Backwards City Review

“S” won First Prize in the Backwards City Review Fiction Contest, originally published in their Spring 2005 issue.

I first snuck into Skot’s house on a Tuesday after school. I thought I would be the only one there.

I opened his drawers, searched his closet. I found his tapes and records and studied them. Next time I would come back with a camera.

I saw him leave with Robin before class.

I could hear a car pass outside his window.

I looked out the window and thought about him looking out the window.

Footsteps up the stairs. The smell of gardenia, pointed.

* * *

It’s dark on Tigertail Lane even in the day. So many trees shading me. There is a carob tree by my house and a eucalyptus across the street. There are windows that no one looks out of. I know because I’ve spent days by mine, looking out with no one looking back. I’ve called to the street, hello out there! But there are no eyes to bat. Mom will call me down for dinner. It’s always sweaty and I want to leave as quick as possible.

* * *

Mom pushed into my room without knocking and said, are you smoking? I punched my pillow and said, for the last time, I’m no smoker!

All the smokers go to Grit Park after school by the library. They kick the rocks around the trees and blow puffs like dragons. The girl smokers wear tight shirts and the boy smokers wear baggy ones.

* * *

I can’t do this anymore, is what I thought. I’ve been climbing these trees too long. I could climb every big tree on this street since I was five. There are lots of magnolias but only one purple jacaranda. There are plenty of prehistoric looking ferns and juniper bushes to hide behind. I can hop from tree to tree or sneak between bushes or climb to rooftops. I can peek into any house I want, see their blue glows, their greens and yellows, hear the clinking sounds of dishes like a windchime crying. I can cry if I want to.

* * *

If you think I have a mad crush on Skot X then you’re wrong. I’m not like Foxy Roxy or Sexy Lexy or even Robin because they don’t even see, don’t even know what’s going on. Skot and I have a kind of secret secret. A secret that he doesn’t even know about yet. An S.

* * *

There are wiser people who believe in dreams and powers and extrasensory perception. There are people that are in tune with these things, these invisible forces all around us. They know about crystals and could tell you stuff about you that they would have no way of knowing. Just because they are in tune. They get it. They see and feel things that most people would laugh at or roll their eyes or breathe out in a huff. But I believe them. I’m telling you, I know.

I wear a vest with inside pockets. You never know when you might need a compass, a penlight, a pocket knife.

* * *

Mom asked me where I was and I told her, the library.

No, where were you.

The library.

She just looked at me. If you’re seeing someone, I want you to tell me.

Do you want me to say I was out doing it with someone?

Don’t you sass me.

I can’t check out the books I want to at the library because they will go into some computer record and someone might find out. And I don’t want them at home anyway because Mom might search for them. So I sneak the books off the shelves and go into a corner to read and then hide them under another shelf far away. In the children’s section.

There are people that know things. I want to be one of them.

* * *

Tigertail Lane is like an S. It curves on both ends so not everyone can see each other. It is dark with trees, even during the day. Jungle green, snake green. There are bars around some windows, spidery and leafy. I climbed the magnolia tree by Skot’s house like I knew how. The branches reached near his window. I could peek in if only the blinds were open. Sometimes they were. I got caught in the tree when he came home. I watched him find the key in the gardenia pot and let himself in. It was so easy. I could do that.

* * *

The sidewalks on my street glow with green fur. There are cracks and crevices. Things can slide in, sprout out. The street is old and full of alcoves. So many caves. Anything could be inside. Little round windows like portholes. An oval window on top peeking out. My street’s so narrow like an alley but hidden and lush. A secret garden, my street. The roofs are tiled and pointed, triangles and cones. There is a long flag blowing on one top like an Old Glory toothpick in a cupcake. There is a rooster on another one. N, E, S, W. The arrows point in every direction. They point to me.

* * *

Mom stabbed me again. How was your day fine, pick up your socks fine, dinner’s almost ready fine. She followed me around the house. I went into the bathroom and she came in behind me and I had to push her out. Give me some privacy! Some space, please!

She kept looking for my underwear to see if I got it yet. You’re almost fourteen! What’s wrong with you! She kicked into my room and said, where is all this smoke coming from? I said, I don’t smoke! I pushed her out and pretended to lock the door. There are no locks on the doors of this house but I wish there were. She would find a way to get in though.

* * *

That Tuesday I finally did it. I looked around Tigertail, no one, I crossed the street, walked half a block down, got to 134, looked one last time, then opened the gate and slipped in. I walked on the narrow path leading to his house, past the crack, past the part where the tree roots started to lift up the cement, walked all the way to the front doorstep. What if someone was in there that I hadn’t seen? Impossible. It was just him and Mrs. X and I knew where they were. Gone. I reached inside the gardenia pot. The key was there. It fit perfectly in the door. I opened the door and put the key back in the pot. I went inside and closed the door.

His house smelled different than mine. More cinnamon, more spice. I walked on the grey tiles leading to the kitchen, the living room at my right. Soft beige couch, cream-colored rug, a big TV. There were magazines, Woman’s Day, Sunset, Newsweek. Nothing of him. I walked through the kitchen. It smelled like pizza. I opened the fridge. Jar of pickles, milk, orange juice, leftovers in Tupperware containers, butter, salad dressing. I opened the freezer. TV dinners, pizza, ground meat, ice cube trays, peas and carrots. They had a dishwasher, granite countertop, switch for a garbage disposal. A frying pan was soaking in the sink. I went through the kitchen to the back sliding glass doors.

There was a butterfly sticker on one glass door. Outside was an umbrella and white plastic table and chairs. There were leaves on all the chairs and table from the tree in back. There were small pools of water on the chairs. The cement ground was cracking in a few places. A tall wooden fence surrounded everything. The alley was behind the fence.

I walked to the right and got to the bathroom by the stairs. I peeked in. Peach-colored towels. Toilet seat down with a peach-colored rug on top. No shower or bathtub. I didn’t look in the mirror.

I walked up the gray carpeted steps. On the top of the stairs I could go left or right. I went left first. One door opened to another bathroom, this one in light blue, the other door led to a small closet with towels and toilet paper and an ironing board. I walked to my right. There was a door straight ahead, slightly open, and there was a door further down to the right, closed shut. I went straight. I tapped the door and it swung all the way open. I breathed in quick, maybe I gasped. It was Skot’s room.

Skot with the black hair curling behind his ears when he was concentrating, jaw jut out, sometimes I would see his tongue between his teeth. Skot with three different colored Converse hightops: white, red and black. Skot who was only in one of my classes, math, and sat two seats up and one row over from me. Skot who changed his name from Scott because it’s cooler. Skot who I know has seen me but has never talked to me. Skot who has a mole on his right arm just below his t-shirt sleeve. Skot who I wish I didn’t like because it would be so much easier. Skot with the perfect shaped mouth who lives on my street, Skot.

I stepped inside his room. It wasn’t like I thought it would be. There were no posters or band flyers or dirty socks lying around. There were a few clothes tossed on a black swivel chair and I went to them. The shirt he wore yesterday. I smelled it, plunged my nose in deep. It made me want to cry. I lay on the floor and fingered the cream carpet.

I turned and looked under his bed. It was dark. I stuck my hand underneath, then my whole arm. I found something.

I saw him leave with Robin before class.

I could hear a car pass outside his window.

I looked out the window and thought about him looking out the window.

Footsteps up the stairs. The smell of gardenia, pointed.

The sound of footsteps on carpet, pounding up, getting louder.

I hid inside his closet. I thought, he comes in, opens the closet door and kills me. He comes in, I move in the closet, he ignores me. He comes in, finds me in the closet, he kisses me.

Footsteps got loudest then stopped.

I crouched down low in his closet. I could see some through the slats.

He came in the room. My heart, could he hear it? Could he feel the heat come off me?

He came in the room, reached under his mattress, then stopped when he heard his name, faint outside.

Footsteps down. I opened the closet and got out. I looked out the window to the street. He was there, his mom by the car. They were saying something to each other, she had a grocery bag in her hand. They were standing by the car. I flashed down the stairs and outside the back sliding glass door and escaped into the alley.

Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.

* * *

Mom got my report card. All As and Bs! Are you cheating?

I said, just because you did bad in school doesn’t mean I do!

She sniffed my hair and started to lift my shirt.


I’m just checking to see if they’re growing in yet.

* * *

There is a little balcony outside my room too small for even one person. I don’t know why it’s there, but I like it and even though you’re not supposed to climb out of the window onto it, I do. From there I can climb up to the roof or into the carob tree outside our house. Paint peels from my ceiling and I wonder what’s underneath. There is a bougainvillea that hangs down my roof like hot pink fire.

Sometimes Mom goes out at night and I don’t see her until I wake up in the morning. Sometimes fancy cars pick her up.

I can hop from roof to roof to tree to sides of houses. There are lots of secret passageways and hidden entrances you can’t see from the street. There are trellises of little pink roses and trims of yellow daisies between blue flowers thin as paper. I know each stem by heart. I’ve traced each petal between my fingers. I can follow the scent of the night-blooming jasmine that sneaks through my window. I know where to hide so I become invisible.

Robin’s hair is curly and red. Mine is flat and shit brown.

* * *

Mom pushed in and sat on my bed. Show me your diary, she said.

I don’t have one.

All girls have diaries. She started opening my drawers. What’s this? She pulled out the notebook she’d given me for Christmas and opened it. It was blank.

* * *

The next time, I lay on his bed.

I ran my fingers all over his room. Stroked everything. Smelled.

Ink on my hands, ink on the floor. Blood blue. Some kind of mark.

I opened more drawers.

I was silent as I could be. Used to being silent. Used to crying in the silence.

What about the teardrop that fell from my eye to his floor, mixing in the fibers of his cream-colored carpet? My cells, my fluids had no reason to be there.

I reached under his bed again. I found the little nest of hair. I collected the hairs and put them in the plastic bag I brought.

Paint on his wall chipped off in scales. Another color, another layer thick underneath.

Next time I’d bring a pillowcase, exchange it for his and wonder if he’d notice.

* * *

My room is in the shape of a cylinder. There is a window that looks out to Tigertail Lane. My view is mostly trees and rooftops. I can get out if I want to. I can climb out and into a carob tree.

Only once did I see Mom with a man. It was by accident. She thought I wasn’t home. I was supposed to be at a slumber party but it was a joke. Maybe a joke on me. I snuck back to the house and saw them. I saw from outside her bedroom window what they were doing.

In my lifetime, I have climbed all of the big trees on this street. Even the pine and palm. If a tree is hard to get to from the ground, I can start from another tree and work my way over. I can climb up some houses too. I like sitting on rooftops.

There’s nothing to be afraid of. No one would believe it if they saw me staring in at them. I would move quick as a flashbulb and they would wonder about their imagination.

* * *

I went outside on the back porch and there she was, stooped down, her back to me. One hand was propping herself up, one hand missing. She was covering it. By her mouth. There it was, a smoke ghost lingering.

Mom, you’re smoking? She just looked at me. Then she shrugged and looked away. I thought maybe I could use this later.

* * *

I started wanting to be there all the time. Better than by my window. Better than with Mom. His house was always empty. He had so many friends to go out with. I carved a little nook in his closet. Sometimes I would go and peek in. Sometimes I would stay awhile. Nothing ever happened like the first time.

At the library I look at two main books: You Are Psychic and Gray’s Anatomy. I have looked for The Joy of Sex but someone else must have hid it first.

I thought about setting up some kind of camera so I could see him when I wasn’t there. But this would be no good. I didn’t want to watch him from a screen. I wanted to be there, feeling his spirit.

There are fields of energy around us, auras, different layers of colors like an egg surrounding. There can be holes, they can be punctured like the ozone. What damage can be done?

* * *

The ninth time I could feel something buzzing, vibrating. I could feel someone coming up the stairs. So quiet I couldn’t hear but I could feel it. Could feel her.

I peaked out. There was another one, climbing up the stairs with her. A man. They went straight to her room. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to know what Mrs. X did. I thought I should climb out the window into the tree but wasn’t sure I could be silent. And the window was further from the tree branch than I wanted. It would be a stretch.

I listened. They were closed in her room. I got out from the closet. I started opening the window when I saw them. Skot’s bike with Robin’s ponytail nearby. I was trapped. I got back in the closet and buried myself deep in the dark of it. There were way too many people in this house.

Again with the heat. Again with the pounding.

He pushed her red head out of the room. Told her to leave and slammed the door. I heard her run down the stairs and the front door closed. He fell on the bed and buried his head. I thought I heard him crying. I couldn’t be sure. There was a knock on the door. Go the fuck away! He was screaming. Hysterical. Mrs. X was talking calmly. She wanted him to open the door. He opened his drawer and dug around, pulled something out. He opened his window and reached for the tree branch, then escaped. So it was possible.

The house became quiet again. Mrs. X left the house with the man and it was empty like it was when I came in. Empty but something had shifted. The colors were different.

I pulled myself from the closet to let myself out.

I pulled myself from the closet and saw him staring back at me by the window. How did I not feel him before?

You’ve been here before, haven’t you.

Yes. (Throbbing, heart in head).

Why are you spying on me? Is this your idea of a joke?

No. (Heat coming off).

He got closer, pulled out a pocket knife. What the fuck are you doing here? Do you think this is funny? What have you seen?

His breath was on me, hot.

Enough, I said.

Enough of what?

I’ll go now.

I could call the cops on you.

I reached for his window by the tree. His window by the bed.

You think you can get away with this? He pointed the knife at me. Are you some kind of sicko pervert?

My fingers were on the window frame, needing to slide.

Do you know what I think of slutty perverts?

Pushed, pushed, it wouldn’t go.

I think they should go fuck themselves.

He pointed the knife up, drew in closer. Beating, throbbing, tears collecting. I pushed and it cracked open and I reached for it, the open air, the tree calling for me. But he grabbed me first, pushed me down on his bed, his face close, I could see every freckle.

I’m going to fuck you, he said. But he just stared at me. It was silent in the house. Silent outside the window. He seemed like he was waiting for something. Then he let go of me.

Just what do you want? he said. His eyes were red around the rims. His hands were down but he was still holding his knife. I sunk down low off the bed, onto the floor.

Do you believe in psychic powers? My voice was shaking. My hair stuck on my face.

He didn’t say yes but he didn’t say no. He just stared.

I think you and I are maybe connected. An invisible cord. Because of how our houses are lined up, the way the sun shines from my window into your window, and both our names start with S and both our moms are—

Don’t you fucking say it!

Single. And look, we even have the same kind of knife. I pulled out my pocket knife. I carry one around too.

So what. So what!

I’m sure there are other things, that’s why I wanted to come in here.

You’re a total freak. Get out of my house.

I looked down at the floor.

He said, I can’t believe how ugly you are. What a psycho freak. His face got closer to mine. I should kiss you so that you know what it’s like because no one will ever want to kiss an ugly freak face like you.

My hair was in my face. I couldn’t see him. I crouched in the corner of the floor, the bed beside us, the window above. He started touching my head, pulled the hair away from my neck.

No one will ever want to run his fingers through this filthy disgusting hair. I’m doing you a favor.

I counted the fibers in the carpet. He leaned in closer and his mouth touched my neck and I shook. He was kissing it. A fiery cord bolted, made me shiver. His lips went to mine and his tongue wormed in and he tasted like smoke. I scrunched up my mouth. He kept pressing into me. He put his whole body on me. He put his hands on my chest.

God damn, flat as a board! You’re so gross. You make me sick. I can’t believe I’m doing you this favor. You will thank me later.

I told him I had to go. People would be looking for me.

Get out of here. You make me want to throw up.

I reached for his window.

It’s our secret. I won’t tell anyone this time. But if I catch you here again I’ll kill you.

I climbed out the window and reached for the cold arms of the tree.

* * *

Mom was out when I got home. I went to my room and stared out the window. All I could see were black tree shapes and broken bits of light.

I pulled out my pocket knife and pointed the blade to my finger. I tried hard but I couldn’t slice it. I got into bed and pulled the dark over me. I buried my face as far as I could while still breathing. I tried to stop it but the water came anyway. My whole body shaking with the cries. I’m so weak.

I heard Mom come crack the door open when it was just getting light out. She didn’t even put her purse down, just ran up the stairs and opened my door. I pretended I was sleeping, my face pointed away from her. I could feel her hovering over me, could smell her perfume, stale. Finally she left and I heard the shower start running.

* * *

Skot still didn’t talk to me at school and if he ever looked at me by accident he turned away and talked to someone else. I hadn’t been in a tree or on a rooftop for two weeks and I had an itching.

I climbed his tree after school. His blinds were open. I didn’t think he’d be home but there he was in his room. With Robin.

They were on his bed near the corner.

The same place I sat two weeks before.

Red hair was in between his fingers, brushing, weaving. Her back was to me but I could tell from the colors around her that she was smiling.

He whispered into her ear.

* * *

The psychic people of the world know what will happen. The psychic people of the world know what I’m thinking right now. The psychic people of the world knew yesterday what I would do today.

Mom came in my room when I was changing, my legs bare.

Oh my god, it’s the amazon woman! Get in the bath this instant and shave those furry legs! She pushed me into the bathroom. Oh, and those pits!

I made the bath water as hot as I could stand it. She gave me a razor. Some blood mixed in with the soap. I stared at my nipples. Was one growing faster than the other? It made me sick to look. I sunk down and let the soap bubbles collect.

* * *

A tap on his window. Someone was there. I was a little tied up with the leaves. Tight fists clenched. My jaw, hard. I thought I might break a tooth. I saw them. Together. I could take it, but my hand threw it anyway. I fell hard, he made me fall hard. So hard I’m bleeding.

A yell came from inside. I thought maybe Skot wouldn’t notice. But a window opened, broken. Maybe Mom wouldn’t notice at home. My hands shook, the wind knocked out of me.

Birds floating in the wind, the wind pushing the trees, the trees holding me up, holding me tight, I’m holding on tight. Tight fists clenched. My jaw, hard. I think I might break a tooth. I smashed it, I did. I did it. I’ll tell you, I smashed his window in good. A kind of dizzy, a kind of falling, down hard, holding just barely, I may have hurt something. A skinned knee. Brown, not red like I thought.

* * *

Mom put meat on the table and told me to eat it. I ate as fast as I could so I could leave. Mom said she smelled smoke and for once I agreed.

She looked in the kitchen but the stove was off. She opened the front door and there was fire on the ground.

Oh! She flailed and bat and stomped, oh! And then the shit smell hit. You fucking kids! She threw her shoe out to the street.

People with ESP know the world inside and out. They have a way to feel and just know. Their colors are different than other people’s.

Mom closed the door and came back to the table. She looked at me. I sunk low in my chair. I could feel my colors changing. Inside, I’m safe and sound.