I’m teaching creative writing this term and will ask my class to write a short short story (less than 750 words). I’ve never felt fiction was my particular gift, but I wanted to try the task before I assigned. This piece is a sketch, really…
Tom drew three superheroes in the margins of his math book. An asterisk emblazoned the upper left of Footnote Man’s chest—toxic waste granted him the power to offer background information. Columns and rows covered the unitard of his friend Categorizer, who magically knew the proper place for everything. In the background, drawn lightly in pencil, stood The Grey Metaphor. One arm outstretched and pointing, he explained a murky issue in an equally murky way.
Tom smiled. He was staying in the school library as long as he could, worried he’d arrive home to find his mother getting drunk instead of snoozing on the couch. The librarian would throw him out about five and then he’d dawdle. Maybe he’d take the bus several stops too far. If his mother was awake, that’d be his excuse—he’d absent-mindedly looked up and discovered himself well past home. He hadn’t used that story.
But his twenty pages of Huck Finn were read. He filled the blanks of a worksheet on Jacksonian democracy. He completed problems 7-31, odd. He had nothing else to do but draw not-so-superheroes.
The librarian woke him from his reverie. “Tom?”
He stacked his books before sliding them into his backpack. He never locked eyes with Ms. Coulter. Their eyes were similar magnetic poles, repellent, slippery.
She said, “Wait, Ms. Davis and I will be here for a half-hour or so. It’s just that…”
Tom recognized a question forming in her tone, concern brewing. He needed a getaway.
“No, I’ve got to go, actually,” he said, “My mom’s probably outside already.”
“Where’s your jacket? It’s cold out.”
“In my locker. I’ll grab it.”
November waited outside. It fit Tom’s heroic code that he go without a coat. Last year’s didn’t fit, but he’d borrowed as many stray fives as he dared from his mother’s purse. Just out the door, the wind whipped up Tom’s pants’ legs, and he flinched.
A stranger Tom knew stood in the bus shelter. He remembered him because he was about his father’s height and build. Tom could ask his dad for a coat, but since the remarriage and new baby, his father’s promises seemed more half-hearted. And Tom didn’t want to nag. Tom’s dad paid for Catholic school, and his biggest promise—college—loomed. Tom replayed a scene he’d imagined many times, his dad glancing over acceptance letters and praising Tom for bearing up so well. Almost two weeks had passed since he’d spoken to his dad. Tom’s cell phone was dead, and he hadn’t told him yet. Climbing on the bus after his bus buddy, he resolved to go to his room and call his dad as soon as he got home.
Usually, Tom walked in and turned off the TV to rouse his mother. They’d sleepwalk through a frozen food dinner. He’d set the table, bringing forks from a drawer beside the unused stove. Last night when he’d shuffled through the drawer, his mother held her head and groaned. A divider once kept the silverware apart, but that’d been lost in a move.
She didn’t like work. He didn’t like school. They found little else to talk about. Occasionally, she smiled and patted his hand as they sat silently, and he smiled back. He believed he was past blaming himself for how she was and consoled himself with being gone soon, but sometimes he worried.
And his stomach ached, as if the furnace burning there used its fuel and still raged, baking its sides to a red, pulsing glow. At the thought, he doubled. His father’s doppelganger looked up from his crossword and began to form a question with his eyes before returning to work.
He was fourteen when his mother took him to a diner to tell him his father was having an affair and had moved out. Tom couldn’t watch his mother crying, so all he remembered were shuffling salt and pepper shakers as he rolled them around in his two hands, placing one and then the other ahead. She blamed his dad. His dad blamed his mom. Tom wanted out most of all.
Tom closed his eyes, and the city’s lights crossed through his eyelids. He pictured the room he’d dreamed for himself, books spread out over his bedcover in a neat rainbow. In this scene, he laughed over something his invented roommate said. As always, the still was of a time after this.
He looked up to see his corner bus stop fly past.