You have to understand, he was my world back then. His name was D, and he was my best friend.
I had grown up a mongrel, always hated and misunderstood, friendless, and begging for people to be nice to me, begging for anyone to hang out with me. I was reviled and abused by my peers all my young life. So when the most popular kid in eighth grade wanted to be my friend, it shattered everything.
I had a talent. I could create fantasy on a whim. We played a game called Dungeons and Dragons, and I was the master of the story. I gave the game plot and form. I could play anytime he asked me to, and I could play as long as he wanted me to, and with that ability, I had bought my way into the most exclusive group in the school.
He was the one ray of light in my life, the one thing I had never expected that had made everything good. Everything was great! I was D’s best friend. He was attractive and well off. His dad was a powerful man in the city, and our fun was boundless. He wanted to hang out with me all the time, and he made it all better.
Unless you have gone from the utter dregs to the cream in a manner of days, you can’t understand. I was bound to him. My fate went with his. When I saw him in sheer agony and dying, I lost touch with myself.
Harmony Baptist sponsor a youth float trip every year down one of the area’s rivers. Canoes, picnicking, sunscreen and water. It was a day I dreaded. Every year I told my mother I didn’t want to go, and every year I had a blast. This year, I had talked D into going with me.
We shared one canoe, him, me, and a friend. We paddled up the river and everything was great. Everything was fun. Bright sunshine, bubbling river, laughing and joking around. I tell you, it happened so fast that I don’t remember exactly how it happened. There was a log with water running over it, a downed tree in the river, and when we hit it, we went sideways. The boat was suddenly being pressed against the log. It was going down. We started grabbing our stuff, and I started jumping ship. The water was shallow enough to stand in, but I was terrified because I couldn’t swim.
Soon, I heard D yell out for help. Then he was begging.
I turned from the shore and looked out over the scene, horror bubbling up from somewhere deep within me.
The canoe had tipped on its side. It was being driven against the log by the press of the water that was now in the canoe and jamming against the fallen tree. D’s leg was between the log and the canoe. It was being crushed. He could not escape. He was trapped.
Three grown men were there in a breath. They gripped the canoe and fought to pull it away. They struggled for a long beat with no results, as I waded back in to stand beside the tree helpless as I stared at the leg and the wide yawning cry of my best friend. They fought the current for a long time before they budged the canoe. It went under the log to get caught on the bulk of the tree. He was pulled under with it. In the span of a breath, my entire world was drowning.
Next thing I knew the water was high, up the middle of my chest. I tried to walk away, but I was trapped. My legs had inexplicably been driven deep into the riverbed. The entire crowd was gone. Upriver, the canoe was being hauled out of the water, and D was on the opposite shore being hugged by a group of girls.
The rest of the float was a blur. Faces of awe and fear stared at me from all sides of the river. The youth counselor would not look at me. Everyone seemed terrified of me, with one exception. Every now and then, he would look at me. My best friend, he would look at me and shake his head.
He told me he loved me over and over that day. When I broke down in tears, for no reason I could name, he hugged me. He told me he was my friend for life, vowed to be there for me always.
When I was getting in my car that night, his mother pulled up in her van and got out. She grabbed me up in her arms and told me she loved me. She said, “Thanks for saving my D’s leg.”
I just cried. I had no idea what she meant.
About fifteen years later I heard the story of what happened that day. Bekah and I had gone to Pennsylvania to visit D, on our way through to other destinations, and we were watching a movie. I can’t remember which one now. I said, “Damn, he’s strong.”
D shook his head. “Not as strong as you. There is no man as strong as you.”
I laughed, said something degrading about myself. I thought he was making fun of me, but he wasn’t.
“I remember that day. I will never forget it,” he said. When I asked what he meant by that, he told me this story.
He said he had given up, knew he was going to die. He was under the water, looking up at the world, and he saw me scream. I will use his words.
“I saw you look at me and roar, man. You just roared. I looked up in shock as you began to rip that tree to pieces. You raged and you screamed, and with your bare hands, you ripped that tree to kindling. I felt the pressure on my leg ebbing, and I watched, amazed, as if you were gripped by some beast. With your bare hands, you saved my life.”
That was the first time anyone had seen that beast in years.
It would not be the last.