Old Things Die (But Not Us) -- Chapter twenty: working title

Fiction By Madalyn Clare // 4/6/2020

Maren brought us to Staten Park. Now, Staten Park isn’t a super big amusement park, but it’s really popular among the locals. It’s kind of like an ongoing fair. It’s basically a large lot by the forest, with kiosks, rides, and activities. There’s a concert there every week during the summer to benefit child hunger foundations.
When the two of us entered Staten Park, I took in a deep breath of barbecue, cotton candy, and hay. Music wafted from the speakers that were tucked into almost every street vendor’s booth, and children and teens and adults laughed, talked, squealed in every direction. The parkgoers around us were well-dressed for spring; I saw seniors getting their photos taken, selfies everywhere, and as we walked farther, we saw a wedding party, too.
Maren got a large cotton candy. Since she was so eager to start working, Dad began paying her for some chores and her organizational skills. She seemed ecstatic to pay for her first snack by herself.
Before we left I hadn’t eaten. I wasn’t hungry then. But now, I was happy. And being happy takes calories.
So Maren nibbled on a cotton candy while I tucked into a lobster sandwich.
“How did you know I missed this place?” I asked.
Maren shrugged. “Well, I live with your dad, too,” she said simply. “I like talking to him.”
I allowed myself to laugh. Just a little. Then another bite of my sandwich. We walked past an airgun game- the grand prize was a giant teddy bear.
“My mom took me here,” I said, “every change of the season. She liked taking pictures of me in all the different lightings for her photography book.”
We passed a Twirl-a-Whirl ride.
“Your mom was a photographer?”
I nodded. “Yeah. She wanted to get her photos up in a gallery. For the longest time she was putting together a photography book, too.” Memories pulled me out of the conversation for a moment. A quiet, reverent moment. “She stopped during chemo.”
We had stopped walking, but I don’t remember when. The music and joyful noises continued around us, while I played back my favorite memories here, like off of an old video camera.
She bought me a slushie, and took a picture from behind me with my silhouette swallowed by the sunset. She took a lot of pictures of me when I wasn’t expecting it, claiming that awareness can’t replace candidness. I didn’t know what it meant back then- I was five. I studied hard later so that I could understand half of the things my mom told me like proverbs.
I smiled. A sort of off smile again, but I looked back and I was proud of myself.
In this place, with Maren, I wasn’t miserable.
I didn’t have to be strong.
But I was so okay.

We rode Maren’s first rollercoaster (she wasn’t a fan) and almost all the rest of the rides. We watched recital performances at the outdoor stage and ate even more food. We walked through exhibitions, sat through a melodrama, and ran through a water fountain. All the while, we smiled.
Maren kept stealing my phone. She took pictures of the trees at the far end of the lot, of the fair food, of the woodland creatures that wandered in to find leftover fries, and of me. Each time she exclaimed, “Channeling my inner Kira Cannon!” and I couldn’t help but laugh.
She took great pictures, though. Maren had an eye for color.
It was far into the afternoon when we sat down on a grassy hill to look up at the sky. The shadows were becoming blurry as the sun slowly fell to the horizon. Bees buzzed around us, and the music was far away. We could hear the crickets waking up and communicating.
Maren sighed happily and laid back in the grass.
“The world is a pretty great place,” she whispered.
I wanted to agree. I thought today was pretty great, and that how I felt was pretty great, too. But I knew I wouldn’t always agree, because I had felt the world be less than a great place. That meant it was easy for it to be less than great again. So I shrugged.
Maren tapped my arm and I looked down at her. She was smiling at me.
“Hey,” she began, as if she read my mind, “there are days that it’s perfectly fine to feel like the world sucks. Just don’t let it be all the time, okay?” She gestured up at the sky. “There are days that it’s stormy, right? And there are days when it’s sunny and there’s no cloud anywhere. But when it’s somewhere in between, like there are some clouds but not too many, is it automatically like a stormy day?”
I shook my head.
“No, it’s not. I dunno, it makes sense to me. I told myself that a lot when I was younger.”
She sighed out, and I leaned back too. Staring up at the gradually dimming sky, I let go of my own detoxifying breath.
“When you were with your dad… were you this happy?”
Maren was quiet for a bit. She didn’t look at me but kept her eyes on a particular cloud. “It’s not like he was a monster, Levi. I mean, he accused me of everything under the sun if I displeased him- I was a delinquent if I didn’t come home exactly on time, I was a troublemaker if a boy even looked at me in public, and somehow I was stealing his money every day. He called me names, criticized everything about me, and micromanaged my social life. To say I was sheltered is an understatement- I lived in a survival bunker.
“I wouldn’t say I was miserable. I didn’t know any better. I had a sense of humor, so long as my dad didn’t accuse me of learning bad manners, I lifted my own spirits, you know? If he approved of it I had some dolls to play with. So I wasn’t unhappy, just… kind of restless.
“When my mom left…” she trailed off. Then almost immediately she came back, vigor in her voice. “When my mom left, that’s when he took to drinking.”
I felt like I knew what was coming next. Knowing Josh, I felt like I knew this story.
“Well, when that happened, he started taking more things away. If I didn’t make dinner on time, I didn’t eat. I was fat, anyway… that’s what he said.” She swallowed hard. “He took a lot of things away from me.”
I nodded.
“He wasn’t a monster, Levi. He just hated himself.”
I turned my head to look at her. A single tear trickled down from her eye. In the moment I just wanted to brush it away, because it hurt me, too. But I didn’t.
“Long story short,” she concluded with a shaky breath, covering her face with her hands, “I’ve known being happy. Call me naïve, but I know how to feel happy. And I’m really good at being in the moment, so I just feel it even bigger.”
I propped myself up on my elbows, and looked down at her. As she breathed in and out, her torso shivered. A few seconds passed and neither of us said anything.
“Let’s not talk about scars right now.”
“Okay.”
So we didn’t. We simply watched the sun set.
She took out my phone again and took a picture. Her smile returned.
“Hey, can we take pictures of each other?” She handed me my phone. “This is really good lighting right here.”
“Okay,” I said through a warm smile.
She posed for me: her knees drawn up to her chest, head cocked to the side, and arm extended, making a peace sign.
Maren was adorable. I grinned as I took her picture.
My phone rang.
Across the screen was an unrecognized number. A California area code.
But I knew those numbers. I saw them, neatly penned onto a sticky note, every morning.
Immediately, I picked it up, too much in a hurry to tell Maren.
“Josh?”

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