I have always loved the moon.
The way the earth bathes in the light of her ethereal glow,
The way she casts her silver glance on every creek, river, pond, and lake,
Every ocean and rolling wave.
The way her shimmering reflection on a still night feels like falling in love,
And the way she breathes new life into every creature under the jealous sun.
But tonight, she is angry.
Glowing round and red as we chip away at her likeness,
Leaving a hole in her heart, ever expanding even as her color deepens.
She weeps tears of blood as her own children betray her.
Tired now, but she persists,
Presiding over the world, casting her light until the very instant in which she is extinguished.
‘But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’
Creeping back in, mere hours before the sun,
Master of day,
Is sure to push her out.
She has calmed now, melting like wax under his fiery gaze.
But it is she who controls the waters and it is she alone who knows how to harness their power,
for it is hers.
The elephant: Africa’s largest, most triumphant Land animal. Trekking across the plains, Rattling the Earth, Captivating man. Even Their ancestral tracks Lay hardened- a remnant Of their enduring power. The alpha bull: His tusks marked and muddy, Yet the purest white- A battled-hardened beast Of breathtaking brilliance. Momma sprays herself At the nearby lake. Her Radiant majesty glistening Against the serene Savannah sun. Finally, the youngsters: Wrestling, toppling in the mud; unaware Of their command of the Kingdom. How can these rambunctious Rascals grow into Revered giants? Similarly, The infant into man? The most awe-inspiring Of God’s creations connected By their youthful Folly.
or: How I found out the truth
of my self image
Time and Tide waits for no man, but what waits for me? This I ponder. What am I?
AJ sees his dad sitting where he usually sat for all of his football games: perched up on the hill towards the opposite end zone that overlooks the whole field. He always sat away from the other parents, and AJ never knew why. His dad never got angry over bad calls by the refs, piss poor play from other kids, or crazy parents from the opposing team. The ref blows the whistle and AJ shakes away his daily thoughts that had nothing to do with what he was currently doing. Through his facemask, AJ stares down the tight end while lining up inside of him and at a depth of 5 yards. AJ was happy only playing defense now that there was a new kid at St. Joseph’s who drank half a gallon of whole milk a day and took AJ’s spot on the offensive line. Now he can finally blow up people like this tight end across from him, and he knows that the eagerness to hit one another is there like a dog waiting for his owner to throw a stick across the yard.
The tight end comes bounding towards AJ. With every step, AJ’s confidence declines. The kid seemed AJ’s size from the line of scrimmage, but when their paths finally meet, AJ’s only wish is to survive to the next play so he can line up on somebody else. The tight end punches back AJ with both of his hands and knocks the wind out of him, his breath frozen in time. AJ, now staring right in the eyes of the grown man who apparently was an eighth grader, is lifted off the ground and then thrown down. AJ closes his eyes and lets his limp body tumble. He tries desperately to breathe. Still nothing. Finally, he manages a small heap. AJ opens his eyes and faces the hill where his father sits. Expecting a concerned dad looking at the play, AJ looks to where his dad is sitting.
“The fuck?!” AJ says under his weak breath, as he sees a young woman wrapped in his dad’s arms and kissing him passionately, almost like she was finishing her favorite dessert and trying to enjoy every last bite.
AJ cannot make out who the woman is or any of her features, but he knows it is not his mother. She would never pull a stunt like that in public, and even if she could, she was not in town. He glances up to his dad’s “situation” one last time but can only see a bright purple smudge. It looks like a winter jacket, but AJ does not trust his eyes after a hit like that. The thought of AJ’s dad cheating hurt worse than the tight end’s hit, but both were making him nauseous. AJ gets picked up by the shoulders from two of his teammates and they carry him to the St. Joseph’s sideline. He feels better, but it would be weeks before he could be on the field again. He realizes he has to take that stupid concussion test with all of the lines and shapes again. Before that, he has to go home and talk with his dad who would be lying when he said he watched the game. AJ knows what he was doing, but he also knows he can’t bring it up to him. He can’t even take out his anger on the football field anymore, at least for a few more weeks. He needs something that will release his thoughts, but definitely not a diary.
My Dumbass Dad
Ok. Let’s get one thing straight, AJ. This is NOT your diary, you pussy. This is you just putting your thoughts down so you don’t spill the beans to your innocent mother. She needs to find out from him. Not you. Anyways, just keep your mouth shut and act normal. If it helps, try to find out who the fuck was mackin on your dad. Not the best way of describing it, but you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Sincerely, Google Doc You.
AJ wakes up with a splitting headache. If there was any doubt that yesterday’s hit did not concuss him, that was now gone. It probably did not help that he made that google doc last night either. After slowly removing his covers and inching out of his bed to avoid any dizziness, AJ’s vision is noticeably worse: his sight is even more blurred— it feels like he’s walking through a thick fog. He manages to make it to his bathroom and do his morning routine. He brushes his teeth, fixes his hair, splashes cold water on his face (it did not help with his vision), and finally makes his way down the stairs. Slightly out of breath, he finds his usual stool and awaits his breakfast. Looking down at the counter, a plate is slid to AJ: slightly frozen hashbrowns and burnt bacon. He looks up to see his father attempting to clean the pan he used. He used hand soap and a paper towel— I guess one can say the gender roles are defined in AJ’s catholic household. In some odd way, AJ feels bad for his dad. He knows his job as a police officer is demanding but unappreciated in today’s social climate. He also has noticed that his mom has been leaving home for work more frequently. Only a man who feels both disrespected and useless at his job and in his own home could cheat on his wife. Even though he’s cheating, he does seem happier. His gray hair is growing back to its thick, jet black color. His “meatball” stature that ironically came from eating his mother’s Italian meals is now slimming down. But no matter how happy his father may seem, he can’t help but feel sorry for his mother.
“See ya buddy,” his father said between the front door’s creaking when it opened and again when it came back and closed.
AJ assumes that he’ll need a ride to school. This kind of stuff always happens when it is just his father at home, but now that he knows that his dad is kind of a dirtbag, the little things are pissing him off. AJ slides his plate to the side angrily and plops his computer in its place.
My Dumbass Dad Continued
You’re such a bitch. You still use MLA format for your journal? Shut up… not a journal. Anyways, this shit will not fly. Knowing how antisocial your dad is, he’s gotta be with someone who he already knows. Like somebody’s mom? Divorced mom maybe? I don’t fucking know. Help me out, Jesus. It’s adultery, right?
Sincerely, Google Doc you.
With an aching head and still foggy vision, AJ closes his computer and calls Sarah for a ride to school.
“We’re outside, don’t worry,” she manages to say before AJ can even explain his situation.
AJ hangs up the phone and jogs to the car. He feels awkward after running so fast only to be slowed down by the automatic opening of the van door. The door makes its weird locking noise and AJ buckles in. He sees Sarah’s mom peering at him through her rear view mirror.
“Hi, Mrs. Smith!” AJ says with a somewhat fake grin.
“Hi sweetie! How are you?”
“I’m good!” Except for the fact that I feel like I’m constantly walking through fog and I witnessed the supposed “man of the house” break his most sacred vow.
Sarah notices AJ’s sudden change in mood and taps his shoulder.
“Yup. Fine,” AJ mutters under his breath. Trying not to think about his stupid father, AJ deflects to Sarah’s family problems. “How’s your dad doing?”
“Still asleep… It’s been an entire week where I talk to him and get no response or reaction. The doctors say he can hear me, but I’m having a hard time believing them”
Mrs. Smith peers at us through the rear view mirror for a split second and then focuses her attention back to the road again.
“I’m sorry to hear that” AJ whispers, trying to keep the conversation away from Mrs. Smith.
“I’ve been praying every Wednesday during school mass. Probably the first time I wasn’t playing on my phone or doing my homework from the night before.”
AJ would have to make the same adjustment for her dad and his own mother. However, he cannot help but think that there is a possibility the “mistress” is Mrs. Smith. She’s younger than most parents and has a sweet spot for AJ’s dad. But, like most parents who send their kids to St. Joseph’s, she is overtly Catholic. Not only would she never cheat, but she would never have the church know that “God never entered her relationship.” If it were to be her, it would take a drastic change in her life— Like her husband dying while in a coma.
AJ is sitting down. He thinks it’s in a wooden chair. Everything is still a blur. He cannot completely recall how he got here. He hears a voice; it sounds like Sarah’s.
“I’ll see you in class, AJ,” she says. At least he thinks it is her. It would make sense, he rode with her to school. He remembers, barely. Sarah opens the door, and the usual noise from kids talking between classes, lockers opening and closing, and teachers screaming how much time there is left for their class briefly enters the room until the door is finally closed.
“Hey AJ,” another familiar voice says. It’s Ms. Martinelli, AJ’s counselor. He knows that someone is sitting in front of him, but the fog is still making it hard to see clearly. However, he has talked with her enough to know that it is her. Also, he is slowly figuring out why he is in her office.
“I heard about what happened at your game yesterday. I Just wanted to let you know that if you need to take a break from school, you can come in my office or go to the nurse”
Immediately AJ breathes a sigh of relief. She is always so nice to him. The tone in her voice is so soothing. When parents come to the school, she uses the same voice — probably to let them know that their kids are treated well. After her reassuring talk and AJ’s small daydream, he heads out of Ms. Martinelli’s office and makes his way to the blurry hallway. He can manage to see the opening of a door and a teacher walking out.
“AJ, let’s go buddy”
I guess that’s where I’m headed for the first period.
AJ cannot focus in class. The board is a blur, and the teacher’s sporadic movements from his desk to the board and back again make him dizzy.
“Now, open your laptops!” AJ hears from the front of the classroom. By the unnecessary enthusiasm and commanding tone, he assumes it’s the teacher talking. He follows directions, but opens another google doc instead of embarrassing himself by asking what they were supposed to be working on probably right after he just said what it was.
My Dumbass Dad (Second One of the Day)
It can’t be Mrs. Smith, right? No way… That would be too messed up. If it is her, God has a horrible sense of humor. Dude… might sound crazy, but talk to a counselor about it. Don’t name names. Be SUPER vague. It might clear your head and narrow down the people who it could be.
The bell rings, and AJ makes his way to the counseling office. Just thinking about getting his thoughts out is clearing his mind. The fog is dissipating. He can finally see straight down the hallways. He sees the old, dark wood paneling that is wider than the rest of the other classrooms. On both sides of the slightly larger door, there is church stained glass. The right side is a Red Cross surrounded by a baby blue background with the black lines that separate the glass. The left side is Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. AJ is so happy he can see the beauty of his school again. He opens the door, and there she is, front and center. His favorite counselor, Ms. Martinelli, sitting in her black, spinning chair. He can finally see her now. Her brown, curly bangs, and olive skin are now visible to AJ. Even her slightly awkward-looking freckle right below her mouth. AJ turns back to shut the door, and in the corner of the room is a coat hanger. I’ve seen that before.
“You like my new jacket? I know, it’s a little purple, but…”
In the early 20th century, when Vietnam was under the colonization of France, Saigon of South Vietnam was named “La Perle de l’Extrême-Orient”, or “The Pearl of Far East Asia.” That is always true. Saigon has always been akin to a “classy mademoiselle.” She is busy and bustling with businesses in the morning. And when the sun goes down, she puts on her gorgeous looks and immerses herself in the parties all night long. LED lights, night markets, street food, pubs on top of skyscrapers, open mic cafes, horn honking 24/7, and more. She never sleeps, and that’s for sure.
Born and raised in Saigon, that nocturnal lifestyle was in my blood. I was attached to this place that way.
July 2021, Saigon was dead. This golden city of 10 million people was completely silent. Not a single motorbike on the road. The police and army troops were guarding 24/7 on every street to make sure no one left their house.
During all those months, I was not at home. In fact, I lived somewhere else. Hung Vuong Central Hospital, Zone K1 – frontline area for treating Covid F0 maternity women. I wore the most fashionable outfit of all time: 3 layers of nylon protective suits, 3 layers of N-95 masks, a face shield, and gloves. Although it usually takes 9 years before we’re allowed to treat patients in Vietnam, at the time, doctors were in such high need that an 8th-year medical student like me was directly in charge of treating patients along with other underclassmen. And there were barely enough people on duty in each zone; consequently, none of us was allowed to rest.
“You’re doing great. Breath in! Deep breath! That’s right. Keep going, Mom!” I tried to calm her down as I turned over and yelled toward the hallway: “Bring me a phone, please!”
My left hand was constantly putting the nastrogastrictube in and out so the patient could talk; my right hand hastily opened the Phone app. The others were ineptly pumping air and replacing inhalers.
“Mom, you’re doing great. I’ll get your family on the phone with you. Stay calm and read me their number, okay?” I said.
“0.. 0.. 72.. 3..” She whispered each number out in between those tough breaths.
“Good. Breath in. Keep going, Mom!”
“0.. 53.. 014.. 5.. I’m so scared.”
“No, you’re doing great. You’ll be okay. Keep breathing, okay?”
The phone was ringing for more than 10 seconds before someone picked it up on the other end. “Hello, are you the husband of patient Vu Phuong Anh?” I spoke.
“Yes, I am,” a man’s voice answered.
“I’m Dr. Kim. Your wife is hardly breathing so we will try to place tracheal intubation. But I’ll let you talk with her first, okay? You’re now on speaker.”
“Honey, I’m.. I’m.. so scared..!”
“Are you okay? How are you?” he asked her. I’m on fire, God damn it, she is dying, we’re struggling to keep her breathing, say whatever you need to say, you idiot! “Sir, please say the last words you need to say to her.” I tried to stay patient and spoke to the phone, then I handed it over one more time.
“…Honey, are you okay? What should.. What should I say? Umm…”
You lost your chance dude. I ended the call and moved on. Thinking back, he was probably too panicked and did not know what to say at the time. We put her on a ventilator and she fell asleep shortly after. She was probably tired from the past 5 minutes.
I sighed out and walked backward a few steps until my back hit the wall. It was 3 AM. My exhausted body slowly slid down along the wall until I sat on the ground. It was not until then that I felt all of my muscles were aching. I cowered, arms wrapping my legs, and dopily sat there zoning out for a bit. Random thoughts were rambling in my head as I somnolently closed my eyes right on the ground with my head on my knees although I tried to keep myself awake. I’m not supposed to sleep. Seconds before my eyes completely closed, I caught a glance out of the opposite windows. Saigon is dark, the color of hopelessness. As dark as the lives of everyone right now. There is no light, but the Moon. It has never been this poetic. Or at least, I have never realized so. The dark of Saigon makes it even brighter. Saigon has slept for quite a few months now. When will she wake up though…? Will she be alive? Will both of them be fine?
An hour later, Beep… Beep… Beep. “CODE BLUEEEEEEE. Dr. Kim! CODE BLUEEE!!!” I woke up in that room filled with the smell of disinfectant and people shouting my name. Without any second hesitating, I immediately rushed to the resuscitator bag, pressed continuously as hard as I could, as I glanced at all the numbers to check what was going on. “She passed out. Why is there no oxygen? What happened?” I vomited my thoughts out. It was raining.
I grabbed a nurse, handed her the bag to pump, and jumped on the bed to start CPR. “Call more people! SpO2 is dropping. Replace and reconnect the tube before pumping. Dr. Minh, change a new oxygen inhaler for me!” I yelled.
“There are no more available inhalers, Dr. Kim!” someone yelled in from the hallway.
My eyes stretched. What the fxck? Who the fxck in charge did not stock them up? “Keep chest compressing for me!” I ran to the phone station in the hallway. Hit 100, no answer. Hit 009, no answer. Hit 201, still no answer. Where are these goddamn people? Are they fxcking sleeping on duty or something? Pick up the goddamn phone!!! I attempted to dial all the numbers on that “Emergency Number List” on the wall in front of me. Hit 510, still no answer. Hit 245, someone picked it up. My goodness! “Code Blue, 1st floor, Zone K1, please. Inhalers needed. Prepare for a C-section. RIGHT NOW!” I hastily yelled to the phone and hung up.
I rushed to the changing room, quickly changed into a new disinfected suit as the hospital speaker announced: “Code Blue in Obstetrics. Zone K1. Available resident physicians, anesthetists, pediatricians, obstetricians, cardiologists, and podiatrists, please report to K1 immediately!” Available? I don’t even know if any of them are available. It is still pouring rain.
Then I heard footsteps in the hallway. Thank God, they’re here. I ran over after changing. All types of beeping alarms were going off. “Whoever’s gonna perform the C-section, leave to wash your hands! The rest stay here to move her into the PT room (surgery room). We need to take the baby out ASAP to reduce pressure on the Mom!” I tried to talk over the beeping sounds.
Ten people were talking over each other, multitasking, and doing all we could basically. The patient was no longer conscious. Four of us were taking turns doing chest compression. One was pumping the resuscitator bag. Two were giving injections. Three were struggling to push the bed toward the PT area.
Fxck it! Her SpO2 keeps dropping no matter what we do. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. The BEEP goes off faster as her heart rate drops. At least, I felt so. 84… 71… Fxck! She is dying. Oxygen saturation also drops. 95% to 75%… And we’re only halfway there.
“CPR CHANGE!! MOVE FASTER!!”
“BEEPPPP. BEEPPP. BEEPPP.”
“PUMP HARDER!!! FASTER!!!”
“5 MORE MILLILITERS! RIGHT NOW!”
Her SpO2 went up a bit. For a tiny second, that gave me hope. Mom, you got this! We’re just a few more meters from the PT area. But then it dropped again. Even more rapidly than before. Heart rate and oxygen saturation went deep down. 65 and 30%… Please. Please. 57 and 20%… FXCKKKKK! 37 and 8%… 20 and 5%… 0 and 1%……. “BEEEEEEEEPPPPPPP.” A long last beep before all the chaos stopped and it went completely silent.
One second passed.
Several seconds passed.
I slowly climbed off the bed, looked down at the ground as my eyes closed tightly regretfully. We all dopily fell into the silence. I speechlessly looked at my patient, my right hand on her fetus. “July 27th, 2021. 4:17 AM, Patient Vu Phuong Anh has passed away in her 30th week of pregnancy.” Someone called time, and I couldn’t care who. Our tears couldn’t help but drop to the ground. I looked out the window and glanced at the sky. A hate glance. They did not deserve this. It’s still sprinkling rain. I see something different. Not pain nor regret. But relief.
The next few hours before sunrise, I managed the procedures to hand her over to the care of her family. Her husband could not hide his sorrow. Her parents sobbed painfully. They did not even know she was sick at all. Later that morning, when I had a few hours off duty to get some sleep, I could not. I kept thinking about her. I admire her. Vu Phuong Anh. A Mom, who gasped for life, and for her child until her last conscious second. A daughter, who did not want her parents to worry about her. A remarkable human being.
For 25 years, the endless bustling life cycle of this city fooled me into believing that was all it was about. I had always lived on the surface of Saigon, yet never dived deep down to explore its core. As a native of Saigon, I had never truly understood this place. What a shame!
“Saigon never sleeps.” It was not until then that I understood what that actually meant. When there are no more LED lights, cheers, parties, horn honking, or night markets, but Code Blue, disinfectant smell, PT rooms, ventilator sound, and oxygen pumping instead, Saigon is still awake to every single heartbeat. Its powerful and phenomenal vitality resides nowhere but in the heart of Saigonese.
I glanced around the gallery, at the shining lights, the clusters of people, and the paintings hanging on the wall—my paintings. The lull of the chatter floated around and the occasional flash and click of a camera flitted back and forth. I strolled through, nodding, smiling politely and shaking hands with curators and viewers.
“A freshly artistic statement…”
“The rich application of colors is just groundbreaking…”
I bowed my head at each comment and murmured my thanks. But those weren’t the words I wanted to hear, nor were they said by the person I wanted to hear it from. This had to be enough—closure for Yoon, closure for me.
“FORTUNE, come back, you cannot run away, you mess up again! You need to finish practice piano!” My mother’s shrill voice followed me as I pushed open the back door, grabbed my pink scooter, and shot off down the road.
As soon as my mother’s voice disappeared into the wind, I took a deep breath, letting all of the air expand into my lungs. The fresh air never smelled better. I absolutely despised piano, and I despised the fact that my mother forced me to play it because I needed to live up to the ‘Zhao family name’. I hated the fact that my mother disapproved of painting because it was “useless” even though I loved it, perhaps because I loved it. Instead, everyday, 4 hours, continuous practice, and I think I’ve slowly lost track of myself because all I saw were those black and white keys and the bunches of tadpoles swimming between the lines on paper. What nine year old wants to sit still for 4 hours staring at tadpoles? I hated tadpoles.
I pushed myself, one push at a time, up the hill and as soon as I hit the flat peak. I let the momentum carry my scooter down, my eyes squinting against the wind blowing in my face, my chopped, black, shoulder-length hair billowing around my shoulders, tangling in knots, and my big t-shirt flapping at my back. I loved the downhills because for a moment, I could feel completely free, unrestrained, and open.
My neighborhood was like a lollipop: a circle with three big hills and two tiny ones and one singular straight road sticking out; we all called that road the Stick. No one from the lollipop part went down the Stick though because apparently, a kid with blue clouds lived there. Neighborhood kids said that he was wack and talked in squiggly riddles. Even weirder—the rumor was that he was blue as a blue raspberry ring pop. I didn’t believe them, but then again, I couldn’t say anything since I’ve never even seen him.
I started pushing myself up the uphill of the last big hill; my arms were outstretched in front of me, hands gripping the handles as I kept my head down, focused on my feet, the ground below me, and my scooter. Down, push, down, push, down, push, down, push—BAM! I collide scooter and head-first into another small head. Our scooters tangle with a clang and crash on to the grass of fall leaves, intertwined, one pink, one blue.
“I’m so sorry, are you ok? Are you hurt? I wasn’t looking…I’m so sorry!”
I held my head. Then I reached out a hand to the small boy sitting on the ground, dazed. His shaggy black hair was in disarray, sticking up in every possible axis and direction. His thin, dark eyes peeked out from behind his curtain of bangs, and he just looked at me for a long moment, his eyes seemingly scanning my face. After a while, they fixated on my pin-straight, fine, jet black hair. I waved my hand tentatively in front of his face, trying to get his attention. Suddenly, he turned to look at the scooters on the ground and blurted out, “I like your scooter, it has nice blues in it.”
“But… my scooter is pink.”
“No, no it’s got blue in it.”
“Are you seeing things?”
“You just need to look for it.”
He grabbed my hand that I had left sticking out and helped himself up. He was shorter than me, scrawny looking, a bit pale, and seemed maybe my age. That’s when I noticed the clothes he was wearing: a deep red t-shirt that hung awkwardly off his thin frame and medium green pants that were a couple inches too short. He paired everything with some purple socks, yellow slippers, and a light red scarf on top. In all of my meager 9 years as an artist, I’ve never seen someone wear something so grotesquely mismatched with absolute confidence. Yet someone, this boy, who called “pink” “blue,” did so with an utter lack of shame.
I was still staring at his outfit when he bent down to pick up my “pink” scooter and handed me the pink grip of the handle bar.
“I’m Lee Yoon-ji, but you can call me Yoon.”
“Fortune, Fortune Zhao.”
He stuck out his pale, skinny hand to shake mine, but his palm had tracks of mud and grass from when he fell. I eyed the mush on his hand and tentatively gripped the top part of his fingers, hoping to avoid getting my hands muddy, only for Yoon to pull my entire hand towards him and grip it fully, smushing the grass and mud tightly between our palms. I inwardly cringed, but Yoon smiled broadly with all of his crooked teeth showing, “We’ve smushed blue together! That means we’re now best friends!” as he shook my hand enthusiastically. His hair moved with the entire movement of his arm, “Blue? Smushed blue? Best friends?”
A bit incredulous, but also amused, I couldn’t help but smile with him, shaking my own arm enthusiastically in return. His energy was infectious and it made me forget all the sad things like the tadpoles I still needed to stare at or the paintings Mama ripped in half to deter me from doing art.
“I don’t know about blue, but yah, best friends.” I smiled, it was nice to have a friend. I hadn’t had a friend in quite a while.
“As your new best friend, I’m going to show you the best mochi spot ever!” Yoon exclaimed, beaming, as he started pulling me down the hill, with his scooter in his other hand, clanging loudly behind him.
“But I don’t have money.”
“Don’t worry, they have the best blue mochi!”
“Blue mochi? They make that?” I asked, momentarily forgetting the money problem as Yoon continued leading me down the street.
“Yah! I’ll show you! Besides, I can pay!”
“You have money? Where did you get it from?”
“It’s my weekly chore allowance!”
“Oh, I do chores too, but my parents don’t pay me,” I said dejectedly, wishing my parents would do the same. At least then I could buy ice cream or mochi myself.
“That’s ok, you have me! I’ll help you!”
“Yoon, you’re half my size and half a head shorter…how are you going to help me?” I mean… I admired his confidence, but let’s be realistic, he looked like he was going to be blown away by the wind and if anything, I should be the one holding him down.
“Hey! Don’t judge appearances! I’m eight years old! I can do alot of things! I also know a lot of things too! I can teach you!” He puffed out his chest and looked up at me.
I laughed, “I’m nine, and you’re younger than me.”
“So?” He tilted his head and looked at me.
“What could you possibly teach me?”
“You’ll see! But let’s go get blue mochi first!”
“Right. Blue Mochi. Lead the way.”
Yoon grabbed my hand, the hand that’s now also caked with grass and mud, and led me through a backyard and some woods out to a neighboring mini shopping plaza. We left our scooters next to a bike rack and walked to a small shop in the back, where a dingy sign at the top read “Mochi Delight”. The sign flickered dimly, and unless you knew this shop was back here, you would probably never step foot in here.
Yoon pushed through the front door and hollered, “Nai Nai! I’m back”
An old lady with grey hair streaked with black, wrinkles around her eyes that crinkled when she smiled, and glasses so thick that her eyes looked huge, popped up from behind the front counter. Her eyes lit up as soon as she saw Yoon.
“Yoon-A, I missed you! What would you like today?”
“The usual Nai Nai!” He beamed at her, his smile radiating like a halo.
“Of course, my angel.” Nai Nai then proceeded to pull a pink and a green mochi out of the freezer, put them on a plate and handed them to us.
Yoon gave her $4 and took the plate with both hands.
“I’ll be back in a couple days Nai Nai, take care!”
Nai Nai waved at us as we pushed out the front door.
We squatted down and sat on the ledge of the sidewalk, and Yoon said, “look, there’s blue.”
“What do you mean blue?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. There was clearly a pink mochi and a green mochi, but definitely not a blue mochi.
“Ok ok, just listen to me. You need to be open minded and you need to look, ok?”
“Ok, I will.”
“Ok, Fortune, look at the trees over there. What color are they?”
“Yes, but look closer, is it only green?”
“There’s green, brown, orange, some red, and a little yellow.”
“Ok, now look at the shadow and the space between the trees.”
“What? They’re just either really dark versions of those colors or just black.”
“No no not black. Look at the sky. What color is it?”
“Good. How big is the sky?”
“Good. Does it cover all of us and everything we see and live among?”
“Good. Now look at the trees again. What color are they?”
I sat for a moment, not answering Yoon, just looking at those trees in the distance. Gradually, I noticed something: the shadows I thought were black began differing into shades of blue, and the crevices and negative spaces between the folds of leaves projected just a slight hint of blue. There was green, brown, orange, some red, and a little yellow, but somehow, there was also a little blue. Were my eyes playing tricks on me? I squinted again and tried to look closer, but I couldn’t see the blue anymore.
“I thought I saw something, but it disappeared.”
Yoon’s eyes lit up, “yes yes you’re getting there!”
“Ok, just don’t think too much about it, just let it happen. Feel the colors and their energy.”
“Ok, I’m trying.”
“Look at the car. What color is it?”
“Now look closer.”
I stared at the car and I noticed that the top of it shined slightly blue.
“It has a blue hue on top!”
“Yah! It reflects the blue from the color of the sky.”
“Yoon, is your favorite color blue? All you talk about is blue.”
“You see, blue is in all of us and everything around us, there’s blue, but too much blue. The world is so blue now. Water is blue, but so are tears. When people frown, the lines that form on their face reflect blue. That’s the way the world works, Fortune, the blue in us sometimes drowns out the rest of the colors.”
“So everyone is blue? What about me?”
“When I first saw you with your scooter, your whole face was fifty shades of blue! Your hair was blue too!”
“How? It’s black.”
“No, no, look again, the shadows, the lines and what it reflects. Your hair shields your face, so obviously it reflects blue!”
“My face was blue?”
“Yah. Why were you riding your scooter today?”
“Because I felt like it?”
Yoon shook his head, raised his eyebrows—though it really just looked like the top of his eyelids went up because his eyebrows were lost underneath his shag of black, well I guess maybe, blue hair—and looked at me pointedly.
“Well…my mom was yelling at me about piano and I hate playing piano. It’s so boring, so monotonous, and all I do is stare at black and white keys and tadpoles!”
“Right, so you came out to ride your scooter to avoid that?”
“Yah,” I sighed, looking down at my hands and picking at my hangnails.
“That’s ok, Fortune, your face isn’t really that blue anymore. You just have to be able to see the blue, embrace, and understand it. Then it will be ok!”
“I’ll try, Yoon, I’ll try.”
“Here, look at the mochis. You see, alone, they aren’t blue, but when they come together, they form a small crack that reflects their colors. See,” Yoon pointed to a spot in between the mochis where they sat together. “It’s blue. But mochis are supposed to be eaten. So here.” Yoon handed me the pink mochi and we both scarfed them down.
“See Fortune, they aren’t blue anymore,” Yoon said as he shrugged with a smile.
“Yah, cause they’re in your stomach!” I giggled. Yoon was a funny kid. “We should probably go back now, I need to keep practicing piano.”
“Ok, fine. Can we meet here again tomorrow?”
“Yah, of course!” I smiled, excited to be doing things with my new best friend. Maybe I’ll learn about more blues.
“Sounds good!” Yoon smiled at me.
“My house is in the opposite direction, so I’ll see you tomorrow!” Yoon told me.
I grabbed my scooter and started walking towards the woods to my house, and Yoon stood at the edge of the sidewalk and waved goodbye.
“Fortune!” I turned my head around to look at Yoon.
“Don’t forget to look for the blues!”
“Ok I won’t forget!” I yelled back. A smile creeped up on my face and I started walking home.
I made the trek home, propped my scooter against the wall, and pushed open the back door. My mother was nowhere to be seen.
Maybe I’ll try to practice piano again. I sat down at the bench and just stared at the black and white keys.. As I placed my hands on the keys, the black keys slowly didn’t seem so black anymore and the white weren’t so bone white anymore. C, B, A, E, F#…one note at a time, one melody at a time, the keys and the tadpoles on the paper begin morphing into… blue, myriads of hues and shades of blue. It was so beautiful, stunning—the shades of blue. And as I fell deeper into the music, immersing myself in that world, the blues surrounded and engulfed me. But, they didn’t seem so scary, and for the first time, practicing piano and staring at tadpoles wasn’t so bad after all.
Just like that, days, weeks, months flew by, Yoon and I always met at our regular mochi spot on the sidewalk and he would impart the wisdom of blues on me. Yoon and I were inseparable and he was my rock.
It was interesting, to be able to look at a chocolate chip cookie and see blue. At least I tried to see blue from Yoon’s point of view, and tried to fit in Yoon’s world. His world meant a place of just colors and simple things and the artist in me reveled in that. At home, if I even picked up a paintbrush, Mama would smack it out of my hand and destroy any of the supplies or work she could find. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t let me paint, and she maintained her position. I’d resorted to painting in the middle of the night and hiding everything in the panel of the back of my closet.
Today was like any other day. I slipped out of the house and ran to the “Mochi Delight”, but I didn’t see Yoon standing at his usual spot by the edge of the sidewalk. I walked over and pushed the door open to “Mochi Delight” and saw NaiNai sitting at the edge of the counter rolling out orange mochi balls.
“NaiNai, where’s Yoon? Have you seen him?”
“No, he hasn’t come by today yet. Why don’t you wait for him for a bit?”
I walked back outside and plopped down on the sidewalk. I stared at the trees, but now bare and spindly, in the distance—like skeletons. They didn’t really have the same blues as before, but now they seemed bluer than ever, bare and juxtaposed against the hazy backdrop of distant hills. A cold breeze swept past, and my sherpa jacket suddenly felt too thin. I glanced at the smattering of cars throughout the parking lot, they were mostly black or grey with a couple random greens or reds scattered throughout. No silvers though. Why wasn’t he here yet? Did something happen? He always showed up. My feet started tapping erratically, either from nervous apprehension or the cold, or both— I couldn’t tell. I shoved my hands in my pockets and buried my nose into the collar of my jacket. I don’t know how long I was sitting there, but my butt had long gone numb and my ears were so cold they were burning. I gingerly stood up and scanned the plaza and parking lot. Yoon wasn’t here. I sighed, too tired and too cold to debate staying and trekked home. The trek seemed longer than it had ever before and I barely looked at the trees or the nature around me like I usually did. Thoughts were racing through my head: Where is Yoon? Why didn’t he come? Did something happen to him? Is he ok? I hope he is. Did he finally realize that I’m a failure like my mother always said? Maybe he didn’t want to be friends with me anymore? No. I shook myself out of my downward spiraling thoughts. No, he must have just been busy right? Right. I just walked home, cold and concerned for Yoon.
I waited at our mochi spot the next day, only to again return with numb toes and a frozen butt. I went the next day and waited, munching on mochi and stomping my feet trying to stay warm; I returned home with numb fingers and still, a frozen butt. And so it went on like this, for the next week: I would go, wait, return home with a frozen butt and growing disappointment and the creepings of despair. I couldn’t contact Yoon, I didn’t even know where he lived. I realized, I really didn’t know much about Yoon, other than the fact that he was a 10 year old boy that loved Mochi and blue.
I kept returning to our mochi spot, but every single day of a week soon turned to 4 days, 2 days, then 1 day, then once every two weeks, and finally to once every while. My mother was pushing piano practice harder everyday and I wasn’t able to get out of the house so often anymore. But, I always made sure to check back at least one with NaiNai for the mochi and to ask, “Have you seen Yoon?”
She would always dejectedly tell me, “No, he hasn’t come in so long. I miss him so dearly.”
Me too, NaiNai, me too.
It had been 2 years since the day Yoon disappeared and there isn’t a day I don’t think about him and his blues. Today, I walked to the neighborhood community center a couple houses over to pick up some larger packages that were shipped there instead of our house. As I was carrying the smaller boxes out to the wagon I brought over, I overheard some of the older kids that were standing in a circle, talking.
“Yo, did you hear that kid living on the Stick died.”
“Like the one they call ‘the boy with the blue clouds’?”
“Yah, that one.”
“I think they took him to the hospital one day and he’s been there ever since.”
I didn’t think much of it when they first said it. I didn’t know the boy with the blue clouds and I’ve never seen him either. I dropped my box off at the wagon and came back.
“I think blood disease? It’s like the one where you don’t have enough oxygen in your blood so your blood starts turning blue. I think you also turn blue too bruh.”
“Oh, maybe that’s why they called him ‘the boy with the blue clouds’.”
“Haha, yah probably, I mean I think it was also cause he was wack as shit and talked real weird. He’s apparently a bit cuckoo you know.”
“Oh yah, my mom also told me they said he was hella color blind, like he literally couldn’t see any color too.”
“Man’s life must have actually sucked ass.”
“Yah imagine, can’t relate.”
I grabbed another large box off the pile and started making my way to the door.
“You know that the kid’s name is?”
“Yah, I think it’s something like…Yoon?”
I dropped the box; my heart, my mind, my brain, everything froze. A chill ran up my spine into my head and I couldn’t think, I couldn’t think. No, no, no, not Yoon. All I could hear was the roaring silence and the world spinning. The world that Yoon taught me was blue. Not Yoon. I forgot the boxes, the wagon and I ran and sprinted towards our mochi spot, the path now overgrown with grass and nature. My lungs burned and I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t imagine, only had my feet take me there by sheer habit from all those days making that trek. I made it to that spot, his spot, on the sidewalk and collapsed. Tears fell freely down my face, and my heart just hurt. Why Yoon, why did the world have to take him from me, he was a beautiful soul, my beautiful best friend.
I buried my face in my hands, crying, tears going in salty tracks down my face. I cried, until my eyes were dry and there were no tears left to cry, until I was numb, from the cold, and from the pain.
I walked home slowly. My mind flitted through all of our memories, scooters, the blue trees, the blue car, the blue mochi, the blue world, our blue selves. I could see Yoon’s shaggy hair, blue hair, and his eyes that would narrow into a line when he laughed. His thin hands that he would use to hand me mochi, motion to make jokes, point to teach me the world, and wave goodbye from his spot on the sidewalk. I could hear his twinkling laughter that would always accompany everything he would say, or the stupid things I would say, and all the pep talks he gave me about pursuing painting. Yoon was my light, and now he was gone, for good.
No. This wasn’t what Yoon taught me, this wasn’t what Yoon would have wanted. No. I had to keep his soul in my heart and bring his energy and spirit to everyone. People deserved to learn about the blues, the beautiful blues.
When I got home, I picked up my paintbrush and began to paint.
The paintings looked good, basking under the mellow glow of the spotlights, accompanied by the soft classical and hushed whispering of the crowd. One of the men with cameras approached me, walking up carefully and reaching a hand out.
“Jeremiah Cloak, a pleasure.”
I dipped my head in acknowledgement and smiled, my generic response to all men with cameras. But, this man didn’t let go of my hand.
“May I… just ask you one question? Truly, your work is so ground-breaking, and you’re an inspiration for many other fellow artists, including myself. We all want to know your story and the story of this collection. May I?”
I thought for a moment. Perhaps, I could say, just say a little bit about that one person, the one that taught me all the blues we could see, the blues of the world. The one that showed me that we can see the world through whatever lens we make it despite all that restricts us. The one that proved to me, dreams might seem blue, but they were worth chasing after.
“Yes. Ask your question.”
“Who inspired your style and your art of painting in every hue of blue?”
It was enough—closure for Yoon, closure for me, closure for the blues that belonged to us.
“The boy with the blue clouds.”
Today the sky is a soft baby blue color with marshmallow clouds across it. The weather? Mild spring breeze. My favorite. I note everything down.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always just had one routine: write. From the moment I woke up, to the last minutes before I fell asleep, I carried a little mandarin orange notebook where I wrote everything I saw, heard, and thought about. I love my notebook because it contains my most precious treasure––my memories.
Each morning was the same. I woke up with no recollection of yesterday or the day before that or anything after December 5, 2021; so, the first thing I did was grab that little orange notebook placed on my nightstand and read the entries from the past few days. I learned word by word who I was, what I had done, and where I had left off the day. Every single page was a rich text that led me through my jumbled story of details from my life I couldn’t place together, but at least this way, I still had a small purpose in my life.
“Can they just get her to talk about something useful now!”
Of course Joel was exploding now. It had already been 48 hrs and with no lead, he knew if he didn’t find some new information, our case would soon become lost.
“Hey, calm down Joel. They’re just trying to get her to open up, a l right?”
“By what, by letting her stall telling us her nice little routine with her little notebook? We know about the notebook! That’s WHY we brought her in, Carla!”
“I know, I know but the poor girl doesn’t have a memory, and she’s only 19, ok? Imagine how hard it is to talk about anything, knowing you won’t remember it the next day. A timeline must be so hard for her to comprehend and you know… well… she has to start somewhere.
Look, I know you care about this Joel, but she will tell us the information on her own terms ”
Joel sighed and crossed his arms.
“Fine. I’ll leave you guys alone while I go look in the house for the notebook again, but can you at least go into the room to tell Hannah to center her questions around the fire? All we need is some kind of proof.”
“Yes, Joel, but you should just rest a bit before, yeah? You should sleep some, I know it’s been a long morning.”
Reluctantly, Joel finally listened to what I was saying and started to grab his jacket to leave.
Just call me whenever she talks about the fire.”
I touched my earpiece to talk to Hannah on the inside of the interrogation room.
“All right Hannah, Joel is getting impatient, so can you try to probe her with some questions about where she thinks her notebook is right now? Or if she can tell us what she wrote the day of the fire.”
I looked at Hannah as she took a seat in front of Zaya, who was sitting down behind the cold metal desk.
“Very nice Zaya, but, well we’re gonna switch up the questions a bit now ok? What can you tell me about the specifics of what you wrote in your notebook yesterday?”
“I mean…like I said I write about the weather, activities I do in my day, just whatever I find interesting and I want to remember the next day. You know, it’s just the way I live my life… what’s still unclear??”
“Hey, you’re doing great Zaya, but my team on the other side of this room are people on your team that are just really looking for some very specific and valuable information that we think you might be able to tell us. I know you can’t see them but they’re waiting to see if you can help them.
So how about I just ask you some direct questions and do you think you can tell me some straight-forward answers?”
“All right… ok I can try.”
“That’s what I like to hear, Zaya, so let’s go back to your notebook. You mentioned that you place it on your nightstand every night and take it with you as the day passes, so where is it right now?
“Uh… well it’s complicated. I have it here. In my mind, inside my memory for today at least.”
“Wait, so it’s not a physical material then?”
“No no, it is. I just choose whenever I want to take it out to write something but it’s not always visible for others.”
“Zaya, do you know where your notebook is right now?” “Do you know what you wrote in yesterday’s entry?”
“I’m confused Ms. Hannah, did I not just give it to you?” “If you don’t have it, who does?!” “If no one knows where it is, uh… uh…. how do I know who you are, how do I know if I’ve met you before? Where am I again?!”
Oh shit, she’s panicking. “I’m going in Hannah.” “We can’t have her breakdown”
I opened the door quickly and entered the room.
Hanna and Zaya both stared at me. Zaya looked both desperate and clueless as I saw in her eyes her fear. Fear that her mind was not enough to help us, and fear that she actually couldn’t even help herself.
Man it was already 10:00 pm and the stars were shining bright but I just couldn’t go home and sleep like Carla had told me. I decided to just go straight to Zaya’s property instead to see if I could find any trace of the notebook there.
“Godammit. Look at this place.”
I was at the house where Zaya lived, which was in the Pine Tree neighborhood––a place where wealthy families often came to live.
From her file, I knew she had inherited a good amount of money from her parent’s death but for being such a young girl with her mental condition, I was surprised to know that she still lived in this area.
I made my way into the driveway of her house and got out of the car. Her porch was big and only had a couple of flowers that were drying out.
“Huh, that’s interesting”
The door was locked so I began to look for the spare key that I figured couldn’t be hidden too well. 80% of the time, homeowners hide the spare key under the mailbox so I looked there and what would you guess, I found the key.
The door creaked as I opened the door slowly. It was cold inside.
In the living room there was no TV, games, or books, just a small couch.
There were no big pictures or decorations and only the bare minimum of furniture.
I walked up to the second floor where there was a master bedroom and a guest room. In the guest room there were only big boxes of cardboard but in the master bedroom, there was finally some sign that there was a person living here.
Two big lamps on each side of the bed, long navy blue curtains, posters of a band around the room, and several loose clothes on a chair. That’s when I finally turned around and noticed the big wide open window.
The house next door was perfectly visible from this angle. The master bedroom of the neighbors was especially clear looking out this window.
“Ha, so this is where she could have seen everything.”
I started to look for some place where she could have hidden the notebook close to the window. I opened drawers in a small cabinet next to the bed and then looked in the closet but nothing was obvious.
I searched the room top to bottom but there was nothing I could find and just when I was about to give up and leave, I heard the front door open.
Shit, I’d left my phone in the car and before I could exit the bedroom, I heard someone coming up the stairs.
Two voices became louder and louder as they approached the room and with no escape, I quickly ducked and hid below the bed.
“Hey, come take a look at this, Frank. This looks like her room.”
“Tim, you go look in the other rooms, I got this one.”
I heard footsteps right alongside the bed and I tried to hold my breath. Sweat was now dripping from my face and my heart beat so fast I thought its thumping would give me away. I saw his feet moving as he walked around the room and straight towards the open window.
Stupid, why would I leave it open? I timidly peeked out from below the bed and saw as the man put his head outside the window and then reached to grab something.
“I’ve got it Tim! Let’s clear out before anyone else comes!”
The man exited the room quickly but right before he was out of sight, I caught a glimpse of what he held in his large hand––the small orange notebook.
“Hi, Zaya. We haven’t met yet but my name is Carla and I am the head of the bureau of investigation of Lance Township.” “I realize how scary and confusing this experience can be, but this is the moment where we most need you, so just take a deep breath.”
Zaya did as I told her and briefly closed her eyes.
“Hi ahh… so can I just say that I still don’t know what you want from m—”
My phone rang loudly just before Zaya could finish her sentence and I answered the call, annoyed already at the person who had interrupted the conversation that was just beginning.
“Carla Santiam, you have under your possession one of our most valuable consultants. Let her go immediately, don’t ask any questions, and no one else will get hurt.”
“Excuse me, how did you get this number? Who are you?!”
“Oh Carla, you already broke the first demand. Unfortunately we won’t have time to fully introduce ourselves today but I doubt this will be the last time seeing you. Now, given that you don’t seem like you’ll be cooperating today, we’ll just have to do this the hard way.
They hung up the phone and then gas began coming out of the air vent.
“Hannah! Open the door now!”
Hannah quickly grabbed Zaya and led her out the door, closing it behind her as she said: “Sorry Carla but you were always in the way. Vitia etra!”
I took out my keys and tried to open the door only to discover it had been locked from the outside.
Knocking on the door I began to scream for help but there was no one on the other side for me.
I began to breathe harder now. All the fog was surrounding me now. The air was getting thinner. I was getting dizzy. My vision became blurry.
I collapsed to the floor.
Carston Miller stood under the 700-ton granite U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. He felt used and manipulated by these men that he had looked up to ever since he could remember. His life felt destined to be another name inscribed at the bottom of a rusting plaque, just like his grandfather’s would soon be. Carston did not desire fame or even money. He still revered the service of the fallen Marine men who the Millers had come to honor. But he had felt forced into being a Marine. He felt trapped between what he wanted for himself and what his family wanted for him, for them. More than all, he resented the expectations and traditions that his father had placed on his shoulders. Expectations and traditions he was about to defy.
Carston Miller’s path to the Marines had been set for him from the moment he was born. Underneath his picture in the fifth-grade yearbook from Central Cunningham Elementary, he wrote “When I am older, I want to be a Marine.” When he brought the yearbook home the following fall, his words came as no surprise to his two parents.
The front porch of the Miller’s house in Cunningham, Illinois appeared to be straight out of a commercial for the American government. The stars and stripes hung out over the lawn in front of the Adirondack chairs beside the stoop. A shiplap sign with the words “Tradition, Faith, and Family” hung over the front door, visible to anyone walking past the house on their way to town. The Marine slogan “Semper Fi” hung on a flag over the back door, a constant reminder of the roots of the Miller family. Carston was raised on these values. But as he entered his junior year of high school, the boy that once dreamed of becoming a Marine had begun to resent the traditions that would soon be forced onto his shoulders.
Entering his third year of high school, the football, basketball, and baseball star towered over his teammates and the opposing players at six-foot-four 190 pounds. As the infamous, grueling summer football workouts lay ahead, Carston faced a seemingly impossible choice. Although he had had a football in his hands for as long as could remember, Carston was now in love with the game of basketball. The creativity and the freedom on the court were a distant cry from the rigid formations and play calls on the gridiron. Carston’s elegance with the basketball was lost to the brute force, rough and tumble style of football. The concussing hits that men such as his father adored were no match for the swish of the net to Carston Miller. In fact, his athletic build, refined skills, and strong work ethic on the court had even attracted the attention of several small division one basketball programs. But if Carston wanted to truly impress the college scouts, he would need to quit football and focus his time on basketball during the fall and summer.
There was only one thing stopping him: his father. Carston’s parents had placed him in peewee football the day he was eligible; Rick Miller believed that football taught life lessons that nothing else could. Football was supposed to provide Carston with the toughness, grit, and spirit to succeed when he would inevitably become a Marine like his father and grandfather. Carston thought that notion was rather dumb. His father, Rick, a retired gunny sergeant who now worked as a carpenter after leaving the Marines five years ago, used to kick his ass in their morning workouts; now he could barely keep up. Carston’s father had even been a star at running back for Cunningham High School. However, upon graduating he turned down numerous football scholarship offers to follow in the footsteps of his father, Arnold, and enlist in the Core.
Two days before he was set to show up for football preseason in mid-June, Carston summoned the nerves to tell his father that he would be quitting.
Carston looked up at the Marine slogan “Semper-Fi,” meaning “always faithful,” as he walked from the driveway where he was shooting hoops up onto the cedar porch where his father sat reading the daily newspaper. The title of the headline article in the sports section read, “Cunningham High Looks to Stars to Boost Promising Football Season.”
“Nice hat,” his father said as he sat down at the wooden table he and Rick had built when Carston was entering sixth grade. He realized that he was wearing his worn-out Marines hat that his grandfather had given him over five years ago; when Carston first got it in middle school, he ate, slept, and went to school in the camo hat. The now ratty cap had practically lived on his head. As Carston prepared to tell his father that he wanted to quit football, he fiddled with the Marine dog tags he had worn since second grade: he did this when he was nervous. He ran his fingers over the cool stainless steel and the engraved letters that spelled out “Miller.” The tags used to bring him comfort when he was away from his family for an extended time. Now, he would fiddle with them before a big game or before an important test. The dog tags symbolized tradition; a tradition he was about to break.
Several seconds of awkward silence passed before Carston finally managed to force the words out of his mouth. “Dad, I want to quit football” is all that he said. Rick Miller sat in silence as Carston bit on his dog tags, waiting for a response. To avoid looking at his father, Carston gazed out at the backyard; he wished he could still go climb on the treehouse and swing freely on the rope swing. However, his father sat indifferent, staring at his son. His emotionless look is what Carston imagined was drilled into Marines like Rick, who still had a high and tight haircut typical of the Core. Carston had grown his hair out once he reached high school. “Are you sure?” his father asked. “Yes,” said Carston. Rick got up from his seat and walked back into the house, where he proceeded to have a long and rather heated discussion with Carston’s mother. His son sat in confusion, wondering what they were possibly talking about.
Several days later, Carston’s parents announced that the family would be taking a road trip to Washington D.C. Arnold Miller, Carston’s grandfather, had been “selected” to receive a plaque at the US Marine Corps War Memorial. Arnold had served as Private First Class in the Core, and Carston knew that his honorable service demanded respect from others. However, Carston got the sense that the visit to the monument was less about honoring his grandfather and more about the tradition that he was expected to uphold. Regardless, he wasn’t looking forward to it. He would rather spend his waning summer days playing pickup at the park.
It was August by the time the family, including Arnold Miller, headed to the nation’s capital. Rick Miller had still not attempted to convince his son to return to playing football. In their first two days on the trip, the Millers visited the typical boring tourist spots: The Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and several others. Carston’s sisters had been relatively disappointed with the first two days, as the family usually traveled to the beach or somewhere a bit more entertaining. But this trip was different. On the third day, the Miller family headed to the monument to witness the unveiling of their grandfather’s new plaque. The cloudy overcast of the humid summer morning had given way to warm sunlight by the time the Millers arrived at the memorial. In their usual fashion, they had arrived before any others that would be coming to see the monument and pay their respects.
Carston had expected to be greatly moved by the significance of the monument. He had watched countless movies and read endless books about stories of courageous, heroic Marine men and women. He had experienced firsthand the life of a Marine, and he understood the sadness and tragedy that came with the job. His father and grandfather had been in a state of dejection since they had woken up that morning; they knew the power of the sacrifice that the fallen soldiers had made for their country. As the family walked around the memorial reading the names of the deceased, Rick and Arnold Miller became emotional, which was something that Carston had hardly ever experienced from his father and grandfather. Rick even pointed out two men in his battalion that had been killed by a landmine in the Gulf War. Carston recognized the names of these two men: a picture of his father and them in front of a large dune in Kuwait was propped against the fireplace mantel. However, Carston did not feel the emotion and weight that he could see in the faces of his father and grandfather. With his family’s dog tags wedged in between his teeth, he stood underneath the image of six Marines raising the American flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. To the sixteen-year-old, the ten-foot-high granite memorial was impressive, yet no different than the others he had seen in Washington D.C. earlier in the trip.
By the time the plaque was set to be unveiled, Carston’s feelings toward the Marine monument had still not been affected in the way that his parents had hoped. However, while walking to the site where the plaque was to be revealed, Carston realized many other families similar to his who all seemed to be waiting around the memorial. The curtain was drawn over the new section of the monument, which included Arnold Miller’s plaque, to the applause of the crowd that had been gathering. As those around him whistled and cheered to honor the new names, Carston pulled out his phone and found the Marine memorial website. As he scrolled to the bottom of the page, he was shocked to see an image advertising the purchase of a plaque at the memorial. All this time Carston had believed that his grandfather had done something particularly outstanding to receive this recognition, when in fact it took his parents simply paying a $600 fee. Carston began to question why they had even come to the monument. If it was not to honor his grandfather, then what was the point?
But Carston’s spiraling mind was halted by his father, who scolded him for having his phone out and disrespecting the men and women whose names now were inscribed in the monument. “Who knows,” Rick Miller said, “maybe your name will make it up there someday too, son.”
At this moment, under the monument honoring those that he had looked up to all of his life, Carston realized that this trip had very little to do with honoring Arnold Miller. Instead, his parents, but especially his father, had tried to use this “vacation” to get to Carston, to convince him to become a Marine and forget his passions. Much of what Carston has done in his life, except basketball, has solely had the intention of guiding him to the Marines, just like his father and grandfather. The signs above the door haven’t been there to remind Carston to live faithfully and honorably. They have been there to brainwash him into following the path that his father has set for him, which was the path that his father’s father had set for him. Carston realized how he had been used, even manipulated, by his parents, and he hated that. He hated that if he didn’t play football or he didn’t get the sides of his hair tapered like his father’s, then he would never be a real Marine.
But as Carston bit on his dog tags in angst, he also realized that he, in fact, no longer wanted to be a Marine. All that he had ever known about serving in the Core was what his father and grandfather had known; never had Carston thought about what he truly wanted. It took until the family’s trip to the monument for him to understand the manipulation that he had experienced, and he resented his family’s actions of pressuring him into their desired path. Carston still loved his family, even his father, but he no longer desired to hang Marine slogans in his house or raise his kids to become Marines. In fact, at the monument, Carston decided, and knew, what was right for his future. And it was not the Marines.
But little did Carston know the disappointment that he would bring to his father and his family with his decision to pursue his interests instead of what his father had wanted for him. When he told his family as they returned to Cunningham after their road trip to D.C. that he wanted to play basketball in college instead of enlisting, the tears from his mother spoke for the silence of Rick and Arnold Miller. Carston had never heard his mother cry before; he did not think she even was capable.
Carston never regretted his decision to go against the wishes of his family and play basketball in college. But standing under the monument at sixteen years old, Carston could not understand how he would feel as he watched his father’s mahogany casket being lowered into his grave. He could not predict the stream of tears that would cascade down his face and onto the dog tags he still wore as he reflected on the disappointment that he had brought his father. But at the same time, he knew he would never forget the manipulation, the way Rick Miller forced him to follow the only traditions he had ever known. While Carston had always loved his father, he would not forgive him until the priest recited the final prayer over Rick’s grave in the cemetery where three generations of Millers before him had been laid to rest. In the moment before he turned to leave his father for the last time, Carston’s anger briefly faded in sorrow and remorse. Carston knew that his father would never have called him a disappointment, but he knew that he would never have called him a Marine.
+1 (605) 123-4567
Wed, Oct 28, 17:41
How are you?
hi? who is this??
“Really? You’re texting while we’re watching a movie?” Kieran whined as he threw his head back against the couch. Kieran Samuels had been Max’s best friend since the day he transferred to Keystone Middle School. She was sitting in homeroom when they walked in. They both had blond hair, but his was a mess; the skin underneath his forest green eyes had a slight purple tint to it, almost as though he hadn’t slept in a while, and the uniform that he had on was wrinkled. In layman’s terms, he looked a mess compared to his blond counterpart. Maybe that’s what drew Max towards him instead. The teacher, Mrs. Daniels, pulled the pair over to talk and the next thing Max knew was that the messy one was walking over to sit in the desk next to her. Just as she was about to introduce herself, the teacher called for attention. As Mrs. Daniels droned on about attendance, Max took it upon herself to write out a note on a torn piece of paper. ‘Hi! I’m Max Jones,’ The note read. She folded it up and slid it onto his desk. She turned back towards the front and listened to the teacher for a while before she saw the paper in her peripheral vision. Underneath her handwriting was just one word, ‘Kieran Fischer.’ Now, five years later, they were each other’s closest friends.
Max rolled her eyes at him and turned her phone off, taking a minute to stare at her reflection. A pair of mismatched eyes stared back at her. Her left eye was a deep chocolate color while the right one shone a steel blue that contrasted with the almond color of her skin. A few fake red curls escaped the bun atop her head and framed her face. Freckles draped across her nose and cheeks, some even rested in the crest of her cupid’s bow and spilled onto her full lips. She resembled her mom, almost strikingly so, and she hated it.
Her mom died due to complications during childbirth and so she grew up without a mother figure present in her life. What she knew of her mother came solely from stories paired with pictures of mom that her dad would bring up when he wasn’t actively ignoring her presence. She would always catch the inflection in her dad’s voice whenever he talked about her mom, and it always caused a pool of guilt to settle in her stomach. Knowing that she killed her mom, the love of her dad’s life, always caused a horrible feeling to seep into her bones whenever he talked about her. Coupled with the fact that she was a carbon copy of her mother, she felt that she was the ghost of her mother, haunting her father with the reminder that his wife was no longer with them.
Kieran grabbing her phone from her hands pulled Max out of her thoughts. “Give it back!” Max exclaimed as she reached her hand across Kieran’s chest in a weak attempt at getting her phone back. He was holding it above his head with his right hand.
“Do you not want to spend time with me? Watch the movie,” Kieran said in a weird tone as he tossed her phone onto the love seat next to them. She cast her eyes downwards out of guilt. She always ended up making him mad one way or another.
“Sorry,” Max muttered as she sat back in the couch.
+1 (605) 123-4567
Fri, Oct 30, 07:10
Good morning, sorry I haven’t responded. I’ve
I missed you.
You should wear your hair down more often.
Makes you look more mature.
Stop working and talk to me.
The destination number you are trying to
reach is blocked from receiving this message.
“What the fuck,” Max muttered as she blocked the number. The same number had texted her two days prior, but she brushed it off as a mistake and now, she wasn’t so sure. Either one of her friends was pranking her, or it was one weird coincidence that she had also worn her hair down today. Deciding to call up her friends to interrogate them, she opened up contacts and dialled the first one. It rang a few times before he answered.
“Hello?” Kieran’s groggy voice answered.
From her desk she glanced at the clock on her nightstand.
“Oh sorry, I didn’t realize the time,” she said softly into the phone as she stood up from her desk. She had been doing homework for the past four hours thanks to her sadistic teachers.
“Well you already woke me up so you might as well make it worth it,” he said through the phone. She could barely hear him because of wind brushing against the mic.
“Close your window dude. The wind is more obnoxious than you are,” she said as she flicked off her lamp.
The darkness enveloped her instantly with only the dim moonlight illuminating her massive room. Max walked towards her window seat and sat down as she looked out the bay window. Past the greenhouse and towards the skyline where her extensive backyard met the border of trees.
“Sorry Maxine, no can do. My mom has the heat turned too fucking high so I’m keeping the window open so I don’t die.” Shuffling could be heard as he paused for a moment. “Now why did you wake me up from the only good sleep I’ve had all week?” he joked. A small hint of guilt crept up her spine as she looked up at the full moon.
“Do you know if Arianna or Prisha mentioned any pranks or anything lately?” Max questioned before biting her fingernails. It was a bad nervous habit.
“No, why?” he said after a brief pause.
A sigh escaped her lips before she answered. “It’s nothing really. Someone has been texting me but it might just be a wrong number type thing.”
Kieran hummed before he replied, “You’re thinking too much about it. It’s late and you’re paranoid, so just…block the number and get some sleep.”
Max got up from the window and walked to the side of her king bed. She kicked off her slippers and slid feet first underneath her comforter. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry for calling,” she all but whispered. Her cheeks felt hot from embarrassment over waking him up for something so stupid. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll even help you clean up after the party to show no harm done.”She could hear his smile through the phone. They said their goodbyes before hanging up. Max rested her head against the fluffy pillows and almost instantly fell asleep.
+1 (605) 765-4321
Sat, Oct 31, 10:38
Blocking someone for no reason is rude.
Did your dad not teach you manners?
haha guys ur so funny. great prank.
tricked w no treat, wow so cool
really great job, im scared shitless
It’s not some joke. Can’t I talk to you?
I know you’re not doing anything.
Why do you talk to Kierran, but not me?
get a fucking life and leave me alone
Incoming call from +1 (605) 765-4321
The destination number you are trying to
reach is blocked from receiving this message.
+1 (605) 365-7456
Sat, Oct 31, 22:26
Maxine, I’m sorry for being so forward.
Incoming call from +1 (605) 365-7456
Maxine, answer my calls.
Incoming call from +1 (605) 365-7456
Maxine. I love you.
The destination number you are trying to
reach is blocked from receiving this message.
The music was too loud. The noise penetrated Max’s skull. She leaned against the kitchen counter as a feeble attempt to keep from falling over. Some random redhead dressed as Fred Weasly dared her to take another shot of tequila with him and Max wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. She should’ve backed down since that was her 6th shot of alcohol all night and she was already too drunk to walk properly, but she was stupid. Fred shouted some cheer before stumbling past other people in the kitchen and disappearing into the crowd of people dancing under the LED lights. Being that Max’s dad was a well-known lawyer, they were well off and since she was popular around school, her house became the common spot for parties every weekend. It was Halloween, so her house was even more packed than usual. A sloppy grin graced her face as she followed behind him. She slowly maneuvered her body into the flashing lights. As she crossed the threshold into the living room, the sound of the music got louder and crashed against her head like a wave, making her dizzy. The smell of weed grew stronger as she walked by the couches. White powdered lines could be seen on the living room table. She turned a blind eye to it, as she normally did. She made her way into the throng of people, passing Jokers and angels, and started dancing with anybody and everybody, swaying to the music as best as she could. Whoever is on AUX needs a medal, she thought to herself.
Time blended together until the next thing Max knew, she was outside on her porch, staring at the cars parked on her lawn while she caught her breath. It was cold out and the cop costume she had on didn’t supply the warmth she wanted at that moment. Everybody else was inside, so when she heard footsteps approaching from behind, she turned around to see who joined her. The person was dressed as Michael Myers so she couldn’t tell who it was, but based on their stature she assumed it was a guy.
“Too stuffy in there for you too huh?” Max slurred as she smiled at the masked figure. He only stared in response. Max turned back around and sighed, enjoying the state of silence they were in. The music from the house was pulsating slowly through the air. Crickets, or cicadas, she couldn’t tell which, were heard alongside the noise emanating from the house. Michael walked closer to her, his footsteps heavy on the floorboards, until his body heat could be felt right behind her. Too inebriated to truly sense the danger that she was in, she turned and smiled up at him. She was by no means short, but the guy easily towered over her 5’10 frame.
“Whoa there, bud. Personal space is a thing you know,” She said with a nervous chuckle. An eerie feeling overcame her as she felt goosebumps rise on her arms. Michael placed his arms on either side of her, trapping her in a small cage. “Okay. Seriously, get away from me.” she slurred as she raised her hands to his chest to shove him. He barely moved. “This silent and brooding thing isn’t attractive. Back off asshole,” she said while preparing to knee him in the nuts, but before she could, the arms that were caging her in suddenly wrapped around her body and lifted her off of the ground.
A scream erupted from her lips while she struggled against his hold, but the volume of the music drowned out her cries for help. He roughly hoisted her over his shoulder; her face slamming into his hard back. She balled up her fists and pounded them against his back. She watched the ground move by as he walked farther from her house. Different emotions swirled through her head as tears started to form behind her eyes. Fear. Anger. Disbelief. There’s no way this was happening with a house full of people. Someone had to hear her screaming. If no one else was going to help her, she had to do it herself. Realizing that her punches weren’t holding any weight, she resorted to flailing her legs around. The unexpected movement caused his grip on her legs to loosen so she took his surprise to her advantage and managed to fall from his shoulder. Not spending any more time on the ground then when she initially collided, she stumbled up to her feet and ran towards the separate garage. Max made it to the back door and slammed it closed behind her, taking care to lock the deadbolt. Nothing but her quick breaths could be heard. She backed farther into the dark garage, trying to catch her breath. Silence elapsed for minutes before someone banged on the door.
“Max! Are you in there? It’s Kieran,” Kieran said while rapping his fist against the door. She let out a sigh of relief and cautiously went to unlock the door, but as soon as she turned the lock, Kieran forced himself inside. To Max’s surprise, and misfortune, somebody else followed behind him too. That somebody was the person dressed as Michael Myers.
Upon seeing his mask, Max’s heart plummeted. “So was this just some sick prank between you two? Because it wasn’t funny,” Max yelled as she backed away from the pair. Kieran held his hands out towards her as an attempt to calm her down. It wasn’t working.
“Yes! It was just a prank Max. We didn’t think you would be so lame about it. Lighten up,” Kieran said as he walked over to wrap Max in his arms. She hesitantly relaxed into his chest as the person behind him took their mask off. An identical copy of Kieran stared back at her. If there was one person she couldn’t stand, it was Kiel, Kieran’s identical twin brother. They had the same face; the only thing that could tell them apart was Kiel’s hair was dyed brown. He had always creeped her out, whether it was from his incessant staring or the way he would always find his way around her during school. She didn’t understand how Kieran could be so normal, but Kiel turned out so…weird. She was nice to him regardless.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Max sighed as she wrapped her arms around his waist. “Those texts were creepy though, guys. Did you actually have to watch me?” She awkwardly chuckled as she tried to pull away from Kieran. He wouldn’t let go. A deep, gravelly voice spoke up from behind him.
“Maxine, you have to understand that we would never hurt you,” Kiel said as he inched towards the pair. Max’s heart rate rose, despite being with someone she fully trusted. She felt a small prick in her neck, which made her look up at him. He had an almost remorseful look on his face as he avoided eye contact. The struggle drained from her body as she felt her motions slow. Her vision started to go black around the edges as she struggled to keep her eyelids open. “I’m sorry, Maxie,” was the last thing she heard before it all went black.
Tommy was a wizard with the yoyo. His hands whipped around at record speeds as he flung his spinning blue orb up, up, higher, higher, higher, higher…before letting gravity slam it towards the ground. He used the momentum to purposely guide it backwards—a rookie move, actually—and onto its string, creating an impossible knot that only the best competitive yoyoers could defeat.
Could Tommy slay this epic monster of a move? It truly did not matter to me.
I was caught up in my own battle: It was a Friday night, and here I was again, sitting on a dirty church-basement linoleum as a Jesus nerd forced me to watch his yoyo freestyle. Am I not supposed to laugh? I looked around the room, trying to catch someone’s eyes, but they were all smiling proudly up at Tommy above. As always, I was the only one who found this all a little weird.
I had never heard of competitive yoyoing before Tommy launched into his excited solo a few minutes before, and, honestly, I would’ve been okay living in ignorance. He was already spazzing out about it by the time I arrived, speaking frantically with his hands in a way that only Italians and homeschooled geeks do:
“And, gosh, it was so cool. I mean, man you gotta join me next time. All the people and the moves and the collector’s items. And it’s right here in Pittsburgh. Come on, dude—come to my club meeting next week,” he begged breathlessly to Bella, the innocent looking blonde batting her eyes next to him.
“That’s so cool! I’ll ask,” she said sweetly back to him. Bella’s voice always made my skin crawl in annoyance.
“Wait, what are you talking about?” I interjected.
“CYOA: Competitive Yoyoing of America.”
“Oh,” I responded awkwardly.
Please don’t tell me more about this.
“Tommy, you should show her your routine!” the girl crooned.
God, shut the fuck up, Bella.
“Oh yeah! Watch this!”
And, that’s when Tommy went on the longest, most excruciating yoyo solo that I had ever fucking seen. He swung his little blue yoyo out like a switchblade, stabbing at imaginary aggressors. He became King Tut, walking like an Egyptian as the yoyo danced above his head. He was an exotic dancer, moving his rigid rectangular hips as the yoyo crashed towards the floor. He was a cowboy and the yoyo was his bucking thoroughbred. He was the devil incarnate, because this was truly living hell.
When he finished, he took a big dramatic bow, and we all cheered heartily—pretending that this was the greatest thing ever. God, I hope I wasn’t the only one pretending to be impressed. That would be so embarrassing for those Jesus nerds. I get that they want to be nice…but seriously…do I really need to be nice about competitive yoyoing?
“Did you like my routine?” he said softly as he pulled me aside.
His sweaty blonde hair had escaped from his ponytail.
“Yeaaaaah, it was definitely interesting! I’ve never, personally, been able to yoyo.”
God, he looked like Paul Revere.
“Oh my gosh, let me teach you!”
The alarm bells in my head began to ring. The British are coming! The British are coming!
That took him aback. We kinda just stood there in silence for a few seconds. He broke the silence:
“Are you coming to that concert next week with us?”
“The Christian Rock one? Uh, probably not.”
“Why?! You gotta! Crowder and KB are playing!”
“I don’t know who those are.”
“HOW ARE YOU UNEDUCATED?! Does this seriously mean you don’t know ‘Church Clap?’”
“Yeah—I like, don’t listen to Christian rock.”
I might’ve been at a youth group, but that didn’t mean that I was a dork.
“But, oh my gosh, it’s so good. The lyrics,” he opened his mouth to sing.
Oh no! He opened his mouth to sing! He launched into a high pitched screeching singing voice:
“Gimme that God Almighty, That good ol’ Bible, That old school—”
“Stop, stop, stop, stop! I know it! I know it!” I lied.
I know it’s a sin, but I had to save myself.
“Yeah, but anyways, this concert is always so much fun,” he remarked as his face became serious, “It would just be you…and me…,” he noticed my face turn white, “and a sea full of other believers,” he quickly corrected himself.
Jesus, I had to shut this shit down. Perhaps that’s why I felt motivated to say the following:
“I don’t believe in God though.”
“What the heck do you mean?” He was offended.
“What do you not get? I said it straight up: I don’t think God is real.”
“Why are you even here then?” His eyes were daggers. “It doesn’t make any sense why you’d come to a Bible Study if you thought it was all fake.”
I’ve been coming to our youth group forever. What else was I supposed to do? Hang out with the meth-heads in the back alley? I didn’t say that to him though.
“Why would I come here if I had a better option? Rubix cubes, yoyoing, and the New Testament aren’t exactly the funnest Friday night plans. If I was allowed to be anywhere else, I swear I wouldn’t be here.”
He knew what I actually meant. His eyes were brimming with hurt, and he opened his mouth, but paused and closed it again. I had just rejected him. His lips were pursed in angry thought.
“But, like, you get it, I mean—” I stammered, my cheeks getting hot.
I felt a little guilty.
“You know, my brother has an incurable disease,” he interjected purposefully.
“Uh, what, okay?”
“He has an incurable disease.”
I had known Tommy forever, but I didn’t know that.
“What does that have to do with God? If God was real, why would he give your brother an incurable disease?”
“So that He can cure it and we can proclaim Him,” Tommy spat.
I was getting flustered.
“That makes absolutely no sense.”
He’s seething with anger now.
“Well, you know what? After this week, then don’t come back,” he spat, turning away, “Don’t sit by me during the movie.”
He left, and I was alone.
The Princess Bride was flashing across the screen in front of us, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the devastated expression on Tommy’s face when he sulked away.
Tommy has never really been real. He’s always been a caricature of a Jesus freak—shamelessly droning on and on and on about Christian rock, yoyoing competitions, Dr. Strange, rubix cubing, and other weird nerd shit. But for the first time, as his hurt doe eyes cement themselves in my brain, he feels so real. And I feel so guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t have rejected him like that.
Whenever he talks, it’s always with this endlessly innocent stupid dopey smile. It was there when he was yoyoing. It was there last week when we were serving dinner at the soup kitchen. Hell, it was even kinda there when we were talking about Abraham almost killing his damn son. But, this is the first time I’ve ever seen his face drop completely. His signature smile was still missing when I looked at him now. How awful of a person do you have to be to break Tommy?
I still don’t believe in God. And, I definitely did not appreciate his reference to his probable crush on me. I think that Tommy’s delusional and that nothing truly all knowing or all good would make someone suffer needlessly with an “incurable disease.” But, for the first time, Tommy’s unusual evangelistic zeal made sense: he was terrified.
It is terrifying: when the pediatrician’s professional smile scrunches into concerned pursed lips; desperately waiting for the phone to ring with that one glorious word—”negative;” feeling your thoughts get trapped in your throat because it’s just too hard to tell people; the awkward silence that shrouds every conversation, because what are people even supposed to say to you anymore; the chronic pain that keeps you up at night; those horse pills that ruin the taste of every meal; the drip, drip, drip, dripping of the IV as you waste away—incapable of even pulling yourself to the bathroom; the chokes as your visitors try to try in vain to silently contain their sobs, but they can cry out loud for all you care, because you are too weak to comfort them anyways. Everyone knows that you won’t make it through the night. You know that you won’t make it through the night. And that’s terrifying: grasping that everything—all the suffering and pain and hospital bills and effort—might just be for nothing.
I should probably apologize.
Westley and Buttercup kissed on the screens in front of us. The credits rolled. Tommy got up. He didn’t look at me. God, why won’t he look at me? This all would be so much easier if he just made eye contact.
I noticed his prized yoyo laying abandoned on the ground and grabbed it as I left. I ran my fingers over its smooth surface. To my surprise, it actually felt sort of nice in my hands.
I stalked him down the stairs, so close I was almost stepping on his heels. Yet, still he wouldn’t turn around. The agonizing silence was only broken by the quick clop, clop, clop, clopping of our feet as he tried to outrun me. Was I so awful that I needed to be outrun?
“Tommy—” I broke the silence as we opened the chapel doors onto the street, “Wait up! I have your yoyo, and I want to talk to you!”
We were alone. (Except for Meth Head Steve, of course. Steve was perpetually passed out on the church steps.)
Tommy turned to me, our eyes meeting momentarily. His were black.
“I have your yoyo. You promised you would teach me how—”
“I have to go,” he said gruffly, swiping the yoyo from my hands, leaving behind only a tingling feeling of emptiness, “Thanks.”
He was in his car now.
“Tommy, wait!” I cried desperately, “Jesus said you have to forgive me!”
“Jesus isn’t real though. You said it yourself,” he spat back as he slammed the car door.
His words reverberated through my head as I gazed into oncoming traffic. It was just me and Steve. I was alone. And my heart hurt with unshakable guilt and self-loathing.