“You can’t tell anyone, okay?”
Childhood is temporary. As are secrets.
The town we lived in was in the South and had no brand name stores. The idea of a farmers market was just our local grocery store. You bought what they were selling or you didn't buy anything. We lived in that town for three years and my best friend was a pale, gaunt, shaggy-haired boy, Josiah.
I called him Joey and he called me Neighbor because I figured he probably couldn't pronounce my real name and that was okay with me.
We hung out a couple times a week after school and before his dad came home from wherever he worked — I was too young to really know or care about things like that.
My parents knew I was over at his place whenever I wasn't home but not careless enough to leave me there for hours without checking so they'd pop by every once in a while.
We'd do normal kid stuff — play with Lego, shoot flies with paintball in his backyard, see who could pee the farthest and sneak off to explore every once in a while.
We developed a system so we wouldn't get caught.
It involved waiting for my father to stop by and check in on us and then ducking out from behind his fenced yard. There was a well-worn path we followed between a few homes. Some of the homes were abandoned and some weren't but looked as though they could be if it weren't for seeing their residents around their yards sometimes attempting to rake leaves or knock down beehives.
Our way was rough once you ventured past where people dwell.
This was the nature parents and children's magazines warned about.
The grass and flowers were stubborn, even growing through fallen logs.
Every branch we walked over left a small snapping or crunching sound that echoed for a short distance reminding us that we were the first to ever trek that route. The wooded area we walked through wasn't vast by any means but to us it was full of treasures and freedom. A mere five minutes of walking would bring us to a clearing where the grocery store lot sat.
It was next to a two lane road, one of our town's main roads.
The store itself always had a few souls wandering within and though we never went with any money, we always left with a few pieces of candy or sticks of cane sugar.
No, we never stole.
The lady who who ran the place was always handing out goodies to neighborhood kids. She never asked about our parents. Never bugged us about why we were scurrying about. She sold a little of everything including things we'd only ever seen on TV or in movies like spurs and nudie magazines.
Our conversations on these treks revolved around traversing the land and spotting bugs.
One afternoon, I walked straight over to Joey's house from the bus. The school offered students points for doing book reports and I traded mine in for some miniature toy planes which were essentially two thin pieces of wood interlocked that happened to glide when thrown. Well worth reading 12 books, in my opinion.
Something was off about Joey when he opened the door.
He had a limp and one side of his neck had bruises. Joey always had scratches and knots but I assumed it was because he wasn't as good a climber and outdoorsman as me but I could tell these couldn't have been from falling in the yard.
He didn't say anything, though.
And I didn't say anything.
I showed him the planes and we played with them for a good hour and a half in the house before he stopped me with a look. He motioned to follow him back to the bathroom as if speaking in the living room could somehow get us in trouble. He asked if I ever played with other friends and if I ever visited their houses.
The only other time I'd been to another classmate's house was for a birthday party the year before when I was in the third grade. I wasn't sure if that counted so I said yes I had.
He asked if they had nice houses and if their parents were ever angry and if I would rather hang out with them if they lived closer. I wasn't quite following his line of questioning and was too young to be sensitive to whatever it was he was going through so I told him I had to leave.
"Can you keep a secret?" he blurted out as I turned to gather my things.
I tried for a moment to act uninterested but was genuinely curious. “What kind of secret is it?”
Joey looked at me but he was suddenly unsure. He then spun around and began removing the top of the toilet. From inside he removed a plastic bag that was tightly wrapped with rubber bands. It was clear what was inside the bag.
His eyes were filling with tears for some reason, but I was less interested in that than what was inside.
“You can’t tell anyone,” he whispered. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
I asked him if it was his father’s. He nodded as he removed the rubber bands and pulled the gun from inside the dripping bag. Joey held it out in his hand like it was some kind of poisonous critter. It was completely silver except for the brown grip which was worn and had scratches all over it. The bathroom’s fluorescent light was reflecting off of it, giving it a magical quality.
“Why does he have a gun?” I finally asked, wanting very much to reach out and touch it, to hold it and feel its weight.
“He shoots people he doesn’t like with it. He shot my mom. He told me that’s why she left. And if I keep making him angry he said he can shoot me too.”
Just then we heard the front door open, the loud snap of the screen door making us both jump. The gun slid from Joey’s hand, bouncing off of the toilet seat and falling onto the bathroom linoleum. The thumping of boots were making their way across the kitchen’s wood flooring, becoming muffled as they reached the carpeted hallway that led to the bedrooms and bathroom.
We both froze and stared at the open bathroom door. The back of my father’s head appeared as he shot a glance into Joey’s room and then turned slowly to see both me and Joey standing completely still.
“Boys, I was calling from outside. What hav-”
My father’s eyes went straight to the gun on the floor between us.
We had made no attempt to hide it.
I couldn’t even move.
It is the first time I can recall ever feeling fear or guilt about something I had done.
My father grabbed us both by the arms and yanked us from the bathroom, out of the house and into the yard.
Neither Joey or I spoke a word the entire time.
My senses were dull and the things around me sounded far away. My mother was there in the yard a moment later. And then my older brother. A few moments later, a neighbor. Then several.
The last thing I remember about that evening were the lights from the police cars. They were so bright. I found the strobe effect relaxing. I stared at the lights from inside my house as my parents and Joey’s father talked with the police officers for what must’ve been an hour but felt much, much longer.
That was the last time I saw Joey.
We moved from that neighborhood later that summer and I switched elementary schools for fifth grade which was fine because the kids were nicer. I didn’t think about Joey again until I was in college. I did a few Google searches once but that was the extent of it.
Just last year Joey came to mind again and this time I asked my father if he had remembered anything about that night or about what happened to my friend Joey from when I was young.
He said Joey’s father lost custody of Joey a short time after the incident but never received any punishment for physically abusing him. His mother passed away soon after Joey began living with her and he was apparently placed in foster care, but that’s the last my father said he knew about the boy.
I felt bad for Joey for a solid week after hearing this news.
My younger self couldn’t have known any better but I felt guilty for not caring about whatever happened to Joey until so many years later. Here was a boy I grew up with, close to my age, whose life was shitty and might still be shitty.
I can’t barely remember his father’s face but I still carry an anger about whoever he was. But that anger is still less than the peculiar love I feel for my old childhood friend, Joey.
Written by Nizar of Comatose.
Comatose is a weekly series of amusing anecdotes, insightful commentary, and pithy stories. Every week three contributors are featured in short segments. The segments, though often unrelated, are tied together using music and narration to set the scene. Relax and enjoy the ride while listening to topics as varied as love, birthdays, and reciprocity.
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