Quartz Underfoot

They came to school with a shadow over their heads that morning. Those personally affected hung their heads low, in grief or somber gravity. The rest were awed, or annoyed, but knew their place. It was no surprise to be told that an impromptu assembly was being held that morning in the gymnasium.

The projector was set up, showing enlarged photos of his face, grad photos and childhood candid shots. Given more time, the choir could have learned a song to perform, but because of the suddenness of the occasion, the staff made do with a Sarah McLachlan song to play over the slideshow. The lights were off and candles were lit. Bouquets of flowers in pink or white tissue paper stood out oddly against the gritty gymnasium walls and floor, marked with thick coloured boundary lines for multiple games.

Alvin sat near the back. His class had been called in later than others. He sat by his friends, afraid to joke around, shifting in their seats. His teacher walked down the aisle of students to ask him to remove his favourite red cap. He wore it every day as a deeply ingrained habit, mortified to have forgotten to take it off.

The memorial assembly was over in thirty minutes. The boy's brother said a few words, but was all around too emotional to speak. Some friends gave glowing appreciations of the life he'd lived. Any listener would have thought the boy was some kind of saint, a young leader living a golden life. At this point, that was as close to the truth as it needed to be. Whatever life he'd lived, he had now ascended to the martyrdom of a student dead young.

Alvin could be forgiven for being relieved when the assembly was over. His friends tried to joke with him in ways that struck nobody as inappropriate, jostling to get away from the hard wooden benches. After the assembly, life appeared to continue as usual.

It was Irene who ultimately provoked disapproval. "We shouldn't be giving him the hero treatment just because he died. I mean, he was drunk. If you get drunk and drive, you just might die." Nobody felt like contradicting her, but none of them had known him. Alvin tapped his foot while he brooded.

That was in English class. The teacher made them read "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night". It was supposed to be encouraging, maybe. It earned the praise of some students for being tasteful and supportive. Alvin wondered what Irene was thinking, without wanting to ask her about it.

After the brief reminder of their own mortality, it was strange but inevitable that they continue to go about their day. Alvin waited patiently. Gordon was going on about something his teacher had said while going through his locker. He always took these things very personally. It was something of a struggle for Alvin to stay attentive.

"Hey, I oughta get you your book," Alvin said. He walked ten steps over to his own locker.

He avoided his locker as thoroughly as he could, keeping his texts and binders in his back pack. Some days ago he'd left Gordon's book there, and after the moment it took to remember the combination, he was opening it up again. He saw the book he'd expected, the mouldy pizza that was slowly perfuming the place, and his other odds and ends. What he didn't expect was a translucent piece of sketch paper to come fluttering down to land on the dusty floor. Crouching, he picked it up.

Alvin, it read in pencil marks so faint they were barely discernible, I guess this is kind of awkward. I don't really know how to say this. I really like you, okay, so it could be cool if we had coffee sometime or something. Sorry if this is really embarrassing. Don't laugh about it though, that'd be just low. Okay, thanks. Daniel.

Huh, Alvin thought. A letter from a dead man.

Gordon took the book from Alvin's hand and stuffed it carelessly into his pack. "What's that?" he asked.

Alvin scratched his head through his red cap. "Nothing," he said, putting it gently in his pack between two texts. "Are we going to your place?"

#

Someone had put up a photo of Daniel near the office, like a little shrine. The edges had been photoshopped to show a black border. There were some flowers people had left. With new eyes, Alvin looked at the photo. Daniel seemed like a normal person, his face friendly enough. Alvin's lips pursed unconsciously.

This was the person who'd left a letter for me, he thought. I wonder what he was thinking? I wonder what he was feeling? I wonder what was going through his mind as the car careened out of control. Was he aware enough to know what was happening? Or was it more like dying in your sleep?

People walked by briskly, bumping Alvin's back.

#

On an overcast afternoon Alvin screwed up the courage to approach Daniel's younger brother. He didn't know the kid, not even his name. He fell into step with the young man as he was walking out of school.

"Hey," Alvin began. It was awkward and stilted.

"Um, hi." The young man eyed him skeptically.

"This is kind of weird but, well, I have something to show you." Alvin swung his pack around and sifted through for the paper. "I got a letter on Monday, in my locker. It was from your brother."

The boy tensed up. He stopped and took the letter from Alvin.

"Here it is. It's kind of, uh, a love-letter."

The boy's eyes moved quickly back and forth, his face a mask of intensity. When he finished, he still held it, his fingers white and his jaw twitching from being clenched so long. With a brusque push, he handed the letter back.

"It's real, isn't it?" Alvin asked. "It's his hand-writing?"

"Yuh," he said. His face was ashen and tumultuous.

The two boys stood face to face on the muddied grass, as rain began to spray.

Alvin shuffled his feet.

"So, I'm Alvin," he said, reaching his hand out.

"I'm Brendan," said the other, taking his hand and giving it one strong shake.

#

"So did you know he was gay?" Alvin ventured. They sat in the brown living room at Brendan's house. "Or bi, or anything."

"Yeah, more-or-less. He never said as much to me, but I could tell." There was a long pause where the only sounds were Brendan's spoon hitting the sides of his mug as he stirred his tea, and the now heavy rain slamming relentlessly against the window-pane.

"I had hoped he'd come out to me. He knows I wouldn't have judged him or anything. And look what's happened now, he'll never be able to." Brendan scratched the bridge of his nose. "It's kind of funny though. I get this definitive proof now that he's gone. It's like he's coming out from beyond the grave."

His crooked smile was weighed down with immense grief. Alvin tried to smile back, but it was hard to honestly return a smile like that. It looked like there was only a thin membrane between Brendan and his tears.

"What kind of guy was he?"

"He was great. He was so friendly, he never looked down on my friends or anything, even though he's… I mean was, three years older than us. He was always looking out for me. I guess we didn't have the closest relationship, he never told me anything too deep about how we was feeling or anything, but I always felt, you know, some kind of affection…"

Brendan took a long sip from his now tepid tea. "That's most of what I know. You'd think brothers would know more about each other, but to be honest, he was kind of a mystery to me. Well, not a mystery. More like a closed book."

He gave a kind of sad chuckle, and looked up at where Alvin was sitting on an overstuffed pink couch. "So, are you even gay? I think it would be just like Daniel to fall for a straight guy."

"Yeah, I guess."

"You guess?"

"Well, I've never had a boyfriend… or, you know, done anything. With boys or girls. So, I feel like I'm gay, but I haven't really tested it out." Alvin was blushing. He never talked about this kind of thing. He felt very uncomfortable. He hadn't even said that to Gordon or Irene or any of his friends.

"Hmm. I wonder if Daniel had any boyfriends he never told me about." Brendan examined the tea at the bottom of his cup, the brown colour making little reflections in his eyes.

A longer silence stretched this time. Alvin wanted to break it but didn't know what to say. He looked at the walls behind Brendan, with their photos and the piano in the corner. Many of the photos were turned backwards at the moment – the ones with Daniel in them?

"Do you want to see his room?" Brendan asked abruptly. Alvin nodded.

It was as unspectacular as Alvin's own room. Clothes were still strewn across the floor. If he were to smell them, would he still be able to smell Daniel's sweat? The bed was unmade, some school texts and a novel were piled on the bedside table. A poster for a popular band was on the wall, a large rip in the middle severing some of the members from their legs. There was one window, where the rain could be seen falling.

Alvin gazed. He wasn't sure what Brendan wanted him to see. Should he say something?

Brendan himself was lost, his eyes showing that he was seeing something that wasn't in the room with them right now.

#

Alvin never meant to forget about the letter, but when he found it at the bottom of his backpack two weeks later he realized he'd been careless with it. He felt immensely guilty and put the crumpled paper in a shoebox in his closet.

He had cried about it the night after speaking to Brendan. He didn't know why. It lasted only a couple minutes, while he sat on his bed, coming and going without his understanding. He never spoke of it to any of his friends. He never talked to Brendan again. There was too much honesty between them for that.