by Ron Burch

Outside the cafe, there’s a commotion:  angry shouting, several voices, not just one. The waitress hears it inside. They all hear it. A bearded man with his ear buds in turns up his music so loud, other patrons can feel the bass and drums. A scream unnerves the day. Two men at different tables rise simultaneously and hurry to the open door. The younger man, a little heavyset, in his early 20s, gets there first. Following him is an older man, thinning hair and wire frame, in his late 40s. The others in the cafe, even the waitress, pretend it’s not happening.

What’s going on? a woman in her 30s, plain but well-dressed, asks, coming over last. The older man spots the problem and points with a shaky hand. Down across the street three young men, all wearing black, are pushing around their victim, another young man, so young he might still be a kid. It’s not in good fun. There is something wrong with it.

We have to call the cops, says the woman, who pulls out her phone and dials quickly.

Do you know how long they’ll take to get here? the younger man says. Their response time is at least 20 minutes now.

The woman spits out the address of the coffee shop into her phone, reporting what’s going on. She hangs up. They said they’ll be here.

The group now slaps their victim. They laugh as they hit him across the face with open palms, taunting him. The kid puts up his hands to protect his face but they hit him in other places, punch him in the stomach, hit him in the groin. Other pedestrians on the street pretend not to see it.

What do we do? the younger man asks.

What do you mean? the older one responds. It’s not our business.

I called the police, the woman replies.

We should do something, the younger man says. He takes a step outside. The older man grips his arm.

You shouldn’t do that, the older man warns.

Why not?

What if they have knives or a gun? the older man asks. You don’t know what you’re stepping into.

They’re hitting him! shouts the younger man.

What if it’s for a reason?

Like what? the woman asks.

What if the young man did something to them? What if he did something really horrible? What if he hurt a friend or one of their sisters? You don’t know.

I’m not sure that should be the response, the younger man replies.

But what if you’re trying to help out someone who did wrong? Someone who may go against the grain of what, of what, the older man falters, trying to find the right words, but giving up.

You think that’s what’s going on, the woman says.

I don’t know. But you have to think it through before you get involved.

Oh no, the woman replies, I called the police. I hope I don’t get in trouble.

I think you’re wrong, the younger man says.

You could get hurt, the older man responds. You could get killed. And you could be wrong.

The younger man throws off the older man’s hand. He runs over to the three who have their victim on the ground as they’re kicking him in the stomach. The younger man interrupts them, talking. He gesticulates with his hands and the three beating men back up a few steps, listening. The kid tries to crawl away but can’t. He curls into a ball, wrapping his arms around to protect his head. The younger man bends down to lift the kid and the three men descend on the younger man with a savage fury. They beat him with fists. They hit him in the face and head. They kick at him in the legs and stomach. The younger man falls to the ground next to the kid while the three men beat him mercilessly. Blood flows from the younger man onto the ground but that doesn’t stop the men. They have forgotten the kid lying next to him.

At the doorway, the woman covers her eyes and turns away. The older man takes a step to yell at the men but he can’t do it. He tries to raise his voice. Or shake a fist. But he can’t. He’s afraid. He wants to order them to stop, he wants to challenge them. But he’s so afraid he merely stands there until the beating is over and the three men, their shoes and pants and shirts, covered with spots of blood, laugh and go off as if they’re leaving a party.

The woman is on her phone again, calling emergency. She speaks frantically, out of breath, babbling. She’s asking for an ambulance. Hurry, she says, hurry!

The older man walks away from her toward the younger man bloodied in the street. He stands above him. The younger man barely moves. He tries to raise his right hand. His face is bloody, broken, a shard of a white tooth on the ground near his head.

In the distance, there is the sound of a siren.

On the street, other people keep their distance, whispering among themselves.

The older man returns to his table in the cafe, putting his back to the window that faces the street. The man picks up the menu, focusing on it, trying to not think about what he failed to do, his coffee now cold, his blueberry muffin inedible, the black letters on the menu like fingers pointing at him.

Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including Mississippi Review, Eleven Eleven, Pank, and been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Bliss Inc., his debut novel, was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles.

Photo by: Ana Prundaru