In October of his sophomore year, West Richard drove home from one of the football player’s parties drunk and hit a child in his neighborhood. The collision happened quickly: a thud and silence, then Flo Rida’s “Low” blasting on the stereo as West’s phone finally paired to his Bluetooth stereo. West just kept driving. He hadn’t known how to stop.
He spent the whole night in his basement, stone-still on the carpet floor. His phone played the same Tik Tok — a girl complaining about how men only like her bikini pictures on dating apps — over and over again until it died. It was only when the sun started to peek through the basement window that he pulled himself up and went for a run.
When he passed the house and saw a mailbox splayed across the curb, he almost sobbed. There had never been a child. West was stupid and reckless, but he was not a murderer.
And then he just kept running.
West Richard thought every day about the child he had almost killed. In the middle of a Chemistry test, he would see a pair of eyes on the paper: big and blue and still. During a race, he focused on a figure standing on top of a distant hill, wrists outstretched. Once, he heard the child sobbing in an empty corner of a Starbucks. He had been in the middle of a cross-country captain meeting with Larson, and he excused himself to go vomit in the bathroom.
When he came back, Larson’s expression scared him. He’d competed against her for leadership positions since elementary school, but he couldn’t recall ever seeing her eyes look that soft. When she touched him, he withdrew back into himself and continued reading the bullets on his Google doc with a monotone voice.
That same night, Larson and he were the last two people to leave the cross country bonfire. He had never been so aware of her presence: how close her hand was to his on the log, how she smelled faintly of sunscreen and barbeque sauce, how she breathed so evenly that it almost felt robotic. She leaned into him and he lifted a strand of her dark hair.
“You have marshmallow on your chin,” he observed.
“I’m well aware,” she replied, evenly.
They stared at each other. He knew the ending before it even began.
West dropped her hair and left her alone by the fire.
When he finally came home, half-drunk and reeking of weed, he saw the child up close in the flesh for the first time: crouched at the foot of his bed, reading one of West’s old picture books. The child was small and blonde and had only one shoe on: a green Croc that was starting to fade.
West barely acknowledged the child as he sunk into his bed and clicked off his side-table light.
“Goodnight,” West mumbled. He was faintly aware, as he fell asleep, of the child climbing into bed with him, furrowing himself into a cocoon under West’s outstretched arm.
The child didn’t have a dad. The child had been voted Funniest Kid in the Third Grade. The child danced in that way where it’s all knees and no hips. The child didn’t like edamame and he was allergic to melons. West probably knew more about the child than he knew about any of his friends.
It was ironic, really. West Richard had killed an imaginary child and now the child had become real. The only place the child didn’t follow him was on West’s runs.
West Richard was the second-fastest runner in the state. He started competitively running in the fifth grade when they ran the mile in gym class and he beat all the other kids by a whole minute. When West ran, all he had to do was focus on his breath and not any of the shit going on in his life. Like the fact that his father would not stop sending him letters from jail. Or that he had somehow convinced half the boys on his team he had done anal and now they wouldn’t stop making anal jokes.
The child came to his races more than his own mother did, almost every Wednesday home meet and even the ones hours away. The first time West saw the child dancing around one of the trees on the course, that was all he could focus on. That, and Larson’s voice when she cheered him on during the final half-mile: “Come on, West,” and her teeth all gritted like she was thinking, Show these bastards.
He won that race, somehow. Even when the child darted in front of him in the final yard and almost tripped him.
High school continued. West bought the child a stuffed pig and grew used to slumping against the wall at night to make room for the child’s body on his twin-sized bed. He won a State medal for the 800. He vowed to stop drinking multiple times, but he was always on someone’s bathroom floor by the end of the week. He sat in the parking lot every time his mother dragged him to see his dad, held a staring contest with the child and tried to ignore his queasy stomach.
Someone reported West to the guidance counselor for the scars on his thighs at the end of junior year. They weren’t visible unless he wore Spandex, so he knew it was someone on his team. There was only one person who watched him more than the child did.
“You know we can grieve for people who are still alive, right?” the guidance counselor asked him in between bites of fruit salad.
The child rolled back and forward on the floor like a dog.
“I don’t grieve over him,” West said.
The child stopped rolling when he heard the tone of West’s voice and tugged on the bottom of West’s shorts. West couldn’t touch him back—he’d tried before and it always made his stomach hurt like he’d eaten too much yogurt before a workout—so he just waved him off.
“What are you swatting at?” the counselor asked.
“There was a fly,” West said.
Later, at lunch, West got up to refill his water the same time as Larson.
“I only did it twice,” he said quietly.
She screwed the lid back on her bottle with a furrowed brow. “Are you mad?” she asked.
West let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “No,” he said.
The child peeled a banana sticker off of Larson’s jeans and looked at it thoughtfully.
“Okay,” Larson said.
“Can you see him?” West whispered, everything soft inside of him desperate for Larson to share his secret.
Larson looked around. “See who?”
The child held the sticker out to West.
Larson’s sister died the summer before their senior year. It was sudden. Some weird disease that the doctors were still only pretending to understand. She used to make hair ribbons for the girls on the team, pass them out shyly on the bleachers before meets. She was only fourteen.
Coach Kay organized a basket for Larson with letters and flowers and candy from everyone on the team. West handmade his card and wrote three long paragraphs about Larson’s strength and her endurance and how he believed she could probably shake the earth if she tried. But he saw the child looking at the card the next morning, and West wasted no time in snatching it away and shredding it to pieces. He bought a card from CVS on his way to school and signed his name in the school parking lot. The child ate licorice sticks in the passenger seat.
That afternoon, with the child gone as he always seemed to be during West’s history class documentaries, West thought of Larson’s eyes two years ago when he came back from the bathroom after hearing the child’s sobs. Before he could think too hard, he drew the card out of his backpack and added, “Love” before his own name.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had used the word. He didn’t even really say it to his mom.
West’s mom owned a coffee shop, and his dad had been a middle school history teacher. He had always been closer with his dad until the pictures his dad had taken of some of his female students were leaked. It was all the news would talk about for a week.
That was when West realized men weren’t shit. Now it was just him and his mom and he was fine with it, except she didn’t like murder mysteries and she really didn’t know anything about Algebra II/Trig and she never asked him what his mile times that day had been. These were small inconveniences—petty really—but somehow they ostracized West from his mother and they had grown into a pattern of quiet co-living over the past three years. She didn’t have time to see him run most days, so he had his teammates’ moms send her pictures. She posted them to Facebook with the hashtag #soproud.
At least West had company in the house when his mom was at work. The child liked to stand in the corner of the kitchen, staring into the cupboard while West pounded info into the Common App. Sometimes, West would talk to him.
“You already had candy today,” he said one afternoon. “No more.”
The child didn’t respond, but he turned to look at West, his eyes almost black. They seemed to be getting darker and darker every day.
A month after Larson’s sister’s death, Larson took a day off practice. She never missed school, and there was an important meet the next day. The girls on the team talked in hushed tones while Coach Kay paced the football field, muttering to herself. The boys laughed awkwardly about some Twitter thread the way they always did when shit got a little too real. West asked around for Larson’s new number. The child sauntered around the lamp posts and picked at clovers in the grass.
After practice, some of the varsity girls decided they were going to make an impromptu trip to Larson’s house. West had eavesdropped on their conversation as the team stretched. Before he knew it, he rose from his butterfly pose to ask Brittany if he could come with them. They all drove together in Brittany’s PT cruiser, one of the girls sitting on West’s lap so that all six of them could fit in the car.
Her dad answered the door. He looked at them with swollen eyes. “Hey, girls…” he noticed West. “…guys.”
One of the girls stepped forward, explaining why they had come to Larson’s house while West purveyed the lawn, trying to find the child. His heart was starting to race and he wasn’t sure why. “Well, you can come into the living room,” Larson’s dad was saying. “But I’m not really sure how well Larson is feeling. Don’t be hurt if she doesn’t want to come down. It’s…uh…it’s been one of those days.”
West was the last one left on the stoop, still distracted by the search for the child. “West Richard,” Larson’s dad announced, his sad eyes brightening the tiniest bit. “We never stop hearing that name in our house.”
West forced his eyes back to Larson’s dad. “Oh,” he said simply.
“You doing okay?” Larson’s dad asked. There was a depth to this question that West didn’t know how to answer at the moment.
West just shrugged. “Just applying to colleges. That kinda stuff.”
“Your mom’s new cinnamon rolls are just divine,” Larson’s dad said. “Jean and I went last weekend.”
West nodded quickly. “Yeah. She’s paying some local baker to make them for her.”
Once he was inside the house, his heartbeat only quickened. His eyes darted around the room, searching for the child as he carefully sat down at the end of Larson’s living room couch. The child had never been absent for longer than ten minutes. West crossed his legs, then uncrossed them as he tried to learn how to breathe again.
Callie, the girl who had sat on his lap in the car, turned towards him. “So, uh, West…do you think you’re going to Homecoming?” she said.
West tried to turn his attention to her face. There was a little mole above her lip that reminded him that they made out at a Fourth of July party last summer.
He shrugged again, the mole not really improving his concentration. He looked at Larson’s fireplace instead. On the mantle, there was a picture of Larson and Larson’s sister in matching pajamas.
Larson’s dad appeared in the doorway, holding a tray of cookies. “Hey, girls. Guys. Larson is actually asleep,” he swallowed. “But I know she’ll be back at school tomorrow. It was really nice of you guys to think of her.” He held out the tray as consolidation.
West’s eyes were on the picture frame.
The girls began to get up one by one, but West still felt like he couldn’t breathe. “You sure you’re doing alright?” Larson’s dad was in front of him.
“I feel…” West touched his face, trying to get his body to breathe normally. “Where’s your bathroom?”
After locking himself inside the large bathroom, West looked around. “Hey,” he choked out. “Are you…are you mad at me?” He turned around in a circle slowly. Maybe the child was playing some elaborate form of hide and seek.
“You can eat the M&Ms if you want,” he continued. “I don’t really like them anyway.”
The child was nowhere to be found.
West breathed out really hard and it turned into a heave. “What did I do? Can’t you just tell me?”
The bathroom was empty.
West shook out his wrists, turning around in a circle again. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was so stupid that night… I didn’t know how to…” he stopped talking when there was a knock at the door.
“West?” Larson’s dad called from outside. “I think the girls are about to leave.”
West opened the door abruptly. Larson’s dad looked at him with concern, the tray of cookies still in his hand. “Do you want some water? You look a little —”
“I should, um, go,” West said. He took a cookie and smashed it into his jacket pocket. “Thank you for having us.”
On the way out, West was stopped at the stairs. He turned around to find Larson in her pajamas holding an empty glass. West was almost certain they were the same pajamas from the photo frame. They looked at each other. “Just getting some water,” she said slowly.
West still couldn’t breathe. He gawked at her like she was a zoo animal. “It’s just me,” Larson said, waving a hand in front of his face. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“I’m sorry,” he said blankly.
She hesitated, then reached forward and lifted a strand of his hair. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.
She closed her eyes. “I know.”
Sidney Wollmuth is a double-major in Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing competition, Huffington Post, and No Contact Mag, among others. She was selected for the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute in 2020. She loses a lot of things. You can find her on Insta @sidneysgallerywall.