The following is the first draft of a short-story inspired by this prompt from r/WritingPrompts. Be sure to checkout the other submissions and be sure to upvote what you like there (especially this story, of course).
As for what follows here, I’m not quite sure how I feel about it on the whole. I think there’s something here of value (and I certainly hope you do too). But I think there’s quite a bit of work left to be done on it. If there’s enough interest in this one, I might get around to working on another draft. Maybe something for the first short-story collection.
Oh, and beware: this be a bit of a monster itself at about 5000 words.
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You live as long as I have, you get to doing things you wish you’d done differently, right? See things you wish you hadn’t. My life is like that. Everytime I close my eyes. Can’t go more than a few hours sleep before I find myself waking up in a sweat, crying maybe. And sometimes I find myself praying maybe God’ll have mercy on me one of these nights and let me slip away before I get to remembering what I wish I could forget.
And that’s the funny thing of it all, isn’t it? I’ve lived a good life. Been a good man best I could. Went to church every week. Got myself a job and a wife and kept a roof over our heads. Not a beautiful, big home, sure, but we were happy. We’d squabble about money like any couple at the end of the month when things were getting a bit tight. But we made it through all that. Not a lot of money in being a janitor, really. And if I had any regrets in that part of my life, I wish I’d been a smarter man, get myself a better job and buy my wife all the things she deserved. Not easy being the wife of a man who cleans up toilets at a high school. You get a lot of looks, ya know? They point and whisper at you sometimes. Not just the kids–their moms and dads too. Awful thing. But it was a job. And that was our life. And we made the best of what we had in the end.
She was the one that made it all tolerable, really–my Isa. Sweetest thing in the world. She’d be stubborn as a mule at times, but what woman isn’t? And my Isa had plenty reason to behave like that, what with her being married to me and all. I was never the smartest man. Certainly wasn’t the most sociable–most nights I’d come home and she’d want to go out after being cooped up in our little house all morning and afternoon and I’d just want to sit down in front of the television set with a beer. God bless her, she’d bring me my beer and sit right there with me nine times out of ten. And the whole time she’d listen to me go on and on about this and that, about the messes I cleaned up that day–girls making a mess of the washroom while everyone else was in class, or some kid getting worked up real bad during gym and the mess he made all over the basketball court. And I’d get into real detail about all it and rant and rave for a good hour or more and she’d just sit there, my beer in her hand–and sometimes she’d even take a sip now and then if I was going good enough, too–and she’d just listen. By the end of the night, I’d be falling asleep with her right there next to me, and she’d be running her fingers through my hair, telling me it’ll be alright. And nine times out of ten, I believed her.
But Isa’s gone now. Buried her couple years back, right up there in Rose Hills with her mother and sisters. Sometimes I go up there and tell her everything that’s been nagging at me like I used to. Take a little chair and blanket and even a beer, and I sit right there with her until they tell me I have to go. It’s just not the same, though–I know that. I know she’s not there. Not really. What’s her is gone. All that’s left is a big box in the ground, buncha bones wrapped in her prettiest clothes. Probably just tatters now, right?
But it helps, mostly. Maybe it’s the routine, going through the motions and talking it out like we’d do at home. I don’t really know. All I know is that it helps some.
I probably sound like a lonely old man just prattling on. And maybe that is what I am. And you got every right wondering what’s all I’ve said got to do with what I came here to tell you about. And it’s like I said, I can’t go many hours at night without waking up in a cold sweat. Without my Isa, there isn’t much of anything what makes my life all too tolerable. Telling her what I did made it easier to sleep at night–made it easier to keep on living, really. But there were things I didn’t tell her. Sure, I told her most everything, even a few things I might have been better off keeping to myself. But there were some things that I couldn’t tell her, because it just wouldn’t have been fair to put that sort of awfulness on her mind.
I don’t suppose you’re quite old enough to remember a story of a boy by the name of Roland McKinney. Probably not, right? It was in all the papers twenty, twenty-five years ago. Awful thing. Not that you’d know it these days, what with how most people seem to have forgotten all about Roland. It happens given enough time, ya know. People forget all that awfulness they read in the paper. They move on with their lives. They grow up, grow old. Some even die–like my Isa. Too busy living and dying to remember old stories like Roland’s.
But I remember. Because I was there. I saw a lot of what those kids did to Roland over the years. Awful little monsters doing awful little things. You’d think what with the way they talk about bullying in the news these days–on the television and in your paper–you’d be forgiven to think they went and invited it in the last decade. Thing is, you just see it more. All those kids record what they does to one another and just put it up on the internet for the whole damned world to see. The way they mock and torment some poor kid until he goes and strings himself up–that isn’t new. Been going on for years and years. Far as I know or can tell, children have always been playing with each other like cats playing with their food. They tenderize whoever they’ve picked with all the names and taunting and all that, get them stewing in their own fear juices. Eventually the poor kid just decides enough is enough and ends it in the only way he can think of.
Anyway, I saw what they’d done to Roland so I can’t quite forget it as easy like everybody else has. Lord knows I pray that I could. But every night these days it seems Roland is right there waiting for me. And I suppose if you knew Roland like most people did, that might not be the worse thing to see at night. He was a quiet boy, real soft spoken most of the time. Always well-dressed too. Also a bit “light in the loafers”, at least that’s how we’d say it back when I was in school. You could see the kid was gay as the day was long when he came bouncing down the halls. But he was a beautiful young man. Had these big doe eyes that just seemed to sparkle in the light. If he’d had a thing for girls instead of boys, there might not have been a weekend go by where he wasn’t putting it to a different one. I don’t suppose things like that mattered to me much if any. None of my business who might be sticking what inside of whoever else. But that’s now how the kids saw it. Not at all.
See, most of the time it was typical childish bullshit like name calling and all that. Didn’t seem anyone, least of all the teachers cared much to do anything about it. Roland would be in the hallway or at a table at lunch, and you’d just hear some little shithead call him a fag and keep on walking away, yucking it up with his shithead friends. Once in a while you might’ve heard some teacher or another speak up, tell the shithead to keep his thoughts to himself. Never made him apologize, though. Just told him to keep it to himself.
I suppose most teachers just give up on caring after a point, right? They have to deal with this sort of shit day after day, hundreds of students every year. They can’t keep track of it all. Sort of keeps them all at a distance, like ants under a magnifying glass. And after the novelty of teenage drama grows old they just sort of let it become background noise. Just want to make it through the day and get home. I know that feeling, ya know. You just want to get home to your wife smelling a little less like shit and bleach, drink a beer while she tells you everything will be okay. So I sort of get it, I guess.
But what I don’t understand is how people can turn a blind eye to a kid in need of help. For the first year or so I’d see Roland pushing through it all. Kept his head high. Kept his clothes pressed. Kept that bounce in his step. But cruelty has a way of changing you, rotting you all from the inside out. You keep all those negative thoughts and feeling bottled up inside you, but the human body isn’t made of plastic and glass. It just eats away at your gut–I know that. Got the ulcers to prove it. But it also eats at the mind. Depression, anxiety. All that stuff can come about for anyone given they hold a lot of those negative thoughts and feeling in them. Breaks them down slowly over time. And that’s what happened to Roland too. By the end of his sophomore year he was barely keeping his shirt tucked in and his hair styled. You’d see him slouching as he walked, looking out of the corner of his eyes and clutching his satchel tight to his chest. You’d think he was walking in a bad neighborhood at night, but it was just school.
What I remember most about Roland is this one time, probably in the winter of his junior year. I’d been cleaning up one of those messes I told you about, girls making an absolute sight of their washroom. You’d think the girls were the cleaner of the two, the way they always fuss about their hair and clothes and all that. But the boys are a lot cleaner in some ways. They might pee a bit on the seat or on the floor, but you never see them smearing blood and other worse bodily fluids all over the stalls and walls. It’s something awful, really. And the smell, if you aren’t used to, I suppose, that smell is about the most awful thing a man can take in. I’d been doing that for too long and ran out of that girl’s washroom. Didn’t even think that maybe I’d run into somebody, knock ‘em over and all that. But that’s just what happened. I’m gagging and coughing and feeling sick to my stomach as I stumbled out there into the hall, and, bam, I knock poor Roland ass over teakettle.
I get worked up thinking about this, ya know? Not even when I’m sleeping at night, because all that business is what comes later. But I get worked up thinking about Roland there on the floor, his books everywhere and him looking a mess. And I think it’s because I remember his eyes. Big doe eyes, remember? Like a baby seeing the world new for the first time. But they were so dark and tired that day I ran into him. Dark circles under his eyes. Bloodshot. Maybe he’d been crying. Maybe he hadn’t been sleeping well. I don’t know any of that. But what I do know is he just looked so tired of life.
There are things we all wish we could go back and do different. You live long enough and you begin to acquire regrets like my wife acquired little trinkets, enough to fill a closet. Maybe even a garage if you’re life turns out a bit worse than most. And, for me, this was one of those very things. I helped him up, said I was sorry for not looking where I was going and knocking him over like that. Don’t think that I didn’t. Or that me not doing so was what I regret, because it’s not. What I regret is that this is all I did. I helped him up, dusted him off, and even picked up his books. And then I sent him on his way. I saw how bad that boy was hurting, saw how tired he looked, but I said nothing about any of that. Couldn’t think to do it. I was no better than that teacher who told the little shithead to keep his “faggot” comment to himself. I just stood there and watched it happen without another thought. And then I went home to my wife and she gave me a beer and ran her fingers through my hair and told me everything would be alright.
Roland McKinney was found dead in his home during that year’s winter break, about three weeks after I’d run into him. He was sixteen years old.
I don’t know how he died exactly, because the paper never reported it, what with Roland being a minor and all. Heard rumors that he’d gone and slit his wrists in the tub. Others say he got up in the dead of night, got in his parent’s car, and ran the motor with the windows rolled up and the garage door closed. But that’s all those were, just rumors. Only two things I really know about Roland’s death is that he died alone and that I didn’t do anything to stop it. That’s it.
It’s a bit funny, really. They removed all the lockers at the school quite a few years back. All the parents were afraid of the children hiding guns and drugs and whatever else in there. It never crossed their mind that their own children might be the ones storing things in there. A parent wants to believe that their child is incapable of harming another living soul. It’s always some other little bastard running around stabbing and shooting and drugging up the place. It doesn’t even cross their mind that the worst things these kids do to each other can’t ever be tucked away in a locker for later. It’s the things they say and do to one another. It’s the way they use the cameras and apps on their phones, the ones they keep in their pockets. This is what they use to ruin another kid’s life.
But back then they still had them–the lockers, that is. And every year I’d have to clean them all out. Sometimes it was like gutting a small animal, the way everything would just fall out of those damned things, get everything all wet and sticky. Nasty things, lockers.
Anyway, after Roland’s passing, I was the one who had to empty his locker out early. And then, just like now, the worst things those kids did to each other wasn’t inside the locker, but the outside.
First thing was the most obvious, really. It might even be the worst, depending on how you look at things. See, all those years the kids mostly avoided Roland. Left the poor boy to go and keep to himself. At best he was ignored; at worst…well, they drove him do whatever it is he did to himself that winter. They knew this. I knew this. Whole school just about knew this, ya know? So imagine my surprise when I saw all these notes and pictures posted up around his locker after everyone came back from school. “WE LOVE YOU, ROLAND” and “YOU’LL BE MISSED” and some old class photos with Roland tucked away in some back corner. All a bunch of bullshit, if you ask me. These kids didn’t give two shits if Roland made it through the day, and they sure didn’t care much for him now that he was dead. Maybe one of them did. But the rest just wanted in on it, like it were some kinda fad to tell the dead kid you missed him. Didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t, because what might everyone else think?
I think the most honest thing I found there was some kid’s handwriting. Scratched, “EAT SHIT IN HELL” right there on Roland’s locker door. It was covered up with some of those notes and whatever, but it was still there. And that’s funny, too, right? Because people at that school will look at it and think to themselves how they wished they’d had the balls to do what this kid did, to write “EAT SHIT IN HELL” on a dead kid’s locker when nobody else was looking. Instead they just write a note real quick and cover things up.
So that’s what I had to do first thing back after hearing all about Roland. After listening to my Isa carry on about that poor queer kid from my school that killed himself. After lying to her for just about the first time ever, telling her that I didn’t have a clue who that boy was. If I’d told her that I knew him, that I’d gone and done nothing at all to help that poor kid, I don’t know what she might have thought of me. Maybe she would have looked at me different those last twenty or so years of her life. Maybe she’d have stopped playing with my hair and telling me everything would be alright, because she’d know it wouldn’t be. Because I’d just stood there and told that poor broken boy to run off to class without so much as tussling his hair and telling him it’d be alright. In all honesty, right now I’m not better than those kids who covered up that scratching with their notes.
I dumped all those cards and pictures into one box. I opened and put everything of Roland’s into another. I scrubbed and cleaned that locker of several months of whatever sticky mess it is that lines everything teenagers own and touch. I did that and painted that locker door best I could to remove any sign that somebody had written their nasty little thoughts. They’d have no choice but to keep it to themselves from now on.
And it was as I was finishing up there, picking up those boxes and walking back to the office, that I found that second thing I mentioned before–the other worst thing found outside a locker. It wasn’t a knife or a bag of weed, or anything like that. Though given all the shit that poor boy went through, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d found either.
No, it was this small photo tucked there in all those papers and hair products and other junk Roland had in his locker. At first I thought it was just one of those old class pictures everyone had put up there on his locker, but there were no smiling kids or Roland sitting in some corner fussing over his hair. You remember those old Polaroids, the kind you shake and the picture sorta just appears right there in front of you? It was one of those, I think. But it was in black and white, and I don’t think they were making those anymore then. At least it looked black and white–that’s what really made it stand out, I guess. All the other pictures were in color, but this was just washed out and black and white. No real color that I could see. Looked like a lot of crossed wires and little shadows set against the sun. Sorta like one of them dreamcatchers, ya know? Isa always kept one of those up in our window. Said it’d help me sleep better at night. Don’t do much but gather dust these days. But it reminds me of my Isa, so I keep it there.
I’m not sure why I stopped and bothered with that photo. It wasn’t mine to bother with. But there I was fussing with some poor dead kid’s things, invading his privacy. Curiosity is what I’ve told myself all this time. My mind had to know it was that was there in the picture. It sort of looked like those dreamcatchers, but it was so out of focus and washed out and dark that I’d no way of knowing without getting a better look. Not that it did me any good. I stood there for what might’ve been a good five minutes trying to figure that thing out. Just light and shadow was what I saw. And all I could think of was why Roland would bother keeping such an awful picture. You’d think he’d just take another one, right? Not hard to imagine him sitting there, taking that one picture, then waiting a couple minutes for it to develop and then seeing it was shit. Just take another one. That’s what I’d do. You too probably, yeah? Of course. Anybody would just take another picture. So it must’ve been something important to the boy. Important enough to not bother with another and to keep it there in his locker like that.
And my mind’s trying to wrap itself around all that when Mr. Anderson pops his head outside his classroom and gives me a startle. Mr. Anderson was one of the English teachers there at the school, and I guess he’d had some extra time on his hands, so he stuck his head out to ask me to empty his trash for him. Nearly gives me an infarction right there and then, the way he just called out for me. I told him I’d get right on it after I got these boxes to the office and he says that’s fine and gets right back to whatever he did during his free period. And me, I hardly even noticed I’d dropped the damned photo. It takes me a moment to even realize it’s not even in my hand anymore and I’m looking all around me like a fool. That’s when I see it in the grass, just a few feet away. And when I pick it up I notice that there’s some writing on the back. Buncha numbers that I’ve long forgotten at this point–coordinates, far as I could tell right then. Didn’t know to where.
I can look back on that and say I’d do things different, knowing what I do, but there’s just no going back now, is there? What’s done is done. And I gotta live with making that decision to stuff that picture into my back pocket. Took those boxes right to the front office, told them everything was in there, and walked out. Biggest mistake of my life, that. Hands-down.
It was this little pillbox set in the foothills of the Santa Anas. Couldn’t tell you who built it, or when. Looked like it’d been there for a good forty years or more. Nothing but moss and dry grass all over it. The way the stones were laid together, packed together with mud and who knows what else, it might’ve been thrown together by some kids way back when most the county was still orange groves.
Took me some time to get up there. Didn’t have a GPS in my cellphone back then, ya know. Didn’t even have a cellphone. And it’d be a long time before most people did, I think. But I found it all the same. Had me a map and a compass. Walked around up there in the hills like a goddamn boyscout. Not that my Isa knew anything about that. Told her I was going out to help a friend with some engine trouble, that we’d grab a beer or two after. Isa knew I couldn’t tell a spark plug from the dick in my hand, but she let me go off all the same without another word. That woman was too good to me. And I guess that’s why I didn’t tell her where I was going or why. Didn’t want her to fuss over that nonsense. I was just a foolish man running around like some kid with a treasure map. I hope she’d see it that way, at least.
I remember standing there for a while. Just stood there, right in front of the damned thing. I think a part of me just wanted to go on back to my wife. Couldn’t stand the thought of going inside that little pillbox. Maybe the damned thing would come crashing down on top of me. It didn’t look like it’d still be standing the way those stones just sort of stuck out all over the place. It was stuck together with mud and shit far as I could tell. And even if it didn’t crush me like a roach under a boot, I didn’t know what I might find in there. Could just be a frightened kid’s little fortress of solitude that he had stumbled upon, made it his own. Maybe Roland had a bunch of pin ups all up on the walls. Stack of magazines in the corner–filled with all those wrestling guys or boy bands or whatever he was fond of. Shit, maybe just some fashion magazines. Whatever he needed to feel…not normal, because even if the kid was a bit light in the loafers he was still a normal kid. Went to school. Had parents. Worried about looking good and fitting in. All that shit kids fuss over and deal with, ya know? But at least comfortable in his own skin here, maybe. Miles away from the shitheads that call him a fag and scratch horrible things in his locker door.
Not that I was one to give a shit about the kid’s privacy, right? I’d already gone through his locker. Looked and touched all his private things there. Stole one of his pictures even and come up here–whatever here might be.
Maybe if I’d done the right thing and just turned away and burned that goddamned Polaroid of his I’d be able to sleep better at night. Maybe talking to Isa up in Rose Hills would do me a bit of good. That dreamcatcher of hers might be enough to wake up with the sun instead of in the dead of night.
If I’d just done right by Roland all those years ago when I ran into him in that hallway, told him it’d be okay. Maybe if I’d done that I’d never have seen what I seen.
But all these maybes don’t mean a damned thing now, because I did go up to that little pillbox. I did open that door. And nothing I saw in that pillbox should have surprised me any…except that’s exactly what it did. No posters of shirtless men. No mirror for Roland to look into when he’d do his hair the way he liked. Just shadows and light and the artwork of a boy so far gone and lost that he saw no value in life. The animals skins stretched taut dangled from the roots and weed that hung from the ceiling of that pillbox, dangling there in the breeze like Isa’s dreamcatcher. The bones rattled like windchimes. A crude table in the corner where I’d hoped magazines would be, half-skinned bodies stacked high. The smell of necrotic flesh stinging at my nose. The buzzing of flies filling my ears. And the shadows and light dancing together across it all while my heart beat quick-quick in my chest.
Remember when I said to you that all that fear and pain and sorrow and anger is toxic to a man? How the human body isn’t made of the plastic and glass that I stored all my cleaning products in–the sort of shit that can strip the bark off wood. It poisons a man’s mind. Rots the body from the inside out and erodes a man’s soul. What I saw there in that pillbox wasn’t the work of the doe-eyed boy with perfect hair, the one I’d see bouncing along down the hall to his English class with Mr. Anderson. That pillbox was filled with the unbridled rage and sorrow of a soul stripped down to a raw nerve.
I burned that pillbox and everything in it to ash. Got my little red gas tank outta the back of my truck and poured it out to the last drop. And then I lit that summanabitch up and watched the flames take it all.
I ain’t proud of what I’d done. And I might never sleep well at night knowing what I’d failed to do for Roland. Can’t close my eyes for long without seeing what those children turned him into. Sometimes I just stay up late at night, alone in my bed and staring out the window with Isa’s dreamcatcher. I just lie there in the dark, wondering what those kids would feel knowing they killed that boy long before he knew it. What was Roland was long gone before winter break, and all that was left just a buncha bones dressed in his best clothes.
No, I didn’t ask you here to tell you all this so I could feel better. No helping that, ya know. It’s eaten away what it will at this point is all I can hope for. But maybe, just maybe–after all these years they had to forget about poor Roland–those kids will read your paper and know what I know. I never let my Isa be troubled by all these memories I have. Never let it poison her like it has me. She was the one made all this tolerable. But my Isa is gone now, just like Roland. And I just don’t care to keep all this poison inside me anymore. Let all those little monsters deal with it–they’re all adults now. Fuck the lot of ‘em.