Penpal Part 6: Friends

The dramatic conclusion of the Penpal series by Dathan Auerbach as part of my 100 followers celebration. Enjoy!

Original Story

On the first day of Kindergarten my mother had elected to drive me to school; we were both nervous and she wanted to be there with me all the way up to the moment I walked into class. It took me a bit longer to get ready in the morning due to my still-mending arm. The cast came up a couple inches past my elbow which meant that I had to cover the entire arm with a specially-designed latex bag when I showered. The bag was built to pull tight around the opening in order to seal out any water that might otherwise destroy the cast. I had gotten really adept at cinching the bag myself; that morning, however, perhaps due to my excitement or nervousness, I hadn’t pulled the strap tight enough and halfway through the shower I could feel water pooling inside the bag around my fingers. I jumped out and tore the latex shield away, but could feel that the previously rigid plaster had become soft after absorbing the water.

Because there is no way to effectively clean the area between your body and a cast, the dead skin that would normally have fallen away merely sits there. When stirred by moisture like sweat it emits an odor, and apparently this odor is proportionate to the amount of moisture introduced, because soon after I began attempting to dry it I was struck by the powerful stench of rot. As I continued to frantically rub it with the towel it began to disintegrate. I was growing increasingly distressed – I had put as much effort as a child could into his very first day of school. I had sat with my mom picking out my clothes the night before; I had spent a great deal of time picking out my backpack; and I had become exceedingly excited to show everyone my lunchbox that had the Ninja Turtles on it. I had fallen into my mom’s habit of calling these children I hadn’t yet met my “friends” already, but as the condition of my cast worsened I became deeply upset at the thought that surely I wouldn’t be able to apply that label to anyone by the time this day was over.

Defeated, I showed my mom.

It took 30 minutes to get most of the moisture out while working to preserve the rest of the cast. To address the problem of the smell my mom cut slivers off a bar of soap and slid them down into the cast, and then rubbed the remainder of the soap on the outside in an attempt to cocoon the rancid smell inside of a more pleasant one. By the time we arrived at the school my classmates were already engaged in their second activity and I was shoehorned into one of the groups. I wasn’t made very clear on what the guidelines of the activity were and within about five minutes I had violated the rules so badly that each member of the group complained to the teacher and asked why I had to be in their group. I had brought a marker to school hopes that I could collect some signatures or drawings on my cast next to my mother’s, and I suddenly felt very foolish for having even put the marker in my pocket that morning.

Kindergarteners had the lunchroom to themselves at my elementary school, but some of the tables were off limits, so I didn’t have to sit alone. I was self-consciously picking at the fraying ends of my cast when a kid sat across from me.

“I like your lunchbox,” he said.

I could tell he was making fun of me, and I grew really angry; in my mind that lunchbox was the last good thing about my day. I didn’t look up from my arm, and I felt a burning in my eyes from the tears that I was holding back. I looked up to tell the kid to leave me alone, but before I could get the words out I saw something that made me pause.

He had the exact same lunchbox.

I laughed. “I like your lunchbox too!”

“I think Michelangelo’s the coolest,” he said while miming Nunchuck moves.

I was in the middle of rebutting by saying that Raphael was my favorite when he knocked his open carton of milk off the table and onto his lap.

I tried very hard to stifle my laughter since I didn’t know him at all, but the struggling look on my face must have struck him as funny because he started laughing first. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about my cast, and thought that this person would hardly notice now anyway. Just then, I thought to try my luck.

“Hey! Do you wanna sign my cast?”

As I pulled out the marker he asked me how I broke it. I told him that I fell out of the tallest tree in my neighborhood; he seemed impressed. I watched him laboriously draw his name, and when he was done I asked him what it said.

He told me it said “Josh.”

Josh and I had lunch together every day, and whenever we could we partnered up for projects. I helped him with his handwriting, and he took the blame when I wrote “Fart!” on the wall in permanent marker. I would come to know other kids, but I think I knew even then that Josh was my only real friend.

Moving a friendship outside of school when you are 5 years old is actually more difficult than most remember. The day we launched our balloons we had such a good time that I asked Josh if he wanted to come to my house the next day to play. He said he did and that he’d bring some of his toys; I said that we could also go exploring and maybe swim in the lake. When I got home I asked my mom and she said it would be fine. My enthusiasm was boundless until I realized that I had no way of contacting Josh to tell him. I spent the whole weekend worrying that our friendship would be dissolved by Monday.

When I saw him after the weekend I was relieved to find that he had run into the same obstacle and thought it was funny. Later that week we both remembered to write down our phone numbers at home and then exchange them at school. My mom spoke with Josh’s dad, and it was decided that my mom would pick up Josh and myself from school that Friday. We alternated this basic structure nearly every weekend; the fact that we lived so close made things much easier on our parents who seemed to work constantly.

When my mom and I moved across the city at the end of 1st grade I was sure that our friendship had seen its last day; as we drove away from the house I had lived in my whole life I felt a sadness that I knew wasn’t just about a house – I was saying goodbye to my friend forever. But, Josh and I – to my surprise and delight – stayed close.

Despite the fact that we spent the majority of our time apart and only saw one another on weekends, we remained remarkably similar as we grew. Our personalities coalesced, our senses of humor complimented each other’s, and we would often find that we had started liking new things independently. We even sounded enough alike that when I stayed with Josh he would sometimes call my mom pretending to be me; his success rate was impressive. My mom would sometimes joke that the only way she could tell us apart sometimes was by our hair – he had straight, dirty-blonde hair like his sister, while I had curly, dark brown hair like my mother.

One would think that the thing most likely to drive two young friends apart would be what’s out of their control; however, I think the catalyst of our gradual disengagement was my insistence that we sneak out to my old house to look for Boxes. The next weekend I invited Josh over to my house, in keeping with our tradition of alternating houses, but he said that he wasn’t really feeling up to it. We started seeing progressively less of one another over the next year or so; it had gone from once a week, to once a month, to once every couple months.

For my 12th birthday my mom threw a party for me. I hadn’t made that many friends since we’d moved, so it wasn’t a surprise party since my mom had no idea who to invite. I told the handful of kids I’d become acquainted with and called Josh to see if he wanted to come. Originally, he said that he didn’t think he could make it, but the day before the party he called me to say that he’d be there. I was really excited because I hadn’t seen him in several months.

The party went pretty well. My biggest concern was that Josh and the other kids wouldn’t get along, but they seemed to like each other well enough. Josh was surprisingly quiet. He hadn’t brought me a gift and apologized for that, but I told him it wasn’t a big deal – I was just glad that he was able to make it. I tried to start several conversations with him, but they seemed to keep reaching dead ends. I asked him what was wrong; I told him that I didn’t get why things had become so awkward between us – they were never like that before. We used to hang out almost every weekend and talk on the phone every couple days. I asked him what happened to us. He looked up from staring at his shoes and just said,

“You left.”

Just after he said that my mom yelled in from the other room that it was time to open presents. I forced a smile and walked into the dining room as they sang “Happy Birthday.” There were a couple of wrapped boxes and a lot of cards since most of my extended family lived out of state. Most of the gifts were silly and forgettable, but I remember that Brian gave me a Mighty Max toy shaped like a snake that I kept for years afterwards. My mom was insistent that I open all the cards that had been brought and thank each person who had given one because several years before on Christmas I had torn through the wrapping paper and envelopes with such fervor that I had destroyed any possibility of discerning who had sent which gift or what amount of money. We separated the ones that had been sent by mail and the ones that had been brought that day so my friends wouldn’t have to sit through me opening cards from people they had never met. Most of the cards from my friends had a couple dollars in them, and the ones from my family members contained larger bills.

One envelope didn’t have my name written on it, but it was in the pile so I opened it. The card had a generic floral pattern on its face and seemed to be a card that had been received by someone else who was now recycling it for my birthday because it was actually a little dingy. I actually appreciated the idea that it was a reused card since I’d always thought that cards were silly. I angled it so that the money wouldn’t fall to the floor when I opened it, but the only thing inside was the message that had come printed in the card.

“I Love You.”

Whoever had given me this card hadn’t written anything in it, but they had circled the message in pencil a couple times.

I chuckled a little and said, “Gee, thanks for the awesome card, mom.”

She looked at me quizzically and then turned her attention to the card. She told me it wasn’t from her and seemed amused as she showed my friends, looking at their faces trying to discern who had played the joke. None of the kids stepped forward, so my mom said,

“Don’t worry sweetheart, at least you know now that two people love you.”

She followed that with an extremely prolonged and excruciating kiss on my forehead that transformed the group’s bewilderment into hysteria. They were all laughing so it could have been any of them, but Mike seemed to be laughing the hardest. To become a participant rather than the subject of the gag I said to him that just because he had given me that card he shouldn’t think that I’d kiss him later. We all laughed, and as I looked at Josh I saw he was finally smiling.

“Well, I think that gift might be the winner, but you have a couple more to open.”

My mom slid another present in front of me. I was still feeling the tremors of suppressed chuckles in my abdomen as I tore the colorful paper away. When I saw the gift I had no need to suppress the laughter anymore. My smile dropped as I looked at what I’d been given.

It was a pair of walkie-talkies.

“Well go on! Show everyone!”

I held them up, and everyone seemed to approve, but as I drew my attention to Josh I could see that he had turned a sickly shade of white. We locked eyes for a moment and then he turned and walked into the kitchen. As I watched him dial a number on the corded phone attached to the wall my mom whispered in my ear that she knew that Josh and I didn’t talk as much since one of the walkie-talkies had broken, so she thought I’d like it. I was filled with an intense appreciation for my mom’s thoughtfulness, but this feeling was easily overpowered by the emotions resurrected by the returning memories I’d tried so hard to bury.

When everyone was eating cake I asked Josh who he had called. He told me he wasn’t feeling well so he called his dad to come get him. I understood that he wanted to leave, but I told him that I wished we could hang out more. I extended one of the walkie-talkies to him, but he put his hand up in refusal.

Dejected, I said, “Well thanks for coming, I guess. I hope I’ll see you before my next birthday.”

“I’m sorry … I’ll try to call you back more often. I really will.” he said.

The conversation stagnated as we waited by my door for his dad. I looked at his face. Josh seemed genuinely remorseful that he hadn’t made more of an effort. His mood seemed suddenly bolstered by an idea that had struck him. He told me that he knew what he’d get me for my birthday – it would take a while, but he thought that I would really like it. I told him it wasn’t a big deal, but he insisted. He seemed in better spirits and apologized for being such a drag at my party. He said that he was tired – that he hadn’t been sleeping well. I asked him why that was as he opened the door in response to his dad’s honking in the driveway. He turned back toward me and waved goodbye as he answered my question,

“I think I’ve been sleepwalking.”

That was the last time I saw my friend, and a couple months later he was gone.

Over the past several weeks the relationship between my mother and I has grown increasing strained due to my attempts to learn the details of my childhood. It’s often the case that one cannot know the breaking point of a thing until that thing fractures, and after the last conversation with my mother I imagine that we will spend the rest of our lives attempting to repair what had taken a lifetime to build. She had put so much energy into keeping me safe, both physically and psychologically, but I think that the walls meant to insulate me from harm were also protecting her emotional stability. As the truth came pouring out the last time we spoke I could hear a trembling in her voice that I think was a reverberation of the collapse of her world. I don’t imagine my mother and I will talk very much anymore, and while there are still some things I don’t understand, I think I know enough.

After Josh disappeared, his parents had done all that they could to find him. From the very first day, the police had suggested that they contact all of Josh’s friends’ parents to see if he was with them. They did this, of course, but no one had seen him or had any idea of where he might be. The police had been unable to turn over any new information about Josh’s whereabouts, despite the fact that they had received several anonymous phone calls from a woman urging them to compare this case with the stalking case that had been opened about 6 years before.

If Josh’s mother’s grip on the world loosened when her son vanished, it broke when Veronica died. She had seen many people die at the hospital, but there is no amount of desensitization that can fortify a person against the death of her own child. She would visit Veronica twice a day since she was recuperating at a different hospital; once before her shift, and once afterward. On the day Veronica died, her mother was late leaving work, and by the time she arrived at her daughter’s hospital Veronica had already passed. This was too much for her and over the next couple weeks she became increasingly more unstable; she would often wander outside yelling for both Josh and Veronica to come home, and there were several times her husband found her wandering around my old neighborhood in the middle of the night – half-clothed and frantically searching for her son and daughter.

Due to his wife’s mental deterioration, Josh’s dad could no longer travel for work and began taking construction jobs that were less well-paying, so he could be closer to home. When they began expanding my old neighborhood more, about 3 months after Veronica died, Josh’s dad applied for every position and was hired. He was qualified to lead the build sites, but he took a job as a laborer helping to build frames and clean up the sites and whatever else was needed. He even took odd jobs that would occasionally come up; mowing lawns, repairing fences – anything that to keep from traveling. They began clearing the woods in the area next to the tributary to transform the land into inhabitable property. Josh’s dad was tasked with the responsibility of leveling the recently deforested lot, and this job guaranteed him at least several weeks of work.

On the third day, he arrived at a spot that he could not level. Each time he’d drive over it, it would remain lower than all the surrounding land. Frustrated he got off the machine to survey the area. He was tempted to simply pack more dirt into the depression, but he knew that would only be an aesthetic and temporary solution. He had worked construction for years and knew that root systems from large trees that had been recently cut down would often decompose leaving weaknesses in the soil that would manifest as weaknesses in the foundations above. He weighed his options and elected to dig a little with a shovel in case the problem was shallow enough to fix without needing a machine that would have to be brought over from another site. And as my mother described where this was, I knew I had been at that spot both before the soil was broken and before it had been filled in.

I felt a tightening in my chest.

He dug a small hole about 3 feet down until his shovel collided with something hard. He smashed his shovel against it repeatedly in an attempt to gauge the thickness of the root and the density of the network when suddenly his shovel plunged through the resistance.

Confused, he dug the hole wider. After about a half-hour of excavating he found himself standing on a brown blanket-covered box about seven feet long and four feet wide. Our minds work to avoid dissonance – if we hold a belief strongly enough our minds will forcefully reject conflicting evidence so that we can maintain the integrity of our understanding of the world.

Up until the very next moment, despite what all sense would have indicated – despite the fact that some small but suffocated part of him understood what was supporting his weight – this man believed, he knew, his son was still alive.

My mom received a call at 6 p. m. She knew who it was, but she couldn’t understand what he was saying. But what she did comprehend made her leave immediately.

“DOWN HERE … NOW … SON … PLEASE GOD.”

When she arrived she found Josh’s dad sitting perfectly still with his back to the hole. He was holding the shovel so tightly it seemed that it might snap, and he was staring straight ahead with eyes that looked as lifeless as a shark’s. He wouldn’t respond to any of her words, and only reacted when she tried to gently take the shovel from him.

He dragged his eyes slowly to hers and just said, “I don’t understand.” He repeated this as if he had forgotten all other words, and my mother could hear him still muttering it as she walked past him to look in the hole.

She told me she wished she had gouged her eyes out before she faced downward into that crater, and I told her that I knew what she was about to say and that she need not continue. I looked at her face and it was expressing a look of such intense despair that it caused my stomach to turn. I realized that she had known of this for almost ten years and was hoping that she’d never have to tell me. As a result she never came up with the proper arrangement of words to describe what she saw, and as I sit here I’m met with the same difficulty of articulation.

Josh was dead. His face was sunken in and contorted in such a way that it was as if the misery and hopelessness of all the world had been transferred to it. The assaulting smell of decay rose from the crypt, and my mother had to cover her nose and mouth to keep from vomiting. His skin was cracked, almost crocodilian, and a stream of blood that had followed these lines had dried on his face after pooling and staining the wood around his head. His eyes lay half-lidded facing straight up. She said by the look of him he had not been long-dead, and thus time had not brought the mercy of degradation to erase the pain and terror that was now etched into his face. She said it was as if he had fixed his gaze right on her, his open mouth offering an all-too-late plea for help. The rest of his body, however, wasn’t visible.

Someone else was covering it.

He was large and lay face-down on top of Josh, and as my mother’s mind stretched itself to take in what her eyes were attempting to tell her she became aware of the significance of the way in which he laid.

He was holding Josh.

Their legs lay frozen by death, but entangled like vines in some lush, tropical forest. One arm rested under Josh’s neck only to wrap around his body so that they might lay closer still.

As the sun passed through the trees its light became reflected by something pinned to Josh’s shirt. My mother stooped to one knee and raised the collar of her shirt over her nose so that she might block out the smell. When she saw what had caught the sun her legs abandoned her and she nearly fell into the tomb.

It was a picture…

It was a picture of me as a child.

She staggered backwards gasping and trembling and collided with Josh’s father who still sat facing away from the hole. She understood why he had called her, but she could not bring herself to tell him what she had kept from everyone for all these years. Josh’s family never knew about the night I had woken up in the woods. She knew now that she should have told them, but to tell him now would help nothing. As she sat there resting her back against Josh’s dad’s. He spoke.

“I can’t tell my wife. I can’t tell her that our little boy—-” his speech staggered in fits as he pressed his wet face into his dirt-caked hands. “She couldn’t bear it…”

After a moment he stood up still shuttering and lumbered toward the grave. With a final sob he stepped down into the coffin. Josh’s dad was a big man, but not as big as the man in the box. He grabbed the back of the man’s collar and pulled hard – it was as if he intended to throw the man out of the grave in a singular motion. But the collar ripped and the body fell back down on top of his son.

“YOU MOTHER FUCKER!”

He grabbed the man by the shoulders and heaved him back until he was off of Josh and sat awkwardly but upright against the wall of the grave. He looked at the man and staggered back a step.

“Oh God … Oh God, no. No, no, no please God, PLEASE GOD NO.”

In a struggling but powerful movement he lifted and pushed the corpse completely out of the ground and they both heard the sound of glass rolling against wood. It was a bottle. He handed it to my mother.

It was ether.

“Oh Josh.” He sobbed. “My boy … my baby boy. Why is there so much blood?! WHAT DID HE DO TO YOU?!”

As my mother looked at the man who now lay facing upwards, she realized she was facing the person who had haunted our lives for over a decade. She had imagined him so many times, always evil and always terrifying, and the cries of Josh’s father seemed to confirm her worst fears. But as she stared at his face she thought that this didn’t look like who she imagined – this was just a man.

As she looked at his frozen expression, it actually looked serene. The corners of his lips were turned up only slightly; she saw that he was smiling. Not the expected smile of a maniac from a film or horror story; not the smile of a demon, or the smile of a fiend. This was the smile of contentment or satisfaction. It was a smile of bliss.

It was a smile of love.

As she looked down from his face she saw a tremendous wound on his neck from where the skin had been ripped out. She was at first relieved when she realized that the blood had not been Josh’s. Perhaps he had suffered less. But this comfort was short-lived as she realized just how wrong she was. She brought a hand up to her mouth and whispered, almost as if she was afraid to remind the world what had happened,

“They were alive.”

Josh must have bitten the man’s neck in an attempt to get free, and although the man had died Josh couldn’t move him. I began crying when I thought of how long he might have laid there.

She looked through the man’s pockets for some kind of identification, but she only found a piece of paper. On it was a drawing of a man holding hands with a small boy and next to the boy were initials.

My initials.

I’d like to think that she was remembering that part of the story inaccurately, but I’ll never know for sure.

As Josh’s father carried his son out of the grave my mom slid the piece of paper into her pocket. He kept muttering that his son’s hair had been dyed. She saw that it had – it was now dark brown, and she noticed that he was dressed oddly; his clothes were all far too small. After Josh’s dad delicately laid his boy on the soft dirt he began gently pressing his hands against his son’s pants to feel his pockets; he heard a crinkle. Carefully he retrieved a folded piece of paper from Josh’s pocket. He looked at it but was vexed. Absently, he handed it to my mother, but she didn’t recognize it either. I asked her what it was.

She told me it was a map, and I felt my heart shatter. He was finishing the map – that must have been his idea for my birthday present. I found myself strangely hoping that he hadn’t been taken while expanding it – as if that would somehow matter now.

She heard Josh’s father grunt and looked to see him pushing the man’s body back into the ground. As he walked back toward the machine that had found this spot for him he put his hand on a canister of gasoline and paused with his back toward my mother.

“You should go.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. I did this.”

“You can’t think like that. There was nothi—”

He interjected flatly, almost with no emotion at all. “About a month ago a guy approached me as I was cleaning up the site on the new development a block over. He asked me if I wanted to make some extra money, and because my wife’s not working right now I accepted. He told me that some kids had dug a bunch of holes on his property and he offered me $100 to fill them in. He said that he wanted to take some pictures for the insurance company first, but if I came back after 5:00pm the next day that would be fine. I thought this guy was a sucker since I knew clearing that lot was coming up so someone would’ve had to do it anyway, but I needed the money so I agreed. I didn’t think he even had $100, but he put the bill in my hand, and I did the job the next day. I’ve been so exhausted that I didn’t even think about it after it was done. I didn’t think about it until today when I pulled that same guy off of my son.”

He pointed at the grave and his emotions started to push through as he broke into a sob.

“He paid me $100 so that I would bury him with my boy…”

It was as if saying it aloud forced him to accept what had happened, and he collapsed onto the ground in tears. My mother could think of nothing to say and stood there in silence for what felt like a lifetime. She finally asked what he would do about Josh.

“His final resting place won’t be here with this monster.”

As she looked back when she reached her car she could see black smoke billowing and diffusing against the amber sky and she hoped against all hope that Josh’s parents would be ok.

I left my mom’s house without saying much else. I told her that I loved her and that I would talk to her soon, but I don’t know what “soon” means for us. I got into my car and left.

I understood now why the events of my childhood had stopped years ago. As an adult, I now saw the connections that were lost on a child who tends to see the world in snapshots rather than a sequence. I thought about Josh. I loved him then, and I love him even still. I miss him more now that I know I’ll never see him again, and I find myself wishing that I had hugged him the last time I saw him. I thought about Josh’s parents – how much they had lost and how quickly that loss had come. They don’t know about my connection to any of this, but I could never look them in the eyes now. I thought about Veronica. I had only really come to know her later in my life, but for those brief few weeks I think I had really loved her. I thought about my mother. She had tried so hard to protect me and was stronger than I would ever be. I tried not to think about the man and what he had done with Josh for more than two years.

Mostly I just thought about Josh. Sometimes I wish that he never sat across from me that day in Kindergarten; that I’d never known what it was like to have a real friend. Sometimes I like to dream that he’s in a better place, but that’s only a dream, and I know that. The world is a cruel place made crueler still by man. There would be no justice for my friend, no final confrontation, no vengeance; it had been over for almost a decade for everyone but me now.

I miss you, Josh. I’m sorry you chose me, but I’ll always cherish my memories of you.

We were explorers.

We were adventurers.

We were friends.

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