Caleb Tankersley is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. His work has appeared in Big Muddy, Cutthroat, Midwestern Gothic, Trailer Park Quarterly, and other publications.
Walter strolls down the street with his head held high, examining winter trees juxtaposed against a sky that glows fiery-blue, like a baby’s irises. Although Walter is ten, he is well on his way to becoming a great and intelligent man of wit.
He’ll soon be dead.
Walter is returning home after spending a night at Bart’s house. Bart is one of his less intelligent friends, but Walter understands how to humor people. At the age of thirty-five, Walter would have been surrounded by coworkers he unknowingly stole from and a wife who felt he adored her; Walter would have flown to Toronto, to a whore he met near Moss Park on a conference trip. She would have purred by the door, expecting him every winter.
Few mysteries of childhood entice or perplex the gifted and perceptive Walter. He is an unparalleled ten-year-old. Walter has the mental capacity to understand college-level calculus. His comprehension of nitrogen restoration in the soil could synch with county satellite data. He understands the nuances of his parents’ sexual relationship better than they do. Like most people, his parents wake up doe-eyed, confused and bewildered by their nights. Walter rises with purpose, with an engine inside.
Some of Walter’s favorite moments are the few minutes he and Bart have spent in the kitchen recuperating from several rounds of blind man’s bluff, exactly half of which Walter has allowed Bart to win. Bart, an uncoordinated and clumsy kid, will fail his driver’s test three times, cause two interstate pile-ups by the time he is twenty-four, and, at thirty-one, break his daughter’s tibia while tossing her into the air.
This handicap of Bart’s annoys Walter. He feels socially compelled to accommodate, and he does. Walter is accustomed to having the obligation to coddle most of his classmates and occasionally Mrs. Schneider, his elderly teacher.
While cooling down in the kitchen, Walter typically stalls until Bart’s sister Julia descends the stairs. The girl—jeans tight, lips curled—often makes crude conversation with the two boys, rolling her eyes and tossing her blond-ish hair. As she enters the kitchen, Walter observes an atmospheric change, an instant unpredictability. Walter has a well-tuned social sense. He shows the potential of a great political candidate, and even if Walter would not have been an effective president, he would have remained well liked by the public.
Walter’s latest social experiment has been to capture Julia’s interest. He has attempted a number of approaches: hipster glasses and obscure Radiohead tracks. Confidence and Nike attire. A segment of his original stand-up material, all lost on Bart. But to no avail. The girl had ignored Walter with every variable.
On the night Walter is trudging home from, however, he took a new approach. Walter stalled in Bart’s kitchen. Strangely nervous, he drank Mountain Dew with Bart. Walter is normally health conscious and would have been a great physical specimen until the age of forty-six, at which point he would have difficulties with vodka martinis, a sudden metabolism change, baldness, and apathy.
Julia entered the kitchen. She strolled to the fridge to grab a tomato juice. Walter has always seen tomato juice as inexplicably attractive. He got rid of Bart by suggesting he go rearrange all the furniture for the next game of blind man’s bluff. Walter approached the open refrigerator door, steadied his voice and quivering ten-year-old body.
“What do you want, Will?”
Walter did not correct her, which he knew to be rude. “Julia, you’re quite a collection of alluring images: the toss of your hair, your lavender scent, and your tomato juice always makes me, well, attentive. Let’s think about this candidly and on a long-term trajectory. You’re my dumb friend’s hot sister. Every movie you’ve ever seen tells you the resolution of this scenario: you sleeping with me. Why delay our future? I was hoping we could begin with an inevitable make-out and at some point have a discussion about sex.” Finished, Walter calculated possibilities, stood his ground, and waited.
Julia’s jaw hung slack, released a few nervous titters. She doubled over to the left side of her body, taking in large gasps of air through her white teeth as she cackled. But after twenty seconds, Julia’s amusement subsided. Her eyes narrowed. She gave a soft, mocking murmur. Walter’s social senses detected a hint of enjoyment, flattery in her condescension. Julia smoothly leaned over to whisper in his ear:
And he knew—though Julia thought she was joking—she spoke truth. Walter would have lost his virginity at fifteen to Bart’s then twenty-year-old sister, but he’ll be dead before then. By the time Bart’s sister actually turns twenty, only a small portion of leathery skin will be clinging to a cold skull, the animus “Walter” long since dissipated.
Julia spun around, tossing her blond-ish hair, and strutted up the stairs. This marks the single sexual victory of Walter’s life. As he watched Julia’s jeans sway up each step, Walter grabbed a tomato juice from the refrigerator. He contemplated following her, but Walter always erred on the side of patience. He returned to blind man’s bluff and allowed Bart to win more games than usual.
This small victory remains the highlight of Walter’s life. His interest in existence peaked the moment Julia’s breath warmed his ear.
Walter has always kept a detached persona. However, on this special occasion, on this empty morning and with no one else wandering the streets, he begins to swing his arms in a sprawled fashion, prance his legs, and smile. Walter is skipping. He has not skipped in nearly three months, since successfully manipulating two classmates into fighting each other. Fat Brandon had finished with a waterfall of blood gushing out his nose. The whole affair had made Walter feel powerful. Walter feels more powerful, though, on this occasion.
Although ten, Walter already has trouble relaxing. This difficulty would have followed him, averaging twelve hours of work a day between joining his first law firm at twenty-five and retiring at seventy-two. Walter is now relaxed. Leaping home, he feels secure enough to close his eyes, a smirk leaning to one side of his face. In this state, Walter cannot hear the revving engine of the car.
Julia is practicing driving with her learner’s permit, her mother indifferent, smoking in the passenger seat. Julia is driving fifty-seven miles per hour in a thirty-five-mile speed zone. The radio blaring, Julia dances to Enrique Iglesias while steering, a habit she will soon abandon but pick up again at twenty-two.
Julia hits Walter with a 2005 Ford Explorer. Had Walter been walking, the grill of the vehicle would have sliced off much of the skin along Walter’s scalp. This would have placed most of the initial force on Walter’s head, propelling his skull downward and spraying brains and fluid upon impact with the forthcoming concrete. However, Walter was skipping. The SUV impacts mid-prance, the initial force striking Walter on the left side of his back. Walter is now a paraplegic.
The secondary forces of the impact affect Walter on his left leg and pelvis. Walter’s left knee dislocates. The combined impact zones send his body soaring to the right, twitching in the air, elevated several feet above the earth. Walter could have survived his injuries had a large oak tree—placed sixty years ago to provide aesthetic shading to the roadway—not been planted in his trajectory.
Walter is tilted forward as he makes contact with the tree. His ribcage is smashed, oblique fractures cracking along the entire right side. His right arm jars out of socket, and his wrist breaks as the arm whips around the trunk. Walter’s right kidney ruptures on impact. Internal bleeding will kill him in fewer than eight minutes. His pelvis fractures in two places. Walter has a short fall from where he first hit the oak tree to the ground. Several of the fractured ribs are jarred, puncturing his right lung. At some point, Walter bit his lip.
Even among these tortures, Walter keeps his head, focused not to ruin his end. Walter has always imagined a glamorous death at eighty-six. After becoming the oldest man to climb Mt. McKinley, Walter would recite his final words and, in an act of youthful nihilism, throw himself off the top of the mountain to an anthologized death on cliffs below. The exit Walter dreamed of will never happen. All that remains are the last words, which Walter had planned on writing in the indulgence of his mid-twenties.
Among the metallic noises of the car, the crunch of his own bones, Julia’s horrific screams of “Will!”, and Julia’s mom arguing on the phone, Walter does not make a sound. Hemorrhaging quickly, Walter is minutes from death. His blood vessels and brain synapses are becoming sluggish. He knows he must produce his last words. Searching for something dignified and surprisingly true, Walter cannot focus with Julia shrieking “Will! Will!” dramatically into his ear. Annoyed and in shock, Walter turns to Julia and narrows his eyebrows, blood flowing out his little ten-year-old mouth.
“My name is Walter, you bitch.”
Julia will recite this moment to her psychiatrist for years until a breakthrough after gastric bypass surgery in her late-thirties. Walter is satisfied with his last words. He closes his eyes and gives a lop-sided smile for the last time, adding a few years to Julia’s therapy.
He leans his head against the trunk of the oak tree and opens his eyes. He sees the bare branches, still pale with latent potential against the cold Saturday sky. Walter is satisfied. And he rests.