Some of you who've lived here long enough are undoubtedly familiar with Howard Derleth. His story is almost urban legend though I’ll tell the truth of it. The fiction would be more entertaining, but it would be just that. Fiction.
If we could, for just a moment, go back to a childhood summer of mine I would tell you about my friend H.D. His mother called him Howie, but he preferred H.D., that being what his father used when he occasioned to visit (despite the details of Marvin Derleth's transience not being mine to recount I will, however, say he did not live up to legend, as is often the case.). By the time of this particular summer, H.D. and I had been friends for near six years.
Thinking back, I remember how hard it used to be keeping up with him, he being more adventurous than me. Still, when I could keep pace I did, and it always seemed worthwhile, even when it got us in trouble.
As I was saying: the summertime, towards the end, a few weeks shy of school. The time when days sway in duration -- sometimes one feels as long as a week then a week is gone in a flash; it's either whole or seconds. The shortening days squeeze the foolery in children to overflowing. H.D. and I spent the last few days racing one another and friends along, across, and in the Paladin River. When that got to be a bore, the two of us named all the shapes in the clouds, and climbed any and every tree. We shaved a cat once, that was hard, and we used my father’s telescope to spy on the town. There are some more noteworthy moments, but we swore a secrecy oath. And I still hold it sacred.
Now, anyone who comes to our little corner of the world knows about the Wharton factory. For those of you who don’t I’ll tell, and for those who do I’ll be brief. The Wharton factory was the first industrial operation in the region. Although the plant closed seven years after opening -- a common result when ignorance and wealth venture into production together -- it started the adolescence of our little city. Since its closure it’s been every local child’s most forbidden and common playground.
With three days left before our educational confinement, H.D. and I got crazed in the pursuit of some adventure that would top any school yard tales. To such an end, it would seem Fate guided us to the Wharton factory. I say Fate simply because I cannot recall either of us ever discussing going there; Our feet merely carried us in that direction.
Inside we scurried between the rusted hulks of iron and steel that once sounded with the mighty clamor of industry. I don’t know what they manufactured there, but the equipment is enormous. At least, to an eleven year old it appears so. There are stretches of catwalk everywhere, and we raced around them with no goal in mind. Whenever we found a section of metal, rusty and Swiss cheesed, we would endeavor to kick it in, sometimes meeting with success.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but H.D. grew tired of the place very quickly. When I asked why he said we weren’t doing anything original. If we told anyone about this trip they would say they’d done the same. So we split up in order to find some anything that would be worth telling.
Some people are born with a different kind of sight. They can see all the angles and numbers that make up a triangle, or can find the one woman in a crowd worth a rhyme. H.D. possessed a sight for adventure. I don’t doubt he would have gone on to greater things than this town can offer. Within five minutes he discovered a stretch of catwalk that led to the outside of the building.
This in itself might seem unimpressive, however, a section of the walk had broken off leaving a few feet of air instead of iron to traverse. Whatever broke it must have been a violent thing because it’d left a tangled mess of rusty teeth on either side of the gap. It made me a bit dizzy to stand on the edge, but I tried not to show H.D. any apprehension. I remember him smiling like a fox alone in a hen house. He’d found his ace summer story.
We backed up a considerable distance and ran at full speed, shoulder to shoulder. One moment he's with me, the other, I'm landing on the opposite side of the gap... alone. I thought it an easy jump. He must have tripped at some point near the edge. Perhaps one of those rusty teeth bit his foot. Either way, he fell through the gap. Except for the smack his body made, which echoed through the whole building, H.D. never made a sound on his way down.
You can imagine what he looked like after the fall because I don’t want to think about it.
Eleven years old.
For awhile after, people got more serious about making sure no one went out to the Wharton factory. It’s been ten years since then, but I still meet kids now and again who ask me about H.D. I’ve heard so many different accounts of how and why he fell I wonder sometimes if I even remember it correctly. Though that’s an odd thing to say, since I doubt I’ll ever be able to forget. I used to try, but it started to feel like, like trying to rid myself of the last moment with my best friend. After all, no one’s come close to him in my eyes.
I still go out there, sometimes, to visit the edge. I’ll sit by the catwalk with my legs between its rusty teeth and look down. They say you can see his ghost falling, but I never have. I went out there last night, visiting my friend, when I ran into Clive Petrie and his brother Frank. I’d bet my left eye the two had been drinking, but so had I if you must know.
I knew when they came into the factory; and I knew by the cacophony who it was. You could hear them stomping around the place, hooting and hollering, breaking what windows are left, beating things. I hoped they would mind their own business. Unfortunately, I soon heard them running along the catwalk behind me.
When they got close Clive said, “Hey, you’re the guy who knew that guy, right?”
“Was he all over the floor, or was he just flattened?” Frank asked with a chuckle. A chuckle. (As a side note, I should mention that the Petrie brother’s and I have not gotten along since they caught me last year with their sister Amy. And everyone around here knows that Clive and Frank can get into some foul behavior if they’re drunk, which they often are.)
Instead of answering Frank’s question I got up to leave. They let me push past them, and I felt a bit of relief, thinking the whole thing over. I didn't make it more than five or six feet when Clive said, “What kind of a bitch can’t make a jump like this?”
I took a deep breath but kept on walking.
“He musta been jumping like some kinda goddamn ballerina,” Clive laughed. The catwalk started to vibrate. Looking over my shoulder I could see him jumping up and down, flailing his arms and legs. He jumped and twirled while Frank laughed. I stopped to watch him for a minute. It looked so ridiculous, and so utterly pointless I couldn’t get mad. In fact, I might have laughed myself if they weren’t talking about my best friend. I didn’t get upset until Frank took a few steps back from the edge, said, “Watch this,” and jumped across the gap.
He pranced around on the other side, laughing at the ease of it all. While Clive applauded I started back towards the edge. Frank walked backward a few paces and went for the gap again. He would have made it across safe for sure, but when he reached the other side I pushed him into the opening. It felt like a long time before he hit the ground, screaming and thrashing all the way down. When he hit bottom his stomach burst open like a balloon full of red paint. Clive grabbed me, and we wrestled around for a minute or two. I wish I could say I lost my mind, or whatever would make it seem less intentional. But as soon as I got the upper hand I chewed his neck with those rusty metal teeth. I could still hear him gurgling, gasping when I walked away.
I suppose, your Honor, you might find what I did a bit more than severe. However, who here wouldn’t stand up for a friend who couldn’t stand up for himself?