Tracing Lines

Another piece from the first Clark Writes forum was performed by the amazing Mal Sklar. Inspired by a dream, Tracing Lines is an intriguing short story with great atmosphere. Read it below.

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Tracing Lines

Mal Sklar

High schools all smell the same. Kind of warmish and grubby in a way that sits on your skin, as if under the daily passes of Clorox and industrial-grade bleach, the place will never be truly clean.

If you had told me on the day of my high school graduation- robed, exultant, brimming with possibility, diploma held tight, my ticket to the world- that I would be back in that auditorium a scant three years later, I would have laughed in your face.

I sign in at the front desk and the bored security guard eyes me, maybe wondering if I’m a parent here to pick up my unruly child’s cell phone. I smile at her pleasantly and hitch my bag higher up on my shoulder.

My feet remember the way and brace themselves automatically as I drag the door open. I stop at the top of the aisle to let my eyes adjust to the light.

I have to hand it to them; my old school still has a beautiful auditorium.

Ranks of alternating blue and goldenrod vinyl seats from a bygone era of pride– despite the fact that the football team’s been sporting red and black for the past three decades- maroon velvet curtains framing the stage, gilded owls perched amongst the whorls of plaster in the corner moldings. What light that makes it past the long dusty curtains drifts like coffee in cream, making warm, honey-colored bars across the floor.

I shut the door behind me quietly, taking pains not to attract the attention of the director who is marshaling middle schoolers into their places. I’m late. I had forgotten that, with the year’s high school production already out of the way this space was being let out to the local middle school. That’s where I had been mere minutes ago, making a fool of myself as I explained the nature of my business to kind-hearted office ladies.

As I make my way down the isle, eyeing the artless tangle of sweaters and backpacks strewn across the seats, I spot a dark head in a seat stage left. As I slide in beside her she turns to me and her eyes spark in recognition.

“Oh my god, hi! What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Hannah.” Hannah and I had had a couple of classes together, had gone to Hebrew school together. “Home for the summer. What about you?”

“Same,” She says. “Supposed to be picking up my brother, but mom forgot to tell me that he had play practice today, so I figured I’d just wait.” Her wave encompasses one of the many frenetic children up on stage, a scrawny specimen wearing glasses with thick plastic frames, peering out from under a heavy fringe of hair. God, they all look so small.

“Oh yeah,” I say, groping back in my memory. “Jonah, right?”

“Mm-hmm.” Her eyes on me are still curious. She’s prettier than I remember, but it’s sort of a remote realization. Something about the warm stillness of the air, that familiar scent, the dust, the sun-warped wood, it holds me trapped in amber. I am suspended, I am unchanged since the day I walked out of this place for what was supposed to be the last time.

“So why are you here?” Hannah persists, and I give myself a little shake, remind myself that I am present, that I have a presence.

I slide a notebook from my bag. “I’m a journalism major now. Got a job with the local paper for the summer. They want me to take notes on the musical and talk to the director to draft something for Friday’s edition.”

“Oh, I see.” She sits back, temporarily satisfied.

“What about you? Where do you see yourself in ten years?” I joke, and if it’s jovial bordering on awkward, it doesn’t seem to contradict her memories of me.

She hums once more. “Something economics related, I guess. But I’m minoring in Spanish, too. Just spent a semester abroad in Argentina. So if I could find something that would let me use both…” she trails off. Maybe she’s feeling the weight of the air in here, too.

We drowse together.

I’m casting my eyes around, letting them skip across the staged scene, the shift of bodies like the slide of a kaleidoscope, forming one Renaissance tableau before heaving, collapsing, and reforming with fresh lines and curves to draw the eye, a dangling hand, an outflung arm, a pointed stare.

I shift in my seat, the sweep of my attention spreading in widening rings. I am a thrown pebble in an undisturbed pond. I am disturbing. I am disturbed.

Blue and saffron seats make the space seem closer, friendlier, and at the back of the hall sits a boy.

I frown.

“Hey, do you know who that is? I didn’t see him when I came in.”

Hannah twists around in her seat. She gives her hair a shake as it slides into her eyes. They looked black before, but in the light they are revealed to be a deep brown.

“Huh. No idea. Must be some high school kid. If he showed up after you he must have been pretty late though.”

As she’s turning back around, she catches my look.

I don’t know what made me say it. Hannah and I had never been close. Even now, a cracked azure seat billows up between us, a buffer, an impediment. I half-lean over it and she unconsciously mirrors me, her hair swinging free into the void between out golden thrones.

“Do you remember the book we read in Mrs. Marling’s class,” I say, and my voice comes out low and thrilling.

“Which one?”

“The one about the boy who didn’t know he was dead?”

Hannah’s breath catches and she chances half a look over her shoulder at the kid.

“Yeah?”

“It was just like this, wasn’t it?”

Hannah nods slowly, face screwed up. “Yeah, I remember. A boy would sit at the back of the room with his camera. Whenever anyone talked to him, he would tell them he was there for the school paper. No one knew who he was.”

My pulse was picking up. The finer details were starting to trickle back to me. “But this girl came late to play practice and sat by him and asked him his name, and he said he was just there to take pictures, gave her a weird look, and left. And the next time she saw him, she said hi, thinking he’d remember her, and he just gave her a blank look and said-”

Hannah finished for me, her voice soft. “I’m just here to take pictures.” She smiled, leaning back into her seat, tucking her hair behind one ear. “You should be a writer, not just a journalist. You’re good with stories.”

“Oh, you think journalism’s wasted on me?” I tease, and she grimaces.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

“It’s okay, I know what you meant,” I say to cover the sticky moment. The fact was I had wanted to be a writer for a very long time. But I had also wanted to travel, hence the decision to major in journalism.

Something stirs in my memory and I close my eyes, trying to hold onto its vanishing tail, trying to see it.

I had wanted to be a writer. Why didn’t I still? It hung just out of reach, and I imagined the idea having wings, stirring the air against my face as it hovered.

I had always loved to read, but where had the idea to be a journalist even come from?

From the very story Hannah and I had been discussing. The ghost, the boy, the one who just wanted to take pictures.

I think it was the colors that did it. Blue and gold. I remember that from the story. Blue and gold seats.

I open my eyes, painfully awake for the first time since I had dropped my suitcase on the floor of my childhood bedroom a couple of weeks ago and had sat down on my bed and the silence had pressed its knuckles against my eardrums and I had wondered how I had ever left this place, how this had ever been enough, how I had had the gall to declare that I wanted more.

“I’m… okay at telling stories.” I admit. “That one’s easy because I remember it so well. Do you remember who the author was?”

Hannah shrugs. Her posture, her heavy-lidded drowsiness seem suddenly strange to me, laconic rather than secretive, reticent rather than infected with quiet mischief.

“Something-Ross?” she guesses.

“Not Ross,” I say. “Rosen. Like me. That’s what I remember.”

“Cool,” Hannah says idly. “Must have been Jewish.”

I crane to look back at the boy in time to see him loop a strap around his neck, to see him hunch down a little, clearly examining something in his lap.

“Do you remember how that story ended?” I ask her, but its clear she’s getting bored with the conversation. She hums disinterestedly. The space between us seems cooler now, maybe because she’s no longer leaning in to meet me.

“The ghost and the girl spend more and more time together, longer and longer. At first he forgets her every time she leaves, and every time he sees her is like the first time all over again and she has to start from the beginning, but she knows he’s the ghost of a kid who disappeared decades ago and she feels bad for him or loves him or whatever, so she doesn’t mind telling him.”

Time is circular, the story had meant, or something like that. Time is the same things over and over, the same people and the same conversations with different lengths of experience backing them. Words mean different things when they are said again and again and again.

“Finally they start leaving the school together, and being with her, making memories in places he didn’t used to have memories, helps him to stay present and to remember who she is, and who he is. In the end they’ve spent years together, and he asks her to marry him. Do you remember what he said?”

I don’t bother to wait for a response and Hannah doesn’t bother to give one.

“He said to her, ‘My fair lady whom I love most, would you make me an honest ghost?’

Hannah meets my eyes, and there’s something in mine that she doesn’t want to see, something longing.

“You should be a writer,” she says flatly.

I sigh, gathering up my bag.

The boy tenses as I sit down beside him, eyeing me warily. He’s got a camera in his hands, a good one. It looks like an older model from what I can see, but if it is, it’s beautifully well cared for.

I offer him my hand. “Your surname is Rosen, right?” I ask him.

He looks like he’s about to bolt. “I’m just here to take pictures. For the school paper.”

“I know,” I say simply. I let my hand fall; it’s clear from the death-grip he has on that camera that he’s not going to take it. I stare absently at the many-legged spectacle that heaves and spreads across the stage, disjointed bodies becoming a whole, unbecoming, remaking, resolving.

“I know you’re a ghost,” I say as casually as one can say that kind of thing, and when I take another look at the kid he’s got a complicated sort of expression. Scared, but puzzled, too.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says finally. “I’m just here to take pictures.” As I watch, he lets his camera hang at the end of its strap, bumping against his chest as he fumblingly slings his bag over one shoulder.

He gives me one last look, and for a moment I think he almost lets himself believe that he recognizes me.

Then he’s slipping out the side door of the auditorium, which, I belatedly remember, opens onto an overgrown courtyard.

The door falls shut behind him and I believe that if I opened it now there would be no one there.

The play practice is disbanding, the many-legged monster spilling over the edge of the stage, resolving into individual tiny bodies. One dark-haired body detaches itself from the others, running over to where Hannah is beginning to rise from her seat.

I stand too, shouldering my bag and making my way down to where the director is emphatically gesturing to some child who stands, sullen and unmoved.

Ah well, I think. There’s always tomorrow.

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