The Pickup (Ginger Man 12D)

“Should I come back later?” Charlie looked back at the large analog clock hung above the kitchen wall. The thin red second hand sped past the black minute hand, leaning closer to the 1 than it was the 12, and made its way towards the short hour hand, pointed directly at 4.

He heard Rune utter a dismissive nah. “We’re done today, right coach?” Charlie turned back to see the person who he only knew as a teacher nod his head.

Rune walked back to the other fencers. An athletic girl in a pony-tail unzipped the back of his uniform, as a fat boy took his sword (foil, Charlie reminded himself) and glove from him.

“Dan Jacobs.” The teacher whom Rune had called coach extended his hand in greeting. Charlie muttered his name in return, shook Dan Jacobs’ hand. “They call me Coach Dan during practice. I seem to recall you graduating last year.” Charlie nodded. “You friends with Rune?”

For the first time that afternoon, Charlie made eye contact with Coach Dan. He replied truthfully. “Not — really.”

“It’s cool, Coach.” Rune had removed his fencing equipment, was now pulling a jacket onto his body. “Rex says he’s done work for his family.” The tall teen who had been fencing against Rune lifted his right thumb above his head; Charlie didn’t recognize the face, but nodded in his direction anyway.

Minutes later, Rune was in the passenger seat of Charlie’s pickup. He reached over his right shoulder, and as Charlie turned the ignition he knew what Rune was looking for. “Seat belt’s busted — sorry.”

“Oh.” Rune turned, faced forward, arms tight to his sides. Charlie looked at him. “You OK?”

“Yeah.” Rune waved a hand in front of him. “Let’s just go — I mean — ” He turned his palm, waved in the direction behind them.

Charlie put the pickup into reverse, and within moments had guided the vehicle out of the Bark Bay High School parking lot, headed in the direction of the Pizza Place, the location Rune had recommended for reviewing the notebook that lay on the seat between Charlie and Rune.

Trespasser (Ginger Man 12C)

In spite of the man’s friendly demeanor (Charlie recognized him as a teacher at the high school; he didn’t know his name, hadn’t ever taken any of his classes, but he’d heard he had this weird religion), Charlie felt awkward as the members of the fencing team turned their attention towards him. He felt like an intruder, like he had just crossed a NO TRESPASSING sign.

“I’m sorry.” He wasn’t really, but the words coming out of his mouth sounded appropriate. “I just — I was supposed to meet someone — ”

“Oh!” The fencer to Charlie’s right lifted the mask from his face, and though it had been several years since that day in the basement of Mike’s house, the only day that Charlie had ever played Dungeons and Dragons (Mike had told him he’d have a good time, but Charlie found the game confusing and complicated), he nonetheless recognized the curly red hair and oily face of the boy they had called Rune, who had been the “dungeon keeper,” or something that day.

Rune removed the mask from his head, took a step towards Charlie, then quickly stopped himself. Turning quickly to the other fencer (who had also removed his mask), Rune raised his sword to his face, lowered it quickly so it made a soft woosh. “Next time I’ll get more than one touch!” The other fencer (Charlie hadn’t noticed until now how tall he was) smiled, and performed the same action with his sword.

“Ever watch fencing before?” Charlie was surprised by the teacher’s question, and confessed he hadn’t. He then raised his hand to his chin, lowered it like he had just seen. “What’s that thing they did with their swords?”

“Foils.” Charlie could tell by the sound of the teacher’s voice that he was being corrected, although the man’s face retained its welcome. “We call them foils, or weapons, not swords.”

“It’s a salute.” Rune was now at Charlie’s side. “That’s how you begin and end each bout, even practice, with a salute.”

A First for Fencing (Ginger Man 12B)

Charlie heard a ting from inside the cafeteria as he approached the double metal doors. He didn’t recognize the sound, which seemed to him almost like a pin dropping on a concrete floor, but he guessed its source based on the activity he knew was taking place inside.

He pushed against the metal door on the right (as heavy as he remembered it from his school days), making a ka-klak loud enough to announce his entrance to anyone inside. But as he walked inside the nearly empty cafeteria, he noticed that none of the few occupants seemed to notice him.

There were about a half-dozen of them, assembled in the center of the large room. Two students (both boys, Charlie guessed) stood several feet apart, facing each other. They were dressed in white uniforms that covered their entire bodies and arms, and wore metal masks. They held thin metal swords in their hands, each sword pointed at the body of the other. One student stepped forward, again, the other stepping back; they stopped, and repeated their motions in reverse.

Between the two students, outside the line of their pointed swords, stood a man (a teacher, Charlie guessed), his gaze shifting back and forth silently between the two. On the other side sat three other students, dressed in the same white uniforms but not wearing masks, watching attentively the action between the two masked students.

Charlie had known there was a fencing team at Bark Bay High School, had seen the flyers, heard the morning announcements over the intercom. But he hadn’t known anyone on the team — well there was Myles of course, but if you were a student at Bark Bay you had no choice but to know everything Myles had done, whether it was quarterbacking the football team or leading the basketball team in scoring or setting the conference home run record, or deciding to give this new sport of fencing a try — and until this moment, walking across the dusty tiled floor of the cafeteria, Charlie had never actually seen fencers in action.

The student on the left stepped forward quickly and lunged forward, his sword aimed at his opponent. The next several actions were a blur to Charlie, bodies twisting and swords colliding, until suddenly the man whose back was turned to Charlie commanded them to halt. Charlie stopped as well, watched as the man waved his arms and spoke words he couldn’t hear to the two fencers — and then, to Charlie’s surprise, the man turned to him, and greeted him with a bearded smile.

“How can I help you, my friend?”

Return (Ginger Man 12A)

Four days later, Charlie drove his parents’ pickup into the parking lot of Bark Bay High School. It was late in the afternoon, long after the final class for the day had ended, and the parking lot currently hosted more birds than vehicles. Crows flew out from his path as Charlie drove around to the back of the building. He saw two cars (a nondescript sedan, and a sleek coupe) next to the cafeteria entrance; Charlie parked his truck two spaces away from the coupe.

As he walked toward the glass doors leading to the school, Charlie thought how this would be the first time he’d been here since graduation, nearly a year ago. But as he grasped the metal door handle, the touch seemed to spark his memory, and made him realize that no, this wasn’t the first time he’d been back. He stopped himself as the door closed behind him. Three months ago . . . he remembered telling his mother as they left that yes, he’d contact the principal, thank him for what he’d said at Mike’s memorial service. Those words came back in high-definition memory. Many people called me that awful night, asking me if I knew how he died. I didn’t know at the time, and what I realized in the coming days was that, it really didn’t matter to me. What I want to remember — what I do remember — is how he lived. And it’s that memory I hope we can all keep alive in our hearts.

Charlie shook his head and stepped forward, towards the large metal double-doors leading to the cafeteria. Today wasn’t about returning to anything, but rather about finding answers so that he could put to rest the crazy notions that were running around in his head.

Proof in a Crease (Ginger Man 11H)

Thin spiral wires bit into Charlie’s fingers as he flipped through the first pile of notebooks in the cardboard box. No green covers — he put the pile back into the box hastily, picked up the second pile, began flipping through them. And nearly dropped the pile when he saw the green cover flip past.

He tossed the other notebooks back into the box, until the only one remaining in his hands was the one with the green cover. Not just any notebook with a green cover — there was a crease in the upper left corner, running straight from about half-way along the top to just under a quarter of the way down the left side. Dammit, Mike had said as he took that notebook out of his backpack three years ago. Too many damn books, keep scrunching up the paper. Mike folded the green cover back in place, smoothed it as flat as he could before handing it to Charlie.

Go to the second subject. Charlie obeyed as swiftly now as he had in the school cafeteria three years earlier. First page. And there it was, the explanation for his experiences of the past few weeks.

“YES!” But with that outburst of joyous discovery came a recognition that nobody would believe this explanation. Nobody, except perhaps —

“Everything OK in here?” Charlie jumped as Mike’s mother walked back into the room, her eyes red and bleary but her face having regained the calm demeanor from earlier that afternoon. His instincts told him there was only one thing he could say to take her attention away from the artifact he held in his hands.

“I’ll take them all.”

Organized Boxes (Ginger Man 11G)

Charlie opened the flaps of the second box. More magazines, in two stacks; he saw the picture of a player who had retired a decade earlier. Running his hands along the stapled spines of the stack on the left, Charlie flipped through the titles. Half-way down, he saw the magazines gave way to hard-covered books. He lifted — books the rest of the way down. He turned his attention to the stack on the right, found nearly the same arrangement.

He closed the box, having reached two conclusions. First, Mike’s mother must have put this box together, because Mike never had the organizational skills required to arrange the contents so orderly. Second, neither of the boxes would contain what he was looking for.

The third box was filled entirely with hard-covered books. Charlie saw the pattern; this third box had been underneath the first two, probably because it was heaviest. There was another stack of three cardboard boxes to go through, and he was certain that if were to find what he was searching for, it would be in the top or middle box.

Charlie lowered the top box of the second stack onto the floor of Mike’s room, and quickly opened its flaps. More comic books, these were older, showing the price Charlie’s parents had found affordable. He sifted through the few dozen issues at the top — and then saw something different. A plain blue cover, the words notebook, college-ruled, 3 subject, college ruled spelled out in all lower-case letters. He pulled the comics swiftly onto the floor, excited. This wasn’t exactly what he was looking for — Charlie knew he wasn’t the smartest person in the world, but he knew he was good at remembering details like colors, and the notebook he was looking for had a green cover — but he was certain now that he had at least found the right box.

The Painful Scent (Ginger Man 11F)

Charlie heard Mike’s mother inhale loudly as he closed the flaps on the cardboard box. He lowered that box onto the floor, began opening the one that had been underneath, his mind focused on finding the one item that had brought him to his dead friend’s home that afternoon.

“Excuse me.” Charlie stopped, looked up at Mike’s mother, and instantly recognized she was entering one of those bad moments she had talked about earlier.

“You can — stay here as long as you’d like.” She blinked quickly, shook her head. “Take — take anything you want, we’ve already moved out everything we wanted to keep.” She inhaled deeply, threw her head back, looked up at the ceiling with eyes that looked like they had stopped searching for hope.

“I’m sorry.” Charlie’s words were equally reflective and sincere. “I didn’t want to upset you.”

Mike’s mother shook her head, looked at him with a sad, wet smile. “Oh no, don’t be sorry. It’s nothing you did. It’s — ” she laughed, tears exploding from her eyes as if released by the sound — “your smell. No, smell’s not the right word — ” her eyes blinked furiously — “scent, I guess. People have a distinct scent, and when we were sitting downstairs I recognized yours. From the days you’d come over.” She folded her arms across her chest, looked down. “So I was thinking about scents, when we came up here, and that’s — ”

“I know.” Charlie reached forward, put a hand on her shoulder. He hadn’t noticed it before, but her words had made him recognize that the remnant of Mike’s scent lingered in this room.

A quick nod, and Mike’s mother left the room, rubbing her pained face, leaving Charlie alone in the bedroom of his dead friend, a half-dozen or so cardboard boxes at his feet. He thought of leaving then, but realized that if he did he’d be back soon, perhaps the same day. His experiences of the past few days had compelled him to do exactly what Mike’s mother had just asked him to do — go through Mike’s possessions, take what he wanted. And he did want something, just one thing, a thing he thought would help explain what had been happening the past several days. He wasn’t sure it would be here, in one of these cardboard boxes. But he could not leave this house, this room, until he’d completed his search.

Memory of Stairs (Ginger Man 11E)

Mike’s mother lowered the teacup and saucer onto the low table in front of the sofa. “Your timing is actually quite good.” She stood, adjusted the sweater over her shoulders. “When we started cleaning out his room last month, it was — ” she sighed — “difficult.”

Charlie stood up, the glass of water still in his right hand. “We don’t have to do this now.” He was surprised at how sincere his words sounded, in spite of the eagerness he felt to start rummaging through Mike’s room. With a dismissive tsk and wave of her hand, Mike’s mother began walking towards the stairs leading to the second floor of her family’s home.

Charlie was familiar with these stairs, the creak of the third stair greeting him like a favorite pop song playing on the radio. He remembered something Mike had told him once about a Sherlock Holmes story he read, and counted each of the eleven steps.

Mike’s mother had started several paces in front of him and was walking more briskly. By the time Charlie arrived at the doorway to Mike’s room, she was already staring thoughtfully at the posters on the wall. She pointed to one of Yoda, wielding a green lightsaber, hung above the bed. “You interested in any of these?”

Charlie shook his head. “Not really.”

Mike’s mother nodded. “Guess we can just take them down.” She walked over to a pile of cardboard cartons next to the bed. “Figured you’d be more interested in these.” She opened the flaps of the box on top, waved a hand down. Charlie stared down — there were comic books and magazines, dozens of them. Charlied leafed through them quickly, not so much caring about individual titles but rather checking if there were any other types of content, specifically the one thing he was looking for, the only reason he had come to this home this afternoon. No — just comic books and magazines.

Robbery (Ginger Man 11D)

Charlie accepted the offer of a drink from Mike’s mother, “Just water please, ma’am.” A moment later he found himself sitting at one end of the family room sofa, Mike’s mother on the other end. He had no idea how he would bring up the purpose of his visit, but certainly knew that now wasn’t the time.

Mike’s mother had handed a glass filled with water to Charlie before sitting. She was now holding a teacup and saucer in her hands, the narrow string of a teabag hanging down the side of the cup, the tag on its end resting on the saucer.

“No, I’m not always this calm.” Charlie looked up as she spoke, saw a thin line of steam from the teacup rising across her face. “Anytime I think about my Mikey, I feel that place in my soul where my love for him exists. I can never stop loving him, and sometimes feeling that love makes me smile.” Charlie saw she was smiling. “And other times, I feel like that love’s been stolen from me, and going to that place is like going to your home after it’s been robbed. It’s still your home, but it’s been — defiled.” Charlie saw her staring off to his right.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been here sooner.” Charlie wasn’t sure what compelled him to apologize, except perhaps the knowledge of what he was about to ask.

Mike’s mother smiled again, looked back at Charlie. “No need for that.” She took a quick sip from her teacup, laid it back down on the saucer, clik. “You’ve come for your stuff, haven’t you?”

Charlie attempted to look surprised, but gave up the effort almost immediately. “Aw — yeah.”

Avalanche (Ginger Man 11C)

Charlie was sobbing uncontrollably by the time Mike’s mother had closed the door. He hadn’t been prepared for the avalanche of emotions crushed down on him. He’d been too numb to cry when he first heard of Mike’s death while at work, too proud to cry at the memorial service held at the school, too full of contempt for the artificial sentiment to cry at the funeral.

But he was literally in a different place now, not a public place where Mike and he were occasional guests but Mike’s home, where he lived, where the two of them shared some of the most pleasant moments from their childhoods — he was in Mike’s house, hugged tightly under the arms of Mike’s mother, and Charlie remembered the way Mike had never been ashamed to hug her mother even in public, the smile of content on Mike’s face as he tucked his head into his mother’s shoulder.

Charlie wept noisily as all these wonderful memories came back to him, along with the certainty (felt this time, not just known) that those memories were now as dead as Mike.

He couldn’t remember how long the two of them stood in the entry way, Mike’s mother gently patting him on the back, telling him it was all right. He only looked up when he realized how large of a wet spot he was leaving on her shoulder.

“Oh God.” Charlie took a step back, pointing at the wet spot. “I’m sorry.”

Mike’s mother looked down at her shoulder, and shrugged. Her face had lost its pleasant greeting, but remained its typical calm. She looked back at him, and smiled. “It’s OK. Lord knows I’ve gotten used to pre-treating my laundry.”