By Lindsay Brader
Joe and I used to eat our lunches of jelly sandwiches and celery sticks by the pond. That was until the bird craze took over and Joe disappeared. It was our spot—a small concrete rectangle lined with white gravel, the same kind you put in the bottom of fish tanks.
But there weren’t ever fish in the school’s pond and it wasn’t really a pond. It was a fountain with amputated spouts. Our principle, Mr. Smeed, had deemed the stone lion’s downpour as Intimidating and Excessive so it was removed and the fountain was silenced to a mere bubbling from a black plastic hose.
There weren’t any frogs or tadpoles living there or anything else a bird might find to eat, so I don’t know why a white heron started to rest there, its long legs rooted every day in the synthetic rubble, staring into the water, waiting.
Mr. Smeed sent a text to all of the students warning us of “the animal on site” telling us that we weren’t to feed the bird, talk about the bird, or look at the bird. The school had a strict policy against pets and wildlife because a few of the students were terrified of animals. A guy named Jerry once cried in Advanced Calculus because a fly landed on his desk. He took off his shoe and swung at the air, screaming. We have to consider everyone’s feelings at Hill Crest. That’s what we’re here to learn how to do.
My first day here was a Monday, nice class day, which is really called Introduction to Human Relations: The Practice of Empathy and Tolerance. A girl with a round push-pin face ran across the room to tell me she liked my new haircut. I’d never seen her before in my life and my hair was long and greasy. I said thanks and tried not to look her in the eyes.
“That’s Donna,” said a voice to my right, “she’s a Blue.” He popped his knuckles three times each and asked what I was in for. Because girls are supposed to have warm hands and fast mouths, I thought, but instead gave a polite chuckle and shrugged.
“You?” I asked.
“I’m Joe, I’m here because my mom was worried about me and how I’d sometimes bark at strangers so she sent me to see a doctor and even though I made sure to never yelp or bark at him, he told my mom I had issues and that she should send me to a special school for kids like me, which doesn’t mean that all of us here are yelpers and barkers, of course, but we all make too much of the wrong kinds of noise and not enough of the right kind. Right? Because spending your time distantly thinking about inertia and parrots and a hundred ways to kill an ant and comic book super heroes from the 70’s and different names for the color purple and frogs jumping in reverse slow motion and that my eyes might turn to raisins if I forget to blink and the texture of macaroni and circus animals trained to fight wars and how long it would take to eat a star then that means you’re sick, and not like barf-kind-of-sick, but like crazy-hobo-with-pubic-hair-beard-kind-of-sick. And I’m not sick but I’m trying to get better. Do you ever think about electrons?”
Before I could answer he had asked me three more questions. I told him my name, Lucy, and listened to his explanation of the tenth dimension.
Joe is in the Red Class. The class for kids with thoughts on fire. They all talk with their hands, their trains always jumping tracks. I’m in the Green Class where we mostly keep to ourselves. The other classes, Yellow and Blue, are agreeable people. So much so that they forget who they are. Donna claps her hands whenever someone gets an answer right in class but she never has answers of her own. The Blues are the closest to graduation, then Yellows, then Reds, and the Greens have years to go. Graduation can have them. I hate Donna and her dumb pink mouth.
Wednesdays are game night—not optional and no gambling allowed.
I was sitting next to Joe at a fold-up table but we weren’t playing Go Fish or Scrabble or Pictionary like the other kids at the other tables in the game hall, we were building card houses with card driveways and card cabins on lakes of cards and card skyscrapers that collapsed onto card city streets.
Joe talks and talks till his voice goes raw, I can hear him swallow and think and walk—everything he does is loud and clear. He tells me the history of the school’s buildings. He loves history and facts and jokes without punch lines.
“Did you know, did you know?” he starts up like a stuttering engine, his metal folding chair scooting on the linoleum. “This place used to be a hospital. That’s why it smells like wet newspaper, it’s all the boxes rotting in the basement, old patient records and stuff.” He smacked his lips and asked me, “You think the place is haunted?
“No. I’m not superstitious.”
“Oh me neither,” he said. “I’m a man of science, absolutely. You know that. BUT. What if our souls are made of electrons that act differently when observed and when we die, our souls become waves instead of particles because no one is watching us anymore. Then we’d be ghosts. Real ghosts floating around in a world unimagined by the living!” He tapped his fingers on the table. The cards crumbled and we built it all over again.
I told him if there were ghosts here, I’d like to meet one.
“That’s the problem with electron-ghosts. As soon as you seen one, it stops existing.”
Thursdays are collage days. It’s an hour of clipping words and pictures from Consumers Digest and Gourmet and other approved magazines. We glue them onto our Me Boxes where we keep our birthday cards from home and pictures of our family and our mandatory journals.
Joe assembled an image of cotton candy like a cloud and broccoli for the tree and a cell phone cut like a house to decorate his Me Box.
Across the room, Jerry doesn’t cut anything out. He covers his box in layers of glue until it’s heavy and thick and a solid white. Some Thursdays, he’ll peel it off like skin and start over.
We’d received a text that morning reminding us to be Considerate and Careful of those struggling with the presence of a wild animal. Apparently someone had locked themselves in the bathroom screaming “I AM NOT A DOG” over and over. Everyone knew it was Jerry.
I could tell that Joe wanted to say the h word, to talk about the only animal he’d seen on campus in his two years here. But instead we talked about rocks.
We talked about the rocks we’d once collected to throw in the pond. We didn’t say it was unfair that we weren’t allowed to sit by it or look at it anymore. The rocks hadn’t been easy to find since all the flowerbeds are bark and the lawn is turf but we found a few by digging. It was Joe’s idea. He wanted to show me how to skip them but the pond was too small for that so we just tossed them in. They stood out against the pebbled bottom; grey eyes on a white face. “I wish I could show you,” he said, “My dad taught me how to skip them. He could get one to skip nine, ten, maybe even thirty times. He’s really smart too. He writes science fiction and owns a convenient store. Well, he doesn’t own it but he works there and he’s friends with the people that own it and they let me and him have free soda. Anyway, my dad thinks I’m going to be a famous writer someday or a not so famous writer but a really good one that should be famous and isn’t really liked until after their death. Death scares the socks off my logic. I like repetition. Life only happens to you once. Nothing is ever worth anything if it only happens once. Right?”
“Repetition gets old. I prefer change. I prefer exclusive experiences. What could be more private than death?”
“Yes, yes, change is the only constant. You’re the wiser one of us. But reoccurrences don’t get old, they become necessary. Don’t you love what has to be? I do. I love the fate of routine. I love throwing rocks.”
“Even these jelly sandwiches every day? You love this too?” I asked about the lunch in his dancing hands.
“Yes I do. Although I have to admit, I do miss peanut butter,” he said. “It’s a shame it isn’t allowed here.”
Even the magazines followed the rules. In the hundreds of them for collage day, everything about peanuts and peanut butter and Monopoly and the lottery and anything else that wasn’t fair and fun for everyone was blacked out with a Sharpie.
It was Friday, journal day, when Joe seemed nervous. I only knew he was upset because Joe is all about consistency and tradition, but he did something different that day. He didn’t read to me. Normally, Joe would read to me what he wrote—stories about his dad telling stories or stories about Hill Crest, like his entry about Donna. He stood to read it to me that time, speaking softly:
Today, Mr. Folder had us draw portraits of the person to our right and I had to draw a picture of Donna which made me nervous because I have a hard time seeing past my personal judgments of Donna. I know it’s not nice but I think she’s an idiot. I don’t mean to impose my values on her but I tend to dislike people who giggle loudly over nothing and Donna has such a sharp, sudden burst of unwarranted laughter like the sound of a car crashing into a zoo that it makes me want to draw her with holes in her throat where angry clowns are climbing in and out and her eyes rolled back and her teeth perfectly straight and white, her smile wide, and her tongue cut at the root. But I know, you should never make fun of someone’s expression of emotion, never. Right? So I drew her blonde head positioned against a grassy hill and her eyes extra blue. I even drew sunglasses on the sun peeking from the top right corner of the page.
Joe didn’t show me what he wrote the day he was nervous and quiet and I never show him what I write and he’s never asked me to. I bet he was thinking about that bird. I was thinking about Joe thinking about the bird and that’s trouble enough for me.
Joe was writing fervently. I didn’t even try to peek over his shoulder. I wrote a story about the time I was walking by the creek at my old house and I tried to climb a willow tree but I got stuck and the branches tore my shirt. If the teachers didn’t read these, I would have ended it with the heron I had seen watching me from the water, me nearly topless and crying, and the bird staring, not concerned about anything but the next move I’d make, how it looked defensively wise and indifferent, how it waited for any sudden movements. Instead I ended it with my mom giving me a hug.
On Saturday, I can’t find Joe. I text the school counselor to ask her if she knows anything but she never responds.
On Tuesday Joe is still missing. He’s been gone more than a week. No one seems to care.
All the blinds are pulled down in the dorms and the classrooms now so that no one will see the heron. Mrs. Weis sits in the front of the Sharing and Showing class and texts us the directions. Reading is easier than listening for some people so a lot of teachers text more than they talk. “Tell your partner how you feel about the weather today,” says Mrs. Weis’ message. This class is for Greens only and we stare blankly at each other.
Donny raises his hand, “But the windows are all closed off. We haven’t been outside yet today.”
Mrs. Weis smiles and says, “I’m so sorry! Just give me one second! I’ll fix that right away!”
Our tiny phones vibrate again. The text says, “Tell your partner how you feel about the summer.”
My partner, Ida, is a nervous small girl. I think I could snap her in half. I think she thinks I could too. She rubs her hands together and says it makes her feel good because she likes the warmth and swimming and the smell of sunscreen.
The word is in my throat like a stuck grape. I know I shouldn’t say it but summer makes me think of home and the dirty creek water and wild things flying and swimming and dwelling in dark crevices.
“Herons,” I start out and her eyes immediately go wide. “Summer makes me think of them looking for food for hours and how their wings look when they fly away, up and down like they’re trying to quiet a crowd.”
Ida looks at me like I’ve slapped her across the face. She picks up her phone and starts typing a text, her fingers moving so fast and hard she might break the letters right off the cheap little device.
I want to get close enough to Ida that she can feel the spit in my words when I tell her “you’re not even afraid of the bird.” But I don’t. I don’t say anything. Mrs. Weis receives the text, walks over, and puts a hand on my shoulder, still smiling.
“Everything is going to be okay, Ida,” Mrs. Weis calls back as she escorts me out of the room.
I was thinking about Joe and the school’s basement we had planned to break into and the rocks we threw when I sat in front of Mr. Smeed. Well, not in front of him exactly, but in front of a TV screen that showed him. There were lots of special schools like Hill Crest now and Smeed was busy starting up another one somewhere else, so when I was sent to his office, I was instructed to take a seat and turn on the screen.
“Would you like to share with me why you deliberately made your classmate uncomfortable?” said Mr. Smeed’s face.
“That wasn’t my intention.”
“What were your intentions then, Miss Lucy?”
“I guess I was just trying to answer the question honestly.”
“Honesty is important,” said his face. “But I don’t think honesty should stand in the way of compassion and understanding. Don’t you think so?”
Then his face lost its smile. “One more act like this and you’ll be sent elsewhere.”
I tried asking him about Joe but he switched his screen off too quickly for me to get the words out.
The craze over the wild creature living on campus had gotten so out of control that we weren’t allowed outside at all. All the dorms were accessible through the main building so there was no need to go out and make anyone nervous. There were texts reporting student nightmares about bird attacks, their eyes plucked from their sockets. Most of us were only following the rules and trying to not make Jerry cry.
This time I’m in nice class without Joe on a day that isn’t nice class day. Everyone acts like he was never here. He was. I know he was. Did he try and break into the basement without me and get sent away? Did he run away? He’s missing but no one here cares. They have forgotten him. People only care about what’s in front of them.
Then in front of me, there was Joe, sitting on his hands and staring at his desk.
We were supposed to be writing an essay about family bonding traditions so I stayed quiet till after class. I caught up with him in the hall.
“Joe, what happened? I thought…”
“I went to visit my dad. They weren’t happy with me here and said I needed to take a little break. So I did.”
“We went fishing, talked about the future. I might major in engineering. My dad thinks that would be a good fit for me. He says I could have a bright future as a civil engineer.”
“I mean what happened before you left?”
“Oh, my journal. ‘Too provoking,’ they said.”
“What did you write about?”
He didn’t answer. This new cautious composure didn’t fit him. I felt ill.
“If you don’t want to tell me—“
“Lucy. I wrote about Lucy. You. Ghosts. Us as ghosts. Us in love.”
I didn’t say anything. I looked at my shoes. Shuffled. Missed the grass stains on my old ones.
“What’s more exclusive than unrequited love? Don’t worry. Things are different now.”
“No more stories about science and love and impossible things and more productive execution, that’s what I’ve decided. My dad lost his job and he needs me. I hope you understand.”
I nodded and went to my desk.
Game night—Joe plays Sudoku and I do a crossword. I want to ask about his dad but I don’t know what to say.
Collage day—Joe makes a list of energy boosting smoothie recipes. He makes comments about the weather, says he likes my hair in a ponytail like that. I want to tell him how worried I’d been but I don’t know if the words, “I missed you” are the ones I want. So instead I pocket a piece of orange paper and tell him that we shouldn’t be friends anymore.
“Joe, I think I’m on the brink of expulsion and I don’t want to bring you down with me.”
“Is that so? Hmm.”
“Yes, you should keep your distance.”
“Hmm. That saddens me but if you think it’s best than we should do what’s best. Right?”
Then I pocket a pair of scissors and a bottle of glue.
In nice class Joe is sitting with Donna. They’re talking about their favorite reality shows. Donna pushes her hair behind her ears. Joe folds his hands neatly on his desk as he listens with a patient smile.
Mr. Folder texts us the directions to spend the period in someone else’s shoes—to tell your partner a personal story and then exchange shoes. My partner is Jerry and he tells me he has small feet like his mother and that his mom and dad got divorced when he was twelve and now his mom lives with a guy named Harvey who has a pet snake that makes Jerry want to puke. Jerry can hardly get the word “snake” out of his mouth. I have to squeeze his black sneakers on since he has exceptionally small feet for a guy and I have such big feet for a girl. I tell him my sister used to tell me I have ogre feet and that I prefer not to wear shoes. I hand him my sandals.
The shoes are tighter than I thought. “Imagine what it’s like to be someone else” says Mr. Folder’s text. I’m a boy named Jerry, I think. I’m a Yellow. I’m nervous and sweet. I miss the way my mom was before she met Harvey. I hate being touched or looked at for too long. I imagine my living room in Harvey’s double wide trailer, the bed creaking and my mother moaning, and a snake watching me cry, sticking out its tongue like its taunting me, tasting the air with its devil tongue again and again. Again and again. Then the snake escapes. It’s hungry. It eats the TV, it eats the rug, it eats the lamp, it swallows the futon whole, it slithers to my feet and wraps itself around them tighter and tighter until I can feel my toes ready to burst with blood. I’m never going to be able to move again, I think. I’ve lost my friend that loved me. I have to get out of here. I need to get my feet back. I look down at my hands and remember for a moment that I’m not Jerry, I’m me. I’m not afraid of snakes. I love the way they move, their s-shaped bodies winding like cursive in the dirt. I remember I used to catch them, I used to talk to them, they used to lunge to try and bite my hands. I unwind Jerry’s nightmare from my feet and start running, wobbling out the room, ignoring Mr. Folder’s texts vibrating in my pocket.
I go straight to the basement. It’s not locked. Amongst folding chairs and boxes of old craft supplies I find the file cabinets that the school had not bothered to dispose of and I pillage through hundreds of people’s medical histories. I cut these stories into strips and glue them onto cardboard cut like wings. I take out the orange paper, roll it into a cone and tie it around my head with a shoe string. And with my bipolar, nauseated, insomniac, migraine ridden, cancerous, attention defected, feverish, hallucinating, diabetic, crippled, chronically tender wings I walk back up into Hill Crest High, through the halls, past horror stricken faces and outside to the pond.
A crowd of students had followed me outdoors and Joe is one of them. He sees me and so does the heron. It waits for any sudden movements
And then I dance. I lift my arms and flutter and sway. Some of my feathers come unglued and fall to the turf. I spin in circles and kick the air. I can hear Jerry wailing; it’s my music. A feather on the ground reads, “female, 34, emotional epilepsy” and I smile.
Then Joe is in front of me looking at me like he used to, raising up his shaking hands with untamed excitement. We dance together. We throw our phones in the water and then we throw ourselves in. The glue is washed away. The histories dissolve.
The heron flew away but I missed it.
Lindsay Brader is from Moses Lake, Washington and is currently living out of her backpack in Cambodia. Her work can be found in Literary Orphans, Word Riot, The Molotov Cocktail, and others. Follow her on Twitter @lindsaybrader. She’s now accepting pen-pals that share her burning desire to Figure It All Out.
Art: “A Family of Trees” by Jenny Germann
Jenny Germann’s work is based on locations that hold significance in her life. She uses landscapes to convey experiences, often drawing influence from her travels and daily observations.
She uses a blend of pyrography (woodburning) and painting to express her vision. Pyrography lends a controlled and physically satisfying aspect to the work, whereas the painting is experimental and evocative. She mixes the mediums as a way to communicate her perspective, using making as a form of introspection, and personal expression.
Born in Kansas, Jenny lives and works in Lancaster, PA. She earned her BFA from the University of Kansas and is getting her MS from Eastern University. She is married to furniture designer and cabinetmaker Evan Germann and together, they have two (adorable) dogs.