J.B., I have to kill someone by the end of summer.
Joe Ninj stated this casually, as if it were a school assignment or project with a deadline.
Five minutes earlier we had been integrated into our pack of friends—four other guys, five girls—drinking beer and trooping around our neighborhood, what we did just about every night during summer. Suddenly Joe had clutched my arm and said, conspiratorially—Drop back, J.B., there’s something I gotta tell you.
We slowed down, creating separation between us and the group. There was intensity in the way Joe had clutched my arm, which implied that he was going to be telling me something important. I figured it had to do with Candy, one of the girls, who Joe had been dating for almost two years.
What do you mean you have to kill someone, I pressed, not sure if he was joking or if I had misinterpreted what he had said.
His voice cut even lower—I mean I have until the end of the summer to kill someone. I got mixed up with these guys, these Mexicans, I can’t really talk about it, but I have to kill someone, and I have until the end of the summer to do it.
And if you don’t?
Then they’re gonna kill me.
I considered what Joe was saying, let it settle, then—Who do you have to kill?
I don’t know yet, Joe responded before draining the rest of his Mickey’s and rolling the can into the gutter.
Again I lapsed into a pause, trying to digest what Joe was feeding me, and wondering why I was the one he had chosen to tell. What did he want or expect from me?
Are you going to do it, I asked him.
I have to, he responded, his voice keyed to desperation. If I don’t do it, they’re gonna kill me.
I flashed back to Joe as a young boy, and his obsession with martial arts films, which is why he had been nicknamed Joey Ninja, later shortened to Joe Ninj. He adored Bruce Lee and had a boy-crush on 1980s ninja-film star, Sho Kosugi. While he never actually studied a martial art, he did collect weapons and paraphernalia—Chinese stars, nunchaku, butterfly knives, grappling hooks, wooden swords. He craved the life of a warrior who lived among the shadows and did so with stoic dignity and honor.
Now, sixteen years old, Joe was faced with a dire choice, and two lives, and by energetic proxy countless others, hung in the balance.
Man, Joe, that’s a really fucked up situation to be in.
Yea tell me about it, Joe agreed, and laughed sharply. But sometimes we gotta make hard choices, right?
Yea I guess, I said, but didn’t think having to decide between killing someone or being killed was a normal, everyday choice for a sixteen-year-old.
Does Candy know, I asked him.
No, noooo, Joe’s voice rose, his features distending and wrinkling with incredulity. Imagine me telling her something like that.
Joe cut loose a laugh that almost sounded genuine.
Candy, as if sensing that her name had been insinuated into the conversation, broke away from the group to join us. She asked, a crescent smile lighting up her round face, which looked waxy beneath the streetlamp—What are you two doing back here? Talking about girls?
Candy’s smile curled mischievous at the ends and grew even bigger. Joe matched the intensity of her smile as he slung his arm around her and drew her in close, kissing her on the side of the head.
We were talking about you baby, Joe beamed, and kissed her again, this time on the top of her ear. We were talking about how beautiful you are.
Yeaaaa, right, Candy playfully snided, then kissed Joe full on the mouth, before adding—You’re so sweet, Joseph, even when you’re lying.
Joe squeezed Candy close to him. I decided to leave them alone and catch up with the others.
That summer came and went and Joe never again mentioned his “assignment” to me. I have no idea if he killed someone or not. What I do know is that Joe wasn’t killed, and he and Candy broke up right before school began.
Even though Joe was sixteen, and Candy fifteen, I really thought they would get married and be together for a long time, maybe forever. Something about them, as a couple, seemed interminable. Or maybe, in what was a period of flux and confusion, I wanted to know there was something that would hold, something that was not at the mercy of seasons.