The night we killed Pat Singer started with me sipping a beer I swiped from my stepdad’s cooler and re-writing a text message to Amy Holloway over and over, trying to think up something clever. My only concern in the young evening was how I’d approach her, what I’d say to her at the baseball team’s homecoming party later that night. I didn’t even care that Coach Riggs had bumped me down from fifth to eighth in the batting order for the game that day. Her dimpled cheeks and hazel eyes and curled brown hair stole me. I wonder how she’s doing these days. Last I heard she married a lawyer down in Houston and had a couple of kids.
It’s funny how time—even mere hours—will put your problems into perspective. What’s dire today is an afterthought tomorrow. Tomorrow, we’d give a limb to only be burdened by yesterday’s phantom troubles. You might respond with, time heals all, right? Once past troubles are in the rearview, new ones crop up. Such is life.
But, sometimes time does the opposite.
Every year for homecoming, the baseball team would have a little fun with the new guys. The seniors would task a few juniors with taking the sophomores who made the cut for varsity (there were usually a few of them) into the woods behind the field to get them good and drunk and duct-tape them to the sturdy pines. The juniors would drink and celebrate for a few hours before going back to let them loose. They’d all return to the party where the new guys would be greeted by a slurred ovation from drunken classmates, hormones revving. It was all good fun.
Pat Singer was the only sophomore that year. He was a small guy, but a hell of a second baseman. There wasn’t an upperclassman on the team who could turn a quicker double play. Ozzie, Phil, a couple of other guys, and I had him plastered on grain alcohol by eight o’clock. We wanted to make the party on time.
Ozzie was taking pulls and was about as drunk as Pat was. We wrapped the duct tape tight around his legs and arms and chest—he was taking it like a sport. But, Ozzie had other ideas. He removed a shoe, pulled off his rancid sock, tossed it on the ground, and pissed on it.
“Let’s see how you like this you little bitch.”
We saw what was coming, but didn’t say a damn thing. Sure, we gave him a half-hearted c’mon man and no need for that. But when it came to a belligerent Ozzie jamming the piss sock into the writhing Pat’s mouth, we all stood there, frozen by a cowardly fear of perceived weakness, waiting to agree with the first guy to object.
No one did.
The party went great, even played beer pong with Amy and got a kiss on the cheek after we won a couple of games. I told her I’d find her after we retrieved Pat. She rolled her eyes. “The whole thing’s so stupid.”
It was near two in the morning when we made it back out to the pines, leaves crunching beneath our feet and slivers of moon lighting our path through the trees. From a distance, Pat looked like a scarecrow, limp against the tree. Closer, we saw his stomach carved open, thick ropes of intestine dangling from his insides like bloody vines, his shirt and pants soaked and dripping and blackened. Someone—something—had hacked his gut to bits, tearing his innards loose until he was damn near inside out. I remember vomit splattering on my shoes and the sour stench of iron. The sock was still in his mouth.
The cops tracked down the guy who did it not long after. A drifter type, he’d previously limited himself to setting fires and carving up pets until he came across Pat. At trial he testified that Pat was God’s offering to him, signaling that his urges were not something he should suppress, but rather the whisperings of the Lord.
We got off clean. No probation, nothing. See, the whole town knew of the tradition, and most of the local authorities had participated themselves when they were young ballplayers. To condemn us was to condemn all. Our little town couldn’t swallow that sort of collective guilt. The national media didn’t pick up on it, either. We were working-class white kids. One side wasn’t able to diagnose us with affluenza, so we couldn’t represent the alarming results of unbridled capitalism, and the other side didn’t want to cast our blonde hair and blue eyes as the image of youthful criminality.
As for the group, Ozzie’s now a heroin junkie in and out of prison. I don’t make assumptions about why; diagnosing cause and effect is a risky business when it comes to human behavior. The rest of them are doing all right, far as I know.
About a year back, I visited Pat’s grave. His old man was there. I thought he might beat me ‘til brain was leaking out my ears—I wanted him to. Instead, he threw his arms around me and bawled, his snot wet on my shirt.
Years later, the burden’s only grown heavier. It’s unbearable. It feels as though I carry it around for everyone, the other fellas, the whole damn town. Like any sickness, for most people it’s true: with time it heals. For others—me—time only facilitates its spread. It seeps into every organ and tissue. I feel myself rotting.
I imagine there’s some selfishness in my sense of justice. Is it about justice? Or am I just too weak to carry it? Taking the easy way, and all that. Doesn’t matter, now. I hope that the heaviness can die with me—like an infected person taking one for the team so it won’t spread to others. I hope.
Nils Gilbertson is a crime and mystery fiction writer and practicing attorney. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Nils currently resides in Washington, D.C. with his wife. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Modern, Mystery Weekly, Pulp Adventures, Thriller Magazine, Close to the Bone, and others. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and find him on Twitter @NilsGilbertson.