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ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHILDHOOD AS OTHERWORDLY THINGS
by Emily Wilford

 

 

 

I’ll be out of my mind, and you’ll be out of ideas pretty soon
so let’s spend the afternoon in a cold hot air balloon.

Owl City, Hot Air Balloon

 

I remember those days as shrouded in a thin veil of cool mist, visible but muffled, glinting silver and rainbow with tiny droplets of memories - weeks worth of memories, or months, or only a few days. Time seemed to stand still - or rather, time seemed to shimmer and waver and warp into something indistinct, raindrops slipping beneath the surface of a pond. I remember them sometimes as one day, a single moment during which everything felt inconsequential, except a small voice reminding me of the consequences of staying underwater too long.

I am a person who enjoys rain. I cherish every second decorated with pattering droplets against windowpanes; I stand with an umbrella in thunderstorms and watch until others start to wonder where I am. Eventually I tired of days when the sky didn’t speak, and so my mother found the solution in the cheap yellow plastic of an old sprinkler. She set it along the rusted poles of our trampoline so that the water streams arced toward the empty sky and tapped against the black canvas with overjoyed, uncontainable whispers. My little brother and I splashed and slid like little frogs in the rain until the days condensed into a single droplet of precious time.

~

He was a redhead, flaming orange hair burning from his scalp to his forehead, flickering away into faint cinders dusted across his nose and cheeks. His face was round, always smiling, even when there was every reason not to smile. He was a fire in every way, warm and frightening and always, always struggling. There was no way I could have known whether I should have doused his flame or given it more fuel to burn.

I didn’t love him. We were only little kids, after all; how could I? I admired his smiles, and I edged close enough to him to feel the warmth that everyone else couldn’t, from where they stood a safe, cold distance away. I suppose that was the reason I wanted to be close to him, because no one else did, because everyone else saw burning and chaos where I saw loneliness, a boy destroying himself because he didn’t know any better. In the end, though, I don’t think it mattered.

Brooding boy, gentle girl; it was the ubiquitous classic. That was why, as a child with a head full of fairy tale pages and TV screens, I thought it could work. I was the sweet, quiet girl, universally liked, or at least universally unknown. I had perfect conduct grades, knew my alphabet, and the teachers always adored me. I made my mother proud, and more importantly, kept my father from being angry. I had no reason to feel anything other than contentment and compassion.

He was the opposite; no mother’s love or father’s anger could contain him. I don’t remember him as being aggressive, only excited. The only difference between me and him, between him and the good children, was that he wouldn’t be subdued. His flame was too out of control, and we watched as it burned his green paper apple, the one that represented an A, into a deep red F, every day. Looking back, I think he was just a normal kid, one who refused to repress the energy and curiosity that came with being a normal kid.

No matter what the case was, I pitied him, watching him walk up to the front of the classroom to change his conduct grade every single day. I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to make him feel like he was a good person, even if the teachers said he wasn’t, so I told him and everyone else who would listen that I had a crush on him. That’s what little girls did to help little boys, right?

~

At times I would stop, bring my feet to a sliding halt, and watch. Even as I peered directly into the veil of sprinkler mist, leaning breathlessly against a cold trampoline pole, it seemed as though I was witnessing something from far away, just as intangible as a rainbow arcing through some unnamed distance in the sky. When we moved the droplets danced with us, flying into the air at every impact of our feet against the black canvas, glittering silver spheres like diamonds or stars. My mother’s phone laid on the sparkling grass and indecipherable Owl City lyrics leapt into the air from it, intertwining with the rainbows in the water. Perhaps they were of the same world.

The saccharine notes of Hot Air Balloon flowed around us and slowly crystallized into a twinkling capsule of time, of elation so precious and intangible that it just avoided the ruin of reality. Every moment can be found within that song, within empty lyrics filled with meaning that is in turn so untouchably, delightfully meaningless. It floats somewhere in the realm of dreams and poems and light filtering through the other side of pale curtains.

~

My mother tells me that his mother told her that he got so much better. I didn’t notice, or I don’t remember noticing. He didn’t know what to make of me, the girl who loudly professed to anyone who would listen that she was head over heels for the ‘bad boy’ of kindergarten. I remember being behind him in line one day, edging closer to him, and smiling as I said,

“Hi, Stephen.”

“Oh, hey, Emily.”

He said it nonchalantly, with barely a tilt of his head in my direction, before comically seeming to realize who I was. Though I had never heard the term back then, in the dictionary in my mind, that memory is the picture beside the term ‘double take’.

“Wait- Emily?

I giggled. By that time, he was already very familiar with the rumor that I liked him, spreading through the lunch tables like a wildfire, and he decided to take on a cliché as well: the bemused and awkward boy who didn’t know what to think of the affectionate girl trailing after him. I didn’t love him, but I appreciated his sense of humor. I realized then that I wasn’t the only one of us capable of feigning emotion.

I don’t remember anything else from that conversation other than looking at him and smiling, while he smiled nervously at me in return. I was aware even then that we were both playing roles, pretending to feel things we didn’t feel, pretending to be people we weren’t. But we were little; pretending was something to be enjoyed, something we did with sparkling eyes and little secret giggles when we were alone and broke character. Those days, there was something other than my mother’s pride, my father’s anger. I didn’t love him, and he didn’t love me, but we allowed each other to be kids, and that was where the love came from.

~

My little brother’s rich brown curls danced alongside the sheet of droplets against the trampoline surface, his dark eyes taking in the gold and rainbow and silver of the world to reflect more sparkling joy than the lightest irises ever could. He giggled and babbled words so preciously meaningless that they evaporated into the air and formed fluffy clouds in my memory. I slammed my bare feet against the canvas of the trampoline to send both him and the water spinning toward the sky, prompting cascades of laughter as his smile pushed his reddened cheeks upward until his face was as round as a raindrop.

And so my little brother became a dream, a poem, a feeling of intangible elation swirling beneath the crystallized surface of a song. I wonder if I flowed into the water in his mind.

~

Now my father is disappointed in me, tells me that I’m becoming too selfish. He cites the coffee mug I gave my older brother for Christmas, the one he says I received as a gift from someone else. I didn’t. I bought it. He tells me that he was so proud when I pretended to like that boy in kindergarten, just to make him feel better. I suppose that, since then, I have strayed too far from my role as a part of the family unit, as sweet, as silent, as afraid. A little too focused on my own goals, my own dreams, my own life. Too selfish.

Stephen was expelled at the end of kindergarten for his conduct grades. My mother tells me that his mother told her that he improved so much at home, became so much more at peace with himself. But the teachers didn’t want him to be at peace with himself; they wanted him to be someone else. They wanted him to be quiet, to settle down, to do what they told him and stop giving them a headache while they were trying to earn their salaries. They only pretended to care for us, to love kids, and they were adults. They didn’t like pretending.

One day, when school was ending and we rushed outside to our parents waiting in their cars, I spotted him walking a few feet in front of me. I don’t remember if I had hatched the plan earlier in the day, or if it occurred to me on a whim. I quickened my pace and grabbed his arm, whispering at him urgently.

“Stephen,” I said, and told him something that no kid could ignore. “I have to tell you a secret.”

His eyes grew wide, and he leaned down as I beckoned him closer, closing the head of height between us as I stretched up toward his ear. What valuable information, I wonder, did he think I had to tell him? What would I say now? Perhaps,

“It is never wrong to smile. No one should ever tell you that you can’t laugh, or speak, or have a sparkle in your eye. Love the things you love, and never feel ashamed for it. It’s not your fault. None of this is your fault.”

Instead, I kissed him on the cheek, and he shouted my name in shock as I ran out to my mother’s car, laughing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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