Thorny Questions (An Excerpt From Mark My Words I Might Be Something Someday)
This is an excerpt from my short story collection Mark My Words I Might Be Something Someday, available now. You can pay whatever you like, including nothing at all, for PDF and EPUB copies of the collection, which contains seven stories, including the following. These stories range in tone from dreamy fantasy-horror to naturalistic slice-of-life, but they all have a core of frustration and isolation.
In Sage’s room, the walls were white, the air smelled like bleach and blood, and the machines kept beeping. He had the covers at his waist, and his gown seemed to glow in the light. He was lying down, his leg hung up in its cast, and his head was turned away from the window so the sunlight wouldn’t hurt his eyes. It was March, but there was still snow out to amplify the sunlight, so he had to close the blinds. The sun still managed to come through the thin hospital blinds, though, so he had to close his eyes. Having your eyes closed during a conversation is usually rude, but Rose understood. Sage had never been the best at talking, even to family. Rose was shrunk in on herself, her long arms crossed against her chest. She was wearing a thick flannel shirt, light purple against black. It was winter, but not coat winter. She hesitated before finally breaking the silence. “You remember Freaky Friday?”
Sage’s cheeks twitched, his dry mouth hanging open, a holding pattern for words that didn’t come.
Rose prodded again. “The movie from, like, a decade ago?”
“Oh, yeah, with the chick from Halloween.” His voice was small yet confident.
“No, no, Lindsay Lohan.”
“Yeah, I know, but her mom was the chick from Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis.”
“Oh. I wouldn’t know.” Sage was the movie buff, music was more her scene. She actually found the shirt she was wearing at a basement show her freshman year at Waters. The shirt was the best thing about that night. She’d gotten into a fight with a friend and the night ended with her smoking outside and walking back to the dorms.
“Once I get out of here, we’re watching it together. Stone cold classic.”
This was a habit of his. Whenever he would hear that someone hadn’t seen a movie he loved, he would immediately try to get them to watch it, not necessarily in a smug way but because he thought of those movies as a part of himself. He wanted to know the person better through the movie, to have it be a part of them they could share, a mutual love to bond over. She hadn’t seen him in weeks, so it was charming this time rather than irritating. He would come down for Christmas, but he usually spent his summers with his friend Sam, who had a van. Sage didn’t talk much about Sam, but from what she’d heard, the van had a DVD player, and Sam was able to rig it so they could set up a projector on the roof and make their own drive-in theater. Rose smiled, but the smile faded quickly. “Yeah.”
“But yeah, I remember it. Why?”
“Well, haven’t you ever wished you could do that? Switch bodies with someone?”
Sage half-chuckled, then froze, nervous. “Hasn’t everyone?”
“Well, yeah, I guess they have. But, like, who would you switch with? If you had the chance?”
“Is this like in the movie, or a more general thing?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’m not a big fan of Chinese food is all.”
Rose laughed, more than she’d laughed in weeks. That wasn’t much. It was good to see him happy. It was good to see him at all. “Yeah. But seriously, if you had to?”
Sage fell silent. He was still smiling, but it was a very thin smile. His eyes were still closed, his brow furrowed. He opened his mouth a few times, but each time he winced and withdrew. Rose just sat there, folded in.
Finally, Sage responded. His voice was not so confident. “I think that would be a little mean.”
Sage continued. “I mean… to take someone and put them in this body, right now, that would be-”
“What if they wanted to? Well, not necessarily wanted to, that sounds a little… What if they were willing?”
Sage pulled the covers up. “There’s a difference?”
Rose thought, folding her arms in and out as words came and failed. “Well, yeah. Wanting to is, well, it’s active. They would ask you. But willing, maybe they have the desire, but they wouldn’t ask. They would do it if they were asked, but they don’t feel entitled to just come out and say it.”
“This is getting pretty heavy.”
“You’re the one that asked for clarification. Kind of put me on the spot.”
The beeping in the background went on, assuring in its rhythm. Sage had gotten in the accident in February, on the way back from Sam’s funeral. The way he told it, he’d lost control of the car on the way out of town and slammed into a concrete support beam that held up State Road 62. He’d taken that road, from Lafayette to Haynes, countless times, and this was the only time he’d had trouble with it. That past August, before she left for her freshman year, he gave her a few going away presents: a calculator, a travel mug he’d gotten from some student organization booth and never used, and a copy of Nevada. It was kind of a last-minute gift. He’d looked at the calculator and the mug, realized that wasn’t enough, and asked her to hold on. He’d gone to his bedroom, picked it off the bookshelf — their parents hadn’t turned his old room into an exercise room like some parents do — flicked through the pages, and plopped it in her hand. He said he thought she’d enjoy it. She still hadn’t started. He piped up again.
“It’s a little weird to think about, I guess. I’ve never been good with these. I’ve never been able to just come up with a good answer for these sort of desert island things. One book for the rest of your life, one movie, one album, who would you have dinner with, everyone else just seems to go with something off the top of their head, but I always just freeze.”
“I mean, it was only a question.”
Sam was murdered on the bus in Haynes. Some townies decided they didn’t like the way he looked, and they took a switchblade to his face. It was a closed casket. Mom and Dad hadn’t had too much to say about the funeral, but they said Sage took it rough. He especially bristled at their choice to call him Samuel, not Sam.
“No, no, I know. It’s just… it’s got me thinking. It’s just that when they asked me to imagine being on a desert island indefinitely, I didn’t think ‘oh, where am I gonna get food’ or ‘oh, I should bring something that’ll help me build a raft’ or any sort of munchkin question like that, I just-”
“Ah, nothing, it’s just this D&D word. It’s the guy at the table that always looks for the way to cheese the rules, you know? ‘By bylaw X of subclause Y in book Z, I actually didn’t fail that roll!’ Real asshole type.”
“Ah. Oh, remember that time, we were playing Trivial Pursuit-”
“And Mom tried to sneak a wedge from the pile?”
“Yeah. Would that be a munchkin kind of thing?”
Sage was a little frustrated. “Uh, not really, but whatever. So I didn’t immediately think of those sort of practical questions. What I thought was, ‘Who am I going to be then?’”
Rose unfolded, resting her hands on her bony knees. She hadn’t been eating much lately. She’d been smoking more, too.
“Well, that’s not the point, is it? It’s about who you are now.”
“Yeah. That’s the problem. I didn’t like who I was.” His voice fell. ”I don’t like who I am.”
Rose didn’t say anything. She moved to comfort him, but he shook his head.
“Well, no, that’s not really true. I’m not sure who I am. And I can’t see myself becoming anything I want to be.”
“I think I get it.”
“I doubt it.”
“No, I mean I get why the question-why you had trouble answering the question.”
They both chuckled. Rose continued. “Well, haven’t you ever imagined yourself being someone else?”
Sage had a pang of realization, chuckled, then stopped suddenly. “Yeah, but-”
“It’s a little weird. I’m not sure I should tell you this. I’ve never told anyone else.”
“You can tell me. I won’t blab. I swear.”
Sage was incredulous. “You swear?”
Sage started cackling. “Scout’s honor, what is this, middle schoo-” He must have jostled his leg a little bit wrong, he let out a tiny yip like a chihuahua being picked up by its tail before continuing. “Fine, scout’s honor, pinky swear, whatever, just don’t blab.”
Rose crossed her heart. “Scout’s honor, pinky swear, whatever. I won’t blab.”
Sage took a deep breath. “So back in middle school, maybe 8th grade, I got that computer in my room. So I start fucking around online, and I find this site, I don’t remember the name, something like Storyhut, it was a forum for-for fanfiction, really, but when I got there it was so far gone past just fanfic that everyone was either just telling their own story or hanging out. They had their own hangout subforum, and I’m pretty sure there were like five people actually writing, everyone else was just there for the hangout.”
“Sounds fun.” Rose was being sarcastic, but Sage didn’t seem to notice. Even at his weakest, he had a talent for going on at length. At Haynes, he’d dabbled in stand-up.
“It was fun. There was this one girl, called herself Mothra, and her big thing was that she loved the Star Wars prequels, but it wasn’t just like, ‘fuck you if you think dooku sucks’, she would write these in depth posts, better essays than I ever wrote for class, and she found this-this deep philosophical vein in it, this whole social critique angle that I never really got, but I loved that she had that. I loved-I love that she was able to feel so deeply and so intensely about something in a way I never really had. So I started actually posting, before then I had just lurked. That means just staying in the background, sort of eavesdropping-”
“I know what lurking is.”
Sage chuckled, being careful to keep it soft. The twinge in his leg must have hurt. “Oh. Okay. Sorry. So before I could start posting, I had to give myself an alias. I’d had screennames before, but that was just dumb shit like xXWeedMonster666Xx or CumGoku, that made me laugh but other than that I wasn’t trying. This was the first time I’d really thought about what I’d wanted to be called somewhere, because I had these sort of pipe dreams about Mothra being all ‘hey, wanna hang out and talk about General Grievous?’ and I’d be cool. In that context of cool. So I thought, what’s not my name that could be my name on here? Sage isn’t exactly a common name, and I don’t want some dumbass coming around with a 12-gauge because I said Naruto was dumb, so I went with the first thing that came to mind: Wild_Cherry.”
Rose chuckled. “Sweet.”
Sage groaned a little. ”Oh god. Great pun. So I start posting, and people are calling me Cherry, and it’s not a bad name, and it’s a few weeks in before I realize when people are referring to me they’re like ‘she’s a good poster’ or ‘she’s got a good point’ and I’m in this spot where I can either correct them or just let them be, and… I just let them be. I felt fine there.”
“So do you still-”
“No, no, the forum shut down a year ago, some drama over server costs or whatever, and I just didn’t feel like finding a new place to post. Never did get to meet Mothra.”
“It’s not like it’s your fault or anything.”
“No, yeah, but… Did you ever learn anything about her?”
“Uh, not much. Nobody really seemed to want to know. That would ruin the mystique. The closest they got was that she maybe delivered pizzas and lived in Canada, or close to it.”
Rose sneered, a little mischief in her voice. “Your mysterious Canadian girlfriend.”
Sage scoffed. “Don’t be cliche. It wasn’t like that. I just thought she was interesting.”
Rose was confused. “So, like, about the whole Cherry thing, you think you…”
Sage shook his head, flopping one arm up a few inches, approximating dismissal. “I don’t… I can’t really put words to it? It’s confusing. It’s like I’m constantly in the middle of everything, like a big ocean that isn’t pushing me anywhere in particular, and I’m looking in every direction for shore, and there’s no shore in sight. So I think it’ll always be confusing, at least a little.”
There was a silence. A nurse came in to change his sheets and check his fluids, and Rose turned away, half to give the nurse the privacy to do her work and half because she wasn’t great at talking to strangers. The nurse got done with her work quickly. When she was done, she looked at the two of them, and finally felt the discomfort in the room.
“I didn’t… I didn’t interrupt, did I?”
Rose looked at her. She understood.
“I’ll leave you two. You might want to take that coat off, miss. Stay a while.”
Rose worried at her sleeves, pulling them down over her hands. “It’s a shirt, but thanks. I’m good.” The shirt was hot, but she still had the sleeves down, buttoned at the wrist. A tiny slip of gauze peeked out. The nurse sighed a little. She should have guessed.
“Sorry, hun. That was rude of me.”
The nurse left, the silence continued. When they were kids they’d play a game, back when they lived at the house, before Dad lost his job and they had to sell it and move to an apartment in town. They’d post up in snow forts on opposite sides of the road and throw snowballs, sometimes at each other. There was a particular art they worked at, throwing them just early enough that they couldn’t be accused of malice but just late enough to hit a passing car. The driver would get out, they’d get angry, and one of the kids, usually Rose, would beg off, sincerely as they could, saying they didn’t see him coming, they didn’t mean to hit the car, they were so so sorry, and the driver would deflate a little, say something like “alright, just don’t do it again” before stalking back, frustrated, into the car. Rose was better at it. She was eight, he was eleven, so they had less patience for him. After the car started leaving, Sage and Rose would share a cheeky little look, trying to keep their quiet composure until it was gone. The silence wouldn’t end in laughter now, however. Rose, still not sure how to phrase what she really wanted to say, decided to just go for it.
“So I guess I have to tell you something now.”
“Not really, no, this isn’t take a penny, leave a penny. But, if you want to, I guess.”
“Well, I didn’t just ask you that question about Freaky Friday for nothing. I’ve been feeling… I’ve been feeling guilty, I mean I wasn’t there when you had that crash, and I haven’t been able to come down for weeks, and it’s just been in my mind constantly, and I’ve had this sort of fantasy where we’d switch bodies. You’d just go on living as me and I’d… I’d feel that pain so you didn’t have to.”
Sage opened his eyes again. The sun had gone behind the clouds, so it wasn’t quite so bright. He nudged himself up a little and looked at Rose. It was hard to tell which of them was thinner.
“Rose. You didn’t read the book I gave you, did you?”
She sighed. It was hard to try to lie, even to spare his feelings. “No. I just… I just don’t want to… remember that time you showed me Southland Tales? You were so excited, and you were so disappointed when I didn’t like it, and I don’t want to disappoint you again.”
Sage gulped, his voice weak. “Well, if we’re as alike as I think we are, it’ll say more than I can.”