Authors: Corina Vacco
“Oh, man. What are you gonna do with that?” says Charlie.
“Give it back to me,” says Cornpup. “Don’t be stupid.”
I don’t think Dan Benecke understands what a Chinese star even is, because he’s looking at me strangely, when what he really should be doing is running away in a zigzag pattern. I will cut up Dan Benecke’s face. I will shred his skin until he looks like the monster that he is. I want him to hurt like I hurt. And I want him to live with hideous scars for as long as I have to live without Dad.
“Jason, man, whatever you’re thinking about doing, he’s not worth it,” Charlie says in a low voice.
Tears are running down my cheeks. “You guys won’t rat me out. I can cut his face. I can cut out his eyeballs. No one will know it was me.”
“This isn’t you,” says Cornpup. “Your dad wouldn’t want this.”
My hands are shaking. I just need to make the first cut. From there, it will be easy.
Dan Benecke grabs Cornpup’s arm and twists it back violently. I try to think where I’ve heard a bone pop like that before. If this guy was scared of me, he’d be running away. Instead, he is getting ready to break Cornpup’s arm.
He is daring me to cut him. His eyes have gone all empty. He doesn’t hear Cornpup’s asthma kicking in, thick wheezing sounds that make you want to cry. He doesn’t respond when Charlie shouts, “Let him go, mister. Seriously. What are you trying to do? Just let him go.”
“He’s gonna have an asthma attack,” I say. “He needs his inhaler or he’ll die.”
Still no reaction.
Cornpup’s wheezing gets worse.
There is a sharp weapon in my hand. I need to use it.
Charlie tries to pry Cornpup free. Dan Benecke’s elbow flies up at a sharp angle. He knocks Charlie in the jaw. I hear the sick sound of bone on bone. Charlie falls backward into the bubbling mud. I hear the sound of uncontrolled wheezing, a windpipe closing. Dan Benecke tosses Cornpup to the ground like he’s not even a person, like he’s a product, a bag of cat food.
I reach out and cut Dan Benecke’s cheek. Just once, to show him how unlucky he could’ve been tonight. Then I throw the Chinese star to the ground. Cornpup was right. Dad wouldn’t want this. I have to walk away.
“I remember your father,” Dan Benecke says, running his fingers along his wound, studying the blood. “He was average in every way. He could’ve worked at Mareno Chem for thirty years, blending in with all the other empty faces. But no, he had to open his big mouth. While we were fine-tuning Phenzorbiflux, hoping to reapply for EPA approval, he was stealing information from our computers, gathering data that could’ve opened us up to a lot of lawsuits. When he died, I thought,
. If he’d been paying attention to his safety gear instead of sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, he might’ve had a long, simple life. I wouldn’t say he was a smart man.”
I jump on Dan Benecke with such force he falls to the ground. I punch him in the face again and again and again. I’ll never stop punching this man. I’ll stay here forever.
Cornpup manages to squirm away.
I feel hands on my shoulders. “You got him good,” Charlie says. “Let’s go.”
I don’t want to look at Dan Benecke’s face, but I can’t help it. I have to know if I’ve hurt him. For a sliver of a second I lock eyes with this man. I fully expect him to jab his fist into my face, but he doesn’t. He is wearing an expression I’ve never seen on anyone
before. Maybe he is ashamed the situation escalated to this level. Maybe he is stunned.
Or maybe he seriously wants to kill me.
We take off running. We go straight for the fence. We don’t pass the water pump. We don’t collect our dirt bikes. We don’t look back. The sound of our hands hitting the chain-link fence is the only sound that matters. We climb up and over.
Charlie licks the fresh blood from his lips. “Jason. I don’t know what that was, but you rule.”
My knuckles are throbbing. I feel like a uranium monster, hot and indestructible. I also feel a little bit sad inside. Revenge didn’t fix the parts of me that are broken.
I wonder if I took things too far. When Charlie has to pull you off someone, you’ve gone too far.
“You stopped at one cut,” says Cornpup. “It could’ve been worse.”
“Worse?” says Charlie. “You’re the one who keeps telling us that innocent people are dying because Mareno Chem is dumping toxic waste all over the place. That guy destroyed Jason’s family. He deserved a hell of a lot worse than a tiny cut and some gut punches.”
The cut wasn’t tiny. It was shallow, yes, but it took up the whole side of his face. I’m scared of how close I came to really shredding him.
My friends slap me on the back. They’re laughing.
We walk past the S&R pipe factory. Cornpup tells us the workers put so much mercury in the ground the trees turned silver for a while. I don’t think that’s true. We walk past the old Spaulding Fibre plant. Cornpup points to its demolished silo and says there are PCBs buried four feet below the surface. I have no idea what PCBs are, nor do I care.
I tell Cornpup all about my Freak Tour idea, and he is pumped.
Charlie is quiet. I can feel him watching me. Machines are pounding in my head. Maybe he can hear them.
spend all of the next night working on our Freak Tour. We want it to be legendary and perfect. We want to get this right. At ten-thirty, Mom falls asleep on the couch, hugging a jar of peanut butter like it’s a kitten. I take the spoon out of her hand and put a blanket on her. “There’s an earthquake in the freezer,” she murmurs.
We sneak out of a window in the den, Cornpup cutting his hand somehow, and Charlie nearly kicking the TV off its stand with his huge feet. It’s like he’s just too big for this world, too noisy. I glance over my shoulder at the door of the den. If Mom wakes up and finds a window propped open with a cinder block from the garage; Charlie’s legs flailing, his body halfway outside the window; and our coffee table all covered in mud from Cornpup’s boots, then I’ll be in deep trouble.
Cornpup is wearing rubber boots that come to his knees. Charlie
has a long, heavy black flashlight he found at the army surplus store. I sketch ideas in a notebook as we walk. I draw a snake with rusty metal scales and two long screws for fangs. I draw an exhaust creature with a muffler head and rusty tailpipe limbs.
“I wish I could draw like that,” Charlie says as we cut across the mudflats.
I feel suddenly proud, even a little arrogant. He’ll never know what it’s like to create monsters. This talent is all mine.
Viper likes to be out at night. His ears move at every sound: screeching owls, buzzing streetlights, chirping frogs. I can hear his wet nose
. It’s crazy, how happy dogs are sometimes, how content.
Tonight we’re walking the tour route, a practice run before the real deal. We’re on high alert, our eyes ready to pick out hazards and delays. There’s a short argument about where to start the tour, even though we all know it should probably start at Cornpup’s house. I’ve got the nosy neighbors who report things to my mom. It’s hard enough hiding Viper from them.
“My house, then,” says Charlie. He lights matches as we walk. It’s like he’s been craving fires lately. I close my eyes and think of silver mercury demons, slithering out of the ground, latching on to our ankles like vines. Charlie would fight them all with a matchbook and some gasoline. He has to be the center of attention always.
“Your house? Are you kidding?” Cornpup snorts.
We can’t risk having his drunk dad around.
And so we’re back at Cornpup’s house, which is where we should’ve started. His backyard dead-ends at a torn chain-link fence, the obvious portal to our world of buried sludge and dark machines. It’s just that Cornpup also has the worst of all possible things—a stay-at-home mom. She will not be cool with a bunch of noisy kids in her yard, and if she sees us slip through that fence, she’ll call the cops for sure. She’s that dramatic.
“We’d have to start the tour at exactly ten Saturday morning and get back no later than twelve,” Cornpup says. “She’ll be at the salon getting a manicure, even though I need new shoes and Abbi needs glasses. She’s so freaking selfish.”
Mom once said, “Courtney Schumacher would let her sump pump go out before she’d cancel the weekly pedicure. How am I supposed to keep up with all that beauty, all that
?” I wanted to tell her she was no better, that sometimes it felt like she’d sell me into slavery for a pan of meatloaf, but I kept my mouth shut.
“If I calculated this right, we’ve got five minutes at each stop.” Cornpup is messing with the stopwatch he dropped into the toilet a few nights ago. He was trying to set a record for longest piss. He said it was one of those awkward moments when you have to decide what’s worse, sticking your hand in your own pee or flushing the toilet and clogging a pipe with an object that can be traced back to you. He put his hand in the pee. The stopwatch still works.
“Five minutes is doable,” I say.
“Cornpup, you’re stressing me out,” says Charlie. “We’ll be back on time. I promise you. Even if I have to rescue a bunch of kids from the quicksand pit,
we will be back on time
He’s not talking about real quicksand. He’s talking about a gurgling pit of leaves and mud that never seems to dry. He’s talking about how we once put a metal yardstick into the pit, only to discover that the pit was much deeper than we thought. The yardstick never did touch bottom, and when we pulled it out, it looked like it had been partially digested.
“Lucky we didn’t stick our fingers in there,” Cornpup said.
“I’m not scared. I’ll stick my hand in there,” Charlie said. But he didn’t do it.
I think about the fire we started later that night, how wrong it all went. The trees were dead in the first place—we didn’t kill them—but to see all those branches burning was real creepy. There
were sparks flying everywhere, and some of those sparks turned into miniature fires that had to be dealt with. Cornpup worked on extinguishing the original bonfire that was raging like crazy. Charlie chased the flying sparks and stomped out the small fires, even though his throwing hand was bleeding and he was in pain. I was in charge of the trees, but without a hose, what was I really supposed to do? I poured creek water and sand at the base of the trees, and then I just allowed them to burn out. I was scared that night, and Cornpup was annoyed, but Charlie was thrilled. I think there was a part of him that wanted to have burn marks on his skin. He probably would jump into the quicksand and save some kid. I can picture him screaming and melting, his muscles visible where his skin gets eaten away, his peacock-blue eyes bulging from his face. I really don’t think he’d hesitate. I think he’d want to be a hero, eaten alive in a pit of acid.
I keep thinking about last night, what I did to Dan Benecke’s face. I got my revenge. It should be over. But it’s not over. He will strike back.
The industrial park is creepy tonight. Most of the lights are either dim or flickering, they’re so poorly maintained. There are dead trees with gnarled bare branches that look like cracks in the glassy sky. There are steel containers that leak clear, steamy liquid into the soil. We hear bats in the tall brick silos. Dump trucks sleep like animals near high piles of mysterious sludge. An ammonia tanker without wheels is lying on its side in a patch of tall grasses that hiss when the wind blows. I get the feeling anything could happen here.
We walk along a trail of deep, glossy puddles, bright green water during the day and deep forest-green water at night. Cornpup doesn’t step in these puddles, because to him they’re dangerous chemical landmines. I don’t step in the puddles because I have to keep my shoes looking clean and new for as long as possible; Mom won’t take me shopping till my toes pop out, and even then
it’s a battle. Charlie, though, he steps in the puddles. He tries to splash us.
I ask Cornpup about the detox teas and the special skin creams. “Are you sure you really need to buy all that stuff?”
“Dr. Gupta can remove my cysts, but I’ll still have scars and rashes. Plus, my body can’t filter out toxins in a normal way. Herbal supplements should help. If you’re asking me ‘Am I sure it will work?’ the answer is, ‘I have no idea.’ But I feel like this is my last chance. I have to at least try.”
I nod like I understand, but I don’t. I’ve been in the creek more than he has, and Charlie pretty much lives in that water. My skin is smooth and perfect. Charlie’s body is healthy and strong.
Cornpup is a guy like us, but he’s saying he’s made of something different. Skin cells that aren’t working? Weak organs? Poor blood? And it’s all just a product of bad genes? Bad luck?
We don’t learn about these things in school. We don’t learn about these things anywhere.
Charlie grabs Viper’s leash from my hand and walks ahead of us, out of earshot. I don’t want him out there in the darkness with my dog. I think of all the things he won’t notice—snakes and broken glass and skunks and syringes. I want to tell him to come back, but he’d take that as a dare to walk farther out of sight.
“And you trust this doctor? You really trust him? You’re sure he’s not scamming you?”
Cornpup looks at me. “He’s legit. I called the hospital and checked him out. The surgery is free.”
“But you always say
is free,” I argue. “You’re the one who always says to watch for ulterior motives.”
Cornpup’s not mad at me, but I can see he’s frustrated—at himself, maybe, for not explaining this right. He is exhausted all the time. “Jason, you’re just gonna have to back off. I asked the right questions. Dr. Gupta was open with me. He does get something out
of this deal. He needs more data on chemical sensitivities in people under eighteen. I’ll be part of his research. One day he’ll probably use my ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures to generate new business. I’m okay with that.”
“So you’re an experiment?”
“You can’t tell me that’s worse than being a cyst-covered freak. You don’t know how it feels. You and Charlie
can’t even imagine
how it feels. I will always back you, no matter what. Right now, I need you to do the same for me.”