June 9, 2008
By Josiah Meneghini, Billerica, MA

“I’m so sorry.”

He had heard that phrase so many times that he was sick to his stomach. Why was it so hard for these people to get? No one ever wants to hear half-hearted sympathy. It’s like the evaporated milk that comes in a can: logically, it shouldn’t exist but it still does. He didn’t want to think about it. Some people who had things like this happen to them would try to relate. He knew they understood on some level, but it still didn’t matter.

He wanted to slip into the mind-numbing routine of school. He didn’t have to feel anything between dozing in classes, blaring music in his ears, and smoking a joint during his lunch period. He wanted to think that it was only their constant sympathy that kept him from escaping from it all, but he knew better.

“I’m so sorry about your mom, Shelldon,” said his girlfriend, Claire.
“Yeah, me too. Let’s go out to eat tomorrow,” he said hurriedly.

“Are you ok? Doesn’t your family want you to be home… you know?” she asked.

“I’m not sure, and I don’t want to talk about it. You know what, never mind… I’m going to have a smoke,” he retorted. With a quick whirl, he went off to the back door of the cafeteria and left her wondering what had happened to her boyfriend who used to be so sensitive.

He let the chemicals take over. Reality slowed. His heart began to race at the very action of existing. He felt a pleasure that was only dulled by the knowledge that it would end. Smoking most days during lunch meant that he had no clue what happened in the next class. It wasn’t that big of a deal. He knew he could do well if he wanted to. He held in the smoke and then breathed out with a sigh. It was different this time. There was a pang behind it. Something that he truly felt. It was welling in him and no amount of manufactured feelings would be able to repress it. He blamed it on the stupid friends who wouldn’t shut up about how “they understood.” He wished he didn’t care.

It had happened two days ago. Becca had gone to get the kids from soccer. She must have been in an awful hurry if she tried to squeeze off the on-ramp in front of an eighteen wheeler. He hadn’t even been allowed to see her. Jo had said it was better if he didn’t. Shelldon thought he should be able to make his own decisions. If he was old enough to choose his president, then he should be old enough to choose to see his mother’s body. The only thing that had kept him from flipping his father off and storming into the morgue was one of his mother’s last conversations with him.

The week before, she had taken Shelldon out to eat at the Outback. He had been suspicious from the first, and after the meal was ordered his premonitions were confirmed. She had tried to bring it up in a casual manner but it soon deteriorated.

“He’s ridiculous! He only cares about himself and getting the things done that he wants. He doesn’t care about you or any of us,” he fired at her across the buns and butter he was consuming.

“That is not true. He cares very much about you and about our whole family, more than you know. Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. He has trouble dealing with a lot of the things you do,” she replied with an indignant hint in her voice.

It went on, but it was an endless circle that had spun itself out many times before. The conclusion was a bit different this time. By the end of the meal, Becca began to talk in a different tone, and Shelldon found he needed more than just his regular, formulated answers.

“You know what? I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he said, definitively slamming his cup on the table.

“Listen, I know I’ve been a difficult person to live with. I’ve begun to realize that I have to let go of some things. I know it’s caused a lot of friction in our family, but I want to work past it. I’m sorry,” she said and reached across to hold his hand that was still clutching the Coke. He was shocked. No one, especially a family member, had ever made such a candid confession to him. She continued in a soft voice. “But I can’t stand you and your father anymore. I feel torn apart. I love you both, but it’s gone way too far. I know you don’t want it to be like this. Do you think you could work on it… for me? Let’s make a deal. I’ll work on my end, and you work on yours. He will change. Just promise you will try, Shelldon, ok?”

“Ok,” he said in and unsteady voice. He wasn’t sure if it really was “ok,” but he had no response ready for this.

When they pulled into the driveway she said, “You know, you two are a lot more alike than you think.” This was not something he wanted to hear. Some dads were firemen and some were policemen. His was a sewer designer. That, for Shelldon, summed up Jo. He didn’t want to be anything like him. The night’s whole conversation had not been real to Shelldon until her death. It made everything different.

Shaking himself from this contemplation, he realized the last bell had just rung. He didn’t know how he had gotten into his last class, but he got up and made his way to the parking lot. He decided to ignore the three voice mails from Claire. He thought about her, and realized he didn’t even really like her. He had done all the right things and followed the high school dating etiquette to a tee, but realized there was really nothing in her that he admired. She was a good friend, but it should have never become more than that. He didn’t know what to do with himself. It seemed like everything that held him up was failing. What made him go on?

The next few days were like hell for the conciliatory. Becca’s death sobered the family, but there was still just as much petty annoyance. There was still those daily pinpricks that only those who know us best can use to our undoing. Shelldon was constantly trying to get away, but one thing that confused him was that Jo was more present than usual. He wasn’t home more, but he was more present. Shelldon had not seen this before. He could not place this behavior into that set of actions expected of his father, and it made him wonder.

There truly was sorrow. Everyone missed and mourned. Relatives started arriving by the drove after the second day. His grandpa was the only who didn’t have clichéd lines ready to give with the flowers. Grandpa’s hopeless romanticism made him even less accessible than the others, but in some ways more comforting. He had always been a jovial fellow in Shelldon’s memory, but according to Jo he had only “mellowed with age alongside his wine.” Despite his years, he was still an irrepressible figure.

When Shelldon got home the next day, Grandpa sat on the couch watching The Sound of Music. Only he could pull something like that off and not be called inconsiderate. Shelldon looked at his grey crowned head and sighed.

“She’s getting a lot older you know,” the elderly man commented and looked up at Shelldon with a weak smile.

“Who, Grandpa?” Shelldon asked.

“Julie Andrews. I saw she had a book out about her early career. She’s no spring chicken anymore, but I can remember when she was quite a big shot actress,” he said as he looked back at the TV screen. “It’s sad when you think about it. She was so young and beautiful, but now she’s writing books about it like an old duffer. Like me.” He chuckled to himself. “I guess that’s part of getting old. You have to be young for us old folk who can’t do it anymore. I would do it myself but this darn body won’t let me. You’ve got to be young for us all, Shelldon. Just don’t get anyone one pregnant,” he added with a few more chuckles.

“Ok, Gramps,” Shelldon said with a snorted laugh as he went into the kitchen and pretended to look for food.

Shelldon was amused. Grandpa’s joking audacity always had that affect on his offspring. Shelldon knew he was hit just as hard as any of them by their loss, but he didn’t react to things the same way other people did. He had a version of something Shelldon knew was missing. As Shelldon trudged up the stairs, he listened to some band that was overproduced by influence on his iPod. He wondered how long he would put off doing his homework.

“Shelldon!” Jo screamed up the stairs.
“What?” came back the surprised and slightly embarrassed voice.

“Get down here. We are eating,” Jo yelled up the stairs.
“Kay,” came the responding echo.

“Why didn’t you answer before? I called you like four times,” Jo asked when Shelldon came down to the dinner table with relatives scattered about.

“I had my headphones on,” Shelldon replied.
“Oh, I see. Trying to block us all out again?” Jo said.

“No, just trying to concentrate on my homework,” Shelldon replied with a repressed hint of bitterness at his motives were being impugned.

“Look, I don’t care. Just get your a** down here when it’s time to eat,” his father said.

“Alright,” he replied. This mundane response produced a rather quizzical look from Jo who was bent over his roast beef. Shelldon could not stand to say anything more to his father, not now. He would honor the dead.

It is strange how the smallest things are ingrained into your memory at tragic times. Shelldon looked down at the damp grass and could feel its contours with his eyes. He felt the voice of the preacher who was droning on. He could not have told you what he said even five minutes afterwards, but he could remember the voice for the rest of his life. The smell of the flowers. He was completely bodily present. He was absorbing it all in the moment, but it was all to the sharp realization he would never see her again.

Big things rarely affected Shelldon until the moment of their actuality. When he took tests he didn’t even think about them till he was in the class room. As he stood staring, horror paralyzed him. He was helpless and forced to experience the tragedy in its entirety. The large, glossy box brought home that he would never see her again. He had already known that in an abstract, intellectual way, but now he knew it in the most intimate way, the way that is only fully realized by experience. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. He could barely stay standing. It was the same for Shelldon as it was for all those who go through that loss, but, as always, it affected him differently. All the things that had seemed important or useful, now seemed like the utmost foolishness. He was chained to the reality of the present, and he could not escape. He wept. Then they saw how he loved her.

He was looking for the can of DW-40 for the damned lawn mower. Whoever came up with those retarded pull starters should be shot. Jo said there should be some down here in the basement, but so far Shelldon’s attempts had been futile. As he rummaged through boxes that had lain undisturbed for years, his eye was drawn to a curiously large object draped in old, green canvas. Out of the boredom that is only born on a Saturday afternoon with mundane choirs, he pulled the old cloth off and recognized the old grandfather clock that used to stand in the hall. He hadn’t noticed when his father had moved it into the forgetful depths of the basement. He suspected it done was out of frustration at trying to make its ruined machinery run again. He opened the face and stared into the shrouded darkness that held inexplicable complications. As he pondered over the disorderly cogs, he glanced up and saw his old ninja outfit he had made for himself in 4th grade half falling off a shelf. After seeing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he hadn’t taken off his copious, black garb for a week. Sticking out of the black heap, he saw two plastic Raphael daggers and a metal gear that he had used as a shuriken much to his mother’s chagrin. He leaned over and picked up the gear. The edges had worn off due to his excessive throwing at trees, large inanimate objects, and the occasional cat. It had been a treasured weapon of his childhood, but, as is often the case, he had no clue where it came from. He looked at it now and was fairly sure it must have come from this clock originally. He looked back to the broken innards. There was a lot of history in this old heirloom. People had tried to fix it over the generations but something had always gotten in the way of whoever attempted. It was sad because it was really a very beautiful clock, but it had to be hidden away because of its dysfunction. He searched around and after many discouraging tries, found where the cog belonged. He looked at the other gears scattered about on the dusty wood and wondered how long it would take to rebuild the broken workings.

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