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Max Halberstam

Grade: 10

University High School

Instructor: Jim Garrett

The Coward

Short Story

The Coward

The Coward

The boy was sitting alone again. His head was slumped over on the green picnic table, eyes closed. Kash often watched him during lunch, though they had never spoken. Actually, he never heard the boy speak to anyone, period. He glanced around the outdoor pavilion. The mindless chatter of a hundred teens echoed in the wooden rafters. Peering over the heads of his classmates, Kash could pick out the collection of concrete boxes that was Plainwell High. His eyes drifted from the boring faces of his classmates, to eventually settle back on the boy. What was his name again? It started with an E. Something like Evan, or maybe Elliot? Kash tried looking away. Instead, he found himself staring with such ferocity he was surprised he hadn't burned holes into the back of the boy's hairy neck. Kash had a kind of sick fascination with the boy. He watched him like something dead on the side of the road. It made him nauseous, but he just couldn't tear his eyes away. The boy's own eyes were small and watery, sunk in a puffy, babyish face. Kash decided that he hated him. He wasn't sure why exactly, but watching him sit there all alone, flinching at the slightest noise, made Kash angry. A group of sophomores, a year older than him, strutted past the timid boy's table, pointing and snickering. The boy hid his face in his hands, whimpering. Weak. Kash couldn't bear looking at him anymore. He had to get rid of him.

He stood up casually and headed towards the loner's table, screwing his face into what he hoped was a friendly mask, as he weaved between tables. He dodged a group of giggling girls, too engrossed in their petty chat to take notice of what was about to happen. A shoe attached to a sneering jock flashed in Kash's peripheral vision, trying to trip him. He kicked it away and stepped past the partition of occupied tables, into the no-go zone. The boy sat a couple tables away, his back facing Kash.

The final stretch of concrete yawned empty between them. Kash froze. What was he thinking? He couldn't do this. He started backing away. I didn't raise you to be a god damn coward. The voice screamed inside his head. No. His jaw clenched painfully tight. He wasn't a coward. Not anymore. He forced himself to move. Left foot, then right foot. One over the other. Kash looked up. The corner of the table was less than three feet away. He could see a sheen of perspiration coating the back of the boy's neck, staining his shirt dark. Kash calmed his pumping lungs and steeled himself. He knew what had to be done. His hand snaked out and jabbed the boy's flabby shoulder, jerking him awake.

"What's your name?" his voiced boomed out way louder than he would have liked.

The boy flinched and stared up in confusion, eyes bleary. They searched Kash's face, and clearly found something they didn't like. His chin trembled, eyes darting around the pavilion, searching for rescuers among the growing crowd of spectators. Kash groaned internally. This wasn't going the way he wanted.

Kash softened his voice, "look… I noticed you sitting alone…" he trailed off. God, this wasn't working. He started over. "I was wondering if you wanted a friend," he blurted out.

"F-f-friend?" the boy squeaked.

Kash's anger flared hot and quick. Why did this coward have to make things so hard? His constant trembling made Kash sick. It reminded him of- NO!

Kash's insides were a molten mess, a boiling soup dangerously close to spilling over. He tried forcing it down, but it was like fighting a scalding ocean current, threatening to pull him under. He wanted this kid gone. He wanted him dead. Blood pounded in Kash's ears. His fists were clenched. His nails cut crescent shaped lines of fire into his palms. He took a shaky breath. Then, another. I need to do this. His heart rate slowed. I need to do this if I want him gone. His anger gradually boiled away, evaporated, and left him feeling empty. His hatred did the opposite. It cooled down. It caved in on itself, hardening into a dense, frozen core, heavy in his chest. The boy's cowering face came back into sharp focus. Kash's expression must have been frightening indeed. He took a deep breath and collected his thoughts. For this plan to work, the boy needed to trust him. Kash focused on his eyebrows first. He slowly eased them out of their knotted frown. Once they were loose, he raised them a fraction. He curled his lips into what he hoped was a sincere smile.

"Yes." Kash lied, "I want to be friends."

They sat on a small hill, in the shade of a big oak tree. The leaves were a shifting mass of yellow and orange, rustling above their heads. Kash sat with his back to the trunk, head resting against the cool bark, eyes closed. Evan sat on the other side, fat lips flapping senseless chatter.

"My favorite movie of all time has to be Spiderman. No wait… Actually, yeah, Spiderman is definitely my favorite movie."

What the hell was he on about? Two weeks had slowly passed since Kash had met Evan. Kash was amazed how quickly he changed from the anxious, silent, introvert, to an anxious, annoying, chatterbox. It seemed like he was trying to make up for every second wasted as a loner. As Evan became more comfortable around Kash, the sick feeling in his gut became less frequent. He was a completely different person. Almost.

Kash looked out across the park. A scattering of picnic tables and playgrounds dotted the green open fields. A few large evergreens, along with the occasional oak, ruptured the perfect flatness. Two small, distorted shadows materialized in the distance. Kash squinted against the late afternoon sun. The shadows now had torsos and heads. They were probably a couple, taking a stroll in the neighborhood park. Kash closed his eyes again, trying unsuccessfully to block out Evan's squeaky voice.

"Spiderman 2 is also really good, but I don't think it's as good as number 1. Don't get me started on number three. I hated that one. Way too scary."

What an idiot. How was he still talking about Spiderman? Kash yawned and stretched, eyes half lidded. Hang on, those guys are wearing green and black, the school colors. They were a hundred feet away, heading purposefully towards them. This could mean trouble. Kash reached around the trunk of the tree and poked Evan, who barely jumped this time.

"Psst. Hey! Evan. Do you know those guys?"

"Huh? What? Where?"

"Over there," Kash said, pulling Evan to his feet and pointing.

Evans's eyebrows rose in surprise, then furrowed with fear. "W-what are they doing here?" he breathed, almost to himself.

The two boys crested the hill, a short one with a nasty smirk and a large muscley one with a protruding jaw following close behind.

"Well, well, well. Look what we have here." The short boy puffed out his chest, trying to make himself look big.

Kash smothered a laugh. Who did this kid think he was? A movie villain?

"If it isn't-

"What do you want?" Kash challenged, making his voice low and dangerous.

"I just wanted to have a fun little chat with Evan over there," nodding towards him, wrapped around Kash's arm, face slack with terror. It took all of Kash's willpower not to shove him away.

"I don't think he wants to talk to you."

The larger boy stepped forward and frowned down at him. "Why are you defending someone like him." Finger jabbing at Kash's chest.

God, if only they could see he was playing the long game. Well, this was a good way as any to earn Evans's trust, Kash told himself, shoving the bigger boy away.

"Because he's… my friend," Kash admitted, grudgingly.

The short boy burst out laughing. "What? What so special about him? Huh?" he said, shoving his face up at Kash.

Kash said nothing.

"Couldn't think of anything? Well, I can." He paused for dramatic effect. "His face is pretty special."

Right as the last syllable left the boy's throat, his coiled fist snapped forward, aimed at Evan's head.

Time slowed down to a syrupy stall, blood roaring in Kash's ears. He watched as Evan let go of his arm and ducked under the wide, arcing blow. Kash saw the short boy's fist heading for his now unprotected side and took a slow, small step to his left, letting it miss him by a few inches. Breath hissed out through Kash's teeth, and his right hand shot out to grab the boy's wrist. His missed swing took him a step forward, off balance. Kash placed his other hand under his armpit, pivoting. The boy's momentum combined with the torque from Kash's hip and shoulder, sent him flying. He floated in the air for a satisfying moment, weightless, surprise wiping away his sneer. Thunk. His body slammed into the grass, bounced once and rolled over, motionless. All over in an instant.

Well, that was easy. Kash thought. Right before the fist folded him in half, sending him to his knees. He gasped, trying to suck air back into his lungs. A booted toe connected with his side, throwing him twisting onto his face. His hands scrabbled against the grass, desperately trying to push himself up, but only succeeding in rolling his battered body over. Black dots swam in his vision. The hulking figure of the second boy loomed over him. Why did everything have to get so complicated? Pain shot up his side as the boy kicked him in the same spot, even harder this time. A groan tore itself from his lips.

"Help," Kash tried to scream, but it came out as a weak croak. The boy's boot stamped down again and again. He curled into a ball, trying to protect his head from the vicious blows.

"Help." No more than a whisper this time. No one came.

Kash lay on his back, staring up at the sky. The sun had crept down towards the horizon, passing behind a bank of clouds, staining them gold. Evan's bullies had gotten bored and left an hour before. Kash groaned and sat up, his whole body bruised and sore. Evan was nowhere to be found. He ran away, Kash thought. Even though I needed help. Some broken part of him ached, though not because of his injuries. He almost laughed at the cruel irony of it. Memories resurfaced before he could push them back down. He was running down a dirt track, leaves crunching beneath his shoes. Kash remembered the dog and the fear. He retched into the grass. Kash searched and found his hatred again. He slammed the doors on the part of himself that hurt. This was Evan's fault. Evan made him remember.

The next day Kash decided to put the rest of his plan into action. Once the lunch bell had rung, he found the coward and walked with him to the park, where they usually ate lunch. Evan stared at Kash limping along beside him with a worried expression. He looked down at his feet and mumbled something incoherent. They picked out their usual table and sat down across from each other. Neither of them spoke. Kash looked at Evan without really seeing him, his mind lost in thought. This was the most important part of his plan. If Kash this messed up, all his hard work over the past two weeks would have been for nothing. How should he start?

"I'm sorry." Evan mumbled softly, glancing up nervously.

What good did sorry do anyone? You can't change the past with sorry.

"I-I just got so scared."

"It's ok. I understand." Kash lied.

"No, it's not ok. I feel ashamed that I left you there," Evan said, staring up at him, his face flushed. "You saved me, and I returned the favor by betraying you. Is there anything I can do to earn your trust back?"

This was almost too easy. "Actually yeah. I'm in a bit of trouble and I need your help."

Evan's face lit up. "Oh yeah? Well, you can count on me."

Kash put on a sheepish grin and pulled something out of his bag. Evans's eyebrows rose in surprise. An unopened pack of cigarettes stood upright on the picnic table, glittering in the afternoon sun.

"I need you to hold on to these for me, while I look for a place to hide them."

Evan's face fell. "W-why are you asking me?"

"Because you are my best friend. Best friends have each other's backs. Right?"

Evan stared at his hands guiltily, and then met Kash's eyes. "Ok I'll do it." His face was set with determination.

"Thanks man. I know I can trust you."

They ate their lunch and walked back to the school. Kash said goodbye for the last time. He headed down a carpeted hallway and took a right, passing by the teachers' offices. He found the biggest one and slipped a note though the door. Kash sighed with relief. It was over.

Evan didn't show up to school the next day, or the day after. School had just ended, and Kash stood by the front entrance, eyes flicking across the crowd of students, lost in thought. A shoulder bumped him, knocking him back into the present. What was he waiting for? He set off down the road, heading in the direction of home. The sky was a heavy, grey, blanket, suffocating him. Kash forced a smile onto his face. He had succeeded. Evan was gone. He kicked angrily at broken stones from the cracked sidewalk. Nothing had changed. Kash's hatred was still heavy in his chest, growing harder with each step. He passed a small one-story house, bordered by a rotting chain link fence. A mean looking Pitbull sat chained up in the dirt of the front yard. Kash hated dogs. Ever since he could remember. No, he hated them ever since that day. He didn't try pushing back the memories this time, it was pointless.

The sky was the same color grey three years ago. The woods were stark, all the leaves fallen to the ground. They crunched beneath Kash's boots as he walked down the dirt path, his little bro skipping ahead of him. Kash breathed in the smells of the fall forest, the air crisp and refreshing. The German Shepherd came out of nowhere, stepping out onto the path. Its jaw hung slack; thick saliva congealed around its pointed teeth. There was no warning sign, it simply attacked. It bit into his brother's leg, dragging him to the ground. The dog ripped its head back and forth, the foam in its mouth turning pink. Instead of helping, Kash ran, screams echoing behind him. He could have kicked the dog or found a stick to hit it with. He could have saved him.

By the time help arrived, it was too late. His parents were heartbroken. Kash would wake up in the middle of the night screaming. His father often came home late, drunk and violent. One night, after Kash woke up screaming for the third time in a row, his dad snapped. He pulled Kash out of bed and shook him, spit spraying from his lips,

"I didn't raise you to be a god damned coward." Then his voice broke, "He was your little brother. You were supposed to protect him."