Keeping Warm – Part 4

Beelo woke in his bed. He dripped sweat and his heart pounded in his chest. He sat up and looked around. He was confused at first, then felt relieved to be safe in his bed. Then came the sadness as Beelo remembered he would never see his brother again. Sadness to think that Tara would never be the cheerful, talkative person she was before that evening’s watch.

Beelo swung his legs over the side of the bed. Kintu snored softly and rolled over, pulling the blanket and sheets to her side of the bed. There would be no more sleep for Beelo tonight. He put on a long shirt and made his way down to the main floor. He decided to make a cup of tea to clear his head. Afterward, maybe he could lie down next to Kintu until it was time to wake up and get ready for the day.

When he reached the living room, Beelo saw that Tara was awake. She stared at him from the rocking chair.

“He is gone,” she said. Those were the only words she said anymore.

“Yes,” Beelo said. “He is gone.”

Beelo put a brass pot with a varnished wooden handle into the wash basin. He reached towards a brass spigot that jutted from a pipe on the wall and lifted a stop valve. Cold, clean water flowed from the tap into the pot. Beelo released the ceramic handle of the stop and the weight of it seated the valve tightly which caused the water to stop. Beelo carried the pot to the stove and placed it on a flat surface next to the flume. He dipped his finger into the water and he felt the icy cold cut through his flesh like a knife. He took a step back to watch the flames dance behind the amber glass set into the front of the stove wile he waited for the water to heat up.

Beelo’s grandfather and great uncle were master craftsman. The two brothers built efficient and beautiful stoves, doors, and sinks. Their metalwork and glazing were the centerpiece of many domas and Beelo’s father often spoke of how proud he was to see grandfather’s handiwork in the homes of people he visited.

Beelo’s father was industrious as well. He specialized in valves and mechanisms powered by springs or pneumatic and hydraulic pressure. The latching mechanism on the main door of Beelo’s doma tree was an example of his father’s command of art and science. Opening the door was nearly effortless because of precision hinges with a pneumatic counterweight hidden in the jamb. Unless the door was held open, it swung shut under power of compressed air. As the door closed, some of the pneumatic power was used to automatically seat a heavy latch. The effect was such that anyone could open the door from inside with little effort and anyone leaving the doma could be confident the people inside were safe.

Another innovation designed by Beelo’s father was a pump that used the heat of the stove and the rising air inside the chimney to feed vaporized sap from the doma tree into the firebox. The stove could be started with a small fire of a few sticks and then would burn indefinitely on the liquid fuel. A small valve controlled how much power was fed into the mechanism from the chimney and could be used to control the temperature. A special pipe fed deep into the trunk of one of the trees that formed the doma supplied enough sap to warm Beelo’s home and to cook in the oven.

The sap from the doma trees was quite flammable when in a liquid form. Beelo inherited his father and grandfather’s ingenuity and had made use of the doma sap to design the powerful incendiary devices used to drive away slinks. The sap was mixed with a liquid made from fermented and distilled grain which formed a sticky gel. This was encased in a thin ceramic ball. A dark gray paste, made from crystals found in nearby caves, was carefully painted on the outside of the ball. This chemical was known to burn at the slightest spark and was covered by a two-piece ceramic shell which was glued together. The outer shell was specially made with minerals that spark when struck. A special paint applied to the outside prevented accidental ignition.

The combination created a portable device that was very stable, light enough to be thrown, but dense enough to have momentum to break on impact. When the outer shell cracked, it created a spark that ignited the chemical painted on the inner shell, which in turn set flame to the gelatinous sap from the inner shell. The resulting fire was hot and burned for a long time. The gel was very sticky and impossible to wipe off. The blaze was the perfect weapon against the slinks and Beelo spent a good part of each summer making them for his own supply and to arm the rest of his tribe.

Beelo’s tribe of tree dwellers called themselves the Téchni. Each family held the responsibility to make something useful for the whole tribe. Someone in need of anything they couldn’t build themselves would find it provided by another member of the tribe. It was the pride of the Téchni that each doma had everything necessary to keep the inhabitants warm, safe, and fed. Summers were spent in collaborative work. Adults would craft or repair with assistance of older children. Some would gather food or raw materials as well as hunt for game. Younger children were looked after and taught by older adults whose fingers or eyes were no longer strong enough for work. The young people learned history, art, and science from their elders and formed a deep connection with their teachers.

A noise broke Beelo from his thoughts and he tore his eyes away from the flames. The pot of water boiled and droplets spattered as they fell onto the hot stove. Beelo took the wooden handle in hand and carried the pot to the counter. He placed the pot on ceramic potholder and dropped two brown spheres into the steaming water. The spheres absorbed the water and expanded. Two leaves uncurled from the round objects and a small blossom inside opened up like a budding flower. The water took on a light brown color and the scent of the tea was carried into the air.

Beelo closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose. He let the smell of the tea push away the remnants of his nightmare. He opened his eyes and took two ceramic mugs from a cupboard next to the basin. He deftly ladled tea from the pot into each mug, careful so that the leaves and blossoms remained in the pot. He picked up a mug in each hand, and carried one to Tara. She took it without looking and held it near her chest.

Beelo watched as the steam rose past Tara’s face and caused the wisps of hair above her forehead to curl. He turned his eyes back to the fire and drank his tea in silence.

With about an hour left until sunrise, Beelo returned to bed. He curled up behind Kintu and put his hand on her waist. He laid there and listened to the soft noises she made while she slept and and he enjoyed the scent of her hair until sunrise.

Keeping Warm – Part 3

A scream woke Beelo. He was startled to find himself in the rocking chair in the main room. He blinked and looked around and heard another scream, this time louder and closer.

Beelo bolted for the front door. Both of the coat hooks next to the door were empty. He undid the latches and furiously pushed the door open.

The last notes of Tara’s scream still echoed between the trees and the nearby hills. Beelo could smell smoke and when he followed the scent out into the limbs of the tree, the scent grew stronger. It was the familiar smell of burning pitch tainted with the stench of burning hair and flesh.

Beelo ran along the large branch and peered through the thinning leaves of his tree, most of which were yellow, red, and brown with the changing of the seasons. Today was the 4th day of autumn. Beelo had been on watch with his brother Baro the last three evenings. Earlier, as they prepared to go outside for the watch, Baro suggested that Tara take Beelo’s place. Members of either sex were expected to take turns at the watch, as with any job or role in their society. Beelo accepted their offer and had dozed in the rocking chair.

Still following the burning scents, Beelo jumped down to a lower limb and down to another. One more jump and he’d be on the forest floor. He was about to leap when he saw Tara. She was buried her to her chest in doma leaves. Beelo realized she must be on her knees and that is when he heard her sobbing. A few feet away from her was an oblong patch of burning leaves. The smoke curled up in to the half-defoliated branches above before disappearing into the fog above.

Beelo leaped to the ground. His fall was cushioned by the pile of fallen leaves. He walked carefully towards Tara. His hand went instinctively to where the pocket of his coat should be and Beelo became suddenly aware of his situation. He was totally exposed to the elements and radiated heat like a beacon to any beast that might still be nearby. And he was completely unarmed.

Tara’s shoulders shook with sobs and her head was bowed. The hide of her coat was the color of the bare branches of the doma tree with streaks that looked like moss. If she was in the limbs of their tree, she would be nearly invisible. However, where she knelt in the leaves she stuck out like a tree stump. Beelo was relieved to see that her breath wasn’t clouding around her and figured she must have kept her mask on or put it back after screaming.

Beelo scanned the forest floor and peered into the branches of the trees. He couldn’t see any other movement. There were no enemies to be seen but there was no sight of his brother either.

Beelo arrived at Tara’s back and gently placed his hand on her shoulder as he crouched behind her. She startled and fell to the side. She kicked her feet at Beelo and began to scramble away before she realized who he was. She looked into Beelo’s eyes and pulled her hood back. The mask slid from her face and her shuddering breath came out in puffy clouds of steam.

“Th-th-there were two of them,” she stuttered.


Tara nodded her head and pointed at the smoking ground where the burning had died down and the leaves simply smoldered and smoked.

“Baro…”, Tara started before she lost her words to another series of sobs.

“Where is Baro?”

“He saved me,” she shook her head. “The coat was too big, the mask wasn’t fitting well and my breath would sometimes come out. We didn’t think it was a big deal, being so early in the season. But one was waiting for me, clinging to the underside of a tree branch. It grabbed me and took me to the ground.”

Beelo knew too well what had grabbed Tara. His people called them slinks. Tara took a few panicked breaths. Reliving the ordeal brought back her panic and Beelo grew anxious about the clouds of steamy breath that lingered above their heads. Their combined heat would bring trouble from miles away if they didn’t return to the tree soon.

Beelo stood and held out his arm for Tara to take his hand. However her gaze was held by the smoldering leaves and didn’t see.

“Baro tossed a blaze at the one which held me in his jaws. The light and the heat were incredible and I was stunned. The creature rolled in the leaves, the smell was horrible but I couldn’t move. Baro pulled off his hood to call to me, to get me to run.”

Tara turned to look at Beelo’s hand. At first she appeared not to know what she should do, then she took it and pulled herself to her feet. Beelo held his sister-in-law by the shoulders to keep her from falling back to her knees.

“The second one was above him. It dropped on Baro and they both fell to the ground. The first beast was no longer aflame and he grabbed Baro by the leg. Together the creatures dragged him away. All I could do was scream.”

“Can you walk,?”

Tara nodded.

Beelo held the shaken woman’s hand and guided her to the trunk of the nearest tree. He boosted Tara up to a series of hand-holds designed to look like fungus. She furtively climbed to the first tree limb and stood there, waiting.

Beelo climbed onto that lower limb and saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Careful not to startle Tara, he reached into her coat and grabbed a round earthenware ball. He turned his body to throw the blaze at the slink that was only three or four feet behind Tara.

The beast drew back onto its hind legs, ready to pounce as Beelo threw the blaze. The ball struck the slink in the chest, just below its throat and cracked like an egg. A burst of light and heat made the animal curl back and fall away into the air below them. Tara stumbled and landed on her backside, lucky to stay atop the tree limb.

But Beelo was not so lucky. The momentum from throwing the blaze carried him off his feet and he fell, facing up with his body parallel to the ground. Time seemed to slow, which gave Beelo time to watch Tara spin away from him. He turned to look at his left arm, which slowly rotated as he flailed for a branch to grab on to, his fingers ready to wrap around any branch that came into reach.

Only a few feet past Beelo’s grasping fingers was the slink. Its front paws desperately attempted to swipe the sticky, flaming contents of the blaze from its chest. The creature didn’t make a sound but the pouches on the side of its head that held the eyes were wide open. Beelo noted that outside of the black pupils, the beast’s eyes were white. Beelo had never looked at one so closely. He momentarily forgot he was falling to his death and studied the creature.

Short, thick limbs sprouted from a flat body. The hide was scaly and black, but did not shine. Beelo knew from stories told by his father and grandfather that their people did not make a blade that could pierce that hide. There was a ridge that ran from the back of the head to the stubby tail. The front paws had long, hooked digits that ended in sharp talons and the back paws were flat with shorter claws that looked perfect for climbing. The head was squat, with the wide eyes on the side shielded with bony protrusions that could be pulled down to completely cover the vulnerable organs. The nose was rounded with slits for nostrils that could also completely close to keep out dirt when digging in the tunnels in which they lived. The mouth was wide and when it opened, revealed rows of pointy, yellow teeth.

Beelo was about to make an attempt to look closer when the slink hit the ground with a crunch of leaves and broken bones.

At almost the same time, Beelo’s world went dark.

Keeping Warm – Part 2

Beelo sat cross-legged on the rug and watched his family finish their evening meal. A delicious stew filled his stomach and warmed him from the inside out. A brass stove on the other side of the room filled the air with a glowing warmth. The combined effect of the food and the heat made Beelo drowsy and he smiled sleepily at his son and watched as his youngest child tipped his soup cup and set it on his head. Kintu took the bowl away from the young boy and wiped the soup out of his orange, curly hair.

Beelo haltingly rose to his feet and bent over to collect the other dishes from the rug. He had to step carefully around his sister-in-law to get the dishes to the kitchen. The woman had hardly touched her soup, but Beelo was not surprised. Tara had spent most of the autumn in a daze. She would eat only a few bites at every meal and sat in the rocking chair all day while she rocked and stared at the stove. She only ever left her chair to relieve herself or to open the door when Kintu was not able to.

Beelo put the dishes in the wash basin and started cleaning them. Kintu walked up behind Beelo, wrapped her arms around his waist, and laid her head against the space between his shoulder blades. He felt her lean to one side and soon they were swaying to a song that that must have been playing in his wife’s head. Beelo rinsed off the last dish, set it on a wooden rack to dry, and turned in Kintu’s arms until they faced each other. He wrapped his arms around his wife and held her close. He rested his chin on top of her head and breathed the scent of her hair deep into his lungs.

“You must be exhausted,” Kintu said.

“I am a bit tired.”

Exhausted was a better word for how he felt. A long day spent preparing the tree for the winter and a cold evening spent watching the tree had depleted him.

“Go and get ready for bed, I’ll tuck in the kids and fetch a blanket for Tara.”

Beelo nodded and kissed Kintu’s forehead. They let go of each other and Beelo made his way to the rug. He got down to his hands and knees to kiss his children. Batu, their daughter, laughed and playfully tried to escape from her father’s affection. Keelo, their son, gurgled and waved his chubby hands in the air. Beelo somehow got to his feet again and walked up the spiral staircase to the bedroom.

The doma tree in which Beelo’s family lived was in fact four trees that grew together, intertwined and wrapped around each other. The people of Beelo’s tribe all lived in similar trees. Most doma trees held two or three generations of family members and some were large enough for multiple families.

Beelo’s tree had belonged to his family for six generations. The first ancestor to make a home in this tree made use of natural gaps between the individual trunks, sealing off the space from the weather and making it air tight. Back in those days, there was one room with an open fireplace. In the time since, Beelo’s family expanded up into more and more empty spaces, building a system of staircases and passageways between each area. A brass stove, built by Beelo’s grandfather and great uncle, warmed the system of rooms and created a draft that drew fresh air from a series of small openings in a lower chamber and allowed the warm air to escape high in the branches of the tree. The exhaust from the stove and the cooking oven was also vented way up in the tree, which gave the smoke time to cool before it joined the outside air. Another recent addition was a cistern that provided running water in the kitchen and washroom with basins plumbed to drain down to the roots of the tree to mask the smell and warmth.

Controlling heat was of the utmost importance. If heat from a stove poured directly out of the house, it would be visible for miles. There were many animals in the forest and hills with the ability to see heat the way Beelo’s people see light and color. Even the coats worn while on watch were designed to retain and camouflage body heat. Each hood was fitted a mask that circulated exhalations into the coat to keep outgoing breath from fogging the air and glowing brightly in cold autumn air to any animal with the eyes to see it.

Beelo reached the top of the spiral staircase. There was landing at the top and three passageways. The first passageway lead to the chamber shared by Beelo and Kintu, the second belonged to the children, and the third was supposed to be used by Tara and her husband. However Tara now spent her nights in the same rocking chair she occupied during the day. Occasionally, when Beelo rose early, he would find Tara curled up on the rug in front of the stove.

Beelo entered his bed chamber, took off his outer garments and climbed into the bed. He was asleep in seconds, long before Kintu was done tucking in the kids.

Keeping Warm – Part 1


Beelo shivered. The south wind whistled through the bare limbs of his tree and seeped through the seams of his ankle-length hooded coat. The chill was uncomfortable but it kept Beelo alert and focused. This would be the last year he could wear this coat. The one his mother made him. Kintu, Beelo’s wife, would take the reusable parts of the hide to make a smaller coat. The seams would be tight and the insulation thick and warm. It would be a perfect coat for one of their children, may they grow big enough to take their turn at the watch.

Beelo heard a noise behind him. He turned to see Kintu walking carefully along the damp tree limb on which Beelo stood. Kintu carried a ceramic mug and steam escaped through the lid. She wore a long, thick robe and her breath fogged the air as if she also was filled with hot liquid.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” Beelo said with concern in his voice. He turned his head to scan their surroundings to make sure it was safe.

“It is much too cold out here,” Kintu said. “Please, come inside.”

Kintu walked up to Beelo and held out the cup.

Beelo sighed and took one last look around. The sun had set for the second time more than an hour ago and it was definitely cold enough. It would be safe to go inside for the night.

Beelo took the cup and the couple walked single-file down the limb towards the massive trunk of their tree. The circumference of the limb grew as they walked and eventually they were able to walk side-by side. They held hands, fingers intertwined, while Beelo caressed Kintu’s finger with his thumb.

They both stopped when something moved above them. With a scratch and a rustle, a leaf fell between the limbs and branches. Like all the leaves from this tree, it was very big. Beelo could have lain outstretched on it’s surface and neither his toes or his fingers would reach either end of the leaf. It must have been one of the last leaves left on their tree. Beelo frowned as the leaf raced past them. Kintu sighed and squeezed her husband’s hand.

“It will be winter soon” she said.

“Yes,” agreed Beelo. “Soon.”

The limb on which the couple walked ended against the trunk of the massive tree. The rough bark of the trunk was laced with strands and curtains of stringy, green moss. Beelo took one last look around, then nodded. Kintu reached out and pulled one of these curtains of moss aside to reveal a wooden door.

The door was made from planks of wood joined with brass hardware and sealed with caulking. Light shined dimly through a window set with amber-colored glass. There was no handle on the outside of the door. Kintu rapped on the glass twice, then knocked three times on the wood. The amber window darkened as someone inside peered through it and a moment later, the door swung out.

Heat, light, and the smell of dinner welcomed the pair. Beelo placed his hand on the small of Kintu’s back as she passed through the door. After they were both inside, Beelo pulled the door shut against the cold, dark night. As the door seated into the jamb, two brass latches automatically fell into place in the floor. Beelo reached overhead and levered another latch into place on top. Between the latches and the heavy brass hinges on which the door swung, the entrance seemed secure enough to hold back anyone, or anything, that tried to force it open.

Beelo removed his long coat and hung it on a wooden peg next to the door. There was a second peg next to the one he used which was always empty. The sight of it made Beelo frown.

Beelo turned and looked at his home. Everything he held dear and everyone he cared for were safe and warm. He would spend every evening of this autumn watching the tree to make sure they stayed safe. For Beelo, winter could not come fast enough.


​The measure of amplitude or power of sound waves is expressed in decibels (dB). For most of the things we measure in life, we use linear scales. Assume you place something that measures 15kg (roughly 33lbs) onto a scale and then added an  identical item. The combined weight would be 30kg (66lbs). However, the dB scale is logarithmic, which means it is not directly additive when combining quantities. 

Assume you have a device that generates 60dB of sound pressure, which is the normal volume of a television in the home of someone under the age of sixty or the peak volume of a polite conversation amongst sober people over the age of twenty-five. If you turned on an identical machine, the sound pressure level would double. Linear logic would lead you to believe the combined noise would measure 120dB but that is wrong. The measurement would only rise to total 63dB. The doubling of power in a sound wave results in an increase of 3dB. This is the case for all physical devices that create sound with one exception: children. More specifically, boys.

Assume you have one boy, who is making noise at 85dB, which is the same sound pressure level of your average freeway from 10m (32.75ft) away. If you add a second boy making noise at the same sound pressure levels, the normal rules of acoustics would dictate an increase of 3dB. However, in the case of boys, the increase of sound pressure level is closer to, but not exactly, 15dB. Meaning two boys are capable of a sound pressure level similar to that of a jackhammer without even trying. What gets harder to explain is when you add a third boy. Adding a third boy capable of the same noise as the first two will increase the sound pressure level by another 30dB. I don’t mean 30dB total, I mean 30dB in addition to the 15dB added by the second boy. This means three boys, with very little effort, can generate a sound pressure level that reaches the pain threshold of the average human ear and, at the prompting of a good fart joke, can be as loud as a jet airplane leaving the runway. Add a fourth boy and mention the word “poop” or “butthole” and you’ll be lucky if you don’t suffer instantaneous, irreparable hearing loss. 

This message is meant as a public service announcement. Please take care of your ears and wear proper hearing protection devices if you’ll be around more than one boy at a time. The headsets worn by airport workers on the tarmac should suffice, unless one of the boys burps.

Page Turner

I sat on the edge of my son’s little bed. I thought how I would be hard-pressed to sleep on it without most of me spilling off the edges. He was only five so he had room to toss and turn. Many mornings I would find him sleeping upside down or diagonally and I had to wonder what he did in his sleep.

We were in the process of putting on his pajamas. I had just pulled the top of his favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jammies over his head. His blonde hair stood up from static electricity.

He wrinkled his face with the effort of pushing his arms down the sleeves. He had just finished producing his left hand when he asked me, “Daddy?”

“Yeah, buddy,” I said.

“Are we in a story?”

I tilted my head like a cartoon dog and looked at him in confusion.

“What do you mean?”

He finished getting his right hand out of the end of the green, fuzzy sleeve and his eyes searched his room for something to look at. Children often don’t look an adult in the eye when they talk but my kids usually did.

“Well,” he started. “I think that we are in a story. Like we are maybe in a book or a movie or on the TV?”

My first instinct was to laugh. Both of my kids had a fantastic imagination but my son was full of stories.

However, with the last couple of words, his eyes finally found mine. His eyebrows moved together in a little volcano shape above his nose. His eyes were brilliant and blue. He was not messing with me or telling one of his jokes. This was serious.

“I don’t know, little man,” I said and scribbled my fingers through his ionized hair. “I’m pretty sure this is real life. The stuff we see on TV and read in books is not real like we are.”

He looked down at his toes, which were digging into the fibers of the carpet. Around his feet were scattered remnants of the day’s play. Army men, ninja turtles, and cars of numerous makes and models were strewn about as if a bomb had gone off in the toy aisle of a department store.

“I know that they’re not real like us,” he nudged a small, orange pickup with his big toe. “But, I thought maybe if we were in a story there is someone watching us and we’re not real like them either.”

I could tell he was uncomfortable. What he told me was either hard for him to put together or the idea made him uneasy. I scooped him up and put him on my lap. He was small for his age and I could wrap my arms completely around him until he was cocooned.

He pushed against my chest and pretended like he wanted to get away so I squeezed him harder. It was a game we played whenever I cuddled him after a scraped knee or when his feelings were hurt. A moment of tender closeness ending with a squeal and giggle while he fought against my grip. It almost never failed to break the gloom and when I set him down he would usually run away, laughing.

This time when I set him down, he started to run and stopped suddenly. He turned and looked at me over his shoulder.

“Daddy, are you sure?”

I squinted at him and said, “Sure I’m sure. Besides, who would read our story? Its not exactly a page-turner.”

I pointed down the hall, towards the kids’ bathroom, “Now go brush your teeth.”

He bolted down the hallway with the stride of a video game action hero. Moments later I heard the sink running full blast like he wasn’t supposed to do and his sister was yelling at him to turn it down.

Later that evening, after tucking in the kids, some TV I didn’t really watch, and some conversation I don’t really remember, it was time for bed. My wife had been fighting a cold and went to ahead while I put the dog in his crate and locked the doors. I was not surprised when I came to the bedroom to find her snoozing. Her iPhone laid on her chest and displayed an unfinished game of Sudoku. I set the phone on her nightstand and plugged it into the charger.

I turned off the bedside light and kissed the softness of her cheek. I whispered into her ear, “I love you,” and walked to my side of the bed.

I lay on my back and stared at the textured ceiling while my son’s words echoed in my head and the concerned look on his face floated in my thoughts. The logical side of my brain knew that the life I was living was real. My two kids, my beautiful wife, could not be characters in a book. Our life was nothing like a movie. Not one anybody would pay to watch anyways. But for some reason I could not get that question out of my head.

Are we in a story?

I was less sure than earlier.

The light from a passing car seeped through a gap in the blinds of our bedroom widow. The dim blade of yellow light swept across the ceiling, briefly illuminating the tiny stalactites that hung there. The light faded as the car took the corner out of our cul-de-sac. I realized I had been laying there a long time, silently contemplating my existence. I realized how absolutely exhausted I was and how heavy my eyelids had become.

I rolled onto my side to minimize my inevitable snoring and I allowed my eyes to close. While I drifted into unconsciousness, while the world outside my eyelids floated away, I imagined I heard… No, I actually heard, if only faintly, the distinctive sound of someone turning the page of a book.

Why I Stayed – Part 24

The mountains that border Kiln Valley rise high above the south side of town. The peaks are so tall that in the dead of winter there is a week where my town does not actually see the sun. The only evidence we have that daylight has come is a gentle lightening of the gloom. At noon, if you were lucky, you saw the briefest suggestion of the sun in the form of an orange glow crowning the peaks of Silver Ridge.

Growing up in the shadow of those peaks and the more modest range to the north, I always felt a sense of confinement. Going west to Coeur d’Alene for shopping trips felt like emerging the jaws of a giant beast. Escape was all I could think about as my senior year of high school was taking shape.

Most of my classmates felt this same constriction. Some kids attenuated the pressure with beer or stronger methods of self-medication. Some kids acted out and got in trouble. Others would embrace the role in which they found themselves and seemed to strive to become the embodiment of the cheerleader, the drama geek, or the grunge punk. They would don their costumes every day and surround themselves with other people dressed like them in a sort of tribal defense. They used lipstick, outgoing personalities, and pierced noses to make them stand out as individuals. The irony was, these affectations only made them blend into amorphous groups like a herd of zebras or a flock of birds.

Nicole and I always watched the kids around us and their attempts at dealing with life in a small town with a sort of detached amusement. We never felt compelled to participate in the posturing and pretending that seemed to so important to our classmates. Our aloof attitude was just another defense mechanism but it seemed to serve us a purpose. We didn’t need to find ways to deal with the small town life in Kiln Valley because we were getting out.

Between the two of us, Nicole was always the one with the ideas. She came up with the plan in middle school.

“We’re both smart,” Nicole said one afternoon. “Probably smarter than most of the people in this hellhole.”

“I guess,” I said. “I don’t really know that I’m that much smarter than the next guy.”

“Whatever,” she said. “ I wouldn’t hang out with you if you were another mouth-breathing Neanderthal like Kevin Richardson.”

I laughed but the look on her face was dead serious.

“Here’s what we need to do. We need to get the best grades we can so we can get into college.”

“There’s no way my family can pay for college.”

“Duh,” said Nicole, rolling her eyes. “That’s why we need to get good grades. Kids with good grades get scholarships. Plus, you can get student loans to cover the rest.”

An eight-grader who thought farther into the future than dinner was pretty rare. Nicole, at twelve-years-old was thinking about college. She made it sound so easy that it didn’t take much for her to convince me to play along. From that day, we both put forth our best effort in classes. We studied together, read together, and collaborated on projects whenever we could. By our sophomore year, both of us had straight A’s and had earned the respect of our favorite teachers.

Then, I started playing football. Most of the guys on the team weren’t what you would call good students. Many of them wouldn’t pass their classes if the teachers didn’t allow a certain amount of wiggle room for them. My father even made a joke one night at dinner when I told him I’d made the varsity team.

“Now you don’t have to study so hard and you can have a little fun,” he said through a mouth full of mashed potatoes.

I looked at him in confusion while my mom shot him a disappointed look. I wondered how he could think that. I imagined he thought I was only studying so hard because I didn’t have anything better to do.

I loved my father but I felt like he didn’t know me very well. He spent so much time on the road that when he was home it was like a holiday or a special occasion. There was a nice meal and he would tell us about what happened on his trip but there was never time for any serious conversation. I never went hunting or fishing with him like some kids. We didn’t have anything to connect us besides our genes. Everything I achieved at school went without his acknowledgment until I started playing football.

When I made the varsity team, my dad was suddenly very interested in my life. I was at first a little put off by his sudden involvement. I was upset that he could ignore my success in school but be so excited that I was playing some stupid game. Eventually I found myself enjoying the attention and the praise. Dad started cutting business trips short so he could see me play. He started putting money into the KVHS booster club and my parents proudly wore their red sweaters to the games. The sat on red bleacher cushions that only the booster club members could get. By my senior year, the admiration my father gave me for playing football became one of the reasons I tried so hard on the field and at practice. I got good grades for Nicole, while I played good football for my dad.

One evening after practice, coach said something that made me realize that both endeavors could play into our escape plan.

“Good practice, men,” Coach called to the assembled team. “Our homecoming game on Friday is going to be especially important. For three reasons.”

Coach held up his hand, three fingers pointing to the darkened sky.

“First, it’s homecoming,” he said putting one finger down.

A few boys whooped and most of us laughed. The coach quieted us with a stern gaze.

“Second, we’re playing Tall Timber. They are a tough team and we’re going to have to play our best to beat them.”

The coach put another finger down, his index finger stabbed straight up in the air like a flag pole.

“Third, I know for a fact that there will be college scouts at Friday’s game. Some of you might use their presence as motivation to show off or do something cocky but believe you me, nothing impresses a scout like someone that plays a solid game as a member of a solid team. Do you hear me?”

The players would always respond to that question in unison, “Yes coach!”

However the response was broken and half-hearted. Every junior and senior on the team that dreamed of playing college football was already thinking about Friday night and how they could stand out to the scouts.

“Hit the showers,” coach said to dismiss the players. “Griffith, Kinsey, to me!”

Jerrad and I looked at each other. I shrugged and Jarred winked. We both walked over to the bench where coach was picking up his clipboard and his jacket.

Without turning around he said, “You guys have your work cut out for you on Friday.”

“What do you mean, coach,” asked Jerrad.

“I mean you have a tough team to beat and you’re surrounded by a bunch of cocksure teenagers bent on proving they’re good enough for college ball.”

Coach turned around and looked first at me and then Jerrad.

“You two are the only ones that are ready for that level of play. The other guys will never play another official game of football after this season but I see the two of you going on to play for a good school.”

Coach took off his hat, wiped the sweat off of his forehead and looked back at me.

“I understand that this might be your best shot at getting into a decent school and making a good life for yourself. Don’t fuck it up.”

As often as our coach would yell at us, throw his clipboard into the grass, and send us gasping into another round of gut drills when we disappointed him, I had never heard him swear and the word hit me in the face like a slap.

“You can go,” he said and went back to gathering his things.

All week I had been wanting to tell Nicole about the scouts. I wanted to tell her what coach said about getting into a good school. This whole time I had been busting my butt to get good grades for a scholarship, I never once though that I could actually play for a college team and possibly get a scholarship for football.

But Friday came and I had not seen Nicole once. When I got to my first period class, my head was in a fog. I had so much to tell Nicole and I never had to wait so long to talk to her. My mind drifted back to the last time I saw her. I played the evening of Jerrad’s party over and over in my head. I was certain I did something wrong but I couldn’t tell what it was.

The bell rang for the end of first period. I had been in my head the whole time and I couldn’t remember what the classroom topic was. I picked up my book, grabbed my backpack and made my way to the door. I glumly walked toward my second period classroom. A kid gave me a playful punch on the shoulder.

“You ready for Friday night,” he asked in overly-aggressive tone.

“Yeah,” I said halfheartedly. “I’m ready.”

The kid looked let down. He watched in confusion as I turned and walked away without the normal high-five. Halfway to my next class, I felt someone watching me. I looked up from the floor in time to see a girl turn her head and look away. Something about her seemed familiar but I didn’t see enough of her face to recognize her. I put my head back down and moped the rest of the way to second period.

Second period went by in a blur and I found myself trudging to third period. Normally I would cross paths with Nicole between second and third period. I looked left and right as I walked but nowhere did I see Nicole’s black jacket and tattered blue jeans. I looked for her gray hoodie. I looked for her chestnut hair banded with the yellow Walkman headphones. I stood in the middle of the intersection of the two main halls of our school. Students flowed past me on either side. Hundreds of faces went by but none of them were the one I wanted to see. I gave up and made my way to third period.

I sat in my desk and didn’t hear a word the teacher said. I resolved to find Nicole at lunch. If I didn’t see her at lunch, I would skip my afternoon classes to drive back to our cul-de-sac and knock on her door.

The bell for the end of third period rang. I went to put my book in my backpack only to find I had not even taken it out. I lugged my heavy backpack to my shoulder and walked out the door and to my locker. I usually exchanged my morning books for my afternoon books so I didn’t need to come to my locker again for the rest of the day. Instead, I put my whole backpack in my locker and shut it. I scanned the hallway for Nicole. Not seeing her, I made my way to the cafeteria. I hoped to find Nicole waiting for me outside like she often did. When I arrived to the noisy lunch room, I was focused on the doors on the other side of the sea of teenagers. I almost didn’t hear someone call my name.


The shrill voice cut through the tumult of lunch trays, silverware, and excited conversation. I turned my head to look towards the sound. At a table about twenty feet away sat four girls. I immediately recognized one of them as Jerrad’s girlfriend. She waved at me and smiled. The two girls on her left were cheerleaders who I had known since grade school but who I had never really talked to and didn’t particularly care for.

When I looked to the fourth girl, the clamor of the lunch room suddenly died down. My peripheral vision blurred and the only thing that was still in focus was this girl sitting at the table. She wore a navy blue cardigan over a powder-blue t-shirt that came down to a blue-and-white plaid mini skirt. Her legs were covered with gray tights and she wore dark blue Mary Janes with thick, chunky soles. Her hair was pulled back in a bun except two strands that framed her face. Shiny, silver hoop earrings dangled from her ears. Her neck was encircled with a choker necklace in the shape of white flowers.

The girl had been looking at the sad food on her lunch tray and raised her eyes to meet mine. My mouth fell open and I stared. The only thing about Nicole that was not changed was her piercing green-blue eyes. She looked at me, into me and I was completely stunned. Her face seemed stern and then one corner of her mouth went up in a half smile.

“Have a seat, Kinsey,” she said. “Its lunchtime.”