Maybe the Last Time

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Winslow Samuels took his usual route home from middle school. It was night, cold, and the icy slush on the sidewalk had leached through his loafers, ruining them. Wet socks squished with his every step. He didn’t think of the numbness creeping up his toes. He thought of his Aunt Bren, and how she would not be happy. Not happy at all. But he couldn’t remember a time that she was happy with him.

She reminded Winslow constantly that she was the only one in the family who would take him in after his parents died a few years back. Luckily, she ignored him most days. When she did mind him, it was only to tell him what he was doing wrong. Like when she found a candy wrapper in his jacket. He had picked the trash from the road and forgot to throw it in the garbage. She wouldn’t listen to his excuse. She just told him that sweets were an indulgence. And indulgence was sin. She locked him in his room until he could recite scripture proving how wrong he was and how right she was. He remembered the hint of a smug smile on her face as she said, Sin is what killed your parents. They’re in hell now. You don’t want to go to hell, too.

He put her words out of his mind and watched the snow fall lazily to earth, but that reminded him of the fire.

All the ash that fell around him like flakes. His mom’s screams as the house collapsed.

He cried. Enough to blur his vision so that as Winslow walked past the grocery store’s parking lot, and up the hill, he slipped. His foot snagged in a large crack in the concrete. He caught himself at the expense of dropping his books. He wanted to curse, but instead sighed and started stacking his schoolwork in a makeshift pile.

As he reached for the last book, a cyclist ran over the tips of his fingers. He gasped and pulled his hand to his chest. He looked for the biker, but the cyclist hadn’t stopped. Why didn’t they stop? Didn’t they see me, he thought.

He opened and closed his hand several times and knew the fingers weren’t broken. He resisted the urge to sit there and cry. He got up and walked the rest of the way home. Winslow looked over his shoulder, sure another biker would knock him over, run over his feet, his knees. He couldn’t think straight. The fury in his mind made him forget his cold, wet feet and looming, angry aunt.

Winslow approached the split-level home encased in gold-colored bricks and siding that badly needed to be replaced. An old Buick with more primer than paint sat in the driveway. The bedroom light was on. He saw shadows play against the vertical blinds.

Winslow knew what his aunt did to keep food on the table. He tried to love her anyways. He had no one else and it was the kind of love one had for a distant relative because they are family, but a love nonetheless. Though he didn’t love the way she looked at him sometimes.

His last birthday he turned twelve, and she had worn less than she normally did around the house. She made him cupcakes and a pair of socks. The socks he was wearing now. She kissed his cheek after wishing him a happy birthday. She lingered a little long by his face. He smelled her lady scent and his pants itched. He felt his crotch grow warm and he felt dizzy. She smiled and stared at him. He felt small even though he was tall for his age. Her smile changed to something else, then she turned and left him alone. He really didn’t mind being alone. Alone was better.

He was glad she was working tonight. He opened the door with his key and went to his room on the other side of the house. It was small, but it had a lock on the door and a walk-in closet that he could sit in.

He put his books in front of the heater to dry. He didn’t turn on any lights, but Winslow could see his reflection in the only window in his room when he stood. He tried to remember what he looked like before the fire but couldn’t.

He undressed, carefully laying his school clothes at the foot of his bed. He put his socks on the windowsill above the heater.

Winslow dropped his underwear to the floor and walked naked to the closet. He sat down on the thick shag. He worked a corner of the carpet free and removed a curled photograph.

It was a picture of his dog, Charlie. Winslow lost him to the fire as well.

He thought of a Christmas when he was really young. There were candles and glitter and little colored lights. Everything was soft. That’s when Winslow heard the little snuffling noises at the door. As his parents sat on their old tweed sofa in robes with coffee mugs resting on their laps, Winslow bolted to the front of the house. He flung open the door and there was Charlie. There was no other name for what he saw. It had to be a Charlie. The basset hound pup stared up at Winslow then bowed his head and sniffed Winslow’s socked feet.

He missed Charlie. He missed the way he would lick his face when Winslow needed to get up for school. He missed the basset hound’s droopy ears. They were soft and Charlie loved it when Winslow rubbed them.

He fell asleep naked and crying in the closet. The picture of Charlie was folded in his hands and crumpled into his heart.

***

“Winnie! Winnie! Open this door! I need to talk to you!”

He hated when she called him that, but he stayed still, so much so he realized he held his breath. He finally stirred when she began pounding her fist on the wall. He jumped up and put on his underwear and answered her.

She wore her red silk wrap. That meant she got more than a tip last night. She looked at him a little too long with her sunken and used morning face and swallowed before speaking.

“What is this, Winnie?” She asked as she held up his ruined loafers. “This is why I got you boots.”

“I’m sorry. I forgot,” he said.

“That’s not good enough. Where are they? We will make sure that you do not forget again.”

“They’re in the closet, ma’am.” He knew she hated being called ma’am. Like it was an insult to her age.

She brushed past him and went to the closet. She paused and bent down and he felt the blood in his head drop to his feet.

The picture. Charlie. NO!

He pushed her over and grabbed at the photo as she fell. Her nails raked his back and she screamed. The photo floated for a moment like the snowflakes the previous night. Aunt Bren’s hand wrapped around it and stole it from the air. She didn’t even look at it. She ripped it to a hundred pieces in front of Winslow.

“You weren’t supposed to have that. I told you no pictures. No false idols to distract you. When you go against me, you sin. That was sin. You need to ask for forgiveness.” She put her hands on her hips, a triumphant curl to her lips.

His body shook. He had a hard time putting words together, but when they came out he couldn’t stop them. He found a freedom in the fact that he didn’t want to stop them.

“Sin? Sin! Why don’t you practice the words you have me read all the time! “Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never!” First Corinthians: six, fifteen. Leave me alone, just leave me alone!”

She didn’t make any move to stop him as Winslow grabbed his school uniform from the bed and ran. He ran out of the room, out of the house, out of his world. He didn’t feel the ice cutting his feet. He didn’t feel the wind steal his breath. He didn’t feel his racing heart. He just ran.

Even after dashing through the doors at school, no one noticed him. He sat through a day of classes and no one commented on his bare, bright pink and slightly bluish feet. No one mentioned how his brown hair was so disheveled. No one saw Winslow.

He didn’t register anything around him. He saw and heard and felt, but couldn’t respond. Teachers called his name for attendance and he didn’t reply. He didn’t eat lunch. He sat at a round table by himself and stared at the crack in the middle of it. He just started to crawl into that crack with his mind when the bell rang.

Winslow stayed at the table and tried to find a sanctuary in the rectangle of light before him. The rectangle became a trapezoid. More bells rang. The light disappeared, and he sat undisturbed until the janitor tapped his feet with a broom.

“You okay?” The janitor asked Winslow.

He thought of running, but he was tired and he realized that the janitor was the only person that had said anything directly to him all day.

“No. I’m not okay. I lost my dog.” Winslow looked at his bare feet and saw the scabbed cuts from his morning escape. He wondered when the pain would begin, if it would begin.

The janitor, a plain man who reminded Winslow of a calmer version of his dad, hunkered in front of him so that they were eye level. “I’m sorry. What was his name?”

“Charlie. He was my best friend. My only friend.” He tried to curl his toes, but they didn’t respond.

“I know what you mean. I had a dog named Shepard. He was a big Alaskan Malamute. Pure white and the softest fur. He liked head rubs.” The janitor looked away from Winslow.

“Head rubs.” He wanted to smile, but it was like some part of him forgot how, so he let out a laugh that sounded forced and weird. “Charlie liked it when I rubbed his ears. His belly, too.”

The janitor met Winslow’s eyes and said, “My name is Peter.” He didn’t offer his hand to Winslow. As if he knew that Winslow would not shake it.

After a moment, Peter nodded his head towards the exit, “You should get going. It’s dark.”

Winslow stared at this stranger for a time as the man turned and continued to sweep the hallway. Winslow picked up his books and walked home.

The lights were out. He prayed to God that she wasn’t there.

He dropped his books by the door and staggered to his bedroom. He collapsed on his bed as the exhaustion, pain, and stress hit him at the same time.

He dreamt of Charlie. They played catch with a Frisbee in an empty green field. He laughed whenever Charlie jumped, because no matter how high the throw, Charlie always caught it.

***

Winslow heard a popping sound, but forced himself to keep his eyes closed. Not the lock. Please.

The smell of patchouli and sex burned inside his nose and set a cold sweat over his skin.

She slid into bed next to him, spooning his thin frame. Her hand caressed the skin above his hip and reached under his briefs. He swallowed hard and tasted vomit. His head hurt and his eyelids closed so tightly he saw stars.

He opened his eyes when it hurt. He stared at the old heater. His socks still draped over the window sill. A fly landed on one of the socks. Winslow locked onto its little, black body. His face was hot and he felt tears. When the heat broke, there was nothing. Nothing but that tiny, black body. A speck. A point into which he put all of his thoughts and energy. The little, black spot grew. It encompassed his vision until all he saw was black.

That’s when he remembered the fire. That’s when he remembered why the fire happened.

The camera, his dad’s old Sony video camera. His mom’s hands. His dad’s breath. The visitors in the middle of the night. Promises that it would be okay.

They all smiled when they touched him.

I got them Charlie, all of them. But I forgot you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

Winslow found the zero and he stayed there until light came through his window.

***

He did not go to school. Instead, Winslow lay in his bed and watched the light drift through his room. He did not despair when he imagined a lifetime like this. Because he felt nothing. No emotions. At least that’s what he thought until he felt the crust on his leg and stomach. He deep cried. No sounds, just a feeling in his center that he was breaking. Ripping into a hundred pieces like Charlie.

He drifted in and out of consciousness. Images filled the dark spots. He saw Peter, the janitor, and a woman. He hadn’t seen her at the school. He wasn’t even sure he’d seen the janitor. The woman glowed. If Winslow had believed in angels, she would have been his angel. She was beautiful and safe.

But she was no angel.

Because her name was Liz. Peter said so. An echo in Winslow’s mind that he didn’t understand.

Liz would take him from his aunt’s house. He would start a new life. One where he didn’t know fear.

But it was a dream. And fear was all he knew.

That’s when he heard the door open. It was dark again. He waited for her smells and trembled, waiting for her touch.

But her scent never came. He smelled oranges and baby powder.

“Sammy?” A soft, female voice asked.

He hadn’t been called that in over three years. He’d almost forgotten his real name. The name his aunt forced him to change.

“Sammy?” The voice repeated.

A silhouette crouched in front of him.

“Sammy, I’m here to help you,” she whispered. “If you want to be helped.”

He wiped his eyes with the back of his forearm. He could see the outlines of her face in the ambient light. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. “Are you Liz?”

Her face flashed with a questioning look. “How did you know my name?”

“You were in my dream.”

She smiled. “Do you want help, Sammy?”

He worked his sore body up in the bed and nodded.

She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him as she lifted.

“Can I meet Shepard?” He asked as he squeezed her hard to make sure she was real.

“Yeah, sweetie. Shepard’s in the car. I think he’d like his ears rubbed.”


the last time

Sammy felt each root and pebble under his feet as he followed Peter up the mountain. His legs burned and he wanted to quit, but a much bigger part of him wanted to keep going, to see the top, to show Peter he could make it without stopping.

Each labored breath smelled of pine, worms, and earth. It had rained recently enough that drops of water hung off every leaf and needle. The sun reflected and he imagined a world of glass and mirrors: shiny and delicate and beautiful.

He thought of a Christmas when he was really young. There were candles and glitter and little colored lights. Everything was soft. That’s when Sammy heard the little snuffling noises at the door. That’s when he first met Charlie.

A loud whistle brought Sammy’s hands to his ears. He shook his head and saw Peter looking at him as he sat on a large rock jutting from the trail.

“Are you okay?” There wasn’t much emotion in his voice, but Sammy learned to accept that was the way the man who saved him acted. He never asked what happened to Peter. He just knew it was worse than what he’d been through. And that was enough. It was why he couldn’t lie to him. Why he didn’t want to.

“I was thinking about Charlie again.”

Peter nodded and reached for something in his back pocket. “I could tell.” He got up from the rock, leaned over and wiped at the corners of Sammy’s eyes. “It’s the only time you cry.”

He put the blue patterned handkerchief back in his pocket and grabbed a water bottle from his pack. He offered it to Sammy before he took a swig for himself.

They leaned against the rock and Sammy felt the cool spring air wipe the sweat from his skin. His lungs and legs burned, but it felt good.

“Have you ever been to a mountain before?” Peter asked as he stared into the clusters of pine and white maple.

Sammy shook his head. He had never seen mountains. He hadn’t even been outside the suburbs of Cleveland before two months ago.

“This isn’t a big mountain, but it’s a special mountain.” Peter handed Sammy a granola bar. “With special places.”

Sammy ate half the granola bar and savored each bite as he savored every word Peter told him. He knew this would be his last day with him and he didn’t want to forget any of it.

“There’s a spring near the top. It’s where that water comes from.” Peter pointed in the direction where Sammy heard a rushing noise. He’d thought it was just the wind.

“No one ever goes there because it’s off the path. I will show it to you if you’d like to see it.”

Sammy nodded as he folded the granola wrapper and stuffed it in his pocket. He thought he saw the ghost of a smile on Peter’s face.

They climbed in silence. Peter led and Sammy followed. He stepped where Peter stepped. And he never fell. They walked through mud and patches of snow that stubbornly refused to melt. As they reached the edge of the tree line, Peter stopped.

“It’s over there.” He pointed to a small copse of trees a few hundred feet from a switchback in the trail.

Sammy smiled and started towards the spring. He turned when he didn’t feel Peter behind him.

“Aren’t you coming?” He asked.

“This is for you. Only you.” Peter waved for Sammy to keep going. His big, callused hands like flags snapping in the wind.

He navigated the rocky outcropping. He didn’t mind the heights. He barely noticed the two-hundred-foot drop to his left. No one had ever shown him a place like this. He didn’t know they could exist. Sammy struggled to move as quickly as he could, but everything slowed down. Every nerve in his body became hyper-sensitive.

The sun wasn’t hot like it got in the summer, but it was bright, and bleached the granite expanse in front of Sammy like an alien landscape. The wind tasted like the edges of spring. It smelled like the earth on a dewy morning. There was a rushing noise like he heard lower on the mountain. But it was neither wind nor water. He thought he heard voices. A chorus of singers with the softest voices. They told him stories about the copse of old pine trees that stood before him.

Inside the shield of trees it was dark yet vibrant. He felt alone, but in overwhelming safety. It reminded him of how he felt when Peter hugged him.

The chorus resounded in his head. It cut through all his thoughts. Just a noise can do this. He moved through the moss and fern underbrush until he was at the source.

A dark hole with water roiling out of the mountain. He didn’t understand how it happened. How the water came from nothing. He stared at the source and thought of reaching into it, diving into it, if he could. As much as he wanted to taste and to feel the water, he didn’t. He felt the surface of the rocks around the spring. Green and soft and damp and trembling with echoes of the stream. He longed to stay in this luxuriously life-filled place, but knew it was just a way station. It was a place…a memory he could return to.

Peter smiled at Sammy as he returned to the trail. “I didn’t think you were going to come back.”

“How long was I there?” Sammy asked and took a long pull from the water bottle Peter offered him.

“About two hours. It’s okay. It’s a safe place. I didn’t want to leave either.” Peter cocked his head back to look at the sky. He found the sun and nodded. “We should keep going. We’re almost there.”

The rest of the hike consisted of steep plains of granite. The fragments of quartz reflected like the star fields Peter showed him over the ocean. Sammy had asked him what the names of the stars were. They have so many names from so many people. They can be whatever you want. I like to forget the few names I’ve learned. Just see the beauty of them all. A snapshot of forever. Sammy wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he knew that he wanted to remember it.

“Are you ready?” Peter asked, his mouth right next to Sammy’s ear. “It’s okay if you aren’t.”

He didn’t realize they’d reached the top. Sammy swallowed hard before he spoke. He thought of the last two months. Afterimages he’d keep safe inside his heart.

Liz and Peter and their big malamute, Shepard, they took him in as part of their family. They helped him do so many things he’d never done before, things he’d thought a thirteen-year-old boy ought to do. He’d spent yesterday afternoon playing catch with Peter on the beach. He thirsted for the smell of the ocean again. Now, he could almost smell it under the mountain air. They played until the ball was lost to the twilight. His hand still hurt from the repeated catches. He loved that it still smelled like the old leather glove he used. There were no stars that night. A big moon emerged from the horizon. It looked bigger than the sun.

“I’m ready.” He nodded as if confirming it to himself.

“I’ll be within sight if you need me,” Peter said. His face looked different, like he might cry. Sammy didn’t want to see him cry.

“I know. Thank you, Peter.” He stepped up and hugged the man. This is how it’s supposed to feel, he thought. He didn’t want to let go, but he did. And he didn’t look back.

She stood on a rock marked with a cross signifying the highest point of the mountain. Sammy walked towards the blonde-haired woman. Her name was Hannah and she reminded him of the moon. She had a round, soft white face and long, straight golden hair that looked at home in the wind. She was tall, taller than Peter. And younger. She looked sad, but when she smiled at Sammy it all went away.

The wind gusted and he barely heard her speak. “Do you want to learn how to make clouds disappear?” She asked as she pulled her dull green oversized Army jacket tight around her thin body.

His mind stuttered. He expected a hello, not…

“What?” She smiled at him the way he wished his mother had. His real mother. It was the way Charlie had looked at him. Like the puppy knew that Sammy needed him just as much as the puppy needed Sammy. He felt welcomed and wanted and loved. And it was just a smile.

He held his hand out to her. “Show me.”

She clasped his hand in hers. They were long, slender hands, but the calluses he felt told him they were working hands. He wondered what she did. Did she have a garden? Was she an artist? Why was she here? Why did she pick me?

Hannah led him to an area of the bald peak where they could lie on shelves of rock and watch the sky. They lay head to head so he could hear her above the fury of the wind.

“Close your eyes, Sammy.” Her voice was soft like the rest of her, but it was clear and concise. “Feel your breath. Each breath.”

Sammy thought how everyone that had been in his life before two months ago would have laughed at him. Would have told him that you can’t make clouds disappear. No one can make clouds disappear. Hannah could. He smiled.

“Open your eyes. Pick a small cloud and imagine the blue behind it. Imagine the cloud dissolving into the blue.”

Sammy saw a small, puffy white cloud drifting into his field of vision. He pictured the blue beyond it. He thought about the cloud disappearing. A mantra formed in his mind, no white clouds in my blue sky. He said it over and over. Each time the voice grew louder in his head. Something like translucent ringlets phased in and out of his sight. He didn’t understand where they came from, but he kept his focus on the cloud. The mantra repeated. And the cloud faded to blue. He blinked. Nothing.

“I did it!” He yelled out before he could stop himself. He felt embarrassed, and immediately hung his head. Hannah would think he was stupid for being like this. Just like his mom did. Just like his aunt did. His joy eroded into despair. Then a hand tousled his hair.

“That’s great! I saw the cloud go away, too. You learned so quick, Sammy!” She propped herself on an elbow and looked at him.

He saw her smile again. It was the smile of a mother. His mother. Chosen family.

He looked for Peter, excited to tell him what he did and that he’d love to stay with Hannah, but the man was gone. Part of him knew he would be, but it didn’t make him any less sad. He wanted to tell Peter that he loved him, that he wished he was his dad.

Hannah’s hand caressed the back of Sammy’s head. “He knows.”