Fall 2014, Volume 17

Fiction by Austin Nichols

Poor Reese Wood

“Remember the kid from Westlake that ran his car into a tree?” 

The brunette tapped her pencil on her desk as she asked this, her knee bobbing up and down as she pried her mascara lined eyes away from glowing screen of her cell phone.  The corners of her mouth curled to form an empathetic grimace, working to reduce her mouth to nothing more than a wrinkled slit in her face.

“Yeah, didn’t he and his girlfriend die or something?” responded another girl, her chair moaning when she leaned forward, her tilted head sending flowing locks of shiny red hair down the edges of her shoulders.  Her animated attempt at curiosity had failed the moment she opened her mouth, the tone of her voice revealing a pang of mock interest, an almost condescending flair to the way she stressed the words or something.  Yet she was able to rebound quite sufficiently, the sentence that followed spoken with earnest.  “I can’t remember his name.”

“Huddy Zane.”  The girl sighed, flicking her curled brunette hair to the side with one finger before continuing.  “And yeah, they were both drunk.  I knew him.  We went to the same church together when we were little and our parents used to take turns carpooling us to swimming lessons.  He always had the coolest Halloween parties.  I used to have the biggest crush on him.”

“That’s terrible.”

“I know, right?  Now Reese.  Poor Reese Wood.”

“You knew him?” asked the redhead, this time stressing the you as she cocked her head to the side even more.

“Yeah, we had English together.  He was so nice.  I used to have the biggest crush on him.”

“I never knew.”

“It was in, like, middle school.  He was so cute.  So shy.”

“One of my older sisters’ friends passed away a few years ago in a car accident,” the redhead began.  “She took a turn too fast and hit a patch of ice.  She flew down an embankment and rolled the car over a few times.  She was in a coma for months before her brain just shut off.  It was so awful.  Her mom was literally one of the nicest ladies you’d ever meet.  She was devastated at the funeral.  Devastated.”

The bobbing knee became stiff.  The brunette straightened in her chair, blinking rapidly a few times before the corners of her mouth curled once more, her somber inflection returning. “Yeah, when my uncle’s wife died of cancer, it was so hard on the family.  She had beaten it when she was in college, but it came back and got her.  Our whole family runs the pink ribbon marathon every year now.”

“That’s really awesome of you guys.  When my granddad died…”

Leonard Read listened from the safety of his cluttered desk, the voices of the girls barely audible over the clatter of shifting tables and shuffling chairs.  The conversation in progress had been no different than any of the others he had heard over the course of the last week.  The brunette, Tricia Templeton, had prominently inserted herself into the unfolding drama the day of the kid’s suicide, insisting to everyone within earshot that she had once held deep within her a longing crush for the troubled teenager, the truth value of such a statement ambiguous at best.  Tricia was the prominent figurehead of what one of Leonard’s fellow teachers had coined the “senseless seven,” a clutch of well-groomed females who sat at the same lunch table and shared the same clothing and seemingly liked all of the same things, as they were perhaps the most agreeable group of individuals in the entire school. 

The second girl, Lara Motts, though not a member of said group, struck Leonard as a leech, a longing outsider who probably spent her evenings discussing the intimate goings on of the senseless seven with her other wide-eyed friends, making up stories about how they had invited her to the mall or offered her an invitation to one of their exclusive parties in order to achieve a sort of prominence over her own group.  Now, as they debated over the amount of suffering they had experienced in their short and indistinguishable lives, Leonard couldn’t help but wonder when death had become such a casual talking point, a fit subject for contention and dispute.

Leonard scratched the back of his neck.  He could remember on many occasions having walked past a companionless Reese, his eyes usually focused on the floor in front of him, clutching a book or two at his side, the awkward stilted gait he carried himself with more suitable for an enfeebled senior citizen than a teenager.  Yet suddenly every student in the school knew the kid well.  They had all seemed to have conversed with him on many occasions, even chummed around with him between classes.  Everybody had a story, the teachers even, and they were all similar, always referencing his kindness, his supposed love and appreciation for art and literature, his unassuming yet commanding intelligence. 

Leonard remembered him as the above-average-yet-not-spectacular shy kid that sat at the back of his freshman-level history class three years ago, the one who whispered when called upon to read passages aloud, the one who once turned in an in-class essay about Woodrow Wilson that read simply: Woodrow Wilson was the twenty-eighth President of the United States.  He was a racist and a fraud. 

“As many of you already know, Selman High lost a member of its family yesterday afternoon,” Leonard remembered hearing over the speakers the morning after Reese’s suicide, the voice of his employer, Principal Dean Martin, quivering slightly.  “Funeral plans will be released sometime over the next day or so.  Now we ask that, out of respect for our dear Mr. Wood, we give a moment of silence in remembrance of him.  Thank you.”

Seven years at Selman High, and last week was only the second time Leonard had to hand out slips of recycled paper with the printed numbers and email addresses of state-employed grievance counselors.  The first time occurred in only his third month on the job when a dropout turned prostitute was found cut up in the Schuylkill River outside Philadelphia, her hands and feet supposedly removed, her eyes partially digested in her stomach.  At least those were the kinds of stories that spread around the school whenever anyone discussed Lannah Gray, a lower-class black girl who didn’t own a car, whose hair wasn’t stylized with sown-in extensions, whose clothes weren’t hip or loose-hanging, whose pictures didn’t line the walls with gleaming-toothed cheerleaders and beer-guzzling socialites. 

Leonard was at least partially relieved at the lack of such rampant speculation in this case, though the contrived stories that had been regurgitated to him introduced an entirely new element to his grief.  He was grief-stricken after all.  A kid had killed himself.  A kid, that poor Reese Wood, had decided that standing in front of a moving train sounded better than having to spend another day among these people, among this rotting town.   A kid.  If he didn’t feel something now, when would he?

Local Boy’s Suicide Leaves Many Torn

That’s the headline Leonard read as he held his cellphone out in front of him, the screen displaying the same news story he’d read a dozen or so times over the last week.  Dean Martin had been quoted as saying that he’d never met a brighter young man.  He’d said that though he was quiet, the boy had managed to warm the hearts of those around him, had managed to form friendships that would forever endure long after the candle-light vigils and funeral services, which he didn’t doubt for one moment would be filled with hundreds of Selman High students, standing together as brothers and sisters. 

Local Boy’s Suicide Leaves Him Torn

That’s what Leonard read now.  That’s what the headline should have read, he thought, as it was the only thing that contained any element of truth to it.  Leonard was aware of maybe two or three kids who’d sat with the boy at lunch, two or three kids out of over one-thousand at Selman High who ever spoke more than a handful of words to him.  Two or three kids who didn’t cry loudly in the halls, who didn’t wear black t-shirts with his pale face plastered on the front of them.  Two or three kids whose pain was so palpable, they hadn’t mustered up enough energy to come to school since Monday, the day poor Reese Wood stepped in front of that screaming train.  Two or three kids who weren’t interviewed in that shoddy piece of phony sentimentality that somehow passed as journalism.

“What’re you wearing to the funeral?” asked Tricia Templeton, the brunette, her pitch almost playful.

“I haven’t really given it any thought,” replied Lara Motts.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve been to a funeral.  I have this black, lacy shawl I was going to wear over one of my cardigans.”

“Sounds cute.”

“Do I have any black pants?”  Tricia picked at the corner of her mouth as she posed this question to herself, her eyes scanning the ceiling.  “I have black leggings.  Of course.”  She exhaled, then bounced in her chair.  “Yes!  I have black pants.  I totally forgot!”

The funeral, Leonard thought.  He imagined the crowds of people that would show up by the carload, unloading into a swell of bodies full of teenagers and teachers poor Reese Wood never spoke to, all huddling together in dark clothing, uttering late apologies and exchanging fictitious memories they supposedly shared with the boy.

I can’t believe he’s gone, one would murmur.

But he was so quiet, another would say.

Leonard sighed.  When he was in high school, he viewed study hall as his down-time, a chance to catch another quick nap before Chemistry or Calculus, or if he’d had an especially large thermo of coffee in the morning, an opportunity to lose himself in a sports magazine.  Yet as a teacher, he viewed it much differently.  It was a time to grade papers, to tell students to put their phones away or to take the headphones out of their ears, to listen to echoing conversations about drunken escapades or faithless relationships.  He hated having to tell students to pipe down or to put away their electronic devices, but he’d do it, and when a student inevitably protested, he’d say something about reading or studying, as it was indeed a study hall.  But the wayward glances shot his way were enough to make him finally realize how much he hated teenagers.  How much gigabytes of data were they using when they sent waves of gossipy text-messages to their friends and hormone-fueled crushes, anyway?  Or when they streamed free music through battery-draining phone apps?  Did their parents protest when their phone bills were fifty dollars extra every month, or did they chock it up to their little angels’ impressive popularity?  Leonard felt old when examining these thoughts. 

He looked up at the clock on the back of the wall.  In ten minutes, the sixth period bell would ring, sending a stampede of jostling students through the auxiliary gymnasiums double-doors.  They’d leave behind a wake of empty Doritos bags and sticky remnants of spilt sports drink, and as Leonard gathered his things and left for his seventh-period philosophy elective, a grizzled janitor would mumble something under his smoky breath about not being paid extra to clean up his class’ mess.

Of course not, Leonard would think.  But I didn’t go to college to learn how to babysit.

Or maybe he had.

“I don’t want to sound inconsiderate,” droned Tricia, “but am I the only one who’s glad the funeral is on a Friday?”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Lara said with a smile.

“I mean it gives us a shorter weekend.  Ms. Tellison said that you only need a note from your parents excusing you from school on Friday, and it’ll be an excused absence.”

“That’s what I heard, too.  You’d think a lot of people would take advantage of that.”

“Probably,” Tricia concurred.  “But I’m not sure what they expect.  Like, you’d think they’d anticipate something like that happening.  But then again, it’s not like administrators will be at the funeral taking attendance.”

“Wouldn’t that be crazy?”

“Like an extra-credit opportunity.”

Lara laughed.  “I could use that in Lang and Comp.”

“You’re in AP?”

“Yeah.”  Lara sighed.  “Mr. Sullivan’s the worst.

Leonard actually agreed with this.  Tom Sullivan was a strange man, a superstitious and overly religious individual.  He believed in signs.  He believed that certain events or feelings or comments taken out of context had a deeper meaning to them, as if the world spoke to him through queer subtleties and pure happenstance.  When news of Rees’s suicide began to spread throughout the school, Tom Sullivan claimed to a group of his peers later that afternoon that he had seen trouble in the eyes of poor Reese Wood, that he had witnessed Satan’s grasp over the young soul.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Leonard remembered Tom Sullivan saying, the words heavy in his throat.  “He was simply lost.”

Simply lost.  The words echoed in Leonard’s head.  How does one become simply lost? Leonard wondered.  Nihilistic internet message boards?  Masturbation?  Pre-marital sex?  A lack of regular social stimulation?  A blossoming hate of one’s self, one’s current generation, one’s lot in life?  Do such souls become susceptible to demonic forces, forces that feast on the souls of the weak and wounded like parasites on the innards of an unlucky rodent? 

Maybe the kid was beaten by an alcoholic stepfather, Leonard thought.  Or perhaps his mother was a pill-popping homemaker who’d neglected her children in favor of some chemical numbness.  Or maybe he hadn’t killed himself, at least not deliberately.  Leonard remembered an article he’d read about a star athlete in some southern state who walked along the railroad tracks after school every afternoon.  The unlucky kid had been listening to music on his phone, of course, a bit too loudly perhaps, and he hadn’t heard the screeching train and its frenzied warnings before it pulled him under and devoured him.

Leonard decided that such a freak accident didn’t apply to Reese Wood.  He had heard rumblings that a suicide note had been found in the Anonymous Box outside of the main office, which had been placed there several years prior as a method for students to report instances of bullying, either witnessed or experienced, though it had primarily been used as a dumping ground for sexual epitaphs and expletive-filled condemnations towards various members of the staff, a result the Superintendent had deemed “disappointing” in a handful of newsletters sent to the parents of Selman High. 

“Disappointing” were the kinds of words used by mothers and fathers when showing their children unexpected spikes in their cell phone bills.  “Disappointing” were the kinds of words that rarely changed anything.

“Of course,” said Tricia, her thumbs tapping about the surface of her luminous cell phone.  “Shep isn’t going to the funeral.”  She moaned.  “He’s just gonna sign out early with the guys.  They have a case of beer I guess.”

“Getting started on the weekend early,” Lara quipped.

“I guess.”

“Is his mom writing him a pass?”

Tricia exhaled loudly and rolled her eyes.  “No.  You know Ms. Leslie, always flirting with the guys at the attendance office.  She’d let them get away with murder.  They’ll probably write notes themselves and she’ll lean forward with those fake-ass tits out, giggle, and let them go.”

“She definitely has her favorites,” Lara said.  “Kyle Ball is always late to school in the morning, and I don’t think he’s ever had an unexcused tardy.”

“This sucks.”  Tricia spoke without looking up from her phone.  “I don’t want to go by myself.”

“I’ll go with you,” Lara offered.

“Yeah, but he said he’d go.  I’m so mad!”

“I would be, too.”

“I’ll probably just end up staying home tomorrow,” said Tricia.  “I don’t have any homework due, and any quizzes I had were moved to next week.  I might as well be sick.”

“I’d do that, but my mom would never let me.”  Lara looked up at the clock, then bent down and grabbed the loop at the top of her backpack.

“You could go to the funeral,” Tricia offered.

“I don’t have anybody to go with.”

The bell rang.  Leonard grabbed the stack of half-graded papers and shoved them into a manila folder with the words Philosophy: 7th Period jotted on the front of it and placed them into a worn shoulder bag his ex-wife had given him the summer he graduated college.  By the time he’d gathered a used David Foster Wallace paperback into his hands, the gymnasium had grown silent, and he looked up to see the cavernous room empty, the floor spotted with crumpled pieces of notebook paper and discarded candy wrappers, much as he’d expected it would be.  He was sure to slide out the back door.

Leonard dragged himself through the sparsely filled hallway, the gleaming white brick walls lined with glossy posters that stressed the importance of Selman High team spirit in colorful calligraphic letters.  Illuminated sports posters clung to the walls as well, anchored by stylized black-and-white photos of the boy’s football and basketball teams, the words FIGHTIN’ HAWKS underlined and bolded, as if students were precluded to forgetting exactly which high school they had been attending all these years.  An anti-bullying poster with crude outlines of multi-ethnic interlocking fingers proclaimed that “We are all Hawks! We are all Friends!”  Another poster asked “How do you get your inspiration?” accompanied by cardboard cut-outs of baseballs, basketballs, footballs and golf clubs, books with the words Shakespeare and Faulkner written on them in black sharpie, beakers and test tubes, the masks of Thalia and Melpomene, musical notes, violins, and even a Christian cross and Islamic crescent moon. 

When Leonard turned the corner, he stopped.  Plastered on the wall in front of him was a blown-up image of Reese Wood, the pockmarks that blotched his skin as big as thumbprints, the exemplified bags under his eyes like thick shadows that haunted his face.  Two pieces of poster board were taped together next to the image.  A sharpie dangled from a piece of string held in place by Velcro on the wall, which had been used to jot-out messages by grieving students on the pieces of blank poster board.  Taped to the wall next to the posters was a note indicating that these would eventually be framed and presented to Reese’s family, as a memento, Leonard presumed, to the fact that nobody cared about their child until he decided that he no longer enjoyed living, opting instead to be crushed under the weight of a train, a fact that would be burned into his family’s minds for the rest of their lives whenever they heard the whistle of a locomotive or were inconvenienced by motion-activated stop bars at a railroad crossing. 

Most of the messages were short, opting for the long favored “RIP.”  Some of them were a bit longer, offering passages from the Holy Bible, or brief sentences that offered generic condolences like everlasting thoughts and prayers.  The more artistic ones drew three dimensional crucifixes or bundles of flowers.  One sketch showed a gathering of clouds that separated in the middle to reveal a set of opened gates that glistened with squiggly black lines.

Your son was a beautiful soul, one message proclaimed.  His, friendship, grace and kindness will be remembered forever.  He will never be forgotten.

Written just below the message in pristine cursive was the name Tricia Templeton.

“Poor Reese Wood,” Leonard sighed.  He then picked up the sharpie and drew a line over the words he had just read, taking particular care in forever darkening out the name of its author.




BIO: Austin Nichols is a lifelong resident of Ohio. He recently graduated from Ohio State with a bachelor's of arts in political science, and currently attends graduate school with hopes of obtaining a master's degree in public administration. He lives in the city he loves, Columbus, Ohio, and does what he loves to do most: reading and writing.