Fiction: What’s Wrong?

By Jennifer Leigh Kiefer

He smiles, yet I see pain in those crystal-clear eyes. The color suggests tears even when there is no wetness hovering near their corners. His chin sticks out too far as his jaw tenses, attempting to hold the smile that gets worse the longer I look at it.
I ask him what’s wrong.
“Everything,” he jokes through a strangled laugh, but it sounds like the truth.
“I want to know what’s wrong. Let me listen. Let me help…” Let me in, I add silently.
He doesn’t like hearing this. He doesn’t know how to jokingly respond or how to truly confide. We are at a standstill while he continues to refuse my attempts at friendship, and I refuse to accept his self-inflicted solitude.
Or maybe he just doesn’t think I can help. And who am I to think I can? But I want to. Whether he believes it or not, I want to.
Finally, we just laugh and laugh. But this kind of humor is no medicine.
And I begin to wonder… when was my laughter last genuine?
He doesn’t ask me what’s wrong.
Maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he knows the answer is always and forever too much.
We laugh and I think, maybe what’s wrong is that laughter is no longer enough. Or is it that “What’s right?” is the responsewhen it could be the question?
If I had asked what was right, would I have gotten a better, truer, more useful response?
Or would that quiet, annoyingly monosyllabic voice just say “nothing” and leave it at that?
I’ll try again and hope that I’m wrong.

Jennifer Leigh Kiefer (she/they) is a semi-nomadic writer and stage manager with a number of places they consider home. Previous work can be seen in The t3mz Review Pandemic Chapbook, Rat's Ass Review, Children, Churches, and Daddies and Academy of the Heart and Mind.  Find her work at or on Instagram @jenniferleighkiefer