A short story inspired by the Neil young album of the same name.
I always do a rapid rat-a-tat-tat when I knock on Adam’s door. “You’re just like a shaken-up bottle of Pepsi, aren’t you?”, that’s what Adam’s mum said to me one time. She was wearing an oversized mohair jumper the same shade of banana-pudding yellow as their kitchen walls, and her voice was lullaby soft. I knew what she meant but I was surprised that she could see it. It was the fizzing just under the surface she was talking about, the knotted-up calm before the storm, all my insides getting ready to spill out of my mouth. It was so exciting to hear somebody tell me something about myself that I stupidly blurted out “thank you”. I wanted to snatch the words right out of the air as soon as they escaped me.
A few days later I asked Adam, as casually as I could, if his mum had ever said anything else about me. He looked me dead in the eye and asked if I had a crush on her, then erupted into laughter before I even got to answer, like the notion of anybody being attracted to her was a hilarious joke. I didn’t have a crush anyway. It was just that I wanted to collect together all the words that had ever been said about me, and hoard them like the treasure they were. I would add them to the other scraps I’ve amassed to build a picture I could look at, a portrait I could take a step back from and examine.
There’s this shoebox under my bed I keep all my school reports in. I’ve added other things to the box this year; horoscopes I’ve cut out of magazines (I’m a cancer), a newspaper article about what dad did, and a blurred polaroid picture Mr Schneider took of me holding his cat. This is a character profile for a stranger whose body I’m living in.
The most important item in my box is the hardest to decipher; a handwritten letter I found in my mum’s room that mentions my name a total of seventeen times. The handwriting is so messy it’s pretty much impossible to make out what anything else says, but I assume, from the thin yellow paper it’s written on, that my dad sent it. I stuck two strips of masking tape on top of the box and wrote “EVIDENCE” across them in fading black marker pen.
We’ve had police to the house three times and every time I thought it was Adam, he has that same sense of authority in his knuckles. Nobody could ever compare him to a shaken bottle of Pepsi. If he was a drink he’d be a black coffee, the kind adults drink without sugar to let you know they’re a certain kind of person. Adam’s knock is the opposite of mine, he makes our cheap plastic door take on the tone of a marching band’s bass drum. So, when he stood on the other side of my door this morning I knew it was him before he yelled my name through the letterbox. I hid behind the sofa, with my heart pounding so hard that I worried he might hear it all the way outside. I never used to hide from Adam before; it didn’t matter what bullshit mum and Kev were up to or how gross the house looked, the door was always opened to him without caution or shame, but lately I can’t look at him.
I have one hundred and eighteen freckles on my face, I only know this because Adam counted them one afternoon last year. We were laying on the floor of a lopsided den we’d made in one of the fields behind his house, it was constructed entirely out of hay bales and wooden crates. We mostly used it to hide in and smoke weed. His mum didn’t mind him smoking, but said we couldn’t do it in the house because the smell reminded her of an old boyfriend’s armpits. The joint hanging from his mouth dropped little mountains of ash onto his bare knees, and the smoke wafted in my face as he whispered the numbers aloud. I was devastated when we found our den dismantled and the crates kicked apart a week later. Sometimes, when I’m trying to sleep at night horrible pictures will start creeping into my mind, all I have to do is I march away from them and back to that September evening with him counting my freckles, and I’m soothed in seconds.
I tied the laces of my boots much tighter than usual this morning. My feet feel right, all tightly bound like this. Everything else feels poorly contained, like I’m about to slip or spill outside of my skin and become part of the sky. My body is so skinny that I don’t understand how it can contain everything I feel. When I get angry, or sad, or when my heart is bruised and broken, I can feel the shape and size of those feelings, I can feel the pressure on my sternum where my chest is expanding because they want to burst out, my fingertips fizzing where they want to escape from the ends. There are days where I feel like my feet will lift up off the ground or I will slip right out, but I am not going to escape my flesh like that today. These heavy boots will keep me anchored to the ground.
There’s a lighter in my left pocket that belongs to Adam, I haven’t taken my hand off it the entire walk to the field. His dad gave it to him in a Burger King one weekend when he was taking them out for his fortnightly visit, it’s a zippo lighter with a picture of Daffy Duck painted on it. He showed it to me ten days ago, pulled it from his pocket and told me he had no idea “why the fuck it has Donald duck on it”. I corrected him, “it’s Daffy actually”.
It was so hot that day it made my skin tingle, and the air was thick and syrupy with the scent of elderflowers on the turn. He flung the lighter down with such force that I was sure it would explode. It was so out of the blue. I jumped back, startled, and Adam chided me for being a “wimp”. Maybe it was only meant as light-hearted teasing, but he’d never called me a name before and he was so wound up that the word spat out like venom and made the air even heavier.
I cried. I don’t know why I did it. I felt it in my nose at first, it gets all cold and tingly when I’m about to cry. I panicked and tried to tilt my head backwards, so the tears would be reabsorbed into my eyes instead of leaving a visible trace of stupid, hurt feelings all down my face. Adam couldn’t look at me.
He said he had homework to do and headed back to his, with his shoulders hunched up and his head down. It was a lie, Adam doesn’t do homework, he just wanted to get away from me. I stayed in the field on my own until it was dark, and the bats flitted around my head and claimed the space as their own. When I did finally leave, it was with his dented lighter in my clenched fist. The moon was full, and everything looked unreal under its blue light, for some reason it made my stomach knot up with anxiety as I walked home.
There’s a small, red blister on my right thumb from running it back and forth over the little wheel of that lighter so many times whilst lying in bed. I tried to forgive Adam for calling me a wimp, but thinking about it stung and made my face burn red. I re-imagine it and change the story in a hundred different ways, none of which include me jumping because of a bang that hasn’t happened yet. Sometimes I slap him hard across his face and tell him how grateful he should be to have a dad who can visit him. I’ve pictured that one so many times that if I close my eyes and focus hard enough I can see the white imprint of my palm on his tanned cheek. Sometimes it does explode but I stand dead still, unafraid. Adam is 4 inches taller than me but sometimes when I’m changing the details in my head I make myself bigger than him, I turn myself into a 6ft 7 giant and I just laugh when he throws the lighter so he’s the one that feels like a squished ant on the bottom of my boot.
Walking across the field to get here today there were birds making mysterious formations in the sky, I tried not to read anything into it. I stacked the bales like I did with the den we’d built together last summer, but bigger and without crates. Everything is so much harder to manoeuvre alone. The sinking sun turns the whole construction a glowing golden colour, so that it looks like I’m standing inside a painting. The day he threw the lighter the sun gave Adam’s dirty blonde hair this same glow, and turned the thinnest parts of the tops of his ears a traffic-light red.
I wonder if matches would have been a better choice, strike and wedge them into the walls. Instead, I cautiously approach each bale, as though it’s an animal I’m scared of spooking, and use my calloused thumb on Adam’s lighter to set them alight individually.
They’ll have to turn my name over in their mouths tomorrow morning, I hope they feel the cold slippery shape of it and taste the bitterness of it for weeks after. Let someone else go through my shoebox and try to put those pieces together to build a picture that makes sense of it all.
I crawl in. It’s snugger than it looked from the outside, and more of a circular shape, how I imagine a tepee might be. I’m looking out through the hole I crawled in, knees pulled up tight against my chest, and the colours are swirling into each other now, blurring so that I can’t tell the flames apart from the sunset. I expected to feel an instinctual urge to run, a twitching in my toes at least, but everything feels eerily still inside, smoky resignation. The crows have been screeching at me in unison, “krargh krargh krargh krargh”, staring at me intently from their treetop perches. They become silent all at once.