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“Hey, where’s Kevin?”
I see John look up—his face is blank. The bright light of a full moon illuminates the narrow trail of blood trickling down his face. John pants heavily in the humid air: his sweat mixing with the blood, then gives a casual glance towards the swamp we ran through, checking to see if anyone has followed us.
He looks back at me, features relaxed.
“Okay,” John lets out a sigh of relief, “I think we’ve lost the cops. Definitely lost them. That swamp must have been like a 100 feet long, huh? No one could’ve chased us through that.”
These reassuring words make my chest tighten: Kevin still hasn’t come out yet. I give an apprehensive glance in the direction of the swamp, and my face briefly reflects the light of a moon that now seems too large, too piercingly bright. Upon seeing my face, John lets out a quiet laugh.
“Jeez, man, you don’t look so good.” he drawls out.
“Shut up!” I snap. The menace in the words surprises even me. John is taken aback.
“Dude, dude,” John says with his arms raised in a placating gesture, “it was just a joke. Besides, I bet I look just as bad as you do, so let’s clean ourselves up and try to egg some more houses. After all, Goosey Night only happens once a year.”
John sets the back pack he’s had slung around his shoulders the entire night, and removes an entire cleaning kit: a pair of small towels from a pocket, some hand sanitizer, and a few band-aids. John’s being thorough about this; he doesn’t want anyone to know what we’ve been doing tonight.
One fact that anyone who’s anyone needs to now about John Crawford is that his image matters above all else. In school, John is the teacher’s model student. Outside, John is the guy who is invited to all the parties, the guy who is the definition of social success. John balances these two identities with the poise of a conman, only revealing his true nature to all but a few of his trusted friends. I count myself lucky to be one of them.
John now cleans his face with a towel and I do the same, trying to wipe off whatever gunk I managed to get on my face in the swamp. It’s a humid fall night, unusual even here in Florida, so when I move the towel into the moonlight I see some dark patches of sweat mixed in with the twigs and blood. John finishes up, the blood gone from his face, and takes out a mirror. He gives a casual glance at his reflection and nods in approval then gives the mirror to me.
I look at the mirror. Blue Eyes—check. Bangs—check. No scars, disfigurements or anything for my Mom to scream at—half-check. I still see a few cuts on my face, and leaves in my hair. I brush the leaves out, and decide to leave the cuts until I get home. I can take care of them later. Taking a glance I see that John and I are in one of the cattail fields scattered about our town, the field’s soil soft and moist against our sneakers. A dim streetlight glows in the distance, signaling the end of the field and the beginning of another street and civilization. John stands beside me with his devil-may-care grin.
“Ready to move?” he says.
I’m about to say yes when I remember: Kevin isn’t standing on dry land with us, hasn’t come out of the swamp.
“Wait.” I say, “what about Kevin?”
“What about him?” snorts John. “He probably ran off, soiling himself, when the cops came. The guy was just slowing us down. I had no idea what I was thinking by bringing that dweeb with us.”
Another thing anyone who’s anyone needs to know about John Crawford is that the wannabees who don’t get the privilege of being his friend usually get victimized by him—get the privilege of being the third wheel of his exclusive group. Kevin is one of the newer victims, a short kid with curly hair who cuts gym class because he doesn’t want to get picked last.
I have doubts that a kid like that can run away from the cops all by himself.
“He doesn’t seem the type to run away by himself. Besides, I saw him running in the swamp with us. Hell, John, you were the one telling him to keep moving!”
“Well that’s cause I thought he was there with us,” John replies, “but he obviously isn’t. So…let’s go. He’ll be fine man, don’t worry.”
For a second, I’m ready to agree with him and forget all about it. That is something I’ve done a lot with John.
Then a voice comes out behind the curtain of trees and vines behind us, distant as a far off thunder clap.
“Guys…guys…,” it moans, “help me.”
I whisper to John, “Did you hear that?”
John stiffens for a moment then relaxes. “Maybe. It was probably nothing.” He picks up his backpack and begins to move swiftly toward the direction of the street light, away from the swamp. I stay in the cattail field, trying to make sure I’m not imagining things as well.
A pained moan—a dying animal’s cry—comes from the swamp. I hear the voice begin to talk again.
“Guys…Guys…it’s ….it’s me, Kevin. Help me. ”
“John!” I yell into the distance. No response.
And he isn’t coming back, I realize with a dim wonder. John isn’t coming back. He has an image to protect—as a cool kid and nice guy—and Kevin isn’t worth that image being tarnished. So he is going to leave Kevin here to keep things safe. An absolute fact.
I stare at the swamp, unsure of what to do. Suddenly, a switch goes on in my head and my feet begin to move faster and faster as I race through the cattail field heading towards the vine curtain of the swamp. A black shadow then tackles me to the ground and I land on the wet earth. The shadow reveals itself: John.
“Please, man”, he says with a steady voice, though his eyes are pleading,” Let’s forget about it. Let’s walk away”
“I can’t, John.”
He then leaves. Just like that. Walking away from it all—the swamp, Kevin, me. I see John for only a few more minutes until he vanishes permanently from my vision; his body fading back into shadow.
I lie there, on the soft ground of the cattail field, and time is meaningless. As the cries from the swamp rise and fall in their intensity and the moon shines on—too large, too piercingly bright—I cannot help but wonder. Was I ever important to John? Was I ever his best friend since middle school? Or was I like Kevin: a third wheel. Something that served no purpose for the function of friendship, something that could easily be tossed to the roadside, and left to rust and rot.