When he returned home, it felt as though he had come back a guest to his own space. Everything but Cal’s art desk had been scraped and chemically ridden of pastel fingerprints he may have left before he went; he couldn’t remember the last time anyone had sat at that desk but him. It had been built into the wall when they moved in, and for a while, Cal couldn’t stop imagining the ghosts of desk job-working suburban fathers of this house’s past haunting him as he slowly reincarnated the sleepy brown surface into a miniature studio. And now, after six weeks away…weeks didn’t—couldn’t—define his time away. Rather, he hadn’t been away—he had just been. Been as he was supposed to have been, for all the time he had wasted in this very room not being. Or trying to be. It was here where he was “away,” and it hadn’t taken the tension between him and his parents at the airport just three hours ago for Cal to come to this conclusion. It was an idea that had been solidified in him the first moment he had to sit on his frail dorm bed after having hung his concert tees and stuffing the rest in the drawers, looking past the window to see the limitless skyline—a geographical metaphor for his future opportunities. The city.
The floor was the only other thing left in his room besides his desk-studio that embraced Cal’s return. He hadn’t even wanted himself there, but he knew this day would come. Here began the lies he would tell himself, that he was nearly done (well, kinda, but that’s subjective), that he would be okay this time, that senior year would be a year of painting and experiences and throwing your arms out of your friends’ car windows, allowing the air to beat them under a late sky, like every picture under #livewhilewereyoung. The biggest lie: that these could ever be truths.
The carpet stains—purple and orange—were still visible if you knew where to look. And Cal did; him only. He hadn’t forgotten that much. It’s muted almond color was ideal for relieving an acrylic-drowned brush if you knew how to camouflage it. And Cal did.
The team of black suitcases at the door were like a secret service devoted to preventing him from leaving until he properly suited up into his old self again. California Cal. Old Cal. He hated how that sounded, like someone’s alma mater. It would be just like someone here to have an alma mater like “Old Cal.”
They prevented him from them, from being with them again. From her. Damn, she had wanted those photos, when could he get those developed? Cal couldn’t imagine she wanted them more than he did. Although, they were nice and snug in their canisters. Seven of them.
Kicking his legs—chronically sore from the month and a half on his feet- out from under him, falling out of the seat he had taken on his bedroom floor, Cal lie down until the tribe of his brown curls became reacquainted with the lighter twists of the carpet that had awaited his coming like a mother. As far as the suitcases were concerned, this was his surrender.
The first thing Cal became aware of when he broke the grasp of sleep were his eyelashes tickling, barely, the thick eyebrows just above them as he blinked two brown eyes open for what seemed like a first time. Bloated eyelids from a full 24 hours of holding tears as captives made the reach from inky eyelashes to eyebrows much easier.
And then a dainty prick on his cheekbone.
After instinctively cleaning the corners of his eyes, Cal swiped at his cheek to find a black smear in a straight, translucent line across his knuckles.
Time of death: 3:52 AM
Did he dream of being back there? He couldn’t remember just yet, but it didn’t matter right now, because the memories were still pungent inside of his mind.
Sitting up, the carpet mumbled underneath him, still asleep like the rest of the house. The two parents that had picked him up from the airport; the two brothers who had skipped the ordeal to play video games. And Cal. Cal who was awake at 3:55 (formerly 3:52) in the morning of his first day back at his house. With the murdered body of an ant splayed crudely across the back of his hand.
Fuck. Haven’t even been here a day and this place is shitting on me.
Propelling onto his feet, the squish of sweat in his black socks solidified Cal’s existence in this room—his room—at last. Maybe he had been dreaming.
That familiar creak of the floorboard, the carpet’s stomach gurgling, propped certain hairs up on his arms and neck. He had always thought of himself as the only one to hear them, these messages of the house; they never woke anyone else. Like he was the only one capable of carrying out whatever they had planned. If Cal was feeling really special, he could convince himself that only his feet in only his Converse could get the carpet to talk.
She could make the carpet speak.
Cal trudged to his bathroom to clean himself of any ant-related evidence. His white sink was no longer splotched pink and blue with insistent stains of acrylic. Someone had worked hard here, but not for him. For him, the small room would have blossomed into a Pollock. His sink being the very least of the afflicted spaces. The mirrors, too. It would have done him well to look at himself everyday through a layer of paint.
Awareness shot upwards through his fingertips as a third hand, water, took his and chased the ant corpse down the needy drain. A death, how metaphorical. RIP to its black glass body, shattered and swimming amongst other dead of its kind. In dirty water. Orange peel.
His father had always said there was no reason to kill them unless they trespassed. But an ant inside is the same as an ant outside and he wished he still had Mac to kill the things that began to live in their bathroom without permission. His bathroom.
Cal steadied himself on the bathroom sink and, while thinking about how much effort it took someone to cleave this chunk of marble for the countertop, slid his head and gang of curls under the faucet.
He flicked the faucet on, reaching overhead.
Skin softened, surrendered beneath the arm of water reaching towards his face from the silver arch. Finally, something other than her exploring the cavernous temples and speed bump lips of his landscape. And he thought she would be the last. But here was the water.
His sleeved arm arched over the image of him to cut off the flow. California was in a drought after all; it couldn’t afford another sad boy.
Cheek pressed against the chilled rock, Cal’s eyes lulled to the right. A fish in a bowl.
They must have sensed his heavy gaze like a cloud thrown in their direction, for all 60 of them sprinted behind the navy toiletry bag that dared to bare Mac’s initials. As though his name, or anything else spoken about him, was any testament to who he was.
Do you think they organize their exodus? Or has their evolution been one of chaos? They never trip. Glass doesn’t stumble.
Cal recognized in himself that he had always liked good things better when they were shattered. But here, he was outnumbered. Ants running, ants panicking. Ants having anxiety. The urge to smash any of them was distracted by the thought of them finding home beneath the gold seams of the cotton pouch his brother had left behind.
Were there ants by the AC unit, where that Coke had spilled? Were they underneath that spot on the mattress, that place like the torso of a venn diagram that had been between him and her?
His memory of pulling himself out from the sink was static; the sight of himself in the trembling mirror, the water antagonizing the darkest parts of him into a deeper black, reset everything.
“How was your day, honey?”
How was it possible for something to be so utterly irrelevant? Some things. Everything. His day was his creative writing teacher acting like the second coming of literary Christ, John contemplating asking out that one girl from last fall, and Tuley deflecting any story of Cal’s with some fact about the river from the combined five days he spent there during the summer. He knew the things you should do and should not do when returning from what could have been another dimension, but he compared his friends to them as naturally as an inhale. It didn’t help that they made it easy. Just saying.
The image of his life was out of focus, but Cal couldn’t say that he wanted it to be clear anymore if it meant succumbing to the small-picture view that he hadn’t realized his friends to be operating on. Last year, they had been everything—John carting them off to the town over for concerts and being the driver for his and Tuley’s graffiti habit. Him fronting the change for Slurpees three out of four times at the gas station they had just vandalized, but not caring at all as long as it meant having someone to slurp with. And Mac. Mac, who he would see on the street or, by fate, at the same gas station, refilling his tank and grabbing a Sprite. Mac, who became almost more of a common face that last year than a brother. Like an installation in their house rather than an inhabitant. John and Tuley had been there for him in a way most guys wouldn’t have, but Cal couldn’t tell now if their ease in comforting him was only a byproduct of their ease in being comfortable.
The weight of his Vans became apparent only after Cal kicked them off.
He thought about apologizing to her. For not defying the natural logic and “the way life is” to sit next to her on her flight back to Washington. No return ticket needed. An apology to himself, moreover.
His head swung to the left. His nose was greeted by a clump of dried orange paint hardened around the extremities of the carpet that seemed to reach past him, like they wanted something more. If they didn’t want him, he didn’t want them either. Cal refocused his gaze underneath his bed. He wasn’t one to have pizza boxes lying around. When they were little, he and Mac had thought that half-eaten pizzas came up through the floor and under your bed when you became a teenager, just like the cartoons would have them believe. Instead, there was Mookey, his old stuffed monkey, slumped against the bedpost.
He hadn’t even thought to have brought him with him when he left. And now, here they were. Two old boys. When was the last time they caught up? Two dark lines like seams hiked up Mookey’s faded brown fur and continued beyond his spineless body. Was it something Mac could have done before it happened? At least he would finally have some reason to be angry.
Cal rolled over once in the direction of his bed, barely hitting the frame. Looking deeper into the black lines travelling across his friend’s body, Cal realized he was merely an audience member to the parade of marching ants that had claimed Mookey as their stomping grounds. He had done so well in compromising with the ants over the past few days after having exerted all of his extermination energy into a few irritated rounds of mass executions. He didn’t like to think about the possibility that they knew what was going to happen. Watching them climb over Mookey like a decomposing body, he assumed the victim, displaced by the beady troops in their moving paths beneath the tufts of stuffed animal fluff like real soldiers maneuvering through the stubborn hats of trees. They could have been setting up shop here ever since the day he left—the hour, the minute. No matter what, he would have been too late. And somehow, that made the sloshing tide of his mind settle.
I enjoy being part of a stereotype.
A bite into his avocado toast, courtesy of Mom, and he knew he was reinitiated into the household. A household that had never known differently, had never known that it was the face of California kitchens in foreign minds everywhere. With flowers a bit too colorful at the table, surf-themed coasters, and a long-haired boy eating avocado toast. The palms outside reminded him how much California tried to be California and he laughed because what a great Snapchat that would be.
And another: his mom’s little corner, run over with envelopes and paper that probably seemed important at one time and now looked all the same in their white uniforms. As the seeds from the last bite of toast slid down his throat, Cal scrunched his napkin out of habit and dropped it on his plate. Pushing the faux oak chair away from where it had just seated him, he took the two steps to his mom’s desk.
To the parents of Mac Lyndon
Christina and Peter Lyndon
At the convenience of Christina and Peter Lyndon
You are in our prayers
Dear Christina and Peter
Mr. Mac Lyndon
Cal Lyndon or current resident
I am so sorry
Mr. and Mrs. Peter Lyndon
The hand of a chill ran through his mass of hair and down his back, the hair on his arm parting. It left behind a faint prick between his shoulder blades, beneath the faded shirt he had brought back, and swore to God, if it was an ant . . .
“So, uh, how are you?”
It wasn’t windy; he couldn’t pretend to not hear John, especially in this moment of rare and genuine concern. Cal’s cold cheeks turned away to parallel the ground, his hands grabbing for more flesh inside his jacket pockets. There were so many people around that there was almost no one.
“OK. Well me and Tuley were gonna go tag behind Lucky Seven tonight if you’re down.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you still did.”
“Well yeah, why the hell wouldn’t we?”
“Because we got Lucky Seven, like, three times already? Anyways, I got stuff.”
Their shoes clapped the sidewalk, making sound so that they didn’t have to. For a moment.
“Is it us?”
“You never let ‘stuff,’” he paired with finger quotations, “get in the way of a tag before.”
Cal shrugged and the creases decorating his hoodie momentarily straightened before defaulting. The strings continuing to be taunting just by being string and loose and bouncing. Their feet continued to work the gum-hardened sidewalk around the border of the high school until John stopped abruptly. Was his face always this narrow?
“I know you have shit going on, with Mac and stuff, but…”
Did he need to explain? Do dim eyes and tight jaws and skinned fingers talk loud enough?
John’s part shivered, a few brown hairs running back to the other side, thinking that they could avoid the chill.
It didn’t feel that he had walked away as much as his hips began to drive him home. With every step, Cal’s hair bounced. Cheering. The walking, the leaving behind—it was a skill acquired from his time away. Interesting that he thought it was a skill. Interesting that he thought he was the one leaving something behind.
If John was an ant, he would still be standing behind Cal at an increasing distance with his antennae straight and defensive. Cold because the other ants were gone and because ants can’t wear layered hoodies or have heavy parts.
But do you think if they could, they would kill themselves, too?
Cal had let himself into the house with his key; everyone was somewhere. The home’s welcome was less enthusiastic than when his mom came home, or his dad, but enthusiasm could be collected like leaves to let go of on the right day. The staircase was still carpet and the family pictures still had him in them. He must be home.
So this must be what they do all day.
And they must be smart.
And now, they must be frightened.
He hadn’t taken his hands out of his pockets, except to encapsulate himself back inside the place he had just been 40 minutes ago. That had required hands.
The ants, their dutiful collective, mapped a marathon out of his bedroom carpet. They weren’t as good as paint at hiding their whereabouts. Two streams extended beneath his bed, where there were no pizza boxes. Only carpet. Carpet as clean and white as his upper thighs. Carpet floor that had never known more than Mookey and now some creatures that probably didn’t mean much in terms of company. Just passing through.
On all fours, Cal closed his eyes. A short film about ants began to play in his head. The different angles of their bodies, their movement that sculpted their subtle differences. The complete submission to a greater plan, but conceived by whom? Man, what a concept.
He dipped his back to find their headquarters underneath the bed. His bed. Arms tucked, he slowly surrendered them towards the congregation huddled in the farthest corner. Cal had fully expected them to race up his knuckles and sprint to his elbows, but maybe that was just the edge of the teen ego. The ants, instead, repelled off of his skin like it was pure calculus.
And so it was found.
Maybe they were good at hiding, but just not themselves. As the blue-black crowd dispersed at the invisible call of a leader, the weak-figured white rectangle held its breath as the confusing object of interest in Cal’s gaze.
Dropping his knees to go further in, Cal scooted on his stomach, jeans rashing him and the floor, in order to get to the object. An envelope. An envelope with no name. He snatched it between his bony left index and middle fingers and slid himself back into the world outside of the underbelly of his bed.
An envelope with no name.
Red palms grazed the paper as he turned it over in his hands. On the second turn, the mouth fell open. It’s stomach was gray, far from revival, but nothing is revived without a story. And this envelope with no name had one.
The contrast of his loudly beating chest with the ice on top of his nose was uncomfortable but it was one of those things that he would save for later, to think about when it was useful. For a painting.
The mouth to the stomach fell open, the pale lips disappearing, the contents regurgitated onto his floor. Also pale. But the lined paper had an old and yellowed glaze to it, like a soy sauce coat, that reignited the hairs on his arms. A familiar prick.
Blue pen winced as it was exposed, the note unfolding itself once from simple momentum.
Cal knew it wasn’t an ant. ♦