Matt McDonald | Unacceptable

Sol woke suddenly, like he’d been smacked in the face, with his muscles knotted and tense. His nose was runny, leaving a wet spot on his pillow, and his throat felt coated in dust. The blankets and sheets were twisted and bunched at his feet, his hairless chest exposed to chilly air. His parents were far too proud of their new central air conditioning. His heart raced, ignited by something outside his bedroom, something subconscious. It had been a vivid dream; it had to be, to leave him so wired yet disoriented. He felt disjointed, twitching his head around the room, making sense of it’s contents: the worn-out books, which were stacked next to his dresser, hidden from the door’s view; the vase on his nightstand, which contained the skeleton of a flower. Nothing in the room gave him any clues; his recollection of the dream was as black as the world outside his oversized window. He clenched his fists and ground his teeth, searching for clarity in the anxious blur of his thoughts. He’d been falling. Or was it flying?

Sol untangled his feet, stumbled out of bed, and wrapped a flannel shirt around his shoulders. Sleep was always sketchy. He could hardly ever fall back asleep after waking in the middle of the night; too many thoughts flooded his mind in the dark solitude of the basement. Will today be different? He wanted not to care. He told himself to be as chill as his brother. But in the middle of the night, nervous energy took hold. He felt like he was clutching an umbrella, desperate to hold on against punishing wind.

He took a deep breath, trying to calm the bass drum in his chest, and looked down at his nightstand. He fingered the flower’s lifeless stem, sliding his hand up the stalk, the brown, cardboard membrane smooth against his dry skin. The last of the petals had fallen from the now exposed stamen, which looked plain and awkward without them. Sol recalled the day he started keeping plants next to his bed. A few lilies had caught his eye in Stop & Shop. Out of nowhere, he wanted nothing more than to sketch them, paint them, photograph them. He needed subjects for his final art project, but his intrigue was fueled by more than grades. His parents hated art. “What’s the point?” they always asked each other when the topic came up at dinner. “Paintings don’t do anything, and painters don’t make anything.” Nevertheless, Sol had asked them to buy him the flower. “After we offer to buy you anything you want in Sports Authority, you want a flower in the grocery store? What’s the problem?” his dad had said. Then his mom had whisked his dad away, chuckling, to argue over which “Season’s Greetings” sign would look better on the front door. As he left the store, Sol slipped the lilies inside his jacket.

His eyes were clamped shut. When he opened them, a tiny sliver of moonlight had slipped through the clouds and the night, a little path to the heavens. The moon beam illuminated the dead stalk of the flower like a mini spotlight. Sol hastily pulled his painting supplies from a desk drawer and went to work. Relaxation washed away his anxiety, a wave cooling hot sand, as he recreated the image on paper. Time flew as his imagination ran away with him — four o’clock then six. He spent his final hour reading Kafka.

At seven fifteen, Sol opened the refrigerator. His parents, gone for work, had finished off the milk. It wasn’t the first time their pooled incomes, easily a quarter million a year, failed to leave him breakfast. It’s not like he was looking to be waited on; all he ever wanted before school was a bowl of cereal. But he had a funny feeling that his deprivation was intentional. The morning after an argument was always a crapshoot, and last night’s dinner conversation had been worse than most. He had told his parents the final list of colleges to which he would apply, and his dad’s reaction was typical: “But all those schools are D3! Not to mention, what a bunch of liberal hippie havens. You better not be smoking weed, Sol.”

Avoiding being called a liar for saying he didn’t smoke, Sol pressed on. “Like I said, two of them already offered me arts scholarships, and I can apply for more. They aren’t full-ride, but I think they’re–”

“It’s not the money. Jesus Sol, take a look around.” His dad pointed a barbecue-sauce-covered finger at the sofa in the living room, its Italian leather dully reflecting the light from the ornate lamp beside it. Sol hated that damn couch. “I’d pay whatever price if I knew you were doing something with my money. You think you’re gonna go learn to be on Broadway or be friggin’ Picasso? I thought you were applying to Penn State!”

“Oh come on, Rich.” Sol’s mom had returned to the dining room, placing a pot of cloth lilies in the center of the table. She was never good for more than fifteen minutes of sitting. “He doesn’t want to be in Philadelphia. It’s just a crappier, less luxurious version of New York.” Sol and his dad shared a rare look, even a fleeting smile; if she made comments like this less often, one of them might have explained that Penn State wasn’t in Philadelphia. “And besides,” she went on, “both boys can’t go to the Big Ten. They’ll hate each other!”

Then Sol’s dad started arguing with her. Then they both argued with Sol. And now, the milk was gone. Sol sighed. Kicking the door shut, he found himself face to face with his brother. Del’s white Illinois football jersey was stained with green streaks, and even in full gear, he was still shorter than his girlfriend. She really was as gorgeous as everyone said. Her dark wavy hair fell to her chest, curving around tan, pushed up breasts. Her tight figure was turned sideways, her lips planted on Del’s cheek. If a girl like her would pick Sol, things might be a lot simpler. They’d been the hottest couple of the Washington High senior class three years earlier — sports stars, homecoming stars, prom stars. Now they were off at Illinois, still attracting more attention than Sol did.

His shoulders tensed, rash anger shooting through him, as he looked at his brother’s face. His mom had been dead wrong last night; no matter where, or if, he went to college, he would never hate Del. But even if they wound up at the same school, they still wouldn’t see each other. Sol would keep suppressing his envy, while Del would continue to avoid him. It’s not like Sol hated sports. Maybe not football so much, but he’d been decent at baseball. Moreover, he liked it. But when his dad tried to force him onto the American Legion team, which would have removed him from his community theatre production of Spring Awakening, Sol quit. It was the only time his dad ever hit him. Del was studying business and he never quit anything. Now he was saving their parents thousands of dollars by buckling his shoulder pads. Sol took the picture off the fridge and pocketed it. Fuck sports. He missed his brother. He snatched a banana and tossed a pile of books into his backpack, a Bible, The Awakening, and Siddhartha joining a collection of Kafka stories and his sketchpad.

Sol’s morning classes came and went, the usual blur of wasted time. He was now sure that not even math teachers cared about imaginary numbers; they were paid to pretend. Taco salad for lunch again. Grinding the stale tortilla shells between his teeth, Sol felt drowsiness creeping up on him like a shadow. He tried to listen to his “friends” arguing about who spent the most time studying for final exams. “Friends” was the operative word when he thought about his social life. He knew artsy people, athletes, outcasts, punk skaters, “normal” kids; at one time or another, he’d identified with each clique. But he didn’t feel like he belonged with anyone. He felt okay at a bunch of different things, interested, but not good at anything. Because to really belong, you had to be good.

Every other second, he caught himself zoning like this, staring at different tables in the cafeteria. Left on their own, his eyes lingered longest on the “jock” table — hot girls, hot guys. He had to rip his gaze away from the back of Kellen, the starting quarterback, point guard, pitcher. Sol contributed to the studying conversation out of necessity: “Haven’t you guys heard? It’s quality, not quantity; I studied for like two hours total last year, but who wound up acing Physics and English?” He fervently gestured to his chest with his thumbs in mock arrogance. Everyone laughed, “Shut up, Sol, you suck!” — all except for Eddie, whose features hardened. He looked up at Sol, who felt his smile deflate. Eddie’s eyes were x-ray machines; for a split second, Sol felt naked, transparent. He had actually studied for twice as many hours as anyone else at the table. His early morning hours of solitude had pushed him to nearly 20. Or had it been 25? The penetrating expression struck Sol, like he’d seen it before. A fleeting image from the subconscious flashed in his mind; Eddie’s hardened features, the blue eyes awkwardly close together, had appeared in Sol’s dream before he’d been jolted into consciousness. Falling or flying?

He excused himself, anxiety mixing with the ground beef and heavily processed cheese in his stomach. If people gave two shits about schools, maybe there would be enough money in the system to replace taco salad. For some reason, the lamp next to the couch in his living room came to mind, the ugliest “classy and luxurious” item he had ever seen. The day his mom bought it, she forgot to stop at the grocery store. School lunches ever since.

Satisfied to toss the rest of his taco salad in the trash, Sol glanced toward Kellen’s table as he hurried toward the open double doors beyond the vending machines. He probably looked ridiculous, scurrying away like a spider after it’s almost been stepped on. Just as he began to wonder where Kellen had gone, he found himself face to face with him. The quarterback walked through the door on the right, hand in hand with his girlfriend, at the same moment Sol did. When their shoulders touched, Sol felt breathless, about to fall. He looked sideways and slightly downward at Kellen’s face — five o’clock shadow, steely brown eyes, ruffled black hair — and felt himself try to smile. Kellen’s girlfriend’s eyebrows contracted, as if Sol smelled like football cleats. But Kellen turned to Sol, fist extended. “Hey Sol, what’s up man?”

He did this every time they ran into each other — the bro fist pound. It made sense; as the younger brother of Del’s girlfriend, Kellen didn’t see Sol as just another face in the hallway. Times when their paths crossed, like lunch hour, Sol wished he could disappear. “Not much, you?” His voice sounded distant, muffled, not his own. Before Kellen could answer, a hand slid onto his shoulder, and the voice of Coach, Washington High’s athletic director, split the exchange. Sol felt his face flush.

“Trying to get Hader back on the ball field, Kell?” Coach’s eyes surveyed Sol like an ugly painting. “That dog’s had its day. Not quite the same as Del, huh?” He chuckled dryly, turning to Kellen. “Are him and your sister still goin’ strong?”

Not surprising, but Sol still had to suppress a fist-first outburst. Since Del graduated, Coach had done his best to make sure Sol knew which brother was the favorite. Now, Kellen had become his new student-athlete superhero. Still holding his girlfriend’s hand, Kellen raised his eyebrows at Sol — a subtle apology. But all he said was, “Yeah, they are.”

Cheeks hot, Sol said, “Later, Kellen.” Without meaning to, he quickly scanned the girlfriend’s chest. If one more button was undone on her light green shirt, the bra would be visible. He averted his eyes, but a tall girl in a tight shirt walked by, and they refocused on her tight blue jeans. Head suddenly spinning, he hurried away toward the science wing. They’d all noticed; how couldn’t they? Part of him wished Kellen would chase him down and punch him, knock him out. The walk to Physics was a blur. If Sol’s feet didn’t know the way, he might have gotten lost. When he sat at his desk, front and center, his eyes were stinging. He pulled out his notebook, flipped to the page where he recorded random thoughts, one-liners he might be able to use in poems or stories. Are you always the most fucked up person you know? After he wrote it, the question throbbed in his mind for the next half hour, narrating a slideshow of images — Eddie, Coach, Kellen, girls, Del, tits, low-ride jeans. He managed to listen to Mrs. Salt for ten minutes, long enough to hear about a law of trajectory for falling objects. Demonstrating, she rolled a small rubber ball off a table as she dropped another from the same height. The first fell straight down while the second flew off the side, but they hit the white tiled floor in unison.

Sol sketched his way through the rest of his classes; it was not a day for focus. The images kept rolling through his mind, and his recollection of the dream remained as abstract as ever. After he closed his locker for the last time, he considered smashing his head into the wall to make it all stop. His play rehearsal, Titus Andronicus, had been cancelled for the evening. The Go Bulldogs Booster Club needed the auditorium for a meeting, so Sol’s parents would be out of the house. He wondered if his dad had been the one to request the theater. Walking to his weekly meeting with the National Honor Society advisor, dread bubbled in his stomach at the prospect of more solitude. Alone was how he liked it, but there were no distractions in isolation. Only thoughts. He imagined himself sitting in his room yet again: Kellen laying next to him, Del standing on the dresser in his pads, Eddie’s face in place of his mirror, half-naked girls filling all the remaining space, his dad’s voice booming from the ceiling like divine thunder — I won’t pay for college for you to do art!

“Hey Sol, you wanna come over tonight? Rehearsal’s cancelled, so I figured we’d all do something.”

His mind ripped itself from his bedroom and shakily refocused on the face in front of him. Shoulder-length honey colored hair, frizzy and streaked with pink, narrow brown eyes behind rectangular glasses. Acne, not bad, but a couple zits on the forehead and cheeks — minor blemishes on an otherwise decently cute face. Not hot — the chin was a little abrupt and the eyes a little far apart — but cute. Del had always made a point of distinguishing between the two. Zoey looked her best today, with an olive cardigan draped over her shoulders, open in the front to reveal a black and white striped tee. Her breasts weren’t prominent, but they were there. Her grey jeans weren’t tight. “Cool,” he said. “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Sweet,” she said. A pause — a slight grin curled her lips. “I told everyone else to come around seven, when my parents get home. But you can come a little early, if you want.” She shifted her weight and looked up at him. Sol’s mind began to cloud; his tongue went numb. After  he didn’t say anything, Zoey continued. “To show each other some art, maybe?”

Sol unfroze, not sure what the tingling in his stomach meant. “Yeah, sounds good. You live on Elm, right?”

“Yeah. See you later,” she said. She turned on her heel and walked away, leaving Sol with a whole new set of thoughts. Were they dating? Did he want to date her? Would he get turned on if he sketched her naked? She’d probably be into that. But he was overreacting as always. They’d only started talking a month ago, at the first Titus rehearsal. A couple hangouts later, they were friends. He showed her his sketches and she taught him how to stain glass, saying she was “super impressed” by his sketches, but that sketching was “such a cliche — you should get into something different.” Sometimes he found her attractive, like the two times they made out after rehearsal. Sometimes he didn’t. He’d dreamed about her several times; one night, he had sex with her. But his dad had been standing next to the bed, holding a 12 gauge to Sol’s head and yelling at him to keep going. In another dream, Sol hit her in the face with a baseball bat after she tried to rape him. The next night, they starred as rebellious lovers in Spring Awakening, performed on the turf of Soldier Field in Chicago in front of seven million screaming, faceless fans. But then her father, deacon at Washington’s Catholic parish, had them arrested and shot into space in a tiny purple canister. Sol chuckled as he opened the door to the Honor Society office. They’d had the time of their lives in that canister, laughing as they speculated on whether they would freeze, explode, or suffocate first. Then they imagined what might come next. That dream had inspired Sol to sketch the outrageous and comedic deaths of almost everyone he knew. “If everyone’s gotta do it,” Zoey had said in the dream, “why not die in the funniest way you can think of?” Sol wondered if the real Zoey felt the same way.

The meeting was uneventful, typical productivity. Sol outlined some of his ideas for community service events, and the advisor chuckled at his “creativity,” praising him for his hard work.  After they finished, Sol made the short drive to Washington Falls, his favorite place to read. He navigated the secret trail through the brush that brought him onto a line of cliffs from which the East Branch crashed over 100 feet into the pool below. Standing at the edge, he remembered the times he’d looked down at the pool and the jagged rocks and imagined jumping. They had been days like today. Sometimes he kicked rocks off the cliff to see if they would shatter when they hit the ground.

After several uncomfortable minutes, he pulled the Bible from his pack and sat against an oak. The cool breeze from the falling water played with the pages of Luke 23 and flicked Sol’s hair. His parents resented the Bible — “how can a collection of fairy tales be the number one selling book in the world?” his dad said once. Even if they’d been interested, they would never have time to give to religion. Sol wasn’t a devout worshipper of the Word; the only reason he bought a Bible was to read about Solomon. But for some reason he’d become fascinated. Maybe he was a minister in the making. Or maybe he was in it simply for one-liners, answers. As he read, his mind didn’t wander. The people and body parts that had tormented him all day mercifully stayed in his Subaru. But when he got to the crucifixion, part of him wished his subconscious would take over. Hanging from a cross while your lungs collapsed would never meet his and Zoey’s standards for an acceptable way to go. When he came to verse 43, he stopped reading, staring at the small black letters. Jesus was responding to a criminal, slowly suffocating, nailed to a cross next to him. Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. Sol reread the line several times; the last word surprised him. Paradise. Paradise? After a few moments, his eyes moved on, leaving his mind stuck on verse 43. He wanted to see Zoey’s dad. He wanted to ask him about paradise.

A few chapters, a sketch, a turkey sandwich, and two and a half hours later, Zoey was on top of him. Hands feverishly exploring his scalp, her mouth was glued to his lips, her tongue wrestling his while their hips flowed back and forth, locked together. He moved his hands up and down her back, through her hair, below her belt line. The past half hour had been a blur, just like everything that came before it. They gossiped about other cast members, and she showed him her latest project, a tye-dye stained glass marijuana leaf. It was impressive, like everything else she did, a perfect balance of the rainbow. “What about you?” she said. His pulse quickened: “I don’t have anything new.” He looked away. “Liar,” she said, grinning. Sol looked at her, mind blank. He hadn’t wanted to. Sighing, he pulled out his sketchpad and flipped to his last drawing. It depicted an abstract version of Coach, his arm extended into a thumbs-up. He was surrounded by four football players, each stabbing a colored pencil into a different part of his body. Tiny specs of pencil blood streaked the page. She had examined it for a moment, eyebrows raised. Then she burst out laughing. “This is hysterical!”

She breathed heavily, a light moan. Sol wished she had chewed a piece of gum between lunch and his visit — more taco salad. He groaned too, remembering Del’s advice: “There’s definitely a time for dude-moans.” But the smell of ground beef triggered another image slideshow — Kellen, Coach, garbage can, Eddie, taco salad, turkey sandwich, verse 43. She moaned again, snapping Sol back to reality. He forced himself to focus on her body. He moved his hands around again, squeezing her hips. His mind threatened to wander, the feeling of forgetting something. Five, six, seven more minutes of kissing and thrusting — then she sat up and pulled off the striped shirt. Black bra with pink polka dots. Black ink interrupted the pale skin on the side of her ribs: a tree with falling leaves ran from her waistline halfway up her ribs, an intricate peace sign on her hip in place of its roots. She straightened her glasses and wiped her brow, staring fixedly into Sol’s face. Del would have laughed; it was the most awkward, scrunched-up seduction face Sol had ever seen. But he clenched his eyebrows, trying to make himself like it. He looked down at her breasts, imagining them going at it again. He’d become horribly aware of deflation in his pants. Del would have laughed at that too. After Zoey unbuttoned and unzipped, she giggled. “We’ll just have to fix this.” But as she tried to “fix” it, the last thing Sol felt like doing was laughing. His mind started to run away again; his dad appeared next to the bed, and he felt the barrel of the 12 gauge on his temple. He felt like a hospital patient, passive to her touches, distracted by a poster of George Clooney taped between the closet and the drape-covered window. His heart began to pound as she looked up at him. “What’s wrong, Sol?”

“I’ve gotta go,” he said, head spinning. He pulled his legs away from her and sat up, yanking his pants to his waist.

“What? Sol, it’s fine. I don’t care. It happens –”

“I’ve gotta go. Sorry.” His cheeks burned, like his voice had cracked during a song in front of the entire school. He stumbled from the room, not hearing her reply, jamming his sketchpad into his backpack. A left, a right, and he found himself facing a dead-end: a half-open door to which a small wooden cross was nailed. He glanced over his shoulder, but Zoey hadn’t caught up yet. His feet sped forward, bumping the door open. He looked around frantically, no idea what he was searching for. Two robes hung in the closet, two more crucifix crosses on the wall. A notebook was open next to a vase of silk roses on the desk in front of him. As he turned toward the door, surveying the desk, black ink at the bottom of one of the pages caught his eye. He took a few steps closer, squinting. Underneath what looked like an agenda, a list of bullet points and verses, was a line of small capital letters: LBGTQ=UNACCEPTABLE. Sol froze. Then he reached for the Bible next to the notepad, ready to flip to one of the verses on the list. Zoey’s voice startled him. “Why the hell are you in here?” She sounded far more incredulous than upset.

“I don’t know, I –” Sol choked on his words, backing away from the desk. He straightened his backpack and tried to slip past her. “I’ve gotta go.”

She grabbed his arm, looking up at him with what she must have thought was an encouraging smile. “Sol, calm down. It’s fine.” She touched his shirt, tugging him into a kiss. “I don’t care. It happens to everyone. Stay.” Before he could protest, his cheeks on fire, the doorbell rang. “Shit.” She tried to fix her hair, which pointed in all directions, while Sol buttoned his pants. The capital letters were engraved on his skull, tattooed on the insides of his eyelids. UNACCEPTABLE. Walking to the couch in the living room as Zoey answered the door, he cleared his mind by forcing himself to imagine her on top of him.

The hangout was normal. It might have been fun if Sol had been able to relax. He didn’t leave the lumpy grey couch, afraid to run into Zoey’s dad, and kept feeling his nails dig into his arms. The deacon, tall and straight-backed, walked by several times but didn’t stop to talk or investigate. Clearly, Zoey’s mom was the reason the eight actors were allowed to be there. She stopped in to the living room to replenish the popcorn, potato chips, and Sprite periodically. After they’d shared stories and gossiped, the girls leaving at one point to have a private chat in Zoey’s room, she even let them watch American Pie. “Just keep the volume down,” she said. By the time the credits scrolled, Sol’s back ached, and a muscle in his thigh twitched. His whole body had been clenched from start to finish, the day’s events repeating themselves in his mind. The same images, same feelings. The only one who sat on the couch with him was Eddie. They never directly talked outside of rehearsal. Sol hadn’t known why until lunch. Luckily, Eddie didn’t look at him.

As Zoey ejected the DVD, yawning, Eddie stood and stretched. “I love that movie. Sean William Scott is frickin’ hysterical.” He reenacted one of the actor’s comedic moves, slowly thrusting his hips forward and back, swinging his right arm in a smacking motion. Everyone laughed, except Sol. He wished Zoey didn’t; he hated every moment she laughed at her ex.

Just as he was about to make himself say something funny, Eddie continued, “I’ll bet he never had any problems getting it up.” The x-ray eyes turned to Sol, complemented by a smirk. Sol’s stomach plummeted, every muscle froze. He’d imagined it; Eddie had said something else. He was just paranoid. But as he watched, deaf and from a distance, Zoey snapped her head to the right, glaring at the other girls. They were holding their palms to their mouths, trying to suppress snorts of laughter. Even the two boys behind Eddie laughed. The walls began to close in; Sol felt them press against his skull, suffocating pressure. His heart throbbed, as if shockingly aware of its mortality, and his head spun once more. A voice from his right: “Yo Eddie, check this out, man. I just accidentally knocked Sol’s pack off that chair coming back from the bathroom, and this fell out.” Andy, Eddie’s best friend, held up Sol’s sketchpad, open to a drawing.

Eddie took it, eyes scanning. “What’s this, Sol?” When Sol said nothing, he squinted. “Is that Kellen Klatt?” Everyone swarmed around him, like idiots around an iPad. Zoey was right in the middle, scrunched between Eddie’s shoulder and one of the girls’ arms. An invisible fist punched Sol in the gut; he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t believe what was happening. Mouth dry, he saw Zoey’s eyebrows rise. He’d drawn the picture two nights ago after waking from a horrifying and erotic dream about Kellen. Huge, strong, and naked, Kellen was standing on top of the school, dwarfing it. The clock tower over the front doors rose to barely cover his genitals. With one leg raised, knee bent, he was about to stomp on Coach. His face was turned to the side, joined to Sol’s at the lips. With his left arm, bicep bulging, he was holding Sol in the air, his hand between his legs.

Sol had no idea what to say. His hands shook like he was freezing to death. The girl next to Zoey tried to whisper in her ear, but the words came out loud enough for everyone to hear: “Is he bi?”

Eddie chuckled. “Jesus, Sol, this is news. Are you fucking with us, with Zoey?” He glanced sideways at Zoey, as if to see whether she would object. “I mean if you’re out, you’re out. Just don’t mess around.”

Zoey looked up at him, then turned toward Sol. He couldn’t read her expression, but her eyebrows were still slightly raised. “You didn’t show me this one,” she said. Her voice was plain, like a one-note song. “It’s good.” She was clearly searching for words. “I don’t really know why you –”

Suddenly there were footsteps in the hall. “Zoey, it’s past eleven and it’s a school night.” The deacon’s voice was higher than Sol had imagined. He emerged from the hallway behind Eddie in a navy bathrobe. Everyone turned toward him, except Zoey, whose eyes were still glued to the drawing in Eddie’s hands. “I know you guys like it late, but it’s time for goodnights.” A pause. “What have you got there, Zo?”

Sol’s jaw dropped. He stepped forward, heart racing, and heard himself say, “Just my script. I’ve gotta go.” He grabbed the sketchpad, but Eddie didn’t release it. Mind numb, Sol felt his hand clench into a fist and swing upward. It missed Eddie’s face, but connected with his ear, knocking him backward into Zoey’s dad. Eddie’s “What the hell?” mixed with the deacon’s stunned exclamation as they caught themselves against the wall. Sol snatched his backpack and jammed the sketchpad inside as he flung a strap over his shoulder. He stumbled to the door, tripping over an armchair, as the deacon said, “Sol, that’s unacceptable. Come back here!” Before he slammed the door, he got a fleeting look at Zoey’s back as she turned toward Eddie and her dad. Everyone else was frozen in place.

When he hit 90, struggling to keep his Subaru between the yellow and the white, he narrowly missed a white-tailed deer. He couldn’t remember the last time he cried — Del said several times that “dudes just shouldn’t cry, I guess.” His father said “There’s a place for men who cry: Fagville, USA.” But hot tears blurred the green street sign as he flew past the road to his house. His heart was a bass drum again; everything he’d read, seen, felt, and heard that day flooded over him. Like a desperate loner, he checked his phone for what must have been the hundredth time. Del still hadn’t texted back. Had he made up his mind yet? The only person who’d ever defended Sol from their father had nonchalantly dropped into a text the previous night that he was considering enlisting. As if Del Hader needed to be any more of a hero. Sol remembered that night clearer than any of his dreams. Over Christmas break, his father had made an all-out push to get Sol to try out for the baseball team instead of Titus Andronicus. “You’re a senior! Better late than never, right?” he said. “No, Dad,” Sol said, “get over it.” Out of nowhere, his dad had smacked his empty bottle of Budweiser on the table and stumbled toward Sol, fist raised. “My son, a goddamn flamer.” Del, just home from the gym, mixing a protein shake, had stepped in front of his father and placed both hands firmly on his shoulders. “Sit your ass back in that chair, Dad. If I ever see that shit again, the cops will be all over this house. Got it?”

Sol had never seen his father so stunned or so broken. Wordlessly, he returned to his chair and crumpled. For at least forty-five minutes, he sat in silence, drinking more Budweiser and gazing blankly out the window. Twice when Sol passed the table, he looked up, features limp. It was the closest thing to an apologetic expression Sol had ever seen on his face.

America wasn’t the one who needed Del.

Paradise flashed through Sol’s mind as he parked by the entrance to the secret trail.  Religions were infuriating; while one was telling you about paradise, the other was describing Nirvana. Then there were all the conditions, the fine print. What about the “unacceptables?” What happened to them? Would they fall straight down, tragically crashing into eternal nothingness, or was it possible to fly gracefully into whatever came next. Billions of people had believed in paradise, billions in Nirvana. They couldn’t all be wrong. It had to be better than this.

As he stumbled through the bushes, thorns grabbing and slicing his soft forearms, Sol thought of that damn Italian leather couch. And the lamp. Maybe this day had gone so wrong because the milk was gone. Maybe he could convince his parents to pay Del not to join the Marines. Maybe they’d pay for a fancy funeral at the deacon’s church. He saw Zoey’s back, Eddie’s smirk as he stepped robotically toward the wall of darkness beyond the cliff. Looking to his right at Washington Falls, infinite crashing and the familiar mist on his face, Sol almost laughed. UNACCEPTABLE. His parents hated jumpers.

His heart had done enough frantic pounding in this single day to last a lifetime. Looking down on the ground below, silhouettes of jagged rocks in the moonlight, his head stopped spinning. Ridiculously, he thought of the law of trajectory for falling objects; it wouldn’t matter if he leapt as far as he could or did a pin-drop. He pulled his Bible from his backpack, flipped to verse 43, and placed it on the cold slab pages-down. With his other pale hand, he pulled the picture of Del and his girlfriend from his left pocket, smoothing it out against his thumping chest, and gazed down at his brother, the hero.

Breathe deep. Take a step. Feel the rushing wind.

 

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