“The Gray Road,” by Jennifer Diemer
Ever since her brother left, Gillian’s avoided the road they used to walk on together, the dead, eerie, whispering road that finally took him away from her. But when her dog gets loose and runs away, Gillian has no choice but to return to that road and begrudgingly confront the past–and herself.
(photo by Rondaloo)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“The Gray Road”
by Jennifer Diemer
I don’t go on that road.
I don’t go on that road.
It went all gray after Ben left. Even in spring, the leaves on the trees are black, and they never fall, only flap dryly in the breeze, their husks rubbing together and making a sound like a raspy wail, like a voice:
I don’t go on that road.
*I pull Sunshine’s leash, pull her away.
She pauses, sniffing the air and not looking at me, looking there, and so I pull harder, dragging her across the asphalt until we’re on the other side of the road, walking alongside the green—the wet, green, quiet trees.
“C’mon,” I whisper, and I start to run, because I can still feel the gray and the black pushing against my right shoulder, can still hear the dead, dead leaves: Gillian. Gillian. Gillian—
“C’mon, Sunshine, run!”
And she runs, her short white legs kicking up dust, miniature storm clouds. And she finally looks at me then, wild with joy. Her tongue’s hanging out; her eyes are soft as damp earth. My heart slows down, and my feet—for a moment—rest. We’ve rounded the corner. I can’t see the trees anymore, can hardly hear that rustle, crackling out from broken leaves with dried-up veins.
“Good girl.” I crouch down to scratch Sunshine’s cowlicked head (she looks like a dog version of Einstein) and catch my breath.
I glance back, to make sure the gray isn’t creeping after us, that it hasn’t learned how to smudge its borders and follow, crackling and sighing, behind.
But we’re safe. On either side of us, there’s only green now—the normal, natural green of pine and maple and oak.
Sunshine, sitting, nuzzles my hand, tail wagging so hard that it flings little stones to either side. But there’s a question in her eyes, and she glances back the way we came, toward the long shadows that seem to bend and elongate as we watch, as if those lifeless gray trees are craning their necks to get a look at us, see where we’ve run off to.
Because—again—we ran like cowards.
Ran away from that road.
Ben and I used to walk Sunshine on that road every day after school. It was pretty, then. No houses, except for the Gregsons’, only trees that arced like an arbor overhead, and a bit of farmland.
I wonder if Sunshine misses it—the old, familiar smells. She always peed in the same two places: beneath the trunk of a giant, black-skinned oak that had been struck by lightning ages ago, and next to the fence that lines the Gregsons’ property.
That’s where it happened, beside that fence.
*Ben’s dragging a stick behind him, thumping and scratching it against the tar-black road. The stick’s half as tall as he is and clawed at the end.
“Stop that.” I shiver, coiling and uncoiling Sunshine’s leash around my wrist. “It sounds creepy. Like Freddy Krueger’s stalking us or something.”
“Freddy Krueger can’t get you unless you’re asleep. And you’re wide awake.” With a crazy smile—a Freddy Krueger smile, I guess—Ben pinches my elbow. “Or are you?”
“Ow. That’s sibling abuse.” I make a show of frowning and rubbing at my elbow, though the pinch didn’t hurt. Ben never pinches me hard enough to hurt.
Sunshine darts ahead, aiming for the squirrel that catapulted down the trunk of a tree, but the squirrel’s long gone before she can take a nip at its tail. Her mouth just snaps the air. Then, with a sniff and a bark, Sunshine looks back at me, her mouth drawn into a flat line: puppy pout.
“Poor girl,” Ben says, dropping his stick and kneeling down to pat Sunshine’s head. “If you weren’t all harnessed up, I’m sure you would’ve flown. You would’ve caught that fuzzy varmint.”
“Don’t encourage her,” I say, kneeling, too. “She caught three mice in the basement this week. And I’m the one who has to clean up after her mini massacres.”
“I’d do it, you know.”
“You’re always busy studying. And I don’t mind, really. Hey, one of us has to amount to something, right?”
Ben chucks me on the side of the chin, shaking his head and smiling his lopsided smile. “Gillian, you’re just as smart as me. Smarter. I mean, come on. You’re two years younger and you’ve always been way better at spelling.”
I laugh. “Yeah. I’m sure I’ll get a six-figure job as an executive speller. Penthouse office, hot secretary.”
“Stranger things have happened.”
I stroke Sunshine’s back and breathe out, let my muscles relax, because it’s only here, on this road with Ben, that I ever relax. Here’s the only place we ever talk about it. His it and my it. Because who else could we talk about it with? Not our parents. They’ve made their stance crystal clear. And, God, none of our stupid teachers would listen or even pretend to care.
I don’t have any friends, not since Frida spread rumors about me making out with her after the Valentine’s dance. I did make out with her, but she kissed me first, told me she’d wanted to kiss me since fourth grade. But then I guess I was too into it, and she got afraid. Told everyone I attacked her. And now I’ve got lez scrawled on my locker in permanent marker. The janitor tried to paint over it, but it still shows through—faded and gray, like the ghost of a word.
Ben has a couple of friends, but they’re total geeks and only ever want to talk about video games and stuff they saw on the Internet.
So when you come right down to it, all we have is each other, and I think we’re pretty lucky to have that much. Because who ever heard of two gay kids in one family? Maybe it’d be okay if our parents were hippies or Unitarian Universalists or something, but they’re diehard fundamentalists and went to an anti-gay marriage rally back in January with their church—and wore homemade Leviticus 18:22 sandwich boards. They showed us photos, so proud of the neat black stenciling.
Ed Gregson gives Ben a hard time on the bus sometimes, calls him the f-word and tries to trip him. They fought once, too. Because Ben has a soft voice, I guess. Maybe Ed’s more perceptive than I’d ever give him credit for. But people mostly leave Ben alone. He’s likeable, nice. Me, though… Mom and Dad haven’t heard the gossip, don’t know what the kids say about me at school, or what they’ve done to me because of it. If they knew…
I shudder, curling my fingers into Sunshine’s fur.
“Jawbreaker for your thoughts.”
Ben’s a sugar addict—he’s got a mouthful of fillings—and always carries jawbreakers in his jeans pockets. I take a blue one from him and unwrap the plastic, pop the candy in my mouth and bite down hard. “Just thinking about…you know.”
“Yeah. I figured.”
Sunshine rolls over onto her back on the gravel, tongue lolling out of her mouth. Ben rubs at her belly, and I lean down for a nose lick. Our after-school walks with Sunshine are her favorite part of the day—and, if I’m honest, mine, too. I hardly speak a word in school, save up all of my words for Ben, because I know Ben won’t use them to hurt me, won’t ever hurt me. I’m not so sure about everyone else.
“Hey, Jilly, when we graduate, we’ll move away to a big city somewhere—where nobody cares if you’re gay or straight or blue or purple. And we’ll send Mom and Dad postcards describing all of our abominable adventures, so that the old lady at the post office can read them and spread gossip all over town. It’ll be the most exciting thing that ever happened to this place. Keep ‘em busy talking for years.”
“Yeah. And we’ll be free.” I fall back onto the stones, little sharp points digging into my shoulder blades, and sigh. “I almost can’t imagine it. You know? Being free.”
Sunshine crawls onto my stomach, curls up there, as Ben sprawls on his side beside me. He stares down at my face, and his head is outlined in this halo of light, just like the angels on Mom’s kitchen calendar. And he’s smiling like an angel, too—a sweet sort of smile, shining.
“Here’s what you do, Gillian,” he tells me, petting Sunshine’s head and then fluffing my hair. I push his hand away with a pretend scowl. “Whenever you want that feeling, that free feeling, just stare up at the clouds and imagine yourself flying through them. Imagine yourself with wings. And don’t think about anything else but the clouds and the air and the muscles in your back working to take you higher and higher, and think about the blue—nothing but blue above you, the softest blue, soft as feathers.” His eyes move away from me, rest somewhere distant, on the Gregsons’ fence to our right or maybe someplace further away. “If you reached out your fingers to touch the blue, that’s what it’d feel like. Silky. Like you were touching feathers from the softest bird.”
I close my eyes and try to envision Ben’s scene, try to picture myself rising up and up and up, leaving this stupid town far below me, because it is far below me, and below him, too, not even worthy of our footprints. But then all I can see is our footprints, mine and Ben’s: endless trails of footprints, back and forth over this same road, where cars hardly ever come because it turns to dirt halfway through and stops with a dead end: the Gregsons’ farmhouse.
“Do you see it, Gillian?” Ben’s voice sounds weird, quiet. Kind of desperate.
I look at him and shake my head. “I can’t, Ben. All I can see is us stuck here, walking here forever.”
“It’s not going to be like that. I’m going to fly first chance I get. And I’ll wait up there for you—” He points to the clouds. “I’ll wait until you fly, too.”
I’ll never fly, I think, but I can’t tell him that, because he almost looks happy, looks like he really believes we’ll escape this place, find someplace better. I wish for it every day, every time I get pelted with spitballs and spit-out words, but I can’t figure out how it’ll ever happen, or how I’ll hang on long enough to see it come true.
*I have to walk this way because it’s the only way to the post office, and after Ben left, I inherited his chore of picking up the mail. We don’t have a postal carrier. We hardly have a post office. It’s about the size of a walk-in closet, and the lady who works there, Ann, is so ancient that she creaks when she moves. But her eyes aren’t old. They’re quick eyes, young eyes, and she has a fast tongue, too. There’s no scandal in Greenlee that Ann with her little darting eyes doesn’t know about first. I’m sure she knows all about mine.
She knew about what happened to Ben by the fence before my parents even knew. They were at a church retreat and out of cell phone range. Thanks to her, the whole town found out about Ben and Ed, but they didn’t hear the truth, not from Ann. She told everyone it was Ben’s fault. He started it, she said. He deserved it, she said.
Every time I see her now, I pretend I don’t see her. If she talks to me, I start humming to myself, so I can’t hear her anymore, so that she stops talking. I pretend like she doesn’t exist, and sometimes it seems like she doesn’t. How could she? How could someone who would say those things about my brother be real? She must be made-up. She’s not here, not here at all.
She’s not here as I walk into the post office, let the door swing behind me, Sunshine trotting at my feet. She’s not looking at me, doesn’t stop her busywork to look at me as I dig around in my pocket to find the box key. She doesn’t sniff disapprovingly, doesn’t close a drawer with a too-loud snap. Doesn’t whisper, “I’ve told you a hundred times—no dogs in the post office,” beneath her breath as I pull the junk mail out of the mailbox, leaf through it, and then drop it in the trash.
Nothing from Ben. Not since that first letter, right after, the one I keep in my pillowcase. The letter I never showed Mom and Dad and never will.
The letter that told me how to find him, where he was. I’ll be here until you fly, Gillian. I’m not going anywhere without you. I’m waiting for you.
Sunshine pees on the post office stoop, and I tell her, “Good dog,” pat her on the head. Then we’re off. Back down the road. Back toward that road with its whispering gray voice.
*The week before summer vacation, the air sizzles. We’re too hot to walk all the way to the dead end, and Sunshine’s wilting, panting at the end of her leash.
“Let’s turn around,” I say, and Ben nods, swiping sweat from his forehead.
But then he stops, shields his eyes against the sun, because there’s a pickup truck coming down the road, rumbling toward us.
“Ed,” Ben groans, and I kind of growl, and Sunshine gets excited; she starts lunging, panting harder.
“Heel,” I tell her, but she only barks, barks her head off, because she always barks her head off at trucks, always has. We took her in when she was two years old—found her on this road, skinny and matted—so she has a long history we can’t even guess at. Maybe she had a bad experience with trucks; maybe she had a good one. It’s hard to tell whether she’s happy to see them or as mad as a hornet. But she always barks; it’s one of the few certainties in our lives. The sun rises. The kids at school are ignorant jerks. Mom and Dad are brainwashed zombies. Sunshine always barks at trucks.
I scoop the yapping dog up, try to hush her, but of course Ed’s noticed us. We’re the only moving objects, and we’re kind of in his way. He honks his horn, a show-off horn that plays that Charge! tune, like Ed’s a knight on a horse instead of a stubbly teenager in a dusty pickup with crazy tires about five sizes too big.
Ben says Ed’s tires are so big because other parts of him are so small. Of course that’s not what Frida whispers in the locker room, loud enough for everyone to hear. She’s dating Ed now, but whenever I see her with him, her face looks messed up, like it’s fighting a war with itself and losing.
“Hey, homo!” Ed yells out of his window, and then it’s like a chorus, like a round, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” because Ed’s not alone. Lester’s with him, and Nick, too, and they’re all yelling, kind of chanting, and I feel Ben go all stiff beside me. His arm comes across my middle, pushing me back, behind him.
“Stay back,” he whispers.
One time Ben came home from school with a busted lip and told Mom he got hit by a classroom door, and she bought it, but what he really ran into was Ed’s fat fist. Ed punched him during last-hour lunch and squashed a banana into his hair, and nobody breathed a word. Nobody stood up for Ben. Ben stood up for himself, but then Lester and Nick dragged Ed away. “You’ll get kicked off the team,” they told him. “He isn’t worth it. Don’t waste your time.”
When Ben told me what happened, I took out my yearbook and burned the page Ed was on over the stove. It curled up and blackened and fell to dust above the gas flame.
But we aren’t in school now. There aren’t any rules now. We’re on Ed’s road, the road he lives on, and there’s nobody here to turn him in, to make him stop. Nobody here but a girl and her tiny barking dog.
It happens too fast.
Later, I try to slow it down in my mind, but I can’t; the moments pass by flipbook quick, and blurred. I remember Ed leaping out of the truck, followed by Nick and Lester. I remember shouting something, remember Nick’s fist coming for my mouth. And then all I remember is hate—hate secreting out of Ed’s body like sweat, like a stink.
I remember tasting blood, lifting my head from the gravel, and hearing Sunshine’s whine, and the squeal of tires, and no sound from Ben, no sound—no panting, no swearing. Why isn’t he swearing? Why isn’t he—
No no no no no.
No. He’s breathing. He’s broken, but he’s breathing. And somehow my cell phone’s in my hands, and I’m talking, telling a smooth-voiced woman where we are, what’s happened—I don’t know what happened—that we need help, a doctor, police.
I lay beside Ben on the road, and Sunshine licks his face, still whining.
*“Come back!” I shout, bending over, facing the gray. “Come back, Sunshine!”
But Sunshine doesn’t come back.
It was a squirrel. A squirrel crossed in front of us and scurried down that road, a nut in its mouth, and Sunshine bolted after it. Her leash burned my hand and clicked off of her harness. Sunshine flew away. She’s running through the gray, into the whispers: Gillian. Gillian…
“Come back,” I say, but there’s no life in my voice, and I think, I’ve lost her. And I think, I’ve lost him. And then I think, No.
I trip, scrape my hands on the asphalt, and when I stand up, crying, I run.
I don’t go on this road. I never go on this road.
But I’m on this road, and I feel like I’m in a tunnel: there’s no light, only shadow. I’m a shadow. Ahead, her Einstein head bobbing up and down, Sunshine’s a shadow, and the squirrel’s gone, but she keeps running, barking, bounding for joy, living in this rare leashless moment in the wild.
“Sunshine.” The word’s a prayer, a muffled plea, but somehow my dog hears me, or feels me, or is just tired of the chase, because she skids on the gravel edging the road and comes racing to me, grinning, eager to share her bliss.
Here. This is where—
“Why?” I whisper, because I can’t remember what I’m doing here, how I could possibly be here, here where there’s a plastic cross decorated with faded plastic flowers. The cross my parents planted by the fence after Ben left. The kind of cross people put at the side of the road when there’s been an accident, when someone’s lost their life.
But Ben isn’t dead.
“He’s dead to us,” they say to me whenever I force his name upon them, whenever I talk about him, make them remember, remind them how they chased him away. “He’s dead to us, dead to us.” They’ve said it so often that the words don’t mean anything anymore. Even when I beg them to explain to me how they could have abandoned him, how they could have left him in the hospital alone, how they could have given up on their own son—their son! bruised and battered in a too-white bed!—when they found out that he was gay, they give me the same refrain, “He’s dead to us, Gillian. Homosexuality is an abomination to God.”
I kick over the cross planted in memory of my not-dead brother and feel my fists curl up, tighter and tighter, feel my blood raging as I stare down the road, toward the dead end where the Gregsons’ house is, where Ed Gregson still lives, because he didn’t even go on trial for nearly beating my brother to death for being gay.
“What?!” I scream, and I look up, and the sky’s too bright, as if the sun is bursting. Blinking, I duck my head, try to clear my sight. Sunshine makes a funny sound at my feet, a surprised sound—not scared, just kind of wound up. And then she’s sniffing something, and my eyes clear, and I stare down at her, down at the thing she’s buried her nose in—a large thing, a white thing.
A silky thing, covered in feathers.
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen,” I say. “I’m sorry I didn’t come until now. But I couldn’t. I was afraid, and so mad…”
I’m not mad anymore. I look toward the dead end and don’t feel anything hot or red. I feel blue. I feel soft. I pick up the wings and put them on.
Because they’re mine. I think I left them here—or Ben left them here for me. Or maybe they didn’t exist until now. Maybe they couldn’t exist until I needed them, or was ready for them.
“Are you ready?” I ask Sunshine, and she bounces. On the third bounce, I catch her in my arms.
I’ll be here until you fly, Gillian. I’m not going anywhere without you. I’m waiting for you.
I think of the address Ben sent me in his letter, his only letter, and my wings move, cutting the dry, gray air into shards, stirring up the dead leaves into rustling whirlwinds, but as I watch, as my wings and my heart pump, pump—blue shows through the shards, and the leaves aren’t dead, aren’t broken: they’re new; they’re green.
The road—this road, the road we found Sunshine on, the road Ed beat Ben on—comes alive again, even as I wave it good-bye. I wave my hand, and, in my arms, Sunshine waves her tail as we rise, as we watch the green spreading beneath us and feel the blue, the silky-soft blue (like feathers), construct itself into a new road, a sky road.
I don’t have to imagine it.
It’s all around me.
“I’m flying, Ben,” I whisper. “You were right all along. I can do it. I made it. I’m coming…”
Sunshine licks my face, snuggling against my chest.
And I wonder, how did I ever live without these wings? Did I? They feel as right as my arms, my legs, my breath. How could I deny them, or ignore them, or pretend them away? How could I do that?
How did I forget how to fly?
It doesn’t matter.
I soar over houses and fields, alongside birds, and then I aim down, down toward a city sparkling with water and light.
We’ll move away to a big city somewhere—where nobody cares if you’re gay or straight or blue or purple.
I’m going to find my brother. We’ll buy postcards in a drugstore and write them out together, laughing our heads off while Sunshine leaps at our feet. And then we’ll walk her in the park, and she’ll charge after squirrels, her little feet pounding the grass. The green, green grass.
I’ll never forget my wings again.
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