“The Most important things are the hardest things to say.
They are the things you are ashamed of because words diminish them-
words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head
to no more than living size when they’re brought out.”-Stephen King
I had my first real, grown-up anxiety attack one overcast August day on the eve of my thirty-third year. At the time of said event I was sitting in my shitty Cadillac Catera, in the faculty parking lot trying to multitask between eating lunch and reevaluating my recent life choices. I had just spent the morning teaching summer session English to a bunch of painfully unenthusiastic teenagers. The vast majority of whom were not so much underachievers having flunked out the previous school year, but in fact, over-privileged rich kids trying to get a foot up on their peers.
Most of my students, I suspect, only even continued to show up regularly to my classes out of some misplaced guilt or internalized pressures thrust upon them by their overzealous helicopter parents. To them, my classes were just a gateway to attaining some much sought after AP credits with an emphasis on test-taking skills and some bonus college prep. God forbid these kids would ever get outside a classroom, soak up some fresh air and sunshine, or risk the eternal servitude of flipping burgers somewhere for minimum wage.
I had just unwrapped a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich and set it aside on the dashboard for safekeeping; I sipped my now cold coffee from earlier in the day, and began noncommittally leafing through the local newspaper when I saw it:
Officer Dean Winchester Stabbed in the Line of Duty at Restaurant
Somehow I read that headline without actually processing the words of it, and before I knew it something was breaking inside of my chest. Next thing I know, my head was spinning out of control and my heart is beating so fast that I'm certain it's going to explode. I can't even imagine what I must have looked like to Sheriff Jody Mills when she intervened by gently tapping on my driver's side window to see if I was okay.
Fortunately, the combined awkwardness and embarrassment of this interaction was just the thing to snap me back out of the whole damn episode. Soon enough I was given the rest of my afternoon and strongly encouraged to just sleep it off. Never having been very good at following instructions, however, I returned home and immediately went to work writing. After having fallen victim to writer’s block for more of the summer than I’d care to acknowledge, my mind had finally rebooted itself. Now the only challenge was typing fast enough to compete with the onslaught of newly unlocked memories and technicolor visions of childhood.
I was almost thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in the summer of 1989, a long time ago, but only if you measure in terms of years. I was living in a small town with only about 1280 residents. but to me, it was the entire world.
Charlie Bradbury was the only girl who would consider hanging out with me, much less our ragtag group of misfit friends. She had terrible ADHD; she had been diagnosed with it pretty early on though because of her tendency to overlook typical classroom protocols and just correct the teachers' “errors” in front of everyone. Besides her blunt outspokenness, Charlie was a voracious reader and one of the smartest people I knew. She was also an impulsive decision maker, which had earned her multiple suspensions and at least one expulsion from school. Above all else, Charlie possessed the uncanny ability to take the craziest, most unnecessary chances and impress all of us by getting away with them. Our gang always had to be extra careful with daring each other, though, because Charlie would try damn near anything and not bother to think twice about it.
Knowing that she always did better while working on a project, her dad helped us to both design and construct a tree house in the big elm behind their home. He was an architect himself by trade and had initially moved himself and Charlie into our neighborhood to be closer to his then-ailing father. Charlie's mom was already out of the picture at that point and had been for some time. We all got the impression that Mrs. Bradbury wasn't dead or anything, just mysteriously absent from her husband and daughter’s life. Charlie never talked to us about what had happened to her mom, so we all just accepted it and didn't bother to ask.
Although Mr. Bradbury had repeatedly extended an offer of brand new lumber; we'd opted instead to scavenge discarded planks from Singer Salvage and down by the dump. It had taken most of an entire summer to accumulate the needed supplies and when everything was said and done and built up, we all wondered why we hadn't just accepted the good wood in the first place. The completed structure gained us some brief notoriety around town, when random kids at school started asking if they could come over and hang out, Charlie took it as a sign that we’d finally arrived socially. Unsurprisingly, her aspirations were short-lived, but once the novelty did wear off, there was an unspoken consensus among us that just having the space for ourselves would be enough.
The tree house continued to serve us pretty well over the years that followed, that summer in particular it had become our main outpost. It was a place where we could relax, scheme up pranks or play a game of monopoly while avoiding the oppressive seasonal heat. Once in a while Dean Winchester, aka the leader of our gang, would seek out the tree house as a personal sanctuary. On nights when his dad got physically abusive or went off on some alcohol induced tirade, Dean would sneak up there overnight and hideout. Eventually, after we’d found him inside asleep on a bed of comic books for several days in a row, Charlie bit the bullet and offered him a place on her couch. Predictably, however, Dean declined the invitation almost immediately. So instead Charlie took it upon herself to permanently install a rolled up sleeping bag for anyone who might find need of it.
It was the Friday before Labor Day weekend and Dean, Charlie, and I were up in the tree house griping about how school would start soon and telling each other stupid jokes. I was doing my best to ignore the new bruises that had mysteriously appeared under Dean’s chin overnight. Trying not to get caught staring at him directly, I distracted myself by scribbling down stories that had been rattling around in my brain that week. I was actually getting to the meat of some terrific dialogue when we all heard someone outside trying to kick in the trapdoor.
“That's not the secret knock!” Charlie said, not even bothering to look up from the comically thick spined novel she had been reading.
“Come on guys, I forget the secret knock, lemme in?” Gabe Milton asked, already getting impatient.
With a flip of her ponytail and a roll of her eyes, Charlie stood up, put her book aside, and fiddled with the bolt we used to latch the trapdoor. Less than a minute later when the entrance was freed, the door banged upwards and in popped Gabe Milton, like some kind of rabid whack-a-mole.
“Oh, wow you are not going to believe this- It's almost unbelievable- Just let me catch my breath- I ran all the way here!” Gabe said, his words charged with excitement despite him being so extremely out of breath.
There was no question between the four of us, that Gabe lacked the most in anything resembling athletic skill. Commonly picked last in gym class, he never let on to being discouraged about it, but usually had some snarky comeback for anyone who might try to tease him. Lately though, while Dean, Charlie and I seemed to be racing each other in inches of height, Gabe had only really grown lengthwise around his middle.
“Could you guys camp out tonight? I mean, if you tell your folks we’re going to tent out in my back field?” Gabe asked, as he gradually regained enough composure to formulate words.
“Yeah probably, except that my Dad's kind of been on a mean streak, he’s been drinking a lot lately so I’ll have to drop Sammy off at my Uncle's place.” Dean said with such an ease of acceptance, that my stomach tied itself into knots.
You guys wanna go see a dead body?” Gabe asked.
“Well, I was under the porch digging, you know-”
We all understood what Gabe meant. At the beginning of the school year he had buried a quart jar of spare change underneath his house. He drew a detailed treasure map so he could find it again. A week later, his mother cleaned his room and threw away the map. Gabe had been trying to find that money for nine months. Nine months meant he didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
The heat of the day had roused Gabe earlier than anybody else. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to raid the kitchen for where his mother stashed the sugar cereals with marshmallows in them, he’d just decided to get up. After stuffing himself silly with snack cakes and mini muffins, he settled down on the sofa and flipped through what little there was on tv. Eventually he grew bored with watching infomercials and headed outside to dig for his jar of change.
He was still under the porch about an hour later when the screen door banged open above him. Gabe nearly had a heart attack on the spot, before remembering to freeze in place and pray that he might somehow avoid detection. Two pairs of footsteps crossed the porch, causing the deck frame to groan and heave. Before he could shift his weight into a better position, Gabe heard his older brother Michael, his voice trembling, begin to speak.
“Jesus Christ, we gotta do something!”
“Why, who cares?” Fergus “Crowley” MacLeod asked indignantly.
“Because we saw him!” Michael said.
“And how does that involve us again? Plus, he’s dead, so I doubt it matters much to him? Who really gives a shit if they ever find him? I sure don't!” Crowley said.
“But it's that kid they were talking about on TV, Wellington- No uh, Mulligan- or Milligan- Whatever the train must have hit him!” Michael said, his voice unexpectedly heavy with emotion.
“So, big fucking deal?”
We had all followed the Adam Milligan story very closely, because he was a kid our age. Three days ago he had gone out to pick blueberries and nobody had seen or heard from him since.
“I think we should call the cops.” Michael insisted.
“You don't call the cops after you steal a car, idiot! What if they want to know how we got all the way out to Back Harlem Road? They’ll know that we don't have a driver's license yet- so let's just keep our mouths shut and then they can't accuse us of anything!”
“We could make an anonymous call,” Michael Suggested.
“They trace those calls stupid, do you want to end up in Juvie?”
It was a well-known fact that Crowley had already done several stints in Juvenile Hall before entering High School. He was out now but only probationally, the terms of which Gabe guessed did not likely include car theft or driving without a license.
“I wish we’d been with Lucifer, then we could have told the cops that we were in his car.” Michael said with a heavy sigh.
“Well, he wasn't bloody there!” Crowley shouted.
“I know the Back Harlow road, it comes to a dead-end out by the Royal River. The train tracks are right there! My dad and I have gone fishing out there!” Charlie exclaimed.
“Christ, Gabe. If they had known you were listening in, they would have killed you.” Dean said, genuine concern momentarily flashing across his features.
“Could he have gotten all the way out there? I mean that's really far for just picking blueberries.” I asked.
“Anything's possible, maybe he started walking on the train tracks and just followed them the whole way.” Dean suggested.
“Yeah, and then after dark the train must have come along and— kaboom!” Charlie said loudly, clapping her hands for added dramatic effect.
“Hey, you know I bet if we were the ones to find him, that they'd put our pictures in the newspaper!” Dean said, a rare smile tugging at his lips.
“Maybe they would even put us on TV!” Charlie said.
“Sure, we’d be heroes!”
“I dunno, Mike will know where I found out about it-” Gabe said, lines of worry taking root beneath his chubby jawline.
“He's not gonna care, because we’ll be the ones to find the body instead of him and Crowley in a stolen car. They'll probably pin a medal on you, Gabe!” I said with confidence, trying to reassure my friend.
“Okay, but what will we tell our folks?” Gabe asked.
“Exactly what you said, we'll all tell our folks we are camping out in your back field and you tell your folks you're sleeping over at Charlie's. Then we all say we're going to the swimming hole the next day. We’ve got rock solid alibis until dinner tomorrow night!”
Planning it all out was exciting, but a little bit scary, too. Sure, I knew we could probably get away with it. But my mind was getting stuck in visions of Adam Milligan, lost and scared in the darkness, walking down all those train tracks alone.
I wanted to share my friend's enthusiasm, but I couldn't. That summer at home it was as though I had become invisible. In April my older sister Anna died of leukemia, four months had passed but my mom still hadn't put all the pieces back together again. Then in June, Dad got fed up and just moved out of the house entirely. I was pretty sure that eventually he was going to file for a divorce.
I wasn’t so much worried about the rapid deterioration of my family as I was experiencing my life through a filter of alternating shock and disbelief. I hadn’t cried when the doctors told us Anna wasn’t long for this world. When they said that the cancer had metastasized from a tiny lump on her lower back, and spread like wildfire throughout her entire being. I hadn’t cried when my sister had stopped trying to convince me into pretending that she herself was going to be okay. I hadn’t cried when she stopped eating and only gagged on small sips of water or was so zapped of energy that she couldn’t bear to open her eyes. I hadn’t even cried at her funeral. I just stood there quietly and watched as my uncles lowered her empty husk of a body down under the earth, and into the unknown.
Mostly I was haunted by the realization that there had been a person who loved and cared for me so intensely, who knew all of my secrets and understood truths about myself that I still wasn’t ready to comprehend. That this person who lived a life of such exuberance, joy, quiet contemplation and unimaginable tolerance of physical pain was now just gone.
This thought alone lingers, wakes me up in the middle of the night, and consistently overwhelms me when I remember it. The idea that people just go on with living. That they come up with ways to keep themselves entertained, be it arguing, falling in love or trying to achieve some unending checklist of so-called “important things”. That people make whole fantastic lives for themselves out of great successes or by simply biding their time, coasting along undetected. Then, one day, for no obvious reason, they stop being entirely. The spark of whatever magical thing that made them who they were fades away and soon enough it's like they never existed at all.