How exotic to be a part of your family Your grandmother adorned in Shanghai Jade Dreamy-eyed when your grandfather Arrives home from the airport Still very much alive And celebrated widely Kisses her, exhausted from healing, Legacy beginning, Doesn’t stop to sleep yet And sits in his study Clinking bourbon soaked ice Between his cheek and his teeth
You and your sister Not yet breathed life On this earth Will inherit these gestures His folded-arm stance Her slight secret humor Their society’s gaze The mountain view From your own safari jet
And how as children You will play And read and dream And not know That I look at your class picture Now with the others Teenagers become Perhaps moving on From their loss of you
Author’s note: This is a poem I wrote in 2006. That year, a previous student of mine was killed with his entire family when their private chartered plane went down over Kenya.
What Ellen remembered most about Hill was his voice. He was always singing. And when he talked to her, he was completely there, listening to everything she said. He spoke like he was a 50 year old 16 year old, and Ellen was enraptured by that voice. He didn’t treat her like a little sister. He didn’t care that she was 12. Ellen was nobody’s sister. She also loved that he played the guitar.
When she saw him in Kevin’s garage, and Lori was there too, rolling back and forth on a skateboard covered in stickers, Ellen wanted to understand their language — how they spoke to each other after school. Knowing someone else’s problems and pains was like being in a secret club. She knew there were things that happened at their school that she could not imagine. But riding her bike by day after day, she saw them and waved.
Hill was the only one who really spoke to her. He even had a song she imagined was for her: “The Neighbor Girl.” She loved him.
Ellen didn’t know where Hill lived. His name was not really Hill — that was his middle name, a family name or something. When she asked him his name, he teased her; “It’s Frankenstein,” he said in that voice that filled her mind. Thick and full of laughter. She would marry him.
Hill often came over to her next door neighbor’s house. Kevin’s mother didn’t care that they smoked. She wondered if Brooke knew that Lori smoked. Ellen knew secret things about Brooke’s older sister.
Brooke was supposed to be Ellen’s best friend, and they would play “Time Machine” in Brooke’s backyard. Ellen wasn’t as skilled as Brooke at staying in character, but that was the main rule of the game. Brooke would spin Ellen on the tire swing: spin spin spin until it stopped and Ellen was dizzy — a delicious feeling. What world would Ellen wake up in when the swing came to a stop? She loved that Brooke ran away to set up while Ellen twirled. Then, when she got off, she would be in another land in another time. And the game went that they could not act as though they were in a game. They had to stay in character. Brooke would then act as a man at times, leading Ellen through riddles to find her way back to the portal. There was nothing that could interrupt this game. It had to stay this way.
Some times, Brooke let Ellen spin her and lead. But Ellen always loved it more when the magic was created for her. She was not as good at coming up with new characters and places.
Once in a while, Ellen would get off the swing, and she would be in some kind of time warp, where Brooke pretended to be a farmer or some other character who would act very suspicious. In a time warp, Brooke would not talk to Ellen. She would stay completely in character and speak to herself or other imaginary characters, but never to Ellen. Her immunities would not work in this situation, and she would have to figure out how to get back in the time machine without Brooke’s help. She could not get back on the tire swing and spin herself, because this was against the rules of a time warp and of the game in general. The other person had to spin you. So Ellen would be stuck in the time warp, and she had to figure out the right language or code word to make Brooke give her some clue to lead her back to reality.
Brooke was Ellen’s most exciting and stubborn friend. They could never break character. It was this illusion of reality that was different from playing “house” or “Let’s pretend” because in those games you could say, “let’s pretend that you have a baby, and now we are going to the store.” The rules of Time Machine were that no one was allowed to change the course of action without directly acting. One could not say, “Let’s just say you recognize me from another life time and it all feels familiar and we know we are soul mates and we fall in love.” It did not work that way. You could not verbally try to change the course of action. No one was in control, except Brooke, who loved to see Ellen frustrated.
On this particular day, Ellen was not much into the game, but she played it anyway, being Brooke’s idea. She was thinking of Hill and how she had seen Lori yesterday over at Kevin’s. She was standing in the field, and the wind was blowing quite fiercely. She was dizzy from the tire swing, a particularly rough swing; Brooke had grabbed the rope and pushed her into the tree. She hit her knee briefly before flying into the wind. Blood was seeping into her sock now, but she barely noticed. Ellen watched Brooke across the field, over where her dad mowed the lawn by the garden. It was late summer. The sunflowers were bent over and drying.
Clouds were gathering bulky above her. An August storm was tucked under those clouds.
Brooke’s back was to Ellen, and she was not speaking to her. A time warp. Ellen was annoyed. She wanted to talk to Brooke about Hill. She wanted to ask her about Lori hanging out with him. But Brooke would not speak to her. She doubted if Brooke even knew she was off the tire swing and coming over for the first clues to get her out of here. “Brooke,” Ellen called to her.
Brooke said nothing.
The only thing that could break the game was if their parents came to get them, and even then they continued and worked it into the story some how.
Ellen wanted to leave and go home. She suddenly felt furious. She sat down on a tree stump and cried.
That is when Brooke’s older sister, Lori and some of Lori’s other friends pulled into the gravel driveway in Kevin’s blue Isuzu Trooper. Lori and Angie were 15 and in 9th grade. But a couple of guys they hung out with were older and drove. One of them was Ellen’s neighbor, Kevin. His arm hung out the passenger sidewindow, a lit cigarette between his thumb and pointer finger. Another guy drove Kevin’s car. Lori was in the back seat with Angie. Ellen looked at them, her eyes swollen with tears. Brooke ignored them.
Ellen was embarrassed and frightened because they were playing this game, and they were in a time warp and how would they in that big car understand that? And she knew Brooke would not break character for anything. What would Lori say when she got out of the car? But that did not happen. They just seemed to be sitting in the car in the driveway. No one was talking. They were listening to a loud song. Kevin bobbed his head. The driver’s eyes were closed, his head against the back of the seat.
Angie, bored, looked out the window at Brooke who seemed to be talking to fairies in the tomato plants. Ellen wanted so badly to just figure out this code. To work her way back to the reality of this situation. Maybe she could just go up to Kevin’s side of the car. Work them into the story some how. But she knew Brooke would not play along.
Ellen stared at Angie. She was not particularly a fan of Angie and Lori. They were the girls who barely spoke to her in the presence of their boyfriends.
Four years earlier, Lori and Angie had set up a haunted house for Brooke and her in their basement. Ellen had been so excited about the attention and the creative way they were playing with them. Upstairs, they kept knocking on the basement door from the kitchen, impatient and bored.
Finally, the door opened with a creak. “OK. Come down girls, we are ready for you!”
They felt their way down the pine stairs in the dark until a small red light guided them through white sheets hung on clotheslines. A fan created wind. The bulges in the sheets made Ellen sweat in anticipation of a werewolf popping out to eat her alive. The bulges were an old lawn mower. A stepstool, a coat rack. She could hear a dripping and pipes churning from a flushed toilet upstairs. She heard Brooke’s breath and her own and the slickness of her sweaty hand holding hers.
There were no signs of Lori and Angie, but they knew they were somewhere down there waiting until the perfect second to get them to scream. The basement was enormous. Underneath their tiptoeing feet, it seemed every step was an eternity as if they were walking under water or being pushed back, warned against the evil that awaited them.
There was the dripping and the drone of the fans and the dim red light that lit up the whiteness of the sheets and a chalk drawing on the floor an outline of a body — was that blood or paint on the floor? Ellen’s eight-year-old heart was beating out of her chest. Brooke acted unafraid, although Ellen felt her wet hand.
Ellen felt herself begin to cry, and she wanted to say, “Let’s pretend the lights are on! Let’s say this is over! Let’s say your sister is not a demon and this haunted house is over!” But of course she didn’t break character. They could not because they were really scared. They could really feel claws upon their throats, tearing into their young bodies and dragging them off to a smoky boyfriend’s garage where they stared droopy-eyed all day, waiting for something to happen.
And then, it did happen. Ellen felt hands across her stomach, grabbing her, and Brooke screamed or laughed. She could not tell because they were shoved into a crawl space that had a door that locked. It was a storage room maybe; it smelled like mice, old and damp and infected with worms and spiders and mothballs. And the door clicked and they were completely locked in and alone.
“Don’t worry,” Brooke said.
Ellen pulled her knees to her chin. They heard two sets of feet above them stomping up the stairs, the door slamming shut, and laughter. And then, the feet walking around upstairs in the safe un-haunted, brightly lit kitchen above them. It would do no good to scream or kick at the door. For they would not let them out even if they broke character and said they gave up. It was all just pretend. Ellen would not believe it. Even in her fear in the dark.
The back door creaked as Angie reached over to open it from the inside. Wafts of smoke shot her in the face. Ellen stood on her toes, hanging on the roof and the window frame, not getting in. Lori got out and ran inside. The engine was still running; a hard guitar song was reaching its end. Kevin ashed his cigarette out his own window, got out of the car to switch places with the other boy, and slumped over in the driver’s seat. He leant his head on the steering wheel. This normally talkative bunch was silent.
“Are you getting in?” The other boy said from the front seat.
This was not someone from Ellen’s neighborhood. She had not seen him in Kevin’s yard. His hair was red, long and straggly. He spoke through the back of his teeth. His eyes were large and squinted. He looked like he had been crying.
“Kevin, please take me home.”
“It will cost you,” he mumbled.
“Aren’t you playing with Brooke? Where is Brooke?” Angie said.
Ellen turned back towards the field where it looked like Brooke was watching, but she was trying to act like she wasn’t. She was squinting in her glasses and hiding behind a butterfly bush in her mom’s garden. Ellen knew she wouldn’t leave her character though. She would not leave the game, even if Ellen did get in the car.
Lori came running back out of the house. She had a backpack and she had put her long hair up in a ponytail. “What do you want, Ellen?” She pushed past her leaning on the open door and got in.
“Scoot over, Lori,” Kevin said.
“We are taking Ellen home.”
“What? We can’t,” she said, pushing herself over on the backseat and pulling the heavy backpack between her legs.
“Please Kevin, I need to go home.”
“Isn’t your mom coming to get you today?” Lori said.
“No, I was going to spend the night, but I don’t want to anymore.”
She grabbed her own pack from the stoop on the front house and got in the car. Trying to not choke on the cigarette smoke.
Kevin put the car in reverse and started down the road. “We just have to make a stop first, Ellen.” He said.
“Where are we going?”
“We have to go find Hill.”
Ellen’s heart filled with longing. She wanted to be with these kids now, but she was afraid.
The country pattern of this side of town was rolling. Everyone had large tame yards and fields of dried sweet corn spread out on the right. To the left was a church, a feed store, some yellow barns, a yard of cows. Ellen had ridden out this way once before; when she and Brooke went with their dad to pick up something from a man who lived in Cross Plains. He had made them stay in the car. Three barefoot boys came out to see who was there. Brooke half-waved. She acted as though she didn’t know these kids, but Ellen saw her face redden, ashamed of being friends with them.
The bus didn’t go this way for Ellen. She rode through town to get to school.
“Where are we going?” She leaned forward from the back. Kevin’s eyes darted at her in the mirror.
“Not really sure yet, but I think he is out here. Where else could he have gone?” Kevin turned up the stereo. Ellen didn’t know who it was. Some louder guitar and drums.
“He said to bring you,” Kevin eyed her in the rearview mirror.
The boy sitting next to him turned around and grinned. He had braces with blue rubber bands.
This was the most he had ever revealed to her. Kevin was usually aloof.
Ellen sat back in the seat and closed her eyes. She heard his voice again. “He said to bring you.” And then, the memory of Hill that day. He had kissed her behind her house. Mom had been at work. The low hiss of cicadas in the trees grew louder as she stood leaning on his chest. He turned her around. What did he say? She loved to pretend she could not remember. To hold herself back from the whole memory. And think about seventh grade. Think about shoelaces and algebra. Think about her mom being at work at her desk all day with important people, important papers that kept her late. Feed yourself tonight, Ellie. I am working late. Latish. The cicadas and his baseball cap. The smell of his sweat. The mystery of Hill. Knowing less before he leaned over to her. Kept it secret, even from herself. So she could shine in that moment, before it happened. Over and over. She was in love. She knew Hill would not ever really leave her. Not really. She imagined them old, rocking chairs on their island patio. They barely spoke because they knew each other so well.
“I don’t know why he has to play such a game,” Angie said, “we all know he is bluffing. He won’t actually go through with it.”
“Shut up, Angie,” Lori pinched her arm. They began a pinching match in the car, squealing and rolling over on top of Ellen. She tried to move over into the door to get some room. The window screeched as she tugged at the opener.
Ellen realized she had no idea what was happening. Or where they were going. They crossed into the next county; farms rolled out in front of them. The braces boy passed a small metal pipe into the back with a closed fist. Then a lighter followed. Angie pulled a large cloud into her mouth and tried to cover her mouth as she spit out coughs.
Lori gave Ellen a hard stare, “Don’t you mention any of this to Brooke. We should have taken you home.”