fiction

The Other Son

His cigarette smoke joined the dull morning sky. The sun shined from some imperceptible point behind the clouds and mist as the light refracted evenly across the dullness. Mornings in Palm Bay  were usually like this: gray and quiet. And at the diner, they were always quiet of customers.

Chop the fruit. Chop the vegetables. Turn on the ovens. Cross his fingers and hope that the warmer would survive another day. Unlock the front door. Write a new special. This used to be Cal’s job. This used to be Cal’s job.

He went to light another cigarette until he heard the rusted bell at the door and hastened to put it away.

“Mornin’!” Andy remarked with a half-toothed smile. He was late. As usual.

“Morning.” Micah growled. “Just go get the grill prepped, okay? And be here at 10:00 tomorrow!

“Sure thing, Mikey.” Andy laughed. Micah rolled his eye and balled his hand into a fist. But he didn’t even bother to correct Andy regarding his name anymore. He just stepped outside and lit another cigarette.

It certainly wasn’t as though Micah missed his brother. Just like Andy, Cal had been late for shifts, showed up wasted on a few occasions, and back-talked and disrespected Micah’s authority. But… even Micah couldn’t deny that Cal at least had known the business. Andy just straight-up had no sense of timeliness.

That’s what happens when you hire someone out of retirement, Dad. Micah thought bitterly. It was going to be another ten hour day for him, until they could hire extra help. But a town of 1,000 had a pretty limited labor market. He lit a new cigarette off the smoldering one between his lips.

They only had one car now, thanks to Cal’s little excursion. So his dad had to walk few miles (Ubers were in short supply in Palm Bay) and probably wouldn’t be there for another half hour. So be it. If Micah was going to open and close, then he thought he at least deserved to take the car. He carried the weight of this place, after all. He kept the place from closing down after Cal…

Micah desperately needed another smoke thinking about the whole thing but he heard the bell on the door and didn’t trust Andy to pay attention to it. And, as Micah had expected, Andy was still lazily prepping the grill.

“Morning,” Micah said gruffly to the old fisherman. “Just the usual, Isaac?”

“You got it! To go today, though,” he said. Micah wrote up a ticket for him.

“Andy! A number four to go!” He yelled behind him. “That’ll be $8.75.”

“Jacking your prices on me again?” Isaac said it good-naturedly, but Micah’s eyes flared.

He’s a customer. He told himself. Keep cool. Keep cool. 

“Gotta do whatcha gotta do to stay in business, Isaac,” Micah replied, forcing the change into his hand. Thank God there wasn’t much competition for them. Micah and his dad knew they probably wouldn’t have lasted if there had been. By the time Andy finally finished, Micah was quite relieved to give Isaac his food and send him on his way.

Micah checked the time periodically. 11:00. 11:30. 12:00. Usually, Dad was here by around 11:00.

He tried calling his dad several times, but nothing. Thankfully (or unthankfully, based on the limited revenue they would get for the day) few enough customers came that he and Andy managed to keep things going at a moderately reasonable speed through lunch. Micah took over the grill, and for once, Andy’s inability to move through things quickly proved an asset in keeping Micah from becoming too overwhelmed.

4:00. 4:30. 5:00. Dinnertime was starting; things were getting busier again. Where the hell was Dad?

“Micah,” Andy had left the front.

“What?” Micah responded, vigorously chopping some avocado.

“Your dad just called,” Andy sounded speechless.

It was just one too many points of irritation. Micah slammed down his knife. “Well he’d better be sitting in a fucking hospital bed if he’s not on his way!”

Andy continued, a little shaken but an inexplicable excitement still swelling in his eyes. “He said to close up for the rest of the day and to come home for a party. Your… well… Cal came back!”

***

“He said he doesn’t wanna come,” Andy took another drink out of his Corona.

Abe looked hesitant. “You… well… what did he say… exactly?” There wasn’t much of a point of asking. If Abe had been honest, he hadn’t been expecting an entirely different reaction from Micah

“He said that he can’t lose a day’s business and that he just doesn’t have time, or something.” Andy left out a few of Micah’s other more colorful descriptions as to why he didn’t want to attend the festivities.

“I think I can be the judge of whether or not we can lose a day’s business,” Abe replied sternly. He glanced over at Cal, who was talking to his Aunt and working on his third burger. “I’ll… I’ll go talk to him. Let Cal know I’ll be back soon, okay?”

***

Sweat poured down his neck as he stood over the grill. He’d already burned himself a few times trying to keep pace between the customers in the restaurant and the take-out orders. Finally, he packaged up a few that he was sure were not correct but couldn’t care less and walked back to the counter to check for new customers.

His dad was standing in front of the register.

Micah took a deep breath and dug his fingers into his palms as he approached. “What can I get for you, Sir?”

“Micah, please – “

“Sir, I’m in a rather unfortunate position. You see, all of my employees decided not to come to work today, so I’m running a diner on my own,” Micah took a tone of aloofness and didn’t meet his father’s eyes. “I’m pretty slammed so I suggest you order and I will have it ready for you as soon as possible. I’m really quite busy.”

“Can we please talk outside?” Abe asked calmly.

“I have a diner to run,” Micah snarled. “Which no one else in this family seems to realize. Now what would you like, Sir?!

Abe turned around to face the small group of locals who were still waiting. “Folks, we’re closing up early tonight. Your food is on us and if you want more, come to 6330 Alvarado Way.” He turned back to Micah. “Now, after we finish theirs, we need to talk.”

Micah had already almost caught by then, but he was now wishing he hadn’t gone as quickly. With Dad’s help, it only took them ten minutes to churn out the rest of the out-standing orders.

“I have to go,” Micah growled, lighting up a cigarette as he locked the back door.

“Micah, please come celebrate with us,” Abe allowed himself a smile. Micah maintained immense focus on the smoke pouring in and out of his lungs. Abe continued. “Cal wants to see you. I know you’re still angry at him.”

Micah stopped and looked his Dad up and down. The corner of Micah’s lip curled upward slightly and he felt a desperate urge to extinguish his cigarette against his father’s neck.

“What the fuck do you want from me, Dad?!” He finally burst out. “I’m not understanding. What about all this shit could I possibly be angry about?!”

“I just want you to be with us, and – ”

“$10,000 and a Jeep…” Micah chuckled spitefully, blowing the smoke in his father’s direction before lighting a fresh cigarette off the smoldering one between his teeth. “And you let him go. You let the dirty, thieving son-of-a-bitch go.”

“Micah, listen…”Abe replied gently.

“No!” Micah burst out. “Don’t you get it?! That’s all I’ve ever done is listen! Well I’m not gonna fucking listen anymore!” He paused only to relish in the dismay spreading across his dad’s features. “All these years… Ever since I was a kid… All I ever do is slave away for your damn business! ‘Oh yes, Dad! I’ll work tonight, Dad!’ Every day I work my fucking ass off for you! And what do I get for it?!”

Abe closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly. He looked as though he was about to respond, but Micah continued.

“But then… then that little son-of-bitch comes home, after doing God knows what and going God knows where, and you decide you’re gonna shut down business for a day and throw him a fucking party?!” Micah shook and balled his hands into a fists. “Well you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t wanna take part in this little celebration, when frankly, that bastard oughta be arrested!”

“Micah, please listen to me for a moment,” Abe spoke quietly, and Micah saw a glisten in his father’s eyes. Micah felt another wave of rage pushing him to extinguish the cigarette against his dad’s skin, but Abe kept talking. “I’m so proud of you. Do you know that?”

“Oh please spare me your fucking compliments,” Micah snarled.

“Micah, everything I’ve built, everything that this is,” he indicated the silent diner, “it’s all yours. It’s all for you. I’ve been training you because… well, because I want you to be able to have it.”

Abe sighed as his son lit up yet another cigarette. “Micah, I love you so much. Anything you ask for – anything you want, you have everything! If you want something else, just ask! And you’ve felt like you’re slaving for it?”

Micah began to walk towards the car. “I really have to go,” he snarled, but his dad still followed him.

“Micah… please. He’s your brother, and he’s finally back.” A tear slipped down Abe’s cheek. “We’re a family again. Won’t you please be part of it, too?”

 

*Inspired by Luke 15:25-32.

fiction

Imaginary Friends

It took me 489 miles to realize that leaving California might not be the best way to deal with everything.

And it only took me driving one mile back towards home to realize I didn’t actually give a shit that it was a bad idea.

My plan was sound: get out of Oakland and just go live in some rural town in some other state. Or country. I really didn’t care which. Rent a room. Work as a waitress for a year or two. Then pick up and start over in the the next unplugged rural town over. And as long as I kept doing that… maybe if I just kept a move on… maybe if I went somewhere without a lot of people to begin with… I could trick myself into thinking that those people on the street were just people. Maybe I could pretend they were just like everyone else, just with weird, pale complexions and out-of-place clothes. Yeah. That makes, sense right? That’s a reasonably sane plan, right?

Well, whatever. It sounds a hell of a lot more sane than “I can see dead people.”

I looked down at my gas gage and found it hovering just above Empty so I decided that the next town I saw would be the one I stayed in. I wasn’t sure where I was, just that I was in Nevada. And I only knew that because driving at 95 miles an hour still felt like driving at 40.

I pulled off the road into a little town called Elko. I guess this is where I would make my life for the next year or so. Because why not? I mean, besides the fact that I had no job or place to live or money to live off of. Okay, so I didn’t think it out. Sue me. But I had to do something.

Tomorrow, I would look for jobs but it was almost one in the morning by the time I rolled up so I didn’t really have time to do it right then. And since this whole thing had been pretty impulsive, I didn’t have a whole lot of food, either, so I went to the nearest gas station. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in my car all night and never leave. Especially not at night, because that’s when I see them the most. I guess you don’t have to sleep at night when you’re dead. But I needed gas and I was hungry.

I looked around. It was a little jarring seeing an am/pm with a card table and slot machines. I saw an old guy playing at one of the slot machines, over and over again. I mean, it was like he was glued to the seat. For a moment, I thought nothing of it, but then I noticed his his opaque skin and ’50s style clothing.

Was this what it’d be like when I died? Would I just sit around and use my eternity in limbo to play slot machines?

I felt a strange urge to go talk to him and tell him break a gambling addiction he probably developed in life and go see the world. But I knew he wouldn’t talk to me. He wouldn’t notice me. He would just stare at his slot machine no matter how many times I yelled at him and then he would turn around and I’d think it was because he could hear me but it wouldn’t be. He’d just be going about his night as a miserable ghost, and I’d be going about my night as a miserable 18 year-old girl, marching towards the same fate.

You see, we can’t see them. And they can’t see us. That’s how it’s supposed to be, at least. Not for me. It started when I was little and kept telling my mom there was a little two year old boy who liked to hang out in my room and he just wouldn’t leave. I told her I didn’t like the way that the kid cried so much. It annoyed me. I didn’t like how he would never respond when I tried to tell him to go. After all, Mommy had told me that that was rude. She had told me you should listen to other people when they talk, and this little boy would never listen to me. And did I mention how much he cried?

I think my mom was convinced I’d suffered some kind of massive trauma. She kept poking around like she was trying to get me to say something and tried to get me to go see counselors. But I kept telling her I hadn’t had anything like that. I said that everything was fine except for not being able to sleep because of that kid’s crying and I couldn’t understand why she was so bothered by this. I just wanted her to get this kid to pay attention to me and shut up.

But instead, I was the one who learned to shut up. I learned how to lie, to my parents, to my friends, to myself. I told them that I didn’t see anything, that it was just my imaginary friends. I mean, in my own defense, that’s kind of what I assumed they were when I was that little. But my imaginary friends were mean. They never listened to me.

I picked up a pack of cheap granola bars and walked over to the counter. The cashier looked about 15 years old and was definitely not in a cheery mood. But then again, I probably wouldn’t be too cheery if I was working graveyard shift, either.

“That’ll be $5.25,” she said. She was looking somewhere past me, though. She looked… scared? That was kind of weird.

I turned around to see what she was looking at and she quickly darted her eyes down.

She had been looking at the ghost at the slot machine.

No. No she couldn’t have been. That wouldn’t make any sense. She was looking at the slot machine. Because they can’t see us. We can’t see them. Except for me.

But something held me there. Slowly, I got some cash out of my wallet. Her eyes kept darting back and forth between me and the slot machine behind me.

I mean… she couldn’t possibly. She couldn’t… that wouldn’t make any sense…

“Slot machines are fascinating,” I don’t know what compelled me to say that… but… I had to. If there was even a hope – even a chance –

She went bright red. “Oh it’s… it’s nothing… sorry, I’m just exhausted. 75 cents is your change,” she shoved it into my hands like she was trying to get me to go away. But the thought had seized me and I could not stop until I knew for sure. 

“You know, we don’t have slot machines in our gas stations in California.”

She nodded, again seeming as if she wanted me to go away.

“Can I ask you a weird question?” I said. I never would have done it. But I supposed that, if I wanted to, if I came off sounding like a nutjob, I could just leave Elko and head to a different town. This place seemed pretty miserable anyway.

She looked confused. “Um, yeah I guess.”

“Do you…” But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. The last time I had asked anything like that was when I was little. My throat tightened and I felt my heart beat faster. This was bullshit. I was crazy. It was nothing. She saw nothing. Just like everyone else. I had to be overanalyzing the situation.

Then her eyes darted back to the ghost at the slot machine.

“You… you can see too?” I whispered, still afraid of sounding like a crazy person (and believe me, I’ve wondered on more than a few occasions if I actually am crazy).

Her eyes widened. “I… I don’t know what you mean…” But all the while, she tapped her fingers on the counter at an alarming rate.

We just stood there in suspended silence for awhile, neither of us really knowing how to keep the conversation going. Thankfully, aside from the ghost, there was only one other person in the gas station, an employee who was just shuffling stuff around on the shelves, not paying us any attention.

“Can… can you…?” She stuttered, seeming unable to continue.

“Old guy?” I finally forced out, quickly so I didn’t stop myself. “With ’50s clothes?”

Her eyes were so wide I thought they might pop out of their sockets. She nodded almost imperceptibly. I thought I might cry. But I don’t do that, so instead, I gave an awkward kind of laugh.

There was something crazy about it. Something crazy about, for the first time, knowing that there someone else, someone else who understood, someone else to validate that I actually wasn’t totally insane.

“I’m Emma,” I said, smiling.

“Sarah,” she replied, sounding shaky.

“Hey, when do you get off your shift?” I asked.

“20 minutes,” she said excitedly. “There’s a Denny’s a little ways up the road.”

I looked around. Elko wasn’t going to be such a bad place to live, after all.

personal, video

Philippians Sermon

So… they let me talk in front of other humans. Preaching this sermon was quite the learning experience. Studying was eye-opening. Writing was fun. Speaking was scary. But every bit of it was the greatest joy. I found comfort in this passage as I studied it and discovered some of my own blindspots, too. Hope these little words help you along.

fiction

Upon Their Arrival

They didn’t come as we expected, in gravity-defying ships from the sky.

Their first Sputnik-like apparatus fell out of the heavens like a meteor. No crop circles. No muffled radio signals. No stars that swelled at alarming rates until we realized they weren’t stars. It crashed down near our town in Nebraska, a suburb of Lincoln. Eyewitnesses – who somehow found their way into existence only after the first news crews noticed the ship – stuttered to explain it. Some said it was a light like the sun which flashed into spontaneous being. Others swore they saw little green men in spacesuits come waltzing out with alien machine guns.

They sent the last remaining SEAL Team to investigate it. When they banged on the capsule and no one answered, they destroyed it best they could. And found there was nothing inside.

It was space debris. It had to be. Some idiotic invention of our forefathers gone awry.

Were we not Man? Remolding the world in our own image, peeling away layer by layer the legacy of our simple-minded ancestors? Were we not in every way superior, in mind, in intellect, in society?

“Scientists are confident that the spacecraft was unmanned,” came the crackling voice of the news anchor, his image, pixelated. “It seems to – ” We never found out anything else from that broadcast because the one working TV in the town square cut out. Like it always did.

Our town found the first one a week a later. A little girl came crying to her mother one day that a “lightening doggy” had shocked her. More and more began to congregate around our homes, darting in and out of visibility. But it wasn’t until one – which seemed to be the master of the group – made us aware of its presence, publicly, that we began to think of them as aliens at all.

They weren’t humanoids. They were nothing like us, we thought. Animalistic bodies. And yet… they were strangely beautiful, in their own way. Pale, iridescent fur, slicked back like a black cat. It shimmied and rippled and exploded with color. Small sparks danced across it every few seconds. We all stared in wonder. They were so sweet, so unassuming.

But so powerful.

We assumed they were incapable of higher intelligence. Assumed we were in every way superior. Until one shimmied its way up to the power lines.

“– sightings of these apparatuses in Phoenix as well.” We stared at the creature. We stared at the town television, now functioning perfectly. We couldn’t decide which direction to wonder at.

The mayor soon sent a telegram to the office of the President that these creatures were not only unthreatening, but able to help us. And though we could not speak their language, strangely, they seemed to have a certain understanding of us; of our needs, of our habits, of even our words. And we loved them for it. Loved what they gave us, loved that they gifted us. Solving our energy crisis one town at a time.

More of their spacecrafts came, slowly. They crashed down at random, we thought. But they always landed outside of cities in crisis. They’d done their research on us, it seemed. But we didn’t notice. We didn’t ask why. Because we accepted their gifts that could save us. The more that came, the more we knew of their presence.

Then at some point, they brought with them something that could translate their language for us. But we didn’t notice. We didn’t ask why. Because they whispered all that which we wished to hear. And their voices echoed. They informed us that, if we could only put our faith in them, they could save us. Save us. Save us.

They came without guns and came without bombs. How could we fear them? Fear such beauty, fear such benevolence, fear such lovely creatures, over whom we – as man – were still in every way superior? Surely, were these creatures a threat, we would crush them.

To us, we were in complete control of the electric creatures.

To them, we were but frogs in pots. And they had patience when we did not.

Someone at the edge of town lost his mind and screamed that the water was getting hotter. We fixed his unbalanced brain with a shotgun. But we all envy him these days.

Because now… now the water is boiling.

*Inspired by The Twilight Zone and the soundtrack for Arrival

personal

But I Have an Excuse…

The following are my excuses for why I’ve got nothing this week:

I was busy.
It was Easter weekend and family was in town.
The quarter system is actively trying to kill me slowly.
I have a lot of stuff to get done at work.
I do more commuting than a lot of Davis students.
I was busy.
I couldn’t write because I wasn’t feeling it. It wouldn’t be honest.
My cats ate my inspiration.
I’m so tired.
I had to make time to think about maybe possibly going to the gym.
UC Davis Memes have been dank af recently and it’s important to keep up.
Someone disagreed with me online and I needed to correct them.
Look, I don’t watch as much Netflix as some people okay?
Did I mention that I was just so busy this week?!
And look, when it comes down to it, committing to things is just so haaaarrrd-uh!

***

Yes. I was busy this week.

I’m 20 years old. At one time in recent history and in a lot of places still, it’s crazy that I haven’t settled down with someone and started popping out children and being busy 24/7 dealing with that.

Instead, I have the insane privilege to attend an esteemed university, decide what I want to do in life, work in a good job with great coworkers, and be busy in the ways that move my life forward in a direction that I actually want it to go. And I’m two years into adulthood already. Frankly, I should be busy, not just sitting on my butt all the time.

The reality is that life is busy. And it’s not going to stop being busy – not if I actually want to be a helpful, productive member of society. I want to teach and if I have any hope of being a good teacher, I’m going to have to embrace a certain level of busyness by grading and going the extra mile to care for my students.

Of course I believe in setting limits because one’s entire existence cannot be working. But my point is just that to live and breathe and do anything worthwhile makes your life busy. Working and earning make you busy. Spending time with friends makes you busy. Being a person of faith and actually trying to figure out what that means for life makes you busy.

So if I want to write, if I want to stay committed to this 52 weeks of material thing, then I have to view writing as important enough to make me busy. That’s a decision, not a feeling. And so I’m deciding it.

And now, after sitting here at Temple Coffee for the last thirty minutes – procrastinating on stuff I really have to get done – I have something: an excessive, probably annoying spurt of noise that reflects on my feelings about busyness.

I thought of sharing one of the poems that I wrote for class as a writing exercise. But then I got scared, because they are so rough. Frankly, I’m pretty sure you’d rather hear me rant, which says a lot about the quality of poem I crank out in 15 minutes.

So is this an isolated event, or the first of many blunders to come, a return to my familiar habits?

The truth is, even though I missed my deadline this week, I don’t feel like this particular missed-deadline was a failure. Because I have actually written a lot this week, but to share it now would be to force this little caterpillar out of his cocoon before he’s ready. He’d be all embarrassed, because he’s still in his awkward phase. He’s not quite a butterfly yet. He’s almost there, but his wings are still growing in  and they’d be all short and stubby if I made him present himself now. And I don’t want to do that to do that to him. In two weeks, he’ll be ready to fly.

And yes, I’m trying to cut down on my perfectionism. But this time, I’m telling you, it’ll be worth it.

So, sorry for having nothing. Sorry to myself, more, because I’m pretty sure you don’t care whether I do this or not. And that’s okay. Your lives are busy, too, and paying attention to some random chick’s rough fictional ramblings might not be an important use of your time.

I’ve got no good excuse. But at least this time, I think it’s okay, and not a sign of things to come.

poetry, Uncategorized

Gravity

According to Newton’s first law of motion, an object at rest tends to stay at rest. And yet
they say objects tug ever closer to one another at every moment. In this case – then –
are we truly at a state of rest if we stand in shuddering suspension
as every particle screams for our attention?
Scientists may snub their noses at me. But
I prefer to think of gravity in this way:
as a perpetual state of falling. Not
up or down – but
falling closer.

they say that as two galaxies
orbit one another – fall towards one another –
they sweep themselves up into a descending dance
they twirl each other closer until
arms graze and catapult
the stars of the fringes – stars like the sun –
into The Great Beyond
but they never learn
they only spin
faster and closer
until one consumes the other
(but which is “eater” and which is
“eaten,” no astronomer could tell) and so

star systems splinter and dark holes meld and celestial bodies
collide in cosmic destruction. I heard that one shard
shot through space at speeds exceeding sound and
killed a spacewalker. And this – they say –
is our fate: for we are locked in a danse macabre,
perpetually falling closer to each other – closer to

Finis.

fiction

Napoleon

10:17 a.m. Almost twenty minutes late, but I don’t bother to speed. Mom will just have to deal with it.

If I thought you were on time, I would make more of an effort to get to our old house by 10:00. But I know that you’re not. I’ll pull up in the driveway and the only car there will be Mom’s Bug. Then, if Mom’s not sitting out on the porch tapping her foot, I’ll sit in the car and wait another ten minutes for you to pull up in your rusted pickup. Then we’ll knock and she’ll open the door and make some comment about how we’re “never on time.”

I mean, you do you still have the pickup, don’t you? You never were one to spend more money than you had to, but I suppose it could have broken beyond repair by now. Or maybe Amy got sick of you never being able to drive her and her friends places and you finally caved.

But probably not.

Still driving under the speed limit, I turn onto East Gabriel St. First house on the block, and I do a double take.

Gray. Steely, modern gray like my apartment. Not the chipping yellow I remember. It doesn’t match all the cute colorful houses on the block anymore. Some young, sexy real estate agent probably told Mom she should paint it, or maybe she just took it upon herself. Either way, I hate it.

Mom opens the front door before I even turn the car off. I roll my eyes. I can already tell she’s in a particularly testy mood this morning.

“Good morning,”  I mumble as I walk up the steps.

“Morning, Laura” she replies. She asks “how are you?” because she’s supposed to and I answer “good” because I’m supposed.

We walk in together. She mutters something under her breath about my tardiness that I don’t bother to listen to because I’m too busy looking around like a confused tourist. She’s repainted the inside of the house, too, this dull cream color. We stop in the kitchen where she’s replaced the old tile countertops with granite. That probably cost her a lot. It looks like she’s either sold or packed quite a bit of the furniture as well because the place feels empty.

“Well, since your brother’s not here yet, I guess I’ll wait to go run errands,” Mom huffs.

“Why’d you repaint the house?” I blurt out.

“No one’s going to want to buy a yellow house like that,” she snaps. “It was a disgusting color anyway. Why your father…” she trails off.

“Well, I’m gonna start going through my stuff.” I say. “You didn’t sell all my stuff while I was gone, did you, Mom?” I try to say it playfully.

“I’m getting rid of anything you don’t take” she’s looking down at her phone, at the clock I’m pretty sure. I glance at my phone, too. 10:24. I hope you get here soon…

I walk up the stairs. She replaced the railing, too. Whatever. She’s selling the house. She can do what she wants. That railing was pretty rickety… it probably needed… why’d she get a white one, though? It doesn’t work with the stupid cream walls.

I half expect that my old room’s going to be completely cleared out. But when I open the door, it doesn’t look like Mom has touched a thing yet. I glance at the window and feel an irrepressible urge to sneak out the window like I did when I was a kid and get out of this room and this house. But I don’t.

It’s the same quilt on the bed, the same walls, the same lamp, the same… everything. Frozen, untouched, and I wonder vaguely if Mom has even set foot in here since I moved to California.

And yet somehow… I feel an unshakeable sense of discomfort. It’s like I’m intruding, like I’m snooping around in a stranger’s home.

Reluctantly, I start to look through the drawers. Why Mom was so insistent that we both come here and get our stuff, I have no idea. I mean, we both got most of it when we moved out. But I find a few things when I open up the closet. Shirts I can’t pull off anymore, snow gear I don’t need anymore. Above my desk hangs a little ornate cross painting. I take it off the wall to look at it more closely.

I haven’t painted or been to church in a long time.

“You think Jesus will forgive you for being gone so long?” I whirl around and I can’t keep a smile off my face when I see your massive, burly form in the doorframe. “Because I’m not sure I do.”

“Drew!” I rush over to you. You give me a slightly bone-crushing hug.

“How are you, Laura?” You ask, tapping me on the head playfully.

“I’m doing well,” I reply. “How are you?”

Your beard’s quite a bit longer than it was last Christmas. Scruffier, too. “Good, good,” you answer. “How’s the fancy new job?”

But before I start talking, we hear Mom holler to us to come downstairs. You roll your eyes and we take our time walking back to the kitchen.

“So I’m listing the house tomorrow for $249,000,” Mom announces irritably. “I’m headed out now to run some errands. Take what you want. I’m done hoarding all your junk. Anything you don’t take goes to the Goodwill. I’ll text you if I have time to get dinner but I might have to go into the office later.”

She slams the door. I hear her car sputter for a moment, hear her muffled cursing, and hear the car drive away.

“Love you, too, Mom!” you chuckle darkly. I don’t respond. “Well, anyway,” you clap your hands together, “I got a surprise for you.” you say excitedly, trying and failing to keep a devious smile off your lips.

“Okay… should I be scared?”

“You gotta sit on the back porch.” It looks like Mom already got rid of the chairs on the back porch so we bring out two of the worn-out white kitchen chairs and a side table from the living room. You go back to your truck and come back with a brown paper bag.

“I figured… our last time back at this place, this would be as good a time as any…”

I look at you curiously and watch you pull two brandy glasses. Suddenly, I know exactly what you’re about to do and I instantly start laughing. “No… you… you didn’t –”

You beam at me triumphantly, pulling out a wax-sealed bottle of Marie Duffau Napoleon.

“Wow. How much did you have to drop for that, Drew?” I ask.

“Don’t ask such questions.” You take a swiss army knife out of your pocket and remove the wax seal with astonishing ease. Brandy always was your favorite and you pour us both a generous glass full.

I give you a smirk. You know I hate Brandy. For a brief moment back then, I thought I had tricked you into thinking I enjoyed it, that I could tolerate dark alcohol. I wanted you to think I was as tough as your friends. It was just you and me at home and you convinced me to go steal Mom and Dad’s expensive Napoleon out of the cabinet. They hadn’t bought it, I’m sure of it. It was probably a gift from one of Mom’s rich friends. It had sat and sat in our cabinet collecting dust. I kept saying that you could do it yourself, why should I do it for you?

“Laura, I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for you,” you kept insisting in true Ferris Bueller fashion.

You called me “lame” when I protested and the last thing any 15 year-old wants to be told by her cool 17 year-old brother is that she’s lame. So I did it.

It was the first scratching-the-surface-of-rebellious thing I ever did. And you were so proud of me for doing it and so proud of yourself for getting me to do it that instead of taking the bottle to your friends as I assumed you would, you said that I “should reap the rewards.” So we drank from our parents’ cheap wine glasses and “played adult” and mocked them.

“God, I got so sick that night…” I recall as I swish the brandy around.

“Oh I remember. And you only drank one glass,” you laugh mockingly.

“You know, I haven’t actually tried brandy since that night,” I confess. “I don’t drink much, really, aside from wine. There’s good wine in California.”

You snicker. “God, you’re turning into Mom.”

And I don’t know why, but my heart beats a bit faster when you make that joke. I oblige you with a grin that feels uncomfortable on my lips, but you don’t seem to notice.

“You know,” you change the subject, “this house could easily go for 35 to 45,000 more than she’s listing it at.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. This area?” You take another sip of your brandy. “I wish you’d visit more often, Laura. We all miss you.” This time, you put down your glass and actually look at me and I feel a distinct desire too look anywhere but into your eyes. So I glance back down at the dark liquid.

“Who’s ‘we all’?” I force a chuckle. “Just you, probably.”

To my surprise, you don’t respond. You take another swig of brandy.

“Maybe you, Amy and – well, you and Amy anyway –” I remark, “can fly out to Oakland for Thanksgiving or something.”

You roll your eyes affectionately. “Hey, you’re the one with the money and the fancy-ass job. You’re the one who can afford plane tickets and shit.”

“It’s really hard for me to get out of work.”

“Sure it is,” you give me a half-hearted smile. I really wish you would stop doing that. “I get it, though. I’d take sunny-ass California over this place any day.”

“Oakland really isn’t that sunny, Drew. It’s kinda cold and foggy all the time.”

“Hey, you do not get to complain about the cold,” you counter.

“How’s Amy doing, anyway?” I ask. “I miss her. She’ll be… what? 14 this year?”

You don’t answer me. Ever so quietly, you stare off into the backyard as though it were the endless horizon. Mom hasn’t torn the fences out yet. They’re pretty rotted, though.

“Did she… uh… like her Christmas gift?” I continue.

“Yeah, she loved it.” I notice you absentmindedly fidgeting at the ring on your finger as though it’s too tight. You stop and pour yourself another glass.

“We really fucked things up, didn’t we, Laura?” You say it so suddenly it takes me off guard. I tense up. But you’re still not looking at me. “You were smart to stay out of that commitment shit, Laura. Damn smart.”

“Well, I always was the smarter one,” I joke nervously. You snicker and choke on your brandy but give a shrug.

“It’s true, though,” you reply. “And you know it is.”

You take another swig, still staring off at that same imprecise spot in the backyard. “You did it, Laura. You knew what you wanted and you got the hell out of this shithole.”

I look down at my own glass of Napoleon and swish it around a bit, trying to convince myself to take a sip. Maybe it’s not as bad as I remember it.

“I hope Amy is like you,” you blurt out. “I hope when she’s older, she knows what she wants and gets the hell out.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” I answer quickly, a bit of sweat tickling my brow. Brandy always could get you to say things you’d regret. But I can’t seem to find any more to say to you.

“It’s fine,” you’re still not quite meeting my eyes and I’m glad that you aren’t. “If Amy turns out half as cool as you, then I’ll know there’s a God. Cause it sure wouldn’t be anything I did and it sure as hell wouldn’t be anything her mom did.”

I hear my phone buzz and seize the opportunity to check it.

“It’s from Mom.”

“Let me guess,” you sound almost entirely humorless this time. “She can’t grab dinner because she has ‘stuff at the office’? On a Saturday?”

“Laura. Working late tonight. Will not be home later. Don’t forget your stuff. xo Mom.

You take another swig, snickering darkly. “What do you say we drive the three hours to Burlington? And you actually stick around for a couple days? I’ll show you around, you can see Amy?”

Once again, I feel myself tensing. I can’t pinpoint why. “I… Drew, I have to work on Monday and I’m flying out tonight…”

“Oh bullshit,” you burst out. “You can do some stuff out of the office if you have to, and can you even tell me the last time you took a day off? And I know paying for a flight cancellation isn’t a big deal for miss big shot ‘Supply Chain Analyst,’ whatever the hell that even is.”

You’re right. I know you’re right. And I don’t know why didn’t tell you, but I actually budgeted to take Monday off, just in case I wound up getting held up for some reason. But all the same…

“Okay,” I hear myself say. You beam so brightly, I feel bad for my reluctance. “But I’m driving.”

“That’s fair. Now, are you gonna drink that or am I gonna have to down it for you?”

I look down at my glass, Finally, I take a sip. I choke and laugh. “Yup. Just as disgusting as I remember.”

*Inspired by the music of Bear’s Den, especially “Napoleon” and “New Jerusalem.” 

poetry

Highway Flowers

A flower’s destiny depends upon
where the sower scatters seeds. There are
those flowers which live in gardens

and spring up to be watered and
tended and bought and sold as they
make plain spaces lovely again.

White lilies bloom on the steps
in a church. Their petals wil bandage
the grieving, fractured hearts

A sign in a storefront reads, “Roses,
sweet roses for sweeter lovers.” Several roses
sell. Some sit and wait until they wilt.

Some flowers spring up in the fields
where once all flowers lived, and they thrive
for the spring and die in the summer.

But the highway flowers landed in
crevices where they pray for a quiet life
among pavement and shaking earth.

When the sower tossed his seeds along
the path, I wonder if he knew about these cracks
where poppies somehow bloom.

I wonder if he ever visits the highway
flowers, if he waters them and cares for them
the way he gardens the lilies of the field

Are flowers born in fissures dressed
in royal splendor? Are they so marvelous as
the vineyard’s mighty branches?

The rain drizzles down on them as
each car passes, as the flowers grow just
out of grasp of a rogue tire’s tyranny

The rain drizzles down and washes
the grease off their petals, trickles through
cracks to their roots. I wonder if perhaps

a highway, too, can be a garden.

poetry

An Afternoon at the Zoo

Look, children!
Look, look here!

Come and see exhibit A!
See that great beast go!
See it, children?
Watch it raise a mighty squawk
and stalk away as its
blood boils in its brain
Our research shows
that many of these beasts
are easily agitated
by sun or rain
or food or time
or others of their kind
or anything, it seems
They seem to find
homeostasis
quite a challenge.

See that flat black box?
That little black box they
hold as tight as their young
in their slender paws?
Our research shows
they use it capture and
tamper with their own memories.
This little black box is
how they communicate
the way they organize their flocks
the way they interact with
the vast number of their kind
(I know, children. Our researchers
don’t quite understand it, either.)

See them press
their naked faces in at us?
Watch as they point and stare
and make strange sounds
as they look through glass and bars.
Our research shows
they get some kind of
primitive pleasure watching us.
But chemicals fill their minds
not just from watching us:
they love to watch each other.
They watch each other
live and thrive and venture.
Watch each other
unravel and decay. They cheer
for success as they cheer for
failure in equal measure.
Often, we’ve found, they enjoy
the lives of others far more than
they enjoy their own.

See those molting ones,
with two paws clasped together?
It’s how they show affection.
Our research has yet
to comprehend their mating patterns.
Some mate for life, it seems
Others simply live together
in a shelter but never clasp
their paws together after
time goes by. They seem to care
nothing to leave or improve.

And see here, how they must
keep walking keep walking…
keep walking…
They never stop walking, not even
when they stop to peer at us.
Watch, young ones,
see that beast walking by itself?
Our research shows
the beast is often by itself.
They live in many colonies,
many flocks, many packs
all at once. But somehow,
they seldom find a family.
Our research shows
that man is rather

a lonely beast.

essay

Lily and James: the True Hogwarts Ghosts

Theyre dead listening to echoes of them wont bring them back (Rowling, 243). In J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter of the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry insists that echoes cannot raise his parents back to life. And yet, throughout Prisoner of Azkaban, echoes of Harrys parents seem to constantly call them back into existence. Far from simply being bodies in the earth, the imagined versions of James and Lily which Harry conjures out of his imagination serve as dynamic forces which not only haunt the novel, but provide a kind of posthumous parenting.” Harry constructs idealized images of James and Lily who provide protection and comfort respectively. He conjures their ghostly echoes into existence and gives them space to parent him by acting in their likenesses and in a final climax to this, he recreates his own traumatic childhood in a moment which works but ultimately fails to redeem their tragic deaths.

Harry creates an image of his father as a great protector out of his imagination and limited memory, even when evidence arises to the contrary. When Harry unsuccessfully produces a Patronus to protect him from the dementors in training, he, for the first time, recalls his father yelling, Lily, take Harry and go! Its him! Go! Run! Ill hold him off (Rowling, 240) in James final moments. Traumatic though Harrys past is, it is key in shaping his idealization of James: Harrys only memory of his father is James effort to protect Harry and Lily and he views his father as courageous and inspiring. He also draws this image out of the knowledge that James once saved Snapes life (Rowling, 285). But Snape complicates Harrys heroic understanding of the event and asks if Harry has been imagining some act of glorious heroism (Rowling, 285). Based on the way in which Harry bit his lip when Snape asks this, it would imply that Harry did have a certain valiant image of how his father came to save Snape. But even after Snapes explanation of James less-than-heroic act, Harry continues to view his father in his particular conjured image. He even implies it when he yells at Snape and accuses him of being blinded by the fact that James and his friends MADE A FOOL OF [SNAPE] AT SCHOOL ” (Rowling, 361). Harry possesses a certain lack of sympathy for Snape in this, ignoring the circumstances of which Snape previously made him aware. At later points of the series, Rowling continues to complicate the readers, and Harrys understanding of James Potter. But in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry allows his imagination and incredibly limited memory to shape his view of his father, even when Snape combats this. Harry holds tight to a vision, to his imagined father rather than tickling the possibility of James less-than-saintly youth.

Though Lily proves the more elusive and mysterious of the two parents in this particular novel, this only solidifies her ghostliness and Harry conjures an idealized image of her as well, imagining her as a force of comfort. Harry conjures her most tangibly in his encounters with the dementors and her voice haunts him thereafter. Rowling describes how Harry dozed fitfully, sinking into dreams full of clammy, rotted hands and petrified pleading, jerking awake to dwell again on his mothers voice (Rowling, 184). Lily exists as a sourceless voice which likens her to a ghost or banshee figure; but this moment paints her as an oddly comforting one, connected to home and safety. The word dwell seems an intriguing choice. Not only does his mothers voice wake Harry from nightmares, removing him from the immediate terror of dementors, but the word dwell is connected to a sense of home. The Oxford English Dictionary defines dwell as both to linger over (a thing) in action or thought and also to abide or continue for a time, in a place, state, or condition (OED). Lilys screams, though in one sense, distressing, still offer a strange kind of comfort, characteristic of stereotypical motherhood. Rowling indicates that Harry half wanted to hear his parents again (Rowling, 243) and in his moment of greatest peril when the dementors are about to Kiss him, he hears Lily screaming in his ears She was going to be the last thing he ever heard (Rowling, 384). Harry finds a kind of comfort in what he believes is his final moment when the ghost of his mother is with him. Despite the pain which he associates with his mothers screams, Harrys encounters with the dementors provide him a space to imagine Lily and conjure her into existence, imagining his mother as the idyllic force of safety in his life. She exists as mother and comforter for him, even without a domineering presence in the novel.

The conjured images of Harrys parents function as more than just ideals: they parent him as they inspire his actions and in the case of his father, Harry acts heroically under James influence. His imaginary James gives him resolve in moments of distress. But even beyond this, Harrys vision of James inspires his decision to have mercy on Pettigrew (Rowling, 376). He follows what he believes his father would have wanted and this instills in Harry a capacity for and desire to protect those around him. Even when he seems to have little sympathy for Pettigrew, explaining that he doesnt reckon my dad wouldve wanted his best friends to become killers – just for [Pettigrew] (Rowling, 376), his actions are still in an effort to protect protect Lupin and Sirius from having Pettigrews death upon their consciences. Also, his memory of James’ sacrifice for Harry and Lily translates into a sense of duty and desire to protect within Harry. When Harry first hears his mothers screams, He wanted to help whoever it was (Rowling, 84) and whenhe hears her the second time, He needed to help her She was going to die She was going to be murdered. (Rowling, 179). Just as James spent his final moments protecting Harry and Lily, when Harry hears his mother, his instinct is to save her. The idea of James is deeply ingrained within Harry and it motivates his capacity for heroism. Even in death, the ghost of James haunts Harrys psyche and pushes him to act as protector.

Though far more subtle in her parenting of Harry than James, Lilys spirit seems flicker into existence once more in the novels conclusion, hinting that her comforting nature is present in Harry. Though various characters insist that Harry is just like his father, Dumbledore suggests that Harry looks like James [e]xcept for the eyes you have your mothers eyes (Rowling, 427). Though Harrys outward appearance is that of James, in his eyes the part of the body which most indicates interior expression and is said to provide a window to the soul Harry is most like his mother. The importance of Harrys likeness to Lily strengthens throughout the series but in Prison of Azkaban, the reader receives a clue into Harrys character of kindness. The character of James comes into question with Snapes description of James as a bully and exceedingly arrogant (Rowling, 284). But in contrast, Harrys dreamy vision of his comforting mother is never challenged. The conjured version of Lily remains undisputed all the way to the end of the novel and is even affirmed in Dumbledores praising statement that Harry has his mothers eyes. Though a less prominent parent figure than James, Lilys manifestation stretches beyond just her ghostly screaming and seems to be embedded in Harry.

Lily and James supernatural influence comes to full fruition in the climax of the novel when Harry produces a full Patronus, literally conjuring a physical apparition of his father. Rowling describes the Patronus as a bright, silver stag whose hooves made no mark on the soft ground and vanished as Harry reached out to touch it (Rowling, 412) and the stag was his fathers animal form (424). The Patronus bears significant likeness to a kind of ghost or apparition, though benevolent in nature. Harrys task in producing this apparition requires that he conjure something out of his memory and in doing so, he brings something that has passed something that is now over and dead up into the present. A Patronus, then, is a memory which blurs the line between present and past, just in the way that a ghost is a deceased person who blurs the line between living and dead. Out of his memory and imagination, Harry physically recreates a vision of his father, the protector.

Using this physical apparition, Harry inadvertently attempts but fails to redeem his traumatic childhood. In his moment of greatest peril, the spirits of James and Lily enter spaces eerily parallel to their horrid murders: because of the dementors, Harrys mother was screaming in his ears (Rowling, 384) as she once did before her death and the Patronus a figure of James – steps into the roll of protector. The final scene imagines a scenario in which James successfully defeats Voldemort and saves Harry and Lily. And in an instant, this vision of possibility, this most tangible of manifestations of the parents, is ripped away and Harry is left, once again, needing to imagine them and allow their memories to protect and comfort him. The Patronus ultimately vanishes (Rowling, 412) and Lilys screams are audible only in the presence of dementors. Harry returns to his previous state an orphan and the lone survivor of a terrible event. Lily and James, after their moment of presence, return to their previous rolls as parents who haunt Harry as spirits, flickering in and out of his consciousness. Harry is forced to take on the responsibility to parent himself by generating his own imagined versions of Lily and James and in this final climax, these visions seem to teeter on the boundary between imagination and reality. But ultimately, for all his recreation of the event, Harry cannot protect his mother or father, even with a full Patronus.

Though Lily and James are at no point physically present in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harryimagined visions of them haunt the novel and even seem to parent him. Though Harry fails to redeem his traumatic childhood and can never fully regenerate his parents, the echoes of his parents continue to provide Harry with comfort and protection. Even posthumously, the ideas the parents seem to come to Harrys aid, even if only in Harrys imagination. Tragic though their deaths are, James and Lily are never fully absent from Harrys life. Harry, and the reader, can take comfort in Dumbledores question of whether the dead we have loved ever truly leave us? (Rowling, 427).