I jumped on my bike and started it up, plugged in my MP3 player, and blasted the volume as Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” came through the speakers. I sped away down the hill and through the trees, singing along with the song and letting the wind blow through my hair. It would be hell to comb out later, but I couldn’t give less of a fuck. I screeched out onto the road and turned left, deciding to take a ride through the country before going back into town. The stars twinkled brightly by the millions, and the spring wind was cool. I was probably the happiest guy in the world.
Then I noticed a pair of headlights in my mirrors, approaching fast. I slowed down, just in case it was a cop. The headlights were getting brighter and larger. Soon, with barely a car’s length between us, they matched my speed and followed close behind me.
“Get off my ass, you prick,” I murmured, and twisted the accelerator, surging ahead. The vehicle behind me sped up, too. Then it came up beside me in the other lane. It was the Escalade. The passenger side windows rolled down and I heard the whooping and howling of Kelly, Allan, and Brad. Mark sat shotgun, buckled in tightly, keeping his nervous eyes on the road. I gave them the finger and they acted offended, covering their mouths and tsking.
“That’s not very nice,” Brad called.
“Guess we should teach him some manners,” Kelly suggested, and jerked the wheel to the right. I swerved out of the way and they laughed like rabid hyenas.
“Kelly, fucking stop!” Mark yelled.
I didn’t want to deal with their shit, so I decelerated and dropped back. They slowed down as well and joined up with me again.
“What the hell do you want?” They were really taking the edge off my good mood. So was the sharp curve we were approaching.
“Just having some fun!” Kelly replied, and jerked the wheel again. This time, I lost control and skidded on the gravel on the side of the road. The front of the bike crumpled against the guardrail at the curve. The loud music stopped abruptly, and all I could hear was the wind. I had been thrown from the bike and was flying over a steep embankment, which flattened out at the bottom and turned to woods. The bottom was coming up fast. I had just enough time before impact to think to myself, This is gonna hurt.
I wasn’t unconscious for very long because, when I opened my eyes, Kelly and his friends were just jumping the guardrail. I moved around slowly and carefully, joint by joint. I was really sore but, miraculously, it didn’t seem like anything was broken.
Mark was the first one to reach me. “Grin, are you—”
Kelly ran up and shoved him away. He pulled me to my feet by the front of my jacket. “You think you can just come along and steal my girl?” he hissed in my face. The alcohol on his breath stung my nose, but he had sobered up quite a bit.
“Yeah,” I replied, grinning.
When the shock of my response wore off, he punched me hard across the face. It hurt, but I just shook my head to gather my senses and smiled at him.
“But I won’t need to,” I said. “Once it gets around that you’re screwing Stacy, Sarah’ll dump you.”
His eyes bulged. He punched the other side of my face and threw me on the ground. I laughed and pressed my cheek into the cool grass. His aim was surprisingly good.
“Let’s see how you plan to ruin my reputation from a hospital bed, Frankenstein!” he growled.
“Kelly, cool it!” Mark yelled. He tried to get between us, but Allan and Brad pulled him back and held him by his arms.
“Reputation, reputation,” I groaned, rolling over and sitting up with my aching legs stretched out in front of me. I leaned back on my hands and looked up at him. “Listen to me, sport, because I’m gonna tell you something that will change your life.” I turned my head for a moment and spat out a mouthful of blood. He glared down at me, breathing heavily. “In the real world, no one is gonna care how popular you were, many touchdowns you scored, how many nerds you beat up, or how many girls you fucked. Real life isn’t like high school. And when you walk across the stage in your cap and gown two months from now, you can kiss your precious reputation goodbye. Because at that moment, you’ll be nothing but another dumb jock.”
He didn’t like the sound of that. He let out an angry cry and grabbed me by the hair, pulled me to my feet, and punched me in the stomach. I doubled over and, even with the wind knocked out of me, I was laughing.
“Let me go! Let go!” Mark was saying. “Kelly, stop!”
Kelly threw me down on my hands and knees. I managed to reach into my pocket and get my switchblade, but then he kicked me in the ribs. I tried to crawl away, giggling.
“Are you laughing?” he said incredulously. I got shakily to my feet and he tackled me from behind, laying me out flat on the ground. He grabbed my wrist and twisted my arm behind my back, wrenching the knife from my hand. It felt like he was dislocating my shoulder, but when I should’ve been screaming, I was laughing hysterically. He let go of my arm and rolled me over, kneeling on my legs.
“Fight him, Grin! Come on! Get up!” Mark encouraged, unable to escape from Brad and Allan.
“What is so fucking funny?” Kelly yelled, holding me in a sitting position by the front of my shirt.
I had no idea. Maybe it was my body’s reaction to the pain. Maybe I was giddy from oxygen deprivation after all those blows to the diaphragm. Or maybe I was realizing Kelly was really going to fuck me up. It reminded me of something. A KISS song. Something about laughing when you know you’re about to die.
“Shut the fuck up!” Kelly roared at the top of his lungs. He punched me in the face again and I laughed louder. “Why the hell are you laughing?” he screamed. He wasn’t just angry anymore. He sounded scared, too. But I couldn’t stop. He pummeled me, growing more and more frantic as my blood stained his fists and my laughter filled the woods. It echoed back, bouncing off the hill and the trees, and I could hear it for myself. It was a chilling, evil sound, like the laughter of a demon cackling from the mouth of a possessed man. It sounded like something I’d heard before, but I couldn’t think of when or where. I couldn’t think of anything.
“You think this is funny? I’ll give you something to laugh about,” Kelly panted. I felt the cold steel of the knife in my mouth, the sharp edge on the inside of my cheek. He ripped the blade out, slicing the left side of my face open from the corner of my mouth to my jaw. That was the only time I screamed. “Not so funny now, is it?” he cried. He put the blade in my mouth again and cut open the other side of my face.
Blood pooled in the back of my throat, and I felt fear for the first time since the start of our confrontation. I’d choke if I didn’t do something. The mounting panic of suffocation was setting in. Before distress could cloud my judgment, I commanded my body to sit up, forcing out the last of the breath in my lungs as hard as I could. The blood expelled itself from my airway, out my mouth…
…and splattered in the center of Kelly’s face.
His satisfied smile disappeared.
And then, I couldn’t help it. I roared with laughter, a sickening, wet sound, as the muscles in my face twitched. All my teeth were exposed, even back to the molars. My face was slashed in half. From the look Kelly was giving me, I knew I looked horrifying.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” he screamed, pressing his hands to the sides of his head. I was literally driving him insane. Finally, he put the knife against my neck. “Shut the fuck up or I’ll shut you up for good!”
I didn’t shut the fuck up. I couldn’t. So, he jerked the blade across. The cut he made to the left side of my neck was deep, but he hadn’t cut my throat. Then I saw a spurt of red from the corner of my eye.
“Oh my God,” Kelly whispered, dropping the knife and standing up. He stumbled back as Mark finally freed himself from Allan and Brad who stared dumbly, frozen with fear. He ran to my side.
“Holy shit!” he gasped, covering his mouth with his hand. He looked away, bracing himself for another look at my mutilated face. My laughter had slowly died and I realized what was happening. Blood squirted rhythmically from the left side of my neck. Kelly had sliced my jugular.
“Call 911,” Mark ordered, turning my head and pressing both hands down on the open vein. There was no response. He looked up and saw Allan and Brad staring at each other silently, not moving. Kelly’s face was completely blank. “C’mon! He’s fucking dying!”
“What do we do?” Allan asked.
Kelly gazed numbly. “Nothing. We don’t know anything about this.”
“Don’t listen to him!” Mark shouted. “Get your phones and call for help! He’s going to die!”
“I said, we don’t know anything about this!” Kelly screamed. “The last time we saw Jake Grinley, he was leaving Sarah’s party. Got that?”
Brad and Allan looked at each other and nodded slowly.
Mark shook his head in disbelief. “Fuck you,” he said. “Damn you to hell, you fucking bastards!”
He looked back down at me. The others stood and watched. The pressure he was applying to my neck was not enough. Blood was oozing through his fingers and rushing from the sides of my ruined face. I could feel it soaking the ground beneath me.
Damn… It’s cold out here. So fucking cold…
Summoning all the strength I had left, I pulled Mark down by his collar so he could hear me. He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see my horrific face so closely.
“Tell Sarah I loved her,” I said as clearly as I could.
“No. Don’t say shit like that. You’re not gonna die.”
I let out a small laugh that bubbled the blood in my throat. “If it wasn’t Kelly… woulda been the cigarettes,” I joked.
He shook his head defiantly.
“Sarah,” I whispered. That name was my last word.
Somewhere inside, I was still alive. I couldn’t see. I could hear, but it seemed like the sound was coming from the end of a tunnel. I had no feeling, but I could make out the orientation of my body and my location in space. I heard Mark breathing heavily, then screaming.
“Murderer!” he raged. I heard him run across the grass. There was a scuffling sound. He and Kelly were fighting.
“Stop, Mark! Stop! Chill out!” Kelly yelled. The fighting stopped.
“You killed him, motherfucker… You killed him! You fucking piece of shit!”
“Pull yourself together, okay?” Kelly commanded. “Listen. My parents aren’t getting back until morning. We’re all going to go to my place. You and I are going to clean ourselves up and get rid of these bloody clothes. And, if anyone asks, we went straight there after Sarah’s party, and we haven’t seen Grinley since the party. All right?”
There was silence. Kelly came back toward me and stopped a few feet from my body. I heard him pick up my switchblade, wipe the handle off with his shirt, and drop it into the grass. “Let’s go,” he said.
I heard the footsteps fade away across the grass, but another set approached. Mark heaved a deep sigh. “I’m sorry, Grin. …I tried,” he said. “I’ll tell Sarah what you said. I promise.”
Then he left, too.
The Escalade drove away.
I lay there and waited to die.
“…made him look like he pissed off his bookie,” a male voice was saying in an English accent. “…Yeah, I stitched him up, but there’s a lot of blood, and it hasn’t quite stopped yet. I don’t know how he made it this long. You’d better put the pedal to the… Well, what was I supposed to do? Shoot them? …Hey, hey, hey. I did what you said. I followed the guy, I kept you updated, so if you wanna do this, you had better get here now.”
A cell phone snapped shut. I tried to open my eyes and speak, but barely succeeded in making my lips move.
“Hang in there, mate,” the voice said. “She’s coming.”
Just as I felt myself rising into the air, seeing a pinprick of beautiful light miles above me, something dripped into my mouth. I felt it. Then I fell back down, into my torn and aching body. I was aware of warm pressure on my mouth and liquid pooling in the back of my throat. I swallowed it and something hot spread through me to the ends of my fingers and toes. As the warmth began to course through my veins, the aching started to dissipate. Before long, the pain in my face was gone, and so was that in my neck. In fact, I didn’t really hurt at all. I felt… good.
I sucked at whatever was being given to me. Something warm and sweet in a strange way, but not like sugar is sweet. I’d never tasted anything like it. I loved it.
But then it stopped, and something moved away from me.
Though I tried to hold on, tried to open my eyes and see the face of my savior, I slipped into unconsciousness.