Invisible Friend Jesus and the Divorce

I sat quietly on the couch, concentrating on taking one breath after another. I’d scrubbed the floors, the bathrooms, the countertops; scoured kitchen grease off the overlooked crevices of the canisters; I’d written, or tried to, and spent hours editing other people’s manuscripts, losing myself in their stories; but I hadn’t been able to work feeling into my limbs, or into anywhere else in my body or spirit. I felt like my brain was taped up with bubble wrap and packed in a forgotten crate somewhere.

Invisible Friend Jesus sat quietly beside me. He didn’t have the air of someone waiting for me to speak, and for once he didn’t distract himself reading Cat Fancy or trying to knit. He didn’t ask me if I was okay, or tell me everything would be alright. If he had, son of God or no, I would have broken his jaw, and I’m sure he knew that.

“I knew this was going to happen,” I said. “Ever since you told me, way back almost a year ago, that I should just stop trying to fix things and let you handle it, I knew. I mean, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going to happen, the way things were going. But I still fought so hard against it. I didn’t really believe or understand you, when you told me to stop struggling. It didn’t make sense to me that I should just ‘let go and let God’, because how could I just give up personal responsibility when I knew I wasn’t acting right?”

He stretched his arms over the back of the couch and gave me his little smile. “People have a lot of ideas about what it means to ‘act right’. Think about it this way: when you’re writing a story, what does it mean for a character to ‘act right’? Does it mean they always have to do the ‘right thing’? That they’re always selfless and kind and morally correct?”

“No, it just means they have to act in character.” Invisible Friend Jesus lifted an eyebrow, and I winced. “So that’s my character? A bad person? And you’re cool with that? I thought religion was supposed to be about rising above your base nature to become a better person.”

Invisible Friend Jesus sighed, settling further into the couch cushions and crossing his legs. “God made each and every one of us in his image. It’s a slightly distorted image, true, because the physical realities of living in this world can surely twist a spirit out of whack. But still, God knew us in the womb, and loves each and every one of us just the way we are.”

“So that means that there is no sin? That we can just do whatever we want because it’s ‘in character’?” I scowled incredulously. “I’m sorry, Invisible Friend Jesus, but that’s not very enlightened.”

His smile got gentler and more amused, and he tapped his long fingers on the couch back. “That’s not what I’m saying. We sin when we do things against our true nature, things that separate us from God—who is our true nature, since we’re made in his image. God is big and complicated; He is all things, and there are a lot of different ways of being one with Him, depending on a person’s personality. But, like I said, the world is a messed-up place. It can get in the way and separate us from God by causing us to act out of hurt, anger, greed and loneliness. It can cause us to do things that hurt ourselves or others.”

My eyes filled with tears again, stinging and burning since I’d cried so much already, and I sniffed and dried them on my shirt. “I really tried, Invisible Friend Jesus. I tried to do the right thing and not act in hurtful ways. But I couldn’t get myself to stop… I tried to make him happy, but I couldn’t…”

I pressed my chin to my chest and squeezed my eyes shut as my body shook trying to contain and control all the bullshit I was feeling. Invisible Friend Jesus took my hand. I could feel the scar on his palm, and the callouses on his long fingers from all his knitting, cross-stitch and other weird projects.

“Listen, Tinkerbell,” he said. “When you were drinking like a lunatic and spending all that time away from home, what did you do?”

I sniffed. “I got better. I mean, I had to work at it, and pray myself half-crazy, but I got better. I’m really proud of myself for it.”

“And you should be. How about when you first moved to California and you were really angry, frustrated and fed-up, yelling at everyone all the time?”

I wiped my nose on my wrist, but didn’t bother with my eyes anymore; they felt swollen to the size of softballs and I didn’t want to touch them. “I worked at calming down, and got a lot better. But Invisible Friend Jesus─”

“You’re not perfect, it’s true, but luckily no one who’s rational expects you to be. Nobody’s perfect. Not even me.”

I giggled, which made a snot bubble swell and burst out of my left nostril. Invisible Friend Jesus burst into snorting laughter for about five minutes, because he’s a jerk, but he finally got himself to stop and conjured a tissue from the pocket of his white suit jacket.

I blew my nose and looked at him with a furrowed brow. “But you are perfect, Invisible Friend Jesus.”

He rolled his eyes. “No, I’m not. Have you read about some of the stuff I did? I was kind of a dick sometimes.”

I gazed at him thoughtfully. “Yeah, I always wondered about that stuff. You know, calling gentile women dogs, and all that.”

He winced. “I was having a bad day. But I got over myself and cured that lady’s daughter anyway. The point is, I’m a human manifestation of God, and humans are imperfect. I’m God’s way of knowing, and of showing the world, that He understands what it’s like to be human. That he knows how hard it can be, how hurtful. How it can break you sometimes and make you act in ways you aren’t proud of, and how sometimes you end up in situations where it seems like there is no way to ‘act right’, and so you just have to muddle through the best you can. But God loves us, not in spite of, but because of all that because, in the end, being human is a beautiful thing.” He gazed at me with his little smile. “So, anyway, enough about me. You were able to quit some of your self-destructive and hurtful behaviors…”

I grimaced. “But some of the other ones…one other thing in particular…I tried to stop, but it was like I couldn’t. I could only ever last a few days.” A lump rose up in my throat. “If I could have just…I mean, I really didn’t want to destroy my life like this.” I pressed the soggy tissue into my eyes, fighting back sobs.

Invisible Friend Jesus squeezed my hand. “Let me ask you one thing, Tinkerbell. How do you feel right now?”

Tears streamed down my face, and he handed me another tissue. “How do you think I feel? Shitty. Angry. Devastated.”

“Yeah? Well, I mean, that’s understandable. You were just ambushed with divorce papers after almost ten years of a relationship, and two years of…well, you know. Let’s not get into the details again. You’re bound to feel messed up about it. But how else are you feeling?”

I wrapped my arms around myself. Invisible Friend Jesus scooted over and put his arm around my shoulders, and I hid my face in his neck. I got snot and tears all over him, but he didn’t seem to mind. I took deep breaths, and I thought about his question: How DO I feel? My brow furrowed. “I feel…actually, I feel better, to tell you the truth.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m pissed off and stuff because of, you know, how it happened, and how I tried so hard for years to make him happy, only to just fail and fail and fail…but, you know, other than that, I’m lighter. That pain and worry and guilt and desperation—all of it—it’s gone now. I feel peaceful.” I sat up, wiping my nose again. Invisible Friend Jesus gazed back at me with his serene little smile.

“That peace is where God is. That’s how you know you’re in the right place, doing the right thing.”

I scowled. “So God meant all that shit to happen to me? He wanted me to suffer like that?”

Invisible Friend Jesus rolled his eyes. “You know better than that, Tinkerbell. God doesn’t want people to suffer—God is the peace that helps us endure suffering, and avoid it when we can. But suffering happens no matter what. It’s just the way the world is. It’s a complicated and beautiful experiment…it’s part of what makes life life. Because, think about it: would you really want to read a story where nothing ever went wrong? Where there’s no conflict and tension? One of those stories where the perfect little characters hug and kiss and dance around baking cookies all day?”

“Shit no. I hate critiquing those stories. There’s no point to them. And I guess maybe you’re right, that it’d be boring to just sit around blissed out doing nothing all day.”

“It wouldn’t be life if it were like that. You’d never learn or grow or experience anything.”

“You’re right. But I mean…am I just here to entertain God? Give Him a good story? Is the Divine Plan just some sort of dramatic screenplay?”

“I’ve told you before the Divine Plan is a conspiracy theory, and you’re not here to entertain God. You’re here to entertain yourself, and write yourself into the best story you can. Your life may seem like it has a complicated narrative arc, with a lot of senseless and random shit happening, but you need to remember, the plotline doesn’t depend on just you: everyone is the main character of their own story, and those stories are constantly interweaving and clashing and shaping each other. It’s up to each person to learn and grow, find beauty and meaning, and craft their own narrative arc amidst the chaos. And sometimes, the plot that one person wants…well, sometimes the other characters don’t cooperate. That can be painful. It can suck ultimate shit, frankly, but the story goes on, and I know you, Tinkerbell: you’re a hell of a storyteller and you’ve got a lot of plot left in you.”
I wrinkled my nose, a grin creeping across my face. “Yeah, I got a few ideas for the next scene.” I pulled my knees up to my chest, settling back against Invisible Friend Jesus’ arm. “My life has crashed and burned more than most people’s it seems like, and I’ve had to start over more times than I’ve wanted. But, you know, this time, I don’t feel obligated to anyone—except my kid, and that doesn’t bother me, because she’s my little partner in crime. I love mobbing around with that girl, she doesn’t cramp my style except in the ways that it needs cramped. But, I mean, I don’t have anyone telling me what I need to do next, no dude that I feel obligated to follow around and try to make happy. I know the next scene isn’t going to be easy, but it’s cool that I get to write it the way I want this time. You know, as much as possible anyway. What I do next is my choice, and no one else’s.”

Invisible Friend Jesus’ smile widened, and he raised his chin. “True. Choose wisely, though, Tinkerbell, within the confines of your special brand of Tinkerbell wisdom, or you’ll just get bored with it or worse.”

I nodded, smirking. “Just help me out, because I get some crazy ideas sometimes.”

He laughed, stretching out on the couch with his back against the armrest and his bare feet in my lap. “Will do.” He got out his phone and started tapping away and scrolling through the Internet. “How about Utah? Or Puerto Rico? You could get a little apartment overlooking the ocean, write like Hunter S. Thompson, maybe teach English or whatever.”

I snort-laughed. “You’re an enabler, Invisible Friend Jesus.”

He shot me a smile over the top of his phone, but didn’t say anything.

Firebird by Jennifer Loring

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Hey, book fans! Check out the upcoming book by Jennifer Loring, Firebird! A teaser and an excerpt are below, and links to a giveaway at the very bottom. It releases October 20th. I’ll remind you when the book comes out, so you can get it.

FIREBIRD
By Jennifer Loring

About the book: “When love is not madness, it is not love.”

Blurb: Stephanie Hartwell is a journalist chasing the story of her career…

When superstar hockey player and notorious bad boy Aleksandr Volynsky is traded to the Seattle Earthquakes in a blockbuster deal, Stephanie demands the opportunity to prove herself by scoring an exclusive interview with a man with no love for the media…the same man she once though, as a naive teenager, she’d someday marry.

An Olympian and Stanley Cup Champion, Aleksandr has achieved every goal he’s ever set…

Now expected to carry a failing team on his shoulders, Aleksandr’s troubles deepen when he encounters Stephanie after a season-opening loss. His lifestyle of drinking and random hookups has been a futile attempt to forget the beautiful tomboy who stole his heart nine years ago. And worse, fame and fortune have made it impossible for him to trust anyone–especially Stephanie, who is engaged to another man.

Romance rekindles, but tragedy reveals Aleksandr’s dark side…

Being with Aleksandr in the first place jeopardizes Stephanie’s journalistic integrity and threatens her career, and when he spirals out of control, it reawakens fears from her own history, making her unable to commit to a future with him.

When Aleksandr discovers the truth behind his self-destructive behavior, will his newfound self-awareness be enough to convince Stephanie to give him one last chance…

About the Author: Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, webzines, and anthologies. In 2013, she won Crystal Lake Publishing’s inaugural Tales from the Lake horror writing competition; in 2014, DarkFuse published her novella Conduits, and in May 2015, Omnium Gatherum released her debut novel, Those of My Kind. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers. Jennifer lives in Philadelphia, PA, with her husband, a turtle, and two basset hounds. She is currently at work on the second book in the Firebird Trilogy.
Website * Facebook * Twitter

Excerpt: Stephanie Hartwell marched into her editor-in-chief’s office, flung the door shut, and slammed her stained coffee mug on his desk.
“No. Give me that story, Dave. Those assholes out there have had the chance to prove themselves. A million chances. I didn’t go to USC to write theater reviews.”
Dave failed to suppress a smile. “Nothing personal, Steph. The Volynsky trade is a big deal, and I need someone familiar with Seattle sports to cover it.”
The veins in her neck throbbed, and a flush burned her face. She’d never been good at controlling her emotions, especially anger. Especially when he was underestimating her because she had tits. “I’ve been here three years. You want ‘familiar’? Volynsky has played all eighty-two games for the past four seasons. Eighty points or higher in each of those seasons. Leads the league in shots on goal and is top ten in assists. He’s a plus-three, plays at least twenty-one minutes a game, and averages forty-eight goals per season. Shall I go on?”
Dave’s eyebrows inched toward his receding hairline.
“You know what they call me behind my back, Dave? ‘Puck bunny.’ I played hockey most of my life. I know the game. You show me a puck bunny that does.” She stabbed her finger at him. “Give me the story.”
“All right, all right, Jesus.” Dave waved his palms at her like two white flags. He clacked out what she presumed was a follow-up email relieving Shawn of his Volynsky duties. Stephanie tensed in a preemptive, involuntary defensive posture for the verbal assault she expected as soon as she left Dave’s office.
“How do you know all this, anyway?”
“Would you ask any of the guys that?”
“Not everything is an attack on you, Steph. I’m on your side. I know you feel like you have to be better than everyone just to be considered average.”
Stephanie let her shoulders sink and her fingers uncurl. The muscles in her neck ached. She expelled a long breath and shifted her gaze to the view of Puget Sound out the window. The past had compromised her objectivity, but it would not compromise her job.
“Steph? You still with me?”
“Yeah. Sorry. Just thinking of the right lead.”
“That’s why you’re the best. Okay, the season opener is tomorrow night. You’re on it. Get him to agree to an exclusive story. I’ll see what I can do on my end. Rumor has it he’s difficult.”
She’d heard all the stories. Everyone had. The hard-drinking, womanizing bad boy. A modern-day Derek Sanderson and stereotypical star athlete, whose behavior fed rising public disgust with pro-sports salaries and Seattle’s own taxpayer-funded, three hundred fifty million-dollar Amazon Arena. The Seattle Earthquakes had struggled from day one two years ago in a market with an inexplicable lack of hockey fans, fewer than even Arizona or Florida. Giving away the farm for Volynsky—eight years, ninety-two million dollars, and two top prospects—volatile as he was, became a last-ditch effort to avoid the fates of the Predators, Coyotes, and Panthers, all relocated to Canada.
“I deal with bullshit from entitled man-children every day. I can handle him.” She’d done it before. In another life, when he’d been someone else.
Dave chuckled and shook his head. “I almost feel sorry for him. Now go. Do me proud.”
“You got it.” Stephanie plucked her mug from his desk and left the office. Her spine stiffened when she saw Shawn glaring at her over the long table, lined with computers on either side, at which the staff worked. She’d have no privacy unless she earned her coveted promotion and an office.
“We all know why you wanted that story.” His gaze landed on her chest, which wasn’t large, and she crossed her arms. The mug dangled from her fingertips. She stifled the urge to smash it over his head. But that would be all the ammo he’d need to prove he’d been right all along—that she was too irrational, too emotional, to handle the job.
Too female.
“Oh? Do tell me, Shawn. I mean, we’ve had so many deep, meaningful conversations. It couldn’t possibly be because I played hockey from age five until I graduated from college and still play adult league.” She lifted her chin and drilled her stare into him, hoping his head would explode Scanners style. “Why don’t you spend less time worrying about me and more time figuring out why you’re such a whiny, self-absorbed, spoiled little shit?”
A chorus of chuckles and “oohs” rose from the table. Shawn’s jaw muscles tightened, and his eyes were like an overcast day on the lake, reflecting her hatred back at her.
“Bitch,” he muttered as she walked away. With her back to him, she pretended to let the word roll off her like a raindrop, unimportant and unworthy of her attention. She slid into her chair, furious when tears pricked her eyes. She distracted herself with the mail left beside her monitor during her meeting. The latest People, their “One Hundred Most Beautiful” issue. Mindless eye candy. Just what she needed. She opened the magazine and skimmed the list.
Her heart stopped, skipped, restarted.
Number ninety-eight.

Aleksandr Volynsky: With his GQ looks and killer body, this twenty-five-year-old power forward has been setting the NHL on fire for seven seasons already. The six-foot-five Russian stud, as notorious for his off-ice antics as for his puck-handling skills, is surprisingly coy about his love life. “There is someone, yes,” he says. “We’re just not in the same place right now.”

He was naked from the waist up and clad in his hockey gear from the waist down, holding his stick in his right hand. They’d Photoshopped the scar on his right cheek, where four years ago an errant puck had split his face open, broken his jaw, and shattered several of his teeth.
God, he was beautiful.

Tour schedule: http://sizzlingpr.com/tour-firebird-by-jennifer-loring/

Giveaway: One digital copy of FIREBIRD
Code: a Rafflecopter giveaway

Link: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/e561a37468

Tinkerbell Into the Darkness Part 13: The Arrest

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Here it is, THE story, and likely the final chapter of the Into the Darkness series, at least that I’ll be posting here. As with most memoir, I’ve messed with the timeline to improve narrative continuity and dramatic effect, and not all of the dialogue will be exact, but all events are real, and “emotional truths” (as they say) have been preserved intact.

I’m posting this publicly against some of my better instincts, because I believe it’s a good way for this blog to segue into its new identity: part of my social media platform. I will still be posting all my short stories and weirdness, but my internet presence will soon be getting an overhaul.

If you have not read any of my previous Into the Darkness anecdotes, you may want to read at least the very first one, for context. Otherwise, our hero (and perhaps our heroine) will be unlikable, as this was not their finest moment. You can find the first anecdote here.

Thank you, as always, for reading, and for your support. Any of you that appear in this anecdote and wish to have your names changed (or whatever), please accept my apologies, know that I love you, and contact me immediately.

So, here we go…

By September, it had been summer for about sixteen years: the seasons were a skipping record, and we’d been stuck in the triple-digit doldrums of July forever. All the patience and good spirits were slowly baking out of our little town, and fights were breaking out twice or three times a day. Pretty much everyone was in and out of jail, except for Phoenix and me. We managed to keep our knuckles and our rap sheets clean, because the two of us lived in our own little world where the everyday drama couldn’t touch us.

Phoenix kicked rocks across the pitted pavement, clutching the three dollars his mom had given him. I twirled the red flower he’d given me between my fingers, singing a Neutral Milk Hotel song under my breath.

Primo and Tim were loitering in the shade in front of Sang’s Market. As we walked up, Tim nodded in greeting and Primo looked us up and down.

“Phoenix!” Primo said. “And, what the shizz, Liz?”

I blew a raspberry.

“What you guys up to?” Primo asked.

“Chillin’,” Phoenix said. He did a wild spin kick and ducked into the store.

“Chillin’, huh?” Primo pursed his lips at me. “What kind of chillin’?” I shrugged, and he gave me a conspiratorial look. His glance darted to Tim, who was gazing distantly out at the quiet street, smoking a Marlboro, then spoke to me in Spanish.

“You love Phoenix, right?”

I shrugged, rolling my eyes. “Of course. He’s my best friend.”

“Boo.” Primo smirked and held his hands out about eighteen inches from his crotch. “Is he this good of a friend? That’s why you love him?”

I kicked at his ankles and he bounced away, laughing. “It’s not that,” I said. “You’re such a cabrón.”

“Oh, wow, what’d you call me?”

Cabrón.” I snatched his hat from his head, but he grabbed it back from me and smacked me lightly across the face with it.

“Ew, you’re gonna give me your lice, don’t touch me with that thing.”

Primo abruptly straightened, his expression sobering as he adjusted his hat back over his bushy, black hair. I followed his darting glance and saw Phoenix coming back out with a forty of King Cobra.

He uncapped the beer and tipped it back, draining a third of the bottle in one. I watched with a mixture of dread and amusement. He burped proudly, wiped most of the drips from his shaggy beard, and aimed a fake left hook at my nose. “Pow!”

“Oooh, watch out, punk.” I mimed punches at his belly and nose, which he blocked easily with his free hand, his expression a study of boredom.

“Get a beer with me,” he said, taking another swig of his. “You’re getting a beer, right?”

“No. I’m gonna get a soda, though.”

“Soda’s bad for you. Why would you want a soda?”

I gave him a look and went into the store.

Sang grinned as I brought my Diet Pepsi to the counter. “How you doing? You so beautiful today.”

I concentrated on pulling money out of my purse, trying not to roll my eyes. “Aw, thanks.”

He squinted at me as he handed me my change. “Your boyfriend need to brush his hair. He look crazy.”

I laughed. “Of course he looks crazy. And he’s not my boyfriend.”

Sang’s dubious expression followed me out the door.

When I got back outside, I froze, clutching my soda. Phoenix had Tim backed up against the chain link fence, a cruel smile on his face. Tim gazed up at him wide-eyed, sweat beading on his tattooed neck. The empty King Cobra bottle rolled around at their feet.

Primo stood back from the scene, stroking his mustache. He glanced over at me. “Shit. Phoenix loves you.”

“What the fuck is going on?”

He shrugged elaborately. “Tim said some shit about how he could have any girl he wanted, and Phoenix flipped out, saying he’d better not talk to you or look at you or anything.”

“Shit.” I went over and laid a hand on Phoenix’s arm, and felt his muscles twitch under my fingers. “Phoenix, let’s go to the park.”

His eyes didn’t leave Tim’s, his lips curling up even more as he muttered unintelligible threats.

“We’re friends, Phoenix,” Tim said. “It’s cool, alright?” He held up his fist in salute, knuckles out.

Phoenix glanced at it, then at me. He scowled, but he slowly raised his own fist, bumping it against Tim’s as if afraid it would contaminate him.

I let out the breath I’d been holding. “Let’s go to the park,” I repeated.

“Yeah, right, the park,” Phoenix muttered.

I glanced back at Primo as we left. His face was contorted in silent amusement, and I shook my head in exasperation.

Phoenix glared at his feet, taking big strides on his long legs. “I don’t know why you’d want to fuck Tim.”

I scampered after him like a toy dachshund. “What? Why would I want to fuck that doughboy?”

“He was my sister’s boyfriend. It’s unhygienic. If you fuck him, just tell me. I mean, I don’t think I could be friends with you if that happened.”

That statement stung. I opened my mouth to ask if it were really true, but then thought better of it. “Well, you don’t have to worry about it.”

“I don’t know what that guy has that I don’t have,” he said, and I hid my face in my hands.

“Ohmygod, Phoenix.” I wanted to throttle him, but then I realized that, if I were worried about him fucking any of the more disease-ridden park sluts, I’d try to intervene, too. I took my hands from my face and held my tongue.

At the park, they were grilling chicken and blasting classic rock. Phoenix and I sat in the grass and threw sticks at each other. I cheered as I lodged one in his burgeoning dreadlocks, and he pulled it out and tossed it back at me, his expression stony.

“You’re the chick that I hang out with,” he said, “and I don’t want it to be like that with other guys.”

My chest deflated with a slow sigh, and I flung the stick at him halfheartedly. “Are we going to start in on this again?”

“I’m not starting anything. It’s your fault for wanting to fuck Tim.”

I glared. “It’s not my goddamn fault, and I don’t want to fuck anybody.”

“I thought that you hung out with me because you liked me. Why do you even want to hang out with me if you’re going to spend all your time with other guys?”

I pounded the grass. “Oh. My. Fucking. God. What are you talking about?”

He didn’t respond, but just stared at me, crumbling the stick between his fingers.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. He was so frustrating when he got like this. “Phoenix, you’re my best friend, okay? You’re probably the best friend I’ve ever had. You don’t have to be this way. You’re making it too complicated.”

He continued to stare, his expression not changing a bit. Sometimes his thoughts got so loud, he couldn’t hear me.

“Phoenix…” I put my hand on his knee.

He flung it off and stood up abruptly, stalking over to the cooler and grabbing a Coors Lite. He popped it, downed it in fifteen seconds, and crushed the can with one hand and tossed it to the grass. Then he grabbed a handful of chips from the table, plunging them into the nacho cheese dip before shoveling them into his mouth. Neon rivulets of cheese ran into his beard.

He went still, his eyes fixing on something behind my back. His hands gathered into fists, and that little evil smile bloomed on his lips again.

“Oy! Oy! Oy!” he said, singing along with AC/DC on the stereo. “Oy! Oy! Oy!”

Hesitantly, I glanced behind me. As I’d suspected, Tim was sitting at the next table with a couple of his friends. He appeared to be pretending Phoenix didn’t exist.

“Oy!” Phoenix said, his eyes glittering with violent glee. His beard was still full of cheese.

“Jesus,” I muttered. I stood and laid my hand on his arm. “Phoenix, stop. Let’s go on a walk or something.”

He gave no indication he’d heard me. “Oy!”

I gazed at him a moment longer, but he didn’t look at me, so I flopped back down in the grass with my back to him and bummed a cigarette off Denny.

Phoenix continued to antagonize Tim, but I resolutely didn’t watch. Eventually I heard Tim come up and talk to him.

“You’re my brother, Phoenix. We’re friends. Do you know what a friend is?”

“I know what a friend is, you retard. Oy!”

“I don’t want to fight you.”

“Oy!”

Maribel, who was sitting in the grass next to me, caught my eye. “You’d better stop him. Tim’s gonna kick his ass.”

I glanced over at the commotion, and cocked an eyebrow. Phoenix loomed over his adversary, almost a foot taller; his wiry muscles bulged in his tensed forearms and the full force of his schizophrenia shone in his eyes. Maribel didn’t know how strong he was, but I’d spent more than half a year wrestling him, being tossed around like a baby in her daddy’s arms. Tim may have lifted a lot of weights in prison, but he’d gotten out months ago and hadn’t done anything but laze around drinking since.

Plus there were the political considerations. “Tim won’t touch him,” I said. “Phoenix’s mom and sister would have his dick in a jar if he did.”

Deborah chimed in. “Yeah, but if it keeps up, someone is gonna call the cops, and you don’t want that.”

I got a jolt of panic, and bowed my head in reluctant agreement.

I didn’t delude myself that I had personal charms that could soothe my friend’s inner beast. I slouched to my feet and went to the cooler.

“Phoenix,” I said, stepping between him and Tim and putting a beer in his hand. “Let’s go.”

The demonic glint in his eye dulled slightly. He looked down at the beer, back up at Tim, down at the beer again. Some of the tension went out of his shoulders, and a sheepish expression crept over his face. “Will you have a beer with me?” he asked, not quite meeting my eyes.

“Sure.”

He allowed me to lead him away, and we sat back down in the grass. Phoenix got me a beer, which I opened and sipped without enthusiasm. He downed his own and looked off towards the dry hills with a philosophical expression. “Why do you think people worship cows? Is there something special about them?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” I rubbed the back of my tense neck, wondering why I didn’t just go home. But, despite the tedious drama here, the notion didn’t appeal to me. Juniper was playing videogames, and Eric was working on his lesson plans. He’d been much calmer and nicer since they’d adjusted his medication, but my stomach roiled when I was around him: some part of me was just waiting for him to explode and start calling me names again.

I grinned wryly at Phoenix. “You still have cheese in your beard.”

“Good,” he said, grabbing another beer.

He kept drinking, but he seemed to forget about Tim, and eventually wandered off. I sat and talked with other people for a while, picking at a plate of chicken, until Maribel came striding over.

“You better take care of your boy,” she said. “He’s getting in my mom’s face.”

I glanced up in alarm. Phoenix was standing toe-to-toe with Kandace, who looked thunderous. I leapt up and rushed over.

“Phoenix,” I said, tugging at his arm.

He jerked it out of my grasp. “Get the fuck off me.” He turned back to Kandace. “A man’s nipples are his own business. What business are my nipples of yours?”

Kandace and I exchanged a glance. “Phoenix, please,” I said. “Walk with me. Let’s go watch a movie or something.”

“What the fuck do you care? You don’t even care. Don’t pretend you do.”

“I do care.” I put my hand back on his arm, and his lips tightened, but he didn’t fling it off this time. “Please, Phoenix.”

“Go back and fuck Tim, or Domingo, or whoever.”

“I’m not gonna do that. I don’t want to fuck anybody.”

He still didn’t look at me. My heart pounded. Then he whirled and stalked off towards his house.

With a final, apologetic glance at Kandace, I ran after him.

We walked in silence, our feet crunching in the gravel. When we got to his gate, he picked up his special rock and used it to open the latch, so he wouldn’t have to touch it. “I don’t like it when people treat me like that,” he said.

He spun on his heels to face me, and I was startled to see he had tears in his eyes. “What do you mean? What’s wrong?”

“I don’t understand why you have to talk to those other guys. You’re my girl.”

I opened my mouth to tell him off, then closed it again.

The eight months that Phoenix and I had known each other descended on me in flashes of color and feeling. Hikes through fields of wildflowers, fights, institutionalizations, road trips; he’d stuck by me when I’d been kicked out my house, and somehow managed to make it into an adventure. He’d sat with me all that long night when I’d been pulled under by my own psychosis, treating me gently and cracking jokes until I found my way back to sanity. Most people would have called the sheriff, or given in to panic or exasperation.

Phoenix was a true friend. I cared about him, and liked being around him enough that I’d put up with it when he had days like today.

I swallowed. “Yeah, I’m your girl. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”

He blinked, tears streaming down his cheeks.

I reached out and took his hand tentatively. “Please, go lie down. Please.”

For a moment, I thought he’d smile. I thought it would be okay. But then he snatched his hand from mine. His lips drew tight, and I saw the veil fall over him.

To someone who didn’t know him, it might look like he was actually getting more rational, because his eyes got clearer, more focused and certain. But I knew better, and my stomach dropped to my shoes.

“You’re lying,” he said. “You don’t care at all. I know the game you’re playing. You want to touch my nipples? Huh? Is that what you want?” He bumped into me, pushing me back towards the gate, and I stumbled.

“Phoenix─”

Stop lying,” he bellowed. “You don’t care at all! You want to rape me and have my baby, so you can steal my SSI!”

“Phoenix, no─”

“You’ve been following me around and getting in my way! You won’t leave me alone! You’re ruining my life, trying to steal my sperm!” He was yelling loud enough to make my ears ring, and I backed up against the fence.

“Get the fuck out of here, and don’t come back!” he screamed. “Get the fuck off and die! American woman, get away from me…” He sang at the top of his lungs, glaring at me viciously. Across the street, a woman stopped to stare.

“Phoenix, stop, please, or someone’s going to call the cops.”

American woman, just let me be. I’m not fucking kidding! Go the fuck away! Leave me alone!”

I stared at him hopelessly, my feet shuffling, not knowing which way to go. There was no one else home, and I didn’t want him to be alone like this. I was usually able to calm him down. Hopefully it would be the same this time.

A lump rose in my throat. “Phoenix…stop, please, I love you, just stop.”

Don’t come hangin’ round my door, I don’t want to see your face no more.”

“Everything okay, neighbor?”

I turned to see the guy from next door leaning on the gate, watching Phoenix closely.

“Oh, hey, neighbor guy,” Phoenix said. “You ever listen to the classic rock station? American woman, get the fuck away from me…”

“Listen, man,” the guy cut in, “you can’t be yelling like that around here. I’ve got kids and stuff.”

“Yeah, but, you see, you understand, this American Woman here has been raping me and not leaving me the fuck alone…”

The guy glanced at me, his crooked teeth showing in a wry and incredulous grin. “You shouldn’t talk about your girl like that.”

Phoenix didn’t hear him. He was screaming Guess Who lyrics at me again.

“It’s okay,” I told the guy, over the noise. “He’s gonna be alright. He’s just crazy sometimes.”

He raised an eyebrow, looking me over, then turned and walked off. I could see him fishing his cell phone from his pocket as he went, and I cursed. “Phoenix! You gotta stop, or you’re gonna get hauled off to the loony bin!”

But he didn’t listen. He kept yelling, backing me up against the fence, and he was drawing a bigger crowd now, neighbors and passers-by gathering around to watch. My brain was screaming at me to leave, but I still hesitated; what if he hurt himself? What if the cops came, and no one was here to defend him and explain the situation?

Then I saw Tracy marching down the street from the park, her lips pursed in fury. I sidestepped Phoenix, grabbed my backpack and rushed out the gate.

Phoenix followed me. “Yeah, run back to your husband!” He stepped in my path, grabbing my arm.

“Whoa, take it easy,” one of the onlookers said.

Tracy ran up, shoving him away from me. “Did you lay hands on her, Phoenix? Don’t you ever fucking lay hands on her!”

He stumbled, but kept to his feet. “Don’t touch me! Both of you are a couple of satanic cow worshipers!”

“Tracy, don’t call the cops,” I begged.

She glared at me. “Just get out of here, Liz!”

I nodded, wiping away tears. I could hear them screaming at each other as I walked off.

I cried all the way home. I should have just left immediately: then he wouldn’t have gotten so agitated. I shouldn’t have left at all: I was abandoning my friend in a bad way. I couldn’t decide which was true.

My inner struggle about this situation in particular mirrored my bigger one about the situation with Phoenix in general.

Eric and I had fought all summer, when my kid had been away, her restraining influence absent. He’d told me to get the fuck out a few times, and I’d spent many nights and weeks living in my car. But, since then, Juniper had come home, and Eric and I had settled into a tenuous peace. I’d cut back on my drinking and a lot of my more impulsive behavior, and Eric had had his medication adjusted. Our relationship was slowly improving. We hadn’t had a serious fight in weeks, and were actually talking again, like normal people. He’d apologized for telling me to quit writing, and told me he wanted me to stay and try to make our marriage work.

But that summer had knitted Phoenix and me tightly together, and pulling those stitches out now was a painful process. I didn’t know if I should. I didn’t know if we’d be better off without each other, or if we’d both just feel miserable and alone.

Eric tolerated my relationship with Phoenix, but we were too close for it to be really right. It made all three of us nervous, and was the unsteady leg that threatened to topple our acrobatic pyramid, sending us all sprawling. Was this friendship really important enough to risk my marriage? Or would it eventually evaporate like spilled ether, leaving me with nothing?

I was nearly hysterical by the time I got home. I tried to hide it by launching into a frenzy of housecleaning, but Juniper noticed, and came up to put her arms around me. “What’s wrong, mommy?”

I clung to her, pressing my nose into her hair. She was almost as tall as me now, and twice as smart. “Phoenix is really bad. I’ve never seen him this bad. He was screaming at me…I’m afraid Tracy’s going to send him back to the institution.”

“No!” Juniper said. “That’s no fair! She can’t do that!” Eric stared at us over the back of the couch, pulling at a lock of his hair.

In my pocket, my phone buzzed, and I disentangled myself from my daughter and pulled it out.

My throat closed up. It was Whisper, Phoenix’s sister. I punched the answer button. “What’s happening? Is he okay?”

“Have you been drinking?” she asked.

“No, why?”

“You need to dry your eyes and get down to my house. The cops are there. The neighbors told them he was beating on you, and they want to take him to jail.”

“Fuck!” I imagined Phoenix trying to perform his tooth-brushing and hand-washing rituals in lockup. It would never work. He’d freak out and get beaten down by the guards within fifteen minutes. “I’ll be right there,” I said. I hung up and ran out of the house, leaving my daughter and husband to stare after me.

I clutched my steering wheel as I drove through the deepening twilight, my thoughts a hissing blast of white noise. I held my foot stiff so I didn’t floor it and scream down Center Street at sixty miles per hour.

When I got to his house, I had to park on the side, because the sheriff’s cruiser was parked in front. When I got out of the car, I was afraid I’d hear Phoenix still screaming, but to my immense relief, I didn’t. The house was dark, and the falling night had encased it in impenetrable shadow, but I could hear Tracy talking in a low voice to someone on the porch.

The gate opened just as I walked up, and Tracy came out, her expression hard. “You need to leave him alone, Liz.”

“I’m just here to talk to the Sherriff,” I said.

A tall, bald man in uniform stepped out of the darkness behind her, into the glow cast by the streetlamp. I didn’t even wait for him to introduce himself.

“Phoenix didn’t hit me,” I said breathlessly. “He was just yelling. He’s a really good person, he’s just schizophrenic and he gets ideas in his head sometimes. He really can’t help it, but he’s never hurt me. He would never hurt me.” I heard Phoenix’s voice in my head, repeating his mantra: Never say never. I grimaced and pushed that thought away.

The sheriff nodded. “Could I see your I.D., please?”

I fished it out of my backpack and handed it him. He unhooked his radio mic from his belt and spoke into it, reading off my information. “This is the other subject listed on the report,” he said.

Oh, great, I thought.

He said a few more things into the radio, codes I couldn’t understand, then he put it away and handed me back my I.D.

“Please don’t take him to mental health,” I blurted. “That place doesn’t do him any good.”

He glanced at Tracy. “Do you think he needs to go to mental health tonight?”

“No, not tonight,” she said. “He goes on these tangents sometimes, you know. He’s schizophrenic and sociopath and all the rest of it.”

“And the alcohol doesn’t help that at all,” the cop said.

“Yeah, I try to keep him from getting it,” Tracy said, “but he gets it from here and there, people give him drinks.”

Flashing lights illuminated the scene, and another cruiser came to park catawampus next to the first. A deputy climbed out and strode over, exchanging one of those faint cop grins with his partner. This guy was younger, with a sandy buzz cut.

“The subject’s inside,” the first guy said, jerking his chin towards the house.

The younger cop hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. “Let’s go talk to him.”

“Be good to him,” I begged. “He’s one of the best people in the world.”

They didn’t respond. I backed up into the shadow of a tree as they disappeared through the gate, Tracy following them.

“Phoenix,” Tracy called, rapping on his door. “Come out of there. The sheriffs want to talk to you.”

After a few moments, I heard the outside door to his room creak open, and Phoenix spoke with affected joviality. “Yeah? How you guys doing tonight?”

“We came because we got some calls about there being a disturbance here,” the older cop said. “You want to tell us about that?”

“What you have to understand,” Phoenix said, “is that this girl, she comes over here, and she has a husband. He’s a biochemist. It’s a fucked up, crazy situation. And I’d like to report that she’s been molesting me.”

I clamped my chin to my chest, cursing inwardly.

“Phoenix, knock it off,” Tracy said. “Liz is his girlfriend,” she explained.

I cursed again.

“Well, she’s been date raping me or whatever, when I’m asleep or blacked out. That’s because she wants to have my baby and take my money away. She and my mom have been working together at it, thinking their witch spells and thoughts at me, because they’re a couple of vegan cow worshipers.”

“We have Ms. Roderick here, and we could talk to her about that, if you’d like,” the younger cop said.

Oh, you morons, I thought, stepping further back into the shadows.

“What, she’s here?” Phoenix said. “Liz is here? American woman, get away from me…”

“No, no, that’s okay,” both cops said at once. “No, she left, she’s not here anymore.”

American woman, just let me be…”

“Sir, we’re gonna have to ask you to sit down.”

What the fuck did you think was going to happen? I thought.

“Phoenix!” Tracy barked. “Sit the hell down.”

He quit singing. I heard the porch boards creak.

“That’s better, sir, thank you,” the older cop said.

“You like that better?” Phoenix said. “What, you like me to be at dick level? Do you want to rape me too?”

I cringed.

“Sir─”

“Do you guys worship cows also? Is that’s what’s going on here?”

I clutched my elbows and began to pray, but things just degenerated from there. Phoenix never became threatening, didn’t even raise his voice, but before long they were leading him out the gate in handcuffs, with no shirt on, the hems of his pajama pants dragging around his bare feet. I pressed my hand over my mouth so he wouldn’t hear me sob.

I watched the cars drive off, trembling. Tracy came out and handed me a cigarette.

“They’re taking him to mental health?” I asked.

“No, they’re taking him to jail.”

“What? But he didn’t do anything wrong! I told them he didn’t touch me!”

“They’re charging him with a drunk in public.”

“But he was in his yard, not in public! And he was quiet when they came. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He’s just schizophrenic. He can’t help it!”

Tracy shrugged, frowning. “Shouldn’t have accused them of wanting to rape him.”

“He’s going to freak out in there. It’s going to be bad.”

“He’ll be out by tomorrow morning, and he’ll be fine. He was calmed down by the time they took him.”

I nodded, hoping she was right. I told her to text me when she heard anything, and drove home.

I sat in my driveway when I got there, leaning my forehead against the steering wheel. Everyone asked me why I put myself through this, why I involved myself in Phoenix’s life when it was so much trouble, drama and hurt. It was a hard thing to explain to people. It was hard for my friends and family to understand that, despite the fact I periodically got accused of rape and idol worship, Phoenix made me happy. He made me feel whole, and good, and like I belonged. He was the only one that seemed to understand my worldview, and who could follow the flow of my thoughts.

And I had to admit, my thoughts were strange. I had this feeling his and my relationship was made of dreams and nightmares, that it was fate and magic made solid through belief. I’d felt a surreal compulsion to seek him out since the moment I laid eyes on him, and the synchronicity that kept drawing us together was bound up in my mind with the concept of an ordered universe, a universe where things can have meaning instead of being senseless chaos. I felt like we were meant to know one another. Our friendship helped me to understand myself. More than that, it help me comprehend the human mind and condition better. It had led me to write books that might teach people to be more accepting of people like him, and people like me.

This was the higher purpose that drove my life. I knew that this might be a delusion, but it was a beautiful one, and very difficult to let go of. But, at times like this, that happy dream began to suffocate in the stifling atmosphere of the real world. I was being crazy. I was ruining my life, and Phoenix’s to boot.

I’d spent countless hours meditating on this situation, trying to convince myself to cut him loose, but I hadn’t been successful. The few times I’d told him I wasn’t going to hang out with him anymore, I’d only go a few days before seeking him out again. It caused me almost physical pain to be away.

I hadn’t forgotten that Invisible Friend Jesus had told me that this situation would resolve itself, but I was smart enough to know that it wouldn’t happen on its own, and that I wasn’t helping matters. I knew that, no matter what I did, it would hurt. And, even when the stifling weight of guilt and self-loathing threatened to crush me, I couldn’t bear to ditch my friend. That pain was worse.

Even though I wasn’t sure Invisible Friend Jesus wasn’t another part of my beautiful delusion, I squeezed my eyes shut and began to pray. I don’t know what to do. I’m a piece of shit and everything I do is wrong. I keep hurting people through my selfishness and I don’t know how to stop.

You’re not a piece of shit, Invisible Friend Jesus said.

How do I know that? How do I know what’s real and what’s not? How do I know I’m not just crazy? That night, curled up on Phoenix’s floor, I was so convinced that someday I’d get my books published, and make people see that beautiful delusion can become a reality if you believe it hard enough. That so-called sanity can be just as insane as mental illness, and that people like Phoenix and me have something to offer the world, just like everyone else. But all I get is rejection, both for my writing and my ideas in general. I’ve been fooling myself all along. I’m an immature, selfish idiot, just like my husband says. I need to wake up, and grow up.

You’re not any of those things, Tinkerbell, Invisible Friend Jesus said. You can do better, but we all can. And your belief that every person has relevance, even those with unconventional minds and lifestyles, is correct. People who live and believe the way you do are bound to have a harder time in society than those who take the well-beaten path, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I mean, you’ve read about some of the people I hung out with, right? I got loads of shit for it. And now, look at me. He gestured expansively. I have the best-selling book of all time.

I snorted. Yeah, but you never got wasted and got kicked out of a casino.

He grinned. You’d be surprised. Like I said, we all can do better sometimes.

I took a deep breath and wiped my eyes. I need something to help me believe. I need something to help me feel better about myself. And I need to know I’m not going to ruin my kid’s life by acting crazy.

He gave me a look over the rims of his sunglasses. You’re going to be alright, and so will Juniper. No matter what happens, you’ll be able to take care of yourself and her, because you’re a good person who knows how to get by. Just be strong.

I nodded, sniffing, and wiped my eyes again, staring at the darkness outside my windshield. Invisible Friend Jesus was right: I would be able to take care of myself and my kid, no matter what happened. The world may think I’m crazy, but that’s okay. I’d survive.

I pulled out my phone to text Mari, to tell her what had happened. She always knew how to cheer me up.

When I unlocked it, my email came up automatically, and one of the subject lines caught my eye. Limitless Publishing Contract Offer, it said. I blinked at it a few times, wondering if it would change, but it didn’t. I tapped it with a trembling thumb.

Dear Ms. Roderick, it said. We’ve read your manuscript, Love or Money, and have enjoyed it very much. We’d like to offer you a contract for publication. If you’re still interested, please respond, and we’ll send you the contract for review.

“No freakin’ way,” I said, and laughed. “High five, Invisible Friend Jesus.”

Tinkerbell Into the Darkness Part 12: Tinkerbell in the Other Place

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Yes, the saga continues. I was waiting for this story to have an arc, but this episode was definitely important enough to write. It’s stand-alone, so you could follow it even if you haven’t read the others, but once again I’m only giving it out to certain people. If you’d like to read it, please email me at quantumdynamo@gmail.com. I’ll consider each request on a case-by-case basis.

Thanks!

Invisible Friend Jesus Takes the Reins

unnamedI sat on my hotel bed, staring at the cover of the book I’d just finished: Tales of the Titmouse, which was a memoir written by my neighbor, Pamela Barrett. It was a great story; it told how she’d gotten involved in the drug scene in the 70’s and early 80’s, how her life had been pretty intense until she’d found God and gotten her shit together. I’d devoured the book almost in one sitting, not only immersed in the tale, but hoping I could find some answers in it, something that might help me get my own life back on track. But now the book was over, and I felt more lost, empty and fucked-up than ever.

I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked over to find Invisible Friend Jesus sitting on the bed beside me, picking lint off the sleeve of his white suit jacket.

“There you are,” I said.

“Here I am,” he replied.

I tapped my fingers on the cover of the book, my brow furrowing. “I think I’m doing this religion thing wrong,” I said. “In fact, I think I’m doing pretty much everything wrong.”

He folded his hands over his belly, settling back on the pillows and giving me his little smile. “Tell me why you think that, Tinkerbell.”

“Well, Pam had some pretty definitive and life-changing religious experiences. God took away her desire to do drugs. God spoke to her, and saved her life when she overdosed, and gave her clear instructions on what to do.”

“I think you’re oversimplifying the story,” he said. “You’re thinking that God took over her life and did everything for her. Pam still had to struggle, and didn’t always get it right.”

“But her faith is so strong,” I said. “She has such a well-defined idea of what’s right and wrong. Me, I’m still barely convinced you’re real.”

He laughed. “And yet, here I am.”

I plucked at the paisley coverlet, frowning. “Yeah, but my experience with you is so different than everyone else’s. You’re some dude in a suit that tells me jokes. You never give me tough love, get angry when I do stupid shit, or make bargains with me. You rarely tell me what to do at all. You mostly just tell me to chill out.”

He stretched out his legs, twiddling his bare toes. “First of all, don’t compare your experience with me to anyone else’s. You don’t have to go anywhere, searching for someone else’s God. God meets you where you are.”

“Not always,” I said, shooting him an accusing look, and he threw a pillow at me.

“Yes, always. Your problem is, you’re always so busy and frantic trying to figure out what to do, that you can’t see me there. You have this hole in your life, and you’re constantly trying to fill that vacancy. You think there’s something wrong with you, and you’re trying to fix it. Just stop, Tinkerbell. You’re not broken.”

I snorted. “You’re glorious batshit.”

He rolled his eyes. “No, I’m not. You’re not too old, or too ugly, or too stupid. You’re not too poor, or boring, or immature. You don’t need to be more talented or successful or accomplished or likable. You’re fine. Just chill out.”

I blinked at him. “But I need to change the way I feel about things, and the way I act. I need to change myself, because I keep falling short. I keep hurting people and making the wrong decisions.”

“There’s nothing wrong with how you feel, either, and you’re not ‘falling short’. You’re just human. As for hurting people and making the wrong decisions, you can’t change what’s past. But stop worrying about how to fix things. That’s what’s getting you into trouble in the first place.”

I scowled. “But I’ve messed it all up now. I’ve got to fix it. I’ve got to figure out what to do.”

“No, you don’t,” he said. “Let me take care of it.”

I cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yes. Life is a messy and complicated thing, and sometimes you’ve just got to let it go. You can’t control everything.”

“But…you’re really going to take care of this?”

“Yes.”

You?

He raised his eyebrows. “Yes.”

“But you’re a figment of my imagination.”

He grinned. “Whatever. Just watch. I’m going to fix it. And, even if I’m a figment of your imagination, you feel better now, right?”

I thought about it. My body felt relaxed and sleepy, and I stretched out on the mattress. “Yeah, I do feel better,” I said.

“Good.”

I curled up beside him, yawning. “Whatever you do to fix this, it’s going to hurt, right?”

He brushed the hair back from my forehead. “I can’t promise it won’t, but you all will get through it.”

He sat and held my hand, and I fell asleep. I slept all night. It was the first night in months I didn’t have to take a handful of sleeping pills.

Tinkerbell and the Involuntary Commitment (Into the Darkness Part 9)

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After Phoenix and I fought and then made up, I didn’t see him for a few days. It was partly that I was busy, but mostly it was because I was still hurt, and scared of being yelled at. I also figured he might need a break from me. He hadn’t been completely off-base saying I smothered him. We’d been spending almost every day together for weeks.

However on Saturday, the day of Marshall’s funeral, I knew I needed see him, whether he wanted me around or not. So that afternoon I popped my earbuds in and strode down the dusty trail out of The Heights.

When I passed the park, I saw Lucy, Ricky, and Trinity in the back at the horseshoe pits, but Phoenix wasn’t with them. I circled around the block to their house so I wouldn’t have to pass them by. I didn’t much feel like talking to them if I didn’t have to.

When I knocked on the door, Shiva and Cooper barked and pushed their noses under the front blinds, but no one answered. I could hear the TV on, and figured Phoenix was there but didn’t want to talk to me. I slumped out the gate and headed for the park.

Lucy and Trinity gave me an identical, unfathomable smile as I walked up and sat next to them. Ricky’s bare, tattooed belly hung over his jeans as he played a solitary game of horseshoes.

“What did he say?” Lucy asked me.

“He didn’t answer,” I said. “Can I bum a cigarette?”

She handed me one. “He’s on a rampage,” she said as I lit it. “He tore his room all up. Look.” She took out her phone, tapped at the screen, then handed it to me.

I looked at it. “Holy Jesus,” I said. It was a picture of Phoenix’ room, the bedframe in splinters, the tables and shelves overturned.

“I’m gonna make Social Services pay for that shit,” Lucy said. “I ain’t paying for it. Brand new bed.”

“Fucksticks,” I muttered, still staring at the photo, my heart collapsing. What emotional state did he have to be in to do that sort of thing?

“It was during the last prayer of the service that he lost it,” Trinity said, sucking on a bottle of Miller Lite. “He did real good up until that. I don’t remember what they said in that last prayer, but it really upset him.”

“He went into the bathroom at the church, and wouldn’t come out for half an hour,” Lucy said as I finally handed her back her phone. “We were the last ones there. Then we went to my parents’ house and he locked himself in the bathroom there, too. His grandpa yelled at him, all pissed off. He doesn’t want him over there anymore, because he’ll never leave.”

“On the way home, I knew he was going to be real bad, because he started laughing hysterically,” Trinity said. “You always know when he’s going to lose it, because of that laugh.”

I hugged myself. I knew that laugh, alright. All three of us smoked in silence, watching Ricky toss the horseshoes.

“We should go check on him,” Lucy said, stubbing out her cigarette. “He had a knife when we left.”

I hugged myself harder. “What?” I squinted at her; she didn’t look that concerned. I couldn’t imagine Phoenix hurting himself, or anyone else, but I’d never seen him at the destroying-things stage. What if he slashed himself up?

We walked back over to the house. The dogs bounded to the door and jumped on us, but all was otherwise silent except for Return of the King playing on the TV.

My heart pounded in my ears as Lucy crept over and peeked through the glass door into Phoenix’s room. Then she grinned and gave us the thumbs-up. “He’s putting it all back together,” she whispered.

I let out a breath. Lucy motioned us to the door and we tiptoed out, so as not to disrupt him.

When they went back to the house later for beer money, I followed them again. When we got there, Phoenix was on the porch with his shirt off, watching me with slitted eyes and a strange smile.

“You cleaned it up?” Lucy asked.

“Yeah,” Phoenix said. “I mean, when I woke up it was all…I mean, there was shit all over, but I fixed it.”

“You got to stop destroying shit, Phee,” Lucy said.

She and Trinity went in the house, but I stayed out on the porch with him. He continued to watch me with that odd smile. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

“A lot of things. What’s wrong with you?”

“You don’t like me, for one.”

“If I don’t like you, then why am I here?”

He looked away from me and muttered something I couldn’t hear.

Lucy and Trinity emerged, hefting large, studded purses over their shoulders. Trinity’s dye-blonde hair was newly combed and she smelled like a fresh coat of perfume.

“Where are you going?” Phoenix asked.

“To the store for some beer,” Lucy replied.

“I want a beer.”

“Nuh uh, no way,” Lucy said. “Not when you’re in this mood.”

“I’m fine,” he said. “It would probably calm me down, actually. Can I at least come with you?”

“Whatever,” Lucy said.

“Just let me put on some real clothes,” he said, then whirled around and disappeared into his room.

“You’d better hurry up, Phee,” Lucy called after him as he shut the door.

Lucy pulled out another cigarette, and Trinity chattered tipsily about her underwear, pulling down her cutoffs to show them to me. I got a flash of her smooth, china-doll pale belly above the lacy waistband, and I found myself thinking that this family was the genetic equivalent of siren song.

When Phoenix didn’t come back out in a couple minutes, Lucy and Trinity left. I stayed and waited, sitting on the steps and staring at the clouds glowing orange and pink on the western horizon.

When he finally emerged a few minutes later, he was carrying his bb gun and an empty King Cobra bottle. He gave me the briefest of glances and was down the steps and out the gate before I could even stand up.

He stalked towards the river bed. I had to run to catch up, and when I drew level with him he stared fixedly at the ground, refusing to meet my eyes. I felt a pang of sick hurt, but I ignored it. I wouldn’t give up that easy. Not today.

“Can I shoot at the bottle with you?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “No. And if you’re gonna fuck me with my mama, I’m gonna hit you with the butt of my gun.”

He said it in a bubba voice, but I knew he wasn’t entirely joking; he wouldn’t hit me, but he was really mad. Sometimes I could get him out of these moods by playing the joke out with him, involving him in a sort of stream-of-consciousness skit until I got him to laugh. But then he turned towards me, and I got a look into the deep pits of his eyes. My flippant response died on my lips, killed by a wave of hopelessness.

“Do you want to fuck me with my mom?” he repeated slowly, raising his eyebrows.

My mouth went dry. “What? No. I mean, I don’t even know how that would work.”

“What do you think I mean?” he asked. “If you want that, you can just get the fuck off me. I don’t want to fuck my mom.”

I pressed my lips together. “Fine,” I said. If he meant to throw my drunken antics in my face and call me old, then so be it. He was just as guilty as I was. I spun on my heel, heading back to The Heights.

“Yeah, go home to your husband,” he hissed.

I didn’t look back. I didn’t want him to see me crying. I texted Lucy to tell her where he’d gone, and went home.

Later that night, I texted her again, asking if he’d come back, and if he was feeling better. “Yes, and yes,” she replied, and I heaved a sigh of relief.

But I still nursed my hurt. I felt like an utter fuckup. I felt like I had no business being on this planet.

He didn’t come to church the next day, and I didn’t go to see him. It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that my concern won out over my pride and I texted Lucy again, asking how he was doing.

“ Real bad,” she replied. “I had to call the Sheriff last night. He’s at mental health.”

The words hit me like a physical blow. I stared at them, struggling to breathe. “What??” I typed out, my hands trembling.

She called me a few minutes later and told me the story. He’d gotten really agitated. He’d had the knife out again. “He always forgets that I can call the Sheriff on him,” she said. “But I guess I showed him. Now he won’t sign the waiver, though, so I can’t talk to them about how he’s doing, and I can’t keep them from medicating him.”

I stood there, shaking, then asked if I could come over. She said yes. I stopped and got her some beer and cigarettes, then sat on her porch while she pulled weeds in the garden. “I tried to go visit him today,” she said, “but he ran me off after five minutes. Pounding on the table, telling me I’d ruined his life.”

“I want to go visit him,” I said. If only I’d come over on Sunday…if only I hadn’t been so self-centered….

She gave me a sharp look. “I wouldn’t. You’re not family, so if he flips out on you, they could get a restraining order against you. If they keep you a mile away from him, you couldn’t even be in your own house.”

She continued to pull weeds while I put together everything I knew of the law, which was quite a bit. I swiftly came to the conclusion that she was lying, or just full of shit in general. A restraining order like that would stand up in court about as well as a drunken Gumby. I could see why she didn’t want me to visit him, though, and she was right: I’d probably just make him worse. You’re just some creepy old lady who’s been smothering him. He doesn’t want to see you.

“The psychiatrist says he’s the first true case of demonic possession he’s ever seen,” Lucy continued, taking a long drag of her cigarette and yanking at a particularly stubborn ream of pigweed. “He always does this shit, like he’ll say, ‘I love you, mom,’ then his voice changes and gets all satanic and he’s like, ‘I’m gonna kill you, you bitch.’”

“Huh,” I said. My stomach turned over, and I clutched my knees.

“I went to the church elders about it. They were going to do an exorcism, but when I came home, he’d looked in the mirror and seen what we were talking about, and he was like, ‘If you think I’m gonna let you do that shit to me, just see if I don’t burn that church down and kill all of you.’ Let me tell you, schizophrenia and sociopath don’t mix, and you add demonic possession on top of that, it’s scary. And he’s so strong, all that running and working out. You read about those schizophrenics that kill their families, they’re all really strong, like him.”

Sweat was dripping into my eyes, and my stomach had gone way south.

“And now they want to put him on that medication,” she said, tossing another weed into the growing pile. “It’ll just make him worse if it don’t kill him.”

I stood up quickly. “I’ve gotta go. Please text me to tell me how the 72-hour hearing goes.”

“I will,” she called after me as I scampered out the gate.

I stumbled down the road and into the park, where I laid face down in the shady grass, breathing steadily. Sociopath? Demonic possession? Not Phoenix. Not the sweet, funny boy I knew. He’d loved Marsahall so much that he’d hurled his dresser into the wall trying to deal with his death, and even then he hadn’t attacked or threatened anybody. Lucy had one of the most amazing sons on the face of the planet, and she thought he was a monster.

Poor Phoenix. He had nobody. His mom thought he was a demon-possessed sociopathic killer, the rest of his family wanted nothing to do with him, and I’d proved to be no sort of friend at all.

It was a half hour before I could stand up and make it home, and I spent the next two days curled up in bed.

I waited all day Wednesday, but Tracy never called or texted me to say how the hearing went. On Thursday, I went over to the house and found Trinity there, so doped up that her eyes were grey. When I asked what was going on with her brother, she shrugged. “My mom’s there visiting him. She’ll be back in about half an hour.”

I swallowed, squaring my shoulders. “I want to visit him, too.”

Her eyes slid out of my gaze, but she just shrugged again.

“Where is he at?”

“He’s in SLO. It’s that street where….” She made an angle with her fingers. “You know where…shit, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask my mom.”

I thanked her and left. When I got home, I got on my computer and started calling hotline numbers.

I was finally directed to a small facility in downtown SLO. I called them. No, they couldn’t tell me if someone was there unless they’d signed a waiver, and I knew Phoenix hadn’t. The guy told me when visiting hours were, but suggested I call the patient phone first, to ask the person for permission to come.

I called it. No one answered, and I pictured a room full of Phoenixes staring intently at the ringing phone, some of them muttering to themselves, a couple of them poking it with sticks, and one guy in the corner screaming, “I’m not here! I’m not here!”

I sighed and hung up, hiding my face in my hands.

Ten minutes later I called again, and this time someone picked up.

“Hello?” I could hardly hear the guy, because the line buzzed so badly. I wondered if one of the inmates had been chewing on the cord.

“Is Phoenix there?” I asked.

“Who? Shit, this phone sucks.”

“Phoenix!”

“Phoenix? Just a minute.”

There was a silence; all I could hear was the line humming and the pounding of my heart. Then there was a thump and rustle as someone came on the line.

“Hello?”

I couldn’t believe it. It was his voice. “Phoenix? This is Liz.”

“Hey,” he said. “You know, I asked for the vegan meals here, and they gave me a Gardenburger. They’re pretty good, actually.”

I laughed. “I know, they’re not so bad, right?”

“Yeah, they’re really okay.”

I laughed again. I couldn’t help myself. I was so glad. “Phoenix, can I come visit you tomorrow?”

“What, really? Yeah, okay, but my mom isn’t coming tomorrow.”

“I’ll be there,” I said. “I want to see you.”

“Do what you want,” he said. “Wait, I mean, are you going to come by yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, totally. Visiting hours are from one to three.”

After I hung up, I jumped up and down, giggling. The weight had suddenly lifted from me, and I felt light and dizzy. He was okay. He was eating. And he seemed to want to see me. Maybe I didn’t just make him feel worse.

The next day, I was excited and nervous. “This is going to be a trip,” I told Mari as we took our morning walk. “I can’t wait to see what that place is like.”

She gave me a sidewise look, smirking.

“He sounded really happy,” I continued. “I hope he still is. I hope he doesn’t freak out on me.”

I almost didn’t care if he did, as long as I got to see him.

I left a half hour before I needed to, so I could find the place and find parking. But I hadn’t even made it the two miles to the 41 before my phone started to ring.

I looked at the screen, and my stomach turned sour. It was Lucy.

I pulled onto the shoulder and picked it up. “Hello?”

“Hey,” she said. “I talked to Phoenix. He’s got some idea in his head that you’re coming down there to visit him.”

I clutched the phone. “Yeah, I am.”

“Well, he said…I wanted to make sure to tell you not to do that.”

“What? Why?”

“He’s…I mean, I could barely understand what he was talking about. He’s really riled up right now. This medication they have him on, it’s horrible. You need to just leave him alone. If they can’t get him stabilized, they’re never going to let him out.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Oh…okay. I mean, he seemed fine yesterday, but, you know, I knew it was luck of the draw whether he’d be okay today.”

“You need to just leave him alone,” she repeated.

“I won’t go,” I said, my voice thick. “But what did they say at the hearing? When is he getting out?”

“A couple days, if they can get him stabilized enough to go into the care home.”

“A couple days? And he’s not coming back with you, he’s going to a care home?”

“He’s got some idea that they’re going to put him in one of those places. I don’t know, I can’t understand a word he says.”

I assured Lucy again that I wouldn’t go see him. Then I turned the car around and drove home.

Even though it was ninety degrees outside, I parked and sat in the sweltering cabin of my car, staring at the cyclamen growing in the clay pots beside my driveway. I wasn’t thinking at all. My mind was completely blank, and I couldn’t move. It was about twenty minutes before I could make myself go into the house.

For the rest of the day, almost every single one of my friends told me that I should have gone to visit Phoenix anyway. “It’s not him,” Mari said, “It’s his mom. She’s lying, trying to get you not to go.” That sentiment was echoed by a half-dozen others.

But they didn’t understand. They didn’t know the whole story. They hadn’t been there when he’d called me creepy. Phoenix had always been conflicted about our relationship, and I hadn’t helped matters much by acting like a drunk idiot. It was entirely possible that he didn’t want me to come, and that I would just make him worse if I did.

I felt horrible. I was suffocating in doubt and self-recrimination. I tried to distract myself by a punishing run on the elliptical, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Phoenix, no matter how long I ran.

I needed to immerse myself in writing, but I was too preoccupied to start drafting a new novel. The only thing I had to do were revisions on Justin’s Book. Even though it hurt really bad to put myself in that world, I did it anyway. To my surprise, it felt strangely right. Justin was speaking to me really clearly now, the bizarre twists and turns of his mind comfortable and familiar.

I got to the part where Justin’s mom yells at him after he asks to go to San Francisco with Mina, to meet with the art gallery owner about his drawings.

“Justin, this Mina girl…I just don’t think she’s good for you. She may or may not have good intentions, I don’t know, but you’re just going to end up getting hurt with all these plans she has for you. She doesn’t know how you are yet.”

I read that passage over and over. I knew that most of my friends thought Lucy was like Justin’s mom: trying to isolate Phoenix from the one person who wanted to make his life better. They thought I was a little like Mina, a do-gooder attempting to help the schizo kid out of the kindness of her heart.

What they didn’t know is that I was actually a lot more like Liria. I was too fucked up to help Phoenix, because I needed saving myself. But Phoenix wasn’t Justin, and our relationship wasn’t really like Justin and Liria’s. Phoenix didn’t have the resources to save me, and so I was just a burden to him. I was just some creepy old lady who was adding more complications to his already complicated life.

The words on the screen blurred as tears filled my eyes. I thought of all those long walks and days in the park together, climbing trees and pelting each other with dandelions and almond shells, playing one-on-one basketball in the pitch dark and animated games of chess in the pouring rain. It hasn’t been all bad, I told myself, but I wasn’t really sure. Phoenix’s mind didn’t work like most people’s. It was entirely possible that my transgressions eclipsed all the good times we’d had. I had no idea what he really thought of me.

The problem was that Phoenix wasn’t one of my characters, and our lives weren’t a story. I couldn’t write him out of this situation. Even in my books, I didn’t feel like I had much control over the plot, but real life was even worse. At least in my books, I had a pretty good idea of what my characters’ motivations were, but my perspective as a human being was too limited to know exactly what was going on in people’s heads in the real world.

I tried to meditate, to clear my head and gain objectivity. I tried to talk to Invisible Friend Jesus about this situation. But he just sat there, smiling benignly and telling me not to worry so much. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t trust his voice anymore. I didn’t trust that he wasn’t just another one of my characters, inserted into my life story as a plot device.

I closed Justin’s Book and started reading through all of the Tinkerbell anecdotes, hoping for illumination that way, but the only person whose feelings and motives were entirely clear to me were my own.

My motivations weren’t what other people thought they were. Most people assumed I was trying to help Phoenix, some thought I just wanted to fuck him, and yet another person had expressed the opinion that I was exploiting Phoenix to create drama, for story fodder. The last person had barely escaped a true Tinkerbell beat-down, and was the first person in decades that I’d held a grudge against for more than two hours.

None of those things were the truth. The reason I’d felt drawn to Phoenix in the first place, and the reason I’d felt compelled to write Justin’s Book, was a lot deeper, a lot scarier.

In the course of my long and sordid life, I’ve had quite a few episodes of psychosis. It isn’t something I tell people, because people tend to not understand that sort of thing. Most folks are scared of psychotics. They think we’re likely to snap and start murdering people at any moment. But that’s not true.

I wrote out one of my delusional episodes– the one on my twenty-seventh birthday – because it was drug induced, and so seemed relatively safe to tell people about. But not all of them had been drug-induced.

Most notable was the time right after I’d had Juniper. I was in pain from an injury I’d received in childbirth, and horribly sleep-deprived. Bill was working nights, so I was alone most of the time as he slept all day. And my brain started to go really weird.

Juniper was one of those babies that needed to be held constantly. She wouldn’t go in the swing, wouldn’t let me put her down even to do dishes or take a bath. So I kept her in the sling or the Snuggie most of the time, carrying her with me everywhere.

I started to have really clear visions of tripping and falling while I was carrying her. I would see her head crack open. I would see her face smash. I would see it over and over and over and over again, a grotesque scene on an infinite loop in my head, and I couldn’t stop it.

Then, when I took a bath with her, I would see myself holding herself under water. I would see the terrified look on her little face, feel her struggle, watch the bubbles of her last breath rising from her tiny mouth. And I was terrified that that vision would somehow take me over, that I’d feel compelled to actually do that.

These visions wouldn’t stop, and I was scared to death to tell anyone. One time haltingly tried to discuss it with Bill; I told him I was frightened I’d accidentally hurt the baby, because I was seeing these things in my head. He’d very firmly told me to stop talking about things like that, and I’d never brought it up again. I knew he was right. If I talked about things like that, they were going to come and take my baby away.

It got worse before it got better. I started to believe that what clothes I put on her would determine her future. If I picked the wrong onesie, she might end up a serial killer or fascist dictator. When she’d babble and smash her toys on the ground, I thought she was trying to communicate something of dire importance, which I was too ignorant to understand. Eventually, I convinced Bill that it would be a good idea if we moved back to Yakima, so that I could be around my parents. They would keep an eye on me, and make sure I didn’t do anything wrong.

I never did actually want to hurt Juniper, and after a while, I got better. The Darkness stopped pressing on me so much, and I was able to catch my breath, and heave a sigh of relief that I’d been able to regain the blessing of sanity.

But the Darkness still lurks in my mind, waiting to swallow me up. Every so often, I feel myself on the brink of it. It’s a feeling like I’m very small and all alone, a pathetic spark of consciousness in an endless void; that I’m living a brief, meaningless dream before being swallowed up for good. Sometimes I think that none of this is real, and I’m going to wake up and figure out what’s really going on. I feel like everyone else knows what’s real, and they’re all watching me closely to see how long it will take me to get the joke. During those times, everything people around me say and do seems to fall into this delusion, their words and actions little clues and sinister metaphors, all of them clunking into place like pieces of a frightening puzzle only I can see. But those feelings are brief and fleeting now. I’m a sane person. And I thank God for that.

Psychosis is an incredibly lonely thing. Sanity is, for the most part, just as much of a delusion as psychosis, but it’s a shared delusion. Crazy people are alone in their little worlds, solitary in their beliefs. And, when you’re fumbling around in the Darkness and your hand reaches out and suddenly finds someone, it’s very, very hard to let go.

When a delusion is shared, it’s actually real. But, if it’s not shared, if that hand you’ve grasped dissolves into nothingness, you’re back to wandering alone in the dark.

The day after I was supposed to visit Phoenix, I still hadn’t figured out what I should do. Eric and I had our first marriage counseling session that day, and it’s telling that the experience was an emotional relief for me, because for almost an hour I was thinking about something else.

I didn’t know how I wanted my story with Phoenix to end, but I knew what ending I didn’t want: one where I sent him off the deep end by forcing my company on him. I supposed the story with the best character arc would be one where Tinkerbell learned not to cling to her obsessions, to be more self-reliant; one where she didn’t call him, and just let Phoenix go so both of them could get on with their lives.

But it would be out of character for Tinkerbell to learn that lesson in this case. I cared too much. Around noon, I called the patient phone again.

It was picked up on the fourth ring, the line buzzing and crackling. “Bueno?”

“Bueno,” I said. “Está Phoenix?”

“Si, soy yo.”

“No, you’re not him. Phoenix.”

“Si, Phoenix. Soy yo.”

I hung up. Fifteen minutes later, I called back and got the same guy, still insisting he was Phoenix. I threw my phone down and hid my head in my hands.

I still couldn’t let it go. I needed some sort of closure. If he was going into a group home, I might never see him again. Finally, I got out a paper and pen.

Phoenix, I wrote,

Your mom said I shouldn’t visit you, so I didn’t. But I miss you. You’re one of the best people I’ve ever met.

I’m really sorry I act like an idiot when I’m drunk.

I’m going to Seattle tomorrow, and I’m afraid when I get back you’ll be living somewhere else and I’ll never see you again. Please call me, even if it’s just to yell at me. I want to hear your voice, and know you’re okay.

I gave him my phone number. Then I stuffed the letter in an envelope, addressed it to the institution, and walked down to drop it in the mailbox at the post office.

After the flap on the mail slot clunked closed, I went home and tried to forget. I’ve done all I can, I told myself. There’s nothing else I can do.

The next day was Palm Sunday, and I went down to church. Pastor had asked me to play guitar and sing one of the hymns, and it felt really good to channel my energy and emotion into something unambiguously positive.

At the end of the service, Pastor performed a ceremony of washing people’s hands (which is easier than feet – we’re Methodists, don’t ask us to bend down and unlace our sensible shoes). While she washed mine, she told me what a special person I was for taking the time to befriend people who others tend to shun. I smiled and hung my head.

Then, as I went back to my pew, the front door of the church opened. In came Phoenix, thin and hollow-eyed, his chin covered with a week’s growth of scraggly beard. I stood frozen, my mouth literally hanging open. He grinned at me as he sat down.

I hopped over and scooted in next to him. “You’re back,” I whispered hysterically under cover of the congregation trying to sing the next hymn.

“You’re still here,” he said. “I was worried you’d be gone. I don’t know what I’d do if you were gone. I’d die, probably.”

“Your mom told me not to visit you, which is why I didn’t come.”

He scowled, but he didn’t look surprised. “Thank you for calling me, though. It made me feel comfortable.”

After the service, we went to the park. I gave him my guitar and he played me a song he’d written, which was actually pretty good, even though he wouldn’t sing above a whisper. Then I played him one of mine. When I looked up at the end, I caught him watching me with the little smile he got when I was doing something he really liked. It reminded me of the way my Invisible Friend Jesus smiles at me.

“I missed you,” he said.

“I missed you, too.”

He plucked at the grass. “I’m sorry I said mean things to you. Sometimes I feel certain ways and it’s hard to find my, you know, to act virtuously even in the face of things you don’t understand.”

“It’s alright, Phoenix.”

“When are you going to Seattle?”

“Today.”

“You’re coming back, right?”

“Yes.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

He smiled boyishly, and everything was once again right in my little world.

Tinkerbell and the Fight (Into The Darkness Part 8)

IMG_0166

Note to readers: due to events of a serious and tragic nature which have occurred, I’ve decided to start changing some of the names of the individuals depicted here. If you’ve been reading along, you should be able to figure out who’s who without too much difficulty.

I thought this wouldn’t hurt a lot
I guess not
Control yourself
Take only what you need from it

-MGMT (Kids)

I sat silently, gazing at my knees.

“That woman is full of shit, you know what I mean?” Toni said. “He was her man, and he had some problem or whatever, starts saying he’s going to kill someone, she should have done something. You take off your clothes, rub your pussy up in his face, do what you need to do. Be a woman. You don’t let him do that shit, then stand there telling your tale without a drop of blood on you, saying there was nothing you could do.”

“What happened to the money for the motorcycle, is what I want to know,” Carl said. “If it was supposedly just some, you know, random thing, he just wanted to kill someone and like Joyce didn’t know anything about it, then why was that money gone?”

I glanced up as someone sat down next to me. It was Lucy. She smiled and offered me a Camel, and I grimaced and took it. It hadn’t been hard for me to quit drinking, but it was still hard for me to turn down a cigarette. “Thanks,” I said.

She handed me the lighter. “They talking about Marshall?”

“Yeah.” I lit the cigarette, blowing out smoke. “That’s really fucking shitty what happened.”

She nodded, frowning. “Phoenix is all torn up about it. They were good friends. Marshall lived with us for a while, super sweet guy. He was the sort of person that, when everyone was stealing my shit out of the house, he sat all day in my bedroom one time when I had to leave, just watching and making sure no one took anything. So I don’t believe that he was trying to break into their house when Tom shot him. Marshall wouldn’t even steal a lighter.” She flicked hers, lighting her cigarette.

“I heard that Tom was beating on his wife and Marshall tried to break it up or whatever, and that’s when Tom shot him.”

“Yeah, that was the story that came out later, when Ashley came out of hiding.”

I sighed and flicked an ash. “Yeah, Phoenix is pretty fucked up about it, all right.” I glanced sideways at Lucy. “I’m sorry I was so drama yesterday. I was just tired of getting yelled at by crazy dudes, I guess.”

Lucy shrugged. “I’m not worried about it.”

“I told him about my husband and me splitting up, and he flipped out about it being his fault and how I needed to work it out with Eric, and ran off.” After that, I’d texted Lucy a long tirade about how I wasn’t going to come over to see Phoenix anymore, or go to the park.

And yet, here I was.

Lucy smiled grimly. “Sounds like Phoenix. We went to Paso to his grandparents’ last night so he could go to the gym, and he just took off. I waited around forever, but he didn’t show. I guess he came back real late after I left, and then wouldn’t come out of the bathroom. He stayed in there yelling, ‘I’m wiping my ass, leave me alone,’ for like forty-five minutes.”

I laughed, then tried to stop myself. “It’s not funny,” I said.

“But it sorta is,” Lucy said.

“He’s a complicated dude.”

“And so simple he don’t know it.”

I snorted and stubbed out my cigarette, then sat there hugging my knees. I could feel Lucy looking at me.

“You gonna go over there and see him?” she asked.

I sighed and stood up. “Yeah.”

She flashed me a smile. “Good luck.”

I clutched my elbows, my eyes on the pavement as I walked. I wasn’t in the mood to get yelled at or snubbed again, but I guessed it didn’t really matter how I felt. Phoenix was hurting worse than I was. Even if he didn’t want me there, I wanted him to know I was there.

He didn’t answer my knock, but when I was halfway back to the gate I heard the door open and turned to see him standing in the doorway. He went back in the house, but didn’t shut the door, so I went in.

He was standing in the dark kitchen, scooping up tinned sardines with a Ritz cracker. Shiva stood beneath him, licking up the generous dollops of fish he slopped onto the floor. He silently finished the entire tin, then started in on a tray of microwaved fried rice.

“I’ve never seen you eat like this,” I said. “You’re never this hungry.”

He didn’t say anything, but he glanced over at me.

My stomach dropped when I saw his eyes. They were hazy, the pupils tiny pinpoints. “You’re fucking high,” I said. “You’re high on dope and shit. How the fuck did you manage that?”

He didn’t answer, but I figured I knew who gave it to him, to calm him down. My fists clenched at my sides.

“That’s fucking bullshit,” I said.

He concentrated on wolfing down huge spoonsful of rice, not looking at me. “You don’t even care, don’t pretend you care,” he said, his mouth full.

“I do fucking care.”

His mouth tightened. He tossed the tray of rice on the counter and stalked off towards his room.

“Goddammit, Phoenix, don’t fucking run off on me.”

He shut himself in anyhow.

I huffed and went out, slamming the door. Before I was down the steps, he came out and blocked my path, staring down at me. Shiva sat at his heels, looking up at him worriedly.

“I don’t like people telling me what to do,” he said.

“I’m not telling you what to do. You’re the one that tells me not to smoke cigarettes or drink energy drinks.”

Shiva glanced back and forth between us, twitching in agitation.

“That’s because that stuff’s my fault,” he said. “You wouldn’t do those things if it weren’t for me.”

“Bullshit. I was doing all that way before I even met you.”

“Why are you even here?” he asked. “You have a husband and kid. What, are you trying to help me? I don’t need your help.”

“I’m not trying to fucking help you. I just want to hang out. I like hanging out with you. You’re making this way too complicated, Phoenix.”

“I feel like I can’t even do the things I like to do because of you. I just hung out with you for a second because you were there in the park, and now you’re all up in my shit. You make me feel bad, and I don’t even know why. You’re smothering me. You creep me out.”

My throat closed up, and his pale face blurred as tears came to my eyes. “Okay. Fine then. I won’t come over anymore,” I said.

“Why do you even make me say that? Why do you even make me feel bad for you? I’m just speaking my mind.”

“You don’t have to feel bad for me, Phoenix. Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault my feelings are hurt. It just is.” I tried to get past him, but he stepped in front of me again.

“Don’t you want to work this out?” he asked.

I scowled. “Work what out? If you don’t want me around, I won’t come around. I’m sorry I make you feel bad and that I creep you out. I was just trying to hang out with you, that’s all, but if you don’t want me around, I’ll go.”

“I’m not trying to say that.”

I stomped my foot on the uneven brick path. Shiva began running circles around us, sniffing at our knees. “Then what are you trying to say? I’ve been asking you forever if you want me to stay away, and you either mumble so I can’t hear your answer, or say a bunch of contradictory shit, or walk off and end the conversation. But since you’ve told me once and for all to leave, I’ll leave.”

He glared at me a couple seconds longer, then spun around and stalked back into his house. Shiva followed him halfway, then stopped and came back to me.

I stood there a moment, patting the poor dog’s head and getting myself under control. She ran between me and the door a couple of times, then sat on her haunches and watched me as I went out the gate.

I didn’t cry on the walk home, though part of me wanted to. Ours had been a very strange friendship, complicated and emotional and time-consuming, and I felt like Phoenix had just broken up with me. But I held my chin high and let go of my sadness. You have enough to worry about without him in the picture, anyhow, I told myself.

Back at the house, I threw myself into painting walls and rearranging closets. I’d ordered myself a new mattress and bedframe, and was moving into the back spare bedroom, turning the front spare room into an office in the process. “We need to concentrate on just being friends,” I’d told my husband. “I’ll pay my way, as if I were your roommate.” My millionth attempt to work shit out with him had ended in a bitter fight, Eric burying me in another heap of insults.

“Liz, I don’t want you to do this,” he’d said. “Just sleep in our bed, with me.”

“I’m not going to pretend nothing’s wrong between us. Something has to change.”

I placed my new coconut palm in the corner, and hung my pink elephant clock, which ticked loudly. The sound of the prayer bells in the backyard drifted through the open windows, and the doves cooed in the cypress trees. I liked my new room. It was peaceful. It was my personal place. Even if I wasn’t welcome anywhere else, I was happy enough here.

When I finished painting the office, I changed into clean clothes and walked down to Mari’s house, taking the venus flytrap I’d bought her: a lame attempt at a birthday gift after my first idea had fallen through.

She giggled and tickled its leaves. “Thank you! I love it.” When I didn’t respond, she squinted at me. “What’s wrong with you?”

I blinked, coming back to myself. “Sorry, I’m sorta distracted. I just got into a big fight with Phoenix.”

“Whaaaat?”

I told her what had happened, although I left out the part about him calling me creepy. That hurt too bad, and I couldn’t repeat it.

“I’m sorry, friend,” she said.

“It’s alright. He’s always said he was conflicted about us hanging out, but on good days he asked me to come over, so I never really knew what he wanted. Now I know, and so I’ll just stay away.”

“Yeah, but he’s going to change his mind, you know that, right?”

I sighed. “I doubt it.”

She smirked. “He will. Just give him time.”

Although he’d hurt me pretty badly, I still hoped Mari was right. I didn’t want the things he’d said to be true. And, if they weren’t, Phoenix could get a pass from me for being conflicted and a poor communicator. He was schizophrenic, and he was a really good person otherwise.

Also, it worried me that someone was giving him heroin. Would I have to watch from a distance as his life disintegrated, knowing I couldn’t do anything, because he didn’t want my help, and because I creeped him out?

On the walk home, I put in my earbuds and filled my head with Beirut. I saw Lucy and Ricky coming out of the store with a sack of beer, but they didn’t see me, and when they crossed into the park I kept my eyes on the ground.

As I walked past the high school, someone touched my elbow and I jumped.

Phoenix laughed. “Sorry.”

I stopped and took out my earbuds. I couldn’t keep myself from smiling. “It’s alright.”

He fidgeted with the cuffs of his hoodie. “I’m sorry about what I said. I really hurt your feelings.”

My gaze fell to my feet. “Don’t worry about it, Phoenix. You were just speaking your mind.”

“I didn’t mean any of it. I think I was just hungry or something. I was having a bad day.”

I glanced up at him uncertainly, and he gave me a hesitant smile.

“Will you come sit in the grass with me?” he asked.

“Sure.”

We went and sat in the shade of an ornamental cherry in front of the high school. He was carrying an unlit cigarette, which he planted upright in the grass. He looked at me. His eyes were much clearer now, but he had an odd expression. He jerked his chin towards the corner, where a group of kids were playing.

“That boy told me that we made out,” he said.

My brow furrowed. “Wait, what?” Then it sank in. “You mean us? You and me?”

“That night. When we were drunk. You don’t remember? Yes you do.”

“No, I don’t.” I hid my face in my hands for a moment, then looked back up at him, my shoulders hunched. He had a faint grin. “What kid told you that?”

“My neighbor. He said he saw us. In front of my house.”

I cringed, the air going out of me. “Shit. I’m so sorry. Is that why I creep you out? Because that kid told you that?”

He rolled his eyes sheepishly. “You don’t creep me out.” He picked a dandelion and held it out to me tentatively. I took it. I put it behind my ear.

“What are your favorite things to do?” he asked. “What are the things that make you feel good? Writing and music, right?”

“Yeah. And going on walks, I guess.”

“What do you think I would do right now if I could? What would be my best thing to do?”

“Um….” I cocked an eyebrow, grinning uncertainly. “Be a teacher? A kung fu teacher or something?”

He stared at me like I’d just started speaking Yiddish. “Why would I…that’s weird. No, I think I’d drink a soda.”

I giggled. “That’s much easier.”

“What do you think we did that night?”

We stared at each other for a long moment. “It couldn’t have been that much,” I said. “We were too drunk.”

“But you said you walked six miles.”

“That’s what my fitness app said. I think I was just trying to find my way home.”

He plucked at the grass, piling it on top of his cigarette.

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. Phoenix arranged a ring of dandelions around the cigarette, and I helped him. I realized I wasn’t uncomfortable, because he wasn’t. It didn’t matter. I’d quit drinking, so it wouldn’t happen again.

A BMW convertible pulled up in the gravel in front of the high school, and Sara ran over, embracing the driver as he climbed out. They hugged for a long time, and I figured they must be commiserating over Marshall’s death.

“They so gangsta,” Phoenix said, glancing over at them and doing jazz hands. “They the Shandon O.G.s.”

I laughed. “Props to the dead homies.” We exchanged a wry look and kept on with our flower arranging.

After a while, I checked the time on my phone and grimaced. “I have to go home and make dinner.”

“What are you making? Vegan steak? Jew stew?”

I stuck my tongue out at him. “Tacos. Do you…do you want me to come over tomorrow?”

“Yes,” he said. Then his brow furrowed. “I mean, do what you want.” He winced. “I say that, and then I say all sorts of other bullshit. I’m sorry. I hurt your feelings.”

I smiled and stood up. “It’s okay, Phoenix. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He got up and crossed over into the park, and I turned the other way, heading back up to The Heights, stepping much more lightly than I had on the way into town.

Tinkerbell and the Blackout (Into The Darkness Part 7)

I have a memory of you and I when we were really young (16 and 14, I think, but maybe younger) that has been replaying in my head lately. It never really left, but it sort of resurfaced. I think it might have been your birthday (it was a significant day, at any rate), and we were outside tanning by the sprinkler. We started to dance around the sprinkler, making “woo woo woo” noises the way that little kids did back then. But we were too old for that, and we quickly stopped, kind of looked down at our feet, and there was that awkwardness before we started talking about something more “grown up”. I hope that you never feel like you have to do that again. We only have to be grown up when it comes to the important shit. If it’s important, you’ll know. – A comment by Aleah Currey Walker on my Facebook (Thanks, Aleah).

I came awake suddenly from a dead, anesthetic darkness. It was a couple of moments before memory began to kick at the rotten melon of my skull, and then I lay very still, wishing it wouldn’t, praying to close my eyes again and wake up as somebody else, in some other life.

I knew it was no use. I got up, waiting for the nausea and head-pounding dizziness, but they didn’t come.

I tried to remember how I’d gotten home the night before, but couldn’t. My brain had eventually given me up as a bad job and jumped ship. All I could conjure were confused images: getting kicked out of a party. Wandering the streets in the dark, not sure where I was.

I made coffee, and drank it, staring at my computer screen. I couldn’t write. I hated myself too much right now to write. Instead, I went online and checked Facebook, craving the distraction of the banal.

There were the usual assortment of uplifting and sanctimonious affirmations, photos of sunsets, ads; then a post from one of my favorite friends that sent a chill down my spine. “Still alive due to love.” I clicked on his page and saw post after post, friends telling him to get well soon. Scrolling through them, I found an announcement from his girlfriend that he had been found without a pulse, but had been brought back to life by the medics.

My throat closed up; I messaged him. He was awake, too, and he sent me his tale. He laid it out in his beautiful prose, blunt and rich with perfect turns of phrase that tugged delicately at your guts. He’d decided he’d had enough, put on one of his favorite records, and methodically downed eighty Vicodin.

I squeezed my eyes shut, tears escaping. It would be so easy, I thought. Then it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Then I couldn’t fuck up anymore.

I pushed back at these thoughts, but they wouldn’t go. This struggle with myself seemed so old, and I was tired of it down to my bones. But then there was Juniper; I sat trying to put together the puzzle of how I could escape and make it look like an accident, so she wouldn’t feel I’d abandoned her. But the calculus was too heavy for me this morning, and I finally shrugged it off, plugging my ears with earbuds and jumping on the elliptical instead.

I tried to sweat out the toxins, and my shame. I waited for the flood of endorphins to take me over in a rush, but they never did. I ran faster, asking myself over and over why the hell I drank. I didn’t even like it: it was a few moments of feeling like the world was a place I belonged, that things made sense, but after that shit just got more senseless than ever.

I’ll quit drinking, I told myself, and I knew that this time I meant it. It might not solve all my problems, but at least I’d have fewer mornings like this.

I stood under the shower. I put on a dress, and shuffled down to church. It scared me to be outside. I could feel eyes on me, people’s angry thoughts pressing around. But I made it there with no one throwing stones.

It lightened my heart to help one of the sweet old ladies out of her car, and to sit next to her in the pews, talking about nothing. She didn’t know what a waste of space I was. She still thought I was a human being. But how long before she found out I wasn’t? It was a very small town.

Then Van came down the aisle, and gave me a raised-eyebrow smirk. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

My heart filled back up with lead. “What did I do?”

“I found you out stumbling around the streets and offered you a ride, but you wouldn’t take it. We were worried about you all night.”

I stood up and gave him a hug, and he laughed and patted my back. “Glad you’re here,” he said.

I sat through the service, tugging at a button on my dress and glancing behind me every few moments. But Phoenix didn’t come. He’d been with me the night before, and then at some point he hadn’t been. We’d somehow tumbled down into the darkness together and gotten separated.

I wasn’t a very good friend to him. I wondered if he’d run off and climb a tree when I went to see him next, or lock himself in the bathroom and scream at me to leave. It’d be no more than I deserved.

I went home. Eric wasn’t cruel, but he was a practical man. “I’d understand if no one ever spoke to you again, acting like that. What do you expect?”

“I won’t drink anymore,” I said, then winced at his look. “I mean it this time. I don’t even drink that often. It won’t be hard to quit.”

He tugged at his beard, avoiding my eyes. “I’m going to Paso to look at bikes,” he said.

My shoulders slumped. I texted Mari, then Juniper and I went to meet her at the park.

Mari’s kids played on the toys, but Juniper, who had a sixth sense for when gossip was going to happen, plonked herself down next to us on the grass. Mari and I stared at her.

“Go play,” I said. “Go be a kid. You don’t want to sit with us boring adults.”

“I don’t want to go play,” she said. “You can’t make me. This park is public property.”

Mari and I both raised our eyebrows. Then Mari gave me a wry smile. “Pues, dime, que pasó?

“I know Spanish,” Juniper cut in. “That won’t work.”

We ignored her. “I don’t know words bad enough for what happened,” I said in Spanish. “I took Phoenix to a party. It was a really bad idea because he was drunk already and…well, he gets pretty schizo, but I was drunk, too, and I get uber stupid. They kicked us out for being crazy lunatics, and then I don’t remember. I don’t remember how I got home.”

“I knew you were talking about Phoenix,” Juniper said. “I told you I know Spanish.”

Mari smirked at me. “You don’t remember anything? So, anything could have happened, right?”

I threw a handful of grass at her and hid my head in my hands. She snickered.

We switched to English and talked about her in-laws until Juniper finally lost interest. “I’m going to Taylor’s house,” she said.

“Have fun,” I said. When she was gone, I hugged my knees and stared off at nothing. “I’m gonna have to go over there, to see if he’s okay.”

“You really still want to go over there?” I winced, and she gave me a consoling look. “I’m sure he’s fine. This is Shandon, we’d have heard by now if something had happened.”

“Probably. But it’d be shitty for me not to go. Tracy may have me up against the wall by my throat, and Phoenix may call me a Nazi Satanist, but I still have to go. He’s my friend.”

She chewed her lip. “You’re right,” she conceded.

So I got up. I kept my eyes on my feet as I walked. The gate creaked and scraped the bare dirt when I opened it. The dogs barked, but no one answered my knock, and I wandered back out again, hugging myself.

I was halfway back to the park when I heard my name, and turned. Phoenix was standing in the middle of the street, shirtless, wearing slacks and slippers. He gave me a jerky wave.

I smiled and ran back towards him, my backpack jouncing. “Hey,” I said.

He gave me his little smile. “What happened last night?”

I let out a breath. “I don’t even know.”

“I think someone carried me home. I think it was my friend Narlo, because I gave him a feather to put in his hat one time, and when I woke up the feather was on my pillow.”

“Maybe,” I said, and grimaced. “I’m never drinking again.”

He shuffled his feet. “Yeah, I should quit drinking too.”

“You should. It’s poison.”

We stared at each other in silence for a moment. Then he smiled. “Hey, you wanna get a ride into town with my mom, and then walk back?”

I started doing calculations. It was two in the afternoon, it was eighteen miles from Paso to Shandon…then I remembered that I was talking to the King of Attention Deficit Disorder, and grinned. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s go to town.”

I jogged back down to the park to tell Mari, then came back to find Tracy gathering up her purse, Travis waiting on the porch. Tracy grinned wryly at me. “What happened last night?”

“Shit, I don’t know.”

“Phoenix was passed out in his puke on the porch when I got home.”

I pressed my chin to my chest. “God, I’m so sorry…I shouldn’t have left him like that, but I don’t even remember….”

She just shrugged. Then she yelled over her shoulder. “Phoenix! We’re going. Now.

Phoenix’s voice came from the bathroom, saying something I couldn’t hear.

I blinked at her. “Would it work if I talked to him like that? Because I get tired of waiting three hours for him to eat toothpaste and wash his hands before we go anywhere.”

She rolled her eyes. “Nothing works with him. Nothing.

But he came out before long, wearing a shirt and real shoes. We climbed into the Jag, Travis driving. As we passed the park, Phoenix sat up, looking out the windows like an excited dog. He stared glassy-eyed at a group of park rats sitting at one of the benches. “Or we could go hang out with those people. Do you want to go hang out with those people?”

“It’s up to you,” I said, “but I’d rather do the walk.”

Travis ignored us and kept driving. Phoenix scrabbled at the glass. “Aw, I want to hang out with them.” But then the park was behind us, and he forgot all about it, staring intently at the back of Travis’ head and whispering to himself.

I picked at my cuticles. I hated it when he was distracted like this. It made me feel hollow and lonely. A wave of dizziness passed over me. What was I doing, heading off to wander aimlessly with some schizophrenic kid who barely even knew I was there?

Most people couldn’t understand why I was friends with Phoenix, and every so often I could see their point.

We dumped Travis at work, then Tracy took us to the Paso Park while she ran some errands. She gave me a look as I got out of the car. “You ever walked eighteen miles?” she asked.

“Yeah. It’s not too bad, but your feet hurt.”

She smirked. “Well, call me if you head out. Otherwise, I’ll be back to pick you up.”

She drove off. Phoenix had skipped over to stare at the movie marquees on the theater, and I went to join him.

“What are these movies about?” he asked.

I stared at them, my brow furrowing. “I can’t even tell. Something about Kevin Costner?”

He straightened suddenly, his head swiveling. “Goodwill!” he said, spotting it. “Let’s go to Goodwill.” He ran towards it, and I sighed and followed.

He dove into the store and started smelling the shirts and rattling the pinochle sets. People were looking at us, and I felt a now-familiar wave of righteous anger. He wasn’t doing anything wrong and, if we stayed here long enough, I’d end up buying something. We were legitimate customers. But I bit my tongue and tugged on his sleeve. “Phoenix, let’s go. Aren’t we going to start walking?”

He stared at me blankly. I tugged on his sleeve again. Reluctantly, he put down the grubby stuffed animals he’d been playing with and followed me out of the store.

“We should get some water if we’re going to start walking,” he said.

“I have some water,” I said. Since I started hanging out with him, I always carried a liter of water and some trail mix with me everywhere I went. I considered that I should start carrying an emergency blanket, flares, and first aid kit, too. You just had to be prepared.

As we walked past the park again, he spotted something that distracted him. He jumped over to one of the plantings and crouched down, staring at the dirt.

I sat next to him. “What are you looking at?”

He pointed, mumbling, and I saw. It was a butterfly hiding in the lower branches of a bush, folding and unfolding its wings. The right one had indigo spots rimmed in bronze, but the left one was bent and tattered.

Phoenix fidgeted with the bark mulch, a crease forming between his brows. “I feel like that butterfly,” he said.

I looked at him, and he met my eyes; he was seeing me again. “Why do you feel like that butterfly?”

“My left wing is broken.”

“But your right one is okay?”

He flexed his right arm experimentally.

I sat down hugging my knees, staring at the insect. “I’ve really fucked up my life,” I said. “I think I’ve lost a bunch of friends by acting like an idiot.”

He gave me a confused look. “Why, what, what do you mean?”

I shook my head. “I have to quit drinking. I just….” I tugged my fingers through my hair. “I miss Seattle. Maybe I should go back there. I don’t fit in here, and I feel like no one wants me around. I feel like there’s nothing left for me.”

He smiled faintly. “At least you have the butterfly to hang out with.”

I smiled back. Then he started giggling. He laughed for a while. “You’re always asking me what I’m laughing about,” he said, “but what’s not to laugh about?”

I laughed, too. “There are so many things that are funny, sometimes I just want to know which one you’re laughing about.”

We giggled for a while. Then we sat in silence, side by side, staring at the poor butterfly until his mom came to pick us up.