Phoebe Driscoll graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2015. Raised in Los Angeles, she is often surprised by how a mere four years in the South have deeply influenced her work.
Editor's Choice (Claire), 2016 Raymond Carver Contest
Aiden weighed 104 pounds and the gap between his front teeth seemed to widen every time he checked with his tongue. He had a place that belonged to him in a private and warm way: Byhalia, Mississippi. Flat brick storefronts and creeks like silver threads and the sharp stink of red clover when petals poked through the mud in April. The drive home from school along Route 4, on a bus that smelled like bologna and sweat, sometimes made Aiden dizzy. His favorite color was a Crayola crayon called “jungle green” and Charlotte from his advanced reading group had blushed when Aiden informed her that he read Tuck Everlasting when he was only nine. Sometimes Byhalia felt small enough for him to touch everything at once.
Mrs. Hazel had taught him to attach himself to a place like that, like a secret trick made of Velcro and memory. It started when she said, “Position your character!” referring to the books they would read, and what she said seemed important because of how often she said it. Aiden began to wonder if everyone else in the fourth grade started trying it out in their own thoughts — all the separate minds around him making little brain boxes to keep everything organized.
The end of the school year in 1996 felt like a terrific time to be alive, especially since Aiden knew of one or two people who wouldn’t be around to enjoy it for themselves. He could hardly wait to turn eleven in June, his double-digit birthday.
His fifteen-year-old brother Jamie heard Aiden say this and muttered under his breath, “You’re a freak, A. You were double digits last year too when you were ten.”
Aiden knew this, but eleven felt like more of an occasion to celebrate. Their mom let him have it, too, a double-digit birthday with party favors that came in pairs. Two G.I. Joes, two Star Wars Pez candy dispensers, two Hot Wheels monster trucks. Nothing like that had happened the year before.
At the party, Jordan Daniels starting crying because one of his Pez dispensers got jammed up but Aiden’s mom swooped in and showed him how to press his thumb and index finger against the plastic Darth Vader head so that the Pez candies popped out of his stomach.
Through his tears, Jordan whispered, “Your mom is so pretty.”
Aiden shrugged, but he smiled as he thought about his mom as a helper, sort of like Mrs. Hazel. How had she known that about the Pez dispenser trick? The mystery of it made Aiden feel safe.
Aiden noticed the way everybody looked to him that day as the man of the hour, so he unwrapped each present slowly, folding the discarded packaging into neat little squares before examining their former insides. He got a yellow Game Boy Pocket from his mom and a Nerf gun with six foam bullets from his brother.
“You have to share the gun though,” Jamie said. “‘Cuz it cost me ten dollars at the Piggly Wiggly.”
Charlotte, the girl from his reading group, came to his party and gave him a book called Frindle. She blushed and stammered, “Th-this book is seriously funny,” as she held it up for inspection. The boy on the cover of the book had reddish hair and freckles. Aiden decided he looked a bit like Jamie, except Jamie’s freckles melted away in the summertime.
When Charlotte handed him the book, Aiden stepped forward to meet her. His sweaty palm touched her knuckles and his heart ached as Aiden did a silent fist pump in his mind thinking Yup, eleven is better than ten.
. . .
Something Aiden tried to block from his Velcro-plus-memory mind: 1996 was also the year that Timmy Banks crashed his all-terrain vehicle into a dogwood tree at the bottom of Comfrey Hill. A hunter found his body in the morning, bloated and gray.
Jamie heard about Timmy dying from the Schell twins, Dawson and Frankie. The twins were mean and skinny. They always knew about a thing happening in their small town immediately after the thing happened, it seemed, the way foam followed the crest of a wave breaking.
“Dawson and Frankie don’t get carded for beer at the gas station on Becknell Road,” Jamie would say with a proud grin. “And they’re my age.”
After Timmy died, Jamie got drunk with the twins. Aiden knew this because his brother stumbled into the room they shared late at night and stood above Aiden’s bed swaying like a reed. He leaned down and slurred in Aiden’s ear, “What d’you say we go see the body in the morning?”
Aiden couldn’t refuse him because there was a meanness in his brother’s voice, but also because he wanted to see the body. He felt curious, like an itch he couldn’t reach. Comfrey Hill wasn’t far from their house and in a town like Byhalia, death moved slow. The coroner probably wouldn’t come to collect Timmy for at least 48 hours.
“We can’t tell Mom—” Aiden started to say, and Jamie shook him by the shoulders in giddy approval.
Aiden’s arms flung across his bed like a rag doll. “Cut it out,” he said, giggling.
In the morning, they got on the school bus and Aiden turned to wave toward their mom, watching from the sunken-in porch. A picture of the jammed-up Pez dispenser and crybaby Jordan flashed in his brain, the way his mom seemed to smile from her eyes when she rescued the candy.
Jamie grabbed Aiden’s hand when the bus slowed at the next stop and the two boys leapt from the stairwell laughing maniac laughs, landing hard on the pavement before the driver could say anything except: “I’m warning y’all, get your asses back h—” But the brothers were already running toward Comfrey Hill.
Yellow sweetgum trees grew thick and stuck together like the waterlogged pages of a book. The farther down they half-walked, half-jogged, the kudzu vine seemed to swallow up light and sound. The soil turned to mud as it got cooler, and Jamie bent down and hoisted Aiden up onto his shoulders. Together they were tall enough that Aiden saw the bright glint of the mangled ATV before Jamie.
Here is what Aiden saw in that space, where the kudzu thinned in a clearing consisting of the silver ATV wrapped around a dogwood trunk and Timmy’s dead body several feet away: 1) blood around the bone sticking out of Timmy’s left arm turned black and crusty, 2) fallen white dogwood petals that lay limp across the dead boy like snow, 3) Jamie crying and trying to hide it.
Aiden scrambled down from Jamie’s back and reached out his hand. He meant for his hand to meet Jamie’s, for their hands to touch as if to say everything is okay, but Jamie had his fists in his pockets. He swiveled his whole body away from Aiden, the way people shrink back from bugs, and he wiped so hard at his tear-streaked face that his freckles seemed at risk. Aiden concentrated on his own breathing as he pictured Mrs. Hazel calling his mom and saying, Yes, he never showed up, and did you know Tuesday is “Wear Your Pajamas to Class Day”?
Timmy had been fourteen years old when the ATV hit the tree trunk and his brain went flat. With feet halfway sunk into mud, Aiden thought about Timmy not doing all the things he was going to get to do, like reaching the Twin Bridges level on Super Mario and kissing a girl with his eyes closed.
All Jamie did was clutch his own elbow and murmur to the dark forest floor, “Christ, that is really gnarly.”
Aiden started to ask, “Did you know Timmy or—” but Jamie leaned against a sweetgum trunk and puked as an answer of sorts.
Walking back toward the top of Comfrey Hill, Aiden kept a cautious pace ahead of Jamie so the smoke from his cigarette fell behind them in a thin flat cloud.
“I wonder how long it took him to die,” Jamie said to the sweetgum trees.
“A long time, I think,” Aiden said. “Did you know your fingernails keep growing after you’re dead?”
“Okay,” Jamie said. “I guess we should go back to school now.”
. . .
The following week, Aiden heard the girls in P.E. class whisper that Timmy must have been going at least fifty miles per hour and he didn’t wear a helmet and the bone in one of his arms stuck straight out of his skin like a radio antenna.
“My father knows the EMT driver,” one of the girls said. “His body was basically broken in half.”
Aiden’s best friend Nicolas looked at him with wide brown eyes while the girls hovered nearby.
“Dude,” Nicolas said. “That is extremely gross.”
Something felt tight in Aiden’s chest when another boy came up to them even though it was a private conversation and spat out in a confident way. “It was probably so bloody.” Like a high-five should follow.
Aiden walked away. He didn’t tell anyone, not even Nicolas, about the kudzu vine and the clearing and the petals like snow.
Byhalia turned inside-out after it happened — the way pitch oozed from tree bark. People talked and the talk seemed cruel. People talked as if it was their story to tell, what happened to Timmy.
Aiden and Nicolas were in line for popcorn at the movie theater three weeks after he died, and behind them, two women spoke in hushed tones.
“Did you hear about the autopsy? High as a kite.”
“Lord. And only, what, fourteen?”
“His poor family.”
“And the man who had to find that!”
. . .
What Aiden remembered most from Tuck Everlasting was the part about everything existing as a wheel and the frogs and the dying people and the wood thrush all being connected to it.
Byhalia is a wheel too, he thought. Timmy died and it kept spinning, but it felt different now, it spun faster in a dangerous way. Nobody could stand waiting around for the seasons. That spring rolled into summer which rolled into fall without stopping — and then it was winter again.
On Christmas morning, Jamie locked himself in his room and only surfaced twice: once to grab his stocking and another time to microwave a Pop-Tart. Their mom seemed worried all the time, whether Jamie was home or out with the Schell twins.
Aiden heard her on the kitchen phone at night, talking to their father in a low and pissed-off voice. This was the opposite of the helpful-Pez-dispenser-Mom. This was helpless-Mom. Aiden knew it was helpless-Mom because of the way she whispered but the words came out loud and because their father lived in Louisiana and because Aiden had only seen him four or five times in the past eleven years.
“I’m losing him, Clark.” Her voice seemed to break in half. “I can’t — he’s still a child, for God’s sake.”
Leaning against the stairwell in the blue-grey light of dawn, Aiden thought about what it meant to be losing someone. To be in the process of losing. There was the time Jamie had marched into the house with his cheekbone bloody from crashing his bike, playing the Butthole Surfers so loud on his Walkman that their mom had yanked his headphones right out from his ears.
Aiden watched from the hallway as she growled at Jamie, “I’ve told you to wear your fucking helmet.”
Jamie had stopped in his tracks and his bloodshot eyes flashed and he said something like, “I’m fifteen years old and nobody my age—”
Then, nearly crying from behind a slammed door: “and FYI Dad was totally right when he said you’re dried up.”
. . .
Eventually, that afternoon on Comfrey Hill with Timmy’s arm like a broken wing grew fuzzier in Aiden’s mind. He had to think about the fifth grade now, which wasn’t like anything that had come before. The fifth grade meant new lockers with actual locks and having to let Charlotte down.
Aiden knew he didn’t like a book by the amount of time it took him to finish it. Frindle was dumb because it was just about a boy who invented a new word for “pen.” He wrestled with telling Charlotte about his disappointment for an entire week. He decided to do it on principle, because of the way secrets could bloom if people watered them with silence.
“Anybody could have done that,” Aiden told her after social studies as they walked toward the gym. “I could have written that book.”
Charlotte shrugged. “Well,” she said, grinning and pushing his chest with her index finger. “You didn’t.”
Somehow that made Aiden’s heart soar.
Plus, if Thursday, September 27, was any indication of how the rest of fifth grade would be, Aiden felt certain that they could move past Frindle. That bright fall day, he taught Charlotte how to throw a curveball during recess.
Searching somewhere inside himself in the weeks that followed, Aiden couldn’t remember if she had thrown a strike. He couldn’t even remember if anyone had scored a run off her pitch. He only recalled the maple-syrupy smell of rotting leaves mixed with Charlotte’s strawberry lip gloss and the way an early frost made the pitcher’s mound burn like ice against the thin soles of his Converse high-tops as he pressed his feet near to hers.
. . .
On Aiden’s twelfth birthday, Jamie left early to meet up with the Schell twins. Aiden was torn between a feeling great because Charlotte came to his party and real anger because Jamie wasn’t there for most of it.
Jamie’s absence, it seemed, spread through the whole house like a sickness. Their mom would smile tightlipped and hand out blindfolds for the piñata but Aiden noticed as she walked away from the happy screams in the living room and steadied herself white-knuckled against the kitchen sink. Aiden felt sick thinking about how Charlotte might notice too, the heavy stare of worry that felt louder than the thwack of the bat or the candy raining down onto the linoleum.
When Jamie did come home late that night, he reeked of cigarettes. Mean words leapt out of his stale breath and hit Aiden square in the face: “Fuck out of my way, A. I’m going to bed.”
Aiden narrowed his eyes at this and made a mental vow to beat Jamie in checkers the next morning. All he said out loud was, “‘Night, Jamie.”
Just like that. It was no secret that the easiest way to make Jamie mad was to carry on with life as though he didn’t disturb the living.
At 7:30 a.m., Jamie and Aiden faced each other at the kitchen table, the plastic checkerboard pieces scattered between them like a real battlefield. Neither made a move, and Aiden realized that neither of them ever would.
The house was quiet; their mom slept in. Jamie played his Walkman as loud as it would go, until the speakers sounded like a tin can hitting pavement. Aiden picked up his book.
“I’m trying to read,” Aiden said. He buried his face in between the pages so Jamie couldn’t see the way his teeth were clenched.
“You’re a goddamn nerd, A,” Jamie said with a drawl. “Haven’t you heard of ‘Sonic Youth’?”
“Haven’t you heard of ‘The Capacity to See Beyond’?” Aiden asked. It was a term from the book he was reading.
Jamie studied Aiden. “That,” he said, pouring cereal from the box right into his mouth and laughing with his jaws full of food, “that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”
At 7:46 a.m., Aiden marched outside, fighting back tears. Jamie followed, cautious, three steps behind. The bus was late. Aiden studied the cracked sidewalk. Slabs of concrete overlapped with little clumps of grass sprouting up, somehow, between them. They reminded Aiden of the tectonic plates below the Earth that he had learned about in science class. In places like California, he read, sometimes the plates would push so hard against each other that the whole ground would shake.
Jamie sighed and knelt down. He put his hand on Aiden’s shoulder and then pulled it back into his pocket.
“The capacity to see beyond,” Jamie repeated softly. “You’re a really weird dude, A.”
Aiden scowled, but Jamie broke out in laughter, and it wasn’t the mean laughter it could so often be. It seemed shinier. Kinder. By the time the bus pulled up, Aiden was laughing too.
. . .
It was hard to position himself, Aiden decided, in a story that kept changing. The protagonists in the books Charlotte and Aiden exchanged seemed glued to their universes in a firm and lasting way.
“Are there tectonic plates below Byhalia?” he asked his mom at dinner.
“I suppose,” she said after a pause. “But I doubt you have to worry about them moving any time soon.”
Aiden had learned a tricky word last spring when Mrs. Hazel suggested her class write it down in their binders: context. Mrs. Hazel said “context” was the way you could understand a situation only by understanding something else.
Aiden did his best to put those autumn months in context. In September, two bottles of his mom’s acetone nail polish remover and fifteen of Aiden’s Sharpie markers went missing. Weeks later, the empty bottles and the dried-up markers resurfaced under Jamie’s bed. And Jamie was changing faster than anybody else around him. His cheeks were sunken in; his freckles stood out like a rash as his skin grew paler.
Even Nicolas noticed it. “Dude,” he whispered to Aiden one night during a sleepover. “Jamie’s eyes kind of look like the Scream mask.”
They giggled, doubling over in the darkness, but thinking about it the next morning made Aiden’s chest ache, picturing his brother with those droopy black holes instead of eyes.
In October, the principal cancelled classes for a whole week because miles away, in Pearl, Mississippi, a boy named Liam shot seven kids and killed two of them in the school cafeteria. Aiden had a horrible private impulse: Maybe it felt worse to be one of the survivors.
Aiden and Jamie watched the coverage of the school shooting on Channel Five. One reporter said that Liam had been mad at a girl he loved. Their mom stood in the doorway and said Jesus Christ over and over. In the news report, a helicopter flew low over the red bricks of the school as kids fled from emergency exits like tiny scared ants. Aiden pictured a wheel turning too fast and crushing blades of grass and insects beneath it.
Jamie sucked in his bubblegum and blew out again. “Heard the kid was a Satanist,” he said to the TV.
“Jesus, Jamie, turn it off,” their mom said as she stormed out of the room.
“The Schells are Satanists too,” Aiden said matter-of-fact.
Jamie rolled his eyes and mumbled, “Atheists, you idiot.” He changed the channel. “Dawson and Frankie are a-t-h-e-i-s-t-s.”
At dinner, Aiden’s mom made a comment about that boy Liam being high on paint thinner when he killed those kids in Pearl. Jamie pushed back from the table so fast his chair fell over. Aiden finished his spaghetti in silence as his mom turned the FM radio knob up to ten and sang along off-key.
. . .
It was around this time that Aiden started thinking about “retribution.” Four syllables — a real mouthful. Five syllables if Mrs. Hazel said the word all drawn out so the slower kids in Aiden’s English class could understand it. They were finally reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and he or she was all about retribution.
One day on the bus Aiden asked Charlotte if she knew what retribution meant and she leaned over so their lips met. They barreled down Route 4 at what felt like a hundred miles per hour and still Charlotte’s mouth was touching his the whole time.
“It’s wh-when you get what you’ve had coming to you,” Charlotte said. She pulled away and kissed him on the cheek with an awkward grace.
Aiden felt certain that his rib cage could explode. Holy shit, he thought. This is not what I expected retribution to feel like.
Aiden was positive he would marry Charlotte someday. She was the only girl in class who Mrs. Hazel described as a “voracious reader.” He could imagine it, like a scene that didn’t belong to him quite yet. Together, Charlotte and him and their adventures like one giant book itself.
To Kill a Mockingbird was very good. It had very little to do with mockingbirds though. To Aiden, it was a book about honest people and dishonest people and the cold fierce storm of those two groups meeting each other. Aiden finished To Kill a Mockingbird in eight days, which was impressive because he was also doing other activities like trading baseball cards and thinking about Charlotte.
Mrs. Hazel asked Aiden if he wouldn’t mind reading his book report in front of the entire class at the end of the school year. He rolled his eyes the way Jamie did about everything. But inside? He swelled with pride just thinking about it.
Facing a sea of tanned and restless bodies ready for summer, he tried to describe what he meant about the storm.
“Imagine if the people in the world were divided into two halves,” Aiden said. He could feel his face growing hot. “And one half wants truth and kindness and family, etcetera. And the other half is set on lying and cheating. Y’know, stuff made of anger. And when the halves meet, it starts to rain because the opposites create a storm…” he trailed off.
“Okay,” said Mrs. Hazel, and Aiden got a C+ on his book report.
. . .
When Jamie overdosed, certain things changed and certain things stayed put. Aiden found him, on a Sunday afternoon in late May, in the brown square of yard behind their house. The grass didn’t grow out there, no matter how many bags of fertilizer their mom dumped during the hot and wet spring months.
So there was no grass when it happened, just Jamie’s body limp across the dirt. His pale skin almost blue — like a Smurf, Aiden decided, months later, when he remembered how it all had looked in the fractured light at 5:30 p.m. A freckled Smurf. Their mom, shaking Jamie’s thin frame. Aiden, his jaw open, remembering when Jamie was strong like a thin wire and sunburnt and laughing.
In the hospital in Olive Branch, the doctor spoke to their family in a voice made of tree sap. Slow and thick. Aiden’s dad was there too; he said nothing until the doctor said the word “heroin” and then it was almost a snort. He seemed embarrassed.
“Depleted oxygen supply” was another term Aiden heard a lot in those next few days, when he slept in a reclining chair next to Jamie’s hospital cot, sick to his stomach about missing the last week of school.
What would Mrs. Hazel think? What would Charlotte say? Or Nicolas? Then again, Jamie sounded like a dying grandpa, hooked up to machines with a tube in his nose that made his voice strange and flat. Aiden decided Mrs. Hazel would be okay with him gone, even though he’d miss yearbook signing.
. . .
Jamie said something only once in three days. A sandpapery voice floated toward Aiden from across the room when their mom had left to get the nurse: “Dad still here?”
Aiden shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “Dad had to go home.”
And then there was no answer, even when Aiden moved closer to his brother, throwing his arms around Jamie’s thin frame. Just the salty wet smell of Jamie’s neck covered in tears.
Aiden’s thirteenth birthday came and went. He spread his life out on a map in his brain, tired of talking about it out loud. The points on the map consisted of Jamie lying motionless in the dirt and Timmy’s bone-arm in 1996, and the first time Aiden and Charlotte had kissed. Even the Pez dispenser — that was on there too. It was not a map for Aiden to follow. It was just a map he pictured at night when everyone else had gone to bed.
. . .
That day on the school bus with Charlotte, they had gotten “retribution” wrong. Aiden understood that now. The real definition took form, hardening into something way more sad than the kiss they had shared. The word meant justice.
Jamie seemed slower when he came back from the rehabilitation program. He was still Jamie, but a version of him that had less to say and fewer ways to say it. He went to bed early these days — and before Aiden.
Sometimes Aiden had to swallow several spoonfuls of cough syrup from his mom’s medicine cabinet just to fall asleep. It felt like a cheat code he kept to himself. With his mouth numb and sticky, Aiden would dream about the inside of Jamie’s brain like a chalkboard covered in scribbles. In his dreams, a bone-arm erased the board and the chalk dust floated down from Jamie’s brain into his throat and lungs. He woke up tired from dreaming.
Jamie’s right hand sort of curled up like a claw now so he usually kept it shoved down in his pocket.
“Partial paralysis,” he said to Aiden one afternoon when they played Mortal Kombat and Jamie’s right index finger struggled to press the middle console button. “But I’m totally lucky, A.”
“It could have been worse,” Aiden said. “It could have been your brain.”
Charlotte wasn’t on the map in his head, right now, but Aiden hoped that could change. He hadn’t talked to her in fourteen days. She had pulled away but he didn’t know why. Jamie’s claw hand maybe, or Aiden’s new braces with the green and white elastic bands.
He caught her eye one day at recess in the fall. The afternoon felt so different from a year ago when the frost froze the pitcher’s mound and he had dreamed of kissing her. Aiden decided to give her a book, maybe in the spring. A book that said what he thought, which was I’m sorry about my crappy brother and for being a foot taller now.
Winter left as quickly as it had come and Byhalia emerged from it the way snow melts away from dead grass. Everything felt gray and wet. In April, it rained for six days straight and the principal cancelled school again because the water rose and flooded the entire gym floor.
On one of those drenched days, Aiden and Jamie bought burgers from Red Robin while their mom slept in late. The two boys sat side by side under the plastic awning while the sky spat rain down as if the town needed it badly.
Jamie offered him a Lucky Strike, and surprising the both of them, Aiden put it to his lips. He held his burger in one hand and the cigarette in the other, feeling a mixture of proud and sick.
“Don’t breathe in too deep, A,” Jamie said. “There’s no filter on a Lucky Strike.”
Aiden coughed and exhaled, his voice distorted when he said, “I thought you didn’t smoke anymore.”
“I mean, it’s just a cigarette,” Jamie said. “It’s my only vice.”
“Vice?” Aiden coughed again, from deep in his lungs.
“If I can’t — I can’t get high anymore, so this is all I’ve got,” Jamie said, laughing quietly. “Cigarettes and beer.”
Aiden handed the cigarette back to his brother. “If you did any more drugs, you would probably die,” he said, like he was explaining it for the both of them.
“That’s why I stopped, A. I almost died so I —”
“So that day last spring,” Aiden felt his chest tighten. “If the hospital had never happened, you would never have stopped?” He threw his burger toward the trash but it hit the side of the barrel and slid down to the wet asphalt.
Jamie was silent. He sucked in and breathed out a cloud of smoke. It hung in the space between them like the Frost Shield from Mortal Kombat that meant Freeze your attacker.
“Yeah,” he said, craning his neck to look at Aiden. “Yeah, I guess I only stopped because that shit happened.”
Aiden didn’t say anything.
“Look, A… In the spring — I just went too far,” Jamie said. “It could have happened to anyone.”
“But the map leads nowhere if you keep —” Aiden started to explain.
“Map? Listen, no one tells you how to navigate this shit.” Jamie laughed a sad laugh and shrugged. “Remember Timmy?”
He didn’t finish the thought. Aiden figured he could finish it on his own.
Jamie bit into his burger, flicking his cigarette into a puddle with his good hand. He swallowed hard and said, “As long as you stay away from the really bad shit…”
“So long as what?”
“You didn’t finish what you were saying,” Aiden said, and his voice was high and breaking.
“Oh.” Jamie lit another cigarette. “I don’t know.”
Walking home from Red Robin, Aiden’s sneakers filled with dirty water as he thought about what the judge in To Kill a Mockingbird meant when he said, “People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.”
When Aiden first read that line, he grinned thinking, Jeez, Louis, this dude states the obvious. He understood now, though, how the riddles in his favorite books were like the lies people told themselves.
When school started again, he would have to tell Mrs. Hazel what he’d figured out. This time he would leave the storm out of it because that had pretty much tanked his book report. It didn’t work, Aiden thought, to think of people as storms or halves of a whole. It didn’t really work to think of them as anything other than what they were.