It was a Friday and the boys were skipping class. It was cold out that morning. Each breath was this plume, this knocked-sideways mushroom cloud.
“What about your neighbor?” Chester nodded to the thirty-something man passing by. “He’s a dick anyway.”
Rocky looked up and down the street for anyone who might be watching. It was that weird time just after everyone had gone to work. The neighborhood was almost a ghost town.
Rocky shrugged. “Sure.”
Chester was cracking his knuckles in the cold.
“He’s kind of big,” Sam piped up, anxiously.
It was “Senior Skip Day,” that chance just before graduation to take a long weekend with all your friends like it’s a holiday, but it’s not. This weekend wasn’t a vacation for Chester, Rocky, and Sam, though. Their senior project was due on Monday.
Senior project: that’s what they called it, anyway.
The boys approached the man, walking past them on the sidewalk. The man had not so much as regarded them before Rocky slugged him across the ear with one of his little, balled-up fists. Rocky was the smallest of the group, and he’d nearly had to jump to hit the man. It was the kind of punch that makes the lobe burn like it’s been doused in battery acid.
The man screamed, staggering from the sidewalk, into the street, and clutching at the side of his reddened face. “What the fuck?”
Rocky knitted his fingers behind him and took a deep breath, preparing for the retaliation.
The older man towered over him and grabbed him by the jacket, shaking Rocky and yelling, “You little shit,” but when it was obvious the man wasn’t going to hit him, not yet, Rock unlinked his fingers from behind his back and gave his neighbor a firm swat to the testicles.
The man howled.
It was this low, inhuman howl. He was doubled over with his knees pinched in, toes pigeoned. The veins and tendons were popping out if his thick neck.
Then he lunged forward, saliva spraying from his lips, eyes bulging. Rocky almost forgot not to put his hands up. He almost forgot not to cover his face. He braced himself as the man’s fist came zooming in, telescopically.
Rocky staggered back. There were these little worms of light wriggling around in his eyes and for a moment he couldn’t hear anything. His nose was smashed to one cheek and there was a thick smear of blood going from it to his ear.
“Fuck,” Chester gasped. “You just clocked our friend for no reason.”
The man, shaking his throbbing fist, looked up at Chester and the other boys, confused. “I what? He hit me first!”
And then Chester shoved the man. The man shoved back. And then Chester punched the man in the chest. The man punched back, splitting Chester’s lip; self-incriminating.
There were two other groups of kids working on their senior projects, too. One group was taking a more classical approach, they’d said. They’d use lye to dissolve the body. The second group was thinking outside the box. Make it look like an accident, they said. Push someone from a ladder. Twenty-thousand people die falling from ladders every year. It’s practically a home improvement holocaust and no one even thinks twice about it.
But Rocky’d had this other idea: What if you made it look like self-defense? What if you tricked someone into defending himself, making his defense seem like the aggression?
Sam came up behind the man as he scuffled with Chester and hit him right in the ribs, and there was this sick-making crack. The man yelped and sort of crab-walked away from the skirmish, further into the street. He collapsed to his knees and was shuddering, trying to catch his breath, and making these pathetic sounds. Sobs. Mewling. Whimpering.
The three boys followed him. They encircled him. The man looked up at their blank faces, and he went blue-white. With a trembling hand, he dug into his back pocket and produced his black, leather wallet.
“Take it,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Just take it.”
The boys exchanged looks and then started laughing, like he’d told them a joke or a funny story.