by James Merkin
shook the last of the clippings from the grass catcher into the compost pile.
It sure was hot for a Saturday in June. He mopped his forehead and wheeled the
mower to the edge of the driveway. He’d wait until it cooled before he cleaned
it up. Besides, a cold drink was more important. Kicking off his grass-stained
sneakers, he opened Miss Erica’s back door and stepped into her kitchen. Ahh.
It was cool inside.
He had just finished a glass of ice water when he heard a faint scraping sound coming from the front hallway. Puzzled, he set the glass in the sink and listened hard. There it was again. Jesse looked through the doorway to the front. It seemed to take forever for his eyes to adjust from the bright kitchen to the gloomy hallway. Then he saw a form lying on the floor, the metal walker frame toppled onto her. Miss Erica!
As he rushed to her he saw her move slightly and again the walker scraped on the floor. She moaned, and her eyes were open.
“I’m here, Miss Erica. It’s Jesse.” He pushed the walker to one side and knelt beside her as her lips moved, but nothing came out but a faint moan. He tried to lift her but her head flopped and nothing seemed connected. One side of her face appeared to be very slack, and that eye seemed larger that the other. This was serious. “Don’t try to talk. I’m calling for help.”
The phone was right beside them, there in the hallway. He dialed 911. It was answered almost immediately.
“Dispatch. Do you have an emergency?”
“Yes. My friend, Miss Erica Satler, has fallen and can’t move. She’s an older lady and uses a walker. She’s lying on the floor.”
“Is she conscious?”
”Please describe her breathing.”
”It‘s very faint.”
“May I talk to her?”
“She can’t seem to talk. She just moans. One side of her seems different from the other.”
“It may be that she has had a stroke. We’ll send a response team right away. Please confirm your address.”
“It’s 1105 Orchard Street.”
“Are you there alone with her?”
“What is your name?”
“Jesse Schofield, ma’am.”
“How old are you, Jesse?”
”Now Jesse, I want you to find something to cover Miss Satler with. She may be in shock, and people in shock need to be kept warm. Please cover her without trying to move her, and keep talking to her. Don’t hang up in case you need to tell me something else.”
Jesse laid the phone down. “They’re sending someone. I’m supposed to cover you." He raced into the living room and grabbed a comforter and a knitted shawl off the sofa. He returned to Miss Erica and gently covered her with the comforter. He folded the shawl and slid it under her head. Miss Erica was looking at him steadily.
“Help is on the way, Miss Erica.” He grasped her right hand, and felt a little squeeze. Then he heard the faint sound of a siren coming up the hill. “There it is now.”
Jesse jumped to his feet and went to the front door. Sure enough, it was locked. He unlocked the dead bolt and threw the door open. A big square fire department ambulance approached. As it slowed he stepped out, waving his arms. It pulled to a stop in front of the house and another vehicle, a police car with blue lights flashing, pulled in behind it.
Jesse turned and ran back to Miss Erica’s side. “They’re here," he said. “I want to tell you that I know Miss Susan is at the tennis match. I’ll lock up the house and find her and bring her to wherever they take you.” He reached for her hand and felt her give two faint squeezes. He gave a little squeeze back just as two EMS responders burst into the hallway.
“Stand back, kid,” barked a gruff voice, and suddenly Jesse found himself pressed back against the wall by a huge hand. It was a police officer. The EMS team went to work immediately, and within minutes they had connected Miss Erica to several monitors, established radio communication with another site, and started an I.V. They gently lifted Miss Erica onto a collapsed stretcher frame they had fetched from the response vehicle.
Jesse managed to pull away from the wall. With the policeman shadowing his every move he went into the living room where he located Miss Erica’s pocketbook on her desk. “Here,” he said, turning to the officer, “Her ID and medical cards might be in here.”
“Had her purse spotted, did you?” said the policeman as he took it from Jesse.
Confused, Jesse turned away and called out to the emergency crew. “Where are you taking Miss Erica? I need to tell her family.”
“Cooley Dickinson, son. Do you have her ID?”
“Here,” said the cop, pushing in front of Jesse. He handed Miss Erica’s wallet to one of the men.
“Can’t take that,” said the responder. “Just give me her license and medical cards. We’ll bag them and keep them safe, but no money or credit cards.” He handed the wallet to Jesse, who carefully removed Miss Erica’s photo ID and a group of cards that seemed to have medical information. As soon as Jesse had handed those over the policeman took the wallet from Jesse and shoved it into the purse, which he tossed onto the hall table.
Jesse reached for Miss Erica’s hand just as the stretcher was hoisted from the floor.
“I love you,” he whispered. He felt a faint squeeze.
In an instant the stretcher bearing Miss Erica was out the door and Jesse watched as she was loaded into the back of the ambulance. He turned as the policeman took his arm and pulled him back. “O.K., kid, I want to know who you are and why you’re in the house.”
“My name is Jesse Schofield and-”
“Let’s see your ID.”
“I don’t have any with me. I came over to mow Miss Erica’s lawn and all I wore was these shorts and tee shirt.”
“Did she catch you breaking into the house?”
“What do you mean? We’re good friends. I came into the kitchen for a drink, just like I always do.”
“I think you might have argued, and mebbe you pushed her down.”
“That’s nuts! I heard a sound in the hallway, so I came out of the kitchen and found Miss Erica lying on the floor. I called 911!”
“Can anyone substantiate who you are and what you’re doing here?”
“Call my mom. She’s at work but she knew I was coming over here. Listen, I’ve got to locate Miss Susan and tell her what’s happened.”
“One thing at a time, kid. Give me your mother’s number. Then you and I are going to sit down and have a little chat until I sort this out. Then I want to know who this Miss Susan is.”
Furious, Jesse bit his tongue. He knew it wouldn’t do any good to show this officer his feelings. But he was increasingly desperate that Miss Erica was all alone, and that nobody knew what had happened to her but him.
* * *
It had taken almost a half-hour to straighten things out with the policeman. First the call to his mother who had to be paged to her desk, then the officer botching up the explanation to her, then she reacted just as Jesse thought she would by insisting that she would come immediately, until Jesse almost by force took the phone and told her that he was all right and it was just the confusion surrounding Miss Erica’s accident and would she please use her time to find out how Miss Erica was doing at the hospital because he’d be going straight to find Miss Susan at the tennis match.
“Now, kid, I want you to tell me who Miss Susan is and why you have to find her.” The policeman flipped a page on his notebook and licked the tip of his pencil.
“Miss Susan Kendle is Miss Erica’s friend and she lives here, too. She’s also a retired teacher. Miss Susan went to be a judge at the tennis--”
“Whoa, whoa, hold it up. This Miss Susan Kendle lives here? Is she related to Miss...” the policeman looked through his notes “Miss Satler?”
“Nooo.” Jesse was hesitant. He wasn’t sure how this was supposed to be handled. “I don’t really know. I just know they live here together.”
“Together? You mean they’re lezzies?”
Jessie’s anger returned. “They’re both very good friends of mine. Why are you asking these questions?”
“Watch it, kid. I still might take you in if you give me any lip. Come outside.” The officer walked out the door and over to his car, steering Jesse with a big meaty hand on his shoulder. The blue lights were still flashing. The officer leaned into the police car and thumbed a microphone. All Jesse could hear were snatches: “...the kid who called it in... mumble... hospital... mumble... says they’re lezzies... mumble... could be he did but it‘s just a coupla dykes... why sweat it?“ He finished and straighten up out of the window. “O.K. kid, whynt you beat it out of here.”
“I have to close up the house. I promised Miss Erica.”
“Jeezus, kid, I don’t have all day. Pull the door. I don’t want you going back inside.”
Jesse looked at the policeman, then back at the house. “There’s the back door besides the front door, and my bike is out back.”
“Start with the front, and then I’ll walk you around.”
Jesse reached in to be sure the lock was set, then pulled the door shut until it clicked. The cop motioned impatiently and they walked quickly around the house. “I need to make sure the lights are off in the kitchen.”
“Forget it, kid. They’re paying the bills.”
Jesse swallowed hard and reached in to activate the back door lock, then pulled it tightly shut. It caught and he looked up at the cop, who nodded. “O.K., kid. Beat it. I want to see you gone.”
Jesse retrieved his sneakers, shoved them on, and walked quickly to where he’d leaned his bike against the side of the garage. He’d have to come back later to put the mower away. That seemed low on his priority list. He bent to retrieve his Red Sox cap and his cell phone from where he’d tucked them behind the bike. He so had to call Brian. He wheeled his bike into the driveway, got on, and pumped quickly out onto the street. The cop, just getting into his patrol car, kept staring at him. Jesse swerved into his shortcut between the two houses on the other side of the street and headed into the back alley until he was sure the policeman was out of sight. Then he hopped off his bike and hit his speed dial.
He was seething. He needed to tell someone about the policeman but finding Miss Susan was his main objective now. Answer, Brian!
“ ‘Lo Jesse. Where’ve you been? I’ve been trying--”
“Sorry, Brian, but this is real important. Miss Erica collapsed and I had to call 911. They took her to the hospital and I’ve got to find Miss Susan. Some asshole cop thought I knocked her down and gave me a lot of crap. He just let me go, and I’m really--”
“Take a breath, Jesse. You say Miss Erica is on the way to the hospital? My God, the poor thing! Where are you?”
Jesse felt so much better hearing Brian’s voice. It was a great voice, always so quiet and controlled. Jesse just loved it. “Bri, I’m scared for Miss Erica. But I’ve got to get to Miss Susan and tell her...” Jesse swallowed hard. He wasn’t going to cry.
“Jes, where are you?” Brian asked again.
“In the alley across from their house. The damned cop made me leave, and then he watched to make sure I left--”
“I’m coming to get you. I just need to check out with my dad. He’s managing the store today.”
“But I’ve got my bike, Bri, and--”
“I’ll pull up in front of the house if the cop is gone, and we’ll stash it in Miss Erica’s garage. If the cop is still there I’ll come to the end of the alley. Then we’ll find Miss Susan together.”
“Thanks, Bri. You’re a lifesaver.”
“I’m your boyfriend. That’s the way it works.”
* * *
The woman guarding the gate behind the university tennis courts was very emphatic. “Miss Kendle is officiating at the moment. She cannot be disturbed.”
“But this is important. Her friend has been taken to the hospital--”
“The tennis match is far from over, and you may not disturb her.” Jesse and Brian stared at each other. Jesse tried again. “Ma’am, you don’t understand. The lady she lives with has had a stroke or something.”
“Young man, I’ll have to ask you to step away from here or I will summon Security. This is a sanctioned sporting event and cannot be interrupted.”
“C’mon, Jesse,” Brian turned away. “We’ll do this another way.”
Jesse was incredulous. “But Brian, Miss Erica is really sick. Why won’t they let us tell Miss Susan?”
Brian shook his head. “It’s the world of officials, Jesse. Look at us. You’ve been mowing the lawn and I’ve got my coffee shop uniform on. We’ll have to find out where Miss Susan is and see if we can attract her attention.”
The boys circled the arena. They could hear the thwack of volleying interrupted by applause. They came to another gate where a catering truck was backing into the complex. After a quick exchange of glances, they darted into the shadows behind the bleachers and made their way toward the noise of the match in progress. As they rounded the stands there was a loud roar from the crowd and the match apparently was over. People began to move down from the stands and over to the concessions.
Looking onto the court Jesse saw the line judges clustering in the shady end. Miss Susan was mopping her neck with a towel and taking a bottle of water from a ball girl.
Jesse stepped onto the court and ran over toward Miss Susan. Brian was right behind him. “Here, you,” a red-faced man in a jacket and tie reached out toward the boys. “Where’s your tags? You aren’t supposed to be here.”
“Miss Susan! It’s Jesse!” Susan Kendle, startled, looked up toward the boys and the official who was now chasing them. “Miss Erica is hurt! We need to talk to you!”
As the official grabbed at Jesse’s arm Miss Susan walked over. “What’s wrong, Jesse?”
“i’ll take care of this,” the man’s face seemed even redder. “Just a couple of intruders.” He spoke into a microphone pinned to his lapel.
“No, I know these boys,” said Miss Susan.
“It’s Miss Erica. I found her on the floor and she couldn’t talk or move.” Jesse was breathing hard, and Brian was pulling the man away from Jesse. “I called 911 and they came and took her to the hospital--” By then the man had been joined by two others and they were forcibly restraining Jesse and Brian.
“STOP ALL THIS!” Miss Susan still had a gym teacher’s bellow when she needed it. “I SAID I KNOW THESE BOYS AND THEY HAVE SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO SAY TO ME!”
By then the commotion had attracted a good deal of attention, and several well-dressed women wearing ‘Committee’ badges had joined the group surrounding Jesse and Brian and Susan Kendle. Jesse, struggling within the grasp of the security man, related to Miss Susan a short account what had happened to Miss Erica.
“Let’s go,” said Miss Susan. “You drove, Brian?” Brian nodded.
“But Miss Kendle,” one of the ladies interrupted, “the next match will begin in less than ten minutes, and you are judging.”
“My partner’s in the hospital and I’m needed there,” said Susan Kendle.
“But this is the final, and you are on the roster--”
“I said I must leave. Find another line judge.”
“If you walk out, Susan, don’t expect to be asked to ever judge another match.”
“Fine. Apparently you don’t have a sense of priority.”
“Well, I never!”
“Let’s go, boys.” Miss Susan Kendle stepped over to Jesse, looked hard at the security man until he dropped his hand from Jesse’s arm, and walked quickly with the two boys toward the exit behind the bleachers.
* * *
The hospital waiting room was freezing but at first it had felt good after the hot drive. Jesse always felt safe riding in the ancient Honda Civic passed down to Brian from his older brothers. Even though he was still in his first year as a fully-licensed driver Brian was always calm and careful handling the car. But Miss Susan was clearly deeply worried, and the tension within the car made everyone on edge. Jesse retold in great detail exactly what had happened from the moment he stepped into the kitchen to get a drink, although he left out what had gone on with the policeman. Miss Susan didn’t need that kind of aggravation. She praised his quick thinking but that really didn’t make him feel any better. Brian reached over to squeeze his hand and that had helped. When they reached the hospital Jesse walked Miss Susan into the Emergency entrance while Brian parked the car.
Miss Susan had been gone for a while, somewhere within the Emergency Department complex; she’d been ushered in as soon as she had announced that she was Miss Erica Satler’s Care Proxy. The waiting was hard. Jesse shivered a little in spite of the jacket Brian had fetched for him from the car. He kicked at the legs of the chair he was sitting in. He felt terrible. Maybe he could have found Miss Erica sooner if he’d taken a break after doing the front lawn. But oh, no, he had to do the whole thing before he’d gone inside for the drink...
“Jes, have you told your mom that we’re here?”
“Ohmygosh, I forgot. She’s probably steaming by now. I talked to her when the cop was working me over and that’s all. She probably think’s I’m in jail.” Jesse hit the speed dial on his phone and listened to the ringing until it clicked over to the answering program. “Maybe she’s left work. I’ll try home.” That produced results, and Jesse had a few tense moments as he tried to interrupt his mother’s tirade. Finally he was able to tell her that Brian and he had driven Miss Susan to the hospital, and they were going to stay at least until Miss Susan returned with information. “I’m not leaving,” Jesse whispered to Brian. Jesse’s mother demanded that Jesse call her with an update 'as soon as he knew what the situation was’ and Jesse was able to hang up.
”I need to check in with dad,” Brian said.
“Do you think I should call the uncles?” Jesse asked.
“I think you should tell them what’s going on.”
Both boys worked their phones. Brian’s dad answered right away, but Jesse got a busy signal.
“Dad, I’m with Jesse and we brought Miss Susan to the hospital. We don’t know anything yet about Miss Erica, except that she’s in the emergency room.” Brian filled his dad in with a very abbreviated account of how he’d located Jesse at Miss Erica’s house and how they’d managed to find Miss Susan. There was no mention of policemen or of tennis officials. “No, dad, I need to stay with Jesse. We need to see this through, and help Miss Susan.” Finally he hung up with a sigh. “Dad is worried about covering the store. My ass may be in a tight place. Have you ever noticed how grownups seem to have different priorities?”
“Bri, have I ever told you what a wonderful guy you are?”
“Just keep on thinking that way, Jes.”
The two smiled at each other. Jesse’s heart gave a lurch. Thank God for Brian. Then his phone rang and the moment passed.
“Hello, favorite nephew. You called?” It was his uncle Fred.
“Uncle Fred, Miss Erica is in bad shape." Once again Jesse began to tell the tale.
“Hold it, nephew. Let me put you on the speaker so Dave can hear this, too.”
This time Jesse told every detail, including the things the policeman had said and the way he had treated Jesse as a suspect. Brian had already heard most of this, but by the time Jesse had unfolded the entire episode for his uncles Brian had tears in his eyes and he was holding Jesse in a tight embrace. Jesse leaned against Brian’s chest.
“That shit!” His uncle Dave was furious, and even Brian could hear him shouting over the phone. “We’ll get his ass!” Dave was an attorney.
“Well, I got his badge number,” said Jesse, wiping his cheeks.
“Attaboy,” Dave said. Fred said that they would leave right away and be at Jesse’s house whenever the boys got there.
* * *
Jesse and Brian had been in the waiting room a little over an hour when Miss Susan reappeared. She looked very frail and shaken and both boys immediately jumped to their feet and hugged her.
“It’s not good," she said. “Ricki’s lapsed into a coma and they’re going to move her into Intensive Care. She was conscious very briefly when I arrived and I was able to talk to her for a few minutes, but she couldn’t answer. I think she heard me, though, because she looked at me and squeezed my hand once. But now she’s unresponsive.”
Miss Susan slumped into a chair. The boys sat on either side of her. “She’s full of tubes and wires. She so hated that when her mother died a few years ago. They kept her mother alive for weeks on those machines, and Ricki said she never wanted to go through that. She signed a directive--” Miss Susan broke down, and sobbed quietly. The boys held her hands and stared at the floor.
“At least I’m allowed to be with her, now.”
Jesse stirred. “What do you mean?”
“It wasn’t so long ago that gay men and women weren’t allowed to see their partners in hospitals in Massachusetts. They weren’t considered family, and couldn’t even make decisions about care.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” Brian asked.
“Now it is. But that’s very recent. Count yourselves lucky, my dears, to be young and gay in this era.” But then Miss Susan started crying softly.
Brian jumped up and walked out into the corridor to the admitting desk. “Do you have any tissues?” The nurse gave him a box.
As Brian offered them to Miss Susan the swinging doors into the emergency department flipped open and a woman wearing scrubs came out. A mask dangled below her chin and a stethoscope was slung across both shoulders.
Susan Kendle looked up, dabbing at her eyes. She got to her feet and stood uncertainly. Jesse realized how close to the edge Miss Susan was. He stood and motioned to Brian. The two boys supported Miss Susan and they walked across the floor.
“May I speak with you privately?” asked the doctor.
“These young men are with me.”
“I see. I’m afraid I must tell you that Miss Satler passed away at 3:47, a few minutes ago. We would have come for you but it happened without warning. She could not be revived.” The doctor put her hands on Miss Susan’s forearms and looked intently into her eyes. “She died peacefully and without distress. There was nothing we could do.”
Jesse felt a sharp pain in his heart. He turned away, conscious that Brian had put his arms around Miss Susan. But he just couldn’t help, right now. It wasn’t fair. Life wasn’t fair. If only he’d found Miss Erica sooner. If only she hadn’t been so old and frail. If only he had the chance to talk to people, really talk, before they were gone.
* * *
Miss Susan, accompanied by the ER doctor, had returned to the cubicle to spend a few minutes alone with Miss Erica. Jesse and Brian were numb, but they were also starving. A nurse had come to get them and they sat in a nurse’s lounge sipping from milk cartons and chewing on some turkey sandwiches the ER staff had rounded up for them. They phoned to tell Jesse’s mom and the uncles the outcome, as well as Brian’s parents. These conversations were brief and halting. When Miss Susan returned they persuaded her to drink some juice and eat half a sandwich. Neither Jesse nor Brian could imagine taking Miss Susan back to that empty house on Orchard Street, and they finally convinced her to come and stay the night at Brian’s, aided by soothing reassurances over the phone from Brian’s mother and father. Brian drove very carefully and when they reached Jesse’s house it was nearly dark. Holding hands, Brian walked Jesse to the door and they hugged briefly. They were both exhausted. Jesse felt like a zombie.
“Thank you, Bri, for rescuing me and for all you’ve done.”
“We’re here for each other. Just like Miss Erica and Miss Susan.”
Jesse gave Brian another hug, turned, and went inside.
* * *
The memorial service for Miss Erica Satler was held at the Unitarian-Universalist Meetinghouse on North Pleasant. The whole thing had been arranged by Jesse’s mother, working with Miss Susan and helped by the uncles. They had used the high school’s alumni registers and sent out countless emails and text messages, and the turn-of-the-century Victorian structure was packed with Miss Erica’s former students, including most of the city’s officials and business leaders. It turned out that the governor had been one of Miss Erica’s students, and he arrived in a flash of limousines, accompanied by the escort he had been quietly asked to request. It was composed of four local police officers in dress blues and white gloves. One of these officers, recently demoted, was particularly unhappy about being there. He had watched Jesse and Brian walk in hand in hand, followed by Fred and Dave. 'Holy shit,’ he was heard to exclaim, 'they’re all fuckin’ faggots!’ At that, a massive state trooper had leaned over and told him to 'shut the fuck up’ if he knew what was good for him. The trooper then pointed out that the governor was accompanied not only by his wife but also by his daughter and her partner, the first female Commonwealth’s Attorney for Suffolk County.
In keeping with UU tradition the service was a celebration of Miss Erica’s life and work. The word 'death’ was hardly mentioned. The high school’s Philharmonia strings played, and representatives from the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, it’s International Students club, the Best Buddies club, and organizations honoring various ethnicities and origins all spoke about how Miss Erica had supported their aims and activities.
Jesse, with Brian beside him, sat with his mother and uncles and Brian’s family. His friend Artie sat behind him with his girlfriend Judy and his family. Throughout the service Jesse stared at the huge Louis Comfort Tiffany window and his thoughts were far away. He didn’t feel like celebrating anything. Brian’s hand rested on his, and for Jesse that was the only spark of hope available.
Miss Susan’s eulogy was brief but moving. She related how she and Miss Erica -- her Ricki -- had met in college at a time when most women attended separate institutions from men, and black students sought higher education in settings even more separate. She and her Ricki had lived and worked when freedom and opportunity meant freedom and opportunity mainly for men who were white. Miss Erica’s life’s work had been in education, and education had provided the key to opening those doors that had blocked access to opportunity. Within her lifetime Miss Erica had been fortunate to witness the replacement of a world view that was drab and monocolored by one beginning to be lit with the brilliance of diversity’s rainbow, as glorious as the window which illuminated the service today.
Jesse stirred as the congregation stood and the doors were thrown open. “Let’s go home,” he said.
* * *
Jesse sat in his room and stared at the wall. He’d come upstairs after breakfast--he hadn’t eaten anything except a slice of toast and some juice--and he’d gotten back in bed until the light from the window forced him to get up and close the blinds. Since then he’d sat at the end of the bed. His mother was at work, the house was still, and he’d ignored the phone every time it had rung.
This was his second day of just staying in his room. He really didn’t feel like going outside, or doing anything. He hadn’t talked to Brian in two days. He’d barely talked to his mother. His mother had to go to work, but she had called her brother Fred at lunchtime and told him that she didn’t know what was going on with Jesse. Now Fred’s calls as well as Brian’s were keeping the phone ringing.
Jesse felt completely empty. He had started out feeling angry and confused. Everyone had told him what a great thing he had done, finding Miss Erica and calling for help, but he knew he had found her too late and had done too little to help her. He had wasted too much time with the cop and he had caused Miss Susan to be late getting to the hospital. Then at the memorial service he had just sat. He should have said something to Miss Susan; he should have shown her some sort of support. He should have been happy that Miss Erica had had such a long and rewarding life. Instead he felt that the whole service was a sham, people pretending to celebrate when they really ought to have been sad. He ought to be sad. But he was just empty.
A car door slammed outside and Jesse heard a key in the front door. It was too early for his mom to be coming home. Had something happened? He didn’t think he could take much more happening. He stepped outside the door of his room and looked down the stairs. His uncle Fred came through the front door and, closing it behind him, looked up. For a moment Jesse felt a little surge of hope.
“Hi, uncle Fred.”
“Can I come up?”
“I guess so.”
Fred came up the stairs and stood looking at Jesse. Jesse turned and went back into his room and sat down on his bed. His uncle followed him and sat beside him. Together they stared at the wall.
“I feel terrible,” Jesse said.
“Of course you do. You’ve lost a close friend.”
“But I should have found her sooner. Maybe Miss Erica would still be alive.”
“Jesse, that’s not something you or anybody could ever know. You can’t live by second-guessing every action. There are no what-ifs in how we live. Events occur. If Miss Erica was meant to die, your finding her or not didn’t change the outcome.”
“But I still feel bad.”
“You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t grieve.”
Jesse was silent for a long time. Fred finally realized that there was something more.
“What is it, Jesse?”
“I miss Miss Erica...” Jesse gave a choked gasp, “I miss her more than my dad...” He broke into tears. Fred wrapped his arms around the boy. Jesse cried in huge gasping sobs until his tears turned to hiccups. He scrubbed at his face with the handkerchief his uncle held out to him.
“Do you know why, Jesse?”
“I... I wasn’t there when my dad...” Jesse hiccuped again, then caught his breath. “I didn’t even know he died, until later...” Jesse buried his head in his uncle’s chest. Fred patted him on the back.
“He never even... I never even... said goodbye.” Jesse howled.
Fred wrapped Jesse in his arms. “You’re angry at him, aren’t you?”
“YES!” Jesse sobbed and sobbed. Fred held him tight.
Eventually Jesse stopped crying and leaned back, breathing hard. Fred let him go.
“Took a long time to get that out,” Fred said.
“Do you think you might forgive your dad?”
“For not giving you a chance to say goodbye.”
Again Jesse was silent. Minutes passed.
“That’s pretty selfish, isn’t it?” he finally said.
“What are you thinking, Jesse?”
“It’s not about me, is it? Dad, and Miss Erica -- they’re gone. They didn’t die on purpose, to hurt me. I’m the one who’s hurting me.”
“You’re a smart kid, Jesse. I’m proud of you.”
They sat for a long moment. Jesse stirred.
“Time to get dressed, I guess.”
“I’d better call Brian.”
Grateful thanks to Bruin, Ted, and Stephen for helping me make it whole.
--James Merkin email@example.com