Just to be clear, my brother never meant to kill anyone.
For starters, George is eight. He’s small and sometimes stutters and has a gap between his two front teeth. He has a lot of freckles.
I’m not sure if any of that really matters, but the reason I’m telling you this is so you can understand he had absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Henderson’s death.
See, one of my friends is really into comic books and graphic novels. I’m not a huge fan, but I’ve read a couple here and there. So he ends up getting into this manga series they started releasing on DVD here in the U.S., a show called Death Note. It’s long and complicated and runs a bit too long — which is why I eventually lost interest—but the short of it is this high school student comes in possession of a “Death Note,” which a death god, or shinigami, dropped to earth. On the death note are several instructions, like the human whose name is written in the death note will die and that if the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
So I watched a couple of these DVDs, and one day George walked in and asked what I was watching and I told him and he asked if he could watch along and like an idiot I said sure. And from that moment — the moment he watched the poorly dubbed cartoon with all its over-the-top violence and preachy mortality lessons — my brother was hooked.
The next day he created a death note of his own.
George was selective with the names he picked. It was nobody that he knew, just the bad people he saw on TV. Osama bin Laden’s name ended up in the death note more than once. One day my brother heard about this man who had molested children in the area; that man’s name went into my brother’s death note too.
Like the manga’s protagonist, my brother started out with good intentions. After all, he was an imaginative kid. He knew none of it was real. But that didn’t stop him, a month later, from writing down one of his teachers’ names.
Mr. Henderson was a crotchety old man who taught math. He hated everyone and everything but had tenure so the school couldn’t get rid of him. And one day he accused George of cheating on a test. Which hadn’t happened, but this was the kind of stuff Mr. Henderson liked doing. So to the principal’s office my brother was sent, and while he waited outside, fuming quietly, he pulled out his death note and with the use of a Ticonderoga number 2 pencil scratched out Mr. Henderson’s name.
An hour and a half later, Mr. Henderson had a fatal heart attack.
My brother nearly lost it there in school. But he managed to keep himself together until he got home where he said to me, “I didn’t mean it.”
“Didn’t mean what?”
“To kill him.”
I coaxed the rest of the story out of him and assured him that he had done no such thing. I told him that Mr. Henderson was old, probably had high blood pressure, and that sometimes that stuff happened.
George just shook his head, tears in his eyes. “I didn’t mean to kill him.”
The last thing I wanted was for my parents to find out. I told him we had to keep this a secret, then asked for his death note.
He handed it over willingly. “What are you going to do with it?”
George said he was going to his room. He trusted me to burn it for him. I don’t know why I said I’d burn it — it would be a whole lot easier throwing it in the trash — but I found matches and lighter fluid and took everything to the backyard. I paged through the notebook, saw the few names there, like bin Laden and that child molester. The notebook was small, pocket-sized, and was supposed to contain only a hundred pages. I don’t know why, but I paused and started counting each page. I only came up with ninety-nine.
I found George upstairs lying on his bed. “Where’s the missing page?”
“The missing page. Where is it?”
He wouldn’t tell me at first, but after a couple of minutes he withdrew the folded piece of paper from his pocket. I snatched it out of his hands and opened it up. One name was written again and again. His own.
George’s eyes had filled with more tears. “I didn’t mean to kill him. I swear.”
I stood still for a moment. Then I left his room and came back a minute later with a brand new notebook.
“What’s that?” he asked, wiping at his nose.
“This?” I set it down on the bed along with a pencil. “This is a Life Note. Anyone whose name you write down in the note will live forever.”
He looked at me skeptically. “Shut up.”
“Seriously. Go ahead and try it.”
Again, it took some coaxing, but eventually he opened the notebook and wrote down four names: mine, our parents’, his own. Then he looked up at me, his eyes hopeful.
“Think it’ll work?”
I thought about our parents, the heavy smoking and drinking they did. I’d be surprised if they both lasted another ten years.
“Of course,” I said.
Robert Swartwood is not, despite rumor, a shinigami. He is the editor of Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer, published by W. W. Norton & Company.