Authors: Corina Vacco
I didn’t mind that Randy ate most of my pie. It didn’t bother me when he was whispering stuff into Molly’s ear. It felt good, knowing things about Randy that Charlie didn’t know.
A few months later, when Goat came on the scene, Randy turned mean. He had a new girl on the back of his motorcycle every weekend. Sometimes he whipped beer cans at our heads.
Charlie loops his finger through a hole near the collar of his faded Bills T-shirt. He takes a deep breath and says, “Randy’s in love or something. Goat kept making nasty comments about his girl, kept jabbing him, trying to start something. So Randy smashed his face.”
“Wish I could’ve been there to see that,” I say.
We climb Gramps’s wooden porch steps. I carry my puppy close to my chest. Charlie rings the doorbell.
The Mets game is blasting from an old radio—two outs, bottom of the first, runner on second. We hear shuffling. We hear an old man coughing. We hear what sounds like a person tripping over a cardboard box. The door flings open. Gramps has a crazed look in his eyes, white hair and long eyeteeth, brown spots all over his skin. “Oh. It’s you.”
Charlie laughs. “Who’d you think it would be?”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses. They won’t leave me alone.”
Cornpup greets us from the living room, where the sticky floor is pulsing with ants. He looks at me and says, “Why do you have a dog?”
“Charlie gave him to me.”
Cornpup doesn’t feel like he got passed over. He wants a dog even less than I want to watch Mom enter a hot dog eating contest. He has the Freak Museum to take care of. A dog could chew up something toxic and irreplaceable. “You should call him Rocky,” he says.
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “I was thinking Viper. His teeth are real sharp.”
Charlie smiles a little. He approves.
Me and Charlie sit on the couch. Cornpup is pouring maple syrup onto the floor, which is something he’s done every Friday for as long as I can remember, because Gramps needs traction when he’s shuffling around, and God forbid he use a walker.
It catches us all off guard when Gramps turns off the Mets game and grabs Cornpup by the throat.
argument is hard to follow. Gramps says something about experimental surgery. Cornpup says something about Dr. Gupta, who knows how to make burn victims look a lot better than lizards, who understands skin the way steelworkers understand hot metal. Gramps says Cornpup is gonna end up deformed. And Cornpup says, “Look at me. I’m already deformed.” They shout back and forth about detox tea, skin cream, and the difference between a plastic surgeon and a witch doctor. Gramps says there’s no way Cornpup’s mom is gonna give him two hundred dollars. And Cornpup says he just needs her to sign the consent forms; he’ll find a way to come up with the money on his own.
Me and Charlie look at each other. Cornpup has been hiding things.
It’s hard to breathe in this stuffy room, surrounded by maple syrup
and piles of random junk. There is a tuba in the kitchen sink, a heap of books spilling out of the coat closet, a gooey pile of Scrabble squares and Monopoly hotels at my feet. Viper is the only peaceful thing. He just met me today, and already he is sleeping soundly in my lap.
Gramps shuffles across the sticky floor. No one would ever look at him and think,
Steelworker, lost two fingers saving another man’s arm, could work an open-hearth furnace in his sleep
. “I’m not paying you to do the syrup anymore. If you want to stop coming here, that’s fine. At least you know where I stand.”
Cornpup drops the syrup tub. He looks up at us, like he’s just now remembering we’re here. He says, “I’m getting my skin fixed for real this time. And no one is going to stop me.” Then he runs out the door.
I wish I had a pencil and a piece of scrap paper. I’d sketch a picture of Gramps as a carnivorous plant, growing out of a steel bucket of maple syrup.
“He’s a fool,” Gramps says to us. “I know you boys think you know everything, but experimental surgery is no joke. He could
. For what? For pretty skin! And you two are no better. Self-absorbed fools is what you are.”
Charlie says, “You don’t know us. You don’t know anything about us,” and storms out the front door.
Now me and Viper are stuck dealing with Gramps, who is clearly insane. I would explain our world to him, but he would never understand. We cross a landfill on our way to school. We swim in creek water that smells like nail polish remover. Charlie can convert a third and twenty-six situation into a touchdown. I can create a world of uranium monsters and blind creek serpents on a sheet of blank paper. Cornpup can transform a pile of broken metal parts into a four-foot-tall robot. We are not fools. We are brave and brilliant.
Gramps touches my arm. There are tears in his eyes. “Will you talk to him for me?” he says. “Will you tell him not to do the surgery?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” I stand up and turn the Mets game back on. Three balls, one strike, no outs. There are two runners on base. I feel like I can’t get away from this place fast enough. When I walk outside, Cornpup is nowhere in sight. Charlie is carving
I hate you
in Gramps’s porch steps with his army knife. “Race you home,” he says.
We break into a hard run. The weight of Viper in my arms slows me down a little, but I am only two steps behind Charlie’s heels. My legs are getting stronger. Charlie hops an overturned garbage can and stumbles into the grass. We start laughing our heads off then, and I think there is nothing that feels better than a fast run.
. A muffler backfires at the end of the street. All I can think of is dead seagulls falling like rain. Tomorrow night there will be fireworks on Sturgess. Kevin Thompson wants to push me into the bonfire. He wants to see me burn.
When I say I want to walk to Cornpup’s house, Charlie refuses to come along. He’s pissed about the secret surgery plans. He needs time to cool down.
I think I’ll try to talk Cornpup out of the surgery, but not because of anything Gramps said. I’ve got my own bad feeling about this. Some big-shot doctor shows up out of the blue and wants to put Cornpup under anesthesia so he can cut him up at no charge. It sounds shady.
Mrs. Schumacher opens the door and says, warily, “He’s in his room.” Then she goes back to watching TV. I climb the stairs and stand outside Cornpup’s bedroom, my hand ready to knock, when I hear sobbing worse than how I wept, biting my pillow in the dark, the night Dad died. He is snorting, hiccupping, moaning. His sadness is like static electricity, shocking my hand when I touch
the door. I feel like I’m doing something wrong, like I’m violating his privacy in a big way. When he gasps for air, I suddenly, finally, understand what this means to him. He wants this surgery the way I want Dad back.
I walk down the stairs and out the door. I’ve made a decision. I’m gonna help him.
I have to help him.
But first, I have to sneak a puppy into my house.
Sturgess, there is a patch of fenced-off coal ash, as fine as sand. Everybody is barefoot, shoes piled high in a pit of cement blocks, because it’s tradition to pretend this is a beach bonfire, that the dark industrial yard is really a raging ocean.
We show up carrying things that will burn. Charlie has a bag of foam egg cartons. I have a can of paint and some cracked wooden paneling we found in my garage. Cornpup is carrying five newspapers and a long, heavy chain.
“What’s that for?” Charlie asks him.
“I found it at the railroad tracks,” Cornpup says. “I’m gonna climb that huge tree for real this time.”
“Shut up,” I say. “No one can climb that.”
“You need a rope, not a chain,” Charlie points out. “Or you’ll fall in the fire.”
is motivation. When there’s a bonfire underneath me, falling isn’t an option.”
. I close my eyes and see a cardinal buried in a Dumpster.
Kevin Thompson wants to kill me tonight. In front of Val. In front of everyone.
I need to calm down.
“Who picked out this crappy music?” says Charlie. “My
listens to soft rock. Where’s the hard stuff?”
“Change the station, then!” someone says.
I scan the crowd for Kevin. I don’t think he’s here yet.
“If something happens to me tonight, will you take Viper back to my house?” I ask Charlie.
He looks at me like I’m crazy. “What are you even talking about? Let’s just have fun.”
There are a hundred kids here, easy, their faces glowing in the orange light. I pay close attention to the girls who sit on lawn chairs and broken television sets near the fire. I wonder when Val and her friends will show up.
I thought I could be brave, but my hands are shaking a little.
Charlie hijacks the radio, hooks it onto a low branch, and cranks up a heavy metal station. When the wind blows, the radio bobs up and down, dangerously close to the flames. His popularity is crazy at events like this, where even kids from other schools seem to know who he is. He takes a whole bag of Starbursts away from some girl, and she seems
about it, probably thinking he’s flirting with her, when those who know him best would say he’s just being rude.
The fire is melting a box of plastic ice cube trays. The smell of the smoke makes me thirsty. Cornpup is off in his own little world, still trying to toss his stupid chain up into the tree—we are pretty much ignoring him now. Well, Charlie is ignoring us both. I hate standing on the edge of a party, blending into the shadows, but I’ve been following Charlie around for the last half hour, and he hasn’t said a
word to me. I’m supposed to be his
, but I sense something intentional here, like he’s trying to exclude me just because he can. I’m glad I brought Viper. Dogs let you be alone without being
. When Charlie is done making his rounds, he’ll bring me a can of pop, and he’ll say, “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to find you for, like, an hour,” which won’t be the truth.
Someone brought beer, even though it’s not supposed to be that kind of a party. I watch Robby Carter cough with disgust after a skunky sip, but he doesn’t drop the can. He’s an idiot for drinking something he doesn’t even like. He should fake it, like I do, taking a pretend sip every five minutes or so, then “losing” the can somewhere. No one’s paying enough attention to notice.
Charlie gets loud and hyper as more people show up. He feeds off the energy of a crowd. He has on a huge leather jacket that doesn’t even fit right, and it’s the hottest night of the year. But he is king. It’s like this bonfire is blazing for him. The rest of us, we’re just props.
I grab a can of pop from the cooler. A pretty girl with really nice blond hair scratches Viper under his chin. Someone throws my paint into the fire. It burns really good, except there is now a dizzy smell in the air. I look for Cornpup at the base of his infamous tree, but he’s gone. I sit down, pressing my spine against the knotty trunk. Viper is beside me, curling his body into the root system like it’s a dog bed.
“Get up, Hammond.” That voice, it hits me like a gunshot.
So this is it. I stand up.
“Can’t we do this some other time?” I say in a bored voice. “Do you really want to be the guy who kills someone at Sturgess? Do you really want to be the reason the cops come out here and shut this party down?”
“Hell yeah, I want to be that guy.” Kevin punches me in the stomach. Hard.
my plan? To talk my way out of this? To reason with an insane person? Wonderful.
I ball my hand into a fist, ready to pound his face in. I swing and miss.
“Your fat pig mom won’t recognize you when I’m done,” Kevin says.
I feel knuckles cracking against my jaw. I drop Viper’s leash to the ground. I wonder what happened to my anger, the inner explosion that rocks me awake at night, the rage I channel into my drawings. Where is that power when I really need it? Why can’t I move a single muscle—to block a punch, or to run away, or at the very least to reach for Viper’s leash so he doesn’t wander off into the darkness?
“Fight back!” Kevin shouts at me.
I check and make sure Viper is still at my feet, and he is. But that one wasted second leaves me open to another hard punch, again to the stomach.
I hear a girl’s voice say, “Oh my God.”
The grain mill. The trucks. The spray paint. I want to tell him it wasn’t all me. It wasn’t
An iron chain drops slowly into my line of vision. There’s a big hook at the end that makes me think of shipyards, gantry cranes. It inches down, behind Kevin’s head, without a sound—he has no idea it’s there. I wait for someone to warn him, but no one does.
The chain drops lower. I wonder what Cornpup is planning to do.
Kevin says, “Stop embarrassing yourself. Fight back.”
Cornpup swings the chain. He tries unsuccessfully to hook Kevin’s sweatshirt. He swings the chain, and misses his target again. His plan isn’t as brilliant as I hoped it might be. I inhale a deep breath of smoky air. I taste paint fumes in the back of my throat.
Kevin is shouting at me, words and threats, but what I hear is
. Long pause.
. Long pause.
. He pushes my shoulders. I fall back against the tree. He then leans down, his face real close to mine, and he says, “You’re making this too easy.”
I look up and see Valerie, who is watching me with a concerned—no,
—look on her face. I smile at her a little bit, and Kevin thinks I’m asking for more. He is about to kick me in the stomach, when the hook finally catches. Cornpup pulls up on the chain, and Kevin is jerked into the air, two feet off the ground, just like that. I laugh out loud because Cornpup isn’t strong enough to lift a person. He must’ve rigged a pulley system or something.
Kevin screams like a girl. I wait for his sweatshirt to rip, but it doesn’t. Cornpup raises the chain again, until Kevin is looking down at me. I gotta hand it to the guy, he’s still trying to hit me, but I can dodge him now. I am quick again. I am no longer frozen. I grab Viper’s leash. I look at Kevin for a long time, feeling mostly pity. He stares back at me with only hate. “We’re on fucking food stamps because of you,” he says.