We had just picked Jeremy up from wrestling practice when Mom told us that one of his classmates, Asher Jenkins, had drowned the night before. She said she’d heard the news from another mother who’d heard it from Jeremy’s sixth grade science teacher, but I knew that he probably hadn’t listened past Asher’s name. He sat sweating in the backseat of our Toyota, still wearing his knee pads, clutching a backpack to his chest. I watched him in the passenger seat’s visor mirror — watched those big ears that stuck out from under his frizzy blond hair, his bony elbows, his eyes fixed on some distant point. He was getting so tall. I’d seen him ask our brother, Chris, to measure him at least a hundred times, interrupting the white paint of the doorframe of the bedroom they shared with gray tick marks, trying to see if he’d grown in the last week, day, hour. When he spoke, his voice was still the voice of a boy, but I knew it would begin to change very soon.

Helen Coats

Helen Coats is from Rock Hill, South Carolina and is a freshman at Purdue University, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in professional writing. Her work has appeared in bioStories, Toasted Cheese, and Gingerbread House. She loves walking her dog, listening to Broadway musicals, and reviewing film scores. Follow her on Twitter (@HelenJackets).

Patrick Ryan on “Our New Lives”

When I first read Helen Coats’s “Our New Lives,” I recognized a version of myself twice over. The first recognition came because the young man in the story, Jeremy, has suffered the loss of a friend and doesn’t know how to grieve because he feels partly responsible for his friend’s demise. I experienced something similar when I was sixteen. Jeremy’s guilt is ill founded (as was mine), but he doesn’t have the means to grasp that, and he doesn’t reach out to anyone for help. He just stews and suffers. To paraphrase the author in our Q&A, his guilt actually gets in the way of his grieving. The manner in which this is handled in the story is impressive—all the more so because we’re seeing Jeremy through his sister’s eyes.

The second sense of recognition I had was in the depiction of Jeremy and Heather—younger brother and older sister. Heather wants very much to be there for Jeremy, but life (high school graduation, college) is pulling her away. The relationship they had when they were younger has to change in order to survive. That’s a perfectly normal thing, but knowing it doesn’t make it any easier. When my sister graduated from high school and left home for college, I felt one of my first pangs of looming adulthood. I felt like we were both becoming grownups—her because she was on the brink of being one, and me because, as the youngest, I was about to be the only kid left standing, so to speak, and who wants to be that? Time to grow up. It was no picnic for either one of us, suddenly being apart, but we did what people do: we evolved, and we found our new, adult relationship.

Jeremy and Heather are at the very early and painful stages of finding their new relationship in this story, and Helen Coats has written beautifully about it. I hope you enjoy “Our New Lives.” I think it’s a story that will resonate with many readers, and one that bespeaks a wonderful writing life for Helen.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
HC: The son of one of my favorite teachers passed away from carbon monoxide poisoning when he was eleven years old. I saw not only how difficult healing was for his family, but also for his friends. I am an only child, but my best friend has four younger brothers who are like siblings to me. I’m still not sure what I would do if something happened to any of them. I wrote this story to deal with that, in a way, and to answer some of my own questions. I still wear the initials of my teacher’s son on a bracelet to remind me of the impermanence of life and point me toward my faith in Jesus Christ and the Resurrection.
PR: There’s a lot of gruesomeness in the demise of Jeremy’s friend Asher. But it all happens before the story opens. Did you ever consider having the accident take place within the course of the story? And why did you decide to leave it “off-screen”?
HC: From the beginning, I wanted it to be clear that this was Jeremy and Heather’s story, not Asher’s. Because of this, I never wanted the accident to happen “on-screen.” I think that keeping Asher’s death outside of the story enhances Jeremy’s alienation—it never inhabits the same world the way that Heather and Jeremy do.
PR: If Jeremy were to put his grief on one side of a scale, and his self-imposed guilt on the other, which would weigh more heavily? And do you think it’s common for teens to withdraw from the world rather than reach out, in a situation like his?
HC: Not only does the guilt weigh more heavily than the grief, it actually prevents Jeremy from grieving properly. He should be able to open himself up to others and allow himself to miss his friend, but he is too paralyzed to move toward any kind of healing process. For teenagers who experience loss, I think it’s human instinct to withdraw from the darkness they experience in the world by shutting themselves off from the world altogether. In middle class America, we generally expect our lives to hit familiar beats—middle school, high school, college, relationships, job, retirement—and when that is stolen by death, it can be devastating.
PR: Heather is struck—in a very touching way—with how helpless she feels to be there for Jeremy as he wrestles with Asher’s death. And she’s about to leave for a big summer trip and then, soon after, for college. If you were to look into the future of these characters, what sort of relationship do Heather and Jeremy have in, say, five years? Are they close? Distant?
HC: Jeremy needs the space from Heather to learn to seek help on his own, but once he has that space, I believe he will be able to begin to heal. Jeremy will struggle with anxiety as he begins high school, but he and Heather will continue to learn to grow together. They may never regain the strength of their previous bond, but their relationship will be a healthy one.
PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”?
HC: Heartbreak.
PR: What are you working on now?
HC: I am drafting a YA fantasy novel exploring the five senses and the way we perceive the world around us.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
HC: My nonfiction teacher Scott Gould once told my class to work hard and not be idiots. I think that about sums it up. If you want a good read, try his book, Strangers to Temptation. His voice inspires me in my own writing.