I watched a boy die.
I held his hand.
I told him he was gonna be OK.
Leaving the ice cream store, I stood for a moment gazing at the hill beyond the river, bathed in the warm, afternoon sun. By October it would be a pageant of reds, and yellows, and oranges. Today the colors were more subtle shadings of greens among the hardwoods and evergreens. The day was a beautiful one in mid-August, and all the world was fresh and green after last night’s thunder storms. Turning left down the street, I strolled along licking my cone and thinking about nothing in particular. Chad, my seventeen-year-old neighbor and older brother of my best friend, Henry, bicycled past, smiling and waving to me as he went.
Not far behind him was a black pickup. As it passed me, I heard it accelerate, and then I heard a crash. I turned in time to see Chad fly shrieking through the air and land heavily on his back, his head slamming into the blacktop. The truck stopped and backed up, but then accelerated again and drove over Chad’s writhing body.
I ran to Chad, who was lying in the street, blood pooling under him. He was screaming and rolling in agony on the ground. Clearly, his legs were broken and only God knew what other damage had been done. I took his hand in mine and said, “Chad, it’s me, Max. I’m right here.”
“It hurts so bad, Max. Help me!”
The pain in his eyes engulfed me, but I managed to say, in a quavering voice, “You’ll be OK. Hang on. The ambulance will be here soon.”
“Am I gonna die?”
“No, Chad. The EMTs will help you.”
“Oh Christ! Don’t leave me, Max.”
“I won’t. I’m right here.”
Where the hell is the ambulance? I wondered. A crowd had gathered on the sidewalk, and one of the men said he had called 911.
Chad looked up through his pain, and, speaking so low I could barely hear him, said, “Oh, shit, Max. I’m not gonna make it. Tell…Henry check…camera.” A gush of blood poured out the side of his mouth. He gasped and went rigid. Then, his body relaxed. His expression changed from unspeakable anguish and fear to surprise. He was staring at the sky, eyes wide open.
“Chad! Chad, hang on!” I said, tears running down my face. I wanted to lean over and breathe life into him.
An ambulance screeched to a stop, and two paramedics rushed over. One held Chad’s other wrist, checking for a pulse. Then he shone a light in Chad’s eyes. Finally, he closed the Chad’s eyes, looked at me, and said, “He’s gone.”
“No!” I yelled. “No! He can’t be! He was just riding his bike and waving to me. Bring him back!” But I knew as I said it that that was impossible. In a daze I turned to the curb and vomited again and again while an EMT put a gentle hand on my back, stroking it until the spasms stopped.
Two police cruisers pulled up and an officer came over to the EMTs and me. One of the EMT’s looked at him and just shook his head. The officer asked, “Did anybody see what happened?”
“I saw most of it,” I stammered.
“OK. Don’t say any more. I need you to go over and sit in the back seat of my cruiser until I can get to you. Did anybody else see anything?” he asked the crowd that had gathered. Nobody spoke up.
I sat in the cruiser, trembling, pretty certain that I was in shock. One of the paramedics came over and asked if I was OK. I told him I really didn’t know. It was like I was in a dream. I wasn’t feeling anything, and I couldn’t think straight. He told me that was pretty normal and that when the cop had finished with me he would give me a ride home.
I just sat there, random thoughts racing through my mind. I thought of Henry, Chad’s brother and my best friend, Chad’s little brother Robbie and his parents. I knew they would be devastated. Did somebody deliberately kill Chad? Why would that happen in this little town of Millway, Massachusetts? What possible reason would anybody have to do such a thing? I tried and tried to remember what Chad had told me to tell Henry, but it was gone, at least for the time being.
I felt something sticky on my left hand and realized I was still holding the remains of my melting ice cream cone, so I walked over to a trash barrel and threw it away. I tried to wipe off my hand but with no success. Beginning to feel dizzy, I made it back to the cruiser and sat before I passed out. I put my head between my legs and tried to inhale deeply.
A voice asked, “Are you all right, young man?”
Looking up I saw an elderly woman standing there, concern on her face. “Yes ma’am,” my voice so shaky it didn’t sound like my own. “I was just feeling dizzy.”
“Were you in the accident? Are you injured?”
“No, ma’am, but I saw it and it was horrible.” I burst into tears again.
When I had calmed a little, she left me and went to talk with one of the paramedics, who came to me, took something from a kit on his belt, broke it open, and said, “Inhale this.”
I did. Wow! The smell of ammonia was really strong, but it sure cleared my head in a hurry.
“Keep it,” he said. “It’ll work for a while yet. Here’s another one in case you need it.” He returned to the ambulance, which pulled away. I wondered where they would take Chad. A hospital couldn’t do him any good now.
Finally, the officer came over and sat in the other side of the cruiser’s back seat. I turned, putting my feet in so I could see him.
“I’m Officer Bryant,” he said. “Do you have any idea who the boy is?”
“Yes, sir. He’s…He’s my next door neighbor.”
“What’s his name?”
He wrote it down. “Where does he live?” Again I told him and he wrote that down. “Do you know how old he is?”
“Seventeen,” I said quietly, as tears continued to stream down my cheeks.
Before he went on, he called another officer over and gave him Chad’s name and address. The officer nodded, and he and his partner drove off.
When the other officer had left, I asked, “Do you know where they’re taking Chad?”
“To the morgue in Greenfield.”
“Well, one of his parents needs to identify him before he can be released to a funeral home.”
“But I identified him to you.”
“I know, but if at all possible it needs to be a relative, and for a minor, it needs to be a parent.”
I shuddered, picturing Chad in a freezer until he was identified. I almost vomited again, but I held the capsule to my nose and in a moment the nausea passed.
“Are you all right?” the officer asked. I nodded. “OK, I want you to tell me what you heard and saw. Don’t add anything you thought or you think you know. Just tell me what you heard and saw.”
I nodded. “I had just come out of the ice cream shop, and Chad was riding his bicycle past me, waving.” Haltingly, I went on to tell about the pickup truck, hearing it accelerate, hearing the crash, seeing Chad fly through the air, and hearing him scream. “Then I saw the truck back up and drive over him before speeding off.”
“Do you know what kind of a truck it was?”
“No sir, I’m sorry. I don’t know cars very well. All I know is it was black and kinda banged up.”
OK. Now, I want you take your time and go through the whole thing again in your head. I want you to see if you forgot to tell me anything. Think about what you heard and saw and especially anything about the pickup.”
I did as he asked. I played the whole thing through again like a movie. Just as I was ready to tell him I couldn’t think of anything else, I realized something.
“It didn’t have any license plate!” I exclaimed.
“Good. Are you sure?” I nodded. “Anything else?” I shook my head. “OK. Eventually, I’ll need you to come down to the station and make a written statement, but for now I think you’ve had enough so I’m going to take you home.” With that he got into the front seat while I fastened my seatbelt.
Millway is a small town tucked in the foothills of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. We live right in town, so it wasn’t long before he pulled up in front of my house. I saw the other cruiser next door at Henry’s house. The officer got out, came to my door, opened it, took my arm, and walked me slowly to my front door. It’s lucky he did that because, when I stood up, I felt dizzy again. I stopped and took a whiff of the second capsule before going up the walk.
When we got to the door, my mother opened it before we could ring the bell. “Max,” she said, “what happened?”
Before I could answer her, the officer asked if we could go in and sit down. “Of course,” she said and opened the door wider. We followed her into the living room.
Officer Bryant introduced himself and then said, “Your son has had a bad shock.” Then he told her what had happened and what I had seen.
“Oh, Max,” she said, turning to me with tears in her eyes, “that’s terrible! I’m so sorry. Do you think it was deliberate?”
Remembering that the officer had told me not to tell what I had thought, I looked at him and he nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I’m sure of it. After all, the truck backed up so it could drive right over him.”
“But why?” she asked, looking from one of us to the other.
“At this point we have no idea,” the officer replied. “But until we do, because he’s a witness, it might be a good idea for your son to not be alone, especially in town.” He departed, leaving me and Mom hugging each other.
Part of me wanted to go next door to be with Henry, but another part of me didn’t. I wasn’t sure I could take what was going on in that house right at the moment. Did that mean I was chicken? Why couldn’t I support Henry when he needed me? I didn’t know. I just knew that right then I couldn’t do it.
“Can I just lie on the couch for a while?” I asked.
“Sure,” Mom said. I removed my shoes and swung my feet up. She put a couple of pillows under my head and a blanket over my feet. “Do you want to talk?” she asked.
“I don’t know what I want. You know, I’ve never seen anybody die before. It was terrible. Poor Chad. He was so hurt and terrified and there was nothing I could do for him. All I did was throw up!”
“You held his hand, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but I’m not even sure he knew that.”
“Don’t feel guilty, Max. You did the only possible thing you could do.” She sat with me for quite a while before saying she was going to go over to the Hendersons’ house.
When she returned, she said that everybody was overwhelmed and unable to think clearly. She had offered to fix them some sandwiches and went into the kitchen to make them. Returning to the living room with two plates of sandwiches, she asked if I would go with her. Taking a deep breath I said I’d go.
“Are you sure you want to?” she asked.
“Not really, but I’m gonna have to go there sooner or later. I’m gonna have to see Henry some time, so I might as well go and try to give him some support.”
The two of us walked next door, and I rang the bell. Henry opened the door and fell into my arms, sobbing. Mom went inside while I just held Henry. Finally, between his sobs, he said, “I just can’t believe it. He was so happy when he went off this morning. I can’t believe he’s…he’s dead.” He burst into more sobs.
“Don’t try to talk now,” I said. I held him close, just gently rubbing his back and trying to console him.
Leaning on me, he turned, and we went into the house, up the stairs, and into his room, where he lay face down on his bed while I sat beside him. I sat in silence and just kept rubbing his back gently for a long time before I realized his breathing had changed and he was asleep. I suspected he was exhausted. Sleep’s probably the best thing for him, I thought.
I rose carefully so as not to disturb him and went downstairs. His parents and his little brother, Robbie, were in the kitchen with Mom. When I went in, his parents rose and I went to each of them, giving them and Robbie each a big hug. It was all I knew to do.
“Thank you so much for coming to Henry. When he’s able to think about it, he’ll know that was a very difficult, kind thing to do,” his mother said.
I just nodded, and Mom and I left.
Back home I tried to eat the sandwich that Mom had made for me, but I could hardly swallow. We sat in the kitchen not saying much. Mom tried to make small talk just to fill in the silence, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Finally, I got up and went to my bedroom, where I stripped to my boxers and lay on the bed. I tossed and turned for a long time, unable to focus on anything. I must have eventually dozed off, because I awoke screaming and realized I had been reliving what had happened to Chad over and over in my dreams. Mom came in and sat with me until I went back to sleep. I must have been totally worn out because I didn’t wake up until after ten the next morning.