This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2020 by Alice Kinerk
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One day you’re an average kid. The next, you’re an octopus.
That’s what it felt like to me, Jay Everton, right after I turned fourteen.
The day before everything changed is an almost perfectly normal, ho-hum day, the first Friday in September. I am in eighth grade. I am an average kid. Average height, average brown hair, average looks, average smarts, average in my ability to throw a ball. And, like I said, about to turn fourteen.
That morning I wake up to Mom shouting at the neighbor’s chickens in the backyard. Every morning for the past week, two bantam chickens and a Blue Silkie (the kind with feathered legs like pajama bottoms) have wandered over from where they lived in the neighbor’s garage across the street, taken the long way behind our tire swing, slipped into mom’s garden and nibbled our arugula.
Every morning she’s shaking the broom at them and shouting.
Breakfast (oatmeal, normal) makes its plop and splatter sounds on the woodstove. Dad is hunched over the kitchen table shoveling food into his mouth, late for his job at the community college (also normal). Mom half-watches the stove, half-watches the arugula, and at the same time is replacing the mantle on the propane lantern she and Dad carry from room to room every night after eight when Tacoma’s electricity gets shut off.
Laundry steams in a metal washtub beside the couch. A single Monopoly dollar, having escaped the box, is curled up alongside dust bunnies underneath the coffee table. It’s been a warm September, warm enough that the windows are still open overnight, and from my spot in the kitchen I can hear Mr. Messerman next door hollering up the stairs at his son Chase (my best friend) to get up right this instant!
Everything normal, everything average, everything just as it’s expected to be.
There is only one out-of-the-ordinary thing about the day before I became an octopus: I am in love.
The first day of school is the first time I saw her. Washington State History class, first period. Front row, slumped low, wearing a stiff green army jacket, much too big, as if she had arrived at school the right size, then shrunk. Blond hair, straight as straw. Dark eyes, both in color and intent. Arms crossed over a backpack that should have already been in her locker. Nothing moving but her gaze.
She is beautiful. She is a flower, still half-hidden inside a green stem, while the rest of us are mushrooms. Everyone else sees her, too. You can tell by the way they leave three feet of awkward space around her while shrieking their first-day hellos. Safe to say the students of Pierce Middle School don’t know what to make of a new kid. Lovely people don’t exactly get up and move to soggy old Tacoma every day.
I stand there, caught by boring people telling me about their boring summers, until the bell rings and I am forced to sit.
I am listening while the teacher takes attendance, listening while the teacher selects another girl to help Sarah find her locker, work the combination, and put her bag inside. Needless to say, I hear nothing else that period and very little from the next five classes either. Turns out Sarah is only in my history class and nothing else.
Nothing except my mind. I just can’t stop thinking about that girl. I think about Sarah as the teachers read through the same rules and consequences as last year, rattling off all the things we could do wrong and all the things they’d do to us if we did them.
I think about her as I am eating, wondering where in our push-and-shove cafeteria she’d sit down, wondering what she had brought for lunch, or if she’s sitting there with nothing to eat, having assumed that the schools in Tacoma still make lunch for the students. (Does any school in the country still make lunch for the students?) I try to spot her in the hallway after the final bell rang, or out front as students came streaming out the front doors and filled up the street.
Wednesday night I have a dream that the two of us hold hands in the scotch broom forest. That’s what Chase calls the old parking lot around the back of the school. A bunch of weeds and windblown trash and six foot tall scotch broom plants, anything tough enough to grow in the cracks of ancient pavement. Not really a forest, but once you’re inside you can’t see anything of school except the roof.
That’s all it is, holding hands, but it is perfect. Sarah’s hand is larger than my sister Flossie’s, and doesn’t get sweaty like hers gets either. I notice that in the dream.
“This is where kids come to be kids,” I say. And when I look up, the forest has turned into a real forest. Tall trees and mossy logs and ferns everywhere. And we walk in, side by side, hand in hand.
Have you ever woken up and wanted to cry because the happiest moment of your life is just a dream?
On Thursday I see Sarah again in first period. I saw nothing else of first period of course, and I don’t see her again all day.
Then, that first Friday of grade eight, the day I didn’t know would be the last normal one of my life, I’m walking down 6th Avenue with Chase as we have done every day for years and years.
I feel good because this morning I have a list of things to talk to Sarah about. I could ask her about her family. I could ask where she came from, the name of her city, or why she moved. I could ask her what her favorite class is, or how she likes Tacoma, or what she likes to do outside of school. I could ask her if her old school still cooked lunches for the students, and whether they were good. My heart thumps with possibilities.
From a block back, Flossie yells we’re walking too fast. She never wants to be close enough to make it look like we’re together, but she won’t get far enough back that she can’t catch up with a few steps running. Problem is, she has to stop and poke at all sorts of things that she has no business poking at.
Today, for example, she is squatting over the broken pipe on Thurston Avenue that’s been bubbling up a red-brown goo for the past month and smells like dead rodents.
Flossie’s dropping sticks into it.
I cup my hands over my mouth and yell. “Stop being stupid”.
“I’m not being stupid. I’m helping fix this pipe. I’m plugging it.”
“Don’t you know every breath of that stink takes three months off your life?”
Flossie frowns, deciding whether or not to believe me. Then she burrows her nose into her shirt collar and runs.
One day in December last year, Mom quit walking Flossie back and forth to school every day and decided to make me do it instead. That might not sound like a big deal, but it was. It was a big deal for my mom and dad. Because Flossie was kidnapped once, as a baby.
Of course, no one was ever caught. It happened at the old Kmart while mom was talking to the guy there selling vegetables. One minute she was in the stroller taking a nap and the next minute she was gone.
It was a week before we got her back, and only then because they had deposited her with a couple of old people who couldn’t explain how a baby girl wound up on their porch rocker or why they’d spent the past week caring for her like she was theirs.
Flossie remembers none of it, of course, and the only thing I remember is riding in an actual car (a police car!) for the one and only time in my life.
Now, nine years later, Mom and Dad still act like there is a bad guy behind every street corner. Here I am a teenager, and other than going to school I can’t do more than walk next door to Chase’s without one or the other of them coming with me.
They listen to the radio, they hear about a gang of Phoenix beating people up in Seattle or Olympia, and they convince themselves the two of us are next. They complain to each other about how the police never drive their patrol cars around the neighborhood anymore, that there’s no security cameras, no 911, no way to stop the Phoenix from taking over. They make a hobby of worrying.
To be honest, up until a couple years ago I got nervous when I heard a car come rumbling up beside us. I had a habit of grabbing onto Mom or Dad’s hand and squeezing my eyes shut until the car had passed. It wasn’t like I was scared or anything, I just prefer quiet. There is something about the sound of an engine I will never get used to. It’s like a beast on the verge of a giant roar, peaceful for now, but always ready to swallow you up.
Anyway, with parents like mine, you have to be very careful about what you tell them. I will not be telling them about the creepy black car with the dark windows that puttered along beside us on the way to school yesterday. It’s probably some old guy getting nostalgic about his school days.
Old people have no idea how dumb they look all caught up in the past. We have a neighbor who has basically turned his front lawn into a museum for his cars, and spends time every single day with a pair of large scissors, clipping the grass around the tires, as if he might just jump in and drive away any time.
The guy following us yesterday probably thinks kids are too busy staring at their cell phones to notice a car engine, forgetting that cell phones are rare as gasoline.
Rich folks and government have their sat phones, and for all they care the rest of us can get by on smoke signals and carrier pigeons, or so Mom says.
“Did I tell you about the ping-pong table in the scotch broom forest?” Chase says all of a sudden. “Someone must have hidden it there over the summer. It’s a good one. Flat and smooth. No peeling. And the balls are good, too! Not one dent. You’ve got to see them bounce.”
I nod goodbye to Flossie at the elementary school, and a few minutes later we’re coming around the corner to Pierce. Chase cuts right, ducking around the back of the building toward the scotch broom forest, and I follow.
“I missed this place,” I say. The scotch broom grew a lot over the summer. Get big fast so no one can rip you out by the roots. That’s evolution. The seeds have popped their shells during the hottest days of the summer, and the left-behind husks cling to the stringy fronds, fuzzy and black as rotten fruit.
“Let’s check out the ping-pong table.”
It’s almost nine. “Not now.”
“Yes, now. You haven’t wanted to do anything I wanted to do for a week.”
For as long as I can remember Chase and I had been friends. And, for as long as I can remember, he had been the one to discover things and show them to me. Chase found the rope swing out by Salmon Beach. Chase found the tuft of grass out back where the neighbor’s chickens had been laying eggs, and dragged me along, wanting me to help chuck them at the old post office. Most of the time, if Chase hadn’t discovered it, he wasn’t interested.
I’ve already decided not to tell him about Sarah. He’d sabotage it. For a best friend, he’s pretty fond of sabotaging things.
In fact, now that I think about it, that’s pretty much what friendship is to Chase: Ruin stuff I like, and get me to like stuff he likes.
From inside of the scotch broom there is the sound of arguing, then laughter. A ball hits the table. “You played after school yesterday?” I ask.
“Nope. Too crowded.” Chase shakes his head. “I came out here during school.”
Chase also likes to make things up. “Sure you did. How’d you convince them to let you out of class?”
“Slipped right out the window during first period.”
“I’m in that class.” I shake my head. “I didn’t see you go.”
Chase wraps both hands around the thin striped trunk of a scotch broom and shakes it like he’s choking someone. Spent husks clatter quietly to the ground. “You didn’t see me not go.”
That’s true. I had walked out of first period by myself yesterday, briefly wondering why Chase wasn’t there complaining about how the class was boring while the teacher was right there to hear it. The thought hadn’t stuck because it had been swallowed up by thoughts of Sarah.
“Getting out is easy.” Chase throws an arm around my shoulder like he’s my dad. “The hard part is getting back in.”
I shake my head, already walking away. “After school.”
“Yellow-bellied jellyfish!” Chase yells.
I keep walking. I have things to do, people to see.
A few minutes later, once I am in the same room with Sarah, my heartbeat quickens. I try to think of a question to ask her, but all my interesting questions walked out the moment I walked into the room.
Then the worst happens. There I am, standing three feet from her desk, trying to dig up a question to ask, even just one single interesting question, when she raises her chin from the cavernous army jacket and looks at me.
Right at me, hard.
She even frowns a little, like she can see inside to my hummingbird heart.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” Sarah says.
Performance over. I take my seat.
The bell rings, Mrs. Markus goes to close the door, and just then Chase comes running in, out of breath, nearly colliding with her. Mrs. Markus is annoyed.
Chase pats me on the head as he slides past.
Mrs. Markus hands out our Washington State History textbooks and tells us to skim through them to get an idea of what we will be learning.
I am always quiet in class, and most kids are going to be pretty quiet on the first few days, getting used to things, but Sarah’s hand shoots right up. “I’m interested in the picture on the next-to-last page.”
Pages flop as thirty-odd kids turn to the back of the book. There, under the heading Washington State Today, is a photo of the two American college students who had gone backpacking overseas fifteen years ago and never came back.
Maybe Sarah hadn’t heard about them, but the story is legend in our house. The backpackers were important because it was their disappearance that caused our government to send troops into three different countries–Middle East oil producer countries with whom we are not exactly friends–looking for them.
I don’t know everything that happened, but a week after troops went in to look, a bomb blew up the White House, the East Coast was evacuated, and that was the end of Before.
Luckily, when the bomb hit, the president happened to be touring his underground bunker.
After that there was no more business relationships with Middle East countries. The only oil used in America comes from America. There’s not much oil in America, not like there used to be, and a lot of what we do have is stored in reserves.
Next to the photo is a map of the Middle East showing all the familiar countries: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, alongside the bunched-up neighbor countries with unpronounceable names. The map is covered with dots, bright red like chicken pox. There’s a caption. Red represents former OPEC nations with whom U.S. oil trade has ended. Washingtonians have demonstrated ingenuity and leadership in adapting to modern ways of life.
As much as I’ve heard my parents talk about Brent Andersen and Kaylee Leigh, I’ve never seen a picture of them before. I didn’t realize they were from Seattle, political science students at the University of Washington, same place Mom and Dad met, way back when. It must have been Spring when the photo in the textbook was taken, because behind them are two long rows of cherry trees, frilly pink blossoms giving the picture an eerie cheer.
Brent and Kaylee. Kaylee and Brent. Their names knock around in my head like pebbles in a jar. They look happy. Were they just friends? Were they in love? Either way they did not look like two people about to go missing, create an international conflict, or wind up destroying the nation’s oil supply. And no oil, of course, means no cars, no ferry boats to Seattle. No international trade. No oil makes the world smaller, and at the same time, so much more big.
It’s weird to think if they were still alive they would be my parents’ age.
“The picture you chose interests me, too, Sarah.” Mrs. Markus sets her mouth in a frown. “Think about it. These two kids go to the Middle East for the adventure of a lifetime, and what happens but they land right in the hornets’ nest.”
“They have hornets in the Middle East?” Chase blurts.
Mrs. Markus looked surprised. “No.” Then she shook her head. “Yes. I don’t know. It’s a metaphor.”
I watch Chase smirk and look around the room for acknowledgement.
“The point is, it was the actions of these two kids that brought about the beginning of the end. The end of the way things used to be, Before.”
“These jerks ruined Before? Can I draw mustaches on them?” Chase holds up his pencil like he’s expecting her to say yes.
Mrs. Markus shakes her head, not impatient yet, or just hiding it. “Of course not. They aren’t the enemy. They’re victims like the rest of us.”
Chase flips a couple pages. “Then who can I draw mustaches on?”
“Put the pencil down. You won’t find any villains in our Washington State History book. The real bad guys live far away.” She holds up the textbook and runs her finger over the middle-east chickenpox. “Here. Greedy heads of state who want all remaining oil for themselves, and don’t care what happens to innocent Americans. They brought about the end of Before, not us.”
Mrs. Markus points to a kid behind me. “Charlie?”
“But there are bad people here too?”
“Yes. There are some people who call themselves Americans, but are doing everything they can to be Un-American. The Collectivists terrorize our leaders, bully them out of power. They spew anti-government ideas at anyone desperate enough to listen. As you know, there are a lot of desperate people these days, which means there’s a lot of people who will listen.”
“No one knows for sure, but it’s likely Collectivists who destroyed the Columbia River Dam, so you have them to thank for the fact that the electricity goes off each night.” Mrs. Markus pauses like she is deciding whether or not to move on. “They shot a representative from Yakima last winter, remember?”
No one says anything. I rack my brain, wanting to be the only kid in the class who could recall the incident with her. The term Collectivist I knew I’d heard Dad say, but it had been so long ago I couldn’t remember what he’d said about it.
“And they’ve threatened to kill many more,” Mrs. Markus says.
“Why?” Sarah asks.
“Who knows? I can’t explain the thought process of madmen.”
Mrs. Markus has a round face. Even though she’s at least forty you can still tell what she looked like as a kid. “I would say that the Collectivists believe American capitalism is so messed up we ought to flush it and start something new. And of course they think they’ve got the best ideas about how to do that.”
I am trying to remember what Dad had said about Collectivists. I have a creepy feeling that whatever it was he’d said about them, it was good. I have a feeling Dad likes the Collectivists. And the way he’d talked about them, I knew whoever he had been talking to liked them, too.
Right then and there, listening to Mrs. Markus, a memory bubbled to the surface. And right then and there that memory became secret.
Sarah’s hand is up again but Mrs. Markus doesn’t see it. “What I want you to remember though, is that even the Collectivists are victims. They are wrongheaded, dangerous, and bloodthirsty, but they are victims. No one liked seeing Before end. It scared people and made them sad. Others got mad and wanted action. So, the Collectivists formed. Every villain needs a foe, so the Grand Order of the Phoenix rose up to challenge them. Now we’ve got warring factions, and everyone is scared.”
In the pause before she goes on to give the reading assignment, a faint douk-douk sound floats in from the open window. If I didn’t already know, I might have thought it was a woodpecker, someone’s clacking cart being pushed to a market, maybe a neighbor a block or two away, hammering.
But it isn’t any of those sounds. It is the sound of ping-pong balls hitting a table.
I whip around to look at Chase’s seat.
Friday afternoon I am out of my seat and leaving my last period class before the bell finishes ringing, zipping through the hallway and out the front door. I figure if I take my books home over the weekend I don’t have to stop by my locker, and can wait out front until Sarah appears. I am once again filled to the brim with questions to ask, beginning with “How do you like it at Pierce?” I am so quick that I am literally the first student in the whole school out the door. It feels weird to be out there alone. Too quiet. Too calm.
The door opens for one kid, then another, then about fifty kids come out all at once.
“Jay!” Chase yells from the top of the stairs. “Hurry up!”
I drop my bag, rip my boot lace loose, and get started slowly tying it back up again. I figure I can do that a few times and make it look like I’m not just waiting. I keep tying like I didn’t hear.
“Jay! Jay Everton! Jellyfish Jay! Are you deaf? Hurry up before someone else starts playing first.”
I move on to the other boot. Unlace, tie, unlace.
Chase is beside me now. “You said you’d do it after school.”
Just then Sarah appears. I see her in the doorway, then I can’t see her as a half-dozen girls push past, then I see her again walking down the steps.
“Not now. I’ll come over after dinner.”
Chase shakes his head. “Mom needs me to carry water in from the pump on Ninth after dinner. And there’s nothing to do at my house. I wanna play ping-pong.”
“Monday!” I am already halfway to the street.
“What if I’m not your friend Monday?” Chase calls after me.
I ignore him. Chase also likes to make vague threats. Planting myself in the middle of the street, I look one way as far as I can. Every square foot of the street is filled with kids. I scan the back of a hundred heads, scan for blond hair, a green army jacket. Nothing. I look the other way and it’s the same, like a swirl of tiny fishes all swimming together. Swimming away. Too many kids to spot just one.
Back at the stairs, Chase is talking to a sixth grader, pointing toward the back of the school. I watch them trot off happily together toward the scotch broom forest.
I was the first one out the door of the school, and now I am the last kid leaving school. I didn’t even get to talk to Sarah, and Chase found someone else to play ping-pong with.
Everybody is moving away from me like I’m a rock and they’re the water.
Maybe this is the first sign the plank is about to end.
Not yet, but soon.
Soon I become the octopus.
The Octopus Under the Bridge will be available on Amazon August 1st, 2020!
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