It was shortly before 10pm that Josh finally made up his mind. There was no way out. He’d done something terrible, cowardly even, and now he would have to face the consequences.
If only he’d listened to his sister.
Then again, what did she know? Her circle of friends spent most of their time swooning over some cringe worthy chick flick or other or experimenting with the latest tone of eyeshadow. Hardly a thrill a minute!
Being in a gang had made him feel important. Given him a sense of identity.
For years he’d been that kid. The one who’d never really fitted in. It’s not that there was anything wrong with him, he just didn’t seem to have the same interests as other kids his age and hanging about making small talk had always felt so alien to him. And then, out of the blue, Jake had approached him. Extended the arm of friendship. Made life seem exciting.
They’d spent Saturday afternoons hanging out together watching video clips and indulging his sweet tooth. The age gap hadn’t seemed to matter at first – and anyway, Jake always seemed to have lots of money on him which had been kind of handy for all those trips to the precinct. Josh hadn’t really noticed when Jake’s other friends had started tagging along, although he had a faint suspicion that it was at about the same time that Saturday afternoons had begun to make him feel a bit edgy.
The sweets were promptly replaced by something more substantial from the chippy and although the cans that got passed around had a rather bitter flavour, Josh gradually got used to the taste and barely noticed the hours that he couldn’t quite account for the following day.
The pranks that he and Jake had laughed at on the video clips they’d watched together provided the inspiration for their Saturday night antics – although Josh had noticed that it always seemed to be him that got volunteered for the dangerous stuff. When at last he’d plucked up the courage to ask, Jake’s friends had claimed that it was Josh’s size that made him the obvious candidate for clambering through windows and shinning down drainpipes and he’d tried very hard to shrug off the suspicion that he was simply being used by these much older (and stronger) men.
Eventually, the ‘collections’ turned into deliveries and Josh had to admit that he much preferred his new role. Being gifted a bike and a phone to carry out his rounds had also been pretty cool. And although he knew (deep down) that the packages that he was delivering were probably causing the recipient harm, he kept telling himself that it had been their choice to put in an order, not his.
Josh couldn’t really remember when he’d first been asked to find new customers from amongst the younger kids at his school. However, he did remember the look on Jake’s face when he’d tried to refuse, and the scar located at the back of his calf served as a constant reminder that he no longer seemed to have any control over his own destiny.
Most of the younger kids had been eager to try a free sample or two (in exchange for a quick go on his bike) and Josh had told himself that his part in all of this was simply an act of self-preservation. He wasn’t even sure what was in the pellets that they were trying. Which was precisely why he had refused to believe that what had happened to dear little Tilly had had anything to do with him – at first, anyway.
But the papers had mentioned a history of depression and, having looked it all up on the internet, Josh discovered that there was indeed a link. Her image had been praying on his mind ever since. That timid little smile and those watery blue eyes.
A life needlessly cut short. Thanks to him.
That’s why, when a text from an unknown source had lit up his phone earlier that evening, Josh had known that it was Game Over. Tilly’s brother had worked it all out and he wasn’t going to let it lie. Josh was going to pay, it said. One way or another.
As he reached for his coat, Josh glanced around his bedroom one last time. It still bore the signs of the young boy who used to spend hours immersed in the pages of a book, curled up on the window seat, enjoying his own company. Carefully pulling his door to, Josh crossed the landing where he paused (just long enough) to take in the carefree laughter of his sister and her friends, their lives so deliciously free from complication. And with a heavy heart, he ventured out into the night.
He had been instructed to head for the railway bridge at the east side of town. He knew it well; it had been a regular haunt of his, ever since he’d allowed himself to become caught up with Jake and his gang. As he trudged further and further away from the relative safety of the well-lit High Street, Josh felt certain that the author of the text had chosen the bridge so that they would not be disturbed.
He’d gone over the options in his mind time and again. He could go to the police – but Jake (or one of his cronies) would no doubt see to it that he didn’t live long enough to stand trial. He could run away – but Jake had always been extremely careful to emphasise just how far his reach extended. And so, in the end, Josh had concluded that facing Tilly’s brother and his mates was probably the lesser evil and he’d been steeling himself for this moment all evening.
As he turned the final corner, Josh was struck by the realisation that nothing could adequately have prepared him for what lay before him. Plastered on every conceivable surface were the faces of all the ‘customers’ that he’d ‘served’ glinting defiantly in the moonlight.
Row upon row; an album of betrayal and of lost innocence. And he might as well have been the photographer.
Consumed with self-loathing, Josh made no attempt to fight off the two dark figures whose blows rained down upon him. He reckoned that he’d cheated enough people during his pitifully short life; he had no intention of cheating Death now too.