the untold tragedies of ethan morton

Few have not been jolted by the suicide of someone close.

Shock, guilt, regret, and bewilderment churn together in an insoluble swirl. "the untold tragedies of ethan morton" explores that ambiguous, emotional cyclone through the eyes of those left behind after a teen’s horrific act of self-destruction. As Dr. Thad, the novel's conscience, says, “Trying to find a successful suicide’s motives is like chasing a shadow with a flashlight.” This wrenching novel chases just that elusive shadow.

"the untold tragedies of ethan morton" explores the shocking suicide of a college student at a protected national park in Maine. Four of Ethan's acquaintances: his college ecology professor, Patrick, his physician, Dr Thad, the surgeon who cared for him in the emergency room, Dr. Mac, and Patrick's girlfriend, Leda assume the task of unraveling what could incite Ethan to commit such an inexplicable act. While sifting through the enigma of Ethan's life, they explore the root of all acts of self-destruction, including the self-destruction we are now witnessing of the planet. Told from multiple points of view, "ethan morton," "wrenches the heart and the head in equal measure, leaving us all to wonder whether we can ever truly understand another soul."

2016 Finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition

Part 1

                                                   CHAPTER 1


This time the sign said, “smokesignals.” Just when the blaring, red phone jolted me awake, the word dissolved. Like on those Etch-A-Sketchers the kids used to have. Seems I only dream in words. Never remember if there are images or scenes that precede them. I wake up with that one word headlined, like on a bible-touting billboard. Then it vanishes.

The call registered on my digital by my cot at the Fire Station and then printed out at 6:43 AM.  Not that I am some kind of punctuality nut. Whenever I get a call on the dispatcher phone, the digital clock starts blinking the time and prints out a record. And then to cement it, I’ve had to record the time sequence in the multi-dozen reports they’ve made me file since the goddamn tragedy.

Early June in the middle of nowhere Maine. Nothing ever happens and all you can do is eat junk food and try not to watch the infomercial-packed TV while toothpicking your eyelids open to stay awake. Naturally, the last twenty minutes of my shift I got the call. Mega-disaster from minute one. 

Just a campfire flare, the dispatcher, Lorraine called it, way off by Seawall on Route 202, hell and gone down on the thumb print of Mount Desert Island, a good half an hour away. I was stomach-churning starved and just ready to dig into a stack of flapjacks delivered by Annie over at Link’s Diner. But a small campfire gone rebel down there in the middle of nowhere could huge up pretty damn quick. Shoving  a handful of pancake into my mouth, I lit out.

All the while driving down, I’m thinking, Craig, that lazy SOB nephew of the chief who always dumps any possible shit-kicking chore the last hour of his shift onto me was due to come in any minute. So why the heck didn’t I return the favor, wait five minutes and send him right to Seawall. I could have gone home and crashed. But I’m forever having to clean up messes that screw-up unleashes anyway, so why try to detour around the inevitable?

Had I known I would spend the next month sucked into inquest after inquest and answering obnoxious reporters’ questions from all over flippin’ New England, Craig would have been the named sucker. Not to mention constant calls from that psycho-dad from Connecticut who to this day, six months later, still calls me every couple of weeks to ask if I’ve found out anything else. Like his son is going to rise up from the grave and text message all of us with an answer that will satisfy him.

Five minutes before I hit Seawall, just as I spot some plumes of smoke curling over the tree line, Lorraine, the dispatcher calls me back.

“Ellington, you there? Someone called in that there’s a body.”

“A body?”

“Yeah, a body on the edge of the woods. Not far from the fire.”

“Dead or alive.”

“She couldn’t say. She wouldn’t get close enough to tell. Lady was pretty hysterical, but from what I could gather it was still smoking.”

“Did you call the ambulance?”

“No, asshole. I thought I’d let you, God’s gift to fire fighting, handle it yourself. Course I sent the ambulance. And a bunch of back up engines just in case, but you’ll still get there a good twenty before they do. So do what you can.”

“Always do. I’ll call in details.”

As I neared Seawall, I could see flames shooting out the tops of trees and blackened smoke filled the air. Small fire my ass. Since I was a kid everyone talked about the Fire of ’47 that wiped out a couple of thousand acres of forestland and destroyed dozens of homes and a bunch of mansions on the island. Most of why I became a firefighter was because my grandparents lost their home and my Uncle Ralph in that fire. Every time I came on one of these brushers that was starting to get out of control, I was sure it would be the next “Fire of ’47.” Painful truth, despite those deniers spouting out their claptrap in every bar and diner in the county, these days those fires are popping up everywhere like whack-a-moles.

I quickly realized my HME Mini Evo Fire Truck with HME Hydra Technology the state had just gotten us, despite all the hype about its “mega fire-fighting capabilities with compressed foam technology” was not about to cover this one. “Lorraine, you still there? This fire ain’t small now.”

“Ok. How about the body?”

“Crap, forgot about it for a second. Where’d you say it was?”

“Lady said she was just a couple hundred yards from the campground entrance.”

“Right. I’m heading there now.”

A couple of miles in, I almost took out a woman running at me waving her arms and sobbing uncontrollably. She looked about 25, dark black hair matted over her char-blackened face, wearing khaki shorts and a grey hooded sweatshirt with, “Maine Squeeze,” stenciled on the front. A graying golden loped behind her.

“Where the hell have you guys been?” she shouted at me. “He’s down the road, smoking. I think he’s still alive.”

I pushed the unhinged girl into the front seat, dog in the back and raced down the road, trees on both sides lit up in flames.I found him lying on the edge of the tarmac, flat on his back. Slowed the truck down, not sure I wanted to see and touch what I had to. Walking toward him, I got only a bit clearer view than from a distance. He was stretched out flat, arms folded on his stomach, legs straight, no movement as far as I could see. Shirt burned off him. Bare chest. Jeans melted on him like tarpaper. Worst thing was he was pitch charcoal black, head to toe. Hair singed off. Little bursts of smoke puffed off him time to time, like a brief smokesignal from the beyond. I déjà-vued for a second but couldn’t recapture the image. I wasn’t sure whether I could see live breathing until I got closer and made out short, shallow, guppy-like breaths that didn’t seem to move any air at all.

Afraid to shake or even touch him. “Son, you ok?” was about all I could come up with. Not sure why I called him son, because thinking back there really was no way to tell his age. His lashless eyes jolted open showing white orbs that flash-lit up against his charcoaled skin.

“Just hold on son. Help is coming.”

He almost nodded in reply. 

“What happened?” I couldn’t help asking, though I expected no reply.

That’s when I smelled the overpowering stench that somehow hadn’t registered. I spotted the tilted-over, red gasoline can thirty yards down the road on the woods’ edge, a black stain darkening the earth beneath it.

I ran back to the truck, Maine Squeeze still huddled on the front seat, still shuddering, Golden laying quiet in the back like he’d done something wrong. “Did the kid say anything to you?,” I asked her.

“Just, ‘It’s hopeless.’ That was all. But he said it like 9 times.” She started whimpering again.

I got back on the intercom. “Lorraine, get the ambulance here pronto. Crazy kid’s still alive.”

the untold tragedies of ethan morton

"...wrenches the heart and the head in equal measure, leaving us all to wonder whether we can ever truly understand another soul."

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