By John Thomas Tuft

Jeremy came home from school, went up to the bedroom and into the walk-in closet. From there he opened the small door and passed through to the cubby hole behind it, into the shadows of that cluttered space with the single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Then he removed the piece of plywood and piece of insulation sheeting to burrow beyond, into the small cave right under the eaves. There he sat in the dark and listened with headphones to Chumbawumba singing ‘Tubthumping.’ “He sings the songs that remind him of the good times, he sings the songs that remind him of the better times…I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down…” When his parents found him several hours later, Jeremy could not get up again. In his notebook they found a note: if you smile when you see me, my life is a success.

“Nobody knows I’m here,” says Samantha, a teenager on TicTok. “I know I’m ugly, but what can I do about it?” The video shows a girl with straight brown hair, deep brown eyes, and a sober smile. Behind her on the wall is a K-Pop poster, the group BLACKPINK. “I want to be badass like them,” Samantha says as she jerks her thumb over her shoulder indicating the South Korean singers. The motion pushes her sleeve up, revealing a neat line of scars. She notices and shrugs. “When I cut, at least I know I’m here.” She peers hard into the camera lens of the phone. “My mom told me that when she was a kid everybody knew that if you swallowed a bottle of Tylenol, it wouldn’t kill you. Just make you sick as a dog. Then your parents might listen.” She rolls her eyes. “Apparently, hers did not. You would think she would have learned from that.” She falls back on the bed with a loud sigh. “She did not.”

Tyler takes out his phone, checks his hair, and hits the ‘live’ streaming button on Facebook. A shock of curly hair and the beginnings of a young man’s shadow of whiskers.  “It’s all about the Benjamins, ya know?! Jesus gonna be real and get me that job, ya know?! Gotta keep my lady bein’ fine!  That Dragon’s Breath ain’t gonna buy itself, ya feel me?! China White, a little Dance Fever, whatever, man.” He walks down the street, showing the perfectly ordinary houses in a perfectly ordinary town. “These people don’t know, none of them feels good about their lives. My parents never caught on that I was sneaking their Captain Cody. My dad had it for his hurt shoulder. I liked the way it made me feel and moved on up. Like nothing can hurt me, you feel me?” His face reappears, looming large. “Hold on, gotta reach out and touch my hook up.” He smiles as his thumbs race over the letters. “Oh snap! Sweet Jesus, gonna be a good night! He’s got some blues, too. We gonna be trippin, ya feel me?” Then he is gone into the night.

Freida looks up with suspicion and a challenge. “Yeah, we live in our car. What are you going to do about it?” She climbs out, stuffs some clothing back into the vehicle spilling out behind her. “My mom works, she works hard. Me and my little brother know she doesn’t want us to live here, but it’s all we can afford.” She turns and takes in the surroundings with a sweep of her arm. There are tents, cardboard boxes, shopping carts, plastic bottles and other detritus of civilization scattered everywhere. “Everybody thinks we are losers, that we don’t want any better. Please, you tell me. Who wants this?” She looks down at the ground and goes on in a quiet voice, “Yeah, I have dreams. Getting out of here, for one. Getting through school and go to college. I can do it, but my little brother has bad asthma. After food and his medicines, there is not much left.” She turns to climb back in. “You better go. The cops sweep through here in about five minutes.”

 The tourist stands there, trying to comprehend what he is seeing. An ordinary, run of the mill, set of concrete steps rise before him. All around him it is still, the air quiet, the noises suppressed. He slowly blinks once, then again. But they are still there. Shadows of human beings who are not there. Burned into the concrete of the steps. When the nuclear weapon went off at Hiroshima it sent superheated fiery air traveling at the speed of light. Human bodies are made mostly of water. They vaporized in an instant, leaving their shadows behind. For us to ponder.

If you smile when you see me, then my life is a success…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.