Why? Why did it have to happen? Was it destined to be that way or was I the true culprit? My eyes burned with unshed tears as I saw my friends, my mates, digging a grave and lowering me into it, a grave I had prepared for myself.
I am George Alex Cramer and this is my story of betrayal.
“Come on Jeff, enough’s enough! It’s already too late, and you know Kickham’s not gonna let us live a single night more if we don’t show up in his class tomorrow” was my helpless plea as I stood shivering in the December frost in my knee-high trousers.
Coming out at this time of night wasn’t a good idea after all, it wasn’t as if I had a crush on dying of the cold; it was Jeff—my roommate and best friend—who had literally carried me out of the haven of my warm bed and cozy dreams into the cruel reality of a freezing night. Though he was the best of buddies one could find on earth, very often I couldn’t understand his whims and actions and was often obliged to think that he had a screw loose on the top storey of his head.
Jeff had the most peculiar habit of waking me up in the middle of the night with his expressions as bright as if he’d found—or created, since anything could be expected from him—the eighth wonder of the world; however, it often turned out to be the case that out of the blue, his mind had taken a leap into the vast realm of imagination and had returned equipped with one of the wildest and most outrageous ideas: playing rugby in the football ground at the very back of the school building, jumping off the tallest tree on the bank of the river cutting the school grounds into two, challenging Burns (the nerd of the class) to a singing competition; there was simply no end to what his mind could think of. And obviously, being his only friend, I was supposed to be the accomplice in all of his ‘intellectual’ and ‘creative’ activities.
Tonight was no exception: he had shaken me and two others awake at precisely two at night to have a snow-fight, another of his brilliant ideas to kill boredom, and here we were, in the middle of our snow-fight, still in our sleeping dresses. He hadn’t even given us time to change into warm clothes as a means to protect ourselves against the bone-chilling cold. The curious thing was that no one ever denied Jeff anything, no matter how idiotic his plan might be; that’s the kind of charm he had. All our classmates and even teachers, were prone to this charm of his. It wasn’t as if he had deliberately assumed it; his innocence and candid nature were weapons in themselves that could mould anyone into what he desired.
“Alright Georgie, here you go! I think you’re pretty tired by now.”
Jeff acquiesced and dutifully started towards the entrance of the dorm. I was on the verge of having a heart attack; he had never listened to me before no matter how much I had shouted or threatened him. Was everything ok? Was he ill or tense on something? This wasn’t the Jeff I knew!
“Go to bed guys; you’ll have to face the music if you end up sleeping in Kickham’s class”, he shouted to Nick and Ed who made faces at Jeff’s easy manner—as if it was THEIR idea to freeze themselves to death at this time of the night!
He ruffled my hair as he passed by with an impish smirk on his face. It was a call to battle, but I wasn’t feeling all that eager tonight. An hour long snow-fight in the frigid cold had numbed my fingers while my legs seemed reluctant to move. Tiny jolts of electric current ran all the way down to the tips of my toes as blood rushed into my veins while I gingerly put one foot in front of another to reach my room. Jeff didn’t seem even a bit tired or cold; he strode along with the same gliding movement I had come to admire, and secretly, envy. When Jeff walked, it seemed he was floating in the air; such graceful was the momentum of his gait!
There were other things too, about Jeff that often made me proud as his closest—in fact, only—friend; not that I’d ever admitted that. This was his third year at Brooks, and every year he had won the Athletic and Sports competitions with record-breaking quality. He also had a gold medal in 53rd National Swimming Competition; Jeff was the best in everything, except his grades. In academics, particularly in Trigonometry, he could never outshine me; he was the sports geek, I was the Mathematics geek. We were even so far.
What was that? Was I thinking of a competition with Jeff? No! How could I? He was my best friend; we had been together now for three years; how could I even think of being in competition with him? With anyone like Jeff who could win all hearts with just one innocent smile of his just like he had on now?! Wasn’t that the reality though? That he never let me shine? Wasn’t he the sun which dazzled everyone’s eyes, not letting them see if I existed, too? God, what’s happening to me?! I shook my head, trying to clear my mind of all the confusing thoughts pouring in like torrents of rain threatening to take away with them everything that belonged to me: my friendship, my world, my sanity.
I didn’t know when we reached our room. Jeff quickly went to sleep while I knew it would take some time for my trembling to subside; I was feeling too frosty! As I lay in my bed staring at the still form of Jeff, my disturbing thoughts came back to me. However, this time I didn’t need to clear my mind; I was asleep before I knew it.
“Dammit! I can’t solve it! This is going way above my head!”
I had never expected the trigonometry assessment to be this tough! Try as I might, I wasn’t able to solve even a single question without getting stuck at some point; my mind was all hazy from not getting enough sleep last night. It was a huge task just keeping my eyes open.
Even when I was back in my room, my surly mood was still there. I simply couldn’t bear getting a low grade in trigonometry. TRIGONOMETRY! My field of expertise! How could I…..
Jeff entered the room whistling a merry tune as if he had no care in the whole world.
“Do you think I would be able to win the Olympics?” He asked suddenly.
“Of course, is there any doubt? You’re the best athlete this world has ever had”.
My words seemed to encourage him and he began to grin from ear to ear.
Why was he so happy? I knew his assessment was even worse than mine, so how could he ignore it?! And what was that, all about winning Olympics? Why would he…..and then it struck! He was happy because this time, I was going to fail and he was going to win; this time he was going to beat me, not because he would get a better grade than me-not in my wildest imagination could I expect that-but because I was going to be embarrassed, since this would be the first time he would outshine me.
So that was the reason he had forced me to go with him for snow-fight, so that I would take the next day’s assessment with a clouded mind; that was why he was being so nice! All his games and activities had been a ruse then to lure me out, away from my books, my studies, my career, my future. And what was I? A dim-witted credulous idiot who had willingly gone out with him to jump off the barren tree near the river when all he was doing was to cut my roots?! And all the time he pretended to be my best buddy! It was so ridiculous I wanted to laugh out loud. How could I be that blind?! I felt a sudden surge of anger and hatred towards him, so strong it choked my throat and made me gag.
“Hey Georgie, you alright?” He came towards me with a worried expression and concern on his face.
Heat shot through my head. That imposter! He thinks I’d be fooled by him again. No, not this time, never again! I won’t be outwitted by him; I won’t let him win. EVER AGAIN!
“Guess what, I’ve arranged a tree-jumping contest! The whole school’s invited. Isn’t that awesome?! We’ll have lots and lots and lots of fun! Just see how I defeat those bigheaded 17-year-olds. I’m not gonna back off just cuz they’re a year senior to me”.
Jeff was all excitement that evening. He was so animated it was difficult-no, impossible-for him to stand still. Our mid-terms were coming; it was already hard managing time for all those bloody subjects and to top it all off, Jeff’s shouts of excitement and loud talk wasn’t letting me concentrate.
“A contest? At this time? We’re going to have our mid-terms in one week; aren’t you a bit concerned about your grades?”
“Who bothers the grades Georgie? It’s your field. You’re gonna have the grades, very good grades actually, and I’d boast around the whole campus that you’re MY friend. Wouldn’t that be fun? I’d be sooooo proud!”
His loyal-friend-act was real solid. Anyone could be fooled by it, anyone except me. I knew he had deliberately arranged this nonsense of a contest at the most crucial time and I was positive he would drag me into it so I couldn’t get enough time to prepare for my exams. But I knew what I had to do. I felt my lips stretch in an evil grin.
“Yes Jeff, it would be a lot of fun!”
The tree near the river was a whole story in itself. Years had passed and no one had ever seen a single leaf on it; it was eternally barren. Legends had it that a lover had betrayed his beloved at this place, under this tree, after which it went dry, never to live again. Some said it was haunted by the spirits of the dead students and teachers who, for reasons unknown, didn’t allow any leaves to grow on it. Of course, no one believed the stories; after all, legends born out of teenagers in a school can never be true. But there it was, impassive and indifferent to all stories attached with it, standing crooked in all its barrenness with a few branches outstretched as if calling a beloved back to its lap, its shelter, or maybe trying to strangle someone.
That evening was particularly a gloomy one. The sun was setting behind the hills taking a last peek at the world as if it was afraid it won’t ever come back. The horizon was a fiery red and orange with the darkness of night beginning to spread its wings. We were alone, Jeff and I; all the others had refused to participate in the contest saying they had to sit the exam and therefore needed every single moment to prepare for it. Disappointed, Jeff had asked me to be the other participant beside him and just like always, I had agreed.
The tree was just a dark silhouette from afar with a forlorn look around it, and for a second I actually believed it was haunted. Today’s challenge was to stand on the longest branch on top of the tree which was far outstretched over the river. The real snag was that it was too thin to bear a human’s weight. But Jeff was not convinced:
“Come on Georgie, I never thought you’d be that great of a coward!”
His scathing remarks were getting on my nerves; how could he expect me to undergo such a dangerous task when he himself was not going first? The tree was a bit far from the edge of the water and anyone would have to take a long jump to reach it. I wasn’t as athletic as Jeff was, so why was he goading me into going first? Maybe he wanted to laugh at me when I fall not in the water but on the stones and pointed rocks on the ground beneath the tree. Well, I wasn’t going to fulfill this wish of his.
“How about you going first? You’re the expert on this. Let me see how to do it.”
“So you’re a lousy coward after all.” He taunted me with that devilish infuriating smile of his.
“Hey, I know. Let’s go together. We’ll jump together. Right?” His face was aglow with his trademark excitement and exhilaration.
I could see him climbing that crooked tree and venturing out carefully onto that thin outstretched branch. I was close behind him taking cautious steps forward with my head bent. I wasn’t brave enough after all. As I lifted my head to see where Jeff was, I saw him standing precariously close to the tip of that branch. For a moment, I felt like grabbing his collar, yanking him back and being done with all this stupidity, but it was just a moment’s thought. The next thing I knew I was bending down shaking the branch he was standing upon. He turned back to take hold of my sleeve, but it was too late. For a moment, I saw utter disbelief in his dark blue eyes and then he was gone. The first thing I heard was the thud of a body falling on the rocks below and then the sickening noise of bones cracking.
The corridor of the infirmary was cold as death. I could feel the cold fingers of the chilly wind pressing into my body. It had been three hours that doctors had taken Jeff inside leaving me behind to wait for his return. I couldn’t believe what I had done. How could I do this to him, my best friend? What demons possessed me? Tears rolled down my cheeks splashing loudly on the marble floor of the deadly silent corridor. I would apologize from him; I would tell him I had a misunderstanding. I was sure he would forgive me. I was certain he would smile that charming smile of his and we would be friends again. That was the kind of person Jeff was.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up. Doctor Simon was there looking at me with a strange expression in his eyes. I wanted to ask him where Jeff was but words wouldn’t come out. I just kept staring at him afraid to ask anything.
“We tried our best Georgie. His cranium was badly shattered and his brain, too. He had a bad fall. There was never any chance to begin with. I know it will be hard for you.”
I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying. Where was Jeff? I had to apologize from him. I had to tell him it was just a misunderstanding, that I had never doubted his loyalty and friendship, that it was just an impulsive act, nothing serious. But where was he? And what was Doctor Simon saying?
“Where’s Jeff? Tell him I’m waiting for him.”
Doctor Simon stifled a sob. “Jeff’s dead Georgie.”
It was the worst joke I had ever heard. How could Jeff be dead? He was immortal with that charm and innocent smile of his. Immortals can’t die. There must be a misunderstanding. I found myself gasping, fighting for breath; I had killed him. I saw my hands; they were stained red with my friend’s blood.
“Your name was the last word he spoke. I’m so sorry for your loss!”
Yes, it was a big loss, a lot bigger than he knew.
No one ever knew what had happened; no one ever would. They buried Jeff, and they buried me, too. Everyone was crying that day except me. Of course, you don’t cry on your own funeral.
That day Georgie died and Jeff was born again, in a new skin, never to die for years to come. From that day onwards, I’ve lived Jeff’s life. I’m the lead athlete of my country today and I’m going to participate in the Olympics this year. Don’t you remember? I had promised Jeff that he would win the Olympics and good friends never tell lies and they never break promises. Jeff is alive inside me. I am Jeff and I’m going to make his dream come true no matter what it takes. After all, I owe him; don’t I?
Written by: Zainab Ishtiaq