Friday, October 18, 2013
****Check out this awesome guest post by Maria Mainero! You can find her at: her blog http://nevermindwastingtime.blogspot.com/ or on Twitter @MariaAnnaWitt
The oars plip plop in the water, sounding distant and close at the same time. I clutch my shawl tighter, a meaningless gesture that can’t protect me. The oarsman winks, then curls up his lip and hisses, flashing his fangs.
“Don’t rock the boat, sweetie,” he chortles as I jump.
They never said that only one of us would make it. Never. The way our mothers fussed and coached us, the way they celebrated, I figured. . .
I gulp and try to stop my thoughts before they turn to tears. I’m supposed to be strong. That’s why I was given this chance, wasn’t it? The chance to live as a free human, the future of our species. The reason we put aside our grief for the ones who were sent back from their Trial, and rejoiced for everyone who made it though.
Will would get another chance, when he turned eighteen, after his three years of breeding. But at twenty-five, having produced five live children, it had been Sal’s final trial. My own mother never passed the Trial; she was taken when I was three, and I was given a new mother. At age eight, I said goodbye again. Sal has been my mother ever since.
To lose her seems unbearable, and I start to hope for something I never would have wished until now.
We all swore we’d take death instead. We had to say that. Our own would kill us first if we dared to breathe that Vampire was the better life. Better than being farmed as food. Better than being set loose like wild animals, hunted for sport.
A hollow thump stops the boat. “Don’t forget your satchel, sweetie. Full of wooden stakes?” He snorts at his joke and I wish I had staked him. I could have done it. I could have slipped the stake from my satchel, and plunged it into his chest, just slightly to the left of the center of his white cravat.
Unless I missed, like I had at the Trial. Out here, there were no rules—no one to drag me out of the arena to an empty cell. I sat there alone, fearing there was only one fate, until they put me on this boat, without a word, without a bite.
I scramble onto the dock, gripping the clammy iron railing. The oarsman beats hastily away, leaving me in darkness. Then another lantern brightens the fog. “Welcome to the Wilderness,” says a cracked, high-pitched voice. Shadows fill the deep wrinkles on his face. “A gal? We’ll take ye. If y’ c’n break the skin, you’re in, so they say.”
I’ve never seen a man so old before or hair so white. “They really let us live?”
“Aye. Best we can figure, we’re their executioners. From time to time, they’ll dump a vampire on this island, and we. . . .dispatch it. Did ye get in a good blow?”
“Through the arm,” I admit.
“We’ll improve yer aim.”
“Am I the only one?”
“There were three yesterday. They don’t bring you in groups anymore. Lost too many boatmen that way.”
“Who? Who were they?” I ask eagerly.
“Who they were doesn’t matter. Put the past behind ye. Who we are now, is what must matter t’ ye.”
I follow the old man up the dock, but he stops at the splashing of oars. “Will!” I shout, when I see him rowing alone. I feel gloating pride that he singlehandedly staked his boatman.
He disembarks, smiling with the quiet restraint he always displays. I rush to hug him, but he brushes past me, his hand outstretched to our welcomer. In a flash, Will jerks the old man off his feet and twists his head, bones popping and snapping.
He turns to me, catching up the lantern. “They said if I could get you, you can come with me.”
I gasp out a foggy breath and sobs fill my chest. “How can I?”
“I can do it, but not now. It’s not safe for me here. Please, Annika, hurry, into the boat.” He’s still holding the old man’s lifeless body.
“How could you, Will?”
“Don’t, Anna,” he pleads. “You’d do the same, if it was your only choice.”
“Is it?” I say. He’s as silent as death. “Is it my only choice, Will?”
He looks down at the limp body in his arms. “I had to, Anna. What if you’d been waiting for me?”
He’s right, I would have done the same. . . .
If it was my only choice.
I clutch my satchel to my chest and take a shaking step towards him. His eyes brighten like citrine, a new luminous clarity to their brown. He smiles, and I shrink back, even though the smile is familiar, and his fangs are puppy-dog small.
“Let me just. . . before you come. . . “ he says, unable to speak the words for what his kind does. He bends his head, holding the man like he’s his turkey drumstick at Trial banquet.
I turn away and reach into the carpetbag. Who he was doesn’t matter. I hold the stake hidden in the folds of my skirt. We trained together, surely he’ll recognize my feeble attempt at stealth.
Will drops the old man into the lake and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, like he’s just drained a mug of milk. Dark stains line his teeth, as he smiles at me, his eyes wide in anticipation, his arms outstretched, his heart unprotected.
I spring at him with all my strength. I know my aim is bad, I’ve only wounded him. There are no rules out here. He’ll defend himself, and like him, I won’t have a choice.
“Best of luck to you, Annika,” he says, stumbling into the boat. He pulls the stake from his neck, and it falls into the water with a splash, followed by the plip plop of oars fading away into the fog.
Story by: Maria Mainero
Photo by: Jim Crossley
Friday, October 11, 2013
Bridging the Gap
“So there’s this baby,” Aaron starts. He’s already laughing at his own joke. He can barely keep still on the log he’s sitting on.
Samantha shakes her head, irritated. They’ve been arguing the whole way up to the lodge. And unfortunately me and Jake had to sit near them while they went through their weekly hate-love fest. She’s upset because its senior year and the destiny she planned for them may be coming to an end. Aaron refuses to take things as seriously.
“I tell her I love her. What more does she want?” he asked us. That was Jake’s and my cue to agree with “You’re right, man.”
Truth is Aaron’s looking forward to their split. Her to state. Him to another state and a whole range of possibilities. Not girl-wise either. “I mean, I get out of the city and just see nature. You know? That’s pretty damn cool. Not waking up to drills. Worrying about SATs or my parents. Damn,” he huffed.
I’m also looking forward to college. Not taking a subway to school and back home. Not worrying about a coach yelling in one ear and a teacher yelling in another. We’ll get to walk around campus. Live away from the steady gaze of parents expecting us to be better. Jake, Aaron, and I are all going away on scholarship.
The chill from Samantha’s face and the air up here make me shake through my shorts and sweatshirt. The temperature change was sharper than I expected. I can’t help hunching my body. Jake gives me a look and I see we’re in close proximity. Me involuntarily seeking out body heat.
I mouth “cold” to him but his stare goes away all together.
“So the baby—” and before Aaron even gets to the punch line Samantha stands up and hits him in the shoulder.
“Shut up about the baby! Just shut up. Shut up. Shut up!” She’s shaking. Her arms are stretched out on either side of her and, yup, those are tears coming down her cheeks.
Aaron’s mouth practically scrapes ground. I think mine and Jake’s are too. One of us, I don’t know who, asks, “What is up, Sam?”
Her face is in her hands. She goes into full blown tremble mode. She mumbles something. I think I hear the word “ig’nant.”
Aaron rises. He pulls her hands from her face. “What?”
“Pregnant,” is what she said, says. Aaron’s jaw really drops. He takes a step back but still holds her hands.
There’s a poke in my ribs, then a constant jab before I notice Jake. His face is near mine. It’s a bit disorienting at first but I focus on what he’s saying. “Let’s go” he urges. I don’t hesitate. We leave Aaron and Samantha. She’s slapping him away again and he’s stock still.
Jake stuffs his hands into his hoodie and I follow suit. We walk a foot apart. There’s the sound of our feet shuffling against the ground, dirt rolling under us. We go up. And up until the fog gets thick and the air gets colder prickling the exposed skin on my legs.
“I should’ve worn track pants,” I say.
“You should have but you like showing off your legs.”
I laugh. “No one’s looking at my legs.”
Jake doesn’t respond. He picks up speed and starts climbing the path. He almost slips on something and I’m there, just like on the field, right at his back ready to catch him if need be.
“Watch yourself,” I whisper. He nods but jerks away from me.
I’m about to ask him what the deal is when we hit a bridge. One of those lame swinging ones with wood and rope that doesn’t seem like it’ll hold a squirrel let alone a person. The other side is nonexistent. The fog this high up covers anything more than a few inches from your face.
“The bridge to nowhere,” I quip but Jake doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t look back at me or say anything.
He’s at the foot of the bridge his hands on either side of the rope railing. I rush to stand beside him. “What’s up with you today?”
The bridge sways under him when he steps on it. Jake takes another step sending the whole thing shaking like Samantha. My throat tightens up and I’m nervous about it holding his weight.
He moves forward practically forcing me to follow. “I swear you’re being such a douche nozzle right now.”
I catch up to him. My body swerves with the bridge no matter how slow I go. My palms dig into the rope and splinters catch into my skin. They sting but not enough for me to let go.
“Jake!” I yell until he’s almost engulfed in the fog. He stops. He turns around his body moving with the bridge. He looks at me. His eyes are as gray as the air surrounding us.
His eyes hold mine when he says, “We’re tight?”
I sputter. I glance over the side and see a bit of ground, way, way down. I swallow hard, feel the spit settle deep in my stomach.
He moves closer. “No matter what?”
“Yeah, we’re tight. You, me, Aaron.”
“I don’t mean Aaron. I mean me. When we go away… Room together, I don’t want things to get weird.”
“Weird? Why?” I falter a bit taking my right hand off the bridge but I hold up my fist waiting for him to pound it back and assure me he’s okay so we can get off of this shifting death trap.
He approaches. A rumble goes through my stomach as a gust of wind shifts the bridge. I grab at the rope but miss and am about to fall when I feel Jake’s arms clutching my body to his.
He whispers something in my ear. I don’t hear it all but I catch the key words. I hear things he may have wanted to say outloud for awhile. The glances and looks away make sense, so does his fear. I don’t respond. I let him hold me, not so much to keep me steady but to steady himself.
Story by: Jenn Baker
Photo by: Jim Crossley
Friday, October 4, 2013
Crossing the bridge takes patience. Thirty seven planks that need to be counted just right. If I miss a step, the clouds surround me. They scream and roll, twisting into stampedes of midnight colored horses or snarling wildcats. My own personal demons. And they know who's in control.
I do everything they demand of me. Skip the third plank because it squeaks. Go back if I forget to count one. Go back if I say a number wrong. Go back. Go back. Go back. And when I finally reach the end, I breathe a sigh of relief that I made it. Every day. To and from school in an endless cycle, as if I'm caught in a whirlpool and no one is stretching out their arms to save me.
But today...today I can't do it. It's too hard. I don't want to cross the bridge anymore. So I turn around and go home. Tell my mom I'm sick and hide in my room where the light switch taunts me. I feel the rectangular knob, worn nearly to a point from overuse. Flick it. Once, twice, three times... The clouds burst into my vision black and menacing, deeper and stronger than thunder. Seven, Eight, Nine...
I yank my hand off the switch and breathe through the urges. "My obsessives," I used to say. Before my mom noticed. Before the doctors named the imbalance in my brain. Before the medicine. Before I lied and said I was better.
In a way, I was better. And worse.
I pull my fingers through my hair and stumble into bed.
The ceiling fan spins too fast to count the rotations, so I watch it to focus my mind. To blow away the clouds. To remind me of what's real. Of school and drama club, and the cute new boy Mom hired to tutor me because I'm failing math.
“It's just a bad day,” I whisper beneath the hum of the motor. “Tomorrow will be better. Please, please let tomorrow be better.” But I know it won't.
Eventually the fan makes me dizzy so I bury my head beneath my covers and sleep. No clouds. No darkness. Just living breathing colors. A safe zone.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Three taps pull me out of my dream. I emerge like a cranky ostrich forced to remove its head from the ground.
“Go away,” I mutter, mostly to the hearts on my sheets. All 352 of the damn things.
“Sarah. It's me, Luke.”
No. No! No! Not my math tutor. He already thinks I'm stupid. He can't know I'm a freak too. That the reason I take so long to do my work isn't because I don't know the answer. It's because I keep messing up the curves and the lines of the numbers.
Because I'm messed up.
He comes in anyway. I press my fingers into my eyes. I don't want to count the stripes in his shirt or his dimples.
“I've got your school work. Your mother said to bring it in.”
I drag my hands down my face. “Of course she did.” God forbid I miss an assignment.
He takes another step toward me. His army green backpack strains at the seams with the extra weight of my books. “I can help if you like.”
I shrug, though I would like it. Very much.
His narrow eyes squint until they nearly disappear. They're soft. Perfect. “Are you okay?”
I sniff. I hadn't been crying, but it feels like the thing to do. “Yeah. I just...” I gesture to myself, not sure what I mean by it. “Do you want to get started?”
He stuffs one hand into his pocket and scrunches up his shoulders, sucking his neck into his collar like a turtle. “Can we?” He hooks his free thumb toward my desk.
I slog out of bed, fight the urge to count my steps, but do anyway. When I reach my desk, I grab hold of the corner so I don't go back and recount them. The intensity in his eyes helps.
Eyes. Can he see? Does he know?
I blow out a breath, pushing the clouds away as I sit down and open up my math book.
He sits next to me.
I have two chairs in my room. The swivel kind so when I fidget, our knees touch. I want to draw hash marks on the side of my paper to count the number of times.
I stay home from school again, sticking the thermometer against a light bulb so my mother has proof of my illness. If I tell her the real reason, she'll make me take the medicine again. I can't do that, because then I'll be crazy and an insomniac.
I count the hours until Luke comes. I think of his perfect shoelaces, and the way he writes. Round and straight, like a kindergarten teacher. I wish I could do that.
He's exactly on time, and wears a smile all the way up to his eyes. For the first time in thirty eight months, the clouds don't seem quite so dark.
We trudge through our work, and while I erase my numbers, he takes my hand. I stop erasing and think of his hand and the calluses on his fingertips. I wonder if he plays guitar.
My work takes less time than usual.
My third day home. My mother insists it's the last.
When Luke comes, I'm already at my desk, gripping my pencil because I don't want tomorrow to come.
Math is more difficult. The numbers bend where they should be straight. Wilting and pooling on the page. The clouds claw at the edge of my vision. I grit my teeth and reach for my pink eraser. Luke stills my hand.
“No,” he says. “Once is enough.” I drop the eraser and turn to him. His eyes glisten with the same perfection that defines everything about him.
My breath catches. He knows. He understands. “Did my mother hire you because--”
He shakes his head slowly, his eyes fixed on me. “Only my family knows. And now you.” He slides his hand behind my neck, and I tremble.
“How do you--” My words choke and burn. He loans me his shoulder, and I soak his shirt with my fears.
How do you do it? I want to ask.
He tilts his mouth toward my ear and whispers, “I'll show you.”
An hour later, we stand in front of the bridge. The clouds roll in, shifting and swirling, obscuring everything. Growling. Gnashing.
“Sar--. Yo-- r—dy?” Luke's voice comes through tinny, like it's being broadcast over my grandpa's old CB radio. Bad reception. Syllables popping in and out.
I want to run home. Watch the fan. Hide.
His hand catches mine. Our fingers tangle, and I squeeze, finding my purchase in an intangible world.
“I'll count to three,” he says, “and we'll do it together.”
I stare at the bridge. At its thirty seven impossible planks. “Numbers, huh?”
He makes a sound, like he had wanted it to be a laugh, but it broke somewhere along the way. “Yeah.”
“Okay, then.” I puff out my cheeks and blow. “Three.”
One foot. Then the next. I dare the clouds by not counting. Instead, I focus on Luke's hand. The calluses on his fingertips. The press of his palm against mine. A board creaks. I freeze. Claws swipe at me, but I don't go back. I blow out another breath, sending the beasts back to their hidden caves, and move forward.
It takes several minutes, but we reach the end and step off onto the flat dirt path. The clouds don't follow. I look at him and sniffle; the tears give me a reason. “I did it.”
He cups my face in his hands and presses his lips to my forehead. “You did.”
But there are still so many bridges. “Will you walk me to school tomorrow?” It's not so much a question, but a plea.
“Every day.” An absolute.
I curl up against his chest and feel his arms tighten around me. I press my ear against his heartbeat and listen forever, until I lose track of the numbers.
Picture by: Jim Crossley
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Happy Fall! Happy pre-holidays and in October...Happy Halloween! This photo is aptly called "Into the Fog," from Jim Crossley so maybe it'll inspire spooky, creepy stuff or maybe some elegiac, romance. Who knows?