The Mystery That Was Daniel

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by G. L. Aster

Every day, as soon as the dismissal bell rang, I watched the boy who sat in the back of my Mandarin class walk through the woods on his way off the school grounds. I would stand at the intersection, waiting for my sister to come pick me up, and track his progress across the soccer field and into the dense trees and scrubby bushes that separated us from the shopping district a few blocks over. He never walked with anyone; everyone else either headed to the nearest bus stop or clustered at the intersection waiting for our respective rides. My friends and I joked that he was growing weed, which he sold to our teachers in exchange for better grades, or that he lived under a bush, explaining why his clothes often had dirt smudges on them. The obvious answer would be that he just cut through the woods on his way home, but I knew where his house was. I’d seen him leaving on his way to school once or twice, from the old brick house with the green painted door, in the opposite direction from where he was headed. No one knew why he went through the woods, and most people soon gave up wondering, since when we asked him he just shrugged and walked away. But, I still watched him, his long stride taking him to the edge of the trees in just a few minutes, before he vanished under the shadowed canopy.

Once I even followed him, amid much teasing from my friends, “Tory and Daniel sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” I told them that we were in high school and to knock off the grade school crap. I remember that the ground was wet from the previous day’s rain, and the water had soaked into my sneakers. My shoes had made unpleasant squishing sounds as I trailed after him, at what I thought was an inconspicuous distance. He was almost at the edge of the woods when he stopped and turned around. Immediately, I pretended I was tying my shoe, but seeing as I was the only one apart from him in the middle of the empty soccer field, it was pretty obvious what I was up to. I saw him roll his eyes before vanishing into the trees, and even though I’d jumped up and sprinted after him, I hadn’t been able to tell where he’d gone once he’d entered the woods. The mystery that was Daniel remained unsolved, and, defeated, I turned back around to head up to the intersection, where my sister was impatiently waiting for me.

And so it was, every day I would watch Daniel leave by the back door and walk to the woods, while I stood under the traffic light and wondered what he was doing. Through the rainy days of November, and the snows of December when he left tracks on the snow-strewn field, then the bright spring days, and the early summer ones, and then through the windy autumn ones at the beginning of the next school year, I watched him. The need to know became this burning itch in the back of my mind. Was he meeting someone? Did he have something buried out there? Did he have someone buried out there? My friends all told me I was crazy, and to leave it alone, but I couldn’t. I began to watch him in class, trying to catch some clue as to what he was up to, but I never did. He just sat there, staring either at the teacher or at his desk, second from the left in the fifth row.

Through all this I never talked to him, not even once. I never even acknowledged his existence, actually. He was just there, this problem for me to solve, so I could finally scratch the itch that had plagued me for over a year now. Finally, one cold and rainy day at the end of October, I decided to put it to rest once and for all. The year before I’d tried to follow him, but that hadn’t worked, so this time I was going to make him follow me. I snuck out of class fifteen minutes early, and hid in the bushes by the spot where he usually entered the woods. Sure enough, a little while later, I heard him. He splashed his way through the sodden grass and under the trees; not noticing me crouched in a blackberry thicket. My heart began to beat faster at the thought of finally knowing his secret. An illegal drug stash, or a secret hobby eating roasted squirrels, I was going to know. I decided that if he was hiding anything, I was going to duct-tape it to the front of his locker tomorrow for all to see. His little secret wouldn’t just be his anymore, that much I was certain of.

Once he’d passed me, I waited another minute then carefully followed him listening to his footsteps through the damp leaves. He didn’t walk very far before coming to a stop, and I ducked behind the nearest tree in case he decided to make sure he hadn’t been followed. I heard him rustle through the leaves, then the thump of overturned earth. What was he doing? It sounded like he was digging, but what for? Was he burying something? For ten minutes I waited, tense as a wire as he dug and shuffled and messed around in the dirt. Then I heard him groan slightly as he stood up, and the whisper of hishands brushing together. He left the same way he came, and I held my breath as he passed by the tree where I was hiding. I was so close, just moments away from knowing what he was doing out here in the woods. What would I find when I dug up his hidden treasure? Money? Test answers? My hands shook as I stepped around the tree; after all this time, I would know what no one else had bothered to figure out. I was expecting a pile of overturned dirt, or, if I was being morbid, heaps of animal bones. But what sawwas…a garden.

Daniel had come out to the woods every day for the past two years to plant a garden. There were little yellow rose bushes, and small clusters of tulips. He’d planted poppies, and hyacinths, and other plants I didn’t know the name for. My cheeks burned with shame, as I’d imagined him sneaking off school to dig up little bags of pills and sell them to the other students. Instead, he’d done something…beautiful. A little strange, sure, but beautiful just the same. Although, looking at his plants, I could see that they weren’t doing so well. It looked like he hadn’t watered them in a while, since the rain still coming down hadn’t found a way in through the thick canopy above. He needed to cut the dead flowers off, and pack more dirt around the hyacinth bulbs and…I shook my head. I was starting to sound like my mother. She made me help her maintain her garden during the weekend, and while I normally complained, for once I was grateful for her advice. Ignoring the dampness that leached into my jeans, I knelt down in the dirt and reached for the plants.

The next morning, I arrived late for class. I had stayed at Daniel’s garden for almost an hour, and hadn’t gotten home till late. My sister had gotten tired of waiting for me, so I’d had to walk all thirty blocks home in the rain. That, plus the fact that I’d stayed up too late trying to finish the composition I was writing, had meant I was so exhausted that I’d slept right through my alarm. I’d barely had time to throw some clothes on and rush to the car. Now, I knocked at the door, noticing the dirt still embedded under my fingernails, and I dug them into my palms, imagining Daniel’s face when I walked in. He would know it was me, I was sure of it. Practically twitching with anxiety, I waited, shifting impatiently from foot to foot until one of my friends came to let me in. I slunk to my seat, mumbling excuses to the teacher and avoiding everyone’s eyes. Once I’d reached the safety of my desk, I collapsed into my chair and opened my desk lid, hoping to shelter behind it for a few moments. I stared down at my textbooks, lost in thought for a minute, then jolted upright. Next to my pencil case was a small yellow rose, just like the ones Daniel had planted. I closed my desk and whirled to face him. From the back corner of the room, he met my gaze and gave me a little smile. For the barest moment I resisted, but soon I let go and smiled back.