by Tim Hanson
There it was: the final name, scribed in the left-hand column. Next to that, the word “USED,” penned almost apologetically in some bastardized form of cursive, irrefutable proof of the book’s previous owner.
“When I call your name, please tell me the number listed in the upper right-hand corner.”
Ben closed his textbook and studied the cover, as if it would offer some explanation as to why it was here. Three years ago, all of his brother’s belongings had been removed from St. Francis Xavier Catholic School. Neither his parents nor his teachers had told Ben about this, but it was an observation made and corroborated by years of experience. For all intents and purposes, Jeremy Walden no longer existed at St. Francis Xavier, neither physically nor in the school’s memory.
Yet here it was—this familiar scribble.
He opened the book again and studied the name once more, written above and below the line provided—an ugly signature, to be sure, and quite similar to Ben’s own.
He closed the book immediately, as if caught peeking at his father’s Playboy collection, and stared wide-eyed at Ms. LaMark. She waited, her pen poised over an open notebook, and raised an eyebrow. “Benjamin? Your number, please.”
“One,” he began, “One fif-fifteen.” And in that number, he heard a familiar echo of the stutter that had characterized his brother for the better part of his tenure at St. Francis Xavier. He heard the hesitancy, the second-guessing—each syllable an utterance of defeat.
“Thank you,” Ms. LaMark sighed, and moved on to the next student.
After his teacher’s eyes had left him, Ben opened the book again and leafed through it, searching for annotations and scribbles, for stashed assignments and notes. However, the book was clean, with the signature serving as the only proof his brother had once held it.
“Now, please write your name on the inside cover,” Ms. LaMark said when she had reached the end of her list. “And be sure to note your book’s condition.”
With a shaky hand, Ben scribbled his name underneath his brother’s. And under condition, he too wrote: “USED.”
Six months before her eldest son leapt to his death, Mrs. Walden sought the services of a doctor recommended to her by the school counselor. “He used to be such a happy child,” she told the doctor during her first visit. “He and his little brother were always laughing. He was so happy then…I just…I don’t know what’s happened.” Through tears, she recounted summers spent playing in the backyard and winters in the snow; she told stories of the boys carving pumpkins in the fall and fishing in the spring; and she recalled Jeremy and his brother holing up in their room for hours without end, playing video games and laughing away Saturday afternoons.
The doctor looked up from his clipboard here and furrowed his brow. “What kind of video games?”
“They’d run through the neighborhood,” she continued, as if the doctor hadn’t said anything, “and tell jokes and sing songs and laugh. Oh, how they laughed.”
“Does Jeremy ever blame himself for things he can’t control?” the doctor asked, his voice mockingly calm. “Does he have poor hygiene or pick at scabs?”
“Father William used to say Jeremy glowed in church,” she said, speaking more feverishly now. “He’d read the gospel during mass, and he wouldn’t stutter or cry or run away. He’d just…glow.”
“Does Jeremy ever talk about hurting himself? Or hurting others?”
“He just…,” she started, but that’s where the thought ended. More and more lately, memories were colliding with the present, and their contradictions were creating a chasm Mrs. Walden could neither understand nor hope to fill. The church had their ideas, of course, on how to fix things, and so did the teachers. Unfortunately, Jeremy remained unfazed by any of their treatments, electing to sit in silence instead, with his head crooked toward the floor.
“Has Jeremy ever talked about suicide?” the doctor asked at the end of that first session, and Mother’s eyes grew wide. When she could finally speak, she acted as if she hadn’t heard the question, relaying instead another memory—one her youngest son, Ben, would remember more and more after Jeremy’s death.
On one particularly cold day during Christmas vacation, she said, Ben was crying because Christmas would probably come and go without a single snowflake falling. “I have an idea,” Jeremy exclaimed, clapping his little brother on the back, and rushed from the room. He found all the paper he could from around the house, cut it into tiny scraps, and threw it over the second-floor balcony so it fell around his little brother. “A Christmas miracle!” Jeremy said.
And oh how they laughed.
The ironic planning—science class following religion—had never struck Ben as odd before, nor had he questioned lessons about God creating the heavens and earth in six days juxtaposed with lessons about the Big Bang Theory. However, as Ms. LaMark preached about the microscopic building blocks of life and Ben slid his desk further into the back corner, he felt a canyon widening between the left half of his brain and the right, where questions like these had started to form. On one side of the canyon stood a shadow of the child he once was; on the other stood the forgotten speck that child had become.
“The atom,” Ms. LaMark said, “is the most basic unit of matter. It has a nucleus, surrounded by negatively charged electrons. Within that nucleus are protons and neutrons, carrying positive and neutral charges respectively—”
The text on Ben’s page didn’t match the lecture. It spoke, rather, of plants converting light energy into chemical energy, a solar buffet providing life for all vegetation. Half an hour ago, Mrs. Benson, his Religion teacher, had lectured from the Book of Genesis, which also provided a commentary on light—one far more supernatural and vague, though: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness.” Somewhere in there, apparently, God had ensured plants would bask in that light and convert it to nourishment through a process He called ‘photosynthesis’—and God said the synthesis was good.
Ben shook his head and leafed through the pages, looking for atoms, for electrons, for the crude image Ms. LaMark was now drawing on the board, for anything resembling the current lesson. He stopped on a page about the nucleus and scanned the lines, but it wasn’t the right one, either. He gave up and resumed his act: look at the book; look up at the board; look back at the book—
“So if there is one electron floating here around the nucleus,” Ms. LaMark asked, “how many protons are there?”
Ben ignored the question and focused, rather, on the page before him. The light had found a few jagged marks etched clumsily into the page under the heading “Nucleus: The Hub.” Something had been written here and then erased, something Ben had not seen before, and its presence sent a surge of electricity up the boy’s arched spine.
“One?” Bethany asked somewhere in the fog, but Ben paid her no mind. Instead, he squinted his eyes, rubbed his fingers over the course grooves, and drew his eyes closer to the book, until it was finally legible: Fuck this.
“If there were two electrons floating here…”
Any number of the previous twelve owners could have written it, like Teddy Ingersoll, who had held the book from 01-02, when its condition was still listed as ‘new.’ Or even Louis Driscoll (was that what the signature said?), whose handwriting was worse than anyone else’s listed on the inside cover. However, Ben knew the handwriting didn’t belong to any of them, just as he knew how the writer had felt when he penned his rebellious declaration and then fearfully erased it.
Ben’s stomach lurched forward, and a lump grew in his throat. Still staring at his book, at the erased message carved into page eighty-four, he simply shrugged his shoulders and sank into his chair.
Ms. LaMark sighed. “What did I ask, Mr. Walden?”
He waited and then shrugged his shoulders again.
“Protons, Mr. Walden. If we have ten electrons here, how many protons are in your nucleus?”
Fuck this—erased, but not completely gone.
The lump grew larger, moving up his throat and toward his eyes, which burned as hot as the radiator in the back of the room. It was November now—cool, unforgiving November—and the first signs of snowflakes danced on the horizon. Throughout class, Ben’s eyes had sought them out, willing them to fall; however, the gray clouds would not spill their white powder upon the barren landscape outside, no matter how hard he wished.
“Mr. Walden,” she sighed, dramatically dropping her chalk into the tray lining the board, “it would behoove you to pay attention. To keep your eyes up here and your ears open. That is if you want to be eligible for sports this winter.”
What sports? Weighing in at ninety-five pounds and standing just below five feet tall, Ben wouldn’t have survived basketball or wrestling; hell, he couldn’t even survive the school day.
“If we have ten electrons outside the nucleus, Mr. Walden—”
‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness
“—and inside the nucleus, we have all these protons and neutrons—”
And Ben, too, was starting to feel that divide, and he loathed the nonsensical bridges they all so eagerly tried to build, their futile attempts at explaining how the magical creation of light could somehow filter into a discussion of creating chemical energy from light energy, how the first chapter of Genesis could somehow co-exist with a cloud of dust exploding from nothingness and evolving into creation over billions of years, how the person he was now could be so much different than the person he was before.
“How many protons would you have, Mr. Walden?”
He raised his eyes from the book, still opened to the wrong page, and surely she must have seen their reflective pools, housing her unwavering image. If she did, though, she showed no signs of remorse.
That fucking stutter.
“Do I need to call home, Mr. Walden?” Ms. LaMark sighed, glaring at the broken child. “Will that encourage you to stay focused during class?”
And all at once, Ben remembered the message Ms. LaMark had left on the answering machine a few years ago, the one his parents had replayed whenever his brother acted out of line—
At dinner, Jeremy kept his head arched toward his untouched meal, as Mom and Dad argued about finances. Ben eyed his brother peripherally, noting his sullen eyes. Lately, Jeremy had come home looking like this, and when his mother asked him what was wrong, he’d say, always agitated, “Nothing.”
“What happened at school today?” Father asked, a bitter piece of punctuation serving only to end yet another fight between him and his wife.
“Mrs. Rogers,” Ben said, sitting up his chair, “told us a funny story about when she was little. And we did subtraction. Like, really long subtraction. And we played kickball in gym and Jimmy got hit in the head with the ball and he cried and the nurse came down and took him away.”
Despite how fast and how excitedly Ben recounted his day’s activities, though, Father’s eyes never strayed from the elder son. “Jeremy? How about you?”
However, Jeremy just kept his head crooked toward his plate and silently spread the full remains of the night’s meal.
“What did you do today?”
On the answering machine from last week, Ms. LaMark’s voice still expressed her concerns about Jeremy’s grades and behavior in science class, a message neither parent would erase. Sometimes, in the coming weeks, when Jeremy said he had no homework or he didn’t need to study or he didn’t feel like reading that night’s assignments, they would play him the message, and the teacher’s condemnation would echo throughout the house, roaring like thunder.
Jeremy’s eyes glanced toward the machine now and then resumed their stare at tonight’s uneaten meal.
“I swear,” Father said, dropping his knife and fork onto his plate so they clanged, “I have no idea what you have to be so sad about. We give you kids everything, and somehow you still manage to be moody.”
“No,” he spat at Mother and stood up, empty plate in hand. “I work all day to come home to this shit: poor grades and a poor attitude. Keep it up, Buddy. Because life can get a hell of a lot harder around here.”
After Father left, Jeremy grabbed hold of his plate, rose to his feet, and walked toward the sink. “Where do you think you’re going?” Mother hissed. “Sit right back down and eat. You look emaciated.”
Jeremy sat back down, but he didn’t eat anything more that night.
Now there were only three of them seated at the table, and that awkward fog cast over past family meals had transformed ever so slightly, from expressed rage to suppressed hostility. Father silently ground his food to a mush, his brow furrowing more with each bite; Mother took only a few bites before washing it down with a glass of wine and scraping the rest of her meal into the garbage; and Ben sat staring at his plate, his food left untouched. Behind them, on the counter, was the list of interventions Ben’s teachers had attempted since August, and the failures each of them had met. Underneath those, paper clipped neatly, were Ben’s transcripts: 3 Ds, 3 Fs, and a B (in gym, which, the principal had reminded the Waldens, was based more on attendance than anything else).
The meeting this afternoon hadn’t gone the way Ben had expected. He remembered hearing about his brother’s meetings with Ms. LaMark and the administration, with the priest and the school counselor, and they had been a rather heated affair. Of course, they all had seen how that turned out, so Ben’s meeting was filled with more hesitancy and second-guessing. “We all see such potential in Ben,” Principal Ronald Butler had said, leafing through Ben’s files, a busy chore for busy hands. “We just want to see him realize that potential.”
“Could you pass the salt?” Father mumbled, and asked again when Mother failed to abide. Nothing more was said.
After dinner, in his room, Ben listened to the muffled argument transpiring two rooms down the hall and to his mother screaming, “Shhhhhh,” when Father spoke too loudly. On his bed, Ben opened his science book and again inspected each page with a much more careful eye. However, no matter how hard he looked, he couldn’t find any more notes or indentations.
This new line of communication between Ben and his older brother had come to an end, with those final two words serving as his goodbye.
Two weeks before he jumped from the roof of the now abandoned Henderson building downtown, falling twenty-two stories to his death, Jeremy Walden lay on his bed, with his head resting between the pages of an open book. Three worksheets were sprawled around him—makeup work the administration had agreed to let Jeremy complete for half credit. Each of them was blank.
As Ben entered the room, the squeak of the bedroom door announced his presence, but his brother’s head did not lift from the science book. “Jeremy?” Ben asked, and when his brother didn’t answer, he ventured further: “It hasn’t snowed yet. It’s almost Christmas, and it hasn’t snowed yet.”
“So?” Jeremy said, finally lifting his head to stare uninterestedly at his little brother.
“Well,” Ben said, grabbing hold of the worksheets scattered on the bed. “Maybe we need a Christmas mir—”
Before the word could leave his mouth, before Ben could throw the pages into the air and dance around the bed and laugh, Jeremy grabbed them from his hands and screamed, “You’re so stupid. These are for school. Dad’s gonna kick my ass if I don’t finish and now you’ve crumbled them up.”
Ben retreated toward the doorway. “I’m sorry, Jeremy. I didn’t mean—”
“And there are no miracles,” Jeremy said, throwing the pages into his science book and slamming the cover shut. “There never were. So just shut up about it. They lie to us. They’re always lying to us.”
Jeremy turned over onto his side, letting the book fall to the floor with a dull thud. His eyes burning, Ben fled into the hallway and shut the door.
The air was mercilessly cold, biting at Ben’s cheeks as he walked across the roof’s cracked surface. It was early December, three weeks before Christmas, and the temperature had dropped dramatically, to just below ten degrees.
By now, Ben’s parents had to be searching. Undoubtedly, the school had called home when he didn’t arrive, and memories of Jeremy would be at the forefront of their thoughts. Perhaps they’d even come here, to the abandoned Henderson building, to look for him, but it didn’t matter. They wouldn’t arrive in time.
He peered over the edge, seeing what his brother had seen five years ago. From twenty-two floors up, the world below looked so inconsequential, cars and people scurrying like ants to and fro. Fuck this. The chasm between magic and reality, between the way he wanted to see the world and the way it actually was, had widened too far, and another day spent in the back of class, pretending to listen to their lies while suffering the snickers and whispers of his fellow classmates, was too much to bear.
He removed his book bag from his shoulder, plopped it onto the ledge, and took a seat next to it. This morning, he had had every intention of going to school, but through the trees lining that old, familiar route, he had seen the brown edifice looming on the horizon. His feet had done the rest. “I c-can’t…” he began to say now, staring at that wide expanse between the buildings, but he could say no more. What had his brother said before he leapt? Had he said anything? What was he thinking as he fell those twenty-two stories? Had he felt the impact, his insides splattering, his bones crunching? Had there been any pain at all?
Ben stood, his toes hanging over the edge, and continued his downward stare.
They lie to us. They’re always lying to us.
He unzipped his bag, grabbed his brother’s book, and leafed through the pages one last time, through chemical formulas and diagrams of atoms and planetary systems. When he reached the end, he flipped back to the start and saw his brother’s name and smiled, tears spilling down his frostbitten cheeks.
Then with a grunt, he ripped the first three pages from the binding, tore them to pieces, and threw them over the ledge. They wafted through the air, the wind picking them up and pushing them toward a side street. Ben watched them go, until they, too, were the size of ants, and then he ripped another three pages, and then another, and then another. He soon had ripped nearly a quarter of the pages from the book, when he paused briefly to watch the torn remnants floating through the air. Moving faster now, he ripped, tore, and threw, until a blizzard of paper flew through the air and blanketed the barren world below. “It’s a Christmas miracle,” he screamed, laughing, crying, and threw some more. Soon all the paper was gone, and only the shell remained, so he threw that, too.
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” he cried again and sat back down upon the ledge, staring at the winter wonderland below. Soon, it would grow colder and he’d have to head back downstairs, but for now, he basked in the glow of an early winter’s morning and the memory of his brother dumping snowflakes onto his head, and behind the wind’s howl he heard their laughter echoing between the abandoned buildings, recycling softly, again and again, the only thing that could fill the wide canyon between buildings.
And oh how they laughed.
"Condition: Used" originally appeared in the second issue of Cold Creek Review during Summer 2017.