As the sun dipped lower and lower beneath the January horizon beyond the bay, the nightlife of the neighborhood only increased in energy. Bar signs buzzed to life, illuminating the dark colored coats of the pedestrians polluting the sidewalks. Hot dog carts continued to hand out hot pretzels in the cold air and cars sat still in traffic, horns honking and yells escaping from passenger windows. I watched this scene go on from the safety of my warm bedroom. I wasn’t planning on leaving my house anytime soon. At least, not while it was still cold out. I couldn’t even leave by choice, anyway. Although it was a new year, a fresh start, I couldn’t forget what happened in December. What confined me to my house until the end of Christmas break, what confined me to myself.
“Let’s go, Ellie! We don’t have all day!” my brother yelled from the hallway, impatient.
“Cool it! I’m putting my hat on,” I yelled back. That was a lie. I didn’t even have my coat on, and I wasn’t making an effort to. I stared at it, hanging in my closet. There was no way I was going with Jack. I hated his friends, and I hated sledding. I loved the cold, don’t get me wrong. Snow, wind, all of it. It’s the sledding that bugs me. Too much chance between injury and safety. But Mom said I had to go with Jack, and there’s no arguing with her during her free time. My mind wandered to all the mistaken times I had argued with her during her breaks from the hospital – some funny, some not.
“Ellie! Move it, please!” Jack screeched again, breaking me out of my trance. I really didn’t feel like having to deal with an angry Mom, so I tugged my coat on and sped out into the hallway, crashing into the wall thanks to my slippery socks. Jack glared at me.
“Smooth move. Speed it along, Ell, c’mon!” he exclaimed, drumming his fingers on the counter top. As I tied the laces of my boots, I gave him a dirty look. He knew how much his one particular pal, Lionel, annoyed me. The kid doesn’t have an off button, neither for his rapidly moving mouth or rapidly moving body. It never ends with him. But I thought of the steamy hot chocolate that would be waiting for me when we’d return a couple hours later, so I pulled on my gloves and walked out onto the street, a gust of wind hitting my face immediately.
This is the aspect of the city that I absolutely adore. The scent of honey roasted peanuts, the yelling of crossing guards. As I speed walked to keep up with my overly ecstatic brother, I took the time to look at the city I loved, something I don’t do enough. There’s nothing that would make me want to give it up, ever. Not even the delays of the R train.
“Lionel, are you kidding me?” I shouted from the bottom of the icy hill. I watched him attempt to shoot snowballs into the trash can, but hitting innocent park-goers instead who whipped around in annoyance. He turned his head, widening his eyes in a Bambi-like way. I couldn’t take this anymore. As soon as we got back home, which didn’t look like it would be anytime soon, I was going to ask Mom to contact poor Lionel’s mother about his ridiculousness. Although, I should phrase it to be more formal if I want any change to happen.
“Ellie, he’s not doing anything!” Jack shouted back, a grin across his face.
“Don’t play with me! You can and will get in trouble for this!” I warned, losing my wit.
Jack’s merry gang erupted into laughter. I rolled my eyes and sat down on a bench. Thankfully, Lionel ceased his firing of snowballs and plopped onto a sled, challenging Jack and the group to a race. I thought nothing of it and continued to look at the scene around me. I was again filled with glee and gratitude to experience this majestic city, this majestic neighborhood. The rose colored awning of my favorite cafe, the green street signs. I became entranced, like with the coat, but loads more happy. I glanced over at the aspiring group of Evel Knievels every so often, still seeing it as innocuous. All good.
It wasn’t until I heard a voice screech for help, for 911, that I saw the steady stream of red stain the icy snow. I leapt up and sprinted over, concerned. When I really freaked out was when I saw the familiar neon green of Lionel’s hat also soaked crimson, and his body twisted in his sled. I almost fainted, but when I saw Jack’s innocent expression covered in tears, I knew I had to do something. I found the nearest adult and called 911, explaining all I knew. If only I looked closer at the injury would I have known the deep cut in his head, if I only I had been more worried about why Lionel’s hat was more bloody than anything, if only I noticed Jack holding his head up. If only.
The red of the ambulance sirens combined with the red of Lionel’s body, the red of Jack’s coat, the red of the snow. The red of the storefronts across the street only added to the overstimulation of color that made my eyes glaze, barely noticing the urgent calls of the EMTs as they loaded Lionel onto the gurney. They asked for my parent’s number, but I didn’t pay attention. Jack, my little brother, who was two years my junior, who was celebrating his eleventh birthday in a week, had to answer. Guilt washed over me, making everything worse. I sat numbly in the back seat of our car as Mom raced to the hospital, crammed with Jack and his three other friends. I sank into a chair in the waiting room as Lionel’s dad rushed through the door. Everything was red.
Here I was again, sitting on my bed, staring into the abyss. The only difference was the week that had passed. Yesterday was Jack’s birthday, but it was nothing that he should have received. He unwrapped his presents slow as ever, and broke down crying when he reached for Lionel’s gift wrapped in comic book pages. I sat next to him and rubbed his back, yet no emotions reached me. I was numb. Still. Today was the funeral. I’m surprised I’m allowed to leave the house, especially for such a solemn event that I had assumed an unfortunate role in. I didn’t want raging Mom to reappear, so I swung my closet door open and unhooked the black dress. I slipped it on and walked out into the hallway, no motivation in my step. I couldn’t get the red out of my mind. Everything around me was painted a shade of red. I was intoxicated by guilt, by sadness, by anger.
The car drive to the church hung with pain in the air. My dad’s knuckles turned a ghostly shade of white as he gripped the steering wheel. My mom had her foot tapping quietly on the carpeted floor of the car, staring out into the gray morning of this day. Jack clutched his stuffed bear from his babyhood. It emerged from the depths of his dresser on only the most difficult days. Once again, guilt drowned me. The amount of times I’ve been told it wasn’t my fault are uncountable, mostly because I don’t agree. Sure, I hadn’t caused him to veer into a pole, sure I hadn’t told them it was time to leave. But I wasn’t watching them. I was too occupied in my own thoughts, in a daze. Selfish. Lonely. Red.
The funeral service was empty. The pews were filled with elderly relatives of Lionel’s, with adult friends sitting down somberly, quietly crying. The most painful image was the youthful faces, the small bodies in oversized black suits, the glossy cheeks, the downcast eyes. The absence of fidgeting and laughter. The capita was well over 250, but all 250 souls were empty. My family sat with the other families that were friends with Lionel’s near the front. I joined them, but as soon as his brother, a highschool junior, made his way up to the podium, I cleared my throat and excused myself to the bathroom.
I stared into the dusty mirror, my hands leaning on the sink. I was looking at my reflection, but really my mind was tethered to the possibility of the dangerous “what if.” I swore to myself that I wouldn’t let myself slip down that rabbit hole when we first returned home after the hosp- no. I knew deep inside even thinking about the events that really happened would pull me down a dangerous path, so I let my eyes drift to the wooden cross that hung between the pair of mirrors. I touched it softly and stared at it for some time. Even though I didn’t believe in a greater power, I angrily thought, why Lionel? I didn’t appreciate his presence, that’s for sure. But I knew that he was always polite to my parents, that he comforted my brother after the death of his hamster, Carl, and that he always said hi to me, even though I returned it only once in a blue moon. He was a sweet kid, one with a promising future. The universe really messed up on this one. I rapped my knuckles on the wall once, just to see if I still existed in this dimension and that I hadn’t been sucked into a vacuum of cognitive eternity. I splashed cold water on my face, a double check that I was still there, and slowly returned to my seat in the fourth pew.
As I mentioned earlier, I was sentenced to my room. At first by my parents, because although they don’t blame me for the accident, I was “irresponsible and should’ve had a closer eye watching,” which resulted in a short grounding. That punishment ended a few days ago. Now, my own subconscious kept me inside my four walls.
Don’t lecture me about closure and moving on, yadayadayada. Yeah, yeah, I know. I still can’t escape the essence of guilt that’s decided to live in me. I want to gain closure, and my parents have told me that Lionel’s family is open to a discussion, but I can’t bring myself to leave my room. And I’ve tried, believe me, I’ve tried to convince myself that it’s ok. The voice in my head won’t retire its role. Escape is inevitable, but if I get to harbor in my room, the trade off isn’t horrible.
Someone should tell me more often to not believe myself so strongly. Dad dragged me out of the house this morning to go grocery shopping. He called it father daughter bonding time. I smiled weakly at him, knowing he knows I called his bluff. I mean, I haven’t been attempting to hide my cave-like behaviors from my family. I get it that he knows what I’m doing. I get that he wants to help.
We left our sweet, cozy home and walked into the gusty January street. Dad started talking about my uncle and how he just got engaged. I nodded along, but kept my eyes down to the sidewalk. I reaaaaally didn’t feel like being outside, especially with the park looming closely. We kept walking, and I noticed my dad stopped chattering. I looked at him, and he looked back and smiled a little smile.
“Ell, you do know it’s not your fault,” he said, looking right into my eyes.
I returned his gaze, and for the sake of my kind old dad, I responded.
“Thank you. I know.” Do I?
He grinned, happy that he got words out of me. Dad then started humming our song. “Higher and Higher,” Eddie Money. It became our thing after he bought a record player and started bringing out his and Mom’s vinyls. He’d play Eddie Money every morning, and this song quickly became ours. I swear, my dad is an evil genius or something. How did he know that one tune would make me giggle?
“Alrighty, Ell. I see that you’re back to your old ways. Chop chop!” He laughed.
“Spare me, Dad! It’s been a little bit since I’ve left the house,” I shot back jokingly.
We made our way to the co-op that my parents are members of, and the warm air blasted into my face. This was a place that I had ambivalent feelings about. Its location of an old horse stable attracted me, with its brick walls and large floor plan. However, every other family in the neighborhood is a member as well. The general population knows my dad somehow, and I was not in the mood for doing the whole “Wow, you’ve gotten so tall! How’s school? What sports are you playing?” Routine that greets me way too often. It was inevitable, though. Who was I kidding?
We wandered around the close-quartered aisles for a while in a pointless fashion. Another quirk about shopping with Dad: a reliable grocery list is far out of reality. At this point, we’d already encountered a couple of friends, and my cheeks still burned a fiery red. I really was not prepared to talk to people again. But of course I plastered an ingenuine smile and answered every question. It kind of irked me how happy these people were. I mean, of course everyone deserves a happy life, but they hadn’t experienced what I’ve had to. They carried on their days oblivious to the terrifying events I’ve been in. Frankly, it kind of sucks. I made it through, though, and somehow we made it to the checkout without any more interactions with grinning adults. To make up for being grumpy while we walked here, I asked my dad about his brother and his fiancée. He began talking about how he thought they rushed into it too fast, and really, I tried to pay attention. But the store was increasingly stuffy and I was paranoid of more intercepting conversation that became obstacles in my straightforward plan to get back home. So I ended up not listening. However, in my daze, a bright yellow flyer caught my eye, positioned on the community billboard above the cashier’s head. Words like “fairy lights” and “sponge cake” and “silver chairs” floated into my head, but I focused on the poster. It read “Death of a loved one? Hard time coping? Come to our weekly meetings at the 58th Street Public Library for a safe space to talk! Free to the public, all ages welcome!” I scoffed, and my dad turned to look at me as he pulled bills out of his wallet.
“So you agree that the lace placemats are ludicrous?” he asked.
“What?” I exclaimed, suddenly jolted out of my trance.
“Lace placemats are unoriginal and tacky, don’t you think?” he repeated.
“Oh! Oh, yes, yes, duh,” I said.
Sometimes I don’t understand my dad. But that wasn’t on my mind as he handed me tote bags filled with groceries. The neon flyer was swirling around in my head. I find it hard to believe that anyone else in New York has witnessed a kid have blood pouring out of his head. Whatever. The sessions were probably filled with creeps. Not my scene whatsoever.
Eventually, winter break ended. School was gearing up again. Jack and I went to a K-8 private school on 60th and Third Avenue, and in 6 hours I would be arriving at the front doors at 8:00 am. Guess who still didn’t feel like socializing? You’ve got it right, no doubt. I stared at my ceiling for hours, thinking of scenarios that could happen tomorrow in class. I could be pegged as the murder accomplice, or the pyschopath, or the- I don’t know. But I’m positive that I’ll be outcasted almost immediately.
I spent the rest of my night thinking and tossing and turning. The terrible Ts. I spent most of my night on my bed, either lying down or sitting up. Whatever it was, I was quiet.
I walked through the glass revolving doors of the Lincoln School at eight o’clock on the dot the next day. I felt a little better after I thought a ton last night. I didn’t make much progress, but something is better than nothing. I walked into my first period English class, head held up in the most everyday way. My gaze was met by the sympathetic eyes of my friends Georgia and Marley. I returned the gesture with a cocked head and I sat down next to Georgia.
“Hi?” I said, unzipping my bag.
“Hey, Ellie,” they sung in a pitiful croon.
“How was your break, guys?” I asked neutrally, flipping open my book. Not only are they dramatic, but also tragically transparent.
They stared at me through doe eyes. After some awkward silence, Marley nudged Georgia’s arm.
“Stage one, I bet,” he whispered to her, maintaining sad and very weird eye contact with me.
Georgia nodded, and pulled a pencil out and started drawing a tic-tac-toe grid in her notebook. That invited a wonderful quiet for a few minutes.
“Wait, what?” Georgia said out of nowhere, dropping her pencil.
“Oh my god, could you be any more obvious?!” Marley screeched, snapping his body to face her.
“I wouldn’t have to be if you weren’t so vague about stages or whatever!” she retorted, her pale cheeks flushing.
I interjected before any fights could start.
“Mar, chill. Georgia, he’s doing a terrible job of saying I’m in stage one of five of grief: denial,” I explained, rolling my eyes.
“Oh, ok. Well, he’s right then,” she responded, satisfied.
“Thank you. And, Ell, you know that we’re, you know, here for you. That stuff,” Marley said in the most serious way I’ve ever heard. Georgia nodded.
“Thanks. I’m fine, though. Nothing along the lines of denial. Really,” I promised. Don’t get me wrong, I love these two to the ends of the world. But I don’t really think they’re going to be much help, and I don’t really want pity. I don’t really deserve it.
They simultaneously scoffed.
“I don’t believe that at all. For real, there’s nothing that you can talk to us about?” Marley pressed on, clasping his hands together. Luckily, Mr. Riley strutted in.
“Morning, class! Hope you’ve quickly transitioned back into the classroom, because we’re starting a new unit!” Mr. Riley announced as he picked up a piece of chalk and set down his messenger bag.
“For Pete’s sake,” Georgia grumbled. “Let us breathe!”
It was reassuring to see her slide back into her cynical self.
Mr. Riley ignored her remark. He scribbled the word “pajamas” on the black slate, and turned around to survey the class. “Well?” he prompted.
“TJ Maxx!” yelled out Charlie, a kid sitting in the back of the room. Mr. Riley clasped his hands.
“Comedy gold there, Char. Any other contenders?” he asked with a grin.
I tentatively raised my hand. Mr Riley nodded, and Marley shook his head. “Denial!” he whisper screamed accusingly, leaning halfway onto my desk.
“Comfort?” I suggested. Mr. Riley smiled.
“Good, good! Let’s get the ball rolling,” he exclaimed, writing the word “comfort” below “pajamas.” After a couple minutes, the board was filled with words like “childhood” and “warmth.”
“You guys are hitting the nail on the head! Good work. Now, I’ll tell you what I mean by pajamas,” he cheered.
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” was scrawled on the board, and Mr. Riley twirled around.
Marley raised his hand confidently. “Isn’t this the book about a Nazi kid who becomes besties with a Jew in a concentration camp?”
Mr. Riley nodded. “Pretty much sums it up. With Marley’s summary, what initial thoughts do you have about the book? The central themes, characters?”
I glanced around the room. I saw some palms go up, and I heard mentions of death. Snippets of pain, sentiment, innocence. I really wish I could get over myself, but – I felt tears pool in my eyes. I hung my head down, and I felt a kid named Matt who sits at the desk next to me poking my shoulder. “You good?”
I turn to look at him. At that point, all I could think about was why do people ask that stupid question. My lip quivered and I snatched the hall pass. The distance between room 203 and the bathroom has never seemed longer. I shuddered as I slumped against a stall wall in the bathroom. I hugged my knees and sobbed. Minutes, or centuries, pass by as numb thoughts bounce around my brain. I finally heard a heavenly knock at the door. “Ellie?” Mr. Riley’s familiar voice echoed in the tiled room.
“That’s me,” I respond.
“Nice one. I know this is kind of a dumb question, but, uh, are you okay?” he asked softly.
I laughed as I stood up. “Sure.” I stared at the black and white speckled wall.
“Hey, why don’t you come out of that stall?” he suggested. “I can’t really come in there, right?”
I walked out of the pale blue room and kept my head low as I greeted him quietly.
“Why’d you run out? What happened?” He asked, looking down at me.
“Can we sit?” I interjected.
“Yeah, why not,” he agrees. We take a seat, side by side against the lockers.
“Mr Riley, do-did you know Lionel, in fifth grade?” I start bluntly.
“Oh. Yeah. Is this what is, uh, affecting you?” He said back.
“To put it lightly, sure,” I sneer. “Sorry.”
“Nah, I get it. If you don’t mind my asking, how did you know about it? Or, rather, Lionel?”
“He was a friend of my little brother’s, and um, I was babysitting them, I guess? I mean, not technically, but. Yeah, I was,” I explained in one breath. I heaved a heavy sigh and turned to Mr Riley. He nodded, but didn’t open his mouth and didn’t turn to look at me.
“It was gruesome. Seriously. And I know I didn’t, well, kill him, but I feel like I played a bit too much of a role in his death. And it hurts. So damn bad. I wish I could go back in time,” I continue. Now, Mr Riley turned his head.
“I don’t talk about this much,” he began, fiddling with the gold band on his ring finger. I instantly get the message. “But a couple years-3 years back,” he went on. “My beautifully perfect wife, Jessie, died in a car crash. She was heading home from her job at a newspaper outlet, doing her dream job. And uh, I was home, making dinner, and then the police showed up on my stoop. Worst day of my life by far.”
A tingling shoots up my spine. I meet his eye.
“Whoa. That is awful, Mr Riley. I’m really sorry,” I say back, without realizing my hypocrisy in saying that apologetic phrase. In a filing cabinet in the corner of my mind, I have all the memories of people offering a plain “sorry.”
“I just want you to know that I understand how you feel. It’s hard. It is, but you’re not the only one out there who deals with it. I say that because I need you to know I’m here for you,” he concluded.
“Thank you. That means a lot. I’m not anywhere close to being ok about all of this, but I’d like to know how you dealt with…it,” I asked.
“Loaded question, ha! It took a whole lot. Time, really. But I channeled my depressed energy into things I loved. My friends and family, books, teaching. Things that I had still, and things that made life worth it. It took a hell of a time, don’t be fooled,” Mr Riley replied. “Should we head back to class? I have a strong feeling this book could be a lot of help. Yeah?” He stood up, and reached out a hand. I took it.
It’s May now. My class finished The Boy in the Striped Pajamas weeks and weeks ago, but I think this is my sixth cycle through it. I ended up using Mr Siney’s advice. To focus on the good in my life. That meant seeing an Eddie Money concert with my dad, and baking with my brother and my mom every Sunday afternoon. I created a PTSD/safe space club with Marley and Georgia, and Mr. Riley eagerly offered to be the club’s advisor. I started helping out at the garden at the park across the street and started walking my neighbor’s dog around the large perimeter of the park.
And to explain my passion for my new favorite book: the book is about the innocence and boundless passion kids have, and who they are superficially doesn’t matter to their friends. I feel like Lionel seamlessly expressed that claim, that he loved my brother and loved life. The book has nestled into a meaningful place in my life, and time and again will I open its front cover, where I wrote a dedication to Lionel and my loved ones. The duration of this spring has educated me on the values of life, the values of love, and the values of strength. Oh, and I painted my bedroom door cherry red and planted Calypso tulips in my backyard.