The following is an unedited short story I wrote in the span of two or three days. Please don’t copy my work. It’s a draft, but I thought I should add it here.
Sean wasn’t athletic, good-looking, or particularly smart. He walked with a limp, tripped over his own feet, and stuttered when giving presentations. His sense of humor was drab, he couldn’t write or draw to save his life, and he failed at most things he attempted. Sean just wasn’t, well, interesting. To an outsider, there was nothing really going for him. But there was something within him that shone like noonday sun, something that seemed to compensate for his many shortcomings. That something was kindness.
I met Sean in October of my freshman year. It was a drafty, brisk afternoon. Leaves gently fluttered against the pavement as if tickled by the wind. Tightly zipped in a fuchsia anorak, I sat hunched over on the curb in front of my high school, crying for no reason other than hormones and a couple bad grades.
“Hello? Are you okay?” I lifted my head a little and saw him—a pudgy kid in a hunter green cable-knit sweater.
“Oh, yeah. I’m good,” I croaked, wiping tears and snot off my face. “It’s cool.”
“Alright. Need some help getting up?” Sean extended his arm.
“Sure.” I grasped his fleshy, calloused hand and pulled myself off the curb. “Thanks.”
“No problem!” He smiled, revealing his jagged teeth. “Are you sure you’re okay? You missed all the buses.” The parking lot was nearly empty, only sprinkled with a few faculty cars here and there.
“I don’t live too far. I can just walk. Thanks for the .” I slipped my rosy hands in my pockets and turned towards home. Sean brightened and stumbled to catch up with me.
“I walk every day! Can I come with you and chat?” As much as frivolous small talk annoyed me, I didn’t have the heart to decline.
“Yeah, go ahead.” My nose was running like a spigot as a result of the autumn chill and my crying. Sean noticed me sniffling and wiping my face on my jacket sleeve.
“Do you need a tissue?” he asked, already pulling a travel-sized package out of his back pocket. “Here you go. I keep ‘em on me all the time. I’m always getting sick with something.” As if to prove his own point, Sean let out a resounding sneeze.
“Oh, thanks.” I wrestled a tissue out of the package and relieved my itching nose. Sean made several valiant attempts at conversation, but after a few minutes, he picked up on my lack of enthusiasm, and fell silent until he reached the top of his cul-de-sac.
“I guess this is where we part ways.” He chuckled. I didn’t understand how it was funny. “Hope you feel better. Don’t forget to drink some good old cocoa!” Another chuckle. I tried to give him back his pack of tissues, but he insisted that I keep it.
“Bye, Sean. Thanks for everything.” I gave him a friendly nod and made my way across the street, back to the warmth and familiarity of my own home.
In the months following that afternoon, it seemed that Sean was everywhere—the hallways, the cafeteria, in the back of the class—I suppose he was one of those kids who was both invisible and painfully conspicuous. In the same, very contradictory way, Sean was a part of everything and a part of nothing. He was almost constantly in a group of people, smiling and listening intently to every word, but he was always on the outskirts, stumbling to keep up. Nobody ran alongside him in gym class when he gasped for air, chasing last place like an injured elephant to a watering hole. He was never invited to parties, dances, or even small group get-togethers. It wasn’t that he was hated or looked down upon. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Everybody liked Sean—but nobody cared about him. To the school, he was just a gentle, jovial dork who lived to serve. A sweet guy who picked up their trash. An afterthought. When asked how they felt about him, students would say, “Sean? I don’t know. He’s just…Sean. Nice, I guess.” And then they would move along, laughing, chatting, and making plans with themselves as if he’d never been mentioned.
I ran into Sean many more times during high school. Most of the encounters were brief and unmemorable. In tenth grade, he helped me carry a bulky project to my first class. In eleventh, he gave me money for a snack at the vending machine and refused to accept repayment. The last time I spoke to Sean was on prom night my senior year.
He had, of course, brought himself. At first, it seemed as though he didn’t mind. He laughed along with inside jokes he wasn’t included in and squeezed his way into the edges group pictures just as he had the previous four years. After about an hour or so, however, he suddenly withdrew. As everybody else danced in carefree abandon, Sean stood alone in a corner, looking uncharacteristically dejected. I tried to ignore it for a while, hoping that somebody else would initiate conversation with him so I wouldn’t have to endure the awkwardness that always accompanied my encounters with him, but it soon became clear that nobody was going to take the time. I casually ambled over, telling my friends I would be right back.
“Having fun?” I asked, ignoring the obvious no that donned his still-chubby face.
“No, not really.” Sean stared at the ground and picked at his nails. There was no jovial light in his bright blue eyes. “I feel like nobody would notice if I just went home right now.”
“Sean! We really like you. You’re a nice guy.” I awkwardly reached over and patted his back in sympathy. I avoided mentioning that he was right—nobody really would notice if he disappeared.
“That’s all I am, right? Just a nice guy. I’m seventeen years old, and I’ve never been anyone but a friendly face to wave at.” Sean glanced up at me, his eyes a bit more watery than usual. My heart sank. It was true. Sean was everybody’s pal, but nobody’s friend.
“Sean…” I was at a loss for words. What could I offer him but white lies and shallow platitudes?
“You know it’s true. Everybody does. It’s just never been spoken, because nobody wants to hurt my feelings. But my feelings have been hurt for a long time.” Sean paused for a moment. “I think I’m going to go home.”
“Please stay!” My heart raced. I’d never even thought to consider Sean’s feelings when he broke his back for everyone else. “I’ll dance with you!” But I was too late. Four years too late. Sean shook his head and started towards the door, but hesitated. He looked back at me and gently brushed his thumb across my cheek.
“You had an eyelash there.” Sean smiled softly. I watched him disappear into the crowd, limping in his peculiar way, totally quiet and utterly unnoticed.
That night driving home, Sean was hit head-on by an intoxicated driver. It was a serious accident, with cars crunched and contorted. Sean was rushed to the emergency room in critical condition. There were tears. There was shock. For once, Sean’s name was like a buzzword all throughout the school. Monday morning, students gathered together and held hands in prayer—I saw even some of my atheist classmates with their heads bowed. I joined them, pleading to a God I didn’t believe in, feeling an anchor of guilt within me. What disturbed me most is that truly, deep down, I wasn’t praying to save Sean’s life—I was praying to save mine. Save myself from the guilt that would surely ensue if Sean passed, save myself from sadness and pain, save myself from the memories of Sean that would be forever etched in the gravestone of death, never alive anywhere but our own faulty minds. And so I bowed my head and clasped my hands until my fingertips turned white.
Sean died the next morning, two weeks short of his eighteenth birthday. He would never receive his high school diploma or walk the stage with our class. He would never go to college or find a place of his own. Worst of all, he would never find the companionship he so desperately needed. It was not until after he left this earth that so many people began to appreciate him. A group of tearful students organized a memorial birthday party. One girl started a remembrance Facebook page. Everyone began discussing how much Sean meant to them and how dear he was to the world. I couldn’t find anything to say. The last thing I wanted to do was lie—to do so would disrespect Sean even in death. We had all failed him in life, and now that he was gone forever, everybody wanted to delude themselves into thinking they’d given him the appreciation he deserved.
I drove all the way to the memorial party location, parked my car, and sat there, idling. Seeing my fellow students gather together in remembrance of somebody they’d never cared about made me queasy. The truth was that nobody would’ve known it was Sean’s birthday unless he’d been mutilated in a bloody accident. Most of them didn’t even know his last name. Ashamedly, not even I had known his last name. I decided to go home.
While my classmates gathered together in sorrow, I sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor with a notebook in my lap, lonely and full of cynicism. I meant to write a note to Sean to serve as some sort of closure, but every idea I had seemed fake and insincere. After at least an hour of staring into the floor, I brought my pencil the page:
I won’t pretend that I cared about you or that you meant the world to me. All I can say is that you deserved so much more than what we gave you. Somehow, you had the strength to keep loving others when you received nothing in return. I wish I’d gotten to know you not for what you did, but for who you were. But it’s too late now. I missed my chance.
I’m really sorry, Sean. Please don’t ever forgive me.