Other Short Stories by Teresa Lo
The One: A Short Story
Angels: 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
He opened his eyes, but he could see nothing but white light that dissolved into blotches of brown and green. As his eyes focused, he discovered that he was in the middle of a jungle. A tiny frog stared at him with purple eyes, and its skin glittered like the Indian jewelry his mother wore when she was alive. He reached out to touch the frog, and instead of jumping away, it melted into pink liquid, absorbing into the earth, emerging as a tall lily with crystal petals. He plucked the flower from the ground, and it disintegrated, leaving in his hand a compass, gold and tiny, the same diameter of the wedding ring he wore. The strange object had no directions on the face, only four diamonds symbolizing north, south, east, and west, and its needle spun slowly in a clockwise direction.
He concentrated on the compass, wondering why it would not point north. He was about to throw it away when suddenly the needle stopped. He looked in the direction it pointed and saw a clearing and a dirt path that had not existed before. He walked along the path through the jungle, holding the compass in front of him. The tall trees blocked most of the sun with their crowns, their dark leaves absorbing the light. Slivers of rays peeked through and illuminated the path. The sunlight made his wedding ring twinkle, and he stared long and hard at it. He could not remember his wife’s name, but he envisioned her, a beautiful woman with a round body; thick, black hair; and dark, almond-shaped eyes. He saw her laughing, but he could not remember what she was laughing at. She wore a white sari that showed off her strong, dark shoulders, and she danced with two children, a boy and a girl, but he could not see their faces, for they did not have any.
He heard a rustling sound and turned to see a being rise to his feet. He held a bow and arrow, and he had gigantic white wings, sharp talons, and a blue body covered with tattoos. His torso, limbs and face were those of a man’s.
“I am the Messenger of The Island,” the being said.
“What messages do you have for me?”
“You are a good soul and deserve to be here. I have no messages for you.”
The trees murmured and intertwined. Their branches reached for the sky, and the Messenger disappeared from sight.
The compass needle pointed straight ahead. He walked out of the jungle and arrived on a rocky cliff. He looked below and saw an ocean with water untouched by pollution. The blue was the most beautiful color he had ever seen. It reminded him of a stone in a necklace he had bought for his wife on their first anniversary.
“Saaaaaannnjeeeeeev…” the wind howled. Its voice was a sad wail, sung by a beautiful woman. It had a familiarity to it, but he could not recall why.
He sat on the rock, and his wedding ring burned his hand. He pulled it off quickly and threw it into the ocean. He closed his eyes, searching for memories. He knew the names of different sections of the brain and that his favorite smell was that of an expensive lavender perfume. The owner of the perfume he could not remember.
Rain poured from the cloudless sky. He opened his mouth and tasted the drops. They were warm and salty like tears.
“Why?” the wind whispered.
The rain soaked his clothing, a white linen shirt and khaki pants, but he had no desire to seek shelter. The rain comforted him, and he longed to hear the voice of the wind once more.
The Daughter stared straight ahead. Her eyes transfixed upon her father’s lifeless body, his face shiny and smooth, a wax figure of the man in the large, poster-sized photograph next to the casket. Someone had taken that picture of him eight years ago, when she was thirteen, and in the picture, he smiled warmly and his hair was gelled down. His eyes were large and child-like, his nose was shaped like a bulb, and his skin was the color of light beer. He had passed away at the age of fifty, in perfect health, without warning, of natural causes.
There was a murmuring of voices as people entered the funeral home. The Daughter sat, too drained to see who had come and who had not. The night before, she had thought only of her father. Of his jokes. Of the way he pushed her to become a doctor like he had been. Of the way he talked to her when she was having a bad day, and of the way she did not know how to express the gratitude and love she had felt for him.
That lack of expression haunted her.
Ever since she was a child, she had a problem with communication. When she was six, she had a stutter, and she would cry after the other kids made fun of her at school. Her father would tell her not to cry that she and her voice were beautiful. She didn’t believe him. He didn’t know what it was like to be an ugly girl with big glasses and frizzy hair, who couldn’t speak correctly. Her father searched throughout the state for the best speech therapist he could find, and he found one in Wichita, which was two hours away. Every Monday, her father drove her to Wichita after he picked her up from school. They would wait in The Therapist’s lobby, which was a small room with two folding chairs and no receptionist’s table. Like clockwork, they would wait for fifteen minutes before the door opened, and The Therapist would emerge with a small Asian boy, who had a bowl cut hairstyle and often wore denim shorts and a red striped shirt. “You see?” The Father whispered as the boy passed without meeting their eyes. “You shouldn’t feel ashamed of your problem. Your life experience oftentimes is the same as someone else’s.” It was not until her stutter faded a year later that she believed him, but she never had the courage to thank him.
Beside her sat The Mother, who smelled like lavender. She cried out in despair for the husband that she had lost, for the friend and lover she had loved and fought with for over twenty-five years. Her howls fluctuated from low to high in a poetic keen, and her sadness caused those who walked in to stop and reflect on their own lives. Next to her sat the nineteen-year-old Son, who thought about the last conversation he had with his father. It had taken place a month ago. They had fought after The Son had received a DUI. “How could you do something so stupid? You could have killed not only yourself but someone else. What were you thinking?” The Father had asked, his voice shaking with anger and fear. “What do you care? I thought you’d expect this from me!” The Son had fired back with tears in his eyes. Even though The Son knew he was wrong, he was too proud to admit it. The conversation had ended with slammed doors, and there had been no resolution.
All three had regrets, the types of sorrow that others had experienced along with their ancestors before them.
An older Indian woman with curly white hair approached the grieving family. She wore a black shawl and carried a homemade blanket in her fragile arms.
“I made this for you,” she said, handing the blanket to The Mother. She whispered in her ear. “He was a good man, Shoba. He will be back.”
He closed his eyes, hoping to fall asleep, but his body would not shut down, as if it was incapable of doing so. The rain had stopped falling, and gigantic white birds flew across the sky. His ears searched for the soft whispers of the wind, which did not come.
He put the compass in his pocket and rose to his feet. He glanced down below. A green dolphin flew out of the water and dived back in without a splash. He closed his eyes and raised his arms, preparing to fly. He whispered a prayer that his father had taught him as a child as he leapt into the ocean.
The Mother sat at a kitchen table, sipping tea from a white cup. The Daughter sat next to her, her hands wrapped around her mug. Beside her sat The Son, a half-eaten sandwich on a gold plate in front of him. On the other side of The Mother sat The Neighbor, a wise woman whose wisdom was carried over from another time.
It had been three months since the Father had passed. The flowers had quit arriving, the phone calls had stopped, and the extended family had returned to their respective homes. Every weekend, The Daughter and The Son returned from their colleges to stay with The Mother, who had moved into a small apartment. She did not sell the old house or move any of the furniture; she just left, unable to deal with the history of her home.
She carried on with her old routines. Tea dates with friends. Swimming laps at the gym. Long walks near the pond in the city park. To those who barely knew her, her laughter and her smiles showed that she was fine. Yet, they did not have to see her at the end of the day when she returned to her apartment and cried.
She dreamed of Him every night, and she wanted The Neighbor to interpret her dreams. The Neighbor came over to the apartment one Saturday afternoon with her pack of tarot cards. She wore a long brown skirt with pockets, and she wrapped her hair in a silk handkerchief. She wore ostentatious necklaces and cheap golden bracelets, as if she were nothing more than a fake gypsy at a carnival.
“Tell me about those dreams,” The Neighbor said.
The Mother described them in vivid detail. She relived her wedding in India and her honeymoon in Hawaii. She envisioned her husband in his afterlife, floating on clouds, talking and laughing with great men. Some nights, she imagined herself with him, and these dreams haunted her the most.
“What could they mean?” The Mother asked. “Could it be that he is speaking to me?”
The Neighbor closed her eyes and answered slowly.
“Mortals do not understand that there is nothing of importance in details. Names, jobs, locations—none of these things matter. When a soul leaves its body, over time, it loses memories of its old life, its human identity, in preparation for its new body. There is no way he would be able to communicate with you from the other side. Your dreams are nothing more than dreams.”
“Thank you,” The Mother said before she excused herself and rose from her chair. She retired in her bedroom and locked the door.
“She should go back to the house,” The Neighbor said to The Son and The Daughter.
“There’s too many memories there,” The Son replied.
“She should cherish the memories with him and your family in that house; not run from his death.”
“We miss him too, you know,” The Daughter said. She hated how her voice cracked at the end, and she hated how her eyes burned into The Neighbor’s with misplaced anger.
“I know,” The Neighbor replied softly before she rose, taking The Mother’s cup of tea to the sink. She glanced into the cup and halted.
“I wish that I could see him one last time and tell him how much we loved him,” The Daughter said. The Son nodded. It annoyed her that The Neighbor, however, was still staring intently into that cup of tea leaves.
The Daughter and The Son exchanged glances. Why won’t this crazy woman go home?
“Whatever,” the son grumbled, and he walked outside to smoke a cigarette and calm his nerves. Once the door shut, The Neighbor looked up and stared into The Daughter’s eyes.
“What?” The Daughter asked, uncomfortable.
“There is a way that you can reach your father if you hurry.”
“What are you talking about?”
The Neighbor pulled out of her skirt pocket a small vial of a substance that resembled tobacco. “Take this,” she said to The Daughter. “Chew and swallow.”
“You just carry that around with you?” The Daughter asked, staring at the wrinkled brown leaves. Something about the contents sent chills throughout her body.
“I started carrying it once your father passed. I wanted to save it until I was given a sign.”
The Daughter was now even more scared as she held the vial in her hand. “What does it do?” she asked.
The Neighbor stared at her, careful with her words. Finally, she said something that made The Daughter’s insides turn cold.
“It temporarily stops the heart.”
He floated on his back as a school of silver and white fish swam underneath him. He tried to remember the name of the city he had grown up in, what his family looked like, and what he used to do for a living, but he could not. The only things that filled his mind were thoughts of how wonderful the island was and how happy he was to have discovered it.
A white elephant emerged from the tangle of the jungle foliage. She walked with a grace he did not expect from a creature of her size. Slowly, with each step, she transformed into a tiger. When the tiger reached the white sands, she transformed into a beautiful woman with unruly hair, mahogany skin, and blue eyes. She wore a white dress, with many layers to her skirt that caused it to dance with the wind.
With slow movements, she glided across the water, and soon, she loomed over him.
“I am the Keeper of the Island. The Messenger informed me of your arrival,” she said.
He leaned his head to face her and saw that the school of fishes swam in a circle under her feet.
“What am I doing here?” he asked.
“Have you not guessed where you are?”
He shook his head no, and she laughed gently.
“You are in paradise, another world which is not your own. Some call this place Heaven; others call it The Afterlife. Regardless, you are here.”
“Surely I am not dead.”
He did not believe his own words as he searched his memories. He could not remember being alive. The Keeper smiled.
“Come,” she said, offering her hand. He took her hand and stood. The water’s surface felt like gelatin on the bottom of his feet.
That evening, The Mother emerged from her room in the apartment. Her children sat on the couch in the living room, watching an old movie on TV.
“I’m ready to go home,” she said.
Those were the only words she uttered for the rest of the night. She said nothing in the car as The Daughter drove with shaky hands, and she said nothing as they walked on the familiar sidewalk that led to the front door. After The Son unlocked the front door and pushed it open, The Mother said nothing and entered.
The inside of the house smelled strange, she thought. It smelled like ghosts.
The three split and wandered into different areas of the house: The Mother headed towards the kitchen and the Son to the family room. It was The Daughter who traveled upstairs, wearing her overcoat. Underneath her coat, she clutched the vial, determined to speak with her father.
The Daughter lined the tub with white candles, and jasmine petals floated along the surface of the bath. She lowered herself into the tub; the oils in the water made her body feel slippery. She held the vial in her hand and opened it slowly. The strange leaves smelled like oranges. She put it into her mouth, chewed quickly, and swallowed it nearly whole. When it entered her stomach, she exhaled deeply, feeling her hair soaking wet. Her heart beat quicker, and her breathing slowed. The tiles of the tub began to shift, and the flames of the candles rose to the ceiling. She felt dizzy and tired, as if she were dying. Her body lowered further into the water until only her big, almond-shaped eyes were above the surface.
She closed them and plunged.
She woke up and found herself in the middle of a jungle, a leopard staring at her with yellow eyes. She gasped in fear, and the leopard licked its lips and sauntered over to her. He placed his paws on her chest and stared at her with wide-eyes. She raised her hand and stroked his black fur.
“Can you show me to my father?” she asked. The leopard nodded its head. She sat up, and he melted into a gray liquid, which slid off of her body and absorbed into the dirt. Coal-colored tiles pushed their way up onto the surface of the earth.
She followed the tiles into the jungle, where the tall trees blocked the sunlight. The only illumination came from butterflies with glowing wings and the twinkle of the million eyes of hidden creatures. Fearfully, she ran, still following the path.
She halted when she arrived at the point of an arrow. A blue man with wings pointed his bow and arrow at her.
“You do not belong on The Island,” he said. His tone sent shivers down her spine.
“I need to speak with my father.”
He lowered his bow and said to her, “You are a good soul, but you do not belong here.”
He raised his bow once more, and she winced in anticipation. However, instead of shooting at her, he shot up into the sky. “You will find the arrow where your father stands.”
She ran past the Messenger, past the darkness of the tangles of leaves and vines, and she ran until she burst into the sunlight and reached a rocky cliff, where she slid to a halt. She took several deep inhales before she glanced below at the water. It appeared menacing even though it was the most beautiful blue she had ever seen. It reminded her of a stone that her mother wore around her neck when her father was still alive.
She turned, ready to follow the trail back into the jungle, but the jungle was no longer there. She now stood on the top of a mountain.
“Nooo….” she heard the wind cry. Its voice sounded like her mother’s, and the voice was filled with exquisite pain. Just then, rain poured from the cloudless sky, and the droplets were warm and thick like tears. With each tear, her body felt consumed with sadness and loss, and she reached a point where she could no longer stand. Dejected, The Daughter sunk onto a rock and buried her face in her hands. She felt like such a failure. It was worse than the failure she felt not telling her father goodbye.
Suddenly, there was a whistle as if a missile had just burst through the horizon. She looked up to see the Messenger’s arrow soaring, and it appeared to be heading toward an island that had not existed earlier.
She hurriedly rose to her feet, and without hesitation, she leapt from the mountaintop. Her body sunk into the water, piercing her skin, causing a gigantic tsunami that overtook the mountain. She struggled to break through the surface. When she emerged, she was a few feet away from the shore. She treaded water and realized she was no longer in an ocean. She was in a tiny pool.
A boy from the Orient, with feet planted firmly in the sand, watched her. He had a bowl cut hairstyle and wore denim shorts and a red-striped top. He reminded her of the boy from The Therapist’s office.
“Hello,” he said. He smiled, revealing a row of tiny, square teeth. She had never heard him speak when she was a child, and his haunting young voice surprised her. “Are you looking for this?” he said. He revealed the arrow he had hidden behind his back.
“I’m looking for my father.”
The Boy shrugged. “You seem sad. Don’t be.”
“I’m looking for him. I was told I would be able to speak with him.”
“You’re too pretty to be crying.”
“I want to tell him how much I loved him. I wasn’t able to do so before.”
“No, he didn’t. I had never said anything. None of us had ever said anything…”
“But he knew.”
“Oh, what would you know?” she snapped. “You’re, you’re… j-j-j-ust a st-st-st-uuupid kid!” she stuttered. She immediately put her hand to her mouth. She felt horrible for her words, and embarrassed that her stutter had returned. Even though she was a wreck, the boy had no reaction. Feeling frustrated, she began to sob. She had traveled so far and had followed the winged creature’s advice. Yet, here she was, having a nonsensical conversation with a child.
Black ink immerged from her eyes instead of tears. “I came all this way,” she whispered.
The Boy approached her. Her ink formed a pile in the sand, and he stood in it. He wrapped his arms around her legs. “Don’t cry. I never liked it when pretty girls cried.”
“I don’t understand. I was told that if I found the arrow, I would find my father.”
The Boy bent down, touched the ink, and grabbed her wrist. With tiny fingers, he wrote the Chinese character for “love” on her skin. The ink dissolved into her flesh and appeared as a stain, no darker than a birthmark.
“You don’t belong here,” he said.
“I want to speak to my father.”
The Daughter and The Boy locked eyes. There was something in his gaze that told her she already had, and that is when she recognized the soul underneath his Asian skin.
“I love you,” she said. “We all love you.”
“Goodbye,” he whispered, before he raised his arrow and plunged it into her heart.
The Boy watched her dissolve into sand that floated upwards towards the sky. He gazed at the arrow in his grasp, stained with drops of ruby-colored blood. He pushed the arrow into the ground, and the grains devoured it, sending ripples across the sand. Behind him stood The Keeper and The Messenger framed by trees. The clouds lowered from the sky, providing a shroud of privacy for The Boy’s entrance into the Pool of Return.
“You don’t have to go,” The Messenger said.
“You can stay in Paradise forever if you like,” The Keeper said. “You can choose to not go back as a human to The Other Side.”
The Messenger and The Keeper stared at him, unsure of his answer. The Boy looked down at his red shirt and his tiny hands, and he wondered how he had come to look this way. He couldn’t remember his form before, but he knew in his heart that he was not who he was before.
“Who was that girl?” The Boy asked.
“We cannot tell you,” The Messenger replied.
“Will I ever see her again?”
“I think you know that answer,” The Keeper said.
The Boy thought of this, and he thought about his strange visitor’s eyes and how kind they were. He wanted to see her again.
“I’m ready,” The Boy said. The beautiful creatures nodded at him, happy he was certain of his decision.
“Have a safe journey,” The Keeper said. “We shall see you again.
The Boy nodded again and closed his eyes. Then without a word, he took a deep breath and plunged into the pool.
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. She currently resides in Los Angeles. 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.