Authors: Corina Vacco
When we catch up with Cornpup, the alarm is still squealing. The flashing red lights are obnoxious. There’s no doubt in my mind they can be seen from the 990 and beyond.
“We’re not walking the edge of the creek home,” says Charlie. “It’s not safe.”
“Which way, then?” I say. “We can’t just stay out here. They’ll find us. They could bring a helicopter. They could bring dogs.”
Charlie looks me in the eye. “You didn’t bust any locks. You didn’t break any windows. They’ll probably do a once-over at the creek, but that’s it. They’re gonna think this was a false alarm. We’ll hide in the tunnels. Twenty minutes after the alarm goes quiet, we’ll go home.”
Charlie is the best person to be around in a crisis. We follow him to the tunnels.
“What was it like in there?” Cornpup asks.
“It was … disgusting,” I tell him. Because that’s all he really wants to hear.
For some reason, I don’t tell my friends what I did to Dan Benecke’s office. It feels like it should be something I carry inside me, my secret gift to Dad. Torn photographs. Broken frames. A slashed-up leather chair. I have a small taste of revenge on my lips, and now I want more.
was an explosion at the cold storage plant last night. The blast woke me up. I closed my bedroom window, but I could still smell the fumes. Anhydrous ammonia. My throat is swollen and sore, like I swallowed glass. Chemical throat, we call it. It’ll go away in a few hours. I stick a bag of cough drops into my pocket. I don’t know what to do about my burning eyes.
We meet at Cornpup’s house. Charlie is in a bad mood. “This town meeting is gonna be bad for us,” he says. “We don’t need a bunch of regulatory agencies hanging around our creek. They’ll find our tunnels. They’ll confiscate all our stuff. You watch.”
Cornpup disagrees. “If the creek belongs to us, then it’s our duty to protect it. The EPA can fine corporations thousands of dollars for dumping chemicals into our swimming hole. Think about how good it would feel to see Mareno Chem pay a huge penalty.”
I see where Cornpup is going with this, but he’s got it all wrong. “You can’t punish these guys by going after their money. They’ve got ways of passing off their losses. They can dump some salaries, lay off a few hundred workers. Or they can claim stuff on their taxes. If we do something to Mareno Chem, it has to cut deeper than money. It has to be bigger and more personal.”
Cornpup looks at me, like he knows all about my dark side. “Bigger and more personal can get you thrown in jail, Jason.”
Charlie laughs at this. “Maybe, but they’d have to catch us first.”
I need to think about something else, something besides revenge. I poke around our Freak Museum and look for new additions. I shake a jar of pink water and it turns tomato-red. I tip a jar of green water upside down, and the solid antifreeze color stays the same, except I’ve stirred something at the bottom, little fibers that look a lot like orange juice pulp. I look at our bird skeleton and remember how Charlie stepped on a piece of green glass the day we found those tiny bones by the river. No one wanted to pay to see a dead bird, but when I said we had a baby dragon skeleton, we pulled in a dollar per look. A spaghetti sauce jar full of dead bugs wasn’t exactly impressive, but I made up a story about a giant insect warrior who hurled beetles from a golden slingshot, and every kid in my neighborhood wanted to buy a dead bug off us.
I never make a big deal out of it, but the Freak Museum should be at my house. I’m the one who brought all these objects to life. I turned a box of scrap metal into UFO parts. I put blood-colored gel and seven cigar stubs into a jar and labeled it
Dead Man’s Fingers
. When Charlie found a busted metal cage in a field behind Parish Technologies, I drew pictures of a bubble-skinned beast that chewed through the cage and escaped into the night. When Cornpup dug up an old circuit board, I wrote a story about evil engineers who design weapons using condensed lightning bolts. I even soldered together a mess of canisters, PVC hoses, and television knobs to make one of these “weapons” for the display.
This junk would be nothing without your stories
, Cornpup once said to me. But he still keeps the Freak Museum in his bedroom. He still takes all the credit.
“All right. I’m ready.” Cornpup is clutching a huge manila folder full of blown-up photographs. He has a rash on the side of his face and looks tired. It’s a sweltering afternoon, ninety-seven degrees and holding. Maybe we all look tired.
Charlie takes one look at the folder and says, “No way. You’re not bringing all that crap.”
Cornpup’s voice is scary calm. “Just go home, Charlie. I don’t even know why you’re here.”
For a small second, Charlie seems hurt, but he recovers. “I’ll make you a deal. Hit me in the face, and I’ll go home. Hit me in the face. Right now. As hard as you can.”
It’s too hot out for this. If they get into a fight, I’m the one who’s going home. There are better things to do. I could be swimming in our creek right now. I could be watching TV.
Cornpup inhales and exhales slowly, like he’s hooked up to a machine. I chew a cherry cough drop as loudly as I can. Finally, Charlie wipes the smirk off his face, like even he doesn’t have the energy for a brawl today.
He flips through the papers in Cornpup’s folder. “Seriously, though. You only get to speak at this meeting for two minutes. Why are you bringing all these pictures?”
I hope Cornpup will recognize this as the peace offering it’s meant to be. If Charlie doesn’t push you in the chest, if Charlie changes the subject, we’re all friends again. No harm, no foul.
“It’s all about proof,” says Cornpup. “If they say there’s no toxic runoff in the creek, I’ll show them a picture of ten dead robins floating in liquid asphalt. If they say Phenzorbiflux never existed, I’ll show them a picture of a melted squirrel.”
bringing up Phenzorbiflux,” I say sharply. “We had a deal.”
Cornpup won’t look me in the eye.
We walk north, toward the Niagara River, sweat pouring down our faces. Charlie carries a football he found at the mudflats. In the sunlight, Cornpup’s rash looks blood-red, not purple. I stop at the gas station to buy a bag of pistachios and some Sprite. Charlie and Cornpup wait for me outside.
Kevin Thompson walks in when I’m paying for my stuff. He notices me right away. It doesn’t matter to him that the store clerk is watching. He grabs the back of my neck and shoves my face into the counter.
“On the Fourth of July, you’re dead,” he says. “At the bonfire on Sturgess. In front of Val. In front of everyone.”
He lets go of my neck. He tries to talk the clerk into selling him a pack of cigarettes.
I walk outside, a little pissed that Charlie and Cornpup didn’t have my back. “How the hell did Kevin Thompson walk right by you guys?”
Charlie looks confused. “He’s in the store? Did he see you?”
My face must not look too smashed up. I decide not to tell them he grabbed my neck. “He said he’s gonna kill me at Sturgess in front of Val.”
“He’s all talk,” says Cornpup.
“We’ll beat the crap out of him,” says Charlie.
The town meeting is at Poxton High School. When we reach the parking lot, Charlie says, “There are too many people here. This is too much publicity. They’re gonna fence off the creek for sure. It’s a done deal.”
“Signs and fences can’t stop us,” I tell him. But I feel nervous. I see a newspaper reporter, people in business suits, unfamiliar faces. I have a feeling things won’t be the same for us after today.
I follow Cornpup into the school foyer. There’s a table of
refreshments: donut holes and small paper cups of juice. I look at my reflection in the glass trophy case. I seem taller.
Charlie tucks an entire box of donut holes under his arm. Nobody stops him. “You watch,” he says. “This is gonna be a freakin’ nightmare. We’re gonna die of boredom.”
“Let’s sit up front,” says Cornpup.
Charlie gives me a slack-jawed look. “Can this get any worse?”
I recognize some faces, but most of these people have come from beyond Cardinal Drive, from other parts of Poxton, where the Spaulding Fibre plant is scheduled for demolition, where an overturned railroad car dumped a pile of gray mystery dirt into a stream.
Where an elementary school sits at the edge of an unofficial dump site.
My eyes take in the nervous parents with their toddlers. Elderly people walking slowly with their drugstore canes. Men in greasy coveralls. Women in grocery store aprons. Teachers from our old school. I snag my eyes on three chemo-bald people—those shiny heads make me feel so scared sometimes.
The whole auditorium smells like fear.
Yesterday, when we took our skateboards to the Jump, Charlie asked me if I was afraid to die.
“Sort of,” I admitted. “But my dad was afraid of death. And his fear didn’t protect him.”
“Exactly,” said Charlie. “Fear takes up all your energy. It screws up your focus. When you’re scared, it’s easier to make a mistake.”
I fell off my skateboard and scraped the hell out of my knee. “What exactly are you trying to say? You think the accident was my dad’s fault?”
“No! I’m talking about Cornpup. Ever notice how he
brings the conversation back to landfills and toxic sludge? If I tell him I saw a hot girl working at the gas station, he tells me three
people on Asher Circle have brain tumors. If I tell him I want to buy a refurbished Camaro someday, he tells me swimming in the creek is gonna alter my DNA. He’s not even a real person anymore. He’s like a … pollution encyclopedia.”
Then Charlie did a stupid trick in the air and fell, slicing his shin open on a metal pipe. His skateboard cracked right down the middle.
Today, Charlie’s wound is all bandaged up, hidden under his ripped jeans.
Onstage there are six empty chairs and a long table. Representatives from various state agencies appear from behind the velvet theater curtains. They have polite stacks of paper and shiny silver pens. When I see Dan Benecke at the microphone, I’m not exactly shocked. Of course he’s here. He has to keep an eye on things. He has to protect Mareno Chem’s good name.
“Why is he here?” There is panic in Cornpup’s voice. “Why is an industry guy standing up there with the same government people who are supposed to be slapping him with fines? This is wrong. This is so wrong.”
Dan Benecke welcomes everyone. He cracks a few jokes. He talks about green initiatives. He talks about jobs. Then he opens the floor for questions and public comments.
“I have a question,” Charlie says. “When are you gonna dump more of that cool chunky stuff in the creek? The stuff that smells real sweet like radiator fluid? Because lately you’ve only been dumping orange foam that smells like cheese. It’s been kind of boring.”
I elbow him. Hard.
Dan Benecke looks over at us, but he plays it cool. I’m not sure he recognizes me. Does he remember telling Dad to keep his mouth shut or else? Is he proud of how he buried Mom in legal papers, how he forced her to strike a deal? Maybe he doesn’t think about us at all. We were loose ends for him to tie up, and now he’s planning his next vacation.
Good. Fine. I want him to underestimate me.
I borrow a pen from the lady sitting next to Cornpup. I tear the lid off Charlie’s donut box and flatten it, white side up. I begin to draw pictures of giant creek serpents with chemical venom and fangs of broken glass.
There is talk about uranium. Toxic sludge in the creek. They say human exposure is not expected to occur. They say our backyards are safe, but we shouldn’t dig holes greater than four feet in depth. They say we shouldn’t eat stuff from our gardens. When Dad was alive, he ate tomatoes straight off the vine.
This meeting is full of words. I try to shut it all out, but my ears catch little pieces:
“… no one really knows … into the creek … birth defects … You people are monsters …”
“… get rid of the waste … Why are you ignoring us … outrageous … hundreds of barrels a day …”
“… poisoned innocent people … Please help us … I’m not a good public speaker …”
“… We can’t leave our homes … can’t give up our jobs … This town is all we have …”
“… You’re hiding something … many years ago … We’re sick … most of the facilities …”
“… vacant now … hazardous waste … Don’t turn your backs on us … People are dying …”
People are dying
I draw a second creek serpent. This one is wearing armor made from exhaust pipes and bike chains. I don’t have room to draw a creek serpent battle, so I have to close my eyes and imagine it. Blood and broken fangs and the horrible roar of a serpent warrior.
Cornpup is moving up in line, closer and closer to the microphone. He could say anything. He could say too much.
Cornpup’s turn to speak. They have to lower the microphone for him. I’m running out of blank space on this donut box. I draw a few mud demons, a hawk melting in a puddle of chemical venom, fireworks exploding over a dead serpent’s skeleton.
Fireworks. Fourth of July. Sturgess
I think of Kevin Thompson’s empty eyes. Bloody geese. Decapitated ravens. I’ve got one week till he tries to kill me.
Suddenly I’m not drawing pictures anymore. I am scribbling a solid black patch of ink. I am stabbing tiny holes into the box with the pen tip.
I think about Mom’s false start, how she bought produce at the store two weekends ago, even though she’s never really been a vegetable eater, even back when she was skinny. I noticed the lettuce right away, a bunch of unfamiliar green stuff. There were tomatoes
too, a bag of carrots, red peppers. I waited to see if she’d fix herself a salad. I wanted the vegetables to be the mark of a new beginning, a healthier life, but they rotted away, untouched in that drawer. The smell made me want to punch my fist through a window.
I don’t want to be here. But I really don’t want to go home.
Cornpup seems a little nervous. He is switching his weight from his left foot to his right foot, like he’s trying to hold in a fart. He keeps picking his ear too, and I want to throw something at him to make him stop.