Raising Awarenessby Adam Zang
Competition: Short Story Challenge 2008, Final Round
Genre: Ghost Story Subject: A Salesman or Saleswoman
Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg
Gordie hasn’t been to school in two weeks. He is in first grade, so this is really an eternity. He stares at the snow-covered pond in front of him, a small dark spot in the middle of it where it isn’t entirely frozen. He wiggles his toes to make sure that they are still inside his boots, which they are. Gordie’s father always tells him to wiggle his toes so that they stay warm when it’s cold outside. Gordie has learned all about frostbite—his father read him a story by Jack London before bed one night. Gordie always carries matches with him and knows not to build a campfire under a snowy pine tree. “If you go numb, make sure you jump up and down,” his father says. “Going numb is bad news.” Gordie stomps his feet and thinks about the fish hibernating in the mud beneath the ice.
Now that it’s wintertime, Gordie’s father never comes home before dark. Even though he just had a week off, Gordie’s father always seems tired when he comes home now. When Gordie asks to play, “Raising Awareness,” a game his father invented, Gordie’s father takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. Both his father and mother wear thick glasses. “Not tonight, kiddo,” his father says. “I’ve got a lot on my plate.” Gordie smiles and runs into the kitchen, returning with a dinner plate. The plate has a child’s acrylic painting on it: a flower and a bubbly heart and a bright yellow sun. “Hello, how are you today?” Gordie asks his father. “This will just take a second of your time. My name is Gordie and I’m with… the Plate Foundation. We raise awareness about plates. I’m sure you’re aware of the plate situation in Michigan, right?” Gordie’s father nods. “Great!” Gordie says. “So you know how important it is to keep children painting plates in this great State. And that’s why I’m out here today, raising money to help keep children painting plates. With a small contribution of—” Gordie’s father turns away, rubbing his eyes. Gordie looks at the plate in his hands, searching his mind for where he went wrong.
Gordie’s father once told him he could sell anything if he believed in it enough. “Even if you don’t believe it,” his father said, “You can make someone else believe it if you follow the script.”
Gordie’s mother makes him grilled cheese, but she forgets to cut it in half. Gordie knows that he needs to help out more around the house, so he cuts a jagged strip across the bread. He does the same for his mother’s uneaten sandwich. He goes to the fridge but he can’t reach the ketchup. He wonders if he should ask his mother to get it for him. These days, she does some things, but not others. The last time he asked her to make a smiley face with the pancake batter, she looked past him, like he hadn’t said anything at all. Gordie wishes someone would help him figure out how to get the ketchup. “Two minds are better than one,” he says aloud.
In their house, there is a whole wall of pictures and drawings. Gordie likes to look at this wall. These days, there are some pictures missing. There are empty spots on the wall where they used to be. Gordie likes to look at pictures of himself when he was little. “Who is that kid?” he says in a talk show voice. “Does anyone know who that kid is?”
There are framed pictures carefully taken from coloring books on the wall too. Gordie recognizes the ones of the blue racecars and brown dinosaurs—he drew those—but he wonders where the ones of the intricate ferns and rainbow colored fish scales came from. Gordie wishes someone would take his drawings down. They look ugly next to those others.
Gordie plays in the snow with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He picks up a pine needle and pretends to smoke it, breathing out great white puffs of warm air. Playing alone isn’t so bad, but it isn’t so great either. He rubs Michelangelo’s plastic toes as a precautionary measure.
Gordie hides behind the ottoman and watches his mother look at the picture wall. His mother just stands there. Her lips move. Gordie wonders who she’s talking to.
Gordie and his father lie on the bottom bunk of Gordie’s bunk bed. His father falls asleep in the middle of a story and Gordie takes his father’s glasses and puts them on. Gordie squints up at the bunk above him and swears someone is sleeping up there. His father wakes up and gently takes his glasses back. Gordie looks back at the top bunk and everything is normal again.
Gordie practices while he waits for his father to get home. “Hello, my name is Gordie. I’m with the Ghost Glasses Group. We’re out here today working to get all poor children a pair of Ghost Glasses. I’m sure you’re aware of the problem of the all the poor children who can’t see ghosts, right? Of course you are…”
When they eat dinner now, there are four chairs at the table. Gordie picks one food a night to not eat just to see if his parents will notice. Sometimes he wonders if they are having a conversation he cannot hear.
Gordie stares at the mattress above him and wonders why he never sleeps in the top bunk. He tries to imagine someone sleeping in the top bunk. He tries to see a lump in the bottom of the mattress, a shape in the shadows. He closes his eyes and hopes to hear a creaking in the bed frame, a shifting of weight. But there’s nothing. Gordie stares up at the empty bed above him and screams for his father.
Gordie’s father rushes in, pushing his glasses on his nose. In soothing tones, he asks what the dream was about. “I wasn’t dreaming,” Gordie says.
“What’s the matter?” his father asks.
“Do you see anyone in the top bunk?”
Gordie’s father looks upwards, his eyes blinking behind the thick frames of his glasses. “Would you like a glass of water, kiddo?”
“No,” Gordie says.
Gordie stares into the mirror and his eyes stare back at him. He shuts his eyes tight. “Bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary bloodymary!” Gordie opens his eyes and looks into the mirror.
He is all alone.
Gordie sits cross-legged on the carpet, Michelangelo gripped in his hands in front of him. He whispers through clenched teeth so only the doll can hear him. “Just a few dollars will do the trick. Your contribution will go a long way in helping kids get the glasses they need. Boys and girls all over America need these glasses…”
Gordie glares at the pond, concentrating on the dark wet spot in the middle. He has been glaring at the pond for a long time. “Where are you?” he finally shouts. His toes are numb but he doesn’t care about that.
There are four chairs at the table and three plates. Gordie’s parents chew slowly, like horses. Gordie chews slowly too. “Do you see anyone sitting there?” Gordie asks. His parents stop chewing. Gordie pushes out his chair, runs into the kitchen and returns with the dinner plate painted with a flower, a bubbly heart and a bright yellow sun. “Who painted this?” Gordie asks, his voice quavering. “Who did?” His father slowly rises out of his chair and gently takes the plate from Gordie’s shaking hands.
Gordie wakes up in the middle of the night, his teeth chattering. He is freezing cold. He opens the door to his parents’ room. “The water is cold,” he says. “Am I going to get frostbite?”
In the morning, when the smell of coffee wakes him up, Gordie does not remember how he ended up in his parents’ bed.
These days, Gordie feels like crying, but he can’t do it for some reason. There is a peach pit in his stomach and it sucks up all of his tears. His mother watches cartoons with him but she doesn’t laugh at the jokes, so he doesn’t either. When she gets up from a commercial, she brings back three juice boxes. “One for you,” she says. “One for me, and one for—” She puts her hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry, Gordie,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
Gordie likes it when his mother tucks him into bed so tight that he feels like a mummy. These days, she doesn’t always remember to do this, so when she does remember, it makes him extra happy. When his mother leaves, his father comes in, carrying the painted plate with him. “My name is Dad,” his father says. “I’m with the Plate Foundation. I’m sure you’re aware of the issue with painted plates in Michigan, right?” Gordie nods his head. “We’re out here tonight so that everyone knows about all the hard work big sisters put into painting these plates. It’s very important that we recognize the artistic talent…” Gordie’s father trails off for a moment. He fixes his glasses and then smiles at Gordie. “It’s important to know that only big sisters can paint beautiful plates like this, don’t you agree?” Gordie tries to move his arms, but they’re trapped snug beneath the covers. “Would you like to contribute to the Plate Foundation to help raise awareness about the artistic talents of big sisters?”
Gordie shakes his head. “No.”
“It would only take a small contribution,” his father says.
Gordie drags his arms free from the blankets, rips the plate from his father’s hands and hurls it against the wall. It takes a chip out of the drywall and thuds softly on the carpet, completely intact.
“Okay,” his father says. “Maybe next time, then.”
The missing pictures are back on the wall. Gordie examines them with a magnifying glass. “Who is this girl?” he says in a talk show voice. “Where did she come from?”
The snowman Gordie built has a crooked head. “Moms and Dads all have Ghost Glasses,” Gordie tells the snowman. “Wouldn’t you like to make a contribution so kids can have them too?” Gordie punches the snowman’s head, smashing it into smithereens.
When Gordie’s father comes home from work, he has a small package wrapped in brown paper. He kneels down next to Gordie, who has been looking for things in the carpet with his magnifying glass. “Hey, kiddo,” his father says. “I was at my job today, working on a big commission, when the President of the Ghost Glasses Group paid me a visit. He said that you were dong a great job raising awareness about children who don’t have glasses. He said you did such a good job, that now every kid in the region has a pair of Ghost Glasses. He wanted me to deliver this to you personally.” He hands Gordie the brown package and Gordie unwraps it slowly. There is a pair of large black-rimmed glasses with thick lenses inside the box.
“How do they work?” Gordie asks.
“You just put them on,” says his father. “It might take a couple of days for you to get used to them, but that’s normal. The nice thing about Ghost Glasses is that you only have to wear them when you want to see ghosts.”
“But you wear your glasses all the time,” Gordie says.
“Some dads need to do that sometimes,” his father says.
Gordie waits until his is alone to put the glasses on. He stumbles over to the picture wall. Everything is blurry and colorful. He doesn’t see any ghosts yet, but that’s normal.
Gordie wears the glasses for three days straight. He even wears them in the bathtub. Sometimes he catches sight of something out of the corner of his eye. Sometimes he knows a ghost is watching him play with his Ninja Turtles. He acts normal, so he doesn’t scare her.
Gordie stomps his feet in the snow. The pond is completely frozen over now, no black wet spot in the middle anymore. Gordie sits down next to the headless snowman and begins to roll a snowball for a replacement head. Gordie hears something and he looks up, squinting behind the thick windowpanes of his glasses.
“Hey,” Gordie says. “Are you hungry? Mom’s making soup. We should go inside so we don’t catch frostbite.”
The peach pit in Gordie’s stomach is gone. His mother comes into his room and asks him what’s wrong, but he can’t answer because he’s crying so hard. He takes off his glasses and buries his head in his mother’s lap.
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