Constance By Jeremiah Dennehy (2017)

The Jennie Hackman Memorial Prize for Fiction, Third Place (2017)

I don’t take the school bus, I don’t drive, and because mom doesn’t get home from work until four most of the time, I don’t ask her for a ride. But if I take the 509 toward Whitney Avenue at 6:15, I usually get to school before most of the students I want to avoid. Other than the smell of piss and the several little Spanish women pestering me to give them cans for their oversized trash bags, the 509 isn’t such a bad bus ride once you get used to it. There’s even this spot on the corner of Benson and Smith where you can catch the sunrise as the bus idles. It’s brief on clear mornings, but pretty. The sun crawls over the lids of the bigger buildings on the eastside, and everything comes into light, like color is being reborn into the world.

I didn’t take the 509 to school today.

Dad’s been living with us for over three weeks — a new record for him — but I still get freaked out every time I come downstairs for breakfast and find his old, phantom ass sitting at the kitchen table. His comb over ruffled, his mustache frayed. When he and mom aren’t fucking, they’re usually fighting, and when they’re not fucking or fighting, he just always seems to be there, at that table, reading whatever terrors made the front page of the newspaper, highlighting them with a green marker. I don’t ask. There’s usually a cup of coffee in whichever of his hands has the dragon tattoo on it.

I’d done a decent job of playing the whole “can’t talk, got to catch the bus” card this week, but today he was in rare form.

He put the newspaper down when I reached the bottom step of the staircase. “Hey boy!” he twanged, and popped up. The lights were off in the kitchen, but I could see just enough of him to know he was sweating: grey patches of moisture all over his wife beater.

“How bout a ride to school?”

“Really?”

“The hell you mean, really?” he asked. “Yeah, be like old times. Fore’ your balls dropped and you decided you hated me so much.” He brought the coffee mug to his face; etched beside the dragon tattoo was a star with mom’s name on it — probably the only reason he’d been let back in the house this time. He pulled his car keys from his pocket and jingled them: “What do you say?”

We got into his Dodge; it smelled like beef jerky and body odor. A picture of mom had been taped to its peeling dashboard. She was holding a baby (me) and looked exhausted, but in her own defeated way, beautiful. I’d never seen this photo before. When he caught me staring at it, he didn’t say anything, only shoved the key into the ignition and started the engine.

“Jesus, it’s a motherfucker out here,” he said and clicked on the air conditioning. “Your mom says May’s not usually this hot.”

“It’s not,” I said.

“It’s somethin’ else.” He pulled a handkerchief from the glove compartment and wiped the side of his face with it. “So how you been?”

“Good.”

“Just good, huh? Your mom says you’re graduating soon, headed off to — what’s that school? California U?”

“Stanford.”

“Yeah, that’s it. That’s really somethin’, you know?” He rolled toward the end of the driveway, checked the road, and pulled left. I didn’t tell him which direction to head in.

“You got your mom’s brains. Boy that’s for sure.” He wiped his face again. “But that’s really somethin’.”

“Thanks,” I said and looked out the window. Small city houses with tiny, unkempt lawns passed in grey, the air between was them hot and humid. Crumpled newspapers danced like ash across the asphalt when we drove past them. The half-dressed risen waited for their dogs to finish shitting on the sidewalk so they could go back to bed; traffic lights blinked an inoperative yellow. It was clear the sun had more work to do if it was ever going to rise above this city. The air coming out of the AC vent was cool. It smelled like the inside of a vacuum.

“So, I’m sure a smart boy like yourself has a lot to say about all this stuff that’s happened with Korea?”

“I don’t know. It’s—”

“You don’t know?” We were at stop sign, no cars around. “You better know.” He shoved the handkerchief back in the glove compartment and stared at me. His eyes were circled by little grafts of grey skin. “Shit. This is going to be your country one day, boy. Real soon. Gotta start paying attention.” He tapped the side of his head with his pointer finger.

“I just think that—”

“You got all these overstressed people going to the hospitals, these campus riots… the protests n’ shit.” He cracked his window and spat through the opening. “And that governor’s kid who got shot for hauling a Molotov cocktail at a state trooper. You hear about that? All over the news. You know I thought of you when I saw that?”

“But that was never—”

“I think it had to be done, though — Korea and all. Everyone’s upset about the— what’re they calling em?” He closed his eyes, tried to remember. I watched the road. “The aftermath photos!” he said, snapping fingers. “But people forget about all the damn aerial shots of the Uranium. Compounds — warehouses full of the stuff, and these big rigs moving it back and forth: a real operation. Like we wouldn’t notice. You know drones, right?”

“Yes, I know what a drone is.”

“Little planes got these pics. Containment units everywhere. Rockets, too. Big fuckers. That’s what everyone’s forgetting. The threat.”

He finally pressed the gas and we were moving again. The streets filled with more vehicles: city buses, school buses, taxis, early morning commuters combating the fatigue with caffeine, trying to get to their jobs for another day of whatever their life’s work was.

“I saw them, but I don’t think those pictures were ever confirmed to be—”

“Confirmed, my ass!” He beeped the horn at a van for cutting us off. “It’s all on Army-Of-Ares.com. I know the guys who run the site: ex-CIA. Got all this intel about what’s really going on. That’s all the confirmation I need.” His voice was sharp. He brought the dragon fist to his chin and cracked his neck as if it were a knuckle, emitting a string of clicks. The sun came up behind us — its light moved past the hood of the car and covered the parts of road that were still grey. I thought of the 509, the women with their oversized trash bags.

He’d remembered to take a left on to Byron Avenue to avoid the bridge traffic. I was surprised, because the last time he drove me to school had been about three years ago. I would have commended him for his memory if I thought he could take a compliment, if such praise wouldn’t jack up his ego, or if his response, whatever it was, wasn’t so apt to take the form of a lecture.

Then again, I could’ve went to war with the man, just the two of us in the front seat of his Dodge. I could have contended every one of his misshapen facts, all of his misunderstood politics. I could have undercut his sources, railed against his faith in the propaganda until he had nothing left to say. But I was smarter than that. His defeat would’ve resulted my being told to get the fuck out of the car and walk your ass the rest of the way to school! And you don’t make it as far as I have in high school by engaging in battles you cannot win. I was old enough to stop being afraid of him, but I wasn’t dumb enough to defy him. Instead, I just sat in silence, letting the AC muffle the space between us.

“Hey,” he said, his voice softer than before. “That’s just your old man ranting. You know? I get caught up and… but I’m trying here.”

“It’s fine,” I said.

“You too cold? I can turn down the AC if you want.”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay… So how’s school?”

“Less than a week left.”

“Oh… Well, how the ladies treating you?”

“They won’t leave me alone.”

“Yeah?” he perked up. “Damn boy. That’s—”

“Somethin’” I said, smiling. “They keep asking me to fill their bags with my can. You know? I get tired of turning them away all the time.”

“Yeah?” he asked, puzzled. “Well that’s, um…” he scratched his chin — flakes fell and were blown by the AC into the back seat.

“Yeah,” he said again.

We neared the school. Mostly empty lots. He had remembered which lane was for student drop off and pulled into it.

“Thanks for the ride.”

“Welcome, Phil. Welcome.”

*

My routine entailed arriving an hour before first period. Being this early guaranteed I’d be able to perform my morning rituals in solitude, unbothered, and without social obstruction (bullying) of any kind.

I rounded a corner, passed several of the “Kindness Month for Korea (Part of the Pro-Emotion Campaign)” banners hung up around the library, and discovered her, Constance. She was taping an oversized letter onto the wall with one hand and holding a black dispenser with the other. I stopped and watched. She was wearing a green dress with sunflowers on it, decorating a bulletin board outside the attendance office. The secretary, a squawking voice, was directing her from inside the office: “No dear, to the left. It’s crooked right there.”

“Oh, alright.” Constance was balanced on a chair, angling the paper letters accordingly.

“Not like that either,” the secretary said. “See, it’s still tilted.”

This was Constance Golden. A gorgeous girl in a green dress: the only thing standing between me and my locker in F wing, a barrier with breasts and a beautiful smile.

Her blonde hair, shimmering and slack around her shoulders, was damp from her morning shower. I found myself picturing it — the hot water, steaming and streaming over bare skin, suds, tan lines, open pores, wet contours. I was hard.

I checked to see if anyone was around — nothing — and I swatted my dick out of instinct, as it were some misbehaving pet.

“Fuck!” I yelled, not realizing how much it would hurt.

“Fuck,” I heard. An echo. Not mine.

Constance, down the hall, bent over, holding her hand, its blood dripping onto the linoleum floor.

“What is it, sweetie?” the secretary asked.

“I’m bleeding. I cut myself on the tape dispenser when—”

“Oh come in here, let me see.”

Constance walked into the office. I moved, still hard, tip-toeing past the bulletin board.

“That’s not so bad.” The secretary, a woman in a striped blouse and round glasses, examined Constance’s hand. “I’ll see if I have a bandage around here. If not, I’ll send you to the nurse. I hope she’s here this early.”

Constance’s blood was on the chair. It was part of the trail of red that led from the bulletin board to the office doorway. I hopped over the dots quietly. Without thinking, I unzipped my backpack, pulled out my first aid — something mom put in there freshmen year — and placed it on the chair.

I continued down the hall, toward my locker, unbothered, but still hard.

*

It was said that Constance Golden never missed a day of high school; that she, being the exemplary student she was, with her 3.992 GPA and lifelong allegiance to Spencerian script, had shown up on time for, and completed, a total of seven hundred and seven consecutive calendar school days over the last four years. She was now, with three days left in the school year, tied with Joe Shu, class of 1989 valedictorian, for the all-time attendance record. Most students knew this, but few believed it.

It was also said that Constance Golden was a direct descendant of Helen of Troy. There’d been word of Helen’s affair with some lion-hearted, Macedonian chieftain that resulted in a bastard son whose great-to-the-whatevereth-degree grandson rode with Alexander the Great, sowing his Hellenic seed all over various parts of Egypt and that when the Anglo-Egyptian war ended in 1936, Constance’s great-grandfather returned from Egypt with a blue-eyed baby girl swaddled under his collar talking of “royal extraction.” That baby, Madelyn Victoria Golden, who happened to grow up and dawn the sash of Miss England in the 1953 Miss World pageant, was Constance’s grandmother.

It was common knowledge that beauty was in Constance’s blood.

It must have started as a joke: some freshman coming from Mrs. Rowe’s mythology class probably saw Constance in the hallway and decided to let the lore of her origin take shape. The label, however, stuck so well that more people came to doubt Constance’s spotless attendance track than her ancestral tie to the face that launched thousand ships. I think the infatuation with the mythos of Constance Golden said something about the way a lot of us saw her. We prefer beauty steeped in story, eventfulness, a direct integrity of some sort, so that each of us can treat and view it as something more than just a random genetic consequence. Like it is a heroic, earned, and therefore praiseworthy, thing. Like it is a honed talent formed by years of effort. We like to fill in the blank spaces behind every Mona Lisa with a backstory because it gives us something to take a small sense of ownership in; it gives us an opportunity to commandeer, and grant permission to, the things we know are beautiful, so that said beauty is no more a combination of physical details than a story we get to stamp the name of our own authorship under each time we recognize it. We take it in, make it ours, however we can.

Constance’s often-questioned attendance track, on the other hand, was the closest thing to a flaw cynics could find in her long and illustrious list of accolades: thrice elected homecoming queen, varsity cheerleader, captain of the debate team, all-state javelin thrower, M.I.T-bound National Merit Scholar, blue blossoms for eyes, Cinderella locks, birdsong voice, and a physique so bountiful the best of Renaissance sculptors would take one look at it and say, “Oh shit, we’ve been doing this all wrong, haven’t we fellas?”

Hallways parted before her like the red sea, freshmen and sophomore alike cowering, not in fear, but in attempts to conceal their excited appendages for the sake of decorum.

There’s one yearbook picture in particular responsible for such a wide scale obsession. It was taken last fall at our homecoming barbecue. Constance is posing like a centerfold on the hood of someone’s jeep, and there is a slight aperture just under the third button of the red and white flannel she’s wearing. It presents before the more perceptive viewers a swath of satin bra padding and what appears to be the outer precinct of a pink areola. God’s gift to mankind: the nip-slip.

She’s the standard to which most, if not all, other high school girls compare themselves; the jailbait paramour of every PE teacher’s day dream; the profile PTO mothers liked to think they resembled in their own high schools days, but knows was never the case. Rumor had it she’s been on Playboy’s this girl is going to be hot as hell when she grows up list since she was seven.

Right now, I’m sitting behind her, looking at the back of her un-surprisingly golden head and wondering both if the rumors of her attendance are true and whether or not she’d notice if I gave her fourteen-karat scalp a quick lick.

There is a small, rotating fan in front of the chalkboard. When it turns toward us every couple of seconds, wafts of her strawberry-cucumber shampoo hit my face and I find myself picturing her in the shower. I’m hard again, but I think I could get away with blaming it on the heat if I had to. I scoot my seat back a few inches, hoping the blue balls I’m about to receive won’t be too debilitating. I see the bandage on her finger.

Yet, unlike this morning, some part of me considers yielding to the desire to make contact with her: maybe I’d lean forward, softly palm her shoulder, and whisper “congrats on the record, C” into the delicate shell of her earlobe. I’d say it quickly, confidently, causally, like we were friends, like it wasn’t the first time I was ever speaking to her, like I wasn’t erect. And she’d turn around and give me that starlit smile, and while biting her pen with those perfect teeth say, “aww… thanks for noticing, Phil. You’re the only one.” I’d call her C because that’s what everyone calls her. I might even tell her about the first aid kit.

I, of course, don’t do any of this. Instead, I lean back and try to make friends with the blue balls and the May heat as best as I can.

I’ve forgotten that today is senior skip day, and while the majority of our graduating class is out on Lake Whateverthehellyoucallit drinking and splashing and spanking each other under the fat sun, we are here, in SB320, a hot, musty, and clutter-filled classroom with ugly, unwashed greenhouse windows, passing the time with what we call “reflection.” It’s just one of the many “Kindness for Korea” exercises our A.P. Physics teacher Mr. Swenson has been having us partake in.

Despite whatever one might deduce from its name, the “Kindness for Korea” campaign doesn’t aid or benefit Koreans in any way. Some guy in and lab coat with the word “Grief Brigadier Toby” stitched onto its pocket gave a presentation on it few weeks ago:

“You know one in five people suffer from what my Grief Brigadiers and I have now termed “Korea-Occasioned-Cardiomyopathy. That is, heart trouble brought on by the excessive stress of the recent Korea bombing.” He held up his hand to signal one-in-five. He was reading off flash cards, pacing back and forth on stage: “K.O.C has sent thousands of people to the hospital already, and the numbers continue to grow. It is becoming a pandemic, kids.” He shuffled a card to the back of the deck. “Most people think that the only place damaged in the attack was Korea. Not true.” He tapped his chest. “Right here. This little ticker took some damage too, my friends. The stress that our bodies are unfit to withstand.” He broke off for a second, as if about to cry. He continued: “Not only are thousands of people living in guilt over what’s occurred, but they’re living in the fear of what might come next. The stress is defeating them.” He stopped, looked at crowd, dramatically ripped up the flash cards, and threw the pieces in the air. “But you know what? I think I’m tired of wondering what’s coming next. Aren’t you?”

“Yeah!” a single student yelled.

“We decide what comes next. We decide how were going to be affected by this whole thing. I’m here to tell you that instituting a wide scale reduction of the symptoms of K.O.C requires minimal effort if we all do our part. My fellow Grief Brigadiers and I have gone to extensive lengths to produce a whole repertoire of “Pro-Emotion” exercises that target K.O.C directly. It introduces content from some of most efficacious stress reduction therapies around the world.” The man brought his arms up, signaling offstage. A line of men and women in lab coats filed in. “Our aim is to enhance everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing by building a community of compassion, openness, safety—a place where we can talk of real things and know our feelings will not be criticized. These exercises will make us all feel better about what’s happened. I’ve already spoken to your teachers about implementing these exercises into your curriculum for the remainder of the school year. We call our movement ‘Kindness for Korea’.” He walked to the front of the stage: “We can be the change we want to see in the world. Anyone know who coined those words?”

“Hitler!” a voice yells. The man pretends not to hear.

“Mahatma Gandhi,” he says.

*

School ends in less than a week, and those of us who are seniors finished our A.P. Physics testing last Tuesday, so there’s technically no educational reason for any of us to be here.

And yet, here we are: seven in number, bored to death, and eyeing the clock between desperate attempts to sleeve the sweat from our foreheads. Constance Golden, of course, does not sweat; such bodily functions are beneath her. She sits in front of me, stealthily texting little letters into her cell phone. She hides it beneath a large pink binder, and returns to it whenever she is sure no one is watching. I am watching.

If given the choice, most of us would skip. But we each have our own reason for attending class today. Thomas and Stewart Fitzgerald, the twin prodigy lacrosse players, who will be playing for Duke next fall, are here because they have a state championship to win for our school at some cross-state dome in about four hours. Though often attentive in class, their now-slouched postures make them look a pair of dead banana slugs in orange lacrosse pinnies. Their eyes are either half shut or half open, and every couple of seconds there is a gargling noise that emanates from one, if not both, of their mouths. I cannot blame them for being tired. They’ve spent most of their lives preparing for the game this afternoon. Why shouldn’t they sleep? I remember going to middle school with them, how they’d stand out in the January snow running drills, rifling balls into the net for hours while their dad watched from a minivan at the end of turf.

Athletes simply have no say in the matter. If they want to participate in their designated spring-time extracurricular, they must attend all their classes. The policy for jocks is clear: no school, no sports.

The starting center fielder of our varsity baseball team sits three desks in front of them, drawing various types of genitalia into its wooden surface with a ball-point pen. His name is Reese Leone, and he is one of the students I try to avoid by getting to school early. He has on more than one occasion been caught trying to run down freshmen with his Mustang in the school parking lot. He has two mothers, a bear claw tattoo, and he cheats at everything: academic tests, standardized tests, drug tests, pop quizzes, bingo with the elderly, sports, love, the lottery, and just life in general.

The pen looks tiny in his huge hand, dwarfed by the veins sticking out of his forearm, but he sketches the images with finesse. That’s the side of Reese people have a hard time comprehending: he is a genius. Not so much Einstein, think Da Vinci, think Van Gogh. Hundreds of school desktops feature his specific quality of artwork: cock monuments, vagina sunsets, clitoral chalices, semen gladiators fighting to the death in egg colosseums, and naturally, human-to-human congress depicted in the most acrobatic and erotic of manners. Teachers are so taken aback by vividness of such illustrations they’ve stopped penalizing him for vandalism altogether. I believe some of them fear such sketches may end up in a museum one day, and wouldn’t want to erase Reese’s desk-bound juvenilia from the annals of history. I look over at him; he’s finishing up what appears to be some type of dick garden.

Melissa Saul, senior captain of the softball team, is standing in front of the classroom right now, “reflecting”:
“I’m sorry the world is the way it is. I see those pictures on the TV and I want to cry. I want it to go away. The bodies. The people. That was their home. But if I have anything keeping me afloat these days, it’s the team,” she taps her hands on her hips, as if she is nervous to speak in front of a class of six. “The team… the girls… they’re my best friends… my sisters…my lovely bitches.” She wipes her eyes with her wrist. “I’m going to miss them so much when I graduate.”

Melissa wears an oversized softball jersey tucked into a pair of undersized black yoga pants. She is number 59. I didn’t know they made jerseys with such high numbers, but the quotient somehow suits her. Melissa is what you would call a bigger girl, not fat, but amply proportioned; I believe she bats clean-up for the team, and worry the bulge of her thigh may tear straight through its spandex seams at any moment. Like most of us, she is sweating.

Mr. Swenson, a man with an Oreo colored beard and tattered wool sweater, leans with his back on the chalk board, listening. His hands cover his mouth, and his fig-leaf eyebrows are slanted upward. He looks like he has just been told he is pregnant
When Melissa finishes her reflection, Swenson hops forward and starts an industrious applause. There are streaks of chalk dust along the back of his sweater. None of us notify him of this. Those of us conscious simply clap for Melissa as she takes a seat.

“Okay, my apes,” Swenson says, “who is reflecting next?”

He calls all of his A.P. students “apes”. Despite his using it as a term of endearment, nobody has made an effort to suggest that it might be a less than flattering moniker.

“Constance, our attendance queen,” he says, “Why don’t you go next?” She smiles and shoves her phone under the binder.

As Constance gets up from her seat and moves to the front of the room, I feel the sweat on my lower back roll into chasm of my but crack. I’m soaked. I try not to stare at her butt when she moves, but I’m only human. Four years of track and field conditioning has molded her hind parts beautifully.

I hope I am not caught staring, but of course but I am. Trevor Ruiz, class president, anchor for the 400 meter relay team, and Tony in last fall’s production of West Side Story is looking at me. He sits three seats to my right, eyes pinned on me in disgust. Sorry, Trev, I think and mean it. We’re not all saints like you.

Trevor has been my lab partner for most of the year. He tries to lecture me on the theory of relativity. It fascinates the hell out of him: paper boy chucks newspapers from a moving bicycle; assumes the force he applies to the newspaper by throwing is the only force at play but its not: you have the bike, moving ten miles per hour, general laws of gravity, the rotation of the earth. The kid harps on the relativities of perspective. Half the time I don’t even know what the hell he’s talking about. But I do know that he’s cooler than me.

I feel bad — not for getting caught, but for getting caught by Trevor. He himself is a prince among peasants in our grade: Saint Trev, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, opens the doors for his dates, walks them to the door, pecks them good night on the cheek, and nope, no sex, not until marriage, that’s what God wants. His allegiance to higher purposes is so immaculate, so sound, that it’s totally unreal. Like he were a legend, but one that stands before us every day with his six-foot-three frame, vanilla smile, caramel skin, and pair of cinnamon eyes that seem to say: “You should expect more from yourself.” He was Constance’s date to Snow Ball last December.

“Firstly, I want to say that I think these Pro-Emotion exercises are a wonderful idea, Mr. Swenson,” Constance opens like a debutante. “Really, they do more for any of us than I think we realize.” Her skin is bronze, un-freckled in the ugly light coming from the window, and there are little blotches of sunburn under her eyes: patches of summer roses, thornless. I want to tell her she stopped blending this morning because of me.

“With everything that’s going on around the world — the K.O.C, the rallies, the protests — I think we need to now, more than ever, take inventory of the things we have; to reflect on this moment in human history before it passes us by.”

Swenson’s eyes are drenched. He’s crying. Constance has hit the nail on the head in no less than four sentences, and every teacher’s failed attempt to help students recognize the severity of recent global events is expunged. Constance has redeemed us all with her perfect heart.

I can’t say that I blame Mr. Swenson for endorsing the whole “Kindness for Korea” thing. The footage of the bombing is gnarly, and it just seems to be everywhere: one solitary and obese mushroom cloud, everything bursting into soot and sprays of ash; matchstick bodies still in everyday poses, either vaporized or petrified depending on their distance from ground zero; singed hair that look like half-reacting filaments, babies thrown into public fountains while mothers shielded their burning faces; aerial shots of mountains on fire, trees like charred bones ripped sideways by nuclear winds, stunning blue lake water topped with a layer of dead fish and palm-sized insects. We had all seen it on one news channel or another — the uncensored ugliness that snuck its way into our living rooms and forced us to acknowledge it.

Some part of the world had been backhanded by an immutable and manmade flame, and we, even if distanced from it by a sizable ocean, sixty thousand miles of planetary surface, and the distraction of this pre-summer swelter, were the cause. We did it, we were culpable.

The President had been on the television for weeks trying to explain the detonation with words like threat-valence, offensive-prevention, and terminative-diplomacy. I guess you’d probably throw in a few ten cent words yourself if you were trying to justify the tossing of the world’s first twenty megaton thermonuclear warhead on to foreign soil. Though a nuclear counterstrike wasn’t inevitable, it also wasn’t impossible. The plain fact of the matter was that the rest of the world hated us right now, and I think most people a hard time blaming them for it.

When students walked into their first period classroom on the Monday after the footage was released, they discovered that a purple, clay-pigeon-like disc had been installed beside every ceiling fire alarm. The discs were called Boom-Buddies, and they were programmed to emit a high-pitch siren if there has been any type of detonation on proximal soil. I don’t think that every school in the state, let alone country, was required to take this type of precaution. I assume it’s because our high school is located on the outskirts of what The Secretary of the Department of Defense deemed a “Target City” in his last national address.

We’d spent that first week engaging in a series of Boom-Buddy drills. When the little purple disc screeched, a robotic voice would come over the loudspeaker and say some type of code word like, “lemonade, disco, Halloween,” and teachers were supposed to run to the windows of every classroom, pull down the newly installed lead shades, turn off all the lights, and have students pull those x-ray vests you wear at the dentist’s office from the closet and put them on. I used to wonder why the protocol required turning off the lights. Would the dark stop the nuclear blast? Would shadow and silence ward off the radiation sickness? Or was a benighted classroom supposed to keep us from noticing our broiling skin?

I do not know.

Once the vests were on, students were supposed to sit under their desks and wait in silence until the words: “mashed potato” aired over the intercom. We were then free to go about the lesson.

“I will, no doubt, miss you all when I graduate,” Constance says, gesturing with her wrist to the small audience. “I’ll miss the friends and faculty I’ve come to know and cherish so intimately over the past four years,” she says, looking at Mr. Swenson. He squawks like some kicked seagull and wipes his running nose with his sleeve. “My time here has been marked with beautiful moments and beautiful people and I am happy to come from such a legacy of kindness, compassion, and fellowship.” She scans the audience and we make eye contact for a few seconds. I’m hard again.

“Thank you, everyone, for being who you are. Our bearing witness to recent world events, though difficult, has made us stronger. And such strength, I firmly believe, will make our generation the one that rids the world of this kind of hateful, and destructive diplomacy.” She appears to curtsy before walking back to her seat. We clap for the Constance the Queen, Constance the Good, Fair, and Virtuous, Constance the Successor of Royal Prowess and Political Dignity. Constance the Nip-Slip.

I feel a second run of blue balls crawling up in the pit of my stomach and realize that she’s impenetrable. She’s perfect. Constance. Not a chink in her armor anywhere. Everything polished and invulnerable. I think of the blood on the chair and wonder how a little tape dispenser could cause a queen to bleed.

I look at the clock, noting how it’s perched right above the chalkboard, several feet to the left of the Boom-Buddy. We still have ten minutes before class ends, and Trevor and myself are the only ones who have yet to reflect. I know neither of us want to.

We make eye contact. It is sustained and language-less; I wonder what I look like to him right now other than an opponent. I am still hard. I should probably expect more from myself.

“Ok who is next?” Swenson says in a cheery voice, and scans the audience. It is no-question comparison between myself and Trevor. I’m confident Swenson doesn’t even know my name. Despite the A I am most likely going to receive in it, I’ve only spoken about four and a half times in this class all year. The “half” time was when I sneezed and Swenson turned around and said, “Yes, yes, friction. That’s it.”

“Mr. Ruiz, why don’t you go?” Swenson says.

Trevor smiles, not at Swenson, nor Constance, but at me. “I’d actually like to go last, if at all possible, Mr. Swenson. I’m still trying to pick the right words for the occasion.” That suave son of a bitch, I think. He’ll get out of this without having to reflect.

“Yes, that is a good idea,” Swenson nods like some stoic monk. He moves his eyes toward me. “Okay, how about you, Mr.…”

“Collins. Phillip Collins.”

“Yes, that’s right. You’re the reason I haven’t been able to curve any of the exams this year. I like you. Phil Collins. Good name. Yes.” Swenson moves his body in front of the fan. I thank God I don’t have to smell Constance’s hair right now. “It’s your turn to reflect.” He grabs a yard stick off the chalkboard and begins tapping the floor with it… “dudum…dudum…dudum…dudum…duh…duh…” He half-hums half-mumbles to himself: “I can feel it coming in the air tonight… Oh Lord.” He does this every time I remind him what my name is.

I get up and feel the hot air on my soaked butt. I know Constance will see the patch of rear sweat when I pass by her, but it is better than her seeing an erection. I wish it wasn’t so hot.

When I get to the front of the room, Reese Leone takes a break from his drawing to appraise my sweat stains. He laughs, a row tobacco-stained teeth riding the ridge of his lip, and mouths “faggot” to me. I am reminded of why I try to get to school early.

I do not react. I do not move at all. I stand where I am in the front of the classroom and do as close to nothing as possible: “tonic immobility”. When Reese notices that I don’t engage — or more likely, reasons that I’m one of those kids who rides the short bus to school — he goes back to his dick garden, leaving me alone. Such is a microcosm of my high school experience. It is only when I refuse to engage that I prosper.

I learned the concept of “tonic mobility” in my honors biology class freshmen year, when my world was composed of a chaotic and overly gratuitous assortment of hazing, harassment, ass-slaps, and a thing called “rolling a fag” where seniors duct taped two underclassmen to each other in a 69 position and rolled them down a hill.

I feel my heart beating fast. I inhale deeply and listen for it to slow.

Certain species of animals enter into a state of paralysis when threatened or triggered in different ways. Once they’ve, more or less, turned themselves off, their predator ceases to either attack or ceases to deliver a death blow. When the predator has left, thinking that he will eat his kill at a later time, the prey simply gets up and leaves. Tonic immobility. I remember a video clip of fox burying a duck that was in a state of tonic immobility. Once buried, the duck woke up, dug itself out, and waddled away free and safe.

This defense mechanism seemed effective enough in the wild, so why not use it here? Consequently, I’ve made it through the last four years of high school without any trouble. I’ve minded my own business, kept to myself, done the work, earned the grades, and weathered the chaos of it all by simply refusing to engage with it. In five months I’ll be on the other side of the country at the school I’ve been dreaming of since I was a baby. People like Reese Leone will be nothing but a memory I refuse as my history. These days, I do not engage. I let the chaos pass, let it subside, so I can waddle away free and safe.

“Hi, everyone,” I say, looking out over the desks. Melissa and Constance are both on their cell phones. Neither of the Fitzgerald twins have moved. Trevor looks at me like he wants to break my face. I don’t know why, because he won’t have to reflect now that I am. His eyes are threatening, full of heat and what I perceive to be ire. I refrain from eye contact.

“I just want to say, I hope everyone is doing alright, both emotionally and… you know?” I look for the right words to say, but am drawing soggy blanks. I look at Constance and somehow let the word “sexually” slip from my mouth. I immediately consider blurting out “I mean psychologically,” but I’m stopped by a bead of sweat that has fallen into my eye. It stings, and I wonder if my sweat isn’t made of some type of acid. I want to cry for being such an idiot. I wipe the sweat from my eye and then slowly look up to see how they’ve reacted.

Nobody has moved. Nobody had made a sound, not even Mr. Swenson, who is lightly tapping the yard stick on his foot and nodding to himself with his eyes closed.

Nobody has acknowledged my Freudian slip because nobody is listening to me at all. Even Trevor, the only person in the audience with their face up, now seems to be lost in a day dream.

Instead of shame, I feel anger. Instead of relief, I feel invisible. I wait a few moments. Nothing. Just the fan whizzing back and forth, failing to cool the room.

“Fuck,” I say. Nothing happens. “Cock, shit, pussy, bitch, asshole.” Nobody moves. Nobody cares. Their minds are elsewhere: dreams, text messages, and dick gardens. I can say whatever I want and it will not be heard.

It wouldn’t be as bad if they were looking right through me. At least the effort to appear as those they were listening would be there. But right now there’s nothing, not a hint of evidence that I exist right and for the first time in my life, I am hurt by my inability to engage. I look at Constance, the attendance queen, and realize that I want to dig myself out of the dirt.

Before I can say another word, thunder seems to bludgeon the door. There is a violent flash from the window. The floor pivots beneath us, quaking into motion the miniature model of Newton’s cradle that sits on Swenson’s desk. The Boom-Buddy goes off and I cannot hear myself think.

A human voice comes on over the intercom: “Fourth of July!”

Time slows entirely. The remainder of experience is reduced to inertia.

I see Melissa screaming, but there is no sound — a horrified cavewoman in a block of ice. Her mouth has been jacked open to what seem like unnatural fathoms. She cannot tell if this is really happening.

Swenson is so shocked by the noise that he snaps the yard stick in half, accidentally cutting his right arm. He is bleeding through the sleeve of his sweater. He rises, tries to pull down one of the lead shades, realizes he cannot grip it because of the all the blood, and, forgetting that he still has another perfectly functioning, non-bloodied arm, gives up, sitting down. He says nothing.

Reese Leone stands up and moves at glacial speeds toward the back closet. There are tears coming from his eyes, and I find myself feeling sorry for him. He is in outer space. We are all in outer space. The closet door is locked. He heaves it with everything he has but cannot get it open.

The Fitzgerald twins sleep right through it all. They’ve earned their rest.

Constance, for the first time in her life, is discomposed. She is screaming into her cell phone while tears roll off her tan face. She’s never looked more beautiful than she does right now.

The room is getting brighter, hotter, like we’re being slowly swallowed by the sun. A sickness grows in the pit of my stomach, something poisonous passes through me. I begin to taste it in my mouth. It hurts. I want to spit it out, but can’t.

And it tastes like rotten lemons, if chaos could taste like anything at all. I feel the temperature rising with the passing of what seems like impossibly retarded time and I realize that this is probably it: the not inevitable, but also not impossible, counterstrike.

There are no thoughts, only certainties driven by instinct. I am going to engage. I am going to kiss her. Because, what else is there at the end of the world? I am going to approach Constance Golden — descendant of Helen of Troy, the beautiful angel of death in the green sunflower dress — for the first time in the final seconds of my life, and assault her face with my lips: my first kiss. I’m going to become part of that beautiful story. I am going out anew: lucid mobility.

I sprint toward her. My legs are heavy, battle-bruised soldiers home from war. My skin starts to hurt, reddening. I’m in front of her. There is a puddle of tears on her desk, mixing with the ink of one of Reese Leone’s cock cannons. I grab the cellphone from her hand and chuck it into the air. Our eyes meet. I’m hard. I haven’t stopped sweating.

Her face is a disheveled miracle, a story I cannot permit myself write from afar any longer. I grab her cheeks with both hands and move in. I am going to engage.

I close my eye on her eyes. Soft and blue with aquatic warmth…

I am knocked on my back. My chest feels dented, crushed under something full. The room continues to get brighter and hotter, incandescently folding in on itself from the corners.

I think I feel blood in my hair.

I see doubles: there are two Trevor Ruizs on top of me, looking down with Cinnamon eyes. One of the Trevors is talking. A golden cross is hanging down from his neck, swaying back and forth. It is the color of Constance.

His face is full of noise. I hear none of it, but somehow understand. The reputation of a prince among peasants, Trevor, himself, a story as well. Relativities of perspective.

I am not the only one who has waited until the last second to engage.

Because, what else is there at the end of the world?

The ire in his eyes is not, nor had ever been, ire.

He is mouthing what I assume overdue honesty looks like.

We are both dying, because we are all dying.

He kisses me, and I notice the familiar and bitter taste of chaos in his mouth. Like rotten lemons. The ugliness that unites us. I kiss him back. My first kiss.

We engage. We are the cause. He is hard.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.

Erythrophobia By Jameson Croteau (2017)

From out in the outfield dirt, the crack of the bat was the only indicator a ball was rising up before dive bombing, back through the crepuscular sky. Jimmy turned and chased the echo of the sound. Go foul… Go foul… The ball, draped in a cloak of clouds, seemed to carry by a will of its own, as if an invisible hand had wrapped around it and guided it over the fence. In the dim light, Jimmy called foul.

The ball, long bruised and threadworn from one too many of Erik’s ‘fastballs’ being lifted into the stratosphere, hop-skipped along the rhubarb forest and disappeared — as quickly as it had appeared in the darkening sky — to Jimmy.

“Nice going, Ricky!” Erik stood indignant, hands on hips, as the group of eight gathered. He didn’t need to say it was the last ball they had, but he did anyway.

“Pitch better,” was Ricky’s only response. He tossed his glove and his bat — which he had carried all the way from home plate daring Jimmy to be lying about the foul ball — and found his foothold into the chain-link fence.

Jimmy started up after him, feeling a bit guilty that at the crack of the bat he had wished it foul instead of fair.

Erik looked around once.

“C’mon you wuss,” Alain seemed to be talking through Jimmy as he turned over the fence—he was a far better climber than Ricky. “It’s just the Patch.”

The rhubarb forest had as many nicknames as it had tall tales. The crimson weeds swayed with the dead breeze. Four years ago, legend spoke, a young girl, Sara, had gone missing. The only thing they found of her was the tattered remains of her pink and blue-polka dotted dress. And even more recent, the cops had been called, half a dozen months back, to clear out some meth-heads. They ended up running into a couple of teenage Cambodian drug dealers. Nothing more harmful than pot, but the cops had found their drug abusers and found a nice warm cell for their criminals.

The rest of the group had found their foothold and heaved themselves over the fence. Jimmy was busying dusting himself off, when Ricky grabbed a half sliced bit of rhubarb and bit into it.

“Disgusting.”

“It’s bitter,” Jimmy said rather matter-of-factly. No one owned the Patch, as far as Jimmy knew. And for good reason. Whoever had planted the rhubarb must’ve not realized how terrible the taste was. It was enough to send you and your covered wagon back south for a far better settlement. Alain said the Patch had been there since before Papa was born. The way the stalks grew, twining into each other, bending and groping, reminded Jimmy of the sickle-legs of a hungry red spider. The stalks had grown —
surprising in the thin Mill City soil — taller than they should have. The green leaf tops provided in the din, a penumbra umbrella, which would make the ball all that much harder to locate.

Erik stood on the other side.

“You coming?” Ricky tossed his half chewed stalk through the fence. Red was on his lips and on his fingers.

“Not my ball. Not my problem.” Erik’s voice quivered weaker than the breeze.

Ricky gave a red tooth smile, “Erik’s afraid boys. Pitches like a girl. Hits like a noodle. And is gonna wet himself like Jimmy. No offense, Jim.”

Jimmy grimaced and grew red. He deserved it though. It was on this field, four years ago, on opening day, even before he had met Ricky or Erik, where he peed his pants. It was his first ballgame and as he sat on the bench waiting for the bottom of the fifth — he was to get on the field the first time, and play shortstop (he would—after his coach had thrown enough dirt on his uniform to make mud — never get to play at short again) — he had pissed himself. It wasn’t the nerves, he would determine later, but the fear of losing his opportunity if he had gone into the Patch to urinate.

“I ain’t going in there. My pa says never go that way. He doesn’t even want me to play at Ducain. Says there’s crackheads and creeps in there,” Erik said. Firm. The boys watched him turn around and head to the only dugout with a working bulb.

“Alright, Jimmy,” Ricky said, taking leadership, it was his hit after all. “Which way did my Babe Ruth land?”

More Ashburn than Ruth… Jimmy thought, but he didn’t say anything. He was thinking about what Erik had said before stomping away. The moon light, under the level of the rhubarb leaves, was dwindling at best, but the summer air reminded the boys that it wasn’t dark enough to call it quits.

On their hands and knees — annoyed only by the occasional spider and Tim’s sneezing — the seven boys covered as much ground as they could.

Jimmy split up from the group. There was pride to be found in finding. Another ball meant another at bat and there still was a chance to take victory away from Ricky.

In between the upturned roots of two rhubarbs he found the ball, it had been walloped and disfigured, causing Jimmy to pass it over twice, before seeing it from the backside. The inner cork had been exposed. It looked more like a yarn ball than anything else. Jimmy tossed it up and down, hearing it whistle through its opened seams. He brought his ear closer to the ball, as if to catch the source of the whistle, but the noise, despite the non-moving ball, didn’t seem to grow any fainter. Another stale breeze brought gooseflesh to his arms.

He hustled, more than he had in the game admittedly, back to the sound of his friends.

“I got it, guys.”

The prized trophy, roughed up beyond recognition, didn’t seem to inspire any cheer in the rest of them. Ricky was busy, near the fence of the field, with a rhubarb—as a conductor’s tool—pointing this way and that. His wicked grin, lopsided and impish, found Jimmy’s eyes.

“I can’t believe,” he said, unable to take a breath, “We’ve never thought of it before. Jim what time do your parents want you home?”

“Uh… nine?” Though Ricky didn’t wait for an answer.

“Good. The Patch is it. The perfect place. Look at how the hill lies, how the plants grow tall and twisted. There’s room here, Jim. The most perfect game of hide-n-seek of all time.” He cackled then, like a magician revealing his final act. “Tell ‘em Tim.”

Timmy, rotund and ropey, opened his mouth. He coughed once, “I saw-

“A shack,” Ricky finished for him, clearly unimpressed with Timmy’s theatrical skill. “Boarded up, but accessible.” Ricky thwacked the rhubarb baton across his palm. “If you’re clever.” He added for good measure. Moonlight, though only with the help of the watercolor sunset back uptown behind the mill horizon, showed the red dripping from Ricky’s mouth.

“You didn’t eat the leaves did you?” Jimmy risked a pick at some of them.

Ricky gave his eyebrows a raise. ‘So-what’ the look dared.

“Poisonous.” Jimmy snatched his own hand away.

Timmy leapt from the stalk he was holding in his hand. “Maybe we shouldn’t play then…”

“Nonsense,” Ricky threw his stalk at Timmy. With his red hands he looked like an Indian demon.

“Don’t be an Erik,” Jimmy cracked his neck, they wouldn’t have been in this situation if it hadn’t been for his terrible pitching. His knees were scratched from finding the ball. He wanted nothing more to go home, or to play ball. But he wasn’t ever going to say no to a mad genius Ricky idea. It was perhaps, unknown to him, his one way of sticking it to his brother. For all the fame Alain Chartier had in Mill City he didn’t have a best friend half as clever as Ricky.

“You just don’t want to be spooked. There’s nothing out here but your imagination. I should know.” Ricky’s words swayed the other boys. It was his confidence. No one, Jimmy knew, had a sliver of the authority Ricky spoke with. His mind was always working, absorbing, reading. You learned to trust him.

Timmy agreed to play. If the big man fell, the others did to. Soon, rhubarb straws were drawn. And rules made. Home base was the other side of the fence. But that was for faint at heart and rule changers. In Mill City hide-n-seek, it was one versus all, no take backs and full force tagging.

Ricky — though Jimmy almost assumed he cheated it — was the man out. He was the seeker.

Without speaking, Ricky turned round, faced the fence and began counting. The six of them bolted through the Patch. Timmy took off as far from the shack as he could. He turned back towards the fence a bit into his run and dove beneath two stalks. William made a beeline for the shack. A tattered thing, Jimmy saw as he ran past. It had a broken window, glass long removed and a flickering bulb. Foolish, Jimmy thought, it’d be the place Ricky would check first.

Jimmy kept moving leaving his friends in the stalks behind. By now, Ricky would have stopped counting. He always got giddy when he got up near twenty.

Past the shack and the view of the fence, past the last few stalks of rhubarb, dead and dying, Jimmy found his hiding spot. An old railway had carved itself into the hillside. It turned up and headed behind the field going away from the city and the Merrimack.

It was an old railway, rusted in most places; it had thick treads—once used to transport textiles to the expanders out west—they were high enough for Jimmy and his pinprick frame to completely disappear. Jimmy made his home between the cool rails, summer had seemed to forget this part of Mill City. Fall foliage, perhaps from years past cushioned his covert bed. He settled down, his rhubarb stalk, long and jagged dug into his palm. And he waited.

Darkness came. And with it noises. These were the type of sounds that came when you were alone. A shift of gravel. A half-wail of wind. Half a moment into his hiding, Jimmy regretted going so far away from the field. The hide-n-seek blues, he called them, came as they always did, settling like a rock into his stomach. Minutes seemed to elongate like a table with infinite leaves. He wasn’t sure if moments were hours. Had he been such a good hider that he’d never be found?

The gravel cracked again. His left hand tightened around a loose stone between the tracks. He risked movement, turning with one eye upwards. He saw the sky and the stars. They peered down on him with exigency. The gravel shifted once more. Sliding across the terrain as if weight was placed on it. If Ricky had found him here, a minor impossibility, he’d have to catch him, an even larger unlikelihood.

A boot on the tracks. Heavy.

Jimmy bolted. His toe caught on the rail lift and he stumbled. Turning he saw a not-quite-dirty white shirt and a man.

And while his face, with taut cheekbones, paper lips, and an angular chin, remained hidden by the darkness. Jimmy saw, through it, a sharp haircut, neat and unparted, and below, two eyes. Wide and circular; brown with orange and without pupils. The man lumbered towards Jimmy. His body moving without joints as if pulled forward.

Jimmy pivoted and ran. This wasn’t the type of run to beat out a double play at second, it was the type of running that silenced the world. He cut through, with arms and voice wailing, brush and rhubarb leaves.

He crashed then, tumbling head into sternum, chipping a tooth, as he ran smack into the seeker. Ricky coughed once, getting up. He had his cackle smile on now. “Wrong, Jim. You see. I’m supposed to find you.”

Jimmy found his breath stolen by a gloved hand on his heart. He was hit at once with a lung full of dizziness and a head thick with spasming coughs.

“There’s something-”

Ricky smiled dimly looking down at the rhubarb in Jimmy’s hands and the hives running up and down his friend’s arms. Ricky was still red with his late night snack.

Jimmy pulled away, tugging at his friend, but Ricky, taller and stronger wouldn’t move. “Fair is fair, Jim. Timmy is seeker now. Got him first. I got the best hiding spot.”

“Shut up Ricky! There’s someone out there.”

The smile curled back. “What do you mean?” Ricky found his feet. Jimmy pointed back into the darkness from where he had come. It was harder to speak than he thought. His index finger rattled. Ricky turned.

Together, in the gloom, they heard the shuffling of a man. The eyes, glowing like an animal’s at dusk, followed them. Ricky took a step forward. Jimmy grabbed his shoulder, but his friend seemed not to feel it.

The figure moved closer. His eyes still, unflinching, drank both the boys in. He moved his hands up, covered from wrist bone to fingers with red. The thin lips didn’t move, they coated themselves in a sticker red than Jimmy had seen before by the tracks.

Ricky stumbled forward, hands reaching weakly for the man. But Jimmy grabbed him by the waist and turned him back towards the fence.

In the chaos of flight, the two of them bolted, elbow to elbow, up the rhubarb hill, dashing through the Patch. Ricky pulled ahead, he was faster that day. The rhubarb grew taller as they came to the fence. Ricky was halfway up when Jimmy jumped on. Ricky rose to the top, straddled and looked down. Jimmy, didn’t look behind him. He didn’t risk it. He saw only Ricky’s red teeth and his hands gripping the chain-link top tighter and tighter, until they were crimson all around his fingers. Jimmy winced.

Together they turned over the fence and landed on their equipment. Erik was there, running towards them. Jimmy found his bat and held it in a stance towards the fence. Ricky’s legs wanted to run. He wanted to run. But they waited, staring into the rhubarb. Nothing moved, except the glint of two heavy eyes. Brown and orange moving in the Patch, watching them with the grace, depth, and hungry rapacity of a lioness.

Jimmy gripped his bat, shuffling hand over hand at the handle. He couldn’t even fight Alain off of him, what chance did he have against that.

The eyes didn’t blink, they moved from stalk to stalk. But the man never stumbled closer. He let his figure hide behind the Patch.

“What are you guys doing?” Erik’s voice was about as fearful as Jimmy felt.

Together Ricky and Jimmy turned back to the Patch. The eyes were gone.

“Where are the others?” Jimmy said. Though the voice didn’t sound like his. It was harsh and laconic.

“They went home,” Erik said, “Too dark to play.”

Jimmy breathed in and then out, hearing Ricky do the same. “C’mon” Jimmy looked over at his friend. Ricky’s neck was red, his cheeks flushed from their spiriting, and as Jimmy said “Let’s go home.” Ricky puked up a mixture of red and grilled cheese. It was thick and sloppy. It came out in waves and seemed to poison the grass, steaming in the night.

Jimmy tossed Erik the ball and half-carried Ricky to the dugout exit, taking the path that would drag them furthest from the Patch.

*

They were silent on the way home. Jimmy had come in fifteen minutes past his curfew to an empty house. He wished the porch lights had been on and his father sitting in the chair, reading the paper. Even if it meant being grounded.

They had stopped only once, on the way home, as they jumped from street light to street light, flinching at every cloaked figure, to let Ricky, whose pace, for once, was quick enough to match his motor mouth, to rinse the red off his hands and mouth.

Home had arrived like a surprise. Jimmy’s legs felt like they had barbed wire tied around them. Everything ached, especially his head. His tongue was swollen, from misuse or the rhubarb he was unsure. So he didn’t even get to say goodnight to Ricky as he slunk, in silence into his house.

His door slammed shut. And Jimmy waited until every light in the house flicked on before moving to his place. Erik followed after, “what’s his problem?”

“Shut up.”

*

Jimmy was surprised to find himself awake the next morning. He had expected, in the night that he would turn over and see the hungry eyes just outside his window, but the last thing he remembered was cleansing the image from his mind as his head hit the pillow.

He turned the shower on, careful not to submerge his head in all the way. As he lathered up his hair, his heart turned. He couldn’t dare to close his eyes. Every time he did, it was as if the window would blow open, cold air billowing in from somewhere. When behind shut eyelids, every floorboard in the house creaked. So he left the shower, shampoo dripping from his hair.

At the table, his father sat with breakfast. He gave Jimmy, after the boy had toweled himself off, a look over, wet his fingers and patted the boy’s hair down, before shifting his plate of eggs over to his son. His father went back to the paper, using the same wetted fingers to move to the next page. Jimmy saw more of his father’s eyes and brow than any part of him.

Alain, taller than them both, burst his way through the frontdoor. Heavy bags sat under his eyes, which told the story of another late night romp. Their father gave his eldest a cursory glance.

“Jan wants the car today.”

“Fine.” Alain said. He knew better than to argue. Roland had yet to say anything about the missing beer in the fridge downstairs. The football star collapsed into the lawn chair next to Jimmy. He gave the boy’s hair a ruffle, undoing all that his father had done moments before.

“Stop it,” Jimmy said. Alain tagged him back with a half-strength fist to the shoulder. Though his brother was holding back it still bruised him.

Alain tapped him again. “C’mon little bro. Where’s the rise? Show me those silver mittens.”

“I told you to stop it.” Jimmy’s voice came out hoarse. Alain gave his father a look over the newspaper. The Sun was his father’s permanent shield. A shield against in-laws, neighbors, and children.

“Woah, someone’s upset today.” Alain picked at his younger brother’s wrist. Shaking the tiny twigs by the stem. His eyes squinted, “What’s this?”

The rhubarb stain, and cuts all along his arms flared fresh red on his skin. “I was out playing last night.”

Their father looked over the paper, putting it down. Alain seemed unperturbed and took a mouthful of Jimmy’s eggs.

“Where?” Usually Roland cared little what his children did as long as they were outside, came home in time, and were safe. He had long stopped caring where Alain made his stomping ground. But he and his wife still had hope for their youngest.

“Baseball field.”

“Lakeview?”

“Ducain,” Alain answered. “Looks like rhubarb.” Jimmy shot his brother a daggerous glare.

“Jim…” his father warned, “We talked about going to Ducain late at night.”

“Well, there were highschoolers at Lakeview.”

“I don’t know,” Roland turned over the page, “Ask them to play, then.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes at the impossibility of that statement. He wanted nothing more than to make a beeline to his room. But he couldn’t stand being alone. As he turned to leave the plate for Alain to ravage, his appetite tainted from the now heavy smell of bitter rhubarb in his nostrils, he saw it on the back page of the Sun which his father had just turned over.

Even in the black and white he saw the colors of the night before. The orange and brown, captured forever, without lust or sympathy in the confines of print, was the mugshot of the man from the night before. His hair was the same. Perfectly cut. His mouth, more wormy than he remembered seemed to turn red as his eyes scanned the picture. Above the artists’ rendition was the word Wanted. Jimmy didn’t want to read anymore.

*

Jimmy waited until his father was done with the paper. He stole the page he needed and hustled the three blocks to Ricky’s house. It took eight knocks for Ricky to come to the door. There was still red coloring his friend’s hands. Bags sat under Ricky’s eyes, they were a purplish color, which was about the only color on his face.

“What do you want Jim?” Ricky said not unkindly.

“Check this,” Jimmy unraveled the paper. Ricky’s eyes studied the wanted poster. Ricky looked then, to have grown gills. He choked back something. “We could turn him in.”

Ricky eyes wavered up to Jimmy. “No.”

“What do you mean no?” It have never occurred to Jimmy that he would be the more adventurous of the two of them.

Ricky swiped the paper, ripping it down its seams. “I don’t want to see that again. I don’t want to think about it. That thing out there was…. It wasn’t human.”

Jimmy couldn’t find words. Ricky closed his eyes and then snapped them open immediately. He went over to a trash can and gagged. “Are you alright?”

The color drained further from Ricky’s face. Red was between his teeth. “I’m fine.” Steel came back to Ricky’s voice.

“How about we call the police?” Jimmy suggested. His fingers playing with the two ends of the paper in his hands. “We don’t have to go back to the Patch. We can catch him from here.”

Ricky nodded wearily. Together they went into the kitchen, Ricky braced himself against the wall and plopped into a seat.

“We’ll be heroes, Rick” Jimmy dialed 9-1-1 on the phone. The two halves of the wanted poster sat on the table. He studied the face. Red creeped into the black and white squiggles, curling around his mouth and then down to his hands. The eyes grew scarlet too, one on each slice of paper. They held Jimmy still.

A flatline voice broke him from the newspaper: “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“Uh,” Jimmy started, pulling himself from the image, “The Sun ran a wanted poster for a man today. I think-” Ricky smashed his head against the table, his arms sliding the paper onto the ground. His body went limp. “Oh god!” The phone slipped from Jimmy’s hand, thudding on the table.

“You didn’t eat the leaves did you?” The realization came soft to Jimmy’s mind. It should have been a thunderstorm conclusion, but it entered into his mind as a drizzle in May.

Ricky looked up at him. His eyes faded. Red mucus pooled out of his mouth in heavy chunks. The bile was rancid, a concoction of sweat and stomach acid. It ran red all over the newspaper. Jimmy felt around at Ricky, trying to shake him to recognition. “Damnit. What do I do?”

Jimmy’s mind raced, curling back to the man in the Patch. His eyes seemed to watch Jimmy now, even in the kitchen of Ricky’s home. The glare’s oppression gripped his heart and turned it meek.

Jimmy grabbed the phone. “Are you there?”

“Yes,” the dispatcher responded immediately. “You need to calm down.”

“My friend. He’s sick I need an ambulance.”

“Talk slow. Where are you? What address?”

“271 Mapleton Street. Mill City.”

*

Three months later, Jimmy dug his cleats into the dirt between first and second. He pounded, with his right hand, into the webbing of his glove. Across the way, in the no-man’s land between second and third was not Ricky. He had never signed up for Fall Ball. The Ducain Field was empty without him.

Jimmy once he had learned Ricky would be fine—a stomach pump later had gotten all the bile out—thought things would go back to what they were before. He had been wrong. Ricky didn’t play ball anymore. Didn’t go anywhere near a baseball diamond. Didn’t even stay in the yard for after-school recess.

Two days after Ricky ‘recovered’ Jimmy thought it wise to call 9-1-1 again. He told the dispatcher what he had wanted to in the first place. That the man was out there in rhubarb patch. Cops scanned the place for days. But found nothing.

Last night, when he was feeling the odd bubbling mixture of bravery and stupidity behind his ribs, Jimmy went out there, to see for himself. Alone, he spent the better part of the night in the shack, finding nothing but needles, creaky-door whistles, and a red drenched torn-away piece of a t-shirt. He supposed bringing the man to justice would save Ricky.

“Strike!” the umpire called. Sending down another Mill City Rebel. Their red jerseys were the color of the leaves now. And as the half-inning ended and Jimmy’s team trotted back to the dugout, he turned back to hear the dying wind slice through the Patch. From behind the left field foul fence, the scarlet stalks waved at him. And as the game finished, an hour later, his eyes went back to the Patch. And by a product of fear, or, what he truly believed, hope, he saw another pair of eyes amongst the dark forest of red.

*

A few months later, Ricky would leave Mill City for good. Whatever he had seen out there, the doctor’s had said after Jimmy’s questioning, was affected by the rhubarb vitriol in his system. Jimmy knew deep down, that out in the Patch, something had been broken in his friend. There were no more half-crazed plans, no more mad scientist cackle, there was just lazy eyes and dulled wit to replace what Jimmy had once clung to.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.