***originally written for audio***
It was the summer between 6th and 7th grade that we moved to Ralling, a medium sized town outside of Milwaukee. My parents bought a nice house in a nice neighborhood with a nice bit of forest behind the cul-de-sac. My little brother Jake met a kid his age while playing street hockey alone. Turned out the kid lived right next door to us.
Jake and Danny became fast friends and bogarted our pool for most of the summer. It wasn’t until Danny’s older brother came to collect him one day that I found out there was a kid my age living next door, too.
His name was Andy and he was cool as hell. We played xbox, and x-games. Danny and Jake hated it because we always kicked them out of the pool so we could ride our bikes into it playing BMX.
One weekend I brought out my skateboard and taught Andy how to skate. He was terrible, but it was fun. He never cried when he fell.
Andy always wanted to hang out and my house, never his. I wasn’t really sure why so I asked Jake if there was something weird about their house, since he was allowed to go inside with Danny. Jake said no, only that Andy’s bedroom door was always locked. Maybe there were dead bodies in the room. I rolled my eyes. Little kids are dumb.
Some weekends Andy couldn’t play because he was off “working with his dad” who was a cop. I thought that was cool until I caught him in the lie. One day Andy went off to “work with his dad” but later I saw his dad mowing the grass while Andy was gone. When I asked Andy about it, he said he didn’t want to tell me where he was. I pressed him and he left. I didn’t see him for four days. Those days were very boring without Andy.
I cornered Danny during that time and demanded to know what secret thing Andy did on the weekends. Jake and Danny just snickered and ran away. They both knew, I know they did. But I decided not to push it. Andy would tell me when he was ready. But he never came over.
I finally went over to Andy’s house and demanded to see him. His mother eyed me warily but took me up to Andy’s room and knocked on the door. Andy answered. His face went white when he saw me. He tried to close the door so I couldn’t see into his room, but I saw everything anyway.
Andy was really, REALLY into horses. There were posters and statues of them all over his room. The first thing out of my mouth wasn’t the right thing to say.
“Do you have a sister I don’t know about?”
I saw the tears in his eyes before Andy slammed the door in my face. Mrs. Barden pulled me away. “You know, Eilliot, boys can like horses, too.”
I felt like crying as I was led down the stairs and out the front door. My only friend in this new city was mad at me.
“I know. I’m sorry Mrs. Barden.”
The next day I went back over the Andy’s house. I brought with me a book about horses I’d found on our bookshelf as a peace offering. Danny and Jake with there, playing xbox in the living room.
“Have you guys seen Andy?”
They both ignored me. I threw the book at my brother. “Yo! Is Andy here?”
Danny shrugged. “Nah, he’s out behind the house mining for diamonds or something.”
Danny paused the game and turned around to look at me. “Yeah, he likes gemstones and rocks and stuff.”
“Bullshit. Whatever, you guys are lame.” I said before turning back out the door. Something hit me square in the shoulders. I turned around to see that Jake had thrown the book back at me.
“Don’t fucking throw stuff at me, Eli!”
“I’m telling Dad you swore,” I said, picking the book up off the ground.
Jake was up and pulling on my arm before I’d even straightened. “No, you can’t. He’ll get mad and hit me.”
I laughed. “Dad would not hit you.”
“Please, Eli, please don’t tell Dad. I cry when he yells at me and he laughs and says I’m not being a man because I cry.”
“Oh my god, fine, get off me.” I shrugged him away and left out the front door slamming it behind me.
I found Andy pretty deep in the woods behind his house. He was digging in the dirt near a creek bed and had a neat stack of rocks next to him. He didn’t bother to look at me as I approached.
“You gonna make fun of my minerals, too?”
I sat down and inspected the pile stacked carefully beside him. “No. I didn’t mean to make fun of you yesterday either. I think it’s cool you’re into horses.”
“You know cowboys are into horses. There’s nothing girly about them.”
“I know, man, I’m sorry. The posters took me off guard. Horses are cool. I rode one once at the fair.”
Andy nodded, still not looking at me. “Yeah. I ride every other weekend.”
So that’s where he went on the weekends. “That’s cool. I would have gone with you. It’s boring when you’re gone.”
“You would have laughed at me.”
“No, I wouldn’t!”
“You would’ve. I’m the only boy in riding class.”
I didn’t know what to say to that so I slid the book over to him across the dirt. He eyed it before hesitantly picking it up.
“Loving the Duke of Horseflesh?”
“Yeah. It’s a book about horses. There’s a horse on the cover.”
“Who’s the guy on the cover?”
“I dunno. Horse trainer?”
“He’s pretty jacked.”
“Yeah, horse trainers get lots of exercise, right?”
Andy shrugged.”Yeah, I guess they do.”
A train blew it’s horn in the distance. I always loved when the trains went by. I could feel the ground below me hum and bristle as 6000 tons of grinding machine thundered over it a quarter mile away. Andy continued to dig and we let the silence settle again. It was almost a full minute before Andy broke it.
“I like rocks. Different kinds of rocks. See this? This is agate and this is quartz.”
I nodded. “I’ve heard of quartz.”
“I’ve been looking for malachite forever. It’s green.”
There was silence again broken only by the creek bubbling nearby. I tried to think of something to say but I knew nothing about rocks.
“The kids at school make fun of me.”
“About the rocks?”
Andy nodded. “Mostly about horses. But sometimes about the minerals, too.”
“That’s dumb. I’ll bet they’re into weird stuff, too.”
“Horse aren’t weird!”
“No, that’s not what-“
“And neither are minerals! I’m gonna have a ranch one day in Wyoming and I’m gonna breed horses and mine for precious metals and gemstones. I’m gonna call it Rocking A Ranch. Because there’s horse and rocks and it’ll be mine. I’ll be rich and everyone will want to come to my ranch and I wont let them.”
“You won’t let me come?”
Andy dug into the dirt with his spade, refusing to look at me. “I don’t know.”
“Look, I’m sorry, okay? I think it’s cool you’re into this stuff.”
“You wanna know something embarrassing that I’m into?”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“Well, you told me so it’s only fair. I like baking.”
“I do it with my mom whenever she wants to make something. I like putting all the ingredients tougher and mixing it and watching it cook and then getting to eat something that tastes good at the end. But I pretend I don’t like it.”
“Why do you pretend you don’t like it?”
“Because it’s embarrassing. And my Dad would laugh at me.”
“Cookies and cakes are awesome. Baking is cool and so are minerals and so are horses.” Andy said.
“Yeah. Baking is cool.”
“Plus, I’ll bet it’ll help you get girls when you’re older.”
“Yeah. And you’ll be surrounded by girls too because they like horses.” I laughed.
And that was the end of it. Andy and I mended what was broken. The rest of the summer flew by. I never went with Andy to horse riding lessons but I was often in the woods hunting minerals with him. And even though it should have been boring, it wasn’t. Andy always made things fun.
He got better at skateboarding, too. I eventually asked him if there were any skate parks around here but he said no. So I ended up spending my time doing other stuff with Andy. Looking for rocks was even kind of fun.
For weeks I’d been pretending I wasn’t nervous about my first day of 7th grade. Dad told me to buck up and deal, that thousands of kids were starting at a new school this year and if they could do it, I could do it. I knew he was right but I was still scared. Jake wasn’t scared. He’d met a bunch of friends through Danny over the summer so he was going into our new school with a friend group. I hadn’t met any of Andy’s friends.
The night before my first day Andy and I played street hockey with Danny and Jake. We kicked their asses. Since the rules were loser had to clean up, Andy and I left them there with the equipment and climbed the hill back up to our houses. Andy had been quieter the last couple days, which did nothing for my nerves.
Before I could ask him what was wrong, though, he asked me.
“Are you nervous about tomorrow?”
I shrugged. “I guess. I’m more nervous I won’t make friends.” I realized how that sounded and rushed to explain. “Not that I need more friends! Just that, you know, you won’t be in ALL of my classes so-“
“It’s okay,” he said. “You’ll make friends, I promise.”
“That’s good.” I sighed.
“I just hope you’ll still be my friend.”
“Of course, dude, we’re best friends!”
“We are?” He asked, almost surprised.
“Yeah, you know that! Plus we found out last week that we have homeroom together. We’re homies for life.”
Andy started laughing. “For LIFE?”
“Yep.” I stopped when I got to my garage. “See you at the bus stop tomorrow?”
Andy’s face fell. “Oh no. My mom drives me to school.”
“No, take the bus with me! I wont know any of those kids!”
“I can’t. You can ride with me and my mom if you want.”
“I wish. Dad says I have to take the bus to look after Jake.”
“Oh, well…” Andy shrugged. “I’ll just see you at school then?”
The bus wasn’t bad the next morning. It was mostly just Danny pointing out the cool kids to make friends with and the weird kids to avoid. I found it strange that Danny took the bus while Andy didn’t. But I didn’t ask him about it.
I found my homeroom pretty quickly. Mr. Gage’s class, room 333. I was there before Andy, so I sat at a desk that had lots of empty ones surrounding it. A kid with blonde hair and a Thrasher shirt sat down on the other side of me.
“New kid?” He asked casually. I could tell immediately he was probably one of the kings of the school.
“Yep. Moved this summer.”
“Seattle’s the shit. Great skate scene there.”
“Yep. I miss that. Wish there was somewhere to skate around here.”
“There is. Me and my friends go there.”
“To a skatepark? Around here?”
“Yeah, on Willow.”
“That’s like a mile from my house.” Why the hell hadn’t Andy told me? We could have been skating there all summer instead of looking for rocks and riding bikes into the pool.
“Cool. I’m Adam.”
The room continued to fill up, including the desks around me. Adam was like a beacon that other kids seemed to gravitate to. When I finally saw Andy walk through the door, there was only one desk left, the one in front of me. He looked nervous but I wasn’t sure why until I heard it. The booing. A whole room of it.
Every kid, and I mean every single kid was booing Andy as he shuffled through the room to the seat in front of me. His face got red and he dropped his bag, looked back at me nervously, but otherwise ignored the booing. I did nothing. I said nothing. I didn’t know how to react.
Mr. Gage walked in, then, and the booing ended immediately. After homeroom everyone shuffled out quickly and I only had time to say “see you at PE” to Andy.
Adam was in my next class and we talked more about skating. He introduced me to some of his other friends. One of them was a girl named Molly and I really liked her. She was pretty with black and purple hair.
PE was the last class before lunch. When I saw Andy he was looking down at the ground and standing alone. I walked directly over to him. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” was all he said.
We stood together as the PE teacher explained we’d be playing kickball, a fun thing for the first day of school. She picked team captains. I was picked maybe 5th from the group. Andy was picked last. Everyone on his team groaned. His face turned red again. I hated those kids.
We didn’t really get to talk through the rest of PE because we were on different teams. After PE we went back to the locker room together. I tried to talk to him as we changed clothes but he didn’t want to say much.
“What do you think lunch today is?”
“I hope it’s pizza. Or hamburger.”
“It’s probably chicken.” He mumbled.
“Ugh, I hate chicken. I wish-“
“Hey, Eli! What you doin’ hanging out with the Horse Princess over there?” Adam had left Andy alone during PE but it seemed that just by talking to Andy I’d drawn attention to him.
I didn’t know what to say so I settled for “What?”
“Dandy Andy, Princess of the land of horses and rubies. What are you doing hanging out with him?”
“Oh. Um, he’s my neighbor.”
I wasn’t looking at Andy, but I could feel him stiffen. I tried to recover but the damage was done.
“I mean, we-“
“Sit at our table at lunch. We’ll tell you about the skate park. It’s dope. ”
Adam walked away and I turned to Andy. “Wanna sit with me at lunch?”
Andy didn’t say anything.
“I’m sure they make fun of everybody, I’m sure they’ll make fun of me, too. It’s just for fun. Everyone rips on their friends.”
“They’re not my friends.” Andy didn’t look at me, just kept shoving gym clothes into his bag. “You sit with them if you want. I won’t. They don’t want me there.”
“I want you there. Best friends, remember?”
Andy shot me a look and then walked away. He didn’t sit with us at lunch. In fact, when I found him in the cafeteria, he was sitting at a table alone. It became very clear throughout the day that everyone at Copperfield hated Andy. But still I pretended I didn’t notice it.
After I got off the bus I went to his house and rung the doorbell. He opened the door immediately, as if he’d been waiting for me.
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t even let him speak. “I know you’re mad at me because I sat with Adam and those other guys at lunch. It’s just that Adam is in most of my classes and…you’re not but that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Okay,” Andy shrugged.
I paused. “Why didn’t you tell me about the skate park on Willow?”
Andy sighed. “Because Adam and his friends are always there. They hate me. They always make fun of me. I didn’t want them to do that in front of you.”
I frowned. “I’m sorry everyone at Copperfield is such a dick to you. But I’m not. I’m your friend. Forever, remember?”
“I thought you were getting rid of me as a friend ‘cause I’m not cool like those guys. Please don’t do that, I like having a friend! I haven’t had a friend since 3rd grade. It’s nice not to be alone. But today I felt alone again.”
“Not tomorrow. Not any other day. I promise. Okay?”
“Should we go hunt for malware now?”
Andy smiled for the first time all day. “It’s malachite.”
We hunted for it, but we didn’t find it. We never did. And I’m ashamed to say that the next day at school unfolded much like the first. I did sit with Andy at lunch but he was quiet and reserved. Adam and two of his friends mocked Andy from two tables away for being a “horse princess”. I ignored them. And I didn’t move away or leave Andy. But I didn’t stick up for him either. I ended up finishing my food early. Andy left with me, dumping his lunch, uneaten, into the trash.
That afternoon I took the bus home and grabbed my skateboard from the garage. And then I met up with Adam, Brayden, and Molly at the skate park. I didn’t tell Andy where I went, but it’s not like we had plans.
The next day, Brayden took Andy’s usual desk in homeroom before he got there. I didn’t tell Brayden to move. Andy sat on the other side of the classroom. I felt bad. But I also felt accepted. Adam’s group was popular. I was becoming popular.
But really it was inevitable I would be friends with Adam and Brayden and the others. They were into skating and ska, like me. Andy wasn’t, but we could still be friends. I was allowed to have multiple friends and I shouldn’t feel bad about it.
As the weeks passed, Andy retreated more and more. We would go whole days without talking to each other. Sometimes after school I would go to Brayden’s or Molly’s. Andy was never invited. Sometimes, out of guilt, I would ring his doorbell. Mrs. Barden always told me Andy was out in the woods hunting gems. I never went to look for him. He probably wanted to be alone, anyway.
After awhile, I stopped trying to engage with Andy. I always saw him watching me. He looked sad, but not angry. I smiled at him when Adam wasn’t looking. I tried to tell him we were still friends through my looks. I was just taking some space to make other friends as well. That was normal.
Dad seemed to like my new friends a lot. He was a strict dad, wanted his boys to be boys. And I knew whatever Jake said, Dad would never hit him. I knew that was a lie. Jake was just prone to stories, always trying to impress me. He was an old fashioned dad, but a good dad. He loved us. He loved Mom, too, I think. The only thing they ever fought about was her drinking.
Eventually, I learned from Dad that he never liked Andy. He called him “the pussy kid next door”. He never said that in front of Jake and Danny. He said it to me, though. He was happy I wasn’t hanging out with him anymore. I didn’t agree with my dad. Andy was still my friend, even if we were taking some time apart.
And then came October 9th, a day I would remember for the ret of my life. We’d been in school for over a month. It wasn’t a typical day, sunny for how late in the year it was. We had two subs that morning which meant a lot of dicking around. Andy didn’t come to PE that day. He stayed in the locker room. We heard the coach say he felt sick. I knew that was a lie. It was kickball day again and I knew Andy was embarrassed to be picked last.
It happened in the cafeteria over lunch. Adam and I were doing pretend skate tricks on the benches. Molly was watching me, giving me girl eyes. Both my brother and Danny were watching her. Everyone had a crush on Molly. But she was watching me.
When it happened, it was loud. The whole cafeteria shut up, turned toward the clatter, and then laughed. But only because it was Andy who dropped the tray. Anyone else would have been ignored or maybe ribbed a little. But everyone hated Andy.
“Having trouble with your hooves there, princess?” Adam yelled from two tables away. Andy ignored him and bent down to clean up his spilled tray.
“Yeah, shouldn’t you be eating oats and hay?” Another kid yelled.
“Ewww.” Came from a random girl. Andy’s face turned beet red and he started breathing hard.
I turned to Adam. “Come on, man, leave him alone.”
Adam’s face went scarlet. Angry. “Sticking up for your girlfriend, Eli?”
“No. I’m just saying, who cares? So he likes horses. Cowboys like horses.”
“Not sure you’re making his case, dude. Ever see Brokeback Mountain?” Brayden asked.
“Yeah, maybe you’re his cowboy boyfriend.” Adam laughed. I looked over at Molly. She was laughing, too. At me. I looked at Andy. He was watching me. He knew what I was thinking. And he was begging me not to.
But Molly was still laughing, and this time it was at me.
So I did it. I said something unforgivable. Something I could never take back. Something I was never able to apologize for.
I raised my voice so more people would hear. “I saw his room once. He has posters of horses, he- he has statues of them, too. He decorates the statues with tiaras he made from all the rubies and emeralds he finds behind his house.”
They all laughed. I didn’t look at Andy. But I felt it, the devastation. I didn’t look at him but I felt it all the same.
“And the thing is, he knows it’s all make believe. All the ‘gemstones’ he finds are just rocks. He’s just playing Horse Princess alone in his room.” I finished.
“Ah, poor Dandy Andy. No friends.” Adam yelled loud enough for the whole cafeteria to hear. This started a rousing chant of “Dandy Andy” from wall to wall. It was deafening.
I looked at Molly. She was laughing again, but this time it wasn’t at me. Everyone was laughing and chanting, even Jake. Even Andy’s little brother Danny was laughing. But not at me. No one was laughing at me now.
I heard a loud sob which drew my gaze back to Andy. He was crying, his face was even redder. He threw his tray on the ground and ran out of the cafeteria, the chorus of “Dandy Andy” following him down the hall. And I felt bad.
I decided I would apologize to him at home, like I always did. I would find him after school and do it. He would understand. Andy was good like that.
As soon as I cleared the bus door, I took off into the woods. I knew that’s where he’d be. I found him in his usual spot, by the creek. Andy was digging like always, a pile of neatly stacked rocks next to him. He didn’t look up as I approached. He didn’t even acknowledge I was there.
“I’m sorry, okay?”
Andy ignored me.
“Look, they were all laughing, I didn’t know what to do. I was with my friends and everyone already doesn’t like you, you know? So what I said didn’t really do any damage. They already thought that stuff, anyway. It was just logical, you know?”
He opened his mouth to say something but the deafening horn of a nearby train drowned out whatever it was. I felt the rumble under my feet.
“What?!” I yelled when his mouth stopped moving.
“You’re a bad friend, Eli!”
“No I’m not!”
“Yes you are, a totally shitty friend!”
I grew angry, then. “I’m your only friend, Andy!”
“I’d rather have no friends than a friend like you!”
“Oh really? Are you sure you want to do this? I’m all you’ve got!”
“You’re not a friend to me, anyway! I thought you were but you ignore me. You laugh at me and make fun of me just like they do!”
“Well…shit, Andy, maybe if you tried harder! Stop with the horses and digging in the dirt for gems!”
“No! I like those things! They don’t laugh at me or lie to me!”
I stared at him, trying to come up with something to say.
“Just leave me alone, Eli.”
“Well, well…fine! Be a pussy with your princess horses and fucking gemstones. This is the most sissy shit I’ve ever seen! Mining for pretty rocks! It’s pathetic! You’ll never be cool or popular! ‘Cause of your pussy-ass hobbies!”
I kicked it. I kicked his whole pile of mined stones into the water behind him. I knew he’d been collecting them for months. Andy screamed and dove after them. He wailed as he tried to catch the rocks before the current buried them or took them away.
And I left him there. Andy’s sobs followed me out of the woods along with his screams.
“I hate you! I hate you, Elliot! You’re the pussy and I hate you!”
When I walked into my backyard, Dad was standing on the patio smoking. He nodded at me, and then he smiled. He’d probably heard it all, the whole fight with Andy. And it was clear he approved of what I’d done. I felt sick. I went to my room. I listened to music and I fell asleep early. Angry and confused.
I never saw Andy alive again. I’d learn later that he never left those woods.
Andy wasn’t at school the next day. And I’m ashamed to say I was relieved. I didn’t want to face him after the things I’d said. It was a good day, otherwise, without Andy there to stare at me and make me feel bad.
It was just after lunch that the murmuring began. Hushed whispers behind tightly cupped hands. The teachers had a secret. Everyone noticed and there was much speculation about what it was.
At 5th period we found out classes were canceled for the rest of the day and we were having an assembly. I felt nauseous when I walked into the auditorium. Andy wasn’t at school and there was an emergency assembly.
He’s run away, I thought. He’s run away and I know where he went. I can help. I decided that as soon as the assembly ended I would find my teacher and tell them Andy went to Wyoming. That he wanted to start a ranch there. The Rocking A Ranch.
I sat next to Adam, Molly on my other side. She touched me, for the first time, I think. It barely registered, though. I waited to hear about Andy.
A police officer and our principal walked onto stage together. They wasted no time at all.
“We’ve gathered everyone here because we have some very sad news and we wanted to get in front of the rumors. Last night, one of your fellow students passed.”
“Passed?” I whispered to no one in particular. “What does that mean, ‘passed’?”
“It means they’re dead, dumbass.” I heard someone reply. I let go of a long breath. So this wasn’t about Andy after all.
“How’d they die?” Someone up front yelled.
The principal took a deep breath and let it out. He looked conflicted, like he didn’t know what to say. The cop stepped in.
“Suicide. It’s a very serious matter. Andy Barden took his own life last night. It’s very sad and we’d like to speak to anyone who was close to him.”
There was a buzzing in my ears. It was loud. But I could still hear the snickering and whispering and giggling.
“I knew he’d do it.”
A few people toward the back started a low chant of “Dandy Andy”. The buzzing in my head got louder. I felt nothing.
Mom picked me up from school that day. I think I was still in shock. I hadn’t said much to anyone. But I asked her if it was true, if Andy had killed himself last night. Mom was a little drunk. She said “Yes, that poor boy. Laid right down there to die.”
“Laid down where? Where did he die, Mom?”
But she just mumbled over and over about what a shame it was and how she needed to send a fruit basket to the Barden’s.
Dad was on the back patio when I got home. I begged him to tell me what happened. He did so mater-of-factly, while looking out into the woods behind the house.
“Laid himself down on the tracks. Rocks in his hands, arms at his sides. Train came, trains always come. Guys in the engineering car said they blew the horn.” He shook his head. “Kid didn’t move. Didn’t flinch. He wanted that train to hit him. And it did. Tore him apart.”
6000 tons of angry machine had run over Andy. Killed him. Because of what I’d said to him. Because I kicked his rocks into the creek. Because he thought his only friend hated him. But I’d never hated him. And I didn’t get to tell him that.
I threw up in front of my dad. He shook his head, probably in disgust, and went inside.
My mom wailed about “that poor boy next door” for weeks. Dad didn’t bring it up again. Cops talked to me since I was the only person close to Andy. I told them the truth, mostly. Not about kicking his rocks into the creek. They closed his case. Jake spent a lot of time with Danny, who had lost a brother. And then the Barden’s moved across town, away from the tracks that killed their son.
As for me, the years just passed. Guilt and liquor and sex and drugs. All the things Andy would never get to experience. I dated Molly, she cheated on me. I got into a fist fight with Adam. I fucked him up and his family sued me. Brayden went to juvie for stealing. Jake became popular. So did Danny. They were on the same track as me, cool kids who ruled their grade. I graduated. I got a job at Jack in the Box.
I thought about Andy a lot. About how sad he must have been, how dead inside to lay down on cold, metal train tracks and wait for a train to run him over. I thought about how much I must have hurt him. With time, grew understanding. It was my fault. I’d been a piece of shit, a bully. I was the one who deserved the tracks, not Andy, who just wanted to ride horses and dig for gemstones. Andy, who never hurt anybody and never told them I liked baking, even if it would made them laugh at me instead.
And quicker than you would have thought, everyone forgot about him. No one ever said Andy’s name in all those years. And no one probably ever would have again if it wasn’t for a conversation I overheard in the parking lot of the Jack in the Box one day.
It was just one guy talking to a cop. The cop was sitting in his car and the other man was leaning over talking to him through the window. I was crouched down against the wall, smoking a cigarette. Based on the conversation, they couldn’t see me there.
“This is something you said you could do.” The man said, his voice hushed, but angry.
“I didn’t tell you that. Take up your marker with Onwitt.”
“He said to talk to you.”
The cop leaned closer to the man. “Your kid killed someone.”
“That lady was homeless!”
“Doesn’t matter. He was drunk, she was on the sidewalk, and he creamed her. That can’t be buried. Everyone knows the facts of the case. A video is on facebook, for fucks sake.”
“You can make this go away. What if toxicology comes back negative for alcohol? What if he swerved to avoid hitting a dog?”
“That’s a lot of favors.”
“You can’t afford it, even with your marker.”
“Bull. Shit. I know you did it before. For someone else. That case from years ago, the kid on the tracks.”
The cop cracked his door open, shoving the man back with it. He got right in his face. “Lower your fucking voice. That was a suicide.”
“Yeah, I’d like to know how that kid walked through the woods and laid down on some tracks with half his head caved in.”
I didn’t breathe. I didn’t move. I couldn’t think. So I waited. The cop let the man go and shoved him into the side of the car.
“Talk to Onwitt. Although I don’t know why he’d want to help you seeing as you’ve got a big fucking mouth.”
The cop drove off then. The other man got into his truck and drove away as well, not knowing the nuclear bomb they’d left behind.
They had to have been talking about Andy. He was the only kid on the tracks that I knew about. And according to that guy Andy’d already been dead when the train hit him. Which means somebody killed Andy. That’s why he didn’t move when the train blew it’s horn. He was already gone.
Somebody had killed him… Holy shit.
Not only that, somebody had covered it up. I threw my cigarette on the ground and went back into work. I told my boss I was feeling sick. I knew he didn’t believe me but he let me go. He couldn’t fire me. Nobody else wanted this shit job.
I went home and paced around my room. Somebody had murdered Andy that night. Who had known he was out in the woods? I sat down at my desk and pulled out a notebook from my senior year. I found a clean page and started writing. Who’d known…
I tapped my pencil. There was one other person who knew. It was pointless but I added another name.
I didn’t hurt Andy so that left Andy’s mom and my dad. Andy’s mom wouldn’t do it. She loved Andy. My dad wouldn’t murder a kid. He hated Andy but he would never kill him. He was happy we weren’t friends anymore. He was satisfied. But more than that, Dad left shortly after I came inside and went to the bar with his friends.
That meant that someone must have stumbled onto Andy out in the woods. He was screaming and crying loudly. Someone must have heard him and that…that could have been anyone.
So I added to the list:
Fuck. What else did I know?
I knew that the police knew it was a murder and they listed it as a suicide. They covered up the murder for someone. It could be anyone. Everyone hated Andy. I squeezed my pencil tighter.
So, who would the police want to help? Someone with money. Someone with a marker, whatever that was.
But then, I remembered Mr. Barden was a cop, and the whole thing made no sense again. Andy told me his dad had been a cop for more than twenty years. That meant he probably had a lot of seniority. Why would he let them cover up his son’s murder? It didn’t make any fucking sense.
I ripped the paper out of the notebook and threw it in the trash. Dad had friends who were cops. Maybe he would know.
I found my dad out on the patio drinking a Coors. He was on the phone with someone. The tone of his voice made me think it was a woman. Mom was home, but drunk. My parents had almost divorced years before when Mom caught my Dad cheating. Didn’t seem like much had changed. Dad sat up straighter when he saw me.
“Gotta go. I’ll give you a call later.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna be up there but it’s boys night. So maybe another night.”
“We’ll talk about it later, quit your yellin’.”
Dad hung up and set his phone on the armrest of his chair. Then he leaned back and stared at me.
“Somethin’ on your mind, Eli?”
He was curious, maybe a little suspicious. I never really talked to him anymore. But this was important.
“Yeah, I have a question.”
His brows turned down. “Don’t get involved in my business, son.”
“This isn’t about you.”
“Alright,” Dad leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. He blew the smoke out loudly. “So what’s it about?”
“It’s about Andy.”
“The kid who kilt himself when y’all were 12?”
“He didn’t kill himself, Dad.”
Dad frowned. “What are you talking about?”
I took a deep breath. “He was dead before the train hit him. Andy was murdered and someone covered it up. Pretended it was a suicide and everyone went along with it.”
Dad raised an eyebrow. Then he mumbled, “Your mom should’ve gotten you a therapist.”
“It’s true, Dad. Andy was murdered.”
“And where’d you hear that?”
“Alright. So you got caught up in some gossip about an 8 year old suicide and now you believe it was a murder.”
“It was a murder. Andy was murdered before he was put on the tracks! Someone found him alone in the woods and killed him!” I stood up quickly and started pacing around the porch.
“Alright, son, calm down. Tell me how you think I can help here.”
“The cops covered it up. Why would they do that? Who would they cover it up for?”
“No one. I’m friends with a lot of the boys, they’re good people. They say that boy killed himself, he did.”
“What’s a marker, Dad?”
He sighed. “It’s a favor.”
“What kinds of people have markers with the police?”
Dad narrowed his eyes at me. “That’s the kind of question that could get you in trouble. Drop it, Eli.”
“Just drop it! Do not ask questions like that.” Dad was angry, red-faced. His voice shook.
“Dad, I just-“
“No. No more talking about this. That boy committed suicide. He was weak in mind and body. Always crying. It’s sad but it’s over.”
“It is not over.” I said through my teeth. Dad was up out of his chair and in my face in an instant.
“You wanna push this? Open your mouth? Spread around town that boy was murdered? Because near as I remember it, you were the last person seen with him. Fightin’ with him. How’s that gonna look, Eli?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
Dad stared me down. “Didn’t you?”
My face got hot. I stumbled back, just a step, but it was enough.
“It is not in your best interest to pursue this, Elliot.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I repeated, though it was weaker, quieter.
“Yeah. Keep on telling yourself that like you always have. Drop this.”
I didn’t say anything. I turned around and walked off the patio. Walked right into the woods and kept on walking.
I went to the creek. I remembered where it was, even though I hadn’t been there in 8 years. Elliot’s spot. There was no stack of rocks and no holes in the bank of the creek. Everything Andy had left behind was gone. No one talked about Andy. And now it seemed even nature had forgotten him.
I remembered everything about that day. We argued. I kicked his rocks into the water. I walked away. I know I did. I remembered doing it. Those were real memories. I wouldn’t have hurt Andy.
Except…I did. With what I said to him.
There was a deep tremor underneath my feet. I felt the train before I heard it. I didn’t know where on the tracks Andy was been when he was hit. I couldn’t visit the spot he’d died. So I turned around and walked back out of the woods.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I had nightmares of Andy being murdered. Half his head missing. I needed to know how he’d died. I’d failed Andy on so many levels when we were kids. I wasn’t going to fail him in this.
The next day at work was slow. I had a lot of time to think about all the people who hated Andy. Not because Andy ever did anything wrong. But because someone found out a boy liked horses in 3rd grade and laughed at him. And then other kids joined in. And then it was cool to hate Andy. But who would have taken it further?
After work I went to the police station. I thought maybe I could ask for the files of the case. The coroners report. I should have known better. The man at the desk shut me down. No. Those weren’t available for the public. Only the family could request them.
I wasn’t as close to Danny as I had been when we were in school, hanging out in the same group. He never came around the house anymore since he and Jake had had a falling out a year before. But I knew he was Jake’s age – only 17. Danny couldn’t request the files.
Danny’s dad was a cop. He would have access. But there was a chance he knew about the coverup. But then, there was no reason for him to cover up his son’s murder. Perhaps he didn’t even know. There was a chance he would be as upset as I was.
But it wasn’t Danny’s dad who answered the door. It was Mrs. Barden and she was surprised to see me.
“Um, is Mr. Barden home?”
“Eli. My goodness. No, I’m afraid he’s at work. Would you like to come in?”
“Oh um. Well…”
She let go of the door and sagged against the wall. “Wow. I haven’t seen you since we moved.” She smiled sadly. “I wonder what Andy would have looked like at your age. He was such a handsome boy.”
It was an in, and I took it. “Actually, I had some questions about Andy. That’s why I came over, I wanted to ask Mr. Barden some stuff.”
She looked confused but opened the door all the way, inviting me inside. “Well, you knew Andy was well as anyone. I’m not sure what questions you have about him but I am happy to answer them. No one ever mentions Andy anymore.” She said tearfully.
Oh god, she was crying. I had to do this. I had to do this.
We sat down at her kitchen table and she offered me coffee.
“So, what would you like to know, Eli?”
I took a deep breath, in and out. “I heard…” I swallowed. “I heard there’s the possibility that maybe the official ruling of ‘suicide’ was wrong.”
Mrs. Barden said nothing. The grip around her coffee mug became tight, making her fingers white.
“You…you heard someone is challenging the suicide ruling?”
“No. I just heard that…”
“What? What did you hear, Eli?” She set her mug down and her white hands wrapped around mine. Her fingers were so cold, even though she’d just been holding a hot mug.
“Just that maybe Eli was already dead when he was laid on the tracks.”
She was silent and still. “Where did you hear this?”
“Some people in town.”
Her grip tightened. “Who in town?” My hands started to hurt. I tried to pull them away, but she squeezed harder.
“I don’t know who they were. Have you heard that before? That Andy was murdered?”
She jerked her hands back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never heard that before.”
I said nothing, just watched her. She was scared. She knew something. Fuck.
I got angry. I yanked my hands back, knocking my coffee mug onto the floor, spilling it everywhere.
“You knew. You knew Andy was murdered. You fucking knew!”
“Eli, you cannot talk like this. For your own sake, and mine.”
“Why are you letting this happen? Why are you letting your son’s murderer walk free?”
“You don’t understand.”
“You’re a mother! His fucking mother!”
“Eli, this situation is more complicated than you think.”
“What’s complicated? The fact that you’re the shittiest fucking mother I’ve ever seen?”
She slapped me then, right across the face. I didn’t feel it.
“You know NOTHING about what kind of mother I am!”
“Your husband go along with this? Let his own son’s murder be covered up? And you support that?”
“We’re doing this for Andy!”
“You don’t make any fucking sense. Who did it?”
“Who did it, Mrs. Barden? Who killed your son? Who caved his head in and then laid him on a pair of cold, metal tracks to be ripped apart by a fucking train?”
“Stop! Please, just stop!” Her hands were cupped over her ears. She was breaking.
“You of all people should not be asking these questions, Elliot!”
“Tell me who killed Andy!”
“Please! Please stop asking me! Don’t make me, please-“
“Who murdered your son?!”
A large hand clamped down on my shoulder. “Time to go.” I heard my father say into my ear. He hauled me back and out the door as tears spilled down my face. I’d been close.
I heard my dad on the phone with somebody, probably Mr. Barden, telling him to come home and manage his wife. Dad dragged me into the house and slammed the door to my bedroom, him inside.
He said nothing.
“You know, too, don’t you. You know who killed Andy” I said.
I sobbed. “Who? Who killed him?”
“Why did the cops agree to cover it up? Was it money?”
“Did the police owe someone a favor?!”
“No. Goddamit, Eli, just shut up!”
“Why? Why should I be silent?!”
“Have you considered that the person being protected is you?”
“What did I do?” I sobbed.
“Christ, what indeed.”
I didn’t say anything, just silently cried.
“You know, of both of my sons, you were always the softest.”
I took a moment to try and compose myself. “Jake said you used to hit him.”
Dad nodded. “That’s right. I saw the mistakes I made with you and I wanted him to turn out better.”
“You beat my little brother?” My voice cracked.
“I never beat him, Eli. I disciplined him. After I had no hope for you.”
I shook my head, wiping my face with my sleeve. “Are you that disappointed in me?”
He leaned back against the door. “Not anymore. Not since the day you came out of the woods, angry, fuming, that kid from next door crying and hollarin’ for everyone to hear. I thought you’d turned a corner. Thought you’d keep better company. Be a man.”
I scoffed. “If you are what a ‘man’ is in this town, I don’t wanna be one anyway.”
I shoved past him and yanked the door open. He caught my sleeve. “You drop this whole thing with the Barden kid, you hear?”
“Why?” I spat.
He leaned in close. I could smell the stale smoke on his breath. “Because you couldn’t handle the truth of what happened to him. And you huntin’ for that truth is gonna hurt a lot of people you don’t wanna hurt.”
I pushed the door open and left him there, in my room. “Oh, and Eli?” Dad said from behind me. I stopped and turned my head, just a little, to show I was listening.
“I want you out of this house by Friday. For good.”
I turned the corner and started down the stairs, running smack into Jake. “What did just say? Is he- is Dad kicking you out?”
“Yeah.” I said.
“What- what the fuck, why? Where you gonna go?” Jake’s voice shook a little. He was 17 but still relied on me a lot. He was scared of Dad, scared of graduating, scared of ending up an outcast like so many others. Small towns were fickle and we both knew it.
I hadn’t even begun to process what being kicked out meant. But right at that moment, I knew it meant not being there for Jake.
“I don’t know.”
“We could get a place together?” He said desperately.
“Dad would never allow that. You’re 17 for another 8 months.”
“I’ll piss him off, too. What did you do? I could get kicked out!”
I hugged him. I never hugged my brother; Dad thought it was ‘gay’. But today, I did. And he hugged me back. “You’ll be okay, Jake.” I heard him give a little heave. I knew he was scared.
“You can’t leave me here.”
“It’s okay,” I whispered into his ear. “You can cry with me.”
He heaved again. “Don’t tell dad.” He said quietly.
“I won’t.” I promised.
I left while Jake was at school on Thursday. I couldn’t say goodbye, it was too painful. I left him a note telling him I loved him and that I’d send him my address as soon as I found a new place. I moved two towns over. I sent Jake my address. He never responded. Maybe he was mad at me for sneaking away while he was at school. Maybe he was mad I hadn’t taken him with me. Or maybe Dad had gotten to him.
I worked, had a shitty apartment. Things got better. I dated a girl I met out one night. She didn’t cheat on me. I married her a year later. We had a kid, little girl. Then we divorced. She wanted to move to Denver. I saw my kid in the summers. Met another girl. Dated her for years. She left me because I didn’t wanna get married again.
Jake ended up in jail for a year. He wrote me letters. He’d finally fought back against Dad. Hurt Dad real bad. But I knew that fucker deserved it. Jake got out of jail. He moved in with me. Dad sent him letters. The fucked up thing, Dad said he was proud of Jake for finally standing up to him. Dad never said a word about me. Jake met a girl online and moved to Chicago to be with her. They got married, had a couple kids. Jake’s in real estate now, makes good money. He’s nothing like Dad. I visit them a couple times a year.
It’s been 13 years since I left Ralling, 21 since Andy died. I never went back. I never tried to request any records. I never talked about Andy. So, I’d failed him once again. I’d never know who killed Andy, or why. I’d never know why it was covered up. No one was talking. And no one ever would.
I still think about Andy a lot. I lay awake at night, drunk, and sometimes crying, begging forgiveness for failing him in so many ways. Andy had a sad life. There was very little good and a short, painful end. There would never be a Rocking A Ranch. Andy would always just be a murder victim with a closed case.
No one had to pay for it. And no one ever would.
So, I guess the moral of this story is that sometimes the world isn’t fair. There’s injustice and corruption and the universe doesn’t always bother to balance it out. Andy’s murder was just more sand poured on the cosmic scale in favor of evil. The scale sinks lower, the world gets shittier. And Andy rots in the ground, skull smashed in, body torn apart. And the world keeps spinning.
Eli: “…this is the most sissy shit I’ve ever seen! Mining for pretty rocks! It’s pathetic! You’ll never be cool or popular! ‘Cause of your pussy-ass hobbies!”
Andy: “I hate you! I hate you, Elliot! You’re the pussy and I hate you!”
(Somebody snickers quietly. Another person shushes them. We hear shuffling as they listen from nearby. We are audibly with them. We hear them approach as Andy continues to cry, fishing his rocks out of the creek. Suddenly, they speak.)
Danny: “Lost your only friend, Dandy Andy?”
Andy: “Shut up, Danny. Go away.”
Jake: “Sounds like even Eli thinks you’re a loser now.”
Andy, crying: “Eli is a loser!”
(Jake pushes Andy back into the creek.)
Jake: “Don’t talk about my brother like that. He says you’re a pussy, that means you’re a pussy!”
Andy: “Stop it! He didn’t mean it! He doesn’t think I’m a pussy!”
(Andy climbs out of the creek.)
Andy: “He’s just mad. We’re friends. We fight sometimes.”
(Danny pushes Andy back into the creek.)
Andy: “Stop pushing me into the creek!”
Jake: “You belong in the creek you fucking pussy.”
(They push him again.)
Andy: “Stop it, you guys!”
Jake: “Fucking make us!”
Andy: “Fine, I will! See how you like it!”
(We hear a rock fly through the air and hit a tree.)
Danny: “Oh hell no, did you just throw a rock at us?”
Jake, laughing: “I’m more impressed the princess was willing to part with one of her gems.”
Andy, crying: “Shut up! Just shut up!”
(Another stone goes flying. We hear this one hit a body.)
Jake: “Oh hell no, he just fucking hit me! You got mud on my fucking vans!”
Danny, angry: “You’re fucked now, pussy.”
Andy: “No, I didn’t mean it! You guys were throwing rocks at me, you started it!”
(We hear Jake and Danny rush into the creek and push Andy down.)
Andy, crying: “Stop it! I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry!”
Jake: “Gimme a rock, a big one.”
Danny, laughing: “This one’s pretty big.”
Andy: “Please, don’t!”
Jake: “ How do you like that, huh? A muddy rock smeared all over your face? Don’t you love it?”
Andy: “Stop it!”
Danny: “Don’t you love these rocks? They’re so precious to you, Dandy Andy.”
(We hear Andy spit in Jake’s face.)
Jake: “Did you just spit in my fucking face, pussy?!”
Andy: “There was mud in my mouth!”
Danny: “You just spit in his fucking face!”
(And oomf as Danny whacks a heavy rock into Andy’s rib cage.)
Danny: “I wish you’d just die! It’s embarrassing to be your brother, just fucking run away from home!”
Jake: “Get his pretty boy face!”
(Danny hits Andy’s face with the rock.)
Jake: “Here, let me try.”
Danny: “It’s hilarious, look at the faces he’s making.”
Andy, voice slurred from multiple hits to head: “Eli will hurt you when he finds out what…what you’re doing.”
Jake: “Shut up! Eli doesn’t give a fuck about you! You’re a loser! He loves me and he hates you!”
(Pounding increases, it sounds brutal.)
Jake: “I heard him say it! He hates you, he hates you!”
Jake: “My brother hates you!”
Danny: “Stop! Stop!”
(Danny tackles Jake off of Andy.)
Danny: “Look at his fucking face!”
(Heavy breathing. Beat.)
Jake: “Is he…”
Danny: “Is he what?”
Jake: “Is he dead?”
Danny, scared: “I don’t know. Look at his fuckin’ head.”
Jake: “He is…he’s dead.”
Danny: “You killed him!”
Jake: “You helped!”
Danny: “What do we do? Oh shit, what do we do?”
Jake: “Maybe my brother-“
Danny: “No, fuck that. Maybe we can…hide it or something. Or hide what we did.”
Jake: “How? It’s a dead body!”
(Train horn in the distance.)
Later, in the kitchen:
Jake: “I didn’t do anything!”
Jake’s Dad: “Lower your voice or you’ll wake your brother.”
Danny: “We didn’t do anything!”
Jake’s Dad: “I saw you boys come back from the woods, wet and covered in mud. Then I get a call from your dad, Danny, looking for both his sons. Well, here you are, and now I’m hearin’ about a body out on the tracks. You know who’s not here? Andy. So you two are gonna tell me what the fuck happened.”
Silence. Then Jake starts crying.
Jake, crying: “We didn’t mean to! He just kept yelling and we just kept hitting him! He just, he- he’s weird and even Eli hates him now, too! He was a loser. Eli thinks so, we heard him!”
Danny: “You can’t tell my dad!”
Jake: “Eli didn’t even like him anymore, nobody’s gonna miss him!”
Jake’s Dad: “Both of you shut the fuck up. You think the cops ain’t gonna be able to tell that body was dead before it got hit by a train?”
Jake: “No.. Dad, please. I don’t wanna go to jail. It was…we heard Eli saying all that stuff. Really it’s Eli’s fault!”
Danny, crying: “It wasn’t our fault.
Jake’s Dad: “Shut your mouths. Danny, I’m calling your dad over here and we’re gonna explain this ‘accident’. He’ll go along with fixin’ this. He ain’t gonna wanna lose two sons tonight.”
Jake, crying: “And…and Eli?”
Jake’s Dad: “No. We ain’t ever gonna tell Eli.”