Authors: Corina Vacco
I get the message loud and clear. Earlier today, Cornpup surprised me by offering way more help with the Freak Tour than I was expecting. He gave me a box of expensive calligraphy pens he’d found in Gramps’s desk. He spoke to a librarian friend of his, and she told him there’s a way to print double-sided pages, and
I can use the library’s copy machines for free. Then, at the pawnshop, he found a bookbinding machine that uses hot glue to make the bindings. I don’t know what he traded to get it, but the contraption is sitting on my bedroom floor, and it’s mine forever, he says.
Cornpup wants a shot at having normal skin forever. Even if it makes me uncomfortable knowing he’s gonna be part of some plastic surgeon’s research, I have to let it go. I have to let him do his thing.
When we catch up to Charlie, he’s scheming up ways to sell Freak Tour tickets. “First I spread the word, get all the kids buzzing. Then I create the illusion of limited ticket supply. After that, we lock them into a bidding war.”
I have no idea what Charlie’s talking about. We’re selling the tickets for a set price, and no eight-year-old is going to start a bidding war.
“He scalped three Bills tickets in front of the Big Tree Inn last season, and now he thinks he’s some kind of marketing genius,” says Cornpup.
On the day of the tour, Charlie will be my bouncer. He says he’ll confiscate cameras and hit kids with a stick if they complain about being thirsty or needing to use the bathroom. If it comes down to it, he’ll handcuff disruptive kids with zip ties to “set an example.”
I tell him I can see this spiraling out of control. Then we all bust out laughing.
We talk about what Cornpup’s role will be on the day of the tour. He wants to be a secretary or something. He’ll collect tickets, sell my books, and keep track of the money. He’ll grill each of the children and make sure none of their leaky mouths ratted us out to any parents—or worse, to the cops. My only job is to tell horrible stories, to make children feel fear, to breathe life into dead chemical sites. It seems easy, but the thought of talking for two solid hours freaks me out. Maybe they will hate my stories. Maybe I won’t be able to keep their attention. Maybe this whole thing is a mistake.
“See that?” Cornpup points to a massive cement drainage pipe behind a dimly lit building within the Mareno Chem complex. The pipe is barfing up dark, chunky sludge. The smell is a mix of burnt plastic and nail polish remover. “They’re still dumping. They never stopped.”
We sit on the banks of Two Mile Creek for a long time, coughing till our lungs burn. Charlie plays a drumbeat on the ground with two sticks. Cornpup watches the drainage pipes, his eyes willing the sludge to stop, except there seems to be no end to it. Viper sniffs for lizards and mice. I lie back in the dirt and look up at the stars. I wonder if Dad can see me—an unoriginal thought, I know. I’ll bet every kid with a dead parent wonders what I wonder. We all talk in our heads to someone who won’t ever answer.
Later, me and my friends will walk home. We’ll fall asleep before the first rays of morning sun, before our parents start brewing instant coffee and spitting phlegm into the sink and frying eggs in corn oil. Before Randy rides his motorcycle to Molly’s house. Before
Abbi pounds her little hands on the kitchen table and chants,
Before the drainage pipes go silent and the creek moves, all dark and dirty, over golf balls, beer cans, and shiny rocks.
Tomorrow we won’t see each other. I’ll write out my stories, and Charlie will sell tickets, and I don’t know what Cornpup will do. Maybe he’ll be meeting with the doctor, prepping his skin for the big surgery.
Earlier this morning, I saw Kevin Thompson at the junkyard. I was looking for an antenna for Mom, and he was carrying a steering wheel. I saw him eyeing me, and there were all these weapons he could’ve grabbed—rusty sheets of metal, jagged exhaust pipes, long shards of broken glass—but he didn’t say or do anything. I hope that’s a sign of what’s to come, that if I see him in the hallway freshman year, he’ll just walk on by, like a total stranger. It’s funny how I used to be so scared of him.
What I’m scared of now is harder to pinpoint. I’m scared I could lose my friend to an experimental surgery. I’m scared of telling my landfill stories to a bunch of little kids. I’m scared Dan Benecke will do something terrible to me and Mom. But most of all, I’m scared of this feeling I have deep down in my bones. It’s the same restless feeling I had the night Dad didn’t come home. I feel like something in my life is about to shift in a horrible way.
should’ve known something would go wrong. On Thursday morning, Mareno Chem put a notice in the paper, something about how parents need to keep their teenagers from trespassing in the industrial yards. It could mean they’re gonna be patrolling our tour route. Then, on Friday night, Gramps had chest pains. He drove himself to the hospital with maple syrup on his gas pedal. It was a heart attack. No one bothers to tell Cornpup till Saturday, about thirty minutes before the Freak Tour is set to begin.
“What do you mean, you’re not coming?” Charlie is sitting at my kitchen table, shoveling spoonfuls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch into his mouth, spilling milk all over Mom’s new place mats, and shouting into the phone.
“He’s not coming?” I say.
Charlie slams the phone down so hard I expect to see an explosion of wires and little electrical components. “Unbelievable.”
I should care about Gramps. I should care that Cornpup is worried about his only living grandfather.
I should care. I should care. I should care
. But I don’t. All this work for nothing, my hand aching from hours of calligraphy pens, the time it took for me to finally feel proud of my book.
“Maybe no one was gonna show up anyway.” I put my glass in the sink.
Charlie looks at me. “We’re not canceling anything. We can meet him at the hospital later.”
It’s supposed to be all three of us doing this thing. How many times have I gone with Cornpup to the library or the pawnshop, always running errands with him, when what I really wanted to do was race my dirt bike on an open road? Me and Charlie sat through a long, stupid town meeting about Two Mile Creek, even though we had better places to be. We back each other up. That’s how it is. That’s how it’s always been.
Charlie doesn’t care about glitches in our master plan. He says, “We’re doing this thing. We’re gonna rock the tour and make a lot of money.”
At quarter to ten the Schumachers’ yard is swarming with neighborhood kids and their friends. I was worried a few parents would show up, but that hasn’t happened. I was waiting for a squad car to drive by, but that hasn’t happened either. There are thirty-two little nerds in all, and so far no one has tried to pay in pennies.
Charlie has been
today. He gave me his lockbox and told me not to open it till he’s famous. “Just put it under your bed,” he said. “And then forget it’s there.” Then he made me leave Viper at home with a gigantic rawhide bone, and even though Mom won’t be home from work till around dinnertime, I still feel anxious. Now he has the kids standing shoulder to shoulder behind the
Schumachers’ garage while he picks a large scab off his knee too early, his eyes studying the bright new blood.
“Are you nervous or something?” I ask him.
“No.” He answers slowly, like he is confused by the question. “I don’t get nervous.”
Then I ask Charlie how much money we have, and he pats the bulge in the front pocket of his jeans as if to say,
Plenty. I’ll keep it safe. Don’t worry
. We might have a lot of money, because all but two of my books have sold, and it bothers me that Charlie won’t say a number out loud. I think of him skimming off the top, or worse, losing it all, the way he “lost” my margarine tub full of cash so many years ago.
Charlie is wearing plastic gloves and tall rubber boots. He paces back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back. He barks rules at the kids, “No talking, or you’re off the tour. We don’t give second chances. We don’t give refunds.”
The kids are quiet around us, cautious. We’ve never really even spoken to them before. I think Charlie’s gloves are scaring them. When the nurse is doing a lice check at school, I don’t care about the black plastic combs. It’s the gloved hands I worry about. I know how dirty my house can get when Mom is working lots of doubles, and I think,
Please not me. Please don’t let me be the lice kid
. And it never is me. I’ve never had bugs in my hair. But I know what it feels like to see gloves on the hands of a person who is not your friend, to feel like you’re gonna puke when you smell latex.
“Follow Charlie,” I say. My voice comes out shaky. I’m not used to an audience, even if it is a mob of local children. I should know each of their names—Poxton is a small town, after all—but I’ve always kept my attention on the older crowd, Randy and his friends. I’m interested in people who have motorcycles and garage bands and who actually do stuff with their lives.
To save time, we skip the introductions. I make up my own names for the kids. There is Squinty Boy, and Girl in Turtle Sweatshirt,
and Cat Eyes, and Stupid Shoes. There is Snot Nose, and Knee Pads, and Stick Arms, and Long-Hair Girl. There is Gap Tooth, and Apricot Ears, and Horse T-shirt, and Band-Aid Knee. I name all thirty-two kids in this way, my eyes snagging on one feature. I wonder what me and my friends would be called if we were judged so quickly. Cyst Boy? Fat Lady’s Son? Fire Starter?
The kids squeeze through the torn chain-link fence and fan out into the industrial park.
Charlie tries with one hand to rip a rusty
sign off its hook, but the sign is secure, and he gets a brownish-red sliver of metal stuck in the tip of his thumb. If Cornpup were here, he’d be saying,
Tetanus shot. Your jaw is gonna lock up. Emergency room
. If Viper were here, he’d be sniffing the dead bird rotting at the base of the fence.
We trek across the field, a gray and windowless building looming up ahead, deep pockets of wet earth sucking at our shoes. When the puddles turn green and glossy, I start my first story.
“Aliens landed here,” I say. “They were tall, like cement silos. They had claw arms for eating multiple children, shish kebab–style. They wore steel masks with radio receivers built in, night vision. Their spaceship was all busted-up and smoky. They spoke a strange language, grunts and whistles. Their weapons were like nothing you’ve ever seen. Metallic shapes, blinding lights.”
I show an illustration from my book. The kids are mesmerized.
“They have lots of weapons,” says Stupid Shoes.
Charlie stirs the green puddles with a stick. He says, “The aliens were injured in the crash. This is their blood. If you touch it, your skin will melt off.”
The kids lean over the giant puddles. Charlie splashes the green liquid at them, and they jump back, horrified. It would be so funny if one of them fell in.
We walk the length of the industrial park, along rows of parked
semitrucks and dark buildings, closed for the weekend. The whole area is hauntingly abandoned, like a mining town built on worthless soil. Seagulls soar overhead.
At the quarry I talk about crazy scientists. Trapdoors. An experiment gone bad. Bombs powered by lightning. Spies and an underground explosion.
At the dead black trees, I talk about the garlic fields burning, vampires climbing to the highest branches, their faces hidden in old gas masks. Screaming bats. Deep, gray smoke that twirled in violent spirals to the sky.
At the quicksand pit, I speak of Chemical War II. Smelly creatures rising up from the muck. A fog of ammonia and chlorine. Witch doctors running along the bubbly ground, their boots melting, their spells failing. Ashes and petroleum.
We walk to the tool and die plant, where baby dragon skeletons can be found. I tell the kids, “Never go near dragon bones without a sword for protection. Some dragon skeletons go on living without hearts or lungs, and they breathe an invisible fire that burns like the surface of the sun.”
Midway through the tour, Charlie spots two cop cars and some security trucks driving really slowly through the industrial yards. We hide behind some leaky barrels, my heart pounding in my chest. I don’t know if they’re just cruising, looking for trespassers, or if they got tipped off that we’re here, and they’re looking for us. Long-Hair Girl touches something she’s not supposed to and gets chemical burns on her hands. Charlie tells her to put mud on them. When the cops and security guards finally disappear, we all try to pretend we never saw them to begin with.
We pass the rubber factory where Joe Farley died. I tell the kids, “He didn’t exactly fall. The real truth is that he got pulled down from the window by ghosts. There were claw marks all over his arms. Certain ghosts enjoy eating splattered brains. He’s a ghost
now too.” As I say this, I feel guilty. Am I crossing some kind of line? Is it disrespectful to bring a real dead kid into my story?
We enter an old chemical plant, where I talk about pods of giant insects that buzz like generators. Behind the tanks, a praying mantis the size of a delivery truck is hissing at us. In the empty administrative office, I point to ants bigger than wolves, earthworms that look like anacondas, termites that eat flesh, black flies that puke rivers of poison when they land, cockroaches that could crush a minivan.
“If you go in here without our protection, you better bring a can of Raid and a prayer,” says Charlie.
We enter the steel mill where huge killer rats move in large packs, their rapid footsteps causing small earthquakes. “Their matted gray fur is riddled with maggots. They sharpen their teeth on the blast furnace hinges. They’re immune to rat poison. The rat leader has long fangs and a severed tail. He rigged this building with a million traps. You can set some of them off with stones, but if you step in the wrong place, they will catch you. They love to eat children who scream. They’ll chill your blood and drink it like iced tea. That’s just the way it is.”