By Britney Ott
The shrill cry of a school bell echoed in the empty hallway, which suddenly filled with all the hoots, howls, squeals, cheers, insults, and laughs that came with the end of high school on a Friday. Even the teachers would wipe their brows, gather up homework, and bid the other staff farewell before they skittered to their own cars, racing the busses out of the parking lot. The only two who resisted the call of the weekend vacation were the secretary and a tenth grade boy.
While he normally waited inside the school building, this day, the teen boy went out onto the front steps. It was a tame, warm kind of afternoon, with only light wisps of clouds daring to brave the journey through the oceanic sky, no wind to guide their paths or to push telephone lines into a steady swing. With any luck, the teenager would be able to do some homework on the steps before he was ushered away by the well-meaning secretary. Not that it would matter much: Monday would arrive and present incomplete work, something that his teachers never failed to point out. The boy would just shrug and mumble “whatever”.
So he sat on the steps in front of the city’s public school doing homework on a Friday. Even so, no one would have looked twice at him. His blonde hair scratched his ears and eyebrows as though begging to be cut or, at least, combed. Behind a pair of thin glasses patched in two or three places with electrical tape, his hazy blue-grey eyes hid desperately from judgment. While not quite thin, he had an air of frailty about him that showed in the slender length of his fingers and the way his mouth and eyelids drooped. The paleness of his skin was not out of place among the North Iowan community, nor was the red bump on his chin where a pimple was attempting to form out of place among the other teens. Perhaps the only thing that would even tempt a person to stab at a conversation with this child was the yellowed blue blush trying hard to blend into the sleeve of his tee shirt.
Somewhere between the area of a circle and the surface of a cube, the boy’s fingers became too stiff to move his pencil well. With a sigh, he shoved his books into a backpack that had, in his opinion, the look of being used since his parents were toddlers. At least he had finished the history assignment, which he was failing. The boy pulled his knees up to his neck and propped his chin on them as his thin arms clung tightly to his battered jeans.
He glanced nervously over his shoulder but did not see the secretary locking up the building, so he settled back into his ball-self, dull eyes dancing over the empty grounds until he saw a woman riding an old red bicycle.
She was a bit like his mother: light brown hair falling lightly to her shoulders, dark, mossy eyes. But she was different, too. Her lips were pale and curled into a soft grin of enjoyment. Her clothes were clean, her shoes carefully matched. She had on a waist-pouch as well, a black one with a grey plastic star ironed onto one pocket. As he watched her, she glanced quickly at him and tipped her head, slowing the bike to a halt as she did. For some time, they just stared at each other, but, sensing that nothing was going to happen, the boy cast his eyes at the ground and away from the young woman. She was too young to be anything like his mother anyway.
Sitting on the steps in front of the school, seeing this young stranger, he reminded himself of what was waiting at home. He shuddered and gripped his jeans tightly once more.
A mechanical click and a whir reached his ears, causing him to jerk his head up towards the woman. In her soft hands, she held a professional-looking, sleek black camera. He watched her slip the lens cover back on. Had she just taken a picture of him? Why would anyone do that? He was nearly certain that his own mother did not even have a picture of him. But this woman just eased the camera into her waist-pouch and zipped it shut, glanced up at the boy again, and smiled. It was different than before, though, like a memory had taken her by surprise and she was not even looking at the boy on the stairs.
“Mark, time to go home.”
The boy looked over his shoulder again. The secretary was finally closing up the doors to the school, locking the entrance with little difficulty, given that one arm was full of files. Mark sighed and slipped his backpack onto one shoulder. Before he rounded the corner towards his mother’s house, he peered back one last time at the young woman on her red bike. She waved, and then he was gone.
The woman pushed the bike forward again, though she changed her destination. She had been going to talk to a man about pictures for his magazine, to show her portfolio to him, to try to get out of Iowa. But, suddenly, she didn’t want to leave. Actually, there was someone she wanted to see.
The woman did not stop until she was nearly outside of town. There were few houses, a handful of small businesses, and one low hill on which many, many dark stones stood, marking the dead of the city since 1904. It was here that the woman ended her voyage, here that she dropped her bike, and here that she sought out a name that no one spoke to her anymore. She found it carved on black rock and set between a nameless aunt of hers and her grandfather, her brother’s name: Corey Hutchinson, June 13, 1978 to October 22, 1995.
The woman smiled gently at her big brother’s grave. Someone was taking care of it, even if it wasn’t the most decorated. She leaned against the dark stone, remembering how they had never needed words, how silence had always been enough. She remembered how they would go to the park every night during the summer just to watch the birds dance on the grass in their jumpy way.
She thought back to how, when he got older, his eyes died. In high school, he had taken on the most advanced classes and a part time job to help take care of his family. The woman sighed, wishing that her father had made him stop working so hard. He stopped smiling. Then he stopped sleeping. Then he stopped eating. In October, the woman, then a girl, had gone into his room to find a book that she needed but instead found Corey on his bed, silent, eyes half shut.
She thought of the teenaged boy on the stairs in front of the school, how is eyes had the same dark-glass glare, and she begged whatever god she thought would possibly listen to let him live.