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Ratio Harken

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  1. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 6

    Thanks mfa607 more to come soon.
  2. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 6

    The highway ran ahead forever, flanked on both sides by wilderness and under a cloudless blue sky. Eventually, we do turn off and the road changes. Transforms from this featureless straight line into this bending narrowing path that climbed, only to be swept down again by the next turn. It is not unlike the roads near their home that wove through hills and forests, except there are no flashes of buildings through these trees. I lean my head back and breathe in the rushing air, my gaze following the empty vein in the tree canopy and that flawless blue beyond it. The rest of the world, a blur. “Hey, if you feel sick, I’ll pull over.” Bryan says. I look back at him and his eyes are darting between the road, me, and over the tan leather interior of the convertible. “I’m fine,” I say. And as if in spite of that declaration, my stomach drops. I close my eyes for a moment willing the nausea to settle. Between Bryan’s driving, the roads, the regrettable choice of having only coffee for breakfast… “Don’t throw up in my ride. I won’t be able to forgive that.” I smile and lean my head back again, focusing on the way the sunlight dances through the tree leaves as they rush backward above me. And find myself absently tracing the top edge of the convertible door and body, hand occasionally lifting and dipping as if in simplistic mockery of an airplane. Just liking the way the wind feels on my skin. This car had been Franks’. It hadn’t been forgotten by him after all—just regifted. I recall the last time I sat here in the passenger’s side—during that awkward time before the divorce when things between my mom and father had fallen apart but they were at least trying to put it all back together. It had been his day to pick me up and he was late as always. Back then I had kept to myself, didn’t really want to be noticed because I felt there was little spectacular to notice. I was an average student. Played baseball. Had friends of course but none I really bothered to talk to beyond school and practice. I was waiting that day in the yard near the pickup circle when a red convertible pulled up. The others waiting had sprung up and gathered around it. It was the impracticality of the thing that made it so very appealing to the kids there. I almost didn’t recognize Frank until he took off sunglasses and waved at me. The car runs over something and I jolt awake, in the present again. The world green and shaded by trees. Bryan turns off onto an offshoot of the main road. Suspended far above us, a wooden sign hangs on a rope between two trees, but I don’t get a chance to read what it says. The crunch of the gravel beneath the tires is obscenely loud, but Bryan doesn’t seem to be concerned at all. He has this weird expression on his face—somewhere between joy and nervousness. We come up a steep hill and he slows at the top. And maybe it’s the sudden bright sunshine or his driving, but I feel sick again. Shut my eyes and try to pretend we’re not moving. “Hold on, let me park.” He says, turning the wheel and spinning the world. When the car comes to a standstill Bryan cuts the engine. “Ok, out. We’re here.” My stomach calms a little as I step out of the car. I look around. Here is a parking lot. An empty, featureless parking lot of sand and gravel with faint weathered lines that may have once designated spots. There is the path going forward that leads up and elsewhere, but it is roped off. A beat up traffic cone sits in front of it, looking a little out of place. There’s a few other cars, parked neatly next to the spot Bryan chose near the path. The path is probably just wide accommodate a enough a car, but the rope blocking it has a sign attached: ‘NO UNAUTHORIZED VEHICLES’. Next to that, a signpost and the orange cone. While Bryan grabs the folder of paperwork from the trunk, I walk over to see what’s posted. It’s one of those wooden stands that holds a bulletin board behind two glass pane windows. There was no lock, just a stick wedged through two small rusted handles keeping the glass doors shut. The cork board protected behind it held nothing but looked like it once did. Dotted with holes from thumbtacks all over. I look back to Bryan. He’s raising the roof on the convertible, and while doing so, he’s looking upward uncharacteristically cautious of the tree line. Then he gets back in the car and starts it. I step forward unconsciously thinking he might just leave me here, but the car just rolls backward. Slowly and just far enough so it sits in the sun instead of the shade. That’s when Bryan throws it back into park. He checks upwards again and then gets out and shuts the door behind him. Folder under his arm he’s spinning his car keys by two fingers as he comes over. “It’s a bit of a walk.” He nods to indicate the roped off path that lead upwards in front of us. “You gonna to be ok?” I think he might be teasing. “Are you?” I ask back. His eyes narrow but seconds later his expression breaks into a sardonic grin. “Hope so.” He leads, stepping over the rope. I follow. We go up the gravel hill, and the road leads straight, cutting through forest. We don’t walk very far until Bryan diverges off the trail and leads left into what looks like just forest. Reluctantly, I follow, having to duck under a low hanging tree bough. It’s a trail, but barely—so narrow and in places it’s almost like the forest is trying to reclaim it and winning. I fall in behind Bryan, following as the trail starts moving downhill and then into a steep decline that looks like a small cliff made up of rocks and some protruding sharp boulders. “Watch your step, bro.” I trip, almost. Right when he says it. I do what he recommends and focus downward, guiding my footing carefully between the rocks and a few exposed tree roots. Ahead of me, Bryan jumps down between boulders with ease, a little reminiscent of a mountain goat. He looks back a few times to wait for me to catch up before too much distance forms between us. And before I know it, the trail flattens out and there’s a break in the trees ahead. The break leads to the end of another gravel road like the one we were on first. I realize it is probably connected to the first path we took, maybe forming a loop around until ending up here. Looking back to the smaller trail, I’m a little more appreciative that it was a shortcut. There is a large red cabin up ahead with a wood ramp leading up to a small porch out front, the sign reading ‘Medical’. Behind the cabin the forest is thinner, and I realize it must slope downward too and I can almost, almost spot something blue beyond the tangle—maybe a lake, but I couldn’t be sure. I walk forward, but Bryan doesn’t. Turning back, I realize I had walked right past his destination. The rusted plaque bolted to the front this much smaller and run-down building, if one could call it that, reads ‘The Professional Building – Main Office’ though it didn’t look professional at all or anything relating to an office. It reminds me instead of a shed or a dilapidated trailer and it is too tiny to be anything more than one room. It had once been painted forest green, but the places where the paint is chipping indicates that must have been very long ago. The foundation is just cement blocks and looking upwards I see debris and moss on the roof. Despite its bad appearance the outside grounds around seemed well tended. In front of the little building, facing the road, there is a small shallow garden plot outlined by carefully laid bricks. A mix of wildflowers grew in the spot, free from the shade cast off by the tree line, they grow vigorously. A water can sits beside it. Bryan simply goes up the set of stairs of the ‘office’ and pulls open the screen door. The entire thing seems to shake when the screen door swings shut behind him catching it with the back of his heel before it can bounce a second time. A moment later he comes back out, his folder of forms still in hand. “They aren’t there.” I look back to the other cabin. All the lights seem to be off there too. Bryan jogs over and tries to pull open the door which does not open for him. He presses what is probably a doorbell but that doesn’t lead to anything either. He walks back over to me and pulls his phone out of his pocket. His good mood evaporated, and he looks nervous. “Maybe they are out to lunch?” I ask. “Maybe.” He says, just looking at his phone screen. But then, realization strikes his face and he smiles. He goes back over to the office but doesn’t go inside again or pull open the screen door. Instead, he opens up a metal box that sits attached to the building near the door and pulls out a corded phone from it. He dials something which sets off a series of rings that sounds like an antiquated intercom. After a few series of this, Bryan presses the phone to his ear. “Hey, it’s… Ohh, I thought you meant noon. Sorry, I must have read it wrong… Yeah, everything is filled out… cool… Sure! Be there in a few—but I have my brother with me, is that ok… awesome. See you soon” He hangs up, grinning brightly. He strolls back over to me, a new pep in step. To me he says, “Still up for another walk?” ~*~ Being along for the ride is something I’m not used to. But maybe it’s the fresh air or this new place. Maybe even Bryan today, his lighter mood helping to buoy everything. On the way down the hill, Bryan explains, “They are working on setting up the ropes courses for the summer. Houston said to stop by in the afternoon but I read it as noon. Oops.” He actually said that. Oops. I reign in any sign of amusement I find from this. I walk beside him, the road we are on is the gravel one and much more bearable than the barely trail. Tall deciduous trees make up this side of the forest growing amongst exposed rock forms that look buried in the slopes. There isn’t much else to see, besides forest and forest but every here and there along the trail there are paths, small like the shortcut we took down the mountain that lead elsewhere. Bryan stops and indicates one of them. “Look,” Looking down I spot a small clearing at the end of the diverging path. A rock circle sits in the middle of it and flat wood platforms with bare wood beams. “They didn’t set up all the tent units with the canvas covers yet.” Bryan explains. “The poles there—they get fixed to that and it’s holds everything up. It’s a pain in the pass—glad I won’t have to help them with that though.” I nod, trying to imagine it but swiftly fail to. I’ve never been camping. We keep walking, cresting a little incline in the main path that sweeps down again. “This is the dinning hall,” he points out to a building on the bottom of a hill. It seems insignificant at first with the trees obscuring. But halfway down the hill I start to see it. It’s built of wood and it’s huge compared to the rest of the buildings here. It is one story so sits flat and sprawling, seemingly in quarters with one entrance we walk past. Bryan presses a hand and his face to one of the screened windows to look in. I can partially see some of what’s inside—an open space, stacked chairs and tables. We keep walking. “Thanks for coming with me.” Bryan says, randomly. He’s looking straight ahead purposefully but I believe, somehow, he’s being honest with this. “No problem.” I say, and then “So, is this just like a summer job?” “It’s my favorite place. I’ve wanted to be a counselor for like—forever. Last year I was a counselor in training, and now I’m finally old enough to be a junior counselor.” He says, more serious than I thought the answer merited. We walk in silence after that. Silence, but not really. The forest isn’t quiet around us. Birds trill in the trees and the cicadas sing their endless song here too. The shade cast from the trees is nice, because like the rest of the days it’s blazing hot. Even with the brief shower of rain last week the heatwave still is in full effect. We approach a clearing, a large field sitting low and surrounded by an imposing tree line of pine trees. A small pavilion stands on the side of the walkway leading up to it, but there is no one under it. Boxes are strewn on the floor of the open pavilion, some open and showing supplies. Straight ahead at the end of the field is where everyone is. I can’t see their faces, its way to far across to see any details besides the colors of their clothes and bright blue helmets. Behind them a massive web of rope and suspended wood beams hang upwards looking a little like ladder to the sky. Someone from the group notices us and turns to look. Then pulls up their hands to their face and a whistle echoes across the field. Bryan hands me the folder. “Hold this,” and suddenly bursts into a sprint across, the other figure doing the same. They meet somewhere in the middle and surprisingly it’s with a hug. The familiarity seemed too dramatic. I walk across too, a little blinded by the direct sunlight of the field without the trees for shade. The grass is a little longer than a regular lawn and is dotted with dandelions. When I bridge the gap, Bryan is ecstatic and still talking to the guy he ran to. Around his age and by the way they conversated a close friend. There are about four other guys station around, one attached to a rope by a harness and looking upward to one of the trees. Everyone is in helmets. In front of them is the rope climbing element. Standing closer underneath, it soars dizzyingly tall above and stretched between two trees. The guy Bryan is speaking to notices me from over his shoulder. He’s a blond with messy hair peeking through from under the blue helmet he is wearing. He flashes a charming smile, kind of boyish and unhindered. I recognize him from somewhere and realize he may have been at Bryan’s party. Bryan turns to me. “Ah, thanks.” He says, taking the folder. One of the other guys who was standing closer to the climbing element comes over. “Thought you got lost.” He bellows and pats Bryan on the shoulder. I wince expecting Bryan not to handle the teasing well, but surprisingly he just makes a face and hands the other guy the folder. “It’s all there. I think I filled everything out right.” “I’ll be hunting you down at pre-camp if they aren’t.” The man pulls out the paperwork and glances through a few of the pages. He wears a set of thin metal framed glasses and has serious looking dark eyes. He is wearing a dark green polo shirt with a small pine tree embroidered on one side of the chest. His arms kind of challenge the seams. He looks up from the paper, eyes meeting mine curiously. “You must be the brother.” He reaches a hand forward, in greeting. I shake his hand, and he introduces himself. “Name’s Houston. Camp Director.” “Evan.” He nods. Turns back to Bryan, “We were actually just wrapping up. You missed Flip screaming the entire time down the line.” The guy, Bryan’s friend, takes off his helmet and ruffles out his blond hair. He imitates a pouty look but I don’t get the sense he’s all that offended by this. “It only sounds like that because it’s high up. Aerodynamics and all.” Houston laughs turns back to Bryan. “So. Repeat, would you like to zip? Everything is still setup, Indiana’s anchoring, and Jettison’s in the crow’s nest.” “Really?” Bryan’s eyes light up. “Hell yes!” Bryan takes a helmet from one of the nearby bins of supplies. Sprays it with an aerosol can before putting it on his head. Then takes out a harness and puts it on skillfully. I look up at the height of the two trees supporting the floating wood beams. A metal ladder leans on the right of the supporting tree leading up to metal staples studding in the bark. About 12 feet up from that was the first small wood platform. I assume this is where one would start the front facing element. But past that, at least 24 feet higher was another smaller platform but this one occupied. Two legs dangle over the edge. And behind that was the zipline, faint but there, cutting through the tree line of towering pine.
  3. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 5

    I close my eyes and I can hear water rushing down a drain. The shower stopped moments ago, and I hear Wrinkles shaking off behind the bathroom door. And I wonder if it is time to go. From this entire place. From this pretend I have been playing at. I hear a door upstairs open, and then slam shut. Bryan. I can’t help but to watch as he descends the stairs. It has almost been a week of me being here and already I find this as something out of the ordinary—the way he is now is hesitant with each step, even holding the railing, and it is so different from the way he normally tramples around. I watch him the entire way, sympathetic, and his sharp green eyes narrow. “What?” I turn my face from him. Not really sure if it is for his sake or mine. “Here,” he says, tossing something to me. I catch it. It’s a newly broken ice pack wrapped in a paper towel. “Thanks,” I say, though, I’m not hurt. Awkwardly I shuffle the blue pack in my hands, the inside of it moves like jelly amongst the frozen bits. Bryan sinks into the chair across from me, and without ceremony, throws his leg up over the side of the dining table. He stretches out his leg and leans forward as if to touch the toe of his sock, the action pushing off a placemat. He had changed into basketball shorts, so I can see the tension running down through his muscle. I offer him the ice pack, “You need this more than I do—” “I don’t.” Voice flat and too quick. Too defensive. Under the freckles, there’s a hint of red on his cheeks. I decide not to question him and place the icepack on the table. We sit in silence for a bit, the condensation from the ice pack running off on the table between us. “It’s your fault anyway.” He says. “I didn’t know you’d let him out, I—” He just scoffs. I figure he probably just wants some space, and I’ll be happy to give it to him. I get up and turn the hall to the guest room, but in that moment, before I can pass through the hallway, the bathroom door opens. It almost hits me in the face, and with the hallway being so narrow I have no other choice but to step back, the path being obstructed so completely. Wrinkles scampers out and I feel the brush of his wet fur pass by my ankle as he goes, his nails clicking loud on the hardwood. And the door of the bathroom finally shuts again and I find another obstacle in front of me, this one even more impassable. The runner. I realize now that I do not even know his name. And it is the littlest thing, but I focus on the droplets of water sliding off the tips of his dark hair. He smells fresh, like shower gel. The lavender scented shower gel for guests that Grace left neatly on the bathroom shelf. He had borrowed something else too. “Hope you don’t mind. I borrowed a shirt. I had mud all over mine.” He says, and with that, he waltzes out of the hallway and past me. Drops a towel onto Bryan’s head. “Smells like wet dog.” Bryan says, slapping his hand away, but he doesn’t push the towel off his head. The runner just laughs. I should be going but I find myself staring at him. The runner. This guy I didn’t know. I hadn’t even asked his name. He holds himself well, with a stance that conveys easy confidence, maybe even arrogance. He’s lean, but I can tell it comes from athleticism and not neglect. Running must be his thing. He’s still wearing his running pants which outline the lines of his body underneath. The T-shirt, my t-shirt, is a little big on him. I try to recall the Latin words inscribed underneath, but they’re lost to me now. Wrinkles is circling around the table and eventually, panting still, plops down to sit next to Bryan. And Bryan, despite himself and his horrible mood, reaches down to give Wrinkle’s a scratch on the head. “You probably didn’t think he could run like that?” The runner says. But Bryan doesn’t respond, just rolls his eyes. Silence. I realize that the runner is talking to me. And waiting on me, his dark eyes, expectant. “Oh.. Yeah, I didn’t know. It was an accident.” Bryan clears his throat, loudly, a ploy for attention. I think he’s going to bring it up again—how I am apparently everything wrong with the world. But surprisingly, he says, “It’s fine. Whatever.” And then just yawns. It takes me off guard a little. He ruffles the towel in his red hair before pulling it down again to rest behind his neck. The runner laughs again. “Good thing I intercepted.” He says eyes still on me. And I think maybe… no. Can’t be. Has to be, just my imagination... right? I try my best to ignore it and look to Bryan. He’s pissed but at some point, since arriving back at the house it was directed at the runner too. Weren’t they supposed to be friends? “Don’t expect a medal,” he says to the runner. I thought he was going to end at that but then he says after sighing deeply, “I’m stopping by tomorrow to drop off the paperwork.” It’s a weird segue, and I feel like I should have no part in this conversation, like an outsider listening in. “Oh, I didn’t realize you were starting this week.” “Im not.” he says, eyes meeting mine. He doesn’t have to say it, but it’s obvious I am the reason and he is not at all happy about it. “I can’t start until next week. I’m just dropping off the paperwork.” “Missing out.” Bryan clicks his teeth. “I’ll be there Sunday. That’s the official start of pre-camp anyway, aint it?” “Yeah. Just thought you’d come earlier.” “Whatever. What about you?” The runner laughs. “I was supposed to leave this afternoon. I was packing everything up when I heard something weird in the woods.” Bryan clicks his teeth. “Hey, uh.. do you know if your sister is around tomorrow?” “Gone. She went to Laurelwood this morning.” The runner shrugs. Then he looks at me again. “Well, if you want company... How about him?” “What?” I go a little wide eyed, they are both looking at me now. I recall on the long drive from the Amtrak station to here, Grace had stopped suddenly, and I was jolted out of sleep. When I opened my eyes again there was this young deer on the road, right in front of us. He had these little fuzzy horns, I guessed he was a younger one, and he was wide-eyed and dumbstruck. I imagine I look like that deer now. In the headlights and frozen. Thankfully, Bryan answers for me “of course he doesn’t.” And then, “Just go home.” Bryan says it to the runner. Maybe to me too. The runner just laughs again, like this deep little chuckle. I glance over and see him smiling. Like Bryan’s rudeness is endearing somehow. He turns to go. But as he goes he passes me and on instinct I just move out of the way. He grabs something from the bathroom, the towels he had used for Wrinkle’s bath I realize. As he passes me again he says, “Seriously though, you should go with him.” He lingers for a moment, as if he is waiting for me to say something but I don’t have anything to say. I just nod. And the runner flashes a smile and then finally goes. I watch him leave. “Good riddance.” Bryan says. And then, it’s just me and Bryan again. The air around us stagnant. I make my way back to the guest room but Bryan says “hey.” He seems serious. A question is in his eyes. And I wait for him to speak. For whatever odd hesitation he had to fade. I go back to the guest room and shut the door behind me. ~ * ~ It takes a long time to sleep. Counting the panels on the ceiling helps. And the midnight darkness dims a little when my phone lights up again. I read PJ’s messages. The glow of the screen lighting up the fracture in it’s face. when are you back That’s all. Not even a question mark. Like it’s for sure that I will. Eventually I’ll have to. I don’t know ~ * ~ Morning comes again. Sometimes I really wish I could just throw my phone into an ocean somewhere. I throw it on the bedspread instead and watch as it just settles there on top of the sea stars and sand dollars printed on the fabric. Why does this room have a beach theme at all? The ocean is hours away. I go out and into the bathroom. I look like mess. My eyes slightly bloodshot, bags under them. Sleep had mostly eluded me. I shower and change. After, I go out into the kitchen. Bryan’s there hunched over a bowl of cereal. And he has this frown on this face when he looks up. He never says good morning, so I don’t this time. Start up the coffee machine and set up the coffee filter. Pour the ground coffee in. Press play. Wrinkles, unaware of how to read a room, prances over and sits right on top of my foot. His tail thumps the side of the kitchen counter. “Hey,” Bryan says. He looks a little flustered. “Thanks for yesterday.” I’m confused. I really thought he would be angry. “Yeah.” “Yeah.” He echoes. And it’s awkward, again. Always so awkward. And if it couldn’t get any worse Bryan looks troubled and I can feel he is going to say something else. Ask something else. And he does. “I know it isn’t really any of my business but.. why…” His words trail off and he looks like he is trying really hard to find them again. “why are you here?” I blink. And try suppress the recoil showing on my face. But I can’t. “Look, obviously you don’t want me here. But I’m here. Visiting my father and you said yourself you’re going wherever for the summer. So what does it matter? We don’t have to like each other.” Bryan’s expression sours like he wants to argue about some point here. But instead, he averts his gaze momentarily. His expression softening. He sighs. Looks back at me and it’s a new one. Almost like it hurts to say it—“Sorry.” He actually says it. “I was an ass.” He declares this. “But why? What did I ever do?” He doesn’t say anything to this. Just crosses his arms and leans back in his chair, tipping it precariously before landing down again. “I said sorry.” “Ok.” I go back to the coffee. Tend to it. Pour a cup and nurse it. “You know… maybe if you want… If you’re going to stay… you can take a ride with me? I work at a camp this summer. It’s a bit farther up. Like 45 minutes. Through the mountains, countryside and stuff.” I’m surprised by this. Maybe a little skeptical too, did Grace put him up to this? The runner? He must see it too because he says, “I just thought… I don’t know. I really don’t want to go alone honestly. And since there’s nothing else to see around here you have nothing else to do.” I revel a little in seeing him wait for an answer. He is still tipping the chair, seemingly not at all afraid of falling back. Like the conversation made him more nervous than falling. “When are you going?” I say.
  4. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 4

    Arran, thank you so much for reading so far and being willing to re-orient between the gap in updates. I hope to update soon and keep a more regular schedule as the story progresses.
  5. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 4

    The stream is definitely mild at best, but Evan's own fear still manages to throw him off balance. Thanks for pointing this out. The runner definitely offers Evan the help but at this point in time Evan is reluctant to take any bit of help from anyone. Thanks for reading travelbug! Yeah, he is honestly. 😅 Hoping he will improve with time. I certainly hope so! My personal goal was is about 2-3 chapters a month. Thank you for reading, I am working on the next chapter and hope to update before the end of the month.
  6. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 4

    I kneel to inspect the wall. Morning floods the room and highlights the imperfection even more. The light blue paint on the wall was chipped from the impact, a little bit of white powdered plaster dots my fingertip when I pull back. I brush it off on my jeans. And then there’s my phone. Shattered at the corner, a ragged fault line splinters out towards the middle of the glass face. I power it on and wait, impatient. The lag unbearable as everything struggles to update. It functions, I guess, but I can feel the cracked glass on my thumb, a reminder that nothing survives unscathed. PJ had sent back; Goodnight 2 AM. And then there’s all the missed calls from mom. And the texts, one after another: call me just what to check in Evan are you getting these? I called your father, he says you’re ok Call me Call me. I had ignored them all last night. I feel bad that she had to call Frank, but I wonder, morbidly, how that conversation passed between them—my father as implacable as a stone wall and my mom like a flood looking for cracks. I call her back. It rings forever and then goes to voicemail. So, I call her office. Her executive assistant picks up and recognizes me instantly. Like mom had mentioned to look out for my call. Or maybe I’m overthinking it. “Evan, she’s in a meeting right now. Do you need me to interrupt?” “No, it’s nothing important.” “Are you sure?” “Yeah. It’s ok. Thank you.” “Once she gets out, I’ll let her know you called.” “Uh, can you let her know service is a little weird here? To text me instead.” “Okay.” I end the call and text: i’m ok. service is bad call you later That was a lie, but it works. Explains it away. I then look through more notifications on social media. Time passes and I find myself scrolling through some of my old posts and pictures. It’s nostalgic at first but then that unease surfaces. There’s a strange separation between then and now, and I’m not sure where the line was drawn or when my world dissected. Pronounced now by how distant the smiling photos of me seem behind the cracked glass face. I place my phone down, carefully on the end table. Like it’s suddenly now this fragile thing since it broke. I get up, leaving it there and go out to the kitchen. The entire house smells like coffee. The scent seems to tangle with the morning light coming in through windows to brighten the dark wood ceiling beams and floors. Grace is in the kitchen leaning over one of the counters and leafing through a magazine. She brightens when she notices me. “Morning!” she says. She closes the magazine which I notice is one of those tourism guides you often see at rest-stops. “Morning.” I say back, but I can’t seem to take the next step out of the hallway. She is dressed in a flowy blouse and jeans. I notice a stack of papers protruding out from her purse and her car keys on the counter. “I have to go into town to run a few errands, and I thought I’d wait till you got up. They have this farmer’s market in the next town over. It’s not that far from where I’m going, and you might enjoy it. I could show you the area.” “You shouldn’t have waited” I say, not giving myself room to say yes. I didn’t come here to be an inconvenience. I didn’t come here for Grace to act like she needed to cheer me up and take me out. I thought it was the right thing to say, and that maybe somehow, she would understand. But I watch her expression falter and her gaze fall back to the glossy magazine cover now closed. And I know I have to say something… Anything, to extricate myself, to explain—it’s not you, it’s me—But all I manage is, “Sorry.” “Are you sure?” she says, concern and something else like disappointment overlays her soft features. “Yeah. I’m just not really feeling like going out. If that’s ok?” “Alright, well... I made some breakfast, it’s in pan there. Pancakes and eggs. Of course, you’re welcome to anything you want. Just help yourself.” She says this, pats me on the shoulder and takes her car keys and purse as she goes, turning back before she descends the stairs. She casts a worrying look. Or maybe she thought I’d change my mind? I speak before she says anything. “I’m ok.” I say, willing a smile. “Trust me. Maybe next time?” She smiles at this. “Yes, I’d like that.” And she goes. I hear the front door shut downstairs. I look to the upstairs landing and notice Bryan’s room at the top of the stairs is open just a crack. Bryan is probably still sleeping. The pug dog, suddenly alert, comes bounding down the stairs in a stampede of dog paws against hardwood. He brushes by my legs and circles. His nametags jingle on his collar as he bounces. Going back to the kitchen I can’t help but to eye the leftovers, though not the eggs or the pancakes that Grace made. I take one of the cupcakes left in the tray covered with cling wrap and have that with some coffee. I struggle between which kind of creamer to add. They have about four different ones—I admit it’s a little ridiculous. I settle on one that’s supposed to taste like a cinnamon roll. As if the cupcake wasn’t overkill enough. I sit at the kitchen table in the seat facing the deck. Wrinkles is sitting in the spot where the door opens, his little tail wagging and his face pushed right up on the glass. Looking out and down past the deck I can still see the tables set up below in the yard. All the food had been taken in, the decorations taken down and thrown out. The tables were still there though, scattered and sitting bare in the yard. I finish the cupcake and my coffee and wash up. Right in front of the sink there’s a small kitchen window that looks down onto the empty side driveway and faces the green trees at the side of the house. I look out. The shifting green leaves and the sun filtering through them. Everything seems so alive out there and yet I’m in here. Distancing myself from everything again. Like nothing changes anymore except the scenery. I go back to my room and toe my sneakers on. Focusing on how easily my feet slip in. I bend and tie them. And re-tie them. And go, before I think too much about it. Wrinkles follows me, but I stop him at the deck doors and place my body to block him from coming outside with me. “Stay,” I say and use the signal Grace had showed me earlier in the week. He sits in front of me, his tail wagging wildly. I back out through the patio door and onto the deck, shutting it between Wrinkles and I. He whines, throws his two front paws on the glass and scratches ineffectually. His fur skin bunching at his neck and he reminds me a little of a seal howling alone on a beach somewhere. I like Wrinkles. But Grace had warned that he was a flight risk if he wasn’t watched, and I honestly didn’t want to focus on watching him while I was collapsing tables. I try not to think much of anything and focus on the task. The more you do something the easier it is. It’s true for most things including this. Starting anything at all is always the problem. That’s why I have to jump on it. Eventually, I figure out the mechanism that folds the legs of the tables down and flush to the bottom of the table board. You know you got it when you hear the click, and mechanism releases. Then it folds back easily without having to force anything. The sun peeks through the tree canopy above and the warmth of it feels nice on my skin as I work. Hope this feeling runs forever. I collapse all tables and lean them by the gate that leads out to the side of the house and the driveway. I figure it’s easier this way. I can leave the gate open and drag them through and around into the garage. Grace had given me the code. It’s my father’s birthday. I type it into the panel and the garage door opens with a groan. I drag the first one over and place it inside the garage and lean it between a wall and a bucket of ice salt. There’s other stuff here in boxes, some labeled, some forgotten. And my father still has his old Mustang there parked, a little beat up, a little lonely sitting in the dark garage untouched. I wonder why he doesn’t get rid of it so they could store one of the cars they actually drive in here. His car isn’t here. His regular car I mean. He isn’t home. He works weekends too; Grace had made the excuse for him despite me not even asking the other day. Did my face really show it all? When he gets home, I should go make peace and be done with it. So I can leave like nothing ever happened. Like I wasn’t here at all. I feel embarrassed about how our conversation went last night. Me, being emotional and for what? It’s nothing. It should be, nothing. But it feels like everything at once. It wasn’t unique these days for things to get under my skin. I breathe in, deep. The garage smells of moth balls and motor oil. I come back out, the light a little blinding compared to the darkness of the garage. I press the code in again and watch the door come down. Going back around to the yard I enter in, unlatching the yard gate from the place I had it open, but something slips past by legs and out of the gate in a flash. I experience the shocked feeling of falling in your sleep, except I’m wide awake. But it’s the same feeling looking at Wrinkles free on the gravel stone driveway. I could’ve sworn I shut the deck door. “Wrinkles.” I crouch, trying to ground myself more firmly and say, “Come here boy.” He doesn’t. I inch closer, but he just stands at alert and backs up slightly. And then, from behind me, “Wrinkles! Where’d you go!” I turn and see Bryan on the deck and looking down into the yard. I witness the pattern of shock on his face as he notices me, the gate door wide open and Wrinkles in the side driveway. I look back to Wrinkles and reach for him but he turns and runs straight into the wood. I don’t have time to think. I get up, check my sneakers and run. And for such a short round thing he’s quick and moves effortlessly through the thin underbrush and between trees like a rabbit. I don’t know where I’m going—I just go. Follow, until everything begins to look the same, and I don’t know how deep I’ve gone into the wood. There’s just trees and rock. I spin, looking for something to orient me, but I can’t see any of the houses peeking through the trees anymore. A sound, a movement, and I look back. Bryan wordlessly puts a finger up to his mouth as signal to quiet. And then he points forward through the trees. I see nothing. Just trees, greenery and the rocky ground covered by dropped leaves. But then, I spot Wrinkles and he seems to spot us too and turns tail. A look, a quiet deliberating conversation passes between Bryan and I and we separate. Standing a few paces away from each other, but parallel, we move in the direction Wrinkles went. The ground curves upward and then down again. It’s thicker here, trees above and winding brambles underneath them that I must weave through in search of the pug. The underbrush tugs a little at my jeans but I press on. My heart drums wildly in my chest, I grasp at it as if to keep it from falling out. It gets thicker, these large bushes block the way, but I see Bryan going through with ease, making a path between them by carefully parting the offshoots. I push my own branches away but jump at the surprise pain. I let the branch go, but it snaps back and hits my arm. “Damn it” I say, my audience being only the trees themselves. I don’t know if Bryan heard, I only see the bright color of his shirt through the leaves. I press on, carefully pulling them back and aside, untangling vines blocking my path by only touching between thorns. I hear a rushing sound and the ground slopes down and when the forest breaks it overlooks a small riverbed. A stream, moving quick but no wider than about 8 feet across. And this strange feeling washes over me but it’s something I can’t place. Like the water is deeper than it is, despite me being able to see the bottom. And then I see him, Wrinkles at the bank, back to me. He’s drinking, and I stand still and stop breathing for a moment. I can hear his tongue lapping at the water. I step closer, hyper aware of how different the ground feels here on the steep pebbled bank. Of course he hears me, and just turns his head to look at me, one almond shape eye narrowing and sniffing up at the air. I move forward in a rush bounding for him. My world flips. ~ * ~ There is this understated delay between the brain and the body. Pain being one example of it. I feel it like a void in air like when you pop a bottle open. Vertigo, when the world slips from underneath you and you just free fall. And your body just recoils to it. I feel the stones at my back and the sight above me a crack of illuminated sky in the green tufted tree canopy. I sit up, still shocked from the fall. I’m wet from the stream and it’s rushing around me gently. Wrinkles runs towards me right through the water. It’s not too deep after all, coming up right to his collar. He just lifts his head and doggy paddles. He jumps up and places two paws on my shoulder, almost pushing me back again. My fingers falling further back into the riverbed gravel. He dips his head forward to lick at my cheek, I turn away. He goes for my neck, tail wagging. And then he turns, I turn too to where we came from and a rustle in the brush I can hear from above the banks and Wrinkles just follows it. It’s not Bryan. He’s in his jogging outfit again and this time I notice his wired headphones hanging off his neck. The sun haloing his features a little. I saw him just last night coming down from the deck and I had brushed him off as he walked past me. “You alright?” he says, his voice a little deeper and smoother than I had expected. I realize, this is the first time we’ve spoke. He offers a hand to pull me up. “I’m fine.” I say, not taking his hand. I hold Wrinkles tight, lifting him up with me as I try to find my footing. I stumble. “I have him” The runner says, taking Wrinkles off me. And then he’s cradling the dog easily in his arms, Wrinkles with both paws on the runner’s shoulders and standing up. Wrinkles licks him on the cheek and the runner just laughs and goes to kiss the dog back. Wrinkles turns his head away, not wanting to reciprocate. The runner just laughs. Bryan appears from behind a few trees and stumbles onto the riverbank. “Are they ok?” “They’re both fine.” The runner says looking to Bryan who is obviously winded from the adventure “Breathe.” Bryan, the panic still on his face says, “Shut up” and tries to take the dog from the runner. But the runner just turns away from him. “I got em. Don’t worry about pug pug.” He says, already walking away. “Help your brother.” Bryan glares at his back and I swear if a look could kill a man this guy would be a few times dead. I’m already up and trying to squeeze water out from the bottom of my jean legs. When I glance back up Bryan is looking at me. His expression had shifted. Softer somehow, but it’s odd and I can’t read it. We walk back through the forest, the three of us. I trail behind. Wrinkles is in the runners arms, two paws on his shoulders and looking back at me. He’s panting heavily and he looks like he’s grinning. The runner and Bryan are walking in front of me and talking. I don’t care enough to try to follow any of it. I focus on the trees, the way the forest sounds and Wrinkles. I also notice Bryan’s stride is off and he’s limping a little. But it looks like he’s trying to hide it. Did he fall too? And suddenly, like the universe heard me, Bryan trips, but catches himself. “Damn it,” “You should get that looked at.” The runner says. “Shut up. I’m not wearing the goddamn brace.” He snaps back. Wow. I guess Bryan is this way with everyone. He turns on me as if hearing my thoughts. “Don’t mention any of this to my mom.” He says. “I won’t.” They talk some more, their voices barely audible through the cicadas crying, and I just wish I could just fade into the trees.
  7. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 3

    I kick the leg of the table further out. The next, and then turn it upright, the metal and plastic creaking with the flip. I give it a little force on the tabletop until it clicks securely into place. “Where do you want these?” I yell up to Grace. She is hanging a large banner that reads: ‘Congratulations Graduate’ over the railing of the raised deck and the stairs down. She doesn’t hear me. I’m below in the yard assembling the tables. I drag the one I just completed a little closer, so it sits in the middle with the rest. The ground is not very even at all and mostly just soil, root and rock. It’s only broken by these like these little sparse patches of grass where the sun shines down through the trees. I find the most even spot I can and set it down. It still wobbles. I look back up to the banner and Grace’s efforts. “It’s hanging a little low on the Graduate side!” I yell over. She turns her attention to me and then looks down off the deck at the banner. But at her angle, I doubt she can see the full picture. She unpins the end of the banner and pulls it a little farther out. “Good?” she calls, looking back to me. A give a thumbs up. It’s better. “Thanks!” she says and tacks it down. She comes down to the yard after with a stack of plastic tablecloths. I help and take them each out of their shrink wrap packaging first before we do anything else. We cover the tables which we decide to sit along the perimeter of the yard. Some on the side and next to the deck, two next to the grill and more off on the other side for seating. We drag a few plastic chairs out from the garage and place as many as we have at the seating tables. A few of the plastic cloths blow off the table when we return with the chairs, so we decide to tape them down. We share the tape dispenser and tape down each side, so they don’t slide or blow off. The insects and birds hum in the forest around us. And then, out of nowhere: “I read your piece.” She says, point blank. I look up and watch as she applies a piece of tape haphazardly to the other side of the table we are working on. The tablecloth is strained from the pull and I imagine the slightest touch would rip it. “Did you.” I say. It isn’t a question. I just, didn’t know that. I didn’t know she had read it. Had mom passed a copy along? “I liked it. Do you like poetry?” “No, not really.” I say, and as if defense for it I add “I wrote it for an elective class and submitted it for extra credit. I didn’t know it would be published.” Partly true. And I want to ask how she ended up with a copy of the circulation, but I’m interrupted. My father and Bryan come down out of the house through the sliding glass doors on the deck. He tramples down the stairs and heads right for Grace, jumping into her arms. She hugs him back and just laughs. “Best. Day. Ever.” He says into her shoulder. When he pulls back, I see a different person than the one I’ve witnessed moping around the last week. He’s bright eyed and beaming. Smiling. Brilliantly like Grace does and without artifice. The honesty of it is refreshing yet scary at once. “What’s up sweetie? Good news?” she asks. He holds up a letter. It’s ripped open, the back flap completely off like it was torn open by some animal. “I’m in.” he says, ecstatic. “I start the week after next. I just got to drive in to drop the paperwork off.” “I’m so proud of you honey!” Frank puts an arm over Bryan’s shoulder and pulls him into a sideways hug. “Proud of you son.” Bryan rests his head into Frank’s shoulder briefly all while staring at the letter. I feel awkward, like an interloper. But I shouldn’t. The thoughts spin around again. How Frank calls everyone ‘son’. About how this meant Bryan would be leaving, and for what? And for how long? And I didn’t know Bryan could be so excited about something. I want to say ‘congratulations’ or ask about it… but I just can’t. The words don’t form. “This is fucking ace,” Bryan says, still looking at the letter like its gold. He punches Frank on the arm and then runs off without explanation. “Where you going?” Frank calls to him but doesn’t turn his head to follow. He’s looking at Grace with this lazy pleased look. Bryan throws open the yard gate and exits. “Out,” he says. He slams it shut. “Your party starts in an hour,” Grace calls out after. “They’ll wait!” That’s Bryan. Already gone and off somewhere else beyond the driveway. They’ll wait. ~*~ Bryan being late for his own graduation party made sense because it wasn’t unexpected. The party started at five and by now it’s probably closer to six and without any sign of him. His absence is excused by most of the guests who arrive and talk and eat among their peers. It’s a mix of adults and the other half are some of Bryan’s own classmates. The adults are friends of Frank and Grace and some parents of the other graduates. The other graduates don’t seem overly close to Bryan, they seem to not even notice his absence at all, and I wonder if they’re even really his friends. I overhear their conversations. Where they are planning on going to college, their hopes, their dreams… packaged neatly and expressed so easily in casual talk like it’s nothing. A to B conversations, as if life can be drawn in all straight lines. The parents are no different. Talking about their children’s goals like they’ll actually achieve them. Everyone is speaking in absolutes about things that can’t possibly be. My gaze drifts to my father. He’s wearing an apron with a ridiculous pun about grilling on the front of it. He’s flipping burgers as if in show and he’s chatting with some of the other guests being all charismatic. Grace is off to the side speaking to other parents and laughing. Everyone with their own group of peers. I’m off to the side of the yard keeping the refreshment table clean and mess free. We set up the refreshment table in a spot that gets full shade under and beside the raised deck, so it stays cool. On the other side off to my left is the gate that connects to the gravel driveway and garage entrance. That was where Bryan passed through a couple hours ago and has yet to return. People go through every so often and I watch Wrinkles look every time someone opens it like he’s measuring if he can make a run for it. He doesn’t. He pants heavily and sits happily in a rare spot of sun that shines through between the trees above. I’m cleaning off soda from a table leg. Earlier someone had spilt soda everywhere and a trail of ants had started their march towards the spill and up the table in a neat line. I wipe clean the leg furiously to discourage their way up. But some still make their way upwards, their little antennae dotting in the air. I swipe them off with the back of my hand, trying my best not to crush them but they are so many. I hear the patio door above me slide open and then footsteps on the deck. Everyone starts clapping. I look up. Bryan is standing on the top of the stairs. The blue haired girl from the superstore and another guy I don’t know flank his sides. Bryan flings his graduation cap down and gives a bow. The crowd claps. He tramples down the stairs. His friends follow. I look away, focusing back on the refreshments. Trying not to let myself get upset. Trying to understand why I’m even upset at all but this whole day has just been… I hear the stairs creek again and someone else is coming down. I look up. The runner—again, of course—and he is already halfway down the stairs. His hair isn’t pulled back today and it sits free almost to his shoulder. He’s medium height, with a lean build. He’s wearing those dark wash jeans again and I don’t miss how good they fit on him. I glance back up to his face. He’s smirking, lashes set low and I see appraisal in his dark eyes. He has this sureness, this easy-going confidence that is both insanely attractive and terrifying. I look away and ignore him. ~ * ~ It’s quiet up here. I settle on the deck, raised above the party. The night came in dark and the light from the party below casts long and dancing shadows on the trees around. The string lights hanging around the backyard fence shine bright and twinkling. Earlier, Frank had brought out some tiki torches and pounded them into the ground and lit them. Even from up here, it smells strongly of citronella. Frank comes up the stairs passing by me in the dark to go inside. I hear fridge open and it’s so quiet up here I can even here the buzzing from the light inside the fridge. The slight clicks of glass bottles. “Do you want anything to drink?” he says from the doorway. There’s no one else up here but us. “I’m good.” I say. There is shuffling back inside the house. I look back over the deck chair cushion. He didn’t shut the door all the way and Wrinkles is there standing in the entrance way with his tongue is hanging out between his jaws. The dog ambles over and jumps up on the chair. I lift up my arms and he just fits himself there heavily on my lap. I put my arms down and stroke his fur. He gives a great sigh and relaxes. I cannot though. My father comes back out, shuts the screen door and sits on the deck too in the other chair beside me. We are sort of in the dark, the porch light off, only a faint glow cast in by a lamp in the corner of the living fades out through the screen. The party below still far brighter. Bryan and a few of his friends are loudly playing a game of cards. Bryan is sitting on top of one of the tables, wearing his graduation hat tilted on one side of his curly red mop. He’s sitting with the blue haired girl he came in with, the other guy their age and a few others. The runner too is a surprising member of their group, sitting comfortably back on one of the tables like Bryan is. He doesn’t seem to be playing the game, but he sits there with them nevertheless. “So, what university did Bryan get into? He doesn’t seem the type for summer courses.” Frank cracks off the bottle cap of the beer. It fizzes over and pours a little onto his jeans. He doesn’t seem to notice and takes a swing. “It’s not college. It’s a summer thing. He’s going to be a counselor at his camp.” I don’t say anything, but my silence must have prompted him to follow up. He continues, “It’s important to Brye. Camp. It’s a resident one, where you sleep over and stuff. Nature, hiking, swimming. That sorta thing. He attends every summer.” “What’s his plan for after that?” Frank laughs. “Don’t worry about Bryan.” He pauses after that. It’s quiet between us. The insects buzzing by the screen the loudest sound up here. He leans forward in the chair, the wicker groaning. He has his beer clasped in both hands. Like in thought, like he wants to say something but it’s hard to. It isn’t like Frank to deliberate. “Can we talk about you?” “We’re not doing that.” I say. The silence is tangible. It’s like a brick wall, not even the levity of the party below can pass it. Conversations, the music, Bryan and his friends in a shouting match in some stupid never-ending game of cards. We sit like that for a bit. I go to stand, Wrinkles whimpering with my sudden movement. “I meant to tell you—” that’s Frank. I wait, my hand on the patio door. He clears his throat and starts again. “I meant to answer you yesterday.” “What?” “You asked me. You asked if I’m happy. Well, I’m happy.” “Oh.” I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do with this answer. “Good for you.” I turn back around but pin my focus to the dark stand of trees beyond the deck. “And I know I wasn’t always... I hope you know… I’m sorry I was never there for you then.” What am I supposed to say to that? “I just want you to understand... That me leaving... that had nothing to do with you, Evan.” I want yell at him. Tell him to save it. Tell him it doesn’t matter. That it doesn’t matter.. “I’m happy for you.” I say, and I focus everything in me to keep my voice even. “I guess I just never realized a new family and living out in the middle of nowhere was what you wanted.” “I’m sorry.” “I won’t be used as some step in your program, so save it—” “Evan… that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I just want you to understand. I needed to find out what I really wanted in life. And I found it when I moved here, and I started being honest with myself.” “Working some dead-end job in the middle of nowhere makes you happy? I guess Mom and I didn’t?” He’s looking down at the party too and I can see the glow of the light reflected in his eyes. “No, that’s not…” He trails off and takes another drink. “It’s just, every day now I get up. Go to work. Feel accomplished after. Makes me happy. Because I feel like I know what I’m doing. I’m not talking about competence here. I’m saying I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. And Grace and Bryan... They make me happy too. They’re blessings.” And he turns to me. Quieter, but it’s only us here. “You know you can talk to me. Whatever has been happening lately.” A pause. It’s too long. “There’s nothing to talk about.” I say. “Well, if you ever want to... I’m here.” “We did talk. Happy?” I say and pull the screen door open and step through. ~ * ~ It’s late, I should be asleep. But I think about everything at once and it all rushes in to bury me. It’s stupid because there’s nothing to be unsettled about. And yet, sometimes… Sometimes for no reason at all I feel like I’m going to have a panic attack. And then, somewhere, a light blinks on. It’s my phone. I reach for it on the nightstand. My eyes burn, thrown off by the light. The notification pops up again. I read: how are you I blink once. Then open the message and just stare at it. I stare at PJ’s text a long time before typing in: Better. With a period. Because I think that, maybe, I could be? I was trying to. I left thinking I could just past time and re-solidify. Didn’t I? Is it working? The message blinks to read and he begins to type. what u doing I start typing… but then erase it, letter by letter. So stupid. Right, what am I doing? I type in: Going back to sleep. Goodnight. And before I can think myself out of it, I press send. I wait until it blinks to ‘delivered’. Hold, and swipe to power down. I throw my phone to the wall besides the bed, it hits, the impact louder and harder than I intended. My thoughts drift. And I dream of turning stones over. Round and smooth ones, like stones on a riverbed. Earlier in the week, on the drive here we passed by a few rivers and streams, maybe that’s why I think of them. But in this dream the riverbed is dry. I turn the stones over, and over. Repeatedly. Things looking slightly different at every turn but also all the same somehow. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I still turn them.
  8. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 2

    Evan does not remember, or even care, how he answered Bryan's question years ago. It was my intention to have the reader question that (and question how other characters may interpret Evan's words/actions) so I'm happy you noticed this line. The relationships between the characters are core to the story, specifically to Evan's development as a character, so they will develop as the story and relationships progress. Whatever happened in New York is actually the short-form reference I use in my notes for the details/hints to Evan's backstory. 😂 He reveals so little about it as he doesn't like to keep Whatever happened in New York at the forefront of his mind. It will be revealed as more chapters come out and as Evan does some inventory on himself. I'm so glad you found Evan's story intriguing so far. I'm happy you mentioned Grace because Evan's relationship with Grace is honestly kind of strange. She's probably the most distant from Evan (unrelated by blood; not close in age like Bryan) and yet Evan's POV frames her pretty fondly. As for Dad, I'm glad you noticed the unnecessary goading that Evan aims towards his father. As for the mysterious jogger--all I can say is he will be featured again. This is my first time writing in present-tense 1st person (god help me, whyyyy), but I chose this for a reason. Despite the POV being fixed to Evan, he does not reveal everything even when it relates to him and even when it has happened in the past. But the mysteries presented will be addressed in the future, so please be patient with Evan--he’s still trying to figure it out too. Thank you for your comment. 😄 ALL- Thank you so much for your input. I have the story mapped out and outlined, but the actual chapters are still being written. My personal goal is 2-3 chapters a month though. 🤞 ~Ratio
  9. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 2

    I wake to the sound of distant laughing flittering in with the morning. Sunlight spills in unimpeded through the sheer lace curtains that hang from the guestroom’s windows. Morning. I try to move the sheets aside and off, but my efforts find me stuck and twisted in them. And it’s just so tempting—the thought of just lying here forever in the tangle. But my own impassable thoughts are here too, and they make me sit up. I think, maybe, I should have stayed home after all. I could go back in a few days. If I want. Maybe. I stand and stretch, trying to win back the function that sleep often robs from me. I can’t help but to glance at my own reflection peering back at me from the narrow free-standing mirror beside the dresser. I guess I’m sorta average looking. I’ve always been kinda big, not fat just solid, and I inherited that from my father who’s built like a brickhouse too. I’m shirtless now and just standing in my boxers. It was months ago, but there had been that stretch of time where I worked out every chance I got. I think I had looked pretty good. And I feel like I felt good then. It was a balance struck in more ways than just the physical. Going to the gym, focusing on one task at a time. I could channel my energies in that. But at some point, I slipped from routine and couldn’t find that momentum again. And it shows. The definition in the muscle I once earned had smoothed out. And I just look… I don’t know. Tired. I pass by the half empty glass of water on the end table and take my duffle bag off the dresser hook. I unzip and rummage through, a few articles of clothing spilling out in the shuffle. I put on a fresh T-shirt and new boxers, changing quick since this entire room is pretty much a glass window box facing the street. I locate the pair of jeans I wore yesterday, sitting on the floor next to yesterday’s shirt and my sneakers. I had probably gotten up last night only to discard them. I don’t remember. I slip into the jeans, one leg at a time. But I stub my toe on the side of the bed frame. Damn it. The pain throbs and I just flinch and wait for it to recede. Another bout of laughter fades in from the living room. I sit back down on the bed, cradling my foot, and try to listen through the walls. I recognize two of the voices. Grace and Frank. But the third I don’t. Probably Bryan. I can’t follow what they are speaking about, but it all seems light, like playful banter about nothing. I feel the weight of my phone in my pocket. I left it there from yesterday. I hadn’t heard it ring at all. I pull it out. Mom tried calling me three times. I text her back letting her know I’m ok. went to bed early That was the truth after all. I sink back onto the bed using my duffel bag as a pillow. I check out what everyone else is up to. Swiping down and through the feeds. Someone’s admission letter to graduate school. A happy couple. One of my classmate’s Instagramming her food again. Someone else on vacation. Another landed their dream job. Everyone going out and doing shit. And what am I doing, really? I get up. I close out every app methodically and then toss the phone back on the bed. It sits there and blinks to black amongst the watercolor sea stars and sea fans of the bedspread. I wander out of the guestroom with my toiletry bag. Grace spots me in the hallway before I can make it to the bathroom. “Good morning,” she says, and motions me to come out. “Ugh, give me a sec? Just have to finish getting ready.” “Ok, honey,” she says. I use the bathroom. Brush my teeth and wash my face. I try to avoid overanalyzing myself in the bathroom mirror under the harsh brightness. I have a faint shadow of stubble at the chin but skip the shave. Grace is cooking at the stove when I emerge out of the hallway. To the left of the kitchen, Frank and Bryan sit at the dining room table that overlooks a set of double doors leaving out to a raised deck and backyard. They’re in deep, albeit, impenetrable conversation that breaks when my father notices me. “Son!” Frank gets up from his chair immediately and comes over. And there’s no dodging it, he hugs me and I just stand there. He’s my father, sure, but it’s awkward. Performative and it’s like this expected thing I guess since we share the same blood. “Hey Frank.” I say. He smells of cigarettes and detergent. It’s a weird and paradoxical mix. When I break from him, I look to Bryan. He’s no longer the little kid I remember him as—the ringbearer at his mother’s wedding, tripping behind me at the garden reception. I remember him, bright eyed and desperate for any hint of attention. The little kid that had open heartedly asked if I was going to be his older brother. That was years ago. He’s only three or four years younger than me. What seemed like an eternity then didn’t seem like much at all now. Even though he’s sitting, I’m thinking he probably stands around my height now, or maybe even a little taller. But he’s lanky and with pretty poor posture. He’s sitting at their dining room table hunched over his plate and shoving it down. When he looks up, I notice how much he resembles Grace, bearing the same curly reddish hair and impossibly pale skin. Except, he’s a little less refined. A splattering of uneven breakouts dot above the freckles on his cheeks. “Hey,” I say. Because I don’t know what else to say. Green eyes cut back at me and his expression is openly disdainful. I’m struck with this feeling, like I’ve made some sort of irrecoverable mistake, but I don’t know where I’ve tripped up. So, I just stand there and bear witness to him as he stabs a fork into his plate of pancakes. He finally returns a mumbled “hey” but he’s not looking at me when he says it. A painfully long pause limps by before I realize that’s all I’m getting from him. “You must be hungry,” Grace chimes in. Seemingly missing the entire exchange. “I made you a plate.” With a gentle hand she guides me forward to the table. Places down a plate of pancakes at an open spot at the table. “Thank you,” I say. And I sit. The pancakes are not circular or uniform, and just kind of look like failed shapes that never took any realized form. She has a few cut strawberries surrounding them on the plate too. I cut in. Yesterday, I had taken the train. Not the kind I am used to, those that traveled to the next borough or into the surroundings suburbs for an afternoon. No. This train seemed endless and I bought a one way. Grace picked me up at one of the stations. It was my idea; I didn’t want to burden anyone too much. I took it as far as the line could go to where I needed to be. This minor collection of dots and lines on a map. All I had yesterday was an overpriced croissant and too many cups of coffee. I’m starving. Two birds. I eat. Frank sits down next to me and we talk over breakfast. Grace comes over too and then it’s the four of us around the table. Five, actually. I look down and see the dog darting under the table and between chair legs chasing invisible shadows. He notices me and comes over to sit by my feet. A quick tongue darts out to touch a toe and I pull back and tuck my feet further under my chair. That doesn’t seem to deter the little guy, he just lays down on his belly and crawls forward to follow. “How are you, son.” That’s Frank, and I’m brought back to the conversation. “Fine. Great actually.” I say. It’s all robotic now. “I made the president’s list again. I was inducted into the honor society in the spring. 15 more credits and I’ve earned my degree. Everything’s great.” It’s all the truth on paper. “You inherited your mother’s smarts.” My father says this, and he means it as a compliment, I think. Though, I can’t help but to say, “Her work ethic too.” I watch for any sign of impact. But there’s nothing. Frank just laughs and pats me on the shoulder. “Great job, son.” He says. Shit just doesn’t stick to him. He doesn’t care. And I wish that was a trait I had inherited from him. I force a smile and continue eating. Take another bite of pancake. It’s plain but it’s good. The strawberries are a little bitter but this lifts me a little. I’ve come to appreciate the little things in life, the unsung heroes are the things that are exactly how I expect them to be. I glance over to Bryan’s plate and notice it is now mostly empty. A graveyard of syrup remains. “Oh! I forgot syrup!” Grace says like it’s this profound realization to her. With my mouth currently full I don’t have time to stop her. She runs back to the kitchen and places it before me. I swallow and thank her. “No thanks, I’m avoiding stuff like that,” I say. “Oh. Right.” She says, a little doe eyed looking at the back of the bottle. “It’s real maple… I think.” “Thank you, but I like them on their own. Did you make them from scratch?” She blushes a little at this. “Box mix. Nothing fancy, though I tried shaping them into hearts.” I look down at the pancakes. I’ve already cut into one. They don’t look like hearts, but for some reason I find myself smiling at this. “I see it. And they taste good. Thank you.” I say it. And mean it. I finish eating and answer more questions. It always feels like interrogation. I give topical answers. And dance around the subject, of why after years of invitations I choose this summer to visit. Eventually, Frank says his goodbyes and hugs me again before leaving for work. He’s dressed plainly, just a pair of cargo pants and a t-shirt. Bryan goes with him to catch a ride to school. He’s in his senior year of high school so classes probably run for another week or so. Grace stays. She works from home, and points to the first door upstairs where her office is. “Please, help yourself to anything. Don’t feel shy. And if you need anything let me know.” I spend the rest of the day in the guest room until it’s time for lunch. I can’t even nap. It’s impossible with the brightness of the room. So, I pick up my phone and scroll through the feeds again. The further down I go the deeper the knot in my stomach seems to sink. At lunch, Grace makes herself and I a salad with more of the strawberries and a sweet tangy dressing on top of some greens. We talk nonsensically about healthy eating while the dog Wrinkles dances around our chairs. When dinner comes around, we again gather at the table. And this time, I’m prepared. I talk about my classes, my plans for the future. It’s all middling conversation, even better rehearsed with smiles and embellished anecdotes. And Frank says he’s proud of me. Grace too. So proud… But the more I speak about my accomplishments the more distant they feel. Like they’re not really mine or they never really mattered. And that feeling of wanting to crawl right back into my skull appears. I try my best to stay engaged and off my phone through dinner. ~ * ~ Three days pass by and each is pretty much the same as the next. In the mornings I make awkward mini migrations from the window lit guestroom, to the bathroom for peace, and eventually wander out into the kitchen. I was caught the first day at the coffee machine with Frank. He doesn’t even drink coffee anymore. He tells me about these protein shakes he’s trying and I was kind of excited about that, being a health nut once myself, but my enthusiasm dimmed when he mixed it. Adding sugar even. I mean, that’s fine, I guess. A little. But he follows it up with a packaged donut on the way out. As if one good thing will cancel out the bad. The second morning found me standing faced off with Bryan for the fridge. And I’m not surprised when my ‘good morning’ is met with a glare. I still don’t know why he keeps looking at me like I’ve kicked a puppy or something. But I’ve consigned myself to the fact it didn’t really matter anyway. I’d be gone soon. He had opened the fridge door and considered the contents for a few moments before pulling out a carton of orange juice. He drank it right from the container. And then put it back. A little spilt down his shirt and I had to bite my tongue to keep from commenting on it. He had wandered off without saying anything else. What a prick. Today, thankfully, I’m alone. I have the timing almost right by now. Grace was somewhere upstairs working from her home office. I pour a cup of coffee and sit on the sofa. It’s almost routine now. I got my coffee, my notebook and a pen. And the pug, Wrinkles follows and sits beside me close, always touching. I like the quiet and easily exchanged company Wrinkles and I share. He sits by me and asks for nothing except for belly rubs or scratches on the ear. And I find myself obliging. Wrinkles’ face is a little droopy and close up I notice little sprouts of grey around his muzzle. ‘He’s a rescue,’ Grace had told me yesterday, when I finally mustered up the courage asked about the lost eye. ‘He gets around just fine,’ she had said. They had adopted him from a shelter a few years ago and now he was part of the family. We’ve never had a dog. Me and mom. It makes sense though that Frank would have one now. He’s always wanted one I guess. When I was ten, a few days before Christmas, I remember him bringing home a puppy after work one day. A coworker had a litter and my father had jumped on the opportunity. The puppy was warm, and all excited limbs, tail wags and licks to my face. Mom and Frank had argued for hours about it. Mom won, naturally. Our lease didn’t allow pets. Because no one had the time to take care of a puppy. The puppy went to another family before Christmas Eve. But another memory slips through the crack uncalled for. I had cried. How shamelessly I sulked through Christmas holiday. ‘I’m sorry honey.’ my mother had said. Frank said: ‘lighten up. It’s Christmas’. Morning light is everywhere in the living room now, spilling in from the skylight high on the ceiling. It also comes in sideways through the glass sliding doors that look out to the deck and backyard. I don’t bother with the tv, it’s just noise. I scribble down lines in my notebook. The mornings here sound like songbirds and endless forest echoed with insect sounds. Wrinkles snores lazily beside me. Grace occasionally passes through the house during the day. Over the week, Grace and I have developed this quiet understanding and she keeps a comfortable distance aside from a casual pat on the shoulder and a smile when she passes through the living. I can tell she’s concerned about me. And I hate that honestly. I began to suspect she knew by the end of the first day. By today, I’m convinced they all know. But I didn’t want to talk about what happened in New York. That wasn’t why I came here. In the afternoon, I find myself retreating back into the guestroom. Sunlight floods the room. There are only two walls really, the wall by the door and the other by the side of the bed. The other sides make up the corner of the house and are lined with tall windows that start at the hip and go up all the way to the ceiling of the room. It’s more a sunroom then a guestroom. The bed is pushed up to the window facing the front street. The curtains are sheer, and I often find myself, in those forever moments before I settle down for a nap, searching for interruptions in the symmetry of the lace pattern. It feels like a million degrees today, and because Grace either doesn’t believe in air conditioning or my father is too poor to afford it, I shed my shirt and jeans and just lay in my boxers. I have the windows open as far as they go, but they are the kind that doesn’t open but more than a few inches. I hear activity on the street and sit up a little to glance properly through the curtains. I see the runner is back at it. He's just—some guy. I’ve seen him running back and forth down the street in the afternoons for the last three days. Up and down the same street, it’s almost like he’s trapped there in this really boring routine run every day. Even though I haven’t really stepped farther than the driveway these last few days, there wasn’t much to see. The street this house straddled sits at the top of a fork in the road, but the dividing branches are dead ends. Their endcaps stop a few houses down abruptly with a wall of thick forest that leads nowhere. The runner is disturbed by the heat too. Even from my window perched above the street, I can appreciate. He’s wearing a tight black t-shirt and I can see his form better. It’s not close enough to really see the details. But the sum of his parts worked. Really, worked. He’s lean but athletic and he carries it well through his proportions. Square lift of his shoulders, trim midsection and downward to show modestly built legs. And my thoughts slip, ludicrously, and I wish he’d run the other way so I could see what his ass looked like. I lean a little farther forward to steal a glance, but then he looks up. I stop, drop low on the bedspread and roll to the floor. Suddenly jolted by how embarrassing it is. I go back out to the living room thinking I’m safe. How wrong am I. Bryan is staring right at me. He must have come home straight after school. Probably got out early or something. Last day of classes I guess. But I didn’t see or hear him come in. He still has a backpack slung over one shoulder and this look on his face like he’s disgusted. “Dude. What the hell is wrong with you?” There’s a pause, until I realize it’s like barely afternoon and I’m just standing round in my boxers in someone else’s house. Running from unexpected eye contact from a stranger who probably didn’t, I hope, see me. To his credit he was probably onto something there. What was wrong with me? “Nothing.” I answer. Bryan rolls his eyes at this and wanders back upstairs, brushing by the plants on the upper landing. His bedroom door shuts with a slam. ~ * ~ I dread the weekend, but it comes and the peaceful rhythm of my movements around the house ends with Saturday’s arrival. We pile into Grace’s car. A shopping spree to prepare for Bryan’s graduation party tomorrow. Grace drives. Frank drums along with a pop song on the radio. The superstore was supposed to be ‘just down the road’. But the road was as featureless as it was endless. And down the mountain it was mostly flat and empty stretches with some activity popping up on the main road. Gas stations. A waffle house . Motels. Seemed liked the place people just stopped when in route to somewhere else. This meant that for most of it I ended up just looking through my phone while I sat in awkward silence next to Bryan in the backseat. There couldn’t be enough space between us. It’s obvious that Bryan really doesn’t want me here. We’ve spoken only a handful of times over the last week. ‘Hey’ he said to me the first day, by way of introduction. The second, when we accidentally crossed paths in front of fridge, though, I don’t think he actually said anything. Thursday at dinner I had gotten ‘pass the peas’ out of him, but I didn’t get a ‘thank you’ when I did. Yesterday was the most I had gotten. With him asking point blank: ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’ I know I don’t exactly open up conversation either but damn. He doesn’t seem shy or anything. He has loud conversations with Frank and his mother. He had friends over a few nights, I didn’t see them, but I definitely heard them all stomping around upstairs. He even called Frank ‘dad’ sometimes which is weird, but he’s a weird kid. And for the record, Frank calls everyone younger than him ‘son’. Eventually we arrive at the superstore and Bryan sulks away from our own awkward family pod to go flirt with a cashier. The cashier is around his age, probably a classmate of Bryan’s. She has blue hair, it’s long and in a sloppy bun on top of her head the ends a little frayed and the color fading out to green. Too many piercings and heavy-handed eyeliner. She has a cute smile though and an unapologetic laugh that I hear from across past checkout. Bryan leans in and says something I can’t hear but can only imagine. She laughs. All despite a line forming at the checkout. What a little prick. “What would you like to have for the BBQ?” Grace asks me later while we’re in the freezer section. “I’m fine with whatever.” I say, glancing through the seemly endless selections of frozen packaged food behind frost touched glass. “Get whatever you want. Can never have too much.” Frank says, grabbing another two boxes of hamburger patties out of the freezer. We have tons of stuff in the cart already. Packets of hotdogs, hamburgers and a few packs of thick cuts of steak. Chicken, for shish kabobs. Buns and bread. Huge containers of egg and pasta salads. And there’s enough chips and junk to feed a small army. “Are you still a… what do they call it? Vegan?” “Vegetarian.” I corrected. “At least I’m trying.” Grace browses the freezer doors before stopping at one. “How about this?” she says, pulling a box of some sort of meatless hamburger patties from the freezer. She’s so excited about it. Lately I didn’t have the self control to stick to anything though. Whatever she picked up didn’t seem appealing, but I don’t have the heart to break that smile on her face. It’s like she’s worried I’ll starve or something. “Sure, that looks good.” She smiles and puts it in the cart and presses on. My father hangs back with me as we traverse down the next few aisles. “How’s your mom been?” he asks when we are in the condiment aisle. I don’t really want to look at him and instead stare intently at the drama of Grace’s decision about what brand of ketchup to buy farther down the aisle. There’s five. “She’s good.” I say. And I hope he leaves it at that, but he pushes on. “Is she happy?” I turn and level my eyes to his. Happy? “Of course. She made CFO last year and makes six figures. And what do you do again? Are you happy?” He’s slow to the punch but I see the words hit this time. A crease forms at his forehead. That stupid, perpetually easy-going look is staggered now. Is it bad I find some pleasure in seeing him crumple a little? “I’m glad for her.” He says it flatly. But he doesn’t answer my question. Grace wanders back, unaware of the entire exchange. “Look, green ketchup.” She says holding up the monstrosity. Frank turns away from me, and affectionately puts an arm over her shoulder. Grace puts the bottle in the cart, and I follow them down the rest of the aisles. ~ * ~ It’s still awkward. And we are at the bakery section waiting for the pastry worker behind the counter to write on the cake that Grace selected. It’s this huge faux sheet cake made up of cupcakes. I find my escape, by volunteering to select veggies for the BBQ. I’m in the produce aisle when I spot the runner from behind a mountain of tomatoes. His back is turned so can’t see me. He’s not in his usual workout clothes, he’s in dark wash jeans and a black t-shirt. His hair is black or at least a very dark brown and it’s longer than most guys keep it. He’s wearing it pulled back and I wonder for a moment what it looks like freed. Then I notice who he is talking to. They’re friends? They don’t really look like friends; with Bryan’s attitude I’m surprised he even had friends. The runner is a little older, probably around my age, early 20’s. Why the hell would he bother to hangout with Bryan and his friends? I’m still too far away to hear their conversation. And it shouldn’t matter anyway. I grab a plastic bag and pick out a few tomatoes. And then the neat pyramid of them comes tumbling down before me. I scramble to stop the slide. I stack them all back as neatly as I can, but they keep falling. “Seriously. Dude.” That’s Bryan. I look away from the pile of produce. Just Bryan. Thankfully. I look past Bryan’s shoulder and notice the runner was gone. Hopefully he didn’t see all that. Although, how could he miss it? “What do you normally like on your burgers?” I ask, hands working quick to right the tomato stack. “Bacon.” He says, definitively. And before I have a moment to respond, he disappears back towards the checkout line.
  10. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 1

    Mikedup, Thank you so much for your input! I’ve been putting off sharing this story for quite some time and am so glad I finally chalked up the courage to do so! Next chapter will be longer and really begin to show where Evan is at currently and setup for the rest of the story. Ratio
  11. Ratio Harken

    Chapter 1

    “We’re here” Grace says. Between the train and the car, it has been hours of watching the scenery shift from cities to trees and several times back again in transient blurs of gray and green. And here, it is mostly green, interrupted only by the occasional glimpses of civilization showing through the trees. I have never visited the house before, but I know it even before the car slows on approach and the road shifts to gravel. The house straddles a junction where the road forks. As the car pulls in closer, I see other houses share the lane too. In the wide spaces between them, tall and full summer trees make their stand, wild and curving inward they swallow up rooftops. I get out of the car. Stretch but feel stiff, heavy and halfway dead; the summer heat only expedites the feeling. Hovering between the passenger side door I catch the last bit of AC as it wafts out of the car. But I face what’s in front of me. The house is multi-storied but narrow. A strange marriage of rustic wood paneling and wrap around windows. There is no front door facing the road, the door is on the side, like the entire house was just uprooted and dropped in from somewhere else entirely. Like it didn’t belong in this lonely backwater place but here it is. Here I find myself too. Farther up the face of the house I notice the large oval window that stands on the uppermost floor. It sits on the right of the house, asymmetrical and kind of cyclops like. I wonder if the entire house was built with this final vision in mind or were these details just misguided additions. Behind the glass of the hideous window I see a few houseplants are perched, basking in window sun. It’s uncanny—seeing it all live and in person. After all, I knew it only through pictures. A Christmas tree usually sat framed in the window. It was always Christmas. Since every year following the divorce, Frank would send a card with his new family posed out in front of the house. The card would always arrive after the holidays though, postmarked around New Year's like the afterthought it was. And inside the card, the scrawl was always short and simple variations of: Miss you. Come visit soon. - Dad I’m not sentimental, but then I also didn’t throw them away either. There are about six of them tucked away in a desk drawer back in New York City. It wasn’t just the cards either. For years, an invitation hung there between us, re-opened during every one of the cursory phone calls Frank and I shared. Major holidays, life events and birthdays I would get a call. It was rarely about anything at all, though, except for that one time. Uninvited the memory surfaces. It had been last October, too early before my birthday and the holidays. ‘Your father is on the phone’ my mom had said before she dropped the receiver in my lap, before I could make up an excuse to just not. And so, I listened as my dad complained about the Boston Red Sox’s win over the Yankees in the AL Division series. This was just an excuse to open with, and I knew it. I had asked, ‘Is everything ok?’ because often times a call out of the blue usually meant things weren’t. Was he in the hospital? Jail? Had he driven drunk into a reservoir again? But he had caught me off guard, when after a few moments his voice a little serious said through the receiver: ‘I know you’re busy at college and stuff, but it might be good for you to take a break sometime too. How about this Christmas?’ I remember how loud the static of the phone connection seemed. Like the entire conversation existed in an echo chamber. ‘Maybe?’ I had said, because I had to say something. That was still early in the fall when everything was fine. It was fine. Or at least, I thought everything was. I suppose it hadn’t been, if even my father who was barely in my life could see the crack before the fault line, somehow, despite being miles away. Right here, I estimate, kicking the driveway gravel at the spot. I would have stood right here and have posed for their stupid Christmas card if I had taken up the offer. I pull my bag out of the minivan and throw the duffel over my shoulder. I forget sometimes, until the pain reminds me. I switch it to the other side, the weight of the overstuffed duffel more manageable there. I brought the essentials to stay for about a week or two. I’m still not sure if I packed too little or too much. “We’re so glad you came.” Grace says to me, coming out and around from the driver’s side. I force a smile. “I’m happy to be here.” I say, but if I’m being honest—I’m not really sure if I want to be. But being here meant I didn’t have to be there. “Well, let me show you the inside.” She says and I follow her. Small and sharp black stones line the driveway and they crunch under our feet as we walk across to the side of the house. I look up at the trees again and the looming green canopy and it’s perpetual shade. Grace opens the door and motions me to go in first. I step into the dark entrance way. I stumble in, a little farther into the dark, and then stop short when something touches me at my ankle. The something snorts and darts around beneath me, its energetic movements scraping at the carpet. I stand still and wait for Grace to turn on the light. “Sorry, don’t mind Wrinkles, he’s a nut. Here’s the light” she says, and the light comes on. A small dog circles around my feet, ecstatic, as if I’m the most interesting thing in the world. After a few revolutions, the dog plops down on his haunches and peers up at me. His face is flat and he’s a stout thing all brown with a black muzzle. A pug. Wrinkles. The name fits. But then, I can’t help but to fixate on the oddity there. A single large brown eye looks up at me, wide and shining. The other is shut and hallowed. Gone, I realize. I bend and give the dog a scratch on his forehead. He leans into this—unselfconscious of affection, as animals so often are—and his little corkscrew tail wags behind him on the carpet. “Wrinkles, meet Evan.” Grace says. To the dog. I’m still kneeling on the carpet. The dog, seemingly all-knowing, looks up unblinkingly at the address and then level face back to me. He gives a gruff snort as if in affirmation and proceeds to dart a tongue out to lick the back of my hand. As if to say, ‘yeah, you’ll do’. I get back up. Grace is fiddling with the door again and I use the moment to look around. The first thing I notice is the dry bar to my right beside the door. An unlit neon sign decorates the interior wall and it’s some type of obscure craft beer brand I don’t recognize. Probably one of Frank’s many favorites. He claims to be sober for years now but claiming your something and actually being something are two entirely different things. I should know. And Frank being Frank, he probably didn’t even count beer as any conflict against sobriety. I look away and try to focus on the other details of the room. A stacked washing machine and dryer unit sit to the left of the front door underneath the room’s only natural light source. It’s a small narrow window that reminds me of a basement window despite being on level ground. Those huge windows I saw from the front must sit upstairs then I guess. Another door sits to the right and I determine by the outside layout that it could only be the closed garage behind the drive. The rest of the room is simple and small. Two brown loveseats occupy the space in front of a shallow stone walled fireplace. Some of Frank’s ancient DJ equipment sit in one of the corners neatly. “Come upstairs,” Grace says leading me up an enclosed staircase tucked away next to the loveseats. I follow her up, but I stop in my tracks at the first landing. The family photo wall greets me. There is the photo from last Christmas: Frank, Grace and her own son Bryan are pictured out in front of the house. They did the same kind of photo each year, and so I’m honestly surprised they don’t have all of them displayed in sequence. The rest are ones I don’t recognize: A family vacation on a beach somewhere. Photos of Bryan, in one of those multi frames displaying a awkward morph from this round little kid to jaded looking teenager. Frank and Grace pictured with people I don’t know. Events and parties I was never invited to. And then there is a larger photo of Frank and Grace at their wedding. I know it. It’s the one where Grace’s wedding dress is stained in front. That was my doing. I didn’t throw a drink on her, though I’m sure a lot of the guests thought I had. I was barely fourteen then and one of the caterers lowered a tray to me with champagne in long thin glasses. I had been carrying it back to the corner table I had claimed for myself, when Grace, mid trapeze across the dance floor, swept me off my feet. It had been an accident. I was mortified. The dress was ruined, and I remember the crowd around the scene had fallen silent. But her response was this effervescent laughter as clear and sparkling as the champagne had been. She continued to pull me in for a dance. The music cued and I was spinning. After, Frank and her danced. Her dress was ruined but she didn’t care. Before the wedding I had hated her. I was angry at the very notion of her. But I couldn’t after that. The photographer caught the moment—her smile caught in candid, Frank at her side looking the happiest I have ever seen him. That though, I still resented that. The next photo on the wall was a single frame of me. It was of my high school graduation three years ago now I guess. Frank couldn’t make it that day, so it was just me and mom. As it always was. As it is. I reach out and adjust the standalone panel. Straighten it. But it’s not quite… The dog whines besides me and he’s waiting for me to follow, so I do. But still I glance back, and my gaze lands on my photo again, and it looks off among the rest. I wonder if I go back and check behind the frame would I find a lighter shadow on the wall. I go up the last few stairs. I emerge at the top where Grace waits. The entrance way den was dark and uninviting, but the living is a different story altogether. It’s bright and airy despite the solid dark brown wood that continues upwards in wraparound railings lining the upstairs hallway to the other rooms. A sky light is set above the tall vaulted ceiling and opens the space of the living room dramatically. Sunlight falls in soft curtains to land on the dark hardwood floor below. The walls are beige and a large brown leather sofa makes up the sitting area. On the wall in front of the couch there is another fireplace with a tv mounted above it. I can smell the remnant scent of burning wood and notice the streaks of ashy soot on the fireplace stones behind the metal grate. I look back to the staircase and up to the next landing. On that landing a little mini jungle of assorted plants in pottery thrive in front of that large oval window seen from the street. But we don’t go up to the next floor. Instead we go straight through the living and around the corner near the open kitchen. There is a small narrow hallway tucked away beside it. “Your room is through here,” Grace says, and I follow. “This is the bathroom,” Grace indicates the first door. “And this is your room.” She opens the next. My room. Like I’m part of the family. This room, like the rest of the house, has dark wood floors and looking up I notice a dark wood paneled ceiling too. The panels seem heavy and should have a claustrophobic effect but despite that the guest room is as airy and sunlit as the living room. Probably because it is mostly windows. The walls of the room are painted blue and the decor theme alludes to beaches and seascapes painted in watercolor. Sea stars and sea fans pattern the bedspread and on one wall there’s a picture showing a single seabird in flight above a boat less bay. The windows don’t have actual blinds, just sheer lace curtains. They move slightly and I feel a breeze coming through, one of the windows is ajar. It’s more a sunroom then a bedroom. The room faces the street, lined up straight overlooking down the winding road that we drove up. From this vantage, I notice how the road seems to cut through the hills and the forest. Its curves, dip and dissolve into the greenery in places only to come back out in another spot with grey. Hidden bends among wild tufts of green. The roofs of the other houses are all so small and seem so far apart from here. I can’t appreciate it. My head feels a little like a snow globe all shaken up. And I know it isn’t just the ride. “I’m a little tired, honestly… can I just…” I pause and fail to compose the right words. There’s never a polite way to say it. That you really just want to be left alone. Especially in someone else’s home and as their guest. I set my jaw, not quite trusting myself in keeping that from just spilling out. “I understand,” Grace says. “No worries, sweetheart. Your dad comes home late, you have plenty of time. Take a nap if you’d like. I’ll wake you up later.” “Thanks,” I say and then she leaves. I give a sigh of relief and I’m alone. Feeling awkward and standing in this room that I can’t ever picture as my own. If even for the summer. I slip my duffel bag off from over my shoulder and place it on one of the dresser hooks. I can’t bother to unpack. I just drop down on the bed like a dead thing. It’s soft, and I curl up, burying myself under the covers. They smell new and feel cool to the touch. I close my eyes and fantasize about sleep devouring me. Eventually I let it happen and just sink.
  12. Ratio Harken

    Evergreen

    On paper, Evan’s life is perfect. He should be happy. But he takes up his estranged father’s offer to spend the summer at their home out of state anyway. Evan hopes to use the time and isolation to re-center and get back on track. But he learns over the course of the summer that getting on track means you have to be honest with not only where you are at, but where you would like to see yourself at the end.
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