Fiction: Killing and Letting Die

This short story was first published in 2009, in my first book The Mysterious Divination of Tea Leaves. I have obtained the rights  from the orginal publisher, and have taken it out of print so I can use the material here.  

©2009 Keith Martin‐Smith
10 minute read

It was the spring when I first met him, after two weeks of unseasonably warm weather that had coaxed leaves from trees and grass from the earth. In my parents’ backyard flowers were curiously poking their heads above the dirt around them, as if unable to quite believe it was safe enough to show their faces. The memory of winter, only two weeks past, and of clouds that grew between the earth and the sun like a stubborn moss, seemed already long past.

The doorbell rang sometime in the early afternoon, and I heard my mother plodding through the kitchen and foyer to answer it. A moment later she called my name. “Peter,” her voice reached through the house, “Come here, honey.” I wiped some dirt off my pants, and came up the steps from our small yard and onto the enclosed porch.

Now half-blinded by the sun, I struggled to see through the double sliding glass doors that lead into the house. I heard my mother’s heavy frame coming into the den, adjacent to me. “Don’t even think of coming in here with those shoes on,” she warned, just as her silhouette appeared in the sliding doors. “He has bad eyes,” she explained to someone else, and I squinted into the house.

“No I don’t, mom!” I protested, “It’s just bright out.” I saw a smaller shape step out around her, and lightly hop out onto the porch.

“Peter, this is Troy,” my mother said. “His parents just moved into the Carmichael’s place. He’s going to be starting eighth grade next year – you’ll be in the same class.” She paused significantly. “Troy is going around introducing himself to everyone.”

I looked past Troy at my mother, a bit wide-eyed, I imagine. That sort of extroversion seemed nothing short of extraordinary to me, a nearly incomprehensible display of confidence. Like a small adult, Troy offered his hand, and then squeezed mine painfully when I took it.

“It’s nice to meet you, Peter,” he said crisply. Even though he was around the same age as me, Troy was almost four inches taller. He had symmetrical features that hinted strongly of a budding masculinity, and blonde hair styled back away from his face. His skin was bronze and clear, handsome far beyond the beauty innate in youth, beauty that so often burns off as the heat of puberty consumes it.

Troy, it was obvious, would only be complimented by the passage of time. Blue eyes, large and round, sought mine. “Troy Stevens,” he stated with another squeeze. “So you go to Rivers?” he asked, referring to the middle school. He finally let go of my hand.

“Yeah.”

“I’m starting there in the fall. Got the rest of this year off.” There was a moment of silence. “You like sports?”

“He likes computers,” my mother offered hopefully.

Mom!” I hissed, “Shouldn’t you be doing something?” Her bulk quivered for a moment at the edge of the porch, and then silently withdrew.

“I like sports,” I lied.

“Awesome,” Troy said, sounding more casual now that my mother wasn’t standing behind him. “I like ‘em lots. Maybe we could play basketball or baseball or something soon – my dad’s putting up a hoop in my driveway.”

“Sure,” I said, “Anytime.” I was terrible at sports, especially at basketball, and almost instantly terrified the idea of demonstrating my inabilities.

“Well,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck, “Gimmie your number. I’m gonna get everybody’s number around here so I can start a league or something.” We went inside and I wrote it down. To my amazement, he pulled a wallet from his back pocket, something I’d never even thought to have, but suddenly knew I could not live without.

After high school Troy went on to Georgetown law, following in his father’s footsteps. I understand that he’s now, at a pretty young age, a managing partner at a law firm in Philadelphia. As he went through high school, his looks, family money, athleticism, and magnetic personality made him popular and well liked. He was on the varsity basketball team – the captain, of course. But back then, on that first day in our development, he seemed just a fairly normal 12-year-old boy, if one whose confidence I envied.

Troy had no sooner stepped out our front door before my mother crowded me for information.

“So he seemed very nice,” she pushed.

“He was okay.”

“And very polite, very handsome,” she continued, looking out the window after him. “Do you think the two of you might be friends?” Her hands were held, expectantly, in front of her chest.

“I dunno,” I mumbled, feigning disinterest.

“But Peter...” I turned my back defiantly and went back outside to my army men. As soon as I knelt down, though, I felt childish and stupid. I went back inside.

“Mom,” I called, “Will you take me to buy a basketball?” I thought a moment. “And a wallet?”

***

Wilmington Delaware, where I grew up, is a bland town with a long corporate history. The downtown, especially in those days, consisted of squat, square buildings that hunched together across a few blocks, their backs turned away from the crumbling row homes that surrounded them. The offices, and the luncheonettes and restaurants that fed them, quickly shuttered themselves after sundown when the workers funneled back out to the suburbs. And what suburbs Wilmington had.

They sprawled westward from the city for mile after mile after mile, remarkable only in their relentless uniformity. Tucked into the houses were the college-educated implants from two-bit towns and country farms, men lucky enough to have ridden the post-War boom into a new way of life, living their version of the American dream. My family, like most of my friends and neighbors, had a working dad and a stay-at-home mom, the last generation to be raised this way.

Donald was my best friend, which for a 12 year-old is about the biggest statement you can make. At that point in your life a best friend is an absolute, something you believe transcends family or geography or any external force, the one fixed thing in a changing world. At 12 almost everything in your life is given – home, family, clothing, food, vacation, school, classes – the only real choice you have is your friendships. Maybe it’s because of that you simply know that you’ll be best friends for life, and nothing and no one will ever come between you. Best friends can fight and disagree, but that categorization never moves from its fixed place.

Donald was a big kid for his age – even bigger than Troy, for Donald had begun lifting weights a year before, transforming his body through the daily ritual of training. He loved the then-alternative bands, punk acts like the Dead Kennedy’s, Fugazzi, Agent Orange, and Suicidal Tendencies. Donald’s advantage, though, was an older brother who mentored him. I had only my parents – an engineer father who was averse to any outdoor activity, and a doting, too involved mother.

Donald and I grew up across the street from one another, and were best friends since we were old enough to walk, although puberty was putting new strains on a friendship that had been based on proximity as much as personality. We often played army, running around an old cemetery near my house, but by then Donald would sometimes seem a little bored with our games, and was always the first one to quit. But when we played, it was terrific fun – we carried black plastic M- 16’s and .45’s, and stormed castles, beaches, and fortified compounds with nothing but the power of our minds. I had to keep an eye out for my mother, who once came to check on me and confiscated my toy gun, giving it back to Donald.

“He’s not allowed to play with guns, Donald,” she scolded.

“Lighten up, Mrs. Faulk,” he quipped, smirking in disbelief, tall enough to look down at her.

“I’ll tell your mother,” she threatened.

“Go ahead. My dad takes me hunting three times a year.”

“Come on, Peter,” she instructed. “Time to go home. Now.” In the end, though, no matter how many times my mom caught me breaking her rules with Donald, she knew how important friends were, especially for someone as shy as me. So she tolerated, reluctantly, our closeness. Donald and I had been friends all our lives, after all, and he would laugh off stuff like that. “Jesus,” he might say, “Your mom’s a real fat fucking pain in the ass, isn’t she?” I would wholeheartedly agree, even though it was hard not to cringe at his harshness.

Mike was another neighbor and friend, who moved in when I was around nine. We’d been friends practically ever since we met, and used to play Dungeons and Dragons sometimes, or program my dad’s old IBM computer. Mike’s room was one of the most animated things you’ve ever seen. He had painted it with watercolors – right onto his walls – and created Arizona landscapes, hybrid aliens, classic cars, and buxom girls. Not surprisingly, Mike ended up going into graphic design. While Donald and I talked about our hopes and dreams, Mike and I were more topic-oriented, spending hours discussing the minutia of programming, or a particular TV show, or how hot we thought such and such a girl was. Mike and I were a lot alike, and we really understood each other in a way that probably would have made an interesting friendship.

About a week after Troy moved in and introduced himself, Donald, Mike, and me were playing army in an old and mostly unused cemetery near my house. We used the grave markers as protection against the imaginary bullets that streaked through the air.

“I’m hit, I’m hit!” Mike yelled, falling backwards.

“’Sup guys,” came a jaunty call, drifting through the middle of our battlefield. We turned to see Troy leaning on the cemetery wall, looking tall and bronze and composed. None of us saw him hop over; he appeared to have been standing there all afternoon.

“Nothin’,” Donald mumbled, letting his plastic gun dangle limply in his hand. Mike jumped off the ground, wiping the grass from his chest and sides.

“Hey,” I called, “You wanna play with us?”

“Play?” Troy laughed. “What, like army?” He looked at each one of us, pausing long enough to make me embarrassed to have asked the question. When no one said anything, he smiled. “How about instead of army let’s play something for real. How about a game of basketball? My old man put up a hoop.”

“Sure,” Mike said almost before Troy had finished speaking, tossing his gun between two graves. Donald stuck his into a bush as he passed it, and all three were over the cemetery wall before I, reluctantly, decided to follow. What choice did I have? I enjoyed Mike and Donald because we didn’t play sports, but used our imaginations instead of just strength or coordination. I didn’t want to be left there, alone, and I also didn’t want to embarrass myself; but between those two evils, it seemed losing both of my best friends was by far the worst thought. I’d rather be included, even if not as an equal.

At Troy’s house, we tried every combination of teams, but whomever played on mine lost. I knew how fat and slow and awful I was, how much more I was sweating, how desperate I was to be at least as good as Mike, how my trying made me look even more pathetic. Finally Troy yanked the ball from my hand.

“Hey,” he shouted, “Let’s play keep-away!” He threw the ball to Mike, and as I ran after it, the ball went to Donald, who threw it over my head back to Troy. I tried to get it for a little while, running between the three of them, hoping they might stop. After a few minutes, I gave up.

“Aw,” Troy teased, “He’s ti-erd.” Mike and Donald roared with laughter, and I laughed too.

A few weeks later school ended for the year, releasing us into the seemingly endless freedom of the summer. Mike and Donald had faded from me in those last few weeks, eating lunch with me as we always had, but getting up after they ate to go and hang out with Troy. Sometimes I went along, but felt uncomfortable when I did. I spent the first week of my vacation in my yard, looking at my army men, pretending I wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring.

***

The day it happened was a spectacular one, with the sky a perfect overturned bowl of blue. If you looked long enough, it seemed almost deep enough to fall into. Occasional clouds, white and violent against such a tranquil background, moved like unnatural things.

I was sitting on my porch steps throwing stones absentmindedly into a birdbath when I saw them. Mike, Donald, and Troy were lopping across the field that backed up to my parent’s house, a quarter mile away. I hadn’t talked to any of them in awhile, and with a holler I jumped up and tore out the gate and down into the field. It was summer, and we could go fishing at the creek, or hike through the woods, or catch frogs, or do lots of things that didn’t involve balls and bats and gloves. My brain was bursting with ideas, ideas I knew they would like.

I ran as fast as I could. By the time I caught up with them, they had stopped walking and were standing in a tight-knit circle, as if conspiring. None of them acknowledged me as I ran up, leaving me to stand just outside their circle, breathing heavily, looking in.

“So,” Troy was saying, a smile heavy on his lips, “If we all say we’re staying at each other’s houses, see, we all have an excuse – and can stay out all night.”

“I should be able to get some vodka from my pop,” Donald said.

“Good. Just be sure to replace whatever you take with water – but not too much.”

“Right.”

“Awesome plan,” Mike said, shaking his head.

“So this Friday night then,” Troy confirmed. Mike and Donald nodded.

“This Friday,” I said, “Wow – so soon.” I saw them exchange glances with each other. “I dunno if my mom will let me, let me go on such short notice. Nah, she probably will,” I offered.

No one responded, and Donald and Mike both looked at their shoes. Troy made a strange face, his lips pulling away from each other to briefly expose his teeth.

“Yeah, right. Hey look, Pete – um, no one, uh, no one said you were invited.” Mike and Donald both turned their heads, while Troy tapped a stick in the ground. The four of us stood there a moment, no one looking at anyone else. I felt my stomach do a lazy roll, like I’d just dropped ten feet. My heart was pounding in my chest, and I knew my cheeks were bright red. A Blue Jay landed on a nearby patch of open grass, calling loudly before he picked a worm from the ground, and everyone looked to it. I noticed the brilliance of the overheard sun, busy gathering its summer strength, and birds and insects chirping happily all around us.

“Oh,” I managed at last, “Okay.” I turned before anyone could see the stupid, childish tears that came to my eyes. I started back towards my own yard, wanting to run, wanting to cry, but determined to hold onto what little dignity I still had. I heard Troy whispering furiously behind me, and was glad when I could no longer hear him, or feel their stares on my back.

I walked as fast as I could, trying not to think, trying not to remember that Donald and Mike were my best friends. It didn’t yet occur to me what a lonely summer I would have, or what I would do with no friends. I didn’t think about how I would have to spend my nights looking out my window at the three of them playing basketball, or watch them sitting in Troy’s driveway talking about maybe girls or cars or travel, too far away to hear, as invisible to them as if I’d never existed. None of these things had yet occurred to me; all I felt was the burning of my cheeks, the sick feeling in my stomach, and my refusal to cry until I was safely inside. I marched forward, head down, and stepping through thick grass I kicked at the clumps of cut remnants, sending them away from me in little explosions.

“Hey,” Troy called, “Hey Pete! Hang on, man...” His voice was soft, pleading, and I slowed down without turning.

Everything was wound so tight I didn’t dare risk giving up control, even for an instant. I didn’t want to add the humiliation of tears on top of everything else. But then I did have a thought. Donald is my best friend. And so I stopped, and even began to turn around, feeling those constrictions loosen, feeling a sense of relief so strong it was like absolution.

As I turned an arm came across the side of my neck and a pair of legs entangled themselves around mine, sending me face-first to the ground. Someone landed on the small of my back, and I cried out.

“Turn him over!” Troy laughed. “Hurry! Get his arms,” he called, “And his legs – damn, he’s a squirmer!”

Donald, the biggest of the three, grabbed one arm and stood on it, and then the other. He was on my forearms, with my knuckles face down, his weight crushing – I thought I heard my right arm snap, and yelled, kicking and twisting my legs.

“Damn,” Troy laughed, “He even screams like a girl – sit on those legs, Mike!”

As instructed, Mike dropped onto my knees, placing his shins directly on top of them. Just laying there was excruciating, and when I struggled some more Mike hopped up and down on my legs, smashing his shins into my kneecaps, making me scream again. I saw all three faces red and laughing and joyous.

“Perfect,” Troy shouted, “Now, like I told you!”

Donald squatted behind me, dropping his knees on either side of my head, holding it in place with his thighs. He knelt on my biceps, distorting the shape of the muscles with his knees, mashing them into the ground. My ears were mostly covered, and I shut my eyes as tight as I could.

“Come on, Donald! Hold his eyes open – that’s it!” Donald’s hands, reeking of mud and pine needles, pulled back on my eyelids, and I saw Troy leaning into view, laughing so hard he was leering, framed by the serene blueness of the sky. Troy’s lips pulled away from his teeth until he was able to compose himself long enough to spit carefully into each one of my eyes.

He laughed, his cheeks rosy and bronzed, and Donald let go of my eyes, letting me blink the sticky saliva down each cheek, like glutinous tears. I fought to get loose but Troy held my legs as Mike got up next. Laughing and shaking his head, Mike then spit accurately without ever really looking down.

“Aw, nice one, man!”

Donald started to let go, and I struggled again, but he held me until Mike had taken his place. Mike clawed open my eyes, digging his fingernails up my cheeks as he did. After the first lump of Donald’s warm saliva landed in my right eye, I started to cry. Everyone laughed, and I stopped struggling, going limp under their bodies. Donald shook his head, “Jesus, Petey,” he said softly, and spit again.

“All right all right,” Troy laughed, “Christ, look at him! Looks like he took a money shot to the face! Let’s get outta here – now watch it – fat boys like him sometimes spaz out when you let ‘em go.”

On the count of three they jumped off, a little nervously, but I didn’t move. After I heard their laughter and quick conversations fade, I pulled my knees to my chest and turned on my side, rocking softly, my tears mixing with the sticky saliva. I lay there a long time, hoping I might fall upwards forever and ever into that blue sky, hoping I might just cease to exist. But I didn’t, and no amount of will would release gravity’s hold on me.

Eventually I did get up and went home, got cleaned up, and even ate dinner with my parents, pretending like nothing was wrong. But everything was wrong; everything had been shattered; I had no one to whom I could relate, no one to whom I could cry, no way to get even; my world was dark and closed and I left utterly, completely to myself.

* * *

These days, I make my living as a writer. I’ve had some modest success, enough to give up freelancing and, with the limited teaching I do, make a decent living. It’s a strange profession, writing fiction. In many ways, after all, I am a professional liar, pretending to live in places I’ve never been, talk about experiences I’ve never had, write from viewpoints I’ve never held. My best stories, though, are the ones that involve things that I have experienced. Small wonder, since your own emotions have a poignancy, and darkness, that the imagination simply cannot match.

I’ve never written or talked about what happened on that day. I’ve never even alluded to it in my work. Fiction can help to purge what’s within, give it a place to go and exist outside of yourself, little black ink marks curling on a page that, taken together, can be unspeakably violent, or profound, or beautiful, or disturbing. And once there they lay, dormant, activated only when a reader chooses to engage them, and even then only from the safe distance afforded by such an experience. The reader gets a view into an experience, but isn’t the experience itself – the writer alone must bear that burden, no matter how many eyes take in that which has been cast away.

I’m one of the lucky ones, for these days I mostly turn to writing for release, instead of through drinking the way I did for so many years. I hated myself for so long, so viciously, that alcohol was the only way I knew to try on a different personality to present to the world, one that wasn’t wrapped in shame and self-loathing. But things are better now.

Nancy, my wife of eighteen years, thinks me a gentle man. I have given her and our children a nice life, and sacrificed much to be as good a father as I can. Even when I drink too much too often, I have the sense to stay away from them. My family would deny to the point of death that I am capable of anything more wicked than occasional self-absorption, a crime many artists must be guilty of in order to create. If only they knew the lies I’ve told them, that I’ve omitted a whole part of myself.

And I’ve told lies here, too. Truth is never a set thing for a writer, I suppose, who must bend it daily in the creative act. None of the names in this story are real, even my own, although the people and what happened are all too real. But the truth is, I don’t know what Mike is doing these days or if he went into graphic design, or if Troy became a lawyer like his father. You see, I lost touch with them after high school. I’ve never returned to Wilmington, not even for my twenty-fifth high school reunion. What would be the point, after all?

The past informs the present, gives shape to who and what we are. All of us are the products of our experience and our actions, and the defining points of our lives can seldom be gotten away from, even if we can understand just how much influence they have had. Choice in life is often nothing but an illusion, for the most profound experiences shape all subsequent experiences, influencing their flavor and their interpretation, moving in an uninterrupted line backwards through time.

There’s one more lie. I’m not Peter. I’m Donald. And forty-seven days after I spit in my best friend’s eyes, in the middle of a glorious summer, he took his own life – that kind, shy, self- effacing boy I’d known my entire life. He was found by his mother hanging by a necktie from the back of his bedroom door. He didn’t leave any note – even in death he was too gentle and kind to lay blame on anyone or anything. Me, Mike, and Troy never spoke of it, not at the funeral, nor in the 5 years afterwards. Peter, for us, simply ceased to exist.

And the truth is it’s not like we raped someone, or even beat them up. It wasn’t arson, or killing someone’s beloved pet. It really wasn’t that big a deal. I hardly ever even think about it anymore, really. It’s just that today would have been Peter’s fortieth birthday, and I just wish I could call him and, at least once, say I was sorry.

©2009 Keith Martin‐Smith