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I remember the gunshots made a wet sort of sound, phssh phssh phssh, and each time he hit her she screamed. Do the math and the whole thing probably went on for as long as ten minutes. I just stood there and watched.
I don’t know when I realized I was counting. Eight, nine, ten. For a long time it seemed as if all sensation, everything but my eyesight, had been switched off. But once I realized I was keeping track of the shots—eighteen, nineteen, twenty—it felt like something I could cling to because my sense of balance had been switched off along with everything else. I was standing on the nauseating brink of something I didn’t want to fall into, a world beyond comprehension.
Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight.
This wasn’t real life, this was a show. And this show wasn’t for me, I wasn’t even allowed to stay up late enough to watch this sort of show. No, none of it made any sense, a silent movie with Russian subtitles.
And yet I watched.
What does it mean to watch? When a crime takes place in front you, what is watching? Is it a failure to act or is it simply keeping your eyes open?
I was twelve. I was twelve years old.
Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three … although the newspapers reported Hannah had been shot only thirty-seven times with my Red Ryder BB gun, so maybe Matthew missed a few times, or more likely some of the pellets simply glanced off the ropes. He had used so much rope, I imagine he had to be taking careful aim at the gaps. We were both pretty good shots by then—I could plunk a soda can one-handed from thirty steps and Matthew no doubt thought himself a better shot than me. No way, José.
I figured everything was winding down now. Hannah’s screaming was slowly becoming less and less. And between the screaming there was crying and that also was becoming less and less.
When Matthew pulled the trigger the forty-ninth and final time, there was only half a scream, a sharp yelp that died quickly in Hannah’s throat. And that yelp was a sickening enough sound on its own but it is the absence of the second half of her scream that rings loudest in my memory.
I can still picture it as well, the way Hannah’s head twisted despite the rope tied around her neck, a reflex that had come absurdly too late.
The woods fell ever more silent. It felt like the moment in a storm when you see the flash of lightning and wait for the thunderclap. Is it closer?
And then Hannah’s head drifted back. And her chin dropped to her chest. And her long dark hair fell over her face.
Matthew stayed as still as a lead soldier and I did the same, fused to a plate of the earth, not even breathing, just trying to exert some small measure of control over my life for a few final seconds. The world at that moment was reduced to a thin sort of strip like a newspaper cartoon, a ribbon of life that started with Matthew, the butt of the rifle wedged at his shoulder, and ended two frames later with Hannah, motionless, tied to a tree.
But then came a sound that snapped us both out of it, something small scurrying through the undergrowth, Matthew’s head jolting and his body coming alive. He leaned the gun carefully, almost respectfully, against a rock and began to creep forward, stopping an arm’s length away and peering in at Hannah like she was darkness in a cave.
He picked up a stick and prodded her arm.
He jabbed again, Hannah’s flesh like dough, a small crater of skin filling itself back in. Raising the stick higher, he hesitated a moment. What kind of a world might exist beyond the curtain?
And then Matthew parted her hair. That’s when I first noticed the blood dripping from Hannah’s chin, soaking the neckline of her T-shirt, its pink collar crimsoning.
I spun around and spat on the ground, my eyes beginning to scope the woods, looking to see if anyone else might have witnessed it all. When I turned back, Matthew still had his stick under her hair, standing there with his head to one side, as if reading spines in a bookstore.
Hey, come take a look, he said.
I pressed the heel of my hand to the bridge of my nose, trying to push out the gathering sense in my forehead, a new universe exploding.
The BB’s gone right through her eye, said Matthew. Straight into her brain. She’s stone-cold dead.
I couldn’t rub my forehead hard enough to make the pressure go away so I started to hit myself instead, thump thump thump. Still to this day the heel of my hand fits perfectly into the hollow between my nose and my brow.
I said come here, said Matthew, turning to me. We haven’t got the whole damn day, Tricky.
It was only Matthew who called me Tricky. To everyone else I was Patch or Patrick, or sometimes Paddy or Paddyboy to my dad. But Matthew was Matthew to everyone, me included. He’d never let you shorten his name, would even correct adults if they tried on a Matt or a Matty to see if it fit. My name’s Matthew, he would say every time, very calm and straightforward.
Sniffing, I started to move, feeling like old kings must’ve felt taking their final steps to the executioner’s block—which is a selfish way to think of it but that’s just how it was at the time. I walked as steadily as I could toward the two figures connected by a stick and when I stopped, Matthew pulled me closer, positioning me at the perfect spot. What do you think, Tricky? he said.
Swallowing hard, I ran my eyes along Hannah’s measled arms, up to the circle of rope burn like a choker around her neck. And then, not turning to face her, but with grimacing eyes, I peeked beneath Matthew’s stick. There was nothing but blood and mess and some of the blood was already congealing. Blackness and wetness and skin. Hannah’s left eye socket looked like it was housing a dark smashed plum.
Yeah, I said, trying not to cry. She’s dead.
Matthew dropped the stick.
We didn’t check for breathing. We didn’t feel for a pulse.
I stood there for a moment and then Matthew tugged me, not unkindly, hooking his fingers in the back of my shirt to break the spell.
We didn’t make the sign of the cross. We didn’t pray for her soul.
There are layers of rock piled high everywhere in the Swangum Mountains like stacks of pancakes. Our failures were mounting as well. We didn’t even cut her down.
* * *
I DON’T KNOW WHAT AN ideal childhood is, but I know until that Wednesday, one hot yellow day of 1982, I believed I was living it. Believed my parents were happy, that I was growing up in the best place on earth, probably still believed in ghosts, UFOs, tarot cards and the purity of major league baseball.
My hometown was Roseborn, ninety miles north of New York City, far enough away from that inferno that we felt safe from its everyday dangers of casual pornography, recreational murder and heroin on tap. Best of all we had the Swangum Mountains, a ridge of blazing white rock like a wall at our town’s northern edge, the world’s greatest backyard for an adventurous boy.
There were pitch pines up there and blueberry bushes and turkey vultures overhead. And sometimes you might get a hiker come by but mostly you wouldn’t see anyone, not on weekdays at least. I loved it best in the dog days of summer vacation, heat stippling the air, incessant shrill of insects.
My favorite place was the lake. I told Matthew it was the ice caves but really it was the lake. The smooth water made the air feel loose, especially when the sun was out and the world with a breeze.
I remember our time up there all bleached like old photos, the sky more bright than blue, rocks with a hazy glare and our bicycles two different shades of baked orange. The year before we had ridden them up there, three panting miles, the whole summer long.
Beneath the wide mountain skies we could be whoever we wanted—Luke and Bo Duke, Starbuck and Apollo, the Lone Ranger and Tonto—playing our parts without inhibition, inventing our own boyhood games away from the critical gaze of adults. Rifle Range, Deer Patrol, Houdini. We were free to roam wherever we wanted—in my case, so long as I was home and scrubbed up in time for dinner—but also we had our own base, a secret spot you reached by pushing through a thicket of mountain laurel. That was where we built our secret fort, mostly from stuff we scavenged from the abandoned blueberry pickers’ huts. We kept supplies there and plunked soda cans with my Red Ryder BB gun, an air rifle named for that comic strip cowboy, designed to look like a Winchester rifle. The same kind of gun you see in the movie A Christmas Story, the one Ralphie dreams about—You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!—only mine didn’t have a compass in the stock or a thing to tell the time.
The Red Ryder was our weapon of choice for Deer Patrol but as well as the BB gun we had a hunting knife with a scrimshaw handle and a Swiss Army knife. One time we crafted a spear from a piece of bamboo we took from Effy Scott’s yard, the tomato plant collapsing under the weight of green fruit. We used rubber bands and a big nail we found at one of the old cement works. We took everything up to the Swangums to piece our weapon together and spent a lot of time making intricate adjustments, weighting the thing with small stones inside for the right sort of balance, ensuring the nail was tight enough to the bamboo that it wouldn’t deflect when it met with its target. We wanted to be sure the point of the spear would embed. It took us an hour or more but the conclusion of the whole episode was over in just a few seconds.
Matthew had hold of the spear when we agreed it was ready and he told me to run, just that one word barked out like I’d made him angry for no particular reason.
Run! he repeated, higher-pitched this time.
He had started to get a sense of the spear’s weight, holding it lightly at his shoulder and feeling for the right sort of grip, fingers fluttering as if playing the flute.
I find it hard now to believe his intention took me so long to discern. I stood there awkwardly, unsure what to do, while Matthew closed one eye and started to line me up along the shaft of the spear, this spear we had made together. I really do think it took me three or four seconds before everything finally clicked.
And I ran.
I ran, not looking back until I heard the rippling sound it made pushing its knuckled length through the air, turning just in time to glimpse the spear a moment before it sunk its nose into my calf. When it dug in, it dug in far enough that it stayed there for seven or eight paces as I started to slow, the tail of the spear rattling on the stony ground below.
Now comes the hardest part of the story for me to relate to in adulthood and yet I’m certain this actually happened. I turned and picked up the spear, which had now disengaged from my leg a few yards behind me, and took the thing back to him. Like some kind of bird dog.
Matthew, looking immensely proud, reached out with both hands, palms facing skyward. Closing his fists around the shaft, he flexed the thing, gave it a slight and single shake. It was a good spear. It had flown true. Twenty, thirty yards.
He rested our weapon against a tree, gripped me by the shoulders and turned me around while whistling one of those long dying notes like when you read how much money some lucky guy has just won on the lottery.
When I twisted to peer over my shoulder, down past my shorts, I saw the hole in my calf and the blood. Not so much blood but enough to trickle down into the heel of my sneaker.
Cool wound, he said.
I looked over at the spear. The nail at its tip was pretty rusty and I don’t remember if I knew about tetanus back then but I knew I should probably tell someone what happened. Although I suppose the reason I didn’t speaks volumes about me as a kid. I would never have said anything because I felt ashamed, worried it was me who would get in trouble. So instead of telling anyone, I wore long pants for a week and fretted over how I would answer the question if somebody asked me why. Although why anyone would have asked me why I was wearing long pants, I have no idea.
OK, stay put a minute, said Matthew, moving for the spear again, me twitching like I might break into another sprint. Hey, I said don’t move, Matthew shouted, pointing his finger.
Run. Run. Stay put. Don’t move.
I began to notice the sting in the hole in my leg.
Matthew took off his T-shirt and I swear I thought he was going to bend down and smear himself all over with mud or the juice of crushed berries. When he picked up the spear, I closed my eyes.
A few seconds later I heard a tearing sound. Opening my eyes, I saw that Matthew had the arm ripped off his tee and was using the tip of our spear to make a notch in the cloth. Next he tore the thing into a strip and beckoned me turn. And then Matthew spat into his hand and wiped the blood from my calf, me wincing when his spittly fingers stung the raw wound. Once my leg was clean he bandaged it with the cloth, stretching it taut, wrapping it twice and tying a firm knot at my shin. When he was done, he pulled on his lopsided tee.
Let’s go find some deer, Tricky, he said.
* * *
THE SWANGUM SHOOTING, AS IT came to be known, took place almost exactly a year after Matthew stuck me with our spear. We’d spent every day of that previous summer together. But in 1982, things went a little differently.
First of all, six weeks before the shooting, there was the accident, news of which spread around Roseborn the day before July Fourth. I was bummed because for a long time after that I didn’t get to see Matthew, my parents having told me that I had to give him some space, that Matthew needed time to grieve with his family. So the next time I saw him, Wednesday, August 18, it felt like we’d lost a whole summer together.
Before heading up that morning, I’d arrived at our usual meeting spot only to see a girl alongside Matthew, Hannah Jensen straddling her bike. She was in dark jeans and a pink T-shirt with a cartoon ice-cream cone on the front. I suppose I thought her being there must’ve had something to do with the grieving, maybe Matthew needed the emotional support of the female sex or something like that. To be fair, I wouldn’t have been much help on that front. And although Hannah was also in seventh grade, she wasn’t in our class, so her being there didn’t exactly make sense to me. Anyway, whatever the exact reason for her presence, I felt pretty sore about Hannah’s intrusion.
I assumed the plan was to show her the usual spots and do the usual things. It was the first time we’d taken anyone with us, let alone a girl, and probably we wouldn’t find any deer and then we’d show her our secret fort and plunk some soda cans and maybe Matthew would try to make out with her. Because although we were just kids, Matthew was a country mile further along that snaky path toward manhood than anyone else in seventh grade. Me especially.
For several weeks after his arrival in Roseborn, the major talking point for everyone in our class was that Matthew had grown up in New York City. But it wasn’t only his big city upbringing that made him seem more grown up than the rest of us, he actually was more grown up, having been held back a year before moving upstate. And so being an older kid—over a year and a half older than me—when Matthew got dropped into our class at the beginning of sixth grade, he landed with an almighty splash. It was as if a stone giant had been thrown among us, not just a street-fighting kid from Gotham but a taller, stronger, more developed creature. Matthew could easily have passed for sixteen, even eighteen maybe, and for weeks everyone was too intimidated to talk to him, this hulking brute from another world. Eventually, when I did begin to befriend him, I would realize that Matthew wasn’t just factually older than me, he was light years ahead of my curve, perhaps light years ahead of everyone in Roseborn Middle School, possessed of such a single-minded fearlessness that perhaps my initial suspicion that a stone giant had been cast into sixth grade wasn’t all that far off.
But, of course, this is easy to say looking back twenty-six years. At the time, Matthew just felt like an older brother to me—even more so than my actual older brother. I feared him and loved him in equal measure.
I suppose we’d never really discussed girls in any sort of making-out sense but I think Matthew had had sex already, probably more than once. If I’d asked, I’m sure he would’ve told me. But I didn’t ask, the whole thing made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. For several months I’d seen him looking at girls in a way that would slowly become familiar to me—if I’m being honest with myself, I probably resented that.
So it didn’t surprise me much when, not long after we’d trekked to our secret spot with Hannah, Matthew sent me away on my own. It’s a new game, he said, called Reconnaissance. And then Matthew tried to sell it to me like I was a spy and now I’d get to sneak around and if I spotted anything, like deer or a hiker, I should report it when I returned.
Oh and Tricky, he added, just as I was leaving. Take your time, OK.
So I skulked around for thirty or forty minutes, making it as far as the trailhead for Sunset Ridge, not seeing any hikers or deer. But I did almost step on a huge black rat snake, a dark flurry whipping over the fiercely lit rock, at which point, figuring I’d been gone long enough, I started to head back, feeling proud to be returning with something cool to report. Maybe Matthew would suggest a game of Snake Hunt and we’d go back to the spot with our entire arsenal of weapons. Also I was thinking about the look of shock on Hannah’s face when, with my arms spread wide, I would hiss the word snake, six feet long and as thick as my arm.
Perhaps at the time it should have occurred to me that, the same as with cats, when a black snake crosses your path it’s an omen. And what if I’d taken such a hint? What if I hadn’t returned through the mountain laurel back to our secret spot? Then I’m certain that, twenty-six years on, my story would now be heading toward a different end. Not that I believe my being there, my being a witness, made any difference to what Matthew did that day. But certainly it changed me, changed me in such a way that the conclusion to my story now seems like an inevitability. So much so that the right ending has come to feel like my purpose.
Pushing my way through the last of the branches, I broke onto the scene and there they were, already in position. I remember being amazed at how much rope Matthew had used. It reminded me of old silent movies, the victim mouthing screams as she lies on the railroad tracks, already cocooned by the caped villain.
Matthew fired his first shot. Hannah cried out in pain. Everything was rolling now.
Copyright © 2017 by Christopher J. Yates