Michael was the newest addition to Maggie’s Co., a family owned scrapbook supply company. Michael was hired fresh out of high school to do menial clerical work. He had always been considered a good kid and a sweet kid by his parents and teachers. Nobody would have guessed that three months after his high school graduation, he would be serving a life sentence for murder.
On Michael’s first day of work it was apparent who ran the show - Jeff, the office manager and Sid, Jeff’s personal henchman. Jeff was the nephew of the company owner and he made it clear he wasn’t happy being head of the smallest branch in the company. He constantly complained and did a good job of getting the rest of the staff to complain as well. Still, Jeff seemed nice enough and if Michael wanted to go anywhere, he needed to be on Jeff’s good side. Jeff often made life really difficult for the office staff that didn’t play ball.
What went on over the next few weeks was hazing in every sense of the word, though Jeff never would have admitted it. Jeff and Sid would take Michael out for lunch, on the company’s dime, for some bonding time. Then later, Jeff would ask Michael to pull a prank or pester someone in the office. “Just some fun,” he would say. Michael was a good kid but he was no leader. He felt much more comfortable doing what he was asked.
Most of these pranks were juvenile and harmless. Fake phone calls to accounting, throwing out lunches from the fridge, locking other employees into the bathroom. The list grew every day. Michael even started to enjoy it. Though Michael was getting little work done, Jeff poured on the praise and the complimentary lunches continued.
A little over a month passed and Michael was starting to really feel like one of the boys. On their way back from lunch one day, they passed a gangly homeless man on the side of the street.
“Sid, do you think Michael can handle the challenge?” Jeff talked a little louder to make sure Michael could hear.
“I don’t know. He is still a newbie.” Sid smiled from the passenger seat.
Michael was ready for his next challenge. “What’s the challenge?”
“Are you sure you want to know?” Jeff grinned. “I don’t think you can handle it.”
“I can handle anything you can give me.” Michael declared.
After a few more minutes of listening to two full-grown men giggle, Michael insisted to know what the challenge was.
“Throw an ink-filled water balloon at that homeless man.” Jeff looked into the rear-view mirror to see Michael’s reaction.
Michael laughed at first and then he realized they weren’t kidding. “Are you serious? That’s not really a nice thing to do.”
Jeff’s face went from friendly to deadly-serious. “Oh, come one, Mike! That bum is standing on the corner every day. I’ll bet he has enough money to buy a house in cash. He’s trying to look pathetic. You’d be doing everyone a favor.”
Michael felt his face flushing with embarrassment. He had a little taste of what it felt like to be Jeff’s enemy and it was enough. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
“I don’t believe you,” Jeff said, the scowl still firmly settled on his face.
“No, really. Let’s go get the balloon.”
Sid nearly jumped over the seat to hand Michael a balloon he had already filled with black ink. “Here you go.”
Jeff turned the car around and they headed back to the homeless man. He was obviously suffering from some kind of mental affliction. His clothes were dirty and worn from years of constant punishment. Michael leaned out the window and threw his payload. A direct hit. The homeless man yelped as the balloon slapped wickedly against the side of his face. Black liquid sprayed over his body. He covered his face, expecting a second blow.
Jeff and Sid laughed hysterically for the next mile or so. They caught their breath long enough to congratulate Michael for passing the test. “Now you’re ready,” Jeff said. The seriousness returned and Jeff pulled the car over to the side of the road.
“Maggie’s Co. is a joke,” Jeff started, “My uncle is a power-hungry capitalist who would enjoy nothing more than to see all of us lose our jobs.”
“Uh, what?” Michael didn’t know much about the company and its politics.
“We need to put a stop to it.” Sid agreed.
“Mike, you might be the youngest employee of Maggie’s Co. but you’re one of the smartest in my opinion.” Jeff smiled endearingly. “How would you like to make some real money?”
“That would be nice.” Michael nodded.
Jeff and Sid took a long look at each other. It was like they were synchronizing their thoughts. When they felt they were on the same page, Sid turned back to Michael. “You need to put some pressure on the owner.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Michael asked.
“Go to his big house on the hill and shake him up a little. We have a plan already. You’ll take a gun, just for effect.”
“Uh.. I don’t know…” Michael started.
“Don’t tell me you can’t do it.” Jeff leaned in. “You just assaulted a man for the fun of it. Now we have a real job that needs to be done and you are the perfect guy for it. Don’t worry about getting caught because it’s not going to happen. My uncle is an old man. You just need to set his heart off and then you can get out of there.”
“You want me to kill him?”
“No his heart will kill him. You’re just helping him along.” Jeff smiled. “It’s just another prank.”
Michael didn’t know what to say. He consented to the plan and for the next several weeks Jeff and Sid prepared Michael for the ultimate ‘prank’. All the while, Jeff explained the flaws with the company and his uncle.
Weeks later, after much preparation, everything changed. The owner promoted Jeff and Jeff happily accepted. The little branch even held a party for Jeff before he left for bigger things in the scrapbook industry. Jeff gave a short speech at that party. He talked about Maggie’s Co. with gratitude. As if by magic, he had become converted as an advocate to the Maggie’s. After the party, Jeff took Michael aside. “Forget our little prank,” he said. “It’s was all just a big joke.”
Michael had abandoned his own better judgment in order to stay on Jeff’s good side. He was willing to do anything. Michael felt deeply, deeply ashamed. Later that evening, anger took place of shame and hatred took place of anger. Michael became so upset that he took a trip to Jeff’s house that night. He dressed in black, brought a gun, and broke in. It was then that Michael pulled his last ‘prank’.