An Act of Sympathy, Pt. 3

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.

Police chief Samuel Clawson had arrived at the scene to find Cara barely breathing. By the time the Jaws of Life had been used to free her, only a weak heartbeat could be found. Cecil, head nurse and not naïve, had not shared with Emily the prospect of losing Cara. The thought was too painful for the grandmother to bear.

Cara’s body lay in a comatose state for two days. I was not allowed to visit Emily as she stayed by her sister’s bedside those forty-eight hours. It was only from eavesdropping on my parents that I learned what was happening.

“Cecil says that there is no brain activity,” whispered my mother as she sliced an onion. “She’s given the doctor permission to take Cara off life support if nothing changes within the next twelve hours.”

Dad stirred a kettle on the stove, “I’ve heard Samuel has called for a town council meeting tonight. Lawrence Foley brought in his old ’66 Mustang for an oil change today and told me. He said the town is in an uproar over Clark being kept on probation. Everyone is saying it was an accident.”

“Well, it was an accident. Everyone makes mistakes.”

“It was definitely a big mistake.”

“The boy is only eighteen. That’s how you learn, by making mistakes. I’m sure he feels terrible about what has happened, but why make him suffer for the rest of his life? The town had already suffered enough these past few days.”

When my mother suddenly turned around, I slipped the kitchen door shut from where I peeked. Walking back to my bedroom a lot of questions rushed over me. Were my parents actually siding with the town? How had I missed them becoming entwined in the futility of Sympathy? Would Clark Clawson really get away with murder because the town was protesting his involvement? How was Emily dealing with all this? As I pictured my mother in the kitchen I had to wonder if the tears in her eyes were from cutting the onion or for the grieving family she had just condoned.

I left the house after Cecil phoned my mother to tell her the news. My mind could only focus on one objective: find Emily. Her grandmother’s house was empty so I went around back. Walking into our clearing, I found Emily huddled against the birch tree’s trunk. Her face was swollen as a wave of sobs enveloped her. Rushing forward, I held onto her tightly but her body never seemed to relax. I worried about the things she was leaving unspoken.

After what seemed like hours, she finally quit crying. A strangled voice I did not recognize came from her mouth. “It’s like I’ve lost my family twice,” Emily confessed to me.

Seven days later I stood beside Emily and watched her as Cara’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Emily appeared aged: her eyes were dim, her hair fell limp, and what had once been laugh lines now cut deep into her face like wrinkles. I noticed that the black of her outfit cast a dark shadow across her pretty features. I had a sudden fear that the lively girl I cared about may no longer exist.

Unwilling to linger on the thought, I cast my attention back to the ceremony. My parents, Cecil, and the reverend were the only others present; Sympathy was not a member of our congregation.

The town council, led by Samuel Clawson, had banded together to find a loophole for Clark’s pending summer trial. The boy had been driving thirty miles per hour over the speed limit, blown a stop sign, been intoxicated at the age of eighteen, and ultimately caused an accident that resulted in a girl’s death. However, just as my mother had commented, those mistakes were enough to weigh on the teen’s shoulders for the rest of his life. Why add a charge of manslaughter? Not only would the sentence ruin Clark Clawson’s name and prevent him from attending college in the fall, but also the reputation of the town would be blemished. Sympathy was outraged by its blind self-centeredness.

Unfortunately for the town, justice could not be manipulated by ridiculous protests. The trial was to be carried out in a neighboring town under the guidance of an unfamiliar judge. The Clawsons’ lawyer suggested that the boy plead guilty. Since Clark had cooperated with police, answered all questions, and had no previous convictions, he was likely to get off on a lighter sentence. The plea bargain offered even more benefits. Clark was tried and convicted, sentenced to fifteen years in prison, twelve if he could get out on good behavior.

The town turned hostile, however. The town’s police chief’s son was sitting in prison. Since Sympathy was too small for its own prison, the founding family’s own blood was rotting away in a neighboring city. The injustice brought about in court was blamed on Cecil and Emily. If Cara had not come to Sympathy, then the town would not be so humiliated.

My mother was forced to pick up a waitressing job in Emmetsburg as Dad’s repair shop lost business. Anyone who was not native to Sympathy was scorned.

The summer months were the longest days I could ever remember. I spent a lot of time working with my father to keep my mind off Emily. Since business was slow, Dad and I had begun acting as freelance mechanics and repairmen. We traveled around the surrounding areas looking for customers with leaky faucets and loose car cables. I attempted to visit Emily at the beginning of the summer, but was welcomed with a distant air and silence. It was difficult to lose the closest person in my life, but I was beginning to understand how she felt over Cara.

When our junior year began, Emily was no longer invisible to the rest of our peers. The pranks that were usually directed toward me were now aimed at her. And though Emily had always been particularly good at hiding her emotions, I could see my friend’s barriers starting to break.

During my time, most of the antics done to me had been carried out by the Clawson brothers. Thus I had times of relief when the brothers were not near me. But for Emily, the entire school seemed against her. Cruel names were cast in her direction as we walked to and from class; nasty looks were given by the most remote student. I didn’t understand how she could handle the constant torment.

I opened my mouth to break the ever growing silence between us one day but was stopped when we found a gathering in front of our two lockers. Bonnie Wilson, biggest gossip of school, looked over her shoulder and sneered.

“Welcome home, love birds.” She said as she turned to face us, “We were just decorating your house with some photos I happened to land my hands on. I hope you really enjoy the decorations.”

Her gang chuckled and parted ways to allow a visual of our locker doors. Snapshots of a girl littered the aluminum. The typical paper-cloth hospital robe was seen from different angles. Large bruises covered her exposed body. Tubes fed into her skin. A long cut ran across the entire left side of her face. My breath caught as the hall began to spin; there was no doubt of who the pictures’ victim was: Cara.

“My daddy is head photographer for the Herald Tribune, as you probably know. He was asked to take some pictures for the court hearing.” Bonnie flipped her hair, “Clark did a job, didn’t he?”

I found my voice, “What have you done?”

Faking disappointment, Bonnie placed her hand on her chest and opened her eyes wide, “What? You don’t like them?” I stared dumbfounded. “I just thought Emily would like a collage of her sister for remembrance. This is from Sympathy to you, Emily, to show you how much we care about your loss. We didn’t have any other pictures of Cara though so…”

At the mention of Cara’s name, Emily started. A crazed look entered her eyes and she tackled Bonnie. Landing hit after hit on the wretched girl, Emily shouted, “Don’t you say her name! Don’t you ever say her name! You have no right! You have no right!”

Brett Clawson was the first to react. He grabbed onto Emily and pulled her off Bonnie. Holding her against the lockers, Brett looked her in the eyes. “Stop,” was all he said.

“Are you crazy, bitch?” shrieked Bonnie, who now hid behind two of her friends. An angry bruise was appearing around her eye already.

Emily jerked towards the red-head, growling. Brett restrained her.

I moved forward to push Brett away from her. Emily registered my touch and flung herself into my arms. I held her protectively as a flood of tears began to soak my shirt. Brett backed away slowly with his hands in front of him. He looked at me with a surprised expression on his face.

Just as I was about to speak to Emily, Adam Clawson joined our gathering. Noting Bonnie’s bruising face and Emily’s dishevelment, he snarled. “You just can’t behave yourself. Why didn’t your dad kill you and your sister when he shot your mom? It would have made everyone’s lives a lot easier.”

Horrorstruck that Emily’s darkest secret had just been shared in the halls, I looked down. Incredibility washed over her features and she took a step back from me. Wrenching a photo stuck to her arm and throwing it on the ground, Emily spun on her heel and fled the school.


            I’ve only ever told Kevin about my parents, thought Emily. Her Chevy Malibu purred as she pulled into her grandmother’s drive. Tears flooded her vision as she walked towards the front door. She tripped on the top step and fell to her knees. A fresh scrape scoffed at her from beneath her rumpled skirt.

Pushing herself to her feet, she made her way inside the house. Her thoughts jumbled as she made her way up the creaking staircase and found herself rummaging through her grandmother’s bedside table. Grasping the object of her search, Emily made her way to her bedroom and shut the door.

Cecil would understand, she had no doubt, but she worried about Kevin. She knew that before she had moved to town he had had some dark ideas concerning Sympathy. She had brought him out of his despair, though. Would he understand, then, that her despair was not the same as his?

Her heart hurt for her friend. However, there was the underlying anger she also had towards him. He had to have told someone about my family. It didn’t occur with her that he never spoke to anyone other than her. She was confused. Her mind felt compressed.

Horrific memories passed through her mind’s eye. She saw her mother being shot; Cara’s body lying in the hospital bed, her coffin lowering into a fresh grave. Emily repressed memories of Cara and her growing up, of Kevin and her laughing in their forest clearing.

Emily hugged her stuffed animal, “I’m sorry, Caroline.”

And as she dragged the heavy weapon her grandmother kept for safety towards her, she allowed herself to think, You win, Sympathy. I’m done.


            The final two years of high school passed in a surprising dissimilarity to my middle school days. Where the Clawsons had once laughed at me and tormented me now they denied my existence. It was okay for a while, welcomed actually. I used the quiet hours of my life as mourning for Emily.

But after some time the silence began to be taken by my thoughts. Dark thoughts on how the town had infected my life. I could see my parents beginning to worry as my silence infiltrated our house. I hardly ate meals, I spoke only when asked a direct question, and I never watched television or played games. A vague memory of Emily speaking of education being an important aspect of life kept me studying. Otherwise I spent my time sitting in my room, thinking.

My parents waited for me to transform into my old self for a year. Then at the beginning of my senior year they sought to bring me out of my mental state by sending me to a psychiatrist. I accepted their attempt at first. I thought maybe talking with a therapist would help me. I didn’t enjoy the way I acted, the way my mind always lingered on my heaviest memories. I was as unhappy with myself as my parents were.

Upon learning that the man had been born and raised in Sympathy, I confessed very little to him since I understood his judgment would be clouded. The two of us sat in awkward silence, wasting my parents’ hard-earned money, for an hour every week. I spent the time continuing my dissection of Sympathy. I replayed how the town responded to my friend’s death. Sympathy had seemed satisfied. Justice was finally given. Everything was set right.

It may not have bothered me to such a great degree if the truth behind Emily’s death had been told. I listened with false hope for the incident with Bonnie and Adam to be acknowledged. The pentacle which caused Emily to snap was never mentioned in conjunction to her death. Only I seemed to recognize that the girl who committed suicide was pushed into such action. To the town, her death was caused by an instable mind. It was a sad tale, but one the town could easily overlook.

Brett Clawson was the sole remainder of the legacy at the high school. Usually unheeded beside his older brothers’ athletic successes, he had been playing with a surprisingly strong bravado the season of our senior year. The football team won the state championship with an undefeated season. The town went into an exuberant uproar as the Clawsons name was restored and the events of the previous school year disappeared. Emily was forgotten.

As my final semester of high school came to a close I finally came to terms with this thought: I had dealt with this town for over half my life and I was no longer willing to sit back and take the injustice done to Emily, to me, to all Newcomers. I realized the one thing I had always sought in Sympathy was taken with Emily’s death. Respect would never be mine. This revelation forced the revenge raging inside me to reach its limit. I could leave the town but its presence would always follow me. I could take Emily’s example but then I’d only be forgotten. Focusing my anger, I analyzed two choices: allowing Sympathy to continue in its misguided ways or forcing Sympathy to take a long hard look at itself. Was there a way to make my perspective heard, my story considered? Knowledge of my life experiences could change the town forever. Sympathy needed to be awakened. But only a truly deep and penetrating shock could enforce the town’s recognition.

When I was honored the title of valedictorian, my plan fell into place. I would be allowed to give a speech. I would be enabled to hold the entire town as my audience and share my story with it. I risked ridicule, but the risk of tolerating Sympathy continuing its habits aware of the consequences overruled any fear of mockery. Sympathy needed to change in this town. And if the town decided to remain unchanged, then there was always Plan B, which could easily be hidden in my pocket.


            As I conclude my head turns back to Brett. He sits straight in his seat, but his toe taps against the gymnasium’s wood floor.

“And so, what could you possibly mean by me not belonging on this stage? I’ve experienced more in my years living in Sympathy than some of its citizens ever have! I have given more to Sympathy than most of you ever will.” I raise an accusing finger at the crowd. “I may have been proud to be a part of the 2010 graduating class anywhere else, but not here in Sympathy. The only aspect of this town which could have made me graduating special at all has been laid to rest and forgotten by the very people who put her there. Actions like this cannot continue, Sympathy. It’s not fair.” Raising my gaze to the terrified looks of my audience, I sigh. “It’s just not right.”

No one stirs as the clouds above us grow more threatening. A woman squeals as a clap of thunder breaks the silence. My right hand clenches and I begin to wonder if Plan B may be required. I eye Samuel Clawson directly before me in the front row, sitting next to the school board. His head is bowed. I realize for the first time that I had not known what to expect in a response. A spoken apology from every resident in Sympathy? I have to scoff at my own lack of foresight.

Again I find Brett’s eyes. I can see the pain and disgust in them, mirroring my own. In that moment I find some hope that Sympathy may finally come to realization, and my right hand slowly pulls out of my pocket. The cool steel is allowed to again rest upon my thigh.