• Fearsome Critters

Delivered — John Pedersen

At the risk of sounding trite, I really did receive the call early on Christmas morning. Five A.M., hazy, the second in short succession with a text in between—Please answer, this is important—and based on the sender, the unusual urgency, time of day, and our long history together, I knew exactly what had happened before I picked up. No other set of circumstances could line up so perfectly.

Graeme was dead.

He was always aggressive, prone to escalate things when provoked, and it only got worse after his time in Afghanistan, which he used to call “Afgramistan.” Told me they taught him to drive for combat over there, then stationed him far away in one of America’s unhappiest cities when he came back.

Our friend informed me that on the way home from a house party, in the early morning hours, Graeme and his wife had decided to stop at a cemetery to play Pokémon Go. But somewhere along the way there had been a road rage incident and an on-duty delivery driver tailed them in, flashing his brights, trying to bump the rear of their car.

Spurred on by an unfortunate cocktail of PTSD, the drive to protect his wife, and him just being kind of an asshole in general, Graeme approached the other vehicle with a drawn knife and was shot dead, then and there.

The police came. His wife wasn’t hurt. After antagonizing him and then killing him, the shooter was not charged, as it was clear that he was only standing his ground. America.

Merry Christmas. Graeme’s brother is also one of my closest friends. I’m sorry to call so early. I could hear the snot sticking in his mustache as he sobbed. We talked about the best way to break the news to his family.

He decided to tell his son after they opened presents that morning.

My girlfriend and I got frozen pizza and watched Blade Runner. I don’t remember too much else about that day.

But I do remember Graeme.

The distance between us forced our friendship to evolve. We texted. Every day, almost all day. But only infrequently did I speak with him directly. When I did answer the phone, he was almost always belligerently drunk. Entertaining enough for sure, but after a while he would start repeating himself, the way that drunks do.

I had better things to do with my time.

He got upset with me once when I didn’t answer a FaceTime call. Even my good buddies don’t want to talk to me. He joked about suicide, except when it wasn’t joking. One night while I was at work, he incessantly tried my phone, tucked away in my jacket pocket. I came back to sixteen missed FaceTime calls. I felt like a teenage girl dodging an older boy who just didn’t get it.

I loved Graeme with an intensity I reserve for few things. I still do.

Texting was more convenient for me. I could say something, press send, he could respond when conducive. That’s how it works. That’s why it’s better than phone calls. Doesn’t waste anyone’s time.

It wasn’t always that way—so removed. Used to be, skateboard to his house, pull him out of whatever party was going on, grab some 40s, then skateboard more until the sun came up.

It used to be getting drunk at punk rock shows.

It used to be buying PlayStations from Best Buy and returning the boxes stuffed with phone books.

It used to be just being together, laughing. Wasting time.

But it eventually became texts. Same old thing, new medium. Texts about nerd stuff, texts about progressive politics, texts mocking the religion we both grew up in.

Texts about fights with his wife. Texts about how increasingly shut-in he felt. So many texts, texts and texts only, sometimes dozens in a row, that I didn’t always answer those either.

Then the not-joke texts would start. Those I would respond to. I had to.

I was only kidding.

There was one conversation we had, face-to-face for once, still daylight here but after dusk there. Lucid. He confessed the booze was self-medication, that things were hard. Military culture, you just had to tough it out. Masculine.

The problems were getting worse. We talked about therapy. Seemed like no other course. Something wrong physically, you went to the doctor. Something wrong with your brain, you did the same. It only made sense. No shame in finding help when you need it.

He assented.

It was only a few weeks later that I stopped getting his texts.

I was never a fighter. Once we were in Vegas, annihilated drunk, surrounded by angry Marines. I talked our way out of that one. We got lucky.

How would that night, that night with the delivery driver, how would that night have played out if we lived in the same city?

How would his whole life still be playing out had we lived closer? Me there to temper the rage that had slowly grown into self-destruction?

How would that Christmas Eve have played out if I was there laughing with him instead of here sending him sacrilegious text messages? Oh, come let us abort him.

That’s the last thing I ever said to my best friend.

My phone still says Delivered.

I don’t know if he ever found a convenient time to read it.

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