This story is by Mike Conradt and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I can find no solace in the deed I committed. My hand quivers, my spirit in anguish as I sluggishly walk home—in the end, he was a friend in need. I think of nothing but our life together.
Damon was a good friend of mine, and the friendship we had starting from our childhood was never wavering. We both lived in a small town just a few short blocks apart. It was common for us to sneak out at night and meet in the park to share what liquor we could find from our respective homes. It was never much but enough to make your toes feel numb.
Damon was tall with broad shoulders. He was muscular with a dare devilish attitude. Living life to its fullest and exploring the unknown was his mantra. I was a man of short stature, and I sided with caution, less risk, reserved. Damon’s health was excellent. The measles and chickenpox tried to bring him down but with little effect. He shrugged them off like he was swatting a fly. I was always sick with every cold or flu which came around, but I recovered, and Damon was always there, at my door, ready to go.
Our early school years came and went. Going to college was like a party. Classes and homework were in close association with pretty girls and thirst-quenching beer. Finally, graduation arrived. We celebrated with friends, girlfriends, and women we thought displayed the acceptable elements of beauty. The day was filled with laughter and hugs, tear-filled farewells, and promises to keep in touch. A day both of us was never to forget.
After graduation, we both secured jobs, Damon at a law firm and I at the bank. By mid-summer, it turned hot. Each Friday, the afternoons were reserved for swimming at the river. On one hot Friday afternoon, when the heat on the sidewalk was sufficient to fry an egg, and the sky was blue and cloudless, we planned a big swimming party at the river. All our friends would be there.
That day wore on like molasses flowing in the winter. I watched the clock, fidgeting in my chair, keeping an eye on the minute hand, thinking time would go faster. I was off at three and Damon at four. But today, he would leave an hour early, telling his boss he had a doctor’s appointment. It was a hot day, and like all hot days, it was skinny dipping time in the cedar river. Everyone we knew would be there.
The clock finally edged its way to three o clock. I rushed out of the bank and hurried to the river just outside of town. Others had arrived before me, so I helped unload the beer and food. Finally, Damon came, stripped off his shirt, and took long jumping steps down the riverbank to the beach. The party was just getting started, and some were already in the water. Damon stripped his jeans off and dove into the cool water. He surfaced and swam back to the beach.
As diving boards, we used the concrete slabs dumped on the river banks. They were the right height for diving and posed minor problems. Under the bridge was a slab that sat higher up on the bank. Diving off it was risky and seldom done. Damon was feeling invincible and climbed to the top of the slab.
He dove off headfirst. The dive was perfect, with minimal splash. Everyone started clapping and cheering as they waited for him to surface. He never did. We all waited and watched in anticipation. Still, the waters were quiet, holding its prey. Anguish replaced tension. Some stood with their eyes wide and mouths open, not knowing what to do. My mind began to race as I paced up and down the riverbank. Then came yelling and shouting, the pale faces with hands to their cheeks in horror. We rushed to where he went under and dove into the water, searching for him. At length, we found him in swallow water, its depth barely deep enough for diving. He lay on the bottom of the river, eyes open, fearful, holding his breath. We grabbed him, bringing him to the surface. He was like a wet rag when we pulled him from the water.
Damon spent the next few days in the hospital with a gash on his forehead. There was no movement in his legs or arms, paralyzed from the neck down. He could speak and roll his eyes, but little else. The doctors gave little hope that he would ever regain movement of his limbs. Family and friends filled the hospital room. The room smelled like a flower shop with all the flowers.
Most of the time, I sat in a corner chair, too horrified to say much. Damon’s parents showed animosity towards his friends at first, blaming them for his accident. Their resentment finally faded, spending their time at his bedside and weeping.
Once Damon was discharged from the hospital, they feared he might succumb to his injuries. Based on his condition, doctors felt it was necessary to put Damon into a hospice unit. Damon fervidly objected to it. His pride was still intact, vowing to fight this on his own. They fed him with a feeding tube and gave him a straw to drink from a glass. His once muscular body was beginning to look gaunt and frail. All he could do was stare at the ceiling, counting the flyspecks.
As days become weeks, Damon became more frustrated and begun to treat the nurses obnoxiously. They had grown to dislike him and would occasionally leave him to lie in his waste for hours. I visited him every day, trying to give him hope. My concern was to stave off loneliness in his time of horror. But my visits did little to console him. The boredom was unrelenting and torturous.
Damon’s incurable malady began to worsen as the months went by, taking away his ability to speak. His speech now was nothing more than a whisper, and his tongue barely moved in conjunction with his lips. His words were slightly garbled. His health was declining, and the nurses gave him little hope for recovery. He could scream, but it was nothing more than a grunting sound.
Frustration rose as he tried to communicate beyond a whisper. He begged me, whispering, “put the pillow over my face.” His eyes became wide as he mouthed the words, “kill me, kill me now!’ I could not, with my courage lacking, my sadness turned to despair. I could see it was hard for him to breathe, needing a ventilator occasionally. At times mucus would build-up, and he would nearly drown in it. A reasonable time to die, but the nurses responded quickly, saving his life.
His vision was limited to a spot on the ceiling. A series of mirrors placed overhead enabled him to see up and down the room. One mirror reflected himself. He begged them to take it away. The horror of seeing himself wither away became unbearable. To avoid it, he would close his eyes and sleep. At times he became lethargic and indifferent to the surrounding world. When his eyes opened, he saw nothing but himself. He would cry out with shouts of agony, but little came from his mouth. The pain and distress showed on his face.
Slowly, without so much as an indicator of what was coming, Damon’s mind began to slip into irrational thought—brought on by mental torment and an infinite number of miseries plaguing it. He went into vengeful rants, voicing horrible atrocities; he would shriek, wail in agony, he attempted to gesture with his arms and legs. But nothing worked, his voice only a whisper, barely audible enough for anyone to hear him. After so much of this, he would cry, tears going down his temples, wetting the pillow.
Late one afternoon, when we were alone, and tears dampened his pillow, his eyes searched mine for compassion. He tried to speak. I bent down and put my ear to his mouth. He whispered in a barely audible voice, “Please end my misery, kill me now!” I saw the sadness in his eyes, his pallid face, the drooping of skin on his skeletal frame. I reached for his pillow and pulled it out from under his head. My hands were shaking. I stared at him. My breathing became rapid, a tear run down my cheek. My mind was numb as I searched for courage.
Moments later, I walked outside. I felt numb, pale, my soul filled with dread, and in my heart, an incurable sickness. I looked to the heavens asking God for forgiveness, but there was none. The pangs of guilt haunted my mind. Damon’s fate of horror now over, and mine has just begun.