-Strange – 11 Pages –
This story begins in the age of myth. It was a time when demons haunted nights, mushrooms housed gnomes, and knights fought dragons. I wasn’t just Anthony, I was Sir Anthony.
I had just begun the fourth grade at a new elementary school. My dad drove me over in the morning when he wasn’t too hung over and after school I walked home alone. I didn’t talk to many kids that year; I preferred having my head in the clouds to their company. One friend was all I had. Her name was Alison Macy.
In order to understand Alison, you need to understand her older brother, Max. He played baseball and took swim lessons. Alison made sure she was signed up for neither. Where he liked to roughhouse, she preferred to draw; where he was social, she was quiet. Rather than spending her time on physical activity or socializing, Alison whiled her time away daydreaming, honing her quirks, pretending to be a princess or some other golden fantasy.
I first saw her one day a few weeks into the year. I had been on an adventure, zooming around the playground when I came across her sitting by herself at a picnic table on the perimeter of the playground. I sat down next to her and she looked at me and smiled. I knew her somewhat from class. After a moment she asked, “Want to go on an adventure, Anthony?” She looked up at the sky. “Let’s go to the sun!”
And that was how our saga began.
Alison and I don’t talk anymore. Last I heard, her family moved to the west coast by the beach and she stayed in the area for college. Our only connection now is in our professions. We’re both doctors, pediatricians; I’ve seen her name come up at a few conferences. I’ve wanted to be one since before I can remember. At the time it seemed like if I became a healer in our fantasies I’d be fated to become one in real life. Alison chose to be a doctor around the time we stopped talking. Her family moved not too long after that.
When we played, she was always a princess of some sort, because Max had once told her only baby girls wanted to be princesses. She usually dragged me around the playground on the basis that the royalty should lead. A look of smugness would be painted on her face, soon replaced by laughter at her own austere, angelic tone of voice, and she’d run as fast as she could, pretending to go faster than light, with me struggling to keep up. We might pretend the monkey bars were a prison cell one day, the next a princess’s castle.
Occasionally we had play dates where we did more of the same. Alison liked to have them at her house, which suited me just fine, because I didn’t want her to see my father. No matter how many times I whacked him with my healing staff, he wouldn’t leave the beer and whiskey alone.
He worked from home (while my mother commuted to the city), and over the course of the day he liked to sip on a few bottles so that by the time three o’clock rolled around he was more than a little tipsy. On days when not even alcohol could make him happy, he locked himself in his study, drinking and murmuring memories of his own father and the old man’s ultimate fate—Grandpa had died when my father was still young; it was something to do with his liver. Dad never went into detail about it.
When I got home from school, mom would still be driving back from work. Dad would grunt at me and I’d grunt back at him. We’d keep grunting back and forth until he went and made me dinner—usually sloppily—and then we’d grunt some more.
There were no shouts or punches in my family, just lots of small inconveniences that piled into mountains. They were tiny things, at first glance of so little importance magic is the only possible explanation I remember them.
“What was that about?” asked my dad.
The shriek of breaking glass had rung out. Mom looked down at the shards, all that remained of the cup she had knocked over.
“Typical. Can’t you keep anything in order?” he said. It was not a question.
“I’m sorry, I’ll go clean it up,” she said in a toneless voice.
“What’s the hold up? Why don’t you have the broom already?”
She glared at him but said nothing.
Afterwards my father’s face looked like a balloon, red and inflated, and my mother’s a deflated one.
One time Alison did come over to my house. I tried to convince her to go to her house instead but Max had a friend over, meaning she refused, so we walked to my house. It was a small white structure. Other than the attic and basement, which were used exclusively for storage, there was only one floor. A few bushes that occasionally flowered were all we had for a garden, but I could see Alison’s face light up in thought as we drew near.
We dropped off our backpacks inside near the door, and I wandered off to tell my dad I was home with a guest. He was in his study and already reeked of alcohol.
“Dad,” I said. He turned, staring. “Dad, I have a friend over. Alison.”
He nodded. “Have fun. Tell me if you need anything.” He was already looking back to his work by the time he reached “tell.”
I ran back out to Alison and we started playing. I tried to forget myself in our games, forget about the worries, and I did. We ran outside through the yard, between and inside bushes, crawling through the grass, purposely rubbing our knees against the sod so they’d be stained with green. The backyard with its few large oak trees became a gigantic forest filled with elves. Out front I could hear the car start: my father sometimes liked to go for drives when he was feeling especially stressed, no matter how much alcohol he had in his system. I ignored it and continued playing. Alison and I talked to a few of the elves we met before we realized where we had to go to solve our quest: the mines.
We ran inside, tearing off our shoes, and went downstairs into the basement. It was dark and drab and food lined the shelves. To us, it was all gold. We carefully crept through the mines, on the look out for whatever it was that was guarding these treasures. We were also careful not to touch any of the riches; who knows if jealous dwarves or other monsters had had them booby-trapped? Eventually Alison put out her arm to stop me. “Don’t you see, Sir Anthony, there isn’t any boss down here. And you know why? Because this isn’t where the real treasure is!” We both screamed and left the basement. Upstairs we wandered for a little bit aimlessly before I looked up and realized the treasure we were after was up in the heavens. I grabbed at the hanging string. Noisily the cover for the attic cover came down and a ladder slid out of it.
“Quick,” I said, “up there! That’s where the treasure is!”
Alison looked delighted and started to climb. She made it to the top and I followed. I was half way up when a voice boomed from in back of me.
“What the hell are you kids doing?” my father shouted, his voice slurring like he was trying to drink and speak at the same time. “Get the hell out of there—Jesus, Anthony–stay out of there. ” Roughly he pulled me off the ladder. “That’s it. Why would you think you go up there? Go play in the yard or something. Christ almighty.”
We slowly walked outside. Through the bushes we could hear the wind singing a melancholy tune. Alison looked at me and after a while I looked back at her. She said, “There’s an ogre attacking the elves.”
“Yeah! A big, tall, mean ogre. He breathes fire and won’t let the elves leave their houses.” Looking at her, I knew she wouldn’t say anything about my dad; she understood. “Come on!” she yipped.
We were off.
It was towards the end of the school year when Alison told me why we were trying to get to the sun: “It’s so yellow. We’d be able to build the perfect sandcastle there for us to live in. We have to build it. We’re destined to!” I nodded and went along with it; once she said that, it felt like every game we had played was building up to this. Fate is like that—after the fact everything seems as if it had to happen the way it happened, like there were no other options. Looking back at medical school, twenty years later, it feels like I could have never studied a single second and still passed every test: doctoring was my destiny.
Around the time Alison told me that, school closed for the summer and the town pool opened. The “pool” was less a pool and more a lake, with the bottom and sides sand, not cement. Not all people liked it, but I did. It gave me ideas for adventures we could have over the summer.
Max was on the swim team that met there. Most days I went with along with the family. Around eleven or so their mom came pick me up and drive me over. After swim practice they’d stay for another hour or two, the mom lounging around with a book in the sun as her children ran and shrieked. She offered me a ride home every time, but I never said yes. They had some music lessons they had to get to, and I said I was fine walking home, giving them more time to get ready. My dad was under stress at his job, meaning he was frequently locked in his study, and he didn’t care if I took my time getting home. So, I remained in my world.
Alison made sure we never swam, no matter the exploit we were engaged in. According to her, sand made for better makeshift seas than the pool. So while her brother swirled and twisted through the grayish murk, we sat on the side, crafting sandcastles, the water only just kissing our feet. Once every so often we’d take a break and look up to see how Max was doing. He wasn’t the fastest swimmer there–in fact, he was one of the slower ones–but he could hold his own in the longer events.
The first day we played at the pool, Alison and I pretended to drink potions that turned us into massive giants, big enough to cross the globe in a single strut. We built sandcastles, mixing the dry sand with wet sand (the most efficient way to build, we believed back then) and then stepped back to take in our creations. I took a step forward, paused, and then continued and lifted my left foot high up in the air and brought it down on one of the castles.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Those potions we took, they made us crazy! We’re evil now, and we have to figure out how to be good again before it’s too late!”
She giggled and nodded and then we were off, running this way and that, through the ocean, through the desert, laughing and spinning and kicking up glittering sand as we went.
The next day we resumed where we left off. We were still evil, working for the ogre. He was living in an oasis nearby now, right by the snack stand. We ran over there, destroying imagined cities as we went, and raised our fists to him. He breathed his fire down on us and we both ran away to regroup.
“What do we do now?” I said.
“We fight harder!” she said panting.
We ran back over and battled and battled. We had to run away once more, but the third time we faced him, we kept throwing punches into the air until Alison shouted, “We won!”
We were back to normal.
Whenever we played, Max would only stare at us from a distance. When he saw us shrieking and running around with leafs in our hands, he’d shake his head, point it out, and laugh with other boys from his grade. We must have looked ridiculous to him, but to us his incredulity only heightened our enjoyment.
After swim practice, he and his friends wandered around the pool, doing flips off the diving boards. Every once in a while they would leave the pool and walk to an ice cream shop two blocks down.
I never went to any of the meets, but Alison occasionally filled me in. Max swam in the backstroke events. He never won and came in last place a few times, but for the most part he finished in the middle of the pack, which was good enough for him.
“I know I can get faster,” he said once after a practice, his mouth full of ice cream.
“How can you be so sure?” I asked.
“I just know.”
I nodded, not quite understanding but accepting the answer out of awkwardness.
I remember another conversation with him, this one happening over the school year at their house. It was one of the few times Alison and I weren’t going on imaginary adventures. We–us and Max–were all playing one of his videogames when she slipped away to ask her mom something, leaving the two of us free to beat up her character and rack up as many points as we wanted.
He suddenly turned to me, making sure to keep the corner of his eyes on the screen, and asked me about the games her and I played together. My eyes remained on the screen as I began to describe to him our world and our adventures. I told him about the monsters, about the treasures; I told him about our goal: the sun and the sandcastle. As I spoke, the tales began to seem light and childish, and I think my cheeks took on a slight rosiness, but he looked enthralled. His eyes were wide and prodded me into the confidence to keep spinning the stories.
He was about to say something when from behind me there came quiet footsteps. His expression changed–eyes narrow and dull, mouth shut, enthusiasm gone–in less than a second, as though he had put on a mask, and looking past me he said, “Your game sounds stupid,” before attacking Alison’s game character. With a yelp and a threat she rushed over to her controller. She immediately became engrossed in the videogame.
She didn’t see his calculated smirk falter, nor his eyes go glassy and distant, as if in thought.
One day towards the end of July, Alison and I decided to fight the dragon. “This is the biggest adventure we’ve been on yet, Sir Anthony” she explained. We walked for a bit around the pool and then she piqued up. “There he is,” she whispered into my ear; we were staring at a large, low branch on one of the trees near the fence. He breathed a green fire, spurting into little flames like leaves. “We’ve got to get his treasure! It’ll help us get to the sun.”
“How do we kill him? Can we?”
“We have to! Let’s use our magic.”
I began waving my arms around and jumping up and down. After a moment she began to do the same. We were so absorbed in our game we didn’t notice Max or his friends walk past us to go to the ice cream shop. “That’s it, that’s it! We’re killing him,” I screamed. A few people sitting down nearby gave us weird looks, but we didn’t stop. We wagged our fingers, casted spells. Alison began yelling out random words. “Apopty calamitus! Graw maw caw!”
“He’s almost dead!” I shouted.
“Oh no, Sir Anthony, he just healed himself,” she shouted back.
We kept our guard up. Alison stole a branch from the tree and pretended it was a sword, being careful to ensure no lifeguard saw her swinging it.
Eventually, we both agreed the dragon was about to be bested. As we decided how we would react when we defeated him, there came a sudden screech and yell and thump. We jumped and stared at each other.
Was the dragon real?
Then people ran to us, past us, to the fence. On the road beyond was a boy crying into his hands, one of Max’s friends.
Max wasn’t killed on impact. He lay helpless on the black pavement, joints twisted into angles and his arms and legs covered in small cuts. A crescent of blood, red as fire, flowed from his forehead.
Alison jumped over the fence and ran over to her brother. He looked over at her, not saying a thing and she stood where the sidewalk met the road, mimicking his silence. He gasped for breath as if lungs filled with air would keep him afloat in life like it did in the pool. She didn’t cry, didn’t whimper. She instead looked down with owl-wide eyes, like she didn’t want to miss an instant of her brother’s last moments.
There was no difference in how he looked before and after death. He never got better at backstroke.
During all this the door to the driver’s seat slowly opened and a hand, then arm, then body appeared from within. It was an ogre. It was my dad. He moved with familiar, over exaggerated gestures, the kind I had seen many a night after I came home and he had had a rough day.
Then the paramedics arrived. Alison’s seal broke and she cried and cried.
And me, where was I? As soon as the help had arrived I had run away from the fence to a small grove of trees on the other side of the pool–its murkiness no longer pool water but the familiar dark whiskey of my father’s study–where I thought no one would see me and slumped down into a ball. The ogre had won. This time there would be no regrouping.
I could smell the liquor as if it issued from my own pores.
My father was convicted later that summer and sentenced to jail. He got out a few years back and promptly drank himself to death.
To my knowledge, my mom had no contact with him at all during those years.
Later that summer I saw Alison for the last time. I didn’t want to see her. I had stopped going to the pool with her family after the incident and rarely went on my own. When I did, it was to play by myself, imagine myself in a desert bigger than the planet itself, far away from any and all signs of civilization. On that day, a tepid day complete strong gusts of wind, I had decided to play God and create my own world. I built a sandcastle, a fairly large one, and, with a little stick, I drew impressions on the wall of sand to make windows. Wet sand dribbled down on top of the castle to make towers. As I put a small bridge of a stick out over the moat, I heard a familiar voice behind me: “What are you doing?”
“Making a sandcastle.” She looked down at it, her eyes widening as though she was seeing a gravestone. “Do you want to help?”
She stood there, breathing. I looked up at her. The sun was right behind her and outlined her face with angelic and golden glamour. “It’s the final step,” I said. “Once we do this, we can reach the sun. Just like we always said.”
She sat down next to me, just as silent as she had been before. She stared at my creation, taking in all the details, every edge and corner and wall, with such concentration it was as though she wanted to memorize the position of every grain of sand eaten up by the castle. Instead of looking at my castle I gazed at her, but it’s been so long I barely remember what she looked like. Her hair color, her face, her voice: all purged from my memory. The only thing I can recall is the color of her eyes, a light blue, the color of the sky just over the horizon. I still sometimes see them at night: two disembodied eyes following me like a ghost.
After a time she spoke. “I’m not going to the sun. It’s your destiny, but it’s no longer mine.” She paused. Her eyes looked up at me. A mix of fright and anger and confusion pushed them down to little slits. “I won’t do it anymore, Anthony.” She then stood back up after that and looked down on me for a few seconds longer, and then began to cry and run away. I didn’t go after her. I simply watched her gallop, out of the pool area, out of my life, out of my memory.
When she was out of sight, I faced the castle. And there before me to this day stood the grandest structure I’ve ever looked upon: spires erupted from its stone sides and rose as high into the sky as airplanes; a tremendous river of blue water filled the crocodile-infested moat; it was all great, all gold, all shining, like dappled sunlight flowing through tree branches.
I will never forget her words about refusing her destiny. Everyone needs a little something to keep them going, to cheer them up when they’re feeling down. Her words are my something. I repeat them to myself throughout the day, before I’m about to meet with a patient or before I leave for the day. It’s my own little mantra. They’re the reason I haven’t yet given up hope for myself, hope that I’m a good doctor and will continue to be one, hope that I’m not a failure in my other endeavors.
And hope that one day I’ll get home after work and won’t need my bottle of whiskey.