This is crazy Ethan thought as he checked the time on his phone: 12:04 AM. Ben was running late. He slid the device back into his left jeans pocket and glanced up the dark street, first looking left, then right, while exhaling erratic puffs of nervous, steamy breath. No sign of him yet. With his right hand, he fidgeted with the folding knife that was uncomfortably jammed into his other pocket. He turned around and glanced at his quaint single story house. All dark. Part of him wished the light would come on, that his mother would step outside and ask him what on earth he was doing standing out on the curb this late at night. Then the jig would be up, and he could go to bed. The thought of trying to explain to her what he and Ben had been planning made him feel sick. He would probably have to lie, and that made his stomach churn even more. Get it together man he thought to himself as he sucked in cold air and attempted to steady his breathing. Just at the moment when he was considering sneaking back in and going to sleep, he saw headlights.
Ben’s dark sedan crept slowly up the street toward Ethan. The steady rumble of its engine was slightly louder than Ethan would have liked, and the lights were blinding as they drew closer. He put one arm up to shield his eyes from the bright growing circles, and with the other, made a frantic downward motion that he hoped Ben could see. To his slight relief, the light disappeared, but the growling of the engine remained. When the car finally crept up next to him, Ethan pulled the door open as fast as he could and hopped in. He held the door closed but didn’t latch it all the way, and gestured toward the road. He craned his neck and watched his house as they pulled away, making sure it stayed dark and peaceful. When the car was a few houses down the road, he pulled the door closed all the way with a bang, and Ben flicked the headlights back on.
The boys rode in silence for several minutes. Both were wearing black jeans, black hoodies, and black beanies. They would have looked nearly identical to anyone looking in from outside the car. Ben took several turns, making his way out of the residential neighborhood and toward the highway that would take them out of town. Ethan sat in the passenger seat and chewed at his fingernails, one knee nervously bobbing up and down. His stomach began to twist into knots again, and the hot air coming from the car’s vents felt suffocating. He rolled down his window, hoping the stabbing needles of winter air on his face would curtail his mounting panic.
Ben shot his friend a sideways glance. “Dude, it’s freezing out!” He used the button on his side to roll the window back up. Ethan resumed his uneasy chewing and knee-shaking, until he could no longer contain his reservations.
“Are you sure about this man?” Ethan asked.
“Yeah I’m sure.” Ben replied.
“I mean have you thought about it?”
“Yes I’ve thought about it.”
“I mean really think about it!”
“I’ve thought about it!” Irritation began mounting in Ben’s voice.
Ethan suddenly felt as if he’d opened a floodgate. “We’re on our way out to some clubhouse in the middle of nowhere, miles away from town, to prank a bunch of racists?”
“We’re not pranking them.”
“Then what are we doing exactly?”
“We’re sending a message.”
“You sound like a mobster. What does that mean, we’re attacking them?”
“No, no, dude it’s not like that.” Ben lifted a hand from the steering wheel and made the universal calm down gesture, an action which did absolutely nothing to relieve Ethan’s anxiety. “We’re not gonna hurt anybody. We’re just gonna sneak in there, slash a few tires, spray-paint some windows, and get out. Ya know, show them we don’t want them around.”
Ethan heard his stomach groan as he asked: “Why?”
“What do you mean why? Cuz they’re assholes. Look dude you didn’t have to come. Why are you here if you don’t get the point?”
“I get the point I just...I don’t feel good, man. This doesn’t feel right.” Ethan was speaking almost to himself for a moment, and chewed off another nail before turning back to his friend. “Do you think this feels right?”
Ben took a deep breath, and let out an exasperated sigh before replying. “Alright look. This philosopher once said that if we tolerate those who are intolerant, then the intolerant will inevitably destroy the tolerant...or something like that.”
“Who said that?”
“I don’t know, does it matter? It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“I guess, but is attacking them on their home turf the only way to not tolerate them?”
“We’re not attacking them! You’re blowing this way out of proportion dude.”
“How is this not an attack?! You told me to bring a knife! I think I’m gonna be sick…”
“It’s for tires man…” Ben was now holding a hand up to his forehead, fighting the urge to rub his eyes in frustration so as not to lose sight of the road. “Okay listen to this.” He continued. “My uncle owns a punk bar, they have concerts there all the time, local bands mostly. He had a couple guys in there the other day wearing ‘White Power’ shirts and he threw them out. Said they threw a hissy fit over it, and there was a lot of backlash on social media, from a lot of people, saying he violated their freedom of speech. But he said these guys are like weeds. Back in the nineties the place was full of them. It started with one or two, and when they got comfortable they started spreading, multiplying, showing up in packs and practically running the place. And they were violent. People getting hurt in the pit every other night, broken glasses everywhere, until people finally started fighting back and kicked ‘em to the curb. And now they’re coming back, and we gotta snuff ‘em out.”
“‘Snuff ‘em out’ Jesus dude there you go again with the gangster talk!”
“You know what I mean!”
“Ugh, okay fine, but it’s not a perfect comparison. He was talking about his privately owned place of business. We’re on our way to where they live. It’s not the same thing.”
“It’s totally the same thing. We gotta drive them out of our community!”
Ethan could no longer bear the stuffiness of the car’s hot air, and rolled down his window again. They had passed the edge of town several minutes ago, and the country air cleared his head by the slightest possible degree.
“I saw this video on YouTube earlier tonight man…” Ethan’s voice trembled as he spoke. “It was like a journalist following around one of these white nationalist guys, and he was armed to the teeth. He had like five guns, all licensed and legal, and he said something like ‘I don’t believe in violence but I will kill them if I have to.’ I’m tellin’ you man some of these people are nuts. They’re trying to egg you on until you attack them so they can blow your head off, and get off on self-defense.”
“For the last time we are not attacking them!” Ben was all but shouting.
“We’re on our way to vandalize their property!” Ethan pleaded. “We’re trespassing, and we’re carrying weapons. Think about this man! This isn’t smart.”
“You’re being paranoid. Most of these people aren’t like that. They’re sheep, and cowards. They’re all talk, there’s nothing to worry about! Besides, we told Devon and Erika we would be there. If we turn back now they’ll think we’re wusses.”
Ethan’s face contorted into an expression of disbelief. “Is that seriously all you care about? What are they gonna do, make fun of us? Why do you care so much what they think anyway?”
Ben shrugged. “They’re my friends.”
There was a twinge of something in that statement that made Ethan feel hurt. It was the way that Ben slightly emphasized the word they’re. As far as he knew, Ethan was Ben’s best friend, but at that moment, it felt like they were his real friends.
“Whatever. I still think this is ridiculous. Why does it have to be us? Huh? Why is it our responsibility to do this?”
“Because we’re young. Young people can get away with shit like this. Adults have more to lose, and harsher consequences. We get caught slashing a few tires, worst case we’ll get some community service.”
“I don’t want to do community service! You say that like it isn’t even a consequence at all. These things affect your future. I’m applying for scholarships man! This could totally mess me up.”
It was Ben’s turn to feel hurt. “Well lucky you…” He said with a degree of contempt that stopped Ethan in his tracks.
It was no secret between the friends that Ben had far fewer academic prospects than Ethan. Both boys were bright, but there are multiple forms of brightness, and not all of them include good grades.
“I didn’t mean…” What had he meant? Ethan realized there was nothing constructive he could say, other than: “I’m sorry dude.”
Ben did not seem to accept Ethan’s apology. “Whatever man. If you’re so worried about your damn scholarships, why did you agree to do this?”
Ethan looked at his friend and gave the sincere answer: “Because you asked me to.”
Silence fell over the car, save for the engine and the air outside the open window. The realization that he was leading his friend, who had nothing but affection for him, into a lion’s den washed over Ben and filled him with guilt. He suddenly pumped the brakes, pulled off the road onto the dirt shoulder, and looked his friend in the eyes for the first time since picking him up.
“I wanna do something that matters man. I want to do something that makes some sort of difference in this messed up world.” He said quietly.
“And you think this is going to make a difference?” Ethan asked.
“I don’t know..” Ben looked away, toward the road leading into darkness. “But I know doing nothing definitely ain’t gonna make a difference. We gotta take action.”
Ethan was grateful the car had stopped, but he knew they weren’t out of the fire yet. He could get out of the car, and turn back to the safety of his home at any time, but he wanted to bring his friend with him. He chose his next words very carefully.
“Look...You don’t know what you’re getting into. You said these guys are sheep but you also said they hurt people. They’re like angry children and if you come at them like this you’re just going to fuel their anger. Think about it dude, this isn’t the way to make a difference. It’s just going to get you in trouble, or hurt.”
Ben once more locked eyes with Ethan.
“Then what can I do? Huh?” His gaze was hard, unblinking. The question was not rhetorical. An immense pressure came down on Ethan’s heart. There were many possible answers but none of them seemed just right for that exact moment.
“I don’t know man.” Ethan submitted. “But let’s just go. Can we just go? Please? I don’t want to do this…” He was on the verge of tears as he pleaded with Ben. He had reached the point of desperation.
Ben didn’t reply. He looked once more at the dark country road, seemingly drawn to it like a bug to a lamp. He was stuck, unable to drag his friend any further down the rabbit hole, but no more able to turn back. Ethan realized that the battle was over. He no longer had the ability to stay in the car. He had to get out, for his own well-being.
“I can walk home, we haven’t gone that far.”
“It’s really cold…” There was a slight pang of concern in Ben’s voice that was ultimately inconsequential.
“It’s fine.” Ethan said flatly as he grabbed the door handle. “I need the fresh air anyway.” He stepped out into the cold, shut the door, and took one last look at Ben through the open window.
“I’ll see you tomorrow I guess.” Ben said feebly.
“Yea, see ya.” Ethan replied. And with that, Ben was back on the road. Ethan felt utterly helpless as he watched the tail lights disappear into the darkness. Please turn around he begged in his mind. He stood there for at least fifteen minutes, hoping to see the car re-materialize in the other lane, heading back toward town. But the car never appeared.
Feeling completely defeated, Ethan took a deep, freezing breath, turned around, and began the long walk home.