To Sleep At Night

IKU by Emaan Mahmud

To Sleep at Night

by Dana Masden

There is a flash of lightening in front of the car that illuminates the muddy road like a flickering of a match, and in the road there is a raccoon, and the raccoon is an animal Mary Kay associates with thieves because they once clawed their way into her attic, and murderers, because they wear masks, with their tails like whack paddles and their hands like human babies, a real tight squeeze to choke the life out of whatever they want to and then they end the day with their hands warmed by cups of black tea. She saw this online. She saw raccoons drinking from teacups on some lady’s porch. There are a lot of monsters in the world, she thinks. Some pop from their mothers automatically that way and others are made to be, by slow, steady, awful things that happen to them bit by bit. She feels this realization in her gut since the shooting and she carries and nurtures it like a little baby bubble of fear.

She screams. Ted laughs. He doesn’t swerve but somehow misses the raccoon. “Relax, Baby,” he says. “You got the jumps tonight.”

“Do you blame me?” she asks. “After what we just took?”

It was a hundred grand. Her husband’s.

“Look,” Ted says. “I want you to be feeling nothing but good about that. Like we agreed upon? You hear me? It’s a good thing. It’s redemption. Isn’t that right, Baby?”

She finds herself looking behind them, to see if anyone is following them as things follow her lately; such as: news vans, her husband, and police. But not tonight. They are free and clear to deliver the money. She heard there was another shooting in another town, at a birthday party or something, a little boy opened his coat, and sprayed bullets. First she thought: thank god; it meant the attention would be refocused, off her and off Jack and back on some other saved teacher and some other messed up kid. And second, she thought, what is happening? The fucking apocalypse?

They say it is a disease.

“Ted?” she asks. “I’m getting second thoughts.”

“Such as?”

“Well for one, this is Brian’s money.”

“Now wait a minute. Isn’t that the point? I thought we talked about this. It’s like the Robin Hood stuff, remember? Take from the rich and give to the poor.”

“That just seems silly at this moment. Life doesn’t work like that.”

“Why not?”

“You know it doesn’t.”

“What does Brian need the money for, anyway?”

“To take his new girlfriend to Europe,” she answers.

“Exactly,” Ted says. “Besides, we don’t have to stay here. You can get a job anywhere. I can do my work anywhere. We’ll just take out a map and point to any place on it. You’re telling me life doesn’t work that way, but that makes it seem like you don’t have a choice.”

She feels very sick. She is not the type of woman to pick random locations on maps and get all giddy about this.

“But Brian,” she says.

“Brian’s a prick,” Ted answers. “As we’ve both always known.”

Sure, her husband doesn’t deserve her kindness, or her sex, or her loyalty even, because he stopped giving those things to her years ago. Only thirty-five years old, a former beauty queen, and her hair starts to thin and Brian is the first to point it out. He even knows the gene responsible for halting hair and for her birthday he has the gall to buy her Rogaine—which he says will straighten this gene out and put it back to work. Rogaine doesn’t work, by the way. All of the above is true. None of the above means she should steal from him. But ever since the shooting, nothing really seems to matter in the fields of ethics, morality, or purpose.

He seriously, seriously bought her Rogaine. He honestly thought this was nice.

“He’s going to kill me,” she realizes. “He’ll find both of us and he’ll kill us. He’s got that mean, monster thing in him.”

“Brian’s always been rich. Came from rich folks. He probably won’t even notice.”

“He’ll kill me,” she repeated.

“You almost already died once this year,” Ted says. “Lightening doesn’t strike twice.”

“But it does,” she says. She’s heard it does.

“What were the chances the one kid in your class who gets bullied ends up being the one to go ape-shit? I mean, what were the chances of that? Happening to you?”

She doesn’t say anything. Ted doesn’t know why it’s her fault. Nobody can see that clearly. Nobody but Jack. And so she thinks to offer him what all people believe will cure them of ailment—money. And then, she’ll change locations with Ted. There is this feeling you can renew yourself if you renew your location. She doesn’t know if this is true. She’s never lived anywhere but in the Midwest. He’s thinking California.

“Okay,” she says. “He lives just past the park.”

Ted looks at her. “You’re beautiful,” he says. “And I mean that. This is a good thing you’re doing, beautiful woman.”

Years from now, if she’s still with Ted, she will roll her eyes at this remark. But now, they’ve just cooked everything up together, so she swells a minute, and then remembers how fucked up everything is, which is another side affect of grief, it pokes you in your rib whenever you start to smile. It says: REMEMBER? SCOTT, YOUR STUDENT, IS DEAD. She couldn’t even properly grieve Scott. Still hasn’t. Even with the rain beading up on the windshield and sliding down like racing stripes, Mary Kay can’t wrestle with the regular thoughts of self-loathing, so instead she focuses on all of the crap outside the car. The car tires; the gritty rainwater: wrenches; broken glass; children’s toys in their dirtied brights. Brown snow and chained dogs, holey underwear and cigarette butts. This is a part of town she has not seen. This is the house where Jack lives. It’s a trailer. Number nine-nine-nine. “Imagine,” she says. “Having that awful acne and growing up here?”

He grunts and looks at her. “What are you waiting for?”

“Ted,” she says.

“What?”

“We don’t have an exit plan. What will we do to make sure Brian doesn’t find out I took it?”

“Well,” Ted says. “We just go on like normal.”

Mary Kay laughs. She wonders how ‘normal’ ever became part of the English language.

*

Months ago, a day or so after the shooting, her student, Scott, is in the hospital fighting a battle for his life that he will lose, and Mary Kay isn’t sure what to wear to the hospital to watch. Colors are like vomit and everything smells like vomit, too, the beginning of that awful blob of guilt in her belly that eats her from the inside out, and last night she went out to eat with her husband and watching everybody downing food was perhaps the closest she’s ever been to hell, because even her husband Brian, knowing all she’s been through, made the sound “mmmm” when he chewed his beef and this is when she knew, for sure now, that she couldn’t possibly love him and probably never did. It’s so easy, when you fall out of love, to see that love is actually a brainwash. Brainwash—now that’s a word that makes sense to her. She pictures the different pieces of the brain soaking in a hot bowl; the brain admiring its own reflection in the mirrored handle of the sink, now awash with blue or green or blood.

“Do you wear gray if somebody is about to die but hasn’t yet?” she asks. Brian, shirtless, shaving, laughs at this. Laughter is foreign gas in their house and when the cat gets a whiff of it, she jumps from a potted plant, knocking it onto the carpet, spraying dirt pellets across the white carpet. The cat looks back at her, and walks out of the room, as if wearing high heels.

“Shit,” Mary Kay says. “Everything in this life is shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.” She goes to get the vacuum. Then she realizes something. The plant falling like this… It is strikingly familiar to the feeling she had right after the shooting, right away, like the second she heard the shots and she checked to see if she was dead because there was blood but it was Scott’s blood, not hers. Then the horrible realization it was Scott who was hurt, still breathing, but going, going, and the silent, stretched, screaming of her students. It’s the do-over feeling, Mary Kay thinks. Right after something happens, in this case, this shooting, this murder, the death of her marriage, the dirt on the carpet, you think of how pristine everything once was just one second ago and you’d taken it for granted, and you think, simply, you’ll just rewind to the instant before, and fix the one thing that’s out of place to prevent the accident.  But it’s not nostalgia, for a moment, your brain literally believes it is possible.  “Can I have a do-over?” she asks.

“It’s not your fault,” he replies dryly (meaning, yes, yes it is your fault). His face is covered in the shaving cream, like a fluffy cartoon beard.

Mary Kay says, “but that’s the final step—Acceptance. I’m still in the first step. What’s the first step?”

“What are you talking about?” He drags the razor down one cheek, pulling his mouth open long to catch the hairs near his lips. He is short and fat but somehow has this power that she can’t really explain.

“The steps. You don’t know the steps?”

“Like the stairs?” He sets the razor down and turns to her. “Oh, those steps. I don’t know them. I’ve never been through anything like you’ve just been through.”

This is the first step. It’s the feeling of knowing you fucked up, but not slowly; all at once. And if you could just un-do the simple, impulsive, careless thing you did, you could put all of the dirt back in the pot. And from then on, she actually believes that she could have prevented the shooting.

*

At the hospital, Scott’s mother sits among them, looking like one of the students because she is young. She is short and thin, with a pixie nose, in a pink sweat-suit sort of thing that is like being in pajamas but very dressed up, and the only thing that shows her age is a streak of silver in her dirty blonde hair. She is talking in a low, wide-eyed mumble to some of the children, some of them who have bandages on their own faces or arms from broken glass. Not only did Reo shoot Scott, but six others, too. Four are dead. Two are hanging on. Of course, the media is here, but this is a medium number of deaths if you think about Columbine, nothing to get too worked up about—forgotten as soon as it begins. What makes this unique is simply the unique players involved, something the media could never capture anyway. An hour before the shooting, Reo Xeroxed fliers and dropped them around the school. The fliers had names of students. Scott was number one on that list. She remembers seeing the list in the faculty bathroom, cut out of magazine letters, shaking her head, checking her lipstick, and folding the flier in her purse to bring to the principal later. She thought it was a joke to talk about who would win homecoming court that year and she wished Scott would get it; but then wished he wouldn’t because maybe that would feed his ego too much. Every kid on the list was popular. Several teachers noticed the flyers and had similar reactions, but they didn’t know what she knew.

Scott was now in a hospital bed, shot in the brain. Reo was dead, shot in the brain, too. Six others, shot. Reo hit each target. And then Reo died so he didn’t have to see all of their broken hearts in the sober overcast mornings to follow. Everything about it reeked of the teenage inability of hindsight—the emotional intelligence too weak to recognize bad phases, fabricated social structures, everything that it is to be teenaged—except the part where the teenager acquires a gun and shoots people in the face.

She thinks about Reo all the time, and they all do, and she wonders if it will go on for years and years. Every few minutes. The shooting is literally like a pulse through her, glass-shatter-pop, glass-shatter-pop. She thinks about Reo, in the locker room, staring himself in the mirror. It would take a lot of courage to go through with it. It’d be a spiritual, religious brainwash.  Fucking, Reo! she thinks. This was the worst possible way to get them back. He transformed them all into saints, heroes, or victims.

“Mary Kay!” Scott’s mom cries when she sees her. They have only met once before but by now all over the news is the fact that Scott had shielded her when Reo came into their classroom.

“Mary Kay,” she cries. The mother gives her a hug; all of the other students see this hug and they start to cry harder, even the boys, and down the hall, Mary Kay watches Jack, who has no expression. She looks again and he is tight-lipped, angry. Since the shooting, he has mostly been with police. They have all been interviewed countless times, Jack the most and it’s rumored they found guns and bullets in his mom’s trailer. His face has been shown on multiple news channels, as if he is already guilty of planning something—even though the only thing they know for sure is that he was Reo’s closest friend. Jack also wasn’t at school this day, which is something everyone thinks is suspicious and so the students stare at him and the media follows him. But Mary Kay somehow knows he is innocent. As a teacher, you know your kids. Reo, yes, he was troubled. Jack is just in the wrong school at the wrong time, with the wrong sexual orientation, a good kid who got mixed up with a bad one, and ultimately made the right decision to stay home.

“How is he?” Mary Kay asks. Here’s another thing. She loved Scott, Scott who is dying. “How is he?” she asks again.

Someone, she doesn’t know who, perhaps a doctor, says: “He’s passed.” Collectively, as if a cold wind sweeps a piece of paper up from the floor, they gasp.

*

Before the shooting, Mary Kay was preoccupied with hair.  Women bald, she thinks.  It isn’t entirely unreasonable of God or Darwin. But Mary Kay is hardly thirty-five. She examines her head and touches the spot: clammy and soft like a bruised peach. Her self-image is caught in the dirty photos she once took of herself to send to Brian when he was away in New York.

Here is a picture of me in fishnet stockings; here a thong flosses between my ass cheeks; here are my lips parted to show the soft white of my teeth; tousled hair and black nail polish. I am underneath.  I love you, I miss you. I humiliated myself for you. ~Mary Kay.

You wouldn’t believe what Brian said. How could she forget? Brian said, “Try putting light in another corner of the room next time. The right light can make a world of difference.”

Brian is a photographer, and an asshole, probably because he’s doing nothing glamorous—pictures of babies with their heads as the center of flowers, dogs in baskets, and your occasional little kids kissing each other. Aesthetics, he talks about aesthetics and this isn’t his design aesthetic and he’ll go fucking crazy if he doesn’t get some better work soon. The day of the shooting, he huffs to the school on his bicycle; and when she sees him, she is instantly relieved at the sight of familiarity. Instead, he takes her picture, covered in Scott’s blood. It goes up in The Post. He is paid generously for the photos he took of her, and of other students, with blood on them, hugging each other, sobbing. She often catches him saying things into the phone, like, “Yes, it was horrible. But somebody, some journalist had to capture this so that we can prevent these kinds of things in the future.”

Fucking Brian, she thinks. Perhaps they can travel around to high schools and tell her story for a violence prevention program. “Kids,” she’ll say. “If you shoot up your school all of the assholes look like good people, and all of the good people look like assholes. It produces the opposite of your intended outcome. And, it breaks everyone’s hearts. This is all the same if you decide to kill yourself. Thanks.”

She will show an x-ray of her heart, all slimy and breathing upside down in its green, hairy casing. Hearts don’t break in neat, jagged lines, she’ll tell them. Instead, they mutate, get sick, feeding off bad things only.

*

She overlooked Reo because she was always thinking about Scott. She waves at him in the halls like her fingers are blowing in the wind. After class, she allows him to ask personal questions.

“You coming to our game?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

“You know, Mary Kay.”

They call her Mary Kay, not because she said they could. She is backed against the chalkboard. She moves backward a few paces, disguising like she’s shifting her weight, looking out into the hallway at the students slamming lockers. She has this instant rush to her groin, as loud as the ringing bell, fire and all, like something potent all at once has been released. The more she works to dispel it, the sharper and more concentrated it becomes.

He asks her to hold out her hand. “Close your eyes,” he says. She does it. When she opens her eyes, there is a chocolate kiss in her hand and Scott is gone.

When most of the students have gone, around six o’clock, she goes into the girl’s room and masturbates. She remembers when Brian made her feel like that. She is shamelessly attracted to arrogance.

*

At Scott’s funeral, Brian is better than her. Despite the fact that some people think he is an asshole, he ignores this and speaks quietly, with authority. The reason Mary Kay can’t speak is because she isn’t able to grieve. She is aware that she could have prevented this.

She believes that the only person who understands this is Jack. Jack is too thin. He has a layer of baby mustache above his lip, black and thin as eyelashes. He is like one of those long giant bugs. He knows everything about her and so she is both drawn to and frightened of him.

At one point, Mary Kay goes and sits with him on a couch, where he is alone in the funeral parlor. Why do funeral parlors always look like a grandmother’s house—paisleys in the carpet and roses on the walls and pictures of a blue-eyed Jesus in trashy, gold frames? Roast beef sandwiches and macaroni and cheese? Coke in plastic. Are these meant to comfort us?

She doesn’t have anything to say to Jack. So she points out these things.

As soon as her mouth rounds around the word paisley, he stands up. She looks at him, her mouth agape, and he nods, out of pity, but then he shakes and says: “Stop.” She watches him cross the room and head to the exit. He is out the big, heavy door. As the doors slowly pinch closed, everyone, all the hundreds of them, turn their heads slightly to watch him go out the doors, letting in long sheets of gold light. You can hear the television reporters start to jitter like roaches.

*

Just as Scott knew she would, she decides to stay after and attend the soccer game that day. Mary Kay loves the fall, or she did, very much, back then; the season of renewal, boys, cheerleading season, new clothes, new school supplies, new students, new energy. Of course, it is not made for her anymore, as it’s been well over fifteen years since she waved a pom-pom.

Helena, one of Mary Kay’s students, is rolling her eyes at a senior named Mike. He wraps a blanket around her and kisses her neck, his eyes fluttering closed in spirituality. Helena’s mouth opens and then she turns, takes a small glimpse of Mary Kay, and slaps him off.  Mary Kay can’t stop looking. The way his eyes flutter!

She watches Scott jogging with his team around the field, his body so mechanically perfect, so efficient.  He glances up at her, beneath the showering lights, those florescent, humming things that make those young boys Olympic, and she swears he glances up at her and nods. She feels her heart vibrate. For a minute, she forgets she’s old.

*

Two weeks before the shooting, Scott is bragging to her third period that Mary Kay came to the game, in this ape-like, tattle-tale way that she finds charming. One of the football players, some baritone with a square head, acts offended that she doesn’t go to their games, “Come on, Mary Kay,” he says. He’s imitating, but can’t reproduce attractiveness, as is usually the problem with followers. “Everyone quiet,” she snaps. She gives Scott a look. The look is one of a serious person. “Quiz time,” she says.

She’s writing on the board, when she hears Helena squeal, “Are you okay?” She looks behind her to see Reo cupping his face. He has blood pouring from his hands in long, fantastic ropes. Helena takes a gym towel from her bag and offers it to Reo. Reo shakes his head no, and stands. Blood climbs down his forearms in a race.

“Go to the nurse, now, Reo,” Mary Kay says, gently, though he annoys her, grosses her out. “Your quiz won’t count.”  As if he cares about his quiz grade. She opens the door for him.

Mary Kay phones the janitor to clean up the blood and asks someone to check on Reo. She begins to go over the answers of the quiz. The answers are: New York; Eye Glasses; Alcohol; and He Didn’t Know, or some variation of that answer. “He had no idea” is okay, too.

Afterwards, Scott raises his hand.

She removes her glasses. Isn’t there something sexy about a teacher with hair in a sweeping up-do (to cover the hair that went missing) in a yellow dress the color of Dick Tracey, directing hurt boys to the proper nurse, slowly removing her librarian glasses, resting the tip in her mouth, cocking her head to the left ever so slightly and saying, “Yes, Scott. Do you have a question?”

“Do you think Helena’s going to get AIDS?” he asks.

Mary Kay flinches. “What?” she says.

“Since Reo is a faggot?”

“That’s enough.”

“Everybody knows that’s how AIDS spread, you know because there are more capillaries in the anus?”

Helena rolls her eyes. Mary Kay glances at Jack, Reo’s only friend, or boyfriend even, she suspects. His face flushes, his arms are around his chest, he looks like the human representation of volcanic explosion.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she says, awkwardly.

The bell rings, and Jack stands, quickly, his head down. He looks at her only briefly and the look is obvious: she’s failed to protect him.

Mary Kay says something meaningless in her teacher-tone, and once they leave her classroom, she puts her head in her hands. Damn it, Scott. She is vaguely aware that she is in love with him. But she can’t go on having him making fun of kids for being homosexual. This is something the faculty all agreed on. Oh, Scott. She wishes he wouldn’t act like an asshole! Why does she love assholes?

Scott comes back a minute later and she practically jumps. “I didn’t mean anything,” he says. “It’s just the truth. And sometimes you shouldn’t say anything if you can’t say something nice.”

She nods. She puts on her glasses. She takes them off.

“Look, Mary Kay,” Scott says. He leans on her desk with his head in, like a coach pep-talking.  “Everybody knows. I know I shouldn’t bring it up but he got blood all over Helena’s desk. Plus, we all know that’s how AIDs is spread. We’re in health class right now, and the teacher always talks about that, and I’m just saying, it’s true isn’t it? Helena should be careful?”

“Scott,” she starts. She realizes he is genuinely concerned for Helena because he is stupid about AIDS and because Helena is in his popular court. “Just go. You’ll be late.”

Then he says, “What? I thought I could speak the truth in here.” He points to a poster above the chalkboard. In girlish Sharpie handwriting, there stand the classroom rules.

  1. Speak the Truth. Always.
  2. Don’t be Jerks.

“You can. You can,” she says.

“I thought you were cool.”

“I am,” she says.

He stands there, staring at her, and for a minute, she actually thinks he cares. He squeezes her arm before he leaves and she feels his touch go up and down her body. Mary Kay says this better be an isolated incident and tells him to go to class. There is no such thing as an isolated incident. All incidents are born of other incidents. Every instant is an incident. Rule number three.

*

She doesn’t see Reo again, for several days, not since his bloody nose. She begins to wonder if she handled it correctly. She doesn’t like Reo but it is her job to wonder about him. Truant. Truant. Truant. It’s getting cold out. She calls his mother—protocol—it’s best to warn parents that their kids are failing out of high school so that it doesn’t come as one big explosion, causing their hearts to hemorrhage.

“Are you trying to tell me that I don’t see him get on the bus every day when I do? I see it with my own eyes. He’s at school.” Her voice is so deep Mary Kay thinks she sounds like a man. She’s a smoker, some kind of wise-cracker. A bad parent.

“He’s going to fail high school,” Mary Kay says.

“Is this about him being different?” his mother says, in that gruff, aggressive tingle. “Because that is not his fault. You don’t know what they do to him at school.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Everybody says that he’s homosexual.”

There is a pause.

Mary Kay is staring out the window. It is beginning to snow. “Well,” she says. “Some kids get bullied, it’s just high school. Unfortunately,” she adds.

“Nasty things. There’s more than this.”

“Please,” Mary Kay says. “I don’t mean to cause stress or worry, but you need to get him back on track, or there’s a big chance, I’m sorry to say, that he won’t graduate.”

There is a pause. “They beat him,” she says. “They said anytime he goes in the locker room he’s going to get punched or kicked, so maybe he avoids that room. The other week he had a soccer cleat imprint on his back.”

Mary Kay watches the snow. “Excuse me?” she says. She stands and knocks a water bottle over on her desk. Everything on her desk begins to get wet. She rushes to get paper towel. “Who?” Mary Kay says. “Who does this to him?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “All of ‘em.”

“All of them?”

“You heard me,” she says. “The whole locker room. All of them. The whole fucking soccer team. The biggest asshole is named Scott.”

Her heart drops, like an elevator without strings. “Why didn’t you tell us? Does anybody know?”

“I am telling you, but as you say, what can be done? I can’t prove this. Those kids got money, got lawyers, and Reo’s always been picked on. This isn’t new. I just didn’t think they were capable of beating him to a bloody pulp. Called him HIV positive or something. That’s fucking ridiculous.”

“Yes,” Mary Kay says. “But before? Why didn’t you say so earlier?”

“I didn’t know how bad it really was,” she says, suddenly, as if she’s just realizing it. “Not until you called.”

*

Mary Kay calls Scott in after school. “You’ve been accused of something,” she tells him.

“Of being handsome?” he asks.

Her face remains.

“What?” he says. He instantly looks guilty, but she tries not to take this too seriously. They all look that way when they are called in unexpectedly.

“Reo. You know he’s missed some classes.”

“So?”

“So he says he’s had some trouble with boys in the locker room. His mom says he was kicked.”

Scott looks at his shoes. “Why me? Why are you asking me about it?”

“Because he named you,” she says.

He shrugs. She stands up quickly. She takes a step closer to him. “Look,” she says.

“It’s not me,” he says. “Mary Kay. You know, Reo’s gay. Did you know that? Sometimes because of that, some stuff has gone down.”

She nods. “Yes, I suppose that’s true,” she says. “You can go.”

*

Mary Kay goes to see Hank, the second period PE teacher. Hank is balding for real, his head shaped like a pointed egg. He wears a matching sweat suit, and his office smells like beef. She tells him everything.

“I don’t know what to do,” she says. “It’s just a rumor. Have you seen anything?”

“Just horseplay,” he says.

She turns to leave. She feels a little bit relieved. Maybe that is all it is. Reo has always been known to be a bit dramatic.

“You know what else?” Hanks says.

“What?” she says.

“The dynamic is much better now that Reo is gone.”

She nods. “You’re right about that,” she says.

*

A week after the shooting, school has to start up again. They have to have dances and exams and try to get the kids back on schedule. They can’t go around doing counseling every day, now they have to educate. Mary Kay keeps to herself, cocooned in some kind of deafening cotton thick as installation, that she feels but cannot paw off. Everything is different about this place, everyone can feel it, and it will probably never change.

Brian often comes home late; he comes home never; he watches television and his own reflection and speaks mostly to the cat in shrill, overly psychotic voices, “Pepppppper!!!”  and she prefers it, until one afternoon, he brings his friend Ted over, whom Mary Kay has never met; she did not know Brian had a friend, just clients.  Ted has shoulder length wavy hair, long and thick like she so often wishes for, and he looks too young to be the friend of anyone Brian’s age, and he carries an amused look on his face and stands in the kitchen in a big plaid jacket chewing a coffee straw, tapping his feet constantly, and he’s always wearing Chuck Taylors. Brian says Ted has offered to help Brian put up the Christmas lights around the garage and she blinks and she thinks Christmas? When they are finished they come and drink fancy beer, saying things to each other that she only recognizes as men’s voices.

Mary Kay is making pasta. She never makes dinner but with the presence of an outsider one often begins to perform in a way they believe the outsider expects. She asks Ted to stay, mostly out of obligation, like a woman who regularly vacuums the house or has an Avon lady. Halfway through dinner, Brian gets a call and goes to the other room. This is Brian’s girlfriend. She knows this because she’s seen the phone bills, and they aren’t careful, and she doesn’t care.

Ted leans across the table. “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Mary Kay feels herself jump. “What?” she says, in that feminine, surprised way. Although she knows she is not beautiful, she did realize that Ted thought she was.

He looks down. “I’m sorry.”

“You’ve probably seen me on television.”

“Yes,” he says. “But I’ve seen you other places. Like at funerals. You’re pretty when you cry. I know that sounds strange. But you are so beautiful.” He laughs.

She pauses. “Were you related to any of the kids who were killed?” she asks.

“Naw,” he says. “I just worked there before, when they added that new unit.”

“It must be hard,” she says.

He smiles. His eyes are the color of aqua water and he has dark hair. A strange combination. “Not like it is for you,” he says.

It is the most perfect response she can think of.

“I’m just wondering.” he says. “Why Brian?”

She starts to answer but can’t feel her voice. It’s as if Ted’s been watching her. As if he’s come into their home because of this death that surrounds it.

“Oh, I see,” Ted says; looking left, then right. “You don’t realize it.”

“What,” she says.

“It,” he says. “How you deserve better.”

“What?” she says.

“Look, I’m sorry. It must be the beer. This stuff has like fifteen percent alcohol.”

Mary Kay nods. She looks at her pasta, and feels tears begin to fill her face, ready to squirt out as happens all the time but before she can manage them, instead, a big laugh comes up. It bursts from her, hearty, and clear as a bell. She feels hungry.

Brian comes in, wearing the half-grin of somebody who has just walked in on a private joke and expects inclusion.

“It’s nothing,” Ted says, smiling at her.

*

Reo and Jack were inseparable for years, so when Reo goes missing before the shooting, Mary Kay thinks to speak to Jack. All the way since elementary school. Reo was big, but clumsy, and not funny, like a bear who couldn’t control his limbs. Jack is skinny, scrawny, with big feet that trip him up. He has deep set acne, which is unfortunate for anyone, this thing you can’t help but all this advertising makes you think you can. He must go a whole day without saying anything, Mary Kay thinks. She asks him to stay after class.

“Okay, where’s Reo?” she says, taking off her glasses.

Jack shrugs and starts to walk away.

“You know,” Mary Kay says. “He could not graduate if he doesn’t start coming back around,” though she can’t figure out why she cares to tell Jack this. She just wants someone to know she tried to think about Reo. Kids fall through cracks. Sometimes teachers can help this. Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes it’s friends who help. Sometimes it’s drugs. But they still fall. Her only job is to make an attempt, to sleep at night.

He doesn’t say anything. He is standing in front of a poster with a picture of Pamela Anderson; she’s reading a book.

He looks at it and says, “People who have big boobs even read sometimes.”

“Have you even applied for colleges, Jack?” she asks.

He shakes his head no. He is staring at her intensely. Almost too intensely, in a weird, threatening way. “And how would you expect someone like me to pay for the application fees?” he asks. “My mom can’t even afford to give me a few bucks for lunch.”

“Jack,” she says.

“You teachers,” he says. “Act like everything should be so easy for us. Well for most of us, it isn’t. That’s why you don’t know where Reo is.”

“What do you mean?” she says.

“You don’t know what happens to him here. If you did, you would be glad he’s gone. He could die here. They will kill him.”

She takes a gulp. “Oh, honey,” she says. “Isn’t it all just the slightest bit dramatic?”

*

The day of the shooting there’s an announcement, during third period, for an emergency lockdown. The kids sit taking a quiz and look up at her, expectantly. Some stretch and drop their pens, and whisper between each other. “Shh!” she says. She waits for them to say something else, but there’s nothing, only silence. At first she wonders if she forgot the memo. A bunch of the kids giggle and Scott asks, “Is this serious, Mary Kay? Do we really have to?”

“Quiet,” she says.

Helena raises her hand. “Can I use the restroom? If there’s going to be a lockdown we could be in here for hours.”

“No,” Mary Kay says.  She smoothes a wrinkle in her skirt and thinks Goddamn it.

She opens the door and looks for passing students, but sees no one, just the regular concrete walls, the green carpet, the orange lockers decorated with paper constructed leaves and footballs. She locks the door behind her and some of the students are dozing off, some of them are texting. She shuts off the lights and closes the blinds and the room feels peacefully dark like naptime. Somebody asks if it’s a drill. No, she says. It’s not. She snaps her fingers at two girls giggling.  But then there is glass spraying in the room followed by a loud shot; or a loud shot and then shattered glass, and everybody screams, and everybody goes under their desks in the corner, and before she can look up, she is among them, with Scott covering her body like a wave. And when she looks up again, she sees a man in front of them shaped like a dark potato, wearing a purple ski mask, holding a handgun that is so tiny it could be a toy. She notices the man’s shoes. They are purple converse high tops with a yellow star. They are Reo’s shoes. She says, “You can’t.”

Scott’s body falls heavy on her. And she looks at the beauty rise from him, his face lose its expression, slide into skin. He has saved her life, and she thinks, I can undo this. We just have to lock up again. We’ll get Reo outside. We can redo this situation. We’ll do it over. Then the world goes black and red and screams and choking tears and the flashes of photography.

*

Trailer Nine-Nine-Nine. She has the money in cash, in an envelope that she wrapped up with duct-tape. She doesn’t know why but she doesn’t know why a lot of things. It just seems like a hundred thousand dollars should be secure in a great deal of very strong tape. It is, after all, the money Brian was saving for their retirement and now it’s physical in front of her—everything he took from her.

Ted says she won’t be able to recover from the shooting until she realizes that if anyone, Brian is responsible. Brian is the one who treated her so horribly and made her loose her voice. Ted says her voice can return, return screaming even, that she can shout into existence.

She knocks on the door. Jack opens the door only one or two inches, to show his nose.

“My mom’s not home,” he says.

She says, “That’s ok.”

Jack opens the door. First she notices his face. His acne has gotten worse, big puss-cusped scars that make him almost hard to see. She recognizes her own self in that face, her baldness, the thing on our outside that makes us feel we are exposed. Inside, there is a sink and a bed and a table and everything else is very neat, like his mother or somebody takes good care of the place. On the little table there is even a single red rose in a vase.

“You keep things very nice in here,” she says.

“Yeah,” Jack says. He opens the fridge. “Wow. It’s always surprising for people. Even poor people have taste and decency.”

“I’m sorry,” she says. She is always disarmed by his sarcasm. It was the same tone of voice Scott would use but in this case it is aimed against her, not trying to rope her in.

She sees his face soften. “You want a coke or something?”

“Yes,” Mary Kay says. He brings her a can, sets it in front of her. She opens the drink and the top busts off to hear that sizzle that allows her to breathe. She takes a sip and remembers the sweetness of Coke and is almost comforted but then sickened.

“Look,” Jack says. “I’ve told you everything and I’ve told everybody everything. I didn’t know he was going to do it. What the fuck do you want?”

“Yes,” she says. “Of course. That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to give you this.” She hands over the envelope.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Well, open it.”

He looks at her reluctantly and begins to peel away the tape.

“Careful,” she says.

“What is this?’ he asks.

“For college,” she answers. There is silence. The rain drops softly on the trailer. “Look,” she says. “I don’t know why I’m doing it.”

“Sheesh,” he says.

“And you could use it for something else, if you want. Not everybody is meant for college, that’s something I know for sure.”

His eyes lower. He stands up. He holds the envelope to his chest. “How much is in here?”

“A hundred grand. If you’re smart with it, it could pay for graduate school, too.”

His face pauses; he looks genuinely shocked. “Teachers don’t make money,” he says.

“Yes, well, technically,” she says, but then stops. He doesn’t need to know where it came from. He just needs to take it and get the fuck out of here.

He nods. She expects him to say he can’t take it, that it isn’t right, and to push it in her face. Instead, he puts it under his arm and says, “Thanks.” This is not going to be one of those things where he calls her twenty years to go on Oprah and thank her. This is about something else: guilt.

“So you’re going to take it,” she says.

He nods. “As if money means anything,” he says.

“But you know it does,” she says.

He looks terrified, angry and sad. Everything.

“I just want you to know,” she says. “I could have prevented it. I could have stopped it.”

Jack nods. “I know,” he says.  And then he says the nicest thing he’ll ever say to her: “You and me both.”

*

For a minute, she watches the rain collect and run all over the shit in the yards and the dirty snow and then she is back in the car and she can’t figure out what she feels, but it is not redemption.

“Ready?” Ted asks.

“Yes,” she says.

In a hotel room, somewhere in Iowa, she feels Ted’s body warm and soft around her, the sheets are cheap like stiff paper, and the spring air is damp among them. She pictures Scott running under those Olympic lights. Legs pumping. His eyes smiling. The life in him is so big, for a moment it reflected back in her, a piece of soft chocolate in her hand, his face close to hers, her body quivering, they never touched but they did exchange something. Some kind of energy that made her feel like a woman, young and beautiful and sexual. She cries, big gulps of air and tries to recognize the feeling she has now. It is the one where the tears cascade down your face and you feel still sad but also something else—soothed.

 

Dana Masden lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she currently teaches Literature and Composition at Colorado State University. Her work has been published in Pindeldyboz, Arch, The Santa Clara Review and 303 Magazine, among others.

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