Wren and River

“Cooper Neighborhood Photos” belongs to Ed Kohler on Flickr.com. Some rights reserved.

It is the year 2010 and the summer sun drives beads of sweat across my face with torrents of heat pouring over my skin, drenching my clothes and making my hair stick to the skin of my neck, cheeks, and forehead. I drown in the sunlight as though I am a baby who has opened her eyes and experienced open air for the first time, all sensitive skin and mouth, throat, and nostrils gasping for breath. I am suffocating and I think I will surely pass on before I can acquire my own driver’s license. I breathe, pushing air in and out of my face as my feet step, calves pumping, thighs burning. Almost there. Just a few yards more. Up ahead, River Yang laughs, his voice mocking and bold, thick like maple syrup but not as sweet.

“Too slow, Wren. Too bad.” River lifts his arms to the sky and grabs fistfuls of blue atmosphere. He jumps in celebration, fingers more than grazing an outstretched oak branch, landing on the balls of his feet with his legs spread wide apart. He is joy and bliss in human form, his accomplishment turns him into a caricature of satisfaction. A crooked smile stretching across his face threatens me with shame for my failure, encouraging me and my oxygen-deprived lungs forward. When I do finally reach him he reaches out his hand for a slap. “Getting slow there, Wren.”

“Hey,” I gasp out the words, “when you’d become superhuman.” My hands on my knees I pant, my sides aching, the lunch in my lower intestines seemingly reversing its journey through my gut.

“We can’t all be Superman, some of us gotta be backup. You’re Robin. Get it? Since your name is Wren.”

“Robin’s my cousin. Six times removed. I might as well not even be related to him.” I slap River’s right hand, meaning for a quick grasp and release but he holds on. His fingers and palms are rough and calloused from playing ball. There is a mud stain on his shoes from football practice with his teammates. He pulls me into him and for the first time but definitely not the last, I feel a twinge somewhere deep inside that region where they say your heart lies and where they say we all have a vulnerability to the sharpened tip of cupid’s arrow, but I say, they lie. It’s all in my head. Just oxytocin and dopamine from not having a close friend and suddenly I’m dancing in the streets under the midday sun with none other than my stepbrother, River.

His post-puberty tendons tense and jump under the skin of his forearm. I can smell the scent of his sweat, the liquid soap my family places in the shelf by the shower head, and the laundry detergent we use on our laundry. I can feel the warmth emanating off his torso. His chest tapers into shoulders rounded by football practice and late hours lifting weights with teammates laughing about “pumping iron and girls.” I sneak what means to be a furtive glance at his face but find myself ensnared in Cupid’s crosshairs. Above, sun beams glint off River’s russet hair, like a reddish-brown beacon for homesick girls like me, lost and confused, who return home to a place that no longer recognizes them. His eyes are blue like an ocean that has never known peace, a sea of chaotic waves and currents that maroons sailors on islands not yet discovered, yet not worth noting discovery for lack of flora, fauna, and human life.

“River.” The word comes out sounding more like an involuntary passing of gas between my lips like a belch, or as my middle-school self would have said, a burp. His once-confident smile falters. He gives me a quick glance-over, my sweaty hair hastily tied under a baseball cap, wayward strands escaping under the rim stuck to the sides of my neck in a sticky mess. My T-shirt untucked and knobby knees with calves that could do with more than a bit of toning. His pouty lower lip teases me with the words he is about to breathe into existence, but then he lets go of my hand and backs away. Wordlessly, he leaves my realm of indecision and constant cautious hesitation and returns to his world of athletic bravado and bold curiosity and clever puns. River walks away from my insignificant corner of the world with my obsessive insecurities and crazy hopeful thoughts and returns to being River, the athlete, the straight-A student, the good son. River the stepbrother, and I, his younger sister.


Dear Chloe,

“Hdr Colorful Street” belongs to Ran Allen on Flickr.com. Some rights reserved.

If this begins to sound like the tell-all, show-all, excessively rehashed, borderline-obsessive screenplay of some ridiculously underfunded film written by a high school student in desperate need of fifty or so words to turn in to an overworked teacher—a story about a girl with too-big of an imagination and a friendship that knows no sensible boundaries—please let me know. But honestly, I feel like you’d probably be okay with this, seeing as you still talk to me.

It’s been a good eight years. I know for a lot of that time we weren’t truly in contact with each other, but I’m glad we have the friendship we have now. This feels kind of crazy to me. It really does. Eight years have passed us by and I’m not a twelve-year-old little girl anymore, at least not on the outside. Alright, so what if I do look like I’m twelve on the outside, I certainly feel like I’m twelve on the inside too.

I haven’t changed much. I’m still insecure about the same things, still feel the same way about a lot of things like onions and math. Oh, God, my mental math is still awful. In fact, I think it’s only gotten worst. I’m still anxious when I speak in front of a group, my voice shakes, my fingers tremble. My social anxiety seizes hold of my tongue, vocal cords, and lungs. My mind is a dandelion seed and the stares of my peers is the only gust of wind I need to become dislodged and sail away. Without a mind I become a mechanical machine, hopelessly pushing words on a conveyor belt to be voiced into existence, an action that has been rehearsed tirelessly over and over again. If not expected to speak I become mute, a paperweight sitting on a sheet of paper, insignificant and invisible.

It is with you I discovered a confidant. It was you I trusted my insecurities with, my crushes, my moments of stunning social awkwardness. Without you I would have been an island, isolated by miles and miles of ocean, my poisonous insecurity and traitorous lack of confidence holding me a prisoner of my own flaws. With you as a source of comfort, I dared to speak to unfamiliar faces and build bridges. I managed to gain a sense of satisfaction in everyday tasks and I held onto hope during depressing times. I held out for the blue of sunlit skies after the cold gray of stormy seas. So, sail on, Chloe. And I hope you find what you’re looking for. Whatever it is that you want out of life, I hope you reach. I hope you get there, wherever it is you want to be.

I am and always will be the girl you met on the sandy path strewn with goose feces at Centerville Junior High. We might not be in seventh grade anymore and I know, with time, we won’t always be this close, but I hope that one day, when we meet again you’ll remember me and I’ll remember you as we were, as we are, friends like we once were in seventh grade.

Yours truly,

Julie W

A Secret for a Secret

“Lightbulb Filament Lighting the Blue” belongs to Orbmiser on Flickr.com. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

“The truth is, Callum,” I took a deep breath as if oxygen could neutralize the fear and anxiety boiling in the pit of my stomach. “I’m gay.”

Callum rubbed his face with his right hand, the muscles in his forearm stood out in the yellow light of the hall. He dropped his hand and exhaled, sighing.

“I was wondering when you were going to tell me,” he said, fixing me with his turquoise stare. “You know, I’ve been hearing things about you. It’s all starting to make sense.” His fingers dug into the brown-striped arms of the cushioned chair he was sitting in. I could tell he was deep in thought and his next words were going to be well thought out and carefully picked. He stood. His gaze left my face and drifted to the maroon carpet on the floor as he turned, half-facing me and half-facing the window that looked out into the darkening sky. “I’ve never had a friend come out to me before. So I hope I don’t come off like someone who doesn’t care. Because I do care, you’re a good friend to me.”

I nodded, knowing that he would never understand the desires that I harbored in my mind, my yearning for him, thoughts that I considered forbidden in the insecurity-inducing and sometimes hostile environment of high school. Especially since we were both adolescent boys who ran in different social circles, I knew he would never reciprocate. He, an acoustic guitar playing, athletic god, and me, a boy too concerned with watching performance poetry.

“I’m happy for you. I’m glad you’ve decided to come out of the closet. Listen, you’ve told me a secret. Now I’ll tell you one of mine.” He gave me a faint smile. “You know that lady you saw me with the other day? Margaret, you remember her? She teaches philosophy and English at Cremwood. Well, she’s…,” here he paused, his right hand reached behind him to his neck, digging through his tousled hair. He bared his teeth to me in an awe-inspiring grin. “She’s more than a friend. Margaret and I, we spend a lot of time together.”

There was little I could do but stare in shock. Sherman High’s most popular jock, accomplished athlete, and coveted ladies’ man was tongue-deep in an affair with a Cremwood University professor. Was she married? Did she have children? Was Callum on the threshold of ruining a family that was picture-perfect on the surface? Callum continued to smile at me, it was clear that his mind was elsewhere. Maybe he was remembering how he and Margaret rendezvoused at her expensive mansion that only a bestselling author and professor at a highly ranked university could afford. Maybe he was remembering how it felt to roll around underneath her silk bed sheets with Margaret in lacy lingerie. Of course the thought didn’t fail to make my insides twist in envy. Hopefully it didn’t show on my face.

“It’s not like that, Ray. She doesn’t have a husband. She’s divorced. Margaret’s been a divorcee since long before I met her.” Callum seemed to read my mind.

“I wasn’t thinking that. I’m happy for you too, I mean…,” and here my awkwardness almost killed me, “I’m glad you’ve found someone who makes you happy.” If only that someone could be me. If only you and I, if only we could be possible. The possibility of Callum and me, it was killing me as he crossed the small amount of space between us and clapped me on the shoulder before gripping me firmly, the hair curling from the top of his head almost touched my eyebrows and I could feel the warmth of his breath.

“There. A secret for a secret. Now we’re even.” His turquoise eyes burned themselves into my mind. Something glinted in them like an unspoken agreement. Something like bonfire smoke in the backyard and the beer-stained lips of teenagers when their parents weren’t home as an introverted loner tries to find his way among the discarded red plastic cups and tangled, laughing bodies. Something like a shiny glass pipe passed between friends in the woods where the only witnesses are birds perched overhead. Something a little like love and something a lot like unrequited infatuation and my heart pounding away, deep inside my chest.

Henrik on Freeman Beach

“You see this?” Henrik asked.

“Yeah. It’s a bottle, a bottle with some paper in it,” I said. My voice was shrill against the oncoming wind.

“It’s not just any bottle,” he replied. “This bottle is the key to our new beginning. You and I. We’re going to be somebody someday.” His feet struggled against the wet sand, against the ocean pulling at his ankles, against gravity. His toe nails peeked out at me, gray and dirty.

“Uh, okay. What did Mom want us to do with that bottle?” I was doubtful that a tiny glass bottle could help us—or him—at all. It was just bottle, corked at the mouth.

“Why do you care what Mom wants us to do with this?” Henrik’s back was the slat of a fence bent backward from the weight of too many unruly children as he curled his right arm past his head. His breath reeked of alcohol. His stained shirt, once blue like the color of his cerulean eyes, was now gray like the color of the sky that could easily break into rain or brush away its clouds and turn blue. Was the sky itself uncertain about what it wanted?

“Make up your mind, clouds. Do what you have to do,” I thought to a stormy sky that was as indecisive as Henrik. He had no plans after college, just as how he no plans before college. Henrik could never make up his mind on what he wanted to do. I could never figure him out. He either had too many ideas or no idea whatsoever on how he wanted to spend his life. Once upon a time he wanted a degree in astronomy. He wondered about the stars, their gases, and the chemical reactions within them that kept them lit. Then he wanted a degree in mechanical engineering. He wanted to design airplanes and spaceships. Now he was penniless and a drifter on the shores of Freeman beach.

Henrik turned to look at me, arm crooked as if to throw. The bottle glinted in the sunlight, held in the grasp of his long fingers. A grin as wide as the horizon split across his weather-beaten face. His teeth glowed beneath the midday sun. It surprised me, as always, with his torn shorts in need of repair, stained shirts, and half-shaven mug, that he still managed to take the time to care for his teeth.

“You want to know something, Callum? All of our yesterdays are locked inside this tiny bottle,” he said as he tossed it into the ocean.

“Wait,” I cried. “That’s littering.” It was too late. I watched the light glitter off the glass surface of the bottle as it flew out to sea. Henrik was the type of person who set an example, a type of example that no one should follow.

“Goodbye, my troubles!” Henrik hollered to the sky. “Goodbye, my yesterdays!” He looked back at me and laughed. His laughter was a cross between a growl and deep-throated belly-laugh, taking me back to my memories of elementary school when Henrik was always there to pick me up after school and take me home. We splashed each other at community pools and played hide-and-go-seek at our neighbors’ annual barbeque block parties. Now I barely see him at all, unless I come here to Freeman beach with its ocean the color of steel and the sun suffocating behind a cloak of stormy clouds.

A pair of ladies walked by with umbrellas and lawn chairs. Mindless of them, Henrik, still laughing, ran into the waves, splashing wet sand and seawater in every direction. My hands flew to shield my eyes.

“Wait!” Henrik dove into the ocean. Was that me who called after him? Or was it someone else? Another version of me called after Henrik that day on Freeman beach, standing ankle-deep in frigid ocean water. A boy I remembered from my primary school days, a boy who reminisced about an older brother who had once taken the place of a distracted father.

Nearby, one of the ladies muttered to her companion under her breath, but the wind blew her scattered words to me.

“What a nuisance,” she said.

Somewhere in the waves, Henrik laughed.

Our Yesterday: Flash Fiction Converted from a Free Verse Poem

This poem-turned-flash fiction was inspired by the LGBTQ novels of Julie Anne Peters.

I don’t know what time it is. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Eight o’clock at night. All I know is that the tip of your index finger is stroking across the top of my collarbone. Your dull fingernail burns a line to my shoulder. Why are your fingertips so warm? Why are my fingers normally so cold? That’s odd. Today my fingers are warm, almost sweaty.

We sit on a dilapidated sofa, warming our feet underneath Oscar. Oscar’s breathing, drooling, and tail-thumping is a constant in my life, not like the variable you are. On days like this, I wish we could last forever watching the dusk sky through the vast windows on the second floor of 1501 Blackfoot Drive, like two figurines sitting on a sofa with a dog in a snow globe.

This is the house that was so large that I never believed you when you said “Your house is enormous,” until the day I moved out. We had a secret no one needed to know about. But the sun is setting and outside hummingbirds are turning in for the night. The clouds are gathering, obscuring the stars from being seen. There is going to be a storm tonight.

When my mom moved out, she took me with her. I thought I would never see you again, childhood best friend, birthday party conspirator, and fellow tree climber. We were the unnamed, unofficial explorers of Arroyo Aqua Caliente Park. You promised me a tree house.

We met again at the age of 16. You’re a public school scoundrel, and me, a private school misfit. You have a dog now, a girlfriend, and divorced parents. Despite the differences I’m sure have accumulated in our minds and hearts, in the way you write, never dotting i’s but always looping l’s, in the way you smell, in the way you smile at me, not quite like long-lost best friends, more like simple acquaintances. You’re a hoodie-wearing guitar player who excels at sports, both a cross-country and swim champion, while I myself quit water polo and soccer a long time ago. We are no longer the prepubescent kids we once were, but on October 13, a Saturday, we meet. Your dog’s name is Ichor.

It’s a dumb question but I have to ask, “What inspired you to name him that?”

You tell me about Greek mythology, the blood of the Gods and Goddesses. You ask me if I think it’s pretentious of you.

I tell you “No.” Nothing could be pretentious if you do it. It’s awkward now. I can’t bring myself to find the words to tell you that it’s not pretentious of you. If I weren’t so lovelorn, I would question whether or not you used the word pretentious correctly.

Once upon a time I could never stop talking in front of you. Now I am silent. I swallow my chewing gum and I wonder if you can see the painful insecurity crawling down my throat. But your chocolate eyes steal me away into a world where I am lost in your scent, something like pine, maple syrup, and laundry detergent on fresh sheets. You come closer. Your tanned skin seems darker in comparison to my pale limbs.

That night when Mom thinks I’m asleep, I’m rummaging in boxes packed to the lid with memorabilia. I’m looking for souvenirs of you and me, from the past when the future didn’t matter and time was our playmate, when the lines of imagination and reality mixed so often, they were intertwined. We held hands and my heart beat so fast, even though we were just boys on a playground. You never gave a girl any attention when I was around, too busy building defensive walls around my castles.

My mom begins to date your dad. I know this because when they decided their children should meet, I saw you again. I met her too.

“This is Sabrina,” you tell me. This is your girlfriend, your girlfriend Sabrina. I know those wet sand castle walls around your heart must have fallen, attacked by her army of cupids shooting their arrows, tipped in poison and fire, into the sanctuary of your heart.

You are so warm to me when Sabrina is around, because you don’t expect me to harbor these emotions or this heart of impossible hopes.