Sammy Couldn’t Read Him
Every neighborhood has that kid with a special talent. Up the road, Pullman Park had piano prodigy Kim Anderson. Around the way, Jackman Cul-de-sac had mountain climber Novell Jones.
Down in Luther Ave, we had Samuel Davidson.
The kid who could “read” people.
Yeah, I know. Sounds a bit weird – and creepy – when you first hear it, and Sammy was the definition of both. Small and skinny, he looked like a gremlin – minus the claws and tails. He had baggy green eyes that screamed insomnia, dirty blonde hair that sagged over his long face, and a habit of scratching his bony, spider-like arms and biting his thin lips.
The kids called him a freak. The adults called him a drug addict.
I called him my best friend.
For all things considered, Sammy wasn’t a bad guy. Sure, he was a bit weird, but he was a pretty chilled dude. Compared to the other guys who wandered the neighborhood – a bunch of assholes, thugs, and cowards – Sammy was my best bet at a friend. We would hang around the park, eating ice cream, talking about school, and – Sammy’s favorite hobby – reading people.
Well, it was mostly me pointing at someone and Sammy telling their darkest secrets. He would give them out like a clown giving out free balloons to kids:
Affairs, Fetishes, Addictions, Desires...
Sammy could name them all with just one look.
Come the summer of ‘79, and everything changed.
Derick Fisherman: an older kid who came to spend work for his uncle – and my neighbor – Mr. Jones. He was the polar opposite of Sammy: clean- cut brunette hair, strong blue eyes, and tall like a giant. At first glance, he was friendly, the older brother most kids dreamed of. He was also the oldest out of the neighborhood kids, so everyone – especially the fellas – latched on to every word he said. Every time he first saw us hanging by the park, he gave a nice “hello” and a friendly wave.
The others adored him.
Sammy feared him.
Whenever he came into a room, Sammy would just leave, never coming back until later. Whenever he passed us in the park, Sammy avoided eye-contact. He couldn’t even stare at Derick without scratching his arms; the longer he stared, the harder he scratched. His excuse was always the same. Always a dull, shaken whimper:
“...I can’t read him...”
Each time Derick came by, with all smiles and waves, and with all the nice words, it was the same reaction from the others: joy and welcome. And Sammy would say the same thing, his whisper frightened and panicked.
“I-I just can’t read him...”
The others saw his behavior as the usual – Sammy being a little “freak” who couldn’t stand to socialize. But it always bugged the shit out of me. Sammy was always calm, always blunt when it came to reading people. There seemed to be nothing that could shake him. Then came Derick Fisherman, and suddenly, Sammy was a scared little puppy. Day after day, weeks after weeks, when Sammy would ignore him, I always wondered:
What made Derick so different?
I asked him one day after going to the swimming pool. School was starting tomorrow, and we were slowly walking to my house for ice cream. Derick had been at the pool too, and Sammy nearly drowned trying to avoid him. Looking at him, I noticed he was even visibly shaking. It wasn’t from the water – for some reason, I knew – and his arms were layered with newly thick, red scratched marks.
He flinched, looking at me with those baggy eyes. In that moment, I felt like the others, taking in the growing creepiness of his silence. But he was my friend, my bro, and I shook it off before it consumed me. I punched his shoulder playfully, trying to cheer him up.
“You ok man? Derick’s been giving you the creeps for weeks now....What’s up?”
“..I-I told you, man” Sammy hissed through teeth, scratching his arms at the mention of Derick. “I can’t read him.”
“But why? I-I thought you could read anyone!” I stopped in front of him, staring at him with confused eyes. “What makes Derick so different? He’s not a wizard or anything—"
“It’s NOT that” Sammy yelled, gripping his fist over his arm. He gritted his teeth, breathing heavily in panic.
“I-It’s not like I CAN’T read him...I-I don’t...I don’t WANT to read him...”
I stared back in disbelief, watching as Sammy slowly became more and more anxious.
“I...whaddya mean ‘you don’t WANT to’? You’ve never hesitated before....”
“That’s only because I-I didn’t feel...threatened. N-None of you can FEEL it...” He whispered, raking his nails down sensitive skin and biting his lip harder. “T-The pressure of his presence....its darkness.”
“You’re not making sense”
“I’m SAYING....” Sammy looked at me through that mangled hair, and for the first time since forever, I would see complete fear in them.
“He’s not good news. Every time I see him, I can FEEL his mind seeping through me. Looking at him makes me weak, makes my mind almost shatter. Even if I turn away, I can feel it trying to creep in, trying to make me read...”
Sammy backed away, shaking in the shadows of the setting sun. By this time, his arms were nearly tattered and torn, blood gathering from the multiple wounds and dribbling down. I became too scared to try and help. I just...seeing him so frightened, possibly for his life, fucked me up. I couldn’t understand what he could see or what he felt, but I knew that something wasn’t right.
Sammy was never scared.
He was NEVER a wimp...
But this...none of this was right.
“Luke” He finally whimpered, looking at me with desperate, pleading eyes. “You gotta keep him away from me...Please never make me read him”
...What could I do? I walked over to my friend, my bro, and I patted his shoulder comfortingly – I was too awkward for hugs. But just that alone seemed to calm him down, silencing the quivers and shakes to a steady stillness. His breathing calmed as well, and he settled his arms to his sides, letting them bleed untouched.
“Alright, Sammy. I believe you man” I said, and that soft sigh he gave – of relief – made his pain all the more real to me. I glanced at the small wounds, seeing the ugly tears of skin and red blood glistening. I blanched, patting his shoulder again before pushing him onward.
“C’mon dude...let’s get you some bandages”
Sammy only nodded, walking with me towards my house. I peered over my shoulder once, seeing the sun set in the distance to make an orange red sky cluttered with pink clouds.
There in the back, on Mr. Jones’s porch, sat Derick. He stared back at us through wet brunette hair, his once bright blue eyes smoldered with something unrecognizable. I froze for a bit, wondering how long he had been there, before watching him walk into the house.
We walked in complete silence, until I could hear the familiar call of my mom with promises of ice cream. I nudged at Sammy’s shoulder, giving a smile as we walked up the porch.
I remember seeing Sammy smile – well, at least try to – as mom fretted hurriedly over his wounds with the first aid kit. I remember us sitting in the living room with dad, watching re-runs of Scooby Doo and the Flintstones while eating Rocky Road. But most of all, I remember when his mom came to pick him up, how he whispered at me before leaving.
“You have to leave town, Luke....it’s become too dangerous...”
I remember being confused, only playfully nudging his shoulder and waving as his mom’s 68’ Ford pulled from the driveway.
The next day, Sammy went missing.
It was eight in the morning when his mother called the police. She grew worried when Sammy didn’t come straight home from school like usual. There had been a search party – a few of the men from town and the local police – into the woods and throughout the Tri-State area. All they could find, five miles away from the school, was Sammy’s journal and his dirty sneakers.
But Sammy was gone.
The news slowly dissolved within four months, and everyone went back to their lives like normal. But I couldn’t just forget Sammy like the others, not when he was my best friend, my bro. I never made friends after that, seeing the others as the same assholes that shunned Sammy. My parents, bless their hearts, felt that losing my only friend had been too much for me, and we moved from the neighborhood a month after.
A few years would go by, and the next kid would disappear in June, leaving only her red Mary Jane shoes.
Then the next kid would vanish in July...leaving only his gym shoes.
And the next kid in August...leaving only her strapped sandals.
There had been an entire story about it on the news. I remember watching the headlines – “Mysterious Disappearances in Virginia.” – reporting the drastic vanishings of Luther Ave kids and how only their shoes were left. Over and over, my mom would frantically mention how I could’ve been one of them. I slowly put two and two together – with Sammy’s disappearance and the others. But it would be Sammy’s mom who helped to add in the pieces to the puzzle.
It was ten years later, and I was in my junior year at college. By that time, Luther Ave had lost twelve kids to the mysterious disappearances. The last I heard, everyone had moved away except for Mr. Jones, Sammy’s mom, and a few others. When I was walking back to my dorm, I met Sammy’s mom halfway. She came with a small book, looking almost as worn out and mangled as Sammy himself, and barely spoke above a whisper.
“Before he...before he disappeared, Samuel wanted me to give this to you, Luke.” She handed me the book, her shriveled hands cold to the touch.
“Sorry, I’ve waited so long...”
I thanked the woman and tried to invite her in. But she declined, looking visibly shaken and practically ran away. Opening the book, with pages yellowed and aged, I recognized Sammy’s neat writing and his tiny superman doodles. I began reading of the adventures we had together, of his thoughts on everyone’s “skeletons in their closets”, and of the sillier things like Shaggy and Scooby’s excessive eating. Then, halfway through the journal, I read Sammy’s darkest fears.
All of them were about Derick.
I read about his anxious of Derick’s presence, about Sammy being depraved of sleep, hunger, and thinking because of him. I read about Sammy’s fear that Derick would find him one day, corner him alone, and possibly kill him. I read about Sammy’s fear of reading Derick’s mind, his fear of seeing the deepest parts of Derick’s thoughts and going insane from it. But I also read of Sammy’s growing curiosity, which scared me even more, and seemed to scare Sammy in his writing. He became torn with trying to avoid Derick and just looking to put himself out of the misery. With each journal entry, with each beginning and ending, I saw Sammy’s growing anxiety, his growing mental pain and physically pain. Literally, each page had droplets of blood, and I could picture Sammy digging through his arms viciously. Each time I turned one page, his neat writing turned messy and hurried; more dried blood spattered everywhere, growing darker, until I came to the last one...
Splattered in rapid blood droplets, with messy, desperate writing, was his final journal.
“I went to the park today and saw Derick...I read him...”
I stared at the journal, having read all of it up to the final one...the day when Sammy went missing.
Sammy was never scared.
He was NEVER a wimp...
He just knew danger when he saw it...
But Derick knew that too.