When I first met Brooke Lynn (yes, that’s her real name) I was pretty sure I was going to hate her; the blonde, bubbly, young college student that I saw. I had a lot of immediate opinions. It didn’t take long, however, for us to bond over rapping insults together directed towards my drunken, misogynistic roommate that she had recently befriended. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my roommate, but at the time he was in the midst of his own personal sexual revolution after breaking off a long term relationship and its repercussions happened to be a flood of really dumb women in and around our home. Brooke was not one of these. Witty, fun-loving, she had a sleeper intelligence that delightedly surprised me. Her humor was blunt and irreverent. Her quest for a good time was insatiable and she never stopped smiling. I admired this.
Born and raised in cloudy New Jersey, Brooke Lynn moved west to Boulder in order to pursue a degree from the highly regarded English department of the University of Colorado. She will be receiving her much anticipated Bachelor’s in the Spring of 2015. Inspired by the jagged Colorado wilderness, whenever she’s not taking Boulder by storm you can find her snowboarding or backcountry hiking in the mighty Rockies or camping in some reclusive, magnificent hideaway – perhaps in the desert or beside a river. Like her bawdy imagination, her sense of adventure has no boundaries. She claims to be happiest when she’s living somebody else’s life, but this girl is Mondain-certified unique.
Most of my interaction with the work of Brooke Lynn remains in short quips and wild fancies that leave me somehow laughing uncontrollably and also reflective. She commands a certain hold of the mystery of human interaction and you can see this in the manipulation of her characters and how she relates simple, every day actions. The short story we present you with today is bound to perplex, impact and leave you with a mild discomfort; like the best stories should. Follow Brooke on Facebook here.
Emmaline and Alander
by Brooke Lynn Bartleson
* * *
When Alander was happy, he liked to skate; the wind in his hair as he rolled down the sidewalk.
Ever since his wife left, his skates collected dust on the shelf above the bed.
After a year of loneliness, Alander drank a microwaved cup of coffee, placed the empty mug on the counter, took up his handgun, and shot himself in the head.
He immediately woke as a child on his parents’ bed. He had been asleep for fifty minutes. The sun was shining.
* * *
In an apartment by a river that arched and city lights that sighed, Emmaline was crying on the floor of her shower in a black and blue dress. She was lonely. She’d taken up her sewing scissors and made a party of paper people. She poured herself some wine and they sat and talked. It wasn’t long before they started to bicker, and they crumpled Emmaline up and threw her out. Now the water fell hot on her skin. It washed off the mascara and blush she had donned for her paper acquaintances, but it did not wash away what was wrong inside her brain. She took the scissors and dragged them across her wrist. She sawed through skin… veins… muscle… The shower went dark around her and the blood that washed away down the drain did not change the color of the water in the ocean.
Slowly, Emmaline opened her heavy little eyelids. She was wrapped in a towel and her head rested in her mother’s lap while she gently dried Emmaline’s ears with a Q-Tip. Her mother had just given her a bath. It was Wednesday; she didn’t have kindergarten on Wednesdays. The sun was shining.
* * *
The children lived a block apart. Their street wound around the edges of an oak forest.
Emmaline was good at smiling, she was good at playing by herself, and she was good at playing with other kids at school. She was especially good at reading, she never stuttered or mumbled when Mrs. Bryant asked her to read aloud. She was good at art class and singing, and could count to veinte in Spanish when the other kids could only count to diez. She was good at talking to adults and looking them in the eye without blushing. Alander was good at small things, like buttering his toast and stacking the plates neatly when he unloaded the dishwasher for his mother. It was big things like talking to people that gave him trouble. That was why, the first time he saw Emmaline at the bus stop, even though he knew, he waited for her to say something first. She was busy watching the clouds though. It took four days for her to notice the quiet boy at the bus stop with her. He got tired of waiting, of knowing and not being able to say a thing. He coughed, she didn’t hear. He sneezed. He sneezed louder. “AAAAACHOOOOOOOOO!” She turned around, and as soon as she saw him, she knew, too.
She stared at his head. “How come there is no hole?” she asked. Alander stepped toward her. He scuffed his white sneakers against the sidewalk. He took her hand in his and was surprised when his thumb brushed the puckered cicatrice on her wrist, even though he already knew it was there.
“I keep my hair long,” he said, and guided her index finger inside the cavity just above his left temple, “it goes deeper than you expect it to.”
“Did you tell your mom?” Emmaline asked.
“What was broken, Alander?”
“I don’t know.”
* * *
After school, Emmaline wandered the woods with her purple book bag across her back and her school shoes in her hands. Her bare feet were bathed in leaves and dirt; there was sunshine in her hair. The faint autumn breeze pulled at the loose tendrils of Emmaline’s curly hair. She hastened through the woods, trying to ignore the cold that crept up from her bare feet to her calves.
Alander waited for her beneath the other kids’ tree fort, his fire engine red roller skates slung over a narrow shoulder. He watched her weave through the trees. She saw him watching her. She smiled a Jack-O-Lantern smile. They climbed the other kids’ tree fort, and Emmaline sat down on the sloped wooden platform. Alander hung his skates on a branch, then sat down on his feet beside her.
Emmaline unzipped her purple book bag and took out the fundraising catalog the children were meant to show their parents. She rolled over and laid on her belly, her skinny legs bent at the knee and crossed at the ankle. Alander leaned forward and studied the prizes with her. They circled the ones they liked best with colored pencils. The air turned from crisp to cold and the children knew they should be heading home.
Alander stood and waited as Emmaline slipped the catalog back into her backpack, pulled her sneakers on and pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
Emmaline always wore a blue ribbon. Alander asked why. She told him it was to hold her hair in place. Alander had another question.
“Will it be different this time, Emmaline?”
“Will what be different?” she asked.
“You know… everything…”
“I don’t know Alander, I don’t remember.”
* * *
The cavity above Alander’s temple got smaller as his brain got bigger and his arms got stronger. The line across Emmaline’s wrist got shorter as her legs got longer and her breasts swelled.
Alander was in orbit around Emmaline. The pull of her bright smile and long legs drew him in. He wanted to crash land on her surface.
Emmaline did not want to talk to Alander anymore. She did not search for him in the woods after school. She did not wait at the bus stop anymore, but instead drove her second-hand Ford to school. She saw him watching her in the cafeteria and told him they should just forget about it, the secret they shared. She said there was nothing wrong with her, she would never do that, it was just some childish nightmare.
“Emmaline, how do you explain the scar?” Alander wailed.
“How do you explain the hole, Emmaline? How do you explain it?”
* * *
Emmaline sat staring at the screen. Alander’s text invited her to coffee. She thought for a moment, then clicked delete. She preferred tea anyway.
* * *
Alander wrote a love letter in chalk on the sidewalk outside Emmaline’s house. The rain washed it away just as she arrived home from dinner.
* * *
When Alander asked Emmaline to prom that spring, his eyes were like a flickering street lamp. An inexplicable feeling gripped Emmaline; she was tired of being alone in the dark. To her own surprise, she said yes.
* * *
Emmaline wore a black and blue dress to prom. Alander slipped a blue flower corsage over her wrist. It covered the almost invisible silvery scar.
The school cafeteria had been transformed. It carried all the aspects of youthful opulence; faux crystal chandeliers, shining black and white tile, elegantly dim lighting. Clustered throughout the room were giggling young ladies; self-conscious in their delicate dresses and fine corsages, self-important with their smartly dressed dates with their handsome boutonnieres. Though for years she had paid little attention to Alander, Emmaline absent-mindedly ran her fingers through his long wavy hair. Her index finger glided over the hardly discernable crater where something deeper had once been. Has he always been so handsome, she wondered.
The night swirled on, and dance by dance the room grew hotter. The faint tang of sweat blended with girlish perfumes and borrowed aftershave lotions. Elegant hairstyles began to crumble. Cheeks were noticeably flushed. Alander suggested they step outside, to escape the cafeteria’s nauseating heat.
Along the hall and down the stairs small groups of girls giggled together, whispering over plastic cups of punch. Emmaline and Alander slipped through the door and into the dark.
Emmaline shivered lightly, and for a moment she thought Alander might take off his jacket and slip it around her shoulders the way heroes did in romantic novels. He did not. Rather, he said something that caused her to look towards the sky. He reached gently for the hand that hung lightly by her side. She stiffened imperceptibly as he ran his thumb across her wrist. He flipped it over so that he could see her pale forearm. He lifted it towards his mouth. His lips met the cool gap of skin between her corsage and palm.
Emmaline watched his action. She did not pull away. Instead, she reached up with her other hand; again she ran her fingers through his hair, feeling for the indent just above his left temple.
After a long moment, he stood and looked at her.
“If it was just a dream, how do you explain the scar, Emmaline? How do you explain the hole?”
“I don’t know, Alander, I don’t know.”
* * *
Emmaline leaned up against Alander’s locker after last period. Strands of yellow hair escaped from her hair tie and curled against the nape of her neck. The small heel of her leather boot dug into the maroon metal. Her body shook as she laughed at something Alander said.
Alander slung his skates over a broad shoulder.
Emmaline slipped her hand into his. Alander’s thumb traced the hairline scar across her wrist. She smiled softly.
* * *
Emmaline giggled, bouncing on the bed self-consciously. She was naked save for her UNH graduation cap. The blue and white tassel hung and bobbed in front of her eye. Alander sat across from her. The card and flowers Alander had brought her sat atop the dresser. Emmaline’s white dress and graduation gown lay discarded haphazardly on the floor. She ran her fingers though his dark hair, cropped short in line with New Hampshire State Trooper uniform requirements. The cavity she had once slipped a finger inside was no more than a shallow dimple; a grave freshly filled with soil.
* * *
Alander skated down the sidewalk towards home. The blurred buildings gave way to green oak trees that whizzed past as he neared their modest split-level house, just a few blocks down the road from where they had grown up in.
Emmaline was still at work. She twisted her hands excitedly beneath her desk.
“Well? Lets see it!” her coworker urged. She squealed and applauded when Emmaline showed her the Tiffany diamond ring, “Oh Emmaline, its beautiful! Have you picked a date?”
* * *
Emmaline sighed and wiped the back of her hand across her sweaty forehead. She set the paintbrush down and took a sip of her lemonade. Blue paint spattered her face in freckles and spangled across her swollen belly. Alander smiled. Emmaline had never looked prettier. He rubbed his paint-covered hands together and placed them on her stomach, pulling away in surprise when he felt the first kick. He left behind two perfect blue handprints on either side of the bulge.
Later, Emmaline lovingly slipped the paint-stained shirt between two panels of glass, preserving forever the first time Alander’s hands had felt their son kick.
She hung the framed shirt on the wall of the freshly painted nursery.
* * *
Emmaline stood alone for the hundredth, maybe thousandth time in the gloomy, rectangular room. She was wringing her hands, tears brimming in her bloodshot eyes. Her finger traced the gap of flesh where her scar had once been.
The air hung cold. The room wore a pallor of neglect. The blue and white-striped walls had turned gray from time and moisture. They were fading and peeling in places.
A never-ridden rocking horse rested beneath the window.
On the adjacent wall a dust covered frame hung along one side.
The room smelled musty; like the ghosts of four unborn children, and long-settled dust.
* * *
Alander practiced each conversation on the porch before going inside. His wife’s dark moods had become more frequent and more extreme over the years. When he entered the house, the first thing he did was open all the shutters to let in the daylight. Their couples counselor told them that it might help alleviate her depression.
He heard her car tires crunch against the gravel driveway. A door slammed. Keys in the lock. He braced himself. Emmaline was home.
* * *
“They laugh at me and whisper lies about you inside my head, Alander.”
“Who, Emmaline? Who does?” Alander’s was voice shaking. His stomach churned. He hated seeing her this way.
“Our children, Alander, our sons!”
“No, Emmaline, we have no children, there is no one there!” He was shouting but knew she could not hear him over the voices.
* * *
Emmaline stood at the edge, looking down. Still as a statue, she gazed toward the pavement far below. Her bare shoulders, fine and pale beneath the moonlight, were indistinguishable from the white cotton of her shirt. She ran her fingers across her stomach. Her blonde hair, almost silver in that moment, haloed around her head in the wind. Emmaline tightened her muscles and prepared to jump.
Before her feet could leave the ground, she craned her neck and looked up instead.
Perhaps the children are lying, she thought in a rare moment of clarity, perhaps he’s just late leaving work, not running off with someone else. Children lie, sometimes. Yes, children lie. She stepped back and started home. Shame crawled over her like a plague.
* * *
“Emmaline, I love you.”
“I don’t believe you, it doesn’t sound like you mean it.”
“Emmaline, I LOVE you!”
“OK, then put the knife down.”
* * *
The evening passed uneventfully, an oasis of peace in the storm their life had become. Alander sat in near silence through supper. He appreciated the meal spent in her company, if only because he knew it would be the last.
While Emmaline swept the dishes off the table and scrubbed them in the sink, Alander went upstairs. He walked down the hallway, stopping to close the door to the decaying nursery, and went into the bedroom to pack.
He filled his small suitcase and sat down at his desk. Alander tried to write a letter of farewell to his wife.
He could not put pen to paper. Instead he put his head in his hands. Instinctively, his finger found the now completely smooth spot where the hole had been. He remembered all the times her finger had explored that spot.
Alander tucked his cold feet up onto the desk chair while Emmaline made her way up the steps. He promised himself things would be different this time.
* * *
Emmaline tossed back the covers.
Something had woken her. She sat up furtively, careful not to disturb Alander. She sidled across the clean yellow sheet and placed her feet, one beside the other, on the cold wooden floor.
There was no light for her to see by, but she was drawn down the hallway to the deserted nursery.
Emmaline sat down on the floor beside the lonely rocking horse. She tucked her nightdress around the tops of her pale knees and rested her cheek in the cup where one white knee met the other. She listened to the children’s’ voices in her head.
Much later, Alander roused when he could not feel his wife next to him. He sprang out of bed and crashed into the hallway, knowing where he would find her.
He saw the pale yellow light spilling out along the floor and pushed the nursery door with one hand. He prepared himself as it swung open for whatever fit of grief gripped his wife’s broken mind this time.
Stepping across the threshold, Alander found the room empty. Hundreds of paper dolls littered the dusty floor, a paper mockery of a child’s birthday party. Cold dread crept upward from his kidneys when he saw something sparkling amidst the macabre gathering of paper people. He reached for the solitary piece of jewelry. Alander wailed when he recognized the Tiffany diamond ring.
* * *
After a year of loneliness, Alander brewed a cup of coffee. He left it standing on the shelf beside his dusty skates; he would reheat it when he returned home.
Alander got in his car, drove to the pawnshop, sold the ring, and bought the handgun.
* * *
In an apartment by a river that arched and city lights that sighed, Emmaline spun and giggled in front of the mirror; her pale frame draped in the blue and black dress.
Sewing scissors waited patiently on the shelf.