a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
Caleb doesn’t like walking with his parents. They speak too much about college and the future, he thinks, and he’s only in seventh grade. He gazes out his window: to the left, the movement of cars across a canyon, up, the sky is overcast, and soon it’ll rain.
He’s comforted by this thought, that every house in his community is warm and lighted and outside it’s dangerous and howling. If he walks to the other side of the house, he can see the neighborhood field: puppies chasing birds, a kite caught in the wind, fathers and grandfathers shooting hoops on the asphalt court. Caleb’s parents are downstairs, doing the dishes, speaking rapid Mandarin that he doesn’t totally understand. Soon they’ll have to walk.
“Mom. What would you say if I had a girlfriend?” he asks, after they put their coats on and step outside.
“Do you have one?”
“No,” he replies, too forcefully. “I was just wondering.”
“I will see. When you get there.”
He wishes she would say more. Instead, he kicks a pebble toward a nearby flock of crows. The ground is slippery.
They pass Aunty Diana and her toy poodle, Brandon and his brother playing badminton in the street, Aunty Lin, tending to roses and marigolds in her front yard. She waves, her daughter is studying economics at Stanford, mom says. Lin can finally relax now that she’s gone.
“I don’t want to be gone,” Caleb says, worried. He eyes a snail and hopes that no one will step on it.
“You still have time.”
His father burps and rubs his stomach. He has heartburn. We should go back soon, he says. But Caleb enjoys tonight’s walk because he can greet the rest of the community. It’s like a little kingdom, he thinks.
At eleven, when he’s sure that his parents are asleep, he slips on a raincoat and pads down the hall. Outside, it’s drizzling and smells of wonderful earth and soil. Caleb looks toward the elm tree at the end of the street, the clouds that drift idly by, the soft headlights gleaming through the mist from the overpass, and he thinks to himself, how good it is that I am here in this world, how strange and beautiful and good.
It is the spring of tenth grade, and he can’t stop thinking about her. They first met that fall at the back of a detention hall. He had seen her at church meetings and college consulting seminars before, and he had noticed the broad dimples in her cheeks when she smiled and the way her dark hair fell over her eyes. There were several open seats in the classroom that afternoon. He hoped she didn’t wonder why he chose the one that he did.
She glanced over as he sat down. “How’d you end up in detention?”
He cleared his throat too many times before answering, and explained, embarrassingly, how second period physics was a lesson on gravity, how his lab partner was obsessed with watching videos of people trust falling without having anyone there to catch them––that was somehow related to gravity––and how he’d been so sickened by the thought that he nearly broke a chair getting his partner to stop speaking.
“You’re afraid of gravity,” she said.
“I didn’t mean it that way. It’s kind of nice.”
“I’m Kat,” she said.
They met behind the play structure with the rusted swings, in the wilderness beneath the highway, in the places where there were no streetlights. She lived close by, on the other side of the neighborhood, and so they spent countless hours speaking softly under the moonlight.
Now he lies in bed, thinking about her and the neighborhood, drifting away to the pattering of rain against the window. He hopes there isn’t another late party at one of the other houses. Yesterday had people staggering out the front door at two in the morning, drunk out of their minds, screaming at god knows what.
The screams, they’re really what keep him up. Some nights the wolves emerge from the canyon, feed on some dog in the field, and as they howl to the cloudless sky the other hounds in their backyards join in chorus. Sometimes he hears the prey, yapping, and he smothers himself in a pillow when this happens.
The next evening, he goes to the strip mall overlooking the canyon. There are two Chinese restaurants there, whose owners have lived in the same apartments for fourteen years. He realizes, our neighborhood has aged so much, and he realizes this as he passes a group of elderly playing mahjong on a fold-out table in the middle of the sidewalk and another doing tai chi at the end of the cul-de-sac. Old Tang’s missing presence is obvious: his resonant laugh, how he would pass out little pineapple cakes, the old Chinese tunes he hummed. They had found him dead by the basketball court one morning. It was sudden, really.
Caleb is frightened, now, by the passing of time. Three years since Tang’s death, and will the next one go soon, and the next, and what’ll be left when it all comes to pass?
The door chimes when he enters the restaurant. It’s a glass door, oil-marked and cracked. You’ve gotten so tall, the owner says in greeting. Her eyes are marked with crow’s feet, they call her Lao Gan Ma because she looks like the woman whose face is printed on the chili oil jars. Ginger and garlic hang familiar over the stove.
Caleb finds Kat at a booth and kisses her before sitting down. The air between them is still, and it’s warm, in a way. At a nearby table, a mother takes photos of Lao Gan Ma as she sets down big plates of noodles and cumin beef. The grandmother laughs, explains in Mandarin why she thinks photographs are silly. All, she says, this is what’ll happen to it: either swallowed by the passing of a great wave, or consumed by the awakening of a phoenix, so I’ve given up trying to remember all.
You can try if you’d like to.
Caleb’s parents tell him that he’ll grow weary of the word “marriage” in his twenties, but he’s never attended a wedding, and the funerals seem endless. He finds himself growing more emotionally absent with each ceremony, wishing that the proceedings would end before they even start, that everyone would stop crying, for god’s sake, then regretting he wished for anything at all, those are real people, he thinks. Old Tang’s was his first, and he had insisted on attending, though his parents told him that he wasn’t obligated to go. I am obligated, he remembers saying, you don’t understand. At the memorial service, he cried because his mom did, and though he couldn’t understand the words, the hymn they sang at the end, the one that rose and fell like a deep inhale, moved him. His father added that song to a disk that played every time they drove in the sedan, and Caleb would always him to skip to the next track when it came up.
Graduation is another funeral procession: though he had eagerly counted down the days to this point, he realizes now that there’ll never again be the same group of people in the same room at the same time, each diploma a sort of ostracism, someone who won’t return, maybe because in two years that someone will be too busy with college to ever visit again, or he’ll have jumped off a tall building because the change was too sudden, not the high velocity but the sudden change that kills you.
His neighborhood’s death was more drawn-out. He remembers when Halloween had the streets crowded with costumes and carved pumpkins and candy wrappers, so congested that in sixth grade the police had to come unravel a twenty-car traffic jam, when Chinese New Year brought a rosy glow to the streets, emblems of good fortune and red lanterns and upside-down fu characters on every porch and streetlight. Now it’s almost as if holidays don’t exist. He realizes now just how much he misses what it was like before, and he wishes so badly that he could have recognized how good things were before they passed.
His steps are measured as he walks to the stage to receive his diploma, so he doesn’t slip on the steps. He notices a smiling, dimpled Kat in the front row, speaking with some other boy, and tears gather, finally, in his eyes. She glances toward Caleb and nods. He dips his head ever so slightly, as if to recognize that they both made it, made it in their own ways, and soon they’ll no longer have to exchange pained looks in the hallways or gauge their evening walks so that they never encounter each other. And he’ll miss that too.
Did he make it? He can’t remember the last time he slept before two in the morning, with every passing car on the freeway sending a chill up his spine– and even when rest came, the cry of a dying old man often consumed his dreams. He checks on his parents as soon as he wakes up every morning in case either of them had a heart attack in the middle of the night, no heart attack. Two weeks ago at the beach, his mother didn’t respond to any of his calls for ten minutes, and he raced home to find her napping on the living room sofa with her phone in the office. We’re perfectly healthy, they tell him. And heartburn isn’t dangerous.
After his graduation, Caleb holes up in his room to watch his videos. He hears the sound of grandparents gathering in the kitchen, as well as the voice of his mom in his head saying, you never talk to us anymore, unless you think that we’re dying. She’s right. He hates her for that. He wishes he could tell her I’m dying too. When his parents call him down to greet the guests, he smiles as much as he can, ignoring how there are only five of them here, and not many others at all left in the community.
They drive for twenty minutes to a Shanghai restaurant for dinner. Lao Gan Ma passed away four months ago, and the other couple moved back to China. They’re retired doctors from Fudan, better respected there. At the table, before the food arrives, Caleb finds his mom staring at him.
She swallows, hesitates.
We know what you’ve–
After dinner, he can’t stop thinking about Lao Gan Ma’s words. In his head, he’s so afraid that something terrible has happened to her, but he doesn’t know why. Kat tugs on his sleeve as they sit beneath the monkey bars. He looks at her hair, the way it curls gently over her eyes, the concern in those eyes, as big and dark as the day they first met. She’s so pretty. He wishes he could say it to her more often.
“We need to go back to the restaurant,” he finally says.
“I need to remember her.”
Kat comments that he’s exceedingly strange, but they eventually go, and when they get there it’s already past nine. The front door is shattered, glass everywhere, and graffiti, scrawled in sordid colors across the storefront. Lao Gan Ma gathers the shards with gloved hands.
“They took my broom,” she says quietly, in Mandarin.
Caleb realizes he was right about something terrible, which terrifies him more than the actual crime, and then he thinks, how could anyone do this to her, to such a person? He hears call the police and he unlocks his phone for Kat, call them, he says, shuddering, and they better find whoever did this, what is this, Caleb, what is this, nine-one-one what is your emergency, the other restaurant is vandalized too. When the police come, they say there’s not much they can do. Caleb expects Kat to be indignant, but instead she’s resigned. She almost leaves without him realizing it, and her body is tense under his arms.
The next night, he finds her alone at the edge of the field, by the canyon. There’s the sigh of wind in the trees.
“You have my phone,” he says.
“What else haven’t you told me?”
“What did you see on my phone?”
“Jesus, what do you think?”
“What do I think?”
The man, pushed off the side of a parking structure.
The one by the bridge. He remembers, the water was dark. You could only hear it.
And the video was blurry, but the girl–
They’re all real, aren’t they?” she asks.
“Oh, Kat.” He can’t explain how awful he feels. “You don’t understand.”
“I don’t? You have an addiction. I don’t know why you have it, but it scares me. How many have you seen? How many of them?”
“You don’t understand.” It’s that night in seventh grade, he knows, but he cannot say it aloud. He hasn’t told anybody.
I don’t know you anymore, she says.
He decides to walk to the field tonight. If he looks hard enough, he’ll be able to see the warm blinking of the downtown skyline in the distance. He thinks, Brandon’s a better badminton player than me, and Emma’s a more talented artist, but do they do this at night? When he gets there, the grass is wet, and it’s dark everywhere except for the basketball court, which is lit by several buzzing lights. He likes the way the lamps flare in a million different directions when he turns his head, how the rain becomes visible when it passes beneath their gaze. The dirt is soft, and his feet sink in with every step.
Suddenly he realizes that he’s not alone. There’s a figure, humming, by the court. Caleb presses himself into the cold grass, hopes he hasn’t been seen, hears uneven footsteps, footsteps, footsteps, footsteps, footsteps. It’s been thirty seconds now, a minute, two. The humming. It’s like the old Chinese song he overheard his father listening to, and when he translated the lyrics––
the azalea is singing.
the stones are weeping.
the streets are screaming.
A slip, and the crack of a head against concrete, and then something he’s never heard before, he runs, runs, not realizing that he’s hearing the final convulsions of a man who spoke well all of his life, god, it was just a misstep of the feet, it was just wet pavement, what a shame that his capacity be reduced to nothing in these last moments. Caleb won’t recognize the importance of this moment for a long time.
He steadies himself before reentering his home, then tears off his soaked pajamas, swallows his fear. It’s just a bad dream, he tells himself, though he knows it isn’t true. His parents are still sleeping. He snuggles up between them, presses his head up against the curve of his mother’s collarbone, his hair, the ends, still wet, listen to their soft breathing, steady, steady.
Kyle Tianshi is a seventeen-year-old student from San Diego, California. He wrote his first book at seven and has since self-published five novels. Kyle has been recognized nationally by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and is an alum of the Kenyon Young Writers Workshop and Iowa Young Writers Studio programs. Kyle has a minor planet named after him by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory for his research on detecting microplastics in water. In his free time, Kyle enjoys learning Latin, reading Christopher Nolan screenplays, watching baby Pekingese videos, and cooking good food.
* = Editors' Choice work
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