Thursday, January 29, 2015

Those Last Ten Minutes

            This poor life. This thing that feels like it’s broken, but it’s not. This should be the end of something, but it’s nothing. It’s really nothing, I swear it is. But while I swear, I’ll be standing in the middle of a highway, screaming at the top of my lungs. I’m still well. I must be. I can feel the blood pulsing through my head and the sand underneath my toenails.
            And then I’m back, and you’re staring at me. Your head is tilted to the side, one of your eyebrows is lifting into an expression of disbelief. Your eyes are harder than I remember them. I want to reach up and touch your temple, touch your chin, touch any of your features so that you will be kinder to me. But I can’t. You’re not here to be comforted, you are here to hurt me. You don’t want to be, but you are.
            “Olivia,” you say, “are you listening?”
            “Of course, John. Of course I am.”
            You shift your weight. You know I’m lying. “It’s important that you listen,” you say. “I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding about what I’m saying.”
            “No,” I say, “how could there be?”
            Your eyes soften a little. I feel the pity streaming through me and, as much as I want it, I want you to feel the way you are hurting me, resentment starts to bubble in the pit of my stomach. “We’re not together anymore,” you say, “and we won’t be.”
            “I know.”
            “Do you?”
            “But . . . you didn’t before?”
            “No, you didn’t tell me before.”
            “I thought we understood each other.”
            “You assumed we understood each other.” My left hand pulls through my oily black hair.
            “Which is why I’m making sure now.”
            “Right. That’s good of you.”
            You take a deep breath. “So we’re clear?”
            “Yes, I think so. I think I get what you’re saying.”
            “We’re not together,” you repeat, “and we won’t be.”
            “I’m not saying these things to hurt you.”
            My eyes flick up to meet yours. “But you are, anyway.”
            You step forward and I step back. You turn to your right and walk to your kitchen table. You carefully press your fist into the cheap pine finish. I get the urge to cross the room and take a seat. The familiarity of this place is distracting. I feel at home here, and I shouldn’t.
            “Look, we had fun, didn’t we?” you say. “We had a good time?”
            “Sure,” I say. “Sure we did.”
            “So can’t that be what this was?” You turn around to look at me, and I shrug. “We’re not right for each other anyway.”
            I wonder about the moment you decided that. I wonder if it was a gradual falling away, but for some reason I hope it was quick. Because if it wasn’t quick, then everything we did together will be tainted with paranoia. I will continue searching through all our memories to see if I can reread your mind. And I can’t.
            And then I’ve fallen backward into something else. I think about the first time this was tangible, when we went from two people who were together more than usual to more than that with the grasp of one hand. We were lying on a beach at night, side by side, but not touching. All the effort taken towards building a romantic place, and we weren’t touching. I raised the red cup of wine to my lips and took a sip, watching the galaxy-ridden sky and stealing glances at you. Your eyes were trained upwards, and I could feel the thoughts run through your head. Nerves, and expectation, and fear, and it was all there between us.
            And then your left hand raised and reached out to me, and my fingers greedily snaked through yours. Your thumb ran along my hand, and that was it. We weren’t waiting to cross the threshold anymore, we were there together.
            Several minutes passed of us lying there, my breath steadily quickening, the cold night seeping through my skin. My right hand was wrapped in yours, but my left hand was still clutching the red cup, letting it rest on my stomach. The sky was the most beautiful it had ever been, and I couldn’t see it at all.
            Your right hand reached over, took the cup, and set it aside. Your body turned toward mine and the night was gone.
            I hold this moment in my mind as you look back at me with distaste. Who am I now, that I am not as important anymore? My stomach lurches, and I want to leave, but if I leave I know I won’t have another chance. The things that I need to say, I need to say them now. I need to think through all the ways you have wronged me, and all the regrets I have about our time together, and I need to say them aloud so that you will know. So that I won’t have to say them when I replay this moment in my head. But it’s so much harder than I thought it would be.
            “You . . . I shouldn’t have . . .” My thoughts tumble out like marbles. I wait for you to pick them up and make them look like something else, but you give me a moment. Your eyes rake me over the coals, but they allow me a second to gather myself. “I’m glad I didn’t talk. I’m glad I didn’t say what I was thinking when you asked me.”
            You shrug. “That was for you, not for me.”
            I feel like I am standing somewhere dangerous, and I can’t help but wander forward. “What do you mean?”
            I want some signal that you are uncomfortable, but your gaze is steady as you look at me. “It didn’t bother me that you didn’t talk. I just thought it would be good for you to learn to open up.”
            My throat goes dry. “Good for me?”
            You shrug.
            My left hand rakes through my hair again. I want to grab it at its roots and pull until I’m not thinking about your words anymore, but I resist the temptation.
            “You didn’t . . . how could you have . . .”
            “Look, can’t this have been a good thing? Can’t this have been the casual thing we talked about? That was good, but now it’s over?” You say it, but I wonder if you mean it.
            I make an attempt at nodding, but really it looks more like swaying.
            “It’s what you said you wanted.” I see the girl that I was leaning across the table, whiskey in one hand as she talks about her desire to stay unattached. I guess I had to find out eventually that it wasn’t true.
            “I didn’t know.” It’s all I can manage.
            Your right hand raises to your temple and you gently massage it. You didn’t see this conversation going on for as long as it is and you wish I would leave.
And suddenly everything’s moving inside me. It’s tearing at the walls of my skin and making my head feel like it’s about to crater in. I can hear the sound of crystal glasses smashing against a stucco wall, overlaid on the constant whine of sirens. The blood is draining from my face, and I desperately want to pool it in my hands so that I can see it and know that I am still real. The words rush over my thoughts again and again. Fix it, fix it, it can’t be too late to fix—but . . . there’s nothing to fix. Our relationship isn’t even a shell of something.
            I can hear myself start to gasp so I clear my throat. I clench my right hand into a fist and look down at it. My fingers are red and splotchy. I feel the words as they bubble up.
“I shouldn’t have stayed here. I shouldn’t have spent the night.” Neither of us is expecting this, and I watch the pain travel through your expression.
            And then you nod. “Well, I guess that’s up to you.”
            I turn and yank the door open, step out, and make sure that I don’t close it too firmly behind me. It’s important in these last few moments that I don’t appear crazy, that I don’t resemble a woman who is resentful and furious. Truthfully, I don’t really feel any of these things. I feel like I can’t breathe, and I gasp for air as I hurry back to my car. If I can get inside, if I can pull away, if I can drive down the street, I will be okay. I do all of these things, and I’m still weeping uncontrollably. My hands tremble where they rest against the steering wheel.
            I need to be angry with you and all of this will stop. I need to burn down the memories that woke me up every morning before this one. You led me on, and led me away. I should want to rip out your fingernails, patiently, one by one as I watch you scream. But I don’t. I can’t pull the fury up from my core. Not for you.
            Because, in the back of my mind, it’s four in the morning and we’re lying in your bed. I’ve woken up to readjust my sleeping position, and I can feel your arms wrapped around me. I move, and I feel the brush of your beard as you sleepily kiss my back. It’s a memory that happens again and again, and I don’t want to give it away.
So I don’t. So I race down the highway, staring through a blurry shield of tears and screaming that we were wrong and that you were wrong and that, worst of all, I was wrong.
And I don’t regret it.


            I slowly picked my way across the sand until I found my wings. They lay there where I left them, the water greedily caressing the downy white feathers. I sat down and held them in my lap. I traced my finger along their bloody, frayed edges. Before I knew what I was doing, I called out to you. I screamed your name and called you back to me. But I couldn’t feel you anymore. I couldn’t feel the shivers run down my spine, and I couldn’t feel you willing my heartbeats on.
            I took out my needle and thread and began sewing each wing back in place. The pain I felt wasn’t real anymore. My anger became my anesthetic. I would draw you in again. I would do it.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Smoke Signals

            The downtown street was transformed, but it was hard for Allison to say how. She turned a corner and something felt wrong, and distant. Everything looked slightly out of focus. She had been down these sidewalks hundreds of times, but now the buildings glared at her from where they stood. The bright red crepe restaurant to her right was angry and mean, out of place with her memories. Allison stood there, and blinked. She inhaled, and then coughed.
            The smell was missing. That smell that was somewhere between popcorn and dirt, that meant that she was here. She desperately searched for it, but there wasn’t even a hint of it on the air. Instead, the air was hostile and empty, and it made her want to march back to her car and drive until everything was unfamiliar again. But Allison was meeting her old high school friend, and it was too late to cancel.
            She started walking, and the momentum helped everything stay blurry. It was easier to ignore the Italian cookware store that had popped up where your favorite taqueria used to stand if you walked past it like it didn’t surprise you. Maybe if she placed her feet like she knew where she was, passersby would believe that she belonged here . . . if that was what she wanted.
            When the Thai place finally came into view, Allison felt physically relieved. She realized that she was holding her shoulders up as though in a permanent shrug, and she let them drop. Allison took a deep breath and grabbed the handle, pulling the glass door open.
            “Hello! Welcome!” the hostess said, smiling through thickly-painted eyeliner.
            “Hi,” Allison said, and pushed a smile onto her face. “I think my friend is already here. Can I just . . .?” she pointed to the dining room and the hostess nodded primly. She spotted the tiny blonde sitting halfway across the restaurant and gestured to the hostess that they knew each other. Then she made her way over.
            “Hi!” Ashley said, the syrup practically dripping off her voice. “How are you? It’s so nice to see you!” She stood up and held out her arms to Allison, who dutifully entered them. They hugged, Allison painfully aware of the amount of space between them. When she was finally released, Allison took her seat across from Ashley and did a quick study of the woman in front of her.
            Ashley was one of those people who was always unbelievably pulled together. Today, her hair was perfectly straightened, one side tucked behind her right ear in a casual-seeming gesture. The makeup on her eyes was identical on both sides, and her lips looked like they came in that unnatural shade of pink. Her turquoise dress rested on her tiny frame as though it was made for her, and there wasn’t a wrinkle in the whole of the fabric. Allison ran her index finger below the edge of her own winged eyeliner.
            She pushed the smile back onto her face. “I’m doing well,” she said, trying to fill the conversational space. “It’s good to see you too. It’s been, what, six years?”
            “Seven,” Ashley said, and seemed to smile at the correction.
            Allison was already ready to leave. “Well, you look well,” she said clumsily.
            Ashley nodded. “I am. I really am.” She picked up the menu in front of her and made a show of looking at it. “Things have been so busy at the agency, but it’s nice when I can get away for a little bit.” She said this absently, in response to a question Allison hadn’t asked. Allison suppressed a sigh. She should have agreed to meet up for something shorter, like drinks or coffee.
            When their yellow curry and Thai samosas were on the way, Ashley launched into a story about work, something about a model that had gotten lost on her way in. This transformed into another story and another, and before Allison knew it, twenty minutes had passed without her saying a word. She waited for a question to come her way, but so far one didn’t seem forthcoming. She ran her fingertip along the rim of her glass.
            Allison glanced over to the couple sitting at the table behind Ashley. The woman was looking down at her plate, her thin wrists working at cutting nothing. The man laughed loudly, apparently at something he had said, and took a sip of his drink. Allison glanced back and directed her eyes to the way Ashley’s left eyebrow moved up when she spoke. Her words gently came back into focus.
            “. . . and that’s when I threw down my folder and ran into the bathroom. I didn’t realize until I got there that I hadn’t had anything but that cupcake all day, and the whole thing was probably, like, low blood sugar or something.” That perfect smile crept back onto Ashley’s face, and a pause rested between her words. It wasn’t a question, but it was enough.
            Allison was going to say something related to Ashley’s story, but at the last moment her thought derailed. She glanced down at her water glass and collected herself. “Does all of this feel different?” she said.
            Ashley’s composed expression slipped from her face momentarily as her brow moved into a furrow and she said, “What do you mean?”
            “Like, the way things are. Nothing here feels right. Has it all changed, or were we just too young to notice it before?”
            “And I say again,” Ashley said, a tinge of irritation entering her voice, “what do you mean?”
            Allison looked into her old friend’s eyes and tried to make her understand. “I’m not comfortable here. It’s like the air is too clean or something.”
            “The air is too clean?”
            “It doesn’t smell right.”
            “Because it’s cleaner?”
            “No, it’s just . . . that’s not the problem, it’s just not . . . familiar anymore . . .?”
            The expression of disbelief on Ashley’s face did not make Allison feel better. She grasped for the first example her brain could conjure. “Like that pretentious fucking crepe place down the street. Since when has that been there?”
            Ashley’s mouth set into a line. “Have you ever eaten there? It’s actually pretty good.”
            “That’s not the point, that’s not the point at all . . .” Allison could hear her words come. This conversation wasn’t going anywhere, but she couldn’t stop herself now. “I just wanted some things to stay the same.”
            “What, for people to be scared to come down here? At least now the businesses can be successful. Which is good for the economy, and all that.” A silence fell over the conversation, and Allison found herself trying to remember what they had been talking about before.
            Ashley’s pseudo-intellectual defense made Allison realize she wasn’t going to be heard, no matter how well she explained herself. She wanted to continue arguing, but there wasn’t a point. Neither of them wanted to budge. Ashley sighed audibly, and raised her right hand until a passing waiter made eye contact with her. “Can we get the check, please? Thank you,” she said, unable to keep the clip out of her voice.
            “I’m sorry, Ashley, I didn’t mean to make things weird.”
            “I know, Allison, it’s okay,” Ashley said, although she wouldn’t look Allison in the eye. “I think you just need to accept that sometimes things change. This town is finally getting the facelift it needed. That’s not a bad thing.”
            “But . . .” Allison felt herself getting sucked back in. “What about everybody who lived here before? What happened to them? Things are so much more expensive now and—“
            Ashley grabbed the check from the waiter and ripped the booklet open. She pulled a bill from her designer purse and laid it down. “This was fun,” she said, with no enthusiasm whatsoever, “we should do this again sometime.” She briefly looked Allison in the eye before marching out of the restaurant.
            Allison sat there in shock. She felt the blood rushing from her face.  She wanted to throw up, or cry, or something. Instead, she pulled out her wallet and paid her portion of the check.
            As she walked back down the street to her car, she mentally divided the businesses into three categories: the new ones, the old ones that were brave for sticking around, and the old ones that were traitors. The last two categories were not based on one rationale, but rather decided in the moment when she saw something familiar and felt a stab of resentment, or not. Allison would see the line of people snaking around the corner of her favorite old diner, somehow surviving in this economic era, and feel overwhelming hatred for those who thought they could ever love it the way she did.
            These things sat here, prostituting themselves to new clients. Of course they did. They needed to. The people running them needed to keep their businesses afloat if they wanted to make rent. Allison knew this even as she felt fury run through her veins. These things didn’t belong to her and so, as she was pushed farther and farther away by the skyrocketing housing prices and cost of living, it wasn’t her place to complain. This was the way the world worked.
            And still, she hated it. She hated the helplessness she felt at the hands of these circumstances. Allison could rationalize what was happening around her for days, and it wouldn’t diminish this feeling. If anything, it made this feeling worse. The world kept turning regardless of what she did to stop it, and the things she loved could be taken from her at random. Reminders of this drove her to the edge, they drove her—
            And suddenly, Allison couldn’t walk anymore. She needed to run, so she started running down the street. Past the women with their tiny dogs having lunch in between charity events, past the obliviously dressed newly wealthy. Every time her feet hit the pavement, the sharp jolt through her body reminded her that she was still real. She needed to get to her car, but she knew she wasn’t going home yet.
            Allison was going to rip off a scab, one that had been forming for quite some time. It was going to be painful, and she knew it. Still, her morbid curiosity had finally gotten the best of her, and so she was driving as fast as she could without getting pulled over. She was being dragged into the past and, what was much worse, she was letting herself be taken willingly. It wasn’t going to be good, but while she was walking along that now-unfamiliar downtown street, not looking had become too much.
            If she didn’t know the names of the streets, she might not have been able to find her way. Allison wanted this to be because everything had transformed in the years since she left, but was forced to admit that it might be because of how young she had been. She made two wrong turns before finding the right street. She drove down it, reached the end, and turned around. This had to be wrong, and yet it couldn’t be. It was in the right space, it was the right street name. The elementary school she had attended was three blocks away, just like she remembered. So where was it?
            Allison drove to the middle of the street and stopped. She got out of her car and spun around. It was only when she was facing away from where it should be that the facts arranged themselves. There, across the street, was the old man’s house. What had his name been? It was one of those consistent details about her childhood that had slipped away as soon as she closed her eyes. The sight of the house’s fake brick façade made Allison’s stomach lurch. She slowly turned back around and looked at the building in front her.
            It was a two-story complex, surrounded on both sides by buildings exactly like it. There was nothing significant about its architecture, it was just another empty, boxy design. It was built to house people, not to last. As far as she could tell, no one was living in the apartments yet. They were just sitting there, as if pulled off an assembly line and placed in a neat row. The faux mahogany door shone. Allison imagined someone getting up every morning to polish it, hoping that this act would attract new renters. For some reason, this was the thought that brought tears to her eyes.
            The scab had been ripped off, and she was bleeding profusely. Gone was the overgrown yellow daisy bush that had stood next to the driveway. Gone was the basketball hoop and gone was the gate. Gone was the area that they had called “the courtyard,” even though, in reality, it was a fenced-in concrete space with a sticky jasmine plant growing at its center.
            The house her mother had affectionately referred to as “the oven” during the summer, due to the stifling insulation that forced them to seek cooler environments in the afternoon. The house where they had converted a garage into another bedroom. The house with the roof that they had climbed onto in the middle of her mother’s dinner party. The house where the bad thing happened. The house with the planters in the back filled with flowers straight out of Dr. Seuss. This house had been swallowed up by the earth and now only existed as a memory. It had been torn down to make room for the few people that could afford to live in this area. It was a casualty of the rise of new wealth, something that only jealousy coupled with desire could have destroyed.
            In short, it was gone.
            Allison didn’t realize what she was going to do until she was lying awake that night and it occurred to her. Then she understood that it began happening the moment she had decided to go back. The moment she laid her eyes on the pristine white paint accompanied by light blue trim, and her vision had gone orange, then red. There was an insistence in her, an attachment that couldn’t be refused. Everything she did from the time she pulled on her wrinkled jeans to the moment she stepped over the threshold of her apartment, both arms weighed down, she did robotically.
            The drive was shorter than she expected, but then, her thoughts were nowhere, not even on the task at hand. She felt light, something that almost mimicked happiness, but held itself back. For the first time in weeks, Allison was satisfied. This both scared and pleased her and made her want to drive faster, but she stayed just under the speed limit. When she got back to the building, she had to contain herself.
            She knew that the security cameras would catch her, but it didn’t matter. If that had mattered, she wouldn’t be here. She worked quickly. The efficiency that Allison possessed in this moment surprised her, the steadiness of her hands keeping her calm even as the potent smell crept up into her nostrils. She looked around at all she had done and felt like nodding in approval. This was right. It had to be. She lit the match.
            At first, Allison was disappointed, and a little frightened, at how quickly the spark didn’t spread. The flames lingered where she had thrown them, only gently licking at the siding of the building. She held her breath until they caught the gasoline and spread. She nodded to herself and turned to cross the street. She wanted to watch from a distance.
            And then, for a moment, she wanted to take it back. This was someone else’s dream that she was ruining, someone’s hard work. It may have been boring and predictable, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t important to them. Allison pushed these thoughts aside. No, it was a symbol for everything that had been taken away from her. And besides, it was too late to take it back.
            She was content as she watched the flames spread. She’d thought she would be filled with glee, but instead it felt like an acknowledgement of the end of something. Her home had been torn down. It no longer belonged to her, or to anyone. The beating heart of this town was being reduced to ash, and no one reached out their arms to stop it. Nobody had the means to do so.
            She was still standing there on the sidewalk, considering this phenomenon, when she heard the first fire truck. She wanted to close her eyes and let the siren run through her, but she also didn’t want to miss the end. Allison didn’t tear her gaze away from the fire, not until she was pulled away with smoke-stung eyes.


I put my arms around your corpse’s neck and waited. I lay my head on your chest and longed for the familiar drum of your heartbeat. On and on, I swore not to leave you as I sang opera songs and hymns. But your soul was gone from your body. I was holding onto a hollow shell, waiting for a phoenix and delivered a raven.
            I braided your hair and tied it with shoestrings. I dressed you in white, cut my hand and anointed you with blood. I curled up beside you once again and we lay in the riverbed as I listened to the water come. On and on, until I felt it lap at my feet. It soaked into my clothes and filled my ears. The music started to play as it flooded my lungs. I held your hand as tightly as I could and waited for death to grab me by the heart and take me away. But as the cold began to run through my body, I realized I didn’t want to drown. So without a second thought I let you go and swam for the surface.
            I pulled my body onto the bank and coughed until I could really breathe again. Tears ran down my face from the dirty river water stinging my eyes and from the realization that because I couldn’t let myself die, your loss was final. I screamed your name and called you back. On and on, until my throat was sore and my voice was gone.
            And as I lay there I felt your spirit fill me and I felt you kiss my forehead. I heard you whisper from within me that I needed to keep moving so I got up and ran. I ran and ran, and my feet bled but still I ran. I leapt over creeks and logs and found my way back to where I started. On and on, until you whispered that I would be all right.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Beautiful Home

            It was a ritual. Every night she sat down in front of her mirror and carefully ran the brush through her hair. She used to love the way the bristles would gently snag in the silky blonde strands, and she loved the sharp pain in her scalp that occurred whenever she tugged at a particularly unruly knot. Lucy loved it less now. She slowly wound a clump of hair around her finger as her reflection watched her suspiciously. Those blonde strands had become brittle and lifeless, whole portions having suddenly fallen into gray. This ritual that had once been so comforting now only served as a reminder of the inevitable.
            She watched as her daughter passed by her door. Marie walked quickly, then passed again a little more slowly. She was nervous. Lucy watched, but wasn’t about to stop her. She began to rap her fingers impatiently on her dresser. Her daughter heard this noise and looked over. Her gaze met her mother’s and she stopped pacing.
            “Hey,” she said, and when her mother didn’t respond she continued, “can we talk for a minute?”
            “Sure sweetie,” Lucy said, and turned around in her seat. She saw Marie wince at the endearing word and felt an odd mix of satisfaction and despair. “What do you need?”
            “It’s nothing,” her daughter replied, but tucked a lock of her dark brown hair behind her right ear and looked away, “I was just wondering if I could have the car tonight.”
            Lucy gazed at Marie and didn’t saying anything.
            Her daughter looked too much like her father. She had his straight nose, his big, green eyes, his silky brown hair. She had so much. In a few years, she could have everything she wanted. Lucy could feel her irritation at this thought begin to build and twist in the back of her mind.
            Despite the fact that she seemed to be growing more uncomfortable with every second, Marie seemed determined to get what she wanted. This, at least, was somewhat to her credit. Lucy could respect a woman who was persistent, even if it was her daughter.
            “What do you need the car for?” Lucy finally asked.
            “Everyone’s meeting at Mark’s house, but I haven’t been able to get a ride. I thought it might be nice if I was able to drive myself, for once.” Marie added these last two words onto the end of her sentence with some degree of hesitation.
            Lucy stared at her daughter and blinked. She slowly turned back to face the mirror and rested her elbow on the dresser. Leaning against her hand, she stared at her reflection once again.
            It hadn’t always been this way. Lucy often acted as though she hadn’t willingly offered herself into motherhood. The truth was, she was the one who suggested she and George start a family. She had looked into his eyes, smiled slowly and asked if he was ready. Lucy had gotten the big white dress and the dauntingly beautiful house, and she figured this was the next step.
            She knew something was wrong the day her daughter was born.
            Everything else was as it had been described to her. Her water broke at the most unexpected, anticipated moment, when she and her husband were out at her cousin’s twenty-eighth birthday party. She looked down and was about to say, “I think my water just broke,” like she knew all pregnant women were supposed to. Then Lucy looked up and saw her husband was already in the process of gathering their things to leave. Her moment had passed.
            The contractions and the pushing were almost unbearably painful, but she got through them. There was the strained bickering between her mother and her mother-in-law that they pretended didn’t bother her. She was supposed to ask for ice chips, right? It was the longest day of her life, and yet it passed in such a strange blur.
            And then suddenly everything was over. Her daughter was born. She fell back onto the hospital bed and gasped for breath. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and she found herself briefly wondering how her hair looked. No, that wasn’t right. That wasn’t what she was supposed to be thinking about. What was everyone expecting her to do now? She glanced up. The nurses were bent over her baby, probably cleaning her up. What was taking so long?
            Finally, the tallest nurse picked Marie up and turned toward Lucy. Everyone in the room immediately looked at the new mother in sweet anticipation. Lucy watched as the nurse moved toward her.
            As Marie was settled in Lucy’s arms, Lucy studied her tiny face. Her eyes and nose were scrunched up in what must have been a reaction to the shock of being born. Her lips were a small round reproduction of George’s. Her breathing was quick, but even. Lucy observed these features and waited. She knew something was supposed to happen. She knew there was supposed to be this great wash of feelings that came over her and wrapped her up in love. Lucy waited, but nothing happened. She felt her heart start beating faster in panic. What was wrong? She knew everyone was still watching her. Her silence had gone on too long.
            Lucy swallowed and forced her most perfect anchorwoman smile. She looked up into her husband’s eyes and tried her best to convincingly say the words she knew were required at this moment, “Oh my God, I can’t believe how much I love her.” Her stomach twisted.
            At first, Lucy tried her best to find that missing connection. She figured that it would only take time for that sweeping love to set in. As the months passed, however, she found herself caring for her daughter in the most robotic way. Every time she fed her, every time she changed her, Lucy did it out of her duty as a fellow human being, not because she was feeling particularly maternal. These months stretched into years.
            Then something else started to happen. Marie was eight years old. She had asked Lucy for a snack and Lucy was returning from the kitchen with a bowl of chopped fruit in her hand, the picture of the dutiful mother. She found herself stopped in the doorway.
            Marie was sitting on the floor of her room, her back leaned against the side of her bed. She had her own desk, but for some reason Lucy could never get her daughter off the ground. Marie was working on her homework, her papers resting against her legs, her face the picture of concentration. The beautiful window that Lucy so admired let the light stream in and cover Marie. Her daughter’s long, wavy brown hair fell artfully across her shoulders. The rays of sun glanced off her smooth, clear skin, and her arm moved gracefully as she went to grab something out of her backpack. Those scrunched up features had evolved into something only depicted in a Renaissance painting. Marie glanced up and saw her mother standing there. Eight years together, and they still didn’t really know each other. Even though it was born out of polite intentions, Lucy was dazzled by Marie’s quick smile.
            She didn’t know what to say. Her head swam with the jealousy of her daughter’s growing beauty, and this made her uncomfortable. Lucy set the bowl of fruit on the dresser by the door, and turned to leave.
Lucy didn’t know why she thought of this now. She glanced up at her daughter’s reflection, all determination and thinly veiled frustration and saw little in it that matched her own. She sighed and turned back around. She had let the girl suffer enough.
            She stood up from where she sat at her dresser and crossed the room to where her purse hung on the closet door. Groping inside, she pulled out her keys and deftly tossed them to her daughter, who caught them with an expression that was a mixture of surprise and a small amount of fear.
            “Really?” Marie asked, after staring down at the unlikely gift in her right hand.
            “I can take the car?” Marie asked. Her brow furrowed in distrust. Lucy thought about snatching her keys back, but found herself stifling the temptation.
            “Yes, but don’t push it,” she said instead. “And if you’re not back by curfew this will be the last time you take the car somewhere.”
            Lucy watched as her daughter did her best to hurry out of the room without making it seem obvious. She herself crossed to her bed and fell onto it. Closing her eyes, she felt the dread creeping back in. She could take a nap and sleep as long as she wanted. She had nowhere to go. Not for the first time, Lucy found herself begging God for something that would make her feel human again. That would provide an escape from the disconnect. Then she drifted off into unconsciousness.
She always forgot about how bright the lights seemed when you were sitting behind the anchor’s desk. They even felt bright from where she stood looking up at them. Lucy shielded her eyes with her left hand, her right firmly gripped around her latte. She felt that familiar buzz of nerves and excitement grow in the pit of her stomach. It had taken years to get this far, but those years had been so worth it now that she was going to be news anchor on a real network. It was early, but then it had always been early. And she would have woken up at any hour if it meant holding onto this job.
            Lucy took a sip of her drink and watched with pleasure as everyone around her worked to get ready for the broadcast in a few hours. The interns were moving at a clip, their panicked awareness of how much work was to be done growing with every passing minute. Her assistant hadn’t seen her yet. Lucy had slipped in through the side entrance in order to observe the comforting routine of it all before everyone started watching her. She knew she should head to hair and makeup, that Marcos would be freaking out over her absence, but she took a few more seconds for herself. She loved this feeling. Everything was happening, and she was a part of it. She felt important. She was the medium through which the news would be delivered. They could find someone else, but they had chosen her. She took a final sip of her coffee as she heard her assistant’s voice call her name from across the set. Lucy turned and gave the woman her most dazzling smile.
            “Here I am,” she said, surrendering her control of her morning into Rita’s capable hands.
            “Thank God! We’ve been waiting for you to come in! Marcos is having a fit! Off to hair and makeup with you, go!” Rita said, and she scurried along at Lucy’s side and rattled off the list of things they needed to accomplish before they went live. Lucy listened calmly, enjoying the sudden rush of adrenaline she got whenever they were close to taping.
            She walked confidently up to the chair that sat opposite a brightly lit mirror and perched in it. Marcos was immediately at her side. He pulled her hair back out of her face and began working on her makeup.
            “Where have you been?” Marcos asked, frantic, but not unkind. “You know how long this can take.”
            Lucy looked at him. “Sorry Marcos,” she said softly, and he smiled.
            “Well, lucky for us you’re young enough that there isn’t much work to do,” he said as he began priming her face. They both knew he was trying to transition to gossip. Friendship was much easier when you stayed superficial. “Did you hear about what happened over at channel five?”
            Lucy had heard, but she let Marcos tell her about the humiliating makeup gaff anyway. A fellow anchorwoman was getting older and her team was trying to hide the fact. What had seemed okay in the makeup chair ended up ridiculous under the lights at the news desk. This woman had gone a full twenty minutes speaking to America looking like an aging prostitute before the program had a break. Of course, it was all the fault of the team that helped her get ready, but no one would remember that.
            Lucy could laugh at the problems of this woman she hardly knew because they weren’t something she would have to face for quite some time. As of now, the world was wide open to her, waiting for her to take whatever she wanted from it.
She closed her eyes and let the feeling overpower her.
            When Lucy opened her eyes, she was back in her bedroom, older and alone. Lucy had to bite her lip to stop herself from immediately bursting into tears of longing. She sat up in her bed to steady herself and quickly arranged any flyaway hair back into its place. She took a deep breath and her emotions started to level out again. Feeling lightheaded, Lucy got up and walked towards the kitchen for a glass of water.
            The house was big, far too big, and her ex-husband had told her that back when they bought it together. She remembered the conversation vividly. They had stood by the beautiful French windows that looked out at the backyard and he had sighed. George Parker, very prone to sighing his feelings into reality. Lucy had looked up at him and understood his concerns, but didn’t care to consider them.
            She did what she did best. Lucy walked around him, making a show of how happy she was, how absolutely ignorant that he shouldn’t feel the same way. She heard herself talking endlessly about how much she loved the hardwood floors, the oak tree out front, the space the rooms gave her to think. Her precious monologue was so inane that Lucy almost rolled her eyes at the words coming out of her mouth. Why was she doing this? That was something she wouldn’t be able to make a grandiose speech about. She was ashamed that she wanted to feel like she belonged in this house. She wanted to be the matriarch of a big family, to be the kind of woman who could walk down the halls of this house and say with certainty that it was hers. She hadn’t fallen madly in love with every corner it, as she was steadfastly claiming, but it was a means to an end.
            They bought the house. Lucy was excited to get her way, but the expense of it all made her queasy. She had never had love for spending money, and she detested the feeling of losing it. George grew up in a wealthy family and never had a clue about her discomfort. It was something so easily replaceable to him, something that there was always more of.
            Now she hated this big house. It was a reminder of all the things she had planned to happen that had fallen through. All these rooms that were supposed to be filled by her loving offspring were occupied by one daughter she didn’t know. Her bed where she was supposed to sleep next to her husband was cold and lonely now, and the room that contained it made her feel jumpy and hostile. And instead of being the passage through which a confident woman faced her life, this hall contained an aging woman who had lost her purpose.
            The cold marble was shocking beneath her feet as she reached the kitchen. The sensation ran through her body and she briefly returned to it. The memory of ambition filled her as her shaky hand moved to open the cupboard. Why had she so willingly sacrificed her dreams for this life? Why had she not thought more of it when George suggested she quit her job, become a stay-at-home mother? She knew that nothing he said could have convinced her to make a decision she hadn’t already mentally prepared for. Her fingers wrapped around a glass, and she lifted it down to the counter, but didn’t let it go.
            Her whole life should have been different. That moment when she had walked out of the studio, unknowingly out of any studio for the last time, her hands carrying a box of her things? She had laughed. Lucy had felt the breeze run through her hair, warm on her perfect skin, and she had laughed at her good fortune. She was walking towards the life she had always wanted, so of course this was the right decision. Her life was destined to be easy and happy from here on out, she was sure of it. And if it wasn’t? She could always go back. Nothing could stop Lucy Parker from getting something she truly wanted. She would always be desirable.
            Lucy felt her face turn red with the humiliation these thoughts now brought with them. After working in the business for years she had never learned how much she was valued for her youth and beauty. How naïve, how ignorant, how stupid – she felt the glass pop in her hand before she realized how hard she was gripping it.
            Instinctively moving her hand to the sink, Lucy watched as the shards of glass fell through her fingers and hit the immaculately clean metal. She saw the blood before she felt the sting of the two tiny cuts that appeared on the palm of her hand. It was no use being angry now, but she had never been able to help it. Lucy worked to clean up the mess. Pulling the trash can to her side, she started picking up the shards between two fingers, gently enough so that they wouldn’t pierce her skin. She had always been good at cleaning up messes.
            Maybe that was the problem. The end of her marriage with George hadn’t been sufficiently messy for her to feel like action was required on her part to prevent it. At the time it felt so inevitable, like it was a part of the life she had involved herself in, and she had to go along with it. Even now she knew she probably could have held onto him if that was what she had truly wanted.
            Five years ago, she was sitting outside. Having taken her sandals off for a moment, Lucy dipped her legs into the pool. The water distorted them and the light played in strange lines across her skin. Things had been quiet for a long time, but George had come to collect his belongings today, and the constant motion occurring inside her home disturbed her. She had been watching him sort through his things when she started to feel ill, so she let herself outside. As she moved through the house, she could hear Marie crying down the hall. She didn’t stop, she didn’t even hesitate. She knew once she got outside, the cool air would help steady her. It did. So here she was.
            Lucy knew that if she ran inside the house right now and asked George to stay, he would. Even after everything she had done, he would. But she didn’t want that. She knew their relationship could never be the same after they had come to this level of resentment. She found him boring and unambitious. His favorite thing was to accuse her of being manipulative, of needing to have control over every aspect of his and their daughter’s lives. Lucy took a moment she didn’t need to reflect on this: she already knew it was true, but wanted there to be some other motivation behind her actions.
            “What time is the reservation?” she had called to her husband, who was only in the next room. She couldn’t help raising her voice, it was the first time they would be out in months. Lucy pulled a comb through her already perfect updo. She ran her finger across the edge of the elaborate eyeliner she had spent so much time drawing, making sure that it hadn’t smudged. This night was going to go well.
            “It’s for eight,” George replied, his voice sounding weightier than usual. This made Lucy pause.
            She sat there for a second and examined her appearance carefully before saying, “Well, we should probably leave in ten minutes so that they’re not waiting for us at the restaurant. I can’t stress how important punctuality is for things like this.”
            Lucy thought she heard George mutter, “Can’t you, though?” in the other room, but she chose to ignore it. She walked to their closet where her husband was getting dressed.
             His back was to her. She studied him, and thought about what he had been like when they met. Tall, good muscles, interesting features. Smart, but not arrogant. Confident from years of growing up with everything he needed. As he had gotten older, Lucy developed the feeling that aging would not be kind to George. Already he had started to resemble a stooped, middle-aged man that she didn’t recognize. But then he turned around and his brilliant green eyes met hers, and she found him. She hesitated a second and spoke, “Remember, you need to bring up your plans for expansion early in the meal so that they’ll have been thinking about it by the end. But don’t do it in an obvious way, you don’t want to look like you’re trying to impress them.”
            She stepped forward with the intention of fixing his tie, but finding it already perfect, Lucy looked for other aspects of his appearance that she could change. “And remember, Tom likes it when you compliment his management skills. But seriously, be subtle. Nobody likes a suck up.”
            George sighed and she looked up into his face. “What?” she asked, as if she didn’t already know what he would say.
            “I don’t need your advice,” George said, his tone so affected that Lucy almost wanted to laugh. “I’ve been to a hundred of these types of dinners. I know how to talk to my boss.”
            Lucy looked back down at his suit jacket and pulled an infinitesimal hair off of it. “I’m just trying to help,” she said quietly.
            He put his hand under her chin and tilted her face back up. “I know, but I’ve got this,” he said. “Just make sure you look beautiful, but not too distracting, and your job will be done.” He lightly kissed her on the forehead and left the closet.
            Lucy pulled her robe off and looked at her body in the full-length mirror. Just look beautiful. Right. Don’t get involved.
            But she needed to. This feeling of total helplessness had crept into her life and she would do anything to get rid of it.
             The trickling notes of a bird’s song floated up out of the trees, and Lucy hated them. She shouldn’t ever have come here, things were far too easy. So much of her life had ended when the struggle did. She needed challenge, and she needed work, and she had willfully given those things away. Why?
            And something in the back of her mind uncurled itself and said, “Security,” and then, more quietly it hissed, “Fear.” Lucy felt the familiar pressure of anxiety start to build on the back of her neck. She reached forward to dip her hand in the warm water and distract herself from it.
            She remembered when she had sat at the kitchen table and watched as her own mother hurried around preparing dinner. Lucy had been working on her homework when, feeling a wave of panic come off her mother, she looked up. Nothing was obviously different, but this woman that she admired so much was clearly afraid. Her normally steady hands shook as she went to grab the lid off a pot, and Lucy heard the faint clatter it made as her mother set it on the counter. In a few hours she would discover that her father had lost his job again, in a few months she would know the humiliation of being forced out of a home that they could no longer afford to live in. But for now, she studied her mother, whose right hand kept moving to tuck an invisible strand of hair behind her ear. A nervous habit.
Lucy suddenly wanted more than anything to get up and walk out of the house, to walk to the end of the street and turn the corner, to get on a bus and take it to another town. She knew these things were possible at the same time she knew she had nowhere else to go. She would be giving up this uncertain life for another that was even more so. Trapped.
Lucy stopped cleaning up the glass. She looked blindly out the window and considered. Turning suddenly, she walked out of her kitchen and headed back towards her bedroom. Her steps quickened until she was practically running. Then she was running. She ran past all of the stupid things she had collected over the years, foolishly adorning the walls so that everyone would know how much she had achieved. Surely, she had thought, people would walk down the halls of her elaborate home and gasp at the photos of when she had been younger and more beautiful, at the tiny plaques of appreciation from work that she had nailed to the walls after she quit.
She stopped when she reached the door to her bedroom. Absorbing the emptiness, Lucy let the despair she had kept away for so long overtake her. She crossed the room in a few strides.
She grabbed the pair of scissors that lay on her desk. Sitting at the seat in front of her dresser, Lucy pulled a large clump of hair out in front of her face and looked at it. It was everything in her life, so important and so pointless. She cut it away with the smallest movement of her wrist.

Blood Ties

I’m the blood pouring from your hands, I am the blood dripping down the side of your mouth. If I could just seep through your skin and into your heart, all would be well. Come and find me, come and sing to me, come and save me from the ghosts. The dark calls me like a sister, but I don’t live there anymore. I’m still waiting for the last strands of it to be pulled from my lungs.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Memory Merry-Go-Round

            The hill should be easier to climb by now, but it wasn’t. Every time Sydney reached the top, she was out of breath and drenched in sweat. That smooth burn of recently exercised muscles hit her thighs and made her want slouch back to her car. Instead, she reached up and patted down her short blonde hair. It was just one more day of senior year that she needed to get through. Her heart rate slowly returned to normal as she picked her way across campus.
            The hike up every morning was the price the students of Lakeview Community College paid for their academic choices. A close cluster of buildings set on top of a steep hill, Lakeview was a small island surrounded by massive parking lots. Silver Honda Civics stalked returning students to their cars, the impacted system forcing everyone to get aggressive if they wanted anything: courses, recognition, parking spaces. Everything was up for grabs, and yet still out of reach. The system seemed designed as a reminder to the students of how much farther they might have been able to make it, had the circumstances been different.
            Sydney didn’t have these problems. A high school senior taking classes at a community college as a part of an alternative program, she would be gone from this place soon enough.  As she walked across campus, Sydney made a note of the squat architecture. The buildings clung to one another, as though desperate to prevent their inevitable desertion. She felt sad and ill and started to walk faster.
            She readjusted the shoulder strap of her bag as she approached her side of campus. Here the hill sloped back downward and then onto a flat, deserted stretch of asphalt. A few portable buildings were pushed together in the center of it. The word “portable” had become a joke a while back, as the original plans to replace these buildings with something beautiful and sweeping had been discarded as a result of the economic downturn. If the rest of campus was mildly depressing, this side was even bleaker. It was the useless, the unused, and the forgotten. Sydney made her way down to the closest portable.
            She just wanted to get into the room and sit down, but the door was still locked when Sydney went up to try the handle. Her right hand dropped to her side and she turned to go sit on the railing that stretched along the ramp leading to the door. Two other students from her program were already gathered nearby, but the overwhelming majority would stagger one after the other into class ten minutes after it started, a waft of sweet-smelling smoke drifting in with them.
            Sydney jumped at the sound of her name. She turned. Sincere seeming blue eyes sunken into a round face framed by dirty light brown hair, that might have once resembled a bowl cut, greeted her. Chris. She twitched her facial muscles up into a smile.
            “Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”
            Chris ignored her greeting and instead said, “Have you seen Maria around here anywhere?”
            Sydney shook her head. “Nope, just got here. I’m surprised you haven’t seen her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without her.”
            She watched his left hand reach up and run through his hair. Chris was staring at the end of the asphalt and absently chewing his lip with his front teeth. She would be shocked if he had heard a word she said after her negative response.
            Movement at the corner of her eye made Sydney turn her head. Almost simultaneously, she heard Chris let out a sigh of relief, and she resented him. The teachers were on their way over, the requisite line of hangers-on trailing behind. The strangest bunch of people in the entire world, and yet they fit together like a travelling circus. The whole group walked quickly, although the students in the back were clearly making an effort to seem disinterested. When her English teacher caught sight of her and waved, Sydney fought down the feeling that it was now too late to run away. She waved back.
            Sydney watched as her teacher walked up the ramp to unlock the door. His eyes briefly flicked up to where she sat on the railing and he said, “Hey Sydney, how are you doing?”
            She forced a smile onto her face. “Hey Frank, not too bad.” This was a program that encouraged its students to call their teachers by short nicknames. Apparently, they thought it promoted equality and respect, or something. All Sydney ever felt when she called a strange man old enough to be her father by a nickname was slightly uncomfortable. This had been the first disconcerting thing about the alternative program. It had become one of many.
            Sydney waited until about half of the group filed in after Frank before she jumped down and went inside. The oppressive darkness of the room was always what hit her first. The air was still and musty, as they were the only program who ever used this space. Desks were scattered across the floor, some inexplicably overturned. The teacher’s unused desk at the corner and a bookcase at the end of the room were the only gestures towards education. Sydney took her usual desk at the end of a grouping, far enough in to make her look like a part of the class, but still several desks away from the closest person.
            A short, slightly plump boy named Mikey stumbled over her bag and stopped. She looked up at him and a weird flood of confrontational energy moved between them.
            “. . . Sorry,” Mikey finally said, and continued on to his seat at the opposite end of the room. Frank leaned against the broken wooden podium that stood facing the desks and surveyed his students. Nine people looked back at him. He took a moment and seemed to be deliberating over something. Then he took a breath and began.
            “So, The Great Gatsby, how many of you got to the third chapter last night?” Frank’s optimistic tone made Sydney feel embarrassed. She waited a few seconds and then slowly raised her hand. She was the only one.
            Frank took a deep breath and clenched his jaw. “You know guys, this is starting to be ridiculous. I mean, I know we said we wanted this to be an atypical high school environment, but—“
            The door slammed open. In strolled the missing seven students, seemingly unaware that they were interrupting their teacher’s train of thought. Maybe that was part of the respect you lost when you let your students call you by your first name. That usual sweet scent floated in behind them, and one by one they took their seats and leaned back.
            Frank’s mouth was still hanging open from his aborted tirade. The situation was so familiar, and yet it was infinitely more frustrating in this moment. Decisions, decisions, decisions to be made. He took a deep breath with his mouth still open, looked down at the podium he was leaning against, and closed his eyes.
            “As I was saying,” he finally continued, “I don’t know what to do if you guys aren’t even going to try. I mean, what do I have to do to make you learn something?” Awkward silence covered the room. Frank was rarely mad, so nobody knew how to respond to his strained tone. “Do we have to read Gatsby aloud in class, just so I know you’ve at least had the material forced on you? Fine. That’s what we’ll do. Everyone open your books to the first page and let’s read the epigraph. Shelby?”
            The shock of what was happening travelled around the room and was followed by the sound of sixteen books rustling open.
            You didn’t get to this program easily. Not that it was academically challenging, you just had to fall pretty far before the school counselors collectively shrugged their shoulders and washed their hands of you. It was something that most students in the area didn’t even know about. Twenty of their companions just disappeared from classes and nobody asked why. It helped that these were the people that nobody thought about anyway. You see that grimy red-haired kid staggering through the hallway and mentally cross him off your list. It just happens.
            But when you got to this place it felt inevitable. Everyone slips off the face of the earth and ends up in the same place. Almost a parody of what “liberal” education looks like, the program encouraged a move away from traditional learning and grades. The students banded together and told themselves they were holding out against the Other. Don’t let me slip back into that mindset. Kill me if I ever sell out. They leaned as far away from the truth as they could before they snapped their necks. Leaning away from the idea that will inevitably catch up to you if you live long enough.
            The Other you’re holding out against doesn’t exist.
            Sydney heard the light steps on the ramp and knew who was coming before the door opened. A hand fumbled with the doorknob and then light flooded the room as the door flew back. Sydney heard a slight falter in Frank’s voice as he continued reading from The Great Gatsby. Maddie walked in. Sydney was immediately alerted that something was off when Maddie looked her in the eyes and offered a sincere smile. She watched as the brunette put out her left hand to steady herself against the door frame.
            “Maddie,” Sydney heard herself chirp. “Come sit next to me.”
            Maddie’s smile crept down into one of slow recognition, and she sat in the desk next to Sydney without argument. “What are we doing?” she asked, an expression of genuine wonder on her face. When Maddie leaned in, Sydney was overwhelmed by the smell of cheap tequila. She took a deep breath. Everyone must be staring at them. She looked around.
            But no, everyone was doing their own thing, while Frank tried against all odds to get them to listen. Sydney caught Maddie start to raise her hand out of the corner of her eye, and immediately snatched it down. It was helpful that Frank actively tried not to catch people at things like this, but Sydney’s stomach clenched with nerves as she considered what it would take to hide Maddie’s state from her teachers.
            An extraordinarily long fifteen minutes later and Frank finally let them go for the short break between English and History. As soon as Sydney exited the room, she grabbed Maddie’s arm and led her away from the crowd. When they had reached the edge of the parking lot, she turned around and surveyed the girl in front of her, searching for something recognizable.
Maddie jumped forward and threw her arms around Sydney’s neck. Sydney stiffly returned the hug to keep Maddie steady. When Maddie finally let go, Sydney gently pushed her away and said, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this to yourself?”
It was Sydney’s first day in the alternative program, and she was so nervous she couldn’t focus on one train of thought. She couldn’t will herself out of the car and towards the group of people she would be sharing her time with for the next two years. Her dad sat in the driver’s seat and calmly sipped his coffee. Occasionally he would murmur a soft, “Whenever you’re ready,” and reposition himself.
            Twenty minutes went by of Sydney staring out the passenger window and up that hill. Finally, she put a shaking right hand on the handle of the door and opened it slowly. She straightened up, grabbed her bag from where it sat on the floor, and adjusted it into place. “Good luck, honey, you’ll be great,” her father said. She knew there was a polite response to make, but she couldn’t seem to find it. She just nodded her head.
            She got up the hill without realizing it, although her legs burned from the effort. Sydney had looked up the location of the portables the night before, but now faced with the task she found she couldn’t remember which way she was supposed to walk. She felt the slow build of fear and turned around to try and get her bearings. Sydney caught sight of a group of students, around her age, walking across campus. She hung back a few seconds and then followed after them.
            The room was buzzing with noise when she opened the door. Two girls spoke with Frank at the front of the room, and so he didn’t notice her right away. She watched as he leaned back slightly and laughed. It was a good laugh. Sydney felt the room start to grow quiet and looked around. Everyone was staring at her. Finally, Frank looked up and saw the object of this rare silence.
            “Oh hi, you must be . . .?” Frank said, without moving towards her.
            She nodded and didn’t know why. “Sydney Peterson,” she said. “I’m new.” She mentally kicked herself for making such an obvious statement.
            Frank smiled. “Good, well, welcome. Take a seat anywhere you’d like. We’ll start in a second.”
            Sydney crept forward and put her hand on the back of the desk at the very edge of the group. She glanced around for anyone who might be inviting her over, but saw no such invitation. She sat down. Then—
            “Sydney?” a voice asked from behind her. Sydney turned. She was met by a girl with long, perfectly straight brown hair and dark brown eyes. Although she held herself with the confidence of someone much older, her face was one that seemed enduringly young. Her smile said you were the most important thing in the world, and even if it was a fakeout, it was a good one. Several moments passed of Sydney studying this girl before she realized they had met before.
            “No way,” she said, slightly under her breath. “Maddie?”
            Maddie smiled and pulled her bag off of the chair next to her. “Come sit next to me,” she said, still smiling.
            Sydney got up and walked to the desk indicated. “I haven’t seen you since, what? The seventh grade?”
            Maddie nodded slowly and said, “And just look where we are now.”
            The shock started to wear off after a few minutes of leading an unsteady Maddie through conversation. Sydney began gasping for air, unable to decide what she should do next. Then she saw Isabelle and Bea standing over near the portables. Bea slipped over part of the railing and fell to her knees. Isabelle threw her head back and howled, cackling so loudly that Sydney could hear it from where she stood. Bea reached up and held out a hand for Isabelle to help her up. Isabelle didn’t seem to notice and continued laughing, then stumbled a little to her left. Sydney realized what was going on and felt the anger start to boil in the pit of her stomach. She expected this from them, but that didn’t mean they had to drag Maddie down too.
            The other teacher, Connie, came out of her portable and whistled. It was time for the classes to switch. Not knowing what else to do, Sydney grabbed Maddie by the arm and started to lead her over in that direction. Once again, Maddie threw her arms around Sydney’s neck and hugged her. Sydney just stood there.
            “I missed you so much,” Maddie said suddenly. “Why don’t we ever do anything anymore?”
            Sydney felt her face start to grow red and the pressure behind her eyes start to build. She gently pushed Maddie away and said, “Come on, we have to go inside.”
            Her hand was shaking around the shot glass. She readjusted her fingertips to secure them on its cool surface. Maddie waited patiently by her side, nodding encouragingly as she looked on. Sydney closed her eyes, raised the edge of the glass to her mouth and quickly tossed it back. It went down easily, but she took a swig of the pineapple chaser just in case. She barely had time to gauge her surroundings before Maddie tackled her.
            “I’m so proud of you!” she yelled, slurring her words a little. Sydney felt the vodka go straight to her head and laughed the feeling off.
            It was the night of junior prom, but the only ones at the party who’d been there were Sydney and Maddie. The prom was the program’s version of a school dance, infinitely more awkward due to the lack of people available. Still, the decorated banquet room at a local hotel and as much free food as they could eat eventually got everyone in a festive mood. Maddie and Sydney had coordinated their outfits so they, at least, looked like they were from the same party. At the time she was getting ready, putting on a red flapper dress, complete with full fringe and some fake pearl costume jewelry, had felt like the best idea in the entire world. Now that she was at a run-of-the-mill house party with people from her old high school, she was starting to question the night’s decision making.
            “Oh shit,” Maddie said, “I’m getting a call from my mom. Hold on.”
            “Should you really answer?” Sydney asked. “I mean, I can barely understand you at this point. Isn’t your mom going to figure out where you are?”
            Maddie smirked and shrugged, a little too much, and said, “No way, I’ve done this a million times. I can sober up in a second if I have to.” She pressed the accept button on her phone and walked out onto the front porch.
            Sydney looked around. She knew a few of the people at the party, although they weren’t people she’d call friends. Still, she needed someone to talk to. Maddie’s sudden absence made her feel particularly vulnerable. She spotted an ex-friend’s ex-boyfriend on the couch across the room and made her way over.
            They had nothing in common, except for their mutual hatred of that other girl. A conversation that she thought would last for maybe ten minutes stretched into thirty. Sydney yawned and looked up. Maddie was crossing the room into the kitchen with another girl.
            “I’ll just have one more shot so I can still drive home later,” Maddie was saying.
            “Um sweetie, I think you passed the point where that was still an option several drinks ago,” the girl responded.
            Sydney made to get up and go assert some kind of control over the situation. She looked down, and found that the guy’s arm had snaked its way around her shoulders while she wasn’t paying attention. He was staring at her intently. Although she didn’t feel strongly about this guy one way or the other, the attention felt nice. She stretched her legs out so they were draped across his lap and tried to engage herself back into the conversation.
             Another forty-five minutes passed, and Sydney was starting to feel like she was missing something. She kept trying to extract herself from the conversation she was still having, but every attempt was firmly denied. Then she glanced up and saw Maddie. She was leading Eric, one of the guys from their old high school, upstairs, an eager, yet slightly dull smile on her face. Sydney heard her friend’s warning about situations like this, about how she didn’t want to have sex with anyone yet, about the things she didn’t want to regret doing under the influence, and she started to get up.
            “I should do something,” Sydney said. She put her feet on the ground.
            “Like what?” the guy said. “Really there’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing you should do.”
            Sydney ran her right hand through her hair and bit into the side of her mouth. The guy grabbed her arm and said, “Seriously, just leave it alone. These things happen all the time.” Sydney reluctantly sat back down.
            The rest of the night was spent watching the guy Sydney had been talking to bike home alone at 3 AM and passing out on the couch while four people she didn’t know watched an old episode of Family Guy next to her.
            It was harder to help Maddie fly under the radar with two other drunk girls drawing attention. Isabelle accidentally tipped over in her desk, and this caused Bea to break into hysterical giggling. Sydney moved Maddie over to the back of the room and tried to get her to focus on the activity they were supposed to be working on.
            “Maddie, focus,” she said, although she knew it was useless. She did her best to guide her old friend through the process of scribbling down letters, but there didn’t seem to be a point. This was made so much worse by Maddie’s lack of awareness.
            “Killin’ it,” she said loudly, and grinned up at Sydney. She looked so sweet and proud, and Sydney felt this expression as a stab to the gut.
            Their friendship had started on completely different terms. Having grown up in the same church, Maddie and Sydney had been friendly for most of their lives without really knowing each other. Dressed in restrictive sundresses in a variety of pastels, they would wave across the mass of people milling around, collecting food from the Easter service potluck table.
            The last time they had seen each other before entering the program had been at a church camp, sponsored by the youth group they had both grown up in. It was here that they finally spoke, and came to realize that they had a similar humor, a similar style of speaking. Maddie could glance Sydney’s way and suggest something with the slight squint of one eye. It was so easy and comfortable so quickly. It became obvious that they were two people who were destined to be close friends.
            Except nothing had come after that. They lost touch and ended up at two different high schools. Sydney didn’t think of Maddie again (other than when telling the odd story from that summer) until her first day in the alternative program. And here they picked up right where they had left off, as if four years hadn’t intervened. This time they were closer, this time they shared the same sense of hollow loss that came with leaving traditional high school. That harsh, sardonic edge to their witty commentary came naturally, born of a shared experience of rejection. Still, it seemed to everyone that they held each other up, and that life would be bigger and more exciting after they graduated from the program.
            There was one day in early August of their senior year when Maddie didn’t show up for class. And then another. And then four more. Sydney desperately tried to contact her friend, but was met with silence or the answering machine. Then Maddie finally showed up, walking next to Frank in the direction of the portables. Frank’s face was shadowy and Sydney could tell by the way Maddie nervously pinched at her sleeve that something was wrong.
            When Frank got to the group of students congregated at the portables, he look around for a second before saying, “Let’s all meet in Connie’s room today. There’s something we need to talk about.”
            Sydney could tell by the way some people looked at each other, that they knew what this was about. She felt stupid that she didn’t. She fell in step beside Maddie, but didn’t say anything. She would know what was wrong soon enough.
            When everyone had filed in after Frank, he started to speak. “So as many of you may have heard, Eric Harris passed away last Monday. While we’re usually instructed to continue on in times of tragedy such as this,” he glanced in Maddie’s direction, “it has come to my attention that many of you knew him. I thought it might be good for us to talk about this as a community, so that nobody feels alone. Does anyone have something they’d like to share about Eric?”
            Many hands shot up, but to Sydney’s surprise, Maddie’s wasn’t one of them. She’d assumed that Maddie would be the most involved, as it had clearly been partially her idea. However, as Frank called on people and they started to share, Maddie seemed to grow tenser where she sat. Finally, she stood up from her seat, mumbled something about having to go to the bathroom, and left. Sydney waited five minutes before following after her.
            She found her friend standing around the corner of the last portable, smoking and staring at the ground. Sydney came over and stood next to her, leaning against the railing for a few moments before saying, “What’s going on?”
            Maddie swallowed and looked down. “It’s not helping,” she said.
            Sydney studied her face and said, “What?”
            “This ‘town hall’ discussion, or whatever Frank thinks he’s doing. At first I thought it was a good idea, but it’s just pissing me off.”
            Sydney waited for more of an explanation, but when it became clear that one wasn’t coming, she asked, “Why?”
            “None of them really knew him, and yet they’re acting like his death had a huge impact on their lives. Practicing tragedy. It must be nice.”
            “Did you really know Eric?” Sydney asked, trying to keep the note of incredulity out of her voice. She shouldn’t be surprised by information like this.
            Maddie nodded. “We worked together,” she said, tapping the end of her cigarette against the railing. “I got to know him pretty well over the last two years. I don’t know.” She stopped and looked up at the sky. “It didn’t feel right to go in after he . . . I missed a few of my shifts. I got fired from my job.”
            “I’m sorry,” Sydney said.
            Maddie shook her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, “I just can’t seem to wrap my head around it. One day someone’s here, joking about the way the manager’s ears move when he’s angry, and then he’s just . . . gone from the world.”
            Sydney nodded, but she didn’t know what to say. She tried, “Yeah death is . . .” but whatever profound idea she had had died on her lips.
            Maddie threw her cigarette on the ground and stepped on it. “Whatever, I don’t want to talk about it. This was a bad idea. I just want to stop thinking about it.” She got up and walked out toward the parking lot. Sydney watched her go.
            At the end of class, everyone filed up to Connie’s desk to turn in the activity they had been working on in pairs. Sydney turned in she and Maddie’s and did her best to slink away. The whole day left a sour feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she wouldn’t be able to escape fast enough.
            She wanted out. She wanted out and she wanted away. She wanted to leave this campus and never have to come back. And yet, she knew she had to show up the next day. And the day after that, until she graduated and that would be it.
            All the program had become to her was a painful theater piece of how people throw their lives away. Everything slowly escalated, from being high in class, to daring each other to drop acid and get away with it. This tiny world supported itself and crushed its inhabitants. Frank and Connie forced themselves to turn a blind eye because they knew that, after the program, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. They were all sinking together. And Maddie was in the middle of it.
            With a growing drug habit, a refusal to give up anything that might help her escape reality, and an inability to accept that there was something better waiting for her after she turned eighteen, Maddie had slowly stopped turning up for class. When she did, she was out of her mind on something. Watching it was brutal, and this had meant the dissolution of everything Sydney and Maddie had been to one another. It was the end, and it was being painfully dragged out.
            Sydney had to keep her mind on what would be. On the fact that in two months she would walk across a stage and away from all of this. That would be it, no more program, no more stupid nicknames for teachers, no more accepting each other’s faults no matter how much they hurt. A new beginning.
            And yet, she had the sinking feeling that this wouldn’t feel over, even then. That after she had crossed that stage, she would still see the image of her friend walking away whenever she closed her eyes. Of that dull smile Maddie had had on her face when she led Eric upstairs. Of their matching flapper dresses. Of them sitting on the beach, talking about fashion and boys at church camp when they were twelve. These things would always exist for Sydney.
            She reached the end of campus and carefully picked her way back down the hill towards the parking lot.