Ben stared vacantly at the fresh mound of brown earth that sat beside the deep rectangular pit. The strong rays of the April sun that morning were eating away at the snow as though trying to reconcile this patch of brown with the surrounding landscape. Lance is down there, Ben thought to himself. Lance. Ben’s face, yet untouched by the blemishes of puberty, betrayed his attempts to hide sadness. Taking his cue from the dry eyes around him, he squinted just enough to keep the torrent inside and tightened his jaw so that his chin would not quiver in the chill of grief.
I’m going home in a few minutes, he thought to himself, and my brother is going to stay here. He mused over that thought for several moments, but the more he thought about it the less he believed it. His father’s voice coming from the parking lot soon tore him away from this mystery. “C’mon, son,” his father called.
Ben maneuvered his way between puddles toward the purr of the running stationwagon where his parents and three sisters sat waiting. Approaching the right door in the rear, he caught a cold and sour glance from Rebecca and immediately rushed around to the other side.
Reb had been a real brat since Saturday, he thought to himself. He hadn’t seen her cry once yet, although he suspected that in a moment alone she had probably bawled her eyes out. She was proud of her self-control and had shoved it in his face on that first afternoon when she found him crying in his bedroom. “Benjamin’s a crybaby,” she had teased. “Poor baby. Maybe I should tell Daniel to come over and see what a wimp you are.”
“Cut it out, Reb,” Ben had protested. “Lance is dead, Reb! Lance is dead!”
“I know that. Doesn’t mean you have to go crying all over the place. Look at me. Do you see me crying? Stop acting like a baby. Crying’s not gonna change anything.” She left him with these words, went to her bedroom and turned up the volume on her stereo.
The purr of the motor was silenced suddenly and Ben realized that he was home. The family filtered into the house and immediately lost itself in the flurry of arriving mourners. Ben stood alone in the midst of the shuffle and listened to the sonorous beat of the grandfather clock at the end of the hall. Everyone was busy, his mother reminded him. Why didn’t he go play on the porch until everything was ready?
As he shuffled out the front door and settled himself halfheartedly in front of his Legos, he watched the approaching parade of flagged cars. Friends and relatives crowded into the house one after another. Their cheerful conversation seemed to deny what had happened, to deny that there was an emptiness inside the house now. Ben still felt the emptiness, though, pulling at his stomach like a vacuum.
For the most part, he was oblivious to the blur of people who, smiling weakly, passed him and occasionally ran their hands briefly through his blond hair. Amidst the grey glances, however, he caught a flash of blue in the eyes of a young woman of seventeen who was approaching the porch. It was Gina, Lance’s girlfriend. “Hey, Ben,” she said softly as she knelt down beside him. “Can I have a hug?” He conceded. “How ya doin’, buddy?”
Her tone of voice was consoling, but Ben couldn’t muster up the strength to look into those pools of blue that were focused on him. If he had gathered the courage he would have seen networks of red vessels surrounding those pools. He didn’t see them, however, for he was focusing on the Lego pieces before him with mind-numbing concentration. He hadn’t talked to her since the accident on Friday night and now felt caught without a word to say. “Okay,” he replied and then waited for an uncomfortable silence to usher in a lighter topic.
She began to play with the Legos too, hoping to earn a quick glance at his face. “I miss him a lot too,” she whispered to him after a long pause. Change the subject, thought Ben. Please talk about something else.
“We can still do stuff together. My sister and I are going to the matinee in town this weekend. Do you want to come along? Reb could come too.”
This suggestion sent Lance’s heart soaring for several seconds. He used to love it when Gina and Lance would include him in their activities. They had taken him to the zoo, the theater, the park and numerous other places in town. He always felt so welcome, so appreciated; losing himself in the presence of Gina’s bubbly personality and Lance’s playful spirit, Ben would forget that he was a tag-along.
His spirit faltered, however, upon those last words of hers. Yeah, Reb could come. Reb could come, and the world could end tomorrow. He preferred the latter idea. Besides, he thought, how much fun would he have when Lance wasn’t there? No Lance. There was the emptiness again, and he felt his stomach caving in like a drenched sandcastle. Lance was gone and there could be no replacement.
Suddenly he realized that he hadn’t responded to her. “I’d like that,” he said with hollow enthusiasm. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful.
“Okay, it’s a date,” she said as she stood up and patted him on the shoulder. Finally he stole a quick glance at her eyes. The redness confused him and he looked down immediately. Just then his mom caught sight of Gina and called her inside. Ben was alone again on the porch.
Alone. He rarely enjoyed being alone. Solitude was a punishment: You ‘re in the way, so we’ll throw you out of our lives until we have time to trip again, the voices in his head seemed to say. He felt as though he were alone in a desert, miles from any sign of life. When silence laughed at him in his aloneness, Ben remembered how much he counted on having people around, people that he feared would leave him behind. It was a stupid fear—like his fear of the little area under the basement stairs that Reb would always kid him about—but it was a fear that never went on recess. It was always there, waiting for a quiet moment when it could bully him.
Just then Lance’s friend Bob walked up the driveway. “Hi, Ben,” he said in a near whisper. “What’s goin’ on, big guy?”
“Not much,” Ben replied quickly. He was relieved to see Bob pass quickly into the house. This was one of the only times in recent memory when Bob hadn’t called him “Savage Slinger,” an unpleasant name that reminded him of a tantrum he had had over Lance’s SuperShot Plus slingshot.
When he was six, he had wanted that slingshot like nothing else. His mother noticed and bought him a cheap imitation. Ben could still hear Bob’s bruising laughter as he and Lance compared the two slingshots: He remembered feeling rage, furiously attacking them with his slingshot, whipping their denim-covered legs with his weapon and hoping to see red stains of blood permeating the blue denim. He had always resented being second-best. His tantrum had been incredibly funny to Lance and Bob—the sight of a six-year-old flailing his fake SuperShot at them was hilarious—so he became known as the “Savage Slinger.”
Ben didn’t want to be on the porch anymore. He walked inside quietly and had no problem avoiding attention: Everyone was gathered in the kitchen, hovering over the potato salad and green Jell-o. As he headed for the stairs leading up to his bedroom, however, he met Reb as she came up from the cellar with a gallon of cider. After catching his glance briefly, she looked down to supervise her feet carefully as they led her to the kitchen.
Once upstairs, he climbed onto his bed and tried to fall asleep. He was too restless to sleep, however. Not knowing what to do next, he sat on the edge of his bed and surveyed the room pensively. After resting briefly on the SuperShot which Lance had given him, his eyes finally fixed themselves upon the fluorescent blue crucifix hanging above the light switch by his door. It was different from the crucifix at church which showed Jesus’ head bent down upon his chest. This glowing blue Jesus stared out toward him with a pained expression: What was he looking at? Ben wondered. It almost seemed that Jesus was crying for someone else. He wasn’t screaming out in agony; instead, he was weeping gently. There was a small tear on his right cheek. Ben remembered how, several years ago, his mother had found him standing on a chair by the light switch, trying to wipe that tear from Jesus’ face. “It won’t come off, honey,” she told him gently. He didn’t like that tear. It made him uneasy. He preferred the crucifix at church with the hidden face.
Just then, a soft laugh wafted up the stairs and interrupted the rhythm of the grandfather clock: It was Bob’s laugh. It wasn’t his usual mocking laugh, but it was Bob nonetheless. Ben cringed.
Ben had always been jealous of Bob. When Bob was around, Ben felt about as important to Lance as the winter hat Lance would throw into his backpack every morning when he was out of his mother’s sight. Ben remembered an afternoon at the amusement park when Bob and Lance had ditched him as he stood in line for the haunted house. Ben had dreaded the thought of going through that dark green Victorian mansion that was issuing smoke and occasional shrieks, but the boys had promised to go through with him. He remembered turning around and discovering that they had left him alone in the line. As the large door of the house grew larger Ben fully expected them to return. They never did. What did I do? he asked himself. I’m sorry, Lance. I heard you sigh when Mom asked you to take me with; I should’ve just stayed at home in my room. He remembered being afraid of the ghosts, the stiff-legged Frankenstein and the spider webs, but most of all he remembered the wrenching cramp that knotted his stomach as he stepped out of the house and still could find no trace of Bob or Lance. He had trusted them completely and they had ditched him. Ben didn’t feel that they had just left him behind: He felt as if they were making fun of his weakness.
A reluctant tear gained enough courage to force itself out of hiding. It was all right to cry, he told himself as he looked at the tear on the glowing blue face. He crawled back onto his bed and fell asleep.
When he awoke, a wave of loneliness came crashing over him and he found himself beached at the door of eleven-year-old Alicia’s bedroom. He knocked and, since there was no answer, put his ear to the door. When he heard a faint whimpering within, he tried the knob, but it was locked.
He approached Jennifer’s room next. As she invited him in, she pushed aside the magazines she had been browsing through to make room for him on the edge of her bed. “Hey, Ben. What’s up?” It was a greeting and not a question, so he kept quiet, knowing that if he tried to talk his throat would probably start to tighten. He crawled onto the bed beside her and she put her arm around him. “You didn’t want to be downstairs either, huh? Listen, I know it’s sad without Lance but I bet he’s pretty happy up in heaven. Remember what Father Ted was saying today? Just think about seeing God and the angels all the time. I bet Lance is having—”
Just then the phone rang. Jennifer rushed across the room to answer it like any pious fifteen-year-old. It was her best friend Susan. Ben knew it would be a long conversation, so he excused himself and wandered back in the direction of his room.
Once there, he grabbed the slingshot and headed to the top of the stairs. He listened vigilantly. Happily, there was no sound but the methodical pendulum echoing in the hall: The guests were gone. He crept down to the main floor as silently as he could, trying to avoid the creaks in the stairs. After slipping out the back door, he followed the wooded footpath toward the cemetery with his fingers wrapped tightly around the slingshot. Jennifer was right, he knew. Lance was not alone. Still, he needed to visit his brother.
The mound was gone and the pit had been filled in. Flowers were arranged neatly atop the patch of damp brown earth. The bouquet was now complete with the addition of the SuperShot Plus. Ben stood there for a moment in silence, the spring breeze massaging his cheeks with its cool hands in the approaching dusk. Then he turned and walked back in the direction of home.
That night, he went to bed at eight-thirty as usual. After all, tomorrow was a school day. He never fell asleep at eight-thirty, though. He always waited until he heard Lance pounce up the stairs at nine o’clock for the Top Ten at Nine, his favorite radio program. Then he felt he could fall asleep.
Tonight the ninth toll of the grandfather clock was followed by a piercing silence. Ben’s stomach began to knot itself once again. A little later, however, he heard the stairs creaking heavily as someone slowly ascended to the upper level. Glancing past the glowing blue cross to the hall beyond, he saw his father tum on the light in Lance’s bedroom and walk inside. Ben jumped out of bed and softly padded down the hall to investigate. As he peered around the edge of the door, he saw his father sitting at the chair near Lance’s desk, his grey sock rubbing the carpet back and forth, back and forth. He was bent over the glass desktop, looking through at the photographs below. Ben quickly returned to his bed and pulled up the covers.
The light went out, the stairs creaked again, and the distant beat of the clock moved him further from his brother with every measured sound. All he could see was the small blue figure. He welcomed the arriving tears and let them dampen his pillow as he fell asleep. He remembered his father. He remembered Reb and her downcast glance. He remembered Alicia’s locked door, Gina’s eyes—and the permanent tear on the glowing blue face.