The Undecipherable Smiles

Creative Writing piece that I wrote for my Writing class’s final. It’s just a bit long.

 

I was out of work at the time. My last job had ended when the kid had entered high-school, as they usually do. I wasn’t in the mood to stick around for the kid’s graduation, so I walked over to the next town over. It was kind of sad how little a difference ten miles made nowadays. Not two hundred years ago that would’ve meant a world of differences.

Anyway, I was looking around for work in my usual places; schools, parks, and the occasional trip to the grocery store. I usually try to figure out if there’s a potential client by how stressed they act. Quick, harsh tone was a good sign. Exasperated was another. But there was a difference in the town I hadn’t seen last time I’d been here. Everyone was such a good actor now.

I almost gave up finding work there, but I had one more way to find work–the old fashioned way. I went door to door, asking if they needed help with anything. I emphasized the anything part. Door after door closed on me, until I was on the last residential street. It was Thursday afternoon, and I had two more days’ worth of money left.

Again, there was nearly no one that wanted my help, but the last house was providential. It was one of the more run down houses of the street, but still paradise for other streets. Its siding was peeling off like paint, and the wooden windows were caked in grime. The front door was probably the cleanest part of the house, and it had a faded cross on it.

I knocked on the door with my quick one, two, pause, three knock. No one answered at first, so I knocked again after the customary fifteen seconds. I was about to leave and move on to the next town, and hope I would be able to find work soon, but just then a young boy opened the door. He was just shy of ten, and had white-blonde hair. He was a very typical cute boy, really.

I could see the kitchen just to the left of the door. It was cluttered and looked like its cupboards had vomited out their contents. Just shy of straight ahead was a steep staircase leading upstairs, and the right of that and ahead was what I presumed was the livingroom. Off to the right was a rotting door that probably led into the garage.

The boy looked at me for a second, and then said, “What do ya’ want?”

“Is your mother or father home?” I replied.

“Yeah, you want to talk to her?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

He called up the stairs, “Mom! Some guy wants to talk to ya’.”

His mother soon appeared at the top of the stairs. She was frazzled as… well, heck, I suppose. She quickly came down the stairs and whispered something to the boy. He ran up the stairs, and the mother said, “Hello. What do you want?”

She said it curtly, which I could understand based on what little I had seen of her and her house. It was nearly perfect for my work. “I can’t help but notice you seem a bit frazzled,” I replied. She didn’t say anything, so I continued. “I’ve been working as a Mother’s Helper for several years. I recently finished one such job, and have been looking for someone new to help.”

She didn’t look nor sound impressed. “While I could certainly use the help, but I don’t know that I should believe that you have experience,” she said. Then she added in softer tone, “I’m sure you’re a fine gentleman, but I just wouldn’t want to let a stranger into my home.”

“Nor should you.” I thought about telling her of the times I’ve had to deal with such strangers–you can see them a mile off if you know what to look for–but I decided it would be better to just show her my references. I keep a notebook of all my most recent jobs in my backpack, along with a first aid kit, duct tape, and a journal. I pulled the notebook out and said, “These are from my previous jobs in this environment.”

She said nothing as she began to read them. I only had three, since I was supposed to be a teenager, but two of them were pretty lengthy. I thought it was all going pretty well at the time.

But she stopped after skimming them and said, “I’m sorry, I really can’t hire you. Money is tigh-”

But I didn’t let her finish her sentence. My reflexes kicked in when I saw the boy start to come down the staircase at just the wrong angle. As he tripped, I catapulted myself between the mother and the doorframe and halfway up the stairs. I caught him just short of a concussion, or worse. As I set him down at the foot of the stairs, I said to the mother, “I don’t actually need money, a place to stay and meals is all I’m after.”

“You just saved him,” she said breathlessly.

“No, he probably would’ve gotten a concussion, maybe knocked unconscious, but nothing too bad,” I replied. I was lying, partially. He certainly could have broken something, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.

She fiddled with a cross necklace that was on her neck for a moment. “I still don’t know if I can hire you, but I have to repay you somehow,” she said.

“How about you give me a trial run? Put me to work until sun down and then you can decide.”

“Alright, I suppose that’s fair. What sorts of things can you do for me?”

“Just about anything you need. I noticed the kitchen could use some cleaning up, want me to start with that?”

She agreed and showed me in, but not before thanking me immensely for saving the boy. I had missed the thanks my last family had given me. I had missed having a family. Even if this one wasn’t mine yet, it was nice to be able to help out again.

I was almost finished cleaning up in the kitchen. I had noticed a few kids’ drawings on the fridge that looked to be from Sunday School or something similar. It’s always a warning sign when I see such clear signs of religion, but hopefully they wouldn’t be too zealous.

Anyway, I was almost finished when the mother came in and asked, “I’m sorry, but I should have asked this before. What’s your name?”

It was always a tossup as to what name I should use. I never stuck with one for too long. “Isaac Jackson, ma’am.”

“Well, Mr. Jackson, I think I can manage to hire you. You said you only need meals and a place to stay?”

“Yes, ma’am, if that’s at all possible.”

“Well, alright. I’ll go get the guestroom ready.”

Something had been biting at me as I had been working, and I couldn’t accept the job without clearing it up. “Wait, I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t ask this. I’m not the religious type, will that be an issue?”

She smiled. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why she smiled. “Of course not, I’m sure you’ll be fine.” She started to head upstairs. “You can take a break, now, if you’d like.”

I didn’t, though. Since I’m as old as I am, I need to keep busy. People think they learn how to do nothing the older they get, but that’s only true if you’re in pain, which comes with age. For me, doing nothing is impossible. I had a stash of random stuff to do hidden in a tree in front of the middle school. It was mostly climbing and survival gear.

So I kept cleaning up. It was a wonder dinner could have been made without my work. It was one of the worst looking kitchens I’ve ever cleaned, and that’s saying something. I also kept watching because I wanted to make sure I continued to impress.

After another ten minutes of scrubbing at the various stains on the counter, I heard the front door open. I looked over and just barely saw the back of a girl that looked to be around twelve years old. It’s probably a good thing she didn’t see me before heading upstairs where her mother was. That would’ve scared her. I soon heard the mother coming down the stairs, but I decided not to be too observant.

“Didn’t I tell you to take a break?” she said when she reached the bottom of the steps.

I turned before responding and saw she was smiling. “Yes, ma’am, you did,” I replied, smiling back, “But I couldn’t leave the kitchen in such a state.”

She shook her head slowly. “Now, now, how old are you? Must be, what, at least twenty?”

Sure, let’s go with that, I thought to myself. “Yes, ma’am, twenty-two.”

“Well, then, since you’ll be living here for the foreseeable future, you can just call me Mrs. Wolfe. Ma’am is a bit much for me.”

I still haven’t met any 21st century parents that let me call them “ma’am” for very long, so I just smiled and nodded. “Sure, Mrs. Wolfe.”

I started to turn back to continue scrubbing, but Mrs. Wolfe stopped me. “No, no, you can stop now.”

“Well, I’ve got to do something.”

“Why don’t I introduce you to the kids?”

As glad as I was to finally have a family to work with again, that made me all the more glad. I’m sure it showed, because I didn’t need to say anything before she led me upstairs. At the top was a short hallway with three doors, one on each side, and one at the end. The hall was very lightly adorned, with only a few simple paintings next to the left-hand door.

The right-hand room was the boy’s. His name was Jason. He was nine, and was “busy” playing with building toys, which covered the floor, so we went across to the girls’ room. Katherine, or Kate, as she preferred, was also busy, but with homework. I was a little disappointed how little they cared about my existence, but I was sure I could win them over at some point.

Just before we left the room, Kate said, “Oh, Mom, Mrs. Bailey can’t give me a ride tomorrow.”

“Can you get another ride?” Mrs. Wolfe said, obviously a little anxious.

“No, it’s too short notice.”

I looked between the two and asked, “Something I can do?”

“I wouldn’t want to ask you to do anything like this so soon…” replied the mother.

The middle school wasn’t too far away, but the neighborhood wasn’t that great. “I can escort her home if you want. I know the area, it would be fine.”

It took some persuading, but I eventually got her to let me. It wasn’t really that she didn’t want me to; it was just that she was too darn nice about not wanting me to do too much. Kate seemed to see it as bitter sweet. Her mother told me later that night that she enjoyed her after school activity, so she would’ve hated to miss it.

Mrs. Wolfe showed me the guestroom after that. It was the room at the end of the hall. Apparently she slept in Kate’s room, which I thought odd. If you have an extra room, why wouldn’t you use it for what it was meant for? And it did seem more like a parents’ room than a guestroom. It was one of the neatest rooms in the house, and had a double bed, which would be plenty of room.

I’m sure I gave Mrs. Wolfe a workout giving me stuff to do in the meantime. Towards noon of the next day she ran out of stuff for me to do, so I resorted to writing in my journal. There’s no way I would be able to remember everything I’ve done in my life, so I write some of it down. It also gives me a chance to talk about my curse with someone, even if that someone is myself. Finally, though, I left to pick Kate up.

It was a quick walk to the school, and would’ve been a quick walk home if I hadn’t hit an unexpected snag. See, I had been with a family about twenty years ago at this same school, but I didn’t think that would be an issue since that was so long ago. Problem was, the kid had always been into teaching the other kids, so I should have at least seen her career choice coming.

As I was walking with Kate out of the school, one of the teachers came running over. “Matthew,” she exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you in ages! You promised you would visit.”

“Wait–Jenny?” I smiled.

She nodded. “Jennifer now, or, I suppose, Miss Nelson. Is this your latest ward?”

“Yes. I just started work with her family yesterday.” I really hoped she would get the hint. Jenny was one of the few people I’ve told about my curse, and so also one of the few people I worry about running into when I’m with someone who doesn’t know.

“Ah, well I guess I’ll get to see you a bit more now that you’re working here in town again. We should talk some time.” She got the hint, fortunately.

“Yeah, that would be nice.” I gave her a hug and whispered, “My name’s Isaac.”

I couldn’t tell if Kate had noticed the name discrepancy; if she did, she didn’t show it. She seemed to be rather cold. That’s a trait no child should have. I waved goodbye and we made it home just fine after that. As far as I knew, Kate never told anyone about that encounter.

I awoke around two in the morning. I wasn’t entirely aware of what it was, but I felt like something was wrong. I don’t know how I knew, especially since I hardly knew what normal was in this house. I told myself it was nothing, but then I heard footsteps downstairs.

It could’ve been one of the kids, or even Mrs. Wolfe, but it didn’t sound right; too heavy. Just in case, I got up and went downstairs quietly. At the foot of the stairs I could hear the footsteps in the kitchen now. Whoever it was had shoes on, and normally you wouldn’t sleep with any on.

I peeked around the corner and had my fears confirmed. It was a burglar. He was rummaging through the utensil drawer, trying to be quiet about it, but failing. I stepped into the kitchen and he spun around as I said, “You should leave.”

He stared at me quietly. His eyes gave away his age–probably just out of high school–and his fright.  At one time I would have envied him for being brave enough to rob a place, but I now realized the desperation it takes to do this. He looked the part, though; black hoodie and ski mask.

I took a step towards him.

“Stay back!” He hissed and stepped back against the counter.

I took another step forward. “Just surrender now and you can save some time.”

“Back off,” he said, and pulled out a gun from inside his hoodie. It was a 9mm handgun, but I couldn’t tell the model.

“You don’t have to shoot anyone,” I said calmly and took another step forward.

I misjudged him. One shot. Two. The mind goes into overdrive when you’re in a dangerous experience. One hit in my chest, tearing through the top right of my heart. The other went into my left lung, just barely being stopped by the back of the ribcage.

As I fell, I saw the burglar run back through the front door. I went into an effective coma. Anyone else would be dead, or close enough to it. I could see the outside of my body, then. Mrs. Wolfe came down the stairs. She was shocked and immediately made sure the kids didn’t see.

I came out of the coma as she crossed the room to the phone. She picked up the phone and looked back at me as I started pushing myself up.

“Isaac! Are you ok?” She exclaimed.

I managed to groan out, “Don’t call them.”

She lowered the phone, but not all the way. “What? Why?”

I stood up and started to drag myself to the door. “Because I’m not sticking around for them.” I pushed the door open and started limping and running. I made it all the way to the tree infront of the middle school. I used some of the supplies to get the bullets out, and then fell asleep in the top of the tree.

I woke up with a stiff neck and sore chest. I thought about going back to see if the Wolfes were ok, but I didn’t want them to know about me. Instead, I put a coat on to hide the bullet wounds and found a pay phone in a diner to call Jenny’s family, who gave me Jenny’s number. She agreed to breakfast in an hour, and I waited for her there.

I can’t do nothing, except when I’m in pain, which two bullets to the chest tends to do. Then I just sit and wish I had ibuprofen. After about a half an hour, one of the employees asked if I was ok. I would assume I looked like I had a hangover, so I just waved them off after ordering some coffee.

After what felt like ages, Jenny came in and sat across from me. “You ok?” she asked.

“Course I am, but I was shot last night,” I whispered.

“How?”

“Burglar. He had a gun, and he was scared.”

“Does the family know?” She pushed her hair onto her back. I missed her short hair.

“They know I was shot, but I ran before they could call 911.” I pushed back my coat and showed her the bullet holes. “Both potentially lethal.”

“Ouch.” She grimaced. “But you’re ok, right? Still can’t die?”

“Yes,” I sighed, and after a brief pause continued. “I’m tired of living for hundreds of years and not knowing why. I’m tired of not dying for no reason.”

“Have you asked anyone about it? Like maybe a scientist or a priest or something?”

“Whenever I’ve done that it’s always ended badly. One day I was a prophet, the next, a witch. Nowadays I would probably be an alien.”

“You should give people a chance.” She thought for a bit. “Come with me to church tomorrow, you can ask my pastor.”

“You’ve gone religious? Since when?” I could not see her in church. It would’ve been way to rule-heavy for the rebel kid I used to know.

“Since college. There was this great youth pastor that never gave up on me. So, will you come?” She was so excited. I didn’t understand why.

“I don’t know. I’ll think about it.” It was a stretch to expect me to go, but even more so to ask her pastor about my immortality.

“Need a place to stay?” She was still smiling. It was the same smile Mrs. Wolfe had given me when I asked if my agnosticism would be a problem.

“No, I can get a room at a hotel or something. I’ll figure it out.”

“Ok. On a lighter note, how’ve you been this past two decades?”

We talked for a bit, but then she had to head home. As she left the diner she said, “See you tomorrow morning!”

“I haven’t agreed to that,” I called after her. She just smiled again.

I grabbed some of my survival gear and went for a hike for most of the rest of the day, which also included some safety-less rock climbing. I climbed up into one of the more comfortable trees towards the top of the mountain and got a chance to write in my journal. By the time I fell asleep, I still hadn’t decided whether I would go in the morning or not.

I slept later than usual that night, and instead of outright deciding to go or not, I started down the mountain. I made an agreement with myself that if I got down in time to go to Jenny’s church, I would go, otherwise I would head into a new town to search for a new job.

Lo and behold, I got down just in time for the morning service. Jenny was waiting for me at the door and dragged me by the hand into a seat.

“I haven’t agreed to asking your pastor yet,” I whispered to her.

“Why else would you be here?” She replied before turning and saying hi to another churchgoer.

Because I made a bet with myself, that’s why, I thought to myself. I stood for the singing with everyone else out of respect, but I didn’t sing. Really everything about the service was geared towards people that already believed, especially the sermon. It wasn’t bad, as I recall, but it was all about how Christians should be. It was no use to me. I did notice that the pastor emphasized a good heart, and not good acts, a desire to follow the rules just because. I thought that was good. As he said, “the behaviors are a symptom of the problem.”

After the service, Jenny dragged me up to the pastor and said to him, “Hey, Rich. My friend Isaac has a question for you.”

“Ok, go ahead, Isaac,” he said as he looked at me.

“Can we speak in private?” I asked.

“Sure,” he replied and led us to his office. It had all sorts of stuff spread around; little trinkets from people and places, books, and two nice looking, but ultimately cheap, chairs in front of his desk.

We all sat down and I started the question. I didn’t know how far I would go, but I said, “I can’t die.”

I let the pastor ask for clarification. “That’s not exactly what eternal life means-”

“And I’m agnostic.”

“Oh.”

“Last night I was shot; once in my left lung, once in my heart. I’ve fallen off a cliff, drowned, and been run through with a sword. I don’t age, either. I’ve been in the conquest of Britannia, the Thirty Years War, and both World Wars. I can’t die.”

He stared at me for a bit before Jenny chimed in. “It’s true, he’s not crazy,” she said. “He babysat me twenty years ago, and he looked exactly the same. One day we were hiking up a mountain on a narrow path and I slipped. He caught me, but in doing so caused himself to fall. I thought he was dead, but by the time I had walked back down to the bottom of the cliff, he was awake again.”

“So my question for you,” I said to Rich, “Is why? Why can’t I die?”

“Do you want my personal opinion, or my scientific opinion?”

“Science is obviously wrong if I exist.”

“Then I think that God has a plan for you. I don’t claim to know it, but I believe that you are a part of God’s sovereign plan, however frustrating that may be for you.”

“How can you believe that so easily?”

“God gives me the strength to trust Him.”

I didn’t like that answer, nor did I like it the next time I heard it, or the next, or the time after that, but it just kept happening. I would meet someone, I would find out they were Christian, they would find out about me, and then they would give that smile. That oh so impossible to decipher smile. I recently met with Jenny again. She’s 52, now, and has a kid in college. We talked, more this time, especially about God, and I finally figured out what that smile meant. God has a plan for you.

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