What makes a void? (1473 words)
His eyes are itchy from the crust built up over night, and he rubs them with care so as not to drag the sharpened pieces across the sensitive retina. He's cold, and he looks out on the first evidence of fall, a white, delicate frost glazing the grass. The air will be hot by afternoon, the last grazing of summer’s weakening fingers of direct heat as the season abdicates to autumn. The space within the car is frigid, torture as the heater sputters a cool breeze against his face, and he pulls his ineffectual jacket tighter against his smaller eleven-year-old frame. The radio plays the oldies according to today's standards. He grimaces when he can't decide if he’s hearing The Everly Brothers or The Monkees.
On the highway, cars pass them. These motorists are rushing to arrive at their next point of agony, the responsibility of adulthood motivating them to head wherever this road might lead. He wonders about them as they whiz by, contemplates who they could be and what important missions might have them on the move now. Most of them wear angry faces, intense as they speed along one strip of asphalt at a time.
He is unexcited when he thinks of the day ahead. In a town larger than he's accustomed to, the kids in his fifth-grade class are barbaric, more so than he realized could be possible from those his age. This city has money, and the kids at his new school remind him his clothes have no sporty emblems they recognize. The shoes he wears for which he already knows they will scorn him have set his mom back only twenty bucks, but he knows she will not have lunch money this week. For those who choose to see him, his rags and overly large hand-me-downs are the insignia of an inferior status, not the struggles he has overcome in his life.
His stomach lining is burning, the acid eating away the wall of his insides. He doesn't know the feeling can be named, has no clue about the reality of anxiety, but he knows it controls his new life. He loathes the way it makes him, hates the way he anticipates the burning ball of swirling pain stretching through him from the abyss of his stomach. He prepares himself to be alone for the day, a lonely speck in a crowded sea of crashing waves, overwhelming and judgmental. He is sure there is no one he trusts enough to call his friend. There is a boy in his morning classes with whom he has tried to befriend. The time they’ve hung out away from school, the other kid's family insisted upon commenting on the dirty jeans and rugged, ripped shoes, the dad complaining the entire time about how they shouldn't be expected to take in the flea-infested peasants from the north side of town, the area where the houses are a little more worn down and owned by someone unqualified to lord the land.
He looks over at his mom as she inhales the last of her cigarette before she rolls her window down just enough to flick it from the car. Though the offensive tobacco nub will soon be miles behind them, the smell and a thin fog of smoke will follow him onto the school property, yet another reason to be ridiculed. His anger is rising. He chews it over before ignoring the bitter taste, swallowing the fury down his tightened esophagus. It will do no good to act out his feelings in this situation; it will only cause the two of them to feel worse. Life is hard enough for him; he can only imagine what his mother is feeling. She doesn't need him making her life worse.
He glimpses his reflection in the side mirror. His hair is two months beyond needing to be cut, and the wide, thick frames of his glasses have never been stylish. He smiles when he sees his sad, dark face, wants to make sure the exterior is not reflective of the knots commanding his mental faculties. He knows he is and has lost; there's nothing can be done about that. Those around him who always look through him, beyond him, have already assigned him the place lowest in their neon-lit caste system. He smiles for the instance that just maybe someone might notice him. If he can reassure anyone of the inherent beauty of their own humanity, he will live to do just that.
Their car slows down on the off-ramp, the heater starting to blow something warmer than icy air as the car protests, groaning and squeaking as the vehicle decelerates. The sun tosses light onto the buildings, the golden hue of fresh day. Already the frost on the ground is melting, disappearing where it is not protected by shadows. Near the end of the off-ramp, nestled on the frozen grass of the intersection sits a large duffle bag. Once red, it has faded from elements, age, and use. It is a lonely artifact containing the sum of life for someone else. He muses to himself, a quick story explaining the owner has more than likely gone inside the McDonald's to use the restroom, or maybe to purchase a hash brown and a biscuit, but he knows the adventurer will soon return to retrieve the belongings before trekking off on the next leg of the journey.
"That shit's been sittin' there for a few days," his mom says. It is the first time this morning she has spoken to him, and he turns his head slowly to see her speak. "I'm sick of homeless people leaving crap all over the place. This town isn't like our last one. It doesn't deserve to look like the trashiest people live here." She lights another cigarette.
His heart cracks, leaking emotion from within his clenched chest, and his spirit is ripped in half. The acid in his stomach jumps, launching into and stabbing his throat. It feels as if his body is trying to vomit an old Brillo pad. His brain pieces together his mother's words. It sears his insides to realize he is sad for someone he will never meet. He aches for the things left on the side of the road, and he worries about the owner of them. If this bag has been out here for days, where could the owner be? Is it possible the person has abandoned what was left of his or her life, leaving the bag behind? Doubtful. He feels the more likely scenario may include a malicious ending, and, even worse to him, he knows nobody misses whomever the bag belongs to.
As the car lurches forward to turn right, he casts one more look back toward the bag, pondering the monument representing the sum of an existence erased. He hasn't ever seen such a sad relic, the entirety of someone's life abandoned in plain sight now just refuse. He wonders how long it will take after his own death before the things he loves are defined as trash, the inconsequential belongings through which he expresses who he is to become. And he knows one day, like the things bringing him pleasure, he will also be another void who will have ladened someone else with his legacy of litter.
He does his best to blink away the tears resulting from too many raw realities at once, and rather than talking to someone, instead of revealing his shredded heart, he decides he doesn't want anyone burdened with his “shit”, not ever. He doesn't want to feel like he doesn't matter, and he doesn't want to involve someone else with his emotions if everything comes down to nothing anyway. He starts disconnecting because he doubts any who make fun of him have ever contemplated these depths of philosophy, not yet, and he doesn't want to deal with them now that he's felt something this serious and heavy.
He glances at his mom to see if she has noticed his emotions, and she hasn't, but she looks different, no longer the caring woman who claimed the blood of Christ just doing her best. This was a stranger, one who had lied about worth and compassion. Does she really think she will be accepted by the P.T.A.? Does she believe they will simply embrace her at her new church regardless of her different clothes and status? Here was an unrecognizable mess of swirling hypocrisy and indifference.
His anxiety is already peering around the corners of his life, scouting that which he may be unprepared to deal with, another revelation clearing his perception and allowing life to be exposed. He looks out the window again and wonders what else may change him today.