The Break-Up Artist

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Girls dated Brian not because of the initial attraction– Caroline typed the opening to her article on break-ups. She had to give it to the  guy, at least he knew how to do it right. Not like she and James. Forget James. They were off for now and she’d like to keep it that way. Maybe Brian could teach her. Funny thought. She tapped her phone and listened to the rest of the interviews.

Gina: “Oh My God! A million rose petals falling out of my locker. It was kind of embarrassing, but cool at the same time, you know? No guy just does that, so it didn’t shock me too much when the note fell out. I mean I knew about him. My eyes were wide open.”

Caroline: “What did it say?”

Gina: “I wish you a lifetime of roses and love . . . only without me. Brian.”

Caroline: “Wow. That is both corny and romantic. And Sad. Thank you.”

It didn’t add up. A small lanky guy, without much sense of fashion; green wooly sweaters, mustard corduroys, had the highest track record for dating. Thirty girls and thirty break-ups in two years. Impressive. Why would he go to all that trouble? Why would any girl put herself through it?

Her heart skipped to the next interview.

Megan: “So we’d been together a month and I kind of knew it was coming. His hair’s all messed up – but cute as he drives up in his convertible with his Songs for Megan playlist on. Right? I mean he made one just for me.”

Pause. What songs would he put on a Songs for Caroline playlist? She shook her head. Focus. Play.

“He’s kissing my neck. We’re making out at each stoplight on the way to the Overlook. All the while the love songs are playing, until the last song. We park. The bay lights around us, motor boats zipping by, and get this, he says, ‘The End.’ Nothing else, just the Smiths singing I Know it’s Over and his words. Like in the fairy tales, but messed-up version. I barely cried, it was so sweet. Classy.”

Caroline felt something she desperately wished she didn’t – the wish that maybe he hadn’t met the right girl. Ugh! That was not the right place to go with these interviews. No. Stop. “So, what happened? ”

Megan: “Nothing. Not with Brian. No kissing or talking or anything after. I never had to worry we’d have one of those relationships like you and James–by the way are you guys on or off these days? Because if off I wouldn’t mind . . .”

She didn’t mean to smile again, but it happened, another smile. Who gets away with that sort of thing? All these girls, knowing he’d break up, still lined up to date him? She had their perspective but now it was time for his.

She texted him: I’d like you to take me through one of your break-ups.

Three dots circled in a wave with his name beneath, then: I thought you’d never ask, but shouldn’t we date first?

Caroline: No! Just an interview. You know for the College Website?

Brian: Well who am I to stand in the way of good journalism. Where shall we begin?

#

They began in a restaurant but ended at Ruins State Beach. On the steamed up front window of his car, Caroline drew a heart. The phone kept recording, her notes held by a single paperclip. Inside the heart, he drew a girl with a crown. “You should have been an artist instead of a journalist.”

Next to it, she traced the lines for his body, his head, and a lopsided crown. “All food for my artistic soul.”

“And we shall feast tonight!” His hand raised in proclamation. “And I shall take this–” He pulled the paperclip off her notes. “–and release you from the bonds of objective reporting.”

“I don’t need any releasing.” But the sheets of paper were loose now and the paperclip was in his pocket. Cold steam wet her fingers as she wiped away the scribbles. “Back to the questions. Is the beach your next big move? Readers want to know.”

“Hmm, the readers want answers, do they?” He helped with her sweater. Goosebumps rose on her neck as she felt his fingers adjusting her collar.

Outside the car, a DANGER: Land inaccessible at high tide sign stood posted at the head of the boardwalk.

#

Past the marshy creek, white foamy waves of moonlight crashed on the beach. Crashed again. Her skirt needed straightening – but why did it matter? She was just feeling what the other girls must have felt. She let him guide her outside, let him kiss her on the cheek. A friendly kiss, but it stirred her waves.

A wooden walkway wove through the reeds. Frogs croaked, while she asked, “So what’s the deal with all these break ups?”

“Don’t you have your own off and on again thing?”

She needed an elastic to catch her hair from misbehaving in the wind. “I guess James and I will always love each other, but you know how it goes-” She tied her hair into a knot. A tight one. “-but then, maybe you don’t?”

“Ahh, the slow and steady break-up. Purest form of torture known to man.”

“And woman.” She snorted when she laughed, and covered her face. Leaned against the wooden railing of the boardwalk. “This isn’t how interviews usually go.”

His shirt was rolled up at the sleeves. He touched her hand. “How do they usually go?”

Man, were his eyes blue, intense. “Right. Other thoughts on break-ups?”

“How about we pretend, like we’ve been dating for a while.” His fingers on her shoulder.

“Yeah, what would be happening at this stage?” The seagulls fighting the waves.

He leaned in, and she felt his lips. The stubble on his chin against her chin. She pulled an inch away. The interview. He was only showing her his ways. The bridge stood above the marsh. “If we start something it won’t end well, will it?”

“Only the full moon knows.” He tried to pull her in again, but the word ‘full’ had sounded like ‘fool’ and it was enough to snap her to attention. She stepped out of the space they’d created and onto a path of towering sea oats.

“What happened to you, Brian? Did you get hurt in a relationship or something?”

He kicked a flat rock into the marsh and it skipped once, twice, and sank into quiet.

#

Out on the beach, salty wind and waves lapped around them as they paused every few feet to pick up a shell, sand dollar, sea glass. Ahead of his silhouette stood a partial turret, buckling from centuries of high tides. The peninsula leading to the ruins grew thinner with each wave.

She had waded in further than planned and cold ripples circled her knees when he asked, “What was your first break-up like?”

“Typical. No call back. Then, Instagram posts with another girl. Yours?”

He grimaced, reached out for her hand. First it felt cold, he’d been picking through wet sand – but combined, hands holding, his warmth eventually came through. “There wasn’t one because  she didn’t realize we’d been dating.”

“So you weren’t really together then?” She wished for their feet to sink deep, deep enough to keep them in this spot. Forever.

But he walked on, and the castle  towered only a few hundred feet away now. She caught up. “So what’s the next big plan? The I Love you, but . . . written in sand or something like that?”

“Hmm, not a bad idea.” He fumbled with the paperclip and pretended to jot down something in a note pad, before he turned to continue their walk toward the castle. “You, Caroline, deserve scrolls filled with love sonnets, not just words dissolving into waves.”

The stairs of the half-submerged patio; sandy and slick beneath her feet. Eight barnacle encrusted columns towered over the patio. Snails clung to the bottom, waiting for high tide.

“Do you like it?” His echo among the fallen rooms. Rooms, she imagined, had once been used for dancing.

“What is this place?” The walls repeated back to her.

He hopped onto the step of a broken stairwell. “A Dad-type of king built it for his beautiful Mrs. Queen once, but when they argued about the colors on the walls, or shade of carpet, all fell to ruin. Their kingdom, the castle . . . ”

Behind her, through the remains of a window, dark waves now covered the thin strip of peninsula. “Why didn’t they just divorce? It doesn’t have to be everybody’s fate.”

“The only option out of marriage was death. So, on a moonlit night, as they danced up on the balcony–” He pointed up to where an empty door frame stood in the wall, pieces of its stone lay around them. “–the king let her fingers slip out of his hands. She fell into ocean. Her body swept away while his spirit was dragged out by the tide. Only their heir, a prince, remained in the castle.”

“That’s a horrible thing to live through.” Caroline shivered. “So what happened to the prince?”

“He dated one girl but only in his dreams.” He glanced at her, eyes wide quietly when he said, “Until one day she was with someone else. Off than on, and off. I think his name was King James or something..”

Now she felt him watching her steadily. She felt heat rising to her cheeks. “But how did that lead to . . .  ”

“Maybe he hoped that she’d finally notice the skinny guy in the corner.” Waves washed over the stairs, and her feet. He leaned against the brick wall, smiled but without moving his eyes away. “Plus, she needed to learn how to properly end something.”

“Well, maybe if a girl’s with the right person there doesn’t need to be an end.” She had wanted to ask in her neutral, journalist’s voice, but the words choked out. “I know you have your reputation and all, but why don’t I scrap the article for the paper.”

He touched her chin. “We’d ruin it though.”

“Ruin what?”

The waves boomed in the hollow stone room. Whispered on retreat. Boomed again.

“You hear that?” he asked.

“The whispers?”

“The king and queen, still arguing into eternity.”

“Show me the break-up then. Let’s just get it over with. We can head back before high tide takes over the beach.”

“It’s not how it’s supposed to happen.” He inched his hand down her arm. “There’s a tower room upstairs . . . “

He pulled her up the staircase to a room which had a balcony years ago, but now looked out onto moonlit ocean. They stood in the door frame, the beach completely gone with no way back toward civilization.

Down on his knee, he reached for her hand. “Caroline, will you forever be my perfect memory; never to be shattered by arguments over boring conversations, forgotten birthdays, or badly worded texts.” He slipped a ring made of sea glass and paperclip on her finger.“Promise, you’ll agree to break-up and let our love live forever.”

Caroline felt the ring slip on her finger. “I will-”

The smooth glass touched her skin. The End? But he was standing. Leaning in. Kissing her and whispering, “Interview over.”

Her phone slipped from her fingers and into the waves below.

 

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Leila vs. Santa: A Correspondence on the Truth

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From: Leila Harrison <  LeilaLivesLies@gmail.com>
Sent: 10 December 2018 10:30 pm
To: Santa <Santa3200@gmail.com>
Subject: My Christmas List: I want nothing.

Dear Santa,

I think it’s time we ended this facade, don’t you think?

Sincerely,
Leila

From: Santa <Santa3200@gmail.com>
Sent: 11 December 2018 2:36 am
To: Leila
Subject:  How about a CD by that guy you liked in the Christmas special?

Dear Leila,

Can you for once make things easier? (So I can cope better when Ms. Claus makes them harder.) My delete button seems broken.

I do want to be more honest with you, with Mrs. Claus. You’re smart. Beautiful. Just like her. I’ll put it in your hands: Would you rather know everything?

Love,
Santa

From: Leila Harrison <  LeilaLivesLies@gmail.com>
Sent: 20 December 2018 1:05 am
To: Santa
Subject: My Clue List

Dear Santa,

No one ever cares about what I want. You know what you’re great at?  Making everything like a 100 times more complicated. Why don’t you talk to Mrs. Claus about your Truth Problem.

Clue: I’m twelve.
Second Clue: I’ve never listened to a CD, but then it’s not me clinging to the past.

BTW I told Dad I liked his new apartment, even though it stinks like wet dog. It made him happy. So no, lying doesn’t bother me.  If it’s all the same to you, how about you keep me on the nice list and I’ll be on the lookout for the red and white lights of your sleigh.

Thanks for not listening.
Leila

P.S. So are you dropping off my presents at Mom and Bill’s or Dad’s house?

Third Clue: Please get Dad a housekeeper or share one of your elves. He doesn’t even have a tree.

From: Santa <Santa3200@gmail.com>
Sent: 24 December 2018 4 am
To: Leila
Subject: Not the Big Truth but some unpleasant ones

Dear Leila,

Ho Ho Ho! Do you know how much money it costs to hire a housekeeper? I know for a fact your Dad’s cleaning at 3 am when he’s up thinking about your Mom. Maybe he’s not as tidy as her, but I guarantee you there’s no dust on his soul. Also, fifty bucks for a tree that’s been cut out of its home environment is not my idea of a happy holiday. As for speaking with Mrs. Claus she isn’t picking up calls.

Your list?
Santa

From: Santa <Santa3200@gmail.com>
Sent: 25 December 2018 4 am
To: Leila

Subject: Your Gift

Attached: Macy’s Gift Card

Go buy yourself something good.

Love,
Santa

 From: Leila Harrison <  LeilaLivesLies@gmail.com>
Sent: 25 December 2018 2:30 pm
To: Santa
Subject:  Getting nothing would’ve been better.

Bill thinks we should put our gift cards together and buy Mom something extra nice. She’s been kind of bummed lately. Dad’s been sitting in front of the television eating cheese doodles all day. Which BTW he should share with me instead of saying they’re bad and then eating the whole bag. I doubt he’s taking me to the mall.

Mrs. Claus probably has good reasons for not calling you.

Leila

From: Santa <Santa3200@gmail.com>
Sent: 26 December 2018 3:30 am
To: Leila
Subject: Tell Bill to mind his own business.

Dear Leila,

For the record your dad does not ‘eat cheese doodles’ all day. What about when the two of you listened to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by the Carpenters? Of course, he’ll find time to take you to the mall.

How’d your mom like that holiday card your Dad gave her?

Love you always,
Santa

From: Leila Harrison <  LeilaLivesLies@gmail.com>
Sent: 27 December 2018 10:05 pm
To: Santa
Subject: I’m not putting my faith in anything ever again.

Mom opened Dad’s card and crumpled it up. Bill slithered in to kiss her. He told her to forget about it. I rescued it from the garbage though. It’s a one-of-a-kind. Could be worth a lot one day.

Leila

From: Santa <Santa3200@gmail.com>
Sent: 27 December 2018 10:05 pm
To: Santa
Subject: Leila’s gift, take two.

Dear Leila,

Look in the front door mailbox.

Love,
Santa

From: Leila Harrison <  LeilaLivesLies@gmail.com>
Sent: 29 December 2018 11:00 pm
To: Santa
Subject: You are so messed up, but thank you.

Dear Santa,

I’m putting the photo next to my bed. Mom says it’s the last good moment we had together before everything went south. Dad and I were looking up at flashing lights of what looked like a plane, but he said it was Santa’s sleigh. I used to be a dreamer like him, but now I’m more of a realist.

So these emails are just from you, right Dad?

Leila

From: Santa <Santa3200@gmail.com>
Sent: 30 December 2018 9 am
To: Leila
Subject: The Truth Revealed

Dear Leila,

Your Mom said that about the picture? Your ideas on realists and dreamers, IMHO, stink. Even if your dad has a few things to figure out, he’s right about the sleigh.

Truth #1: I will refer you to the “from” portion of the address for an answer to your question. (Plus does your Dad write these kinds of letters?)

Truth #2: I love your mother, more than anyone else in the world. I hope that doesn’t sound too weird.

Love you,
Santa

From: Leila Harrison <  LeilaLivesLies@gmail.com>
Sent: 31 December 2018 11:45 pm
To: Santa
Subject: Thank you for stating the obvious.

Dear Santa,

No, my dad does not write these kinds of letters. So if you don’t go into some sort of  deep slumber after the holidays I’d like to keep e-mailing. Is that okay?

And yeah it is weird what you wrote about my mom, especially because you’re already married, but I’ll work with it.

Love,
Leila

 
From: Santa <Santa3200@gmail.com>
Sent: 1 January, 2019 12:01 am
To: Leila
Subject: Yes

Dear Leila,

Happy New Year!

I’d love nothing more than to keep talking with you, kid.

Love,
Santa

 

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Sarah the Creepy

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Baby brother’s been crying three months straight. Colic they say, but she knows different. Sarah calls him Blobby. He’s unhappy about something. She’s unhappy too. Her mother and father check on him. They can’t stop him. They don’t know how. They don’t know him.

A pumpkin burns in her window. Sarah admires the sharp teeth she’d cut. The mouth is extra wide, wide enough to swallow a baby. It’s midnight and Blobby cries on. His screeching howls in her ears. She needs sleep. She needs to rip out her ears but that would hurt. That would be weird. But it’s Blobby who’s making her weird and on Halloween it’s okay to be crazy. On Halloween a creepy girl could do anything.

#

Bacon smile and eggs for breakfast. Blobby’s eggs shake when he screams. Sarah turns her plate upside down, the frown being the important part. She cuts the yolk eyes and they ooze dark yellow. Blobby throws his eggs, reaches out for hers. Screams a Wolf-Man howl.

Mother wipes up the mess. “What’s my gloomy teenager going as this year?”

“A murderer.”

Quiet. Sizzling meat in the pan. Tea kettle whistles.

“What kind of murderer?”

Sarah holds up a picture in her phone. Long black hair tangles against the model’s pasty skin. Black lipstick and hollow eyes.

“Aha, a Creepy Girl. Fun,” Mother thinks she’s still a princess.

Blobby pauses with the screaming. Sarah practices the face. The one where she smiles only in the corners of her mouth and makes psycho eyes. He reaches out his hand toward her. Mother shifts and glances at Blobby. He widens his eyes back, reaches for Sarah’s still face. Keep reaching Baby Brother. “I need a headless baby.”

Her mother pauses before chewing. “And where do we get one of those?”

Sarah lets her smile fade. “I will have to find a doll and . . . ” She slowly draws a finger across her throat. Lets her teeth show. Blobby copies the movement and screams.

“Why don’t you look in the garage, in the box with your old dolls. If you see something to distract Bobby bring that out too.”

Something to make him quiet. Her mother doesn’t want to hear about what would actually make him quiet. Sarah shrugs her shoulders. She will play along anyway.

#

Her dolls; pretty, dressed up, smiling. Smiling like they’d never heard a baby cry in their life. Buried among her dolls the unicorn. Cuddles she’d named him. She hadn’t felt Cuddles since Blobby arrived. She could cry tears and make them spill into a box of dolls and unicorns but she knows cuddles or tears won’t make Blobby stop. Best to close up the tears. Tape them shut in a cardboard box. Her dolls have no idea about stopping babies. She’d have to find an old weathered one, like the ones at a garage sale or thrift store. A doll who’d seen things, one that didn’t matter. For now, sacrificing Cuddles would have to do.

Here Blobby, here, does this unicorn make you smile? From his high chair, he grabs the unicorn’s hair, rips it out. Stuffs it in his mouth and screams. Mother frowns, lifts him, and gives her a look because animals with fur aren’t right for babies. “He could choke. It could get caught. It could strangle him.”

But Sarah isn’t bothered. She knew it wouldn’t work. She’s not bothered because now she knows something that will. She’s formed a plan. A plan to bring back the quiet and the still.

#

 The thrift store smells like the cemetery. Clothes squished into rows of metal racks. Down the middle aisle a row of toys. At the end is a bucket of plastic dolls. Arms entwine with legs, dirty dresses, and blonde and brown haired heads stare at the ceiling. Their bodies spill over the rim. At the bottom lies a naked one-armed doll with patches of blonde hair missing. Her blue eyes are painted on. Sarah rocks the baby. Its mouth opens and makes a sound, like a sheep bleating. She fingers the plastic neck. A girl loved her once, but ripped her arm off,  gave her away. Now she’s alone. Maybe she doesn’t like that feeling. Sarah smiles her killer smile. Holds the doll by her neck. One twist should be enough.

#

Halloween night. Sarah stands next to her bed. Black fake hair grazes her hands. Her hands hold the doll. Her right hand looks extra white when it grips the head. Sarah thinks of the girl who loved the doll and if the girl misses it. There’s a small bleat when she lifts her. Reminds her of Blobby. The crying. Somewhere in the house he’s crying now.  That girl could spare a doll. The plastic feels hot between her fingers. Twist the neck. Once.

A knock on the door. Blobby’s crying right outside. “Sarah, could you take him just for a sec, so I can warm up a bottle?” Mother walks in and Blobby’s red from crying. Mouth set. Mother eyes the doll but  Blobby screams and she leaves him with Sarah.

Blobby’s tensed tight. His body hot and sweaty. His curls sticky against his head. He points  his hand toward the doll’s hollow eyes.

“You want her?”

He puts the doll’s face in his mouth. Bites. Let’s his drool cover her face. Mother rushes in with the milk and halts halfway across the room. “Don’t let him suck on that. God knows where it’s been.”

Blobby startles. Screams and tenses in Sarah’s hands. Mother takes him back.”Great.”  The door stays open and Sarah shuts it quietly. There’s only one way of stopping Blobby. They all know that.

The doll’s head, wet now. Blobby’s drool slips down her neck. Sarah feels the wetness between her fingers. One pull and the neck would break. Twice.  She feels the neck loosen between her fingers. It’s just practice.

She turns out the lights. Sits in the dark holding the body. Feels the spot where the neck is attached. Sarah’s no longer a girl. She’s someone capable of murder. The sound of Mother shutting Blobby’s door. Wait. Wait out his crying. Wait until he cries himself to sleep. Sarah won’t wait. She walks toward his room. The neck between her fingers. Blobby’s screaming bloody murder and she needs all of them to sleep. He needs to be quiet.

Sarah stands over the edge of the crib. She lifts the doll’s body, head first, toward him. He reaches for the hair and grabs hold of the head, tugs, and screams. A pop. The head rolls off the body, out of his fingers, and onto the bed. The body no longer a doll. A creature. She holds it out to him. His fingers slide inside the hole made by the neck.

A soft quiet “dah,” sound escapes from his mouth. And a laugh, like she’d never heard. A horse loud laugh, over and over again, as he lifts the body and pulls it close. Squeezes it. Sucks on where the head had been. He yawns. Laughs again. The creepy doll tight in his fingers, next to his body. Blobby squeezes it, smiles at it and Sarah, before his breathing settles into a quiet rhythm. Her mother will say he likes the doll because it soothes his teething. But Sarah knows better and can’t help smiling, not just with her lips, but with everything, with her heart, because they have a new game. We can play some more later, baby brother. Lots more. It’ll keep everything quiet.