Authors: Corina Vacco
“I really don’t like carrots,” she whispers. “How am I supposed to do this?”
I notice the black fly isn’t buzzing in our window anymore. It has found its way back out into the world.
“Dad taught me a way to fix carrots that’s not so bad. I just need some cider vinegar and some garlic.”
“I took your dog on a walk earlier. I think I’d like to walk him every morning, if it’s okay with you.”
So this is what it might feel like. A new beginning.
have glass in my face. Or maybe it just
like there’s glass in my face. I’m lucky nothing got into my eyes, because last weekend, when Charlie destroyed part of the Freak Museum, he didn’t care who got hurt. It was real stupid of us to show up at Cornpup’s house, thinking we were gonna surprise him with our campout idea and an envelope full of Freak Tour money. We should’ve known he’d mutter some crap about how he can’t get the surgery now, or ever, because Gramps has a bad heart and can’t deal with the worry. We should’ve known he was gonna tell us to cancel the campout.
I should’ve known to grab Charlie’s arm right then before he snapped.
Charlie looked so crazy, lifting jars of colored creek water above his head, one by one, and smashing them on Cornpup’s hardwood floor. Red and green splattering on the walls. Slimy blue liquid
dripping down the door. Orange stains on the bed. Grayish gel seeping into a floor vent. Creek water and twigs, dead bugs and tiny bones. Cornpup was shouting, “Stop it. I’m serious, stop it. I need those!” and I was standing in the middle of it all with a piece of glass in my face.
Now, a week later, we’re setting up the campsite, and it’s a chilly night, and there are still cuts under my eye.
I help Molly carry cases of pop from the car. She brought hot dogs, ice, bags of candy, and pretzel rods. She brought graham crackers and marshmallows and chocolate squares.
“The campsite looks awesome,” she says, kissing Randy on the lips.
“I did most of it,” says Charlie, and that’s not the truth. It was me who helped Randy put the tent stakes in the ground while Charlie played with Viper in the creek.
But the fire is going strong, surrounded by sleeping bags and folding chairs, and there are lots of kids here now, raiding the cooler for soda. Valerie is here with me, so I feel real happy, like I don’t care that Cornpup isn’t coming.
I don’t care about Cornpup at all.
Charlie and Jill collect money from the campers. Me and Val teach Viper to fetch a tennis ball. She tells me her brother really wants to meet me, that he might show up tonight if this other party he’s going to gets raided by the cops. She tells me her little cousin Katie won’t swim in the creek anymore because my goblin pee stories grossed her out.
“I wasn’t trying to keep kids out of the creek,” I say. “I would never do that.”
“It’s probably good if little kids don’t swim there,” Val says. “You did a good thing.”
She is so unbelievably pretty, and I don’t want to argue with her, so I change the subject. “I heard something about Kevin Thompson
showing up here tonight. Something about him wanting to fight me with a crowbar.”
Valerie laughs. “Maybe that’s him over there,” she says, pointing to a shadow moving quickly through the industrial park. For a second, I think maybe it
Kevin. I watch the shadow move closer, until I hear baseball cleats crunching on a path of dry pine needles. I stand up, ready for a fight, ready to put a real end to this.
Cornpup steps into the firelight.
“I thought you weren’t coming.” I sit back down and relax my fists.
“Can we just not talk about this?” Cornpup says. He opens a bag of pretzels, sits down on a rock facing me and Val, and all of a sudden it’s like we were never fighting, which is so weird.
Randy opens a scratched-up black guitar case.
Charlie is standing protectively over two cans of gasoline.
“What’s that for?” I ask him. Because he and Randy built this fire with their hands.
“You’re not gonna be the only celebrity tonight,” he says. “I’ve got something planned. Something amazing.”
Molly sits on a large tree stump. She rummages through the cooler, finds a Sprite, and pops the tab. She shakes water from her hand. “Help yourselves,” she says to a group of shy little girls. “We have orange Crush, Mountain Dew, and some cola.”
“You should take this now.” Charlie passes an envelope to Cornpup. “Two hundred and twelve dollars.” I see something in Charlie’s eyes. He is saying
Cornpup looks at the envelope for a long time. “I came here because you guys put a lot of work into this thing. But I’m still not having the surgery.” He doesn’t hand the money back to us, though. Instead he folds the envelope in half and tucks it into his back pocket. He will eventually go through with the surgery. It’s so obvious.
Soon we are gathered around the campfire, crunching on potato chips like a bunch of termites. Randy strums his guitar. Molly collects candy wrappers and empty pop cans, and tosses them into a black garbage bag. Charlie hands out long, smooth sticks for roasting marshmallows.
But what the kids really came here for is me. I tell ghost stories like I’m on fire. I weave each tale into one of the original landfill legends, until I have built a complex web.
Valerie’s looking at me. I can feel it.
The kids raise their hands and let me call on them like they’re in school. They want to know what will happen when the aliens come back. They want to know what the world was like before the robot wars began. They want me to tell them why there’s been so much demon diarrhea in the creek lately.
Cornpup says, “We all want to know the answer to that one.”
Midnight comes and goes.
One by one, the youngest kids yawn and find their blankets. Randy plays an acoustic Audioslave song. He sings, “I am not your rolling wheels; I am the highway,” and sounds exactly like Chris Cornell. I talk to Valerie for a while, but then I start feeling restless. I want to get away from Charlie and Jill, who are sitting a few feet away from us, kissing each other sloppily. They sound like dogs licking gravy off a plate.
“Nice camera,” I say to Cornpup.
“I borrowed it from a librarian,” he says. “It takes great night pictures. Feel like taking a walk?”
Valerie’s eyes drop to her hands. I know she’s disappointed. She wants to sit by the fire with me. She wants to hold my hand. I leave Viper behind to keep her company.
Away from the campfire, there is total darkness. I’ve always liked the sky best when it’s the color of black paint and there’s a crescent moon, all sharp, like a weapon. We walk along the banks of the
creek. The water makes strange, gurgling sounds. Cattails brush our legs, and it makes me think of zombie hands, reaching up from the grave.
Cornpup says, “This is gonna sound weird, but I’m starting to
my messed-up skin. I wanted to look normal so bad, and now I actually have a way to get rid of all my cysts, and suddenly I feel like I should protect them. Because they’re, like, a part of me.”
“I felt like that the day of the Freak Tour,” I tell him. “I felt like my stories were a part of me and I was giving them away too easily. Sometimes soldiers feel that way after getting shot. They don’t want the doctors to remove the bullets. Maybe you can keep some of your cysts in a jar after the surgery, like how people keep their kidney stones.”
Cornpup isn’t listening. He is staring at the drainage pipes behind the Mareno Chem building.
“Look at this. They’re
dumping. They’re so cocky.”
He snaps a picture of a few scattered windows that are glowing from within the warehouse. The camera flash is real bright. He takes about a hundred pictures of a Mareno Chem drainage pipe spewing dark, chunky sludge from its mouth. He takes off his shoes and wades into the creek. He snaps two head-on pictures of the drainage pipes with the Mareno Chem complex looming in the background. He steps out of the slimy water and uses his socks to wipe his feet clean. He puts his shoes back on, and we walk back to the campsite in silence. I sort of hear a third set of footsteps, but when I look back, I see only Cornpup, who is crazy with excitement. “Wait till the EPA sees these pictures. And the newspaper. And the cops.”
A smooth, deep voice says, “Give me the camera.”
Me and Cornpup freeze like animals in the line of fire. I feel a thick arm coil around my neck, securing me in a tight headlock.
“Let him go,” Cornpup says calmly.
“I saw you from my office window, that bright flashing camera. Were you
to get my attention?” I can’t turn my head, but I recognize Dan Benecke’s voice. When he talks, I feel pinpricks in my skin. He knows exactly who we are. He probably knew we’d come back out here sooner or later. Maybe he was waiting for us.
“Cornpup, run. Get Charlie.” I try to shout. But Dan Benecke’s arm is like a steel vise, tightening. He could snap my neck if he wanted to. I let out a pitiful cough. It’s hard to breathe.
how bad Dan Benecke wants to kill us. He is tired of dealing with us. But I have to give him props. He is acting real calm. He says, “Hand me the camera, and you can both go home.”
Cornpup snaps the most incriminating photo of all: Dan Benecke choking me. “Whoa. That one’s gonna make the front page,” he says, and snorts. “Now let go of my friend.”
“I don’t get you, kid. Why do you insist on being a pain in my ass? What is it with you and these drainage pipes?”
Cornpup snaps another picture. “Oooh. I think the cops’ll really like that one,” he says. “You look
I tell Cornpup to please go get Charlie, but he doesn’t move.
“Have you considered what you boys are doing to your community?” Dan Benecke asks us. “All I have to do is say the word, and Mareno Chem pulls out of Poxton. We move hundreds of jobs to Ohio. Is that what you want?” He tightens his grip on my throat. “Now hand over that camera, before you do some real damage.”
“I’m not giving you this camera,” Cornpup says.
Dan Benecke throws me to the ground. I look up at him and see the scar I created, a fault line on his face. He lunges for the camera, but Cornpup is too quick for him. It seems like we might win this round. Until I notice the white envelope under Dan Benecke’s boot.
Dan Benecke picks up the envelope. One look at our faces, and he knows he’s got something we want. He says, “I’ll give this back to you when you give me the camera.”
Cornpup doesn’t react.
“Just give him the camera,” I whisper. “You can’t screw up your skin over this. Seriously.”
“Get up off the ground,” Cornpup says to me. “And run!” He takes off, wheezing but fast, and I follow. Dan Benecke is at our heels. We know the terrain better than he does, but he is angry enough to keep a hungry speed.
“I don’t have my inhaler,” Cornpup says in a frightened voice.
“Don’t think about it,” I tell him. “Just breathe. We’re almost there.”
Through the trees I can make out our campfire. I see Randy laughing. I see Jill sitting next to Valerie, hovering close to the fire. They are all smiling. They don’t know we’re being chased by a madman. They don’t know the Freak Tour money is gone.
When we reach the campsite, Cornpup collapses onto the ground.
“Find his inhaler,” I say to Valerie. “It should be in his bag.”
If this campfire wasn’t here, if Randy and the others weren’t loud and awake, Cornpup’s lungs would’ve quit, and Dan Benecke would’ve caught us, and then … what?
Randy puts down his guitar and shouts at me. “What the hell happened? Why is Cornpup crying? Why are you holding your neck?”
The gasoline cans are gone.
“Where’s Charlie?” I say.
Everyone looks at me blankly.
I say again, this time with panic in my voice.
“I don’t know,” says Randy. “I thought he went to find you.”
We hear the explosion then. We feel the ground shake.
Randy looks at me. “Oh no,” he says. “Oh shit.”
taller than trees. The sky full of green smoke. Fumes that taste like the apocalypse.
Mareno Chem is burning.
Me and Randy run. I don’t know or care what the others do. I feel like I’m on fire, like my arms and face are frying.
Randy feels it too. “Chemical burns,” he says to me. “Our skin’ll be raw for the next few days.” My lungs lock up like a seizing engine. We take off our shirts and use them to cover our mouths. The chemicals still penetrate our bodies, seeping through our pores. My eyes are watering so bad, it must look like I got pepper-sprayed.
“Charlie!” I shout. “This isn’t funny. Where are you?”
The ground is choppy, with waves of dirt, like a stormy lake. Or maybe the ground isn’t moving at all. Maybe I’m hallucinating. We use the trees to help us stand, and even then I feel motion sickness,
like I’m on a boat. I think about strange things—slugs crawling up a windowpane, pelicans eating a pile of fingers, Randy with three arms and one eye.
We’re oxygen deprived.
Mareno Chem is in front of us now, except I have no idea how we got here so fast. The parking lot is empty. Dan Benecke’s Lexus is gone.
Spinning head. Foggy eyesight. Stomach won’t stop twisting.
We call Charlie’s name, but there’s no answer.
I can’t keep my eyes open. The burning is so bad. “I think someone poured acid into my eyes,” I say to Randy. “Was someone just here?”
“What?” he says.
He doesn’t understand the things that are coming out of my mouth, and neither do I.
I try to run toward the fire, to find Charlie, to save Charlie, but I fall. My legs aren’t connected to my brain. I am wet bread, slices of cheese.
“I see him. Right there.” Randy’s eyes are watering like mine. He points to a shadow.
That’s not Charlie. It’s a bush.
“Where is he?” I am crying now. “Why isn’t he coming out of the fire?”
Randy takes off his belt and uses it to fasten my T-shirt to my face. Randy is still sane enough to make me wear a homemade gas mask. “Get on the ground,” he says. “Stay as low as you can. Crawl back to the campsite. Call a star bird. No. I don’t know what I’m saying. Call an ambulance. Tell Molly and Cornpup to leave everything behind. Have them cover their mouths. Just get the kids to a safe place. Can you do that?”