It’s 2:16 a.m. and I’m awake. Something isn’t right on this midsummer night at my grandparent’s home. There is light streaming into my bedroom from beneath the closet door, beyond which lies my grandparent’s room. From behind the door I hear elevated voices and from outside my second story window I hear the crazed shouting of my uncle Jr. floating up through the stillness of the night air and into the dark which surrounds me. I’m listening, contemplating, trying to put the pieces together in my fogged mind.
I crawl out from under the sheet, my feet silent on the carpeted floor as I make my way to the closet door and place my ear against the cool wood, trying to assess the situation evolving on the other side.
“Calm down baby, we can work this out. Please, just calm down!” Jr.’s girlfriend Cheryl shouts from just beyond the other side of the closet. What is Cheryl doing here? She should be in Jr.’s trailer, just a stone’s throw away from my grandparent’s house, down a dirt path to the right of their pale green two story home, nestled in the trees of rural Nevada County.
I dress quickly, my stomach in my throat. I open the closet door and let the light wash over me as I wait for my eyes to adjust. I step through the closet and into my grandparent’s room where my suspicion is immediately confirmed: something isn’t right. My grandmother is sitting at the head of her king size bed clutching her left wrist with her right hand, the telephone receiver pressed between her ear and shoulder.
“Yes,” she says, “No, no, he’s here in the room now.” She reaches out to me and I quickly climb up onto the bed with her.
I’m worried now. I can hear the fear in my grandmother’s voice as she pulls me close to her and wraps me in her arms. My grandfather, Cheryl, and Cheryl’s brother Robert, who is visiting from someplace that I can’t quite remember at the moment, are all standing at the open window calling down to Jr. who is pacing the patio below, shotgun drawn and at the ready.
“We’re not lying to you, babe!” Cheryl calls out.
“Yes you are!” Jr. screams. “You’re nothing but a bunch of fucking liars and I’m going to kill you all!”
“Just calm down, Jr.!” My grandfather shouts out the window. “You’re not going to kill anyone, son. You need to calm down. Just take it easy…”
“Fuck you! Tell me where it is! Where’s my goddamn money?!”
Jr.’s money. We’ve all heard the stories before. I’ve heard Jr. tell my grandparents a hundred times of his fame and his fortune. He tells them that he is a king, but not of any country they’ve ever heard of, much less seen for themselves. He tells them that there is a grand tavern in this far off country of his, where a giant portrait of him hangs above the fireplace. He tells them that the people there worship him and recognize his true genius. He tells them that he is rich beyond their wildest dreams and he believes that my grandparents are hiding his money from him. None of them realize that I’ve been listening all of these years, but as far back as I can remember I’ve heard Jr. tell his story, and to him it is no fairytale. He believes wholeheartedly in every word and I’ve seen him become angry many times when my grandparents have told him that it’s not true. There have been shouting matches before. There have been threats. Indeed, he’s been furious before about his money and over my grandparent’s supposed lies, but it’s never been quite like this.
He’s drunk. Or high. Or both. I can hear it in his voice as his words slur and trail off into garbled babble. He’s enraged, and now he means to kill us all if we don’t give him what he wants.
I pick up the rest of the pieces of this evening from the conversation my grandmother is having with the 911 operator and from the shouting match going on between Jr. and the others. There was a fight at Jr.’s trailer between him, Cheryl, and Robert. Cheryl and Robert escaped when things escalated to the point of violence and ran to my grandparent’s house. Then, a fist fight between Jr. and my grandfather broke out and somewhere in the chaos my grandmother injured her wrist. My grandparent’s managed to get everyone inside and lock Jr. out of the house. Outraged, Jr. retreated to his trailer to fetch his shotgun before returning to the house where the shouting and the threats on our lives began. That’s the part where I woke up.
“Ok, ok. Darryl,” my grandmother says to my grandfather, “Darryl, the police are forming a perimeter around the property. She says that they’re going to move in slowly and surround him.”
This is no small task. The property is 27 heavily wooded acres on the north side of a hill hidden safely away at the end of eight winding miles of country road. There’s no way they’ll make it in time. I’m afraid. I may not make it through the night. I love Jr. and I think that he loves me, but I don’t think that my love for him will shield me from the business end of his shotgun if he gets in the house.
“Darryl, she says to just keep him talking while they get into position,” my grandmother says in a voice quiet enough that Jr. won’t hear.
And they do keep him talking, for what seems like hours. I’m holding my grandmother tight and with each moment that ticks slowly past, I become more and more frightened that none of us will make it until breakfast.
“Fuck you!” Jr. Screams. “I’m going to kick down this fucking door!”
“Wait baby, just wait! Let’s talk about this,” Cheryl pleads.
But Jr. is done talking.
“No, no, I think he’s trying to break down the door,” my grandmother says into the receiver. There is panic in her voice now.
If I was frightened before, now I’m terrified. This is it. This is the moment that it all comes to an end. What if I don’t live to see another sunrise? What if I never kiss a girl? What if I don’t make it through middle school? I’m only eleven years old and I’m not ready to die, not yet. I’ve been dreading the deaths of the people I love as far back as I can remember, and I’ve always been scared to find out what lies on the other side. I never imagined that I would face my fears so soon.
I remember summer days spent fishing with Jr. when I was young, baking on the shores of Rollins Lake, just waiting for a bite. I remember camping trips last summer with Jr., Cheryl, and her kids. I remember the fun we all had together and how I had hoped those carefree summer nights might last forever. Back then, I never could have imagined that a summer night like this one might unfold. Gone is the fun loving, if not somewhat delusional man that I grew up with. Now a madman, engulfed in a fiery rage, is kicking down the door, shotgun in hand. This madman intends to spill our blood all over the pretty brown carpet of my grandparent’s bedroom floor and all the 911 operator can tell us is that the police are forming a perimeter? Then what? Now what? The perimeter isn’t complete and we’re out of time. So much for the plan.
Thud! Thud! Thud! Jr. is slamming his foot into the front door and it will only hold for so long before he rips it off the hinges. I’m in a daze. My heart is racing. How long have I been holding my breath?
“Ok, ok. Yes… We’re going. Ok, thank you,” My grandmother hangs up the phone and lets go of me for the first time since I crawled onto the bed.
“Alright, let’s go everyone! They want us out of the house. Let’s go!” My grandmother yells. Her words cut through my daze and I feel myself jump form the bed, adrenaline suddenly pulsing through my veins.
My grandparent’s house is built into the side of hill in a way such that the second floor is on ground level at the back of the house every bit as much as the first floor is on ground level at the front. There is a sliding glass door that leads out onto the hillside behind the house and there lies a deserted fire road which snakes its way through the woods, eventually ending up at the top of the property. This fire road has served little purpose in recent years, except to lead me and my friends into the woods to play laser tag after school.
In laser tag you get shot, but you never die. Tonight is different. Tonight, shots will be lethal, and tonight the fire road leads to our salvation.
The front door has given in to Jr.’s bombardment. But the sliding glass door is open and we are filing out one by one into the darkness. I run, my legs stamping up and down on the ground like pistons fueled by slippery fast adrenaline, and I don’t look back. None of us look back to see if Jr. is following as we flee. We run up into the woods under the cover of the night sky, stars shining brightly overhead. It’s a beautiful summer night, a beautiful night for a murder or two. Or Five. But then, who’s really counting?
We cover 150 yards in no time flat, my grandparents, Cheryl, Robert, and me; all out of shape and overweight running as if we were prize winning track and field athletes. We’re still running when shouts from below stop us dead in our tracks.
The shouts echo up the hill and everyone drops instantly to the ground. Everyone, except for me. The shouts do not belong to Jr. who must have realized we were no longer in my grandparent’s bedroom and made his way around to the side of the house to where the fire road spills into the driveway. I turn on my heels and point my gaze to the bottom of the hill, where apparently the police are waiting for Jr., no doubt hidden behind the cars and trucks parked there.
It happens in an instant. I don’t dare look away. Like a needle piercing the vein when blood is drawn, I have to see; I have to know.
One. A brilliant flash of light in the blackness, followed immediately by a deafening crash of thunder. Twothreefourfivesix. More flashes and more thunder claps, before I can blink an eye. Then, silence for a second that seems to last an eternity. Hands reach up from the depths of the darkness at my feet, tugging at my clothes, pulling me down to the safety of the dirt below. And the women scream, my God how they scream! Their sharp screams pierce and shatter the silence all around me.
Jr. lets out a blood curdling cry of pain and anger and defeat which tears up the hill, crawls into my head through my ears, floods down my throat, and takes hold of my racing heart. That was the last sound I will ever hear my uncle make. I don’t know how I know, but I have never been more sure of anything in my life. That was the sound of a man slipping out of this world and into the next. That was the sound of a man dying.
“Fuck you! You mother fuckers!” Cheryl screams as she stumbles to her feet and begins to stagger down the hill toward the nightmare below. But the very forest comes to life as the SWAT team descends from the trees and a dark hand of the woods reaches out from the shadows, grabs hold of her, and drags her to the ground once more. There is commotion all around, a dark storm of movement crashing through the branches of the trees, and a voice from an indistinguishable face barking orders.
“Stay down!” The voice yells. Don’t move!”
I’m no longer lying on the ground, my face pressed against the coolness of the forest floor. I’m outside of myself looking down on my body from the tree branches above. I look pathetic there, crumpled into a heap on the ground, quivering in fear. But what else can I do? I’m just a boy and I’ve just witnessed a horrific scene play out in the night some 200 yards away from where I now lie.
The screams of the women from somewhere in the distance below bring me back to my body in an instant. They are calling out to Jr. and to a God who seems to be absent from the events of this fateful summer evening. As I lie huddled up with my family, the women’s cries echoing in my ears, I can’t help but wonder what the sequence of events was down in the driveway. Did Jr. move toward the police? Did Jr. raise his shotgun first? Did a policeman act too quickly, pulling his trigger too hastily, and forever changing all of our lives in a fraction of a second? Were six shots really necessary? A man can survive one bullet ripping through his flesh, but surely six bullets is too many for any life to bear. Perhaps I will never know, and the truth will not change the fact that Jr. is dead and gone.
“Please God, please! No, no, no…” My grandmother calls out. But God does not answer her call, and she begins to sob in the darkness next to my head. I shut my eyes tightly and all the world is black. This isn’t really happening. I’m tucked safely away in my bed and this is just a nightmare that I can’t wake up from. There was no fight in the trailer. There was no shotgun. There was no shouting. There were no flashes of light and no bullets flying through the night, hitting their human target. There was no final howl of pain. None of this can be real. But the blackness does not end and the shouts and the screams and the cries for God’s mercy do not stop. No matter how I hope and pray, I do not wake up safely tucked away in my bed. No, this nightmare is real; and I haven’t a doubt now that I’m very much awake.