When Phoebe closed her eyes she heard Shana’s giggle, a drawn out “Gurrrrrl” when she recounted another meet-cute on campus turned weird because Shana found “normal” equal to “boring” and coyly promised a reward for admirers who proved they were neither, with hilarious results for the retelling. Phoebe, who shied away from a hormonal wave of her own admirers, accused her friend of using people for stories, entertainment purposes only. Shana pointed out to her that most of them aspired to motorboat her boobs, probably dreamed about it, their “weakness” as Phoebe’s mother would say. For her part, Phoebe failed at Shana’s mockingly serious introductions, one long-fingered hand involuntarily flying up to cover her mouth, but not her repressed laughter, as she envisioned Brad, Kylie, Geri, or whoever barking like a dog, or if they were exceptionally fit and handsome, meowing like a pussy cat. Merely “placeholders” is how she thought of them because someone, THE one, would fall madly in love with Shana’s overall BIG energy: her corny anecdotes related enthusiastically with sound effects, her talent for creating natural poems and sketches in the moment, her insatiable curiosity about large families, her pride of uncombable dark curls. Timid and slight herself, pale and often invisible, Shana brought out a vitality she didn’t feel she possessed before. Still young enough to believe she controlled her fate, despite Death’s intrusions, Phoebe thought their careful plans and blood bond insulated their future together, or at least a close version of a city/country life, with vegetable gardens and gallery openings, a book shop or small market where Shana could have poetry readings and Phoebe might curate curious treasures, for sale only if they needed an adventure to stir their blood/imaginations. Or, they’d travel, be vagabonds for a year, soak up sunny ocean breezes down south while it was freezing in Detroit, meet characters and write their stories. They’d been dreaming together since 7th grade. The friends had plenty of time before graduation to figure out their next steps, or so they’d said. Then Shana met Doyle with his deep-set eyes fringed in white blonde like spider legs and easy wide smile. Doyle with his ambitious load of pre-med courses and enough natural intelligence to render bioengineering simple. He immediately enthralled her when he set a cup of peppermint tea down next to her textbook. “Take a break. I promise I won’t bother you very long”. And he hadn’t bothered her, only staying long enough to tell Shana how he noticed her before in the busy coffee shop, watched her as she studied at one of the small tables outside. “And how did you know I like this?” “I smelled it last Thursday when I walked by. Wanted to catch your eye, but you are always so engrossed”, he’d said before he told her his name and asked for hers. All the while, Doyle’s eyes never wandered from her face. This was the detail she told Phoebe several times that evening, who thought she should be more concerned about being watched. “Jealous?”, is all her friend replied. Kinda, is what Phoebe thought. A week later, he came over for dinner. A bottle of Shana’s favorite zinfandel and a petite jade tree in a green ceramic pot presented with a memorable line, “A symbol of you and Shana’s friendship that I hope will grow to include me, Phoebe.” Like a dude in a cheesy rom-com, Phoebe thought, although she did appreciate the lucky plant, if not the accompanying sentiment. “How thoughtful. Doyle, right?” When she put her hand out, he beamed at her and gave it a soft shake in his. “Thank you for inviting me in, Ladies.” Although perfectly charming on the surface, there was something slightly off, too sure, a tiny bit spooky, about him. While the girlfriends typically cooked (and danced) together when they entertained, Shana had eggplant parmesan in the oven and the loft tidied up before Phoebe got home stinky and soaked from a spinning class Shana swore would tone her ass before it killed her. Phoebe wasn’t convinced, but admitted the release had improved her concentration. Even their notebooks, sketch pads, books and plethora of writing tools normally littering the coffee table had disappeared, bean bags thrown behind their respective bedroom screens. She remembered how unusually nervous and quiet Shana had been, how she’d paced between the single tall window that looked out on the street and the loft’s kitchen, peeked in the oven window each time she made a pass. “Why don’t we have a tablecloth, Phoebe?”. Long before, their overexuberance frosting Valentine cookies had left pink stains on the uncovered edges of her mother’s old Formica table that she held on to purely for good memories. “Next time we go to the Salvation Army we’ll get a vintage one, maybe with lace or embroidery if we’re lucky”, she’d yelled as she begrudgingly slipped on her loosest jeans rather than pajamas. Phoebe thrived on predictability and preferred Shana’s detours on weekends, when she felt she’d earned some fun. But, her curiosity didn’t want to wait in this instance. How lit up Shana was as soon as Doyle arrived, her rare insecurities gone right up to the moment her parents were exhumed. His faded black t-shirt, well-worn jeans, and scuffed biker boots belied his piercing after dinner conversation, “How old were you, Shana, when your folks OD’d?” and “Did you ever see them shoot up?” Normally, Shana’s dates were intimidated, but not Doyle. After a half hour of squirming through Shana’s stammered descriptions of a past she rarely spoke of, and never with such detail, Phoebe interrupted, “Sorry, but I have some reading tonight; that last chapter when Anna left Alexei again… I want to understand it better. Professor Fayed stresses me out before I’m even awake”. Despite her earlier promise, she awkwardly excused herself before Doyle’s curiosity turned to her. Looking back, she thought maybe her friend was the one intimidated and she had been too self-involved to notice. Why did she leave her in the middle of that brutal questioning? Did her withdrawal help him create a trauma bond? At the time, she didn’t expect to see Doyle again, didn’t expect life to change because of him. He’d left by nine, and hadn’t called Shana for a week.
Belladonna slowed Phoebe’s racing thoughts, picked up and tucked away her memories, and kicked blame out of her head temporarily. Phoebe thought she heard boots on hardwood in the hallway and wondered if Mom would yell at Daddy; late again. As she tumbled loosely into her underworld, she let go of everything except a prayer, “Hail Mary full of grace…”.
Bare feet cool on smoothly worn stairs carved into the sides of the tree, she climbed round, her eyes trained and face tilted back in search of tell-tale lightening, until one foot met only air. She’d run out of stairs. Although she’d hoped to step out in the forest, a soft peat pathway underfoot, admittedly she’d be sorrowful company for her flying friends. Exhausted was any peace she’d discovered in a stream of liquid crystals meandering around mossy boulders and emptying into a pool lit from below. They’d floated for hours the last time they drank Belladonna tea together, she and Shana; no need for words. It’d happened once before, dozens of stairs not advancing to the top, twice if she counted her initial trip to what she imagined as a base, perhaps HER base, within a cedar tree. In the months following her daddy’s heart attack in his corner office on the 23rd floor, she and her mother lit a candle for him at 9 a.m. every Saturday at St. Josephs’ Parish, then prayed for his soul until Father Daniel began readying for Noon mass. Her mother, who’d had to take a front desk job at the Marriot, seemed to find solace during those hours, so Phoebe kept her sore knees and desire to join classmates at the skating rink, or the mall, or the movies, or anywhere other than church, to herself. She often wondered why her daddy’s soul required so many rosaries for so many Saturdays. Deep in the earth at the base of the tree’s unique stairs, is where she found herself one Saturday morning, mesmerized not only by an expansive interior of this mammoth cedar tree, but also by a signature of characters burned black into its’ honey-hued walls. As she did then, Phoebe trailed her fingers over these symbols now, some of which she’d encountered in her studies, most still unrecognizable. A pulsing yellow Sun the size of a dinner plate interrupted the chain and radiated an enveloping warmth, comfort she absorbed for a few seconds before unworthiness prodded her onward. More unknown charry characters passed under her fingers until she reached an infinity symbol, one of five, this one streaming oceanic shades of blue and black. It was the first symbol she’d recognized, and researched it only to find finite understanding by even George Cantor, the famous Set Theory mathematician who classified “absolute infinity equal only to God’s realms”. Unlimited, endless, a brush of her fingertips and she no longer embodied a human, but a sparkling star in the constellation Lyra, not far from Vega the Harp Star, and neighbor of Hercules, Cygnus, and Draco. Eternity was perplexing with Earth’s limited lens, but from here Phoebe remembered Shana could never be entirely erased. An enormous azure and orange ring nebula caught her attention in the distance, neon green twinkling in it’s heart. As she reached for it with her will, a steely vise pulled her forcefully by her head and dumped her naked on an amber resin floor, flat on her back. Just as her breath expelled in a huff, a silver pregnant moon fell from above to pin her motionless. Phoebe sipped the air frantically, unable to expand her lungs as the moon cooled her flattened frame. A frequency emanated from a newly inserted needle at the top of her skull. Hyperventilated and panicked, she stilled finally, spent and empty. Proof of her vileness, her ugliness, played on the moon’s surface like a bad movie, times she made fun of other kids, times she lied, times she wished people dead, like Shana’s parents. I AM vile, she thought, to which Death replied, “Vile, jealous, and ugly. Take whatever love you can because you won’t get much, especially after your ultimate failure as a friend”. A smoky cloud filled the space around her and she felt long hard hard pinches simultaneously on the sides of her thighs that punctuated every word. “Now repeat it back, your worthless bitch, and I might let you go”. Phoebe repeated the words in her head, over and over. The cloud dissipated, as did the moon, and her breath came easier, just as promised. When she tried to sit up, however, a band encircled her brow and lowered her back to the floor as laughing and attractive faces appeared above her, most unknown, but very familiar. They appeared to make bets with one another, their voices muffled.
Trembling, Phoebe came to with a crowd of paramedics, firemen, and police around her bed, an IV in her arm, an empty syringe on her nightstand. “Wha’ss goin’ on?” “It’s going to be ok, Phoebe. I called them when you didn’t answer the door or your phone. We’re all here to help you.” Doyle stood by the jade tree in the window. The streetlight at his back cast his shadow over her and she thought his platinum hair glowed. “Is thisss a dream?”, Phoebe slurred. “Transporting to the state hospital, repeat, transporting female, age 20, name Phoebe Monteer, to state hospital for evaluation following her self-termination attempt.” In the ambulance when she explained she drank Belladonna tea to meet her friend in her dreams, and that she certainly did not need to be restrained, the paramedic looked at her with a smirk and said, “You’ll get a chance to explain all that, Honey. Don’t worry.” He turned toward the front. “She’s getting agitated. I’m going to give her clozapine. Always easier that way and we get home for dinner”.
Shana’s soul trembled as it received an iota of Phoebe’s light-filtered grief, then sighed and settled in peace. Sequestered in their barred galaxy, Tri-Eloh felt the friends’ unbreakable soul bond shred yet hold, but one angel felt an ancestral golden thread unravel as the hem of its’ Mother skirt fell out. A future for the soul in the tiny green star aligned with a threat to an ancient angelic bloodline; if its’ contract wasn’t renewed, other descendants would be spiritually weakened. A single soul rarely appreciated their own import. The Tri exhaled stars into the inky center of their galactic home, then settled in the corners of a triangular cavern as light glanced off a breathing scroll of silver sheets cradled in golden fleece. Alive with a baritone hum, it was encircled by 3 ruby chains, each link embossed with sleeping faces of their descendants on Earth-as a newborn, as a child, as a mother or father, and as an elder. Easy to spot, the link they sought displayed a break where Shana’s older faces had been. Although expected, the prior “If we find an error in Shana’s debts versus karma plus Death’s receipts, the Office of Terminations might pass her on for an audience.” quickly evolved into “We will find an extra somewhere and later, we will audit ALL contracts.”
An expressionless face at the door at 3 a.m. instead of Shana laughing about losing her key again, dead-panned words in a staccato of blasts to her heart, a piece of paper shoved in her hand, all of it a living nightmare Phoebe resisted to her core. Accusing eyes scanned the loft while she sobbed, unable to catch her breath, “Shana, nooo, nooo”. The Tri’s foresight didn’t extend beyond Phoebe’s fierce denial, her wild bedhead and snotty t-shirt in sync with the ugliness she felt, the officers who tossed the loft and took her prescription sleeping pills “for testing”, her desperation with a weary social worker who seemed stuck on repeat, “Did you and your friend use heroin together? Where do you get your heroin?” No mention of the towers of undisturbed textbooks-biology, anatomy, European history, Spanish poetry and modern lit, on the dining table between them, two of each, undisturbed sign posts to their future. The next day Phoebe would go to the county morgue in a daze and identify Shana’s body per parting instructions from cracked lips and also in bold letters on the piece of paper. Further down the sheet she would see an 800 number for survivors “if needed”, and wonder how a stranger with an intact life could possibly understand her blown up world. An 800 number to heaven, she’d think, if I could just talk to her, tell her I love her, I need her. They knew she would be handed a bag of Shana’s belongings including the rose boots she’d given her for Christmas. What Tri-Eloh didn’t see were hellish visions in her mind, massive guilt about staying home, about not really wanting to be with her friend lately. They didn’t know Phoebe would wash her misery away with two cups of Shana’s belladonna tea, or they may have acted sooner.
Nothing and no one in the entirety of the universe escaped El’s all-seeing/feeling/knowing, yet nothing and no one could confidently describe seeing El. For this reason, Tri-Eloh hurriedly reviewed Shana’s contract. “Delivering it in time for bandaging prior to the hearing will render this small transgression into nothing at all, you’ll see.” The other two angels intuited in tandem, “Count the addiction aspects first, then betrayals, then a sum total of abuses. We’re tallying Death’s receipts. No way we have time to figure in Karma. Those records are in The Halls under Archangel guardianship.” In truth, El forgave them instantly and moved on to universally important matters.
While hierarchy did not exist in the ethereal realms, Blissful missions and Divine missions did, both assigned eons after a soul fully ascended.
In the underworld, hierarchy was strictly observed with brutal punishments meted out as rewards for souls addicted to pain, and admittance may be earned in as few as ten lifetimes if the soul lusted after power enough. Death, giddy at their success with Shana, asked again why the demon before him sought punishment and lowered it into the icy salt water when it tried to reply. “Kazmir!”, Death bellowed. Often sidetracked by its desires, Kaz should have returned with a report by now. One of Death’s oldest and most effective demons, Kazmir often took liberties, but also delighted his boss with tales of surprise cruelties undetected by most Guardian Angels. It was dedication like Kaz’s that drove the wheel of life downward, into unconscious competition, violence, and for the long game-thwarted dreams and grief. For a while, Death thought they might lose, but they were an ultimate pessimist. Kaz appeared before them with a rush of decaying stench. “May I congratulate you, Boss, on winning such a prize soul today”, it went on, eager to please, “Soon enough, it will be your pet”, one bulging eye swung out of its’ socket to point at a cage made specifically for Shana’s soul when she was ten years old, a cage of human bones where she often found herself in nightmares. Death would have ordered its’ construction sooner, “S” etched on each bone, but discretion was crucial when tormenting a young soul before puberty, the allowed starting line for their race with life. El disqualified an enraged Death every three seconds for cheating demons who often caused souls to cry out for El’s help. “Did you twist up the other half’s mind yet, Kazmir?” “Not only did I gift her with torture audio and visuals of an endless fiery sea, I also sent unhelpful humans to harass her, and set her up for lucid dreams tonight. Would you like to draft her nightmare?” Once again, Kazmir became Death’s favorite. “You know me so well, Kaz. Let’s involve Doyle. He showed promise, but took too long in pushing Shana to break her contract. See to it, while I console Phoebe”, he laughed.
Doyle Regan dreamed of Shana, her heart-shaped face smiled up at him framed by her raven curls reflecting dappled sunlight, her deep brown eyes looked into him with a smile and acceptance; love he didn’t deserve, never asked for even. She took his hand in her small one and together they walked through the park as they’d done dozens of times over the past year, down the winding path by the flowering trees where they stood as petals floated down on them. Tears slowly made their way single file to fall from his chin as Doyle saw the red and purple marks on her neck. When he awoke, the dream lingered. As he made his way into the shower, scalding water did nothing to fade the image. Doyle wondered how Phoebe was handling her first day without Shana. Phoebe seemed so capable, so responsible. He thought about calling, but decided instead to bring her some of the lemon chicken soup she loved from the Coney Island. Doyle had to make her understand it wasn’t his fault.
A cold breeze laced with pine and rich earth blew across her mind and erased every story, every reason why. Glimpses of a forfeited future flashed in a hologram first to her right, then her left, and back again. A visibly older her sat on a blue blanket on a lush lawn laughing while a well-calloused hand brushed a raven curl away from her face and tucked it behind her ear, her tiny gold cross earring catching the sunlight. At middle-age, she drove a white vintage convertible along a shoreline highway, seagulls diving into sparkling water and that same hand reaching to change the radio station. A strand of pearls being fastened around her neck by younger hands. Her body jerked against the rope as a baby nestled into her shoulder. She kissed his downy hair. Mingled scents of baby shampoo, mother’s milk, and fresh laundry filled her briefly with an old familiar hope. Heavy purple curtains tangled around her limbs; constricted them relentlessly until she no longer had limbs. Something forgotten strained against her diminishment; a desire for sight grew as her life and the images blurred and receded. How unfair that life still withheld joy, still punished her even to her last breath. Death laughed in the vestibule while Life pushed forward with all its might to give her a parting gift. Seth, tall like his Dad, enveloped her arm in his and helped her slowly shuffle to a worn shiny pew at the front of the cathedral, where he bent down to receive her kiss the sun shining through a stained-glass depiction of Mary holding the Christ child. I look happy, was her final thought as tiny vessels in her eyes popped and released their crimson sentence. Urine filled Shana’s favorite leather boots, the ones with roses embroidered on them, as a sea filled her skull and applied waves of pressure needed to oust a soul from its form: a human female of short stature, deep amber eyes and only medium wear. Life sighed and moved on.
“Whoah! Slow your roll there, Kazmir. This one qualifies for a hearing.” Oisin arrived at Termination chute # 333 just in time to play the hero it imagined itself. Belief was everything; everything except for a tiny, tiny bit. Feathers of nil swept Kaz to the side easily as they paid little attention to #333, which everyone knew was highly protected. They much preferred Soul Mover #66, where souls with potential slid toward repetitive contracts nearly impossible to fulfill, except for those that did. Drool covered them all as Kaz’s mouth inspected cracks, dents, and holes in search of the oldest and most damaged of souls with karmic contracts. Some writhed rather than jerked when he prodded their wounds with needles of searing blue fire. Oisin plucked Shana’s soul, still in a state of shock, from the crowd of first-timers and pitched it hurtling through nothingness until a tiny speck of blue appeared below. “Ok, so … Eddy asked me to cover this gig for him today and I don’t really remember exactly what I’m s’posed to impart. Knew I’d be picking you up, concentrated on that part because it seemed more important than a transmission…but, I’ll try”. Oisin extended a pink tendril toward her. “You fucked up. Wait, I mean… (Big inhale of nothingness) you were obviously hurting immensely, maybe even in a mentally ill vessel, so you have an exam and hearing to evaluate if you can finish your contracted missions in another vessel, or if your soul … um, yeah… not quite sure. Forgive me, but I normally work in the Birth Arenas.” Blue speck spread until it enveloped the soul and spun out loose bits of identity such as age, race, gender, and religion. This Soul held tight to its’ name with an ancient ownership that defied Oisin’s abilities. Crimson and violet tendrils wound around concepts of good and bad, ripped them out, and left behind shreds of guilt and regret. One mammoth golden wing swept Oisin aside, who didn’t mind in the least. Not even a portion of a single soul minded Tri-Eloh’s graceful ministrations once they were beyond earth’s physical plane and limited valuations. Oisin felt entirely free as it floated left at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, a slate wiped clean of worry about covering for Eddy adequately, erased of any concern for Shana’s soul because he’d just tell Eddy about the Tri sweeping it away. Surely, of any Ancient Ones, Tri-Eloh had Divine exemption. Oisin had no appreciation for rules. It attained its choice of exalted positions thousands of lifetimes ago after serving love in 15 lives, 5 of them entirely volunteer, and two in another galaxy. Having been healed by Tri-Eloh eons ago, it existed in bliss as long as it stayed within the Birth Arena, which it planned on every time it returned.
Three spherical beings slightly less bright than the Sun became one around the battered soul, lengthened into a shaft of starlight, then slipped into a disk galaxy 3 million light years from Earth. Shana’s soul rested in a tiny green star among the debris at the outer edge, just left of the Erasure Chambers reserved for Tri-Eloh descendant souls, prior to healing in a collective rainbow eligible for planetary re-entry. “It’s good to have her back, even under the circumstances.” Shana’s ancestor spun energetic threads of protection as it whispered, “You are cherished.’ “There IS a process for suicides”, one being intuited. “Yes, it’s true. Your descendant, or not, it should’ve been stripped entirely and put in Grief Empathy BEFORE erasure”, the other added, even as it floated toward the galaxy exit in anticipation of a negative reaction all three would find equally excruciating. But, typical separation that occurred with disagreement did not come. “It may happen so rarely that we forget their dire oaths, but Death’s demons have been known to cheat.” Tri-Eloh felt a surge of protective love snap their collective will back into alignment.
“Noooooo! Nooo!” a tormented scream of soul mate separation shot out of Earth’s atmosphere and reverberated throughout the universe until it landed on the tiny green star.
Never shoulda told her. She said nothing bad would happen. Out of all of them, Linny’s Mom is the only one ever asked about the marks on my hands, the only one ever brushed my hair out of my eyes to look at me. She promised I’d be safe if I told her the truth. Instead, I stood up and lowered my jeans right there in Linny’s kitchen and watched their surprise, then horror, as they took in the welts on my thighs. Linny’s Mom cried, “Good Lord!”, and enveloped me in a warm cushy hug that felt just like I’d imagined. I closed my eyes until she let me go and told me to pull up my pants. Linny is so lucky, I thought for the millionth time. My eyes followed her mom as she wiped mascara streaks off her cheeks with both hands, sniffed long and deeply, then picked up her phone. Linny slid off her stool and softly took my hand in hers. She shook a little, like I do when Mama’s boyfriend is in the room. Probably never seen her Mom cry like that. “Yes, this is Mara Kivich at 1335 Lafayette Street. I need to talk to someone about a child who’s being abused’, Linny’s Mom said to who I guessed was the cops. She turned her back to us then mumbled, “Uh-huh… no, bruises and welts from a belt, oh… ok.”
Cops never did anything when they came to our house. Mama always said we were fine, it was just “a yelling match”. Dave was usually gone by the time they got there, slamming out the door like somebody did something to him instead of the other way around. The cops wrote down Mama’s stories in little notebooks they flipped closed with one hand. She had slipped on a wet floor and ran into a cabinet door that hit her right under her eye or stumbled on our steep basement stairs while carrying a laundry basket. The fingerprint bruises on her neck were never asked about or explained and they never asked me anything, either. An officer often said something like, “We want to make sure you’re safe, Mrs. Batch. Please give us a call if you need anything”, or “We’re here to help if you need us”, and gave Mama another of their cards. Upstairs I rehearsed what I would have said if they asked and pressed my face against the window glass until each cruiser turned the corner.
A wide shaft of sunlight fell across the kitchen island and landed on our feet while Linny’s Mom listened to the cops and mumbled a word once in a while. Not for the first time I stared at a Fruit Loops box on top of a giant silver refrigerator with Linny’s drawings, spelling tests, and pictures stuck to the front with magnets shaped like stars. They never ran out of Fruit Loops and there were juice boxes and grapes that Linny could just take from the fridge whenever she wanted. My gaze moved to the Cookie Monster cookie jar on the counter. I wished we were still scooted up to the island dipping our cookie halves in milk after scraping sugary filling off them with our two front teeth. My stomach flipped while a “you ruined it” chant taunted me. I never shoulda told. Linny’s Mom hung up the phone and looked at me, her sagging shoulders and wrinkled forehead said it before she opened her mouth. “They are going to get in touch with your Mom this afternoon, Sweetie. I’m..I’m sure they’ll get this all straightened out.” Linny dropped my hand, and ran to her Mom, who folded her into her arms just as she had done with me ten minutes ago. I felt alone, the same relentless chant circling in my head. “I’m…uh”, I stammered and looked away from Linny and her Mom, “gonna go”. “”You can stay for dinner, Cam”, Linny’s Mom said in a weird high voice, like nothing unusual had happened, like my Mom often sounded. She let go of Linny, but Linny’s eyes stayed closed and her arms remained locked around her Mom’s waist. “That’s ok. I have to ask a day ahead of time”, I reminded her. Her arms circled Linny again as she nodded. “Thank you, Mrs. Kivich. Bye, Linny”, I said and walked quickly down a hallway lined with smiling vacation photos and out the front door. Tears welled in my eyes, but I would not cry.
For a couple of days after a whippin’ the rules were looser, but getting home more than 15 minutes late was chancy, so when Dave called “Cam get in here!” as I came through the door I thought I’d had it. “You almost missed it! Your boy is about to fight for the featherweight title. Come ‘ere.” He patted the couch cushion next to him. I forgot about Linny and her Mom as I watched Conor McGregor hammer another wiry guy on the mat, relentless until the referee pulled him off. “Daaaamn!” Dave threw his arm around my shoulders and squeezed. “You see that, little girl? One punch! Bam! Dude’s on the mat and what does he do? What does he do, Cam?” “He keeps beating on him ‘til he wins!” I yelled and bounced my sore butt off the cushion as the new champ strutted around the octagon, an Irish flag held high between his bloody fists. “Look at me”, Dave said. I pulled my eyes away from the T.V. and tried to look in the black pools of his eyes. My smile faded. “Don’t you ever let anybody think you’re weak, whatever you gotta do. Your dude there,” he pointed toward the screen, “he just showed the world not to fuck with him.” He took a drag off his cigarette, exhaled in my face, and laughed. “You understand?” No, not really. I rarely understood Dave’s wisdom. I understood anger though, and Conor McGregor exploded with fury in the ring. I nodded my head. “Yeah, I get it. No mercy.” Dave smiled and stubbed out his cigarette in a sparkling clean glass ash tray. My mother washed them and sprayed air freshener around every night before going to bed. You’d never even know a smoker lived here.
When Mom came home she didn’t seem any different, just said “Hi, Baby”, but nothing about the cops or Linny’s Mom. Dave left for the bar after we ate goulash and watched the news. Sometimes he came in my room kinda sniffling after he got back and woke me up to say he was sorry. He said if I learned to behave he wouldn’t have to whip me, if I would just be good he wouldn’t have to be so hard on me. I always told him I would be better, and tried to figure out how until I fell back asleep.
Linny wasn’t at the bus stop the next morning, so I sat in our seat by myself and played who-lives-in-that-house. I liked it more when Linny and I went back and forth and made up stories about people in the big white house with peeling paint and pink roses growing up one side or the triangle-shaped yellow house with a huge golden dog stretched out in the driveway. Linny was silly and our stories much funnier than the ones I made up by myself. She walked into class and sat down just as the bell rang, but Linny wouldn’t look at me. I wanted to whisper to her, but Mr. Malcolm did not play around and he’d take away my recess if he heard. All morning long I stared at the back of her head. “Cammie Batch”, the teacher said, “please use “intention” in a sentence”. He seemed irritated. I looked down at my desk and tried to remember what intention meant, but all I could think of was going to Linny’s house for Oreos after school. Mr. Malcolm put his hands finger to finger in a steeple like he did when someone else took a while to answer, like he could wait all day. Normally I was good at this, but today my words disappeared. Finally, the recess bell rang. “Cammie, come to my desk”, Mr. Malcolm said as I watched Linny’s head disappear into the hall with everyone else’s. After Mr. Malcolm reviewed the word intention (it was nothing but a hope, really) and told me to pay better attention that afternoon, I raced down the hall and out the doors. There she was, right outside the building. “Oh good, you waited”, I said. “Cause I have something to tell you”, she said and shuffled her feet, her arms crossed tightly. “I can’t be friends with you anymore. My Daddy and Mommy said so.” She looked relieved.