Today’s SFB story comes to us from guest author Chris Palmer. Chris is a high school teacher, and has had stories published in Liquid Imagination of the Mind, and Helix, Central Connecticut State University’s publication. Enjoy.
Sometimes is an odd word when you’re ten. Like everything else, you form a literal understanding and the rest of the world adheres to it; I waited on the bench not wondering if she would come, but when. I wasn’t nervous, not yet, that was a few years away, but there was a pit in my stomach I couldn’t describe if I had to – the crowd swept by too quickly to consider a boy sitting with a suitcase and a lunch box beneath a fall sky. I was too preoccupied to take in the taller bodies jostling against one another like the madhouse hallways of James Madison Elementary where I first met Amelia Offran.
Every morning the teachers stood guard outside their doors to make sure we shuffled single file on our side of the yellow line so traffic moved with seamlessness the real world would’ve admired. But when the day finally started, the teachers retreated to their lessons and we were left to the same chaotic devices that consumed every other unsupervised moment. The boys tugged out the girl’s ribbons and ran through the crowd until the bell rang or we ran out of hall. With four sisters at home to terrorize, no one was better than John Brindle, but the day he tried to get Amelia he was met with a swift slap to the face.
Half of the boys stood in shock, the others pointed and laughed; I just stared while she walked away. She never seemed like much, taller than the bunch of us, hunched shoulders vaguely hid by long blonde hair. In fact, she always managed to sit in the back of class and get away without saying much of anything. That morning I looked over my shoulder more than a few times and found a simple beauty in her rosy cheeks that only set off the rest of her frail features; growing faster than us, her arms and chin were bony but somehow beautiful; the blonde hair and small eyes seemed to sit gracefully above her muted lips and for the first time I had a crush.
That afternoon when I found her beneath the tree, I felt the lunchbox in my hand get sweaty and before I knew it, I was standing next to her mumbling, “hello.”
She looked up from her brown paper bag and frowned. “Hey.”
“That was cool.”
She looked at her sandwich for a moment and back at me with a cockeyed stare, “What?”
“Don’t you do the same thing?”
I shrugged, “Sometimes.”
“Just too short to mess with mine?” I felt my face get flush and look to the other kids readying for kickball. “Do you wanna sit?” She scooted away from the trunk and we ate, huddled close enough for me to smell the strawberry lip balm every girl in our grade used, but always made me think of her.
I waited for that very scent. None of the adults would have it; men and women smelled of something stronger – sweat, musk, perfume – and when it all came together, there wasn’t any difference. Adults were adults and kids were kids. It’s how I knew I would see her the minute she came over the bridge, rising just enough for me to catch her swimming between the suits and skirts beneath the receding light. The image was so thick in my imagination it was hard to see anything else.
Amelia loved the sunshine. As spring climbed through winter’s window, she came alive. Somehow, I never saw her before the ribbon incident, but with every passing day, I’m not sure how I missed her. She ran across the playground, darting in and out of hopscotch, dodge ball, and kickball. No one seemed to pay her any mind; I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. She never invited me to chase but I tagged along on her walk home from school. She didn’t ask me not to.
Just beyond James Madison, the city loomed over the neighborhood. A strange shimmering skyline a little more alive with turning leaves and sunshine peaking between the clouds; just waiting for summer’s full assault. After school, she moved slower, and I was more than eager to edge through the row houses that seemed as if they belonged a hundred miles from the city, not ten. Routine became friendship. Most of the time I was able to restrain myself, but on occasion the little boy came out. Sometimes I dared for attention.
I ran and jumped to tag her shoulder, almost quick enough to avoid the swipe that nearly knocked me on the ground, “Hey!” I pin-wheeled to the side. “I was just kidding.” She was sorry, but the surprise couldn’t hide the pain from the bruise that ran across her shoulder, into her shirt. “Oh.”
“Oh what?” She played defense better than anyone I ever met.
“What did you do?”
“Sometimes my dad gets mad.” She hurried along and I didn’t have the heart to keep up.
After summer came and went, I could almost go nose to nose with her. By then she was a little quieter and a lot slower on our walks and I had a little more courage. “You know, we could go away?” She turned around and went to look down at me, but met my eyes – her eyes were a light grey, something I ached to avoid – and before she could tell me I was dumb, “Take the Amtrak to Michigan….” I pointed towards the winding rail line that made everything so close. She looked to my finger and smiled.
Night stole over the city and the flood of commuters became a trickle until even the bums called it a day.
The walk to the train and the walk back home are as vivid as any memory I’ve ever had. The darkness was alive with a flurry of falling leaves clustering up the gutters, pitching in between headlights – I dragged the suitcase behind me and when I noticed Scooby Doo’s shit eating grin beneath the purplish streetlight I dropped the lunch box into the can just outside the house.
I stood inside the jamb and took my share of the kingdom; the enormity was lost – the owlish screech from the El into the house didn’t itch, and the hiss from the radiator no longer conjured images of crouching beasts. I stuffed the suitcase into the closet and listened for the key to hit the lock.
The following day I looked for her; her head bobbed along with the others, leaning down more than usual. I almost called out but stopped. What could I say? I watched until the ribbons turned down the hall and went up the stairs.