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Will was my very best friend. He always was, it seems like, from as far back as I can remember. It’s difficult to imagine life without him. I guess I must have done it once, but my memory’s pretty hazy these days. It seemed like he’d always been there by my side, so I’d never learned to stand on my own.
When we were real little, we’d stay inside the confines of my house or his, playing cowboys and Indians to the blast of the fireworks that our mothers told us were being set off not too far away. It didn’t make any sense to me that the fireworks went off so often, even sometimes during the day, and though I’d stare at the sky through my window for hours, I never saw the colors.
The peeling wallpaper was our prison in those days, the cracked windows a teasing glance at the wide, open world that was being kept from us. Restlessness in little boys is inevitable, and how we longed to run through those fading streets, to explore every inch of that cracked, scarred pavement. I don’t suppose our ignorance was bliss, but in any case eagerness and desire as we had in those days was preferable to the resigned loss of hope that came to us later, once we’d been through those streets enough times.
Sometimes we’d grow tired of our games and sit at the window, tiny palms pressed against the glass as we watched the people pass by. Our round, wide eyes followed people until they passed out of our line of vision, and in the innocence of my youth, I always imagined lives for these people far more grand and exciting than reality.
One day as we watched, a group of stumbling, weaving teenagers passed by our window, some of them laughing uncontrollably. My youthful mind didn’t register their intoxication, seeing only their temporary happiness. My little body pressed closer to the window, my breath fogging the glass. Stars in my eyes, I said, “Someday, I’m going to be just like that.”
Standing further back, Will made no acknowledgement of my statement, his unfocused eyes staring at the group. Perhaps feeling his gaze, the teenagers all stopped and turned to look at us. I waved, and they all smiled.
“Standing here on our side of the glass, wishing more than anything we could get out from behind it, you have to wonder if the people on the other side are wishing they could be in our place,” Will said. I dismissed his comment at the time, but once I had gotten to the other side, I wished I had stayed a little bit longer in the time when I still believed in fireworks.
I don’t remember a definitive changeover period from the days when we were always inside to the nights when we barely came home, but I guess we must have been about thirteen when we first started going out much. We got to know a group of older kids. Sixteen or seventeen seemed real old back then.
Sometimes they’d get us booze or weed, which I thought was the coolest thing ever at the time. It’s quite a novelty at that age, being thirteen and feeling on top of the world from a cheap high. I didn’t even mind the hangovers at that age, if only because they gave me a story to tell.
Back then, I thought we were invincible. I felt like we’d climbed a mountain, overcome so many obstacles, and finally made it past that glass wall, into a real world of excitement and opportunity.
Will was with me the whole way through, but he didn’t seem to be enjoying it so much. “We’re finally here,” I would tell him all the time. “We finally got to where we’ve always dreamed of.” Time after time, I wouldn’t get a response.
We were trying out all kinds of substance abuse at the time, but it didn’t seem to affect Will the same way it did me. As I got more loud and exuberant, doing all kinds of stupid things, he became more quiet and withdrawn, not talking to anyone. I wanted to ask him why he wasn’t having fun, but for a long time I didn’t, maybe because I was afraid of his answer.
One night we were at a party, and I’d lost track of him. I’d been looking around for some excitement, but no one much fun was there, and I was starting to get bored. I started looking for Will so we could leave. I finally found him sitting in a corner in the back, a near-empty fifth of vodka in his hand. His face looked carved from stone, save for the crazy eyes.
I sat down on the floor beside him. “Hey, you’re not looking so good, man,” I said. “Did you drink all this?”
His eyes spun wildly, and he didn’t answer me. After a while, his words slurring, he said, “It didn’t look like this from behind the glass.”
I clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Buddy, you’re not making any sense,” I said. “Let me get you home.”
His eyes focused on me, and he frowned, like he was trying to make sense of what I was saying. “Home,” he repeated. “What a nice idea, to have the perception of a place that you can always return to. But then why do we keep leaving?”
I stood and offered him my hand. “Come on,” I said. Our eyes met, and I saw his fill with tears.
“Do you remember when we were little and we used to stare out our windows and wish we could be out there?” he asked, his speech beginning to clear. I nodded. “Is this how you imagined it being on the other side of the glass?” His voice broke. “Did you ever dream of it being this melancholy?” His shoulders shook, and his breath came in rattling measures.
I extended my hand again. “Let’s just get you into bed,” I said. “It’ll look better in the morning.” He got to his feet, his head cast down, and didn’t say another word. At the time I didn’t consider his words to be more than drunken rambling, but now I wonder if the alcohol had simply given him the ability to voice his sober thoughts.
As we got older, the novelty wore off and our tolerance grew, I thought that Will had overcome his dark periods. I didn’t bring it up, at any rate. Guys didn’t talk about how they felt in our neighborhood. It was our lifestyle, and I realize now how exhausting it was always having to be a steady presence, never showing any sign of disturbance.
Once we got to be around eighteen and were finishing school, Will started spending a lot more time at my house. I was glad to be done with the books and papers, unconcerned for my future. Will managed to secure us two jobs at the gas station down the street, so I thought we had nothing to worry about. But when we were walking back from our interviews, it seemed like something was bugging him. I asked him what was wrong.
“Do you ever think about going to college?” he asked. “You know, doing something more with your life than pumping gas.”
I frowned at him. I’d never considered college, actually. “Nah, man,” I said. “We’ve just got to get though things from day to day. Besides, we can’t afford to go to college.”
Will cleared his throat. “Yeah, forget it, dude,” he said. “It was a stupid idea.”
When we got back to my house, he sat down and stared out the window, saying nothing. I didn’t know how he could just sit and think like that. It bored me to death. I left the room. Later, I heard him blowing his nose.
I stuck my head through the doorway. “You straight?” I asked. He cleared his throat loudly.
“Yeah,” he said. “My nose is just a little messed up from a fight I got in.” I nodded, but as I turned to go, I caught a glimpse of his red-rimmed eyes.
The rest of that day is vague in my memory. Will left sometime that night, and he came back the next day around noon.
He walked into my room with a solemn look on his face. He shuffled his feet awkwardly and leaned against the doorframe.
“Hey, man, you’re like, my best friend, right?” he asked. I glanced up and nodded.
“So we can tell each other stuff we wouldn’t say to most people?” he continued. My gaze met his.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “What did you do?”
He cast his eyes down. “Nothing,” he said. “I wanted to talk to you about how I’ve been feeling for a while. I’m real sad.” His voice was steady, but I could hear the pain in it. “This life is hard,” he said. “You can’t show weakness to anybody. Sometimes I think we were better off as kids, just watching it.” He sighed. “I don’t ever get to take a break.”
I didn’t know what to say to him. I wanted to tell him that everyone felt weary sometimes, and that he’d get through it, and that I’d be with him the whole time. I wanted to tell him that it was okay to be sad sometimes. I wanted to tell him that he was my very best friend, like a brother to me, and that I loved him more than anybody. But to do so would reveal my own vulnerabilities, and I had been conditioned for so long to be tough.
“Chill, dude,” I said. “You’re sounding crazy.”
His eyes flicked up and met mine for a split second, and the raw emotion in them made me instantly regret my words. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry.” And those were the last words I ever heard from Will.
He turned to leave, the front door slamming with a bang. Minutes later, echoing from his house down the street, I heard the unmistakable explosion of the fireworks from my childhood.
I jumped to my feet, ran out the door and down the street. Throwing open Will’s front door, I saw the red color of the explosion, blurred through my tears, the crimson splattered against the pistol in his hand.
He didn’t leave a note, so as I sit here, writing his obituary, I’m trying to tell his story as best I can. And as these words appear on the page, I wonder if anyone will pause long enough to read a newspaper as they watch the world pass by from inside a window, hearing fireworks echo a world away.