“A Good Brain,” by Chelsea Laine Wells

People Holding Candles

In Allison’s junior year her father’s illness worsened and he quit working. Her brother dropped out of college and upped his hours at the warehouse and Allison found a weekend job at the historical park. It was a relief to escape the house and its reek of medicine and body, the constant din of the television, the thrum of the humidifier. She liked the dress they gave her, like Anne of Green Gables.

Her station was the candle shop. She memorized a script about paraffin and dipping technique and recited it too softly but with perfect accuracy because, as her father said, she had a good brain.

There was an older boy. Ronny. She remembered him from her freshman year, the way he walked the halls in sunglasses and flirted with the female teachers. Ronny caught her watching him one Saturday during the morning meeting and winked before she snatched her gaze away. Her whole body throbbed and she heard nothing else the manager said.

Ronny visited her candle shop that afternoon. She recited her script for a group while he watched half-smiling with one elbow on the counter. Then he tipped his tri-corner hat just forward and told her she was sharp as a tack and cute as hell. On her fifteen minute break she let him pull her behind the stable at the edge of the grounds and kiss her and she fell into it, spinning, until his thumb slid full over her breast, slowly and without apology, and she broke away. She hurried back to her station with his touch on her physical as paint. Later at the timeclock she heard her name around a corner and the words frigid bitch.

The next day Ronny was at the smithing shop with Teresa, an older girl Allison had heard rumors about. Ronny’s hand slid down Teresa’s hip. They laughed in her direction. A group approached but Ronny and Teresa ignored them. Teresa whispered to Ronny, her fingers pulling lightly at the chest hair in the V of his shirt. They laughed again and Allison stared unseeing at the candles dangling from their metal frames attached to a Made-in-China wagon wheel. The guests surrounded her with their sandals and shorts, their veiny legs, their parchment maps and cameras and purses. She could not find her script anywhere in her good brain. They shifted, cleared their throats. Ronny was in the corner of her eye like a sliver of glass, hurting. In that moment every bad thing that had ever happened to Allison boiled up at once: her father skinny and sleeping slack-mouthed on the couch, the kitten she saw hit by a car last summer, the girls who bullied her on a field trip in fourth grade until she ran crying to the museum bathroom. Ronny’s hard careless voice. Frigid bitch.

Allison squared herself on the candles. She ran her fingers along their smooth white bodies and they clicked hollow and unmusical like bones, like keys ripped from the mouth of a piano, like long dead fingers, an empty ring satisfying in its lightness. A little boy standing at her elbow whispered, “Pretty,” and reached to touch without touching.

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Chelsea Laine Wells has been published in Third Point Press, PANK, wigleaf, The Butter, and Cease, Cows, among others. She is managing and fiction editor of Hypertext Magazine and founding editor of Hypernova Lit, an online journal publishing the writing and art of high school students. Find out more about her at www.chelsealainewells.com and follow her on Twitter at @chelsea_l_w.