Kelly almost called in sick. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror for a while, trying to arrange her expression into something hopeful and patient. Failing that, she settled for benign and impassive, dotted some concealer beneath her eyes, and hoped for the best. On the way to school, she promised herself two cigarettes if she made it through the day without making anybody cry.
Overhead, the sky was already a hot, bright menace. Kelly pulled her sunglasses out of her bag and pushed her hair out of her face. Oscar and Don, two other teachers assigned to chaperone, leaned against the ssmall bus in the shade.
“Driver’s late,” Oscar said, cradling a cup of hot coffee.
Thirteen students showed, though twenty had signed up. The low number was not surprising. It was early, it was Saturday, and it still felt like summer outside. A few of the overachievers were genuinely excited about a visit to a sculpture garden, but most of the thirteen students were in attendance to make up for excessive absences.
When the driver finally showed, Kelly sat directly behind him so she could see out the front window. Otherwise, she’d probably puke her midnight-post-bar-and-live-music burger before they arrived. Oscar took the seat across the aisle from her. It was an arid, two hour ride to the sculpture garden. He popped a Dramamine and offered one to Kelly, but she refused, not willing to risk sleepiness in front of the students. Oscar shrugged, his dark eyes bearing the marks of chronic insomnia.
“If you weren’t going to sleep last night anyway, you should have come out with us,” she ventured.
“Couldn’t,” Oscar said.
“More like “Didn’t Want To.”
“Maybe,” Oscar leaned into his coffee and looked cold. It had to be 85 degrees on the bus, windows open wide. With the students, Oscar was easy-going and brotherly. He and Kelly were close friends (dating had not worked out like either of them wanted), but Kelly didn’t know how to reach him when he needed it most.
Kelly told him to stretch out and get some rest on the way to the sculpture garden. Don Bledsoe sat at the very back of the bus, though he retained a respectful distance from the sad and angry students in dark colors. He sipped his coffee thoughtfully and kept a steady eye on the students, asking them simple questions in either German or Latin. He refused to address any of his students in English, even outside of school, and as a result, he often had some of the best competitive foreign language students in the state. He was a method actor and a scholar, a believer in consistency and practice. Though he commanded a healthy respect from his constituents, not many tried to make small talk.
Oscar began snoring as soon as the bus hit the highway, so Kelly reached across and grabbed his half-empty coffee cup before it toppled. It was still warm. They had been on many trips like this one over the years. Once, on an extended camping trip with the freshmen, Kelly and Oscar convinced the students they were siblings and took turns making up answers to personal questions about their fake childhoods. They looked enough alike: her round face and his square jaw – remnants of her Mexican grandfather and his dark Italian grandmother. The next week, she’d spent too much time thinking about the lie. If she were his sister, he’d let her help with their dad. If she were his sister, they’d spend every holiday together and talk on the weekends. If she were his sister, she wouldn’t have to ask what his favorite kind of birthday cake was. She’d already know. Kelly caught her own reflection in the window, her white cheek lit up like an unpeeled apple in the reflected sunlight, and resolved for the fifth time that week to give up carbs for good. And cigarettes. Fernanda, a repeat junior, swung into the seat behind Kelly and sighed expectantly.
“You got gum?” She asked, extending her hand over the top of the seat. Kelly dug around her bag and placed a hard square of spearmint gum into Fernanda’s gloved palm. Her makeup which lent her a convincing deathly pallor was so fresh that the mascara was still a little wet at the tips. Kelly asked Fernanda if she’d made those fingerless gloves in her knitting class, and she nodded. Then she leaned back against the window and put her feet up.
“You don’t really want to be on this trip,” Kelly said.
“I would rather be sleeping, yeah.” Fernanda smiled like she’d been caught out, and it wasn’t the most obvious thing Kelly could’ve said.
“I think the same could be said of all of us this morning,” Kelly said, smiling back.
Kelly was going to add that Fernanda’s life would continue to be full of things that took a backseat to sleeping, but decided against it. She didn’t think she could pull it off as a joke because she meant it. And she meant it about being on this trip with a bunch of recalcitrant teenagers. Fernanda flipped the longer part of her asymmetrical haircut out of her left eye and shot Kelly a conspiratorial look.
“You have a choice,” she said.
“On some level, but not as much as you’d think.” Most of the time, she had to admit to herself, she didn’t know what she was doing. She clung to the schedule because it made sense and she liked the excitement of the fall. In class, however, her role felt more and more like a fiction. Every year, she got a raise and a set of great evaluations, in part because she got to tell the same stories class after class. She could make them better every year, all the while never really learning any new ones. History kept moving toward some undisclosed future, but her curriculum remain tied to the same books she’d taught for years. She’d never once been able to make it past the second world war.
“You ever been to a sculpture garden before?” Kelly changed the subject, knowing Fernanda was a frustrated artist who considered herself to be surrounded by dilettantes. Fernanda shook her head, disinterestedly. Kelly started to say that the pleasure of such a garden had to do with the kind of scale that takes you by surprise, about art making the people instead of the other way around. But Fernanda whipped a compact out of her purse. Kelly watched her remove a clod of base from beneath her earlobe and knew that Fernanda wanted her to be a human, not a teacher. But asking Fernanda what was really going on past the gum and the black lipstick would require effort beyond her reach at just this moment, on this Saturday morning, on this field trip.
“Thanks for the gum,” Fernanda said finally, snapping her compact shut and fake smiling at Kelly. Kelly nodded tiredly and took another sip from Oscar’s coffee. Fernanda slid back into her own seat and got out her phone.
Out west, the trees got shorter, the ground redder, and the buildings scarcer. By the time they pulled in to the parking lot, Kelly was feeling the effects of two cups of coffee. From behind the locked stall door in the Visitor Center’s bathroom, Kelly caught some of the girls’ gossip about one of the boys on the trip; Travis had come out as gay to one of them while dating another, and there was some confusion as to whether this made him bisexual, gay, or just a lousy, opportunistic liar. Kelly waited in the stall until they cleared the bathroom.
Oscar was waiting outside the lounge. Kelly felt bad that she’d finished off his coffee and offered to buy him another. He shrugged it off.
“Caffeine’s not going to do it today.” He’d been living full time with his ailing father for the past six months, and had put on hold his plans to start graduate classes in Environmental Systems. A permanent kind of tired had settled into his bones and put lines into his forehead. He pulled a little bag of trail mix out of his pocket and offered to share. Kelly accepted a handful and they headed back to the bus, where the students and Don Bledsoe were listening to a tour guide dressed in red and brown.
“Just follow the green arrows,” the tour guide was saying, “and you can move at your own pace through the works.” The name Trudy was magic markered artfully on the pocket of her uniform shirt.
The kids had gathered in small groups. Now, one of the groups surrounded Oscar as he approached, and Kelly watched him smile ruefully as one of the boys put an arm around him and reached for his bag of trail mix. Kelly drifted toward the bus behind the tour guide, listening to her directions.
“These are interactive sculptures,” she said, “and we encourage our visitors to touch the works of art, climb them, sit inside of them – whatever feels safe to you. Some pieces can be moved or reassembled. Create your own art! We want this experience to be memorable. Everyone will have a different experience here, and everyone should. Our guides are stationed around the grounds to answer questions, but we don’t give tours because you don’t need one.”
Fernanda stood alone, her hands jammed into the pockets of her black hoodie. Kelly walked over and stood next to her, motioning to another loner to extract her ear buds and pay attention. These kids, plus one boy named Travis, who was still sitting on the bus, would likely be in Kelly’s group. Every year, a few of the students in Kelly’s history classes possessed a particular kind of sensitive nature that brought about complete psychological meltdowns. The month before, Travis had locked himself into his room at the top of the stairs of his parents’ McMansion and prison tattooed the first seven lines of Leonard Cohen’s Bird On A Wire onto his left forearm. The infection had put him in the hospital for three days.
When Trudy was finished, Kelly stepped onto the bus to shoo Travis out. He joined Fernanda and Ruby, the girl with the ear buds. The path to the garden wound down around a boulder perched tenuously on the side of a rocky outcrop that rose an easy hundred feet above their heads. The sculptures, Kelly thought, would need to be pretty impressive to hold their own against this landscape. The kids didn’t speak to each other. They were all watching their feet, which were shod in fashionably unsuitable shoes. Travis would be able to feel every single pebble through his cloth moccasins, but maybe that’s exactly what he wanted. They’d all been asked to wear tennis shoes or hiking boots. Fernanda had on strappy sandals with slick leather bottoms.
Ruby, stopped to dig her phone out of the pocket of her skinny jeans. Over her shoulder, Kelly watched her pass a finger over the screen and pull up a text box. Kelly tapped her on the shoulder and told her to put her phone away.
“I’m taking a picture,” she said snottily, positioning the phone in front of her face. “These rocks are so fucking pretty.”
“Text again and I’m taking the phone,” Kelly said.
Ruby slid the phone back in her pocket and trotted ahead. She caught up with Travis, shoulder bumped him, and put an arm around his waist. He leaned in to her and they lowered their heads to talk.
They climbed a short steep incline and joined the others at the summit of what turned out to be the entrance of the park. Below them, the sculptures were so well positioned among the mesquites and deep limestone canyons that they didn’t quite register as art. At the far side of the park, Kelly could make out the remnants of an old cattle fence. Beyond it was the rest of the world. Kelly thought about coming back alone sometime, just to follow that fence for a while and see how far it went into the brush. She knew she wouldn’t, but for a moment, the conviction was strong and appealing. A few longhorns wandered around looking for green plants among the dirt, and there were two red-shirted guides sitting at stations on the far sides of the park. Other than those figures, the park was empty of movement. The first groups of kids scrambled excitedly over the edge and spilled into the park. Kelly’s group watched them disdainfully, and then looked at her.
“Do we have to do this?” Travis asked.
“I mean, we’re here, right? There’s the art. We saw it and everything. We could just go back to the bus and hang out now,” Ruby said. Fernanda stood beside them awkwardly. She knew that Ruby was not extending the invitation to her.
Kelly shook her head. “We’re going down there, and we’re going to have fun.” Travis grunted and picked at his left forearm. “And,” Kelly continued, “you venture out of my sightline, you’ll be sorry. That is a promise.”
Ruby rolled her eyes, but admitted to Travis that it could be worse.
Oscar caught up with Kelly beneath the armpit of a forty foot tall red giant whose bottom half was sunk below the surface of a brackish stock pond. She was standing in meager shade, watching the kids on the other side of the water. Fernanda had sullenly dogged Kelly’s heels the entire way, but she was now standing at the edge of a larger group of kids engaged in a stone-throwing contest. She was feigning disinterest not two feet away from the boy with questionable sexuality.
“Well, today is turning out to be less torturous than I thought,” Oscar said, placing a hand on the corrugated red tin of the giant’s left forearm. “This place is really cool.”
“I don’t know, it always sounds so fun and enriching when we’re voting in staff meetings,” Kelly said. “And then we get on the bus and I don’t know what I was thinking.” Kelly glanced around for Travis and Ruby, who were sitting under the arch of a hobbity structure comprised of permanently windswept-looking tree saplings. She ran a hand through her hair and felt dirt already gathering at the roots.
Oscar went down to the stone throwers and lured them away from their own reflections. Kelly thought she might round up her kids and follow Oscar up the hill toward a stand of trees. She turned back to Travis and Ruby and found them gone.
Kelly circled the sapling structure twice, scanning the surrounding rocks. “Did you see them take off?” she called to Fernanda, who was squatting at the stock pond, alone again, gazing at her reflection.
“Am I supposed to keep up with them?” she asked.
“Never mind,” Kelly said, not even bothering to disguise the irritation in her voice.
Travis and Ruby were already standing under the leafy canopy, holding hands and gazing raptly at a large canvas hung between two trees. At their feet was a dewy carpet of fallen leaves. Kelly stepped through the makeshift gate and was immediately struck by the air, which was damp and breathable and cool. It was difficult to believe that the same sunlight filtering softly through the branches was responsible for punishing the grounds in the rest of the park. Kelly called to Travis, but her voice had no edge, no projection. Neither he nor Ruby seemed to hear her call or notice her presence. She took a deep breath and lush, sweet air lifted her irritation. A miracle. The fine layer of dust that had settled over her lips and eyelids now felt like an affront. She passed a hand over her face and wiped her hands on her jeans.
Canvases framed in dulled gilt were rigged up around the trees, facing every direction. The first one Kelly examined featured a complicated early American village scene, full of children on their way to a parade. The streets were lined with buildings that could have been painted by Howard Finster, strangely crude in comparison to the living creatures on the road. Children fairly pulsated with light and life, so fine were their tiny expressions. The canvas next to it was the parade itself, complete with a traveling circus. Each face in the line of parading villagers was upturned, though some were concealed behind anachronistic carnival masques. Wolves, elephants, alligators, brightly twisted human mouths and chins. They all had those eyes that follow. It might have been creepy, but it was the best thing Kelly had seen all day. She felt sweetly reserved standing in front of the upturned faces. Watched and welcomed.
“What the hell.” Fernanda’s curse was muted, carrying the resonance of words spoken inside a 747 cabin cruising at 30,000 feet. She was standing too close to Kelly, too close to the painting, her finger touching the face of a naked, bald man trapped in the back of a circus train cage, his hands bound with colorful ribbons. He was surrounded by children, dancing wildly. “This looks like Mr. Bledsoe,” she said. The man did bear a strong resemblance to Don, but Mr. Bledsoe was a thin, translucent white man who wore bowties.
“Don’t touch, Fernanda,” Kelly said, batting Fernanda’s hand away from the little man.
“We’ve got to show Don,” Oscar said, clearly delighted by the find.
Kelly took another deep breath. “Are these trees part of the exhibit or what?” She asked Oscar.
He nodded, striking his chest with his fist and exhaling with gusto. “They look real to me. Maybe we’re like the gamblers in a casino. Not used to so much oxygen.” He looked around. “Look at Travis. He’s standing up straight for the first time this quarter.” Travis did look different. The color was high in his cheeks and lips as he gazed at the sky through the dense canopy. Nobody could save him from the rest of his life, she thought In college, Kelly had been in a car accident. It wasn’t her fault and she hadn’t seen it coming and she’d been stuck inside the mangled car for an hour while they pried at the doors and windows with hammers and claws. That hour, she’d thought about her lungs inside her ribcage, the tiny pressurized organs keeping oxygen moving through her veins. Kelly hadn’t been able to feel her legs, but they came out intact.
She moved past Travis and stopped in front of aslick oil depicting a sky the colors of a deep bruise. There was a person standing in a bay window at the back of a house. She held a mug of something warm, and she was long and straight and blonde, her clothes and eyes paler shades of the yellow and purple clouds. Painted into the reflection of the window was a faint figure – still and faceless and waiting just inside the tree line. Behind it, a green hillside covered in firs sloped toward a river. There was nothing all that familiar about the images, but Kelly was chilled by the expression that was not quite surfacing on the woman’s face. Did she see that figure in the distance? Did she know it was coming for her? Kelly felt a damp warmth at the back of her neck, so different from anything she’d felt all day. Maybe it was only the beginning of a headache.
Fifteen years on, that year of the accident was a resurfaced memory full of holes and flashes of nerves – the concussion on its own had left her stupid and dizzy for months afterward; the pain of re-teaching her left leg to hold weight again seemed better forgotten, anyway. It was the first time she’d been rescued by strangers and not her own family. She watched her own legs return to pale pink health over the next four months, calling for delivery and shooing her friends away. Her mother was dead by then, and her father remained relocated while she healed because he was wrapped up in the care of her younger brother.
Because she’d been young, she’d healed. Because she’d been healed, she’d been ungrateful and depressed afterward. Sometimes she thought she really could have used one of those near-death experiences instead of what she got. The miracle of her lungs felt short lived in the face of all her future years of involuntary breathing.
Oscar found himself next. His painting was propped up against a tree trunk – dark sky over dark sea, the only light in the frame falling on the shoulders of a handsome, anguished man. Here was a wilder, younger version of Oscar, shirtless, against the backdrop of a surfside bonfire blazing out of control.
“Okay, this might be getting weird,” he admitted.
“Do you recognize any of that?” Kelly asked, waving at the bonfire.
Oscar shook his head and shrugged. “Coincidence?”
Kelly felt a hand on her shoulder, and Fernanda nodded toward Travis and Ruby, a few paintings down. Travis shook his head at Kelly. His eyes had lost their brightness. “That’s Bertrand,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
Before Kelly could say anything about the naked, bloodied figure of the junior class president, a group of students tumbled in through the broken gate and were hushed by the atmosphere. Bertrand’s likeness was so pained, so ecstatic, that Kelly’s first instinct was to pull the painting from its tree-limb before Bertrand saw it.
“No,” Kelly told Travis, “It’s not.”
“Whatever,” Fernanda said. “That’s totally Bertrand.”
Kelly looked around helplessly. There was no way to stop the kids from seeing what they were about to see: Mr. Bledsoe in a cage, Bertrand crucified by Romans soldiers. There were sure to be others.
She pushed past Fernanda and back out into the stinging wind to find a tour guide. More students were headed toward the little enclave, and Kelly shouted for them to find someplace else to go. Don Bledsoe and a few students from his group approached, and she motioned for him to pull his kids away. He thought she was joking, but she told him the exhibit wasn’t appropriate.
“It’s too disturbing,” Kelly said, “I’m working on getting the ones in there out.”
“What is it?”
“I’ll explain later. Just keep your kids out,” Kelly said, sure now that the man’s upturned face in the picture inside was the spitting image of Don.
Don nodded and spread his arms to shoo his group of students back out into the park. Kelly looked down the hillside and saw Trudy, shading her eyes with her left hand and gazing up at the group. Kelly waved her arms and called out to her. Oscar had come looking for Trudy as well, and when he saw that Kelly had her attention, he grabbed Kelly’s hand and led her back inside.
“We’re all in here,” he said, pointing at a branch just above Kelly’s head. Swinging like a drugstore sign was a Victorian style portrait of Fernanda, minus her usual black leggings and spiderweb cloak. In the portrait, she looked a little younger, her eyes clouded over in white film.
“Is this what they meant by interactive?” Kelly asked. Oscar shook his head, his eyes everywhere but on Kelly.
“Fuck if I know.” Kelly leaned in and watched Oscar’s mouth as he spoke. She was having a hard time hearing anything above the dull roar of children’s voices in the exhibit.
“I think that’s Waimea Bay,” Oscar was saying, turning back to the painting of himself. “I think someone dove off the cliff.”
“How do you know?” Kelly asked.
“We lit a pyre,” he said.
“This happened for real?”
“In the painting.” Oscar rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head.
Kelly began ordering students out of the exhibit, but the students were too excited to listen, dashing from painting to painting, identifying each other, and snapping pictures with their phones. Don’s kids had snuck in when Kelly had turned her back, and she saw Bertrand standing in front of his own painting.
“You’re in here, too,” Fernanda in Kelly’s ear, close enough for Kelly to smell the gum on Fernanda’s breath. “You want to know where?” Kelly did, in fact, want to know, but she didn’t want Fernanda to be the one to show her. “I need to get you all out of here,” she said.
“These aren’t appropriate,” Kelly said.
“Would you rather see us all frolicking in the snow or picnicking on a beach? Would that be more appropriate?” Fernanda wasn’t exactly challenging. Kelly tried to talk, but she was no longer making much noise at all.
Kelly shrugged.“You’re just all very young.”
Kelly wasn’t sure about that, but she gave in.
Travis stood in front of the painting of the woman in the bay window, his face serious, hands worrying the straps of his backpack.
“Is this your house?” He asked Kelly.
“I wonder why you’re in the window.” Travis said.
“Nice. Don’t be an asshole,” Kelly said.
“What?” He asked. Kelly checked Travis’s face to make sure he wasn’t messing around. The person in the window was fair, tall, and pensive, and Kelly was none of those things.
“What are you looking at?” Asked Fernanda, leaning in to the gilt frame.
“I’m looking at a picture of someone else,” Kelly answered.
“No, I mean you in the picture – what is Picture You looking at?”
“Something. There.” Kelly said, motioning toward the reflection in the window. “I dont know what it is.”
She put an arm around Kelly’s shoulders and Kelly caught of whiff of the strong spearmint gum still in Fernanda’s mouth.
The warmth at the back of her neck spread downward, and Kelly heard her name above all the other voices. Kelly followed what could have been a voice, but was probably just a thought instead. She left the damp, cool air behind her and ventured back out into the wind. At first, the light against the limestone ridge made it painful to keep her eyes open, but as her pupils adjusted, Kelly found her way up stairs cut into a rocky ledge.
From the summit of the ledge, the sculptures in the park below looked like natural outcrops of rusted steel and half-disintegrated animal bone. The biggest thing out there was a fifty-foot mobile made of recycled airplane engines. Kelly watched a propeller dip and float again on a long piece of glinting steel.
She wished Oscar had seen her leave, had followed her out here, but she knew he was still standing in front of the painting of a memory he didn’t have. They all were doing that, back there.
Beyond the plane engines, toward the trees on the other side of the fence, was her future. It was moving toward her in the shadows of the twisted little mesquites, its featureless head like the cool underbelly of a crab. Kelly sat down and let her legs dangle over the side of the ledge. The tips of her fingers felt as though they had fallen asleep, so she raised them above her heart and crossed her arms. The pressure against her chest reminded her of all the stories she meant to keep for herself while this new one unfolded.
Jack Kaulfus lives and works in Austin, Texas. Her work can be found in A cappella Zoo, Barrelhouse Online, Off the Rocks, and other journals both online and in print.