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You by J. Eric McNeil



Now Chris, drive your car down a gravel road. It is early summer and warm, so you have the windows down. A light sweat has formed on your body where it touches the seat, but the breeze blowing through the windows cools you. It tousles your hair and pops gently in your ear. You are driving down this gravel road because you see something black in the sky. You had been pulling weeds from the flower bed in your front yard, when your back began to burn from the strain of bending over. You straightened and massaged the aching muscles, and there, in the sky, just over the roof of your house, was the black mark. Almost round except for a nick in the side. Hanging motionless, mysterious. Walk around your house so you can get a better look. You know it's not an airplane, Chris. You know it's not a bird because it doesn't move, sail or dart like any bird. It doesn't have wings. It could be anything. You dust off your knees without really ever taking your eyes off the black mark, and grab your car keys from the table just inside the door of your house. You climb into your car and drive toward the black mark.

It has taken you miles from your home, Chris. You have driven through your neighborhood, where you saw Carol Becker, the school teacher, sitting on the steps in front of her house. She was wearing khaki shorts and white tennis shoes. Her husband had walked toward her and knelt down, taking her hands in his. At first it seemed that Carol wanted to refuse him. You could not see his face, but hers looked worried, concerned, sad. You tried to figure out what they were discussing. He'd had an affair, and she'd just found out. They were losing their house because they couldn't pay the mortgage. Her father had died, and her husband was trying to break the news to her. But you kept driving, through town where you saw a group of high school kids. Some cheerleaders, still dressed in their uniforms from the pep rally, were standing in the parking lot at the supermarket, talking to football players. You recognized Lisa Shaffer. She has beautiful blond hair that she tossed over her shoulder as she grinned at the football player sitting in the metallic green truck. You envied them their youth, Chris. But when you saw Mr. Wheeler helping Mrs. Wheeler out of their Buick, her trying to steady herself with a walking cane once she'd free herself from the vehicle, you envied them, too. The Wheelers have lived a long time, and they are happy. They have reared three wonderful children who have gone on to be good citizens. One is doctor in the city; another owns his own business; the youngest lives in London with her husband and son. Imagine how happy their lives were while they were growing up. On summer days just like this one, they would climb that big oak tree in their front yard. Remember climbing trees, Chris? Remember eating homemade ice cream? You kept driving, and you thought about all the wonderful times Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler have shared, all the wonderful memories they have.

And now you're driving down a gravel road. The black mark has changed its pattern. Now it's stretched out, more elongated than before. It hangs among the horsetail clouds lying side by side, making the sky's color a deeper blue. The yellow-green fields run right up to the sky and almost to the horsetail clouds that sweep the horizon. You think you may have to go as far as the land will take you. Chris, you're anxious. You can tell you're getting closer to finding out what the black mark is. It seems to be unfolding, unraveling before your eyes now. It could be anything, but at this point you still can't image what it is. Then you see another car coming down the road that intersects with yours. It is Carol Becker and her husband. Carol is pointing at the black mark in the sky. You look in your rearview mirror, Chris, and following you, in the trail of dust that your car has left hanging above the road, is a truckload of high school kids. The cheerleaders and football players. Lisa Shaffer sitting between two big boys in red and white jerseys. Other cars are behind them. And Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler are now following Carol Becker and her husband. They are all looking at the black mark in the sky. It's not that unusual, Chris. You are all seeing the same thing. This is their story, too. And you're happy that you're not alone.



J. Eric McNeil is an English instructor at Northeast Louisiana University. In 1995 he received a Masters degree in creative writing from NLU, where he also served for two years as the editor of the university's literary magazine, Helicon.


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