Thorns By Edith Stone
High School Short Story Honorable Mention Winner, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School
She closed her mouth hard, then opened it again. She did this a few more times. I could hear the clacking noise above the noises of the train station; feet falling, people shuffling, teeth clacking. I could see her moving her tongue around, checking every tooth. She did this for several minutes, and then she turned to me.
“Do you ever feel like you have too many teeth?” She said.
“I—no, I have never ever thought that.”
“You’ve never, like, closed your mouth and felt like there were too many teeth?”
“Too many teeth? Compared to what?”
“Like, in your mouth, there’s too many teeth for your mouth.”
“… Do you need braces?”
“No, but, don’t you ever get that feeling?”
“No, I don’t. Please, never say that again.”
“… OK …”
She calls me Pretty Girl, which might as well be my name. I call her PB, even though I know her real name. We’ve known each other for a long time. Most people think we’re siblings or something similar. Ha, siblings. People will think of anything.
She pitifully opened and closed her mouth a few more times. The sound forced itself between my teeth. I could feel my mouth getting more and more distorted with each clack. I ran a hand over my cheek just to make sure everything was still in place. I was startled at the sensation. Inside my mouth I could feel teeth growing and shifting around, changing order and angles in a system I didn’t understand. I was in pain. Outside, my hand pressed and searched and found nothing wrong. Even when the clacking stopped I felt my teeth pressing against each other at angles that seemed non-euclidean.
A cacophony of footsteps and metal screeches caught our attention. Our train pulled up to the station. The discomfort faded.
In the train she looked solemn, but the rain clouds passed and her expression settled. She looked out the window, I knew she was taking note of every passing tree.
“Why are trees like that?” she said, like she was far away.
“Why do they grow like that? In those shapes?” she said, as if I wasn’t there.
“I’m not sure,” I said, “to get sunlight, probably.”
“But they don’t get a lot of sunlight growing like that—”
“I’m sure they get plenty.”
“It isn’t even the best way to grow. Look, they’re strangling each other.”
I took a look at the choking desert trees. They contorted in wild knots and brambles across the sand, a sprawling mix that sent a shifting mosaic of shadows on the train car. Someone on the train was reading Plato. Neither the trees nor the shadows made sense to me.
“I think I’m getting tinnitus,” she said.
“What’s that?” I asked, pulling away from the shadows.
“It’s that little buzzing in your ear when you’re exposed to too much noise.”
“Oh,” I said, “I don’t know what to do about that.”
“You don’t have to DO anything,” she said, “I just wanted to say it.”
“Why?” I asked. “To add to all the noise?”
“… Shut up.”
“Would that help your tinnitus?” I said, over-pronouncing every syllable of “tinnitus.”
She pulled her knees close to her chest and hid her face in them.
The train was accelerating.
I looked out the windows. Sand and thick brambles were slowly being traded for dirt and sparse grass. Hills took the place of dunes. The sunset. She pulled her head out of her legs for long enough to watch the sky change color, and then put her face back down. Her arms tightened around her knees one final time and she let go. She slowly put her feet back on the floor.
She did not look me in the eyes when she said, “Why do good people die?”
I let the question hang in the air for a while, and looked around to make sure no one overheard.
“I don’t know. I don’t think about that,” I answered, after a minute or two.
“You’ve never thought about it? Not even after all of this?”
“What do you mean?”
“I—don’t talk about that. I don’t think about things like that.”
“Well don’t share it. Please, never say that again.”
I felt a buzzing in my left ear. I moved my teeth against each other. The buzzing increased sharply and then stopped suddenly.
“Where do you think—”
“Shut up.” I cut her off.
“Stop talking, or, can we talk about something normal?”
“Like… I don’t know, just…”
“Do you have anything? … Do you have anything left? Is there anything left?
I’m sorry- I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said that I shouldn’t have-”
“JUST SHUT UP, SHUT UP, shut up. Just… stop talking. Stop…”
“… I’m sorry, I went too far.”
She tried to put her hand on my shoulder. I pushed it off, and let the silence hang.
The train was quiet. It had stopped a few times, letting people on and off. At that moment we were alone in the train car. No one heard my outburst, no one saw me pull into myself and keep my feet on the edge of the chair and hold my knees. I thought I could hear a little buzzing noise everywhere. The stops got fewer and farther between while the silence suspended like a veil over our faces.
The tracks seemed to go on forever.
Outside I knew the grasses got denser, that trees sprung up on the hills and that the hills ascended into mountains. The train climbed. I felt the buzzing get louder and higher in pitch. All of a sudden it stopped. I looked around.
Out the window I could see a cliff face cut violently away to make room for the train. The rocks were shale, chipping away in places in sheets in ledges. Clumps of dry bramble made their homes in the thin distributions of dirt along the sides. Snails moved along the cliff face, working their way slowly, slowly, in the direction the train was headed. They seemed to stand still, almost.
At one end of the train the lights were flickering, at the other end the lights were off. We were alone on the train. I listened to the steady unsteady click clack of the metal wheels.
“Where is this train going?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said “but it looks like it’s going up.”
“Where do you think we’re going?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t know.”
I pulled my arms out of my legs and sought out her hand. It was warm against the air-conditioned car, warm against the mountain air. She let me squeeze her fingers, but didn’t reciprocate.
“I think,” she said “that we’re going someplace better.”
“Better?” I asked. “Compared to what?”
“You know, you know; the hate.”
“You felt it too?”
“I did, I felt it every day.”
“I thought you didn’t think about things like that,” I said.
“I do, I did,” she said.
She pulled on my arm, pulled it around her shoulders. She leaned against me, warm against the mountain air.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“For what?” I asked.
“For being such… I don’t know.”
“You do know.”
“For being such an airhead, keeping my head in the clouds, or, something like that.”
“It’s OK. That’s how you kept yourself safe.”
“Pretty Girl, I love you.”
“Love you too, PB.”
“Pretty Girl, I have to come down sometime, I can’t stay up there forever.”
“Take your time, I’ll wait for you.”
“Will you be there when I come down?”
“Of course, of course I will.”
The train car was silent, but the discomfort was past. I felt her breathe, steady and warm, I felt her shift, slow and easy, I felt her slip her arms around my waist. I had something to say.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “for being like I am.”
“Don’t be sorry for that. You’re just like me,” she said, “protecting yourself.”
“I don’t know if I believe it.”
“You should, I can’t make you though.”
“PB, it hurts you, I know it does.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind teasing.”
“You seem to.”
“I love to put on a show, you know that.”
She shifted around and fastened her hands on my shoulders. I tensed. She looked into my eyes and said, “Your barbs don’t cut nearly as deep as you think they do, and never, never as deep as the hate. You have to believe me.”
I nodded and relaxed into her grip. I touched her hands, moved my fingers along her arms and down, down, down to her waist. Her rigid grip melted when I pulled her close. We held each other, and I heard her breaths go from relaxed to tight and strained, I felt her hands close up on my back and push against my shoulders.
Outside the windows rain started to stain the shale cliffs darker and darker, until the rocks were covered in a shimmering void only broken by the thin lines of dirt and stark white snail trails.
“Where are we going?” she asked in a voice broken by wet sobs and gasps for air.
“Somewhere safe,” I said, “somewhere free from the hate we worked so hard to run away from, somewhere we can watch the sun set and the grass grow and find a little place of quiet in the rain. A place where we can be better, a place where we’ll build ourselves up and a place where we won’t be knocked down again. We’re going to that place. We’re going to be OK, we’re going to be OK.”