Chapter 1: A Cruel Prank
Ed Keller gulped a burning swig from the whiskey flask. Coughing, he smiled at the blurred image of himself in the stained bathroom mirror near the bustling middle-school playground.
“Ready, pal?” His classmate, Kenny Green, the 7th grade quarterback and leader of the popular kids at St. Christopher’s, slapped Ed’s shoulder with a laugh. Ed licked his chapped lips and nodded to signal he was ready to carry out the dare. He hoped this challenge would help him gain any approval from 8th graders on the football team. Both boys put pieces of cinnamon chewing gum in their mouths before exiting onto the playground.
Coach Parker’s bushy mustache and blue visor lingered in Ed’s peripheral vision as the two boys turned left and circled the corner of the brick school building. They passed a clique of cheerleader girls, gossiping in plaid uniform skirts. The buxom April Cooper smiled in her white blouse and waved to Kenny but avoided looking at Ed. Ed perceived this as a snub but pretended to ignore her by glancing to his right at students on the swing set then looking through the distant fence at the head stones in the church grave yard.
Ed enjoyed the scent of fresh-cut grass as they walked beneath the arch of a flying football, spiraling across the overcast sky. Kenny pointed at their target, Anthony Simpson, the art teacher’s kid, sitting alone on a bench and looking up from a comic book. Ed knew the cool kids often joked about the obvious crush this geek had on April.
Kenny and Ed sat on both sides of Anthony. Ed heard the words “blood” and “Satan” in the death-metal music as Anthony removed a blaring set of headphones, but he didn’t buy into the rumor this weirdo worshiped demons. He studied the pimples on Anthony’s face before reaching into his own pocket to activate the handheld voice recorder and aim the tiny microphone.
They started chatting about April Cooper, all agreeing she had a “hot body.” Kenny brought up the racier comment from their religion teacher about “self abuse,” adding: “I do it. Ed does it.”
Ed nodded and shrugged, maintaining eye contact with Kenny. “I did it this morning. My mom almost caught me. You can’t tell us you’ve never tried it.”
Anthony laughed. “Dude, I’m a fiend. I crank one out a couple of times a day.”
Ed winked at Kenny; now, they were getting somewhere.
Kenny put his arm around Anthony. “Thinking of April?”
Anthony showed them a photo of April in a one-piece swim suit, leaning over an Olympic-sized pool to start a race at a swim meet. “Today, I went to the bathroom during Spanish class and used this picture I took on my cell phone.”
Kenny stood up. “You wanker. At school? That’s sick. Sorry. I’ve got to run.” Both boys hurried away. Ed kept his eyes on Anthony, noticing the geek’s suspicious frown as he put his comic book in his backpack.
When they reached April and the cheerleaders, Kenny gave Ed a high five and turned to April. “You’ll never guess what that pervert Anthony just said.”
Ed pulled the recorder from his pocket before Kenny snatched it from his hands and whispered: “This is going to be awesome. Go to class and watch the fireworks. I’ll take it from here. Good job.”
An hour later, Ed sat in math class, looking at the back of Anthony’s head two rows in front of him. At the chalkboard, Coach Parker explained an equation before the intercom boomed with Anthony’s voice: “Dude, I’m a fiend. I crank one out a couple of times a day.”
Squinting with rage, Anthony turned to Ed. The class erupted with laughter when they heard the mention of April’s name. Ed saw Anthony dive with a cocked fist and pulled the weirdo to the ground, pinning him face down.
“You two report to the principal’s office immediately,” said Coach Parker, pointing his long knobby-knuckled index finger. Ed anticipated dozens of lectures on self-control from his older brother, Stephen. Part of him regretted being Kenny’s follower, rather than a leader.
Amid taunts, Anthony stood with vacant eyes and a bloody lip. Ed wanted to apologize for helping with the prank, but he didn’t want to lose any praise he might gain from the 8th grade boys on his football team.
Anthony tore open the door and sprinted down the hall to the parking lot. Ed followed him and peered through a classroom window at April, burying her face on a desk. He neared the middle of the parking lot as Anthony reached into the trunk of the art teacher’s car.
Anthony cracked the barrel of a shot gun and filled it with shells. Recalling a recent mass shooting in the news, Ed stumbled back and took cover behind a pickup truck.
“I curse you. Burn in hell.” Tears poured down Anthony’s face. Instead of attacking anyone, he spun the shotgun around, aiming it at his own mouth
Ed yelled and rushed to Anthony as the gun went off and the boy dropped to the gravel. He wiped his tears and stood above Anthony as blood pooled. A crowd gathered, and Ed heard the agonized shriek of Anthony’s mom: “My boy! My sweet boy!”
As Ed grew older and looked back on this day, he feared he deserved eternal hellfire for helping to send his tormented classmate to an early grave. From religion class, he recalled gospel warnings that punishment for hurting a child would be worse than drowning with a millstone tied around his neck. He found it too hard to blame Anthony for his own suicide, and the boy’s final curse often returned to Ed’s mind as he struggled to forget inevitable death and make the best of the moment.
Sometimes he grew depressed and blamed God for knowing the chaos that would happen that day and doing nothing to limit the cruelty of children.
Chapter 2: Too Young To Go
Almost two decades later, freezing rain battered the windshield of Ed’s extended-cab pickup truck as he turned his two front mud tires onto the interstate exit ramp near the bald cypress trees of a Louisiana swamp.
His sleeping fiancée, April Cooper, leaned away from him, snoring. Her small round nose whistled with congestion. A strand of her brown hair fluttered as the wind from the truck’s heater hit her forehead. He guessed she was worn out from their recent argument over their engagement and wedding. He sure was. And, wouldn’t she be furious if she learned why he was stopping at the gas station ahead? They had promised to quit smoking together, and he decided only a fool would tell her about every slip up.
He pulled into the parking lot, passed a man refueling his S.U.V. at the gas pumps and parked in the spot at the right corner of the 7-11’s store front. The nicotine craving intensified as he glanced at April’s soft face, wondering how to avoid waking her. He put a piece of cinnamon chewing gun in his mouth and decided to leave the car running and unlocked. Depending on the line inside, he might rush to the counter and return in just a few minutes.
Ed stepped out of the truck and covered his head with his ski-jacket hood when a man at the gas pumps called his name. He pretended not to hear, deciding it was more important not to wake April, but the man approached him and persisted. Ed’s vision blurred as he sought shelter near the door.
“Hey, Ed. How you doing?” The guy wore a dark suit, white dress shirt and a tie with bright red and blue stripes. He flashed a toothy smile and extended his hand. Ed smelled gas fumes as he studied the man’s chubby cheeks and the glob of hair gel that stiffened his bangs. Ed looked down into the man’s eyes as they shook hands.
“You don’t recognize me, do you? I’m Anthony Simpson, from middle school.”
Feeling intense remorse, Ed pushed away. “That’s not funny. He died in front of me. I don’t know who you are, but get the hell away from me.”
“Just kidding, man. It’s Kenny Green!”
Irritated, Ed moved closer and decided this punk was, in fact, Kenny. “That’s right. It’s been a while.”
“Too long. How are you? I’m better than ever. Raking in the cash.” Kenny reminded Ed of a peacock as he spread his arms to show off his expensive clothes.