SUMMARY: Until now, high school junior, John Keats, has only tiptoed near the edges of the vortex that is schoolmate and literary prodigy, Gordon Byron. That is, until their mutual friend, Shelly, drowns in a sailing accident. After stealing Shelly's ashes from her wake at Trinity Catholic High School, the boys set a course for the small Lake Erie island where Shelly's body had washed ashore and to where she wished to be returned. It would be one last "so Shelly" romantic quest. At least that's what they think. As they navigate around the obstacles and resist temptations during their odyssey, Keats and Gordon glue together the shattered pieces of Shelly's and their own pasts while attempting to make sense of her tragic and premature end. (Publishes on February 8, 2011.)
Ty Roth is the author of So Shelly.
Ty chose to write a short story about the characters in his book! The story occurs six months after the end of So Shelly. If he decides to do a sequel, it will probably be a chapter in that story...how exciting! :)
“I hate winter,” Gordon said.
I followed the path he carved through his backyard, which was covered by a strafing of snow left behind by an afternoon squall. The stuffed and snugly-strapped hiker’s backpack he wore gave him a Quasimodo-like silhouette in my foreground.
“I should have worn different shoes,” I lodged my own complaint, but either he didn’t hear me or he was indifferent to my whining, for he continued trudging single mindedly towards the bay. Although we hadn’t exchanged so much as a text in over six weeks, fifteen minutes earlier, Gordon, reeking either of bad cologne or bad alcohol or both, had appeared on my front porch. In a sandstone Carhartt jacket, blue jeans, and work boots, he looked like he had just walked off a construction site. Somehow, he still managed to look fashionable.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“Go? Go where?” It’s Christmas Eve.”
“What’s the difference? You’re as alone as I am.”
“Yeah, but . . .”
“But what?” He interrupted.
“The neighbors invited me over later.”
Gordon’s smirk betrayed his incredulity, but I was telling the truth. The Brawnes were really cool people, and they were more-than-awesome when my brother Tom died in the fall. Ever since, they’d more-or-less adopted me. It didn’t matter if Gordon believed me or not. I was done trying to please him. If nothing else, Shelly had shown me the uselessness of that.
“It’s about Shelly,” he said.
That was all that needed to be said. I reached back inside, grabbed Tom’s navy blue pea coat off the coat rack that still smelled like the Marlboros he smoked, put it on, and followed Gordon down the snow-covered steps and walkway to his black H3. Inside, I jammed my low top, canvas Converse All-Stars against the vent, one, because it was cranking out the heat, and two, because a pair of empty wine bottles occupied the floor. I shot him a disapproving glance.
“What?” he said. “It’s Christmas.”
I reached for the door handle, but Gordon threw the Hummer into reverse and me, still unbuckled, across the front seats and literally into his lap. Before I could orient myself, the tires were throwing snow on the un-plowed street and taking us east towards his home on The Strand. Tramping through the snow, my feet were already drenched and freezing. I was still pissed at being kidnapped and still clueless as to what this Gordonian adventure had to do with Shelly.
“Gordon,” I shouted. “Stop. I’m not going any farther until you tell me where we’re going.”
“The island,” he called back.
“The island! Back to North Bass?”
“No, Stupid. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s winter. Boating season is over.”
“Then, what island?”
“Johnson’s,” he said as a matter-of-fact then resumed his trailblazing toward the bay ice. Johnson’s was a small, pear-shaped island in Ogontz Bay and a mile or so off the beach behind Gordon’s house. During the Civil War, the Union built a prisoner of war camp on Johnson’s for Confederate officers, a sort of Alcatraz. Now it was rimmed by high-dollar vacation homes, occupied by seasonal tenants who’d fled Ohio’s winter months ago. The Confederate cemetery in the island’s interior was the only public property remaining on the island. It had been one of Shelly’s favorite places. When they were kids, she, Gordon, and his sister Augusta would boat over to the island and spend hours playing in the cemetery and occasional evenings competing in ghost storytelling contests.
“Gordon,” I called once more.
“Really. How we going to get there?”
“We’re walking, Keats.”
I stopped dead and watched as he proceeded straight onto the still newly-formed ice.
“You’re serious?” I said.
Gordon stopped, held out his hand, and said, “Come, Peter, ye of little faith.”
“Very funny. But seriously. Is it safe?”
“Haven’t I taught you anything, Keats?” He paused to take a long draught from a wine bottle he had conjured from inside the backpack then said, “Nothing is safe, and if it were, why do it?”
He thrust the bottle towards where I stood on the frozen sand. He was either offering me a
swig or making a toast to the universe. He said, “Okay then. Let’s go. Keep your distance. We want to disperse our weight. And stay in my tracks. If it holds me, it will certainly support your scrawny ass.”
Either Gordon masterfully charted an oblique path around the dangerously thin patches of ice, or he was stumbling drunk; regardless, it would be the longest mile I’d ever walked. A light breeze lifted the cold from the surface and threw tiny ice pellets into our exposed faces. I thanked Tom for the knit cap I found inside one of the coat’s pockets. With my hands buried in those pockets, my nose hidden behind the buttoned collar, and my eyes peeled to the surprisingly well-lit ice beneath a luminescent, half-moon, we trudged forward at a glacial pace, like Arctic explorers, while the still-congealing ice constantly complained beneath our feet. Finally, we clambered up an embankment on the northeast shore of the island among an assortment of evergreens. They had been purposely planted to screen the palatial compound that spread out behind them. I stumbled past a resort-sized pool, Jacuzzi, and cabana area in jaw-dropping amazement, while Gordon continued on with blasé disregard.
“Hey,” I said, “why don’t we do whatever we have to do right here? This place is awesome. And look, it has a fire pit.”
“It’s not the cemetery,” Gordon said and dropped the emptied bottle of wine.
“Oh, right,” I said. “It’s not the cemetery.”
Unlike Gordon, or Shelly for that matter, I wasn’t particularly comfortable in cemeteries. My family’s history with early death and a premonition regarding my own had left me with a perfectly understandable reluctance to visit them for any reason. There wasn’t a single artificial light shining. If not for the moonlight reflecting off of the snow, we couldn’t have seen more than a few feet in front of our faces. Before crossing the lone road, which ran the entire circumference of the island, we stopped so that Gordon could extract a flashlight from his backpack and take a piss. I turned away and watched a pair of taillights, traveling due north, for what I knew to be too far of a distance on an island as small as Johnson’s.
“Gordon. Tell me there isn’t a bridge to this island.”
“Bridge? Of course there is, but it’s all the way around the Marblehead Peninsula. At least forty minutes by car.”
“Then, why did we just freeze our asses off and risk our lives walking an hour over the ice?”
“Oh, I’m way too drunk to drive.”
He gingerly tucked himself back in and turned on the flashlight. “Let’s go. The cemetery’s not far." So Gordon.
After traipsing through a slice of sparsely populated woods, our progress was stopped by the
black, wrought-iron fence of the cemetery. Each picket was topped by spear points. Gordon performed a sweeping arch over the fence with the narrow beam of the flashlight. Rows and rows of flat, whitish marble tombstones, lined in military precision, stood at attention on the surface of the rolling cemetery. Gordon was clearly moved. Me? Not so much.
In the spirit of getting over whatever we had started, I carefully placed my hands between spear points and wedged my left foot on the bottom rail between a pair of pickets and began to place my right foot on the top railing.
“What are you doing?” Gordon said and grabbed me by the arm.
“What’s it look like I’m doing? I’m climbing this fence so we can get this nonsense over before my toes are frostbitten and need to be amputated.”
“Are you nuts? I’ve already been circumcised once. I don’t need any more lopped off. This way,” he said with a wave of his hand.
We traced the fence line until we arrived at the main entrance. The waist high fence gave way to an overhead arch engraved with the words “Confederate Soldiers.” The snow pack only allowed us to push open one of the pair of swinging gates a few feet, but it was enough for us to shuffle sideways into the cemetery grounds. Gordon walked purposefully toward the center of the graveyard, always remaining near the backsides of the headstones and below where the feet of those buried in the next row lay. Approximately at the dead center, he turned to his right and continued two or three more rows before he directed the flashlight’s beam onto the headstones.
“There,” he finally said.
“Where? What?” I asked.
“There,” he said once more and shook the flashlight so the beam momentarily danced on a single headstone, whose weathered engraving identified the deceased beneath it as
CAPT. CO. H.
45TH VA. INF.
CAPT. CO. H.
45TH VA. INF.
“That there is my Great, Great, Great, Great Granddaddy,” Gordon slurred with a suddenly
emergent hint of a Southern drawl. “That’s his grave anyhow. Shelly, Augusta, and I used to come here. This was sort of our spot.”
“Look, Gordon. This is very interesting and all, but I really do have better things to do. What exactly are we doing here?”
“I thought it would be a nice Christmas gift for Shelly if we could all be together.”
“In case you don’t remember, Shelly’s dead. She’s not here. It’s just you and me.”
Gordon began to swing his head side-to-side, almost imperceptibly at first, until eventually his chin was nearly bouncing back and forth from shoulder to shoulder.
“You’re kind of freaking me out, man. What do you mean ‘no.’ Are you planning some kind of seance?"
He slipped off his backpack and placed it on the ground between us. “Hold this,” he said and
handed me the flashlight. I aimed the beam at the pack, which Gordon unzipped. He reached inside with the deliberateness of a surgeon and extracted a large mason jar. With his massive hands wrapped around it, I couldn’t discern what the jar contained other than being three-quarters full of some kind of liquid.
“What is that?” I asked.
Gordon slid his hands to the opposite poles of the jar and said, “It’s Shelly. Well, her heart anyway."
When I came to, Gordon had a fire going at the base of his ancestor’s grave. He had packed one of those fire-starter logs and a bundle of kindling and was half-sitting on, half-leaning against the tombstone beneath and in immediate line with J.E. Byron’s.
“That wasn’t funny, asshole.”
“Wasn’t meant to be,” he said.
The jar was resting on the snow between his feet. Dangling from his hand was a freshly-opened bottle of red wine.
“No bullshit, Gordon. What is that thing?”
“I told you; it’s Shelly’s heart.”
I bolted to my feet and brushed snow from my backside. “This is some sick joke. You drag me out on Christmas Eve to pull this bullshit. Which way is that road? I’m out of here, man.”
“That way,” he said pointing north, “but it’s a long walk home in that direction.”
I pulled my cell phone out of my pants pocket and brandished it for his view.
“Who you going to call?”
“Is that the neighbor girl? Have you hit that yet?”
“Yes. I mean, she is my neighbor, but no, I haven’t. You know, I’m not even going to say it. Is that all you think about?”
“What else is there?” He took a long pull from the bottle.
“You’re pathetic,” I said. I scrolled through my contacts in search of “Fanny.”
“Keats,” he said. “Don’t call. Stay. Please.”
Stunned by the desperation of his voice, I paused.
“What is this about, Gordon? What is that?” I pointed to the grayish glob of muscle floating in formaldehyde.
“Sit down and I’ll explain.”
I looked down at my cell. “Fanny” was highlighted. I moved my thumb over the green “send” button. I hesitated.
“I really miss her, Keats.
“Damn,” I said, before pressing the red “end” button instead. “I know I’m going to regret this,” I said and sat on the tombstone next to Gordon’s perch. “I miss her too.”
For the second time, he offered me a swig from the bottle. Although, I’d never had much use for alcohol, I needed to warm my insides and something to prepare for the story Gordon was about to tell.
“You remember Max Schulte, right? He was a couple of classes ahead of Shelly and me at
Trinity. His father owns the funeral home that handled all of Shelly’s arrangements after the coroner performed the autopsy. Max helps out his folks when things get busy.”
I didn’t know Max Schulte, and I really wasn’t in the mood to rehash Shelly’s death or the events of the days that followed. I’d already written that book. It was time to move on, but I nodded “yes” in order to get the story over with.
“According to Max,” Gordon continued, “and you can’t tell this to anyone because Schulte’s is a mom and pop operation, and the old man could lose his license if this got out. Anyway, Max said that his girlfriend was over. I guess she’s a goth chick or something and likes to fool around in the caskets and shit. Anyway, he lost track of time and thinks he may have removed Shelly’s body from the cremator too soon. Regardless, when he slid her out, he saw that her heart had failed to burn and was sitting in amongst all the bone fragments. So, he said that he remembered that Shelly and I were close, and he thought that I might like the heart as some kind of memento.”
“You said, ‘Yes!’”
“Well, yeah. Why not? One night he shows up at the house with this jar. I’ve had it ever since.”
“Besides being a violation of any number of laws, that’s just creepy.”
“You think so? I find it rather, I don’t know, poetic.”
He pulled his drinking goblet, a real, hollowed-out human skull with a plastic cup inserted inside of it, from out of the backpack, filled it, handed it to me, raised his bottle, and said, “to Shelly, without exception the best and least selfish person I ever knew.”
He banged the bottle against the smooth bone of the cup in my hand, and we both chugged
our wine, me to minimize its bitter taste, Gordon to anesthetize his guilt. Finished, Gordon threw the empty bottle over his head among the graves behind us. Then, with more affection than with which I felt comfortable, he reached across the space between us, wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and pulled me into him so that my cheek wedged beneath his armpit.
“Keats,” he said, “I never liked you much, but Shelly did, and with one obvious exception, she was an excellent judge of character.”
I tried to wriggle free of Gordon’s embrace, but he had no intention of letting me go.
“I’ve been thinking, since Shelly and I were so close, and you and Shelly were so close, maybe we should become closer, maybe, we could even be more than friends.”
Gordon’s proposition caused me to pause in my wriggling. I’d be a liar if I’d said the thought
had never crossed my mind. I mean, he wasn’t just anybody; he was Gordon Byron. Who wouldn’t be flattered? And who wouldn’t at least consider, well, you know. Before I could respond, Gordon had dropped to his knees. On his way down, he hooked both sets of fingers over my belt. The weight of his body combined with gravity to pull my jeans over my skinny hips.
“Gordon, no!” I said, dropping the skull cup to the snow and grabbing at the waistline of my jeans.
“No? No? No. No. No.” Gordon continued to say, letting go of my belt, curling up in the snow
around the jar containing Shelly’s heart, and crying. As far as I knew, it was the first time he cried for Shelly. Probably, the first time he’d cried for anyone. I followed him to the ground with my calves folded under my thighs in a “patty cake” position and raised Gordon’s head so that it rested on my lap. Gordon was the expert at living, I at grieving. With my left hand, I patted his back, while my right stroked his long, dark curls. We remained in that position until our fire log had all but melted away and only charred embers of kindling remained.
Gordon finally picked his head up from off of my lap and said, “We’re going to bury her, Keats.”
“The ground’s frozen.”
“Not anymore,” he said, “at least not beneath that fire. Besides, it won’t have to be very deep.”
He rose to his feet and kicked the fire aside with his boot. A folding camping shovel was the last provision remaining in the backpack. He removed it and dug into the earth at the foot of J.E. Byron’s grave. When the hole was of sufficient depth, Gordon picked up Shelly’s heart, brought the jar to his lips, kissed it, lay it on its side in the hole, and covered it with the excavated dirt. He then removed a glove, dipped his finger into the still lukewarm embers of the fire, crawled on his knees to the back of the headstone in line with his ancestor’s and in charcoal black inscribed: Cor Cordium. I translated the Latin out loud: “heart of hearts.”
After a few moments of meditation, Gordon rose to his feet. Not a single tear track was evident.
With a clear, unaffected voice, he said, “Let’s go, Keats. You’ve got a Fanny waiting for you at home.”
“Gordon . . .” I began disgustedly but just as quickly realized the uselessness of scolding him or expecting him to ever be anything but what was already too late to change. “You’re right. Let’s go home."
Thank you so much for writing up this short story Ty, it was wonderful! I really enjoyed it and your writing is awesome.
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!
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