I think that maybe the perpetual flaw in human existence is that lessons are learned from mistakes. Far too much of the time, by the time you realize how very wrong you were, it's too late to do anything to remedy it. As the saying goes, "Regret is insight that comes a day too late."
His name was Marcus Anderson—I still remember after all of these years. If I were to go back to my hometown now, I could still tell you exactly where he lived—two streets over from the house where I lived for all of my childhood, in a tan split-level with a red roof and a yard spotted with patches of dead grass. He and his sisters were always outside when I rode my bike past the house; they would just sit on the front steps, the four of them, staring solemnly after me as I sped by.
Looking back on it now with thirty-some years of adulthood under my belt, it's apparent to me that Marcus most likely had a pretty bad family situation. I never paid much attention, having been only eight or nine at the time; but I remember thinking that it seemed like teachers never knew what to do with him—he never did his homework, but he wasn't a bad kid in class. He never spoke out of turn, and when called on, he always had the right answer, but he wasn't a know-it-all about it. I can still hear his voice in my head, answering a question in his soft-spoken voice that always reminded me of the wind gently rustling the trees outside my window in the middle of the night. Every teacher, year after year, would send countless notes home for him to give to his parents, suggesting that they come in for meetings and conferences and the like, but somehow it never happened, and Marcus always had an excuse—it had flown out of his hand on his way home, or he had spilled a drink on it at lunch, or the neighbor's dog had torn it into pieces. There just wasn't much more that anyone could do, so I guess everyone just gave up on him after awhile.
The one day that I remember in particular happened in probably third or fourth grade. I remember it being early fall—the leaves had just started to fall off of the trees, and they crunched under my feet as I walked out to the playground for recess. Now that I think about it, it's strange that I remember that detail, because I don't remember some more important parts of what happened.
I remember the feeling of tension in the air better than I remember the words that were thrown back and forth. I can't recall who spoke first, or what they said. I don't even remember what the fight was about. I don't think that I was paying attention all that closely—it was just another tiff in the schoolyard to me at first. But things got out of hand pretty quickly, and it became difficult to deny the seriousness of the situation. Soon, my best friend, Garrett, was yelling obscenities at Marcus, the other boys behind him backing him up and egging him on. "Your own mother doesn't even love you," I remember him saying at one point.
I never hit Marcus. I never even said a word. But maybe that's the worst part of it—that I just stood there, a spectator, as all of this took place around me.
Marcus' face while all of this was happening is just as horrifying to me now as it was then—his expression wasn't one of rage, or even of fear. He just stared steadily at Garrett and the others, the blank look upon his face tainted by confusion and maybe sorrow, even as they threw crazed, childish punches at him. His gaze never wavered, even as the tears ran down his cheeks. And then, all of a sudden, he just walked away. My friends, confused, yelled after him, their voices ringing out over the asphalt, but Marcus never turned back. His figure gradually grew smaller and smaller until he faded into the distance.
I never saw Marcus again after that day. I have no idea what ever happened to him. I guess his family must have moved away, but there was never a moving van or boxes or anything. Rumors went around the neighborhood for weeks after he disappeared, but eventually, as is the cycle of life, people forgot about him and moved on with their lives and he was never mentioned again. I rode my bike past his house every day for months, looking for any clue as to his family's whereabouts, but the place didn't feel the same without people living there—it was just four walls on a plot of dead grass.
I like to think of him as an adult now, going off to work in the morning in a pressed shirt and a striped tie and returning in the evening to a wife and kids who see in him everything that we never did. Whether he's even still alive, I have no idea. I just hope with all of my being that he's forgotten me completely, even as I live with the weight of my remorse day after day and year after year. It's the least that I can do.