Layne was a weird kid. Matt had been best friends with him since their third grade teacher had made them both sit up at the front of the class: Layne for talking and Matt for doing nothing but sitting and staring straight ahead without doing any work. Matt remembered Layne as a wide-eyed, sweet-faced little boy with short chestnut-brown hair and a mouth that was never still. If Layne wasn’t talking, he was chewing on his fingertips, his pencils, his nails or sucking his thumb. It was disconcerting at first, but eventually you got used to it. And no one teased Layne about it, because the first time one of the other boys had called him a baby in kindergarten because he would suck his thumb during naptime, Layne had pounced on him like a wild animal. Matt had been afraid of him since then, but when the two were seated together, he found out that Layne wasn’t really so bad. He was generally friendly and positive about everything. And he was smart, far smarter than anyone ever gave him credit for. He was also very persuasive; Matt was sure than Layne could talk anybody into doing anything, even the teachers. So he followed Layne through brilliant idea after brilliant idea, through mud piles and BB guns, through tree houses and arcade games.
It wasn’t until they were twelve that Matt realized that something was wrong with Layne. He’d become more moody, more strange than Matt was used to. He’d start to talk about nothing and stop abruptly in the middle of a word, shaking his head and saying he couldn’t remember, that it didn’t matter. And one night, over at Layne’s house, Matt had started to figure out why Layne was acting that way.
Layne’s parents had divorced the year before and his mother had left almost immediately, leaving his father to wade in a cesspool of resentment and unhappiness. His father was a banker and he made enough money, more money than Matt’s mom did. But he didn’t seem to pay any attention to Layne and Matt didn’t know why. At least his mom tried, asking him where he’d be going and trying to push him to do his school work. But Layne’s father didn’t seem talk to his son and had never even acknowledged Matt when he spent the night. But when Matt woke up at two a.m. on the floor of Layne’s bedroom, his bladder screaming at him and causing him to press his legs together beneath the musty smelling sleeping bag, he saw the heavy outline of Layne’s father sitting above him on Layne’s bed, one of his hands holding Layne’s shoulder. He could hear muted whispers, a frantic back and forth exchange. One of Layne’s hands shot out to push his father away and it was engulfed. His body jerked forward. Matt heard a dull, heavy noise; it sounded like someone punching a mattress, but Matt knew that wasn’t what it was. When Layne’s father finally stood and stepped over him to the open door, Layne lifted his head and took a shaky breath; the moonlight reflected the tears at the corners of his eyes. Matt watched with a lump in his throat and heaviness in his groin as Layne hunched his shoulders and buried his face in his hands, limp hair falling across his fingertips.