Fallen by Dan Leach

Damn the mirror behind by the bar, backlit in amber with its glass bottle skyline, throwing that unwelcome reflection back at me. And damn that swollen face floating between the fifth of Knob Creek and the almost empty Jack, all fat and pink and sad-happy from the beer. Damn who I’ve become. Damn the suicide-blonde two stools down, sipping her blue sugary buzz, all cellulite thighs and nicotine teeth, lit enough to laugh at Hack Heller’s recycled sweet-talk. Damn sweet-talk. And damn Hack too, Judas Iscariot, two-stepping in here with his JC Penny dress shirt and twelve dollar hair-cut, the gall to shake my hand before he blocks me out and leeches onto the blonde, oh so conveniently forgetting who looked out for who when a certain somebody was a scared shitless sophomore with a birdcage chest and a stu-stu-stutter. Damn them all, I say. May fire rain down from the sky and turn this bar to ashes. May a dam somewhere shatter like glass and send us sputtering to the bottom of a lake. May some sudden and profound act of violence render all of this—the mirror, the face, the blonde, this beer, Hack’s haircut, and me—wholly non-existent, never here and never now, an ugliness that was once but got forgotten, a fart cracked into the wind, an unmarked grave blanketed in leaves, a word nobody knows anymore. May it end, all of it, now.

“Meany!” Hack screams, breaking my prayer in half.

“What?” I say and check my hairline in the mirror.

“Get your ass down here,” Hack says.

“Why?” I say and push forward a piece of hair to cover where my scalp pulls back and reveals a greasy patch of forehead. It began several years earlier, this lowering tide of hair and body and youth. How quickly the waves can turn to sea-foam. How quietly everything leaves.

“I was just talking about our glory days,” Hack says, all laughing and slapping the bar for effect.

I cover the spot perfectly, dragging my thumb along the oily part and wiping it off on my jeans. In a couple more years, it will be past the point of hiding. I will have to shave my head and buy bigger shirts. I will grow some stubble for a jaw-line and talk to women in their thirties. In a couple more years, things will be slightly, but also severely worse. Damn the tide. I know it pulls on everyone, but sometimes I swear I’m the only one really fighting it.

“He says you were some kind of big deal on the football team,” says the blonde, slurring her words not in the sexy, sloppy way but like a dentist just shot her tongue up with two tons of Novocain. “He says you set a record for the entire state of South Carolina. That true?”

“Tell her about it, Meany,” Hack shouts. “Tell her about that game down in Belton. You know which one I’m talking about.”

Meany— only people from my way-back call me that. Everyone else—my parents, my brother in Easley, my sister in Rock Hill, Eddie and all the Mexicans on my crew, Trey and Brian from the track, everyone, in other words, that didn’t attend my high-school– all of them call me Chris. Nobody who knows me as I am calls me something like Meany.

How did I come by it? Accounts vary. Kyle Scruggs, my original partner in crime from Creekside Elementary, said the name came the day I drove my knee into a Wes White’s sciatic nerve—a ‘dead leg’ we called them—causing him to double over into the water fountain and bloody up his gums. Kyle said some little pet, one of those Indian girls with perfect grades and zero tolerance for silliness, poked me with her finger and said, “Why do you always have to be such a meany?” That’s Kyle’s version. Bear, though—and for the life of me I can’t remember Bear’s real name or, for that matter, what happened to Bear after high-school—claimed to have given it to me after a junior high wrestling match in which my opponent, a scrappy hick from Greer, had sunk a half-nelson so deep and come so close to pinning me, I was left with no other option but to reach up, take his nuts in my grip, and squeeze them like they were crackers I was crushing for a bowl of soup. The kid squealed, rolled over, and I sunk a half-nelson of my own. “Meanest man alive,” Bear claims to have said after the match was over, after the referee had disqualified me from the tournament, after the boy, one hand clutching at his crotch, spit at my face and called me something much worse than Meany. There’s a couple more versions I didn’t bother to remember. Personally, I never cared for the name.

“Meany!” the blonde calls out, her voice somehow distant, like someone hollering into a pillow, like a moan from the motel room next to yours.

“What?” I say.

“Come here,” she says, still all Novocain and nonsense.

“No,” I say.

“Tell me that Belton story,” she says. “I want to hear it. I want to hear what you did.”

“No,” I say.

Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ny!” Hack chants, thumping his fists against the bar in time with that name.

I check my reflection, tilting my head first to the left, then to the right. I’m sweating pretty heavily, but my hair is covering the part of my forehead that shines the worst. I slide the napkin out from underneath my beer. It’s damp and I use it to dab at my temples and wipe the edges of my nostrils—‘stork bites’ my mother called them—which turn red and engorged whenever I drink. I stick out my jaw and grind my teeth, hoping to see a bone poke through. No luck. I am trapped in fat and can’t find my way out. I am bald and sweaty in a bar with no napkins. I make a vow to stop drinking, to eat less, run more, to fight my way back to the body that set those records. I vow to stop vowing, to make this one the real one, the one still alive in the morning.

Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ny!” Hack continues, the blonde having joined in, now driving her fists into the bar, the metal bracelets on her wrists jingling like Christmas bells.

I stare at the face and think about tomorrow. Tomorrow I will wake up early and eat eggs. I will put on a sweat-suit and run through the streets like Rocky. Tomorrow I will dump all my corn chips in the garbage and do push-ups on the carpet. I will feel myself returning and smile through the pain. It’s settled: tomorrow I will begin to begin. Swear it.

About the time Hack’s chant starts to die down, I finish my drink, ask Kip for another beer and another shot, and tell Hack and his blonde to meet me in the corner booth. Hack lets out a high-pitched cheer. The blonde shakes her hands above her head. They move to the booth. I get my drinks, look one last time in the mirror, and join them. I drink slowly and with care, and tell them stories that once ran in newspapers, stories that old boys two districts over can still recall at the sound of my name, stories that have been kicking people’s asses for twelve years. Shit could I play some football. They shut up, and listen with those trusting white eyes, and buy me several more drinks, and clap their sweet little hands. When I finish one, they ask for more. They tell me they want more and I give them what they ask for. Always am I happy to please the true believers.

*

When Freedie closes down, we pile into Hack’s car, stop off at an Amoco, get a bottle and a box, and drive around for a while. The stories have Hack wanting to stop by the old football field. Says he has a ball in the trunk we could throw around. Says he wants to have a drink on the fifty. The blonde likes this idea. She talks about the sensation of looking down from the bleachers in a way that makes me wonder if she had ever been to Creekside’s stadium.

We park in the student lot, which has been paved and painted since we graduated, but which still calls to mind mornings when we would cut class to sit in our trucks and smoke, listening to Skynyrd and talking about what we would do when we got out. Free as birds we swore we’d be. We made plans and convinced ourselves that Creekside was the only thing holding us back from making them real. We looked forward to getting out. Figured it was inevitable. Funny, our foresight never saw us coming back.

All my closest friends are back.

Down on the field the lights are on and when we reach the bleachers, we see that there are already a couple of guys throwing a football. They are younger, one of them a half-way decent running back I saw play some years earlier. The other guy I don’t recognize, but judging from the way he throws, he has played some ball. The running back has a jar-head haircut and looks to be in military shape. The other one is big too, but soft. Both are too old for high-school.

“Who are these fags?” Hack says, crushing his can and chucking it onto the bleachers to announce our arrival.

Both guys stop throwing the ball long enough to look up, but neither offer a hello or head-nod. Having registered our presence, they continued throwing.

“Why do they have to be fags?” the blonde says, hopping up onto the top bleacher and balancing like a gymnast on one foot. “Why can’t they just be regular guys? School’s out, man. What is it about this town that everyone other than yourself is automatically a fag?”

Hack ignores this and slapping me on the back, says, “Come on, Meany. Let’s show these fags a thing or two.”

Careful not to spill our beers, we run down the bleachers and, when we reach the fence surrounding the track, we hop it. The green of the grass beneath the milk-white lights, those crisp and measured lines: it’s been a while. Still, it feels like home and I am not sorry for having come.

“Hey,” Hack shouts, cutting across the field and gesturing for the ball.

Jarhead hesitates, looking, for a moment, as if he intends to pass to Hack, before slinging the ball back to Softboy.

“Hit me, hit me, hit me,” Hack shouts again, changing directions and clapping his hands.

Hack is less than ten yards away from Softboy, running his route and screaming for the ball. Softboy fakes, laughs to himself, and sends a tight spiral straight into Jarhead’s chest. Hack, already out of breath, approaches Jarhead and says, quietly, “Give me the ball.”

Jarhead mumbles a curse and gives up the ball.

“Y’all went to Creekside?” Hack says, stretching his fingers out over the laces and loosening his arm.

“Yeah,” Softboy says, picking his beer up off the grass and taking a sip.

“What year’d you graduate?” Hack says and flips the ball to me.

“Two-thousand and three,” Jarhead says and snaps his fingers at me.

I drop back and motion for him to go out, but he doesn’t move. He just rolls his eyes and keeps his hands where they were. He is snapping. I flick it to him and he hits Softboy.

“Do y’all need something?” Softboy says, fumbling but ultimately catching the pass.

“Just thought we’d play a little ball,” Hack says and steps up to Softboy and tries to punch the ball loose. Hack is successful and the ball bounces away, but when Hack bends over to snatch it, Softboy lowers his shoulder and rams him. Hack topples over, hitting the ground with a thud. He doesn’t roll so much as he flops and when he comes up, grass on his clothes, grass in his hair, his eyes are wild and he swings his forearm into Softboy’s chest. Softboy stumbles backward but keeps his feet. He laughs and passes the ball back to Jarhead.

“You got a problem, boy?” Hack says, brushing the grass off the front of his shirt and approaching Softboy with balled fists.

“Easy,” Jarhead says, stepping in between them and placing his large, outstretched hands on Hack’s chest. “It’s cool. There’s no problem. Everything’s cool.”

I grab Hack’s shoulders and give them a squeeze. They are hard with rage and trembling. He is fire-eyed and primed, staring pure and boozy bitterness into Softboy’s cocky clean-shaved mug. I look at Jarhead and he catches my meaning, pulling his buddy back and whispering tranquilizers. Then, on cue, all four of us turn because the blonde is jumping up and down on the bleachers, sending a shrill metallic echo across the field, and screaming, while waiving invisible pom-poms, “School’s out, y’all! School’s out forever! Don’t you know that? There’s no more school and no more fags and no more need to hold back all our uncool love!”

“She’s drunk,” I say.

“No shit,” Jarhead says.

We laugh—even Hack. She’s still jumping around and screaming when Hack, plucks the ball off the ground and says, “Four downs to a score, ten Mississippi on the rush, one sneak per drive, and watch the knees. First touchdown wins.”

When neither Jarhead nor Softboy respond to his offer, Hack slaps the ball, points it their faces, and says, “What’s the matter? Y’all pussy or something?”

This hooks them and Jarhead takes the ball from Hack. “Our ball,” he says and struts with Softboy back to the goal line.

“You want to rush or cover?” Hack says as we follow them down the field.

“I better rush,” I say, slapping my gut.

“Fine by me,” Hack says.

We line up. The blonde hushes. Jarhead the QB sends Softboy down the field with a muffled “Hut!” I can feel it in my spine: it has definitely been a while.

First down Softboy runs a slant and Jarhead throws a bullet, but Hack bats it away, sending a “Whoo!” into the night-sky that would’ve made Rick Flair proud. Second down, they connect on a button hook and Softboy almost breaks free, but Hack brings him down at the forty. No “Whoo!” this time. Third down I feel certain Jarhead is going to use his sneak and tell Hack as much. I am wrong, though, and another slant puts them on our thirty, Hack having to clip Softboy’s ankles to stop him from scoring. I ask Hack if he wants to switch, but he swears he has it.

“Pussies,” is all he says, jerking his head toward the two of them.

“Give me an M! M!” the blonde shouts. “Give me an O! O! Give me a V! V! Give me an E! E!”

She continues her cheer with surprisingly good volume and cadence, but Jarhead’s “Hut!” cuts her off and I can’t tell if she spells out “MOVE ON!” or “MOVE UP!” It’s fourth and goal and Softboy’s going long, all elbows and shoulders against Hack in the end zone. I don’t bother to look back. Hack’s got him covered and anyway I know Jarhead’s going to run this one in. I know it before he does. Instincts, unlike speed and hair and so much of what makes a person great, stick around for nights like these. Sure enough, he fakes once and breaks to the right. Even with the weight, I’m still quicker than him and he knows it. He knows who I am, recognized it the minute I stepped on the field. He saw the ring and didn’t need to ask my name.

Accordingly he heads for the sideline, looking for space and I am right there with him, almost on him, almost making the tackle, until my feet, probably on account of all the beer, get tangled and I begin to trip. Jarhead sees this and breaks into a sprint. He’s quick and, by the time I’m steady again, he has a good ten feet on me and Hack is hurrying over to stop him. The end zone is ten yards and closing. Jarhead and his Army-issued legs can move. He sees Hack and jukes to his right before spinning to his left. Hack falls for it, nearly coming out of his shoes. Softboy, hopping up and down in the end zone, is screaming “Go! Go! Go!” Jarhead sees the opportunity and dashes forward. All his weight is thrown forward and he, seeing that brighter shade of green just beyond the goal line, surrenders himself to its irresistible promise. What he doesn’t see is me and my arm, and I clothesline that son of a bitch so hard across his neck that it rips his feet out from under him and sends the ball up into the air. He goes down, the force and sadness with which his body hits earth beyond any words I have or ever will. He might be dead, such impact applied to the windpipe certainly not a good thing, but I don’t pause to find out. I catch the ball on the fly and jog down the field, looking back only once, conveniently in time to see Hack level Softboy. I am gone.

When I reach the end zone, I drop the ball and catch my breath. I look up and Softboy is throwing wild, arching haymakers at Hack’s smiling face. Jarhead is motionless on the ground. The blonde is running onto the field, stumbling all around, still screaming nonsense. I hurry back and manage to get in between the two, taking an elbow to the jaw for my trouble.

“You a sore loser or something?” I say, drawing back a fist to let Softboy know that, if he’s of a mind to continue things, then it’ll continue as a two-on-one.

Softboy’s gasping for air and bleeding from his lip, though I don’t know if that came from Hack’s tackle or his fists.

“Y’all are the losers,” Softboy says, spitting blood in our general direction.

“Better go check on your lover,” Hack says and nods towards Jarhead, who still hasn’t moved.

Softboy registers this and hurries over. The blonde is doing cartwheels on the field, singing something in French as she tumbles to the ground.

Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ney!” Hack says through his teeth and slugs my arm.

“Let’s go,” I say and head for the car.

“Let’s go!” Hack shouts at the blonde, who is on her back, limbs moving like windshield wipers to make snow-angels in the grass. Grass-angels I guess you’d call them.

Halfway up the bleachers, I look back and am glad to see Jarhead sitting up. It was never my intention to hurt him. The game, for me, has never been about anger, at least not the physical kind. What I brought to the field was only ever a burden, a massive, internal thing begging to be released through sweat and tears and trying. Other people were never the target, although sometimes, like tonight, they got in the way it. I should’ve played another sport. I could’ve been a golfer. Those little white pills would have been better by far in absorbing and ferrying the burden, better certainly than another person’s windpipe.

Hack gets the car moving, the night-air drying the sweat on our skin, the radio some kind of subtext for Hack’s recap. The DJ plays back-to-back Zeppelin songs and Jimmy Paige is three-fourths of the way through his “Stairway” solo before Hack can shut up about it. That’s okay, though. He could go on all night if that’s what does it for him. To me, though, it’s just words, empty easy words floating as freely as cool air that floods the car, moving all around me, but never really touching me. Nothing can touch me where I am. I’m too busy breathing in the backseat, drinking in the dark. I’m too busy listening to my heart, beating like a band inside my chest.

*

We drive towards the blonde’s place. She promises to cook for us. She says she has a friend for me and places a call.

“Is she cute?” Hack asks, after the blonde hangs up.

“Yeah, she’s cute,” the blonde says, screwing her face up like someone jammed a lemon through her teeth.

“How cute?” Hack says, screwing up his face too, only not half as lemony as hers.

From the backseat I sip my beer and watch their sour silhouettes like it’s my own private nickelodeon. I am here, tonight, but only half-so. The other half is thinking about tomorrow, the promise that it holds: the eggs, the sweat-suit, the way the sun will feel. Damn tonight. Sunrise cannot come soon enough.

“What do you mean ‘How cute?’?” the blonde says and signals for me to hand her a can.

I crack one open, slurp the foam off the top, and pass it up to her.

“I mean,” Hack says and signals for one too. “One to ten, how cute is she?”

The blonde puts her feet on the dash, drinks vigorously from the can, and thinks about this.

“Nine,” she says, nodding her head. “Nicole’s a nine.”

“A nine?” Hack says, incredulous.

“Hell yeah,” she says, all confidence until she burps into her fist. “Nicole’s hot, man. She’s at least a nine.”

“I’m not sure you understand the ranking system,” Hack says, briefly looking back at me for support. “It’s not like nines are just walking around waiting for someone to call them up in the middle of night. A nine’s a rare thing. Especially around here.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” she says.

“No,” Hack backpedals. “It’s just easy to embellish is all.”

“I’m not lying,” the blonde says.

“I know, I know,” Hack says. “Help me out here, Meany.”

“What?” I say.

“Tell her,” he says.

“Tell her what?” I say.

“How rare nines are,” he says.

The blonde turns around in her seat. She cocks her head at me, asking, I think, for me to take her side.

“Nines are rare,” I say and throw my hands up so that the blonde knows it’s just numbers. It’s important that she knows this, knows it’s nothing personal, nothing against this woman named Nicole whom I have never met and whom, for all I know, is the love of my life and the mother of my unborn children. Nicole, whoever she is or isn’t, must be one number or another. Maybe she was born to be a nine. Maybe she’s the six with other things to offer. But nothing’s just for kicks. Whether or not they show it, everyone’s keeping score.

“Well, what am I then?” the blonde says, turning back around and facing Hack.

“You?” Hack says, a note of panic, barely detectable, creeping into his voice.

“Yeah,” she says, crossing her arms and pursing her lips. “Rank me. What am I?”

“On a scale of one to ten?” Hack says, drinking long and hard from his can.

“Duh,” the blonde says.

“Easy,” Hack says.

“What?” the blonde says.

“A twelve,” Hack says and, after throwing his can out of the window, signals for another.

I hand Hack his beer and the blonde says nothing, just smiles and drinks and reflects on Hack’s answer. Then she crawls over to his side of the car and whispers something in his ear. He laughs. She is kissing his ear, probably doing something with her hand. I can’t tell– angles and all. Whatever she’s doing works because Hack swerves the car, not hard, but enough to knock the blond off-balance, sending her flying across the cab and back into the passenger’s seat, laughing at something or nothing or everything.

“A twelve,” she says, more snorting than laughing now, happy, for now, to have some points on her board.

We drive around, drinking and carrying on, listening to our back-to-back classic rock. After a while we pull up to the blonde’s house. There’s a banged-up old Pontiac parked in the driveway, no lights but running. Hip-hop is playing at a volume that rattles the cheap speakers. The driver kills the engine and steps out. The blonde’s porch-bulb, muggy and yellow, isn’t much help, but even in the half-light, I see enough to know. I see the gut slopping out over the waistband of too-tight jeans, the massive breasts, like two butternut squashes stuffed into a sequined shirt, the cigarette jammed between her pouty lips, the short dyke hair hugging her swollen face like a helmet two sizes too small.

“That Nicole?” Hack says, suppressing something, maybe laughter, maybe pity.

“Yep,” the blonde answers and, turning around to face me, says, “What do you think?”

I open the Jameson’s, drink straight from the bottle, watch Nicole approach the car, and say, “Looks like a twelve to me.”

“To twelves,” Hack says, reaching over and scooping up a handful of the blonde’s thigh.

“To twelves,” I say, squinting out into the night where Nicole is lifting her shirt and scratching at her belly-button, her stomach large and pale as a goose-feather pillow. I drink again from the Jameson’s and think about tomorrow.

*

Inside, the blonde makes pizza in her oven and begins to bake cookies before giving up and dishing out the raw dough into four plastic bowls for us to eat with spoons. The sugary mass does nothing to slow the spinning of the room. I have, without having made a concentrated effort, become savagely and almost sickeningly drunk.

The blonde has a Pomeranian named Rascal that hates everyone and snips at our ankles until Hack flicks it in its little snout and sends it whimpering to its bed in the corner. After pizza and drinks, we sit around watching TV and pretty soon the blonde takes Hack into her room. Alone, Nicole sits next to me on the couch. Springs creak beneath her and she is so close I can smell her. Her hair and clothes smell like smoke, but there is another smell—peaches, I think—that has been applied and it doesn’t overcome the smoke so much as it mixes with it. When she leans in and kisses my neck, I think of peach-flavored cigarettes. I think of a nectarine with lung-cancer. I am dizzy and I want to lie down on her stomach. I am easily drunk enough to ask.

“Meany a nick-name or something?” she asks, still kissing all up and down my neck.

“Nope,” I say, closing my eyes and trying to will the spinning to stop. It doesn’t, though. I am hammered, sloshed, well on my way to oblivion. The room is a windblown whirl-a-gig and I can’t make it stop. Vomit is in my future.

“That’s your real name?” she says, biting my ear-lobe just a hint too hard. “Meany?”

“Yep,” I say.

“Your parents gave you that name?” she says and stops kissing me but starts rubbing my chest and shoulders with her hands.

“Yep,” I say.

Her hands move down to my stomach and I don’t bother to flex. In middle-school girls used to pay me a dollar to lift up my shirt and flash them my six-pack. In high-school I would walk around shirtless all summer, my pants riding low to show the deep creases that started on my hips and disappeared like two black threads into my boxers. Ate entire pizzas and drank soda with every meal and still as lithe and golden as a Greek god. There is, I am sure, a god still buried inside of me. “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow,” I think but do not say.

She rubs my belly like a genie’s lamp and starts kissing me again, this time on the mouth. Her tongue is more smoke than peaches. I can smell the makeup on her face. Her body is warm and soft as bread.

“What does it mean?” she says, between kisses.

“What?” I say, having fallen asleep.

“Your name. What does it mean?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“You never asked your parents?” she says, fingers digging into my biceps, followed by a moan.

“Nope,” I say.

“Hmm,” she says, running her nails down my arms. “Maybe they thought you’d be mean or something.”

“Sounds about right to me,” I say.

“No,” she says, locking her fingers in mine. “You seem pretty nice to me.”

I close my eyes and hold her hands. I breathe in her scent and wander what time it is. I spin through seven shades of black and fight the urge to spew. A trip to the bathroom would serve me well. Take a knee in front of the porcelain. Two fingers to the back of the throat. I close my eyes and think about my stomach emptying itself like an upturned trough. The great cloud of a couch envelopes me and I let it, leaning back and letting Nicole put her hands wherever she would like.

When I open my eyes, she is gone. There is a bar of light beneath the bathroom door. There is the sound of water running. I get up, and I fall down. I get back up, and I fall back down. My eyes are spinning in their sockets. The darkened house is tearing at the seams, hazy and askew. My head is a tin can full of angry bees. My limbs belong to someone else. The urge to vomit overcomes me. I am full of old things that need purging. I am ready to be emptied. I tell my feet to move and miraculously they listen. I am up, moving. Behind me, I hear the bathroom door open. Nicole says something, but her voice is a poorly tuned trumpet, all noise and no poetry. Everything’s messy. I don’t understand her words and anyway my feet are moving, my hands swatting at furniture like insidious vines that try to entangle my limbs and keep me here. Instinct kicks in and I sprint, as if for an end zone, one arm protecting my stomach, the other outstretched before me, stiff-arming all that would stop my run. Something breaks beneath me. Nicole is screaming. I crash into the door, fumbling at locks and knobs, trying to break through it but unable to decipher freedom’s combination. I step back, ready to ram the door with my shoulder, certain that I could reduce the door to matchsticks. “Nothing can stop me!” I think and say aloud. “Nothing can hold me back! Stop trying to hold me back!” I lower my shoulder and brace for impact, but a pair of hands clutches at my collarbone and a voice like clanging cymbals fills my ears. It is Nicole. She has stepped in front me and is blaring bunk at full volume. I fall to my knees.

“I’m going to be sick,” I say to her large and gracious stomach. “Please let me out. I am going to be sick.”

I don’t know how many times I say it, but eventually she vanishes from my path, the door swings open, and I am wrapped in stars and grass and cold, forgiving air. I breathe for the first time all night, breathe deeply and with sincerity. The ground beneath my feet is moving and I run to keep up with it. I run unobstructed, away from the house and everyone in it. I run until the vomit explodes out of my stomach, filling my mouth and pouring forth from my lips like a busted drainpipe. I collapse beneath a massive oak, its forked branches cutting the sky into spinning thirds above me, and water its roots with my vomit, sending out burst after blessed burst, falling backwards into blackness only after the last of it has left my body. I surrender the right to stand and sleep like a dead man in the dirt.

I am resurrected by the distant slam of a screen-door, my mouth like cotton, my mind like tired rusted cogs. The blonde’s house is closer than it should be but exactly where it is. Hack is slipping out of the front door like a thief, easing the screen door shut behind him and tip-toeing across the pavement. I half expect him to put his car in neutral and roll it down the drive, but he doesn’t. He revs it up and peels out, gravel spraying in all directions behind him. Then, in the window, hardly visible from such distance, a curtain peels back and face appears for a moment before vanishing forever. No sign of Nicole.

I stand, and stretch, and feel my strength returning.

Bless them all, I say. Bless the sun. Bless the sky. Bless Jarhead and Softboy and any boy who ever left their blood on a field of grass. Bless my brother Hack, keeping score for all the world. Bless this boundless, forgiving world, willing as it always is, to pick you up, no matter how far you’ve fallen. I have fallen, it’s true. I am not the beaming boy from the papers. But in the east, the sun is rising, spilling out golds and pinks onto what was blue and soundless and misty. I begin to run, my legs still strong and willing. Maybe it’s impossible, but I swear I can smell eggs. I swear my veins are full of sunlight and a god is waking up inside of me. Morning: my favorite time of day. Everything seems possible. And it is. Damn anyone who says it isn’t.

_________________________________________________________________________

About the Author

Dan Leach’s short fiction has been published in various literary journals and magazines, including The Greensboro ReviewDeep South Magazine, and The New Madrid Review. A native of South Carolina, he graduated from Clemson University in 2008, and taught high-school in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. Floods and Fires, his debut short-story collection, will be published by University of North Georgia Press in 2016. Visit dan-leach.com for links to published stories and poems.