On the Ground, Looking Up
by Tori Bissonette
The air was thick and sticky against Yoon’s skin as he walked along the edge of the road. There was a drizzle, but the drops were only visible in the halos of street lamps in the velvety darkness. From his right, the sleigh-bell crescendo of peepers accompanied his journey. How did they make so much noise? Spring peepers were ugly little things but their chirps were high and demanding. It was melodic or maddening depending on one’s mood, but Yoon knew it meant spring was around the corner, even if the frost was only a few weeks past, so he couldn’t bring himself to begrudge the tinkling noise.
He let out a shout just because he could. No heads turned and no lips frowned. The nighttime took whatever he gave without second thought, pulling at the threads of his presence until there were no remnants left to say he was here at all. He sighed and liked the way it was absorbed by the woods on either side of him.
His squelching shoes took him to the middle of the road and he balanced on the yellow line. The rain wasn’t falling heavily enough to accumulate on the ground, but the road did glint under the street lights. Yoon could probably stick his tongue out and lap the humidity up if he wanted to.
Instead he balanced along the middle line with his arms out wide, pausing only to let out an occasional curse at the top of his lungs. Just because he could. He wasn’t worried about lurkers or stranger danger or any of that nonsense his sister always warned him about. The trick was to always be up to no good yourself, then the good people left you alone and the shady ones just nodded and went on their way.
He let a few more creative curses color the humid air around him before trying a handstand, which he instantly regretted as bits of water-logged asphalt stuck to his palms.
“Gross,” he mumbled, wiping them on his jeans. His sister, Tara, would complain when she did the wash, but her complaints had yet to stop him so far.
The echoes of Tara’s voice from earlier in the evening still flitted through his ears, but he shoved back her wounded indignation and broken wishes. He could see through her gentle placations. Scholarships and applications—those things took time. She’d been running around behind their backs, smiling in their faces all the way.
He wondered briefly if his mother had noticed his absence or if she was too deep in the bottle to remember him walking out. Would Tara still be there when he got back home? She’d be asleep if she was, it had to be at least two or three in the morning and he was a good two miles past the edge of town. Good students were in bed at this time of night. The houses here were sparse and there were great dips of darkness between each street light, but the moon was bright and the peepers loud, so it seemed as good a place as any to be wandering in the early hours of an April Tuesday.
Something plopped onto his canvas shoe and Yoon glanced down to find a peeper seated on the top of his foot. The frog was only about an inch or two long with tiger markings in light and dark brown. It was an unassuming thing and it looked out of place on the black material of his shoe. It looked not unlike a small dog turd, Yoon observed with a frown. Not cool.
“Okay, asshole, ride’s over.” He jerked his foot slightly, trying to dislodge the thing without launching it half a mile down the road. No luck. “Seriously. Come on.” He bent down, ready to flick the frog off if need be.
It let out a small chirp, halting Yoon’s fingers. It was distinct from the distant cries from the marshy woods behind him. Without the chorus of lonely bachelor brethren, it sounded less like a whistling melody and more like a lost chick. The frog’s throat expanded as it let out another chirp, seemingly content with its new perch and eager for a mate to join it on the other shoe.
“Sucks to be alone, don’t it?” he asked. He settled his arms on his crouched knees and watched the frog let out a few more peeps, fascinated by the way the thin throat skin inflated to nearly the size of the frog’s body.
A noise cut through the still night. Something small, but approaching quickly. Yoon twisted, making sure to keep his foot still. Atop the gentle slope of the road he could make out a bike frame glinting in the streetlight.
The rider, dressed in all black, kept his head down and his pace fast. Was he even watching at all? Yoon sat up a little straighter, but realized he couldn’t bolt, not without sending his buddy flying. This guy was headed right for him, gathering speed down the hill.
“Hey,” he tried to call out, but only a weak noise stirred in his throat. All that screaming had come back to haunt him. The muscles along his calves and thighs went tense as his heart started to beat out a warning in his chest. Holy crap, that bike was moving fast. He wondered if he could scoop the frog up and move out of the way all in one go. Probably not without getting a face full of asphalt. The bike was hardly a stone’s throw away, but the rider’s head was still ducked. Fear tightened across his ribs, nearly tipping Yoon over. Clearing his throat, he called out again, “H-Hey!”
The stranger’s head jerked up, exposing dyed blonde bangs and a pair of oversized headphones clamped over his ears. The whites of his eyes flashed in the streetlight as they went wide.
“What the hell?”
Yoon threw a hand up to protect his face, but the biker swerved. In his surprise, he overcompensated, tipping the bike and sending himself rolling across the asphalt.
“Holy crap, kid, what the hell?” Yoon lowered his arm and took in the byproduct of his near miss. The bike lay on its side a few feet away, front wheel spinning dejectedly. The stranger was seated on his ass, headphones clenched in one hand, mouth hanging open. “Seriously, what the actual hell?”
“Why weren’t you looking where you were going?” Yoon snapped.
“Why’re you in the middle of the street?” The newcomer shoved himself to his feet and stomped towards Yoon. He was short and slim, but his gruff voice and heavy steps told Yoon he was no stranger to throwing his weight around anyway.
“Hey, stop!” Yoon demanded, watching the way the frog shifted uneasily on his shoe, probably sensing the vibrations of the man walking closer. “You’ll scare him,” he scolded, looking up into the hooded face. What an asshole this guy was. Couldn’t he mind his own business?
“A frog?” the man asked, voice thick with disbelief even as he heeded Yoon’s request. “You’re crouched in the middle of Route 17 risking death and dismemberment for a frog? You really are as dumb as you look.” The stranger let out a low whistle as he shook his head. Yoon scowled up at him. With a yawn, the man stretched his hands above his head before dropping to sit on the damp pavement.
“What are you doing?” Yoon repeated, almost forgetting to keep still in his confusion. A quick glance confirmed the peeper was still settled on his shoe. It was sort of flattering in a weird way. His baggy clothes and tired eyes may drive away the rest of his classmates, but he was the number one choice of a Route 17 peeper.
“Sitting. Someone’s got to be here to tell the police why you died when they find your mangled body.”
“Are you for real?” This close he could see the stranger wasn’t that much older than him, probably only eighteen or nineteen. Same age as his sister. Sleepy eyes gazed out from under the edge of his bleached fringe.
“Ain’t got much else to do. My ma’s got a date over and, trust me, that’s something no one wants to be around to see. Besides, there’s peepers that need protecting, apparently.” Stifling another yawn, he continued. “So what’s your name, kid?”
Yoon scowled. “I’m fifteen. I’m not a kid. And the name’s Yoon.” He directed his gaze down to his frog buddy. Would he leap away if Yoon poked him? Was his skin dry or wet? All his life he’d lived around here and he’d never touched one before.
“Yoon? The hell kind of name is that?”
Yoon bristled. He didn’t have many things left to remember his dad by. He certainly wouldn’t stand for some stranger mocking the name his dad had chosen specially for him. “It’s Australian. My dad—”
“Never mind, I already don’t care. Nice to meet you, kid. I’m Sandie.” He scratched at some dried mud on his shoe as he introduced himself.
“Your name is Sandie and you made fun of my name?”
“It’s short for Sanderson,” Sandie said and Yoon envied the way he brushed it off with a shrug. No defensive fire in his throat and no concern in his mind for others’ opinions. “So, kid. What’re you doing out so late anyway? Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
Yoon let his gaze dip to the pavement again. It had felt like the best thing to do at the time. Something bold and brash. Something to make his mother and sister stop yelling for one moment. His sister had looked to him for support, for someone to fight in her corner, but Yoon had wanted to make it clear that their mom wasn’t the only person Tara was leaving in the dust in her search for greener pastures.
But it was hard not to feel dumb now, sitting in the middle of the soggy road, trying to keep a frog on his shoe. Did he think he was going to shock them into getting along? His sister had made it clear: her plans were set. Her duty to her family only extended so far. She was leaving in the fall with or without their blessing.
“Crap, car’s coming.”
As they both rose, Yoon sent one last frown at the frog before nudging him off with the toe of his other shoe. He hopped away easily, unbothered by their parting.
The car went by quickly, spraying them with a fine mist of road water. It cut off Yoon’s view of the frog and he couldn’t locate the small thing in the dark grass afterwards.
“Hey, kid.” Sandie poked Yoon’s bicep with a wet stick. “You run away from home or something?”
His frog friend was gone and so was his reason for staying. It was a dumb plan anyway. His mother and sister wouldn’t be holding each other and weeping as they waited for his return. His mother was probably asleep on the couch, exhausted by the demands of yelling at her only daughter. And Tara was probably up in her room, highlighting her textbooks and filling out her college applications, jumping at any chance that passed her way to get away from her family.
“Or something, I guess,” Yoon replied. “Just had to get out for a bit.” In the wake of the passing car, the road seemed empty and quiet, like that one moment of disruption had altered the evening irreparably. Yoon was overtaken with longing for his bed, even if the sheets were the same blue planet ones he’d had since he was ten. If only there wasn’t a household of frigid silence between him and his room.
Sandie grabbed his bike, flicking a wet leaf off the seat as he went. “You got someone you can call for a ride?”
Yoon cringed. Tonight was turning out to be full of even more bad decisions than he’d realized. “I forgot my phone. I sort of left in a hurry.” It’d hardly felt important fifteen minutes ago when he was whooping and hollering and jumping all over the place. But now, he just felt stupid. Instead of asserting himself, he’d only asserted his own childishness. No wonder Tara never took him seriously.
“It’s a miracle you’ve lived to fifteen.” Sandie gestured Yoon over as he mounted the bike. “Get on, I’ll give you a ride back to town.”
Yoon hesitated. He didn’t know this kid at all. Sandie could be a murderer. Or worse, one of those black market kidney thieves. Yoon’s hand floated to his abdomen as if to keep his organs in place.
Sandie exhaled through his nose noisily. He cooked his head and shot Yoon a crooked smile. “Look, kid, I get it. Shit gets bad at home sometimes. My old man used to yell all the time before he fucked off to who knows where. And good riddance, really. But my ma would skin me if I left some poor defenseless kid out here to die. I’m trying to be a proper gentleman, alright? Just like my ma raised me. So get on before you get flattened.”
Yoon’s mom had raised him to be suspicious of any charitable gestures. There’s always a catch. But Tara had taught him to be courteous with strangers and between her and his mother, Tara was miles ahead in life. With a hum of appreciation and a small nod, he accepted.
With his feet on either side of the rear wheel hub, Yoon climbed on behind Sandie, holding tight to the other’s shoulders for balance. The thought of arriving home and creeping through the darkness made something tight build in his throat. Walking out was so easy. Walking back was so hard. No wonder his sister was trying to turn her back on them as fast as she could.
“My sister,” he began, surprised to find the words passing his lips. “She’s trying to get into college.”
Even with only a few inches between them, Yoon wasn’t sure if Sandie could hear him over the sound of the tires on wet pavement and the air rushing past their ears. Sandie took the wet corners faster than Yoon would have and the air, comfortable only ten minutes ago, nipped at Yoon’s exposed arms. He wondered if frogs could feel cold like humans could. He hoped his frog buddy made it back to his frog friends. Sandie’s hood slipped all the way off, exposing his head of faux blond hair, complete with dark roots. It looked alive and wild as it twitched and waved in the breeze. Yoon was tempted to touch it and see if it was soft.
“Good for her,” Sandie called back, nearly startling Yoon into releasing his grip. Sandie didn’t complain as Yoon clenched onto his shoulders a little tighter.
He thought of the ugly pinch of his mom’s narrowed eyes as Tara laid out her college ambitions. It may be good for her, but it wasn’t good for them.
“She’s abandoning us,” he said, putting his mouth closer to Sandie’s ear to make sure there was no mishearing. When Tara had first graduated from high school two years ago, she’d seemed content to be the breadwinner for the household. Lord knew their mother wouldn’t do it. She couldn’t hold down a job for the life of her. Tara was everything their mother wasn’t.
Apparently she was also keen on getting the hell out of dodge.
Sandie tipped his head as they cut through the dark night and spoke over his shoulder, “You mean she’s abandoning you.”
It wasn’t that Yoon would have to get a job. It wasn’t even that the burden of cooking and cleaning would fall on his shoulders. It was about being alone when their mother was out at the bar spending the spare cash they didn’t have. It was about having no one to whisper to late at night. All that would be left was Yoon and his mother’s nicotine smiles and her empty wallet.
Tara could leave, but Yoon couldn’t. For some reason, he’d always expected her to wait for him. But here she was, running away without a care in the world for him. So much for the sibling bond.
“She’s being selfish,” he grumbled, dropping his gaze to the fabric at the back of Sandie’s jacket. The rain had stopped completely as they neared the edge of the main drag, with the first shops taking shape as they pulled out of the darkness. There were more street lamps here, but still no people. It wasn’t the sort of place to have hooligans and vandals out at all hours. Just two kids on a bike.
“Oh I see,” Sandie said, his low voice cutting through the still air without remorse. “She’s too stupid for school so why bother going?”
Yoon nearly tumbled off the bike and Sandie was forced to drop his feet to the ground or risk his second crash of the night. Yoon yanked himself off and pulled himself to his full height alongside Sandie. “My sister isn’t dumb, you asshole.” His breathing was loud, an almost animalistic echo filling his ears. Who the hell did this guy think he was?
Sandie was hardly intimidated. With his hood down, his full face was on display and a smirk twitched on the edges of his lips. His pale skin looked almost otherworldly in the lamp light and the shadows playing off the bags under his eyes gave him a haggard appearance. It wasn’t a long day that was painted on his face, but rather a long life. A permanent state of exhaustion hung on his frame even as he held a cocky tilt to his head.
Yoon paused. He thought about Sandie leaving so his mom could have a nice date. He thought about a shadowy dad figure, disappearing one day without a second glance. Really, Sandie was placing just as much trust in Yoon as Yoon was in him. For all Sandie knew, Yoon could be the organ-harvesting delinquent out to find a mark. But he’d still offered a ride.
Sandie said nothing, observing Yoon with an even gaze. It was something Tara did too, watching and waiting, knowing Yoon would eventually fill the silence. Yoon sighed, trying to ease the tightness in his chest. Anger was so much easier to carry than this. No amount of petulance would begin to fill the aching chasm that formed in his chest when he thought of losing the company of his misery.
“She’s good at school,” he finally mumbled, scuffing the wet pavement with his shoe.
She was. Maybe balancing checkbooks and cooking dinners on a tight dime weren’t the “college-ready skills” that he saw in pamphlets around the high school, but he knew Tara would do well because she held herself to standards higher than anyone could set for her.
The evening had started so normally, but Tara had blurted out her plans in a fit of frustration. She was going to college. She laid it all out with words that were foreign in Yoon’s ears but familiar on Tara’s tongue. Scholarships. Work study. Housing plans. She’d arranged it all already. This was no spur of the moment decision and the realization that Yoon had been playing the fool the whole time stung the most. “How could you abandon your family?” their mother had asked and there was no surprise or disappointment on Tara’s face. It was resignation at best that flattened out her usually expressive features and kept the prim pinch on her lips.
Yoon knew there was pain somewhere in there. A flicker of hope that her aggressive self-sufficiency might be recognized or applauded. A good brother would have offered support when her eyes flicked across the table to land on him. A good brother might have suggested a rational discussion when their mother’s eyes followed suit, burying him under their collective gazes.
Instead, he’d gone for the door. Nearly three hours later, he was almost back, standing just two blocks away on the side of Pearl Street with a relative stranger, bemoaning his own loneliness and whining about his sister’s ambitions.
“My mom says she’s abandoning us. My mom’s really bad at holding down jobs and keeping up the house and all that.”
“So you agree with your mom?”
“No,” he said, surprised at how fast the word came to his lips. His mother was someone he never wanted to be lumped in with.
“Sure sounds like you do.” That was probably what Tara thought too, as she went to bed alone while Yoon ran wild in the streets. It was what made going back so hard, that heavy weight in his stomach and the sticky drag of his feet. No emotion weighed more than shame.
Sandie’s hand landed on his shoulder but Yoon couldn’t meet his gaze. “I think you’re being too hard on your sister. It’s a shit hand, for sure, but you gotta make it through the rest of high school.”
Sandie fished around in his sweatshirt pocket and produced a pen with a brutally chewed cap. He started scribbling something on the back of Yoon’s hand as he spoke. “In the meantime, go home. Try to keep your shit together for a few more years and text me if you get stuck by anymore frogs in the road.” He tapped the phone number written on the back of Yoon’s hand before moving back to his bike.
As expected, the lights were off and the house silent when Yoon pushed open the front door. He could just make out his mother’s form on the couch, a mostly empty bottle of liquor on the coffee table in front of her. No worries about accidentally waking her then.
The door to his bedroom yawned open at the end of the hall, but his feet stopped one door earlier. His fist hovered over the door, reticent to slice through the tentative silence. Silence didn’t necessarily mean peace, he reminded himself as he traced over the poorly written numbers on the back of his hand.
Tara didn’t answer his quiet knock, but he pressed the door open anyway. The moonlight filtering in through the blinds glinted over her wet eyes. She offered no objections to his presence, which he took as an invitation to continue. With the ease of experience he dodged the hip-slashing edge of her desk and the pile of textbooks stacked at the foot of her bed.
Her sheets were old like his, only pale pink with yellow daisies, and they were pilled and worn thin. He moved next to her, shoulders just barely touching. Laid out like sardines, they stared at the blank expanses of her ceiling.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“I know,” she said. The faint rise and fall of their chests was the only movement in the early hours of the morning and Yoon wished he could capture this moment forever. Soon she’d be gone and this silence of mutual understanding and comradery would be gone as well.
Tara sighed and her fingers tangled themselves in Yoon’s, unknowingly touching the phone number there. “I’m not trying to leave you behind. But I have to do this for myself.”
“I know,” he echoed. He wanted to tell her how much she was hurting him. He wanted to tell her how scared he was to be here alone. But he’d had his tantrum, he whined his grievances. Enough of that. He wanted to be the sort of person who stopped for lonely frogs and the sort of person who kept strangers company in the middle of the night. Maybe tomorrow he’d send Sandie a text. Maybe they could become friends. Maybe Yoon could repay him for his kindness.
For now though, he held tight to his sister’s hand.
Tori Bissonette (she/her) is a Vermont-transplant currently living in Philadelphia. She studies creative writing and English as a graduate student at Arcaida University. Her writing primarily deals with human connection and the human condition through a realist lens. Presently she’s the Submissions Manager and Nonfiction Editor for Marathon Literary Review, Arcadia’s MFA-run literary magazine. When she’s not writing, she can be found hiking or cooking. This is her first publication.