Friday, May 1, 2009

FICTION: Invisible Children

Another quiet day at the office, another little piece of fiction. This is in response to Pictures, Poetry & Prose's Thursday challenge: There She Sat. The picture really spoke to me and reminded me of some of my own teenaged angst, so this one's a little personal.

As always, feedback/criticism/comments are always welcome. :)

Invisible Children

Cassie likes the playground because it is quiet.

Not all the time, obviously. During the day, it's crammed full of snot-nosed brats shoving each other off swings while their airbrushed mommies gossip about American Idol and so-and-so's latest tummy tuck. Disgusting.

But once the sun starts setting, it's different. Better. Silent. Sure, there are still people around: some ugly ten-year-old looming on the monkey bars like a ginger god, a suburban mom in a velour jogging suit texting furiously on a bench (totally oblivious to the fact that her daughter's eating sand), two older kids furtively exchanging money and weed by the fence. They're all off in their own little worlds, too self-involved to notice anything but their own lives.

This suits Cassie just fine. She doesn't want to be noticed. She wants to be invisible. She's gotten really good at it; she knows just how to duck her face behind her long, dark hair and disappear inside bland, oversized sweatshirts. The hunch of her shoulders is expert: don't bother me, don't look at me, don't acknowledge my own existence. She's just a shadow slumped on the end of the slide, a silhouette as muddied and murky as the pond on the other side of the fence.

Her parents are fighting again. They're always fighting. They act like they don't (oh, honey, you know I love your dad, nothing's going to happen, we're just fine), but Cassie knows better. She can feel the tension when she walks in the front door, can taste the alcohol in her mom's good night kisses. They try to hide it from her, restrict their arguments to behind-closed-doors, but the venomous strains of their voices waft into Cassie's room via the air conditioning vent, leaving her with hazy snippets of accusations.

… that office more than you love …

… raised a manipulative little bitch just like her mother …

… don't you touch me, I'll call the …

Don't get her wrong – she's not complaining. So her parents hate each other. No big deal. Nothing to get all worked up about (even though it hurts, oh, it really, truly hurts). Cassie knows kids with worse problems. One of her friends had an uncle who touched her when she was four. Another friend won't get changed in the gym locker room because of the bruises her step-dad leaves behind. And another friend—

Except they're not her friends. Not anymore. Not since they all started high school and decided that Cassie had the easiest life, the most reason to be happy. Her parents have money. They're still married (although Cassie's beginning to wonder how long that'll last). She's fashionably skinny and gets solos in the school choir recitals. She's on the honor roll.

Clearly, Cassie sucks.

So they turned on her. Her friends stopped calling. They sent texts behind her back about how her solos are always just a little flat, how she had "book smarts" but was too naïve. They even started a vicious rumor that Cassie was a lesbian, prompting all the kids at the bus stop to throw stones at her one day after school.

That was when Cassie decided to disappear.

That's all she wants, really. She just wants to vanish into thin air, where no one can make fun of her for things she knows aren't true (but what if they are?), where her parents can't touch her (even though they never do). She keeps her head down in class and turns in average work so that no one can say she's too smart anymore. She swathes her pretty body in baggy, neutral colors so no one will mistake her for being attractive. She smiles brightly at her parents and tries to give them all the right answers, hoping her false cheer will keep them from arguing about her. She asks for nothing. She makes no demands. She just wants to be invisible.

But even that's a lie. Cassie doesn't want to disappear. Cassie wants to scream. She wants to cry and rage and pound her fists against every wall she can find. She wants to howl her sorrow at the world, wants everyone to know that she's sad, she's miserable, she's falling apart at the seams.

And more than anything else, she wants someone to hear her. Someone who will put a hand on her shoulder and tell her it's okay, she's allowed to be upset, she has permission to be hurt. She wants someone to tell her that she's human, not a shadow or a scapegoat, and she has every right to feel like crap because everybody does.

But no one's there. The playground's almost empty now. The drug dealers have finished their trade; the cell phone addict has gone home to wash the sand out of her kid's mouth. Now it's just Cassie on the slide and that freckle-faced goober on the monkey bars.

Cassie stares at the kid for a moment. It's almost eight now. Where are his parents? Shouldn't someone have run up looking for their son, their precious baby, their beloved treasure? Doesn't anybody care about him? Doesn't anybody care at all?

Suddenly, the kid turns his head and looks back at her. They lock eyes for a moment, loner to loner, and Cassie reads the yearning in his eyes with ease. She knows that look well. She sees it every day in her mirror, but seeing it on someone else's face …

Cassie swallows and summons up her courage. "Hey," she calls to the little boy.

The boy frowns at her, already distrustful at such a tender age. "Yeah?"

"You want to play on the jungle gym?"

He thinks about it for a second and then breaks out into a grin. "Okay."

So they play for a while, just two kids on a jungle gym, laughing as the sun goes down behind them.

Nobody notices.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

FICTION: Direction

It's fairly quiet at the office right now, so I took a little time and wrote. In response to Pictures, Poetry & Prose's challenge, The Square, here's this:


I stood in the square alone, but you already know this. After all, you were the one who left me there, your fingers slipping through my own, your mouth brushing softly against my ear. You left me with words, but the rain was too heavy and swept them away. I never heard you. I just felt the hot breath of your intentions. When I turned my head to ask you what, you were already gone.

I didn't understand then. You were right there. I could still smell you, aftershave and tobacco smoke, still curled around my being. You were there, and then you were gone. Like a ghost, a spirit, but you were real. I could have sworn that you were real.

But then my eyes opened, and I think it must have been for the first time, because I saw things in such clarity that it made you transparent in retrospect. Bright electric bulbs. Black puddles of hot spring water. And the people, oh, the people, surrounding me in a press of late-night bargaining, their voices rising and reverberating against the stone walls with a strength you never had. They were real that night, so real it actually hurt, because it made me realize that you were never there at all.

I didn't look for you. I knew there was no point. You were a fantasy, a figment of my wildness. You were something I fell in love with when the world was too big for me to comprehend. Even if I'd found you in the crowd that night, I don't think I would have followed. You wouldn't have wanted that, anyway.

So I opened my eyes. I breathed in, breathed out. I asked a man wearing an old trench coat where I was.

He smiled at me and it was shiny like gold. "Don't you know, sweetheart?"

And I did.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Busy, Crazy World

I know I've been a little quiet recently; work's been very crazy, very busy, and I spent most of my weekend helping my younger brother with his job hunt. But hopefully things are settling down a little, so I have time to write again. :)

I've also been following the swine flu news. First of all, stop panicking. The media feeding frenzy on this story is getting ridiculous. Yes, it's news. Yes, it's something to be concerned about, and certainly something worth monitoring. But there's no need to panic. It's still very early in the investigation, and the strain has proven to be responsive to common medicines like Tamiflu. The high schoolers in New York City didn't even need anti-viral medication. So please, don't overreact just yet. Monitor the news, keep abreast of the situation, wash your hands frequently and cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. But don't break out the little masks just yet.

Instead, pick up a copy of John M. Barry's The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. It's an utterly fascinating read about the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 100 million people in less than two years. Barry's histories are always excellent (check out Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America - a very prescient work in light of what happened on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005), and this book is no different. It's a meticulously-researched story of medicine, war, and human nature, illuminating a chapter of history that many people aren't aware of. It's also a bit eerie in the sense that the 1918 flu targeted young, seemingly healthy individuals - the only real parallel I can find thus far between the 1918 outbreak and the current swine flu situation. Great book, great read, very informative and timely.

All in all, it's a pretty day and a good start to the week. So stay safe, and don't freak out. May's just around the corner, and here in Charleston, it already feels like summer.

Monday, April 20, 2009

FICTION: I Summon You

Well, this may not be any shorter/lighter than my earlier post about Columbine, but it's something. Written in response to Marc's Daily Writing Practice prompt from Thursday, April 16, 2009: Take the first two lines from a song, and use them as the first lines in your writing. I chose "I Summon You" by Spoon, because it was the first song that popped into my head. I hope you enjoy it.

Comments/criticism/feedback -- it's always welcome. :)

I Summon You

Spoon - I Summon You

Remember the weight of the world? It's a sound that we used to buy on cassette and 45, you and me driving aimlessly down highways at night, listening to songs written before we were born. My hand on the gearshift, your feet hanging out the open window. We smoked pilfered cigarettes and sang about fortunate sons, gold dust women, and answers blowing in some distant, unknown wind. We sang and smoked until our throats were raw, but we didn't care. We never cared.

We didn't care because we didn't know. How could we? We were just kids. We listened to Bob Dylan because no one else did. We screamed along with Johnny Rotten about anarchy, but we didn't get the concept. When airy pop music by Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys took over the radio, we turned to Britpop and shouted with Jarvis Cocker about how we were common people, never realizing how much money our parents actually made.

After all, it was just music. We liked it because it was pretty. We liked the delicacy of Neil Young's voice, the raging guitars of the Rolling Stones. We loved that great opening rift to The Doors' "Touch Me," you drumming your fists on the dashboard of my shitty old Celica as the song built to a crescendo. The first time you played me Joni Mitchell, I thought she wrote that song about you – you, so beautiful, so deeply ingrained into my heart that I thought you would always be as constant as a northern star. You would always be there, right beside me, and the world would always be just a set of lyrics we didn't need to understand.

And then we grew up.

Remember the weight of the world? It's more than just a sound now, and we can't drive away from it anymore. It's everywhere, blaring from television screens and radios, printed in bold ink on the front pages of newspapers. Terrorists reducing skyscrapers to rubble. Teenagers shooting up schools. Wars we can't win, enemies we can't fight, natural disasters sinking cities, economies falling to pieces, and I feel it all. I feel it all, and God, how I wish I didn't.

I still drive, you know. On those long, restless nights when the worries get to be too much (how will we pay the bills, how can we make ends meet, how can the world be so different than what we thought it was), I leave my wife alone in bed, get in my newer (but still shitty) car, and drive. I take the roads we used to take together, those long, winding highways, and I smoke the cigarettes we used to smoke together.

And I listen to our songs.

I get them now. Experience will do that for a person, I suppose. I think of my brother in rehab, and I know about the needle and the damage done. I know why Dylan used to rasp about war pigs, and I ache for the unfortunate sons who come back from foreign countries without arms or legs or faces. I hear the words and they rattle in my bones, tense and aching, and I wish I was just a kid again. I wish it was just music, like it used to be. I wish …

But oh, where are you tonight? Where is my northern star, my constant in the darkness? Why aren't you here with me, your bare feet catching breezes from the open window, your fingers curled around your cigarettes? Where is your laughter? Where is your voice? Don't you see that I need you? That it was you who made me feel so light? Can't you understand that it was you who kept the world from touching us?

I don't know. I don't know much of anything these days. I thought it was supposed to be different. I thought I'd have the answers by now. But the answers I have only make me hurt, and if this is what growing up is like, I'd rather just be with you again.

So come home. Come back to me. Make me feel young again. Make me who I used to be, before I understood too much, before the world crept in, before the music started killing me. There's still a place for you here, nestled into the passenger seat, stitched into my heart. I need you. I beg you. I've got the weight of the world now, and I summon you here with my love.

But you never come, and the music never stops.

Columbine: Myths, Mistakes, and the Enigma of Violence

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the brutal killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, wherein two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went on one of the worst killing sprees in American history, turning their school into a slaughterhouse. The boys killed twelve of their classmates, one teacher, injured over two dozen, and then turned their guns on themselves.

I remember that day very well. I was a junior in high school, seventeen-years-old, about the same age as both the killers and their victims. I was shopping with my father at Circuit City when all the store employees turned all the television sets onto CNN. We watched in horror as the scene unfolded: bloodied, crying teenagers fleeing their school under flurries of snow; S.W.A.T. teams assembling on playing fields; distraught parents and police. We held our breath in fear as the now-infamous "boy in the window" dangled out of the second-story library and fell to safety below him - I even remember how the newscasters broke away at that point, worried that the boy wouldn't make it. (On a lighter note: I also remember that Columbine taught me to hate Larry King with a furious passion -- his blunt, careless questioning of child witnesses scorched me to the core. Jesus, Larry, they're kids. Stop barking insensitive questions at them like: "So how did it feel to watch your best friend die?" Lord.)

None of us understood it. How could two kids manage to turn an entire school into chaos? How could this happen in America? What did it mean for us as a society? Was there some way of preventing this? Could it happen again? Could it happen to us?

I think a lot of people underestimate the impact that the massacre at Columbine had on American high schoolers at that time. Yes, other disasters such as the 9/11 terror attacks or the Hurricane Katrina fiasco perhaps carried more national/global consequences, but if you went to public school during the Columbine disaster, then you were afraid. At least, I was afraid. It was all my friends and I talked about for weeks: what would we do if our school was suddenly taken over by shooters? Would we hide? Would we run? Would we try to stop them? And who among our peers could be capable of such violence? The kinda-shifty girl with the sword collection? The tubby kid we picked on who always wore camouflage and bragged about pouring deer blood on his face? The semi-goth kids who listened to the same music the Columbine shooters listened to?

And why, why, did this ever happen in the first place?

It was all anyone wondered. Media talking-heads and moral majority leaders pointed fingers at easy targets like Marilyn Manson, Natural Born Killers, and video games like Doom -- all while plastering the faces of Klebold and Harris on the front pages of national magazines and newspapers, turning killers into rock stars while never taking a look at themselves. Copycat shootings occurred, numerous bomb threats were called into schools across the nation, and yet somehow, no one in the media ever asked themselves, "In broadcasting their deeds in such explicit, obsessive detail, did we in fact reward them for their actions? Did we turn two mentally-disturbed teenagers into martyrs?"

No. Instead, rock music, video games, and movies bore the brunt of the blame - as did the general "apathy" of our generation. We were kids with nothing to live for, they said. We had no common cause to unite around, like the sixties generation with their righteous anger towards the Vietnam War, or the Greatest Generation's sacrifices during World War II. Our generation was a bunch of worthless, spoiled, malleable brats who could easily be shaped by fiction and rumors. Klebold and Harris were two "freaks" who'd been bullied by their Abercrombie & Fitch-loving peers, and their weak minds, so easily warped by violence on film and in games, crumbled and vowed revenge.

But that's not what really happened. Not by a long shot.

There's an excellent article on today: Debunking the myths of Columbine, 10 years later. The article goes into detail about some of the myths popularized after the events: that the boys were members of a "Trench-Coat Mafia," that they targeted minorities and people who had bullied them, that they killed a girl for believing in God. Many of the things we believed at the time about Columbine have proven to be untrue -- including the motives behind the attack.

The fact of the matter is this: the boys were sick. The journals they left behind are proof positive that these were not ordinary kids. They suffered from genuine mental illnesses, evidenced by the detached, circular logic of their writing. Harris was a bonafide sociopath, and Klebold suffered from major depression. They did not see their peers as "real people" -- not because they were brainwashed by video games, but because they were sick. In their minds, they were the only "real" people; everyone else was insubstantial, and therefore, killing them was nothing to feel guilty over. These boys were literally mentally ill, and there was nothing anyone could have done to rectify that. 

Could the shooting at Columbine have been prevented? Possibly. Maybe if the parents had seen more. Maybe if the teachers and guidance counselors at the school had taken a greater interest. Maybe if the media hadn't made such a fuss over previous school shooters. Maybe if guns had not been so readily available for these kids ... 

But ah, maybe. Maybe, maybe. We'll never know. Disaster is like that. We'll never know if 9/11 could have been prevented if there had been more interagency cooperation or attention from our nation's leaders. We'll never know if the Katrina disaster could have been averted if local, state, and federal officials had taken the storm more seriously prior to its landfall. We'll never know where our country might be if Al Gore had gotten his recount in 2000, or if we had never invaded Iraq, or if we'd gotten involved in World War II earlier, or if JFK or Martin Luther King hadn't been assassinated, or so on and so on into infinity.

We can't live in what-ifs and fantasy. This history is our reality, and we must come to terms with it as best we can. The massacre at Columbine happened, and will undoubtedly happen again. Just look at what happened at Virginia Tech: another clearly mentally-ill young man shoots up his school in the worst mass shooting in American history -- and has the foresight to send a tape of himself just before the shooting to NBC news.

But it's not the media that causes these tragedies. It's not rock music, or movies, or video games. It's sickness, the kind of sickness that has been a part of humanity for as long as we have existed on this earth, and I think that's what's so hard for so many people to grasp in these tragedies: that there are no simple answers, no smoking guns, no easy prevention.

The truth is this: we will never fully understand what happened in Colorado on April 20, 1999. The hard answers died with the perpetrators and their victims. We will never make sense it all, just as we will never understand how 19 men could hijack airplanes and topple towers, or why an entire nation has been essentially brainwashed by a dictator, or how millions of people could die in systematic genocides throughout history. Sometimes, terrible things just happen, and all we can do is pick up the pieces and continue on with our lives as best we can.

But we should never forget. We cannot forget. And on days like today, when the world stops to remember the victims, we should also remember the perpetrators: not as martyrs, not as heroes, not even as misguided, sick individuals, but as two young boys who will always remain a puzzle to us. Maybe if we remember that nothing comes with an easy explanation, we will be less likely to point fingers or grasp at straw-truths.

I don't know. When I set out to write this post, there was a lot I wanted to say, and I think I've said it -- but what sense have I been able to make of all this? Not very much, I don't think. And maybe that's the point of it all: that it's been ten years, and I still can't come to grips with what happened on a cold day in April.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Give my three hours to President Obama

I'd love to give a somewhat productive answer: give time to my community, take my dogs to the doggie park, finish my book. But honestly, today? I'd take those three hours and get some extra sleep. Another three hours in bed would be so nice today ... *sigh*

So because my hours would be spent so frivolously, here's my request: give my three hours to President Obama. He can use them however he wants: take some more time with the troubled economy, strengthen our international relationships, try to make some sense out of whatever the hell is going on in the Middle East, or just take three more hours out of his excruciatingly busy schedule and spend them with his wife, daughters and brand new puppy. Heck, just give him three extra hours of sleep a night. No matter where you stand on his policies, you've got to admit: that dude has one full plate on his desk, and my sympathies would go to whoever won the election.

So here, Mr. President -- take my three imaginary hours, and do with them what you like. But if I may suggest, don't spend those three extra hours on work. Take them for yourself. Romp with your darling new dog on the South Lawn. Play Nintendo Wii with Sasha and Malia. Curl up with Michelle and take a good, long nap. Read a book -- a fictional book. Watch a funny movie. Eat a slice of that famous White House apple pie. The next four years will be long, difficult, and full of criticism -- and God help you if you choose to run for reelection, because damn, American political campaigns are freaking brutal.

So even if these three hours are imaginary, Mr. President, take a couple of the precious twenty-four we do have to just appreciate life for what it is. Be our president, yes -- but also be a father, a husband, and most importantly, be a human being.

And pet that dog for me, because Bo is seriously freaking adorable.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Oh, to be in Hendersonville, NC

Mountains, lakes, fresh air, and refreshing people -- this was an awesome (and much-needed) retreat from reality.

I've always been a Lowcountry girl: oceans, marshes, rivers, flatlands. But I never get to see mountains, which is why I loved joining my mother on a church retreat in North Carolina. I'm not a religious girl by any means, but I adore the people at my mother's church. They're not judgmental, they didn't mind if I skipped the religious services to relax and read Alice Hoffman on the screened-in porch of our cabin, and they can party like there's no tomorrow (they don't call them Whiskepalians for nothin'). There was no wi-fi, no cell phone signals, no television. Just rest and relaxation in the mountains by a lake with some wonderful people, and it was perfect. I can't wait to go again next year.

Now, for my next "vacation:" a work-related trip to Washington, D.C. in May. I love D.C., and I can't wait to go back - not just to better hone my job skills (though I am, nerdily enough, anticipating the seminars), but also to just experience the sights and sounds of the nation's capital. Oh, Smithsonian, how I've missed thee! Plus, after spending over a hundred hours in Fallout 3, it'll be fun to see Washington without the hordes of roaming super mutants brandishing nailboards. ;-)