I live a very simple lifestyle: slow, low risk, lots of TV. I try to be a sedentary as possible, except for my 40-hour work weeks spent on my feet and Friday and Saturday nights spent on dance floors. I don’t play sports, I don’t work out and I don’t do anything remotely dangerous. I chose this lifestyle to avoid two of the things I hate most in life: fear and pain. I know most people don’t like those things, but I also know that a lot of people put themselves at risk in order to live a more “exciting” or “healthy” lifestyle or whatever, but I’m not into it.
So, as a result of this lifestyle, I have very few “risky” stories to tell. But there have been a few specific times when I got into a situation where I was 100 percent sure I was going to die. Three times, to be precise. Here they are, in chronological order:
The first time I was sure I was going to die was when I was 9 years old. Late elementary-early middle school was a very good time in my life socially. Since the time I was about 9 or 10, the number of people that I considered good friends drastically decreased every year. At this time, I had a group of friends made up of about 15-20 boys with whom I played sports and video games or whatever else 9-year-old boys do. —
I’ve already mentioned that I do not play sports as a way to avoid fear and pain. This hasn’t always been the case, though. From the time I was 5 until I was 11, I participated in basketball, soccer and baseball, all because that was expected of me as a normal boy. I was on these teams, but I was still sure to avoid any brush with fear or pain; I went to practices and games, but I never really did much.
— One of these boys, Daniel Brown, had been my best friend since first grade. He was school friend though, you know? We didn’t have sleepovers and we didn’t see each other a lot outside of school. But for those eight hours a day, five days a week, we were best friends.
For his tenth birthday, though, I was invited to his house. He had a normal 10-year-old boy birthday with games and cake and about 10 or 15 boys in attendance. As the party ended, most of the boys were picked up by their parents, but I was invited to spend the night at the Brown house along with another friend, Jeffrey. It seemed Daniel wanted to have a large sleepover party, but his parents weren’t up for hosting 15 boys at their house overnight.
Daniel’s parents were very strict. Or, at least, his mother was. She stood about 5’11”, which seemed especially gargantuan compared to his father, who was probably 5’8”. Even at the age of 9, I could tell something was weird about this couple. Daniel’s father was very quiet and seem to cower beneath the height and strength of his wife. When I try to picture him in my memory, I can only see the face of those abused animals in the ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan. Their house was also full of chicken décor. Chicken wallpaper, chicken clocks, chicken figurines, chicken teapots; but that’s beside the point. Daniel’s mother was always making the decisions and cracking down on her children when they did anything that was outside of the teaching of their Sunday school classes. She also made us go to bed at 8:30pm, halfway through the movie Daniel’s father had picked out for us. After Jeffrey and I sat awkwardly through the family’s bedtime prayers, we all got in bed: Daniel on the top bunk, me on the bottom and Jeffrey on the floor.
I know we were young, but 8:30 was still way too early for me to be going to bed. I lay awake for hours thinking about things I could be doing instead of lying there motionless – mostly, I thought about just getting up and walking out of his bedroom and finding something else to do in his house. I was a shy child, so I knew I would never just wander about aimlessly in someone’s house, but the idea was almost enough to keep me from going insane waiting for sleep to come to me.
Around 11pm, my fantasy of exploring every chicken-adorned corner of the house quickly came to a halt. I heard a sound that made me want to lock Daniel’s bedroom door and barricade us all in. I heard a scream so loud and so painful that I was sure we were all about to be engulfed in flames. I immediately sat straight up and looked at the door, expecting Daniel’s mom to bust in, carrying her husband and her daughter over her shoulders with flames behind her, roaring towards us.
No one came through the door. Neither Daniel nor Jeffrey even stirred in their sleep. So there, I was, sitting up in bed, staring wide-eyed at the bedroom door, holding my breath.
Once I realized the house was not on fire, I thought maybe I imagined the sound of someone screaming as their flesh burned. Maybe I had drifted off to sleep and dreamed it. As I lay back down to try to go to sleep once again, I heard another scream – equally as loud, long and painful. By the time the second scream ended, I was exponentially more terrified than the first time because this time it sounded exactly like Daniel’s dad’s voice.
This is it, I thought. Mr. Brown had gone too far with an innocent joke, offending his wife and her strict religion and she had snapped. She was killing him right there in their bed and she was going to come for us next in her wild rage. I heard another scream shortly after the second, but I just stayed in bed, staring up into space, waiting for our inevitable deaths until my mind eventually shut down and I fell asleep. Daniel’s parents, complete with all their limbs and no visible wounds, made us breakfast the next morning.
The second time I was sure I was sure I was going to die was in August 2012. I had just moved into my first apartment with my best friends from high school, Lenzie and Krazy, and we were about to begin our junior year at UNC.
I have very fond memories of that apartment, but it has no redeeming qualities of its own. The only positive parts of that place are the memories I have that took place there. The floors were slanted, the doors jammed, the ghost of a woman named Linda who only had legs lived in the living room, the cabinets never stayed closed, the air conditioner only worked in two out of four rooms and, worst of all for all of us, it had a gas stove. I know that a gas stove isn’t really a bad thing in an apartment so much as the rest of those things are, but none of us had ever used one before. The idea of an open flame larger than a candle inside a home always left me feeling uneasy (stay tuned for a future post about my childhood fears featuring stoves of all kinds).
Lenzie was out of the state for the first few weeks that we lived in that apartment, so Krazy and I had to learn to use the stove safely together. As most of you reading this may already know, it’s not difficult. Neither of us cooked much anyway, so after the first time using it, we were completely comfortable with our situation.
One night, we were about to make popcorn to accompany our Cheetah Girls marathon when the stove wouldn’t light. We tried every burner, but got no flame. We called the apartment manager and she refused to send maintenance out to fix it. It was just the pilot light, she said. Then she emailed us a link to a YouTube video showing how to re-light the pilot light on this particular type of stove. Another simple procedure: lift the top of the stove, use a lighter to light the pilot light. That’s it.
After we watched the video, Krazy looked at me and I looked at her and I could tell she was thinking the same thing I was thinking: if the pilot light just lights when you hold a flame to it, that means it’s basically pouring gas at all times. Since neither of us had attempted to use the stove for probably a week, there was no telling how long the pilot light had been out or how long gas had been leaking
into our home.
We weren’t worried about carbon monoxide or whatever effects a gas leak could have had on us, but more worried about the pilot light lighting process. All of this means that we could be approaching a room full of gas with a lighter.
We took some time to gather some courage to attempt to re-light the light, and I don’t think we ever really summoned all the courage we needed. It had to be done, though. As I lifted the stovetop, Krazy and I said our goodbyes to each other.
This is it, I said to her. The idea that I was going to die doing something with my best friend was slightly comforting, but it didn’t top the fear deep down inside me. Something was telling me that this was really it for us. Krazy was going to put her lighter up to that pipe leaking gas, flick the igniter, and we would go up in flames. I closed my eyes as tightly as possible and just hoped that our death would be quick and painless.
We enjoyed our popcorn a little more than usual that night.
The third and most recent time that I was sure I was going to die was in June 2013. Lenzie, Krazy and I had just arrived in Pahoa, Hawaii, ready for a summer full of sun and fun. We were almost immediately disappointed when we spent our entire first day on the island under a cloud cover and getting drenched in rain showers that came about every 20 minutes like clockwork. The forecast for our area was rain every single day for as long as we could see. That was NOT what we signed up for, so we immediately started to complain. We were skeptical when the other people working with us told us that it would be warm and sunny at in Kalapana, the closest beach town, eight miles east of our farm. We were skeptical, but we had already had enough of the rain.
On our second day on the farm, we decided to take a half-day of work so we could go check out the beach. We got all of our chores done by noon, then packed up our stuff and were ready to go. The only problem was that everyone else was still working and couldn’t drive us to the beach. Even if they had taken a half-day too, they wouldn’t have taken us. They hated us as soon as we stepped off the plane, but that’s another story.
So we were left to explore the island on our own the way the islanders do: hitchhiking. Lenzie and Krazy were nervous about getting in the car with a stranger, but I accepted long ago that I was going to be murdered someday, so why not in Hawaii? I was excited, to be honest.
We spent a few minutes standing at the end of our driveway with our thumbs out and we only saw a few cars, all of which sped by without acknowledging us. Maybe it’s just too inconvenient to slow down, we thought. We were on the side of a highway and, with no obstacles and barely a turn between the town and the coast, there was no reason for anyone driving past us to be going any slower than 70mph.
After about 15 minutes of failed attempts, we came up with a plan: walk west toward Pahoa, the closest village. There was a major intersection there, so we figured people would be more willing to pull over and pick us up just after leaving a red light, before they were going full speed. We continued to hold out our thumbs as we began the 1.5-mile walk toward the intersection and we got lucky before we got all the way there. I don’t remember much about the first person who picked us up, other than the fact that she couldn’t take us all the way to Kalapana; she was going to a different area on the coast. She told us it would be easy to get another ride at the fork in the road where she was going right and we needed to go left. We decided to trust her and hopped in the bed of her truck.
She didn’t kill us. She dropped us off at the fork like she’d promised and went on her way.
It wasn’t long before we got our next ride, this time from a local who was also making his way to Kalapana. His name was Robbie; he was about 5’6” and seemed very nice. After he pulled over, he had to rearrange some of the stuff in the bed of his pickup to make room for us and we had a nice chat. He told us all about the dangers of the island and, as it were, hitchhiking on the island. Being out and about in rural Hawaii was unsafe, he told us, because of the wild boars. But beyond the threat of being gored, there was always a chance of falling into a lava tube.
Robbie described lava tubes as large caverns of unknown depths with no exits Basically, what goes down a lava tube is never seen again. These are wonderful places to throw bodies or cars that you never want found. Apparently Hawaii’s meth-user population also set up camp at their entrances. I forget why, but that made them a little bit scarier.
So we were pretty sure he was going to end up taking us to a lava tube and throwing us in, but we hopped in his truck anyway. There was a chance of death, but also a chance of getting to the beach.
We were desperate after hours of trying to get to this damn beach. The risk was worth it.
Robbie took us to the beach, shared his drinks with us, found us some weed and spent the day with us, telling us all about his island. The beach was situated under a small cliff that cast a shadow over the beach as the afternoon went on. By 4pm or so, a few hours before sunset, the beach was in complete shade and kind of chilly, so Robbie suggested we go somewhere else. He took us a few miles up the coast from the beach to some larger cliffs overlooking the ocean. It was a spot he said not many people knew existed, or at least knew was accessible, as you had to drive off-road to get there.
When the sun started to set, he drove us to a small restaurant that had the best food that I ate the entire summer (which isn’t saying much, we were fed dirt every day for breakfast and lunch) and then wanted to take us back to that same spot from earlier.
It was pitch black by the time we got there, but that didn’t concern Robbie. He drove his little truck off the road and through the trees, then turned off his headlights so we wouldn’t be spotted. I was a little concerned, but he seemed like he knew what he was doing, so I tried not to worry. I was more than a little concerned when he whipped the truck around and drove in reverse into the darkness. I could hear the ocean getting louder, meaning we were getting closer and closer to the edge of the cliffs that we were climbing on before sunset. I was sure that we were close to the edge, but he just kept accelerating. I closed my eyes and accepted our fate. We weren’t going to be thrown into a lava tube; we were going to be thrown off the edge of a cliff in a pickup truck.
By some judgment that I did not question, Robbie finally decided that we were in the right spot. He turned off the truck and hopped out, then joined the three of us in the bed. We sat there for an hour or so talking; I don’t remember much about what we talked about other than an old Hawaiian legend he told us that involved a troop of marching ghost soldiers that periodically terrorized the very area where we were.
That ghost story only added to my fear, but I tried not to show it. We had spent the entire day with Robbie and he didn’t show any sign of malice toward us, so I shouldn’t have been afraid. That’s what I kept telling myself.
Around midnight, we decided it was probably time to go back home. In the few moments we spent that day away from Robbie, the three of us decided that he could probably be an asset to us during our summer on the island. He was nice, he knew the area and he had transportation. We had to lock in his friendship. He seemed to be attracted to Krazy, so we volunteered her to sit in the cab of the truck with him on the way home.
“You have to get his number. Flirt with him, do whatever it takes. We need him.”
Lenzie and I cuddled up in the back and prepared for the frigid open-air ride home. We had only been on the island for two days at this point, but we had a pretty good idea of how long it should take us to get home based on how long the trip to the beach took. We noticed the same fork in the road where Robbie had picked us up coming up, so we knew we were getting close to home.
This is where all my suspicion of Robbie and this whole situation came flooding back after I had talked myself down when he was driving us toward the edge of the cliff in complete darkness: instead of crossing onto the road that had originally taken us from our home to the fork in the road, Robbie veered the opposite way. He was taking us somewhere, but it wasn’t to our farm.
Lenzie and I immediately started to panic. This is it, we cried, holding each other close. He’s taking us to a lava tube.
“Should we jump out? We’re not going that fast,” Lenzie said. I grabbed my stuff and I was ready to jump, but then we remembered Krazy in the front seat. We couldn’t leave her with him, so we sat back down.
Maybe she knows what’s going on, we thought. We tried signaling her without Robbie seeing us – if he knew that we knew what was going on, he might just end us right then and there. She didn’t turn around once. I tried calling her, but her phone was dead, as usual.
Panicked and crying, we waved our hands and gently tapped on the glass behind her head for what seemed like an hour. We were about to give up on her and just jump when the truck began to slow down. We could see lights in the distance: the highway intersection in Pahoa. The truck pulled off the road and we finally knew exactly what was happening: we were home.
The road from the farm to the fork on the way to the beach was one-way; Robbie was never going the wrong way, just a way that we didn’t know existed.
So there they are: the three times I was sure I was going to die. I’m sure there will be many more in my life and I’ll try to write about them as they happen. Except for the final time, of course. I’m sure you’ll be able to catch that story on Nancy Grace.