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Chapter 2 - Prologue



The first time I see her, it's for only a second, in the distance, and I'm not sure exactly what I've seen.

I'm delivering newspapers, walking by myself past an explosion of bright poppies by the small empty lot across from our house, and the sight of her stops me in mid-conversation.

For a moment it's like I'm seeing her from every angle at once without really seeing her at all. She's not facing me. But then she is. I turn to see if she's behind me too, because it seems like she should be, but she's not. When I turn back, she's gone.

I blink a few times, focusing on the place where she probably wasn't. Sweat stings my eyes and my vision doubles. It happened so fast I'm not sure it happened at all.

Blink.

Once I'm fairly certain it probably wasn't whatever it seemed to be, I reach for a paper from the large cloth bag dangling by my knees and walk it over to the porch of a small, yellow house, keeping an eye out for the dog. Listening for it's high-pitched yips. It's always the little ones that get you. There's a lesson in that, probably.

Hanging from my side in a makeshift holster is my knife, which I prepare to unsheathe, while backing away slowly from the porch. I wiggle my fingers imperceptibly over its handle, like the gunfighters do. It's a big knife. Impressive. An exact replica of the one Tarzan uses in the television show. But I don't put too much faith in it. It's made of soft rubber, and it's folded in half to fit in the sheathe.

When I pull it on someone, it looks like an upper-case J.

---

The birds are out in full force. They sound like they're everywhere suddenly. I'm still pissed at them - all of them - since one of them shit on my head in the parking lot of the doctor's office. Just walking to the car in the parking lot. Right on top of my head.

It didn't help that I was there to have weird lumps under my nipples checked out.

The Dr. assured me it was not what I was thinking. Boys rarely get breast cancer.

"But, boy, when they do, it'll take you right out!" he smiled. "Nothing we'd be able to do!"

Not really what I wanted to hear.

Then a bird shit on my head.

Anyway...

When I get back to the sidewalk, she's still gone, and I realize that I've been telling myself about the doctor and the bird. I chastise myself yet again: "Stop moving your lips when you talk to yourself!"

God knows who might be trying to read my thoughts.

I blink again.

"GET OUT OF MY HEAD!" I scream internally, though outwardly I maintain an air of calm.

"I KNOW YOU'RE THERE!"

Just in case someone is.

"ASSHOLE! GET OUT!"

It gives them something to consider.

I  pause a moment longer to reinforce my point, then move on to the next house on the block.

This shit is why it takes me so long to finish my paper route.

---

It's already too warm out, and I can actually feel my jeans wearing thinner between my thighs as I walk. I brush the back of my hand across my forehead. It comes away wet. I need the pool. Or the air conditioner. I'd pick up the pace to get done sooner, but then I'd just sweat more, and the nipples would chafe against my sweat-soaked shirt, and it's just too early in the damn day for that.

Up ahead is my favorite spot on the route. A huge row of lilac bushes. I stand beside them with my eyes closed and inhale until my lungs turn purple. I could stay here all day. But I have to be careful. Halfway down the block is where Keith lives.

Keith is two years older than me, and once, in a tragic effort to fit in with the actual athletes on the playground, I quite loudly called him a name that I'd heard others call him repeatedly, but which turned out to be an unpleasant racial slur.

Even now, as I stand breathing the lavender air, I don't know what it means - or for that matter what his race actually is. I've been afraid to ask. But it's apparently a term that only athletes may use.

Or older kids, maybe.

It probably didn't help that I mocked his stutter while I said it.

I open my eyes now after one more deep breath.

Someone's there.

I instinctively drop into what I envision to be a graceful duck and roll under the bushes to escape the beating Keith still owes me, but as I squat, my bag dips down around my feet, which get caught, and I fall face-first into the sidewalk.

I scramble up onto one knee with my face and shoulder still on the ground, roll onto my back with one hand up to ward off blows and the other reaching down for my knife. I look upward through defensively splayed fingers.

No one there.

But there was.

It was her.

I can see her outline in the brief yellow glare where she had been. Like the afterimage of the sun, but gone immediately.

I'm getting a headache.

At least the birds have stopped singing.

---

The last time I see her, I'm turning the corner onto the final street of my route. My bag is nearly empty. I'm dreaming of toast. Peanut butter. Cap'n Crunch. Lots of milk. I'm in deep conversation, but my lips are still. She's standing there. Just a few feet in front of me.

I don't recognize her. But maybe I do. It's hard to tell. I can't see her that well because she's surrounded by yellow light. The glare is covering most of her face, but it's not the kind of glare that hurts your eyes.

The birds are going crazy.

I look down, and in her right hand she's holding a strip of paper. It dangles almost to the ground. She smiles at me, and for some reason I'm reminded of a girl I met once, very briefly. Much older than me. I'm in grade school. It's a high school basketball game, and she's from the other town. We're in the lobby at half time. I'm talking to someone. She walks by. A cheerleader. She looks at me and stops.

Smiles.

"You are going to be SO good looking when you grow up," she says.

And she's gone.

This isn't her. But the smile. The smile is the same. She knows something wonderful about me. Something that's probably not true, but I want to hear it anyway. I'm filled with the same glorious hope I once felt at that basketball game.

She's moving now.

Standing still, but moving her arm. The one with the strip of paper. But the light is fading. Closing in. Her arm lifts. And I don't know if she's waving or handing me the paper. I decide waving is the safest response. She laughs. Lets go of the paper. Pulls her hand back into the light. It winks out.

The sudden silence of the birds makes my ears pop.

I'm breathing hard. The old sweat has dried on my forehead, and new sweat is seeping out to replace it. I keep staring as if she's still there. I try to picture her there. The way she was only a moment ago. But I can't pull any details from my brain except that she's old. Not grandma old, but old.

Older.

I don't know. If you're older than high school, you might as well be 80 for all I know. She's...

Burning...

I smell burning.

Smoke.

I look down. It's the paper. The paper that she dropped. It's smoldering. As I look at it, it bursts into flame.

My urge to flee fights with my urge to put out the fire, so my first few stamps are several inches away from the actual flames, but I finally put it out.

A few more stamps. To be sure. I get down on my knees to look at it.

It's a newspaper. The top part of a newspaper. The... what do you call it, the part where they put the name of the newspaper.

The Omaha World Herald.

The same one I'm delivering.

Through the paper I can see that something's written on the back. Printed in black marker. I turn it over. The edges are burned, but I can still read it:

"YOU DID THIS, BRAD."

I can't tell if it's an accusation or a commendation.

My head is throbbing now.

I pick up the charred remains gently and tuck them safely away in my bag.

I don't notice the date until later. Only half of the year survived the flames.

"April 11, 20..."

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