By Being Human

by Amelia Lanier


The sunlight sat with a hard smile next to Lou. The rays were direct and the bench was faded and dusty. The heat made Lou’s eyes droop and the sidewalk dip back and forth. There was a woman walking towards her in a broad, red sunhat. She held a bright pink leash attached toa rat of a dog with shaved, white fur. The dog had a thin stream of drool creeping from the cornerof its mouth. Its tongue hung out like a wet towel on a clothesline. As the dog and the womandrew closer, she noticed a cigarette between long, wrinkled fingers. The woman carried herself
with poised shoulders. Lou’s shoulders were hunched and her hair stuck to her face with dirt and sweat. She thought for a moment that the woman would stop and straighten her shoulders like her grandmother used to and say, ‘good posture does wonders for your lungs— makes you live
longer.’ Then her grandmother would nod her head in a short way, her fake pearls disappearing underneath her double chin.The woman in the red hat with the dog passed Lou, her gaze forward and eyes cold,

trapped behind fitted sunglasses. Lou caught a waft of perfume, the smell standing next to herand making conversation with the sun. The perfume smelled like a woman with a purpose, with aplace and a claim in the social spectrum. This perfume smelled like someone who could affordthe extra things in life like skim milk instead of two percent. Someone who could afford to buypremium cat food and monogrammed stationery. 

 The stubble on Lou’s legs had grown out and it looked like she had put a layer ofsuperglue on them and then poured a bag of cat hair on top. Maybe yesterday she would havetried to pull her shorts down farther and tucked her legs under her, embarrassed.Today she had woken up on the bench with cold sweat dripping down her face and

realized she didn’t care if her knees had grown hands. Her hairy legs were splayed out across the sidewalk like two old lint rollers. She kept them fiercely unmoving, even when someone waswalking past. People would have to either step into the street to get around or jump over her legs.The old woman had moved into the street so far she hit the double yellow lines before curvingback to the sidewalk about ten feet down from where Lou sat.For a while Lou had counted the dirty looks, meeting their angry glances with an

expressionless gaze. She got to eight until she stopped counting. Lou had always counted whenshe was bored. She had counted road signs on long trips with her dad for hours, him keepingtrack of the ones on the right side of the road and her the ones on the left. Whoever got the most

signs won. She’d count things to put herself to sleep and to wake her up in the mornings when she had walked to school. She had a list back home with the number of times she had talked to someone for more than an hour in their first meeting. Her total had reached ten, the last name on the list crossed out.

The one thing that mystified her about the people passing was that nobody had said a thing to her. People like to remain in the safety of facial expressions so that their emotion is known, but they will never act. Maybe so that they can say to themselves that they are the higher person and the girl with the sprawling, hairy legs has no manners. She was the lesser, the irrelevant and filthy. For the first few directed glances Lou had muttered to their receding forms, ‘first class piece of shit,’ but now she just sat and stared straight ahead. The sun rose higher and began to bake her skin, turning her red like the stop sign at the end of the street.

There was a field across the street, the grass perfectly mown in the middle. Around the edges it had grown brown and ragged. A line of identical houses lay across the field, their backyards facing Lou. In the yard on the far right, Lou could make out a family sitting around a picnic table. Two dogs chased each other into the field, running in circles before colliding on theground. Their barks were high pitched and one of the kids yelled to the dogs, calling them home.

 

She could already feel the sunburn, her face hot. When she pulled her hoodie on it feltlike the cloth was slowly drawing her skin apart, tearing it into little pieces. A truck passed her,the engine gurgling. It slowed to a stop on the side of the road half a block away in front of awhite trailer. An old man with a beer belly and a grey beard slammed the door of the truck andmoved towards the trailer, his pace heavy and the rotten porch steps protested under his weight.

Lou ambled toward the truck. As she drew nearer she could hear raised voices from theinside. The voices were gravelly and distant, difficult to trace from the outside. Lou knew theirwords without having to distinguish them. She had heard them every night growing up. Thevoices of her parents had risen through the stairwell and into the corners of her bedroom. After the divorce, Lou considered all fights to be the same. Someone shatters someone else’s idea of perfect by being human.

 The truck was unlocked and the keys sat in the console. When the engine came to life, the truck grumbled like Lou’s old dog Charlie when somebody touched him while he was trying to sleep. Lou shifted into gear, the houses and trailers sifting by like old rice– shriveled and dried out from years of baking in the sun. Lou knew every one of the houses with her eyes shut. She hated the panels and the identical lawns as much as the people inside hated her.

 She pulled into the grocery store parking lot and went inside. The store was gaunt from the fluorescent lighting and Lou caught a glimpse of herself in the glass of a freezer. She looked like her body had been stretched so that there was no space between skin and bone. Her brown hair was thin and hung in limp strands around her face. She asked for a pack of Marlboros. The cashier was a blonde woman Lou had never seen before. She added an extra pack for free.

 “It looks like you need ‘em,” she said, avoiding Lou’s red eyes. Outside, the cigarettesslipped out of Lou’s shaking fingers like wet soap. They lit themselves on the ground in theexhaust leak that pooled under the truck. Lou squealed the tires as she pulled out. She figured shemight as well leave something behind. She needed to scar that town somehow.

The inside of the truck was moldy and there were empty beer cans stashed in drifts in thecorners of the floorboards. Fresh dip stains painted the seats and there was an ancient airfreshener that hung from the rearview mirror. The radio was turned up to a bluegrass station, therepetitive sound of the banjos mixed with the cigarette smoke blurred her vision and made herhead fuzzy. Her limbs felt disjointed from her body as if they were sitting outside in the openlike driftwood on a shoreline, being lapped up by the waves. The feeling of numbness hadremained since she had left home yesterday. She moved as if she were the truck and someoneelse was pushing the gas pedal, forcing her forward and maintaining speed as if her transmissionwas stuck in gear.

Levi would never forgive her for leaving. Lou couldn’t get her sister’s screaming out ofher head. Levi had been standing in the doorway of her bedroom as she packed up and walked down the driveway, begging her to stay. “I’ll be back soon honey, I promise.” Lou could feel theneighbors’ eyes all around the house, trapping her in her own skin. Levi just stared from theporch, silent tears wetting her round cheeks.

 Levi had tried to stop her world from disappearing. She had held on tight to Lou’s arm as Lou dragged herself away, clinging desperately like someone trying to fit ugly words back into their mouth. Her neon pink nails dug into Lou’s skin so hard she left little cuts shaped like halfmoons.

Last week Lou had taken Levi to the nail-salon for her birthday. The air was so thick with Acetone and Formaldehyde it made Lou’s eyes smart, but Levi was so excited Lou couldn’t change her mind. Levi picked out a cherry red polish for Lou and a neon pink for herself.

“Lou, your nails are gonna look so pretty all the boys are gonna want to be your man.”Lou didn’t have the willpower to tell her that no man out there would ever want the likes of her.She just smiled and told Levi that she was a goddamn princess and that Prince Charming was coming any day.

 

 “When Lou?” she would beg. “Anywheres between next Thursday and Friday at sundown. You’ll see his big whitehorse coming down the road and know for a fact that he’s gonna take you away to his big castleand you’re gonna be the prettiest princess of all. Princess Levi.” Then her eyes would glow andshe’d get this smile that Lou wished so much she had a picture of, just so that she would knowwhat it looked like to have so much joy in a person.

The sky opened up like a broken dam and the rain hit the windshield in great gasps. It was like the wind was breathing in and out; the water the replacing oxygen. The exhales were sogreat that it pushed against the truck and Lou thought that the glass of the windshield might just
cave in. The window of the driver’s side refused to close all the way. Water dripped down Lou’s face and onto her hoodie. The cotton stuck to her skin and bra like the pinup stickers on the mudflaps of the eighteen-wheeler in the right lane. The girls in the stickers were so relaxed withbared breasts and open legs, heads thrown back with long hair. They looked like Vinnie.

Lou took a drag of the damp cigarette clasped between her fingers and shifted the truck into sixth. She passed the eighteen-wheeler, the girls on the flaps waving as she passed. She could feel Vinnie’s fingertips down her spine, counting the vertebra as she kissed Lou’s neck.

 “Lou?” she had whispered one night. Her mouth was in Lou’s short brown hair, thestrands caught between her lips. “You remember when you said that if you ever thought youmight do something bad to yourself you’d just run away. I promise I’ll do my best to find you.Cause sometimes you get this look in your eye like you don’t know where you are. I know I suckat reading maps but… I’ll get real good at it and you won’t be able to go anywhere because I gotthe tracking instincts of a dog.” She grinned and Lou hit her with a pillow.

“You’re a fucking dog Vin. A fucking bitch.” Then Lou fell asleep on Vinnie’s chest and dreamed about hunting birds.

With Vinnie, Lou forgot how to be scared. She had told Vinnie that she would jump offthe cliff at the swimming hole just to prove to Vinnie that she could. Lou screamed the wholeway down, the freezing water numbing her through. When she came up to the surface Vinniekissed her so hard she forgot how to be cold. With Vinnie she forgot how to be a lot of things. It didn’t matter because with Vinnie, Lou had realized what it was like to be loved, and that is all a person needs to survive.

A dead moth lay on the dash of the truck. Its wings were wet and stuck to the plastic. Thevent blew hot air and made its antenna wave around like it was searching for something. Louleaned forward and picked it up with her left hand while the right stayed on the wheel and tossedit out the window. It got caught up in the rain and she imagined it broken on the side of the roadwith one wing splayed out, ready to dry.

The last time Vinnie told Lou that she loved her was in the warehouse. Vinnie said only later that the trip to the warehouse had been a date. Vinnie had never been serious about anything. That was before Vinnie dropped out of high school and would disappear for days at a

time. She had always said that she wanted to be a nurse in the mother baby department. She had never liked people though, much less babies.

 Vinnie had taken Lou out to the Antiques Warehouse. It was right off of exit I-95, down by the river. The warehouse was a huge, ugly building that was painted a shade of grey that only appears on the bleakest skyline. Vinnie wore a bright red scarf and her trailing auburn hair stood out against the stark building. She appeared as though everything around her was black and white and she was the only color for miles. At least that was how Lou saw it. When Lou had first met Vinnie, she had been standing in the snack aisle. Never in her life had she seen a woman who stood out the way Vinnie did with her long hair and faux fur trench coat. Ever since, she’d been standing in Lou’s mind like she had taken hold of her brain and put it on her shoulders. Lou still couldn’t shake the image of her holding a bag of chips and smiling. It scared her shitless.

 Lou had followed Vinnie into the warehouse. The inside was as big as four basketballcourts put together and dark in every aspect so that the shadows wove together into one hulkingbeing. There were big fans hanging from the ceiling, the blades still in the early spring air. Onthe ground lay hundreds of pieces of furniture. Some were worthless slabs of wood that hadfallen into the corners, moved out of the way of the larger pieces that were still intact. Marbleglowed in the dim light. The man at the counter grunted as they walked past and kept his eyes onthe magazine in front of him. Lou caught a glimpse of a half naked woman sitting on a stool withher back arched and lips in a pout.

They had moved farther into the warehouse. The shadows deepened and Lou hit her shin on something hard. The old wood smelled like pine straw and mold, the scent sticking to her clothes. The shapes loomed like headlights on trees lining a curvy road. Vinnie whispered the lyrics of a love song and felt the furniture with soft hands. Lou thought of furniture and how it saw so much over the years, that everything in here was far older than she was. She thought how the furniture would survive beyond her lifetime, maybe even outlive her kids if she had any. It was funny how humans thought that they were so important and then there was a drawer that will outlive any of them, watching silently from the corner of somebody’s kitchen. Lou shuddered and wrapped her coat tightly around her thin frame.

Vinnie appeared in front of Lou from behind a wardrobe. Her eyes glowed as she faced the open door at least fifty feet away.

“You cold?” Vinnie asked.

 “Not really.” Lou grinned and pulled her into the wardrobe, shutting the door behind them. The air inside was musty. It smelled like second hand clothes and mulch. It was so dark Lou couldn’t see anything but little blue dots left over from the light in the world outside. Shecould feel Vinnie’s chest against her own. Vinnie’s hot breath trickled down her neck.

“I’ve heard that it’s bad luck to stand in a closet for too long,” Vinnie whispered. Lou could picture her smile– she had dimples and it was only genuine when she was doingsomething impulsive.

“I’ll take my chances.” Then Lou kissed her hard on the lips and Vinnie wrote the threewords on Lou’s back with her fingertips. Her nails scraped Lou’s skin and left behind a burn that stayed for weeks.

A month later Vinnie had dropped out of high school and started hanging out with someboys that she knew from work. Every time Lou went to see her, Vinnie was either high on pillsor drunk. Lou kept it all in the back of her mind, saying that it was fine, that it would work itself

out eventually. She pushed it aside when it crept up behind her while she sat in class, Vinnie’s desk empty three rows over. Nobody had known about them, which made it easier. There wasn’t anybody to remind Lou that she had failed. That she had taken a chance and gone against thethings her parents said on Sundays. She had fallen in love and she had failed.

Four days passed where Lou hadn’t heard from Vinnie. She told herself as she walked through the streets, when she let herself think, that she’d wait. That Vinnie was the one who should come to her after all. It had been Vinnie’s idea anyways. She was the one who had kissed

Lou in the church basement. She was the one who had slid her fingers under Lou’s shirt and asked her if she was scared.

On the fifth day Lou climbed the porch steps of Vinnie’s house. It was littered with wet cardboard boxes and peeling paint. She let herself in and crept up to Vinnie’s bedroom. She didn’t see the boy at first, but she saw Vinnie with her hair draped over her bare shoulders. The boy was sitting shirtless behind her, legs wrapped around her waist. He was holding a joint to her lips with his head tucked in the space of her neck and his chin on her collarbone.

When Vinnie looked up, she met Lou’s gaze and stayed there, silent. Lou had felt like she had been swallowed by the doorframe she clung to, the foundation crumbling beneath her as if it had been built out of loose stones. Then Lou nodded and turned away.

By the next day word had started to get out. Lou figured it had been the boy who hadwhispered things into the system that made up any small town. She started to get dirty looks inthe hallways from friends that had always smiled. Notes appeared her locker that she burnedafter school, the ash sticking to her hands as if her shame risen to the surface of her skin.

Two days ago Levi asked Lou if she knew what a ‘lesbian’ was. That some kid had come up to Levi in class and told her that her sister was a dirty lesbian and that all lesbians go to hell.That was when Lou knew it was time to leave. She walked as far as she could away from the town that had chewed her up and pushed her out. She had been hanging on to a life that she no longer knew how to live inside of. It wasn’t until she got onto the highway that morning that she realized she hadn’t known how for a very long time. 

Lou pulled off of the highway a couple of hours into the night. She had stopped when dusk fell, gotten gas and another pack of cigarettes. The rain had ceased and she rolled down the window, letting the smell of wet pavement drift around her like cool hands. The steam on the road wove itself into the headlights of the truck, glinting gold and then fading to black as it was trampled by the tires. She took a right at the end of the ramp and drove into a countryside uninterrupted by the scars of excessive concrete and cold, steel buildings that sold plastic. Fields and forest extended on either side of the road. The flame from her lighter burned her nose as she lit another cigarette, the smoke clinging to her eyelashes.

For several miles there was nothing but her, cracked pavement, and open sky. Dogs barked from the houses she passed, their howls coming and going through the constant chorus of the crickets. A fat tabby cat crossed the road up in front of her, pausing in the road and turning its broad yellow face her way before disappearing, tail raised.

A dirt road stretched up ahead on the right. Three deer stood tense, muscles rigid. Their green eyes shone as the headlights bounced off of their long bodies. When the truck hit gravel,they sprinted into the darkness like dust caught in a draft. The dirt road twined for miles through low country. Every now and then the trees would open up and a field would appear. In one field there was an old barn with crumbling beams, as if they had grown roots and were being pulled from underneath. The truck rocked from side to side, keeping Lou awake along with the permanent cigarette laced between her fingers. Empty Marlboro packs had joined the beer cans in the floorboards of the truck. The bluegrass still played on the radio and the voices of the men sounded cramped between the static.

 

 The road ended at the edge of a large pond. The water was still, with cattails rimming thequietly shifting shoreline. The reflection of the night sky dipped itself into the surface of thepond and floated naked, staring at the hole in the tops of the trees.

Lou silenced the engine and stepped into the warm night air. The stillness hurt her tiredbrain, but for the first time in months she felt at peace. She stripped off her jeans and pulled herhoodie off over her head, her hair falling loose from its braid. The water of the pond felt cool onher thighs and a fish nibbled on the tip of her toe. The sudden cold sent a line of goose bumps upher body, all the way to her cheeks. She touched her face and found that it was hot, soft andalive. The empty space beneath her ribs seemed full for the first time in years and the warmbreeze passed through her, brushing its lips against the gap between her shoulder blades.

She moved to the center of the pond, the water rippling underneath her chin. The earthfelt like a wet carpet beneath her feet. Her hair floated against her cheekbones and drifted likeleaves into her eyes. The trees leaned into each other, pushed by the breeze and the stars peakedthrough the black sheet like little hands stretching for the first time.

Lou leaned backwards until she could see the truck behind her and inhaled. Her bodydrifted upwards onto the surface of the pond. She stretched out her arms and exhaled. The waterslid over her and she forced her eyes open so that when it covered her face, the dark sky, treesand stars ran together like blowing on the top layer of a hot liquid.

She let herself sink onto the bottom of the pond, closing her eyes as the world drifted apart. It was silent like the moment after shutting the door on a busy street when the sounds scatter from the forefront of the mind. Lou’s lungs began to burn and she could taste the minerals in the water. Then she pushed herself upwards, the breeze bringing life to her wet face.

Author Bio: Amelia Lanier is a Senior at Interlochen She grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the North Carolina and Tennessee border. You will usually find her doing strange things like eating tree bark or climbing up the sides of mountains, as well as generally avoiding the human race.