A FUTURE FULL OF NOTHING
The server came back to the table and asked if they wanted anything else. Amy shook her head, smiling. How could she want anything more? She looked at the diamond ring that Zack had just given her sparkling on her finger. This was the best of all her twenty five birthdays.
So now it was official; she and Zack were engaged. Dreams were coming true. Zack paid the check, put down the tip and held her coat for her. She took one more look at her ring before putting on her mittens.
She admired him from the day she first set eyes on him in high school. Now he said he had noticed her, too, but at the time she didn't think he did. He was involved in too many things back then to notice a quiet girl like Amy, she thought. So she kept her crush a secret, feeling that she would die of shame if anyone even suspected she thought about Zack. But then he came back after college and began his teaching career in the school they had both attended.
They left the restaurant. The January wind had freshened since they went inside and it was cold. He hurried her across the parking lot to his car.
It all happened so fast. One moment they were walking across the blacktop to Zack's car laughing and holding hands and a moment later Zack was lying on the pavement, his laughter cut off and silenced forever.
She crumpled over him pleading with him to wake up and look at her but he was never going to. As she was on her knees beside him she heard two more gunshots and then she didn't remember much after that. There were sirens and red lights flashing. They picked up Zack and put him in an ambulance and the officer put her in the police car because it was cold and windy and she was shivering.
They told her they had got the shooter. He wouldn't surrender and he had pointed the gun at the officer so they had to shoot him. She asked, "Why?” but nobody could tell her. If the boy who had shot Zack died, which seemed likely, she would never know.
The next few days were a surreal nightmare that went on and on. She was still wearing the ring, the beautiful ring which was to have been the token of their life together.
The funeral was a jumbled confusion in her memory. Zack's mothe.now blamed her for his death. "If he hadn't been with you that night" she kept saying. Amy knew it was terrible for her too. He was her only son, so if she got any comfort out of blaming Amy she was welcome to it.
The people at work tried to be kind but they didn't know what to say. Is there a book somewhere titled, The Hundred Worst Things To Say To Someone Who Has Just Lost a Loved One? If so everybody she knew must have read it and memorized it.
Back in her apartment she sorted through the pictures she and Zack had taken during the summer and placed them in an album. She examined every one of them again and again: Zack at the beach, Zack's birthday party last August. Who could have thought it was going to be his last birthday? He was only twent- five! It wasn't fair.
Zack had just started teaching in September. He was a good teacher, excited about his job and what he was doing with his classes of middle school children, teaching them math. Of course, all the little girls were going gaga over his dark good looke.
In a world that had so many seemingly useless unhappy people why did it have to be Zack cut down at the very beginning of his days?
The injustice of it tore at her spirit day after day.
The boy who shot him lingered in a coma for a week and then died. They would never know why he fired that gun. She was sure he was not anyone Zack knew. He didn't go to the school where Zack worked. In fact as it turned out he didn't go to school anywhere. There was the usual furor about trigger happy cops and people said it was not necessary to shoot the shooter. Nobody seemed to think about the young teacher who had died on the cold blacktop that January night.
Spring came that year, as it always does, but Amy felt it would be forever winter in her soul. She existed from day to day, doing the necessary things she had always done. The ring was on a chain around her neck hidden in her clothes now. She would always wear it but she could not bear to see it on her hand, and know that the companion ring she had expected Zack to put beside it would never be there. All that spring and summer she was consumed with thoughts about what would never be. There would be no wedding, there would be no family there would be nothing — a future full of nothing.
Day by day she was devoured by it. Everywhere she looked there were reminders of him. The only pain worse than waking in the morning and seeing his smiling picture on her desk would have been not having the picture there where she could see it, She avoided the places she had been with him. She could not go to the cemetery because his mother might be there and she couldn’t face her.
That both of them had loved Zack so much was all they had in common and at the same time the very thing that stood between them. She did not want to see this woman. She was sure Zack's mother felt the same way about her.
Amy called in sick on Zack's twenty sixth birthday. A year ago today there had been a party. She had given him a leather attaché case with his monogram in gold for the beginning of his career.
When September came she thought of Zack starting the new school year, throwing himself into his chosen work, being a help and a role model for many young people. He could have done so much! Now he would never get to do anything.
People told her, you are young, you will meet someone else. She knew they didn't mean to hurt her with that.
Keeping busy was helpful. When someone was needed to work late she volunteered. She started going to help at the soup kitchen where the homeless were fed. It was hard work and tired her out and that was good.
She tried to pray but everything came down to "Why?" and she could not get past that. She thought she could not go to church because Zack would not be beside her and that would be all she could think about. When she finally did go one autumn Sunday it was her first venture into the real world in quite a while. She felt the way she had years ago, coming out of the movies into the bright light of Saturday afternoon. The sunshine hurt her eyes and the tears flowed.
Christmas came and went. Her mother urged her to come for the day. All she wanted to do was pull the covers over her head and hide from the holidays. But there were nieces and a nephew to buy for and she did want to see them open their gifts.
Any still avoided seeing Zack's mother. "She blames me," Amy said to herself. It wasn't her fault; it was the fault of a seventeen-year-old boy now dead. It was the fault of whoever had let him get his hands on a gun, whoever had sold him the drugs. Maybe it was the fault of the people who should have done a better job of bringing him up. There was a lot of blame in this but it wasn't fair of this woman to put any of it on Amy.
The lonely winter dragged on. Amy began spending more time with her nephews. It was good to be with people whose world had not ended. She had to start somewhere to begin to live again so she volunteered for the adult education program, helping people learn to read. It was surprising how many adults did not know how to read.
Doing this work put her in contact with other people who had trouble in their lives. One of the people assigned to her for help was a woman in her thirties who had sad eyes and looked tired all the time. She wanted to get her GED so she could get a better job, she said. She was a single mother of two little girls and she wanted them to have a better chance than she had.
Shareen could read and write only a little when they began. She had dropped out of school early on. She explained "We moved a lot." There had been a large family of younger siblings and great poverty and her mother needed her to help take care of the little ones. Somehow Shareen had slipped through the cracks. She was bright and eager and learned fast. She went through the first few books and was ready to do some real reading. Soon Shareen would be ready for her GED.
They became friends. Amy had never known anyone from Shareen's world before. They began talking and getting acquainted. Amy was discovering that Shareen was a woman very like herself, single and alone in the world. But this woman had children to support and bring up by herself. At first Shareen was not very forthcoming about her life. She was young to have girls that age, Amy thought. Shareen expressed the hope that she could give her daughters a better life, so they would not go with the first boy who came along and find themselves single with children to bring up alone. She wanted them to get an education and make something of themselves and for that to happen she had to lead the way. She had to prove to them it can be done.
"They need to know you don't have to have a man to be somebody."
The words stabbed at Amy. Shareen continued. "I wanted to do something better for my boy, too. I wanted to help him get somewhere. I was only fifteen when he was born. What did I know?" Once she started talking about Gilbert she couldn't stop. It was as if the pain was stored up and now it had to be released. Gilbert was a good little boy, she said but when he got to be thirteen he got in with the wrong people and went from bad to worse and then got into trouble with the law, drugs, the whole thing.
Amy didn't want to ask where Gilbert was now, thinking if the answer was prison it was not a kind question to ask. But Shareen answered the question herself. "He was too young to die. His life never even started."
Amy was thinking, "Neither did Zack's. Zack was too young to die. Did every life have some kind of pain in it?" She put her arms around Shareen. "I'm so sorry, so sorry," she said.
"He didn't know what he was doing, it was the dope. It was all he could think about. Along with the dope comes the robbing and stealing and I knew he wasn't going to live long unless he could stop." She paused. "A year ago in January, he shot a man. He didn't know anything about guns. He shot a man then the cops shot him."
Amy was still holding Shareen in her arms.