5.I used to have two fish. The other one was blue, and it lasted me about a month before it died. It spent the last two weeks of its life in one spot, forcing itself to swim up to the surface to get food. One day I came home and it was lying at the bottom of the tank, dead. The other fish swam happily and gracefully in the same water, probably completely unaware of what happened to its neighbor.
When I took the dead fish out, I removed the tank divider, which kept the two fish from fighting and killing each other. Immediately my red fish began swimming across the entire length of the tank and back. It was even happier than before, all alone in its nice clean tank. I sometimes wonder if I should replace the blue fish, but then I look at my red one, vibrant and alive, and I think, “nah”.
A month passes. My routine stays regular, eating lunch with Rodney and Eli, weekends cruising in Eli’s car, nights trying to get a good eight hours of sleep. At some point in that month the left side of my jaw starts hurting, searing up into my ear, and I think it’s an ear infection but it turns out it’s my TMJ, some joint in my jaw that can become inflamed from nocturnal teeth grinding and jaw clenching. So I start taking regular doses of ibuprofen, which dulls the pain. I buy a mouth guard but I don’t use it. Then the holidays arrive, and it’s the first week of December. It starts getting dark at five and I notice the way it stops getting truly light, how the sky just stays gray and meshes with the mountain tops and encases Laffotta, Matero, and Olera, like some kind of malicious force field.
The week passes slowly. Nothing happens on Monday. On Tuesday, the pale guy comes over and talks to Rodney, but quietly this time, and Rodney nods and Eli and I stand there wondering what’s going on but when we ask who the pale guy is Rodney won’t say.
On Wednesday I see Alisa on my way between classes, and I say hi and wave but she barely responds. I see her again at lunch and when she walks by I look straight ahead, where Sara is standing at the end of the hall. She sees me looking in her direction and she walks over to me and punches me in the arm and says ‘Hey”, elongating the “ey” sound so that she sounds stoned. We talk for a couple minutes and when we say goodbye she hugs me, but it’s so sudden I don’t respond. My back begins to hurt immensely.
On Thursday the girl with the auburn hair that Eli hooked up with comes and sits with us at lunch, and she sits between Eli and Rodney and looks at Rodney weird, like she finds him fascinating. I figure out that her name is Zoe, because Eli keeps calling her that. The whole lunch I don’t think Zoe looks at Eli once, she just stares at Rodney, who doesn’t say anything more than simple vowel sounds.
On Friday I run into Alisa again and this time she smiles at me and waves. I wave back and smile but I don’t stop to talk or anything. Later Eli asks me if I want to have some fun later and I say sure. I ask him what he wants to do, and he says “I dunno, just drive around or something. The usual.”
After school I get a text from Alisa asking me if I want to do something that evening and even though I told Eli I’d hang with him I tell Alisa I’m free. As I’m sending the text I rub my back and I notice it feels less tense.
That evening I lay on my bed trying to figure out how I can blow Eli off. I eventually tell him I can maybe meet him at 7/11 around nine o’clock, but I don’t promise anything. I ask Alisa what she wants to do and she says she’s got dance until 7:30 and I can join her for dinner after and I agree. It’s raining lightly, so I put on my gray rain jacket over a green plaid flannel. When I step out of my house I see a blue cat sleeping on my neighbors doorstep, breathing deeply, so that it’s ribs expand almost over it’s thighs. It’s not dark yet but I notice that some of the streetlights are on, casting their platinum light over the gritty, grey-black asphalt and my purple hatchback.
The dance studio she attends is in downtown Laffotta, so I head that way, taking the main road. I put on The Replacements, and I skip all their acoustic songs and stick to the more punk and hard rock influenced material. It gets boring but I don’t turn it off because I can’t think of anything better to listen to.
I get to the dance studio and park, and then get out and sit on my hood while I wait. It’s stopped drizzling for the moment but I leave my hood on and pretend to text someone, but there’s no one around so I stop.
Finally she comes out of the studio, wearing black leggings and a navy fleece. She suggests we go to a Chinese place down on the corner and grab something, so we walk down there.
We order our food and sit down. I don’t really know what to talk about so I wait for her to bring something up. She starts talking about her dance class, which is ballet, and that goes on for a while. Then she asks me if I know a guy named Keith Perry, and I don’t really register it at first and just shake my head. She describes him and once again I say no. But I notice something in her voice and I ask her who he is and she says she has four classes with him and so she’s gotten to know him over the past few weeks and she thinks he’s really sweet. I nod and reach over my shoulder to rub my back, which just gave off a twinge of pain.
We finish eating and I tell her I have to go and meet Eli. She says that’s cool, she has to go home anyway, and so we say goodbye and I go to my car. I’m feeling tense again, and I don’t really know why. I play some Black Flag and yell along with Henry Rollins as I drive to 7/11.
I pull up and Eli’s inside talking to the cashier. I go inside and say “What’s up”, and Eli laughs because my voice is even raspier than usual after singing in the car. I just shrug and go to get a coffee.
We go out into the parking lot, and it’s drizzling again but I keep my hood down. I look around at the mostly empty parking lot, at the perpetually dead grass, at the crappy convenience store, and I drink my coffee. Eli suggests we drive to ‘Top of the World’, which is a popular spot on top of a hill on the border of Olera and Matero. So I get in his car and we drive over there.
At the top there are already a couple of parked SUV’s, and there’s a couple around our age kissing on the bench. Eli parks and asks if maybe we should just leave, but I shake my head and say “It’s public land.” And then I get out of the car.
As soon as I get out regret it. The couple looks up when the door slams, and they look at me with blank expressions, not sure how to proceed. Eli is still sitting in the car. This is not what he had in mind, and I know it.
I look out over Olera, but the view isn’t as good as the one I had last weekend when I was with Alisa. The sky is just a flat grey color. I see the couple get up in the corner of my eye, and they walk past me and as they do I mutter “It’s public land” and the guy just kind of looks at me strangely as he gets into his SUV.
I walk towards the bench they were just on and sit on it. My back hurts. Eli is still sitting in his car. Then I bend over the end of the bench and vomit, orange paste with rice upon the hard packed dirt. I feel weak and I don’t know why I decide I need to get away from Eli and Top of the World so I rush back to the car as fast as a I can, which isn’t very fast since I’ve become really light headed. Eli looks at me worriedly.
As we drive down the hill we pass someone Eli knows walking on the side of the road, and Eli says “I hate that fucker” and starts to pull over but I tell him not to because I want to go home. He looks at me strangely again and I grimace because I think I might puke again. I text Alisa and tell her I got food poisoning and ask if she did too, since we ate the same thing. She says she’s feeling fine, and also that she had a fun time at dinner. I just grimace again and kind of growl.
I drive home, still lightheaded, and as I’m unlocking my door I notice the blue cat is still lying on the doorstep of my neighbor, but now it’s kind of twitching in it’s sleep.
I go inside and my parents are asleep. I take off my jacket and shoes and socks and lie on my bed in just jeans and a plain white t-shirt. My blinds are up and I can see the moon, full and azul, suspended above the hill near my house. I hear slight howls in the distance, dogs and wolves calling out in the rain.
I can’t sleep. I get up and I look out my window some more and then I open it and remove the bug screen and step outside. I’m still barefoot and I forgot to bring my jacket, but the rain is light and not really cold.
I begin to walk towards the hill near my house, and as I ascend it the howls around me crescendo. My shadow looms behind me, then to my left, then in front, swiveling as I pass under flat, grey, artificial light. I look behind me every once in a while, but there’s no one there. I notice the cat, dark blue and shimmering, about ten feet away from me. I keep heading up the hill until I get to the top, where there is a flat spot of concrete. I sit on it and it’s cool but not wet. The cat comes up next to me and sits on its hind legs, perfectly posed, looking over at the moon. The howls are slightly deafening, as if they surround me. I look over Laffotta and Matero, both of which are visible from this peak, and the fog hangs above them and the lights on Bellows and in shopping centers are hazy and distorted. As I sit, I notice that some of them go out.
Black clouds float around the moon and over the mountains in the distance. I lay my head back against the concrete and look straight up and the moon is suspended there right above me. I look over at the cat, which is still looking at the moon, and it’s fur glistens and shines. Its eyes are grey, and it opens it mouth, extending its lower jaw as far as it can go, it’s pure white teeth glinting, an iridescent tone rising out of its throat and projecting itself over the valley below us.
I stare straight out at the swirls of grey and black, reflecting the clean blue light of the moon, and then I howl too.