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A Pair of Ears

She was actually excited to be at school that Monday, until Marcus, or whatever his name was, plucked the pair of ears off her head. Purple then pink and back to purple—they flashed down the social studies hallway. The boy giggled while she screamed at the science teacher to do something, but the old lady only shrugged.

The whole morning, everyone pointed at her flashing ears and smiled and asked if it was her birthday. It wasn’t, but it felt like it. Even her Biology teacher Mr. Jergins, who never let anybody do anything, shook his head and laughed as she twinkled at her desk.

She got the pair of ears over the weekend. Her dad bought them for her. She hadn’t seen him in four years, and, in his words, he had a lot of spoiling to do. At Millennium Park, Navy Pier, the Field Museum, she couldn’t help but say, “Momma would never let me do this,” and he smiled and called her String Bean, even though she wasn’t skinny anymore. Her heart thrummed in her chest, and her mind spun, wondering where he’d been for so long but afraid to ask.

One more surprise: On Sunday, even though she was supposed to be back at her momma’s by eleven, he took her to Lincoln Park Zoo and bought her, literally, every food she asked for, even those Dippin’ Dots she always wanted to try. The lemonade had actual lemons floating in it. They threw popcorn at each other’s faces, right in front of the giraffes, and an old lady told them they were being disrespectful.

When they passed the face-painting booth, she wanted to ask if she could get her face made up but worried some Stevenson kids might see her and take a picture and put it up on Snapchat. But her dad noticed her looking and said, “We need to make up for lost time.” He said she had the soul of a cheetah, so she became one, and he took a thousand pictures of her, and she didn’t have to pretend to smile.

On the way out, a hawker stood with a crime scene’s worth of flashing lights, like a gazillion police cars and firetrucks and ambulances braided together—wands, necklaces, and, of course, the ears—all for sale. He followed her laser beam eyes, and he bought them for her because he loved her. The hawker offered two for ten, and her dad put the second pair on his own lumpy head.

Their ears flashed in rhythm, and she got quiet as they approached her momma’s because she knew how bad she’d miss hearing him say, “Let’s fly, String Bean,” and she’d miss the whir in her belly when he said “Yes” to everything she wanted. She’d even miss his rattly car that sounded like the windows were open even when they weren’t. In front of her apartment he patted her knee and straightened his ears and promised to text her every hour on the hour all week long. She didn’t cry because he looked so silly.

Monday came and she wore her ears and her daddy on her mind. He texted pictures like he promised, wearing his ears at the factory. And she sent a photo of her great big smile, every hour on the hour.       

Then Marcus, or whatever his name was, stole them and she wished she’d just left them in her closet because Stevenson kids literally made it their job to ruin your life.

Nobody did anything about it, no matter how much she complained, and then during seventh period Mr. Timms told her to lift her head off her desk, but she ignored him. He said it again, a little louder, so she closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. She peeked and saw he had that stupid-ass bell in his hand. With every step he took, her anger rose, her fists clenched so tight, she wondered if she could break her own fingers. He dangled the bell by her ear and rang it, and said “Wakey wakey!”

She spilled everything on her mind, making the whole class say, “Oooh,” and they pulled out their phones and started recording, which set her off worse, so she shoved her desk into Mr. Timms’ thighs, and he called security, even though the whole thing was his fault, and while they were waiting, Mr. Timms didn’t even try to teach or anything, he just watched her while she said things she could never take back, not for the rest of her life, with everybody filming the whole thing. And Mr. Timms stood with his arms folded, saying, “I hope you know you’re embarrassing yourself.”

They dragged her to that little closet room, taking turns telling her how she was suspended for three days and her momma would have to come to the school to talk to some guy in charge, even though her momma couldn’t take a day off work, but no one cared. They just kept saying, “Well, you should have thought about that before you did what you did.”

But as soon as she got home, she was going to call her daddy, and, if she could stop crying for long enough, she’d tell him that Marcus was the boy who stole her ears. And her daddy would get real mad and maybe scare Marcus or hurt Marcus. He might even kill Marcus—because the more she thought about it, that boy deserved to die. She knew her daddy would do whatever she wanted, and she wouldn’t even have to ask. Because all weekend long, he told her, “I’d give you the moon, String Bean. I’d give you the moon if I knew how to fly.”


Michael Cullinane is an emerging writer and veteran Chicago Public Schools Broadcast Journalism teacher. In his free time, he enjoys reading, attending concerts, and weightlifting. His short story “The Movies” recently won first place in the 2023 Slippery Elm Prose Contest. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two children. Connect with him on Twitter @cullinational.


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