SOS

sos

We cut our teeth on B horror movies on VHS, having to adjust the tracking to make them even halfway viewable, that’s how much we watched them. Shooting Cheez Whiz directly into our mouths and hiding under our pillow fort, Space Jam blanket underneath to keep us comfy. Watching Troll 2, Cheez Whizzing every time someone says Nilbog. Her taking out the pink bike her parents gave her on her twelfth birthday and me helping her spray paint it a cerulean blue. I gave her two of my pegs, and the way I tried to hide my blush when she gave me a hug.

The bully’s knuckle cutting my cheek, blackening one of my eyes, adrenaline making me grab a stick, hit him in the head, make my escape. And when she saw what happened to me, bringing me over to her house and putting ice pops on my face ‘cause that’s all they had in the freezer. Then sitting down in her basement, me watching her play Game Boy Color out of my one good eye, sidling up close to make as if I wanted to get a better view but really just trying to get closer to her.

Mom screaming at Dad and throwing plates, me sneaking out with my walkie talkie before it could get physical, out in the night, calling for backup. Us circling the block, underneath the buzzing street lamps, cicadas screaming in protest at the humid air. Her blonde hair frizzed up against rain droplets as she distracted me with descriptions of the last episode of Pokémon that I’d missed. And when that went away, how she laced her fingers into mine and we walked like that, with the sound of droplets and cicadas, street lamps buzzing and cars dopplering down the interstate.

We were sixteen and she was moving to a new town a couple hours away, us swinging on swings and kicking up packed-in wet sand, insisting we’d chat on AIM and ride the Amtrak on weekends, her turning away and making as if she was looking at the sunset sky while she covered up her tears. There was a storm drain that snaked through the underbelly of our torn-up town, and we’d pried a manhole open to gain access to it, would sneak down there to write stories by Maglite and get away from everything for a while.

She felt the concrete floor for dampness before sitting down, put her legs together so her Converse were two sides of the same coin. She took the Maglite in her hand and shined SOS on the concrete wall, no signs of help coming. She turned and shined the light in my face till I saw spots in my eyes, leaning over and struggling with her over the Maglite. I freed it from her and shut it off, bringing darkness to our little hideaway. Silence. Not even the sound of our breath. The warmth of her leg next to mine, then her hand. Our fingers touching tentatively like a cat’s whiskers as it sniffs something new. Her lips at the corner of mine, staying for a while, then leaving. Fumbling in the dark to find her, hands now over her clothing, she’s completely still now, but letting it happen. Hand sliding under and her saying my name, saying we shouldn’t. My hands moving. Her teeth on my shoulder, moisture spreading on my shirt. The buckle and the button and the zipper. These are meant to hold together, but we’re coming apart now. Coming apart together. Her panties slide away and her hand is in my hair, saying we don’t have to do this. As if there’s any other choice. We slide our way into the dark and she tells me to pull out. When I try, she reaches back and holds my hips, goes limp in front of me as I shudder.

When we can say something, we say Oh no, or Oh God, and we sit next to each other, and I switch the Maglite on, and we cry in turns, alternating between who comforts whom, the Maglite now flickering in my hands from its dying battery, sending the concrete wall into staccato relief, mapping out its own SOS as our cries fade away into silence.

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Here’s Waldo

I’m writing Here’s Waldo for the kids who grew up in the torn-up part of town. The kids who didn’t fit in no matter where they went. The kids who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. The kids whose neighborhoods were infected with the fog of capital V Violence. And I’m writing Here’s Waldo so other kids don’t have to suffer the same fate.

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Air Then Blue Then Black

Icy Detroit River

He’d catch her in the corner of his eyes, stalking, inhabiting spaces like cancer in human form. She was the absence of sound, devoid of identifying features, always just out of view. She was always moving, always coming closer, lights going out around her and a stench like mildewy clothes that have just seen the light of day after years of stewing. She had no eyes, or none that he could see in the glimpses in sewer puddles, bloodstains on cuffs and spreading through old clothes torn to tatters.

She’d catch him when he slept, sit on his chest till his breaths came out like the wheezes of the dying, beeps in the background from machines busy keeping them alive. He’d awake in the middle of the night to find her noneyes staring into him, opening his mouth with her own and replacing his tongue with sour, hot air. She’d squeeze him out till all vitals were gone, till he could see everything go to black and then she’d bring him back again, over and over till sunrise when she’d have to return to the cracks of the floor.

When he passes shadows, she’ll cling to his heart like spines stuck straight through it, tingles down his left arm till he collapses under the weight. He collects himself and tries to stay in the light, all around him the dead and dying. He’s pinioned by her presence, trying to keep upright, forced to relive all of his worst memories whenever she’s near. And sometimes, only sometimes, he can swear that he sees his own death, blood leaving his body like a liquid crowd, pooling under his back and sticking his spine to the floor. She’d stick his limbs to every surface they touched, pull away skin and leave him skinless and bloodied, going numb and cold from shock. That’s what she is: a skinned body lurking in corners, stinking through walls and doors, leaving streaks of her skinned self for the downtrodden to slip on.

She subsumes him when he’s alone, enters him like so much intercourse, feeling her way through his guts till he can do nothing but retch in the toilet if he’s lucky enough to make it there, more likely emptying himself onto himself, the light flickering above, a brutal wind sending shivers down his spine which is being raked by her rancid fingernails.

He plans a trap for her, silent so as not to let her hear. She’s always around. She might be able to hear his thoughts. He walks through the chilly air to an arts and crafts store, selecting the sharpest blade they have. He finds a little nook outside and sits down on the grass, trees all around to shield him from view. He pulls up his sleeves and empties his arms with the blade. But she’s there quick, knocking the blade from his hand and suturing his arms with her scalding touch. He stifles his cries as his skin sizzles and hisses in the freezing air.

The last of the blood drying on his arms, he leaves her behind and goes out looking. When he finds what he’s looking for, he stops and stares out at the river that courses below the bridge he’s standing on, little floes of ice slowly making their way through. She appears behind him, hissing her fetid breath into his ear. In one swift motion, he pulls a length of cord from his jacket and faces her, binding her tightly to him. For the first time, looking into her mangled face, he can see a hint of fear. He clutches her tightly, her skin flaking off in sheets beneath his fingers, and leaps over the side. Air, then blue, then black.

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Into the Depths

GALAXY

It’s a weird thing facing your own mortality at age eight. Lying in a hospital bed in hospital greens, fading away from the effects of leukemia. Spoiler alert going into this: I don’t make it. Yes, I’m dead. I know you’re probably wondering about the whole writing when you’re dead thing, but the rules are different here. And it isn’t anything like you’d think it is. No pearly gates or endless fire. No eternal black, either. I don’t know, maybe it’s different for everyone. Maybe I just lucked out with what I got.

Even though I died when I was eight, I guess I’d be in my late twenties now. At least that’s what it feels like. Your faculties continue to evolve even after you die, or at least mine did. But anyway: me in the hospital bed. I remember passing the time trading Pokémon cards with the kid across the hall, the one with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I gypped him out of a first edition holographic fossil baby Raichu for a Dark Charizard, the budding collector in me already knowing how much my haul would be worth.

There are people who allege that those close to death can sense things that others can’t. I’d have to agree. It’s hard to make sense of what this is around me, but it feels like you’re at the end of a strange and good dream, just getting lucid, aware that you’re dreaming, and you try to wake yourself up but can’t. It’s like that, only instead of waking up you exit yourself entirely, separated from who you were though you retain everything, floating with no sense of direction. There is no up or down, only around.

For lack of a better word, there are different “settings” you can tune into. You can see in ultraviolet if you want to, dip into the milky swirls of nebulae. You can take on a more physical form, but it’s painful. Not in a physical sense, but an emotional one. Like someone close to you just died, but the feeling won’t go away until you leave. Maybe that’s what it is to be a ghost. I don’t know. I’ve only been here twenty years or so, and in the cosmic scheme of things that’s nothing.

The first thing I did was to stay with my parents after I went. I couldn’t get the hang of it at first. I’d segue into the fibers of their bed and see everything at a microscopic scale, scale everything down until Earth was a marble in front of me. I figured it out, though. Took a physical form to try to reach them, but nothing really worked. My mother cried into her pillow, muffled as her chest heaved like she was being defibrillated. I’d shift pictures, close doors. That’s about all I could do. Her and my father would shift the pictures back, open the doors up again. So I left the physical form and just watched them. Watched them go about their days, trying to will themselves to follow their old routine without change. I watched my mother collapse at a bus stop, finally revived by a passerby. Her tears ran her makeup down her aching face and she caught the next bus out.

It wasn’t pain so much as an aching dullness spread throughout my body as I listened to hospital beeps and lie awake, light pollution letting up sometimes so I could catch Orion’s belt through my window. I’d make little sketches for my parents and the kid across the hall just to pass the time, still lifes of medical miscellanea and my feet peeking up from underneath my blanket. Wrote stories of children who discovered hidden superpowers while lying in hospital beds, transmuting to an insubstantial form and gliding through windows and walls, flying past the clouds and into the inky blue. I’d get up sometimes at night and walk the halls, careful to duck into doorways whenever nurses or orderlies would pass. I’d peek into the rooms of the elderly especially, watch in curiosity as they struggled to breathe through the night, tunneling tubes and ventilators helping them out. Sometimes I’d sneak in and stroke their silvery hair, touch their soft cheeks before touching my own in comparison.

If I want, I can watch each subsequent year pass by like a flickering movie before my eyes, projected against inky black. See what it would’ve been like to have my first kiss, manage pimples, graduate high school. I watch as I pack my beater for college, taking the interstate with the windows down. I get married, have a couple kids, watch them toddle towards their grandparents. After that it gets fuzzy, the potential realities colliding like particles in the LHC. There’s too much guesswork to be done, even in the afterlife.

I can swell to the size of planets, shrink to the smallest quark, but I can’t bring back what was lost. I busy myself with returning to the origin of man, observing dinosaurs as they roam prehistoric lands. I watch as the first organisms traverse through the primordial ooze, illuminated even in the depths by the sun that gives them life. I ache for my parents and wish I could tell them that it’ll be okay.

I walk those lonesome hospital halls now, looking for the ones who are soon to join me. When they’re asleep in the middle of the day, I shift their curtains to keep the sun out of their eyes, push with all my might to shut doors when it’s noisy out in the hall. And when they go I guide them, into the depths, away from all of their pain and suffering. We float above the room and leave it entirely, rising higher still till the sky doesn’t exist.

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Drinking Your Lye Slowly

København - Statens Museum for Kunst (Denmark's National Gallery)

I see pieces of you everywhere I go, smell hints of your perfume in drafts of wind as I walk down this old block trying to assemble the remnants of my past. It feels like you were just here, arms wrapped around me, begging me not to go. How I’d rock back and forth, trying to gain momentum, and launch off of the bed till your hands detached and I could slip my jeans back on. I walk these streets a doomed man, unable to see how to free myself of the trap of you.

What was it in you that kept me coming back all those times, drinking your lye slowly, imbibing you bit by bit till I couldn’t tell how much of me was you? What was it that stopped me from seeing reality, blinders set, staring straight ahead as if there were no other way to go? I see you in the haze of a deep fog as I walk along this old and beaten path, past places I’d know with my eyes closed, only remembering them in the context of where we were together.

I think of calling you, wonder if your number is still the same, what I’d say to you if the call went through. It’s been so long, I don’t know how I’d even start. I breathe you in as I walk through an empty park, the one that was our second home. Our story remains unfinished, right at the end, the punctuation all wrong, written sloppily as if some half-completed first draft.

I thought of marrying you one day, but now I think of nothing but how it ended. With hurled insults like arrows blotting out the sun, come to fall on bodies only waiting for the end. We lived together still, tearing everything apart that once was decent. I caught you one day, soaking in the tub, crying and trying to hide it but not doing a good job. I came in and you made room for me. I soaked in there with my clothes on, brushing the hair from your eyes. When I left the tub, we never spoke of it again.

Or when I came home from a New Year’s celebration drunk on Jim Beam, stumbling around snow drifts, puking onto white, pushing past the wind. How I washed my mouth out and suggested we do it one more time, for old time’s sake. And how you insisted we shouldn’t but smiled all the same, knowing what would end up happening. And when it did happen, us looking into each other’s eyes with our fingers interlocked, more together than we’d been in months, wanting it to never end though it had to. When we were done and were awkwardly putting our clothes back on, you promised you’d give me a blowjob in the morning, your voice a singsong I’d never heard from you before.

When we woke up, you were a different person. I didn’t ask about the blowjob and you didn’t mention it. You could barely look me in the eye, let alone speak a word. You put on a sweater and a hoodie over that, willing yourself to be invisible to me. I laid out on the couch and you paused to regard me before getting on top, silent as your heartbeat reverberated against me, the warmth of your cheek pressed to mine. Little motes of dust floated in the air between us like tiny planets orbiting the glow of your golden hair. You kissed me without saying a word and we did it again on the couch, angrily, not saying anything, clutching pillows, not looking each other in the eye. A separate act from each other.

When it was done, what we made leaked out of you and you sat there, collecting light, starting to cry in silent gasps that moved your chest as if you were being defibrillated. I tried to move in and console, but you pushed me away with your words. So I stood there naked, the sounds of our obnoxious neighbors filtering in as birds sang sex songs to each other outside. You asked me, still crying, if it was like the first time. I lied and told you it was, seeing how important it was to you.

We put our clothes on and I made us an omelet, the flop mangled but you saying it looked fine even so. Anyway, the look of it was only part of the experience. There were always things beyond appearances. I put on a Coheed and Cambria record as we ate, Claudio Sanchez singing about lying awake for a while, leaving the light on a while. You took the tiniest of bites, doing all you could to prolong this thing, and I couldn’t seem to look you in the eye.

We finished up and lay down on the floor together, limbs intertwined, listening to the rest of the record, my steady breath lifting up your hair before it all fell down again. Claudio was singing bye bye beautiful. Don’t bother to write. You didn’t joke about his girl’s voice the way you used to. You just lay up against me. I would move out the next day.

I stand now, outside the apartment that once was ours and now is yours. I could call. I could knock. The birds still sing sex songs, and I can hear the obnoxious neighbors through their open window. I walk up to the door, read your last name on the locked mailbox. The wind picks up and fall leaves blow around, gathering at my feet and clustering in the corner that leads to the door. I reach for the buzzer, touch it with my cold finger. I exhale. My finger leaves the buzzer and I walk back to my car, hands in pockets.

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