a short story by Karen Kasaba
About the Author
Karen Kasaba’s stories, essays and poetry have appeared in anthologies,
magazines and newspapers including Hawaii Review, Westways, Byline, Los
Angeles Times, The Santa Barbara Independent and Community of Voices. She is
the recipient of a Sherwill C. Corwin Award for playwriting. Her work as a screenwriter has earned multiple awards including an Emmy nomination.
“Sparks” was first published in the Winter 2000 issue of Chariton Review.
That October, before my ninth birthday, Santa Ana winds blew the bark off eucalyptus trees and brought a wildness to the San Fernando Valley. At school, windows rattled and trash barrels bellowed across blacktop. The air smelled of acorn dust and asphalt, and everything, including me, twitched and sparked with static electricity.
At recess, juiced with negative ions, the entire fourth grade class and I scrambled onto the schoolyard, frantic as the swirling dust devils that spun spirals of leaves and debris like tops on the kickball court. The wind whipped our hair horizontal and stretched our mouths into gummy smiles. Gusts flipped up my skirt, and the rosebuds on my underpants showed. None of the girls could keep their dresses down, but the boys weren’t looking. We were caught up in the bigness of the wind and the way it flattened itself against us.
All at once, we decided to become kites. We stretched our jackets up over our heads, taut across our arms, and scudded headlong into the wind. The wind chafed my face and dust stung my eyes, but if I ran fast enough, straight at it, straight through it, I felt the lift. I could catch a pocket of air in the fabric of my coat, jump into the sky and fly. The same kids who called me names and picked me last for kickball were flying right next to me, laughing and smiling like we were friends. Even Becca Davis, who raided my lunchbox on the bus, was yelling, “C’mon, c’mon.” Wind made me nervous and kept me awake at night, but when I ran smack into it and faced it head-on, I felt free and full of everything the wind contained.
When the bell rang at the end of recess, Becca and I bunched up with the other kids outside the door. Becca was short and bossy, and smart about things we didn’t learn in school–at home she explored her parents’ dresser drawers and knew what their contents meant. I smiled at Becca like we might be friends, but she just stepped on the backs of my shoes and gave me a flat tire, as if we’d never flown together in the wind.
In science class, Miss Gregory pulled a potato out of a paper sack and held it up like a model advertising a product. Miss Gregory didn’t look like a model; she kept her hair knotted in a dark gray braid that hung down her back and wore a man’s plaid shirt with a denim skirt. Her voice was deep and sonorous as a pipe organ, and meant business.
“This potato is inert. Who can tell me what ‘inert’ means?”
Helen, whose skin was so pale she was almost transparent, raised her hand.
“It doesn’t move.”
“That’s right. Now watch.”
Miss Gregory plugged two colored wires into the potato. Then she touched the wires to the base of a tiny light bulb. The bulb lit right up. Everyone leaned forward to see. Becca knelt on her chair to get a better look.
“What could be more inert than a potato?” Miss Gregory said. “But, like a battery, this potato can generate electricity.”
The potato didn’t look any different; it didn’t move. It was only a potato, but look what it could do.
Next, Miss Gregory took two C batteries out of a toy monkey banging a drum and explained what made the monkey move.
“Without contact between these batteries and the metal tabs inside the monkey, chemical energy could not convert into electrical energy and make the monkey bang the drum.”
Doug, whose ears stuck out so far they lit up pink in the sun, screwed up his face to look even more like a monkey’s and imitated the toy. That made Scott laugh his wheezy laugh. Scott was the smallest boy in class — his arms poked out of his shirtsleeves like bell clappers. On days when Doug was absent, he seemed like only half of a boy. Miss Gregory sat the monkey on Doug’s desk and kept talking. Doug sunk down in his seat and stared at the toy, biting his lip to keep it from curling like a monkey’s again. Miss Gregory held up a battery and spoke in cathedral tones.
“Without contact, this battery is inert and the monkey is inert. Without a connection,” Miss Gregory said, “there is only inertia.”
Two desks over, Kevin Lundquist — who had a head shaped like a light bulb and wore black-rimmed glasses — drew pictures in his notebook, tracing and retracing with a blue ballpoint pen until his fingers were smeared. His tongue darted across his lips when he drew, pausing when he paused, as if his tongue was making the pen move, not his hand. Up and down all of his margins, he drew rounded-off rectangles with two lines curling out of them, like antennae.
Becca had to crane a bit to see what Kevin was drawing. When she caught me looking too, she made big eyes until I turned away, flushed with shame. I longed to feel as I did when we flew in the wind, like leaves fallen from the same tree.
“Kevin Lundquist,” Miss Gregory said. “What happens without contact? Without connection we have what?”
Eyes on his paper, Kevin answered, “Only inertia.”
Miss Gregory watched him until he lifted his eyes from the page. I saw something pass between them, like a smile that didn’t show on their faces. It lasted only an instant, but I felt it two desks away. Miss Gregory went on with the lesson. Helen, who was usually uncertain about where to be, like a moth, sat stone still and wrote neat, loopy notes in her spiral notebook. Becca Davis chewed on the ends of her thick, cinnamon-colored hair, watching Kevin. Other kids fidgeted or folded cootie-catchers under their desks, but I listened to Miss Gregory like she was holding my heart in her hand and explaining to me how it worked.
When class was almost over, Miss Gregory passed out small mirrors and a pack of Wint-o-Green LifeSavers. She closed the venetian blinds and turned off all the lights.
She said, “Put the mints in your mouths, look in your mirrors and bite down hard.”
First there was the sound of clacking teeth. When I bit down, cold mint rushed across my tongue, like wind. In my mirror I saw bits of blue light glinting off my teeth. Then one by one, we all began to laugh. The darkness filled with the sound of our laughter and the clack-clack of our teeth, and here and there were flashes of light, tiny blue sparks emitting from our mouths. I laughed, too, until all of a sudden I was so full of a feeling that my throat got tight, and I wanted to cry. My laugh changed to a kind of bark, and I was glad the lights were out.
Making sparks made me feel huge and safe in the dark. Like a star, shining among others like me, made of light.
In November the wind stopped erasing the sky, and clouds clustered into shapes I could name. That’s when Kevin Lundquist showed up at school with some sort of battery gismo. Kevin’s battery was connected to a coil with colored wires attached, like the pictures he drew in class. I didn’t know what it was for, only that it held electricity, the same stuff I’d felt vibrating inside me ever since we’d flown in the wind. Ideas blinked in my head, and sparks shot out my fingertips in the dark when I shuffled my feet on a rug. I loved the sharp bite of light that came with sparks and wondered if others hummed and buzzed with the same energy that I did.
At recess, six or seven of us gathered around the redwood picnic table behind the big eucalyptus at the far end of the playground, where Kevin set up his invention. The air smelled green and splintery in the shade of the tree. I stood at a distance; afraid of what might happen, wanting to be invited.
“Chicken,” Becca Davis called out. She smiled with one side of her mouth.
“I’m just watching,” I said.
Becca narrowed her eyes. “You’ll tattle.”
“I won’t.” I would never tattle. Tattling made me closer to the teachers but further away from the other kids.
“C’mon already,” Kevin said. Becca and Doug made an opening for me, and we held hands in a circle, each kid on the end grasping a colored wire. We hadn’t held hands like this since kindergarten.
“Hang on or you’ll break the connection,” Kevin said. “Everybody ready?”
“Wait.” Doug let go of me and wiped his hands on his shirt.
“Whatsa matter?” Becca said. “Cooties?”
“No,” Doug said. “I’m too sweaty.” He took my hand again and whispered, “Sorry.”
Scott broke loose and wiped his hands, too.
That made Becca roll her eyes. “Monkey see, monkey do, make a monkey out of you.”
Scott and Doug just grinned, then looked at Kevin. Kevin held the two wires up in the air, like a magician ready with a trick. The sun glinted off his glasses and made them glow white. I couldn’t see his eyes. He smiled toward me like someone who knew everything there ever was to know.
“Here we go,” Kevin said. “One, two, three–“
Kevin touched the red wire to the blue wire and activated the battery. A rippling, delicious buzz coursed through my bones, flaring out to the edge of my skin. We all smiled and giggled, charged with the thrill of a carnival ride. My heart fluttered, my breath stilled. The current surged though our clasped hands until I almost couldn’t let go.
“Stop it, stop it,” we yelled to Kevin, begging for more. The feel of it was so exciting, and when we went long enough, Helen’s hair, which was light blonde and fine, lifted straight up into the air, and we would all see it and scream. Becca stretched her lips sideways and tried to smile at me like when we flew in the wind. We squeezed our hands tighter, as if we were all attached to the same set of lungs and needed each other to breathe.
Kevin’s invention lasted about a week, and then we became numb to it and craved more. Kevin reveled in the attention. He secretly spent weekends in his father’s workshop building higher and higher voltage devices. Next he coupled a bigger battery to his coil, with bare metal bars attached to the wires. “For better contact,” he said. This unit packed quite a wallop, and when we begged him to stop we weren’t kidding; Helen began to cry.
The last of Kevin’s efforts was a small generator with a hand crank, wired up to a pair of metal rods. He told us the generator came from inside an antique wall phone his dad was restoring. Even better than a battery and coil, now Kevin could crank the generator faster and faster to increase the intensity of the voltage he dished out.
Not wanting to be left out, I joined what was left of the circle. Doug liked the way it felt with sweaty hands. He ran to wet them at the drinking fountain, with Scott monkeying right along. Becca and I yelled for them to hurry. Helen stood by to watch, but no one teased her. When the boys came back , Becca took my hand and squeezed it, completing the circle.
Kevin turned the crank slowly at first. Voltage pulsed through my body, a violent, high-tension buzz. I felt every muscle tense and release in sharp, jerky spasms, and the faint odor of something burning filled the space inside our circle. This time, even with slow cranking, I could not let go of the other kids’ hands. I was unable to separate myself from the circle. The faces of the other kids mirrored my mute feelings. Instead of yelling, “Stop it,” our teeth clenched and our eyes widened in awful surprise. We were all trapped by something we couldn’t even see.
Kevin stopped, and we let go of each other, shaking out our noodley arms. Mine didn’t work at all for several minutes. I had feeling but no bones.
“How was it?” Kevin asked.
“Great,” we said, catching our breath. “Really great!”
Next we took the machine on one-on-one, to see who could last the longest. I didn’t go first. Neither did Becca. We sat side-by-side on the bench and watched Doug and Scott fall writhing onto the grass after their turns.
Then Kevin said to Becca, “Go ahead.”
Becca looked at the battery. “Why don’t you try it?”
Kevin looked Becca in the eye. “I’m the only one who understands how it works. Somebody else might crank too hard or too fast.”
“I’ll crank it.”
Kevin stared her down. Scott and Doug got up to watch.
“Why can’t I?” Becca said.
“You might kill me.”
“How do I know you won’t kill me?” Becca said, stepping closer to the machine.
“I guess you don’t,” Kevin said.
Becca picked up one of the rods, felt the weight of it in her hand. Suddenly she turned to me and said, “You go.”
It was one thing to do what the other kids did, but something else to be the one who could take the most and stand it. So far I’d stood out for all the wrong reasons, like being quiet, or the best speller, or the kid who knew “Jabberwocky” all the way through. But if I could do this — take more than anybody — then Becca wouldn’t bother me on the bus anymore, and nobody could call me chicken.
Kevin hunkered over his contraption, controlling the crank, never taking up the rods himself. I wondered if Kevin was afraid. I stepped forward, and Kevin handed the rods to me — cold, hollow tubes of light metal that fit easily into my palms. I took a deep breath so I’d have air in case my lungs stopped working, and looked Kevin in the eye. Helen and Becca giggled in anticipation while Doug and Scott were still finding their breath. Kevin began cranking, harder than before. He seared slow pulses of juice into me, which bounced off the pavement beneath my feet and shot back through me again. My gums loosened around my teeth, and my tongue buzzed and inflated until it filled my mouth. I tried to talk, but the words just bounced off the roof of my mouth, never leaving my lips.
Cranking faster, huge, ugly pulses of power shook me from the inside out. The battery was simultaneously spilling energy into me and sucking it out in vicious spasms. I couldn’t let go of the rods, and I had no way of telling Kevin to stop.
Kevin lifted his head, and I saw through his glasses this time, into his eyes, all the way into myself. There I saw all kinds of fear balled up inside like scribbles of blue ink from Kevin’s pen, fear as boisterous and blatant as wind. Fear of being different and alone, without a place to be. I imagined Kevin was full of those scribbles, too, howling and swerving inside his head like a month of Santa Anas. But, plugged into Kevin this way, I could feel the knots begin to unravel, like a beautiful blue thread untangling and connecting me to Kevin, connecting both of us to everything.
As my own fear unraveled, it showed up on the faces of the other kids. Especially Becca. She glanced frantically between the battery and me.
My own face had loosened and was fluttering unattached. The only thing holding me up was the current flowing through me, and now it began to grip me in erratic rhythms, out of time with the metronome of my heart. The pulses sharpened into pain. I oscillated into Kevin’s eyes, liquefied.
Kevin responded by cranking more slowly. Now the voltage rounded off and rolled into me the way sleep comes sometimes, easy, peaceful waves that made me feel entirely alive and paralyzed at the same time. Asphalt and eucalyptus blurred into a halo of silver and green, and in the center of it, Kevin’s smile was a mirror of mine.
A voice came from far away, getting louder, louder, until it was ringing in my ears.
“Stop it, stop it! Stop it!”
The halo around Kevin faded, and I saw Becca hitting him on the arm, hard. Kevin let go of the crank, but Becca hit him once or twice again.
“That’s it,” Becca said. “That’s enough.”
Becca snatched the rods from my hands and dropped them onto the table. They chimed like bells. The other kids watched without a word.
“I saved your life,” Becca said. “One more second and he could have killed you.”
Kevin had stopped cranking, but the rods still tingled in my hands, and soft waves of phantom energy continued to pass through me, like an after-image. I wasn’t moving — but this wasn’t inertia. I sparkled inside like when I’d flown in the wind, generating my own power.
“How was it?” Kevin asked.
Something passed between us like a smile. Helen eyed the device with interest, maybe feeling a bit left out.
Becca pushed her aside. “You better take that thing apart,” Becca said to Kevin, “or I’m telling Miss Gregory.”
“It’s just an experiment,” Kevin said. Hearing that, our collective posture improved, as if we all had erasers balanced on our heads. This was an experiment, and we’d all been proud to participate.
Becca said, “You think you’re some kind of scientist, Kevin Lundquist, but you’re just a kid like the rest of us.”
Becca meant that to sting like an Indian burn, but I saw in Kevin’s eyes a tiny glimmer, small as the sparks we made with our teeth.
“Take it apart already, before you kill somebody,” Becca said.
The bell rang, calling us back to class. Becca stood with her hands on her hips until Kevin disconnected the wires. I was sure Becca would walk back with me, but she ran on ahead. As I watched her go, I felt the tug of a slender blue thread reaching between us, stretching all the way to the classroom, and as far away as Becca could run.
Tentative, Helen asked, “Did it hurt?”
I nodded. But I was grateful to Kevin. I had learned that sparks, like static in the wind, could pass through me to another person, and another. The sense that connection was possible relieved me, that somewhere deep inside our bones, we were all made of the same stuff.
Helen stepped closer. “Can I touch you?”
I held out my arm, still twitching. She tapped me lightly with her long fingers.
“Ooh,” she said, smiling. “Sparkly-like.”
In December, the air chilled and thinned, brightening and sharpening everything. We went back to whacking the tetherball, climbing on the jungle gym and picking the usual kids for kickball. Becca still bothered me on the bus, only not as much. Once in a while, when I’d see the sun glint off Kevin’s glasses and watch them go white, I’d feel a tingle.
We never played with batteries after that. But the sweet, nervous quiver of pure electricity stayed with me. I spark and pulse with it whenever I come close to another person, as if our energies can arc out over the air and bond us together.
“Sparks” Copyright ©2001 by Karen Kasaba.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.