We were about 15 and had begun to taste the freedom of being able to come and go as we pleased. The sky was dark, covered in an overcoat of charcoal grey so the beach promised no hope of sun or girls to talk with. We gathered all the loose change we could find on my father’s nightstand then began our journey towards the mall. It was about an hour’s walk from my house. Occasionally cars would pick us up when we hoisted our thumbs, but stopping for four teenage boys was a bit of a hassle for most folks. Our feet were bare and the pavements hot, so we walked in zigzags affording the shade of any trees we could stumble underneath.
Mark, Steve, and Clayton were as close as brothers. We did everything together and spent every weekend in search of the next great adventure.
“I think we should stop at a few houses and ask for sponsorship money before we get to the mall.”
Clayton loved to play this game. We stated that we were fundraising for a big tennis tournament. We had sign-up sheets and a bank bag. For a small donation, we’d offer the chance to win a fancy cake or a dinner for two at an expensive restaurant on the sea. We were hardly questioned in it. Our spiel was perfect. We thought of ourselves as the modern day Robin Hood. Except we weren’t exactly giving our money to the poor. The hustle worked magically.
We stopped by some houses we’d never touched before and in about twenty minutes we had enough money for lunch and a decent session at the arcade.
“I’m not entirely sure how I feel about all this, guys. When will we eventually stop this charade?”
I carried guilt harder than the rest of them. They didn’t seem to bother and quickly they’d reason the shame out of me.
“I know. It’s not the most honest thing we’ve ever done. But it’s just a couple of bucks. They’re not going to miss it.”
“Yeah. You’re right. What’s a couple of bucks. It’s not like we’re forcing it out of them.”
I think the reasoning was as much for their ears as it was for mine.
“Well let’s not do it next week again. Ok?”
Clayton and I agreed with a casual nod while we hurried from the shade of the suburbs through the parking lot into the entrance of the mall.
Before the currents of air began to hypnotize our nostrils, I pushed ahead, as the leader, towards the arcade.
“We need to eat, boys. Let’s not go to the arcade first.”
His stomach always spoke louder than his logic. Clayton was strong-willed and sure-fisted. I tried otherwise, but knew it was a losing battle.
“It’s lunchtime Clayton. The lines are going to be so long. We could get in a thirty-minute session on Street Fighter then grab a bite afterward.”
“No. We need to eat. I bet you The Curry Muncher is empty. Let’s go there.”
He was right. The line was short, but for a reason. Nobody liked eating at The Curry Muncher. Everything was overcooked in spices perhaps to hide what was really being eaten. We ordered, paid with our pocket change, then hurried up the escalator with bags of food that carried scents able to cure a dead cat.
My friends sat on a bench just outside the arcade and proceeded to fill their stomachs. I headed straight for “Street Fighter” and pushed my coins into the open slots. I was good enough to eat and play at the same time for the first few rounds so I burned through my bread and beef like fire to an old house, while I managed through my first opponents on the screen. Out the corner of my eye, I saw a wiry man in baggy clothing approach Mark, Clayton, and Steve. His appearance was much to put together to be a beggar, but his presence seemed ominous. I had just finished off my second round opponent when I heard a shudder of words from Mark:
“I don’t have any money. Get away!”
At this point, all three of them were on their feet backing away from the man. I left my game to itself then hurried to the scene.
“If you guys don’t give me some money, things are going to get nasty.”
The man pulled his shirt up from his pants towards his neck, exposing a rusty machete.
I was still behind them; the man hadn’t seen me yet. I turned towards the security guard who was patrolling throughout the arcade.
“Come quickly, please. This man has a big knife and wants our money!”
I could hardly believe what followed from his mouth.
“I’m sorry. I’m not equipped to deal with such people. I’ll call the police.”
Before I could scold him for his cowardice, he ran out the front door, perfectly passing my friends while a large knife dangled in front of their faces.
And then It was as though some wild spirit came upon me. I charged, with all the speed I had, head first into the back of the perpetrator. His spine caved like a trampoline with too many jumpers and his large machete fell out of his hands, off the balcony, onto the concrete with a loud clank that caused the eyes of onlookers below to raise their gaze. He was caught.
Mark, Clayton, and Steve now on their feet with a forward lean in their stance moved closer to him in an attempt to shew him off. He gathered himself from the ground and said:
“I’ll be back for you four!”
And then he weaved quickly through curious shoppers like the thief that he was.
We put our hands in our pockets and counted our remaining coins to see if we’d lost any in the scuffle. As we rummaged through our keep we’d stolen from my dad’s desk and the people who gave to support our big tennis tournament, we collectively realized what we’d done and the man with the machete seemed no worse.
“Maybe we should return the money, tell them it was all a lie?”
Nobody said a thing, but somehow we knew we were all in agreement.
Our heads came up and we saw the guilt in each other’s eyes. We’d been caught red-handed by a man with a machete with money we’d stolen with our words.