By A.C. Koch
During the summer between third and fourth grade, my buddies and I spent hours exploring the ravines along the creek and the back lots of all the new houses at the outskirts of town, amidst the mounds of freshly bulldozed dirt and discarded construction debris. We played War and Hide-and-Go-Seek and Tag until the streetlights came on.
Richie P., the type of kid who no one liked, followed us wherever we went, though we never invited him. When splitting a Twinkie with him, he’d inspect both halves to make sure he was getting the larger one. If some change fell out of your pocket while you were rolling down a hill, he’d scramble to scoop up the coins and wouldn’t give them back, even if you needed them to catch the bus home. At the bank of the creek, where we all stood to pee, he’d make fun of everyone’s dick, even though I think we all saw that his was the smallest.
I hated Richie P. I remember watching him one day, throwing dirt clods at Pete and David and José who were busy trying to catch minnows in the creek with paper cups. It crossed my mind that Richie P. was never going to be a good person. We may’ve been kids, but the rest of us innately knew we were supposed to help our friends, not hurt them. It seemed likely that Richie P. would grow up to be the same type of person he was as a kid.
I guess I was daydreaming, but it felt more like a vision. I saw a world where Richie P. was the leader. He blathered on television, telling lie after lie. I saw him sending troops into neighborhoods to round up kids who didn’t look like him and haul them off to cages. I saw him tearing up the Constitution, refusing to accept the results of the election that voted him out. Smoldering cities, vacant suburbs, dying forests. Then Richie P. wearing a grand marshal’s jacket, pinning medals to his own chest as troops marched past saluting him.
I looked around at Pete and David and José. We were standing in a trance, like we’d all just seen the same vision. Richie P., meanwhile, was on top of a small ravine, throwing rocks at a frog. One rock, two rocks, then a direct hit. The frog flopped over and went limp. Richie P. laughed.
José was closest to him. His face tightened, as though having an internal debate with himself. He walked over and gave Richie P. a good hard shove, and he went tumbling down the loose dirt slope with a cry of “Hey!”
He rolled to a stop at my feet, and I didn’t hesitate. I gave him a solid kick in the gut.
“Oof!” went Richie P.
Pete and David ran over, and José slid down the dirt slope so we were all standing around him where he squirmed on the ground. I kicked him again, and the others joined, kicking him in the gut, kicking him in the back, kicking him in the head.
He struggled for a while, but we weren’t messing around. We didn’t go crazy, but we did kick and beat him like it was our job, or like it was a game we really wanted to win.
He may’ve still been alive when we rolled him with our feet into the creek. He splashed into the water face down, and we kicked rocks and two-by-fours on top of him to keep him down. Within a few minutes, the bubbles stopped rising up around his head.
None of us said anything for a while. I felt a rush of adrenaline, but nothing much different from a good soccer match or a race on Field Day. We looked at each other. “Hide-and-Go-Seek?” someone said, and everyone fanned out to find their hiding places while I covered my eyes and started counting down from thirty.
We never talked about it. None of us had liked Richie P., he wasn’t anyone’s friend. Our parents didn’t know about him and his parents didn’t know about us. We never even bothered to get our stories straight. No one ever asked us what happened to him. The only effect the murder of Richie P. had on our lives was we couldn’t play outside after dinner for a couple of weeks. There were neighborhood search parties and a couple of news stories, and then we didn’t hear or think about Richie P. for a long time.
Years later, the four of us saw each other again at our high school reunion. We hadn’t all been together since that summer, and it was surreal to hang out on the rooftop patio of a downtown hotel with the developed city glittering. Our wives and husbands and other classmates had melted away and it was just the four of us at the table, each with a bottle of beer.
We shared a look and a smile.
“We did the right thing,” José said. It wasn’t a question.
“And I’d do it all over again,” I said.
A hover-tram glided by as I said it, a river of light that slid between the mirrored faces of the skyscrapers with a soft whooshing sound. Far above, space-freighters traced calligraphies of light against the clouds as they criss-crossed in their sub-orbital paths up to the Aerostat that hung like a Christmas ornament among the stars. All this, every shimmering detail, had been bought with the life of one troublesome boy. Everyone smiled and we all raised our bottles and clinked.
The part of the story I never knew about went like this: a construction worker stumbled across Richie P.’s corpse as he was clearing debris for some bulldozer work, back in that long-ago summer. He knelt down and looked at the boy’s lifeless face matted in mud and washed up in a mess of branches. Another worker came over to join him. They went silent for a minute or two as they both retreated into their thoughts, almost like a trance.
When they came out of it, they exchanged a few words.
“You know that thing about traveling back in time and killing Baby Hitler?” “Yeah.”
They looked at the body for another minute or so, nodding their heads, and then clapped each other on the shoulder. They went back to their bulldozers, fired up the engines, and started moving earth like nothing had happened.
A.C. Koch’s work has been published in Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, and the Columbia Journal. His stories have won the Raymond Carver Short Story Award twice (2003, 2007), and another story was just named runner-up in the Tennessee Williams Short Fiction Contest. He lives in Denver where he teaches linguistics and plays guitar in Firstimers, a powerpop ensemble. Instagram: @henry_iblis and