By Christopher Null
Copyright © 2002 by Christopher Null
I am not crazy.
My shrink doesn't think so, and he should know, right? He went to medical school. I've seen the diploma.
Dr. Carter says I'm just "troubled," and that I should "try to get it all out." On paper, he means. He even gave me the very journal in which I'm writing these words.
"Writing about the past is the only way to rid yourself of it." That's the only thing that seems to help in cases like mine, he says, so I'm going to give it a shot. I don't think it's going to matter in the end. You can't undo what's been done. So as a note of fair warning to the poor loser reading some nobody's memoirs: This story is not a happy one.
Going forward, I suppose if I have any chance at sanity down the line, I should try to do what Dr. Carter says. "Writing it down will help you organize your thoughts," he says. "Once it's down on paper, you'll see there's nothing to get so worked up about. You're not crazy, Alex. You're just stressed out."
Not that he would know. I never told Dr. Carter the truth. How could I? I've kept my promise not to tell for ten long years, and I'm not about to spill it now.
Writing this journal, or this story -- whatever it is -- already feels like a betrayal. A betrayal of myself and of the friends who helped me out. Travis told me when I got into this, "There's no statute of limitations on murder." He's right. I looked it up last year. Travis was the smartest guy I ever knew.
From what little I've told Dr. Carter, he is of the belief that Travis was a bad influence. Leave it to a shrink to find someone else to blame for my problems. He says my parents messed me up, too. But he's got it all wrong.
After all, it was my idea to kill Steve Williams.
Dr. Carter said to start out by writing about myself. A more boring topic I can't imagine.
I am not a bully. And I am not a monster. Far from either, though I don't expect you to understand that yet. While I can't explain and don't expect forgiveness for what I did, please try not to think I'm mean or evil.
When you're in high school, you just don't have the life history to put something like murder in perspective. I'm not trying to excuse what I did, but at the time it just didn't seem so wrong. I didn't give much though to its ongoing impact on my conscience, or the overpowering guilt that would consume me, or even the intrinsic value of human life. All I knew about morality came out of books and movies. In fiction, consequences are immediate and severe. You kill somebody, you go to jail. Or someone avenges the person's death. In the movies, no one ever suffers through a decade of sweaty insomnia and stomach ulcers after committing a murder.
But I'm not trying to blame
Which is not to say that classic religion would have done much for me, anyway. I'm baptized Episcopalian. I remember it, because I was twelve years old. I think my grandmother shamed my parents into it. What kind of people wait twelve years to baptize a kid?
Okay, time out. Like Dr. Carter says, stop and count to ten. This is not about my family. This is my doing, my fault, my cross to bear -- so to speak. No one told me to do it.
But what else was I supposed to do?
I guess I should write about a central character in this story, and that's Travis Pickford. A funny thing: I didn't know his last name was Pickford until three years after I met him, because everyone always called him Travis Bickle, after the character in Taxi Driver. Even our teachers called him Travis Bickle. They thought it was hysterical.
But I hadn't ever seen Taxi Driver, so I didn't get the joke. It aired on the USA cable network (heavily edited, I think) one night when I couldn't sleep, and after about an hour I made the connection to all the "You talkin' to me?" jokes and, of course, the name. I haven't ever seen the uncut version of the movie. I guess I should rent it. I hear it's pretty good.
Three years before I saw Taxi Driver on late-night cable, I met Travis
Bickle -- I mean, Travis Pickford
-- in the library at
It took Travis two years to prove himself in
Like I said, I met Travis in the school library. Now
Poring through the library stacks for undiscovered gems became something of a pastime for me. My dad worked and my mom volunteered or was otherwise socially engaged, so there was no real reason to go home after school. And I was horrible at sports (an issue which would create quite a few problems for me later in life), so there was no reason to go outside, either.
As it turned out, Travis was in the same situation. He was as skinny as me -- maybe skinnier even -- and short. Or maybe it just looked that way, I don't know. We never really measured.
Travis and I were regularly the only after-school patrons of the library, and it was only a matter of time before we got together to compare notes. Travis was also interested in fiction, eschewing, like me, the stacks and stacks of pictorial Jacques Cousteau books.
Our meeting was a pretty simple affair. I'd had Atlas Shrugged out for three straight weeks (that is a long-ass book), and he wanted it. Finally he asked the librarian who had the book, and privacy laws in middle schools not being what they should be, she simply pointed my way, toward the carrels near the reference section that I favored.
"You almost done with that?" Travis asked me.
"I want Atlas Shrugged, and you've had the only copy for three weeks."
"Oh. Yeah, I'm about done with it. You can have it on Monday."
"Great. You should check out Stranger in a Strange Land -- if you like sci-fi."
"That's not some L. Ron Hubbard crap, is it?" I asked.
"No man, it's Heinlein. It's classic. You'll like it."
He was right. I liked it a lot.
If you took out the little card in the back of each book that showed who had checked it out -- if you took that card out for all the books I'd read, you'd see Travis's name somewhere else on the card for at least nine out of ten of them. By the end of the year, we'd both read all of the same books at least once. Travis turned me on to Catcher in the Rye. I turned him on to Cat's Cradle. We read all the classics. And we became friends.
I didn't have a lot of friends when I was a kid. I remember that my mother was so excited when she met Travis for the first time.
Travis and I graduated from middle school in May 1986, full of the apprehension and excitement of moving up to a new class of experiences. It would be packed with new people, a new geography, and the knowledge that would propel us along the path to becoming competent adults.
My mother didn't hide the fact that she was excited to have middle school over
and done with for me. I'd made no friends, had no achievements to speak of,
met no girls. The classic shy loner
syndrome. She openly hoped that high school would be different for me,
but she didn't realize that the pecking order remains intact. She could have
transferred me to a school in
But at Fall Valley High, it would simply pick up where it had left off three months earlier, as if nothing had happened. Some of the faces would be different, and the walls would be a different color, but I didn't think for a second that the situation would be any different. It's really just like anything else: politics, religion, the company where you work. People come and go, but nothing ever changes.
Don't feel bad for me. You get used to it. It could've been worse.
Travis and I hung out that summer, mostly at the video arcade. The arcade got a Gauntlet machine that year, and we sunk hundreds of dollars into it, trying to beat the sucker. We never did. I don't think you can.
Once, toward the end of the summer, we got so far along in Gauntlet that we thought we were going to win it for sure. In Gauntlet, you play one of four medieval heroes, treasure hunting through level after level of monsters and mazes. We were on level 86, and we were sure the end was in sight. But every time we got out of the level, we'd pop back to level 84. The levels kept repeating, suckering more and more quarters out of us. We ran out of money eventually, and those fateful words -- Game Over -- flashed on the screen.
Travis didn't say anything. He simply walked outside, picked up a brick, came
back in, and smashed it through the screen. He didn't even smile. Or frown.
I don't know why we never got caught. The arcade owner had seen us every day for almost three months. Surely he could've tracked us down. But in the end, he was probably too lazy and just had his insurance company pay for it. Some people take advantage of the system whenever they can.
When we got back to my house, we hid in my room, catching our breath, waiting to hear the sirens of the police cars coming to take us way. But they never came. My mother called me down to dinner, and Travis had to go home. And that was it. Before he left, Travis smiled the grin of someone who knows he's gotten away with something. "You see?" he said. "We beat that fucking machine after all." We both laughed.
Travis left, and I went downstairs to eat. I was still scared we'd get caught, but I remember that sense of power I felt, knowing that I had taken action, that I'd done something that carried consequences with it, that no one was going to push me around anymore. Or so I thought.
In retrospect, I suppose I really didn't do anything wrong. Travis threw the brick. I just ran away. It's not a crime to run away if you haven't done anything illegal, is it? I guess I was just doing what I've done all my life, but it sure felt rebellious at the time.
After the Gauntlet incident, Travis and I mostly just went to the movies, until school started a few weeks later. Even bad movies don't make you mad like video games do.
It's Tuesday night and I've got nothing to do but watch TV, so I figured I'd
write instead. It's starting to get cold out here in
Through some bizarre oversight of bureaucracy, Fall Valley High was the only
high school in our area. There were four middle and seven elementary schools,
but the kids from all of them go to Fall Valley High when they graduate.
Despite the similar names, Fall Valley Middle and Fall Valley High had very
little in common. At Fall Middle (pop.: 650), there weren't enough people to
make a lot of trouble. Teachers could keep an eye on things. People who started
things got sent to the office, they got suspended. One guy gave this kid a
swirly in the bathroom. He got expelled, and even
though his parents sued the school, he never came back.
I was in the highest level of all my classes. They called it Level One, which translated to Honors at Fall High. My grades were almost straight A's in middle school, which pretty much made me a nerd, especially since math and science were my best subjects. History was, and remains, my worst. I just can't bring myself to care about things that happened before I was born. Other events in more recent history have had a much more lasting impression on my life, and it's in understanding (or forgetting) these events where I try to put my energy.
When you think about it, Fall Valley High is bigger than most companies in
You'd think that in a school that big, you could lose yourself in the crowd. But FVH isn't that big. It's at a critical mass where no teacher will ever know your name, but no surface area is left untouched by some guy or gang laying claim to it. There's no hiding in the library at FVH. That's somebody's turf.
I make it sound bad, but FVH is seen as the jewel of the southwest, which is why there hasn't been a new high school built in this area in over thirty years. The standardized test scores stay high, beyond all expectations to the contrary. The graduation rate is the best in the country for a school of its size. Colleges love FVH. Pro sports teams love FVH. The government loves FVH, and the posh remodeling jobs it got in the summers of 1989 and 1995 are a testament to the kind of funding the school gets.
For everyone else, FVH is a juvenile paradise on earth.
For me, it was hell.
Steve Williams. Born
Steve was the firstborn of Lee and Bonnie Williams. Maj. Williams was a retired
Army officer. Schooled at
Mrs. Bonnie Williams was a homemaker, housewife, and socialite, often seen in photos at parties and fund-raisers with a stiff drink in one hand and her mouth wide open in a cackling smile. A college dropout, Bonnie was a trophy wife married (one must assume) to help Lee's rise through the officers' ranks. Post-Army, she was helping the family climb up the social ladder, as best she should.
Steve was the first of two children. As a boy, he received all the attention from his father, who encouraged his natural athletic ability from an early age.
Steve dominated any sport he played in. From his first games of T-ball and peewee football, it was clear that having young Williams on your team meant you would sweep the season. He scored all the goals, runs, baskets, and points. He knew virtually nothing about teamwork, pursuing the greater glory for himself, always.
By the time he hit middle school, Steve was a budding legend. The inter-school football games were a mockery of the sport, as Steve would regularly pass and run his team to forty- or fifty-point victories. His arm was incredible, and he could throw passes of any distance with deadly accuracy. When his teammates were unable to catch, he would simply crash his way through the defensive line and score the touchdowns himself. He never punted on fourth down, and he never went for field goals.
In his first year of high school at Fall Valley High, Steve concentrated on
two sports: football and baseball, both of which could be played without interfering
with each other, and which ranked as the then No. 1 and No. 2 most socially
important games in
He made varsity in both without having to try out. Not only did he immediately
displace the would-be quarterback as the starter, a veteran senior, he also
took the guy's girlfriend, who was three years older than Steve. Legend had
it that he dumped her when she went to college the next fall.
He led the football team to a
Academically, Steve was in Advanced-level classes, above the rank and file of Academic but below the geeks like me in Honors. Pushed on by his father, Steve made good grades -- good enough to play sports without fear of reprisal from "No pass, no play." Maybe his teachers were helping him out. Who knows?
To the outside world, Steve was a prince among men. If he wasn't so damn good on the gridiron, people would say, he'd be the next CEO of Exxon. Or Coca-Cola. Or wherever they happened to work. He was just such a damned good guy.
Let me tell you the truth. Steve Williams was a very bad man. No, he was a very bad boy. A really rotten kid with no redeeming qualities. This is not to say that I don't feel remorse over his death, but I would understand if others didn't feel any.
This was the point when our lives crossed.
It's Monday morning. It's freezing cold. I tried turning the heater on last night, but no dice. The furnace is busted; it happens every year when it's been off all summer. Thinking about Steve kept me awake. I guess by writing about all his suburban heroism I've developed a little soft spot for the guy. That's bad. Gotta push through it. I did the right thing. I'm sure of it.
This could have happened to anyone, in any school, in any city. The setting isn't important. It could have been a university of 30,000 people. Or not a school at all. It could have been a big conglomerate. Or the post office. All it takes is a popular bully and a target for his aggression. Here, the bully was Steve Williams. The target was me. The thing is, most places where this kind of thing happens, the target never does anything about it, and everyone around turns a blind eye. At Fall High, people ignored our situation just the same, and no one ever thought the target would strike back. It just never happens.
My first day at FVH was, as they say, one for the books. (Some irony that this is the book into which it's going to be written.)
After filling out paperwork in homeroom we got to hear what would be the first of an endless series of loudspeaker admonishments from Mr. Patterson, our principal. Then it was off to first period, and my first real taste of high school academics.
For me, that was Honors trig. I took algebra in middle school, so I got to place out of it at FVH. But most of the people in our class hadn't. They were sophomores, already jaded by the drudgery of high school and the apathy of the teachers. They were looking for alternative amusements. And Steve Williams was part of their little group.
You have to understand that I knew none of this. Like I said, I was a bit of a math nerd, and I figured everyone else in the class was too. If I'd known then what I know now (that Steve was "testing out the Honors waters" to boost his GPA.), I would have kept my eyes down and my mouth shut. But I had to go and show off.
I guess I thought I could change my image -- if you can call it that -- by proving myself as a worthy intellect, despite my skinny physique and funny hairdo that never looked the same from one day to the next.
Our teacher, Mrs. Anderson, issued textbooks and had us read from Chapter One. It was something about the fundamental operations of geometry. Since Steve was already the school stud (though I didn't know him from Adam), he was picked to do the reading.
Of course, the man-child was an idiot. He stumbled through the book, unfamiliar with jargon that wasn't used in the locker room, and when he hit the word "sine" he pronounced it "seen."
So I spoke up.
"Sign," I half-muttered.
"I'm sorry?" asked Mrs. Anderson. She checked her roll sheet, then added, "Alex?"
"It's pronounced 'sign.'"
"Um, that's right. Steve, can you continue?"
When he didn't start reading immediately, I looked over at him. He was glaring at me like I'd raped his sister. So were his friends, who were packed around him in concentric circles of importance: critical henchmen one seat away, peripheral acquaintances further out. I was clear across the room.
Obviously I'd crossed some line that I didn't even know existed. I may as well have shot him. It took him ten seconds before he looked back down at his book to pick up where he left off. He pronounced "cosine" properly.
I'd signed my death warrant on the first day of school.
That was my only class with Steve, but it was enough. Math is the only subject where you can place higher or lower depending on test scores and prior coursework. Everything else was categorized by grade. That was fine by me.
It wasn't until lunch that I ran into Travis for the first time that day. He didn't have much to say. They stuck him in Academic-level classes because he didn't have enough of a track record in higher-level coursework, and his parents didn't care enough to make a fuss. He whiled away the day listening to his moron classmates crack each other up by asking to go to the bathroom every five minutes. He said on more than one occasion, "It's going to be a long year."
We got our usual lunch -- French fries, candy bar, pair of Twinkies, and a Coke -- and sat down at the very end of the last table along the far wall of the cafeteria. I didn't even notice when Steve and his buddies approached.
A shadow fell across the table, and Travis slowly stopped chewing a fry, ketchup still clinging to his lip. He looked up as I felt an oversized hand clutch my shoulder -- just hard enough to know this would not be a friendly visit.
The hand belonged to a guy named Brett Vogon, a hair- and tooth-bleached jock who always got beaten out by Steve in the race for quarterback, girls, and homecoming honors. Rather than compete, Vogon had adopted an "If you can't beat him, join him" attitude and it appeared to be paying off. Vogon got to do all of Steve's dirty work.
He spoke before I turned around. "We've got a problem, kid." His voice cracked. Puberty had still not finished with him, but he fancied himself an apprentice Mafioso.
"What's that?" I asked, genuinely confused.
"Mr. Williams doesn't like to be corrected."
"Mr. Williams? Who the hell is that?" A moment of silence passed as I realized I was digging myself deeper. Only then did I turn far enough to see Steve glowering at me through a fence of steroid-enhanced, chest-puffing bozos. Vogon pointed out my error.
"Oh," I muttered. "Sorry."
"You'd better be," Vogon quickly retorted. I have since learned: Never let a bully get the upper hand in an argument. Never admit you're wrong. Never say you're sorry. Any sign of weakness against an opponent like this will be exploited to its fullest extreme.
"Who the fuck are you?" Travis's voice grated my ears from across the table. I spun around, knowing that this line of questioning could end only in tragedy.
"I'm Brett Vogon. Who the fuck are you?"
"I'm the guy that's gonna kick your ass," replied Travis.
Unless Travis was a black belt and I didn't know it, there was little chance that any ass-kicking would occur, at least not in Vogon's direction. With a half-dozen flunkies, Vogon and his crew were about to beat the shit out of Travis. They'd probably tear me apart as well, just for associating with the guy.
"Trav!" I shouted at him, desperate for him to shut up. It was a gut instinct.
"Bring it on, ass-wipe," taunted Vogon.
But as Travis slowly stood up, all 5-foot-2 of him, almost a full foot shorter than Vogon, we were saved by a wandering teacher on lunch detail suspicious of the raised voices, and who wanted nothing more than to avoid an incident on her first day back to work after a three-month vacation and too long without a cigarette. "What's going on here?" she said.
Vogon replied, "Nothin'."
"Good," said the teacher. "Sit down or go outside."
I don't think she saw Steve in the pack, or she never would have been so curt.
"This ain't over, dude," said Vogon, as he strolled through the double doors to the courtyard.
"Yes it is!" yelled that teacher in return. She was sure the voice of her authority carried the weight of lead.
Steve shot one last look at me before the doors shut behind him. This was all far from over.
The furnace is fixed, but the smell belching out of it is so foul I have to cover my face to breathe. Sleep is out of the question, leaving me awake and alone with the demons of the past.
You may think that someone who could kill a person in cold blood was cut from special cloth -- like some special mindset is required to do the deed. That's just not true. Anyone can kill. All it takes is enough provocation. I use this knowledge every day. I never provoke anyone on the sidewalk or the bus. I avoid conflict whenever possible. I even avoid eye contact. Like it or not, we've all got murderers hidden somewhere, deep inside. I too am mortal, like anyone else.
In freshman English, our first assignment was to read Beowulf, the classic
Nordic adventure saga that every high school student in
The Geats, who occupied the area of southern
Grendel came to the hall that very night. In the fight between Beowulf and Grendel, Beowulf ripped off Grendel's arm completely, and Grendel ran away in fear and in a bit of pain, presumably to die.
Alas, Grendel had a mother, a demoness as it turned out, and she was none too happy with her son's death. She burst into the hall the next night, killed Hrothgar's best friend, and absconded with her son's dismembered arm. She fled, and Beowulf gave chase.
The chase ended in the demoness's underwater lair, where Beowulf found even his amazing sword useless against her. However, he discovered another sword, the Sword of the Giants, in her cave. And with it, he killed Grendel's mother. He also found the body of Grendel, and cut off his head for good measure.
Beowulf returned to
Beowulf, despite being old and slow now, figured he could take on the dragon, mano a mano. He went to the dragon's lair, and sure enough, the dragon breathed fire on Beowulf. And although the dragon kept melting Beowulf's swords, eventually Beowulf's much younger friend Wiglaf came to the rescue, and Beowulf was able to kill the dragon with a well-placed thrust of his dagger.
But the beast had poisoned Beowulf, and he was about to die. He gave Wiglaf the throne of the Geats, and died a hero.
That's the story. And we when we analyzed it in class, it was funny how little I agreed with the teacher's interpretation. I didn't voice my dissenting opinion, so I got an A on the Beowulf exam.
Consider the depth of meaning in Beowulf: Grendel and his mother were obviously up to no good, and Beowulf earned his keep by killing them. No problem so far. Cutting off Grendel's head to show off might have been a bit much, but I can let that slide.
So then fifty years go by, and Beowulf becomes the subject of songs and poems. He's a hero. And it's obviously gone to his head. Here we have a seventy-year-old man going to kill a dragon by himself -- a dragon that was just angry because people have been stealing from him. Who wouldn't be? When Beowulf realizes he can't kill the dragon after all, his buddy has to save his ass. And in so doing, Wiglaf gets the throne, and he becomes yet another egomaniacal ruler of the land.
When I first starting thinking about the story, I fancied myself as Beowulf. Steve was Grendel. He had ravaged the countryside for years, but only I was clever enough to stop him. I was the hero for saving the world from his menacing rampage.
But looking back, now I think that I was like the dragon, and Steve was Beowulf. I had been wronged, and I was seeking revenge. And in the end, I killed the proud and arrogant Beowulf. Thing is, another jerk would inevitably take his place. And of course, in some way, Beowulf and his ilk would kill a part of me too. Either way, everybody but Wiglaf bites it, so I guess it doesn't really matter.
I try not to think about it too much. Most people think it's boring, and that it has no relevance to their lives. But I love that book.
Alison O'Malley was the prettiest girl in the school.
At least to me she was. She had pale skin and long, insanely curly red hair. I guess most people thought she was a little intense looking, but I always thought she was radiant. Alison and I had the same freshman English class, and she really loved poetry, especially the ones that I could never make any sense of. Although she hated Beowulf, as I recall.
Looking at my old freshman yearbook, Alison looks a little gawky and misshapen, like her head was too big for her body at the time. She would grow and fill out a lot in the next year or so, but she never had a lot of boyfriends. The few she did have -- well, I was not one of them.
I doubt Alison ever knew that I existed, despite the fact that we regularly had classes together, and I always tried to sit near her in each one of them. I never found out what she was really like as a person, except that she was pretty quiet and not prone to the giggling hysteria that plagues most late-teen girls. That's worth a lot in my book.
Steve Williams took an interest in Alison at the end of my sophomore year, his junior year. Why? Because Alison, in turn, had attracted the attention of a senior named Mac Wilson, who was going to take her to the prom -- unheard of for a sophomore. Steve had to step in and show Mac up, whisking Alison away on prom night, leaving poor Mac up the creek, with a hundred-dollar rented tux, a thirty-dollar corsage, and a six hundred-dollar limousine out front. All dressed up and nowhere to go, as they say.
It's said that Steve deflowered Alison that night in the field behind Fall Valley Stadium, where guys generally took girls for pre- or post-prom nookie. They went to the prom afterward, and that's how the rumor got started, as Alison was in a daze the entire night, her outfit rumpled and torn. For the few weeks left in school that year, the rumors were flying that she was a total slut. (You could pretty much guarantee that by the time a rumor reached my ears, everyone else had heard them first.)
During finals, Alison sat weeping softly at her desk. I would glance over at her Scan-Tron forms to see how she was doing. None of the little rectangles were filled in.
On the last day of school, the nurse carted Alison off for a meeting with her mother. Her mom must have known what had happened to her, but no one ever questioned Steve about it. He never apologized to Alison. In fact, he never spoke to her again after prom night.
I never figured out why she went with Steve in the first place. Mac Wilson seemed like a nice guy. He would have treated her well. But, you see, Steve was like a movie star. When he was around, people couldn't be held responsible for their actions. Normally sane individuals would do insane things to win his attention. Or do even more extreme things to avoid his attention. I can attest to that.
Alison killed herself that summer. Valium overdose. Her mother had a prescription.
…continued in Half Mast…
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