No one believed such a gaunt tree could hold the weight of a healthy eleven-year-old. But miracles do happen. Mrs. Applebaum was the first to see ol’ Charlie hanging from the dying Oak on the corner of Peach and MLK Street yesterday. She must have been on one of her early morning walks, a routine she developed after Mr. Applebaum’s passing. The town used to call her “Ghostie” during her walks when the early morning fog rose from the ground and her pale white nightgown appeared to hover over the gravel. Her neon pink kicks were the only reason she didn’t scare little children.
Charlie rides my bus to school in the mornings. Or rode—Him and his cotton-candy fluff of red hair sat in the front of the bus to avoid the cool kids at the back. I sat up front too. What went through his mind? How long did it take? Did he leave a note?
The twins Becky and Bryan seemed mighty quiet this morning. Their eyes metronomed back and forth from skull to skull. After each bit of awkward silence, accusations were exchanged.
“It’s not my fault. I wasn’t even here last Friday,” Becky said.
“But you were the worst,” Bryan said, pushing his twin. “Calling him cotton-candy head. Calling him the freckled-face-freak even circuses would turn away.”
“I never pushed him in the mud, or stole his shoes like you.”
“He was weak. Daddy said suicide was for thin-skinned pansies, and Charlie was the biggest pansy around,” Milo said. I guess that would make his mother a pansy too since everyone knew she Pollacked her brains on the back of their barn.
Milo’s arms crossed his chest tighter than his usual “cool guy” stance. If only his lips had stayed as tight.
I listened to their banter, but none of them took the blame. The bus ride to school began the silence game.
During the morning announcements, Principal Lee revealed facts about Charlie likely no one knew. He had a dog named Boo Radley. He played baseball and loved painting. I did too. Later, friends of Charlie were allowed to meet in the library for grief counseling. How many impostors would attend? I knew I wouldn’t. I knew I couldn’t.
At lunch, I sat at my usual table alone. Charlie would sit at the table across from me. Sometimes, we’d look up and our eyes would meet. His left eye was smaller than the right. He’d nod. I’d nod and return to my book. Like him, I didn’t talk to many people.
After lunch, I spotted Charlie’s mom at his locker. On her knees, she sobbed. Her soprano cries floated above the hustle of kids returning to class. Before I knew it, I kneeled beside her. My arm rose from my side and patted her on the back. My mouth whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“Were you his friend?”
My head sprinklered tears left and right on the ground Charlie would never stand on again.
Jonathan Phin is a MFA graduate at the University of Central Florida and works as a graduate intern for The Florida Review. His work can be found in the Viewfinder Literary Magazine and The Jellyfish Review. You can find him on Twitter @Jonathan Phin