Juan, on the den floor, once looked up from a book and said, “You’re my only people.”
Which is why for four years they’ve gathered here, in Head’s parent’s den (also Head’s room), on the date Juan disappeared.
Which is why they refuse to believe he died, why they skipped the empty-coffin funeral Juan’s foster parents held, and why they would remind anyone (if anyone else cared) that he didn’t die: he disappeared, at age seventeen, a week after getting his motorcycle license, and all any search discovered was his helmet (the stickers screaming: “9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB”, “FREE TIBET”, “NUMBER JUAN SON”) on the side of route 30.
They met in freshman art class, the six of them, and started spending more time together at Head’s than at school.
Which is why they honor their missing friend with this creative show-and-tell, even though, for most of them, preparing for this is the only artistic thing they do all year.
Which is why what they bring often sucks, because some, like Todd and Sly, with their matching hippy hair and spotty beards, will throw theirs together night before.
Which is why Todd’s submission this year is a macaroni-art of Juan on his motorcycle flipping off a red-light, even though it looks more like a camel being struck by lightning. Todd started a bait business, living above a barn on the outskirts of town while Sly does something at the movie theatre.
Sly wrote a haiku suggesting Juan is a monk living in China.
Which is why Tara reminds him how many syllables are in haikus.
Which is why Tara now teaches English in their old high school. She has a monologue prepared but is waiting for Derek before she performs.
Derek is impossibly busy, historically tardy, and classically smart.
Which is why he went to Central Florida for Laser and Optical Engineering.
Which is why he works in Manhattan for a company that builds bridges and he hates it.
Which is why he spends his time working on his own bizarre projects, texting his four friends, and Facebook searching “Juan Johnson” when his boss isn’t around.
Which is only one of the reasons he constantly feels guilty.
Which is why he demands they keep up the ritual.
They are concerned that Derek isn’t going to show.
Which is why Todd and Sly started sharing without him; they have places to be.
Which is why no one in the group really hangs out, except on these annual meetings; it’s hard, they have so little in common anymore.
Which is why Head is pissed that Derek is an hour late and won’t see the watercolor Head made, and Tara is reassuring him that Derek will show, that even if he doesn’t everything is going to be okay, that she still believes Juan will appear someday, and he will treasure their art.
Todd is leaving when he hears roaring in the garage.
Which is why Derek is in the driveway meeting his friends with a dumb smile, holding an iPad.
Which is when smoke-machines kick on and projectors in the trees create a hologram of Juan on a motorcycle, which materializes through the closed garage door, rolls out into the driveway, and tears off in a direction they’re pretty sure is West, but could change, any moment, forever.
They each point one finger skyward.
Which is the only place they’re sure Juan isn’t.
Tyler Barton is one half of The Triangle (thetrianglepa.com), the fiction editor of Third Point Press, and an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University. His published stories can be found at tsbarton.com. Follow him @goftyler.