Winner of the 2018 Taylor Greene High School Writing Contest
I’m walking down Alhaway Boulevard, heavy backpack slung over my shoulder. My boots leave harsh prints in the slush as I pass, pushed down by the weight of a week’s worth of food, a thick wad of cash, and extra socks. I pull my coat tighter around my slim frame and lift my scarf to cover my mouth and nose.
“Alan!” I hear a call from behind me, a familiar voice. I stop, then turn and watch as Rhi catches up to me. They grin and fall into step beside me. “How’d the test go?”
“Fine, I think. Your tutoring saved me, no doubt about it,” I lie and smile, although it’s hidden behind my scarf.
“That’s good!” Rhi examines the windows of the shops on our left as we pass them. “I’m glad it’s paying off, but I can’t help but wonder if you even really need it. If the school administration hadn’t told me your grades when they’d assigned me to you, I would assume you’re a straight-A student.” They look back to me and raise an eyebrow. “You’re smart, Alan.”
“Whatever you say,” I reply airily. We approach a crosswalk, and I wave as Rhi turns left. I heft my backpack further up on my shoulder where it was sliding off, and head home.
I glance up at my house and sigh as I walk up our cracked driveway. It’s not in shambles, but our lawn lay covered in frozen leaves never raked in time, one of our gutters is leaning off the side of the house, and there are shingles missing from our roof. Still, our heat and our water and our cable work, so it’s not all bad.
Our locks work too, and as I turn my key and push open the door I am immediately hit with the familiar stench of alcohol and unwashed dishes. I grimace and walk inside, closing the door behind me, and slipping my bag off my shoulder. It drags along the floor as I walk to the kitchen through the living room. I ignore the figure passed out on the couch, and the tipped bottle of something alcoholic leaving a stain on the carpet that, inevitably, I will have to clean up.
I take the nonperishables out of my bag and put them back in the cupboard, and I take the perishables and put them back in the fridge. I add a dollar that Brayden gave me earlier to my wad of cash, which stays tucked snugly in my bag along with my socks. My schoolwork and folders fit in between, and for a moment I just stop and look at these papers I’ll never write on—papers that will find a crumpled home at the bottom of this backpack I barely consider a schoolbag, that will eventually be thrown in a wastepaper bin when I need room for more untouched assignments to pile up. There’s noise from the living room: shuffling, then malcontented grumbles. I avert my gaze and zip up my backpack.
I try to pass through the living room invisibly, hunching over and walking quickly. It doesn’t work, and I stop when he barks my name.
“Why’re you home so late?” my dad mumbles. The curtains are drawn, so it’s dark inside. It’s 3:45, I don’t have a curfew anyway. I’m not late.
“It’s not late, Dad,” I tell him, but he scowls at me and stands up unsteadily.
“Don’t talk back to me.” He points a finger and advances. I stay put when he leans in close to my face. His breath smells foul, I do my best not to cringe. “Y’hear me, Alan?”
“Yeah,” I say stonily. We stand there, facing each other, before he leans back and mutters something to himself and I jerk away. I leave the room before he can decide he’s not finished talking yet.
In the morning, I wake up early. I pack my backpack with food, and count my money, just to be sure it’s all there. I clean up the stain in the living room as best I can before he can yell at me to do it. It’s still dark when I hear footsteps upstairs, and I leave, my heavy boots clunking on the floorboards and my heavy coat blanketing my shoulders.
The walk to the high school is not long. We both live on the same edge of town.
I watch my feet as I go. Yesterday’s slush is gone; melted overnight. I still step heavily, imagining I weigh enough to press footprints into the concrete. The morning is quiet but for the sound of my steps, and the soft caws of distant birds. Headlights pass on the street to my left sparingly. I let out a breath, and watch it dissolve in the air by the light of a lamppost.
The school comes into view as the sun rises. I see other hunched silhouettes distorted by bulging backpacks approach the building from all angles. Some are accompanied by steam rising from their breaths and coffees, and I catch glimpses of others’ faces in the glow of their phones. Slowly, the sun illuminates us, and we move as one, encroaching on the high school like a slow-moving swarm infesting it.
I am not the kind of kid people whisper about and stop to stare at. But when I catch strangers’ eyes in the halls, sometimes they look back for a little too long. They knit their eyebrows together and examine me as if the answers to their questions lies in the folds of my coat or the laces of my boots or beyond the zippers of my backpack. And sometimes, they do. But inevitably I break eye contact, I keep going, and fleeting curiosity is nothing but fleeting.
I don’t talk to many people other than Rhi now. Rhi because I must accept their school-mandated tutoring. Brayden is my science partner. I copy homework sometimes from this girl in math. But when I was younger and reached out, people knew more about me. People asked more about me. And because I didn’t realize the weight words had, I would answer.
I talked about my home life flippantly because I still didn’t realize it was bad, and most others didn’t realize either. But someone did; they ratted on me and the summer between freshman and sophomore year was spent waving off child protective services and shrugging off bruises I got for having a big mouth. It got worse. But I didn’t want to leave, or maybe I do, or maybe I can’t. We stay under the radar now. Dad and I have an unspoken agreement: I don’t pull any stunts, I don’t get punished and we don’t face the consequences. Stasis. Sophomore year is when I started packing my bag.
“Alan,” Brayden mutters to me in science as we do a lab. He’s doing most of the work. I start and stop the timer when he asks me to.
“Wanna hang out after school? We can go to the park and chill.” He picks up the test tube we’ve been watching as the bubbles slow. “Stop.” I click the timer as he looks at me expectantly, and I almost snort when I meet the distorted vision of his eyes through his safety goggles.
I think about what Dad said yesterday and hesitate for a moment. Then I think of drawn curtains, and of the days upon days before yesterday where he’d said nothing even if I came back far later. I think of how little I want to go home.
“We have the senior seminar thing though,” I say. It’s something stupid about discussing options for the future as if we don’t already know what will happen. Most of us will go to college. Many of us will give up.
“It’s not important. We’ll skip,” he says, waving it off. I shrug.
“Sure, I guess,” I say. “Anyone else gonna be there?” He shrugs. We go back to our lab and I fiddle with the strap of my backpack sitting next to me.
We walk the three blocks south to the park together after classes, not saying much but not uncomfortable. I admire the overcast sky and the spider webbing cracks in the sidewalk. Brayden keeps his hands in his pockets and looks forward.
“Why do you do it?” he asks me when we’re there, legs dangling over the side of a platform on the deserted playground structure.
“Do what?” I wonder, but I know what he’s talking about. His eyes are the same set of curious that I meet in the hallways and they find my bag and its weight far too often to just be gazing around the room.
“Keep all that stuff in your bag every day. Pack like you’re running away.” He looks at me. There’s silence for a moment.
“I don’t know,” I lie. Brayden frowns. He knows I know why. I think he knows why, too. I think he just wants confirmation. I don’t give it.
“It’s cold,” he says instead of pressing further. I nod.
“I like it,” I tell him, and I swing my legs where they dangle.
We keep talking, straying further and further from the subject I know he’d called me here to talk about. We haven’t hung out before. I didn’t know we had so much in common.
We stand on a wobbly bridge and use sticks for swords, and over the clack of our makeshift weapons meeting, he tells me how much he liked learning about the Arthurian legends, tells me about his childhood fantasies of being a knight, the kind everyone has. I tell him on the swings about the dream I’ve had since I was a kid; as I stretch with my feet as high as I can, I describe in detail my yearning to know how it feels to go as high up as you can and further, my desire reach a point past the limits of our Earth, our atmosphere, my dream of being an astronaut. When I look over at him, I can see the stars in his eyes, and I know he knows how I feel.
As the hours pass and night falls, we play on the playground like we’re children again, laughing at and with each other. My cheeks hurt from smiling when he spins me on a merry-go-round.
Then the sun is gone and the lampposts around us flicker on and we’re quieter. The night has blanketed the world in a new layer of calm, atop the silent blanket of winter and the heavy blanket of my coat on my shoulders.
We sit hip to hip on the edge of a wide slide. Brayden lights a cigarette and sucks on it, looking up at the night sky. The stars have only just begun to come into sight. Scared away by the lights of the town, they seem far too dim. I think about the damage his cigarette must cause and I open my mouth to speak. I think about the damage I’ve caused. My dad has caused. I close my mouth. Instead, I pick up his lighter where he left it resting on the slide and I spark it, watching the firelight flicker, illuminating us uniquely, separating us from the darkness beyond its reach, warming my hands. It’s gorgeous. I consider stealing it. Then I let the flame die and put it back down.
I lean back on the slide and look up between the glare of lampposts. I see in my peripheral that Brayden is watching me where I lay, my coat fallen open and my dark hair splayed out over the hard-red plastic. He blows out a cloud of smoke and nudges my knee with his.
“It’s getting late.” I make a noncommittal grunt in response. He grins and stands, letting the cold air steal the warmth where our thighs had been touching. He reaches out to help me up. I hesitate for a moment, reluctant to get up from the slide and leave behind the blanket of peace we’d laid over us.
I take his offered hand, and he yanks me to my feet. We walk in relative silence to the park gates.
“See you on Monday,” he says, bumping my fist with his and I nod. He pats my shoulder when he passes, walking in the opposite direction that I would to get home.
I don’t leave yet. I walk back into the park, back to the red plastic slide. I sit down and look up past the ceaseless stare of the lamplights, to the distant stars that seem to grow dimmer as I watch them. I imagine I’m up there with them, a light that is visible even from hundreds upon thousands upon endless miles away. I imagine that I’m bright enough to be seen and too far away to touch, and I imagine that even if he could touch me, I’d be so hot I’d burn him.
And then I let my eyes lower and I find the cracked pavement, the woodchips around the play structure, the laces of my shoes, double knotted. I remember that my heavy boots and my heavy coat keep me grounded here, on Earth, forever pulled inward, the planet catching me in her arms and drawing me to her breast, wishing to envelop me in this moment, in her mountains and mantle and this playground so that I may bask in the air of peace that Brayden left me with and never go home to breathe in the smell of alcohol and unwashed dishes and if I sit here long enough, I feel the wood chips beneath my boots will give way and she will swallow me.
I shuffle my feet, kick them upward and let them fall back down. I clench my hands on the edge of the slide. I find the weight of my jacket on my shoulders, comforting and protecting. I look toward the sidewalk Brayden disappeared down.
In that direction, the town gives way to highways and dirt roads leading inland. People travel across them every day. I could leave on those paths and no one would think twice, and I could walk for cities, for towns I’ve never heard of and for landscapes I’ve never seen. I could find something new. Something more.
I pick up my backpack and shoulder it and feel its weight—food and money and socks and guilt and hope, pulling me down to Earth’s arms. I leave the park, and I start walking home.
Charlie Case, a junior at GHAA in Hartford, has been writing since the sixth grade and works consistently to refine his craft
Photo courtesy of Kelsey Murray for Blue Muse