Kelly is a local high school senior (Sun Valley High School, Aston, Pennsylvania) who I met while she was working at CJ's Bakery (which used to be my favorite bakery also in Aston). Her short story, Freight won honorable mention in the USA Today Student Fiction Contest of May 16, 1997. The sponsoring teacher is Victoria Magro-Croul and the hometown newspaper is Delaware County Daily Times.
A number of students won. Each of them received a $75 gift certificate for books or software. The sponsoring teachers got $50 gift certificates each.
The story is available at USA Weekend. Knowing how transient web sites like USA Weekend can be, I grabbed a copy of the story to save it.
By Kelly Campbell
Sun Valley High School, Aston, Pa.
Benny wasn't what you'd call a smart man, not unless you were trying to be cruel to him. As a matter of fact, he spent most of his time thinking about chocolates, matchbox cars and video games. He certainly wasn't your typical 27-year-old (he knew more about gentleness and sensitivity than anyone I have ever encountered), but I don't guess he ever realized that, or that it ever mattered, anyway. I loved him with my whole heart then, and I still do.
I am 17 now, but I was 10 at the time. I was what people call an "uh-oh" baby, one born long after anyone expects, but that doesn't mean my momma loved me any less. Besides, she needed all the help she could get with Benny. We had different fathers, Benny and I, because his dad split long before he was ever born. Coincidentally, my father did the same. That meant that Benny never had a man to look after him, and so he looked up to me. Can you believe that? My full-grown brother looked up to me! Maybe my first mistake was that I let him.
I will tell you now that I can see things more clearly than I ever could have then, and I still blame myself. It was two days before my 11th birthday, and I was to start the sixth grade at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Middle School in the fall. I resolved to have the greatest summer of all time before hitting the books. One excursion into the blistering summer streets quickly reminded me that my resolution would be impossible; I had no friends. You see, I was an extension of Benny, susceptible to every snicker that followed his lopsided gait and the bewildered stare of his otherwise perfect ice blue eyes.
He came home that day all beat up and apologetic again, as though it were his fault and I would be angry with him for being late and bloody. I could tell by all his huffing and puffing that he had run home as fast as his stocky legs would carry him and that he was scared pretty badly. Since it was only 7 o'clock and Momma wasn't due home for a good three hours at least (she always worked late on the weekends; that's when tips are the best), I told him to get on upstairs and I'd be right up to take care of him, that he could explain everything then.
He told me he'd gone into town to get an ice cream cone (at which point I yelled at him for crossing the railroad tracks without me or Momma there). He said that on the way home the Golath brothers and some of their rotten friends had started throwing rocks at him near the tracks, and that he had dropped it and ran home. I thought he meant he'd dropped his ice cream cone but, looking back, I should've known better: There wasn't any chocolate on his face as I wiped the blood away. He hadn't had any ice cream.
"I never meant to fight with them, Tom. I would never make no trouble with nobody, you know that, but they started throwin' them rocks and callin' me 'dummy' and there wasn't nothin' I could do but run, and then I dropped it, Tom, and I'm so sorry. I gotta go back ..." I held the chubby face of my sweet, bruised brother in my hand and dabbed gently at the gashes near his eyes and mouth as he winced and sobbed intermittently. "I know it's not your fault, Ben. You didn't do anything wrong," I told him. "I'll buy you another ice cream tomorrow. Forget about it and get washed up." The truth was, I just wanted him to be quiet. I was embarrassed: embarrassed that he was retarded, embarrassed that he went to a special school, but, most of all, I was embarrassed that he was my brother, and I could never get away from that. I was the rotten one.
All through dinner he squirmed anxiously in his chair, the first dead giveaway that something was bothering him. It wasn't as though he had never been beaten up before; this was a regular occurrence, even though he was twice the size of the kids that picked on him. I questioned him thoroughly, but he refused to budge and would not meet my gaze for fear of spilling his secret (he knew I could read his eyes as if he had just come out and told me, anyway). In all honesty, I was mildly amused at the show he was staging and I figured I'd just have to wait this one out and see why he was making such a fuss. It was cute. When he asked to be excused, I gladly let him go up to our room to be alone with whatever plan it was that he was hatching. A thousand times since then I've told myself that I should have known better.
Around 9 o'clock I realized that it had been too quiet for too long, and I went upstairs to investigate. As I pushed open the door, I was slapped in the face by the warm, salty summer wind that gusted through the open window, making the curtains do cartwheels around the room. Benny was long gone. I panicked and rushed out the window after him, down the trellis and into the street as a loud, shrill whistle blew over and over again.
I checked all of his favorite hiding places: under the high school bleachers, in the dugout of the Little League field, underneath the bridge at Swiftwater Creek. Of course, I didn't find him in any of these places. On my way to get Momma, I found myself confronted by a swarm of flashing red and blue lights at the railroad tracks. My heart was in my throat as I saw one of Benny's shoes lying sideways by a police car. That's all I can remember of that night.
No one blamed me, but then, no one else had seen the little clues I should have picked up on, that I didn't notice until it was too late. When Benny died, everything that had ever been innocent in me died with him; every soft illusion I'd ever had about goodness and fairness in life fell beneath the devastating weight of a west bound freight train. The next day, Officer Gabriel came to our door with a delivery for me: a small, dented frame with cracked glass and a big, yellow ribbon half-tied around it. Inside it was a picture of Benny and me fishing. Ben was holding up a big trout on his line and both of us were grinning from ear to ear. On the back, in his childish chicken-scratch, were written the words, "To Tommy, the best brother in the world. Happy Birthday. Love, Benny." They had found it clutched in his hand as he lay there by the tracks.