"Man, look at that stereo! It'd be so cool sittin' in my room!"
"I'm gonna own it."
"Aww, c'mon, you don't have that sorta cash."
"Like you're gonna steal it. Why don't we go play some video games? There's no point in hangin' out here."
"Whatever."That short conversation played itself through my mind like a broken record as I gazed unseeing at the casket. Rick Collin's casket. The way his gray eyes had lingered coldly, determinedly, on that display was burned frighteningly clear in my memory, as was the reluctance with which he had pulled them away. I hadn't noticed it then, hadn't noticed a certain cruelness that slowly tainted Rick. It was a dark, shadowy viciousness that altered him in mere weeks it seemed.
In hindsight, I wonder how I could have missed the subtle hints that marked his change and motivated him to draw the gun and in doing so, gave police the right to open fire. That conversation had been more than an exchange of words between boys. A line had been drawn.
* * *
A cataclysmic clash of yellow, red, and orange against the bleak outline of dark clouds was a silent eruption set in slow motion as the sun seceded its reign to the moon. Rick and I laughed and jostled each other as we swaggered arrogantly down the street. We were both planning on meeting up with a couple of guys we had met a few weeks ago, maybe have a cigarette or two. We were going to go have a good time, enjoy the freedom of the night. Sneaking out had been a snap, with only the setting sun as a witness.
Alec and his pals met us by the shop with the stereo. He was the leader. For a while we joked and had a great time but as the sun's light was smothered by the weight of night, so did the mood of the group--gang, now that I look back. I didn't even notice the hard set in everyone's eyes until Alec jerked his chin towards the shop, the abrupt movement catching my attention.
"Is that the stereo you told me about?" he asked Rick.
Confused, I looked towards Rick for an answer as my grin faded, finally understanding as Rick replied seriously, "Yeah. Think we can do it?"
Alec thought for a moment, rubbing the stubble he called a beard on his chin before announcing, "Let's go."
I felt as though something heavy had landed on my head, and wandered forward in a dazed stupor. That haze didn't lift until a piercing alarm sliced through the night air like a dagger, the sound of shattering glass almost obliterated. The wail was almost loud enough to wake the dead, like a swarm of bees in your head that rattled through your bones. The gang scrambled through the opening, including Rick, to quickly snatch whatever they could find right off the shelves, aiming for the expensive electronics. Whether I was unable or unwilling to join them, I'm not sure, but I watched Rick running towards the back of the store until he vanished among the racks of CDs.
"Ryan, hurry up and grab somethin.' We don't have long," Alec told me, smashing a glass showcase and swiping up its contents in one practiced sweep. Before my eyes, I could see the kids I had joked with earlier grabbing cell phones, iPods, MP3 players, video games, and whatever else was within reach right off the shelf. I felt sick.
A small noise, barely distinguishable, drifted towards me on the wind. It grew louder even as I turned to face it. The wailing was faint at first, but amplified with every second
that passed until its source became undeniable.
Alec and his gang scattered like dust in the wind, disappearing down alleyways and darting around corners with shouts of alarm. I teetered on the brink of indecision, then discovered my legs and fled in panic. I left Rick alone to deal with the cops. Three shots echoed through the store that night, reverberating down the street, but I wasn't there to hear them. I was already too far away to even tell what they were, my ragged breathing and hammering heart the only sounds I heard. Besides, I'd bet the shots were too distorted by the buildings and traffic that I so quickly had put between me and that store.
I ran until my lungs burned and my legs no longer wanted to carry me. I ran like a coward. A damned coward.
* * *
A salty tear lurched down my cheek and left a moist streak in its wake. Another followed. Through my watery eyes I saw his mother. In less than a week she had aged ten years. Dark circles sagged under bloodshot eyes. Their keen intelligence had died with Rick. Guilt pressed down on my shoulders heavier than ever. She didn't deserve this. She was a saint.
I knew what I had to do, but it has been my experience that most good deeds are easier said than done. Admitting my role in my best friend's death is impossible, but so is concealing it. Left with two impossible choices, I chose. The tremendous weight on my shoulders lessened. My eyes were no longer blurred by tears of sorrow and remorse.
With my head held high, I strode purposefully towards Mrs. Hartford after the service. Gathering my wits into a single deep breath as I approached, I steadied my quaking hands and sharply scolded the butterflies in my stomach. It took all I had to meet her eyes had see the desolate soul within.. They were so hauntingly similar to Rick's that I stumbled and my resolve flickered like the flame of a match. This had to end.
Steeling myself for the worst, I stood before the woman I knew so well. I stammered, "Mrs. Hartford... I your son... my friend, well, you see we..." And from there, I began my story, my voice steadily growing in strength. Every detail poured out, from the conversation up to the resounding, unheard gunshots.
Most importantly, however difficult it was, the truth was revealed.
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