Thomm Quackenbush, author

Columbine

He pulls back the wooden chair from the table. It moans as its legs scrape the linoleum floor causing him to wince as he sits. He piles his large, black coat on the chair beside him - too big for the chair and much too big for him - releasing a breeze of leather and incense. Nervously, he looks across the table at the raven haired girl. When her lips break into a coy smile, he returns the expression, and graces her soft cheek with the backs of his fingertips.

"Been waiting long?"

She smiles at his trite word choice and thinks for a moment of saying, "I've been waiting 17 years." She decides against this because she cannot manage to get those words out, her throat constricts at the mere thought. She wasn't sure if that was true or such sentiments would go over well. Sometimes - not often, but sometimes - in these few weeks of getting to know him through long conversations on her parents' phone, he seemed like a trapped animal looking for a way to escape. Other times, he seemed placid, caged or no. Instead, she chirps the lie that she only just got to the diner. She had been waiting at least half an hour, but she wanted to be early to miss nothing, not even anticipation. She hardly wanted to burden him. "Long" was relative, so she wasn't really lying. She could never lie to Luke. He seems so accepting, as though she could pour her entire life in his ear and he wouldn't miss a drop. She did not feel she had much of a life to pour. Not compared to him. He was in college; he had done so much, seen so much.

He looks at her, wondering if this constitutes a first date and, if it does, how he should behave. He wishes he could tell her that he was never good on first dates, but he is not exactly sure if this is a date and knows he is probably very good at first dates, not that he wants to become an expert on this topic.

He didn't mean to start falling for Eileen. She served as a better confessor and sympathizer than any of his friend these last few weeks and, predictably, his feelings for her shifted from appreciative to romantic. She is surprisingly deep for her age. For any age, actually. He was annoyed with himself every time he mentioned that she was younger. It was society's problem, not his. He bites his lip, wondering silently if he should even be planning these arguments yet. This certainly wasn't in his hands.

The waitress came by and asks for drink orders. Eileen orders a diet cherry cola. For some reason, he finds this deeply significant and becomes achingly aware of her lips forming the words, her bubblegum tongue against her teeth as she pronounces "la." When the waitress looks toward him, she sees that his eyes have remained locked on the girl across from him. She does not have time for silly romantics and clears her throat violently. He looks up and, embarrassed with his transparency, coughs out, "The same," though he does not like diet soda, finding it too cloyingly artificial.

When the waitress leaves, slightly disgruntled, he puts his hand lightly upon Eileen's. She looks down at his ashen pink fingers on her own, the promise ring he still wears. She feels an electric blue charge from his fingers as they trace her own, though they look for a moment like inhuman appendages. The very idea of fingers connected to hands connected to wrists and arms and shoulders and torsos and... The electricity reaches her face and she sharply gasps. She didn't know boys could do that. He lifts her hand to his lips and kisses it. He really has a hundred and two things to say to her, but these small affections overtake his mind. They are what count. He cannot bear to say anything insignificant to her. If he is going to have a fresh start - is this a fresh start? - it is going to be nothing less than beauty and poetry. "Aesthetically Epicurean" jumps to his mind, though he is sure that is not the intended coupling of the words.

Likely if he were to voice this longing to her, she would echo. But he is afraid of changing the distance between them.

Eileen catches his gaze and locks on with an intensity she had read about in Pablo Neruda sonnets in English class. There is so much in his eyes, so much for her alone. So much pain and confusion too, but the vulnerability is sexy to her. She can make a boy, a college boy, swoon for her. She could swallow him whole and have not dented her appetite. In fact, she muses, she may if she gets half a chance. But even sitting so near to her, touching her, fanning a white flame within the secret crevices of her mind and body, he is still far away. "Do you think we are too different, Luke?"

He cranes his head back and breaks physical contact with her, startled. "What? No, I don't at all think that. We are, at our cores, very similar when you think about it. The same things matter to us. And that is all that matters to me. I was wooed by your words, not your clothes. And pardon my saying, but I am terribly interested in all that goes on beneath your clothes. Metaphorically speaking." Though he isn't, not totally.

Her cheeks blush like a ripening peach upon hearing these words. Surprisingly innocent for words so potentially charged. She purrs, "You kill me, you know. You say these things that create the most sublime happiness within me. But I worry..." She gazes into his liquid gray eyes and his conflict is palpable and endearing, if slightly uncomfortable to watch. He is trying so hard for her. Not wholly for her, for himself too. A moment to make things real, rather than covered in a faint yellow mist that distorts and clings to ones ankles and fingers.

"I wish I could have clarity for you." He lifts her hand to his lips again for a grazing kiss by way of example. Over the hills and valleys of her fingers, he gives her a piercing glance and looks down. "I can't prove to you how I feel, except with big words and small gestures. I would never want to lose you as a friend... as more than a friend."

He envelops her hands in his, warming the flesh. Every breath she takes is statically charged velvet, caressing her throat and lungs requiring ever-larger doses not to swoon. She would melt if he would lean across the table and place his almost feminine lips on hers. But she would have to wait to become a puddle at his feet. She can see how much he wants her, but he restrains himself. She understands why he does and actually hates him just a little bit for caring so much. She's too young to understand patience, she thinks. She is about to say this, but the waitress sets their drinks down.

"Ready?"

Luke looks at Eileen and she nods demurely. She had studied the menu before he arrived, nearly memorizing the entrees in her nervousness. She had given each one careful consideration in their turn. She certainly didn't want to order anything messy, for fear that it would stain her clothing. Definitely nothing with garlic or onions, as she had remained in a constant state of readiness to be kissed since they had set a date one week ago. Nothing that she would have to eat with her hands, save French fries and sandwiches. Nothing too expensive either, because she didn't have much money on her and would be chagrined if he offered to pay. Finally she had settled on the chicken club deluxe.

Luke thinks about her order for a moment and asks for fried calamari. He quickly looks at Eileen and is relieved to see that she doesn't wince at his order. He ate fried calamari because it made him feel vaguely worldly, though he had never had it except in local restaurants, which he had never been far from.

Taking a long sip of her soda, Eileen searches for something to say to him. He has just ordered squid, which normally seemed unpleasant. She had never actually met anyone who ate it and remembered faintly that they are supposed to have the rough intellect of dogs. The squid, not those who eat them. Well, whichever little cephalopods had died to afford Luke a meal should consider themselves posthumously lucky. At this stage, it seemed they would be reaching his mouth long before she did.

She had hoped that the soda would subdue the burning. It simply made her slightly less thirsty. The bubbles tickle her nose, causing her to wriggle it like a cartoon bunny. This, Luke quickly became aware, weakens his resolve not to kiss her just yet. Shaking his tousled brown hair, he sighs, "This is not working."

It felt to Eileen as though her brain had liquefied and now sought to escape through her eyes. She thought all of this was working wonderfully. He was touching her and he was sweet and caring and sensitive and unlike the boys she knew at school. And he said it wasn't working. She felt thousands of fissures appear in her heart. As her eyes began to tear, her enormous blue gaze connected full force with his.

The rain about to fall from her eyes confuses and dismays him. A sudden comprehension overtakes him and he babbles out, "No, you misunderstand. The talking in the greasy spoon, three and a half very large feet from one another is not working. Everything else is... indescribably great. I can't know you how I want to here." He wipes her eyes dry with his sleeves. Overwhelmed by having both hands on her face, he leans in and gently kisses her brow.

Smiling once more, though his words have a definite intimate edge, she coos, "Where is it that you could know me... how you want to?" Her eyes look like that of an angel or child. Luke is struck guilty over how much more he wants her.

Glancing skyward, he sighs again. It occurs to Eileen that he has been sighing a lot. With a dramatic flourish, he offers her his hand. "Do you trust me?"

She takes his hand in hers, in the moment and too willing to lie to see how far this could go. "Totally."

"Then come with me."

Objectively, she is aware that going with an older boy to some unknown destination at his insistence is what very silly girls do a few days before they turn up in pieces in a dog food factory. Subjectively, this was Luke asking her. Luke who had eyes that were green-blue-gray with flecks of hazel. Luke with hair that smells of spring. She honestly did trust him, even after not really talking to him face to face in three years. The last time he could touch her, she was fourteen and picking up toys at the children's museum where he worked. The world was a different flavor now, doused with cinnamon. So, she threw caution to the wind and possibly let herself be swept off her feet. Her shoes were not comfortable anyway, it would be very nice to be swept off of them. "But... what about our food?"

This statement throws him off for a moment, but no longer than a moment. "We will simply ask the very nice waitress to make it to go."

As though answering her cue in this private play, the waitress walks toward the table with their plates. Luke smiles ingratiatingly at her and she groans, "What?"

"Could you please, Miss Waitress, whose hair is as golden as fields of wheat and who brings us the riches of the sea and land, please give us two take out boxes?" The waitress tries to be frustrated with him, but Luke can tell that he has won her over. Nonetheless, she adopts the hard exterior that is standard issue with the stained apron and grumbles, "You just ordered it. Why did you order it at your table if you were just going to leave?"

Eileen assumes a part in the play, much to his enjoyment, explaining, "We just figured it out ourselves. I mean... he got a call and has to take me home. My parents might get upset otherwise. Ma'am. Miss?"

"Fine, I'll go get you the Styrofoam boxes." Before she stomps off, Luke grabs the corner of her greasy apron. When she focuses her at him, he pulls out three ten-dollar bills, grins madly, and hands them to her. She takes hold of the bills, experimentally, as though Luke may pull them away. When he lets go, she gives him a wry grin and walks away with the monosyllabic admonition of "Kids."

Two Styrofoam boxes later, they are in Luke's car. Eileen sits passively. On her lap rests the food, of which she is too scared to partake. She still does not know where he is going and secretly believes he will be just as surprised at the destination when the car stops. Perhaps the car knows Luke better than her and can guess where he would take a young prospect. The oily diner food smells foreign outside of its Formica context and causes the butterflies in her stomach to try to escape for a moment.

"We're here."

"Here" was the locked front gate of a local park. He takes the food from her and exits the car. She unfastens her seatbelt and calls out to him.

"The park is closed."

"Yes. I know that. All the better."

She can't actually argue with this reasoning, though she has trouble placing if this were a reason. "Your car though?"

"It will be perfectly safe. It has yet to disappear under cover of night. I don't see why it should start now." He is not nearly as confident as this statement suggests and hopes that the fog enveloping them hides the quaver in his voice. Tonight is to be amazing and every shocking gesture that implied he was daring and clever was worth the potential walk back to civilization should his car be towed.

He leads her past the gate and she watches the car melt into the fog. They walk for several minutes, long enough that she loses equilibrium and realizes that she will be dependent on him to right her. She regrets that her afterthought is that no one knows where she is. It doesn't matter, she thinks, and she is old enough to take care of herself if it does matter. But it won't.

A rock catches her foot, which is not clad in shoes befitting one who is going to be tramping about a foggy park after closing. She stumbles into him, though not quite as romance novels suggest. Not that she reads romance novels anymore. He catches her before she can become more acquainted with the earth beneath her. As his arm lifts her, she sees that it was at the expense of his squid.

"I'm so sorry!"

"Not to worry, I guess the squids just wanted to be free." He nudges one with the toe of his boot. Eileen cocks her head to the side by means of questioning this action. "Run, my little friend, run and be free."

They stop at a small gazebo. Luke decides that this must have always been the destination, unbeknownst to him, for it seems to repel the fog. The air is no less damp and he notes with amusement that Eileen's hair is home to thousands of droplets of dew. He wants to tell her this and that she is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. He wants to tell her that this is perfect. Instead he asks for a French fry.

She opens the box by way of answer and the foam clamshell emits a squeak. She giggles despite herself and suddenly feels very immature to have found this quite so funny, but the image of an excited mollusk is still too strange to stop the laughter.

Sitting on a damp bench, Luke's duster beneath them absorbing the brunt of the seeking moisture, he turns to her. Until his mouth opens, he doesn't know what he will say. "Is this how you expected the night to be?"

"Yes."

Her answer is simple and she feels no need to explain further. She spreads his duster wide under her and rests her head on his lap. She knows how bold a move this is when one has yet to claim the prize of a kiss, but she is in a mood for bold gestures. Rather, she is in a mood to commit boldness upon him, if only to provoke reaction. Had he done something this forward she... might have melted. Or maybe froze. There would be a change in physical state to be sure.

He shuts his eyes, if only to take stock of the night up until this point. She has set chemicals flowing in his blood he had forgotten. His mind gives him a refresher course in high school biology, invoking the name of serotonin and adrenaline. He bites his lip to stem the lesson and ground some part of his body in pain.

He strokes her hair, pleased by the sensation of it turning to liquid beneath his fingers. He doesn't know what comes next and he finally doesn't care. There is no specter of an ex in the back of his mind. Eileen no longer has parents who would disapprove. He was no longer in college and she in high school. All that was and should be for him was her head in his lap.

She looks up at him and sees the first completely honesty smile cross his lips. The butterflies abandon their gastric home and catch fire. She awaits the feel of his lips as he leans down to her and closes her eyes to prolong the expectation of the inevitable.

She opens her eyes again and notes with consternation that he has still yet to kiss her. She catches his sideways, almost remorseful, glance. "I love you."

She sits quickly upright. "Repeat that?"

"I said... that I love you."

He looks at her and knows. She doesn't love him. Maybe he doesn't really love her either, but it is too late to backpedal. The words mix with the moisture in the air and set the scene in concrete. She opens her mouth to speak, to explain all of this. To work damage control. "Luke... Luke... I..."

"Shh... I know. Please, let's stop pretending."

She kisses him on the lips, but the kiss is one of defeat and remorse. A thank you and they lose one another to the fog.


Author's Note, 2013/06/04: I wrote the first half of this story (pretty nearly everything that happened in the diner) in early 2001, in lieu of a first date with a young woman named Eileen. I was fresh out of a relationship and pretty confused, as you can read here. As in the story, the largely chaste and verbal affair ended when I whispered to her (on the phone instead of in person) that I was falling in love with her, as it should have. After a bit of consideration, I decided this would make a better ending than the two getting happily together.
I deeply regret that some of the things Luke says in this story are nearly verbatim what I wrote to her. This alone may give a fine example for why one should not insert oneself as a character, as I now find Luke to be frustrating and annoying, if a bit more realistic for that. Still, one can see a leitmotif of my work to come: romances are not easy and rarely resolve themselves the way media suggests, especially for delusional romantics. All this talk of stomach butterflies made its way into the beginning of We Shadows, too.


Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.


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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

Anthologies

Find What You Love and Let It Kill You by Thomm Quackenbush
Pagan Standard Times: Essays on the Craft by Thomm Quackenbush
A Creature Was Stirring: A Twisted Christmas Anthology by Thomm Quackenbush
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