In the bed of the truck, a couple of thick blankets are spread out and the tailgate is pulled down.
There’s a pair of people a few yards from the truck, dancing barefoot in the soft grass. His arms are wrapped around her waist, hands resting on her lower back. Her forearms sit on his shoulders, hands set loosely on the back of his neck, fingers intertwined. She looks up at him, pink lips stretched into a wide smile. When the song ends, he kisses her forehead and pulls her hands from his neck, leading her back to the truck. He picks her up and sits her on the tailgate, making her giggle.
“Tell me something.”
“Hmm?” He stays standing, setting his hands on the tailgate, on either side of her legs.
She rests her hands on her lap, looking down at them. “Do you love me?”
He leans forward, kissing her cheek. “Yes.” His voice is a whisper, breath tickling her skin.
She turns her head slightly. With their lips barely centimeters apart, she whispers “And I love you” before kissing him firmly.
Sprawled out on her bed, a book in her hands, the corners of the pages flutter in the breeze coming from her partially opened window. Rather than reading, she’s simply staring outside.
The spring day is warm and bright. She can hear the faint sound of children laughing, probably running through their yards, bare feet gliding across soft grass. She sighs, closing the book and letting it drop to the floor. She rolls onto her back and stares at the ceiling.
A soft ‘clink’ catches her attention. She sits up, looking toward the window. Another ‘clink’ and she watches something small bounce off of the frame and land on the carpet. She climbs off the bed and walks over to it, snatching it up. Small, gray, an odd shape. A pebble. Her eyebrows pull together. She opens the window all the way and leans out.
He looks up at her, using one hand to shield his eyes, standing right at the edge of the shade coming from the tree in the yard. She tosses the pebble out and it lands a few feet away from him. She smiles, leaning out a little more. “What are you doing here?”
“Came to get you.”
She tilts her head. “For what?”
He grins. “We’re going swimming.”
A creek, the water clear enough to see the bottom, hidden behind a thick line of trees and shrubbery.
She’s laughing, the sound echoing in the air, but he’s the only one around to hear it. From her midriff down, she’s soaked. The bottom half of her tank top, her shorts, and most of her skin. The water is cool, but comfortable, and he chuckles when she splashes him. His hair is wet, beads of water dripping down his forehead and cheeks.
He splashes back, soaking the rest of her shirt and drenching her hair, causing strands of auburn to stick to her skin. She shrieks, still smiling, and tries to get him back, but he moves out of the way. He grabs her wrist gently, pulling her toward him. She looks up at him, the sun lighting up her dark blue eyes. He reaches up, wiping the wet hair from her face and leaning down to kiss her. She winds her arms around her neck, hugging herself to him as she kisses him back.
A beautiful day, a refreshing creek, and him. It was perfect.
Curled up in her bed, face buried in his chest, listening to his heartbeat. She knew he was still awake, though, from the feeling of his fingers running through her hair. She smiles to herself, slowly falling asleep. But when he moves a bit and his fingers stop, it makes her curious. She adjusts her head, looking at him. He’s staring up at the ceiling.
He shifts his gaze and smiles at her in the dark. “I was thinking.”
She sits up slightly, watching him. “About what?”
“What about me?”
“Well…” He sits up and she catches the outline of his hand, moving into his pocket. “There was something I wanted to ask you. But I didn’t know what you’d say.”
“Then ask and I guess you’ll see.”
He chuckles and leans over, flicking on the bedside lamp. In his hand is a box, small and white. He gauges her reaction before flipping the top up. It opens with a quiet ‘click’.
Silver band, a modest sized diamond set in a square with two smaller, circular ones on either side of it along the band.
The room is quiet for a moment and he’s the one who speaks first.
“Will you marry me?”
Without hesitation, she jumps forward, wrapping her arms around him and he’s careful not to drop the box. “Of course I will!”
He smiles, pulling the ring out and sliding it on her left ring finger. He sets the now empty box on the bedside table and watches her admiring the ring. When she looks at him again, tears are starting to bead up in the corners of her eyes. He kisses her softly, turning out the light. He lies back and she curls up again, snuggling close to him. He falls asleep, but she stays awake, using the pad of her thumb to feel the smooth band on her finger.
we are pronouns
[this is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Hope you all enjoy. does contain a mention of suicide—cory]
My sister and I used to talk about reporting. How a journalist could come back from a place like Afghanistan, having seen people torn in half by land mines from a war they had never even been born for, having watched buildings full of orphans or school girls erased in a puff of powderized brick and mortar. And yet they still call such places Eden. They fall in love with the place as it is dying.
My sister did the same thing, I think, though what it was she fell in love with I’ll leave to others to riddle out. If there’s anything she taught me, it’s that we are pronouns.
I came two years after my sister was born albino. No one had expected it. I’m told some albinos are born with red eyes, like mice, but hers were just brown. Mother was a Spanish major in college (she ended up working in real estate), and though they had already picked out Brooke for her, they decided on Albina as a name: a female albino, I suppose. Thus locking albinism into her identity, her most defining characteristic, a name givable only to someone who foremost lacks pigment.
So I inherited Brooke. I was born to contrast my sister, I suppose. At birth, I already supported a curly mop of dark brown hair and olive skin. Dad still swears that it’s because of all the olive oil mom cooks with and hence ingested during pregnancy. Why Albina came out so pale given this is left to the universe. She once asked mother how much flour had been used in every meal leading up to her birth, which sent Dad and I guffawing and mother eye-rolling till she walked out. I remember Albina had turned around, shrugged a sad smile, and gone up to her room. Dad and I had stopped laughing instantly. There’s something about an introvert smiling that gives pause to even the most amused comedian, the beautiful carnage it seems to imply.
Dad had names for us. Yin, he called Albina, and me he called Yang. I don’t know if he, or any of us, ever bothered to look up if he had got the coloration right. But it stuck like that. He’d call us in from playing horses or secret agent or on the tire swing by shouting, “Yo, Y-Girls! Dinner time!” in that tone that only a father has and only a daughter notices. I wonder at the fathers that have sons, or no children at all, their voices’ tones forever unnoticed. But our Dad’s was well regarded, though I only had this realization years later.
We got along in our early years, as we did for much of our lives, though it was obvious from the start that I would be the outgoing, miniature adult and she the kid that brought a book to recess. Not to say that she wasn’t an outdoor house cat.
I remember one instance (I must have been about nine or ten and she eleven or twelve) where she knocked on my door as I was building single-dimension starships out of legos.
“Brooke,” she said, “I got a surprise.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be a surprise then.”
So I let her lead me outside, past Mother reading her magazine.
“Where are you two going?” she asked, looking up. She had just had her hair cropped off into the middle-age-acceptance-graying-pixie cut.
“Outside,” Albina said. “To play.”
“Did you put sunscreen on?”
“It’s just for a sec, Mom,” Albina said with that little whine that had been maturing into a sort of authority now that she was aged into double digits.
“Okay,” she said. “Fine. Don’t stay out too long.”
She led me out across the driveway to the far edge of the garage.
“Hey, a trashcan,” I said sarcastically, just as Albina had started doing recently.
“Smart-Alice,” my sister said exasperatedly, just as mother had started doing recently. “Give me a knee.”
I propped my leg up from a kneeling position, and let her boost herself up, somehow noiselessly, onto the lid of the can. And then….
“Albina!” I whispered harshly. “What are you doing?”
“Shh!” she said. “You want mom to hear?” And with that she finished pulling her body over the lip of the roof and up onto the shingles. “Here,” she said extending an arm. “I’ll help you up if you can get on top of the can.”
“Are you crazy?” I shrieked silently.
“What’s gonna happen?” she teased. “Come on.”
In the end, I gave in, piled a few cinder blocks and got on top of the can, and let her pull me up. She wasn’t exceptionally strong, but I wasn’t exceptionally large, so this wasn’t exceptionally difficult. I remember that nervous feeling, coming partly from the sloping nature of the roof to a dead end of house and a start of sky, and partly from the fact of ever-present neighbors’ windows facing us like the eye of Sauron. But Albina was a mountain goat in its natural environment. Together we watched the fading of the autumn sun in the west, something I’d learned from Girl Scouts. They wouldn’t take Albina because albinism was a disability.
She must have noticed my nervousness. “What? Are you afraid?”
“No,” I said.
“I’m not,” she said. “I’m not afraid to die.”
“Yes you are,” I said, scoffing the way a nine-or-ten-year-old does.
“Well,” she said. “I will be.”
That’s when the screen door slammed. I still remember the sudden sense of panic in those brown eyes of my sister. “Shi—oot,” she breathed, scrambling to the other side of the roof. I followed.
“Okay,” I said, “We wait for her to go back in and then get back down.”
Albina was silent.
“Albina. We can get down.”
She was still silent.
Then: “We might have to jump…. Oh, God. I didn’t think about getting down.”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” I said.
She just stared at the ground in the back yard. If there was ever a moment she looked as fragile as that, I know it not. “Brooke,” her voice shook. “I’m sorry.”
“He forgives you.”
“I’m afraid to die.”
“What?” I had honestly not understood her.
“I’m afraid. To die,” she mumbled. I’m not sure who she was telling this to.
We were up there another ten minutes waiting for mom to go back in. Albina wiped away her tears, hung by her hands till she could touch the can and let herself go, helped me down. To her credit, I didn’t hear her crying till she was in bed in her room, after Dad had pulled us aside to show us the shingles we had torn from the roof.
“I’ll assume it was just an opossum,” he said, mischievously smiling. “This time. Even though they don’t live in this part of the world.”
Dad was big into getting us out of the house. He always took us hiking just outside of town. It was he who bought us matching bikes and put them under the tree without talking to Mother about it, an incident that resulted in the great conniption that we still find unexploded ordnance from to this day. But, as with bowling, cross-country skiing, and a one-time horse riding escapade, I was the first to ride my bike, and Albina the first to forsake it to rust in the rain by the garage. I think maybe he understood why we’d gone up there. I think he always figured it was my idea. I always felt guilty for not telling him it was actually Albina’s.
By the time I was in middle school, she had grown paler, though I didn’t know such was possible. She basked around the house from sunlit patch of floor to patio to her room, which she seemed totally absorbed by once a month, something I didn’t really understand for another two years or so. By now there were guys on her walls, tanned, wearing baggy pants, surfboards in hand. Her jeans grew tighter each quarter she suffered in school. She was just a girl. Totally devoid of color. But a girl nonetheless.
I must have been in fifth grade, when we were busy hefting a futon down the stairs into the spare bedroom, and we were talking about school, that I realized how little I saw of Ally, how few and far between these conversations had become.
“What are you up to?” I asked rather suddenly.
“I’m moving a futon downstairs,” she replied. “You?”
“I mean generally.”
She paused. “Stuff. There are some cute boys. But math is killing me. Do you think Dad would like it best by the window?”
“Mother!” I hollered.
“Don’t shout across the house!” she hollered back. I noted the irony.
Once we had the futon on the ground floor, we ran to the kitchen, where mom was steeped in paperwork, in what we would later term “the mood”. But we were young and unwary then.
“Do you think Dad would like the futon by the window?” I asked.
Mother looked up. “I don’t know. I’m not him. He’s in his study.”
So we descended into the basement floor.
“You want the futon by the window?” Albina asked.
Dad looked up, turning his head around from his own set of paperwork. “That’d be fine.”
We put it by the window. Albina jumped down onto it and snuggled herself up in the blankets. “Morning to you,” she said. Then, “What have you been up to?”
I shook my head violently, as much reminding myself as her that I did not, would never like boys.
“You’re going to want to kiss them,” Albina teased. “Or girls, which is fine.”
“Trust me,” she said. “You will.”
Most people have one doctor, maybe two. Albina had about seven. This time, it was a trip to the optometrist.
“You lucked out,” he said, shutting the spider-eye device down and turning on the lights.
“I know,” Albina said.
“Thank God you got my eyes,” Mother said, flashing them like a heavily sequined scarf.
The doctor nodded. “Might need glasses or contacts eventually. But no light problems. Just wear sunscreen.”
“I wouldn’t let her forget it,” Mother echoed.
As we walked out of the doctor’s office, Mother offered to buy us ice cream. We took her up on it.
Ally paid for it later though.
“You were only in the sun for a half hour,” Mother said, softly dabbing ointment onto a enormous blister on her back.
“Ouch!” Albina winced.
“Sorry,” Mother said, and then glanced at me. I think she was telling me in that glass that the apology had nothing to do with provoking a sun blister.
“I know,” Albina said. I think she was accepting it.
Someday, watch a mother tend a wound. It’s the most heartwarming thing imaginable, like watching as a woodcarver removes a bird from a block of walnut, but the only chisels used are bestowed by their children. Just like Mother gave Ally albinism, Ally gave Mother a child to raise. This was just the continuing mortgage on the exchange.
Later, Ally knocked on my door.
“Hey,” I said. “Taped up?”
She nodded. “I get so sick of this.”
“All of it,” she replied. “Being albino. Being fragile. And ugly.”
I should have said something in that moment, but I think understanding her condition for me would have been like an Indian trying to imagine a cube in a world of circles. I was olive, she was white. I could play outside and go to the beach and watch fireworks and attract cute, simple boys. But for her, life was and would be a series of caveats, of yes-buts.
“I just wish sometimes I was normal,” she spitefully bit. “That I wasn’t born.”
“Yeah,” she said, pausing, “This way.”
I was washing the potatoes off with mom when dad came hold, took off his contractor belt, hung it up by the door, as usual. Mother could always sense how his day was just by the sound it made as he released it. “Rough one?”
“Not anymore,” he said, leaning over me to kiss my part, then Mother’s cheek. “Potatoes make everything better. Your potatoes.”
Mother smiled, washing. “Does Albina like sleeping on the futon still?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Why don’t we ask her?” Dad proposed.
Mother flashed around. “She’s at Brandon’s house for dinner.”
“Oh, isn’t that just like her?” Dad said, kissing Mother. I knew somewhere across town Albina and Brandon were probably doing the same thing. I had started having these really strange dreams about this guy in my math class who made up names for me like Creek-thing and River Runs Through It. I had told Mother it bugged me and she told me to ask him to stop if it really got to me. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to do that. God, did Ally have to be right about everything?
Then the front door slammed.
“I don’t want any dinner,” Albina breathed on the way to her room. There was another slamming door. The silence that followed demanded that we three look at eachother, then go about as if nothing had happened.
“Can I come in?”
I went in anyway. She was propped up in her bed, not the futon, reading some arduous poetry manual. That’s what Dad called them, but Mother always said, “It’s her version of tinkering,” which shut him up. I could tell she wasn’t reading by the way her eyes stared straight through the book at the layers of the story to come. She was as interested in the next page, or the one that followed, or the sock fuzz between her toes as she was the page she was on. I knelt by her bed, and though she pretended not to notice, I too had been in this mood, and knew that lack of attention was attention.
“What do you mean?” she bit.
She stopped, looked at me, then the book, then me. “You want to know what happened?”
“He wanted to kiss me,” she said. “He tried. So I left.”
I was bewildered. “Don’t you like him?”
“That’s why I’m mad as fuck,” she hissed.
Shaking my head, “I don’t understand,” I admitted.
She sank down into her bed further. Staring at the ceiling, she said nothing for a few moments, then, “You really have no idea about the futon, do you?”
“You like sleeping down there,” I said.
She scoffed. “Yeah. I like sleeping down there.”
Another moment or two passed before I realized it was my turn to keep the conversation going. “I thought you said I’d want to kiss boys.”
“Don’t you?” she asked pointedly.
She stared back at the ceiling. “Then that’s how we’re different.” She chewed something intangible in her head. “I’ve lied before.”
Brandon came and went, but not before I caught them snogging in the TV room downstairs. I guess she had meant what she said after all. I had my own succession of boys too, starting with Ryan in sixth grade. I used to tease my sister about how it took her till eighth, but she just scoffed, turned her music back up, went back to doodling in the margins of whatever homework she had, and my repeated attempts to move her attention to me made me late for softball practice or whatever it was that time of the year. While I attended soccer camps, she doodled, listened to music. Thus was the routine we’d fallen into.
Mother and Dad started arguing a lot too. Especially with Ally.
“Look, hun, we need these grades to come up,” Mother would say. “Can you talk to your Earth Science teacher, see if he’ll let you retake that test?”
“She already said he wouldn’t,” Dad chimed in. “Look, Yin, can you just try to do better? I know it’s hard, I hated earth science too—”
“This is not what we talked about,” Mother would cut in. “She needs to learn to take this into her own hands and deal with it.”
“I know, but a C’s not that bad,” Dad said. “It will come up if she just tries.”
“So what has she been doing then? She isn’t slacking off, I’ve made sure of it. I’ve talked to all her teachers about part—”
“Whoa, you did what, Mom?” Albina interjected, then to Dad, “Did you know about this?”
“He most certainly did,” Mother slid in calmly, “and he helped. We both feel very strongly about this. If you worked in science like you did in art and English—let’s not even start with math.”
“Trudes, that’s a B-minus,” Dad would say.
“So we need to watch it,” Mother would say.
“Mark. Can I talk to you in the basement for a minute? Ally, go do some homework.”
We listened at the heating vent upstairs, which we had eventually figured out carried the sounds of discussion in the basement rather well.
“We talked about this.”
“We decided. When did it become a you-me thing? We’re co-parents.”
“For godsake Trudes, she’s going to be eighteen soon. She can take care of herself. They both can.”
“So we just step out of the way? I’m not cutting my kids loose.”
“You’re cutting them down!”
“You’re cutting us out!”
“Maybe we’re not supposed to be there all the time.”
“Mark. We are talking about grades. That’s a parent thing. You want to be a fucking best-friend, you depend on them liking you. It’s nice, but you got to show some tough love.”
“I want them to be happy.”
“I want the best for them.”
It was painful to attend. Never mind that Ally was taking honors and I regular, never mind that I had found an empty prescription bottle in the trash for Celexa with Albina Brown on the patient ID, that it was her junior year. Never mind the walls of her room, once adorned with prints of Ryan Gosling were now coated in artwork, her desk a post-twister mobile park of paper saturated to bursting point with ink in her hand. Never mind how good we got at Egyptian Rat Screw, camping in each other’s rooms upstairs, flinching at shouts hurled in the war zone that had become the living room. The side that wanted the best for us flinging a spear at the side that wanted us to be happy.
“Don’t ever let me get married.” Then she slapped a sandwich. “Suck. It.”
No longer was I Brooke. Not even Albina’s sister. I was “the albino’s sister.” That was how people, especially teachers, greeted me for the first time. I was forever scarred with a disease I didn’t even have. And I loathed her little white ass for it. I flat out refused to talk to her at home. I always took the last roll, especially if she hadn’t had one yet. I made sure to flush the toilet at night; it was right next to her room. Anything she asked, I answered with a shrug. I read instead of playing Rat Screw
Then came a Wednesday. I went out to the rain-painted car at lunch to blast away the fog of tests and friend drama, found her sobbing, felt that deeply healing pang of sympathy that one needs on rainy Wednesdays, opened the door to the passenger seat, sat down, started the engine, got the heat blasting, forsook fifth period. Hard to believe, but watching an albino warm up is like watching an artist put paint to canvas. The red spreads from their cheeks out across their face, refracting off the mouth and nose, pooling in the dimples.
“Jesus fucking Christ, I’m albino,” she cried. “I’ve got depression, all my friends have lost their virginity, I suck at anything I don’t care about, like math, I failed another test, and Mother’s gonna flip when I need her support and Dad’s gonna try and be my friend when I need him to be angry, cause I can brush my teeth but I can’t pay the dentist’s bill….”
Albina said things like that more and more now days. I think she was a nihilist. But scared of it rather than invigorated by it. The way some people are afraid of God.
Then she said something: “I almost picked a light-pole this morning.”
If ever I doubted that I was capable of love, compassion, sisterhood, such shadows were shattered in that moment. Soon we were both sobbing.
And before I knew it we were laughing. Really really hard. I think we actually had to wipe all of our snot and salt and spit off the console and dash afterwards. My abs hurt for days.
I couldn’t even tell who was saying what.
Finally it subsided to dull coughs every five seconds or so. And she turned to me and said, “What the fuck was that?”
Just a touch of nihilism. If an albino and an olive branch could go from suicidal to beyond what any texting lingo could describe laughing, God must be dead. And that was how I learned the stark difference in taste between tears of depression and laughter.
Near the end of Ally’s senior year, her grades suddenly began falling and consequently she hit a tree while driving.
A’s had become B’s had become C’s. It was very confusing to explain. At first it just seemed a typical case of senioritis: she’d already been accepted to study English and art at the college across the hills. She’d worked herself to death all through her school life, it was natural for her to be getting a little lazy. But the further we watched the grades drop, the more time she seemed to spend in her room, hunched over textbooks, to the point that she became the ghost that haunted our house. We saw her at dinner and breakfast, sometimes late at night if she was coming back from friends’ houses or up brushing her teeth, staring at her night-lit reflection in the mirror.
I asked her about this once, when I caught her in the bathroom, not a light on, staring at herself.
“Have you seen the way night lights a scene up?” she said. “The darkness can be so bright sometimes.”
“So you’re up at three in the morning to watch yourself in a mirror because the darkness is bright?”
She paused. “Yes.”
Then, “I’m memorizing it.”
I didn’t realize she meant her reflection as well as the bright shade that pervades the air of a house at night.
There were other things. Sometimes she’d call my friends, or hers, by the wrong name. She’d pass the salt when the pepper was requested. People started asking if she could get them any weed, something she’d never touched to the best of my knowledge. I think the aviators had something to do with it. Her mutters of “suck it” became fewer and farther between in our card games.
One night I finally called foul. I marched up to her room. “So?”
“So?” repeated the homework clad Buddha on the bed studying by the light of a seashell lamp.
“What is going on?”
She Albina shrugged. “I’m changing.”
Walking away, I couldn’t be sure what was a greater indicator of the correctness of my suspicions: the fact that I really hadn’t phrases an explicit question but she had still known what I was asking about or the heartbeat flash of red I’d seen in her eyes as she looked up from the book.
She crashed into the tree the next day. To be fair, she could see the edges of the road, and the tree itself. Just not the tire in the center of the asphalt. I guess it was really bright out.
She flunked the eye exam that followed. Her brown eyes had been withering away, that last of pigments denied to her, leaving her utterly colorless and with corneas bared.
It was she that held Mother while mother cried.
“How can you just…?” she would start through the sobs.
“I’m albino. My name is Albina. I’ve been pretty lucky so far,” my sister said. “I figured it would catch up with me sooner or later. I’m at peace with it.”
“But… but surely… There’s something we can do.” It was more a question than a statement.
Albina just shook her head. Squeezed Mother’s hand.
“Your art,” I said. I was very nearly breaking down myself, sitting in Dad’s embrace.
“I’ll find new mediums.”
Dad just gulped. I could feel it through his arms. “I’m going to miss you.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“But. I mean… the way you are.”
“I’ve always been this way,” Albina said. Never has someone been more grown up than her in that moment. Strange that some of us become mature before birth; I think Albina might actually have been born walking across the stage at her senior graduation, cane in hand. Like she had to have a reason to die before she could live. I asked her what it was like.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You must see something,” I said. “Is it all white? Or black? Or what?”
She paused. “I mostly just ignore it anymore. I find I can hear blue, smell if something’s sharp. It’s really the oddest thing, Brooke.” She stopped, chewing, as always, the intangible. “I think I’ve been missing this all my life.”
And so she went to college, fell in love with a boy she’d never seen nor would see. Adam was gorgeous by the way. She must have been able to hear that in him, smell the beating of his heart, taste the way his hands moved while writing. It seems that all of her senses had become one. Including love.
They bought a white Ford pickup and white town house in the city across the hills where they went to school. It seemed so natural, them trading off the world for each other. I assume they had neighbors who marveled at the blind albino woman who grew skinnier by the day and the budding gardener. When I took time off from my junior year in college to go visit them, Albina could always steer me right towards whatever plant she wanted, no cane needed. She looked at home in her wide-brimmed hat and yard work gloves. Like she had retired at twenty-three. Adam told me once he never stopped being surprised by my sister. That she could navigate so easily just by smelling and touching and hearing. But then I never assumed I could know what the blind did. Or the albino.
Much to my surprise (though once I married later, at least began to understand), Mom and Dad never did get a divorce or separate. I think part of Albina’s recovery from herself was seeing this, or the roots of it: that humans aren’t meant to mate for life, but choose to.
Once visited to find Albina in the grips of a terrible stomach flu, but smiling the whole time. And when they started sending out invitations to the baby shower they, asked if they could have it Mom and Dad’s house. Theirs was much too small, and their garden was just blooming.
The cross they gave her on the roadside wasn’t as white as she was though.
I still wonder, had she not been blind, if she might have spotted the drunk driver a moment before Adam did, grabbed the wheel, wrenched the car of its path to meet that bumper. But I can’t get caught up in that.
It was her name that killed her, laced with the designs of her illness. Dad had tried to wait for her to out grow it, Mother had tried to make her. But I wonder what was contained in those last drops of brown that were finally wrung from her eyes. How she couldn’t be complete until she was halved. At least in our eyes. Albina watched Afghanistan blow up in her face, and fell in love with the shards of glass flying.
I just hope that, at that last moment, she was still afraid to die. And knew it.
I dress that cross in white roses every summer, just when the sun begins to burn the fair.
She was perched atop the chair like a raven; silently watching her surroundings, dressed in the darkness of the night. Somehow I knew that she aware of my gaze; I could feel it in my bones. Even then, I didn’t mind. Slowly I approached her, slowly I advanced. The seductive blackness of her attire lured me closer and closer, I was drawn to it, compelled to talk to her, however fleeting the discussion may be. Standing in front of her, I went to speak, to say something but she turned her head ever so slightly, acknowledging my presence and spoke first.
“I know you’ve been watching me.”
“Yes, I have…” she cut me off before I could finish my sentence, a lump quickly developed in my throat.
“This past week I’ve seen you walk past, every night at 11.” The girl said, slightly stern
I stepped towards her, and said in a shaky voice “Listen, I can explain.”
“You don’t have to explain anything. I’m flattered. I’m not used of receiving such attention.” She replied with a slight smile on her face, a smile that almost lifted the entirety of the night-time around us.
The moonlight allowed me the opportunity to see her features more clearly. Her skin was as pale as cream, eyes as green as summer leaf and hair of an unknown brunette that shimmered even in the dim light. I knew this woman was beautiful (why else would have she caught my full attention?) but only up close did I realise the extent of her grace and fairness.
let's go to bed together until these wounds have healed
I want you to kiss me harder than all the times you’ve looked in the mirror and seen all the She loves me not petals reflected back at you. Kiss me like this is the last day we have on earth, like the apocalypse is coming and all we can do is sit naked in the kitchen and eat cold cereal while we wait for the fires to come and burn down the houses and the apartments with teenage couples still in them. I want you to tell me what your first text message to her was like, what her reply was, what it felt like to press the send button without spell-checking first.
Every fortune teller will check your pulse and tell you that fucking someone doesn’t take the pain away unless you fuck the wrong person. You could get that advice for free. Some day I’d like you to put your finger on your own pulse instead and count how many times it throbs and then multiply that by 3,500 and add 309,000 and you still wouldn’t come even close to how badly I want you.
See, I went to your house once and your mom opened the door and said you were asleep, but when I went up to your room you were lying on the bed with your eyes open listening to all your favorite mixtapes. I remember when you showed up at my doorstep two years ago with a stack of CDs. Let’s record our hearts beating in unison and play the tape over and over again on repeat until the sound burns into our brains. I’d loop the sound of your breath on my iPod if it meant being able to feel your exhalations underneath my skin.
In psychology there’s a certain phenomenon that babies who are separated from their mothers will still be able to recognize their mother’s voice when reunited up to ten years later.
I think that even if you and I were separated by a continent or two, we’d still find a way to get to one another again.
The itch grew unbearable as he paced back and forth between the armchair and the window. He needed to check on it. He knew he should, for his sanity, to make sure they hadn’t found it yet.
He sat down in the armchair his hands on his knees, forcibly holding himself in the chair to keep from standing up and checking the window again. He’d seen the shows, he knew that they would be watching him, waiting for him to lead them to the evidence. All he had to do now was to sit and do nothing, to wait them out, then he would get the money. Then he would be free to do as he pleased.
It was an accident, at first. But as he had struck again and again, his determination had solidified. He would be free of the incessant nagging, the sullen looks, the sheer onus of it all. He would be free to do as he pleased, to meet whomever he pleased, to do whomever he pleased.
He told her he wasn’t able to have children, but he had gotten a vasectomy a year into their marriage. He had known even then that he didn’t want to be tied to her any more than he already was. There was being legally tied, and then there was genetically tied.
It had been a relief, a bloodletting like the ancients had once used to get rid of the vile humors. He had freed himself of the vile woman and none were the wiser.
But he had to check, he had to be sure.
He stood again and paced. The police would know. He knew that he shouldn’t. But what if they had found her?
Have you ever been expecting something to come; Believing it was to happen; Only to have each day come and go leaving a void where that thing was supposed to be? Have you ever looked anxiously for something that never ever came? Have you ever held out hope for something only to have the hope unrecognized?
I have. Probably we all have. But has anyone else been aware of the exact minute that they stopped believing that it was ever gonna show? Well I have. Today.
It wasn’t like a silent knowing as I awoke from my nights rest. It wasn’t while I was in the shower shampooing my hair. It wasn’t on the drive to the office or at my 10 a.m. meeting with our attorney. Nope it was today at 1:15 p.m. Central Standard Time. That’s when I stopped believing. I stopped expecting. I stopped holding out hope. For this one thing in particular.
I was having lunch at a sidewalk cafe. I was being over zealous with a fork full of salad, when a grape jumped off the tines and hit me right in the chest, leaving an oily little stain right across my nipple. I looked down at myself and thought ‘it’s never coming’…. ‘I’m never gonna see it’. I also amazed myself by having the wherewithall < (is that a word?) to look at the time on my phone. Who wears a watch anymore? Quite frankly, my heart sank for a minute, and I must say it was a low point in the day. Even lower than having to parade around an oil stained nipple all afternoon.
I just found it strange that I will most probably forever remember that point in time and it will most probably make me a little sad every time that I do.
Hundreds of years ago, two brothers wrote their version of a traditional German folk tale about two young children walking through the woods. These children were clever, and always left a trail so that if they became lost in the great woods, they could simply follow the trail they’d left to find their way back home. Unfortunately, the children were only so clever, and one day used bread crumbs instead of stones or something more permanent to mark their trail. If you’re at all familiar with the story of Hansel and Gretel, you’ll recall that particular decision didn’t play out all that well for those two. At the same time, if you’re familiar with the story of Hansel and Gretel, you’re probably also familiar with the name Grimm. Wilhelm Grimm died in 1859, his brother Jacob in 1862 — but their stories live on, giving them an immortality of the sort that comes with never being forgotten.
Whenever I have the opportunity to question anyone who dares call themselves a “writer,” I find myself asking them to tell me their greatest fear. Other people have other fears, often involving death in some way or another, but writers (indeed, anyone who engages in the creation of any sort of tangible art) go further than that. They do not fear death — or if they do, that fear remains secondary to the fear of being forgotten. The will to create something that exists outside and independent from us is driven by the fear that we will be forgotten.
You will be forgotten.
I will be forgotten.
It brings chills. We writers claim many reasons for doing what we do, but all of those things are to some degree intended to make what we do seem far more beautiful and romantic than it actually is. The truth is much of writing is painful drudgery and those fleeting moments where you’re “in the zone” and platinum and gold threads are flying out of your fingertips to be woven into the next masterpiece with little effort on your part only barely compensate for those hours you spend slogging through shit.
Why do we do this? As cynical and jaded as you might be, as depressed and angry is you may feel, writing comes from a place of hope. Driven by the fear of being forgotten, we press words into stories in the hope that a piece of us will be carried forward. That piece will live on in the hearts and minds of others long after our molecular makeup dissipates back to the cosmos from whence it came, and we will not be forgotten. We seek, perhaps, to transmogrify our very souls into stories others will read — and through reading, relate. We write with the hope that someday our words will move a soul generations removed and that we will, through that movement, remain.
As we writers trek through the world’s woods, we too leave a trail to follow in case we become lost. These poems and stories are bread crumbs others may read and follow. Some of those bread crumbs may be washed or blown away, eaten, or tramped into the ground. But others will harden and stay, only to be found years later by an observant soul who will follow the trail, and we will achieve that immortality that comes from never being forgotten.
Who among us will be the next Fitzgerald, the next Hemingway, the next Bukowski, the next Poe? True, our stories may not last as long as those of Joseph and Wilhelm, but perhaps we’ll do better than Hansel and Gretel. Only time will tell, and time doesn’t tend to give away too many of its secrets. All we can do is leave our trail, and hope that our bread crumbs will last at least long enough to guide us and a few distant souls home. And for however brief that time might be, we will not only not be forgotten — we’ll be a little less lost, and a little less alone.
There is a long line of “bad hearts” in my family. Two uncles departed due to heart conditions on my mother’s side, and my father himself succumbed to the same fate. I was first exposed to this hereditary glitch with my Uncle Raul. I was 6 years old when he passed away. My mom would always say, “Your uncle had a bad heart.” I did not comprehend that statement at that age, and would retort, “But momma, Uncle Raul had a good heart, not bad.” She would smile at my naivete and respond, “Yes, little one, he did have a good heart. That is why God needed it in heaven.” Next was Uncle Luis, perishing due to a faulty valve. My mother again would lament, “Uncle Luis had a bad heart.” I would protest, “But momma, Uncle Luis had a good heart.” She gushed, proud of how precious my own little heart was. The last one to date to expire was my own father, who was diagnosed with a heart condition at an early age, much like the others. My father most definitely had a good heart, but I am a little too old to believe it was needed elsewhere, although the little girl inside wants to retain such flighty ideals to keep in my mason jar of dreams by my bedside.
My heart is checked regularly for good measure, and there are no signs of malfunction yet. Regardless, despite the already fallen having had an imperfect lifeline, I know I gleaned the same good-hearted spirit. That is one characteristic that will transcend time and space and outlive anything.
The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful … Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”
“Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.” “
We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the “Es muss sein!” to our own great love.”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
"Even if I was immortal, I’d invented death to be convinced into the beauty of life"
Even in a thousand years a man will exhale the same way on the weight of life, and at the same time afraid of death .. Each of us had one broken, round, useless piece of kaleidoscope waiting in line to abyss that we - selected, will change the fate of an uncertain future. We were created to love someone, to be loved. And not only that, but to mark the birth of memories with every day going back into the void of memories, sifting through images of thoughts, placing them in the best light, just the way that we would like to be. All of us. We all want to have a distinctive character, to be different, special, and yet not out of standard, enough… so that someone notices us with different aspects. I’m watching you; you are watching me, trying to see who we are when the lights id social life goes out, when there were just me and blurred reflection in the mirror, your reflection and copper silhouette of your steps. All of us have at least a fraction wish to be the one next to us, because the one next to us is looking in a better direction. Because his art of life is more valuable.
You’re filling black and white calendar of life…
You go through the old yellowed diary of memories where you saved the first kiss, the first falling off the bike, love at first, second or third sight, the old image when you were all together, first haircut with tears in the eyes, the last thought before this one.
Then you realize that you’re lucky you shaped the destiny of your back filled with pride. Yes, you might be afraid of this, you do not smell the end, the opium of black glitter, but sometimes, not now, sometimes, everything will be under a marble fire, sky, small jerked letters, two dates…the only thing that will be inevitable as evidence that We will be there as a little dash between them.
What is life?
Small pieces of eternity.