Jonathan and Gillian
Clenching her jaw to hold back tears, Gillian gently swept a stray hair from her mother's forehead. She forced herself not to recoil at the clammy skin, so frail she worried her fingers might leave a bruise. Her mother was rapidly losing color and breathing shallowly. She didn't have much time.
"I won't fail you, Mom," Gillian promised, forcing herself to turn to the door. She walked out, head bowed.
Outside, her brother Jonathan prepared the horses. "Ready," he asked, his dark eyes determined and focused.
Gillian nodded. "Let's go, Jack."
They always knew this day would come, when they would summit Mt. Prile. Legend told of a mythical pool, filled only by the mountain top clouds, that had the power to heal.
When they were younger, they dreamed of adventuring up the jagged cliffside, but few travelers survived. Those that did, didn't return the same as when they had left. Shattered men, they were, heads clouded delusions and hysteria.
But the siblings knew there was no other option. They needed water from the pool for their ailing mother.
Gillian threw a leg over the saddle of her chestnut quarter horse, and Jonathan did the same to his dappled gray. The mares were getting on in years and not very fast. But, the old girls were reliable and would get the siblings started on their journey. Time passed slowly and all too rapidly. The siblings rode quietly, their minds consumed by thoughts of Mother. Gently trotting on horseback, they were safe. But Mother needed the water, and a challenge faced them ahead.
The black sand underhoof turned to pebbles, then rocks, then eventually boulders. When the horses had gone as far as they could, the siblings dismounted.
"Together?" Jonathan asked, dipping hands into a chalk bag.
"Together." Gillian agreed, also coating her palms. She tied a rope around her waist as her brother did the same. They knotted the ends together then each started to rock climb up the mountainside.
The terrain was treacherous and each slipped more than a few times. Gillian attempted to anchor into the cliffside when she could, but that slowed them down considerably. They didn't have the luxury of time. Or safety.
Trusting each other, they pinched, stretched, and leapt their way up the mountain's face until they emerged at a small meadow covered in Indian paintbrush and other wildflowers.
Jonathan sighed, tears brimming his eyes. "Mother would love these," he breathed. Gillian nodded in agreement, but they didn't have time for flower picking. She urged her brother onward, but the grief of weeks of watching his mother waste away bore into Jonathan. His limbs felt leaden. He knew she wasn't gone yet, but the realization that she may never get to see beauty like this again weighed heavily on him.
"Jack!" Gillian stressed, trying to get her brother's attention. She grabbed his shoulder. Jonathan yelped and jerked away. Gillian noticed Jonathan's tunic cling under his arm to his ribs, where a dark stain was forming. He had cut himself on the ascent. Jonathan turned away, looking more morose and defeated than ever.
Gillian examined the wound. It was small and mostly superficial, rugburn most likely from scraping past some particularly sharp basalt. Jonathan would be fine. His mental health on the other hand, she wasn't so sure about.
"Why don't you stay here for a bit, bud" she soothed. "Pick some Indian paintbrush for mom?"
Jonathan sniffed and shrugged agreeably with his good arm. He wouldn't be much help climbing farther. Jonathan set to gathering flowers while Gillian chalked her hands. Past the field, the cliffside jutted up at an acute angle. It wasn't much farther, and atop the overhang would be an ideal place for nature to form a pool.
Gillian focused on her breaths as she swung hand over hand, creeping up the side of the overhang. Footholds were few, and for most of her ascent, her feet dangled. Finally, at the lip of the cliff, she squeezed her feet into small gaps in the rockface, creating toe holds.
She strained with her legs then pulled herself onto the overhang. There, surrounded in mist, was the pool! She pulled a sun-aged, ceramic canteen from her belt and submerged it in the still waters.
As soon as her fingers brushed the water's surface, all the scrapes and burns from rock climbing disappeared. She splashed some water on her throbbing legs, blistered feet, aching shoulders, and biceps. She immediately felt as refreshed as she'd ever been.
Gillian quickly stoppered the canteen, returned it to her belt, and made the descent back to her brother.
Jonathan was amiably sitting in the field, having woven his freshly picked flowers into a crown. Gillian smiled at her brother. "Mom will love that," she said motioning to the arrangement.
Jonathan beamed. With their mother's vision going, he wanted to ensure the flowers would be near enough to her that she couldn't miss them. He was quite proud of the crown himself, and it smelled divine. He popped it on his own head.
Gillian opened the canteen and dabbed a few drops of water onto Jonathan's wound and palms. He stretched his fingers nimbly, abrasions gone, and leaned to the side. His ribs no longer hurt. "Ready, Jill?" Jonathan asked for the second time today, this time with a gleeful glint in his eye.
"Ready." Gillian responded, equally excited. They had done it! They had the cure and were returning to Mother.
The pair descended the cliffside like mountain goats, no ropes, no cares. They scampered over the boulders at the cliff face, realizing how fortunate they were. The rest of the way was easy. The horses had wandered, but that wasn't unusual. Gillian and Jonathan whistled for their mares. They were feeling so good the pair decided to run until the animals could catch up. They didn't want to lose a moment of time.
They ran over the small rocks and pebbles. They ran on the black sand. All was well until Jonathan, whose soles had not been splashed with the healing water, caught his toe under a ripple in the sand. He careened forward, flapping wildly, but wasn't able to catch himself. Jonathan fell face first into the black mountain sand, his flower crown scattering to pieces.
Attempting to catch her brother, Gillian also toppled, landing hard on her hip. The canteen shattered, every last drop of water quickly absorbed into the thirsty sands.
"NO!" both siblings cried. But it was too late. Alerted by the noise, the mares cantered up, tossing their manes and whinnying. The horses stomped at the ground. Gillian and Jonathan had failed. And by the looks of the horses, this was it. Mother was dying.
With Gillian's help, Jonathan grabbed fistfuls of his decimated flower crown. He choked back a sob. They say smell is the last sense to go. If they hurried, at least he could give Mother something.
The siblings mounted their horses, clutched their flowers, and rode home.
Mother never looked so gaunt. Jonathan and Gillian approached her bedside. "For you, Mother," Gillian said, laying the soft Indian paintbrush on the dying woman's forehead.
"We picked them special," Jonathan said. "On Mt. Prile, just for you." He held a flower lightly under her nose. Gillian squeezed her mother's hand. With her other hand, she gently stroked her mother's forehead.
The skin was warm to her touch. Not hot. Just warm. Like skin should be.
Mother inhaled deeply. Her nose was gaining color again. And her head.
"Mother?" Gillian asked.
Jonathan gasped. "That's it!" he snapped. He pulled the yellow tip from the Indian paintbrush, and there, in its petal, was a single drop of nectar. He squeezed it into Mother's mouth.
"Jack, what are you--" started Gillian. "That's not water."
"What do you think grows the wildflowers, Jill? How do they get their moisture?"
Gillian gasped. Of course! The mist. Evaporation from the pool would sustain the meadow. Mother squeezed her hand.
"My smart children," Mother said, pulling them both into an embrace. The siblings suddenly no longer cared how the pool or the flowers worked. They were just happy to have their mother healthy again.
They also didn't care about how the story of their adventures became distorted by the town after numerous retellings. Perhaps you've heard it:
Jack and Jill
went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down
and broke his crown
and Jill came tumbling after.
15 years old, I was not the best babysitter. Not the worst. My brother made it out alive. But he was 12. Did he really need a babysitter? I wondered frequently to my parents. They were not convinced.
So, once a week, every week, for three years, I was my brother's tether between the living world and death -- at least according to my parents. I, the angsty teenager, had to keep my brother, the angsty pre-teenager, alive. In reality, this meant we both had to ignore each other for roughly three hours and not light any fires. That was doable.
Unfortunately, I learned part of this whole "keeping the young alive" thing involves nourishment. I didn't cook. My brother didn't cook. But inevitably, hunger would settle in, as hunger often does, particularly around dinner time.
Enter Kraft Mac & Cheese, direct from the box -- instructions included. This was a godsend. I didn't need to know how to cook. I didn't need my brother's help. I just needed to follow three instructions printed on a box and measure ... ish.
Each week, the measuring was a little different. Do I really want to dirty a measuring cup just to measure milk, I'd ask myself. Nine times of ten, the answer was "No." The results were paste or soup. Do I really want to wait and keep stirring until two whole tablespoons of butter are melted? Again, no. Of course not. The TV was on and much more interesting than a pot, a spoon, and the dull ache that would creep into my thoroughly unexercised biceps. Mac & cheese without most of the butter usually turns out... watery. Mmm. Delicious.
But it didn't kill us. I didn't burn the house down. And in the process, I became quite proud of my soupy, bland, watery, box mac & cheese.
In fact, years later when I was home from college, my brother was feeling sick and requested a special meal. He wanted Kraft Mac & Cheese. He didn't want to make it. He didn't want our mother to make it or any of our other relatives. Oh no, he wanted my soupy, bland, watery, never-turns-out-the-same-way-twice version of box mac & cheese. 'Which I made for him. It has kept him alive so far. I'll count that as a babysitting win.
Peas, Chicken, & Cherry Pie
“Thhhrt, thhhrt,” the plastic fork dragged across the plate following the rolling-away peas. Jason sighed, suddenly nostalgic for the clinking of real cutlery in his childhood home. ’Not that he wanted to think of home. Nothing could ever bring him back there. He’d been trying to escape since he was six. Since, well… you know.
Jason focused on shoveling his peas. One rolled off the lip of the cafeteria tray. Escaping, Jason thought with a wry chuckle. The damn produce had a better shot at freedom than he did. With a quick, vengeful stab, Jason neatly skewered the runaway. The emotion was short-lived. Jason switched back to autopilot and obediently lifted the fork to his mouth.
He thought of Jerome, his cellmate. Shit, that guy always smelled good. That kind of thinking could get him in trouble in a place like this. Again, the absurdity of the situation raced through Jason’s mind. In a few hours, he wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. He wouldn’t have to worry about anything anymore. He shuddered and returned his thoughts to Jerome.
Sometimes at night the large man’s arm would slip off his top bunk, fingers dangling inches from Jason. Jason remembered the first night he “accidentally” brushed against Jerome’s hand, and Jerome didn’t pull back. Their contact became more frequent after that. “Accidental” hand bushes, standing just a little too close, finding any excuse to touch – arm wrestling, feigning coughing fits that needed thumps on the back, even checking each other for head lice. Yuh nasty ass mofuckers. We don’t want no goddamn, bloodsuckin’, lil’ fuckers in here, naw do we? Jason thought of Jerome’s response to former cellmates who had walked in on Jerome knuckles deep in Jason’s hair.
He bit deeply into the chicken drumstick to suppress his grin. After that response, the two were never questioned again.
His heart panged, an empty feeling that raced to the soles of his feet and back up his spine. What would Jerome do now that he was gone? Jason coughed, choking momentarily on the chicken still in his mouth. His hands shot forward, and he forced half his cupful of water down his throat. Sputtering and gasping, he struck his thigh with his fist. That was his moment. If his hands hadn’t leapt for the water, he could have ended things on his own terms. 51 years of instincts don’t just disappear however. He was always too slow to catch on, Jason heard his dad’s voice say. It blended with his cellmates’ voices and the judges’ voices. There were too many judges. Too many useless public defenders, too many juries…
The C.O. on guard looked up at Jason’s punch. Jason took a breath, deliberately laid his hands flat, then continued eating. Peas, chicken, cherry pie – Jason has only tried the chicken and peas so far. The food tasted like nothing. He thought of the guys back in his cellblock. In the evenings, they reminisced about their favorite meals on the outside: Big Macs, jambalaya, chocolate ice cream, their girlfriend’s lasagna. Jerome always said roast beef on rye, corn pudding, and cherry pie. His eyes would get a faraway look and for just a moment, Jason noticed the tension in his shoulders would relax slightly. Jason had never eaten cherry pie, but if it could relax Jerome, it had to be something special.
The men in the block should be eating this, thought Jason, forcing down another flavorless bite of chicken. They might be able to get some flavor out of it. He absentmindedly shuffled peas around the tray.
Fight or flight, a volunteer prisoner instructor told him 20 years ago. The guy had come to the prison, young, brainy but woefully missing street smarts. He was one of those do-gooders who only lasted a year or two, but everyone knew he’d be talking about “the time he worked in a prison” for decades. Still, Jason remembered the fight-or-flight lesson. He wondered if that’s where he was now. ’If all of the blood in his body had rushed to his amygdala and that’s why he couldn’t taste. It would certainly explain the empty feeling running down his core.
Fight or flight. Of course, neither was an option here. He couldn’t fight. He couldn’t flee. He wondered what blood did in a life-or-death situation when fighting and fleeing weren’t options. This isn’t life-or-death; this is death-or-death, his mind reminded him. He settled into a fog.
Still, a flicker of hope said, breaking through, Jerome would know what to do. Jerome always knew. He was smart. Smarter than people gave him credit for. He knew things, like the word “amygdala” before pasty, smartass volunteers came in to “give the prisoners an education.” Like we’d ever need an education, Jason thought angrily. Here he was 51-years-old, and he never needed to know what an amygdala was. Until right now, the little voice said. The thought amused him. Jerome would find it funny. He needed to remember to tell Jerome --
He wouldn’t see Jerome.
Jason looked back at his plate, largely untouched.
You’ve Got This
You're doing fine, kiddo. It's okay to still be figuring stuff out. Wear that crazy outfit, mix alcohols, procrastinate your term papers, it'll be okay. Be bold in your choices. Some of them will stick with you for life. (Don't be scared; these additions are good things.) You know who you are, and you're figuring out who you could be. That's beautiful.
Be strong. Be curious. Be kind. Be resilient. (You already are.) I'm proud of you, kiddo.
-- You (a little older)
Opposite of Nonbinary
Infinity. Every digit, fractorial, and irrational figure known to mankind.
Neon, tie-died, gammarays rocketing faster than an eye can register, making everything whole.
Taylor awoke with a grin. The infinite dreams were always their favorite. When everyone could appreciate the complexities of nature intertwined in a single breath, Taylor felt the most at home.
They stretched, threw on the clothes from the top of their dresser drawers, then hopped down the stairs for breakfast.
"Good morning!" called a voice from the kitchen. "Would you like milk or cereal?"
Taylor raised an eyebrow. "Um, both?"
A snort of laughter came in response. "Both! Taylor you have the best sense of humor. Not like those kids who take things seriously. You're a funny one!" A box of Corn Flakes dropped unceremoniously onto the table in front of Taylor. They gave it a hesitant glance.
"Parents can be weird," they thought to themself. "And it's early." Not wanting to make too big of a deal out of it, they poured a handful into a Ziploc baggie before dashing out to the bus.
On the bus, Taylor wedged into the seat next to their best friend, Brianna. "What are you wearing?" Bri asked, nose crinkling.
"Clothes?" Taylor replied honestly.
Brianne shook her long braids in disgust. "That combination, though?" She gestured at Taylor's black pants and white v-neck.
"We don't all dress like you," Taylor said, waving at Bri's usual get-up of black cargo pants, black suspenders, black crop top, and black hoodie, topped off with black eyeliner and black nails.
"Whatever," Bri shrugged. Taylor looked around the bus. A surprising number of their classmates were in fact dressed like Bri: black shirts, black pants. Even more surprising were the number of kids dressed in all white: white sneakers, white shorts, white polo shirts. Taylor never had anything against black or white. They assumed people always just wore whatever made them happy. This was... unusual.
As they entered the school, Taylor's mind felt foggy. They dug their class schedule out of their bag and blinked. For the entire day, there was only one word written: "Science."
"Bri, this doesn't look right," Taylor said, passing the book over to her.
"Of course it does," Bri responded with a glance. "You're on the science track. What else would it say?"
Taylor grabbed their planner back and vigorously started flipping through the pages. "Science, science, science, science, science" each day was the same. "What if I don't want to be a scientist, Bri?"
"You're on the science track, Tay. What else would would you be?" Taylor thought of art, literature, math, gym, history, music and all the possible futures they'd imagined pursuing in each of them. Tears started to well in Taylor's eyes. They felt as if their entire world had been stripped away. They didn't oppose science per say; it just felt as if they were stuffed into a tiny box that didn't fit. "Hey, I'm here, Tay," Brianna consoled as she saw Taylor's lip start to quiver. "I don't understand, but whatever is going on, I'll be there." She gripped Taylor's hands.
Taylor looked at the polish beginning to fleck away from Bri's nails then up at mass of black and white uniformed bodies in the halls. They nodded. Their stomach grumbled, and they reached into their bag for the crumbled bag of Corn Flakes. "Come on," they said. "We need to go to the cafeteria."
Fishing coins from hidden crevices in their bag (and Bri's giant pants pockets),Taylor slowly fed change into the vending machine and typed in their selection. Out popped a carton of 2% milk. "Watch this," they told Bri.
Carefully opening all four corners of the carton, Taylor unsnapped their Ziploc and poured the cereal into the milk. Bri giggled, eyes wide with fascination. "Now this," Taylor said, retrieving a spoon. They cautiously dunked the plastic spoon into the milky, cereal goodness and offered Bri the first bite.
"Wow," Bri breathed after a gulp. "That was --"
"Delicious?" Taylor asked.
Bri nodded. "It was crunchy and juicy, sweet and refreshing. It was like the milk and the cereal, combined, both made each other better."
"I like combinations," Taylor said.
Bri smiled, and Taylor grinned back. Taylor reached into their backpack and pulled out a long, multihued hoodie with iridescent stripes, kaleidoscopic spots, and a shimmering checkerboard underlay. They put it on over their white t-shirt and black pants.
"Ready?" Bri asked. Taylor nodded Then, hand-in-hand, they walked to the guidance counselor's office to talk about diversifying their schedule.