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Elephant

December 26, 2017

 

1.

 

He stood in the midst of it all.  It was a white room.  A white winter wonderland.  It was difficult to see, as though enclosed in an ice cube.  Frostbite.  His fingers were bluer by the instant, starting at the tips.  Except, it was visible.  He was visible to the eye…

The silhouette of a man.  A man who was no taller than the teenage boy’s 5’8 height—

“Wait!” The teenage boy pushed forward, his breaths vapored into puffs of clouds. “Come back,” he croaked.

But it was he who was the one distancing away, not the silhouette.  He lunged forward but came to an abrupt halt.  He was stuck.  Somehow, somewhere in the white frosty air, his feet were sucked into the ground…the white floor.  An invisible force field was amongst him and the unknown man—

“Wait!” he called out, stretching out his hands that were suddenly sucked into the light—

A blaring light.

He squinted as the light made its way through the white storm, forcing him to look away—

A dream.

His eyes shot wide open, awakening from the dream.  He wormed his way up, giving the mattress a few chipmunk squeaks.  The closed curtain drapes and door blocked out any form of lightning from the bedroom.  Until the lights flickered on.

Matthew Jimmy Smith: the boy’s name from the dream.  His name.  He also was not a boy, but a teenager in the midst of puberty.  Height: 5’8 (with a possibility of another growth spurt).  Acne: check.  Body type: lean…ish.  Mood: moody.  The childhood paintings on the walls also said differently with squiggly letters of the names Matt and even Matty.  There were a few in bold too.  He had thick wavy hair like a rock-n-roll drummer.  But now, his neck length dark brunette locks decided it was best to puff up like a hot air balloon.  Big hair like Dee Snider—one of the many band posters that were displayed on his cream-colored walls.  Kurt Cobain, Alice Cooper, and Angus Young were on the neighboring posters.

Matthew…Matt…Matty, the boy with countless identities dropped his hand from the bedside lamp.  He rubbed the sleepy crust and boogies from his eyes.  Half asleep, the dirty piles of clothes on the floor were still visible…ish, bringing that god-awful stench into the bedroom.  Like a fresh pile of cat shit in an indoor litter box—with the windows shut.

Puberty checklist: does not care.

Matthew…Matt…Matty chucked the camouflage comforter and the matching black and blue bed sheets off his body.  He wore his gym shorts and T-shirt that displayed the IVY HIGH SCHOOL, HOME OF THE POISON logo.  His T-shirt stuck to him like honey.  He pulled the center piece away from his chest…It now made sense.  That god-awful stench…The case of B.O.—

“Jesus!” He turned his head away, dropping his T-shirt that clung back to his skin, sticky from the heat.

He wiped the last remains of saliva from his mouth and climbed out of his full-size bed.  But, life would have been easier if his daddy long legs were not caught in the midst of a storm—

“Dammit.”

Left and right.  He moved his legs left and right.  Right and left.  After a few kicks, his legs broke free from the tangled bedsheets, pushing him off the bed.  He went straight to the floor with a loud THUD.  The wooden floors gave an eerie haunted house creak…outside of his bedroom door—

“What was that?!” a girl with a husky voice said (still in the process of womanhood).

“He’s up!” It was a boy’s voice, also in the process of puberty.

Matt perked his head up.  Beneath the doorway—that small crack—shadows huddled closer to the door.  The giveaway was the golden doorknob twisting and turning, rejecting their entry—

“Matt?” it was the same girl, followed by a few KNOCKS.

“Maybe we should let him—”

“LET ME DO IT,” the boy interjected the other girl. “Like THIS.”

The door jolted at every BAM BAM BAM.  Two drumroll fists against the door…not a pretty picture.

“Derek…”

“What WOMAN—”

“DON’T CALL ME WOMAN!”

Matt dropped his head and let out a chuckle: ‘Typical.’

He reached for the closest piece of clothing on the floor—dark gray gym shorts, clueless if they were clean or not (probably not). “My children,” he announced, “My children of the corn.  Please don’t fight!  I’m a comin’!” He gave a thumb ups to the Jimi Hendrix poster on that last part, breaking out into opening verse for “Hear My Train a Comin’.”

But as he neared closer to the door, footsteps trampled away—the shadows were gone from the doorway crack. “What the—guys?” He flung the door open to nothing but the little amount of light that streamed through the hallway windows.  It was the last bits of another orange, yellow, purple and pink sky summer evening.  Beauty.  But it was still muggy and hot as a motherFUCKER.

Matt dabbed the beads of sweat from the four corners of his face. “This fuckin’ weather…”

The lights zapped out, revealing the hint of glow from the corner of his eyes…

An aisle of picture frames formed a lighted walkway for him.  Matt made his way down the pathway to only discover that book lights were attached atop the frames, making the faces visible in the pictures.  Right to left.  Left to right.  It was a walk down memory lane.  There were photographs of himself as a toddler with curly light brown and tints of golden locks.  In others, he was a young boy with brown spiky hair that either had burgundy, blue or green gel at the tips.  His soft olive complexion had also gone through its own transition:  minor in the earlier days and severe around middle school days (the ones where he frowned).  Not to mention his teeth!  They had a story of their own too.  He was a metal mouth and gave his best toothpaste commercial smile in the sixth and seventh-grade school yearbook photos…with red braces that looked like a pool of blood.  He caught a glimpse of his present day “tanner,” but still so awkward, adolescent self.

Descending the staircase, the pictures became a mix from the day July 1st as the candles indicted on the thirteen different birthday cakes.  At two, he sat in the highchair.  At seven, he was crouching like a hidden dragon by the cake

Nine…Ten…Eleven…Twelve…Thirteen…

The trail of photographs came to a stop as he arrived at the dining room archway, where it smelled like fresh out of the oven bakery rolls. “Happy birthday to you…”

And there they were…the four of them.   His seventy-six-year-old grandmother, Lucia, and his three childhood best friends, Jamie, Derek, and Lisa.  The four of them stood behind the oversized chocolate chip cookie that sat atop the wooden oak table for six.  Atop the birthday “cake” was two sparkling numerical numbers: 1 4.

“…Happy...Birthday…To…You…”

The chandler was turned up a notch and added a simple, almost angelic, touch as the four of them hit the high note.  They were not the BEST of singers.  Derek’s voice cracked at some point and faded off by the time they had reached the end.  Matt busted up, cry-laughing.  He had too.  It was typical.  Typical Lisa as she sang her heart out.  Typical Lucia as she watched the other two, laughing too.  Typical Derek as Typical Jamie elbowed him.  Her words were readable as she mouthed to Derek, “Shut.  Da.  Hell.  Up.”  Only, Derek dropped to his knees and spread his arms out like an eagle ready to fly…

“And many more on channel four…”

“And a big fat lady on channel eighty,” Lisa joined on in.

“Happy birthday, Matty.” Jamie gave a smile.

“Make a wish, sweetheart,” Lucia said and gestured to the cookie cake.

“Remember,” Lisa chimed in, “always keep your wish a secret.  Don’t jinx that shit—”

“Lisa…”

“Sorry, Lucia.”

Matt gazed down at the chocolate chip cookie, which was seamlessly well-designed.  An icing cutout of a basketball that was outlined in black and white frosting sat in the center.  Stars were scattered everywhere from top to bottom, sketched out in brown frosted syrup.  Colored sprinkles and M&M's of all sizes aligned with the crust—

It immediately took him back to three-weeks ago: there were these machines sitting underneath the banner, “CLASS OF 2006.  CONGRATS GRADS,” that sputtered out confetti onto the graduates.  Matt caught a few of them in his hands.  Most were designs of tiny size caps and gowns and the big ol’ ‘06’ and ‘2006.’  Jamie had a few stuck in her curly hair.  She only curled her hair on special occasions.  Matt removed the one piece that had drifted onto her cheek.  It was a red snowflake.  She smiled at his intrigued expression.  She pulled him in for a hug.  He dropped the piece of confetti, gripping her back—

Back in the dining room, his eyes were already closed.  He leaned forward and the calligraphy words at the bottom of the cookie in sky blue frosting, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! WE LOVE YOU, was just inches from his T-shirt—

“Here,” she said.  Then, he felt a piece of his loose T-shirt, against the side of his body, pull back.  He knew it was her.  That voice…

It was that moment in darkness (literally), his heart picked up and he asked, “Thanks,” instead of stating it.  His cheeks grew hot.  He clenched his fingers into tiny boxing gloves—the only thing that sped down his pulse.  His lips shaped into a perfect O.  He inhaled and held his breath for a moment because all he wanted to see in his world of darkness was them…

“Come on, Matt!” Derek said. “Matt!  Matt!”

…his parents and grandfather.

Matt exhaled and blew out the flames on candle 1 4.  The dining room roared with a victory. “And he’s officially 14!” Lucia praised in pitch black.

 

2.

 

“So much for ‘I’m on a diet—’” Derek stuffed another Italian meatball with loads of soy sauce into his mouth.

“Shut up, midget!” Jamie retorted and set another pepperoni sausage olive pizza slice onto her plate.

“That’s so rude.” Lisa shoved a spoonful of chicken manicotti into her mouth. “You’re like calling her fat—”

“She’s the one who’s always saying, ‘I’m so fat!  I’m so fat!  Guys do I look fat—’”

“Oh,” Lucia chuckled, “neither one of you needs to lose weight.  You can all gain a few pounds, in all honesty.”

She peered at Jamie, who smiled, “Thanks.”  It was in the eyes.

“Well,” Matt chewed off his last bite of a sweet and spicy boneless chicken wing from his orange sauce sticky fingers, “whose next?”

“Mine.” Jamie handed over a sealed envelope: MATTY was bold in navy blue ink on the front.

“Thanks.” As soon as their hands brushed, a shock of electricity ran through his body. “Uh, thanks.”  It was all he had thought of.

Everyone sat at the edge of their dining chairs.  Lucia took a sip from her glass of red wine as she leveled up the digital camera (mad pro skills).  Matt glanced at their eager faces, although Derek’s big ol’ goofy grin held his attention for a moment.  The boy sure had some crooked ass teeth, in all honesty.  It was also unsettling that Derek’s grin grew wider…

Matt opened the envelope and two gift cards spilled into his hands: Tillys and iTunes.  For some reason, he sighed with relief. “See.” Jamie leaned back into her chair. “I can follow your crazy ‘only gift cards’ rule.  We all remember last year—”

Lucia snorted and covered her mouth to prevent the wine from spilling out.

“Yeah,” Lisa added on, “those clothes were all baggy in the wrong places.”

“You looked like a damn hobo!” Derek cackled.

“Thanks, Jam,” Matt said with a smile...that was a bit overzealous.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He turned away and placed her gift with the small pile: Derek got him Chick’s Sporting Goods and Best Buy gift cards.  Lisa got him the Target and Starbucks gift cards.

“Thank you…”

“Anytime, Matty.” And that time, she smiled back.  She had some pretty, little teeth…

“I’m done!” Derek backed up his chair and unbuttoned his Levi’s to air out his potbelly.  It was when Jamie broke focus with Matt.

“Derek—put that thing away!” she screeched.

“Mini Buddha’s belly!” Lisa chanted and wiggled her arms over her head.

“Derek…”

“Sorry, Lucia.” He scooted his chair back in so the red table cloth concealed his stomach…his VERY pale…sole patch…Buddha's belly.

“Well, I don’t know about you four but I’m tired.” Lucia swayed to her feet, her fingers went white as she clutched a hold of her glass.  Matt eyed that second empty wine glass like it was to come alive. “I’ll see you all—”

“Wait,” Derek interjected, “aren’t we supposed to—”

“SHHHHH…”

They had their fingers pressed to their lips.  Jamie and Lisa even glowered his way.  Matt’s eyes broadened with horror, as his head drooped closer to the table.

Clueless at first, Derek’s eyes shot wide open as though struck by lightning. “OH—”

“SHHHHH!”

“Matt,” Lucia said, her speech…troubling “is this…”

The pieces of confetti on the table were shinier than ever.  Matt rolled one of them between his thumb and middle finger.  Middle finger.  The confetti was a lustrous blue circle, although it felt like blazing hot fire.  The creators of confetti had it all wrong…the confetti should have been red.

“Matt…”

“I want you to…” On that last deep breath, he looked up at her. “We’re going to the cemetery—”

“Goodnight, Matt—”

“Why don’t you EVER want to talk about it?!”

Jamie, Derek, and Lisa moved robotically.  The lower halves of their bodies went paralyzed, as their eyes rolled side to side to catch a glimpse of each other…and the Smiths.  By now, Matt was on his feet, his fists planted onto the table.  The table cloth was scrunched up.  His pulse raced throughout his body, which was rigid as stone.  Hot as lava.

“Why can’t you let it go,” he pled, although it was not intentional. “I did.”

“Matt, I’m very…” Her back was to them.  She lingered at the dining room archway but by the sniffles and refusal to turn around, it was obvious.  She did everything she could to cover up the waterworks; even tugged at her sleeve (long sleeves shirts were all she ever wore). “I’m very tired.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

Off her glance, she was gone.  Her red sea of swimming pool eyes was no longer in their sight.  His sight…

Jamie, Derek, and Lisa avert their attention, away from Matt.  Suddenly, Matt felt…funny.  Something seemed to boil at the pit of his stomach.  Whatever it was, it shot up to his chest and fumed a sour taste in the back of his mouth like he had just eaten something spoiled, weeks after its expiration date.

“Matty…”

Her fingers drifted over his fist like a cloak.  His fingers unfolded, but he refused to look at her.  It was obvious of the strain and worry look in her eyes as she caressed his hand.  His shoulders shot up, about an inch from his earlobes.  The twinge of sorrow prolonged in his eyes.  All from another WASTED amount of energy from a big WASTE of time. ‘Every year,’ he thought to himself. ‘Every year on my birthday…’

 

 

“…And I thought I was just tired from practice,” Matt said, his words were oddly slurred. “Coach has us doing suicide runs at the end of every damn practice.  Every single FUCKIN’ day!” And up came the flask. “Like grandma…Like grandson.” He raised his flask to the royal deep blue sky. “Cheers, bitches!”

Swarms of iddy biddy stars winked back at him, as he titled his head back to drink.  He sat atop a cleanly shaven tree stump that was attached—or nailed in—to the dirt ground.  Summer’s breeze chafed his cold face and he pulled on his hoodie to his black pull-over sweater.

“Now you look like a serial killer.” Jamie yanked down his hoodie and the flask from his hand too—

“Hey—”

Jamie took a step back and threw the flask.  It soared through the air like a bird.  As for its landing destination…The night’s air swallowed it up as whole.  They only heard an off distant sound of a CLUMP.  Matt crossed his arms and pouted.  He puffed out some air and his lips vibrated from a motor-like sound.  Derek and Lisa sat across from them, Indian style.  It looked like Derek was in the middle of prayer since his arms rested atop his thighs and his fingers were curled in.  Lisa shivered and buried her mouth into her button-down jean jacket.

“Turn it up,” Matt said and pointed to Derek’s cell phone. “I like this song.”

Derek did as he was told.  The volume for AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” went up a few notches and so did Matt’s voice as he sang…shouted…along with the words. “God!  I was born in the wrong era!” He bobbed his head around some more. “‘I’m on the highway to hell/Highway to hell…’”

Jamie popped a squat next to him.  It took a moment before he looked at her and said, “You didn’t have to throw that earlier.”

Before she opened her mouth to speak, the music came to an abrupt halt.

“Yo!” Matt tossed his arms in the air.

The bold digital numbers blinked, 9:35 pm, on his cell phone.  It continued to ring.  Derek was consumed by discomfort. “It’s Lucia,” he said, too afraid to look anywhere else but at the ground.

“Matty—”

He trudged off, away from her…away from them. “Where the hell are you going?” Now the irritation carried the heavy weight of her tone.

“Anywhere but here,” he retorted. “I may not stop her from holding a grudge, but I sure as hell WON’T let her fun my RUIN.”

“I think he meant, ‘ruin my fun,’” Lisa said.

“Fuck,” Jamie spat. “Matt!” She followed after him.

“Uh, Lisa…” Derek went wide eye, biting his bottom lip, unsure what to say or do. “Should I—”

She rejected the call for him.

Around the corner, Matt carried his tune without the help of Bon Scott (singer of AC/DC). “‘Some weary clock strikes midnight/And there’s a full moon in the sky—shit!”

He rammed his foot into one of the many random rocks on the ground that just screamed for trouble.  Thankfully, he was in luck and grabbed a hold of a nearby tree branch before he ate shit.  He laughed—one side of his body was rigid as the other half swayed along to his belting cue of AC/DC’s “Night Prowler.”  His over-the-top grand finale.  The blood rushed to his face from both his near-injury experience and cracking his voice on that final song note.  But the fun and games came to a stop when he looked elsewhere and his grin kissed goodbye…

The miles of grassland stretched on like an endless roadway.  The left side road.  The right-side road.  Two choices.  Two very different destinations.  His eyes scooped around some more, fascinated by the pebbly dirt that bordered with the fresh cut green grass.  It was a perfectly symmetrical design...

“Matty!”

His eyes were closed, taking in a whiff of the alpine scent.  The sprinkles hissed through his ears like cartoon words.  He reopened his eyes to watch the sprinklers sputter around in circles and fed water to trees of all sizes.  Petite.  Gaunt.  Sturdy trees.  Trees towered to the sky like…skyscrapers.  He felt a sudden rush of vertigo and his legs jolted—

“There you are!”

“Shit.” He used his free hand and snatched a hold of the same tree branch that kept him on his feet, unable to see Jamie.  The tree—his protector—held his attention.  It was a tall mighty tree.  Its green leaves and pink feather toppings drifted off the branches from the touch of summer’s breeze, like petals of a rose.  His mind was taken away from the lukewarm sensation that trickled down his hand and down to the dirt…

“Matt”—Jamie voice shot five octaves higher—“you’re bleeding!” She pinballed to his side, but in reality, he had not gone far AT ALL.  Derek and Lisa were still in a shotgun sight.

Matt looked at his hand and there was, indeed, a scratch on his palm.  The blood was minor, but Jamie went overboard and tossed one of his arms around her shoulders. “Like she can do the heavy lifting.”

“What?” she said.

‘Shit, said that aloud.’

“Come on.” Lisa nudged Derek’s arm and slipped on her neon winter cotton gloves. “Let’s go home.”

They met up with Matt and Jamie.  Matt blabbered on about the way summer’s eve looked tonight. “Winter came early this year!” His eye watered up, the veins were a deep red and purple.

“One of you,” Jamie gritted her teeth, “a little HELP.”

Derek rushed to the opposite side and yanked Matt’s arm—the one holding on for dear life—off the branch. “Let’s walk it off.  Do a little dance.  Make a little—”

“Might want to rethink those lyrics, PAL.” Jamie tucked in her purple scarf, officially bundled up in her lavender winter creampuff jacket.

“Whoa.” Matt had their attention, only he had eyes for the skeleton design on Derek’s black beanie. “I dig that.  Spooky!”

Finally, they headed out.  Jamie took one last look over her shoulder…

Each step forward pushed them further away from the miles and miles of flowerbeds that blossomed from the roots of the grass.  Behind the tree stump, where Matt sat moments ago, was a portion of the fresh cut grass.  There sat two empty flower pots…in front of two gravestones:

 

 

 

FRANK SMITH

Loving husband

Loving father

Loving grandfather

JAMES “JIMMY” SMITH

Loving son

Loving father

Loving friend

 

 

The rusty brown iron gates shut behind them, as they exited White Rose Cemetery.

 

3.

 

“Fauck!  She’s going to kill me when I show up like this.”

Speech: clear...er.  Complexion: pinker than red.  It still progressed.  He was a WORK in progress.

“Drink up.”

“Jamie…”

She pressed the glass against his shoulder. “Now.”

Groaning, he raised his head up, out of his hands.  He grabbed a hold of the glass, during his rant…well, more of a mumble.  Jamie’s hand swooped back in with two Advil’s. “Really,” he said.

“Trust me.  You’ll be thanking me for it tomorrow.”

He obeyed and tossed the pills into his mouth and drank until the last water drop.  It was refreshing and cold as ice.  He puckered his lips and let out an, “Ah!”

It got a chuckle from her.  She playfully rolled her eyes and joined him on the opposite end of the couch.  There was a big ol’ gap between them.  It was the moment that her cell phone buzzed off to fill the void. “It’s Lisa. ‘Just got—”

Beep.  Beep.

“‘Home,’” Matt read Derek’s text message from his cell phone.  By the look and gesture, he could care less.  He tossed his phone aside—there were three missed calls and voicemails listed.  All from Lucia.

His fingers turned white as he gripped onto the glass, making his fingerprints visible through the emptiness.  He glanced around the living room.  It was well furnished.  Everything had a gold and emerald green design, including the curtains.  Some areas were a bit over the top than others because of the shelves and table tops that were crammed with framed pictures.  Photographs of Jamie, the only child—at least that was presented in the trip down memory lane: just her and her mother.  The marble fireplace mantle also had a school photograph of Jamie, who was at least six or seven years old.  The giveaway was her two missing front teeth, as though knocked out a boxing match; but that did not keep her from smiling.  It got him smiling a bit too…

The Castellanos residence was prettier and bigger than his home (he hated that).  After all, Jamie and her mother lived in a gated community neighborhood.  There was even a code box outside the tall black gates, but nobody ever really used it.  Cell phones were put to use, granting their access in.  The perk of the Castellanos’ residence was its short distant walk from the fun parts of town.  There was an outdoor shopping plaza with restaurants; an indoor mall and the ARCADE.  All that surrounded Matt, Derek and Lisa’s homes were banks and office buildings.  Some places were even abandoned.  But it was better than his home…just about anything.

“You can stay here if you want,” Jamie said, twiddling her fingers.  He noticed that she was doing that a lot lately...a lot.  At that moment, she went flushed. “You know, just so you can get a break from home.”

Matt remained silent and set his glass down onto the (glass) coffee table.  There was a shimmery gold outline for table’s edges.

“You swapped some from her cabinet earlier…Does she know?”

“Nope,” he replied like it was no big deal. “It’s from last time when the four of us were supposed to experiment with drinking.” By now, he had his hands buried deep into his pocket, slouched to his side on the couch.  A gold and green striped couch.  God, he even chuckled at that.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing.” And at that moment, their eyes met.  A rush of…too difficult to explain…shot through his system.  It started at his feet and traveled upward.  He removed his hands from his pockets as though that was to put an end to the tingle sensation.  He felt odd again.  There was pressure in the middle of his forehead and it worked its way inward...closer and closer to his brain.

One thing for sure was that it was really really—

“Hot,” he said and nearly jumped to his feet.  He flapped a piece of his pull-over hoodie up and down to let in the cool air.  It helped.  His body was consumed by the chill, putting a stop to the goosebumps…

“Someone needs to relax.” Jamie ascended to her feet and picked up his empty glass. “I’ll get you a blanket and a pill—”

“NO—I mean, it’s cool.  I’m just going to…” And before he ran out—

“Wait!” The sound of her voice paralyzed him in place.  He stood underneath the archway that was a solid white and bordered with black lining…thank goodness.  Jamie sighed, something heavy on her shoulders. “This is…I mean…Look, it’s just been…”

“Different…”

“Yeah.” She sounded relief. “Ever since…”

“Sandra.”

That name…They were already tense, their spinal cords curling up like a snake ready for an attack.  They stood there, ten to fifteen feet apart from each other.  Strong eye contact.  Only the sound of a speeding car passing by was what kept them from dead silence, including a young girl screaming, “Woohoo!”

Jamie gave a small smile, but that did not prevent the tears from welling up her eyes.  Matt hurried over. “Hey…”

She turned away. “I’m sorry—”

“Don’t.”

“I know we agreed to not talk about it...I feel so stupid.”

“I was there too,” he finally said.

The reminder made her turn around.  She stared into his eyes and saw the integrity—his eyes were a neon hazel in the light.  Those baby doll amber eyes of hers were bluer by the instant because the tears did not stop.  She was the first to break focus, dabbing at her eyes with her fingers.  Before he took his cue to leave, “Can I show you something?”

He felt the slightest jolt pulse through his legs.

 

 

“Jamie, this is….” He gazed down at the giant white poster board on the floor, locked in his own bright tunnel of memories…

The poster was covered with photographs of all shapes and sizes from his thirteen years here on Mother Earth (next year would be fourteen).  The photos were cut out in designs of squares, triangles, rectangle or ovals and positioned in opposite directions from the memory next to it.  Some pictures were tilted to the right.  Others to the left.  A few of them were even upside down like a seat on a roller coaster loop.  His younger days began at the top left.  His later days—all thirteen of them—stopped at the bottom right of the poster.  The first photo was taken at the Convention Center that the four of them had attended for an elementary school field trip.  Jamie and Lisa’s teeth sparkled at the camera from their million-dollar smile—there were a few missing baby teeth, yet to be filled by the adult ones.  Matt and Derek had their tongues curved out like Gene Simmons—

“KISS ARMY!” they chanted nonstop and even threw up the devil horns.

“Supposed to finish it yesterday,” Jamie said, unaware of bringing Matt back to the NOW.  She pushed aside a few glue sticks and colored sharpies.  It was his cue to join her on the beige carpet floor...only it took him a moment to realize that he was already seated.  Jamie’s bedroom was also nowhere close to making guests claustrophobic because none of the items matched the light painted pink walls. “But, we’d all promised your…We’d promised Lucia that we would help her out with dinner, cutting back on my time to finish this…”

“And Scooby Doo on channel two,” Matt sang, but it was on the cheerless side.

They scanned the photographs for a few minutes, laughing as their fingers scrolled across the mall photo strip.  The four of them were crammed inside of a Hello Kitty theme booth.  Everything was bright, pink and flowery.  The sad moments were far gone.  Matt and Jamie engaged in chit chats of what their younger selves were possibly talking about prior, during and after each photograph that was captured for eternity.  The clothes that they once were made them crack up.  A hideous fashion sense, in their eyes—

“A skort?!” Jamie screeched. “How did I ever leave the house like that?!”

“I dig the light-up Sketchers though...”

“Shut up!”

But their smiles vanished as his fingers came to the last row.  It was the second to the last photo where thick moss hovered over—what was supposed to be—two empty flower pots in front of the gravestones for…

FRANK SMITH                                                                   JAMES “JIMMY” SMITH

Jamie peered away, her fingers clenched together as her body slouched forward. “It’s just that I always wonder what kind of people they once were.  I know that you think the same because they mean a lot—”

“No memory,” Matt nearly whispered; his attention still on the photo. “Started in a picture of rocks.  Ended in a picture of rocks.  That’s all I know them for: a big pile of dirt.”

“I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t…” Her eyes got red again.

“Hey,” he said, suddenly a complete three-sixty…changing the subject.” We look pretty sharp.”

She looked where his finger was pointed at the last photograph in the snakelike trip down memory lane, and beside it was nothing but blank poster paper of the unfinished collage.  The photo was snapshotted less than two months ago, hours before their eighth-grade promotion dance began, in front of shrubs with red, yellow and pink roses.  A few of the prickly stems peaked out like a jack-n-the-box.  The Castellanos backyard garden was what a life at home magazine would use for its cover.  In the center of the picture was a miniature waterfall, where two baby angels, carrying their own vase, smiled.  Only the vases were tilted to their side, so the water could stream on out and down into the pond, where Matt and Jamie stood side by side.  It was a horizontal camera angle of them.  Matt had his arm ringed around Jamie’s lower back—

Just inches below the small opening of her black cocktail dress.  Her long brown hair dangled down in spiral curls.  She was already flashing her teeth at the camera.  He gazed at her.  She could sense it and looked at him.  He felt his heart skyrocket to the moon and back.  And by the look in her eyes…it was mutual feelings.  Off camera, someone called for their attention.  They looked back at the camera and smiled together, his arm tightening around her—

“I need to lose weight…”

Jamie held that same black cocktail dress against her pear-shaped body.  Her displeased expression was visible to her through the closet mirrors.  It was as though her double/mirror reflection took over and knocked down her self-esteem.  She huffed and puffed, pouty as she turned side to side.  Matt watched her, tempted to say something but the words were…stuck.  He thought girls were bat shit crazy for stressing about their body: ‘I’m fat!  I’m ugly!  Oh, my god a FUCKIN’ ZIT!’

He was in no position to judge anyone.  He glanced at his reflection in the mirror for a moment.  To him, she was perfect.  Jamie had a perfect body—a tiny waist, a slight curve in her hips and an ass—

‘Guess that makes me pretty sexist.’

“Just STOP IT,” he blurted.  It caught them both off guard—more of her, as she turned his way. “I think you’re perfect.  I wish you’d see that.”  His eyes dropped to their flushed faces in that last photograph.  Heat rushed over him and he patted his forehead with his cotton hoodie sleeve.  Without a doubt, he knew that he was bloody red, matching his anxious, awkward eight grader self in the photo.  His fingers curled into miniature boxing gloves and his heart only pounded faster.

“Of course, you’d say that,” Jamie finally said. “You’re my best friend.” The seriousness dispersed as soon as she gave a small smile that created two perfect little circles in her cheeks, inches from her mouth.

‘God…I love that.’

But all he could say to calm the nerves that started at the fingers, “Music wasn’t as bad as I’d expected—”

‘What are you doing?’

“I, uh—”

“‘UH?!  REALLY?!’”

“—liked the decorations.  The colors of the theme…”

‘Please stop rambling.’

“‘It’s Time to Say Goodbye…For Now.’” Jamie chuckled and sat beside him, making the dress splayed over her crossed legs.  The bottom of the dress was puffy like a cupcake. “I hate clichés.”

“Yeah…”

They stared off into opposite directions, stuck in a trance-like state.  Matt recrossed his legs.  Jamie wrapped her arms around her legs and the itchy tutu undergarment fabric of the dress smacked her in the face.  It got a laugh out of them.  She turned beet red.  Matt scanned around the room and a sense of discomfort overcame him like it was the first time he had been there.  He chewed off his hanging thumbnail because he been at it from the moment he stepped into the bedroom.  Behind the twin size bed, which had a black and dark purple stripe comforter, was an eight by eleven poster of the High School Musical cast.  To the right of it were Noah and Allie from The Notebook, who were “getting it on” in the downpour of rain…

Matt’s eyes bulged out of its sockets and he immediately looked away.  He met Jamie’s sight, but it was by accident since there was nowhere else to look.  His forehead, chin, and entire face broke out in a red-hot sizzle as though on fire.  Only, she held his gaze, her eyes locked with his manic depressant.  But he never broke focus either.  It was impossible.  His heart clouted a million miles against his chest and his hands, feet and the four corners of his face broke out in a cold sweat.  Jamie pursed her lips, her breathing was already heavier.  He touched her rosy cheek and it was warm.  She balked at the touch of his cold hand—

“Sorry.” Before he drew his hand back, she took a hold of it, tightly against her cheek.  Their beady eyes…Pre-anxiety attack breathing…

He gulped. They leaned in until the sound of a garage door opening.  It forced them to a midway stop. “I’ll, um,” she said, only inches apart from him, “finish your gift this week.”

“Sounds good,” his tone dropped to a whisper. “I should probably—”

“Good thinking!” She jumped to her feet and his fingers slowly fell from her cheek.

Downstairs, the front door opened.  A woman in her forties with long big curly hair—a shout out to her days as an eighties tween, most likely with a perm—stepped inside.  Slowly, she shut the door and removed her knee length blue trench coat.  She had on a little black dress that stopped an inch above her knees with nude colored stockings.  Not to mention, her giant silver hoop earrings glammed her up like fine dine Hollywood royalty.  As she kicked off her black suede five-inch-high heels, there was a creak—

The woman pounced up, aiming one of her heels in the midair.  She sighed with relief as Jamie and Matt descended the marble staircase. “Jesus, Jamie!” The woman clasped a hold of her chest.

“Mom,” Jamie said wryly. “Are you sneaking in?”

“NO.  Besides, aren’t you supposed to be at a sleepover?” Something dawned on her as she pecked her daughter’s cheek. “Where’s the other—”

“Home,” Matt said. “With basketball practice every day—”

“Oh, that’s RIGHT!  You certainly need your rest.” To Jamie, “A simple text would’ve helped, sweetheart.” Before she went in for the hug, “And happy birthday, sweetie.”

“Thank you, Ms. Castellanos.”  He could hardly breathe with his face smashed against her…bosoms.  But, it was not his fault.  Her DD cups were just so…“up there.”

Jamie cringed; her shoulders were at her ears. “Mom—”

“And how’s Lucia?” Now, Ms. Castellanos pulled back but held onto Matt’s—a work in progress—muscular arms.  It was his damn mind that was stuck in pervert horny teenage boy land.

“Good,” he said, although he sounded unsure. “She’s doing…just fine.”  That nearly killed him.

There was a cricket gap—or maybe he had imagined it.  The crickets stopped as soon as Jamie clutched a hold of his hand.  Sweat raged throughout his body, ending at his feet: ‘God damn hormones!’

“We’ll be out front, mom.”

“Okie dokie!” She watched as Jamie nearly hauled Matt outdoors—

“Bye Ms. Castellanos!” Matt called out on time before the front door opened and shut in a blink of an eye.

“Friends my fat ass.” She chuckled, shaking her head.

As they meandered down the gravel pathway, “So, uh,” Jamie started anxiously, “guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.” They came to a halt at the start of the sidewalk, already facing each other. “After your practice, of course.”

Matt was the first to break focus.  For whatever reason, he just stared at her house: a massive two story…three if the small attic counted as a level.  There were too many windows.  The second story had flower pots on each windowsill.  Everything was also so…white, but was thrown off balance due to the red American Beauty front door: ‘Of course…’

His eyes diverted to the second story window at the top left, where a light flickered on through the curtain—

“She can’t see us,” Jamie said, more as a reminder than fact. “Trust me.  She’ll be calling Mr. Lover Boy Number Four—or five if you count one night stands.” Off his bug eyes, “Yeah…I heard her once.”

Matt balked like a callous of bugs were crawling all over him.  It was over-the-top.  But, it got a smile out of her. “At least yo’ momma is getting some.  Maybe if Lucia—”

“Really?  You really want to talk about a penis—”

Now it really gave him the heebie-jeebies.  He rammed his fingers into his ears. “La, la, la—”

“…Right into her—”

“OKAY.” He gradually uncovered his ears. “I get it…” It was back to another three-sixty.  As they looked at each other, his heart was back at lightning speed rate. “So, uh, thank you for the gift…” She took a step towards him. “…the cards…” She paused momentarily. “…just everything…” She leaned in and nearly missed his lips as he muttered, “Thank you.”

He was utterly speechless, his lips even did that stupid but silent, “Wha—Wha.”

Jamie smiled and swung their hands around a bit. “Later, Matty.”  She tugged his hands towards her as she walked away.  They dropped until she was no longer able to hold them.  As soon as she reached the front door, “I don’t regret her seeing us that day.”

“Neither do I,” he responded sooner than he would like to. “I was waiting for Crazy Sandra to dump me anyway…”

“Night, Matty.” She smiled, turned on her heel and slipped back into the house—

His cheeks were on fire and scorched from a Scorsese red to a violent Tarantino kind.  No matter how hard he had tried, his body refused to move.  He was convinced that his feet were cemented down into the ground, but was too petrified to check because all he could focus on was that red front door: ‘What da fuck just happened?’

 

4.

 

“Dude,” Derek said, “we look like the dudes from Men in Black.”

The boys were decked out from head to toe: slicked back hair; button down dress shirts; black slacks, socks and shined shoes.  Matt wore a lavender silk tie.  Derek kept tugging at his emerald cotton tie for the past few minutes—

“Derek,” Mrs. Santoso, his mother, admonished.

“But it itches—”

Mrs. Santoso shoved her disposable camera into her husband’s hands.  Everyone came to a halt in the middle of the gravel pathway that guided them to the red front door of the Castellanos residence.  Matt watched on, as Derek huffed and puffed while his mother only HUSHED him as she straightened out his tie.  For whatever reason, he then gave the goofiest smile.  Lucia wound up her disposable camera and took a snapshot of Matt.  It caught him off guard—

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s just that you look so handsome.”  They exchanged a smile.

“Ah, Mom!”  Locked in her side hug, the camera flash captured Derek and his mother’s red painted lips against his cheek.  He squinted in their candid moment.

“Thank GOD I didn’t leave you two with these crazies,” Mr. Santoso reassured the boys.

“Oh!  It’s only once in a lifetime when you see your son look like a movie star,” his wife played on back. “Derek, your tie—”

“Mom!”

The front door opened.  Matt, Derek, and their guardians came to a halt at the bottom of the porch steps.  It was only three steps high.  Ms. Castellanos sashayed out in a little pink dress that touched an inch or so above her knees.  Bare skin…until the men saw her matching pink high heels. “My! Oh, my!” she said and squeezed her hands together like a child. “Don’t you boys look handsome!  Like a young Warren Beatty…”

“Wasn’t that before your time,” Mrs. Santoso said with a smile. “Unless you just look amazing for someone your age.”

And Ms. Castellanos smiled right back, but one of those, “Fuck you too, cunt.”

“Thanks, Jamie’s mom.”  The boys nearly drooled.  Derek’s mother admonished him with a nudge.

“I now present,” Ms. Castellanos spoke in a chipper tone, her arms gestured out like the host of a reality television show, “the two most beautiful gals who will be at tonight’s ‘It’s Time to Say Goodbye…For Now’ dance.” She glided off to the side and swayed her arm out like a ballerina to the front door. “My daughter and her best galfriend—”

“Don’t need to be so dramatic, mom.”

“I don’t mind it,” Lisa said.

The girls held onto each other’s arms with their French-tipped manicure fingernails, as they wobbled out onto the front porch.  They had on two-inch-high heels and cocktail dresses.  The lavender dress gave an angelic glow to Jamie’s fair complexion.  The valiant emerald dress brightened up Lisa’s hazel eyes.  The small crowd amongst the girls moved in for a closer look as though they were strangers...

“Wait for us!” a woman bellowed from inside of the house.  An older version of Lisa dashed outdoors with a camera and a husband linked to her arm. “Couldn’t find our camera!”

The mothers and Lucia nearly deserted the boys.

Click.  Click.  Click.

The women maneuvered around and took snapshots from different angles of the two mature young ladies.  Jamie and Lisa shifted awkwardly and gave real and fake smiles to the camera.  Mrs. Peralta and Ms. Castellanos had to pause a few times for those last-minute tweaks to their daughters’ spiraled curls, heavier—but natural—tone makeup and the fringe and silk of their dresses.

“Wow,” Derek said as he, his father and Matt remained put. “They look so…”

“Different.”  His father snorted.

“…AWESOME.” Derek tossed his fist into the air. “YEAH LADIES!”  Lisa looked his way and pumped her fist in the air too.  Together, they broke out into their weird alien-like techno-dance routine with the “Unz.  Unz.  Unz.”

Matt was absorbed in his own routine.  He watched her and his heart sped up.  His body grew heavy as though consumed by a tidal wave.  Her mother made her turn around for another pose.  Jamie faced his direction.  She smiled.  His legs jostled—

‘Watermelon,’ was all Matt had thought, as he touched his bottom lip lightly and felt the stickiness of Jamie’s lip gloss.  Those butterflies remained at the pit of his stomach.  Flapping their wings faster and harder—he even winced a few times.  It was chillier than usual; well, maybe because it was 8:45…or nine…or…ten.  He was unsure.  Those bold digital numbers on his cell phone were a bit fuzzy.  The alcohol still needed to be walked off and sucked away by the night.

He strolled along the sidewalk, in the reflection of summers howling moon.  It had been minute since he left the Castellanos residence, half drunk…half sober…coming in and out of washed over memories.  Every few steps—every sidewalk crack—he was swallowed up as whole by the night shadows for an instant.  It was a bit spooky and the leaves that skated across the asphalt and sidewalk did not help—

“Excuse me, son.”  A runner zoomed on by.

Another local resident.  Seeing a fellow neighbor made the tightness in his chest fade away, but it was still weird to see anyone outdoors lately; especially in these recent heat conditions.  He did not mind the heat; in fact, it helped him lash out any long running train of thoughts.  Heat always won over anxiety and stress because the last two always upset his stomach, which led to a bad cause of SHITTING HIS PANTS OUT.  But, most citizens of La Crosse despised any form of sunlight.  It was like living in a town filled with vampires since most of the townspeople used umbrellas more in the summertime.  The channel five news made recent weather reports of two weeks being in the nineties with strong humidity until the temperature would up to the hundreds.   

Matt took a deep breath, slowing down his rapid heartbeat.  The cool air chafed his cheek and he exhaled—his pulse at a regular normal beat.  He shivered and bundled himself up.  It was no more than a few steps before he had slowed down and came to a complete stop at the black iron gates to White Rose Cemetery.  So much to…process.  Memories from earlier…

Taking down the flask from the top shelf of his closet, stored away in secrecy.  His friends.  Lisa.  Derek.  Jamie.  Lucia.

He pulled on over his black pull-over hoodie and walked away—fast.

“And you’re sure you don’t want to go?”  Lucia put the car into park at the drop-off/pick-up zone.

Matt gripped onto the straps of his JanSport backpack, his straight teeth pressed down onto his chubby bottom lip, turning it a ghostly white.  He gazed out the passenger window, where the sun streaked through and onto his face like soft kisses.  A few feet from their gray Honda Accord were a handful of students.  Short or tall…ish like Matt.  Others were short and round like Derek, who at the time was heavier than most children their age (he shed most of the weight from swimming, still insecure—

“Derek,” he only heard Jamie say, “why the hell are you wearing a T-shirt?”

The students lingered by the long metal fence, adjacent to the football/cross country field, most of them eager for the entrance gates to be unlocked to get pass another tedious school day.  On his right—Matt nearly pressed his face to the window for a clearer view—was a giant banner dangling from the roof of the front office.  Imprinted on the white poster in bold neon bubbly letters was Time to Say Goodbye…For Now, followed by the three different ticket pricings…

Single.

Couple.

Group.

‘A and C.’

“If I were you,” Lucia spoke up, breaking the silence, “I’d go—”

“Dances are lame,” Matt interjected. “Besides, not like I want to go—”

“Oh, bologna!  People who say that are the ones who really want to go.  Trust me.  I was once—”

“Young.”

“Matt, I just don’t want you to miss out on the—”

“Fun.”

Matt’s eyes drooped away from the baby blue sky, where miles of clouds that looked good enough to eat like cotton candy swam around.  He inhaled a whiff of fresh springtime air.  Something tickled his nasal tissues and he sneezed and coughed at the same time.  His attention diverted to the culprits of the strong scent: eighth graders, his fellow classmates but certainly NOT his kind of crowd.  They were a lot cooler than him—too cool for school.  The eighth-grader boy wore skin tight jeans and a biker’s jacket with a matching pair of black Harley Davidson boots.  The two girls next to him had on puffy black miniskirts and halter tops…pushing the “no low-cut tops” policy.  The three of them sauntered on by.  The boy was in the middle, his arms around the girls’ shoulders.  Whatever he said or mumbled—his lips barely moved, as though attached—the girls burst out into giggles.

“You are so funny!”  The sluttier looking one squeezed the boy’s shoulder.

Matt scowled. “Why do people pour the entire bottle of Britney Spears and Axe body spray onto themselves?  Idiots!”

Lucia laughed.  It forced her to turn off the car. “You certainly get that stubbornness from me.  Especially when it comes to—”

“What?  Jealously?  I’m NOT jealous—”

“—or the obvious.” They sat in silence until Lucia’s merriment smile collapsed into a straight line. “Sweetheart,” she said and took a hold of his hand, “it’s okay if you’re not like Mr. Casanova over there.” She bobbed her head to the three eighth graders. “Those girls are probably laughing at him because, well, he looks like a Raggedy Ann doll.”

It cracked a smile on him. “I don’t get why girls like dudes in tighter pants.  Like how does one...Well, you know…His junk—”

“Censor, Matt!” Lucia shook off the heebie-jeebies.  Now, it was his turn to laugh.  She looked at him.  His smile made her smile. “Ask Jamie to the dance.”

Silent, until, “Grandma, she’s my best friend—”

“Derek can go with Lisa.  Think about it: ‘You’ll have a better time because neither of you will have to worry about the first date cliché stuff like, ‘Do I kiss her/Should I bring a condom—’”

“Okay, this is officially getting weird!” He removed his seatbelt.

“Sorry doll!  But your comment grossed me out seconds ago!”

He opened the passenger door but came to an abrupt halt as soon as she grabbed a hold of his hand.  She gave him that look where her eyebrows peak.  He only stared back at her.  Then, he broke focus and sighed.  The temptation to chew on this one a bit longer was bogus. “Okay…I want to go to this stupid dance.  There.  Happy?”

“Ecstatic.”

“Watch it!” an adolescent boy asserted.

Matt came to a screeching halt on the sidewalk, as the navy blue and white stripe Mustang zoomed on by and off into the darkness—

“Woohoo!”  Because of the overly tinted Mustang windows, Matt was unable to identify the culprits.

“Jesus Christ!”  He hunched over for a moment and held onto his thighs to catch his breath.  At one point, he felt dizzy.  It was like no air was being pumped to his head…his brain.  The air seemed stuck in his chest, tighter than usual…a creature of the night wanted out.  A few seconds later, his vision cleared as his breathing dropped back to normal.   He picked at the bandage on his hand…and did a double take on it: ‘When da FUCK did that get there?’

“You okay?!”  A man in workout attire and a woman in yoga wear ran towards him from across the street. “Some kids are just so stupid these days.”

“Yeah…Yeah, I’m okay,” Matt said to them. “Just forgot my…inhaler.”

The pretty blonde woman was alarmed more than ever. “We should call someone—”

“No!  I mean, no.  I’m close to home anyway.”

It was back and forth until Matt gave a half smile which could have gone two ways: it was heartfelt, filled with such honesty OR flat out fuckin’ clown creepy.  The woman in the magenta yoga attire and the man in gray sweatpants and a sweater huddled closer together and jogged away.  Matt watched as the man wrapped his arm around the woman’s waist…

He peered away and dug out his cell phone from the front pocket of his hoodie: ‘Oh…I still have my hoodie on.’

With just the right amount of little artificial lighting, he looked like a fuckin’ serial killer with his black hoodie on.  A prowler in the nightfall shadows and his dilated eyes came off sinister since one of the lampposts glowed in a warmer color cue, darker than the others’ street halos.  He leaned against the stop sign pole and looked up to the sky.  The stars were…squinting.  He was…squinting.  He brought his head down and opened his eyes.  But, they were already fully open.  His surroundings spotted back to blurred shapes and sizes—

He fumbled for his cell phone and nearly lost a hold of it.  The time.  There it was in bold white digital numbers on the screen: 10:00 pm.  It was in clear view: ‘Get it together man!’

A click here.  A click there.  He pulled up his message inbox.  Now, HE was the worried one because of the multiple unanswered text messages from him—

To: Grandma

I’m sorry…

Just left Jamie’s.

Can we talk later?

On my way home.

Can you pick me up somewhere?

Grandma?

Grandma?

Grandma???

Grandma??????????

The message in progress…

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

“Fuckin’ answer me!”

Matt crossed the street after a triple take to see if any other asshole drivers wanted to run him over and chop him up tonight.  It was colder now, sucking in air like Dr. Hannibal Lecter on the pursuit for the living.  He dialed and waited for the other line to pick up; but, it just rang…rang…and rang: ‘FUCKIN’ SHIT.  BITCH.  PRICK.  ASSHOLE.  CUN—’

As he turned the corner, AT LAST: Maple Oak Street—his street.  He walked straighter—the booze already lost in the air.  It was only seconds before there was a something soft within the breeze.  A…whistle.  It echoed through one ear and out the other.  It had a sense of its own…chillier than the actual atmosphere.  He shivered and buried himself in his pull-over, still wearing his hoodie.  The strangest part was when everything decided to tilt left to right…right to left, as the whistle grew louder—

Matthew.

He came to a stop.  Something forced him too.  The same effect happened to his body like it was suddenly made of string jelly, unable to be fought off—

Matt…

But as his body tilted right…right…right—

There was a harsh riiiiiiiing in his ears.  Everything burst out in black and white pixels.  Next thing he had noticed was when something incredible and powerful brushed up behind him—

MATT!

Knocked off one foot, it sent the other over the sidewalk and it was impossible to steal a glance over his shoulder because all he saw was—

Yellow and white lines.

He went head first on the asphalt.

 

5.

 

He stood in the midst of it all—

‘Wait a minute!’

Matt turned around, but all he saw was black.  Everything around him was pitch black.  His breathing grew harsh and smoked out into air clouds.  White into the black.  He spun round and round, but he saw nothing.  Swallowed up in a cube of doom.  He staggered all around—he must have because his own footsteps (unless he was barefooted) echoed as they hit the icy ground…or tile—

And there it was…A glow of light fluttered from miles away.  It curved one way and then another, shapeshifting into a silhouette.  Unlike his white wonderland, the light—whoever it was—floated closer to him.  It started at his feet—he was barefoot after all—as the light washed over him.  Matt sprinted off, a pursuit to reach the light.  Only, something pulled him back…that force again—

“Stop!” he implored.  He squirmed around and as he lunged forward, the faster he went backward. “WAIT!”

The light grew brighter—

Blinded by the strong white glow, Matt closed his eyes as he cried, “NO!!!”

“MATT!”

It was Lucia.  He was positive because her hot-flashed face pushed through the white, back to normal color tone.  Her breath no longer reeked of Devil’s booze as she wailed, “MY BABY!”

On “three,” he felt another force lift him up—

Paramedics.  Four or…maybe there were five of them.  It was difficult to tell since his surroundings had yet to arrive in clear focus—

Eyes open.  Eyes close.  Open…close…close…open…

The gurney was white—the one he was laying in, secured and strapped in, ready for takeoff.  His breathing was visible in the nightfall air until he had realized that his exhales were boxed in the oxygen mask that covered his nose and mouth.  There was also a long yellow tape around his home that prevented entrance of the dozens of unfamiliar faces, who watched on.  Neighbors.  Nosy ones.  Terrified ones.  Angry ones.  Some were even in awe at the sight of blood—human pain must have really got them off, secret fans of the pleasure of torture. “Gnarly!” one adolescent boy said.

“Really?” the adolescent girl next to him said, most likely the shitface’s girlfriend.

Here and there, Matt saw the hands of bystanders reach for their own mouths, pale and so fragile like snow, eyes wider than horror itself.  They were obviously in fear for the lives of their children, more than themselves.  A nearby father, who had a firm hold of his little girl, got too close to the front of the line—

“Easy!”  A man in uniform used his body as a shield to block him off the Smith property...

Men in black…or blue (his surroundings were still in and out of focus).  There was at least a dozen of police officers present, armed and uniformed. “Okay, ready,” the voice behind him said—

Two men in navy blue uniform (visible to the eye) hovered over him.  It scared the living daylights out of Matt and his pulse jumped to his throat.  The paramedics slid the gurney—Matt—into the back of a van, handing him off to their colleagues.  It was a matter of seconds before it came through one ear and out the other—

Riiiiiiiing…

He cringed but was too weak to even lift a finger, his hands remained immobile as though they were also strapped down. “You’re…Going…To…Be…Alright,” the medic with salt and pepper hair said…in slow motion.  Matt only stared at the man, in and out of twilight...

Until he saw blood.  He caught a glimpse of its beginning…somewhere around the kneecap…and down it went, in zigzagged roller-coaster of hell. “Hold still…”

There was a hole in his jeans and it was freshly cut out too.  The younger looking medic was already applying pressure to stop the bleeding.  Matt watched as his own red…hot…sticky…fresh streams of blood absorbed through the white towel on his mid-thigh and prolonged into a darker and darker blob.  By now, it looked purple.  The lower half of his body was eaten alive, his shoes consumed in one sluggish juicy blood gulp.

The nonstop voices, including the random faces, zoomed around him hard and fast—he overheard something about if he were to live or die; if he was okay; if she was okay—

“WAIT!” Lucia barged in; or could have possibly soared into the back of the van with the rate that she was at. “I’m not going anywhere.”  She was already slobbery in tears and snot.

He wanted to scream, but something stopped it and his throat tightened up…making it difficult to breathe as he held eye contact with her. “You’ll…be…okay,” she said but he only read out.  It was when he had noticed that her peach colored blouse was covered in his blood…

Riiiiiiiing…

His head grew heavy and it dropped to the side.  Hot sticky streams ran down his face.  All he saw next was black…pitch black…and then red.  His eyes twitched shut from the last visible drops of blood that snuck in—

“MATT!”

 

6.

 

The front door was forest green.  Matt was dressed in black from head to toe.  He pulled on his hoodie—not the one from his pull-over sweater—and blended into the shadow of the night.  The wind whistled through one ear and out the other, but it all seemed inaudible to him.  His focus never diverted away from the front door of his home.  The layers of fog suddenly grew thick around him, as he climbed onto the first step—

The staircase was made of bricks.  All the lights were turned off inside of the house.  He was positive since all the curtains covered the windows in black.  Pitch black.  Except for one window…the left on the second story and it belonged to Lucia…

A dim hue glowed through the pulled down shade, visible to the outside world.  Matt was already at a halt, about three to four steps away from the top of the red brick staircase.  His eyes remained on the window to Lucia’s bedroom.  But when the light went off—

He felt it.  Something touched his cheek.  He put his hands there until something yanked it away—his hands hit his sides.  Someone spun him around—

There was nobody in sight.

A fish out of the water, he gasped for air.  Then, the bottom of his black…pull-over hoodie that he was suddenly wearing…was lifted.  The invisible force hauled him down the staircase—

“STOP!” his lips formed, but the words were silent, as he flew over the staircase and went straight towards the empty street.  Dead to the world…

The wind grew mightier.  Aluminum cans and plastic bottles soared over the curbs and onto lawns.  Most of the litter collided into trash bins, which crashed over from the incredible force.  Trash bins rolled into the streets and were swallowed up as whole, as they dispersed away into the night like dust.  The air whipped through Mother Nature’s greens and the flower beds were torn up and shredded into iddy biddy pieces—

The air devoured the greens and oranges and other colored toppings of the trees.  Red petals were squeezed out into liquid—drops of red splattered all over the sidewalk and asphalt.  Most of the trees waved their decorations, greeting Matt as he inched closer and closer to asphalt.  And then…the trees came to one union stop as soon as he had landed on the sidewalk—

He reached for the sidewalk and one foot landed just right, but the other bent sideways—

SNAP.

He nearly howled at the moon, as his head flew back.  Tonight, was a full moon that made its way through the gust of fog.  He tumbled over the sidewalk, head first, and slammed flat onto the left side of his body as he whirled away to prevent further damage.  His left foot curved up, broken in all the wrong and right places.  A hot sensation filled up his eyes...and on the top of his head.  Then, he felt it all over his nose…

Red.

Rivers of red flowed out of his nostrils.  He could smell nothing because his nasal tissues were blocked up from the nonstop blood that started to gush.  Immediately, he wiped at his nose, first with the centerpiece of his black pull-over.  That had only worked for so long until his hands were needed, but to only catch the puddle of liquid red.   It began to turn blue…cold baby blue due to the low atmosphere temperature.  But the splatters of it remained ink navy blue on his face, as the rest of it splashed out into puddles on the ground.  Once again, his chest felt…tight.  His lips shaped into an oval as he choked back on his inaudible screams…

Footsteps.  They were close.  To close.  He looked up and watched it all play out with his very own eyes…

Him.  Turning onto his street, Maple Oak Street—

“HEY!” he silently screamed, but as he attempted to move…his body refused him to do so.

His eyes went bold with desperation and plea, as the force knocked him over.  He lied there, paralyzed from the waist up…and waist down.  He attempted to scan around, but his eyes prevented him from doing so.  Those two pools of black were wider than a wildcat’s, fierce and angry for answers.  The way he was positioned, now on the right side of his body, was the perfect view to watch that night play out FAST—

Him.  Pulling on his hoodie, bundling into the color of death—

“STOP!”  It was no more than a whisper; his throat bled from the bottom up.

Him.  The sudden heaviness of his body…forcing him to stop.  Forcing him to sway left…to right—

“PLEASE!”

LEFT TO RIGHT.  LEFT TO RIGHT.  RIGHT TO LEFT.  RIGHT TO LEFT.

As Matt (the one on the asphalt) watched himself (the one from that night) in a hemorrhaging state of body movements, something brushed against him—

From the corner of his eye, he saw a black fabric that glided with the breeze…just like the silhouette...the leader from that night, who began its way over to Matt From That Night.

Him—as his body tilted right…right…right…

Matt screamed and it blared out a hollow riiiiiiiing throughout the night.  Forcing the wind to grow thicker than cobwebs.  Through the gaps of ghostly clouds, all he saw was—

Him.  His double soared over the sidewalk—a bird without its wings.  The silhouette—someone—stood behind him.  His double collapsed onto the asphalt and his left leg jolted.  His right leg gave a loud crack—

Matt grimaced as though kicked in the gut.  As the white air circled around him, he caught the slightest glimpse of his unconscious, now past, self…

His past self was bleeding from the leg gash.  Three medium-size built rocks were pushed up against his right leg, sharpening its edges through his black jeans and directly onto his mid-thigh skin—

Matt gagged, but the vomit constricted his throat and was at a stop.  He snuck one last look at his double, who was displayed out in a distorted freak show way…

Flat on his back.  One arm went straight out like a STOP sign; the other was bent like a Scarecrow’s dance.  His left foot was tilted to its side; his right leg was twisted halfway around, while his right foot pointed straight at him…

A chill crawled up his spine and it made him shiver.  It was a sickening observation to witness…his own body mirrored his double’s position.  Then, he remembered who was still present.  Matt stared across at the unknown who remained on the sidewalk, close to his double and no more than thirty feet from him.  It was impossible to tell who it exactly was because of…the black hoodie that hovered down until the middle of their face, where a nose would be.  Where skin would be visible if it were not for the long black graduation-like robe that covered its entire body…

The stranger seemed to hold eye contact with Matt because it took its first step towards him.  But each step closer it made, closer to its victim, the white air colored in the last gaps of visibility, blocking off all surroundings from Matt.  Trapped.  Matt was stored up in his own white cube, far away from the stranger, who was nowhere to be seen.  Safe in his own white wonderland—

Beep…

Slowly, his vision pushed into the brightness…no sign of red…

It was the glow of fluorescent lighting that hung above him, attached to the wall…that was not his bedroom.  His attention scrolled from the wall to the matching off-colored white ceiling that seemed to stretch on and on for miles and miles…

Beep…

His head sagged to the right, where a machine stood.  There were too many numbers on the screen, where a line zigzagged up and down like small waves.

Beep…

Those sleepy eyes of his creaked open and traveled down the heart monitor screen…to the clear tubes that were inserted into his right hand…

Beep…

…and then to the polka dot gown that clothed his naked body and the plain white sheets that covered him from the waist down in a bed that were not his own.

Beep…

He suddenly felt dizzy as his head did somersaults.  He caressed his forehead and saw the reality that sat in front of him.  Somehow, he missed it just seconds ago…

His left leg was underneath the sheet, but his right leg—

Beep.  Beep…

Clammy hands.  His heart bumped against his chest.  Goosebumps prickled all over his body that burned like fire—

Beep.  Beep.  Beep…

A bulky cloth, as tall as Mt. Everest, was wrapped around his lower right leg and stopped inches from his ankle.  It was far from his knee—a kneecap that looked pressed in, almost deformed from…the fall—

Beep.  Beep.  Beep…

There was a groan, but not his own.  It came from someone else.  Someone was in the room with him.  Chest tightened up…Matt wheezed for air and all he tasted was cherry medicine.  He turned away and coughed up strings of saliva that were thicker than glue and drenched through the bed sheets.  Whoever was in the room gasped, “Doctor!”

Beep-Beep-Beep—

His surroundings rocked side to side, including the silhouette that sprung forward—

“MATT!”

All he did was scream and scream some more, his eyes inflamed with tears.  As a dark—shadow—hand reached for his wrist, he bounced backward and rolled off the bed—

The IV rack tipped forward and smacked down onto the floor.  Matt went head first towards the white tile until he collapsed into the burly arms of a man with salt and pepper hair. “Ramirez!” the man called out, calmer than the first voice.

The second pair of arms assisted the man to pull Matt back onto the bed, followed by a pinch—

A needle was in his upper left arm.  Matt’s eyelids were too heavy to find out whose hand it was that injected the clear liquid into his system.  As his body grew lighter—slowly numbed away—his eyes twitched and everything around him spotted to black…

He caught a glimpse of Lucia in one of the bubbles (his cleared vision).  She was guided away from the spot on the floor where the stranger was just seconds ago…

‘Unless there was never a stranger.’

“I…kept…telling…him…it…was…me,” Lucia sobbed, as a man in scrubs sat her down onto the cheap-goodwill sofa. “But, he just looked at me like I was a…a stranger!”  She lost it on that last part.

 

7.

 

The woman with frizzy gray shoulder length hair came to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk.  She scanned the line ahead, where mothers and fathers waited with their children, and her eyes dilated like a rat’s.  She sighed and her lips drooped in an upside-down U; but when those tiny sausage fingers twined into her long piano hands, it made her.  The boy beside her was wider than a rollie pollie.  He tugged a hold of her arm. “You’re sad,” he said.

“No.” She knelt in front of him. “I’m not, sweetie—”

“Then, you’re about to be.”

The boy looked down at the ground; his feet—his Red Power Ranger velcros—pointed into each other like a duck’s.  The woman’s eyes turned lukewarm.  Her bottom lip trembled.  Her lips parted slightly, ready to speak.  But the boy wrapped his arms around her. “It’s okay…”

That nearly killed her.  Guilt was written all over her face, as she hesitated to hug him back.

“‘The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round, ‘round and ‘round, ‘round and ‘round.’” The boy pulled back. “‘The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round, all through the town.’”

“Why you singing the ‘boo boo’ song?” she asked.

“So, I can take yours away.”

He gave a small smile and so did she.  He wiped away her fallen tears that skimmed down her cheeks.  She tugged him back into her arms and held on tight.  He kissed her cheek and she glided her fingers through his curly light brown locks. “I love you,” she said softly. “So much.”

“I love you too, Grandma,” he whispered into her ear.

“Vitals are good…” The pen scribbled sideways. “No sign of a concussion.  You’re very lucky.” The man with short salt and pepper hair flipped to the next page on the metallic clipboard. “Bruises will ease down, over time.  In a week or so, you’ll apply an ointment onto the cuts.  For now, 600mg for the headaches if they become unbearable, as well as for the…” He did not even need to look because it was the elephant in the room: the small cast. “The cast is temporary.  The cut was deep, but not deep enough.  Should be off in a few weeks, depending if any stitches reopen or infections—but they’re rare, just a forewarning.”  He tore off two slips of paper; but as he turned around, his hand lowered…

“Matt…” Lucia approached the bed and sat, carefully. “Honey, talk to us…”

It was an unbearable feeling.  There was something sour that boiled in his gut—

Matt only had eyes for the disfigured face that reflected back at him on the compact mirror in his hands.  A thick white bandage was wrapped around his forehead, front to back.  There was a deep red circle on the center of it; his goddamn head was on its fuckin’ period.  The fabric of the bandage could not have been much bigger; his goddamn brain took a shit in its own built-in diaper.  The multi-colored bruises also made his face puffy, especially underneath the eyes, like an addict going through withdrawals…sleepless hours.

“That’s enough,” Lucia admonished and reached on out. “You’re only—”

“I’m a monster…”

His tone dwindled away after each letter.  Slowly, he lowered the double-sided mirror.  A strong sensation stung up his eyes and turned them a deep red.  Lucia reached for his arm—

But he refused, too disgusted to be…acknowledged. “A nasty fall,” he only whispered. “Are you looking for the...Whoever it is—was there that night?”  Now, his eyes went up to the man.

The man stood at the counter as though he was the fresh face out for a business suit advertisement because of the black slacks and knee-length white coat.  Plus, he was easy on the eyes—his eyes were blue, matching his button-down dress shirt.  For a moment, Matt saw the man he once was, most likely the ladies’ man who never got told, “No.”

“Well,” Mr. Pretty Face said, “yes and no…”

‘Should’ve seen that ONE coming.’

“However,” the man proceeded, “for the time being, there will be someone keeping an eye out on your home and the both of you.”  He looked to Lucia until someone started snickering—

“Sorry,” Matt said although the hint of sarcasm was a giveaway, “it’s just that…This stuff only happens in the movies!  The glitz and glam of old Hollywood.  So, when it happens in real life…” His fingers knotted together.  For some reason, the same happened to his throat because he had to cough a few times in order to speak up.  The result seemed to frighten him…his smile vanished. “I saw what I saw.”

“I understand, Matt—”

“But, doesn’t that say enough?  Dreams…nightmares…whatever.  There’s a reason why I saw this person—or dreamt of them.  The nameless in black.  The stranger.  Dr. Brown, I know this sounds crazy…”

As he stared right at—the man now with a name—Dr. Brown, he felt his grandmother’s hand glide over his back.  It made him flinch a bit; in fact, his entire body tensed up.  It was…nothing.  He was just…startled, not necessarily by his grandmother but the fact that he felt...uncomfortable.  Anxiety made its casual toll on him.  Before he said more, Dr. Brown intervened, “It’s not crazy, Matt.  It’s possible that, yes, through dreams and even nightmares there are answers.  You gave a description.  The cops are looking into it.”

“Jesus Christ!”  Matt peered away, oblivious that his inner thoughts were said aloud.  Instead, his eyes settled down upon his interlaced fingers.  They turned a mixture of red and white as he squeezed them—

“Matt…”  Lucia rested her hand on his.  That sent a wave of relief through Matt.  He was comfortable enough to tap his thumb against her palm.

“In case you start feeling overwhelmed,” Dr. Brown said, as he dug into his side pocket, “because reactions to and after trauma—”

When she saw what it was, she jumped to her feet and rammed her foot into the bedside table. “Ouch!”

“—include stress—”

“Grandma…”

“…and anxiety,” Dr. Brown said more to himself, pink in the cheeks.  All it did was sent him into some sort of…paralyzed daze.  The both of them, in fact.  They were lost in their own train of thoughts…

“We’ll, uh,” she started before Dr. Brown said something first, “be sure to pick these up in a few.” Lucia reached for the prescription slips, which snapped him out of his funk—

“Yes, please do that.”

“My grandson and I need to get home now.”

Matt glimpsed from her to his worried eyes that were surrounded with crease marks. “Of course.” Dr. Brown turned to leave until he stopped in the doorway moments later. “Try not to walk too much.  Adding too much pressure to the leg could cause blood clots.”

But he was already mid-air with his legs out and hands pressed down onto the bed. “Got it.”  Matt lowered himself and his bottom hit the mattress.

Lucia was already halfway at the door…in a rush to leave.  The longer he stared at her, all Matt had thought about was ‘Where were you?  Where were you during my accident?’

 

8.

 

“‘Go Go Power Rangers…Go Go Power Rangers…Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers…’”

And one last tug, his white shoelaces were tied into bunny ears. “I did it,” he mumbled and his eyeballs engorged with exhilaration. “I DID IT!”  He jumped to his feet and scampered on out of his Power Ranger themed bedroom.

His short sausage size legs slid out into the hallway like Tom Cruise from Risky Business. “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers,” he chanted. “GRAN’MA! I tied my shoes!”

He turned right and nearly collided into the ajar door. “Gran’ma!” He burst into the bedroom and wrapped around the chestnut bench that stood upon the bed.  He dropped to the floor and untied his shoelaces. “Look, gran’ma!  Look!” After the loop, swoop and pull—along with an “ARGH”—he hopped back onto his feet with the biggest smile. “Did you see that?!”

Strands of gray pooled around her head that rested on the pillow.  A lavender cotton robe covered her skin and consisted of blobs due to her wet showered hair.  She lied on her side, facing his direction; but her eyes focused…elsewhere.  Distanced…

“It’s been three years,” she uttered and managed to steal one glance at him. “They’re never coming home.”  She turned onto her other side, away from him.

He watched on, his tiny round face as morose as his shoulders that hunched downward.  Without a sound, he paced to the door and took one last look at her…

Lucia hugged the unused pillow beside her.  By then, her eyes lowered to the floral comforter.  She was immobile like a stone.  Matt sighed and stepped out of the doorframe.  His head slouched forward like Charlie Brown, as his feet touched the wooden floor outside Lucia’s bedroom--

“Ouch!” Matt grimaced as his fingers glided over the white bandage that bulged out of his forehead—worse than an unwanted pimple. “Fucker,” he grunted.

It still throbbed, worse than the shades of green, blue, purple and black at the corner of his eyes and underneath the pieces of tape that held down the bandage.  He pushed the sun-visor mirror back to the roof of his grandmother’s white Toyota Corolla.  He sunk in the passenger seat and stayed there—an endless ship in the deep blue.  He resembled a child with its blankie as he wrapped his arms around the pharmacy bag on his lap. 

Lucia kept her eyes on the road that was not as packed as the opposite lanes, where traffic was at a stop and car horns went off every second.  The Smiths sat in silence as the morning radio pulsated through the speakers and echoed with the rumble of the roadway from the tires.  Matt gazed out the passenger window, where everything passed on by like a slideshow, including the twinkle of a stop light…

The sun sat above the horizon at 7:00 am.  Birds stroked across the baby blue sky and conducted a sweet symphony with their unison chirped chorus line.  Residents departed their homes in workout gear, as some of them retrieved the newspaper in sleepwear such as bathrobes.  A few of the local neighbors even juggled paperwork and pleather bags to their vehicles, decked out in business attire from head to toe: ‘Let’s not forget about the cool kids!’

A few adolescents were either in wrinkled or torn up clothes, not on purpose because that was the new look.  It was mostly girls who wiggled through cracked windows on the second story of their home (Matt was certain that was their property…their parent’s property).  As the car passed on by five more houses, two youngsters had a tight hold of a weakling, until their friend lunged forward and barfed all over the front porch of a two story with a red front door…

Matt rolled his eyes at that one again.  But as his attention drifted to the next-door lawn, he watched as black cat chewed through the intestines that sprawled out of a blue jay’s ripped open stomach…

A boat out in the sea, Matt felt sea sick.  He peered away and everything through the windshield rocked sideways.  Something lukewarm and acid-like rumbled at the pit of his stomach.  He caressed his temple and groaned as the sharpness burned up to his chest.  The taste of sour apples fused at the back of his mouth.  He leaned his head against the window and shivered from the chills that spiked the hairs on his arms and legs.

“Whoever did this…” Lucia gripped onto the steering wheel. “I should’ve been awake…” Not a dare to even admit her motive why she was passed out in the first place. After a deep, intense breath, “Your friends offered us to stay with them.  I think it is best—”

“No,” he said, surprised himself.

“Matt, last night was—”

“I know.  But, I want to sleep in my bed—”

“You need to be with your friends—”

“I want to be alone.”  The sapphire diamond on her left ring finger winked back at him through the passenger window reflection.

 

 

Lucia eased her foot off the gas pedal, as the swimming sharks got closer…

“There he is!”

“Where?!”

“OVER THERE!”

“MATT!”

Matt blanched at the sight of multiple red camera eyes that flashed and recorded in the hands of ravenous news reporters.  Lucia was still in the driver’s seat, but the car had a mind of its own and crept forward, even when she had released her foot off the gas pedal.  There were two men at the hood of the car, ordering the hungry crowd to back up.  Police officers were on watch.  Most of the men and women in black…or blue (the way the sun hit them made it difficult to tell) had grabbed their guns, forewarning those who attempted to duck underneath the yellow tape between the Smith and next neighbors’ house—

“Get back NOW!” a woman officer asserted to one brown-noser.

Before the Smith…vehicle…pulled into the driveway, the yellow tape that read, Police Line   Do Not Cross, was lifted by a group of local police officers.  The tape was immediately dropped back down as soon as the vehicle crawled up—now, Lucia had to press the gas pedal a bit—into park.  The driver and passenger doors were yanked open right away—

“I’m Officer Riley,” the tall and lanky one said.

“And I’m Officer Franco.”  The one with the seventies porn star mustache took a hold of Matt’s arm.

“We’re here to keep you safe!” A meatball size officer dashed to the driver’s door.

The Smiths became puppets, in complete control of their masterful puppeteers.  They were nearly hauled out of the vehicle—although Matt needed further assistance and a pair of crutches were brought over to him.  Showtime…

“Is it true…” they heard a reporter ask.  It was extremely difficult to tell who it was.  Especially when a swarm of microphones and cameras came waving towards them—

“Oh, Shit!” Officer Franco blurted.

A group of reporters had crossed over the line.  The Smiths were rushed to the front door, as the police officers pushed and held back the culprits, but the reporters kept on fishing—

“…Did you really see…”

“…You have any…”

“…Enemies?”

“BACK UP!” Officer Franco demanded.

“NO COMMENT!”  Officer Riley plastered a camera lens with his hand.

The house…their home was as monotonous as a downpour of rain from black clouds.  Even the exterior cream colored paint appeared paler in the overcast weather.  Lucia inhaled deeply and her eyes turned lukewarm as she and Matt were pushed closer to the cement staircase—

Riiiinnnnngggg…

In one ear and out the other.  Matt grimaced and reached for his ears, but he was stuck in a police sandwich.  His hands forced to stick at his sides.  Everything faded away.  Noises off from there on for him…

Question after question.  The numerous of mouths opened wide and wider, even into grotesque shapes--

NO COMMENT.  NO COMMENT.  He had assumed that was what the nearby officer said.

Snapshot after snapshot.  He blinked at another camera flash.

Matt was beet red as the little drummer boy pounded on the inside of his head and pulsated the raw ache to his shoulders and back.  His body hunched forward, but he still glanced around—

Left to right.  Right to left.  Up and down.  Down and up…

The reporter’s faces turned crimson, especially at their lips that, in Matt’s eyes, opened and closed slowly as the officers nudged them back.  Matt caught snippets of his surrounding voices that screeched through his ears and drained out the last bits of sound—

“Matt—”

His mind created an illusion…He stood in the middle of railroad tracks…

“Matt—”

His mind…He opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out; just his lips shaped in an ‘O.’

“Matt—”

The hair on his arms spiked like metal, both in his mind and the here and now.  But, it was his present self (the here and now) that finally slapped his hands over his ears.  His hands dripped with sweat—

The little drummer boy pounded harder and faster as though a pitchfork was daggered through his chest—

 “MATT—”

And there it was.  They all came to a stop as soon as Matt did.  It was there just for him…as a reminder.  Miniature signs with bold numbers trailed down the cement staircase…blackened all over—

Matt spun around, his breathing harsh, and a flash zapped through his mind—

The stranger in black.

‘Welcome home,’ he thought as two officers dragged over a plastic sheet and covered the black…the dried-up blood…His blood.

His legs jostled left and then right.  The crutches turned into jelly and detached from his armpits and hit the grass…grass that was stained with his blood.  He went forward until the individual behind him tugged the back of his shirt before he hit the concrete driveway face flat. “Come on, kid,” they said and scooped him up.

“Matt!” Lucia screamed.  Officer Riley urged her to move on, hurry to the house.  But it was too late—

Click.  Click…

Every newspaper was to become infamous for the homecoming photograph of a fourteen-year-old teenage boy, cradled in the arms of a teddy bear size man in a trench coat.

 

9.

 

“On your mark…Get set…”

He gripped a hold of the sides—made from cotton.

“GO!” Jamie gave his back a push.

Budamp.  Budamp.  Budamp.

Matt slid down the staircase with the bottom half of his body wrapped in a Spiderman sleeping bag.  A grin was plastered on his face.  The adrenaline thrust back his brown spiky hair—the top of the spikes was green.  His cheeks were redder than an American Beauty rose.

“Yay!”  Derek tossed his shrimp size fist into the air at the flight of the staircase…

Beside him, Lisa winced. “That’s going to hurt his hiney.”  And she ducked her eyes beneath her plaid blouse.

“Go, Matty!”  Jamie clasped her hands and bounced up and down—the pink ribbon atop her head did the same.

“Whoaaa—”

Matt soared off the staircase as if he was a snowboarder on their last slope.  He slewed across the cold tile floor.  The three munchkins at the flight of the staircase (his friends) became tense and their eyes went bloodshot as their friend went—

Down.  Down.  Down.  The computer desk got a bit too close—

“Oh shh—”

Matt slapped his hands over his face, preparation for CODE RED.

But, he came to a halt just inches from the bottom desk drawer.  He continued panting, pale as a ghost.  Eye to eye with the bulky wooden desk.

“Is he alive?” Lisa asked, still in hiding.

“Matty…”  Jamie descended a step, her shoulders adjacent to her earlobes.

“That…was…” Matt chucked his arms into the air; his grin was back. “AWESOME!”

Derek jumped up and down to chant, “Victory!  Victory!”

Lisa poked her head out like a turtle.  Jamie sighed with relief.  Matt toppled down onto his back.  Every inch of his body felt lighter as if the Mother Earth herself was removed from his shoulders.  He laughed…at one of his happiest moments…

It was an invasion.  These unwanted guests at work.  Items were picked up and set down.  Some were a snapshot to a camera or dusted off for further evidence.  Men and women in blue stood in every room of the residence.  At least that was what he saw through blurry snippets—

Matt was in and out of a twilight zone.

From the corner of his eye…Lucia was hunched forward…not sick but resistant to any form of movement.  Her knees appeared to be locked.  One police officer had a hold of her left arm.  Riley had a hold of her right arm.  The area seemed to part ways.  Other police officers stepped out of their way…Riley, his colleague, Lucia and the teddy bear size man, still wearing a trench coat.  Matt was still in his burly arms, sprawled out because life wanted him dead.  One too many times.  His grandmother, Riley, and the other officer’s face elongated into weird shapes and sizes as he watched them follow him…and the trench coat man.

“Gonna see what time we’re leaving.”  Matt tossed his Spiderman sleeping bag onto the floor and ran back upstairs and down the hallway.  Thankfully, no sign of a cut; bruise or a limp.

Jamie, Derek, and Lisa eyed each other and then the Spiderman sleeping bag. “MY TURN,” they demanded.

Matt passed by his bedroom, where a poster of Ash and Pikachu—centered in the middle of blue lighting—was taped.

“Derek,” he heard Jamie’s order at a distance, “you’re supposed to—”

“Yahoooooooo!”

Derek dove on top of the sleeping bag and his body traveled down the bumpy ride, until the very last step.  Jamie rolled her eyes.  Lisa popped a squat by the staircase railings, stuck in a trance as if whiplashed.  At the bottom of the staircase, Derek was flat on his belly…toast.  The hollow of his neck was scarlet from the carpet burn.  The more it burned, the brighter it got—

“Owe,” he croaked.

Matt lingered at the doorway.  It was moments before his hand dropped from the doorknob.  It was the bulge underneath the floral comforter that brought him worry. “Grandma…”

He stepped into the bedroom as the budamp budamp budamp of his friends’ bottoms hitting the steps was audible until he closed the bedroom door.  It shut them out completely.  He circled the chestnut bench.  His Bateman ankle socks pointed towards the bed as soon as he came to a halt in front of Lucia, who was sound asleep.

“Oh, honey,” she said as soon as she sensed his presence and eyed the alarm clock.  She scooted herself up and the comforter slipped down to her waist. “I must’ve dozed off.”

“You always do.”

She looked at him.  His attention was leveled at the floor. “Honey…”  She reached for his hands; his eyes remained on the carpet.

“They’ve wanted to meet them for a while now.” Now, he looked at her and his eyes were bulgy from the red veins. “You promised this time…”

His stare intimidated her.  Lucia inhaled and exhaled profoundly as something raw glistened up her own eyes. “We’ll go…I just need…Few more minutes.”  The comforter went up to her chin as she lowered back down into the bed sheets.  She rolled onto her side, her back was to him.

Matt sighed and turned on his heel.  He snailed on over the door and took one last look at her.  He saw the tears going down her face.  Without another word, he walked on out and caught the last audible sniffle from her—

Lucia pulled the comforter over her head.

Matt tossed and turned in bed, his legs and arms sprawled over the navy blue and gray comforter.  His eyes twitched, on the verge to open and close simultaneously—

“Matty…”

Jamie sat at the edge of the bed; her face was longer than the ribbons that were now untied and tangled in her bee nest hair.  Derek and Lisa dawdled behind her, rigid as winter’s ice.  Matt lied face flat on his Power Ranger bed sheets, his feet dangled off the bed.  Corpse paralyzed, he stared off into nothing but nothingness.

“Matty,” Jamie said softly and placed her hand on his bony back. “Are you…crying?”

“No...” He rolled onto his side, his eyes dilated and cheeks lukewarm from the two mini red circles on them---crying face. “I think it’s allergies.” He dabbed at his eyes with his white long sleeves.

Derek and Lisa glimpsed at each other.  Jamie kept her eyes on Matt, the temptation to address it.  But, the words just stuck to the base of her throat.  Speechless.

“We should...” Matt pushed himself up and his elbow jostled and pushed him to hunch to the side.  Motionless, ambiguous to his own reality, he accidentally said aloud, “Is this really happening?” Off their perplexed faces, it was recovered time. “I mean…yeah.”

“Maybe we should go another time,” Jamie suggested. “Only if you—”

“No.  No.  We’ll go.” In seconds, Matt wobbled to his feet and brushed by his friends as he went straight for the door. “Lucia’s not coming—she’s not feeling well.”

That last part had air quotes.  But, he gave them no chance to say…anything.  By now, Matt was headed into the opposite direction from Lucia’s bedroom.

“She’s never feeling good,” Derek said, tunneled in his own lost island.

“I’ve noticed that too.”  Lisa second that and spat out one of her fingernails before she started to gnaw on them again.

“Yeah…Me three.”  Jamie dropped back down onto the bed; her misty eyes never left the empty doorway.

Matt staggered out of the upstairs hallway bathroom—zombie mode—and closed the door.  He was already out of breath.  The bulgy cloth on his lower leg still weighed him down.  Not to mention that those damn crutches wanted to move slower than he did.  Nobody else was in sight, including Lucia.  Except he could hear a few voices and some movement from downstairs—

The stranger in black.

“No,” Matt murmured to himself. “Go…away.”

A sudden rush pulsated throughout his skull.  He leaned his head back against one of the lemon color painted walls.  Sunlight seeped through the small openings of the curtains beside him.  It hissed onto his lower back and his navy-blue T-shirt clung to his skin like caramel.  Sweat traveled down from his cheeks to his not so hairy chest and way south…

Matt balked away from the satin forest green curtains.  The curtain’s touch…It was a bit jarring.  So, soft against his rough skin.  He turned on his heel—a bit too rapidly—and everything rocked sideways again.  He took a step towards his bedroom door as every inch of his body grew heavier.  Slowly, he drifted onward and backward but made it into his bedroom.  Something broke through the haziness…an item…and made his sight crystal clear: Jamie’s gift.

The collage stood against the wall by his bedroom door, which was now plastered with posters of AC/DC, the Doors, Nirvana and the Who.  Pokémon was the old days.  “Happy Birthday!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (with one too many more exclamation marks) circled around the collage photographs, imprinted on the frame border.  An endless funhouse—

Derek did a high leg kick in his penguin suit.  Beside him, Lisa side swept in her emerald dress.  Both of their scores skyrocketed to another level on Dance Dance Revolution. “Yeah boi!” Derek pumped his fist in the air.

Those photographs…individually aligned from the past to present…

“Salty and sweet.  Never a treat, until we have to say farewell.  Then, we eat!”

Underneath the cheesy slug line banner was Jamie.  She stood in line at the color candy coordinated table, piling four plastic baggies with mini chocolates and sour candies.  All the boys had noticed her and did a double take on her hip-hugging dress.  She did not notice…

Slouched over, Matt slapped his hand onto the wall…

At the far back right table, he sat with his clammy fingers locked together.  He daubed at his sweaty forehead with one of the red napkins that once sat on the black tablecloth.  The bass of the latest pop, hip hop, and rap songs vibrated throughout his ears.  The dress to the nines crowd booed whenever a rock-n-roll song played; some even left the dance floor.

Matt grabbed his shaky hand until it was the other’s turn to do the same.  Pressure escalated from the pit of his stomach…

His heart skipped a few beats as she scooted into the folding chair next to him.  She handed him one of the candy baggies. “Something sweet for someone sweet,” she said sardonically.

Eyes boggled out.  Tongue swelled up.  Now, he squeezed onto his shaky hand.

“Hey”-She reached out for his hand-“You ok?”

‘Yes,’ he wanted to say.  But, instead…

“You wanna dance?” it soared out of his mouth.

It helped with his raspy breathing and he kept his eyes closed and slowly inhaled and exhaled: ‘One—Two—Three.  One—Two—Three.’

He gulped as her baby doll amber eyes glazed back at him. “Uh,” he said. “We don’t have—”

“Shut up.” She backed up her chair and stood there. “You are my date, aren’t you?”  She held out her hand.  Matt smiled and so did she as they locked fingers.

Matt exhaled deeply, as something lukewarm fizzled at the back of his throat.  Higher and higher it climbed.  It tightened his chest and any instant now—

“Shit—”

Clump.

His head flung back.  Whatever was inside of his chest…stopped.  Right in the heart.  It was heavy like his bones were to cave into his insides at any given moment.

Thud.

Motionless.  He listened in as the little drummer boy pounded faster and faster onto his chest. “Grandma?”

Budamp.  Budamp.  Budamp.

He took a step forward but his legs were too heavy and weary as though invisible strap-on ankle chains were the reason for his delayed pace.  He stumbled along the soft beige carpet—his toes scrubbed through the spotless fiber.  The afternoon sunlight glazed down upon the amber leaves of trees that also reflected onto the hallway walls like Matt’s silhouette.  The riiiinnnnngggg crackled to life in his ears…

The shiver sent chills throughout his body as if it were venom pumped out of a snake bite.  He felt exposed—naked in the open—even though a soul was still not in sight.  Just a few voices—police officers in fact since every now and then, their walkies echoed off the walls.  He shambled on by with his crutches to use and the venom shot down to his knees, ankles, and feet that all became numb.  Weakened from the seductive poison.  The tingle sensation then went straight for his head and everything in front of him tilted sideways.  The walls elongated in width and height like sturdy barbed wire gates of a governmental base.  He kept on the go, his shoulder brushed against one of the many lemon color painted walls for support.  It was what had kept him on his feet, regardless of those stupid crutches.

Just three doors down, no more than fifty feet, was her bedroom…

The door was ajar, about an inch or so from being completely closed.  He reached for the cold doorknob and applied a soft push to the door that gave no sound effect…

“No, no!” She turned around on the bench—the middle grays in her hair were now in sight. “What did I say about closed doors?”

“That you can’t hear me if there’s an emergency.” He removed his hand from the cold doorknob; his Hot Wheels velcro shoes lit up whenever he moved—red and then blue. “I gotta go!  Cookie Monster’s on TV!”

“Okay,” she chuckled and turned back to the dresser mirror, her reflection was in close proximity with her real self. “I’ll be there in a few.”

Matt stumbled backward until his neck perked up and it forced him to a halt at the bedroom doorway…

His hand slipped off the doorframe that was as flimsy as Taffy. ‘What the…’

It was all in motion.  Everything had a whisper of its own suddenly—

Drip.  Drip.  Drip from the hallway bathroom sink.

Scratch.  Scratch.  Scratch from tree branches against the windows.

“I’m going to get you!  I’m going to get you!  I’m going to get you,” said the children outdoors who were engaged in a game of hide and seek and freeze tag.

Statued at the chest bench like shadows of a midnight nightmare, Matt skimmed his hand across his lukewarm forehead.  Lucia lied on the right side of her body, curled up in a housecat ball in the middle of her lavender comforter.  She purred in her sleep.  Matt eyed the right end table, where drops of red liquid sat at the bottom of a wine glass.  He looked to the left, where novels and magazines were aligned vertically in alphabetical order in the four-row bookshelf.  It was probably the stillness of her bedroom that constricted something thick in his throat, as he placed the crutches onto the bench.  Then, he progressed forward…

About a foot or so from the bed was a small wooden box, tipped over onto its side.  5x7 index cards spilled onto the floor from the mouth of the box.  The box’s mouth pointed into his direction.

That little drummer boy jabbed those drumsticks against his chest.  Sucked in a hazy tunnel, Matt sashayed over to the object on the floor.  He breathed ever so slightly as he dipped down onto his knees.  He tensed from the shoulders up…and down…from the burning sensation that pulsed up from his lower right leg.  One quick glance before any further movement: the side of her body peaked—a centimeter or so—every few seconds to her purrs.  Her eyes remained shut.

Matt reached for the small wooden box and glimpsed around—no sign of the closet door or random drawers opened.  A stranger to the box, he glided his fingertips over its glossy exterior—a coating of protection so the wood was not demolished.  It was as fine as silk.  The rectangular shape object was no bigger than an eight and a half woman's shoe box.  It resembled more of a miniature treasure chest since the bracket was gold.  He scanned around some more…

More stacks of 5x7 index cards were underneath Lucia’s legs and her feet that lay diagonally from each other.  But, those cards were not blank.  There was color—

Backgrounds.

Clothing.

Faces…

People...

The blank index cards were photographs.

That rigidness feeling came back to his chest and forced him to suck in his belly since the air refused to depart through his nasal passages.  The scatter of blank index remained in front of him, untouched and original.  One of them was next to his leg and he turned it over…

It was a photograph of his eleven-year-old self—his face scarlet from the grin that stretched his cheeks back like a Stepford Wife.  The reason for his goofy grin was the sheet of paper he had a tight hold of.  It was a congratulations award in recognition for being on the sixth-grade honor roll list—

“I did it!  I did it!” his premature voice chanted in his head.

“Just remember,” Lucia said, a slight hoarse in her tone, “there are no big or small achievements in life.  Everything is larger than life.”

It was a trip down memory lane…

Faces and bodies danced as he flipped through the bundles of photographs—his elementary and early middle school days.  Penned onto the back right-hand corner of one of the photos were the date, location and two—somewhat—recognizable faces: ‘Who da fuck is Sav and Abdul?’

The following photographs made him smirk, as his fingers skimmed over three recognizable faces…

Jamie had rosy cheeks and her hair was twirled up into pigtails.  Derek stood on his hind legs, still the shortest out of the group.  Lisa had her hair down—as usual—her yellow locks longer than a horse’s mane.  There he was…Matt: happier than any camper.  He always had his arms around his friends’ shoulders, flashing his pearly white teeth at the camera lens.  Sometimes they were captured in a candid moment, busting up over something funny that was said or done prior to the camera snapshot.

Something lukewarm thickened a lump in his throat…again and watered up his eyes.  He remained on his bottom, cross-legged, as he shuffled through more photographs.  It was only seconds before his arrival to a new category of photographs that he was no longer included in…at all.  The contrast was a yellow-brown and the hairdos and clothes on the subjects were so tacky.  It brought Matt to his knees as he flipped through the new mini booklet.  On the back of the photographs were their names…his family.

The following photograph was a shrunken down portrait of two twenty-something-year-olds who were both incredibly striking.  The bride stood on a pedestal…literally and the top of her hair was tied up into a bow…literally.  Her dress was puffed out like a vanilla cream cupcake.  The tall and slender groom stood beside her.  They had their arms atop each other’s, which put an emphasis on their wedding bands: ‘Grandparents’ wedding day.’

As for the next one photo: a 5x7 of his grandparents who were around their early to mid-thirties because of the “happy life” weight gain.  Also, his grandpa sported a mustache.  And his grandmother cradled a newborn, who was wrapped in a white blanket: ‘Dad…’

It was an endless timeline of the original three Smiths, as Matt flipped through the photographs and watched their lives flash before his very own eyes: diaper duty; baby over the shoulder to burp; baby smiles; baby in tears…and possibly the father—his grandpa—too.  More of the baby—his father.  Baby grows up: toddler on feet or belly.  The toddler was even naked, including a close shot of his butt in the air that was nothing but the pure innocence of a child taking in life.

There was another 5x7 of the family.  The man—his grandpa, Frank—had a pot belly.  Lucia was heavier because of the slight curve in her hips (now she was just skin and bones).  The boy, his father, wore a goofy grin, which outshone his thick light brown locks.  They stood awkwardly in front of a Christmas tree that was surrounded by presents, pampered in matching red and green sweaters: ‘The Smiths…’

An 8x11 photograph included around fifteen to twenty students, who either stood or sat on bleachers.  A middle-aged adult stood off to the side: ‘Dad’s childhood...’

More class portrait, holiday gatherings, and just…life.   The lives of the Frank, Lucia, and Jimmy were captured in candid moments.  Until he turned to a shrunken down size of a senior portrait.  The fair-skinned gorgeous woman had on a white lace top and Farrah Fawcett feathered shoulder length hair.  She smiled at the camera; her eyes as vivid as her Hershey kiss brunette hair: ‘Mom…’

 

10.

 

There was no movement or even a heavier sound of his breathing.  It was minutes before Matt snapped out of it and set aside the captured photograph (memory) of his teenage mother.  He carried on with the remaining bundle of photographs.  His fingers seemed to grip on tighter and tighter onto the photos as he shuffled on by faster and faster and saw: ‘Grandpa.  Grandma.  Dad…’

Soon, he was included in the captured moments—an infant in the smiley faces’ arms: ‘Grandpa.  Grandma.  Dad.  Me…’

A crease formed in the middle of his eyebrows; his breathing became shallow: ‘Grandma.  Grandpa.  Dad.  Me…’

He did a double take on the pen labels on the back of another photograph—

‘Grandma.  Grandpa.  Dad.  Me…’

Another photo—

‘Grandma.  Grandpa.  Dad.  Me…’

And another…

‘Grandma.  Grandpa.  Dad.  Me… Grandma.  Grandpa.  Dad.  Me…’

GRANDMA.  GRANDPA.  DAD.  ME…LUCIA.  FRANK.  JIMMY.  MATT.

The following picture had a newborn, cradled in someone’s arms.  The next photo had the same newborn—now a toddler—in midst of rolling around on the floor.  Sometimes the toddler was in midair because he was tossed up or he was simply doing it for fun.  Him.  There was a man present with the toddler, who suddenly became a child as the mini booklet progressed in speed.  A man as a new parent.  A father with his child, but a son without his mother: ‘Me.’

The photographs slipped through his tingly fingers and into a rainfall pile of their own.  Matt pressed his hand to his chest.  The pound of his heart pulsed from the IV tube ball point hole in his wrist to his forehead that sweltered out from bulgy veins because his jaw was locked.  He gritted his teeth, as his temperature skyrocketed to the moon and beyond the universe.  His skin broke out into scales of goosebumps.  The tightness in his chest…on the verge of closing up: ‘Can’t…breathe…’

He shut his eyes and inhaled deeply and carefully—the flowery Sweet Pea scent of the room bristled through his nasal hairs.  It tickled and sent a strong warm sensation to his eyes until he exhaled.  Now, his nasal passages were clear.  Again, he breathed in slowly…in and out…in and out…in and out…

When he was brave enough, he opened his eyes.  The knots twisted back onto his shoulders—

Lucia.

She faced the other side, towards the wall, away from him.  He leaned in for a closer sound…she was sound asleep, almost humming.  Relieved, he sat back and sighed.  His eyes dropped down to the floor.  A white tip stuck out from underneath the small wooden box.  Only…it looked like a piece of someone’s clothing.  It was another mistaken blank index card and a piece of evidence that he had somehow missed.

Matt stole another glance at his grandmother—

The side of her body escalated every other second, along with her soft kitten purrs.  He scooted closer to the box and vigilantly picked it up.  The photograph was faced up—a shrunken down portrait of two men who stood in front of a sky-blue backdrop and beamed at the camera.  The older man with salt and pepper hair and stubbles along his chin was beside the late teen/early twenties clean-shaven man, who had light brown hair.  A sound asleep newborn was bundled up in a blanket…in the younger man’s muscular arms.

Matt flipped over the photograph.  At the bottom, right-hand corner in blue ink pen: Aug. ’92.  Frank, Jimmy, Matt—Ohio.

He lowered the captured memory and felt a slight stab in the chest as his eyes zeroed in on Lucia…

“No, no!” he heard her voice. “What did I say about closed doors?”

“That you can’t hear me if there’s an emergency,” he heard his younger self answering back.

“I gotta go!  Cookie Monster’s on TV!”

“Okay,” she chuckled and turned back to the dresser mirror; her reflection was in close proximity with her real self. “I’ll be there in a few.”

Matt stumbled backward until his neck perked up and it forced him to a halt at the bedroom doorway…

Out of her sight, he watched her through the dresser mirror: Lucia still had her back to him.  She turned an orange bottle upside down and shook it.  Something rattled out onto her palm.  Her eyes never came up to the mirror.  As she tilted back her head, she tossed something into her mouth.  Then, she moved to the small glass in front of her and gulped down the rest of the clear liquid inside.  Moments later, she peered over her shoulder—

Matt almost slammed against the hallway wall.  Carefully, he peeked back into the bedroom and watched as she placed something underneath the bench, thinking that the coast was clear…

The orange prescription bottle sat on top of a small wooden box.

‘I remember that, but…’ Matt gazed at it all—the dresser without a mirror (no more hiding spots), the photographs that were displayed all around the floor like blood from an opened wound, and that shrunken down portrait of his grandpa, father and himself as a newborn. ‘…I’ve never seen any of these.  At all…’

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