An Act of Sympathy, Pt. 2

This piece began from a free write and transitioned into the final paper for an advanced fiction course. I started it in 2010 and revised to complete it during my first semester of my junior year at Western Michigan University (2012). This short story follows the life of a boy who experiences the effects of bullying during his high school career. This is a short story.


I tasted a metallic flavor in my mouth. The boys’ footsteps grew quiet as they trekked back to Main Street. I rolled my neck around to the see smaller of the three turning the corner without even a glance back. Summoning the courage to pull myself to a sitting position, I gasped and held my ribs. After some time I shook off the dizziness enough to stand and drag my beaten body home, barefoot and leaving the flower pot, paper bag, and my glasses behind.

Upon coming to my new house, I crept to the garage door and slipped inside. A bathroom lay right inside the door and I was relieved to see my mother had already unpacked wash rags and towels into its cupboards. Locking the door, I looked at myself in the mirror. Other than the red, teary eyes and blood smeared under my nose, my face was okay. I gingerly lifted my shirt. My breath caught when an angry bruise ran down my entire side. There was no doubt a rib or two had been broken as the large boy kicked me. I looked in the medicine cabinet and found an aspirin. Then I continued to rinse myself in the sink. As the dark rust washed down the drain I felt a hardening feeling in my gut. I hated Sympathy.

I had hidden the fact of my first encounter with the bullies from my parents due to fear that I would have to face the boys again. I had simply found myself so caught up in exploring the town that I forgot to grab the things from the store, I told them. And the money used to buy the products must have fallen out of my pocket when I was chased by a dog. I also lost my glasses in the great race for my life. I had never lied to my parents before so they never questioned me.

School began a month later. I watched my mother tie her hair into a floral bandana the morning before I began as she promised, “You’ll make lots of friends, Kevin. You’ll see; everyone will love you.” I hoped she couldn’t see the look of disgust my face held in the mirror.

Unfortunately, Mom was wrong. Adam Clawson was an eighth grader and his brother, Brett, was in my grade. And the boys ran the school like kingpins of the Mafia. The brothers, especially Adam, felt it was his responsibility to make my middle school aware that a Newcomer was walking through its halls.

“That thing carries worse things than cooties, Alice.” Said Adam after the girl sitting next to me handed me back my dropped pencil.

“Sean, you know it’s a week’s worth of lunch money for associating with Chicago,” said Brett when a boy cracked a joke to me during PE one afternoon.

It became easier for my peers to exclude me, pretend I didn’t exist. I acted as if it didn’t bother me but internally it was gnawing at me. Why couldn’t one person speak up to these guys in my defense? I would, but it was risking another back-lot experience. So I spent the next two years at Sympathy Middle School sitting by myself at lunch, not speaking to anyone, and hanging out with only my shadow. Only the daily antics of the Clawsons kept me from becoming completely invisible to Sympathy.

I believed the torment might be over once I entered high school. My father had opened his own repair shop in Emmetsburg and I worked for him. Lifting heavy machinery and working with my hands had helped to give me some muscle definition. I had grown out my hair and donned contacts to replace my glasses. I strutted into Sympathy High with my chin held high and hoping that after two years of calling Sympathy the place where I lived would be enough to change my status to my peers.

It was no luck, though. I remained the Newcomer. And now I attended the school where all three Clawson brothers also roamed the halls. Clark, now a senior, found me almost immediately of my arrival.

“Hey, Chicago, nice shoes.” He said, flashing a brilliant white smile. On his feet he wore my old pair of sneakers, a drop of blood still visible on the lace. It was obvious they had never been worn before that day. He had worn them specifically for me. I cringed.

A new building and new atmosphere didn’t change the status the Clawsons held. They were still gods among my peers, and to hold any sort of social status one must obey the gods. To strengthen their standing, Adam and Clark had become football heroes by leading Sympathy High to regional championships the year before. State championship was within reach now that Brett, the youngest, was on the team as well. Popularity trumped morality in the town of Sympathy.

Freshmen year began with the typical Clawson pranks: lunch trays shoved from my hands, a snake in my backpack, my locker door glued shut. I began to think of ways in which to leave Sympathy, or make the Clawsons pay. My imagination was the only thing that kept me going to school every day, as it ran rampant during the tormenting school hours. That is up until the cold October day when she walked into my life.

Emily Banks was the only other Newcomer I had known in Sympathy. She had moved in with her grandmother, Cecil. Rumors flew throughout the high school about the reason as to why she had moved in but no one knew for sure. Many of the gossips were cruel, creating a bad reputation for Emily before she had even been allowed to meet anyone. She was a drug addict trying to recover, she had had an abortion, her parents no longer wanted her; the list went on and on. Due to her being incredibly quiet, however, within a few weeks she became invisible to our peers. She simply was a Newcomer to which no one spoke.

Luckily for me, we had more than our popularity status in common. Emily had been given the locker next to mine. After nearly a month of silence, I bulked up the courage to speak to her.

Noticing the day circled in red on a small calendar hanging in her locker I asked, “What’s happening on January 19?”

My voice made her jump out of her skin. Blushing a bright scarlet, she giggled nervously and cleared her throat. “It’s the day my sister Cara is coming to visit me.”

“Oh, that will be nice.” I smiled and wondered about the importance of the visitor to her.

That was the first time I can recall ever smiling in a school setting. Talking with Emily became the best part of my life. Even with the regular pranks of the Clawsons, the girl had a mysterious way of keeping my mind from them. The soft tone of her voice, the way her blue eyes crinkled when she smiled, her frequent spinning of a small gold ring on her thumb; I couldn’t think of anything else. As our locker chats became longer so did our time together. We began to eat lunch, walk to class, and study after school.

Emily and I had a spot in the woods behind her grandmother’s farmhouse in which we met often: a small clearing centered around an old birch tree. It was a hideaway from the town of Sympathy. At the beginning of our friendship we had sat and watched the changing leaves fall in scattered chatter. But as the forest died around us and our relationship sparked, our chats became longer.

The tree’s branches had grown parallel with the ground and made it ideal for long conversations. It was a particularly mild winter in Iowa and the two of us perched on the birch wearing hats and down jackets. We were attempting to read The Fall of the House of Usher while being amused from a squirrel trying to chew on a rock. For some reason I found it so funny that I leaned too far back from laughter and slipped off my branch. Landing on my back with a small thud, Emily laughed even harder. I reached up and grabbed her dangling scarf.

“No!” she cried as I tugged her onto the ground beside me. Lifting herself onto her elbow, she giggled and wiped away a tear from my face. A dramatic silence came after she touched me. And then she dropped her lips to mine.

It was brief, too brief in my opinion. But the darkening of her blue eyes told me not to pursue her. “My father killed my mother.” She whispered.

I gaped at her as I pulled myself into a sitting position and reached for her hand. Blue eyes looked deep into mine and she seemed to be holding her breath. “What happened?” was all I could manage.

Sighing with what only could be relief that I had not run away from her, Emily held onto my hand with unaware strength.

“When I was four years old my mom left my father. After she caught him in our house with two other women she had had enough. We began renting an apartment in the south side of Chicago,” I involuntarily cringed, knowing from experience that the south side was an area my family had shied away from during our city days, “and mom took up two shifts at her factory. We were a lot happier without my dad being around though. The only thing I remember about him is his yelling. He used to drink a lot.”

Emily stopped to watch the squirrel scamper up a nearby tree. When it had disappeared she continued, “We didn’t hear from my father in years. Not until the day he owed his dealer did he think it important to find his ex-wife and two kids. What he didn’t know was the factory had just laid Mom off, though, and that we were living on unemployment. Cara wanted to quit school and find a job to help out but Mom told her that getting an education was the most important thing for us.” Emily smiled sadly, “Cara is brilliant. I’ve told you she got a full ride to Purdue, right? Mom would have been so proud.”

“But somehow my dad found us. I was sitting on the couch working on homework when he pounded on the door. He begged Mom for some cash, saying how sorry he was for what he had done to her, to us. He promised that once he paid his debt he would come back to her. I think when my mom laughed at him after he said that he snapped. He pulled a gun from behind him and shot her twice in the chest.” I stroked Emily’s hand with my thumb. “Cara had thrown herself on top of me. But I remember the look in his eyes when he saw us behind Mom. He wasn’t sorry.”

Emily’s hold on my hand was painful as she concluded, but she never shed a tear throughout the tale. We sat on the ground in silence until the sky grew black and we heard her grandmother calling for us.

Saturday, January 19 marked the first time Emily would see her sister since the court sentencing of their father in July. So when the day rolled around I waited on her grandmother’s porch step with Emily for Cara’s arrival. Cecil, their mother’s mom, was working a double shift at as head nurse at the Sympathy Hospital so we had been instructed to wait outside. We held hands and I thought how pretty Emily looked with her hair uncharacteristically worn down. My gaze kept lingering on her lips as she chattered about her sister.

“Cara is the greatest person you’ll ever meet,” Emily stated, smiling as she shared her favorite memory of her sister. “One day she came home holding a puppy she had found wandering a back-alley. It was the cutest thing ever, soft and blonde. We spent the rest of the week playing with it and trying to think of good names for it. But as we were walking to school on Monday morning we saw some flyers with the puppy’s picture on them. Turned out it had escaped from its owners and they had been looking for it all weekend. I wanted to keep the puppy but Cara explained why we couldn’t do that. So we returned the puppy to its family after school that day and received a small reward.” Emily smiled, “Cara could have spent the money on anything; I wouldn’t have cared. But instead, when I came home on Tuesday I found a stuffed animal lying on my bed. The fluffy toy looked exactly like the puppy! I came up with a name right away for it: Caroline. I still sleep with Caroline every night, it reminds me of Cara.”

“You really miss her, don’t you?” I asked, scooting closer to her and putting my arm around her shoulders.

She took a side glance at me and grinned, “It’s been easier having you around.” My thoughts swirled as she reached up and pecked my on the cheek.

As I began to lean into her, a car rolled into the driveway. I knew the vehicle, though, so I stayed seated as Emily rose and took a step away. Usually so calm and collected, Cecil’s dishevelment caught me by surprise. I watched the color drain from Emily’s cheeks as Cecil grabbed her hand and dragged her to the car. “Cara has been in an accident,” the grandmother gasped.

I remained frozen on the porch steps as the car sped away and Emily’s small cry hung in the air.

***

            “I’ll be back sometime on Tuesday,” said Cara Banks to her roommate, Josie.

Josie, looking up from a thick textbook glanced at the clock, “You’re leaving at this hour? Didn’t you tell your sister you weren’t getting there until tomorrow evening?”

“Yes, but since I didn’t have class today I figured I might as well surprise her by getting there in the morning. I slept pretty much all day so I could make it through the night. And I called my grandmother at her hospital and let her know I’m coming early. She said she’ll be working a double shift and won’t be there but to just let myself in. Emily loves my pancakes; I can’t wait to see her face in the morning when I wake her up with a plate of them.”

Chortling at Cara’s characteristically sweet motive, Josie returned to her reading, “Tell them both hi for me.”

“Will do,” replied Cara as she clicked the door to their dorm shut.

Skipping down the stairs from the fourth floor, she made her way to her Jeep Liberty. Jumping onto I-80 and beginning to head west, Cara relaxed into her seat. At least the sun was already done and she wouldn’t have to watch the unchanging landscape of central Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa pass by for the next ten hours. It was going to be a long night.

The sun was just beginning to peek over the ever expanding Iowan cornfields as Cara turned off the exit labeled Sympathy. She had only been to her grandmother’s house once before, to drop Emily off. The town did not look like it had in October. Now that the stalks were gone, the land simply looked dead. It sent a shiver down her spine.

Her grandmother’s house was on the far side of Sympathy. Isolated in the woods, Cara could picture the proud white home with its paneled windows. With its wrap-around front porch and peeked second story, the house looked as if it were smiling. Cara had fallen in love with the house as soon as she saw it.

The numerous back roads to her grandmother’s house were confusing though. Cara had a pretty good memory but all the intersections in the woods began to look the same; large trees mixed with climbing vines cut off her vision around every corner.

Coming to a stop where the dirt road she was on met a paved one, Cara took a breath. This was the first paved road she had seen in a while and she knew Cecil’s driveway came off from pavement. If she didn’t find the house within the next five minutes she would back track and get directions from town.

As Cara craned her neck to see if anyone was coming, she smiled. Emily’s face popped into her mind again. Cara couldn’t wait to see her sister. The bright sun made it difficult to see to her left. To her right she was unable to see any farther than the four-way stop sign around the corner, so Cara nudged her Jeep forward. Her eyes went wide as the large truck sped straight towards her and plowed her into the heavy treed roadside.

***

            Clark Clawson rarely spent a night at his parents’ house. His father’s constant instructions on how to do things better, his mother’s every obedient attitude, and his brothers’ open admiration for him drove him away. He needed his own space sometimes. He couldn’t wait until graduation in May and his escape to the University of Iowa.

Up until his senior year, Clark had worshiped the town of Sympathy. Not until his family life became unbearable did he consider leaving. Now the thought of being hours away, surrounded by new people, filled him with joy. However, he was not looking forward to telling his family or friends about his acceptance and decision into UIOWA. No one would understand why he was choosing to leave the town.

Friday night had been a party at Clark’s friend Remy’s barn. Blasting Alan Jackson music, girls wearing little more than plaid shirts, and drinks flowing until the middle of the night brought a major headache for Clark early Saturday morning. His alarm clock on his phone went off even before the first rays of sunlight shone. Vaguely recalling that he had to be to work by 8’o’clock, he hit the snooze button.

Ten minutes later the shrill alarm sliced through his head again. A moan next to him made Clark open his eyes. A tousled head of auburn hair met his gaze and he smirked. Untangling himself from Bonnie Wilson, Clark rolled off the cot located in Remy’s loft. He pulled on his jeans, ruffled his hair, and quietly climbed down the ladder to find the barn trashed. Even laughing softly made his head tremble, but he made his way to his truck anyways. If he was late again, Mr. Foley would surely fire him. That wasn’t an option; he needed the money for college.

Clark found it difficult to climb into his lifted pickup. He found it even harder to pull his key from his jeans pocket and direct it into the ignition. Here we go, he thought as the truck finally roared to life. He cursed when the clock on his dash read 7:53am. Stomping on the gas, he thundered onto CO 382, leaving a deep rut in Remy’s gravel drive.

Blowing through stop signs and swinging around sharp corners, Clark demanded the speedometer to reach 85 miles per hour. He knew Sympathy slept in on Saturdays and he was unworried over police officers; he just focused on making it to work by 8’o’clock.

The sun crept into his rearview mirror as he sped his way across the wooded road. As a ray of light struck the mirror, Clark was blinded. It was only when the crunching sound of metal-on-metal and his inability to influence his truck’s maneuvering that he realized the sun had been reflecting off another car.

Pressing firmly on the brake pedal, Clark finally brought his truck to a stop. He was uninjured other than his throbbing head. He could that his truck, on the other hand, was wrecked. The hood sported new folds in it. The thought of explaining the truck’s condition to his father made Clark’s head spin. The truck had been a gift after Clark had led his football team to state finals in November.

Stumbling out from the high cab, Clark looked for the other car. A hissing sound came from his left and he walked to the road’s shoulder. Seeing the blue SUV wrapped around a tree, Clark retched. He didn’t know how the person inside could have survived; the car looked like an accordion.

Not knowing what he should do, Clark pulled his cell from his pocket. He dialed the first number he could recall.

Two rings and a groggy voice answered. “Dad, I need your help.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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