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Take Me to Your Leader by Amy Stuber


Writing the child voice is complicated. We’ve published several pieces that effectively portray the interiority of a girl or girls. Amy Stuber’s “Take Me to Your Leader” takes multiple perspectives to center on the interior lives of boys, a space we rarely encounter in our queue. With rich, specific detail (a boy who battles insomnia by traveling cities in Google Maps Street View, another who’d “rather be watching Sneaker Shopping and eating Takis”) and active exposition, Stuber explores the terrain of brotherhood, through both kinship and friendship, the power dynamics of young teen boyhood, and the influence of fascist propaganda and dangerous rhetoric on kids—all contained in a flash piece. See her author’s note for more on the inspiration for this piece and on being patient to find the right perspectives and structure to express a story that is “a little terrifying but murky and unknown so there’s tension but no resolution or finality.” Step onto the midway with Sam, Cooper, and Logan for the “cacophony” and “euphoria” of the county fair, and of their young lives.  —CRAFT


 

There are funnel cakes. There are deep-fried Kit Kats. There are even deep-fried sticks of butter. Sam’s feet sink into the mud that’s covered with straw because it rained ten inches in forty-eight hours and it’s probably going to rain again, and the whole place feels like it’s rotting from below, but it’s also the most beautiful place he’s seen. Everything is plasticky and pocked with lights, and people are yelling and laughing and running elbows into each other because there are no lanes or rights-of-way or rules. His mother would hate it here, which makes him like it even more. That afternoon, his mother returned from a yoga retreat, and he’d had to help her affix fifty origami cranes to their living room ceiling. Turn off your technology, she said, as she watched the cranes move when the fan oscillated their way, and then he was out the door.

At the fair, Sam sits with Cooper and Cooper’s older brother Logan who hates him for some reason, but who cares because Sam is eating a funnel cake at a picnic table under a canopy, and everyone around him is fat and eating and there’s no guilt about any of it, and no one has to think about sit-ups or homework or turning your profile pic blue for Sudan or the rainforest burning. No. It’s just lights and noise and bad country music blasting from one side and decent hip hop blasting from the other. This is cacophony. This is euphoria. He loves it.


It’s ten when Cooper and Sam leave the fairgrounds and head to meet Logan at the park. Cooper hates him a little, his brother: deep into 8chan, collector of German WWII medals, who sent swastika memes to Cooper’s friends but claimed he was kidding, hahahaha. But he also sometimes washed Cooper’s sheets or got him Tylenol when he was sick and there were no grownups to be found.

Cooper and Sam bike a few blocks to the park between the cemetery and the Walgreens where the sign urges flu shots, which is weird because it’s only August. Cooper’s thirteen, and everything feels doomed, like the moment in the movie when the ocean starts to rumble, and you know it will turn itself into a tidal wave, and a whole fucking city will be gone.

They ditch their bikes by the row of grills that stretches out like robots. The ground feels permeable from the rain, and there’s thunder from the west. The tall grasses wave frantically in the coming storm. Face your fears, he thinks his mother would say, but she was long gone who knew where, and most of what he thinks he remembers, he probably made up. Besides, the world is scary enough; he doesn’t see the point. He’d rather be watching Sneaker Shopping and eating Takis. Still, the night spins out around him: dark and with everything coming.


In the park, someone is blasting David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” and singing along at top volume. Shut the fuck up, Logan wants to yell. All he wants is order. His dad, a lecturer at a community college, spent summer nights in their shitty back yard with its concrete slab and knee-high lawn and read Mother Jones and smoked weed. Logan wanted the lawn to catch fire so the place would go down and he could make something better.

That afternoon, Logan tattooed Blut und Ehre on his thigh using a mechanical pencil and ink from a ballpoint. It was less perfect than he’d wanted, but it was magic how he could take his pale, Midwestern leg and pinprick something that would last as long as he did. Blood and Honor.

He finds his brother and Sam near the drainage tunnel. He hates that kid with his Insta stories about how humanity has twelve years left, etc. He wants to fuck with him a little, so he says, “Go in the tunnel.” His brother looks at him with his scared look, but Sam, he just starts going, so Cooper goes after him. The drainage tunnel is six feet tall and travels under the whole town. Logan has walked it before, graffitied it, downed whiskey in it. He sees their shadows for a minute, a shadow of his brother stretched tall against the concrete, and then they disappear.


Sam turns back after they enter, and through the tree branches, he sees the identical tan houses that make up the neighborhood where he lives. For about ten minutes, the tunnel is cool. It’s echoey, and there’s water dripping. Even though it’s rained a ton, it’s only ankle deep, so his Vans are wet but nothing else.

“It would be fire to go all the way under the town,” Sam says, and Cooper nods so they keep walking.

“Anyway, fuck my brother,” Cooper says, and Sam can tell it’s something he’s just trying out.

The tunnel is a ribbon, and he doesn’t think beyond following it. Sometimes when he can’t sleep, he gets on Google Maps Street View and works his way through the streets of LA or Tokyo as if he’s walking them. There are so many places he wants to go.

“Dope,” Sam says when the thunder makes the whole tunnel shake, but he can tell from the way Cooper tenses his shoulders he’s scared: the strangled noise, the dark nothing.

He and Cooper start back toward where the tan houses lean their rows into the sky, and it reminds him how people caught in motion on Google Street View are more blur of light and color than actual human form. But they don’t get far enough fast enough before the water comes, more water than they could have imagined.

Sam holds onto Cooper and thinks of the origami cranes flying in the fan breeze and the fair ride that shoots people up before plunging down so fast it feels like beating time. They are moving like that. Who knows where they will go?

 


AMY STUBER’S work has appeared in Triquarterly, Passages North, Wigleaf, Joyland, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She’s an Assistant Flash Editor for Split Lip Magazine and is on Twitter @amy_stuber and online at amystuber.com.

 

Author’s Note

A couple of years ago, my then elementary-aged son started getting anti-Semitic messages from a former friend. It started small: a GIF of a Lego swastika sent via DM. But within a few months, he was receiving a relentless stream of Trump propaganda and graphic pictures of WWII German firing squads. For complicated reasons, he worried about blocking this kid, and for equally complicated reasons, we were hesitant to contact his parents.

A seed of all of this lodged in my brain, and I tried through many drafts to write that story from the perspective of someone like my son, my son’s age, in a similar life situation, etc. But it didn’t work. I must have done ten or more drafts before I set it aside and decided I couldn’t write it.

About half of my stories have some foot in my real life, and those stories are often the most difficult to write because there’s always a long period of disentangling and fictionalizing that has to occur. It often takes months to see around the constraints of whatever real-life situation may have inspired a piece and find a structure and voice and perspective that really work for the material.

Once I set this aside for a few months and let it rest, I was able to see that it might be stronger with multiple perspectives, older kids, and I wanted to try to give voice to the “villain” in the story and make him a little nuanced and even sympathetic.

This entire process reminded me that thinking about writing IS writing. It’s an essential part of the craft. I know this isn’t earth shattering, yet I forget it all the time. Sitting at a laptop staring at an open document, deleting, revising, tinkering… not always the answer. The walking, the listening to music, the conversations, all of the things we do while these ideas are percolating are essential to the process. We all know this on some fundamental level, but with the emphasis on product and being prolific and publication, it’s easy (for me, at least) to forget how key that period of thought and incubation is to creation of product, especially when the material springs from something personal. (Caveat: I know this is a privileged position, and if we’re writing on a deadline or relying on publication for income, waiting around isn’t always an option.)

The situation with my son ended as well as it could have, with a kind of détente and an apology. But I wanted this story to build up to something a little terrifying but murky and unknown so there’s tension but no resolution or finality, at least none that’s overtly stated.

Some stories emerge in a breathless few hours, and it’s easy to divorce from craft and think, who needs craft? Writing is a mysterious fever. Craft is a dark nothing, a black box, a mindfuck designed to lead grad students in circles of torment. But this story was not like that; it felt very crafted in its process: lots of thoughts about shape, voice, perspective, form, and lots of time spent drafting, going away, and drafting again. I’m still not sure it’s finished.

 


AMY STUBER’S work has appeared in Triquarterly, Passages North, Wigleaf, Joyland, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She’s an Assistant Flash Editor for Split Lip Magazine and is on Twitter @amy_stuber and online at amystuber.com.