A Moment of Silence
by Robert Quinlivan
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
School was cancelled the week of the accident, and a candlelight vigil was held in the school gym on Friday evening. The room filled with students, parents, teachers, coaches, and staff. I saw the Goldberg twins, both of them red-eyed and sullen. They looked down at their shoes to avoid my gaze.
A priest in a black collar led the ceremony. The Elingtons were apparently Catholics, though I had never heard any mention of it until now. The ceremony was predictably solemn, punctuated by a few moments of cheerful remembrance, but steeped in the bitter acknowledgement that a promising life had been cut short.
A moderately famous musician made an appearance, a guitar player whom Pete had been fond of, who Mr. Elington had arranged — through, one could assume, monetary means — to appear at his son’s vigil as a parting tribute.
At last the ceremony came to a close, and the priest stepped into the spotlight to deliver some closing remarks to the tearful audience, while the guitar player picked a somnambulant melody in a minor key.
“Pete was a special boy. He touched the hearts and minds of all those who were graced by his presence. Those of us who mourn him today would do well to recall his memory so that he might live forever in our minds, as he shall live forever in Christ. I would like to ask for you all to now join me in a moment of silence,” said the priest.
The entire gym fell as quiet as a morgue. I hung my head in silence. I thought of Pete and our trip to the landfill. If I had never led Pete and the Goldbergs there that afternoon, might Pete still be alive today, on his way home from a soccer scrimmage or baseball practice? Had I somehow contributed to his death? Had I murdered Pete?
At the moment that thought arrived, I found that I couldn’t stop smiling. A sick laughter bubbled on my lips. The absurdity of it all! The music, the priest, the sanctimoniousness of the whole display. It was all so pathetic. Oh, how the Elingtons disgusted me just then — all their simpering and pleading would never bring back their son, no matter how much money Mr. Elington paid.
I began to laugh loudly, cackling like a madman. Afraid that I would be heard, I wrapped my face in the arm of my jacket to stifle the laughter bursting from my throat, hoping it would be confused for hysterical weeping, but the urges became stronger.
The laughter became a lupine howl ringing through the silence of the school gym. I spat and choked with laughter and raised my head to the sky to project my mocking guffaws heavenward.
“Show some dignity,” said someone in the crowd.
“Whose idea of a joke is this?” hissed another.
Someone pulled on my arm, and a hand went down over my mouth. I heard a voice in my head — my voice, and yet I knew it was not my voice, but the wolf’s voice. It said, These people are fools. Callow idiots. Cowards, all. They know not of death, and so they do not know life.
Soon I found myself shrieking these very words in the school gym, surrounded by hundreds of mourners, including the Elingtons and my own family, who looked on with bewildered hatred beneath a retracted basketball hoop.
“YOU KNOW NOT OF DEATH, AND SO YOU DO NOT KNOW LIFE!”
Those words were spoken in my voice, with my lips and my tongue, but they were not my words. As I later told the psychiatrists, they were the wolf’s words.
* * *
My outburst at the midnight vigil was explained away as a result of post-traumatic stress. The boy’s best friend died before his eyes, they said. No wonder he lost his mind. He wasn’t ready to mourn.
After six months at Calm Meadows Wellness Center, I was released into the care of my parents and put on a regimen of red pills that made me tired and stifled my erections. I waited out the remainder of my days in Falls Creek as a pariah, an unwelcome reminder of the day Pete Elington went to his grave.
As the years dragged on, my family grew tired of the cold stares from neighbors, the icy silence that would descend on any dinner party my parents attended. I, of course, found no respite from teenage harassment — the student body of our high school took to calling me “Killer Steve” when teachers weren’t around, and my given moniker was regularly drawn across my locker in permanent marker, then redrawn when the janitor scrubbed it off.
Fed up with the harassment, my father procured employment at a firm on the other side of the country, and we moved away. Our lives in Falls Creek became a distant memory. Last I heard, Mrs. Elington remarried and moved somewhere out east to start a new family.
Mr. Elington bought a small house in the country, hundreds of miles from town and disappeared from sight. They both live quiet lives of banal torment, drowning their sorrows in foreign cars and vintage wines, dreading the day their number finally comes up.
* * *
I am older now: a man, no longer a boy. I live in a remote region in a hillside cabin overlooking the lush, wooded valley below. At night, coyotes prowl the canyons, tearing out the throats of dogs and cats foolishly left out over night. Falcons stalk the skies, searching for a vulnerable rodent to feast on. In the spring, the rivers run red with the blood of deer slain by buckshot. It is a paradise.
Sometimes, when the mood strikes me, I stare into the blackness of the night sky and feel something like remorse for the fate of the Elingtons. Did Pete Elington have to die? Was the trickster god my grandfather spoke of in his letter somehow responsible for the events that led to my family’s exodus from the idylls of suburbia?
When my thoughts sour, I take a red pill and chase it with a glass of bourbon.
But then I feel my lips curl into a snarl, the corners of my mouth crack into an uncaring, wolfish smile. I touch my hand to my face and feel the thick, dark hairs where once had been the bare, smooth skin of a boy, and my remorse turns to callous amusement.
I have children of my own now, wonderful little things. They are learning to hunt with rifles and knives; their skin grows calloused and tanned. In a corner of the cabin stands my grandfather’s taxidermy wolf, no less defiant than the day we met, watching over the lives that dwell within this house.
The children have yet to pray to it. They haven’t heard its call. But the day will come when they will recognize the voice of the wolf prowling about their soul, and then they, like their father, will know the beneficence of death. They will know my salvation: the promise of not merely a moment of silence, but an eternity.
Copyright © 2014 by Robert Quinlivan