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    Aaron Penrose
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The River Ran Backwards - 1. The River Ran Backwards

At 3:45 in the morning on February 7, 1812, an earthquake struck the southern United States. It was the third in a series of immeasurably violent quakes and it was felt over an area of more than a million square miles. A million miles. Seems unthinkable, doesn’t it? To give you an idea of what kind of an earthquake we’re talking about, here, the historic 1906 earthquake that wiped out eighty percent of San Francisco radiated tremors for approximately six thousand square miles. The continent of North America is approximately nine million square miles. That means one-ninth of a whole continent felt the rage of this hellish thing that punched its way through the earth and, according to one man, “laughed in the face of God.”

The final tremor of the February 7 quake was so strong that it caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards for several days according to eyewitness accounts, although some historians dispute that because it just seems so damn absurd. I won’t bore you with another volley of facts, but know that the drainage basin of the Mississippi River is the fourth largest in the world, exceeded only by the Congo, the Parana, and the Amazon, which means there is more water flowing through the veins of this muddy, ordinary little river than almost anywhere on Earth. No river as large as the Mississippi has ever reversed direction in recorded human history.

The words in my American History textbook begin to bleed together as I try to process this new information. I hate how textbooks are so incomplete. They tell you something fascinating, something genuine, and then they just gloss right over it and blithely tell you the next fact you must someday regurgitate for a grade. I skim the page and then check the index for more information about the quake, but there’s nothing. I slam the book closed irritably. How could anyone do that? How could you say something crazy like “the river ran backwards” and then… just… stop? It was an insult to the river.

I have always felt a certain kinship with the river. It has been there for me all my life. Looking at it now from our balcony, I can’t imagine it any different. The river has always been calm, manageable, tangible, even when it floods the levy and makes our yard soupy. And, like me, the Mississippi is profoundly misunderstood. I see hundreds of people by its side every day: couples smiling, city kids playing, old ladies jabbing their fingers at the floating mansion riverboats, but not really seeing. From the riverboats I can hear commentators drawling on about its rich history, about the Sultana and fearless Tom Lee in his motorboat, and do you know what the tourists do? They stand at the rails and toss French fries to the catfish. It’s a shame, really. Where is the awe? The amazement? The respect? My heart hurts for the Mississippi. There it is before them, this infinite, unknown, majestic thing that could sweep them all away in an instant, that could mold the very ground beneath their feet like clay, and all they care about is the stupid catfish. Up until today, I scoffed at their ignorance. Up until today, I thought like me, the Mighty Mississippi didn’t change for anyone. I thought both of us were too strong and too smart for that. But I was wrong. For a few fitful and uncertain days after the earthquake on that bitterly cold February morning, the river ran backwards, and that plain pisses me off.

“River, sweetheart, you should come inside. It’s so cold out. What are you doing out here without a coat on, honey?” Her voice is saccharine. It grates on my nerves.

“Okay, Mom. Just a few more minutes.” I lean against the wrought iron railing and hug my knees closer to my chest. I didn’t even realize I was cold until she said something. Now I’m shivering.

“Honey, please. Your father and I have something important to discuss with you. We’re ready in the living room.”

“If you want to talk, why not do it out here? You said yourself fresh air makes me a little less crazy sometimes. Maybe I’ll handle it better.” I lance my eyes to her face and find her looking away, shame clouding her features. Good.

“Okay, fine. I’ll be right back.” She returns in a moment with my father. He looks tired. There are bags under his eyes. Both of them stand just outside the sliding screen door, leaning against the beige brick. My dad has his hands stuffed into his pockets. He waits for a moment as if praying my mother will handle me, but when she just stares at him expectantly, he heaves a sigh and speaks.

“River, your therapist told us about the notebook.”

My heart starts to race.

Fuck. I am fucked. How the hell did she know about my notebook? My mom bites her lower lip nervously when she sees the panic on my face.

It takes me a long moment to collect my thoughts before I can respond. I swallow hard to dislodge the knot in my throat. I am so monumentally fucked. She must have gotten into my backpack somehow. When could she possibly have done that?

“And? What of it?” Nonchalance thinly veils my anxiety.

“And we’re concerned, to say the least. We thought you were making progress.”

“I am making progress.” A lie. My voice is shrill—strained. My palms are sweating and my pulse is racing the longer they stare at me like some kind of animal.

“Honey, when you obviously spend a considerable amount of time detailing all the morbidly creative ways you are going to dismember your classmates, I wouldn’t exactly call that progress.” My mom pipes up like she’s been waiting to chip in. I glare at her.

But I’m not actually doing any of that shit, am I? No. I’m just here, okay? I’m just looking at the river.

“Your therapist and your Dad and I think we need to make some… changes.”

The bubbling anger suddenly settles into my gut, cool and heavy. I’m prepared for this. I am. I have known for a long time they think this about me. I’m evil. I’m crazy. I regard her listlessly. My blank stare intimidates her and she looks again to my haggard father.

Remember when we all talked about poisonous pedagogy, Mom? How you got so uncomfortable you unraveled the seam of your sleeve and didn’t realize until you saw the heap of red thread?

“What kind of changes?” My voice does not waver.

Predictably, my father is the one to resume.

“We think you need to go to another facility, son. One that offers long-term intensive care. Lakeside isn’t helping us anymore. You’re shutting down again. Your therapist tells us you won’t talk in group, and when you do it’s only to deliberately freak the other kids out, and you’re not doing so well at school.”

Long-term intensive care. I smile grimly, but the understanding is not yet there. I’m still steadily sifting that rock-like fact into the recesses of my conscience. But my body is with me. I’m sitting perfectly still and my breathing is measured.

“I’m ranked number one in the class, Dad. By a really, really large margin. Why would you say I’m not doing well in school?”

“Come on, River. I realize everyone else must look like an idiot from your towering intellectual plateau, but your mother and I aren’t blind. We know kids are picking on you.”

“So you’re going to institutionalize me because I don’t play nice with the other kids? Doubtful. You’re doing this because you’re scared.” I turn to stare out at the water. When I look away I realize I’m shaking.

“We’re not scared of you, River,” my mom interjects. She sounds desperate.

You sure? Man, you should be. My nails are gnawing bloody moon shapes into my palms. The river looks calm now, but it could always drown you if it wanted.

“We’re going to take you somewhere you won’t have to worry about all the anxiety of school. You can focus on your recovery. That’s all we want. That’s why we’re taking you.”

I laugh quietly to myself. After a while, I shift my weight onto my hands and rotate my body and turn to face them.

“Welp, that seems pretty darn logical, Pops. When do we leave?”

My mom looks alarmed. The whites of her eyes are flashing in the low light as she looks between my father and me.

“Tomorrow afternoon. They do patient intake in the evening.”

“Right-o. Great. I’m clearly not freaking out about this, so I would really appreciate it if I could be left alone, now. Is that cool with you guys?”

They glance at each other. After a tense moment my father nods succinctly. I level them both with another blank stare and it isn’t long before they file back into the house. Both of them stupidly cross the living room and disappear down the hallway. For me being such a nutjob, they’re always laughably eager to leave me alone. I can only assume their negligence means they don’t care. Not that I mind one way or the other. Both of them stopped talking to me after the IQ test. That was four years ago.

I’m reminded of the cuts when I feel the heels of my palms throbbing dully. I turn over my hands. Four sickle-shaped cuts on each—like two squiggly red threads. My nails are chewed short and blunt, so they’re hardly bleeding. I flex my fingers. This is not the first time this has happened. Now and again, my mother pushes me over the edge, and I find myself with similar markings, etched into the skin impassively.

I finally stand up and both knees crack from sitting for so long. I affix my hands to the rail and stare out at the darkening sky. My heart is still racing, but beneath the nerves there is this torrential current of calmness—I have never felt anything quite like it before. I feel as if I’m being swept away, but I am in control of it and of myself. I’m anxious, but I feel heightened, my wits sharpened to a fine and dangerous edge.

I’m going to run away.

Drastic as the idea is, it only seems appropriate given the circumstances. It is merely the next logical step. Up until now I have endured the insults of shrinks and then in-patient therapy without argument, but being committed to a fucking loony bin is where I draw the line. Sometimes I think they want me to be crazy just because I scored a few points higher than Einstein on an IQ test. They want to believe it’s impossible to be as intelligent as I am and not be completely mental. They’re afraid of what River is capable of.

It baffles me that they think I’m insane. From where I stand, I look like the sane one. Doesn’t everyone think about murdering the people who make their lives a living hell? They should. They must. How could you not want to dismember someone who throws food at your back every day and screams over the clamor of a lunch room that you’re a freak? My anger is rational and Tommy Yarbrough deserves to be drawn and quartered. How can they not see that?

I turn and look over my shoulder at the dark, looming shape of our posh Midtown house on the Riverfront. An elegant black lancet arch faces the water and the entire side of the house is glass, so that when the sun sets, dim traces of dappled light from the water’s surface dance across the living room ceiling. It’s built quite high on a hill to minimize the chances of flooding, and the drop looks nauseating. I gulp. I must not let my apprehension compel me to do anything rash. Every bone in my body is screaming at me to flee, to inch my way down the building and run full-throttle away from this hellhole, but I know I must wait until my parents are sleeping.

I squeeze the railing tightly and take a deep breath. Now that the sun is setting, most of the civil crowd is making their way back to their cars and the kids in hoodies are emerging. Quiet is slowly settling over the Mississippi. As the noise of the city dies away, I can hear the steady thrumming of the river and suddenly the smell of mud is strong in my nose. I inhale deeply. The union of my senses centers me and I close my eyes. Nothing is more serene than the Mississippi at dusk. Goosebumps creep up my arms as the last light fades from the sky. When it’s dark, I pry my stiff hands from the rail and go inside.

Neither of my parents speaks to me for the two hours before they go to bed. After the third time my mother passes by the door-less entryway to my room, peering in expectantly, I begin to pack a suitcase. As I methodically fold jeans and tee shirts, hazy plans swirl through my mind. I’m almost certain I will be able to follow the river undetected. A shadowy teenager will not look at all out of place among the crowd that populates the river walk at night. When I reach the bridge, I can cross to Arkansas and complicate matters for the police. Then I can disappear into the dense woods surrounding the interstate for a few days while I wait for the search to die down. Afterwards I’m not quite sure where I’ll go, but I’ll probably hitch a ride with a trucker or something and get as far away from this abhorrent city as possible. In one year and ten months I’ll be eighteen, and then I will be free. I’m bitter that I won’t graduate as the Valedictorian, and thus will forfeit my dream of going to an Ivy League college where I might find others like me. But my mind is made up. I’m going to do this.

When my parents shut their bedroom door, I empty the remainder of my books from my backpack. In it I put three changes of clothes, my Nintendo 3DS, an assortment of games, and the five hundred dollars cash I won at the Science Fair. I wait for about forty five minutes and then I tiptoe to the kitchen. I take six granola bars, a handful of beef jerky, some packs of crackers, and three bottles of water. Then I key in the passcode to the alarm system, ease the door closed, and set out across the yard at a brisk stride with my hood up. I tuck the chin-length tendrils of my hair into the hood to make myself less recognizable. As an afterthought, I backtrack and quickly fold up the tarp covering the grill, which is then stored inside the backpack.

I grip the shoulder straps tightly as I trek down the river walk toward the bridge, the freezing air searing open my lungs. I keep my head down so that my features are shrouded in shadow and do not look up to meet the eyes of any of the people I’m passing. Most of them are clusters of the wannabe-gangster types, and a few of these call out to me curiously, but I keep my eyes on the black line of the bridge bisecting the murky skyline.

A group of kids who look almost my age are huddled around a bench—two girls seated side-by-side and three guys hovering over the two of them. They’re dressed like the stereotypical “goth” kids who loiter in the mall, in the band tees and the black oversized jeans littered with zippers and chains. I bypass them as well, my eyes trained on the concrete, not bothering to examine any of their faces.

“River?”

Hearing my name stuns me to an abrupt standstill and I look over my shoulder. It’s then that I recognize one of the girls. Her eyes are glittering with amusement and her lips are curled into a mean snarl. I also know two of the guys. I have French III with one of them and the person who spoke is the boy who stares.

I blanch. Then I abruptly keep walking, my heart pounding loud in my ears with embarrassment. The girls burst into poorly-muffled giggles and I quicken my stride, but the one who stares chases after me.

“Wait, River, is that you?” He jogs up and falls into step beside me, bent over to try and see beneath my hood.

His name is Matthew Crawford. He’s a year older than me, so we don’t have any classes together, but every time I catch a glimpse of this guy in my peripheral, I can sense that he’s staring, and so I avoid his eyes. Last year it wasn’t so bad since I never saw him except at school-wide functions, but this year his locker is in the same hallway as mine, and I have to walk past him all the time. And he stares. It’s puzzling. Sometimes he turns and straightens his shoulders as if he might speak to me, but I always turn my head so my hair shields my face and hurry past.

My stomach is in knots and my cheeks are burning. What does he want? Why is he doing this? This is the last fucking thing I need right now. I was feeling so confident about my decision to leave, and now this. I’m already on edge and I’m not sure I can endure more ridicule. I turn my face away and again quicken my stride, hoping to God he just loses interest.

“River, dude, slow down, would you? I just want to talk to you.”

I keep walking.

“Hey.” He shoulders his way in front of me, forcing me to halt with his much larger and bulkier form. To my incredible chagrin there are tears in my eyes.

“What?” I hiss, staring determinedly out at the water instead of him.

All of a sudden I feel his hand cup my chin and he rotates my head to face him, forcing me to meet his soft brown eyes. The contact frightens me and I gasp, then jerk away from him, scrambling backwards to put some distance between us.

He smiles gently and throws his hands up in the universal display of innocence.

“Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you! I just… I’m so tired of you not looking back, God damn it. You’re always hiding behind all that hair and now that you’re actually within reach, I just... I got carried away.”

I don’t know what to make of this. I give him an appraising once-over but choose to remain silent until his motives become clear. The other kids are making an uproar in the background and my palms are starting to sweat.

A long moment passes wherein his eyes wander around my face. Being a rather accomplished starer myself, I gaze into his eyes, giving him my best intimidating leer, but he just keeps staring at me with the most contemplative look on his face. He has a little crease between his eyebrows he’s thinking so hard. It’s cute. Wait, what?

After a moment, he sighs wistfully.

“Wow, you’re prettier than I thought.” He seems to realize the sheer absurdity of that statement and laughs uneasily, and then rubs the back of his neck. “I’m sorry—I don’t mean to act like such a fucking creeper. I have just been trying to work up the nerve to talk to you for, like, two years now—since I transferred in from Shadowlawn. You’re not the easiest guy to approach, you know?”

“Matty, what the fuck are you doing talking to that weird kid, huh?! You know he’s a fuckin’ psycho!” It’s the girl from before. I try to skirt my way around him when he diverts his attention to her for a moment, but he braces his hands on my shoulders and stops me.

The contact makes my stomach turn. Chills race down my spine. I panic and try to wrench away but he just tightens his grip, his big, strong hands warming my biceps through the fabric of my sweatshirt.

“Would you stop being such an asshole and just stay put for a minute?” he growls. I glare at him defiantly but stay rooted to the spot, my chest heaving as I try to calm down. I can’t stand to be touched.

“Go eat a dick, Marissa!” he calls out to her cheerily. He then turns his attentions back to me. “Okay, now will you please at least, just… walk with me for a bit?”

“No. I have somewhere to be. Get out of my way.”

Now he’s glaring.

“No. What the hell is your problem, anyway? Why the dark aura all the time?”

“I don’t have a problem. I just want you to move, please, so I can get where I’m going.” My voice has gained pitch with anxiety and it upsets me more. His eyes soften and I look away. He releases my shoulders.

“May I walk with you where you’re going, then? Come on, River. Am I right in my assumption you’re a little lacking in the friends department? Just talk to me for a minute, bro.”

I hesitate. This is uncharted territory.

“I’m not making fun of you and I’m not trying to hurt you. Whatever is going on in that big brain of yours, it isn’t true. I just…” He swallows nervously. “This may sound really stupid, but you still look like you’re about to bolt as soon as I move, so I don’t see any reason not to say this, but, uh… I, um… Fuck it, I want to be there for you, okay? It’s mega fucked up the way everyone treats you. I just want to be your friend. And besides that, I think you’re sexy as all get-out and I’m really, really hoping you’re into guys, but let’s stick with the first thing I said, because that sounded way better. Although I am totally perving on you big time. Like, big time. But yeah, uh, friends, primarily altruistic motives, not a stalker—just exhibiting stalkerish behavior.” He laughs nervously again.

I cannot recall a moment in my life when I felt more absolutely dumbfounded. I’m speechless. A few seconds pass before I realize my mouth is hanging open and I clench my jaw shut. I gulp. No one has ever called me sexy before, and I’m finding it incredibly hard to process any of this with his friends still shouting at him in the background. A switch is flipped in my mind. He’s saying all this to make fun of me somehow. He must have seen the change in my face because as soon as the thought crosses my mind, he heaves a frustrated sigh.

“Look, I can’t make you walk with me. But if you do, I swear to be a veritable wellspring of scintillating conversation.”

I smile despite myself. His face splits into a shit-eating grin.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Is that the way to your heart, then? Because dude, if a capacious vernacular gets you going, I’m in your pants already. I know I don’t look like it, but I read a lot.”

That surprises me. He’s right—I would never have pegged him as a reader just looking at him. He has on black pants with red stitching and an assortment of chains, a ragged pink bandana dangling from his back pocket, a Team Jacob shirt (Oh Christ, minus ten points), an unzipped black hoodie, and his eyes are rimmed with smoky black liner. His hair is cut in that stereotypical “emo” kid style, with long bangs in front that obscure half of his face, but the back is neatly buzzed. He’s also quite tall, and even though his arms are covered by his oversized jacket, his shirt is stretched pleasantly across his chest, hinting at musculature underneath. I have no idea why that suddenly concerns me.

“Uh-hm…” I clear my throat. What the hell is wrong with me? I know what I want to say, but as soon as I glance up at his face, the words simply leave me. I give him a nervy, watery smile as the uncomfortable silence drags on while I fight to formulate a fucking coherent thought.

“Uh… Sorry, this is all sort of… sudden. Really sudden. I’m not sure if a capacious vernacular is the way to my heart or not, but it’s certainly something I admire. I, um… I guess you can walk with me if you want. For a while.” The police would be searching for a single kid on the run.

“Righteous.” He fist pumps and I smile involuntarily at his enthusiasm, but reach up to cover it with my hand. Why are there butterflies in my stomach? No one has ever talked to me in this manner before. Was he right about me being gay? The thought doesn’t trouble me—I have nothing against gay people. The notion just never entered my mind. I think I might prefer being gay, anyway, not that it matters. Sex has always been out of the question, on the furthest fringe of my consciousness—something people only did in porn or to spite one another.

“Well, then, River,” he continues as he steps out of the way, “answer my question from earlier, compadre. Why the perpetual dark aura? It’s like you’re shutting everyone out on purpose. You trudge around everywhere with your head down and that scraggly curtain of hair in your face, frowning like somebody just kicked your puppy. Frowning gives you premature wrinkles, you know. What’s it all for?”

When he steps aside, I take the initiative and start walking. He falls into step between the river and me.

“Geez, I don’t know, maybe because everyone at school makes fun of me? What else am I supposed to do? Smile and laugh about it?”

He frowns and regards me for a while as he mulls over what I said.

“Well… Yeah. If nothing else, laughing about it would make you seem a lot less freaky. Everyone makes fun of you because you open yourself up to it, dude. You’re just so easy, what with the big blue eyes, long hair, mismatched clothes, and the smarts. My old school would have eaten you alive, bro. You’re lucky. Everyone made fun of me because I was one of two white kids in my entire class, and the other girl was ghetto fabulous to the max, so she fit in with that crowd. I just had to accept that they were going to make fun of me. When I laughed with them, making fun of my skin lost its novelty and they let it go.”

“I’d rather not have friends than concede my dignity like that. They’re not worth my time, anyway. Not one of them.”

He tilts his head curiously and squints at me for a moment as if trying to read me.

“And why does it have to be a concession of your dignity? Why not look at it as an inadvertent way of standing up for yourself?”

I don’t have an answer for that. He sees my puzzlement and presses on, encouraged.

“And furthermore, how can you say none of us are worth your time if you don’t know anyone? Substantiate your blanket statements, River. For supposedly being such a brainiac, you seem kinda stupid.”

I whip my head to face him, teeth gritted, lips snarled as I prepare to tear into him, but he… throws his head back and laughs. My anger wilts somewhat as I stare at him in utter confusion.

“Oh, God, you are something else! Don’t be so fucking predictable. Live and let live a little, bro—I’m just yanking your chain.”

I cross my arms sullenly. What the hell is this guy’s problem? What is he trying to prove?

“Aww, you’re cute when you pout. What are you doing out here, anyway? I hang out down here a lot and I’ve never seen you. Then again you are the master of stealth.”

I sniffle dejectedly. I’m tempted to ignore him after the little stunt he just pulled, but for some reason, I decide to humor him.

“I sneaked out to go for a walk. What are you doing out here?” I keep my voice flat on purpose to seem disinterested.

“Oh, I get up to all a manner of mischief out here. I love to go tagging. We also do typical teenager things—drink, smoke, whatever. We like to come out here ‘cause the cops generally stay far away from all the pimps and dealers that set up shop at night. Plus all the rich people live up the hill on the Riverfront and they hate a commotion near their prime real estate.”

“Hm. What’s tagging?”

“Graffiti—duh. Would you like to see some examples of my artwork?”

I snort derisively.

“As if anyone would call that artwork. You’re the reason the city looks so damn bad from the water.”

“River, I’m hurt. You’re killing me with the blanket statements. At least let me show you some of my stuff before you say I’m defacing the city.”

“I couldn’t care less about the city, but I love this river.” The admission surprises me a little. I never doubted that I loved the river, but this is the first time I have vocalized it.

“Well, fine—before you say I’m defacing your beloved river, then. Come on.” He suddenly seizes my hand and begins to drag me onto the grass, but I yank it away instinctually. He stops and frowns at me.

“You really have a problem with being touched, huh? You about had an aneurysm when I grabbed your shoulders earlier.” He keeps walking across the grass and I follow him without hesitation.

“I guess so, yeah.” I’m not sure what else to say. It’s true that I despise being touched—I have for as long as I can remember. I suppose I just haven’t had enough positive physical contact to desensitize me to it. I shrug my backpack onto one shoulder uncomfortably.

“Why?”

I’m silent for a long time. Finally he bumps his shoulder into mine and repeats his question.

“Ugh, I don’t know. If you want me to tell you I was molested or something, sorry—never happened. Believe me, I wish there was an accompanying story that explained it all. I was just born like this, I guess.”

I glance over at him and all of a sudden I’m face-down in the dirt, shoots of grass crammed up my nose, and all the breath is gone from my body, knocked clean from me when the motherfucker leapt onto my back and tackled me. My backpack slips from my shoulder and falls to the ground beside me with a dull ‘thud.’

“FUCK!” I wail, flailing about as I fight to get an elbow under me. “What the fuck was that?! Ugh, shit, I can’t breathe—get the fuck off me already, asshole!”

But for all my struggling, he just lounges atop me, keeping my skinny form pinned to the ground with minimal effort.

“This is what happens when you spend too much time with your nose in a book, babe.” He leans forward to whisper against the shell of my ear and his breath fans across the side of my face and neck, stilling me almost instantly. “Bigger guys tackle you and hug you.”

I can actually hear him grinning, the bastard. He then wraps both of his long arms around my torso as much as he can and… hugs me.

At first I’m afraid. Panic starts to bubble up in my throat. I can’t be restrained like this. I can’t… I fight, but he only tightens his hold, and that’s when I notice how warm he is. Some great thing I can’t name surges within me, makes my breath short, and the terror begins to fade away.

“Sorry I had to throw you down and all, but I knew there was no way in hell you’d let me do this otherwise, so. I guess I’m not sorry. Are you enjoying your hug down there?”

I don’t want to talk. This feels so good. This feels. So. Good. I just want him to hold me here forever. I’m afraid if I say anything, it will stop. He’s positively radiating heat and he’s so big and his chest is pressed flush against my back so I can feel every ridge of his muscles. We’re breathing almost in unison. I want to say, yes, this feels amazing, you feel amazing, please never leave me, but of course my pride won’t let me.

“No,” I grind out, kicking my feet for emphasis. “This is hardly a hug… More like cuddle rape.”

He laughs and his chest shudders against my shoulders.

“Well said, sir. Well said.”

Silence lapses for a moment. I think both of us are more than a little preoccupied with the compromising position. The lower half of his body is angled slightly to the side so nothing is touching, but if he moved a few inches to the right, his groin would be pressed right up against my ass. My cheeks heat up at the thought, but initially appealing as the idea seems, I’m scared. I just met him. I’m still not totally convinced he isn’t about to humiliate me in some way. And I have no idea how to act. What are you supposed to do when someone comes onto you like this? I have never stopped to consider the possibility that someone might actually… flirt with me. Fuck, I’m not sexy. Nothing about me is sexy. I register as negative on the sexy scale. What if he doesn’t want to be around me anymore when he figures out that I’m clueless? What if he thinks I’m not interested because I’m so… just… inept? When I feel his fingers in my hair, my body goes rigid, and he sits up right away.

“Sorry,” he whispers as he climbs to his feet and offers me his hand. “Told you I was perving on you. Don’t look and smell so damn good the next time I knock you down and we won’t have this problem.”

I grab the offered hand and haul myself to my feet. I move to take my hand back, but he holds it fast, the pad of his thumb pressed into the center of my palm as he examines it closely.

The cuts. Cold dread settles into my gut. I’m always pathetically ashamed of self-harm. Now he knows I really am a freak. It was stupid to think I could hide it. I yank my hand away and shove both into the pockets of my jacket. He’s looking down his nose at me, pity written all over his face, and for the second time today I feel like a caged animal.

“What?” I spit out, my nails skimming the sickle-shaped scabs. They still sting.

“Nothing. I just… I wish you weren’t so stressed out is all. What happened?”

His voice is a low whisper and it soothes me. Some of my anxiety subsides when he doesn’t jump to a conclusion like I thought he would. Everyone else does.

“Parents.”

“Ah. Well, we’ve all been there. Mind if I ask you to elaborate?” He bends to pick up my backpack and holds open one of the straps for me. I slip my arm through and mutter a distracted “thanks.” He just nods and starts walking again, and I fall into step beside him.

“Well… This may come as a huge surprise, but I’m in therapy.”

He snickers and I smile at having made him laugh.

“So you do have a sense of humor—nice. Go on.”

“Yeah. Anyway, my therapist told my parents some stuff she shouldn’t have, and long story short, they want to have me committed.”

He frowns unhappily at that.

“Committed? Like, they want you to go to Lakeside? Lakeside isn’t bad, bro. I have lots of friends who went there for drugs.”

“No, I’m already in Lakeside. I go to in-patient therapy after school every day. They want me to go to a real mental hospital.”

“Why? You’re obviously not crazy.”

“Right? That’s what I said. I do have a bit of a history of violent behavior. I mean, it’s always completely warranted, though. It’s always in retaliation for something. I don’t just, like, go around stabbing people as a hobby or anything.”

I was hoping to make him laugh again, but he just stares at me perplexedly, and I press my lips together and avert my eyes.

“Last I checked, violence is never okay. I’m sure if you asked Charles Manson why he had seven people killed, he would say it was in retaliation, too. Actually it was to precipitate a race war, but he is actually crazy and you’re not, so. My point stands.”

“I’m not so sure it does. Are you comparing me to Charles Manson because I stick up for myself sometimes? I mean, I think the worst thing I’ve ever done is stabbed a guy in the hand with a scalpel, and that was only because he threw a shark dick at me and I got all covered in formaldehyde. I didn’t even do it that hard. I hardly think that’s comparable with murder.”

He tries to stifle a laugh at the bit about the shark dick.

“Is that why they won’t let you take art classes anymore? Too many sharp utensils?”

“Uh-huh. How’d you know that?”

“Everyone knows. You’re the most popular target for random animosity—even with the teachers. Well, I think Ilene Reynolds might have it as bad as you do. The girls are so horrible to her about her thighs. Do you know she has a glandular problem? Anyway, dude, don’t you think it’s as easy to pull a trigger as it is to stab someone with a scalpel?”

“Well… Yeah, I guess so. What’s your point?”

“If you had a gun the day you stabbed that kid, wouldn’t you have blown a hole in his head? Or at least in his arm or leg?”

“Obviously.”

“Then tell me: what’s the difference between you and someone slightly better-equipped?”

“Damage output, I suppose.”

“Exactly—there isn’t one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you’re crazy or anything, but you can’t lead your whole life with that much anger inside you, man. Eventually, you’re really going to hurt someone. What if one day a horny, drunk gay shark comes up and grinds on you at the club? Think of the poor shark, River.”

I can’t help it; I giggle uncontrollably at that. But deep down, something within me is unsettled. Is he right? Is there no better distinction between myself and a real killer? Someone who’s really insane?

“I’ll keep that in mind in case I ever have to contend with a horny, drunk gay shark.”

“You better. The feds have been pretty good about prosecuting hate crimes against gay marine life lately. I’d hate to see you end up behind bars.”

As soon as I’m about to come back with another smartass comment, he halts, and I almost collide with his back. I stumble a bit and then orient myself with the surroundings.

“And here we are.”

He has led us up a side street dotted with the remains of old, rotting buildings, all of them covered in graffiti. The one before us is still in moderately good repair. On an enormous wood panel, nailed over what was probably at one time a glass storefront, is a hastily-painted picture of a square, teal monster in a brown fedora. It’s frowning dismally and has u-shaped buck teeth, and to the right is a speech bubble that says, “INVE$T IN GOOD TIME$!”

Some of the drawing has splintered away, but the lines are still dark and the message bold. I swallow heavily. It’s beautiful. How should I tell him?

“I did this one three years ago, just before I transferred to our school. My dad had just found some success in the stock market. After he read enough books to know what he was doing, he took out all of our savings and invested. He really did his homework; in just a few years, he made thousands of dollars, quit his day job, and bought us a nice house on the other side of town. We were poor all of our lives before that—so poor we could barely feed ourselves. But we were always together. Dad came home from his job at the Chuck Hutton warehouse every day, and even though he would be so exhausted he could barely sit up long enough to play COD with my brothers and me, he was there. Every night, for as long as he could stay awake. Now he stays gone or on the phone all the time. Now he has to be this big, badass businessman, and apparently that also means absentee fatherhood. I miss him. My dad’s a cool guy.”

I watch his profile intently as he gazes up at the plywood mural, his luminous amber eyes lingering on the imperfections: the squiggly, rough outlines, the mostly-missing “M,” and the mold creeping up the wood. It’s… intimate. In his eyes and in that silly, farcical little drawing is such a profound sense of loss that it makes my chest ache. He’s beautiful washed in the orange glow of the street lamps, and I notice his eyelashes are blonde.

“… I’m sorry,” I stammer, frustrated that I can’t come up with anything better to say to ease some of his hurt. Something, anything personal with feeling, meaning, but I have nothing. I can’t imagine missing the company of my own parents. Looking at him now, I’m almost glad I don’t care for them. Almost. It must be very hard to be disowned by someone you love.

He turns and flashes me a bright smile, and the longing is gone.

“Nothing to be sorry about. We’re living much better, now, so I suppose it’s a good thing. Still think graffiti can’t be artwork?”

“No, I don’t.” This is the first time in a long time I have admitted to being wrong. But I was wrong—dead wrong. I’ve never seen anything so plain, so crude and so eloquent. “It’s beautiful, Matthew,” I whisper, and I don’t even realize I spoke until he turns again to look at me, smiling.

“Thank you. This seemed like the right one to show you. It was actually my first tag. And I’m quite pleased that you know my name. I was starting to think you really didn’t care to know it.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeat, and I feel… stupid. Bereft. I do care. Why doesn’t he know? Can’t he see it? How am I supposed to tell him? The incredible urge to tell him he matters wells up within me, but I can’t speak; the valve is shut, and my ribs feel as if they will surely burst if I don’t tell this boy I care.

He looks at me oddly and chuckles a little.

“I don’t know what you’re apologizing for, but it’s okay. Wanna see some more of my artwork? There’s more inside and on the back wall.”

“Yes,” I gasp, still struggling to tame the thing screaming at me to tell him something—anything at all so that he knows what he’s doing to me.

When he turns to walk down the alleyway, I watch him retreat for a few agonizing moments until I can’t suppress it any longer.

“Matthew,” I call after him, and my voice is shaking, but I press on when he turns to look at me over his shoulder. “I’m sorry I didn’t… Believe you, I guess. I didn’t believe you just wanted to be friends.”

I seem to have his interest, because he turns to face me. My hands are shaking. I can’t look at his face, so I stare instead at the crumbling sidewalk.

“I want… Fuck, I just… I’ve known your name for a long time and I do care. I cared as soon as you followed me. I care that your dad did that to you, too. I’m just… out of practice at this whole communication thing.”

Suddenly he’s in front of me, just a hair’s breadth away, and I look up to find him smiling knowingly, his eyes bright, open and permissive and perfect as can be.

“Thank you,” he husks, and like before, my anxiety subsides under the sedative power of his closeness. He inhales as if to continue, but I lurch forward and throw my arms around his waist before he can say anything, my head rested comfortably against his chest.

“Whoa, there.”

Clearly he wasn’t expecting me to grab him like that, but after the initial shock passes, he envelops my trembling form in his arms and chuckles lowly. His chest rumbles against my cheek and I want to melt into him.

His hand moves up to cup the back of my neck through the fabric of my hood, cradling my head against his chest. It isn’t long before I’m calm. His other hand snakes beneath the backpack and smoothes up and down my lower back, easing the tension away.

“Don’t worry—most people I meet don’t rightly know how to communicate with one another, either. But in their case, it’s just plain shittiness, not ignorance. You’re sweet. Thank you for telling me that and thank you for the hug. I know that was a big deal for you.”

“Yeah,” I mumble, and fist my hands tight in the material of his jacket as I hold him close. “You’re pretty sweet yourself.”

“Thank you—I try.”

He lets me hold him, his hands wandering idly over as much of my back as he can reach with the restriction of the backpack. After a while, I rotate my head, press my nose intimately into the cleft between his pectorals, and breathe in the smell of dryer sheets and stale cologne. I hear and feel him inhale sharply, my head shifting slightly as his lungs expand.

I can feel his eyes on me. I want to look up, but I’m afraid of what will happen if I do. So I stay where I am for a while, just listening to the steady drumming of his heartbeat, my eyes closed.

“Matthew?”

“Hm?”

“Thank you. For being here for me, I mean. This feels nice.”

“It does, doesn’t it? Maybe we should do this more often, yeah? But in any case, you’re welcome. I’m glad to be of service.”

I release him and retreat a few steps. As his arms slide away, he catches my right hand and laces our fingers together, then leads me down the alley. His calloused palm rasps against the cuts and they smart a bit, but I hold his hand tightly nonetheless.

Unlike the street, the alley is shrouded in darkness. He pauses once and instructs me to step over a pothole, which I barely manage to clear without tripping. There is a lot of debris underfoot, from fallen beams to shingles to wads of newspaper, but Matthew knows where to go, and he leads me gently by the hand. We come to a section of the wall that’s crumbled all the way to the ground, creating a triangle-shaped entryway just barely big enough for a person. He lets go of my hand, swings one long leg into the opening, and disappears inside. I follow his lead and do the same.

The inside of the building smells strongly of mold. I wrinkle up my nose and look around at all the graffiti on the walls, although I can barely make out any of it in the consuming darkness. Matthew taps his phone for a moment, and the room is illuminated when he turns on his Flashlight app. The walls are bursting with color from floor to sagging ceiling. Names, dragons, tigers, and anime girls in shutter shades peer back at me, impudent in their stillness, for each is so lively and so beautifully rendered, they look as if they might leap right off the wall.

Matthew stands in the center of the room and moves his phone about as he admires the microcosm of artwork. I’m amazed. I move to stand beside him and follow the dim bluish light of the phone, mesmerized by what I’m seeing. I can scarcely believe my eyes. Are all the empty buildings downtown similarly decorated?

He seems to read my thoughts.

“Not all of these old buildings are all tagged up like this. This one sort of became a repository for everyone to compete with each other when we discovered that several of the best guys in the city were working here. So, obviously, everyone else jumped on board. We’re quite the competitive bunch. I don’t have half the technical skill of the guys who did most of this room.”

He keeps his phone poised midair and makes his way to the opposite wall, his baggy pants stirring up clouds of dust from the floor. I follow wordlessly. He stops before what appears to be a colorful splash of letters, arrows and swirling water droplets jutting out onto the faded graffiti beside it. It’s generic, and it isn’t quite as detailed as the other works, but the bold sunset colors are breathtaking. Like the investor monster outside, the black outlines are a bit rough, and colors protrude from beneath them in a few places.

“It’s still beautiful,” I breathe, and I mean it. “I mean, it does look a little less refined, but the colors are nice.”

“Thanks. I have a bad habit of getting way too consumed with the painting aspect. By the time I get ready to line it, I’m so excited about the pretty colors, and my arms are already so damn tired, that I get messy and lose all the definition. I did this too.”

He shifts a few steps to the right and moves his phone closer to the wall to show me a smaller image. This one is a sketchy rendition of three guys with afros and colorful Hawaiian shirts sitting in a semicircle, back-to-back, all of them smoking and looking rather forlorn. Upon closer examination, I notice that all of their dark, curly hair is actually tendrils of smoke. There appears to be a speech bubble to the right, but someone else has painted over it, obscuring all but the words “How should,” and right beneath it, “of this.”

“These are my three best friends from Shadowlawn. I still talk to them sometimes, but only one of them has seen this. It was supposed to say, “How should we dream of this place without us?” but I guess someone didn’t like my little poetry blurb. It’s from Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet.” They were forming a rap group called The White Tee Prophets, so it seemed appropriate.”

I giggle quietly, but I’m quite impressed that he also apparently reads work of the poet laureates in addition to Twilight.

“Aren’t you just a regular little intellectual?” I quip, smiling up at him from my place beside him.

“Eh, I wouldn’t call myself an intellectual. Pseudo-intellectual, maybe—I love to play the smart kid. Politics and other practical matters bore the fuck out of me, though. I just love to read. I’ll read anything that’s printed. If someone took the time to write it, why shouldn’t I take the time to read it, you know? Seems like the courteous thing to do.”

“I suppose it is. I like to read, too, but I usually find fiction a waste of time. I do most of my reading as part of research.”

“Oh? What kind of research?”

“Anything that strikes my fancy, really. Lately pandemics have been consuming most of my time, namely the evolutionary history of the plague virus. Microbial pathogenicity has always fascinated me.”

He gives me a wall-eyed stare like he’s afraid I’m about to launch into something way over his head. I suppress a smile, and then backtrack.

“Microbial pathogenicity is just a fancy way of saying how infectious something is—how much potential a strain of bacteria has to cause disease. I dunno. I developed a sort of morbid fascination with the plague after all the zombie apocalypse hype started. I find it funny that we’re all so worried about a fictional virus reanimating us and turning us into cannibals, but no one cares about a real disease that exterminated people like nothing else in history.”

“No one cares because it’s gross, man. I think I saw a picture of a bubo one time on some African guy, and that effectively quelled any desire I had to investigate more. Zombies are cool. And fictional, which makes them much easier for us laypeople to digest.”

I heave an indignant huff and cross my arms.

“Well I think the plague is cool and zombies are the gross products of media culture, so there.”

He grins and inches his way around me, gingerly avoiding a network of fallen rafters from a collapsed section of the ceiling. I lean away, giving him some room to maneuver, but I’m painfully conscious of how close he is. His face is lit by the glow of the phone, and the bluish light illuminates his white teeth and his delicate blonde lashes.

I don’t realize I’m staring until he chuckles darkly and I catch his eyes. He pauses, but I blush and look away, and he mercifully continues past me, then turns and offers his hand. I force a smile and take it. He squeezes my hand once, and the simple gesture is so wildly comforting I wish I’d just kissed him.

My heart is still fluttering when we emerge into the alley. This time he doesn’t release me as he clears the pile of bricks, and I clamp my hand onto his for support as I stumble into the blissfully clean air.

“Must suck to be short. With the long hair you kinda look like a girl from the back.”

“I what?!” I splutter, my newfound confidence completely dispelled.

He throws his head back and laughs, and I’m so upset by the jab at my appearance that I snatch my hand from him. But he just keeps laughing, and my pride continues to wither, until I’m nearly on the verge of tears. What the hell is he playing at? He told me not thirty minutes ago he thought I was sexy. What happened? Why is he laughing at me again? I knew this was all some ploy to humiliate me—it always is. How could I have been so stupid?

Matthew finally turns, still grinning madly, but his smile disappears when he sees my face.

“Hey, whoa, come on. What’s wrong?” He moves close, but I step to the side so he can’t back me against the wall.

“The fuck are you laughing at, asshole?” I meant to sound fierce, but my voice cracks under the threat of tears.

“Asshole? Where is this coming from, huh? You—” he prods me roughly between the eyes, which makes my head rock back and my temper flare to an inferno, “—have got to learn to laugh at yourself sometimes, girly.”

“You said I look like a fucking girl from behind and you called me girly just now! How’s that funny?! I thought you thought I was…” I trail off and cant my eyes to the concrete.

To my incredible dismay, he laughs again, and by this point I’m mad enough to storm away, my hands shoved into my pockets.

“Whoa, whoa, River!” I hear him chase after me, but I keep walking up the street, my head down to hide my eyes.

His long legs make escaping him impossible. He matches two of my strides with only one of his and keeps pace with me easily.

“I’m sorry, okay? You’re just so hilarious I can’t help myself, which is a good thing! What are you trying to run away from me for, huh?”

But I can’t hear him. I’m still drowning in the vivid memory of him laughing, his face split in two by that malicious grin. How could anyone be so cruel? How could he lead me on like that and then just laugh at me? Why go through all that work if you’re just going to fucking laugh at me?

“River.”

He steps in front of me, creating an impenetrable wall of Matthew I cannot circumvent. My vision is so blurry with tears that I nearly run right into him.

“What? What the fuck do you want?” I sound so hysterical I could die. What is wrong with me? I’m used to the insults. Freak, psycho, ugly—I’ve heard it all before. Why does it hurt so much now?

He grabs me by the shoulders and I lose it. I burst into tears.

“River. Hey.”

His voice is softer now—soothing. He releases me, but the will to flee is gone, replaced by crippling shame. Cold reddens my ears when he shifts my hood back. My hair is pressed down from the weight of the hood, and vaguely I think of how stupid I must look, bawling incoherently over nothing and my hair a tangled mess.

“River, stop crying and look at me.”

There’s a demanding tone in his voice that makes me obey instantly and without question. I glance up, but his face is still fuzzy, so I look away again and sniffle disconsolately.

“Good start. Really look at me, though.”

When I look up this time, I manage to hold his gaze, although it’s incredibly difficult to keep my face upturned. Instinct is screaming at me to hide behind my hair, the hood, my hand, anything to shield me from him.

He’s smiling. I gulp and blink back tears. He then reaches for me slowly, his eyes on mine as if asking permission, and I let him touch me. His fingers in my hair make me rigid at first, but when he starts to lovingly comb his fingers through it, sweeping it back from my face, the tension begins to fizzle out.

“Remember when we talked about live and let live?” he intones, his voice lowered to a crooning whisper. “Just because I’m laughing at you doesn’t mean you can’t laugh, too. You’re funny, whether you mean to be or not. People are going to laugh with or without you, and you can’t just run away and cry about it. Or stab them in the hand.”

“But you said I look like a girl,” I blubber pathetically, and reach up to wipe my nose with my sleeve. I sound ridiculous.

“Yeah, because you do, and that’s no reason to completely freak out. The key point you’re missing, here, is I like it. I think you’re beautiful. You sure your IQ is in the triple digits? You’re awfully unobservant.”

I scowl and he giggles, but this time I’m not angry.

Rather than speaking and making more of an ass of myself, I rest my head against one of his hands. Suddenly there’s this heat in his eyes that just undoes me. It’s almost predatory. My stomach lurches pleasantly. I quickly look away, but he flattens his palm against my cool cheek and holds my head in place, forcing me to look at him.

He leans. My brain short circuits. I am not prepared for this. I don’t know what to do. My heart pounds louder and louder in my ears as he gets closer and shuts his eyes, until I can’t hear anything but rushing blood, and I throw up a hand when he’s barely an inch from me, which he kisses instead.

“Wait,” I gasp out. “Wait, please, just… Wait.”

He opens his eyes and peers at me over the top of my hand. He squints slightly as he smiles, although I can’t see his mouth.

“And what am I waiting for?”

“I… I don’t know what to do,” I whisper, my eyes wide. He chuckles.

“As if there’s any skill involved in kissing. Do whatever you want. The more enthusiastic, the better. Just don’t bite me.”

“Are you going to stick your tongue in my mouth?”

He has to stand up again he’s laughing so hard. He’s positively howling. I blush ten different shades of crimson and reach up to cover my burning cheeks with my hands. It was a valid question. He said not to bite.

“Fuck, don’t sound so excited about it!” he wheezes, then finally calms himself and clears his throat. “Yes, I was planning on sticking my tongue in your mouth. Did you want me to get down on one knee and proposition you or something?”

He drops down onto one knee and grabs my left hand in both of his.

“River, may I please—“

But I cut him off with my lips. I brace my free hand awkwardly on his shoulder and screw my eyes shut and bend at the waist and shove our mouths together. It’s graceless and I’m shaking like a leaf, but he seems satisfied. He tilts his head, and his slightly chapped lips slide against mine, and all kinds of fireworks are going off in my stomach.

After a moment, he pulls away and stands. I blink in confusion. Wasn’t there supposed to be tongue? But before I’ve had time to jump to any conclusions, he takes me by the shoulders and backs me against the wall, his eyes on mine. The nylon of the backpack rasps loudly against the brick. The noise is deafening in the silence. He threads his fingers into my hair.

I try to swallow but my throat is too dry and he’s leaning in again. I close my eyes. He’s much more firm and sure. He peppers my lips with a sweet little barrage of kisses, making my insides flutter, and then presses closer until our chests and midsections are touching. Heat blooms from my lower abdomen outward as all my blood begins to rush south. I wrap my arms around his waist and hug him close.

He sighs pleasurably at that, which gives me some hope. But then he licks the seam of my lips suggestively, and I open my mouth, and all coherent thought goes out the window.

His tongue is hot and slick and my dick is hard the moment it touches mine. I can’t help it—I moan quietly against his mouth. He shudders. I tentatively curl my tongue against his, and the wet, slippery sliding sensation is making my head swim. His hands leave my hair and stroke tenderly down my neck and chest before rounding my hips to rest on my lower back. The petting is intended to be soothing, I know, but with him kissing me like this it’s just making me want more. A moment of brilliant innovation compels me to suck lightly on his tongue. His chest heaves as air rushes out of his lungs, and his hips surge into me, pinning me in place.

I moan again when I feel that he’s hard, too, but the realization is accompanied by a short burst of panic. It’s too much. But the tip of his tongue is circling exhilaratingly around mine and it’s easy to forget the fear. I relax for a while and let him plunge his tongue against mine. Then suddenly his hands dip down and he palms both cheeks of my ass firmly and squeezes, and that feels good, but when he yanks and grinds my hips into his, I panic.

“Ugh, wait, stop,” I gasp, throwing my hands against his chest. He stills immediately but doesn’t move his hands.

“What?” His face is as flushed as mine. But after a moment, he seems to realize what he’s doing and lets go of me.

“Sorry,” he breathes, but doesn’t move an inch. “I got carried away. I wasn’t expecting you to suck on my tongue like that, though, Jesus. I’m so hard now.”

“Sorry.”

He smiles and bends forward to press a kiss to my forehead. Somewhere far away there are sirens.

“Don’t be sorry. That was amazing. Next time you’re gonna have to get me off, though, no excuses.”

He stifles a laugh when all the color drains from my face.

“I’m kidding. Not about wanting you to get me off. Obviously I want that—would love that. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

I press my lips together to hide a smile. He leans in for another kiss, but I turn my head, giggling. He noses my cheek instead and then moves down to kiss the line of my jaw, then beneath my ear, then my neck. Goosebumps erupt all over me. He kisses his way to the top of my jacket, and by that time, I’m entertaining more thoughts that are making me blush like a schoolgirl. He scrapes his teeth against me and stands again, seemingly satisfied with the puddle he’s made of me.

“Come on; let’s keep walking before someone sees us. The crazies start to come out around this time, and cops ride around up here occasionally. You feel like ice cream?”

It’s then that I’m reminded: I’m supposed to be running away. The realization hits me like a ton of bricks. I was so caught up with him I forgot. I didn’t even really have a solid plan in the first place other than get the fuck out of there. Was I really so directionless? Is it so easy to just change course, reverse flow completely? Apparently under Matthew’s influence it is.

“I’m…” I feel like a fish as I open and close my mouth stupidly, trying to find words to tell him.

Should I even tell him? One way or another, I can’t stay here with him. Either I must leave or be committed to a mental institution. Would he even come visit me? Would he leave with me now? No, he can’t. I reel back to the conversation about Call of Duty with his father and brothers. He has a family who loves him. He has friends who love him; I can’t ask that of him.

“River, I’m just asking if you want ice cream. It was not a Freudian slip.”

I see his confusion when tears begin to well in my eyes, but still the words won’t come. I don’t want to be apart from him. I’m not sure, but I think I might love him. I don’t think I’ve ever really loved anyone. Not like this. Not so completely and unabashedly and without careful restraint.

“Matthew,” I begin, but my throat cinches closed. I stare out at the river in hopes the tears will recede. He frowns and steps away, clearly assuming his closeness is distressing to me. It takes me a few minutes to collect my thoughts, but he’s patient.

“I’m… Do you remember earlier when I told you I had somewhere to be?”

He raises his eyebrows.

“Well, yeah. But you also said you just sneaked out to go for a walk, so I assumed you were lying.”

“I wasn’t.” My voice falls flat. I stare up at him meaningfully. The sirens are closer. I can see the faint glow of blue lights reflecting off the water, maybe a mile away, maybe less.

“Okay… Where were you going, then, Mr. Mystery? Come on, though. There’re cops over there.”

I don’t move.

“I was running away. My parents were supposed to take me to a mental institution tomorrow. I don’t even know where. I didn’t ask.” My voice is surprisingly level. I know what I have to do, but I feel so cheated. I’m so angry, but I’m calm.

He deadpans me.

Where was he a month, no—ten years ago? I want to scream at him, why the fuck didn’t you talk to me before, asshole? Didn’t you see I needed you? Why did you wait until now? Why did you wait at all? Why didn’t you knock me down the first time you saw me and hug everything bad out of me? Why? Why did you do this to me? But the sirens aren’t far away, now, and I won’t waste my breath.

“I’m sorry. I should have told you. Go back down to the river walk so they don’t arrest you as an accomplice or something.”

“What? Are you fucking crazy? We can go and hide or something. We can go back to my h—well, no, we can’t.” He purses his lips thoughtfully, almost as flummoxed as I am. “Do you want to go to the loony bin?”

“Of course not. But I do want to see you. In my summation, the only course of action that will allow me to do that is to go. If I don’t, I have to leave the state.”

“But you could buy a phone and call me or something and we could meet… Do you know how many fucking homeless kids there are in this city? I was one of them for a while; it’s not that hard. People love a charity case. I would feed you. I would—”

“Matthew, you and I both know that I have to go. You’re going to get arrested if you stay here.”

“No, I don’t fucking know anything except that I was so ready to go to school with you, and sit with you, and introduce you to people, and just go about making you into a regular little social butterfly, and be boyfriends, and go to prom with you, because that’s in two months, and all this other shit, and you can’t just up and fucking leave and not come back. I have plans, damn you. I have wanted this for so long. I have—”

We both see the blue lights at the end of the street in our peripherals. I grab his face and kiss him and bolt across the street, my hair flying, knowing they will recognize me. I hear him scream, “FUCK!” once, and then he’s vanished into the shadows.

The police officer drives me straight to the hospital. It’s all the way in Nashville. Three hours away from Matthew, not that it matters, since he won’t know where to find me, anyway. But I’m almost glad that I won’t see him. I want to be different when I see him again. I want to be less angry. I’m not sure of the things I should change, only that I must change, if anything is to get better.

My thoughts wander as I watch the sprawling fields of Tennessee roll by, and again I’m reminded of the earthquake. Everything I can see now was liquefied instantly, and the earth was split open like a rotten piece of fruit, and the cracks were spitting sulfurous vapor into the sky. The earthquake changed everything—even the Mighty Mississippi. Vaguely I remember how I raised my hackles at that. How I challenged the history book because that information was incongruent with my narrow perception of the world. But now I can believe it. Even if the river ran backwards, what is most important, I think, is eventually it reinvented itself, regal and sedate as ever.

A special thank you to both of my editors. Without their advice and gentle encouragement, I would not have completed this.

Copyright © 2014 Aaron Penrose; All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Comments

On 03/15/2014 06:50 AM, Thorn Wilde said:
It was an honour and a privilege. :hug: The story turned out great! :)
The privilege was all mine. <3 Thank you!
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On 03/15/2014 07:05 AM, Stephen said:
This is a beautiful story and a pleasure to read. You have a way with words. Is there

more?

Thank you--I'm glad you enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I think this story must end here. But River is a favorite character of mine, and I'm sure I will be inspired to write more about him in the future.
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I enjoyed the way you wove the Mississippi River in with the character, River, and with the story. Great use of the anthology theme. An original story, well told. Glad you contributed this.

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On 03/15/2014 03:11 PM, Percy said:
I enjoyed the way you wove the Mississippi River in with the character, River, and with the story. Great use of the anthology theme. An original story, well told. Glad you contributed this.
I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Thank you for reviewing. I put a lot of work and even more of myself into this, so your kind words mean the world. :)
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On 03/15/2014 03:45 PM, Rosicky said:
Beautiful writing! Many thanks!
No, thank you for the compliment! I'm happy to please.
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Definitely a piece of beautiful writing. I've lived very close to the Mississippi all my life and it's a force in itself as River's inner self is. You told a beautiful story and kept it engrossing. Great job!

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I found the story compelling. I don't always have time to read a longer entry in one sitting and sometimes forget to go back to one if I am called away. Your story would not allow that - it calls one back.

Very well done!

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On 03/16/2014 03:26 AM, joann414 said:
Definitely a piece of beautiful writing. I've lived very close to the Mississippi all my life and it's a force in itself as River's inner self is. You told a beautiful story and kept it engrossing. Great job!
Thank you! I'm thrilled you enjoyed it. I've also lived close to the river my entire life, and it never ceases to inspire.
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On 03/16/2014 06:23 AM, Kitt said:
I found the story compelling. I don't always have time to read a longer entry in one sitting and sometimes forget to go back to one if I am called away. Your story would not allow that - it calls one back.

Very well done!

Haha, so glad I reeled you back in. Thank you. :)
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Aaron, I'm speechless. This was amazing. I couldn't stop reading. At first when I read the first few sentences in the blog entry, I wasn't going to read it b/c I thought it was going to be some historical piece from the 1800's. Then I reminded myself of what a fantastic writer you are and I thought, what the hell, I'll read it just b/c Aaron wrote it. :) I am so glad I did.

 

River (appropriately named since he loves the Mississippi so much), was so compelling to read about. It's strange to think that his parents stopped talking to him since his IQ tests came back four years ago. Are they that intimidated by his intelligence that they would just stop talking to him? How is that possible? And they think they're helping him?

 

The poor kid has no communication skills, he has no tactile stimulation (get your mind out of the gutter, I'm talking technical not pervy, lol), and he feels no love from his parents. And they want to ship him off to some looney bin just to get rid of him. Oh, that will make them feel better; they won't have anyone in the house who knows more than they do. They'll probably forget all about him in there. Maybe if they had be real parents who showed their child love and affection and support while he was growing up, he wouldn't have these anger problems and he would know how to communicate with kids his own age and therefore there might be a much greater chance they wouldn't pick on him.

 

Now he finds someone who has wanted to be friends (and more), with him for quite awhile and he has to go off to the looney bin. Which actually reminds me of a question I had while I was reading: if River's folks were in bed, how did they know he was gone? And even if they woke up and saw he wasn't there, wouldn't it be them who took them to the hospital, not the cops? I know I'm being technical and it doesn't really matter. I was just curious.

 

I hope you can continue this in another story. I'd love to see how River "runs backwards" and reinvents himself as a better person so he can come home and be with Matthew.

 

Fantastic story, Aaron. I'm so impressed with your writing. :2thumbs:

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How you talked about the Mississippi? I talk like that about my river, and I knew then I had to read this. It's a wonderful story, Aaron. River analyzes himself, finally sees what he has to change and goes for it. I love him already and would read everything you'll write about him in the future, even if this particular story is being told.

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Well talk about your social outcast. Poor River didn't seem to know what to do. He had no social skills at all and it seems both his parents and doctors were failing to aid him. I'm glad he finally found Matt. It might not have worked out how he had hoped but it has given him a reason to really look at himself and discover he needs to change. Compelling story and well written.

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I find your story to be the most prominent one in the whole Anthology. Leaving alone the style and wording, stripping the text to the intial idea(s), it really bears a profound, indepth dynamic of the human heart. The theme about those momentary life-happenings that change us existentially is very close and dear to me. It was a pleasure ot read your story.

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On 03/17/2014 01:16 PM, Daddydavek said:
A very compelling story. Well written and imaginatively told!
Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
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On 03/18/2014 07:39 AM, aditus said:
How you talked about the Mississippi? I talk like that about my river, and I knew then I had to read this. It's a wonderful story, Aaron. River analyzes himself, finally sees what he has to change and goes for it. I love him already and would read everything you'll write about him in the future, even if this particular story is being told.
Thank you--that's high praise coming from a great writer like you. :) You know, I never really stopped to think about how much I loved the Mississippi until I wrote this. It has been outside my window for a very long time, and it's rare that I pause to admire it. Hopefully there will be more to read about him soon!
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On 03/18/2014 12:24 PM, comicfan said:
Well talk about your social outcast. Poor River didn't seem to know what to do. He had no social skills at all and it seems both his parents and doctors were failing to aid him. I'm glad he finally found Matt. It might not have worked out how he had hoped but it has given him a reason to really look at himself and discover he needs to change. Compelling story and well written.
They weren't failing for lack of trying! I wish I had had a little more time to go back and add more information about his parents, like an overheard conversation, or more inner dialogue, but alas. Thank you for the compliment and for reviewing.
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On 03/18/2014 11:33 PM, yoxone said:
I find your story to be the most prominent one in the whole Anthology. Leaving alone the style and wording, stripping the text to the intial idea(s), it really bears a profound, indepth dynamic of the human heart. The theme about those momentary life-happenings that change us existentially is very close and dear to me. It was a pleasure ot read your story.
Well, thanks. I'm just, uh, you know, glowing with pride now, lol.

In my writing, I've found I have a strong impulse toward capturing the essence of change. Those redefining moments are so rare, and so very essential to our natures. To know I have captured it in writing makes this feel worthwhile. Thank you again--that meant the world.

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Your story was beautifully written and very compelling. I could feel for both River and Mathew and empathize with each of them. The only thing I had a problem with was at the end. I found it hard to believe that the police would come looking for him so quickly. The usually won't even consider a missing person report for 24 to 48 hours and it isn't as if he had escaped from a mental institution. He was still an outpatient and not declared dangerous, although there were suspicions. Other than that one minor flaw, I absolutely loved this.

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On 03/20/2014 08:25 AM, Bill W said:
Your story was beautifully written and very compelling. I could feel for both River and Mathew and empathize with each of them. The only thing I had a problem with was at the end. I found it hard to believe that the police would come looking for him so quickly. The usually won't even consider a missing person report for 24 to 48 hours and it isn't as if he had escaped from a mental institution. He was still an outpatient and not declared dangerous, although there were suspicions. Other than that one minor flaw, I absolutely loved this.
Thank you! As far as the police thing goes, I'm almost certain a missing child elicits an almost immediate response from the police, no? Especially if that child's parents were to claim he was unstable and a potential threat. In any case, I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and thank you again for the kind words.
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I happen to agree with Lisa (whose wonderful review you never replied to :huh: ). River's parents and his therapist weren't doing much to help, although I can understand why they would be scared of him harming the other kids. But why can't they see it's his frustration lashing out, because no one understands him - mainly because they're to stupid and can't keep up with someone with his intelligence. It's very telling how Matthew manages to break through his shell almost immediately, even if it's a scary experience for River.
I had the same disbelief at the police part, but it doesn't matter, because the important part was River realizing he needed to go back and work with the people trying to help, no matter how dumb and useless they are, in order to have a chance to be with Matthew. I'll trust in my hope that he succeeds and like the Mississippi becomes someone to be admired and awed by.

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I agree it's a great story. But it made me so sad, it has a powerful way to transfer to us River's feelings and state of mind.

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