by Douglas Cole
I was out in the woods with Stuart. He was a neighbor kid who lived a few houses down the road from me. Not really a friend, he was just a kid I hung out with when I had nothing else to do. He was kind of a sickly kid, small, skinny. I think he told me there was something wrong with his liver or his pancreas, though at that age I had no idea what a pancreas was or even what a liver did. But he seemed sallow and weak and a little frail, and his mother watched over him most of the time like he was on the edge of some cliff of life and if she didn’t keep an eye on him he might go over at any moment.
The day was ending and the woods were full of starlings chattering in the trees. We were moving in that dusk light, the half shadows of the evening. We weren’t saying anything. We climbed over fallen trees that were covered with wet and spongy coats of moss. Little saplings were growing up out of one of those fallen trees, and I had just learned the name for that: nursery tree. And it struck me as a strange thing to call it, a nursery, even though I understood that the saplings were growing out of it like babies. It was just the word and the way I thought of words and what I pictured a nursery to be with balloons painted on the walls and a crib and a dangling mobile and soft blankets—but this was a dead rotting log that was a nursery.
The light was fading and the spaces around us were becoming darker. I knew the way back by instinct. I knew the woods well. But Stuart didn’t. I could feel him getting nervous. I could feel his fear.
“I should be getting home,” he said. “My mom will be looking for me. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Okay,” I said. But I waited, to see if he knew the way back. He started tromping over the little trail we had been following, but he kept looking back at me. He was uncertain, and he kept stopping, looking back, waiting for me to go ahead and lead the way. But I didn’t.
Then, I said, “Let’s play war!” And I ran out into the trees. I picked up a stick and started swinging it over my head, hitting trees, making those shooting sounds.
“I gotta go home,” he said.
“Get a weapon!” I shouted.
He picked up a stick and started running along the trail back towards home. I ran after him.
I caught up to him and cut him off. He faced me, and I swung my stick at him, slowly, as he raised his stick and deflected the blow. We went on like this for a bit, mostly with me attacking and him defending. Then, at one point, he just turned and leaned away and lifted an arm like he was shielding himself. I don’t remember what was in my mind. I don’t remember thinking anything. I just swung the stick and hit him in the back. I didn’t use my full strength, but it was not a light blow, either. He dropped the stick he was holding and started to run. I chased after him, shouting, swinging the stick. I could feel his fear intensifying. I really could. Then I stopped and let him go.
When I got home, my father was already waiting for me. Stuart’s mother had called. My father knew the whole story. What could I say? I got whipped with the belt. But the whipping felt perfunctory. I could tell my father wasn’t really into punishing me. He was just annoyed that his routine had been broken. He whipped me, but he wasn’t even there.
After that, I lay in bed, no food that night. I listened to the sounds of the house, to my father and mother and sister in the kitchen, to the clinking sound of forks on plates, to the sink water running, to the television set, to the “canned” laughter, as I had learned it was called, in one of those sit-com shows. And I just floated above it all, like a ghost, outside my own body, outside the family, witnessing it all in the dark.