You jump out of the crowd.
All heads turn toward you. For a moment nobody moves. Nobody speaks. Red Windbreaker is breathing hard. You see his breath in the cold. You are shaking. You try to sound rational. Hey, you say, he's had enough. You spread your arms. You try the charming smile. He's lost the fight, you say. It's over. You've won, you tell Red Windbreaker.
Someone jumps you from behind. Arms snake around you, wrapping you in a bear hug. You are trapped.
Red Windbreaker comes at you now. Your heart is beating against your chest like a bird in too small a cage. You reel your head back. Your skull crashes into someone's nose. Red Windbreaker is closer now. You duck out of the way. Someone else comes out of the crowd. He has blond hair, his complexion ruddy. You figure that he is another one of Red Windbreaker's pals.
His name is Stephen McGrath.
He reaches for you. You buck away like a fish on a hook. More are coming at you. You panic. Stephen McGrath puts his hands on your shoulders. You try to break free. You spin frantically.
That is when you reach out and grab his neck.
Did you lunge at him? Did he pull you or did you push him? You don't know. Did one of you lose your footing on the sidewalk? Was the ice to blame? You will flash back to this moment countless times, but the answer will never be clear.
Either way, you both fall.
Both of your hands are still on his neck. On his throat. You don't let go.
You land with a thud. The back of Stephen McGrath's skull hits the sidewalk curb. There is a sound, an awful hell-spawned crack, something wet and too hollow and unlike anything you have heard before.
The sound marks the end of life as you know it.
You will always remember it. That awful sound. It will never leave you.
Everything stops. You stare down. Stephen McGrath's eyes are open and unblinking. But you know already. You know by the way his body went suddenly slack. You know by that awful hell-spawned crack.
People scatter. You do not move. You do not move for a very long time.
It happens fast then. Campus security arrives. Then the police. You tell them what happened. Your parents hire a hotshot lawyer from New York City. She tells you to plead self-defense. You do.
And you keep hearing that awful sound.
The prosecutor scoffs. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, he says, the defendant happened to slip with his hands wrapped around Stephen McGrath's throat? Does he really expect us to believe that?
The trial does not go well.
Nothing matters to you. You once cared about grades and playing time. How pathetic. Friends, girls, pecking order, parties, getting ahead, all that stuff. They are vapors. They have been replaced by the awful sound of that skull cracking against stone.
At the trial, you hear your parents cry, yes, but it is the faces of Sonya and Clark McGrath, the victim's parents, that will haunt you. Sonya McGrath glares at you throughout the proceedings. She dares you to meet her eye.
You try to hear the jury announce the verdict, but those other sounds get in the way. The sounds never cease, never let up, even when the judge looks down sternly and sentences you. The press is watching. You will not be sent to a soft white-boy country-club prison. Not now. Not during an election year.
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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