Ethan died of a burst appendix.
That’s what we were told—and we had no reason to doubt it. Everyone on the street had heard the way he screamed. The pain must have been unbearable. Even after his parents had rushed him off to the hospital, his screams haunted me for days.
We found out about it the next morning.
It was during science class. We were studying the astronomers, and somewhere between Copernicus and Galileo, the announcement came hissing over the loudspeaker. It was a shock—biggest one I could remember. I mean, in this day and age, to keel over from something as stupid as appendicitis. I couldn’t look over at his empty seat that morning. Although I tried to feel sad, all I could feel was angry.
Roxanne, the last in a long line of girlfriends that filled Ethan’s eighth- and ninth-grade years, was blubbering away. That made me angry too. I noticed the way she rubbed those eyes as she wailed, purposely smudging the mascara that she always wore. It made her tears thick and black, so everyone could see from a mile away how very sad
she was—as if everyone should feel sorry for her, and not Ethan.
On the other hand, Paula Quinn cried silent tears that she quickly wiped away. It was classy. It was real
. I watched Paula rather than look at Ethan’s seat or watch Roxanne’s Cavalcade of Misery.
In front of the room, Mr. Smith, our science teacher, spoke in solemn tones, using an all-knowing, all-comforting voice that he must have borrowed from Pastor Bob, our minister.
“We’ll all miss Ethan,” he said, “but we have to remember that he’s gone to a better place.”
Next to me, my friend Wesley flicked his hair back in utter contempt—a gesture he had learned from me—then he whispered under his breath, “Better place? I’ll bet.”
Up front, Mr. Smith lifted his eyes upward, as if searching for heaven in the flickering fluorescents. “Let us all observe a moment of silence in Ethan’s memory.”
I flicked my own hair back contemptuously, showing Wesley how it was done.
“Moment of silence, my butt,” I whispered to Wes. “Ethan would have wanted a moment of heavy metal.”
That made Wes snicker. It sounded so rudely loud in the silence that it made me snicker too, and my snicker set someone off on the other side of the room.
It wasn’t like this was funny or anything—but sometimes, when something hits you so hard, your head kind of starts ricocheting off every wall. Suddenly laughter and tears feel like the same thing.
More chuckles broke out around the room. Mr. Smith threw me a cold warning look, as if it were all my fault. “Jason . . . ,” he said, “don’t you dare.”
Then Roxanne turned to us with her raccoon eyes and wailed, “What’s wrong with you people!”
That did it. The raccoon eyes, Smith’s fluorescent gaze, and a dead friend. It was all so unreal, some confused part of our brains concluded that it must have been funny. Half the room burst out in snickers punctuated by sobs. Then my own brain took a bad ricochet, and I suddenly felt like heaving, so I burst out of the room, fighting to keep my breakfast from making a surprise appearance.
“Mr. Miller!” Smith shouted after me, but I was already out the door, with Wesley close behind.
I stopped when I reached the water fountain in the hallway, and bent down to take a drink, hoping to drown my gut into submission. Wesley punched a locker hard enough to make it rattle, but not hard enough to hurt himself. It’s a show, I thought, just like Smith. Just like Roxanne. I didn’t want to put on a show, so I drank from the fountain and I didn’t say a thing.
“This sucks,” said Wes, meaning everyone and everything. “What a lousy way to end the ninth grade, you know?”
As I stood up from the water fountain, Paula Quinn came up behind Wes. She was red in the face. No longer from crying—it was because she was angry. Angry like me.
“I just want you to know that what you did in there stunk, Jason,” she said, staring me down with furious eyes. “You’re real creeps, you know that?”
I could have just shrugged it off, or yelled back at her, or said something cold and clever. The thing is I just couldn’t do that to Paula. We weren’t like friends or anything. Although I did ask her out once. She turned me down. Ever since then, it’s been kind of weird between her and me. Like I respect her or something.
“I didn’t mean to laugh,” I told her. “I don’t know why I did, and I feel lousy about it, okay?”
She looked at me, and I guess she read some honesty in my face, because she didn’t seem as mad anymore. “Were you and Ethan friends from the time you were little?”
I nodded. Kids didn’t come and go from Billington very often. Not that we didn’t want to, but our parents had roots like oak trees—they wouldn’t dream of moving away. So most of us knew each other all our lives. Ethan, Wesley, and I were a famous threesome. The Trilogy of Terror, our teachers used to call us.
Paula, on the other hand, was a newcomer, having just landed in Billington four months ago. She was a pleasant glimpse of the world most of us only got to see on TV.
“You know what really gets me?” I said. “It’s that Ethan’s whole life began and ended in this poor excuse for a town. It’s pathetic. I don’t want to remember Ethan as being pathetic.”
“He wasn’t pathetic,” said Paula. “And this town’s not so bad anyway.”
“Yeah,” I said, “wait until you’ve
been here for fourteen years—then we’ll see how you feel about it.”
Then came a voice from behind us—a deep voice, that boomed even when speaking in hushed tones. “Ethan’s not dead
said the voice. We turned to see Mr. Grant, who was the security guard and janitor at Billington Junior High. Grant was kind of an odd guy—a loner who never said much to any of us but always seemed to know everyone’s business. His words made us all hang on the moment, not knowing whether he was kidding or knew something we didn’t.
“He’s not dead, as long as we remember him,” he said, and then laughed—not just a chuckle but a deep belly laugh, like something was uproariously funny. It was far more inappropriate than my laughter had been. Well, I figured, what should we expect from a guy whose motto was “I’ll clean this school up one way or another.”
His laughter faded, and he scratched his reddish blond beard, which was always so neatly trimmed. “You belong in class,” he reminded us. “I suggest you get going.” Then he turned and walked off, his large key ring jingling from his belt like a psychotic wind chime.
As we made our way back toward class, Paula whispered into my ear, “That was too weird.” Turns out she was right.
If God threw a dart at the world and it happened to strike Billington, completely obliterating it, no one would notice and no one would care. In fact, I often thought it would be the best thing that could happen to this place. Smack in the middle of the state, Billington is on a highway that couldn’t be straighter if you drew it with a ruler, and whenever I heard people talk about going nowhere fast, I figured they were headed here, although I couldn’t see what the hurry would be. We’ve got your typical fast-food places, an uninspired mall, and way too many satellite dishes—because in a place like this, what else is there to do but watch five hundred channels of TV? If boredom was a living, breathing thing, then its less interesting cousin would live in Billington.
My parents didn’t mind a nowhere sort of life. It seemed to me that their universe began and ended in Billington. All you had to do was spend a few microseconds looking through our house to get a good clue about my parents. For instance, they had this book of Norman Rockwell art that sat out on the coffee table like a slab of granite. Norman Rockwell painted goofy-looking people doing dull, everyday things. My parents had whole collections of boring art books and prints—like the woman who sat out in a wheat field, and the farmer with his pitchfork and his disgusted-looking wife. Mom and Dad called it their Americana Collection. I called it their Anesthesia Collection, because if I looked at it long enough, it would render me unconscious.
Then there was dinner conversation. Sitting at the table with my parents was like purgatory, because conversation in the Miller household was always the same, even when they used different words.
“Mary, this chicken is wonderful.”
“I got the recipe from Jenny down the street.”
“We’ll have to invite them over for dinner. We’ll have a barbecue.”
“That would be nice.”
One time, in the middle of their drivel, I slammed the ketchup bottle on the table, sending a stream of ketchup rocketing against the ceiling.
“What’s wrong with you?” I screamed at them. “Why can’t you argue and fight, and do things like normal
Mom was miffed by the ketchup on the ceiling—which was part of the problem. All she ever got was “miffed.” She never got furious; she never picked up something breakable and threw it across the room; she never said something to me that she’d feel sorry for later, no matter how much I deserved it. Her keel was about as even as a ship in a bottle.
“I’m sorry we can’t be a little more dysfunctional for you,” she told me in her classic miffed tone as she handed me a mop to clean the ketchup from the ceiling. “Would you be happier if we beat you and locked you in the closet?”
“Won’t know until you try,” I said snidely. Dad promptly issued a punishment for the evening’s disrespect. No computer games for three days. Although I complained bitterly, I had to admit, the punishment was fair. It always was.
As far as being dysfunctional, well, I tried. I read enough books and saw enough TV shows about dys-functional families to get down the basics, but I could never seem to make it stick. It pissed me off, because I never had a real decent reason to be angry at Mom and Dad. They didn’t mistreat me; they didn’t go on drinking binges; Dad didn’t have a girlfriend on the side. Nothing. I did give them plenty of reasons to be angry at me
, though. I would spend endless hours trying to invent some sort of drama in our lives—suspensions from school, fights with other kids, a bag of oregano that I told everyone was pot. I even sprayed some rude graffiti on the side of our house once, figuring it might get us in the local paper and make for an interesting couple of days. But Dad painted it over before anyone saw, and didn’t bother to report it. Once the school counselor suggested that we all go in for some family therapy—and I thought I had won some minor victory. But after the third session, the therapist concluded that we were hopelessly well-adjusted.
After so much torturous normalcy, almost anything would have been a welcome relief. But it’s kind of sick when the death of a friend is the only exciting thing you can point to in recent history.
There was a big turnout for Ethan’s funeral. I guess everyone in town knew Ethan’s family, because his parents were real estate agents and their faces were on notepads in everyone’s kitchens. In Billington, that was the closest you could get to being famous. The day left me feeling weird for a whole lot of reasons I was still trying to figure out. Although everything went the way it was supposed to go, something inside me kept saying that it wasn’t a normal funeral. And believe me, I know normal.
That night, I sat with my dad in the garage, for once not minding the boredom of home.
“Hand me the hammer, son.”
My dad talked like an old Andy Griffith rerun. I refused to ever call him Pa.
“Dad,” I said as I handed him the tool, “why do you think Ethan’s parents didn’t cry?” I was as interested in how he would react to the question as I was in the answer. The fact was, not only didn’t Ethan’s parents cry, but they kept shifting their feet and checking their watches, as if this was little more than a real estate deal they wanted to close.
Even stranger to me, however, was how Dad seemed to be acting now. My father had about three emotions. Worry never seemed to be one of them, but now he wrinkled his brow with a look of concern that didn’t sit right with me. I thought that it might be just a reaction from his monthly shots, but I knew he hadn’t had them yet—we both were scheduled to get our shots at the same time, next Monday.
He thought about his answer, and then just tried to shrug it off.
“Shock,” he said. “Simple shock.”
But there was something more. It had to do with the worry on his face. He said no more, just returned to the bureau he was building for the Carters. He always put his full attention on his woodworking. That was probably why his work was so good. But today his attention was elsewhere, because he caught the edge of his finger with the hammer.
He shouted a word that I rarely heard him use, although, I must admit that I use it on a regular basis. Hearing him say it made me smile. “Dad,” I said, “we’re gonna have to wash that trash-mouth out with soap.”
Dad chuckled through his gritted teeth and held his thumb until the pain subsided. Then he turned to me and took a good look—the way only a father does. He took in every feature, memorizing my face, as if he might never see me again. I thought I knew what he was thinking.
“Dad,” I said, feeling a bit embarrassed, “come on—I’m not gonna get appendicitis or anything.”
“No,” he said. “No, you won’t. We won’t let that happen.”
I chuckled at how weird he sounded, and began to feel cold—not on the outside, but on the inside, as if I was stuck neck-deep in the tip of an iceberg . . . and I had the feeling that this iceberg went clear down to China.