Third Place Winner of Voyage’s Spring 2021 First Chapters Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Melissa de la Cruz
*A brief note from our guest judge: “The poetry of this one and the sadness was very intriguing, I wanted to know what happened.”
Content Warning: Self-harm
The summer I turned thirteen and he turned nine, Jonesy, with his old eyes and baby freckles, rode up on his bicycle and pelted me with rocks and curse words. He jumped off his bike like some kamikaze airman and sat down next to me.
He sat down like we were already friends. Like he had an invitation.
Jonesy pointed to my forearm, nearly touching one of the scabbed lines with his index finger. Older lines, healed into pale, raised marks zigzagged away from his gaze. Everybody who saw them would gasp. They sometimes asked why, but they never really wanted to know. Instead, they would subconsciously rub their fingers back and forth over their own forearms and avoid looking me in the eye.
That’s what most people did.
He pointed to the lines and he said, “Tell me a fucking story.”
And to my surprise, I did.
I am Jonesy’s age. Nine. My ear is numb where the glass presses against it. If I loosen my grip at all, the glass will slip. If the glass slips, Gary will hear it.
Nope, can’t let that happen.
I know that later, when I sit back and rub my ear, it will hurt like hell. But I hold the glass, hold my breath, and I listen. Their voices are muffled, but the conversation is the same.
“It’s too much,” the female muffled drone says.
It’s always too much. And, if we’re honest, because come on Gary and Sheila, that is what you wanted, right? An honest back-and-forth give-and-take relationship with your charity-case foster kid. And it isn’t that is too much for you. I mean, you both read the right books. And I’m okay and you’re okay. We’re all okay. It is definitely not that it is too much. The truth is that is not enough. I am not enough. Enough of what? I have no clue. But I know I have never had enough of it.
“It’s not a good idea,” the male drone responds.
It never is, Gary.
“I agree, but we have to send her back.”
Of course, you do, Sheila. Of course.
“I just wish we could stop it.”
Well, this is new. Stop what, Sheila?
“We can’t. You know that. We’ve done all we can do. The courts want her to be with her mother.”
Wait, Gary, did you just say “my mother”?
“Who gives a damn what her mother wanted!” The female drone yells, and then she says more softly, so softly that I have to adjust against the wall, the glass catching wall texture. “Sorry, Gary. I don’t know what came over me. I’m just so upset.”
No, Sheila, don’t apologize.
I adjust the glass and I hear sobbing through the wall. I can’t tell which drone is crying. Maybe both? This is different, and I hate different. In my world, different is dangerous. The voices become quiet. I squeeze my eyes shut as a way of opening my ears wider. Sweat runs form my temple to the glass, which starts to slip on my wet skin.
A hollow in my stomach travels to my mouth. I want a cigarette. Badly. I want to smoke down the lump in my throat.
The glass slides a couple centimeters more. I imagine the glass has suction cups, or little hairs, or some sort of goo, or something in the molecules to help it stick. Jonesy would say that the glass needs van der Waals force, which he would say comes “from the fluctuations in charge distributions between neighboring molecules. Fucking awesome, right?”
No, not fucking awesome, Jonesy.
I mixed up my stories. Or as Jonesy would say, the glass’s molecules and the wall’s molecules “naturally fell into goddamn synch, creating an attractive fucking force. Sort of like this first story of mine. Sort of like Jonesy and me. An attractive fucking force with all our molecules stuck together. And nobody can figure out (not even me, not even Jonesy) when it started and when it will end.
Jonesy. Jonesy, overwhelming and red-headed, freckled and totally insulting, spinning on his own axis, with his own things to worry about, Jonesy. It was some sort of pole thing, he would say. Like in the way that two opposites that are sort of the same find one another as a way of doubling up and softening the blow.
He said a lot of things I didn’t understand. Things I am still trying to piece together.
Yeah, he was smart. Really smart.
The day we met he rode up on that ridiculous trick bike, ridiculous because it didn’t do tricks. Maybe the bike did tricks, but Jonesy didn’t. He only rode forward and only in one speed: breakneck. I think that was what he was trying to do.
Instead of flying past in a blur of cutoff jeans, orange crush tank top, and bare feet, Jonesy skidded to a stop in front of me. I was sitting on the curb in my usual clothes: long-sleeved shirt, long jeans, and no shoes. I was letting my feet cool off in the gutter. Pebbles flew up and pinged off my face.
“Watch it,” I said, shielding my eyes.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked.
He had big ears, paper skin, and too many freckles to count. His hair was so red he looked like his head was on fire.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked again. “Stupid goddamn silent shit woman.”
“Dude, someone should wash your mouth out with soap.”
“You the fucking morality police? Never heard a motherfucking fuck shit?”
In two minutes, this wisp of a kid had said more curse words than I had said all day, maybe all month. And in between all of it, he had used the word morality.
I wasn’t sure whether I should trust him with my life or if I should run like hell.
“Coal? Like black, shitty stuff the train carries? Dumb name.”
I liked this kid.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Jonesy,” he said.
“No, my name’s Billy. But I can’t fuck-shit-goddamn name.” He paused. “Jonesy.”
Maybe I should have run like hell, but I didn’t run. It was a thousand degrees. And in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, it was closer to two thousand degrees.
When he sat down next to me, I looked at the ground. I watched his toes in the gutter, the black river mud turning brown as it washed out from under his toenails. It looked like he had just sprouted from a riverbed, found a bicycle, and was washing his feet for the first time.
I pushed up my sleeves and played with a long blade of grass floating in lazy circles.
“I saw a salamander this morning,” Jonesy said.
“It wasn’t a lizard. Lots of people think Salamanders are lizards, like my brother, Mike. He’s a bone-ass-fuck-shit. But salamanders are amphibians. You know amphibians? Like frogs?”
“Yeah,” I said, letting the water run through my fingers. It had some sort of oil floating on the top of it, in purple and green, like a dragon’s skin. Or maybe like a salamander’s.
“Really? You really knew what I meant? Frogs?” He was testing me. Like maybe he tested everyone.
I looked up and he was squinting. I nodded. It was enough. I passed.
“There are lots of different kinds of salamanders,” he paused, his mouth open, his bottom jaw moving in small pulses. “Some have lungs and g-g-gills. This one didn’t have either one, I don’t think.” He paused, his eyebrows twisted into a pale orange question mark. “I wish I’d caught him. I caught a mudp-p-puppy once.”
He looked to see if I was impressed. I was. Why not? I had never caught a mudpuppy. I wasn’t even sure what a mudpuppy was.
“The Congo eel, now there’s a fucking salamander I’d like to have!”
“The eel is a salamander?”
“Yah, there are over 500 species. A whole fuck ton.”
I looked at him, wondering why he cursed so much, wondering why letters caught on his tongue, wondering how someone with so many words to say was so unlucky as to have so much trouble getting them out.
I didn’t ask. I had my own unlucky trouble.
Gary and Sheila make the call. I had listened through the wall but could only glean some of the details from the one-sided conversation. All of it led to this: Whispo, my current social worker, pulls up in her Honda Civic and honks the horn.
Mrs. Renfro, as she is properly called, likes to stay out of goodbyes. When we had first met, she told me she takes care of business away from her charges. She said staying out of goodbyes has something to do with bonding issues, hers or mine I couldn’t say, so I knew she would wait outside leaning up against her Civic.
I get to work. Pulling out the same contractor bag I had used the last three changes. I stuff all of my belongings into it. Not all, but most. Taking everything is impossible. I like to leave a little something behind for a family to remember me: a sweater I hated, a book I never read, framed photographs meant to make me feel at home, and once I had even left behind a baby sister.
Whispo has a strange look as I walk to her car. “We need to talk, Col.”
There it is.
There is never a good reason for me and Whispo to talk. I pull my shirtsleeves down past my fingernails and hold the sleeves in my fists.
Whispo pulls away from the curb, honking twice. She turns left at the end of the block. “Col, we need to talk.”
“So you said.” I lean back and close my eyes. “Talk.”
She sighs, the sound of a small ball slowly leaking in an empty garage.
“We have good news for you, Col.”
That is never true when it starts that way.
“It turns out your mother…. She is… Well, she is ready with a stable home and loving heart. You will be moving back with her as soon as we iron out some details. Isn’t that exciting?”
“You certainly seem to think so.”
“It is okay to be excited, Col. This is happening.”
“Aren’t you supposed to let the professionals break this sort of news to me? Hearing it now, driving away from two loving and wonderful foster parents, is damaging to my young, fragile psyche.”
Whispo deflates fully.
“I’m sorry, Col. Yes, of course. I’ll make a note in your file as soon as I’m back in the office so you can get the news from… someone else.”
“It’s a little late for that,” I say. Without opening my eyes, I start tracing lines on my shirt with my finger. I know Whispo is watching me in the rearview mirror, her wispy breath catching in her wispy throat.
“I’m sorry, Col.”
Whispo sounds devastated.
Jonesy would say that nature versus nurture was a whole fuck-ton of bullshit.
After all, he’d say, “I live with my goddamn-fuck-shit biological mother and fucking sperm donor, not to mention my ass-fuck b-b-brother Mike.”
The first three months After Gary and Sheila, or A.G.S. for short, I slept on a pull-out couch at Miriam and Todd’s. They were devout Christians, and normally, I would leave it there, but Jonesy had a thing about God.
At Jonesy’s memorial, his brother passed around small booklets. Each had little crosses, circled by flying doves holding olive branches. In the center, there was a pink ribbon wrapped around heaven’s clouds. With perfect golden skin and pink cheeks, the clouds were adorned by naked cherubs.
Jonesy would have been livid. He would have stormed out of the funeral home, his cheeks so red that each freckle became a hot spot, and he would have ripped it into a million pieces and tossed it into the ether. Then, when he finally calmed down, he would have told stories from China about great floods, tortoises, and lotus branches in the beaks of cranes. His cheeks would be flushed the color of plums, his saliva like prune juice, and later we would laugh as he took every name in vain.
I pull a blade across my arm. I can’t see what happened to Jonesy.
I pull the blade across my thigh. I think I see him.
He runs west. Drips on the carpet.
I wonder if I will ever get it out.