The last time I saw Michael D. he was wearing that hunter green parka with the hood up, waving goodbye from the bottom of the hill at Tanglewood II. He was surrounded by a sea of soundless white. It was the coldest December on record and we’d gotten a rare gift, a snow day leading us into Christmas break. Our prayers had been answered.
Most of the day had been spent sledding on flattened cardboard boxes down the steep incline of the parking lot. Smooth, hard, and fast the track led to many a wipeout and tangled bodies in a blur of snow and sled. We’d had a falling out earlier in the day, though. I remember exchanging the I hate yous and you’re not my friend anymore. But somehow we’d recovered. Reunited on an asphalt hill turned Matterhorn. Then we were forced to part ways upon hearing the fweeeeeeet-fweet-fweet-fweeeeeeet! of Mom’s whistle. And there he stood at the bottom of the hill in that green parka with the hood up.
About a year earlier, Michael D.’s family had left our little corner of the world on North street and Highway 259. They had finally given up on renovating the run-down Victorian and moved out to the country into a small A-frame house on a vacant three acre lot, the complete opposite of their previous residence where the house was swallowed up by a primitive landscape and unruly trees.
I’d only visited Michael D. a handful of times in their new house. Mom always preferred he stay over at our place. She’d heard about the spooky cobwebs in every corner and the lack of supervision, plus her few encounters with Mrs. Ewells made it clear that something was amiss. First, Mrs. Ewells had a habit of staring at the top of your head and appearing somewhat cross-eyed when speaking to you. Second, she kept telling Mom about the evils of public school, how it corrupted young minds and that she was thinking about home-schooling Michael D. the next year.
But Tanglewood couldn’t compete with the ultra-modern layout of the A-frame. I was jealous of the soaring loft above where you could look down and see the kitchen, living and dining rooms. We tried playing Can’t Touch the Ground but without the rickety staircase and myriad nooks and crannies of the old house, it just wasn’t the same. We sought out new games with a wealthy neighborhood kid our age and ended up spending hours on his trampoline, something we’d only seen on TV. The trampoline kid’s parents were really nice. But the father always gave me the creeps. He’d lost his hand in a boating accident and had a metal hook in its place. Upon each meeting he’d thrust his hook in front of us to watch our eyes widen in horror. He got such a kick out of it. Then he’d offer a quick wink and give you his good hand.
Before the Christmas holidays came to an end and it was back to the grind of seventh grade, I called Michael D. to see if he could, in those three most glorious words of childhood, spend the night. After not getting an answer at his house, I decided to call the shop where his dad worked. Michael D. often hung out there after school or even on weekends until Mrs. Ewells or his brother Kevin came to take him home. But he wasn’t there either.
He was dead.
The guy on the phone was a mechanic who helped run the shop. He told me that Kevin had been fooling around with his dad’s .38 and shot Michael in the head, right buh-tween thuh eyes. They’d rushed him to the hospital only it was too late. And nothing they coulda did anyway. I just said Okay to the man on the phone and hung up.
I looked down and stared at a gum wrapper on the shag carpet. I wondered if there was any more somewhere. Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” blared on the stereo in our bedroom. My brother finally turned it down and asked if I needed a ride out to Michael D’s. No, I can’t go over there anymore, I said blankly. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel scared. I didn’t feel anything. Then I told him what happened.
Mom came running into the bedroom and held me tight against her waist, I’m so sorry baby, I’m so, so sorry. She began crying, sobbing. Momma’s gonna make it better, it’s alright. Momma’s gonna make it better. She held me for a long time. Until I told her I couldn’t breathe. She led me to the couch where we sat for what seemed like hours, her warm hands on mine. I tell you what. We’ll go out for dinner and have Baskin-Robbins afterwards. How’s that sound? I didn’t want ice cream. We can even stop by the pet store and get you a goldfish. I didn’t want goldfish. You can pick out the tank, the gravel, and decide how you want to decorate it. Because we lived in an apartment, our choice of pets was limited to hamsters, birds, and fish. We’d already tried the first two and failed. So goldfish it was.
After dinner and ice cream we went to the pet store where Mom kept a tight grip on my hand, pointing to each of the aquarium accessories. There was the sunken pirate ship with a treasure chest inside whose lid opened and closed; the mossy castle and drawbridge with half its structure eroded away; the diver encased in an old-timey suit like something out of that Jules Verne novel; and gravel of every color—yellow, green, blue, red, pink, and orange. I chose the sunken pirate ship and the orange gravel. I later wished I had chosen blue.
I felt guilty about how everyone was treating me. Mom couldn’t stop crying. Danny kept asking if there was anywhere I wanted to go—rollerskating, a movie, the mall? He said name it and we’re there. I couldn’t respond. It was like being underwater with every sound a muffled echo far, far above. I kept thinking about picking up the phone to call Michael D., to tell him how strange everyone was acting. Then I remembered.
Michael D.’s funeral was just three days before our shared birthday. I had to wear a hand-me-down suit of my brother’s. The sleeves were too long and I kept stepping on the cuffs of my pants. But Mom made sure that we were presentable. At the funeral home, the smell of flowers and disinfectant was oppressive. We had arrived early and were asked to wait for the Ewells’ in the Family Room. This is where relatives of the deceased gathered just before the service, waiting for the processional music to begin before emerging single file into the reserved pews. Several minutes passed and, for the first time, I felt something—fear. I was afraid to see Mr. or Mrs. Ewells. I was afraid to see Kevin. I had no idea where he was or if he was even coming.
Finally, the family made their way in. Barely. Mr. Ewells was being held up by another man with similar features, probably his brother. Mrs. Ewells looked the same as always, her hair in a bun with the chopstick through it, mouth slightly open, and that eternally lost expression on her face. I didn’t see Kevin anywhere.
With their arms locked through either side of mine, Danny and Mom inched me slowly toward the Ewells. Before any of us could extend a hand or offer condolences, Mr. Ewells looked at me and softly wept, Oh Michael. Such a good boy. Such a good boy. We didn’t know if he was talking about me or Michael D. Then he broke into a howl, OH-MY-GOD-OH-MY-GOD! He fell to his knees and grabbed me around the waist. My son, my son, OH GOD, MY SON! I felt his body heaving, gasping for breath. I smelled his woodsy aftershave. OH DEAR GOD, MY SON, MY SON! I didn’t move. I had a fleeting wish that Mr. Ewells was my real dad, that he would hold me and never let go. Danny had to pry him off me and Mom was terrified. After his brother took Mr. Ewells away, Mrs. Ewells looked at us pitifully with vacant doll eyes and sighed, Well, at least he doesn’t have to go to that awful public school anymore, then wandered off.
The service was a stream of standard Baptist hymns, a sea of black rising and falling at designated intervals. I scanned the crowd for Kevin, hoping I wouldn’t see him. But I did. He wasn’t seated with his parents. He was standing against the wall in a black suit and tie, standing with the help of two men, relatives I guessed, on either side of him. His face was contorted into a wailing mask, open-mouthed with strings of saliva between the lips, but no sounds came out. I didn’t look up for the rest of the service.
We never found out what really happened that night over at Michael D’s. Kevin was never charged with anything and the shooting was ruled accidental. Stories circulated that Kevin was drugged out of his mind while others said they both had taken turns playing a version of Russian roulette with what they thought was an unloaded gun, Pow! You’re dead!
My grades plummeted as I sleep-walked my way through the rest of seventh grade. For months afterward, I still felt the urge to call Michael D. before remembering that I couldn’t. I had recurring dreams that he was still alive. We’re building forts, climbing the Rocket Slide, playing Can’t Touch the Ground, running through Mrs. Queener’s forbidden front lawn. Even throughout high school, I’d catch myself wondering what his favorite subject would have been, what he would have looked like and would we have stayed friends.
I can still see Michael D. standing at the bottom of the hill in that green parka with the hood up. His gloved hand waving goodbye in a sea of soundless white. I see Kevin, too, in his black suit and tie, red-eyed and bleary. He keeps shaking his head over and over as if to say, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to.
And I believe him.