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The hammer shook in Jamie Duncan’s tiny hand. The job of putting it back on his father’s garage workbench was forestalled by confusion and fear. Eight years old, he did not have the frame of reference needed to process what he was seeing. The frayed and battered tennis shoes, the ones his brother Benjamin wore every single day, were suspended about a yard from Jamie’s frightened face. Surprised amusement had surrendered quickly to shocked disbelief as Jamie noticed the white socks still peeking out from below his brother’s jeans, just above those beloved red canvas shoes.
A strangled scream, drowned in his panic, erupted from him as nothing but a strained whimper. Reaching out, Jamie touched his big brother’s leg, alien in its stillness. The younger boy could not remember a time when Benjamin had ever been so still; it was almost worse than the silence. Staggering back several feet, Jamie continued to stare at the cherry colored sneakers, terrified to look any higher and see his brother’s face.
“Benji?” Jamie whispered, his voice small and scared, it was almost as if he were trying to wake his big brother, like he did after he’d had a bad dream. In his heart, the little boy wished as hard as he could. In fact, some may have even called it prayer. He wished that Benjamin would wake up and tell him that there was nothing to be afraid of.
“Benji, I’m scared.” He thought about how his brother would sigh and pretend to be mad when Jamie woke him in the middle of the night. In the end, the older boy would always pull his blankets back, inviting his little brother in so he could protect Jamie from the monsters.
Jamie looked up to see his brother’s staring, unseeing eyes and he knew that the monsters had finally gotten Benji.
Standing as high as his little feet would allow, Jamie stretched up and pulled at his big brother’s T-shirt. He wanted to make Benji mad, to make him yell – because even yelling would be better than the silent blank stare. A crumpled piece of notebook paper fell from his brother’s slackened grip and dropped to the grungy floor. Not taking his eyes from those red sneakers, Jamie bent and scooped up the note.
Slowly, he sounded out each word like Mrs. Martin had taught him. Reading the words around the damp smudges, he thought maybe his brother had been writing in the rain.
Their hatred burns like fire, scorching, consuming
The very air blisters my lungs
I can’t breathe
Acrid smoke blocks out the sun
I can’t see
Roaring Flames engulf my soul
Everything lies in ruins
There is nothing left
I’m just so tired. I can’t fight anymore.
They tell me I’m going to go to hell for being a fag and maybe I am, but it can’t be any worse than school.
I’m so sorry. Please tell Jamie that I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be there to protect him but how can I do that when I can’t even protect myself?
Clutching the note against his chest, Jamie sank to the floor and pulled his knees up trying to protect himself from the weight of his brother’s confession. He knew what it was like for kids at school to be mean. Joey Thompson had pushed him off the bars at recess a few days ago. In his child’s view, he couldn’t understand why Benji didn’t tell a teacher. They had to have teachers in the tenth grade, just like they did in third.
The reality of his brother’s death became more real for Jamie as he held the note in his hand. He wanted to run, he wanted to tell someone, but he just couldn’t leave his brother alone. In that note Benji sounded scared. Benji would never have left him if he were feeling scared.
Jamie continued to sit on the cold concrete floor below his brother’s body and waited for someone to come.