These shoes are awful.

I glared down at them, black against green, green grass. They looked awful, yes, but worse than that they felt like they were eating my feet. Mother had insisted I get new shoes, and out of spite I got the most expensive ones I could find at the Thrift-N-Save. Granted, they were only $34.99, and probably meant to be worn by a 60 year old woman with diabetic neuropathy, but it was the principle, dammit. Not like I would ever wear them again, even if they felt like they were actually designed for human feet.

The sensible yet stylish pair of pumps beside my own toe-chomping clogs moved forward. I thought about watching their progress, even raising my gaze as she said her farewells. But I didn't, I just stared at my awful shoes. I don't remember actually hearing her speak, and suddenly her shoes were pointing accusingly at mine. Black and black.

"Time to go," the shoes said. I followed their lead past countless pairs of ladies' heels and men's neatly tied dress shoes. Black and black and black.

Once we were beyond the crowd of people I forced myself to look up. The sky was painted with the first fringes of dusk. It had been a long day. The brunch with dad's side, the two hour church service, the lunch with mom's side, and then this. All in these awful. horrible. shoes.

When we got home, the sensible pumps flew into a frantic dance of what was probably supposed to resemble tidying up, even though everything was perfectly tidy already. I kicked off my shoes by the front door. The face I could still wear, but the shoes had to go.

Sensible Pumps saw them laying like enormous dead beetle shells and said something about putting them back on for company's sake. I ignored the unwarranted advice until she waved them in my face. "Presley," she said. That tone would not take no for an answer.

Soon after submitting my feet back to their foul prisons came the well-wishers. More casseroles and condolences than any one person could ever need. Everyone wanted to hug me. To tell me that he was such a great, great man. To ask me where my brother was, they wanted to tell him this-and-that. That last one I didn't know, primarily due to that four hour block when I had stared rather singularly at my shoes. He and Matt had probably snuck off as soon as sensible shoes wasn't looking. I was a little bitter that they hadn't rescued me in the process, but we were well past the age when they let me tag along.

From the swarms of flabby-armed hugs I recognized Mrs. Johnson from the Youth Center where Dad worked. She wrapped her plump limbs around me and pulled me tight against her chest and held me there. And held some more. I wondered if I stayed there long enough if I would melt into her, my legs melding into her legs, her arms absorbing my upper body, building up her fleshy arsenal.

Probably not.

At some point, she released me, her hands still on my shoulders in case I tried to make a run for it. I felt a little light headed. Maybe because she had compressed all the air out of my lungs, maybe because of her sticky sweet perfume that smelled like old potpourri. She pinched my cheek and said something conciliatory. I couldn't pay attention to what she was saying, the room was still spinning a little.

I nodded and broke free of her tight grasp on my shoulders. Suddenly I felt smothered by all these people. Strangers in black shoes who had no idea what to say, yet insisted on saying something. I found myself in the kitchen and cut through towards the back door. The screen door whined a little as I opened it, and smacked shut behind me. I took a deep breath.

It was dark out now, the crickets were singing. I could still hear the din of talktalktalking behind me and I plodded away from the sound, down the back steps in my awful shoes. At the bottom I wrenched them off my feet and chucked them into the blue plastic garbage bin against the side of the house. Sayonara.

The late April air was warm, but the breeze carried a slight chill. I welcomed the way the wind whispered goosebumps across my skin. Even if my mind couldn't respond normally, at least my body could still remember some of its natural response.

I walked further into the yard. It was large, extending an acre or so beyond our back door. As children we had claimed the land as ours, staking out the territory amidst crabby oak trees and the small rock-strewn creekside. Johnny had decided at a young age that girls and boys couldn't be on the same team, so most of my exploration had been alone or as an obviously undesired tag-along.

When I was ten the boys took an intro to structural engineering class at the high school. For about two months they fancied themselves master architects and worked tirelessly on building a tree fort. On more than one Friday afternoon I would arrive home, an hour earlier than the boys, to find Dad climbing out of the tree with his tool box in hand.

"Just making some repairs," he would say while mussing my hair.

The boys either didn't notice or didn't bother mentioning the extra labor Dad put into the fort. When they declared it finished he insisted they let me play in it on occasion, and they didn't put up too much of a fight.

After a few years the novelty wore off and the fort became an abandoned memory.

Gosh I haven't been back here in ages.

I looked up at the big wooden structure, almost smiling when I saw the dorky Batman curtains hanging in the window. As a young lady, I had insisted on a small feminine touch. The boys submitted to my demand, on the stipulation that they were the ones to pick the curtains themselves. Thus, Batman.

It dawned on me that the curtains were actually lit from the inside of the fort, illuminated by a faint blue glow.

I climbed the shadowed boards nailed into the big old trunk with ease, memory serving better than daylight could have.

Matt was slumped against the wall next to the window, a blue glow stick in one hand and a large dark bottle in the other.

Neither of us spoke. I felt like maybe I should say something, but didn't really feel like it. He must not have either. I shuffled over next to him and plopped against the wall.

I hadn't really talked to Matt in years. He lived in the city and only really came back to Benton for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the odd wedding. Or funeral, I guess.

He wasn't really family, but Dad had taken him in when I was seven. Dad was a counselor for troubled teens out in Rim City. It was a two hour commute to work every day, due to Mom refusing to live in the city. But he'd loved his job with a passion, and he'd loved my Mom too, so he never complained.

Matt wasn't the first kid he'd brought home for a night or two, but he was the first one that stuck around for more than a week. Then a month. Then slowly, it was almost like he'd always been around. Mom wasn't the biggest fan of what she called Dad's "lost-cause vagabonds", and she never did warm up to Matt completely. He was the same age as Johnny, but I'd been the one who accepted Matt first.

I remember the first day he came home with Dad. When I'd come home from school, he was sitting at the kitchen table drawing. His sandy blonde hair had been long then, shielding his face from me.

"Hi," I said. He didn't look up, just kept scratching his pencil in rapid, precise strokes.

"Hey," he responded, disinterested.

"What are you drawing?" I asked. The pencil stopped for a moment before resuming its meticulous work.

"Nothin'," he said. I was too young to notice the strong back off vibes he was sending out in waves. Instead, I marched up to the table and peered directly at the paper in front of him.

"Hey!" I exclaimed in recognition, "That's Big Ben!" This month covered London on our Great Cities of the World bulletin board, and I had helped Ms. Daley pin up the pictures.

Finally, he glanced up, and smiled, just a little. "Yeah."

"It's really good," I told him. "You should be an artist."

That was when my mom had walked in, introducing him as "your Father's latest client." It had sounded strange even to my young ears, and when I'd sensed the slight current disdain in her voice, I decided to be friends with this new boy.

That first couple of months I'd practically worshipped the ground he walked on. Johnny had been a selfish and absentee brother, and Matt was nice.

One day he came home with a black eye. Mom was furious, Dad was disappointed, but Johnny was thrilled. From that day on the two boys were thick as thieves, and I never quite reclaimed a priority position in Matt's social circle. Sure, he still taught me how to throw a punch when Cindy McFarland was picking on me in 8th grade, and he still helped me learn how to drive stick out on the Benson farm even when Mom said I had to wait until I was older, and to be honest, I still held a fascinated admiration for him, but we were never as close as those first few months.

Then he and Johnny had graduated and moved to the city and I hardly saw either of them.

He took a swig out of the dark bottle and let his head fall back against the wall, eyes closed.

"Can I have some?"

My voice sounded loud in my own ears. I almost felt embarrassed but couldn't work myself up to it.

He turned his head towards me and we looked at each other for the first time since he'd gotten to town. I hadn't been able to meet his eyes, or John's eyes, or even Mom's. Even the annoying well-wishers had a hard time catching my gaze. When you look at people straight on, right in the face, you tell them something about what you're thinking or feeling, I guess, if they have a mind to pay attention. I didn't want to tell a single soul a lick of what was going on in my head. Partly because it was none of their damn business, and partly because I didn't really know what I was thinking.

But I looked at Matt and he looked at me and I came up blank.I had no better idea what he was thinking than a goldfish knew his horoscope.

"How old are you, again?" I could smell the drink on his breath, strong and spicy. I'd never really had any interest in alcohol before, but it just...seemed appropriate at the time. I opened my mouth to answer, but he said, "Oh hell, knock yourself out."

He passed me the bottle, my fingers brushed his and I thought briefly of Mrs. Johnson's flabby arms. Her well-meaning, but suffocating embrace. This feeling I felt flicker up inside me was what she had been trying to stoke from the ashes.


I took a large sip and it fell like fire down my throat. I coughed. Matt laughed a little. Then I laughed too.

"It burns," I rasped.

"It's cheap shit," he admitted, "but it gets the job done."

I nodded, understanding enough of the concept to decide that I had a job that needed doing as well. I took another swallow, this time managing not to come up sputtering. It still burned like a bitch, but a little bit less this time. Who knows, maybe life burns a little bit less with time too.

A third sip and I passed the bottle back. He took it, gently, almost, and took two long drinks himself. My limbs already felt a little heavy, my head a little light.

I realized he was looking at me. "I'm sorry, Pres," he whispered.

Without warning, I felt with clarity that numb, dumb ache in my chest, and tears began to fill the bottom half of my vision. I looked up at the planked roof, willing the tears to retreat. I wished I was wearing my awful shoes again, so I could stare at them, and think about how uncomfortable and ugly and awful they are. Think about black shoes and nothing else.

But they were in the blue plastic garbage bin, and my head was cloudy, and Matt put his arm around my shoulders and all I could think about was how Dad had made the stupid tree fort safe for us to horse around in and who was going to make things safe for us now?

"I'm sorry too," I choked out, my voice raw and foreign sounding.

Then I buried my face in his shirt and I cried.