My name is Sylvester Penn. I am a professional psychotherapist working for the judicial branch of the state of Connecticut which is why I was so surprised to have received a call from a precinct asylum in southern Rhode Island and to hear that I had been summonsed by name to speak with a particular in-patient. Making the drive down from the western half of the state took only a couple hours so I said I would be there as soon as possible.
Rhode Island is the smallest of the fifty United States but it also has one of the most complicated highway connection systems so it was a challenge to find my exit at first but ultimately I found the right ramp and the rest of the drive to the location was fairly straight-forward. It was getting late in the afternoon by the time I made the final left before I could just follow the road until I found the precinct. I pulled onto a 20mph speed limit road. Going at such a speed, I had the opportunity to appreciate the rustic Rhode Island countryside which was mostly quaint suburban homes swathed in dense forest. Just as my directions suggested, I was pulling under a final overpass that would clear the way to the precinct just ahead.
Until that point nothing had seemed too out of the ordinary but that is when I saw them. Huddled like a pair of hobos in a New York subway tunnel were a pair of young boys sitting under the bridge; one hefty, one tall and scrawny. I might not have thought anything of them except that as I drove past they couldn’t seem to pull their eyes off of mine. I couldn’t tear my gaze away from them either for some reason and for a moment it felt as though the world had slowed so that I could get a good look at them. I was awoken by a blaring car horn as I nearly veered into the other lane on a bend that followed the overpass. I pulled back onto my lane and looked back trying to get a glimpse of whether these accusative boys were still staring. Whether they were or not I couldn’t tell as the overpass was hidden by the brush in increasing degrees and I put distance between myself and the bridge.
Ultimately I decided to put it out of my mind. Why was I getting so worked up about a pair of delinquents anyway? Who knows what they were doing huddled under that bridge? Instead I faced back forwards and concentrated on making the rest of the drive a safe one. I could at last see that I was pulling up to the precinct and I straightened myself up, prepared to look professional to the gate guard who was undoubtedly watching me approach with a skeptical expression on his face.
When I pulled up to the gate I found that the guard was in fact a ‘she’ not a ‘he’ but — no surprise lost — she was about as cynical as I expected her to be, taking her job far more seriously than necessary and gazing down at me along the thin bridge of her nose. After some slight awkwardness, she permitted my entrance and I scanned the buildings for the one I was supposed to be reporting to. It took a few minutes as it was all the way at the back of the center but I found parking quickly and took to the stairs.
Once inside I was greeted by a gruff police chief who led me to the chambers where the in-patients were housed. “I don’t know how he got word of your name but I will warn you that the man you’re here to see today is a felon convicted of murder.”
“Thank you, I was briefed at my facility in Hartford.” I responded dryly. I had dealt with a wide variety of patients, all convicted of hideous crimes — some rightfully, some not. I was confident that I could handle another. As we continued down the narrow hallway here and there I heard the usual disturbance, a screech or a howl but nothing out of the ordinary. However, the room I was lead to was obtrusively silent, silent to the point of resonance.
“Suit yourself.” the chief shrugged. He unlocked the door and gestured that I could enter. As soon as I was inside, the door was closed behind me and locked. “Just give a holler when you’re done.”
The room that I found myself standing in was very dimly lit with ominous shadows shrouding the corners. A man who couldn’t have been older than twenty-seven was sat with his head hung at a round table with a light shining down on it like in an interrogation room. My impression was that this was not an orthodox precinct to say the least.
“Hello,” I said to the patient, “may I sit down?” He didn’t look up at me, he just kept his face hidden but he nodded slowly like a timid child. “Thank you.” I said maintaining my professionalism. I sat down and just faced him, thinking the tension would eventually prompt him to speak. At first he just lifted his chin off his chest a bit and peeked at me as though he were nervous that I was going to ground him for a week.
“You must be wondering who I am.” I offered. No response. “My name is Sylvester Penn. I’m the psychotherapist you specially requested a visit from?”
“Yeah, I know who you are.” He responded bluntly.
“And who are you?” I fired back, catching my opportunity to keep the conversation going.
“I’m Michael. Just Michael.”
“Okay, ‘Just Michael.’ Is there something in particular you wanted to talk to me about today?” I proceeded, probing for a trigger. I needed to find a way to open the flood gates. The silent type usually has a lot pent up to say. He didn’t respond to my question immediately. Finally he just shrugged.
I decided to try and open up a usual session, approach this in the most advantageous way I could. “Okay, so we know why I’m here. I’m here because you want me here. Why don’t we talk about why you’re here?”
“I killed someone.” Michael said abruptly.
“You did?” I responded simply. Usually I was met with refusal of the truth.
“But it’s not who they think it is.” he explained further.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean… I did kill someone but… not who they think it is.” he said. I paused for a moment, not knowing how to respond to that. “It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault.” He started mumbling under his breath. “It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault.”
“What’s your fault, Michael? It’s your fault that you killed them?” Usually patients at least had an alibi for what they did. This patient was different. Had he called me here to help him deal with his own remorse? It wasn’t unheard of. “There are still ways of redeeming yourself Michael. Your past may be what it is, but your future is not lost.” I explained.
“It’s all MY fault!” He suddenly shouted in my face, lifting his up into the light to reveal the tears streaming down it. I just sat silently and watched. Michael seethed, his shoulders lifting and falling with each breath. I let the pause linger. When he had calmed down a bit and I could see that he wasn’t going to continue the conversation, I moved to keep the ball in the air.
“Where are you from, Michael?” I asked.
“South Kingstown.” he replied in a slightly whining tone.
“Did you grow up there?”
I had him. “What was it like growing up in South Kingstown?”
“Boring at first.” he said honestly, calming down and speaking in an ordinary tone. “The neighborhood I grew up in was mostly full of retirees. There weren’t a lot of kids to play with.”
“That must have been hard on you.” I said generically.
“Well it didn’t last too long.” he offered.
“Did kids start moving into the neighborhood?”
“Eventually.” he explained. “At first it was just one. Andrew. He was my best friend. He moved in right next door.”
“He must’ve been important to you.”
“Yeah…” he almost sighed as if he wasn’t really fond of thinking of it.
“What was he like?”
“He was a good friend when we were little. I wasn’t always such a good friend to him.” Michael supplied.
“What do you mean by that?” I pushed.
“Well I was kindof mean to him sometimes.”
“I was really excited when he first moved in, you know?” Michael began. I nodded knowingly, comprehensively. “But he was always really kindof different. He wasn’t really all that smart. Plus he was really big and sometimes he broke things — like my toys. I knew he didn’t do it on purpose but it was so easy to get mad at him.”
“Well it’s reasonable to be angry over broken things.” I suggested.
“Yeah, but not as angry as I got. I would insult him, tell him he was an idiot. Call him fat. He would always run home crying and for some reason there was a certain amount of satisfaction I got out of that.” Michael related. “I don’t know what was wrong with me.”
I paused for a moment. Pensively, strategically. He just sat there, waiting for me to prompt him again. “I’m wondering what your home life was like — what your parents were like.”
“I had a great childhood.” Michael responded. “I was an only child. My parents were good to me, we lived in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood. I always got almost anything I wanted.”
“Yes but those are all material things.” I noted. “Did you ever feel as though they weren’t meeting you on an emotional level?”
“No.” He said frankly. “My mom was very loving and caring, my dad was an all-American kindof guy. He taught me to play baseball and ride a bike and stuff. It was really normal.”
“So where do you think the animosity towards Andrew came from?” Michael looked down and I could tell he was fiddling with something under the table. I could also tell that he didn’t want to answer my question. I was beginning to see some patterns that were telling me that he had probably been in this asylum for a while and that he had entered it at a pretty young age. But something about his speech patterns told me that his issue hit very deep in his childhood, which is a common assumption, but Michael was different. From what I’d read of his records, he’d been admitted at the age of twenty-one, but he may have been incarcerated before then. “Didn’t Andrew stop wanting to be around you when you were mean?”
“Well sortof.” Michael avoided. “He would say that at first but I could always convince him to let it go. I should’ve apologized but I never did. And he didn’t even bother once we’d built the tree house.”
“Was the tree house your way of coaxing him?” I asked.
“Well, we built it together with our dads. It was kindof expensive too since it came in a kit and it was really big. We could actually stand up in it and bring up a mini cooler for sodas and stuff. Our parents split the money on it.”
“It sounds like he felt like he had to be your friend if he wanted to use the tree house.” I pointed out.
“Yeah, I think so too now when I think about it. I didn’t even think of it way back then though.” He admitted.
“So you were kindof taking advantage of him.”
“For a while, yeah. But then…” he trailed off.
“But then, what?” I knew this was important.
“Well he still kept breaking my stuff.” Michael stated. It was more of an observation of an excuse than just an excuse.
“And how did you feel about that?”
“I felt mad.”
“Well I just felt like it was because he was fat and stupid and not very careful. It was like he didn’t care. At least, that’s how I thought of it. And then one day he broke something really important to me.” Michael explained.
“What was that?”
“It was this Superman action figure that I had been begging my mom to get for me for a long time. It was one of those featured toys you see on the Warner Bros commercials and it was really expensive ’cause it was big and well-made.” Michael told me.
“I see. So when he broke it you must have been pretty upset.” I stated.
“Not just that but I started to fight him! But he pushed me down and he kindof… lost control.” Michael said.
I sat up a bit at that. “How do you mean?”
“I mean, I pushed him and punched him because I was angry, but he was a lot bigger than me so it didn’t hurt him much but he, like, threw me around and gave me a black eye.” Michael recounted.
A concerned expression had come over my face. “Why do you think he reacted so violently?”
Michael was quiet for a minute. He looked as though he hadn’t considered that as much. Finally he said, “That’s why I shouldn’t have been such a jerk to him.”
“So then what happened?”
“We both got in trouble. We got grounded. And I was still mad at him. I had never been that mad at him. His mom made him apologize to me and he was crying and all I could think was ‘yeah, keep crying you fat idiot.'” Michael said. He shook his head at himself.
“Did you stop being friends with him after that?” I asked.
“No.” he said.
“You made up with him?” I asked.
“Well, not exactly. One day, after we’d been grounded, I went to his house and asked him to come out and play. I talked him into going to the Little Park. There were two parks in our neighborhood, the Little Park and the Big Park. Most kids didn’t like going to the Little Park even though the stuff there was newer because they hadn’t cleared away much of the forest there. Everyone was scared of the forest.” Michael explained, he was fiddling with whatever was under the table again.
“Including Andrew?” I asked. Michael nodded. “So what did you do?”
“I had these two tennis balls.” he said. “One was all water-logged from playing fetch on the beach with my cousin’s dogs and the other was brand spanking new. We used to like playing baseball with tennis balls because we could hit them farther. And I had this game made up so I could get back at Andrew. I said, ‘One of us will pitch the ball and see how far we can hit it. Then the other one will go get the ball from the woods.’ I knew he wasn’t going to want to do it. So I said, ‘Look, I’ll pitch first.'”
“And he agreed?” I presumed.
“Yes. So I pitched him the old ball so that I could find it really easily in the woods. When I came out in no time with it he wasn’t so scared anymore. Then I gave him the new ball and he pitched it to me.”
“And you were really good at baseball.” I continued, “So it went further into the woods.”
“Andrew didn’t want to go in to get the ball. He stood there staring at me for a minute but I told him, ‘Hey, if I can do it, you can do it. It’s only fair.’ And he just wanted to be friends with me again so bad that he couldn’t say no. As soon as I was sure that he was all the way in, I just ran home laughing.” Michael was looking at me with an expression that read, ‘can you believe that?’
“So that was your revenge for the Superman.” I said taking my chin between thumb and forefinger.
“Yeah, but I got more than I bargained for.” Michael said.
“How do you mean?” I asked, more out of habit than anything else.
“He didn’t come back.” Michael said.
“What?” I asked in shock. Was he revealing something to me?
“I watched out of my bedroom window for hours.” Michael said. “I wanted to see him come running home to his mommy. I wanted to be able to say that I didn’t want to be friends with him because he didn’t bring my ball back. I wanted to scare him and embarrass him. But he didn’t come back.”
“What did you do?” I asked, now out of interest more than analysis.
“Well, I remember that we were having my favorite for dinner — spaghetti and meatballs. And I kept hearing his mom calling for him. I couldn’t eat a bite and the longer it took for Andrew to come back, the more guilty I felt.”
“Did you go looking for him?” I urged him.
“I couldn’t get out of the house fast enough. I finally just couldn’t take it. I excused myself from the table and went running out to find him.” Michael’s gaze was off in the distance as if he could still imagine that night. “I ran straight to the woods and I went hunting around for him in there. I was calling his name and it just kept getting darker and darker. Finally, I found him.”
“Was he alright?”
“He was okay, just scared out of his mind. He looked like he had seen a ghost. He threw up on himself. I took his arm around my shoulder and helped him walk back. Our parents were horrified. His were so worried about him, mine were furious with me — especially once they found out what happened. I was grounded for a month.”
“But you went back for him. You felt responsible and you were a good friend to him in the end.” I said, re-entering therapy mode.
“Yeah, but not until after I’d already been a horrible friend. And the worst part was that Andrew really felt like I had saved his life and like he owed me something. He looked at me like some kind of hero.” Michael said, his face had gradually resumed the position of staring at his knees, chin to his chest.
“Did you let him believe that?” I asked him.
“Well, not exactly. But I didn’t exactly disagree either when he acted that way.” Michael admitted. “But I think it was better that way. I kindof felt like I needed to look out for him after that. I’d taken advantage of the fact that he wasn’t really smart and that he was gullible enough to fall for my trick and so I was worried that other people could take advantage of him the same way.”
“It sounds like that experience made you a good friend to him.” I suggested.
“It was more like I needed a way to make it up to him.” Michael amended.
I still felt like that was a sign of a healthy conscience but I let it go. “So that experience brought you closer to Andrew.”
“Well… I’ll put it this way: When I say that I used to call Andrew stupid… ‘stupid’ was a harsh word but it’s true that he wasn’t all there in the head. He was definitely born with a couple screws missing. If you did one thing to Andrew that he thought was mean, whether it was genuinely mean or not, he would take you for a mean person and not want to be around you anymore. If you were nice to him then he thought that necessarily meant that you were best friends.” Michael explained.
“There wasn’t a lot of gray area there.” I concluded.
“Exactly.” Michael agreed. “And this is when new kids started moving into the neighborhood. Andrew and I lived next door and then there was Mardi Goodwin from down the street and the Wilson brothers, Shane and Lance from two blocks down. But the one who stood out the most was Stephen DiMisaco.”
“What do you mean by ‘stood out’?”
“He was just weird, you know? Like, he was really weird looking. He was super tall, like, abnormally tall. And he had a huge nose like a toucan or something, he was always showing his upper teeth and he wore the biggest glasses I’d ever seen that had reflective lenses and bright red rims. He just stuck out like a sore thumb.”
“That’s a bit superficial don’t you think?” I said although a bit absent-mindedly. There was something about that description that struck me but I couldn’t think of why.
“Well, I honestly didn’t have a problem with that but it just made him even weirder on top of the other stuff.” Michael explained.
“What other stuff?” I asked predictably still lost in my own thoughts.
“Well his, like… hobbies and stuff. He was just into some really freaky stuff.”
“Give me an example.”
“Well like stuffing animals.”
“As in taxidermy?” I offered.
“What’s that?” Michael asked, brow furrowing as he turned his gaze up at me and away from his hands.
“When you remove the organs of a dead animal and then stuff them with cotton or other materials.” I defined.
“Yeah! That’s what Stevie did!” Michael enthused, apparently understood.
“Well that might be a bit out of the ordinary but it’s no reason to judge someone so harshly.” I reasoned.
“Well, he was, like, obsessed with it.” Michael insisted. “If you had known him, you would understand why he made people uncomfortable. He had no problems getting into the gritty details of things like organs and bones and he would just talk your ear off until it got overwhelming. It was so hard to be around him and he was creepy. He talked in this, like, nasally, slurring voice. It just made your skin crawl.”
“It sounds like you had a preconceived judgement of him.” I observed. “Don’t you think you were being a bit harsh?”
Michael stared at me for a few minutes and I could tell that he was formulating a response. “You know… sometimes that’s exactly what my mother said. She would say, ‘I’ve met his father and he’s a very nice man. Stephen seems like a nice boy. Maybe you just need to give him a chance.’ And it would sound so reasonable that I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing myself. Maybe I really had been too harsh or too mean but then I would give him another chance and it would just remind me of how… well, how gross he was. It was just unpleasant to be around him.”
“I’m wondering if you were being pressured by other people to be biased against him.” I stated. There was something about this Stephen kid that seemed important to the story. “How did Andrew feel about Stephen?”
“Oh, Andrew loved Stevie.” Michael said with some obvious resentment in his voice. “He just thought Stevie was the coolest thing since raspberry popsicles. Every single time Stevie would come around and start talking about some pheasant or beaver or something that he’d been ‘working on’ it was like pulling teeth to get Andrew to leave with the rest of us.”
“Who’s the rest of us?”
“Me, Shane, Lance, Mardi.” Michael listed.
“You were hanging out with them?” I questioned.
“Yeah. And it was hard enough to convince them to let Andrew tag along.” Michael heaved an exasperated sigh.
“Why is that?” I asked, “Is it because of Andrew’s differences?”
“Yeah.” Michael agreed. “It’s because he was so big. It took so much effort to teach him to ride a bike and even then he struggled to keep up.”
“And that’s what you and all the kids were into doing? Riding your bikes?” I said, just confirming information.
“Yeah, it was how we got everywhere. If we wanted ice cream, we chased the ice cream truck on our bikes. If we wanted pizza or gum or baseball cards, we biked downtown. And there were tons of hills so Andrew would struggle every step of the way.”
“Or pedal of the way.” I punned.
“Yeah pedal.” Michael repeated without a crack on his face.
“And what about Stevie? Did he have a bike?” I asked.
“Yeah, but it was the most embarrassing piece of crap you ever laid eyes on!” Michael shot back. “His dad had built it for him out of wood. It had crappy old tires they’d probably gotten from the junk yard. It had no gears and it had a little basket on the front. Even Mardi’s bike didn’t have a basket.”
“Did you invite him to go get pizza with you?”
“No!” Michael spat, as if that much should’ve been obvious. “But the moron could never seem to catch a hint! Lance, Shane and Mardi would bike ahead and I would try not to lag too far behind and still make sure Andrew could keep up but eventually I would have to leave him behind or Stevie would catch us.”
“You would avoid him.” I summed up what he was saying.
“Yes.” Michael admitted. “And to be honest, I think the other kids were trying to do the same thing to Andrew. I think they just wanted to hang out with me and didn’t want Andrew to be the baggage. And to be even more honest, sometimes I agreed with them. The irony is I think Andrew had a little more common sense than even Stevie did in that case. I gradually started seeing less and less of him and I started seeing him hanging out with Stevie more.”
“Well it was normal to want more friends.” I tried to empathize.
“I still kept an eye out for Andrew though.” Michael persisted.
This caught me by surprise. “You still felt that you owed him something.” I stated.
“I guess, yeah.” Michael said.
“So how did that work?”
“Well, one day we were all out biking and it was one of the times that Stevie somehow managed to get everyone to let him tag along. Lance was really sortof the head of the group so if he was in a good mood he sometimes let Stevie and Andrew come with us.” Michael was starting another story. I rested my elbows on the table to show that I was listening. “But Lance’s moods could change easily and sometimes, when he got sick of Stevie following us, he tried to find ways of making him run home crying.”
“He’d make fun of him?” I asked.
Michael nodded. “Mmhm. Yeah and it was usually about his bike. This time he was making fun of the brakes which was one of his favorite topics.”
“What was wrong with the brakes?”
“They were faulty and made a loud screeching noise whenever he used them.” Michael explained. “And on this day, Lance had just gotten a new bike with handle-bar brakes. Back then that was kindof new and cool so he had been showing off by riding down hills and braking real easy after speeding down them. It looked like a motorcycle and we were all riding next to him to see him do it. Except for Stevie who got nervous about riding down hills.”
“That’s why Lance was getting annoyed.” I concluded, getting the picture even as Michael nodded in confirmation.
“So Lance starts making fun of the sound that Stevie’s brakes made and Stevie was getting real heated about that. Lance kept making the noise and Stevie finally says something drastic that he knew wasn’t true just like he always did.” Michael said.
“What was that?”
“Well he said — to Lance, you know — he said, ‘Your brakes aren’t special just because they’re on the handlebars! You look stupid riding down the hill over and over!'” I noticed that Michael took on Stevie’s nasal drawl as he recounted what Stevie said. “And he was right but he was killing Lance’s buzz and just trying to be a hot shot and Lance just wasn’t going to be outdone.”
“So what did Lance do?” I egged Michael on.
“He dared him to prove that his brakes were better and to race him to the bottom of Hampton Way.” Michael said. “And Stevie was so heated he just couldn’t say no even though he probably knew that it wasn’t a good idea.”
“Why wasn’t it a good idea?” I asked, not familiar with local roads.
“Hampton Way is the steepest hill in our neighborhood and it ends on Route 1.” I got chills just imagining such a challenge even with a perfectly functional bike. “So Lance and Stevie got on their bikes at the top and prepared to race down. The rules were ‘no braking until the bottom or you lose, whoever gets to the bottom first wins.'”
“And Stevie accepted.” I said gravely.
“He was so sure of himself.” Michael continued. “Mardi stood in front of them and dropped her sweatshirt to start the race and Stevie and Lance sped down the road. We had to run to keep them in eyesight since the road bends. We saw them get to the bottom and Lance pulled to a clean stop.”
“And Stevie kept going!?”
“And Stevie kept going. And there was a car coming and for a moment–” Michael couldn’t even finish that sentence. He just shook his head. “I was sure he was going to get hit but the car swerved and only hit his back wheel. Lucky for him the road was empty otherwise because he got thrown off his bike and he crashed into the guard rail.”
“That’s pretty scary.” I said.
“You don’t know scary.” Michael had his elbows on the table now as well. I hadn’t expected that response from him.
“I’m sorry?” I asked confused and a little insulted.
Michael disregarded that. “He was pretty beat up.” he continued. I relaxed and let the remark go for the time being. “The other kids beat it ’cause they didn’t want to get in trouble and the car had pulled a hit and run. Andrew and I had to run out into the road to get him. A couple cars stopped and asked if we needed a ride but we just told them we weren’t far. I carried Stevie on my shoulder while Andrew wheeled his bike along behind us. We took him straight to his house.”
“Was his father there?” I inquired.
“Yes.” Michael replied.
“Was he angry?” I asked.
“No, he just worried about Stevie. He couldn’t stop thanking us for bringing Stevie home. Andrew wanted to stay until we were sure that Stevie was alright. His house was creepy though so I just wanted to leave as soon as possible.” Michael said.
“You still resented him even then?” I half-stated, half-asked. Michael didn’t respond to that. “Why was it different with Stevie than it was with Andrew?”
“What do you mean?” Michael now had his hands under the table again.
“When you went to help Andrew in the woods, it left you feeling responsible for him. When you went to help Stevie after his accident, you still felt uncomfortable being in his house.” I drew an inconsistent parallel.
Michael looked pensive for a moment. His lifted an eyebrow in a slightly annoyed expression and just looked down at his hands, fiddling with whatever he was holding. Then he looked up with the same expression on his face. “I don’t know.” he said finally.
“You don’t know what?” I asked.
“I don’t know why it was different with Stevie. I guess he was still just too creepy and weird. His stuffed animals were hanging all over the walls against these plaque things. His dad was too much like him too and he kept making this gross snorting noise when he breathed in like his nose was permanently stuffed and he was inhaling to prevent it from dripping.” Michael described. “And he kept saying, ‘Are you Stevie’s friends? Oh I’m so glad that Stevie has friends. I worried that he wouldn’t have friends, I feel better knowing he has great friends like you.’ It was really awkward and Andrew just kept smiling and he looked so proud of himself and just kept confirming that we were all friends. I was just glad that the others weren’t there to see it.”
“You didn’t even want people to think he was your friend?” I asked.
There was a long silence after that. I heard a dull rumble drift through the small slotted window on the wall directly behind Michael. Shortly after, a soft dripping sound could be heard. The bulb in the lamp over our head flickered a bit between full brightness and dimness.
“I’m wondering why you asked me to come here.” I voiced my thoughts out loud. “Why me?”
Michael stared at me for a moment. He looked mildly surprised at my straightforwardness. Finally he said, “I’ve heard things about you.”
“What things?” I asked.
“I heard that you’re… what was that word? When you don’t tell other people what someone tells you?”
“That’s it!” he actually grinned at that revealing two perfect rows of white teeth except for a pair of slightly forward canines. “Confidential. I knew I could trust you. I heard about that case where you spoke to a witness and didn’t tell anyone even after the case had been settled and the truth had been discovered. That’s how I knew I needed to talk to you. To tell you what happened myself.”
I stared at him through squinted eyes. “To tell me what happened?”
“I killed someone.” He repeated the same line he’d begun with. “But not who they think it is.”
“Yes, I remember you said that.” I said nodding. “Where did you hear these things about me?” Michael didn’t respond. He just stared at me with the smile frozen on his face. “Michael?” I tried to be more forceful with my question. He refused to budge. I decided to just continue. “So was Stephen alright?”
“Oh he was fine.” Michael confirmed, letting his smile drop. “But that wasn’t the last time that Lance got to him. In fact, I think, since that incident with the bikes, Lance sortof liked the fact that he knew he could get to Stevie. I think he kindof got a kick out of it, actually.”
“Did he bully Stephen?”
“Stevie.” I let him correct me.
“Yes.” Michael said honestly. “We were all just starting at Curtis Corner.”
“What’s that?” I asked, displaying my ignorance of the locality.
“It’s a local middle school.”
“It was our first year there and most of us had all of our classes together. Lance was a few years ahead of us so we would only really see him in the hallway but he would take every opportunity he got to hunt Stevie down.” Michael explained.
“What sorts of things did he do to him?” I asked.
“He would push him into walls, throw stuff at him, knock his things out his hands — you know, the usual bully stuff.” Michael listed, “but he would act as if it were all just kidding around or joking and that he did those things by accident. Like he was just getting a little too rambunctious and that was all it was. That none of it was intentional — that’s the word — but everyone knew it was intentional except the teachers. The teachers were too fond of Lance to think that he could ever do anything wrong and none of us liked Stevie whether or not we liked Lance so he just got ignored.”
“What about Andrew? How was he doing in middle school?” I asked.
“Andrew had kindof… fallen behind in school.” Michael told me. “His parents worked very closely with our teachers in elementary school and they had decided to hold him back a year. I still saw him around in the neighborhood but it would be a year before I would see him around in school again.”
“And so during that time you noticed a lot of what Lance was doing.” I said, comprehending.
“And one day it just got… out of hand.” Michael explained.
“Well Lance had been up to his usual antics during the week and I think Stevie had just had enough of it. Somehow, he’d gotten the idea in his head that it was time to give Lance a taste of his own medicine.” Michael said this very slowly to emphasize the weight of this event.
“What did he do?” I asked, on the edge of my seat now.
“Stevie decided that the best way to get back at Lance would be to embarrass him in front of a lot of people. Stevie was a pretty academic kid. He was good at school. Lance was not so good at school but he was good at sports so he was popular. There’s a pretty good lacrosse team going at Curtis Corner and Lance was the star player.” Michael began the story.
“Okay, so did he wreck his lacrosse stick or something?” I guessed.
Michael shook his head. “All of us from the neighborhood, including Stevie, knew that Lance had one Achilles’ Heel — or Knee in this case. If you hit Lance in the back of his right knee it would automatically bend. Somehow Stevie got this information to our rival team Broad Rock Middle School just before an important game. Throughout the entire game the team used this to an advantage against Lance and — as a result — Curtis Corner lost.”
“And Lance knew that the only person who would have known that information and given it to the Broad Rock team would have been Stevie.” I concluded.
“The whole team was furious.” Michael explained, “And they decided to get Stevie back worse than he had gotten Lance. The next day at lunch, the entire team walked past him and dumped their lunches on his head.”
“Didn’t the faculty get involved?” I demanded.
“There were only two faculty members in the cafeteria that day and one of them was the father of one of the players, the other was married to the coach of the lacrosse team. They pretended like they didn’t even see anything until the players were completely done. When they finally took action and walked a couple players and Stevie to the principal’s office, they said that Stevie had started a food fight. It was obviously not true but he got suspended anyways.” Michael had a somewhat saddened look on his face as he told me this story.
“That can’t have been the end of it.” I said surely.
“It wasn’t.” Michael agreed. “Stevie’s father was furious. From what I heard, he marched into the principal’s office the next day himself and had an argument with the principal. When she refused to undo the suspension, he decided to transfer Stevie to Broad Rock.”
“That’s good. At least Stevie was away from Lance at that point.” I said nodding.
“That’s what everyone thought.” Michael gestured towards me as if to say, ‘wouldn’t you think?’ “But Stevie didn’t find any friends at Broad Rock. Who was going to be friends with the guy who had betrayed his old school’s team? You’d think they’d be grateful for him helping them get a victory, but when Lance started wearing tape around his knee for protection and the trick stopped working, the Broad Rock team started taking out their anger on Stevie.”
“It’s like he couldn’t escape the bullying.” I recognized this as a classic case. It’s hard to shed your outcast reputation even when moving from one school to another.
“And that’s when it happened.” Michael said.
I straightened my head up in surprise that this story could get worse. I shouldn’t say surprise as it’s not uncommon for victims of bullying to take drastic measures but it’s still always a shock to hear the way that people reacted and I could tell this would be one of those cases. The relentlessness of adolescents often results in tragedy.
“I remember this because it was the first year that Andrew started at Curtis Corner.” Michael continued. “And Lance had graduated and gone on to high school.” Michael looked me in the eye and then back down again before continuing as if to make sure I was still following him. “I really don’t know what those kids at Broad Rock were doing to Stevie and I hadn’t heard from him in a while, even around the neighborhood. It seemed like Stevie had finally gotten the idea that he really had no friends.”
“I thought Andrew was friendly with him.” I fact-checked.
“He was becoming more and more of a loner too.” Michael supplied.
“Were you still looking out for him?” I asked.
“From a distance, yes. Believe it or not, I still had not forgotten that feeling of owing him.” Michael confided.
“So what happened to Stevie at Broad Rock?” I asked, concluding the tangent about Andrew.
“Stevie…” Michael sighed, “Stevie, Stevie, Stevie…” I waited patiently for Michael to be ready to continue. “It’s like I said, I don’t know what those kids were doing to him at Broad Rock but I have hunch it was even worse than what Lance had been doing. It seems to me like what Lance did was harassment but what these Broad Rock guys were doing was, like, abusive. And I think Stevie just snapped.”
“It’s not uncommon.” I said, voicing what I had been thinking.
“I don’t know this for sure, but I do know that his dad was a pacifist so I know he didn’t get it from home.” Michael explained, “It’s just a bit too much of a coincidence that Andrew’s father owned a gun which suddenly went missing two days before the incident. The next day, Stevie’s father and both of Andrew’s parents had stopped by our place to ask my parents if we had seen or heard anything about or from Stevie. Apparently he’d been sleeping over at Andrew’s house the previous night and gone completely missing by morning.”
“Two days after that, I heard about it on the news. I saw four bodies covered in white sheets being wheeled out of Broad Rock as a reporter stood in front of the camera talking about what had happened. She said that Stevie had pulled a gun out in school and shot two students before the cops had come to confront him. They tried to get him to drop the gun and he fired at one of them, so they fired back and he was killed.”
I felt my eyebrows reaching towards my hairline as he continued with this story. I couldn’t even speak when he was finished.
“Stevie’s father was a wreck after that.” Michael went on. “They didn’t have any family so he invited mine and Andrew’s to Stevie’s funeral. He showed up drunk and had nothing to talk about except how Andrew and I had been Stevie’s best friends and how much it meant to him that we had come to ‘see him off.'”
“You know, now that you say all of this, I think I can remember hearing about this incident on the news myself.” I said even though I knew it wasn’t much consolation.
“You probably did.” Michael acknowledged. “You might’ve also heard about how the families of the students he shot came after his father. I don’t really know what they wanted from him or what they expected him to do. He’d lost his son too, you know? I did kindof feel a bit bad for him. It made him drink more and he made a lot of visits to our house. It was really awkward. Eventually he drove under the influence and got in a bad accident. He didn’t survive.”
“That’s awful.” was all I could say. Michael nodded a bit, a worn frown on his face. Then he turned his face away from mine, only slightly. He seemed to be debating with himself somehow as though he were still unsure about himself. “There’s something more isn’t there?” I said. Michael shot me a glance out of the corner of his eye. He opened his mouth and then closed it. I kept my mouth shut in anticipation.
“You remember I said that Andrew and I went to Stevie’s funeral…?” Michael began. I nodded. “Well,” Michael was stepping very tentatively around this subject, “there’s something that happened that day… something that I’ve never told anyone.” I waited. I couldn’t make him say anything he didn’t want to say. Michael’s lips twitched with the uncertainty of voicing this part of the story. “When we brought him to the cemetery… when we were burying him… we lowered his body into his grave and stood back so that his father could say some words but he was hysterical. Everyone was concerned with watching Stevie and his father and I looked away for a minute…” He was visibly getting to the part that he wasn’t sure if he should say.
“Did you cry?” I asked, trying to seem sympathetic. Michael shook his head. “It’s okay, Michael. Funerals are very emotional places. It’s normal to–”
“I saw him.” Michael interrupted.
“What?” I felt my expression betray my confusion before I could compose myself.
Michael seemed unfazed, “I saw him. Stevie. I mean, I was standing at the edge of his grave and I knew his body was in the coffin at the bottom of it but… off in the distance, hiding in the trees that went around the graveyard… I swear to you, I saw him.”
“You… you saw him…?” I asked. “What do you mean you saw him?”
“He was standing there, except there was something different about him. He almost looked… gray… like as if he were a cutout from some old silver screen movie.” Michael explained. “And then I blinked and he was gone.” There was a silence. “You don’t believe me do you?”
“It’s not that.” I denied immediately. “It’s just… did anyone else see him?”
“I can’t prove it,” Michael replied, “but I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed but they were all concentrated on Stevie’s father. That is, everyone except for Andrew. He was still staring in the direction where I’d seen Stevie. He couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away. I followed where he was looking but Stevie had disappeared. I think Andrew might’ve been seeing something I couldn’t.”
“Did you tell anyone that you saw him?”
“No, because I knew they wouldn’t believe me. I didn’t want to seem like I was making a joke about a dead boy.” Michael looked down again. “And besides, I don’t think Stevie’s father could’ve handled it.”
“Did you try to talk to Andrew about it?” I asked.
“No,” Michael persisted, “He didn’t handle Stevie’s death very well leading up to the funeral. I didn’t want to risk pushing him over the edge. And besides, I couldn’t prove that he had seen him, he could’ve been just looking away from the grave for a minute.”
“How did you feel about Stevie’s death?” I probed.
“Mostly just felt bad about the whole situation.” Michael said noncommittally.
“I meant, were you upset about Stevie’s death? Was it hard on you?”
“Not really. I mean, I wouldn’t wish death on anyone but then… I killed someone.” he said it as if he were pointing it out as evidence, cocking his head to one side and bugging his eyes out as he looked at me.
I nodded slowly. “How were things after that?”
Michael shrugged. “I mean, school went on like usual and it was only a couple years before we graduated from middle school and went on to high school. All of the middle schools in the district had really cracked down on bullying so there weren’t any more really drastic incidents like that.”
“But?” I could tell there was one.
“But Lance had left middle school before all of this happened and he had been looking for a new Stevie ever since Stevie transferred to Broad Rock.” Michael conditioned. “I’d heard stories from Shane about things that his brother was doing — same old stuff he had done to Stevie except to different people. But there was something about it that was just not satisfying to him. I mean, I’ll tell you, I hadn’t seen him look so smug as the day he got the lacrosse team to dump their lunches on Stevie’s head.”
“He enjoyed making people miserable.” I deduced.
“Or maybe he just liked a target for his aggravation.” I nodded in agreement with what Michael was saying. “I’ll be honest, he did stuff to me a couple times my first year. He was a big kid and he was a couple years older, he had gone from being the star lacrosse player at Curtis Corner to the star linebacker at South Kingstown High. He was great at knocking people off their feet. I’ve heard that sports are supposed to be really good for helping kids to get rid of pent up aggression but I don’t think it was enough for Lance. When Andrew finally caught up with us and came to the high school, I think Lance had finally found his Stevie replacement.”
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“And how did you feel about that?” I asked.
“I was on edge all the time.” Michael said. “If I saw Andrew in the hallway or if I had a class with him I would try to convince him to avoid a certain hallway or something like that just to prevent him from running into Lance. It was all I could really do for him.”
“And you didn’t feel like you could stand up to Lance?” I asked.
“No, not really.”
“What about Shane? Did you try talking to him?” I persisted.
“I don’t think there was anything Shane could’ve done.” Michael shook his head.
“Did Andrew talk to you about what Lance was doing?”
“No, not really.” Michael said again. “He knew that I couldn’t really talk to him long. I didn’t want my friends to see me talking to him. Shane and the other guys were pretty openly avoiding him now. I don’t think they wanted any trouble from Lance.”
“What about Mardi?”
“Oh Mardi,” Michael could barely stifle his smile at the mention of her name. “Mardi was a different girl in high school. Let’s just say she… developed nicely. She wasn’t the bike-riding tomboy we’d known growing up.”
I wasn’t sure if I felt comfortable about the way Michael was talking about Mardi but I kept to the story. “How did Andrew cope with the bullying when you couldn’t get him to avoid Lance?” I changed the subject.
“That was the thing about Andrew, he was difficult to bully. Lance’s tactics were still to make it seem as though all of the stuff he was doing was accidental to avoid looking like a dick.” Michael said, quickly snapping out of his reveries of Mardi. “And of course Andrew took it at face value. He really believed that when Lance would push him down or throw things at him that it was an accident. And that would just piss Lance off because it would blow over too easily and wouldn’t really bother Andrew.”
“Did he resort to something else?” I asked.
“Would you believe,” a sad smile crossed Michael’s face, “he used Mardi?”
“What do you mean?”
“There was a spring dance coming up. Andrew was really excited about it. He kindof had this romantic idea about a dance and this one was for the whole school to attend.” Michael said. “Andrew was determined to ask a girl to the dance. He told anyone who would listen that he couldn’t wait to kiss a girl.”
“He really thought it was guaranteed that he would be kissed if he asked a girl to the dance?” I asked. “What a bold kid.”
“I’ll say.” Michael concurred. “And then one day, I saw Lance and a group of his buddies huddled around Andrew in the hallway. The thing about Andrew was that when he got excited, he didn’t know how to keep his voice down. You wouldn’t have known what they were talking about if it weren’t for the fact that whenever Andrew answered them, he would shout his answer. You could hear him from all the way down the hallway saying, ‘Yeah, I can’t wait to kiss a girl! Girls are pretty!’ He wasn’t bright enough to notice that the guys around him were laughing at him, not with him.”
“So, what about Mardi?”
“I’m getting there.” Michael assured me. “The hall was filling up with people who had come to watch what Lance and the boys were going to do to Andrew. All I could do was watch. I felt my stomach flipping over and there was a lump in my throat. I thought I was going to be sick just watching. And then suddenly, I heard Andrew do a big exaggerated gasp like he always did. And then he goes, ‘Mardi is in love with me!?’ I could’ve just died of second-hand embarrassment in that moment. I wished I could just make Andrew disappear and reappear somewhere else. I wished that I could pull him away. I saw Lance point over at Mardi who was trying to make a break for it but the crowd was too thick.”
“Oh no.” I groaned.
“So Andrew walks over to Mardi and pulls on her arm so she’ll look at him and goes, ‘Hey Mardi! You should go to the dance with me!’ And he’s got this big stupid grin on his face and he’s turned all pink ’cause he’s excited and he thinks he’s in love.” Michael ran a hand through his hair in obvious frustration just at remembering that day.
“And Mardi wasn’t having that.” I said knowingly.
“Mardi flipped!” Michael said, a sad expression on his face, “She made gagging noises and screamed at him. She was like, ‘Ew! Why the hell would I want to go to the dance with you!? I don’t even like you! I’ve never liked you! Get your disgusting hands off me!'” As he recited her words he was whisper-yelling, waving his arms through the air to recreate her wild reaction to Andrew’s proposal. “‘You’re a freak! Get the hell away from me!’ I mean she just kept going like that. I knew it was because she didn’t want anyone to believe that she could really like Andrew but she took it too far. And of course, Andrew — being Andrew — went from seeing her as a friend to an enemy as quick as that. So he shoves her on the floor and runs off. Mardi flew into a full blown screaming tantrum and the teachers were coming flying to see what all the commotion was.”
“That must have been humiliating for him.” I shook my head sadly.
“I followed him.” Michael continued, “And if there is one good thing that came of the whole episode, at least he ran away. At least he got out of there because it wasn’t taken to the dean and he didn’t get in trouble. I don’t know if that would’ve made things better or worse so it was probably best that he just got out of there.”
“Yes, administration probably would’ve taken Mardi’s side since Andrew got physical.” I agreed. “But you followed him into the bathroom and then what happened?”
“I wanted to make sure he was alright.” Michael explained. “Luckily there was no one in the bathroom or things could’ve gotten way worse. But he didn’t know that I was following him. He ran into a stall and I came in and then I heard him crying. I didn’t want to startle him so I was going to approach the stall slowly but then I heard him. He was talking to himself.”
“Really?” I said with descending inflection. Even with all of Andrew’s issues, that didn’t seem normal.
“Yeah, he was talking to himself but not in the sort of on-going sort of way you might if you’re just, like, thinking out loud, you know? It was like… like he was actually having a conversation with someone.” Michael described.
“What was he saying?”
“Well he was like, ‘I can’t believe she said that! I can’t believe she said that!’ and he kept saying that but it slowed down and then, ‘I don’t WANT to calm down! I thought Mardi was my friend! I thought she loved me!’ And then a pause. ‘Why would Lance lie to me!? He’s my friend!’ Silence. ‘HE WAS JUST PRETENDING TO BE MY FRIEND!? HE TRICKED ME! HE TRICKED ME!’ I heard him hiccupping which always happened when he cried too hard. ‘Yeah… Yeah they deserve to be punished. I wanna punish them.’ I mean it was weird stuff.”
“Yeah, that sounds pretty concerning.” I agreed feeling my eyelids stretch open wide.
“This went on for a few minutes and then he just kindof cried for a bit. Then I heard him getting up and I got out of there before he could find out that I listened to him.” Michael finished.
“So you didn’t wind up talking to him about it?” I asked.
“No, I felt like I would just embarrass him more. Plus, there seemed like there was something really wrong with him.” Michael said. “And after that, he seemed much quieter and he kept to himself much more. He didn’t seem as happy as he usually did and he didn’t talk to people much at all.”
“Did the bullying continue?”
“Yes, but I don’t think that was really why.” Michael said honestly, “And then something really bad happened.”
I cocked my head to the side waiting for him to tell me. “What happened?” I finally pushed after a few minutes of silence.
“I was up really late one night playing video games.” Michael explained, “This is about a week or so after the whole scene in the hallway with Mardi and all that.” I nodded, showing that I was keeping up. “And I had finally gotten off, at like midnight-1am. It was really quiet that night. No wind, still warm enough to have the windows open. I heard this noise coming from next door.”
“From Andrew’s house?” I asked.
“Yeah, exactly,” Michael pointed at my face, noticing I was seeing where this was going. “So, I look outside and I can see him sneaking out his back door.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“Yup,” Michael nodded, “and I watch him walk into the woods behind our house. I see that he’s taking the trail that we used so that we could find our old tree house.”
“From when you were kids?” I asked.
“Yeah, and I had no idea what the hell he was doing so I just sat and watched.” Michael continued. “And about an hour or so goes by and I’m starting to think he might’ve gotten lost and I’m thinking I might have to go out and find him.”
“Was he in the treehouse?” I asked.
Michael didn’t respond to that. “Well I was about to go after him when he came back out of the woods.” I stared into Michael’s eyes, waiting. “And then,” he was speaking very slowly again, looking back into my eyes with a hesitant look on his face. “He came out of the woods and then someone followed him out. Someone very tall and skinny.”
My face had slowly scrunched up into an expression of concern. I really didn’t know what to think at this point. If Michael had not called me to see him in this jail cell with no obvious ultimatum, I would not have believed him but there was just no way he would fabricate this entire story for no reason. Why call me — of all people — to come from the next state to come and sit and listen to a giant, ridiculous tall-tale? “Stevie came out of the woods?” I tried to understand.
Michael stared into my eyes and there was a message of ‘I didn’t believe it either’ written in them. He didn’t say that out loud. Instead he simply replied, “I couldn’t see who it was. I just stood there like I was just frozen in place. I watched Andrew and this person walk side by side up along the back yards. Something in the back of my mind was saying I should follow them but all I could do was watch them walk away.”
“And then the next day,” Michael proceeded before I could interject anything. “Mardi was gone missing.”
I felt my heart sink at these words. “What do you mean, ‘missing’?”
“Gone.” Michael said simply. His eyebrows were raised, face slightly turned away, lips pulled together tight. “As in, M.I.A., unaccounted for, disappeared without a trace. That was the first time the police came to our high school to investigate. A few of Mardi’s closest friends were called in for questioning but they couldn’t find a lead, and they never would.”
“Did you talk to Andrew after that?” I asked.
“No.” Michael said, shaking his head almost feverishly. It was easy to tell he had avoided Andrew after that, scared to learn the truth. “I started trying to find sortof subliminal ways to prevent Lance from getting to Andrew and it worked usually. Lance still occasionally did mean stuff to him though.”
“Did you ever see Andrew leave his house at night after that?” I probed.
Michael shook his head. “But it wasn’t the last time something weird happened.” Michael took a deep breath. “You remember I said that I’ve never seen Lance so satisfied as when he got to take out his anger from losing to Broad Rock on Stevie?” I nodded. “Well, like I said, Lance was the star linebacker for the high school’s football team and, well, they couldn’t win every game.”
“Oh no.” I felt a sick feeling hit my stomach.
“Not to mention the fact that it was getting toward the end of Lance’s senior year and he had been obsessed with what we traditionally called, ‘Senior Pranks’ at the school. South Kingstown High had just lost to North Kingstown High and it had been the first game we had lost since Lance had joined the team.”
“This was your sophomore year then?” I fact-checked.
Michael nodded. “It was my sophomore year, Lance’s senior year. And one day, a couple days after the big loss against NKH, Shane came and found me in the lunch room.”
“Lance’s brother?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Michael confirmed.
“He came and found you?” I asked.
“Yes.” Michael said.
“I thought you and he were friends.” I asked.
“We were but he was supposed to be at football practice.” Michael explained.
“Okay, so he came and found me in the lunch room and he just goes, ‘come with me.'” Michael described. “And so I was like, ‘why? What’s up?’ And he just starts walking down the hallway towards the gym. So I got up and followed him. He led me all the way down to the locker rooms and then just told me to keep toward the back. We went in and the whole football team is in there. They don’t even notice us ‘cause they’re already huddled in a circle listening to what Lance is saying in the middle.
“And Lance is going, ‘you guys know that kid Andrew Lennard?’ that’s Andrew Andrew, he goes, ‘he’s the perfect kid. He’s big so he could fill in when we need him.'” Michael was talking in this deep voice, mimicking Lance. “I didn’t play any sports but I knew what Lance was saying.”
“What was he saying?” I asked.
“He was going to bring Andrew in as a freshman recruit for the football team. They would need someone to fill in numbers for the team after he and the other seniors left. A better player would probably take Lance’s place but they would still need bench warmers.” Michael explained.
“But that sounds like he was doing something nice for Andrew.” I noted, surprised.
“Except.” Michael held up a finger, “Except that the tradition was that all freshman recruits got hazed by the football team.”
“And Lance just wanted to haze Andrew.” I was absolutely slack-jawed at this point. After everything bullying had caused in this area, it still didn’t end.
“And the thing was, the other members of the football team didn’t know that Andrew couldn’t handle being hazed but Lance…”
“Lance knew!” Michael hissed emphatically, visibly outraged. “It was one thing to trip Andrew or steal things from him or spill things on him, but to full on haze him?” He got up from the table, knocking his chair backwards and seething, walking back and forth. I could see him fiddling with whatever he’d been holding under the table in his left hand although I couldn’t make out what it was.
“He was taking it too far again.” I could finally understand Michael.
“And there was nothing I could do about it.” Michael answered.
“Did you try to warn Andrew?” I asked.
Michael shook his head. “I couldn’t.” He leaned up against one of the walls, almost completely swathed in shadows, his forehead pressed to the concrete. The thunder rumbled, mirroring his fury.
“So what happened?”
Michael waited until his breath slowed before answering. He was facing away from me and I couldn’t see his face but I could still hear him clearly. “Shane didn’t want to have any part of it. We didn’t hear anything else about it. He asked me if I wanted to sleep over on the night of the hazing. He knew I wouldn’t want to see the team picking up Andrew from his house.”
“So they did convince him to join?” I asked.
“Oh yeah.” Michael answered looking back at me for a second. “He was so thrilled that they wanted to be his ‘friends.'” He sighed heavily against the wall, it came out shallow and thin. “But what we didn’t expect, was the location of the hazing. ‘Cause we could see the road to Stevie’s house from Lance and Shane’s, you know–”
“They were doing at a dead family’s home!?” I repeated horrified.
“The house had been completely abandoned ever since Stevie’s father passed away. They wanted to scare the crap out of Andrew so…” he heaved another huge sigh, “they decided to do it there. It was kindof out of the way, you know, it was deeper into the woods than the rest of the neighborhood, you had to take, like, a dirt road to get up to it. It sat up on a hill where you couldn’t see it from the road.”
“How did you find out that they were having it there?” I asked.
“Well I went to Shane’s house to avoid the football team, but of course they met at his house ’cause Lance would be there. I knew that would happen but I also thought that if they were leaving from Lance and Shane’s house, then Lance and Shane’s house would be the place they definitely wouldn’t be for the rest of the night.” It was funny that even now, Michael felt the need to explain himself. His guilt was obvious no matter how much he refused to call it that. “We heard them talking about ‘the house on the hill’ from upstairs. Then we watched them all head out, get in their Ferraris that their parents had bought them and left to pick up Andrew.”
“It was wise of you not to get involved.” I reasoned. “You were smart to just stay out of the way and–”
“Except I wasn’t going to.” Michael disagreed. I stopped dead with my mouth open about to form more words of understanding. “I couldn’t just sit there knowing what they were about to do to Andrew. I knew this wasn’t going to just be a regular hazing. I knew that Lance had it out for him and that he was going to take it way over the top and I just couldn’t sit there and pretend I didn’t know what was going on.”
“So what did you do?”
“At first I thought I just needed to be talked down. I couldn’t stop bringing it up and just feeling, you know, anxious or whatever.” Michael had come back over and picked his chair up. He was sitting in it, twiddling his thumbs on the table. “I thought Shane would just talk me out of it but he just said that he felt the same way. You know, like he just couldn’t stop thinking about what was happening. Lance was his brother after all. Finally I was just like… ‘we gotta go get him outa there.’ And Shane was just like… ‘yeah.’ So we just went.”
“You went to save him, just like you did when he was in the woods when you were kids.” I observed.
“Something like that.” Michael allowed, giving me a weird look. As he continued his story, he seemed less and less present, as if he were recounting this story more for himself than for me. “Anyways, we decided to walk up the hill so we wouldn’t be noticed by anyone. We didn’t want them to get excited and haze us too. We didn’t want to make any enemies, you know? We had taken so long to work up the balls to go get him that they might’ve already been hazing him.”
“What was your plan?”
“Possibly to try and cause some sort of distraction. Shane might’ve gone in and caused a scene pretending that his and Lance’s mom wanted them home or something while I grabbed Andrew and got him the heck out. I honestly don’t know what my thought process was but we were really just winging it.” Michael said. “But what we saw when we got up there was not what we expected.
“It was a big house, with a few acres all around. It had once been the home of a wealthy farmer so it had a big wrap-around porch. Shane and I snuck over to the side and looked through one of the windows to see what was going on inside. What we saw was the living room. You know, it was so weird, it had been so long since I’d been in there. The last time I was there, Stevie’s father had been thanking Andrew and me for heaving Stevie home after crashing his bike.” Michael described. “But it was exactly the same. All of the animals were still lining the walls, the furniture was all in the same place. It looked almost lived in.
“The football team had brought a bunch of flashlights and electric lanterns and stuff so the whole room was really well illuminated. All of them were just sitting around dancing and drinking like at any ordinary party. I spotted Andrew. They had him pretty boozed up already. He was completely shitfaced.
“We couldn’t have been there more than a moment trying to figure out a plan to get him out of there when suddenly we saw two of the football guys go over and take him by the shoulders. They lead him over to a chair and he was so smashed all he could do was giggle and let them sit him down and start tying him up. And then we saw Lance walk up. He had an egg in his hands. All of the people there started pulling out food and ketchup bottles and eggs and me and Shane just… already knew we were too late.”
“What was Andrew’s reaction?” I asked.
“When he started to figure out what they were doing he was really confused. He kept going, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing? What are you gonna do? Stop! It’s not funny!’ But of course everyone around him just thought that was hysterical.” Michael had his eyes squeezed shut. His eyes were flicking back and forth underneath his eyelids as if he was dreaming about this scene as he was describing it. “And then it started. They started throwing the food at him, squishing it on his head, squirting stuff in his face and up his nose. It was awful and they just thought it was so hilarious.”
“Why didn’t you run for help?” I asked, but Michael wasn’t done with his story.
“But then suddenly.” Michael open his eyes and looked at me. His face went completely pale and his eyes looked horrified. “All of the lights started flickering and everyone just kindof stopped where they were standing. And I saw Andrew’s face. I have never in my life seen anyone look so furious. His face was bright red and he kept rolling his eyes. For a moment I thought he was going to have a seizure. He was baring his bottom teeth like this.” Michael paused to show me the facial expression Andrew had made. It was intimidating just watching his imitation. “And then the lights turned all the way off on their own for a minute. Everyone inside was screaming, they might’ve been heard if we hadn’t been so far from the main road. And then suddenly the lamps of the living room turned on — not the lanterns that the players had brought but the lamps that had belonged to Stevie and his father when they lived in the house but they were so dim, we could only see the silhouettes of people and standing in front of them all was… Stevie.”
Michael stopped. Thunder cracked loudly outside and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Michael was shivering all over uncontrollably. I could tell the anxiety was sending adrenaline coursing through his body. “And then what happened?” I asked in a low and careful tone. This had ceased to be a therapy session. I was just the sole witness to Michael’s testimony.
“And then I saw all of them… move…” Michael said.
“Who?” I asked. “Who Michael?”
“The heads… the animals… on the walls.” Michael was so upset that tears were welling up in his eyes again. “They moved to look out into the room and then all of the windows closed and the doors locked on their own. And then…” He heaved and had to lean to the side as he almost vomited.
“Are you alright?” I asked, standing up to check on him.
“Mardi!” He screamed. “Mardi dropped from the ceiling! She had stitches all along her sides and her mouth was sewn shut. She had big fake eyeballs lodged into her eye sockets.” All I could do was stare down at him, horrified. What was I supposed to say in response to that? “The lights went out and we couldn’t see anything inside! But we could hear the screams! And these weren’t just screams of fear anymore it was screams of pain and Shane and I knew that they were all being murdered. There were so many people in there. At least thirty or so?” Michael had to stop. He lowered his head to the table and sobbed hard. I could only sit there and watch him. I had no words for what he was describing.
Finally he lifted his head up to look at me again. “We don’t have to continue.” I told him.
“YES!” he croaked out. “WE DO!” He took a deep shuddering breath, thrusting his fists onto the table to steady himself.
“It’s getting late. I can come back again.” I offered. He just shook his head in response.
“NO!” He insisted. “LISTEN!”
“I am listening.” I reassured him. “I’m here for you. Whatever you want to tell me, I’ll listen.”
Michael nodded but he still needed a minute to compose himself. Finally when he was able to continue, he started speaking in a very quiet, exhausted voice. “Shane and I just stood there on the side of the porch. The only people who know we were there now are me and you.” Michael said. “And when the screaming stopped, there was silence for a minute and then we saw the front door open and we saw Andrew come out. He was covered in blood. He was still drunk so he just ran off. He went into the woods and I could tell that he was afraid of what had happened. Shane and I stood there for a long time even after Andrew had disappeared.”
“Was Shane alright?” I asked.
“Neither of us were.” Michael answered. “We had both seen what had just happened. And I knew that Shane could see Stevie. We both knew what had just happened. And for a while, all we could do was sit there and cry. What else could we do? And then finally I just took him by the shoulders and I told him, ‘We saw nothing! We don’t know anything!’ And he just stared at me and I shook him and I said it again and he nodded and then when we sortof… got our shit together, we just left and went back to his house.”
“Everyone must have noticed by the next morning.” I said.
“I was so glad to spend that night with Shane, you know? Nobody else was going to get it and he needed someone after seeing what we saw.” Michael recalled. “And the next day when all of those kids didn’t go home, all of their parents started to worry and obviously the police got called.”
“And that’s when you got taken into custody, isn’t it?” I asked.
He nodded. “Me, Shane and Andrew. I was still at Shane’s place when they came to get us. I didn’t even get a chance to see my parents. We got taken straight to the station for interrogation. And I remember when Andrew got brought in. He had leaves in his hair– you could tell he had slept in the woods the night before but he had somehow cleaned himself of the blood. He was screaming and crying and pulling against the handcuffs. He was just scared.” I couldn’t believe Michael was still defending him even after what he’d done.
“What about you? Weren’t you scared?” I asked.
“Yes.” Michael responded. “I was scared, but I just couldn’t believe that Andrew meant for any of it to happen. I still don’t think so.”
“So you were still determined to defend him.” I concluded.
“I was, but then, I wasn’t the one who’d just lost a brother.” Michael said gravely.
“Shane.” I murmured.
“He gave him up. He told me that he would hold out at first but I don’t think he was willing to go to jail for his brother’s murderer. In the end, I think I asked way too much of him. I couldn’t expect him to understand Andrew in the same way I did.” Michael nodded as though he still had to convince himself to some extent.
“Michael,” I was finally willing to ask the question that had been picking my mind for our entire conversation. “what does any of this have to do with the people you killed?”
Michael finally looked back up into my eyes. He’d been leaning on his knees for a few minutes, facing away from me. Now he turned toward me, faced me head on. “I was still mid-interrogation when one of the officers told us that Shane had confessed.” Michael said. “The three of us were brought out of the interrogation rooms at the same time, Andrew was in cuffs and he knew he was being arrested. Somehow I think that Shane felt like he would be kept safe if he just fessed up to what we saw. He didn’t tell the officers anything about Stevie or Mardi. He just said that Andrew had killed all those kids. When Andrew was being taken out by the officers, he saw Shane and there was this look of just… betrayal on his face.”
“And of course, in Andrew’s black-and-white logic, Shane was being mean to him.” I deduced.
“Andrew was dragged out to a police cruiser to be brought to the precinct kicking and struggling and he kept screaming back at Shane, ‘TRAITOR! TRAITOR!’ and we saw them drive off with him and we were allowed to go home. It was weird because he definitely didn’t seem himself and words like ‘traitor’ were not really in his vocabulary. My parents were so glad to see me, but I hadn’t been in the door more than an hour when the police were back at my door to take me back into custody.” Michael explained.
“Why?” I demanded. “What happened?”
Michael looked me in the eyes, this time I stared back at him intently, trying to assure him that I definitely believed him. “The police cruiser that was taking Andrew randomly crashed into the side of the road. The officers were instantly killed and Andrew disappeared without a trace.”
“Did they think you would know where he was?” I asked. “Or that you were his accomplice?”
“I’m not sure. I just know that they put me back in custody.” Michael said. “And they couldn’t find him anywhere. They were sending search parties out all over town but they weren’t having any success.”
“How did you feel about Andrew escaping?” I asked.
“At first I was kindof glad. I hoped that he would get away. His parents were also being interrogated and I could tell that they felt the same thing.” Michael nodded. “But then I realized something. I figured out where he was and I knew that if anyone found him, it would have to be me.”
He paused. “It was like when I tricked him into hitting the ball into the woods near the Little Park.” Michael said finally. “He was so deep in this mess and I was the only person who knew where he was.”
“But you were in custody weren’t you?” I asked.
“I was, but they were only allowed to keep me until evening because they didn’t have a technical charge to accuse me of. They let me go and I was supposed to go straight home. My parents came and got me but we were followed by a pair of cruisers who were supposed to stake out my house. There were so many cops in my neighborhood, you could see flashlight beams around every house.” Michael described. “So I pretended like I went to bed and then waited for a few hours. The police were still there late at night but all I needed was to make sure that my parents were asleep and when I was sure they were, I went out my back door.
“The thing about our neighborhood is that all of the doors have a swinging screen door and there’s no way to prevent them from slamming, especially not when you’re in a rush, and I knew that I had to run into the woods behind our house.”
“I’m beginning to see where this is going.” I said.
“So I rushed out the back door in nothing but my boxer shorts and I ran into the woods. The thing about the woods is that they’re so thick that the cops probably wouldn’t have noticed the treehouse, especially not in the dark. But I knew the way like the back of my hand.
“Of course, all of the cops would have heard the back door slam when I ran out it and a few of them saw me run into the woods, but I was fast enough that they lost me by the time I got deep enough into the woods. Still, I knew I was on a time limit now because they knew the right area to patrol.”
Michael was starting to give me the look again, trying to gauge whether it was wise to tell me the next part of his story. I nodded to let him know that I was with him.
“When I got to the treehouse and climbed up into it, it was extremely dark. I didn’t want to turn on my flashlight until I got inside because it would have made it easier for the cops to follow but now I could turn it on. As soon as I flicked it on I saw Andrew inside. He yelled at me not to come any closer. And then I saw, on the floor, in a pool of blood, Shane’s dead body and then I saw… Stevie.”
Lightning sent light flickering through the window and another thunder crack resounded through the room.
“He was exactly as I’d seen him at the funeral. He was fuzzy and all black and white like in an old movie.” Michael took a breath to steady himself. “And it started raining, just like it is tonight. And then Stevie spoke. He moved his lips like he was speaking but I could only hear him as a thought in my head and I could tell Andrew could hear him too. He said, ‘Shoot him.’ Meaning me.”
“I looked Andrew in the eye and I said the only thing I could think of. I said, ‘No, Andrew, just give me the gun. Give me the gun and we can walk out of here safely, together. I won’t let anyone get you. I’m your friend, remember?’ I said, ‘Remember me? It’s Michael.’ And he goes, ‘Mike?’ and I really think he’d forgotten who I was. But then Stevie says, ‘Don’t listen to him, he’s not your friend.’ And he was glaring at me, and when he glared, Andrew glared too. It was almost like watching a master lead his puppet.
“And then suddenly everything went dark all around us and then I heard over to my left a young kid’s voice. My voice. I was saying, ‘hey, let’s go to the Little Park, and we can play some ball.’ And when I looked over I saw myself standing in front of little Andrew and I knew Andrew could see us too. I watched little me hit the water logged ball into the woods and I heard Stevie saying, ‘He’s not your friend. He was only pretending to be your friend. He’s no better than the rest.’ and I saw Andrew going to look for the ball and getting lost. And then I saw myself running away laughing.
“When I looked back at Andrew, he was crying and I knew Stevie was convincing him. He was yelling back at Stevie and I could see the window behind him showing the policemen’s flashlights turning to try and spot where Andrew’s voice was coming from. ‘No! Mike is my friend!’ I just kept saying the same things. ‘It’s just me, Andrew. I’m your friend. Give me the gun and we can leave.'”
There was another lightning flash followed quickly by the loudest crack of thunder yet. Mine and Michael’s eyes were locked and we were now both seeing into this memory. All I could do was stare at him and listen.
“And then I saw us when we were little again. I saw a time when Lance and Shane had convinced me to bike away from Stevie and Andrew to avoid them. Stevie was still going, still egging him on. He kept going, ‘See? He wasn’t my friend either? I’m your only friend. Shoot him.’ And Andrew was crying so hard and he really didn’t know what to do. I kept begging him to just give me the gun.
“Stevie just kept going. He showed time after time where we were in middle school and either he or Andrew were getting bullied and I didn’t step in to say anything or stop people. I tried to apologize and I meant it. I told him that I was just scared to get bullied myself. I told him that I was too worried about what other people would think. I told him that I was wrong. I told him that I didn’t mean for things to happen that way. Andrew was screaming and sobbing and by now I could see the officers coming towards us and yet we were still surrounded by the shadows that Stevie had cast around us.
“Then Stevie started showing lies. He showed me at the hazing party in Stevie’s house. He showed me laughing with everyone else. It was an image that was obviously not true but I also knew that Andrew could only take things at face value. Shane was dead at Andrew’s feet but Stevie showed an image of me telling the cops about everything he and Stevie had done at the party. All the while Stevie kept repeating, ‘He’s not your friend! He’s a liar! I’m your only friend! He hates you! Kill him! He deserves to be punished! He’s mean!’ and I just kept asking him to give me the gun.
“We could hear the policemen at the bottom of the treehouse. They were ordering us to come down or they would come and get us. Andrew started yelling at me. He was saying, ‘The police are here. You brought them here!’ But I was noticing that he was screaming only in my mind. He was communicating the same way that Stevie was. I said, ‘Andrew, it’s all in your imagination. Remember when you got lost in the woods? Who came and got you? Who tried to keep you away from Lance? Who helped you bring Stevie back to his house when he crashed his bike? Who went with you to Stevie’s funeral?’ Stevie was still screaming too but I could tell that the police officers had no idea what was happening in that treehouse, we’d left that world. We were only half in it.
“But something I said had gotten through to Andrew. ‘Mike is my friend!’ he told Stevie. Somehow the images weren’t getting through to him. I think he knew that I was the literal one, the physical one, the one that wasn’t in this ethereal second realm. I was the one who really mattered, and as far as Andrew knew, I was the one who saved him from the forest, the one who went biking with him and his best friend from high school.
“This look came over Stevie’s face and his eyes started to glow this yellow color and get this slits for pupils. They sank into his face and his teeth turned long and sharp and his mouth became this hollow shadow in his face. He his and leapt onto Andrew. I couldn’t see what he was doing because they both had turned into just blackness. I could just hear the cops shouting up at us from below, telling us to throw the weapon out the window and come down quietly. That they had us surrounded. I saw the gun on the floor and I grabbed it but when I looked up I saw Andrew still struggling to get Stevie off of him and I knew… I didn’t have any choice…
“And I took the gun, and I turned it around on him, and I shot him.”
As I stepped back out of the precinct, the rain had slowed nearly to a stop but the odd drip still fell from the nebulous, purple sky. I stared at the pavement below my leather shoes as I made my way down the stairs, hand grazing the slightly rusted handrail. The streetlamps over the parking lot made the surroundings seem that much darker. I was so lost in thought that if I hadn’t stumbled, I might never have looked up to see if anyone had noticed my little blunder. I would say that there was no one in sight, but that would be inaccurate.
There were no guards, policemen or anything of the sort in sight although I’m sure the entire thing was under surveillance. But, off in the distance, on hill, I could see the pair of boys I’d seen earlier. The ones who had been sitting under the overpass earlier as I’d been driving toward the precinct. They glared down at me as they’d glared before. I stared up at them for a minute. I couldn’t help but notice that they didn’t appear entirely there. They seemed to be black and white, as if they’d been cut out of an old silver screen movie.
I proceeded to get into my car with the two of them still staring down at me. I turned on my headlights, looked behind me only to back up. Looked up at them again as I turned my wheel, and they watched over me as I pulled out of the parking lot and drove away from the precinct.
I don’t know if that was the right thing to do but that is what I did. I didn’t look back. The next day on the news I saw that inpatient Michael Georges’ had mysteriously disappeared from his cell at the Southern Rhode Island Precinct. Two guards had been found dead as well as the commanding officer and chief of police. Their bodies had been hung from the ceiling at their posts and appeared to be removed of their organs and stuffed with cotton — their eyes had been replaced by glass ones. The last person seen leaving the precinct is myself. This is my written testimony. I’m sorry, Michael, that I could not remain confidential.