Earworm: Part 20 — Not So Sweet Remembrances

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 19 — David 

Greta looked up from her bowl of ice cream, the spoon still stuck in her mouth. She regarded William as if he was the specter of a long-deceased relative suddenly returning from the grave. The spoon slid from her mouth. “Oh, William, you’re home. I was waiting for you to call for a ride.”

William went to the freezer and opened the door. “Yeah, well, I didn’t need one.”

“How’d you get home?”

“One of the guys,” William said. He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, he fished out the gallon of ice cream.

“How was the game?” Greta asked in her jovial voice.

Does the term “torture” mean anything to you?

“Good,” William said, retrieving a bowl from the cabinet.

“Who won?”

Who cares?

“We did,” William said.

At least I think we did.

He dug at the ice cream with a spoon, trying to pry loose a scoop. A chunk flung from the spoon and plopped onto the tile floor. William sighed.

“You have fun?” Greta said.

Oh yeah, it was quite a lot like a root canal.

“Yeah, it was fun.” William tore free a paper towel to clean up the mess. The paper towel cylinder dropped from the holder and fell to the floor, unraveling like the white carpet awaiting a bride’s precession. William stared at the paper path in disbelief. He left it and bent over the melting, brown glob of ice cream, slopping it up, feeling the cold stickiness soak through the towel. He tossed it in the trash.

“So you got a chance to see all your friends?” Greta asked in her jovial way.

William turned and looked at her. Et tu, Greta?

“Yep,” he said, turning back to the unraveled paper towels and re-rolling them into what looked like a mad scientist’s botched experiment.

Greta took another spoonful of ice cream into her mouth, blowing hyperventilating breaths—a technique she claimed fended off brain-freeze.

William returned to the ice cream gallon and made another attempt to mine a scoop.

“And did you see that girl you like?” Greta said.

William drove the spoon into the ice cream, the handle bending. Why did he despise Greta at that moment? Why did he want to turn on her, throw that gallon of ice cream through the window and scream, For Christ’s sake, Greta, I have no friends. People just don’t like me. Are you blind? Can’t you see that? And that girl, she got her man, and that man ain’t me. So why can’t you just butt out and mind your own business?

“No,” William said. “That girl wasn’t there.”

“That’s too bad,” Greta said, waddling to the sink and depositing the bowl. “Now that you’re home safe and sound, I’m gonna go shopping.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you want anything?”

“No,” he said, plopping another clump of ice cream into his bowl.

“Okay,” she said, “You sure you don’t want anything?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, you do? Or, yes, you’re sure you don’t?”

“What?” William snapped at her like a dog protecting a bone.

“I didn’t know if you wanted more ice cream, because I’ll get you some if you want it,” Greta said in a low voice, hurt evident in her eyes.

William held onto the counter, the spoon buried into the ice cream like Excalibur in its anvil. “Okay,” he said, forcing a grin, “We could use some more ice cream.”

“Okay, good,” Greta said with renewed purpose. “What kind?”

“Anyth… coffee’s fine.”

“Okay, one order of coffee ice cream, coming up,” she said, grabbing her car keys and waddling out the door.

William plopped a final scoop of ice cream into his bowl and brought it to the kitchen table. He looked out the window, inspecting the many birdfeeders hanging like Christmas ornaments from the trees. A squirrel scurried onto one of them, scaring off a blue jay and stuffing stolen birdseed into its mouth.

William thought, Just like Stanley. I was going to yell at her just like Stanley would have.

Was William really like Stanley, the guy that tried to hammer him into the floor like a tent post?

The squirrel outside scurried around to another opening in the clear plastic feeder, searching for more choice seeds. William slopped a spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. It stung his fillings and pooled beneath his tongue, and his thoughts unearthed a memory of another Saturday morning, not too long ago, a time when he still lived in New Hampshire. It was about a month after the courts had exiled Greta’s husband Stanley from “his very own house.” But William still saw Stanley often enough.

William remembered the day Stanley tried to kill him. It was as accessible to recall as the alphabet, ingrained in his mind by constant visits to that day in his memories. William had been sitting on the living room couch, eating ice cream and watching television. He remembered every detail of that day, from the sweatpants he wore—a size too small—to the Looney Tunes rerun he watched—Bugs and Elmer having it out to the music of The Barber of Seville. And he remembered Greta barreling down the stairs, huffing, “Oh, jeesh. What’s he doing here?” William stood from the couch and pulled the curtain aside. He saw Stanley standing on the front lawn, shoulders hunched, bald head jutting from his collar like a vulture’s, hands dangling at his sides in gnarled claws. Greta whipped open the front door and stood in the doorway like a goalie in a crease. William had found a sudden and new respect for her since she kicked Stanley out, she was a woman in control, as if intoxicated by a new power. “Stanley,” she called, “I told you to never come back. There’s a restraining order, you know that. Do I need to call the…”

“Where’s William?” Stanley inquired from the front lawn. His voice was calm and soft—strangely calm, strangely soft.

“Stanley,” Greta said, “I told you, unless you want me to call the police, then…”

“Where is he?” Stanley’s too calm voice called again.

“Stanley,” Greta called from the doorway, “I mean it, I’ll call the…”

Stanley’s voice grew louder and more truculent, “Where is William?”

“Stanley, I…”

“Where is he?” Stanley screamed, charging the front door. Greta screamed, clawing the door shut, shouldering it, fumbling with the deadbolt. Stanley burst in like a hurricane wind, but the inertia of Greta’s bulk prevailed, and the door shut, the deadbolt falling into place with a resounding click. William ran into the hall. Stanley hammered on the front door, screaming gibberish obscenities.

“William,” Greta said, out of breath, “You lock back door. I call police.”

William didn’t have time to ponder how much Greta’s syntax sounded like Tarzan at that moment because the cursing and banging from outside ceased, and with biting fear, William realized Stanley had the same notion as Greta: the back door. William and Greta exchanged frantic glances before breaking like players from a huddle, racing for their respective tasks.

William burst into the kitchen and bounded for the backdoor. He stopped short, spotting the metal side door leading in from the garage. Greta picked up the phone, shrieking, “Hurry.” William wasn’t sure if she was pleading with him or the phone. He cut for the garage door, turning the button on the doorknob. He then looked to the house’s rear entrance, a pair of French doors leading out onto a small deck. William could see, through the doors’ grids of glass panes, Stanley mounting the back deck’s steps. William sprang across the kitchen. Greta’s fingers clumsily danced across the digits of the phone with electric beeps. She repeated in hushed, panicked sobs, “Oh God, oh God, oh God.”

William beat Stanley to the door, locking it the moment Stanley reached it. Stanley shook the knob with violent vigor. “William,” Stanley said, “You get out here right now so that I can kill you.” William didn’t move. He regarded his adopted father’s frenzied, frothing face as Stanley screamed with the comedic franticness of the Looney Tunes reruns William had just been watching. “William, you let me in this instant.”

Greta shrieked into the phone, “Hello? Hello? Oh God. Police? Send Police. My husband’s trying to kill us.”

On the other side of the doors’ glass panes, Stanley’s eyes were distant and insane. “William,” he said, “you let me in right now.”

William didn’t move.

Stanley’s hand crashed through one of the doors’ glass panes. Greta squealing, “Oh God. Oh God, hurry.” Stanley’s hand searching for the lock. William jumped forward, shouldering the door shut. He snatched up half of the broken glass pane that had fallen to the floor and struck at Stanley with the shard. The glass drew a long, red line down part of Stanley’s lower arm, across his wrist, and over the back of his hand. Stanley howled and withdrew his hand. He inspected it, staring at the blood as if it was a code in need of deciphering.

Stanley reinserted his hand for a second try, screaming, “You little bastard. You’re even more dead now.” This time, William drove the glass deep into Stanley’s flesh. Stanley retreated, yelping and staring at the glass buried in his hand. As Stanley worked the shard from his flesh, William commandeered a chair from the kitchen table and wedged its back under the doors’ doorknobs. Stanley extracted the glass, his arm and hand looking as if they’d been dipped into red paint. Scarlet droplets splashed onto the deck. He attempted another assault on the door, but the chair held.

Greta continued chattering, frantic, into the receiver, “Yes, I’ll stay on the line. Oh God, just hurry. Where are you for God’s sake?”

Stanley glared in at William. “Open the door,” he said. William shook his head. Stanley tried the doorknob again, but the chair held. Stanley’s blood-drenched hand flexed.

An odd smile crawled across William’s face as he and Stanley faced off. It wasn’t the first time William had won.

Stanley ran his hand up and over his bald skull—a habit he was known to do when angry—painting the top of his head in scarlet streaks like war paint. “Very well, then,” he said. He turned and walked down the deck’s steps, disappearing around the corner of the house.

“He’s leaving,” Greta confided to the phone. “I don’t know where he’s going.” Stanley could then be heard in the garage, rummaging through troves of junk. “What’s he doing?” Greta said. William was unsure whom she was asking, so he shrugged. “He’s in the garage,” Greta said. There was a tense silence.

Crash. The front door jostled. William jumped. Greta cried out. The house shook. The windows rattled. Crash. The three, pie-shaped windows forming a half circle at the top of the front door shattered, glass trickling down. William figured using those shards as weapons would be futile. “Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.” Greta whaled into the phone. William would later reflect on the poor dispatcher’s probable hearing loss. Crash. The front door tried to leap from the doorjamb, the wood around the deadbolt splitting. “Hescominhouse,” Greta screeched, blending her desperate sentence into one word, repeating it over and over into the phone, “Hescominhouse. Hescominhouse.” Crash. The door bent inward. William heard advancing sirens in the distance. Crash. The door sprung open, slamming into the wall. Stanley stood in the doorway, his crown streaked red, his eyes furnaces, a sledgehammer in his hands. The sirens were just outside. Tires screeching on the road. “Hurry,” Greta wailed into the phone, even though the police were on the front lawn. Stanley stepped over the threshold and into the house.

“Don’t move,” a voice commanded from outside. “I said, don’t move.”

Stanley continued into the house, shoving Greta aside. He advanced toward William. “No more,” he growled. William backed into the kitchen. The police burst into the house. Greta grasped at their uniforms, pleading for help. William backed into the kitchen table, trying to crawl over it. Stanley loomed over him. The police tossed Greta aside—in much the same manner Stanley had—and they scurried into the kitchen. “No more,” Stanley shouted, the hammer rising. William raised his hands. What would his final thought be as the metal head of the hammer buried into his skull? Would it be, Oh God, I’m dead, I’m really dead? Would he see his own blood splash on the kitchen wall? Would his final expression of bewilderment be forever frozen on his face? But before the hammer fell, the police wrestled Stanley to the ground. “No,” Stanley wailed. “No more. Please, you’ve got to stop him. Please end it. Please, William, no more.”

William snapped from the memory with a shudder. Outside the kitchen window, the squirrel shimmied up the birdfeeder’s wire. William stood from the table, licking the spoon clean, and he deposited the bowl in the sink.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 21—The Girlfriend Experience

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Earworm: Part 19 — David

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 18 — The Game 

The tide of spectators leaving the game now flowed to the parking lot. William walked in the opposite direction, strolling past the high school, across the soccer field, past the track. He cut through the baseball diamond, kicking the rubber edge of the pitcher’s mound and running his fingers along the chain-link backstop. He then ducked into the woods that bordered the school’s property. Here, he felt protected. Supposedly, one of the paths in these woods, he wasn’t sure which path, led to his neighborhood. He was told to stay away from the thick woods further north. But these woods he now traveled in weren’t known for disappearances, like Parson’s Woods were, and so he decided that should he come to a diverge in direction, he’d simply do what Robert Frost suggested and hope for the best.

As he wandered along the path, he watched the leaves die their slow deaths. Some yellowing and blooming with scarlet blotches, others, the deep red of dried blood. A soft breeze rocked the bows, shaking leaves free to flutter to the ground, lost and forgotten. They grasped at William’s shoes, screaming pleas in rustling whispers as if begging him to save them. William’s thoughts wandered back to the football game with its celebrating fans, and he imagined sitting in the stands with them, cheering along with Hope’s cheers. But then his heart dropped as he imagined everyone stopping those cheers and turning to look at him, as if asking, Who the Hell’s this guy? And then the answering murmurs of, That’s the Dey boy.

But did it really matter if he was the Dey boy or not? He had escaped his scandal-ridden past while living in New Hampshire. And he was still a high school misfit there.

Why was it that people like Hope and Joel seemed to fit in everywhere, and William fit in nowhere?

William heard distant voices drifting on the wind. At first, William thought it was just the leaves’ rustling or the trees’ swaying, but then he realized that it was, in fact, two distinct voices, sounding dire and urgent.

“C’mon, men.” It was a child’s voice pretending to be the gruff voice of a man.

“Fall back. Fall back. We’ll never take them,” said a higher voice. The voice of someone pretending to yell by talking quieter.

The voices were followed by the fabricated sounds of war and death and dismemberment.

Out of curiosity, and judging there to be no danger from the youngness of the voices, William followed the sounds of vocally pronounced sword clashes and shield crashes.

“The ring. We must protect the ring,” the gruff voice called.

Through gaps between trees, William spotted the source of the voice, all the voices for that matter, for it was only one person. Among the trees was a boy of about twelve jumping and thrusting and slashing with a long, thin stick. He was petite in a girlish way, his hair so blond it appeared white. Every time he swung the stick, he vocally created a sound of metal striking metal, and then he’d thrust, making the sound of some pitiful creature meeting its demise.

“Kill the orcs.” the boy screamed, swinging the stick with fury and zeal until his eyes fell onto William.

The two stared at one another, the boy’s pale eyes regarding William as if he was an orc incarnate.

“What are you doing?” William said.

“N-n-n-no-nothing,” the boy said.

“Is it just you out here?” William said, glancing around the woods.

The boy’s eyes became uneasy, his body taking on the posture of a rabbit frozen between hiding and running away. “Y-ye-yes,” he said.

“But I heard someone else’s voice,” William said.

“No, th-th-that was j-j-just me,” the boy said, his eyes swimming in tears as he choked on the words.

“But the person I heard didn’t stutter,” William said.

The boy responded with a shrug—a practiced gesture, obviously intended to end conversations.

William said, “What are you playing, The Lord of the Rings?”

The boy nodded, still standing like a rabbit about to flee.

“You like Tolkien?” William said.

The boy responded with his practiced gesture, tears still welling in his eyes.

“Did you read the books, or just watch the movies?” William said.

The boy paused a moment, as if still contemplating whether or not to run away, but finally he stammered, “B-b-b-both.”

“Did you read all the books?” William said in an interrogating manner.

The boy nodded.

William said, “Even the Silmarillian?”

A smile broke onto the boy’s face as if William struck conversation oil, the boy’s obvious joy in the subject bubbling out of him. “Y-y-y-yeah,” he said.

“Who were you pretending to be, Aragorn?”

The boy shrugged. “I w-w-was all of th-them.”

“Well, not Gandolf the Grey,” William bellowed in a low, imposing voice, raising his arms and making rumbling, thunder noises. A childlike grin crossed his face, feeling foreign to him.

The boy’s smile broadened as he held up the stick, saying, “I, Aragorn, p-p-pledge my sword to y-y-you, Gandolf.”

William lowered his arms, his scowl returning like a hurricane after the eye. “I don’t play kid games for losers,” William said.

The boy winced as if an orc’s arrow found its mark, and he lowered his stick, swinging it at the fallen leaves.

William looked the boy up and down, saying, “You live around here?”

The boy glanced at William, distrust again in his eyes. “Y-yeah.”

William picked up a stick and, like the boy, he swung it at the leaves. “You come out here a lot?” he said, not raising his eyes from the leaves.

He sensed rather than saw the boy’s nod.

“You always play Lord of the Rings?”

The boy flinched his shoulders, not looking up from the leaves. “I p-p-play other things t-t-too.”

“Like what?” William leaned against a tree and watched a leaf float to the ground.

St-st-star Wars and the E-e-ex Men.”

“You like comics?” William said, raising his eyebrows.

“I saw the m-m-movies.” The boy spit out the words as if they were the bitter pulp of fruit. “Most of the t-t-t-time, I m-m-m-make stuff up.”

“That’s what I do,” William said. “When I was your age,” he added defensively. “I used to make stuff up in the woods behind my old house.”

“Where w-wwa-was…”

“New Hampshire,” William said, taking a hefty cut with his stick and exploding the leaves into a scattering flurry. “What’s your name?”

“D-D-David,” the boy said.

William took another swing at the ground and glanced at the different trees.

David watched William in an expectant manner, then said, “What’s your n-n…”

“William Knight.”

“Are you in high sc-sc-sc-school?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you p-p-p-pl-play sports?”

“Nah. I was gonna go out for football, but I didn’t feel like it,” William said. He took a swing at another pile of leaves, but missed them.

The boy nodded. A long, uncomfortable silence followed as the two boys glanced at the trees and leaves, and the sky peaking through the branches above. “Well, b-b-b-bye,” David said, offering a tentative wave and turning to walk away.

“What grade are you in?” William said.

The boy turned back, saying, “S-s-ixth.”

William nodded.

Another long silence followed.

“I’m g-g-g-g-onna go,” David said with another wave.

“See ya later,” William said with a casual wave of his own.

David turned and walked away, tapping the stick before him like a blind man using a cane. He glanced back once, and then continued on his way.

William tossed his own stick aside and continued home.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 20 — Not So Sweet Remembrances

Earworm: Part 18 — The Game

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 17 — The Girl Next Door 

Joel positioned the football’s laces between his fingertips as he dropped back. He focused beyond the flailing arms, rushing bodies, the colliding plastic and grueling grunts, trying to find Lawrence Mayes, who was supposed to be cutting across mid-field in a set pattern. But Mayes wasn’t there. Joel did see Sean Collins running up the sideline, waving like a drowning victim. But Collins couldn’t hold onto the ball even if you handed the thing to him. Wait, there was Mayes trying to extricate from double coverage. Joel’s fingertips tightened on the ball, he pump-faked, but didn’t throw. He spotted Tommy Wilkes spinning a feint on his defender and streaking up the sideline. Joel ducked a rusher, darted to his right, set his feet, and let the ball fly. Tommy Wilkes received the pass and trotted into the end zone.

The crowd cheered.

The cheerleaders squealed.

Joel glanced over to see Hope Ferretti jumping and clapping.

That was the only touchdown for the Wolves, and when the final whistle blew, Joel felt relief having survived another contest unscathed—although, late in the game, there was one blindsided hit that felt as if he’d been decapitated, but he managed to hop up from the ground with only a little less wind in his lungs.

After the game, Joel strolled to the chain link fence bordering the field. Hope waited for him. Fans filed from the stands and as they passed, especially the vicarious fathers and star-struck sycophants, they called:

“Nice game, Joel.”

“Great pass, Joel.”

“Awesome touchdown, Joel.”

“Nice ass, Joel,” someone called in a high-pitched voice.

Joel turned to see Guard trotting off for the locker room, laughing.

Joel turned to Hope with an embarrassed smile, “He can be such a dick.”

“Gee, great game, Joel,” Hope said.

“Oh, Christ, you too?”

“I think you have a nice ass, too,” she said.

“Whatever,” Joel said. “Hey, I didn’t think you were going to make it here today. Why were you so late?”

“Great job, Joel,” the principal said, passing by them.

Joel waved.

“You should run for mayor,” Hope said.

“Yeah, well, my fifteen minutes are ticking.”

“Does being quarterback for the Mystic Wolves really count against your allotted time of fame?”

“I don’t know,” Joel said. “How about being star cheerleader?”

“That’s fifteen minutes of hell,” Hope said.

“So, why were you late?” Joel said, digressing. He recognized a bitterness in Hope’s voice. He was unsure why she considered cheerleading hell, although watching her in that skirt certainly gave Joel ideas that might just land him there.

“I couldn’t get out of bed,” Hope said. “I had the craziest dream last night.”

“Hey,” Joel said, switching subjects so quickly that it looked as if a light bulb should have gone off above his head, “you wanna go to Katie Adams’s party tonight?”

“Sure. But I’m pretty tired, maybe we can just go for a little while.”

“We don’t have to go there. I mean, we could just go to a movie or something.”

“A movie or somethin?” Hope mocked in a dimwitted voice.

Joel raised his eyebrows. “What was that for?”

“Movies are something couples do when they can’t think of anything else to do.”

“Pardon me.”

“You’re pardoned for now. Katie’s sounds good.”

“All right. So I’ll call you later?”

“Sure,” Hope said, looking at him with scantly veiled affection.

“And we’ll go to the movies,” Joel said in a dimwitted voice.

“Yeah, right,” Hope said.

“Hey,” another light bulb sprung over Joel’s head, “I saw your boyfriend here.”

“Who?”

“William Knight.”

The smile dropped from Hope’s face. She craned her neck, searching the thinning crowd like a federal marshal for a fugitive. “Where?” Her voice was charged with a strange interest. Almost like panic, almost like longing.

“Over there.” Joel pointed to the far end of the bleachers. “He’s not there now. He must’ve left.”

“And why is he my boyfriend?” Hope said in a tone that, Joel wasn’t quite sure why, made him uneasy.

“I don’t know,” Joel said, not masking his confusion. “You were asking about him the other day. I was just teasing you.”

“Sorry,” Hope said, “But he’s not my boyfriend.”

“Really? Who is?”

“No one, yet.”

“Yet, huh? So you want me to call you later?”

“If you want to go out tonight, you should.”

“Yeah, all right,” Joel said, “I’ll call you later.” He trotted across the field to meet his team in the locker room.

“See ya,” Hope called after him.

“Bye,” he called, waving.

“Bye.”

“Hasta la vista,” he called, but before Hope could respond, his toe hit a divot, almost toppling him. He caught his balance with more effort than he let on, trying to pass it off as all part of the plan.

“I saw that,” Hope called.

Joel trotted away, grinning and shaking his head.

Joel was right about William having been there, but he was gone now, wandering off with the rest of the crowd. Earlier, as William approached Price Field, the thought turning over in his mind was: I shouldn’t have come. And the stares from other students only reinforced this realization. Kids like William didn’t go to football games. Going to “the game” was for socializing, to cheer and high-five, to gawk at the opposite sex. The attendees of “the game” came in carloads of friends. They certainly were not dropped off alone by their mothers.

“You want a ride to the football game?” Greta had responded to his request like a soldier questioning a commanding officer’s orders.

“Yeah, Mom, you know, just goin to meet the guys,” William had told her.

And now that she’d dropped him off, and he’d watched his only security drive off, he felt like a pilot downed behind enemy lines.

Up ahead, lingering around the main entrance to the field, William spotted some of the hallway scavengers that he sometimes ran across in school. He figured he’d be fine once he got into the game, but out here, he was an open target for them. His pace quickened and he was almost to the entrance when he bumped into something.

Jimmy Ringwald, the kid that gave William a hard time in the hallway the day before, stared at him with mock anger.

William forced a smile and said, “Um, hi… Jimmy, was it?”

“Duh, ‘hi, Jimmy,’” Jimmy said in a mocking tone. And then in a tone that flashed suddenly to anger, he said, “Watch where you’re going, homo.”

William averted his eyes. “Sorry,” he said. He tried to step around Jimmy, but instead, he walked into him again.

“What’s the matter with you? Watch where you’re goin.” Jimmy flailed his arms with an expression of such over-dramatization that it was almost comical.

But William didn’t dare laugh. A group of scavengers gathered, smelling blood, watching, waiting for William’s reaction. They wanted in on this carrion.

“This kid startin with you, Jimmy?” said another kid with an expression of such utter shock, it rivaled Jimmy’s initial expression.

“I guess so.” Jimmy said, giving William a shove on his shoulder. “You startin with me?” he said like a professional wrestler confronting an opponent center ring.

William glanced at the staring faces of the gathering crowd. “No,” he said.

“Then stop walking inta me.”

“Okay.” William paused in the suffocating air. He started forward, only to step into Jimmy’s chest again. William sighed.

“Jesus. This kid just doesn’t get it.” Jimmy shoved William back a few steps. William bumped into another parasite.

“Watch it, man.” The kid shoved William toward Jimmy. William caught his balance, stopping short, and he stared into Jimmy’s eyes. Jimmy stared in to the endless black pools that were William’s pupils. Jimmy’s eyes flinched first.

“Knock it off,” Mr. Hewitt, the vice principal, hollered from the field’s entrance.

Jimmy turned to walk away, but he stopped and turned back toward William. “I’ll see-ya later, homo,” he said before dispersing with the rest of the crowd.

William continued in through the front gate, not looking up, hands buried in his pockets, feet shuffling. It occurred to him how great it would be if he was invisible and could sneak into the game unseen. Maybe he could cause havoc like the Invisible Man—wedgy a few scavengers or steal the football, causing the players to run in tail chasing confusion. And being invisible, he could whisper in Hope’s ear, Remember me, Hope? It’s me, from your dreams.

He searched for a place to sit, but the bleachers were packed—William needing to work past countless fans to arrive at any given seat. William regarded the crowd. It seemed everyone was watching him. Tier after tier of seated rows, all staring at him as if he’d wandered into the lady’s room.

He retreated to a place beside the bleachers, standing there, not daring to move, trying to blend in like a stick bug on a branch. He could only see half of the field from this vantage, but that didn’t matter, he didn’t care much for football, anyway.

A chorus of female voices blended into harmonizing chants. “We,” they shouted, and then clapped two rapid reports, “Will win.” Clap-clap. “We.” Clap-clap. “Will win.” And then they called as one voice into the stands, “Let’s go, Mystic.” And the fans echoed, “Let’s go, Mystic.” And everyone clapped in rhythmic precision. Clap-clap-clappity-clap. The oneness of the crowd, the structured routine of the chanting and clapping, to William, it was like some bizarre church service, and in the lead of all that cheering and school spirit was Hope Ferretti. Like an ancient priestess, Hope decided when to chant, when to clap, when to cheer. William was lost in every one of her hip-swinging, hand-clapping movements. The game and crashing bodies, the whistles tweeting like panicked birds, the crowd with their whoops and hollers, all faded from existence. William only watched Hope until, before he knew it, the referee blew an extra long whistle blast, and the crowd let out a final cheer.

The game was over, and the spectators spilled from the stands, but William didn’t dare move, still concentrating on blending into the side of the bleachers. Jimmy Ringwald passed him with a wax paper cup. Jimmy pulled the straw from the lid and, with one end still in his mouth, spurted soda into William’s face. “Sorry, fag” Jimmy said, his friends howling laughter.

William wiped away the sticky syrup, glaring at Jimmy walking away with his friends.

“We’ll see who’s sorry,” William muttered.

He then craned his neck, catching a glimpse of Hope. She was talking to the cheerleader beside her. The other cheerleader was in William’s psychology class. Her name was Tara something. William imagined Tara and Hope’s conversation: Tara saying, Did you see that new kid here? He’s so hot. Are you really thinking of going out with him, Hope? You should. Some might think he’s a goofball, but I think he’s just dreamy.

Yeah, William was sure Tara was saying that.

Hope, you should definitely go out with William. Hey, look, a flying pig.

As the tide of people ebbed to a few scattered bunches, William watched Joel Fitch approach Hope from inside the chain-link fence. Hope gripped the fence, offering Joel that same perfect smile she offered William when he presented her with a necklace of stars. But there was no moon in Joel’s hand. There was just a stupid, empty football helmet—that helmet being just as empty when it was on his head. And Joel’s castle? A vacant football field. And Joel spoke with the most vacuous thing of all: his words.

They’re just friends, William assured himself. The popular gravitate together. Besides, head cheerleader with the football captain? Wasn’t that a little too Barbie and Ken-ish?

But William read their body language. Joel’s arms flexed as if his helmet weighed 300 pounds, his chest inflated. And look at the way Hope angled her head, offering Joel her long neck, her eyes held on his, her hips tilted, one leg bent, subconsciously jutting out her rear in animal-like courtship.

William’s heart lay flat in his stomach. Well, he thought, we’ll just see Joel try and give her the one thing she wants more than anything else.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 19 — David 

Earworm: Part 17 — The Girl Next Door

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 16 — The Place 

Starling Osmond was sprawled across a beach towel in her back yard. She was on her stomach, her head buried in her arms, the sun simmering baby oil from her back. She didn’t lube up with the baby oil for a stark, bronze color, she just liked the feeling of rays penetrating her skin, feeling her nerves wince as if sinking into a hot bath. A portable radio played beside her head, and her fingers would occasionally dance across her radio’s tuning knob, searching for an acceptable song. INXS cut through the static. That would have to do for now. She sat upright—time for a flop-over—and reached for her bottle of Sprite. As she took a sip, she glanced through the chain-link fence separating her family’s property from the yard next door.

In the other yard, a young mother held her arms spread, waiting for her son to walk to her. The child waddled in that awkward, toddler manner. “Come on, William, come to Mommy,” the mother said. The child reached his mother and fell into her arms. “Good job, William,” the mother said.

Starling stood from her towel. It was as good a time as any to get up, stretch her legs, get her blood flowing. She walked to the fence, watching the mother back up and urge her child to walk again. The mother couldn’t have been much older than Starling. Three, four years at the most, making her, what, about twenty-two? Twenty-three? The child fell into his mother’s arms. The woman cheered.

Starling called over the fence, “Gonna be a regular track star, huh?”

The mother gasped, looking up at Starling.

Starling smiled, trying to ease the shock from the woman’s face. A face that looked very young, but very tired. A woman trapped in her own plainness, as if she feared to set free her underlying beauty.

The same could be said about Starling. You’d be simply stunning if you’d just stop dressing yourself down, her mother often said—her mother being one of those people that shoehorned the word simply into almost any sentence. But it wasn’t that Starling liked to dress herself down, she just didn’t care to dress herself up. Old, worn clothes were comfortable, and her long chestnut hair was fine just falling down her shoulders in wavy, tangled tresses. Hairspray and blow dryers may have become a staple of the 1990’s culture, but Starling left them to people that had the time and ambition to use them. Starling was a throwback to two decades prior, and, knowing that the fashion cycle went round and round, she liked to think of herself as ahead of her time. She didn’t have time to tease her hair into a wiry fence jutting up from her scalp. She had too many places to go, people to see. There was beer to drink and pot to smoke in the basements of friends’ houses, lost in the haze, sitting, staring at wood paneling and ugly furniture, letting some guy feel her up and down while they giggled at the strip of peeling wallpaper that was supposed to look like a brick chimney. No, Starling’s beauty came on her own terms. Starling was what some deemed, “a natural beauty.” She was said to, “get prettier as you get to know her.” She wasn’t sure if these were compliments or insults, and more importantly, she didn’t care. It was, after all, tough to insult Starling Osmond. Her reaction to everything being a hawking laugh that made it unclear if she found someone incredibly funny or incredibly dumb.

The mother on the other side of the fence returned Starling’s smile with a small smile of her own. The gesture conveyed the opposite sentiment it was supposed to. It was sad and lonely. “Yeah,” the mother said, “His father’s hoping for a running back, but I don’t think he’ll have the size.”

Starling nodded, glancing around the mother’s lawn, eyeing the scattered toys, horseshoe pits, the grill with random pieces of charcoal at its feet. “I don’t think we’ve met yet,” she said, looking back at the woman. She then offered her powerful laugh, “Ha. Don’t you love when people say, I don’t think we’ve met yet, when they know damn well that they’ve never met you?”

The mother regarded her in silence.

Starling cleared her throat and said, “Yeah, I was away at school when you moved in. I’m Starling,” she jerked her head toward her house, “Bob and Rita’s daughter.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Starling,” the woman said, smiling a grin that revealed teeth this time. “I’m Emily Dey,” she said. “And this is William.” Emily grinned, looking down at the child holding onto her fingers.

“He’s cute,” Starling said. “How old is he?”

“Thirteen months.”

Starling nodded, as if she knew anything about the development of toddlers, and the age of thirteen months meant something to her. After a brief pause, again regarding the different artifacts in the yard, Starling said, “Is the radio too loud?” She cocked her thumb in the direction of the portable radio with the clothes hanger antenna.

“Oh, no,” Emily said, still looking at her son with the instinctual affection of a mother to child, “I like the company of the songs.”

“Where’s your husband?”

“Playing golf,” Emily said with the carry of a sigh. “He grew up in this town and he still has a solid group of high school buddies around.”

Starling burst out her laugh, “Ha. Yeah, there’s no moving out of Remington.”

“Guess not,” Emily said with another sigh.

“Where’re you from?”

“The Boston area,” Emily said, looking up at Starling. It was there that Starling saw the source of the woman’s underlying beauty. The woman’s eyes were haunting. Or haunted. They were dark and deep. Mysterious was the best way to describe them. Those eyes were also the source of that seeming sadness.

“How did you meet—” Starling paused, allowing Emily to provide the name of her husband.

“Glenn.”

“—Glenn?” Starling finished.

“My family used to come to Half Moon Pond every summer. I met Glenn there, and…” Emily shrugged, letting Starling’s imagination fill in the story of a young teenage girl visiting a lake with her family and finding a summer fling. First kiss. First time a boy’s hands crawled on her like an eager creature.

“And you were caught in the black hole that is Remington.” Starling said.

“Something like that.”

Starling watched Emily and her son regard each other. The son with the same haunting—haunted—eyes as his mother. “If you ever need a babysitter…” Starling said, letting the unfinished invitation dangle in the air.

“Oh, thanks, that’s nice,” Emily said. “But I really don’t get out much.”

“Well, hey,” Starling said, “If you ever want to, you know, hang out. We hang down at the Bridge Beach a lot. Do you smoke?”

“Cigarettes?” Emily asked with naiveté.

“Ha. No.” Starling held her hand to her lips, taking a toke from an invisible roach.

Emily recognized the gesture and shook her head.

Starling realized it was probably the first time the woman was ever asked that question. “Ha. There goes that babysitting job,” Starling said. “But, hey, the other’s wouldn’t smoke around little William here.”

Emily smiled her sadness. “Thanks,” she said.

“All right,” Starling said, feeling guilty, as if this young mother suddenly viewed her as some pot-smoking delinquent. “Well, it was nice to meet you.”

“Nice meeting you, too,” Emily said.

“And you, too, William,” Starling called in the high voice people use with young children.

Emily looked at her child. “You want to say goodbye, William?” The child reached toward his mother’s lips. “I guess not,” she said to the toddler.

“See-ya,” Starling said, edging away from the fence.

“Goodbye,” Emily said. After a brief pause, as Starling was returning to her campsite, Emily added, “And thanks for the invite to the lake.”

Starling stopped and turned. “No problem,” she said with a smile—her own source of underlying beauty—and she went back to the beach towel and the static beats of the radio.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 18 — The Game 

Earworm: Part 16 — The Place

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 15 — Awesome

William Knight

The voice trumpeted in her dreaming mind. Hope envisioned the boy from school.

I’m William Knight

His black hair, dark eyes…

The sensation of rushing water filled her brain like a pitcher filling a glass, and Hope stood in the same grass field in which she had stood in a dream the night prior. But this time, it was night, the green grass glowing blue in the light of a full moon. Above her, stars shown in brilliant clarity. A breeze brushed the hair from her face. As with the dream the night prior, this dream seemed ultra-life-like—seconds and minutes ticking off in real time. There was a tangible, physical reality to the moon, the stars, the grass on which she stood. A voice spoke from behind her. “Hey.” And Hope turned to find William standing behind her. He seemed to burst from the background as if part of a bas-relief.

“William,” Hope said. She took a step toward him and stopped, glancing at the surroundings and observing her attire—the Dutch Horse Pub T-shirt and the boxers she went to bed in. “Where am I?”

“In a field. In the moonlight,” William said.

“I can see that,” she said, grinning. “Am I dreaming?”

“Well… yeah.”

“Why are you in my dream again?”

“Just the guy of your dreams, I guess,” William said. His statement met with Hope’s blank stare, and he added, “I have something for you. Wanna see something?”

There was that phrase again, the one that preceded Bobby Bailey’s magic fly, and again, Hope was apprehensive. But after her dream of flying the night before, Hope did want to see what William had for her, and she found herself saying, “Okay.”

William stepped toward her. “Close your eyes,” he said.

Hope recognized another phrase from her past. The one that preceded her first kiss.

“Please,” William said.

“Okay,” she said, and she closed her eyes, but when William took hold of her shoulders, she tensed, thinking, Oh God, he’s going to kiss me. She opened her eyes.

“No-no-no-no,” William said in a voice soothing and hypnotic. “Please, just keep your eyes closed.”

Hope closed her eyes again, William’s hands returning to her shoulders, causing her to tense again, but she relaxed when he turned her to face away from him.

“Now…” William said in that same, hypnotic voice, whispering into her ear, “think about the one place you’ve always wanted to see. I don’t care if it’s Saturn’s rings or Disney World, no matter how far away, what’s the one place you never thought you’d be able to set foot on, the one place you never dreamed you’d set your eyes on?”

As soon as the thought entered Hope’s mind, a new sensation gripped her, as if once again someone opened the top of her skull, only this time, instead of water pouring in, fleeting thoughts escaped like pigeons from a roost.

“Open your eyes,” William whispered over her shoulder.

Hope opened her eyes. She now stood in endless snow, her bare feet sunken into soft, powdery flakes. But where the frozen crystals should have bit at her unprotected feet, she felt no discomfort at all, she felt a soft, cushioned, feathery sensation, neither warm nor cold. The night air was pleasant. The full moon washed the rolling landscape in a pale glow, and it gleamed off ice crystals, breaking into faint prisms. It was beautiful, but Hope said, “This isn’t the place I was thinking about.”

“Yes it is,” William stated in a neutral tone, a tone not meant as argumentative, just his stating a fact.

“No, really, it’s not,” Hope said. “I was thinking about…”

Before Hope could finish her statement, William turned her around to face behind them. William finished the statement for her. “That?” he said.

There it was, as real as the snow and the moon and the night, as real as the boy leaning over her shoulder whispering promises into her ear. It erupted from the snow with white ramparts and sprawling walls, columns and turrets topped with blue spires. It was the castle from her poster, and Hope held her hand before her face, forgetting to clasp it over her mouth. “I don’t believe it,” she whispered.

“Yes you do,” William said. But she didn’t hear him, or even notice when he took her hand and pulled her to follow him. “C’mon,” he said.

William led Hope to the castle, and they climbed the steps to the structure’s massive doors—doors leading into Hope’s most cherished, childhood memories.

“Ready?” William said. He placed one hand on the wooden doors and the other on the small of Hope’s back. Hope looked at him, apprehension sneaking into her eyes as a chill ran up her spine.

Like a finger across a keyboard.

Did she really want to enter her castle? Or should she allow it to stay shut away in the part of her heart where hope and faith and dreams reside? Hope stared at William. William held her gaze, and in a reassuring voice, he said, “Trust me.”

Hope drew a deep breath and nodded, closing her eyes. The massive doors opened, and the insides of Hope’s eyelids flared with a bright glow, prompting her to open them. She saw an expanse of gold walls and marble floors. Intricate etchings climbing the walls like ivy, stretching up and inward along the ceiling to a large circular dome. Four gold cherubim surrounded the dome’s frame like the points of a compass. A mural filled the dome, reminding Hope of the Sistine Chapel, but the images within this mural changed and moved, merging and twisting into different scenes of mythical landscapes. William led Hope in through the castle’s hall, and as they passed beneath the mural, the four cherubim’s heads turned to follow their progress. The cherubim giggled, and so did Hope. Her attention then shifted to two sweeping staircases that flanked the hall, leading to deeper parts of the castle. At the far end of the structure, Hope and William came to three, wide steps rising to a landing. William led her up the steps to two stained glass doors. He turned to her. “You’ll love this,” he said, taking hold of the handles and pulling open the doors.

The doorway led onto a balcony that cut into the dark. The glare of the bright hall masked the exterior of night, revealing, only dimly, the balcony’s edge. “C’mon,” William said, ushering Hope through the doorway. The doors swung shut behind them, snuffing the castle’s gold light.

William led Hope to a stone parapet. When Hope peered over its edge, seeing the sheer precipice over which the balcony hung, a sense of vertigo overcame her. The castle’s back wall was a steep decent to a black sea far below them, the full moon’s white fire winking in the waves.

William looked at Hope as if trying to absorb as much of her as possible. Hope turned and looked at him in much the same manner. What was it that made him seem so real—even more real than the other overtly life-like qualities of the dream?

William flinched first, looking away from Hope as if staring at the sun too long. There was a moment of silence as William looked off to the moon hanging like an ornament above the shimmering sea. “You know, I saw you before I was even in your math class,” he said.

“Yeah?” Hope said.

“Yeah. They messed up my schedule, so I didn’t start in your math class until yesterday, but I saw you in the office the day before. The first time I saw you, I knew I wanted to know you.”

“Then why didn’t you talk to me?”

“I’m not really good at meeting people… out there.” He nodded his head in an indiscernible direction. He smiled and looked at the moon again. “You know, when I was a little kid, I thought the moon was real close, like just beyond the treetops. I figured it was part of the sky, part of the Earth. I figured it rose on the edge of the ocean and set somewhere past the horizon, going someplace to sleep. Know what I mean?”

Hope nodded.

William said, “I thought the moon followed me. I mean…” He looked defensive for a moment, “I was just a little kid when I thought this. If I rode in a car, the moon followed me fast, streaking across treetops. If I walked, it crawled along with me. And if I stopped, it stopped. That moon was mine. It followed me and only me.” His tone changed from happy nostalgia, to one tinged with disappointment. “And then I found out it was just a stupid rock thousands of miles away going around in circles. But…” again, his tone rose hopeful, “sometimes I’d try to believe what I used to. Even when I was older, I’d sit outside, convincing myself that the moon was that same magical orb above the treetops.” With a sudden sweep of his arm, William seemed to erase the stars and moon from the sky.

Hope stepped back, eyes wide.

William held his fist between them, the lines between his fingers glowing orange as if covering a flashlight, his eyes struggling to hide the same gleaming intensity.

“What is that?” Hope said.

William rotated his fist, his clasped fingers facing up, light trickling from where his fingertips met the heel of his palm. He grinned, and when he opened his hand, his face lit up like a jack o’ lantern. A glowing, white sphere, about the size of a golf ball, floated an inch above his palm. Craters dotted the sphere, as they had the moon that had until a moment ago hung in the night sky. William tipped his hand, and a glittering string attached to the orb slid from his palm. Hope squinted, inspecting what looked like a strand of diamonds, but then she realized that it was a thread of countless stars. William plucked up the strand with his fingers, the moon hanging from it like a bizarre constellation, and he slipped the necklace over Hope’s head, allowing it to drop from his hands and hang around her neck. The jewel was the weight of a golf ball, maybe a little heavier, glowing from within, radiating its own warmth and energy. And at that moment, as Hope lifted the jewel from her breast to study it, she actually believed in William’s moon. She looked at him. Both he and his tiny moon jewel beaming.

“See?” he said, “I can give you the stars and the moon.”

But then a sound cut the air. Grating, screeching, annoying and horrible.

William stared at Hope, disappointment evident in his eyes. “It’s time to go,” he said.

“Why?”

“It just is.” William looked down at his feet.

The sound grew louder as a woman’s voice called into the dream. “Hope.”

“I’ll see you later,” William said, his voice an echo, the opaqueness of his body draining, the black sea blending with the night sky, the castle drifting away, the balcony falling from beneath her. She gripped her moon jewel.

“But I don’t want to go,” Hope said.

The voice called again—“Hope”—but Hope was alone in darkness, her jewel gone from her grasp. She must have dropped it. Panicked, she searched for it. She had to find it. But she was in a blank void. She thrashed, fettered to the darkness, buried alive. Her heart ached, her head spun, light danced on the backs of her eyelids, the screeching sound becoming louder.

“Hope?”

Hope sat up. Piece by piece, she deciphered her location. She was in a bed. A lime-green teddy bear was tangled in the strewn sheets. Sunlight peeked through window blinds. There was a computer, pictures of family and friends, there was a poster of a castle. Her alarm clock screeched.

“Hope?” her mother said, peeking her head through the bedroom door.

Hope shut off the alarm clock and fell back onto her bed, fatigue reaching through her body like the tendrils of an overeager weed.

Her mother stepped into the room and sat on the edge of her bed. “You awake?”

“Yeah. I’m awake.”

“You should get up now, Honey. Isn’t there a football game today?”

Hope opened her eyes. The game. It was another autumn Saturday, and Hope had to cheer on the Mystic Island Wolves with pom-poms and rhythmic gibberish. She sat up in her bed. “Yeah, I’m up,” she said, dragging herself from the bed to get ready for the day.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 17 — The Girl Next Door 

Earworm: Part 15 — Awesome

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 14 — Fun-Fun-Fun

Awesome.

That was Hope’s thought, stretched on her bed in the dark, reflecting on her first official “date” with Joel Fitch. An occasional autumn breeze blew in drifting bursts, rustling the leaves of the giant oak outside her window like children spinning pinwheels with puffs of breath, and as it did, she found herself thinking the same thing over and over. He’s so awesome.

When she and Joel had walked into the bright floodlights of Putt-n’-Fun, she wanted to slip her hand into his, but she didn’t dare do it. Not yet. “So, what do you want to do?” Joel said, his attention transfixed on the floodlit bustle of miniature golf, go-carts, bumper-boats.

“I’m up for anything,” Hope said.

“All right. How about miniature golf?”

“Except golf,” Hope said. “I’ll do anything but play miniature golf.”

The grin fluttered from Joel’s face. “Oh, okay,” he said, his blue eyes glancing toward the miniature golf course. “Um, then let’s…” he looked around at the different activities, running his fingers through his thick, sandy hair.

“I’m kidding,” Hope said. “I’ll play golf. But I’ve got to warn you, I’m not that good at it.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Joel said. He placed his palm on her lower back, and she leaned into his touch, feeling a quiver of nerves run up her spine like a finger across a keyboard.

They started up the walkway to the golf course when they bumped into Joel’s best friend John Gardner and Hope’s friend Tara. John was known to all as “Guard”—not only because of his name, but for the position he played on the football team. He and Tara just happened to be conveniently hanging around the golf course, and Hope realized that Joel had probably recruited Guard as a wingman. Joel most likely talking his friend into this by suggesting he invite Hope’s best friend, Tara, who Guard thought was “scorching hot.” But Hope had a hard time imagining Tara and Guard as a couple. Guard stood about six-foot-five, weighing well over 250 pounds, his brown hair a mess of bed-head as if he was perpetually waking from a nap. His movements were slow and awkward, as if he never quite got used to his size. Tara, being so tiny, looked as if she might begin to orbit him at any moment.

As soon as Tara saw Hope, she shot at her as if fired from a cannon. She dragged Hope down the walkway as the boys went to rent the putters and golf balls. “Oh my God, Hope, he is driving me fucking crazy,” Tara said, hanging on Hope’s arm.

“Who?”

“Who do you think?”

“Guard?”

“He is so dumb,” Tara said, before rolling into a tangent about how every little thing Guard did was “just to piss me off.” As Tara rambled on, Hope glanced at the two boys standing in line for the clubs. Joel caught Hope’s glance. He grinned. She smiled. “Isn’t that unreal?” Tara said.

“Can’t believe it,” Hope said.

When the boys returned with the golf clubs, Hope took a putter from Joel, their eyes lingering on one another.

Tara refused the putter from Guard until she was fucking ready to use it.

They took turns knocking the different colored balls along the fake turf, Hope missing her first few putts. Joel then leaning over her shoulder, nestling behind her, wrapping his arms around her, his cheek against hers. He guided her hands on the putter’s end, swinging its pendulum motion to sink the ball. “See,” he said, speaking into her ear, “you’ve got it.”

Guard tried to help Tara in the same manner, but ended up with the hilt of her club in his gut.

As Putt-n’-Fun approached closing time, and the people left in scattered droves, Joel stopped at the Football Toss. The attendant handed him three footballs. Joel fired three spiraling strikes through the circular cutout, and the attendant tossed him a small, lime-green teddy bear. Joel handed it to Hope. “Didn’t want you to leave empty handed,” he said. And as they left through the park’s front gate, Hope laced her arm through Joel’s arm, placing her head on his shoulder.

When they pulled up to the front of Hope’s house, Joel walked her to her front door. They stopped under her house’s front light, and Joel asked if he could kiss her goodnight. “Of course,” she said. He leaned in—she felt his breath, his warmth, she sensed his energy—and they kissed.

The wind blew the leaves of the oak tree outside her window. Hope rolled onto her side, looking at the small, lime-green bear, now leaning against the pillow beside her. She smiled, thinking, He’s so awesome.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 16 — The Place

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Earworm: Part 14 — Fun-Fun-Fun

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 13 — Inside the Dollhouse

It was Friday night, and Joel’s dad said he could borrow the T-Bird. Joel replayed the conversation in his mind, trying to figure out how he got hold of the new car’s keys. Perhaps his father was in a particularly generous mood this evening, or maybe the apocalypse was at hand and his father’s parting with the keys was one of the signs. But Joel figured the real reason for possessing the keys was his father being on his third martini (straight-up with an alcohol-logged twist of lemon swimming from drink to drink to drink), and ole Pops had himself a nice glow starting. That, and Dr. Fitch’s sudden interest in his son’s life—football games, nights out with the guys—it was evident Dr. Fitch was vicariously living through his son. And now, just as Joel’s grandfather probably handed over the keys of an ancient T-Bird to Joel’s father, it was Joel’s turn to be the beneficiary of tradition. Which was lucky for him, because if he picked Hope up in his mother’s station wagon—even if it was an Audi—he may as well pick her up in a school bus. Luckily, Joel’s father insisted the “young lady” be picked up “in style.” After all, Dr. Fitch wouldn’t be using the car—seeing as the number of drinks the little lemon floated in was rapidly climbing.

Joel eased into the car’s seat and inserted the key, bringing the engine to life. He turned on the radio, and the serendipity was not lost on him when, on his father’s pre-set oldies station, the Beach Boys sang, “Fun-fun-fun, till Daddy takes the T-Bird away.”

Joel backed down the driveway and pulled onto the street. The ride to Hope’s house took ten minutes—five in Daddy’s new T-Bird. Fun-fun-fun.

After nestling the car to the side of the road and cutting the engine, Joel started up the walkway to Hope’s house. He’d met the whole family before. They were constant fixtures at the football games—mom, dad, little sister—they were nice, friendly, a typical, supportive clan. He could charm them, nothing to be afraid of, they couldn’t be too hard on him. Joel took a deep breath and looked at the autumn sky. The night was clear, the stars bright.He made note of that for later, figuring that girls like that type of thing: Wow, what a beautiful night. The stars are so… um, star-like. Well, maybe poetry wasn’t his bag. He took another deep breath, saying, “Star-light, star-bright, how about a little luck tonight.” He generally wasn’t this nervous when picking up a date, but this was Hope Ferretti—his ultimate crush since the first grade. And, despite his meteoric rise in popularity in recent years, he’s never quite developed the confidence to ask Hope out. Not to mention, she always had a suitor, and generally an upperclassman at that. But now, with the stars aligned in his favor—Hope’s last boyfriend leaving for college—Joel seized his opportunity.

He rang the doorbell, rehearsing in his mind what he’d say to her parents as they sized up his worth and intentions. But he paused his rehearsing to ask himself, What’re her parents’ names again? Mary and… You’re supposed to call them Mr. and Mrs. Ferretti, you idiot…

Joel froze. Hope’s father died, her mother remarried some other guy. That was her stepfather at those football games—a guy whose name Joel never bothered to learn. They’re now known as: Mr. and Mrs.… I don’t have a clue.

The door opened, and Joel jumped as if someone snuck up behind him.

A small, childish reflection of Hope—with scrawny arms and legs, messy hair, and faint freckles around her nose—stood in the doorway.

And that would be their daughter, Little-I-don’t-have-a-clue.

Joel almost asked the girl, Hey, kid, what’s your stepfather’s last name? But instead, he mustered his famous, charming smile. “Hi,” he said to the girl, “is…”

Before he could finish, the girl turned her head and trumpeted into the house, “Ho-ope, your boyfriend’s here.”

The prickly heat of a flush spilled across his cheeks and neck as Hope’s mother appeared in the doorway. “Hi Joel,” she greeted in her best, sitcom-mom voice.

“Hi…” Joel caught himself before saying: “Mrs.”Mrs. I-haven’t-got-a-clue—but he realized, by Hope’s mother’s expectant look, that he cut the sentence too abruptly, so he added, “How are you?”

Hope’s sister twisted past her mother and disappeared into the house as Mrs. I-haven’t-a-clue opened the screen door, saying, “I’m fine thanks come on in and you?” She combined this all into one, quick sentence, almost catching Joel off guard with her camouflaged question.

“Oh, uh, I’m fine, thanks,” he said.

Hope’s mother led him into the den, stranding him with Hope’s stepfather, the stepfather sitting on the couch, watching baseball.

Hope’s stepfather sized up Joel with his protective, paternal glare: Where ya goin? When will you be back? No drugs. No alcohol. You lay a hand on her and you lose em, got it? all conveyed in a fraction of a second, just a brief glance from the television, but the implications were louder than if the guy had voiced them. He may not be Hope’s biological father, but he certainly had the instincts down. “How ya doin, Joel?” the stepfather said in a suspicious tone, as if Joel had called him off the street to sell him a watch.

“I’m fine… sir.” Joel said.

On the television, Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo announced the Red Sox game. A batter stood at the plate, a baseball dropping below his swing.

“Looked like that pitch fell off a table,” Jerry Remy said on the television.

“Nice pitch,” Joel offered.

“Mmm,” Hope’s stepfather said.

Joel imagined Jerry Remy commenting: Fitch’s attempt at charming ole step-dad was definitely a strike. But Joel had faith in sports—the great male equalizer—this nameless guy would come around with the chance to discuss players and scores. Remy’s voice spoke up in Joel’s head again, saying, Let’s see if the young Fitch can get out of this hole.

“Maybe the Sox will do it again this year,” Joel said.

“Mmm, maybe.”

Strike two, announced Remy. Kid’s down 0-2, can he climb out of this hole?

Joel and Hope’s stepfather watched the game in silence, Joel standing with his hands in his letter-jacket pockets, Hope’s stepfather not offering him a seat. Joel glanced around the room, studying the different knick-knacks in the bookshelf and the pattern on the rug. Joel made a final bid, saying, “Patriots started out strong.”

“Yeah, they did,” the guy said, regarding Joel with new appreciation.

Line drive, up the right field line, Remy called.

“The Pats’ defense is killer,” Joel said, his gestures more animated.

“It’s incredible,” the man on the couch said with more animation on his own part.

See? Sports and fathers: a winning combination, said Jerry Remy.

This concept could come in handy during the all-important parental interrogation:

So, where are you two going tonight?

Patriots got a lot of offensive weapons, huh?

When will you be back?

Gee, Mrs. Used-to-be-Ferretti, what a great color scheme in this kitchen. This use of redirection could be implemented with mothers as well—in theory anyway.

Hope’s mother appeared in the den’s doorway. “So, Joel,” she said, “where are you two going tonight?”

Hope’s stepfather directed another suspicious stare at Joel.

Duh, think the Pats are goin to the Super Bowl this year? No, wait, what great wallpaper you have in this room.

You’re screwed, kid, announced Remy.

“Well, I don’t know exactly where we’re going,” Joel began in a voice as overwrought with charm as his smile. “I was thinking of maybe Put-n’-Fun. It’s such a nice night, and miniature golf could…” The overwrought charm slipped from his voice as he heard someone bounding down the stairs. “…Could be um…” Hope popped out of the hallway and into the kitchen. “…Could be, uh… fun…”

Fun-fun-fun, til step-daddy takes Hope away.

“Hi, Joel,” Hope said. She wore a short, colorful sundress, layered with a vintage denim jacket, her dark hair pulled back in a long ponytail.

“Hey, uh, hi,” Joel said. “Um, you look nice.”

“Thanks.”

“So, you want to go?” Joel blurted in a voice a little higher than his usual octave.

“Sure.” Hope grinned her wide, sensually-sweet smile, bringing a stirring from below Joel’s waist. Hope took his hand and led him toward the front door.

Hope’s mother stopped them. “You have your house key?” her mother said.

“Yes, Mom.”

Joel edged toward the door as dating ground rules were shot at Hope as if she was before a firing squad: “Be back by midnight. Don’t be late.” Would you like a blindfold and cigarette? “If there is a problem, call us.”

Hope answered every shot with a, “Yes. I know. Okay. Fine.”

And for God’s sake, wear a condom, a sarcastic voice rose in Joel’s thoughts, causing him to chuckle to himself. At that exact moment, of that very thought, Hope’s mother gave Joel a stern, hard stare, as if she read his mind like a character in a horror novel. Joel jumped a little. “And you, Joel,” Hope’s mother said, “drive safely. And no drinking and driving.”

“Sure thing,” Joel reassured her with his wide, cool smile and a casual shake of his head. “No problem, Mi… ma’am.”

Hope grabbed Joel’s arm. “Okay, Mom, we get the picture. Bye, Ron,” she called.

Ron. We have a first name.

“Bye,” Ron called.

“C’mon.” Hope pulled Joel through the front door.

Outside, Joel looked up at the house. Hope’s little sister watched from an upstairs window. Joel waved, and the little girl disappeared giggling. As he and Hope walked down the walkway to the street, he felt the relief of a defendant leaving a courtroom after beating a rap. Maybe there should be reporters out front, flashing cameras and waving microphones: Mr. Fitch. Mr. Fitch. How do you feel you handled the parents’ examination?

Good, he’d smile, very good.

Do you think they believed your testimony?

Oh yes, he’d answer, Why wouldn’t they?

Are you going to try any funny business with Hope Ferretti tonight?

No more questions, Joel’s lawyer would say, breaking in and pushing aside reporters.

Hope and Joel reached the car. Joel rushed ahead, opening the T-Bird’s passenger door, gesturing for her to have a seat. He almost said something like: Me lady, or, Your carriage awaits, but that would have been lame. He did think the door-opening was a nice touch, however, and when he shut the door, walking around the car to his side, he grinned. He ducked into the car, turning to look at Hope. The streetlights reflected in her dark eyes like burning embers. “Ready?” he said, his voice a little higher than usual again.

“Yep,” she smiled.

He fumbled the key into the ignition and, when the engine sprang to life, they drove off into the night. Fun-fun-fun.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 15 — Awesome 

Earworm: Part 13 — Inside the Dollhouse

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 12 — The Treasure Chest 

September, 1992. Emily Dey sat with her cousin, Greta Knight, in Greta’s kitchen. Greta topped off two cups of tea with a steaming kettle of water, talking, as she always did, incessantly. In fact, the way Greta rambled on was similar to the breathless whistle of the kettle. “…and then Stanley, he says it must be me that’s barren, because there’s no way it could be his fault, but still, he won’t go to the doctors, no way, God help him to go and find out something like that, it’s fine for him to think me barren, but for him to be sterile, I don’t think so.” She said these last words in the manner known to her husband. She placed one of the teacups before Emily, the other cup she blew on to cool. She still somehow continued her rant, even as she blew on the tea, “…well you know Stanley, God help questioning his manhood…”

“I’m pregnant,” Emily said in a low voice.

Greta continued with her story, still blowing on her steaming teacup, which she held in two hands as if expecting it to wiggle from her grip. “Well it’s not me shooting blanks, he says, and…”

“Greta, I’m pregnant.” This time, Emily caught her cousin’s attention. The expression on Greta’s face, as she broke her rambling, was humorous, bordering on absurd. It reminded Emily of the scene in Animal House when the horse had the heart attack. But Greta’s next expression—a speechless stare from a woman that brought talking to a new art form—made Emily feel pathetic, almost cruel. Emily knew the reason for Greta’s fumbling for words. The last conversation they had at that same kitchen table a few months prior was about Emily wanting to separate from her husband.

Greta struggled for a response like an asthmatic struggling for breath, “That’s um, wonderful.” Her statement seemed in need of a question mark. They stared at one another for some time and the silence between them made Emily feel more pathetic. She burst into tears. Greta rushed from her chair and sat beside Emily. “Oh no, don’t do that, don’t cry. It’s not a bad thing. This is a good thing.”

“How can you say that?” Emily sobbed. “Here I was about to separate from Glenn, and…” she hiccupped a sob, “…and now this. It’s like another lock of a prison.”

“Oh no, no,” Greta said, “don’t think of it as a prison. A child is a gift from God.”

Emily choked down her sobs and looked at her cousin, shame seeping into her eyes. She took Greta’s hand. “You must hate me,” she said, tears glistening in the kitchen light. “Here you were telling me of your problems conceiving, and I break into tears about how horrible it is to be pregnant.”

“Oh no, stop that. Of course I don’t feel that way. But you shouldn’t view motherhood as anything other than a miracle. And it can only strengthen your marriage. Does Glenn know?”

“Yes.”

“And what does he think?”

“Oh, Christ, Glenn, he’s ecstatic. His seed is planted and he can’t wait to show off his garden. He tells his buddies, See that, my boys can swim. He’s proud of the nucleus of a family he’s created. He’s always loved titles: boyfriend, husband, now father.”

“So he doesn’t know about your wanting to separate?”

Emily shook her head, dabbing her eyes with her napkin. “No, he doesn’t.” She looked at Greta. “Glenn’s a sweet man, but he’s a simple man. I mean, I have to admit, when I met him, I looked forward to my own safe life of titles. You know, it’s like when you’re growing up, you think how much you hate living with your parents and with their rules. All you want to do is be an adult. But then you are one, and you suddenly miss that innocent optimism of childhood.” She sniffled. “Youth is such a tease.”

Greta rubbed Emily’s arm, offering an understanding smile.

Emily said, “And now Glenn wants to move back to Mystic Island, and I just feel like…” Emily’s eyes filled with tears again, “I don’t know how to explain it, I sometimes feel like I’ve stepped into a hall of mirrors, and I can see countless reflections staring back at me. And I’m not sure which one is me. I mean, I thought I loved Glenn. But it was more that I rationally thought I must love him. Like I expected that sweep-me-off-my-feet feeling to kick in. I had nothing else to compare it with. It was comfort mistaken for love. And now I’m bringing a child into what feels like a lie.”

“Oh no, no, no, a child is exactly what you need. It will give you that sweep-you-off-your-feet feeling you’re looking for. I mean, what more is it you want?”

A tear raced down Emily’s cheek. “I guess I just want purpose.”

“What greater purpose can there be than motherhood?”

“I guess purpose isn’t the right word,” Emily said. “Did I ever tell you about the night Nana died?”

“No.”

“I was just a little girl, but you remember all the stories about how Nana could get into people’s dreams and all, right?”

“Or course,” Greta said. “They said the same thing about Great Grandma and Great-great Granddad. They say the same thing about you.”

Emily shook off Greta’s statement. “Anyway, the night she died, I dreamt she and I sat in the parlor of that great big dollhouse of hers. You know, the one that was in the living room? God knows we played enough with it when we were young.”

Greta nodded and smiled. “Yeah, I remember.”

“At first, I wasn’t sure if the dollhouse had grown, or if we shrank, but when I glanced out a window, I saw Nana’s living room, huge as a universe. In the dollhouse, Nana sat in a wooden rocker. I sat on that old fashioned sofa. You know the one I mean?” Again Greta nodded and smiled. Emily said, “Nana and I talked seemingly for hours. And as she rocked and talked, she faded from sight, until finally, she said this to me, ‘Never lose yourself in another’s dreams.’ At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. But I never got the chance to ask her. Next thing I knew, she was gone. When I woke up, I glanced at the clock in my room. It read just after 3:30 in the morning, and the hospital called the time of her death at 3:33.”

“I don’t see what this has to do with your marriage and pregnancy,” Greta said.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with my marriage or pregnancy. It has to do with my life. Don’t you see? Marriage, pregnancy, my life, I somehow feel these things aren’t connected. Somewhere along the way, I fell down the wrong rabbit hole. Somehow I became little Miss Suburbia. Somewhere I got lost in someone else’s dream.”

Continued in: Earworm: Part 14 — Fun-Fun-Fun

Earworm: Part 12 — The Treasure Chest

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 11 — Breast Worshippers 

Mr. Grey had a voice soft, yet powerful, low, but clear. That soft, hypnotic voice lulled Hope deep into her thoughts, her mind wandering to the memory of a dream. A dream in which… “Miss Ferretti?”

“Hmm?” Hope looked up at Mr. Grey standing over her.

“What did Iago mean by: ‘An old black ram is tupping your white ewe’?”

“Um,” she straightened in her seat, searching her memory for what Mr. Grey was talking about. “He was referring to Othello and Desdemona.”

“Yes, that’s right.” Mr. Grey said. “But what was Iago trying to invoke in Desdemona’s father?”

“Anger?” Hope said.

“Yes. But how did that statement invoke anger?”

Carl Watts called out, “Cause Othello was doin the nasty with his daughter.”

The class broke into laughter. Mr. Grey cracked a distinguished smile, saying, “I think what Mr. Watts is trying to convey, however inappropriately,” he gave Carl a stern countenance and then continued, “is that Iago was trying to make Othello and Desdemona’s relationship seem more sinister than it was, right?”

The class nodded in detached unison like dozens of plastic bobble-head dolls.

From across the room, Joel made eye contact with Hope. He rolled his eyes. Hope smiled, although she actually did like English class. She liked the way words could capture and store pure emotion. The written medium was packaged dreams, bringing her to worlds she never thought capable of visiting, and those words found even more life and meaning when uttered in the wise, steady cadence of Mr. Grey’s voice. Mr. Grey stood about six-foot-three and he held his thin body like a walking stick. His dark skin was wrinkled with many years of wear, and his hair and beard were the color of his name. But his eyes were still quick and youthful.

“So what seems to be Iago’s weapon in this play?” Mr. Grey asked his English class. “Mr. Connolly, do you know?”

“Jealousy?” Billy Connolly said.

“Yes,” Mr. Grey gasped, as if Billy Connolly unraveled the mystery of timetravel. “And how did Iago wield this weapon so brilliantly?”

The class looked on with blank expressions.

“With subtlety,” Mr. Grey said. “Iago planted subtle seeds of jealousy in his enemies’ heads and let them take root in their subconscious, where they were uncontrollable.”

The bell rang.

“Keep reading over the weekend, folks,” Mr. Grey called to the class, “it gets quite good.”

The students gathered their materials. It was the last period of the day, on a Friday, no less, and the students’ minds were already home making plans for the weekend, their bodies eager to catch up. As Hope gathered her things, she glanced at Joel. Speaking of plans, didn’t they have a date? He didn’t mention it all day. Were they still going out?

She dropped her pen and bent down to retrieve it. When she stood up, Joel stood before her, his smile unleashing thousands of ricocheting rubber balls in her stomach.

“Hey,” Joel said.

“Hey.”

They stood a moment, looking at one another, then Hope blurted out, “So are we going out tonight or what?”

“Uh, yeah, I thought so,” Joel said.

“You haven’t mentioned it all day.”

“I figured we’d talk about it later.”

“It is later,” she said.

“Okay. So when do you want to go out?”

“When you pick me up.”

“I know that. What’s a good time to come by and get you?”

“I don’t care. Seven? Eight?”

“Well, which one, seven or eight?”

“Pick one,” Hope said.

“I’ll pick you up at eight,” Joel said, and as a distracted afterthought, he added, “And I won’t be late.”

Hope stared at him.

When Joel realized what he’d said, he blushed, saying, “That was pretty corny, huh?”

As for William Knight’s afterschool plans, when he arrived home, Greta was out, and so he took the opportunity to sneak into her closet and look at the “treasure chest.” William crouched in Greta’s closet, carefully moving her junk aside. He was most careful with the music box. It was one of those little girl ones, cheap, plastic, a ballerina in the middle that was supposed to spin in slow, jerky circles. It was broken and useless, and William often wondered why Greta even had the thing. Placing the music box aside, he retrieved what he’d come for. The shoebox. The treasure chest of his past. Articles, pictures, small bits and pieces of him that Greta had yet to, or outright refused to explain. He lifted the shoebox’s cover, finding first the article about when Greta’s husband, Stanley, tried to kill him. Then he dug through the pictures of himself throughout the years, descending in chronology like the layers of a paleontologist’s dig site. Finally, he found the news article he so often read and reread. He removed the article from the box and read it again, trying to piece together what happened to his real parents. Well, it was obvious what happened to them. But why did it happen?

The article from the June 15th, 1995 Mystic Crier read:

MYSTIC ISLAND MAN TAKES OWN LIFE AFTER KILLING WIFE

MAN SPOTTED WITH HEAD AND SHOVEL IN BACKYARD

Glenn Dey of 25 Highland Street savagely beat and murdered his wife, Emily Dey, yesterday afternoon. Mr. Dey removed his wife’s head and eyes and buried them in the couple’s backyard, police said. After receiving a 911 call from a neighbor, the police entered the Deys’ residence, finding Mr. Dey brandishing a large hunting knife. After repeated requests by police for Mr. Dey to relinquish the weapon, he cut his own throat. Emergency care providers were unable to resuscitate him. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Mystic Mercy Hospital. “When we arrived on scene, Mr. Dey was in his living room with the knife to his throat,” said Officer Brad Dennis. “We tried to talk him out of it, but it was too late. I don’t think there was any stopping him.”

Police Chief Andrew Asner said, “We are not ruling out the possibility of the occult. When we deal with such a ritualistic desecration of a body, we don’t rule anything out. The suspect was ranting to the arriving officers about his wife being a witch. It’s hard to determine what a deranged individual means by a statement like that.”

Officers Brad Dennis and Harold Fleming arrived at the Dey residence after receiving a report from a neighbor spotting Mr. Dey, “Casually walking out the back door with a spade and [Mrs. Dey’s] head in his hands,” said Officer Dennis.

The Dey’s neighbor, Harriet Crenshaw, who initially called the police, said that while returning home from her afternoon walk, she witnessed Mr. Dey walk out his back door with, “What looked to be a severed head and a shovel,” said Crenshaw. “At first, I didn’t know what it was in his hands. It looked like a head, but of course, when you see something like that, you don’t actually think it could be (a head).”

The couple’s two year old child was in the house during the incident, but he was unharmed.

William allowed the words to resonate in his thoughts, imagining the screams—his mother’s screams, his own screams. He had to have been screaming, he must have known something was happening. But he didn’t remember. He looked down at a wedding photo in the shoebox, Glenn and Emily Dey standing over a wedding cake. William had no recollection of his father, but he did for some reason remember his mother. He now traced his mother’s features with his eyes. She had a delicate, sad beauty, looking down at the wedding cake like the Pieta looking down on her lost son. William recalled that look in his memory, recalling her voice singing to him. But the memories were distant, as if part of a dream.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 13 — Inside the Dollhouse 

Earworm: Part 11 — Breast Worshippers

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 10 — Sound Advice 

Hope sat in math class, in her usual seat, in her usual way—her cheek leaning on her hand, elbow leaning on the desk. Her black hair, out of its customary ponytail, cascaded down her shoulders and back, hanging, draping over her hand and cheek and arm and elbow. She wanted to close her eyes, just for a minute, just a quick nap. Thoughts of a dream tickled her memory, but the images of it hung just out of reach.

The sun streaked through the classroom windows. The clock buzzed on the wall. Someone watched her. She flinched, straightening in her seat, looking around the room.

A few scattered students settled into their seats. Hope glanced out the classroom’s doorway. In the hall, students rushed to their first period class. All rushing it seemed, except for Jimmy Ringwald, Paul Drake, and Bobby Connors. The three boys leaning against a row of lockers, rolling their eyes and cupping their hands into different cup sizes as they discussed with great animation the unparalleled-life-sustaining-magnificence of the female breast, halleluiah. Jimmy Ringwald would occasionally fix his gaze on Hope, his eyes darting away when she caught him. Hope figured it could have been one of these bozos that scribbled about her great tits on the desktop. In the hall, the boys spotted something coming their way, something that was obviously in possession of breasts. Then Debbie Roderick and her substantial bustline whisked past the boys and into Ms. Bradford’s classroom.

“Hey, Hope,” Debbie said, nestling into the seat next to Hope.

“Hi, Deb,” Hope said, watching the breast-worshipers outside the room nod approval for Debbie’s “rack.” Jimmy was watching Hope again, this time not averting his eyes. Jim, Paul, Bobby—Tom, Dick, Harry—they were the same kid. Mass-produced. Typical, middleclass, uninteresting physically or mentally, only knowing how to start conversations about car chases and professional wrestling. And of course tits and ass. Jimmy’s ogling eyes glimmered with the prospect that maybe, just maybe, Hope wanted him, that she would forget all about Sean Hamill or Joel Fitch and go out with Jimmy Ringwald instead. Hope couldn’t help herself, she winked at him and seductively pouted her lips. Then she turned her attention to Debbie.

She heard Jimmy’s ecstatic voice coming from the hall, “Did you guys see that? Hey. Hey. Hope just winked at me. Why are you making that face? I swear it.”

“How’re you doing, Deb?” Hope said.

“I’m fine.” Debbie said. She was frantically scratching numbers and symbols onto a piece of notebook paper. “I’ve got to get this done. Did you do the homework?”

“Yeah. It wasn’t that hard,” Hope said. She left Debbie alone with her homework and resumed her cheek-propping as the noise of the hallway continued, minutes counting down to the bell, students headed to class—some going fast, some walking slow, some in a rush, some in a stall, and the three breast-worshipers not moving at all.

“Look, here comes that new kid,” Jimmy said to his comrades. Hope turned to see William Knight walking toward the room, and the memories of her dream deluged into her mind. She remembered her and this boy flying above the clouds. And as William stepped into the room, and Hope looked into his eyes, it felt as if he was someone she’d known all her life. His eyes found hers, and for a moment, he looked like a spooked owl, staring. Then Jimmy’s voice came from behind him, “Hey, what’s up, homo?”

William turned and looked back at Jimmy. Paul and Bobby stifled goofy chortles. “What?” William said to Jimmy.

“I said, ‘what’s up, Homer,’” Jimmy said. “I thought that was your name.”

William’s eyes narrowed. “It’s William,” he said. “William Knight.”

William started toward his desk when Jimmy called from the hall, “You’re a fag.”

“What?” William said.

“I said, ‘don’t forget to salute the flag,’” Jimmy said. “You should be sure to do that every morning. Do you have a problem with that, Homer?”

“Um, no,” William said.

Jimmy’s friends broke into laughter. Jimmy basked in the attention like a matador accepting roses from a crowd. He looked in at Hope, his smile devouring his face. Hope regarded Jimmy’s smiling. Then she looked at William, remembering holding his hand and streaking triumphantly through the sky. But now he looked lost and faded.

“I know you’re new here,” Hope said to William, “but you’ll have to excuse Jimmy. He was born with no dick.”

“Ow,” Jimmy’s friends said.

Jimmy’s eyes filled with an unsure expression. Did Hope Ferretti just tattoo him as dickless? His face contorted, and he retreated to the other popularity cannibals for consoling.

Hope looked at William, their eyes locking again for a moment, but he dropped his gaze to the floor as Ms. Bradford lumbered in through the door and the bell rang. He started back toward his seat when Hope called, “Hey.”

William turned to face her.

“Don’t let those idiots get to you,” she said.

He managed a smile and then darted to his seat.

Hope organized her things for class. She glanced over her shoulder at him. He caught her gaze again, but averted his eyes when Ms. Bradford started calling attendance.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 12 — The Treasure Chest