I heard his footsteps behind me mashing down dry brush in the huge empty lot next to my house. He was moving fast. I was moving faster. I took a quick glance back. Richard was red-faced, madder than I'd ever seen him. I dashed passed the old abandoned pit barbecue, the halfway point to my house. A few seconds later, I heard him pass it, too. I was scared. My heart threatened to leap out of my chest. It felt good.
Breathlessly, I reached my house, threw the front door closed and locked it, panting as though I'd just outpaced a mad panther. I looked out the window. He wasn't there. I half expected him to come leaping through the window shattering it like some superhero. But he didn't. He was gone.
* * *
After the sixth grade, my parents sent me to an all-girls Catholic school 20 minutes away, and I moved on physically and mentally, forgetting all about my South Grade classmates. For awhile I stayed in touch with three of them, and after a few more years, none of them. Certainly not Richard Orjala, my little nemesis.
Two decades passed, I moved out of state and when I thought of those South Grade kids, most of them scruffy little creatures from below the poverty line, I had this surreal assumption that they were all dead. Maybe because crack cocaine moved pretty heavily into that neighborhood and claimed a lot of people. Or, more likely because I had abandoned that troubling part of my little life; it was dead to me and so by extension part of my brain had killed off all my little classmates.
In an odd way, then, it didn't startle me to learn a few days ago that Richard Orjala was dead -- murdered randomly almost two years ago, at age 33. Horrified people all over Palm Beach County knew his name for a few days as he was the county's first killing of the new millennium, found at 5 a.m. New Year's Day having bled to death from gunshot wounds to the chest.
Richard had apparently just returned from Finland, where he'd gone back to live for 10 years. There, he'd gotten married, had a daughter, gotten divorced, came back. That night he was volunteering with his mom at a Red Cross dinner. They came home from the dinner in the wee hours and he was restless, wanted to go for a walk. At the same time, two predators were driving around ready to hurt the next person they came upon. A few minutes later, Richard was dead. That is all I know. And there's no one else to ask.
The thing is, I can't picture a grown man lying on the ground at 12th Avenue and A Street, his chest filled with lead. I can only see a blue-eyed boy with thin blond hair and a round face, looking apprehensive as he called me names across a classroom or chased me through a field with mild childhood vengeance on the brain.
My only hope is that after the sixth grade, no one treated him like I did.