A short story.

May 2024 — Aden Albert
A short story.

What am I going to do with you? he asks.

The little girl looks at him. What do you mean?

It’s something I say because I love you, he says, in the beginning of the story.

But what do you mean, what to do with me?

I’m pretending to be exasperated—

What does—

He makes a thinking face. I mean, I’m pretending to have my hands full, like you’re so smart and frisky and energetic I can’t keep up with you.

Is it nice?

He smiles. Yes, it’s nice.

It doesn’t sound nice.

You’ll understand when you’re older.

She scrunches up her mouth and her eyebrows come down. When will I be older?

In the next scene.


She races past him on her bicycle. The draft pulls the hat from his head, and it tumbles into the dandelions in the yard.

I’m older now, she says.

Yeah, he says. He puts one hand on the small of his back as he leans on the other leg. The other hand, it rests lightly against his abdomen. We both are.

She comes to a stop and puts her feet on the ground. The bicycle makes a slow, grudging turn, step by step. Somewhere in the back of his head, there’s imaginary tugboats, the edge of the asphalt the banks of a canal—a grasshopper jumps away, unaware of how close the supertanker came to running aground atop it.

Hey, she says. About to put her feet on the pedals again.

Yeah?

I need a push, she says. She squints against the sun. A swoop of hair an inch wide has fallen out of her helmet, just west of her right eye, and its highlights are overexposed to his sensitive eyes. Not strawberry blonde, not platinum, but white and absent of all detail, overloading his ability to capture them.

Dad? she says.

Yeah, he says. I’m coming.


She remembers when she was smaller, and he played make-believe games with her, but they didn’t feel like games. They felt real, because they were real, when they played them.

She thinks about those memories. The hazy bits of her life that weren’t written down in scenes. She wonders how she knows about them.

In the middle of the night she decides it doesn’t matter how she knows about them, only that she knows about them.


What am I going to do with you, he says.

It doesn’t sound nice.

I don’t like this scene, she says.

Well, too bad, he says, standing over the broken glass. It doesn’t stop us from having to clean it up.

Why does it have to be here?

This is part of the story. It undercuts the sentiment and makes the narrative more complicated.

She bites her lip. Does it?

I’m older than you, he says. Get the broom.

So you’re not going to explain? You’re just going to—to shut me down because you don’t want to talk about it?

Fine, he says. I’ll get the broom.

He steps over the glass. She stands there and watches, because what else can she do? She doesn’t know how to say what she wants to say. She doesn’t have the words for it, because they aren’t there. Someone isn’t giving her the words for it.

He steps too far and his front foot is half-on a piece of glass that slides out from underneath him. He goes down.

She yells.


He didn’t land on the glass.

The juxtaposition of one ending and another scene beginning made it more dramatic.

She rests against him on the couch, lightly. The heating pad emits a weird high-frequency hum as he holds it against his stomach. It hurts her ears but she doesn’t want to say anything.

He doesn’t want to say anything, either.

But he’s older, and it’s his turn in the story.

I’m sorry, he says.

For what, she asks. Even if her tone of voice isn’t asking.

It’s…

He chokes.


When you get older, he says, after a long time.

Long enough the heating pad clicks off, and their ears can finally rest.

Long enough the air conditioner clicks on, and both of them get cold, and she presses against him a little closer, and he holds his arm around her a little tighter, even if it hurts.

When you get older, he says. And you look back on things.

He swallows.

On your life.

It’s not like… like watching one long thing go by. Day after day. It’s…

Like watching a movie, she says.

It’s—

He thinks about it. Really thinks about it.

Yeah, he says. It’s like watching a movie. There are scenes that happen. Little bits you can see, and then they stop, and then there’s another little bit. Maybe it happened earlier, maybe later. You string enough of them together, and… sometimes you get a story.

Just sometimes?

You’re going in a direction, he says. Everything’s going in a direction. It starts, it moves in a direction, and it ends. But life doesn’t have a shape.

Are you okay? she asks.

I just want to tell you this, he says. You know your direction, but you don’t know how fast you’re going, or… maybe…

He squeezes her against his side.

That hurts a little, she says.

Sorry, he says, when he means, It hurts me, too.

I should have stuck with my original metaphor, he says. It’s a story. And you don’t know how many pages you’ve got. There’s… there’s going to be scenes you don’t want to be in.

She puts her fingers through his. For everybody?

Best I can do is help you figure out how to get to the end of those scenes, he says. And—make sure I’m not the antagonist.

I’m ready to go to my room now, she says. Her eyes are sleepy.

Okay, he says.

Can you tuck me in?

Yeah, he says. He presses the heating pad against his stomach, for whatever’s left. Just give me a minute.


Adolescence is a montage. Quick cuts and fragments of the mundane—worksheets, classrooms suffocated with shifting pant legs and fingernails scratching forearms, squeal of tennis shoe soles on gym floors, the rising difficulty curve of waking up, of going to sleep, of finding something to watch on tv—mixed with the magical: the fizzy excitement of sitting next to a crush at lunch; the oil-well adrenaline of a new favorite song; dancing in her room at night; singing in the car after school; the careful soft iteration of a doodle into something perfect, like sculpture, revealing beauty from blankness; kisses, and held hands, and fireworks, and summer swims, and the Milky Way over the beach at the Fourth of July. There, too, are the other parts. The girls she sits with decide she can’t sit with them at lunch any more, because she laughs too loud, because one of her teeth is crooked, because she likes stupid music, because she watches shows for little kids. Driving past a beechwood cross on the side of the road and realizing it’s a memorial for an eight-year-old who died trying to get to school. The look on the face of the boy she asks out, not even a sneer, as he says, Why would I? The parts of the night where she lies in her bed, the light from the hallway leaking beneath the door, listening to songs that make her cry, because she doesn’t understand what’s wrong with her, but at least the music makes her feel.

The moments of the day where she doesn’t talk to him after he asks her what’s wrong, because the directions of their stories are moving apart, and it’s scary and exciting and she’s not sure what to do about it, even if there was something to do about it, at all.


She’s older now. It’s the next scene.

She knocks on the door. Her hamper on the porch next to her. Not as full as it could be, she’s been responsible. She wants to avoid cliche, now that she’s the protagonist of her own scenes.

She doesn’t know why she knocked on the door. She has her own key. She unlocks the door.

She comes inside, about to yell, Dad!

She sees his legs on the other side of the ottoman, and she yells, Dad


Driving there, parking, running inside, waiting, then—going to his room, waiting more. She does it all by herself.

Who is going to give her a push?


What am I going to do without you?

Without me? he asks. Without me?

Go back two pages. Look at the first lines of the story. Right in the middle, around a thousand words. There is no without me. You will never be without me, because we could never have gotten here, if we didn’t get here together.

But… I have to go forward alone.

No, not alone, he says. But you will be going forward.

You won’t be going with me.

I’ll be there, he says.

How?

The story can’t end without its beginning, he says. So you can’t get there, without us having started. And this can’t end without us having gone there together. He stops to take a breath. I may not be walking there with you—

She sniffles.

—but we’ll be going together, because that’s how stories work.

I don’t want to go the next scene, she says.

I know, he says.

To tell the truth, I don’t want to, either. But sometimes

She reaches for his hand.


She’s in the next scene before she’s ready.

But it’s still the next scene.

She stands up.

She wipes the tears from her cheeks with the heels of her hands. They don’t come clean, just smear around. She breathes, when she can.

I’m not ready, she says.

What do I do now?

Nothing? she asks bitterly. Nothing but white space now?

She sniffs. Wipes her face again.

Breathes, because she can.

And takes one step, away.

Then another.

Because there are more scenes left. Even if she doesn’t know how many.

THE END.

Subscribe to THE NEON CHURCH