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Guest Writer

It wasn't a genuine smile, not even a nice one
An excuse to hope
by Felicia Aguilar

he first thing he noticed was the bold tattoo on her thin wrist. It sat neatly next to the faded twist of a scar, several years old and wise to the touch.

"Hope," he said, looking down on it. "Hope for what?"

"For something," she smiled. "For anything."

"What do you hope for?" he asked, leaning toward her. She pulled back, just enough for him to notice, just enough for him to pull back, too.

"I guess it'd be cliché to say world peace, huh?"

He watched her lips hug the cigarette as she took a long drag. She swallowed the smoke and then, while pursing her lips, exhaled slowly, maybe even regretfully. She then stared down at the limp cigarette, almost in surprise. "I hope for cancer."

"You ... what? Why on earth would you hope for that?"

"After that, I'd have a real excuse to hope."

He sat far back in his seat, stung by her comment. He had lost his mother and two aunts to cancer. He stared at her. She wasn't beautiful, not in the least bit, but she had a cat-like allure. She was tough, bold like an exclamation point. When she walked into a room, people became silent moths drawn to the aura of fire surrounding her.

Even though this was their first meeting, he could tell that she kept people at bay. She didn't want anyone getting too close. His job was to figure out why.

"Tell me more about yourself," he said.

"I used to have a cat named Julio when I was seven. He was an orange tabby, like Garfield. I used to love that cartoon. Anyway, he would go everywhere with me, follow me around. He was an alley cat, couldn't stand to stay inside, especially at night. We let him roam throughout the neighborhood at night. He'd always be back for food the next morning."

She took another long drag off the cigarette, then let it drop to the floor, crushing it with the sole of her shoe. "One night, our neighbor ran over him. I found him dead in the church parking lot, guts splattered everywhere."

"That must have been hard for you."

"It wasn't. I'm not afraid of death. Death is just a part of life."

"You knew this at age seven?"

"I knew a lot of things that I shouldn't have known when I was seven ..."

"So what did you do when you found Julio?"

"I picked up my dead cat and put him in my closet."

"Why did you put him in your closet?"

She gave him a look that made him feel incredibly stupid, as if putting a dead cat in a closet was the normal thing to do. "I thought his body would be safe there."

"But he was already dead."

"Yes, but I couldn't protect him when he was alive, now could I?"

"Is that why you had all the other dead animals in your room? To protect them?"

When they offered him the job at Prairie Counseling and Rehab Center, his stomach dropped. It admittedly wasn't his first choice. He already had a paid internship lined up at Parkland Memorial. He couldn't see himself working with the schizos and fire-starters.

He and his colleagues secretly made fun of them, but he was always up to broadening his horizons. He was always up for a challenge and here one sat before him, chewing on the leftover nubs that had once been her fingernails.

She turned to him, a blank expression on her face. "Where does your hope go?"

He smiled. She amused him. She was stalling, trying to switch things around before he got too deep into her mind.

He loved playing games with them. It was something they all tried to do, turn the tables or make him run, screaming, out of the room. He was impenetrable, though, a wall amidst the chaos. He guessed that was why they chose him for the job.

"Let's talk more about you. Tell me what your childhood was like."

She smiled again. It wasn't a genuine smile, not even a nice one, but just along the line of sly, devious. "You don't know, do you?"

He cleared his throat, smiled back at her again. "Know what?"

"You don't know what to hope for. I'm guessing it's because your life is empty ... meaningless. Just like mine. We're hope's rejects. Tell me, counselor, are you married? Do you have any children?"

He swallowed, couldn't understand why what she had just said felt like a massive kick in the neck.

He'd once gotten kicked in the neck by a patient with the nickname of Lucky who was strung out on crack. Lucky seemed to have trouble finding his namesake. He happened to be a schizophrenic whose best friend was his hand.

"No, I'm not. And no, I don't."

"Figures. A person can tell just by looking at you. You look happy, your face does. But inside here," she brought her hand over to her chest, letting it rest just above the heart, "you're not. A person can see that, too."

Time to turn the tables. She was getting too personal, way too close. "A person like who? You? Someone who's not happy inside, either?"

She had that annoying little smile plastered all over her face. "I'm not happy, but you know what? At least, I can see that and admit that."

"You can't have hope and be dead inside."

"Says who? You? A person who's just as dead inside? And I never said I have hope."

"If you don't believe in it, why mark it on your body forever? Why the permanent reminder of something that doesn't even exist to you?"

"Oh, it does exist. I never said that it didn't exist. I have yet to find it. Hope is very much like God ... you know ... that big man in the sky with the beard. Though, secretly, I think God's a woman, cross-dressing." She laughed, brusquely. "Hope is intangible, floating just out of reach. It's there, it's just evading me at the moment. That's the reason for the tat. If it's on me, it will remind me to keep searching. I would've gotten 'God' on me, too, though I think that'd be pointless. God doesn't seem to be evading me so much as he or she is screaming, running away from me."

Her smile faded abruptly, then she looked down, humming to herself.

Turning to him with a curious expression, she asked, "Have you ever danced with the devil in the moonlight?"

He didn't know why her words were like ice cubes down his back, or why they resounded so strongly in his mind. He didn't want to admit that everything she was saying sounded far too familiar, were echoes to his own thoughts. She was crazy, no doubt about that. A person would have to be crazy in order to hide dead animals in her closet and try to take her life at least 20 times in slightly less than two years.

He couldn't understand how someone so mentally unbalanced could have such perception, could see inside his thoughts as if reading them under a microscope.

He thought about the times when he let the knife slip a little close to his wrist while cutting tomatoes, or when he took one too many pills to make another dull ache go away. He remembered returning home to an empty house, tequila on his breath and shakes throughout his body, standing by the window and wondering if anyone would give a damn. He thought about how loneliness could eat a person up inside, but couldn't admit that it was greedily gnawing away at him.

"So tell me why you do this?" she was asking, as a panic began to grow inside of him. "Is it for the big bucks? Or because you need to be around the people that you know most about. It's funny, you people. You can't see it face to face, when it's sitting right in front of you, but the mirror shows it all."

She turned to him again and cracked that ugly smile he had grown to hate in just the span of 20 minutes. She reminded him very much of a clown he had seen as a child at Barnum and Bailey's. He remembered his older cousin turning to him and saying, "Clowns are sad inside. That's why they wear all that makeup on their faces. That's why their smiles are always painted on."

"I think you should be in here, with us. I think you think that, too."

After the session expired, he calmly grabbed his bags and walked out of the double oak doors. The slight chill that had been forming along the bones in his back had evolved into full-blown goose bumps, along with an uneasy fear. There was nothing more disturbing to him than being able to relate to an insane person.

He could only hope that he wasn't as crazy as she was.

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