In the first year, Ellen would never have called it people-watching. It was a study, meditation, how she expressed herself, or whatever other bullshit made her feel better at the time. She would sit in lobbies or restaurants, meaning to read or do some homework, only to invariably take more interest in the strangers around her. Sometime during the second year, watching became writing—notes, observations scratched on whatever napkins or scrap paper she could find, until she bought a proper notebook. In year three, she got a cell phone; she took photographs and occasional videos to compliment her notes, and still went unnoticed. By the seventh year, she had filled twenty-two notebooks and eight gigabytes of storage data, and any twinges of guilt that once haunted her were by now totally dead. On July 1, 2014, Ellen sat in the back corner of her favorite coffee shop with coffee she didn’t like and a novel she did not intend to read, and she watched.
By two o’clock, she had documented six strangers, nine orders, and two subconscious quirks, which wasn’t terrible for a Tuesday afternoon in summer. Still, even Ellen could only take so much interest in the familiar girl behind the counter and the elderly couple on the other side of the store, and she almost wished that she had brought a novel that wasn’t shit. She sipped at what little was left of her coffee and wondered how long she could go without being expected to buy another cup.
She was counting the money in her wallet and when she heard a dull electronic beep. Ellen lookedup at the door, tried not to stare, and began to write.
2:04 P.M., male, late teens, 5’10 or ’11, white, blonde, brown eyes, blue t-shirt, white Nikes, black shorts to knees. Unaccompanied.
She clicked her pen and placed it on top of the little notebook, then opened the novel. She glanced at the text for half a minute, and looked up as the boy with yellow hair was giving his order at the front. From the table at the back, Ellen could usually get a solid three-fourths view of the customers’ faces, but she herself was unlikely to be noticed. She stared at her phone for a moment, as if she were texting, and managed to take a nice photograph of the stranger without even looking up.
Her notes for the next ten minutes looked like this:
2:07, boy sits at window seat by entrance w/ caramel macchiato.
2:09, the couple departs.
2:10, boy spills carm mach, saves most of it, goes to desk for napkins.
2:16, he still hasn’t looked this way.
2:17, why hasn’t he looked this way?
By 2:19, Ellen’s cup was clearly empty, and the girl at the desk was giving her looks again. She reluctantly threw her cup in the recycling, and reached for her wallet.
“Hey, uh…” Ellen turned to see the boy in blue standing in front of her. “You ordered a while ago. Like, before me. It looked like your cup was pretty empty when I got here, actually.” Ellen tried to look indifferent, said nothing. “I was just thinking, um, would you want to talk for a while, if I bought your next drink?”
Although she was a bit shaken by his approach, Ellen quickly assumed a smile and did what she always did in situations like this.
“I’m a lesbian,” she lied. The blonde boy smiled.
“That’s what you think this is about?”
Ellen’s smile fell. She had.
“I just like talking to people. What do you usually get?”
She muttered something about cream and decaf, because she hated coffee, but she drank nine cups a day, so it might as well be decaf, and he went up to the counter.
“Here,” he said.
“Uh, thanks.” She stared at the table, lightly fingering the screen of her phone, too shy to speak.
“Shit!” The boy faltered, knocking Ellen’s cup slightly off balance as he put it down. She reached with both hands and caught it just in time, just before realizing her own misstep.
“Shit,” she muttered, but it was too late; the total stranger before her was already browsing through her phone. “What the hell,” she said. She was angry, but didn’t raise her voice too much, for fear of alerting the lone employee.
“Thought so,” he said, turning the screen to face her. Ellen blushed violently as she looked at the photo she had taken a few minutes before.
“Give it back.”
“Fine,” he said, gently placing it on the table between them, “but you promised to talk to me. Can I see your notebook?”
Ellen grabbed her phone and slipped it into her pocket, then snatched the notebook and held it tightly to her stomach. “No,” she said. “No fucking way.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. “I’ve already made my point, anyway.” As he said this, he began playing with his own phone, and at last turned the screen to face his newest friend. The screen displayed a brunette girl in her late teens, holding her phone as if she were texting and glancing at a novel she thought was shitty. Ellen made a choked, trembling sound and said nothing for several moments.
“Now, miss,” he said, “let’s not be hypocritical. I’m guessing you’ve never encountered a person like yourself—or never known it, at least.”
“Like us,” she said. He ignored her.
“To be honest, I’m not sure what interests us so much… I mean, the fact that even reading through my notes can reinspire the sensation so vividly…”
“Notes?” said Ellen.
“Yes,” said the boy, presenting a faded green notebook. “Would you like to read some?” Ellen cautiously reached to touch it, but he pulled back. “Sorry, friend, but subjects aren’t allowed to read.”
“Subjects?” she said. He nodded.
“There’s an entire page devoted to you, dear.” Ellen felt she wanted to vomit, run away, smash her storage drives, and burn twenty-two notebooks all at once. “So,” he continued, “why do you do it?”
“Why do you watch people?”
Ellen chose to believe that something about this conversation was worth persevering, and took a few deep breaths. “I guess I like the knowledge,” she said. “Afterwards, I mean. Looking and relooking over the smallest details of other people’s days, details they themselves don’t remember.” He looked more serious now than before, prompting Ellen to continue. “It’s like, I have thousands of photographs of hundreds of people—any one of them might have died or had a sex change or become a serial killer. But I’ll never know. I just have a few minutes of their lives, the intersections.” Still serious, he nodded.
“Tell me, did you think you were special?” Ellen didn’t know what to say. “I mean, did you think you were alone?” She nodded weakly. “Well, you aren’t. There must be hundreds of us in this city alone, and I’m damn good at finding them. I’ve heard stories that would make you salivate. I know a woman who made a career in mall security, just so she could secretly copy the tapes to her personal storage. I used to know an atheist who attended a Baptist church every Sunday for twenty years just so he could switch classes whenever he wanted a new batch of subjects, and claim that the will of God was guiding his decisions. He was pretty committed. I’m pretty sure they buried him there.” Ellen thought of her computer filled with photographs, her bookshelf filled with notebooks, her brain filled with worthless memories—she thought about all of this, and reached out to touch the arm of the boy in front of her.
“A lesbian, huh?”
“Could you tell that I was lying, too?”
“It occurred to me,” he said, “and now I really have to go.” He stood.
“Wait,” said Ellen. She stood up as well. “Let me give you my—“ The boy shook his head, cutting her off with a gesture of his hand.
“Don’t you see that that would ruin it?” He took out his phone and took a final photograph of the stunned girl at the back of the coffee shop. “This game is about one-time encounters—you called them intersections? I’m stealing that. So, until and unless we intersect again…” He bowed deeply, and bowing said, “At least we’ll remember it.”
With that, he walked out of the coffee shop, and was gone before Ellen could even take a picture.
Jacob Beardsley is a 15-year-old who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., and does not indulge in casual voyeurism. He is currently trying to finish a novel based on this story. Poetry and finished chapters of the novel can be found at his writing website at jakebeardsleywriting.webs.com.
Then he exhaled softly and his shoulders collapsed into the rest of him like two newborn foals into grass and I pictured a body wet. Steven’s, but not from the shower, glistening with live-water and first sunlight. I never got ideas in the morning. I looked away, turning back into his thighs. (God.) I couldn’t wait.
He stretched and I felt him drift against me.
“Hey,” I said.
I threw my legs over my side of the bed. “Got anywhere to be?”
His hands just barely brushing my hips. “You have somewhere in mind?”
I wiggled away, stood a little, leaned some. Glanced at the bedside clock. 5:41.
“You got an hour? Maybe two?”
Steven’s chin on my shoulder, looking into me. “Sounds promising.” He smiled.
“I’m hitting the lake for a bit. You can come along if you’re interested.” I slid off the bed completely, onto my feet. A natural dismount.
He rolled back over to his side of the mattress and sat up, feet-forward.
“Can’t see why not.” He looked over his shoulder and smiled, his whole face opening up. The smile turned to yawning and I grinned a little back.
We dressed quickly and left Steven’s place. I wore his drab marine corps crew neck sweatshirt, drowning a little in the fabric. It fit him like a glove, but he had five inches on me at least, and several pounds of well-apportioned muscle. I’d gone out without long-sleeves last night, but mornings left me cold, and this one was the same.
Steven was poured through shorts and a V neck T. We walked beside each other down the street. I hung back a little bit, as he outstrode me. As I hesitated pleasantly. It had been my idea to swim at dawn, but I didn’t mind if he took the lead for a while.
We passed the usual assortment of buses and delivery drivers and traders on their way to wherever. I’d seen the requisite jackets and ties in Steven’s closet last night while he brushed his teeth, wondered if he was high-finance or just a weekend dresser. We’d met casually—almost didn’t, in the noise and press—so there were open questions. Which was fine. So far as concerns could rise, I figured I knew the angel’s share. Steven was warm and fresh and pleasantly weighty in the right places, spring in his step.
I walked faster to keep up, to be just-not-against his right side. I could feel him smiling down then and let my shoulder brush his, kept walking. We stayed that way for blocks, not touching, not a lot.
Then, the lake in newborn light. Clouds wisping through the sky and trippling through the waves, shadows and sunbeams at dawn. Almost too early even for seabirds, there were just a few, here and there. They flocked in masses later in the day, when there were teeming lunches all around to tempt them.
I stripped my jeans and slipped out of my shoes, folded everything into a stack and looked right. Steven was still.
“Do you still want to get in?” I asked. It was new to see his face without a hint. “There’s coffee not too far. We passed it on the way.”
He twitched, then looked down at me. “No, no of course.” He peeled the shirt and shorts off effortlessly, left them rumpled on the ground.
“You need help with that?”
“With what?” I said.
“The sweatshirt,” Steven pointed. “It’s a little much for you, I can tell.”
“It’s a joke,” he said quickly. “Just thought it was funny, you swimming over there already.”
I laughed, shrugging, then crossed my arms over my head and pulled it off, sleeves first. I pressed all the ends together and set it on my pile. The sand was cool between my toes, still silky with night. I squeezed them together and dashed off down the beach.
I crashed into the water hard, eyes closed. Diving onto the surface from a run was like hitting a quilt spread out on the floor expecting a mattress underneath. Bracing. Cold. Then, my body giving in to wild steadiness. Just a mute moment of deaf-blind motion.
I opened my eyes underwater and saw silt lightly dusted with pebbles, looked down my light brown legs at my splaying pink toes. I got my bearings again and ran further into the tide before going back under. (God.)
I started stroking hard, pulling myself out further onto the lake, water lapping over my feet and back and shoulders. Below me, a cloudy blanket of watercressy leaves stirred and waved. I rotated up and gulped a breath of air, stared back down.
It was like peering at a great green lung, bronchioles reaching and retracting like fingers. Not for the first time, I wondered how lake and sea plants grew without open air, how they breathed. What it must be like to be joined in a living bed. Did each plant root itself, or were they all one being, like that poem? I swam.
After another minute or so, I looked back. Steven still idled standing in the shallows, his dry hair catching light.
“Come on out,” I shouted, “It’s great.”
I saw him shake his head no, then scratch his scalp, right elbow cocked over his head like a crooked wing. I swam back.
“What’s the matter?” I said
He huffed out a breath, looked away, turned back to me. “So cold.”
I must have stared at him harder than I meant.
“And it’s like the lake’s alive.”
“Yeah,” I said, “that’s the idea. You never swam at a beach before?”
“You do swim?” Had I taken it for granted, somehow? “Aren’t you a marine?”
Steven squared off and took both my shoulders in his hands, looked down hard. “Yeah, I swim. At the Y. In a friend’s backyard. Hell, even here, at noon, when there’s someone in the chair.” He pointed down the beach to the empty lifeguard stand.
“It’s like the lake’s alive,” he repeated.
I shrunk a little bit, tried to slip back down. He held me firm.
“Besides,” he sucked in air, let it out. “It’s just a sweatshirt. Sorry to disappoint.”
I looked back up at him. Took him in all over again in newborn light. His blue eyes half-closed, but spinning sun like dewdrops. (God.) I gripped his left arm with my right and stood up again.
“Come on. Let’s grab breakfast. The night’s not through quite yet.”
He smiled, took my left hand in his right, and shoved me back into the water.
Another moment deaf and blind. I stood and pushed him, just a little, laughing.
“Unexpected,” I said, when I found my lungs again.
“I think I like that.”
Connor is a writer and editor, living in Northwest Indiana and Boston, Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter @keepthemuse for topics like flour, flirting, fanfiction, and the process of becoming a literary highwayman in real time.
He had turned off his bedroom light to keep them from coming in, to keep his mother from slamming her hip into the door and demanding he give assent to whatever version of whatever story she was telling to make her point. Yes, mama, I was there. Yes, mama, you said that. Yes, mama, they didn’t give you the time of day. No, mama, you were very polite.
In his pocket, his phone buzzed, the vibrations rough against his hipbone.
not much. u?
The blue light of the screen illuminated his face as he replied. He typed up the message several times, breathing deeply and resting the tip of the phone against his forehead in between each revision. The light on his thin cheeks made his eyes look more luminous, his eyebrows more bushy and black, his nose longer and more pointed.
Downstairs, the plates went quiet and the water shut off. Stomping hits the kitchen floor. The back door creaks, and bounces shut with a slam. Jorge can almost hear it, it’s so familiar, the soft click-click of his dad igniting the lighter, lighting the cigarette. He knows he’s just pulled his first drag and that he’s leaning the back of his head against the siding of the house. Jorge wants to open the window, so he can smell the burning, the familiar exhaust of a family dinner hanging on the air. But he doesn’t want his dad to know he’s awake, so he stays still, finishing the text.
stuck at home. wish i was anywhere else.
He can see she’s read the message. She’s typing. She responds. wanna come over and watch something?
He drops the phone onto the pillow next to his head. He stares at the sky, the sunlight melting into the softest purple. Downstairs, he can hear the hum of the sewing machine. His mom is quilting, like she often does after a fight. The TV is going softly, some show keeping her absent-minded company in the back bedroom downstairs. He stands, stepping to the window, tucking himself into the curtains on the side of the frame. The porch is empty. The shower downstairs snaps on, the pipes in the wall creaking. No one would know if he just left.
He grabs his phone, his hoodie, his sneakers.
on my way over.
The window hisses a little as it comes open, and he crouches on the little roof over the porch. His feet sting when he hits the ground, but no one hears, and he pushes into the dimming air and runs between the neighbors’ houses, down the culvert, and through the snaggy, overtangled brush into the next subdivision over.
The trees here are thinner, the spaces around the houses more open. The homes are newer, more plastic-looking. He’s done this before. Most nights, it’s Gavin who leads the way. They traipse around back of one of the big white houses, ducking in the basement door at dusk, laughing and shushing each other over ice cream and stolen beers, watching How I Met Your Mother, griping about chemistry homework, about reading Hawthorne for English, about PE class and Miss Nelson’s jiggly arms. Emily’s dad may amble in at some point, share a beer, crack a joke, and then climb back up the stairs to bed. Emily’s mom is usually out cold on Ambien, too stoned to care.
But Gavin’s gone with the debate team this week. And Emily’s dad is in Berlin for work.
And Jorge is alone, standing in Emily’s backyard, staring at her basement door, texting her.
She bobs around the glass, her face big and smiley, her hair bouncing in a tiny ponytail.
He feels this, this moment, the heaviness of it. Is this it? Has he imagined everything?
No, last time, Emily leaned her head on his shoulder during the show. Last time, she kept accidentally touching his knee when she was talking. Last time, she had round olive-colored eyes that unblinkingly watched when he told her and Gavin that story about his uncle Ben. Last time, she moved around him more carefully in the kitchen, and last time, she didn’t hug him goodbye. Was it an accident? Or did she feel it too, the polar magnet buffer that pushed him away from her a little, always. The magnet zone that would flip and click if he thought she’d want him to get a little closer, that would yank him in if he thought he could find the words to ask.
And there she was, tank top and blue jeans and bare feet and ponytail, pencil behind her ear.
“Hey!” She reaches up to hug him and darts back down, her face flushing.
“Hey, Em. Thanks for having me over.” Stupid, nothing thing to say.
“No problem! They fighting again?”
“Always.” He shrugs.
She nods her head toward the doorway. “Come on in. I’ve got some beer and popcorn.”
He follows her, smiling, shoving his hands in his pockets, pressing the feel of her back into his thighs, remembering how very real she always was. How surprising it felt to discover, when hugging or brushing past her, how small and warm and muscle-twitching she was. Like a small bird, all tense and alive and quick.
They squished into the couch cushions, the bowl of popcorn between them, the projector screen bright. She hits the remote and the show’s theme starts and they munch popcorn fistfuls, bits of kernel jumping onto the couch, the floor, her cleavage. He doesn’t notice this, but does notice her hand darting down between her breasts to catch it out. She grins at him. “Popcorn! So awkward.”
He nods, and glances back at the show, but she’s moving the bowl of popcorn to the coffee table and scooting in closer to him. She looks up at him and he can feel her eyes on the side of his face and so he turns to her and looks back.
She is not a quick trembling bird of a thing now, but a cat at rest, waiting.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” she says back.
The theme song is over, and the show’s cast members are bantering in the morning sunlight about cars. He’s seen this one before.
“Can I kiss you?” she says.
He stares at her. This, so soon. The beer isn’t even open yet. This, and now the guessing is over. Yes, he was right. He hadn’t imagined it.
She smiles, and her arm is around his shoulders now. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you all this spring. But Gavin was always here or whatever. It was never the right moment. And you’re never going to ask, so: can I kiss you?”
All he can think about is: what if my breath smells bad? What if I don’t know how to kiss right?
And then, her face. The soft round line of her jaw wrinkling a little into her neck, the tiny crease at the inside edge of her earlobes, the stray spike of eyebrow that she never tweezes and leaves her looking slightly crazed, her eyes, dark and still and sure.
He licks his lips, not realizing he’s doing it. He swallows. “Okay,” he says. “Sure.”
She smiles a little, the corners of her eyes deepening into little creases as her cheeks go round and then she’s there, her breath is warm and her lips are soft and they stick to his a little, and he kisses her back eagerly, hungry, wanting to impress her. He sucks on her bottom lip and pushes his tongue into her mouth and pulls her into him with his hand on the back of her neck—
“Wait, stop,” she says, pulling back. She’s smiling, her mouth open and her tongue showing a little just behind her bottom teeth, soft and pink. He feels suddenly cold and shivers a little, and as he does he realizes her hand is still on his forearm. She looks pleased, amused. Expectant.
“What is it?” he says, afraid to hear her answer. The show couple is in a fight now, and food is all over their fake New York apartment.
“Calm down. Take it slowly. We have all night,” she says, her eyes soft. She reaches up and runs her fingers through his hair, and then letting her hand fall to rest softly on his chest. “Your heart is racing,” she says. “Is this the first time…?” He nods, biting his tongue lightly, tensing his jaw.
“Take a deep breath,” she says. “I won’t run away.” She sits very still, and she doesn’t.
He breathes out, slowly.
She is there and she is pressed into him, her thigh next to his, hip to knee warm against his. Her one arm is around his shoulders and her other hand is pressed into his t-shirt, and he can feel his pulse pounding against her palm. And she smells like popcorn and butter and her hair smells like coffee from her afternoon in the café near the school and her skin is firmer than he thought it could be and softer than he expected, too.
He lowers his head and rests his forehead on her cheek, inhaling her smell. He kisses the crease under her chin and sinks to rest on her shoulder. She pulls her arms around him and brings him into her arms more wholly, and he sinks into the warmth of her. “Okay,” he says into her shoulder.
“Don’t run away, either,” she says, kissing his forehead.
“I won’t,” he says, and the laugh track for the show roars.
Hännah Ettinger is a storyteller on a quest.
They lay on the hardwood that night, side by side. Close, but not touching. Their heads resting on pillows he’d lifted from the futon. They looked like tapestry, but felt like Berber carpet, rough.
The small of her back ached, but she didn’t say a word. Knowing that if she moved, whatever was holding them there together would break.
She arched her neck slightly to look at the ceiling. He had painted over the textured drywall with orange, blue, and golden acrylics. An Aztec sun presided over the apartment.
He followed her stare and smiled.
“I always wanted to be a painter,” he said wistfully. But she knew he worked the second shift at 7-Eleven. Every day, he left work smelling like mint gum and clove cigarettes. Sometimes he smelled like beer, but he always put tea on when she came over, served from a black ceramic pot.
She looked back at the ceiling. Relaxed. Then closed her eyes in an attempt to look past it.
“Maybe God is up there,” she said to him, only half-joking.
“Well, it makes sense,” he said before sitting to light up. “Why wouldn’t God want to live above a sunshine painted ceiling?”
A.D. Stevens is a future cat lady whose short stories are fueled by English breakfast tea and folk music.
Caleb stands on the deck and the black water swirls hungrily beneath him. He is covered in a filth he at once does not recognize and knows to the core, dripping with it, oozing with it, so that he stands paralyzed, bile rising in his throat, fingers splayed and hands held out away from his body. Frantically, he looks at the shadow of Daniel sleeping, but he cannot call out. If he does, Daniel will see him like this.
He wants to throw himself in the river, to clean himself of the filth, to purify himself. The river is roiling, dark and powerful, but he cannot stand it, cannot stand being like this any longer. His jaw clenches and fear burrows into his bones as he topples forward, plummets, hits the water with an oily splash. The river closes around his face and mouth, tugging at his clothes and sucking him down, down to its tepid depths.
He coughs and desperately tries to wash himself clean, but the warm water pours into his mouth, carrying the filth with it. He claws at his skin, trying to wash the slime away, but the water just wraps around him and presses it in, forces it into his pores. The river curls around his body, calling to him, dragging him down. He whimpers, splashing as he tries to stay afloat, but his clothes are heavy and he coughs as they drag him under.
Strong, sure footsteps sound on the deck above and then Daniel is there, silhouetted against the stars, tall, lean, with long arms and rough hands, staring down with eyes hidden by shadow. He kneels, and reaches a strong brown hand down to the water.
Caleb thrashes away, frantically torn between his terror of the deep and his disgust at the thought of defiling Daniel’s clean, calloused skin with the filth that covers him.
But Daniel doesn’t even seem to see it. He leans out over the water and reaches for him, and just as Caleb feels the river take him he thrusts his hand out of the river and catches Daniel’s hand. Heat like fire and sunlight coils down his arm. The filth there dries and cracks on his skin, flaking off in dusty chunks that leave him clean underneath, and then Daniel begins to haul him out into the clean cool air.
Caleb awoke gasping and covered in sweat, his sheets drenched with it. The world was a tapestry of blacks, and the crowded trees that rose up like beasts from the shores of the great brown river made tangled silhouettes against the stars. The mosquito netting wafted lazy over him. Daniel snored gently beside him.
Moving carefully so as not to wake him, Caleb crept out from under the netting and walked to the back of the riverboat. His fingers trembled as he drew a cigarette out of its crumpled pack and lit it. Fireflies in the swamp blinked in green sparks, and the end of his cigarette flared orange as he inhaled. He let the smoke fill his lungs, rough and biting, and felt his nerves loosen.
The swamp seemed to thrum with some ancient and arcane power and he felt alive and terrified and full of voices. There was nothing out there for a hundred miles, the next port still two days away.
Caleb glanced back at the shadowed outline of the mosquito net and shivered again. A few nights ago they broke into a crate of cheap bourbon from upriver and had a bottle each. He didn’t remember much but he remembered a moment in the dark. The warmth of Daniel’s body next to his as they lay back and watched the stars pass. Daniel drunkenly stumbling to his feet and the dry rough feel of his skin as he tried to help Caleb up, too. The way they’d stay like that just a little longer than they needed to, hands clasped, standing unsteadily in the heavy dark night. Daniel’s eyes in the flickering light of the camp stove while he drunkenly tried to make eggs. Daniel loved eggs, especially when he drank, and that night his eyes were black and full of possibilities, with a question in them Caleb didn’t dare to understand.
A few days before that, when they were flush in a big river town, they cleaned up and went out on the town. Daniel had thrown an arm around Caleb’s shoulder as they walked and laughed and drank, and when the crowds pressed them close together, Daniel had smelled of sandalwood and bay leaves. Later, when they ended up in a brothel, Caleb sat on the stoop with a fifth of whiskey and smoked half a pack, watching the pink dawn creep up the darkened sky. The matron, motherly in silk and lace, gave him a strange kind look before patting him wordlessly on the arm and going in to see to her girls.
Caleb cleared his throat and flicked his cigarette into the river. Watched it die in the brown water. He stood swaying with the rocking of the boat and looked over his shoulder at the bedrolls, not wanting to go back to them. He considered bringing his sheet out here on the deck but the mosquitoes had already found him and so he walked back to the nets and climbed in. He paused, then moved his bedroll closer to the edge, away from Daniel. It felt like lying.
In his dream, he stands at the shore of a vast and timeless sea, toes in the sand, naked in the sun. His skin is dry and clear and the breeze is gentle. Strong brown arms circle him from behind in a caress, and there is warm naked skin against his back. He leans into it, smiling, eyes closing, his fingers rising to run along the arm and feel the downy softness of the hair there. Then the brown hands begin to move, and his nostrils are full of sandalwood and bay leaves.
Caleb opened his eyes to find Daniel watching him, a half smile curling his lips, squatting over the stove, frying eggs and smoking. For a moment, Caleb just looked back. Daniel’s faded eyes were cool and steady, and his hands were calloused and battered from fifteen river-lengths of bar fights, but his fingers were long and subtle, each movement precise and intentional.
“Thinking of a girl?” Daniel asked, and Caleb, flushed with shame, rolled onto his belly to hide his arousal.
“Lola?” Daniel frowned, considering. “Tits like that you just don’t see, outside of pictures. Think she liked you, too.”
Caleb groaned, and Daniel laughed. “Sarah? Evelyn?” He paused a moment, flipped his eggs. “Someone else?”
Caleb lost a fight with himself he didn’t know he was having and said, “Don’t remember.”
Daniel shrugged. “Breakfast’s ready. Coffee’s in the pot.”
“Thanks.” Caleb poured black coffee into his old tin mug and inhaled the steam off of it. Strong as hell, the way Daniel liked it. The way he was starting to like it too.
Daniel was watching him over the rim of his mug, looking at him through unruly strands of sun-bleached hair. Caleb met his eyes for a moment, then looked away. Daniel flicked open his pack with a thumbnail and leaned across the stove to offer it. Caleb nodded and pulled out a cigarette, touched it to the stove to light it, inhaled slowly, his lungs all muddy the way they were every morning.
“My father was a gambler,” Daniel said, lighting a smoke of his own and leaning back on his elbows, regarding Caleb and squinting against the sun, grinning around the cigarette clamped in his teeth. “He used to tell me about this win he had way upriver.” He took a drag, looked off into the swamp sliding by along the shore. “He was five hundred in the hole. Had maybe a hundred in cash and this old watch of my grandfather’s. All gold and silver. Son of a bitch carried it through the whole damn war.” He shook his head. “Prettiest damn thing you ever saw, way he tells it.”
Caleb frowned. “He lost it gambling?”
Daniel shook his head, blowing smoke out through his nostrils. “No.” He paused. “Well, not that time. That’s not the point. Listen.” He took another drag. “He’d just met my mother, see. Wanted to get her something real special, impress her. So he gets dealt this hand. Looks like a shit hand when he first sees it. But there’s an ace and a queen on the table and he’s got a king.”
“So he just says to himself, fuck it, and he goes all in. Everything he’s got left, right, watch on the table, his father’s watch that reminded him of home and family in the war or some shit.”
“Right? So the dealer lays down a card.” Daniel laid an imaginary card down face up next to the camp stove. “Jack.” He laid another one down. “Fucking ten.” His eyebrows raised, and he grinned. “Dad wins back his five hundred, keeps the watch, and ends up taking nine hundred home that night.”
“My point is, Dad always had this saying. Sometimes you got to go all in. Lay it all down and just fucking go.”
Caleb considered this. “Did that end up working for him?”
“Not the point.” Daniel stubbed out his cigarette on the deck and flicked it into the river. “He was right.” He stretched, long and lithe like a cat, and pushed himself up. “Just think about it next time you meet another Lola, is all I’m saying.” He eyed Caleb. “Or whoever. You know.”
He leaned over the edge and peered down into the water, scratched at the bristles on his chin. Daniel never could grow much of a beard. “We’ve got work to do,” he said.
A flood some weeks ago had clogged the river with drift, and during the night it had tangled up around the sides and front. Daniel stripped to the waist, and picked up one of the long pole-hooks, his back corded with tight muscles that caught the sun as he worked. Caleb admired that back. Sometimes, next to Daniel, he felt like a skinny kid, with his thick dark hair and skin that burned too easy. Daniel seemed like he was made for the river, like way back in his ancestry there was some naiad or river god or something. He briefly considered telling Daniel this, but Daniel didn’t read much.
Caleb picked up his own pole hook and got to work, jiggling chunks of wood tangled in weeds until they tore free from the mass and drifted away. It was slow work but it gave his mind some space and so he settled into it. Every so often he’d glance up at Daniel, and once when Caleb looked, Daniel was looking back, those damn cool eyes steady as hell.
By the afternoon, the drift was cleared and the river was widening. There were breaks in the swamp here and there, little rises of earth where shabby farms clung to the damp soil and weathered farmer’s wives watched them pass, impassive.
They made more coffee and laid out in the sun and smoked.
“You glad you went to school?” Daniel asked, after a while.
Caleb shrugged. “Ended up same place as you, didn’t I?”
“I guess.” Daniel frowned, the furrows in his brow shadowing his eyes. “I just …” he shook his head, glanced away. “Sometimes I’m jealous, is all. Seems like you can see more in the world if you go to school. Like you get some idea of how it all works.”
“Fuck if I know how any of it works,” Caleb said. He paused, tangling with words in his head. Something he wanted to say.
“You learn stories, don’t you, though?” Daniel was still looking off.
Caleb grunted. “Sure,” he said. “So do you.”
“Bar fights, whores, and crocodiles,” Daniel said, and lit a cigarette. “Few more trips downriver and you’ll have all those too.” He paused to inhale. “I mean big stories. Stories about kings and generals and shit.”
“Tell me a story, Caleb.”
Caleb tangled some more. Somehow all those stories of kings and generals seemed all dry and dusty next to Daniel’s tales of crocodiles and river-town whores, as dead and desiccated as the men they’d been about. He remembered caring about them once, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why. He opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head. “Don’t really know any good ones,” he said.
Daniel snorted softly, then lapsed into silence. Lazy flies crawled on their legs and arms and bellies. Finally, Daniel glanced at him. “Maybe you should start telling them more often then,” he said. He clapped Caleb on the shoulder and stood up to light the stove and make dinner.
They ate and then smoked some more and didn’t say much of nothing at all. The sun sank in a red sky upriver and then the sky turned purple before it turned black. The stars came out like blazing lanterns in a far black field.
When Daniel finally got up to turn in he paused and looked at Caleb. “You coming?”
“Maybe later,” Caleb said, looking away. “Not really tired.”
Daniel ran a hand through his hair, watching him for a long time. Finally, he shrugged. “Free country,” he said, and crawled into bed under the mosquito nets.
Caleb sat up and smoked until well after dark, watching the river pass, until he was sure Daniel must be asleep. Then, silent and soft, he pulled off his trousers and climbed in beside him. He paused, kneeling in his sheets, to look at Daniel.
Daniel moved. Took a long deep breath and rolled over, looked back, that same question in his eyes. Caleb’s breath caught and heat pricked up in his arms and neck and belly and he stopped, frozen.
“Well?” Daniel said, low.
Caleb just looked back, words stuck in his throat like drift on the river, hands trembling.
Daniel looked at him for a long, long time, then snorted softly and rolled back over, and in seconds he was snoring.
Caleb lowered himself shaking into his sheets and stared at Daniel’s back. He wanted to reach out and touch the brown skin there, to say something low and sure and true, to lean close and see if he still smelled of sandalwood under the sweat and river water. But he didn’t. The dark deck between them was a chasm.
Next morning, there were eggs cooling in the pan and Daniel was sitting at the far end of the riverboat, back turned to him, smoking. The outskirts of the port town slid past on shore, and on the morning breeze was the smell of the salt sea. Caleb pulled on his trousers and, for the first time in a week, his shirt. He looked at Daniel sitting there and thought about walking out there and sitting next to him. Maybe coming up with a story to tell about a general or a king. But he didn’t.
They moored up before noon, handing the riverboat off to the crew of men who would unload it and pole it back upriver, red bulging men who eyed them warily as they passed. The mud in the streets squelched up around their boots and clung in clumps to their feet as they walked to the purser’s office. The purser counted their pay, and when they stepped outside Daniel turned to him. He offered his hand. “Wish you’d told me that story,” he said.
Caleb hesitated, then shook. “Wish I had too,” he said, finally.
Daniel squinted up at the sun, then looked off toward the dockyards. “Well,” he said.
“Well,” Caleb said. “Maybe I’ll see you again on another trip down.”
“Maybe so.” Daniel swallowed, then clapped Caleb on the back, hard. “Take care of yourself.”
“You too,” Caleb said, but Daniel had already turned and was walking away. In seconds he was lost in the milling crowds of the dockyards. Caleb just stood there for a moment, watching the place he’d been, feeling the prickle on his skin where Daniel had clapped him, full of something he didn’t quite know how to feel. Like his cards were on the table, but they were all face down. There was a knot in his stomach that, when he touched it, brought to mind brown skin in the sunshine and the faint scent of sandalwood.
It was well late before Caleb found an inn, and well morning before he drifted into uneasy sleep.
In his dream, Caleb is covered in filth and neck deep in the hungry black river, fighting to stay above the surface, and as the water slides up over his face, he screams, hoping that somewhere in the darkness overhead, someone will be there to hear him.
Jacob East is an ex-homeschooler, ex-evangelical, and ex-theist trying to make his way in a world that’s bigger, stranger, and wilder than he ever thought possible.
When they find the papers on her bedside table, they thought it was a note. But it was just a letter.
Three colors of pen, three dates, and addendums littering the margins.
The man in the blue gloves picked it up and turned it over. “Jesus,” he said.
“What?” said the man going through the trash can next to the desk.
“My mom used to write letters like this,” said the first man.
The other man stood up and looked over the paper the first man held out. “Who’s she writing to?”
“This was under it,” he said, holding up an envelope postmarked in Wisconsin. “Some friend of hers, I guess.”
It is two o’clock in the afternoon. The mailman revs his engine and moves on to the next house. The neighbor’s dog finally stops barking and the sunlight leaves shadows under the trees in the front yard.
A woman sits on the thick pine boards of her kitchen table. Her worn clogs have fallen off and lie on the linoleum at drunken angles. Her thin fringe of bangs wilt on her forehead. She leans back on her palms on the tabletop, taking long, slow breaths, taking the air into her lungs as deeply as it will go. On the table is a single sheet of stationery, crammed full of curling letters in different colors of ink, and a pen lies on top of it.
Her eyes are fixed on a spot across the room. “One wild and beautiful life,” says the handwritten note on the fridge, next to a handful of children’s drawings and grocery store greeting cards shouting their congratulations.
The sister always sends postcards with snatches of poetry scrawled on the back sides. This one was from San Francisco. They haven’t spoken in three years, but the postcards still come.
So far away. But things would have to be very different.
She smiles. Life had been wild and beautiful. Before.
Now, it was going to be spectacular.
She takes slow, audible breaths, something she learned in a Lamaze class. She is counting the seconds, listening to the old analog clock above the fridge tick away, its plastic face lightly coated in sticky dust.
With each greedy breath she smells the damp, rich-dirt smell of a moldy bread heel sitting in the trash can. The bananas on top of the fridge, turning brown and patchy. The lingering scent of burned cheese from the quesadilla grease charred in the bottom of the cast iron frying pan on the stovetop. The scent of her own body, warm and clean and soft: baby powder deodorant, nursing hormones, and the faint prick of sweat under her bra band.
The breeze outside picks up the clean wet air from the window, which is set down an inch in its tracks over in the corner of the kitchen nook. The outside air cuts through the warmth of the stale kitchen and her breath catches when it hits her.
She closes her eyes. Just for a moment.
Then she sits up and slides off the edge of the table, fishing for her shoes one at a time and putting them back on, curling her toes with precision. She reaches for the letter and pen on the table and holds them together in one hand. She does not look at the sheet—she knows what it says.
June 6, 1994
This week is busy, and we’re on summer break. I’m going to be running a booth at the convention again this year, but Doug is asking me to scale back next year so I can focus on the kids more. The weather is warm and the crepe myrtle tree out back is in bloom. I think we’ll do swim team—sign-ups are tomorrow.
The boys are growing so quickly. I’ll send you a photo when we get their school shots back. How are the girls? Are you doing ballet with Valerie again next year? I’m trying to decide about Peter and gymnastics.
More later, must make dinner before Doug gets home. Chicken a la King tonight!
Oh I just found this! Sorry I haven’t sent it yet. I found a picture of the boys for you—it’s enclosed. We didn’t do swim team—too expensive this year. Gymnastics are out, too. We’re doing a day trip to Shenandoah, though, and the kids will get their ranger badges from the junior ranger program there. Have you looked into that program? It’s really fantastic. :)
They’re doing a sermon series at church on Streams in the Desert and I’m really thankful to have this right now. Spectacular book, especially right now. Been feeling so dry these days. The baby is due next month and I’m just so ready to be done. Doug is excited and the kids are too. He’s really busy with work—the committee meetings in the evenings are twice a week now. Maybe I’ll swap childcare with another mom at church so I can get some organizing done. Things just seem to pile up and I know it bothers him. I just have no energy.
It’s our anniversary! I was looking for Hailey’s paci on my desk and found this! I’ll have to send it. 13 years—can you believe it? We can’t do much this year, because of the baby. He is bringing home some ice cream and we’ll watch a movie.
Still feeling very very dry. Can’t sleep much—mastitis for the 2nd time in two weeks. Pray for renewal. Let’s talk soon.
She walks down the hall slowly, her hips shifting easily with each step, her skirt hem whispering on her bare calves. She passes half-open doors to children’s bedrooms, all empty, the shades drawn and the beds unmade. Books and toys layer the floors, archaeological evidence of this morning’s rumpus.
The hall linen closet is open; a couple of towels have tumbled out onto the floor. She picks them up and shoves them back on an overfull shelf, and shuts the door with a little shove of her hip. She passes the bathroom, but the door is closed and there is no noise coming from behind it. A tiny whisper of cold air hits her ankles from under the door, and she shivers.
The bedroom she shares with her husband is at the end of the hall. She rests her hand on the door handle so softly that it doesn’t shift and open, not yet.
She looks at the little picture frame on the wall next to the door. It holds a child’s writing paper with wide lines. The top half has stick figures in yellow and orange: a mother and a father smiling and holding hands with a smaller figure in red. Below, it reads:
Dear Mom an Dab
will you reab stories to me before beb?
She strokes away the dust on the bottom edge of the frame with her thumb and smiles, but her touch is fatigued and her smile is wan. She lets her hand weigh more heavily on the doorknob and the door swings open.
The bedroom is dark. The room smells warm and sweet and a little dusty. The blinds are drawn, the flannel sheets tangled, and the hall light illuminates a white plastic laundry hamper overflowing with socks and underwear and white men’s undershirts. Silky throw pillows are scattered all across the floor.
She slips her shoes off under the edge of the bed and eases slowly onto the mattress, her hips sinking into the fluffy coverlet bunched up on that side of the bed. She wiggles her shoulders to tuck one under a pillow, shifting until she has one arm hooked under it, and eases her head to rest on the smooth pillow top, facing the bedside table. She lets the papers drop to rest on the bedside table. The pen rolls off and onto the floor. She pulls the chain on the bedside lamp; the clock is lit up. 2:15.
“Wednesday,” she says to herself, slowly, savoring the syllables. “Wednesday. Right. It’s Wednesday.”
She rolls back onto the pillow and looks at the ceiling fan. Dust traces its edges in soft lines. The light bulbs are all burnt out. There is a strand of acrylic yarn hanging from the pull chain—twisting from blue to purple to yellow to green.
She reaches for a water bottle on her nightstand first, dropping it in her lap. Then she pulls a bottle of pills out of the nightstand drawer.
She looks at the label, then sets it back on the nightstand, and lets her arm flop back onto her chest. She slowly gropes her breasts, first one and then the other, scooping underneath and squeezing gently. She winces, and then sits up. Reaches an arm around and under her shirt, unclasping her bra. She shifts out of it, first one arm, then the other. She pulls the bra out of her shirtfront and throws it on the floor. Dark spots soak her shirt where it pulls taut over her distended nipples, and she glances down at them but ignores them. Exhaling, she falls back on the pillows and reaches again for the pill bottle.
A strand of her bangs catches her eyelash as she leans forward, and she blows at it, but her bangs flop back into her eye. She reaches up and strokes them back, and then opens the drawer again, groping for a bobby pin. Nothing.
Easing up from the bed again, she walks across the room to the door, nudging aside a sitz bath pan in her way. The rubber tubing snakes past a throw pillow and away under the bed.
Down the hall, she opens the bathroom door. The air is sharp and fresh in here, the window open. Curtains flutter with the air pressure change as she enters.
She does not look in the mirror, pulling open the hidden cabinet. She uses a little too much force and it shudders when it hits the corner wall. She takes out her toothpaste and toothbrush and closes the mirror.
The light catches her eye and she looks now, but not at herself. The tub is full of water and the air from the window makes it ripple and flash reflected light on the mirror, the ceiling, the wall.
She runs the water in the sink and begins to brush her teeth. Her scrubbing motions are brisk and distracted. She turns and faces the tub, leaning one hip against the countertop and grasping the corner.
This is beautiful. How it should be. One wild and beautiful life. Three wild and beautiful lives. No, four.
She turns back to the sink. Spit, rinse, swish. She wipes her mouth and then kneels at the tub. She leans over it, kissing the heads of each of the three small bodies face down in the water.
She stands up again. Her movements are heavy—she grips her knee and the towel rod to pull herself up.
She steps out, closing the door gently behind her. She walks back to the bedroom and shifts back into the pillows.
Easy does it.
She reaches for the pills and the water bottle again, and opens the bottle. She shakes the pills out onto her palm. She swallows them all, one at a time. Gulp, swish. Gulp, swish.
She leans back into the pillow and traces the dust on the ceiling fan again. I should clean that. Someday.
She reaches for the clock, pulling it close. 2:30. She closes her eyes and lets the clock drop back onto the table with a clatter.
I’m glad you called last night. Sorry to hear about the move—you guys just got settled there, I know. It’s hard to leave a church like that and your roses you just planted.
I keep forgetting to mail this, but maybe I’ll send it out in the mail on Wednesday. So tired and foggy—can’t remember things. Yesterday I couldn’t find the car after we finished grocery shopping.
I made extra casseroles this week so Doug has leftovers to take to work. Do you know of any good recipes for enchiladas? Mine always fall apart and are dry in the middle. I just can’t get it right.
Write when you can. I know you’re busy with the move and school and everything. The boys and Hailey just need so much from me. I feel bad asking Doug for help when he’s working all the time, but it’s hard to do it alone. So take your time.
When they find the papers, the front yard is quiet and no one has moved the Little Tikes car out of the bushes by the driveway yet. The mailman revs his engine and drops a letter from Wisconsin in the mailbox and pulls away.
Hännah Ettinger fell through a rabbit hole and came out 30 going on 17. She works in the publishing industry as a peon and loves every part of the business of telling and sharing good stories. For now, she lives in Los Angeles with an orange cat and weaves a web by moonlight. You can read her blog, watch her on YouTube, or follow her on Twitter @haettinger, where she mostly tweets about how hungry she is.
“Well, it’s true; I read it in the newspaper. The little old lady was crossing the highway and a car hit her.” Mrs. Mary Ellen Woodbine stopped long enough to cough, her fist balled over her mouth. She was slouched in the passenger seat of the car and her seatbelt was tight against her fleshy neck.
“That’s horrible.” Mrs. Goldport took her eyes off the narrow country road to flash a grimace at her passenger.
“I read it, too, Mom.” Carl Goldport spoke from the back seat; the ladies had just picked him up from elementary school after their women’s book club meeting.
Mrs. Goldport sniffed. “Why do they have to put things like that in the newspaper?”
“Well, it’s news, I guess. Anyway, I just hope I’m ready when it’s my time to go.”
“What did she look like?” Carl asked.
“Dead, I guess,” wheezed Mrs. Woodbine.
Mrs. Goldport pinched the ends of her lips in like she’d just swallowed lemon juice. “You don’t need to think about it, Carl.”
The car was swinging around a curve when a flash in the bushes caught Carl’s eye. His ears were filled with the screams of two women and four tires, and his body jolted forward with the thud of the car’s metal fender against the deer’s flesh and bone.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” Mrs. Goldport screamed.
“Stop the car! Stop the car!” Mrs. Woodbine screamed.
Carl was silent, and his heart felt like it was trying to crawl away and hide somewhere in the back of his chest.
The car stopped.
“I don’t want to see.” Mrs. Goldport said.
“We need to make sure it’s all right. Or dead,” said Mrs. Woodbine.
Carl felt like his heart had found the back of his ribs and was clambering up them toward his throat. He opened the door and tumbled out. He heard his feet crunch in the gravel and his mother’s “Get back in—“ cut off as he slammed the door behind him.
One glance toward the front of the car showed him the fender rumpled up like old laundry and the headlight dangling like a blind eye at the end of a wire. He looked back along the road and saw the twisted bundle of brown crushing a bush by the roadside. He stumbled toward it; his feet were heavy.
The car door opened behind him, and Carl began to run. He tripped and scraped his hands and was rubbing them when he saw the bundle was a doe. Its eyes were open and blood was dripping out of its nose. Carl thought dead things had their eyes closed, and his heart was at the back of his throat, so he kicked the deer in the ribs. It didn’t move. His heart began to crawl back down, and the deer’s eyes were the clouded black of swamp water. Carl kicked it again, in the gut, and a fresh throb of blood joined the red trail from the deer’s hindquarters.
“Stop that!” said Mrs. Woodbine. She had her gun in her hand.
“Its eyes are open,” said Carl.
“Doesn’t matter. She’s dead. Doesn’t even need this.” The gun went quickly back in her holster.
The other car door opened, and his mother’s voice came from it. “Carl, come here. You don’t need to see that.” She sounded like she was choking on her first cigarette. “It’s time to go.”
Carl heard Mrs. Woodbine grunt. “I guess it is,” she muttered. She put her hand on his shoulder, and they walked back to the truck to go home.
Colin Cutler was a homeschooled Air Force brat and graduate of Patrick Henry College who is now trying to figure out life as a jack of all music and writing trades and master of none. He currently lives in a small town in Virginia’s Loudoun Valley, learning a little bit about what it means to set down roots.
Fingers trembling, I handed my sketch of a galloping pony to my father, who examined it a few moments, and then threw it into the fire with a flourish.
I watched the sheet of paper float down onto the soft flames without surprise, though with no small amount of remorse, as its life wound itself through my imagination, like a solemn obituary.
First it had been stored at the place where my father worked, which I had never visited but pictured as a silent grey building with floors that were always freshly vacuumed. Then, my father had brought it home in boxes, and I had taken some to my desk by the window in my room. I had spent quite a long time sharpening pencils, winding the handle round and round in grinding circles, and then I had sifted through books until I found a photograph that I particularly liked. The one that I had chosen was of a white pony, running with apparent abandon across a green field flecked in wildflowers and bordered by soaring mountains. The whites of the pony’s eyes were faintly visible, his delicate nostrils flared, clods of dirt flung out behind his sharp hoofbeats. It wasn’t just the scene itself that had inspired me to draw this photo in particular: it was something else. There was something about the small horse, running recklessly through a mountain valley, that had struck something in me.
And then, nearing the end of this sheet of paper’s artistic life: my father catching me lingering over the horse-racing section in the newspaper, and his accusations of continuing my rebellious affair with horses, my forbidden lovers.
“You’ve been doodling about horses again, haven’t you?” he had asked, in a voice that managed to sound gently persuasive and furiously disappointed.
I’d caught my breath, partly in anger at him, partly in the heavy guilt of failing him yet again. Of course, I had been conjuring up “doodlings,” as he so unceremoniously called them. What a disgustingly silly word! It could never come close to describing the way I felt about my writings and notes and lists and drawings. I would have preferred “scholarly,” or “encyclopedic.” But there wasn’t even such a thing as a “doodle,” it was simply an impressionistic word meant to convey something through the absurdity of how it sounded. It sounded like laziness, like scribbles by a bored student during class. Laziness on paper.
Either that, or the sound a rooster made, strutting his self-proclaimed authority across the yard: cock-a-doodle-doo.
I hung my head and nodded mutely.
“Go and get your horse writings then, or whatever it is you’ve done,” my father had commanded airily, suddenly appearing to have lost interest, possessing the power to dole out punishments without investment.
Miserably, I had trudged up the stairs and strategically chosen this particular drawing. I had to bring something downstairs to my father, and I certainly wasn’t about to hand over one of my short stories. Drawings weren’t necessarily easier, but they were more dispensable: they could always be re-done in minutes, whereas the entire business of rewriting lost manuscripts was a heartbreaking affair. Even if you could recall every vital point and all the best lines of a story, abandoning the tale to the dusty gloom of Forgotten Books almost always seemed preferable to having to write the whole thing over.
And so, I took the picture of the running pony to my father, who examined it for a few moments. I felt a sudden spark of hope pound into my heartbeat: did he see how carefully I had outlined the horse’s silhouette? Was he noting the skillful shading of the animal’s muscles, coiled tightly in his shoulders, shiny with sweat? Did he see the hundreds of lines I had had to draw in order to capture the pony’s mane, whipped out behind him as he ran?
I had a gleeful vision of my father, astounded, proclaiming “Well, we can’t throw this one in the fire! This is really good! A masterpiece!” And, since anything he declared to be great was irrevocably so in the house, everyone would agree with him: my sisters and my brother, even my mother would gather round with joyous exclamations of praise. He would hang it on the fridge, where it would eventually grow crumpled, perhaps stained a bit due to the general mess of the kitchen, gloriously, tangibly loved!
But, as you already know, my father did not say any of this, and nor did my drawing ever reach the hallowed real estate of the fridge door.
The pony with his flying mane died there in the flames, shriveling in an instant for the hungry fire. In moments, he was only half a teaspoon of ash dust in the fireplace.
Fly free, I thought in farewell, a bit dramatically. But, I was a child who had been raised on the looming inevitability of heaven and hell, so for such a thought to come to me naturally wasn’t so remarkable.
With the sort of satisfaction that one feels after finding the last piece of a puzzle, I realized what had so appealed to me about the original photograph of the pony.
Ears forward, head up, he was clearly running of his own accord, just because it was what he wanted to do. Galloping forward without a fence in sight–in my imagination I saw the pony, no, I was the pony, running, running, running through the clear mountain air. Free.
On the outside, though, I was still just myself: Ainsley Peyton, age 10, a rebellious sinner who selfishly loved horses and books more than God. And whose drawing had just been burnt up.
On the outside, I didn’t cry or show the slightest disappointment over this event. I looked up at my father steadily, who was watching me closely, as if trying to measure what I would do.
I held his gaze levelly for a moment, and then beamed him a bright smile. “Praise God!” I said.
It was something that I heard adults say at church, that I heard my parents say. It was a hollow, cut-out phrase that I sensed was appropriate at the moment.
My little pony has been burnt up. Praise God.
Jordan Richardson grew up as the oldest of eight homeschooling children. She now lives in Miami, where she reads, writes, makes Thai food, and then reads some more.
Spring is coming to Tiryns in Argolis. My herdsmen have been laboring diligently, bringing in bales of wool, black and grey, as though cut from the storm clouds. My husband, Perseus the Gorgon-Slayer, has long been away on his own errands, so his mother Danae and I have taken charge of the household. In the absence of a king, we must be our own masters.
In this land across the sea, I face duties I was never prepared for. In my husband’s city, I must be queen to a people I do not know. Though carried here on the winged sandals of the Messenger, I still cannot speak the Greek tongue.
By the New Year, Danae has promised, I will have learned enough to lead the sacred rites of the Mother and Daughter. By the harvest time, I will be queen, and my own voice will command the city. Now though, I don’t speak; I listen. While I learn my new labors, I find peace in lessons common to the women of every house.
The storms of late winter have ended, so all throughout the hills, men are shearing sheep. Within houses great and small, women are carding, spinning, and weaving to keep our people clothed. Today, after donning the grey chiton of our household, I will pick up my carding comb and listen as the housemaids speak, letting my foreignness fall away in the familiar rhythm of women’s work.
But this morning, and every morning, must begin before the mirror. Seeing my face reflected in burnished bronze as my handmaid braids my hair, the gulf between my past and present has never been wider. With my honey-colored skin and night-dark hair and hooked eastern nose, I am nothing these hill-Greeks have ever seen. When I walk down statue-lined halls to the workroom, I hold all transfixed like the stone, staring at their barbarian queen, this foreign bird their wingfoot-stranger prince brought home.
Even the kind eyes of Danae sometimes weary me, though I know she understands. It is a hard thing to be visited by a rescuer from above. The rescued always shoulders the weight of the tales told about her, whatever truth they hold. I can’t make head or tail of all the stories woven around me in my lifetime, first as a princess in the East and now as the Gorgon-Slayer’s queen.
Amid the swirl of rumor, there is one truth I will not surrender. When I was brought here naked, Danae stood close to me in the chariot of Perseus, her warm hand upon my shoulder. Though brought as fit prizes to adorn my husband’s city, as fair faces of flesh to warm his palace of stone, Danae and I have become mother and daughter. I, who never hoped to know that love, who never could trust in other women to work alongside me.
With Cressida’s hands on my head, I remember my life in the House of Cedars, where I knew no grey. There, the faces of my maidens were averted, for everyone knew me as a daughter of the goddess Athirat, She Who Treads Out the Sea. In years past, my father Cepha told me, he had been her lover. But after my birth, before I saw her face, she departed, foretelling his rise to the heights. On the strength of this tale, he grew mighty in fame, becoming King of Tyre, and marrying Keziah, daughter of the high priest of Hadad, the Thunderer. She had little use for a daughter, spending long hours each day before her mirror, and long nights in the king’s banquet hall.
There was little love between us. I kept the city between my father’s wife and me, spending long hours upon the rocks by the shoreline, while she held sway at court. I still remember her voice, the way she commanded whole rooms of proud Tyrian men with a single word. I remember that she spared few kindnesses for me. Most of all, though, I recall her hungry eyes.
In Tyre, I was princess among women, destined for high places, but Keziah, the queen, my stepmother, craved for heights still higher.
Everything fell at midsummer of my fifteenth year, before the Autumn of the Endless Storm. After the bull had been slain and libations drunk, a singer from Caphtor of Minos approached our dais. With halting speech, he asked to sing of a son of the Thunderer, a monster-slayer who killed the sea god’s lover. My father assented, and the man chanted of a woman so terrifying she turned men’s eyes to stone.
When the singer had finished, the queen and I withdrew with our maidens and walked toward the women’s wing, where we kept our separate chambers. In a common room, just before our ways parted, my father’s wife turned to me and broke our silence.
“Daughter of the goddess, look at me and tell me what you see.”
She uncoiffed her brown hair and shook it out, then fixed her eyes on mine.
“You know what they say. I’m fairer than any sea-wife that Poseidon has. I’m more beautiful than you, kissed as you are by salt and sun. Though fate has made me mortal while you claim the gods’ blood, I tell you, princess, were Athirat naked in any man’s chamber, he’d choose my beauty over hers if I walked in.”
I gasped, but she only laughed.
“I’ve seen what you refuse to understand, daughter of the goddess. The work of women is in the beds of men and gods. The sooner you learn, the sooner you will rule. Dead gods rise and curse us if it isn’t so.”
Again she laughed, and walked down the halls leaving me alone with my silent maids.
After that night, a tempest gathered over Tyre. Billowing storm clouds and fearsome winds penned our ships to harbor. Swelling seas were not unheard of in autumn, I thought at first, but the rage buffeting the Rock was unlike any I’d experienced.
I had heard rumors of lands where the sea was a raging god of tempests, but in Tyre and in the Arams of the East, it was our welcome, our fruitful womb, our mother dragon, our vanquished foe. For the first time that autumn, I learned to fear the sea.
Winter came and the tempest did not relent. In the streets, our people clamored, desperate for the seasons’ rhythm to be set right. Food drew short as the sun waned, and talk spread of seizing my father to dash him against the stones.
In the House of Cedars, I oversaw the weaving of purple, still hopeful that the storm would abate, that my stepmother’s dare to the gods had not changed the way of the world.
Finally, in midwinter, the king consulted with the high priest of Hadad, father of the queen. In the viscera of the bull, they read the signs. Hands still dripping with gore, the king burst into my chambers.
“Daughter,” he said, fixing his gaze on mine, “we know now how to tame the sea.”
“Tell me, father, what work have the gods given you?”
Cepha averted his eyes.
“It is not I whom the gods have chosen. They demand recompense for the boasts of the queen: one flowering, untouched daughter in exchange for peace.”
How strange it is, I thought, and still am thinking, that gods impose their will with harm. How unjust it is that divine rage unmoors us from all that we know.
I had known no man. I had never married nor been given in marriage. To save my people, I would have to be given to the sea, would have to give up what I had never known. Casting my gaze over the waters beneath my window, where darkness stood over the face of the deeps, my heart understood then what Athirat knew as she wept over the body of Tammuz.
If ever she was my mother, surely she would save me, but if I perished, I would perish.
Looking directly into my father’s glistening eyes, I spoke, giving agreement with the command he spoke as if fated.
“I will go down to the depths. Only chain me to the seaward rock, so that I will not run.”
Cepha looked at me, marveling, and said only, “My daughter,” and I replied,
On the next morning, I bared my shoulders in the Greek fashion and shaded my eyes with kohl. I would perish in the garments and aspect of the bride I would never be.
My handmaids accompanied me on the road to the western shore. With a bronze chain, they wordlessly bound me and departed, with bowls of burning myrrh.
I waited with no sun to tell me the passing hours. About me, the winds howled. Above me, the clouds poured torrents. I waited for Athirat to come, to show her face at last and tread out the sea once more. After hours exposed, my waiting was vain. The storm raged on and the sea continued to exceed its course.
I wondered then if the gods take notice of my kind at all, or if in the end, I was no different from any of my handmaids, silently fulfilling the work she is bidden to do.
From the sky, lightning flashed. I heard a shout in the thunder, speaking in a language that I did not know but somehow understood.
“Fear not, maiden! I will save you.”
Tumbling through the sky was a ruddy man on winged sandals, carrying a blood-dripping bag. I did not reply. If he loosed me now, I knew that my people would die in the tempest.
“Keep still!” he said. “I’ll make you mine.”
His voice was a command I had to heed. From that moment, I have not recalled my name, taken from me by the careless words of one who wore the sandals of Hermes.
I saw the man standing before me, his figure set against the still-raging sea. He raked my chains with a great scythe, loosing me from the rock.
I wailed aloud, falling onto the sand. He swept me into his arm, into the sky.
“I have unchained you, thwarting your wicked father. Now you will be my bride.”
As we rose through the skies above Tyre, I saw my father and his wife standing with a company of soldiers on the high place below, utterly still. Looking closer, I realized that they were statues of stone. The man who loosed me was the hero of the singer’s tale, the Gorgon-Slayer, Perseus.
We flew swiftly west, soon escaping the storm. The wingfoot prince, Perseus, was taking me back to Greece, to his mother’s city, which soon he would conquer, avenging at last his dishonored name. Believing that any son of Danae was fated to kill him, her father had locked her in a tower with no doors.
But locks, Perseus said laughing, cannot bar Zeus. The Greek Thunderer had come upon Danae through a window, falling in his skybolt and filling her womb. After Perseus’ birth, her father had cast them both onto the sea to drown, but they had lived to wander. Perseus, after long travails, was coming home.
With the help of his divine siblings, he had travelled far to kill the Gorgon, wearing divine sandals that swayed hearers to his voice. In the bag at his side, he carried the monster’s head, which turned all who saw its face to stone. With it, he would rescue his mother and become a king in his own right, a king of great deeds, a hero.
We made landfall in the hard hills of Argolis, where a band of men lay waiting in the wild olives. Led by my husband, they seized the city. Perseus entered, draped in purple, with Danae and me behind him in his triumphal chariot. Soon after, we were married, and just as soon he left. No mere household can satisfy a son of Zeus, he said.
So Perseus left us to pursue new boasts, new conquests. I have carried his child these months; several of the handmaids show the signs as well, but I don’t speak of it. I will not shame them for a master who had his way with them, for I know what it is to have no say.
In the hill fort of Tiryns in Argolis, in my husband’s absence, I have taken the name Andromeda, “of men, the ruler.” When certain men voiced protest, Danae silenced them, and made the household our own. While her son goes out to play at manhood, she has taken the measure of the city and holds the reins, teaching me to see what she sees.
When the New Year comes, in the time of harvest, I hope to have enough Greek to go out into the hills and take part in the rites of the Mother and Daughter. I once might have hoped for a glimpse of Athirat, the mother I never met, but I know now that she will remain hidden, shrouded in mystery. What trust I have is in parents I can see, who hear my voice and answer.
Nevertheless, word comes now that the sea has calmed near Tyre. I have not seen it, but I believe. I know that I too have trod out the sea, unhindered by my savior from the sky.
The storm that seemed a boundless divine curse and the rescue that was my doom have brought me into a new life. From within our walls of stone, my mother and I are beginning to set right a kingdom neglected by men who leave to slake their thirst for deeds.
It is a quiet work we do in the household of the Gorgon-Slayer, but it is ours.
Connor Park is a writer and editor currently working at The Horn Book, a children’s literature review in Boston.
Who are you? That’s the question on everyone’s mind, isn’t it? That’s the question on yours. You think about it every day. What does your coffee order say about you? Cappucino, dry, double-shot? Worldly. No frills. Shit to do. What does the book you read on the subway say about you? Dostoevsky? Deep, but kinda cliched. T.S. Eliot’s out these days. You’re not homophobic, obviously, you’re just not a huge Walt Whitman fan. Maybe somebody black and female, preferably non-American. That one lady you keep meaning to read, if you could only remember how to pronounce her name. That’d look good on Twitter.
You’ve got a schedule, because like your coffee says, you’ve got shit to do. You get up early, but not, you know, too early. You’re not a fanatic. You have a coffee. You have a job, even though secretly sometimes you wonder if you’re just faking it. You hang out with friends and you post all of your drinks on Facebook because your parents were against that shit and fuck them and their narrow worldview. You used to swear because it made you edgy but now it’s a habit. You’ve got a nice body because you schedule a workout in right after work, but you don’t have any scars.
You’re one in a million. One of a million, at least. Disenchanted, disenfranchised, member of a million fractured little communities, but only like two that you actually care about. Mostly they’re online, but sometimes you go out for drinks. More tweeting. More Facebook photos. Take that, mom. For some reason knowing how to take the bus into town without checking the schedules or freaking out at the bus stop fills you with a quiet satisfaction. See? You think. I am an adult.
But then one day something comes along and jogs your schedule just a bit out of line. You have a couple weeks off so you decide to go to Europe. Boarding your flight, you scheme about which monument you’re going to have behind you in your Facebook cover photo. Or maybe a trendy sidewalk cafe, because the Parthenon is for middle-aged white people with cameras and loud accents. You plan a visit to the Archaeological Museum, because you studied Greek in high school and what else are you going to do with that?
You studied Greek, you explain to your seatmate as the plane taxis onto the runway, because you were raised in this super weird (you say, with an only slightly artificial chuckle) evangelical family that believes that the world is only six thousand years old and God pretty much flipped from genocide to universal love and back again a few times over the course of that, and that that was a totally reasonable thing for Him to do. You’ve told this story a million times, always in that half-embarrassed tone of voice, and somehow you’re still so convinced that it’s interesting that you’re once again put off by the fact that he makes some excuse about needing to go over some business plans before putting in his earphones. Goddammit. At least your friends understand you. The ones who aren’t still religious, anyway.
You transfer in Atlanta, then Amsterdam, following signs like a goddamn veteran, and that fills you with the same kind of pride that the bus does. Even though you know it’s gauche, you stare at the Parthenon out your window as you circle into Athens, and god if it isn’t just gorgeous. Maybe you’ll go up there, you know, because history and culture or whatever. You’ll figure out the tweet to go with the photo later.
There’s a hostel waiting for you, reserved months in advance, and you’ve got your directions printed out in your day bag, along with instructions for the taxi driver meticulously Google translated into Greek, which you’re somewhat gratified to find that you can somewhat kind of read. Maybe this’ll be easier than you thought.
Customs like a pro and bam first foreign entry in your passport since that missions trip to Mexico six years ago that you tell people was a “school trip” if they ask about the stamp. You step out of the airport and the sun is hot and the city smells like hot cement and exhaust fumes. There’s a taxi at the front of the rank and you toss in your pack, then rummage in your bag for the translation. The driver’s wearing aviators and holds a lit cigarette between two hairy knuckles. He’s shouting into a cellphone and the language he’s speaking is fast and greasy and unlike anything you’ve ever heard, let alone learned. So much for easy. You clear your throat and hold out the paper. He waves it away, flips the phone shut and says, “Where you want to go?”
You start trying to read the address and he shakes his head impatiently and grabs the directions. Nods sharply, pulls out with a screech of rubber and a blare of horns. Dives into traffic with gusto and a disconcerting habit of maintaining eye contact with you in the rear view mirror while he asks you increasingly personal questions and tells you about his uncle in New Jersey, all the while swerving around pedestrians, mopeds, and more timid vehicles, horn blaring the whole way.
“You like Greek girls?” he says, then curses and jerks on the wheel to avoid a cluster of women wearing headscarves and ankle-length brown dresses. He flips up his fingers at them and snaps out something you’re pretty sure isn’t a compliment. “Immigrants, eh?” he says, and shrugs, the way you’d shrug about an epidemic of influenza.
You get out of the car at the hostel and mumble something and you’re pretty sure you overpay him which you feel bad about because you’re also pretty sure he’s racist, and he flashes you a white grin, lights another cigarette, and roars off in a cloud of exhaust. You stand there for a second. The city is gray and blocky, all concrete and asphalt and rust. This is not the Greece you had in mind.
So you head into the hostel. But there’s been some kind of error and they didn’t get your reservation or canceled it or something, and they’re full for the night. You feel like your world is slipping out of your fingers. But then these two girls sitting in front of a laptop call you over.
They had the same problem, so they found a homestay online, a student with a flat close to the Archaeological Museum, who says she can host three people. If that’s not a blog post right there, you don’t know what is.
This girl’s place is actually pretty big by the standards of the cities you’re used to, with two giant glass doors that open onto a balcony overlooking a theater. She’s pretty cool too, with a razor wit and a pretty sexy Greek accent. And when you tell her your story, for the millionth and first time, she listens, laughs, and tells you that religion is a tool the government uses to oppress its people, and just one of many.
Her name’s Maria. She’s an honest-to-god Marxist, anarchist, whatever. Her grandma carried underground newspapers under the Nazi occupation and her father protested against the fascists when the tanks crashed through the gates of the Athens university in the seventies. And when you’re talking to her, you forget for a second to think about your blog, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or fucking Instagram.
The two girls you showed up with leave to hit the islands but you hang around because you’re kind of into Maria and you think maybe she’s kind of into you. She has this sort of unassuming bohemian quality about her that you and your friends back home only wish you could emulate. She sleeps till noon, drinks wine till late in the warm Greek nights, and all her friends have dreadlocks. One guy, Nico, has a crooked nose because, no shit, a cop tried to bash his face in with a riot stick at an anti-fascist rally last November.
The first night, after hours of wine and dancing, you get back at six in the morning and check Facebook. You stare at witty statuses and photos of friends for a long time, then turn off your phone. It’ll wait, you think, you’re tired.
The next day, you forget, and the day after that. You take pictures, but haven’t had time to go through them. You’ll get around to it sooner or later, you think, but tonight an anarchist band is playing in Exarchia. It’s your first time there. The parks have pretty much been given up on by the city, so the local students and hippies have turned them into huge communal gardens. The walls of every building are covered in street art. Maria points out the corner where the cops shot that kid a few years back. There are still portraits tacked to the bricks.
Her friends show up, Nico and his girlfriend, a few others. Over wine, you talk about yourself, your story, but you’re not telling the same story anymore. You’re not giving excuses; you’re not apologizing. You’re just talking. Halting and slow. Digging maybe at the truth under the front you maintain, because for the first time you can remember it hurts a little. Hurts like maybe you lost something after all, even if you’re not sure what it is, and this time, this time they listen. When you’re done your hands are shaking and you bum a cigarette and for once, you’re just smoking, not showing off or being edgy or whatever. It idly crosses your mind that this’d be the kind of thing you’d normally take a photo of, but you forgot your camera at home.
The second pitcher of wine is dwindling when from up the street comes a crack-SNAP like one of those big firecrackers that are illegal now, and a rising wave of shouting follows. Seconds later, a mass of people pound past, running the other direction. Nico jumps to his feet, his whole face just lighting up, his body suddenly lithe with energy, and the others scramble up after him, peering down the street. He shouts something in Greek. Maria turns to you, eyes a little wide. “Riot,” she says.
Nico forges into the crowd, moving against the flow, and the rest of you follow. Most of those retreating are families and older people, just trying to get out of the way, but the students sitting at the cafes along the street are standing up and joining the press the other way, towards the noise. The street bends and your heart flutters because up ahead is a sea of signs and raised fists, and beyond that, a solid line of cops in black, riot shields held in front of them in a wall, and behind that is a tank of a vehicle, with tiny windows covered in steel grates and, on top, a massive water cannon mounted on a swiveling turret. The roar from the crowd is a threat, a declaration of power.
As you watch, it trains on one of the closest protesters and lets loose in a jet that knocks the kid back on his ass, to a wave of anger from the crowd. Your eyes start to burn, like you just walked into a room where somebody cut twenty pounds of onions, and your throat catches. You start coughing, then notice that your friends have pulled up their shirts and scarves to cover their mouths. You gape for a second, then realize that Nico is watching you with a grin that’s visible even through his mask. He pulls a checkered headscarf out of a pocket and ties it snugly over your face, and it becomes a little easier to breathe.
Which is good, because a moment later, there’s a crack and a flash and a blossom of grey mist just overhead and your eyes start watering uncontrollably. The crowd scatters in a sudden wave, pushing back away from the line of cops, who are now moving forward and firing what look like paintball guns into the front lines. Maria grabs you by the hand and pulls you back and then you’re running, ducking as more of the tear gas grenades explode overhead. Nico is whooping like a madman.
The crowd amasses again two blocks later, behind a barricade cobbled together out of blocks of concrete, pieces of lumber, and three steel trash cans doused with gasoline and set on fire. Someone starts to chant, and in the glare of the streetlights a thousand fists are raised in unison, and down the street, the cops march on, gas masks and black uniforms making them all look the same.
Maria tells you in a breathless voice what the riot is about and you think, Jesus, really? They can do that here? And you wish for one longing instant that your government did shit like that so you could start a riot there — and then the cops are firing again. Not paintballs, but little plastic pellets full of tear gas that rip into the crowd and knock people down in wracking eye-watering spasms. Then one of them hits Nico’s girlfriend right in the face and she just drops, clutching her eyes and cursing and gasping and coughing while Nico crouches by her side.
Then the gas grenades are arcing overhead and the water canon opens up on the barricade and the big truck roars forward and line of cops just charges. The crowd breaks, running for all they’re worth. But Nico’s girl is still lying on the ground. Nico turns to glare at you, eyes fierce in the light of the burning bins, and cuts his hand at the cops the way a general might at an enemy line, and without a word, Maria picks up a chunk of concrete and hurls it with all of her might at the oncoming line, screaming a curse in Greek. A knot of people cluster around as Nico helps the wounded girl to her feet, holding her scarf over her mouth as more tear gas grenades crash in around you. She’s limping, barely able to walk, and the cops are coming closer, raising their riot guns as they do, shooting over the low cover of the barricade.
You just stand there, quivering, wide-eyed, coughing, like a goddamn rabbit in the goddamn headlights. Then your toe strikes something on the ground. You bend down to pick it up. It’s a chunk of cobblestone.
Suddenly your world spins. This isn’t Facebook. This isn’t a pithy tweet. This isn’t a goddamn travel shot on Instagram. You are no longer an onlooker. That is a fucking line of cops, and this is a fucking rock.
Nico’s girlfriend stumbles and he almost goes down with her, and the cops train their weapons on him.
Maria throws again, screaming defiance at the oncoming line and you’re just standing there like an idiot because you don’t know what’s happening and you’re just a fucking tourist. But then Maria’s looking for another rock and she sees the one you’re holding and flashes you a fierce little smile, takes it, throws it in a vicious low arc that clips one of the cops right across the mask and then they’re shouting back, close enough to hear now, firing at you in a thuk-thuk-thuk-thuk of gas pellets.
“Run!” Maria shouts, and grabs your hand and you retreat, block by block, and then the surge is back, the rioters charging en masse back down the street with glass bottles and rocks in hand, rolling two steel barrels before them gouting out flames from the end. They pour around you and then you’re free of the front. Maria gets under the girl’s other arm and Nico leads you all off to the side and into the labyrinthine backstreets of Exarchia.
The night is full of alcohol and dancing, raucous adrenaline-drenched toasts with every round, laughter and triumph and life. You’re kind of quiet, feeling like an outsider, but they’re not treating you like one, and at the end of it, it’s just you and Maria. What happens with her? You tell me. It’s your own fucking story.
You fly back two weeks later. You skip the gym for a couple days, because jet lag. You put off posting your photos to Facebook. Your Instagram followers probably think you’re dead by this point. You log in to Twitter one day to find that you’re not in anyone’s mentions; Twitter, it seems, gets on just fine without you.
Sometimes you still go out with your friends, but you don’t post pictures of your drinks anymore, and sometimes when they talk about how nobody really understands them or about whatever the latest intellectual or political thing of the day is, you find your mind drifting and you catch just the faintest hint of a sharp bite in your nostrils, and a stinging in your eyes.
One night a few months later you’re pretty drunk as you’re walking home with them and your toe hits something and you stop, peering down unsteadily. Your friends walk on a bit before they turn to see what you’ve found. You bend down to pick it up. It’s a rock.
They just stare at you, then start laughing. Come on, they say. You’re drunk. Let’s get you to bed.
You are drunk. You’ve got to give them that. But there’s something else, too. The world isn’t Facebook. It isn’t a pithy tweet, or a goddamn travel shot on Instagram. The world is out there. Beyond these million little fractured communities. The world is behind the power button on your computer and the switch on your phone, beyond your million-and-one carefully constructed stories you keep telling yourself about yourself while you’re standing next to people who don’t give a shit. The world is a fucking rock.
You wake up the next day maybe a bit later than you’re used to. Maybe you go to the gym. Maybe you don’t. But the world is off-kilter now. Something’s changed. Something serious. Maybe they’re right when they say that you can’t go home again.
What happens next, you ask? You tell me. It’s your own fucking story.
Tim Raveling grew up homeschooled, in a small town in rural Montana. He’s now traveling the world and learning, slowly, how to tell his own story, and how to make it true.