I had this idea. A phrase, more or less. “The kids are floating again”. It came out of nowhere, as most ideas do; and I started playing with the various concepts the title conjured until I focused on the story I hope you stick around to read. During the writing process, I kept picturing the art of Justin Weingartner , who is a master of whimsical, visceral, ethereal, concrete, and ever-poignant imagery. I asked him to read the story and see what might shake loose. He agreed, and it turned out to be one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever seen. Justin managed to capture the haunting beauty and timid magic of youth and the unknown. I could wax loquacious, but I’ve been drinking and listening to Type O Negative, so I should shut up and let the story and artwork speak for itself. This may be the last Small Bastard Story I post (as I plan to publish a physical collection), and I cannot think of a better send off.
Since the site plops the site title and such smack in the middle of the header art, I’ve also added it after the story.
For more of Justin Weingartner, check out his Instagram and enjoy!
The kids are floating again
“We’re almost there.” Heather said with a smile. Her eyes were wide, eager to show Felix the secret they’ve discovered. Her outstretched fingers beckoned, but Felix hesitated despite himself, to connect his own. “Just trust me, okay?” All Felix had wanted since the ninth grade was to hold hands with Heather, sneak off to hidden places, and… well…do teenage stuff—-but the thought HOW MANY BAD IDEAS CAME FROM A JUST TRUST ME, OKAY? ran through his mind like an endless succession of derailed trains.
“Okay.” Felix said. Their hands touched, fingers interlocking as the trains vanished. The fear and apprehension faded too, as they maneuvered through the old cemetery.
“That’s the spirit, Kitten!” The fellow in the patch-covered leather jacket chided as he executed a half-assed vault over a large headstone. “Get that parkour!” he shouted. Goddamn Karl. Felix didn’t like Karl much. Nothing too heavy, just the posturing of teenage hormone monsters, mostly. Karl’s the guy who knew all the underground bands from hard to pronounce countries, and his lack of shame to get a laugh was always a hit.
Aright, so maybe he was more popular than Felix. Fine. And maybe there’s a bit of jealousy there, and maybe he took umbrage at being called “Felix the Kitten” all the damn time; but Karl wasn’t the one holding Heather’s hand. All those feelings rattling around Felix’s brain lost momentum, thankfully, due to Heather’s blue eyes and the loose, bouncing curls of her auburn hair.
“Can we focus, please?” Alison said with her trademark disdain. “I know that’s hard and all for a few of you.” She yanked her glasses off and puffed a strand of hair from the lens before continuing on. Alison, in Felix’s opinion, was how science looked when mistaken for magic. She always dressed in black but with a shock of color somewhere on or around her person. She called it her “distraccent”. The color-du jour was a Type O Negative green hip belt that hung like a hoola hoop around her narrow hips.
“But, mi amor!” Marko, Alison’s tentative boyfriend, crooned into an imaginary microphone. “How can anyone focus on anything but your beauty?”
“Save it for your ballads, pretty boy.” Alison tried to maintain her stoic reserve, but couldn’t help but smirk a bit. She gave his ponytail a playful yank. The two were in as much love as two kids could manage without getting caught (Alison’s father didn’t approve of her dating a Mexican, and Marko’s mother didn’t want her son to risk his safety by dating the daughter of a bigot). That, and they fought like a cartoon cat and mouse.
“No-no-no-no–” Karl objected. “No more stupid love songs! We’re supposed to be a punk band, man!”
“Funny, I thought we were thrash-core.” Marko said, punching his lead guitarist in his fretting arm.
“I thought you two dinguses said Honkus was meant to defy musical genre.” Alison stated like a daytime television judge trying to keep two bullshitters in line. They passed the ancient willow tree whose branches cradled the seven graves of the children of Leopold and Rosette Milner. Local legend had it that the Milners—for all their effort—could not conceive, so they made a deal with the Devil. Sign here, have some babies was the gist of the pact. They signed, they got busy, lo and behold they were with child. Their lives were blissful and flush with new beginnings. They decided to have another child, which came without difficulty. But once the new baby drew its first breath, the Milner’s first born (aged only one and a half years) died instantly. Distraught, they attempted to fill the void with a third child. Once more the couple were successful. Baby Lilly Anna was born on the seventeenth of May. Witnesses say her cry was met with the sudden death rattle of her brother, Louis Milner, second born of Leopold and Rosette. You’d think at that point they’d get the hint and leave well enough alone, but no, it took four more birth/deaths to sink in. Their eighth child, Cheryl, became a ward of the state after her parents’ inexplicable deaths. They were buried in another cemetery designated for allegedly tainted folks. They say the ghosts of the Milner kids roam the cemetery looking for their parents, and that their parents are in hell, reliving their joy/sorrow in an infinite loop. Local legends aside, Felix saw something stirring under that willow tree.
“You assholes are so disrespectful of the dead!” a voice shot out from the canopy of twisted boughs. A cherry red orb pulsated in the darkness. “That, or you’re gonna get us caught by the cops!” Emily, the self-appointed leader and hashtag Wiccagram practitioner, emerged from the curtain of branches like a movie star about to receive an award with a politically-charged statement burning in her throat. She wore her standard attire: Band Tee (sleeves cut off and neck a mutilated V), and tight, black jeans tucked into her father’s old army boots.
“Sure, and smoking clove cigarettes with the Milner Kids is such a respectful pastime…” Karl said with a deep bow and a twirl of his hand.
“Pshh, whatever, Karl.” Emily scoffed, then turned her attention to the new kid. “You actually came, huh? Guess you really are crushing on Heather.”
Felix was grateful that no one could see him blush in the half-light of the moon. “I mean…you…” Felix panics and reads Emily’s shirt. “What’s a Dummy Burger?”
“Dimmu Borgir, dipshit.” Emily corrected.
“Okay…what is that, though?”
“Scandinavian black metal band. What, you think just because I’m black I can’t enjoy the endless genres of music out there?”
“Oh! N-no, I–” panic set in. Felix removed his hand from Heather’s before the nervous sweat made things worse.
“You sound just like my brother Toby,” Emily continued. “Why do you have to listen to that noise? Why you down with that scary shit? To which I reply, it’s called black metal! Why aren’t you listening to it? If it wasn’t for my people, Felix, your people would only have bagpipes and shit to listen to!”
“S-seriously, I didn’t mean–”
“I’m messing with you, new guy.” Emily laughed, then the rest followed suit. “I like bands with bagpipes too. ‘Cept for that AC/DC song with twelve minutes of the same three notes over and over. Now, that’s some goddamn noise.”
“Nobody’s in the mood to focus, huh?” Alison sighed. “Typical.”
“No, you’re right…” Emily said as the group circled Felix.
“Uh…guys…?” Felix uttered with the sinking feeling that things were about to take a turn for the worse.
“Listen, new guy,” Emily got up real close. Her breath indeed smelled of burnt cloves. “You’ve been chosen to experience one of the world’s little quirks. We have accepted you because you seem to be like us. Different. Heather vouches for you. That’s good enough for us. But if you speak to anyone of what’s about to happen, we’ll do some truly diabolical shit to you.”
Felix regained a scrap of composure and figured he’d push back a bit. “Like what, you’ll kill me? Burn me alive or some shit?”
“Worse…” Marko said with a Vincent Price flair. “…We’ll talk so much shit that no one will talk to you again. You’ll be an untouchable until you graduate Gravenfrost High.”
“Do you play any instruments?” Karl asked. Emily punched him hard in the shoulder.
“You are not recruiting for your stupid band during this!”
“Look, I’m not going to say anything, alright?” Felix took advantage of the momentary derailment. “I’m truly interested in this…mystery thing you all have uncovered. Truth be told, I don’t get out much, and if this is as close to fun as things get around here, then I won’t do anything to mess it up.”
“Good. Good…and… instruments?” Karl asked, receiving another wallop.
“No.” replied Felix. “I learned how to play Ode to Joy on the recorder once. That’s about it.” Felix turned to Emily. “What is this mystery thing?”
“Magic, sweetie.” she stated. Alison sucked her teeth in response.
“It’s physics—or better, lack thereof.”
“There’s a ritual, Ali. Therefore, magic.”
“It’s an algorithm, Em.” Retorted Alison. “A cheat code to make cool shit happen.”
“Sounds like the same thing, really.” Heather said. “Magic is just math that uses different formulas.”
“I see what you did there.” Felix smiled. Heather smiled back. Things were looking up.
“Alright, since we’re now just begging to be caught by the cops, let’s do the damn thing!” Emily said and started to walk. The rest fell in line and wove themselves between, around, and in some cases, over the remaining resting places until they stood at the small, rusted fence that separated the boneyard and the playground of Dickinson Elementary. With little effort and a moderate amount of tetanus worry, the group crossed the barrier between the dead and the living, and made a straight, giddy run to the merry-go-round.
Felix held Heather’s hand even tighter. He was excited and nervous, not knowing exactly what to expect. The only thing he was sure of was how he felt about Heather. The rest could be an over-cooked plot to lure him into a Satanic sacrifice by self-proclaimed outcasts. Felix wasn’t concerned at that point anymore. Either he was about to unlock a ‘secret of the universe’ with his crush, or become immortalized on the ‘See also: Victims of Satanic Murders’ Wikipedia page. Emily and Alison colluded on proper altar placement. Magic and math flowed from their lips like the lyrics of obscure yet catchy songs.
This one there.
That one here. Left foot first, then right hand. Right foot then left hand.
North, begin the circle—clockwise. Left foot.
West. Right foot. Twice. Clockwise.
Southwest. Continue for thirteen beats of our left hands on the cold, metal rails.
Stop. East and South. Run. Counterclockwise.
Felix held tight to his bars as the others spun the merry-go-round in their strange way. Their faces became a blur and the world around them distorted and bounced and undulated. He knew, somehow, that they were all smiling. He wanted to reach out for Heather’s hand, but she seemed to be a glimmering, swirling cluster of stars. Felix laughed with a joy he had never felt before. He turned his attention to the others and marveled that they had also become a part of what Felix suddenly knew as The Resonance. It was also then that he heard the cacophonous, twinkling laughter of The Neverything—the crux between everything and nothing at all.
East and South. Rise.
The merry-go-round stopped. The world became shockingly clear as if the cataract of conditioning and dissonance were suddenly gone. Then the bass dropped. Felix’s feet left the metal, and he clung to the bars like a kitten to an inspirational tree branch. The others were gone and a wave of panic crashed against him.
“Felix. Let go.” Heather’s voice came from above. Heavenly. “I’m here.” Felix looked up and saw the circle of five, floating ten feet above all reason. Heather reached down with a smile. “I’m here.” Felix pried his fingers free and fell into the air. Heather pushed his foot down so he rotated like an astronaut in a space station. Once righted, she pulled him in close. “I’ve got you.” she whispered reverently.
“Yeah, Kitten!” Karl cheered. “Welcome to the Odd Squad!”
“That’s not what we’re called.” Emily scoffed.
“Who cares?” Marko hollered, pulling Alison to him. “This is the real, right here. Let’s live it up while we can!” Marko’s testament was met with cheers and laughter.
“What do you think?” Heather asked Felix, who kicked his feet like someone learning to swim. “Feel like living it up with me?” They kissed, weightless and eternal, beyond the shackles of societal servility and generational disconnect. They had become the everything and the nothing. The Neverything, Neverywhere. However, across the playground, beyond another rusted fence, stood a house with a kitchen window with a glaring face in it.
“Frank! Frank!” the woman in the window shouted angrily.
“What, Maureen?” Frank hollered from the living room.
“The kids are floating again!”
“So what?” Frank chided.
“So…I… It’s…forget it.” Maureen said sadly. Frank heard the defeat in her voice and dislodged from his armchair. He shuffled into the moon-lit kitchen and pressed himself to his wife’s back, cradling his arms around her.
“What is it, babe?” Frank asked.
“Remember when that was us?” Maureen asked with a heavy heart.
“Sure I do. But that was a long time ago, hon.”
“Why, though? Why’d we stop? We bought this house to be close to that spot!”
“That’s a kid’s game, Maureen.” Frank walked to the fridge and took out a beer. “We’re too old to be floating around like a couple of specters. I mean, till we actually become specters, that is.”
“I just…miss that feeling. The freedom. The peace. Forget it, I’m sorry.”
Frank set the beer down and embraced his bride. He kissed her on each cheek then on her forehead. “Tell you what—next full moon, we’ll head over and see if we still got the ‘ol magic.”
“What if those kids come back though?”
“Then we’ll show ’em how it’s really done, okay? But let ’em have tonight. The world isn’t set up in their favor. We were the lucky ones.”
Maureen kissed her husband twice. The first was sweet and soft, the second had conviction. “We were lucky, weren’t we?”
“Every day, babe. C’mon, pour yourself a glass of sweet red wine, and let’s tangle ourselves on the couch and watch one of those bitter/sweet documentaries about things that happened back when we were nothing but potential.”
“Why, so I can watch you pretend you’re not crying?” Maureen laughed and pinched Frank’s cheek.
“What do you want? You knew I was the sentimental type.” Frank popped the cap to his beer. Maureen removed a wine glass from the cupboard with a smile. She pulled the cork from the bottle and poured a generous helping.
“I know, big guy, that’s how I knew you were a keeper.” She winked. They kissed then raised their respective glasses to the floating young souls in the playground, then to each other, and took a sip.
©P. Hammarberg 2020