If you’ve read Adam & Adam on a Raft, you might remember that I described it as the story with which I had struggled the most. At the time, that was true. The first draft of Red George came out trippingly but the first edit – this version – was much, much more difficult. This is the longest story I’ve published so far and I’m not sure how I feel about it, being so long I mean.
I love these people, this town. They are becoming as real to me, in some ways, as lots of people in my life have been. Just because I love them, however, doesn’t mean I don’t need to do more work on the stories that are written; and it does mean I like hearing what you have to say about it!
Red George was my first love. I was eight. He was 11. He had bright red hair and a smile that started on Tuesday and just kept on goin’. He was good in school, good at sports, and he sang in the United Church Children’s Choir. Not that I ever went to church, but I would see him on Sunday mornings running down the street, robes flapping in the breeze, and I would admire him all over again.
I decided we would get married when we both were finished high school and he was running his dad’s service station. I never told him that we were engaged, or that I even loved him, but that didn’t stop me from making plans in my head for the wedding (which was going to be outdoors by the river) and where we would live (which would be in a little cottage by the river) and how many redheaded children (I thought three for sure, and maybe four, and because we’d be living by the river, they would all have to learn to swim as soon as they could crawl) we would have.
We were secretly engaged for three years. It was especially secret from Red George, which might have been a mistake on my part, because the summer I turned 11 and he was 14, I saw him dashing to church one Sunday morning, holding not just his choir robe, but also Elaine Golden’s hand.
Elaine Golden. Just saying her name can still put a knot in my stomach about the size of a softball. And she looks like her name, long blond hair and bright blue eyes, with one of those light little laughs that girls are supposed to have, unlike the guffawing sound I make when things strike me funny. And she was laughing that Sunday morning as Red George pulled her down the street toward church, dodging the last stragglers, knowing Pastor Brian was going to be annoyed they were so late.
The engagement was off as of that moment. I was pretty naïve at 11-years old, but even so, I knew that a 14-year old boy who ran down a Sunday morning street holding a pretty girl’s hand was serious about that girl. And given how pretty and smart and just plain charming Elaine Golden was, I also knew that I could never hope to win back Red George’s heart.
It took me five years, until I was 16, before I felt my heart was strong enough to love someone again, but you know how it is with your first crush, you always want to know how he is, what he’s doing, is he happy, does he miss you maybe just a little, all that stuff. So I would keep an eye out for Red George at school, at his father’s service station, on Scout Jamboree weekends spring and fall, just to make sure he was okay, make sure he still had all that lovely red hair.
I remember clear as I remember today, the Thursday afternoon I saw him drive the red Chevy pick-up downtown for the first time. I knew he was old enough to get his licence, but it will still a bit of a surprise to see him behind the wheel and on his own. He had a big grin on his face, looking for all the world like life was just about as perfect as it was going to get. And I think, at that moment, for Red George, it probably was.
He was a careful driver, not a show-off-y kind of 16-year old. For one thing, his dad, also called George but with dark brown hair, would have stripped a piece off him for being stupid behind the wheel, what with him having had to clean up after way too many nasty car wrecks and knowing the grief that stupidity and or beer can create. For another, being an idiot just wasn’t in Red George’s nature.
You know how some people are born with smarts? Or with musical talent? I believe that Red George was born with common sense and carried on his life accordingly. He never jumped off the rope swing into Collyer’s Creek until after it got moved out past the twin rocks. He always signalled his turns on his bicycle, he never spoke back to his teachers, and he believed in saying his prayers. The last of which I think was a kind of fall-back position, but that could be my own feelings on the subject.
Anyway, Red George drove that truck for two years without accident or complaint. For two years, while he and Elaine finished high school, studied hard, got good grades, played sports, and made plans for a life together, I watched Red George be happy and content with who he was, what he had, where he was going. And truly, I was very happy for him. But still, I have this thing that Daddy says comes from my Scottish grandmother, a sort of feeling I can get sometimes. Jake Riley never likes to be alone with me. He says if that feeling ever comes over me while he’s in the room he wants to be sure he’s not the only one there with me at the time.
Every now and again, the feeling is about good stuff like babies and new jobs but mostly, sadly, the feeling is about bad stuff like sickness or accidents or, sometimes, even death. Back in high school I’d only had the death feeling once and it was awful, the worst feeling ever, like not breathing and being dizzy at the same time. The other sad feeling is more like having a headache on a rainy day, only it’s not my head that hurts.
So on that Saturday afternoon airing up my bicycle tire when Red George pulled his truck out from beside the garage and I started to feel like I should be looking for an Aspirin, I didn’t know what to do. Back then I didn’t talk too much about this thing because I was enough of a square peg in a round hole as a kid that I didn’t need this too. People knew about it of course because there are few secrets in a small town but I didn’t talk about it. And I certainly didn’t know how to tell Red George that I was getting this headachy feeling.
I did ask him what he was up to that day and George said he was going to pick up Elaine and head out to her uncle’s farm for a family birthday party. I told him to drive safe and have fun and I thought chew every bite 30 times and don’t choke on something! And he drove away. For the rest of my life, I will wonder if I should have said something else, but I don’t know that it would have made any difference.
Darby was at the party as an invited guest, all the Rileys were because they were neighbours of Elaine’s aunt and uncle. Like all teenage boys will, he snuck a beer or two, but tests showed he wasn’t anything close to drunk. He was just 16 and had only had his license for a few weeks when got behind the wheel of his friend’s car to drive home after supper because he was the only one who had stopped at one beer.
Daniel Riley was one of the first cops on the scene. The senior guys had him stay with Darby’s friend first, away from Darby, at least after he made sure his brother was fine which he was, aside from a few bruises, and then they put him traffic control which of course was needed pretty fast not that the road was normally so busy but it seemed like everyone in town showed up to see what had happened.
We all heard the sirens of course. That first wail I thought my heart was going to explode. I knew, I knew, I knew. I jumped on my bike and followed Mrs Busy’s sister’s car out the township road. I couldn’t keep up with her but eventually I got there. Dumping the bike in the ditch near where Daniel was directing people to keep moving, I ran along the ridge and saw it. I saw the red truck, the ambulance, the rescue vehicle, the police cars. I saw the other car, Billy’s car, with the bashed in left fender. Billy and some other boy I didn’t know were sitting on the ground beside the car, Darby was a few feet away. They all looked a little stunned.
The ambulance and paramedics were focused on Red George and Elaine, both of whom seemed to be unconscious. There was nothing I could do for them but maybe I could help. I sat down beside Darby, didn’t say anything and neither did he. We knew each other, couldn’t help but when everyone goes to the same school, but it’s not like we were friends before that night. We just sat there and we watched the jaws of life open up the passenger side of the red truck and take Elaine out and the paramedics work on her. Then George was taken out of the truck and the paramedics worked on him and we just watched.
The cops came back to the boys and they looked at me and Darby said, she’s just a friend who stopped by to stay with me, but they made me leave anyway. I watched the boys put in the back of the cruisers and went back to my bike and started a long, slow ride home. Daddy was waiting for me. He knew. He asked me if I wanted to go to hospital with some of George’s other friends but I said no, I wasn’t really George’s friend, or Elaine’s, or the boys in the other car. He knew differently of course but he didn’t push me. He just hugged me.
Elaine seemed to have had the worst injuries with lots of broken bones and needing a splenectomy but George was the one who was permanently hurt. He suffered a brain trauma that left him with little strength on his left side and something called partial aphasia. He helps out at the garage sometimes pumping gas but not being able to talk well makes him uncomfortable so mostly he does the books for his dad and a few other small businesses in town. The brain injury didn’t make him any less smart, just sounding like it.
Red George and Elaine broke up, not in a big way but slowly over the next few months because sometimes people can’t stay together when bad things happen and they drift apart. And sometimes bad things help bring people together which is why I suppose Darby showed up at the cafe late one afternoon and hung around until I was done. We went for a walk heading to the river still not talking. We found the rocks and settled down to throw a few stones in the water and watching the birds and that’s when he started talking.
He told me all about the accident, how he and Red George took turns passing each other on the gravel road. He said they were going fast but not like crazy fast and it was fun and no one was coming and who could have thought that something, something, would catch the front right tire of the red truck as it was passing the car Darby was driving and sent it spinning into the car and then in a big circle on the road before winding up against the tree. Darby braked as hard and fast as he could and then backed up a little to be even with the tree and the truck. Billy went running up to the next farmhouse to call the police and help while Darby and the other boy went to the truck. He said they called George’s name and Elaine’s and got no answer and couldn’t open the door and they were so frightened and so angry and so he didn’t know what. It was so wrong. It was just fun and it was so wrong.
That was how Darby and I started to see each other, at first just because we had pain and grief to share and then because we liked each other and then, even when we didn’t like each other so much, we would still sometimes go for walks to the river and started being friends again, right up to the day he died.