EBB AND FLOW

The creek beside old Bay Colony was dead and so was the man laying in its dry bed, our little tire swing making the tree branch it was attached to creak as the tire swung lazily and cast little curved shadows over the man’s face, this way and that. This way and that.

Joey got there first and poked the man’s chest with his walking stick, making it rise and fall in a way the man’s lungs could no longer do.

As I looked at the man, all I could think was that all that talk of dead people looking so peaceful or else like they’re sleeping and all that is a bunch of bullshit. He wasn’t there. There was no one home. His open eyes might as well have been marbles plugged into a mannequin’s head.

Joey started laughing at him, like his death was some knee slapper that Joey came up with himself. Everybody else laughed with him in nervous titters that echoed across the banks of that muddy creek. I’ll say everybody even though I didn’t laugh too, because once I saw that body it was like I wasn’t inside myself anymore. I was no more present than the man was, and he wasn’t home. His marbles for eyes said as much.

“Touch his face.”

Joey glared at Danny with that look he reserved for keeping people in line. He brandished his walking stick.

“Don’t be a pussy. Touch his face.”

I guess the last thing Danny wanted to be thought of as was a pussy, because he did just exactly what Joey told him to do, with his bare hands even. And right when he was going to stand back up, Joey kicked him in the ass, made him fall over on top of the body.

There were titters and belly laughs from the everybody that didn’t include me. The mannequin’s marble eyes were passive.

Joey turned around then as Danny scampered to his feet. He saw I wasn’t laughing.

“Whatsamatter? You bitching out?”

I guess the urge to laugh was just a little late for me, because I did it just then, alone, right in Joey’s face. I don’t know why. He jabbed me hard in the stomach with his walking stick, tip first. I fell to my knees, couldn’t breathe any more than the marble-eyed mannequin could.

Joey rose with the chorus of laughter. He fished around in his pockets for something. Finally found what he was looking for.

He jammed a firecracker into each of the body’s nostrils and pulled out the lighter he stole from his mom, the one she used to light her spoons with.

Trick.

Sparks, but nothing else.

Trick.

A momentary flame, but the wind blew it out.

Trick.

Joey was on the ground and I was on top of him. I don’t know how. My fist came up and I watched it come back down again, collapse Joey’s nose and retract. The everybody that didn’t include me made noise again, but it wasn’t laughter this time. It was quiet and surprised, and it ebbed and flowed in the air all around us. It sounded like this:

“Oh.”

The oh made me get back to my feet and off of Joey. The oh made Joey’s nose start to run with a dark red stream. The oh made Joey run back home and kept the everyone that didn’t include me frozen where they stood. The oh made me remove the firecrackers from the man’s nostrils. The oh made me sit and guard his body until the sirens arrived.

I never saw Joey again. I guess the oh made that happen, too.

The creek came alive after that day, and it’s never died again since.

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THE STORY OF THE MAN WHO HAD A QUARTER LIFE CRISIS AND PROCEEDED TO TOSS AWAY ALL THE SHIT IN HIS LIFE AND LIVE SIMPLY WITHOUT ANY ULTERIOR MOTIVES OF LOOKING COOL OR ELSE PRETENDING TO BE ENLIGHTENED BUT INSTEAD JUST MADE PEACE WITH THOSE HE WRONGED AND WHO WRONGED HIM AND CAME TO THE REALIZATION THAT WE’RE ALL JUST INDIVIDUAL TENDRILS OF AN ALL-ENCOMPASSING CONSCIOUSNESS AND THAT ALL EXPERIENCE IS GOOD EXPERIENCE IN THE LONG RUN, THAT THERE’S COMFORT TO BE TAKEN IN THE FACT THAT ALL SUFFERING IS TEMPORARY AND AS NOTHING AFTER WE SHUFFLE OFF THIS MORTAL COIL, THAT OUR PERCEPTION OF TIME AND SPACE IS AN ILLUSION AND THAT WE’RE ALL SENTIENT FORMS OF ENERGY CAPABLE OF PEEKING BEHIND THE CURTAIN OF REALITY, ALL OF US JOINED TOGETHER IN ONE BODY, AS CELLS IN A GIANT BRAIN, THAT ALL THAT HAPPENS IN A MICROCOSMIC WAY HAPPENS JUST THE SAME IN A MACROCOSMIC ONE, THAT MONEY AND POSSESSIONS AND PURSUIT OF POWER ARE LESS THAN MEANINGLESS AND THAT IT’S OUR DUTY TO SIMPLY LOVE AND CARE FOR ONE ANOTHER WHILE WE’RE WITHIN THIS FLESHY HUMAN CASING, THAT THIS IS NOT ONLY NOT A NAIVE PURSUIT BUT IS THE ONLY WAY TO TRUE HAPPINESS

He died a happy man.

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SANCTUARY

It was my tenth summer, July 22, and outside my window the rain was taking sides as the lightning had a turf battle with the willows. But the fight was one-sided and the trees wept as their name suggested, even as I tried my best not to join them. Dad’s shoes were still in my hand then–I didn’t know what to do with them. I knew he had other shoes and all, but something told me he wouldn’t leave again if I just held onto those ones.

They had one of their “we’re just being silly” fights. Mom threw bottles at his head and accusations of infidelity along with them. I’d seen it all from the doorway, watched as the bottles shattered one by one and left little beer explosions on the wall that trailed down and soaked the carpet, added brown residue lines to the wheels of my old Fisher Price walker, as if the world’s tiniest man was marking his height against them.

But they saw me standing there and just stopped. Mom still held a bottle in her hand. She was shaking.

“We’re just playing. Just being silly. See?”

She gave a smile that was all teeth and crinkled eyes. That mask salesman from Ocarina of Time came to mind. It was all a routine we had to carry out. Dad acted bewildered, mom gave the too-wide smile, and I snuck back to my room with the pair of shoes.

But dad was stomping up the stairs as I looked into the soles of those faded old white New Balance, as a mildewy sort of sweat wafted up and attacked my nose. And before the stomps drew any closer, I bolted. I bounded over the top step and touched down on the third, knocked straight into my dad’s paunch and rebounded against the wall, half tumbled down the rest of the stairs and ran right out the front door. I didn’t even close it behind me.

My mother sent out her banshee screams but they were quickly lost in the driving rain, and so was I. Jagged blacktop bit at my bare feet, more holes than street in this unincorporated part of town. I ran straight down the middle of Good Avenue and passed by McMansions on my left as I went, the lake behind them usually placid but now being rent and torn by the storm. My feet were streaking bloody little tracks behind them but I refused to put on the shoes. I stopped and examined my feet, cried as I picked out the tiny pebbles and let the rain wash away the blood. I threw my dad’s shoes into the lake before my body had the chance to betray my brain.

Meadow Lane had a little storm drain that some teenager had pried the bolts off of long ago, a storm drain that fed into a forking, snaking, town-wide tunnel system. He used it to covertly get high and I used it as a sanctuary. I didn’t tell his mom and he didn’t tell mine, so we coexisted well enough.

I hauled up the drain cover and didn’t even bother to replace it as I scurried down into the darkness, as the sweetly stubborn scent of pot that clung to everything down there returned to me. I knew that tunnel better than I knew myself. I didn’t need a flashlight.

I found my “room”: a little three-by-three hollowed-out cube of concrete, lit dimly by the jars of lightning bugs I kept down there. My pens and notebooks were right where I left them, and I started writing by buglight before the real searing pain in my feet could set in.

It was a story about molemen and aliens and underground worlds filled with monsters. The usual. I was so into it I didn’t even notice the flash flood at first. I figured the icy chill at my feet was just part of the pain. I was about halfway through the story when I saw one of the lightning bug jars float and bob away from me out of the corner of my eye.

I could hear the water as it slapped against the ladder’s rungs and fell away, as it spread out into a rushing pool and clapped itself against each of the concrete walls in staggered steps. And as I listened to it come for me and felt it rise to the height of my ankles, I almost wanted it to take me away. To flush me down some abyssal cavern, to the center of the earth and away from everything and everyone. I sat there, perfectly still, as the water tickled my calves and threatened to claim my knees.

And then I heard him. He was calling out my name in pain, as if each syllable was covered in barbed wire. He called for me and I heard myself, older but no less vulnerable.

I needed to go.

I tried to save the notebooks and jars, but it was too late. I watched each of the bugs’ pinpricks of light rush away into the distance and darkness both, like little subterranean stars being born. The water challenged my grip on the rungs as I climbed up, but my dad’s face at the drain’s top kept me going. He hauled me up when I got close enough and tried not to cry when he knew I was alright, but couldn’t. He was barefoot and crying just like me, with the rain all around to shelter us from ourselves.

We didn’t say one word to each other as we headed back home, and we’ve never spoken about it since. We just walked back quietly against the driving rain, with my little bloody footprints and his bigger ones to guide us home.

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SPLASHDOWN

“Grandpa, you member that time I was on the slide that one time, and you put the swimming pool under it and it was summer and we were cooking burgers?”

“I remember.”

“And and mom didn’t want me standing at the top but you told her it was fine and you were watching and there was the wavy air coming from the grill and I said how it made your face look all funny looking through it?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Yeah and you called it a cool word and I yelled it out loud and I went down the slide and into the water with all the leaves in it and the bugs. What word did you call it?”

“Refraction.”

“Yeah! And I went down the slide and got a wedgie cause it was all dry on the slide and the hose fell off the top of it and I said ‘Refraction!’ and it was all sticky on my skin cause of how dry it was and it made the fart noises and my face went in the water first. And you member what I said?”

“Mmm mmm.”

“Come on grandpa, you member! You’re smiling!”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah!”

“Hmm… Was it flashbrown?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Slashcrown?”

“Mmm mmm.”

“Stashfrown?”

“No, grandpa!”

“How about… well, no it can’t be.”

“What?”

“It couldn’t possibly be…”

“What, grandpa?!”

“Splashdown?”

“Splashdown! And I jumped out of the pool and swung my arms like this!”

“Oof.”

“I’m sorry, grandpa! I’m sorry! It was an accident!”

“It’s fine. Grandpa’s fine, it’s just the machine. The nurse’ll fix the beeping. Don’t worry.”

“I’m sorry, grandpa.”

“I said it’s fine.”

“I’m sorry you don’t feel good and don’t look good.”

“It’s… look, stop crying. Come here. Come here. It’ll… look here. It’ll be alright. Where… don’t cry, be a big boy. Where I’m going, they’ve got slides everywhere. Honest. And there’s burgers on the grill, too. Big juicy ones. Refraction all the damn time. And you can slide and eat whenever you want to.”

“Why are you sick?”

“Cause that’s what happens sometimes to us old folks who’ve overstayed our welcome. We’ve gotta go some time. Like when I’d have you over in the summers. You couldn’t have stayed with me forever, huh?”

“But I wanted to.”

“Come here. Come here. It’s okay. It’ll be okay. I’ll just be away for a while is all. That’s all.”

“Can I come with?”

“Not yet. Not for a very long time. You promise me that.”

“But–”

“Promise me.”

“Promise.”

“Good. And I promise you something too.”

“What?”

“Any time you need me I’ll be there. Right here.”

“In my heart?”

“In your heart.”

“How?”

“It’s a long story. I’d bore you to tears. And it seems like magic, but it’s not. Just like refraction. Just like the birds in the sky. Like the men that landed on the moon. It’s real.”

“Oh.”

“I mean it. Like that time… you remember the time I showed you the men who landed on the moon?”

“Mmhmm.”

“And their space shuttle lifted off, and soared through the sky, and into space?”

“Yeah.”

“Well that shuttle had to come back some time. It had to make splashdown, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well, that’s me. I’m lifting off and soaring through the sky and off into space. And I’ll be gone for a while, and it’ll be sad, but I’ll be back. And when I see you again, you know what I’ll say?”

“What?”

“Splashdown!”

“Splashdown.”

“Hmm hmm.”

“Grandpa?”

“Hmm?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

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CONSCIOUS OF THE SELF VARIETY

So we’re here. Here, here. Like, together. As in, I asked her if she’d like to consume food somewhere in my presence, and she ignored my dorky habit of doctoring up my vocab for humor and said yes. The sweat, too. She ignored the sweat that accumulated on my brow, the same kind that always forms whenever I’m around her. She’s gracious like that.

I’m sweating now, too. Only problem is it has nothing to do with her pulchritude and everything to do with the goddamn cold I seem to be coming down with. Seriously, universe? Of all the times you could’ve chosen to do your thing illness-wise, you choose now? When She’s here? The One? Her Pulchritude in the Flesh, and Every Other Capitalized Title You Could Think Of?

The snot’s already forming at the top of my nasal cavity. Dangling over the edge, really, like some kid who’s teasing his mom as she tells him to get down from there, wherever there is.

Anyway, she’s telling a great story right now, and I can tell it’s getting to the climax. To the big joke that’ll top it off, and with it an opportunity to laugh and look in each other’s eyes and maybe even be capped off by her putting her hand on mine or something. I know it sounds hokey, shut up. You’d wish for the same thing if you saw her the way I do.

But I’ll laugh, and the snot will fly, and it’ll get all over her food and be The Most Disgusting Thing of All Time, and I’ll just about die right here in my seat and just sort of be internally vaporized by the embarrassment.

Oh God, the snot’s already running. Code red.

Napkin’s too obvious. Out of the question. Pretending to scratch my face won’t work either.

I could bring curled forefinger to upper lip and thumb to chin in mock thoughtful contemplation. True, she’s telling a joke right now and that reaction might seem just a little fucking weird, but what other choice do I have? Stoic thinker it is.

Every move I’m making is wrong and awkward and terrible, and there’s no possible way she likes me at this point. I wish I was anyone else but me right now. Someone who could be as cool and calm as she is, and not have to deal with dangling nasal brats in the process.

I have to sneeze. I can’t stop it. And…

I feel surprisingly lighter. The cold seems like it went away, too. It was probably all in my head. Yeah, you know what? She totally digs me. Why wouldn’t she? I’m fairly diggable. And that wide-eyed look on her face, like she’s seeing me for the first time… Like all along she knew me as the dorky guy in accounting and only now that I’ve had this post-sneeze epiphany and gained confidence in my self has that self-confidence oozed out of my skin to show her who I really am.

But is that fear in her eyes? And why is everyone else in the restaurant staring?

“What’s wrong?”

My voice comes out as a weird falsetto, and I bring my hand to my mouth as if to stop the sound before it reaches her ears. My fingers feel a lot softer and daintier than what I’m used to. And when I pull the hand back, five delicately painted nails gleam back at me.

Her eyes go to my nails, then to my face, then back again. She reaches into her purse, pulls out a mirror, and shows it to me. At least I assume it’s supposed to be a mirror, even though I see her reflection in it.

Oh shit. The wish.

“Look, I…”

My falsetto is throwing me off, but I need to tell her. I plug my ears. Or rather, hers… on me… look, it’s kind of confusing, but this is what I say to her as I plug my ears like some crazy person:

“Look, I really like you. Like a lot. I don’t want to blow this, but it seems like I already have since I’ve turned into you and everything, so I’ll say this anyway. You make me nervous and unsure of myself, and that sounds bad, I’ll admit, but I mean it in the best possible way.”

I’m still plugging my ears.

“Anyway, I kind of wished I could be someone cooler, to impress you. It’s stupid and childish, I know, but at least now we have proof that I think you’re cool.”

Silence.

“So there’s that…”

Another sneeze comes. I don’t bother to hide it this time. It’s hopeless.

“Right. I’m gonna just go away now. Forever.”

“Wait.”

She actually puts her hand on mine. Like, actual physical contact. On my hand. And my fingernails are conspicuously nail polish-less. I’m me again. Holy shit, I’m in a Disney movie.

She takes her hand off of me and looks me over for a second, as if she might just see her double again at any moment.

“I say we start over from the beginning.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“This time with you being you and me being me. Deal?”

“Deal.”

Story by Chris Piszczek
Written by Nicholas Olson

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