By Austin Ross
1. Make a Guest List
You will marry far too young. A man named Christopher McGrath will ask for your hand, and you’ll be too stupid to know any better. Before leaving, he’ll give you a child, a boy you’ll name Derek. Not McGrath. You don’t keep the name.
2. Choose a Theme
The theme is resilience. There can be no other. What other word could possibly encapsulate the life you lead? A single mother with a boisterous toddler who frequently makes you want to pull your hair out by the roots. He is quiet and polite until he isn’t; then, he’s the true definition of a terror, the sort of willfully disobedient child others will point to as a negative example, the orienting North Star of what not to do.
3. Choose a Venue
The Philly suburb of Coatesville strikes you as just the spot. Perhaps the school district is not as good as it ought to be, and perhaps the town is poorer than its richer, mainline neighbors, but it is just right for you. The price is right, as well; you put down the twenty percent on a three-bedroom-two-and-a-half-bath spot right at the outskirts of Coatesville proper, and it’s still just 25k. And there’s room to expand, to add on to the house if desired, if the funds exist down the road. Derek ties a thick strand of yellow rope he found in the basement to the limb of the oak out back. The oak will need to be dealt with one day before it collapses onto the house, but that can be put off for another day, long from now.
4. Assign Character Roles
Derek is an A student. He truly does seem to settle into the life you have made for each other. He’s taken to writing, though he never seems to want to share the results with you. You are just glad to have him find a creative outlet, a way to express himself. He has developed into a lanky kid, unable to play most sports well and uninterested in playing the ones he might do well in.
5. Invite Guests & Manage RSVPs
You briefly try to date again. It does not go well. You abandon the effort for now, return to your singularly-consumed life of work and Derek.
6. Plan Your Menu
You will be unaware that while you make dinner, Derek is in the basement creating lists, noting the potential purchase of such items as: chlorates and perchlorates; sprengel, liquid oxygen, and nitrostarch explosives; ammonium nitrate-fuel oil mixtures; blasting caps with delay systems; detonating cord. You will find in his room a box of cartridges, .22 Longs, and a pelvic saw. You will ask him about these items but he assures you they are for hunting. He has taken up the hobby through his friend from school, Leonard. You will not know for some time that Leonard is one of many names on his list; that Leonard, in fact, did not make it.
Derek’s high school graduation is coming up. You plan for the party with an increasing modicum of excitement; the prospect of one last hurrah for Derek (he’s off to Northwestern to study Philosophy in a short six months) fills you with a peace you did not expect to feel at the prospect of such change, such loss.
8. Round One
You are at work when Debbie tells you to turn the TV on. Coatesville High is on lockdown. An active shooter. Students rush from the building. You pray for a moment for Derek’s safety, pray that God would protect him. It is the last time you pray, and the one prayer you wish you could take back.
9. Round Two
The police arrive to search your home. You have returned upon learning that Derek is the sole suspect. It is a concept so utterly baffling as to be absurd. The corkscrewing lights arrive at the same time as dusk. You are asked to sit on the front porch while they search the premises. Curtains twitch as nosy neighbors peer out to see just what was happening. Everyone knows. Everyone.
10. Round Three
You tend to drive when anxious. Always have—one time when you were seventeen and Mom was in a coma from the accident and you couldn’t bear to look at her face anymore, you hopped in the old ’87 wagon and drove all the way to Idaho. Got a burger at a place called Fat Pig’s Greasy Grille & Bar, turned around and came back to Pittsburgh, the black fabric of the ancient station wagon hanging down from the ceiling in great billows like they were sails guiding you home. When the police are done, and they inform you that it appears your son took his own life, you drive away. Not far; this, at least, is your plan. You end up emptying the tank somewhere just shy of Columbus. The car comes to a juddering stop along the shoulder. Your phone rings again; it has been ringing almost nonstop for three hours. You pick up and speak with the federal agent. You tell him that the moral arc of the universe seems to you to bend constantly towards cruelty—or perhaps ultimately kindness, a brutal reminder to be thoughtful, to care for each moment, to be aware of the things that will one day be gone. You tell him to keep one eye open. To develop a growing awareness that things are never what they seem.