“This one’s like a comic book.  He loved comics, and for a while he wanted to write them.  I think the characters in the story go with some of the drawings on his wall.  He decided against comics as a career a couple of years ago, but this one’s pretty good.  He’s a talented writer.”  Hope said.

            “You mean he was a talented writer.”  I said.

            “Do you believe that, Gwen?”  Hope said, looking directly into my eyes.  “Do you think he’s dead?”

            “I don’t know!”  I almost shouted.  My voice carried across the little pond, for this is where we went to talk about my brother.  I turned away from her and threw some rocks into the water.

            “I know it hurts to talk about, but you can’t keep it inside.”  She said.  I was crying, so she knelt down and hugged me.  “It’s okay to hurt, and to tell someone else.  Your brother liked to deal with things himself, and he was good at it, but it doesn’t always work.”

            “He’s been missing for almost two months, and they said everyone on the plane was dead.”  I sobbed into her shoulder.

            “But they haven’t identified every body.  There’s been no sign of him or your sister, or my other friends.  They might have gotten away.  I think they did.”

            “Why?  Why do you think that?”  I demanded, looking for some hope for my brother and sister’s survival.

            “Because if he were dead, I’d know.  I’d feel it.  Do you ever feel that way?  Like he’s out there, somewhere?”

            I sniffled and wiped the tears off my face with my sleeve.  I wasn’t sure how I felt.  I knew that it hurt that he wasn’t here, and I was worried, but I didn’t feel like he was gone for good.  Every morning I still expected him to be there at the side of my bed, waking me up from a dreamy sleep by opening my curtains and saying “Rise and shine, Gwennie!  It’s a new day, and it wants to meet you!  Are you going to disappoint it by staying in bed?”  It had been a routine for years, and I still woke up hoping he’d be there.

            “Yes.  I do feel that way.  I love him that much, that I know he’s not gone.”

            “Good.  So do I.”

            “Why?  I asked.  “He’s not your brother.”

            “No, but he was once my best friend.”  She said, and a tone of wistful regret entered her soft voice.

            “What do you mean, ‘once’, Hope?”

            “When I was in my last year of high school, Ethan and I were best friends.  We had been in school plays together, and on the student council.  That winter, after exams, your brother came to me and said that he had something he’d made me.”

            “What was it?”  I asked with that breathless anticipation only a curious child can have when being told a story.

            “A poem.  I still have it.”

            “Will you read it to me?”

 

My Hope

Ethan Pitney

 

On the road through life,

everyone needs a guide.

In times of strife,

you came along for the ride.

 

Whenever darkness invades my life,

you are always the light,

that cuts through like a knife,

and shows a way through the night.

 

When I’m at the end of my rope

and feel ready to fall,

you are always the hope

that gets me through it all.

“That’s really pretty.”  I said.  “What’s wrong with that?”           

  “Nothing.  I thought at the time that it was one of the nicest things anyone ever did for me.  It was the most beautiful poem in the world.  I saw it as a sign of how good a friendship we had.  But a few months later, I learned that what Ethan felt wasn’t friendship anymore.”            

 “What do you mean?”           

  “He started behaving strangely.  He would always be around after my classes and would want to walk me home.  He wouldn’t say very much, but there was always this look on his face, like he wanted to say something, but didn’t know how.  He kept giving me drawings and poems, but I was so busy with school stuff that I never really thought to pay attention.  I was the student council president and I was also volunteering at the clinic in town, and I was also trying to keep my grades up because I had the chance to get a big scholarship award.  I was too preoccupied to notice the changes in Ethan.”      

       “What happened?” I asked.            

 “He wrote me this big long letter, about how much he needed me, how much I meant to him.  It was kind of disturbing, and made me really uncomfortable.  It sounded like he thought that the only thing in his life that mattered was our relationship.  He thought that he was in love with me, but it sounded more like he was obsessed, and didn’t have much self-confidence.  He couldn’t care about himself, so he had to care about someone else.”  “Mom says he always took care of everyone else, and never asked for anything for himself.”             “Yes, that’s him, all right.  But as much as being generous and caring is a good thing, I think your brother started taking it too far sometimes.”  Hope looked sad.  “I thought that he was getting better, all through high school.  He was so outgoing and friendly there, and so involved.  It let me think that he’d be okay, and I was wrong.”

            “What do you mean?”  I asked, curious about one of her comments.  “What was wrong?”

            Hope sighed, and seemed even sadder.  “He was picked on a lot in grade school.  He even got beat up a couple of times.  It hurt him, inside, that so many people didn’t like him, and he never understood why.  He kept it from your parents and never talked about it with anyone but me when we were younger.  Maybe Genevieve knew, too.  I’m not sure.”

            “Why didn’t people like him?”  I thought that this part seemed strange.  My big brother was the greatest in the world, why wouldn’t everyone love him as much as I did?

            “Because he was different.  Your brother was very smart, maybe the smartest person I’ve ever known, and some children don’t like it when someone’s smarter.  They made fun of him for it, calling him ‘bookworm’ or worse.  Their ostracism made him shy, and afraid of people.”

            “Ostrich-ism?”  I said, not understanding the word.  “Do you mean that he put his head in the sand?”

            This comment caused Hope to laugh, which relieved me because her story seemed to be making her depressed, like it hurt her to remember. 

            “You know, I never looked at it like that, but sort of.”  She smiled.  “Ostracism is when people exclude you from the group.  They don’t want to see you.  It is kind of like when ostriches put their heads in the sand, I guess.”

            “You said you thought he was getting better.”  I said, trying to get her to continue the story.  I wanted to understand why the Ethan she had known seemed so different from the one I grew up with.

            “When your brother was fourteen, the year before you were born, Ethan was attacked by some of the bullies on his way home from school, near the cemetery down the road.  It was the middle of winter, and they just left him there.  I had been walking with him, but my house is before the graveyard, so I was already home when it happened.  A blizzard hit, though, and I called to see if he’d gotten home safely.  Your mother said that he wasn’t there, and she was really worried when she heard that he’d been on his way when last I saw him.  She got your dad, and then they went searching.  My parents joined in, and some neighbours.”

            “Where was he?”

            “He had crawled into the cemetery, probably thinking he was headed for home, but got turned around in the storm.  They took him to the clinic, and when the blizzard was over he went to the hospital in the city, because he had some broken ribs, frostbite, and was suffering from hypothermia.  They said that he was incredibly lucky to be alive.” 

            “No one ever told me about that.”  I said. 

            “They probably didn’t think they needed to.  It was before you were born.”

            “But you said he was getting better, that sounds like he was worse.”

            “He did get better after that.  It was really very strange.  I visited him in the hospital, and he seemed cheerful, happier than I’d seen him in years.  It was like the experience made him wake up and come out of his shell.  He went to high school the next year, and made friends with people and got involved.  He seemed like a totally different person, more like the way he was the summer we played the King Arthur game.”

            “So you thought that he was getting better.  But his crush on you at the end of high school changed your mind?”

            “Yes.  He had come a long way, but his letter made it clear that he only did those things because of me.  He wanted to be close to me, so he joined the plays and the student council.  He thought that it would make me happy if he cared about the things I cared about.”

            “He said he was in love with you in that letter?”  I asked.

            “Yes.”  She agreed.

            “Well, don’t people that love each other do things like that?  Want to be around each other and like the things the other one likes?” 

            “Yes, Gwen, but there’s more to it than that.  When you’re in love, there’s supposed to be equality and respect.  Ethan didn’t care about himself at all, he saw himself as unimportant. You should matter just as much to yourself, otherwise you’re just making yourself a slave to the other person.  He had the same kind of relationship with all of his friends, it was just a bigger deal with me for some reason.  He saw me as most important for awhile.”

            “What happened?” 

            “I got scared.  I didn’t understand it all then the way I do now, and his journals are making it clearer, too.  Back then I just thought he was acting weird, and it frightened me because I didn’t know why.  I started avoiding him, and then he got mad at me.  I was really relieved when the year was over.  I went to university, and tried to get past it.  But I couldn’t. 

            “Over time I realized why he’d been acting that way, a little.  It was a pattern with him, he was like that with all of us in high school.  He’d get stuck on one person, or one topic, and then snap out of it.  I was finally becoming ready to forgive him and see if we could be friends again, so maybe I could help him, when I heard about the plane crash on television.”

            “Why’d you come here?”  I asked, curious.  “You’re not in love with him.”

            “No, but I do love him.  There’s a difference.  I’m here because of all of you.  I was close to everyone in this family.  I even played with you when you were very small.  I wanted to do my best to help make it easier. I’m afraid that I hurt him a lot without even trying to help him, and I never got to tell him that I understood, finally, and that I was sorry.”

            She was crying, and I hugged her tightly.  She had done the same for me, and she loved my brother.  That was enough to make me love her, like another sister.  A strange thought occurred to me, one I still ponder today, years later.  It is incredibly easy for small children to love, but it is also easy for them to hate, as my brother’s experiences showed.  Why was that?

            What is it in us that can feel things so fiercely, with no rational reasons?  Is it simply that children are closer to their emotions, unafraid of them, because they have yet to develop their minds and thought patterns in the way an adult has?  Adults seem to repress feelings, whether of anger or joy, love or hate, and stifle the need to express those emotions.

              I have often wondered about this, as I have seen the love babies and small children share so easily, and the love adults have for them in return.  Why then, the proclivity for unthinking cruelty?  I wonder if that same purity makes it easier for the seeds of evil and darkness to be planted, because a child has no defences or protection against such things, the way an adult that thinks for themselves might.

            In the times of darkness I have lived through since my childhood, I have often asked myself about these things.  What makes us good, and what brings us to evil?  My brother gave me part of the answer in his journal, perhaps without meaning to.

            I came downstairs one morning in my pyjamas.  It was rainy outside, grey and cold.  I looked through the living room window at the gently falling water, and was surprised to see that Hope was sitting out on the porch, wrapped in a blanket.

            “Morning, Hope!”  I said happily, opening the screen door.  It banged shut behind me, and I quickly went to her side in concern.  I had finally noticed what I couldn’t see from the living room.

            She was crying, and in her lap was one of my brother’s journals.  She looked up at me from the old rocking chair on the porch and sobbed, “Now I understand.”

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