May 6, 2014

Shallow, by Benjamin J. Trosper

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I.

ShallowLate, as always, but I suppose specters have no clock.

“Would you like another Coke?”

My waitress, heavy enough to be a mother with a face twice as harsh, did not bother to catch my eye, but how could she when the shadows cast over the tables were deeper than those over the bar?  I looked down into my glass. Dark fizzy foam reminded me where I was, corner booth facing glass splintered with girls. Hot and hotter underneath their sweatshirts and sweat soaked into their hair. There she sits . . . and I softly whispered to myself, as I did on the landing between staircases at home and at school, “Hey . . . Nicole.”

“Mr. King of. . .” My waitress blinked, as if tricked by the light. “King of Night-marez?”

“King of Nightmares,” said my specter. “Ah! I see my table.”

So the King glided—he never walked—and melted into the scarlet leather beside me. My waitress blinked once more and went back to her duties.

“Sorry for the delay,” grinned my specter I had a devil of a time getting here.”

“That’s cute,” I grimaced. “And what’s with this ‘King’ shit–Prince?”

“New age, new title—besides, darkness has become so. . . boring and—”

Smiling, Nicole parted her lips, showing off her pearls without the high-pitched laugh of her friends—oooh no, no. Pure light brimming up to clear eyes I could drink out of; my young reflection. Few rusty barnacles across the lips and down the chin, but otherwise handsome—if I do say so myself. And for a brief shining moment my eyes were inside hers.

Click!

The specter was lighting up—again!

“Must you do that here?” I sighed. Her friends stared too much.

“Meh. . . doesn’t matter. We’ve been over this, they don’t see me as you do: white bones bound in black clothes. To them I appear as a brooding movie star—a dark prince—for them. All my smoke can do is encircle their gazes, but never will their souls be able to taste my breath.”

Poetic when making a point and carefree when making fun of one—long had I given up trying to distinguish the two.

“Well, would ya stop anyway? I can’t have ya stinkin’ up my clothes,” I said.

“Hah! From the man who cums into pill bottles and hides them in his dresser and yet, here we are: five years past and you’ve gone from closet case to stalker!” Those chat sites haunted me.

Snowlight: Wazzup! I’m a 6 foot tall rocker/skater/football player/ with huge arms, washboard abs, and a perfect c0ck. 16-18/m/cali.

Yes, I spammed that to every girly screen-name in the room. For fun, I once posted in general chat:

Showspite: Hii! I’m a super-sexy bubble butt cheerleader with ginormous tits who sucks off half the football team while the other half lines up to fuck me. Messsssage mehhh ;).

Screen flooded six times over. But no, I would not be like real men, spreading my seed anywhere and everywhere—no, oooh no! I cast my hook into the Cyber Sea and never reeled in anything outside my head. And no girl—or guy playing a girl—could ever match her. At first, I was not convinced she was hot, but soon could not stand seeing her with my friend Will who, besides being the only male woodwind, ran cross-country. He got to follow her legs in those tight, tight shorts—

“That reminds me,” I said. “How is Will and his running mates?”

“Napalmed their bus this afternoon—and what a show! Eyes like fireworks until their faces dissolved, then burst again and—”

“So they will not be coming back. And her current interest?”

“Paralyzed,” said my specter. “Jumped  into the shallowest part of the river—”

“That’s low, man. Even for you.”

“—without my help. He was showing off.”

“Should’ve stuck to pools. So. . .”

Our waitress whisked past, fluttering the bill into my lap—no tip for her—and she was mouthing to her co-workers:

“PL-EASE-TAKE-OV-ER-MY-SHIFT! THOSE-GUYS-ARE-CREEE-PY!”

I turned my wallet upside down on the table, like I needed it for entry for tonight’s ball game. This time no one would get in the way.

 

II.

         Flashed my band shirt, underneath my hoody, for the gatekeeper. No body wore a uniform outside the fence, but as our conductor said, “No shirt. No sound.” He leaned over the bleachers, no doubt wondering where half his trumpets, drummers, and lead woodwind were. Traffic, I told him, shining brighter than their instruments. He laughed; he had been a French horn in orchestras and the trumpets behind him had blasted away half his hearing. And my dear specter loitered below us, smacking gum inside his skull and gazing listlessly towards the field.

And so our gladiators spilled triumphantly over the grass to wild cheers. Their girlfriends sported white boards with numbers in case their matching jerseys went unseen. All the parents in the crowd clapped just as hard. Half their jocks could drink and fight themselves stupid and leave puddles of bloodvomit a few inches deep on the floor, but one spot on the sheets and it’d all be over.

Only the low brass section, my baritone and two trombones remembered our National Anthem and held the rhythm while the rest of our band screeched. Short applause succeeded our descent from the stands and died before we packed our instruments away.

Shadowing started out as back row eavesdropping which somehow shifted into an art form. So when Nicole and her circle of friends congratulated her performance and closed in, I made sure to get one shoe in, which was much easier without Will and Co. Their talk muddled over upcoming tournaments; empty commentary on the game naturally drifted to wondering what became of their male counterparts.

“Maybe they expanded their workout and are running their way back,” I proposed, wading into the shallows of their conversation.

“Wow, that’s really funny,” droned one of her friends, pasty freckle-faced Mary.

“I’m serious,” I said. Nicole smiled at the field; I raised my voice, “Those guys are hardcore. . . like Superman.”

The Circle giggled in unison, but Nicole beamed at my reference. The boy’s team had this tradition where they forced their shortest guy into a Superman jumpsuit, then had him soar out of the locker room while they jogged behind, twirling their shirts like tomahawks, black letters painted across their bare chests. Now her smile was fixed on me and it would stay that way while I made up ridiculous stories, like this guy we’d listened to who I claimed could play a guitar and drum set simultaneously. I got carried away because she had smiled so much at his sound. And I did impressions of her favorite movie characters: bastardizing Southern Californian schoolgirls brought out her best laughter. The Circle said I was “such a liar,” but Nicole once told me she liked my “goofy” antics.

The fun ended when her friends decided to get some drinks. Money. . .  I had none; shouldn’ta tipped that waitress. How deep did my specter’s pockets go? Too late. She’s already in line. I joined the brooding prince underneath the bleachers.

“They really should just start ripping each other’s helmets off—gotta work their way up to heads somehow, right? So. . . how’s it going? No school colors?”

“I’ll be dead before I don the Red and Black.”

“Ooh! How dark! I love it when you talk dark to me.”

Sick trickster . . . we both know the devil can’t love, can’t feel. . . Damn vulture!

“Heh—looks like burning the bus wasn’t enough.”

Some guy, shorter and paler than me with acne stretching round his glasses, leaned towards her. I’d forgotten about him, one of Will’s workout buddies: a sculpted body, but dense as stone: I called him the Giant. No chance in hell; Nicole once told me she had never held a boy’s hand before—no!

The Giant’s arms snaked around her waist and lifted her off her feet. No screaming, scratching, struggling of any kind . . . how could she just let him? No. . .

“Stop it . . . Remove him—now!”

The gatekeeper popped up between them and pushed the Giant towards the fence.

“You have to leave. Next time, buy a ticket like everybody else.”

The Giant, with the Circle’s support, claimed he played in our band, failing instantaneously. Nicole exchanged eyebrow arcs with me as we watched the Giant’s exit.

“Well . . . that was strange,” I said.

She laughed and I shadowed her group once more around the dirt-crusted sidelines, stealing glances at her whenever someone scored. She didn’t have a choice; it’s not like she could’ve slapped him or shouted, few like making a scene. She didn’t have a choice.

We crossed our legs on the mini-grass slope on the sidelines and conversation once more turned to the absence of their team members. Time for music. I exchanged headphones with her and ignored the whiny pop singer: How could I care while “My  Immortal” cycled through her head?

When you cried I’d, wipe away all of your tears

When you screamed I’d, fight away all of your fears

I held your hand through all of these years

You still have . . . all of me.*

Ah! The chorus. Her face stayed as solemn as her song in my ears. I took a hard breath when she popped her earphones out.

“It was. . . interesting,” she smiled, “and what did you think?”

“Hmm? Oh—it was good. Great,” I nodded.

The Circle could not help noticing how Nicole’s smile withered and how her eyes shifted further and further downfield. They asked if I had to be anywhere—like I could be anywhere else. After a deep silence that crushed their six second attention spans, freckle-faced Mary looked between our faces and guided Nicole and myself away from The Circle.

Underneath the bleachers, Mary set us a few feet apart and stepped back.

“Look: Figure it out already. Okay?”

Bending her feet backwards, like a dancer, Nicole twisted her head towards the scoreboard, avoiding my stare. I gave her until the announcer shouted:

“Touchdownnn Greyhounds.”

“So,” she sighed, (Shy. So shy!) “do you. . . like me?”

In far too many ways!

“Yeah.”

“Why do you,” she murmured, “like me?

Five years into the future, at our Junior College, I passed her on my way through the parking complex and asked what she was up to. “Modeling,” she said. I told her she’d be good, that I spent a lot of time looking at girls—she giggled—but never found one quite like her. Often I wanted to become a photographer, so I could always carry her with me.

“Umm. . . are you okay?” Nicole could tell I was somewhere else.

“Cuz. . . you’re beautiful,” I whispered, “just beautiful.”

“Well, thank you; it’s just . . . I’m a little shallow.”

No. That’s her friends talking. Slutty friends who jogged after heartless boys who stuffed their shortest member into a Superman costume.

Spots flashed over my eyes as our heads banged together as we hugged. Head down, she left, without a turn. Across the creaking helmets and goal posts, The Circle shunted their eyes from mine and freckle-faced Mary stared at me: somewhere between I told ya so and sorry—like it mattered! Yes, they’d never be seeing their beloved teammates again and then . . . Boiling spit swelled up through my stomach, throat, lips . . . No!

“Get me out of here!”

 

III.

Sick. Swallowing bloodvomit. I choked and hacked and kneeled while that specter leaned up against a tombstone, watching. The stamping and cheering from the field echoed up the hills, barbed wire fence, Boys’n’Girls Club:

“For the Red and Black, the hounds are going in to do or die . . . Bow down to H-town. . . Touchdownnn Greyhounds!” chants that faded, but never left my head.

“Almost nice up here . . . isn’t it? Children growing up in the shadow of a graveyard, yet above a field of dreams.”

Click! I wiped my mouth and breathed in . . . and out. . .

“Wouldn’t you like to know how it all evens out? Meh, your loss,” said my specter. “This cemetery, Oak Mound you call it, is going to be the most popular place tomorrow. . . after what you’ve taken away.”

“I’ve stolen nothing worth saving!”

“Can’t argue there, but still: your hands are stained dark with blood.”

I clenched my fist and red beads ran down my wrist—no, a trick! Clean hands.

I shuddered as that hollow skull swept over towering crosses, rusty weeds and endless gravestones, sucking up all the foul air into his empty sockets, then blew it in my face

“I guess I should’ve given you a better cologne. Wow. . . so this is the sixth one . . .  Six girls you said?”

“Three. I was wasted . . . you think I would’ve said anything sober?”

“Still. . . two forgotten kisses and one forgotten hug is three forgotten misses.”

“No. She’s different. At least! At least she didn’t forget me . . . like the others.”

“And that almost eludes even me,” said my specter. A girl who nearly drowned you just to ‘try something new, for fun’ and the other didn’t even appreciate your description of every speck of color in her eyes underneath a redwood at eleven . . . forty-six? But this one. . . she is different.”

Her words circled around my head, calling out like vultures:

It’s just . . . I’m a little shallow.

A little shallow.

I’m shallow.

Probably in the arms of another jerk-off just like that Stone Giant and there’d be millions of  Supermans scurrying behind. Rubbing between sheets replaced by ripping out pages of department store lingerie spreads from thumbnails to full-length films to complete boxed sets all blended into 3 minute compilations—strip, suck, shake, cum!—yet that fucking smile twisted me off the most.

“And you made her listen to ‘My Immortal’. How weird for her. I’m sure her friends know by now. They’ll forever see you as the plague.”

“Burn them. . . . Burn them, burn them,” I screamed, pointing downhill. “Unhinge the jaws of hell and swallow them all!”

I hid behind the tallest tomb and sealed my ears—

Nothing. Now a silent ultra-white flash exploded in the center of the field, spreading slowly through from edge to edge, seat by seat. I clamped my lids shut and waited . . . until my specter gave an empty chuckle.

“It’s better than fireworks—look! They’re trying to climb—bet they never imagined their own barbed wire would serve as the fence for their own execution ground—and look! molten metal melts them into the earth. C’mon—look! It’s like Supernova’s spilling their hearts out.”

Why not? I couldn’t hear any screams or dreams anymore.

A mound of corpses, burning brighter and brighter against the sky, nearly blinded me. Then the flesh burst apart, splattering ashes into the sky that choked me when I drew breath. “Hey, Nicole. . .” my whisper spiraled down the stairwell in eternal space.

“What. . . .”

A sleepy answer, but an answer! And now I recalled that famous phrase:

“And may ye be in heaven a full half hour before the devil knows you’re dead.” That specter may have my soul, but Nicole has my head.

“Take me back,” I rattled.

She’d remember. She’d have to.

 

IV.

          “Well, my little sex-starved, caffeine-crazed, fuck fiend . . . feeling better?”

I sprayed the coffee down the steps and straightened myself up on the theater rails. “Fuck off!”

With a servile bow my specter vanished. How much caffeine did he inject to revive me? A curtain of redwoods parted overhead and fluttered like pinwheels in the early morning breeze. The clouds bobbled and only sailed once more after several slaps to my face. She’d be getting out of orchestra any moment.

Across the sparkling lawn, she appeared outside the oak-bound music hall. In the midst of rolling backpacks jostled by cracks in the road and babbling students, I’d almost forgotten how tightly she clung onto her cell and how her toes scraped across the concrete: my little hunch-backed penguin! I checked myself—no zits, sleek hair and suit, no wrinkles anywhere and a platinum card in my pack pocket—then nestled against the trunk underneath the sheltering limbs of a giant oak tree.

“Huh-huh-hi! How ar-rrr ya?”

She looked up and outshone the morning sun with that smile.

“Hey. I’m fine. Are you okay?”

“Oh-yah. Of course. Scholar-err-ship season, ya know?”

“Right . . . that sucks. Yeah . . . Anyway, I have class so. . .

I nearly let her pass.

“Do you have time to talk? It’ll take less than a minute, I prom-promise.”

She sighed and tucked her cell away.

Speaking slowly as possible I muttered:

“Remember-urr-urr—”

“Are you sure you’re okay? You’re really, really pale.”

“No, I’m fine! Sorry. . .  So do you remember—”

“Nicole? Hey, we’re gonna be la—”

Mary, now without freckles, thanks to her tanning salon membership, stared between us.  Again, somewhere between I told ya so and sorry. Had she set me up for ruin back then or is she trying to now? Either way she had to go.

“Excuse me, Mary,” I breathed, colder than death. “Could you leave us for just thirty seconds—now, please?”

“Oh. . . o-of course. Sorry. Yeah, I’ll just—”

She half-walked, half-sprinted away.

“Okay,” I sighed, “one more time. Do you remember the last time we hugged? During the football game? . . . Bleachers? . . .”

Her face did not move an inch towards recollection.

“Uhh . . . no, I’m sorry!”

She looked it.

“Are you . . . sure?”

“Yeah . . . like I think the last time was like. . . after honor band or something? I think? I dunno. Anyway, I really have to go. . . I hope you get your scholarships done!”

She smiled that same smile and walked away as fast as she could without running.

For a moment, all my blood rushed into the roots of the oak tree, until my legs buckled. I would’ve smashed my skull on the trunk had my specter not slowed my fall.

Blongg . . . Blonggg . . . Bl-ongggg went the chimes of the parking complex clock tower. And now I was in an empty room with only clocks to keep me company. Ticka-tocka-blinga, bling, bling, blong . . .

Shal –loww.

Shal – low.

Nicole is . .. Shal-lowww. . .

         “Specter!” I screamed into the dirt. “It’s time. Take me up there . . . you know what to do.”

 

V.

         My specter gazed down at the college grass as the incessant ringing of the fire alarm chorused all over the campus.

“Do you want me to burn this place, too?”

I stared at my car: 2010 red sedan with tinted  windows and black leather seats “You can pick up chicks in this,” my parents used to say.

“No. . . My dear specter, it looks like I’ll be donning the red and black after all.”

“Ah . . . I see, well I shut her up in the back—ah, nope. Can still hear her screams. She’s trying to kick out the glass—not working well with those sandals.”

“Keep her locked in.”

How could I bear to look at her? Her strangled screams and muffled kicks shook the sedan back and forth.  And soon we’ll blaze together . . .

“Hey, specter.”

“Yes, my liege?”

“I know where I’m going but what about . . .”

“Neither heaven nor hell awaits her. I can say no more.”

Am I no more than this? Forever cursed with perfect memories that no one else can remember? While I brooded, my specter hummed the fire alarm like music. I sighed and shut myself up in the car with Nicole.

“I’m ready, but I just want to say one final thing. I order you to write this down and scatter the message.”

“Go ahead,” said my specter, eagerly drawing out his bone-thin pen with shining ink.

“May we be torches that light humanity’s way and extinguish the lying lights they cling to.”

My specter nodded, sheathed his pen and clapped. Flames roared over the ceiling and slowly the sunroof melted.

“Don’t worry, Nicole  . . . we’ll burn together, ‘My Immortal.’”

 

* “My Immortal” by Evanescence, copyright © 2003 Zombies Ate My Publishing.

 

Ben Trosper lives in Healdsburg, CA in Wine Country where he does not drink, but knows many who do. He writes fiction, but refuses to be categorized further at this time.

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