Sentience
Maria Maniaci
Hayward Fault Line Winner
Joe's fingertips trail slow down the back of Gabri's neck, lending credence to every articulation of vertebrae. Gabri closes his eyes and whispers their names.

Axis. Epistropheus. Prominens. . .

The naming takes him back, to steam evaporating from the cup of banana leaves, the heat of boredom, confinement, the humid weight of plaster pinning down his arm. A world away, but there--here again now--the relentless afternoon rain spitting down contempt on a tin roof, and at the foot of the bed, Gabri's ghost father, shoulders not yet stooped under the weight of disappointment, reading to him from the sticky pages of Gray's Anatomy.

"You would've made a shitty doctor," Joe murmurs, watching that same ghost. "I can't see it."

Not far off a whistle blows, the pitch rising as the train lumbers closer. Gabri leans up so he can see beyond the soot-streaked window of their rented room to the platform across the way.

When they'd asked him why he jumped, Gabri told them he believed the wind would have him, carry him away from Corcovado, thin arms spread wide. He had repeated the words until they'd released him back to his mother's arms. Thirteen years old then, just old enough to name the desperate caution in the way she held him after: how she would release him only with the creaking effort of resolve.

Gabri twists, turning so he can see Joe's eyes in the vague rectangle of gray gaslight cast across their bed. The sheets are scratchy and reek of bleach. "What did your dad want you to be?"

Joe's laugh holds the far-away sound of gulls pitching over the Carolina Intracoastals. His breath hitches and the tip of his fag flares, then dims, like the red lights on the x-shaped cross that signals the trains. "I'm not sure. Happy mostly, I guess."

Happy.

Gabri thinks of asking if he is, but knows all of what an answer can't hold. There are things they would never be able to tell each other, save incompletely. Nostalgia exalted, repented, forgave.

This place they've found themselves--he and Joe--is new; a third continent consecrated with thin hopes.

Whenever Gabri goes home now, he goes to the beach alone at dusk and watches the great blue herons fly. Gruff, inelegant as their wings spread, lift. They don't believe in the air. They don't believe in the earth.

Another train whistle sounds and Gabri closes his eyes. It's 11:05. Almost time to go. Almost, but not yet.

First published: November, 2006
comments to the writer: Knob'sWriter@iceflow.com