"Start at the beginning." Said the Judge calmly, "And continue until you come to the end, then stop." (If only it were that easy) Alice in Wonderland
Joe Hardy wrote the words on the paper and stared at them, then looked up and stared through his door, through the bathroom, through the open door of Frank's now-empty room. The end. That's how every story ends, how his English paper had just ended. The end. That didn't make much sense.
Deep breaths still hurt, moving still hurt. Smiling, living…that hurt the most.
The end. Everything had ended since last year, and it was as if someone was trying to cover it all up, start a new sentence, a new chapter, a new story. The football team had started without Joe, without several of the players. The school had reopened with a fresh layer of paint and more wary, frightened students. Mysteries still seemed to pop up at every turn, though Joe found himself participating in fewer.
The end. The end of lives, of friendships. The end of trust, as people began to lock their doors. The end of brothers, sisters, families.
There had been a memorial service at the end of graduation, almost four months ago now. Everyone was asked to stand while the names of the students who wouldn't be graduating, this year or every, were called. No one collected the diplomas. That was, in Joe's opinion, one of the saddest things he'd ever seen in his life, those diplomas lined up on the stage with no one there to take them. Thirty-four. An outstanding number. Thirty-three kids and one teacher killed, if you didn't count Roffman. No one ever counted Roffman.
Joe found himself crying more often lately, usually at night but sometimes while he was playing pool with Biff or having dinner with John and Carrie. Around those people, he didn't have to pretend, like he didn't in front of his parents, that everything was alright. It was the teacher's, the media's, the world's opinion that there was a time frame for grief, and that you shouldn't be crying about things a year later.
Who had come up with that? Who said that things wouldn't hurt just as much a year later? Because it did hurt Joe, down to his bones, down to his soul. He was just much, much better at covering up his feelings than he ever had been, than he ever had needed to be.
The emotions --- when he let them wash over him like waves at the beach, let himself drown in the grief and anger and resentment and frustration and overwhelming sadness of that time --- the emotions were still there, still sharp and clear.
He remembered, vividly, the minutes after Roffman was shot in that courtroom. He remembered people being herded out, police come barging in, and he, Joe, ending up somewhere in between. He watched as Roffman's body, still smirking, was wheeled out. He thought, abstractedly, detachedly, that when people fight fire with fire, everyone might just win.
He remembered Frank's grip around his shoulder's tighten as the gun went off, he remembered the way John jumped, his arms flailing to cover his head, he remembered Chet's sharp intake of breath from somewhere nearby.
Joe had often read that people don't want to remember, but for Joe those memories were all he had. If he didn't remember, even the bad stuff, than who would? Who would tell their children years from now about a boy named Dave who died before his seventeenth birthday? Who would take the time to recount the worst year of an entire town's history if no one bothered to remember in the first place?
The end. Joe closed his notebook, tucking the essay away in his backpack for the next day. It had been a stupid assignment, to create a children's story about a darker, real-life topic, like tuberculoses or poverty. Joe's had been about an orphan boy who had watched his brother die when he was five years old. He didn't think he would get a good grade. Somehow, that didn't matter.
His grades hadn't suffered, as many of his classmates' had. Still high B's, though he didn't…care…anymore. He got the marks because he had nothing better to do in school than pay attention to the teacher. He didn't daydream anymore. His daydreams had become more realistic.
It was weird, going to school without Frank. Joe had done it before, when he was in sixth grade and Frank had moved to the middle school, then again when he was in eighth and Frank was a Freshman, but this was very different. Now, it would be weeks between visits, though Frank called Joe every night and texted more often than that. He had been convinced by Joe to go to Brown, where he had gotten a partial scholarship. Though Joe had known that he would miss his brother, he hadn't been prepared for the emptiness of the house in Frank's absence.
He found himself spending more and more time with John and Carrie and Biff. John and Carrie had stayed at the community college where they had both gotten full scholarships. John worked at the local music shop which was (somewhat ironically) right next to the sporting goods store that Joe and Biff worked at. The Senior would often accompany John to the small apartment he and Carrie shared.
There, it didn't feel too big or too quiet, which is how Joe's house felt most of the time. Carrie laughed often, her face somewhat smoother after an operation by a plastic surgeon who had donated his services. John stared at Carrie. When the boy proposed to Carrie at the beginning of their Freshmen year, it was Joe and Biff he told first. They had been there that night at the celebratory dinner, watching the negations (Carrie wanted to marry John, and she would get engaged but only if he knew that they wouldn't be married until their Senior year, at least). In that small apartment, Joe felt comfortable and relaxed, foreign emotions for him since Frank's departure.
Maybe That Day was the end. It was the end of Joe's football career. It had nearly been the end of his life. It was the end of the safety and comfort school had always held for him.
But, as a famous author once wrote, "every ending is a new beginning." The beginning of friendships, to replace the ones lost. The beginning of Joe's track career, in place of football. Everything seemed to be able to be plugged up neatly by something else. That thought that vaguely depressing.
Joe finally managed to get up off the chair. As soon as he took a step, his cell phone started to vibrate in his jeans pocket. A text message, and three guesses who it was from. Smiling slightly, he took out the device and flipped it open. DON'T BE DOWN, JOE, AND DON'T LIE, I CAN TELL YOU ARE. CALL ME, GO OUT WITH BIFF, DO SOMETHING. YOU'RE WORTH IT. DON'T THINK, RUN. I LOVE YOU TO PIECES, LITTLE BRO.
Joe snorted at the message, running a hand through his hair in a way that Biff often said reminded him of Frank. Frank always seemed to know what Joe was thinking, even if he was two hundred miles away. Maybe he would go out, and he'd call Frank from John's house. He knew everyone would like to talk to him.
Yeah, maybe he'd go out. It was better than staying here, wallowing in memories. Going out did not mean forgetting, necessarily, and maybe it meant moving on, or at least moving forward.
His math teacher, when doing a step-by-step problem, always used the phrase "chugging along". He was chugging along, getting nowhere fast, but going somewhere. And that's all that mattered, really. In the end.
For real. Maybe it was different from what you expected. A little chapter about Roffman's death? Joe's more important. I hope you all liked it, and I commend anyone who has stayed with it from the beginning. It was, really and truly, a learning experience to write it, and I hope you get some of the emotions out of it. Thanks to everyone who reviewed with tips and comments, they really helped me get the chapters out.
Go ahead and laugh at it, or cry, you're all worth it.