April 13th was a school day, and it was the last time I saw Oscar.
I can’t get it out of my head, the glances snuck between us during our Latin quiz last period. I can still see his plain t-shirt hugging his broad shoulders, then draping down his lithe body so perfectly underneath his green canvas jacket. He wore that stupid jacket everyday, even if it was hot out. It fit him really well though so I didn’t mind. That jacket plus his skinny jeans tapered his perfect shape. I can’t escape the way his curly brown hair fell on his olive face, inviting yet sharp, in the way aloe vera is a soothant hidden inside a rough exterior. He let me inside. I felt special. He was good at that, making me feel special. Maybe that was what helped our relationship last so long. People say “it was meant to be”, which is cute, but not how I felt with Oscar. It wasn’t that we were meant to be, no, it felt like we had to be.
Of course, it couldn’t last. Nothing good does. He disappeared that very night, the police say. His parents saw him go to his room that evening, and the next morning his bed was still made. They declared him a runaway, a kid desperate to get away from suburbia, despite our plans to go out together the next day.
They didn’t know him. He loved me, I loved him, and we were so fucking happy. Their conclusion was wrong, he hadn’t run away, something had taken him away, I knew it. The police couldn’t see it the way I could, they didn’t understand. Of course, I couldn’t explain that to them. Couldn’t out myself in this town. I cried a lot those first few weeks. My parents couldn’t figure out why my friend’s disappearance had hit me so hard. It’s stupid, but sometimes I would see a meme I wanted to send him, and I couldn’t. So there I was, crying over a meme. Grief makes you stupid.
That’s what I was doing for those first few months, grieving. I knew he hadn’t ran, but I knew the police were to be no help. The prognosis was grim, I thought, and I essentially gave up. It wasn’t until June, until summer break, that I found something. I was moping, griefstruck and lovesick. I went through our texts, to try and relieve my pain and relive our love. All it stood to do was hurt me more. It was then, scrolling back, tears in my eyes, that I noticed something. A weird late night text:
I feel so stupid for missing it then, but I found it now. He spells out FOREST HELP with the first letter of every text. Like how dumb am I to miss that? I guess if you’re just getting drunk texted by your boyfriend, you’re less likely to “search for clues”. FOREST HELP incensed me. He needed help, and I was the only one who was there for him. He needed me now.
Ever since then I’ve been trying to find him. We don’t exactly live in the desert, but I knew I had to start by searching the forests of our town, and there are lots of forests to search. Of course I don’t do it in the day, can’t raise my mother’s suspicions. I started with the one behind my house and have kept moving outwards from there. Nothing for weeks upon weeks.
Sometimes I see other kids from school out there. Drinking, making out, shooting beer cans, making fires, normal stupid teenager shit. If I’m lucky, they’ll be cordial as I pass through. If I’m luckier, they won’t even notice me. I’m not always lucky. August 11th, I was out in the woods behind Jeb Stuart Park. It was a new moon, the night was dark as hell. I could hardly see a thing in front of me, my phone’s flashlight only illuminating the thin tall underbrush I was wading through.
I’m not sure if the thick brush muffled their voices, or I just failed to notice them, but I tumbled from the thicket into a small clearing which was currently occupied by my fellow students. Jarrod stood up quickly, pulling his pants back up, while Courtney tried to cover herself up with his letterman jacket. George let loose a puff of smoke from his lips, reclined against a log, perpendicular to the lovebirds.
I made to apologize, but Jarrod was already pissed. He stood up, his full six-foot-something dwarfing my five-five-on-a-good-day. I tried backing away, but the forest had already sealed away the trail I blazed, blocking me in. He slowly placed a hand on my shoulder, made a fist with his other, and ran it straight into my abdomen. I doubled over, the wind knocked clear from my lungs, I wheezed. George laughed, then coughed, then laughed, and finally spoke.
“Fucking faggot’s probably looking for his boyfriend.” He spat. I guess he wasn’t wrong. But how did they know he was my boyfriend? I thought we had hid it well in public. I hope nobody else knows. My train of thought was interrupted by another fist, this time straight to my nose. My head swam, I saw two Jarrod’s in front of me. Then four, but two of them morphed into Courtney. She laughed and then spit on me. Her laugh echoed in my head, bouncing from one ear to the other, she said something about this being her town or her country or something, but I can’t really remember it clearly.
Next thing I can remember is waking up, the sun hadn’t yet crested over the horizon, but the faintest hint of dawn painted the forest in dim light. My head still beat in tune with my blood, recovering from the encounter. I looked at my phone, the screen was cracked and the battery was low. As I looked down I saw my chest was stained with lots of blood. I gingerly reached to my nose, flakes of dried blood came off with a light touch. I shakily stood. To my right, forest. To my left, forest. With no clear direction, I just made my way forward.
I trudged through hundreds of yards of indistinct forest, the sun getting higher and higher as I did. I put the sun behind me, to try and get a bit of a direction, and to keep it out of my eyes. The trees got taller ahead, and the brush cleared up, revealing the forest floor beneath. I took a moment of respite, sitting at the base of a dogwood, wiping at the dried blood to try and clean up for my walk home. I looked up at the fractal branches of the tree and sighed. I knew I couldn’t put stock in the thoughts of people like Jarrod, Courtney, and George, but it haunts you. No matter how many affirmations I give myself, no matter how many “It Gets Better” videos you watch, their words stand so much taller and they leer over you forever.
Before I could tumble further down into despair, an uncharacteristically brisk breeze brought my head to level. I saw something waving with the breeze, a good fifteen feet from me, on another dogwood tree. I stood and walked over, the crunch of leaves underfoot seemed so much louder during my approach.
It looked like Oscar’s jacket.
But that’s impossible, why would it be here?
There’s no doubt in my mind that is his.
If it is his, why’d he leave it behind?
What made him leave it behind?
What is that on the back of it? Writing?
I was at the tree. It was certainly his jacket. I jumped a bit, grabbing the jacket and freeing it from the branch it was hung on. I put one hand carefully on either shoulder and stretched it out to see the markings on the back. It looks a lot like blood. No, I’ve just got blood on the mind, it has to be red ink. It has to be.
It says, in a scrawled red ink stretching from shoulder to shoulder: