Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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by HENRY B. SHEPARD III
When We Were Drunk Last Tuesday
I threw my head against a wall to watch it shatter. Don't tell anyone, but it was a dare. My friends expected fleshy gray matter that they could point to, here and there. Instead the bricks fell in a crisp patter and dust slowly replaced air. As they wheezed and gasped and sneezed, I retrieved my skull from the rubble. They watched me, their eyes narrowly squeezed. I said, look now, I’m not looking for trouble. I was afraid of the slander, that I'd be teased or recruited as a wrecking ball stunt double. Instead, they gathered close, quite serious, and named me their king: Cranium Imperious.
We Switched Lives
A red bird on the fencepost
with wings like thin briefcases
shakes its acorn head.
A straw nest sits on my desk.
It chirps like a late nineties beeper,
suffocating and insufferable.
Red feathers are scattered on the floor.
It spreads its paper-filled wings
and flies, spilling files
with each deliberate flap.
Fresh worms thrash in my chair.
My head pounds.
This isn't what I wished for.
A chick buzzes in my pocket.
Nights Without Sleep
It’s a soft noise. Somewhere on the far side of the room, where the closet is. A small tap of metal scraping metal, like a key slipping into a lock. When he first heard it, Bryan had conjured images of hooded men with screwdrivers toying with the lock outside. Not that that’d do them any good. A chain lock rests firmly across the door’s opening. Or at least Bryan thinks it does. He can’t remember now if he has slid the chain’s head across the doorframe. Dink. Bryan lies awake in his bed. He stares at the ceiling fan. It doesn’t move, which doesn’t surprise him, since he hasn’t turned it on. The air is still around him. So still, that he questions if it is there at all. How long could he breathe his exhaled carbon dioxide before noticing?
Bryan sighs and rolls toward the nightstand, the only other piece of furniture in his abnormally long bedroom. A digital watch sits on the nightstand next to a touch lamp, both gifts from misguided friends for some event. Birthday. Thanksgiving. Arbor Day. Bryan doesn’t bother to remember which. He has accumulated quite a number of trinkets over his twenty-five years of life, none of them particularly useful. The watch even less so. He never wears it, but now Bryan lifts the device by its face, his fingers like a pair of fleshy tweezers. He brushes a thumb over a button and the face lights up. It’s two am. Still early yet. Dink.
Sleep won’t come for another hour. If it comes tonight. If it comes this week. He doesn’t remember when the last time sleep just came to him. He has to fight for it now, tearing thirty minutes of unconsciousness from the clutches of the misshapen gears churning in his head at irregular intervals. A warrior would not exactly describe Bryan, though. Dink. He can’t even defeat a simple noise. It’s back again tonight, he notices. He can’t help but notice. On his back, watching the ceiling fan not move. On his stomach, watching the wall stay still. He notices the noise; how can he not? It won’t let him sleep.
The only action Bryan can do is think. He’s been thinking for a while. About door locks. Masked demons with screw drivers. His first love. Dink. Whatever it is that’s making the noise. He thinks a lot as an alternative to doing something, like getting out of bed to investigate the noise or check if he’s locked the door. Getting out of bed would be a recognition of his inability to sleep; it would confirm he’s awake. Bryan isn’t ready to realize he’s still awake.
He slams the watch down on the nightstand. A clack fills the space around his hand. It spreads outward, like an earthquake. Slow, deliberate waves rock air particles together, forcing them to interact. How awkward would it be if they had dated once, these air particles, and separated thinking they’d never see each other again, just to find themselves in the same space on some lonely night as they’re forced by some outside entity to work together to carry that very clack? Dink.
Bryan guesses he should stop thinking about his first love if he doesn’t want to dream about her warm smile again. Or the way her hand fit into his, even if she never liked holding it when they walked.
To be honest, Bryan is depressed.
“I wouldn’t say depressed,” Bryan says. “I just need some sleep.”
So sleep, Bryan. Go ahead and sleep, if that’s all that you need.
“Well it’s not that easy,” he says.
How hard can that be, Bryan? It’s lying still.
“Leave me alone,” Bryan says. But somewhere in the back of his head he knows that if he is left alone, he will cease to exist as there’d be no one to tell his story. He doesn’t really wish to be left alone because of this, but deep down there’s a part of him that means it. The same part that slammed the watch down.
Bryan continues not to sleep.
Dink. Bryan rolls his eyes back, a gesture he learned at a young age without ever quite understanding its meaning. His eyes catch a spot of light on the wall. A perfect circle of soft yellow light. Bryan stares at it upside-down. He thinks he can feel warmth radiating from the light, moving through his veins like a small rivers of Earl Gray tea. He thinks he feels his heart beat a little stronger.
He sits up in his bed, assured that he is not going to sleep any time soon. He turns around and faces the light. He stares at it waiting for it to reveal the secrets of its origin. He faces the rest of his room. The outlines of the room vibrate slightly. Staring at the light has weakened Bryan’s night vision. He looks for origin of the perfect circle of light, but can’t draw any strong conclusions. The curtains along the far window are ruffled, so light could come from there, but Bryan figures the curtains couldn’t form a perfect circle and the multiple ruffles would suggest multiple circles of light. There’s only one on the wall, Bryan checks turning his head back and forth. So Bryan faces the reality of a sourceless circle of light hanging on the wall above his head while he doesn’t sleep. A thought occurs to him.
“Have you always been there?” Bryan asks.
“Why haven’t I noticed you before?”
I’m not entirely sure. My current line of thinking is it might have something to do with your lack of sleep. I am unable to answer your question any further, Bryan.
He nods for a while. He focuses on the circle of light. He’s convinced himself that the light is where I am. He’s about to talk to it again. Dink.
“Are you God?” he says.
I am not.
“Then what are you?”
In short, I am the narrator to your personal story.
“So you know what’s going to happen to me?” Bryan says.
I do not, Bryan. I can only report your actions as they happen.
“Do you know what’s causing that sound?”
I do not, Bryan. I only know that it comes from the far side of this room, just as you do. I only know what you know.
Bryan nods at this and turns away from the light. It seems our conversation is over. If I were allowed, I would be surprised of his awareness.
Bryan removes the blanket that has been covering him. He places one foot on the floor and then the other. He stands up, leaving the bed. He turns his head back to the wall and stares at the light from his new position. Looking around the room provides no further evidence for the light’s origin. Dink.
Bryan leaves the room. He walks the fifteen feet from his bedroom door to the front door and flips a switch. A lamp in the far corner switches on. The white door looks like a light ale in the soft yellow lamplight. The door is locked. The chain is firmly in place, slid across the door’s opening as it should be. Bryan lets out a sigh. He stands by the door for a while, listening for the noise. He does not hear it.
He moves to the kitchen, flipping more switches, bathing more walls with soft light. He opens the fridge and grabs the jug of milk sitting on the top shelf next to a wedge of Emmentaler cheese. A gift from his father.
The microwave clock blinks 2:30 in muted neon green numbers. Bryan figures there’s no one awake to judge him so he flips off the top and takes a swig of milk, straight from the gallon. Cold white liquid floods his mouth. He’s never felt more alive.
He replaces the gallon’s top, throws the jug in the fridge, and slams the door shut. The microwave clock glares at him. “Shut up,” he says. To be clear, he’s talking to the clock.
“What should I do?” he says, this time addressing me.
This is your life, Bryan. You are free to do whatever you want as you have done up until this point.
“And you report it,” he says. “You observe everything I do.”
As I have done from the moment of your birth.
“Do you keep a record of my actions?”
I am fully capable of remembering anything I have observed.
Bryan thinks for a while. He’s searching for a way to best utilize this newfound relationship. He clears his throat.
“If I were to try and remember something,” he says, “like a certain event in my life, would you be able to recreate it?”
I do not see a reason why I would be incapable of doing this, Bryan.
“Would you have to recreate it truthfully, even if I don’t remember it exactly?”
Your memories carry influence more powerful than mine. The feelings you associate with specific events are capable of overpowering my recollection, if you wish it, Bryan.
He walks away from the kitchen, back to the bedroom, sits on the bed facing the small circle of light and crosses his legs. He breathes in deeply. It’s been a while since he has thought about this night in particular. He always remembers her. Her long brown hair and her matching brown eyes, light enough to see little rivets of darker brown in a sunflower pattern around her pupil. She had never thought her eyes were beautiful, but he saw nothing but beauty in her. He had been fourteen.
The room’s walls shimmer and fade, the white blank walls of his bare apartment replaced by the warm walls covered in her paintings. She’s a gifted artist, always has been. A large watercolor of a horse’s head sits on the wall behind them, hanging over the couch, watching their shy movements in the dark. Lit only by a large screen television, they spent hours fiddling with hands and fingers.
Bryan opens his eyes. He’s sitting on his bed, but not in his room. Before him, where the back wall would normally be, is his fourteen-year-old self holding hands with his first love. Emily. It is May 25, 2004.
“This moves’s dumb,” fourteen-year-old Bryan says.
“Shhh,” Emily says. Her lips barely move, but the sound is crisp.
Fourteen-year-old Bryan’s hands dance around her open palm, waltzing up her arm. He’s nervous and excited, but the waltz is steady. He feigns going down her arm just to climb it again, each step a glide over her smooth skin. His fingers leap from her arm to her chest.
“Bryan!” she says. She slaps his arm. Half playful, half scolding.
“Whoops,” he says. “My hand slipped.”
The scene pauses and fades away. Dink.
“I always did that,” Bryan says, “and played it off like an accident. Think she ever knew?”
She knew, Bryan.
“Yeah, I guess looking back it wasn’t very subtle.”
Nothing a fourteen-year-old does is subtle.
“The room was a bit foggy. The only painting that came in clear was that big one of the horse.”
I cannot recreate details that you did not observe, Bryan. The painting of the horse was the only one you ever observed.
He is quiet for some time. He pictures the wall again. Surrounding the horse painting are small blank canvasses. Each one held a painting back then, but now they are swirls of white and grey.
“I guess memories do fade,” he says. He rubs his eyes. “That wasn’t the night I was thinking of, though. Why’d that one come up?”
I liked that one, Bryan. I thought you’d rather see it instead.
“Are you protecting me?”
You need to sleep.
“Just show me what I want to see, okay?” He stares intently at the circle of light. His pupils are small, surrounded by a deep field of green.
As you command, Bryan. I shall not interfere further.
Bryan nods and closes his eyes again. He thinks of a rainy night and two souls stranded in the middle of the street. There’s a streetlight in the middle, casting harsh fluorescent light over the scene, but somehow not illuminating anything. The world is black, nothing is visible but the street and the silhouette of a boy and girl. It is August 18, 2006.
Bryan’s eyes open. Goosebumps dot his exposed arms and legs. He breathes out and sees his breath, white and solid, in front of him like a smokescreen. The silhouette of the boy lights up. It’s a sixteen-year-old Bryan wearing a black trench coat and a black fedora. Dink.
This isn’t how this happened, Bryan.
“Fine,” he says. The trench coat and fedora fade away, replaced by his high school uniform. “But the setting stays the same.”
The rain is steady, but hard. Sixteen-year-old Bryan’s clothes are drenched in seconds. A light falls on the girl opposite him, lighting up the darkened figure. Of course it’s Emily. That’s what this about, after all. She wears a white sundress speckled about with pink flowers, an outfit she never wore. The rain passes around her, slipping off her, leaving her clothes completely dry.
The two walk toward each other. A somber melody fills the air, a piece Bryan heard at a piano recital he attended to fulfill the requirements of a music appreciation class his freshman year of college. They meet directly under the streetlight.
“Stop it there,” Bryan says. The scene pauses right before Emily is about to speak. “I know how this plays out, she says she’s changed and we break up. Is there anything I can do to change that?”
This is a memory, Bryan. There’s not much I can do to change it.
“Not much? So there is something you can do.”
I can only report what you do, Bryan, so I cannot technically do anything. For example, if you were to enter the memory by passing through the memorial membrane, I would not be able to stop you.
Bryan smiles and places his hands where the wall should be. His skin tingles slightly, but they pass through the shimmering light. Bryan enters his memory.
It is disorienting at first, but he finds himself above the scene. He is falling. Around him to the left and right are raindrops. Above and below him are more raindrops. Bryan figures he has entered his memory as a raindrop. He falls with the raindrops to the scene below and lands on his sixteen-year-old self. When he makes contact with himself, he enters his sixteen-year-old body.
The scene starts again.
“Bryan,” Emily says, her voice is weak and the name drops off as she says it. “We need to talk.” The statement is absolute.
“I know,” Bryan says. He hadn’t said anything originally, but now was not the time for silence. Not after nine years. “Let’s skip all the breakup stuff,” Bryan says. “That’s already happened.”
Emily looks confused. The rain stops falling around them. Other streetlights start coming on and houses become visible on either side of the street.
“Why are you still here?” Bryan says. “Why are you still in my memory so vividly?”
“They say people never forget their first love,” Emily says.
“Sure, they say that, but they don’t mean this. I remember everything about you. I can picture you so clearly even though your thousands of miles away and nine years in the past. Why is that?”
“Some would say that you still have feelings for me,” she says. She reaches out to touch his arm, but he pulls away.
“But I don’t,” Bryan says. “That’s the plain and simple truth. I have nothing for you. It’s been too long, we’re two different people. I can’t even imagine who you are today. Hell, I don’t even know what you look like.”
Emily’s eyes are hard, the same way they were when this night actually happened. “You need to let go, Bryan. Let go of these thoughts. That’s why I’m still here; you keep thinking about what we would be if we were still together.” The memory of Emily takes a deep breath. She playfully pushes a few of the frozen raindrops aside. Headlights appear down the road. “You think you have nothing left because you figure we’re two different people now, but the mere fact that you’re thinking about who I am today shows that you’re still holding on,” she says.
“I don’t understand,” Bryan says. The headlights grow closer.
Emily reaches her hand out again and grabs Bryan’s. They’re hands still fit perfectly together. “You think if the mystery of who I am now is revealed you’ll be able to reconcile who I am with who I was. But you’re wrong. You’re wrong about so many things, Bryan.” She pulls him to the side, off the street and into a yard. It’s her front yard. “The girl you remember, the girl with the warm smile, the bright brown eyes with sunflower streaks, who wore sundresses with little pink flowers on them, that girl isn’t me. It never was.” The car speeds past them.
Bryan looks down at his feet. They’re so far away. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry for keeping you here.”
“It’s fine,” Emily says. “I’ve had a nice time riding around your head.”
“I think it’s time for you to go now,” Bryan says.
The door to her house opens. She looks at it. “Good bye, Bryan.”
“Good bye, Emily.”
She walks up the yard. Bryan looks around. Cars drive down the street and the rain starts falling again. House lights flicker on and off. A mosquito buzzes past his ear. Bryan looks at the house. Emily stands in the doorway. She’s holding the door with one hand and waving with the other. She lets go of the door and swings closed. The scene fades just as Bryan hears the soft click of the door shutting.
Bryan finds himself staring at his wall. The perfect circle of light is still there. He lets out a deep breath. Dink.
He jumps out of the bed. “Let’s review what we know, shall we?” he says. “First, the sound seems to be coming from this side of the room.”
That is correct, Bryan.
“Second, it is not heard at all in the other room.”
Also correct, Bryan.
“Third, this noise has been keeping me awake for the past few weeks.”
That is one of your excuses, Bryan. I cannot comment on that statement’s validity.
“It’s valid,” he says. “So if I can find the source of the noise and do something to stop it, I should be able to fall asleep.”
I will say yes, if that is what you need to hear, Bryan.
“Thank you. Alright. So,” he walks over to the far side of the room, by the closet. There is nothing on the ground. He opens the closet. All he sees are clothes. He stands still and listens. Dink.
He steps in the closet and shuts the door. He waits. He waits some more. He thinks he hears the noise but he isn’t certain.
“Did I hear the noise?” he asks.
You did not, Bryan.
“Alright,” he says and throws the closet door open. He stands just outside the closet, looking around. A window is to his right its edges glowing with the first signs of early morning light. The curtains don’t move in anyway. He listens.
Dink. The noise clearly comes from his left. He looks at his bedroom door, a door he has never really observed before. He’s never closed it. He lives alone, there would be no need for further privacy other than his front door. He walks up to the door. It’s white, like all the other doors in his apartment. The knob is bronze, maybe brass, he’s really not sure and could not care less at this point. He flicks the doorknob with his finger. Tink. The sound is close, but he’s not convinced.
“Was that the same sound I’ve been hearing?”
It was not, Bryan. Keep looking.
He closes the door. Dink. Dink. Dink. An empty wire clothes hanger rests on the doorknob. It shakes, moving ever so slightly along the doorknob’s neck.
“A clothes hanger,” he says.
A clothes hanger, Bryan.
“I’ve been awake for a week because of a clothes hanger.” He looks at the wall, for the perfect circle of light, but it’s gone. He takes the clothes hanger off the doorknob, throws his curtains aside, and opens the window. The near morning air screams into his room all crickets and cars on the passing highway. He looks at the clothes hanger in his hand. He looks back to the wall, still free of any perfect circles of light.
“Goodbye,” he says, speaking to the clothes hanger. He listens for a response, but he doesn’t hear one.
He throws the clothes hanger out of his window like a Frisbee. It sails through the air awhile and crashes to the ground.
Bryan slams the window shut. He walks over to the nightstand and picks up the watch. It’s 7:59 a.m. In a minute, his alarm will go off and Bryan will jump into the shower to start a new day. He still hasn’t slept, but he will move through this new day feeling unusually refreshed.
Henry B. Shepard III is from a swampy hamlet called Destrehan (about twenty minutes West of New Orleans) and is a undergraduate senior studying English. He writes poetry in his free time and short stories when he's busy. You can follow him on Twitter @VerbNounGuy. He wishes you a happy life.