You were a lot like me, except smarter, and more confident. The confidence was easy to see, easy to explain – your family had a lot of money, and that’s where confidence frequently comes from, for kids. From never being told, when you desired something, no we can’t afford that. Other people can have it, but not you.
No, for you, it was the other way around.
As for intelligence, just about everyone who knows your story knows that, too. You were smarter than anyone you knew, basically – too smart for your own good.
I met you in the fifth grade. Some kids I knew dragged me over to you and said, you’ve got to meet this guy, and there you were, your thumbs hooked in the pockets of your weird, designer jeans, wire-rimmed glasses snapped onto your plump and healthy face as if it were designed for them, your brown hair curly and windblown, your stance like a superhero. Who has summoned me before them today?
We had so much in common, that the boundaries between us were blurred in just a few months. Puberty was just barely on the way, and for the two of us, it intended to take its time. For you, it would never finish its job, and for me it would take many, many years.
The kids around us started popping out of their clothes and speaking with deeper voices, while you and I kept right on running through the woods carrying plastic He-Man swords, fighting hobgoblins and beholders and malevolent, living trees.
We used to say that we lived on the Night Side. Our marathon games of Dungeons and Dragons, with its crazy-shaped dice and sprawling maps and little pewter statues, would last well into the morning.
As we got older, we took to slipping out of the house around midnight, while your mom was asleep, wandering the dark country roads for hours, prowling, laughing, dodging headlight as they came into view. We saw a shooting star one night, about four am, as we walked down the middle of Orange Road, miles from your house, and we made a wish on it.
I don’t remember my wish, and neither, I’ll bet, do you.
The Night Side was for us, we said, because we were dark and magical. Because we were true creatures of the night, like cats or Batman. We abhorred the world of normality because we held ourselves above it, because it was in our freakish nature, we said, but it wasn’t true.
No, we lived our lives in the darkness because we were perversely afraid of the light. Because when we tried to do what normal kids did – sports, Frisbee, parties at Wyandott Lake – everything weird about us was starkly visible, to everyone else. We couldn’t make our mouths shut up about the dorktacular thoughts in our brains, about the dragons and the invisible laser beams, about the many-sided dice.
It’s funny to watch Napoleon Dynamite, remember parts of ourselves in characters like that, but it wasn’t funny to live through. Out in the light, we could see exactly what everyone else could see, that nothing about us fit in to the world everyone else was celebrating.
At the beach once, we ran afoul of a bunch of bigger kids, and they dragged our rafts out to the pylons, and we couldn’t get away. They’d dunk us under the water so that we thought we were drowning, and all we could do was cling to the inflatable raft, when they brought us back up.
I remember your eyes, locking grimly onto mine, as they towed us further out, and we weren’t slaying dragons then, were we my friend? We didn’t unsheath our swords and vanquish any evil, because we weren’t really heroes, and we couldn’t really fight, not if our lives depended on it.
Out there in the sunlight, we were a couple of scrawny little sissy kids, and there was no hiding it, no weeds to duck into as the normal folks drove by in cars. And you can’t see shooting stars, when they happen at noon.
The lifeguard blew his whistle that day, and that’s all that saved us. The bigger kids had to stop, let us get to shore, and they laughed at us like a bunch of screeching howler monkeys, treading water, pointing, like we were the creatures in the clan with the wrong color spots, creatures who were different, creatures who had to go.
We lived on the Night Side because no one could find us there, and because wrapped in the darkness, we could be whoever we wanted to be, and we used our holographic imaginations to create vibrant worlds where we were strong and brave and godlike. And we tried our damnedest to never leave.
The months and years dragged by like massive ships passing beneath a bridge, ponderously slow, and the changes that took place were easy to map. Both of us were clever, and we learned to crack people up, to get them making their howler monkey sounds with us, instead of at us. To distract them with patterns of words and funny faces, so that they wouldn’t notice our pale skin and shallow chests, our wrongness. Our spots.
And the school wasn’t very big. It seems now, maybe there wasn’t room for two jesters in that particular courtyard. That competition between us was inevitable, especially when it came to girls, because not a lot of them were into us, were they? If we came across one who found our awkward bodies and clever wit to be something they were drawn to, well then they’d have to pick between us, wouldn’t they? Who was it going to be?
Never is it that simple, though. It wasn’t just about girls. To tell the truth, I can’t remember what shims and wedges were getting pounded between us, when the teen years approached. Suddenly we were sitting around creating elaborate worlds without swords or dragons, just worlds where the girls that we liked somehow landed beside us, became girlfriends. We could crack them up, sure, but that’s a long way from Hey, let’s go to the spring dance, baby.
And slowly we made our inroads into social circles above us, slowly we’d gain an ally here and there, popular kids who could afford to give us a second look, talk to us during study hall, and then announce with confidence and authority, this guy’s all right. He’s funny and he’s smart.
You were a writer, too – light years ahead of me or anyone I knew. Your stories were intricately plotted, unbelievably well paced. The rest of us would basically take a Saturday morning cartoon or a Star Wars subplot, and we’d change the names, call it Gongwar The Conqueror. You were writing about telepathic detectives on board the Titanic.
Our competitiveness was all the more sad, in retrospect, because I doubt anyone else noticed it at all, that we were vying for the position of Head Dork. The girls we were competing for certainly had no idea. We’d carry our secret crushes around for months, managing to blurt out a few words here and there at lunch, and then secretly, constantly imagine ourselves running into them later, at the mall, and suddenly having the suave social skills of James Bond.
It’s funny what I don’t remember. I don’t remember what set you off, for instance, not with any clarity, and what I do remember, I’ll keep to myself, out of respect for those you left behind.
But I can tell you this, old buddy, I’ve got two daughters the same age you were, when you ate the barrel of a rifle, and they’ve been through a hell of a lot worse.
They’re tougher than you, is my first instinct. They can take it, and you couldn’t. Does that mean I won? Because it doesn’t feel like it.
Nothing’s that simple, is it?
What I remember is my friend Kelly, knocking on my door, her mom still out there in the car, idling in the driveway, and she was crying as she told me what you had done. And my stepdad awkwardly walked up on us, and I told him, too, in the bluntest of terms – my best friend just blew his head off, right there in his bedroom. He didn’t know what to say.
So Kelly and her mom drove away, and I wandered up to my room, dazed, and I picked up the telephone and did what dozens of kids did that day, out of sheer denial. I called your telephone number, and the person who answered told me, no, you weren’t there. And his tone confirmed what Kelly had said – you wouldn’t be back, either.
But the competition wasn’t over yet, because you’d made elaborate plans. You outsmarted the cops and the counsellors from beyond the grave, and you made sure I’d carry that bullet wound around with me, that I’d bring it to you one day, when it comes time to settle up.
(Note: The second half of this was published the next day, here: