Shell

Pop went the spitball, catapulting through the sticky classroom air in a perfect arc before burying itself into Ms. Crawford’s frizzy hair. She whirled around, bolts of anger flashing in her eyes as the classroom filled with raucous laughter.

I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He wasn’t laughing with his classmates, nor did he make any attempt to claim the gallish act as his own. He was the type to set the whole world on fire and simply walk away. Through the window, the waning sun let out its last breath, bathing his dirty blonde hair in its reddish golden sighs. His eyelashes cast long shadows over his cheekbones, obscuring what I knew to be a pair of the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.

Such unique eyes wasted on a hopeless basketcase. My mother always remarked.

But before I could look away, those stormy blue eyes focused on me with a naked, raw intensity that growled and threatened to push beyond the limits of this small town. Half drowning in his gaze, I looked down at the corrected vocabulary test on my table and took in a shaky breath.

*****

The family secret rested atop the pixelated chrysanthemums on the powdery blue tablecloth. It came out of the oven golden brown with just the right amount of burnt crispness near the edges, filling our cramped kitchen with the sweet aroma of jubilation and reunion.

“Forget about your great grandfather’s pearl locket, this is the real family heirloom.” My mother smiled mysteriously, tucking a folded piece of paper into her apron.

Only the best for when papa comes home.

The road never treated us well. Like the black sheep of the family, it remains a stain on the tips of our tongues, bitter tasting through the tearful goodbyes and never to be scrubbed off the lips. It comes bearing gifts: the sagging dark bags under father’s eyes, the medical bills from the optometrist, the prayer book beside mother’s heavy sleeping mind. As father spoke from across the table, the wrinkles around the sides of his mouth grew upwards into the intricate branchings of the halos of time.

Mother laughed at his words, her breath ricocheting off the cramped corners of the room. She never told him about the bottle of blue pills tucked away in the bottom of her bedside table. Just as father never told her about that call from the doctor all those months ago.

*****

My brother Jake was the first one who heard it. A terrible soul-wrenching wailing from the streets. I ran to the kitchen window, fingers still slippery with soap bubbles and butter grease from the dinner plates.  

A few yards from our big, draping Sycamore tree, a lonely figure knelt on the dirt. Through the grainy glass, I saw the skeletal silhouette of a woman. She wore nothing but a flimsy nightgown, grass stained and wrinkled, shoulders hunched against the whistling wind. Her fingers dug furiously into the soil, no mercy for whatever they sought: blades of grass broke at their roots, fallen Sycamore leaves ripped at the stems, seeds of dandelions crushed in her unforgiving fists. She opened her mouth and her insides tore apart once more with a blood curdling scream.

A car turned down our street, its tires screeching on the gravel. Mother had called the sheriff.

When we were allowed to peak outside into the yard, a group had gathered in front of our house. It had rained earlier today, enveloping our yard with the fresh smell of moss and renewal. The woman had disappeared, leaving in her wake only a small hollowed dent in the springy soil.

A burly, red faced man argued with the sheriff. Broken phrases and curses made their way across the yard under the rapidly darkening sky.

I stood in the doorway, watching as the boy stepped out of the shadows of the Sycamore tree, body braced against the wind. Our eyes met and he immediately looked away. Those blue eyes and messy hair were conflicted, flickering between anger, exhaustion, and finally shame.  

No one stopped Julian Barnot when he dragged his drunk father away from our yard.

*****

The day Julian Barnot dumped Bette Harper came as a shock to the whole school. According to her, he snatched her heart out of her ribcage and ground it into a bloody pulp. According to him -well-there was nothing according to him. Must be those blue eyes of his. I thought in revelation.

I found him behind the school, nestled between a tall garbage can and an air of carelessness. He clutched a bent cigarette in one hand, its tip aglow.

Before I could react, my feet have brought me so close to him that I could smell the burnt up tar of his past coiled tightly inside the charred edges of the Newport.

“Can I smoke with you?”

My voice surprised me. It wasn’t a timid request, but a demand. I half expected those arched dark eyebrows to say no and shoo me away as he had done with the rest of the world.

The plastic lighter shuddered in his callused fingers and exhaled a flicker of orange flames.

He shielded the tiny sparkle from the cold, cruel world, the way no one had done for him all these years ago, and the smooth end of my cigarette kissed the edges of the flame.

We stood together side by side in the silence, my shoulders barely touching the middle of his upper arm. The sleeves of his windbreaker swished in the breeze.

Maybe it was the haze of the nicotine, or the comforting notion that we were the sole survivors of this apocalypse. When he looked down at me, for the first time, I saw through his blue eyes into the chewed up hollowed shell of a boy who felt too much in a world that cared too little.

I watched him send his ashy grievances to the heavens. He watched the remnants of his future curl up into whisps and drift off into the distant past.

I wanted to ask him about his mother, but I didn’t.

 


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