Authors: Corina Vacco
“I’m almost out of gas!” Cornpup shouts to me.
I look at my own gauge, and it’s low. I catch up with my friends, and park my bike next to Cornpup. I ask him what’s wrong with his eye.
“A bug flew in it,” he says.
Charlie’s teeth are so white they almost glow in the dark, and this makes the spaces where his teeth are missing seem really obvious. He says, “I’m dying of hunger. When we get home, I’m gonna make myself a big old pot of macaroni and cheese.”
Cornpup jumps the fault line first. I can’t bear to watch. His dirt bike barely has enough power to lift off the ground, but he makes it up and over somehow. Me and Charlie go crazy cheering for him, laughing.
Charlie goes next. He borrows Cornpup’s knit hat and pulls it down over his eyes. “I’m gonna jump this blindfolded,” he says, and that’s exactly what he does.
“Wow,” says Cornpup. “That was stupid. And great.”
I go last. I’ve jumped the fault line a hundred times, before Charlie even knew it was here. I’m not scared at all.
But when I take off, my back tire gets caught on a machine lever. One-tenth of a second is all it takes. My front tire makes it to the other side, spinning like a round saw into the dirt, and for a second I think I might live through this, until I feel the back half of my bike drop sharply down, a sudden dip that turns my stomach, my body sliding into the black canyon. I catch hold of a rock and grip it so tightly that my fingernails lift and bleed, and still my hands are slipping.
A dark part of me is whispering,
Let go of that rock. It feels good to fall. Stop fighting
. And memories start blinking through my mind like little bursts of light. I see Valerie bringing me a note on pink paper, Viper chewing a bone, me and Charlie and Cornpup running to the creek with our shoe boxes and jars. I see Randy on the porch steps teaching me guitar chords. I see Dad onstage at a festival by the river.
There is no adrenaline rush, no fear. I just feel … tired.
My right leg feels impossibly heavy. I think my dirt bike is caught on my jeans somehow, pulling me down. I wonder what I’m supposed to do about that.
I really do consider letting go. I think about falling to the center of the earth and never having to face freshman year or a fence around the creek, never having to fight Kevin Thompson, never having to be around all the people who secretly believe Dad deserved to die. I think about never again having to watch Mom wolfing down cheesecake. It would be so easy.
But I don’t want to fall. I don’t want this to be the end. I have
things to live for. Charlie. Cornpup. Valerie. Viper. A sketchbook full of monsters. The Freak Tour. Revenge.
Two seconds have passed, maybe three, and I’m still thinking there might be a way to live, except I’m not strong enough to pull myself up. Never was. I take a deep breath of air, the way Charlie does, because I want to be a fighter like him, immortal. I breathe in the night smog, the gas fumes.
Charlie grabs my wrists. “I’ve got you,” he says. His face is calm and focused. I don’t think he even sees me right now. I think he sees fourth and twenty-seven, his team down by three, one second left on the clock. “And I’ve got your bike.”
“What are you talking about?” Cornpup shouts. “He could
. Forget the bike!”
“No!” Charlie shouts. “I’ve got this.”
He pulls me up with one arm. He pulls my bike up with the other. His strength is like an explosion. Suddenly I’m on the ground, safe and alive.
“Are you all right?” Cornpup asks me.
Charlie is running his hands along the body of my dirt bike, checking for scratches. It’s like he cares about the bike more than anything else. “I don’t see any major damage,” he reports. “I don’t see anything that can’t be buffed out.”
We ride toward home until Cornpup runs out of gas. Then we walk.
Charlie tells a funny story about our old PE teacher, who wears Windbreaker pants and farts when demonstrating how to do a proper sit-up. We snort with laughter. His observations about people are always so true. I love it when he turns on someone else. But I hate it when he turns on me.
Charlie used to rip on me a lot, used to say I had “girl arms.” I actually tried to cut off our friendship because of it. I was done with
him. He started calling my house every two seconds, throwing rocks at my window. “You
have girl arms,” he said, “but I can help you. I can fix it.” Eventually he wore me down. Three days later, we were friends again. He gave me his barbell and his jump rope. He taught me boot camp exercises. I’m still a lot skinnier than he is, a lot weaker, but my arms and back are cut, and my abs feel like a sheet of metal. It’s hard to hate Charlie when you can see that he is making you stronger.
But it goes even deeper than that.
Charlie is honest. You always know where he stands. And he is generous. I’ll hide my favorite movies so he won’t ask to borrow them. I’ll tell him I don’t have any money because I don’t want him to ask me to chip in for pizza when I’m not hungry. Then he’ll lend me his new Bills T-shirt, before he’s even had a chance to wear it, because he doesn’t want me showing up at Valerie’s pool party dressed in my stupid clothes, and I wonder who I’d be if Charlie wasn’t here to influence me, to insult me, to toughen me up.
I would be a total loser without him. I would be an absolute nerd.
“We should go home,” Cornpup says. “I feel like tonight’s one of those nights when bad things are gonna just keep happening, and we should just cash it in. We can ride Chemical Mountain some other time, tomorrow even.”
“This is what I mean about your endless negativity,” says Charlie. “I saved his life. I saved the dirt bike. Couldn’t that mean tonight is one of those nights when
things are gonna just keep happening?”
Cornpup looks at me.
“It’s on the way home,” I say. “It’s not like we’re going really far out of the way or anything.”
At the base of Chemical Mountain, we are silent, offering up a prayer, I guess—
We come in peace, holy mountain. Don’t kill us today
—except Cornpup is an atheist and would go off on us if we
used the word
. I lose my breath every time I stand at the foot of this landfill. It towers over us, a steep incline with a deep, muddy base. The city has covered the slopes in stunning green sod and scattered patches of purple flowers, and even now, at close to midnight, the effect is beautiful. It feels like this isn’t a landfill at all, like the chain-link fence and
signs were put here by mistake. But we know that’s just not true. Cornpup says decorating a landfill is nothing but a public relations move. He says a group of people called “they” want this mountain to be beautiful so we forget what’s inside. “People are retarded half the time,” he always says. “They only remember stuff they see in commercials, and even then it can’t be more than thirty seconds of information and there has to be a catchy little song.”
“It always seems so much taller in person,” I say. “Like in my memory I see a big hill, but in person, it’s really a mountain. They should build ski lifts.”
“I feel like it’s alive,” says Charlie. “Like it’s growing. I want to be here the day it explodes.”
We lug our bikes up the mountain. The view from the summit is breathtaking—lights from the Grand Island Bridge, gridlocked traffic on the 990, Two Mile Creek glistening in the moonlight, vast and empty industrial complexes. These things are all below us and feel so far away.
“Look down there.” I point to an incinerator that’s been boarded up since we were in fifth grade.
“So it’s operational again,” says Charlie. “So what?”
Cornpup laughs out loud. “It reopened between now and when we rode through here a few hours ago?
I count the white vans. There are twelve. “I didn’t know the incinerator still had power.”
“They’re using a generator,” says Cornpup.
We coast down the dark side of the landfill, motors off, and
stash our dirt bikes behind a steel drum at the edge of the railroad tracks. We creep closer to the incinerator. We can’t take our eyes off the unmarked vans, the men in white coveralls, the spotlights and smoke. These men have waited until dark on purpose. We are witnessing a secret, something that shouldn’t be happening.
“It looks like an invasion,” I say.
“There’s the ringleader.” Cornpup points to a man wearing a black turtleneck and cargo pants. He is standing a hundred paces away from the incinerator and grips a walkie-talkie. He is looking out into the night, like a watchman, and none of the other men approach him.
I can barely choke out the words. “That’s the guy from …”
“That night at the grain mill,” says Charlie.
“The town meeting,” says Cornpup.
Dad wasn’t kidding when he told me Dan Benecke kept a close eye on every aspect of Mareno Chem operations. “He’s everywhere,” I say. “He’s like a bad rash.”
The incinerator is fired up like a carnival, with lights, movement, and a feeling of mystery.
Cornpup stands. “I’m gonna walk right up to that guy and ask him what they’re doing.”
“What?” I give him a weird look. “We’re all muddy. I’ve got blood on my shirt. You’re wearing
, for chrissakes. We look stupid. You think we’re going to intimidate these people?”
“I’ll intimidate them,” says Charlie.
Revenge. Maybe tonight’s the night. Three of us against one.
Cornpup is already walking toward the lights.
about Cornpup charging through the muddy grass strikes me as the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. His hands are balled into fists. He’s walking with his butt cheeks squeezed together. He has a leaf stuck to the back of his head. This confrontation—it is something he has wanted to do all his life. He has hated this landfill for such a long time. He has been angry at chemical companies and rogue polluters for such a long time. But Cornpup likes to fight by the rules. He uses words. He tries to reason with his opponent. Last time I checked, no war in the history of wars has ever been won with words.
Your enemies have to take you seriously. You need violence.
Cornpup knocks on Dan Benecke’s back like he’s knocking on a door. Dan Benecke turns around calmly. He sees me and Charlie
first. Then he looks down at Cornpup, who waves. “Wow, kid,” he says. “What are you supposed to be?”
I give Charlie a look. “Why didn’t we at least force him to lose the dishwashing gloves?”
Cornpup points toward a row of houses at the edge of the industrial park. “I live over there.”
I search Dan Benecke’s face for a look of recognition. Does he remember us from the town meeting? Charlie questioning him about the chunky stuff in the creek. Cornpup showing off photographs and lumpy skin. Me, the quiet one, son of a dead man. Does he know I smashed up his office?
“Well,” Dan Benecke says in his smooth, professional voice. “If you live over there, then that’s where you should be right about now. This is private property. I’m sure you know how to read. I’m sure you know the definition of the word
.” He keeps his eyes on us as he brings the walkie-talkie up to his lips. “Take a five-minute break. I have company. Just some boys. I’ll take care of it. Over.”
“Take care of us how?” says Charlie.
Dan Benecke hooks his walkie-talkie onto his belt. “It’s time for you kids to go on home.”
Cornpup doesn’t budge. “I think you should tell us what you’re doing here.”
The fake smile is gone. “Get out of here. I’m not asking.”
“Your men,” says Cornpup. “They’re wearing hazmat gear. You’re burning chemicals here. You’re poisoning our neighborhood.”
“Let’s get something straight.” Dan Benecke glares at us. “This is not a
. This is an industrial complex. You see those railcars over there? They’re not playhouses. You see those metal drums? They’re not picnic tables. You see that chain-link fence around the perimeter? It’s not a decoration. You boys aren’t supposed to be playing back here.”
Interesting choice of words,
. He thinks we’re little kids. He’s not scared of us.
“Dumping at night,” says Cornpup. “You aren’t supposed to be playing back here either.”
Dan Benecke doesn’t fit my typical villain profile. He is not an ice monster. He’s not a creek serpent. He is strong, self-assured, a little bit like Charlie, but without the blood and bruises. When he puts his hand on Cornpup’s back and starts escorting us off the premises, I almost feel like he’s protecting us.
“Get your hands off me.” Cornpup whips around. “I said I’d bring your whole company down, and I meant it. But especially you. I want to ruin you personally, because you’re the one signing off on all this. You think because you’re rich you can get away with things, but you should’ve watched out for me. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
It’s funny how we all hate this guy, but for different reasons. Cornpup wants the dumping to stop. He thinks Mareno Chem is out to poison us all. Charlie doesn’t care about the dumping; he just wants it to be less obvious. He’s pissed that Mareno Chem has done things to draw attention to our creek, our
. I hate this man because he reached inside my family and took Dad away from me. He took Mom away from me too, if I really stop and think about it.
“You need to leave. Now, or I’m calling the police.” Dan Benecke’s lip is twitching so wildly, I want to reach out and touch it, make it stop.
Cornpup smirks. “I dare you to call the police. When they see what you’re dumping here, they won’t arrest us. They’ll arrest
I’m not sure that’s true. Mareno Chem owns this town. I bet every cop in Poxton has at least one family member working in the chemical manufacturing plant.
Dan Benecke holds up his flashlight, like he wants to beat us, like we’re dogs. He had that same look on his face when he scared
Mom into signing a stack of legal papers. If I don’t hurt him now, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.
The Chinese star Cornpup found at the dump is so sharp, it’s cutting through his back pocket. I grab the circular weapon, and it burns in my hand.