WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE NOT THERE

I wouldn’t say I was a happy kid. I wouldn’t say I was especially sad, either. Or loud. Or angry. Or in any way frightening. I was pretty much the average middle school kid. I made mostly B’s, which I think is more average than C’s, because people would think you were an idiot if you only got C’s. I also scored right in the fiftieth percentile in all of the Presidential Fitness tests, except flexibility, where I was above average, but I don’t think my flexibility made me noticeable. That was me. Then my cousin Nate, who lived in the next county, went into school one day right before graduation in a white suit that his parents had bought him for the Snow Ball dance the year before, and using his father’s shotgun, he killed eight kids and one teacher.

 

All summer, I didn’t tell anybody, even Zach, who was my best friend even though I was only one of his everyday friends, but somehow people found out. When school started back up in the fall, someone must have sent a memo around to the teachers because they looked at me funny and did things like pat me on the shoulder when they walked past. The rest of the students found out, too, and people who never noticed me before looked at me in the halls the way they stared at Jeremy Patterson, who seemed to throw up every other day—like I was about to do something that they didn’t want to see.

 

One day in art class, the sun came through the blinds and hit me right on my eyes so I shut them and it felt so warm and nice that I fell asleep. When I woke up, there wasn’t much class left, so I covered my sheet of paper in black paint. I was going to throw some yellow stars on there with a sponge when Ms. Mandrell, the art teacher, saw my easel and sent me out into the hall. I waited there for her, but she didn’t come out. I tried the door to see if maybe she’d forgotten about me, but it was locked. I was just about to knock when a short man with a round belly and watery eyes came shuffling down the hall and smiled when he said my name. He asked me to come with him, but it wasn’t the kind of question that needed an answer, and he walked me down to an office I’d never been to, in the basement of the school, right next to the furnace room where I heard kids went to smoke pot and have sex.

 

Everything in the office was brown: the chairs, the walls, the desk where the man had left my file opened. There were no windows, and the room smelled very strongly of black licorice. He introduced himself as Gary and told me he was the school counselor, and I thought to myself that if anyone went to him because they were going to kill themselves, this room would do nothing to talk them out of it. But I didn’t tell him that. Instead, he asked me to talk about Nate, and I told him about when we were playing football one Thanksgiving and my uncle threw a pass that Nate kept running to catch, even when we started yelling for him to look out for the tree in their yard, but he didn’t hear us because he really wanted to catch that ball, you could tell, and he ran right into the tree and we laughed and laughed until we realized half of his ear had torn almost clean off and he had to get about a hundred stitches. I leaned back in the chair and felt a broken spring poking me in the back. Gary wrote while I talked, and then he asked me how it made me feel, and I said sick, because I don’t really like to see blood and I will never be able to get rid of the image of that piece of ear hanging from his head, flopping around as he screamed.

 

Even though I didn’t like the room or the black licorice smell that stayed on my coat and my clothes, I liked spending time with Gary a lot more than sitting in class being average and having people look at me like I belonged in a zoo. The next day, I made an experiment: when Biology got really boring and we were supposed to be labeling a diagram of the parts of a cow’s eye, I asked Mr. Kendall if I could go see Gary. Mr. Kendall wrote me a pass without saying anything, but he gave me one of the smiles where your lips don’t move a whole lot.

 

After that, I went to see Gary every day, whenever I was bored or hadn’t done my homework or didn’t want to take a test. Gary didn’t let me just tell stories about Nate for very long, though, and so I started to say things about being angry or sad. Sometimes they were true. Mostly they were not. I liked the sound of his pen scratching on the paper, and the way he said, “Mmm-hmm.” Sometimes I would tell Gary I didn’t feel like talking, and he would tell me about his family, which was weird because you don’t think of teachers as having families, except Mrs. Dawes, whose son Connor was in my class. It got to be that I thought Gary had replaced Zach as my best friend.

 

The looks got worse. I could hear little pieces of what they said as I walked down the halls. The word I heard most was “freak.” So I stopped asking to see Gary during class. I would sometimes check in on him during lunch or midmorning break, to say hello and smell that licorice smell. Then I stopped going at all.

 

But after about a month of not seeing Gary, someone wrote “killer” on my locker in black Sharpie marker. Later that same day, I accidentally stabbed myself with my pencil when I reached into my bag for something and the pencil had been standing straight up, as if it was waiting for my hand. Everyone in Social Studies started whispering when I asked to go to the nurse, because the blood was running down my arm and dripping off my elbow.

 

I was in English class, about to stand up to play Duncan with a bandaged hand in Act I, Scene ii of Macbeth, when the principal, Doctor Landry, came and motioned for me to come out of class. He asked me about my locker, and I said it made it easier to spot—those big letters stood out against all of the baby blue of the hallways. Doctor Landry didn’t think that was funny, and I didn’t either, but sometimes adults thought what I said was hilarious and they’d laugh their heads off at something I said that wasn’t supposed to be a joke. For some reason, I thought this might be one of those times, but Doctor Landry gave me this strange look and asked me if I knew where Gary’s office was. Then he wrote me a pass and told me I could use it whenever I wanted. He told me it was like a golden ticket in Willy Wonka, though that only got that kid with bad hair in once, and this was good forever, so I didn’t think it was a good comparison. But I thanked him anyway.

 

I walked faster, thinking of that brown room—how still the air got, how that licorice smell would stay on my clothes for the rest of the day. Gary, his tie covered in powdered sugar, looked at the bandage on my hand and then at the look on my face, like he knew I was lying. I hadn’t said anything, but I knew everyone thought I’d done it on purpose, that I was that crazy. I could tell Gary was sizing me up to see if he thought I would do something to somebody else. If I would ever hurt anyone. He stared at me but he didn’t say anything. I got the feeling he was waiting for me to tell him what happened, but I couldn’t—not, I thought, without losing my golden ticket. Finally I sat down and we didn’t talk until school let out. When the bell rang, Gary put a brown paper bag that had been flattened and folded into his public television totebag, and motioned for me to leave.

 

The next day, he talked to me as if nothing had happened. That day we talked about spring. I think he had missed me. So I kept seeing Gary whenever I felt like it, and every once in a while I did something crazy, like lay down on the floor during Spanish or press my face against the window of the cafeteria for a half hour. The other kids eventually stopped paying me any attention, and all the whispering turned to matter-of-fact reports: “Now he’s licking the floor.” I could tell Gary wanted to ask why I did those things, and I even think he knew why I did, but, again, he never said anything.

 

I came into the brown room one day, the last school day before Easter, drinking a Snapple, and I could tell from Gary’s serious look that something bad was about to happen. He asked me if I understood what had happened last year, and I said I didn’t think anyone understood. Gary went silent. He sighed a lot, and I waited for something. He got up when someone knocked at the door, looked through the crack, said a few quiet words, then stepped out into the hall and shut the door behind him. I stood up out of the chair with the broken spring and looked at the things on his desk. Inside my file was a folded piece of newspaper. It was faded and smudged, but there they were, the school pictures of the kids and the teacher that Nate had killed.

 

I started to cry. Gary came back from the bathroom and I didn’t have time to hide the paper. I stood there, sobbing like a baby. I think for some reason this made Gary feel better. But I thought I should stop going for a while, maybe. Maybe stop pulling crazy stunts that Gary must have called my parents about, because even they had started looking at me like I had a gun pointed at them.

 

On Easter, my mother got sick of saying no to my aunt about going over to their place, so we got dressed up and ate Easter dinner at their house. The house looked the same. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t expect everything to be pretty much the way I’d last seen it. My aunt and uncle seemed louder, like they were making up for Nate not being there with volume, but that was the only difference. That, and my aunt bought dessert from the store instead of making it.

 

After dinner we all sat on their deck, and I was pretty tired, but my uncle was talking to my dad and my aunt was talking to my mother. I sat on the railing of the deck, which would have normally gotten me yelled at, but no one seemed to notice. My mother got up to go to the bathroom, and I could tell she was crying because her mascara ran down her cheeks. When she left, my aunt called to me. I couldn’t see her because it was too dark at the table because of the umbrella.

 

I sat down across from her. She was eating a fudgesicle, which made me mad because no one offered me a fudgesicle and we’d already had dessert. She asked me about school. Her voice sounded far away. I talked about my classes and my teachers, careful not to say anything that might upset her.

 

She said she couldn’t hear me and asked me to come closer, and when I got up and walked around the table, she slid her chair out and grabbed me by the wrists. She told me that she wished she’d had another son, one just like me, quiet, who would have kept Nate company. I wanted to tell her that Nate hadn’t done what he did because he didn’t have a brother, but I didn’t. She pulled me closer and closer, until I was sitting on her lap. We were almost the same size. She kept eating her fudgesicle.

 

I told her that my team won the volleyball tournament in gym class (it was a lie, of course. I spent every gym class with Gary), and she took a bite of her fudgesicle, and as she chewed on it the way someone chews on something cold, she didn’t look at me, but she said, “I can see why he did it. You know? Who doesn’t feel that way sometimes?”

 

I wanted to say, not me. I had tried to convince Gary for most of the school year that I felt that way sometimes, and I could tell he never believed me. What my aunt said made me feel hot, and that night I lay down on the cold floor of the bathroom thinking I was going to throw up and that I needed to tell Gary.

 

The next two days I didn’t go to school because I had a fever, the kind with chills and sweating. But when I did go back I went straight to Gary’s office right after homeroom, and when I sat down in my familiar chair, I told him what my aunt had said and how it made me so sick. Usually when I told Gary something like that he would look at me real hard, and then ask me why I thought Nate killed those kids and that teacher. I knew why—his girlfriend broke up with him and he was an idiot. And his dad was an even bigger idiot for not keeping his gun safe—every kid knows where their parents’ secrets are. Even I knew where he kept the key—in an old sock in the back left corner of his top drawer, just like I knew that he had three old Playboys in a box under a piece of plywood under his workbench.

 

But Gary didn’t say anything. Instead, he stood up, took me by my shoulders, and nodded his head. That was it. I never went back to his office, but I sometimes saw him in the hall, and smelled the licorice smell or thought of the chair’s broken spring against my back and the warm feeling I got when I knew that while Gary and I were sitting still, bells were ringing and kids were flooding the halls and crowding into classrooms and sitting back down and then listening and writing and trying to remember.

 

 

By James Scott

3 Responses to “WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE NOT THERE”

  1. Taylor Rogers says:

    I love the voice of the narrator. It’s perfectly naive in a way that’s funny because I think it’s easy for everyone to remember thinking or feeling that way, not understanding certain things, but then understanding so much more than those adults around you. Beautiful story.

  2. Chip Cheek says:

    Great story. The last line is amazing.

  3. Jane Dykema says:

    I keep coming back to this amazing story. The voice is unforgettable.