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Barbed Wire and Fence Both

Updated: May 12

A creative writing piece by Jason Branch, sophomore Psychology Major


It’s easy to hate, when unfamiliar with love.

That was a customary occurrence for much of his life, Laurel’s heart aching like pressure under the surface of the ocean, lungs feeling suffocated as though all the air was being vacuumed out. The bitter tang of disappointment and seething rage from understanding nothing about why things turned out the way they did, that took his pain and gave it wings. It was the pain of rejection, the realization that things can’t get better. That no matter how hard he struggled against the current, the force of the river tipped over his shambling boat. It was helplessness, the death of hope.

Because that was the snag which tore him apart: it was always obvious that some things can’t be helped, that bad things happen to good people for little reason beyond the fact that they can. Laurel hated luck, because he always got the bad.

It wasn’t really until Mac took him by the collar and dragged him out of the darkness that Laurel realized there was so much light in the world. Things as insignificant as cherry blossoms rolling across weathered cobblestone streets, hearty pecking of finches at softened lumber. It was proof of life: proof of change. Mac grabbed ahold of his shoulders, turned them to something good, and said “This will be you someday.”

That was hope, it was optimism. It was something Laurel hadn’t thought he’d ever achieve, alone or not.

It was bleeding, pounding hearts, the ache in his chest that won’t fade after years of aching. The notches in his back straining against the thin skin there, the cracking when he sits up after hours of slouching. The gripping and tearing at his stomach and the nausea clawing at his throat because he’s eaten nothing yet can’t stomach anything.

Laurel often felt like he was sinking, that his prison was building itself around the parts of him that managed to escape the sand. That brick upon brick blotted out the sky; its light filtering less and less until all his empty spaces were sediment.

Mac took his hand, and dragged him out, no matter the popping of his wrist and the strain on his fragile bones. It was his fear of the initial pain that kept Laurel back, but Mac took that choice from him. At first, Laurel resented Mac for it. His entrapment was no choice, but when he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t act.

Mac was a force of nature: unwavering faith, endless strength. Mac was equal parts inspiring and terrifying.

In some ways, Mac was twisting and snarling, nasty, frothing hatred. The biting anger of ropes rubbing skin raw, peeling of sunburn. Mac was the heat from a too-close fire, the prickling of gravel under bare feet. Mac had rough moments, days where the mood was sour and the heavy press of stress tipped the scales over. Where Mac will snap and growl and lash out, because like any other person, Mac experiences fatigue, pain.

Often, Laurel himself is poison, bubbling, festering. He’s acidic and cruel, the blight in his heart bleeding into the veins of his words. Cold metal scales growing on his skin where freckles should go, the blunt edges bruising and abusing. He’s the flaking and shattering of an ivory shell, the crumbling of concrete walls.

Sometimes, neither of them are so raw. Laurel often watches Mac when Mac doesn’t notice him: he sees Mac wilting like moss under the blazing sun, the crumbling of old paper in an ancient book. Mac watches Laurel when he’s not paying attention. Laurel is the slow rot of rust in metal, the desperate fissure of a dying star. Sometimes, Mac is the melting of ice, boneless under the sheets and swaddled in down. Laurel is the splintering of wood after a long vigil, the achievement of desire and the reward of action.

They are both flawed, forsaken and shunned. They are both corrupted and vulgar. Tangible and terrible is their affliction, no more inherent in its stigma than any other. They are visible, but not seen. They are solitary, but not alone. They are not the only ones who give and receive hate, who war with themselves and others as much as they love one another. They are not the only tainted ones, they are not the only pure.

Laurel forgets this as much as he forgets to breathe, vines creeping down his neck, thorns prodding into his ribcage. Mac forgets this as much as Mac forgets how the wind shapes the trees, how the ocean shifts the shore. And Laurel feels this loneliness, like he feels the clouds rolling overhead and warning of a storm. He forgets the world and festers in his own mind.

Barbed wire and fence both.

More often than not, though, Mac remembers. Remembers the floating feeling of being heard, the stillness of a rushing heart at being touched. The memory of clemence faded, but present. And Mac misses, but remembers. Settling embers and the phantom of warmth, foil to the chill of night and no cover. Foil to Laurel.

Those embers were a stranger to Laurel, his soul grasping at coals long gone black. Mac had a matchbox, some of the sticks burnt and used, but had enough to light the fires once more. Some of the tinder was just ash, some drenched with the spores of his terror. Some just enough to spark again.

With those sparks, Mac grew in Laurel something new: as pine grows from a razed field, eucalyptus from a scorched till. And Mac waits, knowing that a pine tree does not grow in a single day. Knowing that propagating takes months over months, and with each new journey comes a different equation. Not all that guided Mac will guide Laurel.

And Laurel often screams: kicking and scratching, crying out. Laurel fears being molded, Mac fears conversion. Often would Laurel dream, standing over a cliff, fog opaque so that the ground cannot be seen. His heart would seize, paranoia blooming from his sternum. The scales embedded deep, chafing, leaving the skin underneath pale and clammy, like his hands that he wrung over and over. And he would wake up, equally shaken, clutching at his covers and trying to ground himself. And Mac would be there to hold the pieces that scattered when Laurel fell over the edge.

The night held dread, creeping and shambling. The startle when something taps a window, or the creaking of floorboards, rippling shockwaves of unease before waking. Winds disrupting still grasses and statuesque branches. Varying between frigid and balmy, turning Laurel’s fingers numb despite the sweat collecting in his palms. Then, in the morning, he wakes with the discomfort of heat and frost at war under his covers. No matter how many times he cleanses and scrubs, he still feels dirty.

But Mac keeps Laurel from digging jagged nails into his own forearms, even though Mac’s own knuckles get scraped from his resistance. Mac cherishes Laurel, even after purple marks and red ridges, imprints and carving, when Laurel still doesn’t feel real yet. Laurel isn’t always tethered, but Mac holds the rope to keep him from floating too far.

When Laurel comes back to himself, the lights still blind, pervasive resonating row, his threadbare sheets scratching aberrantly when he wouldn’t otherwise mind. It throbs, coming from feeling nothing to everything, not even feeling cuts and gashes in his skin to feeling the individual cell trickle across his skin, tickling forgotten hairs that cross their path. Laurel hates feeling as much as he hates numbness, but Mac becomes his blanket, muting some of the intensity, centering him so he cannot wither out of himself.

Mac withers too, prospering not from overt displays, but rather quiet affirmations. This, Laurel has the energy for: small acts like the whispering of faint music far away, or soft snowfall. It is accessory that Mac is accustomed to, and while Laurel flourishes from the force of change, Mac grows stronger when safe from the chaos of crashing currents.

It’s when Laurel is grounded that he recognizes, the struggle of caring for an unseeing eye, that his own bruises heal faster with Mac, even with the new ones Mac creates when clasping his wrists. And though Laurel himself is hardly whole, a being of aperture, he can feel Mac filling in the grooves of his cracked veil, yellow sunshine tearing apart his shadow.

Laurel’s body comes back together, his skeleton reshaped even though it stays crooked, his nerves dulled though they still feel. His hands are calloused, stronger after what he survives diurnally. Mac binds him, keeps him together though his instincts tell him to split himself open by the ribcage.

Mac is a gentle breeze swaying fresh flower buds, rustling leaves and gossamer clouds. Pushes away the thunder with words alone, but sends away cumulonimbus with every forbidding step away from bed. Mac tears off his scales, though Laurel bleeds for it, turning his insides from stone back to flesh. After, Mac is the balm which calms his agony, rain after a drought.

Person rather than silhouette, Laurel feels more human within Mac’s adoration, new roots spreading and filling in the negative space, devotion fueling his liver, purging the poison that captured his being. His carapace was dented and scored, but the soft tissue underneath became clean, pure as it always was.

Laurel shifts into tranquility. He is swaying seaweed under the water’s surface, air gliding between a bird’s feathers. He doesn’t radiate, not like Mac, who is a beacon of the good and bad, but he achieves his own nirvana under Mac’s nourishment.

He awakens with a clear mind, propagated and grafted, maroon leaves turned emerald. Mac’s graze burnishing a trail of wakefulness, though he doesn’t mind the lightning crackling, setting his nerves alight. Laurel glows with the press of Mac’s lips on his temple, the mindful stroking of Mac’s thumb against the back of his hand. He wants to crawl from his grave when he finds himself buried, grab the strings dangling from the sky and pull himself up even as they cut. Now, the blood dripping down is aspiration, craving.

It’s easy to love, when there’s a reason to.

Like clockwork, of course, Laurel hurts, and forgets. His mind obfuscates the rest of the world, because it can’t forget hate. But Mac’s hurricane blows away the mist. It leaves debris and dross, atrophy and decay, but Laurel can see the waste Mac leaves: he wants to see.

It was easy to resent Mac, for the hurt Laurel felt. It was also easy to forget the hurt he himself fostered too. Mac saw Laurel, distorted and disoriented, and saw someone worth loving. In turn, Laurel saw Mac, barbed and brutish, and saw someone worth letting in. The thorns of their roses pricked each other, neither left unmarred. Laurel knew hate, until he knew love. It became someday.

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