Can I See You Smile?

R.J. Garcia

ForestI’m not going to tell you my name, but I am going to tell you what I saw. The sunlight filtered in through the tall  trees. Things looked hazy and surreal. I kept walking. That was when I approached the pond. The surface of the water was slimy and still. A bloody thing floated at the shallow end of the pond, a strange unidentified form, a blob really. As I got closer, my eyes followed a body with arms sprawled out, like Christ on the cross, then the neck and pond weed dripping from an open mouth. It was impossible! There couldn’t be someone in the pond?

There was. He was right there, lying and bent in a way that meant he was never getting back up. There was no mistaking it now. There was nothing like being so close to death, no other stench or silence resembled it.

The woods were haunted. I stomped on the charred, dead grass. Leaves and branches reached out, vines wrapped themselves around my ankles not wanting me to go.The gaping mouth: a nose clotted with blood and a face contorted into a shield of despair was seared in my brain.

Finally I saw my house and started running faster with energy, I didn’t realize I had left. I thew open the door and rushed inside, almost expecting to find my parents decapitated or hung. I searched frantically, even looking in closets, but nothing! No one was home.

I took my cell phone out, to call for an ambulance? The boy could still be alive? No he was dead. He was very dead. The terrible rotting stench clung to the heat of a Louisiana summer.

Somehow I did something wrong, so I walked another block to a gas station to use a pay phone. Once there, I dug for change in my pocket with shaky hands and inserted the coins. I dialed. A woman’s nasal voice asked, “911, What is the nature of your emergency?”

“There’s a dead body in the swamp off Makenzie, in the woods,” my words came fast, and sounded strange.

She responded, “Slow down and repeat yourself.”

I slammed the phone into the wall.

I was sweating and crying the whole way home. I wanted to feel like myself again. I even craved the boredom I usually complained about. Maybe that was why I hadn’t called from my cell or left my name. I didn’t even understand why it had to be a secret.

When my parents did come home, I thought they would instantly see I changed, but they didn’t. I turned my phone off and stayed close to them all night, watching a family drama on Netflix. I observed how my step-mom’s arms wobbled when she ate her low-fat Wheat Thins. I noticed my dad’s wrinkles netted around his eyes almost like scars. Yet, they were friendly wrinkles created from years of smiling. I liked his wrinkles. Even my mixed feelings for my step-mother, turned into something warm and welcoming, after what I saw.

Bedtime came with curious and unusual haste. Tucked in my sheets and blankets, I heard a sound so faint it could have been imagined. It was a sinking sound that ceased to be audible under any strain. What was that sound? Maybe a creaking tile, an air conditioner’s soft rattle, or a distant cry?

I caught sight of the closet door slightly ajar. I was sure I closed it. I always closed things. Now I watched the door, almost wishing whatever horrible thing lurked in that closet would kill me and be done with it.

Freaking myself out, I turned the lights on. My eyes explored everything in my room: dust lining the edges of my dresser, spots of discolorations on my ceiling, a small spider on the wall, a moth convulsing around my light. By the time I fell asleep, it was time to get up.

The smell of coffee spoke of a normal morning. I was quickly reminded, it wasn’t.

“I don’t want you walking to Monet’s anymore,” she said with cool step-motherly concern. “Who would think this could happen in Lake Charles? The paper all but said it was a murder.” She went on, “He went to your school. His name was Jeremy Ladd.”

Why did she tell me his name? I didn’t want to know his name. I waved a fly away that was attracted to my Frosted Flakes.

“He was just a year ahead of you,” she took a gulp of coffee. “Did you know him?”

“No.” I watched a fly land one of the dryer flakes and dropped my spoon in the bowl. The fly could have it.

Jeremy Ladd’s name would be bounced around the school all day, in excited whispers. I only needed to hear it once to remember it forever. Not many people actually knew him. Now his name was entering my ears from every direction. All I could think of was the horrible image in the pond. They were all their social selves laughing and talking, only saying they were scared. They looked at one another without a flicker of understanding.

School was out and herds of kids made their way to the bus. I blended in, I suppose. Looking up at the cloudless sky, I wondered why I wasn’t brave enough to tell. Then I looked around at all the faces, familiar, but separate pieces from a different puzzle. I got on the bus and a minute later, Monet plopped down next to me. She was my pretty best friend, and the only reason anyone knew I existed. Her eyes glinted with a kinetic energy, rambling on about this boy, she claimed to no longer like. I wanted to tell her, but the words died in my throat. She talked, and I listened as usual.

I was sure the name, “Jeremy Ladd,” would fall between the cracks of the universe like the boy himself had. It wasn’t like I didn’t pray that his killer would be caught. A month had passed and his name was no longer spoken. It was a killer, at large, that everyone talked about. Yet, Jeremy Ladd was captured in a small space in my eyes, uninvited, causing me to sleep with the lights on. Like always, I remained a passive observer confused about what I was even observing. I hated that.

At lunch, I bit into the card board pizza. I looked at Sammy. With her dark hair, nails and lips painted black-blue, she was a study of darkness and usually too cool to bother with me. So I was surprised when she asked, “What do you think happens when we die?”

“I don’t know, but I want to be buried next to a McDonalds,” I said and Sammy looked at me weird. “So I can still get free Wi-Fi,” I finished. A couple kids exploded with laughter. My cheeks got warm. I never made people laugh.

Monet started saying that, “Heaven might be the universe and God might give us each a star.”

This made me think of him, so I pretended to need something from my locker. My heart beat fast under the guise of teen conformity. I quietly crept to the library. Once there, I grabbed the yearbook and sat at an empty table. I looked up Ladd, Jeremy, and page 28, 71. With my gel pen, I circled each page number.

I flipped to the page 28, and slid my finger-bitten nail to a boy’s class picture. He was no longer the thing from the pond. He was sweet looking, kind of cute, wearing wire rimmed glasses and a crooked grin, with bangs cut too short.

My thoughts raced past words. I brushed my hand over his photo as if I were tending his wounds. My muscles relaxed. Then I turned to page 71 and scouted out his image in the band, the way you would find an old friend. There he was with his clarinet in his hand and the same goofy grin, caught in the middle of a blink. I heard myself laugh a little. A feeling like love washed over me and my eyes grew wet. Jeremy Ladd was smiling back.