The first hint: “He always had a cookie in his hand.”
I pause, my pen frozen in midair inches above my notepad. Looking up, I meet eyes with the teenage girl. “Pardon?” I ask.
“He always had a cookie in his hand,” She repeats, her face flushing ever so slightly.
“Could you expand on that?”
She rocks back and forth on her heels for several moments, her blonde hair falling over her face, obviously embarrassed over her statement. Finally, she looks up, “Well, Mark had a sweet-tooth and, well, it seemed like he always had a cookie in his hand anytime I saw him… and I… he always gave me one if I asked.”
I stare at the young girl again as she turns away, noting the glint of tears in her eyes. I decide to leave it at that, nodding my thanks to her as I scribble down the first hint on my notepad.
The second hint: “He was my best friend… and… and he was kind… and stuff…you know.”
This one comes from a pimply teenage boy with a hoodie and baggy jeans. He swipes at his eyes repeatedly and I refrain from asking him to expand, leaving him to weep by himself, as I get the feeling that grieving in isolation is his preference.
The third hint: “He always held the door open for me.”
This one is thrown over the shoulder of a stern-faced, elderly, woman as she writes furiously on a chalkboard. Peering over her ramrod-straight back, all I can make out are pasty scribbles smudged with the teardrops which she tries, but fails miserably, to keep at bay.
The fourth hint: His home.
I plow through knee-high snow to get to the doorway. His home isn’t the only one knee-deep in snow, though, it’s every home in the neighborhood, as if no one on his street had the heart to perform such a commonplace task as shoveling. In fact, if I didn’t known any better, I’d say the whole neighborhood was abandoned. There are no children playing in the snow, no old folks walking their dogs, no bands of teenagers wandering about, trying to snitch a few bucks shoveling walkways. There is no sign of life throughout the entire street, save a week-old snowman that has lost his hat and face as his semi-melted body leaves him bent over backwards, a mere skeleton, really, of an actual snowman.
I turn towards the house. A minivan sits in the driveway with frost nearly an inch thick encompassing it’s hood and mounds of snow enveloping its tires. The house is in very much the same state. The windows are dark, the blinds drawn, the door shut tight, the snow appearing to form a barrier between the house and the outside world. The steps creek as I climb them nimbly and stand on the porch. No face peers out of the window to wonder at who the man on the porch is. The entire house seems like an empty shell, the mere remains of what used to inhabit it. However, I know that they’re in there. I ring the doorbell.
The fifth hint: Them.
The door opens to reveal a pallid-faced young man, no older than twenty. He offers a stiff-lipped smile, but I note the grimace he makes, as if the mere action of smiling fills his entire being with pain. He moves aside to reveal the woman. She must be fifty, with gray hair and wrinkles. She appears to turn to me as I enter the room, but her glazed eyes merely stare past me into… into… what? Staring into what I know not. They talk about him, but it doesn’t give me any new hints. I walk down the hall and stop at the bedroom door that must have been his.
“May I?” I ask over my shoulder to the young man.
He nods vacantly, turning to go back to the old woman, who sits shaking on a creaking rocking chair.
The sixth hint: His bedroom.
A baseball bat leans against his bed, which is decorated with a galaxy-patterned bedsheet, along with a matching pillowcase and comforter. A lava lamp still runs, but monotonously, as if it, too, is dragged down by the heaviness of the air. I open the closet door to reveal a collection of Air Jordan’s, each shoe placed so that it’s toe touches the toe of it’s matching mate. Each pair is scarred and dirty, but every blemish has the appearance of having been scraped, scrubbed, and cleaned by a boy who obviously loved his shoes. Hanging on a rack above his shoes is the usual apparel of a teenage boy: hoodies, baggy jeans, skinny jeans, and designer - tees, the majority of the T’s with Captain America’s shield printed smack-dab in the middle of them. No clues there. I close the door and look at the walls, one by one. Each is adorned with posters of rock bands or fantasy movie characters, hung up so sloppily and with so much duct tape that the walls will surely never recover. Finally, I turn to the front of the room.
The seventh hint: Him.
At the front of the room is a piece that looks so foreign in his room that it could only have been put up by someone other than himself. It was a picture of him. It had to be an 18x24 portrait, the frame was of polished, dark wood, with a gold-stenciled spiral design. Inside the frame was Mark himself. He had a twinkle in his deep-blue eyes, a rosy face, a sharp chin, a firm jawline, and a smile. I tilt my head a bit as I step around the room, viewing the picture from various angles. Somehow, it’s not what I expected. After a while, I realize what’s wrong. It’s the smile. The way his mouth is upturned so far, the way his lips part ever so slightly to reveal his crooked teeth. Somehow the smile seems out of place. The polo shirt, the tie, even the sparkly blue eyes, although startling, don’t trouble me as much as that smile. It’s this hint that throws me off my track. I pull out my notepad and flip furiously through the pages, but the blurbs and comments, no matter how many times I read them, fail to make sense.
The eighth hint: She doesn’t know either.
As I prepare to leave, upturning the collar of my coat and tightening my scarf over my mouth and nose, I hesitate with my hand on the doorknob. I turn back to the young man and the old woman, both sitting, staring vacantly… at nothing. Feeling obligated to say something I turn to the old woman, “I... ah… if you need… or if you want… I, mean, if there’s anything I can do for you… just… let me know.”
I shuffle my feet, not knowing what else to say and uncertain if I should expect a response or not. The young man, appearing to feel obligated to be polite mumbles a ‘thank you’. Taking one last look at them, I turn to leave, but at the same moment see a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. The old woman hurries from her chair and grasps my elbow.
“What are you going to write?” She asks, urgently, pulling at my elbow until I lean over so as to stand at eye-level with her.
“I… I don’t know,” I admit. “Is… is there anything you would like me to add about your son?”
She thinks for a moment. By this time her nails are digging painfully through my coat and into my skin, but I refrain from moving, lest it startle her back into her blank silence.
Finally, she looks up at me, “I just want to know who he is. Can you tell me? Can you tell me who Mark is? Was he brave? Was he a coward? I - I just want to know… who my son is.”
I can’t answer her and she knows it. Slowly, she releases my arm and returns to her creaky rocking chair, where she rocks back and forth and stares into nothingness, because it's all she knows how to do anymore. The young man looks at me questioningly, but I have nothing to say. I have no answers, despite my notepad of hints and my surplus of interviews and recordings. Having nothing more to say I nod, before heading out into the cold. It has started snowing again and my eyes tear up as freezing flakes and wind sting my face. Carefully, I descend the porch steps, clutching the rail to steady myself as my boots slide on the layer of ice hidden underneath the snow. I walk towards the street, stopping at the curb, looking out onto the road directly in front of the house.
The ninth hint: He’s dead.
It should have been the first hint, but somehow it doesn’t feel real until I stand in the same place he had stood moments before he died. They had explained it to me. He stood right here. His Air Jordan’s hidden by the depths of the snow, his long-thin, calloused hands stuffed into the pockets of his red-hoodie, his blue eyes sparkling through the snowflakes, his huffs of breath vaporizing in the freezing wind, and in his mind… what? What could have been in his mind? What was in his mind at that moment is just as incomprehensible to me as what must have been in the mind of the lady behind the wheel when she slammed on those brakes and, despite blurting, or rather, screaming, out a prayer, still felt the thump against the front of her car. I step out onto the street, staring at my notepad. No matter how many hints I get, none of them can explain it. Nothing can explain why a sixteen year old boy who loved cookies and sports and galaxies and shoes would stand on this curb on a cold night and decide to jump out into the street as the car that would be his death barreled towards him at full speed.
I stare at my notes, my hints. I stop at the eighth hint: She doesn’t know either. His own mother couldn’t figure out who he was. After all those years of being a light-hearted young man who didn’t need a second bidding to smile and sparkle in his photographs, his death left everyone wondering the same question: who was he really? Maybe that smile in his portrait felt so out of place because it really didn’t belong there. The longer I thought about his picture, the more I realized that the smile looked as if it had been ripped from some foreign image and then merely plastered over his weeping face.
I’m suppose to write a story about Mark. It got dumped on me just because I’m the new guy. I wasn’t surprised, though. After all, who wants to write a story about a suicide and wander around neighborhoods and schools trying to piece together a story about someone who's already in a coffin.
“Just write about him… tell the world who Mark is and why he’s dead,” My boss had barked at me without so much as looking up from his computer, when I approached him about the topic.
I couldn’t, though. No matter how many hints I collected or how many painful interviews I sat through, I couldn’t tell one person who Mark was or why he was gone. He always had a cookie in his hand. He held the door open. He liked shoes. None of those can tell me who he really was, because these notes only tell the world who he was on the outside. On the inside, though, no one could tell me who Mark is… I mean… who he was. Nor could a single person tell me why he’s dead. Most claim it’s because he stepped in front of a car, but he had to have died long before that. I can fathom his physical death, I just can’t fathom his inward death. Only some sort of inward death could bring a sixteen year old boy to such a point in his life that he could feel the need to step in front of that car. It wasn’t either cowardice or bravery that submerged him as he stood on that curve days ago. It was something else. Something else killed Mark and not a single person can let me know what it is. What’s more, no one can even tell me who he is.
I drop my notepad into the slush that fills the road and walk away. I only turn back long enough to see my notepad and all it’s useless pages dissolve into the slush. However, that’s not what gets my attention, nor is it the old woman staring at me from the window with glazed eyes, mouthing to me, pleading to me, to tell her who her son is. It’s him that catches my eye. It’s Mark. A phantom of what he used to be, standing on that curve, frozen tear-drops stuck to his face, and that smile slowly dissolving and landing in the snow, nothing more than paper mâché after all. He’s the kid that no one ever took the time to ask who he was, before his shoes carried him off that curb and into the middle of the road where Death came barreling towards him. Death, who Mark opened his arms wide open to, to embrace.