Kevin’s history book was open and sitting upright on his desk. He couldn’t concentrate, not after last night’s scene. He wondered whether Brad had gone straight home or walked the streets brooding over Olivia and her new boyfriend. Never mind. He and Brad were going to have a great summer. Camp out on weekends. Work at the grocery down the street during the week and make some big bucks. Maybe take a trip to the Rockies at the end of the summer. Brad would forget all about Olivia.
He closed his eyes. Thinking about his summer plans with Brad made him even more anxious for the school day to end.
When Kevin opened his eyes, he saw his counselor, Ms. Davies, standing over him.
“I need to talk to you,” she said quietly.
What had he done now? He picked up his books and followed Ms. Davies into the hall.
“Something terrible has happened to Brad,” she said. “His mother found him in his car in the family garage last night.” So, that’s where he went.
Ms. Davies took a deep breath. “Brad is dead. He took his own life.”
“He’s not dead. We’re playing cards tonight.”
“There’s a detective in Mrs. Lyons’s office waiting to talk to you. He wants to ask you some questions.”
• • •
Kevin slammed the car into reverse and screeched down the driveway. He and his parents had been arguing all morning. His mother was worried sick that he’d “drive off a cliff.” His dad had ordered him not to drive to the funeral alone. They were upset. He didn’t care.
Why hadn’t Brad talked about it? Kevin would have listened. They told each other everything. Now he wasn’t so sure. Maybe Brad hadn’t wanted his help. Maybe he hadn’t wanted anyone to change his mind. Kevin swiped at the tears running down his cheeks. He wasn’t going to get all choked up. Not again. Brad hadn’t talked to him, so why should he care?
• • •
The funeral was supposed to be small, but there were hundreds of people, people Kevin had never seen before. He hated all the strangers. Brad would have hated them too. He was the shy, quiet type who loved being by himself, taking things apart and putting them back together. Why couldn’t he have gotten his life right?
Kevin walked closer to the casket. He could see Brad’s mom surrounded by a ring of people. She looked so tiny. Kevin had always thought of her as much taller. He remembered the night Brad had come home drunk. Mrs. Brogan had told Brad what a fool he was. If he wanted to be a fool, she’d said, he could be one on his own time. But he had better not be a fool in front of her again or she’d knock him around the block and back. Mrs. Brogan had seemed very tall that night.
Kevin wanted to talk to her. He wanted to tell her how sorry he was and how, even though Brad never touched a cigarette in front of her, he chain-smoked when he played cards with the guys. If only he could reach out and hug her and make everything like it had been. But he could barely remember the last time he had hugged his own mother.
The knot in his stomach tightened. Brad had had a few problems. Who didn’t? Olivia, his first girlfriend, had started dating someone else. And he hadn’t been able to decide what to do after high school. Being a cook in Miami sounded cool. “Asshole idea,” his dad had said.
When people started out to the parking lot, Kevin sat up, adjusted his tie, and nodded at the other three pallbearers standing near the casket. He had never understood funerals. His mother had told him that they make a permanent picture in your head that the dead person is gone. He didn’t need a funeral to do that.
• • •
Why had Brad taken his own life? Someone was responsible.
Not Mrs. Brogan. She had always been there when Brad needed her. And sometimes when he didn’t. He remembered the time, years before, when she’d marched Brad back to the grocery store and made him admit to the checker that he’d lied when he said the eleven pop bottles were his. What he had done was dishonest, and Mrs. Brogan had wanted her son to accept the consequences. At the time, Brad had hated his mom for being so principled. Later on, he realized she’d done the right thing.
• • •
Why had Brad taken his own life? Someone was responsible.
• • •
Kevin tried not to blame Mr. Brogan, but it wasn’t easy. Brad’s father worked, slept, and drank beer. That was it. When Brad had been younger, his dad had come to watch him play football. But when Brad had quit the team, his dad had been angry. “You’re just like me, only worse,” he’d said. Brad wasn’t anything like his dad. When his dad got angry, everyone paid. When Brad got angry, he got quiet and withdrawn. He was the only one who paid.
• • •
Kevin’s best friend was dead, and there was no reason. If he’d died from a disease or an accident . . . But he had taken his own life. What could have been so bad? It made no sense.
If only he had known Brad was so unhappy. If only he had seen the signs. But what signs?
Kevin remembered the night back in seventh grade after the roller-skating party. Brad and another friend, Dave, had decided to walk home instead of riding the bus. They didn’t have far to go. Besides, maybe they’d stop at McDonald’s for something to eat. As the boys approached the restaurant, Brad challenged Dave to a race. Brad took off across Madison Street with Dave on his heels.
They talked about the accident only a couple of times. Brad told Kevin the car swerved to miss him but hit Dave instead. There was nothing the paramedics could do; Dave was dead on arrival at Good Shepherd Hospital.
Brad hadn’t been the same after that. He had seemed to crawl into a shell. He got headaches that made him vomit, and his skin turned white. He got pimples all over his face. Kevin figured Brad had to work it out on his own; he didn’t know what else to do.
If only he had done something then, maybe Brad would be alive now. If he had made him talk about it. But Brad had said he didn’t want to talk, and Kevin hadn’t pushed. Anyway, Brad couldn’t have taken his own life because of an accident so many years ago. He had to have forgotten all about it.
A sharp guy like Brad doesn’t kill himself for no good reason. That would be crazy. Brad might have been confused, but he wasn’t crazy. Maybe his dad had finally gotten to him. Mr. Brogan was a cop who worked the shift from three in the afternoon to eleven at night. And on weekends, Mr. Brogan sat in front of the TV, drinking beer and doing crossword puzzles. If he drank too much, and he often did, he’d either fall asleep or leave the house without telling anyone where he was going.
One night, the phone rang late, and it was someone from the hospital telling Mrs. Brogan that her husband had been in an accident and that she better come right away. Brad told Kevin one side of his dad’s face looked like it had been mashed in a blender. He was cut up so badly he stayed in the hospital for almost a week.
“That’s not good enough,” Kevin screamed. “You couldn’t have killed yourself because of your old man. You could have moved out, gotten your own place with some other guys. You go off and kill yourself without letting me know, without letting me help. Okay. So you wanted to keep it to yourself. Fine. Keep it all to yourself. I don’t care. Just don’t expect me to waste my tears over you.” Tears streamed down his face.
Maybe this was all Olivia’s fault. She and Brad broke up every other week. They broke up, then got back together. Again and again. They went steady off and on for two and a half years.
Brad and Olivia would be going separate ways after graduation. So why not get it over with? Brad didn’t care. At least that’s what he said.
During a card game with Kevin and some other guys, Brad had talked about his future.
You’re lucky,” he’d said to Kevin. “You know what you want to do. You’ve got your art. You want to be an artist. I’ve got nothing.”
Kevin had felt uncomfortable. He’d known Brad was having a hard time. “You’ll get it together,” he had said.
• • •
Brad had made one more attempt to win Olivia back. When that had gone south, Brad had stormed off. He’d insisted on walking home. “Just go. Take my car and go.”
“I can’t take your car,” Kevin said.
“Take it.” He shoved the keys in Kevin’s hand.
“Come on, this is nuts.” Kevin tried to give the keys back. But Brad had already turned around and begun walking away.
Frustrated, Kevin got into the car, turned the key, and then slowly backed down the driveway. Okay, he thought, I’ll cruise around the block a few times and stall for time. Brad needs to cool off. After wasting several minutes, he drove by Brad walking slowly toward home.
“Hey, jump in. You’re crazy to walk. Besides, this is your car.”
“I want to walk. Just park the car in the driveway and leave the keys in the mailbox.”
No use arguing. When Brad made up his mind to do something, he did it. No point in trying to stop him.
• • •
A month after Brad took his own life, Kevin halfheartedly agreed to play poker with some of the guys. He had to get out of the house. Kevin waited anxiously to see Brad again. He had so much to tell him. He was going to art school in the fall. The high school baseball team had taken the league championship. Olivia and her boyfriend had broken up.
Brad never reappeared. But Kevin thought about him a lot. Some days he thought he understood why Brad had killed himself; other days he had no idea. He could never remember how long it had been since Brad had died. Sometimes it seemed like years, sometimes only a few days.
Time was meaningless to Brad’s mom too. She and Kevin talked a lot. Every time he saw her, she cried. Not right away. She pretended she was fine at the beginning. Then she’d ask Kevin if he remembered a certain incident, such as the time she’d marched Brad to the grocery store to return the bottle money. And then she’d cry. At first, Kevin felt funny talking about Brad. He thought the less he talked, the sooner the pain would end. But it was just the opposite. Talking made him feel better. Sometimes it made him laugh. More often, it made him cry. The letting go felt good. But the searching for answers never stopped.
Now, the knot in Kevin’s stomach often loosens. His younger brother tells a dumb joke about the chicken crossing the road and he laughs. The wounds are starting to heal. And sometimes things are almost as they were. He forgets all about Brad. The pain is gone. Then, like a ghost, it reappears. When he’s playing baseball on a hot summer afternoon, or when he opens a bedroom dresser drawer and finds an old shirt he once loaned to Brad. How could he ever forget?
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