After spending three years travelling and teaching in Asia, Richard returned to the UK to complete a postgraduate degree and pursue writing full time. He has written a novel, as well as several short stories and travel articles. His influences include Kazuo Ishiguro, David Foster Wallace, Charles Bukowski and Tom Perotta.
When he grows up, Edward Jr. wants to be just like his father.
His father who sits him on his knee in the back garden in their quiet, atavistic South Wales village and tells him stories, fantastic stories, stories of the two sleeping giants either side of their little house, the sleeping giants who were once wide awake and at war with each other for hundreds of years, carving canyons in the land and painting shapes in the sky with the spectacle of their battles, causing mayhem and misery for the few scattered farmers of the countryside and their bewildered pigs and cows and sheep who got trampled and squished or just kept awake, until one day, after the sleeping beasts realized they were too perfect a match for each other, too equal in their strengths and weaknesses and brutality and mercy, the two roaring giants collapsed, exhausted, reached a truce, and fell asleep for a thousand years.
Now the two giants rest, either side of Edward Jr. and his family’s house, all peaceful and serene and languid, like the wise old grandparents of the world, watching over the villagers that have since settled in the valley between them.
His father tells him these stories and Edward’s mouth and eyes are both wide open in astonished joy.
On days so bright and brilliant blue and clear they can make out the painted stripes on the bodies of the little dotted sheep grazing in the fields atop the sleeping beasts, Edward Jr. asks his father about the old house, right at the top, lonely and desolate and crumbling, and his father gives him another story, as stories are their currency and lifeblood, this one about the peacekeeper, the brave noble man who in fact brokered the truce between the two giants in the first place, and built his house on the belly of the one who lies in the East, where he could keep his foot on it and his eye on the other, to ensure they would keep to their word and that the villagers who live between them would be safe.
On other days, on the grey days when the beasts let out moist yawns, cloaking themselves and everything in a hanging drooling mist, Edward Jr. begins to fear the beasts’ breath might swallow up the peacekeeper, that the giants might wake up and start the fighting again, and the villagers, who would have no way of knowing in time to pack up their things and escape, would be doomed.
On those days, when Edward Jr. feels a nibbling inside that won’t quit, his father tells him to close his eyes and dig his fingernails into the dirt and hold on, and if Edward Jr. is ever sceptical of this his father does it first, and the two men, different in age and size but fatally alike in every other way, crouch down in the garden and clench the blades of grass, force their fingers into the earth and close their eyes, feel for any vibration in the land, any signal that the two giants might rumble into sore wakefulness, grumble and scratch their heads, then remember with a bang their fierce timeless crusade and resume their earth-shattering fight.
His father stays alongside him, both their hands snug in the mud, until Edward Jr. is convinced they are safe, and if he cannot be convinced, if he cannot shake the fear that just the other side of the curtain of mist the beasts are stirring, his father tells him all he needs is patience, then leaves him in the dirt and goes back inside to quench his thirst, while Edward Jr.’s mother watches on carefully and stoically, keeping count of exactly how many times the man has felt the thirst that day, good days being five times, bad days being into double figures and vaguely between two integers, keeping count for no reason because her statistics and protests are futile, always on the verge yet reluctant to ask the man how many he has had that day to see if their totals align, aware he will shrug nonchalantly and act out the apparent insignificance of that number, maintaining the illusion that the thirst is casual for him and not in fact at the forefront of his thoughts for each minute of each day, always tempted but afraid to tell the man that maybe just maybe now listen perhaps it’s about time he gives up on trying to quench the thirst as no amount of drinks seems to do to the trick, always aware that on most weeks she asks him this anywhere between four to ten times, always aware of how easily he can be triggered into defensive attack mode, always aware of how much their son is observing and noticing and picking up things even though he is still just a boy, a boy with his hands in the dirt, who sometimes remains in such a position in the garden until the sun falls down behind the sleeping beast where the peacekeeper lives, and has to be fetched in and put in the bath.
This inner battle is a daily habit for his mother, as fixed and routine as his father’s thirst, and like his father, she too stays silent about it most of the time.
Edward Jr. asks his father if he has ever visited the peacekeeper’s house, to which he nods, why yes of course, in fact the peacekeeper and Edward Sr. are on close personal terms and often spend the long lazy hours of the evening talking together, and when Edward Jr. declares this impossible, his father assures him he will bring it up with the man on their next meeting, and Edward Jr. then goes quiet, afraid to anger the peacekeeper and in turn the sleeping beasts.
Edward Jr. vows to himself that when he is bigger and stronger and smarter and braver, he will climb up the sleeping beast and visit the peacekeeper himself. He will sit down next to him and listen to his stories, as the two of them look out over the village and the distant towns and even the sea.
Edward Jr. shares the story of the sleeping giants and the war and the peacekeeper with the teachers and children at school, but they are all dull empty grey people, in fact most people in the world are this way, dull and empty and grey, all getting dressed and going to work and watching TV and drinking tea and eating takeaway and going to the supermarket and reading the newspaper and counting the days away, all nodding their heads along to a rhythm playing on a frequency people like Edward Jr. and his father aren’t in tune to, all mumbling the same harmless little phrases they repeat because they have no original thoughts of their own, all called John and Margaret and Phillip and Susan, all carbon copies of each other incapable and undesiring of colour and light and adventure and danger and fear and more, much much more.
His teachers listen to his stories and whistle with a glaringly fake enthusiasm that he can’t believe they think he is dull enough to fall for. His fellow students dismiss his stories as lies, tell him the sleeping giants are meaningless mountains, and when he smacks them in their faces, he is the one made to stand in the corner, not them.
No one can see the world in the same shades as him.
No one expect his father.
One evening he asks his father when his next appointment with the peacekeeper is and his father tells him he plans to see his old friend tomorrow. He begs his father to share every detail of their conversation with him when he gets home from school, and his father nods, why yes of course.
He comes home from school the next day, a day he spent most of his time in the corner with his head against the wall after calling his teacher something she wished not to repeat to the headmistress in her official incident report, something she felt was a severely unwarranted response to her simple efforts to get him to focus on his Welsh numeracy booklet instead of his silly little scribbled stories about sleeping beasts and peacekeepers; he comes home to sit on his father’s knee again and hear about the incredible things he and the peacekeeper must have talked about, but his father is not there.
His mother is on the living room sofa and her eyes are red.
He asks nothing. He sits down next to her and waits to be told.
When he asks his mother the question, which is at least five times day, over and over again like the information just refuses to sink in, his mother gives him the same answer with growing weariness and a more discernible snap to her voice followed by immediate guilt.
She tells him - Soon.
His father will come home soon. He wonders when soon is. He learns that soon is not today, not tomorrow, or next week. Soon is not next month even. Soon is on no calendar. Soon is in no one’s diary. Just when it seems soon is around the corner, it edges out of vision again, playfully egging on its chaser.
Young Edward Jr. waits for soon while he stares up at the peacekeeper’s house on the sleeping mountain every evening, wondering if the man who saved the world from the giants is also patiently awaiting the return of his father, waiting to sit down with his old friend and catch up on all the important things in the world while the sun goes down.
He waits for soon as he goes to class and argues with his teachers who once called him bright and full of potential but now call him flippant and too clever for his own good and he wonders how it feels for them to be outwitted and outfought by a child, a child who, unlike them and all the other dull empty grey adults all around him, sees the picture of the world for what it really is and dismisses the platitudes they give him about the ruthless nature of time and life because he knows he is special, different to them, immune to their problems which give their faces wrinkles and their shoulders invisible weights to carry.
He waits for soon as his mother cries in her bed every night until she falls asleep and he listens from his room, his room where he grows intimate with the colourless floral patterns of his ceiling as he stares at them long into the forbidden hours of the night, afraid to drift into the daunting void of sleep in case a woman dressed in white floats in through his window and takes him away forever, and despite his mother’s assurances that this woman only exists in his imagination, she is more real to Edward Jr. than all the blank silhouettes of people around him.
He waits for soon and thinks it has arrived one night when, while counting the cracks in his ceiling for the thousandth time yet somehow coming up with a different number on each go, he hears the front door to the house cracking open, the furtive appearance of a body in the doorway.
His heart sings.
The waiting is over. Soon is finally here. His father has come home. He has chosen an inconvenient time to arrive, in the terrifying silence of night, when everyone is asleep, everyone except young Edward Jr., but that’s just how his father is, a player of his own game with its own illegible-to-most rulebook, a puzzle piece the wrong shape for this ordinary square equilateral world with its flat and smooth and nothing people.
He jumps out of bed and rushes to his bedroom door. He reaches for the light switch but before his hand can reach it, before it can squeeze and turn and drag itself closer, it is forced into retreat, back to his side where it belongs.
The harsh, secretive whispers of strange voices. Two of them.
Then footsteps, quiet naughty footsteps, the kind only taken by those in places they know they shouldn’t be.
He stays exactly where he is, listening to the sounds from underneath him, keen to move his ear closer to them by crouching down and placing it on the carpet but finding himself physically unable to move.
He hears it, hears them. Two large men. Breathing and shuffling. Muted words shared under tight breath. Doors and cupboards and drawers opening. Though he wants to meet the faces of the night-time invaders, he finds his feet will not obey his thoughts so he remains limp and stupid on his tiny spot of carpet.
He knows his mother is a heavy sleeper, and is even more so now that she has started taking those tablets she guzzles down so fondly and eagerly each night, so there is no one, no one around to protect him, his father is gone and does not even phone, but it is better he learns this now, that no one can save him, at his tender age, rather than growing up with the false belief that there are those responsible for him, adults, parents and teachers and bosses, because the harsh truth everyone learns but he has got a head start on is that we are all completely alone and no one can save anyone, and the sooner this is accepted the easier growing old becomes.
He can feel the vibrations of his mother’s snores in the tips of his toes, and he realizes he is sweating as the footsteps below reach the bottom of the stairs.
His hands grow colder as the steps grow louder and nearer, and at the same time he finds his feet are tingling and alive and able to obey him and move again, so he springs from his spot by the door back to his bed, where he shuts his eyes as tight as they can possibly go and slows his breathing to a coma-like crawl.
The footsteps reach the landing and stop for the longest time imaginable, then resume.
The shadowy figures join the young boy in his bedroom. He remains still and soundless, remembering those times he was angered by the emptiness and density of his classmates at school to the point of near blackout, where he grew so exasperated all he could do was collapse and play dead on the playground, refusing to move or be moved from the floor until the headmaster had to be called to deliver threats, until the bell went and everyone went home and the sun started going down and his parents had to pry him from the cold concrete floor and carry his rigid ironing board body home, where they would scald him for being such a nuisance, unaware of what good practice it was, to be dead and motionless and undetectable, for a dangerous situation such as this exact one.
The figures move like deft mice around his bedroom, but to him their presence is loud and large and fills everything. They stay in his bedroom forever, while he tries to tell himself it is all a dream and it is all okay, lies which he names as such and dismisses before they have even fully formed as thoughts.
The slow unzipping of a rucksack.
The quiet pain of material things and innocence lost.
His heart rate slows to nothing and he remains still as the sleeping beasts sit either side of him, beasts he wishes would choose this exact moment to wake up from their great slumber and unleash the many years of unspent rage on these two cowardly invaders.
He also thinks but tries to quash the thought down as it is too black - If only his father was here.
He would teach these men things only violence can teach.
After forever and a bit longer, the ghosts leave young Edward Jr.’s bedroom and inspect the rest of the house. Then when they are satisfied there is nothing left worth taking, they leave. The little boy remains in his bed all night, wide awake, no longer afraid of the white woman of sleeplessness who might float in and take him away, because he has felt a threat much more immediate.
The next morning things are gone. The white portable television, the wireless radio, the cassette player and the assortment of albums and singles, the telephone, the VHS tapes, the jewellery box, the china plates, the perfume, the toys, the comfort of home.
They call the police and the police do nothing, only send an officer around who tries her best to sincerely express sympathy and condolences and assure the authorities will do everything they can to track the culprits down, and even Edward Jr., the young boy who sees things no one else sees, can tell that everything they can do amounts to very little, he sees it in the futile look in her eyes, that the cowardly invaders will never be caught and will go on to violate the homes and lives of more.
After that night, young Edward Jr. keeps a baseball bat under his bed.
He waits for soon until new people arrive.
At first they visit on weekends but then before Edward Jr. notices they are living with him in his house, his house vacated by his father who now, he is told, lives elsewhere, all alone, somewhere an impossible distance away in England.
He is never consulted on the issue but is forced to share his bedroom with a boy a year younger than him, an overweight child named Rhys who farts and snores in his sleep and has a permanent snail trickle of snot on his upper lip, whose mother is apparently dead from some disease, the son of a similarly grotesque man who has taken his father’s place on the three piece sofa and in his mother’s bed and in the garden which to young Edward Jr. is sacred territory between him and his father, a man whom he is told to address as Gwyn, though he does no such thing and stares at the floor whenever the big quiet man tries to talk to him.
The boys fight constantly. Over the television, the bathroom, the sofa, the front seat of the car, the toy from the box of cereal, the biscuit tin, and if they have nothing to fight about they fight about that.
When Rhys laughs at the story of the sleeping bests and the peacekeeper Edward Jr. scratches a hole in his face and then intentionally wets his bed every night for a month in an act of filthy protest. He begins to relish his days at school as at least there he can get away from the parasites who have crawled into his home just like the cowardly invaders, although he still has to put up with the dull empty grey people who populate his classroom and tease him over his messy handwriting and scruffy clothes and strawberry blonde hair, and yet it is still he who gets the blame when he refuses to lie down and take abuse from people who may as well be holograms and strikes back with first words and then when they don’t do enough damage, fists.
His hatred for Rhys burns and glows like something made of gold, he nourishes it and cherishes it and talks to it like it is a living person, a true friend, he holds onto this hatred for weeks and weeks, even as he feels it slipping away, like on Saturday mornings when the pair of them are dumped in front of the television and find themselves jumping in their chairs with excitement as The Rock finally wins his championship belt back from Triple H, when Bart Simpson prank calls Moe the bartender and asks for Hugh Jass, when Malcolm and his brothers fight the same way all brothers fight, and he hates to use this term as he would rather die than call Rhys his brother, but despite his concentrated efforts to maintain and sharpen the knife point of his hatred for this diseased boy who has invaded home just like the strange men of that traumatising night, he finds himself looking forward to weekends where they can enter the world of American television, which will do far more towards raising them and the rest of their generation than just about anything else, weekends where for a few hours before sundown they are allowed outside to explore their rustic village, where there are no shops banks schools or post offices, only fields mountains trees and rivers, where the reluctant arranged brotherhood comes alive, takes to the wilderness and grows like a lifeform, where the boys explore together and build dens made out of sticks and hide away from the world and talk for hours, where they discover hidden gems like the bamboo jungle and the frog pond and the elephant tree and the forest with a ground so soft it almost feels like it is breathing beneath their feet.
Some breezy Saturday, the kind with hours so free and yawning and easy, sees the boys walking along the river, the river which seems to go on forever, to faraway places, walking silently as they like to, chopping down anything in their paths with their sticks, sticks with pointy edges which they found and picked out and carved to perfection themselves, their companions, weapons.
They are bold explorers.
The world is so big it is impossible for them to even think about but they are ready to see it all.
It will be disputed for weeks afterward who truly spotted it first, the crumpled wrecked car lying in the river, half hidden by weeds. Rhys will claim he saw it first and cried out in wonder while Edward Jr. will claim it was in fact he who shouted - car! - and had to convince his brother to brave the treacherous slippery river bank and wade their way through the current towards it.
Edward Jr. reaches it first, knee deep in hepatitis inducing river water, then his brother arrives breathlessly at his side, and they inspect the rusted burned out machine, each wondering aloud as to who would be insane or foolish enough to dump their car in a river and leave it there. They look around for somebody to tell them they should not be there, that they should leave it alone and return to the safety of their homes, but there is no one around for miles.
It might as well be only they who exist in the whole world.
They try to open the doors and the boot but they are jammed shut. Rhys vocalises his fears of there being a dead body or bodies in the boot, or even worse living bodies waiting to be freed or waiting for naïve vulnerable young boys to happen upon the planted car wrecked for them to devour. Edward Jr. ignores him as his eyes have landed on something promising, something in the passenger seat which he leans in through the smashed window and drags out.
A black handbag.
Rhys tries to take it from him but his brother pushes him back and he falls on his backside in the water and both of them laugh. Their attempts to open it go nowhere as the zip is rusted and sewn shut, but this is the moment where the true value of their sharp sticks shows itself; they tear and hack at the old, weakened fabric material until a hole appears, a hole big enough for them to jam their fingers into and use their might to tear the thing open and see what secrets wait inside.
Most of what they find is unremarkable.
Bank cards, receipts, vouchers, makeup, a hairbrush, a mirror.
They find a driver’s licence with a picture of a woman on it. Her name is Georgina. Her birthday is three days before Edward Jr.’s, and to him she looks like she could be kind, colourful, bright and alive, unlike the dull empty grey people all around him every day.
He wonders if she is dead and drowned and washed up somewhere far away.
They drop the bag in the water when they find something which makes them stop breathing, which makes them laugh out loud and shriek and jump around, the same way they do when The Rock delivers his spinebuster and removes his elbow pad and the whole crowd knows what’s coming.
A damp and flimsy but still intact twenty-pound note.
More money than either of them has ever seen or held at one time in their little lives.
The possibilities are endless.
They wade their way back through the river, holding on their treasure, which they lay out on a rock when they reach the other side. They talk about all the things they will spend it on as they wait for it to dry.
A new house, a rocket, a horse, a sword, a Nintendo 64, the WWF championship belt, every Simpsons boxset ever made, Haribo, Fanta, ice cream.
It will all be theirs, as will the world.
The brothers brush their teeth together every night, standing over the sink, debriefing each other on the day’s invariably dramatic events at their school where playground fights are common and broken up by vigilant twitching manic staff members so quickly and to the chagrin of both competitors and spectators, so rematches are scheduled outside the gates on the rugby fields after the last bell, where the interested parties gather and sometimes place bets of up to fifty whole pence or a coveted Pog or Pokemon card, where victory is flaunted but defeat is never final as there is always tomorrow, tomorrow which the boys at the sink make plans for as well, their plans ranging from building a new den or maintaining an existing one to seeing how far up the mountain they could get this time before darkness comes and forces them back home.
One night Rhys tells his brother about a strange sighting in the farmer’s field adjacent to their house, the field with the grass so tall it reaches over their heads, making it the perfect arena for hide and seek, for racing away from imaginary velociraptors, or for running to the centre and simply sitting down on the spot and embracing that feeling of being totally lost and invisible.
Rhys spits his Aquafresh into the sink and speaks.
- I saw something Ed. In the field, today. A creature. I don’t know what it was. Like a dog . . . But with no fur.
- How big?
- Like a dog. A medium dog. But with no fur.
- How many legs did it have?
- Five. I mean six.
Edward Jr.’s eyes widen first with wonder and then fear and that tingling combination of both which always teeters on the edge of either phenomenon but always manages to stay in the middle, prickly and gnawing and heavy.
- You’re making it up.
- Shut up, I’m not.
- When did you see it?
- Who was with you?
- Don’t lie.
- I’m not, Ed, serious, I swear on my mum’s grave. Don’t tell my dad, but I took a slice of bread from the bread bin. I wanted to see if the monster would eat the bread. I took the bread to the field and left it there. I wanted to see if the monster would eat the bread.
- . . . Did it eat the bread?
- The bread was gone.
Edward Jr. feels a familiar crawling sensation in his vital organs, like the sickly stirring of insects walking all over each other.
He knows these creatures well already. They are his friends.
The boys go to bed and stay awake long into the night discussing what needs to be done. The monster is likely dangerous, likely to be capable of killing and eating everyone in the village, likely to be desperately hungry to do just so.
They know if they enlist the help of their parents, their parents will tell them to stop wasting their time with such childish fairy tales.
They know if they are going to stop the monster and save everyone, they can rely only on themselves.
The dangers in his head and all around him keep him awake into the long hours of the night where he knows little boys like him are not supposed to be awake, where he has grown used to and even fond of the colourless floral patterns of his ceiling as the backdrop and the sounds of Rhys’s pig snores as the soundtrack to his sleeplessness.
On some night just as lonely and endless as the rest of them, the sounds of his mother’s hissing whispers come from downstairs, harsh and desperately hushed.
Someone is at the door.
The sleepless little boy with his head full of monsters gets out of his bed, nimbly hops over Rhys’s sleeping body and cracks open his bedroom door.
He needs no longer than a second to place the voice responding to his mother’s, familiar and close and warm, however far away, the voice that brought the magic of the stories to him what seems now like an impossibly long time ago.
His father is home.
The boy feels the urge to sprint down the stairs and launch himself into the arms of his hero but intrinsically knows something is wrong with this visit, knows that his presence at this untimely scene will only prompt frantic shoos and shouts from his mother, so he tiptoes across the landing, to the top of the stairs where he can see what he needs to see and stay hidden in the shadows.
His father is in the doorway, swaying from side to side, speaking but not saying real words. His mother is trying to close the door but his father is blocking it with his foot.
The shrieks she makes sound loud enough to wake the entire village.
- Look at you, look at the state of you.
- Tell ‘um face me and down ‘ere, come on, like, bosh, who is he? Huh? Real man? Piss off.
- If you won’t leave, I’ll call the police.
- ‘Umnum the right to see my boy.
- It’s the middle of the night. You’re pissed.
His hero shakes his head violently and thrusts himself toward the door frame. The five foot two woman finds the strength inside to push the towering man backwards and send him falling to the floor in a broken heap, after which she hurriedly slams the door shut and lets out a whimper, which is met by enraged growls from outside the door which go on for a time and then quieten in defeat and disappear altogether.
The boy at the top of the stairs shoots back across the landing and into his room, where the colourless floral patterns of his ceiling and the ticking away of the night await him.
He does not sleep for even a second.
The next morning he waits for his mother to inform him of his father’s return while she plonks breakfast in front of him, he waits while she gets dressed for work, while she lays out his school uniform for him on his bed, but she offers nothing, has the audacity to act as if nothing ever happened, and this infuriates him, makes him question his mother in deep, disturbing ways, makes him wonder what else she might be capable of hiding from him.
She finds him in the bathroom delaying the brushing of his teeth.
She sighs impatience, and he snaps.
- When is dad coming home?
- . . . What? He’s . . . Edward, it’s time for school.
- He’s not coming home, is he?
- Edward, listen –
- Don’t say soon. You said soon before. Soon isn’t real.
His mother looks upwards as if for some guidance and when none is forthcoming, for her or for anyone, she lets out a long, embattled sigh.
- Your dad is sick. He’s too sick to come home.
- What’s wrong with him?
His mother tries to find a way of saying what she has held swirling around in her head for the best part of a decade, what she always quietly known but tried to downplay or reject.
- Your dad has a monster inside him. He’s not a bad man, but the monster makes him bad. Does that make any sense?
Young Edward Jr. does not respond as his voice, his whole identity, is caught somewhere in his windpipe.
It is real.
Firm, undeniable proof. His brother has seen it with his own eyes, the pair of them have spent long hours in the night planning their attack, but neither of them has done anything to stop it.
Something is metamorphosing in his gut.
- What? What monster?
- . . . It’s . . . Time for school –
- Where is it?
- . . . It’s inside him.
- How did it get there?
The exhausted woman lets out another weak sigh as the imagination of the little boy in front of her winds and ties itself into pained knots, picturing hundreds of these oversized insect monsters, thousands of them, all over the world, scuttling around and crawling inside people, enslaving them and turning them into incoherent, dribbling, swaying fools in exile.
- It’s time for school.
The car journey to school is silent.
There is nothing to say. Only something to be done.
The plan is simple.
Another two slices of Hovis will be swiped from the bread bin when the grownups are preoccupied which the boys have noticed is increasingly more often, as their respective parents spend night after night at the kitchen table going through bills and other meaningless bits of paper, with calculators and pens and notepads, rubbing their heads, looking at each other and sighing at regular intervals.
The Hovis slices, one of which is a backup in case the first one fails for any number of potential reasons, will be taken to the field with the long grass by the boys, who will also carry with them their sharpened sticks.
They will throw the Hovis slice into the grass, then fall where they stand, concealing themselves.
Then they will wait.
They will wait for something, anything, a flicker of movement in the grass, the scent of a wicked creature on the wind, the damp sounds of animalistic breathing.
They will wait as long as it takes for that vile monster to show its cowardly self and when it does, they will kill it. Young Edward Jr. has repeatedly expressed his desire to land the first blow, has described in rich vivid detail how he longs for the creature’s blood to stain his hands. It is not just about his father. It is about preventing the parasite from crawling inside someone else’s mouth and planting its horrible babies there. He already walks around with the cold crippling fear that the babies have already been lain inside him, as he feels them chewing and tickling his insides at night, but this he has refrained from sharing with his brother. He fears he will become tainted in the eyes of others and seen as another one of the infected.
Rhys throws the Hovis slice into the grass and holds onto the backup.
The brothers crouch down in the long grass, in perfect disguise.
Nothing but wind passes through the blades of grass around them. At various moments, they look at each other, sharing a deep, knowing look of pain and patience. No one will understand them, but they will be thankful.
An hour passes, two.
Nothing but the wind, which is now joined by the first gentle signs of rain; the blackening clouds above them and the inquisitive moist drops on foreheads.
Edward Jr. instructs his brother to throw the second slice of bread out, a hail Mary to further tempt the salivating beast, which they are certain is about to show itself any second.
The rain picks up and brings with it shivers to their spines. Rhys shakes water from his hair and speaks.
- I want to go home.
- Rhys . . .
- It’s raining.
- So? It’s only water.
- I’m cold.
- This is what it wants. It wants us to give up.
- I’m hungry. I’m hungry and cold. I’m going home.
Rhys gets up, shows himself to the monster and to the world, and undoes all the hard work the boys have done. He makes his way out of the field with the long grass, back to the village.
Young Edward Jr. spits at the boy he once called his brother.
He waits in the grass for another hour, until his hands turn blue and his teeth shake and spasm in his skull. Darkness comes and the monster is still hiding. His teachers constantly tell him he is bright and capable of anything he sets his mind to but they are wrong and liars and cheats and he is a failure. He cannot save himself, his father, or anyone.
As he walks home, the determined young boy steels himself against the wind and the disappointment, does his utmost to assure himself all is okay, because tomorrow is another day which will bring another chance to catch the monster and murder it with his bare hands.
Suddenly he can hardly wait.
He refuses to believe what he has heard. He plays it back in his head again and again hoping that somehow by doing this the words will mutate and transform into what he wants them to be.
The boy he once called his brother has shown his true self. He refuses to join young Edward Jr. on another mission to the field with the tall grass. He has given his various reasons, the first of which was a fear of getting caught by his dad stealing slices of bread, the second of which was a simple and flat lack of desire, and the third, the fatal one, the one which Edward Jr. cannot stop repeating in his head, was that the whole thing is and always was just another story.
There is, and never was any monster.
It is all made up, just a bit of fun.
- . . . You wouldn’t lie about that.
- I didn’t think you’d actually believe it. You’re a little baby.
- It’s real. The monster is real. I know it is.
- I made it up because I was bored and you believed me because you’re a baby.
- It got my dad.
- Shut up. I’m not going to the field. Go by yourself.
Rhys takes to the sofa where he gets comfortable with whatever happens to be on Nickelodeon while young Edward Jr. breathes heavily and tries to fight off nauseating light-headedness, as he pictures the monster’s eggs inside Rhys, manipulating him and twisting him into claiming the whole thing a lie, as he pictures the creatures inside himself he knows are there but is not yet ready to admit out loud, the creatures which scuttle and dance on his nerve endings, playing haunting symphonies which only his ears are tuned to, the monsters inside his mother and his teachers and everyone, turning them into dull empty grey drooling slaves.
That night, deep in the forbidden hours, as his eyes trace the colourless floral patterns of his ceiling again, he feels the churning of the insects inside him and he reaches a moment of awakening, a clarity so precise he wonders how it took so long to reach him, because although he may be powerless to stop the monsters of the world, in the field and in his father and in everyone else, he knows he can destroy his own private monster. All he has to do is deprive the bastard of nourishment. If he does not eat, neither does the monster, and the thought of starving them slowly and painfully brings a sick smile to his face, there in his bed, in the middle of the night.
For two days he refuses to eat. His teachers ask him why and he wants to tell them but knows how they will react to stories of monsters living inside people so keeps his mouth shut.
When the school calls home and informs his mother it takes the combined strength of her and the big quiet man, Gwyn, to pin him down and force feed him some mushy peas which he immediately spits back out and screams.
- I’ve got to kill them! You don’t get it!
His mother is already in tears which she tries to stifle long enough to get out a choked response.
- . . . What are you talking about?
- They’re inside me! I have to kill them!
- Kill who? Kill what?
- The monsters! They got dad! They can’t get me too!
The sounds which come from his mother can be likened more to primal screams than to sobs, and it takes Gwyn all night and the next week to calm her down and get her to see that her son needs a doctor.
The doctor shows young Edward Jr. an x-ray of his insides which show no trace of parasitic insect like creatures thriving off his suffering, though this means nothing to him as he knows them too well to have them so easily dismissed, and he knows everyone in his world, including this doctor who claims to know everything but knows very little, to be dull and empty and grey, their eyes unable to see things right in front of them
Edward Jr. sees things no one else sees.
This is his gift and his curse.
The doctor recommends the boy has some counselling which his mother gently tries to bring up on the car drive home but is only met with resounding and disgusted refusal.
That night the young boy packs things into his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack; three pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, a pair of shorts, a pair of tracksuit bottoms, two t shirts, a coat, a notepad, his Gameboy and a set of batteries, all he needs for his life on the road which he is forced to take as no one around him can accept the harsh ugly truths of life he has already come to know.
The boy he once called his brother walks in on him just as he is zipping up his bag, ready to sneak his way to the front door.
Rhys takes one look at the scene and screams for his father.
Young Edward Jr. lunges at him and knocks him to the floor.
The adults come rushing upstairs to find the boys entangled in a violent huddle. They separate them and keep them in locked rooms for the remainder of the night, creating prisoners in what was once a harmonious home, while they hide away downstairs and discuss what they can possibly do, about the disturbing behaviour and about the mounting pile of paper at the kitchen table signalling their financial doom.
In the end, his frayed and distraught mother can only think of one way to convince her boy that there are no creatures devouring him from the inside out.
She takes him to see his father.
He lives now in a one bedroom flat with no windows and no light, with brown sticky carpets, with a small black and white TV, with a smell of piss and despair.
Young Edward Jr., who was excited to the point of having almost forgotten the monster and its babies inside him on the long drive, is revolted at the sight of his hero, now visibly smaller, frailer, greyer, buried in a hole of ash and spilled cans and pizza boxes and magazines with nipples on the front covers and old sticky tissue and misery.
Just like all the other slaves. Dull and empty and grey.
The man tries to pick up his son and place him on his knee, tries to hug and touch and kiss him, but his affection only causes uncomfortable squirms in the boy who has spent much of his nascent life waiting for this exact moment.
His mother stares at the picture, father and son, the two loves of her life, with a sadness so profound it disables her from speaking for quite some time, but then, as the boy wriggles his way free of his father’s grasp and back onto the filthy carpeted floor and over to his mother, she manages to find the words to ask the question she came here to ask.
She tells the man to assure his boy, their boy, that there is no such thing as monsters and he needs to eat and everything is going to be okay. The man pretends not to hear and coaxes the shy boy back over to his knee to sit and talk for a while. The boy stays close to his mother and the safety of her hand. The man gets up and goes to the fridge and opens a can of something that to Edward Jr. smells like underpants washed in sick and hung out to dry in the baking sun, swigs half of the contents inside, belches and falls back to his chair with a resignation that this spot is as far as he is going to make it now, for the rest of his life, that this dark little room covered in dust and insects and mould is his waiting room, because all he has left to do is wait, wait until the pain stops resurfacing after every time it is washed down, wait until the liquid drowns and kills him, wait until it is over.
His mother bends down and whispers in Edward Jr.’s ear, asks him the simple question of what he wants to do which is answered immediately: the boy wants to go home.
On the drive home they stop for a Happy Meal which the boy devours rapidly, without mercy, thought or breath. His mother never thought she would be so delighted to see him eating such garbage.
Neither of them speaks for the whole journey because there is nothing which needs to be said.
The boy has seen enough.
He forgets about the monster for a little while at least, his overactive imagination moves onto something else, as life goes, just a series of things he will eventually forget and wonder how they could ever have meant so much to him.
Plates are slapped down on tables and met with groans. Economy baked beans and mushy fish fingers. Value beef burgers and peas. Halves of frozen tomato and cheese smart price pizzas. Plastic sausages and instant noodles. Ketchup sandwiches. Glasses of lukewarm tap water and absolutely no seconds or desserts.
Despite the fact that the adults of the house both get up when it is dark and go to work all day and come home when it is dark again and do just about nothing else besides work or think about work or worry about how working is killing them, while their boys grow up secretly vowing to themselves to never turn out to be slaves like them, they find themselves, like countless others, struggling to come up with the seemingly arbitrary sums of money printed on the letters sent to their house in intimidating brown envelopes marked urgent or very urgent or open this immediately or suffer unspeakable consequences, struggling to fill the cupboards and replace the broken or outgrown shoes of their boys who seemed to getting taller and larger by the minute, struggling to mend the holes in their clothes which in turn prompts the other boys in their ruthless school playground to refer them as the skippy twat brothers, which in turn causes Edward Jr. to throw one to the floor and strangle him until his air cuts off and his eyes close and his skin turns a strange colour and he has to be dragged off by teachers and sent to the isolation room for the rest of the week and have long terribly boring conversations with professional strangers who call him sport and champ and young man and do not realise that the boy sees right through them the same way he sees through everyone and their translucent meaningless words, struggling to find even a single moment of relief from the choking fear that any minute the whole thing will come crashing down and they will end up on the streets.
Things are made worse one night when Rhys decides to go for a walk and does not come back.
He leaves the house at seven pm and tells his father he is only going to the end of the lane. When an hour passes and he still has not returned, the big quiet man, who is stressed enough, expecting a package with a big mean word beginning with R on it any day now, delivered from his boss at the factory where the profit margins could stand to look a little more impressive to the shareholders, gets in his car and drives around the village and the surrounding valley villages.
He returns home in tears and shakily dials for the police who ask for a description and last known whereabouts and assure him they will do everything in their power to find the young boy.
Young Edward Jr. is sent to his room where he slams the door behind him and listens in to the increasingly short and tense snaps coming from the grownups below, the grownups who try to remain calm and in charge and sure of themselves but are quietly falling apart inside.
The police find nothing and report this information to Gwyn, the big quiet man, every time he calls and asks for information which is at least twice an hour until the sun rises.
Sometime in the morning, as Gwyn flits from consciousness to an ethereal sleep in which he is convinced he is awake and the walls are just dribbling and changing colours around him and this is how they always are and always have been, Rhys casually walks in through the front door. His clothes are covered in mud and ripped at the knees. His father grabs him by the scruff of the neck and screams at him. The boy is quizzed on his whereabouts for the entire night and cannot account for anything, even fails to see what all the drama is about. He politely asks to be allowed to bed where he can sleep, and his father has no choice but to let him go and fall back on the sofa and pass out himself.
He misses work that morning which gives his boss the ammunition to send that magic R word in the post, ammunition he did not really need as he was preparing to send it anyway but now has the choice easily made for him. It arrives in the post and does not even need to be opened. The big quiet man knows what lies inside the envelope. It is the end of everything.
The boys find their respective parents sat at the dinner table that night. Both of them are quiet and calm, which tells them in a deeper way that something is wrong than if they were screaming and throttling each other.
Young Edward Jr. sees his mother’s red eyes which tells him all he needs to know. He looks for someone to blame but is now just starting to grasp that no one is responsible, for him, for them, for anyone.
Everyone is clinging on, desperate and clueless and doomed.
Gwyn, the big quiet man, packs bags for himself and his son. They find a small flat in a town the other side of the valley. Young Edward Jr. at least gets what he wanted even if now he does not know how it feels.
He and his mother are alone again.
To his surprise, the young boy who is looking more and more like a young man misses the obese, unhygienic boy he once called his brother and shared days and nights and seasons with. He expects them to come back one day, the same way he expected his father to return, but more days and nights and seasons and even years pass and they never do.
One day he finds a phone number for Gwyn, the big quiet man, in the phone book, a trick he learned from television, and calls him, but a miserable sounding woman answers who tells him to never call again and slams down the phone and that is the last he ever tries to contact them or anyone.
He waits a long time before he makes anything close to another friend, so long that he finishes his SATS exams in year six and strolls out through the gates of his primary school for the last time, celebrating a false sense of freedom because the summer ends as quickly as it started and he is thrown into big school, which to him is aptly named as everything about it is exactly that, big, the hall, the yard, the classrooms, the scowling teachers, the oversized bearded teens who prowl the corridors with menace looking for anyone foolish enough to not give them a wide enough berth and punish them with flicks of elastic bands or charlies or rugby tackles, who wear diamonds in their ears and have blonde slim shady hair, girls who smell like chemical fruit with sinister high heel shoes that are more like weapons than footwear, whose very presence makes the young Edward Jr. feel small and frightened and dumb.
Now he has to walk from class to class carrying his belongings on his back instead of staying in the comfort of a single chair for the whole day while the teachers came on a conveyor belt to him. In some ways it is like something from the American television he has grown up with, gossiping teens with piercings and skateboards and lockers and cigarettes, only less shiny and perfect, more brutish and ugly.
He moves into year nine before he makes a single friend.
Her name is Rebecca West, a boyish girl with dirty, crispy ginger hair, a freckled face and cheap school shoes, who the boys in school treat as diseased, pushing each other into her and mocking each other for having come into physical contact with her, branding each other infected, diagnosed with a highly disgusting and highly contagious case of West germs, which no doctor in the civilised world can cure, while the girls were less thuggish but no less cruel in their treatment of her, keeping a radius of several feet around her in the gymnasium changing rooms, putting their bags on empty stools in the canteen when they saw her approaching, talking loudly about how she is a mutant from the sewers.
It all starts one morning at the bus stop in his bucolic village where he learns that lots of other children live whom he never knew existed. One of them is a cocky kid named Ashley Watkins, who, despite being a year younger than Edward, is not terrified of and overwhelmed by the process of growing up the way he is supposed to be, and spends the morning wait for the bus persistently ridiculing the short length of Edward’s school trousers, until Edward snaps and pushes him to the ground.
The appalled gasps from the other children let Edward know he has just made a mistake.
The bus arrives and they get on and start the plodding journey to the big mean gates of school. Word soon spreads to Ashley’s cousin, Craig, a rough kid with an eyebrow piercing from the year above Edward.
Craig gets off the bus in the school car park and waits for Edward. When he finds him, he lands a punch in his gut and throws him to the floor, spits on him and walks away.
Edward refuses to speak all day. His teachers ask him what happened and he simply shakes his head or scribbles on a piece of paper the word “no.”
He thinks he has served his punishment but this is only the beginning. Craig and his friends establish the casual routine of torturing the young boy every morning during their commute, while young Ashley sits with them baring the fiendish grin of someone who knows they are well protected.
- Did you hear his mum tried to kill herself?
- Oh aye?
- Threw herself in front of a train. Train was late. Everyone was pissed off. Had her name taken and everything.
- Fuck aye, my uncle’s a rail guard. Told me. Ini? Edward? You scruffy twat. Why did she try to kill herself? Eh? Edward? Don’t ignore me you little prick, why did your mum try to off herself? Is it ‘cos she has to live with you? Isi? Eddie boy? Why’d she do it?
Edward Jr. spins around, at first to Craig’s surprise and then to his amusement.
- She didn’t try to kill herself.
- Yeah she did boy.
- Shut up.
- Pauline Williams.
Edward Jr.’s entire body turns cold.
- Jumped in front of a train she did, daft bitch, but missed. How dumb do you have to be?
The boys laugh like predators and Edward Jr. turns around again, digs his fingernails into the seat until his knuckles turn white. There is no way it can be true. He is certain of that. He knows his mother is unhappy but she is not launching herself in front of moving trains. He never even brings it up with his mother as he knows it is too absurd to even think about.
He does his best to forget about it but his gang of oppressors ridicule him and christen him with a new nickname: Choo-Choo.
They chant it at him one morning relentlessly until something pops inside him and causes him to scream at them with rage, which brings the whole bus full of children to its knees with laughter. He wants to shrink and shrivel up into a tiny ball and go to sleep for a long, long time. But his mind ticks on and so do the awful days.
The nickname grows popularity. An entire movement is sparked. Like insects the schoolchildren march together. Strangers from all the year groups latch onto the seemingly random moniker, the hooting sound, the pulling of an invisible chord, and the hilariously furious reaction it prompts from a boy no one has noticed before. They walk up to him in the corridor and scream it in his face. Girls sing it to him with wicked lipstick smiles. There are incidents of entire classes chanting it at him, and even Mr. Jenkins, the chemistry teacher who is secretly gay but makes jokes about boobs with the rugby boys to gain their approval, puts an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine on his overhead projector to uncontrollable whoops and cheers from the audience.
It evolves into a game played by the entire school, all twelve hundred animal adolescents of the valleys, with the sole objective being to get the biggest reaction possible out of the innocuous little boy with the untapped wellspring of anger inside.
A record is set by a year seven boy who throws a full can of coke at Edward Jr.’s head before screaming - Choo-Choo! - and running away full of giggles. Edward Jr. tries to chase him but has no chance, all he can do is gasp for air and watch his smiling attacker saunter away, so he takes out his white boiling rage on his own belongings; throwing his bag onto the floor and destroying his schoolbooks and pencils. A teacher catches him in the act and puts him in the isolation room, where he tries to coax an explanation out of him but receives only stern silence.
He becomes a cult icon in the school, infamous, a reluctant celebrity, known to all who are eager to go through the rite of passage, to scream at the strange boy who always gives chase and never even comes close to catching anyone, the perfect victim.
At breaktime, lunchtime, in the corridors between classes, every moment is another chance to play the game, just another schoolground fad. And every time, young Edward Jr. folds and crumbles and gives into his exploding rage. He can hardly even explain the abandoned anger himself when quizzed about it by the support workers who tilt their heads sympathetically at him and make laughable attempts at trying to communicate with him on his level, though he suspects it has been waiting dormant inside him all along, bred by those sickly insect creatures that crawl around inside him, which give him stomach-aches, make him doubt himself and doubt everything, make him scared of the night time, the private friends he has always known are real despite his mother’s best efforts to convince him they are only alive in his head.
It reaches its climax one day in the lunch queue, when a dumb faced kid named Jordan Day in year eight, with spots, round glasses and an impish circle of friends, gets brave and eager to join in the fun, to establish himself as bold and daring and elevate his playground rank to new heights.
He tiptoes up to Edward Jr. but gets a little too close.
He cups his hands over his mouth and shouts the magic words – Choo-Choo! – but he does not count on William’s heightened state of alertness, agitation and bare aggression. The boy dashes away but only makes it two steps before Edward shoots out an arm, grabs him by the throat, squeezes until his forefinger and thumb meet, and throws him to the floor, off which his head smacks and bounces back up, creating a thwacking sound loud and clear enough to halt the many conversations going on all around them.
The boy does not move for exactly one minute and fourteen seconds apart from a spasm in his lower leg. Crowds gather round with hand covered mouths. The boy’s friends kneel beside him and try to slap him into revival. The circus turns to Edward Jr. and berates him, scalds him and punishes him for manhandling a defenceless year eight boy half his size, and he cannot take it, a ringing starts in his ears and all he sees is a bright light with a hot centre. He is the victim, not the assailant, brought to near insanity by the hive consciousness of abuse, the masses who gang together to gawp at public torture, who collectively presume his worthlessness and comicalness.
He screams and cries and throws his fist into the wall with rising force and fury until the spectators back away, both disturbed and amused by the mental breakdown happening right in front of them, until a teacher stumbles onto the gruesome scene and shouts things in anger at the barbarism of youth and drags Edward and his bleeding knuckles away from the cracks in the concrete wall.
The situation is serious, as is explained to his parents over the phone.
Both of them.
The most miserable family reunion imaginable is staged in the office of the school social worker who smokes ninety cigarettes a day just to break even.
He looks back and forth between Edward Jr.’s parents and says his piece, speaks of his concern for Edward Jr.’s wellbeing and those in danger of him.
His father, who is less than pleased at being dragged across the border for a grilling on his failures as a parent, finds the word hyperbolic and speaks up.
- Danger? Are you serious?
- The boy was sent to hospital. Concussion. His parents could quite rightfully choose to press charges, you know, but, well, by some miracle, they’re not. Luckily the boy is showing no signs of brain damage. It could be much worse.
- The little shit provoked him. Everyone knows that.
Edward Jr. looks at his father and does not recognise the man, the man whose knee he once sat on and listened to fables of sleeping giants and peacekeepers, the man whose hair is now the colour of ash, whose nose is oversized and red, whose eyes are wide open and panicked at all times.
- But –
- I don’t’ see the point in making a big deal out of it. The kid was asking for it.
- I . . . Well . . . I can’t say that excuses the excessive reaction. The violent reaction. Yes, Edward was provoked, by name calling, but that doesn’t justify violence. That’s the way I see it, and the way others will see it too, I’m sure of that. He needs to control his anger. Take a look at your son’s knuckles again, if you would, Mr. Williams.
Edward Jr. tries to hide his hand away but everyone in the room and all those present in the lunch queue have already seen his raw mangled knuckles, the red stains on the wall, the unconscious child who is now in hospital and being temporarily fed through a straw.
The social worker coughs something up, then swallows it, winces and speaks again.
- . . . The wall will need repairing . . . That’s just the start of it . . . We need to, and most importantly Edward needs to, understand and appreciate the gravity of what has happened. Now the school has already expressed an enormous gratitude to the boy’s parents for not taking further action, which, as I say, would be expected. Having said that, the last thing I wanted to do with this meeting is cast further blame and punishment on Edward here. He knows what has happened. What we need to do now, is talk about it why it happened –
- Oh, come on. Why? Why do we need to do that? Why do we always have to talk about why? What will that achieve?
Edward Sr. is clearly angered by this and throws his hand up in the air dramatically before bringing it back down with a slap.
- . . . Like I said, Mr. Williams, we need to come to terms with the gravity of the incident.
Edward Sr. turns to look at his son who doggedly keeps his eyes fixed on the floor. He looks up once but only sees a poster on the wall, covered in little blob cartoon characters with various caricature-like facial expressions and the bubbled question – which blob do you feel like today?
His father grabs him by the shoulder.
- What’s wrong with you? . . . Kids call each other names. You can’t go around beating the shit out of people, especially not kids half your damned size! What’s the matter with you mun?
Edward Jr. has nothing to say and neither does his mother who watches her painted fingernails overlapping each other.
- . . . Now, you see, I think asking judgemental, provocative questions like these can do us no good, Mr. Williams. Edward knows what he did. Obviously he is upset. This is not the reaction of –
- What’s he got to be upset about?
- Why don’t you ask him yourself?
- We’ve tried.
All eyes land on Edward Jr. who keeps his head down. The social worker’s eyes suggest that now is his chance to prove his father and everyone wrong and speak his mind. The young man knows this is a chance to let it all out but he prefers to watch it slip away, as his mind is too dark to be spoken of, so he holds it in tight and waits for the acidic ball to dissolve, something which he is finding he is hereditarily adept at.
- . . . Jesus . . . I got called names in school, come on, everyone did. I didn’t strangle anybody or smash their heads off the damned floor!
Edward Sr. throws his arm in the air again. The social worker does his best to keep his own at his desk.
- Edward is at an age where hormones kick in and wreak havoc. Some have more difficulty than others in dealing with the sudden onset of emotions. I’m sure you both remember what that was like. Do you think Edward’s home is the kind of environment that can support this transitional stage?
- Oh, okay, yeah, it’s our fault, right, of course. Glad you got that out of your system, you’ve clearly been dying to say it.
- I . . . I didn’t suggest that, now, if we go down an antagonistic road –
- So what are you suggesting?
- I asked a simple question. I mean, all I’m saying is that something isn’t right for Edward, somewhere, something is wrong, wouldn’t you agree that’s clear?
- Yes! He was being bullied! You’re the bloody ones who told us that!
- Mr Wil –
- That solves your little psychic mystery doesn’t it? Why did he go toxic and hit the boy? Because they called him names. There you go.
- Please, Mr –
- Look, mate, I know you’re just at work right now so you don’t actually care about any of this, but he’s my son. I know him.
- That’s not true. I do care. It’s my job to care.
- You know that phrase is a paradox, right? Will you be up all night? Losing sleep over this?
The social worker exhales and watches the frantic man across from him closely, trying his best to remember passages from the books he read in his training about how to deal with defensive, obtuse people.
Edward Sr. lets out a long sigh, ready to go home.
- What’s his punishment?
- . . . Mr. Williams . . .
- Come on, let’s get this over with.
- . . . He will obviously have to be suspended from school.
- How long?
- Ten days.
- That’s it?
- That’s quite severe.
- Now, please, Mr –
- You know what? His mother will punish him at home, to an extent we both see fit, right?
Edward Sr. turns to his ex-wife who has grown almost entirely absent from the room. She has to fetch herself from her thoughts which were mostly questions about how things have reached this point. She nods her head, unaware of what she is responding to.
- That will be all then, pleasure chatting with you.
The social worker watches Edward Jr., who keeps his eyes downward, holding everything back, while his parents get up out of their seats and head for the door.
He does not immediately follow.
The social worker speaks.
- Edward, when you come back to school, you should come talk to me. I’ll be here.
Edward Jr. then sharply gets up and follows his parents out of the door, out of the school and home, sickened by the social worker and everyone around him.
He comes back to school after ten days of staring at the colourless floral patterns of his bedroom ceiling and finds himself among the exiled, which leads him to Rebecca West, who spends all her time in the indoor club, the safe haven classroom for outsiders, where she scribbles dark cartoons in her sketch pad and speaks to no one.
She is accustomed to her status as a social freak, an experienced veteran, whereas Edward Jr. is a novice. In Rebecca he finds a mentor, an ally, a spirit similarly sick of living. They find comfort in each other. They spend lunchtimes together in a perfect spot in the bushes behind the arts faculty where no one can find them and they can pass the time talking, joking, storytelling.
Or sometimes, if they feel like it, they don’t talk at all and simply hold hands.
To the populace, she may be grotesque, but to Edward, Rebecca West is more real than the blurred cartoon characters of the playground and the streets all around them, the dull empty grey slaves, the carbon copied plastic people who walk around as if they are happy and have it all figured out but inside are screaming and terrified, most of all about what others might think of them.
After a few weeks, Choo-Choo, the chases, the fights, the whole phenomenon, all fades away, and when someone smears the walls of the girls’ toilets in faeces, the schoolyard’s attention is diverted, in that unspectacular way that life plods on, and Edward Jr. goes back to being ignored, which is all he has ever wanted.
Year nine becomes year ten and the first signs of sideburns appear on his innocent cheeks, cloaking and reddening them, similar hairs appear in other areas which he does not understand but knows they must remain a dark secret.
One easy May day, when the exams are finished and the term trundles to a close so the teachers fill up the surplus classes with quizzes and movies and free chat times, Edward Jr. and his new best friend go on an adventure, one which starts with the legendary rumour they heard during their first days at the school, a rumour which most have heard but have dismissed, the rumour of the Wall of Names.
The Wall is hidden somewhere between the second and third floors of the school building, only accessible by entering the lift, pressing the emergency stop button and wrenching the doors open manually. Edward Jr. has always been eager to find out the truth about the wall but has been held back by his fear of getting caught, but with Rebecca by his side, he finds that fear is less daunting than it seems.
Mr. Johns, their geography teacher with a high pitched nasal voice who has been caught staring down the unbuttoned polo shirts of year eleven girls on more than one occasion, sends the two of them on a photocopying errand during a class in which they are watching the movie Volcano for the seventeenth time without even the pretence of being educated or even entertained, conversing in small, sinister clusters around the room.
This is their chance for adventure.
Edward Jr. asks his best friend if she wants to finally look for the Wall of Names and his best friend says yes.
They get in the lift on floor one and press the button for floor three, staring at the electronic display, waiting for one to become two, at which point their hands link as they slam them down on the stop button and rip open the doors and behold the sight, the true sight, the Wall, in its glory, decorated in names, surnames, nicknames, dates, swearwords, smiley faces, penises, swastikas, joints, phone numbers with offers of blowjobs, cartoons of teachers declaring their sexuality and innate racism through speech bubbles.
They hold their hands together and stare at the wall in amazement.
Then Rebecca notices that in their giggling excitement neither of them ever thought to bring a pen. They are looking at history and they have no weapon with which to leave their mark. The chance to have their names engraved in the structure of the building itself for the rest of time is passing them by as they stand with their mouths held open.
Rebecca suggests going back to Mr. John’s classroom to get a felt pen and claiming a malfunction of the photocopying machine which they need to return to fix and trusting that he will buy it because he is an old pervert who puts on mediocre 90s films to kill time for a living.
Edward Jr. agrees.
They pull the doors closed once more and press the button for floor one and nothing happens. The stillness is disturbing. They press the button again and get only a perfect nothing, they press it again and again and again and gradually are forced to come to terms with the fact that they are stuck which makes them slowly turn to look at each other with the whites of their eyeballs and teeth on show.
The first thing Edward Jr. does is look for someone to blame, his father, his mother, his teachers, the government, society, god, but no one is responsible for him, he is here, was planted here without his consultation, and now he has to figure out how to make it to death all by himself.
He is trapped in more ways than one.
He grabs at his hair and spins around in circles. Rebecca tells him to calm down and this makes it worse, because hearing those words out loud, the words that are only used in decidedly uncalm, dangerous situations, confirms to Edward Jr. that he is in trouble and all alone.
She grabs him by the shoulders and steadies him by looking him right in his hazel eye.
- What do we do? The alarm?
- . . . We’ll get in trouble. They’ll find the wall.
- You got a better idea?
- . . . Uh . . .
Rebecca sounds the alarm.
The lift shudders and jerks into life and she shoves her hand into his again, he feels a surge of warmth and strength coming from inside, but it is extinguished as soon as the vehicle they are trapped in stutters and halts once more, and the lights go out.
Her fingers squeeze around his, both sets of knuckles turn white.
Rebecca whispers something but Edward Jr. does not hear it.
She presses the alarm again.
The metal box enclosing them plods another metre or so downwards in a fit, and then they hear a teacher’s voice from outside the door.
- Who’s in there?
The best friends look for each other’s eyes in the darkness. Their mouths say nothing.
- Are you stuck?
They say nothing. While the teacher calls for back-up and summons a team of stern faced educators concerned with health and safety and bad press stories of children caught in and decapitated by ill-maintained school facilities and neglect and tribunals and swarms of furious protesting parents lining up outside the offices with picket signs showing graphic images of dead children with rhetorical captions, they say nothing, while they wait for three hours until the fire brigade shows up and stand around asking questions and scratching their heads, they say nothing, when a team of them disable the lift and crowbar open the doors and find them in there with grins on their faces and pull them out by their arms, they say nothing, when they are shoved and sat down in the headteacher’s office and asked question after question about what they were doing and why and make irate phone calls to the lift company, they say nothing, while their parents come to bring them home, they say nothing, they say nothing to anyone about the secret Wall and the legacy of yesterday’s generations, about the electric tension they shared, the fear and excitement, the closeness that an emergency brings, they keep it all in, hold it tight, as to speak about it will let it out into the air where it will fade and disappear and lose all its weight.
And for their silence they get a day off school due to potential perceived “trauma” which even Edward Jr., the reckless irresponsible naïve teenager, knows can be translated to “please don’t make a fuss and let’s keep this quiet”.
They use their free Thursday for another adventure.
Edward Jr. tells Rebecca, like he has never told anyone before, about the stories his father told him as a child, in their back garden, those stories about the sleeping beasts and their raging war and the peacekeeper’s house and the wonder he felt at those moments, a wonder which he has never been able to replace.
Rebecca snorts and dismisses it as childish drivel and Edward Jr. agrees but silently still clings onto some hope that the magic he felt on those long lazy afternoons on his father’s knee still exists, that that home they made and shared together can still be returned to someday.
They decide to climb the mountain and see for themselves who lives in that old house at the top which Edward Jr. has stared at from his bedroom window for a large portion of his young life.
They meet at the old tram road near Edward Jr.’s house, both revelling in the excitement of seeing each other and seeing what the day looks like free from the gates and walls of schools when all the other fools are still trapped inside.
This kind of freedom has never existed before.
They go to the River Tawe which runs along the foot of the mountain and cross the bridge to the tarmacked cycle path where more walking takes them to the crumbling overgrown footpath at the sleeping beast’s base, a semi-discernible route which, if they can manage to stick to it and not veer off into the unknown nettle bushes and hidden swamp puddles, will lead them most of the way to the summit.
The walk is steep and difficult but neither of them gets tired.
They talk the whole way, about the future which is so far away it is not even real, about their classmates and the failures they will inevitably become, about their private dreams and fears and hopes.
Rebecca tells him how she only mocked the idea of him and his father living in daydreams together because she is envious of him and the mythical stories he got to live in as a child, because her father has never shown up, not once, not even for Sunday dinner, especially not for long lazy afternoons of make believe, and her mother has never recovered from the day where the man she loved went for a long walk, the longest walk in history, and has used various things as coping mechanisms like cigarettes and food and medicine, and none have worked at all, not even slightly, and no wonder her brother has not attended school in over a year because he has no one around to grab him and throttle him and tell him he is throwing it all away and the only reason she does attend school is for some relief from the bleakness of her and her family’s cracked council house.
After two hours that is really more like five whooshing minutes they reach the waterfall, stop, gaze at its crystalline spears of glacial water, screaming things into the void created by the gushing cacophony.
They stop to eat the packed lunch Edward Jr.’s mother insisted they bring; ham sandwiches and bananas and crisps, then head on, until they reach the abandoned coalmine, which for Edward Jr. is something of an historic achievement, as this marks the furthest up the mountain he has ever gone; his previous expeditions with Rhys all failed after the boy he used to call his brother would complain of fatigue and hunger and boredom and anything else and would demand they return, while his solo attempts only led to him getting scared of being lost and trapped on the side of the mountain in the dark until wolves found and snacked on him, or even more afraid of reaching the peak and having no one to share it with, going through the unique pain of witnessing beauty alone, but here with Rebecca by his side to talk to and listen to and share everything with, he knows this time he has everything he needs to make it as far as he wants to go.
They look around the place, at the dumped and rusted trucks, at the old portable office cabins, still equipped with chairs and phones and notepads and stationary and coffee cups, now all covered in dust and cobwebs and insects and decay, as if something terrible happened which caused the whole operation to shut down and evacuate urgently, something like the death of a miner, or the earthly stirring of the sleeping beast starting to open one eye.
They find a sledgehammer and throw it through one the windows and watch it smash to pieces and laugh at their power and how there is no one, no one around for miles and years, to hold them back.
They find a deep cavernous hole dug into the side of the mountain which goes so deep and so far they cannot even begin to see or comprehend the end, they shout obscenities into it and listen to the ringing echoes around the trees, they find rocks and launch them down to hear the bouncing and skittering, all the way down to an underworld far away.
Edward Jr. sees his best friend, the tomboy who everyone else in their town calls hideous and diseased, and who until now he has thought of like a sister, transformed into an uninhibited, strawberry glowing beauty, a force of nature, a photograph, capable of stirring feelings in him he is neither used to or prepared for, feelings which he instinctively wants to hide, which are inherently mischievous and dirty and exciting beyond anything that has come before.
They march onward.
As an embarrassed dusk sets in, they emerge from a dense thickening of trees and see it and as they do music starts playing in Edward Jr.’s fingertips, which unknowingly reach for and grab Rebecca’s, dovetailing them, and together they race for it, the peacekeeper’s house, right there in front of them, somehow both smaller and bigger than it seemed from down there on the ground, shouting to whomever awaits them inside that they do not have to be alone anymore because they have been found.
He has made it. After all these years, his whole little life, he has made it. He wonders where his father is right now and wishes he were here to see his boy, the mountain conqueror, on top of the whole world, about to shake hands with the peacekeeper, his old friend, but what he does not know is that at this exact moment his father is scared and confused in the back of a van with blinking lights and loud sirens, after a series of incidents in which his memory failed him, the most recent event revolving around frozen fish fingers left in the oven for two hours before catching fire, fire which spread to the rest of the flat, filling it with smoke, causing the confused old man to pass out in front of the television with a Kestrel in his hand, causing the neighbours to shriek and call the emergency services and have his limp body rescued from the melting picture.
They stop when they see that the house, the house young Edward Jr. has spent so many hours staring up at, is not a house at all.
It is a two-dimensional shape, a single wall, one side of a house of which all walls but one have crumbled and turned to rubble, to be eaten up by the earth.
No peacekeeper lives here, only thorns and birds and moles and insects.
Edward Jr. falls to the floor, landing on his backside, where Rebecca joins him, aware that there is nothing for her to say in this moment.
They simply stare at the derelict building which falsely served the foundation of the boy’s childhood dreams.
Although he always quietly knew the story was a fairy tale, to see they grey stone reality in front of him like this still stings in a way more profound than his young mind is ready for.
He wishes he never climbed the mountain, never found the house, he wishes he could have just left it as it was, an untouched, unviolated memory.
His home has been taken away from it. It was never even really there.
In the darkness, they tentatively feel their way along the path, back down to the normal world where they should have stayed all along.
He can tell by his mother’s stillness and the fresh redness around her eyes that what she wants to tell him is serious.
- Your father . . .
She does not need to say much else.
At first he refuses to go. He sits down on the carpet with his arms folded and shakes his head over and over. His mother reminds him that he is old enough now to understand that sometimes mums and dads make mistakes too, make terrible, lifelong, irreversible mistakes, and that he should get up off the dirty floor and stop being a baby, and also sorry, overwhelming, excruciating amounts of sorry, for blindly putting him on this earth without ever asking if he consents to it, for making him and dumping him in his consciousness which will always exist within the tiny frame of his skull no matter where he travels to or what he sees, for passing on all of her and his father’s terminally flawed and insecure and incurable genes onto him and watching him turn into the same mess as everyone else.
He still tries to argue the futility of visiting while listening to the click of the seatbelt in his passenger’s seat and then before he knows how he is waking up in the car park of a hospital somewhere in England.
As they timidly walk towards the entrance Edward Jr.’s hand reaches out for his mother’s like it has not since he was a little boy, something he is growing distinctly aware he no longer is.
He stares as they walk by an old man with a tube in his face shakily smoking a cigarette by the entrance. The old man stares back then coughs something large up in his throat.
His mother leads him through bright sterile corridors where dead looking people are wheeled passed them until they reach the ward where his father is strapped to a bed with his head shaved and his eyes half open.
Edward Jr. does not recognise the man and the man does not recognise him.
A doctor or at least a man in a doctor’s uniform talks to his mother in a quiet voice, the kind of voice his teacher’s use when they’re passed screaming, the kind of quiet that signals an oncoming storm.
Edward Jr. stares at the floor and tries not to listen but catches phrases like “cerebral atrophy” and “symptoms in line with Wernicke’s” and “really remarkable at this age” and “treatable but no not curable”.
At some point during the hushed, sombre interview, his father opens his eyes fully and lands them on Edward Jr., who looks up from the floor at his father and there they are again, the two boys and men, together.
Edward Jr. feels the urge to shout at him and ask him why he lied about the peacekeeper’s house and why he lied about everything, but just as he opens his mouth he sees in his father’s eyes that his father is not there anymore, only this wasted old body is.
He looks down at the floor again and chews on his sleeve until his mother and the quiet doctor finish their sorrowful dialogue and it is time to get out of there, to say goodbye to his father who has already been gone a long time, to go back to Wales, to his home, which may not be there when they return.
Assemblies full of teachers who hate their jobs preaching at children the importance of career conscientiousness reach a close, and the penultimate summer of not so young Edward Jr.’s school life arrives.
He meets Rebecca’s older brother, Vinnie, and is floored; the sixteen year old who wears necklaces and rings and smokes cigarettes and spits and swears and does not care one little bit about what others think of him, which Edward Jr. is slowly learning is the most precious trait a person can possess, far above intelligence or empathy or determination or the other nouns his teachers throw at him when they tried and failed to explain what being successful means.
It will take Edward Jr. a long time to learn that being successful is being happy and so few people are able to make that connection and that is why the whole world is running around on fire screaming and naked and crying and looking for someone to blame.
To the young boy whose role model now lies dribbling in a dark bed, Vinnie West is something like a god.
Vinnie scares away the other boys of the village, the mean apes who seek Rebecca out to throw stones at her, call her a pig and grunt at her, cough up brown phlegm and spit at her, make sweeping public accusations of each other’s secret affection for her which are met with jeers and cries of denial, and if they seek her out and find Edward Jr. with her, which they invariably do as these days they are almost inseparable, they aim their blows at him too, singling out his haircut and shoes and anything else they can find, the older ones remember the days of Choo-Choo and do their utmost to bring back the once so popular craze, and although he feels the familiar little twinging and gnawing of those insects and the fury they are capable of creating in him, he mostly keeps it together, because he knows, like Rebecca knows, that her brother will come and lay waste to anyone who messes with his sister, his sister who he treats far worse than anyone but does so with the unique privilege only enjoyed by the equally cruel and protective older brother.
Vinnie knows all the secrets of their rustic little village in the Welsh mountains, and one Saturday afternoon brimming with spontaneity and promise, exactly one week before Edward Jr. will become fifteen years old, he shares his most prized one: the old plastic factory.
The three trailblazers squeeze onto Vinnie’s bicycle and speed together out of the village and down the long stretching hills, zipping past the trees and fields and scattered houses, the smile on Edward Jr.’s face growing as the wind rockets through his ears and he feels a sense of the possibilities life can offer to those free enough to take them.
Their journey ends and Vinnie’s brakes screech as they pull up outside.
The old factory is derelict and barely standing, the smashed windows and rusty frames just about hold up crumbling walls and hollows doors, the floor covered in rubble and filth.
No one knows why or how the thing has not yet been knocked down and no one bothers to ask. The wasteland of economic opportunity becomes the playground for the deviant and disillusioned.
Vinnie leads them through a jagged hole in the rusty perimeter-surrounding fence. Edward Jr. hears the quiet squelches of those insects of anxiety but holds his breath and pushes them down, puts his faith in Vinnie, his protector and saviour, and steps through the fence.
They enter the building through a hole in the back of the building that once was a door. The first place they see inside looks like it used to be a canteen; tables and chairs, fragments of plates and cutlery, the remains of a kitchen and serving area, an empty vending machine, the dining place of past generations of factory workers, whose current state of life Edward Jr. cannot help but wonder about while his jaw hangs wide and he takes it all in. Are they all dead now, or old and full of memories and pain, these are the questions he silently asks himself as he tiptoes his way through the detritus, the others in front.
They make their way out of the old canteen and through a door at the rear.
They walk into a desolate, unsettlingly silent room, a room that gradually reveals itself to be more like an arena, a giant cavernous hall with an area so vast and a ceiling so high that they can hardly see where either ends.
Rebecca holds in a gasp as her eyes look upward and all around, she looks to her friend beside her, who feels that music in his fingertips again.
The friends step forward, finding around their feet scraps of metal, glass, card, plastic, waste.
Edward Jr. is in awe of the place.
Inside he feels stirs, but not the stirs of those crooked insects, the stirs of something new, something exciting and scary and electric and glowing and soaked, something his old world could not even dream of, his old world which he is sick of, the world of waiting for his father, staring at the colourless floral patterns on his ceiling through the forbidden hours of the night, the dull empty grey people who blurt out the same trite meaningless musical little phrases to try and mask the harshness of existing day after day, all the limitations and pretenders and boredom, he is sick, sick of it all, he wants more, more than anyone in his entire life will ever be able to give him.
The trailblazers walk around the room in their own directions, at their own paces, discovering the treasures around their feet: beer bottles, pairs of gloves, smashed up pairs of glasses, stationary, clipboards, shoelaces, cigarette packets and ends, lighters, dirty tissues, cardboard boxes, socks, shoes, hats, gloves, used condoms, needles, doll’s heads.
Edward Jr. stops and looks up at the frightening ceiling, at the black defunct industrial fans hanging from the rafters waiting to fall at any minute, at the far edges of the room, along one of which he sees a set of double doors, the most curious, inviting sight there is, and he feels a sudden undeniable urge to open those doors and see what is on the other side, an urge that grows until his knees shake and he laughs and runs around.
He shouts into the big empty room which tells too many stories to comprehend all at once.
- This place is amazing!
Vinnie picks up an old analogue radio and launches it to the floor, watches it smash into a million pieces, Rebecca jumps and screams and laughs at her own echo.
- Told you, didn’t I? Been here loads of times, boy.
- What’s through them big doors?
They walk across the room and reach the double doors.
The young ones stand back and watch as their leader pries them open, their eyes peer in from behind and first can only make out darkness but when the density of the gloom thins, they make out a long corridor, a mystical hallway with more doors and rooms all along it.
Edward Jr. has never seen something so mysterious and full of wonder before, his hand naturally makes it way towards Rebecca’s, but when he looks at her he sees signs of fear on her face. He asks her with his eyes what there could possibly be to fear, in the whole world, now that the three of them are together.
She bites her lip and speaks.
- It’s dark. What if there’s hobos and rapists in there?
Vinnie laughs and calls his sister a pussy and a bitch and a whore and punches her in the arm and struts his way through the corridor.
Edward Jr. follows and again uses his eyes to implore Rebecca to do the same, which after some more hesitation, feeling empowered by her friend, she does.
As he walks along the corridor Edward Jr. tries to picture it as it would have been years ago, lit, alive, breathing, the rooms full of people sitting at desks and talking on telephones and writing in ledgers, chatting and laughing as they passed each other.
Now he can only see the skeletons and ghosts of it all.
Most of the rooms are empty, one has a table and only the legs of an office chair, another a few plastic bags and rubbish.
But in one room, there is something which makes the trailblazers stop cold and stare in, each holding their breath.
For a while, they watch it, silent and waiting, waiting for movement or the sound of breathing. Vinnie is the first to brave breaking the quiet, and hisses through his teeth at Edward Jr.
- Go on son, have a look, is it?
- Me? You do it.
- I told you about this place though. You got to look.
Edward Jr. cannot find a way to fault this line of reasoning so steps forward, feeling unlike the version of himself he lives with every day, feeling no fear while in a scary place, feeling new and boundless.
He nears the tent and sees it is full of holes, giving him a clear view of the inside, where he can see a blanket, empty bottles, a lighter, a spoon, a needle. But no people, murderers or demons.
He whispers despite knowing they are alone in here and everywhere.
- Someone was living here, guys, seriously someone was living in this place, by themselves, can you imagine that? How cool that would be?
- Probably a bum or tramp or hobo or something.
The others move up behind him and inspect the tent for themselves. Vinnie finds an unfinished pack of cigarettes and pulls one out, picks up the lighter from the tent floor and is amazed to see it still works and uses it to light up.
The flame momentarily draws Edward Jr.’s eyes to a sheet of plastic on the floor.
There are words written on it.
A spider wanders aimlessly within the warmth of a shadow
Not the regal creature . . . (illegible) cunt!
I am a sinner and . . . (illegible)
Your carnation will rot
We’re all insects and flies. All to blame for ourselves.
Love Paul. 2002
Edward Jr. reads the words and has no idea what any of it means but feels certain whatever meaning it has is hugely significant. He shows it to Vinnie who smokes his cigarette and shrugs and spits and he shows it to Rebecca who believes it to be the ramblings of a drug addled mind minutes before suicide.
Years later when the internet becomes widespread he will try to remember those words written on the sheet of plastic in the old factory but they will flutter and circle around the edges of his memory and he will be cursed forever.
Then Vinnie finds it, in the corner of the room, behind the tent, the container with the red label, the clear liquid inside, and he holds it in the air like a trophy, even lets out a shriek of joy.
Edward Jr. has never seen anything like it before and does not understand the joy but is certain of his faith in Vinnie so trusts that whatever is inside this bottle must be good.
- What is it?
- As if! It’s almost full! Who would leave this here?
Vinnie opens the bottle, sniffs it, nods as if assured, then takes a swig.
- What is it?
The bottle is passed to Rebecca, who takes it without trepidation and drinks, before holding it out to the hand of Edward Jr.
The insects inside him belch, releasing something vile, which bubbles and squelches, floats up into his organs, where it morphs into some winged creature with fangs, dribbling sour venom, nibbling and prodding.
He takes the bottles and drinks.
It is the worst thing he has ever tasted, like poison, like plastic leaves doused in corrosive battery acid, like bottled electric sickness.
He chokes, gags, almost throws the mouthful back up but keeps it in and buries it. His eyes water and his lower lip shakes.
Then from the same toxic hole inside him where those insects lay their eggs, he feels shivers. Bright, tingling fireworks. A furry warmth wrapping itself around him. He feels lighter, stronger, louder, brighter, bigger, more, he feels more, more, he wants more.
The trailblazers drink the whole bottle together, and for the first time Edward Jr. catches glimpses of what life can offer, the happiness waiting for him somewhere if only he can access it, he feels it all burning inside him, all the potential he has been told he has but has never believed in, suddenly it’s there, rich, glowing, screaming to be let out of its box, its box where it’s been kept locked up all this time, but no more, because now he has found something to kill those crawling termites inside him, smother them, drown them, and nothing can stop him now.
Rebecca sees him, her best friend, the broad smile, the magic in his eyes, the life spilling from within him. She decides in this moment that it is just about certain that she loves him and always has and always will.
After the last drop of the life-giving liquid is finished, Vinnie throws up and falls asleep on the floor.
Edward Jr. and Rebecca sway and stumble and hold onto each other, falling into a slow, tender dance, right there on the dirty floor of the old factory, next to the old tent where someone once lived long enough to scribble down their innermost thoughts onto a piece of dirty plastic before switching off the lights forever.
They are both unaware of the boundaries they are crossing, but they know that they love the feeling of each other’s hands on their bodies. They get closer and closer until their mouths are touching and what shines brightest is the burning in their jeans.
They check to see if Vinnie is out cold and he is.
They lie down together. Edward Jr. touches Rebecca and she touches him back. They please each other and hurt each other in ways they never knew were possible.
And then they fall asleep, in the tent, next to the sheet of plastic with the words written on it.
Edward Jr. will wake up tomorrow and not be aware that he is now irreversibly on the way to at last getting his wish: growing up to be exactly like his father.
2:54pm: A Parade
Ed Boyle is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative writing. He has published stories in several literary magazines, including The Chattahoochee Review and The Mud Season Review. He has co-written a screenplay, Peter’s Song, which won first place in both the New Hampshire Film Festival and The Woods Hole Film Festival. He is currently collaborating on converting that script into a novel. He lives in Lowell, Massachusetts with his wife and four children.
The Keeper of the Marsh
And I intended to prove it by becoming the first girl ever to win the Annual Seabrook Surf-Casting Classic. I practiced all the time: mornings - casting my line in the channel outside my back door; afternoons – trying out new bait and tackle in the calm of the harbor; evenings – charting links between fish movement and air and water temperatures out on the jetty. By the time August arrived, I'd know more about fish than fish knew about fish.
But then, a few days before ninth grade let out for the year, my father sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast and told me: "You'll be taking care of your brother along with your other chores this summer."
"I most certainly will not," I shook my head. "I got to practice for The Classic the next three months."
Dad drew a deep breath. "Don't make this difficult, Mikaela." He rubbed his face with his hand. "I'm stringing five miles of traps this season. I've asked around the marsh, and everyone's too stretched to help."
"That's not my problem," I shot back.
He opened his mouth to talk, but I jumped up from my seat. "Don't you think you have an obligation to support your daughter?" I grilled him. I paced around the table and ranted that he was a sexist, and I was considering reporting him to the authorities.
"And I don't mean the local authorities where you can pick up a phone and fix it. I'm talking ACLU. You know what that spells?"
He mopped up a streak of egg yolk with the last piece of his toast; put it in his mouth and chewed it slowly.
"It spells your picture plastered across the front page of every newspaper in the state," I informed him.
He picked up his plate and rinsed it in the sink. He turned around and wiped his mouth with a napkin.
"Are you through?" he asked.
I stand on the Shore Street sidewalk. Patrick's school bus squeals to a stop in front of me. It's short and stubby like a yellow bread-toaster on wheels. A bunch of the kids inside it wear helmets, and their heads bobble like balloons on a string. The Carson boy who lives a few stops down the route is gawking out the window with kitty-cat-pendulum-clock eyes. His mouth is hanging open, and his teeth are as jagged as a dragonfish's. Sometimes, the kids on Patrick's bus remind me of the broken toys in the discount bin at the secondhand store.
Patrick stands up from the back seat and totters up the center aisle. He's small for an eleven- year old, and his head barely reaches the top of the seat-backs. He taps the shoulders of a few of his classmates as he strolls past them and laughs when they startle. When he reaches the bus's bottom step, he halfway turns around and blows a distracted kiss to the driver. She leans across the oversized steering wheel and grins down at me.
"He's a piece of work, that one," she shouts over the whine of the engine.
"I suppose," I shrug. "Have a good summer."
"You, too." She nods. "Have a good summer, sweetie," she calls to Patrick. He mumbles and raises his hand 'goodbye' without looking back.
I grip Patrick beneath his bicep and steer him onto the stone dust road that leads to our neighborhood. Our home is one of twelve cottages that sit on the flatlands of the Seabrook coastal salt marsh. We're an island attached to the mainland, the forty or so people who live here like to joke.
Acres of wispy seagrass stretch between Shore Street and our house and the narrow stone dust road that cuts through the middle of it is barely wide enough for a single car. Most of the twelve houses are split-shake ranches with saggy rooflines and hooking chimneys. Wood pilings elevate them off the marsh. Once I get Patrick on to the road, I untangle the backpack from his shoulders.
"How was school, Bugs?" I kid him with the nickname he earned from being a pest. He doesn't answer. He stops, holds up a hand in front of his flat face, slowly twists it front-and-back as if he can see through the skin.
"Quit counting your bones and c'mon," I shake my head and pull him forward. His nose is snubbed, and his eyes are green and shaped like almonds. They twinkle when the sunlight bounces off them. His sneakers slap the road with each step. When we're halfway home, he yanks his arm away from me and plods off the road into the marsh grass.
"C'mon, Pat," I call after him. "We don't have time to hang around the pools today." I know already that my words are useless. He's a shark stalking a bloody fish.
"Ju-just once." He turns and holds up his index finger. I sigh. He likes to spy on flat-footed sea bugs skimming across the water or panicky minnows flashing in the afternoon sun. Once in a while, I go with him, and our passing shadows spook skittish spider crabs into stage-left exits.
I baby-step backward and watch him crouch over a tidal pool as if he is trying to see his reflection. He reaches out with both hands and dips them deep into the pool. When he stands, he is breathing fast and heavy.
"Mik-k-k-ayla! Wait!" he yells.
I stop. His cupped hands drip as he stumbles through the marsh and back onto the road. When he gets closer, I see that he's cradling a starfish in his hands. It's about as thick and round as a hamburger, all pink and purple and pimply, and its legs hang over the edges of his hands like thick noodles. He sets it down and kneels beside it.
"Too many," he says, touching each of the starfish's legs and squinting up at me. I'm not sure what he means right away, but then I see that something is different.
"Yeah, Bugs, you're right," I say and bend down for a better view. "What the heck? Six legs?"
We watch it for a while as it dries and tries to blend-in by camouflaging its colors to match the gray granules of the road.
"You better get it back in the water," I finally say, but he'll have none of it. He stands up and smiles, as happy as a seal in the harbor. He cradles the starfish out in front of him with both hands, and we march home without my once having to hurry him along. When we get to our house, he lowers the starfish into the big tidal pool outside our back door and kneels on the bank. And he stays there, spellbound, watching his new friend get accustomed to its new home.
"A fixed heart is a fresh start," my mother used to cheerily preach whenever she was trying to console gloom.
Today, my father - in his usual absent-minded way - botches my mother's old motto. "Can I help you fix your heart?" He says. He sits across from me at the kitchen table, waiting for my reply, and I stare blankly at him. I have barely talked to him since he told me I would be watching Patrick for the summer.
"It's not what she used to say," I finally snap at him. "Besides," I tell him, "you can fix my heart by finding someone else to take care of Patrick." I stomp upstairs to my room.
My father has been pestering me about expressing my feelings ever since my mother died. Three months ago, she woke up, went to the dentist, and never made it home. An artery in her brain broke, and she lost control of our car, drove it into a section of guardrail that bordered the busy boulevard up in Hampton Falls. I was in school when it happened, and was summoned to the front office over the loudspeaker. I peeked through the glass in my principal's office door and saw my father pacing in front of her desk. I wondered what I had done wrong.
"It's Mom," my father turned and said to me when I knocked on the door and entered the office.
We hurried to the hospital but were too late. Afterward, standing outside mom's room, the EMT's who took care of her introduced themselves and told us how sorry they were. They also told us that my mother was confused and kept repeating the same thing while they pulled her from the car:
"He's going to be scared if I'm not at the bus stop."
On the morning of my mother's service, my father asked me if I'd like to speak at her funeral.
"I know it's a lot to ask, but she'd have liked it. And it's a good opportunity to say a proper 'goodbye'," he said.
"No," I told him.
How do you stand up and tell your neighbors about the warm swirl you got in your stomach when your mother sat on the bed beside you, biting her lip and hoping the thermometer in your mouth hasn't risen another degree? How do you describe the flush of pride that tingles your skin when she gushes over the good grade you got on a test? How do you look out and tell neighbors that you were afraid what they might think about a girl who only wanted to fish; and that your mother - who didn't even know how to bait a hook – was your biggest fan.
While every family in our community quietly stood beneath the tent that sheltered my mother's casket, Patrick sat in the grass at my father's feet. Reverend Manning gathered us into a flock and preached that we'd one day be together. Near the end of the sermon, Patrick began to hum a lullaby that my mother always sang to him. My father leaned over to quiet him, but the reverend held up his hand and stopped Dad.
And as Patrick sat and plucked grass blades while humming his soft song, the entire congregation turned and listened. I glanced at my neighbors' faces: a group of mothers instinctively reached out and held hands with each other while a half-dozen weather-beaten fishermen stoically clenched their jaws and stared at the ground. After Patrick hummed his last note and raised his head, someone moaned, and the full force of my mother's death crashed over the congregation like a rogue wave. And the instinct to protect one of their own overcame the flock, and they closed ranks and formed a circle around Patrick.
It is two weeks into the summer, and I am enduring the demands of my stubborn father.
"Mikaela!" He yelled from the bottom of the stairs last night. "Where is the picture of your mother that I put on the mantle?"
I opened my bedroom door. "It's in the top drawer of the laundry room's bureau," I told him.
"What's your mother's picture doing in a draw?" He stomped up the stairs and faced me. I closed my door and jumped into bed.
"Don't move it again. You understand?" he said through the door. "I like it on the mantle, and so does Patrick."
Today, I wake up and walk through the front room. I don't look in the direction of the mantle. I just can't. When I walk into the kitchen, my father and Patrick are sitting at the table.
"Do Candle," Patrick pleads with my father.
My father looks at me and grins. He has been reciting "Candle" for us since we were in diapers. His father used to quote it to him. It is a verse from an old poem, The Keeper of the Harbor. My father stands up and winks at me and clears his throat; summons up his best baritone.
He sits a' top a lighted candle
For crippled boats to see
On stormy night he steers lamp handle
Beams healing light to thee
"Again," Patrick says. "Do Candle again."
My father laughs. "What do you think, Mik?" My father asks me. "One more time?"
I open the back door to go to the shed and gather today's fishing gear. "You do realize that he doesn't know it's about a guy in a lighthouse, right?" I say.
My father smile droops. "What are you talking about?"
"He only wants to hear it is because he thinks some guy is sitting on a candle," I say.
My father frowns and shakes his head. "You're not very nice, you know it?" He rubs Patrick's shoulder. I walk outside and close the door behind me.
At the bottom of the steps, I stop and turn around. I start to walk back up the steps to apologize but pause. What would I say? I wish my mother were here. She'd guide me right. I don't want to think about her, though. Every time, it ends in the same place.
When I come back from the shed, my father has already left for work. I clean the house. I cook breakfast. I sit outside and watch Patrick kneel beside the tidal pool in our backyard and stare at his starfish. I have to come up with a plan that allows me to practice. When I win The Classic, things will be better. A picture of me smiling and accepting the first-place trophy will be in the local paper. The whole town will know what a good angler I am. Maybe then, my father will stop pestering me about fixing my heart.
After lunch, I take Patrick to the channel and bring his starfish in a plastic pail. "You sit there, Bugs." I point to a sand clearing in the marsh grass. "I have work to do."
I pitch my lure into the rippling current, and Patrick gets antsy. "Put in pool," he holds up his pail and crowds me on the shore.
"C'mon, Pat. You're annoying! Let me practice," I say.
"Put in pool." He ignores me and continues to crowd me.
"Stop it!" I yell. "Ask Dad to help you with your starfish!"
After a while, he has me too frazzled to even fill out my fishing journal, and I finally just take him home.
Adnan, our new neighbor, has wandered past the front of our house eight times. He peeks in our backyard to see what Patrick and I are doing. Adnan and his family moved into the vacant house at the end of the road a month ago. He attended the last few days of school and sat as still and quiet as a mannequin in my class's back row.
Adnan is brown like the sandy bottom of the channel, and his straight hair is as black and shiny as a shark's eye. His father does not work the ocean like every other father on the marsh. In the early morning, his father treks to his job at the tailor's shop a half-mile into town. Adnan's mother hangs laundry on her clothesline, and she, herself, looks like a walking clothesline. Headscarf and robes, as colorful as a tankful of tropical fish, flow from the top of her head to her ankles.
When they first moved in, a couple of the men assembled on the road outside of our house. I listened from my bedroom window.
"They're Muslims," crotchety old Mr. Creegan, our next- door neighbor, said to my father. "What's a refugee family of Muslims doing in a fishing village?"
Everyone turned and studied the house.
"Don't be worrying about storms until the rain clouds blow in, fellas," my father finally said, and a few of the men raised their eyebrows. Before they parted, one of the men said: "Let's keep on top of this."
On Adnan's ninth trip past the front of our house, I run out to the road.
"Are you here to fish in the Classic?" I confront him.
"The what?" He scrunches his face.
"You know…angling?" I cast and reel a make-believe fishing rod.
"I do not like the ocean," he says in carefully pronounced English.
"You live on the marsh and don't like the ocean?" I interrogate him. He opens his mouth and stares at me.
"Ummm," he mumbles.
"Why do you keep walking past our house?" I ask.
"I saw you and your brother in the yard," he stammers. "I don't know anybody."
"Okay," I finally nod. "If you're not the competition, you'll do. C'mon and meet Patrick."
We walk into the backyard. Patrick is kneeling beside the tidal pool, and he looks up at Adnan.
"St-st-st-arfish," Patrick stutters and points into the pool.
"Ohhhh," Adnan crouches beside him. "It is beautiful," he says to Patrick. Then he turns to me and raises his eyebrow. "Is it his pet?'
"Pffft," I shake my head. "Starfish aren't pets."
Adnan stands and blushes.
"I don't know what you'd call it," I nod. "I think Patrick believes it's magic 'cause it has six legs."
Adnan nods and turns to Patrick. "What is your starfish's name?"
Patrick squints and stares at Adnan. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was sizing him up. It unnerves me a little, but not Adnan. He waits patiently for Patrick to reply. Patrick finally shrugs and turns back to watch his starfish.
I wake up early and glimpse out my bedroom window.
It is still dark, and on our front yard beneath me, my father stretches his back and steps onto the stone road toward the community dock. I stumble into Patrick's room and wake him.
"Starfish," he sits up and yawns.
"Yes. Get dressed," I tell him. "That kid, Adnan, you met yesterday is going to help watch you. Don't bug him. I need him."
While Patrick eats his cereal, I pack lunch. Adnan knocks on our back door at six-thirty.
"You came!" I open the door and laugh. Patrick tiptoes across the kitchen, stands behind me, and peeks out at Adnan.
"Yes," Adnan says, and tilts his head to examine Patrick.
"Let's go catch some fish!" I clap my hands.
We tread out back to the tidal pool where Patrick scoops up his starfish and plunks it into his pail. We march in unison toward the channel.
"So, here's the deal," I turn and tell Adnan. "I need to practice to win The Classic in August. But, Bugs here," I motion to Patrick with my head, "he can be kind of a pest. So that's where you come in."
Adnan chews his lip. "This Classic?" he asks. "How do you win?"
I nod. "I have a rule book at the house. I'll lend it to you. It's six hours of shore fishing from anywhere within town limits. The heaviest haul of edible fish takes the title."
Adnan rubs the side of his head. "If everyone is fishing at different locations, how do they keep track?"
"It's simple," I tell him. "Everyone gets assigned a separate judge."
Adnan nods. Then he stops walking. "You get to win The Classic. What do I get?"
I stop and smile. "I like that. Straight to business. Right to the point. You help me watch Patrick, and we'll split the fish I catch while I'm practicing."
"But, what if you don't catch any fish?"
I smirk. "Trust me," I wink at him and jerk my head to signal him to follow. "You and your family will be wolfing down fresh bass tonight."
We go a little further until we reach the flat rock on the inlet. The tides are changing, and the fish will be moving. We stop on the beach where the channel meets the inlet. Adnan stares at me.
"One condition," he says solemnly. "I want it to be clear. I do not go in the ocean."
"Suit yourself." I shrug and pull my journal from my backpack. I write down the time and air temperature from the tiny thermometer I keep clipped on my jacket. I pinch a sea worm's head off, so it doesn't nip me and thread it to my hook. It wiggles like a charged wire. I cast it out into the current and bump it along the sandy bottom on the retrieval. Behind me, Adnan and Patrick dig a hole in the wet sand. Patrick protests a little, but Adnan convinces him they will make a pool that the starfish likes.
"It will be like a Disneyland for starfish." Adnan grins at Patrick.
They dig a hole about the size and shape of a bathtub. It fills up with six inches of underground water. Patrick gently places the starfish into the pool, and it spreads its legs like a parachutist and floats to the bottom.
After a half-hour of unproductive bottom fishing, Adnan strolls over and points to the sea worm on my hook.
"Will my family be wolfing down worms tonight?" he asks, as blank-faced as a dead fish.
My cheeks flush. "Whoa, Adnan." I hold up my hands. "I never guaranteed…" I stammer. And just as I do, Adnan winks at me and laughs. Then he saunters back to Patrick.
I fish the bottom another five minutes and keep peeking over my shoulder to see if Adnan is still laughing. He's not. He and Patrick are decorating the hole they dug with empty clam shells and round rocks and sinewy limbs of driftwood. I switch over to a top water jerk bait, and the water explodes as soon as the lure slaps the surface. My heart beats as fast as a flapping tuna tail, and I turn around. Adnan and Patrick are already on their feet, cheering. I drag my catch on to the beach. It's a small, 'schoolie' striped bass. I know there's more where that came from and toss it back in the water and cast my line out again. Another hit! While I'm reeling it up, I note that if the Classic is coming down to the wire and the tides are right, I can come to this spot and catch a lot of fish quickly.
About noon, Adnan taps my shoulder from behind.
"Please," he says. "Watch Patrick."
He strides about twenty yards down the beach. I sit beside Patrick.
"Get him," Patrick points to him and says.
"In a minute, Bugs," I whisper and watch.
Adnan folds his arms across his chest, and I see his lips moving. After a bit, he drops to his knees and presses his forehead into the ground. It goes on that way for a few minutes, and then he stands and walks back to us.
"Salat," he stands in front of us and must see the confusion on our faces. "Noon prayer."
"What are you praying for?" I ask.
"I prayed that my…" He stops and studies Patrick and me. "I just prayed, is all," he finally says and goes and sits next to the pool that he and Patrick dug.
"Can I help you fix your heart?" My father takes a seat across from me at the kitchen table and stares. Earlier, I turned up the music on the radio when I heard him in the front room, telling Patrick that Mom was in heaven.
"Fix your own heart," I say, and pick up my dinner plate; walk upstairs to my bedroom.
After I am finished eating, I lean back and listen to that unrelenting voice that lives in my head: 'Someone out there is practicing more than you are,' the voice taunts me.
I sit up straight and rub my face with the palms of my hands. "I am tougher than everybody else," I whisper defiantly to the voice. "I am stronger."
I talk to myself a lot since Mom died. It distracts me from thinking about her, and it helps me push past the day-to-day challenges of having to take care of Patrick, cook, clean the house, and do the laundry. I wonder if the voice in my head will go quiet after I win The Classic.
During June, I focus on bait. I bump shrimp, sea worms, and a bushy buck-tail across the sandy bottoms of the flats with good results, and a red-eyed spoon spinning at mid-depth is always a solid choice to snag a straggler. Jerk baits and slash baits flashing glints of sunlight tempt prowling game fish away from their schools, and there isn't a sport-fish swimming who can ignore the frantic splashing of a top water popper.
When July comes, I build my game plan. I cross-check baits with water temperatures, air temperatures, and tidal currents. I am surprised to see how consistently the fish move and feed with tides and times of day. I record everything in my journal and, afterward, chart bait graphs based on air and water temperature and general weather and tide conditions.
And while I focus on fishing, Adnan keeps Patrick entertained with his starfish and also helps me plot a strategy for the non-fishing element of The Classic:
"Competitors have to move if they want to fish in a new spot," Adnan paces on the shore behind me one afternoon and pores over The Classic's rule book while I fish, and Patrick plays with his starfish. "So, we have the advantage. Our legs will be younger and stronger than many of the entrants. We can move faster."
"It's only six hours of fishing," I cast my line and glance over my shoulder at Adnan. "No one gets tired in six hours."
"In the heat they do," he says and smiles.
"How do we know that someone won't cheat?" Adnan asks me on another day.
"Stop it!" I scold him. "I told you, they're volunteer judges. All of them live in town, and it's a random draw who's assigned to whom. No one's going to cheat."
When August arrives, the change-of-season east winds appear and water in the channels bubble up and lick the tops of the channel banks. Water temperatures bob up and down like a seal in a school of herring, and the winds ball my fishing line into a tangled birds nest. I experiment with snap weights and different gauges of line, and by the end of the first week of August, I devise a workable game plan should the day of the Classic be windy.
During that first week, the afternoons also turn humid and sticky, and Patrick and I swim in the channels after practice. Adnan stands in ankle-deep water on the shore and watches us.
"Aren't you hot?" I ask him one day. "Come in." I splash him.
"I do not like the ocean," he shakes his head and runs.
"You're sweating," I tell him. "Just come in and cool off."
"I do not like the ocean," he insists.
I laugh. "How can you live on a marsh and not like the ocean?" I ask. He doesn't answer, and I dive into the water with Patrick.
It is August, the month of The Classic, and my game plan is in place. From six AM to eight, I'll fish the deep pools along the jetty's south side. Once that dries up, I will sprint the length of Sandy Beach and fish off the flat rock on the inlet until ten. In the last two hours, I will skim a popper over the water's surface at the mouth of the channel. The record catch for the Classic is forty-three pounds. That was set twenty years ago. Three days ago, I caught and released fifty-seven pounds of fish on my practice run.
"We are ready," Adnan pumped his fist after our trial run.
Adnan is going to be my second. He is going to help me move my gear from one location to the next. Patrick is going to be Adnan's second. At first, I wasn't sure of Patrick joining us – he may slow us up with worry about his starfish – but Adnan insisted.
"He will wake up our luck," Adnan predicted.
This morning, I'm casting a broken-backed lure into the channel when Adnan taps my shoulder. "I need you to see something," he says.
"I'm kind of busy at the moment," I say, and whip up the tip of my rod to set the hook into a passing bluefish. After I reel it in, Adnan taps my shoulder again. I turn around, and his mouth is stretched tight. "Please," he motions with his hand for me to follow him.
I set down my fishing rod, and we trudge through the sand to the hole that he and Patrick dug earlier. It's about as round and deep as a kiddie pool. Behind the hole, Patrick stumbles out of the marsh holding a small crab in one of his hands. He lowers it into the hole, and the crab scurries under a shell and tucks its claws and legs beneath its body. Patrick sits beside the hole and stares at his starfish.
"Patrick has decorated the hole by himself today," Adnan turns and tells me.
"Okay," I say. I scan the hole and turn to Adnan. "Thanks for the heads-up, Adnan, but I have to practice."
I start to walk back to the water, and Adnan grabs me by the elbow. "Please," he stares into my eyes. "Look closer."
I hunch down and peer into the hole. There are two crabs, two minnows, a couple of sea worms, a sand shrimp, and some shells. I glance up at Adnan and back into the hole. I focus. One of the crabs is missing a claw, and the other one is minus a few legs. All of the sea worms have lost segments off their back ends, and both of the minnows have twisted top fins that are causing them to swim sideways. The sand shrimp has no tail, and even the hollowed shells have cracks in them.
"What the heck…?" I look up at Adnan.
"Yes," Adnan nods and whispers. "They are all… broken."
Patrick places a few rocks in the bottom of the pool. He works slowly, so he doesn't startle any of the wounded creatures. He's lost in his world.
"Why would he…?" I ask Adnan.
He shrugs. "I was hoping you might know," he says.
I shake my head and stand. Beyond the marsh, the low moan of a distant foghorn interrupts the silence. I look up and see the tip of the White Island Lighthouse poking through the haze. I turn around and look at Patrick.
"He sits a' top a lighted candle…" I whisper.
Registration for The Classic is tonight. My father has to come so that he can sign the under-age permission waiver.
"Are you still going to help me sign-up?" I stammered this morning while Dad rinsed his breakfast plate in the sink.
He grabbed his jacket and lunch pail off the countertop on his way out the door. "I didn't forget," he said.
After he leaves, I wake Patrick and feed him, help him get dressed. I'm antsy about registration, and I take Patrick outside while we wait for Adnan. Patrick wanders over to the backyard tidal pool and sits on the ground. He watches his starfish creep along a kelp-covered rock beneath the water. I try to calm my jitters and sweep the outside walkway. When I am almost finished, I stop.
My mother is here. I don't know how, but she's here. I look around. Maybe she's woven herself into the soft wind that's bending the marsh grass. Or maybe she's transformed into pure light and has hitched a ride on the bright strands of sunlight warming my arms. She's here, as sure as I'm standing here. I look over at Patrick, and he is no longer watching his starfish. He is staring at me. He is smiling.
"Are you OK?" Adnan's voice startles me.
"What!" I turn. "Oh, y-yeah," I stutter. "I thought I just felt something."
Adnan tilts his head and studies me. "Felt something?" He asks.
"It's nothing," I say. "Let's go. I have a new lure I want to check out."
Later that night, I ask my father if it's ok for Adnan to come with us to registration. "Yes," he says, and I see a look of relief wash over his face. I don't think either of us was looking forward to suffering through the twenty-minute car ride to registration. We barely speak to one another.
"There's been a change, Patrick," Adnan teases Patrick in the back seat of the car. "Instead of a trophy, the judges have decided to give your starfish to the winner."
"NOOOO!" Patrick squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, and my father peeps in the rearview mirror and chuckles.
Once we get inside the gymnasium, my heart beats like I've just fallen overboard into a school of sharks. It's finally here! In the corner, a group of leathery old men good-naturedly tease each other.
"You couldn't win The Classic…" one of the old men tells another, "if they let you fish with a dragger and a net."
The other men laugh. They are dressed in bright yellow slickers and rain hats as if the fishing competition is going to start as soon as registration closes. A couple of them nod to my father when we walk past. In the center of the gymnasium, three rugged-looking fishermen with buzz-cuts and camouflage jackets pick each other's brains about ocean currents and water temperature and how to drift a top plug on a riptide.
While we're standing in line, the back doors open, and two middle-aged men saunter in. They're wearing windbreakers that say Long Island Bass Brigade on the back.
Both of them chew on unlit wooden tobacco pipes and wear floppy field hats stitched with fishing licenses and shiny lures. The gymnasium goes quiet. Whispers of "New York ringers," and "Who are these squatters?" circulate, and the three toughs in the center of the gymnasium eye the trespassers with suspicion.
"You boys are going to have a disappointing ride back to New York!" one of the old men finally yells, and everybody in the gym laughs and cheers. The two New York men wave, and one of them wags his finger at the old man who called them out.
Word comes down the line that there will be over fifty anglers this year, the biggest field ever to compete. When we get to the checkout and payment counter, my father hands the tournament clerk my completed application and the twenty-five dollar fee.
"This for you?" The clerk glances up at my father and scrunches his nose.
"No," my father says. "I'm here to sign the underage waiver."
The clerk studies it over the top of his glasses. "Michael?" He squints and asks.
"Mikaela," I step in front of my father and tell the clerk.
The clerk analyzes me like I'm a two-headed fish. "You do know this is an open tournament…no Women's Division?" he asks me.
I open my eyes wide and bring both hands up to my mouth. "Will there be men there to help me put the icky worm on the hook?"
Behind me, Adnan snickers. "Uh-oh," he whispers to Patrick. The clerk blushes and turns to my father. His eyes plead for help.
"I'm staying out of this," my father shuts him down with a nod.
The clerk eyes me again and quickly stamps the application. I hear Adnan whispering to Patrick: "She's getting feisty. She is going to win."
The clerk looks at my father. "Sign here," he points to the waiver line on the form. He hands me my entry packet.
"Good luck," he says dryly, and we walk away.
It is three days before the competition. After morning training is over, I take Patrick swimming in the channel. Adnan stands on the shore and watches.
"Come in," I splash him, but he backs away from the water's edge.
We eat lunch around the pool they dug in the sand and watch Patrick's six-legged starfish deftly crawl along the face of a slanted rock.
"Aren't you hot?" I ask Adnan as I dry my hair with a towel.
He glances away and chews his bottom lip. "I am from Jableh," he says suddenly. "It is a fishing village in Syria."
I laugh. "You're from a fishing village?"
He looks at me, and his eyes squint in confusion.
"You won't even hardly put your feet in the water," I explain.
He smiles and picks up a plastic shovel at the edge of the starfish's hole and stares at it.
"My little brother, Nizar, played with a shovel like this back in Syria," Adnan says. His voice sounds different, like he is speaking from the bottom of a deep well. "Everywhere he went, Nizar carried it. His shovel was yellow, and he even took it to bed with him."
Something about the tone of Adnan's voice makes Patrick set down his sandwich. I set my sandwich down, too.
"You have a little brother?" I whisper.
Adnan lowers his eyes and nods.
"Nizar used to cry when I left for school in the morning. He would stare out the window and watch me leave. He thought I was never going to come back."
"Patrick used to do that when my mother would leave," I reach out and hold Patrick's hand. "Remember, Bugs?"
Adnan smiles sadly. He playfully splashes Patrick with a few drops of water from the hole.
"I used to come home from school and take Nizar to the shore," Adnan continues. "He liked to play in the water and search for shells and round rocks. Every day I took him swimming."
The air suddenly turns dense and hard to breathe. Patrick slips his hand away from mine and shuffles over to Adnan and sits beside him. Adnan draws his mouth tight.
"We had to leave Jableh," he says. "There were things that were happening," he looks at Patrick. "Scary things."
Patrick rubs his hands on his thighs. I doubt he understands everything Adnan is saying, but he knows it's serious.
"My father saved enough money for passage," Adnan scans the ground and says. "The boat was crowded, and people were afraid. It wasn't long before we saw Greece."
Adnan raises his head and stares out into the channel. The tendons in his jaw pulse. He turns and studies me with bright and shiny eyes. "During the crossing, I was holding Nizar, and my father held my mother," he says. "We knew it was dangerous, but the things happening on shore were even more dangerous. When the boat tipped, people were screaming and crawling over each other."
I quietly stare at him. So does Patrick. Adnan stands and absent-mindedly messes up Patrick's hair. He brushes the sand off his shorts.
"I was afraid," he concedes. "Everyone was. People were crying, grabbing us and forcing us underwater. I held Nizar and tried to swim away from them."
He starts to walk down the beach for afternoon prayers, but turns around and takes a deep breath.
"Goodness: The English Dictionary defines it as a state of being virtuous and kind." He says. "It is a fitting description of Nizar."
Patrick stands up and sits beside me. I hold his hand. Adnan stares at us and smiles sadly.
“I never cried. I was afraid that, if I started, I might never stop. What does that make me that I cannot cry for my own brother?” Adnan whispers softly.
He turns to walk away and stops. “When we first met, you asked me what I pray for,” he says. He looks down at the sand. “I pray that Nizar forgives me for letting him go.”
Stay focused, I wake up the next morning and remind myself.
Yesterday, after Adnan told us about his brother, I practiced a little while longer, but it wasn't the same. Adnan and I couldn't look at each other. He didn't even say 'goodbye' when we walked from the channel and got to my house. He seemed small and frail, tottering down the road toward his house. Patrick chewed his fingernails with worry.
"He's not mad, Bugs," I reassured him while we watched Adnan. "He's sad. He had a brother, Nizar."
"Niz-ar," Patrick scrunched his face and struggled to pronounce it.
"Yes. But don't say anything," I told Patrick. "It'll make him sadder if you talk about it."
This morning, two days before The Classic, Adnan knocks on our backdoor at his usual prompt time, and we pack up and hike to the inlet. Adnan and I avoid each other's eyes. While I fish, Patrick and Adnan sit behind me and dig a hole in the sand for Patrick's starfish. With each cast, I glance over my shoulder to make sure they are OK. Usually, Adnan and Patrick quibble all morning over where to place shells and driftwood and rocks in their new hole. But both of them are quiet today.
We hike back to my house and eat lunch. Afterward, Patrick sits next to the tidal pool in the backyard, and Adnan and I ride my bike and spin wispy gray clouds off the stone dust road. It cheers up Adnan. When the afternoon sun is at its highest, the heat becomes too crushing.
"I have to take Patrick for a swim," I tell Adnan.
I roll my bike to a crash under our back deck, and Adnan and I run across the backyard. Patrick is sitting beyond the dune, out of earshot. He's talking to himself. Adnan and I stop and smile at each other.
"Shhhh," I put my finger to my lips. "Let's surprise him."
We crawl up the dune and peek up over the marsh grass.
I slip off my sneakers and the hot sand scorches the skin between my toes. We move slowly so Patrick doesn't hear us. When we get closer, Adnan and I peek at each other and stifle our laughs. Patrick is sitting upright on the bank of the pool and, beside him, his starfish is lying on top of an upended pail.
"He's talking to it," Adnan grins and whispers.
We inch closer and Patrick cups his hands into the pool and dribbles water over his starfish. One of its legs gently lifts. Patrick smiles down at it and wags his finger.
"Ni-zar," Patrick is pointing at his starfish and preaching patiently. "Your n-n-name is Ni-zar, okay?"
My face flushes and my heartbeat skips. I look at Adnan and his face is drained of color.
"I have to go." He blinks his eyes and runs through the marsh grass toward home.
It is twenty-four hours until the start of The Classic, and Adnan does not show up for this morning's practice. He has never been late. I sit at the kitchen table and try not to think about him. I focus on finding any flaws in my journal. Patrick stares out the front window for any sign of Adnan approaching, and then runs to the back window to make sure his starfish is safe.
"Get dressed, Bugs," I finally say after reading the same journal entry for the fifth time. "We'll go check on your starfish."
We push through the side door and into the backyard. On the banking, close to the marsh pool's edge, a shiny new yellow shovel rests on a patch of carefully folded grass. Patrick looks up at me and wrinkles his nose.
"Adnan must have come back and put it there last night," I answer his unasked question.
After Patrick sees that his starfish is safe, we go back into the house so I can finish my chores. At noon, there is a knock on the back door. Patrick and I scramble across the kitchen floor to open it. Adnan is standing on the porch landing. His face is blank.
"My mother…" he stammers.”She has invited the two of you for lunch?"
"Okay," I nod. "I need to get Patrick ready. We'll be down in a few minutes."
After I get Patrick cleaned up, he insists on taking his starfish.
"I don't know if that's a good idea, Bugs," I say.
"Starfish," he points to the tidal pool and says.
Adnan greets us on his back stoop. He glances at the pail hanging from Patrick's hand, and invites us into the kitchen. On the countertop, a couple of colorful, brightly colored bowls are filled with vegetables and beans. A silver pot on the stovetop spouts a funnel of steam that fogs the window above the sink. Adnan's mother is standing at the opposite end of the kitchen, smiling nervously and smoothing her robes and headscarf with the palms of her hands. Adnan says something to her that ends with the words 'Patrick and Mikaela', and she bows as if we are visiting dignitaries. I smile and nod and try not to stare.
"Nizar," Patrick blurts and holds up his pail. "This Nizar."
I gulp in a quick breath. My heart races. "Patrick…" I start to say, but am not sure what to say after that. My face flushes. I look across the kitchen at Adnan's mother, and she is smiling at Patrick. She turns and whispers to Adnan in a language I don't understand and he nods. Her hands wrestle with each other and she shuffles across the kitchen floor. When she is a few feet away from us, she stops and peers over the edge of the pail. Patrick's starfish is lying quietly on the bottom of it.
"Th-Thank you," she stutters to Patrick.
I turn and look at Adnan. "Sorry," I whisper. He shrugs.
His mother motions to the kitchen table. I put Patrick's pail in the corner of the kitchen, and we sit. She sets a platter of grilled chicken on rice in the center of the table. There are bowls filled with bright tomatoes and green beans; and a platter with warm bread.
"Thanks for having us," I say, and nudge Patrick to say the same. He ignores me. He keeps glimpsing over at his starfish. We pass each other the platter of chicken and bowls of vegetables and fill our plates. I help Patrick. We eat in silence, and the clinking of silverware echoes off the kitchen walls. I peek up and see Adnan's mom reaching across the table and spooning more rice onto his plate, and I can't help but think of how my mother used to do the same for Patrick and me.
After lunch, Patrick and I are invited into the front room for dessert. While we sit on the couch and wait for Adnan and his mother to join us, Patrick rocks back and forth.
"Calm down," I whisper. "Your starfish is fine…"
He pays no attention to me. He stands up and paces the length of the room. At the opposite end of the couch, he stops and gapes at the framed picture on the end table.
"Mikaela…?" he says and scrunches his face. He picks up the photograph and looks at me.
"Put it back," I hiss, but he brings it over and hands it to me. It's a picture of Adnan and what appears to be a smaller version of Adnan. They are waist-deep in the ocean, laughing. Whoever took the photo captured them at the precise moment both of them got the joke.
"It is Nizar," Adnan walks into the room and startles me. His mother is behind him, holding a tray filled with glasses of lemonade. She sets it down on the coffee table.
"I'm sorry," I stand up and stutter. "Patrick didn't…"
The mother speaks to Adnan, and he nods. He turns back to us and says: "My mother is happy that you are looking at it."
The skin on my face flushes. I glance down at the picture then up at her. "He's beautiful," I tell her.
Adnan flinches. He turns to his mother.
"Hmmm?" She asks him what I've said.
He points to me and speaks to her. She listens, then presses her lips together and nods. She turns and says something to Adnan and he squirms. "Yes," she puts her hand on his forearm and urges him to tell me what she has said. Adnan looks down at her hand, then turns toward me.
"My mother wants me to tell you," Adnan whispers hoarsely, "that her greatest fear is that Nizar will be forgotten."
I blush. My body tingles. I stare down at the floor.
"It's the opposite with me," I hear myself whisper. "I try to forget my mother. It hurts too much when I remember her."
No one says anything and I'm embarrassed to look up. When I finally raise my head, Adnan is studying me. I stare back at him and he smiles sadly. His mother tugs on his shirt sleeve and he turns and tells her what I said. She listens to him and frowns and tilts her head to the side. Then she turns toward me.
"Nooooo," she moans and shakes her head. "Nooooo," she takes a step and kneels in front of me and Patrick. And she starts talking, saying things we can't understand. And she keeps placing her hands over her heart. And then she reaches out with both arms and pulls the two of us close. I hug her neck and say: "I'm so sorry about your son."
It is the night before The Classic, and I am fidgety. My father has fallen asleep again on his chair in the front room. I spread a blanket across his lap. The soft skin around his eyes is grooved with wrinkles. His hands and fingers are twisted and swollen with knots and bumps. These past months have not been easy for him.
I walk upstairs. From my bedroom window, I see darkness drop from the sky and blanket the marsh. The rain pelts our roof. I slip into bed and mull over my game plan one final time. As I drift off to sleep, I push back the creeping doubts that I can win and remind myself of all of the work I've done. I want to win for Adnan and Patrick. For my father. I want to win for my mother.
It seems like only a minute later and I startle awake. It is still dark in my bedroom and I look at the clock: Midnight. Outside, the lightning crackles over the channel. My bedroom door creaks open and Patrick tiptoes past my bed to my window.
"Go back to bed, Bugs," I sit up and whisper.
"Starfish," he stares out at the tidal pool and mutters.
"He'll be OK. Go back to bed."
He shuffles over and stares down at me.
"You scared of the lightning?" I ask him.
"Alright, c'mon," I pull back my quilt and scoot close to the wall.
He slides into my bed and falls instantly asleep. Outside my window, the thunder rumbles. I reach over and brush the hair off his forehead. His mouth is partially open, and his breathing is as steady as the surf. The moonlight leaks through my window and makes shadows in the hollows of his face. I watch him and wonder if he dreams.
I open my eyes, peep at the nightstand clock: 4:30. It's go time!
It's still dark, and I no longer hear the rain drumbeating our roof. Patrick sleeps beside me with his mouth open. I slip out of bed, stagger downstairs and put the coffee on. You got this, I remind myself. Upstairs, I hear my father's footsteps, and I tiptoe out the backdoor to check the weather.
A light wind swirls my hair. I walk down the stairs and when I get to the bottom one, I step down into cold water. My breath catches. I scan the surrounding area. The channels crested last night, and floodwaters have covered the marsh. A ribbon of pale moonlight bounces up from the glassy sheet that is now the ground. My thoughts race: The flat rock at the inlet will be submerged. Should I stay at the jetty or move to the channel mouth? I take a deep breath, slow down my mind, and think. In weather like this, the fish will swim for cover in the deep pools along the jetty. That's where I'll go. My breathing steadies. I start to step up the stairs and glance in the back yard.
"No, no, no," I say. I bust through the back door, and my father is in the kitchen pouring a cup of coffee from the pot. He turns around and smiles nervously.
"Are you ready….?"
"The starfish!" I cut him off.
I grab the long flashlight hanging in the back hallway and slosh out back to the tidal pool. It's gone. The whole marsh is one big tidal pool. I turn on the flashlight and sweep the light beam across the flattened seagrass. The wet ground is strewn with shells and seaweed as if a hurricane has passed. I hear a splash behind me, and my father is gently pushing away blades of sea grass with his foot.
"Anything?" he asks.
"I don't know where it is," I say.
We keep searching. We fan out to cover as much ground as we can. After a while, I hear more splashing. I look up and see Adnan running toward us.
"Did you find it?" He is breathing heavily.
"No," I say.
"Does he know yet?" He turns around and scans our house.
I shake my head and keep combing through the grass. A short while later, Patrick busts through the back door of our house wearing only pajama bottoms. His eyes are opened wide.
"Mikaelaaaaa," he moans. "Mikaelaaaaa."
He wanders in a circle around the area where his tidal pool was a few hours ago. I don't make eye contact with him. I just can't. The four of us rake through the flooded marsh in the dark, turning over rocks, piling clumps of seaweed, and separating the marsh grass until their knife-edges made hairline slices across our hands and wrists.
Just as the sun is coming up, my father wades over to me.
"It's getting late," he whispers. "You and Adnan go on to the tournament. I'll stay here with Patrick."
I glance at Patrick. He is bent over, inspecting the muddy ground beneath an overhanging rock.
"A few more minutes," I shake my head. My father nods and continues sifting through the grass.
"C'mon," I whisper to myself. "Please be okay."
I try not to think about time. I grab a garden rake from behind the house and use it to push away wide strips of grass and storm debris. I work my way toward the road. After what seems like only seconds, my father wanders over to me again.
"You're not going to make it if you don't leave now," he whispers. "Go on. Take Adnan. I'll stay. You worked hard for this."
"OK," I nod and put down the rake. I turn. Thirty feet away, Patrick and Adnan are lifting a driftwood log and examining the ground beneath it.
"We'll find it," Adnan stands up and says to Patrick. "I promise, we'll find it."
"Five more minutes," I tell my father, and bend over and pick up the rake.
My father stops reminding me about The Classic's start time after the sun comes up, and he knows it's too late. Adnan is so focused on finding Patrick's starfish that I think he probably just forgot about it for a while. We fan out away from the tidal pool and separate. I'm half-looking for the starfish. The other half of me wants to fall and cry. There'll be no trophy this year; no picture on the front page of the newspaper. While we're searching, the overflow trickles back into the ebbing channels. The sun re-bakes the wet earth and awakens a family of rippling spooks that floats over the fields. I search along the road and find the starfish close to the area where Patrick first discovered it.
"Dad," I call out.
He looks up and hurries over to me. The starfish is lying on the stone dust in front of our feet. It must have tried to camouflage itself before it died because it is pale gray around its edges. We stand there and stare down at it - dried and crispy and absent of the bright pink and purple colors that had made it beautiful.
"Jesus." Dad shakes his head.
Patrick sees us staring at the ground and sprints across the marsh. He pushes between us and looks down. "What?" He asks with alarm, and bends over and picks up his starfish. It makes a crackling sound when he separates it from the roadway. It is as stiff as a rice cake, and he turns around and holds it out in front of him with both hands.
"Dad," he wails. "Put in pool!"
My father spreads his arms and scoops him up. "I know, Bugs." Dad says. "I know."
Adnan hears the commotion from where he's still searching up by the bus stop. He races down the stone dust road with panic in his eyes.
"Adnan!" I try to warn him, but he runs past me and stops; stands and watches my father comforting Patrick.
"Nizar," Adnan whispers and drops to his knees.
And - in an act I can't imagine having ever happened before - I stand helplessly and watch a charming Syrian teenage boy bury his face in his hands and inconsolably weep over the passing of a starfish.
"Oh Dad, please," I finally say, and hurry over to where he is hugging Patrick. "Help me fix my heart."
We buried Patrick's starfish on the shore close to the community dock. My father came with us. After it was over, he pulled me aside: "Your mother would be proud of you."
"I miss her, Dad," I said, and held his hand.
The day after we buried Patrick's starfish, we found out one of those New York 'ringers' won The Classic. He netted a measly twenty-nine pounds of fish. Adnan was outraged.
"Next year we will set records that will never be broken!" Adnan shook his fist and vowed.
At our community's summer end cookout, all the marsh families get together on the shorefront and celebrate another season of fishing. There's a clam and lobster bake, and families cook freshly caught striped bass and bluefish on their charcoal grills. Folks set up tables and bring their dogs, and we play horseshoes in the sand while the women talk and the men drink beer and relive their summer's close calls on the water.
While I'm helping to put plates on one of the tables, I glance up and see Adnan and his parents walking over the dune toward our cookout. His mother is dressed in her usual flowing robes and headscarf, and his father looks skinny, tired and meek. Adnan is out in front of them. When they get to the beach, everyone at the cookout stops and looks at each other. Adnan and his family stop, too. And then Patrick sees them. He runs across the beach and hugs Adnan's mother around the legs, and that seems to break some kind of tension as if some secret code word has been muttered. Some of the women stroll over and introduce themselves as best they can. They help Adnan's parents with the platters of food they're carrying. A couple of the men walk over and shake Adnan's father's hand. Even grumpy old Mr. Creegan, who was wary of refugees moving into our community a couple of months ago, warms up after he tastes Adnan's mother's lamb kabobs.
"Young Fella," he sits on his beach chair and jabbers to Adnan. "You tell your mother this is the best piece of lamb I've ever eaten."
After lunch, all of us kids go swimming in the channel. Adnan does, too. Well, up to his knees, anyway. But, knees are deeper than ankles. At least he's headed in the right direction.
I splash in the surf like a seal pup full of mischief. I poke my head above the surface of the water and scan the shore. Patrick and my father are sitting on the beach on a quiet spot away from the cookout. They're digging a pool in the sand. Patrick stands up, holds up his index finger and says something to my father. I smile. "Ju-Just once," I can almost hear him saying. He runs off and plods into the bordering marsh. He high steps through the waxy blades of knee-high grass and away from my father. And then he suddenly stops.
And when he bends over, I know that he's looking into a marsh pool.
I stand up, close my eyes, whisper a silent prayer that the wind on my face will find Patrick, and scatter his spirit across the marsh. I am luckier than most to have been born who I am; in a place where I belong.
I never understood why the tides changed.
I open my eyes, and Patrick is stumbling out of the marsh and running toward my father. His hands are cupped in front of him, tenderly cradling his newest treasure.
I am extremely excited and over the moon to attend a party with my college buddies. My group of friends has remained constant for a long time now. We have not lost touch even after a considerable amount of time has passed since we graduated from Jorhat Engineering College. Twenty years sure is a very long time and the fact that we have managed to preserve and protect our bond from the vicissitudes of life is no mean feat. The seven of us used to be always together. However, I am not aware of what exactly they are doing these days. Other boys in college would call us “ The 7 Musketeers” and mostly, they would call us an “ Unlucky Group”. What is still fresh in my mind is that I topped the list of the most unlucky students amongst the seven of us as I was star crossed. Our group was popular because we were all-rounders. We actively and successfully discharged all our duties like participating in annual games, inter hostel competitions, always ready to help friends in need etc. Other than that, we were also famous or rather, infamous, for drinking the whole night during good and bad occasions and not completing project assignments on time. Thus, my group excelled wherever it set its foot but we majorly lagged in studies. It was impossible for us to excel in engineering as we did in other fields. Nevertheless, I was better than the most as I never failed a semester. I do not want to come across a braggart but I passed all semesters with minimum cut off marks and sometimes with grace marks. I would burn the midnight oil a day before the exam with my other 6 buddies who too were sailing on the same boat as mine. In my group, I would get the least marks because the papers did not cover what I had studied. Instead, questions were asked from the portions that I chose to leave. The story of my bad luck does not end here. None of my romantic interests reciprocated me with the same fervour. All of them turned down my proposal. I was indeed unlucky. Amongst us, Nilesh, Uilliam and the twin brothers Christop and Kanti had girlfriends. My jealousy shot up especially during Valentine’s day although I made sure to not put my envious side on display. On the contrary, I used to wrap the gifts meant for their respective girlfriends with golden papers. I am unsure of why I used to choose the color gold, maybe I was fond of the colour then. That was not all, I also wrote romantic poems on their behalf.
Nilesh was born in an affluent family. Both his parents were established entrepreneurs and we all knew he would join the family business after college. But he was divested of emotional and psychological support. Since his childhood, he used to see his parents only once a year during his birthdays. His parents were so engrossed in their work that it was impossible for them to take some time out of their busy schedule to be with their son. A group of au pairs and maids have brought him up since his childhood.
Uilliam was the most handsome amongst us and undeniably, the most popular with girls. He was always conscious of his physical appearance and left no stone unturned to enhance his looks. His obsession with fitness had him hooked to the gym. Emilly, the blue eyed beauty with long silky hair made a great match with him. Even though he hardly studied before exams, he was still able to pass semester.
Christop and Kanti were identical twins. However on an acute observation, it was easy to point out that Christop had bluish green eyes while Kanti had greenish blue eyes. I wonder how Pooja and Susane identified them. Susane argued a lot with Christop. While hearing their argument, we would wonder what would happen if he gets cardiac arrest? The twins were plagued with heart disorders right from their birth and hence, the doctors advised them to steer clear of heavyweight and stressful activities.
Luna was the apple of his parent’s eyes. He belonged to a lower middle class family. His father was a truck driver who never got a chance to receive education. His father worked hard to eke out a living and would work assiduously day in and day out to earn sufficient funds to pay Luna’s college fees. We all loved sharing our books with him since it was difficult for him to buy his own.
Yaron was the last entrant to our syndicate whose luck seldom favours them. He was another reason for our group being hailed as ‘unlucky’. His parents parted ways when he was as young as 2 years old and they had moved on in their respective lives. His custody was with his maternal grandmother who was an angel-figure for him. She passed away when he was in his last semester, leaving him devastated and miserable. He could have superseded me as the unluckiest person in the group but then came the news of my father’s demise, and my position was intact. The fact that I was supposed to spend the rest of my life without the guidance and blessings of my father shook me completely from within. His death brought about a change in me.
I don’t remember how I used to feel when people addressed us as an “unlucky group”. What I remember and cherish the most is that myself, Nilesh, Luna, Uilliam, Christop, Kanti and Yaron were best buddies and we had time of our lives in college. I vividly remember the drinks and the conversations we had at the farewell party. The day was special because we laid bare our ambitions and dreams in front of each other. My sole aim was to attain a good job, marry and settle down. None could shake my resolve to make my son the luckiest kid ever, unlike me. Luna expressed his desire to get a job at the earliest so that his father could rest and be finally free from the struggle of toiling hard. Uilliam was worried because Emilly’s parents were looking for a wealthy groom for her. He let it out at times that he desperately needed a job. The twin brothers wished to complete masters before taking up a job. They were also bothered by the medical protocol in the companies wherein fitness of the employees was a prerequisite. Yaron drank like a fish. He rested on the hostel bed, with stretched legs and closed eyes and whispered in delirium, “ I will have lots of children so that I never again be lonely in life”. And yes, loneliness haunted him the most.
My heart was beating fast as I handed my car keys to the reception for parking. I headed towards the restaurant in spite of the raging nervousness. However, a mere sight of my friends wiped every vestige of nervousness. With an explosion of laughter and a plethora of hugs, we all greeted each other to our heart’s content.
Ulric : You all look so different, Uilliam you look the same …
The same old Uilliam with grey hair touching his eyebrows, added to his matured look.
Nilesh (smiling) : Ulric, I last heard about your marriage. Do you have sons?
Ulric: I married my colleague who was also my good friend. Aasmi, my daughter will soon turn 12. After several years of legal process, we finally adopted her. When we first saw her, we felt a divine connection with the 6 month old. Whenever we see her grow, it gives us immense satisfaction, I mean fulfilment….I mean completeness.. Aaah!! it's an inexplicable feeling.
Ulric (leaning towards Nilesh): Nilesh, you must be a billionaire by now?
Nilesh: Of Course, a billionaire in terms of love and happiness, but not so much in terms of money. After college, my wife, Julia, and I started an NGO with an aim to dedicate our lives in service of poor and needy children. We decided not to have our own kids but honestly, the amount of happiness we get in the company of these adorable kids is immeasurable to say the least.
Luna: You are a billionaire in the true sense of the word.
All applaud for him
Nilesh: What about our handsome boy?
Ulliam: Aah! You guys are the same, still pulling my leg. My wife passed away 5 years ago, leaving behind our son. After college, my relentless attempts to get a job proved futile. Then, Emilly suddenly caught me off guard with her wedding invitation. I got into the gymnasium business and today, I own a chain of gyms in all the major cities. I hope you must have heard about “Ronny Fitness Studio”, it’s after my son Ronny. Ronny too is a fitness freak, you see. Ha Ha !
All nod and laugh
Nilesh (in a whispering tone): Yaron, do you have lots of kids?
Yaron: Ha ! Ha ! I married thrice and have a son with my first wife. I am trying to find my luck in the prospect of my 4th wedding, which will be finalized soon.
All (nodded together): That’s the spirit….Excellent!!
Yaron: The custody of my son is with my ex wife but he would come down every weekend and we would have a gala time together. These moments with my son are priceless because they let me forget all my worries and troubles.
Ulric: Whom are we missing here? Where are the twins?
Yaron (with a heavy heart): I really wish that they are fine. Some years back, I heard that they were not keeping well.
Yaron: Luna, tell about yourself.
Luna: I got a decent job after college. I am still serving my parents and choose to be single.
Nilesh: But why single? Do not wish to destroy a woman’s life?
A sudden outburst of laughter followed
Luna: No specific reason, it just didn’t happen. I have come to realize that a life of adventure is my calling; my heart cannot rest until it has been spurred to experience thrill and excitement of highest order. Last month, I tried trekking to the base camp of Mount Everest, located at an altitude of 17500 feet high. I almost reached the camp but alas! What’s life without a horde of surprises being thrown our way? I got an emergency call from the office. If it weren’t for that call, I would have made all of you proud.
All nodded in appreciation and acknowledgment
Ulric: We all are happy in our respective lives. It’s so good to see that the “unlucky” group finally turned out to be lucky.
Luna: Were we not lucky then in college?
Nilesh: To be honest, I have fond memories of those days. I think of those days in times of distress and despondency and trust me, reminiscing them brings a smile on my face.
Yaron: True, I still cherish and bask in the memories of my youthful and mischievous days.
Luna: Those were the glorious days of my life. Did any of you know that we were called an unlucky group because of the initials of our names?
Ulric: It’s hilarious that I was always the topper of the group – a jinx.
All (laughing in unison): Ha ha ha….
Yaron: Actually, if we take notice of the last letters of our names and join them, we become champions!
All: Really? Oh yes! We never tried looking at it the other way.
All spelling the last letters of their names
Ulric (with a serious look): I wished Christop and Kanti were here!
A very feeble voice from behind
“Sorry for being late”
A sudden outburst of laughter followed
Kanti: I remain mostly ill these days. I stay with Christop and his family.
Christop: Yes, Kanti is an indispensable part of our family. My sons love him a lot and he too showers them with uninhibited affection.
Ulric: Is it the same girl?
Christop (chuckles): Yes, it’s her, Susane. You see, we have decided to torment each other till eternity so we are still together ha ha ha !
All roaring with laughter
Ulric: I am glad my golden-wrapped and decorated gifts and the romantic poems which I wrote for all your girlfriends got one of your girlfriends to stick with you for a lifetime.
All laughing in unison
Christop: A small correction, poems which you wrote “on our behalf” ha ha ha
Ulric : Needless to say, each of those poems were on your respective behalfs.
All (standing together and raising a toast: Cheers to all the champions!
As I drive towards home, my mind is occupied with the thoughts of my family. I cannot stop thinking about how long the day has been and that I have been away from my family for far too long. I cannot make them wait for dinner. The sense of contentment in me has reached its acme today. Never in my dreams could I have thought that someone dubbed as “unlucky” would one day walk with his head held high as a champion.
Stephen Mustoe is a writer and photographer. He grew up in a small town north of Seattle and graduated from Harvard College and the University of Oregon. After a stint with the Peace Corps in Kenya in his mid-thirties, he returned home to embark on a career as a high school teacher, a vocation that captured his heart and energies for twenty years.
His publications include Brevite, A Collection of Short Fiction (Peace Corps Writers 2016) and several travel articles. He is currently working on a historical novel set in Oregon.
An inveterate traveler, Mustoe has trekked the Himalayas of Nepal several times, knocked about from village to village in East Africa, bicycled across the United States, and twice motorcycled solo from Oregon to northernmost Alaska. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.
A Distant Life
They were going through his office now, a rat’s nest best saved till last. He couldn’t help it, he might have been tidy and organized throughout the rest of the house but in his own lair it was chaos. The bookshelves alone had taken most of the morning, struggling with whether to keep or jettison volumes he had not opened for decades. His desk was hopeless; that was Jamie’s job, to figure out which of the bundles of papers were worth keeping, what correspondence needed to be saved, how many pens, pencils, and paper clips his father would need in his new apartment.
He had just bent down, rearranging some paperbacks to make room for a larger volume, when he became aware of Jamie’s voice, speaking to him, asking a question he hadn't caught. Chris straightened up again, grunted a ‘huh?’, and looked over at his son. Jamie was walking his way, a puzzled look on his face, a small manila envelope in his hands. “Uh, Dad, I was wondering what you wanted me to do with these?” Chris frowned, not understanding. His son drew closer, stopped awkwardly a few feet away, and offered the envelope. Confused, Chris accepted the package, opened it, then paused, his breath caught up short, his heart pounding. “Who is she, Dad?” his son queried. “She's really beautiful! Is she Chinese?”
Chris felt his hands starting to tremble, a lightness in his head. He looked around desperately for a place to sit, settled on the ottoman next to the door. It had been years. Decades. He had thrown out all the photos when he and Sara were married. How could he have overlooked these ones? He thought he had obliterated any record of her. His first love. His first lover. The focus of his life for far longer than he wished to admit. The one who still haunted his dreams, leaving him to awaken in tears.
Jamie has gone, leaving him alone with a bottle of Aberlour and an insomniac’s dread of the coming night. The apartment seemed larger when he rented it a week ago; now the few belongings he has brought with him seem to choke the place.
Chris finds a glass in one of the boxes stacked in the kitchen, fills it with a hefty shot of Scotch, and walks to the desk crammed in a corner of the room. He stands there for a few minutes, sipping the whiskey, making up his mind. At last he pulls open the top drawer, takes the envelope in his hand, holding it gingerly as if it were something alive, something menacing. I don’t need to see these, he says aloud. No good will come of it. I just survived one loss, I don’t need to relive an older one.
He feels his pulse start to race, takes another slow sip. Thinks of the old wound, wondering if it has healed, if the years have given him strength. Resilience.
Chris drains the glass, walks slowly back to the counter and fills it to the brim. Returning to the desk, he sits carefully in the worn chair. After cleaning his eyeglasses and adjusting the lamp he takes a deep breath and slips the first print from the envelope. It is going to be a long night.
* * *
It is a group photo. Early spring, 1970. Barren trees in the background. A clutter of boxes, strewn about a small white Ford. In front of the boxes a group of students, three women, two men. He is the third, behind the camera, joking with them. Jan is staring straight into the lens, an impish grin on her face. She will share his room that evening. Jim and Brian have enveloped Kathy, arms linked, lifting her slightly. In the close foreground, commanding the frame, looking at him with a radiant smile, is Amy.
None of them offered to help. They just sat there reading the Globe, pointedly ignoring him as he made the dozen or so trips down the stairs, each time with a box in his hands. So this is it, he thought, this is how they're going to be. He still couldn’t see why it was such a big deal, why it mattered that much to the roommates he thought were his friends. He wasn't abandoning them, not in any real sense. He was just moving out, that was all, relocating barely a mile away. They would still see him in classes, would still get together from time to time. If they wanted to. With a grunt of farewell he carried the last box down to the car.
Jan was waiting when he drove up, along with Brian and Jim. Both were casual friends, fellow émigrés from Winthrop House. It was Brian who had introduced him to the world that waited on the far side of Cambridge Common. A year or so earlier he had taken Chris to Hilles Library, where carpeted floors and a snack bar offered stark contrast to the musty, wooden austerity of Lamont. Soon Chris was making the trek to Radcliffe on his own. He quickly found the experience there far more normal and nurturing than the oddly monastic life the Harvard houses offered. When the long-rumored living exchange became a reality, he had eagerly added his name to the list of hopefuls.
Both Chris and Brian looked forward to living in a world where commingling with women was the everyday norm. Jim, on the other hand, had signed up in hopes of getting laid on a more regular basis.
As he switched off the ignition Chris saw Brian’s girlfriend Kathy hurrying to join them. He smiled, gave her a quick wave. He really liked Kathy. She was upbeat, easy to talk with, either unaware of or ignoring any attraction between them. He envied Brian, would have loved to take his place. Not that Jan wasn’t great, of course. She was cute, quirky. A lot of fun for sure, but not a soul mate or even much of a friend. Their bond was a loosely affectionate, temporary one. A snuggle buddy.
Kathy stopped a few yards away and another girl, shorter, slighter, came out of her shadow. Chris’ welcome stuck in his throat as he looked at the newcomer. Later he would try to dissect his reaction, articulate the elements that caused him to pause and stare. At the moment, though, he was simply overwhelmed. Golden skin, jet black hair, bright eyes that pierced through him. And a smile like none he’d seen before.
Her name was Amy Chen. A freshman from Brooklyn, complete with the accent. Living in Holmes, the dorm adjacent to his new home in Moors Hall. He caught himself staring, made himself look away, toward the others.
He popped the trunk, opened the doors, and started unloading boxes. As the group swarmed around his belongings, gathering them up for the slog to his room on the second floor, he stole a quick glance over his shoulder. Amy had just embraced a box of books, looked up as she turned toward him, and smiled. He smiled back, awkwardly, then hurried with his burden to join the others.
Jan was slouching against him, pleasantly stoned, oblivious to her surroundings. Kathy and Amy sat on the bed across from him, so close in the small room he could easily touch them. Brian had returned to Winthrop for a final night, no one knew where Jim had gone. Chris had opened a bottle of cheap wine, watched as it was passed around, was disappointed when Amy declined. Small talk, sharing backgrounds, experiences, likes and dislikes.
There was an awkward pause after he had gone on too long about himself, trying to be nonchalant while gently embellishing a history he hoped would intrigue Amy. A few seconds of painful silence carried the weight of hours. When Amy spoke he almost leapt, eliciting an irritated grunt from the woman in his arms.
“So where did your parents go to college?”
“I’m the first.”
“Of course you would be, aren't you the oldest?”
“No,” Chris explained, "not the first child. The first in the family. Ever. Dad made it through high school, but mom dropped out in the 8th grade.”
Amy looks briefly stunned, quickly recovers.
“Oh. Well, I'm sure they are smart to have a son like you.”
Amy is sitting at a desk in an alcove of Hilles. His favorite place to study, a tall evergreen just outside the window, the one he would gaze upon whenever homesickness caught him. She is looking up from her textbook, slightly backlit, her eyes locked on his. She is irritated to be caught again by his camera, gives him only a half smile. His Mona Lisa.
Chris waited until breakfast was almost over, until she was about to get up from the table, before he finally had the courage to ask. Would she mind if they studied together tonight? He knew she was a regular at Hilles, he was too, maybe they could go over some of their notes from the history class they were both taking? Prepare for the test later that week? She seemed hesitant at first, then said okay, lets go over after dinner. He watched her walk away as he finished his coffee, trying to hide his delight.
That morning he tried to sit close to her in the huge hall, but she was surrounded by a trio of Radcliffe friends; the best he could do was two rows back and far off to the side. He spent the entire lecture watching her, barely taking notes, fantasizing. Tried his best to focus on the lecturer’s dry delivery, came up empty. Skipped his next class and took a long walk along the Charles, doing his best not to think about her, failing miserably.
Chris deliberately sat far from her at dinner, worried now that he was being too obvious, too intense. Promised himself he would be more casual, indifferent. When Jan asked him his plans for the evening he was intentionally vague, to her obvious disappointment. By the time he had disentangled himself from that conversation Amy was gone. Momentary panic, then he remembered she liked to read the Times every evening, wanted to keep up with events in her home town.
He found her an hour later in the newspaper section, convinced her to follow him to the top floor, to his favorite alcove. It was almost dark but the tree was still visible. They sat side by side, going over her notes at first (he lied and said he’d skipped the lecture that morning). After that they each withdrew to their own reading, sat quietly, inches apart, for what seemed an eternity. Once he looked over at her just as she raised her eyes to look at him. An awkward moment, salvaged by her smile. When she touched his arm and asked if he wanted to take a break, go to the snack bar for some tea, he almost yelled his assent.
Back in the alcove, when she reached over and took his hand, he could barely contain his excitement. And later, at her door, when she gave him a kiss on the cheek, he found her lips in return.
She is standing in Cambridge Common, framed by snowy trees, beaming, showing off her new winter coat. From B. Altman, Manhattan, she had told him proudly, as if he knew what that meant, could grasp the importance. She is dazzling in the late afternoon sun, her smile bright. For him. He holds the photo in his hand long after he has looked away, his eyes closed, savoring the image.
“I told them about you,” she offered nonchalantly. “I don't think my mother was too upset. My father, though...”
Chris reached over to pull her closer, gathering the blankets over them, thwarting the evening chill. His radiator had stopped working weeks earlier, was still cold as a stone. No amount of wheedling had been able to restore warmth to his abode. They could have gone to her room. Should have. Except she was uncomfortable, would rather her floor mates not know they were sleeping together. And he, despite his current discomfort, was happy she had made the choice. He did not want to let her go, did not want there to be empty spaces in their time together. In the few weeks since they became lovers he had watched, helplessly, as his universe realigned itself with her at the center.
His newfound possessiveness bothered him, yet he was unable, or perhaps just unwilling, to do anything about it. He did not want her smile shared with other men, was jealous of her girlfriends when they went off together for a cup of coffee, a biology crib session, without him. It worried him, this reaction, this dark controlling side of him, but he would not stop. He knew that.
“So what did you tell them – exactly?”
“Well... that you were smart. And kind. And from a public school.”
“And that you were a scholarship student. That your father was a carpenter. That you were Caucasian.”
A long pause. She turned so her back was pressed into his chest, snuggled into him.
“Could we not talk about this? Could we just be together?”
Yes, he murmured as he pulled her closer, hoping she could not feel his pounding heart. Yes. Let's not talk.
Amy is standing next to the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument in the far background. People are passing by, as oblivious of her as she is of them. She is wearing a bright blue top, short sleeves, blue jeans, white tennis shoes. Holding her sunglasses so her eyes aren't hidden, flashing her usual captivating smile. May of 1970. Kent State. Cambodia. They are in the capital to protest the latest twists in the gruesome plot called Viet Nam. If he'd had a better camera the scene might have made a post card.
Nine hours, five of them crammed into his Falcon, chipping in to cover the tolls. Bad coffee at the Howard Johnson's on the Connecticut Pike. At last they arrived in Bethesda, a short drive from the Capitol. All of them crammed into Michelle’s parents’ guest room, he on the floor with the other two guys, Amy and Michelle sharing the one bed. His joking met with no success, the two women were committed to being bedmates. He was caught up in the chivalrous sacrifice.
The next day dawned bright yet surprisingly chilly. They split up outside the House offices, each on a mission to confront the representatives of their home state. Chris’ was not in his office, was back in Seattle for some reason. His secretary smiled but clearly had no time to listen to this disheveled, bearded student intent on wasting her time. He gave up, left with her the two-page statement he had carefully worded the night before leaving Cambridge. Walked out in the sunshine wondering what to do next.
After a while he found a bench with a view of the office building, sat and reflected on his day so far. The five had agreed to meet at the entrance to the Senate offices prior to their next lobbying attempt. There was still an hour or more before their rendezvous time. Watching the small groups of tourists pass by Chris felt himself nodding off. Just as he was about to slip into the comfort of a well-deserved nap he saw Amy and Jim, a fellow New Yorker, come down the steps together, laughing. She leaned into Jim, who put his arm around her shoulder. Chris jerked awake, seething. The two spotted him and hurried over, eager to share the positive reception they had experienced, the discussion they had been part of. He listened, glaring at Jim, until Amy took his hand, reached up and kissed him on the cheek. The tension evaporated as quickly as it had arisen. They went off in search of coffee.
They are in Maine, spending a long weekend near Bar Harbor. She is leaning against the back fender of his Falcon, a bottle of Mateus rosé in her hand. Her hair is in a scarf, she hasn't washed it for two days. Her irritation shows through her forced smile; tent camping is not something she will ever do again. The small cabin in the background is more than he could afford, but he would sell his blood, his body, his very soul, to keep her happy.
Sometimes when she smiled it was so broad that she squinted slightly, lifting her eyes to meet his. He loved that expression, the childish aspect, the look of pure joy. He lived for the moments when he could make her happy, eager to accept the favors she might bestow. It seemed he was always searching for the comments he might make, actions he might take that would summon that smile.
“I really don’t see what you find so special about sleeping on the ground,” she said. “I feel stiff and dirty. The only time I went camping before we stayed in cabins. Summer camp. At least we had showers. Don’t you get tired of this?”
Chris started to describe a favorite experience, backpacking in the Olympics, a week alone in the mountains, waking one morning to find a small herd of mountain goats just outside his tent. She had stopped listening, was looking out the window of the Falcon at the trees that lined the narrow road.
“Do you think we could stay indoors tonight? Just this once?” she asked.
Sure, he said, reluctantly. She leaned over, suddenly upbeat, happy, and kissed his neck.
Amy is leaning against the gunwale, smiling with eyes closed, backlit. Salt spray forms a halo around her. In the background, his hand on the wheel, grimly looking straight ahead, her father. The mother and sister hover outside the frame, apart from the image. Jamaica Bay. The last visit. The one that turned his world upside down.
Chris didn't look forward to these visits, wished he had enough backbone to escape them. Amy loved the trips to Brooklyn, chattering happily away on the long drive down the crowded turnpike. And as much as he understood her excitement, as good as it felt to be doing what pleased her, he couldn't find a way to share in her delight. He would be bored listening to her parents updating her on their friends’ children’s accomplishments, describing the goings-on in their close-knit Chinese-American community. About the only thing that made his presence worthwhile was the cooking. Li, the Chen's Szechuanese housekeeper, fixed the most amazing spicy cuisine. He had grown up thinking Chinese food was chow mein and noodle soup. Li took great pleasure in putting dish after delicious dish in front of him, basking in the compliments he heaped upon her.
Today was no different. Whole fish, prawns, peppers, something that looked like eggplant. All delicately seasoned, spicy hot yet not uncomfortably so. And dessert yet to come – coconut ice cream with dense sweet cakes, jasmine tea. Way too much food for a Sunday lunch, Chris thought. He was feeling contented, his guard down, daydreaming. When Amy’s father suddenly spoke his name, angrily, he was caught unaware.
“You must leave Amy alone. We do not want you seeing her anymore!”
Startled, uncomprehending, he looked first at Amy, then at her mother, her younger sister. Amy’s mother was staring at him, no expression on her face. Amy’s eyes were downcast, her sister got up quietly and left the room.
Chris started to say something, was cut off by her father’s gruff interjection. “You must go now. Do not try to see her again.”
Dazed, he got up from the table, knocking over the chair in his haste. He strode angrily out of the room, down the hall to the guest room. Grabbed his small bag and walked back through the dining room to the front door. Not a word from anyone, no sound at all save the pounding of the blood in his ears, the squeak of his shoes on the hardwood floor.
He had unlocked the door, was about to slip into the driver’s seat, when a breathless Li appeared at his elbow. “Take these,” she said, her voice breaking as she held out a paper bag.
Halfway up the Merritt Parkway he reached into the brown paper and pulled out the first of several still-warm steamed dumplings. He snacked on them till the bag was empty, the salt from his tears mixing with the yeasty dough. They tasted like cardboard.
This one is not a photograph. It is large, ornate card, elaborately decorated in Chinese characters and artwork. Glued feathers, gilt script. A note inside, Amy's writing. 'I am so sorry. My father doesn't dislike you. It's just that he wants the best for me. He wants me to be happy.' Then, crowded in at the bottom, clearly inserted as an afterthought, 'You know I love you.'
“Why now? Why did your father feel it was so damned important that I stay away from you?”
“I think he’s worried I’ve become too attached to you.”
“And there’s a problem with that?”
She looked away, gathered her thoughts. When she replied he could tell she was carefully choosing her words.
“He worries we are getting too serious. That I might not be considering other options.”
“Options? What the fuck does that mean?” Then it dawned on him. “You mean other men? Is that what this is about?”
She was quiet, ill at ease. At length she answered, her voice so soft he had to strain to hear her.
“His name is Thomas. Thomas Chen. They were joking about how I wouldn't have to change my name when we got married...”
He looked up.
“I mean, if we get married,” she continued, hurriedly. “His parents and mine are close, best friends. I thought I told you that.”
He turned away, stared through the window, focused on a small branch visible there, defiantly alive against a cold background of brick. Watched it twitch in the breeze. Willed his pulse to stop racing. He was almost sick.
Amy was visibly uncomfortable, got up, moved to the far corner of the room, looking away as well. When she spoke he could barely hear her over the pounding of his heart.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said softly. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
She walked across the room and let herself out, pulling the door shut after her.
Crane Beach, near Ipswich. A freakishly sunny day in early December. T-shirt weather. Amy is barefoot, the hem of her jeans wet from running into the ocean and retreating, over and over again, each time barely missing being splashed by the surf. The wind is whipping her long black hair randomly about her face, a beautiful Medusa without the serpents. She is wearing a red top and a smile.
It was too good to be true, but Chris was willing to take the chance. The forecast that morning called for clear skies and sunshine, balmy temperatures in the high fifties, possibly reaching sixty by the afternoon. Maybe not tropical weather, but a real welcome after the cold and rain of the past few weeks. He quickly found someone to take his shift at the library, convinced a rather reluctant Amy to skip town with him after her morning classes were finished. By the time she emerged from Mallinckrodt he was idling outside, a hastily assembled lunch – sub sandwiches, a bottle of wine – in a paper bag on the back seat.
As the Falcon worked its way up Route 1 to the North Shore, windows cracked open to the breeze, Amy seemed unusually quiet. Oh well, Chris thought, she has a lot on her mind. He tried a few times to coax some conversation out of her, asking about her labs, her upcoming biology exam, but her answers were short and indifferent. He gave up, resigned himself to silently watching as the naked trees slipped past, their shadows stark in the crisp light of the late morning sun.
When they pulled into the parking area at Crane Beach there were few other cars around. Amy headed straight for the ocean, leaving him to catch up, slipping out of her shoes to race into the ankle-deep foam at the edge of the surf. She was like a child playing in the water, staying one step ahead of the incoming waves as they rushed onto the sandy beach, laughing when one caught the cuff of her jeans. Shrieking when a sneaker wave splashed halfway up her torso.
After a while she had had her fill of the chilly water, came running back to him, a smile on her face for the first time that morning. Yes, he thought, this was worth it after all. We’ve had so few good times together lately, so little time at all. Once he felt her frozen feet he offered to run back to the car, grab a pair of his wool hiking socks from the trunk. And lunch, of course. She readily agreed, her teeth chattering slightly as he wrapped his jacket around her.
They found a calm nook among the dunes, sheltered from the wind, where they could feel the warmth of the thin winter sun on their faces. He opened the wine, she accepted her usual token amount. As they were finishing the sandwiches he leaned forward to take her in his arms. She tensed, moved away from him slightly. He was about to ask what was wrong when she turned toward him, a look on her face that caught him by surprise.
“You know we can’t do this anymore,” she spat out. “If my father found out he would disown me.”
“Bullshit,” Chris retorted angrily. “The worst he’ll do is yell at you some more, disparage me some more, make you feel guilty some more. Why do you let him do that?”
“You don’t understand. He’s my father.”
“You’re damned right I don’t understand! Don’t you want to be with me?”
A lengthy pause. She looked away.
“Don’t you?” he asked again.
Amy looked back at him, her mouth set. He couldn’t tell if she was angry or just at a loss for words. He waited.
“I saw Thomas again last week. His family was at our house for Thanksgiving.”
“He told me he loved me.”
Chris felt light-headed, his fingers started to tingle. He took a deep breath in a futile attempt to steady his world. When he spoke his voice caught.
“And what did you say to him?”
Amy looked away again. After a few moments she got up and started walking back toward the car.
This one is a newspaper clipping, small and faded. A photo of a smiling young couple. She is resplendent in an ornate white gown, he looks uncomfortable in his tux. The caption below tells the story. Thomas Chen and Amy Chen were married on some date in some church somewhere in Brooklyn. He is a physician, she is a medical student. The couple will make their home in Manhattan…
His gut clenches, even now, even after all these years. He gets up and refills his glass.
Two years had passed since he last saw Amy, since he last spent anguished moments trying to win her back, convince her to choose him. They were living separate lives now, in very separate worlds, he in Washington, DC, she in med school in New York. Chris had left Cambridge at last, having exhausted his options. He’d chosen the life of a low level bureaucrat, a small cog in the massive machine that was the federal government. A dull job, but one he was lucky to have. He had ignored his future, done nothing with his degree after graduation. Was perversely content to keep working part-time in one of the Harvard libraries just to stay close to her. But a sane man, even a lovesick fool, can only look failure in the eye so many times before giving up.
A quiet Sunday morning, settled in with the Times. He was working his way through the paper, saving the crossword till last, when by chance he skimmed the society section. When he came across their wedding announcement he felt his heartbeat falter. This is it, he told himself. It is finally over. I am free of her now, my life is my own.
He got up and left the room, navigating by rote through his tears, in search of something to dull the pain.
* * *
Chris sets the last photo atop the others. A minute passes, another. He rises suddenly, gathers up the images, walks to the overflowing wastebasket. Catches himself before he lets them drop, turns, his face a pained mask. Carefully he puts them back into the envelope, drops it on the desk, and slips from the room.
* * *
The letter arrived one random afternoon, weeks after he had given up hope. Chris had long since forgiven himself for his foolish impulse, his absurd act of reaching out. He thought he'd gotten away clean. The envelope with the New York postmark, addressed in a painfully familiar hand, destroyed that option. It sat atop a small pile of bills and junk mail, challenging him, screaming to be opened.
He had found an address for Amy, wrestled it from the alumni office, concocting a tale that convinced the keepers of all that should be private to grant him passage back into her world. Most likely a stale datum, a relic almost three decades old. Surely she had moved since then, likely more than once. Chris had written the note more as an act of exorcism than a true communiqué, feeling strangely at ease as he wrote it. It was a symbolic act, a ceremonial effort. He never really expected a reply, had grown somewhat fearful should he receive one.
Her note was short, simple, ambiguous. She was widowed, had been for several years. Thomas had been older than her, his heart a problem. Two sons, both grown, both married. Both doctors like her and her late husband. She recalled Chris fondly – that was the word she used – and would like to hear more from him. She signed the note simply Amy.
He had signed his with love.
* * *
Her voice was still familiar, though a bit deeper, huskier, the Brooklyn accent almost nonexistent. Would he like to come for a visit? Spend a few days in the city, catch up on old times? Yes, he agreed, not pausing to think his decision through, yes that would be nice. They talked a bit more, about logistics, timing. After promising to call as soon as he had his arrival pinned down they said their goodbyes. He waited for her to hang up first, listened for a while to the dial tone before putting down the phone on his end.
* * *
The flight from SeaTac was a morning nonstop, touched down in LaGuardia in mid-afternoon. Plenty of time to find his hotel, get his bearings, prepare for the evening. They were to meet for dinner in midtown Manhattan. He hoped he had packed the proper clothing. New York style was still something he was clueless about.
Chris got to the restaurant early, way early, went to the bar where he could watch the door. He sat nervously sipping his drink, playing and replaying alternate scenarios in his head. He was about to order another when she arrived. He knew right away it was her, even before she turned her face in his direction. Not quite as slender as in college, hair cut short now with a sprinkling of gray, but it was Amy. He was already moving toward her when she recognized him and smiled, the same smile, the one that always made his pulse race, his face flush.
“Chris, it’s so lovely to see you,” she beamed. “You haven’t changed a bit!” Neither have you, he mumbled, suddenly tongue-tied. Perhaps she has changed, he thought, the years have done that to all of us. A few wrinkles, a bit less youthful vibrancy, but she still causes my heart to stir. She is still beautiful. Damned beautiful. He caught himself smiling.
She held out her hand for him to take and it was all he could do to simply grasp it for a moment, to not pull her to him, envelop her in his arms. Instead they stood awkwardly until the maitre d’ appeared and acknowledged their presence. She took his arm as the waiter ushered them to their table.
It was a French restaurant, one of her choosing. Not Chinese, much to his disappointment. The irony was not lost on him. For his birthday, the first after they had met, she had taken him to Chez Jean in Cambridge, several steps in formality above the eateries he had known before. It was an uncomfortable evening; Chris had no idea what to do with the abundance of silverware placed before him, could not read the menu, felt helpless and confused. Tonight, at least, he only felt nervous – definitely an improvement.
He ordered a bottle of Bordeaux, ignoring her protestation that she still didn’t drink much. Maybe you don’t, he thought, but I definitely need a few glasses. He felt the sweat trickle invisibly down the side of his torso, had to clean his glasses more than once. I feel like a goddamned teenager on my first date, he thought – then let an embarrassed smile slip out at the thought. Amy was watching him. She smiled back.
Talk was awkward at first, like an engine sputtering and misfiring, but eventually things evened out to a smooth idle, catching its rhythm on the mundane: his flight, his hotel, how New York had changed since their visits there together in the early seventies. Amy was quick to inquire about his life since they parted; he felt ill at ease discussing its many twists and turns. He talked a bit about Africa, Nepal, Alaska, the places he had visited, lived in briefly. Careers he had begun only to abandon after a year or two. He was suddenly aware that he was rambling, dominating the conversation much as he did when they were together in college. He quickly stopped talking.
Amy was not ready to take her turn, would not let the silence prevail. She asked him about Sara, Jamie, his current life in Seattle. He answered honestly. It had been hard these past few months without his wife, his lover. She was taken from him far too suddenly, no time to prepare for her passing, all he could do was try to adjust to her absence. They had met rather late in life, married in their forties. Jamie was a surprise, a blessing. He had never wanted children, had done what he could to avoid them, yet when their son was born his life took on another dimension And now, with Sara gone, Jamie was the bright spot in his existence.
Chris started to say something else, thought better of it, fell silent again. Amy was absently sipping her wine, barely half a glass gone, while he was starting on his third. A long pause, the silence weighing heavily on both of them. He realized it was now his duty to keep the conversation moving.
“And you, how have you gotten on since Thomas’ passing?”
“I’m doing better, much better. The first few years were difficult. He was such a good man, kind, caring. My best friend. A wonderful father. We had so much in common…” She looked up quickly, apologetically, aware of the pain that might be carried by so innocent a remark.
“Yes, I know what you mean,” he said, trying his best to smile. “You were very lucky to meet someone like Thomas. You two were made for each other.” He couldn’t help but inject a bit of venom into that last remark. She noticed, wincing ever so slightly. At once he was embarrassed, apologetic. “I mean, I’m happy you found someone with whom you had so much in common, who could give you the support you needed in your profession, in rearing your family.” He knew he was making things worse, wished he could just shut up. But it was too late. Chris felt he was observing the two of them from some point high on the restaurant wall, watching himself behave poorly yet powerless to do anything about it. Out of body. Detached. He fell silent again, took another sip of the wine.
Their entrees arrived, and they were mercifully spared further conversation, thankful to have full mouths. When they did resume it was once again about the trivial, the everyday. Had he been back to any Harvard reunions? Did he ever see Brian? Was she still in touch with Kathy? With Michelle? How was Carol, her sister, doing? By the time dessert was served they were chatting like neighbors who have been apart a few weeks, carefully avoiding anything that might stir the emotional pot.
Chris picked up the check, asked if he could accompany her in the cab to her place on the Upper West side – then, realizing it was the wine talking, tried to rescind the offer. She just laughed and declined, but invited him to see her for dinner tomorrow at her place. It will be Chinese, she added, a knowing gleam in her eye.
There was never a longer day. He woke early, skipped breakfast at his hotel, opting to stroll the avenues until he found just the right greasy spoon. Eggs over easy, hash browns, thick coffee, served by a huge Greek with heavy stubble and a minimal command of English. Spent the morning exploring the park, the afternoon in a few museums, bookstores, anywhere that would make the time pass quickly, unnoticed. Six o’clock found him ringing the bell to her apartment, a bottle of chilled chardonnay tucked in his arm and a strange fluttering in his chest.
Dinner was delightful, a collection of delicacies from all over China, mostly cold, though she warmed a few dishes in the microwave first. When he complimented her on her cooking, she awkwardly admitted it was all takeout, carefully selected from several favorite spots in Chinatown. She still did not know how to cook, that was always Thomas’ special talent.
Tonight she was drinking one glass of wine after another. They quickly finished the bottle he had brought and she pulled out a riesling that had been chilling. It was too sweet for him; he sipped sparingly, but she relished it. Soon she was tipsy, then downright drunk, having to carefully articulate her words. He had never seen her inebriated before, was uncomfortable with the spectacle.
Once the riesling was gone they adjourned to the sofa, where she snuggled next to him. He could not help himself, found his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. She burrowed in even closer. Soon she was snoring softly. He sat there for what seemed an eternity, finally woke her. “Amy, I think I should be going now.” She looked up at him, startled, then held him tighter. “No, stay with me. Please? Just this once?” Chris fought back the panic that was rising in his gut, softly agreed. He got up carefully from the sofa, took her hand, and led her back to the bedroom.
It was no good. They undressed, crawled under the sheets, began to caress each other. She stopped, sat upright, sniffling softly. “I just miss him so much. It isn’t the same. I wish you were him, but you’re not. I’m so sorry.” He held her a while, as sniffles turned to sobs then back again. When she was calm he gently laid her down on the sheets, covered her with the blanket, and went out to sleep on the sofa.
The next morning he was awake well before she was, found some crusty instant coffee in an ancient jar, had two cups before he heard her stirring. She walked out of the bedroom looking the worse for wear, puffy eyes, wrinkled brow. He offered her a cup but she declined; she was a tea drinker, of course, he should have remembered. Amy filled the kettle, put it on the stove. Sat in the chair farthest from him.
“I really don’t think we should try to see each other again,” she said. He silently agreed. He didn’t think she even noticed he was wearing the robe, Thomas’ robe, that he’d found hanging in the bathroom.
Chris took his time getting dressed, wanting to prolong his departure as much as possible, but at last he was finished. He retrieved his coat from the closet, folded it over his arm, and walked toward the door. As he was about to leave she rushed back into the bedroom, returned with a small envelope and thrust it into his hands. “Please – don’t open this until you are back home in Seattle,” she said, a hint of urgency in her voice. He agreed. They kissed goodbye chastely.
Once on the street he began walking downtown, through the park. It was too nice a day for a cab and he desperately needed time to work away his confusion, to put the night before in perspective. Well before he had reached 59th Street he was calm, accepting. Resigned.
The plane had just reached cruising altitude, the seat belt light winked off. As Chris reached into his bag for the novel he’d picked up the day before his hand fell on Amy’s envelope. Oh hell, he thought, I might as well see what she has to say. Probably a polite goodbye. More likely a ‘don’t call me I’ll call you’ note. He ripped open the paper sleeve and pulled the contents out into the bright light from the plane’s window.
It is an old photo, tightly cropped, the color fading. The two of them on the steps of what must have been Widener Library. He is bearded, his hair nearly as long as hers. They are holding each other tightly, smiling into each other’s eyes, oblivious to the world. He does not recall the photographer, but what has been captured is almost too painful to countenance. He catches his breath, feels the tightening in his throat.
Wrapped around the photo was a small sheet of paper, folded once. He opened it, held it close so he could make out her small, delicate handwriting.
It was wonderful seeing you again. Being with you brought back so many good memories. Though we could never have had a life together, you must know that you will always have a special place in my heart.
He carefully folded the note back around the photo, tucked both away inside his bag. Looked out at the clouds passing below, felt the tears welling. Closing his eyes, he embraced the steady low throbbing of the engines as the big jet hurtled westward, away from a painful past, carrying him home. For the first time that morning he smiled.
She had signed it with love.
CARLOS PERONA CALVETE
DARWIN G DENNISON
DIEGO A. PENA
J. J. DETTMAN
POOJA RATHNAKUMAR SENGOTTUVEL
R. E. HAGAN
RUTH Z. DEMING