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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Experience · #1399717
A startling revelation leads Eddie to wonder about his best friend.
For three months now, mental images that have long lain dormant return to haunt me like a recurring nightmare; the dark, glassy surface of a still lake shimmering in the pale brilliance of moonlight; morning mist seeping from between the bullrushes around the dock; the piercing eyes of my old companion, and his wide, tight-lipped grin when he would finally hook a fish or throw a perfect horseshoe. As my mind treads back along overgrown trails of summers past, a menacing shadow darkens those pretty pictures. The solitude of that cherished place has been shattered, and at night I lie awake, trying in vain to piece it back together and restore its innocence.

         During the torturous contemplations of those long-ago summers, I always return to the enigmatic figure of my former best friend. I try to discern what role he intended me to play in his schemes. A foil to his dissident behaviour? An accomplice to his misdeeds? Or merely a scapegoat?

         Dan Williams was an unlikely person to befriend me. I was in the eighth grade when we first met. His confident manner and the proud, upright swagger with which he carried himself were quite the opposite of my own reserved nature. He was tall, fair, and athletic, whereas I was thin, dark, and averse to sports.

         When Dan first moved to my town from Toronto I was somewhat afraid of him, if only because he was afraid of nothing. His strong features gave him a determined appearance, and his dark eyes stared with keen intensity from beneath the pointed arches of his eyebrows, unselfconsciously scrutinizing everything. His fearless and calculating expression sometimes reminded me of a hawk surveying the terrain for mice.

         It's not really clear to me now how we became friends, given that he was a year my senior. He had all the requisite attributes of a popular guy, but he was as indifferent to the dramatic pretensions of suburban junior-high school society as I was. Perhaps that is why he struck up a friendship with me, for I'm sure that I did little to initiate it.

         Whatever the case, my life became an adventure in his company. We stole away from school to share cigarettes in the woods. On weekends, we would venture out into the night with a bottle of vodka or whisky that he had swiped from his mother. Such conversations did we share, roaming about the forests and hydro fields in our little city, our youthful minds emboldened by alcohol. He was an intelligent boy with a strong opinion on nearly every subject, and I felt like I learned a lot in his company.

         He lived only with his mother in a townhouse near the school, but on weekends we would often visit his aunt and uncle in Scarborough, about an hour's drive from my parents' house in Oakville. They were very friendly and treated me like family, especially during visits to their cottage in the summer. It was situated on a long, secluded, heavily-wooded lot that backed right onto a quiet inlet of the great, cold Georgian Bay. I could hardly believe my luck when we first arrived after a cramped three-hour drive. To me, the cottage was a piece of paradise, the pinnacle of summer enjoyment, each breath filling my body with revitalizing aromas of pine sap and freshwater breeze. The days were long; the nights, endless. Afternoons were spent wandering off in the woods to sneak a smoke or cruising out into the open bay on the family's motorboat. We spent most evenings around the bonfire when the weather permitted. Later in the night after the adults had retired, Dan would produce some bottles from his hidden stash. Sitting beneath a magnificent dome of glittering stars while drinking rye-and-coke, our conversation would become philosophical, with Dan expounding on the chaotic meaninglessness of our universe, or some equally challenging subject.

         He often recounted his exploits back in Toronto, and it was during the telling of these tales that I began to get a sense of his fondness for exaggeration. He was always outnumbered in a fight, yet he never lost. No matter how many beers or shots of gin he downed in a night, he was always the last man standing at a party. Girls in his stories were always "smokin' hot". In spite of how I was annoyed by these boastful tendencies, I could never dismiss his stories completely. They were just believable enough to be half-true, and in any case they were usually so entertaining that it didn't matter.

         The last time I went to the cottage was in our third summer as friends, and that late-August trip was perhaps my fifth time up there. I had no notion that this would be my last week of sleeping on that thin, stiff mattress while the haunting call of the loon resounded across the water.

         We had unfortunate weather for the first two days; cool, wet, and windy. Finally on the third day the grey skies broke and the sun dried up the sodden lawn, and that evening we were once again able to build a roaring fire. By eleven o'clock his aunt, uncle and mother had headed in to bed. Dan came back from behind the woodshed with a canvas bag, and from it he produced a bottle of vodka and some cans of Coke. He had a single shot glass in the bag, and we took turns tossing back shots of vodka, chasing it down with Coke. I hated drinking vodka this way, but I did it without complaining.

         After three or four shots, we were entering that comfortable state where our minds were relaxed and bolstered by the vodka, but that night Dan was silent and contemplative. His eyes shone as he stared into the fire. I still have a stark recollection of how the flickering flames accentuated his strong features.

         Unsettled by his reticence, I tried engaging him in a conversation about girls, but not even that favourite subject could draw him out. I was starting to feel disheartened that this night was going to waste, when at last he spoke.

         "Have you ever wanted to kill someone, Eddie?"

         I don't know if I was more surprised by the question, or the frankness with which he asked it. "Yeah, sure. Hasn't everyone?"

         He nodded, his expression philosophical. "But what stopped you from doing it?"

         "What do you mean, what stopped me? You asked if I wanted to kill someone, not if I actually planned on doing it. If we're speaking literally, no, I don't think I've ever really wanted to kill someone."

         "Okay. But if you did, what would be stopping you?" He swept his shaggy blonde hair away from his face and looked at me intently. "The thought of getting caught, right? No one wants to go to jail. But aside from that, what difference does it really make? What are we, anyway, that makes us think our lives are so damn special? When you step on an ant, you never think twice about it. But when a friend dies, suddenly it's personal. 'Why, God, why? How could you let this happen?' But I don't see the difference, aside from a little biology. You're born, you die, a few people are sad, you turn into dirt, and the world keeps turning, right?" His eyes shone like polished onyx, fixing me in his gaze, yet his expression was inscrutable.

         "I guess you could say that. But what's your point?"

         He turned to the fire, as if deferring to it for an answer. After a while, he spoke again. "What if I were to tell you that I killed someone?"

         "I would say that you're full of shit."

         "But what if I could prove it to you?"


         "Come with me tomorrow and I'll show you."

         "Come with you where?"

         "To a little spot by the water." He fell into silence again. His face was still unreadable, and the firelight danced in his eyes.

         "So are you coming tomorrow or not?" he asked after a time.

         "Hell, no. Not until you tell me what, and where."

         "But you believe me."

         "No, I still think you're full of shit."

         "If that was true, you would come with me to prove yourself right."

         "But if I don't believe you, why would I need proof?"

         "I see." He nodded sagely again. "This is like the old chicken and egg argument. In this case, you are definitely the chicken."

         I tried to follow his logic and counter his arguments, but I could see that he kept steering me in the same direction no matter how I responded, so I soon gave up speaking to him altogether. To my surprise he also dropped the dispute and contented himself with staring at the fire, stirring it from time to time with a piece of driftwood.

         I didn't enjoy myself much for the rest of my stay. Dan carried on much as before, but he spoke to me less than usual, and I sometimes caught him staring expectantly at me. It occurred to me during those last few days that I had always gone along with Dan's ideas and plans, and had always followed where he led. Now that I had for once refused him, he seemed less interested in me.

         I was quite disconcerted by his revelation. It was not like his usual exuberant boasting. Rather than trying to convince me, he had dared me to believe him, and that played on my mind at night as I lay thinking about his tone, his eyes, and his body language while he made his confession by the fireside.

         Fishing off of the rotting dock early on our second-last morning, with the sun just beginning to dissipate the mist off the lake, I imagined snagging my line on something near the bottom, and pulling it free to reel in a decomposed hand. Or, staring into the water from the boat, that I would find a grinning skeletal face beneath my own reflection.

         Our friendship dissolved quickly in the following weeks, and by the school year we were on separate paths. I was a loner again, and I didn't pay much attention to whether Dan had attached himself to anyone else at the school. That was many years ago, and in the intervening time I got married, had a little girl, and forgot all about Dan Williams and the idyllic days and nights spent at our cottage paradise.

         It all returned to me in one great flash of recollection earlier this year, which prompted me to write this memoir, my attempt to sort it all out. The recollection was sparked by a blurb in the Toronto Sun regarding female human remains discovered by a fisherman near that little inlet of Georgian Bay. I immediately felt a wretched coldness sinking deep into my guts. I have been following the story ever since, desperate for details, yet dreading what they might reveal. So far, I know only this: she was young, between sixteen and eighteen years of age. She had been in the lake amongst the reeds and water lilies for well over a decade. Cause of death is still a mystery, obscured by the eroding effects of water and time. Each day I scan the newspapers and search the Internet, seeking some resolution. I am mired in depression, drinking more and speaking less. My wife wonders what has happened to me. I can hardly bear to hold my own daughter.

         Yet I ask myself why I feel any guilt. What crime was I party to? Who's to say that this isn't just a coincidence? And in any case, what am I to do about it? What is my moral obligation? Yet I think of a family missing a daughter for over twenty years, and what it might do to them to know that justice might have been delivered long ago, had I not been a coward. Because whatever I might wish to think, I know deep down that I believed him. God help me, I believed him.

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