Two boys met in Mariam Elementary School. They were troubled boys who took things very seriously, so every bruise or insult or naïve misunderstanding (intentional or facetious) hurt much more. These boys retaliated as they saw fit, which was deemed too harsh by the school’s faculty, PTA, and Tyler, a mentally disabled third-grader who threw large rocks at younger kids, only to get trounced.

This isn’t to say these boys were strong, at least not physically, but their emotional burdens were stronger, and letting that rage out in a moment’s notice—faces twisting into creases sharp enough to cut skin and muscles twitching with unease—was enough to scare most.

Their names were Lem and Marv. That’s what was written on the check-in sheets for their anger management courses, which cut an hour from every school day.

“Sometimes I just feel it, going red. Everything gets hotter and my eyes grow these pulsing tubes until my vision tightens. It’s like a special power. When I lived back in Wisconsin, I punched a bully so hard he died! His head flew right off, shooting red meat out like ribbons of sausage links. That’s why my family had to move here,” Marv said proudly.

Ms. Jennifer’s eyes darted from Marv to her notepad, then to Marv again before scribbling something. She then turned to Lem and asked, “What about you? What do you feel when people bother you?”

Lem’s eyes, swollen and jittery from his bifocals, focused on lumps of clay. From his hands were molded an elegant creature of slender form, a long snout, and a cloak. It presented a twisted castle of purple.

“Um…sorry. What did you say, Jenny?” Lem replied.

Ms. Jennifer repeated her question softly. Her skills in empathy allowed her voice to run slowly and softly, without any inkling of patronizing you.

“Ah. Marv is teaching me how to go red. It’s easy to do around him, but alone, it doesn’t work. I can do something else, though. My parents give me this pill. I don’t like it. It’s supposed to help me focus, but I can only focus on everything else. In math class, I ended up staring at someone for a long time. I was daydreaming. I didn’t notice until he yelled at me later in recess. I should’ve just yelled back…but I didn’t know what I did. I wish I didn’t have to care about this.”

“Care about what?” she asked, scribbling again.

“Being…a good guy. Most of the time, these California kids just lie and dance around me. I can’t do anything about it. That’s why I zone out.”

“What is zoning out?”

“I use the bad pill to train me into it. When I think something bad is going to happen, like when someone yells at me or fakes me out with a basketball, I stare past them. They become a blur while the soccer fields and playground set glow like rainbows.

“Once they fail to scare me, they just leave. I don’t play their game, so I can’t lose.”

Ms. Jennifer finished her notes silently.


Everything for Lem and Marv was rough and unsteady. They were both out-of-state new kids. They both played pretend while everything outside of them tried to spoil it.

Marv’s aunt once gave them a box of books, all of them with leather-clad, oily muscle men and women on the covers. This simple gesture from a person they barely met saved them by allowing their dreams to spread and grow. They used curiosity to stoke their flames and developed a thirst for experiencing the grating, sharp edges of the world around them, mainly for bolstering their escapism: to pad the unreal with real detail.

Then, they met Andre. Andre was the youngest genius son to a genius family. They were disciplined in multiple languages, musical instruments, and commonly floated to the top of whatever school programs they were involved in; all AP classes.

Andre was very nice for the most part. He was disciplined, but hadn’t faced the rowdiness of Lem and Marv before. Sometimes he’d cry when stick fights got too heavy, or he’d go into the red like Marv. Once, he screamed like an animal and cut Lem’s face open with his long, skinny fingernails. Surprisingly, they laughed afterwards.

Andre didn’t have TV or computers at home, so he played video games. Video games were, at first, the main focus of discussion when it came to the Lem-Marv-Andre trinity. They played games, then pretended they were inside these games at school. Same with reading.

They escaped together, and little went wrong for many years.


Lem had trouble concentrating in middle school. He got low grades. Things still affected him very easily. The walls in his house were too thin. He avoided his parents when they zoned out because they’d get mad at him. Maybe they interrupted each other so much that’s why they slept in different rooms, Lem pondered, but he didn’t dare ask.

Marv’s life was another story. After going red on a kid for taking the scooter he wanted at recess, he got expelled. He sat on an apartment complex’s lawn across from school until Lem and Andre got out. Lem always thought it was cool that Marv could read outside all day, or just walk around town without other kids to deal with, but that was mainly because Marv hated home. His living room was covered in dog crap and his mom rambled about glowing rocks she found on her weekly trips to the desert. He never actually saw them glow, but the one time he mentioned this she stabbed his room’s door with a kitchen knife repeatedly.

He used to bring duct tape with him in case he needed to fight and bind his sisters. They were much older than him and much meaner. He was grateful that Lem would always take his side on things. He always made funny comparisons, like saying Marv’s mother looked like a wicked witch with her large nose and wild hair like brittle, white straw.

One time, Marv and Lem saved enough change to rent a game and buy a smorgasbord of sodas. They closed the blinds of Lem’s room window and played all day and night. The hypnotic hum of a cheap oscillating fan only complimented the constant presence of their glee and the virtual worlds they explored.

Then, Marv’s family friend, Michelle, appeared. Lem’s family wasn’t home at the time, so there was no hiding from her. She banged on the doors, then the windows. Lem almost grabbed a bb gun when they saw her between the slats of his window blinds, storming through the backyard, checking over her shoulder as if invisible phantoms stalked close behind.

Marv curled under Lem’s bunk bed. He sank into the tightest corner like a street dog and cried into a blanket so she wouldn’t hear him. As the host of the household, Lem steeled himself before opening the front door and stepping outside, with a phone in-hand.

Michelle turned the corner of the side yard she broke into, then bolted toward Lem.

“Where are you hiding him!?” she screamed. “Marv’s mother wants him to come home. Can’t you see you’re ruining our family, you little rat?”

“Marv’s not here! G-get out or I’m calling the cops,” Lem stammered.

As she approached, the detail of her visage only frightened Lem more and more. Her skin was cracked and purple, with black pocks on her arms, and her face was a scowl carved into concrete. Her arms and legs jerked as she ambulated toward Lem and pinned him into the wall like a robot, or moreso: the automatic, thoughtless jerks of a dead frog being probed like a puppet, as he would remember from science class.

Lem tried to zone out, but she was too close. There was nothing to see past. His head hit a wall of grating stucco and he cried. He could only imagine Michelle as a ghoul, perhaps an underling of Marv’s mother, controlled by some sort of evil spell. He woke up from a cloak of black, his house empty. Marv was gone.


“Lem, you’re a loser!” a little girl giggled as she shouted over a neighboring fence.

“Stop screaming and clean your room!” another kid shouted. Lem didn’t know who. They always hid behind the tall backyard fence separating Lem’s dead lawn to their swimming pool, barbeque, and repetitive pop music.

Lem thought bullies like this were the result of bad writing in movies and books. It was like making fun of someone for having dead parents: the lowest tier of intellect or concern in cuss-craft. How, he wondered, could someone look to their suffering neighbor and just laugh?

He retaliated by catapulting dog crap into their swimming pool via shovel. Then, Marv and he firebombed their mailbox. Whenever they got a new one, they firebombed it again. The cruel family moved away after a few months, and Marv was, for once, thankful his sisters taught him about a certain cookbook.

Of course, this sort of destructive wildness emanated from Lem and Marv wherever they went. Marv got better at lying. He got better at living between friend’s houses and taking what he could. Lem’s mind buzzed with creations, but he was still unfocused. He gave up quickly on many instruments and professions, leaving him prone to lashing out.

One day, Andre said, “My parents can’t have you over here anymore. I can’t do anything for you. You act like monsters. I won’t get dragged down by you.”

“Dragged down? You don’t know where down is. All you have are fancy classes that make you work more. That’s supposed to make you smart?” Lem asked sharply.

“I want to get a real job and a real life. It’s not something that can be explained. I don’t think you’d understand,” Andre replied.

“Are you really that tall? We used to play in dreams together. I thought it made us equals. In reality it does, but you won’t believe it. I’ll bomb my neighbors again and again if they think they’ll scare me even further into my house, until I shrink away into my mind like a chunk of soft meat!”

“Lem, stop screaming!” Andre drew back.

“You can’t push me back! I don’t need you. You only took from my mind, like a wizard in his tower plucking from my tallest apple tree at night. You take your two-story house with carpeted stairs and stand tall and far away. You’ll never see the details Andre, you and the rest of your family. No matter how smart you are, you zoned out! You’ll zone out your entire neighborhood because you’re trained to work harder for nothing, and in that you think you’re better than anyone else who struggles to find peace, even in their own home.”


Lem, Andre, and Marv took their separate routes as years passed. Marv tried to wedge himself back into Lem’s life, calling constantly throughout college to weave tales of woe. But Lem noticed his lies, and that these lies were more sloppily constructed as time passed. Certain phrases and details repeated, and Marv didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t care. Lem almost drove himself crazy wondering if this was a game, if he was being had, but he soon saw amphetamine smoke signs rising from the trashed sedan Marv lived in, and realized his mother’s spells rubbed off.

Lem struggled for several years to find solid work as a copyeditor for an academic publisher. He got to work from home, bringing in more money than his parents. He had heard Andre moved off with his fiancé, one he met from his Mormon mission, an assignment (a.k.a. maturity ritual) one is given at age eighteen. Given is the right word for it, Lem thought. How would I be if I converted when I was a kid? It might’ve been nice to have life goals focused for you like that. Then he told himself, “Actually, it’s cruel to say he doesn’t work hard. Andre does work hard, and he’s a sharp man, and I wish him a good life. I just wish I behaved better. Maybe he was right in reacting to the instincts of me being a problem to his peace.”

His hometown has only rotted since he returned from university. The pot-holed roads spelled it out to him like automotive braille. He still remembered scenic routes through the neighborhoods and took them to avoid any shadows of Marv. He had only heard bad things about the guy: dropping out of jobs left and right, begging and dawdling until even the kindest friend would snap, only for Marv to complain of them as sheltered pricks to another group of well-off hipsters, or anyone else he’d meet in a bar to mooch off.

Just the thought of Marv drove Lem crazy, so he focused on the voice of his GPS until he found it: the Lorenzo Mission, a historical church made of pure white clay, with shingled roofs and large gardens. Lem enjoyed losing himself in the belladonna trumpets and hedges and pristine roses of the courtyard maze. It took until this very day to slow down again. As an adult, he struggled to gain the focus that others had, and struggled further to prove himself as a worker. He just realized, as he laid down among the carefree flutters of monarch butterflies, that his brain was turning into concrete. His fingertips etched themselves into the soft dirt of the garden’s walkway, and vice versa.

A pair of glasses appeared within the leaf-and-shade texture of the hedges, with massive pupils spinning around the frames like googly eyes. Lem took off these lenses, revealing crow’s feet and purple sockets from years of staring at screens. He remembered back when he took those pills. He couldn’t recall what brand they were, or for what illness (before the divorce was final, his mom always told different stories).

After middle school, he remembered teaching Marv to zone out. They both took off their glasses and stared into an endless sea of orchard trees, and like this hedge every leaf and shadow beneath it lost contrast until they became blobs of glimmering sunlight and smears of color, until everything faded away.

“Lem.” A familiar voice spoke, soft as the clouds above, “You can’t sleep here. Are you looking for donations too? I had to kick Marv out. You must understand.”

“Oh. You aren’t together anymore? You used to be inseparable.”

As time passed, Ms. Jennifer became Mrs. Jennifer, then Deacon Mrs. Jennifer. Out of all the familiar faces, twisted by age and ever-mounting aches, brains wrenched with spite, she looked and acted the same. She was somehow the only one not destroyed by reality, Lem mused as she took him to a small office with a thick wooden table.

It reminded him of anger management, but he wasn’t a child anymore.

“I never knew you were a churchgoer,” Lem said.

“Close the door for me, please. It’s hard getting back up when I sit down,” Jennifer said.

The arched, heavy door creaked every inch of the way before clunking tight against its frame. Once shut, every dust particle lept from the floor and furniture, funneling out a small, barred window. Both of them sank into a certain ease. Sanctity washed over them. Deacon Jennifer looked to Lem fully, without a notebook to hide behind.

“I didn’t want to be didactic with you. I know you know what that word means. I saw your work in the Mandrake literary journal.”

“I appreciate it, but theology is interesting. A lot of things are interesting to me, but not hard-headedness. It’s purifying to ask someone a question without it becoming an ego game, but I must also have my ego destroyed to really learn anything.”

“Purifying? You think I’m locking you in here for an exorcism? Marv joked about that. He kept getting testy with me. He told me you were a Nazi and a drug fiend, that you beat him with a boot when he asked you for a cigarette.”

“He stole my sister’s game consoles and sold them for cocaine and a sleeping bag. He got ripped off on the bag, too. He had to go.”

“Is this the limit of our kindness?” Jennifer asked. Her gaze drifted off, but her eyes narrowed as she regained her train of thought. “I could never regret helping both of you. I like to think I helped. The board games and arts activities were neurologically proven to help you both, if I am to remove faith from the equation.”

“Clay is just clay. I don’t think consolation is empathy. I’ve seen artists at school die over this mistake. Don’t get me wrong, imagination is amazing. It’s all I had, but the world just gets harder. You learn to carry your burdens and your family, if they are worth the love, on your back like Aeneas. That, or you eat lotus until the smallest beam of stray sunlight, of reality, drives you to tears.”

“That’s very pragmatic.”

“I suppose so,” Lem said and chuckled. “Yet I chose to study literature. Even worse, I dropped out. I saw the jaws of academia and found that dreamers were slaughtered like cows. It wasn’t pragmatic or artful. Ideals aside, I lost friends there and I broke down, so I ran home.”

“That’s a shame to hear…”

“Was that too much for me to push on you? I’m sorry.”

“Don’t throttle yourself. There are no cameras here, just you and me. I want to talk to you honestly.”

“A rare opportunity for anyone.”

“Marv looked for these opportunities too. He still looks, but in the wrong places. I can never tell if what he says is true anymore, even though he sounds so…”

“—Garbled.” Lem added. “Yes. He was my best friend, but I had to let him go, just as others let go of me. I try my hardest to feel the contours of someone else, whether a mistake is a simple one or a symbolic projection of their bad nature, but we all assume things about each other. Assumptions make an ass out of you and me, as Mr. Johnson said.”

“Assumptions are also the basis of human thought. We compartmentalize to store information and communicate. We create and interpret patterns. Phrases like that make me worry about shaming kids from being human. It drives us into over-indulging on ideologies, ones untempered by experience,” Jennifer said.

“Or worse, an a priori tainted like an ink-soaked cloth, filtering lesser imitations or blocking outflow entirely.”

“Are you referencing something?”

“Probably. I stopped worrying about that kind of stuff.”