By Emilio Trinidad Jasso
The day was just as hot as any other day in Texas. Humidity was at ninety percent and you could practically hear the paint peeling off the walls. The air outside my high school was thick with the smell of asphalt and rubber as car tires and blacktop melded together into a sticky black mess.
I sat on the curb next to the gym with my friends, all of us dressed in faded black, passing a cigarette between us. When you’re broke and fifteen, cigarettes are worth their weight in gold. Maybe more. So to save, we’d smoke them one at a time, passing them back and forth. Matt had it now. He was inhaling when a group of jocks walked past us, collars popped, hats backwards.
“Hey punks,” one of them said, “smoking on school grounds? That’ll get you expelled.”
Another, the first string quarterback and world champion douche bag Chris Wagoner added, “Yeah, it’d be a shame if someone happened to mention it to Johnson, wouldn’t it?”
“Fuck off, Chris,” Matt said, “why don’t you go do some coke?”
“Maybe I will. I can afford it. And I might just mention our little meeting to Johnson when I drop by his place.” Chris was, at the time, routinely sleeping with the vice principal, Mr. Johnson’s daughter, Lindsey. Not dating, mind you. Dating would be too domestic for someone like Chris. He laughed at his joke and he and his friends went off into the corn maze of the parking lot, flicking us off and calling us names. Soon enough, though, they had disappeared.
“You know what pisses me off,” Matt asked to no one in particular, bellowing thick gray smoke from his mouth as he spoke, “the fact that they give all the anti-rape talks to Home-Ec, but they don’t force those fucking jocks to listen to it.”
He passed the cigarette to Juan who swept his long hair to the side to smoke out of the corner of his mouth. He inhaled and then exhaled white in a thin stream.
“Yeah, man. It’s fucking bullshit. We’re not the ones getting chicks drunk and raping them. It’s those meat-headed motherfuckers.” He passed the cigarette to me.
I looked out over the parking lot, kids getting in their cars, the cliques fully defined. The cheerleaders and their cute little cars, Camrys and Jeep Wranglers, the jocks and their pickups and Mustangs, the nerds waiting for their moms’ mini vans on the far corner. And then there was us, sitting, wasting time before the long walk home.
“Hey!” The yell came from behind us.
“Aw, shit,” Matt said, spitting tar onto the concrete.
I flicked the cherry from the cigarette and dropped it into my pocket. We stood and turned around to see Mr. Johnson himself bearing down on us. His purple power tie flapped behind him as he waddled our way, billowing out like a tiny cape behind his padded bulk. As he approached, Juan whispered to me and Matt.
“I thought he was helping out with the fitness test at the Elementary school?”
“I thought so,” I replied.
“Just like a pervert,” Matt added.
Matt had just finished speaking and had spat brown saliva onto the concrete again when Mr. Johnson was upon us, his face red behind his small, round glasses, sweat beginning to bead around his salt and pepper goatee and on his forehead. He wiped his brow with the back of a bloated hand.
“I told you kids not to smoke here. First of all, you’re still on school property. Secondly, you’re not of legal age. So unless you all want to be suspended indefinitely, you’d better shape up.” He stood, arms akimbo, staring at us. The dark circles of sweat were growing on his white dress shirt under his armpits.
Juan swept long strands of black hair from his face. “We weren’t smoking Mr. Johnson. We’re just resting. School work is hard work.”
Much to my surprise, Mr. Johnson’s eyes squinted more and almost disappeared into the mush of flesh on his face.
“Resting, my ass. I know what you little delinquents were doing. I can smell it on you. I always can. You boys reek of smoke, day in and day out. I can’t believe your parents let you walk around like that, you disrespectful little punks. If you were my kids, I’d,”
“I feel sorry for your kids,” Matt said, cutting off the inevitable soap-box, “and we can take a hint. We’re outta here.” He turned to leave. Juan and I did the same.
“Don’t you boys turn your backs on me!” Mr. Johnson called after us. “And you leave my Lindsey out of this! I’ll see you tomorrow, and believe me, if I smell smoke on any of you, I’ll be making phone calls!”
# # #
After we had left the parking lot, I pulled the remainder of the cigarette from my pocket and lit it with my little orange Bic. I inhaled and coughed. Juan laughed.
“Re-lighting them always sucks,” he said. I passed it to him when I was done sucking the shitty part out of it.
“Fuck Mr. Johnson,” Matt said, “that son of a bitch needs to get his fucking ass beat.”
“I don’t know if he needs that,” Juan said, tying up his hair with an elastic band, “I mean, I don’t like the guy, but I wouldn’t want him to get beat up.”
We fell back into a silent walk, our afternoon funeral march home. When we didn’t turn down the street that lead to Rolling Oaks Trailer Park, I assumed we were going to Matt’s house and not Juan’s. All the better, I thought, since Juan was really sensitive about living in a single-wide with his mom anyway, and didn’t really like for us to come over. Eventually the cigarette made its way back to me. I took a puff. It was almost gone.
“Band practice right now?” I asked.
“Sure,” they replied.
We kept all of our instruments at Matt’s house, if only because he had a basement that was so old and insulated that it was basically sound proof. I liked to imagine the thing was built with two feet of asbestos and two inches of lead paint. Neither Juan’s place or mine had such a great practice space.
When we got to Matt’s, we poured ourselves glasses of water and went to the basement. We plugged in, tuned our instruments (Matt on drums, Juan on bass, me on guitar) and played through a few songs, notably GG Allin’s “Die when you die” and our tribute, “I Hope You Get AIDS”. Matt wrote most of the lyrics, once Juan and I had figured out a rough riff. Matt’s lyrics were mostly painful things, lots of anger and yelling. But it was alright by me and Juan. As long as we got to make music, we were happy. Still, the yelling meant that practices didn’t usually go on for very long and today, halfway through “Frat Boy”, Juan’s throat was sore from all the screaming.
“Shit you guys,” he croaked at us, “I don’t think I can keep going.” He unplugged his base and set it in his gig bag.
“Then why don’t we go to,” Matt said and then paused to play a drum roll, “the reservoir!”
I shrugged indifference. Juan said, “sure” and that was that. We put up our instruments and left.
# # #
The reservoir was hot as hell this time of year, but the high mora trees provided shade, and if you weren’t too tired, you could climb them to get at the berries.
We found the shadiest mora we could and sat down under it. It was coming out of a dry, almost powdery area of the bank, and a little ledge connected with the trunk about four feet from the ground. We had to jump off this ledge to sit at the base of the trunk.
Matt pulled out our beaten-up pack of cheap cigarettes and lit one.
“Damn,” Matt said as he exhaled slowly, “summer cigarettes always taste better than others.”
Juan took it from his hands. “Fuck you. It’s not even fucking summer yet.”
“Yeah, well, then cigarettes in hot weather taste better. Better than smoking in the cold.”
I didn’t take it when Juan offered it to me. I wanted to smell the air. The reservoir was full of catfish and it made the air vaguely fishy, almost ocean-like in quality, but more stale. It was a kind of sickly sweet smell, like fish that had been sitting in the sun all day, or bad oysters. I watched a group of crows across the water, cackling away in a low mesquite.
I stood and climbed to the top of the ledge. The tree was tall, but its lowest branch was only a few feet from the highest point on the ground. I began to climb.
“Hey, throw some moras down here for us,” Juan called to me.
“Fuck you,” I said, “get off your ass and get them yourself.” I climbed higher. With much reluctance and bitching, they followed me up.
When I got as high as I could safely go, I looked around and started picking all the fat, juicy berries I could, mushing them up with my tongue before chewing, savoring the sweetness. I maneuvered myself so my back was against the main trunk and I sat straddling a branch. Matt and Juan came up to branches around me.
“Man, fuck you,” Matt said, his voice trembling, averting his eyes from the ground. “You could have just thrown some down for us. Shit.”
I laughed and turned my gaze to the water. The sun was starting to set and the flat surface of the reservoir reflected a warm orange and white glow. My mind flashed back to hot lunch hours in elementary school, discarded fifty cent Creamsicles melting on hot sidewalks.
“What the fuck is that?” Juan said, his hand full of moras and halfway to his mouth.
“The fuck is what?” Matt asked.
“That, over on the far banks, by that big ass rock.”
I found the rock he was talking about. There looked like a foot poking out from behind it. Next to the foot was a white cloth. A shoe wasn’t too far away.
“Shit, man,” Matt said, a grin spreading across his face, “it’s a chick, and I bet she’s sunbathing naked! Shit, I gotta find a better tree.” He began scrambling down as quickly as his fear would let him. Juan followed him.
“You dumb bastard,” I said, “who would be sunbathing this late?” He ignored me, so I sighed and followed him too.
We climbed up two more trees before we realized we couldn’t get a good look from our side. The sun wasn’t getting any higher.
“Fuck it,” Juan said, sucking on the cigarette we lit to calm us down. “let’s just go over there, you know, like we were just walking or something.”
“Yeah,” Matt agreed, “what can she say? She shouldn’t be naked in public anyway.” I figured I was bored and didn’t want to go home yet, so I agreed.
We walked around the reservoir, away from the main road, across rocks and mesquite and huisache and cactus until we were on the far side of the reservoir, not too far from where she was.
“Mira,” I said as I grabbed them each by a shoulder, “be quiet, but act cool, you know? Don’t rubber neck. We’re just, you know, passing through.” They nodded. Matt rubbed his palms on the front of his black work pants.
As we got closer to the rock, Juan shoved his hands in his pockets, probably to hide his boner. I chuckled a little and he shot me a look.
There was another little ledge that overlooked the rock, this one about five or six feet up. As we approached, I became aware of a sickly sour smell, worse than the fishy pond smell from before. It made my stomach feel ill, made me want to run the other direction, made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. We went to the ledge and peered over.
The girl was lying behind the rock, mostly nude. Her shirt and bra were pulled up so that her face was obscured. Her arms were bruised and straight up above her head. She looked like she was stretching or mid-dive. Her legs were bent up at the knees, dusty. The rest of her clothes lay as we had seen them from the other side of the reservoir. Her stomach looked bloated and swollen.
“Holy fucking shit,” Juan breathed, his cigarette dangling from his lips.
We stepped back from the embankment. Juan walked off a little ways. Matt and I sat on the ground.
“Holy shit, man, holy shit!” Juan was pulling at his long black hair, staring at the ground, pacing. Matt stood and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Calm down, motherfucker! Calm down! We’re gonna go down there and try to find out what we can. Anyway, maybe it’s someone we know.”
“I don’t wanna go down there, man,” Juan said, his eyes starting to get moist.
Matt squeezed his arms and shoved their faces together.
“Listen you fucking pussy, we’re going down there to see this.” He let go of him and turned around. “Come on.” He jumped the ledge.
I glanced over at Juan. He was trembling, staring straight ahead. I was scared, too, just not that much. I jumped down the ledge.
Matt was squatting near the girl’s head.
“I’ll be a son of a bitch,” he said. I walked closer. The stench was amazing. No one ever describes the smell of a body right. It isn’t the smell of formaldehyde, like the things you dissect in class, it isn’t meaty like a butcher’s. It’s pure putridity. It’s rotting meat mixed with rotting fish mixed with stomach bile and an overflowing port-a-john. It’s roadkill mixed with your septic tank. It’s repelling and somehow invigorating all at once. I wanted to vomit, and I wanted to inhale deeper than I ever had.
We did know the girl. It was Lindsey Johnson, Mr. Johnson’s daughter. At least, it had been. Her face was swollen, her eyes full of flies, her throat black and blue. There was a a length of rope around her neck, the kind Juan’s mom used to hang clothes on, off white and cotton.
“This is a fucking crime scene, man,” Juan said from behind us, “we shouldn’t fucking be here. Fuck! They’re gonna find our fucking DNA and shit, man!”
Matt stood up, calmly, walked over the Juan and threw a punch that caught Juan dead in the center of his belly. Juan let out a loud “oof” and fell backward before rolling on his side and puking.
“You’re gonna shut the fuck up,” Matt said, pointing a short index finger at Juan. “You’re going to shut the fuck up and you’re going to let me do the goddamn thinking.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, “and what do you think, genius? Huh? What the fuck do you think? He’s right. They’ll find our footprints,” I looked over at Juan, “his vomit, whatever. They’ll find us, man. They’ll think we did it.”
He looked at me and grinned. “No they won’t. Because our DNA isn’t in her. Look, she’s been raped. They’ll make us give cheek swabs and it won’t match because it wasn’t us.”
I couldn’t believe he was grinning. I looked back at the girl. My mind was a white canvas, I couldn’t even remember her name. Flies were crawling into her mouth, her nose. The smell of death and Juan’s vomit started to make me feel nauseous. I walked over to the ledge, leaned against it and pulled out my bandanna to wrap around my face.
Matt moved over to the body, walked around it a couple times, his hand stroking his stubble glazed chin, making little “hmm” noises to himself. He suddenly stopped and moved quickly over to a bush nearby where he reached under with his bandanna and pulled out a pink skirt. Keeping his hands covered, he felt it and then reached into some pocket and pulled out a small Dooney and Bourke wallet. He opened it, once again, being careful with his hands, looked at the ID, and then folded it up in his bandanna and shoved it into his pocket.
“Yo, what the fuck are you doing?” I yelled at him.
“Calm down, bitch,” he said back, “I have a plan.”
I stepped closer to him.
“I don’t give a shit what your plan is. Juan fucking puked all over the place, this bitch is fucking dead and you’re acting like a goddamn nutjob. We’re going to get the fuck out of here and call the fucking cops. And you’re leaving that wallet! What’s wrong with you? What the hell broke inside your head?”
He cocked his head, smiled slightly.
“I’m fine, man. I’ve never felt more alive. And the two of you ain’t gonna say a word to anybody, hear me? You ain’t gonna tell anybody that we were even fucking here. We played music and then we went for a walk. Shit. Tell them we went behind Super S to smoke a cigarette, no one will care when they find this bitch.” He jabbed his thumb in the girl’s direction. “As a matter of fact, no one will give a shit about anything. We can start smoking around other people and say the strain of losing a friend drove us to it. But right now, we’re gonna get back at that faggot Mr. Johnson.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I yelled at him. “ You want to get back at Mr. Johnson? This is his fucking daughter you asshole! She’s a fucking human being! What did anyone ever do to deserve this?”
He poked his finger into my shoulder. “Correction. She was a human being. Now she’s just a corpse. Corpses aren’t people. This is the kind of opportunity that only comes once. Shit, most people don’t even get it. And don’t you think Mr. Johnson deserves a little bit of payback? Don’t you think we deserve a little bit?”
“Payback?” I said, crossing my arms, “and what the fuck are you going to do to him? Huh? Are you going to go to his house right now, knock on the door and say ‘guess what, you fat prick, your daughter’s dead and raped and I saw her snatch’? Huh? Real fucking smart, you asshole.”
“Oh fuck, the first naked girl I see and she’s raped and fucking strangled. What the fuck, what the fuck?” I turned to Juan, who was hugging his knees and rocking slowly back and forth, and then went over to where he was sitting against the embankment. The sun was almost completely gone and it was starting to get chilly. Closer to the ground was warmer, heat from the reservoir and all that, so I sat down on the side of Juan that wasn’t puked on.
Matt stepped closer. “I’m gonna take this wallet,” he patted his now slightly more bulky pocket, “and I’m gonna wrap them in those panties,” he gestured towards where her underwear lay on the ground, “and I’m going to drop them in the fat fuck’s mailbox, and no one is gonna know a goddamn thing. They’ll probably think it was whoever the fuck killed her.”
I glanced at Juan. I couldn’t keep my eyes on Matt anymore. Juan was shivering like his mom’s yappy chihuahua, hugging himself, staring straight ahead. I put my arm around him. Matt walked over to us.
“And what is that going to accomplish, Matt?” I asked him. “What the hell will it accomplish if you do that? Are you hearing yourself? You sound sick, man, real sick.”
“Sick? Me?” Matt’s face dropped into disbelief. “You say I’m sick? Johnson’s sick, man. He’s the one who’s fucked up. Juan, you hear me? Not a word, man, to anyone.” He stood, staring at Juan, his face stony.
Juan looked up at him slowly, his eyes hollow and deeply set.
# # #
We left the reservoir in two groups – Juan and I went home and Matt went to Mr. Johnson’s place. In complete silence, I walked Juan to his house where he told me to stick around a while. I didn’t really feel like being alone, so I did. We went behind his trailer and made a fire from charcoal and scrap wood in his little satellite grill and then smoked a cigarette he had snuck out of the pack earlier.
“Josh, I don’t know what the fuck is going on,” he told me. “I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with Matt. He’s never acted like this before, and I’ve known him since second grade.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, man, but something’s eating him up real bad.”
“Do you think we should tell the cops? I think we should tell the cops. This is a big deal, man. This is,” he dropped his voice to a whisper and leaned towards me, “this is sick. This is fucking sick.”
I heard his his mother inside, cackling along with a sitcom laugh track. I poked at the charcoals, staring into the dull red centers.
“You might be right,” I said to him, “you might be completely right. You know what? I think you’re right.”
“So tomorrow then? Wanna call the cops tomorrow? Want to walk to the station now? It’s still early.” He rubbed his hands together in front of the fire. His stainless steel ankh reflected the light as it dangled from his neck.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said as calmly as I could, “we’ll give it at least until tomorrow. There’s a good chance that Matt chickened out. You know how he is.” Juan mumbled an agreement. “If he didn’t do it, then we say nothing, because he didn’t do anything wrong, technically. I mean, maybe not calling the cops is bad, but it’s not breaking the law. Plus, they probably already found the body, it’s not like it’s going to be our secret.”
“Yeah,” Juan said as he ran his fingers through his hair, “yeah. I’m just, I feel sick, you know?”
“That’s because he punched you in the fucking stomach.”
“No, not just that. Seeing her like that, you know? All the movies and all the fucking Cannibal Corpse in the world doesn’t prepare you for shit like that. I’m afraid to go to sleep.” His eyes were glistening in the firelight.
“You’ll be fine,” I told him, “just try not to think about it.”
“Aw, go to hell. You try to not think about it.”
He was right. I had been dreading sleep since the walk home.
“Something’s different about Matt, man,” Juan said quietly, pensively.
“I know. You said that.”
“No, man. Like, he was pretty alright, even after his dad died. I mean, we were in what, third grade or something? At least, I’m thinking you were also in third grade.”
“Yeah, my old school had grade levels, too.”
“You know what I mean. Anyway, his dad was like, his only idol in the world. Guy gets killed one day operating a crane to install a power transformer.”
“No shit? The kind on the electrical poles, right?”
“Yeah. Something snaps and the transformer swings like a pendulum, smashes through the back window of the crane and kills him,” he snapped his fingers, “just like that.”
“Yeah, and you know what the shit of it was?”
“He wasn’t even supposed to be at work that day.”
“And Matt took that well?”
“Of course not, man. It tore him up. He would cry and shit, almost every night. I remember because his mom tried to have sleepovers with his friends, thought it would make him man up and stop crying. He didn’t. He’d just pull the blankets over his head and cry as quietly as he could. After about two months, though, I think it was about two months, he started to come out of it. But he was really quiet, started writing bad poetry and all that.”
I smiled a little.
“Yeah,” Juan continued, “that stuff was a lot worse than what he’s writing now.” He was quiet for a bit. “I think that’s when Mr. Johnson started working here, actually.”
“You mean at the high school?”
“Yeah, but he’s like, he’s got some other degree, like, I don’t know, sports medicine or something, so he helps with the fitness tests and stuff. He’s like a coach or something. He was at the high school, but he started off as a coach for the elementary school, too.”
I tossed another stick on the fire.
“Do you think,” I told Juan as I watched the log catch and slowly start to burn, “he somehow connects Mr. Johnson’s existence with his dad’s death?”
“What am I, Doctor Phil? I don’t know. Maybe.”
We sat in silence for a while, watching the flames eat away at the wood and charcoal. After a while, I decided it had become late enough.
“I think I should probably go,” I said quietly, “I have to read for Mrs. Lacie’s class.”
“You never read for class.”
“Well this time I want to.” I stood and nodded my goodbye and walked home.
# # #
The lights were off a home, a little before ten. I walked straight back to my room, past the bathroom and my brother Drew’s room. His door was closed. Mine was open. I pushed it further and flicked on the light. There was a note on my desk. I walked over and picked it up.
Josh: You weren’t here for dinner. It’s in the microwave.
I didn’t feel hungry. I closed the door, turned off the light, peeled my clothes off and into a pile and climbed under my sheets. In the silence, I closed my eyes and saw translucent images in the blackness. Wolves, demons, bodies, horned grinning beasts snickering at me. The images flew by in waves, at speeds I could barely imagine. I felt antsy and my head hurt. I got up to vomit into the plastic bag in my trash can. After that, I felt slightly better and, after thirty minutes or so, fell asleep.
# # #
The next day, everything seemed normal, like yesterday was an extension of the nightmares I had had. I met Juan and Matt outside in the parking lot for a morning smoke and then we shuffled into class, Styrofoam coffee cups in hand, to listen to the morning announcements. We were quieter than usual, and apparently none of us wanted to bring up the wallet. Or the body.
Just as we had sat down in home room, the intercom crackled and squealed before Mr. Johnson’s voice came through. He seemed oddly calm.
“Good morning, students. There will be no Pledge of Allegiance this morning. There are only a few announcements. As some of you might know, and I’m positive at least one of you does, my darling girl …”
He turned off the microphone. I shot a glance to Matt and to Juan. Juan looked terrified, running his fingers through his hair, letting it fall in front of his face. Matt looked calm, cool, detached. There was no smirk, no smile, no emotion at all. He was picking at his fingernails. The intercom came back on.
“My sweet, innocent baby girl Lindsey was murdered some time yesterday. The police notified me last night at my home. I thought about taking the day off, but decided that I should be here instead.”
Her image came flooding back to my mind, the bruised, purple neck, the eyes full of flies. I tried to imagine her alive, in the school, kissing her father goodbye as she went to class, but I couldn’t. My stomach began to turn, the coffee from this morning wanted to make a reappearance in my mouth. I raised my hand to go to the bathroom and left.
I walked down the hallway, and could still hear Mr. Johnson’s voice over the intercom.
“I am here today not because I feel that I owe it to you, the students and teachers here. In fact, I don’t think I owe you anything. What have you given to me? You have provided me with problems- students to discipline, teachers to reprimand, administrative duties, all things I didn’t want to do, things I don’t deserve.”
I had reached the bathroom and I ducked inside and pushed open the first stall door. I stood over the toilet breathing in the strong scent of ammonia and waiting. My stomach had calmed considerably.
“I am in my office now, my door locked. I am invulnerable to you all. Currently, the police are looking for the murderer. Soon, I’m sure, they will find the person who did it from DNA evidence. May God have mercy on your soul, whoever you are. I am equally sure that the arrest of this young man, this monster, will lead to something more, something that will come back to me, something that will push all of the skeletons from my closet, something that will awaken all the old ghosts.”
I stepped out of the stall, unhappy with myself, curious about Johnson’s speech. I nearly ran into Chris Wagoner. He pushed me aside with a muscled shoulder.
“Move it, fucking goth.”
“Eat a dick, meat head.”
He went past me and into a stall and locked the door. I washed my hands out of habit and left. The intercom was silent.
I was halfway down the hallway when I heard a soft popping sound, like someone squeezing a bag of potato chips. Suddenly, there were screams all around me, rushing through the cracks around the classroom doors. Some of the doors started opening, teachers rushing out and down the hallway screaming “Call the police!” and “Get an ambulance!”
My stomach stopped flipping around in me and instead turned into a block of ice. I started walking and then ended up running down the hallway along with the few other people there. At the end of the hallway, in the middle of the vague spider shape of the school, was the head office. Ms. Beverly, the first Administrative Assistant, sat outside bawling her eyes out, her makeup running in black lines down her face. Mr. Spaulding held her, crouching in his gray gym shorts. The rest of the people were crowded around the big office windows. The blinds of Mr. Johnson’s office were pulled shut. There were a few students trying to peek through them. The two rotund security guards were standing at the front doors to the office, hands on their pistols.
“Go back to your rooms,” one of them yelled over the crying and the murmur of questions. “Go back! The police are on their way.” I walked closer to Ms. Beverly and could hear that she was faintly mumbling under her breath.
“He’s dead,” she was saying, “he’s dead. All over, oh God, blood, he’s just blood, he’s gone, the office, gone, dead.” Mr. Spaulding pushed her head into his chest and looked around, his eyes beginning to wet. My head started to spin. I walked to a bulkhead in the hallway and sat down amid the growing crowd of onlookers. My head spun and I passed out.
I woke up at St. Elizabeth’s hospital, Juan sitting in the chair next to me.
“So you’re not dead,” he said to me, his eyes red from either rubbing or crying or maybe cigarette smoke.
“No, not yet,” I said. My head hurt. “What happened?”
“They found Mr. Johnson in his office,” Juan said, “sitting in his chair behind the microphone. He had shot himself. I asked one of the stoners who saw inside and he said it was like,” he looked away and cleared his throat, “it was like someone strapped a cherry bomb to a can of red spray paint.”
I tried to picture Mr. Johnson in his office, his head opened up to the world, the warm revolver on the floor below his dangling hand. Part of me wanted to be happy, to feel the sick kind of gratification that people feel when a tyrant or a murderer is sent into the afterlife strapped to a table. In reality, I felt sad.
Juan rubbed his hands together nervously. “He left a note, too. A long one. It was practically a book. It’s like he stayed up all night writing it. It’s like a confessional or something. At least, that’s what people are saying. The cops, I mean, not real people.”
I felt an odd sensation in my arm and looked down to see a saline drip. I couldn’t imagine why I’d need saline.
“A note? What did it say?”
“He was apparently a sick bastard, man. Real sick.”
“What time is it, Juan?”
He glanced at his phone. “It’s like four thirty. You’ve been out all day. But anyway, man, listen to this.” He brushed some hair behind his ear. “He was into little kids. He had pictures, movies, everything. He was making that shit in his house.”
It took a while to settle in, but when it did, I sat upright with a bolt, making my head swim.
“Yeah, man,” Juan continued, “apparently, he’s been babysitting for other teachers and stuff since his wife died, taking pictures, touching kids and whatnot. It’s gross shit, man. He was doing it at the schools, too. People are freaking out all over town.”
I leaned back against the plastic headboard. The pressure made my head feel better.
“And the cops found his daughter’s body like he said. They don’t think he did it, they just think he was terrified that whoever they catch would be someone he molested or something and they’d rat him out. They’d search his house and they’d find his stash, his cameras and stuff. Man, he was doing stuff that would send anyone to serious, pound-you-in-the-ass prison. I guess in order to dodge that bullet, Mr. Johnson had to step in front of another.”
“That’s very well put,” I said, closing my eyes, “that’s a really good line. “Had to step in front of another”.”
“I think it’s from a song.”
A nurse walked in.
“Well hello there Josh, nice to see you’re awake. Do you feel okay?”
“My head really hurts.”
“Well, that’s to be expected. You hit your head pretty hard when you fainted.”
The word “fainted” will make any man’s face red, and I was no exception.
“Oh, don’t be ashamed,” she said, “you’ve had a tough day. We all have.”
She was a nice woman, short and round, cushy all over in scrubs that were covered in pastel pictures of cats that made me feel a little nauseous. She pulled a click pen from her breast pocket and began to write on a chart while checking the machines in the room.
“You should be out in a few hours, Josh. We’ve telephoned your mother’s place of employment and she said she’d be right down.”
“Sure,” I said. I knew my mother wasn’t going to leave work. At a 900 number, you get paid by the minute.
“Well, I’ll see you later. Can I get you anything? It’ll be on the house.” She smiled, her fleshy face wrinkling up.
“No, thanks,” I said, “I’m OK.”
Juan spoke up “Um, I he doesn’t want anything, can I get a Coke? And you know, you just say it’s for him?”
The nurse laughed, “sure,” she said. She turned and left the room, closing the door behind her.
“And they haven’t said anything about her ID. I think Matt did it and got away with it.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but does it even matter? And I don’t think I wanna hang out with Matt anymore, man. ”
“I know what you mean,” Juan said. “He’s different. He sat in class, sipping his coffee, until they told us to go home. Then he went home. That was it. I came here when I heard you were taken here. I haven’t called my mom about it.”
The nurse came back with a can of coke and handed it to Juan. He thanked her and she left again.
“Shit,” he said, “just barely cold.” He popped it open and started to drink.
# # #
That day, the day Mr. Johnson killed himself, was the last time I ever spoke to Matt. Something about the boy had changed, something had manifested, hatched from the slimy egg that had lain dormant for God knows how long. He was different. He never brought it up, never asked why, never tried to make nice with us. Even Juan didn’t want to talk to him, and Matt became more or less a loner.
The morning they arrested Chris Wagoner at his home, not many people were surprised. His face was one of the many in the pictures the cops found in Mr. Johnson’s porno dungeon. The cops had already spoken to him about his history with Mr. Johnson. He claimed that what he did to Lindsey was not due to any hatred for the man, but was an accident, a mistake fueled and influenced by their joint experimentation with PCP. He was tried as an adult and is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
A few months after the incident, the police had finished their investigation of Mr. Johnson’s death and any involvement with illegal activities and announced that, through the school, they would be providing counseling services for anyone who had been treated “inappropriately” by Mr. Johnson. The next day, Matt was gone, ran away from home.
I don’t think any of us ever saw him again. Days came and went, the seasons changed, and soon Juan and I were old enough to buy our own cigarettes. We would often sit with them under a mora tree by the reservoir, staring out over the melted Creamsicle before us in the afternoon calm. We rarely ever brought up the Johnsons, we rarely ever brought up Matt. The last time we did this, the afternoon before I left to go to college and a week before Juan was set to move to California to live with his Uncle, we sat with a Lucky Strike a piece, sipping rye from a plastic flask. We sat in silence, staring lazily out over the water, and somewhere, far off, we caught the faint scent of Checker cigarettes, and I felt a chill run down my spine.
“You know, Juan, we never found out if he did it, did we?”
“If who did what?”
“If Matt delivered Lindsey Johnson’s wallet.”
“Oh,” he said, flicking ash onto the dirt next to him, “I guess not. But, does it matter?”
“I guess not,” I told him quietly.
The sunset was so beautiful.
Emilio Jasso, is an aspiring writer working out of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s originally from south Texas, but moved to Massachusetts for college (double majored at MIT in biology and writing)
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