by Douglas Gwilym
She’s the only one of them I’m friends with on facebook. Where I am now, so very far from everything, I have better things to do than look at photoshopped kitten selfies, but I wanted to talk to her. I reached out, got a smiling reply, like she didn’t remember what happened. Same old Jenny.
Lying isn’t in my nature at all, anymore, so the best I could do was be evasive. I also did a little Jedi mind trick. She wanted me to come to the Grange, of course, but I knew that wouldn’t go well, so I made excuses for myself. It gave me the opportunity to say, “Bring me up. Tell them I say ‘hey’. See what they say.” I didn’t think she’d remember me saying it, but I was pretty sure she would do it anyway.
She arrived early. I saw her. She looked even more trim than her profile photo. Barring anything like a real reunion for our podunk class at a podunk school (we’d won exactly nothing that year in baseball, which had always been our only hope for notoriety), she was it. The whole reunion committee. She’d been the nicest prom queen in school history, and this was her reward. Setting up photo boards and the liquored punch bowl.
There would be people there—grownups, fathers and mothers, people with jobs of one sort or another I had to remind myself—who wouldn’t remember me at all. Except as the only Asian kid. Miyagi. Yeah. I didn’t even have an ‘m’ in my name. I didn’t let it bother me, mostly. Sixth grade was a world of nicknames. Boys and girls of an age before accountability playing at being adults to stave off the real thing as long as they could. We each played our role, soaked up the feeling of security we got from never doubting our place. It was always play. We were just playing at killing. I knew that when it happened.
“Kung Fu,” Roger had said. It was a lesser-used name. Almost affectionate. “Let’s see your moves.” Being the only not-strictly-white kid made me a celebrity. And celebrities—you know—are people nobody really knows.
Jenny Hardigan, though, she’d really been my friend. She’d been coming out of a chubby phase, and she was smart, so she knew how it felt to be the odd man out. It kinda short-circuited the usual machine. She’s also just a good human being.
People began showing up for the reunion roughly on time. Every other one wearing jeans. She couldn’t have loved that, but when the event was at a rented grange hall on the backside of nowhere, and when most of them still lived in a ten-mile radius, how could you fault them?
Chad Edders and I used to spend spring evenings catching crayfish in the creek by his house. He showed up looking like himself but with a pillow down his shirt, too-blond wife looking confused to be there. He hugged Jenny, and seemed to mean it. Jenny gave the wife a smile that made everything right.
“I was sorry to hear about your dad, Chad,” she said. The big guy went soft. “He taught me how to play that trumpet when I thought I’d never do it.”
I wondered when Roger would come. I wondered if he remembered the time we’d been using the speed bumps in the church parking lot as bike ramps and he’d gone down on his front teeth and I’d half dragged him, sobbing, to his mom.
Coolidge and Mandy Fine blustered in. Married and still insane. She laughed at every half joke that came out of his mouth.
There was a lull, and the room got crowded like they’d all reproduced asexually. Mr. Davis the bio teacher would have loved that. Familiar faces got rare, and there was a tension there. Probably what comes of a room full of people not really knowing each other and feeling in their guts that they should.
I lost sight of Jenny for a minute, and then she was coming in the side door with Sikey Hulse, a woman whose big haunted eyes made her look permanently five, but whose warmth was palpable, seeming to fix what was wrong with the place in a ten-foot radius. Her husband was handsome and tall, had a pony tail. Kids were in tow. Nobody else brought kids.
Things went hazy for a bit, like they do sometimes.
Now he had the black eyebrows of a PBS puppet. I couldn’t tell if Jenny looked at him. Couldn’t know if they’d been face-to-face. What that had meant. But now he was laughing a mahogany baritone version of that staccato laugh, and it was all I could do to keep my grip on the moment.
The evening had simmered down, and some folks had gone home, and they were all there. The old crowd was there like a knot in a noose. It was “The Last Supper” with Roger in the starring role. When he finally spoke—I couldn’t believe it—he was tearing up.
“I don’t know how we coulda done anything differently. We were kids. He was gone—he was just gone. We knew he wasn’t coming back, and it woulda been the end of everything for us if anybody knew. It’s not like there was a body.”
“Don’t, don’t talk about it,” Jenny was saying. But I wanted them to.
Jenny’s only crime had been to be nice to me. You could question her taste in men, but we were all boys then. Roger’d been jealous. If it hadn’t come to a head on the night we’d all snuck out to the lake, I might have had half a century or more. But I’d been down, and Jenny’d been sweet, and Roger’d gotten his pride rumpled.
I saw it again. We blustered and crowed and mounted the chain link fence, and in moments we were swarming the dirty lake’s mammoth diving tower. “Kung Fu, show us your moves.”
And then “Come on, man. I’m gonna murder you.” He danced and weaved like some Edwardian boxer, and I just stood there not knowing what to do. I looked at Jenny. Chad was there, but his face was in shadow.
“No, Roger,” she screamed. But they were holding me and he was punching me again and again.
“Jenny’s my girl,” he chanted it like a mantra. “Jenny’s not your girl, chink,” he’d said. And I’d fallen. The platform was a tidy two stories and the air felt wet on the way down, like I’d already been submerged. My head hit a beam. No one was meant to go off the side of the platform. And I was dying before I felt water.
Coolidge wasn’t laughing now. “It was dumb. We were pissed at him, but nobody wanted him to die.” They were all holding each other like something terrible had happened to them on their thirteenth birthdays. And then the clouds passed and the smiles began to come out again.
I felt myself moving, dissolving. I was there to haunt them. To reign terrors down upon them. Burn the place to the ground. Vengeance for a life lost. But I knew—god knew—if they weren’t haunted by me already, I wasn’t going to do the job over beers in the grange hall.
Douglas Gwilym is a writer and editor who has also been known to compose a weird-fiction rock opera. He’s an active member of HWA and is the “Gwilym” in the upcoming podcast Gwilym & Oreto’s Good Dark Fun. He edited four years of the themed annual Triangulation, now in its 16th year. He served on staff at Alpha Young Writers speculative fiction workshop and is a repeat guest on Alan & Jeremy vs. Science Fiction. His latest unpublished novel is about a programmer/rock musician hiding out in the city from the monsters she made back in her hometown of Stonesthrow.