Hey guys! This is (probably) my last story for this year's Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Please help me improve as a writer!
THE HARDEST HUE TO HOLD
The wind blows across the front of my windshield, dragging with it a shower of withered leaves. They dance across the clear window as I press the gas pedal, twisting like moths in the night, reveling in their ephemeral beauty. The sky is cloudy, and looking up, I can see that rain lies in the future. Usually I detest that sort of weather pattern, but today I welcome it.
I sigh quietly as my car edges forward into Smithville, Michigan. The trees bend around me, and gazing forward, I see a couple of young men and women fixing a banner to some of the trees. Smithville College Reunion. They’re holding a party, with long speeches and tedious toasts. A party I won’t attend. My sights are set further in the past. I’m going to my high school reunion. In truth, that event is actually scheduled for tomorrow, but I came early to see an old haunt.
As I switch off my car in the parking lot of Smithville High, the faded painting of the school’s mascot, a leprechaun, catches my view. I tighten my lips as memories float into me.
Twenty-five-years ago, I entered Smithville High. It was a hot day in early September, and sweat was dripping down my face like oil. I was morose. An iron-hearted pessimist, I believed there was nothing to look forward to in high school. The only thing keeping me in the building was my worries about returning home. Mom had started drinking some months ago, after Dad died, and I didn’t want to see that. Still, the garish leprechaun, painted last year on the back of the gym building, did little to assuage my vexation.
Besides, there was also the fact that students of Smith High (as we termed it), had to wear a uniform. For guys, it was a thick gray polo, and khaki pants. For girls, the same thing, except we wore an itchy blue skirt and knee socks as well. The polos had to be long-sleeved. Thus, I entered the school mildly sunburned and highly annoyed.
My doubts were only confirmed as the days passed. The instructors were apathetic to the point that I wondered if they would notice if every single student skipped school. Classes were dusty and dull, students trapped in the mist of chalk powder and the drone of the teachers’ voices. The cliques from middle school had undergone a major shift, but not really a good one. The brattiness of middle school had been, for the most part, replaced with cold contempt. They ignored me, and I ignored them. Indeed, within the first few weeks, I realized with nervousness that I stood all alone.
And then I met Johannes. He was in my year, a tall, tanned boy, with thick black hair and wide brown eyes. His fingers were long and twisted, usually loose from his hands until he put them to the strings of his violin, where they suddenly fell together. He could play the violin! When his bow hit the strings, a symphony sprang out. He would enter the music, playing and playing and playing, until finally he would blink, shake his hair from his eyes, and grin like someone waking from a pleasant dream into a better reality. Despite that, he wasn’t a dreamer at all. He walked to school with a calculator in his pocket, and his shadowed eyes held a taunt deep within them for all. His smile was sardonic, and his face faintly arrogant. Still, his teasing was all in jest, and he was known for odd moments of generosity, like when he bought a pizza for the entire class. His grades were C’s, but his video game scores were off the charts. He was the king of the geeks, and I took to him immediately.
Our last subject of the day, every day, was grammar. The teacher was a thin, musty old man with a bare dusting of gray hair hanging on his scalp. His voice had that odd quality of being silent, and at the same time, audible. Grammar was universally detested by all, to the point where students began to routinely skip it. Most hung out in the bathrooms, but some, the more adventurous, went outside the building to the forest surrounding it--but they stopped there. Shooting for the lake in the center of the woods was biting off more than most could manage to chew.
One day in late October, I glanced up from my seat in the back of grammar to see Johannes leaving the classroom, along with two other boys. Both were members of the geek crowd. To his left strode Ray, a thin boy with short white hair, thick black spectacles, and a STEM key chain. Seamus (or Shrimpy, as he was known), a short, chubby, dark-skinned boy stood on Johannes’ right. Johannes motioned excitedly to me, so I followed him out the door.
We moved through the corridors of Smith High like ghosts, until we broke through the doors into freedom. Ray’s spectacles shone as he let out a loud whoop, enjoying the feeling of triumph. Shrimpy pulled at his shirt tiredly, then glanced towards Johannes. Johannes was staring forward, black eyes piercing towards the forest. He looked back at all of us, sizing us up with a skeptical glance. I tucked a brown curl behind my ear.
Ray licked his lips, then stuttered as he pulled quickly into his voice.
"W-we had a great idea. Right, Shrimpy?"
Shrimpy grimaced, then glanced nervously back at the school.
"You coming with us?"
I pursed my lip, before wondering,
"Where are we going?"
The forest opened, and swallowed us whole.
After ten minutes of dragging through brambles, we were there. The lake. The sun glittered over it like a flashlight over a silver tarp, and the trees crouched around it, tracing their reflections in the water. The three boys around me gazed forward with satisfaction. Even I was caught in the fervor of the moment. Shrimpy’s voice came out in an odd hush.
"We’re building a fort here."
My mind reacted with skepticism for a bare instant. Forts were for little kids. We, at the advanced ages of thirteen to fourteen, were far too old for such things. However, my enthusiasm swiftly pummeled my skepticism to the ground. I could remember eighth grade, when my classmate’s minds moved from games, from creativity and excitement, to such ‘adult’ things as dating, social media, and celebrities. I recalled hating this change, hating how all the fun things we used to do were now ‘kid stuff’, how ‘adult’ life was so boring, so dull. I remembered werewolf hunts and imaginary worlds. How was so-and-so asking you out better than that? Thus, I grinned widely. Words sprang to my mind from a poem I had read recently.
"‘Between the woods and frozen lake/the darkest evening of the year’. . ."
I rubbed my eyes, glancing at Ray.
"It’s from a Robert Frost poem. I was just thinking--"
Shrimpy’s face lit up.
"This is between the woods and the lake!" He exclaimed. "We could call it--"
Johannes waved his hand, jumping in hurriedly.
"Darkest Evening. We’ll call it Darkest Evening."
"What kind of fort will it be?", I asked with definite suspicion.
Ray rubbed one hand with excitement.
"A big ‘un! We’ll build walls and have chairs in--it’ll be great!"
Johannes shook his head skeptically.
"That’s a terrible idea. You’re getting way too into it."
Ray shook his head vigorously, but Johannes spoke before his retort.
"Look, all I’m saying is that’s a little much. It’ll be small, but we will bring a lot of stuff in. A good sized fort. Fun. Darkest Evening."
I smiled as the sun glimmered over the lake, enjoying the fragile moment before we rushed back to the school, desperate to arrive before the last bell.
The sun is rising now, as I stand in front of the forest. Its heavy thickness is almost magnetic. I try to remember where I stood that first time, with those three boys. Finally, I just enter at a random place, stepping into a rhythm as I move, hoping I’m going the right way. The brambles daunt me when I spot them. Did I really go through these as a kid? But no, this is the wrong patch. I lurch backwards, and hit my hand on a thorn. I stare at my hand, surveying the wound.
How odd. My hand is very old, creased with lines, leathery with the tiredness that inevitably attacks all in their forties. It’s so strange. In high school I imagined my forties as far away, almost nonexistent. And yet, it’s like no time at all has passed. Will I feel the same way when I reach my nineties, when I reach my deathbed?
We spent more time at Darkest Evening, going there every grammar class. It became a haven, a hiding place. Pictures were tacked up on the trees, forced on the bark with tape. Boards were nailed across. A tarp was set in place. Various provisions were made for winter. As the days grew colder, we grew warmer in our friendship. Slowly, I began to understand Ray and Shrimpy and Johannes.
Ray liked ice cream, chocolate, with strawberries on top. He was easily excited, and stuttered when particularly filled with feeling. Eventually we started to call him ‘Rewind,’ because he repeated himself so much. His specialty was chemistry. He knew all of the elements, all of the important acids and bases, and he loved blowing things up. His parents, like most others in the town, were apathetic--caught up in dead-end jobs and tired neighborhood politics. Rewind’s scientific adventures didn’t really matter to them.
Johannes, with his sharp words and laughing taunts, was a child of delinquent parents. He came to school with bruises on his arms, and his eyes grew angry if we ever mentioned them. Still, we knew what was going on at his house. There were days when he wouldn’t be at school, and sometimes when we three headed to Darkest Evening, we would see him there. He would be sitting near the water, back towards us, playing the violin with bloody fingers. Those were the days that we would slink back to grammar class, avoiding each other’s eyes. Johannes, Rewind, Shrimpy and I never talked about those moments, but they hung between us like unspoken weights, pulling us down into the darkness of the lake.
Shrimpy was a quiet dreamer. He chickened out easily, and was unused to the outside world. Unused, except for, oddly, fishing. He was a very good fisherman, and when the fish were still out, he’d reel them in with expert speed. He always let them go, however. He had an odd kindness towards animals, and didn’t like seeing them hurt. He also hated ice cream. He would eat chips by the bag, however. His parents, oddly enough, were the involved sort. They attended all of the PTA meetings, worked at all of the volunteer outfits, and had produced several fine, upstanding children. Shrimpy was not one of those promised brats, which his father reminded him of every day.
Both of them, like Johannes, dragged through school with C’s. They were disorganized, messy, and barely competent students. They were all trapped in their own odd worlds, both connected with this one, and fiercely not. I slipped into those worlds and out, making it by as an honor roll student, occasionally director’s list. I was the literature geek, quoting Shakespeare and Dickinson at every turn. I also occasionally referenced the Bible.
I was a Catholic. I went to church each Sunday, and on all holy days of obligation. I knew the scent of incense, the golden glow of the chalice. The Latin verses, shining vestments, and all other tools of the trade had defined my childhood. On occasion, I donned the uniform, and held the candles as an altar server. Despite all of this, I was not very devout. I respected the golden glow of my church, loved its beauty, but I was unsure. My mind rebelled against fully accepting my faith, because I felt I didn’t understand it. Instead, my mind turned in on itself, and I began to write, sketching out characters with meticulous interest.
Spring came with a blush, and Johannes made a large painted sign, which he left on a tree outside of Darkest Evening. With the increased warmth of weather, we had more time available to spend at our land, and we did. After school, during lunch, on the weekends--it was truly our world. Johannes (an atheist) and I would debate for hours over whether God existed or not. Rewind, that is, Ray, brought his lab equipment over. We even camped out once, and Shrimpy caught fish. We were supposed to eat them, but he let them go, and we survived on hot dogs from the gas station three miles away from the school. That night, I remember us sitting around the fire, laughing and telling stories. At some point in that talk, we went too far out. Rewind mentioned how dumb grammar class was, and Johannes laughed.
"Everything here’s dumb."
We were quiet then, because we all agreed. Shrimpy rubbed his head, smiling bashfully.
"I wish we could stay here forever."
"What about video games and stuff? Don’t you guys like that?"
Johannes’ eyes burned into the fire, and he tossed on another stick.
"We mean people. Haven’t you all noticed how dumb these grownups are? They just talk and talk and talk. What ever gets done?"
Shrimpy rubbed his nose. He glanced around at us, shiny eyes wide with hope.
"We’ll never be like them. Right?"
"Of course, dummy! I promise I won’t turn out like that."
We all promised. There was something binding in a pact made by a shifting fire, and we felt that, and relished it. Thus, our ninth grade school year ended.
And then summer came, and we left Darkest Evening for the year with regret. I was visiting my uncle in Florida, Johannes was going to a music camp, Rewind was attending STEM camp, and Shrimpy had grandparents in the UP. Still, we looked forward to the summer with joy, determined to return to Darkest Evening the next year.
My summer was odd. There were short brushes of excitement, but in the end, I was disappointed. My cousins, once so amazing, seemed almost dull now. Florida itself lacked the mystery I had thought of it with. The worst part of all was Mom. Her drinking had gotten to the point where, when I returned home from Florida, I discovered she had been fired from her job. She was working a new one, at a local fast food restaurant, but was barely holding onto it. I got a job sorting books at the local library, but my worries continued. I did start planning a novel. All in all, I returned home looking forward to school.
I met them the day before school, behind the building. Rewind’s short white hair had grown out, and now hung around his head in straggly tufts. His face was nowhere near as small as before, instead holding a kind of bizarre, tanned nonchalance. He grinned when he saw me, speaking firmly and deliberately, voice free of any stuttering.
"Great to see you!"
Shrimpy had grown taller, more stretched. He was the same height as Rewind now. He had a crew cut, and wore a camouflage jacket. He looked more skittish however. He was biting on his lower lip, and his eyes were almost oddly empty. He kept glancing at Darkest Evening, almost ignoring the rest of us.
Johannes was gaunt, long, and his hair was ragged and black. His face was pinched, and his eyes held a more tangible scorn in them. He looked sure, correct, and his face had lost that odd dreamy quality formerly trapped in them. Still, he held the power of leadership in his hand, and we all obeyed him without question.
"You ready for Darkest Evening?"
We all grinned, no enthusiasm lost. The woods creaked open, and we raced in.
Darkest Evening looked smaller, but the sign was still bright. Some repairs were needed, but they took a short amount of time. Soon we were left standing around, not knowing what to do. Shrimpy rubbed his head, self-conscious.
"You guys want something to eat?"
We glanced at each other, holding back mirth as we nodded, waiting for the inevitable procedure--Shrimpy would catch the fish, and release them. But when they were caught, he did the opposite. He flicked out a knife, set up a fire, and set to work cooking them. He glanced at us, unsure.
"Grandpa taught me how to hunt over the summer."
We nodded, glancing towards the ground. Then we grinned and shot him smiles and high fives. Still, in the depths of my heart, a great disturbance seemed to have taken place. Johannes glanced at Rewind and I while Shrimpy cooked.
"What’s up this summer?"
I shrugged, hoping he’d like what I had to say.
"I’ve been working on a novel."
He grinned, rubbing some of his hair from his eyes.
"So you want to get rich?"
"Well, writers don’t actually make that much money."
"Sure they do! Look at J.K. Rowling."
"No, see, I like writing."
"Yeah, but if you’re not going to earn money, why do it? It’s pretty dumb."
Rewind pushed his spectacles up to the bridge of his nose.
"I think it’s cool."
Similar exchanges happened over the days, and Darkest Evening began to lose its charm. Shrimpy was quieter, and Rewind calmer. I found myself oddly disturbed by Johannes. He had changed the most, and yet, the least. His leadership was stronger, more disciplined. He no longer listened to any complaints. Even worse, while he used to come to school with a couple bruises only, he now came in with bloody noses and black eyes. His simple, joking scorn had become hard and fanatical. Anything even resembling the dull ways of our town became his enemy. Johannes looked almost the same. He sounded almost the same. But the way he acted jarred my contentment. He seemed so different! Then again, perhaps he had always been this way. Perhaps I just hadn’t noticed.
His violin had changed the most. He no longer pulled it out to play at odd moments. It remained in its case, and when he played, his face was oddly conscious, his fingers too slow. He moved like a puppet, clumsy and irritated. Johannes was always irritated.
Things came to a head one afternoon during early November. I was leaning against a tree towards the lake side of Darkest Evening, saying grace in Latin before eating the fish Shrimpy had caught. Johannes snorted as I finished. His voice, as he spoke, held that odd joking quality it always had. He never spoke seriously, and yet, he believed what he said at the same time.
"Why’re you praying? What’s the Big Man in the Sky ever done for you?"
I glared at him with mild irritation.
"Plenty. He gave me life, and happiness, and friends, and plenty of other important things."
Johannes rolled his eyes.
"Couldn’t stop your Mom from drinking."
He realized a second later that he’d gone to far, and I could see his eyes widen for a bare instant. But then his face returned to normal. It wasn’t his fault, he was thinking to himself. He was just saying the truth, his mind stated with certainty. I turned pale. There was a second of silence in our speech.
Shrimpy and Rewind were quiet, each studying us. Both of them had been lonely before our group had come together, and now it was their happiest place. Shrimpy loved Darkest Evening itself, and Rewind loved our group. Johannes’ and my arguments had become their torment.
I then glared at him. My hands balled up my paper plate. It was true that my faith in Catholicism was unstable at the time, but I found it horribly unfair for him to make fun of it like that. Besides, mentioning my Mother went a step too far.
"At least my parents don’t beat me up every night."
Johannes froze. For a moment, the only sound was the chirping of crickets in the brush.
Then, he stood up, turned around, and left Darkest Evening, trudging away with stiff, mechanical strides. I stared after him, breathing hard, almost prepared to apologize. But then his comment about my Mother stuck in my mind, and I, too, turned, the opposite direction, and left. I glanced back once to see Shrimpy and Rewind sitting like mannequins, watching us with terrified eyes.
The days passed, and Johannes didn’t apologize. I didn’t apologize. We still went to Darkest Evening, but we were quiet. No matter how many times Rewind tried to get Johannes and I to reconcile, we didn’t click. Johannes remained sarcastic, and I defensive. Some of the fort boards fell down, and only Shrimpy put them back up.
Gradually, we stopped coming. Only Shrimpy returned, leaving the school each day to visit Darkest Evening. Sometimes I would come by myself, seeking some solitude, and there he would be, sitting by the lake and watching the sun strike the water, catching fishes and letting them back in, or taking them out and killing them for food. He started to miss more school periods than was usual. I worried that he’d be caught, but when I warned him he just shook his head.
"I like Darkest Evening. ‘Sides, do you really think my parent’s will care if my grades drop?"
Rewind grew more morose as our group’s separation continued, and he continued dragging us together. Still, one day, I snapped at him, and his voice died. He tried one final time, but Johannes swore at him, and finally he just left us alone. He retreated into his chemistry textbooks and laboratory supplies, focusing on the certain worlds of mathematics and science, as opposed to the uncertain ones of friendship.
We all stood alone, quiet and sad, like shadows on the shore.
Summer came again. Johannes wasn’t accepted to music camp, so he stayed in our home town. Rewind did return to STEM camp, going for an extra week this time. Shrimpy was invited to the UP, but refused. He spent his summer at Darkest Evening, going there every day. I stayed at home, in the darkness of my room.
I am reaching the right path. The tree branches snap around my legs, and the wind blows my hair. It’s colder than I remember it. I pass a sapling, and then a tree where I recall a sapling used to be. The sun shines over my head, burnished gold.
I see an opening in the trees, and the lake glimmers. It’s darker now, filled with mud. A can floats in the water. This is the wrong area. I twist back to another path, fighting my way through the leaves. I squint, feeling an ache of nostalgia as I see it coming up. The place.
Junior year, we were all different. Johannes was cold, his black hair cut short. He had lost his edge, and was somehow blustery now. He was almost unrecognizable from the joker he had been in freshman year. He had the air of a smug politician now. A smug politician that sneered at anything against his own viewpoint. His bruises remained constant, and his bloody noses continued.
Shrimpy’s eyes were dreamier than ever, almost lost in their own bright lights. He was tall now, and had grown something of a mustache. It was a scrap over his lip. He skipped school almost every day, always visiting Darkest Evening.
Rewind was hard, his white hair carefully combed, his eyes logical and calculating. His fingers no longer fidgeted, and any possibility of a stutter was long gone. He was somber now, and utterly serious. Grins had disappeared from his life.
I had continued writing. My novel had been scrapped, a new one produced. I was editing it currently. Still, college admissions were coming up. I had no time for lakes, for dreams, for friends. As for Mother’s alcoholism, I had given up. I was self-reliant, but as for taking care of Mom, I did little of it. I hated her for failing me, for taking Dad’s death so hard.
We had almost completely stopped hanging out, until, in October, everything exploded. Darkest Evening, you see, was not our property. If the school had found out, they would have closed it down. Luckily, no one discovered it. But what happened instead was worse than even that.
Shrimpy was wandering the woods near Darkest Evening one afternoon, when he spotted one of the seniors, out walking his dog. This particular senior, Alfred, was a rule-follower in the extreme. He had gotten most of the students in the school, including me, in trouble for skipping grammar. If he had found Darkest Evening, the consequences would have been severe. As it was, they were bad enough. Alfred was walking straight towards Darkest Evening when Shrimpy tried to redirect them. Alfred’s dog leaped forward, however. It pushed Shrimpy backwards, and my friend tripped on a branch. He slammed against the earth, fish hooks smashing into the dog’s head, killing it. Enraged, Alfred smashed a branch into Shrimpy’s head.
He survived, but with a heavy concussion. We didn’t get to see him in the hospital; he was moved before hand. When he came back, he was quieter. He squinted a lot. And even worse, people treated him differently. He was the psycho that killed the dog. Taunts in the hallway. Photos on social media. They never shut up.
I saw him in the hall, one frosty day in November. I walked up to him nervously.
"Don’t listen to them. It wasn’t your fault."
His face twisted a little, but he turned away.
"It was just as easy as killing fish. I thought I’d never do either."
One cold day in December, he went over to the side of the lake across from Darkest Evening. He went to a tree, one with a branch hanging over the water. He tied a rope to the branch and to his neck, and jumped. They found him some days later, frozen, hanging there, like a ball on a string. The fishes swarmed below his body, devouring anything they could lay their hands on.
His family didn’t even come to the funeral.
We stopped going to Darkest Evening altogether.
Johannes was scheduled to play in front of the school, but when he played, he played dully. He slipped. Notes were missed. And in front of the whole school, he forgot his song. He stood there, all alone, until he walked off the stage, his smugness gone. He snapped the violin in half. I found it on the lake, bow strings drifting every which way.
At the end of junior year, Rewind told me he was switching schools. He was moving across the country for senior year, and I would never see him again. We were both alright with that. We could have stayed friends. We had liked each other. But with each growing week, we had walked more and more apart. The dreary, logical young man he happened to be now, was almost unrecognizable to the hyperactive kid he had been in ninth grade. Besides, we could not look at each other without seeing the face of Shrimpy reflected in each other’s eyes.
Johannes remained smug, but it was all bluster and I knew it. He lost his place in the school, and no one cared to help him find it. C’s became D’s. One day, he came to school with a split lip, and a puffy face. One of the jocks tripped him in the hall, laughing. Another mentioned his violin performance with a sneer. Finally, some yellow-toothed kid leered at him, talking about the ‘dog-killing psycho.’ It took three teachers to pull Johannes off the boy.
Johannes’ parents had to pay thousands of dollars in hospital bills, which they were displeased with, for obvious reasons. By the next day, the whole school had heard about how Johannes turned up at the hospital with three broken ribs, several teeth out, and one leg dislocated. He ran away once he was dismissed from the hospital. Rumor held that he died, alone and homeless, in a city a couple of states away. Anyway, I never saw him again.
We didn’t get together, all three of us. We didn’t come together for a final good bye. The truth was, Shrimpy haunted us all. We would not, could not forget him. He grinned in our dreams, laughed in our memories. What could we have done? What should we have done? In the end, it didn’t matter. He was gone, and we didn’t want to see each other ever again.
Mother died one night, and I still blame myself for it. By now, my bitterness has faded towards her, towards it all. Perhaps that’s just because of the nostalgic lights of memory. I managed to get a scholarship to the University of Iowa, where I majored in creative writing. I published a couple of books, wrote a couple of stories. I married a nice young man, and we had three kids. I live in a small town, where I spend most of my time working on newspaper articles. I grow older and more tired every year.
I know I’ve broken the promise we made all those years ago, by that shifting camp fire.
The sun sinks as I make my way towards the sight of Darkest Evening. I blink, surprised. The sign is still up, still up but repainted. I walk forward, but pause as I hear voices from beyond the sign. I twist behind a tree.
There they are, three or four kids--a girl and some boys. They’re leaning back, watching the sky and smiling. Chips are being passed around. Candy is being devoured. They’ve taken our old fort and improved it. As I watch, I wonder if the girl is me and the boys my friends. Perhaps, perhaps not. Still, as the sky grows dark one of the boys stands up, and unlocking a battered black case, he draws a violin. He holds it to his neck, and with a sigh, lets loose the long, golden notes of childhood. He holds them to his bow, and then, he lets them go. They flutter over the lake before their inevitable fall, illuminating this night, the darkest evening of the year.