In the gym before first period, Walker Brentson appears midcourt like a dadgum miracle.
It’s been seven weeks since anyone last saw him. First we didn’t say much, just that he must be sick. It had been three days before we noticed at all. Second week, we thought he had the flu. Third week—maybe chicken pox? By the fourth week we assumed he had diseases no one knew what they were—scarlet fever, whooping cough, shingles. In the fifth week on a Tuesday Jessie McMillan became inconsolable in third-period Spanish because she believed Jesus had given her a sign that Walker was dead. That dampened the speculation, but by Wednesday the following week we were all trying to guess at how—a falling piano. A steamroller accident. A giant hole in the earth that opened up beneath his bedroom in the middle of the night. Sinkholes: they’re a real thing, mostly in Florida. Look it up.
Earlier this week, Walker Brentson was practically myth. We’d spent our mornings before the bell questioning whether he’d ever existed, if the locker between Stacy Vader’s and Hunter Boudreaux’s had ever been assigned to anyone at all. If maybe we’d just imagined his name, a collective hallucination, like the girls who all laughed so much they got burned for being witches. It’s so bad we almost don’t recognize him at all, squinting as he makes his way in the far door, straight from the car-drop-off line. But there he is, lo and behold, Walker-fudging-Brentson in all his four-foot-eleven glory, brandishing a single crutch like a butterfly net, hobbling with one foot clad only in a sock.
“Walker Brentson!” someone shouts, and at once we’re on our feet, giving him a hero’s welcome. We stomp the bleachers, hoot and holler and clap. The teachers don’t know how to stop us. Someone from pep squad invents a rhythm: “Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son. Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son.”
It’s so loud we almost miss the bell, but then the teachers are shooing us on our way. All day we call to him in the halls: “Heyyy, Walker!” or “What’s up, Walker?” or enthusiastic clapping to the rhythm we made—“Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son. Wal-ker Wal-ker Brent-son.” But by the time we’re all loaded onto the buses and headed home, there are whispers. Doesn’t he seem—I don’t know—smaller? Wasn’t his hair a different shade of red? It’s crazy, but does anyone else remember him as taking fourth-period math, not fifth?
We become a nuisance. Our parents’ phones won’t stop ringing. Walker Brentson used to write with his right hand. He used to be allergic to cheese. The patch of freckles on his chin used to have a different shape. By the time we’re all forced to go to bed, we’ve created a phone chain: Hunter Boudreaux to Jessie McMillan to Mallory Evans to me, to Stacy Vader to Jagger Bryan to Brittany Bloom. And it goes on, and we’ve got theories: alien abduction. Doppelganger. Evil clone. Yeah there’s a sheep, and cloning isn’t instant, but who’s to say there wasn’t another Walker all along? A different Walker, with modifications?
We’re tired of things changing, of going from one house with both parents in it to two separate apartments, different sides of town, left my math book at Dad’s, forgot my clarinet at Mom’s. Tired of trying to do math with letters instead of numbers, tired of replacing the old ways with the new ones. We’re sick and tired of taking each year the new version of the standardized test, being told next year you’ll get to skip it but never getting to that “next year.” We’ve started resenting, just a little, that our teachers change their names when they get married. We hate if one of them gets a haircut, changes her style. When second period is shortened for a surprise assembly, we’re poised to revolt. So maybe we’re wrong about Walker, but what we know is this: something has changed.
Next morning we see Walker Brentson and none of us trust him. When he sweeps into the gym, waving his crutch around like a fricking tennis player, his brow crumples at the lack of reaction. He tries to sit by Hunter Boudreaux, but Hunter disappears to the bathroom until the bell rings. In the hall after first period I see him, Walker Brentson, trying to get the attention of anyone who will listen. Then I look away—before he can see me back.
Margaret Emma Brandl is the author of the novella Tuscaloosa (Or, In April, Harpies) (Bridge Eight Press ’21). Her other writing has appeared in journals such as Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, Yalobusha Review, Pithead Chapel, and CHEAP POP. She earned her PhD at Texas Tech University and her MFA at Notre Dame, and she currently teaches at Austin College.