“Come here,” I tell Steven. I grab his arm and yank him toward me, halfway surprised that he doesn’t fall down. He’s so willowy I could stuff him into one of these lockers. Instead I blouse the white Polo he crammed into his jeans so he doesn’t look like a stick, and ruffle his black hair so he doesn’t look like a tool.
He looks up at me like I caught him doing he doesn’t even know what, like he’s deaf or dumb. He is a little dumb, but. I mean that in a nice way. I asked my mom if every boy is like this at this age. She said every age. You have to train ’em. And comfort ’em.
I don’t know about all that. She hasn’t met a man since she met my dad. He’s okay. But.
“Why are you doing this?” Steven asks.
We’re a foot apart and I can barely hear him. I tell him, “I want to help you. I want you to have the best shot. This is the big time! This is Sarah Wilkins! Sarah. Fucking. Wilkins.”
“Shh,” he says, darting his eyes around.
As if Mr. Sharpe is anywhere around here. He’s probably patrolling the sixth-grade lockers, or the bathrooms to make sure nobody’s jerking it before first period. Steven doesn’t. I asked him one time and he went pale. He looked at me like I was speaking in tongues.
Before he can step back, I snatch a bottle out of my bag and spray him. His face looks like he’s going to sneeze. Or ralph. Or both.
He coughs, fanning his hand in front of his face. “What did you do?”
I tell him, “It’s my dad’s. I swiped it this morning.”
He smells nice. Musky. He’s so cute. I could eat him up, and he doesn’t even know.
The bell rings. I tell him good luck and shove him in the direction of his Science class. He forgets to move his feet and almost falls over, but shoots a leg out at the last second and saves himself. He catches his balance, but almost falls backward. It’s like he’s trying to roller skate on ice.
This is Steven’s plan: He’s going to go to class and sit at the table next to Sarah Fucking Wilkins’ table. He’ll wait until the last five minutes when Mrs. Petree is letting the class talk. He’ll compliment Sarah Fucking Wilkins. Her mascaraed eyes, her shiny blonde hair, her trendy outfit, her laugh, an insightful comment she made (ha!)...any of those will work. Then he’ll ask her to Pizza Hut and a movie. It’s the big time!
Ain’t love grand? But.
Sarah Fucking Wilkins will look at him and cock her head. She’ll roll her eyes. So typical. She probably won’t even say it. She’s Sarah Fucking Wilkins. She can’t be bothered with a date. Wouldn’t know what to do, probably. She wants to be wanted. Casual rejections boost her brand.
What is Steven thinking? I should have held him back. I should have sowed the seeds of doubt. But.
Oh, the devastation. The weeks of longing and planning and building up the nerve, and then a dagger right through Steven’s white Polo and into his chest. Oh, Steven tumbling through the void of rejection. Flailing his arms and legs. His eyes glistening. Oh, that soft, glowing face twisted in agony.
I have until lunch to figure out the comfort part. I’ve had weeks to prepare, but I’m drawing blanks. The right words are as scarce as I don’t know what. I don’t know what’s wrong. Too many jumbled images ricocheting around my mind. Garlic and Italian spices thick in the air. Steven’s sweet smile. A dark theatre. A warm hand. Heavy sighs.
is a graduate of the Northwestern University writing program. His writing has been published in The Baseball Research Journal, Imitation Fruit, BULL: Men’s Fiction, KYSO Flash, Mount Hope, Soliloquies Anthology, Third Wednesday, and Dislocate. He was judged a winner of the First Memorial George Dila Flash Fiction Contest, and his nonfiction writing A Familiar Problem, a Familiar Face was recognized by Mensa as Best Unpublished Novel. Mr. Burd lives in Gurnee, Illinois, where he spends his time exercising, reading, writing, working in the kitchen, and watching Tottenham Hotspur. He works as a Reading Specialist at Zion-Benton Township High School in Zion, IL.
⚡ For the Love of Practice: Chatting with Jeff Burd About Baseball, Hybrids, and High Altitude Inspiration by Nancy Stohlman in Flash Fiction Retreats (8 April 2019)