short stories

Symphony And Mornings Of White Satin, by Ashk Ruhani

I

Sometimes, it’s almost painful for me to not hate guns, since a gun killed one of my best friends and came close to destroying life for the person closest to me other than family. Still, I think of myself as rational. And hatred too often is an inchoate inferno bringing about, whether physical or not, a death and not reversing its annihilation with rebirth. It never does, never will. Ryan is gone, and Darren almost is, non-erasable scars of reality.

Yeah, I know there are those who like saying guns don’t kill, only people. That’s a tidy, a neatly-packaged sentiment, a sterile excuse that made no difference that fall morning in Everett, a small town on the central eastern plains of North Dakota, when everything should’ve been as fresh as the breeze combing the prairie.

But nothing was tidy, fresh; nothing was nice and nothing was an excuse defying reality to perform a miracle suddenly making things right. Death had come to town long before and that morning was simply mocking what should’ve been (though if you let it, endless mockery will mock endless mockery, while I now have a husband and two children, with all of that happening twelve years ago). Yes, it’s taken me that long to gain the strength for bleeding onto paper, also because I’ve wanted everything to be as clear as possible when I put it in writing.

Yet, I sometimes still sense the final statement of Darren’s rifle, sense, not hear – rather odd, wouldn’t you say? But the sound marking the end of Ryan’s life is nothing but an explosion of nothingness, a white-out of excruciation that briefly eradicates my awareness returning to a wound filled with emptiness – perhaps empty because I don’t want to remember, or because I remember too much, maybe because I want some time away in the cradle of timeless sleep.

Oh, the words come so easy, though what are left but words, memories and a sense of loss? – while my story seems an endless knot beyond unraveling or even ripping apart though I’ve done my best by questioning everyone I could who was close to all that happened, once I finally was able to talk about the near-walking death of Darren’s life as it is and the violation of young spirit likely damaging Ryan beyond repair.

But what I know comes from life-long acquaintance with him, from things Darren told me and what I learned from people familiar with the matter.

They did what they could, except Darren’s mother, Dory, a compulsive talker as if desperately, blindly trying to stumble away from something with words nonetheless seeming to fail her when I asked about her son: “Please leave me alone. There’s nothing I can really tell you,” she’d say, bitterly adding, “You were in love with him, isn’t that enough?” – words that burned like coals of ice, while I could see her spirit cringing in shadows beyond my reach, beyond hers because she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, reach out to herself. And maybe that shadowed Darren since he never entirely freed himself from the chains cast around him by tragedy in his young life… though I’m getting ahead of myself.

But how to begin? Let me see, I’m Julie.

I am, or was, the same age as Ryan. We came up through childhood in, and attended the same grade and high school a mile north of Everett. My husband, kids and I live in Fargo now. Looking back, Everett seems like a singular punctuation of foreboding. The nearest town, Manfred, was somewhat more than eighty-five miles away. While the rest of the world was surging forward, Everett even at the time had no internet umbilical cord to the virtual realm of cyberspace. There were no mobile phones. Jeb Conway, the justice of peace and sheriff, didn’t have a ham radio. There were no underground phone lines. They swayed, sometimes mournfully humming in prairie winds while strung across the crosspieces on wooden, old-fashioned telephone poles. The electronic mind steadily was consuming the world, not knowing that Everett even existed…

… and the isolation helped kill Ryan, Darren nearly so.

Because of everything, I sometimes find it odd: – Ryan’s parents, Meg and Danny Warner, had money, lots of it. They owned several rental properties, the town’s only grocery store, only gas station, hardware store, feed store and the grain elevators. They even owned and rented-out the small building Everett used for a library. When I think of that, it almost seems they bid to own – as absentee landlords – to possess the town’s collective mind.

And painfully for me, the desolation is still represented by the empty water tower in the town square, unused because a bigger one had been put up right north of town three years before the old one became Ryan’s temple of death.

East and directly down across the railroad tracks and their siding from the empty water tower was the old folks’ home. We’d never heard of “senior citizens’ centers”. It was the old folks’ home, pure and simple.

We kids didn’t hate our town, at least I didn’t. Everett, our families and friends were what we had, what we knew.

And so it was for my first eighteen years that life treated me well. My mom, Lila, and dad, Calvert, were comfortably fixed on a small “ranch” one-fourth of a mile west of town. While not wealthy, we lived well, since dad had received a sizable inheritance from his parents, such that he needed working only thirty hours a week at the feed store without having to try making ends meet off our land.

Other than home, our fifty acres served our hobby: One Arabian each for mom, dad, my younger sisters, Beth and Laura, and me. Horses, what other few there were on the relentless prairie around, were quarter horses and Everett’s crusty, occasional cowboy-types liked laughing at our high-brow tastes, though dad’s family had had southern roots several generations in the past.

As for me, I’m a medium-brunette with wavy hair and bluish-gray eyes. I’ve never needed anyone telling me; I know I’m attractive, if not beautiful. In high school, I could’ve, but didn’t have a lot of boyfriends, not because I was opposed, but because I’ve always believed in thinking my own mind. My intellectual independence comes by way of mom and dad’s free-thinking, and most of the boys didn’t know what to make of what I thought.

Ryan? – I’ve often wondered why Meg and Danny brought him into the world as their only kid. He was only a little over a year old when they started traveling, both winter and summer for eight, nine, even ten months at a time while leaving him with his uncle Harl and aunt Shirley.

He grew up with the imprint of not a mother’s face, but that of a woman he nearly always called Shirl, not aunt, simply Shirl. At least that had a one-syllable harmony with Harl, and it almost always was Harl, not uncle or Harley.

Once, in high school, I asked Ryan if they “treated him bad.”

By then, I’d become used to him looking through me as though seeing nothing beyond nothing – before sullenness clouded his face and he roughly said, “Of course not. Why do you even ask?” then abruptly walked away.

I, in fact, didn’t know why, maybe because the forward-peering face of *Janus saw though my inner eyes, perhaps because an angel of the future had settled on my shoulder, hoping for my protection.

Nonetheless, his aunt and uncle performed a duty, a service, taking care of him the very rare times he got sick, feeding him well, keeping him in good clothes and a nice house on the “hifalutin” northeast-side not far from his parents’ home so often empty.

No, they didn’t outwardly abuse him – or maybe it qualified as neglect. But over the years, an uneasiness has possessed the pit of my guts, a certain knowledge that the first and greatest crime committed was by the adults in his life doing little but allowing Ryan to simply exist. The quality of love may or may not have been strained; I don’t know whether it ever existed.

Meanwhile, Danny and Meg pursued their indulgence around the world – and by age six, in the first grade, Ryan was the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen. His hair was dark-brown, and perhaps oddly, wavy like mine. His eyes were a deep blue, almost sapphire in hue. The illusive thing about them was that they didn’t seem to speak though I can’t say they were empty. Ryan was, or struck one, with being as unremarkable as the non-expletive vernacular. His two most outstanding qualities were his intelligence and silence, though I don’t recall him as a loner, at least in grade school. He played with us like any kid – usually in silence – but was a fast learner with his studies in an off-hand way. He rarely laughed, not in grade school. Instead, a quizzical smile would cross his face and he’d look as if he was carefully, slowly testing the flavor of the moment’s humor.

His height climbed to somewhat over 6 feet; his grade-school beauty averaged-out to that of a nicely ordinary-looking young man in high school.

And perhaps due to the hormonal territoriality of post-pubescence, he changed, learning to laugh, for there were moments when he was the most obliging and charming person you could imagine. Then, he’d be repossessed by the sullen solitude of his old silence, now bristling with the icy edge of a condescending, a contemptuously subtle cruelty… I never knew which Ryan I’d meet.

And no one paid much attention to that fact that he rarely dated; he seemed disinterested.

Yet, I was the one girl to whom he became close, as close as possible. We never said it, dating would’ve felt incestuous, a bond that’d come to haunt us.

Our teen-years, most of them, melted away in a nondescript passage of time.

We graduated from high school; a week later, Carlyle, Dory and Darren McCallister came to town. Carlyle left two mornings later, gone for a week or so with the work he did.

That time lay scorched with an unseasonably ruthless heat. The prairie didn’t broil or fry. It suffered under a searing inquisition of dryness it seemed would sap the very life from the area’s few trees.

Silently, it raged the afternoon four days after Darren came to Everett. And I sometimes bait myself, wondering if things wouldn’t have unraveled differently had mom not asked me to go into town to buy some supper food.

She stood looking through the kitchen window at our drooping horses in the pasture behind the house.

“Poor things, too hot to even graze,” – and I remember her taking a sip from the glass of iced tea in her hand. She paused for thought as she set the tea on the counter: “You know, I like a garden salad with the best of them. But I’ll never understand why your father has to have his with all those hot peppers, particularly in this kind of weather. It almost makes me overheat just to look out the window,” – and she fanned her face with her hand despite the air conditioner on high. “You’d better not ride Sally to the store. It’s too hot. Want to take the car?”

“I still have some money from this month’s allowance, so that’s okay; I’ll walk,” I told her. “If I get too hot, I’ll buy an ice cream cone at the diner.”

“Up to you. Just be sure to get some peppers for your dad, and be back by five so that we can eat at 5:30. You know him, without regular trips to the feeding trough,” – and mom turned, again looking absentmindedly out the window, perhaps symbolically since even then, before Ryan went “the way of crow road”, the afternoon seemed empty, unstirred, stifled by an invisible demon.

Still, I managed walking to Warner’s Food Mart, by which time I’d begun feeling dizzy since there’s never been much that’s more debilitating for my mind and body than dry heat. Grocery shopping over, I couldn’t reel fast enough down the street to The Prairie Schooner, or The Schooner, as we all called the diner.

Sitting next to each other on counter stools, Darren and Ryan turned when they heard me sagging through the door.

“Hi, Jules, what’s up ?” Ryan asked.

“Anything that’ll keep me alive,” I groaned, slumping into the nearest booth.

Ryan eyed me for a second, looked at Darren and nodded in my direction. The boys came over, Darren with a large, ice-laden coke and Ryan a cup of coffee.

“Hope you don’t mind us sitting with you,” he said.

“I’m too hot to mind much of anything… oh, but you could order me a large ice cream cone,” – and I groaned again over the effort of pulling two $1-bills out my jeans pocket.

“Chocolate chip, vanilla, strawberry, which?”

“Vanilla, if Verna’ll pack the cone heaping full.”

Ryan turned toward the waitress with a magnanimous gesture: “A large vanilla cone over here, please, Verna?”

He then buried his nose in his cup before lowering the porcelain enough to peer over its rim while inclining his head to the left: “By the way, this is Darren – you know, the people from Kansas City who moved into dad’s rental on Main the other day?”

“Hi,” Darren and I said, and I noticed that he looked like Ryan’s slightly shorter twin. Their facial structure looked nearly identical and I later realized the same thing about their body-builds. Darren’s eyes were a softer shade of blue, his hair a lighter brown – and wavy – like mine. Like Ryan and me, he was eighteen.

I hoped he’d say something further; I felt exhausted and wrung as dry of words as the outdoor air of moisture. But he sat, staring through the window.

I can’t term it as déjà vu – it simply felt as though I’d already been in the same place, at some future time in an odd confusion of circumstantial tenses, a tangled syntax of the present, past and what was yet to come. I assimilated the emotional tangle as a desperate silence, though I didn’t know why. I began scrambling for words, any words, wanting to be polite, then asked Ryan what he had in his cup.

“Coffee.”

“Why? or maybe it’s that coffee’s the cheapest thing in the place because Verna doesn’t have to use electricity to make it, just set the coffee pot outside and let the sun do the rest,” – I tried being jovial, almost startled by my sudden creativity. “But seriously, why are you drinking coffee on a day like this?”

“Guess you didn’t know that the diner recently started importing an exotic blend,” Ryan said. “Far from cheap, but great stuff. Hey, you should try it, maybe with your ice cream?” – he was on a plateau of pleasantry.

“I don’t think so. I doubt even ice cream would help. Mix caffeine with the heat and I’d probably have a heart attack,” I said, looking at Verna walking up and handing Ryan a cone.

He gave it to me, pushing my money back across the table before removing $5 from his shirt pocket: “Go ahead, keep the change, and thanks, Verna.”

“Some like it hot, and the heat seems to make others soft-headed, or soft-hearted,” she replied, with a teasing look at him. “This is my biggest tip all week. Are you serious about me keeping the change?”

I saw Ryan rising to the bait of a nonexistent insult, a gruffness unraveling the tone-edge of his voice under a withering glare: “And just why not?”

Verna wilted, looking confused: “Wel-l – o-ok-a-ay – thanks,” and she retreated toward the counter with a glance of uncertainty over her shoulder.

I’d witnessed and been an occasional target of Ryan’s high-handed belittlement often enough it seemed I’d lost the genetic code to embarrassment; I felt little but numb, especially since the diner’s air conditioning still hadn’t brought me around from the heat.

I sought the nearest refuge: “Thanks for the ice cream, Ryan.”

He didn’t reply while taking a long pull from his cup. His eyes looked withdrawn, yet possessed by a glint of triumph on the surface.

Meanwhile, sugar and the cold of ice cream propped me up with a quick, giddy relief, and I looked at Darren: “What brings you and your folks to this wide-place-in-the-road from a big, crazy place like Kansas City?”

Perhaps a mirage deceived me; I thought I saw a shiver run through him before he turned hunted eyes toward me. He hesitated, then, “They gave dad a big raise to take over as manager of this district. He’s an insurance adjustor, you know .”

I tried for a pun, a bad one: “I’m not sure what there is to insure around here, but I’m sure that working in insurance could be interesting.”

Darren turned toward the window before looking at me again. His voice sounded distant: “Really?” – and I felt him looking through me as though at nothing beyond nothing, though unlike, or maybe too much like Ryan, he perhaps was seeing something he’d much rather not.

Small-talk probably followed, I don’t remember. But as I said, I perhaps remember too much, of other things – of a new horizon not entirely obscuring the setting of a trap, an inescapable bond. I’m not sure I believe in fate. But looking back to those moments, I can feel a metamorphosis, the tentacles of a deadly embrace promising to enfold, a something I didn’t then understand and still don’t. I’d never heard of co-dependency at the time, and now am not sure whether or not it was a chameleon of weakness mocking an imitation of strength among the three of us.

Still, across the table, my instincts began loving a decency I sensed in Darren. Contrary to his mother’s stubborn insistence later, I didn’t fall in love with him. Instead, something within each of us began putting down roots in the other, even as the rise of unanswered questions ruptured our sky.

I had answers to some of those question six mornings following that afternoon at The Schooner, while I didn’t realize how much time Darren and Ryan had been spending together.

The heat had exhausted itself by then and the air conditioner in our house had shut off. I woke a little before 6:30, to a chill of nature pricking me newly alive.

I dressed, left the house and saddled my horse.

I didn’t know which bedroom was Darren’s, riding around his house until I saw a window and its curtains open a few inches, on the house’s south side. While it was nice and in good repair, the house was elderly, without window screens. I climbed off Sally and cautiously looked in to see Darren asleep on one side with his face toward me.

“Darren, get your lazy ass out of bed! It’s a great morning to see the world from a horse!”

He didn’t move.

“Darren, Darren, wake up, boy!” – and he then did, with a start, looking wildly around until he saw me outside the window.

He checked his watch: “It’s not even 7. What on earth are you doing here, Julie?”

“Coming to get you for a horse ride. Let’s move out before it gets hot again.”

He hesitated, then replied, “Can’t get dressed with you standing there,” – and I stepped to one side of the window.

Oddly, I heard, or felt, silence, odd because there was no sound of him moving about.

Two or three minutes later, nonetheless, and Darren raised the window, climbing through in a sleeveless white t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.

He shaded his eyes to look at Sally.

“Like?” I asked.

“What kind of horse is he?” he wanted to know.

“He’s a she; her name’s Sally and she’s Arabian. Have you ever done any horseback riding?”

“A few times, dude ranches in Colorado, you know,” Darren said.

“Colorado?”

“What?”

“Oh, nothing, just that I’ve always wanted to check-out the Rockies,” I replied, climbing into the saddle. “You can ride behind me,” – and I kicked out of the left stirrup for him to use.

He swung up with muscular ease and we were aimlessly off, north along Main Street.

Neither of us talked for a bit. Recalling those moments through the prism of later events, they feel likepieces of a disarranged jigsaw puzzle, while at the time it seemed that silence started enfolding us – like a womb, outside and in, a cocoon of the unspoken.

“Where’re we going?” Darren finally asked.

“Have you ever heard the expression about following a hood ornament where it goes?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, well, let’s follow Sally’s nose wherever it takes us,” I said.

To that, Darren didn’t answer, an absence of words punctuated by the clop, clop of Sally’s hooves… until Darren’s fingers started digging into my shoulder.
I turned; he was looking into an empty field on our right.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

He continued his stare for a second or two before his gaze locked with mine: “That’s… where I first met Ryan… the second afternoon after mom and dad and me came to town… when… he… was target-shooting with his rifle.”

The statement was quiet but dripping with something beyond my grasp, though I ventured, “Yeah, Ryan’s really something with a gun, isn`t he?”

Darren didn’t reply, his eyes still fixed on the spot where life had rolled fatal dots on the dice of circumstance, and I decided it was best to vacate the subject.

Slowly, the comfortable silence returned. We rode and rode, two miles north and a mile west, then south on the next road, until I decided upon a rest at one of nature’s sparse incongruities around Everett: – a small creek wending through a shallow, grassy hollow, an oasis-thread of the Northern Great Plains lined by cottonwoods.

“Let’s take a break over there,” – and I nodded toward the stream.

“Yeah, sure.”

We dismounted; I dropped her reins as a signal permitting Sally to graze while we took places on the grass, I sprawled on my side, Darren sitting with hunched shoulders.

“She won’t run away, will she, Sally, I mean?” he asked.

“Naw. She’s a good girl, smart, too,” I smiled. “S-o-o, whad’ya think of Everett, guy,” I went on.

“I don’t really know. Haven’t been here long enough, but okay, I guess.”

“Kind of quiet after”… and I felt shame dragging Darren’s shoulders even lower, with the distant urging of my intuition having begun straining toward my consciousness.

“I don’t mean to pry,” I said. “But something happened in Kansas City, didn’t it?”

Darren looked at the ground, then raised his eyes: “They… the police… they… shot my best friend Kyle… killed him… I’ve known him ever since I could remember.”

“Why, Darren, why’d they kill him?” I softly asked.

“He… he was the top-rated sharpshooter in the marksmanship club at our school, an elective part of P. E. I was rated second. I don’t know why… guess he snapped… before school one morning… snuck in the back door with his gun and started shooting from a classroom window on the third floor… killed four people and a dog in less than five minutes… just kept shooting… at nothing after he killed a dog… a helpless dog, Julie!”

“Darren, oh, Darren!” I felt myself pleading, somehow desperate to take his fear within the embrace of myself.

Darren didn’t hear me: “I was at the police barricade when they… I… I heard the shot that… took him…”

There was a lengthy pause; Darren next looked at me: “You know what? I stopped hearing the sound of that right away and still don’t hear it. It’s just a silent, white something that blows up in my face several times a day… in my sleep, too.”

“That’s why you tensed up when we rode past the place where you met Ryan, wasn’t it? – because those white explosions are scarier than actually hearing something, aren’t they?” I said, with no hint of those words’ prophecy.

My new friend remained silent.

“I’m so sorry, Darren. What did you, I mean, what happened then?”

“I… I don’t remember… next thing I knew, I was in bed at home… and… and staring at the wall… couldn’t sleep for almost 2 nights… just lay there waiting for that white whatever to explode… over and over and over… didn’t even go to Kyle’s funeral, Julie… just couldn’t make myself do it.”

“Oh, Darren, if I only knew what to say!” I breathed, though the time would come for my acquaintance with a similar, more hardened paralysis of emotion that’d enslaved his mother, the only way I know to term it…

II

… for once I’d gathered myself from everything enough to talk, her husband, Carlyle, seemed needy to exorcize the terror by answering my questions during conversations at The Schooner since Dory couldn`t handle overhearing us at their home. And he gave me names of other people in Kansas City who could help.

One of those was Barry Neustetler, a long-time friend of the McCallister’s and the manager of a car rental at the mall thirteen blocks from their old house.

Compared with the untidy roiling in my stomach, the mall almost seemed sterile as I walked down its central promenade during my first visit to his office, having called him a few days earlier.

“I regret the circumstances, but it is a pleasure to meet you, Ms. – er-r – Julie,” Barry said, as I stepped into his office. “I’ll start right in and you stop me if you have any questions, all right?”

“Okay.”

Even partially in profile, I could see the sadness on his face as he took a long sip of coffee while looking out the window before turning toward me: “It was bad, real bad, but you already know…”

“… yeah… how did Darren happen to be at the police barricade when they shot Kyle?”

“Some of what I’ll tell you is conjecture based on what Carlyle and I pieced together. But Darren walked to school with some of the other kids that morning – you know, about eight weeks before graduation. The McCallister’s house wasn’t that far away. His best friend Kyle was firing his rifle from the window of a third-floor classroom when they got there. Of course, the police were everywhere.”

“They had a negotiator talking to Kyle and his parents have considered challenging the police, thinking maybe they moved too fast, or it could be that Kyle simply wanted to die… doesn’t matter; the swat team went in from the fire escape on the back side of the school and Kyle apparently sensed them opening the door to the room he was in – turned with his weapon raised and… they… shot him.”

“What’d Darren do then?” I asked.

“In some ways, that was the oddest, kind of like what happened with his mother.”

“You see, Karen, Karen Mallory, one of the kids at the police barricade, said that Darren seemed to know that Kyle’d been shot as soon as it happened, almost like they had a special connection beyond death. She told us that his face went white as if every drop of blood drained out of it – said seeing that was almost scarier than anything. He looked up at the window for a long time, didn’t say a word, then turned and walked away. The other kids were too shaken to try stopping him…”

“… and he went straight home?”

“Apparently. What happened with his mother, though, was just as strange.”

“I got here to the office at the usual time that morning. My old coffee pot wasn’t working, so a while later, I went down the way for a cup of coffee. About halfway there, I saw Dory, Mrs. McAllister. I went over to talk to her, and could see that her eyes looked wet, but she wasn’t crying. I thought maybe it was a spring allergy or something. I said `hi, how are you’, and it still sends a chill through me, remembering the empty look she gave me as if I wasn’t there, didn’t even exist. I said `hi’ again, with the same reaction before she walked away – not real fast, but there was kind of a scurry in the way she walked, sort of like an animal injured too bad to cry out for help. She wasn’t wringing her hands, but slowly twisting her fingers together while she looked in a store window. She didn’t talk to anybody, didn’t cry, didn’t say a word, just stood there staring through the window. She didn’t even seem to realize other people were around. In a bit, she walked over to the next window and did the same thing.”

“By then, I could tell something was wrong. I decided to keep an eye on her for a bit and followed her at a distance while she walked from window to window and stared through them.”

“But I needed to get back here – didn’t know what else to do – got my coffee, came back, turned on the radio and that’s when I heard about the shooting.”

“I wasn’t sure if Darren was involved, though I did know he was a top marksman in the school’s gun club. I naturally put two and two together about Dory and tried calling Carlyle. He was out of his office for a little over an hour, but went straight home when I got through to him. Dory was there by the time he arrived.”

“Things at home were as strange as at the mall. Dory wasn’t even sitting all the way back, only halfway on the edge of a chair and staring at an empty TV channel – no white noise even, nothing but a blank screen. She wouldn’t talk when he asked what was wrong, several times. He checked the rest of the house, found Darren in bed and not able to talk, either.”

“By then, Carlyle was really concerned. He tried persuading Dory to let him take her and Darren to the emergency room – anything, anything but what was happening. She didn’t respond, even look at him. He finally got the family doctor, Emory Valentine, to the house. Emory said they basically were okay, to let them rest, give them time to come out of shock and prescribed some Valium. Fortunately, he said `yes’ when Carlyle asked if they’d be okay while he went to the school. Karen was still there and told him what happened.”

“Dory had come around enough to start doing some housework when he got back, though she was real quiet, just an empty shell of herself for several days. After that, she started a lot of compulsive talking, with a nervous laugh. As you probably know, Dory still talks as if she’s afraid of something,” – and Barry paused.

He poured himself more coffee from the small table beside him, took another draw of it, and quietly went on: “It was worse, a lot worse for Darren. Carlyle took the next day off work, kept checking on him, with nothing changed. Apparently, the poor kid didn’t sleep a drop until sometime in the middle of the next night.”

“It must’ve been pure, living hell – and not as if it was completely over, either, when Darren recovered as well as he did – real quiet like his mom, though, had trouble talking to the school psychologist. Actually, he couldn’t cope with school for several days, but handled it well when he did go back, worked extra hard and made up what he’d missed. He’s a great kid, just great, even though I have no idea how he managed to graduate with the rest of his class – except for Kyle, that is.”

“I think we got a pretty good idea of what happened after Darren walked home. When Carlton and I talked to Darren alone sometime later, he said he vaguely remembered Dory coming into his room, asking why he wasn’t in school, two or three times, but not if he was okay before she just… walked out. Even in shock, that must’ve given him a terrible sense of abandonment.”

“Why she didn’t talk to him as soon as he got home is something we’ve never been able to figure out – was probably in the basement or backyard and didn’t hear him. Dory still won’t explain what happened. Whatever her reasons, my guess is that she heard about the shooting on TV before she went into his room, perhaps confused in thinking he was involved in the shooting. If so, it must’ve turned her inside out. Based on the timing, though, it appears she drove, not walked, to the mall, maybe trying to leave guilt and pain behind…”

“… she… she just left Darren for over an hour while she was at the mall?” I asked.

Barry’s voice sounded heavy: “I’m afraid so. And maybe guilt compounded guilt because she subconsciously realized she hadn’t given Darren what he needed.”

“Like I said, how Darren managed to graduate is a wonder, because he was having terrible nightmares. Carlyle finally decided he needed to get away from everything. Fortunately, his company’s man in Everett was just getting ready to retire, and Carlyle’s supervisor down here was able to get him a transfer to up there.”

Barry then hesitated once more and lowered his eyes while slowly rotating his cup in his hands. He looked at me: “What I have to say next is almost the hardest of all, but it might help you understand: I talked to the lead police investigator, a Lieutenant Graham, I think it was. You know how they say that haunted houses feel cold?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Graham said he’d worked a lot more gruesome cases, and that a person would had to have been there to understand. But he said it felt cold like that, as if something had wrung every drop of human warmth out of the crime scene – and he doesn`t even believe in haunted houses. He told me that while he couldn’t explain it, he’d never sensed such cold, such overwhelming rage as came from Kyle, even after the fact. And I’ve always wondered if Darren didn’t sense the same thing, maybe feel some vicarious guilt, not to mention losing his best friend.”

“I’ve known Dory and Carlyle since my sophomore year in high school and love them like my sister and brother, Darren like my son. So, all of that is one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me, even though I wasn’t directly involved except as their friend. No matter; a little something dies in everyone touched by things like that until you learn to rebirth yourself, and rebirth yourself is the best way I know to put it.”

“It’s hard because everybody always wants to know why, and I’m not sure I’ve learned this, but maybe have come to accept that there’s no adequate explanation for any of what happened.”

“Other than that, all I know to say is what my grandmother Sophronia used to: `Letting yourself feel the reality of pain is what helps you let it go because you can’t let go of what isn’t real’…”

“… and you think that Dory’s suffering from the pain of guilt but can’t or won’t admit it, even to herself?” I said.

“Of course I’m not an expert, but I’d say yes. And I think emotions, even repressed, can be contagious from one person to another…”

“… like to Darren?”

“You’d have to wonder, to some degree.”

“Do you think it’s possible that part of her guilt now comes from feeling like she – you know – mentally accused him of being the killer before she got everything straight in her mind?”

Barry thoughtfully considered: “You may have something.”

“It doesn’t matter; Dory probably will never let herself feel whatever’s destroying her inside, will she?” I asked.

Barry’s eyes hooded with dejection; he slowly shook his head and softly answered, “Something tells me not.”

He then took a lengthy pause, rubbed his hands together, drew his shoulders in as if collecting himself, and said, “I hope this has helped?”

“A lot. Can I come back if I think of anything else?” I asked.

“Anytime, with a call a day or two ahead, you know.”

“Okay, and thanks for helping me understand what happened.”

“It wasn’t the most pleasant thing to relive, but it did feel good to talk,” Barry replied as we stood to shake hands.

“I can see why you feel close to Darren. He’s a lot like you, a good person,” – and I couldn’t stop myself from leaning across the desk to kiss Barry on the cheek.

I was glad to see a little smile on his face as I turned to leave.

I drove Mom’s car, which she’d loaned me, to Darren’s old high school.

While it was a fairly raw day, in mid-January, I didn’t feel the coldness that Lieutenant Graham had sensed; I felt the warmth of tears running down my face – and falling to mingle with half-melted snow…

III

… while that was somewhat over a year after Darren’s and my oasis under cottonwoods. The air lay, that summer morning, a bosom of coolness around us. It would’ve and should’ve been easy for us to see promise on every horizon, except that we were just a couple of kids trying to find our way through a pain that’d been closer than skin for one of us and was a new one for the other.

In those moments, I wanted to see into Darren’s eyes so bad – they were lowered toward the ground. Instead, a nurturing instinct buried deeper within than my eighteen years enveloped me, and I softly said, “Darren? Darren, please listen to me. It’s okay to be sad. What happened was terrible. But it’s not your fault. Kyle was sick…”

“… Julie!” – and Darren finally raised his eyes.

“No, Darren, no. Listen to me. You didn’t kill him, you didn’t. And you shouldn’t feel bad because you couldn’t stop him from dying, either. The police were just… well, I don’t know. What happened isn’t your fault. I know this will sound strange. But there’s nothing wrong with feeling sad… and… feeling happy. It’s okay to be sad because you miss Kyle, terribly, and his death was the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Still, it’s okay to be happy, too, because you’re here. Losing Kyle is enough, enough, Darren. Don’t lose yourself, too. You have the right to be alive. Do you understand?”

He didn’t say anything for a long time; neither of us did, until Darren fixed my eyes with the pleading in his: “I wish I could see Kyle again… just… just one more time.”

“I know, and it’ll hurt for a while, but still, you can see him in your memories,” I told him.

“I do, in another way. My best friend back there was a sharpshooter. I come here and my best friend is sharpshooter. Why… why two marksmen as my best friends, Julie?” Darren asked with quiet urgency.

“I don’t know. Maybe you just have to let it be. You have a best friend in Ryan and that’s good. You’re my friend. That’s good. And I’m happy to be yours.”

“Really?”

“Of course.”

His eyes searched mine for several long seconds. I could see the ravages of turmoil in them, though they looked more relieved than I’d ever seen before he again lowered them.

That seemed a good time for a refreshing of the moment, with the raw freshness of a bond spinning its quiet tensile between us while I tilted my head toward the sunlight-shimmer on the leaves above.

Suddenly, Darren gently took my face in both hands and laid me back. He slowly lowered himself upon me and his lips to mine.

I lay there beneath him, not resisting, instinct telling me that the moment would play itself out as it would… while his lips felt so good it almost hurt – then…

… Darren rolled off me with a look of dejected disgust: “Damn it! Damn it! I can’t!…”

“… what do you mean?”

“I want to make love to you, Julie! But all that happens is I see Ryan in my head!”

“Ryan, not Kyle?”

“Ryan, damn it!”

“It’s Ryan, right?” I asked, to assure myself.

“Yes,” Darren replied, and I hesitated, though I didn’t and still don’t know why I said, “Are… you… in love with him?”

“I… I don’t know… don’t understand any of it,” Darren answered, in a desperate tone before it softened: “But, yeah, I like him, a lot. Are… you mad at me, Julie?”

“No. Why would I be mad at you, Darren?”

“U-h-h-h – well – Ryan’s gay, you know.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, we… we were hanging-out in his bedroom the other day. Of course, his mom and dad were gone like usual. And I found a gay magazine stuck between his bed mattress and the wall while he was in the bathroom. I was looking at it when he came back – grabbed it away and threw it at the wall real hard. Then, he started screaming this weird shit at me, like `was I going to hate him like everybody else’? – and he ‘supposed I was going to put him down and treat him the way everybody does’ – all sorts of crazy things. Then, all of a sudden he stopped talking and sat down on the floor, not saying anything. Neither one of us said a word… felt pretty miserable.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“It was real strange. In a bit, Ryan came over and sat beside me on the bed, asked what kind of music I like. I said, you know, pop, that `it’s old stuff, but my favorite song is “Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues’. He said, `yeah, that is a cool song, but did I like classical music’? I said, `classical’? `Yeah, like Beethoven and Mozart’? I said that `I didn’t really know because I’d never really listened to any’. Ryan said `you’re going to, now’ – went over and turned his cassette on. And this strange music started playing. Ryan said `it was the second something-or-other’… ”

“… second movement?”

“Yeah, the second movement of this symphony by some guy named Bruckner – real unusual music; beautiful, but sad and peaceful. Does that make any sense? Can music be sad and peaceful at same time?”

“Yeah, sure, I think so,” I replied.

“Yeah? Anyway, I’ve never heard anything like it. It isn’t easy to explain, but it was hard not to get lost in it. I didn’t know what to think, kind of liked it, though, not as if Ryan gave me a chance to listen to all of it. In a bit, he turned it off, and said ‘so what I’m gay’? I was going to tell him `yeah’, but he wouldn’t let me, just gave me this… this… I’m not sure what kind of look…”

“… sulky?”

“Yeah, gave me this sulky look and said `that’s why they don’t like me’. I said `what are you talking about’? He said `mom and dad; do you really think they want a gay son’? And I was, like, going to argue with him, but he wouldn’t let me do that, either, just said `I want to be alone, please leave’. So, I did. At least he said `please’… and was real nice to me at the diner later that night. I don’t know why I like him so much.”

“Ryan can be difficult, real difficult. But he can be nice, too. So, maybe the 1st. question you have to answer is, do… you love him?” I ventured.

“I’m… not sure, maybe, don’t understand it at all.”

“I’m not sure people are supposed to understand why they love anybody. Love is what it is, Darren,” I said, verbally cultivating mom and dad`s free-thinking I`d inherited.

He gave me a look of uncertainty: “Have you… like… ever been in love?”

“I’ve had a few crushes.”

“What about, like, you and Ryan? Have you ever made-out?”

“Don’t be silly!” I teasingly scoffed. “We’re like brother and sister!”

Darren looked thoughtful for a few seconds: “Yeah, know what you mean.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Have you ever heard the idea of people coming from the same cosmic egg, but aren’t related to each other?”

“No, but I have an idea, like people knowing each other from a past life – right?”

“Yeah, like, I met Ryan, what? – only 2 weeks ago and you even less, and I already feel as if I’ve known both of you forever,” Darren said.

“Come to think of it, yeah, kind of nice, too,” I replied.

“Yeah,” – and Darren stared off into the distance before he gave me a shy look: “Gosh, you’re smart.”

“You aren’t so bad yourself, but thanks,” I softly laughed. “How about we go see if the smartest person in Everett wants to ride horses with us?”

“Who?”

“Ryan, silly!” I chuckled. “Come on; we can go to my house and I’ll saddle horses for the two of you”…

… and my suggestion resulted in Ryan, Darren and me hurtling along unfettered and wild, in a dust-devilish storm of hooves across the empty, 1-section-square tract of land west of dad’s stable, with me on Sally and Ryan on Prince while Darren rode Hercules.

Not until we’d crossed most of the field did we stop for a rest, simply unraveling into each other through spirit-osmosis of time beyond time.

Looking back along the sight-line of mechanical time, I see the barrenness of tragedy. During the delicate forever of those moments, nothing appeared but the beauty of simplicity, not a tree in sight, a field cluttered by nothing but weeds reaching up from between clods, the clean cool sweetness of the air, the unreachable curve of sky shading off into blue-whiteness following sunrise sapphire – and Darren seeming almost happy…

IV

… a few weeks later he mentioned the two of them sleeping in Ryan’s bed, that night… in an otherwise empty house; they didn’t have sex.

And as summer accomplished its sleight of hand in passing, Darren usually was quiet but didn’t really seem depressed, while I could see that the weight of the past never entirely lifted.

Ryan, otherwise, was Ryan, his silence often sullen, while sometimes in a cavalier manner he was distant from, on fewer occasions, affectionate toward his friend.

I could see Darren swaying like a reed in the ebb and flow of relationship, sometimes so angry as to not talk to his beloved for a day or two. But with his dad gone so much and his mother leaving him to find his way through confusion, Darren needed anchoring, and Ryan was there. Simultaneously, I was too young and inexperienced to grasp the scope of seismic disorder beneath the surface.

It was impossible to tell about Ryan: life must have been lonely, except for Darren. Starting when he’d turned sixteen, his mom and dad had let him live alone in their house, while administering him an allowance through Harl of some two-hundred dollars a month, to use as Ryan pleased. He sometimes fixed meals for himself, though usually ate at The Schooner. At times, he’d drop in at Shirl and Harl’s of an evening, wolf dinner, watch TV for a while, then leave without a word and return to an empty house. And by that summer, he’d gone over to Manfred to buy a used, classic Mustang in top condition. Frequently, he and Darren took lengthy rides, and no one knew where they went, not even I.

Ryan finally talked Darren into target-shooting with him. Because of Kansas City, I’m not sure Darren derived much pleasure from it, and I’m afraid, agreed mostly because Ryan wanted.

Nonetheless, Jeb, the sheriff, was with the three of us one day when he watched them, marveling, “I swear you guys are the best marksmen I’ve ever seen, maybe in the entire eastern half of North Dakota!”

Ryan off-handedly took the compliment as his just due. Darren simply murmured, “Thanks. ”

And that happened not long after Ryan, Darren and I obtained acceptance at Liberal Arts College of the Plains in Linderhaven, thinking it’d be exciting for the three of us to attend the same school.

Linderhaven was a larger town about a ten-hour drive almost directly east. Mom and dad said they’d carry four semesters’ worth of school expenses if I held a weekend job. I didn’t buy a car; everything in Linderhaven was within reasonable walking distance of campus where I lived in the dorm, beyond which town-wide shuttle service was given students free of charge.

Financing college for Ryan was as simple as asking his parents for an increase in his allowance.

It was much more difficult for Darren, who asked Carlyle and Dory one night during dinner. Feeling tension between them, he went to bed after the evening news, unable to sleep during the ensuing tug-of-war.

I later felt the anger when he told me about the argument, his dad insisting that `he and Dory owed him that much since college would do him good after everything he’d been through’ – an idea plaintively dogged by his mother asking `how they could afford it on a shoestring’? `Nonsense! With my salary raise, we’re far from living on a shoestring, in fact, better than ever! How can you talk like that, Dory?’ his dad had countered.

“I could hear everything, Julie!” Darren had said…

… and shortly after midnight, unlike the worst moments of his life, Darren heard his mother crying, in petulant surrender, I sensed.

Two nights later, Darren, Ryan and I celebrated with a quart of Mountain Dew – and Ryan carrying his portable cassette player while riding Prince again, Darren on Hercules, and I reining Sally toward the stream overshadowed by cottonwoods. I thought I saw a conspiratorial smile on Darren’s face as we tied the horses to low-hanging branches.

He and I took seats on the grass while Ryan set the player in the fork of a nearby tree and sat down next to Darren.

The moon was three-quarters full, and the music vanquishing the night was none other than the second movement of the Bruckner.

Darren had been right; it was movingly sorrowful, yet somehow peaceful, almost serene in a sweetly disturbing way. I found it impossible not to lose myself in it and dreams born of unspeakable yearning.

With the movement over, Ryan rewound the tape and we listened to it again.

When it was finished, Ryan removed that tape from the player, took another one out of his pocket, inserted it, and the air seemed overwhelmed by the wail of “Nights in White Satin.”

Even under nothing but moonlight, I could swear I saw Ryan giving Darren a loving smile as he sat down beside him.

And nostalgic memories of those moments are some of the most piercing I have – with the last wraiths of satin melting away and it being our silent agreement that we listen to it again, as well.

With The Moody Blues over a for another time, I looked around Darren at Ryan: “That first piece was the second movement of the Bruckner symphony – right?”

“Yeah, the 7th., as a matter of fact. How’d you know?”

I shrugged, and we sat rapt in the siren song of silence until it seemed time for us to leave. The bottle of Mountain Dew was only three-fourths empty when Ryan thrust the cassette player under his arm, we mounted the horses and rode to my house under silvery arrows of the moon.

The boys helped me unsaddle the horses, and I was taken quite by surprise when Ryan, not Darren, kissed me on the forehead before he and Darren started along the road toward town.

For a brief, perhaps illusory moment, I thought I saw them arm-in-arm… it was difficult to know… they were disappearing… into Everett’s night toward an empty house.

While they weren’t arm-in-arm, I dreamed about them walking through a flower-laden field while I watched from above as though disembodied and suspended in midair. Oddly, I felt mocked by foreboding upon waking the next morning.

That, however, had dimmed in my mind two evenings later, when the three of us were at The Schooner and I asked Ryan, “Do you have a tape duplicator?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Can you make me a copy of that symphony and `Nights in White Satin’?”

“Sure, in fact, I’ll make a copy for Darren, too” Ryan replied.

He did – and without consulting Dory, Carlyle bought Darren a used Pontiac, certainly not as fine as Ryan’s Mustang, but with low mileage and in excellent condition. He and Ryan frequently listened to the Bruckner and “The Moody Blues” tapes with their dashboard cassette players – while I sometimes was tempted but lacked the courage to ask Darren why he installed a gun rack in his car’s rear window; Ryan already had one in his.

Meg and Danny came home for a week, then disappeared, this time to Morocco, as I recall. And there was no one to say goodbye to Ryan, early the morning when it was time for us to leave for college.

Carlyle, too, was gone, on the road again with his work. And it perhaps was more of the premonition that’d so come to inform my sensibilities; for whatever reason I took particular notice of Dory’s farewell. She gave Darren a cursory hug, backed away with her nervous laugh and said, “Well… we’ll… we’ll see you at Thanksgiving.”

That was it; Ryan already was in his car; Darren and I got in his and turned south along Main St. toward the highway east from Everett. If she was even watching, perhaps the last thing Dory saw was her son’s instrument of death.

V

The three of us threaded our way across the plains in company with tapes of the Bruckner and “Nights in White Satin” undergoing work-outs in the boys’ dashboard players.

We began settling into college life; I registered for a major in social science, Darren in world literature, and Ryan left his undeclared.

The time trembled with vibrancy – its first perturbation being that Ryan rented a second floor apartment for him and Darren without consulting his friend.

“Why’d he do that?” Darren asked me, the first time he saw me on campus afterward.

“Ryan tends to like the driver’s seat. But is it nice, and what’s the rent on it, your apartment, I mean?” I said.

Darren was lost in stormy thought until he came around: “Hm-m? – oh. Nice, and rent’s okay. But why didn’t he ask me first?”

He hesitated, with a new look of trouble then starting across his face.

“What is it?”

“Him not talking to me about the apartment is only part of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just that I can never tell him no. Besides, not share the apartment with him, and Ryan probably wouldn’t even look at me for a month.”

“Learning to put up with him is half the fun,” I said, trying to lighten the moment. “Come to think of it, I overheard the dorm supervisor saying there’d be a few rooms open for another two or three weeks. Why not try it at the apartment and move into the dorm if things don`t work out?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Darren said.

I could see him begrudgingly ruminating upon Ryan’s insensitivity for a bit; he then shook his head as if to clear it: “I’m trying out for football tomorrow afternoon at 1 o’clock. Come with me – maybe Ryan, too?”

“Okay,” – and we parted ways.

Remembering, I can see the glaring of my mistakes. There perhaps was some tangentially perverse reason I simply wanted to believe Darren and Ryan were in love, at least Darren with Ryan and Ryan accepting that as best he could. Maybe I was gutless, not wanting to feel the distant rumble of volcanic interaction between players in a game soon proven deadly.

Ryan, however, didn’t show at the football field the next afternoon: “He got out of bed only forty-five minutes ago, still lounging around the apartment in his bathrobe,” Darren ruefully told me before jogging on-field to try-out for quarterback.

With the college being small, only a very limited number of athletic scholarships were awarded and most of the players were walk-ons like Darren. He’d played some quarterback in high school and now tipped the scales in his favor with natural ability and some experience.

I’d never been much for the game, surprised by the excitement it aroused to watch him out-performing everyone else auditioning for the position. At the same time, I was trying to ignore three jock-types standing about thirty feet to my left on the sideline, talking trash and launching an entire arsenal of lethal glares in Darren’s direction. Nonetheless, Coach Schotnur told Darren that he’d be the starting quarterback unless or until otherwise notified.

“Good job!” I said, as Darren walked up to me after try-outs were over.

He didn’t have time to reply. The “P. J’s.” – for “pretend jocks” as Darren and I started calling them – had already come over, with one of them forcing himself between us: “Who the hell do you think you are, pretty boy?”

“Yeah! Brian belongs behind center!…”

“… because you ain’t man enough, you!…”

“Clear out of here! Now, guys!” Schotnur ordered, having walked up behind Darren. “Brian, Depard, Courtney! – shall I say it again, Co-o-ourtne-e-e? And just the hell what kind of name is Depard, anyway?” the coach challenged, face in the face of the kid so-named. “Not that it matters, does it? – because you Neanderthals are a hundred times closer to having your butts kicked off this campus than I could toss a rooster by the teeth! Do you know how far that is, huh, do you, Brian?” – and coach now was chin-to-chin with the kid who `belonged behind center’. “Well, that’s as far as nowhere because roosters DON’T HAVE TEETH, and still a lot farther than you are from being expelled! And trust me, the three of you don’t even want to think about what I’ll do if you don’t disappear in three seconds flat! BEAT IT!”

“To hell with you, shit nerd!” Brian spat, as the “disgruntlees” stalked off in a dark-faced flurry of fiendish looks and expletives back at us.

Watching them leave, Schotnur placed one hand on Darren’s shoulder and pointed at the trio with the other: “I have only one thing to say and two pieces of advice about “The Three Schmuckateers”: They’ve been trying-out for football every fall of the three years they’ve been pretending to attend classes at this school, and truth is, they can’t tell the end-zone from their own butts – I’ll leave it up to you to decide why. And my advice is, number one, pay them no attention, and number two, stay away from them. They’re worse news than Typhoid Mary.”

“Typhoid who?” I questioned.

“You kids have never heard of Typhoid Mary, have you?” coach responded. “Never mind. The two of you have a good one, and I’ll see you at practice on Monday, okay, Darren?”

“Sure.”

Darren and I occasionally happened on to “The Three Schmuckateers” around campus after that, with nothing more occurring than dirty looks and muttered resentment. That they were hawking Darren, however, was suggested by the aftermath of the set-to on the sidelines.

On Sunday evening after that encounter, Darren was leaving the student center when he saw a message board notice announcing a meeting of a gay student support group scheduled for the coming Tuesday night. Wanting to solve the riddle of his sexual identity, he attended the meeting without telling anyone, and there met Xavier, who became his third.-best friend.

Darren introduced me to Xavier, or Zave, two evenings later. I immediately I liked him.

It was an entirely different matter with Ryan. While I can’t count them, I wish I could forget the scenes between him and Darren, some of them when Ryan diffidently walked into the dining hall late for meals and saw Zave and Darren sitting together, sometimes with me.

Among other things, he accused Darren of liking Zave better than him, even being in love. Darren was more at sea than ever, though he never told me about all the other ways I’ve always been sure that Ryan tried to control him. Beyond that, it was Ryan making accusations one minute, the next, buying Darren costly gifts like the most expensive watch I’d ever seen.

Not having had the experience of surviving any brothers or sisters, Darren didn’t know how to fight back, certainly was unfamiliar with the vengeful weapon of retaliation. I’ve sometimes wondered if he wasn’t too honorable.

Zave, meanwhile, went from expressions of empathy and burning consternation to detonations of fury. “You really need to get away from him! All he wants is to manipulate you!” he kept telling Darren.

My emotions were adrift in their own sea of conflict. Part of me understood the value of what Zave was saying, and another felt that I’d betray my second-best friend if I agreed too forcefully.

Ultimately, very little of that mattered; Zave had to stay to conduct business with its board members following a gay support group meeting when the “p. j’s.” were waiting for Darren in the shadows while he was on the way to his car.

Fortunately, the assault was limited to heavy bruising, stopped short of broken bones and internal organ-trauma, by Aaron, a student, who scared off Brian, Courtney and Depard while passing through the parking lot not long after the attack began. He called an ambulance; Zave and I rushed to the hospital. Darren was under sedation, asleep when we arrived. The nurse said that he was doing remarkably well and should be home in three or four days.

I called Ryan three times – no answer – I left messages on his phone machine.

It wasn’t until a little after 1 a. m. that I happened to look over and see Ryan walking up to the door of Darren’s room with his exasperating casualness, stopping short when he saw Zave and me sitting beside Darren’s bed. He abruptly turned and disappeared. I ran after him. Ryan was moving so fast that he’d already turned the corner to the front door by the time I’d covered half the distance. He was rounding his car trunk when I pushed the door open: “Ryan, where are you going? Ryan? Ryan, please!”

I felt slapped in the face by contemptuous anger as he gunned out of the parking lot in a heart-wrenching screech of tires.

“Where’d he go?” Zave asked when I returned to the room.

“Who knows?”

“Why’d he run off like that?”

“Jealous – of you, probably me, too.”

“God, what a way treat someone who’s supposed to be your best friend!” Zave fumed.

To that, I didn’t answer, though later tried calling Ryan twice more, with no answer. However, the duty nurse again checked Darren’s vitals around 2:30, said that they were strong and “why didn’t we kids go home and get some rest?”

I found Darren’s wallet and car keys still in the pockets of his jeans hanging in the closet, taking the keys so that I could pick him up with his car when he was ready to leave the hospital.

He was under sedation the next day, as much of which Zave and I spent with him as we could. I still was so pissed at Ryan that I neither phoned him nor stopped past his apartment.

I called the hospital to check on Darren’s condition before my first class the following morning. The nurse said that he was “doing good without sedatives since it seemed he’d rather snooze than eat.”

I’d hadn’t seen Ryan on campus at all after the attack and wasn’t able to visit Darren until that evening. I felt so relieved that he was doing well that I relented, deciding to stop at his and Ryan’s apartment on the way to the hospital in the hope of talking some sense into Ryan.

My mind was still too disarrayed to realize that anything was wrong when I saw the stairway door on the first floor wide open and gently swinging in the breeze. Uneasiness began coursing through me when I found the door at the top of the steps open, as well. Ryan wasn’t in the apartment. I couldn’t see anything missing, though sensed something amiss. Alarm bells in my mind started clanging when I looked out the rear window and saw Ryan’s car gone from the apartment parking lot.

Theft wasn’t common in Linderhaven. People often left valuables in unlocked cars, and it still chills me to remember how that sometimes included loaded weapons. Ryan naturally might have been somewhere with his gun in his vehicle. For some reason, however, I started looking for it in the apartment, the veins in my temples beginning to throb when I didn’t find it after a quick search.

I felt hollow as I finished driving to the hospital, with Darren dozing when I entered his room.

He opened his eyes penetrating mine as I walked up to the bed: “What’s wrong, Julie?”

“Ryan’s disappeared.”

“What?”

“I haven’t seen him at school for two days. Both of the apartment doors are wide open, he’s not there and his car’s gone – his rifle, too.”

I can’t describe Darren’s look; I’m sure it was painful for him to slide from under the covers and stand before I could stop him.

“What are you doing, Darren?”

“Going after him,” – the words were quiet, determined.

“You can’t! You should be in bed!”

“He’s going to do something terrible. I’ve got to stop him, Julie,” – and sheer resolve must have propelled Darren to the closet he opened, and reached for his clothes.

“You can’t! You’re hurt, bad!” I cried out, walking around the bed.

He neither answered nor paused in the grueling effort of dressing.

“I’m calling the nurse if you don’t get back in bed, right now, Darren!”

He didn’t reply.

“Darren!”

“I’m going, Julie,” he said, feeling his jeans pocket. “Where are my car keys?”

I felt awash in terrified confusion, while instinct told me he was sensing something even more terrifying beyond an invisible horizon. Nonetheless, I’ve sometimes indulged myself in thinking that some invisible, irresistible force took the keys from my purse and slowly put them in his hand: “If you’re going, I am too.”

“No!”

“I’m coming with you, Darren!”

“No, Julie! This is between Ryan and me!”

“I swear I’ll go right out there in the hall and set off the fire alarm if you try stopping me! I’m coming with you!”

Retrospectively, some sixth sense tells me that he gave me a look of gratitude as he started toward the door.

The only pers,on we passed was the nurse with her back to us while searching for paperwork in the file cabinet behind her at the nursing station. And it`s impossible to say what would`ve happened had I not been too preoccupied to call Zave. But Darren and I were off into the night that felt smothered in a void of primal darkness – with us hardly talking and Darren not offering an explanation for what he sensed Ryan would do.

It didn’t matter, for while foreboding made me uneasy, I felt a raw vulnerability of connection, as if Darren and I absorbed each others very breath of being from one inhalation and exhalation to the next, something deeper, more hallowed than anything I`d ever experienced, though I did need some release two or three hours into the journey. I leaned over and turned on his cassette player.

Oh, the bittersweet searching of “Nights in White Satin” filling the car: ” `Cause I love you, Yes, love you!…”

I can’t define the emotions gripping me as I raised my eyes toward Darren’s fixed first upon the player then upon me with a prolonged look, one of the things I most vividly recall about our dash to Gehenna across the autumn-smitten prairie, though he didn’t say a word before returning his eyes to the road.

He pushed it as far above the speed limit as he could. The trip nonetheless seemed a somehow bruising kaleidoscope of time wildly careening with such speed as to stand still – while we rushed so fast in and out of filling stations when Darren bought gas and coffee and I bought snacks that the attendants probably thought we were running from the law.

I didn’t look back to see, though rising angels of sun-rays perhaps came to rest on Darren’s rifle in its rear window cradle for the last time of the journey before we turned north off the highway onto Main St.

Dawn had arrived, and with it, Main blocked by cars three blocks shy of the empty water tower. Jeb Conway and maybe twenty townsmen were peering around houses and the vehicles in the tower’s direction.

We got out of the car, Darren walked up to the sheriff to ask, “Where’s Ryan?”

Conway saw his bruised face: “What’s happened to you? Are you all right?”

“Where’s Ryan?”

Jeb continued giving Darren a concerned look, then: “He’s in the old water tower with his rifle and the elephant gun his dad brought back from Africa – where are you going, Darren?” Jeb then hoarsely exclaimed as Darren started toward the nearest car blocking the street. “Darren, where are you going?”

Darren didn’t answer.

Jeb took a few large, rapid steps and grabbed his arm: “You’re staying right here, young man!”

“I’ve got to talk to him!” Darren hissed, beginning to struggle.

“No, Darren, he’ll kill you! He’s already shot Martha Ruoen and Allen McGruder while McGruder was walking to the diner for his morning coffee,” – and with determination, Jeb took Darren in a hammerlock. “Listen, Darren, Ryan doesn’t give a damn who he kills. Using you for target practice is no different for him than taking the next breath. I know you’re hurt, but I swear I’ll put a choke-hold on you until you pass out unless you promise to stay right here! Do you hear? Darren, do you hear me? Promise?”

I somehow knew that Jeb was right about Ryan. And being that he wasn’t a small man, I also knew his threat was a promise he’d fulfill unless Darren complied. I felt as if my very essence was being wrung inside-out before I collected myself enough to plead, “Jeb means it… and… Ryan will kill you. Please do what the sheriff says, please?”

Darren slowly looked over his shoulder in an attitude of resignation after hesitating.

Jeb just as slowly and cautiously released him, with eyes never leaving him: “You’re staying here, right?”

Darren nodded, before I asked, “What’s going on?”

Jeb replied, “You kids probably know what went on at your end of things at college. And it’s impossible to say exactly when Ryan showed up here – didn’t talk to Harley or Shirley since they’ve been out of town and won’t get back until tomorrow evening. Beyond that, nobody noticed him and he’s kept his car in his parents’ garage, and I checked their house after he started shooting. Based on the empty liquor bottles I saw, I’d say Ryan came home sometime day before yesterday. His dad’s elephant gun is missing, too. Sometime earlier this morning, he apparently was sober enough to steal a chain saw and acetylene torch from Hans Gunkl’s welding shop – drove west of town – cut down three telephone pole and two-hundred or so feet of telephone wires with the chain saw, just butchered them to shreds. Then, he climbed up in the water tower and cut a hole in the wall facing Main with the acetylene torch, and another one facing the other way. I checked with binoculars and they look seven inches across at most. But that’s not the worst of it. Come, I want to show you something.”

We followed the sheriff east to the corner of 2nd. and Pine Streets. He pointed northeast toward the railroad tracks. Across the distance I could see the words on the tanker standing on the siding: “Dangerous, Highly Flammable.”

Jeb turned, his solemn eyes sweeping across our faces: “I don’t need to tell you what’d happen if Ryan fires into the tanker.”

“Isn’t it strong enough to stand up to bullets?” I said.

“He’s got an elephant gun, Julie; besides, that’s not all” – and the sheriff pointed at the five-hundred-gallon propane tank at the northwest corner of the old folks’ home. “I can’t take the risk of the propane tank not deflecting even a rifle bullet. With the tanks so close to each other, I’m not sure but what the propane tank exploding wouldn’t detonate the tanker, too. It doesn`t matter; Ryan can probably destroy half the town, and the old folks’ home at the very least. Fortunately, some of the other guys were able to use alleys without getting shot when they went around and warned people to stay inside with their windows and doors locked.”

“Can they move the patients outside the old folks’ home?” I asked.

Jeb shook his head: “I’ve already been down there. Charice Dobbs is the nurse on duty – absolutely terrified and refusing to move them. The company managing the home is under investigation for using old or substandard equipment, as it is. And some of those folk are on life-support of some kind. Charice is afraid at least a few of them wouldn’t make it through the shock of losing their only home, to say nothing of the trauma an explosion alone could cause.”

“You can’t get ambulances from Manfred?”

“Lou Aronson’s already left for over there,” Conway replied. “With any luck, he’ll happen onto a state trooper or sheriff on the way, to help us or radio somebody.”

“We’re cut off from everyone, aren’t we?” I said, becoming more and more frightened.

Conway gave me a rueful look: “I don’t even own a ham radio. And state troopers or sheriffs won’t help a lot with patients at the home. I doubt Manfred has more than two ambulances, not enough to handle all the bed-fast folk. And it could be two, three hours, maybe more, before Lou can get any help, if there even are any sharpshooters with the police or sheriff’s department. And I’m not sure Lou could get anyone to fly in, either. The only planes in and out of their little airport are private piper cubs, you know.”

Hearing that, I was assailed by indescribable loneliness, anguished with a vague realization of that somehow arising from Ryan’s isolation, of the past, of the present, and that my stark aloneness was the finality of his.

I nonetheless managed in struggling back to clarity of mind as Jeb paused, looking again at the tanks before the three of us returned to 2nd. and Main, and the sheriff continued: “With all the hard liquor Ryan consumed, I`m guessing he has the world’s rottenest hangover. Given enough time, and he simply might fall asleep. On the other hand, he just might get meaner the more sober he becomes. I can’t risk prolonging the situation any longer than necessary, because the other men and I all agree the indications are that Ryan could care less who or how many people he kills…”

“… how… are we going to stop him?” I interrupted, not immediately realizing I`d said `we’.”

Jeb held mine with troubled eyes, followed by lowering them before he looked at Darren – then quietly: “You’re the only person I know in hundred-square miles who’s a good enough marksman to take Ryan through holes of that size. I realize that what I’m asking is… is damn unthinkable. But I’m against the wall, we all are,” – and the sheriff’s voice left him.

Despite its bruises, Darren’s face paled; I saw the cessation and reversal of time in it and I knew he was engulfed in one of those white explosions that’d haunted him since that morning in Kansas City.

He finally returned to the present, his voice low and sounding hollow: “You want me to kill Ryan?”

“You’re all I have. Believe me, I’d rather any day walk out there and take that bastard head-on. But I… I’m just not good enough. He’d drill me with a bullet for the fun of it, and keep right on killing, son,” – Jeb’s voice was beseeching with helplessness. It felt as though the moment, itself, was gnawing at itself in desperation while steeped in an excruciation of darkness unknown.

Darren looked stricken, before sinking to his knees – that was the first time I’d ever seen him cry… softly.

I’d always stayed away from the people I disliked rather than hate them, since mom had always said that `hatred is a bad waste of good energy.’

Because of what the sheriff had asked Darren to do, I now looked at Jeb, stabbed through with a searing blade of the most intense hatred I could’ve imagined. Fortunately, that blade just as quickly was twisted from an inner wound of blind realization that the sheriff was doing the only thing he knew, and I turned away with that wound bleeding in near-despair. Odd was a reversal: briefly, I couldn’t feel my existence, while I could hear everything around me – though the moment would soon come when I couldn’t hear one particular thing.

I wouldn’t say Darren’s eyes were cold when I sensed he’d finally stopped crying. There was an unsettling quiescence of another time in them as he looked at me, stood and walked to his car, returning to the sheriff with his rifle and its scope.

“Are you okay?” Jeb asked.

Darren nodded: “What do you want me to do?”

“Okay, Fallon’s Dry Goods Store is directly across Main from the water tower. The wall of the store-front goes about four feet above the roof and you can hide behind that until you take aim at Ryan. Arman Vogel already has a ladder over there. Hans is armoring my car by welding plates of sheet metal over the grill, hood, windshield and passenger’s side of it so Russ Kempler can drive me down Main while I distract Ryan by firing at him. My guess is he’ll toy with me, at least a little. And that means he’ll use his rifle, not the elephant gun, or I hope so. Actually, he might not even try to kill me at first. Do you understand everything so far?”

Darren nodded.

“Now, there are a couple of very important things to remember. First, you’ve got to get your rifle up over that wall the split second you hear Ryan taking the bait. Don’t stop firing if you miss the first time around, either. But the second thing is, keep in mind that you really have only one shot. There’s a reason he made a hole facing those tanks. Miss the first time and I guarantee you that Ryan won’t miss when he gets mad enough to draw on those tanks – and God help us if he does. Is all of this clear?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, there’s Russ coming with my car,” Jeb went on.

He hesitated, then placed his hand on Darren’s shoulder and gently said, “Considering what I’m asking you to do, I won’t insult you by saying thanks. Still, I’m sure I can speak for the town when I say that you have our gratitude, son.”

I could see the lump in his throat as he next looked at Arman Vogel and said, “Go to the store with him,” – then slowly drew Darren’s forehead toward him and softly kissed it, just as Ryan had mine that night seeming so long ago. Jeb then husked, “Go with God, good luck, and… I’ll… see you when it’s over.”

I glanced back and it seemed Conway was watching Darren walk to the alley a block west of and parallel to Main as if seeing him for the last time. Meanwhile, Arman and Darren appeared so occupied with their thoughts as to not notice me following them.

Not until Darren was three-fourths of the way up the ladder leaning against the store`s back wall did he look down and see me.

“Julie, what are you doing?” he harshly whispered.

“Coming with you!”

“No, you’re not!”

“I am, too!”

“You can’t, Julie!”

“Yes, I can!”

“Julie, get down!”

“Darren, I want to be with you… please?”

He gave me an exasperated look and continued up onto the roof, forward-crab-crawling on his stomach across it to the protrusion of the store-front wall. Arman looked so overwhelmed that he now was facing away with his shoulders bowed, and didn’t see me following.

I’d been telling the truth when I’d said I wanted to be with Darren, but was terrified, clinging to the top rung of the ladder as I crouched beside it.

Perhaps symbolically, the sun’s angle was such that Darren was in the shadow cast by a tree across the street – we both were in shadows of waiting, and I watched Darren, soon hearing Russ Kempler twice honking the horn of the sheriff’s makeshift armored car, signaling that he and Conway were driving toward the tower. Within seconds came shots from Jeb’s gun, followed by the louder report of Ryan’s higher-caliber rifle.

Time didn’t stop, unless captured in the speed with which Darren swiveled his weapon into position…

… and then…

… I didn’t scream. I yelled, partly in a triumphal paean to life because Darren was preserving greater life, partly with primal terror almost loud enough to drown-out the sound of Ryan’s death, with that sound just as suddenly erupting into shattering silence… and I’ve never heard Darren’s gun again, even in memory…

… and Everett, at that moment, was silent around me. Russ, Jeb, the men at the barricade, no one in town was saying a word.

Much like another morning, Darren was staring across the street at the place where his friend had last been alive, at Ryan’s chosen place of death.

I still was steeped in fear, soon shot through with confusing guilt because of suddenly thinking that Darren had done an act of love by helping Ryan take his first steps out of earthly pain… and I didn’t break, I crumbled into emptiness, scrabbling like an animal across the roof on all-fours. I buried my face in the crook of Darren’s neck and surrendered to a slowly-spinning fall into a bottomless abyss of liquid sorrow that was constantly overflowing, yet never full.

Darren was still looking past the last two barriers between him and Ryan, the stucco brick wall of the store and the steel wall of the water tower, with its deadly wound seared through it by an acetylene torch.

Out of the corner of my drenched eyes, in a minute or so, I saw Hans standing respectfully, almost reverently behind us, until he crouched beside Darren.

He gently turned Darren’s pained, vacant eyes toward him: “It’s over. Everybody’s safe. You don’t need to do any more. Can you hear me, Darren? It’s over. Everybody’s okay. Why don’t you let me have the gun?” – and he unsuccessfully tried to unwrap Darren’s grasp around it: “Help me, Julie,” – and working together, we loosened Darren’s white-knuckled grip of death.

“Take the gun; I’ll help him down the ladder,” Hans said. He drew Darren to his feet: “It’s okay to leave, Darren. It’s time to go, okay? I’ll help you.”

Arman had now come around enough to assist Hans in helping Darren rung by rung down the ladder.

Jeb rounded the corner just as I reached the ground. He stopped a few feet from Darren, tears welling from his eyes. He then approached, rested Darren’s head on his shoulder, and just held him.

In a bit, he looked at Hans over Darren’s shoulder and said, “Drive him to the hospital in Manfred. He needs quiet and rest. Where’s your car?”

“At the barricade. I’ll be right back with it,” Hans replied.

Jeb continued holding Darren in one of the most tender embraces I ever remember seeing, while he gently rocked him back and forth, like a mother her little child.

Hans returned with his car, got out and opened the rear passenger’s door: “He’d probably more comfortable in the back seat.”

“Darren, Darren? It’s time to go. Hans will take you to the hospital where you can have some rest and get well. It’ll be okay. Come, let’s get you in the car,” Jeb said, with him and Hans lowering Darren into the back seat.

Jeb closed the door and I thought I could see the reflection of tears still in his eyes as he looked through the window.

“Can I go with him?” I asked.

“Go, Julie, go to your family. They need you now as much as Darren does. He’s in good hands and he’ll be all right. You can see him as soon as he’s up to it. For now, let it be, and go home – all right?”

I didn’t say anything, following Hans’s car with my eyes until Jeb spoke again.

“Listen, Julie, it’ll never be easy or pleasant to think about. But there’s one thing you should remember, and that is that Darren never would’ve made it through this without you, but he will make it now with you as his friend.”

The sheriff paused, then went on, “I have to go take care of some things,” – and he hugged me before leaving the alley in a direction opposite to Darren disappearing in the other.

It was then with horror that I realized I was still holding Darren’s rifle. Not knowing what I’d do, I started blindly up the alley. The rear doors of Hans’s welding shop were open. I saw a spade leaning against a post inside. I darted in, taking it and the gun into a vacant lot across from the shop.

Perhaps tall weeds hid it from unhallowed eyes of idle curiosity as I laid the rifle on the ground and started digging the first of three graves – for the instrument that’d sent Ryan to his grave and Darren to the near-grave of his mangled existence.

“Damn you! Goddamn you!!” I fiercely said in a whispered scream, as I threw the dust of dust over that narrow wound in the earth, then turned, flung the shovel across into the welding shop and ran down the alley.

I wandered after that, finally going home to lie face-down in bed. Soon, mom sat down beside me, resting her face against the hair at the back of my head, with her arm around me…

… and I don’t know how long we remained like that.

I thought Jeb gave me questioning looks when we met in the following days – though Darren’s gun was never seen again.

VI

I called Zave as soon as phone service was restored. All he said after I told him everything was, “My god, my god!” and all I said was, “Go see Darren”; we then hung up, at loss for words.

Resistance from the leading towns-people was such that it didn’t happen immediately. But with threats of employment-terminations and hints about well-placed eviction notices, Danny Warner pressured the town council into asking for Jeb’s resignation as justice of the peace and sheriff, on the grounds that those tanks would’ve withstood bullets and that Ryan had been wrongfully killed. Danny had no proof; his simply was a venting of bitterness. Though I wouldn’t say he was a broken man, Jeb was never the same. A widower, he left town and last I knew was living with a son in Minneapolis.

From staff-members at the hospital and later at a group home where he lived for several months, I learned that Dory visited Darren for half an hour, starting precisely at 2 every Weds. afternoon. I always missed her, unless to ask questions about him. A little more than a year and eight months later, she and Carlyle moved to Manfred, where Dory’s health slowly but steadily deteriorated, and she died seven years after that fatal morning.

Before that, though, neither of them had come to Ryan’s funeral four days after the shooting, and Darren of course wasn’t well enough. I consequently agreed when Rev. Davidson suggested that I represent him at the memorial service.

Shirley and Harley were there, while I couldn’t bring myself to look at them and Ryan’s parents sitting on the right side of the church as I walked down the aisle to sit on the front left-side pew – alone, though everyone including the Warners, Shirley and Harley, waited outside after paying their final respects.

Although not at peace, I’d achieved a degree of calmness by the time I was the last person to approach the coffin: “Ryan, it’s me, Julie. I’m sorry for what happened, and I know Darren is, too. He loved you, you know, still does,” – and my mind was briefly lost in memories until I recovered myself with a small start: “Oh, I almost forgot. I have something for you that you’ll like,” – and I removed a cassette tape from my purse, laying it in the coffin. It was the copy of the Bruckner and “The Moody Blues” he’d made for me after that celebratory night of Mountain Dew.

I stepped around the casket to a floral arrangement, not knowing if it was the right color when I broke a red carnation off its stem and placed it in Ryan’s hands: “This is for you, from Darren. I know you and I hope it won’t be for a long time. But just remember to wait for him, okay?” – and I didn’t say goodbye before I turned and left the church.

Mom, dad and my sisters went home without me, sensing that I wanted to be alone after the graveside service. The autumn air was both embracing and cool as it had been earlier, that summer morning. I sat on the grass beside Ryan, thinking, remembering, feeling – not until two or three hours later realizing that I was facing toward the oasis of the Northern Great Plains under cottonwoods still adorned with frost-bitten leaves.

I didn’t go home until shortly after dusk.

* * *

Let me see, is that everything? – oh, I almost forgot: Jeb found Ryan’s portable cassette player in the water tower with him. The tape in it had played through to the end. It was **Bruckner’s 7th. symphony, movement number two. In Ryan’s pocket, Jeb found another tape, of “Nights in White Satin.”

_____

* Janus: an ancient Roman deity visually depicted with 2 faces, one looking forward and one backward.

** Anton Bruckner (Austria, 1824 to 1896) was a devoted admirer of Richard Wagner. Sometime before or during composition of his 7th. symphony, Bruckner had a premonition of Wagner’s death. A section for Wagner tubas before the close of the symphony’s 2nd. movement is a musical elegy for Wagner.

  • AshkRuhani

    The trip nonetheless seemed a somehow bruising kaleidoscope of time wildly careening with such speed as to stand still – while we rushed so fast in and out of filling stations when Darren bought gas and coffee and I bought snacks that the attendants probably thought we were running from the law.

    I didn’t look back to see, though rising angels of sun-rays perhaps came to rest on Darren’s rifle in its rear window cradle for the last time of the journey before we turned north off the highway onto Main St.

    Dawn had arrived, and with it, Main blocked by cars three blocks shy of the empty water tower. Jeb Conway and maybe twenty townsmen were peering around houses and the vehicles in the tower’s direction.

    We got out of the car, Darren walked up to the sheriff to ask, “Where’s Ryan?”

    Conway saw his bruised face: “What’s happened to you? Are you all right?”

    “Where’s Ryan?”

    Jeb continued giving Darren a concerned look, then: “He’s in the old water tower with his rifle and the elephant gun his dad brought back from Africa – where are you going, Darren?” Jeb then hoarsely exclaimed as Darren started toward the nearest car blocking the street. “Darren, where are you going?”

    Darren didn’t answer.

    Jeb took a few large, rapid steps and grabbed his arm: “You’re staying right here, young man!”

    “I’ve got to talk to him!” Darren hissed, beginning to struggle.

    “No, Darren, he’ll kill you! He’s already shot Martha Ruoen and Allen McGruder while McGruder was walking to the diner for his morning coffee,” – and with determination, Jeb took Darren in a hammerlock. “Listen, Darren, Ryan doesn’t give a damn who he kills. Using you for target practice is no different for him than taking the next breath. I know you’re hurt, but I swear I’ll put a choke-hold on you until you pass out unless you promise to stay right here! Do you hear? Darren, do you hear me? Promise?”

    I somehow knew that Jeb was right about Ryan. And being that he wasn’t a small man, I also knew his threat was a promise he’d fulfill unless Darren complied. I felt as if my very essence was being wrung inside-out before I collected myself enough to plead, “Jeb means it… and… Ryan will kill you. Please do what the sheriff says, please?”

    Darren slowly looked over his shoulder in an attitude of resignation after hesitating.

    Jeb just as slowly and cautiously released him, with eyes never leaving him: “You’re staying here, right?”

    Darren nodded, before I asked, “What’s going on?”

    Jeb replied, “You kids probably know what went on at your end of things at college. And it’s impossible to say exactly when Ryan showed up here – didn’t talk to Harley or Shirley since they’ve been out of town and won’t get back until tomorrow evening. Beyond that, nobody noticed him and he’s kept his car in his parents’ garage, and I checked their house after he started shooting. Based on the empty liquor bottles I saw, I’d say Ryan came home sometime day before yesterday. His dad’s elephant gun is missing, too. Sometime earlier this morning, he apparently was sober enough to steal a chain saw and acetylene torch from Hans Gunkl’s welding shop – drove west of town – cut down three telephone pole and two-hundred or so feet of telephone wires with the chain saw, just butchered them to shreds. Then, he climbed up in the water tower and cut a hole in the wall facing Main with the acetylene torch, and another one facing the other way. I checked with binoculars and they look seven inches across at most. But that’s not the worst of it. Come, I want to show you something.”

    We followed the sheriff east to the corner of 2nd. and Pine Streets. He pointed northeast toward the railroad tracks. Across the distance I could see the words on the tanker standing on the siding: “Dangerous, Highly Flammable.”

    Jeb turned, his solemn eyes sweeping across our faces: “I don’t need to tell you what’d happen if Ryan fires into the tanker.”

    “Isn’t it strong enough to stand up to bullets?” I said.

    “He’s got an elephant gun, Julie; besides, that’s not all” – and the sheriff pointed at the five-hundred-gallon propane tank at the northwest corner of the old folks’ home. “I can’t take the risk of the propane tank not deflecting even a rifle bullet. With the tanks so close to each other, I’m not sure but what the propane tank exploding wouldn’t detonate the tanker, too. It doesn`t matter; Ryan can probably destroy half the town, and the old folks’ home at the very least. Fortunately, some of the other guys were able to use alleys without getting shot when they went around and warned people to stay inside with their windows and doors locked.”

    “Can they move the patients outside the old folks’ home?” I asked.

    Jeb shook his head: “I’ve already been down there. Charice Dobbs is the nurse on duty – absolutely terrified and refusing to move them. The company managing the home is under investigation for using old or substandard equipment, as it is. And some of those folk are on life-support of some kind. Charice is afraid at least a few of them wouldn’t make it through the shock of losing their only home, to say nothing of the trauma an explosion alone could cause.”

    “You can’t get ambulances from Manfred?”

    “Lou Aronson’s already left for over there,” Conway replied. “With any luck, he’ll happen onto a state trooper or sheriff on the way, to help us or radio somebody.”

    “We’re cut off from everyone, aren’t we?” I said, becoming more and more frightened.

    Conway gave me a rueful look: “I don’t even own a ham radio. And state troopers or sheriffs won’t help a lot with patients at the home. I doubt Manfred has more than two ambulances, not enough to handle all the bed-fast folk. And it could be two, three hours, maybe more, before Lou can get any help, if there even are any sharpshooters with the police or sheriff’s department. And I’m not sure Lou could get anyone to fly in, either. The only planes in and out of their little airport are private piper cubs, you know.”

    Hearing that, I was assailed by indescribable loneliness, anguished with a vague realization of that somehow arising from Ryan’s isolation, of the past, of the present, and that my stark aloneness was the finality of his.

    I nonetheless managed in struggling back to clarity of mind as Jeb paused, looking again at the tanks before the three of us returned to 2nd. and Main, and the sheriff continued: “With all the hard liquor Ryan consumed, I`m guessing he has the world’s rottenest hangover. Given enough time, and he simply might fall asleep. On the other hand, he just might get meaner the more sober he becomes. I can’t risk prolonging the situation any longer than necessary, because the other men and I all agree the indications are that Ryan could care less who or how many people he kills…”

    “… how… are we going to stop him?” I interrupted, not immediately realizing I`d said `we’.”

    Jeb held mine with troubled eyes, followed by lowering them before he looked at Darren – then quietly: “You’re the only person I know in hundred-square miles who’s a good enough marksman to take Ryan through holes of that size. I realize that what I’m asking is… is damn unthinkable. But I’m against the wall, we all are,” – and the sheriff’s voice left him.

    Despite its bruises, Darren’s face paled; I saw the cessation and reversal of time in it and I knew he was engulfed in one of those white explosions that’d haunted him since that morning in Kansas City.

    He finally returned to the present, his voice low and sounding hollow: “You want me to kill Ryan?”

    “You’re all I have. Believe me, I’d rather any day walk out there and take that bastard head-on. But I… I’m just not good enough. He’d drill me with a bullet for the fun of it, and keep right on killing, son,” – Jeb’s voice was beseeching with helplessness. It felt as though the moment, itself, was gnawing at itself in desperation while steeped in an excruciation of darkness unknown.

    Darren looked stricken, before sinking to his knees – that was the first time I’d ever seen him cry… softly.

    I’d always stayed away from the people I disliked rather than hate them, since mom had always said that `hatred is a bad waste of good energy.’

    Because of what the sheriff had asked Darren to do, I now looked at Jeb, stabbed through with a searing blade of the most intense hatred I could’ve imagined. Fortunately, that blade just as quickly was twisted from an inner wound of blind realization that the sheriff was doing the only thing he knew, and I turned away with that wound bleeding in near-despair. Odd was a reversal: briefly, I couldn’t feel my existence, while I could hear everything around me – though the moment would soon come when I couldn’t hear one particular thing.

    I wouldn’t say Darren’s eyes were cold when I sensed he’d finally stopped crying. There was an unsettling quiescence of another time in them as he looked at me, stood and walked to his car, returning to the sheriff with his rifle and its scope.

    “Are you okay?” Jeb asked.

    Darren nodded: “What do you want me to do?”

    “Okay, Fallon’s Dry Goods Store is directly across Main from the water tower. The wall of the store-front goes about four feet above the roof and you can hide behind that until you take aim at Ryan. Arman Vogel already has a ladder over there. Hans is armoring my car by welding plates of sheet metal over the grill, hood, windshield and passenger’s side of it so Russ Kempler can drive me down Main while I distract Ryan by firing at him. My guess is he’ll toy with me, at least a little. And that means he’ll use his rifle, not the elephant gun, or I hope so. Actually, he might not even try to kill me at first. Do you understand everything so far?”

    Darren nodded.

    “Now, there are a couple of very important things to remember. First, you’ve got to get your rifle up over that wall the split second you hear Ryan taking the bait. Don’t stop firing if you miss the first time around, either. But the second thing is, keep in mind that you really have only one shot. There’s a reason he made a hole facing those tanks. Miss the first time and I guarantee you that Ryan won’t miss when he gets mad enough to draw on those tanks – and God help us if he does. Is all of this clear?”

    “Yes.”

    “Okay, there’s Russ coming with my car,” Jeb went on.

    He hesitated, then placed his hand on Darren’s shoulder and gently said, “Considering what I’m asking you to do, I won’t insult you by saying thanks. Still, I’m sure I can speak for the town when I say that you have our gratitude, son.”

    I could see the lump in his throat as he next looked at Arman Vogel and said, “Go to the store with him,” – then slowly drew Darren’s forehead toward him and softly kissed it, just as Ryan had mine that night seeming so long ago. Jeb then husked, “Go with God, good luck, and… I’ll… see you when it’s over.”

    I glanced back and it seemed Conway was watching Darren walk to the alley a block west of and parallel to Main as if seeing him for the last time. Meanwhile, Arman and Darren appeared so occupied with their thoughts as to not notice me following them.

    Not until Darren was three-fourths of the way up the ladder leaning against the store`s back wall did he look down and see me.

    “Julie, what are you doing?” he harshly whispered.

    “Coming with you!”

    “No, you’re not!”

    “I am, too!”

    “You can’t, Julie!”

    “Yes, I can!”

    “Julie, get down!”

    “Darren, I want to be with you… please?”

    He gave me an exasperated look and continued up onto the roof, forward-crab-crawling on his stomach across it to the protrusion of the store-front wall. Arman looked so overwhelmed that he now was facing away with his shoulders bowed, and didn’t see me following.

    I’d been telling the truth when I’d said I wanted to be with Darren, but was terrified, clinging to the top rung of the ladder as I crouched beside it.

    Perhaps symbolically, the sun’s angle was such that Darren was in the shadow cast by a tree across the street – we both were in shadows of waiting, and I watched Darren, soon hearing Russ Kempler twice honking the horn of the sheriff’s makeshift armored car, signaling that he and Conway were driving toward the tower. Within seconds came shots from Jeb’s gun, followed by the louder report of Ryan’s higher-caliber rifle.

    Time didn’t stop, unless captured in the speed with which Darren swiveled his weapon into position…

    … and then…

    … I didn’t scream. I yelled, partly in a triumphal paean to life because Darren was preserving greater life, partly with primal terror almost loud enough to drown-out the sound of Ryan’s death, with that sound just as suddenly erupting into shattering silence… and I’ve never heard Darren’s gun again, even in memory…

    … and Everett, at that moment, was silent around me. Russ, Jeb, the men at the barricade, no one in town was saying a word.

    Much like another morning, Darren was staring across the street at the place where his friend had last been alive, at Ryan’s chosen place of death.

    I still was steeped in fear, soon shot through with confusing guilt because of suddenly thinking that Darren had done an act of love by helping Ryan take his first steps out of earthly pain… and I didn’t break, I crumbled into emptiness, scrabbling like an animal across the roof on all-fours. I buried my face in the crook of Darren’s neck and surrendered to a slowly-spinning fall into a bottomless abyss of liquid sorrow that was constantly overflowing, yet never full.

    Darren was still looking past the last two barriers between him and Ryan, the stucco brick wall of the store and the steel wall of the water tower, with its deadly wound seared through it by an acetylene torch.

    Out of the corner of my drenched eyes, in a minute or so, I saw Hans standing respectfully, almost reverently behind us, until he crouched beside Darren.

    He gently turned Darren’s pained, vacant eyes toward him: “It’s over. Everybody’s safe. You don’t need to do any more. Can you hear me, Darren? It’s over. Everybody’s okay. Why don’t you let me have the gun?” – and he unsuccessfully tried to unwrap Darren’s grasp around it: “Help me, Julie,” – and working together, we loosened Darren’s white-knuckled grip of death.

    “Take the gun; I’ll help him down the ladder,” Hans said. He drew Darren to his feet: “It’s okay to leave, Darren. It’s time to go, okay? I’ll help you.”

    Arman had now come around enough to assist Hans in helping Darren rung by rung down the ladder.

    Jeb rounded the corner just as I reached the ground. He stopped a few feet from Darren, tears welling from his eyes. He then approached, rested Darren’s head on his shoulder, and just held him.

    In a bit, he looked at Hans over Darren’s shoulder and said, “Drive him to the hospital in Manfred. He needs quiet and rest. Where’s your car?”

    “At the barricade. I’ll be right back with it,” Hans replied.

    Jeb continued holding Darren in one of the most tender embraces I ever remember seeing, while he gently rocked him back and forth, like a mother her little child.

    Hans returned with his car, got out and opened the rear passenger’s door: “He’d probably more comfortable in the back seat.”

    “Darren, Darren? It’s time to go. Hans will take you to the hospital where you can have some rest and get well. It’ll be okay. Come, let’s get you in the car,” Jeb said, with him and Hans lowering Darren into the back seat.

    Jeb closed the door and I thought I could see the reflection of tears still in his eyes as he looked through the window.

    “Can I go with him?” I asked.

    “Go, Julie, go to your family. They need you now as much as Darren does. He’s in good hands and he’ll be all right. You can see him as soon as he’s up to it. For now, let it be, and go home – all right?”

    I didn’t say anything, following Hans’s car with my eyes until Jeb spoke again.

    “Listen, Julie, it’ll never be easy or pleasant to think about. But there’s one thing you should remember, and that is that Darren never would’ve made it through this without you, but he will make it now with you as his friend.”

    The sheriff paused, then went on, “I have to go take care of some things,” – and he hugged me before leaving the alley in a direction opposite to Darren disappearing in the other.

    It was then with horror that I realized I was still holding Darren’s rifle. Not knowing what I’d do, I started blindly up the alley. The rear doors of Hans’s welding shop were open. I saw a spade leaning against a post inside. I darted in, taking it and the gun into a vacant lot across from the shop.

    Perhaps tall weeds hid it from unhallowed eyes of idle curiosity as I laid the rifle on the ground and started digging the first of three graves – for the instrument that’d sent Ryan to his grave and Darren to the near-grave of his mangled existence.

    “Damn you! Goddamn you!!” I fiercely said in a whispered scream, as I threw the dust of dust over that narrow wound in the earth, then turned, flung the shovel across into the welding shop and ran down the alley.

    I wandered after that, finally going home to lie face-down in bed. Soon, mom sat down beside me, resting her face against the hair at the back of my head, with her arm around me…

    … and I don’t know how long we remained like that.

    I thought Jeb gave me questioning looks when we met in the following days – though Darren’s gun was never seen again.

    VI

    I called Zave as soon as phone service was restored. All he said after I told him everything was, “My god, my god!” and all I said was, “Go see Darren”; we then hung up, at loss for words.

    Resistance from the leading towns-people was such that it didn’t happen immediately. But with threats of employment-terminations and hints about well-placed eviction notices, Danny Warner pressured the town council into asking for Jeb’s resignation as justice of the peace and sheriff, on the grounds that those tanks would’ve withstood bullets and that Ryan had been wrongfully killed. Danny had no proof; his simply was a venting of bitterness. Though I wouldn’t say he was a broken man, Jeb was never the same. A widower, he left town and last I knew was living with a son in Minneapolis.

    From staff-members at the hospital and later at a group home where he lived for several months, I learned that Dory visited Darren for half an hour, starting precisely at 2 every Weds. afternoon. I always missed her, unless to ask questions about him. A little more than a year and eight months later, she and Carlyle moved to Manfred, where Dory’s health slowly but steadily deteriorated, and she died seven years after that fatal morning.

    Before that, though, neither of them had come to Ryan’s funeral four days after the shooting, and Darren of course wasn’t well enough. I consequently agreed when Rev. Davidson suggested that I represent him at the memorial service.

    Shirley and Harley were there, while I couldn’t bring myself to look at them and Ryan’s parents sitting on the right side of the church as I walked down the aisle to sit on the front left-side pew – alone, though everyone including the Warners, Shirley and Harley, waited outside after paying their final respects.

    Although not at peace, I’d achieved a degree of calmness by the time I was the last person to approach the coffin: “Ryan, it’s me, Julie. I’m sorry for what happened, and I know Darren is, too. He loved you, you know, still does,” – and my mind was briefly lost in memories until I recovered myself with a small start: “Oh, I almost forgot. I have something for you that you’ll like,” – and I removed a cassette tape from my purse, laying it in the coffin. It was the copy of the Bruckner and “The Moody Blues” he’d made for me after that celebratory night of Mountain Dew.
    I stepped around the casket to a floral arrangement, not knowing if it was the right color when I broke a red carnation off its stem and placed it in Ryan’s hands: “This is for you, from Darren. I know you and I hope it won’t be for a long time. But just remember to wait for him, okay?” – and I didn’t say goodbye before I turned and left the church.

    Mom, dad and my sisters went home without me, sensing that I wanted to be alone after the graveside service. The autumn air was both embracing and cool as it had been earlier, that summer morning. I sat on the grass beside Ryan, thinking, remembering, feeling – not until two or three hours later realizing that I was facing toward the oasis of the Northern Great Plains under cottonwoods still adorned with frost-bitten leaves.

    I didn’t go home until shortly after dusk.

    * * *

    Darren now lives by himself in a lovely apartment in Manfred. Interestingly, it’s on the second floor. His psychiatrist has told me he’s maintaining well, while offering little hope he’ll ever completely recover.

    Gerald, my husband, doesn’t entirely understand everything and sometimes gets frustrated, but does his best to be patient. Because of the distance and family life, I can’t drive to Manfred often, but visit Darren when I can. He usually doesn`t have a lot to say. That’s somehow renewing, odd as it may seem, and I’ve learned to cherish it, the silence between us as of old, the womb, the cocoon of the unspoken, perhaps the best of communion joining two hearts in friendship, in the presence of a third.

    Recently, I’ve started taking my kids, Nancy and Gerald Jr., with me. It’s gratifying to hear them calling him Uncle Darren. And in time I’ll tell them all about my friend, both of my friends, when they’re old enough to handle the unvarnished truth.

    Let me see, is that everything? – oh, I almost forgot: Jeb found Ryan’s portable cassette player in the water tower with him. The tape in it had played through to the end. It was **Bruckner’s 7th. symphony, movement number two. In Ryan’s pocket, Jeb found another tape, of “Nights in White Satin” …

    … that’s my story. Now, I’m tired, and I just want to go to sleep, with dreams of resurrection rebirthing eternity in every moment celebrated by the Forever-Dance of the Cosmic Egg.

    Peace, Ryan and Darren, Darren and Ryan.

    Peace, my friends, until we meet again… I know we will… we seem apart only because of the morning mist…

    … and I just noticed… that these pages are wet…
    _____

    * Janus: an ancient Roman deity visually depicted with 2 faces, one looking forward and one backward.

    ** Anton Bruckner (Austria, 1824 to 1896) was a devoted admirer of Richard Wagner. Sometime before or during composition of his 7th. symphony, Bruckner had a premonition of Wagner’s death. A section for Wagner tubas before the close of the symphony’s 2nd. movement is a musical elegy for Wagner.

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