Drink

It’s winter, and I’m sixteen years old. That puts us at 2006. It’s Saturday, 2 AM, and I’m off of work at the theater. The buses don’t run this late, but I wouldn’t want to take one even if they did. I’m walking home.

There’s a hole in the bottom of my right shoe, and theater wages make it hard to get a new pair. I’ve been making my pants last, too. Where there should be a button, instead a paper clip is keeping my pants from falling. I’m supposed to wear black dress socks, but those are too expensive, so I wear regular socks instead. I walk so that I can avoid most of the snow that’s on the sidewalk, but it’s impossible to avoid all of it.

Soon enough, my right sock is cold and wet, and my foot starts going numb. I tell myself this is fine. All of my bandages have come off, and I don’t have to wear a back brace anymore, but I’m still feeling the effects of getting hit and dragged by a car last summer. Still feeling the effects of Tallulah leaving me, too.

I don’t even get to see her at work anymore. I think she switched shifts to avoid me. I said something wrong, and now she’s out of my life for good it seems. It hits me that a single moment can alter the course of a life forever.

In my back pocket is a full bottle of Jim Beam. I found it underneath a seat while I was ushing. I guess whoever snuck it in dropped it without even noticing. They were probably too drunk to notice, to be honest. Company policy is that I’m supposed to turn in all items that I find while cleaning, especially if they’re illicit items like this.  I don’t know why I pocketed it instead. I’m not a drinker. I’ve had a beer here and there (mostly under peer pressure from Drew), but nothing serious. Even so, I open the bottle and start drinking.

I know enough to know that this isn’t the kind of drink you’re supposed to chug, but I do anyway. I’ve never done something like this before, so I don’t know how it’s going to affect me. I just drink.

My throat is burning terribly, but I’m already halfway done, so I decide to keep going. Tallulah thinks that drinking is for people who try too hard to be cool. I never told her about the beers I drank with Drew. I just agreed with her.

I don’t even know if she still works at the theater anymore. I wonder if she’s going to follow through with her plan to go to school at the Art Institute. I wonder how she’s doing.

I feel like I’m swimming through the air. My feet aren’t going where I want them to, and at first I tell myself that it’s because of the hole in my shoe, the numbness in my foot. The first time I fall down onto the snow, I tell myself that it was a long shift and my legs are tired, my balance is off. It takes me puking on the snow to admit that I’m fucked up.

The world is split in two, halved. I have puke on my work shirt. Our washer’s broken, so I don’t know what I’m going to do. We don’t even have detergent. I’ll probably just scrub it with dish soap and hang it in my room to dry.

I decide that I am going to lie in the snow. My brain is telling me that this is okay, that this is preferable to stumbling through the snow. I don’t know where the sidewalk is anymore. I drop to my knees and flip over onto my back. It takes a little while for the cold to come in, but it does come. Slow, like pain that waits. I think that I might fall asleep right where I am.

I lie there for minutes or hours, I can’t tell. Everything is cold. I hear a car squeal on its brakes and slam on its horn. I think there’s going to be a crash, but then there isn’t. The driver rolls down his window and yells over at me. He asks if I’m okay. I manage to stand, and I wave in his direction. I tell him no, I’m not okay, but I think I will be.

He looks at me for a while before deciding that it’s okay to leave. I watch him go until I can no longer see him, and then I turn back toward home. I don’t listen to my brain anymore. I just walk.

Coming of Age

It seemed that in this town you could get by with a couple singles in your pocket and nothing more. He remembered Chicago days, from before he moved to this small town in North Carolina, that he’d ride the el for what seemed like hours, transfer from the red line to the blue and take a bus out to the lake. He did that a lot in those days, when his life was crashing down around him and he felt like he had no way out.

You needed a Ventra card to ride in Chicago, and the monthly pass was outrageously expensive. If you didn’t have a card, you couldn’t ride. But this bus, this bus he stepped onto and out of the North Carolina heat, you could get on with a single.

He sat down, his first bus ride in NC even after living there for two years, and he pulled out his headphones. He took out his phone and put Spotify on shuffle. The first thing that came up was “Coming of Age” by Foster the People. He smiled. “Fitting,” he said. Someone sitting near him looked at him when he said that, but he just kept smiling.

Wake Up

It started with a song, as these things all too often do. “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire. We were seventeen going on eighteen, and we’d jam to it on repeat to celebrate having graduated high school, all of us trying to figure out what it was we were going to do next.

Topher would storyboard Wallace’s ideas for new short films in between inking his own comics, paying out of pocket to get those first comics printed so that he could see his work on paper. He’d sneak them onto the shelves at all the local comic shops, load each issue with several business cards so that fans could follow him before he got his big break.

Wallace scripted out short films like crazy, relying on guerilla filmmaking to bring them to life. His budgets almost never exceeded $0, and he’d get the lay of a location before sneaking in and getting the shots he needed without getting caught. We snuck into hospital rooms, the back of a bookstore, a small concert venue, even bars so that we could get the shots we needed. It paid off, too–although the scripted dialogue left much to be desired, the locations looked professional and lent the productions an official look.

I kept my stories to myself at first, but soon enough I was showing them to Topher and Wallace, the latter adapting them into screenplays and the former drawing out characters and storyboards. Topher was talking about staying in Chicago to capitalize on the burgeoning art and comics scene, Wallace was serious about moving to LA and pursuing a career in film, and I was considering moving to New York City, the hub of publishing, to try to make it as a writer.

As the months went on, though, we drifted further and further apart. The stress of applying to colleges out of state and committing to our respective artforms was too much for us. The group fell apart, but the song played on:

“If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms,
turnin’ every good thing to rust.”

Topher moved into an apartment in the city, Wallace took a road trip to LA that he never came back from, and I flew to NYC. We stayed Facebook friends even though we stopped talking, and so we’d get glimpses here and there of what the others were up to. College was a challenge, but it seemed like we were all rising to the occasion. Every time I got a story read in class or performed at a cafe, every time I saw Wallace casting for a shoot or Topher putting out another issue of his comic all on his own, I wanted to reach out, wanted for us to come together like we used to, to share in our successes together. But the song continued:

“I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”

Years passed. As they did, I imagined just how many times that song came up on shuffle, how many times each of them got its lyrics inexplicably stuck in their heads. I wondered what they thought every time it happened, whether they thought of me or not. I knew they were watching just as I was–I’d occasionally catch Wallace liking one of my posts before realizing his mistake and unliking it, not fast enough where it wouldn’t show in my notifications. More years passed. We graduated. Wallace placed in a film festival. Topher took a junior position as a colorist. I published in a handful of magazines and was brought on board at a separate litmag as a reader. We were all hearing these lines playing in the background on repeat:

“With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’,
I can see where I am goin’ to be”

We ignored what came after, though:

“when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand.”

Over the years, I’d return to those simpler times. I’d tell coming-of-age stories about what it meant to come into your own artistically at the same time that you were growing up. How these individual growths come to inform each other. Truth be told, if I hadn’t met Topher and Wallace, I might not even have taken writing seriously in the first place. But seeing them sketch and shoot constantly brought something out in me that I didn’t know I had. Now I stood on the cusp of breaking out as a writer, and I wasn’t even on speaking terms with these guys. All I had were the memories of reckless abandon, of being free from the clutches of high school and having our futures open wide in front of us. Now I was happy, I was settled, and I’d found someone to spend my life with, but I needed to write this final chapter. As I thought about how to approach this, the song’s beginning came back to me:

“Somethin’ filled up
my heart with nothin’.
Someone told me not to cry.”

And the song went on in my head, telling me that now that I’m older and my heart’s grown colder, I can see that it’s a lie. I heard the line that told me to wake up, to hold my mistake up. So what did I do? I started a group chat between the three of us. I agonized for ten minutes over what to say, whether I should type out a long message or not, but finally I just sent:

“Hey.”

And there was the end of the song again, instruments building to a crescendo, picking up speed, and the lead singer shouting out:

“You better look out below!”

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Into the Labyrinth

tunnel

We wake and stretch and find ourselves together. Lula takes my pages and reads them before I can tell her not to, by buglight, and when she’s done she doesn’t say anything. She puts them away, stands, walks to the far wall, and says Jesus, even though I’m pretty sure she doesn’t believe. I’m pretending I’m more in a stupor than I actually am. She comes over. I get up and hand her a buglamp, grab one for myself too. She takes it and walks down the hallway, past the endless procession of identical concrete cube rooms, lightning bugs blinking spots on the wall to light the way. I reach her and touch her arm. I say:

“I’m sorry.”

“This is kind of like how it was underneath the Center. Maybe a little spookier, but pretty much the same.”

“The Center?”

“We had matches, though. All we could sneak in. The light would go out and you’d get your fingers burned if you weren’t careful. I always was, but some of the other girls weren’t.

“They’d sneak cigarettes because that’s the only way I’d let them come with me. I knew my way around underneath the Center and they didn’t. We called it the labyrinth. I called it that, anyway. I don’t know what they called it.

“Anyway, after a while I figured I’d smoke the cigs instead of using the matches since the matches always went out. Cigarettes lasted longer.

“They weren’t all cutters. I mean, I was, but some of them were like bulimic or anorexic or something like that. We had this doctor. Dr. Charon, and he’d lead us in what he liked to call Allegorical. He’d tell us to speak our Hurt in one word. He told us it was capital H Hurt. He had a bunch of weird games like that. I don’t think any of it helped. I remember one day he asked for my one word and I just left and went under the Center, into the labyrinth, and I smoked my cig, and pulled out the bobby pin I took from one of the RNs and sharpened it on the concrete and started stabbing it into my ankle. I had thick socks that hid the blood, is why I chose the ankle. In case you’re wondering.

“Anyway, I made like little constellations with the pin, in my ankle. No one knew about it. I’d come up and Charon wouldn’t ask. Just welcomed me back into the group.

“The other girls always talked about boy problems, friends who were dicks to them, that kind of shit. I was there ‘cause my mom had cancer and so I cut myself. There were other reasons, but that was mostly it.

“Anyway, when I’d feel really shitty there was this one girl. Liza. We were roommates. She was there because when she was four and five and six her dad molested her. Had her wear dresses and sit on his lap when her mom wasn’t home and would have to adjust her clothes for her, under her dress. She told me all of this. Well it went on for a few years and then just stopped. For a little while after that she could be a normal kid. Or about as normal as you can be after something like that. Her dad drank for a while, then didn’t, then drank again. Her mom wouldn’t leave him alone with her. She never said anything about it, but she didn’t have to. Liza’s words, mind you. So anyway, it was okay for a few years. Until Liza started developing. Keep in mind, when I knew her she was gorgeous. Liza would never admit it, of course. She’d say she just looked normal. I knew her when I was fourteen and she was fifteen. She started developing around twelve or so. Becoming a woman and all that. Meanwhile her mom and dad’s marriage was pretty much nonexistent. Her dad would ‘work late’ till like ten p.m. At first he’d call and say he’d be late. Then the calls dropped off. Then he didn’t even bother giving excuses. So her mom started ‘working late’ too.

“Anyway, eventually Liza’s mom was out more than her dad was, and she was developing, and he started hanging around the house, after work, reeking of booze. Started conveniently doing the laundry across the hall when Liza was in the shower. Their bathroom door had one of those old timey keyholes you could peek through if you wanted to. When Liza realized this, it’d already been like weeks of this going on, but then she started hanging her towel over the knob to cover up the hole.

“So then her dad said she couldn’t lock the door anymore. Said it was a fire hazard, or that she could pass out, and what would he do then, just let his own daughter die? She left it unlocked.

“She was thirteen the first time her father raped her. Thirteen and in the shower and singing some song by Christina Aguilera and he pushed her against the wall. Stopped her singing. Left the shower running. Got his clothes all wet. And she grabbed at the curtain and pulled half of it down but he wouldn’t stop.

“This went on for a year. Like clockwork. When Liza locked the door, he busted the door open. Fixed the lock before her mom got home. When she stopped showering he went into her room at night and did it while she was sleeping. Woke her up. When she locked her bedroom door he jimmied it open with a screwdriver.

“It got so death was preferable to life. She fantasized about killing herself. Tried a few times. Or at least said she tried. I think that fighter part of her refused to let her do it. No matter how bad it got. Finally, it was either she’d die or she’d tell someone. She was resourceful. She found a hotline. Told them everything. Gave the cops the whole story when they came. Detailed everything. Her dad was arrested. Tried. Convicted. And so she went to the Center and her dad went away.

“When I met her she was doing pretty well. Really well, actually, considering the kind of shit she went through. You couldn’t meet a more positive chick. The whole time her father had been raping her she’d gotten super skinny. Scary skinny. But when she came to the Center she ate healthy, drank a lot of water, went on walks around the grounds and told her Hurt in one word, spoke at every Allegorical. She was like the model resident, but none of us were jealous or anything. She was the kind of person you wanted to see succeed no matter what. No matter who you were. Everyone loved her.

“But she went out on a belt anyway.

“I found her first. Her toes were purple and she was swaying, back and forth. Like she was on a swing or something. She wasn’t on restriction, which is why they let her have a belt. In case you’re wondering. ‘Cause I was wondering. I was wondering how come they didn’t take away her belt and her laces and her sheets and tie her hands behind her back if this is what she was capable of. If this is what she’d do to herself. I hit Charon in the face and I punched a window out and I clawed the wallpaper and knocked over everything I could knock over and I cried till I couldn’t cry anymore and could only sleep, right where I was crying, on the floor. I’ve never cried like that in my life. I don’t cry.

“I didn’t know why she did it. Still don’t. But nothing will change what happened. Nothing will bring her back. And I was hurt for a long time after that. I couldn’t deal. And I hated Liza, wished I’d never met her, all that.

“But then I stopped hating her. I stopped trying to blot out the memories we had and I saw her how she was, before she went out on a belt. In her stories and her smile and the way her eyes lit up when the sun came in just right and it looked like they went from green to blue, just like that.

“Okay.

“Okay, I’m done.”

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Maya

DelhiSunrise

Madhan called last night and told me he needed to see me, called late at night so that I had to pull the phone’s cord as far as it would go away from Mama and Baba’s room, so they wouldn’t hear us talk. They thought I’d stopped talking to him after they told me to, but they were wrong.

I haven’t gotten any sleep since I hung up the phone. I got back home from night school, slipped in quiet so Mama and Baba wouldn’t hear, hid my books, and Madhan called right after, as if he knew. Maybe he did. I don’t know. That boy seems to know so much.

The night moves into morning, and I spend it by sitting on the grass, in a field near my home, watching the way the purple of the sky turns to pink, the stars disappearing into nothing. This place I’ve been to with Madhan so many times before, lying on the grass and looking up at the sky, far enough from New Delhi’s center that it’s quiet, close enough that the city’s lights erase some of the starlight.

Madhan said he’d be here by sunrise, like the times before, when we’d shield our eyes from the light and watch the city come to life, the stray dogs rising up from the ground like steam to wind their way through the city and find another meal. But Madhan isn’t here. I told myself I wouldn’t cry, but my eyes are clouding, letting the light take over everything. I’m standing up, the dew on the grass clinging to my feet, and I’m putting my sandals back on, trying to figure out which way to go.

I get to the bus stop, this bus that will take me to Madhan, that will get me the answers that he suddenly doesn’t want to give. I sit on the bench and wait, but after a minute I’m back up, pacing, waiting for the bus as the sun rises into my eyes and blinds me. Finally, I’m not even pacing, just standing, and this old dog comes up to me with his tail between his legs, big eyes looking at me, begging for food.

I put my hands out to show him I have nothing, but he persists. He sniffs both hands to make sure that I’m not hiding something, then walks behind me and sits next to the bench. I take it as a sign and take a seat, reach out and pet his head, scratch his nose, his gray whiskers moving as he smiles at me. I can see the dog’s ribcage, and he limps on one of his hind legs, but this old dog doesn’t seem to mind. He just sits there next to me with his tail wagging, brushing the dirt from the ground like a child who doesn’t know how to use a broom. I pet him so we can both forget for a while.

When the bus is in sight, I want to leave this stop and this old dog and go back to the field, back home. Somewhere else. But I don’t. I get on the bus, and I pay my fare, and I take a seat, and I wait for the stop that will take me to Madhan.

The beggar children try to stop me everywhere I go once I get off the bus. They cup their hands into little ponds that are waiting to be filled. When they reach out their hands, I hold them briefly and apologize. I have nothing to give.

I get to Madhan’s door and knock. It takes a few minutes, but finally he comes to the door and asks who’s there. When I tell him it’s me, he waits a while before opening up, peeks through the crack between the door and the frame to make sure it’s actually me. Opens it up the rest of the way and says nothing, only looks at me.

He puts on some tea and offers me a seat. We don’t talk until the tea is done, and he pours my tea with shaking hands. He starts by saying, “You know how I feel about you.” When he says this, my stomach drops. He sips his tea so he won’t have to say anything more, and I do the same. Finally, he says, “I have to do it.”

It’s his parents, he says. They’ll never forgive him, never let this go. They hadn’t approved of me, and they never would. Anyway, it’d be better for me. This way, we wouldn’t strain things with our parents. He could marry who they wanted him to marry, and I could marry Suddho. And when I tell him I don’t want to marry Suddho, I want to marry him, how Madhan takes my hands in his and kisses them both, first the left, then the right, then the left again. How he tells me we can still see each other, how he can visit me in America if Suddho is still to take me there. And when I ask him why we can’t run away together like we’d planned, how he looks away so I can’t see the tears clinging to his eyes. How he kisses me, deeply, and holds me to him.

We spend what feels like hours there, ignoring our tea, holding each other, barely separating, wanting this moment to never end. And when we finally separate, how he tells me he’ll call, he’ll see me. How I cry because I know this isn’t true. We both know it isn’t.

And how he takes me to the door, unwilling, and opens it to the bright sunlight shining in. How we kiss and we kiss and we kiss, and he moves me past the door, looks into my eyes and says nothing. How he closes the door. How I knock, and cry, and call his name over and over again. Madhan. Madhan. Madhan.

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SOS

sos

We cut our teeth on B horror movies on VHS, having to adjust the tracking to make them even halfway viewable, that’s how much we watched them. Shooting Cheez Whiz directly into our mouths and hiding under our pillow fort, Space Jam blanket underneath to keep us comfy. Watching Troll 2, Cheez Whizzing every time someone says Nilbog. Her taking out the pink bike her parents gave her on her twelfth birthday and me helping her spray paint it a cerulean blue. I gave her two of my pegs, and the way I tried to hide my blush when she gave me a hug.

The bully’s knuckle cutting my cheek, blackening one of my eyes, adrenaline making me grab a stick, hit him in the head, make my escape. And when she saw what happened to me, bringing me over to her house and putting ice pops on my face ‘cause that’s all they had in the freezer. Then sitting down in her basement, me watching her play Game Boy Color out of my one good eye, sidling up close to make as if I wanted to get a better view but really just trying to get closer to her.

Mom screaming at Dad and throwing plates, me sneaking out with my walkie talkie before it could get physical, out in the night, calling for backup. Us circling the block, underneath the buzzing street lamps, cicadas screaming in protest at the humid air. Her blonde hair frizzed up against rain droplets as she distracted me with descriptions of the last episode of Pokémon that I’d missed. And when that went away, how she laced her fingers into mine and we walked like that, with the sound of droplets and cicadas, street lamps buzzing and cars dopplering down the interstate.

We were sixteen and she was moving to a new town a couple hours away, us swinging on swings and kicking up packed-in wet sand, insisting we’d chat on AIM and ride the Amtrak on weekends, her turning away and making as if she was looking at the sunset sky while she covered up her tears. There was a storm drain that snaked through the underbelly of our torn-up town, and we’d pried a manhole open to gain access to it, would sneak down there to write stories by Maglite and get away from everything for a while.

She felt the concrete floor for dampness before sitting down, put her legs together so her Converse were two sides of the same coin. She took the Maglite in her hand and shined SOS on the concrete wall, no signs of help coming. She turned and shined the light in my face till I saw spots in my eyes, leaning over and struggling with her over the Maglite. I freed it from her and shut it off, bringing darkness to our little hideaway. Silence. Not even the sound of our breath. The warmth of her leg next to mine, then her hand. Our fingers touching tentatively like a cat’s whiskers as it sniffs something new. Her lips at the corner of mine, staying for a while, then leaving. Fumbling in the dark to find her, hands now over her clothing, she’s completely still now, but letting it happen. Hand sliding under and her saying my name, saying we shouldn’t. My hands moving. Her teeth on my shoulder, moisture spreading on my shirt. The buckle and the button and the zipper. These are meant to hold together, but we’re coming apart now. Coming apart together. Her panties slide away and her hand is in my hair, saying we don’t have to do this. As if there’s any other choice. We slide our way into the dark and she tells me to pull out. When I try, she reaches back and holds my hips, goes limp in front of me as I shudder.

When we can say something, we say Oh no, or Oh God, and we sit next to each other, and I switch the Maglite on, and we cry in turns, alternating between who comforts whom, the Maglite now flickering in my hands from its dying battery, sending the concrete wall into staccato relief, mapping out its own SOS as our cries fade away into silence.

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Here’s Waldo

I’m writing Here’s Waldo for the kids who grew up in the torn-up part of town. The kids who didn’t fit in no matter where they went. The kids who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. The kids whose neighborhoods were infected with the fog of capital V Violence. And I’m writing Here’s Waldo so other kids don’t have to suffer the same fate.

 

The Prodigal Son

The old prodigal son story comes to mind as you drive back to your hometown, the buildings of your old complex rising up from the ground like stubborn weeds. You respect Jesus’ storytelling skills, but will have to rewrite a couple plot points for your story. Exchange the extravagant son for the one barely scraping by. The forgiving father for the estranged mother. The hypochondriac mother who finally got the terminal cancer she always wanted.

You’ll visit your old bully, the girl who got away, your mother. The trifecta of terrible. The bully shipped off to military school after his crew disbanded on drug charges, taking away your only shot at revenge. You find him on Facebook, American flag as profile picture, ask for a time and place. He replies within the hour: noon tomorrow, at his house. You clench your fist as you ring the doorbell. Tense up. The door opens and catches on his front wheel. You’re supposed to believe that this is the same person. His left leg ends at his shin. His left hand’s missing both ring finger and pinky, perpetually giving a peace sign. The place where his left ear once was is a whirl of scarred flesh. His nose is MIA, lips grafted from what you guess must be ass flesh. Gifts from Afghanistan. He looks up at you, expressionless, and it’s only when he passes his eyes over you that you realize his left eye doesn’t move. Will you have a beer? No you won’t. And he’s grabbing two, you’re about to protest, but then he guzzles them both, one after the other. And could you come in the kitchen? There’s a door that leads into the basement. He opens it. It could be an accident, he tells you. He looks you in the eye. Your knuckles whiten on the wheelchair’s handles. You exhale. You let go. Finish the rest of the six pack. Tell him it was nice to catch up. Leave.

Her door opens. No one’s there. You look down. The kid eyes you suspiciously, hides his trading card behind his back. You guess Pokémon. You tell him he doesn’t have to worry, that you’re not here to steal his card. Who are you? That’s a good question, but you don’t say that. You say nothing. And you look sad and happy and weird and how does he know you’re not a weirdo? And you are a weirdo, he’s correct, but so is his mom. That’s why you were friends. You’re a good weirdo. And when she comes to the door the kid says he doesn’t know who you are, but you’re an old friend. A good weirdo. He can go inside now, sweetie. The kid’s dad is at work, right? There won’t be any problems? The kid’s dad is out of the picture. Was out of the picture. For how long? Until now. You remember to breathe. From inside the house you hear the show’s theme song’s singer. He wants to be the very best, like no one ever was. And you didn’t think she’d keep it. Him. And why wouldn’t she? She’s been doing fine raising him on her own these past seven years. And that’s not what you meant. You would’ve stayed if you knew. And bullshit, you took your first chance and ran away. She didn’t get to run away. But you were accepted into your top pick. That’s not fair. You leaving wasn’t fair either. The wind blows. Fall leaves drop to the ground. Well, you might as well come in since you’re here. She’s making grilled cheese. When it’s done you tell her what you’ve done so far, what you still need to do. That you’ll come back, if that’s okay. And sure, that’s fine. See you later. Goodbye.

They keep little animal print paper cups next to the water cooler that only really shoots out half-melted ice chips. You fill two cups. Breathe like you’ve emerged from a great depth. Knock on her door, but she refuses to answer. You come in. She says she’s surprised you came, thought you’d just run away again. That you’ve gotten fat, even though you’ve lost weight. You hand her her ice chips, but she can’t lift her arm to feed herself. You shuffle some chips into her dry mouth, wait till she’s ready for more. You pass the time watching daytime TV, both of you silent, audible sighs answered by indifference. You tell her you naively thought it’d be different, that you’d both put aside your differences and reconcile in the end. She throws a phone at your head. She’s obstinate for as long as she can be, till she can tell she’s going away. She asks for ice chips. You give them to her. She tells you she… That she… She tolerates you. And you tolerate her too, Mom. You tolerate her too.

You make your way down to the water, you three, take off your shoes, dip your toes in. The water is cool and still. You take out the jar you brought with you. Open it and poke air holes in the lid. You hand it to your son, tell him to catch every lightning bug he can find. Both of you watch the way your son runs off, into the night, and you know that all of it, everything, is going to be all right.

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End of the Line

When the sun finally decides to come up, this moment in time will be taken from us. But for now it’s night, so everything is still ours.

We do not care. If we were to be asked how many fucks we give, the answer would always be zero. Social norms are like suggestions to us. Etc.

We’re here at the end of our seventeenth summer. The previous sixteen were test runs for this one. Your face in the fading light is minimalistic: the smoke of your eyes, the cherry of your lips. Slung around your neck by twine, over the blossoms printed on your dress, is a stop sign with the S scrubbed away so it just says top. I ask if it’s meant to be a postmodern self-referential thing or what and you roll your eyes at me, lace your hands and do a boy band heart pound. I do the move in unison with you and smile, but I’m leaving for college in the morning so the smile ends up being a sad smile.

We walk until you stop to balance an acorn on the laces of your red Converse. The top sign scrapes pavement and sends up sparks in a pattern we can’t identify: some jumbled up version of Morse code. You become one-legged. You hop. You balance the unborn tree on your shoe. You tell me I am to clap along, maybe do that one Russian dance, the one that involves crouching and kicking. I do these things. We sing a song for the tree fetus and when we’re done you kick it in the air. When we’re done you catch it in your mouth like a tossed popcorn. When we’re done you immediately regret your decision. I give you a wax bottle to wash the taste of dirt out. I hold your spun-gold hair back as you spit tiny grass blades onto someone’s lawn.

For a second there, everything becomes the last time we’ll do it together. This is the last time we’ll see who will say penis the loudest. Here’s the last rock we’ll sling at a McMansion’s bay window. Etc.

I laugh too loud at your next joke to cover up the choking sound in my throat and we make forcefield cars together. Forcefield cars are when you snatch a sprinkler and put it on a car’s roof. The forcefield’s only water, but it’s super effective: most people will chase us but never stop the sprinkler. It’ll go all night like that.

We find the Switzerland car (always neutral) and force it into conflict by rolling it into the middle of the street. We go through a drive-thru in an invisible car. We make Our Lady of Piety’s sign say that righteous men follow the word of dog. We cannot be stopped.

When you eye me with that look I know what you want to do before you say it. It. The grand finale. Our little pièce de teenage résistance. The masterpiece we’ve been planning all year.

We get there right on time, while the driver’s still scarfing down his burger across the street. We look at this idling bus, door open, and we remember to breathe. You get in the driver’s seat and pass me the driver’s jacket. I put it on, apply adhesive to my upper lip, and stick on the fake Luigi mustache I used last Halloween. With aviators on, I could be your supervisor. You bite your cheeks to stop smiling. Clear your throat to stop laughing.

I shield you from view when our first customer gets on; insist you’re doing fine in a voice I hope sounds adultish. Two more get on at the next stop. You’re doing fine. Good job. I’m okay. I mean you’re okay.

No one says anything when you go off course. They don’t speak up till the bus stops outside some concert in the park summer series, till my mustache tells them this is it, last stop, end of the line, everybody out. Some mutter, but this is Chicago, and the shades and mustache make me look like Coach Ditka. All Chicagoans respect Coach Ditka.

I funnel them out the rear door just in case. Some crowd the stop for the next bus. Others spill into the concert. Some just walk home. I watch your face pulse in the Morse code of streetlights as you drive away.

We park in the lot of a forest preserve; turn the lights off so we’re in stealth mode. We push the emergency hatch that opens onto the roof and I give you a boost. Climb up after you and ditch my Ditka disguise.

You lie on your back and I copy you. We look up into the splattered canvas of sky, white dripped on black, and listen to a faraway car alarm that just started up. We do a boy band heart pound in unison. We don’t plan it. It just happens.

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