The night before I became a failed salesman, I was wired and awake in Derek’s room, gazing out his window, reading his Anatomy textbook, and eating peanut butter with a knife. I had questions—big questions—but it was 2 a.m., and all my older brother cared about was getting sleep. If every hour we lose hair and grow cells and our bones thicken overnight, are we different people the next morning? Derek grunted in the negative. Never had he felt his arms grow longer, no matter how new he looked to me every time he emerged from the pool, fists up in victory.
What I loved most about going to meets was his starting-block routine, a series of stretches I knew by heart. I’d repeat after Derek as he moved pieces of himself—slow head roll, delt shrug, arms to heaven, finger wiggles, bow at the waist, hammy stretch, ankle arch, toe curl, ending with a ten step run-in-place. Up on those metal bleachers at ten years old, it wasn’t swimming I cared about. It was the idea that my arms might grow long enough to reach all the way down there and tap him, just before the whistle blew, on the shoulder.
That night I stood at his window, stretching. “Want some Jif?” I said, offering the knife.
“Jesus, Bret,” he said. “Go to bed.” This was when Jesus was no longer a swear, after dad joined TEAM and traded Sunday service for sales trips. It was after we’d moved uphill.
“Relax,” I whispered. “We don’t have anywhere to be tomorrow, right?”
As Saturday night wobbled into morning, I stared down the hill at the lights along the dog food factory—gold, red, some even emerald, like the jewels I somehow believed my dad sold door to door. I tried to remember what life was like when we lived down there but my brain dug up nothing. Besides, it made much more sense to focus on the future, who I was becoming.
Of course, now that I’m grown, all I ever think about is the past.
On the floor of Derek’s room, I awoke in a diamond of sunlight. He stood at the long mirror, yanking at the cuffs of his suit jacket, trying to make them reach his wrists.
“Why are we dressing up?” I asked, hoping for church. I knew it was a thing of the past, but I missed the little cups of grape juice, the colorful windows, the way time stood still.
“Your brother’s showing his first plan today,” Dad said, coming in to organize Derek’s hair with the harsh black comb. “He’s joining TEAM.” My brother’s face said pain, each stroke ripping out something little but essential.
“His suit’s too small,” I said. No one listened to me. With his wingspan wide, Derek’s arms rolled in tiny circles. My brother was a swimmer, not a salesman. I, however, felt I knew how exactly how to woo. My school counselor wrote that I was “quite charming one-on-one.”
I showered quick so that Dad wouldn’t yell about wasted water, pulled on my polo, and even brought him the little evil comb to make my hair successful. I stood in the kitchen, waiting to be preened. Dad swallowed coffee and said, “You’ll show the plan once you’re older.”
“That’s what you said about playing drums in praise and worship band,” I said. “And now we don’t even go! Who knows what this family will be doing when I’m old enough?”
“Okay Bret,” Dad said, his eyes shut tight like my voice hurt. “There’s no room— ”
“—in this house for gloom,” I said. “I know. But this isn’t gloom. This is the truth. Promises suck, because no one knows if the future me will want the things the me today wants.”
“See what I mean?” Derek said to Dad. “He’s nine going on Nietzsche.”
“I’m ten!” I said, as Dad shrugged and flipped open his cellphone to make a call.
“Dude, go make some friends today,” Derek said. “Have fun while you still can.” He was talking to me, but looking somewhere else, somewhere inside the folds of his growing brain.
“Or go get some exercise,” Dad added, closing the phone.
My family thought I was the only one who didn’t notice my own fat. They’d accuse me of eating saltine sleeves, spaghetti leftovers—but that was Derek, bulking up for meets. I watched him trying to drink coffee, how he just held it in his mouth. And here I could drink coffee fine. Actually, I loved coffee and could even tell you what the chemical caffeine does to our bodies—the molecule looks like a dead frog. It’s pictured in Derek’s Bio book. Dad ran his pinky along the inner lip of a Jif jar, a habit Mom hated. He leaned toward me —Shhhh—and popped the finger into his mouth.
“Okay, but who could turn down a cute kid?” I said. “You’ll sell like a hundred rubies with me there, smiling and making jokes.” The men of my family laughed at me.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Dad said. “Besides, I’ve got the cute kid strategy already working.” He clapped my brother’s back, and Derek spit coffee onto the floor.
“Jesus,” Dad said, inspecting his shirt for stains. We stood still in the kitchen, all of us hungry, listening to the faint sound of Mom in the sideyard, singing to her vegetables.
Across the garden, Mom knelt by her pepper plant, gloveless and already sweaty. I wanted to know why I couldn’t go. She looked into the sky as if Dad was a planet you could sometimes spot in daylight. The station wagon left the driveway without even a honk goodbye.
“It’s too early to get worked up,” she said. The strip of yard between our house and the neighbor’s fence was a tunnel of flora. Snap peas sprouted along the fence, baskets of herbs hung from the gutters. Every part of a salad grew in disorderly islands, a logic only Mom knew. I picked my way through the plants, moving toward her voice. She was out here for hours every morning. The grocery store she’d managed had been bought out back in June. I didn’t understand how that had affected our family budget, had no concept of debt. Waiting for the bus each morning, I’d see Mom sitting beside the tomato wire, eyes squinted, watching for growth.
“Seriously,” I said to her. “I can sell as much jewels as them.”
“Many,” she said. “And what do you mean, jewels? You don’t even know the plan, Bret.”
“I can learn. I learned about cells just last week. They’re all over us, always multiplying and dying and coming off on our bed sheets. And remember, you taught me a cucumber was a pickle. All I need is someone to tell me. Give me a date then. When can I be on TEAM?”
“A cucumber isn’t exactly a pickle. And it’s not my job to tell you everything. Some stuff you have to figure out for yourself.” She tried to hand me a trowel. “Listen,” she said, whispering like she was telling a secret. “You won’t like the TEAM. I mean, I can hardly stand them myself. The product they sell is always changing, and the people are so…flimsy.”
Once a week she played N64 with me upstairs while the local TEAM members gathered in our living room to read aloud from a glossy book called SELLEBRATE. The cover showed a has-been pro wrestler leaning on the hood of a Lamborghini while a briefcase by his feet spewed golden light. I could never hear exactly what they were saying down there during the meetings, but talk always circled back to who’s got silver, who’s gone gold, where the rubies live, how hard a diamond is. “I bet you I’d love it,” I said to Mom.
“Bret, honey,” she said, sounding tired. “I’m sorry, but I have work to do here.”
“Me too,” I said, charging back across her garden, stomping through our family’s food.
I searched the house for my mother’s TEAMate, the requisite grey briefcase. She’d never even gone on a sale, so it would still be full of the product and the plan. After ten minutes of rummaging, I found it below the sink, a silver case branded with the gold TEAM logo. I imagined the shining things inside but, to my mind, had no time to look. I had to out-earn my father, sell better than my brother, and I had to start now. I threw open the front door and ran, my toes pressing up against the tips of my shoes.
I chose a random house with a wraparound porch. The heavy knocker hung just in reach, made a solid rap. I cleared my throat and hummed a song Dad often belted in the shower while I failed to sleep—Eye of the tiger; it’s the thrill of the fight. No one came to the door, so I pressed the bell. Its bright ring echoed through the house forever.
I wondered if each echo of the doorbell was the same or a different sound. How changed were they from the original ring? I thought of the Bret I’d been last night, then the Bret I was in the shower, the Bret falling through Mom’s garden. Was I becoming Bret faster or slower than Derek had become Derek? I wiped the sweat growing inside my elbow-pits and imagined whole teams of cells flooding away. Is this porch the same now that I’m all over it? I stepped to the left, then to the right, trying to see if each move was the birth of a new Bret. Who was the true Bret?
“That’s a neat little dance,” said an old lady at the end of the porch, and I froze. She smiled wide—her teeth didn’t quite fit her mouth—and pulled open the door.
Inside, she sat on a chair, but I stood. My voice, my pitch, the plan—it echoed through her quiet house. I made everything up. Something about jewelry, how you can buy silver and with enough work, you can grow it into gold. Rubies and emeralds were next, I was pretty sure, and the ingredients to grow these were Time and Faith. Love. Patience. Grit. I mixed what I’d heard from our living-room TEAM meetings with what I recalled from church, sprinkling in lines from my counselor’s cat posters—Yesterday you said tomorrow, today just say MEOW!
“Then, the creator comes down, wearing a crown of diamonds,” I said, ready to open the briefcase. She smiled, staring past me with shaky eyes.
“Bret-hunny,” she said. “I get it.”
“And that’s when, I’m pretty sure…” I was trying hard to close, hungry for the time to come when she handed me money, when I slammed the dollars down on our dinner table, when Salesman-Bret got all the praise he deserved. “…We’re allowed into heaven.”
“Turn around,” she said, her voice now cutting with an edge. “Look at my bookshelf.” Behind her were twelve identical spines—SELLEBRATE—all in a row. “I’m already in your father’s downline,” she said. “He and that Derek are such nice men. But, shhh, I’m in a lot of folks’ downlines,” she said. I’d heard the word ‘downline’ before but never understood it. None of this made any sense. I sat down. My hands shook, the briefcase rattling. She knew who I was? Dad and Derek had been here? And how many times? “I heard the Joneses are going sapphire,” she hissed.
When she asked if my dad knew I was here, I stood up to go. She moved toward the phone, blocking my way to the front door. “Shouldn’t we call him?” she said, and her top row of false teeth slipped out of her mouth. They smacked the floor, sounding like knuckles cracking.
I screamed and bolted—briefcase held tight to my chest—down the hall, through a kitchen, out a door, and into the backyard. And beyond that, the woods.
I cut through the trees, my briefcase heavier with every step. These woods should’ve been the same that ran behind our house, but everything looked weird—the trees were shorter, more packed together, and the leaves seemed greasy, sticky. It was all down hill. I didn’t know my way. I used rocks to cross a stream but landed in some black muck that sucked the shoe from my foot. My hair caught burrs and bugs as I waded through bushes. A branch tore a hole in my polo, right above my nipple. My eyelid bled from a briar scratch. I walked so long the shadows shrunk.
I must’ve looked deranged, because screams rang out the second my feet touched cut grass. Three young girls sat inside the empty body of a hot tub, pointing at me, shaking their heads no. I wanted to turn back but how would I find home through those trees?
“My daddy will kill you,” yelled the girl with beaded braids. She was the smallest, brown-skinned and squinting. Her left front tooth was gone, the new growth just a crooked stub.
“You’re bloody,” said the second, her freckles alive with sunburn. “Where’s your shoe?”
“Is the road up that way?” I asked, licking my lips. At the top of the embankment, dumpsters overflowed with furniture, garbage. The sluggish Cleaver creek trickled behind us.
“We’ll tell you if you help us,” said the third, oldest girl. Her dark skin seemed to glow in the sun, and her blue bikini top made me queasy. “What do you know about hot tubs?”
I wiped my briefcase in the grass and said, “What I know about is jewel—”
But the middle one cut me off: “We need a plan for getting this thing into the creek.” She jumped out and stood in front of me, squaring her shoulders. The other two followed suit.
“Why would you want to do that?” I said.
“So we can all float around in a freaking hot tub,” said the oldest. “Duh.”
“It’s called living your best life,” said the middle girl.
“What’s in your case?” said the youngest, her braid-beads clicking together in the wind.
I decided to skip the speech and go right to the product. The bikini girl looked old enough for a weekly allowance. Maybe the youngest still got tooth fairy money. “Okay,” I said, laying the briefcase flat in the grass. The girls came close. We formed a circle around the case, looking down as if into a hole that reached the other side of earth. I could not wait to finally show someone what I had inside. “Now, what I’m about to present to you,” I said, unlatching the case. “You should picture it around your neck. In your ears. On your wrists.”
The girls touched each other’s arms. I held my breath and lifted the lid like a veil.
Inside, eight silver knives gleamed in the sunlight. The glare shot into our eyes, and my heart became a garden on fire, beds burning, tomatoes melting. The older girls cursed, sprinted up the hill—but the littlest smiled, looked right at me, and asked, “Can I do the next part?”
She chose the biggest blade and held it between us like night had fallen, the knife a torch. I thought about how I’d learned in Derek’s textbook that two touching objects never actually made contact, how a tiny space always hovered between the electrons of each item. I couldn’t say where we were, but inside I knew—this was the edge of our old neighborhood.
“Give me your shoe,” she said, and I kicked it off. With that knife in her hand, I would’ve done anything she said. I had no confidence. I was a failure. I didn’t even know the product.
She knelt down and commenced sawing my shoe clean in half. In a deep voice, she said: “As you see, it moves clean through the toughest stuff: meat, leather, even bone. This blade is reinforced steel, with a full tang, and three brass rivets that store-bought knives lack. This handle will never separate from its blade. It never wears out! And it comes with our Forever Guarantee, which means regardless of time, use, and your ever-changing life, you’ll never be without.”
“You’re good at this,” I said, suddenly wanting a knife of my own. Or maybe I just wanted her to put that one down.
She continued in her husky, affected voice: “Now if you have a penny, I’d like to show you what the scissors can accomplish.”
I picked up a knife and started into the inch-thick plastic hot tub liner. The blade cut with ease. The girl’s name was Kiana. Her dad sold these too.
With knives long as our forearms, we sliced into the hot tub. “This is how you get the hot tub into the creek,” she said. “One tiny piece at a time.” Her laugh was catching, hoarse like Derek’s, but not mocking.
“At that point, will it even be a hot tub anymore?” I asked, looking up the hill. The sun hung high in the sky. There was plenty of time left in the day, enough time for Kiana and I to make ourselves rich.
Forget the plan, whatever it’d been. These knives were divine, and the new plan was to sell them. I examined one as we walked, how it glinted, glowed, the handle so sturdy. I wondered if this was where the jewels were—melted down, re-made into this. If so, were they still jewels? Was this a diamond or a knife? Was I still working for TEAM, or had I quit altogether?
At the corner of two streets I’d never seen, the stop sign was missing. The pole just stood there, crooked in the dirt, with nothing to show. Maybe it was because Kiana chose to hold my briefcase, but I suddenly felt nervous, like I was being tricked. I remembered the old woman with all her book copies, how she smiled after the teeth fell, the black hole of her mouth. I thought of Dad and Derek’s mocking laughter. Everyone took me for an idiot.
Was I being robbed here? “Excuse me.” I said. “Can I carry my briefcase?”
“Chill, I told you my dad used to sell Cutlass,” she said. “What? You don’t trust me?”
She sighed and sat in the dirt beside the curb. When she opened the briefcase and took out the hefty kitchen shears, I could feel my heart thumping through my stomach. “Blood brothers or soul sisters?” she said. I stared at her until she decided on soul sisters. She handed me the scissors, and demanded that I snip off a piece of hair. “Wake up!” she yelled, clapping her hands at my face. The shears, heavy in my hand, shook like a light about to go out. I imagined standing here with Kiana, taking turns poking at my severed ear on the curb. But when the blades touched a tuft of my bangs, the hair came off without a sound.
I cupped the black shreds in my hands.
“Give me,” Kiana said, so I dumped the thin pile into her hand, and she pushed my hairs into her shorts pocket. She took the scissors, and in a blink she lopped off a whole braid, complete with the little green heart bead. She put it in my hand. “Okay, now we’re bonded.”
“Forever?” I said.
Passing stoops, birds, barbeques, and men gazing into the open hoods of bright cars, we sold to no one. Kiana led us in her big, silver flip-flops. The center thong kept popping out of the left one, and we’d pause while she fixed it. I carried the suitcase, chin up, no smile, just like she instructed. A scent I knew blew through the air, a smell like Cheerios left too long in the bowl. We passed the smokestacks of the dog food factory, but still I didn’t see this place as home.
At the park, teenagers sat on bleachers. Teenagers smoked by bathrooms. Teenagers did wheelies. Teenagers with shoulder muscles and moustaches ran across two netless basketballs courts. Kiana navigated the landscape, confident and quick, graceful even with her flip-flops slapping. I jogged to keep up, looking around for seven year-old me, as if past selves just stayed where you left them. The first group we met—four boys leaning on BMX bikes—glared at us.
I was silent. Kiana tried. “You guys need any—”
“Fuck outta here with that shit,” the tallest one said.
The second group kept turning Kiana’s questions back on us.
“Why you hanging with tubby here? Where the fuck his shoes at?”
“I’m trying to talk business,” she said. I held tight to her braid in my pocket.
“I’m trying to talk about why you’re out here with Ralph Lauren.” He leaned close and flipped my collar up. His crew roared. We left, and Kiana welcomed me to Lacuna Park.
At the drink fountain, I let the water fill my mouth and spill over. I wet my whole face while Kiana shared with me her father’s mantra which was: Selling is cellular. It’s in our blood. She said her dad was so dedicated to his business that he left to live with other sellers in a neighborhood up the hill. He’d been a FedEx driver, but was fired for selling the plan while making deliveries. Her dad had worked nights, a rotation between 2nd and 3rd shift, just like my dad had before we moved up the hill. She and I bonded over being woken up by our fathers leaving late at night, the car engine firing, the front door falling closed. Dinners were lonelier too. Now, even with my dad working first shift, he still missed dinner often. He always left to sell the plan. Because of this, Mom had a rule that everyone had to be home for Sunday dinner. I looked up at the sun, wondering if I’d be back up the hill and seated at our table in time.
Kiana stood up and started walking in circles, waving her hands as she lectured. “Dad says there’s two kinds of people: ones who think the world is all buyers or sellers, and ones who know that if you’re selling the right product, the buyers can become sellers too.” I laughed, and she clapped her hands three times. “Listen, first we sell the knife—easy. But then we sell them tools for how to sell their own knives. And then, every time they sell a knife, we get cash, ‘cus we brought them in.” She took a deep breath and grabbed the suitcase. “That’s the plan.”
“So what you’re saying is we make fishers of men,” I said, but she was already walking.
Our first sale came near the bike racks, when a kid ran past us, nearly in tears, asking if we’d seen a guy with a beard riding a blue Huffy. Out of breath, he sat on the bench. Kiana skipped the pitch and struck. She popped the briefcase, and placed it on his lap.
“First time customer,” she said. “Special deal. Any of these for ten dollars.”
As the kid slowly reached for one, I wondered: what if he turns it on us? But Kiana had it covered. She picked one up under the guise of showing him the rivets.
“Who are you?” he asked, running a finger along the handle. “Why do you have these?”
“We’re your team,” I said, grinning. Kiana’s moxie had restored my will to sell. “We’ll teach you sell these, put you in our downline. You’ll make back all your money.”
“A hundred times,” Kiana added. The kid pulled a Velcro wallet out of his pocket and handed me a ten-dollar bill. He took the smallest knife—the parer, Kiana called it—and slipped it into his pocket. Kiana put her hand out to shake, but the kid just walked away. She quickly sold another in the girl’s bathroom while I struck up a too-slow conversation at the vending machines. The group there squinted at me, and when I mumbled something about knives, they smacked the briefcase out of my hands and demanded I go home.
“People want to feel big,” Kiana said. “Safe and strong. Simple as that.”
The shears went to a pair smoking behind the tennis court. The steak knife brought in five, plus half a PBJ sandwich, but the buyer—he wore a big black raincoat and kept arguing with himself—was like everyone else we’d sold to: He wouldn’t sign up, didn’t want in on our team. But he did shake my hand, and for a second we traded cells.
All day long I had been saying goodbye to tiny parts of me. I thought I was shedding an old Bret to make way for the new one—the salesman, the charmer, the pride of my clan.
Kiana tore the sandwich in half and we ate in the shade of a boarded up concession stand.
After finishing the sandwich, my stomach hurt with hunger. And when group of kids in green bandanas arrived, I wished I was at the house, bugging Mom while she prepped dinner. These kids had hard arms and wide shoulders like Derek. I elected not to offer a handshake.
“Heard you got blades,” the biggest one said. What we had left were the two largest ones—serrated, silver, the length of a thigh, the kind of knives you might use to strip the skin from a fish, or saw through bone. I tried to smile, but the group gave back only hard stares.
“Well?” said one, his bandana like a scarf. I prayed silently and clutched Kiana’s braid.
“Well?” Kiana said. Her tough tone slipped, her voice retreating to a younger version.
“Show us the goods.”
“You got no money and you know it,” she said. And with that, someone shoved me to the ground. In a blink they had the briefcase. Peace! they yelled, marching away. Kiana ran after them, and suddenly I was alone. I found a place beneath the bleachers and sat down in the dirt. I thought of Derek, always sure of his body and where it was headed. To the end of the lane, back. Repeat until varsity. Same person in a different place. I wanted to be home. But hadn’t I lived here, once, in this neighborhood? I looked around again for our old house. I’d swung from those monkey bars, I swear, but Derek was always with me. I was never allowed at the park alone. Or was it a different park? What good was memory if it was always coming off in chunks?
“It’s okay,” I said when Kiana returned, red-faced and cursing. “We still got the money.”
“But what about the plan? What about tomorrow?”
Kiana believed we’d be the same people tomorrow. But I thought I’d change when I showed the cash to my family. Look at what I did for you, without you. I couldn’t wait.
“I’ll get more,” I told her. “We’ll go out again next weekend. Try a new neighborhood?” She wouldn’t look away from where the thieves had disappeared into the park’s long shadows. “Where do you live?” I asked. “So I can come find you next time.”
“Listen,” she said, finally facing me again. “You can’t tell my Mama we done this. She hates this stuff. She kicked Dad out the house. She says the TEAM is a cult.”
“What’s a cult?”
“It’s when you get so excited about something that someone ends up killed.” The word hovered between us, and I think we understood something about what we’d just done. In fact, a boy Derek’s age would soon be stabbed. Not to death, but enough to stain the asphalt on the ball court so dark red that a nearby church would pay to paint the whole court blue. Enough to warrant an investigation, a lawsuit, a settlement, an unalterable change in me I still can’t name.
Kiana looked up, sucked in her tears, and straightened her spine. “Matter of fact,” she said, shoving my arm. “You can’t tell anyone about this.”
I nodded despite the fact that I was going to have to lie to someone—either to Kiana by breaking her promise, or to my parents by not telling the truth about the work I’d done, the money I’d made, the success I’d gained. It was not triumph I felt when Kiana handed me my half of the cash, but betrayal. Maybe this was my first inkling of the truth about adulthood: it’s not an act of physical change, but a process of learning how to hide who you are, who you’ve been.
As we walked the streets in silence, I tried to memorize every sign and corner. I thought I’d be making my way back there soon. When she veered toward the stoop of a row house without a goodbye, I wanted to cut all the rest of my hair off and give it to her. I grabbed at the bounty in my pocket—twenty bucks and a girl’s braid. The sun set fast, the sky a smoky pink. In the threshold, she turned to back to me, waved her arm through the twilight and yelled, “Go!”
At the foot of the hill, the hot tub sat there, unmoved. I closed my eyes and began to climb. Through the dim forest I soon saw my shoe stuck in the mud, but I left it. My feet had hardened. Alone now, I could think only of my family. What would they say when I got home? As I walked, my imagination built a table piled with the bounty of my mother’s garden, me opening the door, my back straight, no blood on my face, the hole in my shirt stitched, my shoes clean and gleaming, my hands not trembling, and I drop it all into the center of the table, the money and the braid, right there on the Mt. Rushmore placemat. I say, We’re getting ice cream tonight. They gasp. I told you I could sell the plan. They stare like they’ve never seen me before. And they haven’t. Not this version. I am missing a chunk of my hair. I am new. Their son is—for a sweet, brief second—a serious businessman. I want to feel pride, but something in their faces makes me sick. Sold it all. Even the briefcase, I lie. Everyone says Bret as if my name is a rare stone found only in the ocean. But it isn’t praise they’re giving me. No one notices the money, only the braid, the rope of hair, still knotted with the little green heart.
Mom screams. Dad cackles. Derek disappears. The house collapses.
I awoke from my fantasy in the yard, having made it all the way to our house on the hill.
Walking inside suddenly seemed terrifying, so I stood on tip-toes at the living-room window. Mom paced the kitchen, the cordless phone in her butt-pocket. Dad and Derek sat at the table, still dressed in their stupid suits. I wanted Dad to stand up and stop Mom’s pacing with a hug, wanted to reach through the window and tap Derek on the shoulder. Hey, dude, I’ve got a surprise. No one spoke. The TV was the only noise—local news, crime.
We’ll alert you as soon as we know more, said a reporter. But we’re hearing reports that the victim is a teenaged boy, sixteen, found early this evening in Lacuna Park.
Mom rushed into the dining room. “He’s got to be out there, you two! Take the car.” When Dad and Derek stood up from the table and started putting on their shoes, I tried to knock on the window, but my knuckles just bounced against the screen. I wanted to speak, but all that came out was a cough. The three of them turned toward my sound, staring at the front door in silence, as if it might burst open. I waved behind the window, but they still didn’t see me.
It turns out that we do have a true self, something that never changes even when every other part of you has. The true self is what’s there when no one you love will look at you.
The TV talked of stab wounds, sirens, victims, suspects, words I didn’t decipher. A sick taste climbed my throat. I felt flimsy. This oddness rushed through my body like blood, a sensation I could not have named. Responsibility, guilt—I still feel it now—shame.
I ran to the sideyard. Blood sloshed in my head, washing away old cells. New ones grew, snapping like Pop Rocks. I hoped they were good cells—sturdy, dependable. I prayed that they would stay and thrive and be the foundation of the final me. But I could already feel them dying, slipping, snowing through my body like static. I puked so many of them into our garden.
As the men of the family climbed into the station wagon to find me, backing out of the driveway into the night, I hid behind the pepper plants, keeping low to the ground. When the motor’s hum died away, the world was totally silent—Mom had turned the TV off—and I heard my heart beating against the dirt. Hand in my pocket, I gripped Kiana’s braid.
She would be the one to confess to her mom about what we’d done. There were so many witnesses to describe me. The lawsuit would come for us, for my parents, for reckless endangerment, and eventually, when all was settled and done, for the house.
I laid in the garden and stared at it, our big house. How had it changed us? How would we be different if we’d kept living down the hill? In the little slice of a house, tucked in the middle of that long row, our tiny sliver of that street-length brick building, with the thin walls and the yelling next door, the cats on the porch, the bed I shared with Derek, the dinners without Dad, and the quiet breakfasts while he slept, and the church full of singing neighbors. I was falling asleep, beginning to dream my past life into existence, but then the back door swung open and banged closed.
At the far end of the garden, my mother appeared. She stood still, staring through all of her plants. She didn’t see me out there, blending in, growing every second into something none of us understood. But then she moved closer, slowly, stepping through the garden, swimming carefully toward me, until she found my arm and screamed and gripped it so hard she left marks. When she asked me where I’d been, I said I didn’t know, and we both knew it was a total lie. I had been here, in my body, this whole time.
Tyler Barton is the co-founder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for the Submerging Writer Fellowship. He is the author of the flash fiction chapbook, The Quiet Part Loud (2019), which won the Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest from Split Lip Press. His appears or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Subtropics, Gulf Coast, Cream City Review, and Paper Darts. Find him at tsbarton.com or @goftyler.