Lunchtime sucked when your best friend was at home sick. Sure, I could hang out with those I labeled ‘school friends,’ but then I’d be the kid who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the group. As a freshman, as a lanky fourteen-year-old, and as someone who flew under the radars of those who enjoyed harming the younger class, I was fine right where I was sitting: alone on the bleachers overlooking the football field.
I was about to make my way toward my next class — Spanish with Ms. Gonzalesto — when a familiar shadow stalked his way along the edge of the turf. It was Leonard, or better known by the nickname Silent Lenny.
Leonard, for I never call him Silent Lenny, has lived three blocks from my house our entire lives. We went to the same elementary school, had the same teachers, and used to be friends. Best friends. But once we started middle school, things changed. Leonard turned into someone different. He stopped interacting with others, including me. He let his hair grow until his eyes were barely visible, he began wearing the gloomiest clothes, and he started posting the most depressing and vaguest sentences on social media. His post from last night was no different: Check beneath the willow.
Now, since we used to be friends, I think I understand some of the post. The willow he’s referencing is this gigantic tree that rests in the corner of Wintry Park. We used to hang out there all the time, but that was years ago. Way before Silent Lenny was born. Why is he telling the world to check beneath it? I haven’t a clue.
I waved as Leonard glanced my way. He saw me, his brown irises were like revolving prisons inspecting my friendly gesture, but he averted his eyes and said not a word.
“Typical,” I whispered.
If someone asked me why Leonard is the way he is, I’d say it’s because of his stepdad. I hardly know the guy, but since his mom remarried, which was during the summer between sixth and seventh grade, Leonard has never been the same.
As Leonard distanced himself from where I sat, I watched as trouble flocked his way. Mason and the three goons––a nickname for the bullying foursome at our school––approached Leonard like a pack of wolves. A chant of “Silent Lenny” reverberated my way.
I wanted to help, truly I did, but the last kid who stood up to Mason wound up with a broken nose. That seemed a steep price to pay for someone who refused to wave back at you.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched as Mason and the three goons shoved Leonard back and forth like a dangling piñata. Their chanting was replaced with laughter and slurred curses. I shook my head, sighed, then muttered, “Please, have mercy on my nose.”
As I stood to run into the arms of a beating, the bell rang. Lunch was over. I watched the final shove from Mason, which planted Leonard into the grass, then the bullying foursome trudged their way to join the stampede of students heading to their next classes. Leonard lucked out.
Slinging my backpack over my shoulder while walking down the concrete steps that led to the field, I wondered if Leonard needed my help anymore. He was back on his feet, brushing at the grass stains maiming his backside. I realized he wasn’t okay when I saw him wipe his eyes.
“Hey,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder. A faint stench of body-odor flayed my nostrils. “I know we aren’t good friends anym––”
“I saw you,” Leonard said, sniffling. “I saw that you were ready to help. To help me.” Leonard reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded piece of paper. He slowly handed it to me, as if he wasn’t sure of what he was doing. “Read this after school. I’ll wait for you beneath the willow.”
Leonard, sweeping his unkept hair from his eyes, hurried away before I could ask anything. I was left standing alone in the grass, wondering what was written on the paper.
After school I rushed home. Once I was in the privacy of my room, I pulled out Leonard’s note.
Asteroids fall. Some may fall alone, some in bunches, but every asteroid burns up and vanishes. I’m an asteroid. An asteroid created by those who scar me, and by those who are blind to my painful existence. And now I fall. Alone. May the stars who continue to exist do so without me.
When I arrived at the willow, the sky was cast in a conflagration of crimson and orange. Leonard was already there. He had a rope in his hand, tied around his white-knuckled fist like a cast. The branches wept onto his shoulders as a mother would to prevent her child from running off into danger.
“We’re all asteroids,” I said, removing the bunched paper from my pocket. “We’ll all fall, as you said, but it’s not a choice. It’s everything… except a choice.” I swallowed the lump seizing my throat. All this time the friend I once knew was suffering, and I did nothing until today.
“I,” Leonard pressed his palms into his eyes. His shoulders shook as if from chill. “I thought no one cared. I thought I was alone.” When he removed his hands, his eyes were as red as the descending sun at his back. “But I was proved wrong when you attempted to help me.” He gasped as he threw the rope out into the field of grass.
I stepped forward, then sat beside Leonard with my arm around his shoulder. The thought of how I almost failed to come to his aid today will haunt me for an eternity. But I did come, or at least I tried to, anyway. And that was enough save my friend.
Cody Nowack lives in southwest Montana where he can be found hiking to the tops of mountains, whitewater rafting, snowshoeing, and, in the harsh winter months, huddled next to his fireplace. His love for helping others allows him to create magical stories where all things are possible.
This story is featured today for Every Day Fiction’s eleventh birthday.