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One Real Smile
He sits in the library and monotonously writes the answers on a sheet of paper. The atmosphere is quiet, shut off from the shouting hallways and rambunctious students. The librarians watch like hawks over their small but strict domain. He stops writing the answers and looks straight at one of the librarians. It takes her a moment, but she sees him and his glare.
He hides a smirk. She pretends not to notice, but he knows she is startled. He looks at different corner of the library, next to where the 300s are, and begins his stare at a much more hostile-seeming woman. She immediately takes notice of him but does not falter. Instead, she makes her face even more intimidating as the staring intensifies. He’s happy she notices him.
But what is she thinking? She’s thinking I’m another student messing around. She’s thinking about what a great life it is, to be a child. Isn’t it true that youth is wasted on the young? It must be true if it’s practically a cliché. The anger in her assumed thoughts grows until he bursts.
He almost shouted .
But instead, he goes back to the work he is expected to do. The hallway is clearing and Jared picks up his books and bag. Before leaving the serenity of the library, he stops. The books in the room whisper to him…
We know, Jared. We know. He knows he can’t hear it, but he knows what they say. It doesn’t end until he runs out of the library. He looks through the window that separates the hall from the quiet room.
We know… We know…
No, they can’t know. He walks hurriedly away from the window as if trying to escape while not being noticed. The books in his bag shift uncomfortably, but he keeps heading toward English. The bell rings as he enters the room, everyone noticing his tardiness. That’s what they call it here, “tardy.” Jared found it funny that words like “absent” and “tardy” were only used in school, and they seemed to not have any further use. The teacher looks at him disapprovingly as he reaches his desk.
The lesson is uninteresting to Jared. Something about review, something he already knew. He walks in the hallway to his next class with a friend. He’s not too close with her, but they seem to keep the tradition of silently walking to their adjacent 5th periods together. The only words were usually a polite “Goodbye.” Perhaps, Jared thought, he would say something different today, like “Have a nice afternoon” or “See you later.” His plan to surprise her is interrupted.
“You’re so lucky, Jared,” she says. Jared stops for a second in the hallway as he contemplates the question. She stops and turns toward him.
“Why do you say that?” asks Jared.
“You just… You just are. I think you should appreciate it more.” She looks down at her feet as she puts some loose hairs over her ear.
“And what makes you think I don’t appreciate this hypothetical luck? For that matter, what makes you think I’m lucky as opposed to you?” Jared looks at her inquiringly, but he accidentally shows a bit of his anger. Some students look at them, confused but not concerned, as they walk around the small bubble that’s been created.
“I’m sorry, just forget I said anything.”
They don’t say goodbye. Jared begins walking home and sees his friend, well, perhaps not anymore, boarding the bus. He jogs over lazily to talk to her.
“I’m sorry,” says Jared. She looks at him, seemingly expectant.
“I forgive you,” she answers. She walks, smug, onto the bus. She tries to hide her smile, her enjoyment of success. Jared stares at the bus, terrified. The engine roars apathetically as the bus rolls away. Jared spots her in the window for an instance, and looks straight at her. He can’t tell if she sees him for the moment, but he hopes she does.
Jared walks away from where the busses follow each off the campus and truly begins home. His homework is easy and short. He’s haunted in his room by the books at his bedside. He tries not to hear them, not to listen, and eventually he convinces himself he doesn’t hear the taunting…
When he walks out of English class, he doesn’t expect to walk with his friend, but she assumes her position at his right side. She doesn’t say anything until they are right outside their respective classrooms. She turns similarly to how she did last time but this time more confidently, with purpose.
“What’s wrong, Jared?” Jared stops and looks at her face. Is it sincere? Or is it simply polite, expecting an equally polite response including “thank you.” Instead it’s Jared’s turn. He walks more closely to her and grabs her hands. He decides that it is sincere. Some of the students who spotted them yesterday now assume that they’re just two love-birds. He doesn’t care.
She’s much shorter than him, so she looks up at his face, incredulously, and smiles. It’s a sincere smile. It’s real. It knows. So Jared responds the only way he can.
“Yes.” He drops her hands and quickly moves to his classroom. He can’t surprise her anymore; she merely stands there for a second and then also turns to her classroom. For the first time, they see each other after 5th period. Now she’s frowning. Jared realizes he doesn’t know why.
“I’m moving, Jared.”
She moves the next day.
Jared is on his bed, looking at the ceiling. It’s white and plain and wide. He likes it. It doesn’t have any flaws, but it does not have any good qualities other than the former. When Jared was young, he used to imagine the ceiling to be a huge screen, and his eyes were the projector. He’d spent hours watching scenes in his favorite books and making up stories and plots of his own. He swears that without the ceiling he wouldn’t have liked books so much, because half of the motivation to finish a book was to be able to watch it.
There’s nothing playing on the ceiling except for one scene over and over… It isn’t from a book. It’s real, well, it was at one point.
“Is something wrong, Jared?”
It’s so brief ; he must watch it a thousand times before he falls asleep.
The books get louder each day, but he still goes to the library persistently. The library isn’t quiet anymore.
Someone comes up to sit next to Jared. He doesn’t look up. It’s Jared’s close friend, Michael. Michael doesn’t expect Jared to look up; he’s been in a slump for days.
“Man, is something up with you lately?” asks Michael.
“I don’t know,” responds Jared, his eyes still not leaving the paper.
“Well, everyone is wondering if something’s wrong.”
“Why do they care?” At this Jared looks up and crosses his arms. Michael was always popular with girls… Jared never knew why Michael wanted to be friends with him. Jared likes him for the simple reason that he was kind down to his heart. A little slow, but he can’t blame him for that.
But Michael doesn’t answer. He’s not fumbling for words, he’s just not answering. After an awkward minute, Jared is about to start his work again when Angela sits next to Michael. Jared knows that they were in the library this period, but he told them at the beginning of the year that he needed to be alone if he wanted to get any work done. They agreed and also separated from each other.
“Michael, don’t get worked up.” Jared didn’t even notice that he’s hurt Michael’s feelings. He found himself feeling bad. Michael stood and walked away.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Angela.
“I don’t know. Maybe I was just born this way.”
“No, you weren’t always like this. You used to be happy and care-free until... until… what, a week ago?” 8 days ago.
“Well, I’ve never changed.” Angela opens her mouth to speak again but stops herself. She doesn’t know the right thing to say. She smiles. It’s not a sincere smile. It’s not real. It doesn’t know. She pushes herself up from the wooden table and walks to talk to Michael.
Later, Jared approaches Michael.
“It’s alright… It’s just, I’ve been going through a lot lately, and I don’t need to lose my best friend too.” This time I smile; it’s sincere.
Jared watches his ceiling and this time listens to the books at the same time. They know. He pauses the scene at her smile. He wonders if he could zoom in, but the second he thinks it, it’s there. Her lips shine from her pink lip gloss. Her whole mouth seems happy, not as if just the corners are raised. It’s perfect, for just a moment.
He smells smoke.
The fire burned the hallway and his room. He didn’t take anything with him as he ran through the flames. And as he stood outside with his parents, he heard the books shouting.
Jared, we know! We know!
When he goes to school the next day there was the familiar, but not consoling, image of fire trucks surrounding the school. But somehow Jared knows that only the library had burned down. All he remembers of last night is watching her lips and something else… Flames. When he was running out of his house? Yes, it must be, he thought.
He walks into the school. There are teachers who are directing students to the auditorium. Jared listens. When he arrives there aren’t any seats left because the entire student body has to fit. Surely this is fire hazard, thinks Jared humorously. The flustered principal makes his way up to the stage.
“Last night there was an act of arson. The fire department has told us that somebody, presumably a student-” He glared at a group of giggling kids,”-started the fire with the books in the library. It did not spread, because the library is the only room with that amount of flammable material. Although there should have been more damage, it seems we lucked out on that nothing else was burned. Still this is a serious…”
Jared stops listening. He knows, but his face shows the common feeling of boredom in the room. He plays it well.
When the “meeting” ends each student was asked where he/she was at the estimated beginning of the fire. Jared says he was in his room all night doing homework. The interviewer tries to catch him off-guard with details, but Jared speaks his truth.
Instead of going to 1st period Jared goes to where he knows he can’t be. He somehow manages to slip past the teachers and into the blackened library. There aren’t any fire men there at the moment, so Jared has his peace.
Jared notices that it is a quiet place again. Then he hears the whispers of the book. Very faint. Very distant. Except this time they say something else…
Jared, we don’t know. We don’t know. Not anymore. No, you’re right. We never knew. Nobody did.
The sound of it increases, so he tells them. I have stress problems. I’m dyslexic and afraid to tell anyone. I’ve contemplated suicide. I don’t love my parents. I don’t believe in a god, but I pretend I do. I just can’t stand some people. I can get depressed. Sometimes I imagine punishing people for their wrongdoings. I judge people. I like to learn. I’m afraid of the dark. I’ve thought about murder…
With every knowing comes a flicker of a flame until finally he is consumed.