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The Sleepwalkers

by Sarah White

 

After the last gong of midnight in the Connors’ house, the stirrings would begin. Shifting silk blankets, the soft thump of the down comforter dropping to the carpet, the creak of loose floorboards beneath bare feet—the father, Neil Connor would rise in his candy-cane stripped pajamas and wander from his room down the hallway to the stairs, signaling the start of the night’s processional.

Feeling the lost warmth of her husband’s body, Carolyn would toss and turn, and eventually, rise and follow her usual path towards the den. On her way, she would pass her son Devlin’s room and, at sixteen, his destination was the kitchen where he could be found standing in front of the open refrigerator door mumbling about being hungry and soccer practice. This would set Maddy in motion, who usually fell asleep on the couch doing homework and watching The Real World. She would stand up and find her way to the kitchen table where she would sit and move her hands as if eating. The chair scraping across the linoleum floor would stir the youngest, Carl, who would meander from his room with his teddy bear in hand and make his way towards the bathroom and sit on the toilet, singing baby songs he and his mother made up when he was potty trained.

They would stir and rise, cross in front of each other, and finally, before the clock in the study could gong three o’clock, they would all be seated at the supper table with Maddy. Their conversations were spirited; there was laughter. Sometimes, when each was stressed from work or school, they would play games, in the darkness, moonlight shadowing their faces. Before morning, they would return to their bedrooms and the comfort of their beds and wake up to alarm clocks buzzing and showers spraying. It was the same each night.

In the morning, they would rush past each other, too distracted by their own lives for a “good morning” or a “have a good day at school,” slapping peanut butter onto bread, stuffing bags of chips into brown paper bags, pouring coffee into thermoses. During the day, they would not see each other. Neil worked late at the office, supposedly sorting through stacks of papers, pausing now and then to stare at the picture of his family on the edge of his desk, believing that as long as his children were happy, he could call himself happy. Carolyn volunteered at the hospital, the humane society, the historical society, led a book club at the local library, baked cookies for the Red Cross, and sometimes spent her evenings at the local community college pursuing a degree in French with Dr. Dewayne Picard, a single man with a French accent most people believed he faked.  He “tutored” Carolyn after class at his one bedroom apartment because she said she wanted a taste of real life.

Neil and Carolyn’s children kept busy schedules, too. Devlin had soccer practice, then basketball practice, then baseball practice, depending upon the season. He went out to parties with his teammates or to the movies, or else hung out with his friend Bill “playing video games.” This is what he told his parents about his relationship with Bill, though recently, they’d started playing these games in Bill’s bed where they would cuddle and occasionally make out. Maddy, so like her mother, was captain of the French and German clubs, worked on the yearbook, organized bake sales for the poor, and sang in the church choir. She spread herself so thin because that way she didn’t have to exist, only as a collage of duties. Lately, and it took a lot of practice, she would look into the mirror in the morning and not see herself.  At first, she saw a blur of colors—beige, brown—but, now, she saw nothing. Carl was too young for anything but kindergarten and crayons and spending the afternoons with the babysitter, then evenings at his grandparents’ house when his mother didn’t take him with her. Over the last few months, he’d developed a penchant for eating insects, flies mostly because they could be found on window sills where he spent a great deal of time gazing out at the street.  He wanted to move up to crickets because they were big and black and crackled whenever he crunched them.

Most nights, the Connors were too busy to eat dinner together; they had lives to live.

 

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Of course, Devlin could never have told his parents about how he and Bill had stopped playing video games. He could never tell them about the afternoon when he kissed Bill for the first time after wrestling on Bill’s living room floor, or how they had started to spend their time in Bill’s bed, touching. He could never tell them that he was afraid he was falling in love with Bill. As far as they knew, he was dating a cheerleader who bleached her hair and obsessed about proms and who was wearing what brand names and how she wanted to get good grades because she wanted to get into a prestigious medical school someday. In the middle of the night, when the Connors met at the kitchen table, he could never tell them that he spent hours crying and one time slept half the night with a plastic bag over his head hoping that he could drift off and stop feeling the way he felt.

 

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No one knows for sure how long the Connors could’ve gone on sleepwalking. Neil claimed that his own family did it for years—Thanksgiving, when the families used to gather at his parents’ house and stay overnight, would have sisters bumping into brothers on the stairs, paunchy aunts colliding in the narrow kitchen, uncles collecting around blackened television sets shouting the names of sports’ teams, cousins bouncing an invisible basketball outside in the driveway for a night game of “horse,” the occasional errant in-laws meeting together in bathroom showers and closets, conveniently excusing their “frisky” rendezvous on sleepwalking. The next day at dinner the family would sit and eat their turkey and stuffing, golden potatoes, and rolls, glancing at their watches and wishing for the time when they could leave. It was the same ritual each year until Neil’s mother died of a stroke, and his father was placed in a nursing home, and the families went their separate ways. They all still sent each other Christmas cards when they remembered.

“Sleepwalking,” Neil told his family, “was how my grandpa became a war hero. He wandered out of a foxhole one night, walked across the battlefield with bombs exploding on all sides, shot three Nazis, then tossed a grenade at a crow’s nest. Didn’t get a scratch on him.  Who knows what would’ve happened if he’d been awake?”

At least once a year, at the dinner table, the streetlight glowing on his greying hair, Neil would tell the same story, and the rest of the family would nod and offer lazy laughs, sitting in their pajamas and nightgowns, performing their nightly pantomime of passing dishes or shaking their hands as if they held dice.

“Good story, Dad,” Devlin might slur, or maybe Maddy.

“Nice story, honey,” Carolyn would add, leaning towards Carl and absently stroking his hair. The little boy would smile and wiggle his toes, cradle his teddy bear.

Carolyn never quite knew the next morning if she’d actually sleepwalked or if she’d had a lucid dream or only pretended to be asleep. She could never tell Neil that she might’ve been awake at the dinner table, the sole member of the family to know about these narcoleptic gatherings. Either way, she would sit at the kitchen table each night and wish her family could be as awake as she wanted to feel.

 

š

 

 

If not for a snowy St. Patrick’s Day, it was entirely possible that the Connors could’ve gone on sleepwalking for years. The night before Carolyn had agreed to run off with Dr. Dewayne Picard—she was going to go with him to France, live in Paris, sip the finest Bordeaux and hold his hand while they sauntered along the banks of the San Elysees. She had already written a note to her children explaining her reasons and telling them how they could reach her. If not for that snowy St. Patrick’s Day, it was possible that Carolyn Connor would’ve left her family for the dream of a life in Paris.

That night, after the last gong of midnight, when the phone’s shrill ring echoed throughout the ranch-style house, Neil woke in the garage sitting in his BMW, Maddy jumped up startled from the supper table, Carl raced out of the bathroom and banged his head on the stand in the hall. Snow flurries melted against Devlin’s bedroom window. The streetlight outside overwhelmed the moonlight that pierced the blinds. Carolyn found herself standing in Devlin’s room staring at his empty bed, wondering if she’d ever been to sleep that night.

She put her hand on her chest and sat down on the edge of the bed, waiting for Carl to come crying into her arms. She listened to Neil’s mumbling as he spoke on the phone and stopped breathing when she heard Neil’s footsteps creaked up the stairs and down the hall.

“He lost control of his car,” Neil reported, his silhouette in the doorway of Devlin’s room.

“Why did he sneak out?” Carolyn asked. “He’s never sneaked out before.” Carl held his head and sobbed in her lap.

“Probably out with his friend Bill,” Maddy said. She stood behind her father, her arms crossed, leaning against the wall of professional family pictures they took every year at Christmas—each of them smiling, wearing red sweaters and green turtlenecks.

“Doing what with Bill?” Carolyn asked.

Maddy shook her head.

“He drove into a tree,” Neil continued.

“And?” Carolyn asked. “When’s he coming home?”

Neil rubbed hard at his eyes. “Not for a while.”

His silhouette overshadowed Carolyn and Carl as he stepped into the hallway.

Carl sobbed, lifted his head from his mother’s lap, “But, is he dead?”

Maddy turned to her father.

“No,” Neil answered.

“Neil,” Carolyn said. She stroked Carl’s hair, stared down at the red football jersey and socks strewn across the floor. “What happened? Did they say?”

Neil Connor scratched his chin and sighed. “The police said that there weren’t any tire marks.”

“He didn’t see the tree?” Carolyn asked. “Is he awake now?”

Neil took a deep breath. “No, he’s in a coma.”

Carolyn held tighter to Carol, while Maddy watched her father disappear into the master bedroom.

“You should go, too,” Maddy said. “We should all be there in case—“

“No,” Carolyn said. “I’ll stay here with you kids.” She petted Carl’s hair. “You should rest.”

“How can we sleep now?” Maddy asked.

“Then do homework,” Carolyn replied.

She looked at the trophies lined up on Devlin’s bookshelf, the ribbons curled and interwoven on his bulletin board. On the walls, he had posters of athletes—a young male pop star hung above his bed. The scent of cheap cologne hung sharp in the air, and the musty smell of old tobacco lingered beneath it. As far as Carolyn knew, Devlin didn’t smoke. His computer had been switched off, as it he hadn’t expected to return home for a while. Usually, his screensaver scrolled the same message over and over: “To Be Or Not To Be, That Is The Question.” Last year in English, he had read Hamlet and won the lead in the school’s production of the play. Even though she knew he had only been acting, Carolyn still held her breath and looked away when he did his death scene, his friend Bill as Horatio held her son’s head in his lap. Good night, Sweet Prince, and a kiss on the cheek.

Carolyn brushed back Carl’s hair from his forehead and frowned.

“Let’s get you an icepack for that lump,” she said.

Carl wiped the back of his hand under his nose. “Will Devlin die?”

She gave his hand a reflexive squeeze and led him down the hallway to the bathroom.

“No, honey, he’s just asleep,” she answered.

“Why did he drive into a tree?” Carl asked.

“I don’t know,” Carolyn replied.

She put the icepack on Carl’s forehead.

“Let’s tuck you back into bed,” she whispered. “Everything will be clearer in the morning.”

He took hold of the icepack and nodded. They walked down the hall, past Maddy’s room where she sat reading at her desk and casting sideways glances at her mirror, past the master bedroom with the curtains drawn and Neil’s peppermint stick pajamas tossed onto the bed, and they stopped at Carl’s room with the blue walls and trucks and little action figures scattered across the floor.  Under the bed, where his mother couldn’t see, were cricket carcasses, wings uneaten. His bed didn’t look slept in—the blankets still neat and taut, his teddy bear propped against the pillows.

“Get some sleep,” Carolyn said, and flicked off the lights. She took a deep breath and wandered down the hallway to her own bedroom where she sat at her dresser and stared at herself in the mirror. She wiped her eyes, plucked at grey hairs, then walked over and crawled under the bed covers, pulling the comforter around her chin; other than a couple of visits to Devlin at the hospital, she would not get out of bed again for another two weeks.

 

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For the weeks her mother was in bed, the duties of cooking, doing laundry, and babysitting Carl fell to Maddy. She and Carl would sit at the dinner table and eat their meals of macaroni and cheese, or hot dogs and soup, while Carolyn lay in bed, drinking the occasional cup of tea or nibbling on the brownies the pastor’s wife brought over for the kids. Neil went to work and would leave early to spend the evenings at the hospital at Devlin’s bedside. He would sit in the bright orange chair, listening to the beep, beep, beep of the heart monitor, and counting each squeak of the nurses’ footsteps down the hallway. He couldn’t sleep—too burdened by his children’s unhappiness. If they weren’t happy, his life had been for nothing.

When Neil did come home for a few hours, there would be tense conversations held in the master bedroom about Devlin’s “accident,” as his suicide attempt was called—anti-depressants (but will they help), mental hospitals (our son’s not crazy) and family therapy (our family is fine…it was an accident, he couldn’t see clearly).

“You have to get up,” Neil would say.

“Why?” Carolyn would answer.

Doors would slam; blame would be passed back and forth until both of them ended up in tears, and Maddy and Carl would sit in the stairwell, a step apart, under the framed family pictures of their ancestors, waiting for life to settle down and things to return to the way they used to be.

 

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Devlin woke from his coma and spent the next three months in a mental hospital—the “unit” they called it, happily leaving off the unpleasant adjective. Carolyn moved from her bed to her easy chair in the den; the door bell and phone rang nonstop with the ignored concerns of friends and pseudo-friends she had met through all of her organizations.  Dr. Dewayne Picard stopped by the house once, a couple of days after Devlin’s “accident” made the newspaper. He’d brought a basket of lotuses, but Carolyn wouldn’t get up to see him. Dreams seemed all the more like dreams in the light of her son’s suicide attempt. So, Dr. Picard left the flowers on the doorstep, with only the word “adieu” on the card. Maddy understood why he came by but never mentioned it.  In the meanwhile, she volunteered for so many clubs and projects she was rarely home except at night, and even then, some nights, her light never went off; Neil stayed later and later at the office, often taking extended business trips that kept him away from home for weeks; and Carl would pass hours at a time lost in his crayon drawings of crickets, spiders, and locusts.

And, at the mental hospital, Devlin grew a beard, smoked cigarettes in front of his parents, carried an air of smugness at being the cause of his family’s changes. At least they all had to stop and talk about what happened, he thought. He took enough milligrams of anti-depressants each day that he was allowed to return home, though his car keys were taken away from him, and Maddy slept with a ball bat, just in case.

“If he’s not afraid to do that to himself, what won’t he be afraid to do to us?” she asked Carl, who sat at the dinner table swinging his feet, humming, drawing a picture of a yellow sun and purple sky and a big, black cricket.

Devlin stayed in bed until mid-morning, gained an extra thirty pounds that softened his athletic physique, and never spoke to Bill anymore. His parents considered it an accomplishment when he would come downstairs and pour himself a glass of orange juice, or at least sit in a lawn chair on the deck and smoke, not even caring that he wasn’t wearing a robe and sometimes sat there in a pair of frayed boxers and yellowed t-shirt.  He walked through his days at school, attended his classes and smiled bemused whenever people told him to be more careful driving. He walked through the halls at church and smiled at people who had hosted prayer vigils for him. He wore his suit and genuflected on cue. Whenever the minister would give a rousing altar call, he would walk up the aisle to sniffles and sobs, and kneel down to receive the body of Christ and repent. But, he spent his nights in bed, too drugged into being normal to rise out of bed and sleepwalk.  None of his family could during this time. Most nights, the only sounds were in the kitchen where Carolyn cooked meals that everyone was too distracted to eat.

And, nobody paid attention that Maddy barely ate anymore, or that Carl had begun sneaking Devlin’s cigarettes and had started collecting locusts as snacks, or that Neil would stumble home late at night, his fly unzipped, the smell of Jack Daniels seeping through his skin, or that Carolyn never left the house anymore, especially not to take French classes.  She would scrub and rescrub the mirrors and windows in the house, trailing the vacuum cleaner behind her wherever she went.

 

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They might’ve gone on like that for years, but they were growing tired of going through their days feeling awake and raw, and Time has a way of lulling its travelers with its steady ticking. So, on a chilly August night, the windows open but the furnace billowing the curtains with musty warmth, when the clock in the study gonged midnight, the night’s processional began again. The resonance of the gongs absorbed the chirping cricket pacing the downstairs bathroom floor, and the flutter of a stranded moth clicking against the television which showed nothing but static. Upstairs, the down comforter thumped to the carpeting and the floorboards in the hallway creaked with Neil Connor’s footsteps as he wandered towards the staircase. He bumped into the wall, knocked the family pictures askew, and stumbled to the living room on his way to the dining room table. His oxford shirt, loosened at the collar, glowed in the moonlight. He scooted out the chair at the head of the table and sat down, folded his hands, and stared into the darkness. Before the last gong, Carolyn kicked off her grandmother’s afghan and rose from her easy chair in the den. Her sweat suit had dirt patches on the knees from where she had spent the afternoon scrubbing the basement’s cement floor. She still wore her yellow latex gloves as she found her way into the dining room and joined her husband at the table, sitting at the opposite end, a cross-stitch of the 23rd Psalm above her right shoulder, a bowl of plastic fruit in the middle of the table. She sat there, as much asleep as she had ever been.

 

Perhaps it was the furnace vents rattling to a stop that stirred Maddy from her place on the couch—the whiteness of the television screen flickered across her sunken cheeks. Her biology book dropped from her lap, and a few perfect quizzes scattered out of the spine. Her hooded sweatshirt hung over her hips and sagging jeans.  She plopped into her seat at the table. It might’ve been the shrill chirp of the cricket that tickled Carl’s ears, rousing him enough to crawl off his bed and into the hallway. He plodded down the stairs, tobacco smoke still clinging to his fingertips, and he meandered into the dining room to join the rest of the family.

The four of them sat shadowed and quiet around the table, faces too darkened to see. Moonlight reflected off the freshly dusted table, the smell of an uneaten meal of roast, potatoes, and carrots drifting from the kitchen, mingling with the hint of mildew rising from the furnace vents and the bleach Carolyn had used that afternoon to wash the walls.

“Should we start?” Neil slurred.

“Not hungry,” Maddy mumbled.

Carolyn leaned forwards and straightened the doily in the center of the table. “Bridge or Hearts,” she asked.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Carl sang to himself, but stayed seated.

“It’s too cold to play,” Neil said.

“I’m not cold,” Maddy replied.

“Haven’t played ‘Life’ in a while,” Carolyn whispered.

“Don’t remember how to play,” Carl squirmed.

“I got 100 on my Calculus test,” Maddy said.

“I got a raise,” Neil said.

Carolyn blew a few particles of dust off the tabletop. “We could eat off the basement floor.”

“My teacher yelled at me today.” Carl wiggled and coughed. “Stop poking your pencil at Julie, Carl.” He shook his finger at the bowl of plastic fruit.

They fell silent—the trees outside rustled in a gust of chilly night air. Headlights glared through the window as a car swung into the driveway. The thud of a car door and footsteps on the porch made each of them sit quietly, waiting. The front door opened and closed. Each of them leaned back against their chairs, and suddenly, before any of them could open their mouths to speak again, the harsh overhead light switched on. They squinted, blinked, stared at each other through the pain in their eyes. They saw the grey in Neil’s hair, the darkened circles around his eyes, his three-day-old beard, tie slung around his neck, the unhappiness lining his face; they saw Carolyn, pale and with make-up smeared from when she put it on days ago, her yellow gloves covering hands scabbed and scarred from chemicals; they saw Maddy whose hair had begun to thin, her face hollow from eating only a carrot stick a day, how she was slowly ceasing to exist; they saw Carl whose teeth had a slight nicotine stain, his little boy eyes dull, the forefinger on his right hand stained from the crayons he used to draw picture after picture, a green stain on his collar from one of the locusts he had eaten. None of them spoke, and by the time they turned to look at the doorway, Devlin was gone, lost long ago, and none of them were sure where to look for him, or if they had simply dreamed the whole thing, until they saw his empty chair at the table—empty except for Carl’s teddy bear sitting there crooked with its brown velvet face tilted and expectant.

 

Sarah White teaches English at Purdue University North Central.  She maintains a blog at redroom.com, as well as a personal blog.  Most of her publication credits have been in regional and online publications. 

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Stray

by David Corbett

 

Christmas patrons thronged the bank. Outside, rain fell, third day running.

            You'd think all these bodies would warm things up, Marybeth thought, but no. Still, there were festive touches about—harp and dulcimer carols piping softly in the background, twirled bunting draping the walls, ribboned wreaths the size of tires. She caught a hint of pine, drifted into memory. Sacrament of childhood, she thought, this time of year.

            She stood in the teller queue, trembling. Be calm, she told herself. Calm as a mutt by a midday fire—Jamie's turn of phrase. He had so many expressions, most of a darker sort: vivid as a cat's ass, face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle, cold as my dear mother's heart. That bitter turn of mind, so Celtic, but that was why she loved him.

            From the very start the attraction lay precisely in what others might call his failures. Success held little appeal for her. Always something brittle about success, something garish, too lucky. She preferred her men wounded but resolved. Solemn determination had greater purchase in her heart than confidence. A man who knew the edge was only a footfall away and who was thinking of how to grab you back from it, protect you, not because he was scared but because he’d made that fall himself once or twice, loved you too much to wish it on you—that was the fella for her.

            The queue advanced a step, everyone trudged forward, squeaky boots, soggy shoes. Not much in the way of merry in the faces, she thought, eyeing the others in line. Despite herself, she glanced over her shoulder at the guard near the door. He was hardly more than a boy, his uniform draped on his bone-thin body like a hand-me-down on a rack—a Latino, face dotted with acne, hair gelled into a black shiny wave frozen in time, thumbs tucked in his belt—no gun, just pepper spray. Good, she supposed, feeling a bit less afraid.

            Sensing her gaze, perhaps, he turned toward her and met her eyes. Unable to help herself, she smiled. He returned a smile of his own, self-effacing and slack, then reconsidered, averting his face toward the door, but in that instant she detected not one of those sullen, antsy, me-first young men she so despised and feared. Instead she caught a little of the lonely, the lost.

            What is it with me, she thought, and strays?

            She looked down at the purse she'd brought, one of those shapeless sack-like vinyl things you could get so cheap along Market Street, the Salvation Army bells ringing all around you as you browsed the vendor racks and stalls. Would it be big enough, she wondered, was it too big? She nudged it with her foot along the floor as the line inched ahead.

            She'd met Jamie two Januarys past, at the Horn & Whistle, her neighborhood pub, the holidays well behind them, just the bleak cold wind and metal-gray sky, the empty promise of a new year. But then there he was, and promise beckoned.

            He was a charmer, yes, the sandy-colored hair, the milky Irish skin and rust-brown freckles, the chesty laugh and the endless string of slightly cruel jokes. A pint of stout, that's what he ordered for her, like a black liquor soup, topped with creamy foam. She nursed it as they got acquainted, she a teacher at city college, remedial composition—a tragedy, how poorly most young people read and wrote these days—and he was in sales, something involving computers, she never did grasp it completely.

            Ireland was the new promised land for the digerati then, and he'd worked in Dublin for a while, earned his degrees and certificates, then come over with a cousin, acquired one of those visas Silicon Valley was sponsoring right and left a decade back. He soon tired of the whole mega-corporate slog, went off with a few cohorts to start their own venture, a freelance affair, striking that right balance, enough coin on hand to keep the wolves at bay, enough freedom in his heart to feel like a man. There were setbacks, sure, and he told her about them and they broke her heart. He knew what it meant to fail, then pick himself up, have a pint, share a laugh, get on with it. Leave self-pity to the Russians and Mexicans, he said. Dreams get dashed so new dreams can take their place. They drank to dreams. And she knew in the pit of her heart they would marry.

            A mere four weeks later, they did. Valentine's Day. The courthouse, two strangers for witnesses.

            She suddenly found herself at the head of the queue, and a queasy lightheadedness came over her. She bit back the nausea, dabbed at her face with the back of her wool glove.

            The house was Jamie's idea. No better investment than property, he'd said, San Francisco property in particular. What about the recession, she'd said, and he'd answered that's why the timing's perfect. Buy low, sell dear. There's still no way we can manage it, she'd told him, but he'd taken rein of the finances—a husband's mortal obligation, his words—and he knew a man who knew a man and said trust me and how could she not? And then there they were, a two-bedroom bungalow bordering Noe Valley, a fixer-upper for sure, but home.

            She left her job with its benefits to manage the most essential repairs, emptied her savings to pay for them—the kitchen and bath had to be gutted, rebuilt from the floor joists up, so much dry rot, and she blamed the ache in her joints on all the physical labor, pitching in with the workers—while Jamie, suit and tie and freshly shined shoes, went out each day to slay the beast. Solemn determination. Protecting her.

            It took until Thanksgiving for him to confess the truth. There was no job, hadn't been for over a year. He just rode the bus from one end of the city to the other, or sometimes he'd get on the train, ride down to San Jose or out to Walnut Creek, the suburban outposts, all those majestic hills and bustling malls, all the traffic and the nouveau riche. The mortgage lender, in truth a den of crooks Marybeth could hardly believe existed, filed their notices, moved to foreclose and evict—a scam from the start, and she wondered if Jamie had been duped or complicit. Regardless, two days after the last papers were served, she had her consult, learned her joint aches were not arthritis but something much worse.

            The teller near the end came free and beckoned Marybeth forward. She reached down, snatched up the giant floppy purse, trundled over. The teller said something festive in greeting but Marybeth barely heard, it was like she was underwater, rustling around in the bag for the envelope and remembering what Jamie had said the day he'd left: You deserve someone better, I can only drag you down, I'm nothing, a wretch, a failure. I know, she'd thought, I'm a lover of failures, it's my curse, wanting to tell him—I have cancer, it's in my bone marrow—but the words wouldn't come.

            Finally, she felt it, the card, brought it out and, hand shaking as though from palsy, slipped it across the counter to the teller. A plump girl, heavy-lidded eyes, flat nose, chestnut hair. She lifted the flap on the envelope, withdrew the Christmas card, inside of which Marybeth had written: I have a gun. Do not trigger the alarm or make a sound. Give me all the money in your cashier tray or I will shoot, one-by-one, the customers standing in line behind me.

            Her heart bucked inside her chest as she hefted the huge bag onto the counter for the teller to fill. A note job, they called it—she'd get consideration for not actually having a weapon when they arrested her. Glancing about to see who was staring—no one, it turned out, not yet—she listened to the fluttery thump of the banded stacks of bills as the teller stuffed them inside the purse. Then a sudden flare of pain shot through her, ripping through her bones like black fire. No, she thought, not now, and she steadied herself, grabbed the purse, then glanced at the teller whose eyes were scared and resentful.

            "I'm sorry," Marybeth whispered as she turned away, shouldering the purse, surprised at its toppling weight, then staggered toward the young Latino guard. A few of the other patrons finally seemed aware of what had happened, there were whispers and stares but Marybeth paid no heed. Her eyes remained fixed on the guard with his stiff wavelike hair, his expression first puzzled then alarmed as she plodded closer.

            "I've just stolen this." Grimacing from the pain, she dropped the purse at his feet. They both stared at it. "You need to arrest me, or call the police, if that's how it's done."

            Last week, in a magazine that someone had left behind in the bus shelter, she'd read that women could get chemotherapy in prison. And a bank robbery meant federal custody, better care. By no means good care, she thought, but a small hope is still hope, almost collapsing as the young guard glanced down into the bag, saw the money, then looked back at her, panic in his eyes. So young, she thought. Christmas is for the young.

            "I'm not crazy." Her voice was clenched. "Sick, yes, you can probably tell. But not mad."

            He still seemed paralyzed. Fearing she might faint before he understood, she took his hand, clutched it tight. So helpless, she thought, a stray. "Please," she said softly. "Help me."

 

David Corbett is a poet, a screenwriter, and the author of four novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime (a New York Times Notable Book), Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar, and named a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book), and 2010's Do They Know I’m Running? ("a rich, hard-hitting epic"—Publisher's Weekly, starred review). His work is often compared to that of Graham Greene and Robert Stone. His story “Pretty Little Parasite” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2009. 

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Springtime

by Marc Taurisano

 

It had been the worst winter of Jeremy's life.

His parents had split up, his father moving three hundred miles away to work at a construction company that his cousin owned. His mother, a secretary at a law firm, had become involved with one of her employers, an attorney named Bob who had a soft, doughy physique and a mustache that was the same color and consistency as his wavy brown hair. Despite Jeremy's best efforts, he could not help visualizing Bob and his mother locked in a passionate, sweaty embrace. Contemplating it made Jeremy angry, made him feel like punching something.

That spring was the first in which he had opted not to play baseball.

His decision worried her—it was yet another sign that her son was not adjusting to his changed circumstances. "Well, why not?"

"I just don't feel like it, all right?"

Jeremy was thirteen, and watching other boys his age out on the field practicing—doing drills and sprints and jumping jacks while coaches shouted orders and blew whistles—was suddenly painful for him. The prospect of striking out or dropping a fly ball or otherwise screwing up terrified him. He imagined breaking down in the middle of a game, paralyzed with anxiety and trembling all over.

The scrappy resilience that had been second nature to him seemed gone forever. In its place was a stoic rigidity that functioned as a sort of armor, a shell designed to protect his fragile emotional core.

He went from being a decent student to a barely mediocre one. Understanding the difference between the mean, median, and mode hardly seemed to matter to him, nor did the history of the Iroquois Indians or the conjugations of Spanish verbs. 

Jeremy gave up trying to talk to his friends about what he was going through. They came from family situations that, while imperfect, were in a lot better shape than his own. Like a chunk of ice breaking off from a larger sheet, Jeremy felt himself drifting away from them.

Embarrassing him, however, was the unmoored object he felt heading his way. He had known Charles Zeltner since kindergarten, and when they were younger, they had been friends, attending each other's birthday parties and playing at each other's houses. Behind Charles's house was a pool, and in its finished basement was a remarkable assortment of toys. His collections of Star Wars and G. I. Joe action figures—including, of course, their backdrops and vehicles—were unmatched.

Charles was not merely awkward and unpopular but pathetic. He wore glasses and was overweight, traits he shared with his father, who suffered the additional defect of being bald. Dr. Zeltner was one of the best heart surgeons in the area. He had divorced Charles's mother and married one of his nurses.

Jeremy felt himself gravitating toward one of his classmates whom he had never paid much attention to before.

Kevin was lean like Jeremy but taller, his hair shaved down to a bristly buzz cut. His typical attire consisted of work boots, jeans, and a t-shirt. He lived in a dilapidated house in the town's most rundown neighborhood. His father was in prison for battering two men in a drunken brawl.

They had art class together. With colored pencils, Kevin sketched the plastic rose that lay lengthwise on a display table, his rendering vibrant and realistic. He was talented, the teacher often encouraging him to go beyond the basic assignment.

Jeremy dragged a chair to the back of the room to where Kevin sat alone. For smocks, both boys wore old dress shirts that had belonged to their fathers, the fabric hanging loosely on their torsos.

Kevin looked over his shoulder at him, suspicious.

He pointed at Kevin's drawing. "That's really good."

Kevin knew it was good and had no need to be told so, his response a cross between a smile and a snarl. "Thanks," he said.

Talking in art class progressed to walking together in the hallways. In the cafeteria, he abandoned the table where he had sat with his old friends and relocated to the end of the long rectangular one that Kevin and Driscoll had claimed for themselves.

Driscoll was often at Kevin's side. He preferred to be called by his last name given that his first name was Gene, which was short for Eugene, which not even the teachers called him. Stocky with a roundish head, he cut his hair in the same style as his friend. The look was a lot more flattering on Kevin.

After school on sunny days, the three of them hung out in the woods behind the football field. There was a section where a bunch of trees had been cut down, the stumps a good height for sitting on.

Kevin and Driscoll both smoked cigarettes. Jeremy failed to develop a taste for it. After each botched attempt, he would remove a roll of spearmint Life Savers from his pocket and pop one in his mouth. As soon as he got home, he brushed his teeth, cleansing away the foul burnt odor.

His new friends could talk for hours about their miserable home lives. For Jeremy, hearing about their situations made his own seem more manageable. His dad may have left him, but he would never hit him, as Kevin's had. And while Jeremy's mom regularly got on his nerves, her nagging was in no way comparable to the drunken tirades that Driscoll endured.

Just like she did every other month, Jeremy's mother took him to the barbershop in the village for a haircut. He asked the barber to use a one blade on the sides and then a two on the top, which was exactly how Kevin and Driscoll cut theirs. Instead of going to a barber, however, they went to Kevin's house, where his sister, Darlene, cut their hair for five dollars.

The barber looked at Jeremy and his mother. "That's a real short buzz. You sure you want that?"

Jeremy saw his mother's concerned expression reflected in the mirror. He turned to look at her directly. "It's not a big deal. Just a different style."

She shrugged. "If that's what you want. Go ahead."

Kevin and Driscoll heartily approved. They noted how the barber did better work than Darlene, creating a seamless transition between the different lengths.

Jeremy's old friends shrank from him in embarrassment, and Charles had an even stronger reaction. He seemed disgusted.

"What's your problem?" Jeremy asked him.

"Nothing," Charles answered. Making a low, grumbling sigh, he looked away, staring at the blackboard on which a series of Venn diagrams were drawn.

Their teacher, Mr. Morgan, knew what Jeremy's hairstyle signified and, like Charles, was not a fan of it. As his classroom emptied, he engaged Jeremy with a wry smile. "Nice haircut," he said.

The instructor's self-indulgent curls, Jeremy thought, made him an unlikely critic. He shrugged and smiled back, displaying the sort of calm confidence his mother had once told him was a good way to respond to someone trying to get a rise out of him. "Thanks," he said. "I like it."

Jeremy was at the kitchen table, his science textbook open in front of him, when his mother came home from work. She slammed the door and stomped into the room.

"So your new haircut, that was 'no big deal,' huh?"

He wondered who had tipped her off. Mr. Morgan, Jeremy thought, was the most likely culprit.

"I hear you've made some new friends."

"Who told you?"

"It doesn't matter who told me." She huffed noisily. "Kevin Manning? His father is in jail, for Christ's sake."

Although she paid little attention to local gossip, even she was aware of that unfortunate bit of trivia.

"Well, that's not Kevin's fault," Jeremy said. "And you've never met him. He's not like people think. You should see the drawings he does. He's a talented artist."

"An artist? Please. He is a delinquent."

Jeremy's vehemence surprised him. "He is my friend," he said.

They reached an agreement. His friendship with Kevin and Gene—she refused to call him Driscoll—could continue, but only if his grades and attitude improved. The boys were not allowed at his house, and he wasn't allowed at theirs, where she feared there would be "drugs and God knows what else."

He had heard more than enough about the dysfunction and unpleasantness that could be found at their respective homes and had no desire to experience them firsthand.

"Okay," Jeremy said. "That's fine."

 

š

 

 

Charles, however, was making a real nuisance of himself.

Whiny and indignant, he would not speak to Jeremy in class, but then when they passed each other in the hall, especially if Jeremy was with Kevin or Driscoll, he made a point of engaging him and shouting, "Hi, Jeremy!" in as annoying a voice as possible.

Confronting Charles at his locker, Jeremy said, "You need to stop it."

He shrugged, playing dumb. "Stop what?"

"You know what. Don't be an idiot. Stop saying 'hi' to me. Kevin and Driscoll are really starting to get pissed."

Charles calmly shut his locker. "I'm sorry, but I don't have any idea what you're talking about."

Jeremy grabbed his flabby arm. "I mean it. Stop."

At lunchtime, the conversation between Jeremy and his friends came to a sudden halt as Charles stepped up to their table.

He set down his tray, then pulled out the chair next to Jeremy's. "Hey, guys," he said. "How's it going?"

Kevin and Driscoll glared at Jeremy, who glared at Charles. "What are you doing?" he asked.

He shrugged. "I thought I'd sit over here for a change. Why not, right?"

"Get out of here," Jeremy said. "Go." He grabbed Charles's shirt, attempting, unsuccessfully, to prevent him from sitting.

Ms. Gabriel walked past their table, her eyes narrowing as she fixed on Jeremy. She taught French and was notoriously strict. He let Charles go, then rubbed his hands on his jeans and took another bite of the ham and cheese sandwich his mother had made for him that morning.

Charles opened his milk carton and proceeded to eat his cafeteria meal of roast beef and mashed potatoes. "What's the matter?" he asked. "You guys have something against talking?"

"Will you please sit somewhere else?" Jeremy asked.

Charles stayed where he was. He spoke occasionally, his contrived questions going unanswered as Kevin and Driscoll sat in silence, growing increasingly annoyed.

When Charles had eaten every bit of his lunch, even the watery green beans, he wiped his mouth with his napkin and rose to his feet. He spoke with mock formality, most likely imitating a character he had seen on television. "Well, it was indeed a pleasure talking with you gentlemen. We simply must do this again sometime. Goodbye, Jeremy. So long, Kevin." He locked eyes with Driscoll, pausing a moment. "Adios, Eugene."

Driscoll looked ready to jump the table and throttle him. Kevin stuck out his arm, holding him back.

Charles flinched, his feigned confidence evaporating.

"Leave," Jeremy commanded.

They watched Charles walk away. He tossed his napkin and empty milk carton into the garbage bin, then placed his tray on the rollers. On his way out the door, he gave Jeremy one last glance. He looked frightened. 

Kevin continued to stare at the doorway even after Charles had passed through it and disappeared. "This is your problem," he told Jeremy. "You're taking care of this. Today."

His plan was simple. They would leave school together and get a running start. The route Charles took home was known to them––he walked past the football field, up the hill to the elementary school, and then across the playground and into the neighborhood of deluxe, custom-built houses in which he lived.

Beyond the old-fashioned jungle gym was a climbing wall whose concave sides consisted of a mesh of rubber tires. They would hide in its base, waiting until Charles was nearby. Then they would step out and surround him.

"You're going to hit him," Kevin said. "Just once. Not hard. In the stomach. He's got plenty of padding there. He'll barely feel it."

Jeremy felt dizzy. He was afraid he might pass out. "Sure," he said. "Okay."

The hours ticked by. In each of his classes, he stared at the clock as if willing time to pass more slowly.

Between seventh and eighth period, he and Charles passed each other in the hall. Instead of the taunting "hi" that Jeremy had come to expect, Charles said nothing at all. He looked off to the side, seeming saddened and hurt.

Jeremy imagined grabbing him and telling him to take the bus or to at least walk home by a different route. He figured that if he could delay the confrontation long enough, then Kevin and Driscoll might change their minds and forget about it.

But the opportunity slipped away, and he proceeded to science class, where Mrs. Strandberg lectured about the human nervous system. His anxiety about what awaited him made it impossible for him to process much of what she was saying. The overhead projector splashed an anatomical illustration onto the screen. The brain resembled a pink sponge, while the spine was like a thick, bony eel with a subtle, S-shaped curve.

The final bell rang. Jeremy put his books in his locker and met Kevin and Driscoll outside one of the school's lesser-used exits.

"Ready?" Kevin asked.

Jeremy nodded, his head aching.

"All right, then. Let's go."

Jeremy led the way. They followed a roundabout path, trotting along the edge of the woods.

He breathed in the rich smell of the leaves. The air was warm and humid, the sun bright. He imagined stepping off the bus in Pittsburgh and finding his father inside the station, waiting for him. He would be wearing a baseball cap and have a few days' growth of beard on his face, his skin more creased and weathered than that of most of the other fathers in town. As Jeremy approached, he would take his suitcase from him and rest his other hand on Jeremy's shoulder as they headed for the parking lot.

Then Jeremy's mother somehow appeared to the other side of him, likewise laying a hand on him, the three of them walking together, happy and whole, as Jeremy remembered them being at some point in the indistinct past.

He was unprepared for the feeling of sadness that welled up inside him. Like a hot, viscous liquid, it permeated his inner organs, transforming the anger he felt toward his parents into something close to sympathy. Maybe they weren't so bad, he thought. Maybe they were doing the best they could.

A noisy cough rattled Kevin's body as he struggled to keep pace with Jeremy. Driscoll was thirty feet back, his jaw locked in a grimace. He was hampered not only by the ill effects of smoking but by his stubby legs.

Jeremy slowed to a stop. His companions followed his lead, thankful for the chance to rest.

"You know, if you guys can't go any faster, then maybe we shouldn't do this."

"We're going plenty fast," Kevin said. "We're way ahead of him. We could walk the rest of the way and still have time."

They had covered about a third of the distance they needed to. The school was emptying out, most of the kids filing onto buses. Those who walked home scattered in multiple directions. Jeremy squinted at the kids headed their way, wondering if Charles might be among them.

Driscoll stepped up to Jeremy. "You know what? I don't think you want to do this. I think you're scared."

"I'm not scared," Jeremy answered, his voice shaky and uncertain.

Kevin crossed his arms, displeased.

Jeremy took a breath. "Look, he's a fat kid with no friends. Beating him up is pathetic."

"We're not beating him up," Kevin said. "We're just teaching him a lesson. You know, putting him in his place."

"I don't think we should hit him. He doesn't deserve that."

Driscoll was furious, the veins in his neck looking ready to burst. "He called me Eugene."

"Well, you know," Jeremy said, "it is your name."

Driscoll's fist was like a rock. The punch pounded Jeremy in the gut, knocking the wind out of him. He staggered back, dropping to his knees. His palms slapped the wet grass.

"Get up," Kevin said. "Get up and fight."

"No," Jeremy answered. He shut his eyes, thinking that if he stayed on the ground, he would be safe.

A voice, high-pitched and grating, cried out from a distance. "Hey! Hey, what are you doing? Leave him alone!"

Jeremy's humiliation deepened. Running toward them, his backpack stuffed with books, was Charles.

"Stay away!" Jeremy shouted. "Don't come down here!"

Charles stumbled down the hill, not stopping until he was next to Jeremy. "You all right?"

"I'm fine," Jeremy said. "Now go."

Kevin made a fist. "Hey, Charles," he said. "If you bother us again, if you so much as look at us the wrong way..." He punched his left palm, the sound familiar but nonetheless jarring. "Understand?"

Charles nodded.

Driscoll had a hard time keeping up his angry facade. His special status as Kevin's Only Close Friend had been restored. He was happy.

Pushing onto his knees, Jeremy watched as Kevin and Driscoll entered the woods. Kevin looked back at Jeremy, shrugging his shoulders and smiling in a way that was not at all spiteful.

Jeremy was already nostalgic. He would miss the laughter and commiseration, and the way the sunlight filtered through the branches, and even the awful odor of smoke that for Jeremy was synonymous with defiance and secrets.

"Can you get up?" Charles asked. "Can you walk?"

"Yes. I can walk." Jeremy got to his feet and brushed himself off.

Charles shook his head, indignant. "I don't understanding how you were ever friends with those guys."

A new thought occurred to Jeremy, one so obvious that he wondered how he had failed to consider it earlier.

"Did you talk to my mom? Did you tell her about me and ...?" Jeremy pointed at the wall of trees behind which Kevin and Driscoll had disappeared.

Charles hesitated, nervous. "No, I never talked to her."

Jeremy scowled at him.

"I wrote her a letter," Charles said.

"I get home before she does. I bring in the mail. If there was a letter from you, I would have seen it."

"Not,” he said, “if I sent it to her work address."

Jeremy shut his eyes. "Well, that's great. You got me in trouble. Thanks."

Charles gave Jeremy a moment to cool down, then asked, "So do you want to come over to my house?"

"No," Jeremy said. "Not really."

"My mom can drive you home. Otherwise, you'll have to stand around here and wait for the late bus."

The wait was not a big deal for Jeremy, but seeing Kevin and Driscoll at the bus stop was something he preferred to avoid. "Just for a few minutes," he said, his tone making it clear that he wasn’t looking forward to it. "My books are in my locker. I have to go get them first."

"I'll come with you," Charles said.

Jeremy shook his head. "I'll be faster on my own. I'll meet you on the playground, near the climbing wall." The exact spot, he thought, where my friends and I had planned to sneak up on you and punch you in the stomach.

Charles nodded, content. "All right," he said. "Cool."

Jeremy took off at a sprint, charging up the hill. It felt good to run again. The school loomed before him, its bulky shape seeming to expand as he got closer to it.

It would take weeks, he thought, for his hair to grow back to a reasonable length. He wished he could speed up time and make the final days of the school year go by in a flash.

Summer was on its way, bringing changes. He could feel it. He was ready.

 

Marc Taurisano began writing fiction as an undergraduate at Duke University, where he was a student of Elizabeth Cox and Reynolds Price. He has been published in Fugue, the literary journal of the University of Idaho, and in Troubadour 21, Wilderness House Literary Review and Cantaraville.

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