Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

I’ve been tempted multiple times to go back and look for them, but I haven’t yet, and I won’t. It could be detrimental if I found them gone, picked up by a stranger or torn apart by the new train. It’s best to let them stay buried. So I picture them instead, black and combat-style, sitting underneath the dirt and dying in the way a pair of boots might die. I think about what Emma looked like the last time I saw her. Kissing the sole of that left one, right where the words were scratched, dressed in baby blue. I wouldn’t have recognized her had it not been for the black straw hat dripping down the sides of her face. Usually she was draped entirely in black, black lace full of little rips evidencing that moths surrounded the place she called home, wherever that was. I never found out. Usually she was in fake pearls, the kind being chipped away from excessive wear, or in cheap trinkets she bought from me that dangled down to her stomach. Looking like any girl you might pass by on the street in 1999 who felt they were mistreated by the world. Any girl who had spent their early years watching My So-Called Life, maybe, except that she didn’t watch TV because she once told me she had no TV, and I imagine even if she did she would choose not to watch it. But that day, she was in baby blue. She had handed the pair to me, first the right one, then the one with the epitaph of decay scratched onto its sole. Rest in peace she had told me. Her lips were plain that day. I was concerned because the only source of color usually came from her lips. Sometimes in reds, pinks, purples, blues. She would watch me apply plain Chapstick now and then behind the counter, and with her hands cupping her narrow chin over the register’s counter she would ask me how come I never colored anything bright. As if the color on her two thin lips were enough to brighten all that black. I would point to the floral patterns on my blouses, to the glimmer of gold and pink in my glasses, but her attention was drawn toward my naked lips. She would stare heavily at them, and then lift her face up abruptly, as if she were suddenly aware she was having a conversation.

“Are you ready to start the day, my dear?” I had said, smiling while wiping the counter. I had put on the faintest red lipstick, silly me, thinking I could be best friends with someone nearly half my age.

She carefully lined up the heel of her foot with the toes of her other. She walked seven steps toward the counter this way, keeping her focus on her feet. Even her boots were colorful that day; a bold brown opposed to a familiar black.

“Remember when we first met?” She had finally said. “Rest… in… peace,” she whispered. She lifted my right hand, kissed the top of it as if she were an old-fashioned daughter or lover bidding farewell. Then the boot received its kiss and she left. Smiled, turned, straight out of the shop. Swinging her legs up, bouncing her waving baby blue skirt, holding down her oversize straw hat with her fingers. I watched her until she made it down to the start of the abandoned railroad tracks.  She didn’t look back to say goodbye.

When she stepped over the tracks I called her name, but she couldn’t hear me. So I settled for summoning her in a different way.

Faintly, by and by, I would hear her voice. It was when I walked by the rack of beige wedding dresses. I used to think they were beautiful before I met her; now their hangers stared at me like lonely faces, their arms hung helplessly to the side of their corsages sleazily draped in twenty-five dollars worth of jewel and bead. They spoke in harsher, more dismal tones than they used to.

When I reached out to hold one of their hands out of an empathy I cannot explain, I would hear Emma snort next to me.

They belong to the moths. Nobody cares enough to keep them as a keepsake, and now they’ll be doomed to hang here, stuffed right next to each other in rows but weeping all the rest of their dreary days. As if they have any right to be loners because one person didn’t come up and pick them off the rack. People try them on, but most of them are stubborn. Just watch them and you’ll see what I mean. They don’t try to fit onto anybody. They don’t try to make their beads shine with color when someone wants to dance in them, to show off. They’ve given up, and because they are so full of self-pity they will rot. Face it, Willetta.

“They’re waiting for their perfect fit,” I tell her. My voice gets high when I’m upset, and my cheeks turn a champagne sort-of pink; because of this I can never lie to someone who knows me.

Yeah, like they have time to do that. I bet this entire town will be renovated and restored before these dresses find ‘perfect’ owners.

“Watch your mouth.” I lift up the right sleeve of the white Renaissance-looking one, kiss the top of it. Dust sticks to my Chapstick lips, and I taste it on my tongue until closing.

She was there five minutes after opening. I had never seen her before, and here I was thinking I’d met every rock in this small town. She walked in and waved, as if we had met before, and I watched her look through the colorful pins, costume jewelry, darling dresses, reindeer and heart-print sweaters, cassettes and tapes and vinyl that contained treasure most people overlooked. One of the tapes I had snuck in was a sermon my father had preached; the only time I heard his voice was when I heard the tape. When I was a girl, I think I believed in God only because it felt like believing in God meant believing in my father.

One particular vinyl I had put in the pile was a hit single in the early 1940’s, “Paper Doll” by The Mills Brothers. I paid particular attention to that vinyl, because it couldn’t go to just anyone. My grandpa used to turn this one on and sing along, after emptying his cigar-smoke-filled cheeks. Meanwhile, I would pull out the paper dolls my grandma had bought for me and pretend they were my mom. Mama, you look so pretty in this one. Do you want me to get you pearls to wear with it, too? I would dress them and dance with them, barefoot on the kitchen floor doing what I thought was the waltz, as my grandpa sang about paper dolls. Then I’d take pictures with my Polaroid of each of their outfits, pasting them in the only journal I ever owned; one that belonged to my grandma who was never much of a writer. When I first opened her journal there were only two pages that were filled and I found them only after flipping through carefully.

To Buy/To Do

  1. Pack red lipstick Buy lip balm (more practical)
  2. Safari dresses á la Katharine Hepburn; so you don’t have to look in the mirror to know you’re gorgeous, doll
  3. Bring vinyl — can you bring vinyl to such a place? Ask Gregory
  4. Viewing magnifiers for seeing strictly-wild things up close; so close you’re afraid they will breathe on you
  5. Extra pens to record observations and thoughts (so as not to forget!)
  6. Extra money for souvenirs (can you buy souvenirs there? How much money to bring?) Ask Gregory
  7. Don’t forget to call Doctor Schwartz at 592-34–
  8. Don’t forget that you put your bag under Gregory’s side of the bed, not yours
  9. Don’t forget to remind Gregory that Willetta goes to piano on
  10. Don’t forget the keys are in the second drawer of your dresser, as usual. (The vanity’s drawer)
  11. Don’t forget to remember to wake Willetta up early so she can say good-bye
  12. Tomorrow(today if you are reading this) will be Tuesday, the seventh
  13. Don’t forget that you leave on Tuesday, the seventh, today! First flight at 1:30p.m. Bon voyage!

And the other:

“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”

~ William Faulkner

I never understood what she meant by “strange roof”. She had always lived under the same roof, in the first house grandpa had bought her. I thought perhaps she was referring to the time she was in Africa for a week, the first time she left Grandpa and me on our own. When she got back, she had told me stories about how she slept in dusty tents and blankets and had to take her friend Daisy with her every time she wanted to use the restroom. Grandma would roll up her dress and do her business, with Daisy standing with her back to her, watching for lions. She blushed every time she told the story, covering her grinning lips with her withering fingers.

“Childhood romantic dreams of safaris and African Queens and painted jewelry were lost in those moments,” she would tell me. “It wasn’t worth it to be away from you two. Do you understand what I mean? Do you understand that no place is better than home?” I was a young teenager.

“Yes,” I would say, my voice turning high. I wanted to travel.

She would pause for a moment, staring for minutes at a time at my face, her eyes glossy and her head cocked to the side. I thought for the longest time it was the stories that drained her. I thought she had been so involved in the stories that it was practical she would need minutes to find her way back to reality. I didn’t question her forgetting my name now and then, or what day of the week it was, when she could tell such stories. She was older, and I almost expected details to fade from her mind as they surfaced to appear, in fine lines, on her skin.

On the page after Grandma’s notes, I wrote the only journal entry I’ve ever written:

March 24, 1979

Grandma told me today about trepanation. It’s pretty gross, to the max. Egyptians used to do it and they would make a hole in your head and let the evil stuff leak out of it. but really they just would hurt people because they didn’t have the medical knowledge we do. Grandpa always talks about how medically advance we are and how we could solve anything, so no worries. Grandpa keeps making a joke today saying grandma got a hole in her head when she went to Egypt, because she forgot that yesterday we bought a kitten, who I named Lula. She threw her outside and I looked everywhere for her until I brought her back. Grandma kept saying sorry but she really couldn’t remember when we bought her yesterday. She was even there! So when she told us about the trepanation grandpa made that joke and we all busted a gut laughing, and now grandpa keeps saying it, and I want to write it down so I don’t ever forget it because it was so funny.

            I can hear Emma next to me so clearly as if she never left the shop that day: They all died. All your paper moms died. One was drowned in the sink after her porcelain ship sank to the bottom. Another was pulled away in the wind after the door was left open during a storm. And I know you recall when the cigar fell onto your third mom, burned a hole right through her head and made her lose all her memory of every dress you ever decorated her with.

She’s pulled out a book on paper dolls and is punching out the little dresses from them, throwing them at my feet.


I look at Emma again, wandering around the shop, and see she’s pulled out a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

“I hate these, I can never read them. I constantly have to flip to the beginning to remember what’s happened.” She talks to me like we are friends who see each other every week, maybe work together.

I nod. “You didn’t see anything good in the music section?”

“You have a funny way of organizing things,” Emma says. Although I don’t know her name is Emma just yet.

“Everything is arranged by color, isn’t it?”

“Nobody ever mentions that.”

“Well I just did.” She grabs a chunk of vinyl from the greenish cover section and brings it to the register, along with a pair of black combat boots.

“All of this?” I don’t know if I can part with all of it at once like this; I am wondering if she will take her motherly responsibility to this collection seriously. She seemed to grab that handful of vinyl without thinking.

“What’s your name?” She’s picking at the multi-colored pins near the register.

I pick at the register’s buttons, slowly.


Willetta. That’s a weird name.” She scrunches her nose as if she’s finally inhaled the dust.

“What’s your name?” It’s the least I should know about her, since she is about to walk away with a bagful of my friends.

“It’s Emma, spelled with two m’s.”


“You don’t go by Willie or something?”

“Just Willetta.”

“That’s a pain in the ass to say.”

I stop punching buttons on the register.

“Well… that’s my name.”

“Alright, Willetta, what’s my total then?”

“Thirty-three seventeen.”

“Awe, geez louise, Willetta, I didn’t bring enough money to cover it all.”

She rests her elbows on my counter, tilts her face up so I can see underneath her black bangs. I meet a pair of earnest black eyes.

“Thirty-three seventeen.”

Her fingers massage the laces on the boots and then, as if popping a peppermint into her mouth, she takes the bit of the plastic-enclosed lace at the end and sticks it in her mouth.

My hands hit the counter hard. “Ma’am, please! Stop that! Oh, I do hope you’re buying those…. In fact, I’m going to have to require you to buy those. Please.”

She grins, the boot dangling out of her mouth. She lifts the left-foot boot with her mouth like a dog, and shakes her head. This is the point where I start to thinks she’s nuts. Mentally handicapped. Probably thinks she’s a real dog; probably is one of those psychos stuck in that perpetual fantastical state-of-mind, unwilling to grow up if you ask me.

“Why aren’t you stopping me?”

The shoe falls.

“I mean, I’m standing here eating a shoe and you’re still over there on the other side of the counter. What do I have to do, lady, bite off a piece of the leather and chew?”

“I asked you to please stop,” I remind.

Words? That’s your big idea on how to stop me? Words might be great and all, but really, you could talk to me all day and I wouldn’t do anything. There are better ways to make me listen. You could hit me like my dad does, for instance. He keeps his rings on. Wedding ring, class ring, and one I mistakenly gave him for one of his birthdays. You can put on all your antique rings and punch into my sides. Or you could take some of these pins, open their mouths and throw them at me like pretty little darts.  You could strangle me with my own shoelace; this looks long enough right here.”

“You’re crazy,” I tell her. Plain as that. I’ve never called anybody crazy before. I’m wondering if I should call CPS about the comment about her father, but I’m having trouble understanding whether or not she’s serious. Kids like to mess with you.

“Maybe so. Don’t sell these shoes,” her voice dips as she reaches to grab the shoe that fell from her mouth. She places the pair on the counter, pushing them toward my hands.

“Don’t sell them. I’ll come back in a while to get them, I swear to God I will. Do you believe in God? I swear to Buddha, I swear to Zeus, I swear to Joseph Smith, I swear to Madonna, I will be back to get these shoes!” She’s delivered a speech, chin held high, hands moving everywhere. I fear for the little crystal pins.

I don’t say anything before she’s out the door. Then I stand there; holding up the boots’ laces between pinched fingers.

“Thank you for your business.” My voice is high and my face is warm as she runs out the door. I shake my head and throw the boots under the counter. She won’t be back.

The second time I see her, fifteen minutes later, she hands me thirty-three seventeen in exact change. I wanted to take them all at once, she says, scooping up the green vinyl and the combat boots. So none feel more special than the others. And then she leaves, and I watch her go, stopping at the abandoned railroad tracks to put on the shoes. Her bag full of green vinyl swings on her arm, she spins on the track, lifting her skirt and laughing, doing the two-step down the tracks until she disappears behind the town’s old print shop. But before she disappears, she looks back, and I know I will see her again.

In totality, I only spent maybe one week with her. Her eyes would stare patiently into mine; those black, bulging things. Her colored mouth would smirk, smile, guffaw as sound escaped it. I thought she wanted to stay.

She asked me what year I was born, and I told her 1966. She asked about that year and I couldn’t recall anything specific, but I did know that The Sound of Music, one of my favorite movies to watch with my grandmother, had opened the year before.

She told me the world might end soon, that Y2K would be here and that I should go to a party before the world ends. I told her I only wanted to be here when it happened, and besides, I thought Y2K was silly. It’s an event to give suppressed people a chance to do something inexcusable or outrageous they’ve always wanted to do. Believing a change so tremendous would happen within one day was laughable.

Usually she asked silly question that I didn’t mind answering. Like, what would you rather do: never change out of your favorite dress for the rest of your life, or never be able to wear the same thing twice? Never change out of my dress, I had told her. No need to waste clothes. I had pointed my finger at her and shook it when I told her.

One day she asked about my grandmother. I told her I visited my grandmother’s grave every other Saturday to leave her white roses. She answered:

“She liked dancing, right? You should dance around her grave the next time you see her. If you’ve run out of tears, she’ll understand. I’ll bet she’s sick of people coming over to her and just crying on her, drowning her in tears.”

“Don’t talk about your grandmother that way”, I had said to her.

We didn’t talk for the rest of the day.

            Rest in peace, grandmother.

Taylor, Leonora Elizabeth

            (May 4, 1922- March 24 1981)

            Leonora Elizabeth Taylor was sent to heaven on March 24, 1981, a heaven where she was happily reunited with her baby girl and son; a waterless heaven, she discovered, where cruises took place on colorful clouds. A place where age doesn’t exist and where wind doesn’t misdirect, but instead exists solely to tickle long, silver hair. She was a vivacious, gentle, yet feisty woman, always picking on Gregory and reminding Willetta that real love meant not being afraid to poke fun of one’s object of affection. She particularly enjoyed dressing up and going out, being shown off; she believed it was a tragedy if one didn’t enjoy being shown off, and she was beautiful enough to be right. She is survived by her husband Gregory Taylor, whom by some miracle she managed to say good-bye to moments before she packed her bags for heaven whilst crying and telling him she would not forget him, and by her granddaughter, Willetta Elizabeth, who knows her especially by her stories, and who wants her to know she will keep all of them safe. Willetta remembers everything. Every walk by the lake where Leonora held her hand tightly, the laugh that came from her mouth after she found out Willetta had forged a permission slip telling her P.E. teacher she could not swim because she was allergic to chlorine and her skin would turn completely green if she were forced to swim, every waltz on the kitchen floor to “Paper Doll” as Gregory sang, every costume dress Leonora brought back for Willetta to play in. There will be a celebration of life for our loving wife, mother, grandmother and friend on Sunday, March 26, at 6a.m. (Willetta’s favorite time of day, right as the sun hit the blackened earth) at Life Church, the church where Willetta’s father used to preach. Flowers, particularly white roses (her favorite) are especially welcomed, but please try to control your tears. Our family is not particularly fond of water.

            Contact Willetta Taylor at Old Tyme Antiques to hear or share a story about Leonora’s life. Please, please contact Willetta. She wants to share, needs to share. It’s the only way Leonora can return, if only for a while.


“About these shoes, Willetta—I need to return them.”


“I need to return these boots.”

“I’m sorry, but you can’t.”

“C’mon, Willie,–”


“Willetta. Listen. The shoes are telling me to kill somebody. Kill them. Do you want to be responsible for that?”

“For—what on earth are you—”

“I didn’t see it coming, either! I had no idea. I put them on, and just like that they were talking about murder. They talked about killing her, absolutely slaughtering her! Taking a knife to carve her like a turkey, to gut her like a pumpkin. It will renew her, they said. Like she’s going to be renewed in blood, like the blood of Jesus Christ.”

I look up from the shoes, into her face. Her eyebrows have nearly touched her hairline, her lips pursed together, as if she won’t speak until I do. She has long eyelashes peeking from between strands of black bang, and although she’s wearing an outrageous shade of even paler purple lipstick than she was before, she looks quite docile.

“No. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Then you need to take them back.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It means that you take them back. Put them back on display and give somebody else a chance to take them; somebody who actually wants them and is willing to wear them now and then and not keep them cooped up in the back of their closet. They are already so worn out, but they still have soles, and they are worth it, Willetta, they are worth taking back.” She’s taken on the tone of both salesperson and beatnik poet.

No; I don’t understand because about forty minutes ago you came in here telling me I could absolutely not sell these to anybody else. It was practically life or death if I sold these to anybody else, and now you’re telling me I have to take them back or I’ll be responsible for murder? I’m sorry, missy, but I’m not in the mood to put up with this right now. Or ever, actually. Please leave my shop.”

“Just look at them. Just look.” She pushes the boots toward me. “On the bottom of the left sole.”

I play along, peek at the bottom of the left shoe. Sure enough, in faint gray as if scratched with keys, it says RIP.

“Did you do this?”

“Oh, no ma’am. I can’t imagine who could possibly have done this. It’s sick. It’s twisted. It’s dark, Willetta.”

She takes her elbows off the counter. She gently gives the boots a loving pat as if to tell them it’s not their fault they’re psycho.

“It’s difficult to leave them after I’ve just gotten them. I know I probably sound crazy to you. A lot of people call me crazy. But I’m not crazy. I just can hear things that other people block their ears to. I can hear the stories. I’m trying to explain what I mean…but it’s like I can look at something, and I can hear its desires. I can see where it’s been because I pay attention to detail.”

She’s holding the left shoe, stroking its leather skin.

She’s treating it like a friend, with care, and the intensity of her sincere tone is overwhelming.

“I can hear the dresses talk,” I finally say. I clear my throat, look down at the counter, start counting the little crystal pins.

Emma’s eyes cut into mine, they are skeptical.

“What I mean is I know what you mean.”

It’s not that the dresses have mouths like we do, and they open them and they speak sounds like English or French or Portuguese. But there is a baby blue dress with a lacey cream collar that has cried to me, told me about how the tiny blood stain, invisible to almost any eye but my own, came upon it.

You see, it was out on the lake in an antique canoe with its owner when she started bleeding profusely; so it was abandoned, thrown into the water, pulled from its owners bulging and broken stomach. Its owner jumped into the water, because she could swim faster than she could paddle. The wind overtook the boat, and it ran into a pile of rocks, leaving the dress completely alone. There, alone, the dress would wash itself in the water, scrubbing, scrubbing, and trying to rid itself of the blood. It rid itself of all but one stain, blue maroon in the spot below the hips, a haunting reminder of the loss of what it once held. No. Nobody wanted the dress because it was stained with that shameful spot.

I can hear them all. Sitting on their hangers and obsessing over their appearance, wondering why they haven’t been taken. Whispers of why they’ve been disowned, why their original owner didn’t care to have them around, or forgot about them entirely.

There is a satin strawberry champagne nightgown that spoke to me one night as I was closing. I was weary, but it kept pulling my eyes in, then talked louder and louder until I would listen. Its owner had worn it to bed with her lover, but the lover took one look at its outdated sleeves, and the tiny cream ruffles around its skirt and neck. You’re still a girl, the owner’s lover had told the owner of the dress. The dress blushed strawberry champagne with embarrassment, and those words were soaked up as truth, and the blush was so precise, that it became its permanent color. The owner tried to rip the dangling ribbons from its collar after fleeing to the bathroom, but once gone, the dress became even more childish and outdated than it had before. Its ribbons were its roots, and now it was lifeless.

“Like this dress right there,” I say to Emma, pointing to a sagging peach beige dress hanging forlornly on a rack. “Nobody wants it because it has a hole in it, see?”

I run my hands through its stiff, lace-y bottom until my finger falls into it; it’s the size of a bullet but it wasn’t shot. Its edges are singed, like someone ran a candle through it. I know its story: one of a different lady and her love, quite the pair. This dress looks so old I reckon it could be from the 40’s.

“This dress used to be quite the charmer, you know.”

“Is that so?” Emma manages this with a tone of sincerity.

“Yes. It was bought by an enamored fiancé for his wife-to-be. Well, she kept the dress for years, wore it all over the town and continued to get compliments on it. One night her and her then-husband lit a candle in the bedroom; they were getting romantic before this big event he was going to bring her to, so he could continue to show her off. As he wrapped his arms around her to kiss her, he lifted her up, and this bottom part of the dress grazed the candle. But rather than catching the entire dress on fire, a tiny flame appeared, and hung onto this little circular spot on the dress, as if this entire peach dress were now its new body of wax. The lady thought it was mortifying. She was supposed to attend an event that night and had planned on wearing no other dress, nor did she want to wear any other dress. Her husband, after putting out the tiny flame, thought it added to the dress’s amazement and enchantment, but the lady was considerably irked by the hole in her dress. She did not expect to have a hole in her dress at such an event. Eventually, she told him she would not go with him that night. She had a hole in her dress and it was causing all the compliments to leak out of the dress, one by one. She could no longer recall that Mrs. Osborne had told her she looked like quite a doll in it, and such. The memories of the dress started to seep out, too, and all the girl was left with was a hole, nothing else. She stuffed the dress into the garbage, and had it not been for her husband to scoop it out and donate it in hopes it would get another chance, Lord knows where it would be now.”

“But why does it matter?” I almost forget that I am telling the story to someone. Emma caresses the hole, then yanks her finger down and suddenly the perfect circle is gone.


“Those stories are depressing! Why do good stories all have to be depressing? I’m sick of it! I won’t be a part of it!”

She is racing now through the racks of dresses, pulling them off their hangers, throwing them into a pile of ashes at my feet; they are bodies without bone.

“Here are these sleeves that you have kissed. I’ve seen you kiss them before.” Her black eyes pour directly into mine. “But where is their fruit now? Huh? Even if they were to somehow come back to life, if they were given another chance, who’s to say their life wouldn’t be wasted on meaningless parties, or plagued with more sorrow and loss? Vanity, vanity, all is vain under the sun!”

She throws a baby yellow sundress above her head, and it explodes in the excitement of freedom, falling over her face.

“We are vain creatures! And I’ve decided that we shouldn’t care, because we’re going to die.” She is prancing around the pile of dresses, picking them up and muttering ladies’ names before she tosses them: Goodbye, Leona! Goodbye, Eleanor! Goodbye, Rebecca!

“They are all dead now, I bet. They are not wise, not antique, not old-fashioned….that’s a cover for the fading, that’s a cover for the decaying, that’s a cover for those who know they have to die or have to change.”

“Get out of my shop.”


“Get out of my shop.”

She’s fallen to her knees, face in her palms, heaving. Over and over she is mumbling, Why does it have to be so depressing?

Then, she whispers: “I wish I could save them all.”

When standing over her, I see how tiny she really is. Her black dress is a heavy drapery over her small body. Her stomach is folded over her knees, arms and hands tucked in around them. She reaches out to the pile of dresses around her feet, my feet, and strokes the dresses, one by one.

“I’m sorry your story has been so sad,” she tells them.

Right then and there I forgive her. I wonder if her dad really hit her with rings.

“Do you want to work here, with me? To help me save them?” I bend my own knees. I once read that when talking to a child, it’s good to get on their level.

Her violet lips curve upwards, she puts her thumb and index finger between her chin, inhales, and shuts her eyes. As if she will find the answer only when she blackens her surroundings.

I blacken the boots’ world after three weeks of not seeing Emma skip in and sniff the air of the shop, sneezing each time. They had remained there under the counter, in the same spot I had set them after she had whispered “rest in peace” and left. Though I tried to take them back, it became increasingly obvious they were not mine. Their black leather was darker than any of the other shoes’ leather, and I swear I could smell them from the register; mothballs and burned wood and mud, the kind of mud that sinks the soles into the ground so deeply it makes it difficult to pick your feet back up.

I heard them scream so loud at one point, a battle cry- or was it a cry for help? They were screaming that they were dying, that all the shoes and everything around the shoes were dying. So I grabbed them off their rack, slipped my size 8 feet into their size 7 home, and did what I had never done in all my years of owning the shop—I walked outside in the middle of work, listening.

Ah, yes. I could hear the voices within a minute. Rest, they whispered when I stepped on my right foot, In peace, they sighed, when I stepped on my left. Rest, In peace, Rest, In peace, Rest, In peace.

I ran. The further I was from my shop, the more I expected to be lost though I knew someone would have to try to get lost in this town if that’s what they wanted to be.

Eventually I peeled my stinging and suffocating feet out of the boots and began to dig, coloring my fingernails with the damp dirt. I buried them near the abandoned railroad tracks. The track hadn’t moved in years back then, and I had no intention of it moving.

I’ve considered going back and digging up the boots, but I haven’t yet, and I won’t. It’s best to let them stay buried.


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            Today I am back to the place where I spent the first half of my life, and everything has changed but the carpet and pews and maybe something else, but I can’t put my finger on it because I’ve never been that observant. It’s been a solid seven years since I last walked into this building. The key to it is cold in my hands, and I run my fingers up and down its skeleton as I walk the aisles. The lights are on but it’s dark outside, so the windows don’t show off their color like I remember. Maybe that’s it.

I’m pacing the aisles, and it’s reminding me of how old Mr. Jones used to pace them, hands shaking and tongue shaking as he spewed out what we call our own prayer language. He scared the junk out of me, that man. I laugh thinking about my six-year-old self seeing a wrinkly, wobbly old guy shouting in what sounded like a cross between Spanish and a toddler trying to speak English with a stutter. Boy, he would tell me in a quiet voice when he wasn’t praying, you’re just like your father. Just like your father.

I remember again why I’m here. I continue rubbing the key; it’s still cold.


There was a point not too long ago when my father would worry excessively that I was going to hell. It’s not like he told me those words, exactly: “I think you might be going to hell”. And he never once told me to go there. But he would preach to me after he’d finished preaching to the church, asked me if I needed a fourth Bible, and at one point he took me to a Christian bookshop to buy fifty dollars’ worth of books that quoted the Bible every other page.

When the time came for me to leave the house, he called me once a week to ask me about the Sunday sermon at the church I was supposed to be attending. The one we (he) had decided upon, after spending an entire evening reading “What we’re about” pages on every church website in Ohio. I’d roll around in my bed and lift the phone to my ear before I’d register it was him, bright and early Monday morning the one day I got to sleep in, asking me ‘how was church!?’ Truth is, I attended church now and then, but when I didn’t I usually knew what to say to make him think I’d gone. Sundays I usually spent sleeping in, dealing with my pile of procrastination spewed all over my desk, and updating my Netflix queue.

We’re praying for you, he would always say before I hung up. As if he could tell that, despite all my words, I wasn’t sure about this whole God thing those days.

I wasn’t.

I had met a friend named Brian, and we were focusing on our music. University was just a means of pleasing our parents and ensuring some sort of security to fall back on while our music was beginning to take off. I’m in a band, we could say to our elders and childhood friends. Their eyebrows would raise and they would nod, sympathetic. And I’m also studying Architecture and Business. Oh! They would perk up. Isn’t that something? A man of many talents!

We were an acoustic band called Scream Oh! We thought that was a hoot. We wrote songs mostly about girls and about the ironies of life and double-meanings. My favorite song was one about doubting love after a harsh break-up; when I sang “she takes from my hands what can’t be replaced/ the skin from my palms/ exposing real bones that could never love her face”, I knew that I was also talking about the church, about God.

And my father kept calling me.

Once a week, Monday morning. The start of the week for me, the second day of it for him.

The key in my hand is being pressed violently into my skin. I’m squeezing it. The shape of it is in my palm for a brief second, the blood hot red around it. When I look up from my palm I see that there are new flowers in the vases by the altar. Mom must’ve done it, which surprises me. The woman who orders the same coffee every morning and goes to bed at nine forty-five to the minute, has switched out the vases full of red roses for white ones. I walk up to the altar, bend down and take a whiff of them. They smell the same. Like Saturday walks to Flora’s Flower Shop, begging mom for an ice cream or a bag of Pop Rocks since I’ve been good considering I’ve been forced to spend an entire afternoon in some girlie flower shop.

Smelling them makes me nostalgic for the first time since I’ve walked in here. I scrunch my knees up and sit on them, touching both my palms to the prickly carpet. It’s the same. I lay my back and my head flat against it, staring at the white arched ceiling. Before I’m aware of what I’m doing, I’m rolling two rolls to the left, my nose scrunched underneath the bottom of one of the old pews. It smells like dirt and musk and old lady’s perfume and wood and mint leaf and of sweat and sermons and shouting.

And that’s when I remember how Big Red was the best gum already-chewed. Most definitely. If the sermon got a little too long, you’d just plop your head down like you were taking a nap, then as soon as everyone got loud and jumped up screaming Hallelujah Amen Preach it, roll yourself right underneath the tops of the old pews, grab a wad of that pre-chewed stuff and think about how momma won’t find out you’re chewing another person’s spit, ‘cause she’s too busy watching everyone get saved. Juicy Fruit was often underneath those pews, too, but all the sugar had drained out of those pieces. Not Big Red. Big Red tasted like fire and cinnamon and even when it got raw in your mouth, when you would let it sit out for a little bit then put it back in, it would taste brand new again. Like fire, just as strong as the first time.

I’m laughing. My nose is shaking underneath the pew and my gut is shaking against it a little, too. I know I’m obviously bigger than what I used to be, but I didn’t understand it until right now. Why didn’t I crawl under a pew last time I was here?

Last time I was here, I was eighteen and about to travel halfway across the States for school; telling my parents I was going so far for the education, but knowing it was mostly to get away. I went into that building without my family knowing, especially Dad. He might get too sentimental. Make it something I was convinced it wasn’t. It was early, around five a.m. I snuck the key out of mom’s purse on the kitchen counter and made a mad dash down the street. The sky was dusky blue and it was the first time I had been alone in it. The trees leading up to the doors were waiting on the side of the road with their crooked fingers pointed up toward the sky. They would often make me wonder if trees could take some of our places the way rocks were going to, raising their hands to the sky while the rocks cried out.

Walking into the church was like smelling a familiar scent from my past, though I hadn’t yet left it. It was a formal farewell to a place I both loved and loathed the responsibility of. I watched my face change for ten years in that big, finger-printed mirror over there; that is, when I was tall enough to see past the mini table with the tacky fake flowers on display. Momma saved the real flowers for around the altar. I had dreams that I was sliding off the top of that staircase right there, fingernails scratching the carpet to keep me from falling. I had those dreams after I would crawl under the pews and press my tired face into the prickly carpet to take a nap, while phrases like “are you truly saved?” and “you are not perfect, but He is” slipped into those dreams. I had been there not only on Sundays but on days my dad needed to work overtime in his office; his office that was jammed full of what I thought must have been important papers, so important he couldn’t throw any of them away or the whole building might be snatched from us. I knew every tile on the floor in the kitchen, knew where to find the keys to open the snack machine and steal Skittles, knew how the church looked when the sun was just starting to come up and when the sun was just starting to go down.

When we stayed after service, which we usually did, I would sit in the swivel chair in the office and pretend that I was the new pastor. I am sad to inform you, good church people who love Jesus, that my dad has unfortunately died in a suddenly deadly car pile-up. Or, actually, he just wanted to go on an extra-long vacation to Fijis, ‘cause that’s not super sad. In those moments I was married with a wife and kids, bossing my wife to make me coffee (black, like a real man took his coffee) and file something important, telling my kids to be respectful and stop playing on the desk tables. I don’t know if Dad ever saw me in those moments, but if he did you can bet he was overjoyed. He would say it plain and simple: This place is yours if you want it, and I can’t help but hope that you do, son.

I was eight while I was playing those pastor games. Thinking that all it involved was sitting in those swivel chairs and having a pretty wife to file vital things for you, while you were making phone calls with a deep man-voice asking people how they were doing with Jesus these days. Maybe counseling every now and then, letting someone lay on the office couch, pencil on my lip, quoting scripture every time they brought up a problem.

I don’t know when exactly the games stopped. I simply grew up and understood the responsibilities that I could never fully grasp when I was eight, and started planting other dreams. It would start with music lessons, a lyric scribbled on a napkin, visions of performing in a band underneath lights that made my long hair drip sweat; talking to a swarm of girls who thought showing emotions like that was hot.

When I was eight I could sit in a swivel chair like my dad’s and feel what it might be like to lead people to the Lord, to save lost souls, to show them  how to love Jesus. But when I was eighteen I had given up fully, knowing that to execute it was an altogether different concept.

One day I thought about the church and it sent bile shooting up my throat, real, raw-tasting bile. Why was I baptized when I was seven? I didn’t know any better. The church had been a comfort, a safety zone. But it was gone. And it wasn’t real. None of it was real. I read poetry about wanting to believe in God, but not being able to: Why am I blind to sights my brethren see? I wrote songs about doubt. Why was I restrained from life, real life? Restrained from trying drugs or having sex or getting drunk or believing in Buddha or goddesses or Greek mythology? It’s not that I wanted those things, necessarily, but I didn’t want to be told that I could not want them when I wasn’t sure if I did or not. And finally, why did I have to be a bad person simply because I couldn’t believe, really believe?

So the most spontaneous decision of my life came to be—in a rush of adrenaline and boiling blood I spun the globe on the top of my desk, closed my eyes, and crushed my finger into it after a few seconds had passed. Screw the band. Screw the Monday-morning phone calls about going to church and putting me through spells of unnecessary guilt. Screw the lying to my father. Screw the two years left of my major. Screw wanting to travel the world but never doing it. Screw wanting to go after something but never knowing what it should be.

If I opened my eyes and my finger was in the middle of the ocean, well hell, I’d find my way there.

I opened them.

And there it was; my finger over a teardrop. Sri Lanka. I was going to Sri Lanka.

Before I had time to talk myself back into being rational, I was buying a one-way ticket, throwing what I could fit into my dusty suitcase and applying for a fast-track Passport. The next few weeks passed and I dropped out of school. I sold what I could of my furniture, some clothes. I called my parents only when I was in the airport to tell them. It came out robotic, like a recording. I still can’t remember what they said to me, not how they acted or whether or not their voice fluctuated, I was so numb.

That’s what was so funny, huh? That I could close my eyes and let my finger land on such a foreign ground then drop everything and leave, thinking some part of me would be fulfilled by doing so. Thinking I would leave all my doubts and fear of the unknown behind. Thinking if I was surrounded by all things new, maybe I could be new, too.

But it was what was the same that brought me revelation. When I arrived, the ground still held my feet. There was still dirt underneath my toes, and trees were still a greenish color in the summer. Birds still populated the air, and people still knew how to smile or frown or laugh. The air could still get sticky, a breeze could still rush in. I knew nothing of their native languages, but found a good amount of friends who could speak English by my second day. But even then, though I didn’t understand most everybody all around me, though they spoke something that sounded babbling and foreign, I understood what they were trying to say. There was a lady trying to barter for fruit at the market, her two children strewn about her knees and starving. There was a man with his head held high, walking in front of his wife, showing his life off. People needed food like I needed food, and we ate in the same way, with our mouths and eyes and noses. There were eyes full of love, eyes full of rage, eyes that were empty. I was seeking for a world where no man would think himself greater than the other. No man would tell another what to do. Where wealth and food would be shared, where hands would be opened freely; a world conjured up in the crevices of my mind, a place safe and all mine… and I knew, immediately, that I would never fully find it here, or back home, or anywhere. A world conjured up in the crevices of my mind, a place safe and all mine.

Yet I stayed. Weeks, months. Taking up odd-end jobs wherever I could find them. Living on the loans meant for school.

The closest friend I had was a man who spoke English, Saman, but not as well as most. The first man I met who could understand when I asked “Do you speak English, please?”

When I asked him after months of friendship what he believed the meaning of life was, he told me that it was whatever I wanted to believe it was. We were lying on a spray of smooth brown-red rocks, listening to the ocean.

“Life means what you want,” he said.

“What if I don’t know what I want?”

“Life means that.”

“But don’t you ever think there has to be more than you and me?”


“Then, what is it?”

“What you want it, I think.”

The waves crashed around us still. They were much too far away to touch our toes, yet I had visions of them snatching us by the ankles, leading us out into the open sea where we knew nothing.

In the middle of that sea, what would we believe? That, as our heads bobbed above the surface, we were still the most powerful beings? As our legs and arms grew weary of kicking, there was still hope? I once was taught that Jesus could walk on water. Would I think about that if I was in the middle of it, drowning? If a man were to come to me, stepping on the water as if it were smooth pavement, would I touch his hand, or fear it were an illusion and not even try, confident in my own senses in that moment of panic and sinking fear?

Saman and I continued to talk. I told him about Sunday school and growing up believing in God right there; it was the first time I had talked about what I was running from all the time I had been there. We talked until sundown. We stretched our arms and let the blood enter other parts of our body; on the red rocks we breathed like we hadn’t before.

One week later I found a church buried under lively green trees, in a little cream building. There were no pews. We folded our legs and sang in a language I didn’t know. Yet all around me, I felt that I understood what was happening. A familiar sensation lit up the air, whisking me off to the days of sitting on my knees around my father’s altar, covering my eyes with my hands and asking God to please please show me what he thought about me, what he wanted me to do. Receiving a response that always just said I love you, coming over my body like a runner’s high, like a good night’s rest, like if I wanted to I could fly… a lightness, a simplicity. God? I whispered for the first time in years. But as soon as it came off my lips, it didn’t feel like a question anymore.

One year later I went home. My twenty-three hour layover was in Dubai, and I took the opportunity to scale the Burj Khalifa. Standing atop the observation deck, watching the way the earth curved, I knew I could never go back to not believing in God. Because as I looked out beyond me, to the very horizon and dip of the globe, I found myself saying under my breath: “This is it.” This was the tallest building in the world. This was as far up as we had ever gone, and even if we went any further up from the ground, we would still ever only be under the sky.

All my dreams of escaping the church and God led me to here, the tallest building on the earth, only to realize that not even here could I see everything.

The key is warm in my hands. I roll out from underneath the pew. There’s this verse in my head that’s been playing as if it’s a soundtrack on repeat for the past few weeks since father called: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he’s old, he will not depart from it”. I’m not old yet. Twenty-five years old with memories of this place at ten, still fresh in corners of my brain. Memories of Sri Lanka and going to church with Saman and standing on top of the Burj Khalifa in another corner. Memories of sitting in the basement making music for hours, of thinking that the best in life was to be found only in words I created.

I’ve been back to school. I’ve sat through Business classes with a fresh mind. I’ve been attending a church each week not with feelings of obligation, but because when I wake up Sunday mornings I know there’s no place I’d rather be. I am more confident that life is not about me, not about how I see it, more than I’ve ever been.

I walk up to the white roses again, and smell them. It’s like they’ve lost their color. Maybe I’m more observant than I give myself credit for. They’ve gone from red to white. Clean.

My dad didn’t expect to get a call from me yesterday, I bet. Telling them guess what, I’m coming over there tomorrow, just for a weekend. I’m closer to them now, and much closer than Sri Lanka of course, but still further than they’d like me to be. So they’re of course thrilled that I said I’m coming, though I knew mom would spend the next twenty-four hours dusting in-between the kitchen tiles.

Here I am now, the key warm in my hand. An offer I know still exists. You can work here with me, son. You’re always welcome. The very place I thought I would avoid. The very place that taught me to love God yet taught me to unknowingly hate him and mistrust him, too.

In Sunday school, I was always the star pupil. Answering all the questions before any other kid had a chance to think about them. The star of Bible trivia and Sword Drills and that kid who sang a solo in the Christmas pageant every year, wearing a shepherd’s costume.

But one specific day in Sunday school we shared our prayer requests out loud. Everyone was required to say something, and we went in a circle. Karen asked if we could please pray for her grandma who was very sick. Matty asked if we could pray for his leg which he had broken a week ago, and also his baby sister who was a brat. Finally, it got to me. I had been racking my brain trying to come up with something that needed prayer. Before I was ready, it was my turn, and my body went cold. I don’t need prayer, I had told them. Well, what about someone else that you know? My teacher had suggested. I thought about it, thought hard. Then, I looked up from my palms and said: I don’t know what they need.

Me, star Sword Driller, always the shepherd with the solo in the Christmas plays. Son of the pastor, Bible quizzer.

I wasn’t even aware of what people needed prayer for, or what I needed it for, either.

I continue pacing the aisles. I walk up the few steps to the pulpit, standing upright behind it, shoulders back. I imagine hundreds of faces in front of me, expectant. When I do, a chill goes down my spine so good and so frightening. That scripture in Luke about the Holy Spirit speaking through me jettisons through my mind, and I find myself saying out loud, Yeah, Holy Spirit, you better, or we’re in trouble. I scan the crowd. There’s those elderly ladies in the back, their walkers sitting next to them. Mr. Jones’ wife, Edna, and her best friend Mary. Today they are going to receive healing, I don’t care how old they are. And there, on the right, is Walter Wimbley and his family. Anne, his eldest daughter with an eating disorder, is going to be told how beautiful she is. And it won’t come from human lips that have so long haunted and deceived her, and can never make her feel worthy. It will come from the lips of her father that will skip through her vanity and insecurity and fall into her soul like a seed, sprouting words of true beauty and life. And there, in the middle, underneath the second pew is a child that looks like me. He’s picking the bottom of the pew, tugging at a piece of gum that keeps bouncing back into the air. Son, I’ll tell him. You’ll remember these words that you hear. And even though you’ll have to wander to figure it out for yourself, you’ll know that these words are always an option. And I wish I could tell you this so you would understand, really understand, that these words are true. They’re not mine, so they’re true. But you’ll still have to learn that for yourself, and I can’t help that.

I try to keep my back straight, but it crumples. I fall to my knees on the stage, shaky. I don’t know if my life will keep me here or take me back to Sri Lanka or lead me to another place somewhere like the middle of the ocean, where I think for a moment that maybe I’ll drown.

I crawl back down the steps, on hands and knees, and lie down against the carpet once more. This place will change. The carpet will be taken out, the flowers will die, the pews will rot. One day it will be demolished, turned into dust. Its bones will die. But its body—its real body, the one that must be discovered aside from the carpet and pews and flowers, will continue to live as it has for so long. Stretching its fingers and toes and heartbeat toward every region of the world, every corner of the mind; moved by something grander than this human heart.

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My sister calls me after work saying It’s happening, it’s really happened this time and I honestly don’t know if I can bear it… And my first thought is about a girl dressed in a bright yellow dress and orange-red lipstick that sticks out against her milk skin, the summer before I left for school…. And she’s calling herself Mango, Codename: Mango, and I’m laughing so hard my cigarette falls out of my fingers onto mom’s carpet and we scream oh shit, and then laugh some more.

I think about it so hard that I almost laugh, until she reminds me in her present voice that she can’t have babies, and it’s probably because she can’t have babies that this is happening.

So I tell her, hold on, I’ll be there. And she says, what, you’ll be in Colorado? And I tell her yeah, just give me about eighteen hours. And when she laughs, I know she’s safe.

I put her on speaker for the drive, and the girl in yellow re-enters my mind, calling herself Mango, Codename: Mango. She’s pursing her lips and making kissy noises, and it’s all fun and games until her lips land on my bedroom wall and white desk; and that’s when I’m smashing her head with a pillow telling her to get out.

Tell me what happened.

I know the girl in yellow well.

We sang on the hilly streets of Lynn Street once or twice; earbuds stuffed into holes in our ears we were convinced led to our souls. We would dress up and walk down the street with our music, just to prove to all the vehicle passer-bys that we were deep and free and something that they perhaps were not. Mango rolled down Lynn Street once, literally rolled, on a rainy evening when water fell off it like a water slide. She just threw herself down it when one of her songs hit a high-note, like she had fallen off her branches and could now go wherever the storm pleased.

He’s gone. Just left, in the middle of the night. I’ve tried everyone. He’s nowhere. It’s been weeks now. This time it’s real. And I’m not pregnant. I’m not. It was a false alarm. Bad test, bad luck. Old age. Hah, old age at thirty-four. I don’t know. I just don’t know what to do. I’m sorry to push this all on you, but I just don’t know. I wanted to hold off, to tell you happy anniversary tomorrow. Not to worry you with this, Kimmy. I’m sorry.

I take a left and miss my turn to get home, digging with my right hand in my purse to find my GPS. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her.

Don’t be sorry. I’m glad you called. Even if it took a crisis, I think. I’m about to tell her how I feel guilty for not calling, but instead I talk about how strong she is and how she can take practical steps to feel better right at this moment, like start with a cup of hot tea perhaps.

Why is this happening to me again?

I don’t know, I really don’t, Mango, Codename: Mango. You have blood in your palms that you never wanted to hold. Unborn children trying to claw their way out of your stomach early, just to see your face, that’s how beautiful it is.

Remember when we thought I’d never get married? I don’t know how to answer her question, so I ask my own.

She laughs, so I know she’s okay.

Then she says: You did always scowl at my boyfriends and preach independence. I thought you were so jealous. At one point I was convinced you meant it when you said you’d never get married.

I smile, and I hope she feels it.

I was wrong about you when it came to a lot of things, she adds.

Me, too, I say. I was wrong about myself when it came to a lot of things.

Mango. I’m still thinking about it. I haven’t talked to her this much in so long. Does she still know that name?

I was so insecure, she says, always having to have a boyfriend. You were right about me.

But Mango certainly never seemed insecure. How could she be, the girl who shouted at storms and spray-painted leaves?

Ah, yes, that summer before I left for school we had bought our favorite colors in pastel cans and decided we were going to do something illegal, but wonderful. Next thing you know, we’re spray painting a leaf on a tree bubblegum baby blue, and before we can get caught, every tree near little local Beans Café mysteriously sprouts lemon-colored, tangerine-colored, watermelon pink-colored leaves to match. We break into a fit of giggles before Sgt. Dell does his round, and as we run we could have sworn we hear Mother Nature shouting and shaking her fist at us through the wind in the trees, telling us not to outdo her green and brown.

That summer, the boys weren’t there. But soon they would be.

We’re barbequing one summer after I left for school, left all those purple mountains and that crisp air and all those colors, and I call her Mango with a little grin, and this is what she tells me: “Who?”

And I laugh at her thinking she’s messing with me.

Mango, I say, Codename: Mango, from those summer days where we spent our energy on lazy days. Don’t you recall? Ice cream cones dropped from car windows in the drive-through in hilarious fits, putting on lipstick just to see what it looked like against our skin; and that day, barefoot on the soapy sidewalk and chalk stains underneath our toenails, when we colored all the black gravel on Lynn Street to life. The first summer we learned to really appreciate each other.

She shakes her head as she scoops more fruit salad onto her sagging plate. “Oh, yeah, I remember the chalk. That was amazing.” It’s the most I’ve gotten her to say all day. And just like that, she’s gone again, hanging off the mouth of her newest boy every few minutes. Mother rubs my back with her palm as I blindly pop grape after grape into my mouth.

“I know it’s strange to see her with somebody. She’s always been so careful. But I trust her. And you should, too. You know her. You know her.”

But she’s still so young, I think. How can you let her off so easy? Don’t you realize that she is losing parts of herself to these guys? They are taking moments away from her where she is Mango, throwing her body down the hills of Lynn Street during a monsoon, screaming that life is beautiful to no one in particular.

Are you there?

Yeah, sorry. I just… I wish I was there already. So I could talk to you, in person. It’s been awhile.

Should you hang up? I don’t mind letting you go until you get here. I’m really okay. You don’t have to worry. I know I sounded kind of dramatic, but I’m okay, Kimmy, really.

She doesn’t laugh.

No. No, stay on the line with me. Please. I need you to. I don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel or something.

That’s not funny.

No. I’m sorry. It’s not funny. It’s really not.

Mango, Codename: Mango, is funny.

She’s a bit sarcastic, and prefers movies with wit over slapstick humor, though she’ll laugh when you fall (as long as you’re not too hurt.) She makes faces like she’s performing onstage for you, and you’re in the way back. When she tells stories she waves her hands like they are separate bodies re-enacting her tale. I can tell someone about my day going down to Beans Café with Mango to buy blueberry muffins and realizing I had bitten into one without my wallet on me, and they would smile and nod like they understood. But if Mango told it, they would hold their stomachs and shake, spit out their drinks and cry a little.

When she was humorous, she was spontaneous. After making somebody laugh she wanted to go somewhere. To move on, so she could find somebody else to tell a story to, probably.  Those summer days we usually ended up in Anne’s Boutique,  not a lot of money in our pockets but a mind that could hold to the brim everything we found lovely, and be satisfied.

We would browse, in particular, the lipstick isle because at Anne’s it was the most colorful section. The tubes were silver or gold or metallic pink or red or greens, glistening against berry or wine-colored or orange or magenta or baby pink solid sticks. Sometimes it was so overwhelming that I wished there would just be one solid color, a designated lipstick color that we’d all wear. But Mango wanted more color, if anything.

We might have been spontaneous in other ways, but we were girls who understood commitment to a color. One day in particular, Mango was birthed. It was when she picked up an orange-red lipstick, and read the name: Codename: Mango. For some reason this struck her as funny, not the kind of haw-haw chuckling funny, but the kind that hits you after a few seconds or so and causes you to go back to it and laugh harder, making other people notice. I looked at the tube and didn’t find the humor on it.

She was tickled. “Codename: Mango? Who has the job of naming these things? Because that’s the kind of job I want.” She pounced on another tube, snatching up a deep red one, proclaiming “Codename: Apple!” in the most official lipstick-color-namer voice she knew.

“Did you know that there’s actually somebody walking the earth named Apple?” I said.


“I’m serious! Some celebrity’s baby somewhere is walking around with the name Apple.” I paused. “Codename: Emma.”

We burst into laughter, more laughter than necessary, and she curled her fingers around the tube of Codename: Mango and never let go until it was on her bedroom vanity.

Are you still there?

Yeah, of course. Just driving.

I know this sounds sort-of childish, but could you maybe tell me a story? You always tell great stories.

A story or a memory?

What’s the difference?


So I remind her of Europe, because I haven’t thought about it myself for a long while. Those two weeks I spent in Paris instead of on Lynn Street; coming back and telling her in quick, exciting gasps that it’s a real thing to hold long baguettes under your arms there and not stick out. How the city is so modern but then has archaic bits centered about it that always remind you of its past no matter what; making it a quaint city if there was ever such a thing. I tell her about watching the Eiffel Tower from the bottom of it, lying on grass under the deep black as the French Fourth of July made tourists and locals alike let out exaggerated, glittering breaths. How the air sang from Play Me, I’m Yours programs, and how I sat and drank espresso the size of my palms, attempting to learn advance French from sepia-stained, well-lived books I bought from vendors on the streets of Notre Dame. But my favorite, I tell her, is still the Lover’s Bridge. And after I found it, I went back every night to it. It had devastated me to think that, after throwing the key away in the Seine, any two people or families might lose their love. Might forget who they were when they were younger, and carved their initials onto their locks some summer day when they thought each other eternal. I would close my eyes and run my fingers over the locks, until I found one to stop at. Then I would open my eyes and see the names and whisper sweet prayers of restoration to their love, and please make it happen tonight, whatever it need be, under all the lights in a hidden and warm spot.

I never knew you to be so romantic, she says.

I was all along, believe it or not.

…Were you ever once jealous over my boyfriends, then?

Hah. Yes. Although I told myself I’d never admit it to you. Whoops.

Hah. You never showed it.

Oh, I did. Mom could see it on my face ten feet away.

I never noticed. You shouldn’t have been. Jealous, I mean.

The color is changing. Dusk approaches down the road.

She continues: I was so jealous of you going. I still am jealous of you going. Look, I just admitted that! I told myself I’d never admit that to you. I can just see my younger self shaking her head at me right now.

I picture Mango, violently slapping her palm to her forehead, sighing.

Well, now we’re even.

Never. We can never be even and I don’t know if we ever were. We’re too different.

A horn blares behind me. I slam my foot against the gas pedal, noticing that I’m driving ten under. Funny, whenever I get in a trance I always go slower.

Do you remember, she says, how I begged you to go?

Sure I do.

Take me, you beg, and I tell you that if you can get down to fifty pounds and become very, very flexible, you can probably fit in my suitcase. Except there’s the whole breathing thing to figure out, too.

You whine, but hug me and tell me to eat double the croissants in Paris, just for you. You know I can’t drink double the coffee for you, because it would kill me I drink so much of the stuff already. And as I wander down the streets of Paris two weeks and two days later, watching the colorful dresses and skirts parade by, walking past the street markets overflowing with the shiniest and largest fruit I’ve ever seen, I think Codename: Mango. For the only time on my trip, honest-to-goodness, I wish maybe that you were there.

So I called you, spending half my budgeted money for the day on a phone bill just to tell you about the mangoes. Because it’s just one part of the mango, the bright orange-red part of it like your lipstick. For some reason I hadn’t realized it before. I guess I had never had stopped to look at what a real mango looked like.

It was my own way of saying that I missed you.

I’m thinking about that rose tea, now, she says. I think I can still taste it.

That’s unfortunate. Oh, Lord, the rose tea. I still have that baby-pink can of it somewhere in my house.

Do you really?

I really do, actually.

She laughs again, and I know she’s safe.

We drank tea from Versailles, with crushed rose petals in the tea ball, holding our noses like we were drinking fancy perfume and pretending we loved it. It was the only treasure I brought back for us to share. We dressed up in all-black ensembles, white pearls, and our lipstick. You wore Codename: Mango, of course, and I wore a basic red. I had bought two teacups in a tourist shop, one I had planned on giving to you.

We had a grand old day, pretending we knew what we were doing, and pretending this is how all Europeans take tea every day, in their pearls, and we weren’t caring when I knew we weren’t entirely right. We said merci beaucoup, bonjour, salut, comment-vas tu? and, of course, mangue.

It was great until you dropped my teacup on the floor as you picked it up to clean it, shattering my own piece of Paris into pieces, my scream shattering your eardrums. That one was yours, I said, grabbing the other teacup from your hands and never pulling it out again until I placed it in a wooden cupboard in my new apartment, dry.

Sometimes you took the best moments and made me angry in them.


I felt so bad about that cup. You made me feel so bad about that damn cup, she says.

I overreacted, for sure. My stomach hurts thinking about it.

You did that often. She chuckles.

Did I?

It’s the last time I was in Colorado, thirteen summers after Codename: Mango.

She’s cut her hair to the tips of her ears, and says she is divorcing Leo. I wish I could think of something comforting to say, but I’m too busy staring at her hair. Wasn’t this the girl who picked on me for cutting my hair short? Calling me butch and telling me no wonder I hadn’t had a boyfriend yet at twenty.

As she shakes under my hand on her shoulder, I’m staring at her hair, thinking about how my eleven-year anniversary was last month and my sister who’s never cut her hair this short in her life is getting divorced, one year short of staying married into the double-digits. A rarity for any marriage, as long as we both can remember.

It’s not that she’s never been reckless, or spontaneous. Au contraire, her long hair was the only possession of hers that stayed the same. But we all need consistency from somewhere, so I figured she chose the comfort of having hair cover her heart, hug her face in the summertime and drip-dry for hours.

Her room would change every three months. She’d take everything out, beg to re-paint it, and pick up people’s old furniture from the sides of the road to give her space a fresh look. She would get a piercing now and then just to annoy mom, piercing her nose three times in one day, once.

I hold her body with the short hair and remind her of the nose piercings, and she shakes some more and tells me the holes have all closed up now. Then she tells me that he is touching somebody else, somebody who’s probably less emotionally demanding and who can have babies, and I wrap my arms around hers to hold them from ever going to anyone else. Nobody deserved her.

I look around her living room and notice that since the last time I’ve been there it hasn’t changed. Even the giant vase in the corner of the couches holds the same white poppies, as if they’ve never died. I spot her purse up against the couch, an orange bottle peeking its white head over the tip of it. She must notice that I’m staring because she tells me, Don’t worry, I just got them yesterday. They’re the Doctor’s orders. You can call Dr. Rose if you’d like. Yes, I tell her. I will call.

Are you still there?

Yes. I’m still on my way. I’m still listening.

You were Mango, codename Mango, and I was something I can’t quite recall. But your name was funniest. Who on earth would call themselves Mango? But you loved the way it bounced off your tongue; Mango, Mango, Mango. If you said it fast enough it sounded like a song, slow enough, like a poem.

What’s that noise? She says. She must hear the screeching.

I’m pulling over for gas—just realized I was on empty.

The station is the only one around for a while, and I’ve swerved into it, lost in conversation. Lost in thoughts about Mango and a summer I’m certain like never before I can still taste, smell, touch. The summer before I left for school. At the pump I tell her to hold her thoughts while I call Chris and tell him guess what, I’m on my way to Colorado. He’s good about it, a bit surprised, but good. I remind him that Andrew needs to take his lunch to school tomorrow, the one that’s in the fridge. And oh, honey, Kaitie has a ballet recital that I’m going to miss so could you please, please phone your mom and ask her to be there. And Evan said something about coming home this weekend, but I should be back by then. I hope I’m back by then.

Are you nervous to see her? He asks me. I tell him no, but why would I be when all I can think about is Codename: Mango and the summer before I left.

Then he says this to me: Kim. It’s not your fault, what happened.

I know that yes, he’s right. It’s not my fault. But this time, I’m going to be there.

Before I have time to think too hard, I’m calling her again, and in a breathless, elongated string of words I say to her: Did you ever forgive me for leaving you, that second summer after I went off to school and never came back when you needed me the most?

The sound of cars whizzing by on the road occupies our ears before she finally says: Oh, Kimmy, it’s so old now. I forgave you a long time ago. I really did.

It’s just… I thought you were being dramatic. You’ve always been dramatic. I didn’t… I didn’t know that you were so hurt. I didn’t know what happened.

Yeah, you’re probably thinking. Why do you think I stopped painting my lips, my face, the next time you saw me? Underneath the decor was someone with skin like a ghost’s, red veins running underneath it, boiling and screaming and feeling betrayed. I needed you to see that. I wanted to tell you but you were the last person on earth I wanted to know. You had missed the annual barbeque; so you weren’t there to make fun of me and my guy every time we exchanged spit. You weren’t there to keep your eyes peeled and your mouth sharp on the way he touched me, screaming Hey buddy, watch it while I scowled at you. I used to think you were jealous, but that night as I lay in bed in the fetal position, understanding I didn’t want it to happen how it did, I realized that you were always my protector. When I finally could move I walked into your bedroom where the door was ajar, and I lay on your empty bed.

I called you at midnight, curled up on your empty bed, asking you to tell me about college. Tell me a story about it, tell me everything. Did you get drunk out of Red Solo cups? Was it true that you only ate ramen, or was that the greatest living myth? Was your hair growing out? Were your professors smart, attractive, dorky, arrogant? I needed to hear you tell me everything that you had become in the past year. I wanted to fill myself up with you, so I didn’t have to think about me. I needed you to tell me who I was by talking to me like we were still together.

And in the middle of the conversation I told you “Come back”, and you sort-of laughed, but you could tell something was wrong. “If you don’t come back, I’ll kill myself” I told you. I felt my blood shooting through my veins, violated, pulsing hot and mad.

You were just mad, calling me selfish, telling me to grow up and not to be so dramatic over a guy. And I, not wanting you to know, could only cry and hope that my tears told you everything. But they couldn’t.

Why didn’t you tell me that night? I ask. I’ve never asked her before.

I think that deep down I knew if I told you, you’d come back.

I’m in the car again. The sun is dripping down underneath the fields of corn and it’s all becoming one shade of deep blue.

Isn’t that what you wanted? That’s what I would have wanted, compared to what you tried to do to yourself, for Godssake.

My hands squeeze the wheel until my knuckles turn white. Why am I so mad? It’s all over. We’ve been through this already. The screams from mom at three-thirty a.m. as I slept in another state, phone dead in the pocket of my jeans. The news around lunch the next day and my anger, fury, that she had done it. It’s not her, mom. That’s not Mango. So I’m going to sit here and finish my late breakfast and look out the window of my apartment and pretend that she’s just messing with us, being dramatic. She’s the type of girl, after all, who opens tubes of lipstick in stores just to try on the color before commitment. Who lets the storm take her as she screams that life is beautiful. And she’s alive and well.

She’s thinking about her response, carefully, on the other end. I can tell. Do you remember that summer before you left for school?

Blood flows back into my brain. I’ve been thinking about it this whole time, actually. Must be a psychic sister thing.

Me, too. Must be.

Then I say it: Codename: Mango.

The sun has dropped completely. There is no color. I hit my phone’s screen to make sure that she’s still on the line.


I said, Codename: Mango. I’m giggling like I’m eighteen again, and she’s there in the yellow dress attacking my walls with her bright mouth just to upset me.


My heartbeat races, my words come out fast: Mango, like the lipstick, Codename: Mango? Don’t you remember? Anne’s Boutique, where we would try on the lipsticks, and you pulled out that red-orange one and wore it all summer and called yourself Mango. Sometimes, Codename: Mango. And the monsoon came in heavy that year and you rolled yourself down Lynn Street one day, and you were sopping wet but you were screaming that life is beautiful when you’re a mango, free to roll wherever the weather decides to take you.

You have a good memory, is all she says. The memory of a poet; mom was right, you should’ve been a poet.

Oh, come on, you have to remember! I’m trying to laugh, but my racing heartbeat is hurting my chest now.

Okay. I kind of remember the monsoon, walking on the streets with you, but I thought you were the one who rolled yourself down it! I could have sworn it was you. Actually, I told that story to a couple of my friends, a long time ago, and I could have sworn it was you. I told it like it was you.

No, it was definitely you. I start to wonder if I should pull the car over for a second. Something’s creeping up from my stomach; I’m sweating a little. It’s probably the fast food chicken strips from dinner. Serves me right for wanting something quick and cheap.

Oh, gosh, you know what? I remember the lipstick, now. But it wasn’t mango lipstick, I don’t think. It was Apple! You bought that silly lipstick named Codename: Apple! And you wore it on your mouth all summer.

Had I? Maybe I had, but that wasn’t the point.

No, you named the lipstick Codename: Apple as a joke, only after you saw Codename: Mango. We laughed and laughed about it, we thought it was so funny for some reason. C’mon, you couldn’t have forgotten. You slobbered all over my bedroom walls and even kissed my desk with that strange shade of orange-red.

She’s thinking again on the other line.

Guess I’m getting old! I wish I could remember. But I do remember you cutting your hair to your chin with those frayed ends. You did it yourself and I gave you so much crap for it. You went to Europe and I was so jealous that you were finally leaving Lynn Street, leaving familiar faces and finally doing something. And here’s what I’ll never forget about you: That day when the tornado landed, and mom and I were huddled underneath a mattress, trying not to cry. You stood there by the door and watched it and we screamed at you to come near us. But you know what you said? Do you remember what you said?

I don’t. I don’t.

You said you would stand there and watch it inch by everything you loved, because if it was going to destroy, you wanted it to hit you first.

I try to picture it, try to see it, smell and taste the vicious rain, but I don’t , I don’t, and as much as I try I don’t think I ever really will know what she is saying. Was I a girl who once stood on street corners, face-to-face with tornadoes?

I get back into the car, turn off the radio, and tell her it’s her turn now. Tell me what you know about the summer before I left.

I listen to her talk the rest of the drive, listen to the stories become sillier and more light-hearted as the sun begins to rise, and light begins to re-enter my little space of earth. She is a mere mile away, and I wonder what her hair looks like now.

As the sun inches up over the mountains, it causes the color to wake and reveal itself. I forgot how many colors live here.

Soon, I’ll walk up to her door. One more time I will allow the flash of the girl in yellow to cross my mind, and then I will knock on the door and meet her.

By Kaitlyn Knudson

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People on Planes

By Kaitlyn Knudson

            The three sit next to each other absorbed in some conversation mixed between what you might hear longtime friends or strangers exchanging; and though none would care too much for the other outside the plane, they care for each other very much in it. Words exchanged are like hands held during takeoff, chairs that turn into floating devices in case of water evacuation, oxygen masks that fall from the ceiling (“please put yours on first before you help someone else”—that always bothers the man sitting in the middle seat).

The man in the aisle seat begins to talk about death. He doesn’t mean to bring it up. Though he has flown so many times in his private jet that he’s temporarily wore it out, his palms still sweat and his heartbeat still picks up before, during, and after takeoff. But he had nearly dodged death while driving down the 85 that morning, and he finds himself talking about the helpless cars that had piled up on it, one body after the other like a sinister Rube Goldberg. The row of seats shakes a little when he says helpless but he can’t tell if it’s from the wind or his nerves. The shake doesn’t seem to bother the woman near the window as much as it bothers the men.

“It’s just a little shakiness from being in the clouds. That can happen on the colder days, due to ice more easily forming on the wings. But don’t worry, the pilot is equipped to handle it,” she informs them before she officially closes the book that she was hoping to read, sliding it into her stately Oxford bag.

Shiny, rich-looking cars the man in the aisle makes a point of saying, shiny, rich cars all scrunched up. Damn shame, he says. Eight cars crunched; one Aston Martin and a Porsche. Maybe four people killed.

“Well, I’m glad you’re here with us,” the man in the middle says with his typical warm smile. His shoulders are broad, but he folds them up into his arms to make space for the others, which makes him look smaller than he is.

The man in the aisle looks over to the lady at the window, who’s looking out of it. She feels his eyes on her neck, and adds, “Yes, that’s such a horrifying situation. I can’t imagine.”

“I can,” the man in the middle says. “I’ve never been in a wreck in my life”—he gently taps the serving tray that’s folded up in front of him with his knuckles—“but some good friends of mine have, and their stories give me chills. I imagine it’s difficult to recover after so much loss, and man, all those images seared into your mind. Do you know if it was officially four? I wonder if anyone else was seriously injured?”

“I think just four,” the man in the aisle says, his eyes on the young attendant who’s come to take their drink orders. “Amaretto, little miss,” he says, grinning. The flight attendant smiles at him; it’s forced. But he’s immune to forced smiles now; he can’t tell the difference between them and the real ones, nor does he care to.

The man in the middle wants nothing. He instead says to the attendant that her accent is warm, and she must be from Texas, to which she smiles (a real one) and nods.

“Water, please,” says the girl by the window, because water is healthiest for you. Scritch-scratch, it’s written down and the lady trots away in her heels. The man in the aisle turns and watches her walk. He stretches his arms out, and another lady asks him if he needs anything. He shakes his head. He likes being in the aisle because he has room and because he can grab the attention more easily when he wants an extra bag of peanuts, or something.

“I guess we get lucky sometimes,” he says. He wishes he were in first class seating, and he was cursing when they told him they were sorry about the mistake. But after seeing how pretty the girl was (he loved a girl in glasses; it was always a fantasy of his to marry a bookish type, together they might be unstoppable)—he willingly sat down next to them and was glad to hear the two weren’t together. The crew had thanked him exactly eleven times for his willingness to sit in a more uncomfortable spot than he was used to.

“So where are you headed?” the man in the aisle says, straining his neck to look at the lady by the window.

“Back home. I was at a conference,” she says. Her voice finally shifts for the first time, into a higher tone.

The man in the middle interrupts: “So am I! I mean, I’m going to a convention, not home. What sort of convention were you at?”

“I’ve just gotten back from a TED Talks conference, on the paradigms of education. It was quite brilliant.”

“I’ve heard that’s a real hit, I’ll bet you had a great time.

“I did. And you’re headed…?”

“Oh, me, I’m headed to a charity ball, to represent a company. My company, I guess. I’ll spend my weekend begging for money, you know, that sort-of thing,” he says, still smiling. His smiles seem to never stop, which some people find quite annoying. But they are always genuine, pulled from that something within (maybe a soul, chakra, “good” genes), and they make him more interesting than he would be had he not smiled all the time.

“How about you?” the man in the middle turns toward the man in the aisle.

“For pleasure,” he grins.

“To take a break would be nice,” the man in the middle admits. The woman also nods.

“After we stop in good ‘ol N.Y., I’m headed to London,” the man in the aisle says, and just loud enough so a few more rows will know. He doesn’t really belong on a regular-class plane, you know.

“I’ve always wanted to travel,” the lady by the window admits.

But teachers have a tendency to get stuck in one spot, unless they are headed to a conference, or they are not working another job over summer break to afford keeping the cable. In fact, they are usually thinking about letting the cable go—too much TV is rotten for your brain, and even the History channel is trying too hard to be entertaining rather than accurate these days.

“I’ve never been out of the country, but I’ve always liked the idea of going to Africa,” the man in the middle admits.

“You guys should go,” the man in the aisle says, waving his hand as the attendant strides toward him. “Seeing other parts of the world is something everyone should do, no excuses. Sorry, where are our drinks? Alright. Just making sure you didn’t forget there, missy!”

The man in the middle adds: “I agree; we have a real sense of entitlement in this country and it’s really important to go see that there are other people out there. I mean, there’s other ways of living that are far less selfish than this viewpoint we have in America.” He taps his fingers and feet against the aircraft’s insides.

“I would love to be in London for the history,” the woman by the window says, as she turns to look out it again. “Imagine stepping where so many great poets, scientists, philosophers studied. I do believe I would be star-struck over dead people.”

The man in the middle grins at her, but she doesn’t see. Then they both look helplessly down at their palms as if they could read them, to find out whether or not they would ever travel.

The man in the aisle leans back best as he can in his chair, his face turned upward toward the ceiling where the heat is tunneling out. He yawns and closes his eyes, wishing he could already be on Kensington High, smoking a cigar and searching for his second home. He didn’t care how much it cost him; he wanted a house with real character. He hadn’t owned a house with real character before, one shaped and crafted in such an original manner—one in various cream colors, warm browns, and little nooks that people would refer to as “charming”. He never managed to find a house with “character” in his home city, but he figured he could find one in Kensington. He enjoyed London and he heard Kensington was a wealthier part.

The woman by the window sighs (but it’s only heard by the man in the middle. He has good ears that hear the faintest of sighs). He sends her a smile but she doesn’t see it. So, he reaches for his New York Times in the pouch in front of him and quickly asks, “Either of you any good at crosswords?”

The man in the aisle’s eyes open, and the woman looks away from the window.

“I was just trying to complete this one before we made our stop. But I can’t for the life of me figure out four down,” he says.

The man in the aisle peeks over at the paper. It’s another language, this scrap of paper. He pushes away the little heater on the ceiling from him. He recalls the last time he rode his jet, when he was trying to solve one of these. His girlfriend was sitting by him, that Journalism undergrad he briefly dated, and she was watching him watch those boxes, and he was begging them to reveal themselves. What she had really been doing was reading a book next to him, but he thought she was secretly watching him, always watching him. Maybe that’s why she left him; he could never fill in those empty big cream boxes with characters. It’s just a damn piece of paper, he had laughed after forty-five minutes of staring at three across.

Yes, that’s all it is. Just a piece of paper.

The woman in the window reaches into her Oxford bag and pulls out a red pen. She snatches the paper from the man in the middle, her left hand scratches over it aggressively.

“The title is ‘Mark my Words’,” she points out, stabbing her finger into the top of the paper. “You see here?” She asks but does not wait for a response, and the men’s eyes sprint to find her fast fingers. “You’ve got this one right, and seventy-two down is easy, I’m surprised you didn’t get it. Early 20th century in British history, that’s of course the Edwardian Period. But it doesn’t fit, right? It gets a little tricky right here, so I can understand where you might be stuck. This is where you have to pay attention to the title, see? They give you hints if you pay attention.”

She scribbles “Edwardian” into the box, with one blank box left underneath it.

“See, it doesn’t fit—”

“Hold on now, pay attention to the title, remember? ‘Mark my Words’. It’s a hint, see?”

She takes the red pen, pokes the center of the box with it, and pulls the paper back and laughs, a giddy, high-pitched giggle.

The men stare at the paper for a while, and she pulls it back onto her lap. Finally they understand when she fills in, right underneath it, the answer for one-ten across: Co-founder of Death Row Records, which is of course, she says, Dr. Dre. The rest of the missing bits of the crossword are revived with connectors like commas and slashes and periods.

“It’s a miracle, hallelujah!” the man in the middle jokes, causing the woman to blush. The man in the aisle sees that the man in the middle makes her blush, and he cannot keep himself from exclaiming, again, that “it’s just a piece of paper”.

“Oh but she has to have set some sort of record,” the man in the middle says, still smiling at the woman. The woman by the window studies the man in the middle as he talks to the man in the aisle. She sees for the first time how his smile is real and his hair is a nice, warm brown and quite long. She has an unexpected urge to stroke it, hide her fast fingers in its nooks. They hold eye contact.

The man in the aisle strains his neck toward the two, leans forward onto his stomach and lets his safety belt cut into him for the sake of remaining in the conversation.

The woman by the window forgets that the man in the aisle is still watching her. She has never made eye contact with anyone as long as she has made it now with this man in the middle.

“Hey, you’re brilliant,” he tells her, in the softest voice he’s used all evening.

“You’re too kind,” she smiles, a genuine smile of hers she’s been saving.

The man in the aisle fakes a laugh, as if he was still a part of the conversation, and irritated, at that.

“What was your name?” the woman by the window says.

There is a twitching, a buzzing in every passenger’s nerves as seats begin to shake. The plane lets out a horrible groaning sound, as if it were just now aware of its own exhaustion. Traveling thousands of miles every day, being stepped on, and carrying everyone’s baggage can take its toll.

Then, over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentleman, please stay in your seats as we turn on the fasten seatbelt sign. It looks like we are going to be running into some unexpected turbulence before we get ready to make our final descent. Again, please stay in your seats.”

This time it’s not fear, it is the wind that’s shaking them, the man in the aisle thinks. What was that thing that the lady had said? Ice on the wing? The pilots are equipped for it, she had said.

All three faces are pressed forward; the crowd grows noisier with filler words, nervous laughs, and angry woahs.

The plane gives another weary dip, stomachs are lurched downward, and a baby starts to scream. The woman by the window shuts its cover over it, and finds that her other hand has grabbed onto the hand of the man in the middle. The man in the aisle has also grabbed onto the man in the middle’s other hand, but before he’s embarrassed enough to pull away, the plane trembles again, the man in the middle lets out an upset woah and shuts his eyes, and the two next to him clench harder.

We’re almost there, just a little more turbulence to get through, the man in the aisle thinks. The pilots are equipped for it.

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By Kaitlyn Knudson

            We all avoid that desk, the one by the beaten-up poster hanging by one of its corners that says “Develop a passion for learning: If you do, you will never cease to grow.” That desk that he always claimed in the back of the classroom, that’s cleaner than our desks and now looking quite naked without its usual stack of books to dress it. Our desks are in the front of the classroom, closer to the door. They’re dressed with penciled penises on their tops and globs of gum hanging from their bottoms, and we like our desks that way. But not Reed, Reed never put a pencil to anything but paper. Reed. Reed. We say his name with disgust. We still have to skillfully avoid him now, like we did back then, every time we see that desk.

Truth is we figured one day he would do something crazy, and we were glad that he did it to himself rather than to us. There were days when we half-expected him to walk into our classroom and start burying our bodies in bullets like some crazy kids do, even though none of us would admit we thought that way. It’s because we would see him mumble to himself and stare out the window, stare into one of his books for hours…and look at us with those eyes that burned us like ants behind square spectacles every time he caught us spitting in our own book’s pages, or putting them under our feet like we often did to make him upset.

He once asked you to a dance. You should remember that day; you were sitting there with us, smacking your gum in your mouth and stifling your laugh with the palms of your hands. We all watched as he walked in with a vase full of red roses and his hair slicked over, his glasses gone. But we weren’t fooled, and thankfully neither were you. We had heard rumors all week that he was going to ask you, and we could just picture him quoting something from one of those books on his desk, Shakespeare or something, no matter. Shakespeare’s dead so it didn’t matter to us. You are too good for him we said, when we heard the rumors that he was going to ask you. Don’t be modest; you know how badly the guys wanted to go with you, to get with you, to be in the same class as you so they could stare at you. We knew Reed didn’t have a shot in hell. But we were also afraid that maybe you would say yes by some sort of tragic accident, like maybe you would think he asked you if you wanted to throw out the plants, and you would look at the dying plants by Mr. Z’s computer and say sure, and Reed would get his way. We didn’t want Reed to get his way, because Reed was so different.

Yes, we sometimes thought it was funny the way he would comment on everything in class, like he was the boss and not Mr. Z, the man with the PowerPoint and necktie. But we also thought it was rude, the way he’d continue to question Mr. Z when Mr. Z answered his questions with “it is what it is” and “because I said so”,  because we liked Mr. Z. He gave us bonus points for showing up to class every morning and told us all the questions that would be on the tests, which we thought was the best way to prepare. Not that we prepared outside of the classroom; we had better things to do, like talk about each other’s lives and watch TV. That was where the real stories were, anyway.

But Reed. What a freak. We could tell that he liked doing the work. Those days when Mr. Z would get sidetracked and talk about his favorite TV show or the game rather than droning on about Hamlet were the best; he would stand there staring at the ceiling, like his eyeballs were searching his head for something profound to say as he went on and on about this character he hated from this TV show. We all would make faces at each other from across the room; see how many times we could get away with pointing our middle finger at Mr. Z when his eyes rolled back in thought. You were winning at one point, we kept count. But Reed just sat in the back, staring at the pages of Hamlet like the words on them were about to vanish invisible-ink style, and all that would be left were the ones he saved in his memory.

He asked why and how all the time, and sometimes that made us late getting out of class, because Mr. Z had to Google his questions. He never seemed happy with the answers from Google either, like he was “”above Google. He would always mutter that he wanted to hear Mr. Z’s opinion, what Mr. Z had to say about the book, the question he was asking. Mr. Z would get annoyed with him, too, telling him that this is what he had to say about the book, about the question. What was right here on Google, well, that was his answer. Oh, and I know you remember the way Reed would get upset when Mr. Z gave us all A’s for turning our assignments in! One time he even tore his essay in two, holding it in the air like it was a symbol of his sanity and in this loud, dramatic gesture, ripping the paper. We didn’t understand him; we thought it was fair, us getting all A’s. Because there is no right or wrong answer in life, and we thought we shouldn’t be forced to write about something we didn’t care about. So, we turned in essays about our favorite TV show and what we had planned for our future Pinterest boards and talked about what we had read on Facebook. I heard that one time you even turned in a story with only the words “Essays are boring” in it, rearranged three different ways and repeating itself, and got away with it. Mr. Z didn’t care, nobody in the school cared, nobody in the world cared what our essays had to say, and we sure as hell didn’t care, either.

But Reed cared, and we were afraid he’d start getting other people to care. You know what that feeling was like, when you saw that the words on his paper were about the book in his hands, his own thoughts, and his own opinion on what we were supposed to have opinions on not long ago. We were afraid he would spark something in Mr. Z, that Mr. Z would start teaching again instead of just talking, that people would take the time to read our essays.

What’s crazy is that when he first came here we thought he would fit in, believe it or not. We had heard stories that his family was rich, and Mr. Z had told us that he was moving here from another state. We talked about the other states with giddy, hopeful voices. Thought about their online classes and online teachers, how we could re-do an assignment over and over until we aced it, how we could use Google and SparkNotes and Wikipedia until we filled up the required pages. We thought about how unfair it was that we were trapped inside walls with whiteboards and desks and the smell of old paper. We thought of Reed as a sort-of superhero, one that would come into the school with authority and tell our principal that we, too, deserve to do our schoolwork from the comfort of our homes, so we can do better on our papers. We actually don’t care about our papers, though, we just want to sleep in, we admit to each other in the cafeteria. We find that doing work is much more difficult on our own; we can squeeze decent sentences and interesting analyses out when we’re doing activities in class, or pulling information from the Internet that somebody else wrote, but on our own… well, the most we write is a text message or a sentence of 140 characters or less, or a status update about being sick of school. We show up with the hope that one of us has the answer to the questions that might be asked in the classroom (which used to always be Reed), and it’s good enough for us.

We think about Reed a lot, a lot more than we’d like to think about him. His clean desk triggers a thought within us; a scenario of him pointing the gun at his freckled face, right between his two eyes, just above his nose. We picture him pulling it, tearing his face in two just like he tore up his essay that day, all the words of Hamlet and 1984 and To Kill A Mockingbird, all our assigned readings and more, spraying out of his skull and getting lost in his blood.

We wondered what he looked like when he was found, if he kept his glasses on or not. We were half-hoping they would show us his body at the funeral, but we were also relieved when they didn’t.

We saw his parents there, at the funeral, with the same freckled faces and small eyes as him. They wore sad faces, so sad. Their tears ran between their fingers, down their arms, plummeted to the floor kamikaze-style. They cried to us, looked at us with confusion, and behind their own spectacles we thought we saw the eyes of Reed, glinting, burning us like ants. We didn’t like to see them cry, it made us all fidget and stare at our shoes. We didn’t do it, we wanted to tell them. We didn’t do it to him, it was all him, it was his choice. He could have joined us, he could have “friended” us if he wanted to. We’re actually very friendly once you join us. But Reed didn’t want to be friends with us. He wanted to be there, in the classroom, surrounded by those books and a 3D teacher and the stinky scent of White Erase markers and paper quizzes.

We still think about their faces, his parents’ faces, although we don’t ever talk about them. We didn’t want to say anything to them at the funeral; we decided that it would be better if we didn’t, because it wasn’t our fault that Reed was gone. But now there is a rumor going around that you said something to them, and we want to know if it’s true? That you told them “I’m sorry”. And we’re wondering, why did you do that? Because it wasn’t your fault, you know. We want you to know that it wasn’t your fault. He did it to himself.

We’ve noticed that you have stopped coming to as many parties as you used to, that you haven’t been online as much as usual, that you don’t play the middle-finger game with us anymore. We miss you. Just the other day we heard rumors that you didn’t want our classes to go online anymore, and that you were seen at that old person’s bookstore, buying books; you did this rather than come to the parties with us, rather than talk to us on online.

We hear rumors that you spend your lunch breaks with your nose between the pages of Hamlet now; that your essays consist of more than three words, even though Mr. Z isn’t reading them. We hate to say this, but if you keep it up, you might be on your own. And we don’t want that to happen to you.

We think you feel bad about Reed because you talked to him, once. We’ve narrowed it down to that conversation you had the first day of school, when he was lost and looking for his lit class, Mr. Z’s class. We were all watching when you two started to talk, we were all staring at Reed, wondering if he was going to be who we thought he would be.

“We have class together,” we remember you telling him, after he asked you where to find the classroom.

“But don’t worry about this class, we don’t do anything, just like the rest of them,” you added, and we all laughed.

Reed’s face twisted. The corners of his lips drooped, his head cocked to the side, his eyes were filled with a pain and a passion we labeled as pathetic.

“But I want to learn” he said.

That’s when we knew he would be different. We didn’t think much of it, but that’s when we should have started worrying about you, too. Because, thinking back on it, we saw an unmistakable twist in your face, too. Your head cocked to the side and for a moment we thought we could picture the mechanics in your mind moving, that you were considering what you hadn’t before. But we shrugged it off, because it happened so fast, and because we thought you shrugged it off when you laughed at Reed with us.

We heard that some maintenance men were going to move that desk, finally. We all breathed a sigh of relief when they came and took it, took Reed out of the classroom once and for all. The day is going great and there’s even a rumor that by next year, everything will be online, and we won’t even have to force our bodies over here every morning. Mr. Z walks into class and says he doesn’t feel like being here today, so we’re just going to watch a movie. We’re all cheering, all but one of us….you. You’re over there sitting next to a now-empty corner and you’re staring at it. We understand that maybe you don’t feel the warmth of a human body  next to you anymore, and that Reed isn’t there to block the sunshine coming out of the window for you anymore…but you’re acting strange today, the way you’re sitting there bending back the sides of a clean book. It’s making us uncomfortable. So, we’re asking you to stop. We’re asking because we care about you. Stop staring at the corner, because he’s gone, and you can’t do anything about it. You don’t have to read every book in the library to know anything about the world, okay? And we also want you to know that it’s not your fault, so why do we think that you feel bad about what happened? Because truthfully—we don’t want to say it out loud, but we’re all thinking it—it’s just easier now that we don’t have to walk around that desk.

You turn the first page of the book over and we hear it; the movie hasn’t started and that noise of you turning the page is so loud right now. It’s crinkling and creasing and drives us crazy. It makes us think of Reed and we don’t like it.

And you, you’re starting to worry us. Are you really going to start caring about Reed now, now that it’s too late?

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