Published: November 1st, 2015
Bennett Durkan is a graduate of Stephen F. Austin. His poetry has appeared in "Psaltery & Lyre," "The Red River Review," "FIVE2ONE Magazine," and "Ikleftiko." His fiction has appeared in "Scapegoat Review," "Sassafras," "The Horrorzine," and "9Tales Told in the Dark," with one forthcoming to "Sediments."
The Secret and the Not-So-Secret
The alarm clock, which could also function as a radio, went off. Both Mark and Karen woke up with a shock. Mark sat up, ignoring the weight. For a while, he forgot where he was. Piece by piece, the dresser with the half opened drawers, the poster for Casablanca, and the scattered jeans on the floor and over the back of his chair, the room became his bedroom. Karen’s eyes were wide, surprised by the startling sound of the clock. After Mark swatted the annoyance, he started to laugh. She looked at him, studying with one eyebrow raised. Infected with the same delirium which caught him, she too began to laugh. They were two teenagers on a Saturday morning. Light fell in through the still open window. The light wasn’t an intruder. It belonged in his room. It belonged on the shelf next to unread books and discarded sheets of paper covered in failed arithmetic. She dressed and approached the window. The smile on Mark’s face was starting to hurt. Straddling the sill, she kissed him once.
“Call me later,” she said in a whisper. She smiled and dropped the foot or so onto the grass. Mark watched as she left and crossed the yards.
A mild Texas summer entered through the opened window. Standing at the sill with his hands as support, Mark made the conscious decision to breathe in deep. He could hear his parents move about in the kitchen, which he recognized after having memorized the layout of the house. The clock radio, with one corner reaching out over the edge bedside table, showed a solid nine AM. He would have to hurry if he were to make it to the movies. As he was removing his faded, and no longer white, night shirt, he smelled sweat that was not his own. He showered, and dressed, grabbing his wallet off his dresser. Before he slid it in his back pocket, Mark opened it and saw the copy of Karen’s latest school photo, which she slipped into his hand. It was a few blocks, a short walk, to his friend’s house.
At his friend’s back door, Mark didn’t knock. The door was kept unlocked, and he just opened it as though it was his own house, just as he had done over the years. Within the threshold, he paused. Fingers twitched and his throat went dry. Words he had meant to say weren’t spoken. It didn’t seem like the right time to let his friend know. After a few seconds, Mark walked into the kitchen, where his friend stood before the oven.
“Good morning,” Justin said, Mark’s oldest friend. They met back when they were both eight years old. Justin’s voice sounded the same, even though Mark could recognize that the voice had deepened since their early teens.
“Morning?” Mark was just reacting. To him, for today, morning was something far behind him. Morning had ended when Karen gave him the kiss while straddling the window sill.
Justin, remained silent, but brought his eyebrows closer together. The gaze pierced all defenses, and Mark knew his poker face wasn’t good. His friends would see past the illusion. Raising an eyebrow, Justin donned oven mitts. Heat and melted chocolate filled the room as he removed a tray of cookies from the oven. This wasn’t the first time Justin has baked. A few months ago, the batch of peanut butter cookies came out burnt. Mark had taken a bite, and Justin shrugged. From the smell of things Justin was getting better. Staring at the cooling treats, the image played back in his mind, with full details, except now Karen had the aroma of sugar and milk chocolate. Her touch had been fresh from the oven. He was light headed, but blamed in on the open oven.
“So,” Justin said, placing the tray of cookies of the oven range, “what’s new with you?”
“Not much.” Mark’s lie felt thick, almost giving itself away the moment it was said. He winced at the sound, incredulous at the response he gave.
“Whatever.” Justin waved away his friend’s response. Instead, he examined his confections, checking for flaws. “Do y’know what movie Fred wants to see? What movies are playing? I keep forgetting to check the listings.”
“Sorry, no idea.” Mark gripped edge of the kitchen table.
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Let’s get going.”
Justin was the type to spend Fridays alone. Mark knew his friend and could picture the routines. Saturday morning Justin would wake up. The ever present sense that he didn’t matter, that the world would go on turning without him, would keep his eyes closed. His motions were distant, moving from muscle memory. Opening the oven, wearing the plain and over-sized mitts, and retrieving a perfumed batch, all seemed mechanical. Except for the cookie dough, Mark was the same last week. They were just motions, the means to the immediate end. Mark knew. Mediocre as they come, Mark knew. Last week he had felt the same, stuck in a middleclass dream, stranded in a white painted suburb. A few hours ago, he became someone different.
As Justin grabbed a pair of keys from the counter top, Mark thought of scarecrows. A lone scarecrow suspended by a wooden frame, lost in a sea of ripening corn. Justin’s hands were bone and skin fingers, wrapped as delicate as straw. But, Karen’s hands were alive. They made themselves known. The inches they traveled prickled in his memory. His friend was already out of the door before Mark noticed. As he hurried out the same door, in an unusual trot between a walk and a jog, he heard an engine turn.
On the quiet streets, Justin’s sight was directed to the road. He wasn’t smiling, and the skin below his eyes had a purplish tint. The big ‘It,’ his morning escapade, was on the tip of Mark’s tongue, wanting to be heard. But a want and ability are separate entities. His foot tapped out of rhythm from Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” Maybe the timing was wrong. This could be like a joke or a magic trick. Timing is everything. Told too early and the effect would be ruined. Nervous, he opened his mouth. But, he clamped down his jaw and turned to the window before an embarrassing syllable stumbled out. His foot kept tapping a different tempo.
This suburb was a safe dream. Houses were filled with families. Son and daughters returned late, past curfew. Dogs lived in backyards and conversed with every other dog. It wasn’t noon yet, and the weekend carried a thin drape of drowsiness. Newspapers sat at the end of driveways, and a few sprinklers ran their course. It was as though the sun couldn’t rise above the trees, light-posts, or houses. Inside the car, almost a different world, Mark watched the real world through the window.
They were heading to gather the third friend, the last wheel of their broken wagon. The trip never changed. The commercial advertising the radio station, which they were listening to, didn’t even finish. So much for the station which plays the most classic rock and the fewest commercials. They pulled up to the desired house, a common two story design. In this neighborhood, floor plans repeated every third house so as to avoid instant aesthetic repetition. The lawn needed to be mowed. The grass had grown tall enough so that as Mark walked through it, he could see his footprints behind him. Justin had his hands in his pockets as Mark rang the doorbell.
“Come on in!” Fred’s, the one they came to see, voice cascaded from an open window on the second floor. Justin tested the door knob. It gave way, the door sliding open with ease and no fast intentions. “I’ll be right down!” This time, Fred’s voice came from upstairs.
They entered the hall. The stairs heading to the second floor were on Mark’s left. He saw an open door just below the stairs. He ambled to the door, and looked in. The room had accrued junk. Unbalanced boxes stacked on each other, high enough that Mark would have to stretch to reach them. A fishing pole leaned in a corner next to a single ski. Mark took notice of the room for some reason. His eyes were just drawn to the room. He stared at the remnants of the past, the ingredients to anecdotes. A value was placed on each object and kept. Each box was filled with memories, at least for sentimental people. Fred’s father, who looked like an older Fred, could tell the story about his first time skiing, during his pre-mid-life crisis. The father’s boss would laugh and it would be done. The memory would be spent, used up. But Karen would look at a picture of Mark. Sighing, she would clutch the photo close. There came a rumble as Mark’s other friend bounded down the stairs.
Fred was tall and round. Though, his weight seemed secondary until he was sitting next to someone on a small couch, or in the backseat of Justin’s car. In the years he had gathered the certain knowledge of comfort. His fat is the fat of life, sugar and luxury. During a marathon of horror films, when Fred got up, Mark had seen a Fred shaped grove on the couch. The tan color was fading and the stitching was becoming loose. Fred’s family could afford the laziness. Fred knew it, but had never explained to Mark the details of his parents jobs. Often he would play it to his advantage. Halfway down the stairs, Fred adjusted the collar of his Polo shirt and tried to even out the sleeves. He reached the bottom step and pointed to the door with a finger barrel. “Let’s roll.” He led the way, swinging his elbows with each step. Justin had to move around him to unlock the car door, and push the passenger seat forward.
With a third occupant in the two-door sedan, Mark sat in the back. This was the usual arrangement. Yet today, he was entranced by the back of his friends’ heads. He had to tell them, explain to them, that he was someone different. Fred’s head bobbed, talking. His hands moved in rough circular motions, and Justin released the steering wheel to hold his palm flat. Mark couldn’t hear. He ran his fingers along the back of his own head. Traces of the way Karen let her hands glide through Mark’s matted hair remained. The warmth rising brought the music of Karen’s breathing, dampening all other noises. The moment was fresh, not yet overplayed. He has yet to examine it from all angles. The car grew dark. He wasn’t in the seat anymore. He was on his back, on his bed, and he wasn’t alone.
“What d’ya think?” Fred’s voice snapped Mark out of his daydreaming.
“Oh, sorry, wasn’t listening.” Mark was being honest. The car’s speakers were right by his head, a good excuse. He crossed his legs and leaned forward. Fred released a deep belly laugh. Justin shook his head and down shifted for the red light. If a new song came on the station, Mark couldn’t tell. The radio and Fred’s voice created an indiscernible wall of sound. And it remained so, until the three of them reached the movie theater.
Mark bought the ticket with some leftover money given to him by his Grandparent’s for his birthday, and went to the theater without looking at the concession stand. He repeated what his friends said without thinking about the words. With Mark on the end, the three sat nearest the center of the seats so that if the movie could look back it would be drawn to them first. Seats filled in, people Mark wouldn’t recognize went up and down the aisles, couples holding hands, mothers directing children while fathers led the pack. Mark looked ahead, seeing the people in his peripherals. The lights dimmed. Fred said something to Justin who passed it off with a grunt. The room darkened and the previews began.
A small sound, like a fingernail tapping glass, woke up Mark. His first floor bedroom window made the sound again as he sat up in bed. As he pulled up the Venetian blinds, the sound came again, accompanied by a brief glimpse of a pebble. Mark dropped the cord to the blinds. Karen stood outside and waved. She’s lived next door ever since Mark was one year away from being a teenager. Her new family had replaced the old couple who moved to Florida to live out their golden years on golden sand. It was the start of his long crush. Mark waved back, one eye still closed. He opened the window as he always had.
Outside, he tried to find the sun but it was still below the horizon. The sky was a transparent dark veil over a blue background. Karen stepped through the open window, a running joke. She was awake. Her smile danced around the room. Rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hands, Mark forced the room into focus. Karen sat down on his bed, bouncing on the springs. On the bedside table the clock’s red numbers mocked him. Without blinking, she watched him. He saw as much between blinks and yawns. Her cheeks had a tint to them. Errant light dripped through the window, allowing enough detail.
She sat on his faded blue sheets and crossed her legs. He noticed she was still wearing her pajamas. He then noticed he was still wearing his, an old t-shirt and a pair of oversized boxers. In hers, she looked precocious, a wild schemer who just snuck out. In his, Mark looked like he just woke up. To test his theory, he ran a hand through his hair. The side of his hair which rubbed against his pillow as he slept was stiff. He tried to smooth it down, but stopped when his stiff hair popped up again. Putting grooming aside, he sat down next to her. The mattress was old. Springs were rough and uneven. She rose as his body evened out the topography.
“I was just in bed.” Karen looked at her. Her big toe played with a part of the sheet that had found its way to the carpet. “Couldn’t get to sleep. For some reason, I was thinking about you, all the time we’ve spent together. Remember last Thanksgiving, when we both got sick from too much leftovers?” Mark nodded. Having her talk about it brought back memories of cold gravy. “And then this idea just popped in my head, so I came over.” Her smile was more than smile she gave for school photos.
Like a fishing hook in his stomach, Mark felt the tug of something approaching. She had entered through his window several times, but had never done so to sit on his bed in her pajamas. The electricity of the unknown arced through the air. Words jammed his throat, causing none to escape. Feeling embarrassed, he saw her watch as she bounced her foot. A spark ignited as her hand slid over his. It all just happened. They fell backwards and then on top of each other.
Her weight was something new, and made him something new. He was young. He was American. Because of her, her weight and body heat, he was now a statistic. A proud number, part of a proportion, he could hold his head high. The springs groaned under their weight. Together, as she laid her head on his chest, they were heavier than they had been apart. He felt it all. He felt how her bones and muscles worked together. The heat coming off of her skin singed his. The pattern of her breathing was as gentle as white noise. Sweat was sprinkled in the air like spice.
Afterward, she curled under the crook of his arm. In the way she laid, the heartbeat against his side, he knew she was asleep. He closed his eyes and also fell asleep.
The movie was over, and Mark stood outside the theater. Justin looked at the wall of posters, and Fred ducked into the restroom. People surrounded Mark, strangers he would never see again. He saw past their disguises, their conversations about critics, the bags of popcorn held up as shields. He saw their bedroom lives, the secret and the not-so-secret. They were everywhere, not just at the movies. Mark would be a stranger to someone. His fingers twitched, and his mouth went dry. Justin walked near. He would understand, or, if not understand, he would at least listen, free from judging.
“I had sex,” the words fell out of Mark’s mouth like a pair of pajama pants being tossed aside, “with Karen, my neighbor.” The gravity inside his stomach didn’t alleviate. He looked around, but no one else seemed to have heard. Justin turned his head a few degrees, enough to acknowledge Mark.
“Congratulations.” Justin looked at the movie posters lining the walls. He didn’t crack a grin, nor did his eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “I’ll bake you a cake.” Another theater emptied. A mass of people surrounded the three friends. Fred was determined, walking ahead and not looking back. He cut a swathe, using his bulk as a tool. Justin and Mark followed in the wake. Fred was so far ahead. Justin blended in with the crowd. Mark, himself, was falling behind. The crowd rushed by, assimilating all pedestrians in the area. Shirts and shoulders bumped into Mark. The doors to the theater opened and the crowd formed lines. All Mark could do was look around and try to pick out a familiar face.