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.

Welcome to my party. May I offer you a drink?

Some of us have been “gifted” with the ability to live almost completely within the confines of our own fantasy worlds. They can be fun places, but things can get complicated when we try to invite others there.

As children, we all ran around playing robot war, or shootout with the Knights Templar because, back then, we all lived in a fantasy world. When you were hanging out with other eight-year-olds, you would say, “Let’s play princesses. You be the dragon,” and people would “get it”, they would go along with you.

At least for a while. After fifteen minutes or so, the dragon would cross her arms and say, “I want to be a princess now. You be the dragon.” And you’d say okay, because being the dragon was wicked awesome, too. However, as often happens, the new princess would fail to conform to your artistic vision of what a princess should be. She’d be a little too sweet, or too worried about her dress. You’d get mad, there would be sulking and shouting, and maybe the princess would go play elsewhere, or someone would say, “Let’s play something else.”

But, goddammit, you didn’t want to play something else. You were currently in princess land, and trying to leave that place and travel somewhere else was a painful process, akin perhaps to separating each and every atom of your body from its neighbors and sticking them back together again in a different locale. Like being beamed up on Star Trek. That had to have hurt just a little, or at least have felt really, really weird.

Getting people to play an extended game of princesses with you is even harder as an adult. Half the problem is that, once you hit puberty, you stop telling people that you’re “playing princesses”, and instead you tell them that you’re an “artist” (or at least dance around the word to avoid saying it directly, but imply it all the same).

That are certain expectations that society has of artists, and sometimes these expectations seem to conflict with one another. Before you’ve had any successes with your work, people call you an “aspiring artist”, and regard you smirkingly. They expect your work to suck, because if it didn’t, you’d be famous already. They expect you to be eccentric, maybe a little pathetic, and they expect you to eventually give up and get a real job. Conversely, if you’re supposedly an artist, society expects you to sacrifice yourself endlessly for your work, throwing your physical and emotional needs repeatedly under the bus in an effort to make it in your field. If you were really an artist, you’d never give up, never truly doubt yourself, and never ever sell out your artistic vision.

Then, if you are lucky and talented enough to actually achieve some successes, society expects you to be a larger-than-life figure, floating around in a world they can only dream of (but could have been part of, if only their parents had been more supportive, or if they didn’t have to work for a living, pay the damn bills). And most of all, when you’re a successful artist, society expects you to entertain them, endlessly and effectively. If you don’t, you’re not doing your job and, dammit, if they didn’t do their jobs, they’d get fired.

What we as a society should admit to ourselves is that we are all artists. To varying degrees of course. On one end of the spectrum is the gal who does beautiful centerpieces for Thanksgiving dinner, and at the other end is the person who is probably locked up in a mental institution because they can’t ever, ever stop playing their scary game of princesses. There is no being an “aspiring artist”, because being an artist is something we do as human beings. It is a certain way the mind works, an ability to imagine things as being more beautiful or meaningful than they really are. (I won’t get into a discussion of what things “really” are, the nature of reality – that is a subject for a different piece, or you can go to your local library and check out some of the piles of incredible and whack-ass shit people have written about it since the dawn of time).

Back to the subject at hand: me. (As an “artist”, this is a subject I will expound upon at length). I am, for better or worse, one of those people closer to the institutionalized end of the artistic spectrum than the Thanksgiving centerpiece end, meaning my little games of princesses can get quite involved.

Most recently, I’ve started writing a series of fantasy novels. The whole thing started with a profound and deeply disturbing episode of my life, and somehow turned into a story with wizard battles, deliciously evil mob bosses and, apparently, aliens.

I had a seed of an idea in my head, and it grew. Soon my little world surrounded me. Characters were born into it, and started doing wonderful things, and so I had to write them down. Before long, my characters were my best friends. The real world receded into the background, a petty and crass place that had nothing of the epic beauty of my world. Sometimes my real-life friends would invite me to hang out, but since they couldn’t throw fireballs from their hands and were rarely involved in gang shootouts, I found myself bored with them. They became pretty bored with me, too, because I wouldn’t stop talking about my other friends, the ones they called “imaginary”, but that’s because they’re assholes and just don’t understand.

So I retreated further and further into my fantasy life, writing obsessively. As I finished novel after novel, I began asking friends and family to read them, at least those who were still talking to me. I was eager to share my world, so that maybe some people would join me there.

To my utter surprise, having been down this road before with other artistic endeavors, many of those people actually read the things. They not only finished them, but they often asked for the next, and the next. In psychology speak, I think they call this “enabling”.

As I became more and more obsessed, more people started asking to read them. Then, someone said those crippling words, you know the ones, “You should try to publish these.” It was a chorus taken up by the lot of my beta readers, perhaps out of pity.

It was certainly an intriguing idea. I mean, I fucking love my little world, so why wouldn’t other people? The problem being, I don’t know how to write. I knew this from the outset. I’m a musician, for God’s sake, and not even a very good one at that, and I just wrote these things because I had to. Another problem being that I have no frigging idea how to get a book published. Really? You’re supposed to get an agent? In the musical world, the only people who get agents are people who are already half-famous, or people who are more than half douchebag. It would be much easier to just stay in my little world, and not worry about trying to get society to play princesses with me.

But if you don’t, or can’t, get it published, society intoned, then your world and your life sucks, and you are just a pathetic little nerd who spends all her time playing with her imaginary wizard friends.

I tried to tell society to shut up, but it wouldn’t. It was a nagging voice in my head, like an alarm clock trying to wake me up from a beautiful dream. After all, if I did get it published, then society would leave me the hell alone. I wouldn’t be some loser that hides in her room all day doing effectively nothing, I would be a writer. I would have a job and therefore be a productive member of said society.

So I crawled partially out of my little hole and started researching the publishing industry. The things I discovered were horrifying and caused me to have to retreat into fantasy land and write three more novels in quick succession. Apparently, the literary world wanted you to actually know how to write before they published your books. Also, it seemed they wanted you to already be a published writer before they would even consider publishing you (a paradox that I was unfortunately already familiar with from the music industry).

“But you have to at least try,” my friends said, and I conceded that maybe that was true. Maybe I did. For some reason.

So I decided to join a writers’ group, to learn more about this stuff. My first meeting, it was like I was an Atheist suddenly finding God. Hey, I said to myself.  These are people like ME. Maybe the real world isn’t so bad, after all.

Then I joined a couple critique groups and partnerships. Now, I knew, I would be playing princesses with some hardened dragons. My beta readers weren’t writers – they were, for the most part, friends and family and other people who loved to read the sorts of whacked-out dark fantasy novels I was writing – and so I didn’t get many critiques, just enabling.

Handing my work over to the critics felt different than it had with the beta readers, and I began to think that maybe I maybe should have stayed isolated in my own happy little world and not issued invitations for others to join me. At least not regular people, people who weren’t going to put up with having two confusing dream sequences in the first 1500 words of Book One. A good analogy for my experience in the critique groups was that I had decided to throw a Tim Burton-themed rave, but felt for some reason that I should invite my boss, coworkers, and Southern Baptist relatives. Having invited them, I then felt the need to make them comfortable, to explain to them what’s going on, give them some context. These folks blinked and nodded and cringed, saying the lighting and smoke machine were making them ill, that the music was too loud. So, I slipped a little something into their drinks, adjusted the lighting, changed the music, and hoped they would either start to enjoy the party or get scared enough to leave.

Most of them, I fear, did leave, but I realized that, through my editing efforts, I’d somehow made the party a lot more epic for those who had decided to stay.

Coming out of my fantasy nerd closet has been hard, but I think there is value in making my world a little more comprehensible to the large segment of the population that isn’t me. Soon, I think, I will truly be ready to try to play a real game of princesses with the publishing industry. And who knows: maybe I’ll luck out. Maybe they’ll play. And then I’ll be able to float around in my little artist’s world, experiencing things others can only dream of.

But, even if they don’t play, it’s been a hell of a good game.