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I crawl through it, p.7
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       I Crawl Through It, p.7

           A. S. King
 
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  I nod.

  “Don’t show anyone the map except Gustav. Not even when you get there,” he says. “Especially when you get there.”

  I walk home.

  When I get to the front door, I put the M and the map in my backpack. I check my phone and see it’s nearly eleven o’clock and I guess Mama and Pop will be waiting up to ask me where I was all day.

  But there is only a note.

  Gone to bed. TV dinner in freezer. Make sure you turn out the lights.

  I don’t know why they leave that note about going to bed. I checked a long time ago. They’re not in bed. They’re in another three-letter-word-that-starts-with-a-B. They are in a box. They are in a bet. A but. A bug. A bin. They are in a bog. They are in a boy. A bit. A ban. A bap.

  Or they are in a bar.

  More specifically, they’re at Chick’s Bar, which is just down the street from our house. Two hundred and twelve steps, to be exact. Architects built the community this way. With bars. And playgrounds. They’re near each other so parents can watch their kids fall off the swing set from their barstool and then try to sober up on the way to the hospital for clavicle X-rays.

  Patricia—Monday—Standstill

  IN THE PLACE OF ARRIVALS

  I hear music all the time. Since I can remember.

  All sorts of music.

  Sometimes other people’s music. Sometimes my music.

  Sometimes my music has helicopters in it.

  The thwap-thwap-thwap, thwap-thwap-thwap, thwap-thwap-thwap.

  I’m forty-three years old and I’ve written 167 symphonies, 598 pop songs, 134 jazz numbers, fifty-six rock-and-roll/punk rock/heavy metal riffs. I can mix records on three turntables at a time and I’m the only creator, as far as I know, of a scratch-dub-trap-hip-hop opera. I’ve written twelve of them.

  But I haven’t written anything in a year. I’m at a standstill. I hear partial music—bits of songs in my head, but I don’t hear what I used to. There are instruments missing.

  I miss Kenneth since he left us. I miss Kenneth because there weren’t supposed to be any departures. Once you come here, you stay here. That’s the deal. Kenneth broke the rules and left. In doing so, he reminded me why I wrote twelve scratch-dub-trap-hip-hop operas.

  The whole idea is to break the rules. The whole idea is to break the fucking rules. So I stopped. Time stopped. Everything is focused on departure.

  And today I hear a song. Today’s song has helicopters.

  This can mean only one thing.

  Arrivals.

  Stanzi—Tuesday Morning—The Trained Escapist

  “The principal called us yesterday!”

  This is my alarm clock on my last day. It’s Mama and she’s saying things too quickly. It is 5:34 a.m. Mama has been watching morning news since five.

  “She said you skipped school. She said you were in trouble. Maybe that you sent these bomb threats,” she says.

  I sit up and wipe the sleep from my eyes. It’s still not late enough to be light. She’s standing in my doorway and is about to switch on my light and I say, “Please don’t turn on the light,” but she turns it on anyway.

  “Did you?”

  “Of course not,” I answer. “I know who’s sending the bomb threats, I think. I’m still investigating.”

  “I mean skipping school,” she says.

  “Oh.”

  “Did you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Where did you go?”

  “With China. To see her boyfriend,” I say.

  Mama looks suddenly happy. “She has a boyfriend? That’s nice,” she says. “Good for her.”

  “Can you go now?”

  “Who do you think is sending the bomb threats?” she asks.

  “I can’t tell you until I know for sure,” I say.

  “Where does China’s boyfriend live?”

  “Philadelphia,” I lie.

  “Did you drink alcohol?”

  “No.”

  “Did you smoke marijuana?”

  “Of course not.”

  “Did he have guns in his house?” she asks.

  “I didn’t ask. I wasn’t really in his house. I was at some kind of restaurant.”

  She thinks for a minute. “You let her go to a boy’s house alone?”

  “Yes. She made me.”

  “She’s going to end up in the looney tunes with that other friend of yours, I swear it.”

  “She’s saner than you’d think,” I say. She’s saner than you, I think.

  “There was a shooting last night in a movie theater in Florida,” she says.

  “That’s nice,” I say.

  “What did you eat in the restaurant in Philadelphia?”

  “Kale/kiwi juice smoothie thing. It was nice.”

  Mama makes a face. This is finally what pries her from my doorway and back to her television. Green food.

  I put my blankets over my face to block the light and realize this could be the last day I see Mama. There are no departures. I expected to feel some deep pull, as if there is a maternal elastic band attached to my stomach; I feel nothing but sadness for her.

  You can see it in our family picture albums—her decline. Her face fell. Her eyes went dark. The morbid outings started. The master list was made. The peanut butter and jelly crackers, the picnic blankets. The emergency plans for everything imaginable. Fire, intruder, explosion, gas leak, sinkhole. I’m a trained escapist.

  Today will be easy for me.

  I have been practicing for as long as I can remember.

  When I finally get up, I remove the granite M from my backpack and put it on my desk. I pack (no schoolbooks, all clothing and other things I want to take with me) and take a shower. I hear them talking in the kitchen on my way from the bathroom back to my room.

  Pop says, “Maybe we should call the counselor again.”

  Mama says, “He always said it would catch up with her.”

  Pop says, “I wish she’d take off that damn coat.”

  Mama says, “I think it’s getting bad now. She lied to me. She never lied before.”

  Pop says, “I can make an appointment for tomorrow, I bet. He always saw us last minute when she was little.”

  Mama sighs. “God.”

  Pop says, “She’s alive, Mama. It’s a blessing. We just need to help her.”

  Mama says, “I can’t help. I don’t want to think about it.”

  Pop says, “I don’t, either. But it’s the only way we can help her.”

  Mama says, “You take her.”

  Pop says, “I’ll get an appointment for as soon as we can.”

  Mama says, “She needs help.”

  Pop says, “He’ll talk to her. He remembers us. He’ll help.”

  Mama says, “I think she’s the bomb threat. I think she’s the one.”

  I close my door then—loudly enough for them to hear. Mama is wrong about the bomb threat. We are all the bomb threat.

  The doorbell sounds and I know it’s China because she told me we’d walk to school together today.

  I’m not even close to ready.

  Ready for school, or ready to tell her I’m not coming to school, or ready to tell her I’m going away with Gustav today.

  I tell Mama to let her in and I get dressed and let my hair dry itself. It gets curly when I let it dry naturally. As I get ready, China looks at my new letter M. She doesn’t ask me about it.

  I heave my backpack onto my back and China asks, “What’s in that thing?”

  I tell her it’s my books, even though she knows my books are still in my locker from before we skipped yesterday. I reach into my lab coat pocket and retrieve the poem.

  “I finished my poem. For English,” I say.

  She reads it to herself.

  Reset. Reset. Reset.

  There is a tiny hole

  and if you unbend a paper clip

  and insert it into the hole,

  the world resets.

  It becomes a giant li
ver

  three lobes

  wrapped around a heart.

  It filters.

  It regenerates.

  We grow grass on it

  eat our picnics on the grass

  we make love on it

  never knowing

  that we are the filter.

  “It’s good for a first poem,” China says.

  “Thanks.”

  “I hope she gives you an A,” she says.

  “She can give me any letter she wants,” I say.

  When we walk out of my room, Mama and Pop are still sitting at the kitchen table, half glued to the TV morning shows and half talking about how they’re going to make an appointment for me. I see Pop attempt to get my attention, but I ignore him.

  I don’t say good-bye. Not even to my cat.

  When I close the door, something shivers in me as if I know I’m colder now.

  Patricia—Tuesday Morning—Thwap-thwap-thwap

  IN THE PLACE OF ARRIVALS

  I tell Gary that there will be arrivals and he tells me I need to get more sleep.

  “But there will be arrivals,” I say. “I hear them.”

  I realize telling Gary is probably not a good idea, so I pretend it was a dream. I sit up and shake my head. I say, “Did I just say something?”

  Gary says, “I don’t think so.”

  “I just had the weirdest dream,” I say. “What time is it?”

  “Seven.”

  “Huh,” I say. Then I go into the kitchen to make myself tea while Gary goes to the bathroom. He’s loud when he shits. It’s one of the many things I hate about him.

  There is no marriage here. Just housing arrangements. Cooking schedules. Roommates with benefits. Gary isn’t even my friend. I’m a convenience and he’s a philosopher who’s convinced that the real world was only made for dumb people. He hasn’t realized yet that he’s dumb, too.

  I sit at the kitchen table and send a message to the arrivals. I say, Turn back! This is a prison! But I think of the possibility of departure and realize it could be my turn.

  Gary never knew about Kenneth and me. To Gary, Kenneth was just the nudist—an artist incapable of social interaction on Gary’s level. The nudist lived in his own hut, by himself. He didn’t like visitors. That’s all Gary knew.

  The flush sounds and Gary is in the kitchen.

  “Coming to breakfast today?” he asks.

  I hold my head. “This migraine is coming on again. I think I might skip it.”

  “Want me to bring you something back?”

  “Sure. Whatever,” I say. “I’m going to lie down for a while.”

  When he leaves, I pull out the last thing Kenneth ever gave me. A small carved letter P. He carved it from a piece of quartz we found on a walk one day. I must have been twenty-five then.

  I can’t believe I’ve been here this long. The only reason I stayed was Kenneth. I wrote him many symphonies and he carved me letters and left them in places where I’d see them.

  The letters are still where he left them—throughout the forest, even in the dining hall and the meeting rooms—but none of the others see them. I know this means something, but I don’t know what.

  I know this means I don’t belong here, but I can’t figure out how to leave.

  China Knowles—Tuesday Morning—Gallbladder

  I am China—the gallbladder, walking to school.

  Stanzi is being weird. Beyond lab-coat weird.

  As we walk, she wants to take that road. The one with the bush.

  I tell her she knows I don’t ever walk down that road. She tells me it’s an easier way to Gustav’s house and she has to go that way.

  “Anyway,” she says, “the man in the bush works during the day.”

  I get angry too quickly about this statement. She pretends I haven’t seen the letters in her room. Like I don’t know how she got them. I feel like Stanzi isn’t my friend at all. What real friend would ignore all these signs I give her? What real friend wouldn’t ask about Irenic Brown and what happened, after reading all my poems about it? What real friend would make me walk down that road knowing all my secrets?

  How to Know If Your Dangerous Bush Man Is Real

  If the man hiding in the dark bush

  gives you a letter

  when you kiss him

  then he is probably real.

  If the man hiding in the dark bush

  frightens you

  when you just glimpse

  the road

  then he is most likely real.

  When the man hiding in the dark bush

  has become a friend

  of your friend

  and she defends him

  as if he is normal

  as if he is a simple character in the neighborhood

  as if his kisses

  are worth it

  then he is certainly real.

  When the man hiding in the dark bush

  makes you wonder

  if you couldn’t be more forgiving

  then there is no doubt he is real.

  Every town has shadows

  where we hide mythical

  beasts.

  Mythical beasts.

  I walk down the road with Stanzi, and I hear a strange sound. A muffled thwap-thwap-thwap.

  Stanzi says, “Do you hear that?”

  I say yes, I hear that.

  I look at her and see what she’s always told me about. There are two of her. Clearly. She is split down the middle. Sliced in two. When I look, I see that one of her eyes is blue and one is brown. When I look harder, I see that one of her hands is trying to make the other hand wave good-bye to me. Half of her mouth wants to tell me the truth while the other half must lie.

  I ask her why the helicopter is so quiet.

  “Maybe because it’s invisible?” she answers.

  As we get to Gustav’s backyard, I can tell she sees it. Her eyes light up. Gustav is standing on the grass, lifting a box above his head and shoving it inside. I can’t see the helicopter. I can still hear a faint thwap-thwap-thwap.

  I ask Stanzi if today is the day she’s leaving us.

  “Yes.”

  I hug her and stand by myself on the sidewalk as she goes to Gustav.

  My gallbladder cries because it is the only part anyone can see and it is the place where my tears decide to come out and it’s at this moment I know I must reappear.

  I must come back.

  If Stanzi isn’t here to protect me and Gustav is taking his genius elsewhere, I will be alone in a sea of number two pencils.

  Right there on the sidewalk outside Gustav’s house, I turn myself right side in. I shake my hair into place. I take a deep breath and approach Stanzi, who is now helping Gustav load the helicopter.

  “Who will read my poetry now that you’re gone?”

  She says, “You’ll have to read it yourself.”

  “Do you have an address?”

  She looks at me and shrugs.

  When Gustav goes inside to get more stuff, I ask, “Are you sure this is safe? Are you sure you want to do this?”

  “I’m sure.”

  “Has he ever flown a helicopter before?” I ask.

  “Does it matter?” she answers.

  I’m Stanzi’s friend and I know her secrets. A person doesn’t go through what Stanzi went through and turn out just fine except for the lab coat. I’m being a bad friend. I should call her parents now. Tell them everything that’s happening.

  A man’s voice comes from behind me. “And who would believe your story about an invisible helicopter?”

  When I turn and see the man in his trench coat, I sprint toward school.

  When I get to school, I find Lansdale and she is shocked that I have become a girl again and not a digestive system on legs. She says, “I’m proud of you.”

  And I’m proud of myself, too.

  Two boys walk by and say, “Nice to see you again, China.”

  A teacher gives me a sympathetic
look as if he knows—as if he saw what everyone else saw on Facebook, and I’m suddenly like one of those popping toys you can get in a quarter machine at the supermarket—the kind you press concave until they slowly right themselves and pop up high into the air.

  Lansdale Cruise looks on in horror as my insides swallow my outsides again, instantly. She looks a mix of disappointed and disgusted.

  “Bummer.”

  “Yeah,” I say, with a mouth full of myself.

  “I guess some things can’t be helped.”

  “I can be helped.”

  “We’ll keep working on it,” Lansdale says.

  Stanzi—Tuesday Morning—Splitting in Two

  After I watch China run away, I think: It’s hard to trust your helicopter pilot.

  I can feel a laugh and a scream forming at the same time. I’m frozen, standing here with my backpack at my feet, looking up at the beauty of his red helicopter.

  I distract myself with questions. How long did it take him? When did he start? He said he’d get credit in AP physics for this. He hasn’t mentioned that since, though. I wonder why.

  Teachers don’t give credit for something they can’t see.

  “Who needs credit?” the dangerous bush man says. “You’re going to a place of no credit.”

  I look at him and say, “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”

  “Took the day off,” he says. “Wanted to make sure you two got out of here okay.”

  “Why wouldn’t we?”

  He looks at me. I think he can see me splitting in two. “Are you okay?” he asks.

  “Of course.”

  He studies me. “One part of you wants to stay and one part of you wants to go. Is that correct?”

  I nod.

  “This is normal.”

  I nod again.

  “He’ll be a good pilot. I taught him everything I know.”

  I think about kissing Gustav the way I have kissed the dangerous bush man.

  He says, “I recommend this.”

  I try not to think anything else important while he’s there. Mind readers make me uncomfortable. I have too many thoughts.

  “You shouldn’t be afraid,” he says. “Once you get there, find Patricia and tell her I miss her.” He walks over to Gustav and says something to him about how I have the map and he helps him lift a box into the helicopter and he slips a small, blocky, glittery letter P from his coat pocket and puts it inside the box without Gustav seeing.

 
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