STAGES OF GRIEF • by Tara Gilboy

“You shouldn’t have done that, Steven.” Cindy scrunched her glasses further up on her nose and adjusted her blouse primly before meeting Steven’s worried gaze with her own solemn stare. “You’re going to die.”

“You’re lying!”

Steven’s hands shook as they peeled back the foil seal of his pudding cup. Normally he wouldn’t believe what some dumb old girl said, but Cindy was different. Cindy was always the first one in class with the answer, her arm stretched high, fingers wiggling importantly, expectantly, as she waited to be called on for the correct response. Cindy went up to the third grade every day for reading class. Once, Steven had heard teachers whispering in the hallway together about her: Cindy was gifted, they said. So when Cindy said someone was going to die, that unfortunate fellow had probably best prepare himself for his imminent demise.

Steven’s best friend Will, who was seated next to him on the plastic bench of the cafeteria table, poked him gingerly in the arm with his index finger.

“Here, Steven,” he said softly. “You can have my cupcake. My mom makes really good cupcakes.”

Steven accepted the proffered gift with a somber nod. One of the edges was wet where Will had already licked some of the frosting. It was chocolate with green sprinkles.

“Thanks, Will.”

This was serious if Will was giving up his dessert.

From across the table, Cindy flashed Steven a look that said “I told you so,” and Steven wanted to yank one of her pretty little pigtails right out of her head. Instead, he waited until she flounced over to the cooler to buy a milk, and when she wasn’t looking, wiped a booger in her sandwich.

At recess, the children climbed to the top of the snow covered hill at the rear of the playground and took turns sliding down it on their stomachs. Steven tried to get to the top, but his feet kept slipping on the ice and he fell, landing hard on his bottom and biting his tongue. It stung, and there was a coppery taste in his mouth. He sat there for awhile, watching the other children shout to one another as they played. The powdery snow clung to the children’s coats and hats so that they appeared as if they were all covered in a thin white sheen. It hurt Steven’s eyes; they looked like ghosts — harbingers of death.

Steven felt different from the other children, older somehow. Once a boy knew he didn’t have much time to live, he just couldn’t feel the same as he used to about things.  The hill didn’t have the same thrill that it once did.

Steven’s teacher, Ms. Riley, was on recess duty. Steven wandered over to where she was watching a group of children make a snowman. Two of them were throwing snow at one another, and Ms. Riley blew two short blasts on her whistle.

“Louisa, put that snowball down, or you’ll have to go inside. You could hurt someone.”

Steven tugged on Ms. Riley’s coat.

“Am I going to die?” he asked.

“Well, everyone dies someday, Steven. But — Louisa, I said put down that snowball!”

Ms. Riley rushed off to confiscate the icy weapon and left Steven there shivering.

Well, it was true then. He was going to die. He wondered what it would be like to be dead. One time, when he was younger, he had fed his pet goldfish a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and it had died. The fish had gurgled at the top of its bowl for awhile, as if gasping for breath (although Steven didn’t know why this would be, since fish didn’t breathe air) before it finally turned and did a back float like Steven did in the bath tub. His mother had wrapped the fish’s fragile body in a paper towel and flushed it down the toilet. Goodbye Goldie.

Steven wondered if it would hurt.

That night at dinner, Steven stirred his spaghetti around on his plate listlessly. Even food had lost the pleasure it once held. Death was a depressing business. He wondered how much longer he had; there was so much to do. Will could have his video games — he was better at them anyways. His mother would feed his hamster. Maybe, once he was dead, he would get to see Goldie again, in heaven. His mother had said that was what happened to things when they died: they went to heaven with God. Steven wondered if God was like Santa Claus.

He sure would miss his mom, though. His eyes began to blur, the tears obscuring his vision and finally running warm and wet down his cheeks. He tried to brush them away, but his mother noticed and gave him a worried look.

“What’s wrong, Steven? Did you have a bad day at school?”

Steven shook his head woefully from side to side, wondering how to break the news to his mother.

“It’s just — that — I’m going to die.”

“Die? Why on Earth would you think you were going to die?”

Steven blew his nose into a napkin. His glasses were getting steamy so that he could hardly see through the lenses.

“I ate a Lego.”

“You ate a Lego?”

“Yes. A red one. Will dared me to, and I did, and now I’m going to die.” Steven took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. “Cindy said so, and she is going to be a doctor when she grows up, so she knows.”

His mother rose from the table and began flipping through the phone book to call the doctor.

Steven watched her sorrowfully.

Yup. He was going to die.

Tara Gilboy writes in Wisconsin.

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