Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Kasumi Parker
Category: Short Story
In every revolutionary’s journey, they all eventually find themselves feeling a certain twinge of joy when matched up against an overwhelming adversary. I can only admire from the distant future Che Guevera’s triumph at the Bay of Pigs or the swell of pride Alo Mattiisen must have felt as his melodies washed over the Soviets in Estonia. There will always be those too firmly entrenched in their outdated notions, shackled by the past into their rotting thrones of belief. This was the case I was confronted with in my sophomore year English class, during a most unpleasant discussion regarding the holy scripture of teenage angst. One bout of impassioned language led to another, and the next thing I knew I was on my way to the greatest torturer of Hell, more commonly known as Ms. Ardenbury.
Sitting in the dean’s office was remarkably enjoyable; the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg in the air drifting from the lump of wax sitting on the black shelf behind her desk smelled like the Bed Bath and Beyond my mom had visited during her flights of fancy, and the collection of cartoon bobbleheads sitting like obedient soldiers on her desk bobbed and squirmed with a surprising vigor when Ms. Ardenbury raised her voice or shook her head. Yes ma’am, they droned. I understand, ma’am. Won’t happen again.
“I hope you’ve come to better understand why disobedience will bring nothing but trouble, young man. Back to class with you now. No buts.” See you around hopefully never, the dolls warbled one last time. With a firm shove the door slammed behind me, rattling the beige plaster frame as the bell sprang to life with its shrill cry of freedom. Conversation filled the air as my fellow delinquents rushed forth from the dens of misery which had defined my life for so long. The air sat ripe over me, every word racing its way into the pocket of condensation which sat over me and threatened to burst, washing me away in a sea of dreariness.
“Hey! I was looking for you, come on don’t be daft we’ve got math next in line. Hope Ardenbury didn’t melt your brain too badly. Get a move on man, you know how Mr. Ellens is man; don’t just stand there!” The cloud vanished. Jonathan Edward Kalios somehow stood five foot eleven in the 10th grade, hated avocados and pineapples but put ketchup and mayo on his fries while juggling the viola, Chess Club and his contempt for his first name. If Merlin existed, he would’ve told Arthur to beat it and placed that old crown right on top of Ed’s shiny head. He was just that good.
“She may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then she will have my dead body, but not my obedience. Go ahead, I’ll catch up. Just for the record, Holden was a little bitch.”
His smirk was a subtle creature, enough to catch the eye of a wandering muse and eventually find itself enshrined in the Louvre. “Quoting Gandhi isn’t gonna regrow any of your neurons, dumbass. English is a toughie though, you’re not wrong there at least. I’m sure if Mrs. Heddle hadn’t peaked in high school thirty years ago she’d have agreed with you. Try not to get lost on your way to math.” With that I watched him disappear down the hall, the masses swallowing him whole.
I never did make it to math, of course. Numbers were never my thing, and I preferred the quiet solitude of the abandoned tracks nearby to the endless attrition of algebra. I passed the guard slumped over in front of his ancient monitor. Real tough guy, that man. Maybe the only time he felt powerful was when he yelled at high schoolers for walking too slowly or casually smoking weed outside the entrance. He’d left his game of Candy Crush on instead of the CCTV network he was paid to observe. I would’ve spit in his coffee, but somehow I felt I would’ve disappointed Ed if I’d done so.
The walk there was short; being in the industrial part of town, our school often resembled a factory if you squinted at it the right way at the right time of day. Obviously there was a fence separating cracked cement sidewalk from gravel nested rails, but no one left in this town gave quite enough of a damn anymore to look your way if you were fast and quiet. Not even the cops. The old bushes rattled, the sound of twigs snapping like bones making the place feel cold and dead. The tracks shone in the afternoon sun, glinting straight ribbons of steel they were. I could hear the bustle of days past in my head, the slow lurch of the elderly locomotive pulling its load of coal towards horizons unseen or the prim red passenger cars loaded with gentlemen in sharp tweed suits and ladies puffed up in their dainty dresses. No one came to the overgrown rails anymore. No one worth anything, at least. The soft clunk as my feet proceeded one before the other on the narrow railroad strip accompanied the wind softly rustling the stooped trees on either side and the occasional robin chirping as if looking for something they had never known yet knew they were missing. Solitude is a wondrous mistress; I shuddered as her lonely prying digits wretched free my deepest thoughts for my fiercest critic to tear them apart piece by piece like a starved bloodhound. The whiplash of memory struck me across the face like a blow from a mailed fist, slapping me into the past. My mother’s voice leapt into the forefront of my mind. What did you ever do that made me happy? that made me proud? that made me love you?
Many memories fade with time. You can tuck away your photographs in your scrapbook where you think they’ll be safe forever, only to take it out again years later from under your bed to see the colors have somehow washed out, leaching from the plastic film. The sun and smile and eyes are still there, but lost is the warmth and joy and intimacy. The memory’s there, but gone. This was most definitely not the case for the day my mother died. Two years did nothing to wash out the color.
“Where were you last night, boy?” Boy. That was all she had ever called me.
“Out.” You knew damn well where I was.
“Don’t give me lip, boy. Where’s out?” Why did you care?
“Somewhere not here, evidently.” Her hand whipped through the air in an arc of pain. The blow stung, though it had hurt less than the last time. Anticipation is the greatest anesthetic, a wise man had whispered into my ear once.
“I know you were with that Jonathan boy again. I told you, having no hair meant the Devil touched his head. You lucky Satan didn’t crawl into that nest above your head and burned it straight off! I warned you not to go, and here you are crawling back to the woman who feeds you after going behind my back. I haven’t demanded a dime in thirteen years and this is how you repay me? This country is gone to the gutter, I say. You young folk have got disrespect in your bones.”
“Love you too, mom!” had been the last words I ever said to her as I ran out the door towards the bus, its engine growling with a sense of indignation in the frigid air as I clambered aboard. I don’t remember much else about that day. Ed was out sick again so that left me adrift as I sat through hours of tedium, counting the number of hairline cracks on the crumbling ceilings in every room. Legend said the Math department tried to form some sort of organized resistance to protest for better pay, and that that was the reason all the math teachers found themselves tucked in the west wing, a mummified corpse masquerading as a school building only a hop, skip and jump away from returning to dust. I had counted 1,251 cracks in Ms. DeVarna’s room. I liked her better than Mr. Ellens. She never exploded with anger and screamed how worthless the student body was. Only a resigned sigh and thousand yard stare.
The door was ajar when I walked up the sidewalk. The roses my mother bought for herself still had their rich color, a vibrant splash of life sitting on the coffee table. The sofa sagged under my mother’s weight, its cushions seemingly gasping for air. Her face was a porcelain mask, frozen in a macabre beauty I had never seen her wear in life. The neighbor dialed 911 for me when I banged on his door and said that an ambulance would have been nice several minutes ago.
Asphyxiation, the cops told me. Choked on something. Maybe it was the words she had never said to me in life, clawing their way up her throat, demanding to be released until they burst forth and drowned her under their colossal weight.
“…rth to Aaron, Earth to Aaron! Don’t just sit there, let’s go somewhere fun. Man, these rails suck. Look at their fracture patterns! The steel producers definitely added waaaaaay too much sulfur. The railroad companies should’ve sued, but that would’ve required someone who knew what the law was.” Ed stood in front of me, the sunset framed around his head like an aura of fire.
I shook off the last vestiges of the past, the photos fading from my hands as they tucked themselves back into my mind’s embrace. Blood rushed to my head in a furious dash as I shook off the spots at the edge of my eyes. “Took you long enough, Ed. Hope you’re ready for the beating of your life tonight,” I added with a glint in my eye.
The microwave beeped as the scent of burnt pizza made our eyes water and filled our nostrils. “Jesus, man!” Ed choked out. “Didn’t anyone teach you that five minutes is 300 seconds; not 3000?? No wonder we were waiting so long!”
“You know I skipped math today, right? Counting’s never been my favorite. Now shut up and I’ll get the peanut butter and gluten-free whole wheat bread you keep behind your pillow for late night snacks when you’re too chicken to go downstairs in the dark.”
He sputtered indignantly, brushing his crooked glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. “How’d you even find out about that one?”
“I’ve been sleeping here since my stepdad kicked me out for failing that science test, stupid. Your parents probably like me more than they like you now anyway.”
“Shut up, stupid,” he half-growled, half-teased with a stupid smile plastered on his face. “Last one up the stairs makes the sandwiches.” With that, we scrambled up the steps in a flurry of limbs.
As Princess Peach sped past a dazed Mario in his cart spinning out of control, he threw his controller to the ground, the gaming device bouncing off his carpeted floor and onto the beanbag chair he kept ‘just in case someone else joins in’. “Really too easy, honestly. I thought you were good at this sort of thing,” I snickered.
He snorted. “I could’ve left your ass in the dirt,” he remarked sarcastically. “You’re lucky I like you so much.”
Time ground to a painfully loud halt, the ringing in my ears drowning out anything else. My throat went dry, each suck of cool air a blast of sandpaper against the parched walls. “I’m glad we’re friends,” I croaked.
“Me too dude, me too. You’re probably the only person who treats me like they want to be around me. You make me feel good about me.” His words came out thoughtful and solemn, the moon shining bright through his window. In the distance, the crickets filled the air with their buzzing song. A silence filled the room, blanketing our bodies with its suffocating embrace as I turned to look him in the eye.
“I-I have to go,” I stammered suddenly, slicing through the smog of quiet with an alcoholic surgeon’s drunken scalpel. “I’ll see you soon.” I couldn’t bear to look back but my head turned for one last glance anyway as I ran out of his room, his forlorn face looking as if he had one more thing to say. As I streaked down the street, the three words I had but didn’t say bubbled up inside, swarming my throat as they threatened to choke me, demanded release and validation and got those as their anguish and relief came alive in the starry silent night.