by Julian Isaiah Holbrook

Mid-afternoon sunlight enters through the cracked curtains unwanted, a spec of light in a dim-lit room that reflects the inner linings of her discombobulated thoughts. Nora feels the Colorado Mountains caving in on her. With hands smothering her dark, hazelnut eyes, she peaks through the gaps in between her fingers as she witnesses the mountains pressing through the yellow-chipped walls of her room. Scattered-brain clothes decorate her room. Fist-imbedded holes in the wall reflect her heart like a looking at her reflection through chips of broken glass. Closer and closer, with fear resting in the pit of her stomach, she curls her body in like a fetus nesting in a mother’s womb.
“It’s okay,” Oliver whispers, his angelic voice warming her emotions. “It’s not real.” The spec of sunlight outlines his frame, the paleness of his skin blending in with the afternoon light. As Nora examines him— his thin lips, the lightness of his buzz-cut brown hair, and the tint of green encompassing the spec of hazel in his eyes—she realizes that it is him. The person that shares the majority of her childhood memories. The ruler of her heart.

As he leans on the kitchen island—blood raging through Clarence’s body—wrath-filled words spit out from his mouth and latch onto his local representative over the phone. Clarence’s words are not enough to convince the congressman to repeal the bill that is already in place. As Clarence listens to the lies the congressman is feeding him, Clarence examines Nora’s baby pictures that are scattered all around the kitchen doors. His father’s voice clouds his thoughts like fog smothering rainy days. Man the hell up, boy, he recollects his father saying to him when Clarence first learned how to ride a bike, get the hell up off the ground and stop ya cryin’, you hear? Big boys don’t cry.
Clarence wipes the tears off his glistening, dark skin. He is supposed to be the man of the house, the protector of his family, the anchor holding the ship steady. Instead, his family becomes the anchor, quickly sinking in the still-blue ocean that is him.  

She recollects her childhood thoughts in tranquility, feeling the tips of his fingers caressing her lower arm as their chests are inches apart. They exchange memories, each one causing laughter to rush up from the pit of their stomachs out and soreness to their ribs.
Nora remembers the day when Oliver first taught her how to ride a skateboard. She was only nine years old, a three-year age gap separating the two. After multiple times falling on the concrete, Oliver had dared her to go down the Deadly Hollows Hill on Grand Avenue. Without any hesitation, Nora flew down the hill, the skateboard rapidly shaking as she gained speed. A crack in the sidewalk was enough to launch her body several feet onto the concrete, rolling onto the front yard of a stranger’s property. Multiple cuts and bruises were scattered across her arms. Oliver remembers racing down to Nora’s unconscious body, his puberty-stricken cries punctured through the inaudible sounds of their neighborhood.
Looking back at it now, Oliver admits to Nora the humor in the way she fell; how her arms flailed uncontrollably like the wacky inflatable tube man in car dealerships. Nora’s guffaw rises when Oliver tells her this, smothering her piercing laugh in the softness of his chest. She lifts her head up and stares into his eyes, remembering the times where Oliver shielded her from hate.

Remember the time when you got in that fight with your friends from middle school because of what they said about me?” Nora asks, her soft words acting like whispers.
“Yes,” he starts to chuckle. “I don’t even remember fighting them. One moment I was yelling in Travis’s face and the next thing him and the two other boys were on the ground as Mr. Gleason escorted me to the principal’s office. Why did you just think of that?”
“It’s one of my favorite memories of you.”
“Why?” he chuckles again to complement the seriousness of his question.
“Because you stuck up for me in a way that no one has ever done before. Attending school without you was so tough. They would tease me about my skin and call it dirt. They would run their fingers through my hair and act like their hands were stuck, but I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know how to. I was so used to those white kids taunting me that I convinced myself that not a single white person will ever stick up for me, not even you or your family, but you proved me wrong. You stuck up for my skin, for my hair, for my family, and I will never forget that moment.”
“And I will never forget this moment,” he says, the two exchanging smiles with their eyes.

Walking through the door, work weighing heavy on her eyelids, Nancy is greeted with Clarence’s spiteful words. She takes her white work shoes off her aching feet and investigates the reason for his anger, following the sound of his rage that leads her to the kitchen.
“Babe, what’s wrong?” He points to the local news channel playing on the living room TV. She reads the headline, once, twice, no—three times, still in disbelief: Citizens outraged over local representatives’ vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Her vision grows blurry from the tears collecting on her lower eyelids. Questions soar through her head, wondering what the next steps are for Nora and how they are going to afford the medication since their healthcare no longer covers people like her. With worry in her tear-stricken voice, she calls for Nora as she walks toward Nora’s room. Nancy stands in front of her doorway, presses her left ear against the white, wooden doorframe, and hears the silent whispers of Nora. The sound of his name escaping Nora’s mouth forces her stomach to drop and her knees to hit the maroon-colored, cushion carpet. Feeling the tear trails on her cheek seep into her skin, Nancy wonders why her family is the one who has to deal with the consequences of playing the game of politics.

Nora, let’s go! You’re going to be late for school!” Nancy remembers saying this to Nora on that dreadful, September day. Little Nora rushed through the hallway to get to the kitchen. Her pink, Dora-theme backpack swiftly swayed against her back, grabbing her lunchbox off the kitchen counter before exiting the house. Nancy questioned what was taking her so long.
“Are you ready for your first day of fifth grade?” Nancy asked on their way to the elementary school. Fiddling with her doll’s stringy hair, Nora replied with a passionless response.
“That’s all I get? C’mon, it is the fifth grade! Next year you will be in middle school with the big leagues. I swear these years just come and go.”
The memory of seeing him in the school parking lot will forever haunt Nancy’s thoughts. As she got back in her car from dropping off Nora and saying her goodbye with a kiss on the cheek, Nancy noticed a man in all black sitting in his car. He stood still like a statue in a cemetery—dark and mysterious—as the cap of his hat hid the identity of his eyes. For several seconds, Nancy locked eyes on this suspicious figure. She made up excuses for him in her thoughts. Maybe he’s waiting for his child to enter the school safely, she said to herself. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe I’m overreacting, but that sinister smile he gave Nancy told her otherwise. Fear fumbled in the pit of her stomach as she rushed in the car and drove away without hesitation. Ever since that day, Nancy has held onto guilt, struggling to detach herself from the cause of Nora’s situation.

She sees the dwindling of the sunlight fall on the paleness of Oliver’s skin, the sun hiding behind the mountains as a trail of purple stains the sky. As nighttime ascends, his features, that Nora adores, start to fade away. The darkness of the room overshadows him, but Nora can still depict the army uniform that Oliver is so proud to wear. Her fingers travel to the embroidery of his last name stitched onto his Velcro badge. With wondering eyes, Nora notices the dried-up bloodstain that surrounds his last name. Oliver brings her hand to the bloodstain spot with ease, putting his hand on top of hers. Nora falls into his eyes with a question that is unable to dissipate from her thoughts: is this moment only temporary or will they have this for a lifetime?

“You know what I just thought of?” Nora says to Oliver. A slight chuckle escapes from her mouth.
“Why neither of us asked to each other out. I mean we practically dated.”
“I don’t know…” Oliver hesitates to respond to Nora. “I guess I liked the ambiguity of our friendship.”
“What do you mean?”
“You remember when we went to the playground every Friday night, right?” Nora nods her head with a smirk, questioning where Oliver is going with this.
“Well, there was one night I specifically remember because that was the night I contemplated asking you to be my girlfriend,” Oliver confesses.
“Really? Why didn’t you?”
“We were snuggling in our favorite part of the playground and I—I really don’t know how to describe it, but I felt this immense rush of joy flowing through me. Something told me that it was my time to make it official, to claim you as mine; but the more I thought about it, the more I liked what we had. It was like our friendship was our language that only we could understand. I feel like people want to be in a relationship in order to feel safe and secure, but for me I always felt safe. I didn’t need a label to validate that.”
“I felt the same way,” Nora says to Oliver, “but then you left.”
“But I am here now.”
“For good?”
“For good.”

Wipe those pitiful tears off your face before I hit you upside the head, boy, Clarence thinks to himself as he hangs up the phone. Hearing his father spit out his hateful rhetoric he used to call parenting causes anger to stir up in the pit of Clarence’s stomach. He puts his head in between the palms of his hands and lets the tears go as they please. Failure and shame consume Clarence’s thoughts as he resorts back to his old ways, letting his father’s words enter his mind without any resistance. Clarence travels back to his recent disappointment at his law firm.
The white walls, the L-shaped desk scattered with various documents, and the lingering aroma of smoke cloud his memory of the day his boss had to let him go. His boss’s cigar hung loosely from his mouth, no regards to the seriousness of their conversation. Throughout his whole employment there, Clarence had felt their eyes stuck on his every movement. He was well aware of the target on his back as the only African American at his job, but what he was not aware of was how no one had the decency to acknowledge his mistreatment at the job.  
A flurry of emotions rush into Clarence as his mind goes back to his boss showing the security tape of him next to the fire alarm. He was only on his phone updating Nancy about his clients, but instead of believing him, they painted the act of him purposely pulling the fire alarm with the color of his skin. It did not matter that Clarence argued that they could not prove that he pulled it, that nowhere on the footage from the security tape showed him committing the act that cost the law firm a big chunk of money. Within minutes, Clarence, with two police officers escorting him out of the building, had left his job with his side of the story still untold.
Later that night, Clarence sat alone in the kitchen. The silence in the air intensifies his emotions, leaving room for the memory of his father to invade his thoughts. His bundled-up fists banged on the marble tile of the kitchen island every time he thought about the loose cigar hanging from his boss’s lips. He wanted to slap it right out of his mouth, wanted to let his anger get the best of him so that his boss would be forced to listen to him, but he knew he could not do that. Clarence did not want to validate the image that had already invaded his boss and his colleagues: the typical image of the angry, black man. In that very moment, Clarence knew he had to sit down, shut up, and do what he was told. Even when the police officers escorted him out to the building, when their grip sparked immense pain in Clarence’s arms, he knew not to resist— never resist.
“Dad?” Clarence heard Nora’s voice as she peeked through the corner wall. He wiped his tears off his face before responding to her.
“Hey, sweetie. What are you doing up late?”
“Is everything okay?”
“Oh, sweetie. Come here.” With open arms, Clarence felt the warmness of her body gently pressed against his. Lies escaped from his mouth when Clarence told Nora that everything was fine. But as he embraced Nora in his firm arms, he felt the lies puncture every inch of his heart as the tears intertwined with Nora’s coiled, black locks.
His father’s voice reels him back to this moment, his congressman justifying his reasoning for voting yes to the bill. What a pitiful man I raised, his father’s distasteful voice slithers around Clarence’s thoughts. As he listens to the man playing the game of politics in his favor, he cannot help but to think that maybe he father was right all along.

She presses her left ear with force to hear her baby laugh again. Nancy struggles to remember the last time her daughter laughed. On the one hand, she misses that laugh; how the acoustics of her cackling is enough to wake up their entire neighborhood. On the other hand, Nancy knows what this means for Nora. All Nancy wants is to shield her from the fantasies of life, to protect her from the monsters crawling in her brain. As she lays her sorrows down in front of Nora’s bedroom door, she cannot help but feel inadequacy radiating in her bones. It’s all right, child, Nancy hears her voice play in her head, Auntie Alma is so proud of you.
The memories the two of them shared sparks a smile on Nancy’s face, streaks of tears traveling through the crevices of her lips. Auntie Alma instilled hope into Nancy’s future as a kid. Whenever Nancy told her family that she wanted to be a best-selling poet, laughter erupted on their cigarette-stained breath, depleting her hope of making a career out of her writing. Auntie Alma was the only person who kept hope’s heart beating. I believe in you, baby. You know that, right? But with memories always come the ones we try to suppress, the ones we keep under our tongues. She remembers the time she walked in the room of the hospital to visit Auntie Alma when she was fourteen years old. She cupped her small palms into Alma’s frail hand with ease.
“Richard? Is that you?”
“No, Auntie Alma. It is me, Nancy. Remember?”
“Oh, Richard! I knew it was you!” Auntie Alma cried in excitement, her dementia getting the best of her. Nancy knew that the memory of her dissipated in Auntie Alma’s brain. It was like they were strangers walking past each other in the streets of a big city. Even though Auntie Alma did not recognize her anymore, Nancy played along with it. She missed Auntie Alma’s gorgeous smile that radiated happiness into her soul, and she knew the only way to see her smile again was to play the role of Uncle Richie in order to have this blissful moment with her.
“Yeah, sweet pea. It’s me,” Nancy said, mimicking his favorite nickname for Auntie Alma.
“Oh, Richard! I’m so glad you came! Where have you been?”
“Away,” Nancy said as she attempted to swallow down the tears. “But I’m back now.”
“For good?”
“For good.”
The whispers of Nora speaking his name again brings Nancy back to reality, and as she listens, Nancy cannot help seeing history repeat itself.

The outline of Oliver’s body slowly recedes back into Nora’s thoughts, sadness rooted in her eyes. She lays her tears in the comfort of her pillows, choking on her sorrows. She had always relied on Oliver to tell her when her hallucinations attempted to mask reality, when the voices in her head had taken total control of her thoughts. Ever since she received the news about Oliver, she has been trapped in her own mind, blinded by the two entities of reality and her hallucinations.
Nora always had her doubts about Oliver following the pattern of his two older brothers’ footsteps in joining the army. She remembers the day when Oliver told her about his plan, the July sun seeping into their youthful skin as they swung on the swings in unison; how his ambitions poked and prodded her pain-stricken heart like a doctor examining the insides of a patient. She had hopes of him returning home, snuggling up in the warm embrace of his arms, but the fear that she hung onto transformed into reality.
Nora forces herself not to bring up the day of his funeral. She cannot fathom hearing his mother’s cries replay in her brain, or the sounds of his two older brothers suffocating their cries in the palms of their hands. Instead, she curls into her little bubble, hiding from the reality of her illness.

The voices in her head guide her to a place where they first created a home in her thoughts. They bring her back to the sounds of the gunshots erupting in the school, her fifth-grade teacher guiding them in one of the corners of the classroom. Nora recalls the sound of his footsteps approaching the classroom, each step more terrifying than the last. Bullets surged through the door as the children’s screams break the silence of the room. His all-black jacket and his hat shielding his eyes still permeate Nora’s thoughts. She remembers the blood scattered on the chalkboard, the gunman’s suicide leaving a permanent stain on all the children’s hearts. For Nora, the incident manifested into her illness, morphing her perception of reality as, at times, unrecognizable.
Ever since that day, Nora’s mind convinced her of the gunman’s presence in close proximity to her. She would see him standing several feet away from her everywhere she went, doused in the all-black outfit he wore the day of the shooting. Screams erupted from her lungs whenever she imagined him. Nobody could calm her down if she did not take her pills that she dreaded taking, not even her parents. Oliver was the only one that could draw her back to reality.
“Look at me,” he would always say to her. “He’s not real, okay?” Now she is left with only the mere image of his existence, fighting a war between reality and the collection of her thoughts.

About the Author:

J. Isaiah Holbrook

J. Isaiah Holbrook identifies as a YA fiction writer. He graduated from Saint Francis University with a BA in English. He’s currently pursuing his MFA in fiction at Oregon State University. Isaiah has been published in Delta Epsilon Sigma Journal where he received first place in short fiction in their national writing contest. His other publications were in Saint Francis University’s Tapestries.