Spring 2011, Volume 10

Fiction by A. K. Small

A Girl's Guide to Electricity

Brittany unzips her backpack and hides the scrap of notebook paper—the one that says I love Drew in capital letters—between her home journal and her freedom quest resource book. Her crush on Drew is bigger than her shoe size (a woman’s 7), which Brittany knows, is unusually large for a fifth grader. She smiles at her best friend Emily, two desks over, then stares at the smart board. The morning schedule reads: April 20h, a videotape on electricity safety. 

Drew sits behind Brittany. “Damn,” he says. “No recess.

“Good morning class.”

Ms. Sullivan’s voice rises above the flutter of books and papers being thrown inside desks, above the ha-ha-someone-said damn-comment, and above Brittany’s heart, banging against her chest like thunder. Even when he curses, Drew’s voice sounds Blow Pop sweet.  At least, that’s what Emily says. On the bus, she and Brittany huddle together, forehead to forehead. They listen to him the way they devote themselves to the lyrics of Lady Gaga. From afar, they count the freckles on his forearms. Twelve on the left. Fourteen on the right. They admire his gold badge, his role as a safety patroller. They also read from A Smart Girl’s Guide to Boys and quiz each other on crushing and on being boy crazy.  On a one-to-ten chart, Brittany approaches a nine. In the classroom, she pulls out a piece of gum and pops it in her mouth. She wonders if the scent of mint mixed with the breeze from the opened window might conveniently waft behind her. If Drew will smell it.

Ms. Sullivan fiddles with the videotape. Next, she smiles at everyone as she turns off the overhead lights. Brittany yawns. She rests her gum on the side of her mouth. Mint, mint, go away, fly by Drew and make him stay. Like a sorceress, she silently chants. As planned, within seconds, an index finger pokes her in the shoulder blade.

“Gimme some,” Drew says.

His words seem extra loud. Brittany nods. The girl, next to her, whose sister supposedly got pregnant her first year of high school, slips out a nail file the color of orange Tic-Tacs. She buffs her pinkie, while Ms. Sullivan reminds everyone to keep quiet, to pay attention to the tape, to tips on electricity.

“Boring,” whines Gossam, the overweight class-clown.

“You watch,” Ms. Sullivan replies. She rubs her palms together. “This will be better than James Bond.”

“Who’s James Bond?” someone asks.

The girl with the nail file sighs. She hides the tool in her desk. “It’s rated R.” She places emphasis on the -R as she rolls her eyes, then adds, “My sister told me this tape was crazy. That some of the girls in her fifth grade class cried when they saw it.”

But Ms. Sullivan’s back is already turned. She clicks on a button. Electricity flashes on the smart board. A man’s voice recites: The science dealing with electric charges and currents. Behind her back, Brittany holds Drew’s piece of gum in her palm. Close to her, rosebuds hang on the open window ledge. She makes a fist around the minty wrapper and waits. 

What no one knows, not even Emily, is that Drew kissed Brittany the day before yesterday. In the attic closet. At her house, all of them, including Brittany’s baby brother and Drew’s sister played hide and go seek. Brittany chose the closet where all of her mother’s suitcases pile up. She crouched between two and held her breath. When Drew finally opened the door, Brittany said, “I guess you found me.” But Drew didn’t yell. Instead, he said, “I’m not it. My sister is.” Then, he knelt beside her in the dark. Between the suitcases, they listened to their siblings’ squeaky voices, nearing.

“Do you know what going together means?” Drew asked.

“Uh huh,” Brittany answered.

The musty smell of walls made her dizzy. The panels on the door let some of the attic light shine through. Brittany examined the gold zipper on her mother’s bag. Before she could try to explain, recall the Girls Guide, and tell Drew what she thought going together meant, he snorted.

“It means you wanna see my penis.”  

“Not true,” she said.

“Uh huh.” As he spoke, he leaned forward and pressed his lips against hers. It was quick. More like a bite. His teeth clenched her bottom lip. Their chins bumped.

“Ouch,” Brittany said.

Behind the door, her brother yelled, “Found them!”

Drew’s sister swung open the closet and waved her finger. “Ah hah!” she said.

Drew shrugged. As he ran down the stairs, he stuck his tongue out at Brittany and said, “What are you staring at, weirdo?” 

That night, tucked in bed, Brittany touched her mouth and wondered if the bite-kiss had been a dream, why it hurt, why Drew had wanted to show her his privates, and why she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The tape in the classroom drones. What electricity is, where it comes from, and how it travels. Brittany still clenches the piece of gum in her fist. Like the closet, Drew must have forgotten about it. Right when she is about to drop the piece back into her bag, when she decides that he doesn’t want anything of hers or has already gotten Bazooka from Tara, the popular girl with pink and green braces, Drew’s fingers squeeze her wrist. Electricity begins with atoms. Electrons travel at great speed, pushed by voltage, the tape continues. Brittany sighs. She tries to follow the words, but warmth—Red Hot Tamales warmth—crawls up from Drew’s thumb into her arm and heart, then down into her lower gut. She feels cinched and weak-kneed, sitting down.

“Come on,” Drew whispers. “Hand it over.”

Brittany opens her palm. “Here’s my heart,” the Trident says in its minty way.

Drew snatches it. As a thank you, he smacks Brittany’s empty hand so hard that Ms. Sullivan frowns and strolls by to inspect their desks. Brittany closes her eyes. The sting hurts. She waits for Ms. Sullivan to return to the back of the classroom, then turns around and mouths, “Not funny.”

Drew laughs. Emily lifts her eyebrows and re-crosses her legs. After more explanation on conductors (metal and water) versus insulators (glass, plastic, rubber, or ceramic), the man, reciting the information, discusses power lines, the ones above ground and below. Brittany pictures her colonial house, how poles and lines hang close, how one day she threw a Frisbee into them. How the purple disk got stuck. She almost dragged a chair from the kitchen to try and untangle it. Why didn’t her mother tell her about this? How could she not know that something as basic as a wood pole in her yard might be deadly? Because your body is mostly water, the man says. You are a great conductor. His voice sounds like caramel cubes: chewy.

“Hey,” Drew says. “Britt?”

“Quiet,” Ms. Sullivan scolds.

“Turn around,” he says.

Brittany wants to swivel in her seat. She yearns to cross her legs the way Emily did, to show Drew and Tara, the Twinkle Toes tennies her mother bought. The way the rose dangles near the skull from one side of her shoe. But, she also knows that if she turns, she will be the one to break the rules. Brittany keeps her eyes on the screen. The video seems loud and intrusive in the tepid fifth grade room. Sculptures of clay Doritos hang on the wall. Is clay like ceramic: an insulator? Brittany almost raises her hand to ask, but then thinks to write it down for Q & A.

“Britt?” Drew says, again.

Maybe he’s sorry. Maybe he wants to apologize for the smack. She can almost see him lean forward on his desk, his sandy blond hair pressed to one side of his face and his paper-thin lips parted to reveal big gaps for molars. “Be careful, boys hurt,” her mother once said. “But his eyes crinkle on the sides when he grins,” Emily said on the phone. Brittany imagines the crinkles, how he might say with mint, flowing from his mouth, “Let’s go together.” She sighs. Go together. Yes. The videotape jerks. The screen on the smart board turns black. For a second, Brittany thinks the whole thing is over, but then a new screen lights up that reads: Survivor Stories. A boy in a wheel chair lifts up his arms in victory. He wears a tank top and the number 109 pinned to it.

“He’s a paraplegic who now runs wheelchair races,” Ms. Sullivan explains, as if the words soften the picture, the fact that the boy has no legs.

“What happened to him?” Gossam asks.

The voice recites that at sixteen, on a sunny day, the boy climbed a power pole in Idaho; that he got close to a 36,000-volt power line. Brittany swallows as she looks at the space, the place where his legs should have been. 36,000 volts? But before Brittany can decide that she will never climb a pole, the tape cuts and shows a young girl with braids, a turned-up nose, and armless on one side.

“She looks like Tara,” Drew announces.

This girl was hit by lightning in a school parking lot, the voice continues. She held an umbrella. Lightning hit the tip, then ran through her arm, burning her. The classroom grows silent. Even Gossam stays mute. Brittany readjusts herself in her seat. She glances over at Emily, who has leaned her head against her desk. Her shiny hair spills onto the wood. Her friend is crying.

Ms. Sullivan stands near the smart board. Her arms cross over her chest, as if to say, “See? You kids have it good.” More pictures show other victims of electrical accidents. By the time Brittany has listened to most of them, like Emily, she cries too, her face hidden in the crook of her elbow. Armless, legless, some of them dead. The current killed them. Her mother never said anything aside from, “Don’t ever dry your hair in the tub.” Brittany glances out the window.  She reaches over and plucks one of the rose buds. The sun shines high in the sky. Fourth graders sing silly songs out at recess. Daffodils stand erect near the school’s front doors.

When the lights come back on and Ms. Sullivan offers to do her Q& A, Brittany forgets to ask her question. Tonight, I’ll tell my brother about insulators, she thinks. No one else asks either. Ms. Sullivan thanks the classroom for their good listening skills. A bumblebee buzzes near the ceiling. Behind her, Drew clears his throat. Brittany waits for everyone to get up, for Tara to walk through the desks and share her newest iPhone. Kids begin to laugh. A few jokes are made: How Gossam might look cool in a wheelchair as long as it’s motorized. Drew steals someone’s hat and shouts, “Britt? Watch!”

But she ignores him. Instead, she walks over to Emily, whose hair still spills onto her desk. Brittany thinks of the closet. “It’s over,” she says, running her fingers through her best friend’s hair.

“Is she okay?” Ms. Sullivan asks.

Emily wipes her eyes. “Wanna go to the library?”

Brittany acquiesces, then drops the rose bud onto the table.  “Here you go.” 

“True love,” Ms. Sullivan says.  

Minutes later, in the main hall, while holding her friend’s hand, Brittany says, “At least, it wasn’t about drugs or private body parts.”  

Emily shrugs. “I wish we talked about penises instead.”

Brittany nods. “I guess.”

As she pushes open the library door, as Drew balances an encyclopedia on his head and grins like crazy, “penises” lingers in the hallway. Brittany turns her head. It isn’t until the very end of the day, on their afternoon bus, that Drew startles her again as he slides onto the front seat with her.

“Wanna jump on my trampoline?” he asks.

Brittany doesn’t answer. Alone, because Emily has gone to math quest, she tries not to listen to the laughter and the screams, coming from back rows. Drew wears his badge. In the sun, it sparkles when he moves. Brittany squeezes her legs together and tries hard not to think about the power lines. The way they run along the side of her house. The way they run along the side of everybody’s house. 

“Yo!” Drew waves his palms in her face.

“Stop it.” She swats at his hands. She thinks again of that girl’s pregnant sister, how someone said she’s nothing but a statistic.

Drew bangs his heels against the seat. “You’re lame,” he says.

Brittany shakes her head. The bus brakes to a stop. Drew jumps off the steps. They walk together on the sidewalk. Brick houses line their street. The air smells like fresh cut grass. Diagonal stripes of green decorate the lawns.

“Can I ask you something?” Brittany asks. Her school bag feels like lead on her back.

Because of the heat, Drew’s cowlick is slightly damp. “Okay,” he says.

“What does Rated R even mean?”

“Really naughty,” he says. “What else were you gonna ask?”

Maybe because they’re no longer in school or because he sat with her on the bus and is now standing inches from her face, Brittany tries to be daring. Or, as her mom might say: more communicative. “Do you like me like me?” she asks. Yet, as soon as the words have escaped her mouth, Brittany knows it’s too late, that she cannot take them back.

Drew’s cheeks turn crimson red, the color of Fire Balls. He backs away. “What the f—?” he yells. Near the driveway, he bends down, picks up handfuls of gravel, and hurls them at her. “I like you about as much as I like my sister’s vomit.” Then, he’s gone.

Brittany wipes down her t-shirt and her jeans as she waits for the bam, for Drew’s front door to shut. Her skin burns from the stones. There is a scratch on her forearm.  Around her, everything is postcard still. The afternoon silence seems extra sharp, blade-like. I am so stupid, so stupid, she mumbles, ambling in the yard. Above her head, her purple Frisbee hangs, still stuck between two power lines. She slams her bag onto the sidewalk. She takes off one of her Twinkle Toes tennies and hurls it at the sky the way Drew hurled the gravel at her. 

Until dinner, Brittany flings her new shoe above her head. She throws and throws it, harder and higher, hoping to dislodge not only the disk, but that I-am-less-than-nothing feeling inside her. Except that the power lines are further than she thinks. In fact, they’re out of reach.

“Brittany Veronica,” her mother eventually calls.

Brittany kneels to the ground. The tiny rose on her shoe is missing. Its clasp has broken and she can’t find it. There is dirt along the sides of the canvas. Sweat drips down her neck. 

“Whoa,” her mother says on their patio, as Brittany collapses in her arms. “What’s going on?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about stuff?”

“What stuff?” Her mother rubs her back. “It’s okay,” she adds. “You’ll survive. Everything will be fine.”

But Brittany no longer believes her.  “Not true!” she says as she begins to cry.

Through her tears, wind rises.  Fat raindrops shatter on their shoulders.  Brittany hangs onto her mother’s skirt.  Silver clouds float above their heads.  Distant thunder, like a mad boy, roars. As her mom pulls her inside, Brittany sees her Frisbee—the giant Purple and White Swirl Pop—first shake, then fall flat onto the wet grass. For a second, Brittany wants to careen out into the rain like a character in her own Rated R film. She wants to dig her feet in the dirt, cry I am not afraid, then pick up her old toy and hug it to her chest. But instead, with one shoe on and one shoe off, Brittany retreats into the kitchen. She listens to her mom say, “Be right back,” then, alone, she waits for the storm to subside.



BIO:  A.K. Small holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has studied under the guidance of writers such as Ann Hood, Caroline Leavitt, Dave Jauss, Abby Frucht, Shannon Cain, and Rosellen Brown. She is French-American, resides in Philadelphia, and has three daughters.