I first met Deathwish in seventh
grade; of course I didn’t come to know him by that name until later. My family
had just moved into the neighborhood, and I had just finished setting up my
room like I wanted it with my parents help. Looking back, it was probably their
way of helping me cope with the requisite fears of establishing a new life in a
new place along with making new friends in a new school. That stuff is still
hard, and for a seventh grader it seemed like staring into a void of scary
uncertainty. After getting everything settled, I was looking out of my
second-story window down to the street when a different void of scary
uncertainty came ambling into view. As I would find out in a few minutes his
name was Kyle, and he was a seventh grader like me although he appeared to be
larger than most kids our age. As he walked down the street he seemed to be
talking to himself, or maybe singing. This lasted until he reached our driveway
and started up toward our house without as much as a pause. As he walked up he
calmly regarded me looking down from my window. He vanished from view and then the
doorbell rang. My mother called me down to meet the “neighbor-kid”.
After some awkward my-name-is
conversation, my mother kicked me and Kyle out of the foyer and into the wild
of my new neighborhood. This at least allowed for the more honest and age
appropriate conversation that can only occur outside of the ears of adults. We
started walking down the street, away from the direction he came. My mother,
being incredibly over-protective, had scarcely let me leave the yard in our
last locale. This didn’t stop me on that day though. After all, I hadn’t
received the customary warnings and regulations regarding my play outdoors, so
technically anything was fair game at this point. We walked and we talked for a
long time. It was a hot August afternoon, punctuated by bombinating crickets,
and our walk soon carried us to a park with which I would become intimately
familiar located a few streets distant from my house. We walked down a paved
path that wound through some trees. Kyle was telling me about how cicadas had
invaded the neighborhood last summer and how pretty much everyone was freaking
out. The conversation didn’t do much to ease my worries about moving to this
new area. Before long a group of kids about our age came into view. They were
clustered around something to the side of the path.
I looked over at Kyle and saw the
same look painted on his visage that he wore when marching up our driveway. I
asked him who they were, but he remained silent as we steadily closed the
distance to the group.
When we got close one of the taller
boys looked over at us and clenched his fists, “Hey, Deathwish! Who is the new
There were six of them clustered
around an anthill that was near the right side of the path. A magnifying glass
and several spent matches littered the ground around the burrow, along with a
large number of shriveled ant carcasses.
Kyle ignored the jeering
salutation and instead posed his own question, “What are you guys doing?” By
this point it was readily apparent by looks on the boys’ faces that they did
not regard Kyle kindly. Since we were outnumbered I wondered what was in store
A different chubby boy answered
Kyle’s question, “We are burning them up, little buggers.”
Kyle frowned, “Don’t.”
At this point, the taller boy
shoved Kyle in the chest, nearly knocking him over. I saw Kyle’s shoes kick up
puffs of dust as he dug in his heels. Kyle’s fist came out of nowhere and I
heard a crack as it hit the tall boy’s jaw. I saw the boy crumple next to the
path, and before I could ready myself, two of the others charged me. A punch to
the stomach knocked the wind out of me, and it was followed closely by a punch
to my face. White stars exploded into my vision and I panicked; I had never
been in a shoving match before, much less an actual fight. As I was falling to
the ground, I saw a snapshot of Kyle’s solid form toe-to-toe with the other
three boys, along with the tall one still lying on the ground behind him. After
I fell, the larger of my two attackers administered a kick to my side, leaving
me writhing and gasping for breath. My mind reeling, I opened my eyes and saw
them turn and head towards Kyle.
I was scared, hurt, and mad at
this point, pretty much in that precedence. I struggled to my
feet as the horde started to get the best of Kyle. They had latched on to his
arms and neck, and those with free hands were landing hard fast blows. It
doesn’t make much sense, but I can only attribute my next actions to the way
Kyle’s face looked as we first approached the group of boys. I charged Kyle’s
captors and delivered a punch to one of their faces before grabbing the hair of
another. This proved to be enough of a distraction to break up their efforts to
immobilize Kyle, who once freed began throwing savage strikes to those closest
to him. Another kid joined the first on the ground, clutching his midsection in
pain, and around that time our opponents decided that they had enough and
sprinted away. The two on the ground dragged themselves up and followed their
companions away at a slower pace.
I felt elated that we had
repelled the pack of kids, and I looked at Kyle in triumph.
“I’ve never been in a fight
before,” I said while examining my throbbing knuckles.
Kyle didn’t respond, instead he
stared at the ground. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t look happy; we had
won despite the fact that we were both somewhat bloodied from the encounter –
Kyle more so than me. Perhaps sensing my confusion, he met my gaze and then
shifted his eyes back down to the ground. Following his attention, I saw that
the area where the anthill stood now consisted of several partial footprints on
top of disturbed soil. The magnifying glass lay shattered, its pieces
glistening in the light that filtered through the trees.
On the way home a breeze was at
our backs. It actually made my skin feel cold despite the heat of the day,
probably because my nerves were still rattled from the fight. We walked back
home in silence. It didn’t matter, they were just stupid ants. We survived,
only a little worse for wear.
I thought my mom was going to give
me a black eye to match the one I had sustained in the park when I got home. As
soon as she heard me open the front door her overprotective parent apoplexy set
in and her rage hemorrhaged through the walls of the kitchen. When she saw my
cuts and bruises she lost it. I never thought the yelling would stop, and I vaguely
remember her threatening to ground me until school started. By the time my dad
got home she had calmed down enough to where he was able to plead my case and
have my punishment commuted. That worked out well since I was supposed to meet
Kyle the next day.
After breakfast the next day, I
set out. When I got to the house that matched the description Kyle gave me, I
knocked on the door with some apprehension of visiting for the first time. A
woman answered the door and said that Kyle was in the backyard then pointed to
the side of the house. Trotting around to the back I found Kyle with a nail, a
hammer, and a very large bullet that I would have recognized now as a .50
caliber round. Hammer in hand he was attempting to hit the nail into primer on the
back of the casing. He stopped and set the items aside when he saw me. The sun
shone brightly in his backyard and a chorus of lawn mowers sang from distant
yards in the neighborhood.
“Why did those kids call you
Deathwish?” I asked, shielding my eyes from the sun.
“Long story.” He looked from me
to the far corner of his backyard.
“Well what was the deal with the
ants? They are just ants…”
“I don’t think that people
should destroy things we can’t make,” he paused, then gazed back at me before
continuing, “thanks for having my back.”
Trying to sound nonchalant while
still feeling the soreness in my knuckles, I told him it wasn’t a big deal.
That summer seemed to stretch on
into eternity and before too much longer my black eye faded and my scrapes
healed. Deathwish and I spent a lot of time together and became close, but I’m
not sure that I would call us friends. Deathwish seemed to be on a different
level than I was. Actually, it seemed that he was different than pretty much
everyone our age. Once school started that year I was tainted for a while in
the eyes of my peers by my association with Deathwish, but any negative
consequences were tempered by gossip of the fight in the park. Looking back at
that summer I can’t believe that he survived to see the leaves change color. He
certainly lived up to his moniker.
One particular evening I walked
up the street to his house with my sleeping bag under one arm and the book I
was reading inside. Upon arrival I left my stuff on the front porch and went to
the backyard where I found Kyle. I saw him running around in tight circles with
a long bow that looked like something out of Robin Hood clenched tightly to his
side. Seconds later I heard a sharp impact and saw an arrow sticking out of the
ground. Kyle stopped running and pulled the arrow from the grass. He notched it
to his bow and drew the string back. I watched him lean back and aim straight
up at the darkening evening sky then let loose the arrow. He then started
running in circles again, seemingly undisturbed by the arrow’s eventual
downward flight. Another sharp impact sounded and I saw the arrow sticking out
of the ground again, just a few feet from him.
I called out to him, incredulous
about what I was seeing. When you are a kid it is easy not to perceive how
dangerous some things are, and if you actually do think that something is
legitimately dangerous it tends to give you pause. He came over to where I was
standing and I began interrogating him:
“Kyle, what the hell are you
doing? You freak out when people kill bugs but you are running around shooting
arrows at yourself?!”
He didn’t immediately reply, but
fixed me with the trademark gaze that I had become used to over the summer. He
then picked up the arrow and used his fingers to clean the dirt off of it.
“I already told you, I don’t
think that we should destroy things that we can’t make, we can make people, so
it’s different.” He notched the arrow back on the bow and took a step back.
“I think that is retarded…“ I
began, looking at the bow and arrow.
“People try too hard to live
forever, when it really isn’t up to us. That’s why my parents go to church,
that’s why they had me, that’s why my dad writes books. I don’t think that I
can die if it’s not time yet.” With that he aimed straight up and loosed the
arrow back into the sky.
I scrambled to put as much
distance as I could between me and the area where Kyle began to run around.
Panting, I rounded the side of his house and waited to hear Kyle howl in pain.
My heart thudded in my chest as I peered around to where Kyle was and saw him
retrieving the arrow from the dirt. It was another miss. He beckoned me over to
him again and said that he was done. As I walked over I saw Kyle’s mom watching
from the kitchen window that faced the backyard. Her face had a look oddly like
the one that Kyle gave me moments earlier, and I wondered why she didn’t
intervene. That night Kyle and I reverted back to activities that were
appropriate for kids our age and there was no further discussion of his
philosophy on life and death. I was beginning to understand his nickname, and
though it scared me, in my still maturing mind his behavior and explanations
seemed to make at least a little sense.
The more I talked with Deathwish
the more his thoughts on life took concrete form. Looking back I have to think
that his parents had a large part to do with it. His father was obsessed with
his own mortality, and timid because of it. Many evenings spent in the company
of Kyle’s family gave me the impression that there was a tension between his
parents. As time progressed I got the further sense that perhaps his father’s
fears and his mother’s feelings about them transmuted a bizarre dogma into
Kyle’s consciousness. The kid just wasn’t right, but he wasn’t wrong either.
As the start of the school year
neared, I witnessed another one of Kyle’s favorite games to play with himself.
There was a large plastic playhouse in his backyard that was fashioned to look
like a castle. Kyle took a box of sparklers left over from the Fourth of July
and lined the windows and doors of the one room plastic castle. By the time he
was finished, rows of sparklers were sticking out perpendicular from the frames
of all conceivable exits. Kyle sealed himself inside the castle in this manner,
bringing with him a package of bottle rockets and a box of matches. Without
delay he set the sparklers ablaze, transforming any means of escape into a hot
sparkling blaze. Inside he set off the bottle rockets which would ricochet
around the inside of the structure leaving Kyle juking and jiving trying to
avoid losing an eye. His only explanation for this activity was that he “didn’t
want to be so easy on himself.”
Talking late into the night a
few weeks later while playing video games, he enumerated on this idea:
“When you look at life, most
people have no idea what it means. They shroud it with something so that it
looks nicer and is more comfortable to be around. It’s one reason that my
parents go to church. Everyone is scared of dying, even though life is about
dying the whole time. My dad writes books because he thinks that a part of him
can live forever that way, and it probably distracts him from life while he is
doing it. Not me, they call me Deathwish because I think that life is pretty
without the shroud but most people can’t stand to be around it.”
I’m pretty sure that his
repeated forays into activities that looked suspiciously like he was trying to
maim or kill himself were the real reason why ‘they’ called him Deathwish, but
I continued to listen. He proceeded to tell me about getting hit by a car when
he was younger. He said he was chasing a ball across the street without looking.
The car never saw him, and knocked him right out of his shoes, but aside from
getting the wind knocked out of him there was nothing else wrong. That’s when
he (probably subconsciously if it really happened when he was that young)
decided that he would pay no attention to mortal peril, because in his mind
that would be covering life with a shroud. Instead, he started to walk on the
razor’s edge, seeing how close he could get to eternal peace. He thought that
people spent their lives trying to become immortal in a few different ways, and
that they were all barking up the wrong tree.
The Friday before school was
scheduled to start I was in Kyle’s backyard. He called my house a few minutes
prior and told me excitedly that I had to come to his house and see something.
That something turned out to be a zip line that he had built stretching from
the roof of the second story of his house down to a metal pole that supported
his family’s clothesline. Kyle was
standing on the roof, holding a handle that looked like it had been fabricated
of a wooden handle from a spade and several wire coat hangers. Running through
the handle was the zip line. Kyle’s trademark stoic look was in full force as
his mother emerged from the backdoor, looking up at the roof. My chest
tightened reflexively, knowing the holy hell that would ensue if it had been my
mother who observed this activity. Kyle and his mom stared at each other for a
few long moments. Finally she spoke.
“Well, actions speak louder than
words. Are ya gonna do it, ya pansy?”
With that, Kyle took a mighty
leap into the air, clutching the wooden handle. As soon as his weight came down
on the line it snapped, sending him plummeting to the ground. A sickening thud
and the air whooshing out from his lungs left Kyle writhing on the ground. His
face was contorted into a grimace and he clutched his left arm, which was
pretty clearly disfigured. Kyle’s mom let out a half-scream and clapped a hand
over her mouth as she rushed over to him. I got to ride in an ambulance for the
first time that afternoon they didn’t even go to the hospital with lights and
sirens. I was scared for Kyle who was in agony and kept screaming and sobbing. I
felt weird inside because Kyle’s mom also appeared to be in agony, but in her
case due to guilt rather than injury.
At the hospital I wasn’t allowed
to be in the room with Kyle, so I was outside kicking dirt clods in the
hospital parking lot when my mother’s car entered the parking lot. Both she and
Kyle’s father got out at the same time. The first words out of her mouth
informed me that I was grounded, and her second sentiment expressed concern for
Kyle. I told her that I didn’t really know what was going on and that I was
worried about him.
She gave me a hug and said, “He
is gonna be okay, the doctors are just going to need to set his arm and splint
it. I don’t know what you boys thought that you were getting into.” She turned
to Kyle’s dad and asked if there was anything that she could do, but he just
shook his head and looked angry.
Shortly after, the three of us
went back inside to the waiting room. The time spent waiting seemed to stretch into
eternity, but I wasn’t bored. The hospital waiting room seemed peaceful and
orderly, it was a nice change of pace from the chaos that I experienced earlier
in the day. Kyle’s injury seemed way more disconcerting than the fight that I
got into on the day that we first met. At some point Kyle’s parents had gotten
up and wandered down one of the corridors, leaving just my mother and me in the
waiting room. An urge to pee got me out of my seat too, and I went in search of
I wandered down a few corridors
and started looking for water fountains; my dad once told me that they are
typically near the bathrooms. I found one near a corner and walked towards it
when I heard Kyle’s mom speaking in a hushed angry voice.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,
Walter, the whole reason that we had kids was so that they could really live
life and experience everything, not stay shut up in a study worrying about
“He could have died, Kate. How
would you explain that one? Do you really want him to die before he
accomplishes anything that matters? Is that what you want for him?”
Kyle’s mom let out an
exasperated groan and stormed around the corner toward where I was standing. As
she passed she made eye contact and gave me a look that was sad and serious at
the same time; it looked like she had tears flowing into the wrinkles that
surrounded her eyes. I felt a cool breeze from her passage as she stomped past.
That school year started pretty
uneventfully. I worried about making friends, and what I was going to wear.
Some kids wouldn’t talk to me because of my association with Deathwish, and
others looked up to me for winning that fight with the main pack of bullies
that haunted the school. Deathwish was out of school for weeks, and the next
time I saw him he told me that wouldn’t be going to the main middle school in
the county. While working a stick under the cast on his arm he explained to me
that social services got involved after a nurse at the hospital learned how he
broke his arm. For the foreseeable future he would be going to a school for
kids with special needs and his parents were being evaluated for fitness to
keep him. He didn’t seem upset about the situation, and at the end of the
conversation we made promises that we would stay in touch. We didn’t though,
and as time passed I hung out with kids who more readily fit into the social scene
at school. By the next year it was rare that we would even exchange a nod when
encountering each other. Deathwish got held back in the eighth grade, and I
moved on to high school. His exploits were legendary by that point, as were rumors
about his apparently suicidal tendencies. We spent the whole time avoiding each
other’s gaze like people who share an embarrassing secret.
At some point his family moved
and all contact between us ceased. I sometimes wonder if his heart is still