“That’s right, punk. Slither along.” Joseph scoffs as I walk by, refusing to meet his eyes. He spits to the side in what he thinks was a macho manner.
I make a small smile at his disturbingly accurate comment. Slither, he’d said. Coincidence? I think not. Serpentine features had become central to my identity. After all, I was a snake.
Did I ever really want to be a snake? I’m not so sure, but it was the role that had been assigned to me since the end of my sophomore year. It’s not like I had been saving my draw-four-wild cards until someone played a reverse; it just happened that way. I managed to win myself a round of uno and an identity all at the same time.
But that’s just how it works in high school; it’s an unforgiving environment. You make one mistake, and you’re out of the game.
“Hey Tom, you better pull those grades up or there’s no way in hell you’re going to go to college, got that?”
My teacher, Mr. Cooley, attempts to use the axe known as my future to instill academic interest in my damned soul. We had built a good relationship before, back when I thought grades were important...but it’s stupid...it’s all bullshit.
“Mr. Cooley...where are the Matthews of yesteryear?” I ask.
He walks away in a hurry.
Matthew was smart. No, he was more than smart. He was destined for great things, that boy. He had an excellent memory, like that girl Cam Jansen. He remembered every word from the first book we read, lying together in the sun, learning about the bug we had just squished. He remembered every painting I slept through when our parents took us to the Art Institute of Chicago. He remembered every little thing we did together...he was truly a genius.
He was also the singer in my band.
He was said to have the voice of an angel. Fans who thought angels were too feminine described him as the second coming of Ezra Koenig. He could sing a beautiful falsetto during his choir solos. He could belt out the guttural notes of our Nirvana covers. One thing’s for sure: he was as musically gifted as he was brilliant. Like all brilliant talents, however (or at least some of them), it came back to bite him in our last concert.
We’d joked about the lyrics he had written; he’d often pick awkward words to use and somehow string them together in a melodic, beautiful way...they still looked awkward on paper though. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I had told him, “hey, why don’t you rephrase that sentence?” Maybe this whole situation could’ve been avoided. Maybe he wouldn’t have mispronounced the word “niggardly” in the biggest concert of our lives. Alas, shit happens.
Matthews reputation was broken afterwards. “Damn racist,” they’d say. “Matthew? More like Jim Crow.” The fact of the matter was, most of them were waiting for this moment to tear him down. They simply couldn’t stand someone so talented in their midst, someone as kind and clever as Matt. They were the real snakes. They deserved to die.
I turn around. There he is: Joseph. The ringleader, the one who escalated the teasing to bullying and then to torture, the one who drove Matt to take his own life. My breathing grows labored. My pulse quickens, my head throbs. My ears pound with hot, molten anger running through my veins. It seems to chant. Dum dum. Dum dum. Kill the damn piece of trash that murdered your friend. I begin to walk toward him, each step slow, deliberate, full of weight.
And with each step my blood cools, slows. The chanting dissipates. My breathing begins to return to normal.
It’s because of this damned thing called rationalizing. With each step I had begun to “come to my senses”. I remembered the consequences of murder, the future I could have. I had begun to think that rather than revenge, Matt would want me to live happily enough for the both of us. Matt would want what’s best for me.
I feel like shit for chickening out though.
But who knows? Maybe that’s what he wanted...for me to let Joseph live, for me to go on with my own life. Then again...maybe I’m just making up bullshit rationalizations to cover my own ass. The point is, I’m not going to kill Joseph. To maintain a moral high ground, to be happy, because I’m a coward, whatever. I’m not going to do it.
My walking slows to a stop. I turn back around and head for the main office to fill out an anonymous bullying report like the good little boy I am.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. I continue to mutter to myself as I lie in bed, agonizing over my decision. Why couldn’t I do it? What’s the real reason I couldn’t do it? I can’t seem to answer the question. No matter how hard I think, no matter how much I analyze, I can’t tell whether I’m selfish, cowardly, noble, or a mixture of all of them. I need a consult. I need our third band member, Jeremy.
“You can’t sleep either?” Jeremy had always been a perceptive one. I adjust my grip on my cellphone.
“Yeah...I was about to do it, you know. I was going to kill that Joseph bastard. My mind was made up, I was about to boil over with anger.” My ear starts to tickle. I notice my hand is shaking, brushing the phone against my irritated ear.
“Well, since your ass isn’t in jail, I suppose you didn’t kill him.” His voice takes a quiet but forceful tone.
“Yeah. It’s just…all I could do was file a report for bullying. Pathetic...” I pause.
“Why didn’t you?”
“I...I don’t know.”
“I’m not criticizing you, Tom. You did the right thing. You see, the thing about death...it’s pointless. Look...you saw how talented Matt was. Guess what? He still got his ass killed because of a stupid mispronunciation. But you know, he was a good guy. He got to heaven, I know he did. Chill out, live your own life. Don’t think about killing Joseph. Leave that bastard alone, it doesn’t even matter.” He sighs.
My head spins with confusion. What the hell is Jeremy saying? “Chill out”? “It doesn’t matter”? It does matter. It’s Matt he killed, Matt!
“What are you saying, have you gone mental? This is Joseph, the guy that killed our best friend! Do you know what Matt could’ve been? He could’ve been anything. He could’ve been a doctor that saved hundred of lives, or a firemen, hell, he even could’ve been president. But that bastard Joseph ended all of it. Matt had so much ahead of it...how can you just forget it? How the hell can you expect me to just forget it all?” I can feel the pounding again, the roaring of anger.
“Man, you don’t understand. The thing is...don’t you remember Sunday school? Bro, we used to go every week when we were kids, remember that? We learned that good people go to heaven, that bad people go to hell. Matt just got to heaven early, and Joseph is going to go to hell eventually. Don’t screw this up for yourself. You think anything you can do will do shit? He’s the principal’s son, dammit. Forget all of it. See Matt again in heaven someday.” His lackadaisical attitude begins to piss me off.
“No no no no NO! Don’t you see? Life is not just a fucking test to see where you end up in the afterlife. Heaven? Hell? It’s all shit. Matt’s life is what matters, and that bastard Joseph ended it. And what pisses me off most, more than your carefree attitude, more than even Matt’s death, is that I can’t do shit about it. I CAN’T DO SHIT ABOUT IT YOU APATHETIC SON OF A-”
He suddenly hangs up. I am left with my phone clutched to my ear, my whole body trembling, my chest heaving, my head pounding. Why am I so powerless? Why is the world so full of shit? Why is everything so unfair? Why can’t I do ANYTHING? These thoughts rage through my head. They torment me, destroy me. I need an outlet. I need to know I can do something. There’s a staff meeting tonight; Joseph’s parents would not be home. I grab my bat and car keys and head out.
I thought I would say something clever when he came to answer the door. I thought I would ask him why he killed Matt. I thought I would look for answers, look for the truth, look for some way to validate Matt’s death. But I didn’t.
“AHHHHHHHH!!!” He barely has any time to flinch before I bring the bat smashing down on his collar bone. Crack. I can feel the bone give way. Crack. There goes another. He’s hollering in pain. He collapses to his knees and raises his arms over his head, begging for it to stop, pleading, apologizing, groveling. I raise my bat to bring down the final strike, but I can’t do it. My arms feel like lead. I realize I don’t feel anger. I don’t feel the pleasure of vengeance. I don’t even feel grim satisfaction. I feel...relieved. Disgustingly so. I wipe the bloody bat on his bush and walk back to my car. Time to drive home.
Once again I’m lying in bed, but this time the answers are clear to me. I’m not actually that angry about Matt’s death. I’m not actually all that angry about how unfair life is. Hell, I’m not even worried that I’ll die such an absurd death like Matt’s. I don’t feel...anything. I’m the apathetic bastard...I tried so hard to feel anger, resentment, to feel I had to do something because I was guilty. I felt guilty about my emotionless state.
Even now, I find it hard to care. Maybe the police will come arrest me. Maybe I’ll get kicked out of school, lose everyone I love, get hit by a lightning bolt, whatever. I want to care about life...but I don’t.
I guess I am just like Jeremy.
The blaring of sirens jars me out of my thoughts. I look out my window to find police cars lined up outside my house. Officers climb out, joined by two familiar faces: the principal and Mr. Cooley.
“We know you’re in there, Tom! We know what you did! Come out!” The officers blaring voice stirs up a headache. My feet involuntarily reposition me to my front door.
“Just let me go in first! Let me talk to him!” I can hear Mr. Cooley desperately yelling. Apparently the police quickly caved, because the next thing I know Mr. Cooley is the one knocking on my door.
“Tom? Open the door...I just want to talk. I know you’ve been having a hard time with Matt’s death and did something stupid out of anger...let’s talk about it, okay?” He sounds so sincere, so patient and concerned.
“No...no, no, no, no, no, Mr Cooley, it’s not that. I didn’t do it because I’m angry…” my voice cracks. I can feel my chest heave up and down, my throat convulse, my cheeks growing wet.
“Then...why did you do it?” The caring tone of his voice triggers another sob.
“Mr. Cooley...I just wanted to feel emotional, to feel like I cared, but I don’t really...I’m, I’m...Jeremy…” I begin to break down. Moments of silence ensue, with Mr. Cooley thinking of what to say.
“Ah, Tom, I know what you mean. But listen...I know you. You really do care. It’s just...your way of coping with poor Matt’s death, that’s all. You’re scared of the world around you, yes, I know you are, no matter how much you deny it. You’re scared because someone as talented as Matt could die from something so absurd...but that’s just how life is, Tom. You can’t close yourself off to emotions like that. You just have to...let them go free. Accept that Matt’s life really mattered. Accept that he’s gone. Accept that your life matters and that...sometimes, life just sucks. But you learn to deal with it. You can do it, Tom. Now, please, will you open this door?”
My entire body shaking, my mind blank, tears streaming down my face, I stagger towards the door. I don’t know what may come after this. I know I’ve done wrong, I know I’ve probably ruined my future with such a crime, but...I’m ready to face everything. I’m ready to live my important life.
I open the door.