Other Short Stories by Teresa Lo
The Island: 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
When I was in my early twenties, I graduated from college with a useless Philosophy degree. Instead of applying to graduate school or trying to find a “real” job like my parents wanted, I stayed in town and worked in a coffee shop called Café Beautiful. I wouldn’t say I was a “horrible” waitress, per se, but I often brought food to the wrong tables or forgot to give refills when asked, and as you can guess, I didn’t make many tips and more often than not got called a “retard” by grumpy geriatrics. However, my life post-college wasn’t completely meaningless. Troubled, yes. Meaningless, no. And the reason for my outlook was simple. During that soul-searching, miserable time, I had the privilege of dating “The One.” Not “The One” meaning my soul mate or the man I wanted to marry. I meant that I met the actual “One,” the being who was brought to this earth to transcend human life and bring all together in a massive umbrella of enlightenment.
Or at least that’s what he said he was.
He, the One, the bringer of all to enlightenment, had an earthly name.
His name was Johnny.
When I had first met Johnny, I was about to break up with his best friend, a small-time thief named Michael. Michael was a Frankenstein of a man who stole from the charity where he was employed, shoplifted from local businesses, and engaged in the classic dine and dash. That’s how we met actually. He tried to steal an omelet breakfast, and I was the one who chased after him. He made it a few blocks away before I caught him, and as he pled with me not to call the police, I couldn’t help but think his awkwardness was kind of cute.
We dated for a few weeks, but the awkwardness that initially attracted me turned me off as time passed. Michael never knew the right things to say, and when we were alone, he never attempted to touch me. Once, I felt bold so I reached for his hand while we were watching a movie. I figured this wouldn’t be weird, considering we had been going on dates for three weeks, but when he retracted his hand as if I were a hot stove, I knew that there was really something wrong. On the day that I wanted to break up with him, he invited me to a party at his friend’s house. I didn’t want to go, but he begged me because his friends didn’t believe that he had a girlfriend. “Do they think you’re gay?” I said. I knew it was a rude thing to ask, but I wanted to know. He didn’t have a real response, which gave me my answer so I agreed to go with him to the party on one condition. “We’re over after this,” I said. “Okay,” he replied.
I went with him to the party, which was at a two-story bungalow in the middle of the student-heavy district of town. Entering the party, I felt old. Like I was in a time warp that took me back three years. I was only twenty-two, but seeing eighteen-year-olds chug beer from plastic cups made me feel like a disapproving parent, watching my child go out with a bad date for the first time. There was a lot of screaming “Woo!” as if everyone needed to declare how good the beer felt in their bloodstreams, and the music was oppressively loud and I found myself rubbing my ears, worrying that I was going to lose my hearing.
“Do you want to meet my friend?” Michael screamed, as if he were offering me a consolation prize. Before I could respond, he walked me over to Johnny, who was that typical obnoxious drunk kid in the corner, thrusting his hips as he danced and yelling out weird things in between gulps of his beer. He had big, wavy brown hair and light, pointy eyebrows that made him appear to be devilishly smirking.
“Johnny, this is Paige,” Michael said.
“Hello,” Johnny said. His octave raised in a sing-song manner as if he was just about to break out in song. I wondered if he thought he was in a Disney movie.
“Hi,” I replied coolly. I extended my hand, and he shook it, holding on too long. I could feel his eyes linger as they examined my face. I tried to avoid his stare, but our eyes met and I immediately noticed that his eyes continuously twitched from side to side.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I have nystagmus.”
“It’s a disorder that causes my eyes to vibrate.”
“Do you want to eat pancakes?” Johnny asked
“I think you really want to eat pancakes,” Johnny said as if he were a hypnotist and I was the mark. We went to an IHOP twenty minutes later, and I ordered blueberry pancakes and he ordered buttermilk. “Don’t you think they’re delicious?” Johnny asked.
“Yeah, they’re good,” I replied.
“I’m glad you liked them because you’re paying for them.”
His boldness took me by surprise. When he saw me bristle, he stared at me with those throbbing eyes of his. “I was just kidding,” he said as he reached for my hands. “Sometimes I like to push people to see what I can make them do.”
“That’s messed up,” I said.
“But you like it,” he said with no hint of irony in his voice whatsoever.
A few weeks later, I visited my folks who lived across state. We went out to eat brunch at their favorite restaurant that had an outdoor patio. It was breezy that afternoon, and I could smell roses from a garden nearby. Our waitress was a pretty girl with crystal blue eyes, and with service skills that I lacked, she brought out our strawberry and walnut salads with quickness and a smile. What should have been a perfect day, however, was quite unpleasant.
“Are you eating well?” my parents asked. “Do you have a boyfriend?” “When are you planning on getting a real job?”
“Of course, I’m eating well. I work at a café.” “Yes, I have a boyfriend. His name is Johnny.” “I like my current job, thank you very much.”
The interrogation stopped, but it was clear that they were as displeased with me as I was annoyed by them. As I drove home, I was upset and the downer music playing on the radio wasn’t helping either. When I returned to my apartment, I called Johnny, and he came over. I told him about my brunch with my parents, and he got serious and stared into my eyes. He took my hands, something he loved to do, and I expected him to tell me that everything would be okay. Instead, he asked me if I had told them that I loved him.
“What?” I asked, taken aback.
“Do you?” he asked.
“Do you love me?” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation.
“I love you, and I want to be with you forever.”
I had no idea what to say. I had always imagined that I would later return to school and get a law degree, that I would marry a lawyer, and that I would have a successful career and two beautiful children. Johnny didn’t want what I wanted, and I had a feeling that he never could give me what I wanted. The truth was I never wanted to fall in love with Johnny, let alone have “forever” with him.
Johnny worked at a sandwich shop, and he had dropped out of college. He was one semester shy of graduating, and when he was in school, his professors were astounded by his brilliance. I had asked Johnny before if he would ever return, and he said that it was not his destiny to do the “college thing.” The “college thing” was a cliché, and people who graduated from college were only wasting their money to sell their souls so that they can later work for the corporate machine. He hated big corporations. He felt they were evil and greedy, and he wanted to stop them.
“How?” I had asked.
“I will bring my Oneness,” he had replied.
“What is your “Oneness?””
“My Oneness will stop the machine that overtakes people’s minds. Do we really need new clothes, or new cars, or new TVs? Should we really ingest food made from chemicals not of this earth? Should we really give our money to people who don’t need it but want it to fill the evil greed inside of their body? No, we don’t, but people need me to show them how to be free.”
“Uh, okay,” I said. My degree in philosophy did nothing to prepare me for this mess of babbling.
“So the answer is yes,” he said in response to my silence. It annoyed me that his statement wasn’t even a question.
“I didn’t say anything,” I replied.
“You were thinking.”
“Yes, I was thinking.”
“You worry all the time.”
“And you don’t care about anything.”
He smiled, taking my insult as a compliment, and his pointy eyebrows rose like Jack Nicholson’s. Before I could say anything more, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an Altoid mint container. He popped a mint and offered me one.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Just take one.”
“I don’t want a mint.”
“You need to take one. It’ll help you relax.”
I stared at him quizzically as he continued to extend the container. “Come on,” he coaxed as he shook the container, causing its contents to rattle around. “Take one.”
I sighed and put one in my mouth. To my surprise, my tongue was met with a horrendous metallic taste. “These aren’t Altoids,” I said. Johnny shrugged and pounced on me.
This instance was the first time he and I had ever made love. As his body rocked up and down, the earth rumbled and a jungle of white flowers and dark green vines grew underneath us. I opened my eyes to see a vine, slithering over Johnny’s body, binding his body closer to mine. When I came, an eruption of red light burst from the ceiling and the light morphed into beautiful July 4th confetti, the kind I had loved as a child. Soft music began to play from a musician hidden away in the jungle that sprawled across my bed and floor.
From that night on, every moment I spent with Johnny was just as magical. We would take our pills, drink some beers, and those pills would take us on a magical journey. With time, I really began to believe he was The One.
“I’ll unite you with a world that’s on a different plane to what others’ view as reality,” Johnny said one cool Saturday evening. He and I sat on the rooftop of my apartment building. Even though I had a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, my body shivered. Johnny sat next to me, looking physically comfortable but emotionally troubled.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked as I leaned my head on his shoulder.
“About how people need to come together. About the infinite space that disconnects our beings.”
He looked to the sky and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Look,” he said, and he reached up with his fingers and pulled a sparkling star out of the black velvet of the sky. The star rested like a small diamond in his hand. “I want to give all of this to you. I want you to be draped in stars.”
I took the star out of his palm, and I crushed it between my fingers until it was nothing but glittery dust. I sprinkled that dust in my hair, kissed Johnny softly on his lips, and told him that I loved him.
“I can read your thoughts,” he said. “I know.”
It was my twenty-third birthday. In the past, my friends had thrown me parties, or I had driven home to see my parents. This year was different. This year, I didn’t feel like I had much to celebrate. My friends had moved on to graduate schools or to good jobs in bigger cities, and a few even got married and moved to the suburbs. I was the only one who stayed behind, and before Johnny introduced me to the magical pills, that fact had depressed me.
“It’s your day. We could do anything you want to do,” he said.
I reached for the mint tin in his jacket that lay strewn on my bedroom floor. “This is all I want,” I said, and he smiled.
An hour later, he and I stepped out of my apartment, dressed in fantastic clothes. I wore an old dress reminiscent of those worn by flappers in the American 1920s, and Johnny wore a pinstriped suit and a fedora hat. Outside, God had drained color from the world. The grass was gray, and the trees were black. The sky was also gray except for the drippy streak of purple paint that rained down from the sky. A purple splat hit my face, and Johnny took his hand and wiped it away.
He and I walked across a bridge that appeared to lead to a lit white castle with gigantic glass eyes, but with every step I took, the further the castle slipped away.
I began to sob.
“Don’t leave!” I said. “It’s my birthday.” I rushed forward on the bridge, and the glass eyes of the castle turned red and then Hell emerged with its fiery lakes and its living buildings with jagged teeth. I screamed and covered my eyes.
“It’s okay,” Johnny whispered, as he wrapped his arms around me. “We’re not on that scary bridge anymore.”
“Where am I now?” I asked without uncovering my eyes. I let myself collapse against him.
“You’re in a different, more beautiful castle, and you’re my princess.”
I looked into his big, brown eyes, and I wanted to believe him. I wanted him to keep me safe.
But when I looked into his eyes, I saw how they throbbed with nystagmus and that they were red around the rims. His pointy eyebrows were even darker now as if he really had become the devil. I gasped and stepped back.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
My eyes darted from side to side. I found myself in a field behind my apartment complex, and I saw that I wasn’t wearing fantastical clothing. Just an old sweatshirt and a dirty pair of jeans.
“I’m going home,” I said, and Johnny looked at me with hurt in his crazy eyes.
“Can I come with you?” he asked.
I shook my head.
When the phone rang the next afternoon, I was lying on my bed, my head hanging over the edge, and I was still wearing my clothes from the night before.
The rings felt like foghorns blasting inside of my ears, and I lifted my head and saw my phone on the desk a few feet away. It felt like miles to walk to, so I just let the phone blast until the caller gave up. When I was finally met with silence, my body filled with relief.
And then another ring sliced through the silence, and I groaned.
“Hello?” I said groggily into the telephone.
“We tried to call you yesterday, but you didn’t answer,” Dad said.
“I was busy,” I replied as I looked at myself in the mirror. I resembled more of a skeleton than a human being.
“We wanted to wish you a happy birthday,” Mom added to my surprise, and after a few seconds, I realized that I should have figured they would put me on speakerphone.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Did you do anything fun?” Dad asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
“Were you with Johnny?” Mom asked.
“Well, we want to meet this love of yours.”
Her cheerful tone made me cringe, and my head throb.
“Johnny is busy,” I said. I stepped closer to the mirror, and I felt my stringy hair. My dry skin and chapped lips.
“Well, we would still like to see you,” Mom said.
“I’m really busy, you guys,” I lied again.
“We would like to see you,” Dad said. Unlike Mom, Dad had a quiet authority that told me I had better make a trip out there.
To prepare for my trip, I binged on eggs and bread to try to gain weight, and I bought nearly every vitamin at GNC to try to revive a natural glow. However, my tactics didn’t work. I ended up barfing up the eggs, bread and vitamins, and I looked even more like a heroine addict from the 1990s than I had before.
I drove to my parents’ house across state, and the flat land, tall grass and blue skies did nothing for me. I suppose the simplicity of my Midwestern landscape would be considered beautiful by most, but after the fantastical journeys with Johnny, nothing ordinary felt extraordinary.
I arrived at my parents’ house, a two-story postmodern home in the suburbs. Parking the car in the driveway brought back memories of me as a girl climbing into the backseat of my family’s station wagon, waiting with happy anticipation for our next road trip. I remembered going to the Grand Canyon, to Las Vegas, and to Branson, and I remembered how happy I felt just to be with them and to just be there. I wondered why I couldn’t find that happiness within myself for the past year.
The front door opened, and my mother and father flew out, smiling and healthy. They stopped when they saw me, and I remembered the shame I felt when they gasped.
“Are you on drugs?” my mother exclaimed, and that was when I started crying.
After a few weeks at home, I made the decision to move back in with my parents. I realized that I needed time to figure out what I was going to do with my life, and I needed to get away from Johnny and his magic pills. One Sunday afternoon, I returned to my apartment to gather my belongings and give my landlord my thirty-days notice to vacate. When I arrived at my building, I found mail spilling out of my mailbox onto the floor, and I wondered why the carrier would let such a thing happen. As I stooped to pick up the letters, I noticed a red greeting card.
It was from Johnny.
There was no postmark, and I found this off-putting, knowing that he had been in my building when I wasn’t there. I tore open the envelope and read his tiny scrawled handwriting. It was as manic and as intense as he was.
“Where have you gone?” he wrote. “Meet me at Café Beautiful on Monday at two o’clock. I’ll be waiting. I love you.”
I had no idea when he had brought the card over or what Monday he was talking about, but something told me to just show up tomorrow and see if he would be there. There was a fifty-fifty chance that he would be waiting for me, wanting to give me more of his Oneness.
I was nervous the next afternoon. Even though I knew I would never see Johnny again after this day, I still wanted to look nice. I combed my hair with a hundred strokes, and I wore my favorite blue dress. When I stepped through the front door of Café Beautiful, the manager looked over and gave me a quizzical look. I ignored him as I searched the restaurant. It was full, and it smelled like blueberry muffins and coffee, but I didn’t see Johnny. My heart sank. Maybe he didn’t show.
I looked over to see the hostess, a girl I had worked with who I always thought was nice but she wasn’t pretty.
“Hey, Janie,” I replied.
“Your boyfriend’s waiting in the back room,” she said.
I took a deep breath and slowly made my way to the back room, which was filled with college students on their laptops. In a corner, I saw Johnny, and I felt his magnetic pull. He looked handsome as he stared down at his coffee mug, a serious, inquisitive look on his face. His hair was cropped short, and his eyes were shaking. This was my lover, and I was going to say goodbye.
“Hey,” I said as I approached the table, and when he looked up, a huge smile spread across his face. He jumped up and went in for a kiss, but I pulled back. It was as if he thought we were still together, but I didn’t want to lead him on. He looked pained at that moment, like he realized what was about to happen. We quietly took our seats across from one another. Johnny was silent, sitting motionless with his eyes closed. At that moment, he looked truly at peace. He looked like The One.
“You’ve changed,” he said.
“I know,” I replied.
“You look good.”
“Thank you. My Mom’s been helping me eat more.”
He nodded. “I’ve missed you. You just took off after your birthday.”
“My parents wanted to see me.”
“You could have brought me along.”
I didn’t say anything.
Johnny ran his finger along the brim of his mug. I thought about what could have happened at that moment if I had a pill floating inside my stomach. Would Johnny be able to make that mug melt into his hand? Would he be able to make the coffee float up into the air and spell my name? I guess I wouldn’t know anymore. “If this is the end,” he said, “I want there to be one last time.”
I had figured that would be his request. He stared back at me, victorious as if he had won control over me once again.
I, on the other hand, didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
“No,” I said.
“I don’t want it to be over.”
He sighed. “Okay,” he said. He reached for my hand, and I didn’t pull it away. Instead, I felt his warm hands against mine, and I closed my eyes. Remembering the times we shared, and the magic I felt with him.
“Paige?” Johnny said.
I opened my eyes to see him staring at me, and at that moment I saw Johnny with his dark hair and his devilish eyebrows, and I saw him for what he truly was. He was a real person, a real man, but he was no longer “The One.”
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, A NOVEL
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.