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There was a pervasive quality about his life. He was a normal boy, bright in school, amiable with his parents, even sociable, to a fault, with most of his teachers. And yet…he always seemed distant. He always seemed to hide behind a glass wall.
He rarely spoke in school. When he did, it was quietly, almost as if he didn’t want to disturb those around him. The few times he had an outburst, it was as if a switch had flipped. His rage would be aimed at anyone foolish enough to stand in his way. Most knew better.
To many in his classes, it seemed that he was just antisocial. To many of his teachers, he was a quiet intellectual. To his parents, he was a dream come true. No one knew his pain.
He would come to school for days on end with bags under his eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in years. When asked, he’d dismiss them with a wave of his hand, but there was a hesitation in his flippant nature, like he was afraid some terrible secret would be inadvertently revealed to the world.
Always, there were restless nights.
Always, there was his secret.
Always, there was The Incident.
“I seriously do!” his few friends exclaimed.
“No, you don’t,” he said with the hint of a shudder in his voice.
“No, I think it’d be a cool experience!” they insisted.
“Well, I think you’re wrong.”
“Jeez, man, relax. I was only kidding.”
“You don’t…” he paused.
“It’s nothing. Never mind.”
“How are you?” his parents asked.
“Fine,” he lied, sincerely wishing their reply would be Tell me the truth.
“What happened in school?”
“Not much,” he said.
They sighed. “Alright. Your grades doing okay?”
His mother cracked open the door. “Hey. You asleep?”
“I was,” he lied again. “Why?”
“Nothing. I thought I heard whispering.”
“Okay. Sweet dreams.”
“Goodnight,” he replied, knowing his dreams would be anything but sweet. The door closed. He stared at the ceiling, trying to make his name out in the cracks for a few moments before whispering, “Where are you?”
He was in algebra. The teacher was going over equations with more than one variable.
“So, you see, if we take this guy,” the teacher said, pointing to an x, “and drag him over here…”
The boy’s hand on the notebook paper slowly crumpled it into a ball.
He was in English. They were discussing a novel about the Holocaust. For the first time in a long time, he spoke up.
“I think that watching a traumatic event unfold and not being able to do anything about it is a Hell in and of itself, as opposed to having the event unfold with you as the…” His voice cracked.
The teacher finished for him. “Victim? Yes, I see your point. Well done. However, if a character is a witness and the traumatic event haunts him, would that character not be another victim?”
The boy said nothing.
“I swear, if Ms. Abodsky doesn’t let up on the homework, I’m going to kill someone.”
The boy chuckled weakly while his friends at his lunch table roared with laughter.
He came out of school, day in, day out, looking feverishly over his shoulder as he turned the corner of the building, with a slight paranoia. His mother asked him if anyone was teasing him and he said no. This time he was telling the truth.
He was a good actor, the best in his drama class. He had to be, if he wanted his secret to remain a secret. Everyone marveled at his range of emotions, from happiness to shock to horror in seconds. No one knew how naturally it came to him. After all, he’d been through that gauntlet before.
He would cry into his pillow, asking, begging, pleading for it to stop. It never did. The images continued to assault his brain, night after night after night after night. At times he cried out in his sleep and his parents would check in. He would say everything was fine, that he had just had a nightmare. His parents would then return to their room, oblivious that the nightmare had become reality and their innocent child really wasn’t that innocent after all.
He lived a lie. Over time, it got easier to verbally lie to everyone he knew. But to lie to himself was an impossibility; the horrific sounds he would never forget still echoed in his ears, drowning out his attempts to convince himself that everything was fine, that he lived a normal life.
He had to lie to his parents. It was all about appearances. He wanted to give them the satisfaction that he was growing up normal, that his innocence was intact, like it should be.
He had to lie to his teachers. It was legality. If they knew, they’d tell his parents or the authorities and that was the last thing he needed.
He had to lie to his friends. That was a choice. He knew they’d never tell anyone, should they find out. But he also knew every man must shoulder a burden alone. This was his battle to fight, his war to wage.
The combination of numbers and digits pulsed in his thoughts. Every now and then he would slip, put it on a test or quiz. That would surprise him, to get his test grade and find E8N24G staring back at him, as though his greatest fear was starting to show up everywhere in his life.
He bought flowers every now and then from his local grocer. Black roses. He asked a friend for a ride, one who could drive. Rode out to the address he happened to know by heart. Walked up the driveway, set the roses down. Waited, held his breath, considered if today would be the day he would stay and talk. He rang the doorbell, hesitated, then sprinted back to the car and told his friend to floor it. A woman, face weathered, opened the door, the car long gone.
“Honey,” she called into the house, “our friend, the one with the roses, came…came back…” She began to cry.
After a time, sleep eluded him. He would mumble his way through class. Food seemed to taste like dirt, water like vinegar. He picked at his food, picked at his life, pushing it around, slowly pulling it apart.
He stopped eating.
He couldn’t even hold a conversation.
“Hey, man, what’s up?” his friends asked.
He replied, “Existence is a vulgar absurdity,” and slinked off, leaving his friends to wonder at his retreating back.
“I wonder if he’s doing okay,” they said.
“What happened to him?” they asked.
“He’s not even the same person,” they’d swear.
The Incident. It ruled his life.
Ten minutes and forty-three seconds of agony, shattered innocence, and ruined lives.
He would keep repeating to himself, “The theater had a slow night. The theater had a slow night.”
The theater has a slow night. He walks out of the multiplex, checks his watch, and mutters discontentedly, “Ah. Thirty minutes until they show up.” He decides to take a walk around the building, to clear his head. He walks around once, twice, three times. All is quiet. The fourth time, around the back of the building, noises start to creep into his ear. He slows his pace, keeps his back against the wall, and slowly, ever so slowly, peers around the corner. The man on the ground he does not recognize, nor the four men in ski masks beating him with baseball bats. The blood splatters the sidewalk as the boy’s eyes widen. One of the men produces a rope and throws it over a lamppost. They drag the man over to the rope and tie it around his neck. They hoist him off the ground, very slowly at first, so he has time to claw at his neck, breaking the skin. Then his feet lose contact and there are only the awful gagging sounds, the bulging of his eyes, the convulsion of his body. The boy watches in horror as the man’s face turns blue, then runs to the Dumpster behind the building and vomits. He runs back to the corner and sees the license plate of the four ski masked men, E8N24G, as their car speeds off. The boy turns to the man and watches his body sag. The man’s eyes are locked onto his, almost as though pleading for him to do something.
The boy did something.
He made an anonymous 911 call from a pay phone, told the operator their license plate. A week later the men were arrested. Two months later, they went to his county jail.
The boy did something. But often he wondered if it was too little, too late.
Some nights, he lay awake wondering if they will come for him. He knew it wasn’t possible, but that one part of his brain kept insisting otherwise.
“Maybe one day,” he whispered, “I’ll stay to tell them.”
Maybe one day he did.