Jonathan had never seen a dead body, well, not counting the kind you see in the movies. He had never even been to a wake or a funeral. Nor had he ever seen a real wooden box, a coffin, that you bury people in.
Still, the 11 year-old had an obsession: He was afraid of being buried alive. His fear kept his mind totally occupied during the day — especially when he wasn’t at school. And at night it took him a long time to close his eyes and fall asleep, he was so afraid that he’d open them and find himself in a dark coffin.
Jonathan was afraid that someone might, at any moment, snatch him off the street and force him into a van. He imagined that it was a white van — the kind with no windows. In his fears, he’d be driven to a field in upstate New York, where he’d emerge to find a raw hole in the earth and an open pine box perched aside a giant mound of brown earth. The person who kidnapped him would be joined by another man and then they would force Jonathan into the coffin, close it and nail it shut. Then they’d lower it into the waiting earth.
Inside, Jonathan would scream, trying to drown out the sounds of dirt being thrown down onto the top of the coffin. And he would hope that, after his torturers left, a passing stranger would somehow hear his cries, muffled by the earth, and call the police.
Just imagining this made Jonathan shake with fear.
Jonathan found some relief from his scary thoughts in his schoolwork. But he was small, skinny and spoke with a shy, soft tone. That made him a target among the other boys, who, when they weren’t hitting each other with a big red ball (senselessly, Jonathan thought), would gather around Jonathan calling him names. “Sissy” was the kindest name. The cruelest, cutting into Jonathan’s self confidence, were: “fag,” “fairy,” “gay.” There were even some girls, the prettiest, most popular ones, who joined in the bullying, calling him “Jenny.”
Jonathan wondered why these kids took so much pleasure in hurting him. Maybe they were really unhappy. But why? They all seemed so popular and good-looking, and many of them came from the richest part of town, a section with beautiful homes on the water. In summer, the kids would dive off a private dock and sail in the skiffs their parents had bought for them. At school, Jonathan would bring peanut butter or tuna sandwiches — maybe an orange for dessert. But these kids brought store-bought sandwiches with them every day for lunch — ham and cheese or salami or turkey. Jonathan would watch them at their lunch table, as they laughed and feasted on bags of chips or small cartons of pudding and jello.
Jonathan’s best friend was Jesus; He used to talk with God and ask Him for help. He listened very carefully to the priest on Sundays when he talked about Jesus, and Jonathan imagined walking around with Jesus and being one of his students–even wearing a robe and sandals. Jonathan tried to turn the other cheek when he was being bullied. That’s what Jesus had told suffering people to do.
But some days, when the bullying got really bad and there seemed no corner of the school where Jonathan could hide, he thought it might be a relief to just take a walk to the 14th Street bridge and jump into the bay below. Once, Jonathan even went there and, for a long time, at least two hours, just stared over the railing into the gray water below.
Jonathan didn’t jump because he knew that God would be very angry with him if he did, and maybe he’d go to hell. And what if his hell would be to spend eternity lying alive in a coffin?
Then again, if Jonathan jumped, he wouldn’t have to go back to school the next morning to face the grave-diggers.