Authors: Corina Vacco
“See you losers on the other side.” Charlie slips through the cracked wall so quickly, it is hard to believe he was ever here to begin with.
“I hate when he gets like this,” I say to Cornpup. “It makes me want to go home.”
Cornpup shakes his head. “I came here to do something. I’m not going back till it’s done.”
I hear howling in the distance, a dog or a wolf.
Charlie’s voice echoes from inside the building. “Are you coming or what?”
Cornpup climbs through the wall. I follow him, careful not to scratch up Dad’s leather jacket. I don’t feel the adrenaline rush I was expecting. Something about this night is all wrong. Charlie is
being mean, and Cornpup is being secretive, and they aren’t getting along, which sticks me in the middle.
“There’s a cat skeleton over there,” says Charlie.
“Stop shining the flashlight at the windows,” I say to him.
The industrial zone is divided into quadrants, each patrolled by its own security guard. The amount of land each guard has to cover is unreasonably large. There’s no chance in hell they’ll find us here,
we do something to catch their attention.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if the roof caved in and we had to dig our way out of here?” says Charlie.
“Not really,” says Cornpup.
We are surrounded by wooden scaffolding and cold steel beams. I can smell mold and grease and rat poop. The metal machinery—what’s left of it—is caked in a thick layer of dust that makes me think of wool blankets. We get scared for a second when a trapped bird flutters its wings desperately against a window thirty feet above us, just below the ceiling. There is no telling how that bird got in here. Or if it will ever escape. I pick up a rock and try to throw it up to the window, but I don’t even get close.
“I’ll bust that window on my first try,” says Charlie. And he does.
The bird flies away from the window at the sound of shattering glass.
“That was worth the effort,” says Cornpup.
“Wait,” I say. “Give it a second.”
We stare through the window frame at our one clear view of the night sky. The bird must feel the pressure change, must smell freedom, because it flies right out the window and into the night. We feel good about ourselves then. The tension between Charlie and Cornpup seems to vanish.
“This place smells like hell,” says Cornpup.
“Rat poison,” I tell him. “Breathe through your nose.”
With every step, there is loud crunching under my shoes. Charlie’s rubber boots make squishy sounds when they strike the concrete.
Cornpup says, “Tell us a story, Jason. Something scary.”
“Something bloody,” says Charlie.
“I can’t think of anything right now,” I tell them.
Charlie sighs loudly.
“I mean, the story I’m thinking of isn’t bloody, because there isn’t any blood when you fall into a vat of molten steel. You just kind of turn into human soup.”
Human soup. Just like Dad
“Who fell?” says Cornpup.
“A foreman named Ted. His right eye was made of glass. He got really mad at his workers over the lamest things. He stabbed a pencil through a man’s hand over a lost time card. If he caught people talking on the job, he burned their arms on the blast furnaces.”
The flashlight goes out. Charlie knocks it twice against a metal drum. The light comes on again, brighter than before.
“Ted chased this worker named Donnie up a catwalk and tried to choke him for clocking in late. Only he didn’t know Donnie was a boxer. They started sparring, and Donnie tried to take it easy on his boss, because, you know, it was his
. He didn’t want to get canned.”
We walk deep into the building, following Charlie like he’s a tour guide. I hit my hand on something that then falls to the floor with a crash. I hear rodents squeaking, running away. I wonder what a rat bite would feel like.
“Ted was a dirty fighter,” I continue. “He cut Donnie’s eye with a bottle opener. Donnie jacked Ted upside his head, knocked him over the catwalk railing, and watched him fly through the air. Ted was shouting, ‘I’ll get you for this, you little sonofabitch.’ When Ted
fell into the molten steel, his skin bubbled like a boiled hot dog, and his glass eye popped right out of its socket. Every worker in the mill started clapping and cheering. Now Ted haunts old steel mills, looking for his glass eye. But he’ll never find it, because Donnie shattered it with a hammer.”
“I like that story,” says Cornpup. “But you should’ve had Ted come back to life and claw Donnie’s eyes out as revenge. That would’ve been more realistic.”
“You should’ve told a story about a grain mill explosion,” says Charlie. “Save the steel mill stories for when we’re actually in a steel mill.”
“Yeah, whatever,” I mumble.
“Right here. I
you.” Charlie stops in front of a hundred tall, blue metal barrels. He kicks a barrel with his boot, and the sound is not hollow. “It was real late, after midnight, probably, and I saw a really bright light, like those spotlights they have down at the salt barns, and some guys in hazmat suits were unloading barrels off a Mareno Chem flatbed.”
“How’d they get in here?” says Cornpup. “The entrances are all boarded up.”
“No,” says Charlie. “Over by the loading docks, there are fresh chains on that door. I can’t think of any other way.”
He tosses me the flashlight and backs away from us. He is going to climb the grain elevator in the dark. He doesn’t care if we watch him or not.
I stare down at the barrels. Could this really be it? It seems crazy that we’d find them so quickly. I can’t find a label or a safety data sheet. And these babies are sealed tight.
“False alarm,” says Cornpup.
I look at him.
“These barrels are aluminum. Phenzorbiflux could eat through aluminum in an hour.”
“Then why the hazmat suits? Why go through all the trouble to dump these here in the middle of the night?”
“Mareno Chem dumps a lot of stuff in a lot of different places. I can’t keep track of it all,” says Cornpup. He looks at me with sad eyes. “I’m sorry, man. I know you were really hoping. But we’ll keep looking. I’m with you on this.”
Our barrel conversation is pierced by the sound of a metal structure breaking free of the ceiling. There are high-pitched squeals, like a million vampire bats. There is the deep industrial whine of ripping metal. So many sounds, so many echoes, and yet my ears are able to focus on one particular scream: Charlie.
veins are burning with adrenaline and fear. I close my eyes to get my bearings, to pretend this isn’t happening. I don’t even know where the grain elevator is.
“It wouldn’t be by the loading docks,” says Cornpup. “So let’s go this way.”
The interior of the mill is so much larger than it looks from the outside. We sprint, glass crunching under our shoes, flashlight slippery in my sweaty hand. I don’t care if there are doors in the floor we can fall through. I’m not worried about slicing my leg on jagged machinery. I only care about finding Charlie.
“Don’t die! We’re coming!” Cornpup shouts.
“Where are you?” I yell. “If you can hear me, say something!”
I stop running. Cornpup bumps into me. The flashlight beam has snagged a fresh cloud of dust particles. A frightening heap of metal.
a grain elevator,” says Cornpup. He points toward a door near the ceiling. “It carried grain up there.”
“I don’t see any blood. That’s good, right?” I begin picking up pieces of metal and tossing them away from the pile. “But what if he’s buried?”
I don’t see brains on the floor.
Together we lift heavy slabs of aluminum. The farther down we dig, the worse we feel. A pile like this could crush the top of a car, could turn human bones to splinters.
Something moves behind me. I whip around, and there is Charlie, covering his grin with his bandaged hand. “You guys were so worried. How
,” he says.
Cornpup drops a huge metal pulley and stares at Charlie like he’s trying to decide whether or not to punch him. “Are you nuts? What normal person wouldn’t be worried?”
Charlie is doubled over with laughter.
“Don’t speak to me,” Cornpup says coldly. “Don’t even come near me.”
“What happened?” I can feel my heartbeat slowing to a more normal pace. “Were you on that thing when it fell?”
“Nope. I pulled on it to make sure it was secure, and it popped off the wall. When I screamed, it was funny. Don’t lie.”
“It wasn’t funny.” Cornpup’s voice is a low growl.
Charlie grabs the flashlight out of my hand. “Anyway, the Mareno Chem trucks are parked over here. Come look.”
It’s true. There are seven white pickup trucks, each bearing the upbeat Mareno Chem logo—a green eagle sitting on planet Earth. Their logo has nothing to do with chemicals, and I think that’s sort of the point.
Charlie takes Dad’s switchblade from his pocket. It springs open. I remember how Dad used the blade to prune tomato plants.
“What’s that for?” I ask him.
He stabs a tire, and it deflates quickly. The truck is now leaning forward and to the right. He stabs another tire and another.
“Don’t,” I say.
For Charlie, this is not about Mareno Chem or Phenzorbiflux or a fence around the creek. He just wants to destroy something, to hear the hiss of a ruined tire.
“Stop,” I say.
Cornpup takes a can of spray paint from his paper bag. He shakes it, and I can hear the little metal ball bouncing around inside the canister. I look at him like he’s nuts.
“They started it,” he says. “They’re the ones dumping chemicals illegally. This is me being nice. They deserve worse than spray paint.”
STOP DUMPING HERE
in red on one side of the nearest truck.
The fumes remind me to take off Dad’s jacket. I turn it inside out and fold it into a neat square, which I then place on a ledge about ten feet away from Cornpup and the red spray paint.
“Here.” Cornpup tosses me a canister of black. “Write something. It feels good.”
I hesitate only a couple of seconds before shaking the can and spraying
along one side of a truck. Along the other side I spray
GET OUT OF HERE
. Cornpup is right, this does feel good. We’re sending a message to the people who took Dad away from me.
YOU COLOR OUR WATER, WE COLOR YOUR TRUCKS
There is a burst of light.
We squint at the brightness.
A man yells, “What the hell is going on in here?”
Charlie says, “Oh crap.”
We drop the paint cans and run.
I remember last summer, when Cornpup opened the Freak Museum in his bedroom. He started with a two-headed frog in a relish jar, and a huge, tumor-covered fish from Lake Erie in a jar that once held pickled eggs. Later he displayed a dead blue jay with deformed wings. Then I donated an old tennis shoe that melted when I stepped in a green puddle outside the dye facility. Charlie showed up with two dead squirrel babies, joined at the head. Almost once a week we would swim the creek with jars, until we had a whole collection of colored water samples that still shine like stained glass when you put a flashlight up to them. We were hunters, always looking for something strange and gory. When Cornpup found the corpse of a snake that exploded from trying to eat a mutant rat, Charlie said, “That’s what I’d do if a snake tried to eat me. I’d bust right out of its stomach.”
And that’s what we do now—we bust out of the mill and run like animals. The adrenaline makes us faster.
“Do you think he saw us?” I say.
“No way,” says Charlie.
When we pass the incinerator, we stop to rest.
Dad’s jacket. I’m such an idiot
“I left the jacket. I have to go back.”
Charlie grabs my arm like he’s gonna snap it. “Don’t be stupid,” he says. “That guy’s not gonna find the jacket. He’ll have enough to deal with when he sees what we did to those trucks. We can go back for the jacket later.”
“When things calm down,” says Cornpup.
I don’t speak the rest of the way home.
When we get back to Cardinal Drive, Mom is outside looking for me, which is not good.
I hear her desperately calling my name. Then I spot her standing under a streetlamp, fat rolls protruding from her stomach. She has outgrown her coat. She can’t zip it. She holds it closed with her hands.
“Where were you?” She glares at Charlie, flashes a softer look at Cornpup.
“At my house,” Cornpup says quickly.
She would faint in the middle of the street if she knew where we were. Her head would explode if we told her about the cat skeleton and the rat poison and the collapsed grain elevator and the unmarked barrels.
“You smell terrible,” she says. “Jason, get in the house. You two, go home before I call your mothers.”
Mom doesn’t have the energy to punish me. She just gives me an irritated look and goes back to bed. I stay up for a while and watch TV in the den. I am very good at dozing off during the commercials and waking back up when the commercials are over, but at some point I accidentally stay asleep long enough to dream about a homeless guy frying salamanders over a tiny white fire.
“You’re never going to find it,” the man says to me. “Never, never, never.”
I sit up. My mouth is dry. I think about my dream for a second. I try to decode the homeless guy’s words. Never going to find Dad’s jacket? Never going to find the missing Phenzorbiflux? Or maybe it’s deeper than that—maybe I’m never going to find a path to revenge.
Probably the homeless guy meant nothing. Most dreams mean nothing.
Thompson has two BB guns and a knife collection. I’ve seen him sit on his roof for hours, shooting birds out of the sky, laughing at piles of bloody feathers on the lawn. Last winter, he killed an owl right in front of us, and Charlie called him a psycho. When I think of Kevin, I think of robins getting picked off, one by one, like empty beer cans.