Authors: Corina Vacco
Today, when Kevin calls my house and says, “I’m gonna kill you for what you did at the grain mill,” I hear little gunshots firing in the back of my mind.
. Long pause.
. Long pause.
“Did you hear me? I said I’m gonna
My heart is pounding so hard, I’m scared it will overheat like a radiator in July. I don’t understand how some kid I barely know can
all of a sudden hate me,
threaten my life
, over slashed tires and spray paint.
“Yeah, I heard you. But you’ve got the wrong guy. I’ve never even been to the mill.”
Kevin laughs. “That was real stupid of you, leaving your old man’s jacket by those trucks.”
He knows I was there, and that changes things.
“Shouldn’t you be out decapitating blue jays?” I say. “Or strangling hawks?” I breathe in slowly, trying to stay calm, when all I really want to do is break something.
“You won’t get the jacket back,” he says.
. I close my eyes and see a seagull falling to the ground with a thud.
. I think about pigeons exploding.
. Kevin will probably shred Dad’s jacket with a hunting knife.
I slam the phone down, because I don’t want to deal with this crap.
Outside our kitchen window, robins are swarming Mom’s bird feeder. I feel like one of them now; I feel hunted. I think about what it will be like to start my freshman year with an enemy. I picture death threats in my locker, fights in the hall, raw eggs smacking against my front door.
My hands are shaking.
I get out my sketchbook and draw a mud demon roasting stray cats on a propane grill.
It’s not fair that I’m taking all the heat for something that wasn’t even my idea
I press a blue pen to my skin and connect mosquito bites until I’ve drawn a choppy sea serpent tattoo on my forearm.
Charlie and Cornpup would’ve destroyed those trucks with or without me
When the phone rings again, I answer it, but with a deeper
version of my own voice, like maybe I’m one of Dad’s friends or the police.
“Why are you talking all weird?” he says.
I don’t get into the whole Kevin Thompson thing, because there’s still a chance this horrible situation could run its course, like chicken pox, without me having to do anything except sweat and drink lots of fluids.
Charlie says, “I thought up the best plan ever. Be at my house in five minutes. Cornpup’s already here.”
I change into a long-sleeved T-shirt and some cargo shorts. I’m hungry enough to eat a whole pizza, but instead I stuff a huge handful of potato chips into my mouth and run out the door.
The sky is dark steel, the color of machines. My dirt bike is out of gas, so I ride Dad’s mountain bike to the end of our street. I hate the wind today; it smells like burning tires.
Charlie and Cornpup are eating beef jerky on the Pelliteros’ front porch.
“Randy and Goat said we can hang with them,” Charlie tells me. His right eye is purplish-red and swollen. His top lip is busted. “They’re out past the mudflats.”
“What happened to your face?” It’s not a question I really need to ask. We all know Mr. Pellitero likes to give his sons an occasional knuckle sandwich. Charlie is amped up on adrenaline. He’s talking so fast I have to really concentrate, and even then I don’t hear the whole story.
“… showed up at Mareno Chem drunk … on probation … face was all red when he got home … bottle of Jack Daniel’s … wiped up the mess … glass everywhere … not my fault … didn’t hurt … laughed in his face … Randy had to hold him back.…”
“Your dad should be in jail,” Cornpup says in a bored voice.
“Oh yeah. That would be just great. Except let me tell you how
it would really play out. He’d get fired from his job and my mom would use our savings to bail him out. Me and Randy already talked about it. We don’t want him to be home all day, every day, hacking and coughing and drinking Jack on the couch in front of the TV. He needs to work and bring home a paycheck.”
Charlie’s right. We live in a blue-collar town. In this economy, you can’t mess around. You work every day until the layoffs start. You work until your factory job doesn’t exist anymore. If you’re in with a good, strong company like Mareno Chem, you don’t call in sick and you don’t take vacation and you
don’t get yourself thrown in jail. If Mr. Pellitero stops working, Randy will get kicked out of the house because he’s over eighteen, and Charlie will have to play football with smashed-up pads and a cracked helmet. He can’t risk disadvantages like that if he’s gonna go pro.
“You’re just delaying the inevitable,” says Cornpup. “Going to jail is his
Charlie kicks the bag of beef jerky, and it flies all the way to the sidewalk. “Stop talking about him like that. Your family’s not perfect.
Cornpup rolls his eyes. He doesn’t know what it feels like when all the bills are suddenly paid by one parent instead of two, but I do. Me and Mom clip coupons and stalk garage sales. She trims her own hair over the sink. I bought myself a beat-up pair of snow boots at the Salvation Army. When our van blew a tire, we drove around on a donut for six months. At one point, she wanted to sell my new dirt bike, and I told her if she did, I’d leave and never come back.
I remember the first Christmas after Dad died. Our TV had sound but no picture. We didn’t bother with a tree. For the first time since I was four years old, me and Dad would not be baking stollen together. I’d always hated that German fruitcake, with its strange ingredients: currants and almond extract, rum and orange peel,
bright green candied cherries that looked like they’d been marinating in the colored waters of Two Mile Creek. But when Dad was gone, really gone, forever gone, I craved stollen all the time. There were no presents that year. Mom and I sat at the kitchen table and flipped through J. C. Penney catalogs. I pointed to things I thought she’d like and said, “I was going to buy you that for Christmas, but the store exploded right before I walked inside!” And she pointed to things she thought I’d like and said, “That’s what I was going to buy you for Christmas, but some crazy lady with curlers in her hair stole the last one out of my cart!” We stayed up past midnight, playing this game, each excuse more ridiculous than the last, and it was actually pretty fun. I knew then that life would go on, that we would find a way to survive as a family. But it hasn’t been easy. I don’t think Cornpup could handle being as poor as us. He wants too many things.
We ride our bikes to the parking lot of what was once a steel ball company. Cornpup is balancing a huge duffel bag on his handlebars. Charlie is talking excitedly about the cookout tomorrow. He says there better be lots of ribs and wings. We pass the ruins of an old water treatment plant, weeds growing through the rubble, and I think how crazy it is that buildings die, just like people.
“I hate how the sky is always gray,” Cornpup says. “It’s never like this in Florida.”
“You went there once. For, like, three days,” I say.
“Three days of deep-sea fishing and girls in bikinis. My cousins live like gods.”
“In a trailer park,” says Charlie.
“I don’t care. They swim in the ocean in
. I’d give up hockey for that. I’d give up anything for that.”
“You should give up hockey anyway,” says Charlie. “Because you suck.”
Goat and Randy are sitting in the back of an abandoned pickup truck that has seen better days. All four tires are flat, the steering wheel is gone, and there’s a thick layer of coal ash on the windshield. Randy moves empty beer cans out of the way so there’s room for us to sit.
Goat says, “Oh great. The retards have arrived.”
Randy tosses a pack of cigarettes to Charlie, who always has a book of matches in his pocket. “I don’t think it’s right that you can press a little button and get fire,” Charlie once said to me. “Fire is not supposed to be automatic. You have to build it. You have to earn it.”
Randy offers me a cold can of beer, and I take it. I lift the can to my lips, only pretending to drink, because it tastes horrible, like carbonated skunk juice.
“Me and Gina went to the Ashland site a couple nights ago.” Goat has hundreds of tattoos, all interconnected. I wish my arms were covered like that. Permanent artwork on skin is so cool. “We were getting ready to set off some bottle rockets. Then five state agency trucks pulled up, and a bunch of guys started taking samples of the dirt and stuff.”
“Intruders,” says Charlie. “They’re trying to take the creek away from us.”
“The creek is poison,” says Cornpup. “Just saying.”
“Stop creating issues.” Randy takes a long swig of beer. “We’re here. We’re alive.”
Cornpup’s got this stupid, smug look on his face. “You’re alive
,” he says. “But you’re gonna get sick later. We all are.”
Goat starts to laugh, and beer comes out of his nose. “I don’t know, Cornpup. Seems to me you’re the only reptile freak in this town. I don’t have your webbed toes and shit.”
“Leave him alone,” says Charlie.
“Or I’ll bust your windshield with my crowbar some night when you’re sleeping.”
There is silence. Goat chewing on a toothpick. Charlie scraping paint from the truck bed. Randy balling his hands into fists. Finally Goat says, “You touch my car, and I’ll kill you.”
I laugh a little without meaning to. Goat could probably crush a metal barrel with his bare hands, but that’s only because metal barrels can’t run. Charlie is fast. Goat could never catch him, could never throw a punch that would actually hit him. Plus, Charlie isn’t afraid to have puffed-up eyes or a broken jaw.
Lack of fear is the key
Sometimes I wish I could be a Pellitero for a day. I wish I had their cocky faces, their cut-up muscles, their crazy peacock-blue eyes. At least Cornpup is here. Whatever happens, I will never be scrawnier than him. I will never have his ugly skin rashes or his owl eyes or his weird, webbed toes.
Randy changes the subject back to Goat’s original story, about the unmarked trucks and stuff. “I can’t believe you took Gina to the Ashland site,” he says, laughing. “She must think you’re a real romantic.”
Goat scowls. “The Riverwalk’s got cops all over the place. Can’t shoot off fireworks there.”
“Can’t do other things there either,” Randy says.
Goat slaps Randy a high five and says, “Exactly.”
Charlie knows what they’re talking about, and so do I. We saw Randy kissing a girl out by the creek once, and not small kisses either. It was like he was going to swallow her face. And we saw a pink bra by the water.
Cornpup knows nothing about girls. When he’s around Randy and Goat, he’s always lost, looking to me and Charlie for clues. “What’s a hickey?” he once asked me.
I told him it looked sort of like a bruise.
Then he asked me if I wanted to give Valerie a hickey, and I told him to piss off.
“My dad’s taking me and Randy out to Erie on Saturday,” says Charlie. “We’re gonna fish for pike. Maybe some tumor heads if we’re lucky.”
“I’m coming with you,” says Cornpup.
“No you’re not,” says Randy.
“I’ll stay out of the way. I just need to get some seagull skeletons for the Freak Museum.”
“You can’t just invite yourself,” says Charlie.
The first time I saw a tumor head, I was ten years old. I held the fat fish in my hands, staring, horrified, at the golf ball–sized growths all over its body. One of the tumors leaked yellow fluid onto my fingers. I tried scrubbing my skin with lake water and sand, but the stench stayed with me for days.
“This time of year the seagull eggs are all hatching,” says Randy.
“I hate seagulls.” Goat spits phlegm into an empty beer can. “They’re taking over the world. You should crush a few hundred eggs with your hockey stick. Do us all a favor.”
“Speaking of favor,” says Charlie. “We need you to get us into the Mareno Chem building.”
“No,” says Goat. “No
. That’s what you little retards came out here to ask me? My old man was out of work for seven months. Now he’s finally working, and you think I’m gonna put his job on the line for
? Get out of here.”
I hate Goat. Everyone hates Goat. I have no idea why Randy is friends with him. It makes no sense.
“Just steal his keys for one hour,” says Charlie.
“No. I said no.”
There’s a loud metallic boom in the distance. Maybe a shipping crane dropped something. Or maybe a machine exploded.
Goat smirks at Charlie. “I heard Mareno Chem is closing building A. That’s bad news for you. The way your old man drinks, he ain’t gonna find a new job around here.”
“It’s not closing.” Charlie speaks too quickly, which tells me the rumor might be true.
“They’ve been giving him overtime,” Randy adds. “I don’t see how they can shut the whole mill down if there’s so much work.”
Goat looks at me, hard. “Because some people thought it would be cute to screw up the Phenzorbiflux project. Now Mareno Chem keeps moving jobs to their Dayton branch.”
So Goat is another one who thinks Dad intentionally caused the accident. It never ends. I’m so sick of people blaming our family for the pay cuts and the layoffs. Yeah, Dad thought Phenzorbiflux was too unpredictable and dangerous. Yeah, he told everyone production should slow down, maybe even stop. That doesn’t mean he released the toxic soup on purpose. The safety latches must’ve failed. The gauges must’ve malfunctioned.
I scratch a mosquito bite on my leg until it bleeds.
“We have to get into that building. It’s real important,” says Charlie.
It turns out that the night I lost Dad’s jacket, Charlie ran back to the grain mill, alone, at two in the morning. His plan was to slip in and out of the building, quick and quiet, like a spy. All he had to do was rescue the jacket and run. Illegal dumpers don’t call the cops, so it was gonna be Charlie up against one security guard, which is almost no contest at all.