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I crawl through it, p.5
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       I Crawl Through It, p.5

           A. S. King
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  “Is he in there?” she whispers.


  “Oh,” she says. She shakes even more. I can hear her teeth chattering somewhere inside herself.

  “Are you okay?” I ask.

  “I was coming to ask for… um… help with my homework.”

  “Why would he be able to help with your homework?”

  “He has the answers,” China says.

  “Can I help?”


  “Want to come to Gustav’s with me?” I ask.

  “I can’t. I said I’d meet Lansdale with the answers.”

  “The answers?”

  “For our… um… homework.” China isn’t looking directly at me. Not even with her duodenum.

  “Are you sure everything’s okay?” I ask.

  She lets out a sigh. “That’s what he always asks,” she says, pointing to the bush.

  I wait a minute to see if I’ll eventually understand what she’s talking about. Then I realize it’s hard to understand what a stomach says. I think that’s the point. It may be why China swallowed herself in the first place.

  “Will we walk home together tomorrow?” I ask. “I’d love to hear some of your new poems.”

  “Have you finished your poem for English yet?” she says. “You can read it to us.”

  “I haven’t had time,” I lie. “I can’t figure out what to write about.”

  “You should dissect something and think about it,” she says. “Frogs always help you concentrate.”

  She scurries off then, in the direction of Lansdale’s house. She is off-balance, teetering. I wish I knew what to say to her these days, but I don’t.

  Gustav is suspended from a bungee screwed into the ceiling. He is hovering above the main rotor, I bet, securing the fixed ring at just the right angle. I’ve been reading up on helicopters. They aren’t so different from frogs, really—just a bunch of parts that make a whole.

  He’s got his tool belt on, and it jingles as he rotates himself around on the bungee. I can see he is concentrating deeply, so I walk in, I sit on the upturned plastic five-gallon bucket, and I wait. Two hours go by. Gustav has sweat out a pitcher of pink lemonade, and his father brings him a protein bar and then drinks Gustav’s sweat and replaces it with a bottle of water that Gustav gulps down in one go.

  Gustav’s father glares at me, the distraction, even though I haven’t said a word.

  After two hours of this, I wave good night and walk toward my house.

  The dangerous bush man catches me off guard.

  “Give this to China,” he says as he hands me a long string of flat, colorful cardboard letters—like the kind on our HAPPY BIRTHDAY sign at home.

  The letters go on forever. Infinity. I can’t fit them all into my hands, so I let them trail behind me. They are the same letters. A, B, C, D, E. A, B, C, D, E. Just not in that order. As I walk home, the weight of infinite letters drags me and I leave them on my driveway where one of Mama’s snotty tissues escaped her cleanup mission when we got back from Red Lion. I call China.

  “The man from the bush gave me your answers,” I say. “They’re really long. Can you come and get them?”

  She asks for my help.

  I meet her three minutes later in the driveway and the two of us try to pull the string to her house, but infinity is too heavy.

  “What did you have to do to get this many letters from him?” I ask.

  “It was Lansdale,” she says.

  “Well, what did she have to do?”

  “She never has to do anything. She’s Lansdale,” China answers.

  We stop trying to pull the letters any farther. She calls Lansdale on her cell phone and they decide to dictate the answers. China will read them and Lansdale will write them down.

  I hear Lansdale say, “Don’t forget. You have to start at the beginning. If we get even one out of order, we’re screwed.”

  I help China find the very beginning of the string of letters, and she reads. “A B E C D A B C A D D E A D A A B D C A D…”

  I wave good night after I get a chair from the porch and place it under her. She sits and pulls the string of letters over her lap as if she’s spinning wool, letter by letter.

  I think about what can be woven from wool. Things as small as baby booties or a tiny hat for your pet hamster. Things as large as king-sized blankets. Tents. The world’s longest scarf. I think about what can be woven from letters. Things as small as China’s haiku or a tiny I love you note. Things as large as laws. Treaties. And during test week, one could knit a scarf that wraps around the equator a million times—all from those five letters.

  China Knowles—Monday—I Love You

  I am China, the walking colon. I’m still not as full of shit as Lansdale is, but if you can overlook her knack for storytelling, she’s all right.

  And she’s got a photographic memory, which makes her an ally.

  Or a superhero. I can’t figure out which.

  She’s helping me because she told me she heard everything from Irenic Brown’s dumbass friends. She asked if Stanzi was any help to me and I didn’t answer because Lansdale can’t replace Stanzi. Lansdale can give me one kind of help. Stanzi has given me science.

  Stanzi and I have counted the number of Irenic’s girlfriends since me, and I watch them during the drills. There have been at least ten girlfriends. They look different now, too. None of them are internal organs on legs, though. Not that anyone can tell from the outside.

  They all thought he loved them. I know that for sure. Tamaqua de la Cortez told me this is how it’s done. He’s always the first one to say I love you. He’d say it quickly. Suddenly. As if it slipped out in an embarrassing moment of sincere emotion.

  I Love You

  No girlfriend would

  call the police

  about it.

  That’s the best part.

  You act confused.

  She acts confused.

  You do it.

  Strong and deaf.

  Like you can’t hear

  her saying no



  Pin her down but

  leave no mark.

  She can’t figure out

  what you just did.

  She can’t figure out

  if it’s her fault

  or your fault

  or nobody’s fault

  and while she juggles

  the answers

  you slip out of her life

  and tell her that it




  If she wanted

  she could go to the

  hospital and they could

  find you inside.

  Up there.

  In the dark.

  But all you have

  to say is

  she was my girlfriend

  and she’s pissed I

  broke up with her.

  Lansdale comes up to me before homeroom. She hands me the stack of papers with the bush man’s letters written on them.

  “We’re golden,” she says.

  I nod.

  “Do you think Stanzi needs these, too?” she asks.

  “Stanzi doesn’t cheat,” I say. She doesn’t. Stanzi’s guilt complex is far too large. It’s bigger than Jupiter, and Jupiter is 43,441 miles in radius. It’s something we have in common, only we never talk about it.

  Lansdale shrugs and asks if I wrote any new poems. I show her this one:

  Your Number Two Pencil Has More Self-Esteem Than I Do

  They write your name and

  date of birth in the rectangles

  at the top of the page

  and if your name doesn’t fit

  they will change it.

  You are student number 202876.

  Your scores indicate that

  while you may worry about things

  that happened in your past,

  you are just fine.

p; “I don’t even know what you’re talking about half the time,” Lansdale says. She stops to tie up a new, long strand of hair that only appeared since the last time I saw her. “But I still think you’re cool.”

  I look through the stack of papers she gave me with the bush man’s letters on them, and I don’t know how I’m going to memorize these in three hours. She can memorize anything. It’s how she maintains near normalcy while being a pathological liar.

  “Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s easy to remember this kind of shit. Just make sentences out of them.” She seems distracted and she pulls out another paper, hands it to me, and says, “Look what I found on the kitchen table this morning. My stepmom left it.”

  Complaint for Dissolution of Marriage

  Since in or about 2014 until the

  current time, defendant has

  failed to offer


  or affection as if in a healthy relationship.

  Despite plaintiff’s exertions in this regard,

  defendant has


  discussion about said issues with

  plaintiff. Due to this



  toward the plaintiff, there is no

  solution except to dissolve the marriage.

  Lansdale looks a mix of angry and nonplussed. She says, “She used to tell us stories about her ex and how cruel he was. Now I know she was just full of shit.”

  Lansdale has to go to class. I give her the divorce paper, and when it’s gone I feel the need to sanitize my hands in case it spreads.

  Stanzi—Monday—I Want to Show You Something

  During the first drill early Monday morning, China passes me a note: I want to show you something. Follow me. She is carrying a stack of papers with letters on them. She smells like hand sanitizer.

  I follow her to a back door that has been propped open into the locked-down school and we go to her locker, where she tosses in the stack of papers and removes a stuffed backpack. She points to my locker and tells me we’re not coming back today, so I put my books in and take out my purse and a few things.

  She tells me to bring a book to read.

  “Why do I need a book?”

  When she doesn’t answer, I grab the book I’ve been reading.

  While we walk back to the door, we hear the sniffer dog patrol. China tenses. I grab her wrist and take her down another set of steps and to a different exit door, and when we use it, the alarm sounds but nothing explodes from the building except two girls who blend into their throng of outdoor classmates until they can make a break toward the bus station.

  “If we run, we can catch the nine thirty,” China says.

  When we get there, China buys us two tickets to New York City.

  I worry for about a minute. I worry about all the stuff normal people worry about. But then I remember that I don’t care. Who cares if I get detention in a school that’s never open except to police and bomb dogs? Who cares if Mama and Pop get a phone call from the principal?

  They think I’m a biology genius on her way to biology-genius college, and I am.

  I take a bus schedule from the counter of the bus station, and once we find our seats on the bus, I check how long our ride will be—two and a half hours.

  I watch the countryside go by. We pass flea markets that are closed on weekdays and a gun store that boasts THE LARGEST SELLER OF MILITARY WEAPONS IN THE AREA! on a sign out front. I see two other kids skipping school behind a barn, smoking cigarettes and making a getaway plan. That’s what we just did. That’s what we do in the drills. We get away from what we’re supposed to be doing.

  China hands me a poem before we cross the New Jersey border.


  I met a boy on the Internet

  and his name is Shane.

  I’m sorry I didn’t tell you

  but you are so




  because I am so




  You can see the helicopter.

  And I lied.

  I can’t see it.

  Never once have I seen it.

  And I’m sorry for that, too.

  I hop over into the seat next to China’s seat.

  “Does Shane live in New York?” I ask.

  She nods.

  “Have you met him before?”

  She holds up two fingers. “Twice.”

  “Is he cute?”

  She smiles. “Yes.”

  “Did you tell Lansdale?”

  She nods, then looks at her knees. “Yes. Sorry.”

  I attempt to read. But really, the whole time I’m thinking about Gustav.

  Here’s China, inside out, casually hopping a bus to New York City to see a boy she barely knows, and Gustav lives a four-minute walk from my house. I see him nearly every day, and still we can’t admit we’re in love because there are more important things. In his case, the helicopter. In my case, I’m not sure I can love anybody without screwing it up.

  When we get to Port Authority in New York City, China weaves her way down into the subway. She has a MetroCard. She swipes it and walks through the turnstile and then she hands the card to me and I monkey what she just did and then I’m standing on the other side, the sound and smell of underground trains and grease and sparks and millions of people who walk through here every day.

  It’s just past noon on a Monday. All I know is that I have to be home by tomorrow to see Gustav’s helicopter.

  “Are we going back tonight?” I ask her.

  She nods. “I just want to see him for an hour.”

  “I can’t wait to meet him,” I say.

  “You can’t,” she says. “You can’t see him.”

  I look at her. My eyes say, Why did you bring me, then?

  “You can go to the museum,” she answers. She hands me a pass to the museum.

  The subway train letters are in colorful circles. A, C, E.

  The subway train letters are just like answers, so I spend our quiet walk to the right track coming up with questions.

  Will they notice us missing at school today?


  Will our missing today’s drills mean lower scores for the school? Less money for next year? Teachers fired?


  Is that Mozart I hear?

  E (flat major)

  Two young men—our age, maybe a little older—are playing the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major and they’re so good, I steer myself to their open violin case and drop in a five-dollar bill.

  I turn to China. “I don’t want to go to a museum.”

  She tells me I can wait for her in the vegan juice bar under the building where Shane lives. We walk several blocks from the subway stop, and as she delivers me to the juice bar, I ask her if it’s safe for her to visit Shane like this. She hands me this poem.

  Your Kale/Kiwi Juice Has More Self-Esteem Than I Do

  Kale/kiwi juice

  just goes in one side

  comes out the other

  makes everything happier

  the whole way through.

  It never worries about

  being safe or wearing

  the right clothes

  so no one will treat it

  like it doesn’t matter.

  “This doesn’t answer my question,” I say. “Are you safe up there by yourself with a guy?”

  She tells me they have only ever held hands and kissed. She tells me not to worry, but how can I not worry about China? I have lost track of how many times she has swallowed herself. She just turns herself over and over, esophagus to rectum, like a human Lava Lamp.

  She buys me a juice and goes upstairs. I drink the juice and read my book. It’s a book about brain-stem function, and though it’s interesting, I’m bored by it. I say to myself, Stanzi, you’re in New York City and you’re sitting in one place reading a book. You must go o
utside. It’s a lovely day.

  I tell the woman at the juice bar that if my friend comes back, tell her to wait for me. I then ask her if there’s anything nice to see in this area and she says we’re a block from Central Park, so I walk there and I say to myself, Stanzi, you’re in Central Park. You’re in Central Park in New York City.

  I find a bench and I sit down.

  I marvel at New York City. But then the questions start.

  I ask myself, Stanzi, why can’t you write that poem for English class?

  I ask myself, Stanzi, why can’t you kiss Gustav?

  I ask myself, Stanzi, what happened to you?

  China Knowles—Monday—Sad Esophagus

  A sad esophagus (that’s me) and a big-boned girl in a biology lab coat walk into Port Authority at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue in New York City. What happens next is anyone’s guess. There are police with bulletproof vests and semiautomatic guns. A lot of them. They are gathered by the doors. Just standing there. People still walk around, going to their buses, their subways, their loved ones.

  I watch the police. I look at the guns.

  I freeze, just like with the dogs at school.

  Stanzi guides me down the corridor where our bus will come pick us up in twenty minutes.

  I write Stanzi a note. Thank you. Sorry again for lying about seeing Gustav’s helicopter.

  “It’s okay,” she says. “Not everyone can see it. No big deal.”

  “Are you really going to go up in it?” I ask.

  “I hope so.”

  “Aren’t you scared?”

  “Of what?” she asks.

  I take a second to figure out what I’d be most afraid of. “Of it not being real?”

  “If it’s not real,” Stanzi says, “then it’s less dangerous than if it is real.”

  “True. But what if it’s real? Aren’t you afraid to crash?”

  “No,” she says.

  “How can you not be?”

  “I have faith. In Gustav. In the helicopter. In… whatever it is that controls everything.”

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