You never meant to kill him.Your name is Matt Hunter. You are twenty years old. You grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb in northern New Jersey, not far from Manhattan. You live on the poorer side of town, but it’s a pretty wealthy town. Your parents work hard and love you unconditionally. You are a middle child. You have an older brother whom you worship, and a younger sister whom you tolerate.
Like every kid in your town, you grow up worrying about your future and what college you will get into. You work hard enough and get good, if not spectacular, grades. Your average is an A minus. You don’t make the top ten percent but you’re close. You have decent extracurricular activities, including a stint as treasurer of the school. You are a letterman for both the football and basketball team–good enough to play Division III but not for a financial scholarship. You are a bit of a wiseass and naturally charming. In terms of popularity, you hover right below the top echelon. When you take your SATs, your high scores surprise your guidance counselor.
You shoot for the Ivy Leagues, but they are just a little out of your reach. Harvard and Yale reject you outright. Penn and Columbia waitlist you. You end up going to Bowdoin, a small elite college in Brunswick, Maine. You love it there. The class sizes are small. You make friends. You don’t have a steady girlfriend, but you probably don’t want one anyway. In your sophomore year, you start on the varsity football team as a defensive back. You play JV basketball right off the bat, and now that the senior point guard has graduated, you have a serious chance of getting valuable minutes.
It is then, heading back to campus between the first and second semester of your junior year, that you kill someone.
You have a wonderfully hectic holiday break with your family, but basketball practice beckons. You kiss your mother and father good-bye and drive back to campus with your best friend and roommate, Duff. Duff is from Westchester, New York. He is squat with thick legs. He plays right tackle on the football team and sits the bench for basketball. He is the biggest drinker on campus–Duff never loses a chugging contest.
Duff wants to stop at UMass in Amherst, Massachusetts, on the way up. A high school buddy of his is a member of a wild frat there. They are having a huge party.
You’re not enthusiastic, but you’re no party pooper. You are more comfortable with smaller gatherings where you pretty much know everyone. Bowdoin has about 1,600 students. UMass has nearly 40,000. It is early January and freezing cold. There is snow on the ground. You see your breath as you walk into the frat house.
You and Duff throw your coats on the pile. You will think about that a lot over the years, that casual toss of the coats. If you’d kept the coat on, if you’d left it in the car, if you’d put it anyplace else . . .
But none of that happened.
The party is okay. It is wild, yes, but it feels to you like a forced wild. Duff’s friend wants you both to spend the night in his room. You agree. You drink a fair amount–this is a college party, after all–though not nearly as much as Duff. The party winds down. At some point you both go to get your coats. Duff is holding his beer. He picks up his coat and swings it over his shoulder.
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.
But someone yells, “Hey!”
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.
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.
Your mother faints. Your father tries to be strong. Your sister runs out of the courtroom. Your brother, Bernie, stands frozen.
You are put in handcuffs and taken away. Your upbringing does little to prepare you for what lies ahead. You have watched TV and have heard all the tales of prison rape. That does not happen–no sexual assault–but you are beaten with fists during your first week. You make the mistake of identifying who did it. You get beaten twice more and spend three weeks in the infirmary. Years later, you will still sometimes find blood in your urine, a souvenir from a blow to the kidney.
You live in constant fear. When you are let back into the general population, you learn that the only way you can survive is to join a bizarre offshoot of the Aryan Nation. They do not have big ideas or a grandiose vision of what America should be like. They pretty much just love to hate.
Six months into your incarceration your father dies of a heart attack. You know that it’s your fault. You want to cry, but you can’t.
You spend four years in prison. Four years–the same amount of time most students spend in college. You are just shy of your twenty-fifth birthday. They say you’ve changed, but you’re not really sure.
When you walk out, you step tentatively. As if the ground below your feet might give. As if the earth might simply cave in on you at any time.
In some ways you will always walk like that.
Your brother, Bernie, is at the gate to meet you. Bernie just got married. His wife, Marsha, is pregnant with their first child. He puts his arms around you. You can almost feel the last four years shed away. Your brother makes a joke. You laugh, really laugh, for the first time in so long.
You were wrong before–your life did not end on that cold night in Amherst. Your brother will help you find normalcy. You will even meet a beautiful woman down the road. Her name is Olivia. She will make you enormously happy.
You will marry her.
One day–nine years after you walk through those gates–you will learn that your beautiful wife is pregnant. You decide to buy camera phones to stay in constant touch. While you’re at work, that phone rings.
Your name is Matt Hunter. The phone rings a second time. And then you answer it. . . .
THE INNOCENT ( Penguin Audio Books ) read by Scott Brick.