Highs & Lows (A Short Story)

Two teenagers sit on a log; their legs hang over the wood, swinging occasionally. The trees surrounding them are few and rotting, no different from the bark they sit on. Carl lifts his head to the sky, neck bent, eyes trained on the dark above. Beside him, Ant looks to his hands, humming incoherently, his dirty-blond hair tucked behind one ear.

‘Do you ever wonder if they’re up there?’ Carl asks, still looking up.

Ant pauses before looking to his friend and sighing deeply. ‘Gonna have to be a little more specific there, C-dog.’

‘Up there.’ Carl lifts his hand, pointing toward the sky.

‘The sky?’

‘Well, metaphorically speaking.’

‘Who?’

‘God. Dead people. That fox.’

‘What fox?’

‘The one by the road.’ The animal had been lying in their path, its body twisted and bloodied.

‘Oh.’ Ant shifts his gaze back to his hands. He laughs to himself. ‘I gotta remember to show that to Tess. She’s gonna freak.’

He lifts the paper in his hands to his mouth and runs the tip of his tongue along it, before rolling the joint into shape. Carl watches, momentarily distracted by the action. A car passes, its headlights illuminating their faces briefly. Neither of them take notice.

‘So, do you?’ Carl lifts his head and stares forward. The car grows smaller in the distance, the road returning to a temporary emptiness.

‘Do I what?’

‘Wonder if they’re up there?’

‘Sometimes.’ Ant shrugs. ‘But I have no idea, mate.’ He pauses again, joint hanging from the corner of his mouth. ‘Why wouldn’t they be?’

‘Well why would they? I mean, can a fox be nice enough to get into Heaven?’

Ant raises an eyebrow. ‘How can a fox not be nice?’

Carl thinks for a moment before speaking again. ‘It could kill another fox.’

With a sigh, Ant turns to face Carl, their shoulders parallel as he speaks. ‘That’s just nature though, innit? If Big Man makes that fox, and then that fox kills another fox, then it’s his fault right? He can’t make the first fox wanna kill the other fox or make the other fox start something with the first fox, to make the first fox wanna kill him and then turn around and say no you can’t come in. Like, what if the first fox was a good fox until God made the other fox act up and start some foxy beef between them? Or what if it was neither foxes’ fault and it was all a big, well little, mammal accident and the dead fox just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s not fair.’

Carl stares at him, his eyes squinted slightly. ‘Honestly, you chat such shit.’

‘I just think of the stuff no one else does.’ He lights the joint and inhales deeply.

‘Because there’s no need to think about the stuff you think about.’

A car goes by, the radio an explosion of noise in the surrounding silence.

Ant exhales. ‘Y’know, I think I’d be good at college. If I went.’

‘If you went,’ Carl repeats.

‘I would if I could. It’s not like it’s my fault.’

‘Well. I guess not,’ he thinks aloud. Ant inhales and exhales, the smoke dispersing quickly as Carl sighs. ‘It’s not her fault either, though.’

‘Never said it was, mate,’ Ant replies, as he stands and takes a couple steps. His feet kick at the leaves without rhythm, one hand pushed into his pocket for warmth. ‘She’s doing her best.’

‘I know.’

‘She only gets six hours off now.’

‘And you spend most of them here?’

Ant shrugs and shakes his head, the hair falls from behind his ears. ‘She doesn’t wanna see me.’

Carl nods.

‘They’re gonna get on your back if you keep skipping class though.’ He picks at the skin by his fingernails. ‘Your grades are pretty bad, Ant.’

Ant’s head snaps up. ‘I’ll drop out then. Don’t need A-levels anyway.’ A car passes, silhouetting his body in its headlights.

‘But.’ Carl hesitates, biting his lip as Ant takes another smoke-filled breath. ‘What about after?’

‘After?’ Ant moves his head to look at him, brows furrowed.

‘After Benji’s too old to need looking after, and you’re left without any A-levels. Y’know people don’t hire kids without-’

‘Leave it, yeah?’ Ant lifts a hand, stopping him mid-sentence. ‘I get enough of it from everyone else. Isn’t even worth thinking about.’

It starts to rain. Carl looks down: the edge of his thumb bleeds slightly, his jeans are patterned with mud.

‘Besides,’ Ant says, pausing to give a weak smile, ‘I’ll still get to come here every night.’

Carl makes no response and lifts his thumb to his mouth, sucking on the self-inflicted wound.  Without breaking the silence, Ant extends a hand, offering what remains of the joint to Carl, who pulls his thumb from his mouth to take it. They look away from one another, Carl taking the smoke into his lungs with his eyes trained on the sky, Ant staring at the empty road, his arms hanging limp.

‘Can we walk down a bit?’ Ant sniffs, pulling his hood up. ‘It’ll be more sheltered.’

Carl nods and stands. ‘Lead the way.’ He gestures Ant forward, the pair of them taking the path of trodden grass further into the trees.

 

Away from the road and the lampposts that line it, the night swamps them, their faces only just lit by the pale glow from above. The path is near invisible, only recognised by the feet that created it. Rain sifts through interwoven trees; the wind wheezes through partially empty branches and their trainers force already sodden leaves into the ground. Carl wipes moisture from the back of his neck and exhales, pushing the cloud of smoke upwards and away from them.

‘My Nan hated foxes,’ he muses, breaking the silence.

‘What?’

‘Foxes. My Nan hated them.’ His voice is sincere. ‘And by your theory, she’s now up there with them. All of them. Every dead fox, ever. And my Nan. She can’t be enjoying that.’

‘Mate.’ Ant laughs, the skin by his eyes forming creases, ‘I’m sure she’s having a great time.’

‘Not when foxes are involved.’

‘Alright then, I’m sure foxes and old people have different heavens, or I bet there’s a load of… I don’t know. What do old people like? Shortbread? Bet there’s a giant wall of shortbread between your Nan and all the foxes. She’s loving it, I guarantee you.’

‘Why the fuck would there be a wall of shortbread?’ Carl shakes his head, water falling from his curls. ‘Not only is that the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, but it also wouldn’t work. Both sides would just eat the wall away.’

‘If they walk on clouds, they can have a wall of shortbread.’

He stops, staring at the back of Ant’s head, the breeze around them stills. ‘Who said anything about walking on clouds?’

Ant looks back, squinting, eyes adjusting to put together Carl’s features in the dim light. ‘Well what else are they gonna be walking on?’

‘I genuinely can’t tell if you’re joking or not.’

He shrugs. ‘Does it matter?’

‘No. I guess not.’ Carl lifts the joint and takes a final drag, the red tip almost too close to his lips to bear. ‘I get the results back tomorrow.’ He forces the words out, holding his breath as they scrape through his teeth.

‘Oh shit. I forgot.’

He exhales, an action which turns into an empty laugh, smoke escaping with the sound. ‘Yeah, I did too, to be honest with you.’ He drops the remaining paper, using the ball of his foot to smother it once it hits the soil.

‘You worried?’

Carl shakes his head. ‘Don’t have time to be worried.’ He pauses to sigh, pushing his hands into the pockets of his jeans, which are dark with rain. ‘Got coursework to write.’

‘Fuck coursework.’ Ant spits his response, the movement of his head causing his hood to fall. ‘This is serious shit, Carl.’

‘I’m not gonna let one little test result make me fail psychology.’

‘Little?’ Ant repeats, scoffing.

‘It is how it is, Ant. This essay is worth 30% of the course, and its due Friday.’

‘So? This isn’t a normal response, man. It’s ridiculous. You know that right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Does that mean you’re going now?’

‘Yeah, sorry.’ He hesitates for a moment, before turning and walking back along the path.

Scratching at his chin, Ant watches him go, rain collecting in his hair. Carl’s figure is small against the backdrop, barely defined by the few stars still fighting through the clouds.

‘See you tomorrow,’ he shouts after him, smiling as Carl raises a hand in acknowledgement, his step not faltering as he carries himself forward. After a moment’s pause, Ant shrugs the backpack from his shoulder, moving to hold it in front of him and search through it. He stops to tuck his hair behind his ears before continuing, humming to himself as pulls the metal grinder from inside.

—–

The next day, the boys meet again, settling themselves as the final rays of orange slip from the sky. They watch as the streetlights turn on, counting the time it takes between each, waiting for light to work its way up to where they sit.

After a while, Carl smiles, his eyes half closed as he presses the now burnt out joint into the damp bark beside him. He leans back against it, his head resting against Ant’s arm, which hangs over the log. Ant laughs, using his free arm to pat Carl’s head lightly. A motorbike turns the corner at speed, its headlight illuminating their spot, the engine noise causing them to wince.

‘Mum says I’m not allowed anywhere near a motorbike.’ Carl stares, his words slow, his eyes on the back tyre of the bike as it shrinks into the distance.

Ant folds an arm under his head, which points toward the sky. ‘I have a motorbike.’ He turns, cheek resting on his fingertips as he looks to Carl. ‘It was my Dad’s; just sits in the shed. Don’t even think it works.’

‘That’s cool.’

Ant laughs. ‘A working one would be cooler.’

‘You should fix it, y’know, in your free time.’ Carl twists his neck to look back at him. ‘You might be able to get it running again.’

He scoffs. ‘Free time? I spend all my free time with you, and you aren’t allowed near motorbikes, remember?’

Carl looks away, setting his eyes on the road. ‘You can’t always spend it with me.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

He hesitates. In the distance a couple approaches, arms linked; their dog walks ahead of them as they hug themselves to the road, which lacks pavements.

‘Carl?’

Forcing a grin, he looks back to Ant. ‘It means you have a severe lack of friends. And I’m sick of hanging out with you.’

‘Asshole.’ Ant laughs the word, moving his head to look upwards again, ignoring the slight chill running down his spine, the damp moss beneath him gradually staining his jacket.

‘My sister got engaged.’

‘Your sister?’ He raises his eyebrows. ‘Which one? The one at uni?’

Carl shakes his head. ‘No, Nicole. Her boyfriend proposed last night.’

‘Mate, that’s awesome. Tell her I say congrats. Can I be your plus one? We’d look incredible in suits. I mean, we’re gonna look fucking incredible in suits.’ He pauses, thinking. ‘What if we got matching suits? Like, everyone would both fear and admire our commitment to each other and the suit life.’

‘We aren’t getting matching suits, Ant.’

‘Why? Oh shit, are you gonna be the best man? Or the one that carries the rings?’

‘No. I don’t know yet.’ Carl sighs. He picks at his thumb, scratching at the freshly formed scab. ‘I’ll ask if you can go, though.’

‘I’ve never been to a wedding.’

Carl shrugs before pulling his knees to his chest, his arms looping around them, holding them in place. ‘They’re all right. The party afterwards is always good.’

Ant nods: parties are always good.

They sit in silence for a moment, falling into a natural lull of conversation as the couple with the dog walk past them, their cheeks rosy from alcohol.

‘Evening,’ the man greets them, tipping his head in their direction. His wife smiles and calls the dog back as it strays from their route, its tail upright and wagging.

The boys return the greeting, grinning at each other when their response comes out in unison, not bothering to watch as the couple move on. Above them, the trees creak, hassled by an increasingly present wind.

‘I was thinking, yeah,’ Ant begins, both hands now folded beneath his head, forming a pillow against the log, ‘about the heaven being in the clouds idea.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Well, it does seem a bit impractical doesn’t it? It just wouldn’t work; I’d fall right through. Then what? Would that make me a fallen angel? ‘Cause I really didn’t sign up for that.’

Carl laughs. ‘No one signs up for that.’

‘Yeah, I guess. That only happens when they fuck up and He doesn’t want them anymore.’ He frowns, lifting a leg to cross his ankles. ‘I don’t like that: that whole, fuck up off you go thing. Doesn’t seem very fair.

‘It’s a little more complex than that, I think.’ Carl puts his head back against the log, the corners of his lips twisting into a smile. ‘Imagine if my Nan became a fallen angel.’

‘Shouldn’t He try fixing them, though, instead of just throwing them out? Like, what if they fuck up and they learn from it and then they become like top dog angel and God’s all thankful that he didn’t overreact and toss them out of heaven because now they’re really good and like patron of the dead foxes, or some shit. Or what if the angel had a talent for integrating foxes and nans into one big happy fox-grandma community, and they never got the opportunity to express that ‘cause God chucked them to Lucifer for getting a little jealous of people down here.’

‘You just can’t let that fox-grandma dynamic go, can you?’ Carl muses.

‘I’ve been thinking about it all day,’ Ant admits, before laughing lightly. ‘Although I gotta say, I know more about foxes and grandmas than I do about heaven and God. I don’t even know if fallen angels go to Lucifer. I mean, who even is Lucifer?’

‘I’m not sure, Ant. Ask Tess.’

He nods. ‘I’ll ask Tess.’

There’s a pause and beside him, Carl fidgets; his hands pick at the rip in the knee of his jeans.

Noticing his discomfort, Ant frowns. ‘Did I say something? I didn’t mean to be offend you-’

‘The results came back positive.’ He interrupts, the sentence hanging between them.

‘Oh.’ Ant stills. He stares forward, words stuck in his throat, his mouth opens and closes twice, nothing but weighted breath escapes. A man comes into view, jogging on the opposite side of the road to them, his footfalls heavy and intrusive.

‘Say something, Ant,’ Carl pleads. The silence is suffocating.

‘Positive,’ he repeats, still frozen in his recline. ‘That’s fucking shit.’

‘I know.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I know.’

A car passes. Lights flash onto them, music overlays the quiet.

‘What did your parents say?’ Ant speaks quietly, the wind stirring a natural chorus of sounds, challenging his ability to be heard.

Carl snorts a laugh. ‘They said I should stop smoking.’

‘And what did you say?’

‘I said.’ He takes a breath, watching as it fogs in the chill of the evening air. ‘That it’s the only thing that stops the pain.’

Ant nods, he didn’t need to know which pain Carl was referring to. With a sigh, he sits upright, reaching for his backpack to set it in his lap. He starts to work, putting together another joint, this one larger than the last. Carl closes his eyes, leaning his head back into the moss. Beside them, the road comes to life, several cars passing, each one acting as a guide to the one behind. The people inside are too engaged in their activities to notice the boys, who find themselves sitting in car-cast spotlights.

Having waited for the convoy to pass and silence to return, Carl starts again. ‘Y’know, I think you have a point.’

‘I always have a point.’ Ant lifts the paper closer to his face, attempting a neat roll in the low light. ‘Which are you talking about this time?’

‘About foxes and grandmas.’ Eyes still closed, Carl smiles. ‘I think they would get on.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah.’ He nods. ‘Foxes are always hungry-’

‘And nans always have food.’ Ant laughs, gesturing toward his friend in excitement, ‘Right? That’s what I was thinking, they’re literally a match made in heaven.’

Carl groans. ‘You and your fucking puns.’

‘You’re just jealous.’ He taps Carl before extending his arms, offering him both the joint and lighter. Carl takes them, routinely placing it between his lips and lighting it.

‘Why did your Nan hate foxes?’ Ant wonders aloud, eyes on Carl as he inhales and exhales, the orange glow decorating his features.

‘One killed her cat.’ He frowns. ‘I doubt that fox would go to heaven.’

‘Maybe not.’ Ant leans back on his palms, damp bark imprinting on his skin. ‘I got an email from the college today, turns out I don’t need to drop out. They’re kicking me out instead.’

‘Shit. When?’

‘Effective immediately.’ Ant quotes the email.

‘What’re you gonna do? Isn’t tomorrow one of the only days you actually go in?’

‘Dunno.’ He shrugs, ‘I’ll just come here and wait until you’ve finished. Unless you don’t want to hang.’

Carl exhales and the smoke swirls upwards. ‘Yeah, ‘course I do. I’ll be here.’

—–

story by MJ Bellini

illustration by clabon 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s