Volume 40 ~ 2017
Eyes bright, the little girl put her sticky hands against the glass door and pushed it open. Barking erupted from the shelter dogs at the child’s giggle.
“Remember, Sweetie,” Her father said. “We’re only here to look.”
She crouched in front of several caged animals before she found him. He was as tall as she was, a mutt with black and brown fur and bright amber eyes. He didn’t bark, but he cried softly, and the little girl experienced heartbreak for the very first time. She grasped the metal bars with her chubby fingers. The dog sniffed her; his nose was cold and wet and cracked the little girl’s lips into a wide smile. She heard her father’s footsteps behind her, and she turned to him with her blinding grin.
“I want this one.” She said. Her dad frowned.
“Honey, I’m sure he’s a great dog, but we can’t get one today. And even if we did, don’t you want a puppy instead?”
The little girl shook her head. The dog sat beside her in his kennel, and their pleading eyes matched. The shelter worker beside her father gestured to the other side of the kennel room. “We have puppies down there.” she said. “We recently got a rescue litter of shih tzus.”
The child shook her head fiercely. Her fingers were still twined into the gate. The dog, sensing she was upset, licked her fingers gently. Her father shook his head, reaching to grab his daughter’s arm. She let him drag her around the corner. She did enjoy the puppies, and they certainly enjoyed her, but she had her heart set on someone else.
“How about this little white one?” her dad asked. She shook her head. “Any of them?” She shook her head. “Honey, we can’t have a big dog. He’ll take up too much room. We need a lapdog.” The girl’s shoulders fell and she started to cry. The shelter worker looked at her for a moment before turning to her father.
“Actually, that dog is classified as a medium size.” She explained. “He’s only about three years old, and he’s a good dog, too. He’s very good with kids. We could at least get him out to meet you guys.”
The father looked at his daughter and her hopeful eyes. At last, he nodded. The child was thrilled. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll give him a shot.” The worker nodded and pointed them to a visitation room and asked them to wait.
The girl waited. She bounced in her seat, swinging her legs back and forth. At last, his paws came pattering toward her, and she couldn't keep still. She opened her arms as wide as she could as the dog came up to kiss her face. She wrapped her arms around his thick neck. Warm, happy tears dampened her eyelashes as her new best friend rested his broad head on her tiny shoulder. She watched his tail wag as she kissed him all over his face.
She heard her dad sigh, and turned to look at him. He was shaking his head. The little girl looked at her dog, placing her hand on top of his head and lead him over to her father. She took her dad’s hand, and he tried to shrug away, thinking she was about to beg. She didn’t. Instead she, and placed it beside her own on the dog’s head. The dog whimpered and licked the man’s hand.
The father turned to the woman who looked as happy for the little girl as the little girl was for herself. “Alright,” her dad said, allowing himself a smile as well. “We’ll take him.”
The Boy with the Blue Umbrella
The boy with the blue umbrella
sat in the rain. The people
of Paris passed by him, heads
tucked under their black rain shades.
The boy with the blue umbrella
held up his plastic cup. Three shiny
coins rested inside, clinking together
when he shook them. No matter
how hard he shook it, or how far
he reached, there were still just
three shiny coins inside of his cup.
The boy with the blue umbrella
wrapped his bony arms
around his bony legs,
and let his stomach rumble.
The boy with the blue umbrella
heard footsteps behind him,
high heels splashing through puddles,
and the little boy turned his head.
The woman with the purple shoes
knelt down beside him. She
reached for his hand, and helped
him to his feet, leading him home.
The bullet entered right between his ribs. It shattered a fraction of his second and third on his left side, but he didn’t feel broken bones. He felt fire. Hot, wet fire welled from the hole in his side. It was hard to breathe, but whether it was from the wound or the shock was hard to tell. He fell to his knees. His hands trembled against the tear in his uniform as it grew warmer with blood. He coughed and tasted pennies. Slowly, he let himself fall over onto his side. His blood seeped into the concrete.
Something warm, dry, and steady rested on his shaking hands. He looked up through the black specks in his vision at the face of a younger boy, eyes glowing in the flashing light of the ambulance. The stranger pressed something soft into the wound, pushing his quivering hands away. The bleeding man blinked; blood dribbling down his chin. The boy leaned over him and smiled.
“You’re gonna be fine, pal. You’re gonna be fine.”
I’m not going to tell him, Hunter thought as he pulled into the driveway. It won’t even come up. I don’t have to tell him. This was a lie, of course. He had left with almost no notice, not only Dex but the entire town. Even if he’d made up excuses, someone would ask him eventually. However, lying to himself was the only way Hunter could get himself to go.
He glanced to the gift in the passenger seat; it was wrapped in black paper. He had thought about green, Dex’s favorite color, but decided that black was more appropriate for a sorry-for-your-loss gift. Hunter had tied and untied the ribbon at least six times before deciding to leave it on. He’d been gone for two years. A ribbon couldn’t hurt.
He had missed the funeral, but he was here now. The house looked bigger, more terrifying than the first time he’d been there when he was thirteen. The sun reflected blindingly off the white exterior, and the yard was as well-kept as it had always been. The little stone birdbath was still under the tremendous cottonwood tree, and the rose bushes still sprung up beside the fence. He had better memories here than he did at his own house. He watched his first R rated movie in the basement and tried boiled lobster for the first time in the kitchen. He had kissed his first boy in the backyard treehouse.
After several minutes of trying not to hyperventilate, he grabbed his peace offering and got out of the car. He still knew the number of steps it took to get the front door: a perfect seventeen. He ran his hand through his hair to try and soothe his nerves. He failed. Swallowing hard, he reached up to knock on the door.
It took only a few terrible seconds for the door to finally open. He had been expecting to see Dex, but the person standing in front of him was much shorter and female. She looked exactly like her older brother except for her steel blue eyes, which were growing wider by the millisecond. He opened his mouth to speak, to say hello or that he was sorry for her loss, but she was talking before he even opened his mouth.
“Hunter? Oh, my god.” She gasped. He couldn’t blame her. She barely knew him, but surely she’d heard about him leaving. It had been quite the gossip for weeks, or so Hunter’s sister had said. Several people in town had heard the screaming and crashing from his parent’s house the night he left. No one expected he’d come back.
“Uh, hey, Kate.” He said, shoving his free hand into his pocket out of habit. She blinked, as if he was a ghost that had just appeared before her. He supposed he kind of was. “I heard about your parents. I came to say I’m sorry. They were good people.”
Kate nodded slowly. “Yeah,” she said. “They were.” Then after a brief pause in which she simply stared at him, she pulled the door open wider and stepped back. “You can come in. I’ll go get Dex.”
Hunter’s stomach turned over, but he nodded and stepped inside. The smell of vanilla was almost overwhelming. Dex was certainly home. Kate led Hunter to the kitchen, not knowing the path was engraved in his memory. She asked him to wait there while she ran upstairs to retrieve her brother. Hunter looked around. It hadn’t changed much, other than the endless casseroles and potted plants that covered almost every surface. He looked down at the gift in his hand, his knuckles white from clutching it too hard.
He heard the creak of the third-to-top step as someone came down the stairs. He pretended to read the cards on the flowers, but he didn’t process any of the words. The footsteps sounded a little weaker then he remembered, less energetic. They stopped at the doorway, and Hunter heard the intake of Dex’s breath. Slowly, painfully, Hunter turned around.
Dex looked like he’d been hit with a truck. He was built stronger than Hunter remembered him. Everything about his lax posture screamed sleep deprivation except for the tenseness in his shoulders and the stunned expression on his face. His eyes mimicked Kate’s shock. And oh, hell, his eyes. Those, like the front yard, were as brilliantly green as Hunter remembered them. The dark lashes that framed them blinked slowly, and Dex’s face had paled just enough to see his light freckles. His hair was longer than he liked it; his brown curls falling to his eyebrows. His lips were parted as he tried to remember how to breathe. Hunter was finding it hard to breathe himself.
“Dex,” he said. Hunter had rehearsed this exact moment a thousand times in his head, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. His lungs could barely lift that one word out of his throat anyway.
“Hunter,” Dex responded. There was too much to say; the air between them was heavy, They took in the changes that two years of life had made; Dex’s perfect circle tattoo just below his elbow, or Hunter’s tiny scar on his left cheekbone.
“Why are you here?” Dex asked finally.
“I heard about your parents.” Hunter said. Dex stood up a little straighter, his eyes landing on the gift in Hunter’s hands.
“That better not be another goddamn casserole.” Dex said.
Hunter laughed. “Shit, man, you caught me.” He responded. Dex smiled. For a moment it was like Hunter had never left. The deadweight in the air lifted, and they were both smiling.
Hunter took a step toward Dex, holding out his gift with a much less natural, lopsided grin. Dex hesitated before taking it, his thumbs rubbing gentle circles against the paper. “You used ribbon.” He said softly. Dex used to keep the ribbon from the gifts Hunter had gotten him when they were kids. Whether or not he still had them was something Hunter was scared to ask.
Hunter watched him pull gently at the tape, unfolding the paper around the book inside. Hunter felt a pull at the sleeves of his heart. Dex had always unwrapped gifts like he did everything else; carefully.
“Poetry,” Dex said, looking at the cover of a thin paperback copy of Crossing the Water by Sylvia Plath. The corner of Dex’s mouth twitched upwards in a way that Hunter didn’t think he was supposed to see, but he did. “By a woman, too.” Dex continued. He’d always prefered to give his money to female writers.
“Her husband published it after she died.” Hunter said.
The loss collected on Dex’s face; between his eyebrows and at the corners of his mouth. Hunter instantly regretted it. “I’m sorry.” He said, the words tumbling off his tongue.
Dex shrugged. “It’s okay. Thank you-”
“I’m not just talking about your parents.” Hunter said. The words came quickly; if he didn’t get them out now he never would. “I’m talking about everything. I’m sorry that I left without telling you, and for picking such a shitty time to come back.” His voice almost broke when he cursed, and he could tell by twitch in the muscles of Dex’s forehead that he’d noticed.
Dex was quiet for a long time. He walked past Hunter to the trashcan under sink, throwing the paper away but not the ribbon. Hunter watched him set it on the counter with the book instead. He felt a small grin creeping onto his lips, but he said nothing until Dex spoke.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Dex asked, looking out the window over the sink. It took Hunter a moment to realize he was looking at the treehouse. “At least that you were leaving; something.”
“I didn’t know how.” He said, leaning against the table, careful of the pans of food sitting there. “I was scared.” He added after a moment. His hand reached up unconsciously to touch the scar on his face. No matter how hard he tried, he hadn’t been able to forget the sound of glass breaking after the bottle had hit him. Dex still didn’t know.
He doesn’t need to. Hunter reminded himself silently.
“A sticky note that said, ‘Hey, I’m moving to New Jersey, and I refuse to explain myself’ would have been better than nothing.” Dex said. Hunter could hear the anger rising in his tone, even if Dex was trying to keep it down. Dex turned around, the hurt in his eyes building rocks in Hunter’s throat.
“I know,” Hunter croaked. “I’m sorry.”
Dex coughed up a laugh, but not like he thought it was funny. He shook his head, letting his weight fall back against the counter. He looked at anything but Hunter, and Hunter couldn’t blame him. Heat rose in Hunter’s neck and face, and guilt knotted up in his stomach. He didn’t know what to say, if there was anything he could say.
“Was it me?” Dex asked. “Because I wouldn’t come out?”
Hunter shook his head. Of course Dex would think that; they had fought about it the night before Hunter had left. But the idea that Dex had been blaming himself this entire time made Hunter clench his fists.
“No,” he said. If he had brought himself to look at Dex, he would have seen the relief and confusion these words painted on his face. “Turns out telling your parents is a terrible idea anyway.” Hunter added, staring at the floor. Dex’s eyes snapped up to Hunter’s face, to the scar he had seen for the first time just minutes ago. Hunter felt him staring but refused to look up.
“What did they do to you?” Dex asked. His voice was soft as the anger drained out of it. Hunter didn’t want to answer, but he owed it to Dex to tell him something.
“Well, there was definitely no pride parade.” Hunter sighed. “There was a lot of yelling, and my dad threw a lot of stuff; some at me and some at the yard. They told me to get out and not come back.”
“You should have told me.” Dex said.
“I could have helped.” Dex continued. Hunter shook his head, detaching his hip from the table and standing up straight.
“What do you think would have happened, Dex? I would have just moved in until your parents figured it out for themselves? No, there was nothing…” He trailed off and took a deep breath.
“I was going off to college, Hunter. You knew that. You could have gone to Washington with me.” Dex was reaching, as if saying the ‘could have’s, ‘would have’s, and ‘should have’s would make any difference. “I thought you knew me a better than to think I was still mad.”
“Of course I didn’t think you were still mad at me.” Hunter said, his voice tightening. Dex took his weight off the counter.
“What were you afraid of?” Dex asked, stepping closer, the emotion coming back into his voice. “Your parents? My parents? Me?”
“I didn’t leave you because I was scared of anyone.” Hunter said, holding his arms out in exasperation as his voice grew louder.
“You said you left because you were afraid.” Dex reminded him.
“Not like that.”
“Then what?” Dex pleaded.
Hunter swallowed hard. “HIV,” He said, looking to floor. Dex froze.
“I’m positive.” Hunter responded. There was a beat of silence.
“What?” Dex repeated, his eyes rapidly growing wider. “You- you’re what?”
Hunter didn’t know what to say. His heart began pounding, his breathing coming out in soft pants. Dex stepped back, leaning back against the counter as he took it in. All that Hunter could think was how incredibly sorry he was, but he didn’t say it again. He wanted to take Dex into his arms, but he didn’t let himself do that either. As Dex began to relax, Hunter became increasingly aware of the minimal space between them. After having an entire continent spread between them for over two years, it almost didn’t feel real.
“You have AIDS?” Dex clarified, lifting his eyes to meet Hunter’s.
Hunter shook his head. “I’m pretty sure it’s still HIV.”
Dex nodded, shoulders visibly relaxing in relief. He studied Hunter carefully for what felt like a long time. Taking a slow breath, Hunter pushed his hands back into his pockets. Dex noticed, and grinned weakly. “You still do that?” He asked. “You’re a grown man, you don’t have to listen to your mom anymore.”
“Well, it’s not my house.” Hunter said, blushing. “I can’t just go around touching everything.”
Dex pretended to think, taking a small step closer. “You did like to touch everything.” He said, nodding to himself. Hunter hummed in agreement, pushing his hands deeper into his pockets. Dex looked amused, and took another step forward, putting himself right in front of Hunter. He reached out, fingers wrapping gently around Hunter’s wrists. Hunter let Dex pull his hands out of his pockets, refusing to meet the other boy’s eyes as he was pulled forward. Hunter had forgotten how much shorter Dex was than him until he felt his forehead on his shoulder.
“I missed you.” Dex whispered. He let go of Hunter’s wrists, wrapping his arms around Hunter’s middle instead. The taller boy hesitated before hugging him back. He felt Dex’s shoulders tremble, and it took him a second to realize that he was crying. Hunter tightened his grip, letting Dex break down for what was probably the first time since the funeral.