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Picasso’s Butterfly Victoria Brieske


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In loving memory of Carl “Buddy” Louis Brzozowske Sunrise: April 21, 1940 Sunset: August 6, 2007


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Picasso’s Butterfly by Sherry Roland

A complete and inspired creation of God A torn and misshapen creature of Man Floating in a trapped soul, I am Picasso’s Butterfly.

Gently bold but dutifully misunderstood You don’t even know who I am Ripped from the jaggedness from within – I am Picasso’s Butterfly.

Fluttering freely in winding circles Colorfully flawed, I now stand stained Once for a moment, now for a lifetime I am Picasso’s Butterfly!


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The following story is fictional and is not meant to depict any actual person or event.


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SHOWMANCE

I should have been rehearsing my lines, practicing my cues. In theatre, an actor must always be on his, or her, toes. Yet as grateful as I was, for this my debut role, my mind was anywhere but in the Wynnesboro High Fine Arts Center. Lately my mood had been so cloudy that I could hardly concentrate on anything. Tucked inside the pages of my wrinkled script was an envelope of equal condition; a letter from my brother, a soldier in training. It was the first letter I had received in weeks. If it was not our father who kept us apart, it was the war. “I need a hug,” I sighed despairingly into the black curtains of the stage wings, more to myself rather than anyone in particular. Brooke, who had been standing but a few feet away playing with her stringy auburn hair, turned to look at me –her eyebrows furrowed and her features screwed into an expression of hard curiosity. “Why?” I was hardly confused by the snobbish disgust in her voice. Shrugging my shoulders, I pretended not to know the answer to her question. “I just really need a hug –” My body gave a violent jump when a pair of strong, tanned arms reached out from behind me and encircled themselves around my shoulders. The strong scent of aftershave and cheap department store cologne tickled my nostrils. Clasping my hands reflexively over the unfamiliar limbs, my head whipped around and green abruptly clashed with brown. Feelings of disbelief and confusion ricocheted furiously, like ping-pong balls, against the walls of my brain.


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“Lucas?” Smiling, Lucas pulled himself away from me and walked off towards the set –a skeleton layout of a Victorian mansion interior, at least in part. A jumble of words quickly piled up in my throat, clogging my central passage for air, as my tongue glued itself to the roof of my mouth. All the while, an intense blush arouse within my cheeks. I almost missed my cue for the next scene.

***

I became knowledgeable of Lucas Scotts during the latter half of my freshman year, my first semester attending Wynnesboro High. To us, fourth period was a social session; although it was allegedly funded as Spanish II. Senora Garner, however, lacked the assertiveness to be strict; and perfect attendance was hardly Lucas‟ first priority. Where it was he was running off to, I was never quite sure. Frankly, it has always been beyond my understanding how someone with one of the lowest body counts in the class could still manage to pass. The ghost that he was, I hardly knew that he existed. It was only in my sophomore year that interaction became necessary.

Theatre was the one common interest that bonded our differing oceans. But while his talents laid in the art of stagecraft and portraying villainous characters, I was merely an amateur driven by passion –completely lacking any form of training or basic knowledge of the stage. Compared to many of those I had auditioned alongside for the late fall production of My Fair Lady, I was


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completely over my head. I was not confident like them, with the limbs of my body numb and quivering. What Mrs. “Boss” Dawes, the play‟s director, saw in me, I shall never know. My cockney accent, I thought, was mediocre at best; and my soprano vocal capacity was, fairly, soso. Besides, everyone knew that in Dawes‟ world there existed a clique; a handful of specially groomed students handpicked by her to be royally carried to the top of the theatrical foodchain –nevermind their one-sided talents, or whose ambitions were crushed along the way. In every production, predetermined from the start, each member was guaranteed a principle role. Or so all had been led to believe.

***

It has to be a cruel typo, I reasoned as I stared dumbfounded at the drama department‟s flamboyantly decorated callboard. That Monday morning, following auditions, brought with it a little more than the accustomed overcast of crankiness. Nearly colliding with Morgan Matthis as he waddled down the hall during passing period, I sidestepped the formalities and anxiously asked him about the call sheet. As president of the Drama Club as well being a member of Dawes‟ clique, it seemed only logical that he would be one of the first to know who had reaped which role. But instead of being acknowledged by his trademark quirkiness, Morgan stared blankly into my face. “Go see the board,” he said. He spoke with such a foreign aloofness that I was left uncertain whether to be scared or offended.


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As the day crept on, I found it nearly impossible not to obsess over the news that Morgan was concealing from me. Realizing what I had to do, I used the only spare time I had during the afternoon to visit Dawes‟ classroom. My stomach was disappointed in my choice of priorities, but my racing subconscious had the strongest influence. The thought of missing out on Monday‟s customary “Lunchroom Surprise” –rumored to be a ground up concoction of last week‟s leftovers –did little to bring tears to my eyes in comparison to that of which might be waiting for me across the street at the Fine Arts Center. Down the concrete walk from the high school, across the junior high parking lot, down another sidewalk, and up a flight of stairs I flew; pausing only long enough to catch my breath before casually walking through the back entrance of the newly remodeled building. Just inside the classroom door, Dawes sat shuffling through a stack of graded assignments. Looking up, she gave me one of her notoriously automatic, silver-wired smiles before returning to the papers in her hands. An all too familiar set of quivers resurfaced in my legs and hands as I slowly brought myself closer to the announcement board, facing the judge‟s verdict. My growling stomach danced an angry tango as my eyes scanned carefully down the short list of names. For the sake of criticism, I had little to insult and more to applaud. In a way it was comical to think of Lucas Scotts, a confirmed admirer of women, as portraying the self-righteous and professional bachelor Henry Higgins. While both could be described as being devilish and handsome, the possibility of further shared similarities was slim; relation seeming impossible. But then again, a triumphant delivery was all that mattered; reality could wait until after the grand curtain closed. But to say that the slapstick oddities stopped there would be a lie and a half.


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As an enthusiast of the original cinema classic, to picture Morgan Matthis in Wilfrid Hyde-White‟s role as Colonel Pickering was almost blasphemous, if not ridiculous; like fitting a donkey for a thoroughbred‟s shoe. As a being equipped with natural magnetism, Morgan specialized in characters that were, more often than not, beloved for their loud lines and zany choreography. Dawes surely must have been high to have cast him in such a reserved role, or had been suffering from a severe and delusional reaction to having shifted so abruptly to decaffeinated coffee; whichever came first. Terry Woodcrest, also of clique membership, serenaded his way into the part of Freddy – Eliza‟s smitten, gentry suitor. As the son of two well respected physicians, Terry had the financial means to cultivate his smooth tenor voice early in life and since then placed high annually in state choir competitions. And as though talent were not enough to be bequeathed, he was also in possession of what could generally be categorized as “pretty-boy” features; such as his pale blonde hair, enthralling blue eyes, and a 100 kilowatt smile. His quiet and seemingly shy demeanor only contributed to his regard amongst the female population. Unfortunately, the only person Terry was capable of being smitten over was himself. Imre Rakoczy, Lucas‟ best friend, retired from his tailored rank as stage manager only to play Professor Zoltan Karpathy –Higgins‟ former student and rival in the world of phonetics. (Believably, it was Imre‟s direct Hungarian heritage that did him in.) I could hardly boast of him as a friend, although our acquaintance was a bit more sociable than the average peer-peer relationship. At best, I knew that he enjoyed listening to the vintage hits of the Beatles and Pink Floyd loudly on the stereo in his car –a Charger; not to mention that he strummed bass guitar for the same garage band as Lucas. Were it not for the fine olive tint in Imre‟s skin, the two boys could have almost been confused for brothers.


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As he was more of a lackey than a “clique-y”, it made sense that Garrick Clay be the one to replace Imre amongst the crew. There had to be at least one person for Dawes to push around on her stage staff; no one else would have stood for it. But as for the final member, and the only girl within the theatre faction, the name Brooke Hale was nowhere in immediate sight. Looking harder, my eyes squinting and my nose hovering in close proximity to the sheet of paper, I discovered it typed near the bottom –as though she were an afterthought –underneath the headline “Understudy.” Although a part of me was stunned, I sooner found myself stifling a giggle instead of standing at a gaping attention. But still, that begged a question: Who was to be Eliza Doolittle? The taste of intrigue burned in my mouth, prompting my eyes to scroll back up –for the umpteenth time –to the top of the list; but soon there was no need to go further. Like any remotely sane person, I was half convinced that I was dreaming; but the printed script –as plain as it was in font, color, and display –was resolute in decision. Typed next to the principle title was written the name Madeleine Kinsey; my name. How could I have missed such a sight before? Surely no one else had. But there was no mistaking it. Slowly but surely, it donned on me: I was the new leading lady for Wynnesboro High School. Oh how I was drunk with astonishment! And yet, how could I have known such a seemingly small shift within the universe could have such repercussions in store as it did…?

***


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I damned him first in the name of Hell, then in the name of Heaven; but no amount of cursing could rid me of the bewitchment of his smile, the softness of his eyes, or the comfort in his touch‌ Damn it! Surely I must have been a masochist. Lucas Scotts could not have been more popular in way, shape, or form. Everyone knew his name, including the ladies. Especially the ladies. Even my best friend, Adrienne Rhyan, half joked when she predicted him capable of enthralling a trail of admirers that expanded twenty miles in radius. But as hokey as that may have seemed, there was still no use in denying a teenage girlâ€&#x;s hormonal attraction to a boy who could play guitar. Adrienne, however, was not one to be found in such a crowd; and I could have almost hated her for that. In my own haughtiness, I thought myself above the want and need for such empty promises. I thought myself stronger than my loneliness. Damn it! Why did he have to be kind to me? He was my leading man in the play. I wanted him as the leading man in my life.


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BOUNDARIES CROSSED

The fifteenth of November was a prime example of the weatherman‟s habitual incompetency; the sky that day having been stained an empty gray instead of being bathed in the predicted sixty-two degrees‟ worth of shy sunlight. Lucas didn‟t show for class that morning, and no one, not even Imre, knew where he was. Although it was known and expected by all for Lucas to base his class attendance in accordance to his moods, he had never been known to miss an entire day. And when he did not show for rehearsal later that afternoon, I became worried.

Morgan gave me Lucas‟ phone number without asking too many pesky questions, his behavior and intentions seemingly benign. I could hardly keep myself contained long enough to get to my car before digging my cellphone out of my backpack and dialing the seven digit code. It took only a handful of minutes after being dismissed that the gravel lot surrounding the Fine Arts Center grew desolate of cars. I was one of the last to leave; I had so few places to be that Friday night. Leaning back into the worn cushion of the driver‟s seat, I watched as the sky faded a few more dismal shades while the hum of the dial tone buzzed in my ear. Considering the growing number of flu season casualties over the past few weeks, Adrienne included, I more or less anticipated the other end of the line to be answered by a raspy,


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heavily congest voice –the kind that easily parched the throat and led to a painful marathon of coughing when pressed to speak for too long… “Hello?” …But when a masculine tone lacking such draining symptoms casually appeared in its stead, my grip on my Motorola Razr immediately began to quiver and the urge to slam down the cover –to end the call –seemed like an appropriate action in my moment of cowardice. I could feel my heart hammer hysterically within its cage. Damn hormones! “Hello?” questioned the voice a second time. Squaring my shoulders, I inhaled deeply and asserted as much will as I could muster to energize my weakened vocal cords. To say that I was both pleased and surprised by the strong note of confidence that flowed out of my mouth would have indeed been an understatement –in all its cheesy cliché-ness. “You‟ve alive!” I could do little else but exclaim across the wire. “That‟s right.” There was a dash of playful humor that coated his words, of which mixed splendidly with his ever calm and sureness in voice. A part of me was so relieved to hear that such a voice had not been tainted with illness; but the other half could not help but doubt whether or not Lucas really knew to whom he was speaking to. Although there was no stopwatch handy to vouch such a claim, it was perhaps safe to estimate that our conversation could not have lasted more than two or three minutes at most; perhaps our best record to date. Although it only took the first few seconds for him to shoot my flu theory to the ground, it required nearly three times as long for Lucas to fully verbalize his defense. The remaining stretch consisted mainly of polite conversation, made by me.


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It never occurred to me that he might have taken the day off to pose for his senior pictures. But then again, I still had a year or so to go before I could begin combing the Yellow Pages for local, budget-friendly photographers –if such a thing existed. Feeling the burn of embarrassment swim beneath the skin of my face, I quickly said my goodbyes and closed my phone –replacing it within the front pocket of my bookbag –before my nerves had the chance to break through the delicate façade of my voice. Besides, I had already kept him too long from band practice. Closing the Razr, I slumped forward and sighed against the steering wheel. I felt so silly, like a spastic little girl. Hail the Drama Queen of northern Arkansas! Oh well, at least I had the weekend to live it all down…

***

“They gave him hell!” Luci‟s tactless assortment of vocabulary tumbled freely off the edge of her silver-studded tongue. It was an underlying guarantee that, by the time Luci should know of it, the school‟s gossip mongers had already made vast progress of Morgan‟s rumor. Tally-ho! A scandal was afoot! The details were sketchy, Luci‟s skills as a storyteller being less than par. As best as I could piece together, the entire ordeal began with Morgan loudly confronting Lucas about my phone call; teasing Lucas that I had a crush on him. Knowing from experience, had it merely been Morgan poking the fun, the rest of the witnessing students and clique members might have dismissed the claim as harmless tomfoolery. But, as soon as Brooke slid up beside him and began jabbing a finger of her own, such hope became a vain wish.


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Being so low on the social ladder, I was utterly ignorant of Brooke‟s temperamental history with Lucas. “Brooke and Terry said that he was your first crush and that you didn‟t know how to handle it.” I felt my teeth grind behind the skin of my inflamed cheeks at the daring and cheap assumption. And yet within it was a sense of truth, although I would have never admitted such a thing to the parasitic likes of Brooke, Morgan, and so on. Lucas was my first serious crush; and, perhaps, my first serious mistake. Before him, I never really gave much thought to having a boyfriend. Of what little I was able to comprehend, a boyfriend was an amenity; he was a means of boosting girl‟s self-esteem by encouraging thoughts of beauty and want. But until the year before, I had no need for such a thing. My older brother, Johnny, had always gone out of his way to include me in his life; to make me feel endeared. Well, him and Mick both… Leaning against the edge of the counter, I exchanged a worried glance with the hazeleyed, tawny-haired scarecrow in the bathroom mirror. She was just as clueless as I was as to what to do. I looked over at Luci, but she was far too busy penciling yet another layer of Purple Poison around the rim of her bloodshot eyes to offer anything constructive. Not that there existed a chance of my heeding anything she had to say, anyway. In those days, it was so hard for me to find a trace of something familiar in my once dear friend –her hair no longer brown but black, her upper body a showcase of various pop culture art forms, her assortment of shallow lacerations hidden beneath the bleak fabrics of her clothing… How could one summer do so much damage?


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She abandoned me quickly as soon as the bell had rung, signaling the end of homeroom. And yet I hardly seemed to notice, having known already just how much on my own I truly was.


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CURSED WITH “COURAGE”

I am no heroine; I am anything but courageous. And no amount of contradicting from my friends could ever persuade me otherwise. Kirsten-Marie, my best friend throughout middle school, once praised me as being fearless. By what merit I had earned such praise, I did not ask; but no words could have begun to describe the measure of discomfort that swelled within me. Even Adrienne, upon the eve of my Confirmation, tried to convince me that I was capable of possessing such a virtue within my quiet and unassertive nature. Her gift –a sculpted figurine of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, of which she had said to have entitled “Courage” in honor of me –more or less arose a strangling mixture of emotions that left me so speechless that I could hardly voice a thank you. Ironically, I could not even tell Adrienne that there were days when could I barely muster enough gumption to leave my bedroom! Spearmint flavored toothpaste did little to weaken the nauseated taste of shame that plagued my mouth. As much as I wanted to believe my friends, I could not.

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Dear Lucas, I promised myself that I would always be honest and fair to those I care about. But now, I have broken that promise. As a friend I have been completely unfair to you, Lucas. These past few months have been a torment for me. Silently I have suffered from my decision of not telling you my feelings. But I can no longer afford to do so. I do like you, Lucas Scotts. I like you very much. But, more than anything, I want us to always remain friends. And, as your friend, I am so sorry for everything I have put you through. Please forgive me. Sincerely, Madeleine Kinsey

***

Passing my note on to Lucas –as it turned out –was not as hard as I had thought it would be, although I had spinelessly used my third period schedule connections with Imre to secure the delivery. What I had not counted on, however, was Lucas‟ insistence upon reading it while in front of me.


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Lucas waited outside the lunchroom, stopping me just as I was about to pass and enter. Almost unwillingly, I followed him into an empty hallway nearby. Neither of us appeared to be overjoyed to see the other. We each stood on one side of a classroom door, quiet and avoiding in manner. The blank expression on Lucas‟ face as he meticulously read the clumsily folded piece of notebook paper was enough to scare me senseless. My legs trembled so violently beneath me that I felt as though they would give way if I made even the smallest of movements. My heart was pulsating so hard and so fast that I was sure that it would have burst had the silence between us continued to flow on as it did. And then, finally, he refolded the letter and slid it into his jean pocket. Lucas stood as unyielding and distant as a Buckingham Palace guard; his chocolatesmudged eyes peered down at me, studying my face as though to find inspiration for words. Long strands of dark chestnut hair covered half of his face, strengthening the power of the mask he had already adorned. The moments passed by unbearably slow; heavy with malice. I nearly jumped out of my skin as he began to speak. “You‟re a really brave girl.” His voice was strong, his words resolute. I felt lost at sea. What was he trying to say to me? Lucas, having taken a half step closer to me, held his arms out in offering. I literally collapsed against him, surrendering to the comfort of his body heat as his large hands pressed gingerly against my back. I found myself caught somewhere between the relief to laugh and the urge to cry. So much confusion wove inside of me that the smallest attempt at grasping for reason proved as vain as grasping for the wind.


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After a while, seemingly immeasurable, Lucas released me and locked his eyes firmly with mine. His own screamed silently of an emotion far too sketchy for me to comprehend. With dread, I asked him the one question I was afraid to know the answer to: Were we still friends? His stare remained steadfast, and I braced myself for the words to come‌


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------------------------------------------ Original Message ------------------------------------------From: MaddieHattie Date: Dec 12, 2005 10:05 PM Hey Imre. It‟s Madeleine. Can I talk to you for a second? ------------------------------------------ Original Message ------------------------------------------From: the*hungarian Date: Dec 12, 2005 10:06 PM Yeah, what‟s up? ------------------------------------------ Original Message ------------------------------------------From: MaddieHattie Date: Dec 13, 2005 12:52 AM Okay, I‟m guessing that you probably want nothing to do with this subject/question. However, I know that I can trust you to be directly honest with me since you are both my friend… and his. I can only assume that he has shown you the letter or at least told you about it. That‟s fine if he did. It is his after all and you are his best friend. However, even though he said that we could remain friends, I need to know. I would ask him myself but the stakes are much less high if I ask you. I need to know, Imre, if Lucas has said anything to you as far as hating me, being mad at me, or just plain wanting nothing to do with me. I promise that this will be the only time that I ask you a question like this. I can only imagine what an awkward position I have put you in, but I really need your insight, Imre. Thank you for always being a good friend to me.

Take care, Madeleine


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------------------------------------------ Original Message ------------------------------------------From: the*hungarian Date: Dec 13, 2005 12:59 AM It‟s no problem. I‟m always glad to help. Nah, Lucas hasn‟t said anything about hating you or anything like that. So please don‟t worry yourself over it. This conversation being totally off the record, Brooke keeps him on a pretty tight leash when it comes to other girls. So if you have been getting the cold shoulder I am sure that he just doesn‟t want Brooke to find out. I‟m sure that everything will be fine by the time that we come back from Christmas Break.

Glad to help, Imre


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Dear Lucas, Though it hurts me to once again inform you of my feelings through a letter, I know that this must be done. Since the last time we spoke of such a topic, we both agreed to remain as friends. Even now I still wish to hold to our agreement. However, I am seriously starting to question your behavior. Not to sound mean but where I come from, friends don’t constantly ignore each other and play insensitively with the other’s feelings. To be rather blunt: If you do not wish to be friends, all you have to do is say so! This new habit of yours is worse than any form of rejection known to mankind. Not only is it disrespectful to our friendship, it’s also disrespectful to me as a person. Like you, I have feelings. I ask that this time you return my previous gesture of fairness and tell me the truth! You owe me that much. (Questionably) Your Friend, Madeleine Kinsey


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------------------------------------------ Original Message ------------------------------------------From: MaddieHattie Date: Feb 17, 2006 5:14 PM Hey Imre. How‟s life? Have you finished moving? We don‟t really get to talk much and I just wanted to know. Okay, the truth: I also wanted to ask you something…again. If you get this, please write back. I really need to talk to someone.

Thanks, Madeleine ------------------------------------------ Original Message ------------------------------------------From: the*hungarian Date: Feb 17, 2006 6:47 PM We got the house yesterday, so hopefully we will be moved in before too long. So, what‟s on your mind?

------------------------------------------ Original Message ------------------------------------------From: MaddieHattie Date: Feb 17, 2006 7:04 PM I can‟t keep doing this. I need to know what the heck is going on with Lucas! I know, I know. I promised I would never ask you about him again, but I can‟t move on without knowing the truth. I have tried so many times to ask him myself but I can hardly ever get him alone or in the right environment. I‟ve even tried to call him, but I think he knows all three of my phone numbers


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now because he has not picked up. This whole thing is killing me. Can you please tell me what‟s going on? Thank you for being there for me. I really appreciate it.

Madeleine ------------------------------------------ Original Message ------------------------------------------From: the*hungarian Date: Feb 18, 2006 12:34 PM Lucas and Brooke broke up last week as you probably know, but otherwise nothing really has changed about him. He hasn‟t been feeling that great this weekend, but other than that I think he‟s alright. Just a little exhausted from the play. As far as his feelings for you, I think they are still the same though, Madeleine. I‟m sorry, but I think he just sees you as a friend. I know it must be hard on you, but I would just try to move on. I know that you have a really big crush on him, but it‟s probably for the best. After all, he will be going to college here in the next few months. If you need anything, you know I‟m here.

Take care, Imre


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MOVING ON

I met my first boyfriend, Zain Perkins, whilst suffering through the menopausal mayhem of Mrs. Pherson‟s seventh period art class. (Never before had I known a more derisive critic!) On one occasion he had been assigned as my model for a facial portrait; and what a terrible one he was at that! As hard as I may have tried, the lips of my subject never came out right; mostly because they were never still long enough for study. At the time, despite my frustration, I found myself attracted to Zain; if only in the sense that he was a unique individual, at least in conversation. Everything else was just…odd. Among many things, Zain prided himself as being a nonconformist –to a startling degree. His greasy hair was colored an unnatural shade of black while his roots were faded well enough to betray a more realistic tint of rusty copper hiding underneath. The measure of it was stretched to such an abnormal length that the strands just barely brushed his boney shoulders; that is, when he wasn‟t wearing it in a Mohawk fashion. His choice of spandex-clinging clothing, of which was dyed the same color as his hair, made his already pale skin appear ever whiter. His high cheekbones and tightly molded face, with its beady coal eyes and thinly lined lips, gave him a sort of frightening feminine quality. And where that not enough, an eyesore of piercings decorated various structures of said face –his lower lip, both eyebrows, and the side of his nose. Many of my classmates gave me bizarre looks whenever I mentioned my relationship with Zain. And, aside from his outer appearance, I quickly began to understand why.


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Zain was a creature of numerous habits, all of which ranged casually between annoying and disturbing. Starting with the lesser of evils, he frequently and carelessly enjoyed biting his black polished fingernails in public; and his laugh –a high-pitched, girlish giggle –drove me to cringe each time it was triggered. His crude sense of humor fit perfectly with the circle of droogs he commonly associated with; his best friend, Clinton Byce, being the worst. Clinton was the only one within the pod that, at the time, I had had the pleasure of meeting; he, the most coarse and chauvinistic of pigs. But the detail everyone knew yet refused to share, Zain was notorious for spending his idle nights guzzling beer and puffing… questionable substances, to put the supposed mildly. Conscience be damned! At the very least I was grateful that he never did such things around me, his overactive nightlife being too Clockwork Orange for my tastes. Limited to the count on one hand, Zain only took me out a grand total of four times throughout our brief relationship. Considering how long it had taken him to plan our first “date” –an entire week after finally asking me –it was surprising that anything took place at all; especially since the outcome was so simplistic in design. On the last day of finals, the unofficial first day of summer break, Zain picked me up at my house in enough time to catch the matinee viewing of the latest Donald Sutherland horror flick –An American Haunting –at the old Wynnesboro cinema. But as appreciative as I was of his paying for our tickets and buying me Coke Icee with a side of popcorn, I might have enjoyed the following ninety-one minutes had Zain not spent it gnawing at his black-polished fingernails and shifting restlessly within his seat. As for our other outings, his lack of creativity only grew worse: twice to a friend‟s house to watch television, and once to a bookstore –in which he left me to wander through the aisles while he sat in the café and glimpsed through a dark graphic novel.


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It was only a matter of time before I began to look disturbingly upon my involvement with Zain, as modest as it was. While his rebellious nature was a breath of fresh air in my small and conservative world, its presence was awkwardly paralyzing. Whenever I was around him, I found myself constantly on guard –worried that anything I might say or do would offend him or one of his friends. I tried to endure the smoky atmospheres he brought me to, and to keep myself in check each time Clinton set out to attack me by use of dirty blonde jokes. But the strain often left me exhausted, and I knew that the feeling was mutually shared. When the inevitable moment came at last, barely a week before the start of my junior year, I could not have agreed more with Zainâ€&#x;s reason for goodbye: We could not learn to be ourselves around each other. His methodology, however, breaking up with me over the phone, dealt quite the impact to my self-esteem. As my first, Zain had unknowingly left a blister of an impression. Although his behavior towards me had always been kind and careful, his mind was notorious for wandering. In more ways than one, the two of us had spent more time apart than together. For the longest time I thought someone like Zain Perkins was the best that I could do.


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EQUILIBRIUM

Each and every event that has or is destined to complete the puzzle of my life has taught me to believe in only two truths: nothing is coincidence, and nothing is trivial. Everything has a purpose and a reason for action. The universe and the divine always have a plan, especially since neither of them is foolish enough to play with dice. But like the simplest of equations, the smallest miscalculation can forever hinder the probable outcome. Although I am hardly one to comprehend –or accept –the teachings of science, there has always been one man whom I believe had his wits about him while busy playing God: the admirable Sir Isaac Newton. Though my mind may lack the ability –or insanity –to properly understand the basic principles of physics, I cannot help but applaud my approval for one, if not the greatest, of Newton‟s laws: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It was not until I had become more mature in age and experience that I began to wonder if, maybe, Newton did not mean for his laws and theories to be strictly limited to laboratory experimentation. Especially since humans are bound to be more interesting than growing mold and electrocuting rats.


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OUT OF PLACE

Whether it was my Midwestern accent or the way I sometimes stood out physically in comparison, many people over the years have always had one question smeared across their lips: “Where do you come from?” Unfortunately for me, such was a subject I never knew how to safely approach. If they meant where it was that I was born, I would have easily answered Chicago. Had they been wondering where it was I had recently blown in from, such was often flexible in reply. One instance, before I came to be in Wynnesboro, I had been happily living over a thousand miles away in my cherished mountain landscape of Fort Collins, Colorado. (Many times, I found myself regretting such a change.) But then, if I was intended to reach much deeper, to identify and reveal the one place in the world that I referred to as “Home”, I would simply be left without words –if not sad. For Homer‟s Odysseus, the term “Home” frequently spawned an immediate reaction: his beloved kingdom of Ithaca. Growing up, I often found myself wishing for such a luxury. With the shortage of manufacturing jobs that surfaced in the United States after the passing of NAFTA in 1994, my family was but one of the many who had little choice but to relocate should they wish to eat. Of the five us, two parents and three –biological –children, hardly anyone could recall what it felt like to have a single address. My father –the ever pillar of instability –said that we were fortunate to experience new things, to be able to view the world


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from a different perspective. And yet, sometimes, I found myself wishing that he could have felt the pain my siblings and I shared each time we were forced to part from our friends and uproot our lives; to watch as everything that we were was thrown into a box and hauled off into the distance, to a place as alien to us as the Ithaca the three of us so desperately yearned for.

For the first time, I felt cut off. Arkansas, just as I had imagined it to be by the strange twang of its name, was the closest I had ever imagined being to a third-world country –at least within the bounds of the United States. Wynnesboro seemed that of a forsaken island; one surrounded by swampy forests, rice patties and soy bean farms rather than a large body of water. It was perhaps as quaint as a small town in Arkansas could be with a population that just barely inched above fifteen thousand. As far as local attractions, there was nothing much for Wynnesboro to treasure historically; that is aside from the small Confederate memorial that had been erected next the McDonald‟s on Stonewall Road. The only loyal patronage to be found was expressed passionately every Friday night at the stadium of the local community college, WCC, of which moonlighted as an accredited state university –one whose mascot was the object of a constant, and ridiculous, negotiation. In this racism-obsessed world, it seems, it is no longer safe to name a football team the “Red Indians.” Much like everything else, Wynnesboro had very little to offer in terms of urban appeal. There was one rogue highway within its layout that cut diagonally through the perimeter of the borough, worming its way south toward Little Rock; but this did little for progress. With the minor exception of a few industry chains such as a Randall‟s, a Blockbuster Video, and a Little Caesar‟s Pizza, Wynnesboro‟s main economic flow depended greatly upon the annual rice and soy bean harvests, the paper mill, and several Mom-and-Pop businesses –many of which were


33

boarded up by seven o‟clock, just as the evening shift of mill workers were clocking in. Of the half dozen decent restaurants in town, not a night went by that their parking lots were not in a stiff state of overflow. I had never before lived in a town where, instead of rib-eye steak, microwavable dinners were a highly flaunted Sunday sale paper special. The most disturbing of my discoveries, however, came from its citizens. The one fault I had been taught to see as inexcusable in another person, aside from dishonesty, was the lack of ambition. To my dismay, I found that many within Wynnesboro suffered from this apparently hereditary epidemic; especially those of who I had been forced to recognize as my peers. But I could never think of them as such. Teenage girls, who more or less were still children themselves, were lucky to finish high school before they became straddled with a fiancé or baby –whichever came first. There were those, of course, who never aspired for much –having had it somehow, somewhere planted into their heads that the life of a homemaker or a stable welfare collector was as close to a fairytale as they would get. Others went on to college, whether it was in Fayetteville or Little Rock. But they always came back. For what reason, I could never understand. The boys, on the other hand, were about as morally and intellectually appealing as Beavis and Butt-head put together. While some continued with school, others went on to work alongside their “kinfolk” in the mill. Some became fathers early; few would boast of such a thing. Some married soon after high school; few would remain faithful. Some went into the service; few were compelled to travel past the county line, save for a keg of beer. Despite the old claim that the South was raised upon the backs of gentlemen, a man –let alone a good one –was often hard to find. At least in Wynnesboro. Quickly it became clear to me: I was a saltwater fish swimming in a much polluted pond.


34

LOVER BOY

Adrienne called him a stalker. Her stalker to be exact. But, as I delved deeper into the mystery, I was relieved to discover that the reason behind the given label had not been entirely for what I had dreaded it to be. Two years before I had come to know her, while she was still in middle school, Adrienne found herself to be the obsessive attraction of an older boy she had been introduced to through a pair of study hall peers –Zain and Clinton, for blame‟s sake. By her count, not a week went by that the said boy did not attempt to persuade her to go out with him. But, each time, Adrienne would sternly insist that she could never care for him in the same way. Eventually, after so many rejections, the vain wooing gave way; and, no-so-regrettably, neither Adrienne nor her stalker had retained much of a relationship since. And although I admired my friend‟s ability for frank storytelling, I found my curiosity – at least in this instance –to be strangely unsatisfied. Not once in her narrative, I noticed, did Adrienne mention the name of her pursuer. But, after applying a little pressure, she eventually let her resistance wane. “His name,” she said, “was Joel Karras.”

***


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Faye Kirkland was someone I could never picture as a friend. Not to me or to anyone else. Although Adrienne and I allowed her to eat lunch with us everyday, the motive behind it was pure sympathy. Faye was the only person we knew who had the demonic ability to drive one‟s neurons to the brink of combustion. Her three forms of communication consisted primarily of boasts, gossip, and complaints. It was a blessing on her behalf, I thought, that Adrienne and I did not believe in the brutal practices of the colonial Puritans. Especially since we were but two of a wide variety of people that Faye took delight in slandering. And besides, other the Smithsonian, where would one be able to find a brank in the twenty-first century? One of the few subjects Faye reveled in discussing was of her bountiful experience with the opposite sex. Over and over again she forced us to listen to the memoirs of her soap opera relationships: of the boy who wanted a one night stand; of her “forbidden” summer camp love; and, her personal favorite, the boyfriend who dumped her for a lesbian. To my surprise, however, after all that she had supposedly undergone, Faye had somehow managed to keep her virginity. Although it is not within my nature to be severely prejudiced against every skimpily dressed member of my gender, high school had taught me the sad reality behind the contemporary value of innocence. And, somehow, I could have sworn that the young women of Wynnesboro took dark delight in scaring me witless with this fact.

The only story of Faye‟s that I found remotely worth listening to was that of her first boyfriend. She was still in middle school at the time, and he had just graduated across the courtyard to the ninth grade. Although separated by one year academically and their contact limited to the school grounds, their relationship began to bud and bloom over the short course of a few weeks.


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Although the obstacles were destructive within themselves, what truly killed their courtship had been the mentioning –on the boy‟s part –of three cliché little words. It was often here within the story that I had to restrain myself from clapping: She ran. Any thirteen-year-old girl with an ounce of reasoning would have done the same. In Faye‟s case, it may have been the one of the few sensible things she had ever done in her life. The relationship ended shortly afterwards, neither of them ever looking back. When asked at the end, Faye uncaringly uttered that the boy‟s name was Joel.


37

FIRST ENCOUNTER

I did not go to the library that day. Somehow seeking refuge there no longer felt necessary, or healthy. The seclusion, I had noticed, had begun to wear away at my sanity; subtly, like water peeling away at the shell of a rock with each lazy caress. I missed my friends; those of flesh and blood. As steadfast as books had been for me in the past, Luci and Adrienne were still too much a part of my present. I was dependent upon them both, perhaps more than I should have been. My tender heart clung to them –like a shadow, like a barnacle, like a parasite. I was ashamed of my emotions, of my melodramatic tendencies. It was a wonder why neither of my friends had disowned me; Adrienne especially. And while the incident surrounding Lucas had been especially theatrical, the arrival of September brought with it its own abrupt and unwanted shift in scene. The transition came with a rocky opening, a troubling letter from my brother: Johnny was to be transferred to the Middle East, to Iraq. As though San Diego, I despaired, had not been far away enough! Distressed, I had few places to turn to. Johnny was no longer a safe subject to discuss around the house, and had not been for quite some time. My father and his pride were much at fault for that, followed closely by my younger sister, Peyton, who had anger management issues of her own to inflict at random. As for Mick, Johnnyâ€&#x;s best friend, he continued to be more than helpful to me in his own way. At times it was easy to forget that he was just a surrogate, much at fault being his empathic way of listening and offering advice. In many ways, Mick liked to think


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of Johnny as his brother too. Thus, as with many package deals, he inherited me as a sister. Lord knew he already had enough siblings running amuck back in Stockholm, but somehow Mick did not seem to mind merging the Kinsey family with his own. On the nights I tried to prolong my absence at home, Mick was sincere in his offer of a quiet hiding place and pleasant company; but this I could only indulge in on the weekends. During the weekdays, at school, Adrienne and Luci were the only lifelines I had to choose from. This knowledge, I admit, I may have –unintentionally –taken advantage of. I spoke too easily, thinking our relationship alone would prompt them both to listen and sympathize. As it were, it only took one roll of the eyes from Luci to make me clam up; to make me regret my ability to speak, if not to feel. After that, I made the library my citadel, my prison. When questioned, I would answer that I had homework or a test to study for. Both were too solidly feasible for anyone to argue with. But that day there was no homework, real or imaginary, for me to hide behind. Instead, I walked past the library; my pace was aimless and my head was inclined somewhat downward toward the floor. I looked up when I heard a familiar pair of knee-high vintage boots – Adrienne‟s –tapping against the linoleum floor. Noticing the Stouffer‟s microwaveable meal in her hand, I knew she had just come from her mother‟s classroom down the hall –the one that linked the junior high with the senior. Her mouth curved up high on her face when she saw me too. And, as though she were afraid that I would run away, Adrienne invited me to have lunch with her. Her smile was too contagious for me not to mimic.


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Continuing down the main hall, away from the lunchroom but toward the equally crowded Commons, easily slipped into a comfortable string of conversation. Our eyes trained steadily upon each other, we failed to notice how quickly our feet had been leading us toward our familiar eating area; or even the size twelve sneaker that were casually striding toward us. “Hey.” Adrienne and I looked up at the sound of the voice: baritone, friendly, unfamiliar. My immediate shying reaction, however, greatly contrasted with hers. “Hey, punk!” Adrienne said with a voice dipped in an awkward tint of glee. “It‟s been a while. What‟ve you been up to?” The stranger simply shrugged his bony shoulders and smiled. “Nothing really. Just getting ready for graduation, trying to finish my senior autobiography, things like that. Feels kinda weird that I‟m doing this stuff, ya know?” In long downward strokes, he smoothed a large hand through the messy bundle of brown wavy curls on top of his head. His nonthreatening speech and demeanor was welcoming, and one particular word he used sparked an interest in me. I never liked the word “weird”; it was too hypocritical a term, I thought, to be a valid description of anyone or anything. And yet, it provided me with a perfect entrance into the progressing conversation. “Well, define „weird‟,” I piped in. “Define „normal‟.” The boy‟s gaze shifted from Adrienne to me within a matter of seconds. His eyes filled with a shade of intrigue as he looked me over for the first time. I, in turn, did the same. He was tall; that was the one feature I immediately took notice of. Compared to my stature, of which just barely measured at five and a half feet, there was perhaps just enough space between the top of my head and his to be filled by a standard ruler. He wore a black screen t-shirt


40

with the Nintendo emblem stamped in the center of his chest and a pair of jeans. Both appeared to hang comfortably loose around his lanky frame while their dark colors clashed with his lightly tanned skin. The architecture of his face consisted of high cheekbones, a strong chin, a large yet well-built nose, and lips made for displaying charismatic smiles. With an underdog sort of charm, I indeed found him attractive. I forced myself to remain within the present. “You can‟t do it, can you?” I challenged, referring back to my previous question. The boy gave in to defeat with humor, his smile growing broader. “You‟re right, I can‟t.” I shook my head mockingly. “Shame.” All of a sudden I felt Adrienne‟s strong grip grow tight around the wrist that dangled at my side. As she began to tug, I could sense from her an uncharacteristic need to get away; and beneath the force of her hold, I felt the forthcoming of a multicolored bruising. Quietly, I gave in to her influential pleas and allowed myself to be towed down the remainder of the hall. Our stray companion followed close behind. I glanced back at him over the curve of my shoulder and called to him in what I hoped to be a gentle, yet dismissive, tone. “Well, if it comes to you, get back to me, okay?” I‟m still trying to figure it out myself!” The strange boy chuckled and continued to follow narrowly at our heels. It was left up to Adrienne to deliver the brush-off. “See you later,” she said; simple, yet polite. Finally, the boy grasped our encoded message and halted his pursuit. Giving a small wave a goodbye, he turned around and retraced his steps down the branching corridor toward the lunchroom –a grin still stretched across his muzzle. When he was far enough away to be


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considered “out of earshot”, I yanked myself out of Adrienne‟s hold –near the fringe of yelping as I did so. “What the heck was that all about?” I practically yelped as I held my sore wrist against my chest. Adrienne quietly ushered me toward a nearby brick wall, away from the large assembly of students scattered here and there around center of the Commons. “That was my stalker, the one that I told you about,” she said. “That was Joel Karras!” I felt the screws in my jaw loosen. “That was him?”


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AWKWARD DELIGHTS

With the arrival of March, murmurs of Spring Break had begun to circulate throughout the senior high. But while a majority of the students had jabbered away zealously about their upcoming vacation plans, some of us were far too preoccupied with much more weighted subjects –such as overdue assignments –to relish in the excitement. This seemingly banal setback came as an insult to my reputation as an honor student. And yet, seeing as the only class I owed assignments to was my Introduction to Computers course, the situation was not entirely unexpected. The instructor, Rick Jenson, was notorious for being lazy and disorganized. With only a week left until the end of the grading period, I scrambled to recover the socalled lost assignments. I knew that, unless I completed those fifteen Microsoft Office tasks, my grade would drop drastically and my father would surely kill me.

By late Thursday afternoon, I had all but six of the assignments completed; their multipart layouts having had much to do with my slow-moving progress. Friday being the last day before break, the school sponsored a special rally for the students and faculty; an event that would last from third period to senior high lunch. But rather than going, although the loss was of little significance to me, I barricaded myself inside the senior school computer lab. Much to my relief, Mrs. Holke –the supervisor –had left it unlocked.


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Without anyone around to stop me, I made myself comfortable; although such success was minimal under the circumstances. I was surprised by how many of the tasks I was able to finish during that time; four of the six, I am proud to say. It was the fifth, however, that made the muscles in my shoulders cramp and the nerves in my fingers twitch hysterically. Despite my having the instructions and an illustrated example in front of me, the plot of data consistently and persistently came out wrong. The image on the computer‟s monitor, I could have sworn, was mocking me! I neither deserved nor needed the stress from such a pointless assignment. „God!‟ I seethed silently while casting a frustrated glare up towards the ceiling. „Is there anything else You feel like throwing at me?‟ “Hi.” Someone had taken the seat at my right; my first thought, a curious stranger. But then, as I turned to face him, the first thing I came to notice was the gleaming of a very distinct charismatic grin. It betrayed his identity almost instantly. “H-Hi.” Inside I became jittery, caught off guard by the boy‟s abrupt appearance; or rather, reappearance. Had it really been so long, nearly four months, since our first encounter? His hair was shorter than I remembered; many of his formerly untamed curls having been pruned back, giving him more of a modern look rather than an unruly 70‟s style. I hardly would have recognized him were it not for his smile. Glancing up, I read the time off the cheap clock hanging on the wall above his head: five minutes past twelve. Aside from the two of us, most of the students and teachers were undoubtedly busy eating their lunch. So why wasn‟t he, I wondered. And –noticing the opened door and the flickering light from inside –how long had he been hiding in the storage closet?


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It all happened so quickly, I could have easily written it off as a desperate daydream. It took several long minutes for me to convince myself that this boy and his accompanying attentions were anything but fantasy. There was, at least, a proper introduction; that much I knew for sure. Even a handshake, in which he strangely welcomed rather than recoiled from like so many others I had known. Although I had already known him to be a senior, I could not help but be surprised upon learning that Joel Karras was also a non-originating resident of Wynnesboro. In a prejudiced sort of way, it only made him more attractive. His father, I also discovered, was a Baptist preacher for a small congregation in the neighboring community while his mother was a clinical pharmacist for St. Bartholomew‟s, the nearest hospital for several miles. Unlike me, however, Joel was an only child; and, by the description of his hobby, it was clear he had never been in want. Joel prided himself on having such a vast collection of videogame accessories; his inventory of vintage games, controllers, and gaming systems –he claimed –filled two large trunks and an entire wardrobe cabinet. Sega Genesis was his favorite. But I was less than impressed. I detested videogames, much in the same way other people loathed cockroaches and IRS agents. How such unnecessary evils came to be, I cannot even begin to fathom. And yet, underneath this faulty layer, Joel proved himself to be an agreeable individual – although not entirely in the way Jane Austen might have depicted. Upon gentle prodding, Joel was able to coax me into sharing with him the crinkled pages of my life. Meekly, I told him of my family; of our gypsy lifestyle for the past decade and a half. I spoke to him of my likes and dislikes, my thoughts and ambitions; none of which, I was


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surprised, did he laugh at or criticize! And, before I had realized what had been escaping my lips, I had even shared with him the thorny details and regrets of my failed friendship with former classmate Lucas Scotts. At the mention of the latter, Joel‟s smile quickly dissolved. “Let him go.” I jumped back against my seat as Joel reached across the small space between us and cupped my hands within his. My subconscious became locked within a duel. While my logical side screamed at me violently for me to tare myself away, my emotional counterpart pleaded passionately for me to saver the encouraging touch. Everything –my elbows, wrists, fingertips, and nails –were so numb and fragile in feel that I feared the slightest slip from his warmth would have shattered them. Even if logic had proven more powerful, I still would not have been able to bring myself to stir from his gentle grasp. Instead, I pasted on a smirk and nodded my promise to his request. With a quick change of subject, Joel‟s smile soon returned.

The present seemed to stretch on forever, although the actual duration of this so-called eternity could have easily been measured down to exactly three-quarters of an hour. I doubt it ever crossed our minds that lunch would eventually end and we would have to fall back in line with clockwise order of the day. So lost was I, in fact, that I had forgotten my original reason for coming to the lab –despite the evidence that was still strung out before me on the tabletop. And yet, the end came all too soon. Joel and I leapt within our chairs as the ugly shrill of the bell sliced through the moment with the precision and sharpness of a razorblade. We both knew what it meant, and neither of us was too eager to comply. Perhaps it was the classes themselves that we dreaded; but, then again, I had my doubts.


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Asking to borrow a piece of paper and a pencil, Joel quickly scribbled the lead tip across the surface of the sheet before folding it in half and sliding it across the short distance of table between us. His lively gaze leveled with mine, he refused to release the weight of his hand upon the paper before asking me an “awkward” question: “Can I see you again?” Yes, it was an indeed an “awkward” question; an “awkward” question that begot an equally “awkward” moment of silence. I knew what I wanted to say, but the words refused to move past the inner wall of my throat. Instead, I too snatched up a piece of paper and jotted down what information I thought he wanted: my phone number and email address. We smiled at each other as we exchanged our “awkward” gifts. Each picking up our bookbags and sliding them onto our shoulders, we slowly trudged our way out of the computer lab. Joel went first, insistent upon holding the door open for me; an act of which very few men, aside from my father and two brothers, had ever done for me. He offered to carry my books and binder as well, but I politely refused. As I saw it, I was tired; not invalid. But, to make it up to him, I allowed him to walk me to my next class –Medical Procedures. I did not care whose eyes saw us as we passed. All I could think about was the person walking beside me. Deep within my chest, I could feel my heart bubbling over with warmth and happiness; the first I had felt in a long while. We talked the whole while, speaking of everything and anything that came to mind – much like how we had been back in the computer lab. It felt both surreal yet right standing next to him; so much so that, when the moment came to part, the air felt to have grown heavy with disappointment that our time together could not last longer.


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Reluctantly we separated, going in our designated –yet opposite –directions of the campus; he to the old junior high corridor while I went to the window-less dungeon of the former band building.

“What happened to you?” my teacher Mrs. Heartman asked, leaning over her desk and eyeing my smiling face as I crossed the room and sat down in my assigned seat –middle desk, middle row. Immediately upon entry she had taken of my soft change in demeanor. “I…well…” Dozens of curious eyes turned towards me from all around the dim and dusty perimeter of the classroom. I grew hesitant, but I knew better than to stay silent. “I met this guy –” “Eeeekkk!” I never knew that a forty-year-old woman was capable of squealing so much like a spring piglet. My ears rang painfully from the loud burst! And, at the smell of fresh meat, the gluttonous piranhas of fifth period instantly swarmed around me with questions foaming wildly from their mouths: “Who is he?” “What‟s his name?” “What grade is he in?” “How did you two meet?” “Is he cute?” “Are you going out?” “Are you in love?” “When the hell did this happen?”


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I cursed myself to Hell and back, knowing all too well and realizing far too late the damage my words had encouraged; they being destined to ignite yet another wildfire that would, undoubtedly, spread without mercy through the school‟s grapevine. By the end of the day the entire school would know of my encounter with Joel.

As the hours before my departure for New York grew fewer, I found my thoughts not to be dwelling on the neon lights of Time Square or the thrill of seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber‟s The Phantom of the Opera on a Broadway stage –although it had been a long awaited goal of mine to fulfill; but rather they were too busy reflecting warmly on the memory of my latest acquaintance, Joel Karras. Already it had been several hours since last I had seen or spoken to him; and yet, in the startling way that I had been carrying him around, it had been as though “goodbye” had suddenly become an inside joke between us. I blushed into my dark navy sweater as I refolded it for the tenth time and stuffed it into my polka-dotted duffel bag. By the end of the afternoon the grapevine had been scorched down to the root. Everyone, from the highest point to the lowest peak of the social hierarchy, had been spoon-fed the one detail of my day that I would have preferred to have kept to myself. Of course, I only had myself to blame. Frankly, I could have cared less if the cheerleaders were snickering behind my back or if the chess team was cheering for me in the cheap seats. For the most part, I was use to it. What worried me the most was Joel, of whether the gossip had reached him, too. And, if it had, was I ever going to see him again? A chime sounded through my computer speakers and a small yellow envelope flashed in the lower right corner of the screen. Double clicking the mouse to open my inbox, a new


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message appeared in bold text. An excited tickling arose in the soles of my feet, making me feel as though I could defy gravity.

To: MaddieHattie From: jkarras*NinjaMaster Subject: One of the best days of my life!


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TAKE ME BACK TO MANHATTAN!

From dispatch to baggage claim, I weaved in and out of the crowds of LaGuardia Airport with my video camera latched firmly and lively within my hand. Nothing and no one was safe from me. I was determined to make this documentary a must-see on YouTube. Huddled together with our baggage piled at our feet, we –the thespians of Troupe 4707 Wynnesboro, Arkansas –watched through the glass walls of the lobby as a mist of icy flakes blew down from the blank sky. Waiting for us just inside the central terminal entrance– armed with a backpack, a Mets‟ baseball cap, and a childish stick puppet –was our tour guide, Larry. Barely taller than me and with a build so puny that it could hardly be considered masculine, it was fearfully obvious to my comrades and me just how easy it would be for us to lose him within a crowd of 1.6 million. Hence, Larry explained, was the purpose of Quacksley –the bright yellow duck on a perch. I made a mental note to add a few bonus points, for creativity, to his evaluation at the end of the trip. Being the delusional shepherds that they were, Boss Dawes and Larry herded us onto the awaiting bus. In a way, we made it easy for them; our bodies were too reluctant at first to adjust to the sudden drop in temperature. On an average day, the shuttle ride from LaGuardia to Manhattan might have spanned little more than forty-five minutes; or an hour, if traffic was heavy. Being a national holiday, however, planning anything by such estimations was relatively pointless.


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Its path stretching from 44th Street and down Fifth Avenue where it would eventually meet its end at 86th Street, the St. Patrick‟s Day Parade was well on route by the time we had made it to our first red light at 2nd Avenue. The congestion was phenomenal; or, perhaps “horrendous” was more of an appropriate adjective. Park Avenue was the worst, with its various crowds wandering carelessly through the streets. In fact, it was there that our bus driver frustratingly threw up his hands and insisted that he could take us no further to our hotel. Left without much of an alternative, Larry unloaded everyone and everything onto the cold, wet sidewalk; or at least what little of the curb we could manage to fit onto. By then, the snow had ceased to fall; but the wind-chill still ranged somewhere between twenty and thirty degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. Raising Quacksley high above his capped head, Larry led us deeper into Manhattan on foot… for block after block after seemingly endless block…! It was as though Mardi Gras had invaded the streets; though perhaps, in all fairness, the St. Patrick‟s Day activities were a bit more modest. (I doubt the Pope would have stood for anything less.) All around us, a cultural conglomerate had formed. Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Polish, African, Chinese –all of them had gathered to patriotically wave their flags, to cheer and laugh at the various floats and attractions as they passed. Our small group stood out compared to them, but such could not have been helped. Even if it had not been for our carry-on or roll-away burdens, we still would have been gawked and cursed at. From experience, I can vouch that one of the easiest things in the world to detect is a tourist; they are often betrayed by their gaping mouths and the stupid look of awe on their faces. I saw many such characters back when I was still living in Chicago.


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By the time our troupe had reached the hotel, the Hilton on 8 th Avenue, most of the girls were worried frantic that the unexpected slush and snow had seeped through their bags and ruined their clothes. What drama queens, I remember sighing –ironically. If I had not witnessed it for myself, I probably never would have believed it: rooms in New York truly are indeed ridiculous in size and price! If I were to have measured it, the hotel room could not have been any larger than my bedroom back in Wynnesboro –closet included. According to Larry, the cheapest apartments within the city limits are much similar in size and are often shared amongst five or six tenants. Personally, I could hardly stand sharing a bathroom with my younger sister. Never did I want to imagine living with five other people in an overpriced cookie box! Weatherworn and exhausted, we barely had a chance to pocket our keycards before Dawes and Larry dragged us back out into the snow. Our director was determined to officially start our vacation off with a shopping spree, and a special detour to the nearest Starbucks. I had not even realized how close we were to Times Square, walking distance wise, until I found myself standing at in its center. Although I had not been left completely unprepared as to what to expect, I willingly admit that none of the movies or photographs I had seen could have done justice to the hammering pulse and electric magnificence I experienced firsthand! Splitting into small factions of three or four apiece, we each took to a different corner of the Square. Stopping along the way at a cheap curbside venue, I took a wrinkled Lincoln bill out of my wallet to purchase a matching argyle toboggan cap and mitten set. My roommate, Sam, however, was more determined in buying a pair of dry, long-stemmed socks to help ease her chills.


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It was cruel having to limit our visit to a meager four days. And yet, somewhere in-between three actors‟ workshops, two Broadway plays, and a broad bus tour across New York City, money was quickly flying out of my wallet and into the hands of one greedy vendor after another. Snow globes, Broadway souvenirs, teddy bears, a vintage Casablanca movie poster –when it came time to repack, I was sincerely surprised by how much room I still had left to spare. But, despite the significance of Ground Zero or the lyrical sentimentality of Strawberry Fields, seeing The Phantom of the Opera in its purest glory was unquestionably the highlight of the entire trip; for me at least. Johnny, I knew, would envy me forever. Andrew Lloyd Webber was his idol. Time Square by day, Broadway by night –I tried to take in as much as possible in such a brief stretch of time. Late one night, I sat by the window and put my observations to poetry:

1:15 A.M. MTV blares across the television screen, flashes of color –white, purple, blue – dancing across the walls and window glass. In the background my roommate moans as she wriggles deeper into her nest of blankets, shying like a mole away from the light.

Scrunched together on top of the desk, my face pressed against the frosty glass, my limbs tingle with vertigo


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as I peer down from the fourteenth floor. A lone taxi rolls down the street, and sirens squeal in the distance. Snow litters the landscape and a faint mist rises up from the sewers.

My toes tangle into the fabric of the curtains and my fingers hide inside the sleeves of my pajamas.

Below, a young woman walks briskly across the sidewalk. Mysteriously, she tries to conceal the waitress uniform inside the folds of her coat. I cannot see her face; I cannot read her eyes. I can only pretend to know her story. Yawning, a patch of fog stains the window. With my index, I trace a message: “I  NY”

I titled the piece A Room with a View. Somehow I doubt E.M. Forster would have minded too much. Being a city girl at heart, I could only list a handful of reasons for me to return to Wynnesboro.


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***

Just shortly after midnight, Flight 527 screeched to a standstill at the awaiting plank of Gate C10; and what a lacking sight it was. No one, neither passenger nor airport employee, was there to greet us. Sleep having left me temporarily blind, my contact lenses bled dry of moisture and focus, I loosely clung to the sleeve of Sam‟s fleece jacket as we shuffled languidly down the corridor to the main escalators. Once I was sure that my feet were settled firmly upon a descending step, I transferred my dependent grip onto the rubber surface of the moving rail. With each insistent blink of my eyes, the blur was becoming less and less. From below, a voice called out. “Madeleine.” It did not take long for me to search out the face that accompanied such a strong and reserved voice, me being as familiar with it as I was; or had grown use to over the past five years or so. It was a square-sort of boney structure with well-tanned skin that was left greatly aged by years of stress and exhaustion; and yet, somehow, it had still managed to retain a hint or two of a youthful suave. A thickly bridged nose sat in the middle of this formation, but that was usually the second feature that a person would take notice of; the first being the man‟s eyes, which were a seizing blue. In some ways, I could still praise them as being like my Granddad Kinsey‟s eyes; but only in color, never again in soul or electricity. His darkly shaded hair was just as thick in bounty and as pristinely combed as I remembered it; although, now being free of facial hair, I sometimes had difficulty singling this particular man from a crowd. His chin and the skin that encased his upper lip were unmistakably the least bronzed portions of his face. As to his fashion


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sense, he wore a navy sports coat with a dress shirt and sweater vest. The matching navy trousers he had belted to his waist still had the trace of a crease in each leg. “Hi Dad.” My voice cracked in my parched throat, but my father‟s side-mouth smile and acknowledging nod assured me that he had heard. It took me a moment, once touching ground, to assert enough power into my feet to navigate myself over to where my father stood amongst the small congregation of waiting parents. Stopping in front of him, but still maintaining a foot‟s worth of distance between us, my father was the first to reach out and pulled me into one-arm embrace. Being so close to his chest, my nostrils were invaded by the powerful and aberrant scents of French Vanilla coffee and expensive aftershave. More and more, it was becoming obvious that he was finding himself at home within his new skin as a college professor, as the newly christened Dr. Justin Kinsey. “It‟s nice to have you back, Madeleine.” It was strange, I thought, that he should be the one to come pick me up. The four of us were virtually strangers, Justin Kinsey and his children; but why he had chosen to seek a bond with me, I did not know. Maybe it was because I did not hate him enough, or at least not as loud as Johnny and Peyton. After a moment, we pulled back from each other; but Justin, surprisingly, left his hand hanging upon the curve of my shoulder. I had thought he would have recoiled it; shoved it back inside his pants pocket before anyone could see it, as though he was afraid his scars being visible might shed light on his former blue-collar profession. It was no secret that he was still harbored embarrassment for the memory of his “former life.” But, as tired as I was, I allowed such a contemplation to pass quietly through my brain. As uncomfortable as his unfamiliar nearness to


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me felt on some underlying level, I forced myself to remain at my father‟s side as he ushered me along with the rest of the small group of travelers and parents to baggage claim. After a wait of nearly fifteen minutes, my polka dotted duffel bag tumbled out from behind that mysterious plastic curtain and floated downstream along the curvilinear shape of the conveyer belt to my anxious hands. Snatching it up, as much as my weakened grip would allow, I followed Justin out of the brightly lit surroundings of the Memphis airport and into the dim orange glow of the parking garage. His fully restored 1970‟s Mercedes Benz –an old obsession of his that had something to do with a favorite Janis Joplin song –was parked in one of the very last sections of the ground level, farthest away from the nonexistent knot of traffic. As he tucked my bag safely in the trunk, careful not to pose potential harm to any of my souvenirs, I quickly escaped into the back seat of the car. Sliding into the middle, I buckled in and assumed the possum position –sprawling myself across the uncomfortable upholstery and closed my eyes. The driver side door opened and the vinyl material of the seat groaned under the added weight. As the key turned in the ignition, I could feel the vibration of the engine through the seat. Without a word, Justin maneuvered the car out of the garage and onto the darkly shrouded highway. The force of the increased acceleration pushed my body further down into the seat. Taking a chance of being caught, I peeked open my eyes and glanced through the break between the two front seats. In the darkness, I could just barely make out the object that I sought. Sitting below the car‟s old-school radio, decorated with a tacky frame made of Popsicle sticks and a mismatched assortment of buttons, was a faded family portrait from five years before. There was nothing truly spectacular about the photograph, at least not compared to those of other families. For the briefest of seconds, for just that click of the camera button, everyone pasted on their sincerest smile as they played along with the old and familiar delusion that they belonged to


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a happy, functional family. Being an actress, such an emotion was easy to fake. But, looking at it then in the dark silence of the car, I fought hard to restrain the soreness that was threatening to bubble to the surface. The space that once held the face of my most cherished sibling was empty. All that remained was a neatly carved square hovering in midair above my head. As much as I may have wanted to, I could not tear my eyes away from it; from the powerful yet subtle reminder of what I was returning to –a landscape of broken bridges, looming storm clouds, and shameless displays of corroding morality. In some ways, it all felt so very Tolstoy. Oh, what I would not have given for a shot of Novocain!


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SECONDGUESSING

Assuming that shock can be measured in terms of physical weight, the teeniest feather could have knocked me out of my desk chair with a simple brush. “Mom…?” It astounded me just how quickly Joel had responded to my email; just barely an hour after I sent it that previous Friday. But upon reading his reply, I could literally feel a few essential screws come loose within my jaw. The cliff notes version, he had countered my gesture of gratitude with an invitation to meet him for lunch on Thursday at the new Turtle Creek Outlet Mall in Boone. As it came to be, Joel had returned early from visiting his grandparents in Louisiana and wished to pick up where we had left off the week before. “MOM!” My mom, Dawn, barely had a moment to rest her weary self before my frenetic call had reached her ears. Sighing and grumbling, she dragged her tender feet down the hall and swung herself around to stand limply against the doorframe of my bedroom. Even from my chair across the room, her eyes appeared discolored –moderately bloodshot –from the obvious deprivation of sleep; the immoral stress that was amply supplied by her administrative job leaving scars upon her sensitive exterior. Being too consumed with my own anxieties, however, I temporarily overlooked the sight. “He –Joel,” I fumbled over my words, “wants to have lunch with me tomorrow!”


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Her slouching spine somehow finding the strength to straighten and her sagging eyelids regaining the ability to widen, Dawn lengthened the limping strides of her stocking feet to the point that she was standing at my side in only a matter of seconds. Flinching at first at the bright glow, she craned her head in closer for a better view of the computer screen. This had not been the first letter of Joel‟s that I had allowed my mom to read. Rather, provoked by the awesome feelings of glee that arrived with his first email, it seemed almost an instinctual reaction that I would choose to share such a rare excitement with my mother; or, at the very least, with the nearest and most indulgent female available. Even Dawn could not have helped but smile at the Joel‟s flattery. But as she began to study this new addition to the “Dear Madeleine” file, Dawn‟s stare had turned sternly parental –scanning mercilessly across the small collection of text, tearing each grammatical combination apart bit by bit, quietly questioning Joel‟s friendly use of phrases as she scoured for anything that reeked of wicked intention. After a few lengthy moments, my mom reverted back into her somnolent state and shuffled with strain back towards the door. But before continuing on her way out, she threw a small batch of half-baked words over her shoulder: “If you want to go, then go.” If I thought I had known shock before… I struggled to leap out of the comfortable slump of my butterfly chair, nearly knocking it over in the process. Once free, I sprinted down the hall after my mom. In her condition, she had not made it farther than the living room before I caught up with her. I could not contain myself. “You think I should go? Have you completely lost your mind?”


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Turning around, I watched as Dawn‟s strawberry shaded eyebrows slid up her wrinkling forehead. As young as I was, it was sometimes easy for me to forget that she was only a few years shy of fifty. “Excuse me, young lady?” “You don‟t even know this boy except for what little you‟ve heard from me and read from his emails. And you trust him enough by that impression alone to allow your teenage daughter to spend a whole afternoon with a complete stranger? How do you know this guy isn‟t wanted in three states for traffic violations, or for drunk driving? How do you know that he‟s not another Norman Bates or some other crazy escapee from an Alfred Hitchcock movie? What in the heck are you thinking? What kind of mother are you?” Dawn‟s somewhat startled expression swiftly plummeted to one of sheer annoyance and disbelief. “Madeleine Marie, don‟t you think that you‟re going a bit overboard in the theatrics?” “Uh, yeah! But these are the sort of ridiculous excuses that I was expecting you to give! So can‟t you just humor me, please?” Sighing, rather heavily, Dawn used one arm to prop herself up against the back frame of the couch while the other was angled to rest on the curve of her hip. “From the way you spoke of him before it seemed to me that he was no stranger to you and that you actually enjoyed his company. Was I wrong to think so? Do you really want me to tell you „no‟?” “Well, no, I don‟t. I just wasn‟t expecting you to give me your permission so easily.” She rolled her eyes from one side to the other like that of an irritated teenager. “I‟m not going to forbid you from interacting with your peers. If you want to know my real reason, I think it might be healthy for you to go out with people every now and then. Young women such as yourself should not be out and about by themselves, especially with all the lunatics running around this town.”


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These “lunatics” Dawn Kinsey had certainly seen her fair share of. At least four-dozen walked into her office every day seeking employment; half of them either having a criminal record or lacked a college diploma. Being the Human Resources Manager for a nationwide security company was by no means a walk in the park. I nibbled on my bottom lip. “I‟m just not sure if I feel entirely comfortable with the idea of meeting with him alone outside of school. And weren‟t you the one who always told me to never put myself in a situation where I am alone with a boy?” Her non-supporting hand came up to massage her forehead. “Yes, I did –” “Then why the sudden change of mind?” “If you don‟t feel comfortable going on your own, then call Adrienne or take your sister. I don‟t have time to follow you around town. But I still think that it would be good for you to go, to get out and do something for a change. As often as your nose is in a book I‟m surprised that it‟s left unscathed by paper cuts.” Thinking about it, what my mom said did make sense. About the chaperone, I mean. But would one really be enough…? “And besides,” Dawn said, breaching my thoughts, “if you play your cards right, you might come out of this with a date for the prom. Or perhaps a bit more.” I was almost too taken aback by her mischievous wink to respond. And yet, at the same time, I found myself laughing. “Look, Mom, I appreciate what you‟re trying to do for me. But let‟s not fool ourselves, okay? He‟s a teenage boy and a computer nerd. Prom is probably the last thing on his mind.” I turned away and began walking back toward my bedroom.


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“Besides,” I muttered, more to myself than anyone else in particular, “I don‟t think I‟m his type.”


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FRICTION

When my alarm clock sounded its rooster shrill shortly after seven-thirty, I sprang out of bed with nearly the same frightening vigor as an espresso addict. Although it was still several hours before I was suppose to meet Joel, my anticipation of the entire thing had made me feel especially self-consciousness –at least more so than my customary dosage. Much to the satisfaction of my inner Miss Perfectionist, my shower was exceptionally toasty and my hair was obedient to my combâ€&#x;s stern commands. By the time it came for me to wake my sister, at a quarter past eight, I had already modeled three different outfits before finally settling on a pair of blue jeans and a dark brown, button down shirt with sleeves that cut off just short of my elbows. Despite my modesty, I would have easily admitted that both pieces of clothing were generously fitting and flattering to my slender yet curvy figure. Not being as animated about my itinerary as I was, Peyton flopped over and slept for an additional fifteen minutes. But when the alluring smell of steamed Polish sausage and fresh Pillsbury biscuits floated across the house and into her room, tickling her nose, it was only a matter of time before she crawled out of bed and waddled down the hall to the kitchen table. Being thirteen and still an active member of the rebellious fashion cult, five minutes was all that she needed to sharpen her roughened edges. With her short bob cut and often uncensored behaviors, I sometimes felt as though I was living under the same roof as Scout Finch. And since there was nothing I could have said or done to persuade Peyton to dress or act more feminine, I


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added a little afterthought to my grace prayer that she would not embarrass me too much in front of Joel.

As we puttered up her driveway in my vintage Buick station wagon at a quarter past ten, Adrienne was already sitting on her front stoop waving us down with that buoyant smirk that was all her own. Her preference for earthy bohemian clothing was enough to catch anyone‟s attention, especially in Wynnesboro where such a fashion was almost completely unheard of. Despite my fostered aversion for the native born and bred, all that I could see when I looked at Adrienne Rhyan was a great treasure that had long been overlooked within her surrounding wasteland. Confident, plucky, happy-go-lucky –only a short list of things I could do little more than aspire to be. My loneliness was understandable. Hers was a travesty.

It all flew by so quickly, from the time we arrived at the mall till meeting with Joel for lunch. Although the three of us –Adrienne, Peyton, and I –had tried to wrap up our little shopping venture beforehand, a one-hour delay at the bookstore had set us radically behind. While making a quick trip to my sister‟s favorite department store –Hot Topic –the lanky form of Joel Karras caught my eye as he toddled towards the food court. “Joel!” Joel snapped his head around in the direction of my voice, his mouth stretched into a widespread and toothy grin.


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Though it was past the average person‟s lunch hour, our growing party was surprised to find the five main vendors of the food court to be overwhelmingly congested. We briefly considered a restaurant, but our plans quickly changed after glancing at the overpriced menu – swiftly making a U-turn to fast food. While Joel and I were in an Oriental mood, Adrienne and my sister insisted upon a more All-American alternative: a somewhat less adventurous sub sandwich stop. Compromising, our group divided into pairs and went our respective ways. Slipping Peyton a ten-dollar bill, I walked with Joel over to the Dragon-Phoenix Express and ordered a plate of fried rice with chicken teriyaki and a spring roll. I offered to pay, but Joel quickly countered it. Knowing I had already made a mistake so early in our relationship by rejecting his proposal to carry my books –as Dawn had so graciously pointed out –I mutely surrendered to his determination. At least he let me carry my own tray. But even after the kindness he had shown to me not so long before, it narrowly occurred to me that Joel would take the seat next to mine and regain the same intimate distance we had shared in the computer lab. Again, he chose to sit so close that we could have easily brushed elbows whether we meant to or not. And yet, while Joel may have been uncommonly civil and mature enough to take the seat at my right, Adrienne –my best friend –chose to set her parceled sandwich down next to him. Even my punk sister, my own loathing flesh and blood, followed her example without hesitation. The left side of my body had never felt so forsaken. For an extensive portion of the culture-clashing meal, conversation flew back and forth from the energetic lips of Adrienne and Joel. I didn‟t dare interject this time, especially since many of the topics they discussed seemed made up of knowledge privy to only the two of them.


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Peyton simply slouched against the back of her chair and nibbled on her ham and cheese on wheat. Watching the two of them, I could not help but reflect on how the scene was far more welcoming when it was just Joel and me.

The lights had already dimmed to their lowest degree and the last of the previews were projecting off the film reel by the time we had strolled into Theatre 5. While Adrienne and Peyton chose to setup camp in one of the many empty midsection rows –not too close, yet not too far from the screen –Joel quietly directed me further up towards the highest reaches of the vacant room, sitting down almost directly underneath the projection booth. As the opening scene began to unfold, I could feel Joel‟s warm fingertips softly stroke the back of my hand before slipping against the grove of my palm and entwining his fingers with mine. Like before, the presence of his touch was felt strange at first; but I didn‟t pull away. There seemed something so purely legitimate about Joel‟s attentions towards me; none of it felt forced. Squeezing my hand, Joel leaned in close to my ear. “I‟m glad that we could get together today.” “Me, too. More than you know.” His eyes ducked down towards his shoes. “After today,” his voice grew so low that I had to lean in from across my seat to hear him, “I will be leaving again tomorrow to go to a Con with some of my friends. And I was wondering…I was hoping that maybe we could see each other again as soon as I get back.” The sound of the movie faded into the background.


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I looked up at him, in part out of disbelief that such words came out of his mouth. “Yes. I…I think I would like that.” “Maybe…we could see each other as…more than friends?” My heart accelerated; soon, I feared, I was going to need a pacemaker. “Yes?” His diverted gaze rolled up towards mine. “Will you go out with me?” “Yes!” The glow reflecting off the screen only intensified the brightness of his smile. Slumping down into my seat, I leaned my body in close –little by little –to his and placed my head down on his shoulder. Instantaneously, Joel laid his head down on top of mine and squeezed my hand once again. Gently. Always gentle. Peeking down on my sister and friend, I prayed that nothing in the universe would prompt them to turn around.

***

“Madeleine,” my mom‟s unusually chipper voice broke through the wall of my concentration whilst I was in the middle of dismantling the last meatball on my plate, “isn‟t there something you‟d like to tell your father?” Both my father and I looked up from our almost completely dissipated dinners, our dark blonde eyebrows furrowed in suspicion –mine towards my mother while his balanced equally between the two of us. Through years of participating in a similar ritual herself, Peyton knew her safest bet was staying outside the triangle of fire.


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“Granddad called today,” I interjected after a momentary pause, shocked that Dawn would even bring up such a subject at the dinner table. As expected, at the mention of his father, Justin‟ grip grew harder around his fork and a vein twitch above his left brow. “He said that Grandma Maeve‟s roses are budding beautifully, and that he is steadily breaking in that new knee.” I sent a quick glare in my mother‟s direction, hoping that it would be enough of a hint. But Dawn was persistent. “No, I was talking about Joel.” Justin set his knife and fork down on his plate. “Who is this…Joel?” His eyes fastened on me, challenging me to stay silent. But I was too afraid not to back down. “He‟s just a boy I befriended before leaving for New York. We just started talking…and things just kind of…hit off…” My father‟s already humorless face grew even harder. His eyebrow arched high on his forehead and his blue eyes continued to burn in ferocity while his mouth condensed to a thin, straight line across his steeled muzzle. In a previous life he could have worked for Eliot Ness as an interrogator. He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the table. “How exactly,” Justin weaved his words ever so carefully, “did these things „hit off‟?” “He asked me if I would go out with him…and…” I spoke as tentatively as I could, “I said yes.” In a split second, Joel Karras had unofficially become public enemy number one. And I was not too far behind him. “I‟m very disappointed in you, Madeleine Marie.”


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“Justin!” my mom began to protest, but was harshly silenced by a condescending growl and glare from her husband before he reverted his eyes back to me. “And what, pray tell, possessed you to do something so stupid?” My father‟s lectures always made me feel like a child with below average intelligence. “Dad, he‟s a really nice guy –” “That may be so, but I don‟t know him. As of this moment, all I know is that his name is Joel and he attends your high school. But what is his last name? Who are his parents? What are his interests? What are his plans for college? Who are his friends? Do you even know the answers to these questions after knowing him for little more than a week?” “God, Dad, why don‟t you just make up a résumé for him to fill out and get back to me after the reviewing process?” “That can be arranged!” His tone of voice pierced my eardrums like sharp talons. All I could think about was escaping that livid stare that came at me from across the empty spaghetti bowl. I turned to my mother. “May I please be excused?” “No, you may not! We are not finished discussing this, little girl!” His lofty choice of tone and words made me bristle. Was I not allowed to have a say on matters concerning my own life? Jumping to my feet, I slammed my palms down on top of the chipped oak finish of the table. “Maybe you‟re not, but I am. I like Joel and I agreed to go out with him. That‟s it. End of story. I don‟t always have to explain everything to you, Dad!” With one final huff, I dismissed myself from the room. I was determined not to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry.


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Lightning flashed outside my window, the vibration of thunder sent my walls into a quiver, and rain pounded like pebbles against the roof tiles overhead. But as for personal responses, my body jerked violently at the sound of the storm. Flash! Crash! Pitter, patter. I dived deeper into my cocoon of blankets –a sheet, two faded comforters, and a homemade throw. Born during one of the worst blizzards Chicago had seen in decades, it appalled me how easily I became cold. Flash! CRASH! Pitter, patter! “JOEL!” It was as though a traffic jam was taking place inside my chest, the main conflicting components being my heart, lungs, and throat. Joel? In my moment of fear, what could have possessed me to call out for him? What had he done to earn such trust from me? Why didn‟t I cry for Johnny? Or Mick? FLASH! CRASH! PITTER, PATTER! My knees flew up to the wall of my chest while my hands urgently reached for something –anything! –for protection. Nevermind that it was merely a pillow, my instinctive nature quickly


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persuaded my trembling body to cling to the object for dear life. Rotated so that it would fit in groove with my body, the very presence of the pillow was almost enough to redeem the absence of a fellow human. Sadly, the heat and comfort it provided was short lived. Barely above a whisper, the same name slithered once more from my lips. “Joel…” In less than twelve hours I knew that he would be leaving for the Con with Zain and Clinton. Who else was going and what was to happen, I did not know. Yet, as the storm continued to rumble against the outer walls of my bedroom, my mind and body assured me of only one thing: I was going to miss him. Flash. Crash. Pitter, patter.


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EXCHANGES

Joel and my parents exchanged their first words near the entrance of the Dress Barn fitting rooms, where Dawn was busy forcing a number of impending wardrobe choices down my throat. All of a sudden it came back to me, why it was I never desired to be a model. If she could help it, my mom sought to avoid the customary hysteria of August by buying her children‟s school clothes in March. I tried to reassure her that my clothes were still good for another year; me, who lived on three pairs of jeans and four times as many tops. But, somehow, our logics clashed. Then again, when the “United Bank of Dad” unexpectedly decides to open his wallet and donate his credit card to the cause, it is understandable just how high certain people are willing to jump. Just the same, it was not enough to stop me from texting Joel a series of “SOS” messages somewhere in-between the third and seventh outfit. Why not kill two birds with one stone, I thought. To the surprise of the universe, Justin Kinsey managed to swallow his wounded pride long enough to see more than red when he looked at Joel Karras. In the sparing of effort, a discovery was made –of a warm, kindred-sort of way. To be sure, if there was one thing that my boyfriend was obsessed with more than his Xbox and that my father cherished more than books, it was computers; or rather the building and programming efforts put into them.


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By the forced end of their conversation, it was safe to assume that any offense previously taken had been subtly pardoned. Had it not been for my mom, I doubt I would have ever been able to pry Joel away from my father. We were granted leave of one hour, giving my parents enough time to do some shopping of their own; after which, I was to meet them both in the food court. In an attempt to lift our time restraint, Joel offered to give me a ride back to the house; but this would be the one thing that Justin would insistently choose to put his foot down over. Fleeing Dress Barn, Joel and I passed nearly half a dozen stores before we felt safe enough to hold hands. “I missed you,” Joel said smiling down at me, his voice low and tender. “I missed you, too.” I almost didn‟t know what to say. Officially, I had been a girlfriend for no more than four days –a timeframe much too short for me to fully adjust to the situation I had so willingly placed myself in. On top of it all, as I pressed my palm into his and stared up into his trusting face, I could not help but obsess over one specific and elementary scenario: how was I to react if he decided to kiss me? I didn‟t want to be a disappointing girlfriend, although I was not entirely sure as to what that all entailed. After a short while, we found ourselves ambling into yet another clothing store. Both of us, however, were far too distracted with each other to notice a name. Of what little I had taken in, I saw that it mostly catered male attire: plaid and collared button-down shirts, fine cotton sweaters, and Dockers dress pants. Much to the disappointment of the sales clerks, however, our only interest was in finding a quiet and friendly place to talk; and we found such a haven on a


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simple, off-white bench tucked in the back aisles of the store, sandwiched in between racks of clearance-priced sweaters and a section dedicated to seasonal jackets. I was hesitant to go first, but Joel‟s persuasive nudging helped me along. Broadway, Top of the Rock, Strawberry Fields, Ground Zero, Times Square, NBC Headquarters, Chinatown –I made sure to leave nothing out for the sake of my inexperienced audience. I told him about Larry and Quacksley, of how the waddling duo led my troupe fearlessly through the wilds of snowy Manhattan; and, as best as I could, I tried to illustrate for him the spirited speculate that was a New York-styled St. Patrick‟s Day. Also, as I went on in my little review, it donned on me just how many times we shivering thespians made a visit to Starbucks to thaw ourselves numbed bodies; at least three to four times a day. (Even sadder, however, was how the amount of Starbucks cafes that seemed to greatly overshadow the quantity of public bathrooms.) In exchange, Joel shared with me the less cheery details of his weekend at the Con in Memphis. “Clinton tried to kill himself.” To say I was stunned would have been an understatement. It was no secret that I detested Clinton; or perhaps “loathed” was a more justifiable term. That did not mean, however, that I wished him more ill will than life in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison – preferably one that was modeled after Alcatraz. Death by alcohol poisoning, however, even for Clinton Byce, was too grizzly. That was the first time Joel saw me cry. “I‟m sorry,” I sniffled as I wiped away the traces of tears that rolled down my flushed cheeks. I couldn‟t even look at him. „Why?‟ I scolded myself. „Why do I always have to be so damn emotional?‟


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The tense muscles of my left hand unknotted willingly underneath Joel‟s warm touch. “It‟s okay. Everyone cries.” “Yeah, but I don‟t like to cry unless it‟s for a really good reason.” The contemplative meaning behind my words quickly caught up with me. “I mean –” “It‟s okay,” he reassured me. “I know what you…mean…” Joel‟s eyebrows slanted forward towards the bridge of his nose and cautiously he turned to glance over his shoulder. Leaning forward, I followed his stare towards the clearance racks where a starch-collared sales clerk stood staring at our obvious loitering. His unprofessional glare made both of us squirm. “I think we better find another bench,” I half joked. Without a word, Joel rose to his feet and quietly urged me to do the same. Tauntingly, he waved to the clerk as we passed. For future reference, we both agreed that our personal conversations were best held elsewhere.

It was a long walk from one end of the Turtle Creek Mall to the other, the circular track measuring exactly three-quarter of a mile. And, though our time together had come to an end, there was no hurry in Joel‟s step. Everything about him was collectively calm. “I‟m glad we got to see each other today.” The break of silence caught my wandering thoughts, pulling me back into the present. I looked up at him and beamed. “Me, too,” I returned. “Although I must admit to you how strange it feels to think of myself as being in a relationship. This all just seems so sudden to me.”


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“I know what you mean. Friday I came into the computer lab to sort through some of Mrs. Holk‟s old software, see if there was anything I could salvage before she threw it out; but, when I saw you sitting there, I remembered how much fun I had talking to you. So, I told myself to go for it. I never really thought that I‟d ask you out.” “Oh, thanks!” I teased. “No, really…” Something bounced off the side of my sneaker. Stopping mid-step, I looked down and spied a small stuffed rabbit; its stained and frizzy yellow fur looking as though it had experienced one too many tumbles in the washer. “Sorry about that,” came a voice, a father no more than thirty who pushing a double stroller with a child strapped securely in each seat. In one there was a squirming tot, a little girl no more than two. Whimpering, she stretched out her tiny hands in a feeble attempt to retrieve her little friend. But when she realized that she could not reach it, her cries grew louder and tears began to form in the corners of her eyes. Squatting down to the floor, I picked up the rabbit and offered it to the child. Her moist blue eyes blinked back at me in wonder and confusion. “Is this yours, kiddo?” I asked. Looking from my face to the toy, the little girl stretched out her tiny doll-like hands once more and flexed her fingers as though to say “Gimme! Gimme!” “Thank you,” her father offered apologetically on his daughter‟s behalf as she snatched the rabbit back. I nodded to him and waved kindly at the little girl before I watched her and her sibling be wheeled away down the long, crowded hall of department stores.


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Straightening up, I looked over at Joel. The sight of him, however, almost provoked me to take a step back. Oddly, stretched across his lips was a warm and admiring smile and his eyes seemed to glow an even brighter shade of emerald. “What?” “Nothing,” he shrugged, the smile and glow still very much apparent.

For the Dillard‟s department store doors, the additional walk to his truck –a champagne colored, single cab Ford –was hardly a strain. The far parking lot was practically empty; strange for a Sunday. Reaching the truck, Joel unlocked the passenger door and reached inside, behind the seat, for that same ratty black backpack he carried into the computer lab over a week ago. Unzipping it, he dove in with both hands and pulled out a small number of items: mint conditioned action figures of Tidus and Zidane from the Final Fantasy franchise, and an authentically imported Japanese soundtrack for the original Final Fantasy game. “These are for you.” I accepted each of them with schooled graciousness; but, not too far below the surface, the urge to gag was mildly fizzing. Joel threw the backpack back behind the seat and closed the truck door. Hugging his gifts against my chest, I followed him around to the driver‟s side. “Thank you, Joel,” I said, hoping that I sounded convincing. “You‟re welcome. I just hope you like them.” “I do. Thank you.” Although my words were not entirely heartfelt, I did have to admit: it strangely meant a lot that Joel was willing to share something as unique as his “nerdy-ness” with


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me; not to mention that he had been willing to spend money for me in order to do. Not many people were willing to do that. Any of it. “You know, Joel, for once I think I‟m actually looking forward to Monday.” “Me, too,” he said, stopping just shy of the door as he turned around to face me. But before I could begin to think of something else to say, something else that would forgo the gloomy exchange of “goodbye”, Joel leaned down. I remember the tips of our noses brushing just before flesh met flesh and his large hands humanely clasped my upper arms as he initiated my lips into a kiss. For a moment, I could have sworn that I lost all feeling to and from my toes. After a suspenseful prolog of motionless contact, I was at last able to force my body to take a step back. At first, I could do little more than stare at him. Joel dropped his arms to his side, confusion vividly etched across his face. “Are you okay?” “Yeah, I‟m fine. It‟s just…” I ran the tips of my fingers over my slightly parted mouth. The flesh tingled in memory of his touch. “I just wasn‟t really expecting you to kiss me. At least, not so soon.” “I thought you wanted me to kiss you.” The worry in his voice began to reflect in his eyes. “No, I did! I really did!” I watched as his head began to droop towards the ground. “It‟s just…” Swayed by my panic, not sparing the provoked impulse a second thought, I regained my previous step and hurriedly mimicked Joel‟s assertive actions; although, due to my own lack in height, there were a few slight variations to be made…


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MONDAY

I didn‟t know what to expect when I came to school that Monday morning. As always, I was half asleep and sarcastically ecstatic to start the day off with my two least favorite subjects: Geometry and Chemistry. Arriving ten minutes before the first bell, I had just enough time to drop into the junior high English department to see Adrienne. Her mother being a teacher gave us the luxury of having an entire classroom to ourselves, if only just before school and shortly after. Often those were the only times during the day, aside from lunch, when we could socialize. When the five-minute warning bell rang, Adrienne and I each went our separate ways. The first half of the day crept by with the adrenaline of a snail. By the time fourth period had come and gone, my drowsiness had worn off; but my overall disposition still lacked the appropriate amount of enthusiasm needed to be “sunny.” My hardest classes were over, with the three moderates saved for last. However, next came lunch –the one phase of the day I dreaded most. And while I could clearly hear the pathetic gurgling from inside my stomach –my small teaspoon of peanut butter having long since run out –I was still more than willing to go without if only it would have saved me from listening to yet another vulgar rhapsody conducted by the oneslut-symphony of Faye Kirkland, who had only recently lost her virginity to her “repentant” exboyfriend. I had no reason to feel guilty about avoiding Faye, especially since Adrienne had decided to spend her lunch period hiding in the high school darkroom to develop her film reel.


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I had been left with only one reliable and obvious alternative: the library. But I did not make it far down the bustling corridor before a certain familiar face appeared in all its affable yet towering glory above the crowd. It was the first time Joel and I had crossed paths all day. Even in a school where the grades were intermixed, the probability of running into him was literally one in three hundred ninety-six. Maybe I just had a lucky horoscope that day…

“I can take you home, if you want.” There was no question as to whether or not I wanted to accept a ride “home” with Joel. After our little lunchtime tête-à-tête beneath the oak tree centerpiece of the school‟s courtyard, sharing a bagel-sized pepperoni pizza from the Grab-‟n-Go snack bar, a chauffeured drive seemed perhaps the best icing to top the cake with. My only concern, however, was my sister. How was she going to react? From around the corner of the junior high building, I kept an out for Peyton. When I spotted her walking gruffly towards the last bus in the curbside line, I rushed over and pulled her aside from the crowd. As out of place as the act was for me, I forced on her the most assertive voice I could muster; of which, disappointingly, did not result in much more than, “Hey, I‟m going to get a ride back to the house with Joel, okay?” More or less, I had at least expected a harsh blow of words; or even a painful dueling of the eyes. And yet, by some powerful shift in the space time continuum, Peyton had somehow managed to refrain from making any sort of sour scene. But instead, however, she still found it necessary to throw a cold stare over my shoulder –toward Joel. For what reasons exactly, I did


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not feel safe in asking. Peyton possessed a logic that did not always –almost never –mesh with mine. The roar of a half dozen combustion engines revved across the oval drive, one right after the other, while various cheers sounded throughout the caravan of school buses. Without a word, Peyton turned away and walked towards her –our –assigned bus. Her feet stomped up the steps as she went; the glass door slid into place behind her. “Your sister didn‟t seem too thrilled with the idea.” Joel had been so quiet up till then that I had almost forgotten that he was there. “Are you sure this will be okay? She won‟t try to get you in trouble with your parents, will she?” I shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. But as long as I get back to the house before or soon after she does, we might be okay.”

By car, the route Joel and I used to reach our houses was almost identical: take a right from the student parking lot onto Wynne Mill Road; travel a mile up the road and make a left on to Mount Carmel; weave across a half mile of curves before turning onto Craigend Forest Trail; and, finally, bounce up and down over a pair of steep hills before coming to a halt in front of the overshadowed stop sign at the intersection point of South Summitridge. From there our paths would become divided: a swift turn to the right and a half mile roll would have taken us almost directly to the shrub guarded mouth of my serpent winding driveway; but a swing to the left would have led us down a road that would eventually meet with the highway that ran through town, yet not before pieces of it broke off into little subsections –little neighborhoods. As overjoyed as I was to have been offered an alternative ride to that of an overcrowded school bus, my mind still reeled over the numerous probable outcomes of my not making it back


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to the house on time. And my uneasiness only continued to brew once I realized that the path Joel‟s truck was headed down was not my own. “My friend Truitt wanted me to stop by his house and drop off some things.” He had never mentioned a detour before. “Is that alright with you?” My mind and jaw instantly became locked in debate: Was I purposely willing to risk the rage of two potentially misinformed parents by deliberately delaying my arrival before that of my begrudging sibling? The neon numbers that reflected back at me from the dashboard radio was enough to reassure me of my available flexibility. Four o‟clock was the latest I could have chanced staying out. With twenty-three minutes to spare, and the apparent disadvantage of being the passenger instead of the driver, what more could I have done than give my consent? Joel‟s truck easily made veer to the left, and on it went down South Summitridge –past patches of forest and an isolated garden center. As many times as I had traveled down the road before, to go to grocery store or to visit my brothers‟ shop, I could have driven its moderate in my sleep. And yet, that afternoon, it felt abnormally, if not intolerably, longer. I began to fear that the dreaded hour would arrive long before we would reach the end. My fingernails stabbed into the base of my praying knuckles. Sounds of the oncoming feeder road, however, aptly replaced the excited hammering of my heart within my ears and I breathed in relief as my companion‟s experienced hands guided the vehicle into the center lane, flipping the left turn signal into action. The entrance to Morningview Drive was framed with accents of timber and leaves with a welded iron sign swinging stiffly from a pair of weathered chains at the neck of lamppost. Rotating the truck‟s wheels swiftly across the opposing lane of traffic and on past the threshold


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of green, a determined thrust was forced upon the accelerator and Joel‟s grip grew stronger around the steering wheel; it was a precaution that came in handy, I thought, as the path grew curvier and steep. Up and up we climbed until we could no more. At the peak of the hill, Joel gently eased his foot onto the brakes. In front of us sat a small, one-story house; Truitt‟s house, I presumed. But of what I could make of it, from the darkened windows and the empty driveway, no one was home. Joel‟s calm attitude towards the scene, however, struck me as being suspicious. He had gone out of his way for Truitt, and his friend wasn‟t even home to meet him. Why wasn‟t Joel the least bit frustrated by this? “So, you wanna see my house?” A small chorus of bells and whistles sounded off within my brain. It was all a ploy –the ride from school, the errand for Truitt. „Or am I just being paranoid?‟ I thought to myself. It was during times such as this that I wished I didn‟t have such a vivid imagination; that I didn‟t know about the horrible things that teenage boys were capable of doing to a defenseless girl. Was I really so willing to find out for myself if Joel was one those types? The truck‟s gear was shifted into reverse long enough to clear a neighboring driveway before being put back into drive. Rolling down the blacktop path, Joel rotated the steering wheel in the direction of a worn dirt patch, opposite of the closed garage and beneath two towering birch trees. The gearshift was slid into park. “Do you wanna come inside for a little bit?” I swallowed thickly. “S-sure.”


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The engine was cut off and the keys were extracted from the ignition. One after the other, the truck doors swung open and shut. I followed Joel to the garage. “Won‟t your parents mind that you brought a girl home without their permission?” “Maybe,” Joel shrugged his shoulders as he lazily decoded the door‟s keypad, “but I wouldn‟t worry. Neither of them get off work until four-thirty.” The garage door rolled upward and I hesitantly followed in behind him. With each step I took the same thought jumped around like a pinball in my mind: „I‟m going to be alone…in a house…with Joel?!‟ Shivers erupted along the bow of my spine, playing my vertebras like a xylophone. Joel stopped along the innermost wall and twisted a brass knob, which in turn opened a plain beige door into the house. Strutting in across the tiled floor, he acted unaffected by his change in surroundings. The same, however, could not have been said for me, who was instantly ambushed and enveloped by a lavender-fragranced chill. As my eyes adjusted to the shadows, I almost chocked on my breath as I took in the sight of an immaculately white laundry room –an image I thought could never exist outside of Better Homes and Garden Magazine. The presence of Joel‟s hand on the small of my back directed me out of the room and deeper into the humble dwelling. From what I was able to tell from such a brief glance, there was one hallway that adjoined all the rooms in the house. In continuance of the tour, I allowed my host to lead me down the darker half of the paneled tunnel. Along the way, we passed a bathroom and two bedrooms; one of which belonged to Joel. My room at „home‟ was sparse compared to his, at least in regard of clutter. Pieces of software and installation manuals were strung confusingly across the top of his window lit desk while several mangled issues of Computer Shopper Magazine were stacked up against it on the


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floor. Scattered across his dresser were several random items: an abandoned deck of cards, a bottle of Axe cologne, neatly folded socks and…other things (of which he quickly tucked away in a drawer), and an unfinished model of an Air Force fighter jet. And unlike me, Joel‟s choices of literature and music were restricted to but a few: C.S. Lewis‟ The Chronicles of Narnia and Weezer, a contemporary band I had never heard of. “…Meow…” A furry little creature poked its curious whiskers around the corner of the doorframe. “Hey, Leon,” Joel called to it in a friendly tone. “Come over here. I want you to meet someone.” Leon the Cat‟s butterscotch tail thumped against the wood of the frame as he darted around and pranced off in the opposite direction. “Leon!” Joel trotted down the hall after him. I followed both of them out of the room, though at a much saunter-like pace –my hand sliding leisurely against the wood paneling of the wall. Without purpose, I stumbled upon the dining room and the kitchen area. Built off of the hallway, one next to the other, such a discovery was almost inevitable. I passed through with quiet interest. Much like the laundry room, everything in the dining area was neat to anal perfection. Against the wall upon first entering rested a wine cabinet with at least a dozen gold-framed portraits spread across its top. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends –I could only imagine the importance of each person in the photographs. Their faces I could make out perfectly with the help of the sunlight that poured in through the glass doors behind me. Afraid to leave a


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blemish, I made sure not to touch anything. Even the trimmed stack of coupons at the head of the polished mahogany table, set in the middle of the room, appeared too fragile for my hands. Save for the opened box of Reese‟s Puff Cereal at the edge of the counter and the empty bowl in the sink, the kitchen was just as clean. The scent of bleach on the countertops and the lemony tang of Pine-Sol from the tiles beneath my shoes strongly invaded my nostrils. Appliances were as scarce to the eye as decorations were abundant. Wallpaper, towels, carpet mats, and coffee cups –all bared the still-life theme of fruits and vegetables. Spices were sorted in order by name and cookbooks by size, all above or next to the stove. I couldn‟t help but giggle at the thought of Mrs. Karras studying home economics under June Cleaver. Out of the corner of my eye, something else caught my attention: a lone door set off to the side of the room. Just by appearance, I didn‟t know exactly what to make of it. Basements were a common household feature in Wynnesboro; and yet, I speculated, it could have also been a pantry closet. Gradually, my curiosity got the better of me. I placed my hand on the knob of the door, ready to turn. “…Meow…” My hand jumped back and my eyes searched for the source of the sound. From around the corner of the wall appeared a second quartet of paws, stormy gray and confident in step. A pair of lucid yellow eyes perked up at the sight of me, intrigued; but unlike Leon, this feline‟s attitude towards strangers was anything but skittish. It crept forward on the stealth of its paws, its head bent low and its nose twitched for a betrayal of scent. Fluid like molasses was its steps; cautious by nature yet trusting with age. And then, without warning, the silver haired cat tucked in its hind legs and planted itself in the middle of the mysterious door, its long and finely groomed tail swishing lightly over the surface of the linoleum floor.


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“I see you‟ve met Belle.” Joel walked up and leaned against the outer wall of the kitchen. Leon the Scaredy Cat was tucked against his chest. “Unlike this little guy here,” he chuckled, scratching the fur under Leon‟s chin, “she actually has manners –OW!” Obviously Leon did not appreciate Joel‟s comment. “And she doesn‟t bite the hand that feeds her!” “Are you okay?” Worried, I reached for his wounded appendage. “Yeah, I‟m fine,” his face twisted into a pout. “He didn‟t draw any blood. But I guess it‟s safe to say that he doesn‟t want to be held anymore.” Stepping over Belle, Joel reached for the same knob from before and opened the door with ease. My intrigue was quenched; I had discovered the Karras‟ basement. Setting him down at the top of the staircase, Leon‟s nails barely scraped against the wooden step before he scampered off in search of a better hideaway. Shifting aside, Belle didn‟t need much more of an invitation before she scuttled down the path after her companion. Joel closed the door behind her. “O-kay.” Joel clapped his palms together and slid them each into a denim pocket. “I guess since you‟ve already found the dining room and kitchen, I can go ahead and show you the living room.” There was nothing I had seen before then that had compared in grandeur. Built off the far end of the house, the room itself measured double the width of the kitchen while matching in equivalence to the length of the hallway. One of the few carpeted rooms in the house, the wall color was most likely chosen for its resemblance to the cream shade of the floor. A single gold chandelier dangled above our heads; and aligned with the center of the room, molded into the


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texture of the wall, was a fireplace built of sandy brick. Practically everything in the room seemed to revolve around the fireplace: a monstrous entertainment center, two beige patterned couches, a brown leather recliner, a mahogany coffee table with matching end tables, a Tiffany lamp, and a – The wind in my upper body evaporated, the muscle in my chest nearly exploding like a bottle rocket. In the corner, aglow with a heavenly spotlight, sat the magnificent structure of a vintage, upright Bösendorfer piano; possibly a family heirloom. A Mozart concerto resting on the music stand only accented its beauty. Johnny‟s passion for music taught me how to appreciate such things. “Are you alright, Madeleine?” The concerned cord in Joel‟s voice woke me from my awed trance. “Yeah. I‟m fine.” I schooled my composure, but my eyes remained fixed on the well-kept instrument. “Do you play the piano, Joel?” The carpet shifted behind me as a pair of long, skinny arms circled my waist and a warm mouth nuzzled my ear. “No. Mom does, but I don‟t.” I could feel him inhale, deep, as his fingers knot together atop of my sloshing stomach. “I tried to learn once, but I was never really good at it.” The stiffened muscles of my back adjusted to the softness of his touch, grinding only slightly as I diffidently leaned back into the frame of Joel‟s chest while my fingers weakly grasped for his arms. Inside, I was trembling with discomfiture. As I saw it, I was only seventeen; inexperienced, curious, baffled, and terrified. That pretty much summed it up, respectively. “Do you play?”


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For a moment, I was confused as to the motive behind his question. “A little; but my older brother, Johnny, is the musician in the family. And besides, my dad doesn‟t like a lot of noise around the house.” Were Johnny there, I could only imagine how much his fingers would have itched to slide along the slick surface of the ivory keys; to stir a melody from the lifeless chords stretched beneath the dark veneered lid. The extra weight draped across my midriff grew lax. “You wanna sit down for a second?” My Jell-O legs gave an answer before my mouth was able to, my body collapsing into the plush material of the nearest sofa. Joel followed shortly after, his eyes never leaving my face. I began to fidget with the lower lining of my t-shirt and randomly spout words, trying to divert him with conversation. Joel humored me at first, contributing a few words here and there; but then he chose to break the ice by his own method. Grasping the sides of my face, Joel swooped in and intensely seized my lips with his. The tip of his tongue glided along the parting of my mouth, pleading for entrance; but I didn‟t move, in fear that I might encourage him. Straying from my lips, he led a path of kisses down my chin, across my jaw line, and down the curve of my neck to the collar of my shirt. “Uh, um…Joel…?” Frissons of panic and pleasure raced parallel along the disks of my spine. Joel went on with his attentions as though he hadn‟t heard me; his kisses along my throat turning wet. „Stop, please!‟ a voice pleaded inside my head. „We‟re moving too fast! You‟re scaring me!‟


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“Joel…!” I shoved myself out of his hold, my lungs fighting to catch up with my racing arteries. “Are you alright?” An involuntary flinch flickered through me as he reached out to take my hands out into his; but Joel did not pull away. Words swarm around in my head like frightened fish in an ocean of chaos. Try as I could, the right catch continued to slip through my fingers; as though taunting me. “Yes –I mean, no!...I mean…It-it‟s not that I regret kissing you…it‟s just…” The look of confusion on his face was understandable, as well as was his following reaction. “Yesterday, was that your first kiss?” I considered lying to him, to save myself from the potential embarrassment on more than one level; but I didn‟t. I mean, it wasn‟t as though I had planned to kiss Mick! I was thirteen then, hormonally charged and prone to brief moments of insanity. Only one other person in the world, besides Mick and I, knew about the incident; and Johnny swore that he would take it to the grave. “Sorry, no,” I said, although withholding certain tidbits of information. “It‟s just…I don‟t really know…how to kiss…” I couldn‟t bring myself to look at him. “You act as though you‟ve done something wrong.” Still holding my hands, Joel caresses my knuckled with the print of his thumbs. His reactions were proof enough for me that there was still so much I needed to learn about Joel: his habits, his thoughts, his strengths, his weaknesses. However, the way to go about it, I admit, was not always clear.


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“Will you teach me?” I asked timidly, looking up at him. “How to kiss, I mean.” After what had happened before, I almost couldn‟t believe what I was saying. But, in a way, I felt as though I owed it to Joel to take such a bold step. He had been so understanding, so patient with me. And, after all, was not “making out” an essential part of modern-day courtship? “Well, um…ahem…” Joel looked down at the ground as though to recollect his words, a practice I was all too familiar with. His lips moved, but nothing came out. He inhaled deeply through his wide nostrils, and our eyes met once more. “I don‟t really know if I can.” Outright, I would admit that wasn‟t entirely convinced by his words. If anything, it was the sharpness in his kiss that had betrayed him. “All I can really say is we close our eyes, touch, and…just let everything else go.” “Oh. Okay.” Without a doubt, Joel Karras was the worst mentor I had ever encountered. Taking a deep breath, I carefully leaned my upper body in closer to his; my eyelids slipped lower with every inch that our faces drew nearer. I brushed my lips timidly against the surface of his; and, instantaneously, Joel replied in a manner much more disciplined than before. The four main fingers of his left hand curved around the side of my neck, his thumb stroking my cheek, while his right hand snaked around my waist to settle just below my shoulder blades. Our lips glided against each another at first before further invitation was added to the equation. The smallest parting of my mouth was all that was needed to grant Joel the access he sought, his tongue slipping in through the opening and invading my hollow cavity. My instinctive reaction was to push him back out, but the assertion of pressure on the back of my head foiled any such response. My hands grasped at the cotton fibers of Joel‟s shirt, at first to push him away; but the hurricane of fire he ignited in my belly persuaded me differently. Running my fingers along the build of his chest, I permitted myself in becoming acquainted with the fundamentals of the so-


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called “French kiss.” My jaw grew loose and my tongue adventurous, both breaking their restraints and – A loud chime gonged from the timepiece hanging above our heads; one extensive melody followed by four precise and brief rings, signaling the hour. “Oh my God…!” Both of us leapt off of the couch and blitzed out of the house through the opened garage, almost forgetting to close it along the way. Throwing ourselves into the truck, Joel quickly jammed the key into the ignition and maneuvered the vehicle around in the appropriate direction. Out of the driveway, down the crooked hill path, through the neighborhood entrance, and up South Summitridge we sped. The seatbelt being the only restraint that kept me from falling out of my seat, I tried to hold my fidgeting limbs still whilst watching the white line blur on the side of the road. I had hoped that the distraction would make the time seem short; but the ride only stretched on. And on… and on… and on… “Is this it?” I followed the direction of Joel‟s nod towards a red-bricked pillar entrance at the end of a rocky trail marked by the brass numbers of four, five, zero, and nine. “Yeah! Just pull up! Don‟t worry about going down the driveway!” As the vehicle came to a stop, I threw a hasty but sincere word of gratitude his way and hurriedly jerked open the side door. “Hey!” A powerful yank on the strap of my bag forced me to stop and whip my head back around. “I‟ll see you tomorrow,” Joel said, flashing a nervous smirk. “Okay. I‟ll see you then.” I sprang my exit from the truck –“Thanks again for everything!” –and slammed the door behind me.


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Deviating from the gravel trail, I challenged the forces of gravity as I flew down the grassy slope and up the clover patched hill to the concrete slab of my front porch. As I jiggled through the side pocket of my bag for my key, the front door was thrown open and a high pitched voice screamed in my face. “You are in so much trouble!�


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TROUBLE ENSUES

Yes, I was in trouble; but only to a minor extent. Peyton may have succeeded in preventing any future after-school rendezvousing, but her influence had only so much impact on my interactions with Joel. True to his word, I did see him at school the following day. First thing in the morning; he did not waste any time. Arriving later than usual, yet still well enough before the first bell, a pair of converse sneakers jogged over to me from across the Commons. “Hey.” I did not look up until I realized that there was a heavy weight on my shoulder. “Are you alright? Did you get in any trouble?” It took a moment before I was able to sort through my grogginess before I was able to follow his line of questioning. “Oh, yeah, it‟s okay. Everything‟s fine.” I slid my palm up and down the side of his draping arm. “Just, um, all unexpected outings have been suspended until further notice.” “Are your parents angry with me? Are they still gonna let us hang out?” “They haven‟t said anything about that, so don‟t worry so much. They really like you, Joel.” “Yeah?” The corners of his mouth twitched upward while his tensed shoulders began to relax. “Yeah. I‟m sure of it.” Rurrrrrrrrk!


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The bell buzzed and the crowds dispersed. The countdown had begun: five minutes until the starting of classes. Joel‟s hand slid off my shoulder and lightly brushed against the skin of my upper arm. “So I guess I‟ll see you at lunch.” As he turned around, he waved and called back over his shoulder, “Try to stay out of trouble until then, okay?” I could hear the vibrations of laughter in his voice even as he walked away. As much as I wanted to physically retaliate, I settled for the verbal approach: “I should say the same to you!” He twisted back around and sent me a mock salute through the air.

“Attention: All juniors please go to the library for Career Day scheduling,” came a scratchy voice over the intercom. Career Day was an annual privilege very few students looked forward to, despite our instructors‟ constant harping on the importance of choices and the pursuing of a meaningful occupation. The only virtue it seemed to offer was the ability to eliminate an entire afternoon of classes. But how easy was this for my classmates to forget as they slid down –further –into their desks, groaning and muttering in disgust. “Gah, this is a bogus load of shit!” mumbled the Daisy Duke sitting behind me. Several other remarks, similar in frankness, sounded off all over the classroom. „Finally, something we agree on!‟ I limited such a revelation to the boundaries of my subconscious. At least the scheduling process alone, however, was enough to deliver me from yet another drool-oozing Chemistry lecture.


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Following the herd down the bare, white hallways of stone and tile, I moseyed along as sluggish and absentminded as possible –not caring if I made it back to class in time for the bell. In the disappointing reality of the situation, I was able to struggle well enough through Chemistry without the assistance of the instructor. Hands in the front pockets of my jeans and eyes glued to the knotted laces on my feet, I trusted habit alone to lead me faithfully to my destination. “Madeleine!” Feet coming to a stop and eyes jumping up, nothing could have disputed the expression of bafflement that undoubtedly crossed my face at the sight of who it was that was leaning against the outer wall of the library, staring back at me. Although knowing each other from Mrs. Pferson‟s art class the year before, I admit that my relationship with Britni Li was not very concrete. That being said, while I liked to think that we shared a mutual respect for each other‟s talents and intelligence, there was virtually no reason –I thought –for her to choose so randomly to wait around for me as she was. The extra weight around Britni‟s midsection jiggled a bit as she walked toward me and slipping a neatly folded piece of notebook paper into the palm of my hand as soon as we were in close enough contact. “A certain someone asked me to give this to you,” she said in a sing-song voice, winking at me before she padded off down the hall in her brightly painted sneakers. Looking at it for a moment, the little makeshift parcel in my hand, I carefully began to unfold bit by bit. Written on the inner flap in a familiar masculine cursive was a short list: court reporter, lawyer, DJ, nurse, and firefighter. Their order was specific, the time table exact. And written directly underneath it all was a more personal string of words:


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Everything’s taken care of. I can’t wait to see you on Thursday! My mom will be home in time to meet us after school then too, and she says that she looks forward to meeting you. I’ll see you later! Joel

“Oh, crap.” As though Thursday didn‟t come with enough baggage as is.

***

Thursday, Career Day, unfortunately proved to be more torturous than originally predicted. Of the five guest speakers I had down on my schedule –the court reporter, lawyer, DJ, nurse, and firefighter –not one of them offered much of interest. Although it was clear that these white and blue collared workers enjoyed their professions, each one gave a weak sales pitch – offering atrocious public speaking skills along with weak visuals and demonstrations. To find one who rose above both these misfortunes proved painfully difficult. At the end of the day, not even Adrienne –as open-minded as she was –had many encouraging or insightful things to say.

“I love you.” My Skechers made an awful sound as they slammed down on the tiled floor, my feet weighing like concrete. My heart and lungs orchestrated a mutiny against the rest of my body as


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they worked together to absorb any and all oxygen that followed through my veins while my stomach bounced vigorously like a basketball off the lining of my liver and pancreas. We had only just finished our session with the emergency room nurse from Saint Bartholomew‟s, leaving us with only a small amount of time to pass from one classroom to another for our next, and final, appointment for the day. But then, there proved to be more excitement within those five minutes than there had been all day. “Y-you do?” I stammered, inwardly astonished that I had managed to say anything at all. That broad and beautiful smile of his stretched adoringly across Joel‟s face in perfectly symmetrical portions. His eyes shined vibrantly with that same eluding emotion I had seen only days before whilst his head bobbled up and down fanatically. My guilt only became worse as each silent second ticked by at such an ear ringing volume.


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MICK

“It‟s not going to last.” Adrienne was the first person I had confided in about what had happened, about what Joel had said. Spread out lazily across the courtyard lawn, the blades of grass tickling the bare skin of our arms and feet, we gazed dreamingly up at the clouds as they floating by. “At our age,” she said, “it‟s been psychologically proven that our brains are not fully mature enough to make such decisions. As such, that leaves just enough room for our hormones to run amuck.” I couldn‟t argue with Adrienne‟s logic. And even if I could have, after what I had done little more than an hour before, I no longer thought myself right enough in the head to raise a debate. Shrewdness. That was Adrienne Rhyan down to a T. In truth, I was half envious yet half unnerved by this quality that she possessed. As best I could explain, it never made sense to me how someone who had led a more sheltered life could possibly make me feel so inferior. And yet, it was because of this envied sophistication that I valued her opinion so. “And also…” “What?” I had always hated it when people never completed their thoughts.


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Adrienne reached for my wrist and squeezed. “Because I‟m your friend, all I can say is this,” I turned my head to look at her and our eyes met, “Butterfly wings are the easiest to break, and mountains are the hardest to move.” I could feel my eyebrows scrunched together towards my nose. “What exactly are you trying to say, Adrienne?” Her hand released me and slid down into the cool, soft ground while her amber irises resettled on a cloud suspending overhead. Neither of us spoke; neither of us moved. As frustrating an act as it was, such was Adrienne‟s way of changing the subject. “Weren‟t you two planning on going over to Joel‟s house after school?” She plucked a freshly budded dandelion from its stem and twirled it between her thumb and index finger –her eyes still avoiding contact with mine. “Yeah, we were.” My head collapsed onto its awaiting green pillow. “His mom texted him during our last session and told him that she had to attend a last minute meeting at the hospital and that she may not be home until late.” “Is it because of that that you sound so disappointed?” “No.” A chilling breeze passed through the courtyard, the last remnant of a dying winter. Instinctively, my arms came up to fold across my chest and my fingers grasped at the flesh in a vain effort to hold on to what little warmth I had. “Then why?” Adrienne pressed. “It‟s because…” I hesitated, my two front teeth dug into the chapped surface of my bottom lip. “It‟s because I wanted it to happen that I‟m so disappointed.”


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There was a rustling in the grass beside me just before my view of the sky became eclipsed with that of a familiar face peering quizzically down at me. I was boxed in, an arm positioned on either side of my head. “I‟m not sure I follow,” Adrienne said. “Explain.” I took a deep breath. “For the longest time, Johnny and Mick were all the reassurance I needed to know that I was loved. I never had to second-guess, never had the need to go looking anywhere else. But ever since Johnny left, I have felt as though my security blanket is unraveling. With Johnny gone, it feels as though my entire life has turned into a pathetic reenactment of The Little Match Girl. To be honest, I just don‟t know if I can truly handle one more person coming into my life. Not right now.” Adrienne nodded, her eyes reflecting soft shades of sympathy and understanding. “You‟re afraid of being left behind again, and rightfully so.” “It‟s not just that. I mean…after all that had happened with Lucas…I‟m just so ashamed! I don‟t feel as though I deserve any of Joel‟s affections. Frankly, for him to like me as much as he claims he does, I‟m starting to think he has brain damage or something.” For the longest time, Adrienne didn‟t say a word; nor did she attempt to move from her overhanging position. Instead, her eyes only continued to scan every blessed inch of my face as though searching for something. I could only stare back at her. At last, my friend found her voice again. “What does Mick have to say about all of this?” I felt a pang of guilt stab me in my already bruised heart.

I didn‟t want to go back to the house just yet. Instead, I asked Adrienne to stop her mother‟s BMW just a mile short of my driveway; along the tree-lined crossroads of Summitridge and the


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primitively developed Forest Hill Path. Having a fair idea as to where it was I was going, she offered to take me the rest of the way; but I politely refused. “It‟s my favorite walk.”

Built in a clearing, surrounded by a concealing perimeter of rugged woodland, was a lone timber structure of two-story height. It‟s well kept exterior looked more urban than cabin with its wraparound porch, white outer paneling and framing, and evergreen-hued shudders. In front of the garage, a quaint little building erected separate from the house, was parked a vintage Ford truck– Old Blue, as it was appropriately christened. Its chipped and faded blue paint clashed harshly with the shiny chrome of the 2000 Indian Chief tucked carefully inside the shade of the car port that had been built on to the outdoor workshop. Only the truck appeared to have been moved since my last visit. Sprawled across the welcome mat at the top of the porch steps, his belly facing outward, was a full grown Nordic Spitz with discolored feet and splotches of numerous paints on his dense but soft white and brown-patched fur. Alerted by the crunching of grass and sticks beneath the weight of heavy rubber soles, the Spitz immediately cocked his head in response; his ear and a half perked up while his chocolate eyes turned watchful for the intruder closing in. “Hey, VanGogh!” Paws scrapping against the deck planks, VanGogh leapt over the short stack of stairs and scuttled down the yard with his tail wagging spiritedly from side to side. As was more or less anticipated, as soon as I sank into a crouching stance, VanGogh could hardly refrain from tackling me to the ground and shamelessly bathing me in canine affection. I raised my arms to


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shield myself from his wet nose and tongue, all the while laughing at him to stop as I rolled about in the wild green. At last calming down, he settled for sniffing at my tousled hair. Climbing to my feet, I brushed leaves of grass off my mangled clothing. “Where‟s Mick?” I asked him. It was a game we often played, being a twisted variation of Fetch! and Where’s Waldo? “Arf!” First pawing at the ground before circling me twice, in sort of herding manner, VanGogh grasped a hold of my denim jacket between his front teeth and tugged eagerly toward the house. Tapping his muzzle lightly, he quickly let go of me before running back up the yard and the porch steps, expertly nudging open the screen door and slipping in through the suffocating gap. Trotting close behind him, I caught hold of the door just before it slammed. Stepping into the entryway, I was left feeling more impressed than disturbed by the method of greeting I received. Canvas upon canvas, each of an assorted size, aligned the oak baseboards from the front hall to the upstairs banister; their themes and composition emphasized the artist‟s fascination with the boisterousness of color and shape that could only be achieved through the fauvism and cubism styles. Or at least in the way that they were each portrayed through the mastery strokes of Andre Derain and Pablo Picasso, respectively. (Both Johnny and Mick had stoked my appreciation for the classical arts.) Left on his own, it was apparent how much Mick‟s craft was capable of possessing him. Empty paint canisters and broken paintbrushes littered the makeshift newspaper-lined walkway from the front door to the dining room. I treaded warily over and around them, both the paintings and the debris, on my way to the kitchen.


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Hundreds of brown nuggets were scattered across the tile floor in front of the dishwasher; VanGogh having knocked over his plastic bin of kibble in an attempt to feed himself. Styrofoam and cardboard castles of carryout boxes occupied the sticky countertops while discarded coffee mugs and used paint palettes clogged the pasty dish drain. The entire scene appeared drained of sanity; my former admiration digressing into concern. An excited yip attracted my attention further toward the back of the house, near the sunroom –a small peninsula of wooden floors surrounded by walls of clear glass built off of the breakfast nook; or, as it was more commonly used as, Mick‟s studio. I watched as VanGogh jumped up onto his haunches and scuffed restlessly at the sliding door that opened into the studio, wining. Striding over and peering through the glass, I sighed and shook my head. Slumped over onto his worktable with his head of scruffy blonde hair resting against the fold of his arm, the unmistakable and modestly built shoulders of one Mikael Lonnqvist moved up and down to a steady, reassuring tempo. Within his large, charcoal stained hand, he clutched a dull sketching pencil. Gingerly, I slid the door open and stepped inside –breaching the divide. A stern word and look kept VanGogh from following me. Retrieving a tattered blanket from a basket out of the corner of the room, I spread the thin material across Mick‟s back. I let my touch linger against his back for a moment before creeping back into the kitchen. Despite the harmless scolding I knew it would earn me once min broder woke up, I removed the dustpan and broom from the pantry closet and began my “chores.” I swept up the dog food from the linoleum kitchen floor and packed the semi-empty food containers into a large trash bag. Pouring cup after cup of half-drunk tea and coffee down the drain, I stacked the dirty


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cups into the dishwasher and began to scrub stoutly at the oily gunk that caked the laminate countertops. Three chipped fingernails later, I was at last able to move on to something of greater importance: emptying out the refrigerator. The milk was a week sour, and many of the leftovers had cultivated a fuzzy outer cover. After disinterring so many lost causes, I finally gave into the pleas of my roiling stomach and chucked everything and anything that was not of prepackaged origin or was without a printed expiration date. When I had finished, the only things left to occupy the shelves was a bottle of ketchup, a jar of grape jam, and half a dozen Smirnoff wine coolers. It was The Grapes of Wrath all over again! So depressing was the sight, in fact, there was no relief to be found until after the door was closed. That was the first time I had noticed the letter, attached to the outside of the refrigerator by a Snoopy magnet. At first I thought it was a bill, but then I began to read farther than the first couple of lines‌ I had to grasp a hand firmly over my mouth to stifle the exhilarated squeal that was threatening to surge from my lungs, just barely succeeding in time. He had done it! Mick was going to be a part of the annual state art exhibition!

No one would go into Johnnyâ€&#x;s room. Or at least no one who would willingly admit to it. I having been as guilty as anyone else. Behind closed doors, I would spend many an hour lying atop Johnnyâ€&#x;s old bed listening to the same CD collection he had left behind in his stereo little more than a year before. Within that seemingly eternal stretch of time, Shubert had become a favorite; Mueller had begun to grow


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on me; and even the Beatles –the radical outlier of the trio –met some sort of artistic fulfillment; their unique lyrics and rhythms never failing to arouse the Muse, Johnny would have averred. There were pictures I made a point to look at while in there, as well. The most current ones were spread individually around the room, particularly on top of Johnny‟s chest of drawers and bookshelf. They were snapshots of our summer vacation in New Orleans, of a lazy afternoon fishing along Silver Dollar Creek, and then there were those infamous few of an outright random nature. The one photograph of value, however, the one that had formerly ornamented my brother‟s nightstand, was nowhere to be found. Unlike the others, this one had been a portrait; a group photo centered on the three Kinsey children and our Swedish adoptee. Johnny‟s selfishness alone was to blame for its disappearance. But at least he had left me the scrapbook. Having it, I did not feel so spurned. Maybe it was because we had made it together –Johnny, Mick, and me –that merited this trinket such keen sentimentality. God bless the storm that brought on the blackout, and the little goblin that had made off with our deck of cards. Never before or after had a rainy day been so constructive, or enlightening. Peyton wanted nothing to do with it at the time, saying that it was “too girly.” Her outspoken gender issues were enough to give anyone a complex! With the scrapbook in hand, I cradled a collage of our lives; thirteen years worth of memories together. Purposely, our little timeline of Kodachrome snapshots found a beginning in the infant friendship of teenage boys; both no more than fifteen, and already driven to pursue each of their own respective arts. It was an interesting experiment, this foreign student exchange; being that the host family was from the southern suburbs of Chicago, and the student to visit


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hailed from Stockholm. I was only five then; a humored tagalong to both boys, I am sure. And yet, no one –of importance –seemed to mind. Mick included me in practically everything. The same as art, he gave me my love for football; the European rendition, of course. On many an occasion, he had acted as my coach as well as a scrimmage partner while Johnny sat on the sidelines nursing his wounds of defeat. Having a younger sister himself back in Sweden, Mick always knew the right amount of care in which to handle me with. Where I was Johnny‟s kiddo, I was Mick‟s little flicka. And I had the pictures to prove it, on both respectful account.

VanGogh, that lovable mutt! He always did enjoy his baths. Maybe it had something to do with the whopping amount of Mr. Bubble I had a tendency of tipping into the tub; or maybe it was just the extra abundance of attention that he received during the hygiene process that made it so fulfilling. But whatever the reason may have been, it was often hard to tell which of us was having the most fun, splashing in the water as we did without care. “And what is this…?” The echo of a deep and strong, yet light, masculine chuckle –peppered mildly with a Scandinavian accent –reverberated off the bathroom walls. Its suddenness startled me so much that I knocked the bottle of pet shampoo into the full bathtub, losing it beneath the camouflage of soapsuds. Mick stood in the bathroom doorway, leaning leisurely on the jamb; the raggedy blanket still wrapped around his upper body. His cerulean eyes were bright with warmth as he stared down at me, my body kneeling against the wall of the bathtub.


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“You‟ve been back almost two weeks and you just now find time to come visit me? That is just cold!” It was obvious how hard Mick was trying to hold back his mirth at my, presumably, melodramatic facial expression. “You need to sort out your priorities, flicka.” I scooped up a mound of bubbles and hurled it in his direction, missing. It didn‟t even occur to me that I had made a messy mistake. Bounding out of the tub and darting across the floor, VanGogh chased the bubble ball to its poor landing just inches away from Mick‟s feet. Water droplets splattered against the walls and cabinets as his tail whipped back and forth while he nipped greedily at the foamy heap. For his part, Mick only continued to smile as he leaned down and gave the dog a little scratch on the back. I should have thrown something more solid, and aerodynamic. Then again, my lovable little mutt still might have thought that I was playing fetch with him. “VanGogh!” I said, my voice raised to get his attention. “Bad dog! Get back into the tub!” The bubble eating only continued. “VanGogh, this is not playtime! Get back into the tub!” A similar response, from before, ensued. Attempting to sit up onto my knees while also risking a tricky reach for his collar, a wobbly foundation of balance sent me plummeting to the linoleum; my elbow landing in a puddle. Reading into his flicka‟s distress, Mick sent a sharp whistle through his teeth and jabbed a pointed finger in the direction of the bathtub. VanGogh‟s response was instantaneous; the mischievous Spitz pranced by me and dove back into the awaiting water, arousing a tidal wave. Everything within a one foot radius –namely me –was soaked.


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Mick chuckled, shook his head, and bridged the gap of floor distance between us. But, as he stooped down, my poor nostrils were forced to become aware of something they had never noticed before; a ripe stench, consisting of a combination of turpentine and sweat. How it had escaped me before is an absolute mystery. My hand flew up to protect my nose. “Gah, Mick! When was the last time you had a bath?” “I‟m not quite sure.” He bent his head in towards his armpit, his nostrils flexing – searching for the stench. “Now that I think about it,” he threw the blanket from his shoulders and removed his soggy socks from his feet, “I may be a little overdue.” Without much else in terms of forewarning, Mick pulled himself up and swung his legs over into the tub –first one, then the other. There was no hesitation in his movement as he slid down into the water, reassuming his seating position. Cramped in terms of space, he was left practically straddling VanGogh‟s tail end. “Need a little room back here, boy,” he said goodhumoredly, nudging the dog in the back. At first I could only stare, the silence being more of astonishment than shock with a side of hysterics quickly gaining momentum in my lungs. I didn‟t know how much longer I could hold it in. And then came the punchline: “Flicka, would you be a sweetheart and pass the shampoo?” My stitching unraveled; my funny bone shattered. Falling forward, my arms provided just enough protection to keep my frontal lobe from being dented by the acrylic siding of the bathtub. Mick‟s eyebrow slanted upward, climbing further up his forehead –leaving him with still enough room to spare. “What are you laughing at? You‟re next!”


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Before I had the chance to react, I found myself being yanked into the sloshing tub of lukewarm water. As I emerged, gasping, a rich and baritone sound filled my draining ears. Our laughter ricocheted off the sand dollar wallpaper of the bathroom.

“And you call yourself adult!” Having peeled the soggy articles of cotton from our bodies, Mick and I each slid into a dry set of pajamas. Despite him having been the smaller of the two, I was just barely able to get by wearing a pair of Johnny‟s flannel lounging pants; their ability of staying above my waistline depending entirely on the strength of the drawstring, and a prayer. For a top, I used a simple cotton shirt and Johnny‟s old hoodie from his college days at the University of Chicago. (Go Maroons!) For my sake alone perhaps, Mick dressed just as modestly; he with his flannel pants and wifebeater pullover. As we rocked lazily on the porch swing sipping our tea, VanGogh grazed the untamed pasture of the back lawn; vainly chasing the fireflies. Over the woodland canopy, the horizon was aglow with brazen shades of orange, red, and purple as the sun slipped lower in the sky. Already the crickets had begun to stage their peaceful melody, only minutes short of twilight. The stench of burning tobacco molesting my nostrils, I glanced over at Mick; witnessing his lungs‟ intake of the tar-like poison. Overcome with disgust, my response reflexive, I plucked the cigarette from his lips and dropped it into my drink. “You said you were going to quit!” Mick‟s thick blonde eyebrows leapt up in question only to relax in pained realization. “You‟re right. I‟m sorry.” Taking the mug from me, he threw it into the yard. My shoulders cringed at the echo of porcelain shattering against the ground.


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Mick sighed and rubbed the shadows forming under his reddened eyes. “I have little more than a month until the Exhibition, and only crap continues to flow from my brush!” He ran his fingers through his short, shaggy hair; dragging them down further, he scratched at the thickening layer of stubble that encircled his mouth. At that moment, he looked much older than his twenty-eight years. “Have you even been to the shop this week?” It was not my intention to add more weight to his burdens; but the shop, I knew, was a necessary concern. With their academic and military days assumedly behind them, Johnny and Mick fought hard to salvage something out of their acquired degrees and experiences; from musical theory and acrylics, to accounting and digital drafting. The surprising result was Creative Edge, or rather a moderately successful business that specialized primarily in screen printing and poster design. Their largest accounts, year-round, were the Wynnesboro School District and the WCC drama club. Mick‟s head closely followed his hands as they collapsed into his lap, dangling in a limp. “I have orders running out my ears! It would have been financial suicide for me to overlook them. Even for an art show.” I rested my hand atop of his shoulder and squeezed. It was the very least I could offer. Angling his head in my direction, I watched as Mick‟s chapped lips curved high and his bright eyes beamed appreciatively. I cursed myself for not having a camera at hand, so badly wanting to freeze that picture of him and hoard it in my pocket for a rainy day. Mick‟s brow reassumed a familiar arch. “Your smile is different, flicka.” Pop! went the bubble. I was an idiot to underestimate min broder’s skills of perception. “Is there something you want to tell me?”


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My tongue had swelled to a suffocating size, my answering abilities limited, temporarily, to just the denying motions of my head. “You sure? Nothing‟s new? Nothing at all?” It was strange, the need I had to close myself off from Mick; to break all contact, to remain silent. For distraction, I focused on the furry, white muzzle that had slid its way into my lap; a pair of brown, imploring eyes ogled up at me. I scratched behind VanGogh‟s right ear and what was left of his other. “There are only so many things on this porch that can distract you, Madeleine.” It was more of a subtle request than a demand; his words more persuasive than stern. Mick‟s apprehension was a balanced response to my silence. But unlike Justin, he never would have resorted to being assertive. Not with me. When did this happen to us, I wondered. When did I start ignoring my want to tell min broder everything? I owed him more than I was giving. “I have a boyfriend, Mick.” Tact was useless to uphold. But even so, I still found it hard to form the rest of my words; each syllable worsening the tartness I tasted as they left my mouth. “We‟ve been together for about a week.” “A boyfriend. Well, um, that‟s… that‟s great.” The smile vanished; his face, likewise, turned blank. I had never known Mick‟s words and body language to be so contradictive. “I‟m really happy for you.” I poked further, prodding for a capillary rather than a nerve. “He told me he loves me.” Mick rang his hands together, his eyes staring straight into the yard. I knew I had pinched something. “And… did you answer him?”


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I couldn‟t bring myself to answer. “Did you tell him that you love him?” My nails scraped against the fabric of my jeans just before the first tear trickled down my cheek. I looked down, ashamed. But a firm set of fingers soon caught up with me, gently elevating my chin back to level. Brushing away my tears with the padding of his thumbs, Mick guided my head toward the cushion of his shoulder. I nuzzled my cheek against his sweatshirt as Mick pressed a whisper of a kiss into my hair. “One day at a time, flicka,” he promised. “We‟ll cope with this one day at a time.”


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INSIGHT

Joel never forgave himself for breaking our plans, although I never would have confessed to him my relief. Early Sunday afternoon, my cellphone vibrated against the cluttered surface of my nightstand; Joel‟s home number flashing across the screen. I answered. “Would you like to come over for a church gathering?” More and more his shyness was beginning to fade from his voice. “My parents really want to meet you.” I knew it was something I couldn‟t avoid forever; yet still I tried to sidestep it, saying that my parents might have plans. (Childhood horror stories from Sunday school persuaded me to be cautious of “gathering” with other religions, especially the Baptists. Catholics were not always the most welcome guests at parties.) The persistent note in Joel‟s voice, however, eventually eroded my strength to resist. I went to my mother for a second opinion; but when she offered none, I had little to no other option than to give in. At least one of us was in good spirits over what was to come. With less than a half hour to make myself presentable, just enough time to jump out of my basketball shorts and into the shower for a quick scrubbing, I rummaged frantically through my small wardrobe; searching for something neither too formal nor too casual. At last I settled on a modest, floral-patterned summer dress of pale blue and lavender; and accompanied it with a


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light denim jacket adorned with white lace trimming along the cuff of the sleeves and collar, as well as a pair of white sandals. I chose a pale indigo eyeshadow to compliment my dress; somehow managing to brighten the shades of my irises in the process. For a final touch, I pulled back a side portion of my hair into a barrette. I studied my image hard in the long mirror hanging on my closet door, hoping that the girl staring back at me would be enough to impress. Pacing in front of the living room window, my cells soared from singing alto to soprano as each moment ticked away on the clock. Officially, it was our first date; and Joel was seven minutes late. Surely he had not gotten lost, I reasoned impatiently. But when his truck finally rolled to a stop in front of my house I couldn‟t bring myself to question, let alone raise my voice, to him. After swapping a quick hello and goodbye with my parents, Joel and I jumped into his vehicle and drove to his house. Conversation along the way was short and simplistic, at least that which wasn‟t drowned out by the heavy bass music blaring directly from the speaker behind my seat. I wasn‟t one to mourn the momentary loss, however, considering my mind had much to be preoccupied with. Ours wasn‟t the only vehicle to occupy the Karras‟ driveway, or to take away from the view of their front lawn. Despite the excessive company, however, there was just enough room for Joel to maneuver his truck into his favorite parking space –beneath the shade of the birch trees. Fragments of déjà vu, disguised as nerve-rattling shivers, wriggled throughout the millions of canals that ran through my body. Joel and I mutely passed through the opened garage, the laundry room, and finally into the intensely lit dining room. Buzzing about like eager flies around the rich buffet of hamburgers


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and hotdogs with various sides and fixings, my appearance went by unnoticed. Frankly, I was content with my lowly status amongst the group; blissful in their ignorance of me. But then there came an insistent tugging on my forearm and an assertion of force that directed me through the hungry swarm and closer towards the kitchen, towards a particular man and woman; both of whom stood surveying the crowd with a ting of condescension. The man was tall standing with dark aging hair combed back neatly into place. He wore a pair of ragged shorts and a simple orange t-shirt, of which clashed against his mildly burned skin. His nose was large and sharply arched, like his son‟s. The woman next to him, however, was average in height and plump in the curve of her hips. The almond hue of her shortly cropped hair accented the shade of her sea green eyes, giving them a haunting glow. At the head of the room, they loomed with a plastic smile plastered on each of their faces. As our feet carried us closer to them, the secure interlacing of my hand with Joel‟s became undone –severing my only lifeline. I mimicked his steps, watching and dreading for my cue when to stop. But I did not have to suffer for long. “Mom, Dad, I‟d like you to meet Madeleine Kinsey.” I felt cut down in size, small and insignificant in measure and matter. Joel‟s voice was so distant and emotionless that, for the first time in seventeen years, I absolutely abhorred the sound of my name. Their twin smirks stretching even wider, exhibiting their faultless teeth, Pastor Karras and his wife frighteningly gushed with hospitality. Such was not the response I had anticipated, based on Joel‟s peculiar behavior. The mother shook my hand, introducing herself as Cecilia, while her husband, Jared, was quick to break boundaries in order gave me a hug. I chanced a smile, trying


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hard to suppress my embarrassment for my crooked front tooth, and replied with a “thank you” when needed. All I wanted was to disappear. Joel was the first to break away, to turn around and slip into the buffet line. I resumed my mimicking. By the time I had reached the food, I could only shovel micro-portions onto my paper plate; my appetite nearly dead. Delving into an opened bag of potato chips, a second hand followed close behind mine and murmur glided smoothly into my ear. “Congratulations,” it said. “For what?” Venturing a glimpse, I saw Joel flinch at the meek note of harshness in my voice. But still he did not retract his touch. He tried again, clearing his throat. “The first of the worst is over.” Somehow, it was easy to believe him.

“So, Joel, m‟ boy, where are you goin‟ to college?” Everyone in the living room fell into a curious silence at Brother Mark‟s question, turning to look at Joel. Amongst them, my boyfriend and I were the only teenagers left –the others having left soon after dinner. For the longest while, we had managed to sit in the corner – unseen –looking at Joel‟s senior pictures. Understandably, the sudden shift of attention was enough to make both of us squirm. But before Joel had a chance, Brother Jacob had beaten him to the answer. “He‟s going to WCC. His mother has spoken!” Although Brother Jacob may have been joking, it has hard to ignore the flash of victory that crossed Cecilia‟s face.


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One after the other, Joel pummeled me at both martial arts and racing videogames. Only after the last of the guests had departed did his parents interrupt us, subjecting me to a seemingly friendly but lengthy session of fifty questions. Joel said nothing as he continued to play on his Xbox. When at last they had finished, I felt as though I had undergone a grueling job interview. Undoubtedly the “second of the worst.” Left alone, I took the game controller that had been offered to me and subjected myself once more to the childish humiliation of being wiped across the screen by the gaming wizard seated next to me. My hands turned sweaty and my fingers numb as I pounded the buttons on the controller. In the middle of a fighting match, as both the kitchen and hall lights disappeared from the top of the staircase, a “PAUSE” message appeared on the screen. Joel stood, tiptoed around the corner, and peered up the basement steps. Taking a moment before he appeared satisfied, with but the smallest flick of his finger, the room fell dark –save for the glow of the television. I watched Joel carefully as he came back around to the front of the worn sofa and sat down without uttering a word. While using one hand removing the controller from my grasp, Joel rested the other on the arch of the couch just below my shoulders. In the back of my mind I knew what was about to happen; yet the only response I could muster was a flinch when I felt my boyfriend‟s hand press on the back of my neck. “Are you afraid?” I hadn‟t realized how close our bodies had become. At least not until the heat of his breath tousled the wispy hairs on my forehead. “A-A little bit.” Inside I was cowering.


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“Here, take my hand.” What he had earlier used to take back the gaming controller from me Joel then held out in offering. “If I ever do something that scares you, just squeeze my hand as hard as you can.” I gaped at him, knocked for six. “B-but I don‟t want to hurt you!” The vivid illuminations on the screen animated his eyes. “That‟s why I‟m asking you to do it.”


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A FEW NOTES SHORT OF A SONG

March slipped away into April, and April washed away into May. Amidst the laughter, midnight phone calls, and zealous kisses, two anniversaries were lost; Joel being the one who refused to celebrate and only half acknowledged the occasion when pressed. Meanwhile, I stayed true to my dates, having, upon my oriental calendar, doodled hearts and stars within the twentythird block of each month, marking down to September –our sixth month. He never made it clear to me, Joel, why it was that all lower digit anniversaries were so trivial. He would never talk about past relationship; never compare me to other girlfriends. In fact, Joel often dreaded talking about the past and frequently rolled his eyes at the future. When we were together, everything was about the present; nothing before or after the living moment existed. And with so little time spent toward planning, we often resorted to confining ourselves to Joel‟s basement, pretending to entertain ourselves with marathons of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. In the time that we shared “dating”, our lips and jaws received more exercise than any other part of our bodies. Having little to build with, there was little for me to judge. Perhaps it was no one‟s fault but my own, but I was never really sure what to make of “us.” More often than not, the months


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until graduation crept closer for him, it seemed that Joel was forging a more in-depth bond with his Xbox than with me. On the sidelines, other people were making evaluations as well. On behalf of the disgusted clique, Chastlyn and Terri couldn‟t restrain themselves from labeling my attachment to Joel as “rebound”; a “pathetic” reaction to my “failure” with Lucas and Zain. But as bold as they were to utter their disapproval amongst each other, both scattered as soon as they noticed me passing by. As a likely response, my resentment towards them and the rest of Dawes‟ chummy little group only escalated. While Adrienne and Mick preferred their “Switzerland” stances, it was hard for them to disguise and for me to ignore each of their respective responses –a twitching right brow and sideways grimace –at the mention of my beau‟s name. Purposely, I never discussed Joel around my parents. Even Sterling, perhaps the closest of Joel‟s friends to name, had his own observations to bring to the table. His offering, however, was the only one that came in the form of a question. “What did you do to him?” Sterling murmured, leaning over from his desk across the aisle. How did I manage to overlook him up till then, to misplace him amongst the fifth period population? Easy. To everyone, Sterling was just the stoner in the corner. And then again, if I were to have counted, this was the only time he had spoken to me since we were introduced –through Joel. Sterling cleared his throat, his voice being hoarse and groggy as though he had just woke from a heavy nap. “I‟ve never seen him act the way he does when he‟s with you.” I had no idea what he was talking about, and I made sure to tell Sterling just that.


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The eve of Prom arrived. Joel rang the doorbell promptly at seven-thirty –a first, to be sure. Still in my room, I heard him swap greetings with Mick just as my mom secured the hook in the back of my strapless dress. My upper body felt heavy; a reasonable response considering the amount of makeup and hairspray that had been applied there. The fresh, wavy curls that hung around my face and down my back seemed so strange and out of place. But the mirrored image in front of me begged to differ. Gathering my long, black satin skirts in hand, I followed Dawn down the hall and into the living room. Walking in, Mick literally leapt to his feet –his partially opened mouth trailing behind him. Joel, however, was a bit slower with his response. Taken out of his grungy jeans and bowling shirts, I almost didn‟t recognize him in his black coat and red cummerbund tuxedo rental. But in a good way. Hesitantly, my date stepped forward; dare I say, dumbfounded by my bedazzling transformation. To shake him free of his zombie trance, I innocently motioned to the bouquet of red tulips he held in one hand while balancing my corsage in the other. Blushing, Joel nearly shoved the flowers into my face –“These are for you.” –almost shaking a small, white envelope from its plastic stand inside the bundle of petals. Taking the flowers and carefully opening the envelope, I smiled as my eyes traced the smooth script written on the fancy card.

A remembrance for your Prom. Joel


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While he spared little effort in sliding the red rose, onyx beaded corsage onto my wrist, I struggled to pin the matching boutonniere to the lapel of his jacket –pricking my finger once or twice before finding satisfaction in its slightly crooked position. “Gah,” Peyton snorted, “you two look good enough to be going to a funeral.”

“Joel, where are your parents?” Pulling into his driveway, the garage door was closed and the yard was dark. As we passed, a faint glimmer could be seen through the cracked blinds of the front porch window, originating from a lamp in the living room. “I thought we‟d hang out a bit before the dance,” Joel said, leaving little room for argument as he parked and quickly got out of the truck. I had never known him to park in front of the garage before. Joel was too much a creature of habit. In a dress and heels, both entering and exiting Joel‟s truck on my own had been tricky. But somehow I managed, and I followed Joel into the house. He led me straight to the basement; always the basement. So much of ourselves had been shared in that room and worn into the structure of that aged couch –soft caresses, kisses tasting of Mountain Dew, fragments of one intellectual conversation or another. But that night, something was different. As our bodies molded comfortably to the eroding cushions of the sofa, a cold touch on my chin urged my head to the side, the angle just right for Joel to swoop in and devoured my lips ravenously. Unlike anything I had experienced before, as he reached for me, his touch was cold


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and hard in grip. My jaw was crushed under his imposing weight until he finally tore himself away, his eyes leering and drunk on adrenaline. In a rich guttural voice unfamiliar to my senses, Joel spoke boldly into my ear. “I want you, Madeleine!” he said. “I want to screw you so badly!” I had less than a chance to take it all in, from his words to my breath. Joel took advantage of my confusion to relocate his grip, affixing his fingers around my head; his thumbs, resting just below my jaw, held my lips at a convenient level. His mouth slanting over mine, Joel forcefully worked to coerce a response from me. I pushed and pounded at his chest, vainly exerting energy in an attempt of escape. But it was only too easy for Joel to pull me back. I couldn't believe what was happening. His taste, his craze, the smell of him engulfed me. It was all so much. Too much. My subliminal logic screamed only one word: Rape! Desperately, I continued to shove and slap. But as Joel began to guide my body backwards, I focused my aim higher, purposely connecting the heel of my palm with the side of my boyfriend‟s face. It took little less than a second for a reaction to occur. Grunting, gasping, Joel withdrew himself to the furthest edge of the couch with his face turned to the shadows. Watching him, I should have been angry, betrayed even; but the droplet of blood I saw trailing down from his ear only stoked guilt. “Joel?” Hesitantly I reached out my hand to brush the drip away, only to be coolly received. Panged, I quickly recoiled. “Joel, I‟m sorry –” “No! Don‟t be.” His tone was a gruff bellow to start, but grew calmer and even with each word said. “You‟re not the one who‟s done something wrong.”


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For the longest time his back remained turned; and then, Joel breathed a sigh and ran a shaky hand through his brown curls. With weary steps he weaved around the arm of the sofa and moved across the room to lean against the side of the mass consuming pool table at the opposite end of the room. He sighed once more. Goosebumps prickling up and down my arms and back, I wrapped myself in the silky comfort of a forgotten afghan I discovered buried underneath a set of pillows. I scrunched my legs up towards my chest as best I could under the mass of cheap satin and fishnet draped around my lower body. I wanted to cry, badly. I didn‟t hear his approach, but I could not overlook the open hand that had been placed in front of me –hovering in the tense air, innocent and pleading. Although I understood all of the reasons why I should have, I made no move to push him away. Instead I looked up at Joel, our monochrome irises betraying our silent emotions: my mistrust and fear, his shame and worry. “Will you still go to the dance with me?” His voice was steady but laced with a plea. “Please?”

For the second time that evening, the gravel crunched beneath the weight of the truck and the powerful beams of the headlights glared off the beige panels of the garage door. The gears were shifted into place and, with a practiced flick of a wrist, the engine died. The shifting of feet across the drive followed the opening and closing of the driver‟s side door. In the fraction of a minute the passenger door was pried open with ease and two sturdy arms slipped in –one positioned around my middle, the other beneath the break in my legs –and lifted my tired body out of the vehicle, kicking the door closed.


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Joel carried me up the walk and strained to spare a finger to ring the doorbell. Dawn answered the door, surprised to see the state in which we returned. Stepping aside, she wasted little time ushering us in, through the living room and down the hall to my room, badgering us with questions along the way. Switching on my bedside lamp, Mom quickly left the room to retrieve an ice pack from the kitchen. Being nearly eleven o‟clock, Peyton had already gone to bed. Even Mick, despite his stubborn and protective intentions to wait up, found himself in too comfortable a posture on the family room futon to withstand the Sandman‟s hex. Neither of them stirred at the sound of our arrival. Gently Joel laid me down on my neatly spread cloud comforter, careful to set my feet down last. Fumbling with the buckles of my shoes, I softly pushed him away before undoing them myself, allowing the torturous fiends to slide off my swollen feet and down to the carpet. Dawn came in and Joel fell back against my drawer, smartly choosing to wait out Mom‟s frantic buzzing around my ankle. Wrapping the makeshift pack –made of ice cubes and a kitchen cloth –around my sore joint, she breathed relief and diagnosed my injury as being only a minor sprain. Behind her, my date relaxed. While her insistent hovering irritating me, I forced myself to keep a pleasant tone as I asked Dawn to leave. At this, she pursed her lips and furrowed her brow, her emotions made clear without the use of words. I will not begin to imagine the expression she must have conveyed to Joel on her way out the door, closing it behind her. Both of us waited intently, listening for the faintness of Dawn‟s steps before uttering a word.


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“How are you feeling?” Joel sat down along the frame of the mattress. He reached for my hand, running the print of his thumb over the skin of my knuckles. The comfort and warmth of the bedspread paled in comparison to his touch. “Does it hurt a lot?” “No, really, it‟s not as bad as you think.” Pushing myself up against the support of my pillows and oak stained headboard, I stretched my leg out further and rotated my ankle in a circular motion –“AH!” –immediately regretting it. Joel regained his expression of concern. “I‟ll be alright. Don‟t worry. And, if it means anything,” I cracked a smile, “despite our rough beginning, I had a lot of fun tonight.” “Me, too,” he said, reflectively. “Really, I had no idea you could dance like that! It made me feel a bit jealous.” “Oh, come on! You weren‟t that bad.” Although it had been obvious that Joel hadn‟t been putting on a show of modesty when he said that he had two left feet, I still wasn‟t about to let him use that as an excuse to be a wallflower amongst the flamboyant Monte Carlo decorations. Dancing the first three solo and once with Zain, while Joel watched most attentively from the edge of the floor, by the time the first slow song had begun to play I had taken it upon myself to guide Joel‟s anchored feet out in the middle of the Commons, his body rigid as a board and his movements uncertain. Lacing my hands around his neck and rocking side to side on my toes, he soon followed my example. Only as the hour grew late did he become more confident in his step. “I have a feeling,” Joel teased, “that you‟ve established a new reputation for yourself, and especially made it clear that I can never take you out again.” Although laughing, I couldn‟t resist the temptation to nudge him in self-defense.


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“But I couldn‟t help but notice,” he said with a face painted in seriousness, while the corner of the mouth ticked in humor, “that you owe me a dance.” “Excuse me? What dance?” “The one we were about to have before we found out that the song had been reserved for the damn royal court.” “Oh, that dance…” The memory was not as tricky to recall as I had thought. At best I remember being thirsty, having been excessively active for the first half of the dance. While downing a glass of chunky pineapple punch, there came an uneasy whisper in my ear: “Do you wanna dance with me?” It had been the first, and the only, occasion all evening that he had willingly asked me to dance. Standing up from the bed, Joel slanted forward in an awkward bow, his hand extended. “Shall we?” “But, my ankle…” Memories of the pain flickered in my mind. “I promise to be careful. And I‟ll even let you stand on my feet.” “There‟s no music.” “We‟ll improvise. Really, Madeleine,” he chided, smiling, “you pay too much attention to small details!” Sighing, defeated, I swung my legs carefully around the side of the mattress and placed my feet delicately over the smooth surface of Joel‟s black dress shoes, accepting his palms as means of support. Both of us straightening up to our full heights, my wounded appendage throbbed momentarily at the additional weight it was forced to bear. Leaning against his body, we reassumed our dancing positions from before, my arms fastened around his neck while Joel placed his hands at my waist. My head against his chest as his nose brushed against my hair, I


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could feel the vibrations of a velvet lullaby leak from Joelâ€&#x;s lips. I closed my eyes, soothed by the sounds of his humming and his beating heart.


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“PRIDE GOETH BEFORE DESTRUCTION…” (Proverbs 16:18)

The booming rap of knuckles against my bedroom door snatched my attention away from Johnny‟s letter, a fresh description of his life at the military training base in San Diego. Of what little my eyes had been able to absorb, there was less than a month before his troop was due to be drafted to Afghanistan. My greatest concern, next to his life, how was I going to tell Mom? At the rotating of the knob, I hurriedly stuffed the letter back into its envelope and stashed both within the worn copy of Pride and Prejudice resting in my lap, flipping it open to the marked page. Justin, deeming himself above acknowledgement, pushed the door open and waltzed over to my window-side desk. Likewise, my visitor did not feel the need to wait for an invitation from me before making himself comfortable, ineffectively. I watched him from under my eyelashes, noting how out of place he looked amongst my eclectic assembly of possessions – musical water globes of various themes, Japanese wall scrolls, star-shaped twinkle lights draping from each respective corner of the ceiling. Justin cleared his throat. “Madeleine, there‟s something I‟d like to talk to you about.” “Sir?” I choked back a giggle at the sight of my father sinking sharply into the sloping curve of my butterfly chair, a confound expression stamped across his brow.


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He fidgeted for a minute before finally giving up, literally crawling out of the seat and onto his feet. Folding his arms across his chest, Justin leaned back against the edging of my desk. “I‟ve noticed that you‟ve grown attached to the Karras boy.” “You could say that.” I forced myself to appear indifferent. As accustomed as I was to his condescending tone, such was fairly easy to pretend. My focus retreated back to the open page in front of me. “And he, supposedly, thinks very highly of you.” “Supposedly?” The sour chord of the term echoed with an even greater pitch of ugliness from my lips than it had from his. “Indeed.” I replaced the cover of the book but kept it within reach. “I had an enlightening conversation with Joel earlier this afternoon, after we met up at the computer store.” I could feel Justin‟s fierce brown eyes fixate themselves upon my face. “I made a point to discuss with him his intentions for the relationship, as well as what his plans are for the future.” I could only imagine how unpleasant their little chat must have been for Joel. “He replied that he was by no means interested in a serious relationship; and that he plans to take his father‟s advice and sever all ties to high school immediately after graduation–” “Joel would never do that!” I felt my face turn flush as a result of my excitement. “You‟re a liar!” His arms still crossed, Justin balled his fists against his chest. While my father had never hit me before, I was sure that –in that moment –he was awfully tempted. There was no doubt that


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one of us would end up a casualty by the end of the discussion, just as there was no debate as to whose straw was possibly shorter. “Has it ever occurred to you, little girl, that he might be dating you purely out of convenience?” His words whittled brutally at my resolution, spurring my teeth to grind irately behind the concealing curtain of my lips. “Romanticize the boy if you like, but think about this: if he is as wonderful as you are determined to catalog him, then what does he have to gain by being with someone like you? Socially, you‟re unpopular and introverted. Athletically, you‟re a klutz. Physically, you‟re pale and have the body of a premature boy. For a teenage boy, you offer nothing salvageable.” But then, struck by his epiphany, Justin straightened up and walked over toward the bed. Leaning down, his face came within a close but condescending proximity with mine. The penetration of his gaze was deep, unforgiving. “Unless there is something else going on that I know nothing about, yet?” There was no oxygen in the room, in my body, as thick streams of acidic tears bubbled and burned crevices down my face. “How can you…?” The son of a bitch remained shameless in expression. “You can‟t swim in a toilet and not expect to get dirty,” he pressed. “The sooner you learn that, the better.”


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My dearest brother, Johnny: I received your letter today, not a moment sooner than needed. Hundreds of miles away and you can still charm the sun from the clouds. So much, yet so little has changed much since our last exchange of letters. Justin remains as hardheaded, hardhearted, and ill-tempered as ever; and Mom continues to cope with it by locking him out of the bedroom at night. He soon may have to replace that couch in his study. And Peyton (although she would rather drink Draino than admit it) resembles him more and more each day, in more than just variation in appearance. She continues to

brood

her

anger

–almost

seething

hatred

–towards

him,

determined to blame Justin for everything that has gone wrong in our lives. I worry about her, truly. Justin barged into my room earlier this afternoon and all but accused me being Joel’s whore. He’s becoming skilled at this little game that we play: Each time I begin to wear down, thinking I might learn to forgive him, Justin pulls a stunt that sends me staggering backwards. I am only grateful that he still had enough


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decency to knock. Don’t worry; he still doesn’t know that we are keeping in contact. I was happy to hear that training has been going well, and that you are smoothly readjusting to life as a soldier. My only complaint: I will never be able to smoothly swallow your news about being on the draft list for Afghanistan. I had hoped that this crisis would be over long before you were at greater risk of being recalled. Please promise me that you will continue to write, for my sake as well as Mom’s. And remember, you are always in our prayers. Be safe, big brother.

Love, Maddie


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THE EX FACTOR

Joel vanished –without a word, without a hint. Even his friends, although at school, spoke nothing of news; or anything else for that matter. Left on my own, I was demoted back to being invisible, worthy only of being ignored. For three days my phone calls went unanswered. By Thursday the initial discomfort of Joel‟s disappearance had begun to settle, but the mystery behind it only persisted to evade me. Adrienne did her utmost to distract me with literature debates and afternoon cloud-watching in the courtyard, while Luci seemed more interested in schooling me on the best places on my body to mutilate. My appreciation for their efforts and concern, however, ran deep. Dawn made no attempt to call me out about the late hours I chose to stay over at Mick‟s; but I could only imagine how uneasy she must have felt as she laid awake till the delinquent hours of the night listening for the friendly sputtering of a rickety Ford chugging up the path, followed by the faint jiggling of a key in the lock –the sounds that reassured her that I had been safely returned. Aside from Johnny, there was no one my mom trusted more with my well-being. I was not as sensible.

By Friday I had exhausted my loyalty of waiting for Joel by the Grab-‟n-Go, a sweaty bottle of Mountain Dew, for him, held in hand. That morning, my footing purposely fell short of the Commons but just outside of Room 216 –the humble, didactic hub of one Ms. Sean Rowling. It was there that the third Friday of each month held significance: the Poetry Coffeehouse –an


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exclusive showcase for students and their choice of prose, with a side of free food and open “slamming.” For the sake of distraction, I had volunteered to help set up for the event. Unfortunately, I wasn‟t the only one. Jordi Cambel and I had known of each other since day one of my sophomore year, but we rarely acknowledged one another. She was a tall, athletically figured girl with a rough, boyish demeanor. Aside from playing basketball, softball, soccer, and volleyball in each of their respect seasons, she was also an alto in the school‟s Chamber Choir and strummed the acoustic guitar in her spare time. She was one of the few musicians who used the spotlight of the Poetry Coffeehouse to her full advantage. By the time I had arrived, Jordi had already arranged the desks in a large circular formation around the room; a wooden stool set in the center. “You‟re here early, Jordi,” I remarked. She looked up at me in brief, swatting her cropped brunette bangs out of her eyes before unpacking her guitar onto the empty folding table she, apparently, had dug out of Mrs. Rowling‟s cave of a closet. I sat my bag down in an empty desk. “Not really,” she said, tightening the strings of her instrument. “I could say the same for you, but I guess I would be early for school too if my boyfriend had ditched me.” I could feel the faintest leap of a blood vessel above my right eye. “I don‟t see how it should concern you, but I ride the bus every morning.” “Oh.” Jordi plucked a chord and tightened a peg on the headstock. I ducked inside Mrs. Rowling‟s storeroom, on a mission to search out the designated accessories for the snack table. Knowing where to look, it did not take me long. Buried beneath two leaning paperback towers of Homer‟s Iliad and Odyssey was a bright yellow tablecloth,


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while plastic utensils and Styrofoam cups sat on a shelf of an old microwave cart, just below the appliance itself. (Mrs. Rowling was one of the few teachers I knew who ate in her classroom instead of the lounge.) Hidden in the back of the file cabinet were the cookies and instant cappuccino mix. It was left up to the students to bring additional drinks and finger foods, if they wished. Turning off the light and pushing the closet door closed, I carried the assembly of items back across the room. Generous enough to remove the empty guitar case, Jordi allowed me to spread the waxy-surfaced cloth across the awaiting tabletop. Leaning up against the gray rock wall, she continued to pluck scales as I worked. Neither of us looked at the other. “So where is your frog prince if not with you?” Jordi asked, her breath reeking of guilty intentions. I was more puzzled than peeved by her persistence. “Again, I don‟t see how that is any of your business.” “Maybe it‟s not. Maybe it‟s simple curiosity of an inquiring mind.” “In that case, I plead the fifth.” “Well, that‟s interesting…” “What do you mean, „interesting‟? I haven‟t said anything.” A thin, smug line curved under the tip of her large, manly nose. “Think what you want, but I already know.” “Then why bother with the twenty questions?” “Don‟t get me wrong. I sympathize with you, really I do. We‟re very much alike, you and I.”


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I failed to see the similarities. Our builds were willowy in likeness to the average female figure, with a fraction of muscle padding here and there –hers from being active with school sports, mine from recreationally scrimmaging with Mick. Her skin was a cooked pigment of beige; mine, the fairest of ivory. Jordi preferred to bite her nails to the point that they would bleed, and to keep her oily chestnut hair cropped to the nub of her ears where it would hang limp –saving her from applying effort in the morning. Her ensemble was simple: sweatpants, a sports camp shirt, and flip-flops. For being a devout athlete, I thought she would prefer sneakers. Ideally, I longed to chop my hair off to a startling, uncharacteristic length, if just to break the predictable mold of my life. But Justin, a man of old fashioned taste, was rigidly stone-faced to the idea. As far as fashion, I was moderately conservative. Since it made me uncomfortable to constantly wear tapered clothing, my closet was made up mostly of dark, classic-design jeans and knitted tops. Many of my shirts were loose and long-sleeved, a little too casual to be formal. Cliff notes version: She juggled a ball; I hovered over books. She liked honky-tonk music; I was an eclectic. She was rumored to roll on speed; I got high on pencil shavings. She was native born of Wynnesboro; I was an outsider. It was obvious. “We are nothing alike, Jordi.” She laughed it off, her smirk deep and taunting. “Either you‟re extremely naïve, or just plain stupid. You can‟t pretend not to know that we both had the same boyfriend. So you might give me a little credit in knowing what‟s going on.” The blow was flooring, to think Joel willing to date such a colorful character as Jordi Cambel, even if it was in the terms of “once upon a time.” To a point I was able to understand why it was he preferred not to discuss his previous relationships.


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“Unless you‟re psychic, Jordi, you cannot possibly know what it is going on between Joel and me.” “Uh-huh.” I took a steadying breath. The temptation to slap Jordi and her Cheshire Cat grin grew stronger by the minute. “Joel didn‟t go into much detail about us, did he?” When I didn‟t respond, Jordi took it as invitation to recommence her cocky assault. “I guess I shouldn‟t be surprised, especially since our relationship didn‟t end so well. What with me almost being raped, that is. He did tell you about that at least, didn‟t he? That he‟s an unsatisfied sex maniac?” I tightened my arms around my chest in a suffocating bear hug, trying to fend off the unpleasant memories she had triggered. Setting down her guitar, Jordi moved to stand in front of me. “Or,” she took great satisfaction in drawing out that first word, “has the situation changed lately?” The movement was quick, a blurring reflex unbeknownst to even myself. Jordi had little opportunity to conclude her insult when an explosive SMACK! echoed throughout the classroom. It took more than a single deep breath on my account before I began to recover a semblance of calm. But despite the attack, Jordi made no move to step away from me. Rubbing her inflamed cheek, a thin line slowly twisted back up her face. “I guess it‟s a comfort to know otherwise since I‟d always thought you to be a sweet girl. At least now I know whether or not to think of you as his latest whore.” Just below my skin, sparks of unadulterated loathing simmered. “Think what you want about me, Jordi, but know this: you are sick!”


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“Jordi Cambel,” Adrienne remarked, her voice marinated in disgust, “is a compulsive liar. Everything she says and does is simply an act to draw attention to herself.” Day to day we were surrounded by scum-filled robots programmed to the beat of MTV; but only a few were qualified enough to try Adrienne‟s nerves. Her knuckles cracked as her grip hardened around her plastic fork. She had been kind enough to have lunch with me in the courtyard. “But, is there any sort of truth to what she said? About Joel, I mean.” Adrienne stirred the thick and gooey yellow clump of macaroni in her small microwavable tray, a indication that she had lost her appetite. I sat quietly propped up against the rough bark of the tree whilst sipping my bottled water. She threw what was left of her cold meal into the trash bin next to her and downed the rest of her canned soda in one gulp. She sighed. “I cannot tell you for sure what happened between the two of them, or if –for once in her godforsaken life –Jordi Cambel has been compelled to tell the truth. All I can really say is this: has Joel ever given you a reason to doubt his intentions?”


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RECONCILIATION

I wasn‟t expecting Joel to come back to school that following Monday. The first time I saw him was during passing period, just after Geometry, walking down the hallway with a posture so sporty, so geekishly charming. Vexation was the least of what I was experiencing. He never saw it coming, my reaction. Instead of running up and embracing him in welcome, I bowled him over with a glare so sharp I wished it had been enough to castrate him a hundred fold. “Stay away from me!” I hissed, stomping off to the Chemistry lab. He was smart enough not to follow me, that much I was willing to grant him.

Fit snuggly between the ventilation slits of my locker, I could see the edges of the creased notebook paper peeking out from across the hall. Having a fair inclination of who it was from without sparing so much as a glance at the script or the address label, I crammed the thin leafed bundle into my pocket without care if it crinkled or tore. Nearly half of an hour passed before I felt calm enough to fish it back out.

Madeleine, I’m not really sure how to start this note out, especially after you scared me earlier this morning. I’d never seen you so angry before! What scares me the most is that I can’t figure


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out what I did wrong. Please help me understand. Meet me under our favorite tree in the courtyard at lunch. It hurts me to think that you’re mad at me.

Hope to see you there. Joel

Over and over again I read the note, committing it to memory. It was the voiceless tone of sincere confusion that made me second-guess my stance.

The lunch bell rang all too soon, and the doors leading out from the Commons seemed to weigh heavier than I remembered. Save for the few predictable groups, the quad was fairly empty. Shuffling down the cement tail and deeper into the layout of the yard, I trekked over to our familiar place of meeting –the old oak. Already he was there waiting for me. Hearing his name on the wind, Joel spun around on the heel of his converse soles. In his hands he clutched a sloppy bouquet of flowers. No doubt somewhere on campus there was a patch of soil robbed of its foliage. He dashed toward me, only to stop as I took a step back. His smile was cut down by a few inches. “I was beginning to think that you weren‟t going to come.” “So was I.” My eyes averted his. “These are for you.” He dared to invade my bubble long enough to offer me the posies.


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“Thank you,” I said, momentarily acting polite and accepting the bundle –careful not to touch him. Joel withdrew, tucking his arms behind his back. Perhaps thinking that his thoughtfulness had earned him points, the idiot‟s signature lopsided grin surfaced upon his face. It took immense restraint on my part not to throw the flowers back at him, or to squeeze the remaining life out of their innocent petals. That smirk, as I was determined to label it, was just too much! “You know what, Joel,” I blurted out (tact be damned!), “sometimes you can really piss me off!” “What do you mean?” I was determined to think of his astonishment as being faked. “You have got be joking me!” My nerves were combusting like firecrackers. “One week! You vanished for one whole week, and you couldn‟t even pick up the phone long enough to call me and let me know if you were okay? I was so afraid that something bad had happened to you and you made no attempt to assure me otherwise! Damn it, Joel, why?” I brushed away a tear before it had a chance to spill down my face. It was an unwilled reaction, this little leak of sorrow, but not entirely unexpected. “What are you talking about?” Joel demanded, his brow creased even tighter. “Didn‟t Sterling tell you that I had to leave town?” “No! Sterling hasn‟t said a word to me about anything, let alone you.” Joel‟s stretched back into a snarl and his nostrils flared, earning him a likeness similar to that of an enraged dragon. Whirling around, he delivered a solid right clout into the trunk of the tree. It scared me to see such a side of him, this personality being one I had never known before.


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“I‟m gonna kill that little worm!” he bellowed, his breaths shallow and harsh. “He has no problem sharing secrets, but the one time I need him to talk he clams up!” “Whoa, whoa! Hold it right there, cowboy!” Willingly I broke my own rule of contact avoidance, swiveling Joel‟s shoulders around in my direction. And yet, just by touching him, I could see and feel the tension of his posture lessen. “Now, what does Sterling have to do with any of this?” Joel sighed and folded his arms across his chest. “A week ago, my dad got a call from an aunt down in Louisiana saying that a close friend of the family had been killed in a car accident, and she wanted him to come down and do the funeral. I guess he must have been a really close friend because no sooner had the sun come up I was kicked out of bed and thrown into the car. Sterling, being a somewhat reliable next-door neighbor, we asked him to water the plants and to feed the cats while we were gone. But before I left I made him promise to pass on the message to you that I had left and that I didn‟t know when I would be able to call. I thought since you both have the same class fifth period that I could trust him to tell you. Obviously not!” I felt his muscles harden under my palms. As skilled as he was at boxing, as I had come to learn, I could only imagine how quick and easy he would have been able to draw blood from one as shrimpy as Sterling. I lowered my hands but kept the same proximity of closeness between our individual bodies. For the safety of a certain third party, I had to do what I could to keep Joel calm –how ever little. Whistling a breath of frustration through his teeth, Joel propped an arm against the trunk of the tree and threw up a hand to ruffle the recently cropped curls on top of his head. When


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finished, he brought that same hand down in front of his face and leaned forward into the palm. Quietly I watched and waited, too insecure of the situation to make a peep. The hand fell. “You have every right to be mad at me,” Joel said, his tone lowered to a near hush. “Maybe all of this could have been avoided had I called and told you everything myself instead of relying on that…someone else. But you,” his voice met fracture, “of all people, how could you possibly think that I would ever do anything to jeopardize our relationship?” “I-I…I was confused.” “Confused? About what?” The pitch mended itself, growing sharp as his eyes leapt up to capture mine. I shuddered at the conflicted dejection I saw swimming within their pools. His large hands clasped a shoulder each. “About what, Madeleine?” “I…” I could feel my tonsils swell in my throat, resulting in my own voice cracking. “I need to tell you something. And I need you to be completely honest with me…”


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Dear Maddie, I was frustrated to learn from your last letter of the kind of crap our paternal dictator has been shoveling down your throat lately. As tempting it would be for me to encourage a rebellion, this new levelheaded brother of yours would warn that it might be in your best interest not to get disowned before you turn eighteen. Besides, I don’t think Mom could handle witnessing yet another reenactment of the Spanish Inquisition under her roof.

Try to hang in there a little longer, kiddo, okay? College is not as far away as it may seem. And about this new boyfriend, other than how much I wish I could be there to see the situation from a different point of view, all I can do is to tell you to be careful. And remember this: whatever happens after graduation is the best and hardest test to endure. For the sake of your tender heart, I hope everything works out for you. And if they don’t, keep in mind that Mick has one hell of a right hook. As for your prayers, thank you. I have a feeling I’m going to need them. Keep looking after Mom, Peyton, and Mick for me, okay? Keep smiling, kiddo. Johnny


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IMPASSE “What do you want from me, Joel?” I could have choked him, and the guilt would have been minimal at best. Standing outside in the Civic Center parking lot, far enough away not to further compromise the integrity of the art show with our brash altercation, we each tore off our kid gloves. “I want the truth,” he said, his flat tone doing little to veil the overbearing insistence stitched to the underside of his words like a shadow. “Why don‟t you just tell me what the truth is so that I can at least have some level footing?” I was getting sick of reading between the lines with him. “Mick.” “Oh God!” I had never known a more appropriate time in which to take the Lord‟s name in vain. “Please Joel, do not do this tonight.” I stressed each word slowly, carefully, hoping it would be enough to end the monotonous theme of argument that had plagued our relationship more and more since Joel‟s graduation. “You should have told me that he was going to be here!” Joel declared, stabbing his finger in the direction of the Center. There was no need for him to clarify who “he” was. “You should have told me that he was in the show!” “If I had, you wouldn‟t have come!” It was a truth I didn‟t even want to admit to myself; but I was not the only one who was withholding truth. “What the hell did Mick ever do to make you hate him so much?”


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“I don‟t like it that he‟s so involved in your life.” Imaginary sounds of tires screeching congested my ears. “Excuse me?” The shock was spine-severing. Dead on the head, it was the last thing I had expected Joel to say. And so blatantly! Taking a step, Joel leaned down in such a way that our faces were only inches apart. “Do you think I‟m stupid? That I don‟t know what‟s going on behind my back?” I wanted to shove him, but I was afraid it would have only been taken as encouragement. “Mick was there at your house on Prom night, when we left and when I brought you home; your room is full of pictures of him and Johnny, none of me; he‟s the male lead in practically every story you tell; nine times out of ten when I call you you‟re with him; I‟ve seen the way you two look at each other, and I want it to stop!” I felt the globe shift on its axis, and the words of Johnny‟s frightening foresight echoed loudly from the subterranean depths of my mind. This was not the Joel I knew, the Joel I once trusted. He would have never demanded such a thing of me! Each word this new Joel spoke was a splinter in my heart and my ego. All those daring assumptions he made over the past weeks, I hated them. I hated him. No one knew better than I what Mick meant to me. Now Joel‟s eyes were damn near contemptuous as he continued to look down on me, appraising my face for reactions. Recognizing the look he gave me as but one of the myriad of expressions Justin often showed my mother, I could feel the metal chill of my rage mend my spine, giving me a newfound sense of balance. I stared back at him, equally as stanch. “I‟m not going to play this game with you, Joel,” I warned, coolly. “I‟m not going to choose between you and Mick.”


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Tense, perhaps, was the best term I knew to describe that moment that weighed so heavily between us in silence. The only dramatic element that Dirty Harry standoff of ours was absent, it would seem, was a .44 Magnum. Joel stiffened, the formation of his mouth just a few folds short of a sneer. “That‟s all I needed to know.” As he walked, I didn‟t stop him. I didn‟t want to.

It would be two weeks before Joel would speak to me again.


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“You have ONE unheard message. First unheard message sent TODAY at 3:16 PM.

‘…Hey Madeleine, it’s me… Joel… Well, uh, I was kinda hoping that you’d pick up… but I guess for what I have to say, I can put it on your voicemail… Okay, I know that things have been hard for this relationship and us. And I’m sorry that I haven’t had much to do with you lately… I haven’t met anyone else like you. I really haven’t! And I miss hanging out with you… I know that I seem like a bad boyfriend right now, but please give me some more time… I really don’t want to see you go… Once I have everything straightened out, things will get better. I promise!… I am willing to make this work if you are… And I know it’s my fault. But just, please… give me some more time… Bye.’

To delete this message press [BLEEP!] Message deleted. End of messages.”


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June


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July


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August


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THE END OF THE LINE

The fast paced, melodic chirping of my ringtone nearly made me catapult off my bed as the cellphone vibrated violently against the surface of my nightstand. My chest both heaved and fluttered upon sight of the name that flashed across the screen. “Hey, stranger,” I answered, my voice almost entirely deprived of emotion –consciously. “Hey, stranger stranger,” came the sorely missed reply, although it was hard to overlook the drop of sadness that tainted his own respective tone. “What have you been up to?” I knew he was only asking in part out of being polite, but for him I willing sifted through a censored set of details of the past three and a half months. First to mention was Johnny, of how worried I was after not receiving a letter for several weeks. Next was Peyton, who had in recent events begun fashioning studded neckwear and enough black eyeliner to make her look like a raccoon. I struggled to talk about Luci‟s diagnosis with bipolar disorder, withholding mention of my unnerving visits to her in the Saint Bartholomew psychiatric ward. Then there was the matter of my parents, of their constant quarreling over even the most meaningless of subjects. (Some things would never change.) Not much could have been said about Adrienne, however, as she had led the most uneventful of lives in comparison to the rest of us. When finished, I paused and waited for Joel to exploit my silence; an invitation which was never accepted. I knew what he was waiting for, which button he was challenging me to push.


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Mick‟s participation in the annual State Art Show did not go unnoticed. In fact, for his first legitimate exhibition, the outcome reaped rich in gold. Aside from his gaining offers of artistic patronage, through Mick the Creative Edge also grew in measure of clientele. Elevating from two accounts to six in little more than a month, the sum of orders they produced was both a blessing and a burden for a single-man assembly line. But for an unnecessary bribe of eight dollars an hour (for college, Mick had argued), said dilemma was well on its way to being remedied. Who knew I had such secretarial potential? That was about all the niceties that Joel could withstand. “Stop,” he all but shouted across the wire. “Just stop right there.” Words and tone combined, the situation became translucent: even time could not bridge the rift between us. The illness, viral and deadly, had only been made to sleep. “You didn‟t call to apologize, did you?” I was just enough of a masochist to insist upon hearing the words for myself. “No! I‟ve nothing to apologize for!” Joel scoffed, instinctively defending his manhood. For a moment, it was only too easy for me to mistake him for Justin. For a moment he fell quiet, breathing and all. Right was my fear that we had been disconnected. But I had been proven wrong by Joel Karras before. He resurfaced, levelheadedly. “I‟m never going to be okay with Mick being in your life.” His message was candid. “I know,” I said, “but I can‟t change that. I have no reason to want to change that.” Liar, said a blunt and accusing whisper inside my skull. “I‟m not a good enough reason?” His vocals sounded pained.


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“That‟s not fair.” I tried to keep my tone steady. “The fact is that Mick is part of who I am. And whether or not you like it, he is always going to be part of my life.” The quietness returned, and I had never known it to be so loud. (My ears practically rang off the top of my head!) A time or two I called out to him, Joel, uneasy by the stillness. But it was a long while before I finally heard a reply, a rigorous and burdensome sigh. “I don‟t think we should see each other anymore.”

Mick flexed his fists within his lap; first open, then closed –the motions therapeutic. His handsomely sculpted face was as unfeeling as stone, but his eyes shone like orbs of blue fire. He was like a dormant volcano, a Mount St. Helen; his introverted fury was something to be feared and marveled. “Did he at least give a reason?” Mick asked, breaking our marathon of silence with a voice as composed as his body language. “He did,” I said, though purposely keeping my answer vague. Through the blessing of his intuitive wit, Mick didn‟t push. For this, I was grateful. There came a dry squeak from above our heads, the iron chains that supported the swing finding agitation in our additional weight. His legs being longer, it was Mick who set the steady rhythm of our rocking. Across the divide, the respective space placed between his body and mine, he reached around the back of the bench to encircle my shoulders and lightly guide me toward the warmth of his chest. To complete the gesture, he then leaned down and rested his cheek against my hair. I felt him breathe me in.


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But in such a simple thing that once gave comfort, I found nothing to lull my inner conflict. I knew my choice, and I would‟ve made it again. So why was I plagued with whispers of guilty? Overnight, the world had become a soggy sphere of melancholy gray; and I was lost in a storm without an umbrella. There came a vibration in the front pocket of my jeans. At first I ignored it, but the caller‟s persistence soon wore on my frazzled nerves. The ID shown, however, had not been one I was expecting. “Mom?” “Madeleine?” Never had I heard her voice so broken. “You need to come home and pack…”


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LET IT BE

Many of the women sobbed into their cotton handkerchiefs as the polished mahogany coffin and its somber bearers drifted down the center aisle of the cathedral. The men, silent in their grief, bowed their heads in regard to the fallen soldier as he passed. From the front pew, clothed in the same depressing garb as our surrounding relatives, Peyton and I each stood on one side of our mother, ready to offer support when needed. Each of us was desperate in our determination to remain strong, if only for each other. But as that coffin came closer, I could feel the asserting sharpness of teardrops bristle in the corners of my eyes. Be strong, I chanted in thought. Be strong. Together, the three of us formed a clenching chain of quivering knuckles as Johnny at last came to rest at the foot of the altar. I slid over to make room for Mick beside me in the pew. Across the aisle, Justin sat down with the uncles and grandparents. Father Paul Sullivan, the elderly priest of residence, walked up to the pulpit and began his address to the assembly. “Family and friends, today we gather together to mourn the unfortunate passing of Jonathan Michael Kinsey, a servant of our Lord God and of Man. Like all of you, I was fortunate enough in my lifetime to have known young Johnny. When he was only a couple weeks old, his parents brought him to me for baptism in this very church. With delight, I was able to witness that squirming infant grow into the kind and adventurous young man that he was.


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I remember how he watched in awe as I christened his two younger sisters, Madeleine Marie and Peyton Michelle. “In his short time on earth, Johnny dedicated himself to the wellbeing of others. First as a Boy Scout, then an alter server; a safety patrol officer, then a soup kitchen volunteer; and, finally, a Lance Corporal in the United States Marine Corps, aiding in our country‟s fight against terrorism. Semper fidelis: These were not just words to Johnny. They were his way of life. “His loss will not be an easy one to bear, neither by you or me. But we must remember that, like any adoring parent, Our Heavenly Father holds all of His children dear. Although it may pain us to no longer have earthly ties to him, we must rejoice that Johnny is in a much better place; a place where there is no war or suffering. Please, join me now in sending him off with a smile.” Cued by the soft hymns that floated down from the choir loft, family members of random rank rose to their feet and sauntered up to the head of the church, often one by one, to pay their last respects. After a long and stalling pause, Peyton and my mom stood up to follow as well. But as I moved to join them, a firm yet gentle hand abruptly seized my wrist. Turning around, I met a pair of pleading blue eyes; and seeing the storms churning within them, I sat back down on the bench. The chain broke; me being the weakest link. Mick and I sat there in the pew, holding hands in wait, until he was ready to say goodbye.

Peyton soon disappeared after our return from the cemetery, complaining of a stomachache. Dawn hadn‟t been much different, although –as the grieving mother –she had reserved the right not to make an excuse of absence.


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Justin, I couldn‟t have cared less about. But Mick, I had no doubt that he was safe, congregating on the front porch with the men majority under a fog of cigar smoke. Should I have caught him participating, I wouldn‟t have protested. Not that day. He very well may have needed that drag or two, if only to keep himself together at the seams. That day, I wasn‟t the only one who had lost a brother.

Left on my own, I excluded myself from everything and everyone around me, resigned to an armchair in the far corner of den. As abundant was the food so too was the conversation. The elder members –my grandmother, great aunts, cousins, close family friends, and so on –were scattered in diminutive clusters throughout the living and dining rooms, prating on about this and whatnot. Although the mood was a refreshing, compared to the alternative of fitful sobs, I was disappointed that the evening couldn‟t have passed quietly. Taking advantage of my invisibility, I slipped out of the room, away from the stifling scene. I followed the rug laid path around the corner, up the stairs, and along the square banister, stopping in front of my parents‟ room. Knocking three times against the closed door, I hesitantly turned the knob when there came no reply. Gently I pushed the door open, just enough to sneak a peek. In the middle of the room, there laid a bedridden shell of a woman weighted down by layers of sheets and blankets. Small wads of Kleenex were littered all across her bedside table and floor while a fresh tissue was clenched tightly in her fist inches away from her face. I didn‟t hear a sniffle, or see a trace of a tear. She laid motionless, dead-like.


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“Mom…?” I felt like a child again, powerless and clumsy. Pushing past the door, I concentrated hard not to trip over my feet as ventured closer. My senses were disturbingly mesmerized by the sight of her. Dawn rested on her side; her once neatly combed hair was wild and tossed about like a mesh of copper fibers. Her skin was bleached pasty white while her eyes were swollen pink beneath and bloodshot within. The long black dress she had worn that morning to Johnny‟s funeral still hung from her body, wrinkled. “Mom?” I knelt down next to the mattress, overlapping her fist with my hand. She didn‟t move or speak in acknowledgment of me or my touch. “Mom, please,” I pleaded, squeezing her hand. “Please, this can‟t be good for you. Get up. Johnny wouldn‟t have wanted to see you like this.” There was a whimper and then a jerk. I had struck a chord, and yet she was firm in her refusal to look at me or to utter a syllable. Staring blankly out the partially open window, adjacent to the bed, tears began to fall from her eyes. For a moment, I could have sworn the whiff of smoke that drifted past my nose came by way of the hall. But in the assumed absence of a human presence outside the door, I was resigned in thinking that the scent was merely a trick of the wind coming through the window. I refocused on Dawn. “Mommy, please,” I whispered. “I can‟t lose you too.”

I couldn‟t sleep that night; not with the unyielding sounds of gunfire ringing in my ears or images of Johnny fluttering about behind my eyelids. I found myself wishing Dawn had never told me how he died, if only to save me the nightmares. Forever, I feared, I would be plagued by visions of my brother lying riddled with bullets in the middle of the dessert, alone. I left my bed for a glass of milk, careful not to disturb Peyton on my way out.


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Making it to the top of the stairwell, I stopped. From below, there came the dim shine of florescent light from the kitchen and the murmuring of familiar voices. Familiar masculine voices. Safely camouflaged in the shadows, I sat down and listened as an argument unfurled between father and son. “Justin, you have completely lost your mind!” I had never heard my Granddad Fredrick sound so disconcerted. “I am perfectly sane!” Beneath my feet, I thought I felt the floorboards tremble with my father‟s flaring temper. “You‟ve just lost your son. How can you sit there and think about leaving your family?” “The teaching position I have been offered is an excellent opportunity.” “For your family, or for you? Granted you might be able to give your daughters an Ivy League education, but what until then? Have you at least asked them for their thoughts, or have you grown fond of the idea of ripping two growing young women from their mother?” “I know what is best for my family,” Justin growled. Clearly I could picture him gritting his teeth as he glared at Granddad. “Don‟t do it, Justin.” “And here I thought you would be proud of me, Dad, following in your example.” SLAP! I winced at the crisp sound of the blow as it rattled the sound barrier. Even I understood how low my father‟s words had been. There were just some things within the Kinsey family that we did not talk about.


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For many a minute, father and son remained quiet. In my head I could picture Granddad sitting at the kitchen table with his head of thick white hair bent low and his eyes gazing down into his coffee cup, staring blankly at his reflection. It was a stance of shame I had witnessed only a few times in my life, and yet I knew it so well. “Listen to me, Justin,” Granddad spoke softly; almost too soft for my ears to make out. “If there is one thing you walk away with tonight, let it be this: Not a day goes by that I do not regret walking out on you boys and your mother. It doesn‟t matter how many times she says that she forgives me, the stain will always be there.” I brushed away a tear from my eye, knowing well that my Granddad‟s words had come to nothing. With this last despairing thought, I returned to my bedroom and lulled myself to sleep with tears.


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NOT ALWAYS FOR THE BETTER

No sooner had one catastrophe come to a close did another unfold, barely giving me time to catch my breath. Summer had met its end and my final fall semester at Wynnesboro High was quick to begin. Having done well on my ACT, an overall of 22, I was avidly encouraged by my guidance counselor to enroll in what few accredited college courses the high school had to offer. A variety package of four: English Composition, American History, Algebra, and Into to Physics. With a shrug and a signature, I willingly complied. The extra work would be good for me, I thought. My mind was too idle. For the sake of sanity preservation, my time was a worthy sacrifice. I needed change, desperately.

Unfortunately, in the case of my classmates, the change of season only reaped in a fallow crop. Some of the boys came back growing a goatee. Some of the girls came back a baby. Cosmo Girl and Hustler were still the primary “literature� preferences; and already, within the first week, thoughts for the Senior Prank had begun to circulate. But no one was more eager for graduation than me. Unlike them, however, Adrienne was the sort of person I could always count on to overstep the poisonous ideals of society. She was, and always would be, her own person. From


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her Bohemian taste to her bleeding-heart liberal viewpoints, she would forever be a jigsaw of a thousand pieces. Luci, in comparison, was bipolar in both mind and nature.

At a tender age, Luci was taken away from her abusive, alcoholic mother and had since lived with her father and Debby –a stepmother who bared a striking resemblance to Joan Crawford, in more than just appearance. Over the years, Luci grew skilled in hiding cigarette burns and bruising handprints under dark layers of clothing. I only caught sight of them by chance, a glimpse of the repelling black and blue collection in the dressing room mirror as we changed costumes between acts for My Fair Lady. It was unintentional, this occurrence, and yet it explained so much for me. At last I understood why Luci had been so insistent upon changing alone, upon not being touched. Over time she grew to confide in me; more than I cared to at times. When Luci turned to self-mutilation in our Junior year, I threatened to go over her head, to shove her in the way of the school psychiatrist; but we both knew it was an empty bluff. What could we do, either of us? As a minor, the price for help was parental consent. I blamed myself for her, Luci, going to St. Bartholomew‟s. Because of the mutilations, it was easy for the bruises to be written off as self-inflicted. She came back from the summer worse, I was certain upon sight of her. The bags under eyes had grown heavier while the rest of her body had shrunk drastically. Whenever she sat down, she would fidget nonstop –itching her sallow skin, coughing periodically in tantrums. Her breath stank, reeking like something old and rotted. I sometimes had to shield myself from the scent, to keep the vomit at bay. Her brown eyes had become distant and bloodshot, although they could hardly be seen behind the overcast


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shadow of the hood on her Fall Out Boy sweatshirt. At times she would sway whenever she stood up too quickly from her desk, which led to frequents complaints about headaches. She skipped class often, hiding in the girls‟ bathroom off the Commons; the stench of her always seeming worse whenever she resurfaced. I saw the wrinkled exams and progress reports she stashed inside her textbooks. She was failing all her subjects, something she had never done before. With only one class together, there was only so much I could do for her –as far as tutoring and homework, of which I had plenty of my own. She was not my responsibility, I persuaded myself. I had done all I could for her.

***

During the week, when I wasn‟t in class or with Adrienne, I worked on the set for the drama department‟s fall production of Dracula, which had been scheduled to open Halloween weekend but had very few hands available for the physical assembly. Frazzled, Boss Dawes asked for volunteers from amongst the Drama Club and Thespian Troupe to come during or after school. Having decided to sit the season out, to lay low on competitions and auditions, it was the least I could do.

It was an ominous day, cold and rainy; strangely out of place for the season. My hair and clothes were drenched to the point that they clung uncomfortably to my skin like a spandex bodysuit. Appearing in study hall long enough to be marked present, I blitzed across campus, all the while fighting against the haze of the downpour. By the time I had arrived, my appearance had been


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drowned into disrepair. Slipping into the girls‟ dressing room, I stood underneath the hand dryers until I was only slightly moist. Checking in with the Boss, I saw myself into the scene shop and took my paint can out of the cabinet. With the rest of my supplies scattered about the shop, it took a while before I was ready to resume work on the displaying walls of the set. “You‟re Madeleine Ketsy, aren‟t you?” I hadn‟t realized anyone else had been in the wings. Behind me, standing over a messy pile of recycled lumber, was a boy of approximately my age with a bronze tan and bony figure. His bright hazel eyes, a feature that blended harmoniously with his dark hair and growing patch of stubble, gazed at me curiously. I eyed him carefully. “Kinsey,” I said. “And, yes, I am.” “You went out with Joel Karras, didn‟t you?” I almost dropped the paintbrush. “Yes, I did. Why do you ask?” I was more perturbed than surprised by the line of questioning, especially considering that the news of my failed relationship with Joel was all but written on the bathroom walls. The boy shrugged his shoulders. “No real reason. Joel and I had a class together last year and he kept telling everyone how great you were, how you were the best girlfriend he ever had, and stuff like that.” A knot formed in my stomach. “And besides, everyone saw you two at prom. You guys really –” I refused to stick around to listen to his blather.


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“…AND A HAUGHTY SPIRIT BEFORE A FALL.” (Proverbs 16:18)

It was the sound of the garage door that woke me, the geography of my bedroom making it impossible to ignore the mechanical tugging of the chain as it squealed and crunched in a churning motion. On my nightstand, the clock read 3:16 AM. I stumbled out of bed and to the door, my curiosity cutting through the fog of sleep that smeared my vision. First turning the knob then stepping out into the hall, I followed a stray ribbon of light across the short trek of tile floor to the garage and pushed my way through the entry. For little more than a second I was left blind, not entirely prepared for the awaiting brightness. It took far less than that, however, as my senses came to, for me to realize the situation, seeing it in its transpiring form. Standing over the opened trunk of his Mercedes, a canvas carryall in hand, Justin froze once he noticed me standing in the doorway in my flannel pajamas. We mirrored each other in our vacant expressions, our eyes asking questions and making challenges in place of our lips. For several long moments we remained as such, at a standstill, each of us waiting for the other to react first. Maybe it was my foreknowing that had left my emotions so curbed, making it easier to do what I did next.


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I handled him in the same manner I would have a cornered animal: approaching slowly all the while maintaining eye contact. It was a habit of his, Justin, to keep everything in the inside pocket of his sportcoat –his billfold, his cellphone, his keys. The point was I knew where to reach, and Justin didn‟t stop me. On a simple metal ring, my father kept a collection of five keys: house, car, storage locker, university classroom and office. Discerning one from the other was not a task that required much skill, each labeled with a letter or two on the head. I soon found the one I was looking for, a simple silver piece with a large “H” drawn on the finger-grip. Removing it easily from the hoop, I held the single key in the palm of one hand while balancing the surplus in the other. Holding them both out to Justin, I offered him an ultimatum. His reaction was predictable at first: Justin looked at one hand and then the other, deciding between his freedom and his responsibilities, between the grasshopper and the scorpion. For once I hoped that he would disappoint me, that he would choose family in place of himself. But I should have known better. He looked at me one final time, his eyes vainly searching my face for a leak of expression, before he at last made his decision. Justin took back the mound of keys, minus the one; and then, turning to the side, he dropped his bag in the trunk and slammed it shut. By the time he was done, I had already made it back to the doorsill and stared at him over the curve of my shoulder. Inside the palm of my hand, the grooves and notches of the key fiercely grazed my skin. “I hope whatever it is that you‟re running toward is worth what you‟re leaving behind.” I closed the door and locked it behind me.


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“…WE ALL FALL DOWN!”

Dawn went back to work too soon for my comfort and opinion. Two days of tacit wallowing never cured anyone; but nothing Peyton or I could say was enough to sway her decision. Thus, on the third day, she dressed herself in a black pantsuit and painted on her bravest face. Her supervisor, Mr. Osbourne, spared only a minimal notion of concern for her health before welcoming her back, grateful she even returned at all. The tall mounds of various files and documentation Dawn found atop her desk spelt out the truth: the Wynnesboro Securitron branch was incapable of functioning successfully without her. But so were we. Despite her daughters‟ protests, she took on almost double her accustomed hours, often coming in alone on the weekend. Without Justin, foreclosure and bankruptcy seemed an indefinite fate; and Dawn was the unfortunate skipper left to manage a sinking ship. I needed my brother, Johnny, so badly. I needed his reassuring embrace and promise that everything would soon turn right again. The void he once filled felt twice as gray. All I could do was worry; worry for my family, worry for myself. While my instructors had given me plenty of reasons for distraction, a mere few hours a day surprisingly took care of it all. Mick did his best to keep me busy on the side, packaging product and keeping the office organized. Even Adrienne would find time to spontaneously drop by my house to provide company, often bringing along a book she thought would be of interest. And still I found myself too idle for my own good.


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On and on the cycle would go; day after day, week after week. Minutes and hours, one after the other, passed so slowly and yet accumulated so quickly I hardly knew where I had spent them all. I was a mess, constantly tired and rarely hungry. More and more I took to barricading myself inside my room, the door closed. No lights, no music; the glowing barnacles of stars that dangled around my bedroom ceiling, and the smooth vocals of Michael Bublé occasionally passed through my stereo speakers, held nothing in want or comfort anymore. I felt little else than a severe pain within my mind and chest, as though every bone in my body was desperately trying to break through their fleshy prison. Everyday I felt as though I was drowning; as though I was holding my breath in deep, arctic water. I was lost in a fog of rain clouds, convinced that no amount of happiness could shake me free of the heavy depressed feeling that festered inside of me.

***

Luci came to school in the worst shape I had seen her in a long while. No amount of cosmetic aide could have disguised the grizzly bruises splashed across her cheeks and jaw. It was rare for Debbi to take aim at the face, but not entirely unheard of. On my way to first period, I was nearly mowed down by Luci as she sprinted through the Commons and toward her all too familiar haven. I fought and failed in my efforts to not give her a second glance. In the end, I used the warning bell as an excuse not to follow her. I went about my daily business, pretending ignorance. But come afternoon classes, a bizarre rumor had begun to circulate through the air: Someone was “crying her eyes out” in the back stall of the girls‟ bathroom off the Commons, and had been doing so all morning.


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When Luci didn‟t show for fifth period, Creative Writing, I caved.

A pass in hand, no one had reason to question my motives for being out of class. Not that there was anyone around to inquire; the halls were hauntingly quiet. I walked easily into the restroom, only to be literally blown out again by a much different gust of emotion than I had prepared myself for: She’s laughing? I closed the door quickly, locking the deadbolt to make sure no one would come barging in behind me. The small, tile-walled room appeared empty at first glance, but the echo of hyena hysterics in the air assured me otherwise. All of the stall doors hung open but one, the largest one on the end. Through the opening underneath I could see a folded pair of stick legs. “Luci?” I knocked on the outside of the stall. “Luci, are you in there?” “Maddie!” came a slurring voice from the other side. I jumped as a set of fingers reached out and clasped, weakly, at the material dangling at my ankle. “Don‟t be shy. Come and join the party!” She tugged at me like an impatient toddler. After pulling myself out of her grasp, I leaned my weight against laminated plastic of the door and pushed, but it refused to budge. Luci‟s taunting laughter struck a spark of fluster in me. Kneeling to the floor, I slid across the tile on my belly, worming my way persistently through the small gap, no help to be received. “So, Maddie, how does it feel to crawl in the filth like the rat you are?” I maneuvered myself into a sitting position across from Luci, all the while wincing at her cruel but truthful words. I appraised her as I cleared my throat. “I thought I should come to check on you. When you didn‟t come to class I was worried.”


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“You? Worried about me?” she mocked. “Well, well…little Miss Woe-Is-Me was worried about me.” She lifted a brown paper lunch bag to her face, covering her nose and mouth, and inhaled deep, snorting. “Since when? You‟ve always cared more for a boy than for me, whether it was that bastard preacher‟s son or that artsy-fartsy Swede! Every chance you got, you trailed after one of them like a little lost puppy begging for attention. You make me sick…er!” She laughed at her own joke, a wicked smile taking shape across her lips. It was becoming increasingly hard for me to remain reserved. “So, now that it‟s over between you and the Karras prick, I guess you‟ve gone back to whoring for Mickie, right?” My blood turned arctic beneath my skin, and my breathing became difficult to pace. I was a mess of quivers. If she did not stop I was sure to lose control. “Tell me: Is it true what they say about the Swedish? Do they really pack more than we give them credit for?” SMACK! Every last measure of fervor in my being was delivered in that one swift blow to the side of Luci‟s face. My shaking became subdued by the brusque action but, rather than remaining bitterly frigid, I tingled with an inner inferno. No words, I was satisfied to think, could have replaced the meaning engraved in the force behind the strike. The stinging sensation that prickled across my palm was well worth it. Luci froze in place, her head giving a downward-left tilt of a profile and her oily black hair draped over portions of her face. Her breathing was so shallow I almost couldn‟t tell if she was alive. And then, suddenly, her shoulders began to bounce and the corners of her mouth glided upward in a sneer. She threw her head back and unleashed a newfound chorus of ghastly laughter. The ceiling lights highlighted her yellow teeth. Out of her tiny nostrils trickled thick


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drops of blood, but to this she paid no mind. She faced me and our eyes were locked in a fierce gaze. It was the first time I had noticed how oddly large her pupils were. “Hit me again, Maddie! Come one, hit me again!” she crowed loudly in ecstasy. “For once in your life stop being so pathetic and hit me!” “You‟re crazy!” “Fuck yeah, bitch!” she cackled. Again she plucked up the crinkled lunch bag and inhaled from it deeply, snorting. As she removed it from her face I caught sight of several snowflake specs coating the red fluid that trailed from her nose. I eyed the sack as Luci dropped it back down at her side. “What‟s that?” Luci peered down at the bag and nudged it across the floor with her toe. “A little gift from heaven,” she said, her smile turned mischievous. “Something to numb the pain.” Guardedly, I picked up the bag and glimpsed at what was inside: a mound of white crystalline powder. I glanced up at Luci. “Angel dust,” she replied, again with the slurring. I recognized the street name instantly. “PCP?!” I couldn‟t help but scream at her. “You‟ve been using PCP?!” “Yeah, that‟s right! I‟m a fucking druggie! But for the first time in my life I‟m immune to pain. I CAN‟T FEEL A FUCKING THING!” “Ladies?” There came a knock from outside the restroom door. “Ladies, is everything alright in there?” I didn‟t recognize the voice that called out to us, but the distraction was a worthy one to take advantage of.


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I grabbed the bag. “NO!” Rubber burned traction marks into the floor as our bodies –Luci‟s and mine –scrambled up from the floor, both of us wrapped in the adrenaline of the moment. Luci flew at me from across the cramped space, shoving me backwards against the wall. My body, angled just right to pitch the revolting medicine into the bowl of the toilet, flew awkwardly across the stall with my left side exposed and vulnerable. Going down, the side of my head collided with the metal handrail that was bolted into the wall. The world fell out of focus…

“Sweetheart, can you hear me?” A sharp, direct light shined in my eyes and my ears honed in on the sweet, maternal voice that had called out to me from the blackness. The waters of consciousness washed over me, awakening a painful and lively throbbing over the arch of my left brow. “Do you know where you are, dear?” came the voice again. “Can you remember your name?” Above me loomed a face, which was as much as my fogged vision would permit me to see upon first glance. Blinking, my lenses and pupils laggardly came into alignment. The face in sight developed in character in its gain of bright peach skin, a pair of oval bifocals, and a head of short, sandy blonde curls. At last I was able to make a connection: Ms. Candi, the high school nurse. At the very least, I knew that I didn‟t have a concussion. The words balanced on the tip of my tongue, but yet my body made it impossible for me to answer her questions. My mouth and throat double-teamed against me, making me feel as


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though I was swallowing a hand full of cotton balls. But worse, the gash on my brow not only arose tremendous pain but also a tingling of nausea. Against the nurse‟s wishes, I rolled off of my back and onto my side –pressing my cheek against the cool tile. But as I sighed, my half-opened eyes fell upon something horrifically peculiar: Behind the crouching nurse laid another body, turned face up and sprawled limply across the floor. My gaze widened sorely once taking notice of the all too familiar Fall Out Boy sweatshirt it was wearing and the sloppy manicure of black polish on its fingernails. There was no doubt in my mind that the body was Luci‟s, although the tone of her skin had faded to a marble gray and the higher portion of her face had been shrouded with a white handkerchief. Her arm extended out across the tile with an exposed switchblade resting but a short distance away from her lifeless fingers, the metal painted crimson along the edge. An irrepressible scream blasted through the clog of my throat as my eyes traced the savagely carved opening across Luci‟s jugular.


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Need to Talk? In light of the tragic death of

Luci Elissa Shane grief counseling will be offered to all students by Ms. Stacy Amford in Room 121 Monday & Wednesday, October 22th & 24th from 10 am to 2 pm

REMINDER: Homeroom Schedule will be put into effect on Friday for an afternoon guest speaker who will address the topic of suicide. Don’t forget to wear your blue and gold to show community support. Go Hedgehogs!


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COPING

There is no subtle, no peaceful way of handling death; nothing that can be said about it that can ever make sense. It is what it is. News of Luci‟s suicide erupted through the grapevine, leaving no head unturned. Some of the students extended their fickle grievances while others were honest enough to laugh at the loss. Had she been a cheerleader or a member of the student council, the entire teenage society would have dressed in black and demanded a day of remembrance. But no one mourns a Nobody. Not one of them attended her funeral. Then again, what right had I to criticize? Although I had the intent, I could not bring myself to venture farther than the truck, to make that trek up the path to the designated cemetery plot. Instead, leaning against Ol‟ Blue, I watched as Luci‟s simple pine box was lowered into the ground. Standing next to me, in his black suit and tie, Mick held my hand the entire time. Adrienne was kind enough to say goodbye for each of us.

I took a recommended “medical leave”; an extensive three days, a Friday and a weekend, to “clear my head.” Thankful was I to be kept busy during this time, however. Dawn couldn‟t have


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picked a better occasion for us to move. Putting the house up for sale, determined to be rid of it before the misers at the bank came to call, Mom assured us that our stay with Mick would be temporary; even though it was only because of Mick‟s insistence that we had a place to go. While the women took over the entire upstairs of the two-story, three bedroom dwelling, Mick set up camp in the empty study below. His genteel nature, perhaps it was, withheld any complaints he may have had in the arrangement.

It didn‟t take long after I returned to school for me to catch up on the gossip that had circulated in my –brief –absence, while my back was turned. It was so easy for me to forget at times how small the school was, in body and in mind. Some of the stories pointed to me as being the second member of an imaginary suicide pact, the failing interval. Others said that I was the supplier, the one who gave Luci the drugs and the switchblade; that it was my influence as her friend that drove her to “end her pain.” Although I wanted to, I had so few tears left to cry. No one cared to know the truth, to know my side of the story. They found too much sadistic pleasure in their colorful, and perverse, renditions. Adrienne was one of the few who stood by me, steadfastly. The principal, being the faceless ignoramus that he was, sought to redeem the school‟s integrity, jumping at the opportunity to arrange for a guest speaker to address to the students about the “horrors of suicide.” The irony infuriated me, knowing that someone had to die before a threat could be taken seriously. The presentation itself was informative, discussing theoretical scenarios and warning signs to be wary of. But the visuals were the worst, magnified ten times their size off the


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projection screen, their gory content upsetting my head and stomach. I could even feel the fresh scar above my left eye throb at the memories that resurfaced. And then there were the notes, crude and anonymous, that were passed to me from all directions throughout the auditorium. Each one wounded me in one way or another: “Is your skin crawling yet?”; “Do you wish it was you instead?”; “Psycho!”; “Burn in hell, bitch!” After a while, the words became redundant. Sitting next to me, Adrienne crumbled and pocketed each note after I read them. Quickly becoming disgusted, she would snatch the messages out of my hands and hide them before I had a chance to unfold the creases. When at last we were dismissed, Adrienne pulled me aside. Her brown eyes ablaze, she demanded that I make an appointment to see the principal, to show him the notes. As a friend, I understood and appreciated her concern; but still, I brushed her off. Only when I was alone, when I was at last certain everyone had returned to class, did I allow myself to breakdown, vomiting my disgust in the nearest toilet. Tired and starved, my body trembled with vertigo… Awaking some time later in a cold shiver on the girls‟ bathroom floor, I screamed.

***

The mirror became my enemy; so disgusted had I become with myself that I wanted nothing more than to tear apart the girl I saw staring back me through the glass. Taking a pair of scissors out of Mick‟s shaving kit, I watched with sunken eyes as I chopped my hair within mere inches of its roots, tears rolling down the blank mask I had grown to recognize as my face. But I could not cure my sin; I could not cure my ugliness.


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Feeling less than superstitious, I cocked back my elbow and hurled my fist forward into the glass of the bathroom mirror, the fragments scarring my knuckles. The only cry to escape my lips was one of raging anguish. Turning the handle, holding my damaged hand under the running faucet, I watched with mild fascination as the cold water washed my blood and severed hairs down the drain.

***

As time went by, slipping from days into weeks, I found my therapy sessions with the school counselor, Ms. Amford, to be more of a burden than a relief. We would talk about everything and yet nothing important. Sometimes we discussed college; sometimes I left her grasping at Popsicle sticks. My opinion was the last to be asked in the matter. Dawn recommended me for therapy faster than I could protest after my abrupt and dramatic haircut. Mick had his own reasons, I suppose, for defending the decision. In his shoes, I would have used the unpredictable mood swings and violent nightmares as a basis. Near the end of each meeting, Ms. Amford always asked the same question: “Is there anything else you would like to talk about, Madeleine?” I was mindful not to say too much to her, partly in hopes that it would leave me with something to say for our next meeting. To be sure, I had little faith in Ms. Amford‟s abilities to help me –she who seemed mildly motivated to help, incapable of relating to me and my unnamed condition. I disclosed as much to Dawn.


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It was then, upon recommendation, that I was introduced to Dr. Anita Watkins, a leading child psychologist at the Maubry Medical Clinic for “troubled youths.” One afternoon in her office unraveled a mystery weeks overdue. “Mrs. Kinsey, your daughter is very sick,” Dr. Watkins said in a tone of professional empathy, identifying the parasite within me as clinical depression.


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SHATTERED

Nearly dinnertime, everyone was gathered in the kitchen. Sitting at the table, Mick and Peyton chopped away at a colorful assortment of vegetables for the salad. Mom at the stove and I at the counter, she oversaw the skillet of diced potatoes while I watched the shrimp. Stepping away from the deep fryer, I opened the refrigerator door and reached in for the jar of homemade shrimp sauce. But as I turned away and the heavy door shut behind me, louder than I had anticipated, my one-handed grip around the jar twitched loose and the container fell to the floor – glass shattering and shrimp sauce splattering across the floor, like blood. At the sound of the breaking I could feel everyone‟s eyes turn to me, wide in alarm. My skin tingled painfully, every last hair on my head standing erect while each bone in my body fell into a fit of trembling. Voices, like malevolent little pixies, whispered inside my head: “You are so worthless!”; “You can’t do anything right!”; “You should have been the one who died!” My hands flew up and gripped the sides of my head, as though just their presence there would be enough to keep my body from ripping in two. My stare remained on the broken shards of glass and the crimson splotches across the floor. Terrified whimpers clawed their way out of my throat, and my knees threatening to buckle underneath me. A large, worn hand reached out to comfort me; but I refused to let it get too close. “Don‟t!” I screamed, my head bent low and my socked feet scurried backwards. Eventually I collided with a wall. My eyes still fixated on the floor, I began to squirm violently


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as I watched a looming band of shadows creep closer and closer, smothering my air. In my delirium, I could feel myself being swallowed in. At the first sight of an opening, I darted past them, out of the kitchen, and into the entry hall, leaping up the stairs two at a time. I bolted my bedroom door behind me.

Dr. Watkins would later, on a much more vague wind of description, diagnose the experience as a “meltdown” –for the lack of a more scientific term.


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A LITTLE BRONTË FOR EFFECT

A thumb and index finger slid into my ear, pinched the end of the earplug and jiggled it loose with little effort. I jumped at the odd feel of warmth brushing against my skin, but I was no stranger to the owner of that large and gentle hand. Replacing the bookmark, I removed the second plug on my own and straightened up against the stack of boxes at my back. Mick crouched down next to me, smiling. He briefly made a glance at the book in my hands before reverting back to my eyes. “No Jane today?” he asked. I shook my head. “Brontë felt more appropriate.” He nodded his understanding, again making a glance at the cover of the bargain paperback, scanning the title –Wuthering Heights. It wasn‟t much of a change; I still had a ways to go to meet full recovery standards. But at least, Mick could vouch, I was reading again. It was an appropriate start. But there was work that needed to be done, deliveries –already assembled –that needed to be made. There were no windows in the storage room, nothing to visibly betray the condition of the world outside the walls of the shop. The fierce pelting sounds that echoed overhead, however, gave a fair and depressing sketch of the situation. It had been raining far too much lately, too much to be healthy; and the weatherman offered no prediction of change. We were in for, it seemed, a very soggy Thanksgiving. I felt drained; more so than usual.


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Mick took my wrist, leveled it with his face, and read the display of time he found there. Once satisfied, he returned my arm to the lax position he had taken it from. “Fifteen minutes „til closing,” he sighed dramatically, one corner of his mouth deflating while the other remained set at a lopsided angle. In the way that he flexed his hand against his knee, I could tell how hard he was fighting the urge to reach up and tousle his smoothly combed hair, to disarrange his professional appearance. It had been a long, mildly unproductive day for Creative Edge. Through his teeth Mick began to whistle the famed Jeopardy theme in a persistent loop until, at last, I conceded to his intentions and smiled. “There it is,” he softly praised, tapping a fingertip against my bottom lip. “There‟s that smile I once knew.” He masked it well, I thought. Perhaps it helped Mick, eased his mind, to think that I hadn‟t heard the high octave exchange he had taken part in only a few short minutes before. (I still had enough heart not to tell him that the earplugs only acted as a buffer; they did not guarantee full immunity to sound, to shouting.) Thanks to both him and Johnny, I knew just enough Swedish to be appalled. Familiar with only the vulgar terms, it was easy to deduce that Mick had used all but a few of them whilst conversing with his starched-collared father, a respected Swedish lawyer and the only person I had ever heard Mick raise his voice to. No one, not even Johnny, knew what they fought about for lengthy hours on end; and Mick never liked to talk about it. But it would‟ve upset him further to think that he had cursed within earshot of a lady. Transitioning back to the moment: “We‟ll wait and see if the weather clears up by the time we leave,” Mick said, handing back to me that same spongy plug he had been so bold in


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taking earlier. “Hopefully we‟ll get enough of an interlude that we can get a shipment over to the post office before they close for the holiday.” I nodded and watched Mick as he straightened up. To me, he always looked taller in those dark blue jeans, his work jeans –so deep in blue that they could have almost been black. It matched well the onyx t-shirt that he wore, the company logo sitting over the left breast with airbrush outlined letters of metallic, eye-catching silver. (The simplicity of the design did little justice to what I knew Mick was capable of.) The simple fitting of the shirt made him appear a bit slight, if such a thing was possible. Tucking it in with a belt, however, offered some form of improvement, ultimately weakening what would have otherwise been considered casual apparel. Our uniforms were identical in almost every way, but he would always be the better model of the two of us. “Enjoy your book, flicka,” he said, gifting me with one last smile before he disappeared through the door, closing it behind him. I listened to his footsteps, to their steady but fading rhythm as Mick passed through the short hallway, sandwiched between the office and the studio, and back onto the sale floor. From behind the front counter, I could hear the familiar scraping of wood against wood as Mick slid the stool back and sat down. Knowing him, he had already finished the morning newspaper and was about to reach for the book of Sudoku puzzles tucked in the drawer under the register. I never should have gotten him addicted to those things! I was just beginning to reposition the first plug in my ear when there came a harsh jingling of bells from the front of the shop, the hopeful indication of a potential customer passing through. But instead of that friendly greeting I had grown so use to hearing, the first words that came to be exchanged were ones that broke all humble boundaries of business. “You shouldn‟t be here, Joel.”


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“I came to talk to Madeleine.” “She‟s not here.” “Liar.” Awareness crashing down atop of me, my eyes grew wide inside my head and my lungs turned heavy like cement cinderblocks. My fight or flight impulse was severely confused. “I never meant to hurt her,” Joel pressed, the sincerity of his emotions faltering from start to finish. “But you did, and that‟s all I need to know.” “So, what? Are you going to play the big brother now? Are you going to beat me up and throw me out on the curb? I can‟t really picture you as a Sonny Corleone type.” “Don‟t tempt me. I rather like my Humphrey Bogart disposition.” Were the situation not so tense I might have found humor in Mick‟s words. The only Humphrey Bogart he had ever seen was Casablanca. “Don‟t pretend you care about her. You‟ll only embarrass yourself further.” “Screw you! I did everything I could to keep our relationship going!” “Did you really think that forcing her to choose between the two of us would help your cause? That she would devotedly roll over and obey your force of will, regardless of her feelings?” There came a pause. “How do you know about that?” “You weren‟t the only ones who were out in the parking lot that night. They don‟t allow smoking in public areas anymore.”


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I gasped, my hand flying up in reflex –carelessly dropping the earplugs along the way. Mick knew; he knew the reason, knew why Joel and I broke up, and he never told me! All that time that I could have confided in him, wasted. Why didn‟t he tell me? I was at a loss at how to react, what I was supposed to feel. In my chest, my heart was pounding so hard, a distinctive sign that I was angry; but there was also a pain there, a sort of twisting and pulling in one direction and then another. Mick, why didn’t you tell me? “I won‟t discuss this with you anymore. You will leave now, and you will not call or attempt to see Madeleine again. If you do, then you better be prepared for me to do more than just reenact a scene from The Godfather. Do you understand?” My toes grew numb in my shoes. It was rare for me to hear such frigid words cross Mick‟s lips. I doubt I was the only one within the building who cringed. I listened as the shop door was wrenched open, and then slammed. What followed afterward was only silence, long and foggy. I don‟t know how long I sat there in the dark, my mind temporarily misplacing the knowledge that I owned a watch. It took a while, I know, before peace at last came for my poor heart and lungs; but the pain persistently thrived. Indeed, I had much to enlighten Dr. Watkins with at our next session. I didn‟t look up as the storage room door opened; I had no desire to gaze into the eyes of the man who gave source to my confliction. As he approached, I turned my head to the side and flashed him my empty ear canal. “You heard?” “Every word.”


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There were no detours; just minor traffic and a few lights to offer interference by way of downtown and the woodland stretch to the house. Resting against the passenger door, I counted the lazy raindrops as they dribbled down the window. The cool sensation of the glass against my brow numbed the irritation lining my scar. Ol‟ Blue no longer felt like a truck but a hearse; the muted radio accompanied by the cautious silence shared between my companion and I only fueled the morbid atmosphere. The shift in tire traction warned me when we were getting close to our destination, the road no longer feeling smooth like asphalt but ridged and bumpy like dirt and gravel. Bittersweet anticipation tickled in my gut at this consciousness, soothing me –like aloe vera applied to a fresh skin burn. My sanctuary was within only minutes of reach. Mick turned off the road and onto the equally trodden path that lead to the house, adeptly sliding to a halt under the carport attached to the garage. After killing the engine, he unbuckled his seatbelt but didn‟t so much as shift in his seat, let alone open the driver‟s side door. Curious, I glanced over. As though in a trance, Mick‟s eyes stared with an abject fixation through the windshield; his hands gripped the steering wheel in such a manner that his knuckled were left drained. A minute passed, then two; and finally, he moved. As his hand made a grasp for mine, I jumped. I tried to pull my wrist free from him, but he only tightened his grip. “I don‟t blame you if you hate me,” Mick spoke quietly, his eyes still averted. “Some of this might have even been avoided had I said something earlier. Please understand that I did what I felt I had to.” I watched, rapt, as the print of his thumb brushed against the back of my hand. “I know you cared about him, and that is supposed to make him special. But he‟s not. There is


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nothing special about someone who makes you cry.” As though he expected me to recoil, Mick tightened the embrace of his hand even more over mine. It was firm, but not painful; much like his intentions. “I just want you to know that there are still people who love you, Madeleine; people who would do anything for you. I know it may not feel like it, but you‟re not alone in this. You haven‟t reached absolute zero yet.” All at once his eyes looked up, his cerulean irises aglow with sincerity and… something else nameless and deeper. “If you want to talk, I‟ll listen. Even if you hate me, I‟m here if you need anything.” “I don‟t hate you,” I said, my voice faltering as the tears began to well. “I‟m just so tired!” I leaned further into the door, against the window, my eyes sodden and closed from exhaustion. There was little left separating me from oblivion. By the time I had realized how cold and empty my hand had become, the driver‟s door had already been closed and Mick had made it halfway around the vehicle. The restricting force of my seatbelt was the only thing that kept me from falling out as he opened the door and reached in. Unbuckling me, Mick wrapped one arm under my legs and the other around my back. Neither of us spoke as he lifted me out of the truck and carried me up to the house. Calmed by his body‟s perfume of rain and sandalwood, I nestled into the fabric of his corduroy jacket, eyes still closed. Somehow Mick managed his way into the front hall with little difficulty and carefully he ferried me up the flight of stairs to my bedroom, stopping only briefly to shoo a whimpering VanGogh out of the way. I thought for sure he would hesitate to go in, knowing who the room had belonged to previously; but he didn‟t. Once inside, Mick carefully laid me down on the bed, removed my shoes and jacket, and modestly tucked the cotton bedspread around my body.


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Leaving my side for only a moment, he returned with a glass of water. Sitting down at the edge of the bed, Mick slid one hand underneath to support my head while he used the other to gingerly pour the cool liquid into my mouth little by little. I swallowed each drop without resistance. Mick waited until I was finished before he withdrew the glass completely and set it down on my bedside table. As though to reassure himself of my safety, Mick once more smoothed the covers around my shoulders and then brushed a few soggy strands of hair from my forehead. His eyes never left my face. In that moment, peeking out from under my eyelashes, it was what I saw there in those eyes that scared me into turning onto my side, into facing the wall instead of him. The creaking sound of aged fan blades filled the temporary void of stillness between us. Under the shelter of the thin sheets and quilt, I screwed my eyes shut and licked my chapped lips in preparation of the words that would pass through. “Please go away.” The resulting shock was inevitable, but it was that which was to come afterward that left me edgy. I waited, but not for long. Against my upper arm and shoulder, I felt the pressure of a body hang over me as a pair of lips grazed tenderly against my brow. “Söta drömmar, min flicka.” There was no disguising the injury behind his accent. But then the weight on the mattress was gone. Behind him, the door closed with a soft and lonely click.


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CATHARSIS

December 6th. It was a day no one would allow me to forget; despite my insistence that I had no plans and that I wanted nothing –convenient –for a gift. Every year I had a request. Not an impossible one; just often difficult to time. This year, my eighteenth, I started out equally as hopeful as the last. But despite the weatherman‟s adamancy in his forecast, there was too much autumn left in the scenery for me to believe in a timely delivery of my present. I went to bed early the night before, pessimism holding a monopoly on my predictions for the morrow. There was no denying that the air seemed colder, or that the smell of moist pine had grown so strong that it could almost be tasted on the tongue as one breathed in. But still, I refused for disappointment to be the first emotion I experienced on my birthday. Waking near daybreak, after a long and futile rebellion against the screeching of my alarm clock, I removed myself from the warmness of bed. Kneading the sleep out my eyes, I spared a glimpse out the window on my way to the bathroom… and stopped. Yes, the weatherman had been wrong again; but this time, it was a relieving sort of mistake. To clarify, it was more than just a humble handful of snowflakes that had fallen over the course of the night! From my windowsill alone, it was impossible to ascertain how thick of a blanket covered the clearing surrounding the house; although it was safe to assume that, without some vigorous shoveling, none of the vehicles would be able to leave the driveway. The meteorologist on


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Channel 12 would later boast an average accumulation of eight inches within the northeast region of the state, radically surpassing the record set three years before; and more than enough to close the Wynnesboro schools, and most businesses, for the day. Too in awe of my present to look away, I unexpectedly caught sight of Mick as he traipsed across the lawn to retrieve a shovel from the garage and doggedly began to burrow his way up the drive. I didn‟t know what startled me more: the thought that he had the audacity to spoil the beauty of my treasured view, or the fact that he was already alive and wired at a quarter to seven in the morning! As though he could feel my eyes on him, Mick looked back at the house and up in my window. He smiled, his expression tender, as he waved at me; it was a gesture in which I returned with sincerity, once moving past my previous astoundment. Such was the friendliest interaction we had had in the past week.

For the occasion, Dawn made “Birthday Beignets” –their fluffy, fried exterior coated first with the traditional powder sugar, but then drizzled specially in chocolate syrup and topped with maraschino cherries. Only with Peyton‟s help was I able to finish the three that were stacked on my plate. Mick had snuck off before breakfast, while the rest of us were getting dressed, leaving only a brief message of “Happy Birthday” and “See you soon” under the Snoopy magnet on the front of the refrigerator. I would call his cellphone several times throughout the day, only to receive an allotted number of rings and then voicemail. Seeking pastime, to preserve what was left of my nerves, I balanced the empty hours between random frolics in the snow and rewatching a BBC television drama saved on the DVR.


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Without him, the house seemed lost in identity. Adrienne came over late in the afternoon. (It had taken so long for most of the back roads to be plowed and scraped that she almost didn‟t come at all.) Being as cold as it was, and so close to dusk, we spent most of our time indoors, talking. Banned from the kitchen by Dawn and her sous chef, Peyton, my room and the den were the only places my friend and I had left to congregate. We went upstairs first, more or less to indulge Adrienne‟s curiosity. She had never been inside Johnny‟s old bedroom. Before, I didn‟t invite her; she didn‟t belong. She didn‟t belong because she never knew him. The remnants of my brother were far too few and dear to be handled by a stranger. It then becoming my room, however, the rules changed. I tried to tell her that there was nothing to see, that Johnny had more or less packed himself away after being recalled into the military. And frankly, in the weeks that I had lived in the house, aside from the sheets on the bed and the clothes in the dresser, the space had remained as sparse as I had found it. I could not understand or squelch Adrienne‟s fascination. In what little there was for her to explore, she took an interest in studying the pages of my scrapbook. As she did this, I found myself standing by the windowsill… staring… waiting… I might not have said anything about Mick had Adrienne not asked, but even she must have felt that something was out of place, having gone so long without seeing him –in a threedimensional sense. Eventually, after some mild whittling, she collected from me the stingy details …


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The flames crackled as they relentlessly devoured the logs stacked within the brick hearth, shadows of firelight flickering across the walls of the dim and nippy den. Bundled in our own respective blankets, lukewarm mugs of tea in hand, Adrienne and I stretched our legs out across the woven rug on the floor as we leaned our backs up against the hard foot of the sofa. Across from us was the television, the concluding frame of Casablanca played across the screen. I looked over at Adrienne. More and more, she was making it easier for me to regret saying anything about Mick and his heated encounter with Joel. Since then she had been so quiet, so pokerfaced. The evening lacked enough without her assistance.

Johnny was no longer there to lead me in a birthday dance, or rather a sloppy rendition of the Waltz across the living room floor, to the melody of “As Time Goes By.” Nor was Mick available to act as a replacement, as he had the two years before. The one tradition that helped me to look forward to occasion, broken. Dawn knew this and tried her best to smooth out the wrinkles. I, in return, did my best to pretend that her efforts alone were enough. She had made a dinner of Swedish Meatballs with egg noodles, my favorite, followed by German Chocolate Cake with vanilla ice cream for dessert; but I ate very little. After blowing out the candles, I made quick work of unwrapping the gifts everyone had been so insistent upon giving. From Adrienne I received a new journal, one with a green cloth shell and various white buttons sewn across the cover; and from Mom and Peyton, a CD of Frank Sinatra‟s greatest hits. I set Mick‟s present off to the side, refusing to open it until he came home…


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Our heads turned at the sound of heavy feet climbing the porch steps, their weight being enough to rouse a stiff creaking from the planks. Following this brief prelude, the front door burst open with an unfriendly gust of wind; the lower level of the house, in turn, became engulfed with a chill more vigorous than the last. It would take a moment before all was contained once again. Adrienne and I watched and waited for the first signs of the intruder to be made visible from around the corner, from around the doorframe. His brown-leathered boots caked with snow and his matching corduroy jacket covered in pine needles, the stranger once lovingly known as Mick paraded down the hall to the den, dragging along a sizeable yet scrawny evergreen by its manmade base. “Ho, ho, ho! And harty har humbug to all!” he crowed, a grin stretched broadly across his stubbled face. My heart and feet jumped upon sight of him, but I didn‟t rush over or gush with welcoming words. All of a sudden, I found my mood too gray to react and my mouth too dry to speak. Our eyes met, blue and hazel. Whatever he found there to greet him, I was resolved, was of his creation alone, to be translated as he pleased. Eventually he looked away. Mick maneuvered himself and his prize over to the far wall of the room, adjacent to the frosty bay window, and set the tree upright on its stand. “So, what do you think?” he asked his undersized audience, taking a step back to offer us a better view. “Tonight also being St. Nicholas Eve, I thought we could do some dual celebrating; maybe get a head start on Christmas and start a certain young woman‟s new life off with a good memory.” “Forget that!” Peyton chimed in unexpectedly from the kitchen opening. “She‟s finally old enough that we can kick her out. Let‟s break out the boxes and pack up her crap so she can


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leave tomorrow.” Her ugly snicker of a remark successfully hit its mark on the first pitch. But within that same background, not long after, a recant came in the appropriate form of a bitter “Ow!” Mom was the only one of us within immediate distance of Peyton who could deliver to her that much needed slap in the back of the head. I found myself staring down at my socked feet, my ears still abuzz with my sister‟s scorning words. Instead of feeling out the eyes I knew were appraising me, I allowed myself to become disconnect with my surroundings, to become lost inside my own body. It wasn‟t much colder there, I thought, than the world outside… There came a lukewarm touch to the underside of chin, urging my head upward. Once again, I found myself wading in pools of oceanic blue. Standing so close, I could smell the nicotine on his breath. “Are you alright, flicka?” Mick asked. His features were soft save for his mouth, which was set low in concern. “Yeah,” I croaked at first, followed by a shallow intake of air. “I‟m fine. Thank you.” For a moment he returned to studying me before he bent down further to place a downy kiss on my forehead. I could feel his lips linger against my skin still as he began to whisper. "I‟m sorry today wasn‟t all as you had hoped for, but I promise I‟ll make it up to you." Closing my eyes seemed the only natural response. Behind me, Adrienne suddenly stood up. “Madeleine, I‟m gonna go ahead and go before the weather gets too bad.” She refolded her blanket and draped it over the arm of the couch. “I‟ll walk you to your car,” I said, overcoming my surprise by my friend‟s abrupt return of voice. I tried to mask my blush as I pulled away from Mick, accidently brushing against him as I rushed past.


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We collected our gear, Adrienne and I, from the foyer closet –a pair of boots and gloves, a heavy layered coat, a scarf, and a cap apiece. Dressing carefully, Adrienne and I each braced ourselves for the biting cold we knew would be waiting for us just outside. Adrienne went on ahead as I paused to close the door behind us. I thought for sure that she would have sprinted straight for her vehicle, if only for the sake of warmth; but she didn‟t. Instead, I found her standing in the yard –her back facing me, her head set at a downward angle toward the ground. She refrained from looking at me as I moved closer, standing within bounds of her peripheral vision. Her posture instantly became rigid as I placed a gloved hand on her shoulder. Thus I quickly withdrew. Her silence was as icy as the weather. “Are you angry with me, Adrienne?” I posed my question in a careful manner, no longer feeling safe amongst my assumptions. “At this point Madeleine,” she began, the calm in her voice resonating with tension, “I could cheerfully throttle you and then some.” She turned her whole body to face me. Stormy was her body language. “These three years that we‟ve been friends, did you really think that there hasn‟t been times when I just wanted to slap you upside the head? Do you really think I would be as overly supportive as I have been if you weren‟t under a cloud right now? Your wrongheadedness alone makes me regret being a pacifist!” I looked at her, astounded. What was it about me that drove people to radically abandon their emotional countenance? “I‟m sorry, Adrienne,” I confessed cagily, afraid of a second outburst, hoping to prevent it, “but I‟m not exactly sure where you‟re going with this.”


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She only became more excited. “You‟re not sure? You have a lot of the nerve to say that to me!” “I‟m not trying to be flippant, Adrienne. I just don‟t know what you‟re trying to get across–” “Mick!” she screamed his name into my face. “He‟s the truth Joel could never convince you of; the truth that you‟ve been lying to yourself about for… God only knows how long!” As I continued to gawk, otherwise helpless, something inside of me broke under the force of Adrienne‟s declaration. All at once, the atmosphere felt abominably oppressive on my chest and spinal column. “How can you stand there and act like you don‟t know what I‟m talking about? This whole thing, this charade of being a lonely-hearted girl, it was never about Joel, or Zain, or Lucas. Maybe it was never even about Johnny. But for sure it has always been about Mick, because you love him!” “Of course I love Mick,” I said, almost whispering in my timidity. “He‟s my–” “Don‟t!” Taking a step close, Adrienne stabbed finger within millimeters of my face. “If you say that you love him because he‟s your brother, I will knock you into the snow!” The flares in her eyes were, more or less, redundant reinforcement of her words. I didn‟t understand where this adrenaline of hers was emanating. What had happened to the girl who, only months before, had challenged my affection for Joel into a corner, calling teenage love a farce? What happened to her statistics, her ideologies about preservation of heart? And she sought to accuse me of being a hypocrite! Adrienne was trying to peek inside of me, to trespass into a place she didn‟t belong –just like Joel –and I hated it! No one knew better than I what Mick meant to me. No one really


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understood how much I needed him in my life –his tenderness, his understanding. When Johnny left, I admit, no truth could have been stronger, more apparent… So I ran, and continued to run. I could never force Mick to see something he didn‟t want to; to see a woman in the child whose hand he once held as she crossed the street. I was left with only one way to live, one way to view him in spite of myself. “Mick is my brother, Adrienne.” “Madeleine, I am dead serious–” “It‟s the best I can do!” Although the octave of my tone had been higher than I originally intended, one look from Adrienne assured me of its effectiveness. She stared at me, flabbergasted by the assertiveness of tone. I took advantage of her state and shoved, not giving her a chance to regain her violent stance. We stumbled together from the force, in time regaining our footing. But even then we could only stare at each other, our nerve-endings tingling with cold as the murky sky opened up in wake of a flurry. At last, Adrienne sighed and shook her head. “Do what you want then,” she said, calling over shoulder as she turned away. Her aura reeked of disappointment as she walked toward her mother‟s BMW. “I‟m not going to pretend that I know you anymore.”

It took a while after Adrienne left before I was finally able to serve up enough conviction in my body‟s mobility to return to the house. My limbs bordering numb and my face layered mildly with frostbite, I followed the trail of boot prints slowly back up to the porch and slipped quietly through the front doors. One by one, I peeled the pieces of outerwear from my body and hung them temporarily on the stair rail


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to dry. Shivering, I rubbed my hands up and down along the sleeves of my argyle sweater, relying on the action to provide at least a small simulation of heat until I reached the living room. VanGogh watched me with lazy interest from the rug at the top of the stairwell. In my absence, Mick had already weaved six feet of multicolored twinkle lights onto the many branches of the anorexic conifer and clothed the base of it with a quilted, poinsettia treeskirt. He had only just opened the first major storage container of decorations when I lightly knocked on the wall, alerting him of my reappearance. Turning around, Mick‟s beautiful face lit up to match the glow of the tree. Were my mood a thousand times lighter, I would have easily burst into a fit of mirth at the sight of him in that ridiculous excuse of a Santa hat, too fluffy for its own integrity. But as I was, I could only take a small interest in it. “Oh good, you‟re back!” Mick observed merrily. “And perfect timing, too. I just finished with the lights. Now comes the fun part!” In each hand he held up an ornament of blown glass, the one in his right having been painted with caroling snowmen while his left was decorated with can-can dancing reindeer. Both were a bit much for me at the moment, but I played along, not wanting to be the cause of Mick‟s smile deflating again. I chose the snowmen. Giving in to his inner anal artist, Mick took his ornament and began to surveying every angle of the tree for the perfect hanging branch. I silently stood apart, tracing my fingertips along the outer shell of the globe. Watching him, the memory of Adrienne‟s words gnawed at my insides like a persistent parasite. My chest hurt. No, everything hurt. Looking over his shoulder, Mick saw me in my gloom and immediately unburdened himself with his decoration. Walking over, he kindly placed a hand on each of my shoulders.


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“Is everything alright, flicka?” His face was shadowed with worry. My fingers began to shake and clenched harder around the ornament. I bit down on my lip. Please, just stop, I begged him wordlessly, my eyes burning under their capsule-tight lids. Why do you always have to be so nice to me? Why can’t you give me a reason to hate you more than myself? My head fell forward into his chest, forcing him take a half step back to regain balance. Mick‟s grip upon my shoulders turned understandably firm, ready to lend support should my body receive the impulse to collapse. “Madeleine–” “It‟s okay, Mick. You don‟t…you don‟t always have to be so nice to me.” My voice cracked as the blistering ache around my eyes intensified. “It‟s okay if you‟re angry. I should‟ve never made you feel as though it was your responsibility to look after me, or my family. It‟s okay for you to complain, or yell. You don‟t have to hold back for anyone‟s sake. But please, don‟t force yourself to be nice to me. I could never forgive you for that.” I could feel his heart beat steadily against my forehead as he stood there, ever so still. Aside from my labored breathing, only the crackling of the fire and the chiming of the clock on the fireplace mantle filled the room. Mick‟s hands raised me upright, forcing me to stand on my own. Carefully, he took the ornament out of my clenched hands. He held it in his palm for a moment and then, looking at me, he chucked it –with the slightest flick of his wrist –across the room. It made a sharp Pop! of a sound as it landed against the oak floor. My body cringed instantaneously. There was no spare minute of warning, nothing to prepare me for that moment before I suddenly found myself being cradled within a pair of strong and protective arms. For the life of


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me I couldn‟t recall when last he had embraced me so fully, invading me physically and emotionally. I felt almost gravitated. Later, and only then, I would reprimand him for the smatterings of tobacco he had forced me to inhale at that moment via his sweater. Mick‟s lips brushed against my ear as he spoke, whispering. “Jag älskar dig, Madeleine. Mer än någonting annat, och mer än vad du någonsin kommer att få veta.” There was a maelstrom of meaning hiding beneath the heavy accent of those words, but nothing I had yet been permitted to touch. Raising my arms from my sides, I encircled them around Mick. “Someday,” I vowed, never before as determined, “I‟m going to know what you said to me.” Mick chuckled, pulling me closer as he dropped a kiss within my hair. “Maybe then we will both be ready for the consequences that will bring.”


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Picasso's Butterfly  

Coming of Age Story

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