Volume 41 ~ 2018
It is the fifth day after my best friend killed herself. She shot herself in the head. I had told her, once, that girls were statistically less likely to commit suicide by gun. Maybe that’s why she did it that way. The idea makes it that much worse. I don’t think it’s fair that she just gets to leave while her brain and blood had to be scraped off her bedroom wall. It’s not fair that we have to have a closed casket; my best friend is beautiful.
The church is decorated with brightly colored blossoms. They force me to recall the bouquet I gave her after she performed as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland Jr. She’d had tangerine and turquoise eyeshadow and lips with rhinestones over her eyebrows. The picture we took together is still my lock screen.
Nobody can deem it right to have dull, boring flowers, not for her. She was neon, fluorescent and loud. Annoying to some people, perhaps, and wonderful to others. My best friend is wonderful. Yes, there were times when her colors got too bright, too overwhelming, but it’s nothing compared to being locked alone in the dark. There’s no noise where her boisterous laughter and beautiful singing once filled every room she was in.
We sing “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus,” her favorite hymn. I used to be able to hear her voice over the din of everyone else, but now the voices blend together in a mournful symphony. There’s no light, for she was a neon sun, and I her dull companion in our binary star system. When she took her own life, she took mine as well.
I was runner-up at state last year.
Coach says if I work hard, I can easily win my weight class;
I am working hard.
Who’s at the wrestling deck more than me? No one.
I lift more. I run more.
Coach and the team are counting on me to be a leader.
Everyone at school is counting on me to win.
The town is counting on me to bring them pride.
“Big” Ben. That’s what they call me.
I’m practically the best thing that’s happened to this town
since the boys basketball team made state decades ago.
They’re all counting on me.
I didn’t ask for this.
I’m watching my weight,
staying at 152.
At lunch, everyone laughs at my meager salad and
taunts me with their Mountain Dew and Cool Ranch Doritos.
My weight won’t stay.
Even in the summer, I jog around town with three sweatshirts on.
Not a day goes by when I’m not in the weight room,
but it’s fine.
I’ve got it figured out, and I’m staying on top of it.
Still, nobody would guess it was “Big” Ben that was on his
knees in front of a toilet with three fingers down his throat.
I drive down a gravel road singing both parts to “Memory” from Cats. With an hour to lose before I have to be back for pep band, I cruise the twisting dirt paths. It’s surprisingly warm, but the forecast predicts freezing temperatures for the weekend. Miles away from town, I see a little cemetery nestled into a pasture. Having always wanted to stop at strange locations, I pull my car into the small dirt driveway.
Excitement rushes through me since I have always been denied mini-adventures, be it by my parents or time. I realize it is a bit macabre to be eager to visit a cemetery; however, that doesn’t lessen my desire for unexpected experiences. My feet touch the grass, and I notice how well kept the grounds are despite the lack of modern tombstones. I hang my lanyard around my neck and make sure my phone is in my sweatshirt pocket. Treading gently through the sod, I make my way to the nearest gravestone.
A breeze caresses my face like a mother’s hand. The evening sun radiates a fading light that will soon leave the fields in twilight. Guarding the cemetery is a fence of cottonwoods and evergreens. I arrive at the first grave and crouch to read the marble; the carvings are worn to a rough unevenness, making it difficult to read. All I can distinguish is an engraved lamb laying in a blissful field. The person buried beneath me is a child, a baby perhaps. I take in the remaining stones and notice many are endowed similarly. Beside them are abandoned Hobby Lobby plastic flowers. Children were far less likely to make it to adulthood. I thank God I don’t live in a time when it is common to watch mothers mourn the loss of their children to disease and unfair conditions. I touch the stone, wanting to let the child know it is still loved.
I walk through the cemetery, placing my hand on each marker. Yellow, red, blue, pink, white, and orange daisies reside above the fallen, never giving up their vigilant care. Emptiness consumes my thoughts. The fear of dying before I can be remembered rages inside me. Children are in this cemetery, and they have not been neglected, but forgotten. Their names no longer indent themselves on every passerby and few would care enough to know.
Trudging back to my car, I am reluctant to abandon those the stones represent. I feel sympathy for the families of all residents of this remote burial ground. Staring at my reflection in my car’s window, I see a girl that is easily forgotten. I refuse to be left behind. When history books are written, my name will be there. The heat begins to kick on, and I head back onto the road toward another night of rural school basketball. Once at the school, I glance at my rearview mirror and see myself. I wear a crown of graveyard flowers.
A Boy and a Semiautomatic Rifle
His audience gathers in the cafeteria.
An overture of bullets rings up
into the ceiling. No one dares move lest his aim
lowers. He prances back and forth across
his stage, a long table near the trash cans.
The boy grins and laughs. Dancing,
he sings Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?”
off key. His eyes glint with satisfaction,
and he smiles in the spotlight of their eyes.
Teachers and students stare in horrified awe.
Soon the performance will end. There will be
no encore or curtain call.
“In what universe is Bing better than Google? There is no justification behind your whole argument!” Mason Patterson yelled, his afro bouncing with exasperated gestures.
“There’s plenty of justification, Patterson! Bing actually gives results with real-world context, and the video search is significantly better,” Leo Anderson shouted up at the considerably taller man.
Mason responded condescendingly. “Oh, of course. Video search is the most important part of a search engine. Do you know what people use your precious video search for, Anderson? Porn.”
“You know what? Bing is a thousand times better than Google!”
The dark skinned man guffawed, throwing back his head. “I’ll believe it when I hear good reasoning, short stuff,” Mason managed to get out after his laughter died down.
Leo’s face fumed and he indignantly pulled at his ponytail to tighten it. “Alright, you purple-clad freak-- ”
“You are not insulting my clothing style.” Mason snapped, interrupting Leo. “At least I have one,” he huffed, glaring down at the Puerto Rican.
“Boys! That’s enough!” Professor Washington scolded. “I attempt to give you one harmless debate idea, yet you still manage to twist “whether Google is the best search engine” into a yelling match.” He sighed. “You have to be professional even if you don’t particularly like someone. Also, no one else can get a word in,” he gestured to the remaining college students in the classroom.
“But, sir-” Leo tried to argue.
“No. If you can’t agree, you will at least disagree calmly, or I’ll have no choice but to fail you both. I know you two are hardworking students who put their grades in high regard, so please, work on practicing a little civility around each other,” the professor commanded. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” they both murmured to the floor.
“Good. Now sit down and stay silent for the rest of class while everyone else participates in the debate.”
The boys dumped themselves into desks on opposite sides of the room and glared at each other. Sitting on the edge of his seat, Leo was intrigued by the conversation going on before him. Mason, on the other hand, slumped in his chair, drawing senseless patterns on the desk with his finger.
When class was over, everyone scrambled to gather their things. The two boys walked a little slower than the rest until they were out of earshot of their professor.
“Purple is not a clothing style. It’s a color, and it looks ridiculous,” Leo stated, still in the middle of their earlier argument.
“At least I wasn’t named after people I will never live up to,” Mason retorted.
“At least I wasn’t named after a glass jar,” Leo smirked at his own comeback, then quickly frowned. “Wait, what people will I not live up to?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Da Vinci, Dicaprio, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle,” the taller of the two, Mason, said in false contemplation. “See you later, Anderson. Hopefully not, though.”
Leo walked to the restroom after regaling an exaggerated tale of his incidents with Mason to his friends over lunch. He realized he’d forgotten to mention Washington’s academic threat and turned over the idea in his mind. Nothing less than a 100% was enough for Leo, and his heart began to pound at the oncoming worst grade of his life. There was simply no way he and Mason could act civilly around each other. Their conversation after class pointed that out easily enough. They were doomed to fail. His entire future depended on his education.
Gripping the wall, Leo crawled into an empty room before collapsing, cursing his anxiety. His heart pounded, his stomach twisted with nausea, and his breaths came in short pants. He wrapped his arms around his abdomen and dropped his head to his knees, feeling tears on the edge of falling from his eyes. Leo wanted to think rationally, but all he could think of was this sense of hopelessness. Panic seethed in his mind, and he felt an attack rising inside him.
Suddenly, a soothing voice reached his ears, and Leo tried desperately to cling to it, to hear what it was saying. He reached out, not even knowing what he was doing. His hands gripped some larger than his but didn’t process this, and his eyes lifted to look into deep brown eyes. Mason Patterson stared at him worriedly, gently speaking words Leo was beginning to comprehend.
“It’s okay. You’re okay, Leo. Take a deep breath in. Deep breath... You’re doing so well. Another one, let it out.” Mason crooned.
Leo gradually calmed his aching lungs and rapidly beating heart.
“That’s it. Everything’s okay now. Can you tell me five things you can see?” Mason asks, his voice unusually soft.
“A desk… the door… the ceiling fan… a green poster… your purple clothes,” Leo manages, eyes flittering around the dark, empty room.
The taller man laughed lightly at the comment about his clothing. “What are four things you can touch?”
“The ground beneath me… the wall… my jeans… your hands.”
“Three things you can hear,” Mason said.
“My breathing, the air conditioner, your voice,” Leo answered, steadier than before.
“Two things you can smell.”
He sniffed. “I don’t know, the classroom. Food from the cafeteria.”
“One thing you can taste,” Mason urged with an air of finality.
Leo looked at the other man incredulously. “My spit?”
Mason chuckled at the answer. He looked down at their still clasped hand. With how tightly Leo was holding his, they weren’t likely to be let go anytime soon.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re safe,” he repeated.
“Yeah, yeah.” Leo’s posture was already improved, his breathing much steadier. His thoughts were no longer as frantic, but questions soon began to arise. “Wait, how did you find me?”
“Oh. I waste my time walking around campus looking for Leonardo Anderson so I can insult random elements of your life.” Mason teased. “I was walking to the bathroom when I heard noises, which I now know were from you. I once walked in on raccoons mating in an empty classroom, so I thought I would check it out.”
“What?!” Leo asked, scandalized.
“It was only once, but you can never be too careful.”
Leo shook his head and regretted it, his brain still throbbing with anxiety. “Why did you help me? You’re never kind to me,” he paused, trying to think of motives. “Are you going to use this against me?” Panic beginning to rise within him again.
“Calm down. I promise I won’t mention this again unless you specifically say I can. I helped you because, one, it would be a whole new level of douchebag even I can’t sink to if I left you alone, and two,” the corner of his mouth lifted slightly, “someone I’m really close to has anxiety. That’s why I knew how to help you.”
“Oh. That senses concept worked pretty well. I’ll have to remember that,” Leo said awkwardly. He looked down at their sweaty hands and blushed. Letting go, he wiped them on his pants.
“Are you okay now?” Mason’s head was tipped, concern still in his eyes.
“Yeah, I’m much better now. Thank you.” That wasn’t a sentence Leo had ever thought he would say to Mason Patterson, much less with as much sincerity as there was.
“Okay.” The other man rose from his heels. As he got to the door, he turned to Leo. “I meant what I said. I won’t tell anyone. Also, Google’s still better.”
With that, Leo was left alone in the classroom.
Four days had passed since the “Mason Incident.” There were no rumors or scrutinizing glances from other students. He had actually begun to respect Mason for keeping his word, but only a little. The university’s honor society was hosting a winter social that night for members and faculty. Leonardo feared seeing the other man again, having managed to avoid him. He had no idea how to act. Dressed in his best clothes, Leo entered into the venue, head high, refusing to be intimidated.
It was an hour into the party and Leo had evaded any confrontation with Mason, keeping to the opposite side of the room. Last year, Leo and Mason had a not-so-civil disagreement that only Mason’s extremely mild-tempered friend, Jim, could pacify. Everyone relished in the less hostile environment of this year’s party. Leo was actually enjoying himself and talked among his peers and professors.
Glancing up through the crowd, he saw Mason with his aquamarine suit and an uncomfortable expression on his face. Mason looked briefly around before quickly heading toward the restroom. Leo considered ignoring him but soon excused himself from the conversation and followed him. If Mason was willing to help him through his anxiety, he could at least make sure he was alright.
When he entered the bathroom, he was greeted by the sight of Mason with shaking hands in his hair, leaning over the counter. His breathing was short and labored, and his eyes rapidly shifted under his eyelids.
“Gali--... Mason? Are you okay?” Leo asked cautiously, noticing he was not his usual suave, sophisticated self.
Mason’s eyes opened, darting around like a confined creature. The grip on his curls tightened, and he quickly shut his eyes again. Leo gently laid his hand on Mason’s shoulder, but his body violently jerked away from the human touch. The blue-clad boy slid to the ground and scooted back until his shoulders were against the wall, gasping. Staring, Leo lowered himself to his knees and sat on his hands.
“You’re fine. Whatever it is, you don’t have to be afraid of it. Whatever it is, you can beat it. I know you can,” Leo soothed, confident in what he was saying, but a little at a loss on how to comfort someone who refused personal contact.
“Anderson.” The name came out like he had to fight to get it out around his ragged breathing.
“Yes. It’s your hated arch-nemesis, Leonardo Anderson.”
“I don’t hate you,” the words were uttered between gasps of air. “I’ve never hated you. You have a different point of view. You challenge me like no one else. It’s intimidating.”
“Umm. Thanks? Wow, I really don’t know how to respond,” Leo shifted uncomfortably. “But, um, how are you?
“Better now. Your voice is surprisingly calming when you’re not trying to contradict every word I say.” Mason’s breathing slowed down and he untangled his hands from his hair.
“I don’t contra--”
“Really?” Mason’s eyebrow raised incredulously.
“Okay, okay. I’ll go get Jim. You probably would rather have him here anyway,” Leo started to rise.
Mason grabbed him. “Wait!” He blinked at his own actions, making eye contact with the standing man. He dropped his hand as hastily as he raised it. “I mean, it’s fine. Your company’s shockingly tolerable.”
Leo laughed and settled down on the restroom floor next to the other man.
“I have social anxiety. That’s why I knew how to help you,” Mason turned to him and stretched his legs out in front of him.
“What?! You’re an amazing public speaker!” Leo coughed, blushing down at the tile floor. “I mean, you’re adequate.”
“Thanks. It’s not speaking in front of people, it’s speaking to people. For me, at least. They can judge you, and you can’t rehearse a conversation with people. There are too many variables to predict,” Mason replied.
Minutes passed, and a random student opened the door to the restroom to find Mason Patterson and Leonardo Anderson laughing together on the floor beneath the paper towel dispenser. The student stared in disbelief, his mouth gaping before he quickly exited.
“This week’s topic is toilet paper.” Prof. Washington sighed. “Should it be under or over?”
“Over.” Two boys looked at each other from across the room with their eyebrows raised.
“They agree. It must be the end of the world. They agree,” Washington put his hands on his face and dropped into his desk chair.