Thomas Grant Bruso © 2021
All Rights Reserved
Earl was a funny name for a sixteen-year-old boy. It reminded Earl of an older man, like his late uncle Fred who died when Earl was two years old.
As he stared down at a photo album spread open across his lap, the pictures of his uncle Fred and family reminded him of a conversation he’d had with his mother years before about death and dying.
Earl ran a finger over a photo of his uncle smiling back at him from beneath the glossy sheet of paper: white buck teeth, dark-brown eyes, thinning blond widow’s peak, and a handlebar moustache. Earl had pulled the album out of storage when memories of his life in Jessup, New York, resurfaced while he was sick from school this week. He flipped through scads of photos, faces from yesteryear, as he wiped his moist eyes with the back of his hand, reminiscing.
The idea to trek down memory lane came clear to Earl when he’d had a silent, reflective moment about his own life—his purpose, and who he was.
Six years ago when his family was living in a tiny, two-bedroom duplex in the small town of Jessup, before they moved to Betham County, Earl and his mother had a long conversation about life and death. Earl asked the most obvious question: “Why does everybody have to die?”
“Even the good guys like Uncle Fred die,” she’d said.
The conversation with his mother had been triggered by his finding their cat, Shells, unresponsive, just after he’d stumbled out of bed early one morning to use the bathroom. Shells was lying on the floor, curled up in a corner. Earl crouched next to her and ran his hand through her soft black-and-white fur. She did not move, so Earl yelled for his parents. He recalled the sad expressions on their faces when they came running to him.
Earl cried when he and his father had to bury Shells in the backyard, a fragment of memories now many miles behind them. Earl had sat with his mother that morning as she answered his questions, the importance of death, and the grief that comes with losing life’s precious things.
“Like Uncle Fred and Shells,” she’d said, “everything and everybody has a purpose. That’s why it’s important to love and care for everyone and everything, people and animals, every day. It’s sad to lose a pet or a family member, but it’s also natural and part of life.”
“Are you and Dad going to die like Uncle Fred and Shells?”
“One day. But not for a long time.”
His mother’s hug, the safety of her warm embrace, made Earl happy. After saying goodbye to Uncle Fred and Shells, Earl never wanted to let go of his parents. They were all he had.
Now, on this morning in early May, Earl’s thoughts returned to his past. He stared at the photos wedged beneath the glossy plastic sheets of film in the photo album.
He took a breath as he turned through pages of smiling faces—his family members in various pictures. He smiled back, deep in thought, tears falling and blotting the top of the album.
A rattling of glass bottles jarred his concentration, pulling him out of his momentary trance. He set the photo album on his bed and went to the window, gazing out into another sweltering day. Though gray clouds buckled beneath a darkening May sky that promised another rainstorm, the air was thick like clam chowder.
He was at home, sick from school for the third day this week, if his fever didn’t break. Earl had been bedridden with nowhere to go. He checked his cell phone for messages—from anybody. He missed human contact from his class friends, especially his best friend, Andy Gelman.
Traffic hummed along on the main artery of Betham County, a street over, and Earl caught a glimpse of a woman walking her dog. A young bicyclist pedaled to class. And the boy next door, Rex Chambers, on whom Earl had a small crush, bagged recycling for weekly pickup. Rex looked up at him, waved, and smiled. “Mornin’.” He placed the recycling bin by the side of the street and ambled to the fence separating the yards.
Earl’s face flushed; his skin tingled. Maybe it was the flu, or he was just feeling embarrassed. Shy. Staring at the cute guy who rode his mother’s motorcycle to school every morning this year made Earl light-headed.
“Cat got your tongue?” Rex yelled up from the neighboring yard, pulling the motorcycle away from where it was leaning against the fence and reaching for the helmet hanging on the handlebars. “You need a ride to school?”
Rex tossed the black Darth Vader–like helmet back and forth in his hands like a basketball. His dark hair was slicked with a generous amount of gel, and his angelic eyes and chiseled face set the cogwheels in Earl’s rusty thoughts in motion. “I haven’t seen you around this week. Where’ve you been?” Rex asked.
Earl grinned back at the tall, handsome boy. Was Rex keeping track of how many days I’ve been out of school? “I’m sick.”
“Another day, then?”
Earl nodded, lifted a hand to wave. “See you around.”
“If you need anything, let me know.”
Earl bit down on his bottom lip. He couldn’t believe the boy next door had talked to him; he did not know Rex well. They didn’t talk every day, and when they passed each other in the hallway at Betham County High, Earl was too nervous to speak to him or engage him in conversation. He’d smile at the gorgeous guy, but it was a brief moment in his long day. A fleeting exchange of waves or grins, and both young men went their separate ways. The only class Earl and Rex shared was study hall. But by ninth period, Rex usually ditched the boring forty-five-minute class to take off on his motorcycle and ride around town.
“Feel better!” Rex yelled up to him. He put the helmet on, swung his leg over the cycle and started the engine. “I’m off! Another boring day at Betham County High.”
Earl looked away and smirked.
The walls of Earl’s bedroom rumbled from the vibrations of the motorcycle. Rex turned and waved. Earl lifted his hand and returned the favor, watching as Rex the Wonder Boy fled out of the yard into a string of traffic on Bauer Street.
A sharp knock on his door surprised Earl, parting the cobwebby thoughts building in his brain as Rex disappeared from his line of vision.
“Honey? May I come in?” his mother asked, poking her head inside his cluttered, smelly bedroom.
“Yeah.” He turned away from the window and looked up at the sweet expression on his mother’s face.
“You talking to someone? I thought I heard voices.”
Earl looked out the window at the neighbor’s empty backyard and shook his head, shuffled back into bed. “Just talking to myself.”
“Well, breakfast is ready.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You need to eat.”
Earl sighed. “What did you make today?”
“Chocolate chip pancakes. Your favorite.”
“Maybe,” he said, shrugging. “I’ll try some.”
“Are you feeling any better?”
She walked into the room and touched his forehead with the back of her hand. “You don’t feel as warm as you did yesterday.”
“I slept a lot.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to go back to school tomorrow?”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
“How about I fix you a plate and bring it up to you?”
“I’ll be down in a few minutes. I need to get out of this room.”
She stopped and stared, studying her son. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”
Earl looked up from his cell phone and shook his head. “Nothing.”
Paula wagged a finger, went to the empty chair at his writing desk, and sat. “I know that look.”
“That faraway, disconnected gaze.”
He got up and walked to his closet. He stared at himself in the dusty mirror on the back of the door. “I didn’t realize that’s how I looked.”
“Trust me. You do. Mothers know.”
He padded back to his bed and plopped down. He sighed and stared up at the low, sloping ceiling.
“What’s on your mind?” Paula asked, giving him all her attention.
Earl glanced in her direction. “I don’t know why, but I was thinking about Shells and Uncle Fred.” He gestured to the photo album spread out across his ruffled video-game-printed bedsheets.
Paula fingered the album and stared down at the familiar faces of her family. “What made you think of Shells and Uncle Fred?”
“What else am I supposed to do in here all day?”
She smiled. “Come on. You can tell me. Why are Shells and Uncle Fred on your mind all of a sudden?” She tapped the leather-bound photo album.
“Something that you told me many years ago about the importance of loving and caring for others.” He shrugged. “I just miss Shells. She was a good cat.”
“I miss her too. She was a crazy cool cat.”
Earl smiled at the imagery of his enormous furry friend. The way Shells stalked down the hall into the kitchen, following behind him like his best friend. “She knew when it was dinner time.”
“She would eat all day if we’d let her. But she was really devoted to you.”
Earl closed his eyes, envisioned his life in Jessup. “I miss our old house, Mom. And the friendly people in the neighborhood.”
“It was a different time.”
His mother hummed affirmatively and nodded. “Busier.”
Earl asked, “Is that why we left? Because it was busy and loud?”
“We left because of our lives. We had to change because of Dad’s job.”
“I hate change.”
“Change is difficult sometimes. But your father and I also wanted a slower-paced life, mostly for you.”
“But I loved Jessup. I didn’t want to leave. There were more things to do.”
“You can do that here in Betham County.”
“It’s not the same, Mom. People are so one-sided here. There aren’t many people with their own ideas. Too many cliques, and nosy neighbors only want to socialize if you have gossip to share or a house to sell. There is so much real estate for sale in this town. It’s not cool.”
“You’ve made some interesting friends since we moved here.”
“Not a lot. Too many strange people in this town and some of them are living right next door to us. Come on. You know I’m right.”
She tossed him a sideways glance, then smiled and stood. “Well, that’s what’s so wonderful about meeting new people. We’re all different and have a lot to offer each other.”
Earl clamped his eyes shut, fighting not to scream. “It’s not exactly comforting to know that the family who lives three houses down from us pray on a bench in their front yard. And that ten-foot wooden cross and human-size nativity scene they decorate their yard with every Easter are bizarre.”
Paula shrugged. “We didn’t raise you to judge, Earl.”
“You and Dad also didn’t raise me to be an attention seeker.”
“Everybody is different.”
“Like Uncle Fred?”
Paula leaned against the wall and crossed her arms. “Why is Uncle Fred on your mind now?”
“I didn’t know him well. What I do remember from what you’ve told me and from what I can see, flipping through these photos, was interesting.”
“You were two when he died, Earl.”
“What I did know of him I liked.”
“If there’s anything you want to know or talk about, I’d be happy to discuss it. Preferably after breakfast. Come on. Your father is waiting for us.”
“What was Uncle Fred like, Mom?”
“He was a happy man. He smiled a lot. He enjoyed fishing in winter. He and Dad went out on the lake every Friday morning before the sun came up. They’d drive down to the lake and spend the entire afternoon catching dinner.”
“Uncle Fred and Dad liked to hunt and kill things, then?” A sadness choked his voice.
“They ate whatever they killed. Hunting wasn’t a sport for them.”
“Still, I think it’s cruel to kill anything.”
When his mother smiled at him, he sat up.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked, grinning and sitting upright in bed.
“I admire the kindness you have in your heart. You will grow into a good man, Earl. Now, let’s go eat breakfast as a family before your father leaves for work.”
When his mother left, Earl grabbed the photo album, got down on his knees, and set it next to the small cardboard box of things under his bed that he had inherited from his uncle.