By Matt McGuirk
Sometimes I wonder how little they knew of Jason. We were all friends, but did they really know him? Everyone saw the football star, the tough guy who knocked out Randy’s teeth in middle school for being an asshole and that buzzcut who walked down the hallways. Everyone saw these things, but did his friends really know him? I’ve known Brett and Brandon for 50 years, and they are smart guys, always have been, and I wonder if that was enough to put it all together.
Brett, Brandon and I all sit in this diner every morning and spit stories about the past, mostly about Boone’s farm and all those dares. I’m quieter than them, and I wonder if they think it’s because I can’t tell stories the way they can, but it’s mainly because I’m here thinking about who isn’t.
We have our time at the diner now, but back then, Jason and I were the only ones that really drank, and I had him over for beers on Friday nights to watch the game or sit on the porch. Most of the time, we just talked about Jordan, Magic and Bird. There were times others crept in, but that was our ritual during basketball season. We didn’t talk a lot about football, mainly because I didn’t know enough and he knew too much, but the night that stood out to me was a fall night in September, and neither sport crossed between us. I remember it because he’d gone through the Bud Lights a lot quicker than normal. He’d downed about four of them in the first hour as that sun began to sink behind those maples across the street. Normally, we were both good for about two beers or so an hour, but he was moving for some reason.
I remember looking over at him as he sat back in that rocker. His body had an extra layer of fat, but you could still tell he was a mass of muscle from all that weightlifting he did back in high school for football. His hair wasn’t buzzed anymore but straight razored instead. Jason was a calm guy when the two of us hung out, but I remember noticing how his feet were crossed, and they shook a little between rocking. He looked nervous tonight, and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. The night was growing cool, but that’s normal for September in New England. He tipped the beer back, took a sip and placed it between his thighs. I remember a silence that lingered longer than it normally did between us. They always got filled with some off-center joke or a quick story about a girl he met at a bar that we were never introduced to, but tonight we could hear that breeze send whispers through the wind chime at the far end of the porch.
His voice finally touched the night air, after what seemed like twenty minutes, “you know, I think about that day a lot.” No one ever talked about that day. We all had regrets from what happened, and he had his secrets. We all remembered the dare and Boone’s strong arms pulling him toward that chicken coop. I remember the lingering time where we didn’t intervene with what was happening behind that closed door. Mostly, I remembered his scared eyes, his collar that hung loosely around his neck after Boone had dragged him by it and those two trenches cut by his feet toward the coop. I still wonder why we didn’t step in, but I was sure we didn’t want to become one of those famed stories that we all knew, even though that meant Jason would be one. Old man Boone’s truck finally rumbled up his driveway and backfired as it did, and Jason’s tear-soaked cheeks are burned in my memory as he fell out of that coop. We all wondered what happened, but he never told us.
“I do too.” I cut in, trying to let him know I was listening and sometimes thought about that day too.
“I wonder if it would all be different if I hadn’t taken that dare.” I saw him close his eyes for a moment, open them again and take another long gulp of beer. “Sometimes, I wonder if I’m a little like that story we all remember. You know, the one with Eli and the hay bales.” My mind ran back to one of the stories about Boone’s farm. We all knew them, and he didn’t really need to elaborate. “You know,” he paused, took another sip and looked into the opening in the can. “You wanna hand me another one of those?” I reached over to the cooler, popped the lid open and handed him a fresh can. Chhhh. “Eli and me, we’re kinda similar in a way.”
“What do you mean?” All I could think about was the story about Eli and the one that happened to Jason, and really, they didn’t end the same way. My mind slid back for a moment to what I knew about Eli’s tale. It was similar in the sense that his friends had dared him to check out a piece of Boone’s property, but he was dared to enter that hay barn and bring back something that showed he was there, and Jason’s task wasn’t in a building. Eli entered and saw those stacks upon stacks of bales, dust hanging in the air like a low fog and suffocating him because the hay pulls any semblance of moisture out of it. I could imagine him looking around for some kind of object to prove he was there, taking in the enormity of that place. Jason’s task was a little easier in a way; he just needed to pull something from the back of that truck that was parked outside the barn. Both stories happened at different times, but both boys were jumped at that point in their story. Jason dragged to Boone’s chicken coop as we watched, feeling like helpless spectators, and Eli whacked with a rusty shovel by that same infamous man that haunts our town.
Jason interrupted the thoughts, “the isolation, I mean.”
“You’re out, though!” My voice rose a little, and I saw him wince.
“It doesn’t feel that way. To be honest, I feel like Eli every day. I feel like I’m stuck in that coop with Boone, and I see those eyes under the low brim of his cap and those yellow teeth in a smirk. I remember his hands and feeling like the situation wouldn’t end. Sometimes it’s a little harder to take than others, and sometimes I feel like I need to get away.” In that moment, I wondered what wasn’t being said, what words he was holding on to that would have unravelled the rest of the story for me and helped me reach out a hand to respond to this beacon in the night, this indication that something still wasn’t right in Jason’s head.
I thought back to the relief we all felt when he was all right, alive at least. He went into that coop and came out, and that was what we saw; that was all he allowed us to see. Eli woke up gasping for air, seeing only the yellow spines of the hay bales bristling in all directions. The last thing he remembered was looking at that hay barn and thinking how vast it was. He felt his head pounding, thumping on those hay bales. He turned it to the right and saw hay, turned it left and saw it again. He couldn’t lift his body because the space was too tight, but he knew there was hay at his feet and hay behind his head. He was trapped on all sides, consumed by that stack of hay bales. There was a wetness under his head as he shifted it from side to side, and he realized that was where the pounding originated. We all knew the stories of the old farmer, and now Eli was sure he was in one. He could only imagine how he became trapped between those bales. Eli knew Boone had hit him with a blunt object that knocked him out and then stuffed his body in the stack of bales and stacked the others one by one around him.
The story goes that he remembered flits of those strong hands before being closed in, strong hands on his body and then those strong hands stacking the bales. He could imagine the constant smirk as Boone lifted bale after bale until he was no longer visible. I’m sure he felt that hay closing in, pressing him tighter and tighter. All the yells for help, but no other houses were within shouting distance, and the road was a country one that not a lot of cars had a reason to take. The way I heard the story, he pushes on those bales trying to get out, and he yells and yells, but no one hears him. We could all imagine how the story ends, and I still wonder if kids may have gone digging for him in those haystacks; maybe it became another dare associated with Boone’s farm. I wonder if Eli’s bones are still buried in that stack of hay or if the bales finally pressed in on him, and he became one of them, destined to feed the farm animals.
“It was terrible, and we all felt bad after that dare.” I didn’t know what else to say. We all did them; we all threw dares out and took them and succeeded or failed, but this one ended differently. It wasn’t like the silo for Brett or the concrete barn for Brandon. Jason was frozen in time, a relic of his younger self lost in the immense glacier that froze the moment in his mind and moved inch by inch closer to a place where he couldn’t come back.
“It’s not that. I just sometimes feel like I’m screaming in that stack of hay bales, you know?” I sat for a moment, thinking about this statement. He seemed like he wanted to help me along, “we’re not the smartest, not like Brandon or Brett, but I’ve been thinking about that story a lot lately and how Eli was just yelling and trapped in that stack of hay. He had nowhere to go and nothing he could do. He was just trapped with his thoughts. No one could help him, and he was just waiting for it all to end.” He leaned back in the rocker and drank another long sip of the beer. He looked out across the road at those silent maples and didn’t say anything for a long time. I sat thinking about how to respond to that. We weren’t in there; we didn’t know what happened or what sort of thoughts were still stuck in his mind.
When I think back on Jason and all that he went through, I think the image of him in the porch rocker is the one that sticks with me. I no longer think of him as the linebacker or the enforcer; I think of him screaming silently in his head and waiting for someone to hear him or stitch him back up before it was too late. I know it’s one nobody else saw, but I think it was telling, even though I didn’t know it at the time. He was so silent after sharing that comparison, and I’m sure the connection between the stories ran deep. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t have let him sit in that silence for as long as he did. If I could do it again, I would claw through those hay bales and pull out my friend who was screaming for help when no one was listening.
Matt McGuirk teaches high school English and laughs at his own puns by day, and scribbles stories at night. He lives with his wife and daughter in New Hampshire. Find his upcoming stories in Drunk Monkeys, Literally Stories, Sleet Magazine, The Dribble Drabble Review and Versification. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.