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Of Sinking or Swimming

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I was twelve when I saw my best friend cry for the first time.

It was end of summer 1959, the last summer that we could really feel like children, with camp outs and sleepovers and talking about stuff you consider important before you discover girls.

Something changed the moment I saw Ray Brower's shoe hang from a branch. A slight shift of reality that made everything stand out clearer than it had ever before. There could have been miles between the dead boy and his shoe, never to be reunited. That's when I became aware of the finality of that kid's fate, aware of what his death meant: never again. Never again would he walk home, wearing that shoe. I remember the thought that hit me when I saw him: he had been knocked out of his Keds like the train had knocked the life out of his body.

My brother had died in an accident a few months before. And he would never come back. A person who had tackled me, a person I had fought and laughed with. That handsome, talented boy everybody loved, with the promise of a good life edged into his smile. And he never got that life. He was gone.

We could all feel the change when we returned to Castle Rock, but none of us spoke about it. It was too big for words. Too big for the small town we lived in. We said goodbye like it was forever. And in a way, it was. It always is when you say goodbye to your friends after such an adventure. We were closer that moment than we would ever be. The next morning would bring us back to school, back to a normal life. The trip down the tracks would soon be just a memory, a shadow that marked the end of innocence. We would drift apart and each of us would go on with their own life. It happens.

But Chris and I clung to each other from that day on, even more than we had before. Maybe because I was the only one who knew that Chris had had an innocence to lose on that trip.

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I was twelve when I found my best friend with a broken arm in our tree house.

His brother had broken it in two places. I had heard it from my dad soon after Ace Merrill's gang had got me. And as soon as I could walk more than a dozen steps without being in too much pain, I made my way first to his house, then – as he hadn't been there – to the tree house.

He looked up from his comic book and gave me a half-smile.

"You look like a sunrise", he told me.

"Gee, thanks. At least I got Fuzzy Bracowicz in the calf."

"What did you do?"

"Bit him."

Chris laughed, but broke off, his face showing his pain.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Only hurts when I laugh," he said and shrugged with his good shoulder. "But it was worth it."

"Yeah."

He shut the comic book and put it aside.

"You heard of Vern and Teddy?" Chris asked.

"Vern was knocked out cold, I heard. Don't know about Teddy. Guess we'll see him tomorrow at school."

"Yeah." Chris got out his pack of cigarettes and offered me one. We smoked in silence for a while.

"Your parents asked where you got that from?" Chris asked, gesturing towards my abused face. My swollen eye just started to get a little better and I could open it a slit if I tried really hard.

"'Course. It's not like I show up like this every day." I bit my tongue for saying this to Chris who – unlike me – did show up at school quite often with cuts and bruises all over him, telling everyone that he had fallen down a tree or tripped over something. If he talked to his friends of the real cause of his injuries at all, he tried to play it down. 'My dad's on a mean streak again, ya know. He's drinkin' a lot these days.'

I had always accepted the way he dealt with it although it made me sick to think of him living under one roof with a father and an older brother who both used him as a punching bag. I felt for him, tried to help him by inviting him for sleepovers as often as possible, but standing up and trying to get an adult to do something about it was out of question. Chris didn't want to leave his mother and younger siblings to his father's mercy. And what it meant to have a father up in Togis, he could easily see in Teddy.

He took the punches and wore his bruises with a kind of silent dignity, grateful that they had not been aimed at his mother.

Chris' face had gone blank. "I covered up for Eyeball." The smoke from his forgotten cigarette was stirring in a soft breeze from outside. "I told them I had fallen down the cellar stairs in the dark. The doctor called the police.” He flicked the ashes away absentmindedly. “I called Mrs. McGinn and made her tell my mom to take the light bulb out of the socket in the cellar, if she didn't want to see a second son in jail."

I let him take his time. He was sticking up for a brother who was becoming more and more like his old man every day. I guess he wasn't as sure about his reasons as he would have liked to be.

"I just thought that … well, I didn't want it to become a family tradition."

I knew what he meant. His oldest brother Frank was in jail doing a long stretch for rape and criminal assault. Saving Eyeball was like saving himself, as weird as that might sound. Strangely enough, I always got even his weirdest way of thinking of himself and his family.

His cigarette had burned down and he flicked the cold ashes out of the window.

We heard the noise of people coming towards us, other kids who frequented the treehouse.

We exchanged a look, silently agreeing on not wanting any company at the moment. Ever since we had come back from our trip down the tracks, we had started avoiding the other kids. Too much had happened. Guys we had hung out with before seemed to be miles away now, living in a different world. A world in which boys were not knocked out of their shoes.

We climbed down the ladder, Chris following me slowly, having to work with only one arm to steady himself. The noise had come closer, but the kids had not come into view yet. We walked away into the opposite direction, not wanting to meet them and be pestered about our bruises.

Cutting through a row of bushes, we soon got onto the road leading out of Castle Rock. Without any particular aim, we kept walking, soon leaving the houses behind and turning into a path parallel to the last row of houses, but hidden from them by a line of trees.

We went in silence. We didn't need to talk about what had happened or what would happen. We just enjoyed the peace as if we knew it wouldn't last.