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Praise for Leaving Kent State
“LEAVING KENT STATE does what excellent historical fiction is supposed to do–it breathes life into an era. Through the eyes of its young protagonist, this well-researched novel recreates the tensions in Kent, Ohio, during the Vietnam War years and the tragedy that resulted. Readers will love Sabrina Fedel’s masterfully drawn characters, her compelling plot, and her rich prose. This is the debut novel of a sensitive and accomplished writer.”
—Patricia Harrison Easton, author of Beverly Cleary Children’s Choice Award winner Davey’s Blue-Eyed Frog
“A poignant and gripping tale of a young girl’s love for a Vietnam Vet played out against state-side resistance to an immoral war. The ensuing violence on a college campus is conveyed with stunning historical accuracy.”
—Pat Lowery Collins, acclaimed author
of The Fattening Hut and Hidden Voices
Leaving Kent State, by Sabrina Fedel
Copyright © 2016 Sabrina Fedel
Cover design by Jeffrey Guy ©
Cover photo: May 4 Collection. Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives ©
None of the material contained herein may be reproduced or stored without permission of the author under International and Pan-American
Printed in the United States of America
Published in the United States by
Harvard Square Editions
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
THE OCTOBER SUN is never honest in Northeastern Ohio. Waiting on my front steps for Evan it felt warm enough, a splash of Indian summer roosting like a promise, hiding the winter that was barreling toward us. I scanned the corner for the sight of his dad’s brown Chevy Impala. Yellow maple leaves fell from the sky like random pieces of rusty confetti, and Evan would laugh when I told him it was his own ticker tape parade. Somewhere down the street, a grill burned its husky charcoal smell.
I had pictured his homecoming so many times in my head. He’d smile in that way he had, as if he’d just been blessed by the God of the Stars. He’d jump out of the car and hug me and call me Rachel. He wouldn’t call me Bug. Not after twenty-three months away. He wouldn’t call me Bug anymore.
His crimson electric guitar sat in its case beside me, polished and in perfect condition. While he’d been gone I had learned to play his favorite Beatles’ song, Revolution. Today was a revolution. Evan would know how to talk my dad into letting me go to Pratt.
Evan could talk my dad into anything. Maybe because my dad had always wanted a boy. Maybe because Evan had a way of talking so that you didn’t even know he was asking for anything. Maybe because he was more like a member of our family than the boy next door. Evan would know how to make my dad see that having a parent who was a professor at Kent State didn’t automatically make it my destiny, too. Evan would make my dad understand that I belonged at Pratt, and that I needed to go someplace where my art mattered.
KSU barely had an art department, something my dad was perfectly fine with, because he wasn’t happy with me being an artist in the first place.
When we found out that Evan was being sent home, his mom had said that nothing was ever going to be the same, as if Evan wouldn’t fit with us anymore now that he’d been gone so long. But she was wrong. I had reread every letter Evan sent me from Vietnam. Evan hadn’t changed at all. He’d taken some shrapnel in his side so they were letting him come home a few months early. It was all part of the troop withdrawal President Nixon had promised. They were sending home the boys who weren’t injured seriously and weren’t going to replace them with new kids. Even Evan’s brother, Robby, had said their mom was being melodramatic. Evan was one of the lucky ones.
The Impala came into view and drifted down the street before it lurched into their drive. I ran across our lawn, my heart beating faster than a sparrow’s. Evan’s dad clutched the wheel, staring at the driveway as if it were a runway and he had to land that enormous car precisely in the middle. Evan’s mom sat rigid in the back seat, her face as pinched as always, like a suburban version of the American Gothic portrait. Evan was in the front seat watching me without his smile. His face was darkened by scabs on the left side and his neck was bandaged.
It’s not that bad.
The car rolled to a stop. Evan turned and reached for the door handle, his eyes challenging mine. His left hand, bandaged to the elbow, had only small, empty rosebuds where three of his fingers should have been. I took a step back, my breath catching as he swung the door open.
“Hey, Bug. I’m home.” His voice rang in my ears. The same voice that had played in my head like a record for the last twenty-three months, but off somehow as if it had been slowed or muffled. Inside me there was a vacuum, all the air sucked out of my lungs.
“Hey,” I pushed out slowly.
Evan’s dad was already opening the trunk, whistling to himself.
“I can get my sea bag, Dad,” Evan told him. The crusty scabs on his face started near his mouth and pulled away toward the back of his head following the line he must have turned against the blast. His ear was streaked with lines of scabs. His old Rolling Stones t-shirt sleeve had been cut to go over the bandages on his arm, and he wore the same blue jeans he left with, his straight legged Levi’s with the torn right knee. As if time had stopped somehow and yet managed to change everything, too.
“I’ve got it, son,” Dr. Olesson said.
“It’s okay Dad, I can get it,” Evan replied, his voice tight.
He grabbed the big, green canvas tube and flung it onto his back, bending forward slightly to balance the weight against him. He wasn’t quite as skinny as he used to be. He had filled out a little, gotten more muscular. I was just standing there stupidly staring at him, taking in every detail as if I were studying a Monet. His hair was longer than I thought it would be, short all around but not the severe buzz cut he left with. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days and it made his oval face seem even longer, his lips slightly thin but capable of curling into the most delicious smile. He caught me looking at him and stopped.
“You miss me, Bug?” he asked, a slight laugh dangling at the end of his words. I couldn’t tell if he meant it or if he was just making fun of me. Maybe he realized. Maybe he’d always known. Maybe he thought it was funny, the blind devotion of the nerdy girl next door. I opened my mouth to say something, anything he would think was funny, but it was as empty as his hand.
He held out a small camouflaged canvas sack. “Here, carry my ditty bag for me, will ya?”
I reached for the bag but his mother’s white-gloved hands were suddenly in front of me taking it from him. She was there between us, just like on the night before he left when he’d almost kissed me. He’d stood so close to me that there hadn’t been enough room to breathe as he told me not to forget to write to him, that he’d miss how annoying I was. He’d been teasing me like always but in that moment there was something more, something almost, and then his mother had flicked on the porch lights like she was illuminating Cleveland Stadium and Evan had broken away from me and never looked back. Evan might have forgotten that moment but I hadn’t. Maybe it had been nothing more than him being afraid of leaving home and going to Vietnam, but it still had been an almost.
“Rachel, dear,” his mom said, “won’t you come by after supper, after Evan’s had a chance to rest a while?” She used her strict British tone. The one she would scatter the neighborhood kids with when we were younger. She never had to yell, but they would scamper home anyway.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, though I didn’t usually call people ma’am, even Mrs. Olesson.
Evan blew a slight puff of air from his nose and gave me a half smile behind her back.
“Later, Bug,” he said.
“Yeah, later,” I echoed, not able to smile back, salvaging the words from some ocean floor inside of me.
Dr. Olesson nodded in an absent minded way that I guess was meant to acknowledge me somehow and then swept past me. I stood with my feet burning into the asphalt, watching the three of them go into the house. Evan walked differently than before he left. Before he walked in a swinging way as if he were hearing music in his head he didn’t even notice was there. Now his walk was strange, more straight and guarded and taut, but maybe it was just the sea bag slung over his back. It reminded me of the broken hero walking into the sunset in an old western movie, away from the camera, out of your life. His mom walked behind him swaying on her heels as though she were practicing a new tightrope routine.
Look back, Evan. I haven’t smiled.
Their door closed. I stared at the house, my chest tightening as if a ratchet were squeezing my heart. When I finally turned away the street whirled before me, the narrowly set homes folding in on me, crushing me.
I’d been an idiot, thinking they would send him home and he’d just be okay. I was such an idiot thinking he could ever love me. I was such an idiot believing I could ever leave my hometown. Kent was the kind of place that held you up so you could see the world beyond, but all the time it gripped your ankles and dragged you down like a slow moving river.
I crossed back to my house. Two Blue Jays shrieking cut through the conch like roar in my head with unrelenting precision. Evan’s guitar case leaned against the wooden railing of the front porch. I sat down and rested my head against it, drawing Evan’s face in my mind. When he didn’t shave like that, you almost couldn’t see the tiny scar on his right cheek from when he was ten and fell out of the tree house and we had to call the ambulance. Now he would be riddled with tiny scars, running along his face and hiding in his hair.
I pressed my hands against my eyes, the tiny squares of gauze crisp in my mind. His left hand. The last three fingers missing. One moment of destiny. Why couldn’t it have been his right?
Ella Fitzgerald’s voice floated through the living room window singing Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. The sad, yearning notes splattered my skin like bacon grease.
The front door squeaked open.
“Rachel,” my mom said. “How about you come and set the table for me?”
I couldn’t turn around, but I let her words sink in knowing she’d wait. She must have seen from the window. She walked over and stroked my head, administering her soft blessing.
“Sure,” I said, but I waited until her footsteps disappeared. I pressed my forehead against Evan’s guitar case. It was a cardboard case with a gray scratchy pattern on it that reminded me of the television when it went to snow. The edges were made from a strong, black cotton binding. Evan had bought it when he was eleven, saving every penny from his paper route for two years, plus all of his Christmas and birthday money. The last five dollars he borrowed from me. He never paid me back, but he told me I owned five dollars worth of his guitar, so I never minded.
“Keep it for me, just in case, Bug,” he’d said when he gave it to me.
“Just in case of what?” I’d asked stupidly.
“If I don’t come back, you can have it, since you never mind hearing me try out a new song. And five dollars of it’s yours anyway.”
He was being serious about maybe not coming back, but all I could think about then was how he was trusting me with his guitar. I couldn’t even think that maybe he was right and he’d never come home. So I’d laughed like it wasn’t possible, like Evan was being ridiculous. Now I knew what a jerk I’d been. But that day it just didn’t seem possible. Evan had seemed invincible.
I wiped my face with my thumb and got up.
Mrs. Olesson was right. Nothing was ever going to be the same. Evan had lost everything that mattered to him. The last thing he needed was to worry about helping me. The revolution I’d been waiting for was over before it even started. I was on my own if I was going to convince my dad to let me go to Pratt, and so far I had gotten nowhere with him.
And Evan still called me Bug.