Prelude

Tonight is cool, after several sweltering days. June fireflies dance in the meadow, and young goldenrods shoot upwards. The grass is still now that the sun has set. It’s silent, until the softest breeze tickles the treetops, sends them rushing like ocean ripples on sand. The breeze blows itself out in a few seconds, and then another gentle breath flows by.

A woodcock flies by in the twilight, whistling its song as fast as its hectic wings beat. The bird is a blur in the distance, barely visible, when another blur joins it. Both dive downwards and are gone. The song is over; a companion is found.

The sky and shadowland are both still. Jupiter shines. First stars twinkle. The fireflies and one lonely cricket are holding back, staying subtle. It’s only June. August is the time for nighttime ruckus, the last hoedown of summer.

Tonight, the soft, dying breaths of wind are prelude to autumn. I’ve heard them before under cold, empty skies, full harvest moon glaring over a barren October landscape. Tree branches clink together. Leaves rustle. I shiver with cold.

But tonight it’s June. And just as February’s sunshine foretells the spring thaw, this night whispers of coming frost.

June14s

Top Chicken

THE CAST

Charlotte, a Top Chicken
Rosy, a Chicken
That Strange Person, a Person

TopChick03

Charlotte, Top Chicken

That strange person is back again. She’s approaching the coop. I charge to the front to investigate. I’m top chicken. Somebody’s got to take charge.

Is she after us? What did she do with our normal caretaker? We don’t know you, strange person! Go away! Or let us out to graze!

What’s that? You’ve got corn? Wow! Food! Let’s eat!

She gets into the coop when I’m not looking, having cleverly distracted the lot of us with succulent corn kernels. Now what’s she up to? Bringing food? Bringing water? I scoot under her, between her legs, peck at her shoe. She don’t bother me. I’m top chicken. But I don’t notice when she’s crouching down. Right on top of me!

Charlotte!” she says. “Skedaddle! I nearly sat on your head!”

I don’t care. I stalk around to her front side and prepare to dismantle her plastic croc. There’s got to be something good in there. Oh look! Sausages!

Bah, sausages can’t hold my attention. That dolt Rosy might be interested, but not me! Stuff to do! Business to attend to! What’s that? An odd round orb? An… an egg? What is it?

Get away from that, Charlotte,” she says, rudely knocking me away from the mysterious orb. I scoot back, stretch my neck long to keep my body at a safe distance, and further examine this oddity.

Back, Charlotte!” she says again, swatting me away. I walk back.

Charlotte, go away!” She pushes me back, and I nearly lose my balance. Rude. Humans think they own everything.

Then I see she’s got Rosy in her clutches. Look at that! She’s holding Rosy down just for me so I can peck Rosy’s face while she’s immobilized! I strut over and prepare to strike.

Get, Charlotte!” The strange person pushes me away before I can attack. Foiled again. No matter, I’m top chicken. I strut back and examine Rosy’s face, searching for the tenderest patch for me to sink my beak into.

Get away, bird! I’m trying to look at Rosy!” Again, rudely shoved away. But I won’t be intimidated. I walk right back.

Charlotte…!” And again, she shoves me away before I can attack! I’ve had it. Bully human. Foiling my plans. I’m a busy bird. I’ve got stuff to do, things to investigate. You can’t treat me like that.

I strut over to the side of the strange person, in a place she’s not looking. She’s not paying attention to me. I muster my strength and land a sharp peck on her thigh.

Charlotte! What!”

Now I’ve got her attention. I look up indignantly and give her my best evil eye. “Buk!” My most indignant cluck. That’ll show her.

She releases that dork Rosy and all of a sudden catches me up instead. The nerve! The indignity! My feathers are being ruffled! Wait, she’s looking me in the eye. She’s holding me up to her face. This is all right, I guess. I am top chicken, after all.

So you wanted attention, did you?” she asks me, her giant nose inches from my beak.

Buk,” I say placidly, and tip my head at her. This is more like it. This is the attention I deserve. Of course, my elevation has nothing at all to do with my importance as top chicken. But I appreciate the gesture.

There. Now you’ve got it,” the strange person says. And then she tips me on my side! I’m unbalanced! My feet are sideways and so is my head! I start kicking.

Okay okay I’m putting you down,” she says. Soon as my feet touch the ground I spring up and strut away. We’re done here.

Rosa

There are two rows of kids’ chairs, six long each, in the school library. But they’re not just chairs. These are bus seats from the 1950’s, and this is Rosa Parks’ bus. That there is Rosa Parks’ seat. That seat, ladies and gents, is mine.

I’m too young to see much of a difference between the real and imagined. To me, real is imaginary, and imaginary is real. I’m seven years old, and I take to the stage like duct tape to my hair. There’s no difference at all between playing the part and playing little old me. The world’s my stage, and the stage is my world.

Will you get out of your seat?” the policeman asks me, Rosa Parks.

No!” I tell him with dignity. And that is that.

Nine years later I’m back in a classroom. Three judges are staring me down from behind a table, so close I can almost feel them breathing. The timer, all six years of her, is staring at me as well. My stomach knots as I ask if they’re ready. And I begin to speak to them.

I’m not Rosa Parks anymore. I stutter, I stall, I shiver. I don’t throw up, like some newbies do. A hundred speeches later I learn that the judges stay behind the table. I’m safe. Only then do I throw all caution to the wind and share the depths of my heart with strangers, because this is what makes a good speech. Being comfortable with vulnerability. For me, that’s building an invisible wall.

Join a conversation with a real human being. There is no stage. There is no fourth wall. No screen between writer and reader, no table for judges to sit behind. This is face to face. Having outgrown the ability to work unshielded, I internalize the wall. It grows too close for anyone to pass through, except those who have the key.

On the inside of this wall is Rosa. Ready to take on the world.

This Side of the River

Shannon swung down from her horse’s back, landed with practiced ease on the ground. She took the reigns and led him down to the river at the base of the ranch. The herd was far off, but their peaceful lowing carried across the prairie.

There, boy,” she said, patting the horse’s flank as it drank from the shallows. “Drink deep.”

The last rays of sun stretched across the far side of the river as she walked down the bank, feet crunching pebbles. She sat down, took off her hat and laid it beside her. Two brown braids hung down her back. She sat motionless and listened to the water until the first stars came out.

It’s over,” she whispered at last. Propped up on her hands, she leaned back to the sky. Diamonds slid from her eyes as she tried to smile. “I’m not ready.”

She clenched the gravel, flung it forward into the stream. Ten kerplunks in the dark. She dug her heels into the riverbank, got up. Pulled off the boots and left them on dry land. She stepped into the stream. The water felt good.

It was final, this time. They weren’t even going to try chemo. Hopeless, they said. Six months at most before your cells burst apart.

You always knew it was going to end sometime.

Not like this,” she said to the river. “Not so soon.”

You didn’t used to feel this way about it.

When I was young,” she murmured, “it was different.” The river swallowed her words.

Now life’s caught a hold of you. Now you have so much to lose.

I can’t!” Her voice echoed from the far bank, dropped again to a whisper. “I’m not strong enough…”

You don’t have to be.

I’m afraid.”

You don’t need to be.

So afraid.” Tears welled from her eyes, but her face betrayed nothing.

Everyone’s been here before.

Out of Reach

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?”

What If

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.

Splinters

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?”

In.”

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.