In the silence of the empty parking lot none of us spoke about what had happened.
I stared at Ralph’s pudgy body lying on the ground and imagined that the pool of blood under his head was a shadow.
“Remember how he’d buy two bags of onion rings and stuff his face?” Mike said. “Wouldn’t-a hurt him to share, would it?”
“He fixed your bike that time, though, right?” I said.
Mike gave me the finger. He sat on a tipped-over shopping cart, hat pulled down over his eyes, pretending to read a store circular. Like he cared about coupons for detergent and cereal. Never paid for groceries in his life. Lifted everything.
I checked again to see if Ralph had moved, expecting him to get up and tell us some stupid fact about geography. Or name all the presidents. But the shadow kept spreading behind his head.
Damn. If only we’d crashed in Diego’s basement, nothing bad would have happened. So what if his couch smelled like sweaty hair and potato chips?
Sometimes we’d grab sheets from the closet, pull them over our heads and act like phantoms. Woo. Woo. Woo. Diego always tackling me, humping my leg, whispering, “Hereboy. Hereboy. Stay still, Hereboy.” I hated that nickname.
But no, instead we went to the SuperMart parking lot. Took turns balancing on a fire hydrant and throwing rocks at each other. One point for an arm or leg. Two for the chest. Three for the jewels. The head was minus one. That didn’t stop anyone. All of us had minuses. Some more than others.
“Jabbers been haunting this parking lot forever,” Mike said now, stretching his arms over his head. “This used to be a burial ground for snitches. Mobsters would drive some fool informant out here, cut him in pieces and stick the parts in gopher holes. Real nasty.”
“So?” Diego smoothed his dirt mustache. His face was darker than mine, like coffee with too much cream.
“Jabbers prey on kids. The ones that end up on milk cartons.”
“No one’s going to believe they took Ralph,” Diego said. “Jabbers don’t knock you on the head. They skin you, cut off your hands and steal your teeth.”
“Yeah, I heard that, too.” Mike scratched under his hat with the circular. The streetlight showed the scar on his cheek he got when his father caught him stealing penny rolls. “No traces, no clues. I understand. So who’s stepping up?”
I didn’t like where this was going, turning one stupid, careless moment into something a lot worse. Something planned.
“We should draw straws,” Diego said. “Only fair.”
“That’s bullshit,” Mike said. “Let Hereboy do it. He’s got no record.”
Without warning, Diego rushed Mike, getting in his face. “We agreed on straws.”
Both of them squared off with eyes narrowed, nostrils flared. They bumped shoulders. Once. Twice. Three times. I thought they might fight, but Mike took a step back. He rolled the circular nice and tight before flinging it across the parking lot.
“Mentioned straws. Didn’t agree on it,” he said. The shape of his Army knife was visible in his jeans’ pocket.
“Hereboy and I agree.”
“That punk don’t get no vote.”
“Ralph, then,” Diego said. “He votes straws, too. Absentee ballot. Last rites. Whatever. I called it first.”
“Shit.” Mike blew into his hands. Frozen breath blew back over his mean, freckled face.
“We could just… you know… go home. Say we never saw Ralph.” The words were mine, but someone else spoke them. My lips didn’t move or nothin’. I was too busy chewing the inside of my mouth. My spit tasted like blood.
“It’ll come back to us,” Mike said. “You know you’ll crack, Hereboy.”
“Jabbers,” Diego said. “It’s the only way. What we got for straws?” He stuck his thumbs in the beltloops of his pants. His teeth flashed real white.
Mike ran to fetch his circular. Should’ve called him Hereboy. He wasn’t much bigger than me. Wasn’t nothin’ without his knife.
“Good,” Diego said. “Rip out three pages and roll them. Make one real short. I don’t want no arguing.”
I was trying hard not to shit myself. Shaking on the inside and outside. My teeth chattering. Thinking if I ever got caught and sent away, Diego wouldn’t be around to protect me. So what if he rubbed on me sometimes.
Mike finished making the straws and held them out in his closed fist.
Diego and I played one, two, three, shoot to see who went first. He won with odds, smiled at me all goofy and messed my hair. He spit in his hands, rubbed them together, and quickly drew a straw. Held it up for everyone to see. It was long, bigger than a joint.
My guts twisted. Stomach hurt. Fingers went numb. It would come down to me and Mike.
I couldn’t decide which straw to pick. Kneeling down, I studied Mike’s hand, checking it from all angles.
“You gonna go?” Mike said. “Moment of truth.”
Diego drummed on his knees.
Still, I hesitated, my hand hovering over Mike’s. His hat smelled funny like piss. I looked across the parking lot at the gated-up stores. Graffiti everywhere, fighting for space.
Finally, Diego punched my shoulder. “Come on. Be morning at this rate.”
I swallowed down my fear and grabbed one of the last two straws. I passed the rolled paper from hand to hand before holding it up for the others to see.
Mike broke out laughing. “Hereboy, you suck. That’s smaller than your dick.”
Screw him. Picking straws didn’t seem fair. I’d only hit Ralph’s head once, above the eye. But it was decided. Two winners, one loser. Two to go home, one to be the jabber. Two to retire to warm beds, one to skin Ralph, carve out his teeth and cut off his hands. To act like a jabber come from the otherworld to claim a boy out alone at night.
For the last ten years, J.R. Hochman has worked as an editor and ghostwriter for “Fortune” 500 companies and business professionals.