I spent my ninth summer watching television. That is until Arlo Jenkins held his grubby thumb against our
doorbell. He wasn’t a friend, I only knew him from the bus. Eyes always forward, Arlo sat in the front seat while
Philip Gladstone and his gang took turns flicking boogers and spitting gum into his afro. He always knew, but he
never turned around or even flinched. A strange, skinny kid with a large vocabulary, he was an easy target.
Slumped alone in a middle seat, I kept invisible.
The doorbell blared until I answered.
Grinning, Arlo rubbed his palms together. “I made a spaceship.”
“We could visit your mom.”
I looked passed him, trying to see if other boys were huddling behind the shed or hunched along the broke-
down pickup, waiting to laugh. My friends stopped calling after the funeral. Ryan Thompson—my once best friend
—said not to take it personally, that it was just too hard. Dad hid the pictures of Mom because I started crying
whenever I looked at them. Her face was a fading memory.
“How’d you know this was my house?”
He shrugged. “Are you coming or not?”
“You don’t have a spaceship.”
The cloudless sky burned brightly. I hadn’t been outside all summer. Squinting in the sunlight I knew I didn’t
belong here anymore. Maybe that’s why Arlo chose me. The spaceship was a refrigerator box with cardboard flaps
stapled to it. Black spray paint coated the nose and tail of the ship.
“This is stupid.”
“It’s perfect for space travel. I built it with reincarnated clouds.”
“Paper comes from trees. They need water and that comes from clouds. So cardboard is full of clouds.”
We carried the ship on our shoulders to the top of the highest hill in town.
“Catch enough speed and we’ll zoom right into the atmosphere.”
In seconds we burst through the celestial sphere. Hitching a ride on the tail of a comet we passed through the
Milky Way. Arlo spun a paper plate labeled Escape Velocity when we wanted to ditch the comet.
Using a series of black holes we visited every planet in the galaxy. We skated on the rings of Saturn and
delighted as our snot froze into icicles on Neptune.
We didn’t find Heaven.
Fiddling with a mattress spring gear Arlo spoke softly, “I think this is all there is.”
Silent, I let stardust collect on my outstretched fingers.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Let’s check out the next universe.”
We didn’t speak for the rest of our afternoon in space. We flew the rocket ship flaps to shreds and when the
seams split we crash-landed into an ocean of browning grass. We lay on our backs and floated on the makeshift raft
until the cars returned and it was time for dinner.
MUSIC FROM THE B-SIDE
The final notes fade as the needle traces the record’s outer grooves. The turntable’s arm floats up and staggers to
the side. There is a fizz of static and then nothing. My heart breaks a little whenever the music ends, especially
when it’s something I haven’t heard before. I try not to worry about how long it will be until I hear the B-side.
The clock stopped thirty-three days ago. So far, no one else has noticed. At first, it bothered me not knowing the
time. Now, I’ve decided life is better without it. With no ticks or notches to count, I measure my days by which
wooden floorboard the sunlight kisses.
Today, I listen for Helen. She likes watching game shows and the same soap operas as my mother. It’s quiet.
When she doesn’t check on me for hours, I know she’s left—it’s a secret she doesn’t know we both keep. I can’t hold
it against her. If I were whole I’d leave this place and I wouldn’t look back.
The right side of my nose itches. I can’t even flare a nostril, much less lift my hand. On occasion, my mother
wonders aloud what life must be like for me. She doesn’t hold up the board and slide her finger over the block
letters waiting for my blink-spelled answer. If she did, I’d tell her: Locked-in syndrome is feeling everything
without ability. A frozen body is a perfect prison for an active mind.
The sun passes the dresser. Helen will not be flipping the record anytime soon.
To occupy my mind, I play the only game I can. Lenses. Pretending my eyes are twin cameras I pan them from
my left side peripheral to my right and select my target. Today it’s easy. Helen left the album sleeve leaning against
the crate. It is a new record in the lineup. My stomach flutters in anticipation. There’s pleasure in having something
other than medical equipment and the faded pink walls of my childhood to look at.
I zoom in. Pirates. Rickie Lee Jones. The artwork is a black and white photo. It’s fitting. My life is drained of
color: I’m Dorothy expelled from Oz.
Click. I zoom in closer. The couple in the photo is positioned like a pair of preteens slow dancing. Faces close
enough to feel the other’s breath, pre- or post-kiss. Its night, and the streetlight (Or is it the moon?) illuminates
It’s about to rain. There’s a cool, damp breeze that carries the fraternal scents of brine and salt. I enter further,
seeing only the air between bodies.
My first impression was wrong. They aren’t happy, they’re inching apart. Sometimes the less you see, the more
you experience. The man wears a philanderer’s smirk. He’s unfaithful. Is the woman cold, difficult to please? No.
Her mouth is generous and her eyes are earnest.
I look at her hands. Open around his shoulders. His are fists balled in pockets.
They’re swaying. Drunk. I envy them. A stiff drink would be a tiny miracle. I like to blink at the letters W-I-N-E.
The request is always ignored. I suppose my caretakers feel queasy at the idea of mixing a cocktail into my feeding
tube. I long for someone to dip a finger into a glass of earthy red and run it along my lips.
I’ll never be drunk again. My future stretches out in front of me, slow and full of nevers. Sometimes my
caregivers...my family...forget that my mind works. They talk like I’m only a body.
I zoom into the girl’s eyes. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s lost everything.
In the distance, there’s a clatter, the return of Helen. I pull myself from the game. Sighing, she enters the room
and dabs at drool dangling from the corner of my mouth. I want to hear the B-side of Pirates. I blink at her but she
pretends not to notice. Of all my caregivers, she has the least patience with the letter board. I want her gone, but it
would take days to get the message across. Besides, the next one might be worse. It doesn’t matter that I can think
and feel. Forever frozen, I’m easier to ignore than a goldfish.
Helen puts the record back into its sleeve and flips through the crate.
She puts on Wham!.
I hate her.
I zoom inward, away from the room. I zoom until the outside is a distant blur. Inside, I listen for the lost notes of
the previous album’s songs while searching for the girl from the photograph. I find her alone under the streetlight,
a handkerchief in hand.
I speak to her. When you sing, it’s like you’re singing for me. My face reddens with naked embarrassment, I’m
exposing too much.
She smiles as her head bends shyly. Then with a gasp, she grasps my fingers. So long, do you play piano?
Yes, I’m a musician. Was. But the truth is unimportant here.
Jazzy rock music rains down on us in the form of a million falling stars. Fingers trembling, I reach out and
touch her face. Her aria-eyes close and I kiss her. She tastes like bourbon and dark chocolate.
I’ve never kissed a girl before, she tells me.
In this world, I’ve kissed thousands; in the outer one, only three. All before my brain exploded at twenty-six.
We dance until there’s a distant click of the record completing, calling me back.
I have to go.
Do you? She offers her hand to me and I take it.
We walk to the pier and I don’t look back. Music from the B-side plays. It is the sweetest song I’ve ever heard.
AIMING FOR GOD
An alert chimes on my phone. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I react instantly. It takes only a swift click to read the
Active shooter. Fifteen to twenty hostages. Eight reported dead.
I feel a barb-sharp sting when I recognize the suburb’s name. The cell slips from my hand and kisses the
travertine tile. The shattered screen, still aglow, resembles a spider’s web ensnaring a fly.
My brother lives in Ashland. Or at least he had. Marcus moves so often it’s hard to track him. I get calls from all
over. He rings to tell me that the government is controlling the weather and is punishing California with drought.
He leaves voice messages warning of chemtrails. Sends texts demanding to know how much water and dried
goods I have stockpiled.
I don’t like lying to my brother. He doesn’t like hearing the truth—that I’d rather not survive the impending
apocalypse. To pacify him, I bought a hurricane kit and the cheapest water storage tank I could find. One of the few
times I initiated a call was to tell him of my doomsday preparations.
Now he says it’s too late. Fukushima is bleeding out nuclear waste. The oceans are dying. The world is toxic.
The research is solid.
I tell him that there’s nothing to do except live life. It’s a lousy platitude, but it’s all I have to offer.
His last call came past midnight two weeks ago. The big one was coming and he wanted to say goodbye.
“Are you taking your meds?”
“Those pills have nanobots in them. They’re trying to control me. You can’t trust the fucking VA.”
“You should take your pills. It’s part of your probation.”
We don’t talk about when he stood in front of his trailer waving his gun. Or the shots he fired into the sky. Or
how he refused to put the weapon down when the police surrounded him.
He never aimed for anyone but God.
We don’t talk about how, that day, a cop recognized Marcus. Her brother had served in the same unit in Iraq. The
officer’s brother and mine had been the two youngest. Their collective nickname: The Columbine Kids.
There would be no suicide-by-cop that day. Instead, they released a dog on him. Canine teeth sunk deep
through Marcus’s calf leaving shiny dime-deep scars.
My brother never talks about it. Except once, when he was drunk after Thanksgiving, and even then he only
said, “That dog didn’t want to bite me. He was just following orders.”
The screen crumbles around my fingers as I refresh the news. White male. Late twenties.
I can’t get the cracked phone to dial. “Siri, call Mom.”
Straight to voicemail. My father’s line too.
I turn on the television. There, a S.W.A.T. team crouches, cradling matte black guns. Huddling spectators stand
along the peripherals. Tear-stained faces. Newscasters trying to look somber while covering their first national
“Siri, call Marcus.”
He answers on the third ring. I hear shouting, bullets firing, sounds of chaos. My words come slow and gritty.
“Where are you?”
“Hang on.” There’s a click and then silence. “What’s up?”
Relief releases my welling tears. “I saw Ashland on the news. I saw...I was worried...”
“It wasn’t me.”
“I know! I’d never think—”
“Mom and Dad called too.” Marcus’s voice is monotone, but I can hear the suppressed hurt. “I would never do
“I didn’t think...”
“I’m not a killer. I only followed orders.”
The weighted air goes stale.
I want to tell him that I wish he never joined the army. Never went to Iraq.
He came back different.
I haven’t been the best sister. I didn’t write him much when he was overseas. Now, I often let his calls go to
voicemail. It’s hard for me, but I know it’s harder for him. I want to apologize for forgetting who he was—who he
still is—deep down, beyond the shrapnel scars, beneath the thick cowl of PTSD.
“I’m sorry,” I say at last. It’s not enough. “You should visit. It’s been a while.”
“Maybe. You can’t make fish, though. The radioactive particles give you cancer.”
I agree. “No fish.”
L.L. Madrid lives in the desert and befriends feral creatures. She is the 2017 recipient of the Luminaire Award for
bestprose. When L.L. isn’t writing, she edits a peculiar journal called Speculative 66. llmadrid.weebly.com
"Aiming for God" was first published by Likely Red Magazine.