I started to see some light in the world.

She gives me the headphones, connects them to her phone and blasts the volume of a Custom Howse number. My ears blow out. I throw them off. “What the hell was that for?” I ask.

CUSTOM HEADPHONES BY MATTHEW MEAGHER 34THPARALLEL MAGAZINE ISSUE 81

Poppy pinches my bra strap, licks her thumb, and rubs my cheek. “Chloe, I like your clothes today.”

“Really?”

“My mom died in clothes like that.”

I should have jacked her in the face. It’s hard enough being who I am, let alone knowing I have feelings for the one girl that treats me like garbage.

We have five classes together. This one, Senior Seminar, is only 15 minutes, and students rarely show up.

Today is different. The teacher Mrs Delles holds up a bowl and says, “For your Senior Seminar Activity you will be compiling a project with a partner about your experiences in high school and your volunteer work in the community. You are all going to pick a name from the bowl.”

One after another we draw names. Pairings laugh together, excited about their picks.

“Poppy McGee,” Mrs Delles announces. “Come pick your partner.” Poppy eyes me. She walks to the front of the class and I get a waft of her flowery perfume. We are both counting, there can be only a few picks left.

Poppy places her hand in the bowl and picks me.

Mrs Delles gives us the remaining time to work with our partners. The first five minutes are death. Poppy and I don’t say a word. Finally, Poppy turns to me and says, “Look, we are going to have to get this done and I don’t want a scab on my graduation record, so let’s get this over with.”

Her words hurt. I want to be friends. But when she sees just a little bit of the shithole life I have, that’s never going to happen.

“I need your number.” she says.

I don’t respond.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Oh, sure, sorry.” I give her my phone to trade contacts. “Could we meet at a coffee shop or something?” I ask.

Poppy shakes her head.

“What?” I ask.

“Our project is Family. You can come to my place. Just shoot me a text and we’ll figure something out.”

The bell rings and she rushes out of the classroom and heads to the bathroom, I assume to fix her makeup.

It takes me three buses to get to Poppy’s place. The white mansions in her street are sick. Each driveway leads to a house standing on pillars wrapped in flowers and greenery. I feel like a black bug that accidentally got stuck on fresh white paint.

Poppy is staring down at me from a high window. “Come in,” she says, through a speaker. The door buzzes open into a show home. Pearl-white furniture scattered through three rooms each the size of my house and an unused dining room decorated with fake fruit.

At the entrance is a shoe cabinet. I look at my shoes. I’m not wearing socks. Poppy leans against the upstairs railing and stares at me, watches me struggle for a few seconds, and then says, “You don’t have to worry about that stuff. My dad is never home.”

She waves at me to come up. It’s like I’m approaching God or something. I’m out of breath when I reach the top. She meets me face to face and says in a stern voice, “No funny stuff, okay?”

“Okay.”

She turns and heads into a bedroom through double doors. Once we enter, Poppy shuts the doors, and the lights automatically switch to a subdued setting. She has transformed her room from a showroom for millionaires into a room for a starving artist. Dead flowers are strung up with black string along the corners of the ceiling. The entire room is decorated in dark shades. Her desk and comforter are burnt brown. A dim lamp sits on the desk lighting a pile of papers. A title page rests on top of the pile with her name, Poppy.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“A novel. Well, a manuscript for a novel.”

“You write?”

“When I’m free. Which is becoming less and less with all this graduating crap.”

“I didn’t think—”

“You didn’t think what?”

“Nothing. I just didn’t know you were a writer. I thought you were just—you know.”

“No, I obviously don’t.”

“Popular.”

She wasn’t expecting my response because she looks at me confused and says, “What does that mean?”

“It’s nothing bad. I just assumed you had more fun things to do than sit home and write.”

She flips the title page and brushes her finger over the first chapter, admiring her work. She replaces the title page and says, “Just because I have friends, doesn’t mean I’m dumb.”

She turns on a playlist of her favorite songs. My favorite band, Custom Howse, comes on. I can’t believe it. We listen to the same music!

“So you like Custom Howse?” I ask.

“They were my sister’s favorite band.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

She slams the novel manuscript with her fist. “I used to. She’s gone. She died in a car crash, with my mom.”

“Sorry.” Is this what your manuscript is about? Your family?”

“Sort of,” she says. “It’s hard to talk about. I mean there’s like 200 pages here.”

“200 pages? That’s sick.”

Poppy grabs the manuscript and puts it in her desk drawer. She points to an chair in the corner of the room. She says, “Pull up a chair. What do you want to do?” she asks.

“I can do art. I was thinking a collage or something.”

Poppy stares at her mirror, bordered in pictures and cut-out newspaper articles of her athletic achievements. She admires her life and says, “Perfect.”

The next day I get off the bus to see Poppy’s Lexus in my driveway. Poppy gets out and meets me. We walk together to my front door.

On the doorstep I stop and say, “There’s something I should warn you about.”

She asks, “Really?”

“My sister. She’s autistic and has a bad case of obsessive compulsive disorder.”

“So?”

“Just wait.”

I open the door and my sister is screaming in the kitchen. “My sister Lilly, she hates when people walk on the tiles. So stay on the carpets. If you touch the tiles she screams.”

“Jesus,” Poppy says. “And this is an everyday thing?”

Mom’s boyfriend, Clint, arrives just then. “Hey ladies.” He tiptoes on the carpets to Mom in the kitchen, picks her up, hugs her and spins her around. I see a smile crease Poppy’s face. “Follow me,” I say. I take a deep breath as we go to my room.

Poppy checks out my collages, paintings, and pictures. “Where are all your friends?” she asks.

“I don’t have friends.”

“That’s sad,” she says.

“Eh, I got a family. With school and my hot mess of a family I don’t really have time for friends.”

She climbs onto the bed and reaches for the dead roses hanging from the ceiling. “This is sweet,” she says. “There’s something about the look of dead flowers that brings light to a room.”

She sees the closet which I’ve made into a shrine to Custom Howse. Tickets, posters, and pictures of the band are stuck on the door.

“Custom Howse?”

“They’re my favorite band.”

“But no one knows about them. They’re just a small band from California.”

“I know. That’s one reason why I like them.”

“You like being alone don’t you?’

“Well, I never really had a choice.”

“You know I have a boyfriend right?”

“Yes. You date that guy Murdock McCoy? I heard he’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, he’s nice. For Valentine’s Day he gave me a plastic treasure chest filled with handwritten notes. It was sweet.”

We sit together on the bed. “Why did you come out? If you don’t mind me asking?” Poppy asks.

“I fell in love with a girl from another school. I thought we were meant to be together. But she left me for someone else from her school. So when it was over and everyone knew, I just went with it.”

Poppy jumps at the sound of Lilly’s shrieks. “Jesus,” she says. She puts a hand to her chest. “You deal with this every day?’

“I wouldn’t use the word deal, but yes.”

“How can you do your school work?”

I pull some headphones off the desk and give them to her. She puts them on and I play Custom Howse. When the music starts, her face brightens. She says, “I may have an idea that could help your sister.”

“You and every doctor in this State.”

She gives me the headphones, connects them to her phone and blasts the volume of a Custom Howse number. My ears blow out. I throw them off. “What the hell was that for?” I ask.

“My mom used to teach third grade and had a kid same as your sister. Mom didn’t know how or why, but when the kid had music blasting in his headphones he could concentrate. It was super unconventional having a kid running around with headphones on, but the loud music did something to help him.”

“Really?”

Lilly is jumping up and down screaming on the carpet and Mom and Clint are trying to calm her, failing miserably. I look at Poppy and she gives me a shrug that suggests, “What do we have to lose?”

The shrieking gets louder and louder. Lilly can’t get out of one of her screaming loops. I hold out the headphones, look Lilly in the eyes to ask permission, and carefully place them over her ears. I turn on Custom Howse and she straight away stops screaming. She goes over to her toys and starts playing.

Mom, Clint, and I jump up and down like we just won some kind of championship. When we stop, Mom asks, “Where did you come up with that?”

“I didn’t,” I say. “Poppy did.”

Poppy gives a wave. Mom runs over to her and gives a massive, tearful, hug. She repeats, “Thank you so much. Thank you so much.”

The look on Poppy’s face is one of elation but turns uncomfortable. “Let her breathe, Mom.”

“You’re going to introduce us, Honey?”

“This is Poppy McGee. We’re working on a school project together.”

Mom looks at Poppy in gratitude. “How—how did you know to do that?”

Poppy looks away, “Mom. Well, my mom died, she used to teach a kid similar to your Lilly. She used the headphones and loud music to calm him. It helped with focus, I guess.”

I can tell Mom wants to blast her with questions, but she stops when she sees the pain on Poppy’s face of the memory of her mom. “I’m sorry, Sweetie,” she says.

“It’s okay,” Poppy says. “I’m just glad I could help.”

We head back to my room and sit down at my desk. Poppy’s stuck in some funk. She stares emotionless. I shake her shoulder. She doesn’t move. I shake her again. She still doesn’t move.

It hits me. I turn on the stereo and blast Custom Howse. In an instant her mood changes. She jumps out of the chair, runs over to me, grabs my hand and we dance. It’s amazing. She’s an entirely different person. In a moment, I understand why other people adore her.

“You know—I better get going,” Poppy says. “I’ll text you later. I have an idea.”

Project Presentation Day arrives and Mrs Delles has used her husband’s connections with the local TV station for some cameras and lights.

One after another, the student presentations cross the stage with music or some cliché picture show of great times. Mrs Delles announces: “Next up, Poppy McGee and Chloe Banks for their presentation: Custom Howse.”

Poppy grabs my hand, kisses my cheek, and whispers, “Thank you.”

The TV lights shine on us. I can’t see anyone in the audience, but I know the place is full. Poppy takes the microphone, “A year ago my mom and my sister were hit by a drunk driver in the tunnel. I have been coming to school wearing an ‘I’m okay’ mask but the truth is inside I have been bitter and hopeless. For this whole year I have been sinking in a depression that I couldn’t climb out of.

“When I started this project with Chloe, and met her family, I started to see some light in the world.”

She turns to me and holds my hand. A picture of my family is projected on a big screen behind us. Poppy looks to me again. “Chloe and I have something in common. We both love the band Custom Howse.” Custom Howse’s latest album cover is projected on the screen.

“Turns out, so does her sister, Lilly.” The video switches back to my family and zooms in on my sister smiling, wearing a massive pair of headphones on her ears. The auditorium fills with laughter because Lilly is pretty adorable.

“Chloe and I are from different sides of the tunnel. Our project is the tunnel.”

Video pictures of the tunnel painted in shades of yellow and orange with blended rainbow borders. At the entrance of the tunnel is a bright yellow child-crossing sign. The child is wearing headphones. In moments the entire auditorium is applauding. Our project is on the TV news. Copies of the sign spring up on crosswalks around town.

I know that my feelings for Poppy can’t go anywhere. It hurts, but I’m glad that I brought some happiness to her life.

The last week of school Mrs Delles requires the class to pair up for a “look for me in the future project”.

“Poppy McGee,” Mrs Delles calls out. Poppy raises her hand, then drags me up too. “Chloe and I are going to be working together,” she says.

MATTHEW JOHN MEAGHER

My fifth grade teacher Ms Shoemaker encouraged me to write. In my fifth grade yearbook I wrote, “You can see me in the future as a baseball player. If not I will be a writer.” I became a teacher of fifth graders specializing in writing. I have a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Regis University where I wrote my first novel Irish Town. matthewjmeagher.com