West Park was as depressing as I remembered. The weathered park benches were still a sickly kind of brown. The spent remains of cigarettes and plastic Mountain Dew bottles littered the grey concrete floor. Both occasionally moved in the April wind.

I was early to the field: our field. I was always early, no matter what. It’s one of my few good qualities. I was waiting on Nicky, who said that he would be there at six. By the time he finally arrived, I had seen the sun go from high in the sky and yellow to copper-colored and sinking.

“Hey man,” Nicky said in a weak, barely audible voice.

The scarecrow I saw that day was miles away from the Nicky I remembered. The years had been unkind to me, but they had been downright vicious to Nicholas K. Corey.

Once tall and slim with an aquiline nose and bright green eyes, Nicky had evolved into an emaciated pale shadow with yellowed teeth that reminded me of gravestones. His arms, which had once been full of lean muscle, now ran heavy with black track marks. Worst of all, Nicky’s hair, which he had worn long for years, was now all gone. He had once shaven it all off in an attempt to pass a drug test, then just kept it bald out of pure utility.

“You look like hell,” I said with a smirk.

“You do too.”

He wasn’t wrong. I did look terrible, much worse than now. Prior to being sent down here, I was the type of guy who would eat fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I was chubby, but bordering on obese. I had greasy, unwashed hair, ratty clothes, and fingernails that were always black with some unknown substance. Maybe dirt.

The two of us looked at each other with surprise and disgust. Neither made a sound for a few minutes. It was Nicky who dove headfirst.

“I know where he’ll be tonight. He’s staying over at his girlfriend’s house. I know the address, and I know that she won’t be home.”

“And you’re sure that this is good, reliable info?”

“Yep. But I cannot tell you how and why.”

I rolled my eyes. Despite his physical changes, Nicky was still the same brat who loved to cultivate an air of mystery.

“If this is how it is going to go, then I might as well drive back home.”

For some reason I used my thumb to point north in order to accentuate my point. Nicky looked at me with an impish glee in his eyes.

“You are home, idiot.”

He was of course right. Nicky and I had both grown up in Westover. We had both gone to Westover Middle School, then University High School when it was still located on top of the hill on Price Street. I had gone on to college, while Nicky had tried to make a go of it at the Morgantown airport. He had his mom to feed, after all.

It did not take too long for both of us to become failures. Nicky got laid off after five months, then tried to work at a small airfield in Maryland. That gig ended when Nicky was caught stealing food and clothes out of bags. From then until the night we met again, Nicky had lost himself in heroin, a series of revolving jobs, and at least two girlfriends who had given birth to children. The state refused to let Nicky see either one of them.

Believe it or not, I had a run of good luck for a while. I managed to graduate in five years, and I landed a pretty cushy office job in Pittsburgh. I even had a girl for a while. Her name was Maureen. She was an Irish girl originally from Cincinnati. She had the most brilliant (and natural) red hair. I used to love running my fingers through it, then checking my palms to make sure that the color was indeed real. Yep: for a time, I was sitting high on the hog.

Then Maureen cheated on me with some hotshot with a better job and much newer and foreign car. Then my apartment blew up in what the insurance company told me was a natural gas leak. Then I lost my job because I got caught sending out nude pictures of Maureen to her friends and acquaintances. That’s called revenge porn. Was I guilty? Absolutely.

I lived off the insurance money for a while. I did not get a job until I got an overdraft notice in the mail one afternoon. I tried to work another cushy office gig, but got turned down each time because of the bad conduct review that I had to disclose at every interview. I finally settled on McDonald’s. I had quit the job on the day when Nicky texted me out of the blue.

“My life is shit, man,” the text had read.

“Mine too,” I had replied.

“You know why, right?”

“Yeah: bad luck, women, and booze.”

“No. He did it. He’s the reason. We get back at him, then we’ll be all good.”

Nicky did not have to tell me who “him” was. Eric Sowers. The kid who had tormented us all of our lives. The fat sonofabitch who had purposely destroyed my bicycle in third grade, and the ugly, bulldog-faced menace who had told the entire homeroom class that Nicky secretly videotaped his sister using the bathroom in order to get his “jollies.” The fact that that had been partially true (Nicky had done it on a dare) did not change the fact that Eric was responsible for Nicky’s reputation as a serial pervert all throughout middle and high school.

Eric’s evil was both mundane and extraordinary. He performed all the usual bullying, like swirlies in seventh grade and pantsing us in the hallway in ninth grade. He had drawn mocking cartoons of Nicky and me in the boy’s bathroom, and he had told at least three girls that Nicky and I were crushing on that we both had small penises and really, really foul body odor.

As bad as all that was, it was the other things that made Eric horrific. The bad stuff did not happen as frequently, thank God. However, it only really took one time to scar Nicky and me for life.

It had been a hot, sticky afternoon when it had happened. It was the middle of June, and school was ending the very next week. Me, Nicky, Eric, and a few other kids were playing in the playground as part of Afternoon Adventures, a barely supervised afterschool program for the sons and daughters of working parents. Almost everyone who stayed past five o’clock only had one parent, usually their mother. That was true for Nicky and me, and it was true for Eric too. Nicky and I used to laugh at Eric’s corpulent mother and her battered white Honda. The little Civic used to lift off of the ground whenever she stepped out in order to pick Eric up. I also always made a point to highlight the fast food wrappers and general trash that fumbled out of her car.

Well, given our luck, Eric found out about the mockery. He cornered us on that afternoon on the half-gravel, half-grass field that everyone used for football. We were the only three kids left, and the twentysomething counselors were too busy smoking pot by the basketball court to notice anything at all. Eric had free reign.

Rather than beat us bloody, Eric first made us both strip naked. We tried to protest, and Nicky even made a half-hearted attempt to run, but Eric caught him and forcibly removed his T-shirt and shorts. We were made to lie face down in the dirt. Eric put his knee on the back of my neck while he used his left hand to grip Nicky right behind the ears. With his right hand, Eric grabbed several rocks. He shoved at least two rocks into Nicky’s anus. I could not see much, but I could hear Nicky’s mumbled screams. I could also smell the blood.

Eric flipped me over and stood on my genitals until they almost burst. At the end, Eric forced Nicky and me to kiss. I can still see him now leering down at us, repeating the mantra: “The lips. Use the lips.”

I don’t think we said anything for the rest of that day. We put our clothes on and waited for our parents to arrive. Both us hoped that we had experienced the apex of Eric’s rage. We hadn’t.

I did not know about Nicky’s torment until years later, and even then the news came secondhand. For me, Eric had used diverse methods. One time he stole my biology textbook the day before a big test. Another time he had told the assistant principal that I was forging signatures for other students at a price of $10 per job. That lie got me suspended for a week.

The worst one had been my fault, or at least partially my fault. In our senior year, I decided to stand up to Eric. My mom’s boyfriend had told me to stand up for myself, and because I had played one year of varsity lacrosse, I actually thought I could take the much bigger and stronger bully. So, after Eric had stolen food from my lunch tray for the fourth time that week, I challenged him to a fight in the parking lot. He agreed.

The fight was one-sided and lasted less than a minute. Eric tagged me in the face a couple of times, but I did not go down. That gave me some kind of deluded confidence, so I charged him with my head down. It was his knee that connected with the crown of my skull, and I went down hard and out cold.

While I was counting stars, Eric, with a collection of sophmores and juniors around him egging him on, unzipped his fly and urinated all over my back. When I came to, the younger kids were all laughing at me and telling me about how bad I stunk. The shame of that day was one of the big reasons why I went to Fairmont State instead of WVU.

As for Nicky, he got it much worse. I learned later that during high school, Eric would isolate Nicky in the locker room during gym class and make him do exercises completely naked. This always drew a crowd, including someone who came to school one day with a video camera. Nicky’s nude workouts became a staple of certain late night parties.

When the crowd wasn’t around, Eric would, in his own words, “treat Nicky like a girl.” I do not know the specifics, but they aren’t hard to imagine. Even when Nicky and I started hatching our revenge plan over text, he would not talk about that or what Eric had done to his crotch with a pair of scissors. That’s another one I can only guess at now, but I can tell you that at one point, it was a big secret between me and Nicky that Nicky’s hippy mom had refused to have him circumcised at birth.

“You got everything?” Nicky leaned over and asked me as we both drove out to the house.

After meeting at the park, we spent several hours getting drunk at some awful bar in South Park. I stuck to beer and the one-dollar hot dogs, while Nicky put back endless shots of vodka. We were both loaded to the gills when we finally reached our destination.

“Yeah, everything’s in the trunk.”

“Everything” included two ski masks, two sets of black leather gloves, a baseball bat, and a hockey stick. The plan was simple: we were going to bum rush Eric and beat him into a coma. That was the least we could do to the guy who had ruined our lives, right?

The house itself was modest and looked like every other house in Westover. It was squat, made of cheap, unwashed wood, and it had a front porch with a swing and artificial turf doubling as a rug. The only distinguishing feature was the little Dutch boy windmill spinning its arms in the front yard.

I checked my cell phone after killing my car’s engine. It was two minutes after midnight. I wanted to do the job in five minutes, then part ways with Nicky. I wanted to be back home in Pittsburgh before Eric could even think up a way to get back at us. Nicky had agreed to a quick beat down, but I knew that something was up because he could not look me in the face. I tried to put doubt to bed my reminding myself that Nicky was blotto, and like all drunks, his eyes wandered. I was wrong, as you know.

We both circled the house looking for any kind of backdoor. When Nicky found it, I used the hockey as an impromptu wedge. With that in place, I rang the front door. When nobody answered, I knocked as hard as I could.

“What?!” Despite decades, I instantly recognized Eric’s high-pitched whine. It was still a nasal caterwaul. The noise made the acid in my stomach boil.

I kept knocking until Eric opened the door. He answered it in his boxers and a white wifebeater. He knew instantly that Nicky and I had bad intentions, and I think he soiled himself a little before he made a break for the backdoor.

Nicky caught his ankles and I jumped on his back in the hallway. I pinned him down and swung several times with the bat. He squirmed a little after the first few blows, then he went limp after I connected with that part where the shoulders and neck meet.

“Okay, I got mine in. Get yours,” I said as I handed the bat to Nicky.

He slapped the meat of the bat in his upturned palm twice before he flipped the bat around. He used the grip as a battering ram on Eric’s lower half. Nicky went all in with a kind of demonic fury that scared me a little. I did not say anything until Nicky pulled down Eric’s boxers.

“Alright. That’s going a little too far, man.”

“Bullshit. Eye for an eye, dude. Eye for a fucking eye.”

I’m sure you’ve read the coroner’s report. You know that Nicky did to Eric what Eric had done to him all those years ago. To be honest with you, I wanted to leave then, but I did not feel bad for Eric at all. I still thought, “To hell with him.” That did not change until Nicky pulled out the pliers and the knife.

Look, Sheriff, I had idea that Nicky was going to do that. We had agreed that this return trip was just going to seriously rough up Eric. That’s all. Nicky and I never talked about killing. Never. Not once.

I admit that I had a hand in assault. Pre-planned all the way. As for the murder, I’m just as much of a victim as Eric. You think I wanted to see that? Even Eric did not deserve all of what Nicky did. But let me ask you one thing: can you blame him? Can you really blame Nicky for going psycho? Sure, murder is murder, but for God’s sake, Nicky could have shot up our high school or dropped a bomb on a bus full of kids, and I would still sympathize with him. If I was in your position, I’d let the guy go.

But you’re not going to do that, are you? That’s okay. Me and Nicky were always going to end up this way. You can’t change the past or your experiences, and you definitely can’t change fate.