Welcome to Reverie #2: Love and Loss in 4025

“Welcome to Reverie” is a series of short stories that happen in the worlds of Trystin Bailey’s YA Fantasy book series, Reverie.  You don’t need to read Reverie Book 1 to enjoy the story, but it definitely adds to the fun.

 

Love and Loss in 4025

Activate: journal.

I did it. I told Sim I love her. And she said it back! I just- I’ve been talking about it for so long and now that it’s happened I’m so zzagging happy!

[Timestamp: 19:44, 18.03.4025]

____________________________________

Launching… Log 0001.

I just upgraded the encryption level for my own peace of mind, hence having to restart my log. I mean, after everything that’s been going on, can you blame me? Nexis’ sanctioned public news outlets continue parading lies as truth, but I’ve started getting my information from Shadowsource. It’s honestly the only reliable thing in this world now.

There was an explosion down in Industry Plaza. Amara was there tinkering with some friends and I caught it on her live-feed. She didn’t come into school today and the authorities are pretending nothing’s wrong. Thank the Core that Shadowsource is looking into this.

Zzag. Right. I told Kyler I love him today. I had so much on my mind and it just came out. He’s nice and everything, but, ugh. Why does life always have to be so difficult?

____________________________________

Activate: journal.

Sorry if I’m a little all over the place. Sim was kind of distant today. No, not kind of. Completely. I mean, it’s one of the things I love about her honestly. She never plays games. Never puts on a show. In every moment she’s her authentic self and sometimes that self just wants to be left alone. She did mention something about an explosion, but I couldn’t find anything on the Net so I don’t know.

It’s fine. I’m fine. It’s just that we said the words, you know? And then to follow it up with this? My psych app rates my insecurity well above average right now, but how else am I supposed to feel when the girl I love is so intelligent and beautiful and mature and curious and then I’m- I don’t know. She hasn’t viewed any of my chats.

I guess I’m just worried about her.

[Timestamp: 16:04, 19.03.4025]

____________________________________

Log 0004.

I finally found the strength to stop by Amara’s. Well, kind of. There was a sentry bot buzzing around her apartment door. A new model, I think. Weaponized. I don’t think it saw me, but I watched from around the corner long enough to see the neighbor from across the hall get home. The bot asked him if he had any information on Amara.

“Amara Hajjar is under arrest for conspiring against Nexis. She must be obtained for questioning.” That’s what it said in that soulless, metallic voice.

Lies.

I came home and said nothing to the ‘rents. They’d probably turn me in if they knew what I was up to.

I got about a million chats from Kyler. I told him that I’m okay. He called me immediately and we talked for a bit.

He’s the only person in the world who makes me feel like it’s safe to cry.

____________________________________

Activate: journal.

They’re here! Sim’s been feeling down for a while so I bought her a pair of the new SpaceGlide 4000s from Bezzle’s. I dunno. I had to do something and I think she mentioned that she liked them this one time.

We went on a date last night. It was…fine. She was on the Net basically the whole time. Like, I could see her eyes moving back and forth like she was reading something. Then the little shifts in her lip like she was chatting someone. I wanted to ask who she was talking to, but I guess I was terrified that I wouldn’t like the answer.

Core knows I’m trying to be cool about all of this. It’s fine.

It’s probably totally fine.

[Timestamp: 10:04, 23.03.4025]

____________________________________

Log 0019.

I did it. I chatted Shadowsource what I saw at Amara’s. And they responded!

It turns out that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened at Industrial Plaza. Not even close. And every zzagging time, anyone who happens to be around to see anything strange zzagging disappears.

Poor Amara.

All I know is that this tragedy has brought me to Shadowsource. I finally feel like I’ve found a group of people who understand me. People who want to make Futara a better place. Maybe if I can gain their trust- if I can prove myself -they’ll let be one of them.

____________________________________

Activate: journal.

Sim just stopped by unannounced. I was excited at first, but then…then I saw the look in her eyes. They were intense and tired and, I think, terrified.

She was breathing heavily and I took her to my room. She said she couldn’t stay long and she reached into her backpack and pulled out… She pulled out a laser blaster! She pulled it out and sat it down next to me. A tear rolled down her face then and she said, “To protect yourself. Say nothing to anyone. Please. I can’t lose you.”

And then she ran out of my room and out of my apartment. I was so shocked by the whole thing that by the time I was outside she was gone.

[Timestamp: 00:36, 28.03.4025]

____________________________________

Log 0034.

I have my mission. Tonight I will meet with Designates Sixty-Four and Thirteen in Central Square and we’ll go on a fact-finding excursion in Industrial Plaza. We’ll be disguised as tinkers, just walking the streets, looking for scraps.

This is the beginning of a more meaningful life.

____________________________________

Activate: journal.

I haven’t heard from her in days. Like she said, I haven’t told anyone anything. And it’s zzagging killing me.

So I have to do something, you know? I just do.

I love her.

When she was in my room and in such a hurry, neither of us noticed the papers that fell out of her backpack when she was removing the gun. There were scribbles on it. A badly drawn map of Industrial Plaza. And something called “Shadowsource.” It turns out that they’re some sick conspiracy cult that manipulates teens into committing crimes against the Nexis. It looks like she’d been trying to use comms signals to locate their base of operations.

Sim…what was she thinking? Now I get why she didn’t want me to talk to anyone. Shadowsource allegedly has spies everywhere.

Journal…mom, dad, whoever may hear this eventually… I’m going to take this gun. I’m going to find the base. I’m going to get her back.

I-I don’t know how, I just am. Okay?

[Timestamp: 21:28, 04.04.4025]

____________________________________

Begin recording: The date is April 4th, 4025. I think. My name is Simmerel Taylor, 3rd year student at the Calico Jones Secondary School, currently held captive by Nexis’ sentinels in what we believe to be the southeast quadrant of Industrial Plaza. Designate Thirteen was able to repair one of our comms devices. Sixty-Four is sure there’s a way out. I, honestly, don’t see it. We’re injured, hungry, and sadly the bots came on us so fast there we weren’t able to get any intel on what Nexis has been up to down here. If by some miracle we get out of this we’ll try again. If not, keep fighting the machine.  Even though it’s only been a short time, I’m honored to have worked with you, Shadowsou-

[Connection lost]

Welcome to Reverie #1: The Boy Who Roars

 

“Welcome to Reverie” is a series of short stories that happen in the worlds of Trystin Bailey’s YA Fantasy, book series, Reverie.  You don’t need to read Reverie Book 1 to enjoy the story, but it definitely adds to the fun.

 

The Boy Who Roars

He watched as the other children giggled, shrieked, and played on the jungle gym, wondering why he wasn’t as happy as they were.

Andy Liu was seven years old. He had thick, black hair cropped short and eyes that shone a warm chocolate brown when the sunlight hit them just right. His mother Amy had always said his eyes were his most beautiful feature. “Baby,” she’d say in Chinese, “I can see it in your eyes that you’re an old soul. There’s peace and goodness in those eyes. The others will see what I do soon enough. They just have some growing up to do.” She’d say things like this when Andy was feeling particularly outcast. That is to say, she’d say this sort of thing daily.

Andy’s father, Thomas Liu, was something else entirely. The youngest of five and son of two stern, serious owners of a Chinese restaurant outside of San Francisco, in his youth he defined himself wholly by his ability to rebel against everything his parents stood for. Thomas refused to learn Chinese, rejected the expectation that he’d join in the family business, and ran away from home at the age of seventeen, paying his way through sculpting school. A darling of the San Francisco art scene, Thomas decided to keep his creative fire alive by uprooting his little family and moving to a small town in middle America where he would have the space and freedom to work on his large scale masterpiece: a series of life-sized dinosaurs constructed with the remains of demolished mom and pop shops. The series was called Shop Cretaceous.

That’s how Andy ended up at Addley Elementary.

Andy hopped off of the bus, glad to come home. His mother greeted him with a hug and a kiss and asked him about his day. “It was fine” tended to be the usual answer. Andy tore through his homework with ease as his mom prepared dinner. With her work done and the food in the oven, Andy entered his favorite time of the day. He plopped on the couch beside his mother and the two watched episodes of old British comedies. He loved the old shows which, in his mind, exemplified his ideal world: sensible and smart, dry with even the most chaotic bits neatly tied up with a clarity. Oftentimes the wit was of a level his seven-year old mind could not quite grasp, but his mom did her best to offer contextual commentary.

“Guys!” Thomas’ muffled voice echoed from the back door. “You gotta see this!”

Andy sighed as his mother reached for the remote and pressed the blue-gray pause button. She countered his frown with a great big warm smile. “Come on,” she said, “Your father must have finished it!”

Amy and Andy Liu opened the screen door into their spacious back yard. The flat grassy terrain was littered with a stegosaurus, triceratops, pterodactyl, and more made of old wood and brick and wires and discarded antiques. The neighbors, all with more conventional careers, had conflicting feelings as to how this display effected their property values. Those feelings would only become more polarized as the newest addition to the menagerie, the very reason Thomas had called his beloved wife and son outside, appeared to be complete.

Standing over twenty-feet tall, this monstrous sculpture seemed the most alive of the lot. Rusted pipes made up the most of its skeletal structure. Its mighty torso was coated with sheet metal, floor tiles, and ceiling fan blades. The tail was thick and long; a thing of roof shingles and heavy cables and ropes bound tight. Its head appeared to be a curious amalgamation of an aquarium, an air conditioner, and a mix of the parts that comprised the rest of its body, including the broken cinder blocks at its feet. Its mouth was open wide, as if frozen in roar, foot-long chair leg teeth bared. Its wiry arms, though small, ended in silverware claws prepared for battle. There was no mistaking the majesty, the craftsmanship, the power of the final piece of the Shop Cretaceous series: the tyrannosaurus rex.

“So…what do you think?”

Andy took in his father’s expression of pure and boundless joy; one that mirrored the one so easily achieved by his classmates.

“It’s incredible,” Amy exclaimed. She turned to her son, filling him with dread. “Isn’t it incredible, Andy?”

Andy hated this part the most. Even at this young age he could sense his father’s longing for his acceptance; his pride in his father’s work. The two loved each other for sure, but the chasm between them insofar as how they experienced the world was one neither had the tools to overcome. And to be perfectly honest, Andy hated his father’s work. He hated how it made the neighborhood kids want to come and play. And most of all he hated dinosaurs. Nothing about those wild, unruly monsters making a racket and tearing each other limb from limb appealed to him. “I like it,” said Andy to his father unconvincingly. “It’s really nice.” Then came the moment where Thomas tried to hide his disappointment and Andy pretended not to notice the charade.

Dinner was a magnified version of the usual. Thomas would engage in lively conversations with Amy about his sculpting and her teaching (she taught Mandarin online). Amy would engage in sensible conversations with Andy about British shows and their lackluster American counterparts. Amy would attempt to spark more than small talk between father and son. Usually it was successful enough, but this time Thomas’ energy was high and something just…snapped…

Thomas landed his fist hard on the table. “What is wrong with you?” He didn’t yell, but his voice was sharp, hard nonetheless. “I have given you every opportunity to live and- and thrive, to enjoy life and you just mope around and… Sometimes I feel like this is some cosmic joke my parents are playing on me for disappointing them.”

The empty chair crashed to the floor as Andy ran down the hall and into his bedroom. With one hand he slapped his door, the other wiped his eyes. He could hear the muffled arguing as he turned off the lights and slipped under the covers.

He could hear his door whisper open. A soft click and the lights were on.

“Andy.” It was Thomas.

Andy didn’t respond. He was too busy rubbing the sheet against his bloodshot eyes. His body jerked to the side as his father sat down on his bed.

“Come out, Andy,” his father said. “Please.”

Andy sniffled and pulled the muted green comforter from over his head. There was his father, wearing an expression uncharacteristic of him. A deep frown pulled the youth, the joy, from his face. His gaze was intense as ever though. But the tears. Those were new.

“I’m sorry,” said his father. “At the table…the things I said. In that moment I became everything I swore I never would.” He placed his hand gently on Andy’s shoulder. “Parents have these ideas of what their kids are gonna be. Right or wrong, they do. And in my mind you and I were gonna be in the shop picking out junk and turning it into art. But that’s not you, you know? And that’s okay. It’s perfect. And then as I sit here I realize that I have no idea what you’re passionate about. And that’s on me. It’s all on me. You’re this amazing, unique human being that I made and I don’t know a thing.”

Thomas had more to say- lots more. And it was honest and raw and apologetic and hopeful. He kissed Andy on the cheek and promised to be better. Andy didn’t say much, but as he drifted to sleep that night, he felt quite content.

…………

Andy found himself in a dense jungle. Leaves as big as he was were dripping wet from a rain that had freshly passed. A mist permeated all things as did a cacophony of shrieks and growls and other unsavory sounds. This was not ideal.

Andy was so utterly dissatisfied by the scenario that he hadn’t the slightest idea of what his first move should be. Then came a rustling in a large leafy shrub nearby. His first move was, as it turned out, to run as fast as he could away from the sound.

From the shrub leaped three cavemen, hairy and dressed sparsely in tiger fur. They held mighty clubs which they held above their heads as they took off after Andy, howling through crooked yellow teeth.

Andy’s heart was pounding. His head was spinning. He swatted his way through swarms of giant flies, hoisted himself over an algae-covered root, and splashed across a swiftly flowing stream. He could hear the cavemen drawing closer and closer, their grunts seeming to say, “You will make for a worthwhile meal tonight, little boy.”

Andy tripped on a turtle and crashed against the muddy earth. In an instant he was surrounded by the filthy, awful cavemen. Hunger in their crazed eyes, all three raised their clubs in unison. This was it. Andy closed his eyes and hoped it would be over quick.

Then, from the jungle depths rung a mighty ROARRRRRRRRRRR!

Andy’s eyes snapped open just in time to see an enormous green tail whack one of the cavemen into the air and out of sight. A pair of scaly fingers grasped another caveman by the shoulder and pulled him into a dense bush. The earth trembled heralding the arrival of a horned creature the size of an SUV barreling into the final caveman, sending him deep into the mist.

Andy could not believe what he was seeing. Where once stood three primitive cavepeople were now three very curious dinosaurs. The first was not much bigger than he was. A brown scaly velociraptor with large, friendly eyes wearing a bowtie smartly around its neck. The second was an enormous triceratops, thick skin a light violet. Its three great horns were adorned with rings of gold and diamond. Red lipstick was expertly applied to its beak. Finally, towering above the rest was a great, green tyrannosaurus rex wearing a monocle and a top hat.

“A fine and pleasant afternoon to you,” said the tyrannosaurus in a booming voice with an accent that sounded entirely…British. “Quite the scrape you’d found yourself in, eh?” Andy was at a complete loss for words. “Oh! Where are my manners? Introductions are paramount in moments like these, aren’t they? I,” he puffed out his chest proudly, growing his already gargantuan form, “am Reginald Von Roar, lord of this jungle. This,” he gestured to the triceratops with his tiny hand, “is the substantial Lady Wilhelmina Thrice, of the Talonbrook Thrices. A stalwart friend and fierce protector of the less fortunate, yes.”

Lady Wilhelmina batted her eyelashes. “Charmed.”

“And over here,” Reginald continued, gesturing to the velociraptor, “is young Miles Hooktoe, servant boy to our Wilhelmina and as good and loyal a soul as you can find.”

Miles bowed his head. “A pleasure to meet ya, it is!”

Reginald lowered his huge head, cocking it to the side so his monocled eye was level with Andy. “Dear boy, I am utterly brimming with curiosity as to how you found yourself in such a predicament as this. But might I suggest you regale us with your tale in a more appropriate setting? One that involves tea and biscuits, perhaps?” Reginald grinned. “What do you say to that?”

…………

“And then we went to this fancy mansion and had tea and biscuits! Lady Wilhelmina prefers three lumps of sugar, but Reginald likes it black. Miles pretends to love Wilhelmina’s biscuits, but he’s just doing it because she’s sensitive about that sort of thing!” Andy had hardly touched his cereal he was so excited.

His mother giggled, “Sounds like quite the dream you had!”

“Mmhm,” Andy tried his best to recall every detail, every word of it.

“You know,” Thomas began. “I may have enough extra junk in the back to make a top hat. Maybe you and I can watch some of those shows you like so much to make sure I get the dimensions right.”

Andy smiled.

At school that day Andy watched from a distance as his classmates giggled and shrieked and played on the jungle gym.

A jungle gym. Ha. Andy had been to an actual jungle. And survived a caveman attack and…

Andy whispered something into the ear of the nearest teacher, a short, pudgy red-faced man. The teacher smirked and walked him back into the school, to the classroom, to a chest full of toys reserved for those rainy recess days.

Three kids were positioned at the top of the dome-shaped jungle gym arguing about who would win in a fight: Batman or Spider-Man. Below them were a dozen other kids climbing and falling and trying to impress one another by hanging in new and interesting ways.

“My brother Max says that Spider-Man could lift a whole truck if-” A boy with freckles and a mop of red hair stopped talking. He noticed a boy with black hair cropped short holding a plastic tyrannosaurus rex high above his head and a triceratops and velociraptor tucked under his other arm. His eyes glistened a warm chocolate brown.

“My name is Reginald Von Roar,” said Andy in his best British accent. “I fancy my tea black, my biscuits plentiful and the occasional scrape with cavemen when they try to hurt my friends.”

In a single perfect moment, everyone on the jungle gym went quiet. A few giggles and whispers came and went. The boy with the freckles swiped the hair from in front of his eyes and grinned, showing off a few missing teeth. “You’re weird,” he said. He then pointed to the triceratops and velociraptor. “If that’s Reginald, then who are they? And do ya think they could beat Spider-Man?”

Andy smiled and offered his reply. And it was sensible and smart, dry with even the most chaotic bits neatly tied up with a clarity.

The kid with the red hair patted a piece of rubber-coated pipe beside him. “Come on up, weird kid. I bet Reginald couldn’t beat my brother Max…”

 

Like what you read? Want more? Pick up Reverie on Amazon or follow these stories and more on Instagram/Facebook @welcome2reverie.

From Dream to Reality: The Making of Reverie

I was perusing the Barnes and Noble at Union Square, one of my favorite bookstores to explore in NYC, when I received a call from a friend…well, more of a brother, really. “What are you up to?” he asked. I told him I was staring at covers in the YA Fiction section. “I always wondered why you never wrote one of those before,” he continued. He took my lack of a convincing response as an opportunity for a challenge. “By the next time I talk to you, I want you to have a concept for a teen fantasy novel, dude.” I couldn’t say “no” to family.

Flash forward a month and I’m talking to him once again. I tell him I’ve got a concept. And beyond that, I’ve just finished the fourteenth chapter and have fallen in love with the characters, excited to see what sort of trouble they get into next.

Reverie was born of all the things that formed the foundation of my relationship with my friend/bro. In college, we would spend hours at night, at a diner or on the road, discussing the possibilities and the magic of life; how beneath every inch of physical, there was something metaphysical that drives and guides, teaches and inspires. Naturally, this led to talk of dreams and the power of fears, desires, and the chasm that exists between who we are and who we could be. Claire, Victor, Jack, and the rest offer the different ways in which our dreams manifest and those differences will only deepen in following books in this four-part series.

The first draft was the most exciting to me. All that possibility and uncharted territory nestled in every page. As I completed each chapter I would send it to one of my best friends and we’d discuss. From those discussions more possibilities would arise; the scope would widen. And when I reached the end, I handed it off to my mom to bless with the gift of eagle-eyed proofreading.

At about the third draft, I did a short thirty-book run for the purpose of handing out to friends, friends of friends, and real life young adults…people I knew would have honest and valuable opinions on the otherworldly tale. I designed a cover using a few stock photos and my semi-competent Photoshop skills.

The feedback was bountiful and helped birth a few more drafts. It was time to take it to the next level. I researched and found a wonderful editor, Steve Parolini, who tore Reverie to SHREDS and made me rethink every decision I’d ever made in my life. But damn was he good.

The licking of my wounds took the form of writing the first two drafts of the second book, Cosmos. I needed some time and space away from Reverie before I dove into the mighty undertaking of those major edits and writing Cosmos was the perfect way to reconnect and reignite my love of these characters. It was about a year before I returned to Reverie and, with the help of an editor and Leigh, a pro-proofreader/friend of mine, whipped out the final drafts. During this time, I also met a fantastic cover illustrator and superb collaborator who designed the cover we have today.

As with the first draft, I gave the final one to my mom for one final edit sweep before initiating the self-publishing process through Createspace. Now, after three years, you can buy a print copy of Reverie. Kindle (and other ebook options) coming soon.

Even though the journey is just beginning with the Reverie series, it’s been a dream come true.

 

SNEAK PEAK: Back Cover.

Reverie drops November 2017. There are plenty of updates to come, but the first is an informative one: Here’s the back cover (with text)!

PLAY: Hope & Change

Berlin.

Whenever I go on vacation I generally have one major goal: to consume as much of the culture, history, and vibe of the place that I’m visiting as I humanly can. What this tends to turn into is a lot of museum visits, random conversations with people, and my personal favorite: hours/miles of aimless wandering. I move through a strange land, journal in hand, usually alone, and open to whatever life has for me. Usually this leads to as much awkwardness as adventure and I really wouldn’t have it any other way. My recent trip to Germany was no different…and yet, as with all things if you do them correctly, very different.

Sidenote: Germany wasn’t next on my vacation list. Or fifth. Or twentieth. Greece and Iceland, China and South Africa, they were to be my next educational conquests. But life happens. “Life” in this case being a super-close friend staying in Berlin for work for six months along with a friend from Stuttgart, Germany who I hadn’t seen in over five years. Both of whom showed me and amazing time (including but not limited to late night drunk bike rides and a cartoonishly ridiculous conversation with a pair of visiting Glasgow gays). Still, while I don’t believe everything happens for a reason (to believe something like that negates the joys of free will), I truly do believe my Berlin experience was meant to be…

 

Cultural differences.

I was sitting in the lower floor of a community center in Stuttgart, chilling with my friend and his band before their set. When discussing music and America the subjects combined and someone said, “Sometimes I wish Germans were as emotional as Americans.” Now, this was referring to the excitement and celebration around music. The American way of “letting loose and woo-ing and shouting at a concert or rave.” It was an interesting thought and one that had, even in my four days in the country, become clear to me.

There’s a stereotype about German people being serious, regimented, punctuality-obsessed, but that didn’t feel right. And, of course, that’s a stereotype based on seeing them through an American lens. In actuality, it’s a refreshing thing; a culture with a heavier reliance on thoughtfulness than feeling. In contrast our obsession with the way things feel as being just as or (or more) relevant than the facts of the way things are is as American as apple pie and revolution. One on side, it’s one of the most powerful driving forces behind the American Dream, the hope, faith, and passion that fuels our ingenuity, our insatiable drive for creativity and accomplishment. Another side is the idea that everyone’s feelings are valid (and they are, totally, from angle of an individual and their growth journey). But in a nation that values feelings over facts, false equivalencies are made (validity is given) to people whose ideas are factually wrong and our strength is eroded; we become more vulnerable to manipulation.

Perhaps one major contributor to the German way is that time in history that financial crisis, racism, and emotion lead to one of the darkest periods in modern history. There is a melancholy in the architecture of Berlin only heightened by the gray rainy skies. The wounds of the second World War appear healed in the minds of the young, but the scars still exist and always will and are in display so clearly on the surface that one can only imagine how deep it runs in the depths of the culture, the soul. Informative signs stand outside of monuments everywhere you go and after a while you become familiar with a particular sentence: “This [building/statue] was originally built in [XXXX] but was destroyed by Allied bombing and [rebuilt/restored] in [19XX].” Like I said, healing. Healing is a pillar of the culture and the education, sensibility, and willingness to compromise that comes with the process.

Don’t worry, I’ll get to the Holocaust soon enough, but let’s move to one of the most physical and well-known representations of the aftermath of WWII and the Cold War: the wall.

There is a park in Berlin where you can still walk the wall: some parts stripped to their foundation, others restored to their original form with guard towers intact, most long ruins covered in graffiti, a fascinating representation of history and rejection of history’s dark pull over present ambitions…history as a canvas upon which art and new expression can be formed.

The first step, of course, is admitting you have a problem…and I think that’s a logical step and a dominating strength of the country.

 

Walls.

If your knowledge of German history is as shoddy as mine was, after Hitler and friends were dismantled, Germany was split in two (actually four, but meh), East Germany and West Germany. The German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany. Super-restricted, regimented, nationalist dictatorship and capitalist democracy. Naturally people would try to escape from East to West (to be with family or simply to escape the East). Ninety-eight people in Berlin died trying to make the journey over the decades. There are plaques and small monuments in the places where the first people died during the escape. The wall came down in 1990, during most of our lifetimes. In fact there’s a prayer center near the center of the park where once a church stood before it was destroyed during the wall’s construction. It’s a place for people effected by the East/West split to come, pray, talk, reflect. Rightfully off-limits to ignorant outsiders such as myself.

There’s a place where the 98 faces of the people who died trying to cross to the west stand. Older women walk up and leave flowers. A class stands at its base, one by one standing and reading aloud their reports on one of the dead. It was a beautiful thing to see. I kept my distance because it wasn’t my place, my world, but watched on as old and young embraced their past in plain sight. One of modern history’s great symbols, the tearing down of walls as a step to healing, acceptance, and moving on.

 

THAT part of German history.

There’s a place in Berlin called the Topographie des Terrors – I’m gonna go ahead and assume a translation isn’t necessary. This is a large flat area surrounded by brick ruins where once stood the Nazi Headquarters. Now, upon these dark grounds sits a museum; a detailed history of the rise and fall of Adolph Hitler; its boisterous beginnings and hard ending…and a taste of what came next. It was the site that I spent the most time in. So much to consume. So much to understand. Millions upon millions killed in concentration camps for not fitting the concept of or accepting the idea of a perfect race, overwhelmingly Jewish, but also homosexual men, gypsies, political adversaries, Catholics, kids who listened to “Negro music,” the physically and mentally disabled (many asylums were basically transformed into medical kil-camps) and more so-called threats to society.

Obviously, this sort of thing doesn’t come out of nowhere. Germany was, like much of the Anglo-world, suffering from a depression, starving, hurting, and in a state of such emotional rawness comes a natural need to find sense and oftentimes that means placing blame. Though overwhelmingly white, straight, and male-dominated, Berlin had made a name for itself in Europe as a bastion of the arts and self-expression. Few cities boasted such acceptance of those “threats to society” in that time (see the flashbacks in the last couple seasons of Transparent). Such things are the first to be vilified the second something goes wrong. And the Jewish people, who have been routinely marginalized and berated, were growing in wealth and influence and had just been given complete economic freedom, placing a giant target on them (“Stealing business from the white man when he needs it the most!”) Hitler played on those fears, silenced anyone who didn’t think the way he did, and went on a bloody rampage as he built a doomed empire. Feelings of fear and anger unchecked can make a monster of anyone.

Sidenote II: The Topographie des Terrors wasn’t really on my to-visit list (I honestly didn’t know it existed since I kinda like to go light on the research to leave room for the unexpected). I came across it on the way to the Jewish Museum of Berlin. It was an especially gray, wet day. I was, naturally, not appropriately dressed and without an umbrella and hiding out under the plastic roof of a currywurst vendor where the server shook his head on my insistence on eating fries with my hands but also turned the heat lamps on for me because I was shivering like an idiot so we cool. I noticed the big dark sign reading “Topographie des Terrors” and anyone who’s spent fifteen minutes with me knows that no part of me can resist investigating something like that. I never did get to the Jewish Museum that day. After all those terrors and hard facts I needed to recharge so I met up with my friend and we hit the German gayborhood where we drowned myself in wine and met those aforementioned Glasgow gays, one of whom, named Gash, who proudly stated his goal for the evening in that thick Scottish accent was, “To fuck a twink.”

 

Minority.

There’s a memorial to the Jewish people who died in the Holocaust. It’s a cold, gray thing. Hundreds of casket-shaped blocks rising from the ground. It’s massive and the farther you walk from the sidewalk, the more the ground dips. Eventually you’re surrounded by this blocks, rising up above you, blocking out the sun, forcing you to lose yourself in it, caught in the shadows they cast. It felt heavy, important. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that a few of the blocks had been vandalized by the words “Jesus” and “Rises” because…people.

The Jewish Museum I planned on visiting earlier in my trip, I saved for the last day. I’m pretty happy with that choice. It’s an excellent museum. My favorite of the seven that I visited (two of those seven included an awesome spy museum and a video game museum just to put this into perspective). The upper floors take you on an educational, clear, and interactive journey through the history of the Jewish people from the beginning. There’s middle floors housed the special exhibits: one called “A Muslim, A Christian, and a Jew” (by Eran Shakine) a simple series of artworks highlighting the similarities and shared circumstances of both groups and the second, “Golem,” about the monsters of mud from Jewish legend, animated by mystics to protect them (or their interests)…known also for breaking free of their creator’s control and wreaking havoc (an idea used in countless movies and books). I could go on and on about the those floors, but I’m here to talk about the Holocaust Tower…

The entire museum was designed by architect/artist superstar Daniel Libeskind and the very design of it is a piece worthy of study, a work of art housing works of art and artifacts. The basement of the museum is dedicated to the Holocaust, split into three paths: Exile (about the Jews who escaped), Continuity (about moving on), and Holocaust (stories of the people who died accompanied by artifacts of their lives – reading glasses, love letters, movie tickets, etc). At the end of the Holocaust path is what, from a distance, looks like a black wall. But when you get closer you see a handle, a wide door and the end of a hallway on a slight incline. This is the door to the Holocaust Tower.

Honestly, I might have missed it were it not for this boisterous and colorful group of older men and women chattering as they opened the door, disappeared inside for a few seconds, and left displeased over the fact that it was too dark to take any decent pictures. Bless their hearts.

On the wall beside me, in German and English, was the description. Also called the “Voided Void” it is “an isolated building splinter whose sole connection to the Libeskind building is underground. Daylight penetrates the [79ft tower] only through a narrow slit in the unheated concrete silo and any exterior sounds are heavily muffled [but magnified in volume] by the walls.” It’s a piece of art meant to make you feel trapped, alone, kept apart from the rest of the world.

Once the giggling tour group disappeared down the hall I opened the door. It was heavier than I thought it would be. A cold rush of air caught me off guard. I entered the bleak gray room, so dark that the door practically disappeared when I closed it behind me. I looked up, gazing at that sliver of white light, so far from me that it barely reached me. I walked the perimeter of the room, alone, distant walls disappearing in shadow as I moved away from them. The sounds coming from outside echoed in the room, the ever-present noises of the city. And as I stood there in the center of the room I felt my heart lurch forward. Moments later tears began to stream down my eyes as I was hit with this extreme loneliness, helplessness, that felt both so personal and yet bigger than myself.

This may come as a surprise to no one, but I’m not Jewish (Ancestry.com backs me up on this), but I had just spent hours upon hours in the past few days taking in stories about people, real people, and their fates. I also, as a black, gay man fall into a bucket of humanity often considered “threats to society.” This year I set out to learn about the American revolutions of the 60s and 70s so that I may better understand and engage the climate of today and so as I stood in the cold in that room I was joined by the battles fought by Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, Fred Hampton, MLK, Huey Newton, Sylvia Rivera and so, so, so many more. The ones being fought today by Black Lives Matter, Gays Against Guns, Dakota Pipeline protests, Southern Poverty Law Center, and countless other groups resisting the status quo as underlying currents of sexism, racism, homophobia and more rear their heads. Helplessness, loneliness, abuse, fear of death…these are not the traits of a single group but of all humanity. And as such all humanity has the responsibility to protect a group plagued by them…because while we may not have their exact experiences we do know how shitty those feelings feel…how they can burrow deep into a mind, an entire culture, and if left untended eat them alive from the inside.

There were moments in the tower that the feelings were too much. My eyes would dart to the wall, looking for a door that couldn’t be seen. But ultimately I came to crave it, the pureness of the fear and pain, to let it wash over me and truly impact me, allow it to change me, to creep into my vulnerabilities and force me to give in to it. I left the room, still alone, stronger in my vulnerability than I had entered.

Sidenote III: It was a few hours later that I felt weird about having an experience about a thing that may not have exactly been the thing I should have been reflecting on in something called the Holocaust Tower, but got over it. Art, after all, is meant to be interpreted and felt as only the individual engaged in it can.

 

He’s everywhere…

And, since this is November 2016, I’m obligated to talk about Donald Trump…

Since we’re fresh off the heels of an election that defied “normal” in just about every way, I became a bit of a lightning rod for questions from any Europeans that I had an extended conversation with. “What were you guys doing?” “What were you all thinking?” “How did it happen?” “Are you going to just stay in Germany then?” There was a direct correlation between the length and passion of my answer and the amount of wine I’d consumed upon being asked. Usually though I’d rattle something about “feeling fortunate that I lived in one of the great liberal strongholds of the world (New York City), but being acutely aware of the villainized communities (including women) who weren’t so lucky beyond.” Then, since I had the whole East/West Berlin Wall thing fresh in my head I’d say that “the wall between the Republicans and the Democrats had taken a necessary blow. We can see each other more clearly now. This is a time of unstoppable, irreversible change after a deadly rollercoaster of a year for a lot of marginalized groups in the country…and a perceived attack on the white, male powers that be (but, hey, perception is reality!). Our melting pot is now a pressure cooker and our relatively young nation is experiencing yet another bout of growing pains…and it is up to us to decide what we become. And while we are pros at making decisions based on emotions there’s one that we let slip by far too often: empathy. Understanding. Some of my closest friends come in both red and blue. We should all be willing to engage peacefully with people who have beliefs that are different than our own. Challenging your beliefs, giving in to doubt, learning from others is one of the leading contributors to true personal strength…and thus national strength. But any sort of ill will toward people of a certain race, sexual orientation, gender identity simply because they were born that way is unacceptable. No one should fear for their life because they make someone feel uncomfortable. And THAT’S how I feel about this election!”

That was an example of a response I’d give after a lot of wine, by the way.

 

In closing.

This was all a pretty bleak summary of my vacation, huh? The truth is that we all approach life with the mindspace that we’ve got from moment to moment and mine was desperately looking for answers…and the above is most of what I came away with. Honestly my trip to Berlin (and Stuttgart!) was incredible. I was only there for eight days and saw the tiniest sliver of what the country has to offer and am sure I’ll be back for more some day.

And, to be clear, there were some more traditionally wonderful moments on the trip as well: Meeting two brothers from Wisconsin who taught me how to use the subway system and then shared with me their hobby of scavenging in abandoned buildings, the bartender who explained (unprovoked) over and over again to my friend and I that he wasn’t gay but also didn’t charge us for any of our drinks, singing Christmas songs in this trippy apartment at the top of a spire, drinking mulled wine in a yurt, sitting back in a beanbag chair and witnessing an extrasensory multimedia experience of art from proto-surrealist Heronymous Bosch, rolling my eyes every time the very calm and quiet subways were ruined by loud boisterous groups of people who were almost always American, witnessing the assembly of a half dozen Christmas Villages, finishing reading my book on participatory democracy thanks to hours of cross-country train time, eating all the schnitzel a boy could want (not a euphemism), and, of course, seeing my friends who were both fantastic hosts and Mikey and Gash, the Glasgow gays.

Near the end of my stay in Berlin, my friend decided to show me this massive flea market. Unfortunately, the flea market was not happening that day. Instead we wound up in this crowded park; crowded because 95% of the people walked up and down this long stretch of cracked concrete. The path was flanked by an open field on one side and an incline on most of the other. People of all colors, all ages, gay, straight, couples, groups of friends, families, were enjoying a cool Sunday afternoon. Laughter and joyful conversation echoed all around. Everywhere you looked there was some form of art. Whether it be giant sculptures out in the field or the graffiti’d walls and curbs or a folk singing duo, a guy playing video game songs on an accordion or the woman in the Technicolor paper mache monkey mask rocking out on an air guitar. I looked to my friend and I said, “I found it. I finally found it. I’ve been living in the past…learning from the past…but this is Berlin. This is where I am. And it’s awesome.”

AndthenItookaplanetoAmericatheend.

Duck. Flip. Freedom.

I’ve been a teller of stories through images and words since as far back as I can remember. But the true birth of my creative-state occurred one Autumn night when I was in the fifth grade. I was sitting on the living room floor, drawing a giant picture of Daffy Duck on a piece of white pasteboard when – WHACK – a received a light, but surprising, smack to the back of the head. I turned around to find my mother, eyes burning holes into me, and myself unsure of what I’d done.”What. Is. That?” she asked through clenched teeth.”Daffy Duck?” I sputtered, wholly confused.”I see. Well, did you create Daffy Duck?””No,” I said.”Then why would you waste your time drawing some other character that makes other people money when you could be making your own?”Before I could answer, my mom flipped the poster board over, revealing its blank side. Satisfied with her noble deed she returned to watching Oprah.

I remember the feeling I got when I looked at that fresh empty side. The possibility. The opportunity for me to put my pencil to nothingness and turn it into something all my own. Over the next half hour or so, my pencil and I created The Thunder Mammals, a team of mammalian super heroes who protected the Animal Kingdom from menaces within. Sure, I had made up my own characters by that point- tons, in fact -but that smack to the back of my head was the catalyst for a fundamental shift in how I looked everything.

I had a relationship to characters like Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote whom I would draw often and one as well with Super Kitty and Clay-Guy and others of my own cartoon pantheon, but the true difference between my attention on one group or the other was negligent. What my mother had taught me in that direct, swift way that defines her methods, was the power of ownership. Daffy was their idea. The Thunder Mammals was mine. Mine. And with that ownership comes a strengthened idea of individuality and, with that, strengthened creativity.

As my artistic relationship with Warner Bros. decreased dramatically and my own characters’ worlds grew into rich, enormous things, the lesson learned quickly spread into other facets of my life. What else was I pouring myself into that was not mine?

Suddenly, the world in which I had lived for over a decade appeared to be, for the most part, not my own. What did I feel about things that did not directly come from the opinions of my parents? What did I know about things that did not directly come from the books that other people had given me? I was nothing more than the receptacle for other people’s creations; a realization that allowed me to set forth on a quest to free myself from it.

In the coming years the word “why?” became my best friend. When I was told how to act, or what to think, or (a major theme in my Roman Catholic schooling and upbringing) what was right or wrong, I immediately rejected the answer and, if the question were one I had never heard before, asked myself how I felt about it; if my opinion was in line with the “me” I am always in the process of building.

I’m sure that a lot of people are reading this and going “Duh!”, but the more I do and the more people I see the more I am sure not enough people have actually received that smack in the head (metaphorically or otherwise) to get them to step outside of the socio-environmental boxes they were placed in. The reasoning behind this, I think, is a healthy blend of social conditioning, rationalization, and laziness (known also as an “addiction to easy”) – By the by, these three things are secret recipe for the perpetuation of a great many terrible, terrible events that have occurred throughout human history.

I’m AWESOME!
We often tend to congratulate ourselves too much, treating a mild victory as an overwhelming success. Certainly we should be proud of our accomplishments and congratulate ourselves for every good thing we do, but much like the teenage girl who treats the discovery of a pimple with a explosive emotional outpouring of someone who’d just lost a loved one , we tend to give our personal progress more weight than it deserves. I’m not saying that getting a tattoo or or boat aren’t steps toward becoming closer to the person you want to be, but so often do we glorify these surface things to the point of glazing over the deeper opportunities for embracing our individuality, sometimes to our detriment. This leads to people thinking things like, “Well, my hair is blue and this yacht is great, but why am I not totally happy and content?” The answer: go deeper.

The way it is.
When the strongest themes of one’s society mix with laziness and a heaping helping of rationalization what you get this is phrase “That’s just the way it is.” Basically, these six words, whether spoken aloud or kept within, are one of the most powerful forces blinding a person to their own creative potential, freedom, and individuality (these three things being the exact same thing, really). If you hate your job, why do you stay there? If you’re in an abusive relationship, why do you stay in it? “That’s just the way it is” is such a convenient answer. Not to mention its close friend, “You can’t have everything,” which, while technically true, allowing it too much pull is the equivalent of blowing off your own leg with a bazooka constructed of your mind’s self-defeat.

The truth is that these debilitating mantras are self-imposed prisons where the guard and prisoner are one. To act against them is to loosen their grip immediately. Search for a new job. Move out of the house of your significant other. Sure, these escapes offer varying levels of difficulty depending on the situation, but merely believing that such a shift is possible is a form of creative freedom.

Is it the way?
Okay. Great. We’ve got blue hair, a yacht, a new job, and are no longer being abused. That’s it, right? We have assumed our individuality and drawn our own life’s picture. All is well, right? RIGHT?

Ha, you wish. Believe it or not, this is still the surface. Physical, tangible things. Toys. Cars. Other people. Houses. Dogs. Jobs. Money. Important things, yes, but to reach the truth of your individual, creative self you must be willing to go deeper, to ask “why” to the very core of who you are.

Compared to this next part, the bad jobs and bad relationships are easy. No matter how we rationalize them, it’s obvious in our hearts that they are bad. When it comes to things like one’s religion or morality or philosophy, things that are sometimes so deeply ingrained in a person’s psyche that they seem as much a part of them as their genetic make-up, “That’s just the way it is” is a force so all-encompassing that it is simply “Correct.”

The African American side of my family comes from the deep south where certain things were a certain way for people of different races. Some of them today are distrustful of white people. I’d say something as simple as “I got an A on my Biology test today” and that would garner the response, “Aw, that’s great Trystin. Now don’t let those teachers try to put any of them white boys ahead of you even though they ain’t as smart as you.” Is this response coming from a place of utmost love and concern? Yes. Is it a dangerous bit of hate based on a generalized and (arguably) outdated assumption that is just as harmful to peaceful race relation as any teachers who might “put any of them white boys ahead of” me? Certainly. If my handful of relatives and others like them would consider the times and their own recent experiences instead of clinging to cultural-spun philosophy then maybe their tune would be different.

The product of a Catholic upbringing, my learned concept of right and wrong was a compilation of carefully selected and translated excerpts from the Bible, everyone’s favorite religious tome. Early on we learned things like “Stealing is bad” and “Killing is bad” and “Not going to church on Sundays bad”. Then as we matured, so did these excerpts increase to combat our newfound urges: “Sex before marriage is bad”, “Adultery is bad”, “Homosexuality is bad”. To many, too many, the words of this book are the be all end all of the core of who they are. These people are so deeply Catholic or Baptist or Jewish that their unique self (them as “Sarah” or “Rachel” or “Greg”) comes second.

To truly reach one’s full potential one must fully look into their own morality. They must first look at the whole and then tear it down piece by piece. The latter is where laziness can come in, too. People love their quick fixes and when they can get the answers to all their tough questions in a simplified single place, be it a bible or a political party, they hold on tight and then concentrate on that new car they’ve had their eye on. This stuff takes work!

Looking at the bible holistically we see the usual excerpts, but also some really odd and disturbing things like men sleeping with their daughters without the least bit of negative connotation and Jesus himself condoning slavery (in quotes that were used in the American South to support their pro-slavery views). And then, once the whole picture has been put together, go ahead and see it as a number of pieces, not one single lesson that you can be for or against.  Just because you think killing is wrong does not mean you need to think missing church on Sunday is, too. Pre-made view sets are not YOUR view sets. The same goes for your parents’ morals and our little two-partied system. Pick and choose what you feel is honestly right for you and, if in the end your moral code seems an awful lot like the one you left behind… Fine! Great! When I drew a picture on that poster board one of the Thunder Mammals was a platypus and looked an awful lot like Daffy Duck…but he wasn’t. He was a conclusion I reached on my own based on a desire to create from within myself. And as I thought holistically and my worldview expanded from the resulting questions, that platypus (and just about everything else) changed as well.

I’ll have you know he looks nothing like Daffy today…except for, you know, having a beak.

Creativity is more than coming up with great ideas for your writing, speaking, business, or art. It is accepting and embracing the fact that you are a unique individual part of a whole and in order to do the most good, to be the happiest, you must forge your own path, your own philosophy, separate from those who have been made by others. They are theirs. Not yours.

7 Missing Tarot [Chapter 1 preview].

I’ve got a novel in the works. Here’s a preview for chapter one of “The 7 Missing Tarot”…

Chapter 1 – In the cards.

“Son of a FUCK!”

I didn’t always curse like this. My parents would have never allowed it. They’d send me to my room without dessert or some TV shit like that…even though we weren’t allowed to watch  much TV growing up. “A box of sin and temptation” and all of that. I mean you’d swear, too if you cut your leg while shaving in the tub. I probably shouldn’t have been so focused on hitting the high notes of Whitney’s Bodyguard theme. Or maybe I shouldn’t use an old razor I found under the sink. Regardless, blood is blood and my thigh is gushing like a motherfucker. My name is Okimbe- Kim for short -and I’m going to pass out now.

It’s roughly ten minutes later and I’m lying…laying?…lying in bed, my roommate Tina holding my hand. Her deadbeat-but-harmless boyfriend Dave is looming over her, scratching his head, his face dopier than usual. Something about me: I pass out at the sight of blood. So whenever I shave in the tub I make sure that I leave the door open and let Tina know so I don’t, you know, drown in the lamest fucking way ever.

Okay. So I guess you’re probably wanting to know more about me than some shit about passing out in tubs. Fine. To tell you the truth, my adult life pales in comparison to my backstory. Like, seriously. My life has been a series of uneventful stumbles and falls since the bad old days. I’m talking newsworthy stuff. Google my name- Okimbe Cuthbert…or Malawe -and you’ll see. Actually, don’t. I’ll just tell you:

You know those weird, creepy cults that pop up from time to time on the news? They’re always in the middle of nowhere on some compound and no one ever knows about it until EVERYONE knows about it. That’s where my story begins. I was born in a shack to a kidnapped twelve-year old girl who died in childbirth. My shit-eating fuck-brained monster of a father- the father of everyone who wasn’t kept in a cage, actually -was the undisputed and omnipotent ruler of the Malawe Compound.

Ogun, he called himself. He was dark skinned with tufts of wild graying black hair framing the entirety of his long face. He stood frighteningly tall, especially in my memory, long legs placing him up close to the heavens he claimed to have descended from. What I remember the most about my father, though, were his eyes: large yellow orbs, glazed over by drugs and delusions; piercing things that shone with the wrath of God.

I was five years old when the S.W.A.T. team stormed us, an army of white-skinned men brandishing weapons and armor like the demon hoards in Ogun’s sermons. I was washing clothes with sisters in the courtyard. My brothers were around, skinning food or hunting or berating the captives. We were all caught unaware. Ogun emerged from the main house at the sound of our screams. He didn’t lift his rifle a fucking inch before a dozen bullets dropped him on his porch. Two of my brothers and one sister, attempting to avenge our prophet-father’s death, were killed as well. All I could do was wail, wide-eyed, as curses and gunshots thundered in the air all around me. I wailed and I wailed, tears rolling down my dry dark cheeks. Wailed as I lost my father; my siblings. Wailed as a strong armored arm picked me up, kicking and screaming, and then hurled me into the back of a black van, promising over and over again that I would be safe now.

“OW. Motherfu-”

“Oh, settle down!” Tina scolds me in her sweetest voice as she applies some weird organic cream to my cut. She’s a skinny white girl with green eyes and blonde hair and dresses in expensive flowy earth tones. She’s been out of college as long as I have, but unlike me, her parents continue to pay her rent and give her an allowance so that she can skip around the city without the slightest care in the world. Lucky bitch. I love her though.

I pull my leg away. “That’s enough, Tina!” Shortly after, I realize that I’m only wearing a towel and her boyfriend Dave now has got front row seats to my goods. “Dammit!”

Dave smirks and shakes his head. Tina giggles as she pulls my leg toward her, once again covering up my ladyparts. “It’s cayenne and cinnamon infused, Kim! For once in your life shut up and let someone do something nice for you.”

My streak of independence (read: stubbornness) might originate from my dead biological father, but it’s more likely that my adopted parents were the ones who instilled those traits in me. Suck on that, nature. Nurture for the win!

After I’d been abducted (read: rescued) from the evil clutches of my fucking backwards backwater Georgian childhood, I was all over the national news. As the youngest and least corrupted of my siblings cameras were on me all the way through my adoption process, where upstanding citizen and (white) Protestant Minister Charles Cuthbert and (white) wife nabbed my high-profile ass and dragged me to a small (white) town in the middle of nowhere, Iowa. I was probably the only black kid for a hundred miles and grossly undereducated. Some would say I was born to be an outcast with a shit ton of anxiety and identity issues. And they’d be right.

More on this later, but for now just know that I was a semi-famous preacher’s daughter who spent my entire childhood in the fucking Whitebread, USA. Oh, and Mr. and Mrs. Cuthbert already had a two-year old son named Ricky, my brother, who I will certainly be talking about more later because he’s a goddamn brilliant mess and I love him more than life itself.

“We’re grabbing bagels at the bodega,” bubbles Tina from a room away. “Want something? My treat!” I can feel the bile rising in my throat when she say “my treat” because I know she knows I’m having money trouble and I know I shouldn’t be angry at her generosity because there isn’t a judgemental bone in her skinny freckled body.

“I’m good!” I reply, ignoring the comically timed rumbling of my stomach.

“You sure?!” It’s Dave this time. I can practically hear the beard and torn skinny jeans and filthy Chucks and flannel shirt and ironic trucker cap in his voice. Fucking hipsters…says the vegan girl with a degree in literature from Sarah Lawrence, an apartment in South Williamsburg, and a wardrobe almost exclusively comprised of locally purchased used (read: vintage) clothing. Ugh, me.

The star-crossed lovers go on their bagel run and I get dressed and do a quick review of myself in the mirror. Tired brown eyes: check. Full lips: check. Thick black hair with streaks of fading gold that doesn’t really know what its doing or where it’s going just like me: Uh huh. And a curvy body that could probably use a couple weeks of cardio, but oh well all my gross online suitors don’t seem to mind so whatever: Yep. Fuck Cosmo. Twig-ass models and shit. I look…okay. Okay enough. These thighs, though. Ugh, me.

Sometime between high school and college I really got into New Age shit. I started doing it to piss off my parents and that bible studies bitch, but it stuck. Astrology, crystal healing, numerology, I eat that stuff up. Because today feels especially directionless and bleak I decide to give myself a full-on tarot reading. The Celtic Cross. Classic. I reach into the wooden red box in the top drawer of my nightstand and pull out my deck. The deck and I walk into our little kitchen/living room/dining area dripping with art and half-dead plants and I take a seat at the faux-wood Ikea table. Let’s all take a quick second to praise Ikea, okay?

Cool.

I promise you I’m not some weird hippy freak who’s always checking her horoscope and yammering on about Reiki and magic spells. I’m not. I love those things. But I’m not. I mean, it’s my religion, you know. I believe in it. We all draw answers from the collective universe in our own ways. Sometimes its putting on a pretty hat and singing to Jesus on Sunday. Sometimes it’s raping and killing girls in the middle of the woods. And, for me- right now, at least -it’s doing a fucking Celtic Cross.

I shuffle the cards with my eyes closed and concentrate on a question. Figure I’ll go with the old standard: What the fuck is my life?

I place the ten cards in the cross-formation, face down like so…

The first card represents the present. I got The Moon. It represents fear. Anxiety. Confusion. That sounds pretty legit.

The second card is the challenge – the main thing standing in your…my….way at the moment. Ah, and it’s good old Seven of Cups: fantasy and illusion. Like maybe it’s all in my head? Ugh.

Next card: the past. And it’s…the Eight of Swords. Not surprising. It’s all about loneliness or feelings of abandonment or imprisonment. I sigh.

Okay. Time for the immediate future. Oh. The Fool. This is one that rarely comes up for me. Despite the negative connotation of “fool” (one that completely fits me), it’s a pretty badass card. It’s a card of new beginnings, spontaneity, embarking on new adventures. If only. The only new adventure yours truly can go on is the quest for a new place of employ-

The apartment door swings open. “Heyy!!” Tina chirps.

“Gah!” The abruptness of her entrance scares the shit of out me and I end up knocking  half my spread and most of my fucking deck on the floor. In fact, the only card that remains completely unmoved is that damned Fool.

Tina’s cheeks flush red. It doesn’t take much. “Oh, Kimbi! I didn’t mean to scare you!”

“Shit…” Dave slurs the word in that lazy baritone. He’s holding a full paper bag with both hands.

“Dave.” Tina commands, already reaching for the bag. “Give me that. You help Kim with her cards.” I try to protest, but that’s never worked before and it won’t work now. Dave lumbers toward me, the docile servant, and gets down on his knees, collecting my fate.

A warm wrapped bagel slams against my boob, stopping me from joining Dave and my fallen cards. “Here. Eat. It’s an everything bagel with vegan sausage, egg, and cheese. Your uzh.” Tina holds the item against my chest and makes her best angry face, which is fucking adorable- like an angry baby or puppy. Oh, and her squeaky-ass voice gets kinda deep and she basically sounds like a Muppet or some cartoon-ass shit. “Take it. Sit down. Dave’ll take care of your little cards.” Like I said: adorable.

I sigh. I moan. I sit my ass down on the couch and eat that bagel because I am fucking starving. That bagel had no chance. Tofu warped into more familiar non-vegan forms is annihilated between my powerful feminine jaws.

Midway through my breakfast I spot Dave at the table, separating my tarot cards into five piles. “What are you doing?” I ask him, spitting chunks of much-desired nutrients as I do.

He shrugs and says, “Organizing them.”

“Why the fuck-” I stop myself. Well, actually, Tina’s wide-eyed death glare stops me. Bitch doesn’t have an intimidating inch over ninety-nine percent of her body, but those fucking eyes, man. Prettiest fucking things in the world when she wants them to be, but upset her and you feel like you’ve been spotted by a pride of lions in the fucking Serengeti when she looks at you.

Once my bagel is sufficiently no more, I down a glass of orange juice Tina places in front of me. “Yo…” Dave begins. My insides are already preparing themselves for the stupid that’s about to happen. “Is this all of them…?” He sifts through the piles of cards with a face overwhelmed with confusion.

Certain of this guy’s incompetence, I march over and sort through the five piles, one each for Cups, Wands, Swords, Pentacles, and the Major Arcana. Fuck. The complete set was not accounted for. I get down on my knees and look for stragglers. Nothing. Fuuuuck. Using my incomparable powers of deduction (read: process of elimination) I count seven tarot missing from the deck:

  • Empress
  • Knight of Cups
  • Five of Cups
  • Three of Cups
  • Heirophant
  • Six of Wands
  • Three of Swords

I search the floor under the table again: nothing. My little red box: nothing. The floor around my little red box…This isn’t fucking happening. What is my life?

I get frantic, shuffling around my room, the living room, opening drawers and closets, digging in pockets, groping every nook and cranny of our little apartment with reckless abandon. I can feel the eyes of Tina and her pet boy boring into me, not quite sure what to do as I scuttle around like a fucking crack crab with my heart thumping hard and fast and my hands and knees coated with dust and the garbled curses I mutter to myself with every fucking fruitless attempt. I hate it when I get like this. Like, I can feel myself losing it, make no mistake. I can feel all the logic and the calm getting the shit kicked out of it by fucking crazy inside of me. The missing cards are just the trigger, really. A minor incident acting as a fucking catalyst, opening the dam of losses. It’s been almost a month since I’ve had a job. My financial security is nonexistent. Chills go up my spine over my daily realization of possessing zero marketable skills. I’ve been single for months. And the last time I’ve had sex- FUCK. And great. Here come goddamn  tears…

“Kimby?” Tina’s voice trembled. She wanted so badly to comfort me but was terrified of approaching me sliding around on the floor, knocking things over and talking to myself. Who’s the scariest thing on the Serengeti now, bitch? Except instead of a ferocious lion I’m a fucking hyena with rabies, begging to be put down before I put down you.

I’ve never been diagnosed with panic attacks officially, but these fucking episodes, whatever they are, have been happening more and more lately.

“I’m fine,” I assure them in a heavy exhale, eyes bulging out of my head and sweat beads dripping down my face like a fucking crackhead in withdrawal. “Fine…fine…” I pick myself up from the floor and wipe the crud from my hands and knees. We’ve sucked at cleaning lately. I stagger to the table and sit down, my gaze roaming from my fraction of a deck to Tina and Dave then back to the deck again. “Missing…”

“I’m sure they’re around here somewhere!” Tina bubbles, no longer worried. “I’ll help look as soon as I put all the groceries away.” She smiles her pretty, pretty smile. I know in my gut that she’s wrong. Any new age person worth half a shit knows that missing tarot cards have meaning. Hell, more meaning than present ones. If I think about those seven cards for a fucking second it’s obvious. I mean, the Empress?! Come on! Come the fuck on!

Maybe the crazies haven’t fully worn off, but the knowledge of what I have to do next hits me like a fucking hydrogen bomb. Or the end of The Sixth Sense. My life is an empty, directionless, depressing hot mess right now and there’s no one to blame but fucking me. Okimbe fucking Cuthbert: certified idiot. The cards said as much. And I’ll be damned if the stuff I need to do to get out of this shit-nest I’ve built for myself rests in the cards that aren’t there. Or, more specifically, the unresolved shit from my life that I’ve been running from, hiding from, ignoring or straight up suppressing.

I guess I’ll be the Fool after all. Time to take impulsiveness by the balls and embark on that new fucking adventure into some old baggage.

Oh, and I’ll try not to curse so fucking much.

[A Play About Love]

Characters
Ben
Justin

A park bench. Winter. Ben sits, looking at his phone. Justin enters. Ben notices him.

Ben: Hey there.

Justin: Hey. It’s cold.

Ben: Yeah. Sit.

Justin: Okay.

Justin sits.

Justin: So…

Ben: Thanks for coming.

Justin: Yeah. Of course. Lunch break so…thirty minutes. Make it good.

Ben: Ha. Okay, so…

Justin: Are you breaking up with me?

Ben: No.

Justin: Oh God. Good. Okay. Go ahead.

Ben: Why would you think I’m breaking up with you?

Justin: I dunno. I’m crazy. I dunno. Things have been kind of…weird lately.

Ben: Yeah.

Justin: I mean, it’s not that crazy to think you’d just want to end it.

Ben: It’s a little crazy.

Justin: See? Like that. You think I’m crazy.

Ben: You just said you’re crazy.

Justin: That’s different. Everyone thinks they’re crazy.

Ben: I don’t.

Justin: Well, we can’t all be Ben.

Ben: What does that mean?

Justin: Nothing. Nothing. It’s just…you do this ‘perfect’ thing. You just have a way of making people feel inferior because you’re so damn put together.

Ben: It’s not my fault people don’t have the self confidence to deal with mine.

Justin: I feel inferior when I’m around you. Sometimes.

Ben: That’s-

Justin: Crazy? It’s how I feel, Ben. And I don’t know if I can spend the rest of my life feeling that way.

Ben: The rest of your life? You’re talking like we’re married or something.

Justin looks away.

Ben: Justin…

Justin: We’ve been dating for eight months.

Ben: Exactly. Only eight months.

Justin: Well it’s significant to me. We’re not these young queer little sex fiends anymore.

Ben: I never was. And I hate that word, queer.

Justin: It’s serious now. I want to be with the person that I’m with for the rest of my life.

Ben: So, you think about marrying me? After eight months?

Justin: Yes! Yes, I do. And I think about it a lot. What’s the point of staying with someone if there’s not at least the potential of being with them forever? It just gets in the way of finding the real thing out there. Somewhere.

Ben: Wow.

Justin: So you honestly never think about us getting married?

Ben: I do not.

Justin: Then why are you with me?

Ben: Because I like how it feels. Right here. Right now. Who knows what’s coming? No one. So, this is here and this is nice and that’s all that matters.

Justin: I love you.

Ben: I love you, too.

Justin: Do you?

Ben: Jesus Christ!

Justin: Stop! Stop it! Stop making my feelings seem invalid and ridiculous.

Ben: I didn’t say anything!

Justin: You don’t have to. It’s so deep inside of you. It’s down the atomic level. Patronizing and condescending to the core.

Ben: Okay. Well how about you stop making me out to be some loveless monster? I’m tired of having to constantly prove to you that I care about you when anyone can see that I do nothing but. I’m not keeping you here. If you want to leave me and go out and find that real thing then, by all means, if it’s not me then I want you to go find it.

Justin: Are you not listening?! I don’t want to leave. You…us…this…this is what I want the real thing to be.

Ben: Okay.

Justin: What did you want to talk to me about?

Ben: Nothing.

Justin: Right.

Ben: Something.

Justin: Alright.

Ben reaches into his pocket and pulls out a key.

Ben: Here. It’s the key to my apartment. I know how much you hate your place and I’m going on that business trip tonight for a few days and, you know, for after that. Any time.

Justin takes the key, exhales.

Justin: I’m crazy.

Ben: You’re not. I know I’m not really the most emotionally available guy and I can be a lot to take. That’s why we work, you know. Balance. Everything about you, even the stuff that makes me want to break something, I love. I don’t mean to be condescending.

Justin: Really.

Ben: Sometimes. A little. But I never want you to feel inferior. There’s no reason to. First off, I’m far from perfect.

Justin: Now that you mention it…

Ben: And, secondly, you and your ambition and passion and talents…

Justin: Like that painting of your childhood dog I gave you for Christmas…

Ben: Best thing I’ve ever gotten. When I look at you, think about you, there is nothing but awe. And gratitude.

Justin looks at the key.

Justin: I’m totally going to rearrange your furniture when you’re away.

Ben: I figured.

Beat.

Justin: Dammit.

Ben: What?

Justin: It’s the real thing.

Ben: Scary, right?

Justin: Terrifying!

Ben: As long as we keep calling each other out when we’re being idiots I think we’ll be fine.

Justin: Agreed.

Ben checks his phone.

Ben: Well, I’ve gotta head to JFK. Flight’s in an hour.

Justin: Yeah, I should probably actually eat something during my lunch break. I’m working a double and Miranda’s been a grade-A ho.

Ben: Total ho. Well, see ya in a few. Movie night when I get back?

Justin: Totally. You’ll love where I put your TV. Knock’em dead out there, my corporate tool!

Ben: Keep serving your way to stardom, my starving artist. I love you.

Justin: I love you, too.

They kiss and exit.

A Murder of Crow (or “How I Chose the Side of Good”)

It was the Summer of 1993 when my father had convinced my mother that I would be better off with him. Weeks later I was in his car with a handful of my belongings, teary-eyed as we drove across the bridge, the Harrisburg skyline disappearing into the distance (my tears are still something my father enjoys joking about to this day). My new life began in an apartment complex in Cockeysville, Maryland on St. Elmo Court. I was nine years old at the time.

After all had been sufficiently unpacked and mostly put away, my father began his quest to transform me into a real boy. In Harrisburg I lived a sheltered life, locked away in rooms, drawing pictures and things. No one forced me to be this way. It’s just what I liked. My imagination and I, having the time of our life. To my father, always the charismatic social figure and product of a childhood spent playing basketball with boys from the block, my way of life was simply not exceptable. So one day he walked me to the front door, nudged me to the walkway, and told me to explore the complex and not return until I’ve made a friend.

A strange boy in a strange land, I wasn’t quite sure what to do as I wandered away, my father smiling, proud of himself, as I did. Constantly alert in this world so different from the urban ghettos I had spent much of my short life in, I roamed the place until I found a playground at the complex’s heart. There were slides and swings, jungle jims, and all that. The paint was chipping off of everything and, as far as I could, tell there was no one in sight. But if there ever was a place for a nine-year old boy to make friends, I figured the playground would be it. Satisfied with my decision I stood there, under the assumption that if I waited long enough something amazing would happen.

“Hey! You!”

The voice seemed to echo from everywhere. I looked around and saw nothing.

“Up here!”

Upon second scan, I noticed a set of squirming shapes huddled in what appeared to be a playground structure in the shape of a water tower. It was just as worn and rusted as the rest of the place.

“Come over here!” The voice was raspy, but feminine. My father’s desires engraved in my mind, I did as I was told.

“Come on up!”

I ascended the metal pipe ladder and entered the faux water tower. Inside were three people, two guys and one girl. The girl was older, maybe thirteen or fourteen. The boys were more or less my age.

“I’ve never seen you before,” she said. She had a coffee complexion and wild short brown hair. She wore denim overalls and sat on her knees. The two boys were pale. One wore thick-rimmed glasses and had short brown hair and a long face. The other had messy short hair, dark circles around his eyes, and a round face.

“I’m Maria,” the girl said proudly. “This is Kenny.” She pointed to the boy with the glasses. “And Mark” She gestured to the boy with the circles around his eyes. “Who are you?”

“Trystin.”

She laughed. “That’s a funny name.”

“Yeah…” I didn’t know what else to say to that.

“Whelp,” she clapped her hands together, “you’re one of us now.”

Just then some other kids meandered onto the playground. They were black and dressed in that over-sized baggy manner I had been used to seeing on the mean streets of Harrisburg.

“Oh shit,” said Mark.

“What the fuck do they think they’re doing here?” grumbled Maria.

Amazingly enough, this did not lead to some sort of turf war. The intruders continued on their way. Crisis averted or so I thought until I noticed the sly grin on Maria’s face and her dark eyes focused on me. See, I really couldn’t care less about those boys. But my eyes opened wide and my mouth hung open the moment I heard mark say the s-word and Maria drop the f-bomb seconds later. I hoped that no one noticed.

Maria laughed. “Trystin afwaid to say bad words?” she asked in her best baby voice. “Fuck!” she shouted, and I cringed. She and the boys laughed. “Shit!” I cringed again. More laughter. I was beginning to see my giant leaps in social progress all flutter away before my eyes.

Then Mark smiled warmly and said, “You try.”

My mom never cursed and since much of my life was split between my Catholic schooling and watching cartoons and the discovery channel, the four-letter words rarely made their way into my radar. I knew they were “bad words”, which was always enough to keep me from exploring them any further. But here, at the crux of a brave new world with all its possibility, I had to decide who I wanted to be. The sheltered little artist from days gone by or…something new. With a deep inhalation and a rapidly beating heart I whispered, “Shit”, and the crowd went wild.

The rest of our time in the tower was spent cursing at each other and talking about the coming school year. Fourth grade for Mark and I. Third for Kenny. Sixth for Maria. Maria asked where I lived and offered to walk me home. We all promised to meet each other the next day. Not only was I able to make friends in record time but, with Maria standing beside me when my dad opened the door, I actually had proof. I can still remember the proud look on my dad’s face.

I also remember Maria coming inside and borrowing some of my dad’s CDs.

T’was a strange time indeed. My new life in Maryland had begun and I, wide-eyed, hopefully, and a bit terrified, was ready for whatever this new world had in store for me…..or so I th0ught.

I had been transformed. My days locked in a room toiling over sheet after sheet of drawing paper had been replaced, or greatly reduced, by the my new friends, a gang of six or so boys from the apartment complex. Maria, it turns out, was not a usual member of this group. She would appear from time to time with words of wisdom and disappear into a mystical world of slightly older kids we could only dream of. The fact that it had been she that first encountered me and not one of the other boys was a stroke of luck, as I’m sure I would have stood very little chance were their true leader around.His name was Curt. A pale, tall, thin, rough-looking kid with a mop of unkempt strawberry blonde hair. I remember he always seemed to have a scar on his face from some fight that he’d fought in another place none of us had been there to witness.
Upon first meeting Curt I laid the four-letter words on thick. “Hey, Curt. Fuck yeah, I’m ready for school to start and shit. Yeah, PA was a bitch. It was shit. Fuck. This place is fucking the shit, though.” Fortunately he found my awkward stammering amusing and, coupled with the blessing from absent Maria and the support of Mark (his best friend), that was enough.
It was soon after that I learned what was at the core of being a part of Curt’s crew: causing trouble. Whether it involved steeling flowers from a low balcony, kicking decorative stones from their set positions on well-kept paths, or a solid run of ding-dong-ditch, we were an established menace to the people of the complex. It was terrifying and energizing and the most excitement I had ever felt.
On the not-that-rare occasion when some one would see us in the midst of our dirty deeds and shout “Hey! What are you boys doing?!” we’d disappear into the woods surrounding the complex, to our secret spot, laughing and cursing all the while. The secret spot was little more than an opening in the woods, all dirt and mud and leaves, where there existed a large rock under which were salamanders and a stash of old soggy Playboys. According to legend, this was the very spot Curt’s older brother would retreat to with his friends before they grew up and moved on to malls and gas station parking lots. We would sit around, lighting twigs on fire and using them like cigarettes and giggling at the pages and pages of “boobs”.
Meanwhile, life at home with dad was great. Our little bachelor pad with its black furniture and minimal decor. Dinner by delivery or out of cans (creamed corn was my new favorite thing). Omelettes on the weekends. A bedtime story (usually another chapter of a Terry Brooks fantasy novel) almost every night. Days with the gang. Nights with my dad. All was well and my first year at a brand new school was beginning.
While all the boys from the complex attended Padonia Elementary, not a single one of them was in my class. The idea of their being multiple classrooms for the same grade boggled my mind, having come from such a tiny Catholic elementary school. The lack of uniforms and any modicum of religious decor, sensibility, or judgement was even more jarring. This was the wild jungle to my ghetto Catholic garden and I felt turbo-charged with freedom.
I sat between a tiny blue-eyed girl named Rachel, whom I had a short-lived crush on despite the fact that she was obsessed with horses (I had had an unfortunate run-in with a horse in Georgia a few years prior that I would not get over for nearly another two decades), and this frumpy kid who always had snot coming out of his nose. There was also a redhead named Chuckie who will be important later. All in all, it was social slim pickins and I spent every day longing for the afternoon when I could regroup with my real friends.

In the Autumn months I had climbed the ranks in my gang. While Curt would always be at the top, and Mark at his right, I had established myself as number three. Successfully shedding the skin of an awkward newbie, I had adapted myself to meet their deviant confidence and retooled my creativity to be just as effective at troublemaking as it was illustration. Calculated distractions, fake-outs, elaborate heists all became part of the package with me as the appointed Head of Strategic Tomfoolery. Everyone had their part to play as Curt and I made sure all acts of thievery, mischief, and destruction went off without a hitch.

The overall lame-ness of school life took a positive turn when one Brandon Cassel joined our class in October. He was mixed like me, with a strong chin, well-kept curly black hair, leather jacket, and a more solid muscular build than one would expect a ten-year old to be capable of. We became fast friends, plucking a couple others as lackeys and playing the “too cool for school” card, fearless kings of our domain.

My father had started dating one of his coworkers around this time. She would come over with her fancy clothes and giant smile, flaunting her refined grasp of etiquette and forcing me to play along.

“And this is a salad fork, Trystin. It goes here…”

In her I saw the downfall of all my father and I had built and so I dived even further into the abyss.

One day Brandon and I discovered the true meaning of the word “bastard”. And, finding much humor and brotherhood in the fact that we were both born out of wedlock, the two of us thought it would be interesting if we’d find out who else shared that same trait. All day, during classes and lunch and recess, we asked, “Are you a bastard?”, sure to make whomever we asked feel sufficiently stupid if they didn’t know what it meant. Brandon would then put the fear of God into them if they made the least bit of fun at our being bastards.

Near the end of the day our teacher sat us in the corner and questioned us about our little game. It turned out some snitch couldn’t keep his mouth shut, a British boy named Billy who, at absolutely any other time in my life, would have been one of my best friends. Instead we spent the next few months ostracizing him and making fun of his “stupid” accent.

While Billy was one of our favorite targets, none was more enticing than that odd redhead Chuckie. Chuckie (who looked eerily like the doll AND the Rugrat) was a stuttering goof who never had the right answer and spent a decent portion of the day mumbling to himself and scratching harsh doodles into his notebooks with violently chewed pens. Brandon’s jibes were relentless. He went out of his way to make Chuckie feel miserable, and I, though never as vile, was right by his side. And then Chuckie snapped.

It was recess in the earliest days of Spring. Chuckie was sitting at a picnic table, coloring in a coloring book when Brandon approached him, laughing at his being alone and without friends. Chuckie let out an otherworldly scream and jumped to his feet. And then, I kid you not, with monstrous strength he tore a piece of wood from the table bench, all splintered, and swung it at Brandon’s head, making hard contact. Chuckie was taken home that day and never returned to Padonia Elementary again. I looked at Brandon’s bloodied face and saw the fear in his eyes and could not help but feel for myself.

It was April when I found the bird, chirping in the tall grass just beyond the sliding back door of my apartment. All gray and fluffy, I figured it had fallen from the tree above. Looking up for a nest or its mother and finding neither, an old piece of me woke up and I decided I would take care of it.

I brought the bird into my house and sat it on a few open sheets of newspaper. Certain it was secure I then rushed into the woods and found a couple worms squirming under a fallen branch. Back in my house I squashed the worms in a bowl with the handle-end of a spatula and then sucked the resulting mush into a small turkey baster. Completing my performance as impromptu mother bird, a gently placed the baster in the baby bird’s beak and squeezed the contents down its throat.

Realizing that my father would be home soon (possibly with that woman in tow) I decided to create an outdoor living space for my feathered friend. Grabbing a number of the larger of my encyclopedias (“A” and “S” and “T” and the like) I went to the flat concrete slab that acted as a back porch and built from them a walled and roofed fortress, two books thick on all sides. Taking a towel from the bathroom closet, I lined the fortress floor and placed my bird within. There it would be safely through the night.

The following morning I woke up, showered, dressed, had cereal with my father, all the while excited for him to go off to work so I could check on my secret friend. Off he went and, to my relief, the bird was still alive and kicking. I fed it and thought about what I should do with it next.

It was a beautiful Spring day. The sky was the clear and the sun especially beaming for it to be so early. Beside the building that housed my apartment grew a small tree, no more than six or seven feet high. Comprehending the affinity for trees that most birds have, I removed my own from its dark fortress and placed it in a low branch of the tree, making certain it was strong enough to hold on and achieved maximum amount of sunlight. Satisfied, I left the bird and made my way for the bus stop.

I recall school that day being one of the longest in my life. Math, science, bullying, or even Brandon himself could not compare to the joyful anticipation I had to be reunited with my animal pal.

Eons later the clock struck three and the bell rang. Within minutes I was on the school bus home. A half-hour later I climbed off and ran at full speed to check on the bird.

Purest confusion was my initial emotion upon rounding my building to find six or so boys surrounding the small tree. I recognized most of them. Curt, Kenny, and those strange ghetto boys who had somehow formed an alliance with us in the past year. My quick trot reduced to a curious crawl, I quietly slipped through their circle to see what all the commotion was.

There was a bird, on the branch right where I left it. But instead of being alive and alert, it was hanging upside down, burnt to a crisp. At the base of the tree was a small can of gasoline. Curt stepped forward, beside me now, and lit a lighter under a Wal-Mart bag, causing beads of smoldering blue to drop onto the black charred bird, trickling like tears much to the enjoyment of all there to see it.

“Wh-what’s this…?” I muttered, voice smaller than it had ever been in thier presence.

“Hey, Trystin,” Curt said with all the power, confidence, and pride I had admired in him. “We found this bird in this tree and we set it on fire! Isn’t it cool? Come on!” He tried to hand me the lighter and the Wal-Mart bag. “Try it!” Snickers popped and fizzled all around, peppered with KFC jokes.

I was frozen. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t comprehend. I looked at these boys, these people I had allied myself with, who I had transformed myself for, and all I could see was something evil. All I could see were my enemies. So, eyes wide, I said “I have to go home” and faded away into my room where I cried long and hard, making certain that any trace of the bird and my emotion had been purged completely by the time my father got home.

During that last month of fourth grade I felt like an entirely different person in an entirely different world. The Tuesday following the incident with the bird caused me to meet Brandon’s bullying with utter distaste. In his belittling of others I could only see the same darkness that permeated those responsible for the previous afternoon’s atrocity. I remember clearly him picking on Billy and his accent and me just watching blankly, waiting for it to end. And when it did and Brandon marched off after his new prey, I knelt down beside Billy and said, “Hey Billy. I’m sorry. Do you want to have lunch and play at recess with me today?” At first he thought it was a trick, but we did have lunch together and we did play at recess and in those last weeks unleashed the potential for friendship that the both of us had felt all along. As for Brandon, rendered mostly powerless without my constant back-up, he turned down the “tough guy” and became a pretty nice kid himself.

The apartment complex was a different story. Curt had a stronghold and if there were any pure souls around they were keeping away from him gang, smartly enough. I lived the following weeks as I had back in Pennsylvania, locked in my room, drawing up a happier world of my own imagination. When Mark or Kenny or Maria would inevitably come by, asking for me, my dad would call my name and I would tell them that I was busy…or, if only just to ensure I didn’t end up on their bad side, I would hang out with them up until the point where they would get into trouble.

The school year came to a close and change was afoot. My father had gotten engaged to the woman who would visit us on occasion and they married and remain so today (by the way, she is the super coolest). I received word from my father that I would be returning to Harrisburg and living with my mother by the start of the fifth grade. My grades had dropped substantially from the straight A’s I had enjoyed and would enjoy again.

It was an interesting year, fourth grade. One that to this day stands out amongst the nine that preceded it and the nineteen that follow. Though I did not fully grasp it at the time, its importance in my growth as a human being, one that still rings true today, was overwhelming. I realized my power. Though it emerged in the tangible forms of violence and vandalization, I was a respected leader of a group. I could sway others with my words, bring forth emotions in them with my actions. I realized the importance of stepping away from your norm in order to learn more about yourself. While my moving in with my father for that year was not my choice, I to this day make great effort to experience life outside of my comfort zone in order to grow. Lastly, going down that dark path and emerging, thanks to the baby bird, in opposition to it, made me aware of my own morality; my own goodness that was less gleaned from the words of my parents or commandments from God, but what I felt to be right in my own heart. I often feel that something greater than myself sacrificed that little bird so that I could, no matter how bad things got later on, hold on to the knowledge of and confidence in what I feel to be good.

Oh, and Curt ended up in a juvenile detention center for beating up some kid really bad that Summer, 94′. Fourteen years later I would get my first full-time job in New York City as a Youth Support Counselor for troubled kids at a similar place.

Life.

 

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