The Way Things Are by Bailee Cofer

The smell of dog and discount laundry detergent

You don’t know how the other neighbors never seemed to smell it. The scent stuck to everything that came out of the house. The house that sat on the corner of the block in the middle of an affluent suburb in one of the safest cities in America. It lingered in Austin’s clothes and his hair, from the day you met to the day he disappeared. The smell of a mother’s house is hard to scrub off.

When you were young you played outside of his house in the yard or on the street. Being inside meant talking to his mother. Meant getting a lecture on the rapture. Meant watching Dr. Phil. So you usually rode your bikes until his mother stood in the driveway and yelled at Austin to get in the house right that minute and read the Bible as punishment for not wearing a helmet.

You’ve never found that same smell in anything except him. You don’t know if his house still smells like that because the dog died, and his mother might have switched laundry detergents in the past five years, but you kind of hope it still smells the same and that wherever he is, he smells different now.

A dead bunny

The summer before high school you found a baby bunny that strayed from its nest. It quivered on the cement sidewalk, too young to open its eyes, so you wrapped it up in a dishrag and carried it to his smelly home. Then you placed it in a shoebox and let Austin’s mother take over. You watched as she ran her finger under lukewarm water from the kitchen sink, then lifted the tiny body from the box and rubbed its genitals. She said she had to rouse it to make it go to the bathroom, since the mother rabbit wasn’t there to lick it and make it defecate. It died after three days. His mother told you the news through exasperated tears, devastated to see her labor of love wither so quickly. You and Austin dug a hole and buried the bunny next to the driveway in the middle of an affluent suburb in one of the safest cities in America.

When you go home on breaks from school, you often walk by that driveway, but the little mound is long gone. Your small hands that packed in the earth have turned into bigger, more powerful forces. You try not to think about his hands. About the small ones that reached for yours, or larger ones that slammed doors and threw glass bottles. But every time you pass the driveway, you think of his hands, and you face the emptiness that accompanies the thought.

Still, it’s comforting, knowing what lies beneath the dirt.

An old green minivan

As you got older and started high school, Austin’s mother kept him at home. She didn’t let him get his driver’s license. She didn’t let him have a phone. You saw him and she saw him and you’re sure the neighbors saw him but nobody looked at him.

He’d sneak booze into his basement. Or he’d sneak out the back door to smoke cigarettes with the blonde girl from the adjacent neighborhood. Then he’d sneak the smell into his mother’s house in the morning.

She’d kick him out of the house every time he said the words fuck you and she’d send him to the crappy green minivan in the driveway to spend the night with no dinner.

You visited him some nights. You’d bring a plate of food from the dinner your own mother cooked and sit in the smelly, dog-and-discount-laundry detergent van and watch him eat. He talked to you about getting high. Or drunk. About the stick-and-poke tattoos on his arms. About the blonde girl, and the cigarettes, and what it would feel like to jump on the back of a slow-moving westbound train.

You wonder what would’ve happened if one of those nights you would have really looked at him. So that he knew you were looking at him. So he’d have seen beyond the walls of his house when he looked at your face. You wonder what would’ve happened if you’d listened—given him the choice to not be alone.

Instead, there was a dog, and lots of bibles, and a dead bunny, and a mother, and then there was you, sitting in a crappy green van in a driveway in the middle of an affluent suburb in one of the safest cities in America, next to an invisible boy who didn’t get to choose.

A plastic red guitar pick

He was good at guitar. Might still be. Was a terrible singer but he wrote you a song once. After he sang it he gave you the guitar pick and you kept it in a safe place when he left. You had dreams of his return. You’d press it in his hand and say, see? I waited for you to come back.

Later on you lost it. You don’t remember trying too hard to find it. By the time he came home, it had disappeared. You’d stopped waiting. When Austin walked across his driveway in the middle of an affluent suburb in one of the safest cities in America, you pretended you didn’t see, just like everyone else.