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I crawl through it, p.2
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       I Crawl Through It, p.2

           A. S. King
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  There is nowhere to hide from a bomb, though.

  Bombs are bigger than an intruder.

  So we are calmly escorted outside after the recorded message is over.

  During the bomb drill, I see Gustav talking to Lansdale Cruise, the girl with the inexplicable hair. I read their lips. Lansdale says, “Hi, Gustav, still building your helicopter?” And Gustav answers, “Yes, I am.” Lansdale asks, “Can I get a ride in it when you’re done?” And Gustav walks away and stands by himself under the black walnut tree.

  Juglone is the name of the poison produced by black walnut trees. Gustav says it kills everything that tries to grow under it except grass and resilient weeds.

  I think Gustav and I are resilient weeds.

  Stanzi—Monday—A Man with a French Accent

  It’s Monday and I got off at Gustav’s bus stop because I felt like it. I still can’t see the helicopter, but I try anyway by squinting at the empty space inside his garage.

  “Mortality doesn’t scare me,” Gustav says. “Living scares me. People are like insects.” When I don’t answer, he continues. “Hive mentality. They don’t challenge themselves. They don’t want to learn pi or build a house from scratch or do anything different. Who wants to live like that?” Gustav scratches his balls as if I’m not standing right here. “Insects,” he says.

  I want to say something about him scratching his balls, but I don’t know if that makes me an insect or not. I don’t want him to notice how wet I am from the rain and how dumb I look standing here in my lab coat, dripping. So I ask, “How can mortality not scare you? Isn’t it sad that we’re all going to die?”

  “Not really,” he says.

  “Have you ever been to a funeral?” I ask him.


  I think Gustav is spoiled.

  He looks impatient for me to leave so he can go to work, and I do, without even a good-bye. I just walk toward my house in the rain with no umbrella.

  When I pass by the bush, the man isn’t there selling any letters. He only works that bush at night. During the day he works at the kitchen factory making cabinets. I see him drive there some mornings on my way to school.

  I think about what Gustav said about dying. I’m scared to die. I’m only seventeen. I think I have something to do in the world, but I don’t know what yet. I just think I deserve a chance to find out or something. A chance to test my DNA and see if I’m right about her—about me—about us—about the split. I want a chance to do more than what I do now.

  When I get home, I strip off my wet clothes at the back door, hang up my lab coat so it won’t get wrinkled, and have a bath while staring out the window into the limbs of the big maple tree in our backyard. We have a new bathtub—the fiberglass kind. When I take baths, I wish we had an old bathtub—the claw-foot kind. Iron. A tub that would make me feel safe in case anyone drives by shooting or blows something up.

  I’ve been thinking about things blowing up since I was in fourth grade. I used to want to wear my bike helmet all the time. I wanted an army helmet like they have on M*A*S*H. Except blowing up isn’t always external. It’s not always easy to hear or see. Synapses fire every day in my brain. Thinking is just like exploding until it eventually scars you and you can’t interact with people anymore. It’s like one big, final detonation.

  Gustav’s is coming any day now. Mine, too.

  The man who sells letters from behind the bush blows up every single night.


  Can’t you hear the ticking?

  I look around the bathroom as I soak in the bath and my skin turns pink. My book from last Christmas is still sitting, unread, on the back of the toilet cistern. It’s called Dealing with People You Can’t Stand. Mama and Pop said they bought it because it would help me deal with people I can’t stand. They don’t seem to know that they are the problem.

  I’m the spawn of insects. I’m in love with Gustav, and he is also the spawn of insects. And I know the helicopter is there, but six days out of seven, I just have to trust.

  A bomb threat was called in today and it was spoken by a man with a French accent. No one else knows this but me. Gustav knows, too, because I told him on the bus home. I think it’s interesting about the accent. I figure if I have to be blown up, maybe it will be better being blown up by someone more interesting than just some weirdo American.

  Gustav told me on the bus, “If I met the French-accent man on the street, I’d shoot him.”

  I said, “But what if you don’t have a gun?”

  He said he’d kill him with his bare hands.

  Gustav is a pacifist. Gustav wouldn’t even kill a mouse if it was eating his dinner right off his plate. He saw me think this internally and defended himself. “If it was a matter of life and death,” he said, “I’d kill the French bastard.”

  “I don’t think he was really French,” I said.

  “How do you know?” he asked.

  “I just do,” I said. That seemed to be enough to get him to stop asking.

  I go back to looking at my pink bath-skin. I see the scar—the one on my thigh that’s turned dark purple in the bath—and it tries to ask me a question but I drown it in the water and go back to looking out the window at the maple tree. I think about how there has to be a safer place to go without having to become a forest ranger. I think about Mr. Man-with-a-Gun who patrols our school. The police car always outside. They treat us like all we have is a skinned knee and we’re bawling about how it stings.

  A police-car-shaped Band-Aid.

  A Mr.-Man-with-a-Gun-shaped Band-Aid.

  And still, the bomb threats come in every day, sometimes twice a day. So many that the school might need a new phone to handle them all. So many that they might need to hire a bomb-threat secretary.

  Maybe Gustav is right.

  Maybe mortality is nothing to be afraid of.

  Maybe the insects have won.

  I see three coffins in my head when I sleep.

  Me, Gustav, and Adolf Hitler.

  My coffin is white. Gustav’s is red, like his helicopter. Adolf Hitler’s is black and empty. While Gustav and I lie dead, Adolf dances in lederhosen that are too small for him. He is covered in beetles. As he dances, he becomes a beetle with giant legs. He begins to eat all the beetles he can see. His own friends. His own species.

  He turns to Gustav and me and looks disappointed.

  We could have been so much more, but no one would let us fly.

  China Knowles—Tuesday Morning—I’m Fine

  I am China—the girl who swallowed herself. I just opened my mouth one day and wrapped it around my ears and the rest of me. Now I live inside myself. I can knock on my rib cage when it’s time to go to bed. I can squeeze my own heart. When I fart, no one else can smell it.

  I write poems.

  They look like those Salvador Dalí paintings I saw in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

  The Persistence of the Girl Who Swallowed Herself

  Mouth forever too full to talk.

  I saw inside everything

  The whole world, a tiny galaxy, each cell of us.

  I saw the universe.

  I learned in English class about surrealists. It was the first time I wanted to throw myself up so I could be marked present. Surrealism turns the whole world upside down.

  Anyway, I can’t throw myself up. Swallowing oneself is not easy to undo. Not even for roller-skating. Not even for one of Lansdale Cruise’s triple-cheese quiches.

  It’s like jail but noisier and quieter at the same time.

  I don’t need any bars. I don’t need any guards. I don’t even need a case file.

  I’m fine.

  I just swallowed one day and now I’m digesting. Constantly digesting.

  Since the day I swallowed myself, I haven’t been in any trouble. I quit smoking. I don’t kiss any more boys. I got away from my skanky friends and I don’t log on to the Internet. It’s probably the best thing I ever did for myself apart from that t
ime I ran from Irenic Brown last summer. But that’s another story, and girls who swallow themselves can’t tell stories. But I ran fast. I ran so, so fast.

  The world is upside down unless I can find a way to turn myself right side out. Unless I can go back in time and stop the madmen.

  How does an inside-out girl go about stopping all the madmen?

  How does an inside-out girl go about turning back time?

  I see Gustav on Tuesday morning during the bomb drill. He’s talking to Stanzi, my best friend, the girl who always wears her biology lab coat, even when she’s on the bus or at lunch. I always thought she was fat, but now I see she’s just big-boned. Before I swallowed myself I was a lot more judgmental.

  Now I have more time to think.

  I stand on my own and stare at the brick building. One hundred and twelve days in a row. I wish they’d just do it. I’m ready. Gustav told me in physics class yesterday that he’s not afraid to die. I thought about it all day. I think he’s bullshitting.

  Gustav once wore snowshoes for a week because he learned about string theory and didn’t trust the molecular makeup of matter, and he says he’s not afraid to die? How can he think he’s fooling anyone? Everyone is afraid to die.

  Stanzi—Tuesday at China’s House

  We stop by Gustav’s on our way to China’s house. Gustav always seems so much happier on Tuesdays. He asks, “It’s really getting there, isn’t it?”

  I answer, “Wow, Gustav, you did so much in a week.” I run my hand over the red fiberglass and it feels like satisfaction. It feels like something real.

  As we walk to her house, China writes three poems about things that are real, and she hands them to me because sometimes she can’t read aloud because she swallowed her mouth with her own mouth. When we get to China’s basement, I read them for the three of us: Lansdale Cruise, China, and myself.

  I say, “ ‘How to Tell if Your Quiche Is Real.’ ”

  How to Tell If Your Quiche Is Real

  We ate quiche that night

  Spinach quiche

  like the taste of bad dirt

  like a sky full of bird shit.

  Bitter like getting fired

  even though you did your job


  The quiche is real if it tastes good

  with applesauce.

  That night, the quiche

  was dead.

  How to Tell If Your Bed Is Real

  Your bed is real if you are safe inside of it.

  Your bed is real if you are safe outside of it.

  How to Tell If Your Helicopter Is Real

  If someone can see it every day,

  then there’s a good chance your

  helicopter is real.

  You don’t ever have to see it yourself.

  A matter of faith.

  A matter of altitude.

  Your helicopter is real if

  when you fly it,

  the screaming stops.

  China’s parents are into something weird. They have a table in their basement that has binding on it. Eye hooks. Places to tie and handcuff. They own whips and crops. They do not own horses.

  We try not to think about it as we occupy the other half of the basement and sit in a cloud of awkward silence.

  China and I sit there while Lansdale plays with her hair and talks about what it’s like to have sex.

  “It’s really good most times,” she says. “Except when the guy smells bad. Or if he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” When China and I don’t say anything, she continues. “I mean, some of them don’t know what to really do, but they’re all right.”

  China and I went onto a porn site once.

  It was so dumb we were bored in under three minutes.

  Then we watched a YouTube video about how to build self-esteem in cats.

  China wrote this poem later that night.

  Your Cat Has More Self-Esteem Than I Do

  There are no billboards for cats

  advertising feline plastic surgery

  feline acne gels

  feline gastric bands

  feline face-lifts.

  There are no commercials about

  feline makeup

  feline sex toys

  feline fashion.

  There are porn movies with cats,

  but no cats watch them.

  After Lansdale leaves, China tells me I should write poetry so I don’t become a boring scientist like Gustav—lacking humor, concerned with only one thing. She says, “The most successful people in history used both sides of their brains.”

  I tell her I’m struggling with a poem I have to write for English class.

  “You have to show it to me,” she says.

  “If I ever manage to write it, I will,” I say. “And Gustav doesn’t lack humor. He’s very funny. You just have to get to know him better.”

  She says, “You’re probably right.”

  As I walk home, the man jumps out from behind the bush. I let him sell me a glittery letter R. I only leave his bush lair once I straighten myself out. The R is a recycled lunch box, so I open and close it as I walk away. I leave a trail of red glitter like bread crumbs to home.

  It’s past eight o’clock. Mama and Pop have left me a note. It says, Gone to bed. TV dinner in freezer. Make sure you turn out the lights.

  I don’t know why they continue to write this note. They could just reuse the one they’ve written me every night since I can remember. I have too much homework to watch M*A*S*H yet, so I settle down at the kitchen table and I face it. I get to the worksheet Mr. Bio gave us today about our families.

  Fill in the blanks.

  Hair and eye color of your parents. Hair and eye color of your grandparents. Hair and eye color of your siblings. The second half of the page asks for medical information. History of cancer? History of heart disease? History of autoimmune disease? History of dying from exploding bombs in school?

  There are no questions on the bio worksheet about whether my parents like to visit sites of school shootings. There are no questions about how they take along Ziploc bags of saltine crackers with peanut butter and strawberry jam squished between so the jelly squirms out the tiny holes. No questions about how they picnic in empty, devastated parking lots with the windows rolled down.

  There are no questions about being split in two all the time. No questions about my conflicting DNA. No questions about Gustav’s helicopter or where he’s going in it. No questions about the man in the bush who sells letters. No questions about why China swallowed herself or why Lansdale has such impossibly long hair even when she cuts it nearly every day.

  Worksheets like this are boring to me. I’m into bigger things now. I’m making a groundbreaking discovery, only I can’t tell anyone yet. I will one day discover an organ that no one ever told us about. Within that unknown part of us lies the cure for guilt. Maybe we can remove it or just touch it the right way, the way acupuncturists stab points and remove headaches. I can’t explain it to you yet, but I know it’s in there somewhere. I can’t really test my theory on frogs or cats or anything because they don’t have feelings, so it will take a human control group. I’ve been thinking I can test it on China and Lansdale, but China is inside out and Lansdale doesn’t seem to be guilty about anything.

  I fill out the worksheet the best I can, and then I pull out a blank postcard from Greencastle, Pennsylvania. Greencastle was the site of the Enoch Brown school massacre in 1764. This massacre was brought to you by Pontiac’s War, the rebellion against settlers by Native American tribes in this area of the United States.

  I turn the postcard over and write to Gustav.

  Dear Gustav, In case you were wondering, I’m glad you married a woman who can see your helicopter on all seven days. I think you deserve that kind of woman. She must be very brave. Love, Stanzi.

  Truth is, my name isn’t Stanzi. I only call myself Stanzi after watching the movie Amadeus too many times with Gustav. Truth is, my name doesn’
t really matter. I’m a character in a movie. In your book. In your mind. I play tug-of-war. I am a coward and a soldier. I am a pacifist and a warmonger. I am behind the bush with the man who sells letters, and I tell him secrets about who sends bomb threats to our school every day.

  So, Stanzi is a pretty name but it’s not mine. Constanze Mozart was a braver woman than I am. She was a braver woman than you are, too, if you’re a woman. If not, she was a braver man.

  I dare you to go back to 1779 and be seventeen years old. You would be searching for light switches and toilets. You’d kill for a thermostat. A refrigerator. A telephone. You would pray for at least a 50% survival rate for your babies, and when you were blessed with one who lived through infancy, I bet you would do more than standardize it with tests or plop it in front of the TV.

  We are polka-dotted with fungus. We are striped with bacteria. We are all so contaminated we are headed for the looney tunes.

  Even choice picks like Gustav and China and me. Even Lansdale, with her talent for going into the bush man’s lair and coming out with a letter at no cost to her. We are the very best you have to offer. Smart. Resilient. Dedicated. Competent.

  And Gustav once wore snowshoes so he wouldn’t fuse into the earth. And China has swallowed herself. And Lansdale has lied her hair long. And I am two people shoved into one. None of us will survive.

  Stanzi—Wednesday—We’re Very Lucky

  AP physics class will be held under the black walnut tree from now on. The spring weather has everyone in T-shirts and better emotional disposition. “At least this way, we can get something done,” Gustav says. “At least this way, we aren’t always in a state of drill. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. Sniffed by dogs.”

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