This story is by Jordan Majka and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In October, I received a call from the police after school.
“Is this Margaret’s son?” I was asked, as I watched the crisp, multicolored raindrops dance towards the ground.
Like the leaves breaking away from the trees, so too did my mother break away from my life. She was blindsided in an intersection, her automotive casket dented into a “U,” killing both her and the man in the other vehicle. The local news stations showed the devastating scene as I sat teary-eyed trying to look away. Mothers who loved their sons didn’t leave that early.
My father tried comforting me, but no one could reach the inner depths of my soul to pull from me this thick, black depression, sticking like tar to a smoker’s lungs. He tried bargaining with me to do something, but I wouldn’t move. I was content counting the tiles on my ceiling – anything monotonous to drown out the noise in my head, to make me forget the image of a Honda and Buick mashed together in the middle of the road.
Why couldn’t she just look to the right? I begged. Why did she have to be such an idiot?
I was searching for an answer that didn’t exist, and the constant thinking only angered me more.
High school was never the same. All looked at me with sympathy and a nurturing condescension, as if to say, “he who faces tragedy cannot once again face the world.”
“How’s things going?” Sarah asked one day.
“Just peachy,” I echoed from within my locker. Sarah, the most popular girl in school, hadn’t known I existed before the incident. Now, everyone was soaking up sympathy points befriending me.
“Look at that girl over there,” my friend, Henry, said to me later that week in the cafeteria.
I stared at her. Her eyes darted away from mine.
“I’m like some kind of freak,” I said, “some specimen to them. She doesn’t like me.”
Before he could make his case, I left.
After hours of being convinced, I decided to buy a ticket to the Halloween dance. I complied so that my friends would stop asking and decided going wouldn’t be the end of the world.
The dance was a typical combination of last-minute student council planning and stereotypical decor, with pumpkin lights and skeleton cutouts lining the gym walls. Large, sparkling disco balls were suspended from the ceiling, casting moving sprites on me and my punch.
I sat on the edge of the dance floor, staring at the twinkling sphere, drowning out the moment.
“What are you looking at?” a voice asked.
I jumped a bit. Drops of punch sloshed out of my cup, hitting my tie.
“Sorry!” she exclaimed.
I turned my head upwards to reveal a ghastly pale face. Her dirty blond hair covered one eye, the other dazzling and white in contrast to her smudged mascara.
“It’s ok,” I said slowly, unsure of how to process the spontaneous interaction.
She grabbed napkins and handed them to me.
“Some dance, huh?” she remarked, looking at a peeling skeleton cutout. “What are you supposed to be?”
“A depressed high school guy.”
She smiled. “That skeleton there sums up high school pretty well.”
“I remember when Halloween was fun,” I said, “how magical it was. Now I feel haunted by the memory of how life used to feel back then.”
“I suppose my costume doesn’t help,” she twirled around, showing off a white dress and skull necklace.
“You’re definitely going to haunt me in some way.”
“Is that such a bad thing?” she winked.
I smirked but couldn’t maintain the facade.
“There’s such great pain behind those eyes of yours,” she said, words resonating with me like a tuning fork.
“It’s been a rough month,” I sighed, staring into my drink.
“Let’s get some of that lost spirit back,” she said, grabbing my hand and leading me onto the dance floor.
For the first time in weeks, I felt invigorated. She pulled me to and fro, like two feathers twirling about in a rushing river. She was the wind and I the dead leaves. All I needed was a gust.
At the end of the dance, we walked out to her car.
“Do you feel that spirit again?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I smiled, muscles aching from disuse.
She kissed my cheek and entered her car, waving goodbye. The ghosts in me had been brought back to life.
Back in my room, the night repeated in my head like a grainy, old-time movie. Monday, I searched for her through the aged hallways of the school. In between classes, the sympathizers watched me pass frantically. My friends saw me walk around the cafeteria like an insane patient in a mental ward, seeking out what seemed like the ghost of a fever dream.
The final bell rang, and my heart sank to my feet. I was slumping to my car when a voice called out to me.
“Where are you going?”
I spun around to blonde locks and a dazzling blue eye staring at me.
“Where the–“ she placed a soft finger on my lips, holding back a laugh.
“You should have seen your face in the cafeteria. You looked like a madman walking around looking for me!” she burst out laughing.
I felt my face turn bright red.
“How the hell did you see me?”
She smiled. I did the same. My life was changing right before my eyes.
This change was for the better, and she filled the void present in my life. She and her father had a terrible relationship. Her parents had been divorced for a while, and she hadn’t spoken to him in years. It reminded me that I wasn’t alone in this universe dealing with separation from someone I loved. She understood me, took care of me, and made me a better person. With each warm embrace, passionate kiss, and late-night phone conversation, I felt more and more like myself.
Two weeks later, Elisa started distancing herself from me. I ignored it, trying to convince myself there was no issue. She stopped coming to my house, texting me, and sitting with me at lunch. I would pass her in the halls, no eye contact between us, feeling invisible in her world.
After school one day, I drove to her house. My heart raced as I walked up and rang the doorbell. I was surprised when her mother answered the door.
“Is Elisa there?” I asked, unable to look her in the eyes.
She clutched a handkerchief tightly to her mouth, shaking.
“Yes, she just got home. She’s upstairs,” she said quietly.
I entered the house and walked up the creaking staircase. What’s going on? Her mom is usually in a pretty good mood. I felt like I was in a horror movie walking into a room in which the killer hid patiently waiting to strike.
I opened the door and saw Elisa shivering, hunched over newspaper clippings.
She turned, mascara bleeding down her face.
“Why, Chris?” she sobbed.
“What’s wrong?” I looked at one of the newspaper clippings. Horrible Accident Leaves Two Dead dated two weeks ago.
“He killed her, Chris.”
“Who killed who?”
A name was underlined in one article. Why would she underline–
“Chris, my father was the man in the Buick.”
My mind went blank. The horrible memories came flooding back.
“How didn’t you know?” I felt the black, gooey depression slowly returning.
“Chris, I haven’t spoken with my father in years. My mother hasn’t either.” She wiped her eyes.
“Why haven’t you been talking with me?” I started to walk towards her, but she turned away.
“Chris, the amount of guilt and shame I’ve felt in the past week has been unbearable. I can barely look you in the eyes knowing what my father did to her.”
“But, it’s not your–“
“I love you, Chris.”
“But I can’t deal with these feelings. I can’t live with the fact that my father killed your mother.”
“Elisa, please.” I held back tears. “You saved me.”
“And I want to continue to do that,” she started to cry again. “Please leave.”
“But, I love you.”
She continued to sob, leaving my feelings vulnerable and stale.
I shut the door of my car, breathing heavily, trying to reason with what had happened. Should I go back? I thought better of it.
I flew down her street, feeling like I was losing control. With tunnel vision, I drove down back roads and long streets. The images of passing scenery and signs were blurred.
At home, I stumbled out of my car and walked to the front of my house. On the stairs were my mom’s obituary photo and a note from Elisa.
She will always be with you.
I collapsed on the ground, beginning to cry. A moment later, a small, orange leaf fell and landed gently on my mom’s picture.