Monday, October 26, 2015

Blood Underneath a Lamppost - by Kelly Kusumoto

I will always remember the summer after graduation. A high school diploma changed nothing but my freedom. My schedule was suddenly open. I had no immediate plans to go to college. I wanted the road to take me wherever it was going to take me and I didn’t see it taking me right back into school.
On my first free Monday in twelve years my best friend, Devon and I squinted into the summer sun as we drove westward on the freeway with the windows down. The breeze blew through my hair and ultraviolet rays beat down on my arm as it hung out the driver side window. We were on our way to La Crescenta, a town in the foothills high above downtown LA. We took the northbound onramp where the buildings spread out between hills and forest. It smelled of dry brush and asphalt and even though my cup was still half full of soda, I threw my cigarette butt in it. I’ve seen these hills aflame and these houses rebuilt and I’ve wondered why people spend millions of dollars on building their fortresses in the middle of a barbecue. I didn’t want to be the cause of yet another So-Cal fire.
As I listened to the cigarette singe, a reckless asshole in a BMW cut me off. I was in too good of a mood to fuss over it but striked me oddly, though, how more often than not, a good deed done always seems to be followed by a bad one against. I recalled once giving a bum five dollars. He was so happy that it made me happy. The look on his face and the expression in his body said it all. Later that evening I went to the ATM and got mugged at gunpoint; the bastard took everything I had in my account (which wasn’t much). Things always happened that way. Do something good and the universe reminds you that life is not all butterflies and unicorns. Still, I wasn’t going to let some righteous BMW owner dampen my night. I was alive, there was gas in the car, my friend singing along to the radio in the passenger seat, and a nice sunset to our left which was leading to–what we anticipated was going to be–a great summer night.
We exited Pennsylvania Avenue and turned onto some side street that led up to a modest house on the corner. Devon got out and walked in through the front door. I looked around. There was a stray dog running down the middle of the road, barking at some ragamuffin kids kicking a soccer ball around in the dirt patch across the way. Without the breeze of driving eighty miles an hour, the heat was starting to bear down. After a moment, Devon stepped out of the house and down the walkway. As he descended the few steps to the sidewalk, a face I had only seen in dreams appeared behind him. Her eyes were bright and sparkled like morning dew. There was a radiance emanating from her skin that made me yearn to caress it. Her straight, long hair was dark and wavered like reeds of kelp in a gradient ocean, reaching for the lighter shades of cyan, dipped with nourishing sunlight. Her arms were petite and feminine; their lack of strength triggered my willingness to provide. Her tiny frame was as delicate as a dandelion and her legs were soft and inviting. She was the type of girl you wanted to hold at the waist and lead into a diaphanous waltz, all the way to the bed where you would find out just how delicate she was. I was instantly intrigued to say the least. So much so that the heat and the sun, the bark and the dirt ceased to exist. They were faded background images in a photograph where she was all I focused on. I followed her with my eyes as she got into the back seat. Two other other doors shut and slam me back into reality. With our eyes fixated on each other, I heard Devon say, “Valerie, this is Kevin. Kevin, Valerie.”
Normally I chew gum whenever I meet someone new. It keeps me alert, keeps the juices from sticking, but without any at my disposal, I let out a feeble and stuttered, “Hi.”
Stuttering herself, she mustered an identical, “Hi.”
“And that’s Nicole,” Devon said, pointing to the right.
I cleared my throat and said, “Hi Nicole. Nice to meet you.”
“How’s it going?” she said with a wry smile and a look that slowly shifted from me to Valerie and back.
I adjusted my rear view mirror so that it was angled towards Valerie. I took a quick glance up and our eyes met, followed by a sheepish smile and an awkward, mushy feeling I hadn’t had since my first crush. I glanced at Devon from the corner of my eye and he was shaking his head. Damn! I didn’t want to get caught.
We arrived at the movie theater and decided comedy over of action. I don’t even remember what movie it was to tell the truth. Ten minutes in and I hadn’t laughed. More importantly, she hadn’t laughed. I had to do something. I looked over at her with sincere regret. “I’m sorry.”
She laughed. Perfectly.
I cringed in a perfectly awkward manner. “This movie really sucks.”
She laughed again. “Better than being at home,” she said as she laid her hand in mine. It was softer than I could’ve ever imagined. I could feel her stare. I looked at our hands intertwined and then turned towards her and smiled. “Very true,” I said.
As I turned back towards the movie screen, I felt her clench harder. She laid her head on my shoulder. It wasn’t long before the next lame joke rang through the theater. It must’ve been a cue because the next thing I knew, she’s straddling me on the theater chair. Her lips were like cotton candy; her hair blanketed our faces from the rest of the theater, which thankfully, was pretty much empty. She went from my mouth to my neck and I was able to glance over at Devon. I saw him reach over and grab Nicole’s hand. I don’t remember much after that. That’s false. I remember everything.
Our feelings were so strong that we could hardly go anywhere for an extended period of time without falling on top of each other. After a while I would just pick her up and go straight back to my house. Movies were boring. Amusement parks were boring. The beach was boring. The mountain trails were boring. We were only interested in each other and how our bodies felt together. What could be more pleasing than two young people sharing each other’s skin, or whatever you want to call it? That was the thought process, anyway.
One night I dropped her off early because she was going to hang out with the girls. They were giving her a hard time, telling her she needed to make time for them too. My band had a gig that night, so I picked up Devon before heading over to Hollywood. He would always come along and help me with the drums. It got him into the shows for free and he was always willing to take the girls from my hands, now that I was “occupied.” He asked me where Valerie was and I told him she was doing the girls-night-out thing.
“Why didn’t you tell them to go,” he asked?
“I did,” I said. “She said you and Nicole weren’t getting along at the moment and it’d be better if you guys spent some time apart.”
“That’s bullshit!”
“Hey man, I dunno,” I said, defensively. “That’s what she said.”
“Nicole and I are whatever,” he said.
“What does that mean?”
“You know, whatever. We see each other, we see other people...whatever. It’s not like stars and rainbows and fucking cupid shooting arrows out of his ass like how you and Valerie got it.”
I gave him a perplexed look and said, “Huh?” as I let out a chuckle.
“By the way, this club tonight, how old you gotta be to get in?” he asked.
“18,” I said.
“How am I gonna get in?”
“You’re the roadie. Roadies are the exception.”
“Would they make an exception for Valerie?” he asked.
“Huh?” I said, a little concerned.
“You know she’s 13 right?”
“What?!” A lump in my throat came from out of nowhere.
“She didn’t tell you? I told her to tell you!” He palmed his face and shook his head. “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t think you’d fall so hard for this girl. It was just for fun, you know?”
I could not find the words. What would they even be at that given moment? I barely remember walking on stage. Muscle memory guided me through the set. My band mates’ questions and concerns floated around like the blubber from a decaying whale. The rest of the night was a haze. I woke up the next morning with three different pieces of paper crumpled up in my pocket with three different phone numbers and “XOXOXO” written on them or hearts and smiley faces. I couldn’t recall receiving any of them. I felt an overwhelming sadness. I felt disappointed. I felt...dirty. For any 18 year old, the difference of five years, in either direction, was an eternity. It wouldn’t have been much different than if I were 13 and she was eight. It was frightening and sobering. I felt let down, like one giant buzz kill coming to cut the ropes that held me higher than I had ever felt before. One small piece of information changed everything. My perception, my feelings, my connection with her was all a lie.
How was I going to face her? What the hell was I going to say? For weeks I avoided it. Calls after calls came. Visits to my home, flowers on my doorstep, notes tucked into my screen door, letters in the mail were all received but not reciprocated. I simply didn’t know what to do. Finally, I took the steep climb up the northbound freeway. The falling leaves felt symbolic, as if representing the decay of something once perfect and naive. As soon as I pulled up, she stormed out. Before I could close the door behind me, she held me tight and pleaded with sobs. “Where, why, with who, what is going on?” were followed by tears and fists beating against my chest and all this misunderstanding.
“How old are you?” I asked. No sense beating around the bush.
Suddenly, things got quiet. She sucked up her tears, took a deep breath and said, “Can we go to your place? I can’t talk about that here.”
I said nothing and continued to look at her straight-faced.
“Please?” she asked.
I could sense the end of things coming as we weaved through the hills toward my little home in Eagle Rock. She gazed out the window the entire way over and chewed at her nails, vigorously. There were things about her only I knew, which she confided in me. There was a wall in her bedroom where she would spend hours writing my name on it. Not a white spot remained on that wall. In fact, there were etchings of my name over other etchings of my name. She was abused when she was younger, molested as well. She was also a cutter. I was her “savior.” She was my damsel in distress. I thought I could help her, be there for her, and love her. That was all before I found out how old she was. With all of that swimming in my mind, how the hell was I supposed to do the right thing?
We got to my house and she positioned herself as she always did, taking a seat on the bed, leaving me with the beanbag chair. I did not sit. She slid halfway off the bed and reached for my waist. She started to pull me towards her as if nothing was wrong. She put her hands down my pants and panted heavily on my neck and being 18 years old, I couldn’t help but hesitate. The desire for her lips was still tremendously strong and in some other epoch, we might have grown old together, might’ve lived a long and healthy life together, happy and as content as two souls who were a perfect match for each other could be. But not today. Not only had society put up invisible lines that drew frowns upon this sort of thing, there were laws against it–laws that would bunch me in with serial rapists and other psychopathic felons.
“Okay stop,” I said as I pushed her away. “Tell me the truth.”
“Obviously, you know already,” she said in a bratty voice that showed a sliver of her age.
“Why did you tell me you were 18?”
“Duh!” More of her immaturity began to surface.
“I don’t understand? Why? If you knew how old I was, why couldn’t you...I don’t know, just why?”
“I was at Devon’s house one day with Nicole, and I saw a picture of you at one of your shows. I asked him about you. I don’t know, I just had to meet you, that’s all,” she said. “I fell in love with you. It doesn’t matter how old we are, right?”
“You know the answer to that?”
“Well can’t we move somewhere, get away from here?”
“You’re not serious, are you?”
She was serious because once I said that, I could see the tears well up. Nothing pained me more than the sight of a stunningly beautiful girl with a stunningly beautiful soul, shedding a tear from her somber eyes and letting it roll off the side of her cheek. I felt so helpless and upset. Were I to fly in the face of the law, of social convention, I would alienate the both of us from the world we knew. As I watched her sob and wrap her arms around my neck, I felt at that moment, the two of us alone in the world was all I needed. As her warm tears spread out along the fibers of my shirt I also felt that in time, the two of us alone would not suffice. We would bore of each other and when we did, we would long for the others we abandoned. We would spite and resent each other and conjure feelings catastrophic to a seemingly impenetrable relationship. Her embrace felt as right as pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. I tried to soak in as much of it as I could before peeling her arms away.
Like tentacles, she resisted. I only hoped that she felt my heart tear as I tore her arms away. She sunk like dead weight, an anchor on my floor.
“If you’re mother knew, I’d be in jail,” I said.
She was digging her nails into her arm. Her radiant skin slowly turned rose colored. I could hear the blood cells rushing up, trying to push back her nails. She began to shake. First her arms, then her body, then her head. Back and forth, silently screaming, “no.” When it was apparent that I would not kneel down and comfort her, she broke her silence violently. She let out a scream not even the sirens could replicate. It was a lament from the darkest depths of space and it nearly crushed me in its gravity.
I held the cure to complete and utter despondency. All I had to do was touch her, hold her and the plight of her world would be lifted. But I also knew it would be temporary and that the only permanent fix was to stand strong. I stood my ground and from absolute despair, Valerie transformed into absolute indignation. Her eyes looked possessed. My strength weakened and I reached out to her, but it was too late. She swatted my hand away with a force impossible from such frail arms. She lifted herself up from the floor, her lachrymose replaced with inefficacy. She stormed out of my bedroom as if on a mission. Instincts always tended to break even the most consistent character, especially in times of duress. I had never been in a situation like this nor had I known anyone who had. But my instinct told me to act, so I chased after her. Before she could open the front door, I did the one thing I knew was a big no-no in times such as this; I grabbed her arm and turned her around. She gave me one second to kiss her and when I didn’t, she slapped me in the face.
“Let go of me, right now,” she said.
I let go. “Where are you going?”
“I need to get out of here.”
“It’s three in the morning,” I said.
“I need to go for a walk. I need to calm down.”
I was uneasy at the thought of a 13-year old girl walking around in the middle of the night. She picked up her purse from the couch and tried to ease my worries.
“I’ll be back in a couple minutes,” she said.
I was exhausted. I watched her walk down the driveway and turn the corner. I left the door open and walked back to my room. I lied down and tried to follow the blades of my ceiling fan. My eyes were heavy. My mind was spinning. A sudden calm rushed over me. The dark seemed to lift up and away. After a moment, Valerie slowly hovered above me. Her figure was a haze, a glowing orb. She smiled at me and said, “You don’t need to save me anymore.”
I sat upright in a flash and the darkness engulfed me once again. My head ached as if stuck in a vice. I looked at the clock. It read 4:45. I searched the house. Empty. The front door was still open. I grabbed my keys and started up the car. Slowly, I searched the neighborhood, looking for a frail, young woman dressed in black. The crisp, moist air before dawn rejuvenated me. Up one street, then down the next, my windows were open and my lights shone upon the ordinary. Suburban roads and lawns belonging to suburban families sleeping in their suburban homes, built up and down Oak-lined streets, illuminated every two hundred feet or so by a concrete lamppost.
About a mile away from home, I couldn’t imagine her walking much farther. My search seemed bleak and futile. I pulled over and turned off the headlights. An eerie silence surrounded me. No wind, no crickets, no hum of the lampposts above. The dead of night was in its throes before the resurrection of a new day. I stared intently into the steering wheel as if within it laid the answers. I took a deep breath of that moist and chilly air. I closed my eyes and as I exhaled, a murmur crawled into my ears. Instinct snapped my head to the left, opened my eyelids wide and my pupils even wider. Underneath one of those lampposts was a pool of blood. It oozed into the middle of the street, illuminated by the dull yellow bulb above. I followed it to where she was slumped, sitting at the base of the post. Her face in the shadows, all I could see were the cuts in her wrists, like the opening of a gate that imprisoned her soul. If I could help it, I was not about to watch it go free.
I rushed over to her. She was still breathing. She was cold and shivering and her breaths were weak and short. I took off my shirt and ripped it in two. I used the two pieces as tourniquets and picked her up. As I carried her to the car, she whispered, “I’ve been trying to get your shirt off all night.”
“You just hang in there,” I said.
“I’m already gone,” she said. I felt her heave and my heart sank.
“Valerie?” I said.
I set her down on the asphalt. Her eyes were flickering. I called to her a few times. I didn’t know what else to do. Her eyes re-focused for the last time as she said, “You don’t need to save me anymore.”
Her body went limp. Her eyes rolled to the side and I could tell they no longer worked. What was a vessel of pumping blood, moving parts, and productive organs was now a still and silent tragedy. My tears fell and spread out about the fibers of her shirt. I sat there with her and watched the sun come up. I thought that its resurrection might bring about hers. What a stupid thought. I can’t remember much of what happened after that. Wait, I lied. I remember everything.


 Kelly Kusumoto is a New York City-based writer with a BFA in Creative Writing for Entertainment from Full Sail University. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he has written articles and reviews for The Arroyo Seco Journal and Pasadena Weekly. He also maintained his own publication before moving to New York City. Currently, he is an editor for Cicatrix Publishing, a scriptwriter for Los Yorkers Productions and a copywriter and graphic designer for Kiltic Studios. He also publishes short works of fiction on various websites around the world and is working on projects ranging from novels and screenplays to gaming, transmedia, graphic novels, and children’s writing.

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