My parents and I moved to Helena Montana the summer before I started kindergarten. We were the first of three houses on a lane off of Hope Road, a dirt road off of a dirt road.
Our immediate neighbors were a very kind elderly couple, with grandchildren that I would see from time to time but never really got along with. I remember they had a garage sale once, and I had my eye on this small picture of a kitten. I went home and got $5 from my parents, but the couple wouldn’t take my money. They gave me the picture, and it hung in my room until we moved.
The house on the end of the lane belonged to Jared and Devin’s family. (Always Jared and Devin – never Devin and Jared.) I met them once playing on our mutual neighbor’s swing set. Meeting other little kids as a little kid yourself is still a strange concept to me. It feels wholly different than meeting other people at an older age, so it’s tough to relate to when looking back. It was awkward in completely different ways.
One day, soon after moving in, my mom convinced me to walk over to their house and say hi. When I got there, nobody answered. For some reason my little kid brain couldn’t comprehend that they weren’t home, so I decided to go inside and find them. The front door was locked, but their back door was open – I was persistent! I walked inside, “hello?” I turned down a hallway, then down another hallway into a bedroom. Nobody. Their house was weird, completely unfamiliar, a smell I didn’t know.
I felt as sudden urge to leave, so I started making my way back to the door. Instead, I found myself in another bedroom, completely confused. I started to panic, and I ran. Another turn, and I was crying. I was terrified that I would be trapped in this strange dark house forever. Eventually I found the door, and I burst out into the sunlight, my heart beating and tears streaming. I hurried home, too embarrassed to tell my parents what had happened. “They weren’t home.”
I smile to myself from time to time, remembering that secret terror. In hindsight, it’s hilarious to me. I wonder how many kids, at this exact moment, are running around a stranger’s house, completely alone, terrified, and crying. This could have happened in your own house, and you would never know! I’m still strangely delighted by this concept. Kids are weird.
Soon after, I found Jared and Devin at home, and we became friends. We each liked video games – they had an NES, and I had a Sega Genesis. We got into trouble in healthy little boy ways, running around the field behind our houses, throwing rocks at things and breaking boards. We were mostly harmless, as I remember it.
Sometimes my mom would call their house when it was time to come home. Often, she just yelled from our front porch. “Jonathon! Time to come home!” It’s comforting to remember these moments, when I was just a shout away from home. I think that feeling still sticks with me, making me more comfortable at parties when I know my apartment is just a short walk away. Eventually she got me a watch, and gave me the responsibility of being home on time.
Jared and Devin’s family was a little weird to me. Different than mine, at least. For one, I was an only child, so getting attention from my parents wasn’t really an issue. Jared and Devin had three sisters – one older, two younger. Their mom had a playdate system where, from time to time, each kid got a day date with their mom, without their siblings. It was a reward she would give her kids for good behaviour, a little slip of paper. This concept was completely foreign to me, and it’s only in hindsight that I can understand the importance of it. I rarely ate dinner at their house; the food was too unfamiliar.
I don’t think their dad was around all the time, but never really understood the dynamic. Their older teenage sister was always upset. Always. She almost exclusively kept to her room, so I barely saw her. When I did, she was yelling at us to be quiet. I think she was an early 90’s punk, but I wasn’t really familiar with those stereotypes as a kid, so my memory is hazy. Their little sisters were too small to really stand out. Mostly, I found the baby talk that people used with them to be annoying.
I saw Jared and Devin fight, as siblings, with their mom as the mediator. I had no way to relate to this, it was something new. I hadn’t had anybody my age to truly fight with in a way that required making up, since I’d just leave and go home. I never had to resolve anything. I remember their mom telling one of the kids to apologize, and they would say “I’m sorry.” The other one would usually yell back “no you’re not!” This was baffling to me – I had never had a reason to doubt an apology before.
I got along with Devin more than Jared. Devin and I would hang out sometimes, just the two of us, which wasn’t true for me and Jared. I think Devin was more of an awkward nerd, like me. Jared struck me as more of a jock, more alpha. He could be meaner and more physical, but was also our leader, dictating the adventures of the day. I was a year older than each of them, so we didn’t really hang out at school.
I was their neighbor and friend for about four years. We built a fort in an old barn in my backyard. The spring that Helena flooded, we played in the water, slipping on the ice underneath. We explored the construction site of a new neighborhood. We had throwing contests, which I never won, and Jared always did. We used a hose to turn our old garden into a mud pit. We tried walking to the end of a rainbow, until we were as far away as our parents would let us go. We took turns playing Mario, Zelda, Sonic. We’d swing on a pipe in their basement, and we’d get in trouble every time. We ate otter pops. We fought, but nothing that wasn’t forgotten the next day.
There were two other houses near us, off of a different parallel road. One with a boy our age. Cory, I think. He was never really a proper member of our gang. I remember that he had a lot of toys, but that didn’t make me want to hang out with him.
The other house shared a backyard with our lane, and they had a little boy, about three years younger than me. We’d entertain him sometimes, but he was too young to really hang out with us. They had the fanciest playground set on the block, so we liked that.
For some reason his mom never liked us, and she didn’t want us using the swing set. I can remember her yelling out of their bedroom window that overlooked the backyard, shooing us away. And I mean really yelling. Until then, I was used to adults being nice, and I was generally free to explore the neighborhood at will. For whatever reason, she was different. Maybe we were more trouble than I thought.
I remember one night, playing on their swings after sundown, when she yelled at us, as expected. We left, once again upset that we had been shooed away. One of the others said that they hated her, and they wished that she was dead. We agreed – yes, we too wish that she was dead. We wished that she was dead so that we could play on her swing set without getting yelled at.
One night, while watching TV with my parents, we saw police lights through the windows. There were police cars in the neighbor’s driveway. My parents didn’t know what was going on, and I think my dad made a joke. I wasn’t familiar with police lights, so I didn’t know what to think.
The next day at school, I saw Jared and Devin during a school assembly. I asked them about the lights, and they told me that our neighbor died. The mean one. The one with the young son. The one that we wished would die, she was dead. She had a seizure in the shower while her husband was at work, while she was home alone with her son. She fell, and she drowned. When her husband got home from work, he found her here there, and his son all alone. Before the ambulance showed up, Jared and Devin’s mom tried to resuscitate her.
It was a lot to process as a kid, and the weight of the situation didn’t really hit me until I was older. That’s when I felt bad for the husband, the son, and Jared and Devin’s mom who was a close friend of hers. At the time, the concept of drowning in the shower terrified me. As I understood it, seizures just happen sometimes. This was reinforced when a schoolmate had a seizure in another classroom, out of nowhere. I couldn’t see how it was possible to drown in the shower, but I knew it was. Drowning in such a small amount of water seemed terrifying because of how helpless you would have to be.
I remember other kids would occasionally wish that somebody would die. It was a popular way to convey hatred towards another kid. For a time, I would protest. I told them to be careful what they wished for, and that I once had the same wish fulfilled. Nobody believed me. Kids say all kinds of things, after all, so eventually I stopped. I started keeping it to myself. I even forgot about it for a while, and didn’t dwell on it whenever I would remember – until now.
I know that I didn’t kill the woman, but I wasn’t so sure as a kid. At that age I was just beginning to realize that the whole world didn’t only exist around me, for me. Santa and The Tooth Fairy and all their friends were becoming less real. I started to understand that the kids at school had their own lives after the last bell rang, as did the teachers. There were other people and other lives.
In that time of philosophical awakening, I still wasn’t sure what to make of the deathwish. Not only was I uncertain about my influence on her death, I also didn’t know how to feel about it. Should I be happy? I definitely wasn’t sad about it, she was too far away from my center. And I had, after all, gotten what I wanted. My own life improved a little now that there was one less person yelling at me, and the cost wasn’t something I could process yet. Still, I knew it wasn’t something to celebrate, so I existed in conflict.
In hindsight, I know that kids will be kids, and it was just bad luck that I was the one with a deathwish granted. In a strange way, I’m thankful. If somebody had to die, at least I learned something from it. While not a grand transformation, I think it made me consider my words with more care. I think it made me a better person.
After 4th grade we moved to Missoula, and I never saw or talked to Jared and Devin again. I mostly forgot about them until very recently, that part of my life fading in my memory. I wonder what, if anything, they remember about me, and what stories they could tell about my family, what they thought was weird about us.
And sometimes I wonder if they, too, know that not every wish should be granted.