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AP English Pieces

2012-2013

Nowhere

by Bennet Roper

"This area is just like a sluice box," Jason used to joke about Oregon and its determination to wash itself into the Pacific. Not that he would have minded if it had. Her small welling of defensive pride stemmed from being the only one who knew this small little place, even if she had lost her tan.

Jason would get here soon; the competitive anticipation was bubbling in her stomach as she pushed past all the clothes in her closet. They screeched against the metal bar but did eventually yield her blue dress: one she had not yet worn in this middle-of-nowhere place she called home. It was one of the few articles of clothing she had just left in the box after moving here, it was so North Carolina: blue, tight, and looked great with a pair of strappy heels, not that they would be necessary in this town. The dress would be perfect for her meeting with her brother, to show him just how well she had adapted to this place. She might even throw on a thrift store scarf.

It seemed as if everyone in the west bought their clothes in thrift stores, a fact that was mildly revolting. But the scarf would make her look appropriately dressed-down.

For once it was not raining as she shut the grey door of her apartment behind her. It was almost necessary to shield her eyes with her hand, but she dug into her glove box to find a pair of sunglasses instead. The cafe' (more accurately, the nearly-empty restaurant) was right inside the city limits and right off the main road. Jason would not have any trouble finding it.

As she pushed through the glass door she reviewed her agitation about not having been allowed to pick Jason up from the airport. He wanted to do it all himself: the plane, the rental car, and the sight-seeing. Even thousands of miles apart there would always be rivalry. She would always have to prove him wrong and he would always have to be better. Well, at least when he saw her he would not be able to comment on her getting flabby; she could still be respectable and keep up with his "eastern ways;" both mentally and physically.

As she approached the counter she was careful to keep her head down; to not look at anyone around her. To her annoyance, some old timer was chatting up the waitress. Something about his daughter at the "big University." Not feeling in the mood to stand around, and well aware that it would be another fifteen minutes before the waitress would be free to look at her, she reached for the pitcher and poured water into a big plastic Pepsi cup; it had most likely come free with a drink machine. Not like any of that mattered; it would take a century-and-a-half to be served anyways.

Everything was slow here. Rainy, slow, and recycled. She had once prided herself on how different she was, leaving her home behind. A day spent on the kitchen floor with a bottle of whiskey and a corkboard map had been all she had needed to determine that, wherever her pin fell, that would be her new home. There was added bonus of being able to shock everyone who knew her. Her friends and family from North Carolina said that she had gone mad, that she had given up everything, and in their confused eyes, she felt satisfied with their consternation. She would no longer need them to define her. For a while it had worked. She had moved to this small town, had eaten at all the local restaurants, had learned what shoes to wear in the constant rain, had become a part of the culture. She gave a self-satisfied grin, curious about what her mother would think of her now. About her best friend's finding out that she had not shaved her legs in three days. About her brother's discovery that she had not applied for the manager position of the local insurance agency as planned. She was now working at a library.

They would never believe it; that gave her pride.

She was preparing stories for her brother, wanting to tell him about the old woman who did not know how to email her daughter in Portland, or to explain the dusty corners of the library -- where she spent most of her time on shift -- that were full, more of teenagers, than with serious readers. She would tell him of the well-thumbed romance novels that were the most popular item. He would be amazed at how unabashedly un-pedantic these people were, as if they did not care to let everyone know what entertained them, even if it was crass.

Even in this little cafe', the only other occupant sitting (although studiously dissolved in his work) displayed the oddness of her town. She could have bet her next paycheck that he was wearing his father's old sweater. Nothing here was new. If your neighbor hasn't worn it, it must be from outer-space appeared to be the mantra of the whole area. Jason would never have noticed this. That thought made her smile. She was so much a part of this place. Only she was allowed to see it for what it really was.

Caught up in these thoughts, she did not realize she had been waiting thirty minutes. She quickly gulped her water, but decided to wait for Jason to get there before getting hyped up on coffee.

She didn't really have friends here; the people she met at work and at the grocery store were cordial, but not close. That's just the way people were in the West: cordial, but not friendly. She felt like they had a lot in common, but that didn't mean that they had to be close. She had lived here for three years and was not surprised.

As she gazed out the window, the sun was truly shining, as if perpetual grayness had never existed. It illuminated little patches of grass growing in sidewalk cracks. Rainwater ran in small streams, pulling seeds down from stalks of dead grass into whirlpools that swirled around and around in concrete divots. The sun was dazzling. Birds took the lack of rain as an opportunity to sing louder; children ran out onto sidewalks with chalk that quickly became a sticky glue on damp pavement. All of this tentative art would be washed back into the soil, but it was vivid.

The small village came alive around the one lonely apartment, with the locked blue door. She would never bloom here; a cylinder of glass can never turn itself into a flower.


Play Secrets

by Madi Lowe

I hold angry tears back, betrayal washing through me; all I can do is stare. She stands there talking about me, not understanding that I am so different. I resist the things she forces me into, and cling to opposite choices. "I just don't understand her," my mother says to my grandmother, who responds, "Oh, I'm sure it's just a phase." I turn and run away.

* * *

Never before have I been entrusted with this much responsibility. If I can't do this, I will ruin the entire play. One day, the director takes me aside and says, "It's kind of sad that this play relies so much on you. But it does, so your energy has to be right. If you are not on top of things, the whole play is going to fail, but you can do this. I wouldn't have cast you if you couldn't." I cannot help thinking like my mother: she has miscast me as the lead in the winter play.

It stresses me out. The more I think about it, the harder I find it is to accept the play world as my reality, to force everything else to disappear. My resistance creates a disconnect; I don't know how to give myself up. The Bride is hard as nails; and I feel soft as fresh powder. She is so emotional, but also powerful and strong. She is the opposite of me. When I feel strong emotions, I shut myself down. People can certainly tell there is something wrong with me, but not what, exactly. I can’t imagine exposing my emotions in her open way.

When I truly let people in, so that they can really know me and all of my facets -- both those broken and those intact -- I always get hurt. Instead, I bury emotions, hiding feelings and thoughts down deep so no one can find their roots. I won't be the fool. If I manage to control myself, no one can hurt me but me. This play requires me to break all emotional rules I have created for myself, to tear down all my walls: the emotional walls that emerged when I first acknowledged that my family didn't understand me. It was easier to pretend and to be the "doll daughter" they wanted me to be than to show them how I really felt. That is what I do to get by.

My mother has always discouraged my interest in the arts. She refuses to look at my drawings, nor has she been supportive of me throughout the three previous plays I have been involved with. She attends the performances and might tell me I did well, but throughout the whole process of rehearsals and practice she refuses to ask me even once about how I am doing. Mostly her comments express how happy she will be when this "drama shit is over" and how glad she is that "this will be the last play I am ever involved with in high school." Her lack of support does not stop me from doing the things I am passionate about, like being in the play or spending hours upon hours working on a sketch, but it is discouraging to have the woman who birthed you hate everything you love.

The whole experience pulls me apart. I grasp wildly at the pieces, trying desperately to hold everything together. I, as the Bride, find it hard to be as in love with the male lead as the Bride is to Leonardo, Niles' character. I know that it shouldn't matter that it is Niles; the characters in the play are what is important, but I cannot overcome the lack of chemistry between us. My mind gets in the way whenever we do our love scene; I can't help flashing back to the day of auditions.

Everett read that day for the part of Leonardo, and I remember getting goose bumps. It scares me how close this act -- when the Bride and Leonardo run away in the woods -- is to actual feelings that I have felt for Everett. I cannot help but think about how much different, and quite possibly better, the play would be if he had been cast as the male lead. Then again, my emotions run deep and heavy; they scare me. I used to think I would be able to forget these feelings completely, but now I know my attachment for him will remain always a scar on my heart.

After rehearsal, I feel less and less confident about my portrayal of the Bride, which makes me angry. I want to prove to my mother and everyone else who has doubted me that I can do this. I need to blow their minds away. I need to wear my emotions for the world to see.


Helplessness

by Bennet Roper

That little bug did not know that today it would die. The blinding light streaming around him seemed just like sunlight: each morning its brilliance a miracle to multifaceted eyes. As his heavy shell begins to bubble and the green grass around him begins to blacken and writhe, he realizes that maybe this miracle is not heaven, but a scorching, painful hell. He curses the silent and detached god presiding over his fate.

That small god sits on goose-pimply concrete steps and twiddles the magnifying glass between her fingers. She waits patiently to be told to stop or to be allowed inside. The dampness of spring and the unfamiliar house surround her like a monochromatic, chilly womb.

* * *

As I stand in cold blue lights, my heart struggles to pump viscous blood through my body. My whole essence contracts into the middle of my throat and the backs of my calves. Anxiety threatens to end me.

As I step out of the darkness into more darkness my whole body vibrates. I feel my molecules might depolarize and send me spinning into a vortex of particles.

The lights come up and he steps out to meet me. "Your beauty sears me." is the line that filters into my head, if only I could say it. . . My eyes close as small fireworks pop across my retina, reminding me to breathe. For an instant I am alone in blackness, in serenity. Back again into the light. I force my breath, my voice, my heart, down down deeper into my throat. I can ignore my body for just long enough to stumble through the scene.

I stand still, the balls of my feet aching. "More power." "Command the Scene." "You've got this," my friends back stage hiss.

I don't want more power. . . I want to melt away. I feel trapped between two panes of glass: ineffectual, dying inside. I want to look into his eyes, I want to feel his stubble on my cheeks, I want to kiss that little dark freckle on his neck. I want to forget the soft rings around my stomach, the pocks on my face and all of my inadequacy just to be his in the golden light. . . but for so many reasons I have to keep still. My character must be passionately, ardently and smotheringly loving, but not in love.

To feel it all but to have to be above it, to an audience looks like insanity.

To look into someone's eyes and know that you are helplessly held at their mercy, but then to be sucked back because the painful mixture of tears and mascara blinds you. Having to learn what it sounds like to pray… but being pulled, dried, and encompassed by spotlights. The magnifying glass is not the problem, the small child is not the problem, dramatic actions are not the problem. The problem is acute isolation created under the fierce eyes of the impassive.


Escape

by Bennet Roper

"Your brother has made a very difficult path for himself," Erin says as she stands in the kitchen and prepares food. I freeze my expression, holding very still so she cannot see the stab of agony that gathers in my gut. I know Erin is just saying this to comfort herself, but it does the exact opposite for me.

Bryce is leaving us in three days. He will be in Tennessee, river guiding, far away, for a long time. All of us are preparing for what it will be like without him. He hangs over us like a ghost. He does not come out of his room, but we feel his creeping fingers in the places we hide spare change, hardly noticing anymore when it goes missing. We also feel him in the places we tuck our little secrets: nowhere is safe.

I cannot imagine life without him. I remember sitting next to a well-meaning gentlemen on an airplane, and his telling me to stay close to my brother. "He is the closest person you will ever have," he tells me. "You didn't know your parents before you were born, you won't know your husband, but your brother has been through most everything with you. Don't ever loose that."

This memory tears me apart. Bryce and I are so close: two children who have faced the world together. I love him so much. I really do. But in the same stride, I am immensely hurt by him. I feel so torn, knowing that he is innocent, but just so evil. There are no answers. I will sigh when he leaves, knowing that he will not even tell me goodbye.

* * *

I sit here and bile brews in my stomach. I hate them so much. So much that I can feel the blood in my cheeks rise to the surface. He is not even here, and all the memories of my childhood cut their way to the back of my throat. The painful arguments, cementing my helplessness, return to me. The acid mingles and burns there. My head aches; I cannot focus on the essay I have to spew out. Everything had been going so well; out of sight out of mind has been the manifesto of these months. I cannot bear to have that change.

My father's tone is so even, breaking only in profanity, like the slap of a hand or the tear of a whip. I want to throw myself between them, become a white sheet and swath them in the freshly-scented shroud. But my brother is miles away and I am stuck here. The argument over my brother's bus ticket home is hardly the matter. It is his stubborn inability to do anything outside of himself. He will never go to college, he has no money; if I let him back in, I fear he will never leave. My father may have been able to divorce himself from my mother, but never from his only son who pulls at him, sucking what little life he still manages to thrust at this child.

I hate them both: my father for his silent anger and stoic face, my brother for his mirrored face and impassive resistance. I want to scrabble my fingers across their faces, tear out their eyes, have their blood pour out, mingling on the white carpet. I need them to feel the anguish I feel, not this cursed, angry silence.

My father rants rhetorical questions that burn like acid… Anger, so much anger, wafts down the hall to my room and chokes me. I want to die so badly; I want to not feel this anymore. I want to go away, to continue as if there is nothing wrong. To forget my brother and the hatred I feel towards him. To forget my father and the sadness that he hides too deeply with anger.

My iPod is dead. I need it. I need it to drown out my hatred, my helplessness, my sadness. I have to keep working on my homework, I have to get out of this place, and I have to throw earth on the blank walls that make up this psychiatric hospital that is my house.

I have to get away. I have to get away. I have to get away.

I love you floats to me down the hall.

I hate them.


Finding Freedom

by Madi Lowe

The trains are packed. She is not able to afford a ticket, but it doesn't concern her in the least, not anymore. She has nothing to lose, everything to gain. In fact, she prefers it this way. Avoiding all of the noise and heat of shoulder-to-shoulder people packed inside the carriages, she finds a quiet place, all to herself.

It is nearing the end of Ramadan. All she can think about is completing the holiday with this ritual of returning home. Even if there were a way she could scrounge up enough money for a ticket, at this point they would be sold out. If she could possibly manage to find one on the black market, it too would be at a price even further above her spending limit.

Seeing as money is an object, she has two options. The first being not to leave Dhaka, to finish off the fasting month alone; the second being to sneak on the train. For her, the choice is simple; she will find a way on that train, even if it means risking life and limb. She needs to be home and to be with those who actually love her.

Glancing back and forth, she looks for him, seeing his dark eyes in the face of every passing male. What if he has caught wind of her plans to desert him? Her heart thuds rapidly. He would be so angry. His temper has worsened even over the last few months. There would be no stopping what he might do, what lengths he might go to in order to show her that she is his possession. If he had it his way, she would never get out, not until she died. This is her escape, her only chance to save her life. They will have to understand, right?

It won't be easy. Her first thoughts fly towards the tops of the train carts; however, this is the alternative for others without tickets, and when the patrol officers come to check for stowaways, looking there is often their first inclination. She is at an even greater risk because not only is she a stowaway, she is also a runaway. Once he finds that she is gone, he will be on her trail, searching for her. She becomes more and more frantic as time passes. There seems to be no place for her to sneak on. Seeing the area between train carriages, she thinks she might be able to find a place to sit on the mechanism holding the cars together. Tucking her few belongings under the car in front of her, she takes hold of the car door behind her for stability. She manages to ignore the pain of sitting on the mechanism by knowing she is headed north. All she wants is to reunite her family in celebration. All she wants is to flee her husband.

They had only been married a year. At first it was love, or what seemed to be love. Then, after the first few months, something changed. He was no longer the man he had claimed to be. Their courtship had been that of a typical arranged marriage: he was charming, kind, and caring. Those traits completely disappeared after their wedding day as he turned into a cold monster. It had been months since he had said anything remotely kind to her and longer than that since she had been happy. She had had to escape this chosen man who had been holding her captive. She could no longer bear the thought of continuing through life like this.

She notices that the noise of the crowd loading onto the train dies as they all take their places in the cars, but that silence is soon replaced with the sound of her rapidly-pounding heart. She is terrified of getting caught. Only when the engine fires up and the train is in motion does her heart relax.

She hopes only that her family will understand. They had of course chosen this man for her because he had seemed to be good and kind. She hopes that they won't be mad at her, that they accept her back into their family, that they will help her. Of course she knows countless stories of women who have tried this very tactic and who have failed, but still she has nothing to lose. Even exile is more welcome in her mind than is this life.

The view is much better than it would have been in the carriage. She is out in the open. The landscape moves by her, slowly at first, and then flies by in a blur. She enjoys this; there isn't anything for her to understand. Everything is a blend of colors and shapes that holds no object. It helps numb the pain of her wrecked marriage. There is no turning back now. That thought is incredibly comforting.

Her excitement grows as the terrain becomes more and more familiar. The smell of the air is already vastly different, although the journey is no more than ten miles; the city smell is fading, taken over by the smell of grass and dirt. She is content in knowing that she is on her way to her village, her home. She is moving forward.


Caught

by Bennet Roper

Sylvia sprinted towards him in the rain. As he watched, she rather wetly embraced him. Her jacket multiplied the water he found already soaking his wool sweater. Unconsciously he smiled while turning his body slightly away to avoid her smashing into his toes with her rain boots. His arms circled her waist, pulling her momentarily close, and then tucking her next to him as he started to walk. Silvia bounced past, jostling him and upsetting the rhythm of his walk. She always refused to walk next to him, always bouncing ahead and then waiting. He found this rather annoying, but continued to follow her, hoping that she would someday realize how this wounded him.

She launched into a memory of her grandmother. Something about how when she had visited her in New Hampshire this grammy had dropped a china dish: the whole thing had dissolved into a mound of china and loose sugar. He did note that she completely forgot a preamble: the initial seed of the story was her grandmother's sugar bowl, he had to infer. He also noticed how blond her hair was. Even in the rain and under the clouds it still looked pale and bright. Did she dye it? Would she dye it if it turned grey? Would she pout if he asked her about her hair? He had heard that some of the women, especially the ones at Cambridge, got annoyed if you asked them what they did to look more womanish.

The more he thought about it the more he wanted to know why these hypothetical women (first) bothered to look attractive in a California sort of way when they lived in England? (Second) why they would be offended if you noticed these attempts at transatlantic fashion? And (third) because a woman is at college, should she have traded her make-up for her mind? . His mother had traded gardening for cigarettes and television. Women have facets, he was quick to note, but they often choose to be one of the facets over the other due to time and circumstance. He wondered if Sylvia was the same when they were together as she was. . .

Suddenly she bumped into him, or rather, she discontinued moving and he bounced into her. He winced slightly, his breath hissing out between his teeth. He realized just in time that Silvia was trying to kiss him and was able to clench his lips shut in time. Momentarily his lungs screamed for air and he leaned into her. As they pulled away he gasped to compensate for the momentary lack of access to oxygen. He looked down through his glasses at her face, saw just in time the panic that flashed through her eyes and the shudder in her shoulders as her youthful body registered his weakness.

"F***," he mumbled. Unfortunately she heard him and apologized profusely, truing her face away to hide her embarrassment. In that moment her face was framed as if in a series of photographs. His mind seemed to have slowed her down so each movement was clear and still. The angle of her chin as she gazed into a puddle seemed to suddenly burn into his retina, as if a flash bulb had gone off and all that was left of his vision was an iced vision of her in negative.

Why did it have to be her? Why was she the one who was able to do this to him? He felt his fists clench in the pockets of his jacket and his eyes narrowed. He momentarily wished violence on her upbeat attitude, her endless energy -- he relished the idea of her joy cracking and unhappiness flooding into her. . . it would drown her whole, she would snap like a dry branch and retch like a kitten and fall to pieces like leaves in unhappiness. She was much too weak to understand the play of weakness and power, like magnets. She was simply a flower pressed between the pages of a book. He held her smashed and stationary between his pages. But she was a lily. Beautiful creatures, at their core they are rebels, turning brown and withering at the first change of weather.

Was it now that he loved her? Did she even love him? Was this a joke? were they just staving off mutual boredom by their time together? It doesn't matter, he thought. . . all I have is time.

* * *

She moved the heavy cartridge on the typewriter, its gears humming and growling in resistance, while giving of puffs or rancid oil. Like an old man forced to shuffle off his bench seat when he runs out of breadcrumbs to throw at the geese, it left little farts of resistance in the air. The lethargic machine finally ratcheted into position. But her fingers refused to issue the loud clanking noises that were the only thing to drown out the electrical humming. She could not focus on writing.

Every few moments her mind would dart away to thoughts of him. His eyes are brown and shielded behind wire-rimmed glasses, jumped to his letter that was opened on the bureau next to her bed. Like a fly that rests for a bit, then launches itself at a closed window buzzing madly, her thoughts refused to settle enough to allow words to flow. He was all that she could think of.

Richard. The way he spoke made her heart flutter in her stomach. She had never met someone who said exactly what she was thinking in her head right before she said it. Her mouth would hang open for a moment then twist into a smile, as he would observe some queer situation, that she had never noticed, but found blindingly true. They had discussed the new Huxley novel in great depth. Both were shocked that love could be taken at face value by any society; it was so much more complicated than that.

In that conversation, she realized that she did want more than comfort: she wanted God, poetry, real danger, freedom, goodness and sin.* Most of all she wanted Richard. Every time she was near him all of her thoughts went fuzzy; it was only later that they could be ordered into witty remarks and coherent words. She clung to the notion of accepting unhappiness because that would make life with Richard worth living.

He was far from her version of perfect. Mainly, his sickly disposition shocked and frightened her youthful spirit. If all obstacles meant nothing, maybe she could get over his disposition, but it sat in the back of her mind, like a frightening premonition that she did not know the outcome of. She craved the feelings he gave her, he made her soul come to life, yet she could not stifle the repugnance she felt for his outward appearance.

Richard seemed to sense her reluctance and would withdraw into a black depression. He would sulk away from her advances into conversation like a petulant child. These bits of melancholy had her perpetually on her toes, not knowing what to expect from him. It was dizzying. He pulled her along like a tornado, always swirling up, but yanking at the foundations of what she knew.

She was caught between the beautiful creature she had in her mind and the real, and fragile man she faced. She constantly wondered if she could go on living with the two separate men. Could her delusions, for she honestly thought that her love was a delusion, really sustain her if it only existed in her imagine action?

The typewriter clanked. Without realizing it, her finger had punched "D".

* Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Harper Perennial, New York, NY: 1969. paraphrase p. 112.


Mirrors

by Bennet Roper

Childhood for me was a lot about asking questions. My father knew the answers to everything. As a seven-year-old I would sit at the dinner table for hours asking all about the ways and means of the things around me. The answer I elicited from him was often followed by some annoyance as his southern roots would not allow him to answer a question ether quickly or directly. But I persisted anyways.

There was always pride associated with my questions, if I asked a good one he would smile and say how proud he was. Little conspiratorial things like that worked for the two of us, I got his approval and he got to prove his knowledge and opinions, which I believe is a slight character flaw, that I myself have acquired.

But in reality there is a distinct difference between parents and children. Death means nothing to the young.

I recall sitting in the back seat of his white pick-up and discovering pink razors in the center console. Among the ever-present notebook where he would record his fuel economy (in which I was strictly not allowed to draw), the collection of pens, and large assemblage of spare change, were the small plastic utensils. Being left alone and bored, I ran the edge of my thumb across the blade. The feel of my skin pulling apart was not unduly shocking considering the implications, but I remember the blood started to run down my forearm and into the blue shorts I was wearing. After that I do not remember.

The silly things we do as a child hardly matter as we begin to think of ourselves as adults, but still we children know what it feels like to press a knife blade to our thumb. To feel precisely the moment and the amount of pressure it takes to separate the cells and tissues and expose a rivulet of blood: not in any suicidal way, but in the way it feels to be so intensely attached to life.

Years later I watched my father watch his father die. Yet the moment I met him in the airport, after rushing 3,000 miles to be there for him, he said how beautiful I was. The living, breathing, person in front of him clearly took his breath away more than the box we would place in the ground three days later. There is a large measure of cruelty in observing these things.

Yet I felt so alien, watching a piece of all of us disappear, and having the fabric of our family try to pull together around the hole. My body, my brain, my heart excised so entirely inside my own universe that dealing with the loss of my ancestor could only be accepted at face value. The tears and pain did leak from me constantly but I was not broken or debilitated by the loss. This feeling, when I sat and tried to look at it from the outside, was terrifying.

I was not incomplete; he was a part of me, physically I came from him, but his loss was not as breaking for me because it was not a two-way street. What my father saw, was replaced by the part of him still clinging to life. Me. Having him need me to be a part of his existence was sad, but didn't feel wrong. Because the hole that was created in myself healed. Whereas my father was left with another chunk of his being gone. Forever dissolved.

The central nature of youth cannot see loss truly because it does not exist outside of itself: a closed system that knows what death is, but cannot face it. But what terror I felt was not for the memory of my grandfather, or for the stoic-ness that would soon return itself to my father's features, but for the intense way in which he needed the connection to his daughter. And for the knowledge that, one day, I would have to face that type of need.


Rocky Start

by Madi Lowe

I searched and headed straight for the books, an item found at every garage sale. Before I had made any sort of progress, something shiny caught my eye. This weird rock that looked like it had glittery copper growing out of it in crystals stopped me in my tracks. It was three dollars. At ten years old, I could manage that.

Then and there, I was hooked. I would wander around, watching the ground for rocks that caught my fancy. I was selective. Not just any little stone made its way into my collection, but they were added for many different reasons: I liked the smooth roundness of one or the luster of another, and so the collection grew and grew for years, until my mother discouraged this idea, mainly because she didn't want a house full of rocks, so my curiosity ebbed slowly away.

* * *

Five days and eighty miles down a remote desert river in Utah, I can barely contain my excitement. I wake up one morning long before Gerrit and Ana, to find Jim sitting on one of the duckies starting up the Jetboil for some coffee. It's silent, besides the quiet rippling of the river and Jim's tinkering. It is comfortable, so I sit down on the ducky next to him. Watching the sun rise, illuminating the canyon, I quiz myself on rock layers as the sun reaches each one: Navajo Sandstone, Moenkopi, Kayenta (Ana rises and starts to bustle around), Windgate Sandstone, Chinle. I check with Jim to make sure I am right. He says by the last day, we should get into some Whiterim Sandstone. Formations and layers of rock begin to establish themselves in my excitement as the trip goes by.

From one of her countless books on this river, Ana announces we are hiking into a canyon today. We eat and she and Jim wander off into the canyon, leaving Gerrit and me to explore the canyon together. After the inordinate amount of time Gerrit takes to wake up and become a person again, I drag him in the direction of the canyon.

After about five minutes, my mind is blown. In portions, my five-foot wingspan can stretch across and touch both sides of rust-colored, sculpted walls. Hollow areas invite us to we can climb up a ways, or to sit on ledges for a snack break. Knowing that nothing manmade has taken part in this construction really fascinates me. Every day I am surrounded with the beauty of things manmade; its rare for me to see something so completely pure and untouched.

It gives me chills. I almost start crying. Marveling at the picturesque quality of this natural-made wonder, I know that many people will never see the likes of it in their entire lives. We spend hours climbing, wandering, and exploring this canyon, even finding a nice cool spot on which to stretch out and nap.

The little girl with her funny little three-dollar rock will always win. Had there been any doubts before, they were gone now. Geology was something I had always wanted to learn more about. I knew without a doubt rocks would be worth the pursuit.


Discovery

by Bennet Roper

I remember digging through her closet; finding three paper bags full of empty Budweiser cans. They clinked together, rattling sadly in their forgotten nature, greeting me mournfully. They must have known that the darkness was only a temporary hiding place; it wouldn't take long for a child to come and disturb their rest. I remember being that child, digging in the dark, searching for a pair of musty heels to complete my oversized outfit.

* * *

Letters from prisons always come pre-opened. This means that there is a slit that is haphazardly taped over, by some uninterested deputy just doing his job, on every single letter you get. This, for all I know, promotes safety, for both the inmates and the people with whom they are trying to communicate.

It seems slightly odd receiving letters from your fifty-something, red-faced mother in a state penitentiary for felony parole violations. Everyone is subjected to this mandated openness. There are no number of stranger's eyes that can change the fact that the letter itself is full of lies; but at least I know that there are other people in the world who have had to read her sadly delusional literature.

I wish this letter were true; it really would be grand if my mother believed in "integrity in honesty," but obviously no. When one has to clarify and justify that "Two Beers" constitutes Two Years there is clearly something being invented. Maybe she believes that chanting the same phrase over and over will somehow make it true. I really hope those words from in her letter make her happy, because at this point they are not for me. She is the only one now who imagines them to be genuine.

Anyone can read words, can believe them. They look the same in the light and the dark. They are meaningless.

What we make of them matters. I will pull myself forward, while she slips behind. She will not be there to see me graduate -— to see me off to college -— she will not see this part of my life that will occupy the next two years. In some ways, I will miss her, but it just can't be.

Then again, the person I am this second will not attend my graduation, see me off to college, or occupy any part of my life ever again. Words like these are temporary markers of time, standing alone. What truth lies open to later dark closet explorers? What truth convinces those who believe that heels make every borrowed outfit look better?


Mercy

by Bennet Roper

Damp grayness painted a desolate landscape. Chilly fall air had killed all the grass, which lay in a state of stiff decay, its golden color leaching out into crystallized snow. Two children pushed a wheelbarrow of a startling red color out to a slash pile, emptying ash in a puff on the ground. On their struggle back home, a black cat with yellow eyes preceded them.

A little vole stuck its whiskered snout out of muddy ground, its silken fur swirling in currents of pure, freezing air. The children looked down at scuffed boots and pulled cotton sweaters closer around them. They noticed the twitching creature. Ditching the cumbersome wheelbarrow, the two ran to the little mouse. It tried to throw itself down the dark hole that it had emerged from in a desperate measure, but the little girl stomped the escape shut, hearing the crunch as snow compacted around the thing. It was trapped, its sunless back exposed to her little green eyes.

Not knowing what to do, she brushed the back of the little creature, feeling its heart tremble under satiny fur, her little fingers trembling to match. Her brother put a hand on her shoulder, pulling her back, not saying anything. The two turned away and prepared to continue their journey, forgetting for an instant the struggling life of the vole. Before they were five feet away, they heard a snap.

The cat had splintered the spinal cord of the little animal; red blood ran onto the snow and through the whiskers of the predator. Through the barley audible chorus of crunches and gushes, the little girl made the boy promise to tell no one. She felt the vague sweep of discomfort, the mist of cruelty hovering over her blond hair, but she returned to the wheelbarrow and her home.

* * *

My director pulls me aside: "We need to find a way to tone this down, you are too extreme." We chat, the script laid out in front of us. She tells me how proud she is of me, and asks if my mother will be able to make it. I brush off the question, saying I don't even know where she is. She replies: "I have been thinking a lot about Debbie, she should be here. . . Goddammit Debbie!" I smile weakly. This feels patronizing, knowing that this drama teacher may have taken a special interest in me all these years because she pities me. She is one of the few adults I still interact with regularly who knows my mother better than I do. One of the ones who awkwardly says, "your mom. . . I mean Erin…" when speaking of my step-mom, nearly every time I have a conversation with her.

I go backstage and shake off the discomfort, feeling like a fraud to the people who chat and swirl around me. Maybe I am just a joke, a pitiful charity-case to the well-meaning woman who has cast me in this part. As I continue through the warm-up before the production, this emotion fades. I become one with the chaotic brain of the cast; I smile and laugh and kiss.

As the final scene of the tragedy concludes, I quell the tremors of emotion that I use to show believable pain. I dash out onto the stage and take a bow holding hands with my fellow cast members, feeling the togetherness with the people around me. As the applause fades I step down to meet my parents. I hug my father. He is staring silently at me. I turn to Erin. She has tears running down her face; I hug her. I suddenly feel the impulse to cry in reaction.

My father pulls me aside, "I have never seen that side of you." I smile, shaking hands with the people who are compulsorily thanking me. He remarks to the strangers who surround him: "I learn something new about my daughter every day." Something about how his eyes never leave me makes me feel uncomfortable, he looks stoic, but his eyes penetrate me. What can the man who gave me life possibly be searching for or learning from me in this moment?

The support of my parents feels great. Later, the afterglow of the performance surrounds me as I walk to my car.

Suddenly, as the seatbelt clicks around me, I break. Something inside of me snaps. Screaming sobs claw their way up my throat. They range from deep guttural howls to piercing cries, all of which are uncontrollable. I drive home knowing that I should pull over but I have no control. I am just on autopilot as my body weeps out.

By the time I reach home my sobs have become a sort of chant: it's like she is dead, it's like she is dead. In the six years it has been since I have seen her I have never missed her, and never had a problem with that. All there has ever been is anger. After all this time I have never wanted her to be a part of something before, like I do now. I feel broken, incomplete. Everything feels wrong. The knowledge of my emptiness makes every fiber of my being want to split apart.

I realize that the little child who turned away from the dying, pathetic rodent is still my essence. I could not feel the intolerable cruelty of my reaction to the dying creature or to my mother's choices because I didn't know they were cruel. In that moment I rest my head against the cold plastic of center console of my car, still at last. I can see where the child I used to be once stood and watched death first-hand. I am an old woman stuck in a child's head.


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