Other short stories by Teresa Lo
The One: A Short Story
The Island: A Short Story
The Internship: A Short Story
Letters: A Short Story
The Island: A short story
Written by Teresa Lo
Copyright © 2011 Teresa Lo
Published by Willow 43 Press
Originally Published by Bart Enigma Books, 2011
All rights reserved.
My wife Marty, 46, died on a Tuesday, 548 days ago. She was struck by a car at 9:32 PM, near our house at 3613 Yale Drive, and her body was discovered the next morning by one of our neighbors, Betty Waterman, who was out retrieving the Wednesday paper. At the funeral, held ten days later, I heard my nephew and his girlfriend talk about the ordeal. “Why didn’t your uncle look for her?” “I guess they got in a fight and she took off.” “Does he blame himself for her being on the street that night?” “No one has the balls to ask him.”
In truth, I did blame myself, and I blamed God, and I blamed Marty for leaving me in the middle of the night. I blamed the neighbors for not being outside when she was hit, and I blamed Betty for waiting so long to get her newspaper in the morning. Strangely enough, I blamed the anonymous driver who hit her least of all because I couldn’t picture him. What kind of face would a monster have? Was he an old man, or a young man? Was he careless or a drunk? What compelled him to keep going and what stopped him from calling for help?
The police didn’t have any leads because there were no witnesses, but they encouraged me to hold a press conference in hopes that the driver would feel guilty and turn himself in.
That was 518 days ago, and still no one had come forward.
Since Marty’s death, I spent a lot of time in our living room, which she had converted into a painting studio. She had set up two easels, and her dirty brushes and palettes still sit on the floor, although now dried up and collecting dust. I hadn’t moved anything since her passing, and today, I stood in front of the first easel and stared at the canvas. I saw the pencil scratches, forming the beginning of a self-portrait, and I’m amazed at how she captured her eyes. Large, expressive and almond-shaped. Marty really had the most beautiful chocolate-colored eyes, and she used to stare at me, her lids slightly lowered, her head tilted downward, right before she would kiss me. She left a CD inside of the player next to the second easel, and I pushed play. I listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue as I sat on the floor, staring out the windows of the patio doors, thinking about the fight Marty and I had the night she died. It was about me being gone all the time, neglecting her. She wanted to adopt a baby because we couldn’t have one of our own, but I had given up on the idea of a child when we learned she was infertile ten years ago. As Marty filled her days, working part-time in the admissions office at the University of Kansas, painting portraits, and waiting to hear from the adoption agency, I was in my office at KU, Number 1210 of Westwood Hall, avoiding her and her incessant talks about “our baby.” “I don’t want to be a gray-haired old man at our son’s graduation,” I would say. “What if we had a girl? I could teach her art, or you could teach her music…” “So that she’ll grow up, give it up, and become boring, like us?” I exasperated and hurt her with my cynicism, which was unfair. After all, she encouraged me to quit my job, which I hated, and she encouraged me to try to make a career in music, but I told her that was a dumb idea. “Bitterness doesn’t suit you,” she said as her voice slightly cracked.
When I was twenty and a student at KU, I was in a rock band called The Beets. We played at bars and coffee shops around town, but my parents hated my music and hated even more that I wasn’t studying hard enough or thinking about my future. They wanted me to get an engineering degree so that I’d be guaranteed a good job after graduation, but I hated the classes. They wanted me to date the daughters of their family friends, but I wasn’t attracted to any of them. They wanted me to take an internship, but I didn’t have time because of the band. A manager from Kansas City came to one of our shows and told us he wanted to take us to the next level. He filled me and my buddies’ heads with dreams of drunken nights on the road, music videos, and mansions in Hollywood. Three months later, when we figured out he was a phony who took twenty percent of our gig money, we fired him, and our singer Brent, a philosophy major, asked, “What’s the point?” We still hung out and played every so often, but we changed our focus from our music to our studies, and each of us graduated from the honors program two years later. My parents were still disappointed that I wasn’t an engineer, but I thought it would make them happy if I got a physics P.h.D. at Columbia University. It took me ten miserable years to earn that degree (for my classmates, eight), and I had hoped that the department would ask me to stay, but they said there was no position available. They seemed apologetic, but I knew better. My advisor didn’t like me, and when I snuck a peek at my file, I saw his evaluation of me during my final year. He wrote, “Although a pleasant fellow, Will Fan seems to lack potential for success or growth.” After graduation, I found a lecturer position at my alma mater, returned to Kansas, and met Marty, who was four years older than me and divorced once before. We dated for eight months, then married at the courthouse, and she was able to pay for our house at 3613 Yale Drive with money she inherited from her grandfather.
There was a loud knock on my front door. I closed my eyes and hoped that it would stop, but whoever was doing it was relentless. Annoyed, I trudged to the door.
“Hey, Professor Fan,” a young voice said. I saw it was Shae Bentley, a waifish but pretty girl who lived down the street. Years past, her parents had essentially abandoned their house and moved to a condo in San Diego, and Shae moved in two years ago to get her life together. She couldn’t get a job after dropping out of Kansas State, and from an outsiders POV, Shae did nothing but hang out, drink, and spend her parents’ money. I didn’t know her too well even though I thought she was sweet, but that was the neighborhood gossip. She accompanied some of those gossipy neighbors to Marty’s funeral, and every once in a while, she’d drop by the house with treats. “I brought these for you,” she said, shoving brownies into my arms. They looked dry, as if they were burnt little cakes, but I thanked her and tried to signal for her to go. “What’re you up to?” she asked. “I’m working,” I lied. “On your lesson plans?” she asked. “Yes.” She had told me once that she was thinking of going back to school and that she heard I taught physics. “That’s really cool you’re a professor,” she said with her raspy drawl. “Thanks,” I replied, not wanting to correct her that I was not technically a professor, but only a lecturer.
“Thanks for the brownies,” I said. Shae smiled shyly at me, wanting something, but I just wanted her to go. She continued to stand on my doorstep, like she had so many times before, but I was not ready to let her in.
“Oh, okay, then,” she said with disappointment, and I shut the door.
Every Tuesday, I head to Mass Street, which was now decorated for Christmas, and I would meet with a psychic named Cleopatra who had a shop below her one bedroom apartment. She would take me into a purple room in the back, where there were two cushy chairs and a round table covered with cloth. She would light a vanilla candle and hold my hands. “I can feel her,” Cleopatra would say in a fake “gypsy” accent. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she tilted her head to the ceiling. “She wants you to find peace.” The things she said were complete bullshit, but I kept returning because of the feeling in the air. Whenever she would roll back her eyes and mumble her jibberish, I would feel a chill, a presence that made my hairs stand and goose bumps rise on my arms. It was almost like a whisper on my neck, and once, I thought I heard Marty, who with the softest of whispers told me to, “Stay…”
Today, I sat with Cleopatra who wore a turban, giant feather earrings and a myriad of gold necklaces. She looked like a caricature of a fortuneteller with a crystal ball, but I didn’t care. I forked over my hundred bucks, and she reached for my hands and we closed our eyes. “She’s asking about you,” she said. “She wants to know why you haven’t moved on…”
I pictured Marty, who was tall and strong like a warrior woman. She had dark hair and dark skin, and I imagined her the first night we met. We were at a campus mixer, essentially acting like chaperones at a high school prom to the incoming freshman, and she had seen me across the lawn and smiled. I was captivated by her presence, and she looked so beautiful and carefree in her white summer dress. When she walked over, she stuck out her hand, “I’m Marty,” she said. I introduced myself, and for a few seconds we stood in awkward silence. “I like your hair,” she said to break the ice. I had longer curls back then, and I remember how she used to put her fingers through them.
“Marty wants you to go back to work,” Cleopatra said. “She knows how much science means to you…”
The room suddenly turned black and the temperature dropped. Cleopatra moved like a wax figure with inaudible mumbling lips, and as she put on her show, I saw a hole appear in the wall behind her. It started off the size of a dime and grew to a quarter, and then a burst of light broke through and the room filled with white.
My heart slowed down from the cold, and the hairs on my exposed skin raised. I felt as if I had stopped breathing, but then…
I saw her. I saw Marty in her white sundress, and she had angel wings. With grace, she reached out her arms to me. I wanted to reach back but my body was paralyzed, and then I saw I was still holding Cleopatra’s hands. It was as if my soul had left my body to meet her, who again whispered, “Stay…”
“How do you feel?” Cleopatra asked, breaking me from my trance. She bored into me with her saucer-like eyes, and my goose bumps disappeared and my breathing returned to normal. The heavenly light disappeared and the room returned to its tacky beginnings. “I’m fine,” I said, taking a deep swallow, “Thank you.”
I left Cleopatra’s and headed next door to Armand’s Coffee, a dark, dive of a coffee shop decorated inside with white Christmas lights. It smelled like espresso and bundt cake, and I ordered an iced cap and said hello to the barista Amy, who knew me from my days of playing there, over two decades ago. “We started an open mic night. You should sign up,” she offered, but I shook my head. “I don’t do that anymore,” I replied, and I took out a stack of fliers from my messenger bag. She cringed when she saw them. “Hey, sorry, Will, but Kevin doesn’t want you putting those up anymore.” They were flyers reminding people of the reward I was giving in return for information about Marty’s killer. I looked to the bulletin board, which had postings for band listings, roommates wanted, and Athiest soccer clubs, but my old flyers were no where to be found. “Was he the one who took them down?” I asked. She nodded, and I thanked her and stuffed the papers away.
I exited Armand’s and was immediately hit with the winter winds of Lawrence, Kansas. The sidewalks were slick with compounded snow and salt, and the piles of snowdrifts engulfed the parking meters where they almost disappeared. “Professor Fan?” I heard. I looked over and saw Shae next to a silver BMW, a car I had seen in the neighborhood but didn’t know was hers. “I thought you had a red convertible?” I asked. “I traded it in a long time ago,” she said. “It’s nice,” I replied, and then I noticed how hard she shivered in her thermal shirt and a cute pink hat and scarf. “You should be wearing a jacket,” I said. “I’m fine,” she lied as she rubbed her shoulders to keep warm. “I’m heading to Thai Roma for lunch.” “That’s two blocks away. Here,” I said. I took off my coat and gently wrapped it around her shoulders. She smiled at me, and her blue eyes twinkled underneath her thick lashes. I suddenly wanted to kiss her, so I stepped away.
“Are you doing anything tonight?” she asked. My first reaction was to tell her I was busy. After a year and a half of solitude, it was hard to be around people even if I wanted to be. “I’m going to stay at home and work on stuff.” The rejection showed on her face, but she tried her best to hide it. “Oh,” she said, “Maybe next time.”
It has been 562 days since Marty’s death, and still no one has come forward. I entered the Lawrence Police Station and met with the mousy Detective Lopez. She was an empathetic woman who had been with the case since the very beginning, but she wasn’t aggressive enough. She questioned people on the block and studied the crime scene photos, but that was it before she essentially gave up and advised me to hold a press conference.
I found the experience to be humiliating. I sat at a table next to Lopez in front of a room full of folding chairs with two newspaper reporters, a representative from the city, and a small news crew. “Are you offering a reward?” the Lawrence Journal World reporter asked. “I’m prepared to give one to anyone who offers information that could bring my wife’s killer to justice.” “Do the police have any leads?” “Judging by the paint residue on Mrs. Fan’s body, we concluded that the vehicle was a red sedan,” Detective Lopez said, “We also know that Mrs. Fan was struck at 9:32 PM.” The news camera zoomed in on my face, tired, gaunt, aged greatly in only a matter of days. I watched the segment later, which aired on the six o’clock news. They gave me less than sixty seconds and focused mostly on the reward. After the conference, I received condolence letters from strangers, and Detective Lopez waded through dozens of calls with false leads, which resulted in nothing but frustrations. Two months later, a little girl was abducted at a Wal-Mart in Kansas City, and no one cared anymore about Marty or me.
I sat across from Lopez in her office, and she offered me stale coffee, which I didn’t drink. Without looking at the file, she said, “I’m sorry, but there aren’t any new revelations with your case.” “You can’t do forensics or some CSI stuff to uncover the truth?” Her look offered me sympathy but nothing more. “I wish we had that kind of technology, but it doesn’t exist…Our only option at this point is for someone to come forward.”
I rose from my seat.
“Mr. Fan,” she called before I could leave. “Have you thought about throwing another conference?” I stared at her. Are you kidding me?
“I’ll think about it,” I said and walked out.
I entered Gilham’s Liquor, which was two blocks away from my house. As “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” blasted on the PA system, I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels, and the frat guy cashier placed it into a brown paper bag and cheekily told me to, “Have a good night.” I walked home, bundled up but my face still freezing, and when I passed Shae’s home, I stopped to look at it. It was a plain-looking ranch-style that was too big for a 21-year-old girl.
The other houses in the neighborhood had Christmas lights up and trees visible in their window, but not Shae’s. She and I were the only ones who didn’t care anymore, and I liked that about her. I looked at my paper bag, and I got an idea.
I trekked up the sidewalk to Shae’s front porch, and I knocked on the door. I heard the TV in the living room, so I knocked again but there was no response.
Figuring she was asleep, I turned to walk away, but then there was a click of the door unlocking.
A tired-looking Shae looked at me. Her chestnut hair was a mess, and there were bags under her eyes. By the way she spoke, I wondered if she had been drinking.
“I wanted to see if you wanted to have a drink,” I said, motioning to my paper bag. She gazed at it, assessing the situation.
“I’ll get my coat,” she said, about to shut the door. “Why don’t we just hang out at your place?” I asked. “It’s a mess,” she replied. I tried to peek in, but she blocked my view. “Oh, come on,” I said. She rubbed at her eyes, trying to get the sleep out of them. After a moment of thinking, she stepped back, allowing me in.
I imagined Shae’s parents’ house to have light-colored, country-style furniture. I imagined a beautiful fireplace with a family portrait hanging above it, or maybe an original painting of the ocean, and I imagined it to smell like cookies or brownies, which she was so fond of making me. To my surprise, there was barely any furniture, just some electronics, a cheap futon from Wal-Mart, and some bar stools. “My parents took most of the stuff when they moved,” she explained at my reaction. She was watching The Real Housewives of Orange County, and the room stank of oldness and alcohol. She swatted an empty pizza box off of the futon and offered me a seat. When I sat, my foot knocked over a half-finished glass of wine onto the hardwood floor. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, embarrassed. She rushed to get a sauce-stained towel from the kitchen and mopped it up. “What if I squeezed the rest of this wine into my mouth?” she joked, and I weakly smiled at her, unfamiliar with her humor.
She retrieved two glasses of ice, and I poured us some Jack. I took my time sipping it, but she downed it quickly and poured herself another. Her face reddened slightly with her inebriation, and I was amazed how someone so small could consume so much. “I’m not a drunk,” she said, not slurring but her face giving it away, “I just like to enjoy myself.” “Do you miss your parents?” I asked. “No.” “No?” “I barely saw them when I was a kid. It’s not that different now.” “Oh,” I said and I turned my attention to the TV, where a trashy natural blonde woman fought with an equally trashy bleached blonde.
“Are you hungry?” Shae asked, “I can order us a pizza.” “Do you not cook?” I asked. “Not really.” “You make all those treats for me.” She got quiet for a second, wondering whether or not to reveal a secret. “I only make things for you.”
I was touched, and as I looked at her, this young, confused creature, I felt the same attraction to her the day I saw her on Mass Street. As she took another drink of her Jack, I wondered if the feeling was mutual. All signs pointed to yes, but I was still fearful that my loneliness and isolation from human connection ruined my radar. I sat at the other end of the futon, nursing my drink and avoiding her eye contact.
“Do you want to go ice skating?” she asked. “I thought you wanted pizza,” I replied. “No, let’s go skating.” “It’s kinda late…” She sighed and accepted this, but the way she pouted made me feel like an old man, or worse, like her father. “I’ll drive,” I said, and she smiled.
Near the KU campus, there was a small body of water called Potter’s Lake. In early December when more students were around, it was a popular skating destination, and on the nearby hills, you could feel the rush of excitement as people sped downward on their sleds. Today, it was much quieter, darker, and colder. The sun was still out, but it was about to set, and the shadows from the nearby trees almost appeared to dance against the snow.
Shae nearly slipped on the icy sidewalk as we made our way to the lake, and she grabbed my arm to steady herself. “Whoa!” I said as I bent to catch her, and she shyly laughed as she wobbled to get back on balance. We locked eyes then and she looked away. “I’m such a klutz,” she said and we continued walking, separated by a foot of distance.
We approached the edge of the pond, where bits of reed poked out from the snow. “I don’t know if that’s a good sign,” I said. She didn’t understand what I meant. “I’m not sure if the ice will be thick enough.” We looked to the pond which was solid and white. There was no water visible, and Shae took that to mean we were safe. “Why don’t we ease over there and see?” she asked.
“I don’t know…” I said but she was already on the ice, moving slowly. She had no skates on, just her winter boots, and she slid with them, almost as if they were skis. I watched as she stood in the middle of the lake, waving for me to come over. “Come on, Professor Fan. It’s not a big deal.” I wish she would’ve called me Will, but that was the least of my concerns. “Look!” she yelled before taking a giant leap into the sky. I held my breath as she came crashing down onto the ice, and when I exhaled, she stood there, waiting for me to overcome my fear.
I took a deep breath, which I could see like cigarette smoke, and I stepped onto the ice. She was right. It was solid. I skied over to her, but I moved too fast and slipped. She gasped and rushed to help me. “We’re both klutzes today,” she said. “Yeah,” I replied stupidly and she helped me stay on balance as she led me to the center of the ice.
“Look what I can do!” she said, and she sped to the other side of the pond where she did a double axel. When she landed, hard, I gasped, but then she did a tiny bow. Flecks of ice splashed from her feet, but she smiled. “Stop being so uptight, Professor Fan!” “You can call me, Will!” I yelled back. She smiled again. “Okay, Will!” She hurried to the other side of the pond, turned, and skied back to attempt another double axel. Her foot stepped in front of the other, and her body took off into the air, where she spun twice before extending her right leg. I stood in awe of her. Her other leg straightened, and she returned to the ice. Upon impact, the ice’s surface branched out into a million white spider webs, and there was a loud crack before she screamed and plummeted into the water.
I ran. Harder than I had ever in my life.
Shae’s hands struggled to push her up to the surface, but the cold water pulled her under. As my feet led me closer to the hole in the ice, I was suddenly pushed back by a blast of light. I laid on the surface, shielding my eyes, and the light expanded until it engulfed me, pushing at my lids until they closed shut and I blacked out.
I heard angelic breathing next to me, short huffs and quiet exhales, and I felt a hand reach for mine. Expecting to see whiteness and clouds, I opened my eyes to see the stars in the night sky. I blinked again, wondering how long I had been out.
I was lying in the snow beside my car. Shae sat next to me, shivering, a blanket from my car around her shoulders. I examined her, and she appeared to be fine and I was surprised that she was only shivering slightly and not suffering from hypothermic shock.
“Are you okay?” I asked and tried to hold her hand that reached for me. She pulled it away, and her skin was paler than usual. “I can take you to the hospital.”
She stared off into space as if she had just seen a ghost. “Shae,” I said.
She emerged from her funk but remained slightly in a daze. “Do you want me to take you home?” I asked. She looked me in the eyes, her pleading expression telling me she didn’t want to be alone tonight.
I opened the door to my house and turned on the lights. I invited Shae inside, and she stepped in tentatively. “Do you want some tea?” I asked, and she nodded yes. Her lips were purple, and the blanket around her shoulders wasn’t keeping her warm enough. She moved cautiously, wandering from the foyer into the kitchen, and then the living room caught her eye. “What’s there?” she asked. I put the kettle onto the burner and saw her staring at the easels. “It’s nothing. Just some paintings my wife was working on.”
She entered the living room, and the winds howled outside. The water in the kettle would take a few minutes to boil, so I followed her into the room, where she was lost in the details as if I wasn’t there. She stared at the dust collecting on the furniture, the easels, and the dried paint on the brushes and palette. She smelled the staleness in the air and felt the history in the room. However, what held her attention most was Marty’s self-portrait. She stared at the pencil strokes that formed Marty’s eyes, and she put her fingertips to the canvas, millimeters from touching the surface. “She was so beautiful,” Shae said, and before I could agree, she burst into tears.
“It’s okay,” I said and instinctively, I rushed to hold her in my arms. Her face pressed against my chest, and her tears warmed my shirt. I gently stroked her hair as I felt her body sob against me. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s okay,” I said. I felt bad that someone so young had to be exposed to my sadness and loss, but I appreciated her sympathy. She looked up at me, begging me to understand her. “I’m sorry,” she said again, and I kissed her.
Her mouth was warm and wet and tasted like wine. I pulled her closer; my hands greedily clawing at her back as her fingers grabbed my hair. As our kissing intensified, the porch doors flew open from the wind, and I felt the cold air against my exposed skin. Again it whispered, “Stay.” Shae stared out into the cold with fear in her eyes as I rushed to shut the door.
She stepped back towards the self-portrait, and she was mesmerized by Marty’s eyes. She slowly pointed at her. “I saw your wife tonight,” she said. I stared at her, unsure. “When I fell into the water, I thought I was going to die, and everything went white. Then there she was. She pulled me from the water and set me next to you.”
I remembered when I was on the ice, rushing to help, and I remembered the light that shot me back. It made sense that it was Marty, pushing me to safety. I glanced at Shae, who looked as if she had a lot on her mind.
The doors swung open again, and the wind screamed now, “Stay! Stay!” Shae’s skin paled and I hurried over to shut the doors, annoyed and confused as to why they wouldn’t stay locked. “What the hell’s wrong with these things?” I said as I pushed them into place.
“I did it!” she screamed. I looked over at her, and she stared at me, scared and trembling.
“What’re you talking about?” I asked. The wind continued to beat against the glass, almost as if to encourage her.
“I’m the one who hit your wife,” she whispered. The words filled the air, but my mind wouldn’t digest them. Instead, my eyes pleaded with her to say, “I’m joking” because even a cruel joke would be better than this. To my dismay, she wasn’t. “I’d been drinking all day, and I ran out of wine so I went out. Your wife was heading into the street, and I wasn’t paying attention and I slammed into her.” She was sobbing now, recalling that night. “I stopped. I did. I stopped. But she wasn’t moving and there was blood everywhere so I got scared and drove away…” She continued to speak, but her words were blurred with images. I pictured her that night, riding around in her red convertible, swerving. Marty, crying about our fight, stepping out into the road, not knowing that this would be her last night alive. “When you offered that reward, it made the whole thing even more real…” Shae continued. “I heard that detective say they knew a red car did it, so I traded mine in.” My lips curled in disgust, and she moved to console me but I jerked my arm away.
“And that’s why you came over so much…” I said, putting the pieces together. The wind outside continued to speak, but now she was louder and I could finally hear her clearly.
She said, “Shae.”
“I’m going to call the police,” I said, and she nodded. The room silenced and the wind stopped blowing. She had already found her culprit.
“Your wife told me something tonight,” Shae whispered after I made the call. I didn’t want to look at her, but I forced myself to meet her eyes. “She said she misses your music.” I couldn’t believe it but the tears began to fall. I said nothing, and the kettle whistled, signaling it was time for tea.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Teresa Lo was born and raised in Coffeyville, Kansas. She earned a B.A. in History from the University of Kansas, and a M.F.A. in Writing for Screen and Television from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. For more information, please see her website:
OTHER BOOKS BY TERESA LO
The Red Lantern Scandals
EXCERPT FROM HELL’S GAME
They shouldn’t have been out that night.
It was Halloween in Deer Creek, Kansas, and everyone knew not to go out, at least not once it got dark. The stores sold costumes, candy, and decorations for the holiday, but because of the curfew, everyone in town who wanted to trick-or-treat or play dress up celebrated the evening before. The curfew stated that all Deer Creek citizens must not be out on October 31st once the sun set, and if anyone was found violating the curfew, then they could be fined or face jail time. No one really questioned the law because it had been around for decades. Staying in on the holiday was just what people did.
Until that night.
Jake Victor’s black Mustang roared through town, its streets completely empty and the night chilly and smelling like autumn leaves and pumpkins.
Jake drove while staring straight ahead, deep in thought. Although he was not model-perfect, he was handsome. He had nice dark hair. Big brown eyes. An All-American look. He was incredibly popular even though he wasn’t from a rich or influential family, but he was a terrific athlete and a nice, charismatic guy that everyone seemed to like.
Dressed as an angel, Jake’s beautiful blonde girlfriend Ashley Gemini, rolled down the passenger window. She climbed halfway out, laughing at the freedom of being alone in public, laughing at rebelling from a stupid rule created by stupid old people.
“It’s Halloween, bitches!” she screamed in the air as it whipped through her wavy hair. Her pretty blue eyes sparkled as she took in the sight of Deer Creek’s Main Street. There were little Mom-and-Pop shops, a bakery, and a post office, and the storefronts were quaint and inviting, offering a picturesque view of small town, Midwestern life.
Jake glanced at Ashley, concerned. “Ashley, get down from there,” he said. He felt awkward reprimanding his girlfriend, and sometimes he wondered how they had lasted two years as a couple. They were so different, personality-wise, which was the main reason they fought, but on the other hand, they were also incredibly attracted to each other. Ashley loved how he was the epitome of the tall, dark, and handsome leading man; and Jake liked her classic features, her blonde hair, and her crisp blue eyes.
Ashley ignored him and continued to let the wind play with her hair.
“You excited, Ronnie? We’re going to see The Gateway to Hell!” Ashley’s twin brother Ashton said from the backseat. He was tall and lithe. The definition of a blonde pretty boy. He sat with his arm wrapped around his girlfriend Kristin Grace, and she sat in between him and the redheaded dweeb Ronnie Smalls, who smiled nervously. Ronnie held a camera in his lap, and his nervous, sweaty palms soaked into the plastic of its exterior.
“What do you think the “Gateway to Hell” is exactly?” Kristin asked, and Ashton gazed at her warmly. Besides her sweet personality, he loved how unaware she was of her beauty. She had large, almond-shaped eyes, long black hair, thin limbs, and a smile that could put the tensest person at ease.
Ashton turned to Ronnie, and in a dramatic tone, he said, “I hear that the Gateway is where the Devil comes out to snatch the souls of the wicked.”
Ronnie gulped, and Jake looked into the rearview mirror as Ashton winked at him.
“You’re so full of it, man,” Jake said. He smiled to show he was kidding, but inside, he was worried that he and Ashley were crossing the line with Ronnie. The poor kid was an outsider to the group who wanted so desperately to break into it.
“Oh, yeah?” Ashton asked before he took a swig from his can of beer. “What do you think it is?”
“There’s no Gateway to Hell,” Jake said. “That’s just something old people say to scare us. My Mom said the real reason for the curfew is that a group of kids got hurt at the cemetery years ago. Mayor Hercules went berserk.”
“Ugh, that guy,” Ashton said, making a face. “Why’s he always wearing suits, even in the summer? He looks like the ghost from Poltergeist.”
Jake shrugged. “Well, he started the curfew. That’s what my mom told me.”
Ashley climbed back into the car, the adrenaline rush making her giddy. “Were you guys talking about Mayor Hercules?” she asked.
“We were talking about where this Gateway to Hell business started,” Jake said.
“Ah, are you scared?” Ashley asked as she reached over to touch Jake’s strong jaw in a flirty manner. “Don’t be. I’ll protect you from the demons.”
Jake tried to suppress a smile, but Ashley always had a way with him.
“This whole curfew is set just to control everybody,” Ashley continued. “The adults in charge take advantage of the fact that people here are like zombies. They don’t think for themselves. Everyone in this town is such a stupid piece of shit!”
“Watch the language!” Ashton teased.
“It’s true!” Ashley said. She looked to Ronnie. “I’m glad you’re here to take pictures. We can show everyone how stupid this curfew really is.”
Jake glanced in his rearview mirror at Ronnie, who was now blushing. He wore a letterman jacket like Jake and Ashton did despite not being on the varsity football or basketball team. Only the varsity players and the varsity cheerleaders were given jackets by the Booster Club, but Ronnie had gone to the store by himself and purchased his own. The jacket cost him over six months of wages from his part-time job working with his dad as a janitor at the hospital, but he thought it would be worth it. The store didn’t have one in his size, so he bought a large, which engulfed him and made him look like he was ten-years-old.
Jake’s vintage Mustang pulled into the cemetery’s parking lot, and Ashley stopped looking at her beautiful reflection in the passenger mirror to squeal in delight. “We’re heeeeere,” she sang.
Ronnie walked slowly as the group moved closer to the church. He stared up at the cloudless sky, at the bright stars and the full moon that shone above him. The air smelled like dry grass and evergreen trees, most likely from the forest surrounding the cemetery. The temperature was cool, not too cold but slightly chilly from the night breeze. On any other evening, tonight would be quite beautiful, but tonight, it was eerie and silent. It was as if even the animals and the crickets knew better than to be around.
The cemetery had a four-acre spread of land, and the old church sat right in the middle. With its two empty windows and a heavy metal door between them, the front of the church looked like a sad face, begging them to walk away and leave it in peace.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” Ashton said. He stared upward at the church’s pagan cross that rested on the frame of the roof.
“Let’s go home,” Kristin said, and Ashton put his arm around her. It surprised him to find that she was shaking.
“Awww, are you scared?” he asked.
“I don’t think we should be here,” she replied. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
“You should go down there and take pictures,” Ashley said to Ronnie, motioning to the church. Jake shot her a warning glance.
“Really?” Ronnie asked with a tremble in his voice.
“Yes, really,” she replied. “You’re supposed to take pictures of everything so that we can show people how stupid the curfew is. How this cemetery isn’t scary at all. So far you haven’t been taking pictures of anything.”
Ronnie awkwardly snapped a photo of Ashley, and she stared at him, annoyed.
“That’s not what I asked you to do,” she snapped, and his face reddened as bright as his hair.
After a few painful moments of watching Ashley scold Ronnie, Jake sighed. “This is stupid,” he said. He really questioned why he had agreed to do this. What if the cemetery’s groundskeeper appeared and threatened to call the police? Jake really couldn’t afford to get into any trouble. He didn’t want to ruin his future of getting a college scholarship and getting the hell out of Deer Creek.
“You’re not taking tonight’s rebellion seriously,” Ashley barked.
“Let’s go home,” Jake said. “And stop trying to get Ronnie to go into the church. He doesn’t want to.”
“Yes, he does.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“Yes, he does. Ask him.”
Ronnie stared at the two of them. He felt like he had to choose between his Mom and Dad in a divorce proceeding, and he didn’t know what to say.
“You don’t have to,” Jake said, and Ronnie stared back at him, unsure if he was being tested. He looked to Ashley.
“Really?” Ronnie finally asked. Jake was annoyed that Ronnie only cared about receiving her approval. After all, it was Jake who had once been Ronnie’s childhood best friend.
She stared back at Ronnie cruelly as Jake looked on. “You don’t have to go inside the church, but if you don’t—then bye, bye popular table.”
Ronnie’s shoulders deflated.
“Think of tonight as your initiation,” she added.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Jake said, but Ronnie felt that he was lying. Maybe Jake would allow him to cower away, but Ashley wouldn’t. It was bad enough if he lost the privilege of sitting at the table with them on Monday, but he knew that if he didn’t go up to the church, she would also tell everyone what a coward he was. People would mock him even more than they already did, and he shuddered at the thought of that.
“Can we go?” Kristin asked. “My mom’s probably realized by now that I’m not in my room.”
Ashton and Ashley stared at Ronnie, hard. He looked so frustrated that he was about to cry.
“No one can be a part of this group without being initiated,” Ashley said, hoping to give him a boost. “And this is your initiation. If you don’t do everything I say tonight, then you’re not in the group. I want my damn pictures, and you promised to give them to me.”
Ronnie remained silent.
“Oh, come on…” Jake said. He was ready to go, and he had had enough of this nonsense. He pulled out his keys and turned to walk back to his car. If the others weren’t going to follow him, then they could walk home for all he cared. “I’m leaving now. You’re welcome to stay, but you’d better find your own way back.”
The twins knew Jake would never be cruel enough to leave them, so they ignored his threat and focused on Ronnie.
Ashley looked like a snake about to devour, while Ashton appeared to be nothing more than her twin crony.
“We all were initiated in some way or the other,” Ashley lied. She looked to her brother for confirmation. “Tell him, Ashton.”
Ashton shrugged his shoulders. Why not? He’d play along because this all seemed harmless enough.
Ashley smiled. “Kristin agrees, too. Right, Kristin?”
Kristin looked to Ronnie and Jake and then to Ashley and Ashton. She didn’t know what to say.
“Umm…” she said, trying to stall. She hated lying.
Ashley rolled her eyes. Kristin’s conscience really annoyed her sometimes.
“I’m going!” Jake yelled as he held up his car keys, but he had only taken three steps before he stopped.
“Make a decision already, Pencil Dick,” Ashley said.
“What did you call me?” Ronnie asked. His cheeks flushed bright red. He had heard exactly what she had said. She had called him the nickname that the bullies at school had branded him with, a name that filled him with shame. Every time he heard it, he thought about the day he had received it, that day when the bullies had attacked him in the locker room shower.
“Nothing,” Ashley said with a cruel smile. “All I’m saying is that if you don’t go into the church after eleven, then you can return to your old status and kiss being our friend goodbye. I don’t need your stinking pictures. I’ll take them myself.”
She walked up to him and snatched the camera that hung on a breakable cord around his neck.
“This isn’t so hard. Why do we need you?” Ashley said as she made a big show out of taking pictures of everything around her.
Jake couldn’t believe he was still watching this. “Ashley, stop,” he said.
“Jake’s right, Ashley. Let’s go,” Kristin interjected.
“No, Ronnie wasted my time. I’m not happy,” she said. “Thanks a lot, Ronnie, for wasting my time.”
“I’m sorry, Ashley,” Ronnie said, and Jake couldn’t believe he was apologizing.
Ronnie stared at Ashley, the embodiment of high school cool. She was beautiful, rich, and popular. Everything he wanted to be. He then glanced at the church, the symbol of his initiation into their circle of popularity.
“Then go into the church,” Ashley said as her eyes bore into him, “and I promise you that no one will ever call you Pencil Dick again.” She returned the camera to him, then gazed into his eyes as she gently clasped the strap back around his neck. His cheeks flushed again, and he could feel an erection forming. Luckily, no one else noticed.
“Do you promise?” he asked, his voice choking where his words came out like a whisper.
“I promise,” she lied.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” Ronnie finally said, and Ashley smiled.
Jake put his keys back into his pocket and stormed over, upset.
“Fine,” Jake said. “Just one picture and let’s go!”
Ronnie nodded and got his camera ready, and Jake watched as he took his first step towards the metal door. As Ronnie approached, it was as if a light came on inside of the building, which made the windows flicker like the eyes of a Jack-o’-lantern.
Something was wrong.
Panicked, Jake ran forward and screamed out, “Don’t go in there!”
Ronnie stopped. “What?” he asked, confused. Just seconds ago, Jake had given his consent.
“You don’t have to do it!” Jake replied.
“Of course I do…” Ronnie said, dropping his camera, letting it dangle from his neck.
Ashley glared at her boyfriend as Ashton and Kristin stared back, mesmerized by the scene.
“Tell him, Kristin,” Jake said. “We were never initiated. This is all a mean trick created by Ashley. Ronnie, Ashley’s not going to let you hang out with us just because you go into the church.”
“Is that true?” Ronnie asked.
Ashley glared at Jake. “Jake’s lying,” she said. “All of us had to do something like this. It’s a rite of passage. He’s the only one telling you otherwise because he doesn’t want you to hang out with us. He told me this afternoon how he felt sorry for you ever since you were kids. He thinks you’re a wimpy baby, and I personally think you’re better than that.”
Ronnie’s eyes grew wide. “Is that true?” he asked Jake. His eyes watered and a lump stuck in his throat.
“You don’t have to go into that church,” Jake said, avoiding the question.
“He thinks you’re pathetic and weak,” Ashley said.
Jake looked to the ground, and Ronnie noted that he didn’t deny her claim.
“Is what she’s saying true?” Ronnie repeated. “Do you feel sorry for me?”
Jake wasn’t good at lying, but he should’ve lied then.
Instead, he stood quiet.
Ronnie’s lip quivered. At first it seemed as if he was going to cry, but to everyone’s surprise, he exploded with anger, the years of pent up frustration boiling over towards his former friend.
“I’ll show you, Jake!” Ronnie screamed, and he marched up to the metal door of the church. He grabbed the heavy handle, a bar that rested across the door.
“Ronnie, don’t!” Jake yelled as the eyes of the church glowed red. Ronnie’s hands gripped the metal, and evil laughter echoed from inside.
“See?” Ronnie said, triumphant. “I did it! I’m the only one who was brave enough to touch the church.”
“You’re supposed to go inside and take pictures. Not touch the door handle, jackass!” Ashley said. Jake stared at both her and Ronnie in confusion. Was he the only one who heard the laughter?
Ronnie let go of the handle, and he looked at the sinister-looking building in front of him. His initial courage had vanished, and he felt his palms sweat. He wiped them against the sides of his jean pants.
“Are you going to move or what, Smalls?” Ashton said. Kristin clutched at his arm, and she stared at Ronnie. Her eyes said it was okay to not go in, but her mouth remained shut. She looked as if something was eating away at her.
Ronnie looked to Jake, who motioned for him to leave. “Come on, Ronnie,” Jake said. “I’m going to take you home.”
Jake started to walk away, and this bothered Ronnie. It was as if he just assumed that he would follow him like a dog. Ashley smirked as Ronnie’s face returned to its defiant glare.
“So what’s it going to be, Smalls?” she called out.
Ronnie turned his back to the group, and he put his hands on the handle. The laughter inside roared, and a fire erupted behind the windows. Kristin’s eyes widened as she saw it.
“Oh my God,” Kristin whispered as she and the rest of the group stepped back, appalled.
“What’s happening?” Ashley said.
Ronnie whimpered as his hands tried to release the handle. He felt his flesh burning, and when he looked down, he saw they were sizzling like hamburger meat on a grill.
“What’s that smell?” Ashton asked.
Ronnie screamed as smoke erupted from his hands. With all of his might, he tried to let go of the handle, but it was as if an unseen force was pushing them down onto the burning metal. Tears streamed from his eyes.
“Help me!” Ronnie begged. “Help me!”
Jake ran up to the church. As his body moved closer and closer, he suddenly found himself smacked up against something, an invisible force field. Ashley, Ashton, and Kristin watched, horrified, their jaws dropped, their bodies frozen.
The laughter became a sinister whisper, chanting words from a language that no one knew.
The grip on Ronnie’s hands released, and the heavy metal door flew open. Before he could move, giant black hands that were as gnarled as tree trunks flew out from the church and yanked him inside, into a wild party of flames. He screamed as the door slammed shut.
“What have I done?” Ashley whispered as her eyes filled with tears. Behind her, Ashton held Kristin tight against him as she trembled, and Jake fell to his knees in shock.
Then, as if nothing had happened, the eyes of the church returned to nothingness.
Ever since Jake was a child, he felt sorry for Ronnie. The two boys grew up in the same neighborhood in the lower-class part of Deer Creek. Jake’s dad, Steve Victor, was a mechanic, and he owned Victor’s Auto Body Shop. His mom, Rosie, was a secretary at the elementary school, but she often took days off because she was sick with lupus, a chronic condition where her immune system attacked her own body’s cells and tissues. Ronnie’s dad, Harvey, was a janitor at the hospital, and his mom, Monica, was a waitress at a diner.
Jake and Ronnie used to play Cowboys and Indians in the park behind Jake’s house. The game wasn’t the most politically correct one out there, but it was a game passed on from their parents who didn’t really know any better.
The park was a secluded area with an open field and a rusty swing set, and Jake, the Indian, used to run away from Ronnie, the Cowboy, who would chase after him while wielding his plastic gun.
“I’m going to get you!” Ronnie screamed.
“Not if you can’t find me!” Jake yelled back. He ran past the swing set into the woods behind the park. His fit body moved quickly, outpacing Ronnie by several steps. The tiny Ronnie stopped to take a breather, and Jake disappeared, running deep into the woods. Once he realized that Ronnie was no longer chasing him, he paused to lean against a tree.
After a few seconds, Jake began to worry, wondering why he couldn’t hear Ronnie.
“Ronnie?” Jake called.
There was no answer.
Jake wiped the sweat off of his brow, and he removed his plastic dollar store feather piece. As he held it, he heard Ronnie scream in the distance. The sound startled him so much that he dropped it on the ground.
“Ronnie!” Jake yelled.
Jake ran towards Ronnie’s pleas, and as he approached his location in the woods, he heard other voices, older boys from the neighborhood.
“What a faggot outfit!” Bradley said as he ripped Ronnie’s plastic badge off of his shirt. The pimple-faced Bradley was in sixth grade, and so were his husky friends Dustin and Leo, who stood behind him and sneered.
Ronnie winced as Bradley smashed his toy gun into the dry earth. Jake watched as he carefully approached, grabbing a large stick that laid nearby.
“Leave him alone,” Jake said.
The boys turned around. Bradley smirked with amusement. He was at least a foot taller than Jake, and his cronies Dustin and Leo had over fifty pounds each over him.
“Or what?” Bradley said. “You think you’re such hot shit, don’t you, Victor?”
“You should pick on someone your own size,” Jake said. He held the stick as if it were a baseball bat.
Bradley gazed at the stick and smiled. “Why should I when picking on the little guy is so much more fun?”
Bradley stepped closer, and Jake stiffened. He wasn’t sure what to do, but the adrenaline in his body told him there were only two options—flight or fight. He locked eyes with Ronnie for a brief second and he knew which option he had to choose.
He swung. The stick whacked Bradley in the face, and he went down. Dustin and Leo swarmed in from behind, and Jake swiveled his body and hit each bully in the face with such force that they cried out as the splinters hit their flesh.
“You’ll be sorry about this, Victor,” Bradley said as he covered his swelling eye and cheek with his hand.
“Ronnie, let’s go,” Jake said. Ronnie nodded, and they hurried out of the woods. They looked back as they ran, but the boys did not chase them.
Once at the swing set in the park, they stopped because Ronnie was tired and needed to breathe.
“Are you okay?” Jake asked.
Ronnie nodded. “How’d you learn to do that?” Ronnie asked.
“My dad taught me everything he learned in the army,” Jake replied, and Ronnie remained quiet. He wished that his father knew how to fight.
They didn’t say anything else for the rest of the day, and that was the last time that Ronnie ever asked Jake to play Cowboys and Indians with him.
Jake parked his Mustang on the street in front his house. The lights were off because his parents were asleep inside.
Killing the engine, Jake lowered his head onto the wheel and took several deep breaths. He had just dropped off Ashley, Ashton, and Kristin at their homes. The conversation that they had in his car still replayed in his mind. He had agreed to keep silent, and already that agreement was eating away at his soul.
Jake closed his eyes, wanting to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come.
“Why, Ronnie?” Jake whispered into the air as if Ronnie were sitting next to him. “Why’d you want to be our friend so badly?”
The imaginary Ronnie looked at Jake with sad eyes before beginning his story. “Because…”
In junior high, the locker room had individual stalls, and all of the boys kept to themselves after gym class. They changed out of their dirty uniforms, took a quick shower, and got dressed before leaving. It was fast and simple, which is why Ronnie was surprised on his first day of high school gym class. He saw the boys from grades nine through twelve hang around once class was over, and the bigger boys, the jocks, would stare at the others, evaluating their bodies. The ones who were inferior were pointed at and mocked.
“Hey, faggot!” one of the seniors yelled at a scrawny sophomore with frizzy brown hair. The jock sat on a bench with nothing but his towel on, and his friends stood behind him, watching their leader, waiting for him to entertain them. The sophomore had tried to scurry to the showers, a giant room with five nozzles, but he hadn’t successfully avoided their attention.
Ronnie, whose locker was in a corner, watched with fear. He wasn’t sure how he too could run away, but he was thankful that the sophomore had diverted their attention.
“What?” the sophomore asked meekly.
“He answered to ‘faggot!’” the senior yelled out, and his friends burst into laughter as if this was the comedy extravaganza of the season.
The sophomore weakly smiled as his face turned red, but he was glad that they left him at that. He hurried to the shower, and the group moved their attention to Ronnie, who had tried to change inconspicuously out of his soiled gym clothes and into his regular attire.
“Dude, that’s gross!” the senior yelled, noticing Ronnie’s sweaty hair and clothing. “You’re going to have B.O. if you don’t shower.”
Ronnie didn’t know how to respond. His eyes widened, and his posture deflated as if he were an animal about to be attacked by his prey. Smelling weakness, the leader of the bullies stood up and his three friends followed.
Ronnie’s eyes darted from side to side. He wished that he could run away, but they were approaching.
“It’s dirty to not shower,” the leader said.
“Don’t be gross, freshman,” his crony said behind him.
“Why don’t you want to shower?” the leader asked. “Coach told everyone they have to shower after class.”
Ronnie couldn’t come up with anything to say, and they were staring at him, hard. “I didn’t want to…” he said.
The leader sneered. “We have a rebel, folks. Someone who thinks he’s above the rules.”
Ronnie’s eyes widened as the rest of the boys revealed their smiles. They might as well have had fangs with the way they were going to tear into him.
“You know, Coach always told us that it was our responsibility to promote teamwork,” the leader said. “What’s your name, freshman?”
Ronnie didn’t want to give it to them.
“What’s your name?” the leader’s friend repeated.
“It’s Ronnie,” he quietly answered.
“Ronnie…” the leader said in a mocking tone. He turned to his friends and for a moment, Ronnie thought that they had lost interest in him, just like they had lost interest in the sophomore.
He was wrong.
“To the showers, boys!” the leader said. Without any warning, the boys swarmed. They grabbed Ronnie and hoisted him into the air. He was still wearing his street clothes, and he tried to wiggle out of their grasp but it was futile. The sophomore was the only one in the shower, and when he saw the boys coming, his eyes revealed his shock as he jumped back out of view. The leader turned one of the showerheads on, and icy water blasted downwards. The bullies threw Ronnie onto the tiled floor, still dressed, and he winced at the impact and as the cold water hit his flesh like tiny needles.
“Please, stop it!” Ronnie said. He turned and made eye contact with the sophomore, who gazed back at him with sympathy. Ronnie hoped to use ESP to communicate with his fellow victim to run and get Coach, but instead, the sophomore turned off the shower and ran away. He obviously did not want to get involved.
The bullies tore off Ronnie’s clothes, the way the bullies in the woods had torn off his Cowboy memorabilia when he was a child. Ronnie closed his eyes and prayed to God. “Why do you always let this happen to me?” he asked as the last of his clothes were ripped away.
The bullies threw his wet clothes onto the shower floor, then stepped away to admire their work. Ronnie curled up into the fetal position as the icy water hit his exposed flesh and his private parts, which were average-sized and covered with red hair.
“Look at that pencil dick,” the leader said as his friends laughed.
“Guess it’s true that the carpets match the drapes!” another boy quipped.
Ronnie ignored them, hoping that they would go away. He closed his eyes and turned his face to the floor. At least they weren’t beating him.
“See you later, Pencil Dick,” the leader said.
Ronnie breathed a sigh of relief, glad that the episode had not escalated further.
As the bullies departed, Ronnie hoped that that was the end, but to his dismay, the boys had told everyone at school about what had happened. The nickname had stuck even once those boys had graduated, and eventually the name had evolved into Pencil Dick Smalls. Every time Ronnie heard those three cruel words, he remembered that day in the shower and how violated he felt. He remembered how he never wanted to feel that way for the rest of his life.