Purpley. Prickly. Sprouting up quickly
by every fence
and every tree.
Hiding the rabbits of suburbia.
Every lawn needs
a Barberry bush.
“Think. He’ll be back any minute!”
“I am thinking, what does it look like?” Jess scowled, green eyes locked on the scarlet kite. It was twenty feet off the ground, its colorful tail wrapped around a telephone pole.
“I told you we shouldn’t take it. But you didn’t listen. It’s your fault.” Rob was pacing, staring up at it.
“You were flying it, Bobert.”
“Yeah, I was, till you grabbed it and flew it into the wire. It’s Jim’s war-kite. He’ll be mad.”
“We should’ve tried to attack something with it, you know? If it’s a real war-kite. What’s it good for, anyway?”
“How’re you going to get it down?”
“Me? Whadya mean, how am I going to get it down?”
“Come on. Think.”
Jess planted her hands on her hips, turned around. The barn loomed behind them, old farm equipment scattered nearby. “What’s that?” she asked. Beside the wall, covered in moss and clinging grass, was a wooden ladder. “Think this’ll reach it?”
“Nobody’s used that forever,” Rob said.
“Well, looks fine to me. Unless you have a better idea.”
Rob shifted from foot to foot.
“Well?” Jess said, wrapping her stubby fingers around one end. “Pull!”
The grass held on. Rob wedged his feet against the ground and strained. Jess put one foot on the red wall and jerked. The ladder shifted. All of a sudden—SNAP! Jess was on the ground. Rob’s end didn’t budge.
“Ow,” Rob said, examining his finger. “I think I got a splinter.”
Jess pulled herself up and brushed off. “Well, that won’t work.” She kicked the wood.
“You broke our ladder.”
“Yeah? I’ll break it again.” She grabbed the stick from the ground and hurled it over her shoulder. A resounding smack echoed from behind them.
Rob turned around. Jim was standing with the piece of wood in hand, inches away from his nose. Slowly, he lowered it.
“I’m sure that was an accident,” Jim said.
Rob pointed at Jess. “Her fault.”
Jim stared at Rob, fidgeting under his gaze. He looked at the ladder, now in two pieces. Then he squinted up into the sun. “Is that my kite?” he asked. “Is that my war-kite?”
The clock chimes eleven times. Your back aches, but not so much as your mind. The screen grows relentlessly, twenty tabs open. Your fingers clasp the uni-ball pen, unwilling to let go. Unwilling to give up this project.
You barely remember nights when you slept deeply. The ideas from your thesis come with you to your dreams, wrestling inside your head throughout the night. Your advisor’s words echo, bounce from thread to counterthread. This argument is weak. This idea needs exploring. You know he’s right. You blink, eyes dry. Dry long ago.
Alone in your apartment, working. You’re 29 years old. Your thesis is nearly finished. You’ve been fighting for it for years, ripping apart arguments, consuming and digesting ideas quicker than M&Ms. Your mind is sharp as a whip. Your hand cramped from notetaking. You’ve time for nothing else. This paper must be finished.
The clock chimes. Once. You drop the pen. Press the button. Turn off the monitor. You drop into bed, alone. Right before sleep swallows your mind, you wonder. What if?
You’re exhausted. You can’t move, you’re so tired. And you didn’t even get anything done. Hair in your eyes, plastered to your forehead. One child hanging onto your ankles, another asleep in your lap. You feel heavier than lead.
Dishes weren’t done. You remember when you hear a clank come from the kitchen. He’s cleaning them again, Old Reliable. You stroke the angel’s down head of your babe, admire the soft face, clenched fists, button nose. Your head falls back against the sofa.
A warm hand on your arm. You jerk awake.
“Hey,” he says, a pile of leftovers in hand. He plops down on the couch beside you. “Long day?”
You nod. Motion for quiet, glance at your lap. He eats in silence. You’re pretty sure the little girl on your ankles is asleep too.
Hours after sunset, you drag yourself up to the bedroom. Cranky kids, too sleepy to go to bed. By the time you’ve got everyone settled, you’re a zombie, circles hanging under your eyes. Hubby’s long been asleep. He’s lucky you don’t have the energy to wake him. You collapse into bed.
Right before you’re gone, you remember, for just a moment, all the ideas you had, all the research papers you could have torn apart, all the brilliant academic arguments you could have fought and won. You had so much potential. What if?
You’re still young. You refuse to do anything half-heartedly. Two roads diverge. You look down both. You will choose. One, or the other. There is no both. Not for you.
You did it. The diploma says PhD. The final grades are in. You’re even employed! You feel infinitely relieved, want to shout, “I’m done!” You’re ready to start teaching. You’re the leading expert in your field. Your paper already got referenced. You’re ready to take on the world.
Your kid hands you a piece of paper, late afternoon, your hands in the sink. Colorful crayon marks all over it. She points to one of the circles with the wide grins spreading outside their faces, an abstract tree behind it. “You,” she says.
“Lovely,” you tell her.
The drawing isn’t yours. Ungraded, unfit for academic attack. The kid is a being all her own, grinning up at you. She’s alive.
“Hey. Is she gone?”
“Almost.” Roger planted his feet in the squishy couch cushions and balanced his small frame against the window, one hand in the sheer curtains, breath frosting the glass. Taillights at the end of the driveway bumped as the dark Sudan entered the road, pulled right. Yellow blinker flashed off. Accelerated. Taillights flickered behind trees. Disappeared.
“Gone.” He looked back from the window. At this height, he was barely taller than Chris, who jerked his head toward the door.
“C’mon then.” Chris had duct tape in one hand and a bucket in the other. Roger trotted behind him to the porch door with the peeling paint. His eyes followed the pail in his brother’s hand.
“You sure this is a good idea?”
“Sure I’m sure.” Chris swung the door open and the bucket into Roger’s stomach. The smaller boy let out an oof. “But we’ve gotta be quick.”
Roger followed him through the door and into stuffy air. Something cold and hard smacked into Roger’s hand, and he knew from experience it was Chris handing him something. There was just enough light to see it was hammer. And a nail. Roger swallowed.
Chris swung the latch and pushed the door open, letting in cool twilight. The overgrown lawn was silvery, lit by a crescent moon. A whippoorwill called nearby. The two boys crossed the yard, followed by moonlight shadows.
Roger took a breath to speak. Chris was taking long strides. “Even if she doesn’t catch us-”
“She’s not,” Chris snorted, looking down. “Have you seen how fast the old lady moves?”
Roger tried to keep his breathing even. “A lot slower than Rusty.”
“Worrywort. That dog’s teeth are rot by now. Are you in or not?”
“Good. ‘Cause you said you were.”
They paused when they reached the overgrown swamp. Roger listened to his own breathing, thought about the edge in Chris’s voice. He’d heard that before. And he knew firsthand how creative his brother could be when it came to traitors.
Dew soaked into Roger’s sneakers, chilling his toes. He shivered. Barely, he saw Chris’s hand beckoning him forward—the hand with two fingers shorter than they were supposed to be. Roger dared hesitate only a moment before he clenched the hammer and stepped in.
There’s a sparkle in the distance. A boat on midnight’s lake. Grass, if it is grass, whispers past my toes. Mist in the air, cool and ticklish on my face. I hear the change from land to liquid and stop at water’s edge.
I’ve been here before. I feel that. Even in this darkness, a moment after everything went dark for the last time.
Shadows whisper in the back recesses of my mind. Blue. I can’t see it, can barely sense it, but there is blue fog, light, moving near me. Moisture on my hand. Fireflies on the lake.
Sight has a strange way of leaving the body. Even after the eyes go, the memories of light shift beneath the surface. The mind’s eye continues to imagine. Hear sounds in silence, see light in the dark. That’s what they told me. But I’m starting to think I can see better without eyes.
The sparkle of light has a voice. It’s a lantern.
“I met you here,” the lamp says. “Once before.” It has an oar. A rowboat.
Hesitating only a moment, I step into the boat. My feet know where to go. I tuck them out of the way, beneath my wooden seat.
“They always remember,” the lamp mutters, and slices glass with the oar.
Ripples on the water. I trail the lamp like a kite. After a lifetime of noise, of clicks and honks and shapes and colors, this is refreshing. It’s more than refreshing. I’ve almost forgotten already.
“Who are you?” I say.
“They all ask the same thing,” the lamp says, thrusting its oar into the water with energy.
I settle down, and wait. All my life I’ve been waiting. Waiting for the blindness to set in. Waiting for the rest of it to take me. Waiting to find this place again, though I never knew that much till I was here.
“That will tell you,” the lamp says, gesturing with wood. There’s an island, the smallest island, and it seems to be sailing towards me. The ground shimmers.
I stand up, strangely steady. I step ashore. The ground is oozing and solid at once. Fireflies dance in the watery shallows. I wonder whether my mind is playing tricks on me. I wonder if it always has been, and only now has finally stopped.
“December, the deadline is in December? Next month?” My advisor was incredulous. “You better start writing!”
He was right. I’d been putting off writing my grad Statement of Purpose for ages, and now that the deadline was a month away, I couldn’t really procrastinate any longer.
Applying to grad schools isn’t fun. It’s even less fun than applying to undergraduate college, a process I almost didn’t go through with. But I finally did write up my Personal Statements for two grad schools, and am now awaiting their decisions. Regardless of their choices, this is why I’m glad I applied.
The six-month long process, though grueling, helped me refine and understand my goals for the future. For a while I researched PhD programs, but when I actually tried to write up my Statement of Purpose, I was forced to the conclusion that these programs didn’t really fit me. I gave up on them reluctantly, and redirected my search towards less glamorous subject material that I’m truly passionate about. (Movies!)
Writing the Statement for my favorite MFA program was documenting my ideal professional future on paper. This gave me a lot of personal insight. Now that I’ve written down and explained my goals, I can see what I ought to do to get closer to them. I have a plan, and the plan is always changing. This “ideal career” plan represents my most up-to-date self knowledge, and by examining it, I can see just what I ought to do in order to learn more about my career goals.
Applying motivated me to notice alternatives to grad school, especially groups that actively practice filmmaking and writing. These are legitimate alternatives to expensive graduate programs, and though they wouldn’t be the same, I believe that the most important benefit of graduate school is networking with peers. I know, regardless of the offers I receive from grad programs, that I’m fully capable of pursuing my education “on my own” by networking with fellow storytellers. (Thanks internet!)
I was unsure about graduate school for so long, even as I pursued it. I think what matters in the end isn’t necessarily the accept/denial decision, the funding package, or where you end up. The process of discovery and pursuing what you think you’ll enjoy is rewarding in itself.
A short story can be written in anywhere from 15 minutes to 15 hours, where a novel might take hundreds of hours in planning, writing and editing. Starting small is a great way to build your confidence by setting reachable goals. You’ll have all the fun of building characters and telling a story, but also have the great satisfaction of seeing a finished product emerge in a reasonable timeframe.
Writing short and fast means you have more flexibility to experiment with your genre. If one story doesn’t turn out, oh well—it was a one-week experiment. Next week will be different.
You also experience all aspects of storytelling in a reduced timeframe: planning, writing, editing, and marketing. When writing a novel, each of these stages can take months, and there’s much more at stake (your time, at least). Short stories and novels teach similar skills, but you’ll learn more through short stories due to the great variety of material you’ll encounter.
Short stories can be published in literary journals and put on your resume! Submitting your pieces this way is much less of a hassle than marketing your new blockbuster novel.