"This is an ambitious story--nuanced and deceptively simple, full of brilliant contradictions. The ending especially so, where the story manages to capture the narrator's "smallness" and the vastness of the world, all in one short paragraph."
Jaquira Diaz, Prose Judge
Jack was telling me how his father died. From the window, I saw his mom's black Sedan pull out of the driveway, maple leaves plastered to the bumper. All the way to the end of the street, where the road snaked out on the beltway, and sodium lights turned the pavement and the mailboxes orange.
"It was two years ago," he said. He was sitting on the giant beanbag under his poster of Steve Jobs, tying a shoelace into sailor's knots. "Heart attack. Maybe. They weren't really sure. He kept talking about the end being near. But he always joked like that, so it's hard to say."
I tapped his fish tank with my thumbnail. It was an old computer monitor, one of the bulky models from the early 2000's. Jack had removed the hard drive and the inner systems, until all that was left was the shell and the glass screen. He had spread lime and tangerine gravel along the bottom, filled it with water, and slid two confused feeder fish inside. The humidifier by his closet made a little clicking noise every ten minutes or so, and the aquarium lamp he'd put in the
monitor left the wall by his door in a gaze of clear green light. The fish mouthed tiny vowels against the screen. Jack had a great room.
"You know, when you're a kid, you make up these stories. I used to tell myself my dad was a secret agent who faked his death to protect me and mom. And then one day, I'd be doing something -- putting new LED lights in here (he pointed to the black light panel propped against his dresser) or walking across the stage at high school graduation or pulling into the driveway -- and he'd be standing there, just like that, no explanation."
I never met Jack's dad, although I knew that his name was Andrew and he liked kiwis but not cigars and had served in the Navy before he became a software engineer. There were pictures of him in the hall, across from the bookshelf. In one, he is young and in uniform, standing on a dock. In another, he is reading Dr. Zhivago to a tiny Jack. He didn't seem like a spy.
"Maybe," I said, "But probably not. You would've found his badge. Or documents. Secret letters in an attic. Wouldn't there be weapons?"
"I'm kidding, Hunter," he said. "I haven't thought about that in years. I don't know what reminded me of it." He grinned. "I bet you were a freaky kid, too."
I shrugged, and fished a gummy worm out of the bag in his desk drawer. "I was never a child, Jack." He nodded, fake-serious.
"Of course not," he said, and tossed me the knot.
I met Jack a few weeks ago, at the start of our senior year. It was a Wednesday. I was walking across the Bumblebee mosaic in the hallway outside the auditorium, on my way to class, when someone behind me shouted, "No!"
We had a coffee machine -- a vending machine that dribbled "cappuccinos" and "espressos" into styrofoam cups if you fed it seventy five cents. I wanted to get there before chemistry, like I
always did, so I could stay awake. I turned around to see who was yelling, and there was Jack, wearing a sweatshirt that read "MicroSoft." He waved at me.
"You stepped on the Bumblebee," he said. "Now you're cursed. Doomed." I told him that I had always been cursed.
"Well, I'm not cursed," he said, "I'm Jack."
"OK Jack. I'm Hunter. I know the logo is haunted, but so am I, so don't worry about it." The haunting was not true, but the curse was -- I have left a path of destruction in my wake everywhere I've ever been. I didn't take it too personally, but by the time I was sixteen, it was noticeable. My mom became diabetic after I was born. The hospital I was born in lost an entire ward to an electric fire in 2002. My first hometown, in Pennsylvania, had a kid shoot himself a few months after I left, in sixth grade. The boy who did it was only fourteen. When I die, I am sure, some hidden part of the universe will shudder in a cosmic storm.
A few days later, I saw Jack again, by the coffee machine. This time he was wearing a black sweatshirt with the word "Intel" in cobalt block letters across the back.
I asked him where he was getting all these software sweatshirts. We walked back over the Bumblebee, to the parking lot. I could see the clips of blue sky over the trees past the track, and I thought of the future, close and cool on my wrists and neck.
Jack told me where the sweatshirts were from, and I was so surprised that when the bell rang, I gave him my three coffee quarters and said, "You're gonna need these," although that wasn't the right thing to say, but he laughed, and took the coins. I saw Jack a lot after that. I liked his computer fish tank, and the fact that he didn't ask too many questions, and I liked our unsolved mysteries.
After Jack and I skimmed a list of the presidents for US History, I walked downstairs. I passed the bookshelf, and the stacks of biographies -- Panetta, Clinton, Brezhnev, all of them political -- and saw the collection with new eyes. I traced the space between the wooden floor panels with one toe, searching for a trap door. I lived further from Washington, D.C. than Jack; his house was right across the Potomac, in McLean. Last week, we walked down the street to where my car was parked in its usual spot, under the dogwood tree, and suddenly, he stopped. Jack could sense slight changes in light and sound better than anyone I've met, before or since. He looked up, then, and I followed his gaze to the dark sky, where six blunt-nosed aircraft filed silently North, like blind white fish. Drones.
Ms. Holland's office was on the right side of the house, by the linen closet. I had heard various stories about her career -- that she did grant writing, that she could speak French and Spanish, that she was now working for a law firm focused on security cases. If anything, she was the spy.
I could hear Jack's radio blasting upstairs -- he was a fan of Tool these days, and the thunderclaps and mournful lyrics were growing on me, I had to admit. I hadn't heard the garage open, so it seemed safe. I crossed the foyer and slipped through the cracked door and into Ms. Holland's office.
Shadows caved and stretched over objects like giant tarps. I tugged the cord of the nearest lamp.
In the middle of the room, a desk. To the side of the desk, a copier and a paper shredder and one of the older, heavier printers. She had two computer monitors, and a paperweight with a dandelion inside of it, and a yellow filofax, and a sun lamp and across from the window, a large oil painting of a bird of paradise, its tail curled like a cursive letter, its eyes small and dark and smiling. In the background, palm trees shaded hundreds of tiny emerald pools. I didn't trust a paradise like that. I was falling into the painting. The long swooping tail feathers, the talons, the sand in the air. I looked at my hands on the back of Ms. Holland's swivel chair, and my bare feet on the carpet, and did not know who was inside of them. My heart started to beat fast, until it felt like it was one constant, jolting thrum. Breathing became difficult. I stumbled backward, out of the room, and ran out to Jack's front yard.
I could breathe better outside, in colder air, with the dogwood trees and the bottle caps in the dry grass and the smell of the neighbors cooking with curry and washing their clothes with Dawn. I walked, barefoot, along the sidewalk, and said, quietly, "I am Hunter. I live in Virginia now. Jack is upstairs building computer fish tanks and sailor's knots and probably time machines, and spies are in the woods, and my house is nearby, and we are safe." Above me, belts of blinking garnet lights lifted away from the airfield and across the sky.
Ever since I moved to Virginia, in sixth grade, I've been grateful for the sky. It's not the deep, unaffected blue of Pennsylvania suburbs. It's polluted by light, and turns violet at midnight, dark in some spots like velvet that's been rubbed and rubbed by a child's thumb. My first friend,
Mason, had a big purple couch like that. He would sit in the same corner every day, after school, and rub the same velveteen spot on the armrest, over and over and over and over. You could ask him a question, and he wouldn't look up. As we got older, I was allowed to go over less and less. His parents fought, and on some afternoons, his mother would move through the house slamming all of the windows shut so only Mason could hear her yelling. They kept some rooms soundproofed. They kept guns in the house.
Until one Thursday morning, four months after my parents and I had already moved to McLean for my dad's work, and Mason was trying to hide some magazines on the shelf above the cleaning supplies in their kitchen, and found the Smith & Wesson, not knowing -- at least, that's what I've told myself -- that the safety was off.
Jack caught up with me at the end of the road. I was sitting on the curb, to feel the cold rise through the cement and force me back into my body, though I didn't tell Jack any of that. Cars raced by on the beltway, some without their headlights on. I grabbed my ankles and dug my fingernails into my skin. I heard his winded breathing beside me, and smelled the chlorine in his hair. Jack, I thought. Jack is here. A white Isuzu trooper sped by in the dark, and he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, "Lights!" It echoed, shattering into sound bites as it hit the trees.
"Did you hear anything when you were down there?" He joined me on the curb, stretching his legs out into the road.
"You don't have guns in the house, do you?"
"What? Sorry -- why would we have guns?"
"If your dad was a spy."
Jack stayed very quiet, and linked his arm through mine. I let him. It was a "DataCorps" sweatshirt, hunter green, warm, polyester. He turned to face me, and I watched the minnows of his worries blink out at me from his eyes. Swimming around, in the tank he built.
"My dad? He wasn't a spy. He was a software engineer. I told you that. He was exactly who we thought he was, and we lost him for no reason. I used to think a reason would have made it better. Some kind of myth to keep him around a little longer." I knew Jack was watching me, wondering what had happened, but he didn't ask questions. He knew the questions would present themselves to him when they could -- he was wise, in some ways, for a teenage boy.
When I could breathe slowly again, I said, "Jack."
"What if you really didn't know what happened? And it wasn't some myth you came up with, you really had no idea?"
"That would be a different kind of disappearing," said Jack. "Don't you think? Just different."
I touched the hair elastic on my wrist to keep from disappearing.
"Is your mom home yet?" I asked. "She's probably wondering where we went."
"No," said Jack, "And that's the funny thing. The light's on in her office." He paused, split apart a blade of grass with his fingers. Fingers that built, instead of destroying. "Do you believe in ghosts?"
I closed my eyes, and pretended the cosmic storm was already happening. I imagined every dip and curve in our backstories turning white hot and dissolving, like meteors entering the Earth's atmosphere, until they could never affect us again. But I knew that was not how it worked.
"Yes," I said. The moon was tinted lavender by a passing thundercloud, and looked like some bothered God had been rubbing that spot in the sky, over and over, until light shone through. "Sure, I do."
I felt so small, suddenly, sitting outside in the middle of the night. I thought about the improbability of moving through a world like this, where new friends sit together with their mysteries, and where people disappear for unclear reasons, and where there are always hidden guns in the house -- and the sheer strangeness of it all opened up above us with the pause and force of parachutes, as it always does, catching you right before it's too late.