He met my eyes. He understood. “Listen carefully,” he said to the boys, and they did, because they had no choice. “Climb down off the subway platform. Don’t step on the third rail, but stand on the tracks.”
Stella’s eyes widened. “No,” she said, staring at Jamie. “No.”
But he ignored her, and the boys walked over to the yellow line, which warned them in huge block letters to stay away. They jumped down off the platform and onto the tracks, avoiding the third rail like Jamie said. Two rats scurried over a discarded chip bag and a stray purple ribbon before disappearing into the tunnel.
“Follow them,” Jamie said to the boys, as he pointed at the rats. “Walk into the tunnel.”
“You can’t do this,” Stella said. “Jamie. Jamie.”
I answered for him. “What they did was wrong.”
“But they don’t deserve this.”
“How do you know?” I said. “What are they thinking?”
Stella went very still. I watched her focus, watched her face change, darken as she listened to the words in their minds.
“It doesn’t matter what they’re thinking,” Stella said quietly and from the tone of her voice, I knew she hadn’t liked what she’d heard. “Thoughts are just thoughts.”
But now that I had asked, I very much wanted to know. “Jamie, can you make them say what they’re thinking out loud?”
“I can try,” he said, and walked to the edge of the platform. “Let’s hear it, assholes. Tell me every thought running through your tiny minds.”
Another hot breeze ruffled their hair, and Freckles glanced over his shoulder before shouting at Jamie, “Fuck you!” Blondie added an unspeakable word.
I watched Jamie’s expression harden. “Oh, don’t stop,” he said, softly. “Tell me how you really feel.”
“You people are parasites,” Blondie went on. “Lazy and useless and worthless. You should be my slaves.”
Stella’s face was wiped blank. Her voice shook when she spoke again. “They’re just ignorant, Jamie. Ignorant and stupid.” Jamie was quiet. “Killing them is going to hurt you more than it hurts them,” Stella continued. “And what about their families?”
I felt the telltale subway rumble beneath my feet. Stella said something to Jamie, but I didn’t pay attention. I was looking at the woman, Maria.
“Stop,” she said quietly, so quietly I wasn’t sure I’d heard it. Then she said it again. “Let them up,” Maria told Jamie.
That was when Jamie’s facade cracked. He was still angry, but it was a different kind of anger. Cold. Resigned. I knew what he was going to say before he said it. “Get out of here. Climb up.” He looked sick when he said it. “She’s a better person than either of you.”
She was, and so was Jamie. But I wasn’t.
Jamie was never going to let them die, I knew. He just wanted to scare them. I wanted to kill them. Their brand of cruelty wasn’t illegal but it was poisonous. They would do worse, someday, and hurt other people, people who didn’t deserve it. I wanted to stop them before they had the chance. I wondered if I was really capable of it.
And as I wondered, Freckles offered his hand to Blondie to help him up. The train was approaching—I could see the light in the distance. But Blondie would be off the tracks by the time it got there. I wasn’t sure what to wish for, what to think, and that made me even more angry. They couldn’t just walk out of here. I wouldn’t let them.
I heard Freckles swear. He was looking at Blondie, whose face was contorted in pain. His nose was bleeding.
“What the fuck!” Freckles shouted, as blood streamed over his lips. He looked up with wild, unfocused eyes as he pinched his nostrils to cut off the flow.
Stella looked at me in horror. “Mara.” Jamie looked at me too. They knew.
When Freckles finally heaved Blondie up the rest of the way, he collapsed. Then he began to bleed, too.
Stella tugged on Jamie’s arm. “Jamie, tell her to—make her stop. Make her stop!”
Maria covered her mouth and looked like she might be sick.
The train rushed into the station, bringing a horde of people with it. A cluster formed around Freckles and Blondie, and I felt a twinge of surprise to see Maria in it. She’d broken away from Stella, from us, and she was gesturing to someone authoritative, trying to help the same people who had made her their victim. I was moved by it. I decided to let the boys live.
JAMIE WAS TUGGING MY ARM out of its socket as he rushed me up the stairs. My heart was pounding in my chest. When we were finally outside, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I needed to calm down. But then I realized something.
“We have to go back,” I said.
He shook his head vehemently. “No, Mara.”
“We left the food.”
He looked at me like I was crazy. Then he hailed a cab, threw me in, and actually paid for the ride with cash he’d gotten from who knew where. Once back on the Upper West Side, he unlocked the door to his aunt’s house and we walked in just as Stella was ascending the stairs. Her face was tear-streaked and pale. She took a step back down, toward us.
“How could you do that?” she asked me.
She didn’t need to be specific. I knew what she meant. “They deserved it.”
She walked calmly down the rest of the steps until she stood at the bottom of the stairs facing me. I didn’t see the slap coming before I felt it across my face.
“Fuck! Jesus, Stella, what is wrong with you?” I asked her.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“The world would be a better place without them,” I said, holding my cheek.
“You don’t know that,” Stella said. “People change.”
I shook my head slowly. “No. No, they don’t. We are what we are.”
“Why all the shouting?” Daniel said, as he descended the stairs. He looked back and forth between me and Stella. “What happened?”
“There was . . . an incident,” Jamie said.
“You don’t feel guilty at all, do you?” Stella shouted, her hands balled into fists at her sides.
“For scaring them?”
“For torturing them,” she said.
No. I didn’t feel guilty. I was tired of feeling ashamed for the things I thought and wanted. “I’ve evolved,” I said.
Her jaw tightened, and she brushed past my brother on the stairs, bumping his shoulder as she climbed them. Then, halfway up, she turned to the three of us and said, “I thought we were better than this. I thought we were the good guys.”