Authors: Ty Roth
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2011 by Ty Roth
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
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Most of us like to believe that we are born to do great things, maybe even to be famous. Truth is, we aren’t and we won’t.
Instead, we are of the anonymous dark energy that accounts for nearly 96 percent of the universe. Sure, in our corners of wherever, we may play relatively significant roles and accomplish important “stuff” like earning good grades and incomes, falling in love, raising families, maybe even advancing worthy social causes, but in the cosmic picture, the vast majority of people—dead, living, or yet to be born—had, have, or will have no freaking clue that we once were, are, or will be.
Sucks. Doesn’t it?
“So, what’s the point?” you ask.
I can tell you. Better yet, later on, I’ll show you. But don’t be disappointed when you realize that you’ve heard it before, and that, deep down, you already knew the answer.
Are you ready?
Love and death.
In the end, that’s all there is. Do those two things well, and you may have a chance at something close to a meaningful existence. Screw them up, and life is pretty pathetic.
“Okay,” you’re thinking. “Love, I understand.”
But do you? We throw the word around so much that it is nearly meaningless. We’ve reduced the experience of “being in love” to that which can be summarized in a pop song or portrayed in a chick flick. Then we’re angry and disillusioned when love disappoints. Here’s a little secret: love always disappoints. It’s the conscious choice to love someone or
to love someone, despite the disappointment, that makes it beautiful.
beautiful. I know that now.
“Fine,” you say. “But isn’t this focus on death a little morbid?”
I’ll admit, there was a time when I would have said the same thing. Not anymore. Death exists. You can piss and moan about it all you want, but it still exists. And I can guarantee you this: unless you learn to wrap your brain around the fact that you are eventually going to die, you’ll never wrap your arms around the less certain fact that you are currently living.
“How do you know these things?” you wonder.
I know because two friends, Gordon Byron and Michelle (Shelly) Shelley, showed me that love and death are far more complicated than your teachers, your priests, and pop culture want you to believe. Until a few months ago, Gordon and Shelly were classmates a year ahead of me in high school. They’re the reason I wrote this. They’re the ones who
showed me that no matter how young or old you are, you’d better start living and loving to the fullest right now. And if, by sharing their stories, I can prove that to you, it might make my having lived worthwhile.
I’m Keats (rhymes with “sheets”). I’m dying. And I don’t mean in a someday sort of way, but as in sooner rather than later. I can’t tell you exactly when or of what just yet, but trust me, I know. It’s the curse of the Keatses. We die young: my paternal grandparents died before I was born, both of my parents died before they reached forty, and my brother is next door wasting away to nothing as I type. The Disease, as Tom likes to call his tuberculosis, is rapidly decelerating his functionality to zero.
That’s right, tuberculosis.
I know what you’re thinking. “Americans don’t die of tuberculosis. That’s some third world shit.”
Well, they do sometimes, in poor neighborhoods, especially when their immune system, like Tom’s, has been weakened by diabetes. Add occasional heroin injections to the mix and the lungs become a breeding ground for the bacterium called
which gives its name to the Disease. If you’ve never been poor, you’d be surprised at what poor people do … or do not do. There are approximately thirteen thousand new cases of tuberculosis reported every year.
Tom’s death march follows four years of watching our father waste away from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). (More than five thousand new cases of ALS are diagnosed in America each year. The vast majority of those diagnosed die within four to five years). Shortly after
our father died, our mother died from apathy and self-pity (no statistics available).
Prior to the events I’m about to relate, I tried to cocoon myself, to hide from death. However, all I accomplished was to hide from life. Now I’ve accepted my premature mortality as a matter of fact, and I’ll confront whatever assassin God, nature, or chance sends for me.
Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking. “Aren’t you being a little irrational? Oversensitive? A bit of a hypochondriac?”
Am I? Approximately eighty thousand young people (between the ages of fifteen and thirty) die every year, and that’s just in America. I know. I’ve done the research. (The statistics are a coping mechanism that I’ve yet to relinquish, but I’m working on it.)
The good news is that in the three months since Gordon and I said goodbye to Shelly, my fatalism has fueled the urgency with which I now try to live, and it has prompted me to record the events of this story while I’m still around and able.
A brief but necessary disclaimer: much of this account is a piecing-together of events that I didn’t witness and conversations in which I did not partake. The bulk of my knowledge was gained as I listened to an increasingly inebriated Shelly deliver a monologue spanning nearly ten hours and covering close to eighteen years of her and Gordon’s lives. My re-creation is as faithful as possible to the truth as regards the personalities, philosophies, and conversational tendencies of those involved. But after all, who’s to say what’s truth? Who’s to say what’s not?
LAS! THEY WERE SO YOUNG, SO BEAUTIFUL
O LONELY, LOVING, HELPLESS, AND THE HOUR
AS THAT IN WHICH THE HEART IS ALWAYS FULL
ND, HAVING O’ER ITSELF NO FURTHER POWER
ROMPTS DEEDS ETERNITY CAN NOT ANNUL
It was the last day of school and the first day of summer. One of those limbo days, when you’re not quite sure if you’re ending or beginning. Either way, my junior year was over, and I hoped I’d never see another one like it. However, there was one more thing Gordon and I had to do before I could put the year fully to rest.
The gym was hotter than hell, but Gordon leaned back, as cool as ever, in one of the ungodly uncomfortable metal folding chairs that were arranged in a semicircle around a makeshift altar on which rested a black marble urn containing the ashes of our mutual best friend, Shelly. Gordon’s plan was to steal the urn, drive to Shelly’s, break into the pool shed where she’d kept her beloved boom box, shoot over to the island in one of Gordon’s powerboats, and then spread her ashes while playing her favorite song from a disc she had bequeathed to me prior to her death. Not much in the way of funeral tributes, but all so Shelly.
According to Gordon, it was what she wanted, which, I know, leads to the question: Why would a healthy eighteen-year-old have thought to share her final wish at all, unless, of course, she knew her death was imminent? And if Gordon knew her demise was coming, why didn’t he tell me? It seems obvious now; most things do in retrospect. But since Gordon and Shelly had been friends and neighbors for their entire lives, I figured her final wish had been the product of whimsical childhood speculation, protected by a secretly sworn pact. Shelly was a dreamer like that, full of “What if’s” and “If only’s.”
Even if I had thought to ask the right questions at the appropriate times, the answers would have come too late to change the outcome. Anyway, even knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have changed a thing.
In theory, Gordon’s plan was simple. In execution, it was not.
Trinity’s gymnasium was packed for the early-evening wake with awkward teenage mourners—awkward, of course, because, while most present had flushed a goldfish or two or lost the occasional grandparent, few had attended a wake for someone their own age. Shelly’s death was doubly aberrant, considering how extraordinarily
she had always been—so alive that even the memory of her felt more vibrant than the breathing bodies that sat all around me. I, however, felt right at home. In just the past two years, I’d attended funerals for both of my parents, and Tom was, as I’ve said, not far behind.