The small knife blade pressed against Josh's side. He dropped his briefcase and exhaled a heavy breath that pierced the chilly air. After recovering from a brief blackout, Josh raised his arms without being instructed. Meanwhile, he internally cursed himself for deciding to take a shortcut through the alley rather than simply circumvent the sidewalk under construction on Central Ave."Give me your life," said the man in the graying beard, tatty wool cap, and prominent diagonal scar across his left cheek.
"What do you mean?" Josh asked. His feet shuffled atop the storm grate below.
"I mean gimme' your goddamn life." The man grasped Josh's blazer collar with his idle hand. The cell phone bounced about Josh's breast pocket.
Josh reached behind him and wrested his wallet from his back pocket. He opened it and pulled out cash. "Seventeen bucks. That's all I got."
The man snatched the bills and tossed them behind him. "Fuck the money, man. Money ain't nothing. I want what else is in the wallet." The blade pressed harder beneath Josh's kidney.
"What else? What else? Credit cards? My damn library card? What?"
"Got any pictures?"
"Yeah. Pull out your pictures."
Josh struggled to squeeze his finger and thumb behind his driver's license. He yanked out a photograph of himself, his pretty wife, and young son; the family posed in front of a handsome house. It was the kind of photo that's mass produced and inserted in frames in retail stores.
The blade gradually drew from Josh's side. Steam from the attacker's pulsating breaths framed his eyes, which homed in on the photo. "You owe me that, man. You owe me that."
Josh chuckled nervously. "Is this some kind of prank?" The blade pressed harder beneath his kidney again. "Shit. I don't know what you're asking."
The man released his grip on Josh's collar, leaving greasy fingerprints. Then he stuck his finger in his captive's face. "Fifteen years ago you dropped a quarter. That's why you owe everything to me."
A smile crept across Josh's face. "Jesus. You're kidding me. Right? A quarter? Listen. I don't know what you're up to but I could probably just kick you in the balls right now and run. And what is that tiny thing you're threatening me with? A pocket knife? You'd barely wound me. Tell you what. How about you just take the money on the ground and let me be on my way?" He shook his head and chuckled again.
The man began to shudder in frustration and barely contained anger. The blade repeatedly poked Josh's side as though it were telegraphing unintelligible Morse code. "I said fuck the money, man. You ain't listening to me. Twenty one years ago you were walking down Euclid St. I was walking behind you. A quarter fell from your pocket and I picked it up and spent it at Fred's Corner Market."
"Well, it sounds like it's you who owe me money then."
"Shut the hell up." The knife continued to poke. "I bought a rubber ball out of the machine by the counter. A red one. Later that day I was bouncing it down by Bentleyville Creek. It hit a rock and went over the bank and into the water. I went after it but I tripped and fell into the creek. Never learned to swim. I nearly fuckin' drowned. For months afterwards I was afraid to death of water. Was afraid to take a bath. I became the smelly kid. Got called all kinds of shitty names at school. Girls paid me no mind. That got into my head, man. Years later, out on my own, I was never right. Made decisions some might call bad ones." He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "You know, I always hoped that someday you and me would meet in a back alley. What are the chances, huh? Now it comes full circle. If you hadn't of dropped that quarter, I wouldn't have ended up like this. That's how I see it," the man said through gritting teeth.
Josh's eyelids had begun to quiver. His own heavy breaths warmed the bottom of his nose. "What ever happened to the red rubber ball?"
"What the hell does it matter?"
"Please, just tell me what happened to it."
The man sneered. "What do you think? It got away. Floated down the river."
Josh began to slowly move his arm upward. The man pressed the shaking knife harder on Josh's side, but Josh was not affected. Josh reached underneath his dress shirt and pulled out a red rubber ball -- a hole drilled in the center -- that hung from a gold chain. The man's eyes widen. The blade eased off Josh's side. "That quarter was meant for the pay phone to call my mother," Josh said, rolling the ball between his fingers. "I was going to tell her I love her, and say goodbye. I didn't bother asking anyone for another quarter. Instead, I walked alone down by the creek. I was going to do it there. But first I prayed for a sign, for anything, to make me change my mind. And this red rubber ball came floating down the creek." He released the ball and it bounced off his sternum. "My middle name is Red."
A growl emanated from the man's throat as he jammed his knife against Josh's neck. The knife, however small, now seemed as threatening as a sword -- a wrist flick away from severing an artery. Josh closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose as the blade pierced the top layer of skin. A drop of blood seeped down to Josh's collar. The man began to shake profusely, nervous yet excited about retribution. He bent his legs and leaned in closer as the blade rattled in his hand, more and more as he prepared to leverage his total strength into a death swipe. The cell phone in Josh's breast pocket buzzed. The man gasped and dropped the knife, which fell through the storm grade below.