Authors: Corina Vacco
“Look what I did to my hand,” Charlie says. His straight blond hair is ratted from the wind.
Cornpup is here too. He sets a paper bag on my floor. I wonder what’s in it. “You look like a death row inmate,” I tell him.
“Shut up. I like my hair short.”
We haven’t been out to the abandoned factories since November, not all three of us, anyway. Charlie is always outside, until his lips crack from the wind, and I can be indoors or out, it doesn’t matter, but as soon as the temperature drops below fifty, Cornpup sits on the floor vent in his living room, cranks the heat up to a million degrees, and reads stacks of books from the library. We barely see him between January and May. His health is bad, that’s why. The skin on his arms is thin, like sausage casing. The nodules on his back have a limited blood supply, and when he’s really cold, they turn a waxy white color that makes me think of navy beans from a can.
Charlie says, “We found a way into the grain mill. The Mareno Chem trucks are parked inside.”
They cased the mill without me. No wonder they took so long to get here
“We didn’t go in yet,” Charlie adds. “We came back to get you first.” When he smiles, he raises his hand to cover his teeth. He’ll have to do that for the rest of his life, probably. Last summer, when he was riding on the back of his brother’s motorcycle, they got into an accident on Military Road. Randy had road rash all down his back, but he healed quickly, with no scars. Charlie was the one who had lasting damage. He banged his skull on the pavement and lost two of his teeth. His parents still don’t know because he always covers his mouth when he chews or smiles. After the accident, when the rubber skid marks were still fresh, we rode our bikes out to the scene. Charlie wanted to find his teeth. He was gonna make them into a necklace or something. I found a tiger’s-eye agate, and he found a long piece of dried snakeskin, but we didn’t find the teeth.
“It stinks bad outside. Worse than when the asphalt plant caught fire,” says Cornpup. Before he closes the door, I catch a glimpse of the gray and orange night sky, summer fog mixed with vomiting smokestacks. Past the Kuperskis’ house, beyond our school and the ball field, I see a seventy-foot wall of black—Chemical Mountain, with its monster slopes, a hundred boarded-up factories in its valleys.
Charlie’s hand is dripping blood all over the floor. “Can I get a pop?” he asks me. “I’m dying of thirst.” He always uses that word,
“We gotta wrap your hand first,” I tell him. “You’re getting blood everywhere.”
We clamber into the bathroom. Charlie rummages through our medicine cabinet. He says, “How can you not have Band-Aids? Everyone has Band-Aids.” Then he pours rubbing alcohol onto his cut and hisses at the pain. He wraps his hand in gauze and tape till it looks like the sneakers I just rigged. He has messed everything
up. Cough syrup, dental floss, and lozenges litter the sink. I see one of Dad’s old pill bottles—it’s unbearable, the places in this house where I can still find pieces of him. I stand here, almost two years after his death, with a sick sadness in my gut, an
, and I wonder if I’ll ever feel all right again.
Cornpup doesn’t want to carry his paper bag all the way to the grain mill. He says, “Hey, do you have a backpack I can borrow?”
I say no, which isn’t the truth. I have one under my bed, but it’s filled with railroad spikes.
“Did Charlie tell you he’s going to climb the grain elevator?” Cornpup asks me. “He wants to fall and splatter on the floor like that Joe Farley kid.”
Charlie makes a face. “The thing about Farley is that he wasn’t strong enough to grab the catwalk. I don’t have that problem.”
We watch Charlie roll up his pants legs. Randy’s jeans are still too long for him. I feel jealous, because I notice that Randy has drawn pictures of scorpions above the knees, black ink on denim, and Charlie doesn’t even know how cool that is. He always gets to borrow Randy’s stuff: steel-toed boots, a wallet with a chain, his silver rattlesnake ring. I should have an older brother. I would appreciate it more.
Once, when I was sitting on the Pelliteros’ porch waiting for Charlie to get home, Randy had his acoustic guitar and he taught me a song. I didn’t want to leave that porch step, but when the mosquitoes got bad, I went home and drew a set of guitar frets in my sketchbook. I practiced that chord progression for hours, my fingers pressed to the paper.
Tonight, it’s my turn. I’m gonna wear something no one else gets to wear. I go to the closet where Mom stored all Dad’s favorite belongings—his drumsticks and his autographed Sabres tickets and his Las Vegas beer mug. Charlie helps me pull the fattest box down from a shelf. I slice through the packing tape with a pizza cutter.
Cornpup says, “Are you sure you want to dig through all that stuff tonight?”
I take off my ugly sweatshirt and toss it to the floor. “This’ll take two seconds. The thing I’m looking for is real easy to find.”
When I see Dad’s leather jacket, I feel like I breathed in a bad chemical for too long. The jacket is still shaped like him, still smells like him. He never played a gig without it, even on hot summer nights by the river when the rest of the band members wore T-shirts with the sleeves ripped off. On the back of the jacket, there’s an image of a drum set burned into the leather with a branding iron. People always wanted to know where he got a custom jacket like this, who made it for him, but he would never tell.
“Your dad was such a ridiculously good drummer,” says Charlie. “That jacket was famous in this town.”
I remember the night Dad’s band played at the pig roast. Everyone stopped eating during the drum solo, because they were, like, hypnotized. Dad stood up afterward, his back to the crowd, his drumsticks pointing to the sky. I wanted to be onstage with him.
“Don’t wear that to the mill,” says Cornpup. “It’ll get dirty.”
“Screw that,” says Charlie. “Wear it.”
I am already wearing it. The leather hangs heavy on my arms.
Charlie starts rummaging through the cardboard box, like this is a garage sale. He pulls out the switchblade Dad got at a gift shop in Niagara Falls.
“Put it back,” I say.
Charlie shakes his head. “No. We might need protection tonight. I’m serious.”
I have a sick feeling in my stomach.
We sneak out the back door like burglars. No coughing, no breathing, no nervous laughter.
We don’t make a sound.
industrial zone covers about ten square miles, from Cornpup’s backyard to the interstate. First there is a chain-link fence, then an acre of land where plants don’t grow, then a field full of partially buried metal barrels. About a hundred factories and mills, most of them closed down and falling apart, form rings around Chemical Mountain, like moons orbiting a planet. Two Mile Creek begins at the mudflats and snakes its way through everything, even traveling
some of the smaller landfills, which is really cool to see. Lots of buildings got built on the shores of Two Mile Creek. There is a mile-long steel mill; there are factories that manufacture film and rubber and tools and fiberglass and tires; there is an asphalt plant that burned down, an incinerator that’s all boarded up, and a bunch of silos that look like castle towers from a distance. Mareno Chem is one of only about twenty-five buildings still in operation.
I want to ask Cornpup what’s in the paper bag, but even more than that, I want to ask him why I should even have to ask, why he hasn’t told me. Instead I say, “I hope this frickin’ tape doesn’t fall off my shoes.”
Hidden within the industrial zone are secret places only me and my friends know about: a trail of green puddles that never dry up; a rusty railcar full of weird, smelly rocks; and a perfect square of earth where you can dig for hours without seeing a single insect, not even a worm. My favorite thing to look at is the cluster of trees that turned black and died for no reason. When I draw sludge demons in my sketchbook, I usually put those trees in the background.
There is a strange taste in the back of my throat: burnt plastic, natural gas, and a sharp chemical that makes me lose my breath for a second. My throat feels itchy. I can’t stop coughing.
“Told you it smells bad out tonight,” says Cornpup.
Charlie is up ahead of us, sprinting. He runs through the tall grass like he’s found some path no one else can see. Cornpup and I exchange a look. We are supposed to be going to the grain mill together. Charlie is leaving us behind.
We are three-way best friends. We’ve known each other since we were four years old. There was a time when we all grew at exactly the same rate, and a small part of me liked the fairness in that, liked things being even. Charlie’s growth spurt was like an explosion. He was suddenly taller, with chiseled arms, a stomach hard as steel, and a noticeably deeper voice. Pretty girls started doodling his name on their book covers, dotting their
’s with little hearts. It made me want to puke. I do okay with the ladies. I’ve got really dark brown eyes, almost black, and they’re shaped like wolf eyes. It’s hard for girls to look away from me when I make eye contact. I just wish I wasn’t so skinny. At least I don’t look like Cornpup—transparent skin, purple nodules on his back, and a messed-up buzz cut. He’ll never get a girl.
I’m running through the mud like a clumsy idiot. Cornpup is beside me, panting like a dog. “Slow down!” he shouts in his wheezy voice, but there’s no way Charlie can hear him.
And then we see Charlie fall.
He has tripped on a rusty piece of machinery that lay hidden beneath the mud. Or he has slipped on a sheen of spilled oil. It’s so great to see
look stupid for once.
I shout, “That was the best thing I ever saw in my life!”
And Cornpup shouts, “Charlie, you are such a retard!”
Charlie starts running again. I can tell he’s embarrassed.
I remember the night Dad organized a winter football game in the middle of Cardinal Drive. Dad was our team’s quarterback, of course, and he wanted me to be his receiver, which I should not have agreed to do. We played against Sid Kuperski’s son, Jeff, who quarterbacked in college at Syracuse, and Charlie, who was involved in every play, alternating between tight end and linebacker. The snow didn’t get in his eyes when he was supposed to make an important catch. The wet ball didn’t slip out of his hands like a catfish. I could feel Dad comparing me to Charlie, who was showing off.
And I didn’t like it.
I went inside and took out my sketchbook. No one came looking for me. I drew a picture of a giant ice monster throwing a football at Charlie and knocking his head off. I drew the same monster stepping on Dad and crushing him under its foot. But if I could rewind, I would’ve spent more time with Dad, even if it meant hugging a cold football to my chest and growling like an animal in the end zone.
The lights along the railroad tracks are busted from last night’s lightning storm. We pass a field full of moss-covered dump trucks and CSX railcars that from a distance look like lines of beasts. We pass by one of Cornpup’s underground tunnels, where Charlie hid our most dangerous fireworks and a pair of dragon nunchucks. We can’t see Charlie anymore, but we’ve walked to the grain mill many
times. We’ve stood before its rusting, crumbling body, its windows that are all covered in spray paint, the hollow shell of a building that was once full of workers and sweet-smelling grain. We could find the mill with our eyes closed, and tonight we will almost have to.
“I saw pirated footage of the Gulf oil spill online,” says Cornpup. “There was this sickening green dispersant in the water. When it caught fire, seabirds were dropping dead out of the sky. Some cleanup workers were hospitalized for melting skin. Sounds like Phenzorbiflux to me.”
“The FDA never approved it,” I say numbly. “Mareno Chem says Phenzorbiflux doesn’t even exist. Kind of a stretch to say they poured it into the Gulf without anyone noticing.”
“That’s just it.” Cornpup is breathing so loudly, I have to strain to understand him. “Maybe”
—“the barrels aren’t even here anymore.”
. “Maybe they put Phenzorbiflux”—
—“in one of the containers”
—“marked for a different dispersant.”
. “Maybe they hid it in plain sight.”
“No,” I say. “It’s here. And we’re gonna find it. We have to.”
Cornpup has me hold his paper bag for a second. He takes his inhaler from his pocket. I watch him suck in the medicine, his eyes closing as his face relaxes. I wonder what it feels like to have your airways swell shut and then reopen. He has to fight for oxygen, which is everywhere and costs nothing. Without that inhaler, he would die. It is stupid for him to be out on a night like this, but I don’t say anything. The paper bag has metal cylinders inside it—I’ve figured out that much—and then Cornpup snatches it back from me.
“Okay. We can run again,” he says.
It takes us another five minutes to reach the mill.
“You guys are so friggin’ slow,” says Charlie.
“We saw you fall,” says Cornpup.
Charlie smirks. “You’re talking trash
? You, with your ugly purple rashes and your freaky skin? That takes some balls.”
Cornpup looks down at the Pabst Blue Ribbon cans by our feet. Charlie shouldn’t’ve brought up the bumps. We’ve seen what Cornpup has been through—liquid nitrogen and scalpels and bandages. The bumps keep coming back. He doesn’t take his shirt off when it’s hot out, not even to swim. Cornpup is always saying stuff like “I’m a monster” and “I’m never gonna find a girlfriend” and “I look like a dragon.” I never know how to respond. Sometimes I remind him that at least he gets to work a sweet money angle. He charges kids a dollar if they want to see his back, and so far he’s saved up enough to buy himself a new Sabres jersey. He’s lucky in a way, because Charlie and I could never come up with that kind of cash.
“You aren’t supposed to bring up the bumps,” I say to Charlie.
He pretends not to hear me. He examines a jagged corner of sheet metal. “Here’s where I cut my hand. My blood’s on this, see?” He pulls the metal away. The hole in the wall is a tight fit, but it’s definitely,
, a way in.