“Charlie is gone.”
I cock my head to the side. I stare at the balding man who sits before me. “What?”
“Drew…” The principal shifts uneasily in his seat. “I apologize…” The rickety chair creaks beneath his slight weight, groaning in time with the nervous drumming of his fingers upon the wooden desk that separates us. “There seems to be no other way to put this…” Finally, the principal’s spindly fingers cease their anxious tap-tap-tapping and come to a transient rest upon the arms of his chair. “Charlie Reed took his own life yesterday.”
The monotonous ticking of the clock fills the silence that slips between me and the wizened man hidden away behind the wooden desk.
“I know how close you and Charlie were, Drew…”
I turn my attention to the scenic April morning captured by the single window in the room. A strange buzzing sound rings endlessly in my ears, threatening to drown out the erratic palpitations of my heart.
“…He left a note behind…addressed to his parents and you…”
The clouds are nice and full today, not unlike the marshmallows Charlie and I used to roast over the makeshift fire he made with his less-than-superb Boy Scout skills in Redwood Park. My fingers curl into involuntary fists as the boy offers me a golden marshmallow and a crooked smile.
“Drew, do you want to talk about it?”
A single white-plumed bird alights upon a knobby branch of the tree that guards the window. Our eyes meet for a mere fraction of a second before the bird chirps out a giggle and zips away. I feel a strange impulse to stretch out my arms and follow it into the marshmallow clouds beyond. (Perhaps, there, I will find a boy waiting for me with a golden marshmallow and a crooked smile.)
“Drew, do you want to talk about Charlie?”
At the sound of His name, I turn to face the principal once more. His face is lined with furrows that cast his cheeks in deep shadow. The skin around his jowls sag and wobble ever so slightly with each breath of stale air he takes.
And it suddenly occurs to me that no grooves will ever accumulate upon Charlie’s face; no wrinkles will ever make their homes in the corners of his eyes and mouth. Charlie’s face will remain pale and youthful within a plain, wooden coffin that was never meant for sixteen-year-olds brimming with starry-eyed dreams and howling laughter.
“Drew, I offer my condolences—”
I let the door slam on my way out.
Clumps of torn-up grass litter the ground around me, as I struggle to pick out the dirt and blood from beneath my mangled nailbeds.
“Why can’t I cry?”
The rest of the school day glides by in a strange blur, and it only now comes to a screeching halt, as I lie on the rough turf of Redwood Park. I close my eyes as a warm gust of April wind envelops me in its tender embrace, bringing with it the events of the day…
…By the time the bell rang to signal the end of the school day, the entire school had found out about Charlie.
The news had spread like wildfire in a densely packed forest, transcending all grade and gender barriers that stood in its path. Although the students still remained huddled in their usual pairs and packs outside the school building—as divided as ever despite the tragedy that had befallen their student body—they all buzzed with the same bestial intensity of animals roused from dormancy: Their eyes glinted with unrepressed excitement, and their whispers rose and fell in strange, ghastly tremors behind cupped hands:
“Did you hear about Charlie?”
“My friend’s sister’s boyfriend knew Charlie!”
“It’s too bad, really, I really liked Charlie.”
“Charlie was a good kid…”
“…a cool kid…”
“…a chill kid…”
…My eyes fly wide open, as the strange heat that had been simmering within my bloodstream since second period finally ruptures with a primordial growl in the core of my body. My limbs tremble violently—caught in an earthquake of unimaginable magnitude—as the inferno licks its way to my fingertips, leaving in its wake singed grass and sooty fumes.
“None of you knew him the way I did.” The words are ripped from my lips in a trembling whisper, a rage-filled whisper that’s carried away on the back of a gust of wind.
But, did you really?
The flames within me freeze, crystallized in time.
Did you really know Charlie?
The smoke recedes before my eyes in thin, gray wisps.
Had Charlie and the boy with the crooked smile really been one and the same?
“You tell me, Charlie.”
But all is silent, save the soft whisper of a breath of wind.
Sighing, I lift my gaze towards the soaring ceiling of the universe. The sky above me looks as if it had risen from a painter’s dream. I watch in contemplative silence as the sun’s golden rays grapple valiantly with the wisps of night that seek to wrap the hemisphere in darkness. Where blood is spilt, the sky turns purple; where night prevails, the stars awaken from their deep slumber.
We used to watch these epic wars together, Charlie. But now, you’ll never see them again.
Because you gave them up when you took the long way home after school on Tuesday. Because you gave them up when your parents found you lying on the floor of your room, pills with italicized names I can’t pronounce spilling out of one hand, a note clutched in the other—a note that read:
Goodbye, Mom and Dad. Thanks for the memories, Drew.
Thanks for the memories, Drew.
I squeeze my eyes shut, as images of a boy with a crooked smile and a howling laugh come tumbling, flashing, screaming through the darkness—
“—I can’t do this.”
My eyes fly open, as I suck in a strangled breath. A lifetime seems to pass before my breathing steadies and my heart resumes its uniform march within my chest. Slowly, I rise to my feet to take in the view from below. The sun has surrendered to the evening sky now, and a single star glints above my head with the cold incandescence of a diamond, eclipsing the delicate pinpricks of light that drift lazily around it. I let my gaze drop to the ground.
How unfair it is that the stars can continue shining, that the world can continue rotating on its axis, even after you’ve blown out the flame of your life with a single calculated breath.
I raise my eyes once more to seek out the star that twinkles overhead. This time, however, something is…different. This time, for a split second that feels more like an eternity, the star glows brilliantly, filling my eyes with pure starlight, before slowly fading into oblivion.
My trembling hands grip the leather wheel of the car so tightly that my alabaster knuckles shriek in agony. No one heeds their cries for help.
“Why can’t I cry?”
The next several days pass rapidly, bringing Charlie’s funeral further and further from the future, and closer and closer to the present.
When the day of the funeral finally comes, I stay at the back of the dark, mournful procession, unwilling to meet the solemn gazes of those around me. When it comes time to lower the plain, wooden casket into the ground, I slip away into the grove of blossoming trees that watch over the hundreds who lie in eternal rest.
From the safety of my hiding place, I watch the small gathering quickly scatter and disperse. There had been no more than fifteen people in the procession, all of whom were adults with colorless hair and tired eyes. I had been the youngest in the group.
I close my eyes. You never did make any more friends after me, Charlie, even though you could’ve won anyone over with your crooked smile and howling laugh.
I open my eyes.
So, why didn’t you?
But the only response that meets my ears is the rustling of the shriveled leaves and wilted blossoms that lie scattered upon the ground around me. I wait until silence falls over the cemetery before making my way back to the gravestone that marks Charlie’s final resting place.
There are, perhaps, a million thoughts racing through my mind, yet none rise above the tumult to roll onto the tip of my tongue. Instead, I let my gaze rake the gravestone before me. It’s a dull, smoothly-carved slab of granite that stands at attention before a mound of freshly-turned dirt. Its roots are hidden beneath the ground and a handful of white daisies litter the earth around it (they look just like the ones in your momma’s garden, Charlie). But it’s the words carved into the face of the gravestone that ultimately hold my undivided attention:
>In the sweetness of friendship, let there be laughter and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things, the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.
So, was it in the sweetness of solitude that you let out a howling laugh, while tears rolled down your cheeks like the dewdrops that cling to the daisies in your momma’s backyard?
“How did this happen, Charlie?” You smiled that crooked smile of yours, you laughed that howling laugh of yours…and then you went home to drown yourself in the worst of your woes.
“Where did we go wrong, Charlie?” Remember that time you tripped and scraped your knee when we ran along the street outside Redwood Park, shrieking at the top of our lungs? Remember the way I pulled you to your feet and you flashed me that crooked smile of yours? How did we grow so distant over the years when we were inseparable from the very start?
“Why did you leave, Charlie?” Those memories we made didn’t have to end there, you know.
I start at the sound of my name, half-expecting a boy with a crooked smile to materialize beside me. But the soft murmur had belonged to Mom, not the boy I longed to hear from one last time. She guides me back to the car with one hand on my shoulder, the other on my forearm.
I never spare the lonely gravestone a backward glance.
The town whizzes past in a flurry of color. I challenge my ghostly reflection in the window of the car to a staring contest, until my eyeballs dry up, shrivel up, and tumble out.
“Why can’t I cry?”
The car ride back is quiet, yet it is nothing compared to the silence that makes its home at the dinner table.
The hands of the clock tick the time away, as I sit, unable to muster an appetite to down the plate of food Mom has placed in front of me. I can feel my parents staring at me, their eyes undoubtedly filled with sorrow and concern. They only turn their gazes away to glance at one another, each urging the other to break the ear-splitting quiet that has descended upon us.
The clock ticks away eleven minutes before Dad relents:
“Do you want to talk about it, Drew?”
I finally lift my gaze to seek out my parents’ eyes, only to quickly look away again. For some reason, I can’t bear the looks of pity that moisten their watchful gazes. I hastily raise myself to my feet. “I need some fresh air” is all I mumble, as I leave the room.
From there, I make my way to the darkened garage. As I pull away from my house in my battered Honda, I spare a lingering glance at the Reed’s house. The curtains are drawn against the brilliant April afternoon, and there’s no sign of movement within. The entire house seems to mourn the loss of the boy who never got to grow up within its walls—that is, the entire house save the waxen daisies that bloom along the edges of the front yard. The daisies turn their pale heads towards the cloudless sky, grasping at the fading saffron rays that stream down from the heavens. They don’t seem to miss the two children who used to traipse amongst their lovely petals.
A lump forms in my throat, one that I can’t swallow.
The car slides onto the road and away from the solemn house with the singing daisies. Bright houses and pristine buildings flash past my car window, yet they’ve never looked quite as unwelcoming as they do now. It doesn’t take long until my car comes around a bend and slides to a stop outside a vacant park lined with sparse rows of emaciated trees.
There, inside Redwood Park, two figures lie side-by-side on the ground. They chatter in excited whispers about whatever twelve-year-olds chatter about, their voices rising and falling in time with the whistling of the wind between the leaves of the trees, as they wait for the sun’s golden beams to finally give way to the brilliant pinpricks of light we call the stars.
A heavy hand clenches my heart, threatening to tear it out of my chest.
I pull away from the park and onto the road once more. But, this time, as I cruise along in my rusty vehicle, two children join me on the concrete sidewalk that accompanies the road. The taller one pulls ahead, his tongue sticking out slightly, as if to taste the wind. Suddenly, he throws his arms into the air, and a howling laugh pierces the bubble that had enveloped the two children in a world of their own.
As I stare at the two children, as I listen to their heaving pants and shrieks of laughter, realization suddenly hits me with the full force of a lightning storm: That was the real you, Charlie. The Charlie who skipped away from the monsters with a howling laugh on his lips, a universe of stars in his eyes—that was the real you.
All at once, the boy skids to a halt and turns around. Our eyes meet in the ephemeral space between two heartbeats, but it’s long enough for a crooked smile to radiate across the boy’s face before he sets off once more in that race with no finish line.
The real you, Charlie, will always be the boy with the crooked smile.
I bring the car to a screeching halt and tumble onto the pavement beyond. A gentle breeze comes wafting from the west to greet me with open arms—a breeze that caresses my burning cheeks with tender fingers and leaves my lips with the saccharine aftertaste of burnt marshmallows. And, in that moment, I swear I hear a familiar voice arrive with the wind:
Now that you’re finally here, Charlie, let me tell you what I’m gonna do:
I’ll bend down and smell the daisies that grow out of your momma’s garden and into the few feet that separated us from one another. (And then I’ll marvel at how short that distance was, now that you’ve gone to the place where I can’t follow you.)
I’ll lie down amongst the browning reeds and watch the stars dance across the night sky in that run-down park that used to be—and will always be—our kingdom. (And then I’ll make a wish for us, as the stars wink out one by one under the light of the rising sun.)
I’ll trip and feel the throbbing pain in my knee, the warm, scarlet liquid trickling down my bare skin. (And then I’ll raise myself back to my feet and race our ghosts down the concrete pavement of our childhood.)
Yes, “that’s what I’m gonna do, Charlie.”
I will not cry for you, Charlie, but “I will remember for you.”
I will not cry for you, Charlie, but “I will live for you.”