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Our last summer together, we rode our bikes into the skyline, through the heat, the ripe and yellow sun, beating down on our backs, and tried escaping into the horizon. Dust kicked up behind us, staining our sneakers brown. Sunburned- freckled faces and gapped teeth, ‘cus we were young and the days were long.
Zachary Smits, a sort of a gentle giant, always stopped to pick up the ladybugs. Red and black creatures wiggling through the bottle green grass, shimmering in the early morning dew.
He held one up on his finger, dirt caked under his nails.
“You can hold it,” he said to me and the ladybug fluttered its wings and blew away in the breeze.
“Maybe next time,” he murmured.
It’s funny, because there wasn’t going to be a next time.
Those houses were finally beginning to crumble. Old 60’s style places that the weather had brutalized. On our bikes, life passed by in blurs: elderly men shuffling outside in their slippers to check their mail, little girls playing hopscotch, wiping powdery hands on their skirts, red-rimmed mouths from cherry popsicles, barking dogs galloping through sprinklers. We had to stop often because his bike was shabby and rusty and he didn’t have money to buy a new one.
“Daddy’s in jail,” he always said, “And Mama’s dead. Life’s not fair and there’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t ever forget that.”
I should have seen it then how sad he was.
And I remember those dreamy, fun-filled days, we rode right past, past those degenerating houses and up the hills where the weeds and poppies grew.
When I’d sit up by the creek days and weeks and months after he was gone, I would see where it happened in the reflection of the water: the whistle of the broken fan, still churning, spinning, wheeling, and the cord of the video game controller tied around the lights, lights sparked white and glowing, spitting shadows dancing along the wall. Under a pile of clothes, the radio seemed to be singing along to the tune of his broken soul. I wonder who found him in the morning; who opened his window to let out the stench of Autumn death.
When I close my own, I can’t understand why I didn’t see it in his eyes, as blue as the waving ocean, deep and beautiful. I’d go for a dip inside and pick up the pearly seashells and the paper-thin starfish. I’d swim through the schools of rainbow fish. Cup the moon in my hands and blow the bright stars around the night- sky. Arrange them into hope-tinted smoke signals. Smother that cry of pain for a scream for help. “SOS” I’d say as I lit it up like a neon sign in the dark.
Someone told me not to cry. I can’t remember who. But I can see them in my mind, can still feel their touches, feel my heart growing colder. My breath’s coming fast. It was like I was running, with nowhere to go, like I was falling, with nothing to land on.
Thump thump thump. Like a rabbit’s foot against the ground, a muted pounding inside my head, connecting hands and breaking away, shattering that whimsical belief of un-touch ability. At anytime the reaper can come out from the mist and snatch you. I didn’t know he didn’t want to live anymore. I stood by the coffin, my feet wedged in my too-small church shoes. I prayed to a dying star, a mighty God. If he’d heard me I think I would have seen him in the aqua sky, floating by in the clouds like little boats in the sea. I don’t know if this is memory, or if it is quite a dream, but I do remember picking a dandelion from my dress and holding it up to the sun. And between my pink-chipped nails, I blew those hundred little wishes into heaven.
That’s when I left him, as they dumped the last shovel-fulls of dirt over him. The same dirt that tarnished his worn-out Nikes.
I ran far away, into the little meadow behind the O’Dwyer’s chicken coops where the orange and yellow butterflies roamed, where I used to be able to catch one with my bare hands. But in my excitement, I sometimes squeezed too hard, and crushed the tiny creature. I would bury it under the oak tree, where the sun radiated spider-webs of light through the leaves. Zachary Smits was held to hard, couldn’t breathe and suffocated. Suffocated within the folds of life, like a child stifled and twisted in blankets. I’d still be pure and good and lovely. Still see the world through a sanguine kaleidoscope, if it weren’t for Zachary Smits. He strangled my innocence like he did himself.
I won’t forget him, someone who taught me love is genuine, unconditional, and all too fragile.
And sometimes I still can’t believe he was once real. If I imagine hard though, his spirit lives on in those tiny ladybugs, who skitter and tumble through the summer breeze, off into the horizon.