By Dan Bornstein
“I think we should just write we-heart-Cherry real big in the middle,” suggested Ashley as she stood up and brought her palm down softly over the center of our big green sheet of poster board. A light metallic ring accompanied her suggestion because of the dozen or so thin copper bracelets that drifted up and down her stick-thin arms. The soft chiming of her jewelry blanketed most of her words and melted into the blue sky and summer breeze.
“Or is there anything else you guys want to write?” she asked, throwing a glance back and forth between me and Wyoming, who was looking up at Cherry’s window, and I couldn’t tell if his smile was happy or sad.
“Clarence?” she asked at me as she tapped on the poster, the tapping over the chiming making a kind of pretty music, and it took me a second to remember what she was asking me about.
“Sure. It’s already going to say ‘welcome home Cherry’ on the cake, so it has to say something different on the poster,” I said, rolling a crayon across the picnic table into one of the small islands of photographs drifting across the table’s surface.
“Great,” chirped Ashley before leaning forward to begin scrawling out her bubbly letters.
For the last hour me and Wyoming had been shrugging our shoulders at Ashley in between staring off into the overstuffed clouds that looked like calm faces ambling into each other in a big slow kind of dance. I liked that Ashley would always ask me what I thought about this or that, but I didn’t really understand all the fussing about posters and cakes; I just wanted Cherry to get back from her vacation so that me, her, Ashley, and Wyoming could be sitting somewhere nice and we’d be laughing again. So while I waited I mostly toyed with a worn down crayon or a crusty glue stick or a marker with a picture on the side of whatever thing the maker was supposed to smell like under the misty ink and chemical stink, while Ashley’s wind chime bracelets filled the air around us with bright copper sounds.
The day before, Cherry’s aunt, who we only knew as Auntie, had gone through the few phone numbers her niece had written on the pink index card she had taped to the mirror in her bedroom, and told each of us with tight sort of cheeriness that Cherry would be coming home from her vacation the very next day.
“I hope you’ll come see her tomorrow, Clarence,” Auntie had said to me over the phone. “Nicky should be bringing her home sometime early afternoon.” And as she took in a thin breath, Nicky, who was Cherry’s uncle, shouted from somewhere behind her voice, “and he better be there with the rest of those delinquents our niece runs with.”
I smiled and rolled some of the stiff nagging out of my shoulders. I always smiled at the touch of Nicky’s voice, always full of laughs and such brightness that I was always missing what his words were.
“Okay, Auntie. And tell Nicky I’ll be there,” I had to nearly yell back at Auntie before our goodbyes on account of her sloppy hearing. I had only known her for a couple years, since just after I met Cherry for the first time on the middle of Canyon Bridge going over the canyon that split our town nearly in half, and even I could notice her ears getting sloppier as time went. I hung up the phone and laced my hands together behind my head and wondered if she would be able to hear Nicky’s words and hear what he meant under all his brightness and his laughing. I knew Cherry was real close with him though. She said she always knew what Nicky meant. She told me that when we met on Canyon Bridge, said that she could understand most everybody like that. Then I told her I thought it would be nice to always understand what people meant, and she told me she had been able to understand people that way since she was 10 years old, and then I saw tears pushing against her eyes, but I didn’t know if they were tears from before when she was on the bridge and was crying onto the rocks at the bottom of the canyon or if they were new tears on account of me not being able to understand what she really meant. I put my arm around her and pulled her close to me and let her cry into my t-shirt like I tried to do when my mom had cried sometimes if she couldn’t make me understand something, but Cherry didn’t slap at me or push me away or call me names. She just leaned against my arms and let her body soften against mine and so I held her in closer, and I could feel her breathing snot and tears into my shirt, and the whole thing made me feel a thick kind of happy, not a laughing kind but one that gave me a steel-cold shiver from my stomach to the back of my throat.
Sitting in my room with my eyes on the ceiling and my hands holding my head up, I started thinking about walking Cherry away from the bridge, back to her house and her asking me to stay with her for a little while, and I thought about when she called up Ashley and Wyoming and told them about Canyon Bridge and how it seemed that after she hung up the phone they were knocking on the door before I got a chance to pull in a full breath, but the breath still got caught in my throat. It caught in my throat that way because when Cherry got up to let them in I thought she was going to walk out the door with them I and I’d be sitting on the couch by myself and the spot next to me where she was sitting would loose all its warmth and it’d be cold all around me, but they weren’t like that. They talked to me and when they talked and I talked back no one laughed or got mad at me and they kept talking to me, and I remember how my mom used to have this little pink dancer made out of real light stone and how when she touched it she moved real slow and the room would seem to get real quiet and that was like how Ashley and Wyoming acted with me.
As my mind started moving from all that did happen that day to what didn’t happen but could’ve happened and could still happen tomorrow, I leaned my weight forward in my chair and I could feel a pulse behind my eyes beating along to the rhythm of my thoughts. I bit my lip as my mind drew up pictures of Cherry and the bridge and where Cherry and everything would be if I hadn’t been sad that day and hadn’t needed to walk through all the tall oaks to hide under the rustle the wind made through their leaves, but the crimson pictures flashing by were hacked through a phone ringing. I thought it was going to be Auntie again, but it was Ashley and so I didn’t have to yell for her to hear me when she asked if I was going to go to Auntie and Nicky’s house the next day to see Cherry and I told her that I was. Then she asked me if I thought it would be a good idea to have a Welcome Home party for Cherry, and I said it would be a great idea on account of me never having been to a party before aside from birthday parties with my family, only I didn’t actually tell her about never having been to a real party before. I didn’t tell Ashley that because she was happy and also if I said that she would lie and say there were lots of other kids like me, and I was old enough and had met enough people at enough schools to know that I was different and to know the rooms where the few different people were hidden, rooms with no windows and teachers who acted like I might give them a cold. So instead I just said a party was a great idea and she said that she had already called Auntie so she could ask Nicky to bring a Welcome Home cake and I thought it would be tough to keep Nicky from eating some of the cake before it was time but I didn’t say that, and then she said that her and Wyoming were going to bring markers and crayons and glue to make a big card for her and she asked me to bring any pictures I had with Cherry in them to glue to the card.
I ended up bringing the only picture I had with Cherry in it and it was one she gave me before she got a really bad headache and all the Tylenol she took didn’t help and Auntie decided she needed to take a vacation. The picture was of her and her family all dressed when she was nine years old and they were all dressed up for Halloween, and she it was the last picture she had of her family before her mom got sick and lost her hair and left forever and before her dad got so terribly gray and unhappy that he left to find her mom and be next to her again. But everyone was smiling in the picture, and Auntie, Nicky, and Cherry and her mom and dad were all dressed up like different people from Peter Pan, with her dad dressed in all ripped up clothes like one of the lost boys and he had his arm around her mom who was dressed all nice in sky blue like Wendy. Nicky was dressed up as Hook, but he didn’t have his arm around Auntie who was dressed like a mermaid because he was holding a laughing Cherry dressed like Peter Pan up to his chest with tufts of her orange hair spiraling up to his chin. When she gave me the picture she had told me that when she was the nine-year-old grinning Peter Pan she didn’t understand that she shouldn’t have been laughing like that, that she should have been trying to get away from Hook. Then she told me that the next year when Nicky was tucking her into her new bed in her new room in his and Auntie’s house he sat next to her and told her why Peter Pan should be afraid of Hook, and why the laughing, shining picture taken that Halloween was all wrong.
I had put that picture on the very top of one of the islands of pictures that Wyoming and Ashley had brought and that Auntie had brought out for us, but I didn’t tell them why it was all wrong.
“Hey Ashley,” said Wyoming, about the first thing he said all day, and me and Ashley both looked over to him, and his eyes were facing away from us, still hanging around Cherry’s window. His eyes were always somewhere else when he talked, always seeing his stories as he told them.
“Remember that party you had back in the seventh grade?”
“When you and Cherry first met?” Ashley asked, popping up and from the poster and pulling in a breath like to say more, but when she looked down at Wyoming she seemed to let her thought go in a breezy push from her lungs. I was curious too I think because I didn’t get invited to many parties, and when Wyoming told a story it was like flipping through a picture book because the way he shined when he talked always shined around his words and made them shine over his story.
“Yeah,” he answered with a nod and quick smile in Ashley’s direction. “I remember walking down to your basement, and I couldn’t think of anything else besides that bottle pointing straight at that girl with the orange hair.”
Then he glanced between me and Ashley. “And even when I think about her now, for and instant I always see the Cherry I met that day. I see the girl that only smiled with one of her hands pressed to her mouth.” He smirked a bit and his eyes went back to Cherry’s window.
“All I could think about was the bottle pointed at her and I would see her smile without a hand in front of her face because she would be as happy as I was about the two of kissing.”
I knew him and Cherry had been going steady for a while in middle school, but neither of them talked about it much, probably because they were just kids back then. The only thing I ever heard of it was when I Ashley was talking to Cherry over the phone and they were talking about the summer before our first year of high school, which was just before Canyon Bridge.
“But I just couldn’t think of anything past that; I had no idea what I would do. I knew I’d kiss her, but two people just smearing their lips together doesn’t mean anything more than a handshake, especially when there’s a circle of kids sitting around you and empty beer bottle.”
This time Ashley started giggling. “Actually, she was hoping for the same thing. She just didn’t want it to happen anywhere where there was no one…” She stopped her story and when I looked over at her she was looking down at her feet and when I looked over at Wyoming he was looking at his feet and I was wondering if I was supposed to be looking at my feet too when there
was a honking coming from around side of the house.
“Hey, you kids!” It was Nicky and he was getting out of his car and he had the cake with him in a big white box and I wondered for a second if he had any cake before it was time, but I forgot when he smiled and so I smiled and waved and when I did he waved for me to come over to him and I almost fell over getting up from the table and Nicky laughed, but it was okay.
“Hey, Nicky,” I said, smiling the same real big smile he had, and he was all shiny and he asked if I was excited to be seeing Cherry again in a little bit and I laughed and told him I was. And he said she was just on the other side of the canyon and he wouldn’t nearly be five minutes and he was going to have her drive because a woman needed to learn, and he gave me the cake and waved to Ashley and Wyoming and they waved back before Nicky hopped in his car and beeped at me a couple times to say goodbye.
We took the cake out of the box and put it on the picnic table and it was real quiet for a while. Ashley wasn’t talking so there was no copper ringing around us and the wind wasn’t rustling the tree leaves around so Wyoming stared at Cherry’s window and Ashley was gluing pictures to the big green poster and I was looking at the cake. And I was having this weird shaking in my stomach and I think it was because Cherry was coming home but I wasn’t really smiling but that was okay because Ashley and Wyoming weren’t smiling either.
I bet Wyoming was thinking about that party where he met Cherry and she wanted to kiss him in front of everybody, and Ashley was probably thinking about how happy her card was going to make Cherry, and I was just thinking about the cake. It said ‘Welcome Home Cherry’ in frosting letters around this big frosting picture of a nine year old Cherry with a big smile and I knew it was a nine year old Cherry because she said for some reason she stopped smiling so big once she was able to see what people really meant all the time, and I started wondering about what it would be like to see what people meant, and I must have been wondering for a while because Ashley finished her poster and I could tell that the shadow from the picnic table had moved a little bit.
But then the phone rang and we all looked at the house and through the window and we saw Auntie answer the phone and she just listened and didn’t say anything back for a while and then she just dropped the phone and put her hands to her face and Ashley and Wyoming ran into the house and put there arms around Auntie and everything was moving real fast and Auntie started yelling. She was yelling about the car and the canyon and she kept yelling about God and Ashley started yelling about God and I looked away from the yelling and looked at the cake in front of me. I looked at it and I noticed a small spot where frosting was torn through, Nicky probably having dipped a finger into it, and even though he had stolen only a small amount of frosting before Cherry would have the chance to give out pieces as she would, I knew that Nicky had ruined her cake.
Dan Bornstein began writing fiction when he was 15 and had been put under court ordered house arrest in his suburban hometown of Newburyport, Massachusetts. He has been published in the anthology, "Into Our Clothes: A Collection of Prose and Poetry."
Photo "The Brandywine Bridge" courtesy of anonymous.
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