This is Chris Terry, speaking from beyond the digital grave. This post is left over from my tenure as the 2011-’12 Graduate Student Ambassador for the Creative Writing – Fiction MFA program. The folks at the grad office were kind enough to run it for me.
Eli, AKA Eliza, and I started the program at the same time. She was one of the people whose work I’d always anticipate hearing when we’d share what we’d just written in class. Here’s an excerpt from one of her thesis stories, written from two different perspectives, like we do in our Steeplechase assignments. The 1st person version of “Count Me” was written for Don DeGrazia‘s Thesis Development class, while the 3rd was written for Mort Castle‘s Writing Horror Class.
NIGHT wind. Tracy’s black Trans Am. A purple sky full of August stars. As the car slows into a curve, the beams dip to the side and light up the trees. The bark has given up and started peeling, covering the trunks in papery curls. We can only see as far as the headlights, pieces of forest and road that look lonely and black-and-white. “Make a wish,” I say to Tracy and Katie, taking a deep breath and counting to ten. The air tastes like boiled pine needles, like it did in summer camp when we used to sit around a teepee-shaped fire waiting for stars to fall into our laps.
“Wish for what?” Tracy says with one hand on the wheel and the other checking her lipstick in the rearview mirror.
“Yeah. Drop-dead,” Katie says and blinks, ta-ta, with her long lashes, rolling her eyes and laughing as she sinks into the backseat.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t have a quick biting jab so I laugh, too, ha-ha. The dashboard light spills across our teeth and turns them into chips of sea glass.
We’re headed past the deadlight glow of the CITGO, toward the fairgrounds lined with vintage cars and splashy carnival lights. We’re speeding into the last days of summer so fast we could be one of the sparkly rides, maybe a Sizzling Zipper or a Jumping Star.
Tonight, we’ve put away our high socks and bubble gum and loosened our French braids. We’ve slid into lilac tube tops and iced our eyelids into frosty cakes. Katie’s rubbed pink-diamond dust on our cheeks and sprayed her favorite perfume on our necks. The scent is too sweet and boozy for Tracy and me, but we do what Katie says. She tells us—where to sit, what pills to pop, where to party, how much vodka to pour into our grape sodas, how to honey our hair into summer gold, how to lie to our mothers, how to tuck in our nightshirts and sneak out our windows because the best things always happen after midnight-lights out—and we always listen.
This happened somewhere once; the year Tracy, Katie and Phoebe turned nine. The same year the gingerbread house disappeared. Though, no one could remember or agree that they’d ever seen such a structure in La Porte. The window ledges and eaves glittered with snow—even in August. The sparkling dust was actually sweet porridge and pine needles. The gruel glistened because, as Phoebe explained, the sun warms the milk into a layer of sugary skin.
A path of cobbled stone steps led to a one and a half story home with two pitched roofs. Tracy remembered a smaller hall set in front of a larger one. Katie said the walls were the color of a burlap sack. Phoebe told her therapist about the lights hugging the front door, describing the yellow orbs with words like amber and honey-ish. “They looked like crinkly wrappers from a giant’s stash of butterscotch candies,” she told Dr. Almond. He sucked on the end of his pipe, deepening the brown tint on his white moustache. He scribbled Active imagination on his notepad.
The girls insisted upon Cray-pas to sketch their drawings because they wanted precise colors, mixing oil pastels for a palette with names like pistachio green, peach kitten and buzzard-blue twilight. Any person older than sixteen would look at the pictures of heart-shaped windows filled with stained glass mosaics, quietly count the crudely stacked stones of the undulating chimney, turn the picture upside down to see if those were really stars beneath the house’s tendrilous roots, and push the drawings away, head-shaking and mumbling to the floor—It’s not possible. It’s never been.
It seemed unlikely that such a house ever existed or that it could ever be built due to practical zoning codes. Besides, the depictions showed a house that had fought its way up from the dark ground, an extension of the earth, a building that had always existed and the rest of the town and the woods were an afterthought.
Somewhere, once, on the same August night the stars turned violet, Tracy, Katie and Phoebe slipped away from Brownie Troupe #11’s golden bonfire and found themselves lost and alone in the woods. Their story has been told again and again—even though it happened just once. There’s only fear in speculating everything that could’ve eaten those little girls that night. Wolves, perhaps because they never give up, having survived the dark forests and the lore of fairytales. The wolves live on, yes, but the same is never said about the children.