“Times Ending, Times Beginning” by Colleen Fullin
Jacob saw Chelsea sitting in one of the plastic chairs in the waiting room of the school’s administrative office. She was one of Sara’s friends, Sara’s best friend in fact. She was usually bubbly, twirling her blond curls between her fingers as she giggled, excited about everything. But today she didn’t seem happy. Her eyes were bloodshot and the skin around them was puffy and red. Her mascara was smudged along her cheeks, and she didn’t seem to care. That’s strange, Jacob thought. As he and the principal passed, Chelsea met his eyes briefly, then looked away.
In her office, Principal Walker shut the door behind them. “How are you doing, Jake?” she asked him, lightly touching his arm.
“I go by Jacob now,” he said.
“Of course,” she said. Her voice was soft. She motioned for Jacob to sit down. She sat across from him, looking at him over the desk. For a moment she fidgeted with the wedding ring on her left hand.
“What is this about?” Jacob asked.
“I need to tell you,” Principal Walker started, and looked away before finishing, “that Sara Thompson passed away last night.”
Jacob drew in a deep breath. His head began to reel. Principal Walker was still speaking: “We aren’t sure yet what happened. I wanted to tell you directly, in light of your special relationship with her.” Jacob felt like he could throw up right on her desk. She kept talking, told him that the cause of death was unclear, that she knew this must be hard for him, that grief counselors would be available if he wanted, and that the school was here to help him through this difficult time.
But Jacob couldn’t hear her any longer. His mind drifted out of her office to the reception area where Chelsea was sitting with a tissue crumpled in her hand and mascara running down her face. He drifted past her, down the halls, past the endless rows of beige lockers. He drifted right back into his classroom, sat down at his desk and rested his chin on his hand, leaning into his elbow. A high-pitched whine began to ring in his ears. It grew louder and louder. If all the students came out of all the classrooms, talking and laughing and teasing each other and tossing paper airplanes back and forth, he wouldn’t have heard any of it over the wail that was filling his ears and brain.
* * *
The rest of the day was awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing for Jacob. By second period, the teachers had all been informed of the death, and the rumors had begun to germinate among the students, spreading in whispers of insinuation and conjecture. Drug overdose became the first buzzing refrain, the words echoing off the metal lockers in the halls, hopping between the tables at lunch. Out of this hushed swarm of questions came the inevitable answer: Suicide.
By the afternoon, the story had solidified. Jacob’s girlfriend Sara Thompson had died the night before. Her mother had found her, dead in her bed this morning, just a few hours before school. Sara had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance, but there was nothing the doctors could do for her. She had overdosed, they said, on pills, some prescription and some not.
But this didn’t answer any questions, not really. Did she leave a note? Did she tell anyone that she would do it? And the obvious: Why? These questions and more surged through Jacob’s clouded mind, a pulse of twisted thoughts he couldn’t untangle. He drifted numbly through the halls with the other students, who were all whispering to each other and guessing and supposing and pulling at the ends of this piece of gossip that was so terribly new and important.
Nobody really spoke to Jacob. Everyone knew that Sara had been his girlfriend. As he walked through the cafeteria or the hallways between classes, he could feel the endless pairs of eyes focused on him, fixing him with a collective gaze that accused: Didn’t you know? His face flushed so often that he couldn’t tell anymore when he felt his cheeks reddening, growing numb to the sensation.
Girlfriend. That word bound him to her like a chain. It designated their importance to each other, a neon sign flashing over his head saying, Knows her! Knows her! Knows her! But the truth was, he had only known her three weeks. In the teenage world of complicated make-ups and break-ups, they had found each other, briefly, together.
They had gone on a few dates, had held hands in the school hallways and made out a few times in the basement of her mom’s house. His friends knew her name and asked him how far he had gotten.
She was shy and didn’t have many friends except for Chelsea. While Chelsea rambled on about TV shows and magazines and twisted her curls around her finger, Sara let her dark hair fall over her eyes. She didn’t talk much. Most likely, no one really knew Sara. Even Jacob.
So when Chelsea caught Jacob’s arm in the hall, stopping him between classes, pulling at her curls, looking up at him with her wide eyes, he wanted to turn his back and keep walking. The wall of students switching classes parted around them, making a narrow circle of calm in the bustling hallway. Jacob could feel people looking at them, wondering, and he felt himself blush.
“Wait,” Chelsea said, lightly holding his arm. She wiped a mascara smudge from her cheek and sniffled. She was short and as she looked up at him, her eyes seemed even bigger. “I just wanted to say,” she said, squeezing his arm as if sensing his hesitancy, “it wasn’t your fault.”
Jacob felt himself redden even more, and he wanted to answer: Obviously.
* * *
As he came in the front door, Jacob could hear his mother in the living room, vacuuming. He shut the door behind him, keeping the knob turned so that it wouldn’t click against the doorframe. His mother almost immediately cut the power on the vacuum in the other room and the house became silent. They both stood still for a moment, in their separate rooms, listening. Then the vacuum roared again, and Jacob went up the stairs to his room, his feet padding softly on the tall carpet.
In his bedroom, he tossed his backpack and his jacket into the corner. He turned on his computer and slumped into the chair. He didn’t want to think about Chelsea or school or Sara. He wanted to send his mind elsewhere, anywhere, somewhere. He wanted his mind to go nowhere, to do nothing, to never come back.
On the computer, he logged on to Facebook, as much out of rote memory as intention. He checked to see who was on chat, but realized he didn’t care and turned if off. He went to his own page. Jacob Taylor, it said, is in a relationship with Sara Thompson. He clicked her name, underlined and blue. Then he was on her page and Sara Thompson, it said, is in a relationship with Jacob Taylor. He clicked his name to jump back to his page. Then he clicked her name again. Back and forth, he jumped from page to page. He looked through her photos. They were mostly group shots: at the lake with some friends, the junior choir trip, the homecoming dance last fall. He looked through her wall, found her last post. Two weeks ago, she wrote: What a day.
Looking through her page, it began to disturb him. He was in a relationship, Facebook said, with a dead girl, with a girl who had wanted to die. It was Sara who wanted to make it “official,” another of the silly dramatics of high school couplings. And now what? He imagined her account lingering in cyberspace, forever maybe. Did anyone have the password? Would anyone disable it? How long should he leave his status like it was? Would people at school talk if he changed it tonight?
When his parents called him down for dinner, he silently took his place between them at the table. He ate his chicken looking down at his plate while his parents talked to each other about work. I just don’t know about that new hire. You’ve got to give her more time, don’t you think? Oh, I suppose you’re right.
The telephone rang. Jacob’s mother went to answer it. She stood in the kitchen and Jacob could see her through the doorway, her back turned. “Hello? Oh, hi Kim. No, it’s no trouble. We’re just eating dinner. Uh-huh.” Then his mother turned around, was looking at Jacob through the doorway. She lowered her voice but he could still hear her. “Oh my God. No, he didn’t say anything. Oh my God, I had no idea. Oh my God, he must be in shock.”
* * *
At school the next day, he felt relieved when Henry texted him, saying, “skip time ya? cjs.” No mention of Sara or suicide, and Jacob could almost pretend that it was a normal meet up, just the two of them skipping their sixth period study hall, as they did sometimes.
CJ’s was Corner Joe’s, the sticky diner-coffee joint with vinyl seat covers and linoleum tabletops. Around the corner from Roosevelt, it’s where most of the skippers skipped to, but the school had never really gotten a handle on the problem. For the most part, nobody minded the occasional truancy, so long as you weren’t one of the “bad seeds” already.
They sat at a table in the back corner of the diner, beside the windows that looked out over the empty parking lot and the abandoned Shell station beside it. “What’ll ya order?” the black-haired waitress asked them between smacks of her gum. Her eyes were painted with a glittery light blue shadow, but the deep wrinkled furrows of her jaw belied her age. “Kringle,” Henry said. As the waitress fixed her gray eyes on him, Jacob wrapped his palms around the steaming white mug and answered her, “Just coffee, please.”
“All right,” she replied listlessly. With her departure, an uncomfortable silence settled between the two friends. Jacob knew he couldn’t avoid the subject that hung between them like a heavy weight. He looked over Henry’s shoulder, out the window beyond the parking lot, beyond the gas station, and into the grassy field. At the edge near the sidewalk was a pile of broken bricks, a demolished wall.
“Did you know?” Henry asked finally.
“Did I know?”
“That she would do it,” he said.
“No,” Jacob answered.
“It’s so weird,” Henry said. He took the sugar dispenser from the end of the table and began to roll it back and forth, catching it in his right hand, catching it in his left. Granules of sugar fell through the opening, leaving a trail on the table that shimmered in the light.
Jacob only nodded. Henry’s eyes had a natural squint, set high in his angular features. His face always seemed to be asking, oh really?
“She didn’t, like, say anything to you?”
Before he could think better of it, Jacob said, “Why would she?” He felt like his voice was too loud. The waitress with the blue eye shadow looked over at them as she cut a piece of kringle on the counter.
“I don’t know,” Henry said in answer. He put the sugar container back and wiped the linoleum tabletop with his arm, sending the sugar scattering onto the floor. There was a faint clustering of white flecks on his black sleeve. “You were her boyfriend,” he said casually, picking sugar off his shirt.
Jacob turned away from Henry, looking down at the crack where the seat cushion brushed the wall. Just a few days ago, Henry had asked Jacob, “Are you still dating that Sara girl?” It was already May. Jacob was graduating, was going to college next year. Sara was a junior, would have been beginning her senior year in the fall. Henry already knew the relationship wouldn’t last. Jacob knew it too. When they talked about going to the beach in the summer, Sara’s name wasn’t mentioned.
So now, Jacob felt betrayed. “I didn’t know her that well,” he said finally, to break the silence.
“I’m just surprised she didn’t say anything,” Henry said as the waitress set down his kringle, the plate clattering on the tabletop. Jacob felt an electric surge pulse through him, as if he were blushing all over. “Thank you,” Henry said to the waitress. He took a bite of the kringle.
Then continued, to Jacob: “Like, you really didn’t have any idea at all? It’s weird.”
* * *
The school-appointed grief counselor fixed him in a stony gaze of professional compassion and asked him if he thought maybe he was angry. “It’s okay to feel angry,” Tony said as Jacob destroyed the tissue he had in his hands. He wasn’t crying, but Tony had offered him the tissues anyway when they began, so he took one out of politeness. “Anger is a very common reaction to death. A lot of people would feel angry. It doesn’t mean you didn’t care about her.”
The grief counselor had introduced himself as Tony, and hadn’t given Jacob his last name. Two years ago, Jacob had experimented with calling his dad and other adults by their first name. He mostly didn’t get any reaction and eventually went back to the ways he had been taught to address adults. He was eighteen now, but it was still strange to call this man Tony, this man who scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad and looked over the rim of his glasses like a librarian. Jacob tried not to address him at all.
“Actually,” Tony continued, “sometimes when we feel angry, it’s because we really, really care about that person a lot. And all that anger is coming from how much we care about them.”
Tony’s words faded around him to a dull hum as Jacob’s mind returned to a night three weeks ago. After the school soccer match, he found himself wandering the edge of the field with some friends he didn’t know well. Henry had bailed on him, saying that if he didn’t finish his English paper, he was toast. Most of his other friends were going to a movie, but Jacob didn’t feel like sitting in the darkened theater. He met up with some people at the game, some guys who were in his history class and who he sometimes ate lunch with. They joined up with a group of girls and the amorphous gaggle waited out the evening in the open air, joining hands or leaning into each other here and there, the complex language of uncertain desire.
As the horizon grew dim and the moon rose over the field, they moved under the bleachers, looking up at the purple sky through the slated blinds of the seats. They were in a loose circle, sitting on the grass, and someone suggested Truth or Dare. This made the girls giggle and the guys roll their eyes. Aren’t we a little old for that? But the game commenced anyway. In the dim light, Jacob remembered, he could just make out Chelsea and Sara, huddled against each other like sisters. Chelsea was laughing while Sara kept her eyes on the grass and let her hair fall over her face.
“Dare!” chose the boy on Jacob’s left, and he had to run laps across the field in his boxers while everyone watched through the bleachers. He returned with flushed cheeks and slipped back into his clothes. “Sara,” he said, “truth or dare?”
“Truth,” she responded, pulling her hair behind her ears. The boy smiled coyly and asked the obvious question: “Who do you like?”
Sara’s eyes met Jacob’s across the circle and she blushed. She turned to hide her face in Chelsea’s shoulder, but Chelsea squeezed her hand and whispered into her ear: Just say it! So Sara smiled shyly, the corners of her mouth lifting just slightly. She spoke and her dark eyes were impossible to read in the dim light.
The other kids turned toward Jacob, waiting for his response. Even before he knew what he was doing, he felt himself nodding, felt his own lips parting into a smile. Later, standing beside the bleachers while Chelsea waited at the curb in her Civic, Sara slipped her hand into Jacob’s palm. Her skin was cool against his. “I’d like to take you out sometime,” he said. She wrapped her arms around his waist inside his open jacket and pulled him closer.
“Sometimes when we feel angry,” Tony was saying, resting his hand on the yellow notepad on his knees, “sometimes we are showing how much we loved.”
Jacob looked at him, at his boxy glasses and stubbly chin. His eyes seemed alert, but the bags below belied his tiredness. Jacob could see the yellow legal pad, inclined toward him, could see the lines of messy writing. “I guess I’m a little angry,” he offered.
* * *
That evening was the night before Sara’s funeral, and Jacob’s mother insisted he spend time with her in the family room. Jacob complied, sighing softly because he knew that even if he refused and sequestered himself in his room, she would be there, knocking on the door to see if he wanted a snack, asking him if he had any homework this weekend, hovering over him as if to say, Are you well? Are you O.K.? He couldn’t shake the words “suicide watch” from his mind and this annoyed him. He wanted to tell her, Don’t be stupid.
On the TV, a woman compared a pair of black pants to a pair of brown pants. “These vertical lines are slimming,” she said, “making your legs look longer.” Jacob aimed the remote at the cable box and flipped upward. A make-up commercial, a sit-com, a crime show. The voices of the actors blurred into one another, cut off midsentence as the picture changed. Jacob could feel his mother’s eyes focused on him, watching him. He imagined her studying his features, the way he tapped his fingers on the arm of the couch, as though each gesture was an expression of the deep grief raging within him. “Nothing’s ever on,” he said, throwing the remote onto the coffee table, where it clattered on the glass surface.
At Sara’s house, last Saturday, her mother had already gone to bed when they got home from the movies. The weather was cool, but pleasant. A soft spring breeze had brushed their shoulders as they sat together on the rocking swing that hung on the front porch.
Sara’s father wasn’t around, and Jacob knew from the rumors at school that he had died a few years ago, but she never talked about him. Her mother was a substitute teacher, part-time at another school. She was home a lot of the time and Jacob had seen her once at four in the afternoon, shuffling across the kitchen in a tattered nightgown. She seemed a little weird to him, or distant somehow. People said she lived mostly off the insurance money, that the cause of death had been cancer. It wasn’t a rich life they had.
“Do you think you’ll like Madison?” Sara asked him.
Jacob had his arm stretched across the back of the swing and Sara was resting against his side, her head nestled on his chest. Her weight was pushing his other side into the wooden arm of the bench, pressing a red swatch into his skin. In the fall, he was going to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It wasn’t a big city, exactly, but it was still four hours away, still a place that seemed foreign and strange and adult, where students held protests and smoked hookah and played Frisbee on the campus green. It was college, that ineffable new place in his mind.
“It’s going to be great,” Jacob said, unaware of himself. He shifted to relieve the pressure on his side. Sara sat upright, taking hold of his hand. “I’ll send you postcards,” he told her.
“No, you won’t” she answered. She turned his hand over, running her fingers along his palm and down his wrist. Her touch was light. He felt the skin of his arm rising into goose bumps. “No, you won’t.”
Retrospective detective. How could he understand the story now? She didn’t have a lot of friends. Her mother didn’t have a lot of money. Maybe she was sad about her father. Maybe she had trouble in school. Something had struck her as hopeless. There wasn’t any way of knowing now.
“Are you nervous about going to the funeral tomorrow, dear?” his mother asked him. She was perched on the ottoman beside the couch, leaning toward him. She reached out her hand and stroked his bangs away from his eyes, the way she had done when he was a child.
“I hate this show,” Jacob said, looking at the TV. On the screen was a crime drama. A doctor pronounced the victim dead. Two bullets to the back. Jacob felt his eyes filling with water. “Why do they keep making this shit?”
* * *
Jacob wanted to go to the funeral alone, and part of him didn’t want to go at all, but he found himself wedged between his parents in the stifling church as people shuffled into the pews. His mother hadn’t said anything to him, not since the previous night. She was quiet, deferential, fixing his cereal that morning and laying out his nice clothes for him. She watched him from a distance, aware maybe that something was happening in his mind that she could not understand.
Jacob recognized a lot of the kids from Roosevelt as they filed into the pews. Everyone wore a grim expression, their young faces carrying the heavy weight of their adult emotions. Few people talked. The silence filled up the church, reaching up to the ceiling. Some of the students, probably, felt obligated to come, the tragedy being so unexpected, Sara so young. Jacob wondered how many of these people actually knew her, how many of them really cared about her.
Right away, he felt bad for thinking it.
In the first pew, Jacob saw Sara’s mother. Her hair was dark, like Sara’s, but thinner and duller. She was young, but the first streaks of gray had begun to show, glimmering threads that caught the light. Jacob couldn’t see her face from behind, but he watched her head bob as she turned to this person or that. Who were the other people up front? An older woman, seated next to the mother. Her hair was white, this must have been Sara’s grandmother. Beside her was a man and a woman. An aunt and an uncle maybe. Did they live in town? Did they see Sara often? What did they know of her?
Jacob already felt dizzy and, as the organ began to fill the church with its tinny reverberations, he lifted out of his body. He drifted, a wispy spirit, over the rows of sad heads, up to the front of the church. Floating upward and upward, he hovered high above the coffin, above Sara’s body within it. The pastor’s words rang out through the church, but Jacob couldn’t hear them, his airy ghost suspended at the ceiling, untouchable.
* * *
After the service, Sara’s mother stood by the door, shaking hands. I’m so sorry for your loss, the mourners told her, as they shuffled out. It’s a tragedy. And she pressed her palm against theirs, put her other hand over the back of theirs. Her eyes were red and tired, but she wasn’t crying now. Thank you, she told them. It means so much.
People were leaving the church now, getting into their cars, driving off. This moment, this day was being put into the shadowy silence of memory. Jacob lingered in the pew, paging through the hymnal, adjusting his collar and tie. Eventually though, he was herded between his mother and father toward the back of the church. “It’s okay to show how you feel,” his mother consoled, but his eyes remained dry.
He found, suddenly, his hand clasped between the icy palms of Sara’s mother. I’m so sorry, he felt himself mumble.
“You’re the boyfriend,” she said, not letting go of his hand.
Jacob could feel his mother and father behind him, looking over him like statues, stoic, removed. His body felt as cold as the hands that were holding his.
“You were close, you and her,” Sara’s mother continued. She didn’t frame it as a question. She wasn’t asking.
“I guess so,” Jacob answered, feeling the wafting nothingness of his answer.
Sara’s mother squeezed his hand a little tighter, pulled him a little closer.
“You’ll come to the burial,” she whispered. “Family only, but you’ll come.
* * *
Sara’s coffin hovered on ropes above the grave and Sara’s body inside it. Her family stood around the rectangle of open dirt: the grandmother, the aunt and uncle, some other people and Sara’s mother.
At the head of the grave, the pastor delivered some words, but Jacob couldn’t hear them. The world was silent around him. When Sara’s uncle blew his nose on a handkerchief, it made no sound.
Jacob’s mind was pulled back to the basement of Sara’s house one week before. The end credits rolled on the movie they had been watching. Sara snuggled into his shoulder as they lay together on the narrow couch. The screen went black and the room was left in darkness. Neither one of them stood to turn on the lights. Her hand crept along his collarbone, along the place where the back of his ear met his neck. She pulled her body on top of his and her lips unfurled, hot and wet and sweet. She clutched at his clothing, slipping her tongue against his, running her fingers over his hipbones, slick skin on slick skin. Isn’t your mom home? he asked, breathless. I don’t care, she whispered. Tongue, lips, teeth, skin. Her body was a heavy weight pressing down against his. She opened her lips and he thought she would swallow him whole.
Colleen Fullin is a student in the MFA program at Emerson College. Her work has appeared in the Plum Creek Review and is forthcoming in Mouse Tales Press and Bellow Literary Journal. She is an instructor in Emerson’s First-Year Writing program and lives in Boston.
Read Colleen Fullin’s comments on Max Detrano’s “A Hunk of Meat.”
Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
When heavy subjects come up in fiction, good authors give the main character space to process emotions on a deeper level, which Fullin does easily in “Times Ending, Times Beginning.” We nestle in closely, waiting for our protagonist to act, to do something courageous, but he doesn’t budge. He simply tunes in to his own thoughts and emotions, trying to understand an unlikely tragedy, seeking refuge in the minutest details.
Comments on this story by Allison Ivans Coulson, author of “The Trigger”
This story is beautiful in its simplicity. Fullin fully understands her protagonist and seamlessly weaves in flashbacks and inner thoughts with utmost clarity. As the protagonist—quietly and desperately— struggles to understand the world around him, we, as readers, cannot help but feel the tragedy, the sadness of the situation all the more. It is a mark of authorial skill to harness and write about disaster, without reducing the story to melodrama.
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