And of course, Sparrow’s Fall is a working title; and of course, this is rough draft material; and of course, as the working title indicates, this is the happy part.
Part One: When I was Real
I never did decide whether Mara and I were a thing. Sometimes, I thought we were, and sometimes we definitely weren’t, and sometimes it was just completely impossible to say what we were. I know I loved her. I think she loved me, but I’m not sure whether either of us was ever in love. Maybe. Often, though, I felt more like we were siblings. I don’t know.
I do know that she was exactly the right shape. She fit perfectly under my arm, up against my side, like we were puzzle pieces and that was where she was supposed to go. We matched.
It was two in the morning, or maybe a little later. I was on the end of the couch, and Mara was where she belonged, there beside me. My mouth still tasted like cheap wine, the kind that leaves a sweater on your tongue. It had been hours since the real television had stopped and the endless commercials had started. The light from the screen caught on the two glasses, two bottles on the table. It lit up Mara’s face. She had fallen asleep.
I let her stay there. Neither of us had anywhere to be in the morning. A night on the couch wouldn’t hurt her any.
I flicked off the television, plunging the room into darkness. One last glass of wine seemed tempting, but leaning forward would dislodge Mara from her place on my chest. The last glass was still prickling in my veins, anyway. It felt good. Mara beside me felt good. Friday night, the heater clanking, rain outside. It all felt good. I guess I eventually fell asleep, too.
Saturday came too early. I could still taste the wine, and it was even worse the next day. Mara had slid down from my chest to my thigh. I was okay with that. She was warm.
I slid her off as carefully as I could, replacing myself with a rolled-up blanket, and shuffled off to make a pot of coffee. After a couple of cups, I could start to function.
Mara stumbled in after me when the coffee maker started to growl. Her hair stuck up on one side, and a red fan-shape of creases crossed her cheek. Her eyes were puffy.
“Morning?” she mumbled.
“Yeah. Sorry to say, it is.”
“Nope. ‘S Saturday.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“C-considering it’s almost t-ten, yeah.”
She went around me and pulled down two mugs from the cabinet, set them on the counter and grabbed milk from the refrigerator. The calendar stopped her.
“Your conference is next weekend?”
“Nah. G-gotta laundry first.”
The milk carton clunked down on the counter, and one of Mara’s arms went around my waist. Her chin fit perfectly into the crook of my neck and shoulder.
“Bring me a tee shirt.”
I think we were a thing, just then.
It took us both a while, but we managed to get moving before noon. She spread out on the floor and graded short stories her freshman class had written. I did that laundry I was supposed to be doing, modified a lesson plan that just wasn’t going to work, and listened while Mara read off some of her better stories. She had some gifted students. So did I, but physics isn’t as much fun to read aloud, and I didn’t necessarily want to admit that a couple of my students had mistaken my multi-part questions for multiple choice. Circling one letter out of four isn’t a good thing when there’s supposed to be an answer for each letter. I was going to have to keep them after school to let them try again.
She flopped over at about one o’clock and looked at me upside down.
“I’m bored,” she told me. “Movie?”
“Got a paper?”
I tossed her the newspaper and went to change into a sweater and fresh jeans, because I knew where this was going. She made fun of my sweaters. I got back at her by knitting her a whole wardrobe of them over several Christmases, and she wore them occasionally, when she forgot that she thought they were goofy. I chose a blue one, pulled it on over a white shirt – I made that, too – and shrugged a jacket on over it.
Mara drove, and I paid. It was our system. I bought her popcorn, too, because I had made the mistake of letting my refrigerator go empty, and she hadn’t bothered to grab herself breakfast when she migrated back to her half of the duplex to change clothes.
She shifted in the theater seat until she was as close to my side as the plastic arm rest would allow. I admit I have no idea what the movie was about.
Lazy weekends are the best kind.
The week went past like a greased cat. I re-administered that test, launched various objects across the football field with a catapult my students built, and stopped Vic Tooms from launching a squirrel he’d caught into the community center’s pool. The squirrel admittedly could have been a lot more grateful, but in its position, I probably would have bitten the crap out of me, too. Fortunately, no one noticed, and I was able to get to the bathroom and wash while the herd of rowdy juniors was clogging the hall in front of my classroom.
I had only just managed to get them sitting and semi-quiet when Mara darted in, snatched the mug of pens off my desk, and shot off again, cackling like a maniac. The class erupted. I didn’t have another moment’s peace until Thursday afternoon.
Mara and I got home around five thirty. She and I were both dead beat, but neither of us had the option of kicking back. I had to go through one more time and make sure I had everything I was going to need. Mara disappeared into her half of the duplex for about an hour and then wandered back with a bowl of spaghetti. She symbolically offered me some, and as always, I declined.
“Got everything?” she asked, wiping a red smear of sauce off the tip of her nose.
“Working on that.”
“Clothes for three days?”
“Toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, razor…”
I held up the plastic grocery bag that held my hygiene regimen.
“Aspirin, notebook, pens…”
That would go in my backpack, not my suitcase. I nodded and pointed to the pile in the corner.
“Reading material for the bus? Or knitting stuff?”
I wasn’t about to take knitting stuff on the bus. The last thing I needed was to make friends with yet another elderly lady or accidentally poke someone in the arm with a needle. It was tempting to go off to Austin and come back with one more sweater for Mara, but the logistics were just difficult. Knitting stuff is bulky.
I held up a small stack of battered paperbacks I’d snagged from the library’s too-old-to-keep box.
She was teasing, and I knew it, but I still couldn’t stop from shifting uncomfortably. The bunny in question was an antique toy, made of white wool, with a faded letter K stitched onto its chest in once-red silk. It sat on my bed during the day, and sometimes at night, too. I didn’t sleep with a stuffed animal; I just liked the smell of it.
“You c-can take care of the bunny while I’m gone.”
“Looks like you’re set, then.”
“Well… I hope so.”
“It’s all good. If you forget anything, you can just steal it off someone else there.”
She snorted and pressed her cheek against my back, hopefully being careful not to get spaghetti sauce on me.
“It’s weird,” she said, “thinking about you being gone for a weekend. Who am I gonna pester?”
“You c-could go across the street and mess with G-gail.”
“Ew. Her cats would eat me.”
It was true. Most animals disliked me, but Gail’s cats were abnormally aggressive. It had been a couple of weeks since that big black one had found its way into our house, but it would come back someday. It always did. Then it would hook itself into my leg and stay there until I could pry it off. Even Mara didn’t like Gail’s cats, and Mara was a cat person.
I zipped up my suitcase and set it by the door, shoved my notebooks and novels into my backpack, zipped that, and flopped down onto the edge of the bed. I did not look forward to the trip in the morning.
Mara flopped down beside me and gave my hand a squeeze.
“You know,” she said flatly, “you’re going to be bored as hell. You’re probably going to spend all weekend making baking soda volcanoes and doing interpersonal sensitivity training and crap. And then some old lady is going to stand up and tell stories for half an hour about her students back in the fifties, and then she’s going to cry…”
It all sounded awfully familiar.
“Yep. That’s p-pretty much how these things always go.”
Mara sat up, rotated herself ninety degrees, and flopped backward again so that her head was on my chest. Most of her hair went across my face – her hair was, to put it mildly, enormous, but most everyone’s was back then – and a lot ended up in my mouth. I pulled it out and muttered some apology for the spit. She laughed.
“I’ll rent us something to watch when you get back. Okay?”
“Okay.” Something in her voice made me pause, though. I had a sneaky suspicion I knew what she had in mind. “No horror, though. Okay?”
“Pfft. Okay, fine.”
We both got up early on Friday. At that time of year, we were always up before dawn, but I had somewhere to be, and Mara was my ride. I struggled into khakis, a sweater, and a windbreaker, and tossed my suitcase and backpack into the rear seat of Mara’s Datsun. I waited while she slapped on some makeup and shoved as much of her hair as she was able into a straining rubber band. She would be at school a lot earlier than she had to be, but we had both agreed that leaving early was a much better idea than getting a flat somewhere and ending up being late.
I handed her coffee in a vacuum mug and climbed into the car, sitting quietly while she peeled out of the driveway. I could handle early mornings, but until she had finished her first cup, Mara was only one bad joke away from homicide. She chugged most of it at the first light we hit.
Abilene isn’t a big place, and the streets are dead empty before daylight. There were sure to be some cops on their rounds, some small business owners unlocking things, some local ranchers driving out from town, but the only car we passed was a gas tanker with a disgruntled driver. He was making about the same face as Mara.
There was only one other car in the parking lot at the bus station. It was orange, some kind of sports car, and it was sprawled across three parking spaces. Mara screeched into a space on the far end and had jumped out of the car almost before the keys were out of the ignition. I pulled myself out more slowly while she fished around in the back for my suitcase and backpack.
“I am so sleeping through lunch today,” she growled. “Ugh. And study hall. Do you think they’ll rat on me?”
I shrugged and slung my backpack over my shoulder. Mara’s breath steamed in the freezing air, and I was already losing feeling in my fingers.
“T-t-t-tell ‘em no homework if you g-get a full forty-five mmmminutes?”
She flashed me a wolfish grin.
“I knew there was a reason I keep you around. Have a good trip, Len.”
I shifted my backpack and picked up my suitcase.
And Mara bowled me into the side of the Datsun, pressed her hips against mine, grabbed me by the collar of my jacket, and kissed me hard. Compared to the air, her lips were boiling hot. It’s strange what you remember from moments like that. I remember that she stepped on my foot and that she’s the only person I’ve ever known who put honey in her coffee.
When she stepped back, she looked almost confused.
“Hm,” she said. “I’m going to have to keep thinking about that.”
Then she slammed back into the driver’s seat, started up, and drove away, leaving me choking on exhaust and unexpected signals.
I don’t remember much about waiting for the bus. I guess I must have sat there for the hour or so before it came. I must have gotten on, picked a seat, stowed my stuff. Mostly, I remember thinking.
I had thought about Mara before, about being with her. I had only been in love once, and I knew that this did not feel like that, but it had been a long time, too many years since Kate, and I did wonder sometimes whether it would be okay to just let her go. Kate wouldn’t have wanted me carrying a torch for so long. But mourning becomes a part of you, like a bad habit, and even once you’re not in agony any more, it sticks around to remind you that you can’t fall in love again if you’re still in love with a ghost.
I cycled through the old standbys.
We were friends. I didn’t want to risk that.
We were colleagues. I didn’t want to risk that, either.
I loved her, and I’m pretty sure she loved me, but there was no way for me to say whether I could ever be in love with her. Kate was still in the way.
She was beautiful. I had always thought so, but I had never been and would never be attracted to her. People like me aren’t attracted to other people, not in that way.
And that brought me to the last point: people like me. The kind of person I am.
No one has ever stared at me in horror and breathlessly demanded to know what I am. It just doesn’t happen like that. I hate having that conversation, though, so it usually takes place over a cup of coffee while I explain that, even though I am one of the weeniest guys you’ll ever meet, some of my quirks aren’t actually the result of neuroses, like everyone assumes. It’s not that I don’t eat in public because I can’t stand being watched; I actually don’t eat at all. I guess I could, physically, but it makes me sick. Not going near the river? Yeah, I don’t really like running water, but even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to cross it. Playing catch-and-release with the spiders? You would, too, if you could feel them die.
The fact is, the answer to that question – What are you? – has two parts. The part most people are usually looking for is the fact that I’m dead. More specifically, undead. That has never really bothered me, but it bothers other people, sometimes a lot, so most of the time I let people assume I’m completely spastic. It doesn’t make me a lot of friends, but it does keep people from coming after me with pointy sticks, and that’s a good thing.
The second part, the tricky part, is that I’m a medium. I see ghosts, but it’s more than that. The clue is in the word itself. A medium is something – someone – in the middle, something between. Between two worlds, between alive and dead. Even when I was alive, part of me was dead, and now that I’m dead, I’m still alive. It doesn’t actually make any sense, so I don’t think about that part of it too much. The important part is what I do. When they need it, I can help them to cross over. I can help them find peace.
It’s tricky because I also feel death. There are varying degrees of awful with that. It’s easiest to handle little things, like when someone accidentally steps on an ant. Murder hurts as though I was the one dying. Needless to say, media can’t kill. It’s impossible. So a medium who ends up a vampire is pretty much just a joke. It’s not even like the others, the ones they call Broken, who still have some free will and can choose not to kill if they don’t want to. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Not that I ever wanted to, but there’s something impressive about being dangerous. I’m just a nerd with very cold hands.
Mara wasn’t the kind to freak out, though. I knew her well enough that I wasn’t worried about frightening her. More likely, she would call me a liar. That could potentially be either better or worse.
They kicked me off the bus in Austin just in time to prevent me from having a nervous attack. I forced my brain out of high gear long enough to call a cab and check in at the hotel. There was just enough time for me to dump my stuff on the bed, change clothes, and run to the ballroom for the first-night mixer.
There are more male science teachers than other kinds of teachers, but the hall was still a swimming pool of estrogen. I huddled in the corner with the shyer members of my sex and thought about Mara.
The mixer lasted until midnight or so. It probably would have lasted longer, but the bar was under-stocked, and no one had an opportunity to get well and truly skunked. Not that no one tried. There was muttered complaining as we all wandered back to our rooms to catch a few hours of sleep before the workshops and seminars started in the morning.
That was Friday.
Saturday morning, I took advantage of the decrepit coffee maker beside my room’s bathroom sink, caffeinated myself as much as I was able, and avoided the hotel’s restaurant until it was time to go make baking soda volcanoes. We also cut up construction paper to represent equivalent fractions, raced Hot Wheels across various surfaces to study coefficients of friction, and discussed the various reasons that it is never a good idea to build a catapult on your football field.
Sunday, we listened to people speak, teachers from all over Texas. It was mostly older women, with a few very old men scattered between. Some of them tried hard to be funny. Most of them brought themselves to tears sooner or later with stories of students from a long time ago. One had to be helped down from the podium. By evening, my hands stung from clapping, and my legs were cramped from sitting so much.
Teachers’ conferences are draining. I don’t like sleeping in a strange place, trying to make small talk with a lot of people I don’t know, with every third one of them offering me unwanted advice to help with my stutter. I’ve done speech therapy. Tea doesn’t help. Talking with a mouthful of marbles doesn’t help. Repeating lines from movies doesn’t help. I don’t like listening to them complain about work and about their colleagues. Teachers are wonderful people, on the whole, but put a bunch of us in a room together, and we turn into a bunch of chickens, squawking and pecking each other to death. I hate listening to them talk about progress, and how the only thing we can learn from the way things have always been done is how not to do them.
I sat quietly and pretended to pay attention while I played out scenes with Mara in my head. The words had to be just right, and I would need to know them beforehand, or else I would ramble, and she would never understand.
Suddenly, I realized that the applause was just a little bit more heartfelt than it had been, and the speakers overhead were blasting Texas, Our Texas, and everyone stood, and then it was over. A few people hurried to find friends they had made. Some exchanged business cards or telephone numbers. Most just made for the doors. I sat still waited for the tide to pass me by, then rode out on the back end of the wave. It deposited me at the hotel bar, which seemed like as good a destination as any. Such a long weekend deserved a beer. I already knew that I would be sleeping for most of the bus ride back home, so a tiny hangover wouldn’t hurt anything.
I unpinned my name tag and stuck it in my pocket, shuffled into the smoky room, and went to get myself a drink.