Penpal Part 5: Screens

Part 5 in the Penpal series by Dathan Auerbach as part of my 100 followers celebration. Original Story

At the end of the summer between Kindergarten and 1st grade I caught the stomach flu. This has all of the components of the regular flu; however, with the stomach flu, you throw up in a bucket and not the toilet because you are sitting on it – the sickness gets purged from both ends. This lasted for about 10 days, but just before it had passed the sickness was granted an extension in the form of pink eye. My eyelids were so fused together by the dried mucus generated during the night that the first day I awoke with the infection I thought I had gone blind. When I started 1st grade I had a kink in my neck from 10 days of bed-rest and two swollen, bloodshot eyes. Josh was in another Group and didn’t have my lunch, so in a cafeteria bursting with 200 kids I still had a table to myself.

I started keeping spare food in my backpack that I would take into the bathroom to eat after lunch since my school meals were usually confiscated by older kids who knew I wouldn’t stand up to them since no one would stand with me. This dynamic persisted even after my condition cleared up since no one wants to be friends with the kid who gets bullied, lest they have some of that aggression directed toward themselves. The only reason this stopped was due to the actions of a kid named Alex.

Alex was in the 3rd grade and was bigger than most of the other kids in any grade. Around the 3rd week of school he started sitting with me at lunch, and this put an immediate end to the shortage of my food supply. He was nice enough, but he seemed kind of slow; we never really talked at length except for when I finally decided to ask why he had been sitting with me.

He had a crush on Josh’s sister, Veronica.

Veronica was in 4th grade and was probably the prettiest girl in the school. Even as a 6-year-old who fully endorsed the notion that girls were disgusting, I still knew how pretty Veronica was. When she was in 3rd grade, Josh told me, two boys had actually gotten into a physical fight which erupted out of an argument concerning the significance of the messages she had written in their yearbooks. One of the boys eventually hit the other in the forehead with the corner of the yearbook and the wound required stitches to close. While not one of those two boys, Alex wanted her to like him and confessed that he knew Josh and I were best friends; I gathered that he had hoped that I would convey his ostensibly philanthropic deed to Veronica and that she would presumably be so moved by his selflessness that she’d take an interest in him. If I told her he would continue to sit with me for as long as I needed him to.

Because this was during the time when Josh mostly stayed at my house building the raft and navigating tributary with me I didn’t have the chance to bring it up to Veronica because I simply didn’t see her. I told Josh about it and he made fun of Alex, but said that he would tell his sister since I wanted him to. I doubted that he would. Josh was annoyed that people seemed to be so taken with his sister. I remember him calling her an ugly crow. I never said anything to Josh, but I remember wanting to say, even then, that she was pretty and would one day be beautiful.

I was right.

When I was 15 I was seeing a movie at a place my friends and I had come to call the Dirt Theatre. It was probably nice at some point, but time and neglect had weathered the place severely. This theatre had movable tables and chairs on a level floor, so when the theatre was full there were very few places you could sit and see the whole screen. The theatre was still open, I imagine, for three reasons: 1) it was cheap to see a movie there; 2) they showed a different cult movie twice a month at midnight; and 3) they sold beer to underage kids during the midnight showings. I went for the first two, and that night they were showing Scanners by David Cronenberg for $1.00.

My friends and I were sitting in the very back. I wanted to sit closer to the front for a better view, but Ryan had driven us so I relented. A couple minutes before the movie started a group of girls walked in. They were all pretty attractive, but whatever beauty they might have had was eclipsed by the girl with the dirty blonde hair, even though I had only caught a glimpse of her profile. As she turned to move her seat I caught a full view of her face which gave me the feeling of butterflies in my stomach – it was Veronica.

I hadn’t seen her in a long time. Josh and I saw progressively less of one another after we snuck out to my old house that night when we were 10, and usually when I’d visit him she’d be out with friends. While everyone stared at the screen, I stared at Veronica – only looking away when the feeling that I was being a creep overcame me, but that feeling would quickly subside and my eyes would return to her. She really was beautiful, just like I had thought she’d be when I was a kid. When the credits started to roll my friends got up and left; there was only one exit and they didn’t want to be trapped waiting for the crowd to clear. I lingered in hopes of catching Veronica’s attention. As she and her friends walked by I took a chance.

“Hey, Veronica”

She turned toward me looking a little startled.

“Yeah?”

I got out of my seat and stepped a little into the light coming in through the open door.

“It’s me. Josh’s old friend from way back … How … How’ve you been?”

“Oh my god! HEY! It’s been so long!” she motioned to her friends that she’d be out in a second.

“Yeah, a few years at least! Not since the last time I stayed over with Josh. How is he anyway?”

“Oh, that’s right. I remember all you guys’ games. Do you still play Ninja Turtles with your friends?”

She laughed a little and I blushed.

“No. I’m not a kid anymore … Me and my friends play X-men now.” I was really hoping she’d laugh.

She did. “Haha! You’re cute. Do you come to these movies every time?

I was still reeling from what she said.

Does she really think I’m cute? Did she just mean I was funny? Does she think I’m attractive?

I suddenly realized that she had asked me a question, and my mind grasped for what it was.

“YEAH!” I said much too loudly. “Yeah, I try to anyway … what about you?”

“I come every now and then. My boyfriend didn’t like these movies but we just broke up so I plan on coming from now on.”

I was trying to be casual, but failed. “Oh, well that’s cool … not that you guys broke up! I just meant that you’d be able to come more often.”

She laughed again.

I tried to recover, “So are you coming the week after next? They’re supposed to show Day of the Dead. It’s really cool.”

“Yeah, I’ll be here.”

She smiled, and I was about to suggest that maybe we could sit together when she quickly closed the space between us and hugged me.

“It was really good to see you,” she said with her arms around me.

I was trying to think of what to say when I realized the biggest problem was that I had forgotten how to talk. Luckily Ryan, who I could hear approaching from the hallway, came in and spoke for me.

“Dude. You know the movie’s over right? Let’s get the fuck outtu— OHHH YEAAHHH.”

Veronica let go and said that she’d see me next time. She was played out of the room by the porn music Ryan was making with his mouth. I was furious, but it dissipated as soon as I heard Veronica laughing in the lobby.

Day of the Dead couldn’t come soon enough. Ryan’s family was going out of town so he wouldn’t be able to drive us, and the other friends I was with that night didn’t have cars. A couple of days before the movie I asked my mom if she could take me. She responded almost immediately by denying my request, but I persisted and she picked up on the desperation in my voice. She asked why I wanted to go so badly since I had seen the movie before and I hesitated before saying that I was hoping to see a girl there. She smiled and asked playfully if she knew the girl and I reluctantly told her it was Veronica. The smile disappeared from her face and she coldly said “No.”

I decided that I would call Veronica to see if she could pick me up. I had no idea if she still lived at home, but it was worth a try. But then I realized that Josh might answer. I hadn’t talked to him in almost 3 years, and if he answered I obviously couldn’t ask to talk to his sister. I felt guilty for calling to speak with Veronica and not Josh, but I dismissed that feeling quickly; Josh hadn’t called me in years either. I picked up the phone and dialed the number that was still embedded in my muscle memory from having dialed it so often all those years ago.

It rang several times before someone picked up. It wasn’t Josh. I felt a mixture of both relief and disappointment – I realized in that second that I really missed Josh. I would call after this weekend and talk to him, but this was my only chance to see if Veronica could or would take me so I asked for her.

The person told me I had dialed the wrong number.

I repeated the number back to her, and she confirmed. She said they must have changed their number and I agreed. I apologized for the disturbance and hung up. I was suddenly intensely sad because now I couldn’t contact Josh even if I wanted to; I felt terrible for having been afraid that he might answer the phone. He had been my very best friend. I realized that the only way I could be put back in touch with him would be through Veronica, so now, not that I needed one, I had another reason to see her.

I told my mom the day before the movie that I was no longer concerned with going, but was hoping she could drop me off at my friend Chris’ house. She relented and dropped me off that Saturday a couple of hours before the movie. My plan was to walk from his house to the theatre since he only lived about a half-mile away. They went to church early on Sundays so his parents would go to sleep early Saturday night, and Chris was fine with not coming with me since he had planned on chatting with this girl he met online. He said that the walk back to his house would be even lonelier after she laughed in my face when I tried to kiss her, and I told him not to electrocute himself when he tried to have sex with his computer.

I left his house at 11:15.

I tried to pace myself so I’d get there just a little before the movie. I was going by myself and so I didn’t want to just hang around there waiting. On the way to the theatre I figured that if Veronica showed up at all it would be too lucky for us to arrive at the same time, so I debated whether I should wait outside or just go in. Both had their pros and cons. As I was grappling with these concerns I noticed that the steady stream of streaking car lights that had been overtaking me had been replaced by a single, constant spotlight that refused to pass. The road wasn’t illuminated by streetlights, so I was walking in the grass with the road about two feet to my left; I stepped a little more to my right and craned my neck over my left shoulder to see what was behind me.

A car had stopped about 10 feet behind me.

All I could see were the violently bright headlights that were cutting through the otherwise stygian surroundings. I thought that it might be one of Chris’ parents; maybe they had come to check in on us and seen that I was gone. It wouldn’t have taken much pressing for Chris to confess. I took one step toward the car, and it broke its pause and started driving toward me at a slow pace. It passed me and I saw that it wasn’t Chris’ parents’ car, or any car that I recognized for that matter. I tried to see the driver but it was too dark, and my pupils had shrunk when faced with the blinding lights from the car just moments before. They adjusted enough so that I could see a tremendous crack in the back window of the car as it drove away.

I didn’t think much of the whole affair; some people find it fun to scare other people – I’d often hide around corners and jump out at my mom, after all.

I timed it right and got there about 10 minutes before the movie. I had decided to wait outside until around 11:57, since that would give me time to find her inside if she was already seated. As I was considering the possibility that she might not show, I saw her.

She was alone, and she was beautiful.

I waved to her and walked to close the distance. She smiled and asked if my friends were already inside. I said that they weren’t and realized that this must seem like I was trying to make this a date. She didn’t seem bothered by that, nor was she bothered when I handed her the ticket I had already bought. She looked at me quizzically, and I said, “Don’t worry, I’m rich.” She laughed and we went inside.

I bought us one popcorn and two drinks and spent most of the movie debating whether or not I should time reaching my hand into the popcorn bag when she reached in so they would touch. She seemed to enjoy the movie and before I knew it, it was over. We didn’t linger in the theatre, and because this was a midnight show we couldn’t loiter in the lobby, so we walked outside.

The parking lot of the theatre was big because it connected with a mall that had gone out of business. Not wanting the night to be over just yet I continued the conversation while causally walking toward the old mall. As we were about to round the corner and leave the theatre out of sight I looked back and saw that her car wasn’t the only one left in the parking lot.

The other one had a large crack in the back window.

My immediate uneasiness turned to understanding.

That makes a lot of sense. The driver of that car works here and must have figured I was on my way to the movie.

Injecting real horror into the life of a horror fan seemed like an obvious move.

We walked around the mall and talked about the movie. I told her that I thought Day of the Dead was better than Dawn of the Dead, but she refused to agree. I told her of when I called her old number and about my dilemma about who would answer the phone. She didn’t find it as funny as I now did, but she took my phone and put her number in it. She commented that it might be the worst cell phone she’d ever seen. Her evaluation wasn’t rescinded when I told her I couldn’t even receive pictures on it. I called her so she’d have my number and she programmed it in.

She told me that she was graduating, but she hadn’t done well in school so far that year so she wasn’t sure if she’d even get into college. I told her to attach a picture of herself to the application and they’d pay her to go there just so they could look at her. She didn’t laugh at that one and I thought she might be offended – she might have thought I was implying that she couldn’t get in based on her intelligence. I nervously glanced at her and she was just smiling and even in this poor light I could see that she was blushing. I wanted to hold her hand but I didn’t.

As we walked down the final side of the mall back toward the theatre I asked her about Josh. She told me she didn’t want to talk about it. I asked her if he was at least doing alright and she just said “I don’t know.” I figured Josh must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and started getting into trouble. I felt bad. I felt guilty.

As we approached the parking lot I noticed that the car with the cracked back window was gone and that her car was now the only one in the parking lot. She asked me if I needed a ride and even though I really didn’t I said that I’d appreciate it. I had drunk my whole soda during the movie and all the walking was putting pressure on my bladder. I knew that I could wait until I was back at Chris’, but I had decided that I was going to try to kiss her when she dropped me off, and I didn’t want this biological nagging to rush me out of the car. This would be my first kiss.

I could think of no ruse to conceal what I needed to do. The theatre had long closed so I only had one option. I told her that I was going to go behind the theatre to piss but that I’d be back in “two shakes.” It was obvious that I thought it was hilarious and she seemed to laugh more at how funny I found it than at how funny it clearly was.

On the way toward the theatre I stopped and turned toward her. I asked her if Josh had ever told her that kid named Alex had done something nice for me. She paused to think for a moment and said that he had; she enquired as to why I had asked, but I said it was nothing. Josh really was a good friend.

When I went to go behind the theatre I realized that there was a chain-link fence extending off and running parallel to the walls of the building. Where I stood she could still see me, and the fence seemed to stretch on endlessly, so I thought I’d just hop it, duck out of sight, and return as quickly as I could. It may have been too much of an effort, but I thought it polite. I climbed the fence and walked just a little ways until I was out of sight and urinated.

For a moment the only sounds were the crickets in the grass behind me and the collision of liquid and cement. These sounds were overpowered by a noise that I can still hear when it is quite and there are no other noises to distract my ears.

In the distance I heard a faint screeching which quickly subsided only to be replaced with a cascade of thundering vibrations. I realized quickly enough what it was.

It was a car.

The growling of the engine got louder. And then I thought.

No. Not louder. Closer.

As soon as I realized this I started back toward the fence, but before I could get very far at all I hear a brief, truncated scream, and the roar of the engine terminated in a deafening thud. I started running, but after only two or three steps I was tripped by a loose piece of stone and fell hard and fast onto the concrete – my head striking the corner of a chair as I fell. I was dazed for maybe 30 seconds but the renewed rumbling of the engine drew my senses back and my equilibrium was restored by adrenaline. I redoubled my efforts. I was worried that whoever had crashed the car might harass Veronica. As I was climbing over the fence I saw that there was still only one car in the parking lot. I didn’t see any evidence of a crash. I thought that I might have misjudged its direction or proximity. As I ran toward Veronica’s car and as my orientation changed I saw what the car had hit. My legs stopped working almost completely.

It was Veronica.

Her car was sitting between us and as I closed the distance and walked around it she came fully into view.

Her body was twisted and crumpled like a discarded figure meant to represent a catalog of things the human body cannot do. I could see the bone of her right shin cutting through her jeans, and her left arm was wrapped so hard around the back of her neck that her hand fell on her right breast. Her head was craned back and her mouth hung widely open toward the sky. There was so much blood. As I looked at her I actually found it hard to discern whether she was laying on her back or her stomach, and this optical illusion made me feel sick. When you are confronted with something in the world that simply doesn’t belong, your mind tries to convince itself that it is dreaming, and to that end it provides you with that distinct sense of all things moving slowly as if through sap. In that moment I honestly felt that I would wake up any minute.

But I didn’t wake up.

I fumbled with my phone to call for help but I had no signal. I could see Veronica’s phone sticking out of what I thought was her front right pocket. I had no choice. Trembling, I reached for her phone and as I slid it out she moved and gasped for air so violently that it seemed as if she were trying to breathe in the whole world.

This startled me so much that I staggered back and fell onto the asphalt with her phone my hand. She was trying to adjust her body to get it into its natural position, but with every spasm and jerk I could hear the cracking and grinding of her bones. Without thinking I scrambled over to her and put my face over hers and just said,

“Veronica, don’t move. Don’t move, OK? Just stay still. Don’t move. Veronica, please just don’t move.”

I kept saying it but the words started to fall apart as tears came streaming down my face. I opened her phone. It still worked. It was still on the screen where she had saved my number and when I saw that I felt my heart break a little. I called 911 and waited with her, telling her that she would be ok, and feeling guilty for lying to her every time I said it.

When the sound of sirens tore through the air she seemed to become more alert. She had remained conscious since I found her, but now more of the light was coming back into her eyes. Her brain was still protecting her from pain, though it looked as if it was finally allowing her to become aware that something was terribly wrong with her. Her eyes rolled over to mine and her lips moved. She was struggling, but I heard her.

“Hhh…he…P…pi…picture. M…my picture…he took it.”

I didn’t understand what she meant, so I said the only thing I could “I’m so sorry, Veronica.”

I rode with her in the ambulance where she finally lost consciousness. I waited in the room that they had reserved for her. I still had her phone so I put it with her purse and I called my mom from the hospital phone. It was about 4am. I told her that I was fine, but that Veronica was not. She cursed at me and said she’d be right there, but I told her I wasn’t leaving until Veronica was out of surgery. She said she’d come anyway.

My mom and I didn’t speak that much. I told her I was sorry for lying, and she said that we’d talk about that later. I think that had we talked more in that room – if I had just told her about Boxes or the night with the raft; if she had just told me more of what she knew – I think that things would have changed. But we sat there in silence. She told me that she loved me and that I could call her whenever I wanted her to come get me.

As my mom was leaving Veronica’s parents rushed in. Her dad and my mom exchanged a few words that appeared to be quite serious while Veronica’s mother talked to the person at the desk. Her mother was a nurse, but didn’t work at this hospital. I’m sure that she had tried to get Veronica transferred, but her condition was prohibitive. While we waited the police came in and talked to each of us – I told them what happened, they made some notes, and then they left. She came out of surgery and 90% of her body was covered in a thick, white cast. Her right arm was free, but the rest of her was bound like a cocoon. She was still under, but I remembered how I felt when I had my cast before Kindergarten. I asked a nurse for a marker, but I couldn’t think of anything to write. I slept in a chair in the corner, and went home the next day.

I came back every afternoon for several days. At some point they had moved another patient into her room and set up a screen around Veronica’s bed to act as a partition. She didn’t seem to be feeling better, but she made more moments of lucidity. But even during these periods we wouldn’t really talk. Her jaw had been broken by the car, so the doctors had wired it shut. I sat with her for a while, but there was nothing much I could say. I got up and walked over to her. I kissed her on the forehead and she whispered through her clenched teeth,

“Josh …”

This surprised me a little, but I looked at her and said, “Has he not come to see you?”

“No …”

I found myself really irritated. “Even if Josh had been getting into trouble, he should still come see his sister,” I thought.

I was about to express this when she said, “No … Josh … he ran away … I should’ve told you.”

I felt my blood turn to ice.

“When? When did this happen?”

“When he was 13.”

“Did … did he leave a note or something?”

“On his pillow …”

She started crying and I followed her, but I think now we were crying for different reasons even if I didn’t realize it. At this point there were a lot of things I still didn’t remember about my childhood, and there were a lot of connections I hadn’t yet made. I told her I had to go but that she could text me any time.

I got a text from her the next day telling me not to come back. I asked why and she said she didn’t want me to see her like that again. I agreed begrudgingly. We texted each other every day, though I kept this from my mom because I knew that she didn’t like me talking to Veronica. Usually her texts were fairly short, and mostly only in response to more lengthy texts that I would send her. I tried calling her only once, I was sure she was screening her calls, but hoped I could hear her voice; she picked up but didn’t say anything – I could hear how labored her breathing was. About a week after she told me not to come see her anymore she sent me a text that simply read,

“I love you.”

I was filled with so many different emotions, but I responded by expressing the most prevalent one. I replied,

“I love you, too.”

She said that she wanted to be with me, and that she couldn’t wait until she could see me again. She told me that she had been released and was convalescing at her house. These exchanges carried on for several weeks, but every time I asked to come see her, she would say “soon.” I kept insisting and the following week she said that she thought she might be able to make it to the next midnight movie. I couldn’t believe it, but she insisted that she would try. I got a text from her the afternoon of the movie saying,

“See you tonight.”

I got Ryan to drive me since Chris’ parents had found out what had happened and said I wasn’t welcome at their house anymore. I explained to Ryan that she might be in bad shape, but that I really cared about her so to give us some space. He accepted that and we headed down there.

Veronica didn’t show.

I had saved a seat for her right next to me near the exit so she could get in and out easily, but 10 minutes into the movie a man slid into the chair. I whispered, “Excuse me, this seat is taken,” but he didn’t respond at all; he just stared ahead at the screen. I remember wanting to move because there was something wrong with the way he was breathing. I forfeited because I realized that she wasn’t coming.

I texted her the next day asking if she was alright and I enquired as to why she didn’t show the previous night. She responded with what would turn out to be the last message I’d receive from her. She simply said,

“See you again. Soon.”

She was delirious, and I was worried about her. I sent her several replies reminding her about the movie and saying it was no big deal but she just stopped replying. I grew increasingly upset over the next several days. I couldn’t reach her at her home because I didn’t know that number, and I wasn’t even sure where they lived. My mood became increasingly depressed, and my mother, who had been really nice as of late, asked me if I was OK. I told her that I hadn’t heard from Veronica in days, and I felt all the warmth leave her disposition.

“What do you mean?”

“She was supposed to meet me at the movies yesterday. I know it’s only been like 3 weeks since she got hit, but she said she would try to come, and after that she just stopped talking to me altogether. She must hate me.”

She looked confused, and I could read on her face that she was trying to tell if my mind had simply broken. When she saw that it hadn’t her eyes began to water and she pulled me toward her, embracing me. She was beginning to sob, but it seemed too intense a reaction to my problem, and I had no reason to think that she particularly cared for Veronica. She drew in a shuttering breath and then said something that still makes nauseous, even now. She said,

“Veronica’s dead, sweetheart. Oh God, I thought you knew. She died on the last day you visited her. Oh baby, she died weeks ago.”

She had completely broken down, but I knew it wasn’t because of Veronica. I broke the embrace and staggered backwards. My mind was swimming. This wasn’t possible. I had just exchanged messages with her yesterday. I could only think to ask one question, and it was probably the most trivial I could ask.

“Then why was her phone still on?”

She continued sobbing. She didn’t answer.

I exploded, “WHY DID IT TAKE THEM SO LONG TO SHUT OFF HER GODDAMNED PHONE?!”

Her crying broke enough to mutter, “The pictures …”

I would come to find out that her parents thought that her phone had been lost in the accident, despite the fact that I had put it in her purse the night she was brought to the hospital. When they retrieved her belongings the phone was not among them. They intended to contact the phone company at the end of the billing cycle to deactivate the line, but they received a call informing them of a massive impending charge for hundreds of pictures that had been sent from her phone. Pictures. Pictures that were all sent to my phone. Pictures that I never got because my phone couldn’t receive them. They learned that they were all sent after the night she died. They deactivated the phone immediately.

I tried not to think about the contents of those pictures. But I remember wondering for some reason whether I would have been in any of them.

My mouth went dry and I felt the painful sting of despair as I thought of the last message I received from her phone …

See you again. Soon.

6 notes

  1. comeplaywithusdanny posted this