They got out of the car one at a time, arms and legs unfolding from the backseat of the green station wagon. Three of them, tall and gangly, waiting, hands in pockets, heads down. Occasional tears falling to the whitestone paving or wiped by the cuff of a sleeve. They stood like that for a long time, glancing at their phones. People were arriving in a steady stream, from basketball, the skatepark, school, work, around.
Ellie parked the car down the road and walked back toward the boys. Her son, Otis, was amongst them. All of them in dark pants, hoodies, and basketball boots. Ellie was wearing the black dress she bought from the market last summer. She hadn’t intended to buy anything but there it was, plain button front, mid-calf, cotton, and the stallholder looked desperate to sell. Today, it was the only appropriate dress in her wardrobe. It fell like a shroud when she slipped it over her head.
It would be a rough day for everyone, worse for some. It was only a week ago the boys stopped by to eat and regroup, having spent most of the afternoon at the skatepark. Four left, five returned. There was often an extra mouth to feed. Ellie had made bacon and egg pie with shop-bought pastry. They ate all of it before moving on to the apples and biscuits and finishing the rest of the ginger beer. She had an open-pantry policy and had made a sign for the fridge door that looked like a ransom note: Help yourself. If you finish anything, add it to the list. The list became a running joke: beer, crayfish, pāua fritters, pineapple lumps. There was no end to the wishing.
That weekend, there was a new face – tall, dark haired, good looking. Ellie was in the garden when she heard the raucous laughter of the boys returning. They were spread out on couches and armchairs when she walked in. Loud and laughing. They made the whole house smaller.
‘Mum, this is Joe from basketball,’ Otis said.
‘Kia ora, Joe. Everyone calls me Ellie, except those who call me Mum.’
‘Kia ora,’ he said, smiling in a way that brightened his whole face. Ellie mistook the gesture for confidence.
‘Help yourself to food and juice. Otis will help you out.’
‘Thanks,’ he said, still smiling. His voice quiet.
That was all there was, nothing worth remembering if it hadn’t been that it was the only memory Ellie had of the boy whose funeral they were attending. A few days ago, she had a call from a friend who taught at the college. Sian was the mother of another of Otis’ friends. They had known each other since the boys’ first days at school.
‘I’ve got bad news,’ Sian said in a near whisper.
Something had happened, an accident, car, train, a fall. Ellie clutched the phone, her shoulder and neck rigid, her back stiff. She didn’t know where Otis was at that exact moment. She’d had a text message with a skateboard emoji only about an hour ago. The deal was, if Otis let her know where he was, she wouldn’t hassle him for updates. An hour can be a long time, anything could have happened. She sat at the dining table, her gaze tracing the swirl of interlocking lines on the table cloth, not seeing anything, aware of possibilities.
‘What? What happened?’
‘Joe Scott died last night.’
‘Joe?’ She whispered the name, thinking back, remembering all the names of all the boys she knew. Joe from Saturday. Quiet, dark-haired Joe.
‘Oh my god, what happened?’
‘I’m not sure. It happened at home.’
Ellie couldn’t respond. There were no words, only an uneasy shift in the air around her. She had questions but she did not want the answers. Something awful had happened, it was enough.
‘It was suicide,’ Sian said. Her voice seemed a long way away.
Ellie felt an aching surge. She braced herself against the breaking sob. Inhaling with a gasp, floundering for words, for a response. There was only silence.
‘Where are the boys now?’ Sian asked.
‘At the skatepark. I’ll go and get them. They’ll want to know.’
They ended the call. Ellie remained seated. Tears ran down her face as she stared at the silent phone. She had to tell the boys. Feed them, be there for them, offer her shoulder. This was not about her. But how to begin? What to say?
Dazed moments passed before she roused herself, circling back, looking for the keys, blinking tears. Eventually, she walked into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, threw handfuls of cold water on her face, found her sunglasses and did not cry as she drove to the basketball court, nor as she sat, unseen in the carpark, watching the boys throwing and catching, jumping, dunking. The four of them familiar across so many years. Once building sand-pit cities with cast-off pots and crates. Sleepovers when they were small and unsure. She remembered the time Otis, Tom and Josh arrived home, panting and frightened, slamming the front door behind them chased by a massive black dog. The incident became a story they told themselves about how they saved Josh from a fate worse than anything they could imagine. They were a tight bunch from a small town, looking out for each other.
Ellie got out of the car and walked toward the basketball court beside the school. Otis was the first to see her. He watched as she approached, eye off the ball, which bounced beside him, a question forming. Ellie attempted a smile but it was really just a twist in her lips that barely registered. By the time she reached them, the boys had stopped playing. They stood together watching her approach.
‘I’ve got some bad news,’ she said.
They stood towering over her, smiles gone, curious like the children they were.
‘Joe died last night.’
‘What?’ Otis asked, uncertain.
The questions came. Ellie did her best but in the end all they needed were the facts. They looked at each other, then down at their feet, an uneasy sway moved through them.
‘Let’s go home,’ Otis said after what seemed like a long time but was probably only minutes.
Ellie drove the boys home.
‘I saw him two days ago at the train station,’ Otis said when they were alone in the car, right leg tapping the rubber mat. ‘He seemed okay.’
‘It’s so sad.’
‘Yeah. We were talking about the NBA, laughing. I remember him laughing. He’s always joking about something. And kind. He’s a really kind person. Was,’ Otis said.
Ellie parked the car.
‘Do you want something to eat or anything?’ She asked when they were inside.
‘No, I’m not hungry. Maybe some water.’ He poured a tall glass and drank it in a few big gulps.
‘Joe was always thinking about others, seemed to know how to make other people feel at ease. He bought a new skateboard last week and lent it to Tom before he’d even used it himself. I don’t get it,’ Otis said. He put the glass on the bench, and stood for a moment, shaking.
‘I don’t get it either. I don’t think we’ll ever get it,’ Ellie stepped forward and hugged him. Her arms around his shoulders, feeling the heave of his chest. She wanted to make it all right, keep him safe, absorb his pain.
His breath steadied and he stepped back with a sad self-conscious smile.
‘Can I invite some of the boys over tonight?’
‘Sure,’ Ellie said, ready to accommodate anything he wanted.
They waited outside the church. It was early spring. The blue sky streaked with clouds, daffodils bloomed between evenly spaced begonias. Clusters of teenagers stood on the grey paving and the wide whitestone steps, spilling onto the porch of the late twentieth-century building. They stood with hands in pockets, arms folded, stiff and dolorous. A group of three at the edge, wearing goth-dark make-up, moved forward. Beside them a group of girls in coloured frocks shadowed them inside.
People began to walk in a slow, uneasy, surge of movement. The boys sat together somewhere in the middle of the evenly spaced pews. Ellie sat at the back with parents and teachers, wiping tears, as she read and reread the order of service with Joe’s smiling face caught in a moment of calm reflection. His too-long fringe cast a shadow across his face so that his left eye looked like a gaping hole. His sharp cheeks held the light on the page in the white space. Behind him was a poster of a band Ellie didn’t recognise. He looked happy. The dates beneath his name caught her off guard. Only sixteen, younger than she had thought, a year younger than Otis, as if it made a difference. Inside the folded flyer were more pictures and the story of his young life, his interests, his family, a photo with a dog, another much younger picture of a smiling boy with a crooked fringe.
From where she sat, Ellie could see the back of Otis’ head in a row of others from the basketball team. Shoulder to shoulder, slumped and silent. She remembered the last game of the season a few weeks ago, the energy of the ball passing through the air. All of them running, sweat dripping, muscles flexed, calling names, arms raised. There had been a new player she hadn’t taken the time to meet. It might have been Joe. It probably was Joe. Maybe last week wasn’t the first time he had come home with Otis. How long had he been there? She read the notes, again. Three years ago. They had moved three years ago.
Joe’s family were down the front. Ellie recognised the mother, greyer than she remembered, eyes red. They met once during a parent-teacher evening. At the time, Ellie hadn’t made the connection between Joe and his mother. They were just mothers making small talk. There had been a double-booking for the maths teacher. They’d laughed about maths and talked about their boys. Plans for next year were still forming, Otis was hesitating between psychology, law and a trade, maybe building. Joe was considering veterinary studies or music. The mothers talked until the bell chimed and it was Ellie’s turn in front of the maths teacher. She heard about the stats assignment Otis hadn’t finished, which seemed important at the time.
Ellie sat in the back row of an unfamiliar church wondering if she had even mentioned the assignment to Otis. How was he? How were they all? What could she do? She listened to Joe’s family and friends tell stories that revealed nothing more than the stories of any boy Ellie had ever known. Her handkerchief was a soggy mess of snot and tears.
The coffin was carried by father and sisters leading the way, mother following, leaning. Ellie rose with the crowd. They moved toward the door, polite with grief, as they shuffled outside, one by one honouring Joe with a leaf on the coffin and a word to the family. Ellie kept her eyes down. She didn’t want to lose it, not here, not in front of these people whose grief was so much greater than her own. She walked toward Joe’s mother to offer condolences and could only offer her arms. Ellie felt the breaking sob of Joe’s mother as she collapsed against her shoulder. They stood like that for a while, until Joe’s mother pulled back and Ellie was released.
Otis and his friends were waiting by the car. She walked toward them, reaching into her bag for the keys. Her fingers fumbled over loose objects: lipstick, pen, soggy tissues, lozenges. She wasn’t looking when she tripped on the curb and fell to her knees on the sharp gravel. Her right shin was bleeding, palms were scratched and hurting. The contents of her bag scattered through the garden. She wanted to cry, curl up beside the daffodils and give in. She whimpered quietly from the back of her throat, aware of someone near. There was a shuffle of movement in her peripheral vision. She steadied herself, scraped away the dirt and stone, smoothing her skirt along her thighs and looked up to see Otis. In less time than she could smile, Josh and Tom had gathered her bag and belongings. Otis offered his hand, bending to support her weight. Ellie leaned into him.
‘I’ll drive,’ he said.