The bulletin board, lovingly constructed by one of Jack MacKaye’s freshmen, Sam Schumer, showed a world map, each continent faithfully cut from coloured paper and glued to a sheet of blue, onto which was traced the journey of Aimee Airington, the sixteen-year-old sailor attempting to circumnavigate the world. A photo Sam had taken from her blog, of Aimee sitting on her sailboat, her blue eyes looking dreamily past you, her signature red jacket and blond hair blowing in the breeze, was set in the centre. At different points along the line of her journey, Sam had posted brief, typed updates. Jack touched his finger to the last update in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where, two days ago, Aimee had disappeared. The story was everywhere. Boys who had tormented Sam for his crush now showed reverence when passing the bulletin board. It was only in the morning, before the students arrived, that Jack dared touch Sam’s shrine.
Sam and the rest of the boys, the other teachers, maybe everyone in the world, were praying for Aimee’s safety. But Jack was hoping she’d never come up from the place in the ocean where he held her down with his fingertip.
He would scarcely have known about Aimee Airington were it not for Sam. Her attempt at circumnavigation was a story he’d seen online and not clicked on; this must have been in January. Soon after, Sam wanted to make an announcement during class, and Jack obliged. Because it was Jack’s first year and because he’d gone to public schools, being among the Trinity boys was like being in a foreign country and, while he clung firmly to his history lessons, he deferred to them in all matters of protocol. He thought Sam was going to tell his classmates about the bulletin board he’d put together and be back in his seat in about ten seconds, but the kid gave a five-minute speech. He explained the bulletin board – on which he would mark every day of the young sailor’s progress – and then paraphrased her bio from the website. Boys got fidgety as the talk stretched on. Jack pitied the kid; even among a roomful of freshman, Sam was small. His face was unblemished and perfectly hairless, like a young girl’s. His blazer ate him. And he was badly in need of a haircut. At the end of his speech, he tossed his last hope for social acceptance overboard by pumping his fist and shouting “Go Aimee!”
The bulletin board drew a lot of attention from the other teachers and staff. Several athletes got into it, too. All through the spring, they followed Aimee’s journey through Sam’s updates: her launch in California, down the Pacific and around Cape Horn, across the Atlantic toward Cape Town. Jack felt obligated to agree whenever another teacher said “What an inspiring kid,” or “Amazing, huh?” But he barely heard what they were saying. His niece’s arrival last fall had dampened his ability to focus.
One afternoon, after Aimee had been at sea for a couple months, Jack found Sam posting an update after school. The kid stayed late for half a dozen academic clubs, but excused himself whenever his project called.
“She’s about to finish crossing the Atlantic.”
“That’s great, Sam. When should she wrap this thing up?”
Jack dug his hands into his pockets and moved closer to the bulletin board. Sam finished applying the update and stepped back so that he and his teacher could admire his work together.
“Do you sail, Sam?” Jack asked.
“Do your parents have some kind of boat on the Ohio?”
“No. They golf.”
“So you don’t have any sea legs. Why are you so interested in this sailor?”
Sam turned a stung look his way. Then he looked at Aimee’s picture. “Well, it’s amazing what she’s doing, you know. Sailing around the world by herself.”
“And… she’s following her dream.”
“What’s your dream, Sam? Something like this?” Jack pointed at the bulletin board. “Climbing some mountain or something?”
“I don’t know. I might like to be an ambassador. Or in the U.N.”
“Well, do well here, get into a good college. You know that already.”
“Was your dream to be a teacher?”
Jack gazed at the red paper cut-out of North America, his eyes going blurry around the Midwest. He took off his glasses and pressed his thumb and forefinger into his sockets. “I don’t remember.”
“I’d better get going.” Sam started to walk away.
Jack called after him, “I wanted to be the starting shortstop for the Reds.”
Sam turned around. “Were you close?”
Jack’s home since finishing his master’s was a two-bedroom apartment in a red brick building with quiet tenants. For one week last August he’d enjoyed waking up early, listening to NPR while he ate breakfast, and walking the two miles to Trinity; a zigzag of streets led him by well-tended homes and houses turned into offices and salons. His route was thick with trees and their blessed shade. Then his sixteen-year-old niece, Leigh-Anne, moved in.
Now he had to make sure she was up in the morning and ready for school; she wasn’t easily roused, but once she was up and showered and dressed, she talked over Morning Edition about nothing he could follow – a crazy person she and her friends saw, something someone he didn’t know tweeted. She wore jeans and hippie tops or tee shirts of bands he didn’t know, and all her clothes emitted a ripe, earthy smell. Her face, which as a little girl had been like polished ivory, was uninterrupted from ear to ear with dark freckles and silver objects: studs sprouting above her lips and eyes and in her nose, hoops dangling from her ears. Bunches of black curls hung about her busy face. She ate nothing for breakfast but a handful of dry cereal and pills from a prescription bottle, and washed that down with a swig from a two-litre of Coke, the same bottle Jack used to mix himself a drink in the evenings. Then he drove her to school. She changed NPR to New Rock. There wasn’t time to drive home and enjoy his walk to Trinity, so Jack drove and arrived early.
Jack grew used to his students. They were not unlike himself and the boys he’d known in school: Even in their uniforms, he could identify the socially mobile, the rebellious, the awkward (like Sam), and those who floated politely through the halls and classrooms (like Jack had). The boys’ personalities often ballooned against their uniforms: Polo or another logo on the left breast of the particularly well-to-do boys’ pressed shirts, loose knots in the ties of the faux-hawked “punks.” But they all wore the sheen of privilege like a stain they were unaware of. While Jack knew it wasn’t their fault, he couldn’t help harbouring a distaste for the boys as a whole, even though he liked certain individuals. He could even say that he liked most of the students in his classes; they were attentive to his history lessons, often earnest in their work, and sometimes even genuinely interested in the subject at hand.
It made him wonder what in the hell was going on over at Leigh-Anne’s school. Though it probably was just Leigh-Anne. The afternoon after Jack had run into Sam in the hall, he stayed at school late and then went to the grocery (he’d texted Leigh-Anne – she didn’t listen to voice-mail – to tell her he’d bring pizza home for dinner). When he arrived, his niece was sitting at the kitchen table, her legs pulled in close and her bare feet hanging over the edge of her chair. She was smoking a joint. His bourbon was on the table next to a tumbler of melting ice.
“What’s going on?” Jack said. “Having a cocktail while you wait for dinner?” He pointed at the joint she was holding over her knees. “And where’d you get this?”
“Somewhere,” she said. “Put that pizza down, I’m starving.”
Jack set the pizza down and draped his blazer over the back of his chair. He held a hand out for the joint, and took a hit before handing it back. He made himself a strong drink.
“Lucas has been hooking up with my now ex-friend, Jules. That’s why I’m getting fucked up.”
“Let me ask you something.”
“Is it, why is Lucas a giant asshole? Or, why is Jules such a slut? I don’t know.”
“What do you think of Aimee Airington?”
“The girl sailing around the world. You know who I’m talking about, right?”
“Spell it for me.” Leigh-Anne picked up her phone sideways to thumb the name on the QWERTY keys. “Oh yeah, I saw this on Twitter.”
“Well, what do you think about it?”
“I don’t know.” Leigh-Anne squinted at the screen, skimming the story. “How does she have enough to eat for that long?”
“I’m not sure, but I’m curious how her doing that makes you feel, since you’re the same age and all.”
“Seems impossible that she could take enough to eat.”
Jack huffed. “You’re getting caught up on details. I just want to know what you think about it. About her attempting to sail around the world at sixteen.”
Leigh-Anne set down her phone and picked up a slice of pizza. “I wouldn’t want to do it. Be alone all that time. Sounds boring.”
“So you’re not impressed.”
“I don’t know. I guess so. I just don’t see why you’d want to do that.” She inhaled the last of the joint. “Like, what’s the point?”
Jack picked up his bourbon. “Go easy on this stuff, all right?” He shook the half-empty bottle. “It’s a school night, for Christ’s sake.”
And then Aimee disappeared in the Indian Ocean. This time, when the story appeared on Yahoo, Jack clicked on it. He expected Sam would be a wreck, but instead he arrived in class early, as usual, and took his seat and opened his notebook to a fresh page. Jack asked him what he thought had happened. Sam said Aimee had been caught in a storm, which was to be expected, and that satellite contact had been lost, but he was confident she was perfectly safe; the worst, he was sure, was that she’d been blown slightly off course. Her journey might take a few more days. He was going to wait to hear from her before updating his bulletin board.
It was the next day, after Jack had secretly wished for Aimee to never come back, that the school’s optimism began to fade. The teachers and students who’d taken the greatest interest in Aimee talked solemnly in the halls. Some boys wanted to do something. A prayer vigil for Aimee was announced for Saturday night. Sam asked Jack to come.
Jack didn’t expect to find Leigh-Anne at home; most Fridays she stayed out long past his bedtime and then spent half of Saturday in bed. But he heard noises from her room. She’d never brought a girlfriend over, and Jack put off knocking for a while, before finally deciding he ought to at least know was in there with her. Maybe it was Jules and the girls were making up. But Leigh-Anne was alone, lying back on a pile of pillows on her bed, thumbing her phone. Her stereo – an old one of Jack’s – was playing something screamy to suit her scattered clothes and magazines and a Leinenkugel she had plundered from the fridge.
“Are you going out tonight?” Jack asked.
“I don’t know.”
Jack looked at the sea of balled-up tee shirts and issues of SPIN and Alternative Press; not even a footpath to Leigh-Anne’s bed had been carved out of the clutter. It made him motion sick. How many hundreds of dollars of this stuff and the girl didn’t really have a thing.
“How’d you like to go to the mall and let me get you some new clothes?”
“What?” Leigh-Anne laughed, out of flattery or embarrassment, Jack didn’t know.
“I just thought you might like to go shopping, that’s all. Do you need anything?” Jack felt that embedded in the graffiti print of her nylon track jacket was an insult directed at him.
“Besides, I don’t think I’ve bought you anything since you were little.”
“I guess I could use some things. How about just giving me the money and letting me go shopping. That’s what Grandma and Grandpa do.”
And you spend it on trash, Jack wanted to say. For Christ’s sake, don’t start spending it on shit to put up your nose, or pump into your veins.
“All right. But buy something nice with it. Go to the Gap.”
Leigh-Anne laughed again. She took a drink of her beer.
“You can borrow the car tomorrow if you’ll do that. But no drinking and driving. I’ve got to go to a prayer vigil for Aimee Airington.”
“The sailor. The girl. She’s lost at sea. Ring any bells?”
“She’s lost? Do you think she’s dead?”
“Christ, I don’t know. I honestly don’t care.”
“Like you said: What’s the point?”
The vigil was held on the football field. From his darkened classroom, where he was hiding out, Jack watched boys and their families line up at the gate to receive a candle and a small, printed prayer; like the bulletin board, these prayers were carefully prepared by Sam. Jack imagined the sea of tiny, hopeful lights spreading across the yard lines and the glowing, solemn faces turning toward the home stands where Father Maguire, Trinity’s spiritual advisor, was about to speak. Jack didn’t pray – didn’t believe in it. And he certainly couldn’t believe in it now, after he’d failed to pray when his family needed it most, when his sister was killing herself.
There were small footsteps in the hall.
“Mr. MacKaye?” Sam held two unlit candles in his hands.
“Why are you sitting in the dark? It’s about to start.”
“You go on, Sam. I’ll be along.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
Jack asked Sam to sit down.
“Don’t you think it’s unfair,” Jack said, “that Aimee Airington, just because she’s born to the right people, gets to sail around the world when she should be in school?”
“She’s home-schooled, actually.”
“That’s not the point, Sam. I’m asking if you ever think about why she gets her own sailboat before she’s old enough to drive, and gets the whole world’s attention when she tries to sail around it.”
Sam frowned. He clearly didn’t understand.
“She gets all that – and what do normal kids get?”
“Are you saying I should be jealous of her?”
“I don’t know. You’re a Trinity boy, you’re special enough.” Jack raised his hand high to form a line in the air. “Aimee Airington is up here, okay. One of the luckiest kids to ever live. Has got the money and the support to… What did you say? Follow her dream. And you’re here–” he lowered his hand to eye level. “You’ve got it good. Parents send you to a good school, have a college fund set aside for you. I doubt they’d let you leave school to try some crazy feat, but still. Other kids… other kids don’t even know if their parents love them. They sleep around and take every drug they can get their hands on, just looking for something to make them feel right. And nothing works. Nothing works, Sam. They’re down here.” He slammed his palm on the desk. Sam winced. “They’re sooner dead than feeling right.” Jack turned toward the window. The football field was aglow. “The whole world loves your precious Aimee. She doesn’t need me.”
The vigil’s glow drew Sam outside. Jack didn’t follow him.
His car was still parked at his apartment building; Leigh-Anne had either not gone shopping or she was already back. Jack imagined the $150 he’d given her blown on tee shirts from Hot Topic. Or weed. Why’d he let her have it? It would be all right if she’d bought just one nice thing. A summer dress from the Gap or wherever kids shopped these days could be the thing that began to turn her away from the same mistakes her mother made. He wanted her to wake up to the world, go to college, find joy. At the least, he wanted her to not leave him and her grandparents wondering every day if they were going to get a call telling them she’s dead. If only he found her modelling her new dress, she would be okay.
The television lit up the empty living room. Jack called out for Leigh-Anne. From her room sprinted a shirtless boy whose eyes were hidden under pitch-black bangs; a flash of ribs and denim slid past Jack and out the door before he could process what was happening. Leigh-Anne appeared outside her door with a scream, pulling her tee-shirt down to cover her nakedness. Her white legs glowed in the dark hallway, startling Jack; her adult legs, which he’d never seen, were the ivory she’d been as a child. Nothing was said for a minute. Then Leigh-Anne turned to go into her room.
“Wait,” Jack said. “We have to talk about this.”
Leigh-Anne spoke quietly, perhaps even with remorse: “I’m just getting my underwear.”
Jack followed her to the door, and then waited as she went inside to find her underwear among the mess on her floor. He began to speak, embarrassed to be heard saying what he needed to say – to be playing father. “I said your girlfriends could come over but I never said anything about boys. You should have asked me first.” From inside her room, Leigh-Anne groaned. “What were you thinking? You’re sixteen. You shouldn’t be doing this… stuff. Not yet.”
Leigh-Anne finally returned to the hallway to face Jack.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should’ve asked if Lucas could come over tonight. But it’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s not your fault. No one’s ever shown you.”
They were both struck dumb by Jack’s words. How could they move away from those words now that they filled the space between them? It felt as if they might be stuck in the dim half-light of the hallway forever.
The television volume was suddenly raised by the urgent pitch of a news anchor: Aimee Airington had made contact. She was unharmed. She was coming home.
“That’s good,” Leigh-Anne said. “Isn’t that good?”
“Yeah, that’s good. Let’s go watch.”
This post is brought to you by
How to Stop the Burning
by Zubaida Bello
In How to Stop the Burning, Zubaida Bello’s poetry focuses on themes of womanhood and inheritance, offering the audience an intimate portrait of herself through her words.
About The Author
Patrick Nevins is an associate professor of English at Ivy Tech Community College. His writing appears in HAD, Signal Mountain Review, and other places. “Pray for Her” is from The Commission of Inquiry: Stories (forthcoming from Cornerstone Press).
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