I grew up going to school with Stiller, but never knew him well. The way you know everyone in a small town, but don’t know them well. We first met in middle school. Through junior high and the first two years of high school, Stiller flew under the radar. He could have been considered a nerd. Or a loner. He didn’t have friends, let’s say that.
That all changed junior year when he found Bud Light, realized he was funny when he’d had a few, and discovered if he wore camouflage and boot cut jeans, he could identify with the redneck crowd which was a sizable portion of the high school we attended in rural South Carolina and a safe group to align with to ensure access to parties.
He started going with his first girlfriend, Sarah Kate, the librarian’s daughter. She was funny and tomboyish. They were an unlikely pair. I was surprised to see them walking down the hallway holding hands one Monday morning.
For several months during junior year, I watched Stiller ascend the ranks of popularity at Clover High. What started as stories of him at redneck parties became stories of him attending preppy parties, senior parties and even parties thrown by graduate losers who stuck around town because they couldn’t let go of high school.
Every Monday there was a new Stiller story. Tales of his escapades swept through hallways and classrooms. His swagger grew. Teachers even seemed taken with his charm and newfound powers. Crowds surrounded him at lunch or when he entered the commons area.
One Monday morning it was Stiller leapt from a second story window into an above ground pool. Another Monday morning he’d driven away from a party on an old dude’s Harley. He eventually made it to one of our parties. My friends and I were basic nobodies. We hung out at our friend Justin’s house on weekends because his dad traveled for work.
Stiller showed up with his entourage. A cavalcade of lifted pickup trucks roared up Justin’s driveway. They walked in like they owned the place, searching for a freshman named Ben Nygard who’d been picking on someone’s little brother in homeroom. We stood idly by and watched as several of them carried Ben Nygard outside and tossed him into the hot tub fully clothed. A small fight broke out and then they left.
Not long after that the popularity started getting to Stiller. He had to constantly outdo himself. What was once Monday morning swagger became Monday morning haggard. None of it seemed fun to him anymore. He argued with Sarah Kate in the commons. At lunch. The crowds around him thinned.
One Monday morning, Stiller wasn’t at school. A strange hush fell over the commons. The only sound were the escalating sobs of Sarah Kate who sat at a table surrounded by consoling friends. Devasted looks were plastered across faces. Heads shook in disbelief.
At a party on Saturday night, Stiller had climbed in a truck with the town drunk who often dropped by high school parties when he could find them. Stiller’s buddies pleaded with him not to, but he shooed them away in an alcohol-fueled display of invincibility. With little fanfare, the town drunk burnt out, drove two hundred yards down the street and slammed into a tree. Stiller exploded through the front windshield and landed on the sidewalk where he was pronounced dead.
I don’t recall much being made about it at school that Monday; maybe an announcement at the end of the day that no one heard. Sarah Kate’s tears and the bell ringing and everyone dispersing to class. The mad squeaking of chairs on the floor. The hundreds of students who attended Clover High going about their day, too far removed from the thought of death to stop and reflect on the fact it had come for one of their own. No one was even grown up yet. There were still too many parties to attend. Friday night games. Fights and heartbreaks and first times. SAT dates to secure. Homecoming. Senior Year. College applications to fill out. Four years or two. Uncertain futures waiting to roll out before them. Maybe good, maybe bad, maybe unspectacular, but most importantly, there.
I remember precious few from high school now. A Facebook request pops up. A fleeting memory flashes across my mind. I can’t see his face or hear the sound of his voice. I’m not sure I’d recognize his photo. But I never forget Stiller. It’s not his meteoric rise in popularity that stays with me. It’s not the stories that grew more outlandish. Or even the final story. It’s the little hush he got that Monday morning when Sarah Kate found out. As the hands on the clock ticked silently toward the bell. How things returned to normal when it rang and just like that, Stiller was forgotten.
Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. His work has recently appeared in Maudlin House, JMWW, Bending Genres, New World Writing and The Loch Raven Review.