That boy, Silas

She was a girl, standing in front of a boy, wanting him to notice her. See her. See her and like what he saw. There was a need that had gone unmet for so long that it had grown, become a thing all its own.

Something Brandi carried and fed with imaginative scraps of acceptance, clawed out from under the tables of girls with blemish-free faces and white, straight teeth. Girls with fathers and friends and plans for the weekend. Girls with bodies, hips that tick-tocked when they walked away and drew the eyes of boys they had been talking with. Laughing with. Chatting about those weekend plans with.

Boys like the one before her now. Silas ran with the crowd that reserved only disdain for girls like Brandi. They had fallen on her when she had arrived last year, a girl from away, and run her low. To ensure she understood her place, they worked hard to send a message. That message was from people in the know. People who carried opinions that mattered, that set things in the proper perspective.

It did not take long to break a girl, to grind to dust any esteem that she might have foolishly been directing inward. After that initial settling of things, Brandi became invisible. Not worth the effort to even ridicule.

Silas was different. He spoke little, giving weight to the words when he did. He was unafraid of what the group (THE group) might think if he conversed with the lower class. And they gave him a free pass when he did. He lead that group. Quietly, confidently, with no effort at all.

The same traits that marked Brandi as a high school loser did no such thing in Silas. He did not care for sports. He had no clue when talk turned to the latest Playstation game or the new Jay Z song. He was content to spend his lunch hours with his nose in a book, or talking idly with his history teacher.

Why? Why could Silas be who he was and be not only tolerated, but embraced?

It was looks. Silas was beautiful. He had blond hair that hung to his shoulder and looked like it had been given nothing more than a post-shower shake. It almost hid eyes that were slate gray and, when he was talking to you, never left your own. He was long and lean, with thin, almost delicate fingers that drummed against the side of his thighs when he walked. To the silent beat of music only he could hear, maybe.

Brandi was plain, ears too big, teeth too crooked. Body of a 10 year old boy. The one non-negotiable of being accepted into that group was the one thing that she could do little about.

Silas had handed her two books that he wanted to borrow. Brandi worked after school in the town library. His twice-weekly visits, always alone, were the twin peaks rising from the valley of her week. She glanced at the books, paperbacks from Peter Straub and Joe Hill.

“Have you read these guys before?” Brandi asked.

“One. Straub. Just tryin’ out the other guy.”

She watched his lips as they formed the words. Her eyes remained a beat after he had finished speaking, she blushed, looked at her computer.

“Brandi?’”

She looked up, surprised. Then she remembered, and her hand fluttered to her name tag, straightening it.

He followed her hand with his eyes, “And no, I didn’t need to look at that.”

She smiled, reddened again.

“My friends don’t know.” Silas said.

“They don’t know what?”

“You. Just like I wouldn’t put any stock in someone’s view of these books if they had never read them, you shouldn’t care what people think. Especially people who know nothing about you.”

That’s easy for you to say, she thought. “It’s hard,” is what she said.

“When you want an opinion worth something, go to the two that know you best, your mama and your maker.” Silas said, and smiled.

Brandi gazed at him, returned his smile. His gray eyes were bright, and he did not drop them.

“Get off soon? Want some company on your walk home?” he asked.

“I’d love some.” Brandi replied, and thought there might soon be a third person on that list of his. The list of people with opinions that mattered, who knew of that which they spoke. Her mama and her maker, and maybe Silas too.

The Willow Room

It was the willow tree that sought Katie out the day her decision needed to be made. The skirt of its crying branches reached down to the knoll upon which it sat and formed a circular room of shaded stillness. A room that she had spent an increasing amount of time in, sitting cross-legged and leaning against the trunk, since Todd had died.

Her brother’s death had been the final weight in a burden that her parent’s marriage could no longer bear. The grief had split them and the solace that they both sought was not to be found along a shared path. The end was not immediate, but the seed had been planted the day that Todd was taken from them.

This morning the judge had handed her a piece of paper and asked her to return tomorrow.

“Katie, I want you to think of this as a test with but one question on it. That might sound strange, but the reason I word it like that is because I want you to understand the seriousness of the question posed on that sheet of paper. It has far-reaching implications and should be answered thoughtfully.”

Paper in hand she climbed the small hill, parted the branches of the weeping tree, and sat in the cool grass. The wind that rustled the leaves brought with it the too-sweet smell of burning hay from neighboring farmers’ fields. The imploring call of a chickadee questioned her business there.

She ran her finger along the fold of the sheet, and turned it over and over in her hands. She opened it and read the clear blue script of the judge’s hand.

Do you want your primary residence to be with your mother or with your father?

She let the paper slip into her lap and looked at the ground between her and the wall of willow branches. The light came through in shafts and gave it the look of a giant barcode, with alternating lines of sun and shade both thick and thin. The price of taking this test was stamped all around her.

Her dad had read with her nearly every night when she was younger. He sat close and snuggled her tightly, the hairs on his arm tickled her chin as she read. The smell of asphalt followed him home from the shingle plant where he worked, and Momma always told her to let him have a few minutes of rest before running to him with a book. But Daddy, after playful tugs on Todd’s baseball cap, always grabbed her in his arms and sat down with her to hear her stories.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket. It was a text from her mom letting her know that supper was ready. Her mom had always been her biggest fan, waving her Katie-flag to anyone and everyone. It was Mom who had encouraged her to chase her dream of being a painter, telling her she had real talent and backing it up by hanging her framed work on the living room wall. The reaction to it from visitors, before they knew whose work it was, had convinced her she might have something real here.

The two years since Todd’s death had been hard on them all. Each of them had isolated themselves as they groped around for meaning and hope. For Katie, there had only recently been shimmers of light that had begun to illuminate that dark tunnel of mourning . . . and now this. She was not naive, she had known this decision would be hers and that if she chose not to decide, she would still have made a choice; a choice to let the judge pick as he saw fit.

There had been days when the weight of it sat heavy on her chest, had shortened every breath and brought tears of resentment directed at Todd, her parents . . . everyone. Other times she had felt light as a feather as she lay in the shade of her willow tree, and smiled as she remembered how Todd had been so protective of her.

She picked up the judge’s test, the exam that spawned a thousand questions but asked only one, and knew that this was an assignment that she could not ace. There was no right answer, no solution that would bring about a circled “A” and a sense of accomplishment.

She took a pen, put it to paper, and did the best that she knew how.

Seven Hours

The boys turned south – not because a destination beckoned from that direction, for they were not even aware of what lay ahead. They did not choose it because appointments had to be kept, friends had to be met, or tasks needed doing. There was one clear and solitary reason that south was their friend; it wasn’t north.

Had they pictured a map in their minds of the surrounding area it would have been medieval in its depiction of the north. No real definition and Here There Be Monsters scrawled across it in looping 15th Century script.

It was a place of such effectual foreboding that they could not bear to let their thoughts land there, even for a moment. To linger there would be to chance madness, bony fingers gripping the mind and growing tighter . . . ever tighter. It had the pull of a thousand suns and was relentless in its pursuit. Always seeking. Always hungry.

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt Junior High, and these boys had no intention of darkening its door on this fine April morning.

Spring had made itself comfortable and was in it for the long haul. It could usually rest easy at this point on the calendar. Its hold on things might be tenuous in March, but April was another story. It owned April. Winter locked in the cellar and summer, arrogant as ever, still making final arrangements for its midyear stay.

No, this was a day meant for something other than study halls and lectures. It had stayed warm overnight, so there was no heavy lifting to do first thing in the morning to reach the anticipated high of 75. Chris watched the sun as it broke from behind cover for its slow crawl west. Mikey took a slow breath and looked around for the lawn that had been mowed. Teagan heard a dog bark, remembered he hadn’t fed Dooger that morning, and realized he was hungry.

Yes, today was going to be a good day.

“Well boys, what are we doing?” Chris asked as they walked.

They had spent seven-plus months quietly listening to instructions and doing as they were told. Wise teachers guided and directed every part of their tedious days. Told them when to get there and when to leave, what to do and how to do it. They couldn’t even take a leak without it being preceded by a raised hand and a plead for permission.

“Let’s get something to eat,” Teagan suggested. The other two knew this was coming and ignored it. Teagan was fat and invariably encouraged progress toward the next meal.

“Mikey?” Chris tried again.

“Let’s hop on the tracks and follow ‘em out by the lake.”

And on that Tuesday morning, the weight of school no longer borne on their skinny shoulders, that was a fine idea indeed.

Ten minutes later they were on the tracks. Two of them walking the rails and Mikey hopping from tie to tie. They laughed, gave wet willies and punched twice for flinching. They talked of cars and Green Lantern and Katie from third period (who somehow managed to make big ears and crooked teeth adorable). But mostly they were silent. Each had things that needed thinking about, and each wanted to savor the moment, to stretch out this day as long as possible.

Chris remembered trips with his dad to the same lake they were headed to now to skip rocks and float stick boats. They would send them out and then try to sink them with launched rocks from the shore. He had died last year on a motorcycle and left Chris to look out for his mom and little sister.

Mikey wondered if the other two would be mad if he told them about the kiss he and Katie had snuck after school last week. He thought she really liked him, and also thought the guys wouldn’t let up if they knew.

Teagan’s mind had stayed on breakfast. Everyone gave him a hard time about his weight, but it was usually just good-natured ribbing. And Chris was always around if it wasn’t.

It was a contented silence. They were the captains of their ship, the masters of their domain. No listening to opinions other than their own about what was best; they were the experts on how to spend this day.

Possibility and adventure awaited, and they had seven hours to track it down.

Wooden Path

Tommy packed his bag for school with his Physics homework, a note excusing him from gym class, and a gun.

He had done the homework three nights ago while he listened to Brahms’ 2nd Symphony and his parent’s fight. He had heard both countless times before, but he thought the Brahms piece had a better shelf life.

His father had provided the note last night along with an ill-disguised look of disgust. A little something extra that he was always throwing in for free whenever Tommy reminded him just how feeble he was. At forty-two his dad played rugby on Tuesday nights and spent lunch hours on a treadmill. Tommy imagined him running nowhere and trying to wrap his head around how his son had fallen out of the family tree without hitting a single athletic branch on the way down.

The gun? That was a gift.

On an art-class trip to New York last spring (where he had managed to get both his heart and his jaw broken – Katie Todd handled the former and Chris Boychuk, generous as he was, provided the latter) he noticed a casting call on a flyer taped inside a bus stop shelter. Woody Allen was prepping to shoot and needed extras for a scene on Fulton Street in South Street Seaport. He was paying eight bucks an hour; Tommy had been nothing but scenery his entire life … and was doing it for free.

On the bus ride home from NYC his thoughts turned to guns. His dad had a handgun that he regularly cleaned but never fired. He had purchased it as an in with his boss who alternated his evenings between the range and the bar. When his dad found that the nights at the bar were more to his liking, the gun got comfortable in its lockbox home. It still came out one night a week for cleaning; a ritual that Tommy suspected was maintained so that his father could continue to refer to himself as a gun enthusiast.

Tommy had expressed interest in learning to shoot and his father, eager to feed any inclination that fit his version of manliness, bought him a gun. When spirited trips to the range did not ensue, his dad lost interest and returned his focus to women-not-his-mother and the Red Sox. The short-lived attention may have fled, but the gun remained.

Today he planned to arrive early to first period, turn in his Physics paper (hopefully get Mr. Olsen’s feedback on it before class begins), use his note to bail on gym, kill three people and then himself.

He shouldered the pack, closed the door behind him, and angled through the yard on grass mown short and wetted by overnight rain. Before he hit the walk and turned east up Chelmsford his mother called from her upstairs window.

“Seriously Tommy, we bother you with what, like … three rules? And you still manage to break them? How difficult is it to stay off the grass?”

“You rarely bother with me at all.”

She moved back from the window and either did not hear this or found it unworthy of a response. If he had always been an extra in the movie of his life, his mother was a castaway on the cutting room floor.

He could cut his walk in half by taking the path that ran between houses where Chelmsford bends south, but that takes him by Mrs. Wood. He stopped when the break in the fence appeared.

It was the same every morning. Part of him (the part past consolation, bent only on getting even) thought of her as a crazy old lady who pestered him with Jesus talk, and would go out of his way to avoid her. That day, like so many others, he manufactured a reason why he needed to make up time and took the shortcut.

Mrs. Wood was waiting for him. “Good mornin’ sweetie!”

“Morning Mrs. Wood.” The part of him that had wanted to go around and avoid this told him that no one is this sickly sweet. She can not mean the stuff she says when she knows so little about me. Another part, thirsty for someone to notice him, someone who wanted to see how this movie turned out, wished that this path went on forever.

“I know you got school, and you’re always rushin’ to get there, but why don’t ya come in? I won’t keep you but a few. Breakfast is ’bout ready and I have an extra plate with your name on it!”

Tommy looked up the path and saw a corner of the parking lot of Spruce Hill High, already busy with cars. He turned to Mrs. Wood, her head cocked at an angle, smiling her question at him. He headed up her walk, slipped his pack from his shoulder down to his hand, and hoped she found a reason to peer inside.

The Hidden Things

In rural Colorado, on a stretch of land where people with money pay handsomely to ensure other people with money are at a respectable distance, sits a home framed in timber atop a pine-clad hill. This crown of forty fenced acres brings an abrupt end to a drive that switches and slides up the slope. Wrapped around the home like a low-slung belt is a cedar porch, with carved rockers on either end as its twin revolvers. Great mahogany double doors open to a brief hall, revealing a sweeping staircase with polished rails and walnut risers.

Above are eight rooms, seven with thresholds that only the housekeeper crosses. The exception that William sits in is as dark and lush as the lips of a forbidden lover. His leather club chair turned to a stone fireplace that crackles and pops as it slow burns Rocky Mountain birch logs readied last fall. Firelight sends shadows dancing across vivid landscapes hung frameless along the walls. Windows closed and drapes drawn to stay the scent of pine and distant wildfire, he presses his bare feet into the cool hide of a bear-skin rug. Watching all of this, because William cannot, is the mounted head of a buffalo. An endless stare through eyes of glass.

Best disease ate his sight, giving him the same glass eyes that now peer down on him. When it found him as a child it chewed away his central vision first, leaving him in an outlined world that refused to reveal the already-eaten middle meat. During the few years before it took more (his affliction was a greedy thing, not satisfied with its initial portion, but returning for another meal) he was always darting his head around, positioning what he wanted to see so that his sideways vision would catch it. At the time, being limited to the peripheral had so frustrated him that he often wished it had taken all of his sight in one big bite. Now, his desire granted, he scorns the fool that he was.

His affluence has surrounded him with all of life’s finest, but the appetite of the thing behind his eyes has robbed him of exposure to it.

The door opens and he hears his wife, who he has never seen, come to his side.

“Aren’t you hot?” Margaret asks, kneeling beside him and laying a hand on his knee. “Your legs are burning up.”

“Chilly evening.”

“But its June.”

“Yes it is.”

When depressed, which is more often than not the last few years, he is curt and borderline rude with her. He knows this hurts her, and the guilt that it brings only serves to sink him deeper into his funk. She is about to play out her part in what has become a Sunday evening ritual; a routine that agitates him at the thought of its coming.

“Why don’t you come with me to the evening service? Daryl will be speaking and you’ve always thought of him as a decent man.” Margaret withdraws her hand as she asks, and he recognizes this too as part of the weekly act. He knows that she is bracing herself for his rejection, that it is easier for her to take if she is not touching him.

“I have zero interest in what is being said down there, by Daryl or anyone else.”

She looks away, into the deep glow of the fire, with a wistful smile and tired eyes … or so he imagines. In his mind’s eye he sees every line and angle of her face, knows each expression that plays out on her lips. He can see her break slowly into a laugh or close her eyes and ready herself for a cry. Knowing that what he sees and what she is really like are two very different things stokes the furnace of his depression.

“You really don’t see the beauty that is all around you, do you?” she asks.

William only stares with his dead eyes.

“This stuff around us, that I get to look at, that you have spent barrels of money acquiring, is exactly that … stuff. The real deal, the stuff of eternal consequence, is what I have been trying for years to expose you to, and you don’t need your eyes to see it.”

He hears her move behind the chair, feels her hands on his shoulders. “William, God has taken your eyes, but won’t you come with me … and see?”

Beautiful Browns

Emily Kensington sits in her yellow kitchen, watching her world breathe in.

Her youngest, Sophia, does her toddler-best to spread hard butter on her singe (what she does with her bread could hardly be called toast) atop a counter of citrus halftone Formica. The tools of her task include a maize-handled butter knife and a dinner plate ringed in jasmine.

“Microwave the butter first honey, it will make it easier to spread.”

“I don’t need help, Mommy.”

Justin stares into the lemongrass fridge, suspecting that there has been a radical change in it’s contents since his previous inspection ten minutes ago. He does not even root around, just looks. This is the same thorough seeking he does when asked to get something from there for her, which he never manages to find but is there once she has gone and done the looking. He is twelve and quite sure of his knowledge of everything.

“What are you after sweetheart?”

“Nothing.”

Arriving almost exactly between these blonde bookends is Sara, with her auburn hair and peaches-and-cream skin. She is small for eight, having come early when her twin was taken in utero (a time when everything had been breathing out). A twinless twin the doctor had called her, a term that had broken her mother’s heart. She sits at the kitchen table on a chair her mom found at Pottery Barn – the only piece of furniture that Emily refers to as true yellow.

Emily has always been moved by color. As a child, before her dad would come home from work and send her whole world breathing out, she would paint pictures of her mom and sisters. She loved broad strokes of vivid colors in myriad shades; yellow became a comfort, associated with her mother and security. Brown was a dark color, one reserved for Daddy and breathing out.

It was when he had broken her arm that she begin to think of the world’s ups-and-downs as its breathing pattern. He had come home early and unexpected, catching her with her paintings spread across the living room. Her days had become so cleanly divided between safety and warmth with Mom and cold severity with Daddy that it felt to her like inhaling and exhaling. Breathing in the good and expelling the bad.

Not until college, when her sister had introduced her to Christ, had she seen the broader scope of the breathing pattern. The world had been spoken into existence by a good God, with everything breathing in perfect harmony. But the serpent of old, that ancient evil, had punctured the lungs of that utopian creation. The stained reality that resulted began an extended exhale, a world separated from it’s Creator and grasping for life. Salvation would be graciously granted in the exquisite person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, fresh breath for His creation.

Once this had become reality for Emily, there was hope in the breathing out. Her world might not be all yellows, but the browns were now imbued with their own purposed beauty. There was something deep and foundational that kept the lows from taking all the air from life.

Emily Kensington sits in her yellow kitchen, surrounded by her three most cherished possessions, ready for the exhale.

Far Side of the Hill

New beginnings are everywhere, deftly-swift fingers working against the ties that bind. The road is open, and it is the doorway to Georgia red clay, Shakespeare in a Seattle park, Alberta skies cut by erupting stony spires. Everything possible and nothing tainted by experience. He needs to be chasing this. He wants the other, to taste and see if it is good. The familiar is well-worn and tired, and he has to move on.

Grace is strong, striking, and safe. She does not need him, adding to the allure. Her beauty is quiet, unknown to her, detached. Her embrace is ever there, comforting.

Given the road or the girl, he takes the road.


Fifteen months chasing and he has yet to catch fulfillment. Who knew it could be so elusive, slippery. A moss-slimy rock that after cuffing his jeans and wading in, does not yield itself a foothold. Every stop strange and new, whispering adventure into his eager ear, but it is the same empty promise his runaway dad was always so quick to offer up. This time it will be different, this time it will last.

Empty and lonely, with only the three folded twenties in the front pocket of his unwashed jeans to accompany him, he boards the bus back to Grace.


    The road is uneven and in transition, in that odd preparatory state that road crews tend to leave it in for months at a time before they finally spend the half-day it takes to pave. As the bus dips through the rhythmic rough spots the passengers onboard bob their heads in unison. Thirty-one silent affirmations to an unvoiced question. With all of this free assent to be had, he wants to slip in some questions of his own.

I had every right to go looking for something more … didn’t I?

Nod.

I only did what every man needs to do. Sow some oats, dip my finger into a few different pots, take life on my own terms. Is that not the rite of passage?

Nod.

The new has betrayed me, the exotic is only the mundane lived out on the far side of the hill. The grass is no greener, only distant and illusory. Don’t all fall prey to that shadow?

Nod.

Will Grace understand, will she be there?

The answer I am after is not forthcoming. The bus has moved back onto even ground.