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

IMG_0250
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 Strange Advice (Into The Darkness Part 6)

IMG_0114I sat in the park, clutching my knees and listening to the woodpeckers squabble in the oaks. It was Friday morning, and I’d promised Phoenix I’d come over today.

All my friends had been telling me to let him go, to just cut him loose and move on with my life. It was good advice, the same advice that little voice in my head was giving me. That voice was pretty effective at keeping me out of trouble, when I listened to it. Your life would be a whole lot less complicated if you just ditched the schizo kid, it said. Why are you hanging out with him anyway? The whole thing is just ridiculous. Everyone thinks you’re a creepy weirdo.

But I didn’t want to ditch Phoenix. I wasn’t really sure what I did want – my emotions were like an angry bear snarling around in my chest – but it wasn’t that. I couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing him while at the same time feeling ashamed and awkward about going over to his house. I’d just be bugging him. Our relationship has gotten too complicated, and I’d just make him feel bad. I messed it up.

I had a new trick for when I felt like this: I closed my eyes, tried to let go of my ego, and went to talk to Invisible Friend Jesus.

He was leaning back on his elbows in the grass, the cuffs of his slacks pulled up around his skinny ankles, the sun reflecting off the scuffed lenses of his turquoise-framed sunglasses. “Hey, Tink,” he said.

A warm peace spread through me, and my shoulders relaxed. “Hey,” I said.

He leaned back to let the sun into his shirt collar, closing his eyes. “You promised Phoenix you’d go see him today. So, go see him.”

I stared at him, my brow furrowing. “You’re not supposed to tell me that. You’re supposed to tell me to go home.”

He cracked an eyelid and cocked an eyebrow. “If you already supposedly know what I’m going to say, why bother to talk to me?”

“It makes no sense for you to tell me to go see Phoenix. You’re supposed to clear out all my selfishness and angst, and make me at peace with not hanging out with him anymore.”

“All your bad feelings and confusion come from you worrying about what other people think of your relationship with Phoenix,” he said. “You don’t really have any conflict about seeing him. It’s a healthy relationship, for the most part. A bit complex, maybe, but I think it’s good for both of you, if you’re careful.”

I thought about it. “You’re right,” I said. “But still, this doesn’t really make sense.”

“Why not?”

“God is supposed to make you do things you don’t want to do. You know, like give up your weekends to boring, pointless volunteer work, or get nailed to a cross and die slowly in the blistering desert sun. He doesn’t tell people to spend sunny afternoons climbing trees and picking wildflowers. That’s my own brain speaking, telling me to do that stuff.”

Invisible Friend Jesus smiled in that little way he has. “That’s not how it is, Tink. God doesn’t want us to be miserable. God wants us to make beauty and peace in this world, and we all have our own ways of doing that.” He pulled his sunglasses down his nose, looking at me over the rims. “But, for God’s sake, stop with the drinking and smoking cigarettes. Watch yourself, and be good, and above all step carefully.

I opened my eyes, blinking. Before my doubts could pour in again, I stood up and stalked off towards Phoenix’s house.

I’d feared knocking on the door, having to talk to his mom or Whisper, but I found him lying on the gravel shoulder of the road in front of his house. He watched me as I walked up, and I thought he looked surprised; maybe he hadn’t expected me to show.

I sat down next to him. “What are you doing? Just lying here in the dirt?”

He closed his eyes and pretended he hadn’t heard me.

We didn’t talk. I could tell he was upset, but I felt better just being around him. A car passed, its tires a scant foot from Phoenix’ head, and I saw the passenger peering down at us curiously.

I started dragging my fingers through the gravel, arranging it into patterns. He opened his eyes, propped his head on his hand and watched me. “What are you doing?”

“Making pictures,” I said.

“Why?”

“For artistic reasons.”

He laughed. “Artistic reasons.” He sat up and started helping me. We drew circles and piled the rocks up in the shapes of twining vines. Then his hands went still, and he looked up, locking me in his intense gaze. “I thought I was happy for the first time in my life.”

“What, when?”

He pressed his lips together, then dropped his eyes to squint distantly at the ground. “But I don’t really know what happiness is, so.”

I wrapped my arms around myself. “Phoenix, I want you to be happy.”

His fingers fidgeted with the pebbles. “What, what do you mean?”

“Just that. Only that. That I want you to be happy.”

He glanced up, a goofy grin flitting across his face. “Huh,” he said. He threw a rock into my lap and made an explosion noise. I giggled and made guns with my fingers, pointing them at him.

“Pew pew!” I said.

He clutched his hands over his heart. “Argh, you got me, you killed me.” He fell down on his back. “I’m totally dead now. That was so mean, you shot me dead.”

“You were exploding me with cannons, I’m not supposed to retaliate?”

“I’m really mad at you, actually,” he said, smirking.

Then I heard the dogs bark, and looked up to see Whisper coming out of the house. She leaned on the picket fence, smiling. “Hey, Liz.”

“Hi, Whisper.”

“Why are you all, like, in the dirt, Phoenix?”

Phoenix sat back up. “For artistic reasons, and because Liz shot me.”

“Oh.” She fished in the pocket of her tight, studded jeans. “You wanna cigarette, Liz?”

Phoenix’s spine went rigid, and he scowled. “What are you offering her cigarettes for? Liz doesn’t smoke.”

Whisper raised her eyebrows. “I was just being nice.”

“Spreading all your unhealthy bullshit,” he said. “Get off and leave her alone.”

“Don’t get all pissy on me, brother.”

“She doesn’t smoke!” he bellowed. “Leave her alone!”

“Phoenix,” I said, but he didn’t look at me. I still hadn’t figured out anything that calmed him down when he got like this.

“Are we gonna go again, Phoenix?” Whisper asked, her hands on her hips. “Are we gonna go? Come on, come break my nose again, like last night.”

Phoenix looked away from her, muttering. I squinted at Whisper. Her nose didn’t look broken to me; there wasn’t a mark on her anywhere.

She stood looking at him for a few more moments, then hopped the fence and came over to pull him into a rough hug.

“Let’s not fight, brother,” she said. “I love you.”

Phoenix sat stiffly in her arms and muttered something else, staring at his hands. Whisper let him go and strode back towards the house, lighting her cigarette and yelling through the doorway for her boyfriend.

“What does she mean you broke her nose?” I asked.

He pointed at his eye. “See my black eye? We got in a fight last night.” He punched the air, laughing. “It was super fun.”

“Oh, my God.” His right eye was indeed swollen; he had cuts around it and across his nose. I hadn’t really paid much attention before, because he was always covered in boo boos from climbing trees and doing backflips or whatever. “What were you guys fighting about?”

He shrugged, curling into himself and picking at his cuticles. “I don’t even remember. Some bullshit. We were both drunk.”

“You shouldn’t drink, Phoenix. You’re a mean drunk.”

He glanced up at me. “I am?”

“Fighting with your sister and stuff, and yelling at your mom. I’m afraid you’ll hit me someday, too.”

His eyes went wide. “No, not at all. No way. I wouldn’t hit you. I don’t hit girls and stuff. Whisper just came at me. I was defending myself.” He curled up again, frowning and fidgeting with the pebbles. “Being all bitchy at me, giving me a black eye.”

We worked more on our gravel artwork until his family and Whisper’s boyfriend came out a few minutes later. “We’re going into town to see your grandma,” his mom said.

“Okay, have a good time,” Phoenix said.

“You don’t want to go with them?” I asked, as they all climbed into the Jag.

“I do, actually, but there isn’t room for us in the car.”

“You could probably fit,” I said. “Go ahead and go, if you want. Don’t stay here because of me.”

“No, to tell you the truth, I was just joking, I don’t want to go,” he said.

I stared at him as his family drove off, but he didn’t look at me. After the car turned the corner, he stood up. “Do you think you could put cheese in eggs?”

“Yes,” I said. “Cheese in eggs is really good.”

“How about chicken?”

“Sure.”

He spun on his heels and went through the gate, into the house. I stood up and followed him.

He was rummaging in the fridge. “There’s not anything that adds up to food, actually,” he said. “WHY can’t we ever have anything that’s FOOD?”

I glanced over his shoulder at the half-eaten cups of Jell-O and sticks of margarine that looked like someone had squished them between their fingers. “What’s in the cupboards?” I asked. “Do you have onions?”

“Yeah, there’s onions.”

We chopped up onions and chicken, and he put a pan on the stove. “You need some oil in that,” I said.

“I don’t like oil in my food,” he said. “All we have is dollar store oil.” He scattered the chopped chicken into the pan. “There’s good oil in the chicken, that works for oil.”

He went to wash his hands, and I put the onions in, then searched for a spatula in the drawers. I found one, but he yelped at me when I went to stir the food around.

“Don’t use that one!” he said. “My mom is all, meh meh, I’m gonna use that spatula, gonna get all up in your food with it.” He opened a cupboard and searched around behind the plates, coming out with another, almost identical, spatula.

“You have a secret stash,” I said.

He flipped the chicken and onions. “I’m not sure I can eat this food now, actually. I don’t like people touching my food, or even getting near it or looking at it.”

I saw him smirking, and I snorted. “Shut up.”

When the omelets were done, we went out onto the porch to eat them, listening to Modest Mouse on my phone. The house sparrows twittered in the willow branches and Shiva begged for scraps at our feet.

“You literally saved my life today,” Phoenix said, feeding his dog a piece of chicken. “I was going to lie in the road until a car came and crushed my head.” He gave me a shy glance, then held my eyes and smiled. It was a real smile, boyish and happy, and I seldom saw it on him.

I smiled back. “I’m glad I came over, then,” I said.

Tinkerbell and the Park Rats (Into The Darkness Part 3)

IMG_0032We walked back along the road through the vineyards, sweaty and covered in mud. The afternoon was drowsy with sunshine and bees nuzzling in the blooming fiddlehead and lupine.

Phoenix smiled at the tiny, green inchworm on his finger. “He’s doing exercises for us,” he said.

I laughed. “He’s making a little omega sign.”

Phoenix’s smile faded. A furrow grew between his brows and he plopped down in the grass between rows of budding grape vines.

I sat down in front of him. He was frowning at the worm now. “Do you think he’ll become a butterfly?”

“I think so,” I said.

“Do you ever wish you were a butterfly?”

“Instead of human? Yes. Butterflies are much less complicated.”

His eyes found mine. “You don’t want to sit next to me?”

I scooted over and sat next to him. We both watched the worm as he stretched out long, then pulled up into an arch, crawling up Phoenix’s wrist.

“My mom wants to take my Social Security money, I think,” he said. “It’s been her plan all along, I guess. Keep me there, help her breed dogs.” He gently placed the worm on a dangling grapevine and stared down at his hands.

“That’s not right,” I said.

“My dream is to become a professional athlete,” he said, staring at me in an almost challenging way.

“My dream is to be a professional writer,” I said.

“Do you think I could be a professional anything?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

He gazed at me a long while. “I feel like if I stay in Shandon, I’m going to die soon.”

“Why do you feel that way?”

“Signs and symbols, like in movies and songs and patterns.”

“You may be misreading the signs. I do that sometimes. I have that doom feeling, the fear, and I sit around waiting for something that never comes.”

“Never say never,” he said. Then he laid back in the grass and did sit-ups, his lips moving silently as he counted to three hundred.

We trudged back into town and went to the park. He spotted two people over at the tables and made a beeline for them, sitting in the shade at their feet.

I sat next to him and grinned. “Hi. I’m Liz.”

“Oh, you don’t know them?” Phoenix said. “This is Manny and Annalise.”

Manny shook my hand, but Annalise just raised her eyebrows. “I’m, uh, gonna go sit over here.” She picked up her 40 of King Cobra and went to sit at the next table.

We all watched her go. “What did I do?” I said.

Manny shot me an apologetic look and got up. “I’d better go with her.”

Manny trotted over to sit next to his girlfriend, who was shooting me scowls. I looked at Phoenix, who was hanging his head and tearing blades of grass into long strips.

“I don’t even know her,” I said.

“I don’t know why people have to be like that, like when I just want to play softball with them, and then it’s finally my turn and they all want to quit. And Deborah just gave me her mitt and bat and all her stuff and said I could play by myself but I don’t want to play softball by myself.” He grimaced. “I was supposed to go to the gym yesterday, and now I almost wish I had, because then I feel like we’d all still be friends, you know?”

I thought back to the day before. Phoenix and I had been sitting in the grass, talking about nothing, and Deborah had come by. Now the look she’d given me made sense. “Your friends don’t like me, and so they’re punishing you because we hang out together?”

Phoenix glanced at me, but didn’t say anything. He’d accumulated a large pile of grass strips in his lap, and started tying them together in knots.

“I’m sorry, Phoenix. I don’t mean to cause you problems with your friends,” I said. “Maybe it’s better that we don’t hang out.”

He looked up, wide-eyed. “No, no, not at all.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt because of me. I don’t know what I did to these people, but I don’t want you to lose your friends.”

He clutched his knees. “What, you, you don’t like hanging out with me?”

“I love hanging out with you.”

“You want to just give up like that? Because you think that you made me lose my friends? People shouldn’t give up like that. I don’t think people should do that.”

He stared at me with hurt in his eyes, and I had a sudden, overwhelming urge to give him a hug, this bizarrely beautiful man destined to be kicked around and misunderstood his whole life. But I resisted it. He didn’t much like to be touched.

“I’m not giving up,” I said. “I want to be your friend.”

He smiled.

I sighed and raked my fingers through my hair. “Shandon is major drama.”

He gave me an amused look and held up a long, knotted chain of grass, coiling it carefully on my knee.

Later, I texted Mari about how Annalise had treated me, and she told me that Annalise was some notorious Shandon park queen who got in flipped-out, meth-fueled fights with people just for entertainment. That night, I huddled in bed, wondering how I’d managed to end up tangled in Shandon’s complex web of losers and lowlifes. This silly obsession of mine was turning into real business, Gonzo Reporting in the truest sense.

But it was too late to extricate myself. I cared about Phoenix, and I’d made a promise that I wouldn’t give up on him. If Annalise wanted to kick my ass for whatever reason, well, so be it. I’d take a few punches for him. I just hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, or at the very least that I’d be able to keep all my teeth and stay out of jail.

The next day, as my husband and I were coming back from a long bike ride, I spotted Phoenix in front of the library. He smiled and waved at me, and I spun my bike around. “Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” His eyes lingered over my shoulder, his smile fading, and I looked back to see that my husband hadn’t stopped. “He doesn’t like me,” Phoenix said. “Your husband.”

“That’s not true. He’s just not much for hanging out with people.”

“I saw the look he gave me. Why did you stop? Why aren’t you with him?”

“I’m just saying hi, it’s no big deal. Eric doesn’t care that you and I hang out.”

Phoenix gazed down at his shuffling feet. “Are you spending the day with him?”

“Naw, he and my kid are going to go hiking together, then he has work to do.”

“You want to come listen to music with me?”

“Yes.”

So after I ate lunch, I came back and found him in the library, quietly flipping through a book about ancient Egyptian culture. We stayed there an hour, reading about pirates and breeds of housecats and cake recipes, before heading out.

As we passed the store, we found his mom sitting on the bench next to a case of Coors. Phoenix picked up the beer and hugged it like it was a teddy bear, dancing around on the sidewalk. I took its place on the bench next to his mom, who gave me a fixed sort of smile that told me she hadn’t figured me out yet. I didn’t blame her.

“Hey,” she said. “What you guys up to? Another hike?”

“Naw, we were at the library.”

Phoenix plopped down next to me, the beer in his lap. “What are you doing, Mom?”

“Waiting for Travis. We’re going on a drive to look at the wildflowers.”

“Can I come?” he asked.

“Sure, of course.”

Just then, Travis pulled up in their black Jaguar, a crack in the windshield that looked deliberate, perhaps a memento of a three-cop evening. I stood up. “I’ll see you later, Phoenix.”

He stared at me wide-eyed. “What, you’re leaving?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Am I just supposed to sit here waiting for you?”

“Come with us,” he said.

I glanced uncertainly at his mom, who shrugged. “Yeah, you’re welcome to come with us.”

So I piled into the back of the Jag with Phoenix, who put the case of beer between his feet and tore it open, downing a whole can before I had time to cringe.

We drove out to Gillis Canyon, a bumpy, narrow road through lonely green hills, now blotched with sprawling patches of yellow, orange, purple, and blue wildflowers. I didn’t know the proper names of any them except  lupine, California poppies, and mustard. What they called fiddlehead, goldenrod, and bluebells weren’t the same as the plants I’d known by those names back in Washington, and I wasn’t about to call the spray of lavender blooms “nigger toes”, like Phoenix’s mom did.

Phoenix downed another can of beer and burped. He looked at me. “You want to go hike up there?” He nodded out the window at a willow-choked wash cutting up through a distant saddle. I followed it longingly with my eyes.

“Yeah, I really do. When do you want to do that?”

“Right now.”

I blinked, checking the angle of the sun and doing a quick calculation. We were maybe six or seven miles out from Shandon on the roads, and if we wandered too far, as we usually did…

“I don’t think we’d make it back by dark,” I said.

He shrugged, and I glanced back out at the countryside, briefly wishing I were fifteen years younger, with no obligations. We could wander out, and if we didn’t make it back tonight, who would care?

“I don’t think you should go out there,” his mom said. “I think it’s private property.”

I shook my head to clear it, taking a deep breath of real-world air.

“There’s no fences,” Phoenix said.

“Still,” his mom said. “You don’t want to mess with these ranchers. And she’s right, you wouldn’t be back by dark.”

Phoenix crushed the empty can of beer between his fingers and burped loudly. “Some people make me claustrophobic. Why you gotta be like that, Mom? Liz got me some sage, and you threw it away. You don’t want me to do anything good and healthy. You’re just trying to make me retarded. You’re just trying to spread your fat and drunk around, and give the world a wet cunt slap.”

I hid my unwilling smile behind my hand. “Phoenix, you’re being mean.”

He sat up straighter. “Here’s a joke for you. Yo mama so fat, she’s gay. Here’s another one. Yo mama so gay, she’s fat.”

I pressed my palms into my eyes, trying hard not to laugh.

Back in Shandon, Phoenix stuffed his pockets full of beer before jumping out of the car. He stalked off towards the park and, after shooting his mom an apologetic smile, I followed him.

I had to jog to catch up, and he realized this, stopping to wait for me. “Phoenix, you shouldn’t drink,” I said. “It makes you mean.”

“Sometimes it’s the things that need said.” He looked sideways at me with a faint smile, and handed me a beer.

He headed towards a table full of people under the sycamores. When I saw who was there, I stopped. “Phoenix, I can’t go there. I’m gonna go home.”

“What? Why?”

“That’s Annalise. She doesn’t like me.”

He gave me a long look, still with that faint smile. “Don’t give up on me, Liz. Don’t give up.”

He headed for the table again, and I stared after him.

Shandon was a very small town. There was no way I’d avoid Annalise forever.

I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and followed.

Tinkerbell is Pulled Deeper Into The Darkness

IMG_0027[Part 2, continued from previous post.]

We stood on the shoulder of the road, me in my jogging shorts, he in a tattered pair of slacks. He raised his eyebrows. “You ready?”

I nodded.

“Can you jog down to the grapes, the fountain?”

I nodded again.

“All the way, without stopping? One-hundred percent?”

“Yes, Phoenix. Unless you go too fast for me.”

He grinned in a certain way, and I felt a twinge of dread.

Then his smile faded. “And you’ll still have enough energy to go on a bike ride with your husband this weekend? Promise?”

“Yes. Pinky swear.”

I wrapped my pinky around his. Then that intimidating grin spread across his face again.

He was off like a dart, sprinting down the road on his long, skinny legs.I tore after him as best I could, and he looked back over his shoulder.

“Come on, Liz! This is, like, three miles an hour. I could walk faster than this.” He quit running and loped along.

“Oh, shut up. Your legs are, like, twice as long as mine.”

He started jogging again, looking down at my legs, then at his. “Do you like to talk when you jog?”

“No.”

“My mom says it’s like working out twice, when you talk, but I don’t see how that’s true, because you can only do one thing at a time.”

He was pulling ahead again, still talking, and I pushed myself harder. A car full of high school kids drove by, and they rolled down their windows. “Way to go Phoenix!”

He watched after them bemusedly, waving, and I cringed inwardly.

By the time we’d reached the junction with 41, a quiet highway that wove west through the vineyards, I was already out of breath. I was glad when he stopped.

“Wanna go this way?” he said. “Let’s go this way.”

He took off again, the loose soles of his sneakers flapping, and I followed, sighing deeply.

He shot me an appraising look. “Don’t give up, Liz. I’m not gonna let you give up.”

“I’m not giving up,” I panted.

Another car passed, and I recognized a man from church. He swerved over the center line as he watched me over his shoulder, smirking.

I winced. I could see myself through his eyes, vividly: an old married woman, quickly drying up, hair dyed bright purple, spending way too much time with the 22-year-old schizophrenic kid. It was something that kept me curled up in a tight ball of shame at night, questioning my own motives.

But when I was with him, all my doubts disappeared. Everything clicked into place, pure and simple. I felt like a ten-year-old kid on summer vacation, out playing with her best friends-forever friend, and all the worries in the world flitted away, leaving me completely at peace.

Except for right now, when my lungs were screaming for oxygen. Phoenix was getting ahead of me again, and kept sending me nervous glances. I knew he didn’t like having people behind him. So I closed my eyes, told my lungs that it was all a state of mind, and pushed myself faster.

The next day, I sat at the park, trying to see the story I was writing past my own reflection in the laptop screen. This was my new process: finish my chores then come down to the park to write, where I could be out in the fresh air and surrounded by the interesting characters in the Shandon Park Crowd. It would give me a fresh perspective, stop me obsessing and getting overly-angsty, keep me in the real world.

This is what I told myself, and for the most part it was true: I’d sat with some of the career drunks, swapping cigarettes for stories. I’d spent entire afternoons shooting the shit with my new friend Mari, pushing her kids on the swings. All this was good stuff, stuff that I hadn’t done in the sixteen months I’d been mired in my books. But in the quiet of my mind, I knew the real reason I was here.

Every time I heard footsteps, I looked up, my heart sinking when it wasn’t him. But then I saw him coming down the street from his house.

I smiled, but then it faded. I could tell something was wrong.

He didn’t come over, stopping by the tennis courts, staring at his feet. They were shoeless, clad in mismatched socks. I got up and approached him hesitantly.

He glanced up. “Hey, how are you?”

“I’m okay, how are you?”

He muttered something.

“What?” I said, stepping closer.

“I’m having a bad morning. I had such a good night, and now it’s bad. I feel like I’ve died, like literally died.”

“What do you mean?”

He twisted his long fingers into the folds of his pajama pants and mumbled. I stepped closer. “I can’t hear you,” I said.

He glanced up, jumping away from me. “No, nothing,” he said. Then he walked off, saying, “It was nice talking to you,” as if I were some distant acquaintance he’d run into on accident and couldn’t wait to escape.

“Phoenix….”

He didn’t stop or look around, but just kept going. I watched him go, a lump growing in my throat.

I went back and threw myself down in front of my laptop, my head in my hands. Why did I feel like this? Why did I care? There was nothing romantic about this relationship, but I couldn’t deny that I was seriously emotionally involved with this kid.

It didn’t make sense, but I couldn’t help it. I sighed and closed my computer, shoving it into my backpack.

I found him sitting in the tall weeds in front of his house. He watched me approach, tugging at the bracelet I’d given him.

“Phoenix, I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, no, not at all.”

“Sometimes I piss you off and I don’t even know why.”

“It’s not you. It’s never you. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk at people, or breathe on them.”

I nodded sadly. “Okay,” I said.

I turned and walked back to the park, leaving him there in the weeds.

The next day, he bounded up like a puppy, his dog Shiva at his heels, and threw himself onto the grass. “Hey,” he said, grinning.10995301_10203677839655617_5373993991924453304_o

I smiled, happiness spreading through me. “Hey.”

“I’m sorry about yesterday.”

“It’s alright.” Shiva crept around me in a wide circle before settling down and letting me pet her, in true Aussie fashion.

He twisted his bracelet. “I really like this bracelet. It makes me feel calm and peaceful, and really helps me.”

“I’m glad.”

His brow furrowed. “Do you think that, ever feel like people can affect each other even when, even before they know each other very well? Like, you know, synergy and interconnectedness, vibrations in the darkness?”

“Yes,” I said, my heart galloping. “I believe that, but I can’t know for sure that it’s true.”

He frowned at me. “Why not?”

“It’s intangible. You can’t prove it. You can believe it all you want, you can feel like God is telling or compelling you to do something or whatever, even if you don’t know why…but you can’t know for sure. It’s untestable. It’s not science.”

He smiled faintly. “Your faith isn’t strong enough.”

“No, I guess not. All sorts of people have done horrible things, thinking that God was telling them to.”

He grinned. “Like Hitler.”

I threw a handful of grass at him. “Are you calling me Hitler?”

He ducked, giggling. “Liz is a fascist Nazi. She rigged the Super Bowl.”

“Shut up.”

He sprang to his feet. “Let’s go on a walk. We can walk, maybe, up the river bed to Truesdale.”

I shouldered my backpack and trotted after him. For this moment, at least, all was right with the world.

TInkerbell is Pulled Into The Darkness

IMG_0104

I sat staring at my computer screen, my fingers tapping idly on the keys.

I couldn’t see the way ahead on this story. I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and written myself into the vacuums of space, where nothing would ever happen. Something was wrong with the book, but I wasn’t quite sure what.

My husband Eric’s voice cracked the shell of my concentration. “Are you ever going to stop writing and pay attention to your family?”

I glanced up. He and my daughter Juniper were sitting on the couch, giving me twin looks of indignity, while Family Guy blared on the television.

“What?” I said. “I have to stare at the same screen as you in order for it to be quality time?”

Eric rolled his eyes and looked away, tugging at his hair. Juniper huffed.

“You’re on your computer all the time, mommy! You love your stupid stories more than you love us!”

“That’s not true,” I said.

Eric shot me a hard look. He’d been complaining about my writing for months, hinting I should give it up and move on to something more productive. He seemed to think it was a phase, something I’d grow out of.

But it wasn’t a phase. I couldn’t quit writing. It was a compulsion, the way some people can’t stop picking their scabs or chewing their fingernails. But it was also one of the few things that had ever made me happy. I’d finally found the thing I was put on this earth to do.

I swallowed the bitter lump in my throat. “Well,” I said, “do you guys want to go to the beach, then?”

Juniper snorted. “I’m tired of the beach.”

I unclenched my teeth. “How about a walk?”

“No, I’m tired,” Eric said. “Can’t you just watch TV with us?”

I stared at the cartoon images capering around the screen making fart noises and racist jokes.

“I don’t want to watch TV,” I said.

“Liz,” Eric said, “you have to spend time with us sometime.”

I sighed heavily, clutching my fingers in my hair. “I do spend time with you.”

“Ha,” Juniper said. “You never spend time with us.”

I sat with my eyes squeezed shut, waiting for my kick-punch-bite rage to subside. But it didn’t. “Fuck this,” I said, snapping my laptop closed. “I’m going on a walk.”

I flung myself out the door, slamming it shut behind me.

I stomped down the street, not caring where I went.

Not that there was anywhere to go in this tiny town. We’d been forced to move to this dusty cluster of hovels because my husband had accepted the one job I’d begged him not to apply for, at a university in a coastal California town with the worst real estate price to salary ratio in the known universe.

This desert ghetto was the only place in the area we could afford to live, because no one in their right mind would move here. It was chock full of meth tweakers and the type of bible thumpers that didn’t believe in evolution or homosexuality.

But I’d adapted. I’d made friends, and occupied myself with my writing, and with being a good housewife. I’d put down roots, and tried to build a life here. That wasn’t good enough for Eric, though.

I blinked back tears. Maybe he was right. Maybe I should try to give up writing. It did take up a lot of my time, and it’s not like it was going very well for me. I’d written nine and a half books in the past seventeen months, but wasn’t even close to getting one published. That was probably because they sucked every bit as bad as Eric insinuated they did, even though he’d only read a couple of them, under duress.

And my current series was driving me crazy. It was about a schizophrenic kid named Justin, who was trying to make it as a painter in defiance of his own mother, who wanted him institutionalized. I was more obsessed with getting these books right than I had been the others. The effort was definitely making me moody, I had to admit.

Though I didn’t usually base my characters on real people, Justin was loosely based on a guy I’d met at the park the previous summer, when I’d volunteered giving out sack lunches to kids. One day, as I sat in the shade writing on my laptop and waiting for the kids to come get their food, I’d noticed him over by the flagpole. He stared at me fixedly at me for a full thirty seconds before he seemed to come unstuck, striding towards me determinedly on his long legs.

He stopped about six feet away, regarding me with a shy smile, tugging on the earflaps of his fuzzy white tiger hat. He was in his late teens or early twenties, handsome, and he gave off an aura of strangeness, like a rare orchid that glowed an unearthly green while its normal companions lay hidden in darkness.

“I like your shoes,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said. “I just got them at Target.”

“They’re red white and blue, like my house. I live over there.” He gestured towards the east side of the park. “It’s the America house, like Captain America. He’s my favorite superhero. Or maybe Superman is, actually. Which one do you like better? Captain America or Superman?”

“Um,” I said, “I guess they’re both good, in their own way, you know? They each do their part to further the cause of goodness in the universe.”

He watched me with an odd smile a moment longer, then flopped down in the grass and asked me for a lunch. I’d given him one, even though he was over eighteen, so it was against the rules. But I figured this kid deserved a free lunch, even if he did only eat the celery and give away the rest.

We’d only talked for half an hour, and hadn’t spoken since. I didn’t even know his name. But he’d lodged firmly in my head, the little I knew of him blooming into a full and well-rounded character. And so I’d written a book about that character. And then most of the sequel.

But now I was stuck. The books weren’t right. And it suddenly occurred to me why: it was because I needed to talk to the schizo kid again. I needed to know more about him, to know how his mind worked, in order to make my books better.

The idea captivated me at once, and my steps turned towards the park. Maybe if I could figure out these books, then I’d be at peace with writing less for a while. My family would be happy, I’d be happy, all would be well again in my household.

It was sort of a strange reason to seek someone out, I knew; the word stalker floated through my head.

But I pushed those doubts away. I wouldn’t be using the kid. I genuinely liked talking to him, and found him interesting. So what if I tried to turn my everyday experiences and conversations into art? Everyone did that.

And besides, I knew there was no stopping myself now. I could feel it, the beginnings of a new obsession. I needed to talk to him. It was the thing that had to happen. It was the thing that was supposed to happen. It was my world coming together and finally making sense for me, after all these years of chaos and unhappiness. Writing was what I was meant to do, and so the universe would help me on my way.

PART 2

I scanned the park as I walked through the gate. There were the usual assortment of drunks and aimless kids at the tables, a few toddlers on the toys, but I didn’t see the schizo kid. I looked everywhere, probing the shadows under the trees and over by the horseshoe pit, but he wasn’t there.

My heart sank. I’d been deluding myself. You can daydream all you want about there being a pattern in the universe’s chaos; you can try to convince yourself that some higher purpose has called you to the park to talk to someone, but that doesn’t make it true.

I headed to the quietest part of the park to stew in my existential angst.

I was passing by the basketball court when I heard footsteps.

“Hey, it’s you,” someone said.

I looked up and stopped dead. It was him. He was grinning, holding a basketball.

“Hey,” I said breathlessly.

“SometimesIwanttotalktopeople,” he said. He watched me closely, rolling the ball between his hands.

“Huh?” I said, my heart racing. “Sometimes you want to talk to people, or don’t want to?”

“Wantto. Like, with you, right now.”

I sat down in the grass, almost collapsing. He sat down in front of me.

I smiled nervously. “What’s your name, anyway?” I asked.

“Phoenix,” he said.

I swallowed. In my mind’s eye, I saw a phrase I’d written, at the end of the first chapter of the first book about Justin. I’d removed it, because a critiquer had said it was cliché, and she’d been right. But it had said, “…and I rose up like a phoenix out of the Other Place.”

It’s just a coincidence, I told myself. It doesn’t pay to read too much into these things.

“I’m Liz,” I said, clutching the grass.

“Liz. Liz,” he said.

I smiled. “I like your clothes.”

He fondled the collar of his pea-green army jacket. He had matching army pants, and a Sublime shirt that was exactly the same color of green.

“I found them in my sister’s trailer,” he said. “It was like synchronicity. Sometimes it sort of freaks me out, when things work out that way. Like right now. Do you like Sublime?”

“No,” I said, my mouth dry. What had he just said about synchronicity?

He watched me, his eyes dark brown, intelligent, amused. “The park is the only place I feel human,” he said. “My mom….” He looked away, suddenly pained, and mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

“Huh?” I said, but he was silent for several moments, as if he hadn’t heard me.

“I smoke cigarettes,” he said suddenly. “She gives me cigarettes, my mom. But it’s bad. Some people chew.” He looked back at me, the corners of his lips curling up. “Some people call it chaw, ‘bacci, wad, cud, wuzzle, juice ball, grunt, suckajoo….”

He kept on like that, his grin slowly growing, until I finally collapsed in a heap of giggles on the grass. Then he stopped and stretched out on the ground next to me, his intense eyes inches from mine.

“Do you know about yin and yang?”

“Yes,” I said, stifling my laughter.

“What is it?”

“It’s the theory that there’s a little bit of good in everything bad, and a little bit of bad in everything good, and it’s all in balance.”

He listened seriously, his long fingers making sinuous motions in the air. “And what are the colors?”

“White and black, usually.”

“What are they? The colors?”

I blinked. “Some people say that the black is the feminine energy, the dreaming energy, and the white is the male energy, which is about action, doing things, I guess.”

“They told me to study philosophy, to find my balance, because how, you know, I’m schizophrenic, how they diagnosed me with schizophrenia.” He gazed at me, pulling at the grass. “The listening,” he muttered. “The listening energy. The darkness is an energy that listens.”

The back of my neck prickled; he could have pulled that phrase from my book, though this was like nothing he’d said in our previous conversation.

“When people interrupt, it’s because they’re abrupt,” he said.

We stared at each other. Then he sat up, and so did I, brushing the grass clippings from my clothes.

“You go to the church here, right?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“I’m going to go this Sunday. I’m going to get up, and I’m going to have to decide what to make, because they have the food afterwards, and I’m going to do laundry and go to church.”

I smiled. “Cool.”

He looked down at his hands, picking at the scabs on his knuckles, and he seemed suddenly upset.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He didn’t answer, just grimaced slightly, as if I’d annoyed him. I looked down at my own hands, and started fidgeting with my bracelet, counting the wooden beads.

“Is that your devotion?” he asked, glancing over at me.

“Naw, I got this from a Buddhist monk in San Francisco. He said he was going to pray for my inner peace.” I gazed at him a moment, then pulled the bracelet off. “Here,” I said. I slipped it over his big hand, onto his bony wrist.

He went very still, staring at it fixedly. “What’s this, what’s this for?”

“Now you can reap the benefits.”

“The benefits, what are the benefits?”

I sighed. “I just…I’m giving it because I like you, and I’m your friend.”

He touched the bracelet gently, sliding the beads along their string, not looking at me. “Thank you,” he said, his voice hoarse. “That means a lot.”

That Sunday in church I sat in front as always, and I glanced over my shoulder every time the door opened. The pews slowly filled up, but he wasn’t among the parishioners. When Pastor finally stood up and the service began, my heart sank.

I had a hard time concentrating on the sermon. I couldn’t get Phoenix out of my head. I was writing a lot less now, and instead spent my mornings reading in the park, hoping to see him.

It occurred to me that I might be just as mentally ill as Phoenix was. As Pastor read the scripture, I sat silently praying for God to clear the junk and clutter from my head, to set me straight.

Just as the sermon ended, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked up to see Phoenix sitting down across the aisle from me. He was clean-shaven, his hair combed back, wearing an immaculate baby-blue suit. He stared at me intently with his dark eyes.

I stared back. He was a very handsome, 22-year-old man. I knew what all those people in the pews behind us must be thinking. It was a very, very small town.

“Please open your hymnals to page seven,” Pastor said, and there was a rustling in the congregation as they all got out their books.

Phoenix pulled a hymnal from the seat back in front of him, flipping through the thin pages. “What’s on page seven?” he said. “Some sort of song? A ritual?”

“A ritual,” I said. “We’re doing communion.” I could feel Pastor looking at me.

“That’s cool,” Phoenix said. He put his hymnal away and folded his hands in his lap, facing front with an air of politeness.

After the service, we all went into the social hall and had cake. I sat next to Phoenix, avoiding everyone’s stares. He talked to the woman next to him, something about a tortoise. After a while, I plucked at his sleeve.

“Come to the park with me.”

He blinked. “Okay.”

We strutted out into the sunshine, and I heaved a sigh of relief to be away from the wondering glances of the others. They were making this into something it wasn’t. They didn’t understand.

I didn’t really understand, either, but oh well.

As we crossed over to the park, my husband whizzed by on his bike, and we waved at each other. Phoenix watched after him. “That’s your husband?”

“Yeah.”

“Why is he, why is he going on a bike ride without you?” He picked at his knuckles. “You should be with him. It’s my fault. It’s my fault you’re with me, and not him.”

“No, Phoenix. He would have left without me, anyway. It’s not your fault.”

He just stood there, shaking his head. “It’s my fault.”

I couldn’t convince him otherwise. We sat in the park for a while, but he was nervous and morose. “You should be at home. You shouldn’t be with me,” he said.

“Okay,” I finally said, getting up. “But will you walk me to my house?”

“You want me to walk you?”

“Yeah.”

He tugged at the bracelet. It made me happy that he was still wearing it. It was a piece of evidence, albeit a small one, that maybe I was important to him, too. That maybe this obsession of mine had some sort of cosmic significance, that it was whole and perfect. That I didn’t have to mistrust my own motives, and start believing myself a creepy stalker, like everyone else probably thought I was.

That there was order and beauty in the universe. That the books I was writing had truth in them. That, in some dimension, my imagination was intertwining with reality.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll walk you home.”

We walked up the dirt path towards my neighborhood. “You live in The Heights,” he said. “I don’t like The Heights.”

“Why not?”

“The Heights. The Heights. It’s like, these pants I had, and my mom, she put them in the dryer. And they shrank up around my ankles, highwater pants, like the water’s high, the pants. The Heights.”

I stopped walking and turned to face him. “Phoenix, I don’t want to upset you.”

He blinked at me, wringing his hands. “I’m not upset.”

“I’m really sorry. Please. You don’t have to walk me home.”

“Are you, what, you’re going to get all emotional on me?” His fidgeting hands went still. “With you, it’s so open.”

We gazed at each other a moment. “Come on,” he said, starting back up the hill towards my house. “The Heights.”

He muttered to himself the rest of the way, and I felt more and more terrible with each step. When I told him we were at my house, he stopped abruptly, jumping back.

“This is your house?” He peered at it from around a tree, as if hiding from its staring windows. I could see the neighbors shooting us surreptitious glances from their yard.

“Yeah,” I said.

He shifted on his feet. “I have to run. I think I want to go running.”

He turned on the heels of his patent leather shoes and took off jogging, in his suit, in the hot sun. I watched after him, tears springing to my eyes. I was being selfish. I was making life worse for him. It wasn’t as simple as I wanted it to be.

Tinkerbell Gets Made

I met the guy in a patch of rutted dirt next to an onion farm. The hand-off took less than thirty seconds, and when his little Honda tore back onto the empty road like he was late for his wedding, I knew something was wrong.

I looked at what he had given me: a little sausage-shaped package wrapped in a latex party balloon. When I pinched it, the stuff inside didn’t feel right. I tore it open, and bit my lip. It wasn’t heroin, it was weed. Pretty good weed, but still.

When I got home, I called my contact. “Uh, this isn’t what it was supposed to be, and I’m not risking my ass for a forty dollar bag.”

“Yeah, they didn’t want to give you the other stuff yet, not until you’d proven yourself.”

I twisted the phone cord between my fingers. “I’m not running this in there. No fucking way.”

He was silent for a moment, and I could hear my heart hammering. “Okay, okay, it’s cool,” he said. “I understand. Let me make some calls.”

The first thing next morning, I met a different guy in the empty parking lot of a closed hamburger stand. He smiled at me shyly as he slipped the stuff into my palm, his eyes wandering over my face and my tits. He looked confused, until he saw the track marks on my arms. Then he leered, but there was a touch of pity in it.

“You okay?’ he asked. “You got everything you need?” He had a tear tattooed on his cheek, the mark of a killer, but for some reason I felt drawn to him. I imagined for a moment telling him no, that I didn’t have anything I needed. I’d get in his car, he’d get me blasted and fuck me in the backseat, but then maybe he’d discover I’m funny, that I’m good company, and he’d take me with him on his next run down to Juarez. We’d turn up the stereo and tell jokes the whole way, we’d eat asada tacos at all the best food trucks, and he’d help wean me off the dope because Thou Shalt Not Shoot the Stash is one of the commandments of drug running.

We’d save our money and retire before we lost the game. We’d buy a farm in Michoacán and grow old together.

I pulled my head out of this daydream and smiled. “Yeah, I’ve got everything I need,” I lied.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

I chewed the inside of my cheek, but for some reason I told him. “Gracie,” I said, and this made him laugh.

Then he looked at me thoughtfully. “Your haircut is cute, you look like Tinkerbell.” He turned away, walked back to his car. “I’ll see you later, Tink.”

I watched him drive off, wondering if I’d just been given my gangster name.

I did a shot to calm my nerves, my hands shaking so badly that I missed the vein twice, raising stinging lumps on my arms. Then I started the car and drove eastwards, sticking my hand out the window to cup the cool morning air. I sang along with Miguel Aceves Mejia on the stereo as the sun spread golden over the desert hills, the dope tickling my spine with warm fingers.

The prison was a slab of concrete rising out of the wheat fields, the guard tower marring the midsummer sky like a curse in church. I parked in the wide lot, resting my forehead on the steering wheel for a moment while I found my courage. Then I put my hand down my shorts and stashed the package, slipping it in like a lumpy and unlubricated sex toy.

It was more uncomfortable than I’d been expecting, and when I got out and made the long trek to the entrance I was sure I was walking funny. I could feel phantom eyes on me, and could imagine guards watching me from the towers. “Hey, Bill, look at the chick down there. She’s walking like she’s saddle sore.” And Bill would squint down at me, assessing my gait. “Looks like we got a smuggler, Sam. Go ahead and shoot her.” Paranoia crept in, my shoulders hunching up around my ears, but I took a deep breath, let it out. Everything’s cool, I told myself. No one knows. But in reality, it was another thought that sustained me: I didn’t care if I got busted, because prison would be an improvement in my life right now.

I concentrated on that thought, and by the time I got to the security desk I was smiling and chatting with the guards, my fear all but gone. They checked my ID, patted me down, searched my shoes and pockets, and passed me through a metal detector. I was in.

Masa was waiting for me in the visitors’ room, and he smiled when he saw me. He gave me a hug. “You got it, guerita?” he murmured against my ear. “I hear you had some trouble.”

“I got it,” I muttered.

We sat down in some plastic chairs, which were laid out in a circle in the middle of the room. It wasn’t a normal visitors’ day, it was a powwow, a sacred Native American ceremony, and I felt a twinge of guilt and fear. I didn’t know much about Native American theology, but watching Pet Sematary had been enough to scare me off of insulting their religion. I was here, though, and copping out at this point wouldn’t be a good idea, not with thousands of dollars of the mob’s heroin stashed in my snack box.

A man came around with a stone bowl of burning sage. The smoke poured over the sides, heavy like vapor from dry ice, and he put his fingers in the stream, coaxing it over my head and body. “This is to purify your spirit,” he said, grinning and showing stained, wide-spaced teeth. His face was hard and carved up by suffering, but his eyes were kind, almost tender.

I let the smoke settle over me, hoping it would somehow remove my guilt in the eyes of the Great Spirit, or whoever. Masa nudged me as the smoke-guy moved on. “That’s Daniel. He’s serving life ‘cause he shot a dude execution style, right in front of the dude’s mom while she begged him not to.”

“Jesus,” I said. I watched him drape the curtain of smoke over the next guy, and the scene of him doing this played in my imagination: Daniel with a pistol to some young guy’s head, tears streaking down his face while his mother knelt beside him on the matted shag carpet, crying and praying for Daniel to stop, to put his gun away. Then, BLAM!

I blinked, clearing the image of spattered brains from my mind. He didn’t look the part, but who did?

After Daniel made the circuit, another man got up and made a short speech about the potlatch tradition. Then there was dancing, guys in fringed suede and face paint and the whole deal. I was held transfixed by it all until I caught Masa glancing at me and I remembered why I was here.

Taking a deep breath, I glanced around. Guards stood along the walls. The one closest to us, a woman with mousy hair and a generous stockpile of flesh, seemed to be watching me, her tiny eyes glittering under heavy lids.

“That big bitch has her eye on me,” I whispered to Masa, and he snickered.

“Who, the Rhino? She probably just has a crush on you.”

“Gak. If she sat on my face, you’d probably never see me again.” Masa hunched over his knees, laughing.

Then I gathered my courage and stood up stiffly. Best try to do this while the dancers were providing distraction. “I’m going to the bathroom,” I said.

He quit laughing. “Have fun.”

I approached the Rhino, starting to sweat. “I need to use the restroom,” I said, and she looked me over, her stern expression softened by the dimples in her cheeks. I followed her out through double blast doors, noticing how the fabric of her khakis stretched taut over her meaty ass, thinking she had a lot of nooks and crannies in which she could smuggle things, if she wanted.

She patted me down, running her hands along my sides, my legs. Then she let me into the bathroom.
I locked the door and pulled down my shorts, sitting on the stainless steel toilet to extract the package. I stuffed it in the heel of my boot and flushed the toilet, my heart galloping. Would she check my shoes before I went back out? I ran water at the sink, staring at my reflection in the polished steel mirror and sending up a prayer: Please don’t let her check my shoes.

I imagined God up in Heaven, looking up from whatever he was doing – reading The New Yorker, probably – and smiling down upon me. “Go forth and deliver thy drugs in peace, blessed child. I’ll tell the big lady not to check thy shoes.”

I watched my lips twitch in the mirror, then shut off the water.

The Rhino was waiting for me outside the door, and I smiled at her. Sweat was running down the back of my neck, trickling all the way down my spine. Please don’t check my shoes, I prayed again. Please please please.

She told me to lift my arms. My shirt stuck to my sweaty skin as she ran her latex-gloved hands down my ribs and caressed me under my breasts. Then she checked the pockets of my shorts, her thick fingers pinching the creases in the denim. I held my breath, the drab walls seeming to press in closer. Then she ran her fingers along the inside of my waistband, and I knew her gloves would be slippery with sweat. It wasn’t normal to sweat this much. That had to be some sort of tipoff, right?

She took her hands away. “Okay, you’re good,” she said.

Relief rushed in, my head swimming with it. She held the doors for me to let me back in the visitor’s room.

Masa was trying to look cool as I sat back down, but his eyes were a little wide. “You get it out?” he asked, and I nodded. He let out a breath and grinned lopsidedly. “Which place were you keeping it in?”

Unaccountably, I blushed. It was ridiculous. He grinned wider. “Your pussy?” When I nodded he laughed. “It’s gonna bring a good price in here. Where you have it now?” My eyes darted to my boot, and he looked down. There was a bulge in the side where the dope was, and he cursed under his breath. “Everyone’s gonna see that, guerita.”

The dancing was still happening, different guys now, bouncing around in a circle to the accompaniment of some hi-ya-ya music blasting from the tinny speakers of a boom box. I leaned down and pretended I was itching my foot, hooking the latex of the package with my fingernail, but it was wedged in tight against my heel, and wouldn’t budge. I tugged harder. “Tssst!” Masa hissed. “The Rhino!” I glanced up to find her watching me, and had to gulp down the acid that foamed into my throat. My heart had given me up as a bad job and was trying to run away, thinking that even an asthmatic, pork-rind-eating chain smoker must be better than this. I sat up again.

“You’re not smooth at all, girl,” Masa said, and I told him to shut up, wiping sweat from my upper lip. The Rhino looked away, and I took a deep breath and bent down again.

I yanked hard, stretching the latex until I worried it would break, but the fucking thing still wouldn’t come out. I cursed. The lady sitting next to me was watching me with a horrified look, but I ignored her. I glanced up; the Rhino was still talking to the guard next to her, her dimples showing, and I tugged again desperately, feeling that by now it must be blisteringly obvious to every semi-astute person in the room what I was doing. Please don’t let the guards look over at me, I prayed. Please please please.

God looked over his reading glasses and winked. Finally, the dope pulled loose with an elastic thwap and I palmed it, passing it frantically to Masa. He sucked in his breath as he took it.

I sat up quickly. The lady next to me looked disgusted. A couple of the prisoners across from us were smirking openly. But none of the guards seemed any the wiser, and I leaned back in my chair, the tension slowly draining out of me and leaving a delicious feeling of relief behind. It was Masa’s problem now.

His lips quirked. “I’ve gotta go get this thing up my ass,” he announced quietly, and got up to go to the bathroom.

They were serving frybread and stew, and I went to get some while he was gone, feeling giddily cheerful. The guy in front of me in line smiled. “You Masa’s girl?” He had a swastika tattooed on his neck and his eyes were loose in their sockets.

“Naw, we’re just friends.”

He grinned wider. “What’s your name?”

“Tinkerbell.”

“Tinkerbell! That’s cute.”

I got some food for Masa, too, and handed it to him when he came back. He had a weird look on his face as he sat down. “I know, it’s big, right?” I said, and he laughed.

“Tasted really good, though.”

“Fuck you, Masa.”

“Jeez, just teasing you.” But he probably wasn’t.

“It’s not going to bring such a good price after where you put it now,” I said.

“Don’t be so sure,” he said, and I snorted into my stew.

After we all finished eating, Daniel stood up and explained that part of the potlatch tradition was to give gifts, and he came around handing out little trinkets the prisoners had made. When he got to me he gave me a pair of tiny, beaded moccasins on a leather cord, and smiled meaningfully. “Thank you for coming,” he said, sounding truly sincere, as if I’d done a heroic deed today.

When I got back out to my car, I hid my head in my hands and laughed. “I just did that shit,” I muttered to myself.
I did another shot, then started the drive home, giggling as I imagined myself with “Tinkerbell” tattooed on my neck in sprawling script.