Little Fellows (Chapter 1)
By Jessica Jiang
This is the first chapter of a coming-of-age novel that I am currently writing.
Dad was immobile after Mom died. He sat in the kitchen and did not move. There was no funeral, just an urn on the dinner table.
It was hard for Alex to imagine the whole of his mother incinerated and packed into a box. Her loss would punch him unexpectedly, at the most mundane of times — in the middle of a math test, for example — and it would leave him breathless. The teacher warned, “Ten more minutes,” and Alex had to recalibrate to the task at hand. Most times, though, his mom’s death didn’t sink in and he pretended that she was not dead, simply gone, at work or in the hospital again.
Jenny, Alex’s older sister, was scared.
“I’m scared,” she said. She laid a bowl of Kraft’s mac and cheese on the table, next to Dad’s head. Dad was slumped in front of the urn. His arms were a nest on the table and his forehead rested on the right arm, like he’s sleeping. He did not move when her chair squeaked against the floor and she sat down.
“It has been two weeks,” Jenny said. She scooped a spoonful of macaroni and cheese, raised the spoon in the air, and watched it plop down. She did it again. “Mr. Hughes asked us for the rent yesterday, as we were going to school. She said she’d extend the deadline to the end of this month.” She paused and the sound of their breathing, his laborious and hers calm, sat between them. “But National Grid is due in a week. And Verizon in two. We can do without gas for a few days, we’ve done it before, but I need the internet. I have to practice for the SAT.” She leaned closer. “Can you get yourself together in two weeks? Can you, please?”
Jenny bit her lips, but the tears came anyway.
“I know you love her. But don’t you love us too?”
In the bedroom — the only bedroom in their apartment — she could hear Alex watching The Giver. His English class was reading the book version. Jenny came home from school at 6PM, though classes ended at 3PM, because of extracurriculars and the hour-long train commute. Alex came home three hours earlier than her; his middle school was just a few blocks away. When she came home, she found Alex watching The Giver.
If Mom was here, she would’ve insisted that he be reading a library book or studying for a test, because she disapproved of her children watching TV on a school night. But Jenny could not find fault because Alex had already finished his homework. Plus, he had just lost his mother.
“What’s so good about that movie that you keep watching it?” Jenny had asked him.
Alex shrugged. “It’s alright.”
She should’ve known then; she should’ve insisted he talk to her. Years later, when Dad called her to tell her Alex was in the hospital, she would remember how Alex had watched The Giver again and again. Now, she let it go, because she already had too many things to worry about.
Mom’s hospital and cremation costs had maxed out all their credit cards, so they did not have money for food. The terror of bills, the gearing up before walking to the food bank, the still figure on the kitchen table, and the impending SAT date — she felt the world crashing around her. She tried to imagine herself as an iron statue, with her arms stretched out, Alex’s body slumped over her right forearm, Dad’s body slumped over her left, their feet dangling over a violently gyrating ocean. She needed to be indomitable, unbreakable.
When the gas turned off a week later, Jenny used the microwave to cook all the meals. Canned food was easily reheated but everything else — frozen meat, raw chickpeas, bagged rice, potatoes, and fresh vegetables were a lot harder. She had to check every other minute to make sure that the frozen meat patties didn’t burn and that the bowl of chickpeas didn’t boil and overflow.
She managed. She put water and spinach in a bowl and put it in the microwave. She opened two cans of chickpeas, dumped them in a bowl, and when the spinach was done cooking, she microwaved the chickpeas. She mixed the chickpeas and the spinach together with ketchup and then divided the portions evenly into three bowls. All the while, Dad sat on the kitchen table, immobile as the microwave whirred and the bowls clanged.
Jenny laid a bowl of spinach and chickpeas beside Dad’s head and took the other two bowls to the bedroom. Alex was laying on the bed, his computer on his lap. Alex paused The Giver and set his computer aside. They ate on the floor, their bowls in their hands. They had originally eaten at the kitchen table, but it was disconcerting to talk to each other while Dad’s body was slumped silently in front of them. Jenny asked if he finished his homework and Alex said yes. Alex asked what club she attended today, and Jenny told him about the doctor who came after school as a guest speaker for the Medical Research Club. The doctor talked about CRISPR and the development of mRNA vaccines. Alex nodded along, though she could see that he was bored.
When they finished eating, she took the empty plates back to the kitchen. The bowl of spinach and chickpeas was not touched, gone cold. She washed the dishes but kept their Dad Mike’s bowl on the table. He would eat it when he felt like it, though never more than half.
When she went back to the bedroom, Alex was on the bed, watching The Giver, and she started her homework on the vanity table. Alex got up to brush his teeth at 8PM, got in bed, rewatched The Giver, and fell asleep at 10PM. She finished her homework at 12:30AM. Then she searched up free SAT practice tests online and did practice questions on the grammar portion, which was her weakest area.
It was now May and she was determined to take the June SAT. Though she was only a sophomore, she wanted to get the test over with now, because everyone said that Junior year was the most work-intensive year.
When the whole ordeal was over — when Alex started the Fast Saga, and Dad was up and about, and the College Board gave her a 1480 on the SAT — she would remember how she only had two hours of sleep on most days in those weeks. She would remember how she would sometimes, without explanation, break into tears in the middle of a reading passage or math question.
Behind her, Alex was asleep and in fear that her crying would wake him, she told herself sternly to stop. She could not break down; Alex could not lose her too. She wiped her tears, picked up her pencil, and trudged on. There was no time to waste. She pushed her sorrow down.
She went to sleep at 4AM, only to have to wake up two hours later for school.
In the face of her triumphant 1480 a month later, she remembered her sleep-deprivation and the crying, but she did not remember grieving.
A few days later, on Friday, she returned home at 4PM, because she had no clubs that day. She was faint with relief — she could sleep early today and she had all day tomorrow to study for the SAT. But when she opened the door, Alex was doing homework at the kitchen table. She smiled at him until she realized that Dad was not there. She felt a stabbing fear. The image of Mike laying on the bathroom floor with his wrists slashed flashed through her mind. She pushed it away.
“Where is Dad?” she asked.
“I don’t know. He was gone when I came home. Mom is in the bedroom.”
“Alex,” Jenny said gently. “Mom is dead.”
“No, you idiot.” Alex rolled his eyes. “The urn is in the bedroom. He must’ve moved it there.”
Jenny set her backpack down on the floor and stretched. Her neck cracked. She went into the bedroom. The urn was on top of the vanity table where she usually did her homework. She went out and checked the bathroom, just to make sure. He was not there either. She took a can of refried beans, warmed it in the microwave and split it between two tortilla wraps. After they ate, she started her homework with Alex at the kitchen table. An hour later, Alex finished his homework, and watched The Giver on the computer.
When the ending credits rolled, Dad still had not returned home.
Alex closed the computer and leaned his elbows on top of the computer. “I think he went out to get groceries from Walmart. Walmart is far away.”
“Maybe,” Jenny said. She did not look up from her physics homework. If Dad left, what would she do? Her mind was stuck on the worst case scenario: they could be put in a foster care system. They would be separated, and she would not see Alex again until many years later, when he was grown and unrecognizable.
She had hated Dad and his helplessness just yesterday. Now, she wished him back, so that the three of them could stay together.
“Are you worried?” Alex asked.
“I’m not worried, are you worried?”
“I’m not worried. His clothes are still here.” And if Dad left, he wouldn’t leave Mom, Alex wanted to say, but didn’t, because he was afraid it would make the possibility more real.
Alex got a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch from the cupboards and munched on it loudly. Jenny, thinking he was doing it deliberately, sighed and took her work to the bedroom. She took out her phone and texted Mike a simple, “Where r u?” He did not respond. She argued with herself whether or not to call him, but did it in the end. The call did not go through.
A few minutes later, Alex called, “Jenn. Jenn. Jenny!”
“What?” She was annoyed.
“The stove is working.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is.”
When Jenny went to the kitchen, all the gas burners were on, four sets of flickering blue flames.
Jenny hurried over and turned off the gas burners. “You idiot. You’re going to burn the house down.”
“But the stove is working!”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“I-” Alex paused. “I was going to tell Mom you cursed. But she’s kinda dead.”
“Yeah, she is kinda dead, isn’t she?”
Then, they were deliriously laughing. They did not know why they were laughing, they felt only the sheer relief of it, the buoyancy. They could not stop laughing, even when they heard the jingle of keys and the front door creaked open. Mike stood at the doorway, wearing a wrinkled business suit, and his arms laden with groceries. A celery stick poked from the top of a plastic grocery bag. He smiled. “What’s so funny?” They told him reluctantly, but he, too, started laughing.
And, just like that, things seemed all right again.
I started working on Little Fellows in June 2020 when I watched a three-part documentary about the psych wards. It was heartbreaking and difficult to see, but one thing that astounded me was the friendship in these psych wards. I started writing a novel about the camaraderie formed between mental health patients. Since then, the novel has changed dramatically, and is now a coming-of-age story about a boy named Alexander. Alex loses his mother, falls into depression, falls in love with Ben, and learns that his brother is transgender. None of these things have happened to me and yet he holds so much of me, which I think is true for all writers in relation to their characters. I quite love him, because I have spent so much time with him, and I hope that one day you’ll spend more time with him too and get to know him. Until then, here is the first chapter of his story.
Jessica Jiang is a high school senior heading to Williams College in the fall. She loves to read and is in love with Lin-Manuel Miranda. She is obsessed with stationery and is a pescatarian. She is working on a novel now about mental health, but also writes poetry, memoir and short stories.
Speaking on Brushing Up on Your Comedy (Literally)by Tracy Morin
Speaking on Being ‘Virus Overachievers’by Kathryn Destin
A MONTH IN REVIEW: ABROAD IN COPENHAGENby Joanna Tan