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New Year’s Eve, a man and a woman went for a walk near the road named for luck.

They ambled through corn cockle and duck-lettuce, the thick woods a blindspot to the west. The man spoke of their plans, a quick drink before attending the woman’s friend’s party, where they’d be up late dancing, how they’d sleep in the next morning, bowed across the mattress. The woman listened to the hum of the man, his words shuffling past dented soda cans, his thoughts disseminating along the dirt road. The man and the woman followed a line, not looking, woolgathering. The woman was aware of man’s boots, galumphing like dogs on the winter ground.

A man and a woman went for a walk this New Year’s Eve, near the road named for luck, and found the skull of a boy. They would miss the woman’s friend’s party to tell the story of their discovery to the police, blood warming their faces as they stood in a patch of witchweed. They wouldn’t be able to sleep late the next morning, or at all.

Skull of Local Man Found in Woods.

In death, the man was held in abeyance. When the newspapers weren’t calling him “local man,” they called him “Mr. W.” In fourth grade, he was “Danny.”

Danny had long since vanished from my memory, a child at the edge of a photograph, his hair like the bangs of a horse. A skinny brown belt holding up his uniform pants.

Danny disappeared in 2000, a man at twenty-two, no note, no wallet, no cell phone. Ten years missing, ten years his mother looking for him, marking his birthdays. Yet Danny had never really gone. He had been there all along, his skull blooming in the ditch like a mushroom.

Investigators with both the sheriff’s office and the coroner’s office will try to determine the cause of Mr. W’s death.

Dental records, cadaver dog teams, forensic anthropologists. He was depressed, his mother said. He had not gone in to work. Tests will tell us if Mr. W was intentionally killed, struck by a car, or died of natural causes. Ovals you fill in with lead, A, B, C or none of the above.

Danny had never seemed depressed. He could count his innumerable ambitions on his fingertips. He ran every recess; he was short but quick. He was average and unremarkable, elfin and sturdy. He lived under a halo of dust and blood. A collection of minor injuries, sick days on the office couch, skinned knees and threadbare socks. He was a little boy, so he was all of those things. He was a promise.

1988, St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School, we climbed on plastic chairs for the class photograph. Danny was instructed to stand directly in front of me, slightly to the left. Fourth grade, Mrs. Dunn’s class. The next year, Sr. Fintan arranged us for our class picture. We stood on the same chairs, in nearly the same position. 1989. Danny would change schools soon. We are eleven in this picture, and in a few months, I will never see him again. Not as Mr. W., at twenty-two. Not at thirty-three, the age I am now, the age we might both have been.

I think about his mother, waiting. Ten years for the wound to change shape. 2011, she was going to begin a new year, the mystery beginning to scab over. Another year of believing he was still alive. Was it better to have had the mystery?

“We knew this boy,” my friend said to me. We read the newspaper. A skull near lucky Shamrock Road.

I didn’t tell her I couldn’t remember anything about him. That when I thought of him, I thought about the boy from the photograph, my memories culled from a single image. A morning in 1988 spent standing on a plastic chair, the back of his head in front of me. I didn’t admit to her that I had forgotten his name.

“This was Danny,” she said. “He was there with us.”

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Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus). Her work has appeared in over a dozen journals, including G.W. Review, Minnesota Review, Crab Orchard Review, Matador Travel, and The Millions. She’s currently at work on a collection of short stories and a second novel. You can visit her website at www.elizabetheslami.com

21 responses to “None of the Above”

  1. Beautiful, haunting piece, Elizabeth, like a modern day Yorick tale for a new year. Always enjoy your writing.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Nathaniel,

      Thanks so much for the feedback! I’m a big fan of your writing too.

      • Stan Smith says:

        Wow! I read this story a couple times and have thought about all day. I have to say this story really hit me. This would make a great novel. I always find your writing to be interesting and thought provoking.

        • Elizabeth says:

          Thank you, Stan! I’m so glad you found it interesting, and I’m honored that you carried it around with you all day.

  2. Jessica Blau says:

    This is a wonderful piece, Elizabeth. I can imagine a whole novel coming out of this idea of the almost-invisible person who later holds great ghostly power.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Jessica!
      Re: the novel — I was thinking the same thing, though it feels inappropriate for me in some sense. Maybe I’m just too close to it. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful idea, and I love novels that work through a personal mystery in that way.

      Speaking of novels, congrats on all the buzz about Drinking Closer to Home. I’m so excited for you! Can’t wait to read it.

  3. This is an amazing, haunting, vivid work, Elizabeth! I’ve read it twice so far this morning. Each time I find a new line or two to dwell on. Like this one: “A collection of minor injuries, sick days on the office couch, skinned knees and threadbare socks. He was a little boy, so he was all of those things. He was a promise.” Love it.

    • Elizabeth says:

      That’s incredibly generous of you. I don’t think there’s a higher compliment than reading something twice. Thanks, Cynthia!

      After I publish something, I always want to go back and change it, even after multiple revisions, but I was pretty happy with that passage you mentioned too.

  4. Reminds me of some crazy news stories I worked on. Sad, crazy, haunting, real. And “galumphing.” I must look up this word. I’m going to be saying it all day long.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Nick. Glad you enjoyed it, and have fun with “galumphing.” I’m obsessed with the weed names, myself: corn cockle, witchweed, duck lettuce. I kind of wanted to throw in velvet fingergrass, three-cornered jack, and goatsrue, but I figured that would be a bit much. 🙂

      • Nice, coined by Lewis Carroll. I love it.

        Weeds. Made me think of the ruins of the Ohio & Erie Canal near Peninsula, Ohio, and all the duckweed and turtles poking their heads up through it.

        I didn’t think to put any plant names in my latest piece. I’d have to research a few different palm varieties. Washington Palm and some other palm are most common in Las Vegas. Crud, I can’t remember. Your weeds are much more interesting. Velvet fingergrass is my favorite of those you listed that you didn’t include.

  5. I read this earlier and was really so moved and so saddened that I didn’t know if I could sufficiently express that to you. I still don’t. But this piece has haunted me all day and I thought you should know. It is disquieting and unnerving and beautiful and terrifying all in one. Thanks…

    • Elizabeth says:

      Wow — that’s an enormous compliment. I’m so glad it stayed with you.

      For what it’s worth, it has haunted me too, both the event itself (or news of the event, which is probably why it’s so haunting, because it happened without anyone knowing) and the writing of this essay. I keep asking myself even now if it was the right thing to do, writing about such a tragedy. I hate to think I’m somehow exploiting his death or the grief of his family. On the other hand, I’ve also always believed that writing helps the brain work through such things, layer by layer. The tragedy and the mystery stay with you, but the words are the rope you use to lower yourself down into it for a time, and what you use to pull yourself out.

      Thanks again for your kind words, Robin.

  6. Matt says:

    I’ve read this three times now. What an incredibly sad, haunting piece, Elizabeth. And yet told in such vivid, beautiful language. Like a portrait of loss painted in the brightest watercolors.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you, Matt. I’m grateful for that, especially coming from you. You’re one of my favorite TNB writers. And you post incredibly cute pictures of baby wallabies. At least I think that was a wallaby…

  7. Greg Olear says:

    I echo what everyone else has said…well told and haunting. Really great piece.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks a bunch, Greg. It was a tough one to write, for obvious reasons, especially managing the tone. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    To use, once again, the word – haunting, Elizabeth. It’s the most apt and fitting word for this piece, which is why, I guess, everyone has used it.

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