Authors: R. A. Nelson
He’s not going to get away that easily.
I’m too focused. I’m gathering too much data.
I know the speed of his walk, the corners he likes to round at certain positions of the clock. His lunch table. The way he shakes his salt, crosses his legs. Like a good engineer studying heat tiles on the Shuttle, I even know the pronation of his feet by the wear on the bottom of his shoes.
It’s not enough.
I’m thinking about the work-a-thon. What it felt like when he touched my cheek.
His scent, the way his sweat collected in the middle of his shirt, a dark, liquid heart shape stretching down his stomach. The distance between our skin, the way the world tasted—dirt, sun, sky, leaf—
I flop back in bed and stare at the ceiling, trying to ignore the bubbly tickle in my throat. The phone starts to buzz because I haven’t dialed the last digit of his number. I let it slip through my fingers to
on the carpet. This is unbearable. I have to know, does all of this stay right here? I can’t live with that. I can’t. But I have to know:
Does it go on?
I’m ready to make something happen.
He’s missing from his table today.
I put my tray away, hurry up the hall, rap on the door to his office.
It opens a crack and Mr. Mann pokes his lovely head out. The spiral staircase of paperwork on his desk behind him tells me he’s busy. He remains standing, doesn’t invite me in. But he smiles.
In the split second before I speak, I study his face.
Worry? Joy? Fear?
How can I be getting all these signals at once?
My visit is so soon after planting all those trees—he has to see I’m climbing up to the next plateau. Will he take my hand, haul me higher, up to where he is?
Or let me fall.
“Hi! Mr. Mann, I was wondering—could I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure, what do you need?”
What do I need.
The question interrupts important chemical reactions in my brain. Fires up others. What do I need? Whatever you have. Whatever you want to give. Whatever you can share.
“I was just wondering.”
He grins. “You said that.” His hand is still on the knob.
A boy with a book bag banging his butt slouches by, smirking. I can’t help but notice, Mr. Mann glances at the tiles until he’s gone.
“Could I come inside?” I say.
“Well.” His voice drops several decibels. His eyes move left and right. “I’m not so sure.”
I don’t know if he’s serious. “What?”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea.”
Is this good? Bad?
Is he afraid of being seen with me?
Because he likes me? Because he’s afraid of where this is going? Or only of what people might think.
My fingers are slipping—the route I’m climbing is suddenly crumbling beneath me.
It’s not real, it’s a waking fantasy, the product of an overheated mind and quantum theory.
“Why?” I say.
There’s another noise behind me. Mr. Johnson from agriscience. He’s carrying a wooden toolbox that looks exactly like a birdhouse with no roof. For a very long bird. He waves a silent
“I’ve been thinking,” Mr. Mann says. He watches Mr. Johnson pass with a solemn smile.
Touching my face? Telling me you’re lonely? That you dream about me in building 9, room 220?
“Okay?” I say.
“Maybe that’s my problem. I think too much.”
This sounds more promising. I’ve found a fingerhold; I’m pulling myself back up.
“I’ve been accused of that myself,” I say. “What about?” I like this feeling. We’re dancing up a new trail, and I’m getting to lead.
“Things. Anyhow, what did you need?”
I glance at my shoes. There’s a spot of dirt on the toe of my left sneaker. Instantly, I can see the ground between us, the sky, pushing the earth around a new tree, our fingers meeting. Don’t lose that day.
“I just felt like talking. Mars! That’s it! Did you know it’s coming up on its closest approach in sixty thousand years?”
“I didn’t know that.”
“It won’t be this close again until 2287.”
Smile. “That’s not sixty thousand years away.”
“I know. It doesn’t work like that. It’s variable.”
“Which pretty much means—”
“We’ll both be dead the next time.” Dead. Get it? So let’s do the important things now. I can’t stop it; the words come pouring out. “So this is our only chance, if you think about it. I’ve got a refractor. It’s only a four-inch Meade, but would you like to come over and look sometime? Or we could go farther out where the light is better.”
“Nine.” The door opens wider. He’s wearing a forest green T-shirt—it must have been underneath the sweater I saw in class. “I’d love to. It’s just—”
He stops. His eyes are suddenly sad. Has something happened? Is it something I’ve done?
No. It’s something he wants to do. I can see it. Something he wants to do so badly, it’s eating him up inside. But he’s holding back. He’s a good man. He’s such a good man.
This is my part. This is where I have to make him know it’s okay. That I want him to help me climb. He has to see that, feel it. Understand it. Has to see that I’m old enough, strong enough, smart enough. That he can take it one step more. I have to give him a sign.
“It’s all right,” I say, smiling. “Whatever you want, it’s okay.”
“Yeah. Sure. I’m just—I don’t know. Maybe we could do that sometime. Was there anything else?”
“No. Nothing else.”
“Thanks,” he says. “Thanks for asking me.”
The door slips shut.
I stand there.
“Why are we doing this?” I say to Schuyler.
We’re sitting in my room, lights turned out, on this dead and dying day, watching a computer screen. As if I haven’t already fallen far enough.
The Kansas City Ghost Club.
Schuyler scrolls down the black chat board—the same sad screen names: Mandymoo, clARkaSHton, spookielee36, coldSPOT, TorqueMonkey. A dozen more. Endlessly chatting, flaming, flirting, fighting.
We’re all watching the same long, grungy, empty, dimly lit, paint-peeling hallways in an abandoned hospital morgue.
Home page music: “Fear,” by Disturbed. The streaming audio cranked to Maximum Crackle, listening for every little spectral knock. The club boasts EMF arrays, night vision, heat vision, thermal captures, all that energy, night after night, thrown out into the Void—
And nothing ever happens.
People from all over the country have capped hundreds of images from the ghost cams. Check the archives. An indistinct smudge—it’s somebody’s head. A fuzzy ball of light—a tormented soul trapped on the astral plane. But if you come here often enough, you finally begin to realize—
Nothing ever happens.
Maybe that’s why I’m here.
I need this dreary dead-end place of the dead to teach me not to get my hopes up. That no matter how excited I get about things, how focused, how obsessed, ultimately—
Nothing ever happens.
“Look at the piano,” Schuyler says.
He points at a battered upright squatting in the corner on one of the ghost cams.
“What about it?”
“It’s moved since yesterday. I swear. I think Darkwillow Nightseer needs to let his Spirit Brothers know.” His fingers fly across the keyboard.
I slump wearily across his shoulders, put my chin on his collarbone. I can feel his chest muscles move as he types. “That’s easy for you to say. It’ll be my IP address that gets deep fried this time.”
“Aw, I promise to play nice.”
I sigh. “Oh, go ahead. Who cares.”
“What’s bugging you?”
Like the ghost hunters, I’m a believer in something nobody else can see.
“Nothing,” I say. “Maybe I’m just too old for this.”
What’s happening here?
This isn’t like me. I was happy. I was focused.
Kitty Nation follows me as I walk over and flop on my bed, watching Mars hurtling toward my window, getting closer and closer. I’m trying to remember the last time I did something crazy.
Two years ago.
We were having a snowball fight in front of Schuyler’s house. We don’t get snow here very often; the battle lasted for hours, it was so much fun. Finally the streetlamps came on, making the road sparkle. It was freezing cold, both of us so tired we could barely stand. We met under a light. I touched his cheek. It was frozen.
I can’t explain what happened next.
If I could, I would say something like this: When I touched his face, a new kind of language came up inside me. A language made of ordinary words hooked together like molecules to make new ones:
I kissed him.
Just leaned over and did it. I was just so happy at that moment, I guess I had to do something with it or burst. Why can’t every single piece of your life work that way?
It was my first and only kiss. We didn’t talk about it. Didn’t say anything at all. We never kissed again.
The truth? I’m scared. He’s too important for that. Boyfriends are people you break up with. Friends like Schuyler you keep forever.
So where does that leave Mr. Mann?
“Hey! Look at this!” Schuyler’s shaking with laughter.
Mandymoo reports she has just seen Kurt Cobain on a lightbulb.
angle of his light
Even astronomers and astrophysicists are scarce. So, what else, I hang out with the engineers. I can’t help but notice the mortician draws the largest crowd.
must be the hottest show on TV.
Drone, drone, blech. Is this what we have to look forward to? The world of adults feels like a universe that has reached the end of its expansion and is inexorably collapsing back in on itself.
Where is he?
Have I scared him into hiding? Pushed him too fast? Too far? Am I nuts? Imagining a connection that was never there?
After school I cruise by Sunlake, but his windows are dark. Somewhere galaxies are colliding, stars are bursting into thermonuclear flame. But there’s all that space in between. Ultimately everything that exists is somehow alone.
At the Ground-Up Cow Face Burgers his table is bereft. I’m worse. I pull all the sesame seeds off a bun one at a time and mope like a sick kitten. Schuyler threatens to brand me with the chicken tongs.
Don’t go crazy.
It’ll be okay. But I can’t stop. Can’t stop thinking about the way he stands. How he twists his mouth when he’s listening to something interesting. The dimple on his cheek. How he walks in long, deliberate strides.
What do they look like inside his pants?
We’ve spent so much time together, talked so much. But there are still so many things I don’t know. His parents? Alive or dead? Childhood. Painful or happy? Chest. Hairy or smooth?
What does he look like when he sleeps?
I touch my face, examine the imperfect reflection on the metal door where we keep the burger boxes.
Am I pretty enough?
It’s hot in here. I could spontaneously combust. I run my fingers along the line of my jaw, pretending it’s his. His arms would be warm around my shoulders. What’s it like to look into those impossible eyes when our lips are touching?
I jump a little bit. Mr. Mann is standing next to Wilkie Collins when I clock out. His clothes are black. His hands are inside his pockets as if he doesn’t trust them. I’m astonished and overjoyed.
I’m not sure I know what to say. I’m just so happy he’s here. “You’re here,” I say without thinking. “Why didn’t you come inside?”
He doesn’t answer. I tell myself I know why. Schuyler’s gone home early. Mr. Mann has been waiting for just this time when we could be alone. Alone together.
“I’m sorry about the other day,” he says. “I was worried about something, preoccupied.”
“I thought so.”
I watch him, wondering what do we do next. Stand here? Talk? Don’t talk? Go somewhere in his car? It’s happening, I realize. Oh my God. He’s helping me climb.
I have to ask it:
“Are you still worried?”
“Yeah. No. Well, of course I am. I don’t know.”
All our familiarity counts for nothing now. This is a new country we are building between ourselves. After this, after waiting for me here like this, nothing can be seen as accidental, unintended. What does he want? Is it the same thing I want?
The night is cool, perfect for talking, but at first we don’t talk. We lean side by side in the shadows, touching Wilkie’s trim. Across the way Threatt and Country scoot by with the french fry grease. We hunch into the darkness as they empty the mess into a plank door padlocked in the asphalt. When they’re gone, we walk over. The door is painted with a message:
“Anybody stealing the grease.”
I’m so thankful for something to talk about that is not connected to us, my relief almost makes me light-headed. “They sell it to cosmetics companies. They use it to make lipstick, junk like that.”
The incandescent eyes widen. “Are you serious? Damn. Makes you think twice, doesn’t it?”
“Good thing I don’t wear any.” What am I saying! In case—in case—just maybe. You want to—no, stop. Slow down. “Schuyler would dock you a quarter, by the way.”
“We have an agreement to pay each other if we cuss. Schuyler says cussing is lazy. It’s for people with lightweight vocabularies and fewer options.”
“He doesn’t much like me, does he?”
I’m saying too much, speaking too fast, but I can’t help it. “Schuyler doesn’t much like anybody. He can be pretty grandiose sometimes. I got him this job. He won’t even try to get his license. His parents have to drive him if I don’t. But he’s amazing if you give him a chance.”
He reaches over, touches the top of my hand.
“So are you.”