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Difficult

BY FRANCES SAUX

Honorable Mention for the 2014 Adroit Prize for Prose
Judge: Wendy Rawlings

 

And all those who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

“Kubla Khan”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

         Fine. Here’s the story for you:

         This was back in high school. One night I got locked out of a party with this other kid who afterward sat on the cold front porch and stared endlessly at his hands. We were at one of the big farmhouses on the outside part of town where civilization kind of stretches out, the homes farther apart and twice as big, the hills hanging over everything like water does after it has hit a rock in a river. I’d had to walk far to get there and had seen everything grow and darken on the way.

         By contrast, my experience of the party itself had been bright and quick. Moments after arriving, I was in the dark again. Two kids in the kitchen had been insisting that we go outside to check out the stars, and they walked us to the door with seeming earnestness, but as we stepped out, I heard them slam it behind us. At this point it was maybe eleven p.m. or even later. I couldn’t even see the door as I knocked on it, trying to get them to let us back in.

         It was hopeless. I knew that they wouldn’t and that even if they did I’d still feel hopeless. The damage—the message—had already been done, sent. I wasn’t in general very well-liked. Sometimes I forgot this and mistook the distance people kept towards me as the same kind of polite distance people keep from strangers.

         Someone pulled open the curtain and shook their head at me, laughing, and I stopped knocking. I thought I might cry and I couldn’t let them see that.

         I joined the boy on the steps. We went to school together but didn’t know each other very well. He sat very still with his elbows on his knees, his hands in front of his face, white from the cold. One thing I knew was that he, like me, had no plans for after graduation. We weren’t going to college like the kids who’d done well in school. Our parents didn’t own farms we could work on.

         “I can’t believe they did that,” I said.

         “That’s what they do,” he said. “They get people they don’t like to go outside so they can lock them out. Didn’t you know?”

          “No,” I said.

         “I thought everybody knew about that.”

         “If you knew, why did you come?”

         He looked at me, annoyed. “I only knew that was something they did sometimes, to some people. I didn’t know they would do it to me.”

         I said, “Oh.”

         Then, rubbing my hands together, I said, “It’s so cold. They’ll have to let us back in. Or else we’ll freeze.”

         “Do you really want to go back in there after all this?”

         I didn’t answer. He said, “Let’s walk. It’ll get our blood flowing.”

         We walked. It was too dark to go safely down the road, so we walked instead through the field behind the house. I tried playing the game of pretending I was going towards a specific pleasant place. Of course this didn’t work, or make me feel any better. I’d worn some nice clothes that night and had to hold them up to avoid the dirt. I started crying, too. Meanwhile, the boy walked mechanically in front of me. As we went deeper into the field I tried to feel the way I imagined he felt, distant and unaffected. But I couldn’t do this, and couldn’t see how he could.

         “Didn’t that bother you?” I finally asked.

         “Why are you asking me that?” he said, as though he’d thought I was smarter. I didn’t answer and we continued until the boy stopped walking a few feet in front of me.

         “What?” I asked.

         “Be quiet.”

         “What is it?”

         He pointed to something. I squinted. It was a skunk. Then I saw another skunk. Then I saw skunks everywhere, in chain reaction. The whole field had filled with them. They’d come out as some point and we hadn’t realized. We both stood there, frozen, while they crept around. It was too dark to really see them, but we could hear them where they rustled the grass. Their white stripes were strangely bright, too—long and white like white eels.

         The boy’s demeanor changed then, if only slightly. I couldn’t tell you how I knew in the dark. He reached a hand out, looking for something to hold onto, and I offered him mine.

         “I can’t get sprayed,” he said.

         “Me neither.”

         We meant it. There was dignity involved. We weren’t the kind of people who had extra dignity to spare. I bet you that some of those kids from the party would have run across the field naked, straight into a dense cloud of spray, and it’d have been a funny story later, but he and I didn’t have that luxury. We were in real, honest danger. It felt like if we got sprayed there’d suddenly be another section of the world that hated us, but we were stuck. Already the animals had surrounded us.

         “What do we do?” he said. He spoke softly, like he worried that the animals might overhear.

         I didn’t know. I could see one of their snouts sniffing ground near my leg, which started shaking from the effort it took not to move.

         There was a tractor sort of nearby. I say sort of because it was still distant enough to look small. But at least it was closer than the house. I pointed.

         “If we can get there.”

         “Okay.”

         We moved towards it, holding hands and stepping only on the tips of our feet, and only on the places that looked unmistakably like dirt and not fur. I could feel them moving at the same time as we were moving. It made my legs shake until I thought I’d collapse. He, too, looked nervous and unstable. Eventually we keyed into a strategy, a choreography, of looking straight at the tractor instead of at the dark ground, of placing our feet through instinct rather than vision. This sounds like it wouldn’t work, but in the darkness our other senses prevailed. We got there fine. I climbed up the steps to the driver’s seat. The boy sat in the passenger seat next to me. We closed the doors and I held the handle tight for a second, like I thought they’d try to come barging through. Then, relaxing, we looked at each other, relishing in our safety.

         “What should we do now?” I asked, as my breathing slowed. “Do you think they’ll go away soon?”

         “I don’t know,” he said. “They might not. We might be stuck here all night.”

         It was cold again. In the distance I could see rectangular lights, the windows of the house, looking solid. I wished they were the kind of thing I could have picked up and held to my chest.

         I said, quietly, “I hate this. I hate those bastards.”

         “Who?”

         “I don’t know. All of them.”

         “You mean the skunks?”

         That wasn’t what I’d meant, but once he said it, I understood he wasn’t going to ever again acknowledge how we’d gotten locked out. He hadn’t cried, earlier. He hadn’t tried, like I had, to open the door. I thought: if he acted like he’d chosen something, then maybe it was the same as choosing it. My stomach kind of jumped against my skin because I saw that if I wanted to keep from crying again I would in that moment have to do what he’d just done and: choose.

         I said yes. I said I hated those bastard skunks.

         He looked at the house.

         “Me too.”

         Suddenly we had the same idea at the same time. We didn’t even look at each other, we just knew. I saw him sit up straighter and ground his feet into the floor.

         I felt around the tractor. Someone had left the key in there. When I turned it, the whole thing shook awake, less like a car than I’d expected, more like an animal. I tried the gas a bit, and we grunted forward. For some reason, with him sitting next to me, it didn’t feel like driving at all. It didn’t feel like there was any sort of boundary between us and the world, as though we were the tractor and like the tractor was a living thing. I pressed on the gas fast.

         I said, “Tell me where you see them.”

         He put his hands and forehead against the windshield, scanning the ground. Then he pointed. “There’s one. There.”

         I chased it down. I could barely see it but my senses kicked in, allowing me to notice even the smallest impossible things like the shapes its muscles made, the little temporary bulges in its arms and legs and neck. We got right up close to it, so close that it disappeared underneath us. There was a moment of silence. Then we heard it crunch.

         You’ve got to understand about that crunch. It marked the beginning of something different, something powerful. I tried to say a word but my mouth didn’t feel quite human. I couldn’t manage words, but I could bare my teeth. Beside me, the boy was smiling a wide smile. I swear I could see his heart moving up and down in his chest.

         Together we chased down all the skunks. They were faster than I’d expected, and I saw many disappearing into the trees on the other end of the field, but in the spring the ground was muddy enough that many weren’t that fast and didn’t escape us. We slaughtered them. Each time, there was that crunch, like something was chewing on them. It was the most rewardingly painful sound. Do you know the thing where you hear your name called on the street but no one is there when you turn around? Well, instead of that, all the time when I’m walking down the street, I hear this crunch. All the time, I hear it.

         We chased anything that moved. It got to the point where we’d gotten all the skunks, or they’d all run away. Now we were just chasing the wind through the grass and we knew it. But we felt so grand.

         We didn’t talk about this later, we couldn’t. Everything we’d really hated that night remained unharmed. I heard people in the hallways at school talking about the massacre they’d found on the field the next morning, a rubble of guts thick enough to keep the grass lying flat against the earth. I never saw it, but from what I heard, it was one of those sights.

         That’s it. That’s the whole story.

         Well, and I wondered about that boy sometimes. Once, I think, I walked past his parents’ house to see if he was still living there. He wasn’t. He had left sometime soon after graduation. Smart kid.

         Every so often, it still bothers me that I haven’t left, that I’ve been working the same job all these years. Not that it’s a constant worry by any means. Still, on some days the only way I move at all is tapping my fingers against the cash register, pretending I can play the drums. Because there was this dream I had where I was playing drums for some famous band, except the band was only me, and he was the only one in the entire audience. When I started playing, the tips of my drumsticks started to look like hooves, and the wood became part of my arms, so instead of drumming I felt like I was running across the earth, changing from a person into something else, into a god with an animal’s body. I felt horns in my head, sweat as fur, all that impossible, ragged form.

         He, too, was changing. He ripped off his shirt and gave a triumphant roar. Then he bent down and bit the edge of the stage. I howled. We were reunited, we mighty beasts.

 

 

Transient

Frances Saux is from San Francisco. She was a 2013 YoungArts Finalist for Short Story and a 2014 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medalist. Her work has appeared in Eratio Poetry Journal and Caffeine Dirge Lit, among others.