Click (a short story)

Today, a short story instead of an essay.  This short story “Click” won first place in the Pioneer Press fiction contest in 1998.)

Click. TV on. Aim the remote and click through. Channel surfing, my dad calls it. “I think I’ll go channel surfing tonight, see what’s up.” Do a little Hawaiian dance. What a nut he is, always trying to make me laugh.

The kids I am babysitting are downstairs in the basement, Brad playing Sega and Brittany playing with her American Girl dolls. They are ten and eleven, almost too old for a babysitter, but since I live next door and have known them their whole lives, it’s cool for all involved.

That was one of Ashleigh’s favorite things to say. That’s how she was, she wouldn’t just say “cool”, she’d say “cool for all involved.”  Or if she thought someone was acting psycho, she’d say “psycho-delico.” She made up words all the time, like she had her own language. Ashleigh was my best friend, had been my best friend up until three weeks and two days ago, when she killed herself. I guess Ashleigh must still be my best friend; or was there a time limit or something when you had to move on?

That’s what my parents think, anyway. It’s time to move on with my life. They’re so nice to me, I feel bad that they feel bad. So I cover up a lot, and keep things inside. I don’t know if I’m fooling them though. Just yesterday my mom asked me if I needed to talk. She said that even though my lips were smiling, my eyes weren’t, and she knew the difference. How do they know that stuff?

Ashleigh’s parents split up years ago. They used to live across the street from us. She had to move to a smaller, older house near the high school, but we still stayed friends. The cool thing about her situation was that she had complete freedom, because no one wanted to say no to her. Her parents and her stepparents all wanted her to love them equally, so they let her do anything.
That’s why it’s so hard to figure out what happened. Okay, the last year she really did change, but I hadn’t, and we were still friends. I even did stuff with her new friends, who were basically known at school as druggies. My parents didn’t like it, but I didn’t see the harm in it.

. . . . .

Click. Nothing but junk on TV tonight. Unreal. All those channels and nothing the least bit interesting.

I’m not really into babysitting any more. These two kids aren’t too bad, and Mr. and Mrs. Parker are okay. But some of the kids I babysit for are on their way to becoming future mass murderers. For sure.

It’s just that everything seems to be closing in on me. Sometimes I feel my throat swelling up, to where I have a hard time breathing, and I have to focus on something, like one of the glow-in-the-dark planets I have on the ceiling of my bedroom, until I can calm down.

And isn’t this supposed to be when I’m having the time of my life? (Another favorite phrase of my dad’s – he likes to brag that he’s been having the time of his life his whole life!) I’m sixteen; I thought that sixteen would be magical somehow, like everything would fall into place, and your nose would match the rest of your face again, and you’d know all the things you were supposed to know. And everything would be all happy, like in those musicals my parents like to watch.

My parents are always worried because I don’t go out that much. They would never admit this, but they worry that I’m not popular. I’m not exactly, but then I’m not exactly the dregs either. My mother, in her day, was a cheerleader and a Homecoming princess. She never mentions it. She doesn’t have to. Facts like that, once you know them, always just kind of hang there in the air, where you bump into them once in the while.

Tiffany. What a drippy name. I’m not alone though. There are many Tiffanys in my school. Also, Courtneys, Ashleys, Brittanys, Alexandras, and every fourth girl it seems is Alexis. Everyone calls me Tif, and if I wasn’t such a big baby I’d change my name to Emma or Chloe, or something cool like that.

We live in a suburb of Chicago called Whispering Oaks. When my uncle came out here to visit from California he said, “I’ve landed in Beaver Cleaver Land!” Ha, ha said my mom and dad, smiling at each other. They secretly loved that. We have lived in the same house since I was three and my brother was five. We moved up here from the city for the schools, the trees and the overall perfection of life. My brother Jonathan always said he’d go away somewhere far to college, but he ended up at Northwestern, and came home every few weeks.

Jon had last come back for Ashleigh’s funeral. There were some things I had wanted to ask him them, but I didn’t get a chance, and now it just seemed better that I figure it out on my own. Like concentrating on the breathing thing. And not getting all weirded out when it seems as though Ashleigh is still here with me, talking to me, in my head.

The first time it happened was when I was alone with Victor a couple of days after the funeral. Victor was Ashleigh’s boyfriend, kind of your basic North Shore punker type – three earrings in one ear, pants low on his butt, Birkenstocks. He was the type Ashleigh had started becoming attracted to this past year. Inside I didn’t like him one bit, but on the outside I played along like I liked him because of Ashleigh.

We were in Ashleigh’s family room, which was where we all used to hang out a lot before, because Ashleigh’s mom and step-dad were always at their realtor jobs, and only checked in from their cell phones to make sure that everyone was home and had money for pizza delivery.

It was strange being there without Ashleigh, but Victor had called me and asked me to meet him, and Ashleigh’s mom said it was okay. I think she liked the idea of us still hanging out there, like maybe things could sort of be the same, even though they couldn’t ever be again.
I figured he must need to talk or something, and I thought I might be able to do the same. Although I really couldn’t imagine it, because I had never said more than six words to him in my life.

We were sitting on the couch, and I could tell he was high. He had that glazed look. And he kept sucking his cheeks in and breathing in hard through his nose. I was hoping he wouldn’t ask me if I wanted to get high, because I really didn’t like it that much, and the few times I had done it I had gotten all panicky like I was going to float right off the surface of the earth.

It really seemed though, like he needed someone there, to work something out. I understood. After all, didn’t we both love her? Framed photos of her were everywhere as we sat uncomfortably on the cold, slippery white leather couch.

First he kissed me and then he pushed my head to his lap. I didn’t know what to do, but then I felt her there with me. That was the first time she came into my head. She said it was all right. He kept saying that if he couldn’t have her, I would be the next best thing. Because we were so close, and all. It’s what she would have wanted, he said.

He never called. At first, it didn’t bother me, because I didn’t like him anyway. But then I kept thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the more awful I felt. Like I was bruised on the inside, like when you get the flu and your hair hurts, and your skin aches even at the touch of your pillow.

If my mother knew any of this she would die.

. . . . .

Click. I got the shopping channel, and pressed mute. There was an anorexic blonde holding out a blue velvet tray displaying several diamond rings that sparkled with promise. What kind of idiot would buy a diamond ring from the TV, I could hear my father say.

I changed channels. A woman was being chased through the house by a man with a knife. Nice show to have on at 7:30, when kids could be watching. Speaking of which, I knew I should go check on B and B.

I yelled down to the basement, “How are you guys doing?” Two grunts, different in timber, meaning they were still alive. Brad could sit and pile up the dead bodies on his video game until who knew when. I knew I should go play with Brittany for a while.

Ashleigh and I had spent one summer making paper dolls with hundreds of different paper outfits for them. Every day we made new outfits, coloring them in with colored pencils. That was when we were going to be fashion designers. We hadn’t talked about what we were going to be for a long time.

Some sitcom was on, but I still had the mute button on, so all I could focus on was the actors’ mouths stretched wide in their circus clown laughs. I clicked the power off and caught my reflection in the shiny blackness of the huge television. It looked like I was the star of my own show. Instead of “Clarissa Explains it All”, it was “Tif Doesn’t Know a Goddamn Thing”.

Down to the basement, because Brittany was calling me to come play. She held up both her dolls, Kirsten and Molly, and asked which one I want to be. Doll clothes were piled up everywhere, along with accessories and doll furniture. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was holding out a doll to Ash?

“You’re too old to play with these stupid dolls,” I said, blinking back tears that had appeared from nowhere. I whirled around, and stumbled toward the basement stairs, Brittany holding the dolls, their blank eyes staring at the ceiling, and Brad actually pausing his game.

I got my backpack from the foyer and dug for the phone book I kept there. I dialed my brother’s dorm room in Evanston. It was only eight o’clock – I had no idea if he would be there or not. For fifteen years he had been in the room right next to me; now I had no idea what he did.

He answered on the first ring. His voice sounded muffled, deeper. His was a voice I had heard every day of my life, and until he was gone this year, I never thought it would be something I would miss. I tried to speak, but I was still crying and all I could say was, “Just a minute”, or “I’ll be okay,” or something like that.

“Tif?” he said. “Are you okay?” Music being turned off in the background; he sounded more alert now.

“When Grandpa died…” I said. Our grandfather had died a year ago of a heart attack and my brother had been devastated. They had been very close. “When Grandpa died, did he talk to you? After he died, I mean? Because I can’t stop thinking about Ash, and I keep hearing her telling me things. Does this make any sense?”

A pause. He wanted to say the right thing, the thing that would make everything better, like the time he tried to make me feel better when I threw up in my desk in fifth grade, by making it seem like a cool revenge on a teacher I hated, rather than my own fault.

“Yeah. I used to lie in bed with all the lights off, and the door closed, and I’d make myself go into some kind of trance. Once I got to a certain point I could actually feel Grandpa in my room. But it wasn’t creepy. It helped me feel like he was still there. It’s too scary to just think of someone disappearing into thin air.”

“Do you ever still think about him?” I asked, afraid of the answer. I wanted my memory of Ashleigh to always be as vivid as it was at this moment, on this day. I wanted to always smell her perfume and hear her giggle.

“Sure, I still think about him sometimes. But not as much. Just when I need to, like when I’m working something out in my head. I’ll think about him then, and I’ll think about what he’d do, and then I’ll know what to do. Say, twerpo, you’re not getting all bummed out on me, are you?”

“No. I feel a little better now, God knows why.” I managed a laugh that came out like a hiccup. “Imagine me calling you for advice!”

“I always knew you’d come to your senses and realize what a genius I am,” he said. “Hey, one more thing, little sis… This may come as a shock to you, but you and Ash weren’t the same people. She was completely different than you, and you’re not ever going to end up like that. She had some major problems.”

“Yeah,” I said, wiping my nose on my sleeve. “But I knew she did, and I couldn’t help her.” Didn’t help her, I didn’t say.

“Well, you were never in charge of her life, now, were you? You’re only in charge of yours. Hey, do you think you and mom could mail me some more of those oatmeal cookies? The food here is for the roaches.”

I hung up and waited for the breathing thing to happen. But it didn’t. I sat for a minute and tried to think of Ashleigh, but she seemed farther away, faded around the edges like an old black and white photograph.

I went down to the basement, and sat on the floor next to Brittany. She stared at the floor and held Kirsten stiffly at an angle. “I’ll be Molly,” I said. “Okay? I’m sorry. I really do like these dolls. They’re way cool.”

When I walked back home everything seemed new, like I’d never noticed it before. I could smell the dampness off the lake, and the moon shone full and knowing. A chill breeze lifted my hair, and I thought about how fast winter was coming. One of the best things about living here was the first snow. How could a person kill herself when there were such things as first snows and full moons and breezes that carried possibilities right into your heart?

I crept into the house, in case my parents were asleep. My mom usually waited up for me when I babysat, but it seemed awfully quiet.

I tiptoed up the stairs and turned left into their bedroom. My dad was sound asleep, his face smashed into his pillow. My mom must have fallen asleep while she was reading. The book lay open on her lap, and her face was turned toward me, but with her eyes closed. She looked young and pretty. I remembered her telling me how her favorite thing to do when Jon and I were little was to come into our rooms at night and watch us as we slept. She said she would sit there for hours, just to make sure we were breathing.

I turned her nightstand lamp off with a little click, and she stirred slightly and murmured good night. I lay down on the floor next to her side of the bed, and watched her sleep.

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