by Jonah Cipolla
I rested my tired body in the worn-out chair in my cramped, dusty apartment and drank the cheapest beer available from the gas station down the road. It was the best day of the week: my roommates were gone. I had some peace and quiet to squander. My eyes were fixed on the television, but I wouldn’t say I was watching much of anything, I was simply carrying out a routine.
Every night after a long, difficult day of destroying my body for enough cash to pay rent, I went home, got drunk, and passed out. I had all the opportunities that a man could ask for, and I pissed them down the drain. Every ache, every work hour cut from my schedule, every five points lost on my credit score reminded me how far I had fallen.
My phone buzzed in the front pocket of my jeans. It was a text from Darren, an old associate of mine from my ill-fated college years.
“Yo, you still in Newbury? Jack is back in town for the weekend, he’s hosting a party over at Parker Creek, let’s get the guys back together!” We hadn’t seen each other since I was expelled, and our conversations had been brief, the type of uninspired interaction a person has with someone they don’t much care for. I would’ve ignored it altogether if he hadn’t mentioned Jack. Seeing the name shot an intense rage up my back.
“I think it’s best I stay in,” I texted back.
“You should at least say hello,” Darren insisted. Of course, he had forgotten the bad times. What bad times did he possibly have? A particularly rough hangover, or that time he actually had to do his work. I was more turned off going than before.
The negative memories of my last year of schooling came rushing back to me: being expelled from college, losing my career before it even got started, the betrayal, the shame, the embarrassment of it all. Not one simple mistake, but a chain of perfect failures. Lapses in judgment and personal moral failings threaded together, leading to the disaster of my current situation.
An exact chronology is difficult to work out, and I can’t build a sympathetic excuse for founding an incredibly technologically sophisticated cheating ring and a raging amphetamine addiction. I thought of all the people I was close with at that time, how Darren and Willard, and their little group of misfits, leeched off the hard—and illegal—work Jack and I did. How the stress of losing everything ruined my budding relationship with Andrea.
Jack and I were inseparable, our bond formed through shared traits of an incredible talent for dishonesty, double-speak, and meticulous planning. No amount of shared laughter or drunken shenanigans could’ve stopped the fact that between him or me, he would always choose himself. I hadn’t been any different—except that I would’ve never made him the fall guy to cover up my own mistakes like the way he used me to cover up his. Jack wasn’t someone I’d ever dreamed of taking a bullet for. I wouldn’t have taken a stubbed toe for him. Even at the height of our friendship we were both looking out for number one. Maybe that made me the fool for expecting a different outcome. It didn’t much matter now, what’s done is done.
I’d only escaped my miserable memories when a darker thought crossed my mind. It was one of those intrusive, forbidden thoughts that you stuff down immediately. Each time I pushed it aside, it came back stronger and louder. I couldn’t possibly get away with such a thing. But hadn’t Collin gotten away with what he did? A smile spread across my face, a smile bigger than any one I’d had in recent memory.
I snatched up my phone and texted Darren. “I’ll be right over.”
I stuffed two beers into the front pocket of my hooded sweatshirt, leaving my phone on the counter. The long walk to the creek allowed me to marinate in my thoughts, piecing together my plan. Jack and I had the same Achilles heel. The weak point all rich kids seemed to have—narcotic stimulants—and Jack still had his Achilles heel. Even after all these years, whenever he would upload a new photograph on social media of him at a party or a wedding, he had the tell-tale glassy eyes and tight jaw of cocaine. The easiest way to trap a person is to use a vice as the bait, as any addict would tell you, intelligence will always take a backseat to satisfying the itch.
The cold autumn air bit at my nose and ears. My thoughts swirled around Jack; right now he was living my dream. A house just outside New York City, a fulfilling career, and good health. Everything I should’ve had by now. He’d reaped the rewards of our joint venture while I worked in the dirt.
I arrived at the party after twenty minutes of walking, a small bonfire lit a circle of about fifteen people. I remembered each and every one of them. Tim, the math student whose hacking expertise was vital to the cheating project. Chad, my study partner in sophomore year. Sally, one of the few people who could out-drink me who I had disappointing sex with on several occasions. Gerald, better known as male Sally, as he was similarly alcohol fueled and underwhelming in bed as well. Andrea was there, but I did my best not to look at her, wishing to avoid those memories. A white noise of laughter and overlapping speech filled my ears, as I cracked open one of my pocket beers with a single hand. I couldn’t stand that much noise without a bit more inebriation.
“Well I’ll be damned!” Jack yelled, spotting me from about ten feet away as I approached. “I was wondering if you’d show up.” He placed his arm around me, dragging me towards the group of people. “Monty’s back!” he yelled. Everyone turned to look at me.
“Hey,” I said with faux confidence, casually waving. I put all my focus into not blushing from anxiety and embarrassing memories. I had wanted to avoid these people since I last saw them years prior, and here I was, face to face. Jack patted me on the back. I forced some small talk, but thankfully his attention was pulled elsewhere, and he left. I walked over to Darren, taking a sip of my drink.
“Hey big guy, glad you showed up.” He extended a hand to shake that I accepted without hesitation.
“Yeah, well, figured it would be good to see some familiar faces.” Lying is difficult when you’re nervous. You have to force yourself to be casual, a paradox that makes most people bad liars.
As I watched the crowd, studied their faces, my anxiety and embarrassment gave way to disgust. Nearly everyone here had a chance to stick up for me, to stop Jack from bringing it all down on me. They knew damn well what part of the scheme each of us had been responsible for; after all, it had been nearly impossible to keep our bragging mouths shut. To be fair to us, it was worth bragging about.
We had terabytes of test answers, homework solutions, and scanned notes that were updated weekly. A stripped-down keylogger that disguised itself as a corrupted docx or xls file meant we had access to the computer of nearly every single professor. What we couldn’t get with viruses we got through sleight of hand—we stole it. It was a technical marvel, and if I hadn’t decided to destroy my brain with as many substances a person could afford maybe I could’ve used that technical prowess to get a job that actually paid well.
Then Jack got caught with test files on his personal computer, something we had strictly forbidden for anyone using the cheating system. Not only had he had enough evidence to solely incriminate me, he had the charm to ingratiate himself with the authorities. Jack told them I was to blame—for all it.
It pushed me over the edge, my substance abuse issues were bad enough, imagine how bad they got when I lost the ability to ever pursue higher education again. Ejected from college, my next move was into a bottle, two bottles actually, one for liquor and the other for pills. There isn’t a consensus on what exactly intelligence means, the elements of nature versus nurture, how much a person can actually gain. However, there is a consensus on how intelligence can be lost. Drug companies would pay billions if there was a drug that could make you smarter. A drug that makes you dumber though, that’s only a few bucks a hit and ends in -amphetamine.
All of this misfortune could’ve been avoided had the people I was standing before, those who had benefited from the cheating ring, actually had the guts to challenge Jack’s accusation that I was the sole mastermind. They didn’t though, either out of fear of implicating themselves or fear of Jack. That was one of the big differences between Jack and me, living examples of Machiavelli’s great question about fear and love. I got in the good graces of others through favors and kindness, he captivated devotion through tyrannical manipulation. It seems being feared was the better option, given the chance to help someone they may have loved or cower from someone they may have feared, they chose the latter. Cowardice is the natural state of man.
“Andrea is here, you should hit her up, see if any of that spark is still there.” Darren punctuated his sentence with a wink.
I clenched my jaw and forced myself to stop the sneer. Andrea was the only person here that I refused to see. Andrea was a complex pain, a regret that took the form of a knot in my stomach. I couldn’t even look at her. I cheated on her and when she found out, I never spoke to her again. The apology she deserved was better than anything I could come up with. Andrea had been all that I had left, but then I lost her too.
Darren and I engaged in a bit more small talk before I sat by the fire, staring into it for a moment. I started to think twice about my plan, if I could really pull it off, if I should. Jack sat next to me, turning to look at my profile.
“What’re you doing for work these days?” he asked, throwing a fistful of grass into the fire.
“Construction,” I responded with a fake smile, pulling the second beer from my pocket.
“Hey, that’s better than nothing,” Jack quickly shot back in his usual, unbearably superior manner.
“Actually, I just hit the jackpot,” I said in a hushed tone, trying to play up the secrecy of the matter. “One of my sites is used as a dead drop. Two bricks of the highest quality coke you’ve ever seen.”
“Is that so?” Jack became attentive. Once again, I was of some use to him.
“Yeah, and honestly, it’s way too much for me, it’s gonna be hard enough to sell off and use one of those bricks, so who better to enjoy my good luck?”
“Seriously? Me? After everything that happened?” He was trying to keep his voice down, giddy at the prospect of free drugs. I knew exactly how to bait my trap.
“That was ages ago. No hard feelings.” It was a lie, one that he would realize only once it was too late.
“You got it with you?”
“Hell no, I’m not taking on that kind of risk, it’s still at the work site. Come pick it up and it’s all yours.” My heart raced as my plan came together.
“As much as I’d love to believe you, you sound like a cop right now.” Jack said, casting doubt and possibly ruining my plot.
“A cop? I’m sorry, have we met? I haven’t pissed clean since I was a freshman in high school.” I responded, trying my best to sound offended. I didn’t need to try very hard, it was probably the second to last job I would have, just behind admissions counselor.
“You make a good point,” He said, weighing the options in his head. “Yeah, alright I’m in.”
“Alright, I’m gonna leave, and in five minutes meet me at the gas station down the road. I don’t want us to be seen leaving together, I want to keep this secret so there’s not any chance of it biting me in the ass.” I needed to make sure we weren’t seen leaving together, otherwise I’d be the number one suspect. I probably still would be, but I couldn’t make it too obvious.
I said goodbye to Darren, giving the excuse that I had to work early in the morning. I finished my beer and walked back through the woods to the road, putting my hood up so I had a lesser chance of being identified by any passerby. I made sure to sit at the edge of the gas station parking lot, hoping no cameras spotted me.
“How far is it?” a voice called out behind me. I nearly jumped before realizing it was Jack.
“Not too far, just a short walk.” I responded, standing up and heading in the construction site’s direction.
“You must feel like the luckiest guy in the world, huh?” Jack said with excitement in his voice.
“I’ll really know if I’m lucky if I can pull this off.” I said back with a smile, my heart beating out of my chest over what was about to transpire.
“Better luck than you had back when I knew you,” Jack fired back, referencing my expulsion.
It took every ounce of strength in my body not to punch his jaw loose right then and there. Any vestiges of doubt I had about my plans were dashed. Even when I was offering him thousands of dollars of free drugs, he was the same old bastard, poking at old wounds. If it weren’t for my “bad luck,” as he called it, I wouldn’t be leading him to his death.
“Actually, y’know what. That wasn’t right. I screwed you, no two ways about it, and now you’re treating me like a friend.” He showed genuine regret on his face as he spoke. I was taken aback; I’d never expected him to say anything like that. “What happened sucked. That’s the way it had to be, but I didn’t mean to ruin your life. One of us had to take that fall, and I’d do what I did again, but I never really spoke to you after like I should have.”
“Uh. Yeah. It did suck. Thanks for saying something now.” I didn’t know what coming out of my mouth was the truth and what was a lie. For the first time during the night, I felt a stabbing nervousness. Like what I was about to do was horribly wrong.
The silence hung in the air between us. To him, it was the awkward situation of two people who had a falling out being alone together. To me, it was realizing the burden of being judge, jury and executioner.
“Construction doesn’t really seem like your thing. You never seemed like the manual labor type.” He broke the silence with a neutral, almost empathetic response. “Corner office beats concrete, I gotta say.”
“You’ve never found several thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs at that office though, have you?”
“You’re right about that. How do you know these drugs don’t belong to some powerful gang and I’m not gonna end up murdered?” he asked, following me into the skeleton of the building.
“You risk dying every day; hell, one of us could trip and fall here, crack open one of our skulls and nobody would hear the screams.” I felt a rush of blood go to my face as I spoke, wondering if I had gone too far and he would become suspicious.
“That’s true enough,” he responded, grabbing a beer from one of his pockets and cracking it open. “Where exactly is this stuff anyway?”
“It’s just this way,” I said, bringing him further into the dark concrete structure. “Turn on your phone flashlight, I left mine at home.”
He turned on his flashlight, the rays casting sharp and imposing shadows across the smooth floor. I walked him over to the far edge of the foundation to the location of a deep pit in the dirt. A metal ladder poked above the edge about a foot.
“After you,” I said, gesturing towards the ladder, becoming more excited with each passing second.
He followed my order, descending the ladder. At around halfway, I firmly grasped the top rung and shook furiously until the ladder became lighter. With a small scream and a groan, he fell to the bottom of the pit, making a soft thud on impact.
“Hey, what the hell is wrong with you?” he asked, scrambling to his feet. Before he could reach the ladder, I yanked it up, placing it on the ground next to the hole’s edge.
“Well since you ask, both my knees are shot and lower back has a sharp pain whenever I turn to the left. I pay far too much to rent a room in a house with a divorcee who argues on the phone at two in the morning, and a crackhead who nearly burned the place down just last week.” I sat on the edge of the pit, my legs dangling over the edge. Pulling a cigarette from behind my ear and lighting it, I peered into the chasm, faintly making out Jack’s silhouette.
Jack jumped to grab one of my legs, his fingertips grazing the tip of my shoe. I smiled and lifted it only six inches in the air, completely out of his reach.
“Uh uh,” I said to his attempt at dragging me in with him, lighting the cigarette. “No point in doing that, I played enough basketball with you to know you don’t have anywhere near the vertical.”
“Help!” he screamed with a desperation greater than I had ever heard in my life, continuing to jump at my legs, a twisted expression of rage painted across his face.
“No point in that either. I told you, nobody is going to hear you.” I ashed my cigarette on his head as he tried again to grab me, this time a few fingers wrapping around my ankle. “Oh that was a close one, have you been working out?” I mocked him, drinking in the screams punctuated with heavy breathing as he began to panic more. “Listen, old buddy, if you royally screw someone over, and years later they invite you to a secluded place for thousands of dollars of free drugs, maybe you’re too dumb to live.”
“Okay, you’ve scared me, good job, I’m sorry, now get me the fuck out of here.” He had stopped jumping at me, resting too far back in the pit for me to see him.
“Oh, you’ll get your escape, it’ll just be a little while,” I said, standing and turning to the concrete mixer, extending the nozzle towards the edge of the pit.
“Hey, hey!” he screamed as he heard the mixer roar to life. A second sound, almost too quiet to hear played between his screams. I had forgotten to take his phone. Shit.
I grabbed the ladder, swinging it at him as the phone rang. I was beginning to panic, to come this far and fail suddenly became a possible end to things. Swinging as wildly as I could, I felt the end of the ladder make contact, silencing the ringing and knocking Jack to the ground.
“I’ll admit you almost got me there,” I said with a laugh, throwing my lit cigarette butt into the pit, its glow casting a soft dot of light on the edge of his limp body.
“Goddamn you,” he croaked out, a slur in his speech from his recent head injury.
“If you’ve got something to say to God, just wait a little while longer, you’ll see him soon enough.”
The concrete slowly poured into the hole. I did my best to take my time and savor the moment. He spent every moment he could walking over others, and now he would spend eternity being walked over. He might have ruined my life, but at least I would still have one. While I was scared of being caught, I knew if I played things right, I’d probably be fine, not like it mattered anyhow. My revenge was complete, anything after that was just an added bonus. I was lucky enough to fill the hole before the early morning shift arrived. I walked home with a spring in my step and had the best night’s sleep I’d had in years.