Nick slowly turned and walked out of the shallows. He was dripping and dirty, with mud and algae sticking to his pant legs, his hair, and other random spots. Tobias and Nick made eye contact. Nick waved at first with his goofy grin, then turned back to the pond as if he just realized what Tobias standing there meant, then turned back to Tobias. Nick simply put a finger to his lips and said, “Shhhh.”
Tobias was stunned. His body felt frozen. No matter how hard he tried to move, his legs stayed firmly in place and his voice failed him. His skin was turning a sickly pale shade. Nick strode up to him like it was just another day they spent playing in the wooded area bordering their backyards. “You want to play Cops and Robbers?” Nick asked innocently, carefully working to pronounce every word.
“Nick,” Tobias started slowly, his voice shaking, his lips trembling, “what did you do?”
Tobias pointed to the pond. “To Brett.”
Nick looked at Stark's Pond, which got him back on track. “Oh. He called me stupid,” he said in his slow, monotone voice.
Tobias always liked Nick. He wished they could play together more often, but they weren't in the same class at school. Nick was in the classroom with the kids the teachers called “special,” and whenever they tried to play at home, his parents always took him away to appointments to see something called a “psychiatrist.” Nick was always genuine and smiling, and little seemed to bother him. Tobias and him had lived next to each other for as long as he could remember. He never thought Nick was that different from other kids, even though other kids acted uncomfortable around him.
“You can't do that,” Tobias said pathetically, his voice small and weak. He could feel pressure building behind his eyes. His heart was lodged in his throat.
“He was mean,” Nick defended confidently, putting his fists on his hips.
“You have to tell your parents what happened.”
“No! Don't tell anyone, Tobias!” Nick was getting genuinely upset. He trusted Tobias, and he didn't like arguing because he had a hard time keeping track of the conversation. Defending a point was hard for him.
What would happen if he told? He wouldn't get to play with Nick anymore. Maybe Nick would be sent away, or the cops would come get him. That's always what happened in Cops and Robbers. And Nick wouldn't want to be his friend anymore, even if his parents did let them see each other. Nick wasn't a bad person, he didn't want cops or anyone else judging him. They wouldn't understand him. All the people in their neighborhood would be mean to Nick and he wouldn't be able to defend himself. It would be too confusing, and too much. Tobias had seen Nick get overwhelmed at a birthday party because of all the people, and most people weren't even paying attention to him.
But what about Brett's parents? Brett was kind of a jerk, but kids still liked him. His parents will get worried and want to know where he is. They'll ask everyone if they'd seen him. Could Tobias lie to Brett's parents, or to his own, or to Nick's? Could he lie to his friends? Could he lie to everyone? Tobias felt his stomach churn. His legs were shaking. His everything was shaking.
Lying was wrong. He was supposed to tell the truth, even when he did something bad. His parents didn't like it when he did something wrong, but they hated it when he lied. But he hadn't done something wrong, Nick did. But it felt wrong to not say anything, and it felt wrong to lie for Nick.
“Okay,” Tobias said. “I won't tell.”
Nick smiled and seemed satisfied. “You want to play Cops and Robbers?”
Tobias shook his head. “I need to go home. I'll see you tomorrow.” Tobias ran the whole way home.
I actually wrote this in 2013 for a homework assignment that required the class to write a creative response to the horror story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Oates using the prompt that our character had to choose between two bad choices. Horror has always been an inspiring subject for me from Edgar Allen Poe, to Stephen King, to Anne Rice, so I decided to channel that dark feeling into this piece. I also had a friend in elementary school who I liked very much who was mentally disabled, so the character Nick was inspired by that childhood friend. My friend was not a murderer, however. He was really nice. Just feel the need to point that out.