A Summer of City Life & Liberation

Never have I ever lived in a city. Ever. I grew up in a small town in East Texas where the grand total of the population is just under 7,000. This isn’t a small town on the fringes of a city. This is a small town in a loose cluster of other small towns, an area secluded deep in the Piney Woods that act as a buffer against it and the outside world. Our closest city is in Louisiana, and the closest major Texas city is Dallas, which is three hours away. We’re truly isolated.

To be clear, I love that I’m from my hometown. It’s cliché, but I’ll go ahead and acknowledge it: my childhood in Carthage made me who I am. My experience of growing up in Texas was very different from that of someone who was raised in one of Texas’ metropolitan areas. As a man recently told me when talking about his own beloved town in deep West Texas, when you’re in one of Texas’ major cities, you might as well be in any metropolitan area in any other state. But when you’re living in a small town in East or West Texas – that’s when you’re truly in Texas.

I agree with him, to an extent. Nobody in Carthage ever rode their horse to school, but a lot of us did grow up on county roads and a fair share of people own livestock. Football is big – very big. You can’t walk into Wal-Mart without running into one of your grade-school teachers or someone who knows your dad. Honestly, you can’t go anywhere without seeing someone you know, at least through a mutual acquaintance. When oil and gas is low, the entire town hurts. We live all of that.

And when I left Carthage, I decided to go to a very small liberal arts school in a Virginian town just slightly larger than my own, a town where a solid percentage of the population is made up of the college students. There are less than 2,000 undergraduates on my campus. And I fit well there – the small class sizes suit me, my professors genuinely know and care about me, the rural town and close-knit community reminds me of my childhood.

But choosing that college also means that I’ve never had an opportunity to truly experience life in a city – until now. This summer I’m in Austin for an internship, and I’ve spent the past three weeks in astonishment, frankly, at just how different a city is. Yes, there’s traffic, and the cost of parking takes a significant chunk out of your wallet. But there are also so many different restaurants, and tire pressure pumps that register the PSI of your tires for you, and murals, and tons and tons of vibrant and interesting people. Oh my gosh, the people. So many here are just living and doing their own thing. Everyone is embracing life in their own way and not glancing around to see who’s watching. And I’m starting to learn from them. The word I keep coming back to is that it’s just so liberating.

I’ve realized that one of the drawbacks of constantly living in a small community is you feel like you can’t ever let your guard down – at least, that’s how I feel. I have to be careful about how I look, what I say, the way I present myself, because there’s always someone who knows me and might be waiting to analyze me. And living in Austin, where the total number of people I know is probably in the range of 10-15, I’m starting to let go of some of that pressure.

Most of you probably think of me as a quiet girl. I keep to myself. Even when I’m with other people, my instinct is to listen, not speak. I clam up in a group setting, especially when I don’t really know everyone in the room. It’s taken years of internally wrestling with myself to relax in that kind of atmosphere. And I’m still not great at it. I think for me, it’s a case of perfectionism mixed with self-consciousness and an introverted nature. I put pressure on myself; I care too much what other people think about me, wonder if they’re forming judgments about me. It takes energy and effort for me to spend time with people.

At home, with my family, I’m a different person – or rather, a real person. I’m goofy, and sometimes I’m downright delirious. I blare “Despacito” and demonstrate my new Zumba moves in the middle of the kitchen; I babble about the latest short story I’ve written and how I’m itching to write another. I try out new vocabulary words, let them roll out of my mouth and into the open, and I don’t worry about mispronouncing them because someone will challenge me and we’ll debate it back and forth before finally letting the audio pronunciation on Dictionary.com sort it out. I laugh loudly, and I sit crisscross applesauce in my chair at the dinner table. I’m sarcastic, but not biting. I tell jokes, and some of them fall flat, but I inevitably get in a few witty remarks. I’m my fullest self. It’s something about being surrounded by that combination of people who know you best, and your favorite memories, and the comfort of being protected by the 20 acres of pastureland between you and the rest of the world.

My very best friend was also my roommate for our first two years of college. She’s been to my house a couple of times, and the last time she visited, at some point maybe after I danced around the kitchen and before I started belting out the lyrics to some new song I was really into, she said, “I have never seen you act like this – you’re not like this at school!” And she’s exactly right. I’m not.

When I went back home last weekend, I’m not sure how it came up, but at one point I literally sobbed to my parents that I just couldn’t ever let loose and be my full self anywhere beyond our home, that I have such a difficult time opening up. They did what the best parents do: they assured me that hardly anyone is able to be that comfortable in unfamiliar settings.

But it’s my continued caution in familiar settings that bothers me. It bothers me that I second-guess myself about speaking up in class because I don’t want to get the answer wrong in front of people, and it bothers me that I worry so much about someone watching me that I can’t just enjoy dancing at a party. I should be better than that, bigger than that. I know that, more often than not, people really don’t care nearly as much as I convince myself that they do. So for now, I’m working on being comfortable with myself in Austin.

I go to museums by myself and don’t worry if the attendants question why I’m walking through the exhibits alone. I order hot coffee in Texas in the middle of June because I’ve never really liked it iced, and I laugh when the barista commends it as a bold move. I walk down the street with my chin up. I mix patterns. I smile at strangers. I pace the length of the neighborhood while talking on the phone, unconcerned about who might catch snatches of my conversation. I drag a barstool out onto my apartment’s tiny balcony because it’s a prime location for watching the sunset. I go to a Zumba class twice a week at a Latin dance studio full of mostly middle-aged women that I was honestly scared to death to walk into on my very first day. Now, several of the women know my name, and one of them even confided that she would miss me when I left at the end of the summer. At any point in all of this, when I feel my self-consciousness starting to bubble up, I remind myself that I’ll probably never see most of these people again, and that works. My shoulders lower.

Maybe I would feel differently if I went to school here in Austin. If I knew that some of the people I passed would potentially see me again – in the library, across the lecture hall, at a mutual friend’s apartment on the weekends. Maybe if that were the case, I would stiffen a tiny bit, duck my head a little more often. But I don’t really live here – I’m just a visitor passing through.

So am I cut out to be a city girl? Is living in a place like this the only way I’ll overcome my inhibitions? I think a month is probably too soon to tell. But maybe a summer of city life is just what I need to start letting my fullest self venture out into the open a little more often. I owe her that.

Remnants

G.

Most nights she shoots up from her pillow, her fine blond hair loose from its nightcap, sticking in a web across her face. Adrenaline coursing the way those horses her father always eyed used to speed down the track. Ears pricked forward. Sweat gleaming. Her adrenaline is a racehorse, navigating the canals of her body, sounding the alarm for her organs. That might explain the tingling.

These are her thoughts when she wakes up screaming.

It was always in the gray hours between night and morning when she used to be summoned. The gossamer-thin sheets with rat gnawings on the corners were ripped back, the voice screeched up the rickety wooden stairs.

Now she wakes up screaming and swinging, fists balled. She keeps her nails short, but they still carve half-moon scars into her palms. A frozen lunar cycle in her hands.

 

H.

He was raised to work with his hands. His first toy had been a scrap of wood with the edges worn down. He had clung to it with his baby grip, refusing to let go during the months he spent in the oak cradle his father had carved, sanded and polished.

Once between the age of four or five, his father had taken his hands in his own. His father’s calluses scratched in the not unpleasant way his beard scratched against the boy’s cheek when he picked him up for a hug. This time his father squatted down, brown eyes level with his own. Hands tell stories, his father had explained, squeezing gently, then turning his palms upward. Ours tell the story of hard labor.

As soon as he could push the straw broom, he spent his days in his father’s shop. He liked sweeping the wood shavings into a pile and watching as they shook off their coat of dust motes, sending them soaring into the sunlight that filtered through the cracks in the wall. In those moments, he was able to see the soul of the wood up close, breathing. He never told anyone that.

When the winter wind snapped with jagged teeth, his mother made a special balm for his father to rub into his hands. It was the color of warm butter, melting in his palms. She sweet-talked ingredients from the merchant with the funny mustache, who had stolen them straight from the king’s cellar and whisked them right underneath the Captain of the Guard’s nose. Or so he said.

He remembered the day his father had put a dollop of the balm on his own knuckles. He had massaged it reverently into the lines of each finger joint. It smelled of the cinnamon bread they ate once a year, but sharper. Potent.

His sister wasn’t allowed to have any of the balm, and she pouted, her bottom lip protruding so far that the pink of her mouth showed. That night, a small wooden rocking horse rested in the dent of her pillow to make it up to her.

This was his childhood. And so, he grew – into a boy with broad shoulders and a gift for wood-working, a boy who knew that hands told stories.

 

G.

She paces, pale fingers tracing the grimy wall of her room in the inn. She paces a lot these days. It helps her think. Or not think. Whichever.

One, two, who are you

Three, four lock the door

She hums the tune under her breath, even though she knows the other guests don’t like it. They complain to the innkeeper that the walls are too thin, that she sounds like an animal rasping dying breaths. Still she hums.

It’s always the same songs. You would think she wouldn’t want to remember them, after she had to sing them so often. So often that her voice strained beyond cracking and her vocal chords scraped together and bled, clumps of blood-specked phlegm that she had hacked up onto her pillow, too exhausted to lean over the side. She woke with it matted into her hair, a tangle of gore she never bothered to brush out. Still, she had been made to sing.

Five, six thorns and sticks

Seven, eight you’re too late

She knows she had sung other songs, once. Before she had been stolen away, before her soft hands had toughened from scrubbing and scraping and her voice had been sung hollow. She had to have known other songs because the witch had mentioned it. She took her because of her voice.

There is only one clear memory of the time that came before. She had been singing some nonsensical child’s song, tugging on her father’s trouser leg, trying to get him to listen. But his eyes were intent on those horses, following them around and around and around the track. They ran until their mouths were foamy and the whites of their eyes showed. Her father’s eyes never left them, never glanced down at her, no matter how loudly, how petulantly she sang.

In her dirty little room in the inn, she stops pacing, stops humming. Draws her fingers away from the wall, raises a scarred palm to cup her mouth. Huffs out, catches the scent in her nostrils.

It smells of rust.

 

H.

Fortunately, it was his weaker hand. He had been too careless, gotten too cocky. He would like to remember later that he had barely shed a tear, but of course that wasn’t true. His scream was so piercing, it was probably what had torn his skin.

When he returned from the village with the blood beginning to stain the white strips on his stump, his father muttered that it would be all right, then lumbered off to his shop without looking at him. His father grieved best there, hands occupied.

His sister busied herself with a pot of soup, shooting him concerned glances from the corner of her eye. He stared into the cooking fire from the stool in their tiny kitchen, his wrists resting on his knees, one blood-soaked, the other dirt-smudged. He should have paid more attention to the soul of the wood. Tracing the lines he could make out on his remaining palm, he wondered: was he only half a story now?

 

G.

This time the village healer suggests that she try the leeches. She leaves the inn to visit the healer’s hut in the early morning hours, shuffling along the moonlit dirt paths long before the earliest risers in the village are disentangling themselves from their sheets to bake the morning bread.

The leeches suction onto her arms and legs, minute mouths sucking, sucking. Trying to drain the energy from her body, restore the balance. One slithers its way up to her throat, positioning itself right where her songs used to spring from, latches itself there. Others gnaw the scarred crescents of her palms, trying to suck those up, too.

She feels her eyes closing as her heart pulsates in rhythm with the sucking. She embraces the blackness, finds herself remembering that night with the singing and the witch and the boy.

It had been in the gray hours when the sheets ripped and the witch demanded that she bring the boy in from the stall. She’d raised herself on trembling arms, dry heaved once, then somehow pulled herself into a standing position. She started down the stairs, one by one, and made it halfway before one foot tripped over another and she crumpled at the bottom of the last step, a heap of matted hair and bones.

The witch shrieked for her to come into the bedroom, now.

Twice before she had stood at the door without the witch knowing. Watched through the crack near the frame as the witch drew a tin from her dresser and applied a thick yellow balm to her face, paying special attention to the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes.

This time, the door to the bedroom was flung wide. Before a mirror that was chipped and spotted at the corners, the witch brushed dust off the puffed shoulders of her crushed velvet plum dress. The gold stitching on her cuffs had been picked by some other nervous woman decades ago, and the material near the shoulders sagged, but remnants of elegance remained. She wanted nothing more than to snatch it off the witch’s wilting frame. The thick material would make a warm blanket.

I want you to fetch the boy from the stall, the witch said, taking one last long look in the mirror before turning to rummage in her dresser drawer. Fetch him, and have him put on the clothes in the next room. Then bring him here. The witch turned back to the mirror, balm pooling like drips of moonlight in her hand.

She kept her gaze low as she walked out to the stable, unlocked the far stall where the boy had been kept for several months now – she couldn’t be sure how long. All she knew was that now he, like her, was too weak to run.

Wordlessly, she grabbed him by the elbow of the arm that still had a hand and shuffled him into the cottage. She pointed toward the clothes that had been left by the hearth, but didn’t turn as he put them on. She didn’t have the energy for unnecessary movement.

The witch stood waiting in the center of her bedroom, chin lifted high, white hair piled on top of her head. She noticed the powder on the witch’s cheeks, a pink and white residue that smudged the boy’s face when he walked uncertainly toward her and she reached up to wrap her arms around his neck.

Sing, the witch had snapped to her, and so, sitting in the corner of the room with her knees drawn into her chest, she sang, her voice growing raspier as she croaked out line by line of the witch’s strange songs. She didn’t dare pause for breath, so she sang raggedly, blood pooling in her throat.

The boy shifted in a grotesque imitation of dancing as he and the witch went round, her drooping chin resting on his shoulder. When they circled back and she got a good view of the witch’s face, something glinted near the corner of her eye. It must have been a trick of the moonlight; the witch never cried. She couldn’t.

 

H.

When you’re still learning to cope with only one hand and you stray too far, you get stolen by the traders. At least, that’s what he’d pieced together as he lay in the back of a cart under a long piece of oilcloth, head slapping the side when the road dipped or the horse jostled.

He had only meant to explore a little bit, go looking for the soul of the wood in a shaft of sunlight. He’d been spending more time in the forest, less time in the shop. It was unbearable to see his father shaking his head, running his hands through his beard again and again on the other side of the room as he watched his son struggle to carve at even a fraction of his former speed and skill.

Even his mother and sister treated him differently. They didn’t like to look at the stump, would avert their eyes when he rubbed the yellow balm on it. What once was exciting, even magical, had become mundane and painful.

He wasn’t sure what to expect when the woman bought him from that market, deep in the woods where no respectable villager ever wandered. She’d pushed through the undergrowth at the edge of the clearing, panting as she arrived halfway through the auction.

Scanning the rows of available children, her eyes had settled on him, and she tapped the trader on the shoulder and gestured in his direction. The two carried on a swift, heated conversation. Her eyes didn’t leave him. You could tell she was used to getting her way. She tapped her foot the entire time.

An agreement finally reached, the trader sulkily projected a long stream of tobacco juice after the boy as he pushed him forward, onto his knees at the old woman’s feet. Her gaze didn’t show a flicker of concern before she spun around, marched out of the clearing the same way she had come. He couldn’t help but struggle up and follow at her heels.

He wondered where this part was etched into his palm.

 

G.

She lied, before. She had seen the witch cry before that. Lots of times. It was just easier to pretend she hadn’t.

 

H.

After they danced that night, the old woman had led him to the kitchen table, her grip surprisingly strong for someone so old. She sank into the chair across from him, her old purple dress ballooning around her, rustling. The neckline sagged low as she leaned across the table toward him, elbows in front of her.

Grasping the corner of the table, feeling the familiar whorls of rough-hewn wood, he tried to meet the old woman’s stare. The girl with the wild eyes and knotted hair slipped away upstairs.

He was alone with the old woman.

After holding his gaze for a long time – it could have been minutes or hours – she told him matter-of-factly that she was damned to eat human flesh, and he was sure he’d misheard, but she repeated herself calmly and clearly, said that it was the only way she was able to stay young. Her jowls quivered as she spoke, a string of saliva working its way down from the corner of her mouth. The old woman didn’t seem to notice.

He had resolved to stay silent, but she kept speaking, her normally beady eyes glazed as she explained that it wouldn’t be for a while yet, but it would be gruesome when it happened, and he just needed to understand that it was nothing personal. She actually quite liked him, even if he was disfigured.

As she spoke, strands of white hair had fallen from the elaborate bun on top of her head, giving her a younger look as she snapped her focus back to him, pleading without exactly saying the words for him to know that she was sorry. For him to have pity on her, even if he was the one to be consumed.

The way the moonlight was shining through the window, you could see how the old woman might have been beautiful.

He hadn’t meant to speak, but suddenly he found himself spluttering. Words tripped over themselves, trickling out of his mouth as he told her about this method he had heard about, how he’d considered it when he’d first begun to learn what it meant to live with only one hand, half a story. Squeezing the table, he listed the different ways the method worked.

The old woman stared back until he lapsed into silence, and still she stared. The tears, caught in the deep wrinkles of her cheeks, reflected the moonlight.

 

G.

When the healer pulls the last reluctant leech off and places a warm hand on her shoulder, telling her to rest for a moment, she raises trembling hands to her face. She covers her eyes so that the white half-moons are all she can see, but then she closes her eyelids and waits for the shaking to subside.

That night with the witch and the boy isn’t the only one carved into the black of her mind.

She had stifled her coughs in her pillow, heard their whole conversation through the cracks in the floorboard. She wanted to know more. He was startled, maybe even a little repulsed when she curled up outside his stall. She whispered in her broken voice that she wanted to hear him speak. He was hesitant, but soon he talked and talked, telling of his life before the accident, before his family was ashamed of him, telling of carving and taming bonfires at village festivals and watching his mother make balm with ingredients stolen right out from underneath the Captain of the Guard’s nose. She closed her eyes and could nearly picture it.

She offered to sing, but he said she should rest. So she listened, humming softly as the boy told her story after story. Some nights she pushed a piece of wood from the witch’s fire pile under the stall door, watched as he carved it with the broken-off edge of a rusted plow while he spoke. Other nights she held her palms up to the bars of the stall, let him trace the lines with his one hand and predict where else her life might lead, past today’s crescent scars.

She began to weave some of the elements the boy had mentioned in his breathless speech and their nighttime meetings into her songs, singing stories of wood and licking fire. She was sure the witch noticed. She paid with freshly blooming bruises and an even rawer throat, but still she sang her melodies, and she noticed the witch crying more.

 

G. and H.

If you were to ask them now, they would tell you that they hadn’t really meant to do it.

Yet there they were, frozen in a shaft of moonlight as their captor was enveloped in fire.

 

G.

The sun is on the verge of clawing its way up above the land as she picks her way back through the village, back to the inn. She avoids the eyes of passerby, keeping her own trained on the molten rays, even though it sears. The sun is so angry red that it reminds her of the flames, and she leans against someone’s hut, quaking with memory.

She had built up a blaze on the wood of the table, thrown the heavy velvet dress over the sleeping witch’s head before tying her against the chair with the bedsheet, ripping it into manageable strips with her teeth. Pushed the witch, chair and all, into the fire-engulfed table and then stumbled outside, coughing as she dragged the boy from his stall to see that she had made the fire her own. She had bowed over, retching blood clots as the blaze leapt higher and higher, trying to lick the moon. There might have been screams, but maybe that was the cackle of fire striking the night air.

Her next memory was of the healer’s hut, of bandages and candlelight and a steady voice. The healer said she had found her on the doorstep, drawing shallower and shallower breaths. There might have been a knock at the door, but it could have been the wind.

Many weeks later, the healer couldn’t tell her where the witch had lived or where the boy had gone. The healer stroked her forehead with a damp rag, said witches lived far away and if there had been a boy maybe he crawled into a farmer’s crop wagon and found the healer in the next village over.

She knows the witch had to have been real. But she finds herself wondering if she had dreamed the boy up, had stretched her mind so hard that it snapped and left a chasm that she filled with a made-up boy with one hand and too many stories.

She sits on the edge of her creaky bed at the inn, massaging her throat with her scarred palms and wondering if that is possible. Maybe she’ll ask the healer.

 

H.

 Afterward, everyone thought there had been something between him and the wild-eyed girl. That they had been co-conspirators, at the least. Plotted the old woman’s death in hushed whispers at night, fingers tracing symbols and rubbing out fruitless plans in the dust outside his stall until they finally settled on one that worked.

Most thought they had been lovers. Before he’d left his village, before the sideways glances had been too much for him, some of his childhood friends tried to go about the business of reconnecting. They took him to the tavern that had cropped up in his absence, ordered him some drinks. A couple rounds in, after he’d said several times that he hadn’t done anything besides tell stories about wood and fire, one of them asked about her. Murmurings were spreading from a few villages over about an emaciated girl with no voice who claimed she had been raised by a witch. Her story, the timeline, matched up with his.

His friends leaned in, the alcohol sour. He snorted in the middle of a sip, the beer burning his nostrils. If you’d only seen this girl, he said.

He never saw her again. Or maybe he did, many years afterward, and just didn’t know it. It was too hard to look at everyone’s hands, read their stories. He traced his own hand, rubbing the balm in after carving, trying to look past the blisters and understand the lines, read if their lives would intersect again.

He liked to imagine her sometimes. Bloodstains scrubbed away from the corners of her mouth, purple shadows under her eyes returned to their normal hue. Her gnarled tangle of hair combed out, so that the blond tendrils fanned around her face like a halo. She was always wearing a floor-length, simple dress and she never spoke, because she couldn’t, as she smiled and raised her palms up and outward, toward him. Her throat and hands were marked with the remnants of nightmares and memories, but he understood, because he was marked, too.

He wasn’t much of a dancer, but somehow in those imaginary moments he knew exactly what to do, resting his stump on her waist and grasping her hand in his. And they swayed back and forth, palms pressed together. Their shaft of moonlight dancefloor was tiny, yet they never outdistanced it – the tiny sliver that did not wax or wane, but was perpetually where they needed it to be as they swayed within its edges. A frozen lunar cycle, etched in his mind.

 

 

 

 

 

One Step

One Step

One step. That’s all It would take.

He draws a breath as he shuffles forward, lining the toes of his shoes up with the edge of the dirty yellow tile where it meets the thin strip of concrete, precisely. He’d come to like precision. Everything in its place, in order, in line, and the world will rotate a little more efficiently on its 23.5° axis. He forces himself to stare at his feet, aligning them just so, avoiding looking in that direction. It is coming. The sound hits him first: the whistling, rushing noise of mechanical power barreling forward. The light is second: he allows himself to look towards It and squints, etching deeper the mass of wrinkles around his eyes. Now that he has finally seen It, acknowledged Its presence, he cannot look away. His hand creaks up to hold steady the worn hat threatening to flap off in the created wind, but that is unnecessary, an involuntary reaction, so he releases the hat, feels it whisked away into the black nothingness, all while gazing steadily at It.
Just one small action. Sound, light, wind; he knows what comes next. As he lowers his palms, tremoring, his attention is momentarily distracted by the jagged white scar stretching in the folds from knuckle to wrist. He clutches the hand to his chest, inhaling sharply.

The boy exhaled with a triumphant whoop as he – clambering on all fours – reached the top of the gravel slope. Not only was it summertime, which meant no school, half-melted grape popsicles, and exploring; it was summertime and he had just reached the top of Pike’s Crossing. He had basically achieved manhood. He stood, letting out another whoop for good measure, then hopped from foot to foot as he waited for his companion to catch up. Looking over the edge and realizing that his friend was still a ways down, he settled for sucking at the gash he’d gleaned from the barbwire fence they’d shimmied under a couple miles ago. It had hurt, of course. He’d had to allow a few seconds after the barb tore down the back of his hand to acknowledge the pain, staring at the flaps of skin splayed open, blood coursing over his wrist. His friend had urged him forward, but then the boy had forgotten his wound and surged ahead of him when they’d reached the slope, knowing they were almost there. The cut was deep; the blood had just begun to congeal when he started crawling up the gravel, cracking the gash open again. Now he removed the injured hand from his mouth, analyzed the way the red-brown edges etched a zigzagging pattern like the grooves he’d carved into a stick with the pocketknife his father had given him. It’d make a nice battle scar to prove his story.
He took stock of his surroundings: the slope flattened out on top to form a plateau, the gravel giving way to a smattering of pine trees, but not before being bisected by railroad tracks that he knew, from hearing snippets of some of the older boys’ conversations, to be abandoned. Turning to check on his buddy, he realized from the increasing volume of his huffs that his friend had finally neared the top, and he rushed to the edge of the slope and offered his uninjured hand, pulling him to his feet. The two engaged, as boys do, with much hollering and backslapping in mutual celebration of their feat. That out of the way, they began to conspire, breathless, about the best way to go about their game. Discussion soon dissolved into a round of playful pushing and shoving, which then transitioned into a reenactment of their newest favorite movie.
The boy avoided the railroad tracks as best he could. He may be a man now, and the tracks may be abandoned, but he was still leery of them. His friend, though, made a game of jumping from one rail to the other as the boy ran along beside him. Breath puffing, he watched from the corner of his eye as his friend landed on his toes, arms outstretched, laughing as he wobbled precariously. When the bite of the wind entering his wound proved too much, he stopped under the pretense of catching his breath as his buddy continued to leap ahead. He prodded at the cut, and it burned, sizzled almost. Shading his eyes with his good hand, he tried to appear nonchalant, watched his friend turn and run back along the ties. But his friend’s forward motion abruptly stopped, like he’d hit an invisible wall. He gave a half-strangled cry as he fell onto the tracks, and the boy sprinted toward him, ignoring the pain radiating from his hand. He saw the problem immediately, his buddy’s foot was wedged, twisted at a gruesome angle, under one of the wooden ties. Face screwed up in a blotchy effort to hide the pain, his friend tried to pull the foot free, the boy assisting as much as he could. It was no use. After a few minutes of panting and tugging, the boy proposed using a stick from the woods to try to push the foot free, and his friend miserably agreed. As the boy reached the first line of trees, a shrill whistle pierced his ears. His face morphed from confusion to recognition to horror in a matter of seconds.
Spinning around, his shoes spit up gravel as he sped back toward the tracks, spurred by his friend’s panicked cries. The engine was clearing the slope and beginning to cross the plateau now, chugging determinedly, emitting clouds of rancid smoke in black belches. His friend’s high-pitched screams cut through the train’s whistle as he scrabbled against the ties with renewed strength, and the boy urged himself to move faster, pump his arms harder, slap his feet down quicker. He nearly made it, too. In fact, the memory would haunt the boy days and nights, how his jaggedly cut hand could just touch his friend’s outstretched fingers as the engine made contact.
The man raspily exhales, lungs wheezing like the approaching engine. He thinks to look around, neck creaking from side to side as he checks to make sure he is still alone. Reaching his scarred hand into his pocket, he wraps his fingers around the cold metal of an old dog tag, then inches his toes forward a millimeter, making up for lost time.
Flashing him a smile, the nurse, her white cap pinned to her curls at a jaunty angle, instructed him to breathe deeply as she moved the stethoscope around his chest, the metal instrument clicking against the dog tag around his neck. She dropped the stethoscope and placed one hand on his forehead, just brushing the edge of his prematurely graying hairline as she used the other hand to sweep a penlight from eye to eye. He continued to stare straight ahead.
After oohing and ahhing over the progress of his healing leg and scribbling down the information, she patted his knee, her hand lingering as she informed him that the doctor would be in shortly. Six months ago he would’ve eaten this attention up. He would’ve wrapped his own hand around hers, given her one of his smiles, the right side of his mouth a fraction higher than the other, and asked her: didn’t she think the exam could last just a little bit longer? He was only twenty-eight; his body had remained trim from his years as a soldier, and he had never had trouble winning a girl over with a few well-placed compliments and several long glances from his blue and gray-flecked eyes. But today he gave a quick nod, dismissing her.
As the door swung shut, taking with it the scent of her flowery perfume, the room reeked again of antiseptic. He tried to hold his breath, pinch his nose, but eventually, lungs screaming for oxygen, cheeks numb from distension, he succumbed, and the odor rushed in like a surging engine.
It pervaded his nostrils, singeing them. Singeing them like the stench of burning flesh had. Just moments before it all went wrong, he had been creeping forward, his best friend’s breath uncomfortably warm on the back of his neck, the rest of the platoon following after him. Every placement of his boot was cautious, toes crunching into the ice-crusted ground, the arch and heel of his foot rolling down slowly afterward. Eyes straining in the waning light, searching for heaps of dirt marking any hastily covered landmines. He had just moved his right foot. His best friend moved too, stumbled, fell forward, and now his own ears were ringing with the blast and the subsequent screams of his platoon, his leg seizing with the skin separating from skin, opening in a hole that spilled blood and tissue and life, and he was falling to the ground in time to see a scorched dog tag sail just past his reach, and he knew, instinctively knew, whose it was as his seared eyes shut.
The doctor entered to find him curled in a ball on the examination table, old-scarred hand clutching scorched dog tag encircled by newly-scarred leg, his sobs punctuated with broken mutterings of I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know.
It is getting closer now. He adjusts the ring on his left hand, much larger than his now shrunken, gnarled ring finger. He hasn’t worn it in decades; the memories it stirred hurt too much. But he brought it out again for tonight. He creeps forward another millimeter, now about halfway across the concrete strip.
The wind bit as he pushed the door open, and tiny daggers stabbed his lungs with his first breath outdoors. He hurried across the parking lot as best he could with his stiff leg, digging for his keys as he mentally berated his wife. She was a fixer, positive from the moment she’d met him after he was released from the military for emotional trauma reasons. Waltzing into his life at a bar one night, she hadn’t been deterred by his tough exterior or brief retorts. She’d kept smiling her red-lipped, white-toothed smile, kept pushing him into conversation, kept cracking him open more and more and drawing out the person he’d been before the war. Confident. At ease with himself. With her. And she’d stayed, continuing to see who he had been and could be.
She’d always been so logical, too. Until now – it must have something to do with the pregnancy. There she had been, lying in the hospital bed, sweat beading her temples as she prepared to give birth to their first child. Everything had been like they’d practiced; he’d been holding her hand when the contractions started, stroking her damp hair back from her forehead, murmuring words of encouragement. Then, two hours into labor, she had announced that she was desperately craving watermelon. He was patient, trying to reason with her that he had no idea where to find watermelon, that she needed him there more than she needed an out-of-season fruit, that she knew how important it was to him that he be present when the baby was born.
He had begun researching the moment his wife had discovered that she was pregnant. Studies showed that fathers developed more of an emotional attachment to their child when they were present at birth and able to hold the child immediately. But his wife had been petulant, insistent, and so he now found himself stalking into the nearest Kroger.
Where the hell does a person find watermelon in the middle of winter? After harassing several wide-eyed clerks, an apologetic store manager procured a battered package of watermelon-flavored yogurt. Slapping a few bills onto the counter, he hobbled to his car and sped back to the hospital, making screeching turns and zipping through lights that were undeniably red. He was three blocks away when he hit traffic: a long streak of angry taillights, a cacophony of annoyed honks. No way around it. Without pausing, he put the car in park, yanked the keys out of the ignition, grabbed the yogurt and began a quick limp down the road. The cold wind made his lungs feel raw, exposed with each inhale; his bad leg protested. Ignore it all. Ignore the aches, the stares from people in their warm cars, the fact that he wasn’t beside his wife, waiting to meet their first child. Ignore it all. He turned down the last corner. Nearly there now. Briskly hobbled the last few feet to the double glass doors, through and past the receptionist’s desk, into the stairwell. Lurched in a lopsided dash up the stairs. Arrived on the second floor, breathless, in time to see one of the delivery room nurses exit his wife’s room at the end of the hall, a pink bundle nestled in her arms.
The nurse seemed flustered, whirling around to yell instructions back into the room. As she turned back, she saw him at the end of the hall, recognized him. Color drained from her face.
The yogurt dropped from his hand as he tore down the hall, forgetting his bad leg, only focused on his wife. Past the nurse still standing outside the door, clutching his daughter to her chest. Into the room to find a swarm of doctors and medical staff, shouting and moving around the bed where his wife was convulsing, shivering, coughing.
One of them tried to tell him to stay back, but he barreled through to his wife’s side, grabbed her flailing hand, tried to get her to look at him. She couldn’t hear. Her head kept twisting from side to side, and she kept shaking, gurgling blood. The doctors put hands on his shoulders, yelled medical terms at him, at each other, words he didn’t understand. Didn’t want to understand. He kept pleading with his wife, voice breaking, eyes blurred.
And then she went limp. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.
Something inside him collapsed into a heap, smoke rising from its crushed center. He was now the one shaking, jerkily sliding down to his knees by the bed, still cradling her lifeless hand. The left one. The one with her wedding ring.
He should have been here. He had envisioned it down to the details: the baby emerging, covered in birthing fluid and blood, yet strangely beautiful, his wife’s tired expression of joy. His daughter shrieking at being forced into this unfamiliar, bright world, the moment when she would finally be handed to him and her bleary eyes would lock with his. That initial moment of bonding, when he and his wife would cradle their daughter’s small body in their arms, protecting her, comforting her as she adjusted her lungs and skin and eyes to this new way of being.
He should have been here.
Trembling lips pressed to his wife’s limp hand, the cold metal of her ring blistering against his skin, he heard a wail from the hallway. His daughter – but he couldn’t. Not now. Her wailing continued as he remained, clutching his wife’s hand and the burning metal to him.
He shuffles forward again, toes nearly reaching the edge now. The force of the wind is beginning to rock him; he shifts, trying to gain a more solid stance. His bones are aching from the exertion of walking, especially down the stairs to this station, and then standing for so long, and he considers reaching down to massage them, at least his bad leg. No. It will only take a moment. It will be quick. He steels himself for the remaining quarter step forward, lowering both arms back down to his sides and clenching his hands as tightly as the arthritic joints will allow.
His plea that she meet with him, just listen to what he had to say, had been met with a sigh, a long stream of breath that had crackled into his ear through the telephone. Alright, she finally said; I can manage an hour. As if she was being generous. As if even considering his opinion was a nuisance. As if she was simply humoring her idiot father that couldn’t possibly have a convincing enough argument to keep her from packing up her entire life and moving to the other side of the country to follow a man he had known, from the first time he shook his clammy, slippery hand, was untrustworthy. But she had still consented to see him. He tried not to harbor hopes that he could persuade her to change her mind. From the time she was a little girl, she had been independent, assertive, insisting that no matter what her father said, butterflies could talk to her and she would wear lip gloss to kindergarten if she wanted. What was endearing as a child became a headache as a teenager, when her bouts of sneaking out and arguments were only punctuated by moody silences. Her transition to college only served to sharpen the jagged edges of the expanse growing between them; he had tried to assert himself into her life too much, tried to dictate which school she would go to, what she would major in, where she should look for a job. No wonder she had withdrawn.
Shrugging his coat on as he stumped through the cramped apartment he now called home, he noticed the tiny, framed photograph of him swinging with his daughter in his lap, her chubby toddler hands reaching forward, out of the picture, toward him. He touched one finger of his scarred hand to the photo, caressed her tiny face. They were both frozen in shouts of laughter. Better days.
The taxi ride to the park was uneventful; his good leg jiggled up and down, poorly concealing his nervousness. He paid the fare and entered the park, walking as briskly as he could, eager to make the most use of the time his daughter had allotted. But of course she wasn’t there on time. He eased himself onto the cold, metal bench they had agreed to meet at. Stretched his leg out where his toes could just reach the neat line forming the edge of the sidewalk, dragged them back in. Drummed his fingers, one, two, three, four, over and over again on the arm of the bench.
She would show up. She would be several minutes late, striding aggressively up to the bench, tossing her long hair over her shoulder as she placed her notebook in her purse (she was currently aspiring to be a columnist). She would plop herself onto the far end of the bench, cross her arms, level her eyes with his and demand to know why she should stay. Chuckling as he imagined her routine of practiced defiance, it took him a few moments to notice the slight woman looking around confusedly a few steps away from the bench. She almost looked like – but no, she couldn’t be; the woman in front of him was far too thin, and her hair was cut too short, and there was a deep purple-brown bruise along her jaw. But their gazes met, and he realized that this was his daughter. She ducked her head and began to make her way towards him, and he racked his brain, trying to recall the last time he’d seen her. Had it really been six, seven months ago? What had this man done to her?
The woman that was his daughter reached the bench and lowered herself as if afraid her bones might shatter. She glanced down, away from her father, and the bench was acutely cold and metal in the silence that followed. Finally, not knowing what else to do, he started to ask about the bruise; she bristled and went to leave; he caught her bony arm, said he didn’t mean to upset her and wouldn’t she just stay for a few more minutes? She settled back onto the edge of the bench, shoulders tense, and he realized that any attempts to sway her opinion would send her walking. So he tried to pry discreetly. What had this slippery man done to make her think that she couldn’t live without him?
But he couldn’t ask that question. So instead: did she have a job lined out in California? Was she prepared for how different it would be from New York? What was their living situation going to be like? She replied with clipped responses and then was silent again: their conversation went round and round and nowhere like the carousel she had begged to ride as a child.
Finally, she grabbed his hand and, still refusing to meet his gaze, said in a rush that she had to do what was best for her, rubbed her thumb quickly along the scar, dropped his hand and stood. She began to walk away, her figure hunched, like it could be blown over by the wind gusting through the park.
He hadn’t realized how frail and broken she was.
She did look back over her shoulder, once, and for the briefest instant he saw not an adult, but the face of a child, lips cracked, glossless, quaking. He knew that in that moment he should have run, hobbling, after her, should have hugged her, should have told his little girl that he would be strong for her, that she didn’t have to go through with this. But he didn’t. He remained on the cold, metal bench, motionless, long after she had walked away. And she never answered his calls after that.
The hand bearing the loose ring removes the faded photo from his pocket; his toes are now exactly perpendicular to the edge of the concrete strip. One trembling finger caresses the laughing child’s face preserved by the photo as his body is racked by a single sob. He pulses, shaken by an outside force, too: Its cold, metallic acceleration. It is nearly here. He takes a rattling breath, his other, scarred hand again clutching the scorched dog tag, shifting his weight, preparing his good leg. So much weight on his body, on his mind, on his conscience. Begging for release.
Sound, light, wind, now his turn.
One step. That’s all It would take.

It whistles past, cold, indifferent.
The loose ring, the scorched dog tag, the faded photo. He’d stepped forward seconds before It came, his scarred hand dropping the objects in a neat row on the track, then stumbled backward, knocked over by Its velocity and the sheer weight of it all. Lying in a heap on the cold concrete floor, the memories wash over him while Its wheels churn over and over the ring, the dog tag, the photo. A vicious cycle.
He clenches his scarred hand: the only remainder. The memories replay, and he repeats to himself the phrases he and his counselor have practiced, what he knows will weaken their hold, will weaken It.
The train from his childhood. Wrong place at the wrong time. It cracks. The landmine and his best friend. His own footing had been sure. It crumbles. His wife’s death. An event out of his control. It disintegrates. His daughter leaving. He is human, imperfect. It fades.
The memories abruptly end, and he realizes he is still lying on the concrete, breaths coming in sharp gasps. Takes a minute to slow his breathing, lungs returning to a steady, whirring rhythm. Then gathers his good leg underneath him, pushes himself to a sitting position and creakily to his feet. Begins ascending the concrete stairs without a backward look at the platform with the dirty yellow strip or the mementos of his past – now a charred heap on the tracks.
Yes, he acknowledges, glancing at his scarred hand, his past is immovable, unchangeable, unyielding, like cold metal. An undeniable part of him.
He squares his aching shoulders. But he can do it now. He can beat It.
One step at a time.

The Hunter

I know it’s been forever since my last post. I had good intentions of documenting the past few months, but a few weeks into the term, I came to the realization that college is time-consuming. Who knew? I hope to give a synopsis of my first term/all the fun life lesson-type things I’ve learned in the past 12 weeks (like how to do laundry), but right now, I’m using this blog as a way to share the product of one of my classes.

This fall, I enrolled in Creative Writing: Fiction, a class in which I developed, wrote, rewrote and edited two original short stories. My professor left these stories unprompted and completely up to our imagination. I learned so, so much during this course, and I truly think (and hope) that I grew as a writer. I’m sharing the first short story with you now, and I hope that if you take the time to read it, you’ll give me feedback on your thoughts and suggestions for improvement! But first, I’d like to give a humongous shout-out to the people that helped develop my writing, both in the past and specifically with this story – y’all rock. Thanks for believing in me.

The Hunter

Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Although his mind feels shut off, his body still clings to instincts. Every action and observation reduced to rudiments; only bare bones. Clomp-clomp. The hunter’s boots striking the boards of the barn’s stairs announces his arrival. One, two. The number of steps it takes John to reach his sister, cowering behind the loose pile of hay. Hush. Be strong. One long, shared look. Thump-thump. His heart will continue to pump blood; it will ensure his survival. It will beat all the odds.
Except perhaps the bullet in the hunter’s gun, the brother of which was now lodged in his father’s heart.

When six-year-old John would come shuffling into the room in his father’s too-big boots, screeching in his child’s high pitch about how the Indians were escaping or how the robbers had stolen treasure, his father grumbled the boy had too wild of an imagination.
But that wasn’t to say he wasn’t proud. It was the gruffness that did it; something about the way he carefully arranged his face and adopted a deeper, dismissive tone. Which was enough for John. Creativity wasn’t in high demand on a farm. He could fantasize all he wanted, but he would still have to trudge out to the barn every mush-gray morning to milk Old Tess and coax the chickens up off their freshly-laid eggs. It wasn’t a bad life, but it certainly wasn’t exciting. No time for daring escapades or adventures as he grew older, was assigned more chores, saddled with increasing responsibilities. And so his imagination had faded with his childhood.
And now, when he needed it to kick back into gear, it refused.
He closed his eyes, squeezed them shut hard. Focus. The hunter would soon be through the door with its flimsy barricade, and he and his sister had no escape route. John tried to ignore the footsteps and the pulsing feeling in his wrists as he pictured the bottom section of the barn with Old Tess’s stall in the corner, opposite the set of wooden stairs the hunter was climbing. The stairs were the only way down, they would have to go up. Opening his eyes, he scanned the cramped loft again. No trapdoors, the window was too high, the hay was useless, the beams—the beams!
It would have been comical: him and his sister, scrambling up the wooden rafters like they used to do as kids, racing to the spot where the rope swing, before it frayed, had been secured to the slat under the peaked roof’s apex. His father had knotted the rope twice, strong and sure, when John turned six. He had given it a tug and then clapped John on the shoulder, beaming like this was as satisfactory of a present as the toy gun and holster John had begged for. Good old-fashioned fun: his father’s favorite label for the swing. But that was then. He was dead now.
John scooped his sister up and hoisted her onto the nearest rafter, giving her a push to indicate that she should begin pulling herself up toward the top. She obeyed and he threw himself onto the beam beside her, gouging his hands into the slanted wood and dragging himself forward. Over his breathing, he could just hear the hunter’s rhythm slow and then stop as he reached the top of the stairs.
John slid faster along the beam and jerked his head at his sister, indicating that she should do the same. Sweat tickled the corners of his eyes as he looked up, assessing their next move once they reached the beams’ conjunction at the peak.
Was that – yes, there was a tiny stream of light, a small gap where the wood had begun to weaken and rot. A few good shoves and it should give; there was their escape.
He reached the top first, just as the hunter began ramming against the door. John and the hunter shoved and pushed in a demented race, wood splintering. His sister, breathless, joined in, her willowy arms pushing with all their might, tiny muscles straining. A bead of sweat rolled into John’s eye; he continued heaving against the warped wood. The hole was widening; she could almost fit through, just a few shoves more.
Then everything fell apart.
With a crack of finality, the door burst, just as the boards above John gave way. He reached to toss his sister through, but he clutched at air.
The hunter pushed through the jagged doorway, stepping foot into the loft just as John’s sister slammed on her back against the floor in front of him, a scream frozen in her throat. The hunter crouched in front of her crooked body before John could get a good look at his face.
For an eternal half-second, John stared down at the mangled figure, bile rushing up his throat. Her little form crumpled into an unnatural shape, her neck twisted, motionless on the barn floor. Her birthday was coming up this month. She had spent weeks detailing to their father exactly the kind of frou-frou party she wanted: pink balloons, pink streamers, and a pink frosted cake, with 11 pink candles perched just so on top. That was the kind of person she was: a planner, opinionated with a dash of bossiness. The kind of person she had been. John forced himself to tear his eyes away from the pink blood beginning to leak from the corner of her mouth; he scrambled through the hole onto the roof, swallowing nausea.
His view of the ground forty feet below was blurred by tears. Swiping a hand across his eyes, John half-ran parallel to the roof’s slant with quick, surefooted steps, reached the corner and peered down. There was, conveniently, a stack of hay below that he and his father had forked into a pile about a week earlier. It was, inconveniently, at least fifteen feet away from the edge. He might make that kind of jump.
He heard the creaks that meant the hunter was scaling the beams. He took a few steps back. It had to be now. Two runs forward, a bend of the knees, a push of the muscles, and he was airborne.
Time played games with him, speeding up and slowing down as he simultaneously plunged and floated in an awkward dive, limbs flailing. He wasn’t going to make it; he wasn’t going to make it, but then time clicked back into place and he was propelled the last few feet forward into the hay pile. The rolling, hay-up-the-nose impact was not graceful, but he was still functioning. He was still alive. For now.
He pushed himself to his feet. No stopping to catch his breath or evaluate his injuries. Mechanically, he sprinted toward the woods, his vision blurred, heading nowhere specific, just away. Away from the hunter. Away from his father and sister’s bodies. Away from here.

John’s lungs couldn’t take it anymore. He grabbed onto the nearest tree, clutching at the rough bark with splinter-cut hands as he lowered himself, back against the trunk, his boots sliding outwards, the soles plowing furrows in the scattered pine needles. His breath comes in painful, sharp huffs. Just a quick rest. He leans his head back against the trunk, his eyes close, his adrenaline fades.

They had been debating whether to have chicken or spaghetti for supper. John had managed to scrape an A on his precal test, and to celebrate, his father agreed to take him out to the pasture to practice his aim after they ate. He was relieved; his father obviously hadn’t checked the gun closet to know that John had failed to clean the rifles. John was doubled over, laughing as his father described an unfortunate incident with Old Tess and her udder. When he came up for breath, his father wasn’t laughing anymore; he had moved to the window and pushed the curtains askew. His father’s face, which many of the local women praised for being so ruggedly handsome despite his age, looked ancient in that moment. He pressed himself against the glass, eyes intent on the dust cloud rising above their driveway like a horde of irritated insects.
He sees again his father’s furrowed brow as an unfamiliar pickup truck speeds down the dirt road. The slight man, not any taller than John, that wrenched himself, head lowered, from the driver’s seat. The rifle in hand, dressed in a flannel and thick soled boots. The way his father’s eyes widened before he shoved John and his sister towards the back door. The old, spotted mirror propped against the wall that promptly fell over, shattered as John wrenched the door open, pushed his sister through. The wind blowing past him as he and his sister raced to the old barn, telling him to go back, save his father, go back. The gunshot.

John presses his back against the tree trunk, hard, just to feel something, but the bark wasn’t even rough against his skin. He had never cried like this before. Hot, rushing tears coursed down his face in rivulets, falling to the soil in salty splashes. His body seized and heaved with spasmodic sobs, back and forth against the trunk. There were periods of no sound, his frame rocking. His face seemed frozen in a mask as he wheezed, trying to catch his breath. And when he did, the tears returned, and the cycle repeated again. Again and again.
He could picture the funeral. So vivid, he felt like he was already there. Double caskets at the front. The solemn preacher fixed between them as “Amazing Grace” wheezed from the old piano’s keys. All the townspeople, gray faces drawn. The unmarried women, huddled together on one of the pews, consulting in hushed tones, tear streaked cheeks. And his sister – but no, she couldn’t be there, and especially not in that bright pink dress. But there she was, sitting in the front pew, eyes fixed forward. He tried to clear his mind; of course she was dead, but then there was commotion at the back of the church, and in walked the sheriff and his deputy, carrying between them a short figure clad in flannel and thick soled boots. He howled like a wounded animal, head bowed, and John charged toward him; he would see the hunter’s face, look him eye-to-eye once and for all, but then John’s spine snapped up straight, and he was staring at a mirror on the ceiling, and then he was falling into and through the mirror, his head stiff, wrists pulsing, frozen.

John’s head shot up. Time to keep pushing forward. His hand reached out, sifted in an automatic search through the pine needles beside him, but that was absurd; there wasn’t anything there. He shook his head, tried to clear it. Focus.
Although he had lost the hunter by weaving through the woods for nearly an hour, John knew that, with any skill at all, he would soon pick up the trail. The crushed pine needles were a giveaway. Groaning, John rolled himself to his knees and, using the trunk for support, managed to raise himself. His aching muscles protested. He massaged his wrists. Still pulsing.
He lived ten miles out of town by the main roads, but he could make it through the woods. It would add a few more miles. As he walked in the direction of town, shakily at first, John tried to orient himself. He had played many games of hide-and-seek here with his sister, and he knew he should be approaching the suspension bridge soon. Their father had never actually allowed them to play this far into the woods when they were younger, and he had always cautioned them about the old bridge, but John had a habit of doing exactly what he was told not to.
He heard a twig snap behind him, but when he spun around, no one was visible. He peered up into the branches. Now turning to begin a fast jog, glancing over his shoulder every few seconds. He could see the bridge now, look back, it was getting closer, look back, just a few steps more, look back, now running across the bridge’s boards, look back, suddenly a sharp crack and he was falling, falling, his wrists pulsing and no way to look back.

Beep. Beep. Beep.
He didn’t remember waking; he was just suddenly aware that he was thrashing, throwing his weight against restraints. Still straining, he cracked his eyes open, blurrily taking stock. He scanned the room for the hunter but only saw faded white walls, their paint peeling in places, stained in others. A door tucked away in the left hand corner, a small mirror hanging on the opposite wall. No windows though. He appeared to be strapped to some sort of bed, a large band across his torso, smaller ones cutting into his wrists. And what was that beeping sound in the background? He craned his neck, could just see over his shoulder: a bulky, self-important, old-fashioned heart monitor, displaying his frantic pulse in a steep trail of ascending and descending green lines across the screen. Where was he?
The door swung open, and he braced himself, tensing for the hunter to enter the room. But instead, a bald man outfitted in a long white coat stepped through, shutting the door behind him with a slap.
The man breathed a deep, nasally sigh then took several steps up to John’s bed, making a big show of tucking a clipboard under his arm so that he could massage his temples. John could just read “St. Luke’s Hospital for the Men-” across the top of the paper attached to the clipboard; the man’s meaty arm concealed the rest. John didn’t recognize the hospital. Maybe his injuries required treatment at a facility larger than the ones near town.
John waited, flexing his fingers and shifting his neck as the man selected a pen from his coat pocket and jotted a few notes on the clipboard. Glancing up, he caught John’s eyes fixated on him.
“John, do you remember our previous session?”
What was he talking about? John continued to fidget as he racked his brain, tried to identify the man’s face.
“Are you the one that fixed my broken arm when I was six?” He dredged up a memory of himself sobbing on the old barn floor after he lost his grip trying to shimmy up the rope swing, his father’s yelling distant in the background.
The man in the white coat arranged his fingers in a careful steeple, took a breath. “I am afraid not.”
He definitely didn’t know who this man was.
“John, I know this will be difficult to hear, but your father died in a gun misfiring.” John’s fingers stopped flexing, his chest tightened. “That was nearly two years ago.”
His throat burned; his heart stopped beating.
“Since that time, you have had to undergo various…treatments. Your sister is alive, but she is not allowed visiting privileges until you recover.” The man paused, looked away as John tried to move his mouth to form words, tried and failed to make a noise, then, “John, I must also emphasize that there is no ‘hunter.’”
He was paralyzed. He was constricted, the restraints were too tight, the white walls were pressing in on him, he couldn’t breathe. Two years ago, gun misfiring, his sister alive, and no hunter? The events of that day were so vivid, so real. That couldn’t be right. He dry swallowed, felt bile rising in his throat, tried to open his mouth anyway to ask a question. The man interrupted.
“We will discuss this in further detail when you have rested a few more hours,” he said, sliding a needle into John’s arm and hooking him up to an IV drip. Then he was gone, his white coat disappearing in a flash through the door, ignoring the strangled call John managed to make after him.
John collapsed into the bed as the door shut, heart racing, breath coming in sharp little gasps. It couldn’t be true. He struggled to remain coherent, to rationalize the man’s obvious misinformation, but the drugs kicked in quickly. His wrists pulsed as his reasoning began to slow down, turn to molasses.
He could almost hear faint whispering outside the door: the man’s nasally tones blended with another unidentifiable voice. After a few brief seconds, the pair ended their conversation and started down the hall, away from his room. As John surrendered to the sedative’s grasp, the last sound he heard was the clomp-clomping of thick soled boots.

To ‘Trust & Obey’ is Okay

I didn’t want to go. And I felt guilty about it.

In the spring, I was offered the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Antigua with my church. After briefly considering the idea, I consented. I mean, it only made sense. I’d never been on a mission trip outside of the country, so it would be an interesting experience. Plus, since I was graduating from high school in June, my summer would no longer be filled with camps, cheer practices, dance lessons, cross country runs, and selling ads for the yearbook. I needed something to fill the empty summer months.

But as the trip approached, I grew apprehensive and unsure. In fact, I almost dreaded leaving.  I wanted to spend time with my parents and three younger sisters before I left for college, I felt like I needed to be at home, completing pre-orientation paperwork and finishing preparations for my dorm room, and I was especially torn about leaving my advisor, Mrs. Quick, to finish the final proofing stage for the 2014-15 yearbook without me. I felt like the list of reasons that I shouldn’t go was just growing longer and longer. However, one more worry loomed even greater in my mind: I barely knew anyone that I was going on the trip with. I’d never been able to attend any other youth group events because a) we live 45 minutes from our church, and b) my busy high school schedule wouldn’t allow for it. Although I attended Sunday school regularly, that didn’t help me much because the majority of the people attending the trip were already college students, and our class is geared toward junior high and high school students.  On top of all this, I felt guilty about not wanting to go. I knew how I should feel: excited, eager, expectant. But I just wasn’t.

(Stick with me; my negative attitude doesn’t continue much longer, I promise. God, as always, knew better than me.)

Then July 10th arrived. My bags were packed, and I’d donned my new army green cargo pants, slipped my Bible and Vacation Bible School lessons into my backpack, and double-checked that I’d packed deodorant and watermelon gum (the essentials). Yet, as my dad drove me to meet the group in Nacogdoches that evening, I still didn’t feel ready. When I walked into the church building, hugged Dad goodbye, and prepared to interact with the group, I found myself fervently wishing that the week would just fly by. And then I met everyone.

For whatever inexplicable reason, I had honestly believed that the majority of the group would be too caught up in their existing friendships to try to form a relationship with me. I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.  Everyone was (as I should’ve known they would be) welcoming and friendly and interested in getting to know me. With each shared laugh, conversation, and group selfie, the convoluted knot of tension that I had wound up within myself began to loosen.

Proof of said group selfie
Proof of said group selfie

The rest of that night was a blur. We spent about an hour packing extra suitcases full of supplies for the Antiguan men, women, and VBS children. The church gym was a chaotic jumble of all items from silly straws, to shampoos, to spaghetti sauces being haphazardly shoved into bags, which were then heaved to a scale and weighed with the hopes of hitting 50 pounds on the first try. (For anyone that hasn’t flown before, there is a nasty charge for any checked baggage that exceeds 50 pounds-it’s awful.) After that chore, we loaded the bus and headed for the Shreveport airport, where we spent the most comfortable night of our lives on the airport floor. Before I knew it, we were up at 4:30 a.m. for our 5:30 flight, loading the plane, in the air, and on our way to Antigua and the start of a week full of God showing me just why He meant for me to be on this trip.

I realize that this hasn’t been the most entertaining post. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the really neat stuff soon, like meeting the Antiguan church family, interacting with the kids at VBS, and climbing up a mountain (slight exaggeration) with bare feet. I just really felt that my initial apprehension about the trip needed to be mentioned in order for you to have a greater understanding of how much I was impacted by my week in Antigua. Also, you have to give credit where credit is due, and God definitely knew how to use this to show me that I need to focus more on continually trusting in His plan and better judgment.  Stay tuned to read how I dealt with questions about why my nose is so pointy, formed some solid friendships, courageously tried to eat a genip after being warned that it had the texture of a “snotball,” and stressed about, then learned from leading a Bible study for 10-12 year olds.

Head in the Clouds, Fingers on the Keyboard

If you’ve ever flown before (and unfortunately I mean the kind of flying done in airplanes, with the confines of metal, seatbelts, and red-lipped stewardesses insisting that you accept the free bag of pretzels-I’d love to experience flying done properly with wings, but I doubt you’ve had the chance to, either) you know the feeling of absolute unreality that comes over you when you look out the window.  Of course, you have to be one of the lucky ones seated by the window, or else you have to settle for awkwardly peering over your neighbor’s shoulder. But the fact remains that when you look out the window and see tiny, doll-sized neighborhoods, ponds, baseball parks and factories dotting the landscape beneath you, you can’t help but be wowed by the intangibleness of it all.

[Side note-Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an incredible, life-changing mission trip in Antigua.  I definitely plan to post about it later, but it seemed much too dense a topic to be blogged about right off the bat; something lighter and fluffier like clouds seemed much more appropriate.]

Anyway, on the flight from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Atlanta, Georgia, I managed to score a window seat (props for me).  As I peered through the smudged glass to the receding ground, I admired the way that the tendrils of clouds wrapped around the unreal scenes below, lending even more of an air (get it?) of insubstantiality to it all.  I wish I had snapped a picture to document the view, but maybe it’s better that I didn’t. Ethereal images like that don’t deserve to constantly be bound in the solid, undeniable nature of photographs. I prefer to think that it is much better if they persist as fuzzy-around-the-edges pictures in the viewer’s mind so they stay true to their nature. Writing about them almost intrudes on the borders of tethering them to reality, but words are different. For each reader, they create a different picture in the mind’s eye, so the integrity of the original tenuous image is preserved.  But back to this particular picture.

As I was admiring the view, my budding writer’s mind kicked into gear. I started thinking of ways to describe the scene, the clouds, the feelings they evoked. And then I had the idea of starting a blog where I could share whimsical thoughts such as those. And I acted on it.

So this was the inciting event that led to the post you are reading now. At the moment, I don’t have any more to add about the image I viewed from the security of the clouds. It simply served its purpose again as an introduction. I hope I do that proud introductory image justice with the chapters that follow, which I intend to range from my trip to Antigua, to my thoughts over books I read (Go Set a Watchman and Paper Towns are up next, in that order), to the joys and challenges of being a big sister, to the adventure of moving 15 hours away from home for college (see About Me for details), to anything spontaneous, beautiful, or life-changing that happens in between. So here’s to the start of a thrilling new ride, folks. Thanks for tagging along with me.