A new short story by JT Farrell
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Remember our old neighbourhood? Remember the sounds, the smells? Remember the slanted streets and the houses that huddled like climbers clinging together to not slip into the sea? Remember the fog falling over roofs, an infinite blanket tucking in the town for bedtime? Remember the sun on loud bright days, blaring out of the blue sky boxed in by bent roofs, terraces, chimneys, and solitary trees reaching desperately through the staggered skyline? Remember racing down hills so steep that they cut steps into the sidewalks? Climbing park fences to play freeze tag between conifers? Cowboys and Indians in alleyways? Pirates in playgrounds? Peeping up skirts under bleachers? Buying candy at the store down the street? Skipping school to sip soda and see a movie? Rated R. Remember?
Remember the old man that lived down the street? Mr. Ideway, the road dead ended against the park and there was his house tall and grey through the fog. No one knew him well but we knew he was mean. Yelled at us for causing a racket when we skated across his sidewalk. We were told not to bother him of course. Of course we didn’t listen.
Remember the boredom at my house? You were over. We sat in my bedroom and flew paper airplanes and played kid games, not entertained. Parents still at work. Took our skateboards, locked the doors. Took to streets, no kneepads. Went to a friend’s house. Grounded. Went to the playground. Deserted. Ended up skating down Mr. Ideway’s street even though it was a dead end. Don’t know why. Remember how the cracked concrete vibrated up into our legs through wheels, wood, sandpaper, the soles of our shoes? Stopped in front of his house. Rose pale and ghostly in the afternoon haze out of the walled garden. Windows stared blank out of its face. Couldn’t see in. It was empty for all we knew. Easy to believe it was. Can’t remember who suggested going inside, you or me. We thought about it for some time. The brick walls enticed, ivy promising strange unexplored yards. Probably overgrown and green with layers of hanging weeds and shaded corners to hide in and bugs big as your head and proud tropical birds and strange flesh-eating plants with teeth and wildcats and gorillas and cannibals and volcanoes and –
We climbed the wall. Not easy. Had to lean our skateboards up against it and stand on them to get high enough to scramble over the edge and pull, scrape, slide, roll onto the top. Breath. Jump down to the grass on the other side.
Remember walking past that dead-end street afterwards? We always stopped at the intersection. Never talked about it much. It was what it was. Thought about it from time to time. We were in trouble with our parents for a while. Trespassing and all. It became the only the place we couldn’t go. Didn’t understand why, but we understood that we couldn’t. Nothing happened when we were there. Not really. Dipped in for some time and ran back out and still had nothing to do. Except be in trouble, get grounded, perform apologies, write letters, say we understood, say we were wrong, say we wouldn’t do it again and then watch everything go back to normal. Skating on thin ice mister and all that.
Remember Mr. Ideway? He came out of nowhere shouting as loud as he could, bathrobe swinging with every unsteady step, waving his cane around, spit flying from his mouth. Roared like an old lion through his wiry white beard. Protecting his pride. A few wisps of hair clung to his blotchy skull as if gravity could not keep them tethered much longer. We learned a new word or two from him. He tried hitting us with his cane. Almost got you but he was too slow. He acted furious. But I’m not sure he was. You agreed when I mentioned it. He looked scared. Cloudy eyes wide and wild and staring.
He called the police after we were gone. They showed up at my house. Asked questions. Left. Then it was my parents’ turn to question. Everyone was worried we’d stolen something. Promised we hadn’t. Barely touched anything. It blew over eventually. Of course. Never saw the old man again. He stayed behind his walls. Away from the world. Hiding. We wondered why back then. Couldn’t see why.
Tried to tell the story to the other kids at school. Didn’t work. We were always disappointed by their reactions. Acknowledgement but no interest. Stopped telling it. Never quite knew why we tried. Not much happened there. Paused at the top of the wall for a moment and looked down. Charted the landing. Then we jumped, hit, and rolled. Got to our feet brushing dust from our legs not noticing the scrapes. Looked around our new kingdom.
It was emptier than we had imagined. The grass was shorter. A little browner. Bushes and flowers, sure. Here and there. Weeds and bugs, sure. A normal amount. Some dirt patches. Ants marching in lines. We startled a crow. Found a slug. Walked all along the outer wall in big steps to measure its length. But in the left corner, between the shade of a low leaning tree and the corner of a wall, was a dark, still pond. Couldn’t tell how deep, but deep. We walked up to it and stared. Faint rippling shadows played on its surface.
There were fish below. Two of them. Didn’t notice them until our reflections began dancing to their movements. Then we saw the shapes under the surface. They moved slow. Difficult to see. But we looked just right and caught a glimpse of long-whiskered mouths in noble disdain suspended below the surface. Opaque, voided eyes that gazed back into us. Calm submersion separated by water. We were quiet. Watched them move or not move. Slow and unknowing beneath our reflections.
I squatted on the edge. Tested the water with a pointer finger and wiggled it. The ripples faded on their way down. Don’t know whether they heard me or not. Continued to drift around of their own accord. You knelt beside me and leaned over the pool to see them better.
I told you they were piranhas. Piranhas have whiskers and travel in pairs. You told me I was wrong. Piranhas only live in the Amazon. I decided they must be prehistoric fish. You agreed. Left over from the Cretaceous period. Because of their color. The pond was very old.
Wondered what they were thinking down there. If they could see us. If they could see. If they could hear. If sound reached them down there. If they felt feelings. If they could think, if they knew how long they’d been there, if they had dreams, if they had families, if they remembered back to prehistoric times. If they were lonely. They had each other. Did they know the other was there?
Do fish fart, I asked. You said of course they do and they sound like this: Hffublurrfthblurfurrgth and we both thought it was funny and decided to look for skipping stones. The pond wasn’t big, but big enough to skip. There were plenty of flat rocks that were perfect for our palms. We crouched low over the water, toes in it at the edge. Cocked our wrists, let fly. Rocks kissed their way across the surface to the other side. Competitions: fewest skips to the other side, most skips to the other side, farthest skip on the other bank. The fish didn’t care. We didn’t concern their world. The surface never changed, not really. Went back the way it was before, every time. Fish somewhere far away below the surface.
I had read a book about fish who created their own light. They glowed bright blue at night and turned it off for the day. I wanted to wait until sunset to prove that these did. That it was possible. You made fun of me and we fought. And then Mr. Ideway woke up and chased us out. But the fish stayed where they were, half asleep, deep in shallow pond chambers that we were too alive to visit, too small to understand.
After, we always stopped at that road when we passed it. Looked down toward the dead end. Considered it but never went back. I never went back. We promised each other if someday one went back then the other would follow. Cut palms, spat, and shook. But I, I didn’t go back.
JT Farrell is a writer living in Paris, France.
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