Coming of Age

by Ryan J. Burden

1

All that he remembers, for as long as he remembers, is the mountain.

Mason is a child—he is not yet old enough to understand his disability, nor is he able to describe it. He has been told that he has left the mountain more than once, that he has been to the surrounding towns: the park and library in Cavalcade, the old amusement park in Mania, and even to the shops in Providence, the major city inland. Almost every day he boards a bus that takes him down into the valley to the small school in Oshokten, where he is a student in the fifth grade. He sits in the back and scans the empty seats in front of him, imagining the children who will fill them later on, once he has left his mind behind him and is wholly unaware of his surroundings. He imagines they are calm and happy. He knows he has seen them, spoken to and played with them, because his parents tell him stories in which he plays major roles. Still, he is unable to remember. It is as though, while his body goes out wandering, his mind prefers to stay behind, a happy hermit shut up on its mountaintop, completely ignorant of everything that happens down below.

The mountain is a squat and spreading pile, melting down into the valley like a mound of mud. Its top is flattened—blasted off and scoured out by men in search of coal. The bus will trundle over this uncovered ground, the morning sunlight coming from below to paint the ceiling with its pale, golden glow, then suddenly shift down and drop onto the road that leads into the valley. Mason always loses himself right here, at the same spot—just as he goes by the granite boulder at the mountain’s base. There is no feeling he is able to associate with this occurrence. No bright suffering, no mental rip. It is simply a transition. He imagines it is just as much as people feel when they are shot directly in the head. In fact, he is aware enough to know that what he is when he is not aware is probably like death. The only difference is that his mind always waits to meet him at the day’s end, when the bus returns him to his home. He finds himself alone and in the very last seat, staring out through the exhaust-smeared window.

Mason is unlike other children, who take time to greet their homes. He never spares a thought for his inviting room, or for his rock collection, or his tattered books of science fiction. Instead, he screws his eyes up tight and tries to conjure answers to all the inevitable dinner table questions.

How was school?

The same.

Was lunch all right?

A shrug.

He checks the contents of his lunch bag every morning and makes sure that he complains about it now and then, asking if he can have ham instead of pepperoni, or for ketchup mixed into his mayonnaise. He does not know if he likes his home, because he never has known anything beside it. Mason thinks of himself as two separate persons—body and mind—and he further thinks of his mind as the more enduring of the two. He is sure that he is with his body whether he is at home, or the last seat of the bus, or wherever it goes out into the world after he has passed the big rock at the mountain’s foot. It cannot leave him. It is him—but it is also a physical thing and is therefore fragile. It requires guidance. He thinks that if his mind were similarly fragile, it would stay with him in order to protect itself. Instead, it does not care. It acts as though it is a thing much more akin to the static than to living things. A simple signal that his body picks up like a radio. A constant and superfluous secretion of the earth.

After bedtime he will hear the mountain calling him outside his window. It has a name for him—a name it whispers on a breath that smells of blasted earth and granite. It is not a name he can pronounce, but he knows by the sound of it that it is his, and that it is an insult.

2

As he takes his seat for dinner, Mason’s father asks him if he knows a boy named Fisher. Mason says he does not think he does. His father answers through a mouthful of baked beans.

“Family took off somewhere. No one seems to know.”

His mother has her eyes closed and has not touched food since they sat down.

“They’re gone for good, Spoon,” she says. “Everybody knows it.”

Mason’s father rolls his eyes. “Don’t worry, I’m not going too far after anybody for a thousand dollars.”

Now he winks at Mason, grabs the pan of beans, and pushes it across the table.
Mason says, “I’ve had enough.”

Spoon cocks his head and stares at him with narrowed eyes. It is a look that Mason hates. It makes him feel as though his father is deliberately searching for an explanation—not from Mason’s mouth, but in the private space between the front of his skull and its back.

“I’m not hungry,” Mason says again.

“Well, if you’re finished, you can go and feed the dogs.”

“Gone forever,” Mason’s mother says. Her head drifts softly backwards, a balloon. “Nobody ever sees those Fishers. Not ever again.”

3

It is a walk of seventy steps from the kitchen door out to the kennel. Mason counts them quickly, each soft footfall in the blue dust, each sharp snap of a twig. The darkness closets him and seems to bear him along with it, like a passenger in its velvety car. It takes him gently down the path up to the kennel door where finally, it pauses. He can hear the sound of restless dogs in motion all along the walls. As he stands listening, he hears one risk a plaintive whine. This is the third night he has heard such whining since a week ago when he stopped giving them their food.

Mason is of two minds. He would like the dogs to die, but he did not think it would take this long. He thought that they would simply quiet down and in a few days slip away mysteriously, as if caught by some unknown disease. Now he thinks that he will have to feed them soon, before they are so thin his father notices and checks the level of the food left in the bin. But he will not feed them tonight. Instead, he covers up his ears and walks on past the kennel to the place where the flat mountain’s summit starts its steep decline into the valley. Here he stops to look up at the stars. He knows the names of every one of them, whether he has found them in his books or made them up himself. They are familiar to him, comforting in their slow revolutions, so unlike the antique houselights in the valley, which he fears he never will be able to explain.

He has done some hurried reasoning, which led him to conclude that his mind has become too comfortable up on the mountain and is now afraid to leave. He has decided he will try to coax it off by giving it something to fix on. He will draw away its envious attention like a trail of iron filings behind a magnet, and when it finds itself alone, out in the world, it will have no choice but to remain there.
He has set a trap, baited with a crust of bread, in the long grass near the mountain’s edge. Tonight he finds the bread has turned to plaster and is quickly crumbling and blowing off its hook. He knocks it all away and takes a new piece from his pocket, where he found it just before dinner, wrapped up neatly in a sheet of notebook paper. He hopes to catch a bird soon, which he will release from the window of the bus just as it makes the turn around the boulder at the end of the drive. He will point his eyes and his mind at it as it flies away from him, and he will follow it, and make his long-anticipated escape.

There are just a few more minutes left before his father will expect him home. Mason sits cross-legged at the edge of the cliff, watching all the momentary flickers in the lights that shine from every window in the town below. He knows that each one means a body passing and has made a game of trying to decide what they may be. Tonight, he counts six people, a horse, and a cloud of fireflies out of a thousand other, indistinguishable shifts.

4

Coming home from school this afternoon, Mason wakes to something new. Instead of the familiar rock, he sees a small house, set back from the road, with a porch surrounded by bright beds of viburnum and phlox. A boy is walking up the steps onto the porch. He pauses at the top to strip a bunch of petals from a branch, then lets them go and watches as the wind distributes them in roving patterns out across the yard. There is a long moment during which the petals scatter, twirling, and Mason comes to realize he is not alone—his mind has come to him from off the mountain.

He is kneeling on the backseat with his face pressed up against the glass, which starts to rattle as the bus knocks into gear. A wind is blowing in the valley, billowing the white lace curtains in the windows of the little house, and flipping all the green leaves in the trees so that they catch the sun.

The driver says, “Sit down.”

The little house grows smaller until it dissolves into a row of similar homes stretching down into the valley. Now the bus begins to climb the first hill, and the whole scene disappears behind a screen of oak and poplar.

“Sit down!”

Mason scrambles off his seat and starts to stagger drunkenly up toward the front. He has a feeling in his chest like long tongues licking at his swollen heart.

“I have to go back. I forgot something.”

“I can’t turn,” says the driver. “They won’t let me take you back.”

The bus jerks to the left—its front wheel drops into a pothole that is deep and hardened at the edges—and its quaking frame throws Mason down onto the nearest bench.

He knows that he is close to home because the bus is moving uphill, not fast but steadfastly, keeping pace with his rising anxiety.

Sitting up, he sees the old, familiar rock. It looks much different to him now, its edges dulled, graffiti faded in the rain. He knows that there has been a change in him, and now he feels that this change must have also happened to the mountain. He imagines that the air is thicker. The pattern of the bus’s rattle over every stone and pothole rings untrue.

He leaves the bus reluctantly, fighting hard against the urge to turn and run back down the drive. He senses more than sees his father waiting for him, sitting on an upturned bucket just outside the kennel door, his fingers tangled in his stiffened hair, his open shirt blown out around him in the breeze.

The bus gears grind, and Mason hears it start to roll back down the hill, away from him and into the valley, empty and closed.

“Mason.”

Spoon does not yell. He speaks firmly. Suddenly the air is still and carries his voice like a ripple. With an arm around his stomach and his head already low, Mason goes to meet his father. He counts ninety steps between the driveway and the kennel, each one soft and soundless. Spoon lifts up his head, and Mason sees his eyes are filled with blood; his face is pale as vinegar.

He says, “You tried to starve my dogs.”

Mason slips his backpack off his shoulders and lets it drop onto the ground. He keeps his mind filled with the image of the boy, the falling flowers, and a kind, imaginary hand that beckons to him from the little house’s open window. Just this single sight has made everything different, though he does not know if he has changed, or if it is the world that has changed around him. Staring down into the packed dirt at his father’s feet, where he can see the scalloped edges of a buried shell jut from the clay, he finds the courage to say, “They ignored me…”

Spoon’s thick leather boots twist inward in frustration.

“It’s up to you to make damn sure that never happens.”

Mason has an answer. He can feel it blowing up like a balloon inside his chest. But it does not explode. It only expands and grows heavier until he cannot speak at all. Spoon stands up and opens up the kennel door, and Mason steps through into the wet smell of leaves and concrete and the warm humidity of twenty breathing bodies.

Now at least he has his answer. It is not the world that has changed.

5

Sometimes, just before first light, Mason wakes into a state that seems halfway between reality and dream. It seems his mind does not know what to do with the blue shadow of a bedpost on the wall, the wrinkled shirt-sleeve spilling from the dresser, or the pile of loose paper on the bedroom floor. It is just like this the next time he regains himself, so long before his home, so long before the bus, even, that he is frozen where he stands.

There are children everywhere. More children than he ever has imagined in one place, all laughing, screaming, murmuring to one another, whirling around him in shoals. While his mind is frozen they appear to him like little more than shapes and colors—pale white, round, and oblong faces, disorienting flashes of red, gray, and green. Growing dizzy now, he shuts his eyes tight, concentrating on escaping into himself. But the sound of all the people all around him rushes in; it will not be ignored. Soon he starts to feel his mind respond. It steps away from him and wanders out into the fray. He looks around more carefully, trying hard to understand just where he is. Close by him is the entrance to a wooden ship, sunk neatly in a sea of shredded rubber. Other children run around it giggling and lapping up against its hull. He looks up at a blackened branch above him, blinks, and follows it back down the tree’s trunk, then across the steaming blacktop to the redbrick wall of the schoolhouse. Large black letters spell “Oshokten Elementary.”

He feels a sharp tug at his sleeve and hears an unfamiliar voice say, “Mason, Mason.”

The boy is his own age, with a pale, thin face and turned-up nose. He hops quickly backward when he sees Mason’s surprise.

“What’s wrong?”

Mason swallows, and the boy squints at him.

“You look different.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Mason says. “You look the way you look.”

“Not all the time. What happened?”

“Nothing.”

The boy leans in close. His stare makes Mason think of how his father looks at dogs, as though deciding what to ask of them. And he thinks that his own reaction must be how the dogs feel, frightened that the question will be one they cannot understand.

“You’re trying to get out of it. You said you’d talk to her. You can’t go back now.”

Mason follows the boy’s gaze across the playground to a pair of girls, who are standing near the cracked white lines of the hop-scotch court. Unsure how he should reply, he asks the only question he feels certain is appropriate.

“Which one?”

“Which one!”

Mason shrinks a little as the boy latches a hand around his elbow and begins to push him on his way. “I don’t care if you’re blanked-out again. How hard is it to ask a question? Just do it already.”

The girls have begun to show their interest in the boys’ conversation. Mason focuses on one of them, who is the prettiest and has a face that looks a little like his mother’s.

“Say you like her dress,” the new boy says. Her dress is pale and yellow, the color of a flycatcher’s breast. “Go on, the bus is coming soon.”

Mason starts to walk, his mind still wandering before him. He is wary of the other children rushing all around him and is troubled by the blacktop’s uniformity, which makes him feel too quick and light. The girl watches him approach and, when he is only ten or twenty steps away, says something to her friend, who nods and runs off toward another group. Her eyes are blue-green, almost brown. For a moment Mason stands by silently, hoping she will be the first to speak. Two boys run by, pelting one another with handfuls of gravel. The girl turns aside to watch, and Mason studies the transparent hairs that line her cheek, the dry skin on her lips, and the calm way her lashes press together when she blinks.

When she turns back to him, she has one eyebrow raised.

He says, “I like your dress.”

She is quiet, staring off at something over his shoulder. Then she says, “I like you, too.”

There is a smear of graphite dust along her nose. Mason reaches out and rubs this smudge away, because it is at least something he knows that people do. It is strange to touch a person other than his parents. He feels a thrill that he cannot explain. Her head tilts at his touch and her eyes go wide and dumb. He wonders if this girl might be something like his rock—a second landmark, further out than he has ever been before. He says, “I love you,” and feels guilty, both because he sees the new boy’s jaw drop, as though what he said is somehow both surprising and wrong, and because the girl lifts her chin and stares at him, and he can tell she thinks he has done something selfish, and he cannot ever take it back.

6

Now when he returns home it is to discover everything anew. His memories are like the memories of photographs that he has seen. They are too static, much too rigid in their form and content to be taken for reality. The house, until he enters it, stands against the sky like a stiff paper screen, hiding something shy and inaccessible. Even his own room feels like a lifeless copy of the only place where he has ever felt safe; where he has at all times felt whole. At dinner he wants desperately to tell his parents about Lily. When he says he has a girlfriend, they both stare. Even his mother, who has been only half-attentive all night.

“What’s her name?” Spoon asks.

“It’s Lily.”

“What’s her last name?”

Mason does not know. In the weeks that they have spent together, he has never asked.

“Got to have one,” Spoon says. “Everybody does.”

Mason chews as slowly as he can. Only forty paces from the door there is the kennel, full of dogs that are now worse than simple animals that do not pay him any mind. Now they are just stand-ins, cut-outs. Now he knows he has no chance of gaining their affection.

Spoon kicks Mason’s mother underneath the table. “Keep your head on.” Then, to Mason, “What color is her hair?”

“Brown,” he says.

Spoon laughs. “That won’t help.”

Mason wonders if describing hair is not supposed to be this simple. “Yellow-brown,” he says, “like yours.”

Spoon considers. “Fosters have a Lily, but they’ve all got red hair.”

Mason’s mother rubs her bloodshot eyes. “Everyone?”

“Hell, yes,” Spoon says. “One thing breeding’s taught me: there are strong genes and there’s weak ones, and red hair might be the strongest. You don’t dodge red hair.” He takes another bite and turns back to Mason. “They teach you this stuff?”

Mason shakes his head no. Spoon nods, swallows, and looks slyly at Mason’s mother. “You have to fight anyone to get her?”

Mason automatically says yes. His father raises up an eyebrow, his fork laden with green beans, halfway to his mouth.

“Fighting!” says his mother.

“I had to.”

“See,” says Spoon, tipping his fork. “Had to.” He winks and stuffs the beans into his mouth, then speaks through the smacking sound of his own chewing. “I don’t see you beat up any.”

He wants his father to think well of him. He has seen the world now, and he believes that a boy with a girlfriend, no matter how little he knows about her or how seldom he sees her, cannot possibly be thought of as a mere boy any longer. He is something of much greater consequence. Not a man, perhaps, but still the kind of thing you do not put inside a kennel.

“It wasn’t much of a fight.”

“Hah!” Spoon’s fork and knife drop noisily onto his plate as he gives himself up to laughter. “That’s—” he chokes, pointing back and forth between himself and his son. “That’s genetics. Goddamn.”

7

Mason’s first kiss happens after school, inside a tiled alcove near the teacher’s lounge. This alcove started its life as a closet, which was then converted to a girl’s restroom and, much later, was forgotten and became an unused eddy in the winding stream of redbrick and linoleum.

The kiss is quick and fumbling. They are too tangled up in their desires and their fears. When they are finished they hold hands, and this is better. Somewhere outside, a door opens, and the shadow of a person passes by.

Lily asks, “Does your dad really sell drugs?”

“Yes,” he says.

He does not think this is a lie. There have been nights when he has seen his father sitting at the kitchen table smoking, drunk, surrounded by a ring of dirty, bearded men who talk in voices either hushed or crowding. He has seen these men dig up the yard beside the kennel in the rain, while his father looks on, and while he counts the seconds between thunderclap and lightning flash, waiting breathlessly to see his mother, outside in her nightgown, staring out across the hills.

Lily’s hand begins to sweat. She says, “You said you loved me.”

He says, “Yes,” because he did.

“I love you, too,” she says. Her face is even whiter in the alcove and in the blue light he imagines that they are together under water.

8

Lying on his back in bed, Mason holds himself stone still despite the heat. He listens for the mountain’s call, afraid that it has been so long since he last heard it that he has forgotten its sound. Maybe all of his attempts to reach out through the darkness, through the cloying summer air and smell of agitated dogs, are no more useful than his past attempts to see the outside world. Maybe his perceptions and experiences are not something he can conjure as he chooses to, no matter how he tries. Wide awake, but disgusted with his mind’s incessant focus on itself, he shuts his eyes and tries to give himself away to the coarse touch of his sheets and to the sprays of blue-and-black lights that fade in and out beneath his eyelids. They are feather-light; they fall apart and coalesce. The air he breathes is hot, but it is solid—firm enough, he thinks, to hold almost anything aloft. He is aware of his desire to get out of bed, though by the time he is within sight of the kennel, the memory has been layered with so many others of similar moments that it has become difficult to recognize.

The trap is still behind the kennel, in the shadow cast by moonlight on the eaves. As he approaches he hears something move inside—a rustle from the feathers of a pigeon that is lying in the bottom of the cage. It has been here for three days, and it does not alarm at Mason’s presence. He kneels down to look into its small, black eyes, but they are closed against him. He tries hard to recall how he meant to get the bird out of the cage once he had caught it, but cannot. It does not matter anyway. He will not need it anymore. Carefully he reaches out and flips the latch that drops the cage door. The bird’s eyes open, and it rises halfway to its feet only to settle down again. Cursing, Mason rattles the cage. The pigeon only lifts its wings enough to steady itself against the rocking. He grabs the back of the cage and lifts it upside down, shaking it until the bird flops out onto the ground.

“Get going,” Mason says. His teeth are clenched. He pushes the bird forward with his toe. It makes a soft, frightened trill and topples over on its side.

Furious, he kicks out. The bird’s claws scratch against his ankle. He leans in and stomps upon it, tentatively at first, then harder, moving from its body to its head, until he hears its bones snap underneath his heel. Panting now, he backs away and cleans his foot off in the dirt. Feathers rise and fall around him in the breeze. He sees a pattern in them, a reproachful message in a language he cannot quite understand. In bursts of rage, he kicks both bird and trap over the mountain’s edge, only calming as he watches them both tumble down into the darkness. He goes slowly home, with each step growing more aware of a dissatisfaction that is fast becoming the most recognizable of his emotions.

Mason does not want the mountain, and he does not want the world. Neither one is as he had expected it to be. Neither is as he imagines it.

9

There is a pot of fried spaghetti on the stove. His father curses when he finds that it is cold. He cuts it in two with his belt knife and drops each half onto a plate, then heats them in the microwave. As Mason sits to eat, Spoon asks him if he still sees Lily.

“Yes, sir.”

“Found out she’s a Biel. They’re charity cases. Trash, you know.” He shakes his head. “I don’t mean leave it all alone. Just take it slow and don’t hold onto her too long.”

Mason nods. Spoon grunts and wanders off into the den. Mason hears the phone click off its cradle, followed by the muffled sound of his father’s voice. The two plates of spaghetti steam. Mason’s mother is down in the basement, sleeping off a bad day. Mason stabs his fork into his plate but cannot eat. It seems to him that all his life at home has been is listening to muffled voices. Not so long ago, he would have seen things in the steam from this spaghetti—shapes of animals and human faces, dances in the air between his father’s plate and his—thermal cavortations that would slowly cool back into clean, invisible air. In many ways he is unhappy to find that his world is much bigger now. He can see the mess his parents have made of their kitchen—splattered oil on the wall above the stove, burnt strips of paper on the walls, the cracked refrigerator door, the patchwork of missing linoleum—he has not thought about any of these things until now, when he wonders how they might look to his school friends, who all live in the neat little houses strung out through the valley. He imagines that the people in those houses always sit together, all in one room, and look straight at one another as much as they please. In the den, his father’s voice goes soft, as though he is trying to smooth something over. This means he is almost done. The spaghetti has cooled off and Mason is afraid to touch it, knowing it will come up in a single mass, impossible to pick apart.

10

They are huddled up inside the wooden ship out on the playground; though, they are supposed to be in class. Lily has been urging him to skip, and he has reached the point at which he cannot say no without making her angry. It is cool inside the ship, back in the shadows of its bow, in the smell of damp pine, mulch, and rust.

Lily says, “Trevor says your dad locked you in a kennel with his dogs.”

He looks hard into her eyes and tries to see what answer she is hoping for. Her face is half in light and half in shade; her eyes dart back and forth between the two uncertainly.

He says, “He locks a lot of people in the kennel. Not for very long. They’re all fine when they get out.”

She shifts closer to him in the pine chips and the dust.

“So he lets them out.”

“Oh yes,” says Mason. “Always.”

“But still, he puts them in there. What for? Don’t they pay him?”

He has trouble concentrating on her question when she tilts her head so that the thin light from the gangway falls across her neck, which is stretched and bare.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“You don’t know!”

“He doesn’t tell me anything.”

She squints her eyes up into his. “Why?”

“Because I’m just a kid.”

“You are not!”

Lily pitches forward on her hands and knees and stares very intently at him. “You can’t be, once you’ve seen the things you have.” Blinking furiously, she waves a hand, fluttering it through the small space between them. “Your dad’s drugs, his dogs, his…” she searches for something else. “You know, the way he treats your mom.”

It is now he knows that she is not at all interested in him, as he first thought, or in his story, as he began to think later on, but only in the confirmation of a story she has ready-made for him—a story scrapped together out of years of local rumors and hearsay. This knowledge comes to him suddenly and unavoidably—a juggernaut—and suddenly the ship’s hold seems much larger, filled with light, and Lily smaller, a mere girl now, not crouched but cowering inside it.

11

Mason goes to see the dogs.

It is late. His mother is asleep, his father out somewhere in town. Mason saw him toss a sleeping bag and an old pillow in the truck bed, so he knows he will be gone a long time—probably past morning. His familiar path is overgrown with nettles and witchgrass, from within which the dead drone of insects emanates like martial pipes playing a long procession. They grow louder all the way up to the kennel door, at which point they seem to fall back and leave him to himself. Here the smells of mud, wet rock, and diesel are succeeded by the oily scent of the dogs.

Before he steps a foot inside—before he even bends to wind the heavy chain off of the handle—he is suddenly becalmed by the explicit knowledge of why he has come. It settles on him like a mark of guilt, a coat of grease and ash: he hopes the dogs will serve as his way back into the mountain’s favor.

The kennel is a watery cave, rippling with darkness. Every sound is shot at him, as though he is the center. As though nothing speaks that does not speak to him. He hears a soft whine from the cage directly to his left. Even in the darkness, he can see the dog’s distended belly hanging down beneath her. He is sorry for what he has done and wishes he had thought to bring some good food from the house. Now all he can offer is some extra feed, which he hands her through the wire. Her tongue searches frantically between his fingers as she eats. When she is finished she keeps licking straight up to his wrist. He keeps his arm out even after she retreats into the farthest corner of her cage and lies down on her side, eyes open, black and blue-green.

All night Mason will walk slowly up and down the narrow aisle in between the kennels, touching noses, cooing softly, speaking meaningless words.

Okay.

You’re fine.

Every positive apology he thinks that they might understand.