Authors: Corina Vacco
. I close my eyes and see a raven that did not die, a raven that is flying, unharmed.
“I can trump your food stamps,” I tell him. “My dad is dead.”
Charlie pushes his way through the crowd. “What the hell is going on?”
Kevin’s sweatshirt finally gives, and he falls hard onto his stomach. His face hits the dirt.
His forehead is less than a foot from the fire. I see a flash of silver, a knife strapped to his belt loop. He jumps to his feet.
I hear people laughing. I hear people taunting him. Valerie is smiling big. They all assume me and Cornpup planned this, that I took punches not because I froze at the worst possible time but because I was drawing Kevin in, forcing him to move closer to the hook. I think people see what they want to see, because no way did
we look coordinated just now. This was a total fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants operation, the kind of thing that only looks cool because it actually worked. I can picture about ten different scenarios where things would not have gone so well for me, but if Randy were here, he’d flash a calm, confident smile and say, “We’re fine. We’re alive. We don’t need to know all the stuff that didn’t happen.”
The first fireworks explode in the distance—buzzing red lights, golden weeping willow trees, bursts of blue spheres.
Kevin takes off running. I don’t know where he’s going. I don’t care.
“I missed it,” Charlie says, louder this time. “What happened? Did he
I ignore him on purpose, just so he can know how it feels for once. People line up to talk to me—football players, guys from the hockey league, cute girls. It’s like I’m famous, even though I didn’t actually
“Cornpup’s the one you should be talking to,” I say. “He’s the one who hooked him.”
I am glad when the attention shifts away from me. I don’t pretend to be more interesting than a sky full of fireworks.
Valerie touches my shoulder. Her eyes are blue and green, always changing. “I’m glad you didn’t hit him,” she says. “I’m glad you’re not like that.”
It is the perfect moment for a kiss—the soft glow of a bonfire, a sky filled with fireworks, the exhilaration of having lived through a fight I’ve been dreading. I lean in, and she leans in, but no … instead of a kiss, there’s a chain rattling between us.
“I’m hungry,” Cornpup says. “Toss me up something spicy. Preferably an unopened bag of Doritos.”
“I’ll be right back,” I say to Valerie. She holds Viper’s leash for me.
I feel so alive, I almost believe fire could never hurt me, that I’m invincible, like Charlie. Tonight would be a great night to destroy Dan Benecke. Tonight would be a good night to take down Mareno Chem. But there will be other nights.
Right now, I just want to kick back and enjoy the fireworks.
says he knows where the Phenzorbiflux is hidden. This time he’s sure. He says he had a dream about it. A dream that was so real, he tasted fumes in his throat when he woke up. It’s a ten-mile trip to the shores of Lake Erie. We ride our bikes in silence.
The lake is covered in a dark, oily sheen. Charlie thinks it would be awesome to see the water catch fire. He wants to watch container ships sailing through the flames, blankets of smoke engulfing the historical lighthouse, dead fish washing onto shore. I imagine the monsters that could crawl out of a burning lake—screaming seagulls with fire wings, toxic squid that glisten in the night, smallmouth bass with steel spikes welded to their fins.
We leave our bikes by the water. We walk along the railroad tracks to the old Bethlehem Steel mill. It’s a massive compound,
more than a mile long, and totally abandoned. Back in World War II, steelworkers rolled uranium here. They were helping to build the bomb that got dropped on Hiroshima. They didn’t know they were supposed to wear protective gear. Some of them took little pieces of uranium home to their kids. People got radiation poisoning. And cancer. Some of the buildings are still hot. And the soil here will stay contaminated for thousands of years.
“This doesn’t look anything like my dream,” says Charlie. He describes a building that could be any one of these.
“There are a lot of warehouses with busted windows,” I say. “Can’t you narrow it down?”
I wonder if Charlie’s dream was only half true. Maybe Mareno Chem workers did come here, but not to
Phenzorbiflux. Instead they might’ve shipped the secret chemical out on railcars that passed through here. Or maybe they parked their tankers on Bethlehem Steel property and poured every last trace of Phenzorbiflux straight into Lake Erie.
Charlie kicks an old diesel tank and says, “Goddammit.”
The truth is, I’m starting to burn out. I’m tired of searching for Phenzorbiflux. There is too much ground to cover. There are too many places where liquid chemicals can be soaked into soil or washed out to sea. It could take us years to break into every possible building, to dig through hundreds of square miles of earth, and we still might not find what we’re looking for. If we prove Phenzorbiflux is real, if we prove it was manufactured here in Poxton, we’d silence all the people who say Dad was a liar. And Mareno Chem would probably get in trouble with the government, which would be great.
It’s just that Mareno Chem doesn’t have a face or a heart. It can’t feel pain. I need to direct my anger at an actual person. I need to seriously hurt Dan Benecke. It’s almost all I can think about.
We leave Bethlehem Steel with failure in our guts. It’s a long ride home.
“Let’s stop back at your place and pick up Viper,” says Charlie. “Then we should go see my brother. He’ll give us free drinks.”
I remember when I had to draw three skeleton posters for Randy’s twentieth birthday party. Charlie wanted almost every bone in the human body to be represented, which took forever, and then he wanted me to “kill” each of the skeletons in a different way. So I drew one skeleton drowning in the ocean, a school of tropical fish swimming through its ribs. I drew the second skeleton lying on a flat stone, a tribe of cannibals picking bloody flesh off its spine and rib cage. And I drew the last skeleton in a dark, dirty factory, a hydraulic pressing machine crushing one arm into jagged shards of bone.
When Randy saw the posters, he said, “You should do something with your art. Like work on movie sets in Hollywood.”
I kind of love that idea. I could do special effects for monster movies. I could design creatures. I could put zombie makeup on a famous actor’s face. I have no idea where I could get trained for that type of job.
We all thought Randy would be in college by now. He’s a talented quarterback, a quick guitar player, but no scholarships were offered to him, and Charlie says, “In this town, you gotta get a scholarship or you’re done. Our parents ain’t giving us any college money. We’re on our own.” Randy applied for work at the lumberyard, at a fuel processing facility by the river, and at the air products plant where Mom works. He wanted to drive a forklift at the shipyard. He thought about doing some roofing work in the summer. “Good luck,” Mom said to him. “Because nobody’s hiring these days. And I mean nobody.” Right now Randy is working behind the snack counter at the Golden Nugget, and it’s just temporary, till he can find something better.
When we get to my house, Charlie rummages through our pantry, and takes a bag of pretzel sticks for the road. I secure Viper in my backpack, so he can see everything without falling out while we ride. Then we hop on our bikes and head out past the industrial yards, toward the Canadian border.
“Bingo is the greatest thing ever,” says Charlie. “The cash-in prize is two hundred dollars for a regular game, three hundred for a blackout.
In one day
we could win Cornpup all the money he needs for his stupid skin creams. Except you gotta be eighteen to play. Can you believe that garbage?”
“So you’re not mad at him anymore? You’re okay with the surgery?”
Charlie shakes his head. “If my skin looked like that, I’d get the surgery in a heartbeat. I was never really mad about that. I was just pissed he was being so top-secret.”
The Golden Nugget doesn’t actually open till noon, but we pound on the tinted glass windows at eleven-thirty, and Randy lets us in. “Just don’t let my boss see that dog,” he says to me.
Molly McVie is sitting at the bar, a paperback novel open in her lap. She has on tiny pearl earrings and a strapless pink sundress. Her blond hair is pulled into a ponytail. There is something so hot about the curve of her shoulders, all soft-looking and tan. Randy almost spills a tub of popcorn kernels all over the floor because he’s watching her and not the kettle.
So he finally got the girl he always wanted.
Molly smiles at us. I wonder if she remembers me from that snowy pecan pie night at the diner. The night me and Randy were like brothers. The night Mom slid off the road.
“They’re always together. It’s sickening.” Charlie is one of those people who could live forever off teriyaki beef jerky, macaroni and cheese, and a regular rush of adrenaline. When it comes to girls, he likes the thrill of the chase, but what he
is freedom. I don’t
know if he’d ever want a real girlfriend. He likes Jill, I guess, but she’s second-tier; he’d choose sports, pepperoni pizza, and Chemical Mountain over her any day of the week.
“Having Molly around is better than seeing Goat’s ugly face,” I say. “Plus Randy’s back to normal now.”
Behind the bar there are three rows of candy boxes, two clear bins full of tortilla chips, and a nacho cheese dispenser. Cheese-filled hot dogs rotate under a small lightbulb. The last time I ate a cheese-filled hot dog, I threw up at the Erie County Fair.
Charlie dumps a baggie full of change onto the counter. “How much can we buy with this?”
Randy laughs. “That’ll maybe get you some M&M’s off the floor.”
I haven’t been hungry since my close call with Mom this morning. I woke up to her violently jiggling my door handle. “Why is this door locked? What are you doing in there? Open up, now.” I shot out of bed. I tucked Viper under a deflated rubber raft and some mildewed towels. I unlocked my door. Mom stormed in to conduct a quick search. Maybe she thought I was doing drugs. Viper was motionless and quiet the whole time. I thought for sure she’d notice little black puppy hairs all over my pillowcase, but I was saved by the overall messiness of my room—railroad spikes and scrap metal on the floor, dirty shirts and underwear in a smelly heap, monster sketches stuck to the walls with gum.
“No locked doors,” Mom said. “That’s the rule.”
And then she left for the air products plant, her van squealing down the street. To Cornpup, that sound is a serpentine drive belt that needs to be replaced. To me, it’s the sound of freedom: She’s gone.
But sooner or later, she’s gonna discover Viper. Every time I think about it, I totally lose my appetite.
Randy gives us two tall paper cups filled with ice and Mountain Dew. “On the house,” he says.
“So what’s up with you and Valerie?” Charlie says to me. “I heard she’s been knocking on your window in the middle of the night.”
“No comment.” I chew my plastic straw until it’s mangled.
“Val and Jill want us to take them on a double date,” says Charlie.
The popcorn kettle is too noisy, one hundred bullets in a tin can. Viper doesn’t like it.
“What are you guys talking about?” Molly moves closer to us. I watch her purse slide along the shiny counter.
Please, oh please, sit next to Charlie
She sits next to me.
Randy glances at the wall clock. Three minutes until he has to unlock the front doors. He puts out a cup for tips. He checks out his triceps in the mirrored wall. He can do one-armed pull-ups, which is amazing. I don’t wish I could be him. I want to be myself, except with his looks, his confidence, and his ability to play guitar riffs, quick fingers flying up and down the frets of an electric Les Paul. I wouldn’t mind having his motorcycle either.
“Jason has a
. Valerie Tennyson,” Charlie explains.
“Not true,” I say. Sitting next to Molly makes me feel itchy. She smells like peaches. Valerie sometimes smells like vanilla. I liked my life a lot better when girls were gross and dead frogs were beautiful. Now everything is so complicated.
“You’re not going on no date,” says Randy. “You don’t have any money. You don’t have a car.”
“I’ll steal Dad’s truck,” says Charlie.
Randy laughs out loud. “You’re crazy. He will
you. Why don’t you just have them over for tacos or something?”
It’s time for Randy to unlock the front door. We watch old people flooding the bingo hall. Saggy arms, dentures, gambling visors, and polyester. I catch a whiff of expired perfume that makes my stomach turn. I wonder if it’s a rule that old people have to dress old and smell old.
“I thought up an idea last night,” I tell Charlie. “A way we could get Cornpup some of the money he needs.”
Charlie is holding a book of matches. He strikes them, one by one, watching the flames burn and then disappear.
Molly says, “Charlie and fire, now that’s scary.”
first bingo game is under way. A man in the announcement booth calls out, “B-two, G-nine, B-eleven, I-nine, O-three.” The players are in deep concentration. They do not talk to each other. They do not look up. There is only the furious dabbing of numbered squares.
I think about eating tacos with Valerie, Jill, and Charlie. It would be so weird. Valerie’s skinny, with tiny bones like a bird. I bet she’d only eat one taco, while me and Charlie, we’d eat five or six. And then she’d probably want to hold my hand or something. I can see it now, me with a piece of cilantro stuck between my teeth, and Charlie flicking shreds of cheese into Valerie’s long, dark hair.
I don’t know if I really want Charlie to be there when I hang out with Valerie, because he might tell her things about my fat mom, or he might make up a lie about me that’s meant to be a joke but won’t
be taken that way, like the time he told Cornpup I fart when I run fast, which is not true. On the day we had class pictures, Charlie got pizza sauce all over my good shirt, and I swear it was on purpose.