A pastiche based on Tim O'Brien's bestselling novel, 'The Things They Carried'
Pitch Pine High School Alumnus Alex Davao carried a lucky shirt from a thrift store down on San Bernardino Road. It was not a special shirt, but Alex Davao liked to believe it was, so he wrote his name on the breast pocket in black sharpie, and told everyone it was lucky. He was an IB diploma candidate. International Baccalaureate. The most prestigious high school honor you could get, or so they say. He said he needed all the luck he could get.
At the end of the year, when IB testing came around, you would find him wearing this shirt. It was light grey, hanging two inches below his belt loops with a rounded neckline. He would showcase it to all his teachers, and inform them of its lucky qualities. He refused to take it off until IB testing was over. It would ruin the luck, he would say. Deep down, he knew that it was his intellect that determined his test scores, not a light grey bundle of cotton, but he liked to pretend. At the end of his senior year, he wore it for three weeks straight.
The things they carried were essential in surviving an average school day. To get through a Monday, they needed pens, erasers, glasses, earphones, pencils, advil, highlighters, and hair bands. The amount of these items varied. There were wooden pencils and lead pencils: .5, .7, and occasionally the .9. There were the standard Jane Schaffer pens of red, blue, green, and black, and the pens that had all four colors in one. There were big erasers for big mistakes, and small erasers that were always lost, found, then stolen. Wilson Henry, who was very good at math, carried thick spiral notebooks, and .5 lead pencils, but never had any lead. Ben Charles, who tried his best, carried a phone with a song library of over 3000 songs until he was taken away in mid-January. Because it was required, but also because it gave students a free space to doodle in times of boredom, they all carried spiral notebooks. All of these things were carried in backpacks and purses and shoulder bags. They couldn’t have weighed that much, but on the hardest days, they seemed to be lugging around forty pound bags and thirty pound binders.
They were labeled CP, IB certificate, IB diploma, and honor students. CP for College Preparatory, or as the students like to associate it with, “lower level, standard, dumb.” IB certificate for the ones who weren’t up to take all IB classes. IB diploma for the ones who were, or were forced to anyway. Honors for the underclassmen thinking of joining IB.
To get through school was an achievement, as when Alex Davao screamed for joy, and ripped off that light grey shirt with tears glistening in his eyes on the last day of his senior year. To the ears of those who no longer remember what it’s like, getting through school is nothing but a normal occurrence, but to the students, it meant sacrifice and exhaustion beyond all comprehension.
The things they carried sometimes showed how much of a damn they gave. As an IB diploma candidate who didn’t have much money for college, Alex Davao carried a big JanSport backpack, a two-inch three-ringed binder, 200 sheets of college ruled notebook paper, eight dividers, and two single-subject spiral notebooks. He carried an assortment of writing implements, and the nagging hope that he was smart enough to get a scholarship.
As a CP student with work ethic, Carol Johnson carried organized notes, a ruler, and a cup of coffee. As an honor student with no work ethic, Zoe Mitchell carried a purse the size of a large wallet, lotion, a half inch binder, annoyance, and two pens.
Almost everyone carried books. Some books were small, maybe only a few ounces heavy. There were little green books about boys on islands, two pound books about Indians and tigers, two and a half pound love stories about England and revolutionary France, and three pound books about the stupidity of mortal humans. There were yellow books, and red books, and black books, and brown books varying from a few ounces to a few pounds depending on the level of reading, not to mention the unweighted font size and word count.
Some carried a yellow book, weighing three-fourths of a pound, with size fourteen font telling the beauty of African culture. Others carried a brown book, whose spine was two inches thick, size eleven font, narrated by Death. Most students, besides their spiral notebooks, only carried one book at a time, if any. But Ben Charles, who tried his best, carried a book and a diary until he was taken away. His bag and his heart were heavy, until he was forced to leave half that weight behind.
Mark Charles, Ben’s brother, said it was the calmest encounter he had ever seen in his life. Less stressful than finals week, he said, and that's saying something.
Knock on the door.
Come with us.
And that was it.
It was pitch black in the early hours of a Tuesday morning. Mark didn’t feel the guilt until a week later. He didn’t understand how Ben had tried his best. He stepped into his brother’s room and started looking through all his things. His pictures, his books, his ukulele sitting on his pillow. He looked through his backpack. He found Ben’s diary, except it wasn’t just a diary. Only then did Mark understand. His brother tried his best. The next day, Mark went to school. He forgot his binder at home. When the last bell rang, he went after the kid that used to sell Ben his supply. He left him broken and bloody behind the tennis courts. For the next few days, he would quietly tell his friends the story of how calm it was when they took Ben away. His voice was always shaky when he told it. It shouldn’t have been that calm, he would tell them.
Knock on the door.
Come with us.
And that was it.
Besides the standard school supplies; pencils, paper, and erasers, they carried whatever they used for the classes they actually chose themselves. Electives, clubs, and extracurricular activities. The drama students carried costumes, and makeup kits, and scripts, and set pieces, and character shoes, and instruments, and wigs, and voices that could be heard from one end of the school to the other. The athletes carried their sports bags, and giant water bottles, and tennis rackets, and baseball bats, and padding, and helmets. They all carried as much as their backpacks could handle, sometimes with an extra bag to accompany the first, plus a hint of determination.
Back in December, about two weeks before Ben was taken away, Mark was assigned his final project for Health class. Something about the negative consequences of drug abuse. Because his uncle used to be an addict, he was really serious about it. He went to the library and checked out a book called the Encyclopedia of Recreational Drugs. He found himself deeply interested in that book, but he didn’t read it right. The only words he focused on were the paragraphs explaining the consequences. Not once did he pay attention to the reason behind why people succumbed themselves to such bad habits. He carried that book around school. Not in his backpack, but in his hands. He read it from cover to cover. He was entranced.
The things they carried had a lot to do with sentiment. Mark had his book of drugs. Carol Johnson carried Polaroids of her best friends. Wilson Henry carried a lighter. Ben Charles, despite his reputation, carried that diary he bought on impulse at an arts and crafts shop. He should've been shopping for supplies he needed for an English project, but instead he walked out with a new source of hope. It was made of leather, had a shiny metal clasp, one inch thick, and couldn’t have weighed more than a pound.
When he really started getting bad, he made a resolution to find proof that there was still good left in his life. So instead of documenting daily life events in that diary, he started making a list. Happy thoughts.
- Saw a funny X-Factor audition today.
- Ordered that Alfredo pizza again.
- Made s’mores with Mark.
- Was more involved with our dinner conversations tonight.
- Got more than four hours of sleep.
Before he was taken away, Ben’s handwriting used up about half that diary. Besides the few pages he ripped out to roll shitty joints with, those pages had been filled with nothing but positive thoughts.
They carried watches and bracelets and lunch money. They carried iPhone fives, and iPhone sixes, and iPhone six pluses, and all the other numbers and pluses that came after that. They carried printer-paper pictures of boyfriends and girlfriends and best friends. They carried reusable coffee cups, rosary beads, Tylenol, sweaters, tampons, calculators, bags of chips, Adderall, drumsticks, saxophones, basketballs, Xanax, mini staplers, marijuana, PE clothes, condoms, cologne, and white out.
Often, they carried grudges, usually completely pointless, but always present. They carried anxiety, the underlying panic that never seemed to go away no matter how many tests they passed, or how many As they received. They carried paper that always seemed to run out at the wrong time, and laptops to help them in the classroom, or otherwise distract them. They carried house keys or car keys dangling from belt loops or lanyards. They carried student IDs, and quarters for the bus, and guitars to unwind during break times.
They carried expectations. The strain was unbearable. An average student had the same stress levels of a psychiatric patient in the early 1950s, or so the statistics say. They would lose all sense of time. Every day was Monday, and the weekends didn’t exist. They carried an endless supply of exhaustion that was never spent, but continuously restocked. They carried silence. Physically nonexistent, yet ever-present. Lips were sealed about the things that they carried, the things that they’d done, the things that they’d seen, and the things that they knew. The silence was heaviest of all.
A week after Ben was taken into custody, Mark was determined to find his dealer. He spent four hours trying to crack the password on Ben’s phone, and another three figuring out who it was. When he finally tracked him down at school, he led him to the tennis courts with the impression that he was another buyer. It wasn’t tennis season just yet, so there was nobody left to watch the events unfold. There, Mark let out all the anger manifested from his guilt. All the while, he related the same story he told his friends.
It shouldn’t have been that calm, he said.
They took my brother away, he said.
Knock on the door.
Come with us.
And that was it.
He’s alone and afraid.
The guy tried to fight back. Key word, tried. Who’s fault is it that they took him away, he said. Shut up. It’s your fault. You sold to him. You’re the one who called them, Mark. You’re the reason they came.
Shut up. Shut up, just shut up.
Ben’s dealer was left a bloody, crumpled heap on the ground. He probably lay there whimpering for a good few hours.
They all carried each other’s secrets. Some of these were shared, and that’s when the rumors would begin. They carried misconceptions and rumors no matter who they were, or how good of a person they thought they were. When Ben Charles was taken away, the kindest people spread the word that he had finally gotten himself killed. Mark crushed those rumors like ants, but he couldn’t crush all of them. And besides, they were kind of right.
They carried a false sense of apathy. They carried their egos. Everyone at some point would’ve said something along the lines of, I’m done. That’s it. I give up. I don’t care. But it’s never really true. They pretended to not give a damn while secretly working to the best of their abilities, because at least a small part of them was still afraid to give up and fail. Most categorized themselves in the middle, where they could jeer at those that failed, and sneer at those that overachieved.
They dreamed of release. The last day of school for seniors was not the last day of school for everyone else. The rest of the school still had a week of exams left by the time the soon-to-be graduates stepped foot off campus for the seemingly last time.
And then, exhilaration, hands holding hands, shouts, and cries of joy, but it was more than just graduation; it was freedom. It was real life. It was the world coming into focus for the first time. The last twelve years were nothing but preparation. The last four years was life in training. This was it. Backpacks were tossed aside. Papers and notebooks were flung into the air. Almost everything they carried, gone. Weightless. They were lighter than feathers.
Two weeks after Ben was taken away, Mark Charles reread the Encyclopedia of Recreational Drugs. This time, he read it right. He barely paid attention to the consequences. He focused on the stories, and the lives of the people who almost ruined, or did ruin, their own lives. He was listening to music while he read it. Ben’s phone was connected to the speakers, and his library of over 3000 songs was on shuffle for Mark to hate or enjoy.
Mark would never truly understand. He did, however, grow a certain level of empathy that was almost as good as understanding. He knew his brother had been through a lot. Family problems, loss of loved ones, breakups, fights, anxiety, anger, neglect, and loneliness. On top of all this were the papers, the projects, the notes, the exams, the expectations, the stress, the due dates, the bullies, the gossip, the broken friendships, the work load, and the essays. Mark was angry at him. He really was. But the anger couldn’t compare to the amount of guilt he had for never trying to understand.
After rereading, he picked up Ben’s diary. He decided to reread that, too. He wanted to see the world from his brother’s eyes. He wanted to see the darkness and pain and crushing paranoia that couldn’t be shut off without a smoke or a shot or a snort. But he also wanted to see the light. The optimism, the silver lining, the random happy thoughts that somehow gave Ben the will to go on. And that’s what he found.
Mark was angry at himself, especially. He called the cops that day in mid-January, because Ben had OD’d on heroin. He had to revive him. A burst of adrenaline. Straight through the heart. Very Pulp Fiction.
That’s it, Mark had told himself. I’m not letting my brother die more than once. And so he called the cops.
Knock on the door.
Come with us.
And that was it.
He returned that library book the next day. He never wanted to see it again. Instead, he resolved to understand. Not just Ben, but everybody. It’s horrible, he thought. All the things students carried without complaint. The things they went through in secret and forced themselves to get over. He was determined to keep his judgement at a minimum.
He confronted Ben’s old dealer again. This time, it was to give an apology. The guy didn’t accept it, but it’s the thought that counts.
Mark kept the diary on his bedside until Ben came home. He told himself to stop being such an ass. At school, he would open his eyes. He’d remind himself that some people carried more than others. He told himself that the people with the smallest bags and the thinnest binders could have the heaviest hearts and biggest weights on their chests.
Ben came home five months later. He hugged his mom. He hugged his dad. He paused in front of his brother. He stared at him for a few moments of silence. And then he cried. They both cried. They embraced. They held each other for ages. The amount of apologies that flooded out of Mark’s mouth were met with the same amount of thank yous from Ben’s. When they finally let go, Mark reached into his bag and handed Ben his diary. He told him that he read it. Ben punched him in the arm. Then he told Mark that this moment was going on the list. Mark cried again.
Ben slung his arm around his shoulder and said, let’s go home, and they walked to the car together, finally leaving that wretched parking lot, and drove home.
A week later, Ben came back to school. It was surreal, but it had to be done. He slung his backpack over his shoulder.
Ten pounds of binder and spiral notebook.
A couple pounds of anxiety.
Just carry on.