Time Of Our Death
By Paul D Aronson
We watched the boats go down river, feeling time was now incredibly short. It wouldn’t be long before they got the bus out of the river. Or at the very least, the bodies that were in it. We stood in mute silence, everyone’s individual thoughts on our mortality perhaps. I put my arm around Lori. It wouldn’t be long now.
“We should go find Donald.”
“Maybe they found his body already,” Brian said.
I wanted to tell him they wouldn’t find that until they looked under the bus. But then I remembered I hadn’t seen their bodies at all. I didn’t want to get cornered into telling them they were god-knows-where in the river.
“I agree with Chris,” Lori said. “We should all be together.”
“Whatever. You guys have been making the rules for us ever since this started anyway.”
“You don’t have to come with us,” I said. “You never gave a damn about Donald anyway.”
He snorted. “Why should I care? He’s nothing to me. And neither are you.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Keep on playing the bad ass tough guy.” I stepped right up to him. “But I know the real you. And you don’t scare me.”
“Oh yeah? Well maybe I should just kick your ass then?”
“Maybe you should save it for your dad. He’s the one you got the real problem with. The only reason you picked on people is because you were too scared to stand up to him.”
“You don’t know shit about me.”
“Oh, I think I do.”
“Oh yeah? Then tell me something, smart ass.”
“I know what he did to you,” I replied in a near whisper.
Something in his face fell. “You’re lying.”
I shook my head. “I’m not.”
At first, I thought he was going to keep on pushing until I came out with everything I learned from my encounter with his dad. But then something in his eyes softened. This was a fight he could not win. This was the one time when he had no control over his adversary. When one knows your secret, then there is nothing left to fear.
“Sure,” he mumbled. “Let’s go find Donald.”
He walked away from us, grabbing Kelly’s hand to pull her to his side. He needed her now more than ever. The face he had worn for so long was falling away. The person he tried to make himself out to be was fading, and he was learning that alone was a frightening place to be. When someone knows only the person you want to show them, you have all the power, but when someone knows your secrets , you are just another lonely person, same as anyone else. At least Brian had Kelly. Donald had no one.
The killer’s house was roped off with yellow Crime Scene tape. It looked like other officers had been brought in from surrounding counties. Evidence vans, police cars of different makes and models, even a few that were marked FBI, made me realize this was a very big deal. This wasn’t just a guy who killed his girlfriend and died while trying to dispose of her body.
Donald was sitting on the front porch. He looked even rougher than before. His eyes had a haunted, far away look, and he had no smile for us like he had in the past. He had the look of a man ready to give it all up. If we’d been standing on Bay Bridge, I was afraid he would try and jump.
“There you guys are,” he said in a somber monotone voice. “I was wondering if you’d come back.”
“We wouldn’t leave you by yourself,” I said.
“Perhaps you should.”
“Why do you say that? What’s wrong, Donald?”
He just shook his head and looked down at his feet. “I heard you got the guy. When I heard them say he somehow swallowed bug poison and dirty river water, I knew it wasn’t something he’d do in his own.”
I didn’t offer any more details about the death of our killer. “So what’s happening here , Donald?”
He managed to muster a small smile. “This is a big one,” he said. “I heard investigators talking that he might be connected to two other unsolved murder cases in other states.”
“Have they made any connection to the bus yet?” Lori asked.
He shook his head. “They are still trying to connect the dots.” He looked at us, his eyes seeming to take in each of our faces. “They’ll be trying to bring the bus up quicker now.”
I sat down beside him. “Is that what’s troubling you?”
He glanced at Brian a second, before looking back at me. “No.”
“So what’s wrong? Why didn’t you come with us?”
He almost seemed like he was ready to cry. I looked to Lori for help, but she didn’t know what to do except shrug her shoulders.
“I didn’t see the point,” he replied.
“The point was to bring our killer to justice.”
“He didn’t kill us.”
“What are you talking about? Of course he did.”
“No, he didn’t,” he replied firmly.
Brian stepped forward. “I don’t know what kind of ghost drugs you are on, fatty. He admitted following the bus. He said the bus went off the bridge as planned. He pretty much told that woman’s corpse that he did it to get her kids out of the way so they could have some kind of relationship or something.”
Donald nodded. “You’re right in all that, Brian. He followed the bus, mapping out its route. He did something to the bus I think, but somebody noticed it and they switched buses. So the bus he had been following, our regular bus, wasn’t even on the road.”
I was flat out confused with his reasoning. “If we weren’t on our bus, then who’s bus were we on?” I asked.
“It was the one that takes the football team home after practice.” He looked at Brian. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice when they announced the number of the bus that went off the bridge.”
“I don’t pay attention to bus numbers,” Brian replied.
“They all are the same make and model anyway. The only real difference is the number when it comes down to it.”
“Okay, so they switched our bus with the team bus,” I said. “That doesn’t change the fact it was sabotaged. I was under there. I saw how the wires and cables were cut. That wasn’t wear and tear, someone did this. And if it wasn’t Kev, if he sabotaged a different bus, then who sabotaged the one we were on?”
Donald looked off in the distance a moment. With his sleeve he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and then looked at the ground. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt everyone. Just Brian.”
“I figured it would just be him and the other guys from the team. I didn’t know they’d use it to take us all to school.”
“What did you do, you bastard?” Brian asked, clenching his fists.
“You were going to kick my ass again after school. Just like every other time. I can’t count the number of times this year you and your buddies used me as a punching bag, and I was sick of it. There was no way I could fight back and win, so….I just wanted it to stop. I wanted to teach you what it’s like to live in fear for your life.”
“I sabotaged the bus.”
“No,” I said. “No freaking way. This isn’t you, Donald. You wouldn’t do that.”
He turned his attention to me. “You don’t know me, Chris. You of all people didn’t want to know me. You left. You couldn’t stand being a nerd anymore, so you changed your appearance and stopped hanging out with me. You didn’t want to know me anymore.”
I looked at him. “Don, I was just tired of being picked on. I didn’t want to be that me anymore.”
“Well I didn’t want to be that me either.” He pointed at Brian. “And that day you chased me inside my own house and beat me up in front of my own mother, I knew it was never going to end unless I did something.”
“You didn’t have to fucking kill us?!” Brian paced back and forth, fist opening and closing like he really wanted to beat the life out of Donald for sure. Kelly reached for him, and he shrugged her hand off of him.
“I hate you for what you did to me,” Donald said. “I didn’t think I had a choice anymore. Mom wouldn’t let me transfer to another school. The teachers wouldn’t do anything. When I did tell somebody, they acted like they didn’t believe me. Like it was more important to protect their star athlete. Nobody gave a dam about Donald except Donald.”
“Buddy..” I said. “Look, I…”
“Chris, don’t. Just don’t. You weren’t there anymore. You were hanging with the heads and the bangers. You didn’t have to deal with it anymore. Not in the way I did. In fact, it got worse when you jumped ship.”
I looked at Brian. I wanted to say something. I wanted to ask him if it was all worth it. I wanted to say this was just as much his fault, as it was Donald’s. In fact, I carried some of the blame myself for abandoning my friend to the wolves. But I didn’t say anything. I just shook my head.
I looked at Kelly. She was crying. Trying to reach for her boyfriend at this, the most devastating hour, and being shrugged off by his anger. But it was anger that had brought us all here. His. Donald’s. Perhaps all of us.
“So we killed an innocent man?” She asked.
“He wasn’t innocent,” Lori said. Her eyes were brimming with tears too at this morning’s revelations. “He killed a woman, possibly other women as well. Maybe some of their kids. The intent to kill all of us was there. Donald didn’t intend for us all to die.”
“No, just me!” screamed Brian, and lunged at Donald. Of course, he went right through him. If anger wouldn’t allow ghosts to make physical contact with one another, rage certainly wasn’t going to, either. Still, it didn’t deter him. He came at Donald again, both fists swinging at his head. Donald didn’t even twitch. There was no need. Brian couldn’t do anything to him now.
Kelly screamed at her boyfriend to stop. Even Lori and I stepped forward to try and stop his vain attack. Brian was still swinging and kicking at Donald. Tears were streaming down the bully’s face. “You killed us, “ he was wailing. “You son of a bitch.” He collapsed into Kelly’s arms like a rag doll. He sobbed against her as she wrapped her arms protectively around him. His body heaved from his rage and grief, and I wondered if it all was directed at Donald, or if some of it was reserved for himself.
I looked at Lori. She was affected by all this and not holding up too well. Tears had stained her ghostly cheeks and she was visibly shaken. To know all this time, the one who killed us was right there among us. And yet, when I looked at Donald, I could not hate him. In my mind, he felt he was left with no choice but to try to stop the abuse. He didn’t know his plan would set in motion a chain of events that would backfire and cause the deaths of his innocent schoolmates.
“What are we going to do?” Lori whispered.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have an answer for her. After all, the unfinished business that had kept us here all this time was sitting right in front of us. And he was our friend.