Our Timid Friend

By Robert Starr

There was this tin shed stuffed way into the back of the wrecking yard. It was made up of some kind of corrugated stuff and we all saw right away where the railway spikes used to hammer the walls into place had rusted. I can’t forget the way it looked, and it’ll always be the same as that one summer day when I was young.

Benny was the one who really found it- he always found the solitary places because he never knew when he’d have to run and hide. I’d like to know where he is now without him knowing me.

"Hey, check this out," he yelled involuntarily caught up in the excitement and then, realising he’d already alerted us to whatever he’d already laid claim to, broke into a silent dash toward it.

And we all followed like a pack of hungry dogs.

Randy was alone on top of a pile of crumpled cars when we got the word, and I saw him turn in silhouette and jump down, already running as soon as his feet hit the ground. I was a few steps ahead of him but he caught up quickly and pushed me aside.

"Get over," he said in the deep controlled voice that always made us obey.

And Bill rounded a corner by a door- less refrigerator a few steps ahead, so they dared at foot chase that ended with Randy tripping Bill after I dropped back.

I was last and thought it was funny when Bill fell and rolled over in a flailing clump, but stopped when he landed face down in the dirt with one arm behind his head and stayed that way.

We all stood mesmerized, held fast in a weightless and timeless shockwave of grave consequence cementing us in mid gesture. I was a dumb monkey with a frozen grin and furrowed brow.

"Get up," Randy said quietly not even daring to say his name. "Get up," he said again nudging Bill with the toe of his shoe like a wide- eyed raccoon at the side of the road.

Then Benny came out from inside the shed and the door squealed breaking my trance.

"Hey guys, you should see what’s in here," he said but saw our faces and went quiet.

"Bill," Randy yelled hoping the intimidation that had always worked so well for him might be able to raise the dead, "get up."

He ignored Benny completely giving our downed friend a good kick in the side, and when his boot made contact with a whump like a basketball bouncing once on the hardwood, the whole thing became real and terrifying to me because that action implicated us all and we had to follow through.

Standing there I suddenly thought of Benny, the quiet one, the loner we had to goad along on our adventures, the only one who’d point out the no trespassing sign every time we’d jump the chain link fence. We all forgave him his strangeness back then, ignoring his nervous tics and wild glares because everyone knew his drunken father and had seen the same sign on their front porch and the desolate roofless chicken coop in the otherwise empty back yard. How could a man who couldn’t even keep chickens raise a boy? Sensible sad Benny, I thought. It was too late to listen to him now.

And he said: "He’s dead," quietly as though the accident was incarnate proof of what he knew would happen if we tempted fate in the forum of clearly marked fences long enough. As if it was worse than, but not completely unexpected.

I was behind Randy, who’d stood with his boot half raised to kick Bill again, but turned his head when Benny spoke. He started to stomp (not kick) our dead friend and I rushed him knocking him to the ground and pinning him under my weight.

"Stop it." And I grabbed a handful of his hair by the temple. "What are you doing? What the hell do you think you’re doing?"

That’s when I realised we’d all become strangers- mischievous little boys, only brave, foolhardy, one minute, and something else the next. A bunch that couldn’t shut their adventures out with the swing of a screen door and wash away their sins with cookies, milk, and little white lies anymore.

I looked over at Bill who was lying three feet away with his face planted in the dirt, half of it already buried when he skidded on impact; it looked like the earth knew and had started to absorb him for burial. And it was so quiet in the next second because Randy had seen it too from under me, I heard a bird twitter and flap away like the whole thing was uninteresting and impersonal.

But it was Benny who spoke first:

"Pick him up and put him inside," he whispered never taking his eyes off the body even when Randy and I looked over, and I was staggered because his voice breached the silence like he was talking to me only, like it had broken inside my head.

"Do it now before someone sees," he said looking at the pair of us suddenly and we got to our feet with no question because we knew our timid friend had been right all along about fences and signs that kept little boys alive.

I remember those minutes or seconds we stood around Bill without daring to be the first to make the move, staring down to what I felt I now had a part in.

And Randy was the first to break the trance, turning away violently and putting his hands down on his knees:

"I can’t," he sobbed and we stood watching his shoulders heave. "Can’t we just phone somebody? Can’t I just go home?"

Benny was staring at me across the body, eyes unflinching and one breath held deep in his chest to see if I’d be the next to break ranks. Then he moved to stand behind Randy.

"Turn around," he said and his quiet deep tone shimmied down my legs almost toppling me. "Never forget," he said putting a hand on my friend’s shoulder, " never have any illusions about the fact you’ve always bullied everyone, and, in the end, this is what happens," and he pushed so Randy stumbled forward.

"So you can drag him in yourself."

I didn’t watch but the sound of a lifeless body –no, a lifeless friend - being dragged over gravel in crunchy spurts is something that stays with me.

It’s unnatural, so opposite to the flow and balance of the way things are or should be, so abrasive and final, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me today, like we’d set off on our the earth’s alarm bells, that she was etching what we were doing forever on her skin and in our collective consciousness’

Of course we didn’t have to swear each other to secrecy because we weren’t merely boys as we climbed back out over the fence. Not just kids trying to hide the day’s mischief from our parents by taking oaths. Benny, Randy and I had become accomplices.

My feet had just touched the sidewalk on the other side of the fence when Randy panicked. I ‘d stood motionless, unable to pry myself away as I watched Benny swung over the top and when he hit the ground he wiped his hands together, smiled, and that tipped Randy over the edge. He turned and bolted down the sidewalk for five feet then stopped cold like he just realised he couldn’t run away from the part of himself on the other side and I felt it too.

"We can’t just leave," I said, more because I’d just realised it was true then to anyone else. "Someone will miss him. Someone will find him," and I looked from Randy’s frozen back standing away from us to Benny.

"Then we better go back in," he said, calm and already sizing up the top of the fence. "We’d better put him back where we found him and call the police."

Because I thought then we could make it all an accident, because I thought one day my life could be normal and only scarred by this bad memory, his suggestion didn’t sound strange to me at all. Randy couldn’t have understood what was going on either; he bounded over the fence when I told him we were going to put Bill back, his knees banging over the No Trespassing sign making the wood shudder against the fence like a wooden door being pulled and finally popping open.

Benny hung behind as we raced to the shed; I couldn’t hear his steps behind me because my own breathing was thundering in my ears and I was almost running, but when that primitive instinctual sense told me we were being followed, when I felt my scalp become sensitive as though the pores on my skin there had opened to pick something up, I swung around to find Benny casually following.

Our timid friend was smiling and looking from side to side. He had his hands in his pockets and kicked a stone ahead of himself occasionally like he was only out for a stroll.

"What are you doing Benny?" I said, at first talking about his casual pace and then realising I meant something else.

"You were always the smart one," he said holding an arm out as he caught up so I would turn and walk with him. "You were always the one I thought had the most potential to understand," and his arm felt surprisingly rigid across my back, his hand like hard bone on my shoulder.

"We’re going to make this right, aren’t we?" I finally said instead of asking him what he meant and as soon as those words left my mouth, I knew I’d surrendered to him too, just like Randy.

We rounded the last corner and found Randy sitting cross-legged in front of the tin shed staring up at it like a little boy watching television. Benny dropped his arm from me and picked his pace up, up the flimsy wooden stairs at the front, dramatically reaching up over his shoulder and down as if to open the door, then spinning around to drop to his haunches, elbows on knees, directly in front of Randy.

"Do you want to open the door?" he said with his chin tilted into his chest so he had to look out through his upper lashes.

"You did this after all, you did all this and then ran away."

"But it was an accident," and Randy started to rock back and forth, his voice trembling on the verge of tears.

"But you did this," and Benny pointed with one hand to the spot where Bill had died and my stomach dropped when I realised he was performing, pulling an admission out from Randy piecemeal although I didn’t know why.

"In fact," Benny said suddenly backing off and becoming cheerful, "you‘re a murderer aren’t you?" and he pulled a hand in front of his face and started to flick at his fingernails with a thumb.

Randy said nothing; I couldn’t see his face because I was standing behind them both, but I saw his shoulders sag and his head droop in a final silent surrender. And Randy moved forward from his haunches to his knees, folding his hands in his lap and looking up at Benny.

"What do you want me to do?" he said and I heard a defeat in his voice that told me that’s what he imagined Benny required.

"I’ll do what you want. Just tell me what it is."

That’s when Benny picked his chin up to look at me with his eyebrows arched up and the faintest trace of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

"Good. Good," he said never taking his eyes off me but pulling Randy close into a hug. "It feels better to accept responsibility, doesn’t it?" and he put one hand on the back of Randy’s head to hold him close to his shoulder, motioning for me to come closer with the fingers of the other hand.

"Open the door," he mouthed flicking his head in the direction of the tin shed.

I walked over to the foot of the three wooden steps and looked down, feeling myself sway like I was at the edge of a cliff, that if I put my foot on even the first one there would be no turning back and my old life would be finished.

"What are you doing Benny?" I said, shocked at how difficult it was to talk at all, at how my throat seemed to have turned to wood with an Adam’s apple that pulled splinters up every time I swallowed.

I managed to look over at him, needing to see his face as part of any answer he would give but he was holding Randy close with one hand of the back of his head, the other on his neck, and his chin on Randy’s shoulder.

So I drew a breath and walked up, closing my eyes, and pulling the door open.

It was hot in there and as I stood with my eyes closed I could feel the air enveloping me like a warm clammy blanket. When I let my breath out and drew another, the air tasted metallic like the walls of the place were disintegrating and tiny invisible spores were finding their way into my lungs and onto my clothes. The shed had one window, something I couldn’t have noticed outside since it was on the far wall, and it was smudged and yellow so the late afternoon sunlight only shone through a chip in the dirt in a pie shaped arc of yellow/orange light that illuminated erratic flying dust motes.

And Bill was lying face against the wall in the corner; as soon as I saw him from the corner of my eye, the rest of the room blurred so only his legs and rear facing me from under a dirty cigarette burned table were in focus. I stumbled, overwhelmed at confronting what I’d been thinking about for what seemed like so long, guilt blasting over me like I’d just walked into a sauna when I saw his white Adidas we’d all bothered our parents for and the way his legs were piled on each other in a pretzel too uncomfortable for sleep. I could taste the metallic air coating my mouth again with each frantic pant and I held another breath, imaging that death too was airborne here.

I turned and was about to run outside past Benny and Randy, up over the fence and down the street to the police station when I heard Benny:

"You know what’s happened here, don’t you," he said and I heard Randy sob into his shoulder and imagined him grabbing fistfuls of his shirt from behind and staining the front with tears. "We broke the rules and when little boys like us do that, when we all climbed over that sign one too many times, someone dies," and I heard Benny stifle a little yelp of his own, a break in his demeanour, a trickle of the lost little boy bubbling through a crack.

"I knew better. I tried to tell all of you that, but now we’ve got to finish what we start. "

I heard a snap next that wasn’t a pebble under someone’s foot or a twig that had broken from a tree: it was a noise that hovers deep in the caverns of the subconscious defying memory but l embracing instant recognition - a universal crack attached to a dark, lurking, common fear.

Everybody who’s ever lived knows a broken neck when they hear it. When Benny snapped Randy’s (and I’m sure there was a point where Randy could’ve fought back, a moment where he realised his saviour’s hug was tightening with each little exhale like a python, but didn’t) the pop sent my hand up to my neck involuntarily.

I wasn’t surprised when I turned to run and Benny was already at the door.

"What about me?" I said to the silhouette blocking the doorframe with its arm. "Are you going to kill me too?"

"I thought you’d understand," he said walking into the shed and shutting the door behind him.

"You can’t break me too-it was only an accident," and I suddenly knew with that loud pronouncement I’d tipped my hand, given flight and an irretrievable life to fears, and I couldn’t escape what I really needed to know, been hedging toward and couldn’t avoid asking automatically like all the words and thoughts I’d had were just these three looking for a funnel out:

"Who are you?"

Benny sensed the moment had come to give me my answer; he respected me the most (maybe I reminded him of someone, I’ll never know), and was stopped by the unavoidable tone in my voice.

"Why?" I asked sensing my advantage.

He looked down at one of the wooden planks that made up the floor of the shed and prodded something with the toe of his shoe.

"Rules have to be followed," he said trying to loosen the board with his shoe.

"We have to follow them," he said looking up, smiling, putting his hands in his pockets and looking around like he’d just noticed where he was. "It’s hot in here, but I think it’s hotter out back at my place, what with no roof."

Right there I saw my answer in his eyes and the chicken coop in his backyard jumped into my mind like I’d opened an album randomly to a photograph of it. That was the birth of suspicion for me, of always wondering what dark acts were being committed behind closed doors and in backyards.

He’d forgotten about what he’d just done to Randy, quite likely about Bill and most of the afternoon too. I stood watching him as he took one hand back out from his jeans, smoothed his hair and smiled impatiently while whatever flowed from the broken dam in his mind sloshed against the breakwater of his skull.

His eyes flickered from side to side like he was watching something run back and forth at his feet and I stood mesmerized, waiting for the wave to subside before I dared to speak:

"Benny?" I finally said imploring to something I’d hoped was still there and intact. "Benny. We’ve been trespassing here. It’s time we left," I said moving to take him by the hand.

"Yes, Yes," he said and I never knew if he was talking to me or something that had surfaced with the sign at the gate.

"You were always the smart one."

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Robert Starr

Robert Starr obtained a degree in journalism in Toronto in the 1980's.After a brief stint in the field, he left to work in non related fields but continues his writing at night. He currently has a novel nearing completion and is searching for a publisher for a collection of his short stories.

E-mail: r.starr@sympatico.ca


Read more by Robert Starr

Visit Aphelion's Lettercolumn and voice your opinion of this story.

Return to the Aphelion main page.