They think Jimmy did it on purpose. Even now, every time one of them comes back to town for a wedding or a shower or a funeral, they get around to Jimmy eventually.
They stop me in front of the Post Office or in the freezer aisle at the Independent while my pizzas thaw in my cart, and they ask me what I'm doing now, if I'm married or what, and then they say, "I still can't believe Jimmy did that. So terrible, man. Just so sad."
I used to correct them. I'd say, "Forget what you heard. It wasn't like that." But now I don't bother. Neither does Paul. I don't see Paul anymore, but we keep in touch. Facebook birthday wishes, the odd phone call. The way you keep in touch with old friends you don't know what to do with.
Alexis left town the minute she graduated—she was a paramedic in Vancouver, last I heard—and she had nothing to come back for, so she didn't. But if she ever does, they'll say the same to her.
"I never would've seen it coming," is what they say, and what they mean is, "Did you?"
We used to party at this place in the woods called the Foxhole. That wasn't its real name; Jimmy named it that the day he found it.
He'd had a fight with his mom and left, walked his anger off for miles. Way north of town, he came to a bridge. He climbed down, kneeled beside the water and cupped his hands to drink before continuing on beside the creek. About fifteen minutes in, he came across a clearing, with boulders and tree stumps positioned here and there like chairs, evergreens standing guard all around and the April sun shining in.
At first, it was just us. Me, Jimmy, Paul and Alexis. Alexis hung out with us because she was Paulie's girlfriend. After a while, me and Jimmy didn't mind anymore. Alexis was all right, and they weren't all gross around each other, which we appreciated.
We went to the Foxhole every Friday night. We built bonfires and sat around listening to the Hip, drinking whatever we'd been able to sneak out of our parents' liquor cabinets (even peach schnapps once; man, that was a mistake), staring at the stars and discussing evolution and God while slowly turning hot dogs on sticks over the fire. Like we were real deep.
Alexis told one of her girlfriends and that was all it took. The parties grew bigger, louder, with kids showing up from other schools, even, but no one seemed to know we were there. Every week we built the fire bigger and wider so more people could fit around it. Crazy shit happened, too, like kids got so drunk they'd pass out and have to be carried all the way up to someone's car, and once, this girl Becca stumbled into the fire. When she jumped out, her jacket was in flames. Someone yelled, "Holy shit! Stop, drop and roll!" and she did, and everything went quiet for a few seconds, and then we laughed our asses off because she was fine.
Jimmy started biking to the Foxhole after school sometimes when his mom was working, with No Name garbage bags stuffed in his backpack, and he'd clean up the half-eaten hot dogs and the cigarette butts and the broken bottles everywhere, and then he'd ride back to school, one hand on the handlebars, the other holding the bags over his shoulder, and dump it all in the dumpster. He never asked us to help. I think he liked being alone out there, being responsible for this not-so-secret-anymore place. I think he still thought of it as his. Or maybe ours. The four of us.
Jimmy was in a shitty mood that night. I could tell because he was gripping the steering wheel tight with both hands, staring straight ahead in his own world, with his lips jammed together, and he didn't even say hey.
So I said, "Hey. What's up?" and Jimmy let it all fly. He turned the music down, slapped both palms hard against the steering wheel, said his summer was screwed. So screwed.
It was the middle of June. School was nearly over. Summer, then, still stretched out forever before us and we couldn't think of a thing beyond it, even though we were old enough that we needed to start thinking about things. We were so restless. Like, let's get this shit done and get on with summer already.
But Jimmy's mom found him a job at Coffee Time, and it wasn't going over well with Jimmy. It was overnight shifts on weekends, and she didn't want him driving tired. She didn't have a license, so she said his dad could bloody well step up, since he lived down the street from Coffee Time. His dad said no way in hell was he picking Jimmy up late at night all the way across town and then driving him all the way back again at the ass-crack of dawn. The solution, after a couple of letters between lawyers, was that Jimmy would stay with his dad on weekends.
"So no more Foxhole for me. Or you, for that matter," Jimmy grumbled, because the rest of us had no access to a vehicle most of the time without him.
I knew this wasn't about the Foxhole, but I didn't say that. I said, "Isn't that where Lauren McDaniels works?" and he smiled a little, and we picked up Paulie and Alexis and headed for the Foxhole.
I laid eyes on Jimmy's dad exactly once.
When we were nine, my mom went down to the rec centre to sign me and Jimmy up for Scouts, but when she arrived, the program was already full. The gymnastics ladies at the next booth over told her about their boys' 8 and Up program, and my mom thought what the hell and signed us up.
We thought we'd hate it, but we changed our minds the first time we jumped on the trampoline. We could do simple flips after one lesson. They looked simple, but they felt exhilarating. All that nothingness between our bodies and the trampoline, the abandonment of all thought as we flew into somersaults, the never-long-enough drop with our hair standing up all over our heads, and then, if we managed to land on our feet, the immediate flight back up. In mid-air, everything went beautiful, spinning and streaky like a kaleidoscope.
Somehow, Jimmy's dad got wind of the fact that Jimmy was taking gymnastics, and he showed up one Saturday. Jimmy was halfway across the balance beam when he slammed in, banging the door against the wall and shouting at my mom. "What the hell, Kelly? My son is not spending another minute in this sissy class!"
My mom jumped up and placed herself in front of Jimmy, who stood slack-jawed in the middle of the beam, red-hot humiliation shooting up his neck. "Charlie, please," my mom said. "Think about what you're doing."
Jimmy's dad wasn't in the mood to think about what he was doing. He elbowed my mom aside, lifted Jimmy and threw him like a sack of mulch onto his shoulder. Jimmy was so stunned—he probably hadn't seen his dad in a year—that he didn't even struggle.
"You tell Mary that Jimmy lives with me now."
I started crying as the door swung shut behind them. "No! Jimmy doesn't want to live with him!" My mom hushed me and said she'd take care of it.
And she did. She called the police. My stomach somersaulted with jealousy when the cruiser rolled onto our street, Jimmy waving from the back with a sucker sticking out of his mouth. The cops let us play in the car while they talked to our moms. For forever in boy-minutes, we pretended we were bank robbers, super bad dudes with finger guns and everything, trying to find an escape from our backseat cage.
We didn't talk about what happened that day, then or ever.
But Jimmy wouldn't go back to gymnastics after that. I finished the session, but I never went back either. It wasn't the same being able to fly when I'd look down from way up high and Jimmy wasn't there.
The party was already raging when we arrived. We had to park way down the road, and even then, we could hear a hundred tanked-up voices belting out a CCR tune, that one everybody knows with the doo-doo-doos. Paulie played air guitar and Alexis sang along as we walked.
It rained hard earlier that day. The hill beside the bridge was like a Slip 'N Slide. I fell on my ass twice and our runners were covered in muck and we were killing ourselves laughing by the time we reached the bottom.
"Listen, man," I said to Jimmy as we walked towards the music. "It's Friday. Just forget everything and have a good time!"
Paul opened his backpack and handed Jimmy a beer. "You look like you need this bad," he said. Jimmy stuffed it into his jean jacket pocket. "Thanks, Paulie," he said, and started moving away from us through the crowds of kids.
"See ya later, Jimmy," Paulie called.
I got just the right amount of loaded that night. I met this girl Chloe and she shared her bottle of whatever with me. She kissed me, too, a lot, and asked if I'd take her to prom at my school. Prom had already happened and I'd skipped it, but I said I'd take her anywhere, anywhere else.
We sat on a clammy, moss-dotted tree stump, leaning into each other with my jacket around our shoulders, the smells of beer and pot and mud and burnt marshmallow mingling all around us. "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode was cranked on someone's boombox, and every inch of me throbbed. Voices hollered along and glass bottles clatter-clanked together. Doc Martens stomped and bodies spun in front of the flames, and this Chloe girl put her head on my shoulder so her hair tickled my cheek. I thought, please just let me sit here with this girl with the raspberry ponytail and her almost empty bottle of whatever forever.
But the song ended, and in the seconds before the next song played, I heard someone screaming my name. I spotted Alexis, just beyond the fire, in her white denim jacket, running and waving her arms. I left that girl sitting on that damp log, with my jacket hanging off her shoulders and her bottle of whatever hitting the ground. I thought I'd see her later, but there was no going back.
"It's Jimmy." Alexis held my hand as we ran out of the Foxhole, through the woods and towards the bridge. "He's gonna kill himself."
Jimmy stood on a wooden bridge post a quarter of the way across, but when he saw me, he stepped out onto the frame and yelled, "Hey, Adam! Think I can make it?"
Alexis bent over with her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. "He's gone across once already. He won't get down until you watch." She straightened up, pressed her fingers into her forehead and turned away. "He's gonna fall and kill himself."
"Jesus Christ, Jimmy! Don't be an idiot!" I looked from the slick hill leading up to the road to his muddy, wet runners on the thin beam to the rocks in the water below.
Paul was halfway up the hill, just standing there, unsure whether he should keep going towards Jimmy or stay put. "Jimmy!" he yelled. "We already know you can do it!"
"Adam didn't see me!" Jimmy's words were thick with alcohol. "Adam was making out with some chick." He stuck his lips out and made kissing noises like we did when we were ten.
"Jimmy!" I said. "You're wasted! Don't do anything stupid."
Jimmy took a few quick steps to the middle of the beam, right above the creek, and stood swaying on one foot like a toddler on a curb. "Is this stupid?"
A car drove onto the bridge, the headlights shining on the whole situation: the flash of steel, Jimmy's moptop hair hanging in his eyes, his clueless grin.
"Jimmy!" I was pissed now, panic thumping in my chest. "Don't be an asshole!"
Alexis dropped into a squat beside me, wrapping her arms around her knees. The kids in the car whistled and blew the horn. Paul charged up to the road, waving his arms over his head. "Shut up, morons!"
Jimmy threw his arms out and his head back in some sort of rock star Jesus salute. The kids cheered and drove off laughing.
"Adam, watch!" Jimmy took another couple of steps. Maybe ten more and he'd be safe on the other side. But this time, his arms windmilled, one leg kicked out behind him, and the smile dropped off his face.
It was speed-of-light fast, over and done with, no time to stop it. Just like that, Jimmy was on his stomach on the rocks, face down in the water. For a few seconds, we did nothing but stare, like we thought he might jump up and take a bow. And then did we ever move.
I charged into the creek with Paulie right behind me, and we dragged Jimmy out. In my head, this happened at super-speed, even though Jimmy was so heavy, complete dead weight, that there's no way it was that easy. On the bank, we fell to our knees on either side of him, yelling a bunch of useless shit, like, "Is he breathing? Jimmy, wake up! Someone help us! Please!" We yelled a lot, but we couldn't think of a single other thing to do. This was it. All there would ever be was Jimmy lying there on his back with all that blood coming from his head and the drunken far-off voices singing "Cecilia" off-key.
Who knows how long we sat there yelling before things started happening: Kids crowding around and then getting the hell out of Dodge; the paramedics in their big black boots skidding down the hill, carrying an orange stretcher between them, kneeling in the mud beside Jimmy and doing things to Jimmy that might fix him.
Then quiet, the ambulance gone and the hush of shock draping over us. I dragged myself back to the edge of the creek, mud squishing under my hands, and I vomited hard into the water. The cops shone their flashlights one way and then the other, lighting up the creek just long enough for me to see the boulders with Jimmy's blood still on them, and the black water carrying my throw-up away.
Me and Paulie rode to the hospital in the back of a cop car. On the way, the world began to heave back into focus. We were still breathing. We still had limbs attached to our bodies and we were somehow using them to move through the night. I made a finger-gun and shot a passing tree. I couldn't find the words to tell Paul about the last time I was in the back of a police car.
We found Alexis in the emergency room waiting area, sitting crisscross applesauce on the floor, mud in her hair and blood on the sleeves of her jacket. Later, when it was time to talk about the details, she would tell us how she took off as soon as she heard the thud of Jimmy's body hitting the rocks. How she ran until she almost dropped and finally found a house. How she screamed and rang the bell until some guy stumbled to the door in his underwear and said, "What the hell, kid?" How she didn't waste time explaining, just pushed past him to the phone and called 911. How she rode to the hospital with Jimmy, held his hand, told him he was a dumb shit but he'd be okay. How she did what me and Paulie couldn't think to do as we yelled and pleaded beside Jimmy's body.
But when we sat beside her on the hospital floor, we only knew that we'd lost her and now we'd found her. That's what Paul said when he put his hand on her back. "We found you."
Alexis scratched at the black flecks in the white linoleum, like maybe they weren't supposed to be there. In a voice that broke only once, she said, "Jimmy didn't make it. His mom is on her way, but she doesn't know yet he didn't make it." She looked up at us, her face paper-white and smeared with dirt. "How do we tell Jimmy's mom he's dead?"
Paul's hands flew into his hair and he pulled it hard. "He's not dead he's not dead he's not dead," he whispered, three times in a row to make it be true.
All I could think was Jimmy's dead and I need to lie down. So I did. Flat down. The tiles were cool against my cheek and the black flecks were right at eye level now, so close I could squint and make them blur and multiply and dance into the white. I heard voices calling my name, but if I kept my cheek glued to the floor, and if the flecks would just keep spinning like they were, everything would be fine.
But they sat me up and a man said, "You're okay now, son. I'm sorry for your loss." And then it was just us, just the three of us, not talking, not forming thoughts, just staring at the white floor with the black flecks, while the sick people's names were called one by one, and a stretcher had a squeaky wheel, and life and death tornadoed all around us.
We stayed like that until Jimmy's mom ran into the hospital with her hand over her mouth, took one look at our faces and collapsed. We rushed to her, on all fours like animals, and we formed a circle around her, all arms and hands and sobs, and we held her there, just like that in the middle of the floor, just as tight as we could, because none of us was moving on from that moment.