That is when some of his beer spills.
Not a lot. Just a splash. But it's enough.
The beer lands on a red Windbreaker. That's one of the things you remember. It was freezing cold outside, in the teens, and yet someone was wearing just a Windbreaker. The other thing you will never shake from your mind is that a Windbreaker is waterproof. The spilled beer, little as it was, would not harm the coat. It would not stain. It could so easily be rinsed away.
He, the owner of the red Windbreaker, is a big guy but not huge. Duff shrugs. He does not apologize. The guy, Mr. Red Windbreaker, gets in Duff's face. This is a mistake. You know that Duff is a great fighter with a short fuse. Every school has a Duff--the guy you can never imagine losing a fight.
That's the problem, of course. Every school has a Duff. And once in a while your Duff runs into their Duff.
You try to end it right there, try to laugh it off, but you have two serious beer-marinated headcases with reddening faces and tightening fists. A challenge is issued. You don't remember who made it. You all step outside into the frigid night, and you realize that you are in a heap of trouble.
The big guy with the red Windbreaker has friends with him.
Eight or nine of them. You and Duff are alone. You look for Duff's high school friend-- Mark or Mike or something--but he is nowhere to be found.
The fight begins quickly.
Duff lowers his head bull-like and charges Red Windbreaker. Red Windbreaker steps to the side and catches Duff in a headlock. He punches Duff in the nose. Still holding Duff in the headlock, he punches him again. Then again. And again.
Duff's head is down. He is swinging wildly and with no effect. It is somewhere around the seventh or eighth punch that Duff stops swinging. Red Windbreaker's friends start cheering. Duff's arms drop to his sides.
You want to stop it, but you are not sure how. Red Windbreaker is going about his work methodically, taking his time with his punches, using big windups. His buddies are cheering him on now. They ooh and ahh with each splat.
You are terrified.
Your friend is taking a beating, but you are mostly worried about yourself. That shames you. You want to do something, but you are afraid, seriously afraid. You can't move. Your legs feel like rubber. Your arms tingle. And you hate yourself for that.
Red Windbreaker throws another punch straight into Duff's face. He releases the headlock. Duff drops to the ground like a bag of laundry. Red Windbreaker kicks Duff in the ribs.
You are the worst sort of friend. You are too scared to help. You will never forget that feeling. Cowardice. It is worse than a beating, you think. Your silence. This awful feeling of dishonor.
Another kick. Duff grunts and rolls onto his back. His face is streaked with crimson red. You will learn later that his injuries were minor. Duff will have two black eyes and numerous bruises. That will be about it. But right now he looks bad. You know that he would never stand by and let you take a beating like this.
You can stand it no longer.
Copyright Harlan Coben 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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