1st Place Winner - 2022 Box Fiction Contest
The sky outside Mr. Cortesi’s classroom was spilled milk. Much lighter and less damp than a marshmallow fog day, but still so dense it filled corner to corner of the school yard, as if Daniel Vanslow and his third-grade class were at the bottom of a glass. They lived at the top of the mountain range between San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean, the point where the sea seemed to flip upside down, move over land and cover everything. It hid tiny wren-tits swimming from tree to tree like silverfish. Squirrels busily hiding acorns under the hem of oaks. The cracks in the blacktop, appearing like a shattered lollipop.
Mr. Cortesi approached the chalk board with a science textbook tucked under his arm and a piece of chalk in his hand. He was an old teacher, whose black hair flung out around his ears as scrambled crow feathers. It was offensive to birds how much his teacher resembled one. His beak nose; his narrow, small eyes. After a million years of teaching, he said, the kids had worn out his vocal cords. So, he spoke to them through a white bullhorn with a red button rubbed to a shade of pink. The bullhorn squeaked.
“Who can tell me the date?” he croaked.
The voices in class came back with a discordant jumble of answers. October. Fourteenth. October. Tenth. November. Nineteen Ninety-one. October. Nineteen Ninety —. He flicked his finger off the button and sighed, writing Oct. 29, 1991 on the blackboard. He proceeded to say a bunch of stuff. Kids did stuff. The clock moved.
Daniel would have responded, would have listened, should have pulled out his science book to begin reading. But instead, his gaze was on a narrow window alongside the door. Although it was opaque, he knew beyond it there was a hillside of felted green tree tops at the school’s edge and beyond that a reservoir with a sequin surface and beyond that a valley spreading to a bay of shipping containers. The fog rarely receded, except for two brief weeks in fall when just after lunch the sun broke through. It was always brief and they were always inside a classroom. By the time they left school, the fog appeared from behind them as a blanket being pulled across the ocean and ridge line. It smothered fishing boats, curious sea lions, black boulders pointed like the tops of churches. It moved up honey cliffs, over scrappy bushes, through Redwood trees and forests that from an airplane looked like carpet. At Daniel’s small neighborhood the fog gathered around the gas station with one pump, the cluster of small farms growing pumpkins, the two wide streets with bland box-like homes, and the spiritless school buildings. It scented everything like a seashell. It turned people into their coats. They walked hunched and wrapped up like weather hurt. At some point they stopped asking or talking or thinking about when it would warm up or what season was next or whether rain was in the forecast or even attempting to see another person. They walked with eyes cast down, thinking only of getting from one shelter to another. From front door to car. From office building to coat to home.
The fog was so familiar that Daniel often forgot the color of the sun, the depth of a blue sky, what it felt like to reach above his head and wave his hands without it making the air turn in circles he could see. It seemed to him everyone in his neighborhood was a field of blossoms clamped shut. He wished he could be a sun shining through millions of miles to warm their skulls, their hands, the backs of their calves and make them open. His feet would leap through the fields of unfolding flowers, earth on his soles, the strong stalks lapping his legs. How he’d dance in their attention.
One morning with his parents and sister hunched over bowls of oatmeal and pages of work and books, loneliness floated over him as he watched the fog fill in the spaces between bushes in his backyard. He said his wish out loud. That he was the sun. His sister choked on her spoon.
“No, you’d never be able to stay in your spot in the sky. You’d shoot down and burn us,” she said. He slumped over his bowl. Shoot? Burn?
“Plus,” his mom said between scanning pages of some hideously tall stack of documents, her glasses smoking from the oatmeal, “you hate heat.” He withered in his seat and watched the fog outside. Hate?
It was true, he didn’t like being hot, which is why he loved the fog. Aside from the fish smell, which was no-good, terrible, it softened sound, dulled light and kept him cool because he was always on fire. His mom said, it’s because he moved at lightning speeds. Quicker than a jackrabbit, his dad said. To Daniel, though, if he was so fast then why was he always behind? It felt like he crawled while everyone around him walked on two feet. He tried to keep up, but somehow his mind started doing other things, pulling him back. It began counting cracks in the cement and then thinking about what sow bugs, worms, grasshoppers, might be inside those and how he liked the way their touch made him feel wanted. That got him thinking that if he found one, he’d want to see its face up close so he could say hi. He’d need his magnifying glass. That would only take a second. He turned back for his room while others moved forward. On his bed he found a book about bugs. He should have that, too. He stopped to pick it up and flip to a page on moths. He sat down. He got lost in the eyes on the back of their papery wings. So beautiful. He traced the pattern with his finger and that made him think to look in the windowsills to see if he could find good ones that hadn’t been torn by the sun yet. Sometimes he found them in his parent’s bedroom, ones that had somehow dried, wings open, as though they’d gone to sleep mid-flight and dropped inside the tracks, their faces turned up to the sky beyond the window. If he went there, he could probably get a few and then —. As he stood to walk to his parent’s room, something about moving his legs again would interrupt, the way silence recalls the absence of sound. Where was everyone? What was I doing? He’d see or hear everyone outside. Getting in the car, playing a game, or not there at all. Just gone. It was the loneliest feeling to be so close, yet so far away. It made him hate his brain. Stupid. Dumb. Brain. His heart would beat so hard to catch up it turned his skin into a blaze. Hey, wait for me. The inferno pricked his calves, his thighs, his head, even his eyesight. His mom said he turned into a heat wave. His sister said it was something more violent. His dad said, a hurricane. Hot and windy. To prevent overheating he wore shorts. No hats, no jackets, and, a lot of times, no underwear. The less, the better to keep him chill. That wasn’t enough though to control the way his brain worked. Especially inside Mr. Cortesi’s third grade classroom where layers and layers of math problems and words and reading and chalk dust turned the room burning even though everything inside was icy. Grey carpet, grey chalkboard, grey walls. The faces of every child inside, somehow grey, too.
Mr. Cortesi sat at his desk in a darkened corner reading about the human body from the thick science textbook, stopping every now and then to have students pull out paper and write answers to the review questions at the end of each section. It was now just before 11:30 a.m.
Mr. Cortesi droned. “It goes without saying that humans have pretty remarkable bodies, given all that they've accomplished. To be sure, humans have overcome predators, disease, and all sorts of other obstacles over thousands of years —”
Each word sent Daniel farther outside. He tried pinching his legs, pulling his shorts up to cool his body and keep his mind moving with the text, but the window was just more interesting. A line of ants crawled across the carpet under his feet and marched toward the front door and that got him thinking about the field of rattlesnake grass on the edge of the neighborhood where he’d once found an ant mound. He imagined he was walking through the field with his magnifying glass, looking for the queen.
None of this Daniel heard. He was reaching into the carpet and picking through ants. The bell rang, cutting off Mr. Cortesi. The kids hunkered into coats and hats and went outside to hide in the murkiness. Not Daniel. He had ants zig zagging in his palm. Tickling. He was about to laugh when Mr. Cortesi tapped his shoulder.
“... get out … ,” he said, raspy. Get out? For a second Daniel’s mind felt like it was kneeling. Where am I? The sound of kids screaming, of whistles and balls coming into his ears. He stood slowly and trailed to the blacktop. The cool fog clapped his legs. Kids gathered under slides and benches, against the side of the school building, where the concrete wall brought small warmth to their spines. While they chattered teeth over lunch boxes, ran in senseless circles, threw balls that disappeared, Daniel felt his way toward the lip of the school yard, which yawned into a hillside of sticky monkey flowers, ferns unfurling, bay trees, leaves fresh and green, and lace lichen swinging from the limbs of old oak trees. Three boys from Daniel’s class were building a clubhouse against a Redwood tree down there. They punched arms. Threw fistfuls of dirt at each other. And laughed. Big belly laughs that made their shirts float. They sweated and cheered and called each other assholes. They rolled in the ferns, fronds poking at their arms. They picked bushy fox tails and used them as swords. They put their arms around each other and whispered secrets from lip to ear. From heart to mind. With each laugh, Daniel’s skinny, bumpy body inched forward. He wanted to be the kind of boy that could hit another kid and have it be fun, who could keep up, who could handle buttons and zippers and toothbrushes and broccoli and math and the smell of lemons. With each poke, they stoked Daniel’s desire. To have. Friends. To be. Normal.
He stared into the canyon, hungry for their attention. His fingers looped through the steel diamonds in the fence and plugged at the space beyond them. Today, he’d make it down there. Today, for the millionth time he’d not just try to help, but he actually would help. They needed him. Their structure was a mess of broken sticks leaned against a Redwood tree. It was barely large enough for a raccoon much less an eight-year-old boy. And he was a natural builder. He was helping his dad build a canoe and he’d made a slingshot and knew how to hammer things together. He just had to get them to listen and not let his mind get behind. Today he’d stand in front of them instead of at the fence line so they couldn’t turn their ears away or go farther down the hill.
In front of him something rubbed against his finger. His eyes picked up on the thin oak colored body of a spider knitting between the links. He reached out to stroke its back. The spider went still and he could feel it soft, warm. Beads of water hung on its web, making it appear like the edge of his mom’s night gowns. His mind spun away from the hillside and into the spider’s world. It was about the size of his thumb. Large. Likely, then, a female, he thought. Its legs were black which meant it was most definitely a common house spider. Or, wait, maybe it was an orb weaver? Just then a rock flew at his fingers, clanking against the fence and shaking the web like a trampoline. He looked up, startled. Michael, Brian and Lukas came sharply into focus.
The three boys stood as army men, plastic and sweating, on the other side of the fence. Michael was in front. He was the biggest kid in the class, so tall that everyone thought he was in fifth grade. His hair fanned out above his head, giving him extra height. He had eyes in front like a predator. Daniel thought he was the coolest. He always had the answers, as if he was born with all of elementary school written in his brain. He mostly moved around Daniel as if he was barbed wire. But sometimes, he took notice. In second grade Daniel showed up to school with a thousand mosquito bites from a camping trip. His face had swollen into an allergic reaction that shuttered his eyes. He could only see through two paper-thin openings in his lids. Everyone was a fuzzy peach. With his eyesight nearly gone, the rest of the world seemed louder in his ears. The ticking of clocks, the thumping of feet scattering, the way people breathed in thick huffs, and laughs, so many, many laughs. Especially Michael’s which were like a pile of hiccups. Daniel walked around with his hands over his ears and cried, until Michael said, don’t do that, it’s just going to make you look worse. Heather said, like a monster. Monster? Daniel heard Michael hit her. It was confusing. On the one hand he seemed to be defending him, but, on the other, Michael had laughed.
Now Michael looked at him and then down the hill to the Redwood tree where they were working and then back at him with straight lips and eyes that settled on Daniel, not beyond.
“Hey, you want to come?” The spider turned small.
“Yes,” Daniel said quickly. He dropped through the cut in the fence, his breath so fast that he could hear it in his lungs. They all slid down the hillside on their butts, like they had sleds attached to their backsides until they hit a ledge with a small cluster of gnarled oak trees surrounding a single Redwood tree. In this one spot, the tree canopy held up the fog. Each branch curved over them in an arc of golden-brown leaves. The tree trunks were silvery. The grey light coming through was filtered to a thin golden brown that made even the plain dirt appear golden brown. It was like being inside an umbrella made of moth wings. Daniel felt like he was the body of a moon and silk moth, the forest rising from him, ready to launch him into flight. He was smooth, light.
“We need some help,” Michael said.
“I know you do,” Daniel said. Daniel brushed past Michael to climb inside their wimpy house to show it wasn’t right. “The way you are doing it, it’s not —” he said, reaching toward it. But before he could touch a branch, Lukas, who was short and skinny and included because he did kung fu, came out with a kick to Daniel’s hand. Daniel recoiled, bringing his arm close to his chest. He looked at the three boys, their shoes tied, their teeth brushed, their hair cut and combed, wearing jeans, these kids with eyes that could read and mouths that knew answers, and he dropped his head.
“Don’t touch it, “Lukas barked.
“He just means that it took us a long time,” Michael said slowly, giving Lukas hard eyes. “You want to help, right? Then what we need is down there.” He nodded to a spot ten steep steps away. Brian smirked. Michael slapped him in the chest, making him wheeze. Daniel examined the area. An old bay tree had collapsed and shattered into long branches in the middle of a strip of sticky vines and weedy plants that looked like poison oak, which his dad told him was the worst kind of itching. He said the way to tell was the leaves were shiny. Or were they furry?
“I don’t want to get into poison oak,” he said.
“That, nah,” Michael said. “Wild berries.” Daniel looked more closely. There wasn't anything berry-like growing from the bushes. He examined Michael’s mouth for traces of a smile. He closed his eyes and listened for a laugh.
“Look, do you want to help or not?” Brian asked impatiently.
“Well, I do. I just —”
“Listen, if you want to help you can get the logs. We need them,” Briand said.
Michael sighed and scooted down the hillside. He reached out and touched a leaf, holding it up to Daniel. His eyes said, you are being crazy. He scrambled back up the hill as if it was nothing and held a hand to Daniel’s face.
“I’m fine. Look, we’ll all help. You get the first round and then we’ll trade places and you can build. And then we can hang.”
“We can hang?” Daniel said slowly. Had he ever been a we with anyone? He rewound. There was this one time when he was five and he and this kid, Tyler, laid on cement under juniper bushes in the backyard and played with their Transformers. Tyler’s could turn into a jet plane and Daniel’s was a truck. He wanted to see how the nose on Tyler’s folded back to reveal a face, but Tyler just wouldn’t let him touch it, even though Daniel had allowed him to fool around with his, which was missing half its parts and really fragile. It turned Daniel inside out with heat that crept all over his body and ignited a fury his mom said was a nuclear explosion. Tyler’s mom had to come get him because there was a boom of screaming and clouds of tears and Daniel’s nails had turned to claws, erupting. Daniel remembered none of this. What he did recall was that Tyler’s mom called him a shit bird. A shit bird? Later, at dinner, Daniel asked how an animal that flies in the sky gets crapped all over or what that even had to do with this. His dad stabbed at his steak. You don’t get it, son, he said. Tyler never came over again. But they were a we in the hour before, cloaked in the soft yellow haze of juniper bushes with their toys.
Today was another chance at we.
“Okay.” Daniel smiled like he had pretty teeth.
He trudged down the hill, slipping on Vaseline slick oak leaves and tumbles of pine needles to the edge of the vines, which burst with red leaves. He looked back up the hill at Michael. Was he itching? He and the boys were kicking dirt and shadow boxing. He was fine. Daniel touched the bark. It was dusty, but not at all itchy. He began to pull, sliding into the vines and breathing deep into his stomach to tug out a branch about as thick as his leg and as long as his body. With some effort he lugged it up the hill panting.
“Awesome,” Lukas said, looking at him wide-eyed, an expression Daniel took as impressed.
“So like four more and then we switch?” Daniel said.
“Perfect,” Michael said. Daniel went down the hill light, his feet barely touching. He landed in the bramble and began tugging out branches and stacking them just outside the brush. He worked at such a pitch that he sounded like a wild boar rooting. The rhythm of it all — bend over, grab, pull, stack, repeat — lulled him into thoughts, dreams of everyday working like this. They would brush shoulders hammering, Daniel would nail the branches together while Michael held them in place. Lukas and Brian would saw. He erected not just a fort, but a life, his mind turning bark and dirt and leaves into a house of we. Where we would hate on Mr. Cortesi’s bad breath, where we would flap, our bodies beating against each other, like an eclipse of moths. Where we would laugh until our faces felt heavy. We. We. We. His arms swept and reached and flung until he caught only silken air. He stopped for a second, the lack of something to hold causing his mind to slow. His eyes settled on his work, a pile of ten. Did I do all that? He turned up the hill in a run, excited, his chest rising with pride, to tell the boys.
“Hey, I think we have enough and we can switch —” he panted, but as his eyes reached the hilltop, he was met with stillness. Where once the boys were kicking and pushing there was nothing. Dirt. Sticks. Dead leaves. The boys, gone. Daniel opened his mouth to listen for noise. He couldn’t hear the kids screaming or balls bouncing or yard duties whistling. How long have I been down here? The feeling of something misplaced pulled on his nose. He scooted it through the air, like a dog trying to find a trail. The minutes ago of dreaming disappeared. Poof. The light changed, turning bright yellow. The golden canopy was obliterated by pure, raw light. He looked up and saw the sun poking through the fog. It was tearing through the area where they’d been playing, their umbrella ripped, like the wings of moths left too long in his parent’s windowsill. He darted his eyes up the hill. I missed something. Daniel felt his legs heat. His heart pumped to slow it down. He trampled up the canyon, his legs unsure of what to do. At the edge of the school yard, he heard the screech of the bullhorn turning on.
“Daniel,” it bellowed.
Mr. Cortesi met him at the fence. He appeared as a crow on a powerline, his chest puffed out, his hair lifting ruffled in the wind, his eyes on prey. Daniel opened and closed his mouth before finally settling on something to say.
“I’m here. I’m here.” His words felt rushed but came out slow like spitting out peas.
“Here, is not where you are supposed to be,” Mr. Cortesi said, dropping his bullhorn. Daniel ducked through the fence and let his head sag, too afraid to look into Mr. Cortesi’s eyes.
“I didn’t mean to I was just helping the other kids —”
“Don’t blame others for the fact that you chose not to come to class.” Mr. Cortesi shook his bullhorn no. “I’ve had enough of your defiance.”
The word tripped in Daniel’s mind. De-what? “I don’t know what that means?” Daniel said weakly. “I just didn’t hear the bell.”
“Look at me … ” Daniel raised his head and squinted as Mr. Cortesi said so much, his bullhorn nodding and shaking.
“... dangerous … “
“ … reckless … ”
“ … disrespectful … ”
“ … distracting …”
Over Mr. Cortesi’s shoulder Daniel could see the single tall window into the classroom. In it, a dozen faces, like statues. Some had hands over their mouths. Some had foreheads in lines. Some had eyebrows sewn together. None of them moved. An entire gallery of hard, rock carved faces on him. Cold.
Once Daniel’s mom took him to a museum. They walked through rooms of white walls with one single piece of art that stretched from one end to the other. So large that Daniel’s mind couldn’t imagine how they found paper that big, much less fit it through the door. Room after room of splattered paint, what his mom called modern art, until they came to the sculpture room, a dark space in the back that felt like being inside curtains. It was windowless with spotlights on people carved from marble, their faces contorted into pain or sadness searching the ground. His mom circled them with slow steps, studying the muscles in legs, the chiseled jaws, the roundness of eyeballs.
“See how they appear in movement,” she whispered from the side of her mouth, as if they could hear her talking about them. “Can you feel their emotion?” Daniel thought it troubling that anyone would be frozen in a particular feeling, especially sadness. He wanted to place his hands under their butts and straighten them up, lift their heads, chase them. He struggled to breathe through the fabric-like air.
“I’d never want to feel like that,” he shouted, reaching to touch one. He wanted to add, trapped in a room like this, not able to even speak, but she pulled him away and put her hand over his lips. Quiet, she said. Later, when they were outside because someone had asked them to leave and Daniel was so hot he’d blown up all memory of the moments before, she folded over her knees on the front steps, her eyes so far away they seemed to cut through the cement and into another world. As Daniel cooled off he noticed how she didn’t move. It was creepy. What if she was one of them now? He shivered and pushed his index finger into her shoulder to make sure she was still soft. She flinched.
“Why are you like this?” she said.
“Like what?” he asked, confusedly examining his body. He had on shorts. A t-shirt. No socks. VelCro shoes. He was as he always was. Does she think I am different than usual? She sighed and smoothed the back of his hair, like she did after they went to the doctor or he had a hard time at school. He could feel cool air press against his scalp.
“Nothing,” she said, standing. “Never mind.” They never went back there. Thank God. Those statues and the minutes of his mom like one of them was terrifying.
At this moment, those faces were a gallery of haunting emotions from the museum. But instead of crying, they were laughing at him. They formed a we. He was something else entirely. He thought about his desire to be the sun, to warm people, open them up, be with them. Even if he could tolerate the heat, he’d never be able to break stone. It was too hard. Daniel’s eyes brimmed with tears. Mr. Cortesi grabbed Daniel’s left hand and began to lumber back to class. His teacher’s steps were surprisingly long for someone with such short legs. Daniel’s feet pedaled to keep up, taking five strides to every one of Mr. Cortesi’s.
In an hour Mr. Cortesi would call Daniel’s mom. She would arrive with her eyes in knots. She wouldn’t reach for his hand or place her palm on the back of his head and rub the narrow spot at the nape of his neck. She wouldn’t ask him how his day was or if he’d eaten his lunch. She wouldn’t say any of the usual things. She’d come and they’d sit in an alcove at the front of the classroom where concrete walls and short rusted bolts served as a place for kids to hang their stuff. Moist jackets, frayed lunch boxes and bags littered the ground, a collection of forgotten things. She would sit rigid in the child-sized chair, her knees folded to her chest at a U-shaped table, Daniel alongside her. Mr. Cortesi would pull a thick file from his grey metal desk. They’d use big words he didn’t know.
“... immature … ”
“… ADHD …”
And small ones he did. Lost. Doesn’t. Can’t. Those words would find a place next to the other ones starting to fill his mind.
Dumb. Stupid. Brain.
His mom would take him home and tell him he’d better shape up without ever explaining, like shit bird, what that exactly meant. It was just something he was supposed to know how to do. Two days later, his body would be covered in a red rash that was so hot and pointed it devoured him, making it impossible for him to walk.
He would roll in his bed, considering what Mr. Cortesi said to him just before entering the classroom.
“Come on, Daniel, keep up,” his teacher barked. Daniel worked his legs hard, but they burned. His foot clipped a crack and tripped. His knees tumbled to the ground. Mr. Cortesi paused for a second, panting. Daniel tried to tell his legs to move, to get under his knees, to straighten, to stand, to walk. But everything inside him was heavy.
All the words filled his feet, his legs, his butt. Daniel put his hand on the pavement to lift himself. Before he could, though, Mr. Cortesi grew impatient and started walking, dragging Daniel behind him.
“The whole world isn’t waiting for you anymore,” he grumbled.
And Daniel knew it to be true. He let his feet go behind him. Asphalt cut into his knees, his shins. He wanted to yelp in pain. He wanted to tell him to stop. But it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter.
He was a crawler, after all.
Jennifer Christgau-Aquino is a fiction writer, poet and journalist who focuses on the human condition. Her work has appeared in First Wednesday, The Dime Show Review, BrainChild, Huffington Post, and Ruminate. She’s a 2022 Craigardan resident, and holds an MFA in fiction writing and poetry.