In the summer after sixth grade, a city kid named Theodore came to stay in my small, rural Connecticut town. His parents had rented a house near my friend Derek’s. From our townie perspective, they were standard-issue New Yorkers: sunglasses, striped shirts (this was the eighties), L.L. Bean tote bags bulging with sweaters and glossy magazines. Right away, Theodore’s mother began calling to see if we’d hang out with her son.
Mostly we were able to get out of it, but occasionally—mostly at Derek’s mother’s insistence—we’d let him tag along. He was game for anything. Once, we persuaded him to eat raw meat from a trout we caught in the nearby river. He never got mad or seemed to understand that he was the butt of our jokes.
At school, Derek and I were nice kids. We had friends, got decent grades. We were both on the small side, hardly bullies. We had fathers who drank too much and, when they did, belittled their families; mothers who complained about their husbands to their kids. We lived in houses where people shouted and slammed doors. We stayed outside a lot.
Theodore’s parents acted like friends. They joked and laughed and swooned over wildflowers and bluebirds. They were also, I noticed, always together—talking, watching TV, cooking. I remember once at Theodore’s house eating a roasted-chicken sandwich on a croissant with avocado and some kind of complicated mayonnaise. I felt like I was in a foreign country.
One day, late in the summer, Theodore came over, and we went into the woods behind Derek’s house, but with a plan. An hour or so away from the house, Derek mentioned a cave. It was, we promised, somewhere off the trail, and in that cave was a swimming hole. Theodore couldn’t have been more excited, couldn’t believe we never told him about it before. We egged him further into the woods, further off the trail, and then announced we’d have to split up to find the cave. We pointed him one way, and we went another. Once he was out of sight, we ran home. Only when the sun went down did what we’d done begin to sink in. We ate mushrooms that night, at Derek’s, and the mushrooms made me think of the woods, and Theodore, alone.
As Derek’s mother started washing dishes in the kitchen, the phone rang. We froze. Moments later, she stormed back to the dinner table and said ominously, “Let’s go.” We got in her station wagon, and she didn’t say a word to us as she drove. “He’s dead,” I whispered to Derek in the back seat.
“You owe someone an apology,” Theodore’s mother said when we arrived at her house. Theodore had panicked through the woods all afternoon and early evening, she told us. Eventually, he found his way to a not-so-very-close dairy farm. After dark, he’d seen the lights of the farmhouse from the woods and made his way there.
We found Theodore sitting in the small, barely furnished living room. He looked different. Rattled, clearly, but tougher, too—older. Only child, city kid, sweet boy, unused to cruelty—he couldn’t understand what we’d done, why we’d done it. “How could you do this to me?” he asked plainly. We had no idea.