Deathwish

Equal parts of; Grenadine, Wild Turkey, Peppermint Schnapps, 151 Rum Layer in exact order into a Pony or Shot glass

Back to the Everything Bartender

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 loser?”

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 for me.

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 a bathroom.

 

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 everything.”

“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 beating.

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