This story won honorable mention in our Summer 2011 fiction contest.
The grey over-head blushed white from sunlight; normally, when it wasn’t so bright, you could see Mister Simmons’ balding reflection even from the back of the bus, but today you only saw the meticulous but telling tufts of combed hair. Rows of little heads—brown, blonde and black— swayed to the jostles of the road in rows of blackish grey seats. Ansel in the back, bending his head and timidly raising his hand up to his red hair to make sure the generous amount of gel his mother combed into it hadn’t come undone. With care, he touched the hardened autumn streaks as if briefly tapping the face of a drum. Good, it was still in place.
If Mother was here
And my hair was messy
She’d start fussing
Kneeling then combing and combing
Purple plastic claws tearing at my scalp
“Hey, Antsy!” Bringing his head back up, Ansel wondered what he had done this time. Randy’s face, wide and rude, sat on his crossed arms atop the back of his seat, his lips curving into a lopsided smile. “Checking the carrot salad?” Randy’s smile peeled back into laughter, turning rows of little heads around looking at Ansel, laughing at him. Ansel tried to look them in the eyes, but they kept turning to the person next to them and laughing harder. Looking at Randy, who didn’t turn away, Ansel’s face was burning and his chest twisting in on itself. He wanted to say something mean, needed to say something to make Randy sorry for what he’d said. But his mind was blank; all he could think of was how much he hated Randy. “You’re stupid!”
Randy, still grinning, simply turned back into his seat. Ansel felt small and stupid. At least Elenie up in the front hadn’t heard and laughed at him. He didn’t want to see the other children or be here with them anymore, so he looked out of the window at the cars passing by him on the highway. They weren’t cars, not anymore: they were space shuttles.
Shuttles flying across the darkest stretch of pavement
Their huge fiery engines setting them Free
Free of everything blending together
Where Wonder never hides
Wonder vivid and full with nothing around to dim it
Only the black stretch of freedom
They were coming closer to a big lump of trees trying to get closer to the skies. Ansel’s father told him it was called Red Mountain once when he had to bring Ansel along for business at the University. The highway had cleft the mountain in two, and to the right, standing above the trees, was a length of grey, slightly smudged by the blue sky. That must be the Vulcan they’re going to see. Ansel’s shuttle passed the dark grey and rustic scars of Red Mountain, running alongside the highway.
After the bus was parked, they were standing at the ticket booth waiting for Mister Simmons’ to pay for everyone. Up the cement pathway a sandy-stone tower reared up the statue of Vulcan. Everyone was making fun of the statue’s uncovered butt. It was strange, but Ansel didn’t care.
Anvil, Left, and left side, burning white
His arrow, right, and right side pale blue and darkest blue
He doesn’t care what they think
His legs, his butt, his back and arms are naked and unprotected
And he is unafraid
While Ansel was staring at the statue, he suddenly became aware of how hot it was. His face felt thick with sweat. Elenie and her friend Melissa were sitting off to the side of the walkway, in the grass. The back of Elenie’s blonde hair was white from sunlight and her eyes were in the sky. She was laughing at something Melissa said. He wished he’d heard it and knew what she thought was so funny. They both looked at him. His heart went into action, racing away before his mind could start. He smiled, they started giggling. Some of the others around him were laughing too; Randy now was also laughing, something was wrong. Between breathes Randy managed to say “look at Antsy’s hair!” Running over to the ticket booth and looking at his reflection, Ansel saw his hair had come undone and had puffed out like an orange fur ball. In the reflection Ansel saw the children laughing behind him. His cheeks burned again, with his eyes joining them. His shame held him in place. “That’s enough.” Ansel looked and saw Mister Simmons alternating his glare between Randy and the others. After they quieted, Simmons said “That’s better. Now follow me, we’re going to head to the top of the statue.” As Ansel fell in with the others he saw Elenie looking at him, smiling and looking away. She was probably thinking about how stupid he looked. He wasn’t sure if that smile was beautiful or ugly.
A handful of students crammed in with Mister Simmons into the elevator that leaned against Vulcan’s tower. The rest of the class had to take the stairs. Ansel, getting in first to make sure he was closest to the window, wanted to see the Birmingham area as they rode up into the sky. Seeing the ground flying away from him sent a trill through him. He was riding up the iron cocoon of scaffolding wrapping around a shuttle. The elevator stopped and opened up. Ansel ran out onto the observer’s platform and looking down saw the slits in the platform that made it seem see-through. Ansel’s heart leapt up at the sight, but soon settled. No one else had fallen through it yet, so why should he worry?
The other classmates were starting to come up the stairway and hesitantly walking out onto the platform. He heard laughter again from the children and became angry; he was getting tired of them. But they were laughing at him. He turned back to the elevator and Mister Simmons’ was holding the elevator door while Randy stood with his back again the glass window. He was glad Randy was now being mocked. Then Ansel looked at Randy’s face. It was twisting and riving as his eyes grew red and puffy while the others laughed at him. Ansel felt sorry… for Randy and himself, and he was tired of feeling like that. He walked into the elevator and said “come on!” Randy shook his head. Ansel stood next to him and said “close your eyes.” Randy gave him a mean look, then softened and closed his eyes. Ansel put a hand on Randy’s shoulders, which were large for a 13-year-old’s, and started walking him out of the elevator. When they got out Ansel put one of Randy’s hands on the railing. “Don’t open your eyes yet.” Randy firmly nodded. Ansel walked him around until the whole city was in view. “Alright, open your eyes. Go on, open them!” Meekly Randy opened up the tiniest view with his eyes and then they flew up. “Wow,” he said letting go of the railing. He looked down, stumbled and put his hands back on the railing. He turned and gave Ansel a weak smile and a shrug.
Ansel looked out on the city himself, seeing the greens and browns and greys wrapped in a thin blanket of blue, underneath the toes of Vulcan. A whip of wind blew through Ansel’s hair and it felt so good. The sight of Birmingham from here gave his heart wings and up-lifting air to make it soar higher than any bird or ship ever could.
Have I lived in Wonderful place so long?
Looking for Wonder when Wonder was here
Looking on bearded face above, arrow pointed high
Pointing back where he and his mountain-ship came
Out from black weave of Wonder in the sky
Landing, leaving the stars, to weave new Wonders
They were boarding the bus to leave. Heading for the back of the bus, Ansel sees Elenie in one of the front seats alone. Looking at her made him aware of his frizzy red hair again. He wanted to sit next to her, but he didn’t know what he would do after that, and she might not like him sitting next to her just like that. She looked up at him and smiled and he sat down next to her.
“Your hair is messed up,” she said, still smiling.
“Could you help?” Ansel said.
She reached up and smoothed some of his hair out.
“There, that’s a little better. You have nice hair.”
“Thank you.” He wasn’t sure what to say as he smiled and looked into her blue eyes.
“I wanted to tell you… you have beautiful blue eyes, like the sky.”
She smiled again, “Thank you.”
As the bus drove off Ansel and Elenie both looked out the window at Vulcan, standing on top of his tower, pointing forward.
Sean Hogan is a twenty-one-year old living in Leeds, Alabama. He works as an editor, photographer, and graphics designer for Herald News Media Services, which he helped found with his father and brother. His hobbies include writing, reading, painting, filming, editing, and playing saxophone.