Castellum

By Marlas Whitley

I don’t believe in anything—Santa Clause, leprechauns, good luck, bad luck, magic, miracles. I never thought there were monsters under my bed or hiding in my closet. I never made a wish on a shooting star or tossed a coin into a fountain or even blew dandelion seeds into the air. None of the bullshit that other kids were told made it into my ears. When you have a father who is adamant about God not existing and a mother who was killed in a car accident on her way to church, then nothing else is more real than the fact of life being a cold and sad reality we all have to endure, devoid of any whimsy or supernatural whatever to make it more interesting…tolerable, really. Sometimes, I don’t understand how some people can be so happy, so positive. I mean, I’m happy sometimes. I’m positive when there’s something to be positive about. But these sometimes and somethings are becoming more and more scarce. I don’t expect a resurgence anytime soon.

The hum of the floor cleaner roars over my music. I’d have it blasting from my phone, but a Goodway Grocer employee can’t do that, no matter if the store is empty of customers and it’s only four of us: me, Alley, the butcher guy, and Stella. Stella hates all of us. At least, she says that on her bad days. But even on her good days, she gets a sarcastic or low-key demeaning jab in. For an assistant manager, she gets too much power. With that power, she does nothing but enforce the policy time and time again, over every little detail. Everyone has expressed their disdain for her, even Forrest, our general manager. But they won’t fire her because, ironically, she’s great in customer service and keeping everyone on task. Yeah, she’s great with the latter because she threatens to dock pay if we step out of line in anyway. I can’t help but think of her like a bulldog. All snout and jowls. Bark and bite, too.

It’s my usual responsibility to clean the floor half an hour before closing. The machine used is ten years old and hums so loud it gives everyone a headache. Even the last few customers to trickle in and out the store are annoyed with how loud it is. Forrest said they ordered a new one. That was three months ago. I push the thing past its limits to get the job over with. It hums and hums. I blast XXXTenancion in my ears while pushing down the chip aisle. I come out to the bakery section of the store and look over to Alley by the registers. She was standing at number seven, scrolling up and down something on her phone, impatiently tapping her toe to every second left until she gets to clock out. Stella comes out the main office behind the service desk with a wad of papers in her hand. She teeters a little on her heels, her chest heaving slightly. She does something behind the counter and looks up to see Alley on her phone. I see her yell, and Alley startles then puts her phone away in her pocket. Her back turned to the Stella, I see Alley form the word ‘sorry’ on her lips, but she rolls her eyes and begins to drum her fingers on the register counter. I shake my head and snicker. I love Alley’s actions. I love to see her roll her eyes; the flair she does it with. Alley has always been a naturally bitchy person, but she uses it in a comedic kind of way. When I see her at school, she kills me when she talks about shit the teachers give her: “And Mr. Drake is a fucking pain in the ass. I mean, he always got to single me out. Over what? My fucking gum chewing? Fuck outta here with that bullshit. I mean for real.” I love how she cusses. She always gives each syllable a striking emphasis, a quality that’s oddly lovely to hear.

I get the bakery section floor clean and move toward the paper-products aisle. My playlist shuffles to a song I should have deleted a long time ago. Having no want to endure the song, I pull my phone out and attempt to change it, pushing the cleaner with my other hand as I scrolled through my playlist. I found an underground track I forgotten I had and looked up once I tapped on the song and immediately swerved the cleaner with all my might when I saw her in my way. I save myself from bumping into the row of paper plates and cups, holding the cleaner in its place as it hums on.

 “Jesus!” I exclaim. “Fuck.” I look over and see a girl in a cargo jacket and lace up boots. The hood was covering her head and obscuring her face, but black curls with silver-grey highlights fell down and around her shoulders. She clutched a magazine in both of her hands and hunched. She must have braced herself. Was I going that fast? I look down and see she has a carry-on basket by her boots that seem to be filled with small boxes and a bag of something. I turned the cleaner off and take my ear buds out.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” I start and walk over to her. “I wasn’t paying attention; I’m so sorry.” When I come closer, I notice that I tower over her. She relaxes her shoulders and stands up straighter. The magazine she’s holding fell to her side. She turns her head up towards me. I knew her right away.

“Wow…okay,” Castile says. Her deep, harmonic voice was pissed, but her steely eyes gleamed and said ‘hello.’ She grins small. I hear a giggle at the back of her throat.

“Oh! Um…hey,” I manage. Castile goes to the same school as Alley and I. We have the same class schedule. In all our classes except world history, she sits in the back. Yet she’s vocal when the teacher calls on us or allows us to discuss. After school, Castile is outside with a group of people that look like my typical slacker crowd, only they’ve done more than smoke some weed and drink a Bud Light. I’ve never seen her alone.

“Okay, that was something,” Castile says.

“Yeah…oh, fuck I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. I’m just happy I wasn’t squashed by…whatever the hell that thing is,” Castile nods over to the floor cleaner.

“Right, right,” I say. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t trying to commit a floor-cleaner homicide or anything,” I joke, then cringe to death on the inside. But Castile lets out a dry laugh.

“Thank God. That would have been a weird way to go.” She tucks some of her silvery hair back into her hood.

“Heh, right?”

“Right.”

We stand here for a moment too long, unmoving. The lack of talk already added a layer to the uncomfortable air too thick and humid to handle. I’ve never spoken a lick of English to Castile since realizing her existence the beginning of junior year. She sways on her heels now, sniffs back some snot, and moves to pick up her basket. I clearly see that the contents comprised of boxed mac and cheese, a bag of ginger snaps, and a few pears.

 “Well, I should finish shopping. My uncle has me running errands for him, and he’ll be here soon to pick me up.”

“Ye-yeah, certainly. Um…see you at school,” I say.

Castile’s small grin grows a little wider. “See you at school, Carter” She uses my name. How’d she remember a name that isn’t spoken too much in class or is barely used in any other social sphere? As I ponder this, Castile turns on her heels and walks down the aisle.

“Oh, sorry again, Castile,” I say as she walks on.

“No worries. Nobody died, and nobody went to jail. That’s what matters,” she says cheerfully, still walking on. I watch her for a moment, observe her walk, the slight bounce in her gait.  With my music out, I hear that it’s raining. The heavy base banged against the metal roof in a different, more thunderous hum. Castile—her grey eyes gleamed, glittered almost. I’ve never seen that in anyone before. Or a grin like hers. No matter what its size, it made an impact. I watch Castile round the corner to the next aisle as I put my ear buds back in and turned the floor cleaner back on. I proceed with my typical task, but every other aisle I go down, I catch a glimpse of Castile. She had pulled her hood down, letting a mess of curls and silver fall around her face. She picks up what looks like cat food, soda, and a thing of bacon. I can’t place how she’s so intriguing to me all of a sudden. I never thought deeply of her at school. Why was now different? Is it because I actually talked to her, never mind how small the talk was? Her eyes….her grin. I scold myself for thinking of the very thing that I don’t believe in: magic. If I was a complete dumb fuck, I’d claim Castile was pure and utter magic because of her otherworldly eyes and grin. But I’m not a dumb fuck. She’s just beautiful, I conclude. Nothing else to it. Hell, I must be attracted to her. But no way can there be anything beyond that. No way.

I finish with the produce section on the far side of the store. With the whole floor finally being clean, I push the cleaner back toward the supply closet. I pass the registers and see Castile at checkout with Alley. They seem to have gotten into a chat; Alley had initiated her rapid hand movements to embellish her story, and Castile stood with her hips swaying side to side, plastic bags in each hand. She has that small grin on her face again. I marvel. God…she really is beautiful, and her beauty is unlike any other I’ve seen. Models, Victoria Secret Angels, even the people who work at Hollister all pale in comparison to Castile. I laugh at myself. This whole night has turned weird. I’ve turned weird; I actually have genuine romantic interest in someone; at least I think I do. I keep thinking about her and saying she’s beautiful and all the extra sappy shit that I think is bull. But damn. Dammit all to hell. I didn’t think I’d have the hots for someone until….never. I didn’t really think about it, honestly. I sigh heavily, realizing and reluctantly accepting these feelings. I’ll give it a night or two, see how strongly I feel at school the next few days.

I push the floor cleaner into its spot in the supply closet. I check my phone for the time; ten minutes until closing. Great. I go back out to the main floor and grab a bag of Cheetos and a Monster. I bring my stuff to Alley as she was counting the cash drawer. She looks up at me and rolls her eyes with that dramatic flair.

“You see I’m already tallying everything,” Alley says. “You can ring yourself up.”

“Yeah, in a perfect world,” I say. “But Stella would have a field day if I did. You know that.”

“I know how Stouty gets.” Alley put all the cash back in their proper places within the drawer and began keying numbers into the register’s keyboard. I put my stuff on the counter and looked over to see a Vogue magazine sitting on the bag carousel. Castile had a magazine.

“Hey, did Castile leave this?” I ask Alley.

“Oh! We both must have forgot. She only left a few moments before you came. Maybe she’s still out there?” But before I could hear Alley finish her sentence, I grab the magazine and jog outside. I notice Stella giving me a look as she continued to tend to whatever business there was behind the service counter. Outside, the rain had subsided to a light mist, but the wind was fierce and jarring, carrying fallen leaves and late autumn chill. I look around the dark parking lot, hoping to spot her springy step. Had her uncle already come? I give the parking lot another sweep of my eyes, looking intently under every lamp light.

No sign of her.

I really wanted to look into her eyes again. Really wanted talk to her. Maybe tomorrow at school, I can try; that is, if she’s not already preoccupied with other friends and what not. I begin to saunter back into the store until I hear a voice from the side of the building. I almost ignore it because we get loiterers all the time; but this voice was smooth and melodic.

“Yes, I understand. I’ll be okay, Raye. No, I Will. Okay?” Castile. As I walk toward the side of the building, her voice begins to fade away. I round the corner and see her standing in the middle of the field beside the store, illuminated by the residual light from the lamps. She places her shopping bags on the ground on either side of her and puts her phone away in her jacket pocket. I start toward her, hugging the magazine to me so it wouldn’t get ruined by the mist and wind.

“Castile!” I call. But she doesn’t hear me. I call again, trotting to her, holding her magazine close, feeling stupid for putting so much determination into this little bit. But I stop suddenly. The ground—it’s vibrating? Tiny reverberations like echoes underground. I look down slowly; there’s no splitting in the earth, but rather the grass looks like it’s freezing over. Rapidly, frost gathers at the tips of the grass blades. I step back and feel the firmness of the ground, the crunch sound from the ice. Then, the frost moves. It ripples and waves across the ground toward Castile, who is standing stiff with her arms lax at her sides. She has her head down.

“CASTILE!” I call at the top of my lungs. Before I could break out in a run for her, the frost ends at Castile’s feet, and in an instant, a white, harsh light engulfs her. All that’s visible of Castile is her silhouette in bold, black lines. Her hood falls back from her head, and the curls whip and move about through the wind that had begun to swirl around. The temperature has dropped severely, and the entire area was bombarded by a cold tempest. I feel a piercing dampness on my knees; I didn’t even notice that I fell to them. Stunned, I watch Castile in the white light. She stood as still as a statue as the world around her crashed. As if things couldn’t become more dangerously bizarre, a vortex begins to form of the wind, mist, and what looked to be ice pieces. Leaves and twigs join in the vortex. I cover my head as it closes in around me and Castile. She’s still standing. It becomes more and more compact until it and the white light clash, and a whole new conundrum is conjured. Everything swirls and blurs. I imagine this was what the Big Bang was like; bright and striking. The wind suddenly stops, and so does the vibrating. The grass has thawed. The air has become dry. I’m swallowing and regurgitating air. Everything just switched off, like there’s wiring to this fiasco. Everything became quiet and still, save for the faint glow.

I lift my head and uncover my eyes. Castile—she’s surrounded by a pale-blue light. From her back, frost-bitten leaves and sticks and…rocks? Crystals? They’re all floating, suspended in mid-air and glowing with varying hues of blue and grey. Everything fully registers in my mind. The formation of the leaves and twigs and stones make out a pair of wings. The leaves make the primary outline, and the rest of the matter fills in the span. I’d never seen anyone or anything so ethereal.

Castile moves. Her arms fall and she slumps her back as if she’s tired. She turns around slowly, her wings moving with her, gliding seamlessly through the air. She looks at me. Her eyes, which before had said ‘hello’ now say something entirely different. Her pupils are nonexistent. Her hair had also changed; the silver highlights covered all her curls now, and they moved as well like she was underwater. Castile parts her lips like she’s about to say something, but no words come. She just stares at me. I get up quickly. I wanted to run to her. Ask her if she was okay. What this was? And what is she? Without thinking, I take a step forward, and then another. Closer and closer, I feel more chilled with each step.

“Stop,” Castile says calmly. Her dreamy drawl takes on an echo and is empty of any love or song she wants to sing. There’s no giggle in her throat.

“Castile,” I whisper. I have tears in my eyes. Not only is it incredibly cold, but this overwhelming sadness…It’s painful. She is painful.

“Shhhhhhh,” She whispers, her finger up to her lips, her eyelids drooping. Then she shoots up into the air, overturning the soil with her leap. The coldness and sadness is gone. All that’s left are the groceries she bought spilled on the ground, a splotch where grass use to be, and tiny crystals in the dirt.

I walk back inside Goodway and toss the Vogue back on the rack. Alley, coming from the break room with her jacket and backpack, looks at me with worry.

“So, did you give her the magazine?” She asks.

“Um…no. She had left already.”

“Oh. Well, I’ll give it to her tomorrow at school, then.

“Okay.”

Alley eyes me still. “You look clammy.”

“It’s cold out.”

“I know, but you look pale and kind of shaken. You seemed fine a moment ago.”

I shrug. “That was a moment ago. This is now.” With that, Alley shrugs and says, “Okay.” She nods me goodnight, and I nod her goodnight as well. I’m the last to leave before Stella. I throw my coat on and shove my hands in my pockets. Stella was finally finished with whatever work she was doing.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” She says to me before I walked out the door. I stop, but I don’t turn around.

“Nah. Just cold.