"Mia and Courtney Say Things" by Greg Burkholder
We said things like Rhino. Revolver. Retribution.
Mrs. Yoder, the speech therapist, made us repeat them until they became meaningless vowels exploding out of our mouths. Every Tuesday we entered Mrs. Yoder’s classroom, had an hour long existential crisis then left no better, still sputtering out our garbled words. With me it's the damn Rs. They morph in my mouth to babyish Ws. Courtneys problem is every syllable that bursts from her mouth. She talks like a wineless wino, desperate, pleading almost, her words cascading out of her mouth. She says there are too many ideas whirling around in her head. They are too vast for her tongue to articulate in a calm, comprehensible manner. She's looking into ESP.
“Can't be that hard.” she said.
“Wight, ok.” I said.
There used to be five other people sitting in the motivational poster-festooned room with us, puking twisted words and mangled sentences, like chants in a foreign language. Until it was just us. It was almost the end of the school year and still there we were, the two of us, still uncured, our tongues still acting all like tiny, fleshy rebels. Rebels are fun and hot and all, but not when they reside in your mouth. Everybody said Mrs. Yoder was a miracle worker. With only a few lessons she could, almost like magic, cure stammerers, lisps and people who couldn't for the life of them figure out how to operate Ls.
Our tongues' unwillingness to bend to Mrs. Yoder's mystique, her hallowed word structure koans baffled not only her but the whole faculty and student body. Ha! We're used to it, though, the bafflement. Everyone, always, is thrown, damn near to the point of swooning, by my face. Uneasiness about it filled the halls. I had to part it like a guy in cargo shorts and tan wide brimmed hat cutting through the African bush with a machete. Voices would fall silent as I passed. Whispers. Awkward shuffling. And fear. I never understood the fear but there it was. And the rumours. Everywhere, the rumours. A car accident. My dad beat me with a frying pan. I tripped over an errantly-placed mustard bottle. (I started that one.) The truth, like always, is boring. I was born this way. It's Nager syndrome. A facial disorder so rare spell check doesn't recognize it. I wrote a report on it once and every time I wrote Nager Syndrome a little red squiggly line appeared under it. Like even the computer thought I shouldn't exist.
Courtney on the other hand was pretty. So damned pretty. She could have been one of the popular girls, with a football player dangling off one arm and Mr. Mathews, the hot math teacher off the other, causing a nationwide scandal. Sometime around 9th grade she lost the soft feminine lilt of her voice and began talking in her desperate way about things no one understood. Nobody likes weirdness. Its icky. Makes them feel like maybe being a dead eyed, bland boned clone of everyone isn't a good idea. And people hate being wrong so Courtney, damned pretty Courtney, sifted down into the same social stratosphere as me. That is to say no social stratosphere. We were out of this world.
“Relax. Remonstrate. Rekindle.” We said.
Between the posters of garishly-fonted letters and sentences in orderly rows, through the windows, smeared with the grime of broken voices, rows of corn fields rolled over hills. I stared through it and thought about stuff. Deep stuff. Ha. No I didn’t. I thought about nothing. An Amish farmer rolled by beating the shit out of his horse with a whip. When I say horse it sounds like I'm declaring the poor animal is a collection of ladies of the night.
“Howse.” I said.
“Excuse me?” the flustered voice of uncouth language shy teacher.
“That farmer. An ass. That po’ howse.”
“I need you to focus, Mia.”
I was totally focused. Just not on what she would have preferred. I shrugged.
She let out a long exasperated sigh, like my god, she just found out she got pregnant from a one night stand when all she wanted to go out to the bar, let out some steam from her boring boned, miserable life, grabbing onto the first guy she found and drown her blahness in his sweat.
“Quite a sigh you got there.” Courtney giggled.
Mrs. Yoder stared into the emptiness of the glass bottle she always kept on the table. She stared at it for awhile, like there was an episode of Gilmore Girls playing in the convex glass. I bet she hearts the fluid, fast paced dialogue. Rory and Lorelai, The Masters of the Tongue.
Courtney twirled her hair around her fingers and squinted at Mrs. Yoder. She always twirled her hair when she was thinking. Courtney thinking = Never a good sign.
The bell rang. Mrs. Yoder stared at the bottle.
We slunk out the door. It clicked softly behind us. The day, mercifully, was over, thank god. There is no god. Thank the mighty Particle. Courtney grabbed me and threw me against the lockers.
“You gonna kiss me?” I asked.
“There's something weird about Mrs. Yoder, don't you think?”
“I dunno.” I said. I don't pay much attention to people. They don't see me so I don't see them.
Her fingers dug into my shoulders. Her nails scraped my bones.
I asked what she meant.
She threw me back against the lockers and paced, like a scientist about to make a big discovery. She shouted. Balled her fists. Kids gave her a wide berth in the hall. Derek pointed and laughed. So I wouldn't feel left out, he called me ugly. I flicked him off.
“There’s something,” she said. “Something not right. I can feel it. Feel it in my bones.”
According to her, her bones can pick up on ethereal undercurrents. Eddies of the unseen.
“Sooooo like?” I said.
“I don't know what it is.” She paced more and swore slot. “But I'm going to find out.” She balled her fist and shook it at god, I guess.
So, after the next week's session, Rs and Ws and Ls dripping like rank, moldy honey off our lips, we hid behind a couple lockers waiting for her to go home to whatever she does after school. Probably, she knits and wishes she was dead.
We huddled in the shadows of the lockers. Courtney glared at her office door so intently she didn't even hear Derek compare me to a deep sea creature. Mrs. Yoder, after, oh I don't know, about a million lifetimes, opened the door. Her Wal-Mart heels clicked down the hallway. We shot out of the shadows and caught the door before it shut, locking away Mrs. Yoder's secret forever. Or at least until next Tuesday. There were probably no secrets either. Just an insane best friend.
We looked around. Weird, let me tell you, to be in there, without the chorus of voices, and the only light coming through the thin slats in the blinds. Felt Like my hearing aid was off. I snapped my fingers next to my head.
“Why are you snapping?” Courtney said.
“I feel deaf!”
“Well, stop being weird and search.”
“What awe we looking fo’? You have been, thwoout this whole thing, wather unclear.”
“I dunno.” she said. “Weird vibes. Skulls maybe.”
“Ah! Suddenly, the clouds have pawted and I can see!”
She rammed me with her hip, then we snooped around for awhile. I found a packet of cigarettes. A flask. A tattered picture of Obama.
“I think your vibwations or whatevew misled you this time Court.” I said.
“They are not idiots.” She crawled on the floor. She licked her finger and held it up. “Feel that?”
“The school alas is shoddily built.” I said.
She put her ear to the floor. She yelled at me for walking.
“You'we being a bit of a lunatic Courtney.”
She rapped the ground with her knuckle. She smiled.
“I need something heavy, a hammer or something.”
Before I had a chance to look for the hammer or the something, Courtney screamed “There's no time!” and pounded the floor with her fists.
Jesus what were we doing? Blood spurted every freaking where and she had a pretty scary gleam in her eyes. I tried not looking at her. The Amish guy outside took a swig from a bottle.
Then, a thunder clap that wasn't a thunder clap. Courtney’s fist broke through the floor.
“Oh my god! What the hell?” I screamed.
She told to me shh.
I explained the incredible layers of irony in her telling me to shh while she ripped away layers of the floor. She poked her head through the gap. She wanted me to poke my head through the selfsame gap.
I shrugged. Fuck it, right? If I was going to get suspended I might as well get a story to tell my grandpuppies. Courtney stood over the hole, with her arms crossed and a smug, grrrr so smug, look on her face. I growled and shoved my head in. I gasped.
Underneath the floor was a tiny cave. Stalactites and mites and dripping water. Rows of empty glass bottles sat on the wooden shelves that lined the walls.
“I uh, wow, ok.” I said.
“My bones,” she said, “are never wrong.”
She pushed me out of the way and hopped in. She lifted her hand to me. I grabbed it and shimmied down with her. I’d probably follow her anywhere. Not a healthy outlook, but there you go. She rubbed her hands along the neatly stacked rows of glass bottles.
“What is this?” She said.
“Looks like bottles.”
“You should be a detective.”
I pushed her. She laughed and slammed into a shelf. The bottle on the end teetered then fell. Courtney tried to grab it but, dexterity, like speech, like being boring, like being ugly, like opening spaghetti sauce jars, was not one of her strong suits. It shattered onto the stones.
“Shit.” Court said. “Now she'll know someone’s onto her.”
“But what awe we onto? She collects bottles? People awe idiots. We know this. This isn't something to --”
“Shhh,” she hissed.
“I sweaw to the holy mothew above and below if you tell me to shh one mo’ time imma wip out your hair --” She placed her hands over my lips. They tasted like bbq chips. I licked her hand. She didn't take it away.
Then I heard it. Soft at first, barely above a deathbed whisper then so loud I wonder how I missed it. A voice repeating words, repeating them badly. Courtney knelt down and pressed her ear to the shattered bottle on the ground.
“It's Kent. That guy from last year with the lisp and fancy walker. With the unicorns painted on it? They guy she cured in like two weeks.”
“Slithers. Mississippi. Sanctimonious.” We listened to Kent until his voice curled away like wisps of smoke.
“Sooo that was odd.” I said. “Courtney?”
She delved deeper into the cave, running her hands along the bottles, the walls. I followed her ever darkening backside into the darkness, cursing the very idea of love. A tiny undulating dot of light burned a million miles away. Well it was more light a hundred feet, but I don't walk much.
“Courtney? I am officially freaked out and want to go home!” I shouted. Like it was some horror movie.
She ran back to me. (Aw!) muttering some very troubling words, then drug me to a table and chair sitting snugly against the wall. A burning candle and a wine glass with dregs in the bottom sat on the table. A James Patterson book. A nail file. So, You Want to Talk to Lucifer Vol 2 by Mark Foster. Another nail file.
Courtney breathed heavily and I didn't breathe at all. She didn't let go of my hand. That was chill, at least.
Footsteps echoed through the cave. I felt her tense up, ooze buckets of sweat. There are many appropriate times to sweat and this was one of them. Courtney ducked down. Like that would help. I held onto her. Sniffed her hair. She shooed me away. We heard a muffled voice. It sounded like it was humming.
“Is that Beyonce’s Lemonade?” I asked.
She elbowed me in the groin. The voice fell silent. The footsteps louder. Then, clearly, we heard, the voice scream. “What in the fuck is this?” Boy, did we make an error here today.
“Hey do you have any magic powers?” Courtney asked.
“Just the ability to control sound.”
She huffed. She played with her fingers trying to coax a spell or demon, something, out of them. I thought I saw a spark once but I was probably just scared out of my mind. Fear makes you see things that aren't there. Like an ugly face where there's a beautiful one.
“Who's in there?” Mrs. Yoder's voice came tumbling past the glass bottles into us and the candle flame. The candle went out. Hey! That's fun! Utter darkness! A spark of light appeared in out excavated hole and bobbed toward us. I shivered quite a lot. Courtney clung to me. I always imagined dying with a whiskey bottle in one hand and heavy weaponry in the other.
Then, in the bright flash of cell phone light, there she was, looking all foreboding and whatnot.
“You two. Of course.” Mrs. Yoder shined the flashlight in our faces. I was used to being scrutinized, but Courtney wasn't. She whimpered. It was strange hearing her whimper. I jolted to my feet.
“We dwopped a bowling ball. It went through the flow.”
Her eyes flashed.
She looked at us, a pretty girl making mute shapes with her lips and a weird-looking one sweating profusely. She laughed. She turned to a shelf. Selected a bottle.
“What TV do you like to watch?”
“Gilmo’ Giwls, bitch.” I put my hands on my hips like wonder woman.
“If want to see Stars Hollow ever again you'll give me your voice.” I knew she was a fan. Something blue sparked in her fingers. It wasn't an object. It wasn't anything. It made my head spin though. Courtney whimpered again.
She held the bottle under my lips.
“I've been trying all year to catch your voices. You know how hard they are to capture?”
Pride. I've always had a problem with pride. I've been told that too heavy a dose will turn into sin. Frankly I don't care. I've always loved that nobody could pin me down, ever fully get used to my face, to me, that I sent everyone's head into a tizzy just by existing. Now haha, even supra human realms have trouble grasping me. So much pride filled my head I was surprised the devil didn't come up and drag me to hell that second.
I lifted Courtney by the hand. My touch sparked something in her. She shook her head. Droplets flew everywhere.
“Did you just spit on me?” I muttered.
“What are you?” Courtney said.
Mrs. Yoder smiled ever so sweetly and tilted the bottle to our lips.
We held each other. She looked over us. I really liked being alive. I like spaghetti sauce. Setting fire to pinecones in inappropriate places. I think I loved Courtney. And I think Courtney loved me too. We shared a look. Our eyes said "retribution." We leaned into the bottle, as Mrs. Yoder stood there grinning like an idiot and we said things.