Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Professional Perform Arts High School, New York, NY
Educator: Greg Parente
Writing Portfolio: Mirror Up
Category: Dramatic Script
[EXCERPT] SCENE 1 [6 school chairs are all lined up across the stage, backpacks behind all of them except for XANDER’s chair. From left to right the order goes STORIA, CAS, XANDER, JASON, CLEMENTINE, ROSE. XANDER enters and stands behind his chair]
XANDER When I grow up, I wanna be a rockstar.
[JASON enters but stays stage right] JASON Oh yeah? XANDER Yeah. I’ll sell out Madison Square Garden, shred like crazy on my electric guitar. The crowds will be insane. I can hear ‘em now. JASON You don’t even play guitar XANDER I’m learning…I plan on learning JASON Oh okay. XANDER Well what do you wanna be then, since you’ve got it all mapped out. What do you wanna be when you grow up.
[JASON ponders this, then steps forward to stand behind his chair, slinging his backpack across his shoulders as he says the following line] JASON When I grow up, I wanna be a doctor. XANDER Gross JASON What? XANDER People coming in all bloody and sick with their brains spilling out JASON What are you talking about?
XANDER I watched a youtube video of the seven craziest emergency room cases and this one guy had an axe lodged in his skull. But, get this, he was still conscious. He said he didn’t feel any pain because the axe hit this part in his brain where- JASON Jesus, no. I won’t work in the ER. I’ll be a children’s doctor or something. I’m good with kids. I’m good at handing out lollipops. XANDER A pediatrician. JASON Yeah. A pediatrician.
[CLEMENTINE enters from the left rather loudly, making her grand entrance. She struts over to her chair and swings her bag around] CLEMENTINE When I grow up, I wanna be a detective
[ROSE enters like a gentle afterthought, laughing at her friend] ROSE Here we go CLEMENTINE I wanna solve crimes and catch bad guys and say “You are guilty and hereby sentenced to blah blah blah blah blah” ROSE You watch too much Law & / Order CLEMENTINE I wanna be the real life Olivia Benson! ROSE Sounds good CLEMENTINE And you’ll be my partner ROSE Not a chance CLEMENTINE (pouting) Why not? ROSE I don’t want to CLEMENTINE Then what do you be when you grow up? What could possibly be better than being a detective?
[ROSE now crosses and puts her backpack on] ROSE When I grow up, I wanna be a teacher. A middle school teacher.
[CAS enters looking tired already, a real “fuck this” kind of air. She’s the type of tired sleep can’t cure, but she’s is not angry or harsh. There is still a breath of softness to her] CAS You’re way too soft to teach middle school. ROSE Am not. CAS Middle schoolers are demons. They’re just sacks of raging hormones with nonexistent moral compasses. Disasters waiting to happen. CLEMENTINE And what about you debby downer? What do you wanna be? CAS What do you mean? JASON When you’re older. CAS I never really thought about it. XANDER Everyone’s thought about it. CLEMENTINE Yeah like even just a little. Like when you were a kid. Everyone wants to grow up and be
something. CAS I mean I’ll probably just end up running my dad’s hardware store. That’s always what- CLEMENTINE And I’ll probably end up working some dead-end 9 to 5 desk job. But fuck probably. What do you want to be? CAS Well… ROSE What? CAS You’ll laugh. JASON No one’s gonna laugh. XANDER I might laugh. CLEMENTINE Shut up, no one’s gonna laugh. Tell us. CAS When I was younger…I wanted to be a…space person. Walk on the moon and shit. ROSE Like an astronaut?
[CAS crosses to stand behind his chair, lifts his bag, and puts it on] CAS Yeah I guess. I guess when I grow up, I wanna be an astronaut.
[STORIA enters, a shadow. She goes unnoticed, standing behind her chair on the end and quietly picking up her backpack] XANDER (to CAS) Alright there Armstrong. CAS Fuck you.
[JASON looks to STORIA and slowly, everyone follows his gaze] JASON (to STORIA) What do you wanna be when you grow up?
[She ponders this, maybe nervous to speak, maybe just taking her time] STORIA When I grow up, I wanna be-
[A school bell rings sharply as everyone begins picking up their chairs and moving them to their desks. Once at their desks they begin taking things out of their backpacks, arranging their items. They also being setting up the classroom. We have stepped into a surreal moment. They are setting the scene. The lines fly as they do this] CLEMENTINE I’m gonna live someplace warm and tropical, like Malibu. That way I’ll always have a tan. XANDER I’m gonna live in L.A. Or Hollywood. Are those the same? CLEMENTINE No. XANDER Like is LA in Hollywood? ROSE I think it’s the other way around. CAS I’m gonna live someplace quiet, with a lot of space. XANDER Haha, space. Astronaut jokes. CAS Here we go. ROSE I’m gonna live in Portland. My grandma sent me a postcard from there. It’s beautiful in the fall. JASON I’ll probably just stay living here. I like it here. CAS I can’t wait to get out of here. CLEMENTINE I’ll have a big Beverly hills condo all to myself. ROSE I’ll have a small house, lots of windows. CLEMENTINE I’m gonna have two dogs. Shelter dogs. JASON I’ll get married, have kids. XANDER I’ll stick with beta fish. CLEMENTINE I’ll name them Sherlock and Watson JASON James and Piper XANDER Led and Zeppelin CAS I can’t wait to be done with high school. ROSE I can’t wait to be older. JASON I like being a teenager. CLEMENTINE I can’t wait to be twenty. CAS I can’t wait to grow up. ROSE I can’t wait to grow up.
[They all repeat the phrase “I can’t wait to grow up” in a way that is staggered. They are saying it more to themselves, each time the phrase holds more hopes and dreams and promises. It builds and builds until they are screaming the lines as loud as they can, jumping up and down, putting their entire being’s into this phrase. Until finally, a second school bell rings, and everyone is in their places]
[JASON and XANDER are just walking in the classroom from the hallway. CLEMENTINE and ROSE sit together downstage left, mid conversation, STORIA is in the back corner, writing in a notebook, very concentrated. CAS is in the front, looking dead ahead, bored as fuck]
CLEMENTINE We got it last week. ROSE I didn’t! CLEMENTINE Why not? ROSE I don’t know! When did she hand it out? CLEMENTINE Tuesday or Wednesday I think / Or maybe it was
ANNOUNCEMENT May I have your / attention please XANDER (overlapping) Is there a fire drill today? ANNOUNCEMENT We may be moving into a /code red situation. JASON Shut up I’m trying to hear this ANNOUNCEMENT Please wait / for further instructions. CAS Mr. Smith wouldn’t have left if there was going to be a fire drill JASON Where is Mr. Smith? STORIA CLEMENTINE He went to get copies off the printer. Maybe he didn’t know there was gonna be one. ROSE A surprise fire drill? CAS Or an actual fire ROSE Should we go outside? CLEMENTINE It’s cold outside CAS Well it’s about to get real hot in here… XANDER Shut up it’s not a real fire CAS How would you know? XANDER There’d be fire. CAS It could be upstairs, or down in the auditorium, crawling it’s way up to burning us alive ROSE XANDER What! Stop being a dick. CLEMENTINE If it was a fire drill wouldn’t they just announce it as being a fire drill? JASON What did he say it was? CLEMENTINE Code something, a color. Orange or some shit. CAS Orange for fire… XANDER It’d be red for fire dumbass CAS Watch your fucking mouth XANDER Or what? JASON Wait why would he announce a color? STORIA He said it was a code red. I think that means- ANNOUNCEMENT May I have your attention please? We are currently moving into a Lock-Down situation. Please do not panic and listen closely to this announcement and your teacher. If you are currently outside please move to your classroom at this time. For the safety of you and your classmates, at no time can you use an electronic device. Please follow code red protocol.
[There is a moment of tense silent reaction] ROSE What does that mean? CLEMENTINE A lockdown situation… ROSE What does it mean? CAS (joking) That there’s someone in the school with a gun XANDER That’s not for sure what it means. It could be a bomb threat / or something like that CLEMENTINE Like that’s any better! JASON He’s just saying a lockdown could mean a lot of things! STORIA If it was a bomb they’d evacuate us. Code red means classroom lockdown, which means there’s a threat in the building. XANDER Fuck. CLEMENTINE Like what kinda threat? CAS Like a kid with a gun kinda threat. XANDER Fuck. ROSE I don’t wanna get shot. CAS Don’t start that. JASON No one’s gonna get shot. XANDER Fuck. CLEMENTINE What are we supposed to do? JASON What do we do? In the drills what do we usually do?
CLEMENTINE Not pay attention. XANDER Get under the desks! CLEMENTINE That’s earthquakes dumbass. XANDER Barricade the doors, we’re supposed to stack the desks in front of the door! ROSE (whispering) Guys we have to be quiet CAS Never in your life have you stacked the desks during a lockdown drill ROSE Someone’s gonna / hear us XANDER That’s cuz no one took them seriously. In the rules it says- CAS What rules? What rule book have you read about when there’s a shooter / in the school? CLEMENTINE I’ll tell you what we’re not supposed to be doing is fucking yelling! ROSE (at the top of her lungs) They’re gonna hear / us!
[STORIA, in the panic, knows a metal water bottle to the floor, shocking everyone into silence. ROSE starts to yell but clamps her hands over her own mouth. Everyone is completely still. One thing’s for sure, no one gives a fuck about whatever was going on before. The reality has set in. This is happening] STORIA We’re supposed to lock the door, cover any windows, and sit as far away from the entrance as possible.
[Stillness. No one wants to be the first one to move. Finally, STORIA does, and the rest follow. They all sit on the floor in varying spots in the room. STORIA grabsa piece of paper from her notebook and very fearfully begins inching her way towards the door to cover the glass panel. JASON, seeing her fear, gently takes the paper from her hands and moves to do it himself}
ROSE (to JASON) Wait! (pause) Mr. Smith is still out there. CAS So what? We can’t wait for him to- ROSE He would wait for any of us CAS No he wouldn’t XANDER He’s not allowed to CLEMENTINE What do you mean / allowed to? XANDER Anyone who’s not in a classroom at the time of the lockdown can’t / be let in
CLEMENTINE How do you know / that? XANDER They say it during the drills! ROSE What’s going to happen to him then?
SCENE 2 [JASON faces the audience as the previous scene freezes in place. He makes his way downstage center] JASON (to audience) The officer who took my story told me to start with the first thing I could remember. I didn’t remember much. Not waking up. Or eating breakfast. Or taking the train even. The first thing that came to mind was…talking to-
[XANDER joins JASON downstage] XANDER Hey bro! JASON I had just left study hall to use the bathroom…so I had the hall pass with me.
[JASON goes back into the classroom to get the hall pass, then returns to his spot. He is remembering this all as it is coming to him. Everyone behind them returns to their seats in the classroom that they were in at the top of the show] JASON Cont. I saw- XANDER (to audience) The name’s Xander. JASON Yeah, Xander. XANDER I’m sorta the class troublemaker. Known as a quote on quote “bad boy” if you will JASON Known by who? XANDER By…people JASON I must not know these people XANDER Must not JASON (laughing) You paint your nails black one time and suddenly you’re a greaser XANDER A what? JASON Ya know, “The Outsiders”, S.E. Hinton. Stay gold Ponyboy. XANDER The fuck is a ponyboy? JASON You need to read more. XANDER You need to get out more. JASON Anyways. I ran into him in the hallway. He was coming from chemistry. I remember because he told me he- XANDER (to JASON) Failed the chem test for sure
[The fourth wall is back up as they turn to face each other for the first time] JASON That’s alright, he’ll let you retake it. XANDER What’d you get? JASON (lying) I don’t even remember. XANDER Bullshit. JASON I really don’t! XANDER I’m sure you got an A++ / or whatever JASON That’s not a real grade XANDER You know what I mean JASON (to audience as XANDER freezes in place) Xander isn’t stupid, he’s just lazy. He’s way smarter than me but “doesn’t believe intelligence should be measured by a letter on a piece of paper” He’s always saying shit like that, like he’s quoting a podcast or something. He could talk his way out of anything XANDER (to audience) Like this one time we got a math quiz out of nowhere, no warning or anything, and I decided I wasn’t gonna stand for it. So I got up on my desk, some real Dead Poets Society type shit, right in the middle of the quiz and everything, and I said that if he expected me to participate in- (suddenly to JASON) did you really tell the officer all this?
[pause] JASON Well…yeah. They asked for details and, and I don’t know, I was…nervous. Scared. My school had just been shot up what do you expect / me to do? Be calm and collected? XANDER No, no, sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
[They embrace. XANDER making the motion, as if to calm JASON down. It lasts for a moment too long] JASON (to audience) Then I went back to class. XANDER Don’t go back to class! JASON I’ve got to and so do you. What do you have right now? XANDER Nothing! Free period. (pause) Okay, humanities, but we’re not even doing anything important. JASON Go to class. XANDER Ms. Jonshon’s always treating me like I’m dumb, talking real slow and clear like I’ve got a concussion or something. JASON Maybe if you bothered turning in the homework / every once in a while XANDER Why should a piece of paper be the metric for my learning abilities? / The education system- JASON (to audience) See what I mean? (to XANDER) Fine! But I gotta go back. If you come Mr. Smith won’t care, but try not to be a distraction.
[they walk towards the classroom] XANDER I make no promises.
[freeze as XANDER is about to enter the classroom, but JASON stops, looking out at the audience. Remembering] JASON Except when I got to class, Mr. Smith wasn’t there.
(JASON and XANDER enter, and it is the exact mirroring of when the first entered the classroom the scene before. We are repeating) CLEMENTINE We got it last week. ROSE I didn’t! CLEMENTINE Why not? ROSE I don’t know! When did she hand it out? CLEMENTINE Tuesday or Wednesday I think / Or maybe it was-
JASON (to audience) Then the announcement came on. ANNOUNCEMENT May I have your attention please? We are currently moving into a Lock-Down situation. Please do not panic and listen closely to this announcement and your teacher. If you are currently outside please move to your classroom at this time. For the safety of you and your classmates, at no time can you use an electronic device. Please follow code red protocol.
[We fast forward to the real-time scene as the announcement is being repeated, everyone moving back to their post-shooter announcement placements] SCENE 3 XANDER Anyone who’s not in a classroom at the time of the lockdown can’t be let in CLEMENTINE How do you know / that? XANDER They say it during the drills. ROSE What’s going to happen to him then? JASON Nothing! Nothing is going to happen to him we don’t even know for sure that something is happening right now! This could be another drill. CLEMENTINE He would’ve said if it was a drill ROSE Maybe that’s part of the drill! Not saying it’s a drill to test how we’d do in a real life / situation CAS That’d be really fucked up CLEMENTINE We should call our parents ROSE He said not to use electronic devices CLEMENTINE He meant don’t let the ringer go off or some shit and let the shooter know where you are ROSE I don’t know… CLEMENTINE I’ll be quiet CAS We should call the fucking cops not our parents XANDER I’m sure someone’s already thought / of that CAS Well, you’re just sure of everything today, aren’t you? CLEMENTINE You can call whoever the hell you want, I’m calling my mom. CAS How is your mom going to help / the situation? JASON Cas, please. CLEMENTINE Fuck you, I’m calling her.
[CLEMENTINE reaches for her phone. Upon realizing it’s not there…] CLEMENTINE I forgot. ROSE JASON Oh yeah Right XANDER What? CLEMENTINE Mr. Smith started this no phone policy. He takes them at the start of class and locks them in the fucking supply closet! STORIA We have to keep our voices down.
When I was little I watched an episode of Dora the Explorer
which made me pray for a little brother
cuz she had one on the show.
Little did I know
someone was listening
because nine months later, you were with me
and you cried way more than the cartoon baby on screen.
But I learned to like you all right.
And I remember the night I cried
in fear you might die
because police had just murdered 12 year old Tamir Rice
they shot not once, but twice.
They said his toy gun looked real
so in 1.7 seconds, they used their real guns to kill
and I remember thinking you looked just like him.
So I took all your Nerf guns and I hid them
which I still think you don’t even know
now four years later we’ve got Antwon Rose.
Cute kid at 17 years old.
Dark hair, kinky curly
he was good at writing poetry
and On June 19th, 2018
he was shot dead by cops in East Pittsburgh.
It got me thinking ‘bout how we may not have much time.
How there’s so much I need you to know, and so little I can fit into rhymes.
So I’m giving you this outline of the rules to survive as a black boy in America.
take this as a warning.
While a child is all I see, cops’ll conjure a grown man thuggin.
They’ll conjure a boy whose lack of belt might as well be sagging to his knees
whose six year old cavity filling turns to pimped out gold teeth
whose hands always seem to a reach for a gun, invisible to me
whose life is not worth a second glance, a second to breathe.
Twelve years ain’t long to live.
I would guarantee you more, but I can’t make false promises.
I would offer comforting words, but I’ve run out of those to give.
I know you’re just a kid and I’m sorry you deal with this and I’m sorry my only advice is to call the cops Mr. or Ms.,
to be polite when they stop you
to always keep your hands in sight.
They’ll use any reason to shoot,
and they can,
Promise, you’ll keep them up
cuz that’s a sight I can’t bear to see
I love you too much to see you go!
I won’t let your name become another hashtag in a row.
I won’t read an Instagram post about you, from some celebrity who skimmed the news, typing words of outrage simply to rack up views, no little brother I can’t lose you too.
Not like we lost Jordan Edwards.
Not like we lost Sandra Bland.
Not like we lost Mike Brown, murdered throwing up his hands.
Not like we lose brothers and sisters sitting inside their own vans.
Not like I’m starting to lose myself living with these fears in my head.
This isn’t a poem about hope this is poem about pain
a poem about confusion, grief, heartbreak and rage
a poem that took so much more than I gave because my great great grandad was a slave and 200 years later I fear things have not changed and I am tired.
Tired of hope
Tired of looking towards better days
Tired of peaceful protests
Tired of keeping the faith
I am tired of biting my tongue when people’s lives are at stake.
we may not have much time.
There is so much I need you to know, and so little I can fit into rhymes
so for now just know this.
I prayed for a little brother
nine months later god gave us each other.
Brown skin, curly hair, and soft baby breaths.
Now every single night
I pray god will keep you from death.
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
I cannot tell you exactly what he looked like that final day.
For 17 years he’d looked the same, six foot something, heavy in a way that is strong, bushy bearded but gentle, and forever smiling. He reminded me of an oak tree. For 17 years, my Uncle Jason was the epitome of strength. So I really cannot tell you what he looked like that last day, except that if I did not know for sure that it was him, I never would have believed it. All I remember was thinking that skin should not look that yellow. Bones should not be that prominent.
I have gone to performing arts school since 7th grade, I pride myself on my poker face, on my acting abilities. But when your dying uncle waves a feeble hand at you, using whatever strength the tumors have not taken to gesture you closer, there is no hiding your heartbreak. I instantly felt my body go weak. I knew that what he was about to say must be of grave importance, since every single movement took an extreme amount of effort. I bent down by his green reclining chair so that my ear was close to his mouth, lips dry and cracked. My aunt would bring a sponge to them so the drops of water would slide down his throat since he no longer possessed the strength to drink through a straw. Perhaps he would bestow upon me some parting words of infinite wisdom, or a secret he needed to get off his chest and for some reason only entrusted with his teenage niece. Maybe he just wanted to tell me that he loved me one last time.
Whatever his message, I sat bracing myself to receive it. “Can you get me some grape popsicles from the store?” he asked in a rasping low voice. His body, now unable to digest solids or process sugars, was limited to a diet of medication, and sugar-free popsicles. The freezer was stocked full of them. “Can you get me some grape popsicles from the store”. Those were my Uncle Jason’s last ever words to me, because the rest of our time spent together would be him losing and regaining consciousness until he simply went to sleep and did not wake up. I didn’t know when he spoke those words that they would be his last, but I wouldn’t change them for anything. They are real life, and in real life, grape popsicles are more important than I love you’s. In real life things happen without explanation, or reason, or justice. In real life, a kind man with a wife and two young kids, is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and dies two months later on a Tuesday morning.
In real life, at 2AM that same night, my grandma sits fretting over a deep dish chicago pizza, furiously typing a facebook post questioning why in the world anyone would want that much sauce on anything. My cousins and siblings run around the basement playing Harry Potter and eating strawberry pop tarts. My aunt lays asleep on the couch while “The Bachelor” reruns show on TV. Surely this could not be the family that had just lost their father, husband, uncle, son, hours before, yet there we were. I expected death to fill every room and hallway, but it had already made its visit. It came and took what it took, leaving all other life behind, because as much as the death of someone you love feels like your own, it’s not. We keep on living.
As the oldest kid, I was to be the adult of the children, my cousins and siblings, all six of them. I was to make meals, lay out clothes, find soap for showers, find games to play when the house grew too quiet, take to the movies when the house grew too dim, hold up in my arms when legs grew weak with grief. In the other world of adults who were past pretending to be strong, I was to make sure my aunt ate something, anything, insist on changing clothes, insist on showers, insist on taking deep breaths between screams and sobs that shook the house, insist on sitting outside for sunlight as to not marinate in the darkness. To speak at the funeral.
You will never understand the degree of goodness that existed in my Uncle Jason because I am incapable of putting it into words, but it was so much so that out of the hundreds of people that grieved for him, none felt they would be able to keep themselves together long enough to speak at the service. So my father asked me to. Standing in front of a crowd of shattered hearts while hands trembled, I shared the brightest memories I had with him, because there are so many more of those than the dark ones that came in the final days. There is so much more happiness than grief in the life of a person. I really believe that’s true. There is more to a story than just the ending, and even when that part does occur, and it breaks your heart, and you think there is no point in trying to heal that hurt, there are always grape popsicles to remedy.
Category: Short Story
Is this our new house, daddy? I asked as we emerged from the Nostrand Avenue stop on the 3 local train to face the massive old building. It was nine days before my 6th birthday. Everything in the world was still strange and unrecognizable in that way that is wonderful, so of course it made perfect sense that this giant building, obviously a church, was to be our new house. “In a way” he laughed in the gentle voice father’s reserve for their daughters, “This whole neighborhood is our new house” He lifted me from my perch upon his hip and as soon as my shoes hit the pavement, I could feel the roots of skinny city trees contorting under the concrete to connect with the ones stemming from my feet. This land had claimed me and I it. Still wielding the sense of a toddler, it would be years before I could fully fathom all that made this place my home, that made the sky my ceiling and the streets my carpet. As I grew older and began to breathe deeper, I understood the little things. The Nostrand Avenue stop on the 3 local train smells like jerk chicken and shea butter and leaking sewer drainage that the city is always just about to fix. On warm July nights without bedtimes, spices from home-cooked dinners seep out of broken project home windows, into the open pores of brown-skinned people waiting for a train that is always just about to come. Carried by cigarette splashed wind, ashes flicked from long acrylic fingers, releasing worries through their lipsticked lips without saying a word. People populate the space planted like flowers, peaking between sagging brick and bicycle stokes. They grow in every variation god could think to create, lining leaning sidewalks, the people of the 3 local train. The Nostrand Avenue stop is home to StickMan. He has reached peaks George Mallory could only dream of seeing, the stairs that deliver folks in and out and in and out and in the station’s gaping mouth, StickMan knows the way. No weed or crack in the concrete appear without his permission. He is the resident sherpa of Da People’s Republic of Brooklyn. StickMan got his name from the hand-torn hiking sticks he seems to sell, although I have never seen one being bought. In the hot months he trades his sticks for water bottles and walks up and down the torn tar roads yelling “one dollar water, one dollar one dollar one dollar”. Every day when I get home from school, emerging from the 3 local train’s soft orange glow, he is on the corner, cape tied around his neck, scarf folded around his tree root-like dreads, body dark and slim and smooth like the sticks in his hands. He carries all of my block on slender shoulders. He is the color of glistening concrete streets full of potholes that the city is always just about to fix, ashes serving as stars on my melting black floor. I sometimes try to imagine who StickMan was before he was StickMan. Back when White people did not yet exist below the Fulton Street stop on the 3 local train, and my block was not yet a before picture. Before White men in black suits stood estimating the worth of my neighborhood once all the color was power washed out, weeds pulled up, cracks filled with cement, sewer drainage fixed. The 3 local train would finally arrive on time when this was no longer my stop, but StickMan did not exist before. He was birthed from those concrete splits singing spiritual songs that start in the stomach and rise through to his throat. It sounds like the rumbling of an approaching train. As long as I have known him he has resided in the old church that was once an old theater that is now abandoned and slowly being overtaken by vines and homeless people. Built on stolen land by the hands of thieving men, I assumed the earth was simply taking back what was hers. I would see StickMan’s skinny frame slip between the thin fence opening, sliding through the doors with the gentleness of someone who has never had a place to call their own. Some part of me longed to follow him. To see the ghosts we were told haunted that old movie theater cathedral. To see the history etched into each wall. To see where this man lays his sticks and counted sheep to sleep. Four days after my 16th birthday I climbed the steep mountain steps of the Nostrand Avenue stop to the smell of burning rubber and rot. A low rumbling noise I did not recognize shook the ground beneath my feet and I wondered briefly if it were an earthquake or the rapture. There were blinding strings of yellow strangling my blocks’ sidewalks, choking it, choking it. Why was I the only one who could see it was unable to breathe? I craned my neck between the crowd of colonists, fought through the smell of bitter overpriced coffee and sickly sweet overpriced aftershave. These people planted themselves in my ground like parasites, killing off the flowers that came before. Forcing the people that came before to dig new homes in tougher soil. They murmured with the same anticipation of kids waiting to see if their school would be closed for a snow day. I know the smell, touch, sight, taste, look of my train stop, I know the senses of my street, and I know when they have been altered. It was brighter than usual, a blinding burning kind of White light that comes from too much sun. I tilted my head back to see there was an extra patch of sky where there had not been before. Where a building once stood, there was now rubble. Where the old church in which StickMan and many others resided, there was nothing. I found myself veering forward, tearing past the strings of yellow, just to check and be sure this monument of my home was truly destroyed. There, at the edge of the destruction, sunken to his knees, head bowed as if in prayer, was StickMan. Bulldozers tore all around him, yanking up the roots of trees and people with sickening ease. Hot tears like cooking oil stung my cheeks, debris seeping into open pores. A sudden unbearable weight placed itself on my shoulders and I wondered if this was the weight StickMan had been carrying alone for all these years. It was heavy enough to snatch my breath and sink me to my knees next to him. As I fell, a sharp piece of brick pierced my shin, breaking the soft skin, exposing the flesh. Good. I thought as the gash wept tears of crimson, spilling color into the ground, blood seeping into cement, feeding the roots like water. Good. They cannot wash out all of me.
Category: Flash Fiction
“Let’s keep looking” she said as we trekked deeper into central park, trying to find a place where there were no cops so we wouldn’t get caught, and no kids because I’d feel bad smoking in front of kids. I was 14 and terrified and excited and confused as to how I became the teenager in the black hoodie with dead eyes and a blunt in her pocket. It was four days after my birthday and the first time no one sang me happy birthday or even seemed to remember that is was in fact my birthday, which is fine, because 14 isn’t a big deal, not like 16 or 21, so I guess it’s really fine. Really, it is. As a gift, my friend Achlys rolled two blunts and took me to have my first smoke. There was a sadness like a pool of cool murky water in the bottom of my heart and she promised the flames of a lighter would evaporate it, and they did, but not really. It just filled my mind with so much fog that I forgot I even had a heart, forgot I was human, felt wings sprout in my back and, convinced I was dead and now an angel, I began to fly. “Lay on your back, it feels nice” she called to me through the clouds. Then I remembered I was standing on a warm slab of stone in Central Park, not in the sky. I remembered I was human and the thought made me sick to my stomach. So I surrendered to gravity and lay on my back and dreamt of the next time I would be able to reach those heights.
“Let’s keep looking” he urged as I opened each drawer and cabinet of my mothers bathroom. Everytime we came across an orange pill bottle, we’d search up the name, seeing if any of them could get send us soaring. My mother was always sick with something and always convincing doctors to prescribe her things she never ended up taking. Other people collect stamps or comic books or bottle caps, my mother the hypochondriac collects prescription medication she never lets past her lips. I was 15 and the type of tired sleep cannot cure, covered in burn marks from bathing myself in the flames I used to keep out the cold. When Anake finally came across three full bottles of white capsuled anxiety medication, he wore a smile like sunshine and handed me five. They left a bad taste in my mouth and a slimy feeling in my throat and within an hour the pool of water in my heart, that had since grown into an ocean, dissipated. I was weightless once again. That familiar set of wings sprouted in my back and the warmth of the sun called me to it. The stars were stepping stones, pulling me up, lighting my path, removing the weight from my shoulders. Once I was nearly close enough to swallow the suns blissful rays, I opened my eyes to realize that the stars were made of plastic and taped to my ceiling. My wings had vanished, disappeared into bedsheets, and the ocean had only grown deeper.
“Let’s keep looking” I repeated like a prayer on my tongue, gathering whatever contraband I could find. My mother was long gone, in every sense of the words. Her absence didn’t make much difference except no more prescriptions to set my insides ablaze, my desperation growing like the tsunami forever tearing through my chest. A bottle of cooking wine that dried out my throat, six loose pills found in junk drawers and in between couch cushions like loose change for the laundromat, and the last of a blunt that was more ash than drug. I took them all at once. When I was 7, I wanted to be a chef and now here I was at 17, crafting my own recipe of poisons. The house had grown so quiet I’d taken to speaking out loud to make sure I still existed. I had nothing to say, so I just repeated my own name “Icarus, Icarus, Icarus”. It was clear I had fallen prey to the trap Thanatos set, chasing highs that only dug me deeper into lows. Driven by my willingness to do anything to feel nothing. The wings sprouted in my back when the poison settled in my stomach, coursing through those swollen veins, chasing away the cold tsunami water. I flew higher and higher towards everything I had lost, even when I felt the wax begin to melt. Even when my fingertips went numb and dark spots clouded my vision, I could not go back. I could not go back down. There was nothing for me there. I knew going higher meant never returning, I knew the first time my lips curled around brown wax paper that each breath I took from that point on must be filled with smoke or it would feel empty. For the first time in my short life I wished I could go back in time and do everything differently, but it was too late. My heart began to slow as the water drained from it, body plummeting towards the abyss I’d spent the past three years trying to escape. I’d gone as high as I could, melted wax wings dripping down my legs, flown too close to the sun.
I needed to see you for me.
That walk felt mad far when really the ER was just up the street.
It smells like hand sanitizer and lysol spray,
the elevator woman clutches beads as she prays,
a sign in form ponders how long I plan to stay.
Which way is your room?
Where’s the ICU?
There’s a lot of dying people,
what’s that mean for you?
It must be cold in that hospital bed.
I try not to stare when unrehearsed phrases spew unprepared:
Why is it so cold?
Why haven’t you eaten?
Ma lost her sanity, where’s the last place you seen it?
Why’d you down twenty Tylenol and leave me to pick up your broken pieces?
It’s so fucking cold someone turn off the AC.
You turn away from me,
(sudden sleep side effects suicide)
the doctor asks me to leave.
My sister doesn’t have the ability to break my heart,
and you didn’t.
You took it instead.
Left me with a mom who can’t stop screaming,
a dad who can’t get out of bed,
with three crying kids who cannot stop asking where their big sister has been.
Home alone in a house full of people pretending mending their minds never took any of mine.
And they’re better now,
just so you know.
For every part of them you took I pulled out of me,
mock surgery of a Frankenstein piece,
until the shell that remained was empty,
Ain’t much left to see.
Just a kid that had to get real good at pretending.
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
I was eight years old the first time I heard that gay people go to hell.
I was sitting on the velvet couch of my grandmother’s house, sipping a glass of iced tea more ice than tea in a vain attempt to beat the sweltering southern heat of Lexington Kentucky. My mama always told me there was more hate in the south because there was more humid heat. In places like California where the heat is dry, you can flip on a ceiling fan or dip into the ocean and be right as rain. But there’s no beating humid heat. It clings to your skin, soaks your clothes, fills you with a sort of anger you can’t really resolve. Humid heat muddles your brain, makes you move and think real slow, molasses type slow, melting tar roads type slow. Mama said that’s why things like banning slavery and outlawing segregation took so long to happen in the south. Since can’t no one thinks straight for half the year in the hot months, it all takes twice as long.
I was born in Atlanta, which is still the south, but not really. It’s a small circle of city surrounded by confederate flags. It is its own bubble of liberals and people of color, a lot of them, as I would one day realize, part of the LGBTQ+ community. As a kid, I didn’t know any gay people personally. Perhaps I did, but at eight years old sexual orientation wasn’t something I discussed with my third-grade class. What I did know was that god didn’t just send people to hell for liking each other. What did it matter if a boy loved a boy or a girl loved a girl? Which is exactly what I asked my grandma that hot summer day. She scoffed and told mama we didn’t go to church enough.
That next week in my itchy Sunday dress and shiny dress shoes the color of that melting tar, I asked my Sunday school teacher the same thing. “If god loves all his children, why would he make some of them gay just to send ‘em to hell?” He said god didn’t make sinners, he made people who then made the choice to be sinners. He told me it was in the bible, and the bible was the word of god, so it must be true. I told him that not everything you read is true because if it was I’d be at Hogwarts right now learning how to cast spells, not coloring pictures of Moses and his burning bush. As time went on and we fell in and out of going to church, trying just about every style and denomination there was to try, I asked the same question of every preacher and youth pastor who brought up that verse “man shall not lie with man”.
What started off as young me genuinely wanting an answer to this question of why gay people were going to hell, quickly turned to me realizing something greater. These adults who claimed to be enlightened were simply regurgitating the things their strict grandmothers told them to be true. They knew nothing more than I did about who went to heaven and hell, and what was or wasn’t considered a sin. The only reason I had not fallen victim to this religious mob mentality was that I never went to church consistently enough to, nor visited my grandmother on a regular enough basis for her to fully indoctrinate me.
Every kid has the moment where they look at the adults around them and come to understand that they are human too. They are just trying to figure out life too. I was 8 years old, swallowing suffocating southern heat, when that suspicion arose. I was 13 years old when I met Katy Burch, pretty and gentle and blonde, and fell in 13-year-old type love with her, and realized I was one of those sinners my grandmother told me about.
By then, I knew the truth. I knew that I cannot move through this world believing all I am told, just because it is an authority figure who tells me. I have to do my own digging, make my own judgments on what is true and false, right and wrong. I learned that I am the inventor of my own life rules, my own moral code. We cannot control who we love, but we can control our beliefs surrounding that love. I choose to believe that god, if there even is such a thing, does not care in the slightest.
“What a wonderful world”
I can still hear my dad sing.
Cracked voice and wrong pitch but it was a wonderful thing.
Warm milk in a green cup to my kid brother he’d bring,
lulling him to sleep with other world kinda dreams.
My dad don’t sing much no more.
Gets harder to sing of wonderful when the world around you’s at war.
Gets harder to wake up when you can’t tell what for.
Gets harder to raise black kids in a country that don’t want ‘em no more.
When black boys are dying in the streets,
brown bodies batons beat,
crooked cops can’t be pleased,
final words are “I can’t breathe”
and I feel like Eric Garner’s calling to me.
These cases aren’t just cases, aren’t just faces on the news.
They are real life.
Real people I’ve seen and grieved.
Felt every bullet sting with the videos of shootings,
of I can’t breathes.
Of rasping voices pleading,
“All we wanna do is be free”
They are real life.
Because my kid brother ain’t starting to look different from Tamir Rice,
they got the same sweet smile,
same innocent round eyes,
same brown skin that cost 12 year old Tamir his life.
I see police,
move to the other side of the street,
hovering hand says he’s packing heat,
sirens behind me my body goes weak.
Looks a lot like the cop that left Mike dying in the streets.
And meeting Trayvon Martin’s parents they remind me of my own.
Just regular people in a spotlight they don’t know.
Living a story they wish didn’t have to be told.
Trayvon was their baby now he’ll never get to get grown.
Victims names forever in my head.
They are real life.
Cause sometimes I can’t deal.
When Zimmerman pulled his gun,
he was shootin to kill.
Families crying over babies dying,
I don’t wanna know how that feels.
Don’t let them just be protest chants because these people are REAL,
they are real life.
Names under a hashtag,
painted murals on brick,
sometimes we forget who these kids really is!
Trayvon’s ma told me he wanted to be a pilot.
He dreamed of flying planes.
Above the ocean waves,
above this hardened place,
a gliding escape he’ll never get to take.
Mike Brown was getting ready for college,
he was one week away.
“He worked hard for that”
I heard his mama say.
Late nights type hard,
dead tired type hard,
one more sentence as my witness I’m done with this shit type hard!
Hang that report card on the fridge type hard.
18 years of tough livin he’d made it so far,
only to be shot down in 15 seconds for walkin by a cop car.
These aren’t just names or pictures on fluorescent news screens.
This is my people,
this is you,
this is me.
It’s your brother your sister your cousin that’s mad hood,
who act Michael Jackson bad,
but you know inside they’re good,
So carry them with you,
put yourself in their shoes,
with your face on the news,
look around at your crew,
let it hit you,
that this is real life.