I hate this town. I hate this house we live in, stuck in the middle of nowhere, miles from anything. I hate my school and the hick kids that go there. I have no place to retreat to except for inside of myself. All I can do is read books. After school, sometimes I just crawl back under the covers of my unmade bed and read, even when the weather is nice. It can be weird to be lying in bed on a sunny day but I have a hard time thinking of a good reason to get up. Sometimes I sleep.
My brother, Jonas, is 2 years younger than me. We watch TV together after school but we inevitably get into a fight about what to watch, who gets to eat what, something stupid. I don’t yet realize that I am just taking out my own un-channeled frustration on him when we fight. The fights can get really brutal sometimes. I don’t realize what a sadistic fuck I can be. The fights can last hours sometimes and take us to every room in the house and then into the yard. Unfortunately, I’m the only one who can take credit for how low I’ll go. Choking, punching, doing whatever I can to expunge my hostility, my rage. My poor brother will wear the evidence of it for weeks afterwards in the form of deep blue bruises.
We moved here to this house in this town, because my Aunt and her family live here. My mother thought it would be good to be near her family after she and my father got divorced. My cousins are close to our age. The two boys Judd and Scott are a couple of years older than me. The daughter Alyssa is a year younger. They are the golden kids around here. No matter what Jonas and I do, our achievements and exploits are innevitably compared against theirs.
My brother and I think this is bullshit. It’s a rare area of agreement for us. My mother loves us unconditionally, we don’t doubt that, but neither of us will be sold on the idea that our cousins are a suitable example of what to strive for in life. Their world is simple and plain. They are small town with small minds. I don’t yet know what I want, but I know I don’t want what they’ve got. I want to be more than a big fish in a shitty little mud puddle of a town. Fuck being on the football team. Fuck wrestling and I’ve hung up my baseball cleats for good. I get better grades than them too. Who cares if they are popular? The popular people in this school are douche-tards.
There is also a stink from them that has yet to be detected by our parents. My aunt and my mother have been blinded by the shine. My aunt and my mother have no idea what a prick and a bully Scott can be at school.
When you reach seventh grade in this town you switch from going to the elementary school to a junior high school where students from 2 other towns also attend. It’s kind of a big deal because maybe you can shake your rep from elementary school and make a new first impression. At least that’s what some kids hope for.
I know that’s what Michael P_ is hoping for. He’s sick of being picked on by the popular kids (including my cousin Scott) at the elementary school. He’s hoping the new school will be a chance to make a fresh start. Maybe with all these new kids around he won’t be the default class punching bag. Maybe somebody from one of the other towns will be low man on the totem pole for once, instead of him.
Michael lives just 3 houses down the street from us. We spend a bunch of time together the summer preceding his entry into 7th grade. We do normal country shit. We wander through the woods looking for stuff to do, ride our bikes down back roads just to see where they go, the normal kind of stuff kids do when they are bored out of their skulls.
Michael isn’t a bad kid. He does have a lot of warts though. Warts all over his arms and his body, like on his neck. They are crazy ugly, really well defined warts that are just all over him (except for his face). Kids give him endless shit about it. I don’t go out of my way to touch the warts as I’m not clear if they are contagious or not, but I don’t pick on him specifically about them either. He keeps to himself a lot of the time.
Michael’s family has an enormous lawn in back of their house. His father is obsessive about it to an uncool degree. Michael is always having to mow the thing. The only consolation is that they own a souped-up drive mower to help with the task. His father seems like a real dick about the lawn though. Michael will be hanging out with us neighborhood kids doing something stupid (because that’s all we do is stupid shit) and his father will come out looking for him, yelling about how he needs to get mowing right that second. It seems like he‘s always mowing. I think he has to do it twice a week.
Beyond the warts, Michael is harmless. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. I can’t understand why he’s subjected to the amount of abuse that he is. I guess it’s just that kids are assholes. Maybe it really is just the warts. Fuck if I know. But my cousin and his buddy Mark are merciless when they are taunting him. In a way it’s a bit ironic because Mark has a huge burn on part of his face. There are stories about how he got the burn, but kids are scared to ask about the truth because he’s such a psychopath. So it’s burnt face versus wart body.
The school bus drops us off in front of our house after the first day of the new school year. I have just started sixth grade, which means that it’s Michael’s first day in the new regional junior high school. It’s still summer, humid and ninety degrees, miserable weather in my opinion. My brother and I are eating chips and salsa and watching Mtv when an ambulance comes screaming past our house. A fire truck, its siren blaring, follows right behind it.
The sirens stop a short distance away. When we realize this, Jonas and I race outside, grab our bicycles and roll up to the scene. We are shocked to see Michael pinned against a roof-rafter in his garage, his neck and head are tilted at an unnatural right angle. The firemen cut the rope that is looped around the beam. The opposite end of the rope has been tied to the drive mower that continued its rider-less press forward; free of the broken neck and the 120 pound boy that was holding it at bay.
Michael’s body is a shade of blue that will never leave me as his lifeless corpse is hoisted down and placed onto a stretcher. One of the firemen tries CPR briefly but gives up just as quickly. It’s clear that Michael’s plan has been effective. He’s not coming back. Our neighbor Mr. S_ herds us neighborhood kids back over to our house.
It’s there that Josh, an older kid from up the street, describes to us the beating Michael had been subject to in front of all his new classmates. My cousin had doled out the pummeling just an hour prior to the hanging. Apparently Scott hadn’t wasted any time in identifying Michael as the class loser to the new members of the 7th grade. Michael had fought back and for his insolence, Scott beat the crap out of him in front of everyone waiting to board the busses. I imagine Michael figured he was in for another 6 years of humiliation at the hands of my cousin. He made the understandable decision to check out. I couldn’t blame him.
When my mother gets home that night she speaks to her sister (my aunt) at length on the phone. It’s explained to my mother that Michael had a history of erratic behavior and has displayed symptoms of mental illness. I think this is a really convenient conclusion for her to come to, considering there is a mere minutes-long timeline between the beating her son has administered and the suicide I witnessed the tail end of earlier in the afternoon. That she had never met or interacted with the dead kid (and that I have) didn’t exactly strengthen her argument in my mind.
Apparently, Scott “feels awful” we were told. I doubt it though. I am lucky in that I hardly ever have to see my cousins now that I don’t do sports. Thanksgiving and Christmas are really the only times of the year when I can count on having to spend time with them.
When Thanksgiving does roll around, I’m a sullen bastard. I hate this fucking holiday. I hate having to be reminded I am related to these lizards. They are all so happy and vigorous and satisfied. I can’t understand it. Why would you be happy living such a shit life? I would do like Michael P_ if I didn’t know I am going to be out of here as soon as I can.
After dinner the adults leave the kids in the living room watching football. I am bored to tears. My brother and I take turns singing the word “murderer” in a ridiculous falsetto voice. We are cracking ourselves up and our cousins must think we are just retarded weirdoes. Judd asks us what we are doing. I answer as calmly as I can, although I’m nervous I’m going to get a beat down, “We’re just wondering what it feels like to be a murderer.”
“What are you talking about?” Judd asks.
“Scott knows, what I’m talking about.” I say. My brother starts to laugh.
“No! I don’t know what you’re talking about! What do you mean?” Scott says.
I tell them to forget it. But the damage is done. After a minute of stony silence, my mother finally appears and asks if we are ready to leave. We are.
The next day my mother talks to our Aunt and finds out what I’ve done. I explain to my mother that I honestly think Scott is a murderer. She tells me Scott was really upset. “He could have fooled me,” I say. I thought he was about to kick the shit out of me. My mother seems at a loss. She says we’ll talk about it later. We never do.
I wonder if Michael P_ appears in my cousin’s dreams. I’d be surprised if his lizard brain was capable of an emotion as complex as empathy.