I was running through the woods, trying to catch up. Ahead of me was an old house, long abandoned and surrounded on all sides by thicket.
I say a house – in retrospect, it was more of an ancient shack that likely belonged to a long-gone cotton farmer.
Inside the shack and sitting on a window frame was Damon, my cousin, waiting impatiently. He had led the way on our grand adventure that summer day. We had many in those days of the mid-1990s. We were boys being boys, getting into trouble and having a lot of fun.
Those were some of the best days I remember from childhood.
We were technically in the care of my grandparents for the summer while our parents worked. Our supervision consisted mostly of bandaging scrapes and preparing meals. I still have a 6-inch scar on my calf, gotten while traversing barbed wire. Damon and I were explorers, philosophers, warriors and leaders in our own minds.
Damon was a couple years my senior, but he’d always been short for his age. Of all the cousins, Damon and I were the closest in age and temperament. Naturally, we were more like brothers than mere relatives.
For years, we commiserated, consoled and laughed. We laughed more often than not, as was our preference even in the most inappropriate times.
The bond never weakened, but it did fade when I left for college. He stayed behind. He never liked school and found more enjoyment in working on small engines than sitting in a classroom.
As I write this, I realize I’m setting the classic writer’s trap, and you are likely waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’ve talked of the good old days, but at this point the story twists – and here I am, breaking the flow, stalling.
I’m stopping because this is the first time I’ve tried to put into words what happened to Damon this summer, and I’m not eager.
I didn’t pour my emotions out on Facebook. I hate that aspect of social media. People tend to break the worst news on a platform that is not built for it. What are you going to do – “like” the fact a friend’s mother had cancer or had been in a car wreck?
People send prayers. People are always praying for the victims or families. I believe they have good intentions and are trying to comfort others, but at times I wonder if some of those comments are just for the commenter’s benefit.
This space has always been more comfortable to me, the ink-stained columns of newsprint. I’ve been subjecting readers to my writing since I was in high school – since Damon and I were still running around together.
I’ve not always been the social butterfly I am today. In truth, I never liked large crowds, which made holidays difficult. Damon understood and was always there to spirit me away to “run errands” – more an escape from the throng of cousins and cousins’ children than a simple run for more soda.
Damon eventually married. He married for love, not convenience or convention. She was much older, with grown children and even grandbabies.
The two grandsons were in her care. The reasons for this aren’t important, although undoubtedly connected to assorted and dubious decisions on her daughter’s part. Damon never faltered. He adopted those children as his own.
That’s what I know. This may not have been the whole of it, though. You never know what goes on behind closed doors.
Fast forward several years.
It was a Saturday, and I was getting dressed. Nicole and I were about to go to the dog park with Chloe and Grizly. We had a full day planned and were set to leave when I got the call from my dad.
“Damon was shot last night.”
It’s strange how the brain can choose not to understand even simple sentences. I asked Dad to repeat himself, and even then I was confused.
“One of Damon’s boys got a gun and shot and killed him and the boy’s brother, Tristen, last night.”
He told me everything he knew. It wasn’t a long conversation.
I sat on the bed in disbelief. The man who was more brother to me than anything else was dead.
There are words for this sort of thing: untimely, wrongful, sudden, terrible – but they all fall short. I was shaken. My very foundation faltered.
Over the next week, I heard several stories of the events leading up to Damon’s death. There was conjecture and sorrow, but no answers, no profound truths – just pain.
I remember the visitation being altogether awful and awkward, filled with raw nerves and strangers.
Tristen and Damon were honored together in a dual funeral, buried in a cemetery donated by my ancestors.
What remains is the mystery of it all. The “why” eludes me. The boy, the young man with a gun, the adopted son is still held in a juvenile detention facility. The investigation is ongoing.
I’m not mad at him. I’m just sad. Nobody is calling for blood. He’s just a boy. That is all I know of him.
I know Damon didn’t deserve this. I know looking back always filters our memories through a certain haze. The good times stand apart and the bad fades.
Damon was argumentative. He didn’t always make the best decisions. He was stern with children. His childhood wasn’t ideal at times. I was far luckier in my household.
But while he was stern, it was not unfounded or overly harsh. He doted on children more often than not, and while I don’t agree with many of his life choices, he lived with them. He was a good man.
That was the man I knew. I’m not certain what will come of this. I don’t know the why of it all, and I may never know.
This is all I plan on writing on the subject. It was probably more cathartic for me than informative for you. There will be no follow-ups or updates.
But I will always miss Damon.
Jimmy Alford is a photographer, paginator and reporter for the Messenger.