Gritty Details

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Saturday's Storyteller: "See, I told you marshmallows made efficient bullets!"

by Belinda Roddie

"See, I told you marshmallows made efficient bullets!" cried Tobias, drawing his Nerf gun from his hip and lobbing some of the sugary cylinders at my head.

I swatted them away with a spare hand and went back to my book. If Toby wasn't careful, then the ants truly would come marching in. Mom didn't like sweet stuff in the house, and Tobias and my younger sister, Kerry, were always finding ways to sneak it in under her nose. How they had managed to hide an entire bag of sugar-based gelatin was beyond me.

Kerry had a plastic orange and white bazooka, and she pelted Tobias with marshmallows like they were fluffy bullets hailing from a World War I soldier's machine gun. They laughed and hollered, and once they ran out of ammo, they picked up the offending food from the carpet and gobbled it down without any fear of digesting lint or feeling a psychosomatic high. They were already excitable enough as it was, and they turned to video games just as I closed my book and made my way into my bedroom to take a call.

My parents never really expected me to "babysit" my siblings. Toby and Kerry were ten and twelve, respectively, so while they caused some mischief in the household, it rarely ever resulted in injury or disaster. The closest we ever got to a potential visit to the emergency room was when Kerry fired a staple gun aimed at Toby's face, and a flying projectile of pointed metal nearly caught him in the eye. It instead cut his eyebrow, so while the wound seemed ghastly at first - with a rivulet of blood traveling down his face like an angry red bullet train - it was easily cleaned and patched up with a simple bandaid. Tobias even felt like a survivor afterward, which I found amusing, though I never criticized him for his soldier-like pride.

I was almost eighteen, and while I, too, had been a hyperactive warrior with cheap toy guns in my youth, I now focused more on considerably more "adult" things. There were colleges to apply to, tattoo ideas to contemplate, and sexual feelings to either ignore or repress. In fact, the person who was calling me was my therapist, Nancy, who always liked to check in outside my weekly appointment free of charge. My parents didn't always take kindly to our extra interactions - they thought she was toying with me mentally - but they still paid for each appointment and hoped out loud that I was getting the help I needed.

I heard the bland, metallic ringtone and picked up my cellphone. The reception was surprisingly good in my room. Nancy's voice was crisp, clear, and as always, laden with a thick, syrupy New York accent.

"How are ya, kid?" she asked straight away. "Having a good Saturday?"

"I guess so." I chuckled. "My siblings were shooting each other with marshmallows downstairs just a few minutes ago."

"Delightful. Parents not home?"

"At the afternoon service, like clockwork."

"Good for them." She breathed in loudly after this statement, as if sucking away demons into her mouth. Nancy always wanted to protect me, which I appreciated. "No church for you, then?"

"They stopped trying."

"Really? Recently?"

I smiled. "I gave 'em the 'I'm almost an adult' excuse," I explained. "Said that at my age, I should be making my own decisions about church. They didn't like it, but they didn't push."

"But they're still pushing about the other thing, aren't they."

"It's two months before my birthday," I muttered, my voice dry and strained against my teeth. "Trying to make me do the thing won't work."

That's what I always called their latest demand: The thing. They had recently discovered my latest failed relationship, due to some gossiping parents at a music booster meeting, and recommended the thing over dinner like we were discussing a potential university or a new extracurricular activity. They brought it up so light-heartedly that I almost perceived it as a joke; it wasn't. They were never aggressive about the reality of my situation, but they gently reminded me of the "ramifications" of my actions. Unfortunately, it was affecting me mentally, to the point in which I was hardly eating, rarely talked with my siblings, and delved into books more than usual. Nancy had noticed, and the talks over the phone had become frequent, sometimes even twice a day.

"Kid," Nancy said, "I'm proud of you. You're standing up for yourself, and that's important. Now, any word about Marie?"

That hit me hard. I knew she didn't mean to bring back difficult memories, but this was like digging a knife into an open wound. "She won't speak to me."

"I'm sorry to hear it."

I swallowed. "I'm focusing on college applications. School's going well. I have friends I see, and I'm still playing soccer. Those are all worth something, right?"

"Correct."

"So...I don't have to think about this whole being dumped and ratted on thing. Not right now. It's not relevant."

It got so quiet on the other end that I could hear a slight buzzing of static, like my phone was picking up outside noise but couldn't make heads or tails of the actual source. I knew that Nancy didn't like it when I tried to evade my romantic thoughts and potential escapades. She had worked with questioning youth before, and my comments, to her, were probably the equivalent of going back in the closet. But I had never left. My parents' concerned overtures and requests for me to do the thing were already almost too much to handle, and I knew that Tobias and Kerry probably had questions but never actually asked them. That was fine by me. I wasn't interested in conversations about it. They could learn about the birds and bees and rainbows all by themselves.

An awkward, painful moment passed before Nancy spoke again. She inhaled loudly, a second time, and somehow the air felt and smelled cleaner around me. "Well, honey," she said, "that's your call. Do what's healthy for you, and we'll talk about it more on Monday at three."

"Okay."

"And Casey." Another breath. "Don't let your parents influence you. Just keep making them write the checks, and we'll just chat. All right?"

"Sounds good."

I hung up just as I heard a crash downstairs. When I went to investigate, Tobias and Kerry were sitting on the kitchen floor, laughing maniacally at a destroyed box of graham crackers on the linoleum. Judging by the leftover marshmallows on the counter, I quickly deduced that they had wanted to make s'mores over the stove. It was a pity, however, that we didn't have chocolate. If we did, I would have indulged probably more than the two of them would have combined.

***

School was uneventful the next week, and after Tuesday classes, I met up with my friend Steve outside the gym, where he was sucking on a gumball and talking shit with his buddy Alan from math class. He was a tall, wiry guy who looked like he could step in as a telephone pole in a school play. He kept his usually curly hair slicked back with a lot of gel, and his dark skin had become patchy due to a mild case of vitiligo, which he concealed with long sleeves even when it was ninety degrees outside. I felt bad for Steve and how self-conscious he was of his condition, but I never told him that. Nor did I attempt to convince him that he should just keep his arms bare because, honestly, it didn't look that bad, at least not to me. If I tried to interfere in what my friend wanted to do to make himself feel normal, it would make me a hideously obvious hypocrite. Steve had his secrets and uncomfortable truths; I had mine.

I waved at him as he walked over, abandoning Alan, and I sat down on a nearby bench and set down a book that I had had tucked under my arm.

"Casey," Steve said. "You look like you want to punch someone. You okay?"

"I could punch a couple of Nazis," I replied, thinking about the latest presidential inauguration. "Apart from that, I'm fine."

"I talked to Marie today. She stopped me in the hall before science class. She seemed really upset."

God damn it. Steve never really knew how to stay out of my business. He had rooted for me and Richelle after we had kissed in the bathroom during homecoming, even when nothing continued from it. I sighed and stuck my book into my backpack, which now felt three times heavier once I shouldered it.

"Did she say anything?"

Steve was stone-faced. His chiseled lips were drawn into a strange pucker. "Not really. I know you guys had a falling out, but...I don't know, did something happen?"

I wasn't interested in telling him about the break up - or whatever I could call it, since we had never been an official couple. And I certainly wasn't interested in talking about the thing. Mom and Dad had been eerily quiet about it over the past couple of days, which I saw as a sign of luck that I didn't want to jinx. I shrugged and began walking toward the parking lot, Steve lagging behind.

"Marie's weird," I said. "She won't talk to me."

"I didn't think the whole thing was bad enough to...you know..."

"To what?"

"...Cause you to ignore each other. I don't know."

He really didn't. As much as I liked Steve, I never told him about what really happened between Marie and me. He just assumed we were really good friends who had gotten into an argument or something and had lost touch. It was typical of everyone in our friend group to assume that Marie and I were powerfully platonic. They hadn't seen us sneak kisses in between classes, behind the science building, where no one caught us. They hadn't listened to our conversations over the phone, saying sweet nothings, as clichéd as it sounds, until we felt sick to our stomachs. They hadn't witnessed us get very close to more than just cuddling, only to have Marie say no and force me to pull my body away from my bed in embarrassment. That was what had doomed us; she had not consented to my advances, and although I ultimately moved away and respected her wishes, that was where she ended it.

She had loved me, she said. But not that much. And it didn't just break my heart; it fucking steamrollered it, turning it into a pancake.

Steve didn't say anything after that except for an invitation to his place for video games at the end of the week, which I accepted. He took off in his truck, and I walked to the bus stop, waiting for the 205 to take me home. I tended to get back to my place around four, which left me plenty of time to stay in my room and read while my brother and sister found a new confection to shoot from their Nerf guns. I thought about my appointment with Nancy the day before; she had actually managed to draw a lot of information from me, much against my reservations. It was like she was an interrogator, but a kind one, one you grew to trust against your better judgment.

I told her that Marie and I hadn't spoken in three weeks, but that I missed her, more than I had missed anyone else. I missed her high-pitched giggle, her scraggly hair that I played with, her hands moving up and down my sides. She had made me feel good. Alive. Better than any boy had in my nearly eighteen years.

"And you're not going to reach out to her?" Nancy asked, concealing her bony chest with her clipboard. She was forty years old and skinny as a popsicle stick. I was practically obese standing next to her.

"No. There's no point."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"But if you try..."

"I'm not going to." I fiddled with a plastic fidget she had for her clients as I spoke - a multicolored rectangle that could be bent into various other shapes - and I noticed how harsh my tone had gotten. "That's one thing you cannot make me do. I'm not going to talk to her."

"And if she decides to talk to you?"

"Well, that's her prerogative, isn't it?"

Nancy changed the conversation after that exchange.

I opened up my backpack as I waited for the bus and laughed when I discovered a rogue marshmallow inside it. How it had gotten there, or whether or not Tobias had snuck it in as a "gift" or "treat," was inconclusive. It was too dirty to eat, so I played with it between my fingers for a bit before tossing it onto a small patch of grass near the bench I was sitting on. Tonight, over dinner, I hoped that my parents and I would eat calmly. Quietly. No conversation as I attempted to erase the past few months from my mind and body.

Maybe I would buy myself a Nerf gun and play with Tobias and Kerry tonight. I could use a few moments of pretending to be a child again.

This week's prompt was provided by Jocelyn Roddie.

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