Strange Creatures

My PawPaw is the white haired boy on the far right, sitting on the railing next to the post.

Stumbling a little, he was trying to walk to the house, my dad and uncle Dwight on either side ready to catch him if needed.

Kim's voice broke as she put her arm around my waist, "We're really gonna lose him aren't we?" And she began to cry. Putting my arm around her shoulder, I led us off from the crowd.

My dad's brother, his only sibling, my cousins, my siblings, parents, and grandparents were all gathered at an old country home that had been owned at one time by my grandfather's family. Because it was on land originally belonging to the Cherokee before they were forced out during the Trail of Tears in 1838 and 1839, the house had been restored in the 50's and made a part of a historical site, called New Echota, for the Cherokee. There's a picture from 1928 with my grandfather's family all gathered around the front porch of that house.

And the reason we were back now, in the fall of 2008, was because my grandfather was going to die. Recreating that picture from 1928 with all of us before my grandfather was gone was important to my grandmother.

His lifetime was spent in the sun, breaking his back as a poor southern boy, a young WWII infantryman, and a farmer until the day he could no longer climb into a tractor. Though an intelligent man, he lacked the desire to wear the chains of a 9-5. And so, built a life with his blood, sweat, and tears.

Dad had barely been able to get the words out of his mouth, "Your PawPaw's got skin cancer. Its gone too deep this time to do anything about. Doctor said he's got six months to a year left," before I was attacking him.

"How could you not make him go to the doctor?" I cried.

My grandmother tried interjecting, "Baby, we tried."

With his face red and his nose flared my dad fired back, "You try making your PawPaw do something he doesn't want to!"

"He was tired of being cut on." My grandmother said, as if that should explain why the man outside feeding the cows was going to die.

I'd been so angry. So angry that no one had dragged that stubborn man to the doctor, kicking and screaming. I didn't care what he'd wanted.

But my grandmother didn't want to lose her husband of 62 years. Neither did my dad want to lose the man that'd raised him. They'd done all that they could.

Strange creatures, us humans. Lashing out in pain and inflicting pain, like it solves anything.

My grandfather was already struggling, a slacked face on one side, a hole forming in front of his left ear where they'd done radiation. It had taken away his ability to taste and he'd cursed the whole damned process, and was growing weaker everyday.

And as I watched him being helped by my dad and uncle, stumbling from the golf cart that had driven him out here to the house; that's when I realized it was over. The stable, unchanging foundation I'd found in my grandparents was crumbling. Because people die. Even when we don't want them to. And no matter how hard we fight it, we can't avoid change forever. This is life, not some storybook where everything turns out okay by the last chapter. Sometimes in life, the ending sucks.

My family posed for that picture. And it and the original picture from 1928 were framed in huge frames and gifted to my grandfather, his last Christmas present.

You should've seen his lopsided smile.



Sitting in the library, I was attempting to accomplish something in one of my on-line classes, wondering what the point was when I heard her behind me.

"Amanda?" The sound of her saying my name made me cringe inside. I'm not sure if she was an intimidating woman or I was just easily intimidated. Probably both.

Turning around in my seat, I looked up at her. She didn't smile.

"I talked to Ms. ----- [my guidance counselor] and I've decided if you finish the class project and have it turned in by Friday, I'll pass you."

Relied, shock; I'm not sure what was registering on my face. "Do I come back to class?"

She shook her head. "No. Just finish the project." And then she turned to leave.

"Thank you." I don't know if she heard me, but I'd never meant those two words more than in that moment. And I had no idea if my guidance counselor had gotten down on her knees and begged on my behalf or if perhaps Mrs. Burten was more merciful than she seemed. Whatever had happened, I thanked the Lord that I still had a chance at that diploma.

And at the end of May in 2007, when my principle called my full name from a stage that nearly all of my 320 classmates had already crossed, it sounded like the entire stadium erupted. Shaking, I reached out for my diploma. My principle surrendered it with raised eyebrows at the volume of screams from the stands, "You're popular."

I smiled. To count the friends I'd managed to make in my graduating class, I only needed both hands. But I had a big family, a church family, and an even bigger Mexican family in the crowd. And one really loud boyfriend sitting directly in front of the stage. For all my social awkwardness, I was still loved. And those people out there screaming for me knew just what it had taken for me to get here.

The ceremony ended soon after that.

As my class proceeded out of the stadium, our teachers lined up in rows on either side of our procession line, smiling and congratulating students as they passed. I hadn't been there long enough to have a relationship with many of them, I'd done my best to keep my head down and just graduate. But as I passed Mrs. Burten, we made eye contact and she raised one eyebrow.

And then to my disbelief, she smiled.


Mud and the Muck

I slammed my hands against the steering wheel as I sat under that red light in the dark. The green glow of the clock in my dash told me I was late. Too late.

The urge to slam my forehead to the steering wheel as well was strong. It was my own fault. Nobody but my own. I'd turned the alarm clock off, I'd rolled back over and accidentally gone back to sleep.

If it hadn't been for my dad checking on me this morning, I'd never have made it this close. But not close enough.

"Three strikes and you're out," she'd said. This was my third strike. "Don't even bother showing up late the third time," she'd warned the handful of us that were taking her zero block economics class at the ungodly hour of 6 in the morning.

It was still dark. And it was raining. Of course it was raining.

Was there a more fitting way to kiss my chance of a high school diploma good bye? It was my senior year with two months left until graduation. Not enough time to fix this.

When the red light turned green I could turn left and sit alone in the school parking lot for 2 hours until school started or I could go home and explain to dad how I was a massive failure. Or I could turn right and be in Alex's driveway in 90 seconds. He wouldn't be awake this early, but I turned right anyways.

I killed my headlights before I pulled in, parking close to the road at the end of his drive trying not to wake anyone. Two unanswered calls assured me he was still sleeping or had lost his phone, which happened with decent frequency with Alex.

After slipping across the muddy yard and finding the front and side doors both locked, I headed towards the back of the house, bypassing the sliding glass door that would wake the dead in China. My sweatshirt was getting heavier the longer I was standing in the rain and my shoes were a mess. Alex's house was all one level but his bedroom window was still way above my head. So I ran across the backyard for the garage and found an old metal chair that I dragged under his window.

Alex never locked his window, so it gave when I started pushing the pane sideways. I leaned my head in, and saw that his bedroom door was open. I'd have to be a ninja not to wake the entire house. I pushed into the window, my backside and legs still getting drenched. His bed was directly under the window.

"Alex," I whispered but as I watched he didn't stir. So I whispered a little louder, "Alex!"

That did it. He bolted upright and his eyes looked a little crazy as he registered someone hanging over his head. "Daddy!" He yelled. I'd never heard him sound so terrified.

I nearly choked laughing. "Shut up, Alex!" I hissed. "It's me!"

His eyes adjusted and he realized it was me. "What the-?"

The tension fell out of his shoulders and he collapsed back onto his bed. "Ay Dios..." After taking a few deep breaths, he looked up at me. "What're you doin? Get in here." He rolled over giving me room to get in.

Reaching back through the window, I slipped my shoes off before half climbing, half falling into his bed. After dropping my shoes to the floor, I walked over to his door and peeked into the dark hall to make sure his dad wouldn't be coming to shoot me with the shotgun, then closed the door and locked it.

My teeth were chattering when I turned back around. Alex held the covers up in invitation. I shook my head. "I'm soaked."

He gave me a sleepy grin. "Lose the clothes."

"Yeah and when your sisters break in, that'll be great."

"Well, just get over here."

Tossing my sweatshirt to the floor, I crawled into his arms wet, cold, and deflated.

"What were you doing screaming for your dad?" I laughed.

"What else was I s'pose to do? Yell 'mommy'?"

I shook my head and smiled as he hugged me closer.

"What're you doing here anyways?" He whispered into my hair.

"I was late. It was my 3rd strike."

"Did you even go to class?"

"So she could just throw me out? No."

"You don't know. Maybe she woulda let you in."

"No she wouldn't. She already kicked Gary out for being late the third time."

"You never know."

"She hates me."

Alex sighed.

"What am I going to do now?" I whined.

"We'll figure out something."

"What is there to figure out? I'm done. I'm not going to graduate on time. I can't do anymore time next year. I wasn't cut out for high school." I started crying.

"Shhh," Alex squeezed me.

"All this time I've wasted-"

Alex cut me off. "Hush, Mandie. Being so negative is bad for you. Just calm down." He kissed my forehead. "Go talk to your counselor this morning."

I mumbled an, "Okay."

But it wasn't okay. I was scared and it was all my fault. I'd done it to myself, solidifying the fact that I was incapable of getting it together. The chance I'd had to graduate on time by taking this extra class, online classes, and summer school had been a giant waste.

Alex fell back to sleep as I laid on his chest listening to the rain. As tired as I was, I couldn't relax enough to sleep. An hour or so later, alarm clocks starting going off down the hall and his parents and sisters started stirring.

Someone tried the knob and then there was a bang on Alex's door. "Get up, Alex!" His sister shouted as her footsteps pounded down the hall.

Giving me one last squeeze, he slipped out from under the covers, cussing and shivering in his briefs. He started pulling jeans and shirts out of his closet in a fury. Dressed, he headed for the door and paused with his hand on the knob. "You coming?"

"Maybe I should sneak back out the window."

"Unless you parked down the street, they've already seen your car."


Alex grinned. "Come on, I'll make you pancakes." He threw the door open and was gone.


Fast and Hard

I fell in love with Alex. It wasn't the slow, burning kind. But the fast, and hard, and intense kind. The kind that had our parents shaking their heads and muttering things under their breath. He wasn't white. And I didn't speak Spanish.

But despite their hesitancy to like any member of the opposite sex their kids brought home, Marcia and dad liked Alex. Everyone liked Alex. It took concentrated effort to not like Alex.

It was like he knew, that given enough time, everyone was helpless to his charms. I'm not sure he ever met a person he didn't like.

Before Alex, I'd never ridden in a car with every part of my backside touching the seat. The fastest he could go was never fast enough. A grease monkey, he'd take anything that would crank apart just to put it back together again. The endless hours of joy he could find under the hood amazed me. His hands and forearms were a permanent shade of black no matter how hard he scrubbed.

Alex loved life. The way I'd never seen anyone before. There was a fire in him. He was like a little kid, excited and amazed by everything.

And he loved me. I never did figure that one out.

Whatever we were made of, Alex and I were different. I carried a lot of ugly around with me, and Alex carried none. Where I resisted, he accepted with open arms.

But he loved me. Damn, he loved me. My heart never stood a chance.

Because his was so big.

A year or so later, we were racing down the back road from my dad's house, headed to town when he slammed on the breaks. I couldn't see anything wrong that the headlights were illuminating.


"You see that bunny over there?" He pointed into the opposite lane. And yes, he used the word bunny.

Sure enough I saw what looked like a bunny. A dead bunny. "I think it's dead."

"I swear I saw it move." Alex leaned over the wheel, eyes squinted.

The bunny moved.

"There! It's alive!" Alex threw his door open and was almost to the bunny when a car came flying around the corner.

Alex waved his arms like a madman, yelling for the oncoming car to stop. But he had to dash back out of the way as the car never slowed down and ran right over the bunny.

I slapped my hand over my mouth.

Alex hung his head, bent down, and gently picked up the now, positively, dead bunny. He walked over into the grass between the road and the woods and laid it down.

My hand was still clamped over my mouth when he climbed back into the car. I handed him a bottle of anti-septic and he looked over at me.

His face was completely devoid of expression, but his eyes were staking me. "Are you laughing?"

Unsure of the answer myself, I shrugged my shoulders and said, "I love you," muffled against my hand that I refused to move.

He just shook his head. "I'm not sure I still love you."

But his mouth was tugging up at the corner as he put the car in first.


Picking at Threads

That January, mom called. "I'm coming home for a while."

Back to Georgia.

She'd said my grandmother needed help for a while, and that she and my step father were having problems that she hoped space would somehow solve. Which didn't come as any surprise since they'd been having problems long before there had been a marriage to blame them on.

"Does this mean y'all might move back to Georgia?" I was praying I was wrong.

"No, Ward will probably never leave Colorado."

I'm not sure how obvious my relief was. If I never saw the man again, it would be too soon.

"I don't particularly care for Georgia myself." She'd continued. But she was stuck. Everyone that cared about her wanted to be here, even if she'd wanted nothing more than to leave.

When I'd walked onto that airplane, bound for Georgia, I'd accepted that my mom might always be with Ward. And I'd told her I was never coming back, that I would never have anything more to do with that man. I'd accepted that whatever relationship I had with my mom from that point on would be strained. That I'd only want to be a part of half her life and that her husband was never welcome in mine.

And I drove it home when I told her that one day when I had kids that they were never going to visit their grandma's house, because my kids would never be exposed to that man.

"Okay." Was all she'd said.

I'd told myself it would be enough. That if she always chose him over me, that I'd accept it.

But it all started to feel like a lie. Because it would never be enough and it would never be okay.

Mom came home that February, moving in with my grandmother. As weeks turned into months, I started asking her when she was going back to Colorado, to which she always replied, "I don't know."

Soon, she had a job and had moved into an apartment 20 minutes from my dad's house. For the first time since I could remember, my parents lived in the same town. I could see both of my parents in the same day. I could eat breakfast with one and dinner with the other. I could wake up at my mom's house and go to bed that same night at my dad's. Was this what normal kids' lives were like?

And as time went on and Winter turned to Spring and Spring into Summer, my mom stayed. I started to hope that maybe the marriage that had been the worst thing to ever happen to me was finally receiving the justice it deserved.


The Boy From Illinois

His name was Alex.

That guy from my American History class. This I only found out by watching roll call a few days later, when I was in an inconspicuous enough seat that I could see when he raised his hand.

Because I had to run the distance of two buildings and relieve my bladder, I was always the last person to come running through the door before the bell rang. And everyday as I stepped into my last class, as much as I hated myself for it, I always looked for him. And when I found him, he was already looking at me and smiling. Always.

For the first month, I never smiled at him; always sitting as far away from him as possible. As far as I knew, he didn't smell. He was fun to look at, especially when he was smiling. But he scared me. Somewhere before this lifetime, we'd known each other. And I'd never met a stranger I already knew.

From August to December, that's how it went. I never saw Alex in the halls or at lunch, where I'd been taken under the wing of a trio of blond girls who had dragged me out of the library when they found out that's where I spent every lunch period.

I never made any friends in Mr. Allie's American History (unless you counted Alex, even though we'd never spoken), while Alex knew everyone and looked like he could've easily won a popularity contest.

Mr. Allie's class was unorthodox. There was fake blood, body parts, and weird colored fluids that were constantly flying around. Mr. Allie's stance on history was that it was best reenacted. When Mr Allie did something incredibly strange, let out a god-awful scream and shut off the lights, or had everyone rolling; everyone had a friend to cling to or laugh with.

It was hard to feel as alone as I looked because Alex's head would always snap in my direction and he'd give me crazy looks or laugh with me, from across the room. But during our few traditional classes with papers and lectures, Alex was always nodding off. Mr. Allie would sneak up behind him and scare him awake, doing his best to embarrass him. But Alex would look at me and just grin.


It was the last day of school before Christmas break. School would be out for two weeks and when we came back we would have new classes for the next semester. I'd just started wondering if I'd have another class with Alex in it, when I walked in to class to see the TV and VCR set up.

Alex wasn't there.

My disappointment was intense, as I suddenly felt alone. I took a seat away from everyone, in the back. Movie time meant nap time so I settled in and laid my head against the wall. Mr. Allie cut the lights and someone sat down on my right.

That someone reached into my lap and grabbed my sweatshirt.

The thief was Alex. "You mind if I sleep on your shoulder?" You could hear the Spanish in his voice even though he was speaking clear English.

He was balling up my sweatshirt and all I could do was look at him. I couldn't find my voice.

Without waiting for an answer, he grinned and tucked my sweatshirt into the crook of my shoulder, laid his head on it and was out within a minute. My nap was forfeited. There was no way I could sleep with him asleep on my shoulder, breathing my air. And no, he didn't smell bad. His cologne was spicy and intoxicating.

At the end of the movie when Mr. Allie flipped the lights back on, I had to nudge him with my elbow. He sat up, stretched, and smiled lazily at me. I'd never known so positively little about someone and been so in love. I'm pretty sure I already loved him the moment our eyes met for the first time.

We had a few minutes before the bell rang so Mr. Allie asked the class to stick those glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling. Alex walked off and came back to where I was standing and handed me a bag of stars and a block of the white tacky adhesive. "Put the glue on these for me?"

I nodded and he climbed up onto a chair and put up stars as I rationed them.

"So where you from?" He looked down at me as I handed him a star.


"Wow. What brought you to Calhoun?"

"My dad lives here. I was born here. I've always lived with my mom. We moved around a lot for my stepfather's job."

"So y'all moved back?"

"No. Just me." I was feeling self-conscious. "Are you from Calhoun?"

He reached down for another star and smiled, "No. I'm from Chicago. My family moved here when I was in 5th grade. My parents are from Mexico."

"Why Calhoun?"

"My dad lays concrete. There's plenty of business here. Plus, my parents didn't want me ending up in a gang."

I wasn't sure how to respond. "Oh."

He laughed at my discomfort as the bell rang.

I grabbed my bag and left the remaining stars on Mr Allie's desk and headed for the door.

"Hey Amanda?" Alex rushed up beside me, shrugging into his backpack straps.

I turned around, "It's Mandie."

"Oh." He smiled, "Hey Mandie?"

I couldn't stop my laugh. "Yeah?"

"Can I walk you out?"

I went home that day, way too excited about the fact that he'd finally spoken to me. And now had my number.


Fourth Period American History

It was the second day of school, but technically my first since I'd spent the entirety of the day before sitting in the library with the rest of the kids who didn't have class schedules yet.

The bell had just rang signaling the end of third period. One more class to go, and I would be free like Willy.

Passing periods between classes were eight minutes long. More than enough time, you would think, to make it to the next class on time. But the hallways were a turbulent sea of teenagers; loud, sweaty bodies moving together in an angry slow dance. Everyone pushing their way through the wall-to-wall chaos, breathing down my neck.

The school walls were busting at the seams, having never been intended to hold this many students at once. Trying to play nice in a new school, I was hesitant to shove my way through. And all this close bodily contact with a bunch of strangers felt vaguely violating. Getting to the other side of just one hallway was taking minutes. Not an issue when my first three classes had all been on the same end of the same building.

I had a death grip on my class schedule, warped from the sweat on my hands. For the hundredth time, I read my schedule. 4th Block. American History. Mr. Allie. Room 307*.

I didn't know where room 307 was, just that I needed to be on the other end of the other building. After a mad dash to the bathroom, I was making slow progress, the sea of students in my way. I was never going to make it across to the other end of the second building in enough time to locate my class before the last bell rang. Embarrassment was already burning my ears.

Once in the second building, the crowd dispersed enough that I could pass people and pick up speed. Weighed down with math and biology books so heavy it should've been a health violation, I was power-walking, playing beat-the-bell. Sure I had a locker, just no time to find it. The crowd in the hallway was getting smaller. I raced passed the cafeteria. After making it to the hallway I thought my class was on, I hurried down one end reading room numbers looking for 307. After checking my class schedule again, I raced back down to the other end of the hall with no luck.

I was lost.

The warning bell rang.

The remaining stragglers scattered like cockroaches in the fluorescent lighting. Apparently, I was the only roach that didn't know where it was going. After another minute of walking around, scared and embarrassed, some kind soul took pity on me and directed me to the exit door outside to one of two trailers.

As I ran for the trailer, the final bell rang.

I cringed. I was late.

As quietly as I could, I stepped up the ramp leading to the door. I threw up a prayer of gratitude that this day was almost over. It took the rest of my nerve to take hold of that door handle. Apparently it was a little more nerve than called for, as I swung the door open too hard. The thing was weightless and surprised me by nearly slipping out of my hand. So much for my inconspicuous entrance.

Over the course of the next few months, I would come to like Mr. Allie. An intense teacher with a passion that ran deeper than a paycheck. But in that moment as I stepped into his class 30 seconds late, interrupting whatever it was he was saying, he looked at me like he would've gladly eaten my dog for dinner.

My daily ration of luck had run dry, as the door was at the front of the class and every eye was watching as I turned crimson and took one of the only available seats at the front of the room. I tried to stifle my body's urge to draw in more oxygen to replace what it had burned through to get here.

The classroom was set up in groups, with chairs around tables. I was seated sideways with the front of the class to my right. As I slipped my bag to the floor, I got the feeling I was being stared at. My face and ears flushed again. My embarrassment was the new never ending story.

I tried to tell myself I was being too self-conscious. Of course everyone was looking in my direction, I was sitting right in front of Mr. Allie's podium. I shifted slightly to glance to my left, trying to be sly about scanning the back of the room.

When mine found the brown eyes staring at me, the axis of my world shifted.

The culprit didn't look away when I caught him, but stared me straight in the eye. Reflexively I looked away, but couldn't stop myself from doing a double take. As we made eye contact a second time, the corners of his mouth twitched.

He looked so out of place in that classroom. There was no way he was a high school boy, he looked like a man in his twenties. How many years of high school had this guy failed?

His full grown beard was shaved into a thick chin strap with a mustache and goatee, making the facial hair on every other boy's face look like they ought to just go home grab their daddies' razors and throw in the towel. His thick, wavy hair was so dark it was almost black. The sleeves of the polo he was wearing were strained around suntanned muscles. And peeking out of his undershirt, right beneath his throat, was chest hair. A lot of it.

He was way too good looking. Definitely not a boy, man, or whatever he was, that needed to be on my radar. And here I was staring at him, and him staring right back. There was no way he was seriously into me. This had to be a game.

Then I remember I was the new girl. Of course.

Frowning, I gave him the hint to take a visual hike. Instead of breaking eye contact with me, he broke into a devilish grin, like he knew something I didn't.

I looked away. His smile was doing things to my stomach.

And for the entire hour and a half class, I could feel him staring at me. A few more times, I chanced glances making eye contact with him every. Single. Time. Not once did he look away, his mouth would just twitch holding back a grin. I was growing more self-conscious each time our eyes met.

Why do I keep looking at him?!

By the time that last bell of the day rang, I was about to explode. And without looking at him again, I was out of there as fast as my wobbling legs would carry me.