Bryan Castle

Bryan Castle
When he’s not writing, Bryan is addicted to flash mob videos on YouTube. He loves buskers and will always toss a few dollars in the hat. He enjoyed a stint as a journalist and was the recipient of an Investigative Reporter award. The father of four, he lives in Houston with his wife and her psychotic rescue dog.
Award Category Finalist
Award Submission Title
At 17, Riley's world is turned upside down when YouTube superstar, Skylar Bynes, informs Riley she's not human, she's something better!
My Submission
Chapter 1

We’re out of milk, but there’s plenty of bourbon.

I’m staring into an abyss of despair. There’s mustard and ketchup, but nothing to put them on. Other than the condiments, my choice is beer, wilted celery, or something indistinguishable in a Tupperware container.

I shut the fridge door and check my pocket. I managed to hold on to some of my babysitting money for a time like this. Only four dollars and some change, but it’s enough to get by.

Usually, what little I can hide from Mom is saved for things like deodorant or tampons, but today it’ll have to be for food. Thank goodness I don’t have to choose one over the other.

I sling my backpack and wince at the sour air in the living room. Dad is passed out in his recliner. From the pattern in the threadbare fabric, I’m pretty sure it’s from the seventies. It’s the newest thing we own.

I’m just glad the lights came on. I know we’re getting close to the electricity being shut off again. It happens most months and we have an electric water heater. I hate cold showers.

The four empty bottles of bourbon sitting on the coffee table next to the three unopened bottles, an overflowing ashtray and a pile of lottery tickets that “were so close,” is a good example of why the bills never get paid on time.

Not one to plan ahead, Mom paid for everything with my last paychecks of the summer, one from my full-time job washing dishes at Drakes Chicken and Waffles Diner, and the other from my part-time job stocking shelves at Healthco Pharmacy. That has to end.

Yesterday, before she started in on her second bottle, I tried to tell Mom I quit my jobs. I had a whole speech planned about how I can’t work now that school was starting. I wanted to explain that I didn’t have a choice, not really, but she was too drunk to listen. She’s always to drunk to listen. It wasn’t the first time I tried to have that conversation. If she could ever manage some semblance of sobriety, she might understand that this is my last chance to escape and move on to something better. Just two more semesters of perfection and I’ll be valedictorian. That, along with my ACT score of thirty-five out of thirty-six, which I’m still mad about, should be enough to get into Stanford. And, if I can add a few extracurriculars this year, I might get a full ride.

I’ve planned it all out and there’s no way I could continue working and keep my grades up. I have a tough schedule this year, but now that I’ve worked my last shift, I’m ready for it, at least as much as I can be. Quitting my jobs was only half the battle.

I glance over at the dining room table that hasn’t been used as a dining room table since forever. Among the clutter of empty cheese puff bags and crushed beer cans is a stack of white envelopes. I know one of them is a foreclosure notice. Some of the others might be messages written with letters cut out of magazines threatening Dad’s life if he doesn’t get square on his gambling debts. He swears he doesn’t owe. That might be true; I’m not sure. I do know that he would have had to do something pretty amazing, or pretty despicable to clear his debts, and I doubt he’s capable of amazing. Regardless, there’s still the foreclosure notice. That’s the one thing standing between me and Stanford, the very real possibility of being homeless. Sometimes, when I dwell on it, I panic and can’t catch my breathe. It’s hard not to dwell on it.

A car pulls into the driveway. “Bye Dad, I’m off to start my senior year. Oh, you and Mom got me a new car? It’s a late seventeenth birthday present? And I thought you forgot. You guys are the best!”

Dad snorts as his chin falls to his chest. He’s still in an ethyl alcohol induced slumber. Mom is where she is every morning, passed out in her bedroom from the same, ethyl alcohol, the kind produced from the fermentation of grains, fruits, and starches, C2-H5-O-H which can also be written as C2-H6-O or CH3-CH2-O-H, two carbon, six hydrogen and one oxygen atom. I’m so going to kill it this year!

Chapter 2

McKayla and Shandra are waiting for me in McKayla’s new car. It’s new to her anyway. The late model Toyota sedan was a gift from her parents. They felt that as a senior, she should be more independent. My parents feel the same, but they have a different definition of what independence means as in, “You’re on your own now, kid.” Gee, thanks Mom and Dad.

I didn’t bother trying to explain that normal parents cut their kids off after they graduate. But so far, it hasn’t made a difference. I’ve had to take care of myself for as long as I can remember so nothing has really changed.

Stepping off our porch I cringe at our patch of dirt where a lawn should be. Both our neighbors have pristine yards which makes ours even more embarrassing. I wonder what McKayla and Shandra think.

I open the door and slide into the back seat with a stomach quivering at the thought of starting school again. It’s not the classes or homework that has my nerves on edge, it’s all the pointless drama, which I expect will start any moment now.

I pull my seat belt on and take in the unfamiliar scent. Is that what they call a new car smell? I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been in a new car.

“I know, it’s so good, right?” Shandra says from the front seat. “Why doesn’t she sign a record deal?”

McKayla shrugs. “Who knows? I read she’s turned down several offers already. Maybe she’s holding out for more money.”

They’re talking about Skylar Bynes. She’ll be a senior with us and I’m pretty sure she’s in my first three classes. But that doesn’t mean much; I haven’t been able to even say hi to her. I get too nervous when she’s around.

It’s funny how things change. I could talk to Skylar just fine in junior high. Back then she was a regular kid who was learning to play an acoustic guitar. She was always practicing - before school, during lunch, and after school while she waited for her mom to pick her up. By eighth grade she was pretty good and started busking downtown even. We all thought that was cool.

Eventually her older brother started a YouTube channel for her, and by our freshman year, she had over two-thousand followers. I laugh at how epic that seemed to us, like she was super famous already. But halfway through our sophomore year, one of her videos went viral. Now she has more than twelve-million subscribers.

Everyone knows Skylar could be a pop diva doing world tours, but for some reason she’s here, going to our school, and she’s still busking downtown. The only difference is she has an electric acoustic guitar, a better sound system, and her audience is a bit larger as in huge!

From the front seat, Shandra cranes her head around. “Good morning.”

I look up and give her a smile.

“Skylar just came out with a new song. Have you heard it yet?”

I haven’t and the timing couldn’t be better. I could really use the distraction to calm my back-to-school nerves. I shake my head.

Mckayla tilts the rear-view mirror down and I see the smile in her eyes. “I think you’re going to like it," she says and taps the screen on her phone then turns the volume up on the radio.

“Hi, I’m Skylar Bynes, and this is my new song, Wall of Silence.”

There’s a short pause before the first note plays and from the start, it sounds amazing.
I lean my head back and close my eyes as the melody carries me away to a place where problems fade away. She begins singing and, as always, I’m mesmerized by her voice. She has one of those truly unique, timeless sounds. Listening to her I think of how Freddy Mercury, Lady Gaga, and Billy Eilish also have sounds that resonate on a deeper level.
The song is about a wall around a beautiful garden. Inside the wall, the garden is safe and secure. It’s poetic and I’m starting to understand as the chorus repeats itself. The garden is her mind, or maybe her feelings, and the wall protects her from cruel things people say. The wall is easy. It’s her silence, a way to keep people from twisting her words or taking them out of context to make her seem like something she’s not. I’m pretty sure she’s talking about the paparazzi.

Now that I get it, I marvel at her clever use of imagery to deliver the message. I think Anton Chekhov would have been proud of her. He’s the Russian author who said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” That’s what Skylar did with this song, and I could listen to it over and over again.

The next song comes on. It’s by Shantel. When you’re a megastar like her, you don’t need a last name. She’s another one of my favorite artists.

I love music. It’s my second obsession. When a great song like this is playing, it’s like an escape where the world around me and all my problems never existed. I love to listen for the little things, like the subtle beat in the background or the irregular rhythm of the synthesized notes that come and go sporadically. Someone had to think of those small details and I always wonder how they did it. It’s like they—”

“Hello,” Shandra says loud enough to startle me. “She’s doing it again. Turn it off!”
I blink a few times and look out the window. I’m surprised to see that we’ve left my driveway and are already miles from my house. Interesting.

McKayla laughs. “How does she tune out everything like that? I swear, it’s like the on switch for my playlist is the off switch to her brain.”

I turn from the window just in time to see she’s holding her phone up and is looking at my image on the screen instead of watching the road. That makes me nervous. I should know better and look away, but I don’t. Instinctively I look directly at the screen to see me with an unflattering, confused expression as she snaps a picture.

She turns the phone so she can see it better and the corner of her lip turns up. Satisfied, she puts the phone down and turns the radio off.

“Nice to have you back,” Shandra says. “I was just saying, it looks like you had a rough morning.”

I force a reluctant smile wondering what McKayla plans to do with that picture.
“Hello, did, you, have, a, rough, morn-ning?” she asks with emphasis on each syllable like I speak muy poco ingles—very little English.

I heard her the first time, but have to shrug not sure what she’s referring to. A rough morning? How about a rough night? Mom and Dad fought for hours and I didn’t get to sleep until sometime after 2:00 a.m. So sure, I’m tired, but what does that have to do with how I look? Did I miss something when I was getting ready? Suddenly I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where I’m sitting in class and realize I forgot to put pants on.

Shandra reaches in her purse, pulls out a compact mirror and holds it in front of me. I look closely and don’t see anything unusual. My sandy blond hair hangs straight. It’s clean and combed, but nothing more. Freckles paint the bridge of my nose and upper cheeks. My lips look kind of swollen, but that's how they always look. Right now they're a bit chapped, and my brown eyes are bare, no eyeliner or eye shadow like Shandra’s. That’s what I’m missing!

I reach in my backpack and pull out my tattered makeup bag. The contents inside probably would have been thrown out and replaced with better by Shandra and McKayla, but it’s the best I have.

I use Shandra’s mirror to apply some brown eyeliner, a light brush of powder to my cheeks leaving my freckles visible and finish with a flushed pink lip stick.

“Much better,” Shandra says as I put my makeup bag away.

“What about her nails?” McKayla says. “Did you see them? Gross!”

I look down at my hands. They’re clean, but cracked and calloused and my nails, well, there’s not much past the fingertips. They make me look like I work in a sweat shop. But that’s what happens when you have two jobs all summer. Of course, McKayla wouldn’t know anything about that. I know for a fact that neither of them has ever had a job. And why is that? Oh, because they have parents who take care of them, not the other way around.

Shandra play-slaps McKayla’s shoulder. “Don’t be mean. She’s doing the best she can.”
McKayla shoots her a glare. “I’m just saying. It’s embarrassing!”

Their conversation sounds like two bees buzzing somewhere off in the distance as my attention is drawn to the homes we pass, one immaculate yard after another. Fresh cut lawns, neatly trimmed shrubs, washed and waxed cars in the driveways, it’s hard to imagine that I could have nice things—clothes, my hair done, manicured nails, and a house like one of these. I know it’s possible, or likely even when I graduate from Stanford. I just have to get there.

“Allen texted,” Shandra announces.

That draws my attention. I wonder what he wants. Allen is another friend I met at church, which still feels strange when I think about it.

I’m not religious, and I’m not agnostic either. The truth is, I haven’t given theology much thought. Church was Dad’s idea.

As if working two jobs wasn’t enough, he suggested I pick up some babysitting gigs on the weekends. Turned out to be the one good thing he’s ever done for me, and he didn’t even know he was doing it.

To be honest, I was up for anything that could bring in more money and babysitting fit my future plans perfectly. The thing was, I had no idea how to go about it. But I knew Dad did. He wouldn’t have brought it up if he didn’t already have a plan. “So,” I said, “How do I get babysitting jobs?”

Dad’s answer was simple. “Church.”

He laid it all out for me. I would start attending the church a few blocks from our house. It’s huge, like the size of a small college, and they have a surprisingly large youth ministry program. That’s where high school kids meet on Wednesday evenings and before Sunday service. I wasn’t able to go on Wednesdays very often because of work, but I never missed a Sunday. And it wasn’t bad actually. People were nice, and just like Dad said, the church had a community bulletin board.

I made a simple flyer that said I was available for babysitting and the calls started coming in. Now I have a network of steady clients set up for the rest of the year. The best part is, I can do homework while getting paid.

I’ve already fought Mom on this once, and I’ll probably have to again, but I plan on keeping the money from now on. I expect it be an ongoing battle, and I’m determined to win. I have to.

So, Dad’s self-serving idea wasn’t entirely bad for once. I ended up with a source of cash going forward, and I made a few friends along the way.

When I arrived on that first Sunday morning, the pastor assigned McKayla and Shandra to be my welcoming committee. They were nice enough even after they realized I can’t speak sometimes. They showed me around then kept me company whenever I came back. After a few Sundays, Allen, the pastor’s son, joined us. At first, I figured they were just doing their church duty, but as time went on, we became friends.

As we pass the school sign with the words Welcome Back displayed on the letter board, I’m still waiting to hear what Allen was texting about, but Shandra isn’t sharing.

We enter the seniors parking lot and the number of new cars is a good indication that McKayla’s parents are not alone in their thinking. Must be nice. My parents are never going to buy me my own car, but still, I might have been able to drive myself to school on occasion in theirs. I do know how to drive, and not having a driver’s license never stopped me. But having their car repossessed did.

As we walk into the school together, I feel sick when I reach for my phone. It’s not in my pocket. My stomach knots up as I rip off my backpack and search it frantically. It’s the type of free phone you get when you qualify for government assistance, but those phones have limited data. My phone is unlimited. Don’t ask me how. Dad got our phones from someone he does business with which means someone shady since Dad doesn’t have a business, not a legit one anyway. Regardless, if I don’t find it, I won’t be getting another one.

It’s not in my pack. I stand and check my pockets again as if I wouldn’t have felt it before. Did I leave it in the car?

“What’s wrong?” McKayla asks.

I hold my extended thumb and pinky finger to the side of my face like I’m making a call then hold the phone gesture out shaking my head with an exaggerated shrug.
“Use your words,” Shandra says like I’m a child.

She knows I can’t. I haven’t been to a doctor to have it diagnosed officially, but I looked it up and I think it could be something called selective mutism. I go to say something and suddenly my tongue refuses to cooperate. But other times I can talk just fine. It’s like my tongue has a mind of its own and it gets to decide when I’m allowed to speak.

“We’re going to be late,” Mckayla complains. “I want to get a coffee before class starts.”
“Oh, alright.” Shandra moans. She brings her hand from behind her back and holds up my phone. “You left it in the back seat. You really need to be more careful.”

“And you should probably password protect it,” McKayla says with a sadistic snort.
I would have if I could have. The password feature was disabled by whoever Dad got the phone from.

“Do you need help finding your class?” Shandra asks like I’m three. McKayla lets out a demeaning chortle. They always treat me like I’m this helpless, lost little girl.

“Do you mean my AP English class or my AP Physics class or did you mean my AP Biology class while you two have what—home economics, ceramics and study hall? No, I think I can manage, but thanks anyway,” is what I want to say. It’s probably better that I can’t. I shake my head with a forced half smile instead.

“We’ll see you at lunch then,” Shandra says gleefully. As she and McKayla walk away, my phone buzzes. I look down to see it’s a message from Allen. “Hey, where are you? You’re not going to believe what just happened.”


Mary D Mon, 31/08/2020 - 13:06

Congratulations on your continued success Bryan -:)