CONSTRUCTION by Melissa Benton BarkerBy the third week of school, Kelsey decides the best strategy for getting through the halls between classes is to pretend she’s in a live-action version of Frogger. The other students are the cars—which makes Kelsey the frog—and her survival depends upon avoiding collision. Bonus points if she makes it from algebra to English without even brushing elbows with a car, a real challenge because the high school has been under construction since last spring, so it’s crowded. An entire wing closed. Men appear in the halls wearing fluorescent vests and hardhats, carrying paper cups or tool cases, smelling of cigarettes. There are classes in the cafeteria, classes in a storage room, classes on the stage of the auditorium, classes in the library. That would be Kelsey’s English class, where the students are on their third film version of Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes, when the overhead lights are off and the light from the television flickers, Kelsey sees her father skulking in the corner, sipping stale-smelling coffee or wielding a hammer. Her mother always said her father was “in construction,” but Kelsey never actually saw her father work or even come home from work so maybe what her mother meant was that he was “under construction.” Maybe construction was what he did to himself while he picked at his guitar or watched football teams from other states or maybe construction was what he did on the days when he didn’t get out of bed at all. Regardless, Kelsey likes to imagine her father in a hard hat, wherever he might be, because a hard hat is something like safety.

But today, there’s no sign of her father’s shadow. Kelsey has one of the double desks to herself, until there in the doorway appears Bo Jackson Landry. There are no seats left so Bo Jackson takes the chair next to Kelsey. He’s late but he’s the kind of kid who’s always late so no one bothers to give him a tardy. Bo Jackson’s fingers are all torn up. At first Kelsey thinks this is from chewing on cuticles, but the marks are thin and white, what she’s always imagined when she hears a doctor on TV say the phrase “hairline fracture.”

Juliet leans over the edge of the balcony. She’s beautiful, but Bo Jackson doesn’t pay her any attention. He opens a thick book instead. Kelsey knows the book, a YA tome where all main characters have their own special death wrapped up like a package. Kelsey’s read the book five times and counting. Bo Jackson smells like dust and rain, and Kelsey would like to touch his fingers.

Beyond Shakespeare, a September storm drums up over the rooftop and the men put down their hammers. They take a smoke break under the eaves. A bald man paces, worrying about deadlines. He used to teach math, now he’s the Facilities Director. He’s on the phone with the assistant to the superintendent about the tornado warning, but what he’s learning in real time is that neither numbers nor columns nor reinforced beams can save them. The sky turns purplish green, the color of bruise and warning. He thinks the roof should be sound enough to hold, but worries his calculations might be rusty. The students will be rounded up, stuffed into the middle hallway like canned fish—sardines.

Kelsey’s dad will read about it later, in a day-old newspaper from the fourth floor of the SRO in Pittsburgh, where he landed. He’ll read about how everything came unhinged. The roof flapped open like a broken jaw. The children laid open to the roiling. How they ascended, all except two of them. One child transmogrified, now she’s green-skinned and throat-ballooned and croaking, as if she’s trying to eject the last word. They’ll keep her under a glass case in the bio lab of the high school in the next town over, in something like an aquarium, and as her father picks up his guitar he’ll have no idea that the mystery she sings is his own name turned inside out, lost and buckled under.

Bo Jackson Landry will walk away from the disaster, but no one will notice. Except for the girl now in the glass case in that bio lab, no one noticed, either, that he didn’t huddle in the hallway with the rest of them. He found a hardhat under a desk and he put it on. He pulled his knees up to his chin and he waited patiently until everything was over. He kept the hard hat, and he wears it to this day. It keeps him invisible. It keeps him lonely. It keeps him unscathed. If anyone ever asks him why he still wears that hardhat, he’ll tell them he’s all boarded up, he’s solid when the wind blows. He’s in construction. He’s patient. He’s steady.

Photo used and adapted under public domain.